Sakura doesn't like this place. Orochimaru's hideout is dank and dark with low ceilings and narrow halls that make her feel like the room is closing in on her. She's surrounded by unrelenting stone, buried beneath three stories of earth, trapped like a rat in a cage.
Orochimaru looks her up and down, and Sakura has to resist the urge to shiver. His serpentine eyes linger on her for a moment longer, and then he turns to Sasuke and says, "This girl is useless. Why did you bring her?"
Sakura blushes, embarrassed and angry to be so summarily dismissed.
"That's none of your concern," Sasuke says. She can't help but admire his bravery, speaking so coolly to the most notorious of the legendary Sannin.
"Give me one good reason not to slit her throat," Orochimaru says.
Sasuke scowls. "If you hurt her, I'll kill you," he says, evenly and plainly, the promise in his voice evident.
Orochimaru laughs. "No need to be so dramatic, Sasuke. If you want her so badly, she can stay. I'm sure we can find something useful for her to do when she isn't warming your bed."
It would be wiser to keep her mouth shut, but Sakura has had enough of threats and insults for one night. "That's not why I'm here," she says. "I'm going to help Sasuke avenge his clan."
"You're a kunoichi of no particular skill," Orochimaru says. "How exactly do you plan to help Sasuke face a ninja as formidable as Itachi?"
"Sakura isn't weak," Sasuke snaps. "She's inventive and smart and she probably has better chakra control than you. Kakashi just never bothered to teach her much."
"I want to learn medical ninjutsu," Sakura says. "That way if Sasuke is injured fighting his brother I'll be able to heal him."
"Kabuto can teach you, starting tomorrow," Orochimaru says lazily. "For now, Ai will show you both to your rooms."
A timid-looking young woman steps out from Orochimaru's shadow and says, "Follow me."
Sakura's chamber is just down the hall from Sasuke's. It's small, spare, and utilitarian. Dim lighting casts the room in shades of dull yellow, and it smells musty, as if the sheets on the narrow cot haven't been changed in a long while. She takes off her hitai-ate and sets it on the bedside table with gentle reverence. Sakura has no night clothes, so she gets into bed fully dressed, slips beneath the thin blanket, and tries to get warm. She's used to the balmy autumn nights of Konoha, not Oto's cool weather, which seeps from the land above through all the stories of stone to chill her room.
Sakura lies awake, heart racing, thinking about what it is she's done. She's a missing-nin now, an enemy of Konoha, and her picture and profile will go into the Bingo Book. By now, her parents will be worried sick. Maybe grieving over her, the ungrateful daughter who ran away. Ino will kill her, if they ever see each other again, and Kakashi-sensei must be so disappointed. But it's Naruto who she thinks of most. Naruto, who's already lost so much, left behind by his teammates. She and Sasuke abandoned him, and Sakura knows she'll never forgive herself for that.
Her throat tightens, but she closes her eyes against the tears, forces herself to steady her shallow breathing. Sakura won't allow herself to break down, because if she starts crying she's not going to be able to stop.
He needs to quit thinking of Konoha as home. He needs to quit thinking of Konoha at all, really, but this is more easily said than done. When he's sleeping on his stone-stiff cot at night, Sasuke remembers the softness of his bed back in the Leaf Village. Orochimaru's silken insults and impatience couldn't be more different from the instruction he received from Iruka and Kakashi, and this hideout is every bit as cold and unappealing as Konoha had been warm and inviting. Homesickness doesn't do him any good, however, so Sasuke resolves to let it go.
He worries about Sakura. Every day in this place seems to crush her spirit more. She wilts like a flower that has been denied sunlight, growing ever more withdrawn and despondent. She might have volunteered to come with him, but Sasuke knows he should have rebuffed her offer instead of accepting it. Her misery is his fault, the price for his selfishness.
Now it's midnight, the end of another long, exhausting day of training for both of them, and Sasuke sits beside Sakura on her bed.
"You wish you hadn't come with me, don't you?" he asks.
She's silent for a moment. Then Sakura says, "No. I did the wrong thing, but it doesn't matter. I can't regret it, because I'm with you."
Slowly, tentatively, she reaches out and puts her small hand over his. They stay this way for a long while, connected by touch and the weight of many things unsaid.
There was a time when Sasuke dismissed Sakura's affection for him and doubted its sincerity, but he doesn't feel that way anymore. How could he? She's given up everything for him: her family, her friends, her home. Left it all without a backward glance, just so they could stay together.
Days pass slowly, each one indistinguishable from the last in the shadows of Otogakure. Autumn turns to winter, but within the sunless confines of their underground headquarters this hardly matters.
He knows that Kabuto often berates Sakura, but she never complains about his mistreatment. Whenever Sasuke asks how her training is going, she simply says, "Fine," and changes the subject. That's fair enough, he supposes, since he doesn't want to discuss his own training either.
Eventually, Sakura's sadness seems to fade, but in its place is a hardness he never would have expected from her. She no longer cries, but neither does she smile or laugh. Instead, she practices her jutsu, always wearing the same focused, determined expression. This place and the people in it are stealing her vivacity, the sweetness and energy that Sasuke has always associated with Sakura.
As he's lying in bed, terribly alone, he realizes that she's becoming more like him. Rootless, solitary, and cold, without a family or a home, and Sasuke hates it.
Sakura can't help but respect Kabuto's skills, if not the man himself. He's intelligent and talented, nearly as strong as the master he serves, and as much as she hates to admit it, he gives her far more attention than Kakashi-sensei ever did. She learns more from Kabuto in five months than she did over the last five years in Konoha.
He starts with basic medical ninjutsu, teaching her how to heal minor wounds, at first on animals, then cadavers, then people. Whenever one of the shinobi employed by Orochimaru returns to the base injured, Sakura is allowed to heal those who are less seriously hurt. She soon proves adept at this, and so Kabuto tasks her with fixing increasingly difficult and complicated injuries. By springtime, she can heal bruises, broken bones, lacerations, and burns. Part of her quickly developing abilities hinges upon natural affinity, but for the most part it's Sakura's hard work that determines her success.
She turns fourteen on the twenty-eighth of March. Sakura expects this day to go by like any other, unremarked upon, but at night, as she's preparing for bed, Sasuke knocks on her door. When she lets him inside her room, he holds out a box and says, gruffly, "This is for you."
"You know my birthday?" she asks.
He looks at her like she's said something particularly slow. "I've known you since I was five years old, Sakura. Of course I know your birthday."
She opens the box and finds senbon inside. Not the most romantic gift, certainly, but then, Sasuke is a practical boy.
"Thank you," Sakura says. "Kabuto's going to start teaching me about poisons next week, so these should be really useful."
Sasuke nods, says he'll see her tomorrow, and leaves.
Spring blooms into summer, and Sakura works day and night: studying poisons and antidotes, learning to heal internal injuries, practicing her genjutsu and ninjutsu skills. She makes steady gains as the months pass, and Kabuto mostly stops upbraiding her, because her mistakes are few and far between.
"It's essential to understand the human body," he tells her, indicating the corpse on the table between them. (Sakura doesn't want to know where it's from, or how it came to be in Kabuto's possession.)
"So I can heal more efficiently?" she asks.
"You're thinking too small," Kabuto says. "If you know how a body is put together, you can figure out how to best take it apart."
"So what's this guy for?" Sakura asks. "Dissection?"
Kabuto smiles. "You're such a smart girl," he says, but by his tone it's difficult to tell whether he's being sincere or just mocking her. "I want you to examine every inch of our friend here, inside and out. Peel back his skin and get a good look at the tendons and muscles and veins underneath. Crack open his ribcage and hold the weight of his heart in your hands. See how this body once worked, all of its parts synchronized and strong, and then I want you to tell me how he died."
"How long do I have?" Sakura asks.
Kabuto looks at his watch and says, "I'll check back in with you at noon. I expect a full report then."
"But that's only three hours from now," Sakura says, frowning.
Kabuto shrugs. "Then I guess you better get to work."
After spending nine months at the same base, Orochimaru says they need to move on. Staying in one place for so long makes it easier for enemies to find them.
So, on the first morning of August, Sasuke, Orochimaru, Sakura, and Kabuto leave Oto behind and head toward the hideout north of Kusa. They skirt around the Fire Country, even though traveling through it would be faster. It starts raining as they leave the Sound, a downpour that slows their progress and soaks them to the bone. As the sun sets, they find a cheap minshuku in the rural lands south of Taki and rent four rooms on the top floor.
Sasuke takes a bath in the wooden ofuro, lets the scalding water soothe the aches in his muscles. He looks up at the ceiling, staring at nothing, thinking of Itachi. His brother is alive and free, and every day that he remains so feels like a failure to Sasuke.
(It's almost funny: he knows Itachi's face, has studied it in his mind's eye until he can recall each feature with photographic clarity, but as the years pass, it becomes harder and harder to remember what his parents looked like.)
Sasuke gets out of the ofuro, dries off, and dresses in his spare change of clothes. He means to go to bed, but instead he leaves his room, walks down the hall, and knocks on Sakura's door. She answers, wearing her own fresh clothes, rosy hair wet.
"Sasuke-kun," she says. "Come in."
It's still raining, and when thunder rolls the window rattles in its frame. Sasuke touches the cold glass and looks out into the night, but there's nothing to see except a summer storm.
Sakura stands beside him, rests her head on his shoulder, and asks, "Is this okay?"
Sasuke touches her hair. It's soft and damp, and beneath the scents of sweat and rain, he can smell her shampoo. Something about this is comforting, and so, without thinking at all, he buries his face in her pink locks. He allows himself this luxury for a full minute before pulling away.
"You can sleep here if you want," Sakura says. She speaks the words so quickly that he almost doesn't catch their meaning. Almost, but not quite.
It's tempting. He suspects that with Sakura by his side he might get a reprieve from his nightmares, and besides, she's warm and soft, a beautiful girl who only grows prettier by the day. He'd have to be stupid to miss this, and Sasuke is not stupid.
He rarely indulges in the sort of thoughts that most teenagers think incessantly. Sometimes he forgets he's only a boy, because childhood is something he lost long ago. Even so, he has his moments of weakness, usually where Sakura is concerned.
"Okay," he says. "I'll stay."
They lie in bed, facing one another with two feet of space between their bodies, listening to the rain beat against the roof. Lightning flashes, illuminating the room for a heartbeat, and in those seconds Sasuke sees Sakura watching him, expression soft with love.
Sakura likes the hideout north of Kusa no better than the Oto headquarters, but she doesn't complain. She simply goes about her business, practicing combat with her chakra scalpel, refining her ability to identify and counter poisons, and exercising her genjutsu—on the unsuspecting Grass shinobi who serve Orochimaru.
At night, before she goes to sleep, Sakura polishes the metal plate on her hitai-ate and allows herself to think of home. She wonders whether Ino and Naruto have passed the chunin exams, and if her parents have stopped worrying about her yet. (Probably not, but she can hope.)
Someday, we'll go back. After Sasuke kills his brother.
It's unlikely, she knows that, but Sakura likes to fantasize about it anyway. Returning to Konoha, being reunited with her family and friends. Eating at Ichiraku with Naruto too many times a week. Shopping with Ino. Hugging her mother and father.
The next day, Kabuto gives Sasuke and Sakura each a bottle of pills and tells them to take one.
"What is this?" she asks.
"Something to help you become a better ninja faster," Kabuto says. "Take it every day and your strength and stamina should improve."
Sakura doesn't have any interest in enhancing her natural aptitude by taking medicine, but she can tell this isn't a request. So she swallows her pill with a glass of water, today and the next day and every day after that.
Within a week, Sakura is stronger, faster, and more resilient than she's ever been in her life. It's a good feeling, but not good enough to help her forget that she's altering the chemistry of her body with drugs.
Orochimaru starts giving Sasuke and Sakura missions. Simple enough tasks: steal secret scrolls from a shrine, spy on an enemy, spy on an ally.
Sakura kills her first man without even meaning to. She's sloppy and careless on the way back from her latest mission, and she gets ambushed by two Konoha shinobi. She uses every trick she's learned in the past year to keep them at bay. Sakura knocks one ninja unconscious with a kick to the face and slashes at the other's stomach with her chakra scalpel. Her cut lands perfectly and precisely, and a moment later blood is everywhere, and the young man is holding his guts in his hands. He dies within a minute, gasping and gripping his own intestines.
That evening, Sakura takes three baths, but no matter how much she cleans herself she feels dirty. She sees her Leaf hitai-ate, shiny from its nightly polishings, and suddenly she can't stand to look at this reminder of the home she's betrayed. Sakura shoves it in a bottom drawer, out of sight. A week later, when they abandon the Kusa hideout, she leaves her hitai-ate behind, still hidden in that bottom drawer. It doesn't matter, though, because she's never going to need it again.