(EDIT, DECEMBER 8TH, 2013: This story has a very special spot in my heart even now despite it looking more like a sexy teenage fantasy every year. Today I'm going to give it a little makeover/editing/polishing to keep it pretty, clean up a few scenes and make clear some details in the story that were always obvious to me but I never bothered to state in-text. Extra notes about the plot at the bottom if you're interested. Enjoy!)

Thanks for clicking on one of the longest oneshots on this dang site. I wrote it for a Halloween story contest hosted by Vesperchan. I had one week to make the deadline and I look back fondly on those intense writing nights because even now in college, the investment I had in this story was effing unreal. And I won the contest.

Tried hard to portray a modern AU teenage Sakura as a know-it-all preppy type, emotional, protective, aggressive. A real gal. Pics of the "herd demons" mentioned in the story can be found on my tumblr under the tag "NU" if you care. The scene-dividing song lyrics are from Nightwish's "Eva." Maybe give it a listen.

Constructive criticism welcome.

"Eva sails away,

Dreams the world, far away…"

I tried...to sort my memories first. I could manage that. I had to remember what had happened, what the hell had just happened.

Just, just think! Think! This'd be okay: I came home from school. From soccer practice after school, and I hadn't even taken off my cleats yet. On the kitchen counter, there was a note from Mom saying she'd be at to Shizune's till it was time to go to the Halloween party at Hinata's church tonight, and even then she might be giggly and drunk till tomorrow. My homemade costume lay on the couch waiting for me. I had a bit of French and Calculus homework to pass the time till it was time to leave. I went to my room to do it. If Ino had come home with me, she would have done some with me.

I opened the door, and there was a hole in my wall. Almost perfectly circular, maybe a little bigger than a microwave. I saw tiny bits of broken plaster at the mouth of it. Only about the first twelve inches of its depth was visible, most of whatever was inside was inky, perfect place. And somehow the fact that there was a hole in my wall as big as a microwave didn't just floor me. Why not? Really, why didn't it? I was stupid enough, maybe exhausted and weak enough from soccer not an hour ago, to walk up to it. And—here's the kicker—I even put a hand up to touch the edge of it. It felt like stone. It reminded me of the minerals we'd reviewed today in Chemistry. Antimony. Cobalt. Quartz.

And it pulled me in.

Like I'd been sucked into a blender, I tumbled head over toe and scraped my face, arms and everything else along the walls of a pitch-black tunnel, and I screamed. All I could tell was that I was going downhill, and the anatomy binder in my bag had just stabbed me in the thigh. It jabbed deep and scraped deep. Nothing was stopping me, not my flailing limbs and not the compactness of the tunnel, I just went and went and went. And then I fell out, fell through air, and landed on my back so hard I couldn't make a sound for the pain.

And here I was. Here. Where was here. God, please tell me this was a dream I was having because Kiba wouldn't shut up about Hostel last night, and that I wasn't really looking up at a night sky and laying on a pile of rocks and broken fragments of bones.

But I was. I was. My back ached. My jacket gave literally no cushioning and some of these rocks were sharp. I sat up, steadied my breath, pushing down a sob of pain, and probably didn't succeed. And then I stood up, looking around and very fiercely ignoring the pile of debris I'd landed on. All around me was flat, foggy land. Smooth grassland ahead, silent and tenebrous. And behind me was a stone wall, I realized, and I stepped back and craned my neck to see its top, but I couldn't. It was...too high. How many feet was that? A hundred? Two? God, I can't even guess. I couldn't see any corners or ends to the left and right, either. But I'd fallen out of a hole in this wall. This...ridiculous thing, which looks like a really cool setting for a horror movie. I'm perfectly backed up against a neverending wall, which means my escape routes are cut in half if a serial killer happens to come by. I don't think I can get back up into that hole. Yeah, this is a great Halloween dream, I told myself. That serial killer idea probably has something to it. He can approach me from the front, and he knows I can only run left or right, so I'm dead! What if it wasn't a killer but zombies! Great! This is a great zombie setting! None of this was helping.

Thoughts were blurring to B-movie nonsense in my head, and the periodic table and soccer shorts and my bedroom blurred to nothing. I was shaking so badly I could hardly stand. But I had to try. Wake up. Come on now, Sakura, you're a big girl. You can do it. This is scary, and you are tired, but bad dreams have endings. I will wake up.

No sooner had I thought that than I heard a noise. I whipped my head around to see it. It was a quick, flat noise. A whpp, like a foot being placed on grass. A step.

Calm down, calm down, calm down! I stood up straight, not at all ready to face this. But trying. I always made a point to try. And a few seconds later, the maker of the noise arrived. Two of them. Dogs. First I saw their faint outlines in the fog, and then their real shapes, and their sizes. I sought a similar creature to compare them to, and one came to mind instantly: a horse. These dogs were as big as horses, or bigger. They looked nothing alike.

The first was all black, curved outward in certain places with lean, runner's muscle, and that made me stiffen, and put a hand over my mouth, but I couldn't let the thought of a running, wild dog get to me. Not yet not yet not yet. What else about it, come on, come on! It has two big bumps on its back. Too big, too rough to be muscle. They looked ugly, cancerous, dangerous. And the dog had upward-pointing ears. Doberman ears. The second one, just behind it, with its head hanging low, it...what was that?

The second dog, pale tan, was only barely worthy of being called "dog"; it had four limbs like a dog and looked more like a canine skeleton than a real animal. Its legs were long and thin as twigs, literally skin on bone, and its chest thinned drastically as I looked down its spine. The chest was of regular size, but I could have probably spanned the circumference of its waist with just my two hands. It had no ears, and a head as bare and bony as a skull. A hellhound if I ever saw one. The black one bared its teeth at me. His nightmare friend bowed his head and his yellow, lamplight eyes bore into me.

And God help me, they charged.

What can I do? I thought, screamed, in my head. And I thought of my bag. The binder with sharp corners. Could I stab something with that, with a binder? Can I throw the apple I didn't eat at lunch? Would they want that? Like usual, I thought too much. I wasted time. The skinny, twig-legged thing was halfway to me. Two more lopes of those ugly legs and it would rip me up. Heart racing loudly and painfully, I did what came most natural to me: I swung my fist.

I was clumsy. Disgustingly clumsy. But so was the beast. Its swaying head all but came to meet my fist and I slammed down viciously on the creature's nose. Either its snout or my fist cracked. The head and then the whole body swung hard left and avoided crashing onto me. I took the opportunity and ran.

"Reeeeergh!" screeched his black companion, and circled back. The twig-legged beast shook its head wildly till a bloody tooth spilled out of its mouth and was forgotten behind us.

For a moment I considered shouting something at them, or growling. Acting like an intimidating alpha dog. But they started barking as they ran after me and any courage I might have had drained right out. I had to run and that's it. They were both on my left side, very near the wall. I dashed to the right and headed into the fog. The dogs were after me in a second.

I never felt true adrenaline till the moment I was running from those things. The ground felt like soggy and it seemed like I was just kicking it up behind me as I ran. I dodged one way and the other. Skidded on the ground and pushed on powerfully in cleat-powered feet. Almost slid flat onto my side once before catching myself like an acrobat. God, I was...I was okay. I could do this. I can. Maybe if they get close, I can kick out with the cleats, and tear up their fucking ugly faces instead of the ground. Breathe, breathe deep. Run more. Should I kick now? I had the strength to do it. I always had strength. Even if these dogs caught me and tore my limbs to shreds and ate off my arms, nibbled out my intestines and lungs and diaphragm and please please let me wake up!

The skinny dog's legs lashed out at me from behind; I could hear the light limbs swing down through the air. And I could feel the claws tear through the back of my calf. I screeched and kicked off the ground with my good foot, then kicked out with the injured. Stupid. I'm so stupid. But I still hit something, and then landed hard on the ground. I rolled twice and then dared to open my eyes. The black dog was almost on me—then I fell into water.

The shock was so fierce I gasped, filling my mouth with liquid ice. The current tore on my body and pulled me downstream. Somewhere nearby I heard heavy splashes. The hellhounds had fallen in, too, and good fucking riddance, I hope they drown.

My back bumped against the hard, vertical wall of the bank and my mouth opened with a cry of pain that just filled my mouth with even more water like a pit filling with dirt. Air, air air airrightnow!

My head broke the surface of the water and I gulped the oxygen. There was that same dark, foggy land on each bank and the same dark sky above. And a pale head above the water. Skinny Legs. Had to get out of here. I took a deep, deep breath and submerged myself again to swim with the current and away from the beast. Strong strokes, hard strokes. Go, go go go! Soon enough I'd convinced myself that I'd left the monsters behind when the faint grey moonlight above me went out. Even with my eyes open, I saw nothing in the water around me. My hand drifted up to the surface and holy shit, it was rock.

In a flash, my brain was alive with flashy examples, pictures, definitions of brain damage aligned along a clock that could happen if a brain was denied oxygen. Anything to think of the death that overtook all of them. My hands beat on the rock above. The current taunted me. I would drown. I would die in a plain of hellhounds and drown. And then I saw the stripe of light, there to my left. A break in this ceiling. I swam towards it, thinking 'My leg hurts. My leg hurts, only my left leg hurts,' and went up and up. My left hand reached for it—broke the surface, touched air! And nothing else did.

The hole in this rock was big enough to fit my hand and nothing else. I was looking up at the sky right now and I couldn't breathe its air.

I floated there for an amount of time I couldn't count, my hand feeling the cool air of outside and the rest of me drowning. My shorts had algae caught on them, and I noticed my jacket was weighing me down, but I didn't dare take it off. Ino had given it to me last year. This beautiful, simple thing, so smooth and prim and perfect and she knew I would adore it. I would drown in a river and never be able to tell her that she was the best thing that ever happened to me. Never. …Never? That can't happen. Screw that. Suddenly, perfectly, I was furious.

I knew what to do with fury. My eyes narrowed. My lungs ached inside me. I felt the lack of air and brought my hand back into this prison. I braced the other against the rock ceiling, and punched. The vibration chattered my teeth and made me feel the horrific nothingness in my lungs. God, I was drowning!

I punched and punched again and the pain seemed absolutely nothing. It was a distraction from my failing vision and numbing legs. I think something may have touched my leg, but I kicked it away and punched and beat harder. I grit my teeth and closed my eyes and fantasized, dreamed that I was beating a man to death. I felt a particularly harsh vibration, and saw the cracks in the rock, and finally, a natural smile came joyously onto my face. I think I even started hearing voices. Man, all these things that no air can do to a girl! I laughed while beating, filling my empty and aching lungs with water. It sloshed nastily inside me and made me cold. I hated it. I screamed.

My fist broke the rock and roared up into the air. I couldn't have cared if the whole atmosphere was filled with smoke marijuana; my entire torso followed and my entire torso ate up the oxygen. Ate it, ate it, had a third and fourth helping and some dessert, too. Air. So good.

Something touched my head and I pushed it away with my hand. It wouldn't go away. Just like those stupid kids in the German club, harassing the good French kids. "Laissez-moi tranquille," I told them. I was wasting good air! "Lai…ssez."

"A rose by any other name

Eva leaves her swanbrook home…"

My dreams were about air, mostly. Flying. Breathing. Trying to talk into a fan on high power. Flying monsters from Kiba's video games. Valefor. Air, air, air.

And then I woke, and had the impression that something was...was breathing next to me. There was a pause of maybe one breath, or maybe two, where I was laying there in darkness listening to that thing, and I was sure it was the skin-and-bones dog, one moment from attacking, and I didn't know what to do. I had run and swam all that way, punched through solid stone for nothing!

It made me mad. And that's what made me move, made me sit up like a startled animal and look, and see the thing that was here with me. It was a man. A boy. Blonde and wearing some kind of cloak. I recognized that surprised posture, posture of someone who wasn't expecting an incoming hit, and I made ready to tackle the fucker to the ground, and gore him. But he got me first. I had just gotten one leg ready under me, and he tackled me and threw his arms around me.

If he actually meant me harm, that probably would have been it, because I just gave up right then and was unresponsive as a CPR doll. He was crying out and holding me tight, so tight, and pushing his head into the crook of my neck. I didn't even move. One of my hands fell onto his shoulder, touching him, and stayed there. He felt very warm after the cold river. My hand resting on his shaking back looked...so strange.

The boy retreated and held me in front of him with his hands still clutching at my shoulders. And I retracted my thought about his being a "boy", because he was not. He was my age at the very least, but his eyes looked young and simple. It was a weird contradiction, and confused me. He took in a breath that was very, very shaky, and in that one breath I became nervous again. What would he say? He could say anything. And why wasn't I...reacting?

"You're okay! Oh gods, you're okay!" He squeezed his hands on my shoulders and some of my drive came back. My body apparently remembered that this was a stranger and I didn't know anything about what was happening, and I stiffened into defensive, aggressive posture again. But this fucker didn't react to that at all, he pulled me to him and started hugging me again. It was on Hug Number Two that I remembered that tight holds could take away your air. My near-death experience was still way too close to just let that shit be.

"Stop. Stop that! Let me go!" I said, and this time I beat my hand on his back, and I clutched at his cloak, and squeezed. My hand was shaking. The stranger pulled back again. He still kept his hands on my shoulders, but that they were looser this time didn't satisfy me. I looked at his eyes again. He had blue eyes. Bright and beautiful.. The rest of him was quite the same.

"Sorry, I'm sorry! I, uh, I get excited real easily. But don't be scared! You're safe. I swear. You won't ever fall into that river again." He looked down, and I watched him, and risked a glance down, too; he was looking at my leg, right next to his. There was a rough-looking bandage wrapped twice around my calf, where the skin-and-bones dog had clawed me while I ran. The blond stranger looked at me again, and cocked his head like a dog. And stared. This was getting really uncomfortable. "Could…could you tell me what you are? Your scent is so…so unique. I just don't know." He leaned forward and little, nose almost touching the top of my forehead, and he sniffed me. "Wildflowers."

Oh my God. I don't think so. "Please don't do that." I told him with a practiced, forced-polite air.

He pulled back and sat on my legs again. At that point I saw something moving behind him, and at first I thought it was a little animal. It was kind of orange-colored, and pretty big. My eyelids shot up almost painfully to gape at the thing.

A tail. A fucking tail. Once again I lost my supply of air.

"What—what is—" I pointed, and couldn't finish the words. I couldn't talk. I thought of the two dogs, and what their tails had looked like. The young man looked behind him, and not as his own damned tail but at the walls and the window. And my eyes started wandering too, because I was still curious and I needed information. In the few seconds he was looking behind and away, I looked up and around. I had been put on someone's bed, in a room with a pretty high ceiling, and stone walls, and open windows. I didn't immediately see a door. I just saw the boy's tail again when it moved and forcefully grabbed all of my attention. And I felt like I was drowning again. A terrified, mindless voice escaped me: "Are you a monster?"

He looked at me in surprise, and maybe desperation. He leaned closer and I pulled away, and it was hard to tell who looked more upset in that moment. "No, no! I'm not!" He gasped, and then calmed down. Quickly, forcibly. It seemed. He caught his breath and said more neatly, "The only monsters are the herd demons you beat away before we found you." His voice was soothing by the end of that. Very soothing. "Look at me." And I did. "I'm Naruto. My friend and I saw you breaking out of the Earth River. We saved you, and put balm on your leg. We won't ever hurt you." He smiled at me, and spoke with such disgusting sincerity that it actually stung.

But my parents taught me to be nice when strangers do nice things for you. I didn't know at all what to do, so I fell back on that instead. I had gathered by breath by then and said quite primly, "Thank you, Naruto. I'm…I'm Sakura. And I have no idea how I got here. Can you help me?"

"I don't know how you got here, either." He said. His tail swung around so that it lay pointing to the right now. "Well, no...you could only have come through a portal. I've heard of things like that happening in remote places like this. And if you came from a portal, you can't be a demon, can you?"

I...squinted at him. "A portal? You said 'portal'?"

"Yes." He said, like it was just...normal. To be a demon and come through portals.

The hole I fell through was probably not a 'portal', it had literally just been a hole in a giant wall. In a dream. I thought. But this was...so real. So horribly real. My leg really was cut through and bandaged, and a man with a fox's tail was sitting on me. I wasn't getting any sign that I was about to wake up. This could really be happening.

"Sakura?" said the tailed man, and he leaned closer to me again, staring me right in the face. It was straight-up comical and I had to hide my smile. I think he found it funny, too, since he smiled as well. He has such a lovely smile. And his voice was so, so nice...I decided not to laugh at him or tell him his idea of portal travel being normal was insane. I'll deal with this...calmly as I can. I hope.

"I'm sorry. I'm definitely not a demon. I'm a human."

"Oh." He said, and the tone sounded so similar to the way Ino had stupidly gaped at me when I wrote out derivative formulas for her that for a second I was positively sure I was having a dream, and this moment was drawing on that memory. Then his swished his tail again. Tail versus memory, and tail won. " Well. I'm a demon."

He swished his tail again, and now it rested against my good leg. The fur on it was smooth and soothing as a housecat's. I just breathed my good, delicious air and the demon sitting on me waited. I had a few freak-out moments in my past, mostly due to Ino or Sai or school plays. I would like to keep demons off the list of…anything. Even nice ones like Naruto. "Um…Sasuke found this tangled around your leg." He pointed to the right of the bed, where a circular nightstand stood. It was shiny blue like polished marble. On top of it was my schoolbag.

Joy flooded me and it was a glorious surprise. My things from home. My connections to home! Still intact! "My bag! My book, my phone!" I grabbed it like a thief grabbing loot, and hugged it tight. "Thank you so much for getting this! I—I love all those things. Thank you!" I looked Naruto in the eye to show my sincerity. I saw his fingers twitch out of the corner of my eye, and the next thing I knew, he was hugging me again.

Naruto laughed, and I laughed. I felt so happy I hugged him back, and knowing I was okay and my things were with me, and he was helping me, it felt so good. He nudged my head to the side a little, and I felt him pushing against me in that spot, like a happy kid, nuzzling like a sweet little cat. I think he was nuzzling me, like an animal would. "I can't wait to show Sasuke you woke up when it was my turn for watching!" He moved back. "Ahh, he'll be sooo jealous! Hey, do you think you can walk? If you can't, I'll carry you."

He took my hand and crawled backwards, getting off my legs, standing, and finally giving me a chance to get up. I moved my left leg slowly and bent it at the knee, testing it. It felt...pretty good. Not what I expected. Even putting weight on it was perfectly bearable. The wound felt like a healing sore already. How could that be? "Were you the one who wrapped my leg?" I asked Naruto.

He put his weight on one foot, watching me. "Uhm, no. Why? Is it bad? Does it hurt?"

"No. I'm curious why. That thing tore right through the leg, through muscle." And I flexed that muscle, and simultaneously took my hand from Naruto's. It felt fine. "I don't...I don't understand how I can walk or how it healed so fast."

He blinked several times. Phasing from confused bystander to bewildered idiot. That looked familiar. Eventually he shook his head. "I can't explain it. I don't know much about healing, either. I think Kurenai is the one who fixed up your leg, but I don't know where she is. And anyway, if you can walk, well, I'll still help you if you need help, but, we should go outside!" And now he phased into excited teenager, and looked a year younger out of nowhere. "You know, a lot of folk saw us bringing you in. They're curious about what we found, so I want to show you around. But you're with me, so no one will come up and bother you, they wouldn't dare."

It just sounded like he wanted to go romp outside and show me to his friends. The secret of the bandage and balm and my totally functioning leg wasn't even interesting to him. "That'll be fine," I said neutrally. I could find out later. Maybe there's someone out here I can talk so who's more grounded than Naruto. I put my shoes on, too, and took those precious seconds of looking down at my feet to think how, this was...interesting and all, but I wanted to go home. I'd have to break a hole in Naruto's chatter eventually and remind him, too. "Could you talk while we walk? Tell me about how to get home, and…this?" I looked up on the last word, hoping it gave a good enough point. I couldn't really give the proper one verbally.

"Yeah!" he replied enthusiastically. Big smile. Again. Good grief. "Let's go, I'll show you everything, everything in Verre!"

'Verre?' I thought as he pulled me exuberantly along. 'French for 'glass'? Maybe I really am dreaming.' Naruto left the door open and was almost jogging to get us going.

"Okay, so, me, and Sasuke and Sasori and Madara are here in this little settlement so our rising can train their brainless herd demons. It's their work and not ours, but we're just here to make sure the beasts don't get out of control, 'cause, obviously, some did."

We reached the end of a second hallway that ended with two double doors that had vinelike shapes carved into the wood. The doorknobs were leaf-shaped, and soft like wet clay. Naruto opened the left door and revealed the outside world: a stretch of blank, grassy land and that same nighttime sky I'd seen before. The grass was like some sort of front lawn for the building, I guess, since other littler buildings popped out outside of the grassy space. And beyond those was a stone barrier enclosing the entire area. It was a like a little...very little walled town. And the walls only had two watchtowers on them. This place wasn't a fortress or anything. Just a...barrier. Naruto walked outside and gestured for me to follow. We walked down three stone steps, onto the grass.

He turned back to me, and didn't talk again till I was looking. "The two that attacked you drowned, because the water that flows down into the Earth River doesn't come out again. It drains somewhere underground," he added, with a breathless, unhappy gasp. "We were so, so scared because it looked like you would go under, too, and...and be lost under the ground forever. But you broke out somehow. You're okay!" He smiled yet another stupid blond smile and I couldn't resist returning it. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw his tailtip sweeping along the ground, like a muted form of a wagging dog's tail.

I raised a fist at him. "I've always had a strong punch." I said with a grin. "But I think adrenaline had a lot to do with it. I really thought I was about to die."
As I talked, we started moving through the little cottages outside the grassy lawn. Near the corner of one was a duo of burly men and a blue-haired woman. They stared at me.

Naruto hm'd at my side, and we turned a corner around a cottage. "Could you punch Sasuke for me, maybe?"

The name sounded a little bit familiar. Probably because it reminded me of my very dear buddy, Sai. "I don't know. Is he a real jerkass?" He didn't answer, just stared at me, full of blond confusion. But if occurred to me that while we mystically spoke the same language, it was impossible that he could understand every nuance of the slang of my country. I supplied the info for him. "Someone mean and stupid who deserves a punch in the face?" Naruto guffawed and said yes. "I have a person like that in my life, too. We had a...a big, public fight once. Some others had to come pull us apart, but his wrist was already broken by then." Ahh, memories.

"You got into a fight with a male and won, then? Oh, I'm begging you, please punch Sas—kehh!" He startled us both by bumping into somebody as we turned a third corner.

"Zetsu, if you—if..." The person turned around. I had to look up to see his face, and the eyes in them. Red. Perfectly, unnaturally red, brighter than any false contacts I'd ever seen. I looked into them, and couldn't look away. It hurt. His hair was black as could be, hanging long down his back and even over some of his face. He even had wings like a bat's, but I couldn't bring myself to care about that incredible, impossible scientific masterpiece part of him, because of his eyes. "Hello. You're Sakura?"

His voice was deep. "Yes." I managed to say to it. I extended my hand. "Yes. I'm Sakura. Are you one of Naruto's friends?" Instead of taking my hand, he looked at it with a cocked head like a dog's and a grin broke out on his face. Well, maybe I shouldn't have done that, just expected him to understand another culture's greeting, but I couldn't take it back. He grabbed my hand and was pulling me close to him, out of Naruto's grip. Ohh. I had my face right in him.

He was giving the same hug Naruto had given, but I could feel more power and muscle behind it. This man was bigger, he looked it and he felt it. God, I was feeling muscle, here, there, everywhere. I heard him making a…a cat sound. A purr. At the same time, he was saying, "Look at you," and something freaking massive curled around my back and poked its ends on my shoulder, elbow and thigh, his wings, I thought…what was up with all this congratulatory hugging? Did I win the prize of Being Alive?

Naruto was saying something snarly to the red-eyed man, but I could only hear the soft, happy noise he was making in my ear. It stopped for him to pull his head back a little and look me in the eye. Unlike Naruto, he actually let me go, and his hands fell away. "I can't believe it. I didn't know you and Sasuke rescued such an adorable little one." I didn't know what to say to such a...comment. It wasn't the first time a person called me cute. But the light in his eyes darkened somewhat and suddenly it bothered me. "You nearly drowned, I hear. By the foolishness of our herd demons. Is that what happened?"

"If your herd demons are canine monsters. A black one, and a tan one, four-legged and ugly as sin." It made the winged man grin, and cross his arms, but the grin didn't last. "They chased me, and one of them clawed my leg. If that hadn't happened, I think I would have had to jump into the river anyway."

"It is our fault, though. Those beasts are ours and they shouldn't have escaped their guards. That won't happen to you again." He stood in the same spot as before, but seemed closer. My eyes were hurting from staring at the red in him.

"Madara, stop. Stop fondling her, you thief! OW! What the?"

I tried to look beyond Madara's arms to see what was going on with Naruto. We looked over together, and he shifted his left wing. I kept an eye on it, but only for a few seconds. It was close, but I had more important things to watch out for. So we saw Naruto shouting threats at a tree, and it took me a second to see that someone was standing in the branches, almost against the trunk. The person jumped down, and as they fell, wide spaces of black opened at their sides, blocking out he tree and everything behind it. Wings, like Madara's, and now that I wasn't distracted I could really look at them: yes, bat's wings, soft membrane spread over thin bone, and even tipped with tiny spikes at the ends. They were pretty in a dark way, a way I didn't usually like, but they were captivating.

The person dodged right around Naruto and came to Madara and I. My legs tensed up as they—he—came closer and I could see otherworldly red eyes, just like Madara's. "Hmph. You picked a glorious day to be late, Sasuke. Sakura woke up while you were away assisting with the herd. Look." Madara took a step away and left me in Sasuke's field of vision alone. I wonder what the man in dark clothes and black bat-out-of-hell wings thought of the my and the mess of colors I wore on myself. And my head.

"Still a kit, I would say." the young man named Sasuke repeated. As he spoke, my eyes trailed down his blue tunic. He wore it partially open for some reason. But. Um. I didn't mind. He had a chest that a girl didn't mind was shown. I looked him in the eye then and hoped he hadn't seen me sneakily admiring. "I'm sorry for any of my uncle's behavior, Sakura. If you feel my uncle has been indecent to you, I'll claw him off for you. Naruto, help me."

"I was supposed to be holding her!" Naruto whined.

"Elders take what younglings find, Naruto." Madara said, almost sing-song-y. He was walking backwards now. Taking me with him. Um. "Now, I think this dear and I have an arrangement at the walltop. I have many questions for you, my newcomer." He added.

I squinted confusedly up at him, then decided this idiotic passing-of-the-Sakura was just annoying and it was enough. I think this conversation was one I should actually be a part of. "Or maybe you all could stay here and talk to me." I "said, and loudly. Madara looked intrigued that I'd spoken, and smiled. It was kind of attractive. Kind of creepin'. "Am I ever going to find out when I can go home?" I asked them all. "I don't mean to impose on whatever you're doing here in this town. And you can't keep entertaining me as a guests forever, right? I'm sorry, but I'd really like to leave soon."

"However you got here, you can only leave on the thirty-first of Muru." Replied the one called Sasuke. Naruto hissed his name angrily, but he went on. "Four days from now. Spirits move between worlds that night. It is the only night in history creatures other than ourselves have entered and left Verre."

Madara's wings opened partially. "Such information could have waited, Sasuke." he growled, and he took my hand in his, and pressed the fingers down so that I could not ignore him or his hold. "Sakura, you may leave when you are able, but don't be so heartless as to tell us nothing! We could hear so much about you. I want to know. Why not some stories about the little one who defeated two herd demons and broke through the Earth River? Won't you please tell us?"

Geez, could he get any closer? I pushed on one of his arms to imply that I wanted out of this heated, strange cocoon. "Maybe I'll be willing once you tell me what a herd demon is."

"The most mindless and ugly of our kind." Stated a new voice, and I looked around like an idiot to try and see the newcomer. Naruto shouted hi to somebody and at last I saw them: a redheaded, very literally redheaded man, whose hair was a fine complement to his dark grey outfit and the pure white bangle on his wrist. The weird amber of his eyes was no hindrance to his appearance, either. His appearance was altogether goddamn pretty, in fact. Like, whoa. "We train them to pull carts and other such menial, physical labors. Madara. Should I expect you've tried to touch the girl already?"

Madara laughed. "Of course not. I only hold her to act as a shield from the deadly beasts we've brought here to Mur'ra!" He sounded so...goofy. I tried not to laugh or smile, not sure how successful that was.

"Beasts like you." Sasori snapped. "Let her go. Sakura, if you would come here instead." He paused. "You'll be much safer here with me. I don't make a hobby out of making newcomer-folk fear Verre."

"Do you count being jealous?" Madara sneered, and caressed—caressed—my cheek with the side of his hand. Okay, enough!

"You know a hobby I like? Not having information kept from me." I said firmly. I noticed an observant expression on Sasuke's face. "I don't mind you being silly, Madara, but I care if I get to be told anything by anyone! I don't know anything about this place. And is it just me or shouldn't the sun have risen by now? Where's the long stone wall? And why do you all care about my well-being so much? I'm a stranger to all of you."

There. See how cute and teasing they act with all that shit out in the open.

For some three seconds I felt an growing, ugly mixture of victory and dread. No one was saying anything and everyone was looking at me. I realized again that these men had claws and wings and tails and could do whatever they wanted with me. And maybe that was the only answer to any of this.

"Because we want to know about you." Naruto replied quietly. He stood with his fingers nervously shifting themselves against his palms. "No visitor from another realm has been here for a very long time. And you brought such strange things with you…so…I want to know. N-not just about your things, but about you! What you do in your world. So while you're here, I'd like to learn as much about you as I can. So when you're gone on the thirty-first, I'll…I'll know."

I had the distinct idea that Naruto had saved his friends' butts by speaking for all of them. And I took a chance in asking if this was the case: "Do you all think the same? You want to know about where I come from?"

Sasori, who had been in my presence for all of two minutes, went first by saying, "Yes. I think we all mean the same thing. Would you be willing to share these things about yourself?" Something behind him moved, a something which was a fucking scorpion tail, but I had something to distract me now, thank God. I breathed deep and slow to keep calm. Delicious air, remember. Delicious. Stay calm.

They waited for my answer so silently it sort of scared me. But the price was incredibly fair. Tell some stories. Some history. Get a ride home in return for being a teacher till the thirty-first of the month, Halloween night, which apparently hadn't happened here yet. What better deal would I get? "Yes, I would. I could start with…" Well, with what? 'We don't have demons where I come from'?

I asked if I could go and get my bag, but Sasuke ran back to whatever building my bedroom was in and fetched it for me. By the time he brought it back, I had some ideas on how to begin this talk. We would start small, with little inconsequential things, and get bigger if needed. My first topic was the apple in the bag. I pulled it out for them, and held it, and they stared. Naruto sniffed in its direction.

"Do you know what this is?"

There was a pause, and for a moment I heard someone behind us calling out, but these four men were quiet and staring. Until redheaded Sasori muttered, "An apple."

"Apple, a vegetable." Naruto offered. First argument of the day: there are no such foods as "fruits" around here. While I would separate my greens in groups of fruits and vegetables, to them, to them, anything that was not meat was a vegetable, and fruit was not a word. That was Lesson Nunber One.

The lessons went on for long enough that we decided to sit down, there in the middle of the road, and...and just continue. They insisted that a description of my life come first. Since they sounded so elementary-student-eager to learn, I was happy to tell them what I could. My life as a student, spending most of the day in a building full of people my age learning about the world and talking to friends in between. I told them about Ino and my parents, and how I hoped to be a surgeon one day. But "surgeon" is a word I decided to switch up. They understood "healer" much better. And they understood my entire life much better when I decided to just ignore all electronic devices. And without that, it actually became harder and harder to talk. So I switched to, you know, ye olden times. . Columbus, Julius Caesar, Sun Tzu. I talked for ages, and felt like a professor. Unbelievable how, how...fun it was to be there, and listen to their reactions.

They gave me information on their world as well. They did try to keep things basic for me, but they stumbled and stuttered about as often as not. Sasori was best at weaving through those technicalities and I grew to respect the way he talked and maneuvered his words. He explained that the sun rose only once every six days and stayed up for the length of two, and despite how confused they all were when I told them that my world had a new sunrise every day, he above all seemed almost personally offended by that. Madara tried to cut him off and start something new.

He was the one to describe the creatures that lived among them. And the first rule I had to wrap my head around was that there weren't any animals here. Not really. There were demons and nothing else. And they divided themselves into three categories. Sasuke insisted that they were not based on strength of social class but I don't believe that crap after hearing this. They absolutely have a social pyramid. At the top are themselves, "royals," who have the most authority and are the strongest, always. And then they have "rising" who have a really sad name because they can't rise in any way: they are literally slaves to a royal and follow them around doing whatever a royal wants to do, and in exchange they get protection. Naruto especially insisted that the rising are their friends and not slaves and were treated nicely. I don't know if I believe him.

The third type are the "herd" demons, which are the monsters. These are the kinds of things the Bible talks about. They kill and eat and destroy and rape whatever they can, and they can look like any ungodly nightmare in the world. Ten heads or no heads, rotting skin, black skin, no skin. Eyes on their chest or pus-spewing mouths. These are the thing that chased me into the River. And they are what rising have the build their lives around: keeping these things in pens, training them to be workhorses, or killing them for food. Or even killing them when they breed to overpopulation, which they do often, because, by some joke by a cruel god, these are by far the most fertile type of demon.

The four of them refused to openly say it (literally refused!) but their extreme implication was that if the dog-creatures had caught me they would have probably raped me before doing anything else. That was the end of that topic, and Sasuke brought us to a new one.

Can't remember what it was. I just know that sitting there in the road at night talking to demons was by far the best time I'd had since falling into this place.

Who knows how much time passed that way. I don't know how long it had been when Naruto interrupted someone by flailing suddenly and waving his tail and exclaiming that he could have eaten Sasori's tail off, he was so hungry. Sasori artfully told him off. That guy is so...suave. I like him!

We were ushered into a wide room with an empty floor and tapestries of birds on the walls, and handed plates by other people who stood waiting for us. They must have been rising. I thanked them for the food and they nodded appreciatively and looked happy, and said nothing. I watched them leave while Madara pulled me further into the tapestry room. We ate standing up, which I had learned earlier was the norm. Only the elderly and little kids will eat sitting down.

We ate the sweetest, richest chicken-turkey-thing I'd had in years, and we ate it with traditional demon utensils: sporks. I laughed out loud, and couldn't stop for...a half-minute, maybe. And I had to explain afterward.

After eating chicken-demon meat with a spork, it felt as though this experience was going to be less of a nightmare than it first seemed.

"Little girl with life ahead…"

Waking up today was quite pleasant. Even though I haven't seen the sun for two days, I was feeling pretty…bright. Yeah, bright. And clean, too! One of Sasuke's rising demons, Karin, was told to come with me to this indoor pool place in the basement of that same building where my bedroom was. While I sat in the warm water she swept my clothes through a little running indoor stream. I tried talking to her but it…failed. And it felt awful. I stumbled and was quiet and probably would have even put Hinata to shame. I had no idea what to talk about. I had no idea what rising demons did while their royal bosses were off talking to visitors and eating chicken. And for her part, she made a point of not looking at me or saying anything. "Karin, d-do you...?" Nothing. "Excuse me, how long have you...um..been with Sasuke?" Nothing. Nothing, nothing. Jesus, I hate when conversation lulls like that!

Karin washed my clothes and wrung them out and shook them tirelessly like old rugs, till they were nearly dry, and set them near me. Feeling a lot less bright now. Thanks, Karin. And thanks to my stupid damn self, too. What happened? It made me so mad, and yet, I felt kinda good, too. I mean, I didn't want that one bad bump in this day to get me down. I had a good path ahead of me. Three more days of playing college professor, and those four would get me back home.

This once-nightmare would be a curious memory. A bitchin' Halloween story, actually. I should just tell this "dream" to Ino, and hey, Hinata, too. They'd like all the attractive guys. I think Hinata would love Naruto best.

I rose from the bed I'd been resting on, and did a few stretches, humming a song I liked as I did so. If I left the room now, where could I go? Where should I go? I was very curious as to what was on the other side of the stone barrier, even though it stood to reason to think it was that same nasty, flat land I had first seen. But would any of them be mad if I tried to go outside? Or even just climbed a ladder or something and stood on the top to look around? That sounded fun. Since none of the rising could harm me, and all the herd demons were outside the wall, it was safe, too. I didn't think it could be harmful. So maybe it's time for me to do a little learning on my own instead of with chaperones. It's adventure time! Haha yeah, definitely Adventure Time~!

Ready now, I opened the door and closed it behind me. I had gone maybe ten steps down the hallway when a voice calling, "Sakuraaa!" called after me. Maybe I would have to have a chaperone after all. Rrghh.

After the voice stopped and some footsteps started, I waited patiently for the speaker, and with a half-turn in their direction, sighed with pretend exasperation: "Yes, Madara?"

It was definitely him, the behemoth of the group (or maybe the sheer volume of his hair was deceiving) coming down the hall after me. He looked cleaned and refreshed himself. And he looked...fast. He came up sooner than I expected, and grabbed me up in his arms freaking tore me up off the floor.

Madara himself gave a sort of "warning" that their kind are more openly affectionate and sometimes it surprises the "visitors". Sasuke also gave a warning yesterday that despite that, Madara would take it to the extreme, and that was supposed to explain how he above all kept so close to me and had the largest count of unexpected hugs. I was putting it down to cultural differences on one hand and pretending I didn't really like it. He was fun to listen to and a huge man with huge hair is nice and I don't regret thinking that but hell if I'll actually say it.

Hell, just that second, he was nuzzling my hair. "Good morning, little master of knowledge. The library's open to you now, if you want to go there, for your healing books and whatever other thing you wanted to see. I'm sorry we didn't go before. But we may now. Come!" And we would have been off quick, zoom-zoom, but I wasn't ready yet.

"Are your rising going to be okay without you?" I asked dubiously. Madara spoke of his rising like they burdened his entire life.

"Mmmmeh." He moaned irritably into my hair, then lifted his head. "They'll deal with it. This settlement is only here for when royals have to bring their rising away from the public so their herd demons can be trained. They only need help when one of the ugly beasts gets out of control. Actually, the ones belonging to Naruto and Sasori's rising are typically out of control."

I interrupted him before he could say anymore. Two of the ones that were being trained but got "out of control" were the ones that attacked me. Hearing that story, I found out last night, made Madara mad. And that was the only thing that spoiled our chat last night, the fact that Madara talking in such a low, serious voice, his actually being mad, is legitimately frightening.

"Let me get my bag first." He waited at the door while I went to fetch it. The library was not in this building, which was some kind of cabin for visiting people, but one street away. And the library above all the buildings inside this square barrier was elaborate and fancy, and placed importantly at the end of a smooth dirt place was simply one massively wide room, a parking lot's worth of space, with books stacked halfway to the ceiling. There were no tables, but a few large chairs, and they were very dusty because, again, demons are too good to sit on things.

Last night, the four had demonstrated their written language for me, and it looked like a mix of Chinese characters and chickenscratch, and the books were just the same, except a little more elegant. Every single book was of the same height and width; the shelves looked kind of like a shelf of DVDs instead of books because of it, and that strange uniformity made me stare. I took out books from one shelf and a second and third and fourth, taking in as much as I could. It looked like that most pages, no matter what the book was supposed to be about, had a character on the bottom right that ended in a...thick hook. And most pictures were drawn in blue ink. And god, they had an unbelievable "old book" smell to them.

It felt so good to be around this insane, literally otherworldly literature, listening to those pages crinkle and whisk while they turned. It made me happy and nostalgic for home suddenly. Suddenly, I felt kind of giddy, and wanted to play a game.

Putting the last book back in its place, I turned to the winged Madara behind me. He had a book in hand as well but was hardly looking at it. I wonder how long I'd actually been looking at these and forcing him to stand there doing nothing. Well, we'll fix that. "I have an idea for you." He closed the book with a thumb and forefinger. "Do you want to learn a game from my country?"

Perfect, upward-turning smile. And his wingtips jiggled, too. So weird! Well, so what. didn't care. "Take as many books as you can and bring them here to me. We need to make a stack."

"Hmmm," he muttered, and jogged over to a shelf on my left side, and did just that. He had a huge armful before I did, and I took them out of his grip and started constructing the tower. Three lying one way, three more perpendicular to them on top of the first three. I had a stack up to my knees before he finally went off to get another bunch.

"Good, stack them in this pattern, see? No, not your own stack! Just help me with this one."

"What game is this?" he asked eagerly. "Sakura? Sakura, tell me!"

"Do your work and I will!" But it took a little control not to blurt it out right then. Good memories of this game were coming back to me, and I was in such a good mood I couldn't wait to start. When the stack was nearly as tall as me, we stopped. "Okay! This is called 'Jenga.'" And he looked at our Jeng tower with reverence. He's a damn Shatner, this one. "It's normally done with smaller pieces, but this arrangement works just fine, too. And I wouldn't even be able to do if it all your books weren't the same perfect shape. Why are they made that way?"

"Nnn, tradition." He said, and his left wing moved a little bit; I'm NO expert on what demon...bodily attachment gestures mean, but to me it looked excited. It distracted me. "What do we do with this stack, now? What next?"

"Now, each person takes out a piece and puts it on the top of the stack. The tower gets more and more unstable as you take more pieces, and eventually it falls and spills everything."

My new friend exhaled a brief laugh. "You humans and your destruction." But he immediately took a book from a corner, near his thigh, midway up the big stack. There wasn't so much as a wobble in the tower, but he looked positively amazed. "So you take one next?"

"That's right. If you want to be daring, you can take two at once."

Madara watched me with his attractive smile and slowly pulled away two books. I circled round the tower and took one from a center column. The tower started wobbling. Madara was still giving me his big, big smile. "Your turn." He blinked and took one. Couldn't he turn his red eyes anywhere else? I took a book from the side, which was a risky move, and I wasn't sure I wanted to do that, but the tower didn't move. "What's wrong? If you're nervous about making it fall, it HAS to eventually or the game won't end."

"Scared? I'm happy." And he sounded happy. But not the sort of happy I wanted to be around. I wished Naruto was here to tell him off. "I like this game very much." His hand came over and touched the side of my face. Oh no. He said my name. So sweetly. Oh no, no, no, shit, no.

"I like you very much." Knowledge bestowed upon me by countless romance novels let me know the moment before he would do it, that he would try to kiss me. I turned my head just a little at just the right moment and stared fearfully at the floor while Madara's lips fell on the very edge of mine. His free arm came around my back and pushed on it. We were forced together. I was forced to feel him. Feel how very warm he was.

His head moved back a little bit. "How scared you are. Don't be, little one. Let me…" And I never found out what he wanted me to "let" happen. He dove down again and I was too dead scared to even move this time. I closed my eyes, unbelieving—we kissed for real. My first true kiss was this, here and now, taken by a man with wings, and I…liked it. Ino had talked about using tongues. I never knew what she meant, not really, and now I did. He was doing everything, his tongue with its animated spirit was touching everything in my mouth that could be touched with a tongue, and even my tongue, massaging it, and holy God my brain was melting.

Something went wrong with either my legs or his, because we started to fall, and with my quick reaction and his patience we lowered ourselves to the ground without falling over. I set down a little too hard on the edge of my knees, and briefly gasped at the small shock of the impact. That was my sad excuse of a distraction to grasp his upper arms, while he held mine, the claws at his fingertips poking at me. His face was way too close; I could smell some cool scent of trees and me on his breath. He was staring at me and smiling. I like his smile. I didn't like this, did I? No. No, I didn't! "Please...stoppit..." I growled at him. I didn't have anything else to say.

Apparently he did. He said, "But why? You must—"

Okay yes I did have more to say! "This is really sudden, Madara. I, I wish you could have...told me, or asked me first. I've known you for one day!"

I felt less weak, more sure, saying that, so much I looked him in the eye and forced him to look at me while he answered. He looked troubled, but I think we were both troubled here, because, for me, it's...it's his red eyes. There's something so...strange. About them.

His eyebrows pulled closer. The expression I perceived was mild confusion. "Told you...? Told you this, that I wanted to kiss you?"

"Yes. I just, I wish I had known it was coming, that's all! Okay?!"

His confusion was just getting worse and I didn't understand why this wasn't getting to him, and I have no idea what he didn't understand. His reply was just that: "I don't understand. I had hoped you may want...more." Well the fact was I did, I still had the taste of him on my lips and in my mouth, and he had been so good to me. But something here was so fucking strange, and-! "Please. Let me show you." He said, and tugged on my arms just a little bit, so that we would kiss again.

Maybe I wanted to. But I stopped him. I put my hand between his chest and neck and felt the pulse through his skin. "You're not going to win me over by forcing me."

His whole body tensed up under my hand, and his confusion melted away, to make way for shock. "You think I'm forcing you? How-!" I let him compose himself. His simple air of enjoyment and drama was gone. This stark seriousness...was nerve-wracking. Frightening. Quieter, he said, "Your folk do not accept love?"

I'll stand my fucking ground. "My culture does not accept rape."

His entire body flared up, and even though wings and hair and limbs were all there, again all I could take in were his eyes. "You can't! Never mistake this for such a thing! I hate that you were raised by such a blind race. This…don't you feel this?" He touched our foreheads together and I'd be lying to say I felt nothing. I felt confusion and fear and some amount of physical pleasure that was turning my stomach and head in knots like nothing I'd ever felt before. It was stunning, and I could see why people lost their minds for feelings like this. I can't control that I'm feeling that. I can control acting on it. I wanted to say exactly that. And I couldn't. Nothing came out.

He took my silence and avoiding his eyes the wrong way. Or maybe he didn't. I didn't know what he was thinking and was too nervous to ask. "My kind feel true attraction...very deep, Sakura. Our way is to show it. To mean it, strongly." I felt compelled to try and look at him again. God, his eyes. "Would you accept me?"

…Accept what? What did he want? To have me acknowledge that he liked me or was attracted to me? Was he asking for sex? What is this, and where the hell did my mind go?

"I'm sorry. I like you as a person." Oh, great fucking start, Sakura. "I don't…understand this. I don't know what you want or what you're saying." My hard, disappointing truth barely had no visible effect on him. "I feel like I should leave."

He purred, literally purred, like a cat, a long , vibrating that made the hair framing my face sway a little and...made part of me vibrate, too. "You want to run. That's all right, if that's what you want. I'll see you later. I promise not to chase you."

What...what the hell kind of promise is that?! What if he hadn't said it? Instead of acting on this fear, I stood up, and our hands were slow in letting go of each other. A mad blur of color off to my left dragged me away from looking at Madara, and I saw that the Jenga tower had fallen. You'd think I would have noticed that, but neither of us had. I said goodbye, without looking, picked up my bag along the way to the door and thought about Jenga the whole way out instead of Madara's eyes digging into my back as obviously as a real dagger. When I closed the library doors behind me, I leaned back till my shoulder blades smacked into them. And then I slid down, slow and pathetic, till I was sitting against the door, and maybe blocking it from being opened again. There was nothing and no one around but this world's neverending night. No one to see me shake in fear and horror.

What the fuck was that, and why is it dragging on my mind? Can't I just...very simply and easily accept that I kissed someone and liked it or didn't like it or who the hell knows, and move on with my life?

This was literally painful to think of it. My stomach and mind were still buzzing. It hurt to think about Madara and what he said. It also hurt to not analyze such a terribly strange issue, but the former pain was worse, so I had to...had to pull an Ino on myself, and totally ignore the problem and focus hard and dedicated on some other thing. Like…like talking with that person over there!

I didn't recognize her, and I've met all the royals, so she must be a rising. Maybe taking a break from training her monstrous herd demons that she has to play jailkeeper to all the time. I think I'll go shoot the breeze!

"Hey! Hey, excuse me!" I stood up, shouldered my bookbag and jogged down the empty dirt street to where the woman stood. She was quite stationary and didn't appear to be doing anything but hanging out there. And she wasn't a woman, either. Well, thank goodness I realized that before speaking. The male rising demon stood outside what I think Naruto had told me yesterday was a storage room for food. He wore a...a robe of sorts, but the clothes here were still a little too different from mine for me to name it exactly that. And his hair was. The mirror. Image. Of Ino's. And so was the rest of him. Oh my God. "Um. Hello. I was wondering…" Quick! What was I wondering! You look like my best friend? How are you this evening?!

"You'll have to ask the royals. I can't talk to you, un." He interrupted me. I raised a brow at him in confusion, and this compelled him to look nervously to the side. His hair looked nice framing his face that way. "Honestly. Rising aren't supposed to speak to you."

Well, that's a good thing to wonder about, I decided. "Why's that? Have they said something bad about me? Did they say I'm venomous?" Honestly! I thought they liked me. Especially William Shatner Fucking Madara.

"They said no one is supposed to talk to Sakura. Punishment is whatever they feel like at the time, end of story, un." His eyes bugged out randomly and I could hear the massive hitch in his breath. "Go away. Go away. Please!" I got sort of scared then and looked around to see what caught his attention. And I saw Sasori and Naruto, coming around the corner in fancy-looking black and red cloaks respectively.

Naruto sped up the moment he saw the blonde rising and I. He slowed to a stop right in front of us and stared at the blond stranger. He asked, "Deidara, don't you have something to do outside the wall, with Kurotsuchi?" The blonde rising stared and didn't say a word. He was caught talking to me. I had to save him.

"He was telling me he's not allowed to talk to me," I explained with honest confusion. "I just wanted to know if he had seen Madara. He wouldn't say anything except that he couldn't talk to me." Deidara looked at the ground and was still looking at the ground when Sasori came up, and I had to relay this explanation to him, too. As I did, I had the sensation that I'd just saved Deidara from getting into trouble.

"Never mind." He said carelessly, though while glaring at him. "Deidara, whatever you're doing here can wait. Go find Konan or Kurotsuchi, please." Deidara nodded and walked off in a casual, not-terrified-at-all gait. They both watched him go, eyes pinned to the poor rising's retreating back. And I watched them. Their tone had been far too serious. They hadn't told me something here. But I put on a friendly expression when they turned back to me. Sasori moved to the side, so that I did not have both of them directly in front of me. "Madara's probably being held up by Zetsu again. Would you mind coming with us instead?"

"That depends what you want to do," I replied, and I was sharp about it. Sasori's face was too still and I know he read something not entirely pleasant in my voice. I'm not sure if Naruto did.

"I wanted your music." He replied. "Last night at the meal, you mentioned that one of the things in your bag was music. Naruto and I were very curious as to what kind of instruments are played by humans."

Pfft. This'll be good. And a good mood to smother the tense one we had started to built. I grinned at them both. "I can promise it's an instrument unlike anything that's existed in your home." I said, and yeah, I was going for the mysterious factor. They tried not to look hooked, but I knew their astounded faces from the constant ones I got last night during Story Time. They were very interested. "In fact, it's probably a dozen or more instruments you've never seen before, all packed together in an item smaller than my hand." And I held out my palm invitingly, for a visual comparison. Sasori looked like he was solving a mental Rubik's cube. Naruto stared like a dumb frog, but his tail was swishing a little. Then Sasori's twitched. Only when Naruto's had finished moving.

Not sure exactly what I said, I can't remember. I was advertising my amazing instrument, and out of the corner of my eye, watching for peripheral movement of their tails, and they came. This time, Sasori's moved, in a whirling pattern, and once he stopped, Naruto's moved.

They're communicating. Some sort of sign language. I wanted to know just what it was, but their little episode with Deidara discouraged me from asking. I giggled at them, and their tails stopped and they stared. Awaiting my mystery. It felt good for them to be on the unknowing side of the mystery.

I withdrew my hand from the outmost pocket of my bag, and showed them my pink iPod.

Now they both looked like dumb frogs. That expression on Sasori almost made me crack up. He could have been from my world with that face: a young, pretty model with no clue what was going on. "Here, each of you take one of these pieces," I held up the earbuds, "and put them in your ear."

"In my ear? For what reason?" Sasori repeated, but he reached for one and held it delicately in his long, pretty fingers. Naruto copied him, faster and more embarrassed.

"You're going to hear noise through those things. Don't be startled by it." I told them soothingly, and used my finger to scroll down the list of songs on my lovely pink device. After saying something so soothing, I absolutely had to find my most hardcore rock song, or some absurd blasting Disney musical number, skip to the most intense part of the chorus and blast the volume. This is the one time I really, really, want to play that trick on somebody. But what? This is not time for Taylor Swift and maybe my queen of song, Marina wouldn't have the big blast I needed. How about...that. Yeah, why don't they hear a song about being 'radioactive.' Not furious and blasting, exactly, but I think that'll do. Find the exact spot. Louuud volume. Play!

In an instant, Sasori tore backwards and hissed like an animal, and the earbud fell and bounced on its cord. Naruto made a more scream-like noise and tore his earbud out with his hand. And if they had any reaction past that, I was laughing way too much to hear it. The incident with Madara was now a fugacious bad memory. This moment was hilarious and bright.

Sasori came back looking most amusingly ruffled, and growled, "You claim that's music?" I giggled out "not, not like this", but it didn't come out so good. I offered the earbuds again, saying, "That was just a joke. Honestly. Here, I'll find you a new song. A softer one. Hey, I promise! I won't assault your ears again."

I held them out a second time. Naruto was overly cautious and looked like Scooby-Doo inching away from something spooky. Sasori took his earbud with a light growl that I took as good-humored, but, again, I don't know the gestures of these people. I did actually search for a good song for them this time. Something beautiful instead. Maybe they would be moved by soothing, melodic music the same way people are. I chose a song Hinata had shown me a long time go, pressed play, and watched their faces. The singer was telling a tale of a little girl named Eva, who left one cruel world to go to a better one. Their faces changed and melted in front of me. Their eyes went wide and became nearly confused at the sounds they heard. I heard the faintest noises here and there, indicating how far into the song they were, and I could tell simply by their eyes when the third, last and strongest chorus was sung.

They did not remove the earbuds. Sasori asked if that singer had been me.

As if. "Of course not. I'm just a big fan...a big appreciator of the musician. It looks like you are, now, too."

"Yes. Her voice is wonderful. She sings real music!" Naruto praised.

"That was much more like what we have." Sasori elaborated more, and his tail curved and settled near his legs. "Musicians in the High Settlement create songs of true beauty, like this." That name had been mentioned last night. He frowned as Naruto jumped in front of him.

"Sakura, you must see the High Settlement! You'd love it!"

I leaned back a little from his face being all...in my face, and smoothed my posture. "Is that one of your big cities?"

"Yes, and the best. Not just the biggest in F'lar, but the walked world!" He exclaimed. "It was built up by a musician, in fact! The biggest building they have is a theater where folk gather to hear songs just like this Eva-song. Oh, oh, and there's a massive healinghouse that you could visit! The healers there can fix bones and hurts and make you grow back whole wings! You could learn how to heal demons just like you heal humans if you went there." He went on and on, but eventually asked for more music. ("More Eva-songs," he said.)

I let them listen to a few more songs. They heard Marin and Idina Menzel, and I think I saw Koji Kondo on the little screen. While they were silent and entranced by my iPod, I contemplated their High Settlement, and all of Naruto's unequivocal praise for it. I tried to compare it to some city I knew based on the descriptions from just now and last night. A place where there are concerts, a massive hospital, he said. Madara and Sasuke had lived there for many years, but "years" isn't a word they know. And they couldn't translate their time to mine. But there must be a formula for that to work through. Someone must know, I can't be the first person in this entire, demon-filled world to want this information!

Rain clouds started to gather. Only when a song ended did Naruto shoot his head up to look at the sky, and insist we go inside somewhere so his tail fur wouldn't get wet. He shoved us towards the residency building where we all had bedrooms. Near the back of it was the room where we all had stood and eaten dinner that night, and there's where we moved. Madara and Sasuke were already standing by a window, using their adorable sporks to move cubes of potato-like-things into their mouths and arguing about something we couldn't hear.

We were handed plates by a chubby rising demon whose hair stuck out like a punk rocker's, and then invited over to the window by a gesture of Sasuke's wing. I must have walked too slowly, since Sasori wrapped his tail across my back and pretty much pulled me into the group. Madara said I looked lovely with my hair a little wet. Only I had any sort of nervous reaction to that. It looked like none of the others were aware of our spiel of his being offended over me not wanting to kiss him. Maybe they'll have man-talk about that later. I didn't want to bring it up. This experience will end and I'll go home to my parents, and he'll be gone.

It did bother me, though, that even though Madara had had an hour or two to tell this to Sasuke if he'd wanted, and Sasuke had always been the one lest comfortable with Madara's affectionate outbursts, he seemed to not have been told. He was acting like it was a nice day and nothing was wrong, and somehow I just didn't believe that he was unaware of it. I'm almost sure, actually. I think Sasuke knows and he's just brushing it off.

What, is good food enough to make you ignore a lecher? Well, screw you guys, too. This is Item Number Two you're all acting funny about. Your demonic traditions and behaviors don't always blend with human ones, so thank god we don't live in the same dimension.

It bothered me, but I put up a nice face and inserted myself into their conversation of singers and singers who had wings quite nicely. Eventually they just started gushing over my iPod, and Nightwish. The night went on undisturbed.

"For a memory of one kind word, she would stay among the beasts…"

I did my bathing routine last night with silent, angry-faced Karin again, only changing things up this time by washing my hair. Even after that oh-so-wonderful distraction, the memory of Madara kissing me and the way he had talked about it was enough to keep me awake for a while that night. I was afraid it would incite similar dreams, things in my head I wouldn't be able to control, so I opted instead to stay up reading. I didn't have any books in my bag for once, and it was the worst possible time, of course. I just had my chemistry notebook and my French notebook. I read the French notes more, and when I fell asleep I had a dream in which my sweet, grandma-like French teacher I've known since I was a freshman told the whole class to aller en enfer.

I got out of bed eventually and sat against the wall by the window, notebook balanced on my upright thighs, for who knows how long. However long it was that I slept there against the wall, when I woke up, it was, who'd have guessed, still nighttime, and, um…who'd have guessed. Naruto was on his knees, looking over my knees, at my notebook. It took him about ten seconds to look up and realize I was awake and looking at him, too.

Naruto scooted back like a dog who'd seen a vacuum cleaner. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry! I just wondered what stuff, you, um, were looking at, and I can't understand it anyway, so I didn't read any big secret of yours or anything! Don't be mad at me!" The embarrassed demon apparently melted into a sad puppy and asked me again and again to please not be mad at him.

"Naruto, it's fine, just don't do it again. Do you want to see?" I held up the notebook and he gently took it, reading over my second page of animal names. He tried to pronounced paon and ours polaire with zero success. I pronounced them correctly for him and put them in a sentence for him: "Le paon et l'ours polaire a vécu dans un zoo."

I may as well have shown him an Olympic gold medal, what with the expression on his face. "That's so amazing. You know how to heal sick people, and speak to foreign ones, and break rock with just your hands. You can be lots of things, can't you?" That compliment and that sweet face was too much. And I wanted to just take that compliment. Just take it and enjoy it. Just...

"I can be lots of nasty, annoying things, too." I waggled my knees back and forth a little and didn't know where to go from there. Yeah, great, I'm so modest I can briefly admit I'm not utter perfection. Great human being award goes to me, but now I've put the poor guy in a bad position to reply. So, quickly, before he had to say anything to that, I asked him, "Naruto, why haven't we gone beyond the wall yet? Are we not allowed?"

His sweet expression melted then, into something like disappointment. Maybe surprise, too. "There's herd demons out there, Sakura. If you go out there, the rising won't be able to protect you from them all. They're hard enough for them to manage already."

"They're out there training the herd demons all the time? All hours, with no breaks?" I asked with a raised brow.

"Yes!" Naruto replied a little heatedly. "That's why you never see all of us together. We have to be out there so much helping to control the herd. The rising brought too many out here this time and we're paying for it by having to quiet them till they're docile. So we can't always all see you together. If we weren't doing this stupid training thing, we could all go to a real settlement, and show you our world for real…"

His reasoning was good enough. I suppose. For now, I let it drop. "All right, then. What do you want to do? Listen to my iPod again?"

He gasped like a child, and it was so darn cute. "Yes, yes! Play the one about Eva!" He crawled exuberantly to my side and sat against the wall with me. His flame-edged, red cloak spilled onto my lap, and actually kind of helped to keep my legs warm. I got an earbud this time, too, so was really able to share the music with him. Naruto stared dreamily at the ceiling as the music went on, and had me repeat it twice before I suggested we listen to other things. I made sure he listened to songs that were more beautiful than cute, and as such kept away from thing lik—oh. We had a visitor.

Outside the window literally hung Sasuke, gripping the smooth canopy with one hand, feet precariously perched on the outside sill, and wearing a tunic with claw marks on the sleeves. He looked...very focused, and tired. I stood up and opened the window for him; he hopped in and ignored Naruto's annoyed, "nyaahh" face. "Good morning. I was hoping to…" He trailed off when he saw Naruto greedily clutching my iPod, sitting next to my French notebook and my open bag and altogether looking like he owned my stuff.

"You wanted to hear some music again, didn't you?" I put the words in his mouth and he nodded. "Of course you can. Come sit. Naruto…Naruto, for God's sake, give me the earbud! Sasuke, you could sit down next to him."

"Sit on my side, Sakura." The blonde said.

His companion sat a foot or so away from him and said, "If you're near me, I won't smother you, at the least," he said, leaving the invitation hanging. He even touched his wingtip to the floor on his right, just in case I forgot what "near me" meant. I took the unknown third option of sitting between them, taking the iPod in my hands. They appeared to accept this and listened to various songs, while I kinda-sorta listened to them as noise from the earbuds drifted to me from each side. For a little while I felt like I was at home again, and it could have been Kiba and Hinata sitting on each side of me, or Ino or Sai or Tenten, and maybe we'd go downstairs and make some popcorn soon. Oh, popcorn…

"Sasukkeee!" a voice screeched outside, and only Naruto jumped at it. Sasuke languidly stood up and took the earbud out of his ear. He looked out the window and frowned at whatever he saw down there. I heard someone outside shout, "Please help! The—one of them's almost killed Ao! The tall-eared one! Please!"

"I have to go." Sasuke muttered dispiritedly. He half-turned and let the edge of his black wing sweep up my arm. "I'll be back soon. Tell him you'll feed him soon and he probably won't crawl all over you."

"You wanna say that to my face, greenwings?" But Sasuke had already jumped from the window and didn't hear Naruto's taunt. I rushed up to try and see him in flight, but Naruto stuck out his tail and tripped me. I recovered from the little attack quickly and got to the window. But Sasuke must have flown straight up, or teleported or something, because I didn't see him out there. Naruto grumbled and glared from his spot on the floor, and the noises didn't quiet as I sat down by him again.

My eyes eventually moved to my knees, a pretty neutral spot, and my stomach was starting to hurt a little. Maybe it's a good thing Sasuke left, so he doesn't have to see me get sick. but I eventually decided to look him in the eyes and make some nice comment that would dispel his apparently grumpy mood. His eyes immediately told me I could do no such thing. But I couldn't just sit there in silence, so I still said, "Would you like to listen with both this time?" I offered both the earbuds to him.

He looked at them once, just long enough to disregard them. His blue eyes moved up to mine instead, and stayed there. "You don't feel it." He said, and I started to feel insulted.

"Excuse me for wanting to see a man fly! That's...well, that's not a sight I'm probably ever going to see again. I'll control the music for you again, if you still want that." He kept...looking.

Then: "I'm so glad to have you here. It was hard when we found out at the river. Thinking you were dead." I felt his tail curling around my back, settling its tip into the crook of my elbow. It was a spot on my body just like all the others, in that in was instantly cold.

I didn't know what I was saying. What I should be saying to that. "I'm...glad you saved me. Without you, I might still have bled out from the wound. Or dropped right back into the river. I don't think I ever even completely gave thanks for that, so thank you, and whoever was with you. Thank you so much for saving me." You know what, that was good! Much overdue. I was happy to have that out so that he was aware of it.

Naruto didn't respond. But his expression changed. Completely. Everything in the shape and glow of his eyes, the curve of his brow, the tilt of his posture and tightness of his clawed fists, literally everything I could see said that he was tense, and seconds away from exploding, and I had no idea why. Suddenly we were both on thin ice. I had to talk...carefully.

I left my arm that had the tail resting on it, so it wouldn't be disturbed or fall away, and lifted the free one to touch his shoulder comfortably. "I'm sorry for the worry, and the burden. I wouldn't be imposing myself on you and your friends if I could have escaped safely on my own! I really am grateful to you all! And I'll miss you a lot when I go home."

Naruto broke with an animal's cry and shoved me onto the floor. Madara's attack, again. Harder.

He stole over me and held my arms at my sides, and I pushed back against them in an instant. But it's like he expected that, expected me to try and battle him. And he pushed my arms down again, slower and much softer, and with such a strength I was instantly visualizing what it would have been like if this was a real attack. He's strong enough to push me down, and much more. But I couldn't even think of that. I was staring into his eyes. His eyes had changed. The pupils had shrunk to beastlike slits, and red literally bled into the blue. I could really feel the sweet, familiar spirit of him leave as the red invaded. He fell closer and stopped to balance himself on his elbows, his face so close I could feel the ends of his hair tickling my cheeks. "I don't want you to miss me. I never want you to leave me. Sakura—" He was torn again, and chose just to dip his head lower and connect our lips for a moment. It was the sort of sweet action I would expect from him, and so for that moment I didn't mind at all. "Sakura, I love you." And my Naruto was gone.

This Naruto held me so fiercely with one arm I could feel his claws piercing my shirt, and he used his other one to cradle my head and crush his hot lips onto mine. He captured my tongue, and I could not escape. I tried. I didn't try. My legs twitched and curled a little closer to my torso and thus to his; I heard, and even felt his purr of male satisfaction. It was like a vibration, but too loud, too big. I felt it everywhere in me and it hurt some places and made others sing.

There was a half-second gap in which he took his mouth from mine to breathe. My eyes were closed, but I could feel his eyes easily as a real touch watching me and adoring me. I tried to break through this haze by saying, firmly, "Don't do this." The response I received was a terrible mixture in the voice of the Naruto I knew and the one that had taken him over.

"I can't." he said in a voice that was not regretful at all. "I scented Madara on you last night. I could tell that he had had control. I…" He grinned and showed his fangs. Those fangs were original; they'd been a part of the good Naruto. "I have...control problems. I can't stop myself. Madara kept himself from dominating you. But I," he ground his body up against mine, and we felt all there was to feel of each other. "I ache for you."

Shaking in fury at myself and horror at him and fear at everything, I steadied my voice and tried to say, "This isn't the way to m-make this happen. It's not right unless both people want it."

"You don't want me?" he whispered, and I felt his sorrow like it was my own emotion. "How…how? How can you not? It's impossible. I can feel you."

I could feel him, too. Everywhere.

"And you...you, you seem like you like it here. You wanted to shared your knowledge with me. You shared your world, you shared yourself. I did the same and I can do more! There can't be another way of finding a mate, even where you hail from. What do I have to do to satisfy your customs? I'll do it. Tell me." He drew close and licked my jaw with a tongue all velvet, and I had no control, I mewled. "Tell me, my little one."

Somewhere in this my heart was pounding so fast I could feel it in my throat, but I barely heard it. "It's not customs." I said. His eyes tried to hold mine, but I stared stubbornly at the space below the bed. "It's time. It's me. I'm going home the day after tomorrow, and you can't come."

He made another noise that I felt inside me, a pained one. He pressed our bodies together. "Stay."

Stay in a world of demons and leave my home, my life, my school, my mother, my friends, my chance to make a career and everything that ever mattered to me. Just like a demon, I growled, "No."

For a second I was terrified that that demonic sound would be taken as some weird, feral challenge. And it was a long second. So long and so horrible. Realizing that I still had little idea how this race worked and what they perceived as good and bad, and that if Naruto was a royal, an alpha wolf, he could absolutely take up a challenge if one was offered...And me, defenseless and pinned underneath him, I just fucking offered.

It was a nightmare of only one second. It passed. Naruto only pressed us closer together and told me with all possible body language that he was begging now. "Yes. Come back to the High Settlement with us. Stay with us. With me. I don't believe that don't feel the pull." I exhaled a sort of laugh. Because no way in hell could I say I didn't feel something like that. "Don't you dare pretend!" Naruto hissed, and glared, and I immediately stopped laughing. It brought my eyes back to his and I could not and would not avoid that now. "I can see it in the way you move and look and speak. You feel what an individual feels for their mate. You know inside you're supposed to be mine."

Supposed to be…? What kind of stupid, nonsensical…idea…could…no. "That can't be." I said in a quaking voice, and he must have heard the real horror and discomfort in my voice, because he responded with a soft and comforting, "why?" I swallowed. Began to hate myself. "Because I felt that for Madara, too. Yesterday, in the library. It felt exactly the same."

"That doesn't matter." He said instantly, and wrapped a hand around my back. I felt it brush up my hip and involuntarily jerked. He smiled; I could feel the curve of his lips and his exposed fangs on my temple. He was inviting an embrace, and refusing him one seemed unthinkable, so I reciprocated and slipped my arms up and around him. He exhaled and sounded so very happy. "That doesn't matter at all! Actually…it should convince you to stay even more. You have at least two who will desperately miss you if you go."

Was I hearing things? Was the old Naruto coming back? Yes. His grip was less fierce. Less claw, and more hand. I can try to talk reason instead of fear now. I could dare to suggest that I had to leave. "Two who I'll miss a lot when the time comes."

"Will you please promise to think about it?" he asked.

"Yes," I said, without thinking, without any conviction at all. He moved away to look at me, and I said it again. "Yes. I will."

Peppy and cheerful Naruto was coming back. It was like watching the growth of a plant, sped up. Turning huge and bright in second. "That's, that's wonderful! I'm so happy! Now, um, I know you need time to think and be alone. Away. I'll tell a rising to leave a meal at your door soon. Is that okay?" I told him with a weak smile that yes, it would be okay. Naruto purred against me again and the vibration felt good. I touched his shoulder and neck to let him know that yes, it felt good. At this point he rose up off of me and offered me his hand to help me up. I took it but avoided his eyes and ignored his tail that brushed my leg as he walked past. I ignored the closing of the door and the thoughts that stormed my brain the second I couldn't see hear his footsteps anymore. And I counted to fifty after that, in French. I screamed the numbers in my head.

Afterwards, I sat on the bed, and pulled at my hair, and then beat my head into the bed. All quietly. Otherwise anyone around me could hear.

This is total, fucking madness and I want it to be gone.

I'm tired of this.

Why do they talk this way? Why do...why did Madara and Naruto both act, like, like...like my desire to go home is goddamned offensive and I am creating this big mess of emotional abandonment because I don't want to suddenly drop to the floor when they feel like heavy petting? There's an actual mystery behind this and I want to know the truth of it but not now. Not now, no way, now I just am begging God to help me...shut this out, scream, throw something. Just make it go away.

I'm the most arrogant bitch of a virgin on this earth and I'm having my first near-sexual experiences but they can't be just...good. No. I can't even let myself fully enjoy them. I can't unless I want to hurt these people, who rescued me and saved my life, by teasing them and their dreams and ideas of a girlfriend-figure who will "stay" with them. And their ideas of how one of their friends possibly wanting to rape someone isn't even worth dinner conversation, and threaten an innocent man for just daring to talk to me, oh, and sure, one of them just conveniently leaves the building so the other can, can try to...say...

I need to sleep again. I don't want to deal with this. Hurting myself and them for no reason. I'm putting my stomach in knots. Again. My hands are shaking. Oh, please, tell me my iPod still has some battery left. I guess I can thank the lord that it still does. I need to block this mess out.

My French notes were cleared off the bed with one sweep of my arm and I got my iPod up off the floor. I let Marina and the Diamonds sing to me. I let Taylor Swift sing to me, I but on a Beethoven sonnet. Loud. Gorgeous instruments and strings and soft tunes and a melody fit for a formal theater, with no demons at all.

"Time for one more daring dream,

Before her escape, edenbeam…"

So I had a sex dream last night. Whatever. Fine. Great. Moving on.

Moving on is best done in a place in which you weren't sexually assaulted in, I decided. Considering it was extremely early right now—which I could tell only from my tiredness, since as always it was dark and moonlight-y outside—perhaps I could sneak outside for a lonely, peaceful stroll. That sounded nice. Naruto had said I was getting some alone time now. Hopefully that clock is still ticking.

I took off my jacket, which I had used as a little extra blanket in my bed, and put it in my bag so the items inside would make less noise. If it makes my arms and a little of my shoulders cold, who the hell cares. I put on my shoes and socks, quietly. I closed my door, quietly. I walked down the hall and, sort of...slithered down the stairs so my footfalls wouldn't echo. Somewhere in this building, my four favorite demons have taken up resident, and I have no way of knowing whether they're sleeping, out roaming somewhere, or cutting the heads off of crazy herd demons. God only knows.

The double doors of the residency building opened noiselessly, thank goodness, and I closed them that way as well. Once my shoes were hitting dirt, I wasn't afraid to make a little noise. I looked up and saw the far-off wall of this place. The wall. Why don't I go up there, since I've been so fervently kept away from it? Granted, it's supposed to have rabid herd demons beyond it, but I won't be going into that territory. Just the wall top, the walkway. If I so much as hear one of those beasts, I'll come right back down, and...I guess wander like a zombie inside the walls.

I jogged and jogged, and the little bit of workout felt refreshing, calming. I smiled, at nothing but myself for the first time in what felt like a long time, till I was at last at the stone barrier. I looked up to its top and touched my palm to its cool surface. It felt old, worn. Almost...soft. And far too smooth to have been made so naturally. This place had been here for a long time. I'm thinking that whatever a "year" translates to in the time of demons, it isn't very much.

I started walking along it, keeping my left palm on it as I went, and looking to my right now and again for any of the royals sneaking up on me. Or, hey, even a rising, not that they would try to talk with me anyhow. I had reached a corner and had to turn right before I saw a ladder propped up against the wall. I climbed up, looking over my shoulder once to see this place from a higher view. I couldn't see anybody walking the grounds. I was safe. I ascended the last step of the ladder, stood up tall, and saw the beyond.

It was…just like the inside of the walls. For the first, oh, hundred yards. The barrier had cottages nestling up to it like children huddling round a teacher, and they all looked as neatly arranged as a town of Lincoln Logs. Beyond that, the houses simply ended. There was nothing keeping them separated from the grassland beyond. That same dangerous plain I'd come running from, and nearly died on. I think I could even see the sparkling line of a river. The Earth River? The one I'd been swept into and almost drowned in? It couldn't be that close, I would have seen this town when I was running. I wonder what river it was.

In the cottages outside the wall, something moved. I stepped backwards to the ladder, ready to retreat. Two things appeared from behind a house.

Two dogs as big as horses. One pale and leggy. One black and muscular. Both creatures who died.

Holy shit, if I didn't go home soon who knows how long it'll be before I see the devil himself? I started to go down the ladder. Fast. Shivering. Then I heard their noises. I didn't stop because the loudness of them struck me, but the quietness…if that makes sense. The pale, nightmarish one with Holocaust-victim legs had stepped forward. The wall was two stories tall. Could it make that jump? I know of animals who can make jumps of greater proportion with shorter leg. But does it have the strength in that frail, frail body? I started to hyperventilate. But I heard its noise again and I mean I heard it.

"We help queen." It said. Said.

Wisely, I think, I didn't say anything. Maybe I imagined it and the stress of being away from home and everything else is really getting to me. But then I saw the black, six-eyed dog step up, too, and it projected its voice to me: "You save. In dark river. I stuck on rock. You kick. Free me."

"You save life!" choked the nightmarish one. "Two-leggers here hurt! Hurt all us, all time! But you save! Good heart!"

"We serve you, queen with good heart." said the black one. And it bowed to me. The other one followed. I nodded at them and kept on walking down the walltop—don't follow me don't follow me don't follow me oh thank God!—they disappeared behind some houses and I didn't have the strength or balls or wits as the moment to see if the undead, talking demon dogs were following me. Please. Tell me I really am losing it, that it's just my poor tolerance for stress and I'm about to snap. That would be better, so please, lord in Heaven, make it so.

I stopped where I was and sat down. I looked down the length of the walkway; the walltop turned right and made a corner not too far from where I sat. So I sat and stared and thought about Nightwish and popcorn and demons and kissing. Good things, bad things. Maybe I should tell this dream to others when I go home and maybe I shouldn't. I drifted off track and thought of some books instead. If I had known this all was going to happen, I would have brought something with me. Something distracting. Something really dramatic! What did the library have this week? And geez, am I tired.

It didn't really feel like much time had passed through that mental slogging, but soon enough I heard a voice behind me: "And what are you doing up here?" Sasori.

"Only thinking. Not running off into the herd demons, if that's what you're fearing." I said casually. He sat down next to me, sort of facing me and sort of facing the wall. Maybe he was doing the stare-at-Sakura thing all his friends did. I didn't look over and see. I was too busy thinking about dogs. Dogs and what sounded their pledge of loyalty. God, I didn't understand this place.

"Do you normally wake this early where you live?" he asked me.

It was asked in such a calming, even therapeutic tone—he was good at that—that I had to reply. "I do like waking up early. But not so early literally everyone's still asleep. This is a strange case. I think I'm just homesick and it's bothering me."

He made a 'hmmm' rumble in his chest. "Tell me again the things you miss. What part of your life can't be done here?"

He'd heard all these things the first night, when I met them all outside and we sat in the road and had our completely innocent culture exchange. It had probably happened within sight of this walltop. But again his voice worked its magic and I named things. Random, beloved things. "I miss learning French and telling my best friend to shut her mouth. I miss my perfect Calculus tests. Watching Harry Potter movies with my mom. Angry Birds. Soccer games with my school team. And popcorn." I looked at him and saw his pretty, unsure face, and smiled. "I know you don't know what most of those things are. But I promise that they're all wonderful." Wonderful like his eyes. That one movie was wrong: this man is probably why cavemen painted on walls.

"Nor could I give any of them to you." he said quietly and his tail gently touched the side of my leg and slid softly down it. "I don't think it's impressed on you yet that a royal can obtain anything they want. I am the highest niche of demonkind. But even I can't give you those things." Such a genuine voice. He could be an actor. Such a shame he was born here instead. "I would like you to be happy. Tell me what else you want. I will get it for you."

What do I want? What do I want that I can realistically have? Here or on Earth? Anything? "I'd like a kiss."

His tail froze in mid-air, and so it freaking should. What in the hell had I said that for? Now he'd think I'm some budding slut for the rest of my time here, if he didn't already talk to his friends and hear about the first two times. He's probably about to get up and leave without saying anything. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad to be eaten by demon dogs. Oh shit he's talking! "—truly? Why would you want that?"

Why? Why? Maybe because I'm becoming as disgraceful as Ino. Maybe, just maybe because I'm getting tired of having desire and strange expectation thrown on me. Maybe I want something that's mutual and normal, and maybe just a little bit because he's so, so beautiful, and he understands my reason and has slender pianist hands.

"Because I think forcing something like that on a person is wrong and if it were me, I hope the other person would have the grace to ask." Still with the goddamn staring. "Out of you and your friends, you're the only one who seems to talk logically around here, and I love that. I like your voice and your hands. And you're also really…very gorgeous." He was smiling a little. Okay. That's good. Yes.

"Then I'm waiting."

I sat up straighter and turned, sitting almost facing him now. "I've never…initiated one before. So I'll—"

"So I will." He took my hand and sort-of-gently pulled it so the rest of me had to come after it. He closed the last of the distance between us by leaning forward, and this time, for the first time, I met him there. We touched our lips together and he was so, so very soft.

This is what I imagined and always hoped a kiss would be. Somehow he knows. Somehow he's gentle. A gentle demon, who'd have thought? I felt a welcome little flutter of happiness inside me and it spread to my mouth; I smiled. I think he felt it against his skin, because he smiled, too, probably thinking it was funny. We broke away for a moment and looked at each other. His eyes were so calm and pleased and god only knows how I looked. Stupid-happy and nervous and grateful, if what I felt inside was anything to go by. But he closed his eyes, and I closed mine, and we started again. Maybe I started again.

This was a little deeper, a little scarier. Now I felt his free hand touching my hair and sweeping elegantly through the strands. He had such clever hands and oh God, it felt good and positively tingly. I almost forgot we were lip-locked just because of his hands and fingers. I became aware the second he tried to move his tongue into my mouth. My first instinct was to jerk away the slightest bit, not even enough for our mouths to separate, but even that little move made him push a little harder. Now he was doing a gentler version of what both Madara and Naruto had done. And it was a little scary. But I let him this time. I didn't know what would happen. He could shove me to the ground right now, trap me with his tail. But nothing happened. Nothing but his tongue, and I wonder if he somehow noticed I was thinking that, because one brief heartbeat later, I almost stopped breathing.

Sasori put his hand over the back of my neck and pushed and I hopelessly let him in further. I felt like I was on fire and for once, I liked it. It was still new, and he was still a beast and not a man, but I didn't care. He touched our tongues...arrtfully. And underneath a massive layer of nervousness and near-ecstasy, I could read, how to put it…tolerance and even grace in the way he moved. Like he knew I was new at this, and for all his elegant and energy, this was still his version of going slow and lazy for my loser sake. I touched his arm and held it, because I wanted to, and because I didn't have another way to apologize for being so stupidly inexperienced to a consensual kiss. I don't know how he took it since he broke the kiss right afterward.

"Now, was that so bad?" he said, and combed once through my hair again. His eyes darkened with what was maybe…amusement? "It's cute that you asked. I admit," The hand that still held onto mine rose and he touched it to his cheek. "that I had wanted to kiss you as well."

He had to be just teasing me. I'm sure he's had a damn good amount of lady tongues in his mouth and mine is a C+ at best. "It's strange for my kind to ask permission for such things. But, for you, I will ask," And he licked, licked, my index finger. "If I may…"

Whatever he "if I may'd" was never said. Sasori just up and decided to start licking and nibbling at my fingers, and an unfortunately familiar prickling started growing in my chest and stomach. Okay, he needed to stop. This felt so weird. But watching him felt…weird in a different way. Because he watched me, too. His eyes were half-closed and dark. They could have been Madara's but for being brown and sensual. Sensual. Oh my God.

He was licking my fingers to be sensual. And was it ever working. Every spot of skin his tongue touched sent a warm little shock down my arm and ricocheting into the rest of me, and from his expression, he knew it. He was showing off what he could do with his mouth. Did I want him to stop? I didn't know. I did know that what I was feeling was suddenly familiar from other encounters from these past few days. No, no thank you. I tried to pull back and, aargh! He fucking bit me! And he pulled the injured finger and its neighbor, into his mouth and suckled the little blood drops from them. I felt his tongue languidly swirling around them.

He let my fingers slide out along his tongue, but still held my hand. A moment of silence. And good, I needed it. "I had hoped that you would not go back to your world." I stayed silent. If his tongue was so artistic and silver, let him use it for this purpose, too. Talk to me and tell me why you're acting just like your friends now, Sasori. "It's not just my desire, it's yours. Admit to yourself you feel a pull inside you."

That? Again? A third—? "That's difficult not to feel when someone's doing what you were doing."

Sasori's eyes darkened again. "Are you so innocent that you cannot recognize a mating pull? You couldn't ignore it. You're tied to me."

Yeah, that. Again. A third. What the fuck was wrong him? And me? This, again? "Are you aware Madara and Naruto have said the same exact thing?"

"I don't care. Are you denying that you feel it?" His tail moved, curled down slightly like a cobra, ready to strike down prey. Just like the others, he was daring me to say no.

"I don't denying the feeling of something. I have no idea if it's what you're hoping or just plain physical attraction. You seem to be able to tell the difference, and well, I fucking can't. I'm sorry." I stood up, but he wouldn't let go of my hand. Okay, you can stop being a five-year-old any time now. I tried to be like he had been, pull my hand with a strong but smooth movement, and he let my hand slide away, still trying to hold my gaze. I heard him say something but didn't want to really listen. "I'll see you…in the morning." I finished awkwardly. And walked quietly off to the ladder. The second I did and my feet touched the ground…I wanted to punch something.

Once! Just once I wanted something nice and chaste. Look, I've been talking and listening to music with this cool guy for three days? Would it, you know, be appropriate to have a quick kiss now, if we both want to? Yeah! This claim, this insistence, this never-ending lecture of being someone's, three someones', destined-for-eternity lover go the fuck away?

Someone's hand slapped down on my shoulder and I whirled around with my hands partially out, in a perfect pose to deliver a punch. I started to deliver a punch, and swung it crazily off-course in the last second. It was the rising demon, Deidara. His left pant leg was gone from the knee down. Torn off. Whatever. "What is it?" I spat at him.

"I…only…" He muttered a couple more nonsense filler crap I wasn't in the mood to hear.

"Spit it out! I'm not in the mood for this!"

"I only want to know what's wrong. All the rising are curious what, what went wrong in the courting. You've been acting nervous and agitated for a day, un. Are they…vicious? Or something?"

What was he talking about? "I have no idea what you mean. Aren't you supposed to not talk to me, anyway?"

His whole face contorted in fear, and I instantly regretted lashing out at him. My anger thankfully melted away. "Yeah, but—I just want to know! Everyone does. Even the herd demons can sense it, un. First they run around in joy, now they're all scared to come out of their stables. One even cut its own throat. What have they done to you?"

"…I…I—what are you talking about? Done to me?"

He squinted his one visible eye. "You don't know that they're courting you? Is that not done in your world? Well, are your parents aren't a mated pair?" I kept on staring while a few unfitting puzzle pieces clacked awkwardly together in my mind. "The royals all want you for a mate. I don't know what the hell else they've been doing the past four days except trying to win your favor. And shut the herd demons up in between, now and again."

They…wanted…"What do the herd demons have to do with it?" I asked.

His mouth opened and parted and he shifted on his feet, and then took a quick breath. "The herd are our beasts, really, we control them and kill them, but we serve royals, so they are their indirect masters. You understand?" He was talking quickly. I told him yes, quickly. "The herd will always respond to a royal's presence. It makes them cower and be docile, most of the time. Even when they're not around, they can respond to the mood of a royal they sense, and ever since we came here, they've been having moodswings that are total madness."

His torn-up leg suddenly caught my eye again. There was a bruise dark as an ink splotch on the back of his calf, and on most of the front, enough dried blood to fill a goblet. The pause to look at his leg was only a second long. Deidara went on. "It's, it's almost uncontrollable! The four of them found you, breaking out of the river, and the herd are leaping around in goddamned ecstasy! We have to beg the royals for help to beat them just so they'll calm down! And then they're nervous and shivering, and then one of them rips the head off the one next to it, or starts to rut and now, for the past several hours, they've been cowering in the stables, they won't even move. And it all must be because of the masters and what they're doing or thinking. For the herd to be so scared, they must be angry. Or sad. Or..." He must have seen my face. Trying to absorb all his story. "Did you not know any of this?"

Knowledge. Knowledge, Sakura. It's always been your friend. Use it. "They told me the herd demons were doing nothing but being trained, out there beyond the wall." I said flatly.

"That's what we usually come to this settlement for. It's for training new cart-pullers and things like that." Deidara replied. "But we've hardly done any of that since we got here. We spend all our time keeping the herd under control. There's no training to be done."

I asked him, "Are they out there all the time? Beating up the herd demons? How bad is it, wherever you're keeping them?"

"It's..." His lips tightened in confusion, a struggle. "It's certainly strange, un. But they're not acting mad all the time. It's the constant change of their mood that's the weird part. It's a reflection of the royals mood. So I...wondered what it meant. I hoped you were all right."

"But if they're not acting up all the time, then Sasori and the others...aren't out there all the time?"

"Sometimes. We called for Sasuke before. A beast-of-six was giving us trouble, almost killed my friend, Ao. Why?" He looked even more confused.

My brows knitted together in sudden confusion of my own. "It's just...they're not...always around me, either. I thought they were out dealing with your monsters. If they're not with you and the herd demons, where are they? What are they doing?"

"I...thought they were all with you. Telling you about...here. Making you used to things?"

Used to...? It sounded absurd in my mind. And what he had said a bit earlier sounded absurd. I wanted to spit it out, get it all away from me. "Used to what things, Deidara?" But no, I didn't want to say it. Please, make him say it, I don't want to be the one to acknowledge it. Please.

He looked nervous as well. Because this was probably it. For all I know, this is that tense, horrible reason he's not allowed to speak to me. "Used to living here. Being theirs. Sasori told me this trip wasn't for training, but for finding his mate. And it must be the same for the others too."

No. That's wrong, that's not true and not real. Another absurd thing but fuck, it makes sense. Naruto and Sasori and Madara were wrong, it's not their otherworldly bonding force, this is the thing that's actually impossible.

More. A particular piece of information I hadn't quite realized until now. "They told me I'm going home on the thirty-first of Muru. But they haven't told me how. Or if the way I came is even the same way I have to take back. They haven't told me anything about it. They haven't told me anything except that they love me. And they want me to stay."

Deidara and I stood there in the dark together, the light of answers evading both of us. "Lying is no way to treat your mate. What they're doing is wrong. And they don't care. I think you should leave."

I think I'd lost feeling in my legs.

He stepped closer. Whispered, intensely: "Whatever place you were when you came to Verre, you need to go back there. As soon as you can on the thirty-first. The minute after midnight, if you can." I suddenly choked out, "Thank you," and started walking away.

I'm pretty sure I walked right back to the residency building, since my room, as ridiculously close to the royals as it was, was the only place I could think of where I would have privacy. It's possible I took a wrong turn somewhere and maybe circled twice around a cottage. Or bumped into a passing rising demon. I know I made it back to my room in one piece, unmolested, undisturbed, except for the terribly fast and horrified connections and unraveling, toxic threads my mind found. I closed my door.

And there was Madara.

He was standing and his wings were moving downwards, like he'd just finished stretching them out, and he held my French notebook in his hand. He was tracing a certain line of my written notes with his finger. He said something to me but I just ambled dizzily over to the bed and lay down on top of it. And ignored him. Literally half a second after I realized that was the worst possible place I could have sat my stupid ass down. Madara's voice broke through my haze of thought with the fragment of speech "but you were already gone. A very strange time to wake, I must say. You must still be tired."

And you know what? I actually was. I had the stupidity to consider taking a nap in his presence; my brain was about to shut off for good. "Well, I had a bad night. As long as you don't poke holes in my notebook with your claws, you can look at it while I get some more sleep." I closed my eyes. Oh, this was too much. A nap sounded so nice. And this bed was so soft.

From my right came the soft noise of a notebook being put down. "It's cold out, Sakura. Won't you let me warm you?" And the bastard crawled into bed with me. There wasn't even a sheet to separate us. "I'll move my wing…there we are. Are you comfortable, little love?" I told him yes, neutrally, so he would have his answer and be quiet. He was quiet, for at least ten seconds. Lying there and being a nice, quiet, warm oven against my back. Then: "You have Sasori's scent on you." I kept my eyes closed, at least until I felt Madara's hair tickling my cheeks. "He was on your lips, Sakura."

I think I started sweating. I just kept my eyes on the wall. Right on the wall. "What? You think I'm mad. No." His right wing unfurled above my body and descended onto me. A warm and weirdly comfortable blanket. I could see him smiling his silly, attractive smile out of the corner of my eye. "Why would I be mad, love? Everyone knows I'm prettier than him." And my mouth broke into a stupid grin, because I didn't know what to do anymore or what reactions to have. I kept that grin in place because I didn't want to know what a frown or a sob would make him do. I plastered that sweet little grin on hard, while he nuzzled my hairline till he found a certain spot of skin to kiss.

Something slammed onto the window, and I jerked upward. Madara's wing tightened viciously around me and I was pulled right into his chest as he hissed madly at the intruder. The sound of that monstrous noise stilled me completely.

I looked up just in time to see Sasuke leaping through the forcefully-opened window, and glaring. "Madara."

"Good morning, Sasuke—"

"Don't patronize me, you arrogant slug! You've had your turn!"

Turn. My mind caught that word and held it with all the others here that were dark and curious. As I thought this, Madara folded his wing and helped me sit up. "Sakura, Sasuke is being an impatient little brat. Please teach him a lesson." He gently nudged me in his nephew's direction. "Be good to each other, little ones." Sasuke shot his hand out to grab mine, and then grabbed all of me, and we rushed out the window. It was almost too fast for me to scream or react to the fact that we were flying but all of a sudden we were zipping into another window, settling down onto another floor, and being quiet again. Sasuke closed his window and then turned to face me. His red eyes were just like Madara's.

"He wouldn't have done anything that you didn't want." He murmured. "He's unbearable. Does whatever he goddamned wants. But not a monster. Not like that."

Madara, the monster. Did that fit? "And how would you know that?" I said defensively.

"We're family. He's close to me." Sasuke's lip curled. "I'm disgusted to say we're rather alike."

Alike. Alike. How alike? Alike enough…oh, no. I spat it out this time, instead of hiding from it. "You wanted to do exactly what he did, don't you?"

To his credit, he looked ashamed. And not to it, his eyes blazed. "Yes."

The room was suddenly too small. Too small, too blank, too perfect for anything he wanted. What every last fucking one of them wanted. It twisted my innards into painful knots, again. I tried to stand my ground. I would fight him. Rip his skin with my bare fingers. But Sasuke spoke again. "Since the moment I saw you. But I was more cautious than the others in what kind of place you had come from. I understand you don't...you don't do things the way we do. I guessed that you wouldn't know what to do with what we wanted, and I was right. The others have all upset you and I'm sorry. I won't do that." He walked forward, and I was completely ready to attack him. To get in another fight and earn another scar.

Sasuke extended his hand in a completely human gesture. "I would like you to trust me the way one human will trust another. The way you're used to. Would you grant me that chance?"

The chance to be trusted? To not ambush me with animal intentions? To be trustworthy? I'd been waiting four days to truly give someone this chance. I took a chance myself, and shook Sasuke's hand. "Thank you. I'll certainly give you that chance."

Sasuke smiled for the first time. It was beautiful. "All right. Now...you can sleep again if you want. I swear you won't be disturbed. No one will come for you." I told Sasuke that sounded nice, and clambered onto his bed to sleep in peace for the first time. It was quiet in this room. I didn't dream.

"Eva flies away,

Dreams the world, far away…"

It was the final day. I knew it the moment I woke, and the moment I woke, I thought it may just have been the most ominous and silent time of all my short life. Sasuke was standing on the other side of the room, facing away. He held three books in his hands and holding a fourth one open, staring pensively at it. "Sasuke." I said to him. I saw his body stiffen from across the whole room. I asked a kind of weird question, considering the weird place I was. "What time is it?"

"Not quite midnight, I think."

Not quite an hour till the thirty-first. Till Halloween. Till I can go home.

"Sakura…if you're going to leave…you should go to the library one last time first." I sat up and watched as Sasuke turned around and faced me. "I went and got these for you, but they're not what I wanted after all. I thought if there's only one good thing you can take home with you from this place, it's knowledge about us. That did seem to fascinate you. You should take some of it back with you. If you like." He started to trail off, and it struck me as kind of funny, Sasuke being so honest with me for once. Honest Sasuke. It sounds a little funny in my head. But apparently it's true. I told him it was a good idea. Sasuke pointed to my bag, mysteriously retrieved from my room, and once I put it on, we started walking to the library. He told me to walk close and I did.

He asked me about "healing" as he walked. He had broken a wing as a kit and ever since then was mildly curious about how easily bones could break. I tried to tell him about casts in my world, but he only got more confused, and by the time we got to the library, he'd just decided to leave it alone. I opened the doors for us and walked in. Three steps later, I noticed a body lying lazily across a sofa a good ten yards away.

"Madara, will you leave us alone?" Sasuke snapped. I saw his fangs.

Madara still held my notebook. He set it down crossed his arms, looking haughty and stupid like he did on the first day. "Leave you alone?" he laughed. "How rude! I was here first! I meant to wait here awhile until Sakura woke, but here you've delivered both of yourselves to me. Come sit."

Reaching around my back and grabbing my arm, Sasuke grudgingly and hatefully forced me to walk over to his softly-smiling relative. I had no idea where this nonsense was going, if Madara would attack us, or trap us. But Sasuke took me the whole way and sat me right down next to him, in between the two of them to feel radiating heat from them both. Something apparently was expected to happen here, something that wouldn't be bad, else Sasuke would have known to stay away. We just...sat. I sat in silence and felt that heat, and the heavy presence of their wings and the strange burden I felt when I looked into each of their eyes and heard them speak. I felt what I always felt and thought when I was near Madara. And near Sasuke as well, but the atmosphere wasn't changed by him. I guessed what one of them would say. But it couldn't be.

"This is perfect," Madara whispered. His hand touched its claws to the edge of my face and drew them with terrible softness across them and under my chin. "My Sakura. I was getting scared thinking of when this would happen. Do you know why you're here?"

Because I'm dreaming? I'm in hell? I fell through a magic portal? I made this a fight. I made my voice into steel. "No."

"I mean here in this library, do you know why you're in this particular place? You're here for Sasuke and I. For now, you are ours."

"No." No, I said. Like I had any idea what was really going on but could still deny it.

But Madara only cocked his head like a confused little dog, and smiling like a hellish beast. He put an arm at my hip. I remembered when I used to consider that cute, when I was giving him cute nicknames. "No? I know you're scared, that you've been scared since you came to Verre. If you would allow yourself a moment of calm, a moment of clarity, you would see that this is the best place in any world for you to be. Your place is with us. Isn't it, Sasuke?"

Sasuke, who was avoiding the long speeches and moments of terrible pleasure for my sake, didn't say anything. He didn't even look. "Sasuke?" his uncle said, muted. I heard a calm under that growl. "Sasuke. It's all right. You must only show her. Sakura, you know him. Wouldn't you prefer that he didn't lie?"

"He's not lying. He's being gracious and kind to me like you weren't." I said through gritted teeth.

"Sasuke is a liar. He pretends he doesn't feel the pull. He pretends he isn't your fourth beloved. You two and stubborn heads match very well." Sasuke had bowed his head and pulled his wings a little close to himself. He looked awful, and his eyes were hidden. I was jerked out of my pity by Madara, who had suddenly licked the side of my neck, and sent a literal bolt of lightning through me. I put a hand over his and squeezed it with all my strength, with every weight I had ever pulled and conquered. I drew blood from the demon's wrist, and he didn't react at all. "He won't resist much longer. He'll show you he loves you the same as me. Sasuke. Sasuke, stop that idiocy. No one believes your denial. Sakura beloongs to us." His hand on my hip drifted up and tightened around my waist, trapping me. Again. Trapped with Madara on my left and his nephew on my right.

"Show her what you hide." Madara purred, and his purr echoed through me so strongly I started to moan. And then both the demons proceeded to eat me alive.

Sasuke and his control were gone. A real demon, like the real demon of Naruto, was here instead, or here with him, and his and Madara's hands wove up and down my body like serpents. I pushed them, scratched them, wrenched at their thin wings with my hands, and they bled from it and whined but it didn't stop them. Nothing would stop them. I was biting my tongue to keep silent and keep from spurring them on with my noise, but Madara figured me out. I felt the weight of his hair as his head hovered over mine and his hands dove too, too low and my mouth parted. My left hand had been tearing at his shoulder, and I couldn't tear anymore.

Then Sasuke swept his hands up my leg and I curled it up close to my torso to protect it. But closer was better for him. His hand only came closer, too, and he flicked my shoulder with his fangs when I tried to pull away.

Pull away, pull away. My hands, my weapons, were held and trapped and now that's all I could do. I'd never been so helpless. So awful. Why was it almost…good?

Sasuke rumbled with satisfaction when he at last kissed me and Madara's dexterous hands climbing up inside shirt burned away whatever defense I had been mounting before. Sasuke was free to explore and devour any part of my mouth he wanted, and God did he want. He drained me and burned me and Madara's hands, it was too much. A sound of pleasure escaped me, completely out of my control. I could feel the demons' adulation like heat. I felt something like heat from me.

"You can't leave." I heard Madara murmur into my ear. Even he, with all his control, sounded worn and filled to bursting. "We won't let you." He nuzzled me so sweetly, with such emotion, I nearly cried. I thought on his comment, and then did cry.

"Were you ever going to let me?" I whispered through shivers.

Beside me was Sasuke, pulling at my shirt away to joyously nibble and lick at the collarbone beneath. And he stopped to lick away my tears, and whisper, "No, my love."

The front door tore open so quickly it came nearly one hundred and eighty degrees to slap the wall behind it. Both the demons pulled me to them, and we were suddenly forced together in a mash of wings and arms and me. They stood up—I was passed to Sasuke—as a shadow sauntered forward in the dark room, and moonlight through the windows revealed it as Sasori.

"Help." I said weakly to him, shaking. "Help me."

And he didn't. He didn't. He came up to me trapped in Sasuke's arms and used both his hands to comb through my hair and touch my face with his prim fingertips. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Naruto enter and come stand by us. "Ssh. You're all right."

What the fuck was this. I breathed in, jaggedly. Scraping back some control of my body and self. "What is happening." I asked…no, stated. "This—you see this happen and you don't care? I voluntarily kissed you, for God's sake! I thought you were good!" And, lovely actor that I pegged him to be, he looked pained and truly sorrowful.

"Of course I'm good. Madara, Naruto and Sasuke are good. But you," he touched my face again, and it felt different. The fingers were more spread. They held a little tighter. His eyes were a little more…frightening. "You're perfect. And we need you."

"I don't know what you're talking about," I snarled in Sasuke's arms. "I don't know what you're talking about because so much is never said to me, or never said at all! Why am I kept inside this big stone pen? Why didn't you ever tell me how exactly I get back home? How can any of you stand by knowing I was fucking molested by someone every day, and not care? What is wrong with all of you?!"

My voice echoed like a god throughout the library, and my traitorous apostles waited till the echo had gone to say anything. Naruto opened his mouth, but for that moment I didn't want to hear any of their voices. I wanted to shout more. "Tell me what is going on, and from the beginning! I've been tolerant as a saint, and you've been lying! Give me the truth!"

Again, my echo had to die down. "The truth begins...a year ago." Naruto said from my left. A year, he said. I felt Sasuke's arms loosen. "We were...here in Mur'ra. I fell into the Earth River just like you. But I was swept into a room. An ancient place with this old, white mirror inside. I thought could be some great treasure, or something from another world. I touched it, and I saw you." I saw his real demon's look of rapture and adoration. "You stood in sunlight. Wise, fierce. I didn't know where you were or who you were. But you were mine even then."

His? He's crazy. He's a demon.

"But my friends came to get me. They didn't believe I drowned." His eyes flicked to Sasori and Sasuke and almost to Madara, and I could see true friendship and camaraderie between them, but all eyes were soon drawn back to me. "They all found me in that room and saw you, too."

"And I wanted you, too." Sasori said to me. "I wanted the mate of another. And so did Sasuke. And so did Madara. And we should have killed each other to have you. Madara is the one that stopped us, and told us it wasn't impossible. And it has been done before. We must not kill, but share." I looked to Madara, listening desperately for some joke about his big, loving heart or how they owed him. But he was as dark-eyed and dreadful as the rest.

"Portals to foreign worlds open only on the thirty-first day of the month of Muru." Sasuke explained quietly from above me. "It was six days after that. We had to wait. Sasori," he growled the name with any and all friendly affection suddenly gone, "impatient fuck, killed three of his rising because he was so angry about it. The rest of us just lived. Waited...for the time to come again."

"You stalked me through a mirror." I gasped.

"We waited until we could pull you through to Verre." Naruto put in. "And...and it was really difficult not to be insane with happiness when you finally came." I wanted to growl at him. Rip him up. Even that should have been a lie, because he WAS insane with happiness when I came here; Deidara's report of the herd's behavior proves it. But I couldn't react.

"Stalked me through a mirror." I said again, because it was the only thing I could say. Because it meant every secret thing I had was theirs, too. What have they seen? What have they seen me do!?

I felt inches from crying. My life and everything that was just mine had been sold away and I didn't even know it. Madara's voice stopped me, only because it made me angry, again. "So negative." he said, almost casually, and faced me more directly. I stared at him. He was so goddamn tall. "Is that a staple of human culture, too? Turning away from things you love?"

"If you watched me for a year, then you should know." I hissed, and clenched my fingers on Sasuke's arms yet again. "Should and should be able to lie about it. You weren't surprised by anything I showed or told you, were you? You've seen everything."

Naruto started. "Your music. The music is what we wanted the most, that was the best gift you could have ever brought with you. Besides you."

Silence started to take over, now that everything was exposed, and I could not freaking let it. If they had a chance to talk again and do what they wanted, I have no idea what it would be or what they would want now. "The greatest gift you could ever give me is to not steal me away from my life. Haven't you seen, understood through your mirror that I'm still a child? That you're taking a 'kit' away from her parents? How could you do that? How can you justify that?" I said desperately. My legs shook. Tears pricked at the corners of my eyes and through them I saw Naruto looking away, baring his teeth at nothing. "If you truly love something, or someone, you can't imprison them. That's awful."

"You're not going to be imprisoned!" Madara insisted, and that brief burst of zealousness shocked me. But he quieted, and almost...shrank. "I don't understand how in the name of every god that you believe that. Look at me. Look at my eyes, and tell me you feel nothing."

I did as he bid me. Madara's red eyes, with no locks of hair to obscure them, bored into me. His irises were red as blood, unnaturally so. Monstrous. I was naked in front of them. No defense, no distraction and nothing to stop them from...reaching in. My heartbeat was pulsing as they did. The same.

"One feels his mate and knows them on sight, Sakura. That is our way. That you say that you want to leave, that you are resisting us, is not real. That has never happened. My kind have lived longer than any of yours and that has never happened."

The voice was not recognizable. It was one of them, or all, or me. I'll never know. I only knew the red. It could see me, inside my words, and knew I was telling the truth. It, he, they, were horrified.

I talked...through them. My mouth moved, somehow. They heard. "If that's how your kind live...and that's what...this is, and I can still refuse...then maybe it's not true."

"That can't happen."

Without warning, I could look at them all again. I was breathing harder. There were long marks of my nails on Sasuke's arm where I had cut him. The room was darker, blacker, like the night outside was becoming deeper. I still saw their demons' eyes bright and burning. They wanted an answer from me and I gave it out. "My desire to leave is stronger than my desire to stay. That proves it. Please. Let me go home!"

"Then you want us to die."


"I want you to stay here, Sakura, more than anything, and to be happy here. You'll come with us back to the High Settlement. Have your music loved by thousands. Be a healer if you want, and save more souls than you knew existed. Be loved by everyone. Our queen."

God help me, he's obsessed. They all are.

The window to my right burst open and glass rained everywhere. Sasuke's wing shielded me and I felt the air move as he ran to get away from the shower, and I heard Madara cry out, "Where is it?" Just then Sasuke turned around and growled like a beast, and something behind us fell. "Disgusting worm!" he screeched, and both his wings opened, revealing to my eyes the nightmarish, long-legged dog. I couldn't even scream.

I only so much as made a noise when Sasuke fell onto his back and took me with him, thumping my back against his chest. His arms loosened dramatically around me and in an instant I was up, trying to tear upward as though from a fist that downed me, but I didn't have the energy. I sat up and pooled the strength left in my arms to scramble away from his body. I heard Sasori call out my name and I turned only in time to see him crumple to his knees, waver, and then fall flat on his stomach. All of them were lying on the ground. And the long-legged dog and the black, six-eyed dog were standing triumphantly above them.

No. No no no. All this, all this confusion and forced emotion and time and now I'll be killed like this? The way I was almost killed the first time? No. I couldn't die like this. It wasn't fair for anyone to die like this. Not...not even them.

"Get the fuck away from them." I murmured. "I'm here. Fresh meat. Come get me, come on." And they came.

But slowly. Taunting me, the brainless little fucks. Both came so close I saw the individual hairs of the scary one's thin pelt, and saw the dirty gleam in all of the black one's many eyes. I even noticed that freaky bumps the black one had on its back had opened, and let wings free from their casings. And then they bowed to me. "Queen." said the black one in a slow and grating voice. "We come. Help you."

It didn't make sense.

I didn't try to make sense of it.

I waited and hoped the answer would appear. The pale one rose up again, and spoke a little more normal speed, in a voice not quite as deep. "You feel good? You safe? We safe. Because you help. You much remember, queen. Evil masters hurt us. We run away, you, find in great wild place. Chase and fall in river. You stuck. We stuck. But you kick, kick hard, and break rocks on our feet. We swim away and live. And you live."

What the hell were they saying? Could it really be true? Had both those herd demons...gotten lodged under rocks next to me in the Earth River? And I could my mindless flailing to get to air have actually gotten them loose? My mindless flailing, my desperation to save my own life, had just gotten me…slaves? "Y-you're welcome. You're very welcome." I told them. I don't know if I was honest about it.

Around my feet I heard a soft noise. Sasori's voice, strangled and weak. "Run. Run. Please…Sakura…run!"

But I couldn't. I couldn't even look away from them. "What did you do to them?" I asked, amazed. These monsters, who were supposed to turn to docile lambs when these four were around? How could lowly herd demons have felled four royals?

The black one turned around and swung his tail. "You make good-see now! Come! Queen must see you!" And not quite instantly, a third creature became visible. It was another dog-shaped one, black like the first and somewhat smaller than the other two. The top of its head was an exposed skull, and its tail literally just the lower half of its spine, protruding out of its butt. A gaping wound with teeth lining it stretched open on the thing's chest. Its mouth was open and it dribbled blue, toxic-looking saliva on the ground.

This demon crept forward like a cat till it was at my feet and staring stupidly up. "I—I bite them with my good fangs, stun them all! For you, queen! So they not touch you. You have fear when they touch you."

I heard a low, long hiss from behind me, and judging from who I can see lying stunned around me, it's probably Naruto. It was confirmed when I heard: "Get away from her! Don't you dare touch her!"

It was his vicious voice, the one he used when he had showered me with attention I was no longer sure I didn't want. But hearing it now, feeling the wrench it caused, made me want to leave. I couldn't face this. It was too much. The four of them were too much, and I needed to leave. It was the thirty-first of Muru, and I needed to get home. I looked at all of the herd demons in turn and saw their worshipful faces. I took a dangerous step: "Would you three be willing to take me home?"

"Home. But queen home now."

"No I'm not—why do you call me that? I'm not a queen."

They stared with their mouths open like idiots. Typical for them, maybe. "Female loved by many is a queen. Yes?"

"She's not your queen, you accursed vermin." Sasuke rasped passionately. His wingtips trembled. "She's ours. She's always been ours."

His statement made me hurt inside again. I wouldn't look at him. "This isn't my home. I'm not from here. I'm not a demon and—"

"That can be changed." Insisted someone I didn't want to identify. "You can be made one of our kind if you want to be."

"—and I don't belong here." I finished, almost choking. "If I could tell you which way to go, would you three help me get home?" All three of them sighed and nodded and made primeval sounds of happiness. The freakish, skin-and-bones one nudged his head up to my stomach like a dog wanting to be petted, and after one sort of humiliating yelp of terror, I scratched between his eyes and he whimpered. Or she. I have no idea. "You all go outside and wait for me." They all leaped away, barking like puppies. Wow.

I turned a little and saw my four demons lying paralyzed on the ground. Begging me with their eyes, with small, slow convulses of their hands and tails and wings and hearts. They must hurt too much to speak. Good. This could be short and sweet. "Despite...this..." Oh, turn off the fucking formalities, Sakura. Speak to them. If I'm going to ruin their lives, let me tell them how sorry I am to do it.

"I didn't mean to do this to you. I'll...I'll miss all of you." God, this hurt. Why did it hurt so bad? "I'll leave my notebook for you to have. Madara, teach them how to play Jenga. Remember it." I couldn't choke out anything more. It was time to turn and leave. Right now. Right now. Now-

"Please don't!" Naruto begged. I could see and feel the pain it caused him. "You can't. Our hearts will break if you leave us. Yours will."

Our eyes met, and I loved how blue they were. It made me laugh to think of his...nice smile. That piece of him was honest. "Maybe it has. Maybe that's why I'm so crazy as I think I can go home and leave you." Oh Christ, Sakura, don't give them ideas. End this. It's time to go. "I'm sorry. But I'm too selfish to give up my life for you, so I'm going back to it. Goodbye."

I found the strength to turn away from them and headed for the library door. I picked up my bag from where it had fallen in some commotion or other and stopped the second I stood upright again. I heard Madara's voice behind me, and felt his eyes: "You will be punished."

And stupid, stupid me, I wasted energy, wasted time, to half-turn in his direction and look. My legs were shivering again, losing feeling again. If I fell down again, I may not have had the strength to stand up a second time. I told myself all this and yet stayed to watch Madara shakily make himself sit up. "If you run, I swear I will chase you until the end of days."

I remembered a promise he told me days ago. I took a step backward. Naruto was starting to get up, too. Too fast and too early. Was the paralytic bite's effects fading already? Beside him, Sasori was rising in his slow and graceful way. The boards of the floor were splintering under his grip, and he suddenly pulverized them to dust with a quick convulsing of his fist. Furious, strong, a hundred times more so than when I had asked for a gentle kiss from him. "Run, little one, and we'll get you." He said. I could barely stand. "You'll receive a great punishment indeed. Four of them. All I will need for mine is my mouth."

Oh God, he can't be saying what I think he is. Not the one that I had actually wanted to be close to. As they all began experimenting with sitting up, and mostly failing, I turned and walked out, shutting the door definitely behind me and cutting off their hungry stares. The three herd demons stood like soldiers waiting for me. These ugly monsters were my saviors, especially the newcomer. Without her paralytic bite, our positions would be switched and we would be the ones defenseless on the floor right now. And all my hopes would be gone.

I approached them and told them so. "You three are heroes. I would never have been able to get home if you all hadn't come just when you did, and saved me." Tears spilled out of my eyes. The first tears of joy I could remember in days. A lifetime. "I can't thank you enough. I'll remember you forever. Please tell me your names so I can remember you truly."

They stared with their stupid faces again, and then the skull-faced one's bone-tail drooped. "Names for alpha. Not every beast."

"You don't have names?" I murmured. I put my hand on his head, and the skinny one's head, and looked the winged, six-eyed one in the eye. "Then I'll name you myself. You'll be even more important than alphas." I could see their simple eyes light up. I've transformed their meager world with just names. Names, they needed names! And I couldn't think of any. Nothing. I tried to think of random words, even; they'd be satisfied with that. What were the last totally random things I'd thought of? The memory came back to me quickly. A whole world ago. The day I'd sat in my room and seen a hole in the wall and touched it, completely innocent.

My hand touched the black, winged one's forehead. "Antimony."

Then the new one, the beast with an exposed skull for a head. "Cobalt."

And then the skinny, long-legged one. "Quartz."

Their pure awe at this gift struck me and I almost shed more tears. But I just didn't have the time anymore. "Antimony," I said to the winged one. "Can you fly yet? Or are your wings still too new?" Antimony shook his head and moved to the side, inviting me onto his back. Willing and ready. I clambered on, shaking. I gripped my fingers tight in the fur of his neck to hold on. I gripped it as tight as my heart was gripping me. I gritted my teeth at this horrid feeling, and said to them all, "Antimony, rise up slowly, then fly over the wall. Quartz and Cobalt, you follow us on foot."

Antimony began flapping his wings and we lifted a few feet off the ground. And I gave voice to the tight wrench of pain that was compelling me to run back to the library. I said farewell in a way they they would hopefully understand. I sang for them.

"Eva flies away, dreams the world, far away—"

Inside the library, something fell and boomed. My herd demons ignored it. Antimony was level with the wall now and started flying forward. Quartz had no trouble speedily jumping roof to roof with his incredibly long legs, and Cobalt was hardly any slower. I heard a screech behind me. A female's voice. Maybe Karin, happy to see me going away.

"In this cruel children's game, there's no friend to call her name—"

A blur of yellow passed by below us, and I looked down to see Deidara, watching me with a smile I'd never seen on him before, and a nearly black bloodstain on his perfect robe that I'd never seen on anyone. There was a pale, bloody mess at his feet, and two more blurs approached him, yelling. I sent him the most heart-deep, grateful smile I ever could before the blurs came upon him and took all his attention away from me forever. Antimony soared over the wall.

"Eva sails away—" The thunderous boom of destruction sounded behind me. The library being torn up from the inside as the creatures inside it stormed malevolently out. They made sure their roars of need reached me. "Dreams the world, far away—" I made sure not to look back.

"The good in her will be my sunflower field!"

The demons hunted me now.

No turning back now.

I dared to look down—look at me, I was actually flying—and saw the last of the cottages beyond the wall zoom past us, and Quartz and Cobalt leaped off of them and now ran below us on the flat and open ground. Cobalt looked up at me and somehow I could see a smile on her skull-face, and it didn't creep me out at all. I smiled down at her. Her, not him. I guess.

Looking at her must have given me a little strength, since dared to I turn and look back at the settlement and see what things were like. Rising demons were running between the cottages and stable-like buildings outside the wall, yelling at and beating the herd demons that outnumbered them almost two to one. And then I saw something leap on top of the wall, appearing from the hidden side: Madara. He spread his wings, upwards, like he meant to slice them down like swords. The sight of his wings spread like a monster turned my insides to jelly; if I was not riding Antimony at that moment, I would have collapsed onto the ground. As Sasori appeared beside his friend, Madara jumped off the wall, and flew towards us so fast I could see him getting bigger.

One of those mythical, life-flashing-before-your-eyes overcame me. I remembered drowning in the Earth River, and simultaneously watched Madara coming to catch me. I knew which one was more terrible.

"Faster! Faster!"I cried to Antimony. I frantically searched the flat land, looking for the Earth River. My plan had been to find it and head across it, since that would be the reverse path of the way I'd run to it the first time. Eventually I'd see the wall that reached up to the sky, the wall I'd fallen through, and I'd find the hole I fell through, or another hole, or…or nothing.

Below us, one of the herd demons screeched and I looked down to see some person I didn't know running alongside Quartz, stabbing him while avoiding his biting jaws. It was some rising demon, some poor soul who'd been commanded to help catch me, and I had no idea who he was, but he was hurting my friend and my savior. I started to scream and threaten him like a demon myself; Quartz beat me to the punch by reaching his head out and biting off the rising's arm. He tossed the waggling limb up behind his head and I could see the spattered blood on his jaws from here. "No one hurt queen!" he roared.

This was a nightmare. I risked another glance back and Sasuke was right there. I tore at Antimony's fur and screamed, "Up!" and he obeyed. It was almost like he'd kicked off something, we were going vertical so suddenly and so fast. His wings pumped up, down, up and I could feel the strength in them. Why the hell had I thought these wings were new and weak again? They were strong as mountains. Oh, this was amazing. Unreal! Flying so, so high, the wind, the moon—the sun.

After six days of night, the sun was rising.

"Raiiighh!" Antimony snarled.

"Don't look back for anything! Fly!" I yelled. But, I was hypocrite, and I looked. I saw Sasuke, brighter and grander than ever before with this new light, in flight so close to us he could have grabbed Antimony's tail. So close I could read the need and want greater than the world in his eyes. I couldn't stand to look at him for long. I faced forward again and gave Antimony the command to dive. And he did, and was it ever fast. I heard Sasuke's shout of anger at losing us again, but it died away as we picked up speed.

Antimony's wings were tucked close to his body, like a dragon or something else noble and powerful and for a second I felt I had already won and left all the royals behind. The sensation of falling to the earth meant life and hope and not death. And then we were coming close to the ground again, and I saw Sasori running and watching us. Quartz was doing the same, some hundred yards away, even bloodier than before. I didn't see Cobalt.

"Cobalt," I whispered, and scanned the ground desperately for her. I saw demons speckling the prairie landscape, running here and there like they didn't know what to do, humanoid demons and demons looking as weird as the monsters of Hyrule and no demons like Cobalt. I screamed her name and the wind took it away.

Now we were close enough to the ground that Antimony squawked with fear and spread his wings suddenly, almost stopping us in mid-air. A black blur tore down past us and I heard a tear to my right as something ripped at Antimony's wing. He screamed in agony and rolled in the air. I saw the world like it was in a tornado mixed with blood. My bones jarred and my teeth clacked horribly as we hit the ground, once, twice—Sasori Sasori's right there get up!—and then my steed's wings and legs coordinated again and he leaped off into the sky. Not ten feet in the air, Sasori jumped up after us.

He was going to get us. He was so close. I could see his pupils. He would grab my savior or grab me in a heartbeat. And then his face contorted and he was pulled back to earth. I saw Quartz' fanged jaws clenched on his tail. Quartz, you angel! The two of them roared the threats and howls of dominant monsters, and Sasori struck first. He was furious, violent like nothing I'd ever seen him do: he grabbed one of Quartz's huge, long legs and ripped at it with both his hands, tearing the skin away and leaving nothing on the leg but exposed bone and tiny links of cartilage. I wanted to turn back, and save him, but Quartz saved himself, using that same leg to bat out at Sasori again, but he blocked the blow with a slice of his tail that ripped claws off of my demon's leg, and then grabbed Quartz's jaws in his bare hands when the beast lunged at him with his teeth.

I couldn't see what happened next, because Antimony was turning away. "Where? Where we go to?" he asked, and just after that I saw the Earth River, even the spot where it flowed under an infinite, low ceiling of rock. I pointed to it, and told him to fly across. Yes. Yes, somehow that patch of land was more familiar than the ones we'd flown over before. I'd escaped Quartz and Antimony on that land, maybe even invisible Cobalt!

"We should see a big stone wall coming up. Somewhere in that wall is a hole that I have to climb through to get home." I explained. I had to shout the second half extra loud due to someone yelling my name on the ground. "It—there! There!" I pointed like an exuberant toddler at the sudden darkness that appeared through the fog. A giant stone wall in the middle of fucking nowhere, cutting off everything, and one little dent in it was my only hope. Antimony turned and flew nearly parallel to the wall. Stones crashed and clattered behind us as either Madara or Sasuke or both crashed into the wall. Or tore at it in rage.

"Almost. Almost, queen! You almost home!" Antimony gasped. I nodded and looked to my right, where I could see a glowing, rumbling red sphere approaching. I didn't observe it closely. I observed Sasori coming this way, and the total lack of a frightening, long-legged demon. Brave Quartz. Goodbye.

And then I saw it. The exact hole in the wall I'd fallen out of. There was the pile of rocks and pebbles I'd fallen onto. There was a skid mark from my cleats tearing up the ground as I ran. Antimony veered to the right. Away from it. "What? What! Antimony, no! Go back!" But then I saw the danger: the red sphere from a moment ago was Naruto, glowing with power or demonic magic or something I didn't want to guess. He was so close to the hole in the wall. But he was too crazed, too far gone to realize he ought to stay there and guard it. He followed us away from it as Antimony flew to open land again.

I noticed that the wound Sasuke had inflicted on my steed's wing was bleeding like crazy again. Blood was dropping onto the ground like little bombs. How long could he fly like that, bleeding out so heavily? I gritted my teeth. I pressed my face into his neck. "Antimony, you're my hero. You and Quartz and Cobalt have saved my life. I want you to know that and always remember."

We were suddenly rolling in the air again. I saw Madara above us, falling into a practiced dive and a second away from slamming his whole body down onto Antimony's spine. Antimony went forward with a burst of speed he had never shown and blasted towards the wall again. We were going to hit it head-on. Be crushed into jelly against the wall. "Antimony. Antimony!"

"Queen—" He said over the wind. I heard wings behind us. I felt my undeniable connection to one of four demons who loved me. I was about to die in an instant. "Queen GOES HOME!"

He flipped in mid-air, leaving me to shoot like a missile off it and to the hole like a pinball. Impossibly, completely impossibly, I whooshed inside and tumbled and rolled just like I had when I first tumbled and rolled into Verre. I knew it would just slow me down to kick my legs and pull at the walls to try and go faster, but I did anyway. I did it till I was upright again and crawling like mad and barely breathing. I was crawling up the tunnel like my life depended on it, because my God, it did. Anyone or anything could grasp my foot right now and pull me back. Maybe every demon in the area was jumping into the hole. Maybe I was finally alone. I didn't care. I had to move, or my life would end.

I climbed and climbed and couldn't hear a thing in the world but my own panting and heart hammering and hands tearing at rocks and I kind of think I heard myself bleeding. I did these things for seconds, days, I don't know and didn't dare think about it. I did these things until I saw a light in the pitch black and scrambled towards it with new strength. I climbed climbed climbed and was blinded by golden light and fell onto a plush carpet.

My carpet. My fucking carpet. In my bedroom. I could have rolled on it like a cat in heat.

Instead I sat up and looked at the hole in my wall. Same black hole, same random placement, and new horrific presence. I was suddenly enraged and tore at it with my hands. And the edge of it drooped off the wall.

What the hell was this. It was like an old sticker coming off a wall, peeling away. Bending all laws of science. I remembered the days when I used to ponder science and math and health like they were God's greatest gifts. Sadly, I had no time for that shit right now. I just decided to run with this impossible happening and grabbed the edge of the hole. It felt just like wallpaper, and it tore just like wallpaper. I pulled at it and fell onto my back to get off the first, huge strip. I tore it, crushed it, ruined it until the thing was in pieces so small I couldn't see them all, and swept them around so they could never come together again.

I sat down in my room. Remembered my comfortable bed, my TV, my medical dictionaries. My drawings of the Ravenclaw sigil, my saved report cards, my air conditioning and the laptop and the room that was mine.

I curled up and cried so hard I couldn't breathe.

Suddenly I wanted my parents. Mebuki and Kizashi Haruno, where are you? I missed you, I love you, I never want to move out. I'll live here forever and you'll just have to fucking deal with it. After endless minutes of crying and remembering and holding myself and wanting my mother I dared to lift my head and look around at the normalcy for real. I saw the clock. 5:47 PM, 10/31.

I had been in the world of demons for two hours.

And that was all.

That was...definitely all. Two hours of it, and I was done.

Well. It was time to go to Hinata's party. I thought this for, according to the clock, three minutes. I wonder how many hours that is in demon-time? Well, do I really care? No, doesn't matter! I tried to get up. No surprise I flopped back on my butt, and no surprise I did it a second time, either. The third time it got annoying so I gripped the end of my bed to stand up. I was now in the view of my full-length mirror and looked at myself. I was filthy: black dust all over my torso and legs, and tiny pebbles in my messy hair, and my bookbag was shredded on the left side. And I looked so scared you'd think I just escaped Jigsaw.

Whatever. Whatever. I had to get to Hinata's church for the party. I could push all this away for now. Go back to my life. It would be so, so good to see Hinata again. She was going to be Little Red Riding Hood and carry a little wolf plushie she made herself in her sewing class. I'd be all jealous of her costume, and she'd think my homemade Zelda costume was adorable: my mom helped me make the dress, and I'd bought the best shoes at Macy's, and okay I still never found a wig, but Ino's the only one who's really going to give me shit about that. I doubt anyone at the church will really know.

Thoughts like this made my expression smooth over, and I looked more like myself again. A smiling, proud girl who was going to see her friends at a nice, safe party, at a safe place, and talk about movies and how Kiba was a dumbass for not asking Hinata out again, and play Twister and act like fools. This was an average piece of life, and oh my God, it sounded so good. I couldn't wait to get there. I couldn't wait to live normally again. In less than half an hour, this would all go away—


With a gasp I grabbed a book off my nightstand and hurled it. The Great Gatsbycrashed meaninglessly against the wall and I stared in horror around my empty room. No one was in here. The closet was open. No serial rapists hiding. The front door was locked…wasn't it? I should go check. Go check and get ready. Take a quick shower. Yeah. I mean, I was covered in dust and I could use some of my vanilla perfume.

Sakura. I feel you.

The front door was locked. All the rooms were empty. The note my mother had written was still there. She was still at Shizune's, my costume was still untouched and the candy bowl we were going to put on the front step was ready and nobody was in here so what the fuck was this.

Sakura! Sakura! Hello!

Okay. Okay. I'm going crazy. That's all right. To be expected, after some amount of trauma and stress. My mother would prescribe some medicine with a good percentage of aripriprosole and a side dose of going to bed earlier. Listening to music has been known to help with this kind of thing, too. Lemme just get my iPod. It's back in my room, in my bag where, oh! I still have the bag on my shoulder! Lol, that. I reached in and found my iPod, popped in the earbuds and—

Stop ignoring us. I know you can hear me.

I was still. A moment's pause later, I moved slowly to the couch and stared at the blank TV. Breathing slow, I held up three fingers and saw them in the dark reflection. Nothing made a sound around me.

Three fingers, little love.

Holy God. Holy God, they're in my head. 'How are you doing this? Where are you?'

And I heard a very distinct purr. You came from one world to another and went back. You will carry traces of it on and inside you for the rest of your life, even if you were not ours. Isn't that wonderful? There was some…resistance around the area of my neck. Like there was something near it instead of open air. With my eyes still on my TV reflection, my hand drifted up near my ear and felt something. Something not solid. But thicker than air. And then I felt someone's velvet tongue on my neck.

My body jerked to the side and I leapt on top of the couch, shaking and panting. "What the hell is this." I said aloud. I watched every corner of the room. Just in case. "Did—did you just touch me?"

Yes, they all said together, and happily. Another touch. On my arm. Soft and even like the fur of Naruto's tail. I thrashed my arm like there was a snake on it.

"STOP IT!" I screeched at the empty house.

I can't wait till you sleep tonight. That was Sasori. Madara now thinks we might reach you in your dreams.

No. NO. I was going to sleep soundly tonight. Cozy at home with my mom and dad and with new memories of my friends and laughter and candy. "I just got back home. I just won. Why are you taking this away from me so fast?" Tears rose up in my eyes and this time, there was no stopping them. I curled up into myself, and cried quietly. I made more fast, unsteady breaths than sobs than anything else. And I spilled so, so many tears. They darkened my shirt and my shorts, and crept down to the exposed skin of my legs. I couldn't stop.

Beside me, there was another presence in the room, something unknown again, and I didn't give a shit. The something...moved around me, put its arms around me, and another something pressed itself comfortingly onto my leg, and another something touched my cheek, and if I hadn't just escaped monsters and...some sort of imprisonment, it would have been sweet. When all of those little feelings were gone, my tears felt...wiped away.

Go have your fun tonight. Your heart aches deeply for your old life. Who was that? Sasuke? Sasori? It hurt to think of any of them. A whole dimension away and some part of me still wouldn't let them go. As they would never let me go. Return home and sleep. We will find you then, beloved. And punish you.

This hurt, this hurt. It felt wrong, it felt too big. I thought their ties to me would be cut once I left their world, but they're still here. I'm not...free. I'm tied to these monsters who will never leave. But why? Why did they attach themselves to me in the first place? What made them look and me and honestly believe deep in their toxic souls, that I am the one and I can't be allowed to go free? Why can't this be gone? Why can't they just disappear or forget? Why did I have to lose all hope of ever having peace? I'm seventeen, I've done nothing, I've barely lived, and is my life already over?

That can't be true. I've nearly died once, fought demons once. I've started fights and won fights and own the heart of the greatest idiot blonde friend in the world. I've read great stories and I want to learn great things.

I'm seventeen, halfway to eighteen. And I...should take back what life that I can.

...Yes. I have a few hours to have peace and laughter and popcorn. If this is all I'm ever going to be guaranteed, I can't sit here crying like a bitch about it. I can't waste it. I have to see Hinata and tell her she's beautiful. See Ino and tell her she's loyal and a wise human being, and my greatest friend. I can see Sai and tell him I think he's hot. See Mom and tell her I applied to Stanford and might actually get it.

My heart felt full now. I stood up and looked at the pieces of my costume, sitting perfect and ready on the edge of the couch. I picked them all up and folded them carefully into my bag, then headed out the door. I could shower at Hinata's place, in fact, I would rather. I would rather spend every second possible as close to her as I can.

I closed the house door and locked it as I left. Maybe one day I could do the same for the new one inside me, and be free again.

Holy. Shit. This is…the biggest single piece of work I've ever done.

I'm actually entering Vesper's contest a day late, but I worked goddamn hard to make this happen. I had just over ten thousand words written when I realized things were going way too slow, and started again. And one insane week later, this story came to be. And I feel it's the most intense Sakura-shipping I've ever written. I mean I got close to Vesper-chan levels of men having Sakura Obsession Syndrome. And God only knows what'll happen once she falls asleep. Can the demons really meet Sakura again in her dreams? Can they steal her away again through a dream? What would they do with her, or to her, if they could? OMG THE POSSIBILITIES.

Naturally, there are some things I wanted to have happen that didn't, for the sake of time and length. Small bits. Biggest among them was that I wanted there to be a moment in the final chase scene wherein a crazed herd demon attacks Sakura while she rides Antimony, but Madara beats it away, making her realize that Madara, "the monster" would still rather save her than steal her. Awhh. Oh, and btw, the idea of Sakura "peeling a hole off the wall" came from a dream of mine wherein I did the exact same thing, though in mine, an enemy woman was seconds away from coming through the hole before I tore it away. Yikes! Oh, oh, and I got good inspiration by playing a favorite game of mine called "Sly Cooper 2: Band of Thieves" and a level called "Jailbreak" which looks a liiiiitle bit like the town of Mur'ra.

Now, everything else about this story...I am going to put into a "story notes" section directly below. Because from this sentence onward, be aware everything you read is an edited note I wrote in December of 2013, three years after the first time of writing. I polished/edited the story (by which I mean I ADDED 8,000 WORDS) and wanted to add some informational bits (because I have expanded this story in my head like nobody's fuckin business), so here they are.


1) Since the demons state that portals to other worlds can only be opened on the thirty-first of Muru, one may be confused as to how they pulled her through when, in their time, it was still the twenty-sixth. No explanation for that sorry orz

2) Antimony, Cobalt, Quartz, and Deidara were all killed (I briefly contemplated the idea that Deidara just had an arm torn off because he really is Sasori's best friend so he's the only one you can so much as pretend made it out okay)

3) Before editing, I never outright stated, as I should have, that this race of demons actually does operate on "love at first sight"; every individual who's not a gross, brainless herd demon is able to look at a person and know "yup, that's my One" (or Two or Three; "harem pairings" sometimes happen where they live hurr hurr). This means that their feelings for Sakura are honest. But their methods of winning her over are totally not. They are honest to god confused as to why she doesn't want exactly what they want because someone refusing to be with their partner, whether they are from a different world or no, has literally never happened in all of history. The fact that Sakura cares for them and partially responds to their attention, instead of completely, is the true mystery, and the source of all this goddamn conflict, secrecy and spying.

3) I always wanted to continue this story someday! At first I planned a sequel, but it proved impossible to hurdle Sakura's resentment of what they did and get a happy ending out of it. So I decided on a prequel, and had many plans for it. I still do! It would cover Naruto discovering the mirror, some snippets of what regular "demon life" is like. It would also show their watching Sakura in her daily life (YUP) and confusion as to how the human world works and why Sakura does certain things, and why she has anger and aggression problems. Fuck yeauuh, I'd use their perceptions to make subtle social commentary on the contradictions, dangers, horrors and delusions of human life as though I'm not writing anime fanfiction about stalking.

4) You would see it in the prequel, too, as you did here: Sasuke is the only one among the four that really gets that Sakura would not like what they're doing and wants to respect her wishes. He doesn't entirely agree with his natural instinct to pursue her on matter what. As you can see, he can't keep this, lol, "human/reasonable" mentality up forever and eventually gives in.

5) Q: "So like she would eventually be expected to sleep with all of them, would that be like a foursome or one guy at a time or what" A: Jesus fuck this is the one point I just want to slap myself over, I have NO idea, I can barely imagine a threesome in real life without wondering how people avoid getting in each other's way and shit, I guess she would take two at a time, max, and be like "Sorry boys, I can't handle y'all at once, you two wait outside."

6) Q: "And they srsly expect her to have children by 4 different men holy shit" A: slight idk here, because for one thing, they are a pathetically infertile race; while the herd could fuck anything and get it pregnant with a dozen gross monster babies, the demons that we actually like could be in bed for years and have nothing to show for it. The only pregnancy I ever actually visualized was her having a son by Sasuke, but that was very soon after the original posting, and before I started really fucking around with possible endings.

7) On the note of "could be in bed for years and have nothing to show for it", well, "years" could mean centuries or millennia or more; I visualized this race as living a long fuckin' time, probably ten times whatever you're thinking. SPOILER, in the prequel there's gonna be a mini-flashback where Naruto remembers his parents taking him to visit/look at other worlds when he was very small, and child!Naruto draws a picture of the things he saw and he draws a motherfucking stegosaurus, okay, these things live a long time.

8) Sasori was written here to act like the most "gentle and logical" of the four but that's only because he's the best liar of them all. Remember, once the truth was revealed, he ripped up floorboards with his fingers and brutally mutilated and murdered Quartz. Which might even be canon-ish behavior from our favorite impatient ginger.

9) No matter whether I write a prequel, sequel or anything else for this story, I do know how it all ends :) I've had it worked out for about 1.5 years, and I shall spoil nothing except for the fact that in order to reach our ending, whether you would like the ending or not, we would have to go through a gory, frightening mess five to ten times worse than "the reveal" and "Sakura's escape" c:

If that's all then...

Bless your strength, you've made it to the end of this monster. Thank you! :)