Disclaimer: Naruto is the property of Masashi Kishimoto.

Rated M: Due to coarse language, violence, and some adult themes.

Sighing in exasperation, Sakura flings the bundle of flowers down on the bed before letting herself fall face forward onto the mattress in exhaustion. She turns her head to the side to regard the bouquet of gardenias with utter disdain.

This is ridiculous.

Honestly, she had expected a few misses at first; these are men out looking for flowers, after all. But she hadn't thought they'd be this inept. Within the span of two weeks since first mentioning to Deidara her desire for white poppies, her boring, empty room had steadily been transforming into an ethereal white wonderland of flowers. The floral fragrance assaults any visitor's nose before they can even raise a fist to knock on the door. Quite frankly, it's starting to give Sakura a headache. Every available square centimeter of surface space on her dresser and nightstand is dominated by the overabundant white blooms of every manner of flower. Gardenias, roses, lilies, orchids, magnolias, and several others she has no name for, perfume the air from the countless vases that are clustered in each of the four corners of her room. Sakura herself is the lone splash of pink in a field of white.

I could put the Yamanaka Flower Shop out of business…

The most recent addition to her collection is a gift from Deidara, picked up on his return journey from a three day mission to who knows where. Unfortunately, the Akatsuki have yet to slip up and give away any details as to the work that takes them outside of the base. Yet, that hasn't stopped them from bringing Sakura all the flowers her heart could ever desire. Once word had gotten out from Deidara (via Tobi, of course) that the little medic is fond of white flowers, several other Akatsuki started to chip in their own efforts to please her.

Sakura is beginning to feel like some kind of bizarre charity case.

When presenting her with his latest acquisition, Deidara's rendition of a flustered schoolboy confronting his crush was ruined by the smarmy smirk he couldn't seem to wipe off his smug face. The explosives expert had had the audacity to inquire as to why she prefers white flowers in particular. Could it have something to do with her own innocence and purity that the white flowers represented?

Sakura's face had flushed with indignation…and then it nearly turned crimson when the man had dared to question if she'd like for him to assist in adding a bit of color to her life. Laughing jovially, Deidara barely reacted in time to side-step Sakura's furious, clawed swipe. Dancing just out of reach, he left a spluttering, hissing Sakura with an armful of gardenias and the unwanted promise of, "Some other time then."

Shaking herself from her musings, Sakura rolls over and jackknifes into a sitting position. She has to have patience; to let them know how desperately she wants this one specific flower would only arouse suspicion and possibly foil her escape.

But really, how hard is it to find white poppies?!

Even some of the more intellectual members of Akatsuki seem to be completely incompetent in this particular field of interest. Sasori, not one to be outdone by his younger partner, has practically been showering Sakura with bouquets of white roses, even going so far as to incorporate the fully-fledged blooms into the habitual grooming of his living doll.

Scrunching her nose in distaste at this thought, Sakura pinches the flower that had been clipped into her hair that morning and carefully glides it down through her soft locks to free it.

Sasori is smart enough to know the difference between poppies and roses, right? I mean, he has intimate knowledge of the plant species necessary to create his poisons so, surely, he would at least have access to the references needed to make a simple flower identification…So why…?

In the small, pessimistic corner of her mind, a tiny voice answers that of course men like Sasori and Zetsu have the means to figure out how to easily procure poppies for her, even if Akatsuki like Deidara and Hidan are completely clueless. But the fact of the matter is that they're getting it wrong.

Which could only mean one of two things: Either Sakura is giving them too much credit, or they're purposely denying her what she's asked for.

Of course, the second possibility has some serious ramifications. Yet, if they're wise to what she has planned, why not call her out on it? Why keep playing dumb?

Sakura's fist unconsciously clenches around the rose freed from her hair before dropping its crumpled form on her sheets.

Her eyebrows knit in frustration as she rises from the mattress and crosses the short distance to the bathroom. Seeing as it's about the only place where she has relative privacy, it's really her only option to store the ingredients she has managed to gather so far. Hidden in one of the bottom cabinets beneath the sink, Sakura keeps all of the herbs she pilfered from Zetsu's greenhouse. For the time being, she has opted to preserve a few of the softer herb leaves in a glass of fresh water she changes every day. As for the rest, she had no choice but to dry them as best she could with her limited resources. Currently, several bundles of drying herbs hang from the sink's piping. She can only cross her fingers and hope that the ventilation isn't too bad as to render the whole process useless.

Just looking at her aging herbs makes Sakura antsy. She needs to act soon before the plants lose their potency. She doesn't dare deceive herself that she'll have another opportunity to pick her ingredients again from Zetsu's garden.

Just thinking of her encounter with Tobi sends cold chills down her spine. No, she would not be seeking out his services to get her into the greenhouse ever again.

Although, now that she considers it, she hasn't seen the masked mystery man since she had come to the conclusion that his clueless imbecile façade is nothing but an act. However, he has not relented in his interest in Sakura. Periodically, she will come into her room to find a new, extravagant vase of flowers waiting front and center for her attention. And attached to each ornate arrangement will be a simple name tag indicating to whom it is meant for and from whom it was sent. Tobi always writes her name in pink crayon and scrawls his own signature in black.

It's enough to make Sakura puke. She can't stand the mind games – can't stand the feeling that she's some kind of lab rat running through a maze of the masked man's design and he keeps moving the hunk of cheese that will lead her to the exit.

His identity is one puzzle she may never solve, but Sakura finds herself not too bothered by this. Truthfully, she's a little afraid to find out.

Absentmindedly, Sakura runs a gentle finger over a kava kava leaf submerged in a tall glass of water.

Perhaps I should go ahead and start on the extract…if I wait until I get my hands on the opium poppies, everything else may have expired.

Sakura tends to have a lot of confidence in her abilities when in a medical context, and mixing this particular drug would certainly fall into that category, however, the actual procuring and preservation of the individual components of her medicines is not something she has had much experience in. Her current methods are probably subpar by any true expert's standards, but Sakura is doing her best based off of the little plant care knowledge she gained from Ino and what little she has read from books.

If she is being honest with herself, Sakura has been delaying any further progress with her escape as uncertainty and fear keep her company. The next step to her plan will be extremely tricky to manage. While the equipment she needs is essentially all in the kitchenette area of the tea room she frequents, finding a time to carry out her covert activities will be difficult. If any one of the Akatsuki happens to walk in on her it will be game over. And though she can't claim to have any experience in making illegal narcotics, she does know that the concentration process involved in making drugs for medicinal purposes tends to produce a rather strong odor.

She'd basically be drawing any unwanted investigating directly to her.

I'll just have to be ready for action at all times. With any luck, Sasori and Deidara will get assigned a mission together soon.

The two artists of the Akatsuki are her main concern due to the proximity of their sleeping quarters. But if Sakura is to be prepared for jumping at the first opportunity to begin work on her elixir, there is one other item that she will need; an item that could not have been found in the greenhouse with the rest of her ingredients.

As Sakura flicks off the water droplets from her wet fingers, she smiles with some small amount of satisfaction.

Luckily, she knows just where to find this particular ingredient.

"Hold still, little girl," Sasori orders, his velvet-soft voice tinged with annoyance as Sakura squirms under his firm hold.

Sakura chews her bottom lip, even more impatient and irritated than the puppeteer trying to untangle a particularly nasty knot of hair in the back of her head. She barely holds back a snarl as the brush becomes part of the problem and the puppeteer works for several moments just to disengage it. Sakura can practically feel the swiftly growing black cloud of bad vibes at her back; Sasori's short patience tank is about to hit empty.





"How the hell did you manage this? Did you actually go around with a rat's nest in your hair before I started taking care of it? You're such a little brat," the red-head's narrowed gaze sparks Sakura's own short fuse as she twists around on the edge of the bed to face her tormenter.

Sakura isn't about to comment on the fact that she never asked for Sasori to take it upon himself to be her personal stylist. Quite frankly, she still finds it a bit unnerving that a man, not to mention a criminal, is interested in her choice of apparel and general physical upkeep.

"So what if I did?" she quips back, although it isn't in the least bit true. She may have shorn her hair short for practical purposes, but that didn't mean she had given up on girly indulgences such as good personal hygiene.

Sasori doesn't deem her impudence worthy of comment and instead treats her to a long-suffering scowl before releasing a heavy sigh and shuffling into the bathroom of his own personal quarters. At the sound of rushing water cascading down from the faucet, Sakura launches herself from the bed without so much as a whisper from the sheets. Knowing her little stunt will only supply her with a handful of seconds, she quickly scans the row of bottles lining the small, portable workbench Sasori had situated off to the side of his bed. Spools of thread, needles, screws, and other useful materials to one in the puppeteering profession are organized in jars, along with other parts Sakura forces her eyes away from. Glass eyes gawk back at her accusingly, looking too big and round when not properly lodged in someone's head. Packets of hair are arranged according to color and something in Sakura's stomach turns, knowing that the glossy locks had been procured from once living people.

She brushes her fingers across the labels of the row of bottles, her lips moving in concentration as her eyes rapidly scan for the –

Sakura jumps at the sound of the water shutting off and accidently bites the inside of her cheek. Hissing quietly to herself, she knows she can't be caught. Sasori is sharp. He'd be suspicious as to why she would want any of his work materials.

Luckily, she hears him rummaging for something in the bathroom. Banking on a few extra seconds, Sakura renews her search with a frantically beating heart.


Shakily, she clutches the brown glass bottle that just fits in the palm of her hand. Hurriedly, her unsteady feet carry her back to the bed where she collapses in disbelief. A heady sensation makes her feel dizzy.

She did it.

She had successfully pilfered what she needed from Sasori in under thirty seconds, its weight a comforting presence while pressed against her calf on the inside of her boot. Just as Sakura begins to prop herself back up on her elbows, she is greeted with the sight of Sasori re-entering the bedroom, this time equipped with a small bowl of water, a bottle of some unknown substance, and a much sturdier looking comb.

Sakura's sour mood nearly returns, but it is tinged with the triumph of her success. After all, she had put a lot of effort into making sure that monstrous knot took up residence in her hair.

All part of the plan.

So she can almost endure the abuse Sasori puts her scalp through. As he dampens her hair and his artist's fingers massage her head with what Sakura's nose identifies as lavender oil, she nearly lets herself relax and lean back into his touch.

For a moment, she almost forgets her place and closes her eyes, partially blaming her lowered guard on the lavender making her drowsy and on the satisfaction of a job well done. She deserves a little pampering as a reward, right?

Sakura's eyelids fly apart as the comb is suddenly attacking the knot in her hair. Biting back a growl, she tries to disengage herself from the puppet master, but finds herself on the ends of his chakra strings. It's been a while since he has seen fit to use them for restraining purposes, an observation that makes Sakura feel slightly guilty for having grown so complacent and cooperative in her role as captive.

It's fine, Sakura. You do what you have to do to escape.

"I'm not through with you yet," Sasori's carefully controlled voice has Sakura sitting on pins and needles.

Not liking the edge in his voice, but also not wishing to arouse suspicion after such a risky theft, Sakura rigidly sits on the edge of the bed, her white-knuckled fists resting against her thighs.

You reap what you sow.

And she had spent the better part of half an hour working her hair into a nasty, knotted mess this morning in order to buy her some time in Sasori's room. Now, she has to pay the price.

Worth it.

"Ow!" Sakura whines as graceful fingers pluck and pull none too gently at her head. But she holds steady and bites her tongue to prevent any obscenities from spilling forth, reminding herself that this minor torture is well worth the precious bottle of acetic anhydride now pocketed in her boot.

Four days after her successful pilfering of the chemical compound right out from under the puppet master's nose, Sakura hits another lucky break with the timely mission that would send her two main prison guards away for a joint operation with the undead duo. Whatever misadventure would require both sets of unwholesome partners, Sakura isn't inclined to ask, but she is thankful for the news Deidara is privy to tell her before leaving his pink-haired muse behind for a couple days.

It's exactly what she needs to hear, but has been too realistic to hope for.

Knowing she probably won't be presented with such a golden opportunity again any time soon, if ever, Sakura sits demurely on her bed as Sasori strokes a hand through her hair that has now grown to hit her shoulder blades. She ignores his fussing to the best of her abilities, keeping a wary eye on Deidara as he browses through her overwhelming collection of white bouquets spilling over the edge of her bedside table. The floor is littered with shed petals and the bomb artist kicks a few with the toe of his sandaled foot.

After the usual warnings from Sasori to "Behave," and "Don't do anything stupid, brat," and Deidara's customary manhandling, the two artists depart to meet up with the other Akatsuki they will be temporarily teaming up with. Sakura holds her breath as they exit her room and doesn't dare release it until the door closes by Sasori's gentle guidance.

Alone at last!

Sakura's inward jubilation at finally having the cloying presence of her ever watchful and unwanted guard dogs finally out of her hair (quite literally) is tempered by the knowledge that she still has to be stealthy enough to not warrant close monitoring by Kisame or Itachi, wherever they might be in this maze of a compound.

Not to mention Tobi.

She feels confident that the plant-like Akatsuki, Zetsu, would not be an issue as she hasn't seen him since her visit to the greenhouse with Sasori. As for the stern, blue-haired woman and the leader of the Akatsuki, they didn't strike her as the type to lower themselves to babysitter level.

Sakura dawdles after her captors take their leave. Without having access to her own chakra, she is unable to track those of the artists so she waits for an hour to be sure they have had ample time to clear the premises. Clutching the book with Sasori's handwritten recipes tightly to her chest, and depositing the bottle of stolen acetic anhydride in the pocket of her silk robe, Sakura scampers to her doorway, easing the door open with the carefulness of a surgeon's hand. Feeling equal parts nervous and ridiculous, she pops her head out into the hallway, checking both ways as though preparing to cross a traffic-congested street.

Although there is no sign of anyone rushing to stop her from leaving the confines of her room, Sakura knows an alert Akatsuki is only a misstep away from being at her side with a kunai pressed across her throat.

With a heady sensation creeping through her brain, Sakura forces her rapidly thumping heart to slow its beat to a slow jam and steps out from her room as casually as possible...

And then proceeds to take her time walking the length of the hall until she reaches the shoji screen doors of her tea room. Shutting them behind her, she allows herself a short moment to take stock of the situation. With sweat beading on her forehead, she surveys the kitchenette area with appraising eyes.

The beginning of the end starts now.

Setting the pilfered medical text and bottle on the counter, she makes her way back to her bedroom to begin the first of several trips to transport her small collection of stored herbs to the tea room. With false calm and light footsteps, the medic nin knows high pressure situations are when she shines through. She doesn't dare dash back and forth between the rooms for fear of making too much noise.

At last, as she struggles to cradle two jars of soaking leaves against the curve of her hip while simultaneously closing the screen door behind her, Sakura gazes upon her assembled ingredients and equipment for the processing of her elixir.

Now comes the particularly dangerous part.

Having practically memorized the steps necessary to boil down and concentrate her formula, Sakura tucks away the book and acetic anhydride in the cabinet beneath the sink; today's task revolves solely around extracting the ingredients from her gathered plants. Putting a kettle of water on the stove top to make some tea (in case any snooping Akatsuki pass by to see what she's busying herself with), Sakura rolls up the billowy sleeves of her robe and hustles about, finding a pestle and mortar as well as a pot for boiling.

The familiarity of this kind of work seems to cheer her up a bit as she grinds the leaves and petals into a thin paste. As carefully as she can, she uses a dull butter knife to slice open the roots she collected, adding them to the paste and mashing everything up.

After adding the paste to the pot to be boiled, Sakura starts wiping down the counter, throwing away bits of unused herb and standing back from the stove, admiring her work. It shouldn't take too long to attain the desired consistency; however, she is left wondering just how long this concoction will keep for its purpose. She doesn't want to risk using it without the final, most potent ingredient, but if she has to…

Hopefully, it won't come to that.

She'd be more insistent, whinier, whatever it takes to get those idiots to bring back the right flowers.

With that matter temporarily settled, Sakura busies herself with slicing off a piece of bread from a loaf someone had left in the kitchen, presumably for her. Even if it isn't meant for her, Sakura really couldn't care less. Chewing quickly in her excitement, the bread disappears and Sakura can't resist peaking under the lid at her solution. Steam and a bitterly medicinal-smelling wave of odor blast into her eager face, making Sakura step back to get a fresh breath of air before peeking into the pot again.


With a ladle, she scoops out a healthy portion of the faintly green liquid, pouring it into a bowl and setting it off to the side. She doesn't want to waste the extra solution, but having such a large pot of it sitting around would only draw suspicion. Regretfully, she pours the rest of her work down the drain and places the special, saved portion in the cupboard with her pilfered acid and recipe book.

And not a second too soon.

Bouncing up into view just in time for the shoji screen door to slide back and reveal her company, Sakura grabs for the kettle of now cold tea and pours it into her cup. Taking a casual but forced sip of the old tea, she glances up above the rim of the cup, eying her visitor with a mildly bored expression.

"Please follow me, Sakura-san. You are staying with me tonight," Itachi informs her simply, turning on his heel to leave just as abruptly as he came, with full expectations that she will follow.

Sakura partially chokes on the cold, bitter drink, doing her best to discreetly clear her throat. Itachi apparently seems to be in some kind of hurry so she dumps out the old tea in the sink and leaves the kettle to be cleaned. Crossing her fingers that no one will be looking for anything under the sink between now and tomorrow morning's tea time, Sakura hastily trails after tonight's babysitter.

Sasori and Deidara must both be out for Itachi to have this job.

She's just thankful she's stuck with the Uchiha rather than Hidan. Something that, although true, is very strange to admit.

Following after him in a quick series of turns, Sakura returns once more to the room she had slept in during her one night of inebriation.

At least I'm back here in a more sober condition.

Neat as a pin and barren of typical personal effects, save for the short stack of books on the dresser, Sakura almost wants to roll her eyes at how well the room reflects the man.

Itachi opens the door and allows for Sakura to walk in ahead of him. Pausing in the center of the room when she doesn't feel his presence at her back, Sakura turns around in confusion.

"There are some matters I need to attend to. Feel free to go to bed whenever you wish, or you may borrow one of my books for reading. Do as you please," his red eyes look pointedly into hers, "Within this room, of course."

Sakura detects the faintest of smiles and wonders if that subtle expression is something all Uchihas possess. At least the ones she knows.

Closing the door gently behind him, Itachi leaves Sakura to her own devices. She hesitates for a moment, listening intently for the sound of his retreating footsteps. But after two minutes of waiting she realizes the absurdity in that pursuit and moves over to the side of the bed, apprehensive of sitting down on it despite already having crashed in it before. Opting instead for his desk chair, she picks up the stack of books to select one under the light of the lamp.

Sometime later, a quarter of the way into some dense comparison of the human condition and sin, Sakura gives into the pull of her eyelids and rests her head against the cool, polished surface of the desk. Promising herself it will only be for a moment, her hazy thoughts return to the elixir that will put her on the fast track out of here.

When she awakes, Sakura has several seconds of irrational panic, not able to remember where she is. But Itachi's firm hold on her shoulder brings the ruffled medic back to her senses and she peers up into the bemused face of the Uchiha through mussed bangs. Rubbing at her eyes and restraining the impulse to fuss over her hair in front of a man she should hate, Sakura stretches her back, wincing at the series of pops that play their way down her spine.

How in the world did I sleep all night like that?

Seriously regretting not taking her reading to bed the night before, Sakura stiffly gets to her feet, feeling at least sixty years old.

"I have gone ahead and left breakfast in your room for you if you are ready for it. Deidara and Sasori returned early this morning."

"Mmnnph," Sakura grunts, still half asleep, but she manages to nod her head in acceptance to ensure he understands her unintelligible morning chatter.

Rubbing the back of her cramped neck, she follows after the swishing material of Itachi's Akatsuki cloak, glancing briefly at the perfectly made bed.

Where were you all night?

Barely keeping her eyes open so as to avoid colliding with any walls, she sleepily drifts after a red and black blur for what seems like forever but must only be a matter of a couple minutes at most. Itachi lingers in Sakura's company just long enough to see her into her room and then he departs with all the stealth of a shinobi of his rank.

Haggard and poorly rested, Sakura decides she'll eat and then collapse for an hour or two on a real bed.

Then I have to take care of the elixir.

Yawning and trying not to rouse herself into consciousness too much lest she lay in bed for an hour staring desperately at the ceiling, she finds a tray waiting for her on the nightstand, several vases having been pushed back against the wall to accommodate her meal.

But it's not the steamed rice and umeboshi that sets her heart pounding with anticipation and excitement. No, it's something much more than Itachi's dietary choices.

In a small glass vase resting on her breakfast tray are three white poppies, blooming pure and white.

Breakfast will have to wait.

Roughly, Sakura bends back the petals of the flower, tearing a few away as impatient fingers pluck away the item of actual importance. Each specimen of Papaver somniferum, when fully mature and in bloom, produce an egg-shaped seed pod. Just like the ones Sakura now cradles in her palm. Technically, the petals will eventually fall away on their own to reveal the pod. Sakura can only hope these have developed enough to give her the substance she needs to complete the elixir.

Using a small butter knife (having no better options at hand), she forcefully punctures the rather resistant, fleshy green pod, dragging the knife down in as straight of a line as she can. She repeats the cut several times on each pod, causing a milky white substance to rise up to the split seams like blood welling up from a scrape. This is the raw opium she will need to process rather crudely given her available resources.

But still, this is it.

I've got it!

Sakura doesn't hide the grin lighting up her face as she sets to work, her hands happy to have something to do. For once, she can almost lose herself and let her mind travel away from her current predicament. She can almost pretend she's in one of the labs at the hospital, preparing antidotes and vaccines.

After squeezing the sappy goo from each pod into one of the tea cups, she is left with a brownish mass of crude opium that has started to take on a gummy texture. With her pot of water on the stove quickly reaching a boil, she fetches Sasori's bottle of acetic anhydride from the cupboard under the sink. Considering she has never done this before and has no reference material to go from, Sakura knows this is going to be relatively imprecise as far as mixing proportions go. She'll have to rely on a little experimentation and gut instinct, but with any luck, it'll do the trick.

With steady hands she measures out the colorless chemical and opium, adding them to the boiling pot of water and then partially covering it with a lid. At this point, her work is at a standstill; it will require at least several hours of boiling to attain the morphine she needs from this little concoction.

Cleaning up her small mess and storing the pilfered acid back in the cupboard, Sakura's nervousness simmers steadily as she can only pray no one is drawn to her little makeshift work station due to the odor. Sakura frowns worriedly; the boiling pot smells strongly of acetic acid.

Surely they can't smell it out in the hallway though?

As she walks to the doorway to compare the air qualities inside and outside of the room, she notes with relief that her scheming should go undetected as long as she can keep everyone else from entering the tea room.

Of course, that could be problematic.

Without a doubt, at least one of her captors will come looking for her, if not for their own entertainment, then at least to ensure she gets fed like some kind of pet. She needs to keep them away from this room at all costs for the rest of the day.

And what better way than to offer herself as a distraction?

She would go to them.

Returning quickly to turn down the heat on the stove as she would be unable to keep a watchful eye on it, Sakura clenches her fists determinedly. This will work.

It has to.

Willingly (because she has to be), Sakura strides down the hall to knock at the door she'd rather not enter. Large, wine-colored eyes blink back at her, slightly surprised as her form is revealed on the other side of the door. But Sakura pretends not to notice the small smile of satisfaction as she walks confidently past him to sit on the edge of his bed, picking up a book on herbal medicine that is nestled among the folds of his sheets on the unmade bed.

Crossing her legs and cracking open the book to studiously examine, if for no other reason than to not actually interact with the man glaring at her with a combination of irritation and amusement, Sakura proceeds to settle herself down comfortably for the next few hours. Within easy viewing of her ever annoying captor.

Sasori shoots her an odd look before shaking his head and returning to his work bench to continue his own business. Sakura is surprised he hadn't uttered a single word at her sudden intrusion. It isn't like him to not complain. Or belittle her.

But the usually snarky red-haired man takes his seat in casual silence and returns to unpacking the rather bulky bag he has resting on the floor between his feet. Several boxes and paper-wrapped packages are already stacked on his desk and on the ground surrounding it. Curiously, she watches him while pretending to look up something in the back of the text.

What is all of that?

It takes another ten minutes of patient and secretive observation, but at last, he empties the last of his travel pack and tosses it aside, setting to work on unsealing all of the packages. With the paper and boxes torn away and crumpled into a heap for disposing of later, Sakura's eyes dart about the room as she takes inventory of Sasori's recent acquisitions.

Bottles of dark colored liquid whose composition she can only speculate; sharp, new tools of his puppeteering craft for carving and chiseling; fabric which she assumes would later be fashioned to drape his "creations;" and several other odds and ends, ranging from the mundane to the just plain creepy. Sakura eyes the curled up snake in its jar of liquid preservatives.

What the hell does he want with that?

Sakura glances back down at the book propped open in her lap, internally shuddering at the dead, white eyes of the serpent.

But far more interesting to Sakura is the package resting atop a large box with a collection of different threads and sewing needles.


In all of her preparations and struggles to acquire the opium poppies, Sakura forgot to think through exactly how she would deliver her Elixir of Near Death.

Stupid, Sakura! Stupid!

But in the same breath she silently curses herself for the oversight, she formulates the plan to snatch one of Sasori's syringes. She's already stolen from him once, what's one more time?

Agonizingly, Sasori lingers about until everything is as he wants it and order is restored to his work space. With hungry eyes, Sakura stares longingly at the small closet Sasori had deposited the package of syringes in.

Forcefully, she tears her gaze away and continues her act of reading, flipping the pages at fairly regular intervals though she doesn't bother to actually read the text. Her mind is elsewhere. After roughly another agonizing hour, Sakura decides she needs Sasori out of there now to get the syringe. For her own peace of mind.

"Sasori," her voice carries a calm inflection of boredom, "When will lunch be?"

Truthfully, she would like to know seeing as she had skipped out on breakfast.

"I need to write down a few things and then I'll go send for lunch," he responds, his back still turned to her as the pen in his hand continues to scribble across the page he is taking notes on. Almost as an absentminded afterthought he asks, "What would you like?"

Sakura pauses for a moment to consider; it's unusual for him to ask. But for once she finds she has nothing to demand from him. Maybe she's just too happy with the thought that everything is coming together so well that she can't be bothered with puppet masters and their controlling tendencies. Or maybe she's just too hungry to care.

"Anything," she says at last, her stomach chiming in with its agreement.

Sasori sets down the pen with a sigh, "You really are a brat."

But there's no menace in his words as he rises from his chair, his notes not yet complete, but still he makes his way to the door. Sakura childishly sticks her tongue out at his back, wondering at the strange mood the Akatsuki seems to be in today.

But no matter. She has a syringe to find.

Bleck. I never want to spend that much time in one day with that man again.

And with any luck, she'd never have to. After spending most of the day with her red-headed tormentor, taking both lunch and dinner with him, Sakura has decided she needs a little air outside the fuzzy-warm glow of Sasori's room as he tinkers away into the night with designs for the newest additions to his collection. Surprisingly, he hadn't seen fit to taunt Sakura with anymore talk of her impending transformation into one of his pieces of art.

Sakura doesn't know what has gotten into him, but she can't be certain this more relaxed, less sadistic Sasori is better or worse. All she knows is that it makes him unpredictable.

Returning to the tea room, clenching her jaw along the way as she maintains a slow, calm pace, Sakura heads directly for the boiling pot, its lid clouded in steam.

But after rummaging around for an oven mitt and removing the lid, Sakura is met with the glorious sight of a frothy white band of morphine ringing around the inside of the pot. Carefully, she scrapes it off with a spoon and adds it into the bowl with her mixed herb solution, stirring it thoroughly.

Though her practiced hands draw the solution into the syringe with ease, inside, she's a quivering mass of excitement.

Yes! Yes!

And just like that, her stress melts away and she's left standing in the kitchenette with a syringe gripped in her hand. Holding it up to the light it may not look like much given its lackluster colorlessness, but Sakura is fully prepared to stake her freedom on this elixir. She has to.

Bustling about, she washes out the evidence of her little chemistry experiment in the pot as well as the remains of the solution bowl. She's not sure how long she has until someone will be coming to collect her for the night since she lingered longer in Sasori's room than she would have liked to give the morphine plenty of time to form.

Just as she's wiping the pot dry to store away, the door slides open, causing Sakura to look up with startled, wide eyes.

"There she is, yeah," Deidara's single blue eye gleams with victory, "I haven't seen you all day, little birdy. Hiding from me?"


Sauntering up to Sakura with only the counter to separate them, Sakura snatches the syringe up from its place beside the now cleaned pot, concealing it within the dish towel.

"You wish. I would never do such a thing," Sakura sniffs, "It would only inflate your ever-engorged ego."

Deidara responds with mocking indignation, clutching the shirt over his heart and dramatically throwing his head back as though wounded from her biting comment. Sakura takes advantage of his theatrics to throw the towel with its hidden parcel within the bowl, quickly placing it back in the cupboard while keeping her attention on Deidara. Just like he wants.

"Oh, Sakura, it's been too long, yeah," Deidara says cheerfully, making his way around the counter toward her, causing Sakura's heart beat to pick up as he comes ever closer to her hidden elixir.

Act natural, damn it!

"Not long enough if you ask me," Sakura mutters, scowling at the boisterous blond who had disrobed from his Akatsuki cloak to more comfortable clothing.

She wonders where he had been all day. Surprisingly, he hadn't barged in once while she was with his partner.

"Now, now, yeah, no need to put on a brave face. I know you missed me, yeah," he replies, his voice dropping in volume and enthusiasm to take on a more sultry tone.

"I did nothing of the sort, yeah," Sakura mocks, knowing it'd probably irk the temperamental artist to copy his speech habit.

But if it upsets him, he doesn't let on. Instead, that same chilling grin that only the cat that has caught the canary knows how to make, slips back onto his face. Cornering her against the right angle where two sections of the kitchen counter meet, he slides his hands around her hips, bringing their bodies together in an embrace like any couple would share when one returns home to the other.

But this is not the man Sakura wants this kind of intimacy with. This is just a shallow parody of what such tenderness should be like. Clasping her hands on top of his, she pulls them away, but he immediately resettles them as she angrily tries to tug them off again. Sakura is forced to back up into the counter even more as he presses against her.

Could I get to it now?

Sakura's eyes land on the cupboard door longingly, but rationality tells her now is not the right time. Besides, Deidara is slipping into one of those dangerously playful moods and even if she did manage to drug him with the elixir, she'd be escaping at night into an unknown territory.

No, now is not the right time.

But Kami how I'm sick of his manhandling!

And so Sakura relents in her idea of escape for the night, allowing Deidara to lead her back to his room where she curls up into a ball, unresponsive to his body wrapped around hers. Despite the nuzzling and wandering fingers, Sakura focuses on her next course of action.

First thing tomorrow, she must sneak the syringe into her own room, somewhere where it can be close at hand.

As for tonight, she won't grin, but she'll bear it.

Depositing the syringe into one of the painted vases on her nightstand after dumping out its water, Sakura carefully studies her room. Certainly she isn't sad to leave her dwellings though she has to admit the abundance of live, floral décor has grown on her and made her think she may need to start putting out a vase of fresh flowers in her own bedroom back home once she returns.

But no, there is no reluctance to part ways as she spins around the room slowly, taking in one final survey of everything, doing her best to take a mental photograph to preserve it in her memory. She doesn't want to forget anything. She doesn't want her anger at the Akatsuki to fade with time.

Deciding that there isn't much left to hold her attention in the whitewashed room in all of its monotone glory, Sakura heads to the door to go prepare herself a cup of tea. Why she hadn't thought to do that while she was there, she can only blame on her jumpiness. Maybe she'll meditate for a while to help calm her nerves before she lays out the final details of who gets the honor of testing her little concoction.

As she cracks open her bedroom door, her ears are met with a pleasant, familiar melody.


She hasn't seen him since he escorted her back to her room and something within her urges her to pay one last visit. Though her conscience wars with itself over what she should feel toward this man – hatred, contempt, anger, confusion, gratefulness – she tells herself the beautiful sound of his music is worth his presence. There is something uncanny yet funny about a criminal with such a civilized talent. It compels her down the hallway to the barren room with its single window.

He has helped me out to some degree…

Sakura promises herself that while she won't forgive him of his past crimes against her village and the world at large, she no longer needs to be openly hostile to the elder Uchiha, at least not for the remainder of her captivity. Once she escapes back to Konoha – and she will, damn it! – all bets are off. Her tough façade has been useless against him anyway. He doesn't seem to want to pick a fight with her…he doesn't seem to want anything from her. And for that, Sakura begrudgingly has kindled some sort of respect for Itachi. In a place where she is at such a laughably huge disadvantage, he has silently taken it upon himself to ensure that his fellow Akatsuki don't step over the line too much.

This could be the last time she sees Itachi in such a cordial setting. For some reason she wants that.

Just for a little while, we can pretend…

Nearing the open doorway, the music now much clearer and greater in volume, Sakura works at dispelling the slight smile that tugs at her lips. Simultaneously knocking on the door frame and entering the room, her brain needs a few seconds longer to process what her eyes are telling her.

That's not…

The music comes to a slow stop, the song sounding unfinished, yet the player not wanting her intrusion to have so much power over his ability to play or not.

The man occupying the room today is not Itachi Uchiha.

But Sakura can't help but think there's some kind of strong resemblance between the two. With dark hair like Itachi's, this man wears his down and free, but has the same spiky locks that remind her of her ex-teammate. Skin as pale and flawless as any aristocrat, contrasts nicely with his dark hair and even darker eyes. Sitting cross-legged on the same cushion Itachi had used, his body is draped in a simple, but expensive-looking navy and white robe.

His shamisen is a glossy black color, its varnished surface painted with the misty white forms of cherry blossoms.

Sakura stammers for a moment, suddenly regretting her sentimentality for leading her down the hallway after some music.

"I – I'm – I – Sorry! I didn't mean to intrude. I thought someone else was playing," Sakura fumbles her words, bowing her head in apology before starting to back out of the room. She has no desire to meet another Akatsuki.

"You may enter," the man speaks, his baritone voice causing Sakura's ears to twitch in recognition.


Sakura's head rises slowly from its former bent position of apology, her lips slightly parted in disbelief.


The man regards her with a blank, empty stare but it lasts for only a moment before a small, secretive smile stretches itself across his face.

No. No. No. No. No.

Sakura's eyes bulge out in shock, her head leaning out from her body as if trying to get a better look at the sight just four meters away from her, resting calmly and indifferent to her tremoring mouth.

Please, no.

"Sakura," his tongue curls around each syllable, relishing the sound of her name, now made even sweeter by her presence, "You've kept me waiting, love."

Whatever words Sakura is about to spit out at him quickly become lodged in her throat, forcing her to swallow several times. Breathing has suddenly become difficult for her.

"You look scared, love. Come take a seat before you faint," the man extends a hand from the instrument resting in his lap, gesturing to the space immediately in front of him. Sakura feels that annoying sting beginning in her eyes.

Kami, I'm going to die here!

"Now, now, don't linger in the doorway," the man admonishes, irritation seeping into his smooth, sculpted visage.

Sakura complies, if only to prolong her life, and edges her way into the room, slowly lowering herself down to the floor and folding her legs up underneath her. Carefully, she maintains just over an arm's length away from her companion, all the while knowing that will do nothing to save her.

The man gives a curt nod of approval at her obedience. Strong fingers dance across the shamisen, picking up where he left off when Sakura entered the room. But his mind isn't on the song. His dark eyes narrow at his audience in a cruel, playful kind of way, studying the way Sakura clasps her hands in her lap to conceal their shaking.

"Did Itachi ever tell you there was a sequel to 'Why the Caged Bird Sings'? The creator felt it would have been such a cruel disappointment if he never gave the little bird a taste of freedom, so he wrote a companion piece to the original."

Sakura doesn't ask how he knows Itachi had played that song for her. She is too busy trying to understand why he is telling her any of this. He's smirking like there is some bigger picture that she is completely blind to while he has a front row seat.

Why are you playing games?

The man ignores her angry silence.

"In the end though, he wrote the little bird right back into captivity. Couldn't deny the audience the pleasure of something so lovely, you see," he explains with an almost imperceptible shrug of the shoulders as if to say, "What can you do?"

"That was awfully selfish of him," Sakura replies, her nonchalant tone so obviously fake that it just makes the man's grin widen.

"That boy," he shakes his head in mock exasperation, "He's sharp, but even Itachi's eyes can't see everything."

The man chuckles. Sakura doesn't get the joke.

Feeling her ire grow, feeling tired and beaten, and just feeling plain sick of the mind games, Sakura slams her palms against the floor between them. They smart, but with a satisfying sense of pain that helps clear away some of her fear.

"Who the hell are you?" Sakura speaks carefully, in a low, controlled voice, hoping that her calm can match his and make her all the more intimidating. Or at least give her the appearance of not being easily intimidated.

The man turns his head to the side as if trying to conceal his smile from her so as not to cause her embarrassment for having not figured it out yet. But even in profile, his gaze remains fixed on her, and Sakura knows he's a clever actor. He has to be if he could pull off the Tobi charade.

"Am I still supposed to call you Tobi?" she spits the name as though merely speaking it has left a foul taste on her tongue. She hates him. Wants to see him die in the most painful of ways.

He enjoys it. Enjoys the show of her little emotions that change as quickly as switching a light on and off. But anger isn't what he wants to deal with at the moment, however entertaining it might be.

"I suppose I may as well tell you if your mind is so determined to stick to such predictable, conventional thinking," the man belittles her, his greater height only adding to the air of superiority that hangs about him, "I am Madara Uchiha."

He allows a moment's pause to let that sink in, watching with interest as the name sinks in and waiting for sudden recognition to spark behind her spring green eyes.

He isn't disappointed.

"That's nonsense!" Sakura replies, "Madara Uchiha died long ago in battle against the first hokage at the Valley of the End. You can't be him," she says confidently, her hands still clapped flat against the floor, curl into fists.

"You're certain, are you?" his eyebrow arches in amusement, "Even now?"

And Sakura watches in fascinated horror as his dark eyes bleed from black to red, staring back at her with a cold fire lit within their depths.

Satisfied with her reaction, the man releases the illusion, ripping away the last bit of protection Sakura assumed she had.

A sharp inhale of air is the first sound Sakura makes though she started shaking at least half a minute before that. In the blink of an eye, she has found herself resting in the lap of the man she had just been sitting across from. With her legs draped over one of his legs and her left side leaning against his chest she can feel the rise and fall of his rib cage. He's real and solid…and he's trapped her. Mentally and physically.

"How long?" her shaky voice manages between clenched teeth.

A hand strokes her hair, "Since you first stepped foot inside this room."

A small whimper of disbelief escapes her throat and Sakura quickly tries to put a lid on her frenzied emotions.

Denial. Horror. Revulsion. Panic.

How had she not sensed it until now? In truth, she hadn't sensed it at all. She didn't know she was trapped in an illusion until he decided to break it.

He's Madara Uchiha. I don't have a chance.

She has to accept it now. There's no way to get around the fact that he's an Uchiha with eyes like that and such strong features like Itachi and Sasuke that they must have all been cut from the same cloth.

"Why?" her voice is rough with a mixture of shock, fear, and defeat.

But I was so close!

Will he kill her now, rendering all her preparation work pointless, the syringe left in the vase until someone bothers to throw out all the flowers left in her room?

But why would the Akatsuki kill me now? That wouldn't make sense.

It's the only hope she has to cling to, the only thing to give her a minute amount of courage.

"Why what, love?" Madara asks maddeningly, rubbing the ends of her hair between his fingers.

"Why am I here? What do you want with me?" she clarifies, her words sharp and annunciated, frustration gnawing at her insides.

The man gives a short, light laugh, not in the least bit sincere.

"Why you, hm? Why Sakura? Well, love, that's a question I've been trying to answer for myself for quite some time…" he trails off, his fingers slipping through the ends of her hair to trail down her arm. As if remembering himself and that he has a watchful audience, his fingers halt in their lazy tracings and abruptly reach for her hand, bringing it to his mouth to place a soft kiss on her palm, his lips as soft as a butterfly's wing.

Just like in that dream.

Sakura disengages herself from Madara's hold, surprised that he allows it. Taking the seat she thought she took before realizing it had all been an illusion, Sakura crosses her legs like him, knowing she needs to play things carefully and keep their interaction to conversation only. She can't afford to fight him.

Madara picks up the shamisen that had been cast to the side.

"You, dear girl," the man smiles unkindly, "Have somehow surrounded yourself with some very important people. I've been keeping tabs on you for a while, not really paying attention so much to you at first as I was with the people you were closely tied to. You really were just a very average kunoichi to start out with, weren't you?"

His narrowed eyes and cruel smirk fill Sakura to the brim with all of the same old insecurities.

"Compared to the jinchuriki brat and the sole survivor of the Uchiha massacre, you were just a little slip of a girl, easy to get lost in the shadows. Even under the eye of your old teacher, the Copy Ninja," he strums the strings of the shamisen, the fingers of his other hand dancing across the top of the instrument's neck, "You were no one."

Something like a blade punctures Sakura's fragile confidence. To hear someone she doesn't even know speaking so plainly of her flaws…is positively maddening.

He strikes a deep, resonating chord, "But then you got tired of being no one, didn't you? You wanted to be strong, too. So you became the hokage's apprentice and now rival her in your mastery of medical jutsu."

How does he know all of this? My motivation for becoming Tsunade's apprentice – just how long has he been watching me?

Moving the strings of the shamisen so lightly that they barely make a sound, he continues, "You became interesting to me," he gives Sakura an appraising look that makes her skin crawl, "And that could be dangerous for someone named after the cherry blossoms of spring…such things don't tend to last very long in this world.

"I suppose I just couldn't help myself," he gives a short laugh of self-deprecation, "Especially after Sasori was revived from your battle. He was obsessed with the girl who could punch craters in the earth and read his finger movements in the midst of battle. The girl with pink hair and green eyes. I didn't have to ask for a name; I knew exactly who he was talking about. He wanted you for himself, and soon the entire Akatsuki became preoccupied with getting you here. Deidara is smitten with you, Hidan can't keep his foul hands off of you, and even Pain seems to be fond of you.

"But you should know, Sakura," he leans in, as if to impart a deep secret, "That if anyone here has a claim to you, it would be me. I was the one who discovered you first. I was the one who watched you transform from an incompetent little girl into a stunning kunoichi. So make no mistake about it; you belong to me, love."

Sakura bristles at his possessive tone. She belongs to no one! And most certainly not to this deranged man whose atrocities against humanity are too numerous to count. She tells him as much.

White teeth gleam back at her, "Oh, but you do. And you see, love, you've been something of a distraction for the organization. You can't help it; it's just how you are. But I'm going to turn that around. I'm going to make you useful to me so that the Akatsuki can proceed with its plans."

"And what would those be?" Sakura tries to put on a careless front, but her words are just a little too sharp, her fists clenched a little too tightly against her thighs. She is no actor on the stage this man has created. She is merely a prop that has no will of its own, and he would manipulate her to his every whim.

A tool. All shinobi are merely tools for stronger shinobi. But somewhere along the line…it has to end.

So who's the baddest of the bad?

As if in answer to her thoughts, the man extends a hand out to her, crooking his index finger to beckon her forward. Sakura eyes him with a dubious expression, not in the slightest inclined to close what little distance separates her from the hungry jaws of the monster.

But again, in the blink of an eye, she finds she's back in the raven-haired demon's arms.

She wonders if she had ever been released from the jutsu in the first place. Her head pulses with pain just trying to separate reality from illusion.

"I'm going to create a peaceful world."

Sakura's eyebrows scrunch together, doubt clearly written across her features.

"You don't believe me do you, little one?"

"We walk in the same light, you and I," he smiles ever so gently, brushing a curled finger across the softness of her cheek.

"We are nothing alike," Sakura snarls animalistically, rearing her head back from the cool touch of his other hand at her throat. However, she can do no more to escape his embrace.

"But we do, love," he insists, a cruel upturn of his lips setting Sakura's face in a scowl, "We both desire the same thing," he nuzzles her ear, his voice turning into a low, delicious whisper, "Perfection."

Chills zip down Sakura's spine at the uncomfortable intimacy and his assertion of their likeness.

True, Sakura has always prided herself on mastering every medical jutsu Lady Tsunade had thought to teach her (and a few she hadn't), and she had been famous in her genin days for quickly and successfully completing chakra control training exercises as well as acing all knowledge-based, written assignments. But she has always seen that kind of studious determination as normal and a positive, harmless trait to possess…So what could this man possibly be insinuating?

What is it that he's trying to perfect?

"Tell me, love, have your little talks with Pain changed your mind about anything? Right and wrong isn't so black and white as your precious Konoha would have it seem, is it? Loyalty is a valuable commodity, and used for the wrong purpose, can be a dangerous, deadly possession to wield," he threads his pale fingers through silken strands of petal pink hair, the texture as light and delicate as her namesake.

"Your loyalty to your village is admirable, Sakura," he states, but something admonishing in his tone makes Sakura hunch her shoulders in resentment of the compliment, "But, all tools, no matter how well-crafted and sharp they may be to start out with, are eventually cast aside and replaced. The perfect shinobi is, in essence, still expendable. It is to be expected that a life is willingly offered up for the sake of the whole. That is how the system works."

Sakura sits silently, waiting patiently for his wandering commentary to circle back to a point. She hates it. She hates the way in which his voice takes its time meandering around each syllable; he has a winning hand of cards and he knows it. He can take all the time in the world with her.

"However," he pauses, a superior inflection filling that single word, "The system is flawed."

Sakura straightens her back at this, though her muscles are still tensed in a desperate attempt to get away from his touch. This isn't what she had expected to hear.

"What do you care?" she asks, momentarily giving into her curiosity, "You're not exactly part of the 'system'. If anything, you're working against it."

"On the contrary, love," he corrects her, cupping her face gently, and then more firmly as she attempts to pull away, "I consider myself an outside agent working to fix the damage that has been dealt to the world by the current world powers – namely, the hidden villages. The villages have strayed from the true path to a peaceful and prosperous world. Blame it on what you like: greed, corruption, power struggles, ignorance – the point, is that it cannot be allowed to continue."

"And how do you propose to fix it?" Sakura's skepticism soaks through her voice and leaks into her facial expression.

Bemused, the man shifts the kunoichi's weight on his lap until she straddles him with a leg secured around either of his hips.

Just as Sasori treated her for the majority of her capture those first few weeks, this man makes Sakura into his own life-sized marionette, positioning the arms she has no control of around his neck in a warm embrace. Her brow crinkles in anger and indignity. Never again would she take for granted control over her own body.

"Simply put, the entire world will be placed under my control," he states succinctly and matter-of-factly.

Sakura's eyes bulge at the audacity of the claim. The sheer self-righteous authority and self-assuredness with which he speaks is enough to stun her.

Not to mention the absurdity of the statement.

He clucks his tongue at her disbelief, "Really now, Sakura, it's like you don't trust me at all. I'm a man of my word."

Sakura stares back at him defiantly, refusing to blink or look away from those blazing red eyes, knowing it's both foolish and the only means of rebellion she has right now.

He leans his face down to hers, whispering softly against her cheek in a tone that makes her shiver, "Perhaps you'll be able to taste the truth on my lips."

It's not a question or request for permission. If anything, he's simply voicing his inner thoughts aloud and Sakura just so happens to be eavesdropping.

"No – !"

But the kunoichi's protests are cut off as his mouth slants across hers, not imploringly but with the mission of conquering.

She remains frozen, statue-like and unresponsive to his administrations, hoping both to anger him and dissuade him from pursuing anything more.

But Madara seems not to care that Sakura is having none of it and is simply waiting for him to finish – really, it's her only option now that she's immobilized within his jutsu. So he takes his time, tasting her lips and running his own across hers, feeling the soft, supple texture and enjoying their plumpness. When he withdraws, Sakura's flushed face betrays her fury and embarrassment.

"You're not a man, you're a demon! A sick, delusional excuse for a human being. You think anyone wants to live in a world you control? You, who've killed hundreds, thousands?!" Sakura cries, straining to break out of his hold, but she can't move.

"You think so, love? You think this is bad? Let me show you the demon that writhes inside me because, believe me, this isn't it."

That's when Sakura's surroundings, even Madara and herself, warp into some kind of alternate reality. All the colors melt and fade into an inverted grayscale and Sakura wonders if this is the Tsukuyomi technique of the Mangekyo Sharingan that Kakashi had experienced. He never told her much about his torture at the hands of Itachi and Sakura never pushed him to because she was aware of the psychological damage such a technique can cause to its victims. Still, he had left her with the chilling comment that he fervently hoped she would never have to find out what it's like for herself.

Looks like his wishing was wasted.

Sakura takes a few seconds to process that her perspective has switched as she's now left lying on her back, staring up at a foggy red sky, and above her, a ghastly red moon illuminates the landscape in hazy, tainted light.

Attempting to rise to her feet, she finds that her limbs are chained, pulled taut to stakes stuck into the barren earth beneath her. She bucks her hips off the ground, rattling the chains uselessly and testing their strength, but to no avail. They're too firmly lodged into the soil and her range of motion is restricted as though she's ready to be quartered.

Madara is nowhere to be seen.

Letting her neck muscles relax, the back of her skull thuds against the ground and she's left waiting in anticipation for what surely won't be pleasant.

Sakura has heard the horror stories of interrogations and torture methods, some perpetrated by Konoha's own Ibiki Morino, and she knows she's not prepared for whatever this devil of a man has in store for her.

But she has no choice.

Whatever he does, I'll survive this.

Sakura closes her eyes, refusing to look at the blood moon anymore.

Whatever he does, I will not break.

She focuses on the rhythm of her breathing. In. Out. In. Out.

Whatever he does, I will not scream.

Something stands over her, she can feel it even with her eyes closed – that nearly imperceptible change in the intensity of light.

"You're only proving me right, you know," Sakura says blandly, her voice flat and accepting of whatever is to come while her eyes remain resolutely shut, "Whatever it is you're about to do to me, only confirms you're a monster. Any world you imagine controlling…Well, it must be something like hell."

Sakura's arms shake, but the chains provide no slack.

I will survive.

She tries to convince herself that it's just an illusion, that any pain he's about to inflict on her doesn't really exist. Her body is fine, grounded and unharmed in the real world.

But it's hard to tell herself that when her muscles are cramping from their stiff positions and the manacles are bitterly tight and cold against her skin.

"It's not my wish to convince you through force that this world needs to be re-created. People have marred its surface for long enough with their petty wars," Madara walks around her, coming to stop between her feet, forcing Sakura to lift her head up at an uncomfortable angle, but she doesn't dare take her eyes off him now that they're open.

"But I will reclaim this world and it shall know peace, perfect and all-encompassing. Pain, suffering…these will become relics of a broken past."

Sakura's perspective shifts again as the ground she lies on becomes vertical, having transformed into a free-standing slab of earth giving her a front row seat to the spectacle Madara has in store for her.

Out of the bloody mist rise shadows that quickly grow into substantial, human-like forms until Sakura's eyes meet those of the familiar faces she's grown up with. Every friend, every mentor, every ally in arms, stands before her with dull, lifeless eyes.

Her pupils shrink in horror, flicking to Madara, but his back is turned to her, his arms crossed as he prepares to take in the show he's already designed in his mind.

Everything is still, utterly silent, save for Sakura's frantic breathing. She spots Ino near the front of the procession, Shizune a little further back, close to Tsunade-sama. Her parents. Kakashi. Yamato. Sai sans his usual fake smile. There's Shikamaru and Lee, even Gaara. And so many, many more.

Madara doesn't even lift a finger, content to let Sakura's anxiety build.

What are you doing?

And where are they?

Her eyes scan the crowd urgently. Despite her brain telling her none of this is real and that all of these people are safe and alive wherever they may be in the real world, it's practically an involuntary action to look for her old accomplices.

Team Seven is re-united, if only in Madara's jutsu.

Standing toward the back and on opposite sides of the assembly, she spots Naruto and Sasuke, facing forward and at the ready just like everyone else. She hasn't seen Sasuke in person in ages so that it nearly causes her to call out to him. She bites her lip, holding back the name that will draw no response from whom it belongs.

Sakura's head jerks back to Madara's form but he has disappeared from her field of vision.

And she soon finds out why.

The first one to cry out in pain is Tsunade.

And then all hell breaks loose.

Left and right and before her very eyes, her friends and family are stricken by invisible enemies though their wounds are very real. Slashed, crushed, disemboweled, beheaded, strangled, and a variety of other grotesque methods are used to dispel her loved ones who put up no form of resistance to the onslaught.

And all the while she is left with the sound of their anguished screams ringing in her ears, crying out in pain.

Crying out for her help.

Wails for Sakura's help rise up and crash just as quickly as victim after victim is cut down by a phantom enemy. Their calls for aid go unanswered but not unheard.

Sakura had promised herself three things: to survive, to not be broken, and to not scream.

But she can't help but think simply surviving is the best she can hope for in this situation. All sense of reality and illusion has escaped her as she screams for the slaughter to stop, screams for her friends to fight back, screams for Madara to spare them and kill her instead. But if Madara is still there, he does not answer her pleas. Sakura flings her body outward to stop the massacre but is pulled back against an unforgiving wall as her shackles hold her in place.

She watches as one after another collapses to the ground, now more red than gray with all the blood the soil has absorbed. Hot tears spill down her cheeks as she howls for it all to stop. So many have already fallen, she has to get down from this wall and save the rest!

That's when the first slash rips across Naruto's face, cutting clean across the bridge of his nose. His face contorts in fear and pain.

A blow to the back of his head sends him sprawling forward and as he picks himself up, Sakura watches in open-mouthed horror as a scarlet stain blossoms to life in the middle of his chest, growing as her friend sinks to his knees and falls over.

"NARUTO!" her shriek echoes across the barren field, but the manslaughter doesn't stop, doesn't even pause for a single moment to acknowledge her anguish or the fractures running like veins through her heart.

It simply continues, seemingly choosing its next victim at random. But how can it be merely coincidence that Sasuke is next? Following right after the boy who had proclaimed him as his rival since their days at the academy.

A ghostly blade severs his arm up past the elbow, blood spurting forth to mix with that of so many others. Never again would he be able to wield his sword.

Next, she watches as multiple stab wounds pepper his torso, his remaining hand reaching up to clutch a particularly nasty puncture wound near his heart. Blood seeps through his pale fingers, his jaw clenched tightly in agony.

"Sasuke! Fight! Fight! You have to – !" Sakura's voice breaks on a sob, "You have to fight back!"

Sweat beads on her brow and her wrists now bare the angry red wear of straining against her bonds. Her mouth now dry and raspy, she shouts hoarsely for him to save himself, to be the fighter she knows he is.

But the proud Uchiha puts up no resistance and Sakura is obligated to watch as a thin ribbon of red slides across his throat, like watching the stitching being pulled out from a stuffed animal. Dead eyes lock with hers until the head tips backward, detached from its body, and drops to the ground.

Sakura screams until her voice gives out.

And still, all around her, her loved ones cry in pain as they too are cut down.

She doesn't know how long it lasts. Hours, days?

But sometime after the last body hits the ground, Sakura finds her own face pressed into the dusty, dry earth, her chains having dissolved into nothingness. She could finally run onto the field.

But there is no one left to save.

So Sakura lies face down in the dirt, her legs and arms too numb to move, her head too heavy to lift. It's strange, the way she feels after having watched every last person that ever mattered to her be slaughtered right before her eyes. The way she doesn't even feel alive herself anymore, just a floating mass of consciousness whose grief is too great to let her fly away from the source of so much pain. She stares unseeingly at the ground, bits of sediment digging into her cheek and drool starting to collect at the corner of her mouth.


Tobi –Madara – had already given her a glimpse of her home in shambles. She thought that was the worst sight she had ever seen. But that was just the aftermath.

No, the true tragedy is what she had just witnessed. Konoha could be rebuilt. It would take time, sweat, and a lot of back-breaking labor, but it could be built up again brick by brick and board by board.

But you can't replace the people who have been lost.

And that's what makes a home truly a home.

My home is gone now. It's over.

Madara watches dispassionately. The kunoichi is just as much a slave to her emotions now as she was as a child and though he wants to protect her from this type of slaughter in the real world, a lesson must be taught. Such death and violence will only continue if he allows things to proceed as they are. He has to make her see the error in the ways of modern shinobi, the error in the hidden villages themselves.

Surely she can see reason in an infinite peace. Surely she can be made to see that what he's setting out to accomplish is an act that will benefit humanity; it's benevolent, it's selfless, it's justice.

Her back barely rises just enough to show that she is still breathing and Madara approaches her from behind. She doesn't respond to the sound of his footsteps and when he kneels down to get a good look at her, glassy green eyes stare straight back at him, but it's like looking into the eyes of a doll. Still and lifeless, there is no light behind them.

Madara brings her back into his lap, sitting in the middle of the field now barren of all the corpses and blood.

For a moment, she stirs in his arms as if in protest of being touched, but she soon goes still again with eyes wide open but uncomprehending.

He has the power to break her or caress her, to save her or destroy her. And they both know it's entirely his decision.

"Now do you see, love? This is the kind of thing I want to put an end to. This pain is unnecessary, but people keep bringing it upon themselves. They just don't know when to stop fighting; it's in their blood," Madara strokes her hair absentmindedly, his train of thought drifting to the set of plans he has already put in motion. Soon, it will all come to an end.

He will save this girl and so many other people like her who were never meant to know the atrocities of war but were thrust into a world unaccustomed to anything else.

Supporting her neck, he leaves a trail of kisses along the curve of her jaw and down her slender throat. This will be the last he sees of her.

At least for a little while.

The road to peace will be a bloody one and he has to make sure she survives it so that she can see the world he intends to create. Even now, with the comforting weight of Sakura in his arms, he can't explain what enamored him to her in the first place.

But he suspects it has something to do with how an anomaly like Sakura – so fragile and yet so determined to live so that she can protect her loved ones – can exist in a world like this one. She's his hope that this world is worth saving.

Placing one last lingering kiss against her lips, he then leans down to whisper against the shell of her ear.

Sakura's fingers twitch to life.

Sakura doesn't recall how she made it back to her room, much less how she ended up in her bed with the blankets snuggly pulled over her, but here she is. Completely and utterly shaken. Very little makes sense to her right now except for those demon eyes penetrating right into her soul…


She can't allow herself to be drawn back into that pit of nightmares deep within her mind. That place where he had taken her to torment her until she screamed while he merely stood by.

Sakura simply can't process that Madara Uchiha is alive.

Could it be a trick?

But she felt his power. Felt his body. He was real and solid and alive.

Ripping the blankets away from her body, she swings her legs over the side of the bed, her elbows resting on her knees while her hands fist themselves in her hair as if they could claw their way to sanity.

Pieces of a puzzle that she didn't even know existed, much less that it was in need of solving, begin to fall into place within her mind. Somehow, Madara Uchiha is among the living. What's more, he's working within the Akatsuki who have been after the bijuu and, subsequently, the jinchuriki like Naruto.

Sometimes, it's difficult to conceive just how complex an individual life is because it is so interwoven with each life it touches, being altered and altering others to the point that it is difficult to define exactly where one life ends and another begins.

Because when you take a step back to get the whole picture, you can finally see the forest for all the trees. The effect one individual life can have…and the influence it wields over the generations and generations to come after it is simply amazing.

Though she hates to admit it, to feed into his obvious ego, Madara Uchiha is the perfect example of said influence. The repercussions of his actions as one of Konoha's founders are still being felt today.

Of course, it doesn't help that he should be dead by now and obviously isn't!

Sakura's head hurts at pondering the possibility of how the Uchiha ancestor pulled that one off. He had achieved some kind immortality…or what made it appear that way. Either way, it seems to Sakura that he had managed to accomplish what Orochimaru and even her own mentor had failed to maintain: youthfulness.

And with it, he had maintained all the stealth, all the power that felt like an overwhelming pressure enclosing Sakura, his chakra practically sizzling against her skin.

Sakura has known fear on multiple counts throughout her life – quite a few of them taking place during her time as Akatsuki's captive. But none of them compared to the encounter she had with that man.

He is the embodiment of her nightmares in their truest sense. And what's worse, he has the misguided, stomach-churning notion that she belongs to him in some way.

What was he even saying? Some nonsense about noticing my potential first?

Just how long has he been watching her? Her, the girl who had always felt greatly outclassed by her teammates who couldn't help being exceptional?

The fact that he has watched her, studied her, formed some sort of an attachment to her, is just all too much to process. She doesn't think she can even begin to understand it. It's completely illogical.

But there it is.

In the purple-blue bruises imprinted on the thin skin of her wrists like manacles, Sakura has the evidence of his existence. Of his obsession.

Sakura has known fear, but she can't ever recall the blind panic that filled her veins like lead, trapping her in her place with terror. She doesn't think it would have made much of a difference if he hadn't trapped her in his Tsukuyomi; she had been too terrified to move.

But she is free of his presence for now and she needs to make sure it remains that way.

She needs to leave.

Shakily, Sakura makes her way into the bathroom, hoping that a long, hot shower will help soothe some of the tension crippling her body. Maybe in the midst of the steam she can sort out her thoughts and decide on a confident course of action. Wearily, she stands on unsteady feet and stiffly makes her way to the shower.

When she finishes and walks back into the bedroom, wrapping her hair up in a towel as she goes, she notices something resting on her nightstand, the vases having clearly been pushed aside to set it prominently in the middle for her to notice. Whether it had been there when she first woke up or if someone had snuck in while she was showering, she can't be certain. She doesn't like it either way.

A box , decorated in slabs of rose quartz and gold metal work, sits silently and suspiciously for her to chance upon it. Noting the small, gold latch on the front of the box, she releases it and opens the lid to reveal a small figurine of a woman in a graceful pose, a single arm extended to the heavens, her face upturned and expectant.

A music box?

Picking it up in one hand, Sakura turns it around for inspection and, sure enough, finds the windup key and decides to give it a try. With a few turns, she sets the small dancer in motion in a continuous swirling spin and the first notes break the silence of her bedroom, accompanied by a small noise of surprise from the pink-haired girl.

She knows the song all too well by now.

'Why the Caged Bird Sings' wafts through the air in a slow, classical fashion and Sakura is left standing in front of it, not sure why she feels so shocked by it at this point.

Mind games. More and more mind games.

But it gives her an idea.

Madara most likely intended to either infuriate her or put her on edge with this little gift – and he succeeded at both – but it has sparked an idea of how Sakura can launch her own plans into action. She can use this.

And she knows just who she can use it on. In fact, he should be coming to fetch her for dinner relatively soon.

Dancing slowly in an empty room is how he comes across her. With her back to the door and her senses dulled to the presence of his chakra, it doesn't require much stealth to chance a peek behind the partially closed door. Normally, he wouldn't bother with concealing his presence like this; Sakura had been his property before she even arrived at the Akatsuki base, after all. He could pass through her humble dwellings as he pleased for he had been the one to bestow them upon her.

But right now, she is a world unto herself, unguarded and unaware to the dangers that swirl eagerly around her. Her porcelain mask of false bravado has been set aside, and he cannot decipher a single trace of animosity in the arch of her brow or the curve of her full lips. In this moment, she is at peace and Sasori would be damned if he denies himself the sight of Sakura like this.

'Who knew my little doll could be so endearing?' Sasori muses to himself, crossing his arms against his chest as he leans against the door frame. Sakura spins in a series of lazy circles. Standing on tiptoe, with her arms stretched out from her body and fingers splayed, she evokes the image of a baby bird delighting in its first taste of flight.

But Sakura does not glance up at the man lurking in her doorway and Sasori notes with amused contempt that her eyes remain blissfully shut.

'Still such a child.'

Oddly enough, the ex-Suna nin cannot summon the will to belittle her for it. Instead, he settles for gently prodding the door further inward with the toe of his sandal, allowing for a less obstructed view of his most recent acquisition. He wonders how something so fragile had managed to survive the life of a shinobi. Surely even she knows that she is not cut from the right cloth for such a job? He wants to chalk it up to the kind of dumb luck that only the young are fortunate enough to possess, but that would be underrating her intelligence.

Still, Sasori's fingers twitch involuntarily.

He wants nothing more than to lock Sakura away from the rest of the world – from the rest of mankind – until he can make her in the image of his perfect, everlasting art. Anything could happen to her in this state, and it could very well happen at the hands of one of his so-called "comrades." In fact, Sasori had been having the increasingly uncomfortable feeling that something would happen to interfere with his plans for Sakura while she remained here with the organization.

But Sasori had never prided himself on being a selfless man. To deny the organization contact with Sakura would inevitably mean denying himself as well. That is why he had been upfront from the beginning with the rest of the members as to what he has planned for the little kunoichi. Better to have her here under his close watch than trying to keep tabs on her from afar.

"Are you going to stand and watch all day, or are you going to join me?"

Heavy-lidded, mahogany eyes widen in surprise at the calm tone, only a pinch of irritation evident in her words. Sakura's light foot work brings her to the nightstand beside her bed and he watches curiously as her fingers work at winding the key to the music box that had been slowing down to a sleepy crawl. The box appears to be made of rose quartz, inlaid with the tiniest of pearls around the edges and embellished with golden detail. Where she had acquired such a lavish gift, Sasori can only guess, but he has his suspicions. She turns to him with an expectant expression on her face and he pushes his worrisome thoughts aside.

Sakura notes the small smirk gracing Sasori's lips as he strolls into her bedroom at an unhurried pace. When he stands a mere foot apart from her, Sakura is forced to tilt her head up to maintain eye contact with the puppeteer. Without a word of instruction or the intrusive tug of chakra strings, Sakura raises one hand to clasp the slightly larger one Sasori proffers, and places her other hand lightly atop his shoulder. Sasori's arm wraps around her back and they fluidly glide into the motions of a dance that neither know the steps to.

Sakura follows Sasori's lead as though they had been accustomed to each other's natural rhythm for years. She can only attribute it to Sasori's inborn grace and affinity for the human body in addition to her own feel for the melody of the song. She allows herself to be twirled and drawn in and out from her partner's embrace, not once hesitating or resisting Sasori's decisions.

Show him trust.

To relinquish control over her own body and will is exactly what a master puppeteer like Sasori would wish from Sakura. Such a feat is the ultimate victory for one in his profession.

Pretend it's just like it was with Chiyo.

But the problem is that it isn't like how it had been with the Suna elder. Sakura has formed no mutual truce with this man, and she has the distinct feeling that should she give him absolute control, he would not be so willing to give it back.

Sasori spins her rapidly, and Sakura concentrates on not collapsing in dizziness. Just as she is about to lose her footing, Sasori dips her low, cradling her back with one arm as his other hand clasps hers tightly close to her chest. Sakura's vision seems to wobble of its own accord even though she knows her head remains perfectly still, her eyes locked with those of her dance partner to keep her in her place. The tinkling song of the quartz music box that had lured the puppeteer to Sakura's door dies down softly until only the light breathing of the two dancers stirs the air. Sasori doesn't release his hold on Sakura's hand. In fact, his fingers tighten around her captured hand and the heel of his palm presses into her back so that she is pushed into his chest.

All he wants is to claim her, to make her understand that she is his and he will care for and look after her so that, in a sense, she possesses a part of him as well. At first, he had blamed her and damned her for forcing him into his current physical state with all of its flesh and bodily needs. All of its distracting emotions. He had hated it.

But his human form has reminded him of one thing – something he had forgotten after years of living as an incomplete puppet. For the first time since he was a child, he remembers what it's like to crave affection from another human being. To want to hold someone and be held at the same time. Normally, he would call such desire a weakness and just one of the multitude of reasons for why his puppet form is preferable and ultimately superior. But when he looks into this kunoichi's brilliant green eyes, filled with such powerful emotions when she stares him down, he thinks maybe he can satiate this desire. It's irrational and reckless to want what he does, but he's been depraved of human contact for so long that his present longing for it would be torturous to ignore.

It both scares and excites him.

Sakura feels an almost imperceptible shiver run through Sasori's arms as his hold lingers on her. Her lips turn down slightly at the corners as she tries to take a step back, ready to be released.

That's when Sasori is compelled to act. Call it a whim, call it selfish indulgence, but Sasori pulls Sakura to him, refusing to relinquish her hand as his free hand cups the back of her neck, guiding her face to his.

He doesn't know if it's because of Sakura or if she is simply a means to an end, but he refuses to let his frustrations control him and cause constant anxiety. He is the puppet master and that means he is not only in control of his puppets, but has control of himself.

And with that decision made, his mouth captures his doll's, in a way much unlike the first time he kissed her. That had been a moment of curiosity to see how the little girl would respond to such a thing. Her reaction had pleased him. Fear, indignity, anger – all of those emotions bubbling behind her eyes told him what he wanted to know.

So innocent and so young, Sakura is completely inexperienced and unprepared for what she will have to face with the Akatsuki. With him.

But this kiss isn't searching for an answer, it isn't pre-planned or intentional. It just is. Sasori is doing this solely for himself and it's such a human action that Sakura is momentarily frozen in place with shock.

She can feel the difference of this kiss too. It's not dominating in the way that the first one was; it doesn't feel as though he's trying to humiliate her or scare her into submission. This one is gentler…almost as if he wants her to participate.

That's the last thing she wants to do, but she knows a golden opportunity when she sees it. She couldn't have planned for this moment more perfectly.

Hesitantly, she presses her lips against his, and just that slight affirmation is all it takes for Sasori to press for more. He clasps her hand tighter and a second later, Sakura squeezes his fingers back in reassurance. In reassurance of what, she doesn't know, but Sasori seems so vulnerable right now that she can hardly believe it.

All of those suppressed emotions over the years must have finally caught up to him.

When she feels the ginger prod of his tongue tracing her bottom lip, actually asking for her compliance rather than taking it, Sakura's first instinct is to withdraw and pull away. But she forces her feet to firmly remain planted in their spot and begrudgingly opens her mouth just a fraction of an inch.

It's enough.

The puppet master's tongue plunges past her lips and Sakura internally recoils from the invasion, hating the feeling of this man – this criminal – kissing her in such an intimate way. A way that she had never been kissed before.

The fingers of her free hand, dangling limply at her side, flex in repulsion and the need to get away, but Sasori is unobservant of this, too preoccupied with her mouth.

Time to end this, puppet man.

Sakura's arm slowly reaches to lift up the hem of her shirt, calmly reaching for the syringe she has stored in the waistband of her skirt. Doing her best to keep Sasori distracted from these slight movements, she leans in closer to his face, boldly running her tongue against the length of his. She nearly gags when he draws her own tongue out and into his mouth, prompting her to explore him.

How the hell does Ino stomach seduction missions?!

But she goes along with it, an embarrassed blush thoroughly dusting her cheeks. Carefully, she takes a peek out from between dense eyelashes, opening them just enough to catch a glimpse of the puppet master's face. More specifically, to note with delight that his eyes are closed, blind to what she is about to do.

With deft fingers, she pushes off the cap on the needle and draws her wrist back, ever so slightly…

Releasing her with a sharp inhale of air and a nearly comical expression of pure bewilderment, Sasori staggers a few steps back from the pink-haired siren whose spell he had succumbed to.

"You wretched – vile - !"

But his string of insults is interrupted as he collapses to his knees and then completely falls to the ground, barely managing to struggle his way onto his elbows to prop himself up and glare at Sakura. She stands over him, and from this angle he can't help but envision her as a vengeful goddess. Standing tall and proud over the man responsible for imprisoning her, she looks down at him with unconcealed contempt, her free-flowing pink locks framing her stern face.

To his eyes, she is a piece of art even when cast in the light of a traitor.

Sakura's tongue darts out to lick her lips, entrancing Sasori with the sight of that fleshy, pink muscle. But she retracts it only to spit venomously at his feet, pointedly making a show of ridding herself of the taste of him. Sasori looks down the length of his body to his left thigh where a small syringe still protrudes from his flesh. The slight sting of pain it first inflicted has quickly been consumed with the overwhelming numbness that now rages through nearly every part of his body. It takes every bit of will power he has to keep himself propped up on his arms, and he knows in just a matter of minutes he will be completely immobilized. Completely defenseless to whatever she has in store for him.

"You little brat," he hisses, the promise of pain clearly seeping into his heated glare and clenched teeth, "You'll regret this, I can promise you that."

But to his complete frustration, she barely arches an eyebrow at his threat, knowing he can't make a move for her in his current state. He's completely exposed and vulnerable. She could kill him if she chose to do so. For a second time.

Sasori can't summon the strength to care much though, his body is growing heavier by the second and he notes with little concern that his vision is growing bleary. He doesn't know what she injected him with, some kind of neurotoxin perhaps. Whether or not it is fatal, he can't determine at the present. But she isn't drawing a weapon to slit his throat and end it here and now, puzzling him as to why.

Really, there could only be one answer: escape.

With an irritated grunt, his arms give out beneath him and Sasori doesn't even feel the pain of his head dropping back to hit the floor. He can't even move the muscles in his face to convey as much hatred as he can at the little, pink-haired girl who merely watches him with a gleam of satisfaction in her clinically calm eyes. With only the control of his roaming eyes, he watches through the steadily increasing haze as Sakura closes the lid on her now silent music box. Picking up something from the dresser, she comes to kneel next to Sasori's head and he knows she's relishing in her victory, spiting him for all she has been put through.

Dimly, he makes out the straight edges of a rectangle and at the sound of Sakura's fingers flipping briskly through pages, realizes she is holding out a book for him to inspect. Turning it around so he can see the yellowed pages and scrawled print, she says in a triumphant voice, "It's funny what the past has to teach us, isn't it?"

As she says it, Sakura suppresses a shiver at the unwanted memory of the shadow man from her dreams asking her about her history lessons. Stomping down on the recollection of that unpleasant exchange, she turns her attention back to the present, determined to take away some small glimmer of satisfaction from this horrible experience with the Akatsuki.

"I think this is an example of when one would say the student has surpassed the master. Don't you agree?"

Sakura smirks when Sasori's eyes widen and his nostrils flare out in anger at her audacity. But he can't rise up to throttle her neck like she knows he so desperately wishes to do.

Dropping the book with its pages open to the concoction she used against its own creator, Sakura stands and makes her way to the door not sparing the fallen Akatsuki another glance.

Belatedly, Sasori mentally curses his leader's orders to delay Sakura's transformation.

It's the last coherent thought to pass through the puppeteer's mind before billowing clouds of darkness drown him into unconsciousness.

Three hours.

That's how long Sakura has to successfully escape the Akatsuki base undetected and high-tail it out of – wherever – she happens to be. Technically, it should be ample time, but Sakura knows overconfidence can be lethal.

Carefully pulling the door shut to her bedroom and cutting off her view on the collapsed puppet master, Sakura leans back against the door for a moment. Straining her ears in either direction, she curses her rapidly thumping heart. All she can hear is the blood pulsing in her ears. She has no clue where any of the other Akatsuki members are throughout the base or even if all of them are currently at the facility.

Sakura turns left to the fork in the hallway, taking the branch that leads her to the one room she knows can provide her means of escape…provided the last occupant she encountered in it is no longer present.

In an ideal situation, she would have figured out a means of getting the chakra suppressors off and would have simply smashed through the window in her tea room. But nothing about her captivity could be counted as ideal. The Akatsuki had allowed Sakura to occupy the tea room whenever she chose, only intruding on "her domain" when they sought her attention. Thus, she had had the opportunity to examine the warped glass for its strength and any seals that may have been placed on it to prevent an impromptu exit.

Her findings were not encouraging. A faint glow along the perimeter of the window frame told her all she needed to know. A barrier like that could not be removed without her chakra.

Now, deciding not to waste time on futilely trying to use that window in the tea room she settles for the next best thing.

Hesitantly she stops just to the side of the doorway that she notes with some curioisity has been left open though she hears no music coming from inside. Counting to three to give herself enough time to build up her courage, Sakura cautiously steps into the doorway, halfway caught between the dim shadows of the hallway and the light streaming through the open window in the empty room.

Open window?!

Sakura stares at it like a man lost in the desert would stare at a glass of ice water. Surely, this is just an illusion…or a trap to catch her and teach her a lesson on just how stupid and severely outclassed she is.

With light, cautious steps, Sakura's slippered feet propel her forward. The bottom edge of the window is level with her chin so she would have to jump onto the ledge and hope her body isn't too unaccustomed to training that she could handle that without falling through. Sakura reaches down to grab one of her slippers and cautiously pokes it into the open window. Nothing happens. No electrical shock, no deflection barrier to keep her trapped inside. Nothing.

How could she get this lucky? How had the Akatsuki suddenly slipped up with this massive oversight?

She doesn't dwell on it. The time is for action, not contemplation. Daintily, she drops the slipper straight down from the window, listening intently for its thud to the ground below – fearful that the descent may be too great for her to hear it, much less survive the fall herself. She doesn't have to wait long; Sakura estimates she's only two stories off the ground, maybe three. She could survive that fall easily, and provided she did it correctly, wouldn't sustain a single injury.

Once again she nearly shakes her head at her unbelievable luck. When she makes it back to Konoha, she'll circle this date on her calendar and be sure to remember it for years to come when she needs to do something incredibly difficult.

Gracefully, she leaps onto the window ledge, thankful she can at least rely on herself to do that without chakra. Crouched down, her head nearly touching the brick wall above her, Sakura peers out into the rainy streets surrounding her. The air is heavy with moisture and she can already feel the humidity leave a sticky coating against her exposed skin. Below her, she sees her no longer clean slipper lying in a murky puddle on a narrow paved road. No one is out walking on that road and she wonders if she's looking into a back alley. The nearest buildings are across the street, with a good thirty-five to forty meters of open, unprotected space between her and their tall, shadowed coverage.

Clasping onto the edges of the cement window ledge she peers to her left and right along the building she's been held captive in. Constructed of a drab, gray brick, Sakura concludes that she must have been housed along one of the short wings of the base. Twisting this way and that, she still can't get a good look as to how extensive the rest of the building is, nor can she see any sight of the peaked glass roof of the rock garden or the domed greenhouse.

Vowing to get a better view of the property once she reaches the ground, Sakura unconsciously holds her breath and leaps to the ground below, bending her knees just before impact and allowing her momentum to roll her forward just once before bouncing up to her feet again. Gritting her teeth at the slight sting in her shins, Sakura retrieves her slipper before taking off in an all-out sprint across the road and then the open expanse of muddy, unusable earth.

She runs full out so that when she finally comes upon the building directly ahead of her, she is forced to throw out her arms to catch herself from crashing against the building face first. Panting in exhilaration and panic, she rests her forehead against the rough texture of the charcoal gray building for only a moment before opening her eyes to turn around and get a good long look at the Akatsuki stronghold.

Her mouth opens at the strange sight of a head, constructed out of metal and piping staring back at her, its red lipped mouth gaping open grotesquely with an equally red tongue protruding out of it, as though mocking her. The spire from which this monstrosity of metalwork rests atop, appears to be nestled among many slightly shorter spires. Clearly, the Akatsuki base is a series of buildings and not a singular impenetrable fortress as she had imagined. Perhaps they were all connected in some way and she couldn't tell due to her vantage point and distance, but the headquarters was much larger than she had anticipated. From this distance she could still see the lone window in a short face of gray brick wall that conceals the short series of rooms Sakura had been restricted to for much of her capture.

She had been fortunate to find that window, and even more fortunate that she had managed to escape on her own. Had a rescue team even been sent to retrieve her from the Akatsuki, they would have had a hell of a time locating her in that cluster of metal and brick. Still, she can't see the greenhouse from this angle, and guesses that perhaps it is on the far side of the compound. However, she thinks she can just make out the very peak of the pyramid-like ceiling of the rock garden nestled further into the fortitude of the cluster of buildings than her own dwellings had been.

Sakura shakes her head, at what, exactly, she can't say. Perhaps disbelief. Perhaps a mild awe. This village is certainly different compared to her own home.

Speaking of…

Sakura looks up at the overcast skies whose drizzle is beginning to turn to fatter, more incessant rain drops. Annoyed, she tries her best to orient herself in the right direction based on the weak light from the sun feebly trying to break through the cloud coverage.

Once she has her bearings, Sakura heads east, cutting through back alleys and darting across main roads. Luckily, she doesn't encounter many passerbies, and those who are out pay her little notice, going about their own civilian affairs. She can only assume that the Akatsuki had claimed their base somewhere near the heart of the village, and judging by the dense mass of buildings Sakura has to navigate her way through, she feels safe in her assumption.

But still!

She had done it.

The songbird had escaped…or been released.

How had she done it?

Sakura doesn't know and doesn't care at the moment. She flies away on the wings of adrenaline and paranoia, marveling at the sprawling town – no village – that surrounds her. Not bothering to skirt around the puddles that make a sort of natural path for a challenging game of hopscotch, she drinks in the sight of skyscraper buildings made from gleaming metal and a network of cable lines running overhead as if they had been carefully placed in the great urban design plan of some kind of mechanized spider. The sky is an ominous swirl of purple and gray with a few weak rays of light breaking through the dense cloud coverage. Wherever she is, it's magnificent in a technologically advanced way that Konoha does not possess; the very atmosphere is tinged with an essence that can't be described as anything other than urban decay. Yet, the decay can mostly be attributed to all of the overflowing gutters pouring rainwater into the streets. It's a place in which man and nature seem to be at war with each other. Sakura longs for the familiarity of the deep green forests of the Land of Fire where everything at least gives the illusion of harmony.

This is a place of discord.

A place that had been denied the blessing of any true deity so that it wasn't until a single, misguided man came along and pronounced himself a god that the people remembered what words like "faith" and "hope" even meant.

She has to escape it.

Murky puddles of rainwater leave her bare calves cold and speckled with dirt as she sprints through them.

Sakura runs and runs, her feet slapping loudly against the pavement as all thoughts of stealth quickly escape her in her single-minded need to escape. But as she approaches the outer edges of the village, the gates rising tall and impervious into the dismal skies, she feels her heart leap into her throat.

A mere fifty meters away looms a telephone pole, the nearby skyscrapers shrouding it in shadow. But her keen eyes still catch the graceful figure perched on top of it, as if he had been patiently waiting for her to make her way down this sodden path.

Halting abruptly, Sakura's heart rate picks up, her fight-or-flight instincts warring within her in an incomprehensible jumble so as to render her motionless. The figure leaps to the ground before her, so effortlessly that he doesn't even disturb the puddle before his feet.

Not knowing what her course of action will be and feeling completely useless without any of her weaponry, Sakura hesitates to act. Luckily, Itachi breaches the uneasy silence between them.

"So you have made it after all," his gaze rests on her face in approval, "You should be able to manage getting past the gates without any delays. The guards have been disposed of."

Sakura's eyes widen in surprise at his outright gesture of help. Furthermore, she wants to smack herself for not considering the trouble she would have to go through to get around the shinobi on duty at the gates. Such minor details had never occurred to her when she had the nearly insurmountable task of escaping from Akatsuki headquarters.

"You need to make haste. I realize you are unaccustomed to rigorous physical activity since your abduction, but you must fight through your fatigue to reach Konoha as soon as possible."

Sakura nods; she can practically feel the suppressed chakra coursing through her body, throbbing with the need to be used.

Swallowing thickly, Sakura parts her lips and hesitates, unsure of her words. She has her pick of things she could bring up to him, things she doesn't fully understand, but things she is nonetheless grateful for. Still, one thing stands out in her mind as arguably the most significant factor in her escape.

"T-Thank you. For the flowers, I mean," Sakura says, doggedly refusing to meet Itachi's all-seeing eyes. But her head snaps up to meet his gaze, alerted by the quizzical note in his tone.


Sakura's eyes widen at the slight crease between his brows. Itachi was always certain. His was the voice of reason that had been subtly guiding her throughout her kidnapping.

But not now.

'Even Itachi's eyes can't see everything.'

"Damn," he curses so softly, Sakura can barely catch the whisper of breath. But she studies the way his shoulders stiffen and regards the new look of determination in his face with confusion.

He raises his eyes from the puddled road, and Sakura is surprised his glare hadn't coaxed steam to rise off the pavement from sheer intensity. Whatever has Itachi troubled certainly couldn't bode well for her, could it?

"I did not plan on this. I am afraid my oversight on this matter has played out quite nicely for him," Itachi sighs, running a hand tiredly through his bangs and (nearly) imperceptibly rubbing at his left eye. But the motion isn't lost on Sakura whose keen eyes easily spot the signs of strain and fatigue. In this moment, she is reminded just how young her temporary ally is and the medic in her is tempted to reach out and relieve some of the pressure that surely must be building up in his eyes from such prolonged use of the Sharingan. Two things stop her.

One, she still doesn't have access to her chakra.

Two, she is a loyal kunoichi of Konoha. Itachi may be willing to aid and abet her escape, but she isn't about to willingly restore an enemy to full fighting capacity.

Instead, Sakura clenches her fists against her thighs.

"What do you mean?"

"He wanted me to help you. I thought I had been careful enough in concealing what little contact I had with you, but he still noticed what I was attempting to do. Unfortunately, I have failed you. The only thing that may be working in your favor is the timing of your "escape." I believe it has come sooner than he was expecting. Perhaps, it may give you some small advantage in returning home this early."

Sakura holds her tongue, though she is badly wishing to correct Itachi in the way he makes her time with the Akatsuki sound like it breezed by in the blink of an eye. Her escape hadn't come soon enough as far as she's concerned.

"Why though? Why would he want you to help me get out of here?" Sakura puzzles aloud, impatiently shifting her weight from foot to foot, all too aware that precious seconds are ticking by.

"To kill two birds with one stone. To show me just how foolish and futile my efforts were, I suspect. At any rate, give me your hands," Itachi extends one of his own out to accept Sakura's outstretched arms and she watches as he places his other one over each of her chakra suppressors. In a flurry of one-handed seals, too quick for Sakura to make out each individual hand sign, Itachi releases the binding force in each of the bangles that glow an electric blue color before simmering down to their usual dark blue gleam.

Reduced to plain-looking accessories, Sakura slips the now enlarged bangles over her wrists and crushes them simultaneously in her clenched fist. Blue dust spills from her hand and Itachi wordlessly watches the small flecks of rock float to the ground to swirl on the surface of a puddle.

Feeling that this is the end of something precarious and fragile, Sakura turns to go, wary of the Uchiha at her back but too afraid to leave him with any more parting words of thanks.

"Oh, and Sakura," the kunoichi pauses, her head turning ever so slightly over her left shoulder, her gaze on the reflection of the lightning flashing off the mirrored windows of the building on the side of the road.

"Should your paths cross, please give my foolish little brother a message. Tell him I am growing impatient."

Sakura's eyes grow wide at the message, her neck whipping back to look at the man who had conspired against his organization to save her, his enemy.

But the enigma that is Itachi Uchiha – Akatsuki agent, Konoha defector, clan murderer, and her own personal savior – has already disappeared like a wisp of smoke in the wind. Not even his footprints remain in the mud where he once stood, leaving no indication of his key role in her escape.

She isn't sure why his words catch her off guard to the extent that they do. Perhaps it has something to do with the casual words he used, or the fact that his message is of no real consequence other than to perhaps irk Sasuke. Which Itachi is perfectly capable of doing on his own.

Or maybe it's because not once during her conversations with the elder Uchiha brother had he mentioned Sasuke or given any indication that he was aware of Sakura's history with his younger brother. She had begun to assume that he had either not been informed or had simply forgotten that she had been on the same genin team as Sasuke, that she had fought to bring him back to the village repeatedly.

That she couldn't forget the feelings she had for the dark-eyed boy of few words and even fewer smiles.

But apparently, he had been aware the entire time.

And by all accounts, Sakura should hate him. Hate what he turned her ex-teammate into. Hate that he had deprived a little boy of his parents and a loving home. Hate that he abandoned the village and began working against it. Hate that he has been pursuing Naruto for the purpose of extracting the kyuubi.

Hate that he is a ruthless, soulless killer.

But is he really?

Sakura mentally shakes her head as she dashes through the puddles and mud that eventually give way to grasslands and more lush vegetation as she races to the Land of Fire's border. The constant drizzle has plastered her bangs to her forehead and water drips into her eyes, but she barely manages to rake an annoyed hand through her hair to comb it back.

No distractions. Just run.

She can't afford to dwell on the Uchiha's actions or his motivations. Really, she doubts she'd be able to conclude anything anyway. Itachi is a man who has built his reputation in shadows and deceit. To decode the inner workings of his mind would be something akin to defining the meaning of life. A tremendous undertaking.

And so, Sakura turns her mind off, every ounce of energy and focus is pumped into her legs to propel her forward. It's sometime later, when she is shrouded in dappled light from the emerald canopy above, her soggy clothes plastered uncomfortably against her skin that it begins to dawn on her that she's made it.

Sakura Haruno had survived the impossible. She had been captured by the world's most notorious criminal organization and escaped with her life.

And not a single limb missing!

The sky hasn't let up its incessant weeping, reminding her all too much of the conditions she's just left behind, but here, in the safety of her homeland's forests, she is mostly concealed from the constant barrage of precipitation.

Sakura is one accustomed to crying, being perhaps a little more emotional than she should, considering her profession as a shinobi. She has shed tears over the lives of her comrades, some cut too short and some having been so great as to make her forget that even they were not invincible.

But this time the tears she keeps at bay draw their source from a combination of relief and joy. Sakura clamps down on the warm, prickling sensation lingering in her eyes, knowing full well she needs clear sight to navigate her way through the forest.

Still, she can't bite back the smile from stretching her lips.

With raindrops streaming down the curves of her cheeks and dripping off the tip of her nose, Sakura lets nature do her crying for her.

Freedom has never tasted so sweet.

All the way home, all she can think is I did it! I did it!

It's sometime after the rain has stopped and her clothes have dried except for a few damp areas here and there that a peculiar feeling begins to creep into Sakura.

The birds chatter high in the treetops, settling down for the evening, and Sakura herself is tiring. Her strides become shorter, her pace faltering as her expression grows troubled. She can't place her finger on it at first, but something seems…off.

She knows she's running with a purpose. Home. She has to get home.

But why isn't she there now? Why is she by herself and not with her team?

I was captured…For how long?

Images of red eyes – red as though they had been injected with the blood of demons – flash through her memory. A single, inquisitive blue eye, too sharp and knowing. Hands combing through her hair. Smirks. Everything in ruin.

Sakura gasps, her steps faltering as she nearly trips over a rock on her path, but she regains her balance and renews her trek home with vigor, shaking her head in frustration. Impulsively, Sakura decides to take to the trees above for a change of scenery and to better hide herself among the foliage in case anyone is out hunting her.

What's wrong with me?

It scares Sakura and she can't even put a name on what "it" is. But it wasn't so long ago that Sakura was trapped in the underground cells of Konoha and had the chilly sense of certainty that she was slowly losing her sense of reality.

This feels just like that time.

Remember, you're free. Free!

She had done the impossible.

Lived through her captivity.

Incapacitated one of her captors.

Escaped the Akatsuki base.

And now she's on her merry way home.

But why does something feel wrong?

She feels like she's forgetting something crucial. Something she was supposed to have done…or something she is still supposed to do?

Her brow furrows in frustration as trees blur past on either side of her, her feet slapping against their branches with a little too much chakra, sending some of them falling to the ground below in her wake.

Akatsuki had played some role in Danzo's takeover…They had made some sort agreement in which Danzo was to turn her over in exchange for their services…She had been kidnapped, yet they didn't do anything to her, not much at least…Her medical skills weren't called upon and they generally treated her like some kind of amusement…Sasori wanted her as a piece in his collection but his plans were being delayed because of some order from his leader…A leader who made Sakura's thoughts run in circles about ideas of right and wrong…

And Itachi…He had been trying to help her all along…hadn't he? She had refused to admit that since her first meeting with the infamous Uchiha; it was just too preposterous of an idea. But after the events of her escape had successfully unfolded, she wasn't so sure she could deny it any longer. He had helped her, but for what purpose? Just to deliver a message to his little brother, a brother he was supposed to not even care about, a brother who wanted to kill him? The message wasn't even of any real consequence; it was more like a pleasantry.

Itachi Uchiha truly is an enigma.

Never mind that. I have to keep going strong.

Sakura can't figure out the puzzle that is her kidnapping or what purpose it served Akatsuki to go through with it. None of it makes any sense.

At least, not anymore.

Gnawing at the back of her thoughts, something is warning Sakura that she's forgotten something of extreme importance. The answer to all of her confusion.

Sakura had left the shelter of branches and leaves and opted to return to ground level some time ago after she lost her footing for the fifth time. Not wanting to risk injury or some kind of embarrassingly stupid fatal accident, she had jumped to the forest floor and trudged doggedly onward.

Now, with mud dried and caked onto her skin all the way up to her knees and even a leaf tangled in her hair, Sakura is on the verge of utter exhaustion. But some single-minded strain of thought pushes her forward without complaint.

Home. Must get…home.

Breathing roughly through her mouth, she staggers on, no longer even at a fast jog. But Sakura lacks the comfort and safety of traveling in a team and knows her current situation doesn't allow for breaks. The sun is beginning to set and Sakura needs to make the decision of where to set up camp for the night. Traveling alone in the dark without any weapons or other gear is foolish, not just for safety reasons, but because she'll also run the risk of losing her way which could cost her valuable time to make up for the next day.

Bleary eyed, she tilts her head back to gaze at the stars whose weak light just barely filters down through some of the gaps in the dense vegetation overhead.

She needs to find a safe spot to curl up and sleep. She can put up a cloaking jutsu as at least some means of defense. Forget food. Just sleep.

Then she could head out at the first sign of dawn and finish the journey home.

Her stomach rumbles rebelliously at her decision to neglect it for the night after she had grown accustomed to being so well fed and lazy during her captivity, but she does her best to silence it through sheer will power.

Still, her feet drag her along, slowly and clumsily now, but nevertheless relentless.

It's as though she's become a slave to her own feet, though really she doesn't have much objection. Truthfully, under all the exhaustion, she has been harboring a growing sense of dread and fear. What such fear happens to be directed at, she can't say. Furthermore, while simultaneously wanting nothing more than to be home already, she has the peculiar notion that she should turn back, as though something horrible will be awaiting her as soon as she steps through the gate.


Sakura stifles a yawn and forces herself to come to a stop. Not being the least bit picky and on the verge of simply plopping down to nap for a few short hours right where she stands, she looks about her immediate vicinity and decides to settle down amongst a tight cluster of bushes off to her left. In the fading twilight she glimpses plump, ripe berries waiting to be picked, but doesn't dare trust her vision in the dim light nor her fuzzy state of mind to safely identify them.

Quickly, she makes room for herself among the leaves and curls up on her side, eager for a little reprieve from consciousness.

When Sakura comes to, the birds are already awake and chattering, though she estimates it'll be at least a half hour before the sun rises. Not feeling fully rested, but knowing she'll feel better once she sees the gates of Konoha rising up in the distance, Sakura struggles to stand up, her stiff legs protesting as she forces herself to stretch. Rising from her shelter among the bushes, Sakura cracks her back and halfheartedly dusts herself off, knowing she must be a sight for sore eyes at this point.

Ragged and sleep deprived, her ambling pace picks up speed as light begins to creep into the sky and the sun's warmth erases the goose bumps from her flesh.

How far is it now?

Sakura no longer has a good sense of her distance from the village. The last two or three hours of her travel from the night before had been in a daze.

As her now ruined slippers crunch softly against the leaf litter of the forest, a bright flash of red catches her eye…

Sakura whirls around, her heart rate spiking so fiercely she's nearly panting to force air into her lungs.

What the – ?

But a moment later her eyes lock in on a flutter of movement and she spots the flapping wings of a red bird as it flits among the branches overhead before taking off and flying back the way she had come.

Clutching her hands close to her chest, Sakura moves forward, feeling like a fool for being so jumpy, but after all she's been through maybe it's a little understandable.

Red eyes.

If she recalls correctly, they had been in her dream last night…just briefly. She hadn't dreamed of much and that was really about all she could remember.

Just a single pair of red eyes…

So why is she suddenly so afraid?

Narrowed green eyes dart about the forest as she turns in circles, looking for what, she doesn't know. Something suspicious. Something out of the ordinary.

Something dangerous.

But she doesn't find it. Not even the little red bird.

Even so, Sakura starts running, forcing chakra into her legs and pumping her arms steadily, every ounce of energy and motion going into a straight forward direction.

Those red eyes are after her.


History lessons.

Be punctual.

Change is on the horizon.

You belong to me.

A tool.

A frustrated howl is torn from her parched lips as she runs blindly through the forest, stirring up animals slumbering until it's the moon's time to shine and those trying to hide from predators. Her arms flail out around her, beating back brush and snapping off twigs and branches trying to scratch at her face as she barrels her way through.

Words keep churning around and around in her head in no particular order, just a string of incongruous thoughts tumbling over one another.

As she beats away a low hanging branch, she wishes desperately that she could beat away the voice reverberating within her mind and sending fear into her heart.

Those damn red eyes.

Though Sakura has lost all interest in keeping track of the time, the midafternoon sun beats down relentlessly on her head. Here, the trees don't grow so close together, their thick trunks attesting to their great age and their gnarled root systems occasionally breaking through the beaten surface of the dirt path Sakura now slogs along.

She's close, but she doesn't know it. In fact, she doesn't even know where she is or why she's going there. Sakura doesn't remember home or that she even has one. Sakura doesn't even remember Sakura.

All she remembers is red eyes.

Red eyes with some strange swirling pattern of black within them.

She stumbles along, blind to the gates rising up to greet her on the horizon. Somehow, even in her delirious state of mind, Sakura has managed to stay the course. The green slatted wooden doors open out welcomingly to travelers, and Sakura often thought they looked ready to embrace her each time she returned home from a mission. But not this time.

Now, her gaze rests on the ground, barely registering the toes of her shoes as each one trades places in and out of her vision.

Not a soul travels along the path with her during the hottest part of the day, not that Sakura would have paid them any mind. Swaying ever so slightly, her worn slippers carry her through the doors and underneath the proud symbol of Konohagakure painted in red on the stone wall above the gate doors.

Barely within the boundaries of her village, one of Sakura's knees gives out beneath her, and she half collapses, half kneels in the entrance of her home.

Off to the left, Kotetsu and Izumo lounge in the shade of their guard booth, knowing they won't have many travelers to greet and check papers for until about the end of their shift. Stifling a yawn, Izumo absentmindedly flips the page of his book that he had hardly processed. After all these years, he thought he would have mastered the technique of drowning out his friend's incessant chatter.

Only by chance does he happen to glance above the edge of his book to see the young lady fall to her knees on the dirt path just inside the entranceway. Elbowing Kotetsu to shut up and be alert, Izumo gets to his feet and hurriedly approaches the stranger.

Only, as he gets within about ten feet of her, taking in her muddied legs, rumpled clothes, and messy, pink hair, he cries out in surprise, rushing to her side at once to help her to her feet.

"Kotetsu! It's Sakura Haruno!"

Kotetsu nearly trips as he blunders his way from out behind the guard desk to see if his best friend is pulling his leg.

"No way," he says in a hushed voice, awe clearly shining through on his face. But staring him straight in the face is proof to the contrary.

"How in the world did she make it back?" Kotetsu wonders aloud, kneeling down to inspect the medic whose eyes have glazed over and become unresponsive. She has yet to utter a single word.

Quickly, Izumo scoops the kunoichi up into his arms, sensing something is seriously wrong, "Send word to the hokage immediately that she's returned. I'm taking her straight to the hospital."

As he says this, Sakura's head slumps against his shoulder and he hastens his pace to the hospital, trying his best not to jostle her should she have any injuries. He briefly watches as Kotetsu takes to the roofs overhead for the quickest route to the hokage tower.

Eyes the color of warm honey look down on her, and though the owner stands over her with a confident posture, her face is crumpled with worry.

Belatedly, Sakura realizes the emotion is directed at her.

Blue eyes, as bright and honest as an angel's, shimmer with barely held back tears. The dam cracks and a tear escapes from the silently crying angel to land soundlessly on the blanket near Sakura's hand. She's tempted to reach out with her hand to touch his face and ask what's wrong. She wonders how something so full of light can be so sad. But to her dismay, Sakura finds that she can't summon the strength to move her hand and quickly abandons that pursuit. Instead, she tries to move her mouth to form something like a smile – anything to get him to stop crying.

A third figure steps into view down by her feet, and Sakura notices for the first time that she is laying down while all of these people stand around her. She squints through the hazy mist that seems to cloud her vision and feels dizzy with the effort. But the blurry smudge of a person comes into focus a bit more clearly and she can distinguish sharp angles, pale skin, and dark hair.

"Sasu..," she says with a sluggish tongue, not able to complete the thought.

But the figure responds all the same, even though Sakura hadn't been aware that she had spoken aloud.

"Not quite, Ugly. Don't mistake me for that traitor."

"Sai...I'm…so glad…"

Sakura falls back into gray oblivion.

She'll deliver the message like the good little birdy she is, yeah.

And she'll probably try to hide thinking we can't find her.

She's worth too much now to let her go free for long.

You fucks never even gave me any time with her! Things are going to be different when we get her back for good.

Get in line. I have a rematch with the little girl.

Shivers run through Sakura so violently she thinks her body might just fly apart in hundreds of little pieces.

Kami! The voices! Can't anyone else hear them?!

Screams, blood curdling and inhuman, are wrenched from deep within her throat, bursting forth past chapped lips in long, piercing shrieks. Sakura's eyes rove back and forth across the impossibly bright and sparsely furnished room, searching for...for …what, exactly, she doesn't know. But it's important, oh so very important.

Because it could mean the destruction of everything she knows and loves. Everything could be taken from – and it will! – If she can't remember what it was she was supposed to do.

With panting breaths and a stressed heart, Sakura's hands grip onto the bars on either side of her bed. The nurse on call comes sprinting into the room, Shizune close on her heels, to find the girl with her legs drawn up to her chest. The two women pause for a fraction of a second in the doorway before moving to either side of their patient with an unspoken synchronicity, but the girl doesn't seem to acknowledge their presence, too preoccupied with the shadowy phantoms darting across her vision. Shizune spares a single glance overtop Sakura's bed-mussed head, giving a short nod of permission to the nurse holding down Sakura's arm on the other side. Feebly pushing her feet out against the blankets she had bunched up against the footboard of her bed, Sakura doesn't register the prick of the needle as it slides beneath her skin and injects a calming agent that will take a few moments to take effect.

Shizune's heart wilts at seeing the normally strong-willed, young medic in such a state. She can only imagine the horrors Sakura had somehow survived. With a soft voice and soothing strokes up and down Sakura's arm, Shizune resolves that she will see to it herself that the girl bounces back to her usual self in record time. This is simply intolerable; the Akatsuki will pay for this.

But Sakura can't hear her, she has retreated into herself. Even as the nurse retracts the needle and helps Shizune settle her back against the pillows and pull the blanket back over her curled up form, Sakura doesn't feel their touches or respond to their soothing words. She has numbed herself to the reality of her situation because the illusion has become so much more real.

In fact, Sakura may have just settled into a peaceful, drug-induced slumber with little more than the occasional shiver had it not been for a small movement outside the window that had somehow broken through the spell – through the illusion.

Green eyes, shimmering with sickness, open wide at the fluttering of a wing. She wouldn't have noticed it considering the sky is darkening with heavy, gray clouds swollen with the promise of rain. The wing is pitch black, as is the rest of the body, but even in the overcast lighting, the iridescence of the feathers can't be ignored as the bird flits about on its perch. A small tree stands outside Sakura's window and allows the curious little crow front row seats to the spectacle that is Sakura. Cocking its head this way and that, Sakura would have dismissed its inquisitiveness as a quirky little trait of animals...

Would have.

Except that the bird wouldn't take its eyes off her.

Its. Beady. Red. Eyes.

Sakura whimpers to herself, inconsolable despite the comforting pats and gentle words of Shizune. With a troubled frown, Shizune casts Sakura one final look before she leaves her patient's room, knowing the drugs are about to pull her fully under.

Sakura falls asleep in the midst of a staring contest with the bird outside her window.

Hours after Sakura's wails had been hushed thanks to her silent, comforting friend, the tranquilizer, she is lying against a stack of firm, white pillows with her sheets bunched down around her hips. Her arms, more pale and fragile looking than usual, are limp at her sides. With her head tilted back and wide, glazed eyes fixated on the ceiling, any visitor would well up with sympathy for the kunoichi. She truly looks broken.

But behind that vacant expression, the gears of her troubled mind are whirring at an incredible rate. Her body would betray her from time to time, fail her when she most needed it, but her mind had always been her own. They couldn't touch it even when they tried. It's too sharp.

Even while her slackened jaw makes her lips part in a small "o" and she can't summon the will to so much as flex her toes, Sakura knows she doesn't have much time to lay around uselessly in her hospital bed. The clock is ticking; it had been ticking before she had even been made aware that she was being timed. Those bastards weren't about to play fair.

First, she would need to disentangle herself from the bed sheets and find some suitable clothing because the standard-issued hospital gown simply wouldn't do. Then, she needed to have a meeting with the hokage.

And beneath all these instructions Sakura methodically gives herself, there is an undercurrent of urgency lapping up against her forced calm. His words echo through her head and the only comfort she can glean from the situation is that it really is just the echo of memory and not his actual voice.

Sakura's hand twitches and a second later she manages to grasp the guard rail on the side of her bed.

The dawning of a new era is about to commence. Run and tell your hokage that Konoha will fall.

And when the time comes, I'll be coming to collect you from the ashes of your beloved village. So enjoy your farewells, love.

Author's Note: Whoa. It's done…And about time, as I'm sure some of you are thinking. I can't believe how long I went before updating this; time really does fly. My only excuse is that college and, well, life, demands a lot out of a person. And hey, I'm a college graduate now, so yay! But it's been really satisfying to have some free time to return to this story that I started on a whim one summer when I was bored and wanted to practice my writing.

So, I want to thank everyone who has reviewed thus far and I look forward to reading the feedback for this final chapter to see how I did. Your reviews have been very kind and I also appreciate the people who wanted to read the conclusion to this story so much that they messaged me just to ask if I was still kicking. Many thanks! It really motivated me. I've been in the same boat of waiting (and waiting and waiting…) for an author to update and it never happens. I didn't want to be guilty of that as well.

As for some comments on this chapter, I believe I mentioned before that I had the very ending for this in mind while writing the first chapter and I stuck with it. Getting there took a couple twists and turns and that's partly why I took a while with finishing it. After such a long break from the fifth chapter, I had to go back and re-read a lot of it to get a feel for the writing style I was using so I hope this last chapter meshes with the rest of the story. Going along with that same issue, it was difficult getting back into the same mindset that I was using for Sakura in her captive situation and having to deal with a bunch of aggressive, manhandling guys. I'll blame that on the amazing guy I now get to call mine.

I won't bore you on all the details concerning the Elixir of Death; part of it was based on the actual process used by C.R. Wright when he accidentally synthesized heroin and part of it was creative license. So, yeah, I wouldn't expect it to work in the real world as it did in the story. And yay, Madara! He finally appeared. Hopefully the wait was worth it. As previously mentioned, I will not be continuing this story with any kind of epilogue or sequel. Very sorry if that disappoints any of you, but it's not a task I wish to take on anytime soon. There are a few story ideas I'm looking forward to exploring before ever going near that option. Anyway, it's been a joy writing for you!

Song for inspiration: "C'mon" by Panic! at the Disco

As always, thanks for reading, loves!