The Red King keeps his army as warm as his heart, and that is why half the regiment freezes to death.

In the wild country where it never snows but always freezes, the Red King marches his armies against the White Tsar and his coal rich kingdom. It's been a world of war for as long as anyone can care to remember. Armies of men and minor magic bring nothing but blood, so both sides seek out the aid of the beasts that once walked the world as gods. That is why Sakura is swept away from the lonely streets and the empty barracks into a car with a bastard prince and a promise of redemption, but if only she can face the demons that chased her from Krepost in the first place.

"The forests are very old. The forests are older than man. They have seen the gods die. And man is naked in a forest of dust, dry leaves and roads covered with leaves and dust."
-Paul Celan

The world was at its maddest right before the first snow, when the autumn chill was harshest and the world dead and dark. Winds were made of teeth and claws that ripped right through to your ribcage and rattled what was left of a person, but without snow, a part of you couldn't believe in the cold. Men froze to death like that. Youths who hadn't seen enough winters would keep their collars open and invite death into their throat, all because they hadn't seen the white snows and believed it was as cold as it was.

Sakura felt she was one of those half grown youths as she stood outside the church with her throat bared to the wind and her face turned towards the heavens. Everything was gray, but no snow came. Women on the street called her stupid and shook their heads at her, but she couldn't feel anything, so she didn't believe she was as cold as they thought she was.

The flask in her fingers was warm though, it brought her feeling, so she took another sip and pretended she was alive again. If she closed her eyes and kept them shut for long enough the stars trapped in her lashes bled into the picture of her girlhood, before the war took that away from her.

Her eyes wouldn't stay shut for long, and like a taunt curtain, they snapped open wide and she was herself again; a solider in the red king's army. No longer a girl, she was nothing more than a musket waiting for ammunition.

"You'll die that way, comrade."

All the soldiers in the Red King's army sounded the same in her ears after land mines tore apart her best friend five feet ahead of her. The first words she was able to comprehend after the ringing died down was a comment cursing the blond's inability to fall sideways on a bomb and protect her ammunition from damage. Soldiers all sounded the same after that.

She blinked away the fog in her eyes and saw the not yet gaunt face of a man who shared blood with the royal family. Bastard born, he still wore enough medals to buy the meals needed to stave off starvation. Sakura said a silent prayer of thanks for the numbness that kept her from feeling two day's worth of hunger. All she had to do was drink and stand in the middle of the street and the aches of her body were no more.

"Comrade," she answered back after realizing the silence would stretch on forever until she said something to him. Maybe he would kill her for making him wait. She had seen boys and girls killed for less in the name of the Red King.

When he spoke his voice was strong and full of certainty. "You are from Krepost." It wasn't a question.

Her wild hair had been braided back for six years and her fangs had been filed to petite pokes no one would notice. There was nothing left of the girl who ran from the city of rubble and wolves. Once upon a time it had been enough for her, even with all its horrors, but hunger made men into monsters, and the bodies were running out in the city.

She blinked again, trying to forget the sound of humans eating their own. "Comrade." Saying his name cemented her in time and she forced a sick smile. "We are all children of the Red King. No one is less or more than the sand on his black sea."

If he stuck her for disrespect it would be a mercy. She was expendable and expendable things were disposable once they went bad. Mentioning the black sea was an added jab considering it was the battle on the black sea where the king had suffered the greatest loss of lives for the smallest gain of land against the White Tsar's armies. It was mocked in the papers as a harrowing embarrassment for his glorious army. Those who were still able to hide laughed into their hands about it.

"Equal in his eyes we may be, we are all always willing to be the upmost for our king. Nothing less, am I correct?"

Something like chill ran through her bones and she thought back to how long had it been since she last took a sip of her drink before remembering the sensation. Not cold. No, this was something else. She felt tension pull her body taunt like a bowstring. Anticipation began to build a tower in her heart, wobbly and ready to fall. "Always and only for the throne," she intoned, wearing out the phrase she never believed in.

The pale boy with healthy eyes smiled and it made her sick. "You have matured so beautifully, but we no longer have need of a solider. Now is not the time for rifles and musket balls. Now it the time for beasts."

She swallowed down the memories and thoughts of bones snapping for the marrow inside. "The time for beasts is a grim hour indeed. I pray it never darken his majesty's doorway."

She heard the carriage behind her and saw it wasn't the type drawn by horses. The metal carriage stretched out with a rumble of fire in it's hood. The door to the back seat fell open and the warmth was something she couldn't ignore. It made her weak at once.

"Comrade, this world is ready to pass away. Your regiment is dead, and your fellow soldiers are scattered. No one will come to feed you for months, until the winters have come and passed. There is nothing here for you if you were to remain here, which you cannot." His hands were covered white as he offered one out to her, still so far away."The king would like your consul in these last days."

The boy bowed slightly and waved to the open door where warmth still flowed out. Nothing else was warm around her. The church was empty, the streets were cold, the sky was gray. There was no color left in her world and all she had was a metal flask and a pair of boots stolen off a dead girl in the last great skirmish.

She looked to the boy who herald the change and took in his eyes once more. They were without a doubt the eyes of a bastard prince. She had never seen the king before, but his nephews were frequent visitors to the battlefield, and each one had those black vulture eyes that were so dark they might as well be red, because nothing on earth was darker than the color for blood.

"Who are you?" she asked, knowing he shouldn't give her a name. Names were for individuals. They were just pieces in a machine building a better future. No one called her by her name anymore, it had seemed like centuries since the last time a person uttered her name out loud. She doubted if there was anyone else alive who even knew her true name anymore.

When it looked like he wasn't going to reply she added, 'for the sake of the king's black sea.'

He grinned and it wasn't a grin she felt she needed to be afraid of, making it all the more difficult for her to believe him. "I was drowned by my mother as a babe, yet I lived. I am called 'Dead in the water' in the old tongue, but you may use your voice to call me what my uncles call me; Shisui." He almost looked sincere as he held him hand out for her to take. "And what may I call you?"

"I do not remember what my mother called me. I am Comrade." It wasn't a lie, but she knew if she dreamed hard enough, wished hard enough, tried hard enough, the name of a starving girl would come back to her, but she didn't want that.

When he turned his head, birdlike and curious, she knew he didn't believe her. She didn't feel fear, she was too numb for that, but her mind still worked well enough to remind her that if he wanted to he could throw her down and whip her with a birch stick two dozen times for her words. She had forgotten what it felt like to be anything worthier than the ammunition in someone else's gun.

"But you are not my comrade," he intoned, holding his hand out to her still. "What shall I call you, girl?"

She was a girl. Boys and girls forgot how to be anything more than boots and rifles. No one loved and no one looked at one another during the winter wars, but she never stopped being a girl; people stopped recognizing her as one. It was enough to jog the memory loose. In the old city where wolves one ruled, the spring birthed flowers made more beautiful for the way they defied the snow and survived another winter.

"Sakura," she breathed, closing her eyes and feeling heat fill her veins again as blood rushed through. "My name is Sakura."

She took a handful of steps and reached out, to take his hand in hers. His smile was bright as the untouched snow before his lips pressed up against the leather over her knuckles, kissing the backside of her glove. "My lovely beast, come into the car and warm yourself. We have miles to go before we sleep."

He pulled her in and the warmth made her shed layers. The wine red scarf that had coiled like a adder around her neck in loose curves came undone to pool into a mess on her lap. Her leather gloves were tugged off, finger by finger piece next. The heat of everything made her face sweat, but she didn't move to remove anything else.

Shisui hadn't so much as touched the collar of his uniform, even though it had to be warm. It was thick with a heavy thread count and stiff as it stood up on its own around his throat. Men didn't wear coats like those or dressed in uniforms so fine, only princes.

Sakura bit back the envy in her mouth before it could escape her throat along with all the other vicious things she had forced down into her belly. Whatever sort of man he was, Shisui was just another piece in the red machine of their glorious country, equal in the blood he shed for her. His coat didn't change that, the same way it didn't change the death of her frozen brothers at arms.

Inside the body of the automotive carriage Shisui sat across from her, one leg crossed over the other, ankle atop knee. His back was straight as an arrow as he held himself with the discipline of measured confidence, making all the impressive medals across his breast twinkle in the last scraps of filtered sunlight. The only company he kept was hers, but he never lessened his posture, even when he smiled at her out of the corner of his eyes, quirking only the barest edge of his lips in expression. Uchiha were know for their faces, as handsome as they were, they rarely revealed the emotions underneath.

'Because they're as cold as this accursed earth,' a voice hissed in her heart.

Sakura bit down the vile and turned out to face the window. The world outside rolled from scattered village to the ruins of what had once been a popular distract in a much larger city. War ate up everything, little by little. It ate at the blood of her people, the cities, the lands, the arts, the laughter. Everything was a meal for war. Beyond the glass, Sakura watched as they pulled away from the main roads and took one that led out, towards the darker lands. The scenery became more varied with stretches of plains and patches of forest, interrupted by abandoned residents and cluttered houses.

She felt his eyes on her, even when she kept her face turned towards the glass and her eyes narrowed ahead of her. She was sensitive to the sensation of being watched, as it had been one of the last things to let go of when she transitioned from the nature of something not quite human to a comrade in the Red King's army.

Before, when her hair had been wild, stares were meant as a challenge, and challenges were never denied. But Sakura wore her hair in brains now, for she wasn't wild anymore. She was a solider, and soldiers may be stared at all day long without raising an issue because rifles don't care when they are stared at, boots don't care when they are stared at, and the dead don't care when they are stared at. Why should she care when someone stares at her as if she is worth anything more than good leather and metal?

She felt his gaze but didn't react to it, or turn to meet it, knowing that would only make it harder to hold her fists in place. He was watching her, she could feel it even though she had turned her face to the window, away from his. His gaze was heavy enough to make her hold her own breath. The thing that wasn't human inside of her snarled in muted rebellion. It wasn't wise for men to look at wild things so openly. She wanted to meet his eyes and stare him down-it had been such a long time since she had been challenged, but she was a solider, and solders could be stared at all day long.

Sakura watched the window, not really seeing anything until the car passed under the dark shadows of what once had been a home large enough to be considered grad; now it was only ruin and shadows. When the car passed under the shadow the glass became reflective of everything inside the car, showing off her startled face as well as the intense stare of the bastard prince. She wanted to snap at him and let the wild in her out, but steeled her jaw instead.

"Aren't you going to ask?" He spoke first, smiling deviously. He reminded her of a boy, in spite of the medals on his uniform and all the finery that came with his position. He was nothing more than a boy playing a game.

"Tell me what I must ask," she said. She shifted in her seat, turning more of her body away from the window to face him.

He waved his hand, relaxing his posture only slightly. "Come now, you have many questions I'm sure. Ask the one that comes to mind first." He tapped the side of his nose, eyeing her indiscreetly. "Don't be humble. I'm bored and willing to entertain you on this long car ride through the wasted lands. That is a rare thing, don't forget to take advantage of it."

"I do not doubt it, Comrade," Sakura answered, watching his amusement mount.

It was impossible not to feel studied. She had a feeling that whatever she asked of him would be judged and attributed to her character. The did that at the conscription tents. The questions you chose to answer in more than one word as much as the answers to those questions gave the recruiting officers an idea of how valuable your mind was, and where they would put you in the battlefield. She hadn't answered well, and found herself in the trenches at the front where the smell of the dead made her gag. She would not be so foolish this time.

"Who was the last person you saw die?"

He hadn't been expecting that question and it filled her with some measure of pride to see him react, even if it was only minuscule in nature. The curve left his lips and the tilt of his head reversed as he studied her anew. "That's not a very entertaining question."

"That's not an answer."

The amusement came back into his eyes, but his lips never moved. "I killed a man not twelve-thirteen days ago on the road. I did not know his name." He paused for a moment before adding in a softer tone, "He was dead before my lead shattered his skull. He was one of those starved clean to the bone."

She had killed men before, plenty of times too. Most of them died with their names buried between their teeth, never to be uttered again. That was what they dressed her for. Shisui was no stranger to death. Out of all his fancy medals, Sakura was almost inclined to believe he deserved half of them. At least he knew his hands were dirty.

"You were outside the city." It wasn't a question, and he quirked a bow at her, almost grinning. She had been stationed in more places than she could name. It didn't take long to realize that the people on the outskirts were the most wild in their starvation.

"You ask the most curious questions. Are all beasts as entertaining, or should I expect dryer company?"

"Why do you call me a beast?"

The bastard prince's eyes lit up and he leaned forward enough for someone less observant to notice. "Ah, there are the fun ones. Why indeed? That's a much better question than the one posed earlier."

"But it's one you've avoiding answering just now." She turned the rest of her body away from the window. She held his gaze before adding "Comrade, let me ask a question."

He inclined his head, grinning at her request in what seemed like amusement. She doubted he heard many such requests from people like her. "I will answer this one."

"What do you want of a solider like me, and what council do you hope I have to offer our king?"

Shisui inhaled and his whole body eased into the sigh that followed soon after. "The war is going badly for yet another year. No greater are our looses, and no less are the enemy's gains. We toil endlessly to the same destruction if we do not evolve from what is deemed unfit. Soldiers starved and haunted are unfit."

Sakura saw the day her friend fell onto the land mine, heard the click too late, then blossomed in an explosion of red and gore more violently than any rose bud. Yes, unfit.

"You wish to entrap the beasts of old to use as a weapon," she guessed on a breath that came out sounding like a laugh, but her eyes were anything but cheerful. "Many have tried such, all have failed."

"Our esteemed general and king is not one who fails."

His war is a failure. For a moment she felt bold enough to say it, but the muscles around her lips wouldn't move and the air in her lungs wouldn't flow well enough to lift words from her lips. Ah, well it's not like she cared.

The bastard prince had come a long way and gone through a good deal to find her and collect her, but Sakura doubted that would keep him for reprimanding her if she pushed him one more time with a verbal barb. She was still a solider in the Red King's army, after all. She still belonged somewhere, even if it was a wretched place where most men went to escape starving. She had been slapped too many times to know when to kill her thoughts and become nothing. She was no one, she wasn't anyone worth finding.

Sakura looked away, back out the window. "I am not someone who can help you. You can do what you want to me, but no level of torture or bribery or enforcement of oaths will make the impossible possible. I can not help you. I am not a beast."

He watched her, and she felt it more than saw it. Finally she heard the sound of resignation ride a sigh from his lips. "As it is," he poorly admitted, waving a hand before reaching into the breast of his coat to pull out a thin box of smoking rolls.

He eased back the lid of the metal hold and scooted one out before letting the lid slide shut again. He put the stick to his lips and replaced the metal box inside his coat before cupping his hands around the tip of his cigarette. She saw a glow and there was light from a fire between his fingers before he pulled away his hands, exhaling smoke.

"And yet, he will see you. Useful or not, you are meant to come with me. You are for his eyes to judge, not mine, and not yours."

Outside, the world became vaguely familiar as dusk bled into night and the landscape stretched out in dark shadows into something less familiar. She had been a solider for four years in the king's army, and had traveled across much of the landscape with her fellow guard, exposing her to many new sights. She would have recognized the thinning woods if she had been this far south before, but all the fighting was in the North. Shisui had his driver taking them towards the Red Keep, away from where the skirmishes repeated day after day and yea after year.

She heard him curse and then sigh in dejection, enticing her enough to turn her head slightly to see if she could see what made him so upset. He was looking out his own window and frowning at something beyond the glass.

"We will need to stop for the night. It's becoming too dark to travel. Soon it will be an honest night around us."

"This car can not travel through the night?"

His lips pressed into a grim that hid displeasure at the thought. "It would not be wise. We are not far from the wilds."

Sakura knew where they were, even if she couldn't recognize her surroundings. She had seen plenty of maps in war rooms and council assemblies to know that if they were heading south from the dead city her company had abandoned her at, and they were not yet at the Red Keep, then they were close to the Monarch Woods, or the Black Woods as it was known by the superstitious crones who wove stories around all the death that had gone on between the shadows of the trees. They weren't in the forest, but a few minutes of driving would take them to the edge of it if Shisui directed the driver to turn east.

As young and established as he was, Sakura doubted he was completely fearless when it came to trespassing into the old places of the world, where giants buried the bones of their dead and then dug for themselves beds to burrow deep into, where they would sleep and grow for a thousand years until the world needed shaking again.

Stories of the old places were the second most popular in the camps, after the raunchy tales of frisky women and unassuming virgins who wait for someone worthy of deflowering her. After the filthy talk and crass songs ebbed away, the stories that kept them grounded and taunt drifted over firesides and swam through the darkness like a physical force. The old places and the old stories were things spoken of in nothing but reverent tongues between soldiers.

The youngest who came into the camp were always the least likely to listen at first, having heard the stories too often as fodder for their bed time dreams. But when they heard the stories told by men and women who knew they could die tomorrow, the old magic made the words full to young ears.

Sakura remembered the blond girl who always braided the hair of others when she told her stories. Sakura called her Ino when it was comrade for everyone else in a uniform. Ino loved to braid Sakura's hair into herringbone tails and French pleats as her soft voice painted the darkness.

She spoke of with stories of giants fighting the primal gods and died on the earth where their gold and blue blood made the earth hungry. Those were where the old places grew most vicious and those were the places men must never tried but lightly.

'Lo. In the days before days, when wishes still helped, titians killed gods and the gods became beasts, and gods killed titians and the titans became giants, and the beasts ran into the shadows between branches and the giants descended into the deep earth, and all that was left was the weakest of them all; the primordial man and his fire.'

A hand wrapped in the silk of a glove shook her from the memory, as Shisui reached for her fingers. He grinned when her surprised eyes met his. "Come, you dreaming girl. We are at our place of rest."

The car had stopped, and not far from the road there was a house made for a woodcutter and a barn built of of red wood. Neither looked inhabited, and when Sakura stepped out of the car, she couldn't help but smell the lack of human cultivation. There was only nature around them.

"Where is this place?"

Shisui was adjusting the cuffs to his uniform, scanning the tree line in the distance. Between the woods and the road there were fields where once a harvest had been planned. Only dead stalk spotted the field, now. Another failed harvest. "The house of a comrade. What is theirs is ours to be shared and what is ours is to be shared." He recited the saying school children learned before their numbers like it was as natural on his lips as breath. It almost sounded like a song when he said it. When she recited the same lines it always felt heavy.

"What if all they have is hunger to share?" she hummed, following him as he began to walk towards the house. "It doesn't look like anyone with anything worth sharing would still be here."

Sakura could guess as to what had happened when she took in the details. A farmer had tired to live here once, and took to the woods when the fields didn't feed him. Somedays it seemed only the hunters who lived in the shadows cast by trees ever ate. The rest of the world would starve, but the wilds remained for those brave enough to survive it.

Sakura paused in her steps to turn and look back over her shoulder to see the car was no longer behind them. It was gone, leaving less than a trace of it's presence in the dented blades of grass behind her. She turned to the woods, searching, and then faced the barn, where the doors had been opened. Sakura couldn't see inside, but there was a light on from within, burning through the cracks between boards. It glowed brighter and then went dim, hardly noticeable. The door eased shut on silent hinges, pulled by an unseen force.

She swallowed, remembering who she walked with. Of course a bastard prince, a man so close to their king that he would be running his errands, would have magic in his pocket. No wonder she hadn't seen a driver. She turned to Shisui to see him paused in the doorway, his hand on the handle. No one had come to his knocks and he was prepared to intrude, but stopped to glance at her over his shoulder.

"We will sleep here for the night. If it abandoned all the better for us, if not, we are of priority to the King's Red Country. They will give us bed and we will eat in the morning."

He pulled the latch down and the door swung open easily, protesting only towards the end. Shisui entered first and Sakura followed close, scanning her surrounding on instinct, looking for escapes and weapons like the soldiers were trained to do whenever entering a new space. It was a habit she didn't know if she could ever break.

The house was one room, large and spacious with minimal furnishings and a fireplace large enough for two people to lay down in front of. Shisui was already sauntering towards it, picking up a split log from the neatly stacked wood pile to toss inside. He unbuttoned the front of his collar before looking for a light in his breast pocket.

"This is as good a place as any to lay down for the night. I'm sorry I can't offer you luxury just yet, but tomorrow will make up for it. Have you eaten recently?"

The last thing she ate was Holy bread from the communion trays inside the church. The loaves that had been left over were stale and hard, but the blood of the covenant made it soft and sweet as it sunk into the hungry parts of her. It was worth the service, but not the confessional.

Her body was a wreck in more ways than one. She was a solider, and trained in survival, so she knew she could go another day without eating, and there was water nearby for her to find. Hungry never bit her so hard, but the ones who needed to feed her had all died, and she was beginning to remember what hunger really felt like. But Hunger what wasn't kept her up at night. The faces of dead men and bloody women didn't leave until she drowned them.

"I have my own to take from," Sakura answered back, tapping the pocket where she hid her flask. It wasn't food, but it worked just as good. She still had a quarter of it left.

Shisui made a face where his lips threatened to curl when he recognized the outline in her jacket, but didn't address it. "You will feast until you are fat when we reach the King. It will be a relief to be back. Don't let this experience reflect badly on him." He found the thin pack of matches and pulled back the paper to pick up a stick and strike it against the side of the fireplace. The wood caught the flame and milked it lazily.

"Are you..not used to being on the road or away from the palace?" Sakura asked, taking another step into the house that felt like a room. "You're well decorated for someone so young."

He laughed at something she said but shook his head. "I can and will do what is asked of me. What I am used to doesn't make a difference." He stepped towards her and from behind him the flames grow fatter in the fireplace, throwing light on the metals across his chest. There was one, fashioned in the shape of a fox hunting his own tail on a shield, that reminded her of the Fox Peak mascara from the year she was born. The Red Army provoked something wild and set it loose into the White Tzar's lands to ravage the countryside and wreck havoc and blood. Members in charge of orchestrating and carrying out the attack were given the Bronze Fox.

"You were there," she breathed, still staring at the medal.

"You should have asked about me. I was disappointed you weren't more interested when we were in the car. There are few things I enjoy more than talking about myself to pretty girls in close quarters."

"You're older than you look," Sakura said, glancing up at his face and away from his chest. His return stare was nearly as hot as the glow from the fire and she found herself itching for her flask again. Hunger and fear would do her in one of these days.

"Don't let my youthful good looks fool you my dear," he laughed, taking another step towards her before tuning his grin rakish. "Nor my wisdom and age deter you."

He was, without a doubt now, a bastard prince from that old, long lived bloodline that made themselves kings in their lands. Some whispered about how the king was immortal after nearly seventy years of uninterrupted rule with no signs of slowing down. Others said it was because the ancestors to the royal family coupled with the gods and made a bloodline stronger than others and as old lived as the ancient trees.

Shisui was close to her, close enough to touch her if he made an effort to reach for her. She thought him dangerous and turned away, looking over the rest of the house and pretending she wasn't painful aware of his movements behind her

There was a table inside, nearly large enough for two people, where a tin plate and cracked, metal cup sat abandoned. They had been abandoned for many years, but the stains from heavy gravy still remained, baked into the color of the plate. She felt a pull in her gut when she remembered what gravy tasted like and her hands instantly began to itch upwards to the breast pocket of her coat where her flask hid. She didn't taste hunger like a desert in her throat when she was numb to all the ailments of her body.

"It's hardly decent, but it will do for the night," her companion called out, interrupting her thoughts Absently, her hands moved to her hair to loosen the braids and free the plates.

Sakura turned to face him and saw he was smiling at something. There was one bed for the single room home, but it hadn't been used in years as well. It was just as dusty as the table top, except for a pale gray sheet that covered a bulging shape on the bed. Shisui pulled the sheet back, sending a small cloud into the air that should have made him cough, but it didn't. Furs lay wrapped up under the cloth, of assorted shapes and sizes. Bear, otter, and fox furs as well as deer hides were all rolled up alongside each other. Out of everything left in the house, they were easily the most valuable items.

"These will work well for the night. Come take one for the floor in front of the fire. We will not do well to sleep in the cold." He was grinning as his hands pulled at a gleaming coat of silver gray wolf fur. He separated it from the wolf pelts and held it up to inspect. It was nearly as long as his body and plenty fat; meaning it once belonged to one of the more dangerous breeds of wolves from the forest. She recognized the breed in an instant.

"What do you think, someone you once knew?"

She didn't care if he was a prince or her officer. Sakura reached inside her coat and pulled the flask free, unscrewing the cap with her thumb and forefinger before throwing it back and drowning the back of her throat with what was left of her drink.

She slept on a bear's fur that night, in front of the new fire with her face turned away from where Shisui slept. The bastard Prince kept a respectful distance from her on the wolf pelt and all the other things she couldn't bear to look at. Sleep didn't come easy, but it came, and with it the bliss of silence.

When she awoke her hair was still damp with the oils woven in with the freshly plaited braids. She reached up and felt their patterns running down her scalp in twin tails, tighter and neater than she could have ever achieved on her own.

When she had first left Krepost she hadn't even known how to braid her own hair, and it had been messy and ugly to learn. It was the pity of pretty girls that ended up saving her from further humiliation. For as long as she could remember, another girl's hands were always there to braid back her hair, even if they were pale and transparent, burning away in the sun's light.

With her head drumming war sounds, Sakura rose to get herself water and lament the end of her Pivo drink. Shisui woke not much later and found her outside, leaning up against the side of the house under a window with her hands on her knees and her gun resting sideways between her legs. She glared at him through the shadow of her heavy eyelids and their lashes, not in the mood to hear his chatter or teasings.

"You shouldn't be up so early, it's still dark out."

"It's a winter dawn. The sun is just hiding behind those mountains. It'll be bright out in no time." Shisui paused, seeing how she held her rifle across her knees with a finger on the safety, hovering like a moth. "Were you keeping watch?"

There was a reason she had woken so early, other than the hands of a ghost in her hair. Ino was there every morning to braid her hair, and it never disturbed her any more than it had when the blond girl had been alive. No, something else made her spirit restless and it was impossible to ignore now that she was sober.

"You should go back inside and see if you can find anything useful until the sun is out."

"That's not something I need to do. Why can't we leave?" he asked with a teasing tone as he bent down at the waist and grinned at her. His eyes were sharp and narrowed. It would be impossible to believe he would miss it if she lied.

"It's not safe, and I am a solider."

"I'm a solider too, or did you forget that?"

She saw the badges catch what little light filtered trough the air greedily. They wanted attention, even when the didn't deserve it, she thought. "Comrade, you are not my comrade. Go back inside before the lace men come out."

Shisui stiffened a little at the name, but his lips curled downwards. "Lace men?"

There wasn't a moment long enough to explain. She felt the hairs on the back of her necks rise and knew there was something close she needed to find with her eyes. She turned, rising to her feet, keeping her knees bent. Turning at the waist, she scanned the tree line and saw a shimmer. Leveling her rifle she sucked in a breath, freezing the world around her for less than a second, before her trigger finger pulled back the hammer and a crack tore through the quiet morning air.

They weren't the things she had been most afraid of, being so far out in the woods, but they were things she knew better than to ignore. Lace men were the woven soldiers of the White Tzar's mages. Spun out of white lace they were outlines of humans tall and thick enough to carry guns. There were widely inefficient soldiers with sub par aim or accuracy, but they were bloodless. A solider in the red arm could take down a over half a hundred of them before being overwhelmed, but when the red soldiers died, they stayed down. Lace men unraveled and their materials came back to make new soldiers.

A shot from between the trees went wild and Sakura readjusted her hips before taking her second shot. The second lace man fell. There were four others behind him that she spotted and took out with four other, dedicated bullets. They were not easy to kill, but plenty easy to stop. Only by unraveling would they fall apart and die, and in order to do that, a shooter would have to hit them in the center of their neck. Most soldiers opted to just destroy their arms and legs and make them harmless until they got closer. Sakura wasn't most people.

Sunlight broke over the crest of the mountain and the white men in between the trees stilled, but didn't retreat. Without a brain, their instructions took too long to process and then, moments later, Sakura had another half a dozen shots in their necks and the forest was empty again.

She turned and stopped suddenly to keep herself from running into Shisui, who hadn't retreated indoors like she had told him to. He was still smirking, watching her finger the bullets left in her pockets. He had a side pistol sttil nestled safely in it's holster, having never been drawn. He hadn't run inside, but he hadn't helped. He had just stayed out to watch her, that's why he hadn't gone in.

"You didn't waste anything."

It was a silly observation. She didn't have much left to loose, only what was in her pockets, scavenged from the dead bodies of her friends from her last encounter with the enemy. There had been no out post to go to for supplies.

"Last winter…for every bullet we wasted, the perpetrator gave up their food for that meal. We learned not to miss." She gestured back tot he trees. "This much is normal."

Shisui looked to where the sun was shining over the crest of the rock and then back at the small house they had stayed in. Reaching inside his jacket he pulled out a cloth wrapped around a strip of dried meat. He ripped it in half and offered one part of the jerky to her, which she took readily. She hadn't seen him eat the other half, but when she looked up he was dragging a pair of fingers over his lips, wiping them clean.

"You're a bit more exceptional than I believe you give yourself credit for," he said, still teasing. Behind her the car woke up and began to push open the barn doors. Shisui smiled at it before offering her his arm. "Shall we?"

Thankfully, he was less conversational as the pair climbed into the stretched motor car that hummed with an engine softer than a rabbit's breath. She looked for the driver this time, but all the windows to the front were blacked out, making it impossible to see in.

After pulling back out onto the main road Sakura watched as Shisui ran a hand through his hair and reclined down in his seat as far as it would allow, closing his eyes and appearing to doze off. He still smiled when he caught her looking, but Shisui seemed no more a morning person that Sakura. Military necessity had drilled her into an early riser, but she never felt awake until the day was half over.

She didn't know how long they had been in each other's presence before he cracked open and eye and pulled himself up. Sakura watched as he reached inside his coat's inner breast pocket for a carton of cigarette. He slid one free from the rest and touched the end to his lips before replacing the packet. He rolled his lips in and caught it with his teeth before cupping his hands to cradle a light that shone through his fingers. Before the fire caught she heard him mutter about 'needing a God-dammed coffee.' When he lowered his hands she noticed the absence of a lighter.

"How long have you been on the road?"

He blinked, turning his face towards her. A beat later the grin was back on his face. He shifted his cigarette on his lips before replying. "I thought you weren't interested in what I had to say anymore."

"I was never interested in what you had to say, comrade, and I'm only vaguely curious now."

"I can work with curious."

"Of that I have no doubt." The windows reflected a world less and less dense with trees. They were close to the capitol city borders. "You didn't have any food for yourself, much less to spare on a guest, almost like you didn't think of it. When was the last time you ate?"

"When was the last time you ate?"

Sakura recoiled at the question, remembering the church food she abused for less than holy means. "I thought you said you would answer the questions I asked. You were so eager to hear yourself speak last night."

"Ah, but sweet child, that was last night." He took the cigarette between two fingers and pulled it from his lips just enough to breath out the faint smoke that drifted away towards the edges of the car before slipping out through seams she hadn't noticed around the windows. His smoke for breath never touched her, but his eyes were more than present on her figure, so much so that she felt it like a hand on her throat. "You thought I would be so accommodating forever? I have moods, and some are not pleasant for company. Least not when we are so close to our dear king's favorite place of dwelling."

Sakura turned in her seat , twisting to see outside where the landscape of their capitol city stretched out further than what she could see with one look. The City of Voynarov, where the most ancient of clashes between titians and gods left the earth scarred and perfect for the skeleton of a great civilization to grow.

Still far off, Sakura could see much of it from the hills beyond the city. They would have to wind down before entering through the front arches where the stone bodies of two men dressed as Ravens loomed over the road with wide, unseeing eyes. The War Ravens from the stories about trickster gods who scavenged the war sites in the ancient days and earned for themselves great distinction when they recovered a magical amulet for one of the gods. Some versions said it was a ring, while others claimed it was a broach or even a knife belt. Kievo and Stalk the twin raven-men were the unofficial guardians to the city, as it was a city built on war.

While much of the city was sunken, a crest of earth rose up and atop that earth there was what was known to the rest of the world as the Red Keep, though everyone knew it was supposed to be a castle. Built with red brick and darker trim, it was nothing worth looking at again aside from it's size. The Red Keep was plain, without the wide turrets or flourishing details typically associated with royalty. The Red King ruled more like a dictator and less like a royal. He was everything the White Tzar was not.

"We're nearly there," Sakura breathed aloud, searching the city for more sights that would trigger a memory of some old myth. Voynarov was so old it was practically built on the body of stories that shaped so many child hood imagination and fear. While not ever a child when she first heard them, the stories never failed to captivate her in some way.

"And there is yet something I can be glad of. There will finally be coffee to indulge in," Shisui sighed, not bothering to look up from his lap. The fingers holding his smoking stick twitched and the ghost of a smile made his lips quirk. With his head bows he stole a glance up at her from underneath his half lowered lids, "as well as other vices."

She wouldn't pretend not to know what he was talking about, but at the same time, she couldn't help but suspect everything he said when he looked at her from beneath his eyelashes was meant to goad her. He was too mischievous to be so well decorated, it didn't make sense. But if he was as old as she thought he was and as close to the king's rumored near-immortal bloodline, maybe even his teasings were a play at unsettling her for other reasons.

"How well do you know Voynarov, Comrade?" she asked.

"Well enough."

"How well will I come to know the city?"

He lifted his cigarette back to his lips. "Hopefully no better than you come to know me."

His words made him seem like a useless cad of a man, but Sakura couldn't make herself believe that was all he was. But maybe she was wrong. She had inclinations about people, but never knew what those meant. He was not what he appeared to be at least.

"What will they do with me when they realize I can't help them?"

"Why would you think you couldn't? You haven't tried yet, have you?"

"What makes you think I haven't tried?"

"It's mostly just a hunch, but I would have assumed that someone who could commune with the beasts of this old world wouldn't be what you are in this present moment."

She bristled almost, and the heat on the back of her neck where hackles should have been made her ache for weight in her flask again. She didn't want to feel so insulted. "And what am I to you?"

He leaned across the space between them and pulled back the edge of her coat. She let him, but watched him with her eyes, never once moving her face to follow his movements. Shisui pulled out the battered flask and leaned back into his seat, away from her. Lazily, he unscrewed the cap with only his thumb. Smoke curled lazily from his cigarette as it shifted on his lips from the teasing smile as he turned her flask upside down. It was as dry as she remembered it.

"The girl I saw in the middle of the street was a deserter, tired, starving, lonely, and deserving of a great deal of pity, but no more or less than anyone else who's managed to survive this blasted famine. She was pathetic. That is not the posture or bearing of one who walks among beasts."

The phantom sensation of hackles down the back of her neck wouldn't fade. "I'd love to know what you think a survivor of beasts should look like. True, I've seen horrors in the Red King's army, what solider hasn't? But I stayed in that uniform. I never went back to the city of Krepost. What does that tell you about walking among beasts, if I chose this pathetic existence over them?"

When he spoke he closed his eyes and shook his head, as if that made things easier to say. "You never even tried to go back. The records would have reflected that." He waved a hand through the smoke, thinning it. "You're records said other things as well. No next of kin, no attempts at desertion; even when they sent you to the North most lines. You were a perfect little solider. Of course you wouldn't desert to go seek out the beasts on such a disposition. Even now you still slip and call me comrade. And no matter what you think about beasts, you're still here in this car with me, doing as you're told." He paused, looked her over again. "Yes. You'll be what we need."

Sakura had to turn and look outside to avoid the way his stare felt on her skin. They didn't know what they were asking for. What was a beast to people like them who lived for generations in a single body? When they spoke of beasts they thought of animals built like monsters with bodies bigger than cars. The beasts of Krepost were so much more than that.

She felt a hand close to her face and flinched when she turned and saw Shisui was right in front of her, with a hand grasping at the loose strands of hair. The braid was immaculate, but Shisui grabbed at a piece of hair that had escaped her braid to curl over her ear. He rubbed it between his two fingers.

"You're mad at me."

He was teasing her again. He wanted her to deny it. Everything in his body language said he wanted her to play with him and say something flattering or blush and look away. She wondered if he had that sort of relationship with most of the girls he knew while also suspecting he knew she wouldn't. He had seen too much of her broken side in just one night to suspect she was a girl who still had room for love in her heart. No, not love, just heat.

She brushed his hand away and inhaled enough of the smoke to remember her hunger and her weariness. Where she imagined the body of a monster wolf Shisui came into focus.

"I am nothing more than a comrade in the red king's army. I am not mad, I am not hungry, I am not anything more than what you see. Don't imagine fantastical things."

There was a breath between his lips as he prepared to say something, but a sharp turn in the car gave him pause. He straighten up, looking towards the front, and braced a hand against the side of the car before it gave another jerking lurch.

Sakura braced herself as well, squinting out the window closest to her to see if there was something worth seeing. She bit the inside of her cheek when she saw the bodies. There were nearly half a dozen of them on the road behind them. Starved bodies of thin flesh and thinner bones, they were the outcasts who were banned from and cast out of the city, throwing themselves in front of cars and carts alike, trying to die. It was a quicker death than starvation, and the pain was not as sharp. She seen the act before, and noted with dread that it was becoming more common as the food became more precious.

His voice broke her concentration and instead attracted it towards him. He wasn't teasing anymore, but instead he sounded just like he had when he told her of the man he killed on the road thirteen days ago. "That is how you can tell we are close to the city, more so than any sight or detail through the glass. We're truly at the boarders now."

He raised a fist and banged on the divide between them and the driver's seat. "Faster," he barked.

Sakura leaned back as speed carried them down the road, winding around the curves paved over with black tar and smooth dust. There was an urgency now that hadn't been present before as the car started to audibly accelerate. The engine was wild and angry as it burned under the hood, tearing at it's restraints to take them faster and it made Sakura's eyes ache from inside the car.

Outside there was only blurs of color where before there had been images. They were traveling faster than they had before, much faster than any vehicle should have been able to do if made by mortal hands. What should have taken hours to travel down took them only minutes. She felt it in their chest when the car punched out of gear and eased back into a normal speed, taking away with it that-more-than-natural feeling.

"Here," Shisui said, his voice softer from before. The bite was gone as he pressed a finger against the glass. Outside the gates were tall and looming as the pulled up. On either side of the road the stone statues of their ancient pagan gods stood, smooth from age and battered from neglect. They would not be repaired, nor would they ever be replaced. They were too old and too closely cherished in the hearts of the people to tear down, but they were still reminders of the old word and no longer welcome inside the capitol city.

Sakura had been looking forward to the art and representation of ancient gods inside the city, but as the red car pulled forward, her heart sank in realization that Voynarov would not be at all what she had imagined.

Right away the repair and cosmetic restructuring was evident in all the buildings built up alongside the highway roads. There were many corners and may flat walls and not more more to be seen. Everything seemed similar with little variation between sets of homes and buildings. Generations back, before the Red King took to remaking the world anew, Voynarov had been a military outpost with plenty of diversity as the people felt protected enough to flourish, but times were different. Things were not as they once were.

She thought it would take long, but they were an impossible blur in the city as their car maneuvered between the shadows and steered towards the Red Keep without delay. There were man outside in traditional uniform, their dress no different from the design Sakura sported alongside the rest of her regiment. A simple double breasted Navy jacket trimmed in red and gold with matching trousers stuffed into stiff black boots made each of the soldiers look a little older. The enemy wore gray and white, and when they brandished weapons, it was always silver that flashed.

The gate was lifted for them to pass and Shisui watched out the window alongside Sakura as they pulled into an open courtyard where men stood off to the side with their rifles ceremonially pressed to their shoulders. There were others too, but they didn't stand out as Shisui climbed over her to unlock the door and push it open. He turned, one leg still inside, and extended a hand, offering it to her. Sakura took it after a moment's pause, but kept her head down as she followed him out.

The courtyard was wide and yawning as the gates slammed shut behind them, locking them in behind the most impressive walls the city had to offer. The Red Keep was no castle, and it never claimed to be such. There was nothing fantastic or decretive about it other than it's size.

While the courtyard was large, Sakura could hear the far off echo of younger soldiers breaking a sweat as the chanted training songs on a run. She couldn't see them, but she knew on the other side of one of the interior walls there was another courtyard where the soldiers went to become proficient. The songs were ones she remembered from her first year, songs about branches burning to beat back the snow and sunlight erasing the night or some sort. The branches were soldiers and the snow was the white tzar's phantom army.

"You can't hear them from inside, if that's what you're worried about," Shisui interrupted, snatching her attention back. It was a morbid song, but it had been years since she last thought about the meaning of the words and cared. The Red King made no secret of how little he regarded the men who died for him, and there was little chance of that changing.

Sakura shook her head, turning around to face her companion fully. "Where are we going now?"

Shisui looked towards the closest wall and frowned. "Someone was supposed to greet us before heading in. I wanted them to know you arrived safely after so many weeks out."

"Weeks?" The way he said it made her suspect they had been searching for a beast spawn for more than the days Shisui confessed to being on the road.

There was a crunch of the loose gravel between stones and Sakura felt a new presence just before the voice began behind her ear. "It's humbling, I confess, but are efforts to connect with one such as yourself have been longer and older than we would like to admit."

She turned sharply and saw a new Uchiha standing behind her in a red military jacket and navy trousers. Shisui snapped to attention and Sakura felt the interior of her throat widen, anticipating the trouble she would have breathing in front of such a person. The new prince smile and dipped his head, pretending he hadn't noticed her wide eyed expression. "I am so very pleased to finally make the young lady's acquaintance. I had hopes to meet you sooner, but I will be content with this. I am Kagami Uchiha."

This wasn't a bastard prince, this was the real deal. This boy-no, the man, this man had been born into the world with a golden sucker in his mouth and never had to doubt it. The thought made her wince.

"You were late to greet us," Shisui laughed, sounding as natural as he dared in front of his elder and better.

Kagami chuckled back. "Forgive me. Duties in grievances tore away my attention for longer than I had anticipated. I meant to be here in the courtyard when you arrived."

"Of course you had important things to do," Sakura said, keeping her eyes down. She wouldn't make the mistake of calling this mad comrade. Kagami didn't need to pretend to be something he wasn't. "Thank you for greeting us at all."

There was a single medal on his breast that stood out as familiar and iconic enough that Sakura was able to recognize it from underneath the hood of her eyelids: A pale green glass colored lunar moth sat atop a crest made up of crossing black branches. The Mol-krylo medal was one mostly reserved for the silent workers , or those who contributed to the kingdom in unnoticed ways. Sakura had only seen it one other time in her life, and knew for a fact that Shisui didn't have one. In order to have the medal of the moth, a person was no longer allowed to have more than two others prior to the award, and was barred from earning anything else after. Most badges and medals were meaningless, but for Sakura, the Mol-Krylo or the moth medal, meant something.

She saw a hand extended before her and looked up. The soft prince was smiling at her, offering his hand the way a gentle man would offer his hand to a lady. His first contact with her would recognize her as a girl, different from the salute of soldiers and superiors. "You are hungry." His words weren't a questions. Kagami glanced over her head at his relative and then smiled down at her again. "Come, I have stuffed duck and and pitted wine for you. Let's leave Shisui to himself. He's had a long journey and I'm sure he would appreciate the rest."

Sakura nodded, glancing back out of the corner of her eye to see Shisui nod in agreement and happily accept the dismissal. When he caught her looking he gave her a wink before turning and heading into the keep via a side entrance through a single, plain looking door. He didn't seem concerned about leaving her with Kagami, the legitimate Uchiha, and she wondered if he cared that she wouldn't be able to do what they asked, or if he even believed her when she claimed she was not more useful than any other solider.

A light touch at her elbow made her turn and stare up at the older male beside her. Kagami wasn't a boy, and there was nothing boyish about him. "Don't give him your eyes. He's poisoned enough pretty girls for one lifetime, let's not make it two."

Before she could react he slipped the hand on her elbow over her arm and tugged her closer, steering her towards a larger set of doors that opened from the inside where mute foot servants waited. Sakura didn't know what to say in response, but before she could even decide what she felt, he was speaking in her ear again with a voice as low as it was soft.

"You may not know how to, but it's for the best if you forget how to be a comrade and remember how to feel something other than numb. Even if you can't do what they ask, you should at least try to play the part to prolong this charade as long as possible."


Kagami made a carefree sort of sound in the back of his throat before they passed down another hallway. "You don't carry yourself like one of the beast children. I don't doubt that you were one at one point of your life, but you've forgotten what that means. There isn't a scrap of wolf left in you, just uniforms and boots and drink. They won't like that."

There it was, the truth. Kagami wouldn't hide it from her like Shisui did. There was no avoidance or sugar coating with the man dressed in red. "What will they do with me when I can't do as they ask?"

The second corner they turned down was darker, as they had traveled deeper into the keep where more and more walls rose up all around them. "It depends on how useful you make yourself to them…also, what you are willing to do. My poor family believes in what they need to believe in. The White Tzar spins thread armies with magic to fight when the bodies run out, but the Red Kingdom continues to bleed flesh soldiers at a disadvantage. Magic is not what it once was in our family, but that isn't true for the others, the old ones from the old places. That's why we searched for you."

"The war is always going badly," she murmured, repeating the phrase without prosody. "Why turn to fairy tales now?"

"All we have our fairy tales. This will end no other way."

Sakura wanted to speak her mind but bit the inside of her cheek, feeling the heat from his hand on her arm. He was too close and too immaculate to hurt with her words. He seemed to notice this since he hummed in amusement, tickling the underside of her arm through her coat sleeve. "Tell me what you think, wolf girl."

She swallowed, tasting a twinge of copper from where her teeth dug away flesh. "Fairytale endings are rarely endings worth chasing. If you've heard enough you would know that."

"But I haven't, and that's what makes the difference. All my fairytales were read to me, and the immortal stories in books are less biased than the words of a starving woman. You think oral tradition is so great it's not susceptible to corruption. When the people are unhappy their stories reflect that, but books are not people. Books don't omit and twist facts."

Sakura remembered the women and the men who spoke with voices weighed down, telling stories because they had to. It was too much to sit down on a log at the end of the day and stare out into the night knowing that as soon as you woke up in the morning you would have to repeat the same bloody day over and over again. Stories were all they had to keep them distracted enough to stay functional.

That wasn't what stories were meant for, Sakura knew that. It was an unspoken truth that hid under her rib cage whenever she started to feel the hunger. They were using the stories like the addicts used opium, so many they were at fault somewhere for messing up, but Sakura didn't like thinking ill of the story tellers who ended up doing the best they could with what little they had left of themselves. It wasn't their fault they didn't have books or were too hungry and scared to respect the narratives that had been passed down.

They passed down another hallway and a beam of light cut through the gloom from a sliver of window, not far off. She measured her words before speaking, taking care to keep each one trimmed and empty of emotion, least he think her malicious. "We don't have hands for books any more. They're all too bloody and full of bullets."

"True," he echoed, nodding along.

Kagami drew up short and stopped suddenly, eyes fixating on a figure down the hall. Sakura mimicked his actions and froze alongside him, refusing to move until she saw what he did. At the end of the hall, where the corners wound away, a man in black and red uniform stood, his face heavy with age yet still somehow solid.

The man saw them, looked to Kagami first before glancing down at Sakura. There was a shift in his face as he realized something before he turned his face away and continued walking down the opposite corridor, and out of sight.

"An Uchiha?" Sakura guessed, recognizing the ink black hair and eyes of the man. Uchiha aged, but not in the same was as others. Their hair was as dark as midnight until their last day on earth.

Kagami nodded stiffly before glancing down at her and sighing. "Yes, and I am afraid that means I will be having more than one visitor tonight. Come, eat with me now while you can before I am spirited away again."

He didn't say anything more before bringing her to a moderately sized study where stuffed duck, pitted wine, and an assortment of other vegetables waited. Sakura remembered him mentioning the foods, but had doubted their authenticity until seeing them for herself. Duck wasn't hard to come by, but the vegetables were rare.

"It's not a dining room, but it will have to do. If I show my face anywhere els I am afraid of the work they will find for me." Kagami pulled out the chair in front of her plate setting and guided her to her seat before rounding the table to the other seat. Kagami poured the wine and saluted her over his rim before taking the first sip. Sakura followed his example before the smell was too much for her and she found herself dragging her knife through the meat and spearing it with her fork. The first few bites were too god not to hurt her as they settled along the base of a shrunken, empty stomach. She was done with everything save a few scraps before she noticed Kagami's plate remained untouched.

She held the gold cloth over her mouth, hiding the sauce stains before speaking. "Aren't you going to eat?"

"I have no need for it, same as how I have no need for sleep." He held up his glass. "It is mearly for the sake of pleasure I indulge myself every now and then."

"You don't strike me as someone who's descended from the gods, but not feeling hunger, I thought only God could do that. You're very lucky to have that sort of gift-to not know what starvation feels like.."

"I would like to think so too, but it's just as much a double edged sword, to not know the suffering of others. That's were the real horrors begin."

Sakura glanced down at her plate. It was empty, not even the stains were left behind. It was little, and at first she wanted to protest, but she felt the waves in her stomach and knew it had been days since she last ate well. She wanted more, but she knew she couldn't handle it, and if there was one thing she didn't want, it was to waste food. In the evening, later she would have more food again. She could wait a handful of hours. She had gone days before, a few hours was nothing in the grand scheme of things. She would be fine.

The door to the study swung open and Shisui was there, scowling. Kagami frowned in response, but didn't make too much of a face. "What is it?" he asked the younger Uchiha.

Shisui shook his head before running a hand through his hair. "It's the twins again. Itachi can't find the brats this time." He looked over at Sakura and frowned apologetically. "I'm sorry for interrupting."

She shook her head, glancing back and forth between the two men before asking her questions aloud. "Who are the twins?"

Before Shisui could answer Kagami stood, waving a hand as if that was ll it took to dismiss the conversation. "They are two you will meet later on, once they are made presentable for guests. That is all you need to know now." He glanced down at his wine glass, touched the narrow stem before looking to see if Shisui was still there. Kagami sighed when he saw his younger cousin still watching him. It was the sound of resigning he made when he finally turned back to Sakura, letting his hands drop at his sides. "I apologize, but this is a matter I must see to. Shisui, will you take her to her room?"

"I was told to go with you. We can pass the guest quarters on the way out and that will bring her close enough that she shouldn't get lost. I'd imagine anyone navigating the gray lands would have a decent enough sense of direction," he joked, making his eyes twinkle for her.

Kagami agreed, sounding less eager about it as Shisui stepped forward to take Sakura's arm and lead her out. He touched her differently now. The gestures weren't ones of a solider engaging another solider.

It took only a few minutes before they were stopping in front of a door meant for her. Kagami was already turning away, looking off down the hall at something that made his eyes hard when Shisui grabbed the edge of the door, guiding her inside, clear of the path where the door would swing. There were voices far off, down the hall that she couldn't make out.

"Stay in here," Shisui whispered loudly. "We will be back for you shortly. Don't come out for anything unless we're here, okay?"

He didn't wait for her answer, but he didn't need to.

Sakura was a solider, so she sat on the edge of the bed and did as she was told. She waited.

In the morning there were women in her room, pulling a copper bin out from behind a curtain and filling it with enough milk to feed a hundred newly weened babes. Sakura heard them before they came in, but stayed under her covers and her long lashes, pretending to still be dozing so she could watch them in the bathroom without interruption.

The maids were all identical with flawless skin and far off black eyes. None of them said anything out loud, but somehow they were all able to communicate perfectly without words. Head nods, gestures of the hand, twitches in the eyes, and they were all in synch. It wasn't natural.

The door opened again, and the woman switched position like toy tall until they were all perfect in a uniformed line in front of the bath. The new woman had the same dark hair and dark eyes as the maids, but she was dressed a little nicer and Sakura could see the pores of her skin and hairs of white from around her crown. She was too young to be going gray from age, unless her age wasn't what it appeared to be.

"You're not asleep, don't pretend to be," the woman sighed, sounding more tired than angry. "Come, we're to get you ready to met the others."

Sakura didn't want to fight the woman or be difficult, that wasn't how she had been conditioned to behave these past few years, but she felt uneasy walking into a bath full of milk not knowing anything of who was bathing her or who she was going to see. She didn't even have the name of the woman in front of her.

"Who I am is not important," the woman said, holding out a hand for Sakura to take.

Sakura grasped that hand and was pulled to the tub where the wordless woman began to pull at her uniform. She hadn't slept in the night dress left for her, it's what soldiers were told not to do. When a night raid was possible, they needed their pockets and their boots.

Naked, they dragged her into the bin and she felt how sharp and cold the milk actually was. It was thin too, feeling more like water than like cream. She felt their hands like knives on her skin as they pushed her under and covered her wholly with the milk until there was nothing left of her that hadn't been touched. She came up again, gasping, and they dunked her another six times, until she had been submerged seven times, a holy number.

Then they pulled her out of the bath and onto the tiles. She shivered, pink and pin skinned with gooseflesh until the water was dumped over her head. She coughed, but they held her firm before lathering her with a cold water to clean off the smell of milk. The water was infused with red rose petals and in a minute she smelled more like a flower than of milk. She had never smelled like flowers for as long as she had been alive, and if she had, it had only been because she had been rolling through them with the other dogs or hiding among their stalks as white men passed above the trench.

Bone combs pulled through her hair she she bit her lip to keep from screaming when they tugged at the few tangles so ruthlessly. Her hair had been perfect in the morning until they undid it, but now they were working on pulling parts away from her face and plating it in a style more frivolous and less practical. It wasn't tight and the fear of her hair falling out or falling in front of her face made her heart jump.

The room turned frosty and the woman around her froze, dropping her hair as one, working like they were one person with six hands instead of three separate ladies. The forth woman, the one not like the others frowned at the ice crystals forming in the bath.

"Do it like before. He won't know the difference. If it's still too plain we'll put pearl pins in."

Without nodding, without speak, the six hands were in her hair again pulling ruthlessly and plaiting faster than before. One of them left and came back with a red ribbon beaded with small stones they tied around her hair, tucking behind her ears.

When they dragged her back into the room where a red dress with long sleeves and a deep collar waited Sakura wanted to choke. She turned her eyes to the woman who wasn't like the others and made her eyes beg for something else. She was good at begging. She was good at surviving, and too much fabric around her ankles would make that harder. Dainty heels would make that near impossible.

Her voice was like a knife-without mercy. "Dress her in it."

Sakura gasped. They tugged and she felt their fingers make welts on her arm as she tugged back, struggling. She braced like a stubborn mule and used the coils of her body to stay in place. "No, don't!" They stopped at the sound of her voice and looked back to the woman who wasn't like them. Sakura looked as well and felt her heart hammer. "I am not a girl. I am a solider."

"You are guest in the Red King's house. You will do as he wishes."

She felt the challenge rise in her throat. "Is this truly his wish, or is it something you believe to be his will?" Her hackles wanted to rise and she nearly let them.

"What is it to you. You're a dog that's only good at obeying orders. Do as you are told, pup."

"I am a solider."

"Soldiers don't talk nearly this much and this isn't the army." She stepped forward and pinched the edge of her earlobe till Sakura thought it might bleed. "Most of them don't say anything from beyond the grave."

Sakura turned and bit the woman on her hand, using her jaws until there was blood. The doll like girls released her on surprise before quickly recovering and grabbing her around the neck and under the arms till she was lifted up and off the older woman. Blood dropped between Sakura's teeth and the woman's hand. Sakura struggled, but it was mostly against herself and her own nature and less against the girls holding her back. She could have thrown them off if she was truly mad, but she still remembered being a solider more than a girl, and forced down the hackles till her teeth were slack again.


Sakura looked up suddenly at the word and felt her eyes widen. The woman was holding her bleeding hand and smiling like she had found something worth prizing. Her eyes were bright with glee and the silver in her hair was nearly gone. She nodded to the girls and they released Sakura as one.

"The dress uniform, get it for her. I will go now, but you know where to bring her when you are done. Make sure she doesn't run away…if you can."

They said nothing, but two left Sakura to cross the room to a wardrobe tucked into the corner. They pulled out the leggings, boots, and dress uniform for a woman and returned to the bed where they laid it over the dress. The third girl stayed close to Sakura's side, unmoving.

Sakura felt hard things in her throat, she felt angry words and screams and curses, but she swallowed them down. She pressed the howls back until they were flat and invisible in her voice. "Who are you?"

The woman pressed her good fingers around the bite on her hand and the bleeding stopped as the wound knitted itself back together. Healing magic. She was an Uchiha, woman or not, or from some other ancient family that still knew how to pull up magic inside their bodies.

"A name," Sakura demanded, feeling the deepness in her voice and biting her lip to fix it. She hadn't talked back to someone over her in so long, man or woman. Why? How was there so much unrest in her body? Why was she being combative?

"Dress her at once and bring her to the meeting place," the woman said to the dolls before turning her eyes on Sakura. She held that gaze and Sakura met it without flinching or looking down. A moment later the woman was turning, heading out the door to the hallway. She grabbed the side of the door with her bloodied hand, painted like it was a glove of red. It wasn't flowing anymore, but she did nothing to clean it. She didn't look back when she spoke.


Then she was gone, leaving sakura to be pulled apart and dressed again by the three dolls who said nothing to her.

The uniform was thicker and finer than her old one, with a longer trim over her hips, nearly reaching the middle of her thigh all around. While her old coat had been a stiff navy blue, her new uniform was a deep red, traditional like the one Kagami had been wearing last night. Years ago all the soldiers in the red king's army wore red, but that was years before the color made men sick at the sight of it, and years before the dye became too expensive. Now, red was only for dress and the royal family. Few were allowed to ear it anymore.

There are the royal family and then there is the rest of the world.

The front of the breast had a row of smart looking gold buttons with a bee inscribed atop the surface of each. She touched one, feeling the lines of the image under her fingertips as one of the girls left to get the last piece. It was a half cape tied over her left shoulder and under her right arm, with the top trimmed in the black fur of summer rabbits.

Sakura saw herself in the mirror and saw someone important. There was even a leather belt around her waist for a hand pistol. She felt vulnerable without her rifle, but the pearl handled pistol at her waist was just as deadly.

One tugged her to the door and when Sakura looked back for the other two girls she couldn't see them anymore. Sakura was led by the hand for only a few steps before the girl let go of her and walked up ahead, leading her through the hallways one at a time, turning with the clear knowledge of where she was going.

They walked for what could have been an hour as easily as it could have been five minutes for how observant Sakura was of the time. Inside there was no light from windows and no view of the sun. Was it early morning still, or had it slipped past noon?

The wall opens up all of a sudden and there is sun and sky and a courtyard down below. Sakura ears tingle with the sound of metal and fists on flesh. The Red Keep is more a barracks for the army than an actual castle, they said. Sakura stopped to look down and she saw among the men in arms, a girl, slender and blond standing off to the side in all black. Girls were as common in the army as they chose to be, her being female wasn't what stopped Sakura.

As if feeling her gaze the woman looked up and Sakura was too far away to see the color of her eyes clearly, but she felt them well enough.


"She's another one of the beasts they brought in," Sakura breathed out loud, not knowing or caring if the doll girl beside her would say anything. It wasn't a question. The things that were wild inside Sakura told her when she needed to be weary, and they were screaming at her now. Kagami mentioned it over dinner, and she had her suspicions as to just how many people like her they had taken in; not many, if she had to guess. The rest of the army stood away from her, giving her all the room she needed and then more.

"She's such a conversationalist, too," a new voice breathed over her shoulder.

Sakura stiffened and turned to see Shisui there, grinning as evenly and easily as he had the day before. The girl was gone, having been dismissed at some point, leaving them alone with one another. He winked at her once and then looked past her to the blond girl who wore her hair in low pigtails down her back. She reminded Sakura of Ino, the dead girl friend who used to braid the hair of all the others long into the night.

"Shisui," Sakura breathed, forgetting how she had made it a point to not call him by name. She bit the inside of her cheek and looked back down at the girl who was still staring up at them. She was dressed all in black and holding a pair of throwing knives. "Who is she?"

"You guessed correctly, she is like you. They say she's more monster than beast though. Her people lived in the mountains between the two countries and were leopards and felines with all sorts of spots. I know little else than that, because Obito was the one who brought her in. That's all you need to know to stay away from her."

"Obito?" She saw his face contort vaguely and remembered the man Kagami saw in the hallways yesterday. "Is he an Uchiha as well?"

"Unfortunately." Shisui tugged on her elbow and pulled her away from the opening to the courtyards below. The drew into the shade where Sakura knew she wouldn't be seen from those down below. "He has his hooks in her too deep to risk a confrontation. Even if she came willingly, don't trust her."

"Unlike the twins?" Sakura guessed, remembering what she overheard the night before, about the twin boys who were making a mess and needed to be stopped. Shisui smiled at her words, reaching out to touch the lobe of her ears that was still red from Shizune's fingernails.

"I knew you were a smart one. Yes, the twins are less than willing, but that is understandable since they came from the white lands in the first place. They are more prisoners of war than anything else. If we can get some use out of them, great, if not, well at least the enemy doesn't have this advantage, yeah?"

"So you're not having difficulty restraining him?" Sakura asked, imagining all the damage a rouge could do in an enemy camp. She hated the white army for what they did to her friends enough to know she would make herself a reckoning in their camp if ever she was captured, but doubted others would be so fully compliant. It was war. People died in war.

"Nothing we can't handle. It's just a bother. I pity the Uchiha left behind to deal with him, but it was Kagami's unit that came across them so it his responsibility. One was so badly injured and the other just a little less a mess it was as easy as you could dream up to take them into captivity. For a while, the one twin wasn't a problem as long as we were healing his brother, but they're both fine now." Kagami shrugged. "Alas, it is what it is. I'm just grateful I have you and not either of those two cases, right? You're the best, Sakura."

Sakura couldn't help herself. "Oh, do I get you a new shiny medal for not being a problem?"

"Don't be jealous," he tried to tease. "Besides, would it be terrible of me to say I enjoy looking at you far more than a pair of prepubescent boys with anger management problems? I am a man after all."

If it was meant to make her uncomfortable it worked. It had been far too long since Sakura had stopped seeing the world as if there was room in it for relationships.

Some of the women soldiers she fought alongside saw things differently, and chased after warmth in the arms of men like the starved chased after food. Somehow, those were the women who were always the first to die. They called it the lover's curse, because those who had the most to live for were always the first to go. 'They gots eyes too full of love to see the fire in front of their face,' the memory of Ino's voice said.

It worked well enough as a deterrent for future entanglements, making collaboration between the sexes within the camps something feasible. Sakura had never been one to worry about. She had a hard enough time seeing herself as a civilized human, much less a woman.

She waved him away, stepping back half a pace to make distance. "What are you here for? They were supposed to be taking me somewhere."

"Yeah, but that's something anyone can do, so I might as well take over if I can. I don't know about you, but those reflection maids always make me feel off." His waved his hand in the direction the maid must have headed. "You're no worse off without them, even if they are perfectly obedient workers."

"Reflection maids?" She thought back to how alike to each other they looked, like mirrored images of one another. Now it made a bit more sense. They had been made out of magic.

Shisui stared down at her hands, turning on over to inspect the underside of his fingers as if there was something there worth exploring with his eyes. He wasn't wearing gloves, but his hands were pale enough that they made his dark colors seem darker. She hadn't noticed, but she was wearing red while he was still in Navy. What did that mean?

"Yes, but they were bringing you to my favorite cousin and my least favorite cousin, so I might as well fill in." Shisui looked up from his fingers to stare off down the hallway. "I've been meaning to see Itachi since we got back but he was busy with another council meeting last night."

"I take it Itachi is your favorite cousin. Who is your least favorite?"

Shisui glanced at her and suppressed a nervous chuckle. "Don't let others hear you say that. Sasuke isn't, truthfully, my least favorite, but he's a royal brat. He's also a kid and I don't deal well with children. Still," he sighed. "Itachi adores him like his life depends on it. But that's just him being a good brother."

At the end, Shisui extended his arm and Sakura took it after an awkward moment of not knowing how to accept the gesture; No one had ever offered her their arm before. It was enough to make the cheery Uchiha chuckle as he guided her movements till her arm was looped over his. It wasn't as awkward when he held it there and they began walking.

It was a while before the sounds from the training arena below grew too distant to hear, even with her sensitive hearing. The interior walls were starting to look a little more recognizable, but for the most part, she knew she would be getting lost if she tried to make it anywhere on her own.

"Don't try to memorize the walls, it's all internal mapping that guides me."She looked up when she heard him speak in time to see Shisui tap the side of his head. "You'll get the hang of it in no time."

They were stopped in front of another set of doors, these no less or no more intricate than the last half a dozen they had already passed. "Here?" she asked, watching as Shisui knocked. A moment later there was a far off voice calling for them to come in.

"Here it is," he answered her.

With her arm still over his, he pushed with his free hand and both doors separated enough for them to pass through into the warm study of a library. There was a window on the far wall showing off the pale blue sky clotted with gray clouds. There was a small fire going and at the table in the center of the room a dark haired man sat with a boy on his knee. In front of them was a children's book full of rhymes. Both set of eyes looked up when they heard the door open. It was impossible to mistake them as anything but brothers, they were nothing more than differently aged versions of each other.

The taller of the two had to be Itachi, making the boy on his lap Sasuke, the cousin Shisui disliked so much. Sasuke couldn't have been much older than seven still a child with too much fat on his face. If Sakura thought children were cute she would have thought that of Sasuke, but all she saw in him was a body too small to hold up a gun or run as far as it needed.

The little boy squirmed and Itachi leaned down to whisper to him before setting him down and standing. He moved like a cloth caught by the wind, turning to push his chair in and then cross the room, maneuvering around the furniture and stacks of books left lying in his way.

"Our guest," he spoke, extending his hand. Skkura raised her hand to his, suspecting he would hold it at the knuckles like Kagami had meant to. Not wanting to be rude, she met his hand and tried not to shake free when he cradled her fingers with his and lifted them to his lips. It was like be brushed by feathers when he kissed her fingers, and it only lasted a moment. He was an Uchiha, no doubt about it, but he was different than the others.

Itachi took a step back to look her over. "We've heard about you from the letters Shisui sent ahead, but they were too vague to paint a picture. I'm grateful you're here, and in such color." He picked at the collar of her half cloak before tapping the part where the red fabric began, humming in approval. He, himself, wore only black and nothing belonged to a uniform and there were no medals to distinguish him.

"Heard about me? That's…" Sakura's mind reeled, trying to figure out when Shisui would have the time to write to Itachi about her or how he could even send it without her seeing. Had it happened before they met? She looked back up at the pale Uchiha and grappled for the words that wouldn't make her seen as tongue tied as she truly was. "I hope they were all good things."

"Of course." He nodded to the boy at his side and Sasuke stepped forward, also dressed in black. His baby face was set in a glare meant for Shisui, but it didn't let up when he looked to Sakura. Itachi leaned down and whispered to the boy and Sasuke pressed his lips tight, trying to hide the feelings on his face. "Sasuke, this is Sakura. We will be taking care of her like how we are taking care of the twins and Yugito Nii."

"Is she an animal?"

Itachi almost looked embarrassed. "No, the brothers and Yuu, or I should say, Yugito are beasts. There is a difference. Remember the stories I've read to you. You are smarter than that."

Sasuke didn't seem concerned with his brother's attention, but stared boldly up at Sakura, not caring if his stare was intrusive. "What are you going to do with her?" he asked out loud, as if she wasn't standing right in front of her. "She doesn't look very strong. Is she a cat like Yugito Nii?"

Itachi looked to Sakura, waiting to see if she would answer herself, but she shook her head and kept her mouth shut. She hadn't been spoke to, so she wasn't going to speak up now. She didn't care if that made Sasuke the rude one. Instead of answering his privileged little brother, Itachi straightened and addressed Sakura herself.

"I'll apologize on behalf of my brother, he is still a child. I asked Shisui to bring you here because I have a unique gift that I think will benefit you as much as it has our family these past generations. Will you take a seat by the fire?"

There were two armchairs in front of the hearth, both elaborately upholstered with rich detail and slavic designs. Sakura sat down in the one closest to her while Itachi seated himself in the one opposite and turned it so they were even. She felt he was closer than what he was, only because his presence was so overpowering.

"Sakura, I would like to explain what I'm here to do and why you were called here. This is our home, it is where our families eat, where our loved ones sleep. While it is a fortress it is also our heart. In order to feel safe, we need to know that all who enter in are those we need not fear."

"Understandable," Sakura answered, nodding along.

"We need to know we can trust you if we are to leave you…unbound."

She was a solider, she knew the weight of trust, as well as its cost. "How will you know that?"

Itachi brushed some of his bangs out of his face and Sakura flinched when she saw the black irises in his eyes begin to spin until they bleed the color red. There were black and red pinwheels in his eyes. "I will take a look into your memories. Do not fight it when you feel a pressure in your mind, that is me. The sooner I am in and out the sooner we may dine together, but I'll warn you now, if this is your first time being hypnotized by the Uchiha Sharingan, you make feel dizzy or nauseous."

"What are you going to do?" Sakura felt her self asking, even thought she could guess what would happen next. Itachi must have sensed that because he smiled and reached out to hold one of her hands.

"This will only take a moment," he answered before the back marks on his red eyes began to spin. Sakura was caught, trapped in that gaze as the wheels spun faster and faster until everything and nothing was red.

The world was black, and then it was nothing, and then it was everything at once. Sakura felt herself ripped and filled and tore and mended over and over until the world settled. Minutes passed like that, but it could have been hours, or it could have been seconds, or it could have been days.

Magic always felt like pain in the most intimate ways, but Itachi's was infinitely more brutal in comparison to the roadside witches who played with soldiers for entertainment. Sakura didn't understand why, but she always felt the digging and ached against it while the others in her unit hardly batted an eye. Most never noticed.

Magic dug through all the layers of her being to find her soul and leach off of it and she felt naked and human against it. Magic was a violation, no matter how much she tried to mentally prepare herself against Itachi and give him permission to do what the Dova witches never could. It was like betraying the heart of her nature, the one she had squashed and ignored ever since she put on the uniform.

Her uniform-thinking about it made the pain less sharp.

Sakura sand the marching songs in her head and imagined dressing herself in her navy trousers and glossed black boots. The ritual of loading a rifle and taking aim made the shrill of her violation less severe. She almost didn't notice it anymore, but that would be impossible. Six years of braiding back her hair made her into a human. She was a human. She was a comrade. She was a soldier.

"That's better. You need to let go of everything else, you need to believe I'm here to do what I said I was. Let it pass, submit and the pain will be gone." Itachi's voice was transparent sounding, echoing from all around her. There was no body to connect it to, so Sakura imagined one. In a moment, he appeared before her. More of the pain dulled.

"I can't do this forever," Sakura gasped, hating the feeling. It was like she was holding back the walls of a dam ready to burst. She was strong, she could hold it, but not for long. "What do you need to do?"

Itachi nodded, saying nothing, but melting into the landscape, turning a white world dark. Sakura was outside in an overgrown garden where the stones of a path were overgrown with weeds. Stone statues of raven cloaked men surrounded her on two sides. The trees around her were thin and long with longer, thinner branches nearly bare for the winter.

Sakura remembered where she stood. It was an old place, ruins from a distant age. Three years ago, after a skirmish along the boarders but inside their own territories, Sakura found the site of the Raven brother's temple. Between the two stone statues there was a basin perched on a post, carved ornately but overgrown with creeping greenery. Inside the basin lay a shimmering liquid; rain water, meant to be drunk in honor of the old ways. It was where pacts and deals were made, or it had been, once upon a time.

'You need to let go.'

She remembered what she did and reenacted the scene. She dipped her fingers into the basin and sucked the rain water from her palms. Again and again until her mouth was full.

And just like in her memory, this time again the world forgot reason. A man made out of roses and bones stretched across the sky, swallowing stars. The earth around her broke down until it was nothing but black sand and there were waves just beyond the raven statues, waves rolling with black froth that flickered red and orange when it broke, like the inside of a burning ember.

There was a thief in her memories and she was too drunk on rainwater to remember how to resist his trespasses. She didn't want to resist his trespasses. She didn't want to even know about his trespasses. Ignorance was a warm bed and she was too, too tired.

Sakura laid down in the black sand, remembering the way she nearly didn't rise from it the last time she visited the black sea with Ino and the mad men and woman of the Red King's army. Back then, she hadn't wanted to rise for a different reason. Now, she was magic drunk and wanted to sink in the felling. Back then, she had been broken and haggard and sick with loss, making her not want to ever get up and see another day again. All she had wanted to do was sink into the black sand and never get up, no matter what anyone said about duty and honor and memory. Rising from the sand meant fighting another day, and she felt too empty to give up anything more of herself. It made getting drunk too easy of a choice. It made pretending a ghost didn't haunt her dreams that much easier. It made waking up again bearable.

Sakura was in the black sand surrounded by waves that burned, but she was cold, too cold.

The memory in her dream made everything seem tangible. Sakura dipped her hand beneath the surface of the sand and let it hang where narwhal and stingrays could swim past it in the world of dreams beneath her. There were crows overhead, ravens, magpie and other black birds too small to remember the names to.

Sakura breathed and her breath was a cloud of white that danced into bodies of fairies in a procession stretching towards the sky. The last time she drank oath water she had been a mess of madness and illusions until late the next morning when the red haired girl found her and made her drink stolen brandy. It was better to be drunk then deep into oath water in a kingdom that didn't honor the old ways anymore.

'Why the hell would you do such a thing?' the girl had asked, hissing and angry.

Sakura hadn't replied. She had been too busy looking between the waves and the trees for the body of a grey wolf, bigger than a shelty pony. He wouldn't come. Oath water broke down the barriers between one world and the next, but it never broke down the veil between the living and the dead.

'You need to drink the water again.' It was a new voice, not Ino's voice. It belonged to a man.

'Go back to the water and drink.'

She moved, prepared to do just that but there was a crack in the world around her, as if she was looking at everything through a mirror so clean and clear she couldn't tell it was there until she saw the imperfection in the glass.

The voice called out again, this time more hurried. 'The water, Sakura. Drink the water.'

The crack grew and spread outwards into hands and arms and fingers that stretched across her vision. The image of the old garden was distorted and impossible to believe in anymore. Even if she got to the water, she wouldn't want to drink it now.

She heard it again, calling louder than before. All it could manage was her name before the glass of her world shattered. 'Sakura!'

Sakura came out of her dream with a kick and felt the fingernails in her brain like they were suddenly burning. She wasn't lost in a dream anymore, she was awake enough to know something was wrong but couldn't remember what. All she knew was what she felt and what she felt was a need-a desire to reject the fingers in her brain. She screamed and the nails broke free, one by one, each tearing at her until she bled. Her mind was being torn by an invading force. She screamed louder and both hands flew back, the rest of the dream world snapped like a scroll being rolled up and she was back.

Sakura blinked, looking around her once, blinking about and squeezing her eyes till they watered before looking around again. The library, the fireplace, Itachi. The library, the fireplace, Itachi. The library, the fireplace, Itachi.

Her mind was a mess and she felt like if she tried to make words they wouldn't come out coherent. Her jaw was wide and aching and she wondered if she had been screaming while in the dream world. Her face was wet, and when she reached up to feel it she felt tears.

"Wha…" the word wouldn't form on her too heavy tongue. She wanted to ask how long, what had happened, and where were they, but she was still a mess inside her own skin. She could see Itachi sitting where he had been before he hypnotized her, but Shisui and Sasuke were both gone. Sakura was alone with the red eyed Uchiha.

Sakura took the time to calm down and really focus on her surroundings when she noticed the red trails down Itachi's face. Curving down, over his cheeks, were twin tears of blood, bled from his red spinning eyes, only now his eyes were black again. Itachi looked haggard, too. He was breathing heavily and his already pale skin was near translucent and blotchy in places where bruises were starting to form under his skin. When he had once been beautiful, now he was something she didn't want to look at.

"What happened to you?" she finally managed to ask.

"You didn't drink the water."

"The what?" Sakura looked around, searching for the water Itachi could mean. They were alone in a library and there was no food to be seen, much less any water to drink. "Itachi, what do you mean. I don't remember what happened. You were saying something after sitting down and then…I must have blacked out."

Itachi chuckled and leaned back in his seat, sagging a bit as his body let out a groan of protest. The wings on the chair made enough of a shadow when next to the fireplace that he could turn his face into the fabric and the dislocation wouldn't look so bad. His eyes were back to being black, but the blood was still on his face.

"You kicked me out. I knew it would be a long shot, but you had been living as a human for so long it was worth a shot." Itachi shifted in his seat, pressing closer to the shadows. "Beasts are immune to magic, which is one of the reasons they are so desired for our war efforts. Nothing magical will ever be able to kill you or hurt you because of what you are."

"But I'm not…" Sakura started to say, but the rest of her words died on her lips. She didn't even want to mention the city she had left or the life she had left behind with it.

"You are. If you weren't I wouldn't look like this now," Itachi intoned, leaning his face away from the chair to show off how sick he really looked. It was enough to make Sakura wince.

"That was because of me?" He nodded and she deflated, feeling sick again for involuntarily causing pain to the family of her king. "I'm sorry. I hadn't meant to."

"No, I know you didn't. I know a great many things about you now, Sakura, and one of those is how you fail to see yourself as a true, human girl the same way you fail to see yourself as a beast. You're caught between in a crisis of identity that couldn't wholly reject or accept my presence in your mind. Do you know what I did?"

Sakura tried to remember as far back as she could. She remembered sitting down with Itachi, she remembered him saying something and taking her hand. She remembered looking up and seeing his red eyes and then…and then….the memory was gone. Something happened she couldn't remember. Before the black spot in her memory Itachi had been talking about trust, and how he needed o trust her for the family or something like that.

"You were inside my head," Sakura said out loud. She remembered something else, but the memory wasn't whole. She remembered resisting something. "I kicked you out?"

"You more than kicked, I assure you. Anyone less skilled would have died. I was trying to access your memories and thoughts, which would be technically impossible to do on a true beast, since I was utilizing magic. You were able to ignore me for a time, but then you grew aware and ejected me forcefully. I've learned two things about you, would you like to know what those two things are?"

Maybe it was the poor lighting, but Sakura took notice of how the dark bruises underneath his skin started to dade and lessen. He had been hard to look at before, but now his appearance wasn't repulsive. He was healing, or at least recovering from whatever shock she wrecked on his body. He was watching her, his dark eyes still bright from the shadow of his winged back armchair. It was enough to make her shiver.

"I think…" Sakura licked her lips and started again. "I think you've learned more than two things about me, but you're only going to tell me two. What have you chosen to share of your findings?"

Itachi left the shadows of his chair and towered over her, bending at the waist so he was over her, one arm on either side of her own chair. If she tried to leave he would make it impossible. With no other choice she pressed her back as fas as it would go in the seat and tried to put as much distance between them as possible. His eyes were black and pure, but somehow, she still saw them spinning as they watched her.

"Firstly, you're a lot more dangerous than you think you are, and secondly, you're a lot more useful than we first thought you could be. And no, Sakura, I won't explain myself. It may sound petty, but you've wounded my pride as well as my body so I'd prefer if we don't have dinner together as Shisui once planned." Itachi drew back, and with him all the shadows that had encroached up around him dissipated. The room was less stifling and the fire's warmth was back. Itachi was healing, but he still looked bad, so he turned his back to her to hide his face. "Tomorrow night the Red King will dine with you. I will allow that much."

"You didn't see anything bad in my memories?" Sakura asked, thinking back to all the times she had felt bitter towards their king for his foolish war and all the dead she had to survive.

Itachi waved a hand over his shoulder, dismissing her and the doors to the hallway opened on their own. "I saw enough. Leave before I am tempted to break down you mind again and die at the foot of your secrets, girl."

Sakura wasn't quiet sure what that meant, but she stood and left far enough so that she was out in the hallway again before turning down a hallway and following the sound of men in arms training. From the balcony looking down, she was able to find her room and retire to her bed, waking only when she smelled the dinner in her room before eating, dressing, and falling asleep again.

Sakura dreamed of the things she had forgotten when Itachi had entered her mind. She remembered being drunk on the old water and then sober enough to turn like a dog and hunt the intruder down until Itachi was a boy under her fangs. She remembered ripping him from her memory. She remembered seeing the things he saw as he tumbled free from her mind in beaten mess. She remembered the flashes of a girl becoming a woman in a uniform, of holding dead comrades, of bleeding into the black sand. She saw the inside of her memories when deep in her drink, but nothing of the wolves.

Sakura tried to dress herself, but the maids made out of reflections were back without announcement to drag her into another milk bath and rose water washing. They didn't try to braid her hair any differently then what they had ended up doing yesterday.

When the pulled her out to dress her, Sakura felt a thrill of fear at the thought of being forced into a dress, but the only thing that waited for her was a clean version of her original uniform; the navy blue one. She fingered the label and found the fraying had been mended and the holes were no longer there.

One of the girls brought her out and down to the courtyard where a handful of navy colored guardsmen were training on their rifles with dummy bullets, the kid that couldn't hurt anyone if they connected. Sakura curled her nose at the offered ammunition, knowing it wouldn't weigh as much in her rifle. It would take a couple of shots before she learned how to correct her aim.

Her rifle was new as well. Her old one, the one she had been working with for four out of her five years was 'being repaired' somewhere else. The new rifle in her hands was lighter, cleaner, and held less character.

"It's a Kilov, the same make and model as your old one, comrade" the instructor said, using a voice that implied he wasn't willing to say anything more on the subject, which was fine. Sakura didn't want to do a lot of speaking anyway. "

Sakura was told to practice with the others, so she took the post the drill instructor assigned her to and leveled her weapon. She didn't miss the weight of the old man's eyes as he pretended to give his attention equally to all his soldiers. He wasn't the only one, but Sakura didn't look up to see who was watching her. She was good with a gun, six years worth of good with a gun, and a few set backs wouldn't change that.

Sakura held her breath and fired as the target on the rotating wheel turned. She missed, but not by as much as she expected. This gun was not as different from her last. She steadied herself again, readying the next shot as the wheeled target rotated. She held her breath and the rotations seemed to slow as time grew heavy.

She fired, and was too early, but still shot close. If it had been a human it would have been a flesh wound. If it had been a white man, it would be that much more determined to seek her out and kill.

Two shots: she had missed two shots. She wouldn't allow herself to miss anymore. The instructor was still watching her, already suspecting that she needed a few shots to become acquainted with the gun again. Three shots would be too much. She wasn't allowed to miss three. She could be dead in the time it takes to fire off those shots, or worse, someone else could be.

"You have extraordinary senses, let your gun become an extension of you so you may use those senses to guide her." The voice in her head was familiar, but she had almost forgotten the face of her first instructor, the one who was too kind and too patient to work with those who already knew the basics. She had been hopeless in the beginning, and he had been compassionate.

Sakura felt the ground beneath her and bent her knees enough that she felt steady. Her breath froze in her throat and both her eyes widened, staring down the sight as her shot split the front of her target clean open.

Sakura didn't miss again, and the weight of the eyes watching her slid off, one set at a time until only the occasional glance made her notice…aside from the one person who watched her out of sight. She never felt their gaze shift away.

Sakura cycled through the various targets available for practice, missing the wild of hunting game with led bullets. She followed where they said for her to go, and kept her head down until most believed she was one of them, no different from the rest. No one spoke to her, and she never opened her mouth. Some camps were like that, but she suspected this wasn't one of them. They were quiet for a different reason. Some were still watching her, others were looking up.

It was noon before she began to hear the familiar murmurs of conversations under breaths, the way soldiers talked when they knew they shouldn't, like naughty school children. Some of them were louder than others, and some were still silent.

"You!" The murmurs stopped as everyone turned in some way or another to look at the newest arrival. Sakura turned and saw Sasuke, the seven year old boy coming down the stairs to the courtyard. His eyes were on her.

"You," he repeated again, taking wide, angry steps to get to her. "How dare you bring the harm to my brother. You are a nothing and yet you dare to mar an Uchiha? What foolishness is this?" the little Sasuke raged, using words Sakura doubted he understood. There was something off in the way he formed his sentences.

"Sasuke Uchiha," was all she could say, lowering her rifle and bending her head to stare down at him as he marched up to her. She thought back to the way Itachi looked yesterday night and felt a stab of guilt. "I apologize for last night, what happened with your brother was an accident."

"I don't care. You hurt him, that's all that matters" Sasuke looked around and spotted the instructor not to far away, watching the exchange openly. "What is she doing out here with a gun. She needs to be punished."

Sakura swallowed, wanting to take a step back. She didn't think she deserved to be punished, but she knew better than to believe that everyone got what they deserved. Sasuke was an Uchiha. He was a prince. Princes got what they want. Sakura might have been a honored or highly desired guest in their house, but she was nothing more than common born. If Sasuke wanted her whipped or locked in chains around a tree without food, that was his unholy right to do so, regardless of the justification.

"I am under orders to evaluate and integrate for the day, sir. My orders came from your brother." The man looked between Sasuke and Sakura just then. "He told me she was not to be handled…'rough;y.'"

"He' injured, what does he know?" Sasuke turned his glare on Sakura. "For all I know she did that to him on purpose and made him swear to whatever it is she's doing right now. I don't care, I don't trust her and until my brother is better I'm not going to let her get away with this. I want her in chains."

"Sir, those were Itachi's orders. I can not go against his wishes."

Sasuke snarled, looking back into the shadows where the two guards that escorted him waited. "Fine, no chains then, but I'm taking her with us to see the twins. I won't make Itachi angry, I'll do what he asks, but he never said I couldn't scare her. You," he pointed to one of his guards and then jerked his thumb at Sakura. "Take her, we're going to visit the brats." Sasuke then glared at the instructor, curling one lip. "Is that acceptable?"

"If your brother asks I will inform him of your decision. I will do no more." That meant he wouldn't stop Sasuke from doing anything that directly contradicted Itachi, but if Sasuke found a loophole, Sakura knew better than to count on the instructor.

One of Sasuke's guards took her shoulder and she help up a hand, insisting she could walk, but he still jerked her forward while the other took her gun from her, disarming her. She wasn't wearing the red uniform from yesterday, so she had no side pistol. And while she was wearing her original uniform, the knives were removed, leaving her weaponless.

'Terrific,' she inwardly commented, biting the side of her cheek to keep from saying anything.

She didn't claim to understand kids, having seen so few of them before, but she knew how men could behave after a lifetime of never being told no. She had seen enough of them in the army before they either grew up and realized the world wasn't what they were raised to believe it to be, or died in the mud.

Most of the men and women who came into the army were from poor villages and were as humble as dirt, but in the years when she had first been folded in, a draft to the bone-lands had gone out, reaping the young sons of houses that might have been nobel if their lands hadn't been absorbed into the empire a decade earlier. They thought they woud get the easy jobs, the cushy titles, the lightest of the load. They soon came to realize the red army sees no distinction between its members. All are the same, no one is more or less than the sand on the red king's black sea.

"We are all children of the Red King. No one is less or more than the sand on his black sea."

Sasuke had never seen that side of life. He would be no better than the boys who dressed like men and cried at paper cuts. If he never left the shade of protection cast by his elder brother he would be a rotten bruise of a man one day in the future.

As if he could hear what he thought of her Sasuke snapped his head to look back over his shoulder and glare at her. She was still being led by the shoulder by his guard, making it awkward for her to stay upright and walk without looking like a hunchback. He must have thought that made her look funny since he smirked and turned back to stare ahead with his head held high.

His voice was a whiny pitch she shrank against. "You don't look pretty at all for a girl. I couldn't even tell you weren't a man with how flat you are."

"How unfortunate such worshiped eyes had to behold such a sight. If I had known I would be on display before yourself I would have chosen not to starve," Sakura bit out, kicking herself for responding with such biting sarcasm. It would do her no good to get into a verbal spar with the spoiled prince. It could only end badly for her to say anything.

"You're just upset because you're ugly and no one would ever look at you if it weren't for where you came from. My brother is going to loose interest in you soon enough. There are prettier girls for him to dance with every night and he never even plays with them for long, so you shouldn't get any ideas." Sasuke sniffed, staring straight ahead. "And you complain too much. Men don't like women who complain. You should be grateful you were fed at all. Food and travel expenses were bloated this year as well."

Sakura felt her ears ring and knew she had to bit her cheek before she said anything else. She was good at holding things in. She had learned to hold things in. She had learned how to bite herself instead of lashing out. But to take abuse was not in her nature.

"Is that what your precious brother thinks, or were you left to come up with that assumption on your own when you were left behind, tiny prince?" She took more offense at his claim to the army being fed was a waste, but she disliked everything that came out of his mouth enough to be purposefully vague. What wasn't vague was what she thought of him.

He wheeled with impressive speed for someone his age and she almost wondered if he actually had training, but that thought was cut short as her face reeled from the open handed slap. He wasn't wearing gloves, it would leave something red and hand shaped on her face for a while. She glanced down at him with her face still turned away. He was simmering, but not seething, to his credit.

"You do not speak of me in such a manner." He took a step towards her and the guard on her shoulder jerked her down so she had to bend at the knees and kneel before him. Still, he wasn't much taller than her on her knees and she knew she looked intimidating from beneath her lashes. "Who do you think you are, solider, trench witch, comrade? I am the son of gods. You…you are something dirty my family thinks they can pick up out of the dirt and use and that's it. You're not worthy enough to look me in the eye."

She didn't want to, because in her memory, the only time she really looked people in the eye, the times she stared with her eyes leveling into theirs, was either when she was about to make her vulnerable, or when she was about to tear out their throat, so it was probably a good idea that she didn't look up, but stare at Sasuke through the protection of her lashes. She didn't want to tear his throat out, but she really anted to to tear into him and make him cry. She wanted to see him humbled.

Sasuke huffed, rubbing the hand he had used to hit her before nodding to the guar who held onto her shoulder. Sakura was yanked upwards and pushed forward, following Sasuke back, deeper into the keep and down into what she only assumed was where they kept prisoners and captives.

The further they traveled, the older the stonework in the walls became. She recognized the masonry and mentally noted that this part of the keep was old enough to date back to before the organization of the red colonies. The rest of the keep had been built using the styling expertise and techniques acquired only after their first major expansion.

It was enough to distract her until they got to the end of the hallway down below where the light from outside had to filtered down using a system of mirrors. Sasuke was stopped in front of a door made out of bending, criss cross bars. There were figures inside Sakura couldn't make out until she drew closer. The guard dragged her up to the bars but didn't stop, choosing to instead throw her at them and watch as she hit the metal and crumpled down at the base of the bars.

"Get up," Sasuke barked. "It's no worse than what you did to Itachi."

"You must really love him," Sakura bit out, licking away the blood from where her lip had split when she fell against the bars. "If only we are were so lucky with love from out brothers."

"Sh-shut up!" He kicked at the stone floor beneath him, like he wanted to kick her but couldn't. There was enough dirt and dust there to make a scraping sound, but not enough to kick it into her face or make her cough. Sakura turned her face away, resting her forehead against the bars. If they wanted her to stand they would pull her up.

"Put her in with the twins. If they eat her it's just an accident. If she eats them, we get to put her down." Sakura looked up sharply at Sasuke's words and then turned to look at the guars, only to feel them first, pinching her arms and dragging her up. One opened the door to the dark, long cell that was too far and too long to see the end of. The door swung open on well oiled hinges and she was tossed head over ankles into the den.

Sakura landed awkwardly and felt the sprain in her wrist from where she had braced for landing. She had been stupid, but at least her ankles were fine this time. Her braid held, but stands of hair were falling in front of her face when she lifted her face from the floor. She was braced for worse though. At least Sasuke hadn't decided to hit her a few more times or go after her in earnest. He was just playing with her.

"What are you doing?" a stiff, new voice asked. Sakura turned around to see a new figure stand up alongside to Sasuke. He had the same dark eyes and hair of all the Uchiha, but wasn't dressed as well. His uniform was simple, like hers. Even if he was a bastard, he wasn't as well regarded or recognized like Shisui was. The new figure turned from Sasuke to look at Sakura in curiosity. "Who is she?"

"Are you going to tell on me?" Sasuke asked through a grumble. He knew the boy well enough by the sound of his tone. They weren't friends, however.

"That is not my intention."

"Fine. She's just some ugly girl I'm bullying. It's no big deal to you."

"Ugly?" The by looked over at Sakura again and smiled, but it was stiff, forced, and fake. "Hello, Ugly. My name is Sai. I am sorry but Sasuke is going to bully you now. Have a good day." He turned to face Sasuke. "You too, Sasuke. Say hello to your brother for me. I will not be seeing you both for a while."

"Just go. You don't have any business her anymore, do you?" Sasuke huffed, crossing his arms over his chest and staring back into the cage where Sakura was thrown. His glower was hard to miss.

Sai regarded the smaller Uchiha for a moment before the stiff smile was back. He turned around to open the door again and before Sasuke could stop him, Sai grabbed one of the guards and tossed the burly man deeper into the rom than Sakura had been thrown. Sai was young, small, and slender of stature, but he threw a man twice his size like it was nothing. Sakura found herself gaping.

"This will make it more fun to watch, Sasuke. Don't thank me. I'm going up now. If I see someone along the way I'll try not to remember where I saw you."

"Is that supposed to scare me?" Sasuke snarled.

Sai shrugged before turning and walking back up the way they had all come. Sasuke watched the other male go, frowning the whole way. Once Sai was out of sight Sasuke turned back to look into the caged room where Sakura lay and his guard struggled to find his feet again.

"Sasuke, sir, please open th-" Sakura looked back when she heard the way his words were cut off. There was the sound of something wet and crunching. There was a severed hand on the floor, and a part of the guard's arm was in the mouth of a four legged animal with claws and a mouth full of teeth. It snarled and bit down harder on the severed bit of arm, snapping in in two inside it's mouth before dropping it. Sakura held her breath, seeing the long ears and delicate angles of the monster fox's face. It was black with a burn of red around its eyes on the top of his face. The guard was still alive, but at the rate he was loosing blood he wouldn't be for much longer.

The fox lowered his head and looked at Sakura, seeing her uniform. It dropped the pieces of arm and slunk forward on legs that made his shoulders stand out like blades with every step. Blood dripped from its maw, and the breath hat curled over his fangs was warm and dank. She felt it on her legs as it stood over her.

"You're not allowed to kill that one, just scar her," Sasuke huffed, seemingly unconcerned with the fate of his guard or Sakura's safety. She doubted he honestly cared if she lived or died. He probably suspected Itachi would forgive him this sin as well. Why should he care?

Sakura held her breath as the black fox loomed closer, nose dragging along the length of her body, sniffing her back like the dogs would. Foxes were a sort of dog. Sakura leaned her head back, exposing her neck and closed her eyes. She held her breath as the damp nose pressed up against her skin sniffing aggressively. She flinched when she felt his teeth touch the sides of her neck, as if he was going to pick her up by her neck in his mouth. The fox stopped, then drew back. A moment later he was gone, back to the shadows.

Sakura opened her eyes and looked around, seeing the dead body of the guard and bloody paw prints back to the furthest part of the cell. Had he spared her because Sasuke said so, or was that his own choice?

"Go." The voice was ancient, coming from everywhere and nowhere at once. "Go before my other half regains awareness. We are not in the mood for your games, Uchiha."

"You're no fun when you're like this, Menma. Next time Naruto should be the one awake to play with us." Sasuke huffed, tapping the metal with his fingernail. " At least he doesn't sulk so bad."

There was a growl from the darkness making Sakura move.

"Go, and take your brother's woman with you."

Sasuke made a face, as if the idea of Sakura belonging to Itachi made his stomach turn. It probably did. He had his other guard open the door and drag Sakura out. Sasuke was the one that slammed the door shut and turned the lock. Pocketing the key he looked back into the den. "She's not my brother's woman. She's a dirty beast like you and you're really a mess if you couldn't tell that with as good of a look as you got. You're slipping." Sasuke paused, as if considering his next few words. "Let Naruto out to play next time."

Sakura didn't know why, but there was a terrible roar from down below where the black fox slept. Something in Sasuke's words had set the ancient child off.

Like the demented child he was, Sasuke's mood suddenly shifted after leaving the prisons and the warped, adult vocabulary he fitted himself with fell away as he skipped ahead of her and hummed a nursery rhyme to himself. It was completely different from what she had seen of him earlier, and she wondered if the Uchiha were also know for their duplicate personalities.

Sasuke didn't say anything more to her, and didn't make his single, remaining guard pinch her or drag her around. He led her out of the hallways into the training courtyard again and left her there. Sakura hadn't been paying attention, but she only faintly heard the comment he tossed over his shoulder on the way out. Something about playing again next time…

She found her gun and left with it to sit in the shade and think about what she had seen until the yard emptied enough for her to go through the drills without having to wait for the person ahead of her to finish. It was a while later when Shisiu found her, tracking a clay disk through the air with the barrel of her gun.

It shattered a moment later and she frowned, lowering her gun to look back over her shoulder and see the older Uchiha standing with his pistol extended. He grinned, holstered, and pocketed his weapon.

"Forgive me. I couldn't help myself-," Shisui said, sounding the opposite of sorry. If anything he sounded sheepish, but that cut off abruptly when he saw the mark across her cheek. His words ended abruptly.

"That was my shot. If you wanted one for yourself you should have waited your turn and loaded the catapult yourself," Sakura huffed, turning back around so her face couldn't be seen. Her hair was still disorganized from when Sasuke had ordered his guard to throw her down. She hadn't bothered to dust herself off, really, too used to being in a state of disarray to care to keep herself neat.


Sakura walked calmly over to the ancient catapult and loaded another clay tile, pulling back the lever and setting the first gear into motion for two minutes, the time it would take her to walk back over and take her position. There was no one to pull the lever for her manually, so she had to use the timer.

Sakura heard the catapult tick through the seconds as the gears inched one grove at a time. She jogged back into place and leveled her rifle again, holding it up to her eye. It was heavy, but she had held worse for far longer before her arms gave out. This would be nothing.

She felt the final tick and held her breath. The world slowed and in a second that felt like twenty, the lever released, shooting the clay disk into the air for her to follow before squeezing. The clay tile exploded and this time it was because of her.

Pleased, she lowered her rifle.


Sakura frowned, turning back around to see that Shisui was still watching her. He hadn't moved and the expression of discontent was still there on his face

"Who, what? What are you talking about?" Sakura asked, forgetting about her face for a second before it clicked in her brain. "Ah…" she glanced sideways.

"Who did that to you?" It didn't sound like a question.

When Sakura started to look away, Shisui reached for her face and grabbed her chin. He touched the edge of her cheek, where the skin felt raised and Sakura knew there was more of a mark there than she first assumed. Maybe that was what made Sasuke so happy.

She thought about ratting out Sasuke, of telling Shisui the truth and watching to see what would happen. It would be easy, and Sasuke deserved more than what he got. Shisui already disliked Sasuke, she didn't have to worry about him believing her. She wanted to tell on Sasuke. It made sense.

"It's nothing. Just an accident, that's all."

"It's a hand print. You don't have to lie to me. Who?" When she didn't answer he quickly added, "If you don't know his name point him out to me. They should have all known better. You're our honored guest."

Sakura shrugged, pretending it didn't matter. "I'm a soldier, nothing more and nothing less. That's all I'll ever be and that's all I should be. Regardless, it doesn't matter anymore. What are you here for? Can I assume you're here to fetch me for something else?"

His tone was still hard when he spoke, and his eyes hadn't softened yet. "You…you're not going to tell me." A look of conflict flickered across his features before the hardness returned. "Why?"

Sakura wasn't to roll her eyes, but thought that rude, so instead, she just shut them. "What does it matter? I'm done here. Where do you need me?"

Shisui made a sound like a muted growl and turned his face away, ripping his eyes from the outline of her face. "I had plans of my own, but it seems Itachi wanted to see you again. I doubt you'll be done in time for dinner this time too. Sasuke will be thrilled."

"Itachi?" Sakura said, ignoring the jab about Sasuke. "What does he want? I thought we had settled everything yesterday."

"Don't ask me. Maybe he though of something else he wanted to ask you. I don't question his ways."

Sakura looked down at herself and grimaced. She was fine for a solider in war times, but it wasn't proper for meeting with an Uchiha in a formal setting. She would have to go back and change at least, maybe redo her hair. The thought of all the effort made her want to stop being a girl. It was too much work.


Shisui looked back at her with a raised brow before he understood the question. "Ah, anytime before dinner. He had actually asked for as soon as possible, but that's how he asks for everything. You'll have to forgive my precious cousin, he's not as adapt at talking to women about anything, much less planning to meet one."

"I'll go back to change and then meet him when I'm done. Are you going to escort me there?"

"I have been told I'm both pretty and useful, so why not?" Shisui joked, falling back into the playful persona with ease. He winked once and Sakura rolled her eyes. But he knew his way around the keep, and he was able to lead her back up the maze of hallways to her room without getting lost once, as if he knew were she was staying by heart already. She didn't doubt he knew many things by heart.

It took precious few minutes for Shisui to lead her back to her room. When they reached her door he stopped and turned to lean against the wall, propping one heel against the stone as he leaned in a manner almost lazy. "I'll be here when you're finished," he commented before closing his eyes and bowing his head.

Sakura nodded, stepping into her room and shutting the door behind her. She didn't bother with the latching lock, knowing Shisui was right there if someone was about to disturb her. Besides, she wouldn't be long. She drew a curtain around her and cleaned herself with a rad soaked in a china basin. She replaced the chest bindings all girls in uniform wore and turned to reach for her old uniform, as dusty as it still was, only to find something fresher and cleaner in its place. Her uniform had been restored in the short minutes it took her to turn her back and scratch off the dust from under her arms.

With no real talent for braids, and no maids in sight Sakura took the pins in front of the vanity and used them to tuck back the falling parts of her hair. She was still a mess, but in was only five minutes spent, and she didn't stick. It would have to do. She glanced at her reflection on the way out and admitted she wasn't scruffy enough to earn a reprimand and that's all she wanted.

"Ready?" Shisui looked as if he hadn't moved an inch, standing the exact same way she had left him. She only nodded, and he took that as his cue to lead her to Itachi.

She noticed after a minute that they were in a new wing of the keep, the opposite direction of the study she had visited last night. Sakura wanted to ask where they were going, but kept silent as Shisui seemed to know where he was taking her.

They took stairs to one of the higher points of the keep and she smelled tonics before she even saw the door to the private apothecary. Shisui pushed the door back and she saw the shelves lined with jars and bottles stretch out before her. Three out of the four walls were lined and in the center of the room was a slate top counter where Itachi stood, mixing items together. A few opened bottles lay around him as well as a grinding mortar.

Itachi looked up, his hands bare and his sleeves pushed up his forearms. There were traces of something white and powdery splashed across the front of his shirt. The bruises under his skin from last night were gone, and he looked more than fully recovered. He looked almost…happy.

"Shisui, you finally made it. Truthfully, I hadn't expected you so soon." He smiled at his cousin and then bobbed his head in Sakura direction. "Forgive my state."

"You confidence in me is disappointing," Shisui drolly mocked, leaning against the doorframe. "I said I would be back shortly and it's not even dinnertime."

"Thank you."

"Sure, sure." Shisui shifted the weight of his body from one leg to the other. "Are you going to be long or should I send the maids up with leftover supper?"

Itachi blinks, as if recognizing something. "Ah, that was right. You had planned on dinner together. Sorry, cousin, but this might take some time."

"It's just one day," Shisui said with a dismissive shrug. "There will be others, especially if our beloved lord and master decides to take an interest in the beasts we've assembled already."

"Shisui." Itachi's tone was warning. "Please do not speak of your king so casually."

Shisui just laughed before turning with a wave over his shoulder. Itachi muttered something under his breath before turning back to the things on the counter and bottling them up. A second late he looks up at Sakura who had been watching the exchange wordlessly. His expression was easy going, but he frowned right away when he saw the handprint on her face, pink and fading. It wouldn't last another hour, but his eyes were keen.

"Sasuke?" When she looked surprised he chuckled. "I should like to think I know my little brother well enough to recognize the fruits of his tempers. It's also too small a hand to belong to any of the others un this keep. There are no children Sasuke's age here and our soldiers know better."

Sakura didn't want to speak about it, so instead she took in the ingredients on the table, recognizing none of them. "What are you working on?" she asked.

Itachi turned the mortar around once and tilting it so she could see the powder inside. "The Uchiha are gifted with scraps of leftover magic, and normally this means I have no trouble trespassing into the minds of others, but beasts are resistant to magic, so you threw me out last night before I could trespass. I wasn't able to see much of anything, and made sense of even less. This should change that for when I try again."

"You're going into my mind again?" Sakura echoed, feeling her spine itch in discomfort. She hadn't been fond of how she felt coming out of the dream Itachi threw her into last night. She didn't want a repeat.

"Unfortunately that's both necessary and near impossible. I can't force myself in anymore, but you can invite me in with this drink…I think."

"You think?"

"It won't kill you, worst case scenario."

"You don't sound very sure about that."

"I will be drinking it as well, so I have to be. I wouldn't ask you to risk your life if I wasn't willing to as well."

Sakura felt a bitter stab in her heart make her suck on her breath. He was a prince, what did he knew about risking his life when he had thousands of men and women dying for him every day? He saw the anger in her eyes and lowered his face.

"That was insensitive of me."

"Just…" she let out a breath. "Poor choice of words."

"Agreed. But that is not the matter at hand. I will need to continue my examination of your mind if I am to vet you. This time, you will be aware of my presence and lead me in. It will be different from last time. I will be connected to you and our minds will be linked in a sort of way." He held up the powder again. "Dova witches call it Healk."

"As you wish," Sakura said with a shake of her head, knowing she couldn't rightly refuse him. It wasn't her place and it wasn't within her power to resist him or deny the prince anything. It was no different than how she let Sasuke slap her, even thought she knew she could have stopped or dodged the attack. Itachi likely knew it too, which was why he didn't pretend to look hopeful, only pensive.

Itachi took her to an adjacent room where a pair of cots were set up, each with a chair and end table beside it. Sakura sat in one of the chairs and waited for Itachi to come back with the drinks made for their powder.

He was back moments later with a dark black drink in two mugs. Sakura wrinkled her nose, recognizing the strong scent of coco. Coffee was a solider best friend, but it wasn't a drink she ever wanted, only needed. She peered inside her mug seeing dull brown instead of black like she expected. There wasn't a lot to drink.

"Skoul," he said, lifting his mug to touch hers.

"Skoul," she numbly echoed before tilting hers back and swallowing the liquid. It wasn't bitter like she expected at all, but sweat and creamy, the way they made it in the east. It was easier to swallow, and was gone in one gulp.

Itachi stood and moved to recline across the cot and after a moment of hesitation, Sakura copied his actions on the opposite side of the room, waiting for the kick and pull of the drug to drag her down. Coffee usually was here to keep her awake, but now she was waiting for sleep, and it came, slowly and peacefully. It didn't feel like the drug induced sleep she had feared, but natural and warm. Was that the reason for the coffee?

She came aware on a gasp like a dove and looked up, seeing the vaulted sky above her, wide and yawning. There was grass under her, tall, scratchy, and dry from a long summer.

Autumn, the war is still at hand, but she is not a part of it.

"You're finally here."

She looked over and saw Itachi. There was enough of a wind to life the silk tail of hair he had tied back at the nape of his neck with white cord. The dust and dirt was gone from his clothes, and he was back in all black with the sleeves rolled up halfway on his forearms. He offered her a hand to lift her from the grass and she took it.

"Where are we?" Sakura asked. "I don't recognize anything here."

"You shouldn't. This isn't your memory, we're in mine. You need to take me into yours. I can't intrude least I be expelled again." Itachi reached for her face and pulled away a stalk of dead gras, brushing her shoulder as well.

"And that is done…how?"

She felt a tremor underneath and whipped about, searching for the source of it. That hadn't been natural. Something had collapsed and shook the earth from above, not below.

"Well," Itachi began, taking a step forward. "If this is my mind, then we should follow the path of destruction to where it ends. At the edges of my being you will be there." He smiled down at her, but it was strained. "Just follow me, and whatever you do, don't stray from my side."

He turned and headed down the subtle hill and through the trees, sparse as they were, onto a path that snaked like something broken out of view. Time didn't mean anything as they walked until they came upon the first house on the outskirts of what was a small cluster of homes. They were all old and traditional in design, looking like something the Dova women and grandmothers from the country would live in.

The were close enough to see the shadows under the window's when Itach grabbed her wrist and held it with his hand like iron. A moment later Sakura realized why.

The shadows under the windows weren't made out of shade but blood, old and dried in the sun. There was a body on the side of the house, and another just inside in the entrance, cut open by a blade. This kind of killing was the old kind, the savage kind. These people had died horribly, choking on their own blood before passing on. Bullets made killing quick at least.

Sakura wanted to open her mouth and ask but Itachi's face was turned away and the way he held her wrist said enough, so she set her jaw and felt her teeth touch as they tensed for the remainder of their journey through the village.

The first of the houses was the cleanest. The rest were far messier more and more had bodies mangled in new and savage ways. No animal had done this though, every cut she saw was the result of a blade.

Sakura wanted to close her eyes and look away, but there was no safe place to look except the middle of Itachi's back, so that's where she set her gaze, letting her lead her through the massacre.

Time had no meaning inside the dream, so they walked for what felt like days. Sakura couldn't count the houses or the bodies, there were too many of both.

When she opened her mouth she could smell them and even taste them in the back of her throat. She had tasted the smell of blood before, many times, but it was odd when it lacked the tint of gun smoke and adrenaline she was so used to. This was a different kind of horror, a different kind of killing.

"Almost," she thought she heard Itachi whispered. It was too soft and the pounding of her heart in her ears was loud enough to make her doubt she heard anything from him at all.

Time had no meaning inside the dream, so days later, the houses stopped and all the bodies were behind them. The road winded down and around another subtle hill and the grass turned brown and corse alongside the trail until the land was pale with the anticipation of the first frost. Sakura saw white and knew where they were. This was the end of Itachi's memories, it was where her's began.

She tugged on his hand and he paused, turning to look back at her.

"I have to lead you now," she said before turing the hand to the wrist he held over and shaking him off. Before his hand could fall she caught it though and mirrored the action he took with her, carrying his wrist.

The trees grew thicker around them as the sparse clusters expanded and connected until there was a forest around them and the path was lost. Oak and Elm shared space with the evergreen and the juniper as more and more of the landscape reflected the colder climate Sakura had been born into. She could smell her memories now, and the blood from before was forgotten.

She wanted to stop and snap off a branch of juniper and break the twig over and over again until its fragrance was all around her, but she didn't dare stop. What she was walking towards was too terrible to hesitate in front of. It was like cutting off an arm; it had to be done quickly.

Then there were the rock outcroppings, reminding her just how close they were to the ancient city. Close enough to feel it in her bones like an invisible vibration.

"Is that…?" Itachi's question didn't need to be completed. Sakura knew what he saw. She turned around a tree and spied it up ahead as well.

"Yes. We're in my memories now. Everything about me is going to be in there." She felt herself shake before it reached her voice and had to let go of Itachi before he felt it too. She didn't dare go back. Just the sight of Krepost made her want to vomit and never ingest another morsel ever again.

Krepost was one of the oldest cities with a remembered name. It's walls were circular, wrapping around the city inside like the halos around saints heads. Thousands of buildings were hidden inside, but Sakura knew there were just as many bodies.

She blinked, realizing something. "Back there…what we saw was something that happened to you. It wasn't just a memory, it meant something."

Itachi looked pained, but nodded.

"If I ask you not to look, you'll still say you need to, right?" When he nodded again she set her jaw. "Fine, then explain what I walked through."

She saw the disgust flicker across his face and knew he wanted nothing less than to do what she asked, but she couldn't let him go any further into her memories without sharing the hurt. He was about to see a part of her she had run away from and swore never to return to, he didn't deserve to see that without equal compensation, prince or not.

"You're going to see me at my worst, don't tell me I don't deserve the same."

"I'm your prince."

"And yet you call me a beast." She wouldn't admit it, she wouldn't use that title to refer to herself, but those were his words, meant for him, so it was fine. "You can't have it both ways. You either take me as the thing you say I am, or treat me as a rifle in the army and never look me in the eye. If you want to see me as an individual you can't pretend you're more than me."

"And you…how do you see yourself?"

She didn't know until she said it out loud. "I'm disgusting and ashamed, but if I wear a coat I can pretend to be something else, I can believe I'm something else." She felt heat in her throat and a flush fill her face. Her blood was singing again, the way not even war could make it. "If you take that coat from me you need to be prepared to deal with what you find underneath."

"What if what I need is underneath?"

Somehow, without her noticing it, they were closer than before. They had always been close enough, to drag by the wrist, but now they were breathing each other's air. She felt fear dance down her spine. Her brain was flooding with the urge to fight or flight, even though there was no danger in sight. The danger was something she couldn't see. She was so close to breaking.

"Whatever you find in that city, it's up to you to deal with. Whatever you uncover and whatever it turns me into, solider or girl, or monster or beast, don't say I didn't warn you."

Itachi looked up over her shoulder at the dirty gold city shaped like a halo. Once glorious, it was a cursed place in her memory. "What I find in there?" He glanced down at her and saw something that made him nod in agreement. "Then you should go back to the village and see for yourself what exactly you walked through. For what you open up to me, I will pay for it with my own memories."

It's the way the old women traded magic. It was a sin, worse than a curse, to buy magic with money. Magic was traded for with memories, feelings, dreams, and teeth. Itachi earned the right to witness firsthand her horrors, as she would see his.


She pretended to salute and he did the same.


They went their separated ways, he into the dirty gold city of Krepost and she back down the path into the massacred village.

Time had no meaning inside the dream, so seconds later she was back at the opposite end of the village with the bloodstained houses and the rutted path. She hadn't looked away from Itachi bath the first time through, but this time she forced her eyes to scan for every little detail as she stepped off the path Itachi had warned her not to abandon. There was one house, slightly longer than all the rest, with all the windows and doors left open. Blood strained the wood floors and smeared on half of the walls. There were children.

She kept going.

Through the house and into the backyard a bloodstain led her to the body of a pretty woman, aged by motherhood yet still fair. Her hair was a mess of black around her dead face. Not far from her was the body of a man, older, and likely her husband. His wounds were deeper, darker with blood.

Itachi stood over the woman, staring down at her with dead eyes. In one hand he held the sword that was still soaked with her blood, the other was empty.

Black birds, three of them, perched in the branches of a nearby tree. One of the cawed.

"Because she ran from us to be with him. This is the price of such treachery." Itachi's voice was a dead echo in his throat. He was reciting lines, he didn't mean any of it. "There is no peace for the fools who desert."

The black birds cawed encouragingly as two more flew down to join them. They were crows, a murder of them.

Itachi turned from her and looked to the man, seemingly resigned to what he had to do. He lifted his sword and brought it down, again and again until the man's head was severed from his neck. The crows were mad and flapping eagerly, egging him on.

"This is the price for stealing out mother away from us. For taking a woman from her sons, for enticing an Uchiha from her place," Itachi quoted, grasping at the poor man's hair and lifting the severed head.

Itachi threw the head into the house and then moved to stand in front of it. He closed his eyes and breathed deep, sucking up the world until his lungs were full. When he opened his eyes again they were red and bleeding. He breathed out and a stream of fire, black at the tips, flew from his lips to devour the house.

The crows took off behind him, and in their shadow a man appeared. Sakura couldn't look at him, but she felt the weight of his presence. He was made out of feathers and shadow, but he was more real than any invisible thing.

"The Red King is pleased, prince. Return to his brother, his fate is spared as well as yours."

"He must never know."

"And he never will."

Another jolt shook the earth and the memory flickered. The shadowy figure repeated his lines again and again, as if he were a broken track on a record spinning under the needle of a gramophone.

'His fate is spared, his fate is spared, his fate is spared, his fate is spared-The Red King is pleased, the Red King is pleased-'

The world melted until all the was left was the darkness of white. Sakura looked behind her and saw Itachi standing on nothing, looking out into the void until his eyes met hers. She saw from across the distance that the irises of his eyes were stained red again, and they were spinning. She felt a wetness on her face and touch them, expecting tears, but when she pulled away she saw her fingers stained with blood. Looking up, Itachi was weeping red too.

For what, she didn't know.

Sakura slept a night and a day, waking up at dusk with enough energy to bath in the milk bath and dress for bed again before her energy ran out. Her dreams were blissfully silent as the sleep she sank into was silent.

Sakura had been forgotten until the breakfast showed up on a silver platter beside her bed. The smell was enough to wake her. She turned over in her sheets, pushing back the cover to stare until the world drifted back into focus. Yes, there was food on her bedside table.

She hadn't eaten since…she thought back and frowned when she couldn't remember a time other than the lunch with the other soldiers two days ago. She should have been starved, but the sight of Krepost made something revolve in her stomach and turn her face away from the bedside table. There were other sights too, things that should have stolen her appetite, but it was the memory of her home, the memory of what happened to her in Krepost and what she was forced to do that made her want to empty her already empty stomach one more time.

She had seen Itachi kill his mother and slaughter everyone in that village, but compared to what he had seen her do, was it really any worse? Her body shook with that panic attack as her brain became flooded with the pull to flee or fight. She had nowhere to run and no one to fight, so she tore herself apart on the floor beside the bed, sobbing silently into her arms as she pulled herself into a ball.

The maids were at her side, pulling on her arms, trying to get her help, but she just cried louder, screaming like a banshee until she had no more voice to scream.

"Get out," a voice snapped at the dolls. Their hands fell away and Sakura felt fat warm ones around her, holding her in a tight hug that didn't try to pull her apart. Sakura sobbed until she couldn't sob anymore. She heard the woman muttering above her about killing an asshole and the indecency of men towards woman and something more about castration complications.

When Sakura looked up, she was only mildly surprised to see Shiszne there. Her hands were long and slender like the rest of her, but a moment ago they had felt like a mother's. The thought made her suck on her breath, preparing to cry again.

"Don't fall into it again. Let it out but don't let it stay. Be rid of it and stand up." Shizuna shook Sakura and the young girl whimpered before finding her feet under her. Sakura looked up through her bangs at the gruff woman. Shizune saw the look of hesitation and deflated a bit. "Oh, don't look at me like that. I was kind once, soft too. Meek as a mouse until they took it all away. You're not meek, don't know the feeling of it I'd wager. You can't learn it now."

"They'll want to see me."

"You've as long as you want to collect yourself. For all they know you're still in a dream. The last man Itachi bled eyes at was in a coma for months. It wouldn't be unbelievable if you were to snooze for say, a week." Shizune narrowed her eyes. "Whatever time you need take it. I can't guess what happened between you, but I'll leave you to it and stick to what I know, flesh and bone. Do you want a bath?"

Sakura shook her head. "I just had one last night. I don't think I need one."

"Then get back under the covers and eat some bread. You're as skinny as they come."

Sakura felt weak enough that she could see the logic in going back to bed to rest some more, but she knew how it would sound if she said she couldn't eat. Wordlessly Sakura pulled back the covers and climbed back up onto the mattress.

Shizune tucked her in, punching the pillows before sliding them down between her head and the headboard. There were enough that Sakura could sleep sitting up or burrow deep into them. She came around to the other side of the bed and picked up the glass of water, nodding at Sakura to drink before falling asleep. "I'll have them send up more warm food when you wake again. One of the girls will let me know."

Sakura drank the water, finding herself greedy for it. She poured for herself another glass and drank that one too before falling back into the bed where her brain felt like it could finally settle. She was tired, more so than she thought she had the right to be. Her body was fine. She hadn't been hurt, she was still in one piece. It didn't make sense for her to be so tired.

"Itachi…has done this before, to others?"

Her eyes were closed but she still heard Shizune well enough. "He's famous for it. He's killed people with nothing more than a look, you know. All Uchiha have a bit of the gods in them, but then there are Uchiha like Itachi or Shisui, bless the bastard. Those boys can turn the world upside-down with their damed kaleidoscope eyes."

"But he said he couldn't do that to me so he had to use something in the coffee to make it work." Sakura yawned, not knowing what she was saying anymore. "Said I was special. I'm tired now."

Shizuna stared at Sakura long and hard before nodding to herself. She took the food but left the water and the pitcher. She would be back in a few hours, she said, but Sakura couldn't hear her anymore. Sakura was already back in the blankness of her dreamscape.

It was the movement in the bed beside her that woke her. The light in her room told her the world was at dusk, but she was wide alert again, as if it was the beginning of another day. Something was beside her, beneath the covers brushing her legs. Sakura jerked back against the headboard and kicked at the covers, drawing a fist ready to swing, only to freeze when she saw who had been hiding underneath her covers.

He pouted cutely. "You woke up."

Sakura's mind sputtered to make sense of what she was looking at. "S-Sasuke, what are you doing here? Why are you here?" Her eyes narrowed and she added, "You're in my bed."

"You were sleeping for too long. No one was playing with me."

That didn't make any sense. "What does that have to do with me?"

She sounded almost shrill in her own ears and she saw even Sasuke wince at the tone of her question, but he shook it off as casually as a prince shook off anything beneath him. With a roll of his eyes he replied.

"Obviously I'm bored. Itachi is busy again and he told me I had to apologize to you but you kept sleeping and sleeping and if you kept sleeping I'd never have anyone to play with."

"So you decided to crawl into my bed?"

"It was warm?"

"My bed!"

"Technically it's not your bed since you're just a guest here and it actually belongs to the Uchiha family, making it more my bed than yours, but I'm always happy to share with my playmates if they're kind and agreeable, so don't think you need to thank me." Sasuke smirked, sitting up and crossing his hands over his chest.

Sakura glowered. "You said you came in here to apologize and yet all I hear from you is more grandstanding about your position as an Uchiha and mine as an outsider. Say whatever it is you came to say and go. I don't have the time to deal with you."

Something drained out of Sasuke upon hearing her words. He seemed scared, almost, as his eyes widened and his hands dropped into his lap. "I'm sorry!" he screamed on reflex, sounding like the child he was. "I didn't mean to make you mad and say you were ugly and slap you. I just wanted to play- it wasn't like I was going to hurt you for real."

"Really? I had a hard time telling the difference," Sakura drolly responded. Sasuke was fuming a bit, puffing out his cheeks. "Fine, you said your piece, now get out. You're done, aren't you?"

"But Itachi's gone."


"I'm bored!"


Sasuke slapped the bed with both his hands. "Play with me."

"Hell no." Sakura edged away from Sasuke until her legs dangled over the opposite edge. She was in a nightgown, but it was long enough to cover her legs as long as she kept it pulled down. "I've seen what your kind of playing looks like and I've seen enough. Besides, I don't have the energy to deal with a six year old. You should be in classes or studying with a tutor, shouldn't you?"

Sasuke's face flushed and he sat up like someone made a pole out of his spine. "I'm not seven I'm twelve years old already! I'm nearly thirteen, I'm not a child anymore."

Sakura grimaced. To her credit she hadn't seen very many children, but he seemed so much younger to her. She remembered what she was like when she was twelve, and had a hard time believing he was only seven years younger than her. Maybe Uchiha aged more slowly since they lived so long. She ran a hand through her hair and found it braided again, but looser than before. It was the kind of braid meant for sleeping in.

"You're still a child. If Itachi isn't here, find someone else to torment. I'm not going to be your companion for anything."

Sasuke gaped at her. "But I'm your prince, you can't say no to me."

"Do you see me wearing a uniform right now, little boy?" she teased without smiling. Sasuke's blush only grew. "I'm not going to tell your brother what you did with the fox beast, but I'm not going to let you do something like that to me again. Apologizing and acting like it never happened isn't going to change my mind."

"I promise not to do it again. I know it was a little much and that I went too far, but I didn't mean for anything bad to happen to you, and it's not like you died or even got that hurt so what's the big deal?"

Sakura needed only one hand to pin Sasuke down. He tumbled backwards with an 'eep' as Sakura loomed above him, mildly threatening. Sasuke stared up at her with wide eyes, large enough to drink from. "You are a sad little boy. Don't speak of my pride like it means nothing. If you wish to punish me for such insolence then fine, try if you can. But I've been sober and awake too long to take any more shit from a snot-nosed maggot brat like you."

She felt like a beast again it both thrilled and terrified her. She had spent years trying to forget her habits and in a day, all those years and all that work came undone in a moment. She wasn't a solider anymore.

Frightened by the revelation she had come to with herself, Sakura pulled away from Sasuke and turned her back to him, biting the inside of her cheek. 'What have I done?' she mentally screamed. She had regressed so far that she was pushing down kids and snarling at them like dogs? She swallowed and tasted the hard edges of her chapped lips. She needed water.

"Go," Sakura said over her should, softer than before, but still stern. "You won't find a playmate in me and I need to speak with Shisui, so go."

She heard Sasuke sit up after a moment and the covers shifted as he moved. He inhaled, preparing to speak, but didn't. A minute later she heard him slide off the bed and walk to her door. She glanced over her shoulder at him and decided once again that he looked too young for his actual age. It had to be an Uchiha thing. He paused at the door, but seeing her eyes on him seemed to have scared him, since he gasped and dashed out.

With Sasuke gone Sakura got up to lock the door and begin to peel away at the layers making up her nightgown. When she turned around the maids were there, two already drawing a bath while the third helped Sakura with the sleeping gown.

Sakura bathed in the milk again and then rinsed herself clean with rosewater. When she stepped out from behind the curtain military issued trousers, a waistcoat and long-sleeved white shirt. It wasn't her uniform, but it wasn't a dress either. She still bound her chest, more out of habit than anything, and dressed for the day. The maids did her hair in another braid that was night, but also styled to be pleasing to the eye. She didn't fault them for it.

One of the maids took her to where Shisui was and she found him sitting in front of a window, staring down at a unit of troops practicing their marches. It was all grandstanding stuff. No one ever seemed to use such flourish on the real battlefield.

He looked up when he heard her enter and smiled when he saw who it was. The book in his hand slipped and he let it drop onto the windowsill like it was forgotten. If the look on Shisui's face was anything to go by, it probably was.

"You're finally awake," he teased, his black eyes dancing with mirth. "They told me every hour in the dream means a day in the bed and here you are, days early."

"How many days early?" Sakura asked, realizing she had no idea how many hours she had spent inside the dream with Itachi. She hadn't even though about how much actual time could have passed.

"A little over five, but not quite six." Shisiu waved a hand and she wondered if he actually knew. Either way, it didn't matter to her as he continued to talk on. "Also, I heard from Shizune that you actually woke up yesterday, but went back to sleep. Did you eat yet?"

She thought about and felt hunger again. She was done being disgusted, she was now allowing herself to feel her body's needs again. "No, I didn't even look to see if there was something there," Sakura said.

"That's fine. You can eat enough for five days with me. I've been covetous for your time for a while now. It seems like so long ago I first found you in that sad little village outside the church. You've been through a lot since then."

Sakura saw something beside his leg move and suck on a breath. Her eyes grew wide as the object moved a little more, crawling out on quivering legs before falling down again. She muttered something sacred sounding before crouching down to draw eye level with the thing. Shisui grinned, moving his legs so she could see him.

"He's only a little more than a week old, so he can't be apart from his mother for long. I want him familiar to my scent though."

Shisui gathered the black and white pup in his hands, holding him like he would hold a bowl of soup. Curled up and shivering, the dog wasn't big enough to fill his palms. Sakura felt something in the back of her throat widen and her heart made her want to cry. He was beautiful, so she whispered that part out loud.

"They're Dalmatians. The western traders brought some over years back and they're good with fire, they have an affinity for it and adapt well enough that they can find their way through a smoke field, so we have a man in charge of breeding them for the royal family." He looked up through his lashes at her, watching how he watched his dog before extending his hands. "Would you like to hold him?"

It wasn't a question of wanting. "I can't," she whispered, balling her hands into fists at her sides. He was precious tiny, the size and age in which a Oborotnyk would take the wolf pup into their coats and keep them alive with the heat of their bodies. She tore her eyes away and looked Shisui in the face. "Is there a reason you needed to see me? You have work for me, yes?"

Shisui frowned, taking the dog back into his arms. "I had thought with the way Sasuke looked running from your room you had abandoned that way of speaking. We have thousands of soldiers. We need a beast."

Sakura wanted to sigh and roll her eyes, but she didn't. "And I'll be that as well as I can, but there are some things not even the gods can change." Her words sounded biting; she hadn't meant for them to. "What…do you need me to do?"

"Well, for starters you can have lunch with me. I don't eat much, but I'll go for something sweet if it's with you. We could go into the city for it."

Leave the Red Keep? "Is that wise?"

"No, but it's fun."

Sakura didn't know if she wanted to grin or smack herself. "It's a shame you weren't on better terms with Sasuke, I would think he would enjoy playing with you very much. You seem to share the same mental age."

"Hey, that hurts. I'm not ten."

"Sasuke said he was twelve. How long have you been gone?"

"Ten, twelve, what difference does it make? He's about as emotionally mature as a rotting log. Itachi's a saint for putting up with the brat as much as he does."

"That or he way lying about his age, but he seemed very proud of it to be fibbing."

Shisui stared down at the pup in his hands and murmured something about waiting for him before turning away and exiting out a door. Minutes later he returned with a smile that was somewhat forced. "I'm sorry if I offended you. I did it unknowingly. I know that the Krepost beast were all associated with wolves and some of them were associated with bears as well depending on what you read or who you hear from. I thought it would make your stay here a bit more bearable."

"You…" Sakura licked her lips, thinking back to Itachi and how he walked away from her into the city she had fled from in her youth. "Did you talk to Itachi about what he saw in my memories?"

Shisui shook his head. "Itachi hasn't said anything, just that he trusts you and wants us to work together. Why, did you tell him to tell me something?"

Itachi had kept her secret, the secret of what she did and what happened to her inside the city, or at least he hadn't told Shisui. If he told someone else she wouldn't know, but if he hadn't told his cousin, the boy who would be with her most often, she had a feeling he wanted to honor her secret. She would do the same with his.

"No." Sakura shook her head. "But you and I, we're going to be working closely together, aren't we? No one explained that to me."

This time the smile came easy to Shisui. "Ah, that I can do. But let's get food to talk over. My teeth need sugar. We Uchiha men are notorious sweet-toot fiends, no matter what Sasuke tries to tell you." He hesitated and then added, "We can save that trip out of the city for another day. Just come with me for now. We won't go far."

He reached for her wrist, but dropped his hand before he could touch her, choosing to instead gesture toward the door before walking out. She followed on her own as he led her down into a kitchen where men and woman worked at tables, cutting, chopping, prepping, all without looking up.

Shisui helped himself to a breadbox by the door and grabbed a bottle from underneath the cabinet before handing her a pair of stacked plates and cups. Before the cabinet door swung closed she caught a glimpse of the variety of labels and raised a brown at more than one. She didn't know many people who still kept BlackAbbot or Fireimp unless they were trying to kill themselves. The bottle he had picked up was infinitely more tame.

Shisui led them outside to a courtyard, but this one was much smaller, and a mess of destroyed plant life and uprooted earth. Sakura caught her breath and Shisui laughed. "No one will bother us here after Naruto went berserk and destroyed it. They'll clean it up eventually, but not for a while."

"Naruto…" Sakura remembered back to the dungeons and what Sasuke said about wanting to play with Naruto. She had her suspicions, but she asked anyway. "Is he the other twin?"

"Yeah, he's only a few years younger than you, but such a kid. That's what happens when you spend half your childhood asleep. Come on, we can eat over here." He nodded to a patch of even grass alongside upturned earth, still and stone like as it provided shade. Shisui laid down the box of sweets and took the plates from her hands. He divided them and the cups out before pouring a glass of wine for her and them himself. Inside the box were chocolate crosounts and raspberry scones. Chocolate was always hard to come by, but raspberry had been out of season for a while. In the outskirts and on the borders where people starved with nothing more than pale communion bread such a thing would start riots.

"How do you have this?"

"We're Uchiha," Shisui answered easily, as if that was all the answer she needed. It probably was. Uchiha ruled their country and played with magic like it was their birthright. Berries in their scones wasn't a big deal to them.

Sakura was too hungry to dwell on it more as she dug her teeth into the sugary pastry. Shisui watched her for a reaction and laughed when she saw her sigh into the treat. "They're the best, right?"

"Yes, but anything tastes like heaven when you're used to starving."

It was like a dam broke inside of her. She reached for another and swallowed it down with wine. Shisui pushed cheese into her hands and kept her glass full. She didn't notice him eat much more than a piece of a scone before he offered the rest to her, laughing at how quickly she reached for it. He offered her more and it pained Sakura to shake her head and turn away. She couldn't. She would get sick and loose it all if she took another bite. She was so empty, but she knew better. She hadn't eaten well the past few days, and her stomach wasn't used to such much good good so soon. She settled for another slice of cheese but turned her plate over, not willing to eat anything more.

"You barely had anything."

Shisui laughed. "I might have snacked before this. Don't mind me. It was actually really entertaining to watch you eat, though. I don't think I've seen some one normally so reserved attach a meal with such gusto."

"You haven't seen enough starving people eat then."

Shisui grimaced, looking away and Sakura remembered the thud of the car as they ran over the bodies outside the city. She reached for her cup and drank till it was empty again. She let the moment pass before she opened her mouth again.

"What did you want to talk to me about? Does it have to do with what the Red King wants from the beasts? If it's fighting on the battlefield I don't think I'll be any more or less of a help than what you already saw of me these past few years."

"That's not it, exactly. It's different with each of his beasts. The twins are hard enough to control so mostly Kagami is lucky if he can keep them from destroying the palace. Obito's hellcat works for the RootRot."

Sakura thought back to the blond and how she had known Sakura was watching her from above. The woman's senses were keen and finely honed. Sakura was rusty, and it would take a lot more work to get back to where she once was, and even then it would be less impressive considering there were some things she would never be able to do again. She was an asset, but she wasn't as glamorous of a salvation as others might suspect of her. Didn't Itachi know? He saw what she had done, what she had run from and what she had given up to do so.

"What is the RootRot? Is it like the White Tsar's Root army?" She had heard the whispers of the army of wraiths and assassins bred in secret for the white arm to do the delicate, dirty work no others could. They were a legend with no one having ever seen or killed a member to prove it, but Sakura was wary of stories when they made too much sense.

"It's the exact same, but our RootRot exists to counter the reach of 's where Obito's hellcat operates. She's an assassin."

She thought back to how she dressed in all black and who else she had seen in nothing but the midnight color. "Like Itachi?" she guessed. Shisui didn't say anything, but she saw the answer on his face. "Is that what Kagami used to do as well, before he earthed his moth?"

"You want to know what Kagami did to earn that medal but you never ask me about mine," Shisui pouted. "I even stopped wearing the jacket in case you needed a day without them to wet your appetite."

"You avoided the question."

"Because I'm more important than the question."

Sakura shook her head. "You and Sasuke should get along famously, you're basically the same person just aged differently."

"Sakura!" Shisui looked more offended than the last time she made that comparison. "I am nothing like that maggot. I, for one, would never hit you or tease you or bully you."

"You've teased me before," Sakura hummed, not really believing him.

"Because you're a pretty girl and that's what pretty boys are supposed to do. He probably called you ugly. The brat is more blind than a bat, I swear." Shisui grimaced, realizing what he just said and blushing modestly. "Ah, but that's that and this is this. You were asking about what you would be doing and we got off track. I don't think you'd work in RR, that's something else. Madara will have something else for you in mind. My job will be to help you, to support you as you train to reconnect with what you used to be, not that I know how to do that, but I figured we could learn together."

So she had gone from being a wolf to a solider to a dog on a leash.

"What kind of jobs?"

"Dangerous jobs? Sometimes he sends one of us out to collect something, to stop something, or to find someone on our own. Like in the old times when there were knights and crusades. He once had me go out to investigate the rumor that copper miners found a giant underground; it was a fake of course, but if there was something like that happening, he'd have one of us down there first."

"You believe in giants?" she asked, having a hard time seeing Shisui as someone who paid attention to stories enough to believe any of them. He was too fast, too modern, too shiny and bright to be weighed down with the stories of bronze knights and sleeping giants.

"Why wouldn't I? I believed in you, didn't I? You're as much a myth as any of them."

"But I'm not a beast anymore." Sakura stared down at her hands and flexed her fingers before holding them up in front of her face as if they were paws. "I'm nothing like what your stories talk about when they speak of beasts."

"And what do you know of our stories?"

"Only what they whisper over fires in the camps." She wet her lips, thirsty for more wine and Shisui was there, filling her cup again. She drank until it was gone and then began to recite what she knew, her voice heady from drink, but never sloppy.

Beasts: they were the things that ruled the unorganized earth after the gods and titans wrecked the world with war. The campfire stories said the beasts were offshoots of the gods, just like the wizards and witches and sprites from the woods, but Sakura remembered the stories her mother whispered into her blood when the moon was empty and new and no one knew what to do in their skin.

In the stories told from Krepost, it was the beasts that ruled first the wild and savage earth, before the gods arose out of men when they discovered ichor, the blue blood that made them immortal grown from a tree watered with the AllGod's tears. Foolish and brash they killed the beasts and opened up the earths to tear at the titians too, afraid to loose their power to anyone else. The beasts retreated, never eager for a fight, but the titans were as large as their tempers, and war was meant for them, so they clashed for an age and a day.

The word grew thin and the numbers on either side dwindled till victory was a thing no one could boast. The gods, in their foolishness, had destroyed the garden where the last tree of ichor grew, so their offspring would be long-lived and powerful, but not immortal. The Titians had also lost the fruit that made them powerful, so their descendants were large, but dry of magic, though not weak against it. The Wolves, the Bears and the Birds and the Beasts pressed into the darkness, knowing magic was never meant for them. They were not gods, they would dye and recycle themselves into the earth, never to be worried for what magic was or could do to them. They watched as the gods populated the earth with a line of decedents that would rule both the White and Red countries as well as the Black Isles where each royal line enjoyed the shadow of magic in their veins. The Uchiha thought this version of the story foolish, and claimed it was only their line that came from the gods. The White Tsar and his family came from giants, but Sakura knew they told stories where the Uciha were decedents of demons and devils, so who was to say.

There were other stories too, stories of individual gods or titians or beasts, but Sakura was too tired to recite many of them. She looked to Shisui and saw him star struck and wrapped in her words, so she closed her eyes to remember the stories.

At one point in time Krepost had been a city of churches, so she spoke of more holy knights, and of the Pisana Mountain where the immortal knights slept, preserved with magic when the AllGod saw their valor out shine all others. She told the story of the girl with glass hands who was pious in the face of the devil and beat him back with a circle drawn in chalk. She spoke of saints and their holy golden heads and all the beautiful things they did until those stories danced beyond her memories.

At another time Krepost had been a military outpost, so she spoke of a man who forced a sword over and over again until the blade spoke to him and promised whoever wielded him would never die on the battlefield. She spoke of the Sea Knights from the Black Islands who wore armor made from dragon scales, and of the women who married those dragons, only to outwit their curses and live another day.

It was dark with night when Sakura opened her eyes again. She was on her back in the grass and Shisui was beside her, one hand caught in her hair. It hadn't been loose, but he found strands to knot with his wandering fingers.

"You should have been a story woman," he breathed. She looked up and saw his eyes heavy with mist. He bend down and kissed her head. "I feel like a child again."

"My stories are blasphemous."

"I love your stories."

Sakura looked up at the sky again. It was choked with stars and the moon, half full, was wide overhead. "How long has it been this late?"

"Does it matter?" His voice was far off, like he was still dreaming.

She shifted, sitting up. His hand lifted with her hair part way before falling back down into the glass. "I don't want to sleep, but I think I have to." She stood. "Take me to my room?"

She didn't think he would deny her if she asked, so she wasn't surprised when he rose behind her and did as she asked. Still, she was grateful for it.

The next day Shisui was busy and someone else was sent to take her to the training fields where she played solider until the day was done. She felt eyes watching her, and knew there were men there to record and document and summarize her value, but the way she felt the eyes on her were not eyes meant for men. No, she felt like a dream was watching her, or a nightmare. It never lasted long, and most nights she went to bed forgetting about it.

Two more days passed like that, with Shisui coming to visit her the third day for speed training. She learned he had a reputation as being faster than the wind, and when he made her shoot him with rubber bullets she understood what they meant. He was a being of wind, more than bone.

He chased her and she started to feel like the wind too, especially after collapsing into the grass alongside him, breathing heavy and ready to leave her body when her lungs proved too inadequate for keeping her alive.

"Do you think they will tell stories about this feeling, years from now?" he once asked her.

"I doubt there are words for how this feels," she admitted.

Obito had a problem with the green eyed cur the bastard brought in. As problematic as the individual herself actually was, Obito wouldn't have cared one way or the other if it hadn't involved his own leashed Beast. Obito had a problem with the way Yugito looked at Sakura, like the girl with the tightly braided hair was made out of hope, stone, and straw.

He didn't mind that Yuu found something to feed the seed of hope in her heart. A little bit of hope was good just like a little bit of fire was good, but too much was where things started to get dangerous. Some hopes were necessary only so that the might be burned away, crushed and made an example of.

It was the reason why only third of the children his organization took in ever made it to full fledge members. The first third died out in the trials, then at the end, their survival was a thing they tore from each other's throats. Brothers killed brothers, sisters killed sisters, and vise versa. No one wore his color without blood on their hands. That was the price they paid for the honor.

Sakura was not a healthy hope for Yuu to have. She would burn too hot and too close and Obito wouldn't stand to see what he had so carefully crafted over years of toil go to waste because of something the bastard dragged in. Yuu was a thing of pride. Obito had cared for her and raised her like a folded blade, hammering out and burning away impurities with every turn, every trial, every death and failure.

when Sakura passed by the training field Yuu's eyes were caught, pinned to the girl with the hair full of braids until she was gone again around the corner. Obito didn't wait till Yuu's attention returned, it never should have been diverted in the first place. He drew his sword in a single motion and stabbed her through the chest, between her ribs just missing the heart and lungs.

Yuu crumpled on a strangled gasp, collapsing into the dust at his feet with wide eyes. Then the anger came, making her pupils into pin points. She knew she was to blame for her own wounds. Her anger was for herself. He had beaten any resentment to him out of her years ago.

"Obito!" A voice called out from behind him, but Obito didn't turn. He already knew the sound of his cousin well enough to pick it out from all others without having to turn around. He didn't move as Kagami stepped into view from somewhere behind.

Kagami's face was an easy thing to read, and the sympathy was something Yuu needed no help picking out. Kagami reached down, offering his hand to the girl, but Yuu looked away, hardening her glare at nothing in particular as she wrapped a hand around her wound.

"Get up," Obito barked, striking the ground with the toe of his shoe, kicking dust up into the air. Yuu coughed only once before pulling herself up on her own. The blood seeped through her fingers, but she was able to rise on her own.

"You will be responsible if you mistreat those under you, but never mo so when you do so with one of the king's Beasts."

Obito didn't glare, but he felt the skin around his eyes tighten and his body wanted desperately to simmer in visible rage. Kagami had never been a close cousin, and since the accident where his wife and child were killed he had been even more outspoken about said views, proving himself to be a thorn in Obito's side for years now.

Obito took a step closer to Kagami, but only one step. Squaring his shoulders he breathed in the dust and waited till it was almost awkward before he spoke. "You do not tell me what to do with what is mine. You do not command me. And you do not chastise me for my treatment of the beast when you have so eloquently demonstrated you inability to follow your own advice." Obito felt himself loom and his voice dropped further. "You do not speak to me of such things."

Kagami held his ground, but didn't take the combative stance his younger relatives would have, like Shisui or Sasuke. Those boys would choke on the bait they were dangled, but Kagami was old enough to know better.

"I am your elder," Kagami said. "Do not forget that."

"Do not harp on matter that do not concern you, cousin. I should think you quite occupied with the issues that already belong to you."

And with that, Obito took his leave, knowing Yuu would hobble on behind him without the reminder. She was wounded, but she was angry enough that he knew she would be a hell spawn when she healed. He would need to remember to send the grunts he wanted eliminated her way. She was due for a little bloodshed. Her eyes were sharp, and he was willing to keep them that way, not matter how much blood it took.

When she woke the next morning there was food on the bedside table and a cup of black tea with cream and peppermint. Coffee was for soldiers who couldn't sleep, tea was for the wealthy who could afford to lounge carelessly. She ate and drank and when there was still food left the maids came to bath her in milk and wash her down with rosewater.

She let them braid her hair into something low hanging and not as night. It was still neat and would be easy to move around in, but the frame of her face was complemented this way. Sakura paused to look at herself in the mirror and stopped, pushing the maids away when she saw the color beginning at her roots. Her hair was black and dull as any child's in the Red Kingdom, but that wasn't how it was naturally.

"Root, I need Knarl Root and-" She reached for the bag that she carried on her uniform before forgetting how she had lost it in the last skirmish, the one that had killed all but three others in her unit. She had lost the black root used to dye her hair along with several other things that weighted heavier on her when she remembered their loss.

"No." Shizune was there, bringing in her shirt and trousers personally. "That's going against what we have been doing this whole time. You think we like wasting a whole day's worth of milk for show?"

"What…?" Sakura shut her mouth, knowing better than to play dumb. Knarl Root was boiled in a drink like a tea or an ale and consumed for days at a time so that the hair color would continue to grow as dark and grubby in color as the root itself. She didn't have time to dye it, nor did she have the resources, but there was always time for a drink. "What does it matter to you?"

"The King hated your hair when he saw it was fake. He told us you were to be taken care of for this reason."

Sakura curled her lip. "The King has an opinion about what I look like? How is that possible, I've never met him before and I don't see how he could have seen me without my notice." She always felt eyes on her. "When was this?"

Shizune waved a hand. "When you first arrived of course. He tried to scurry you with Shisui, but of course he can't do that to you, so he had to watch you come in himself from the high places and he was a grumbling tyke the rest of the night, let me tell you."

Using magic to see into a pool or glass never worked on beasts. It was a perk. "Do you know what will happen to my hair now?" Sakura asked.

"It looks like it's turning red."

Sakura bit her lip. "Maybe. I can't remember what it looked like, but there were night when I thought it was silver with moonlight, and night I thought it had bled straight out of my head." She shook her head, eyes hard again. "It's not practical for a fight. It's harder to braid and thick to knot."

"That's why you have us."

"I won't always have you every morning if I'm going to be running around for his blood majesty." It wasn't a jab, it was an actual title that could sound like a curse or a prayer depending on how it was said. "It would be easier for me to do what he wants if I had more Knarl Root. Will you not get some for me?"

Shizune leaned forward and patted the side of Sakura's face, smiling easily, even if there was sadness in her eyes. "We have it, but that's not what he wants, and what the King wants is what he gets. Remember that."

Sakura didn't fight it anymore, especially after what she saw she was going to be wearing. "These are chaps."

"Your first job of the day is to ride one of our mares until he's had that exercise. You should know how to ride well enough to stay in a saddle, no more, no less. That's what they're saying, but if you ask me, it sounds like a babysitting job."

"What?" Sakura asked, shrugging into the shirt and straightening it out before tucking it into the skinny chap leggings with the gold runner down the sides. "Why would you say something like that?"

The older woman rolled her eyes, "It's because of who you will be going with, of course."

Sakura paused in her adjusting of the front buttons. "Who am I going with?" she asked slowly, even thought she had a very good guess as to who it was who would be accompanying her on her ride. There was only one person she met who could actually be 'babysat' with any real legitimacy.

Sasuke looked up with a smirk. "You're late," he chuckled, swinging out the riding crop before tucking it under his arm. "I thought you would be up at first light like all the other good little soldiers. What, were you too busy with your hair to be punctual."

"I wasn't given a time," Sakura answered, keeping her voice low as she stepped into the stables.

It smelled like hay and horse hair and fresh much for the pens. There were half a dozen rows, each with a handful of horses to choose from, but two had already been tied up and saddled lightly. Sasuke moved to stand alongside one and Sakura moved to the other. She checked the straps and tightened the one before brushing down the horse's neck with a brush. He didn't need it, but Sakura had missed out on bonding with him by saddling him, so she wanted to do this before she mounted him. With a coat of dapple gray, she found him almost too elegant to ride so casually.

Sasuke was perfectly content to huff and shift into place in his saddle, having climbed up the pull away stairs. "At least you're here and dressed for the job. My idiot of a cousin would have turned up in another silly uniform with two hundred medals if I had asked him. You're better off without his company, he's such a bore. Ah, you don't need to thank me, it's not like I chose for you to come out and help me, that's just the way this worked out. I asked for help and they sent me you." Sasuke pretended to shake his head ruefully, but Sakura thought he only looked silly before he shifted in his saddle to stare back at her more fully with eyes wide with false concern. "Are you making yourself useful yet? What did you do yesterday?"

"You don't think there could be a nicer way to ask that question, little prince?" Sakura sighed, leaning into the horse's mane."Why would you care anyway?"

Sasuke frowned at the name and looked ready to bite, but turned his face away to answer. "I don't care, that's a stupid thing to ask. I'm only asking because I'm an Uchiha prince and you are staying in my home and working for my family now so I should know where you go and what you do because that's only good sense."

Sakura eyed him wearily. "If you say so."

"I do."

She mounted in one quick pull and a fluid cross over, settling into the smooth saddle styled for an English run. Some of the saddles had horns, the ones meant for hanging ropes and rifles off of, but Sakura's saddle was meant for riding and looking pretty. She had been on a horse only once or twice before, both for training purposes, but the feeling of being fast and powerful was too appealing not to remember, so Sakura eased her mare into a soft trot out of the stables and onto the path outside.

She stopped, waiting for Sasuke to take over and direction where she would go. If she started to lead it would only upset him and wound her pride, and if she had to stay with him as long as she suspected, she didn't want his pride to be so damaged he made life hell for her.

There wasn't a lot for her to worry about, as Sasuke was quick to rush out after her and edge ahead, she didn't have to wait for him to take the lead and pretend he was more experienced than he really was. His steed was too large for him, too many hands high and fat with muscle. He knew how to ride well enough, but he wasn't suited to it just yet.

There was a privet road that led from the Red Keep to outside the city walls, with two separate checkpoints that needed to be passed through before Sakura and Sasuke could say they were actually outside. It wasn't a long trip, but since it was the first time for Sakura to make it, the road paved and bordered by high clay walls of red seemed to go on forever.

"It's incase there needs to be an emergency evacuation. There's a river at the end too," Sasuke said, pointing ahead and then waving vaguely. He watched her to see how she would react and when he saw she was now watching him the young prince started to huff and urged his horse into a trot to get ahead of her.

Not long later the second checkpoint's gates were pulled away and they were outside the city, on the edge of the forests kept close. All other sides of the city the forests had been brought down for fire and lumber years ago, and replaced with some of the few, functions farm lands that had managed to survive the curses of the White Tzar's war plans.

Sakura looked back over her shoulder at the wall with the camouflaged door. She thought about how The Red Keep was more of a fortress and less of a castle and wondered why they would have this path leading outside of the keep? Wasn't that just one more thing to defend against?

"It's protect by magic," Sasuke called back to her. "Only Uchiha and special guest can find the door again. It has something to do with the water as well."

Sakura looked down at the modest babble of a river that ran close to the exit. It was too shallow and too thin to set a boat into, but Sasuke had said something about it being there in case of an emergency evacuation.

'Water can serve as a barrier to magic, or it can serve as am amplifier. It all depends on how it is used and who uses it,' the Dova woman cackled in Sakura's memories. Sakura didn't know much about magic, but she was like many of the youngest kids coming into the army, prepared to fight lace men and headless enemies. She wanted to know as much as she could to live as long as she could.

"Are you going to stare at that stupid wall all day or are you going to help me run these horses? They're fat and lazy, don't make me waste my time any more than I already have," Sasuke growled, tugging harshly on his rains, making the big, black mare back up before he kicked sharply.

Sakura snapped her neck back around to see Sasuke take off like a dart into the thin forest, heading towards the darkest parts. She turned her horse around in his direction and kicked lightly urging the steed on. The sight of the first horse racing forward was the best motivation for Sakura's ride, and she was close to Sasuke again in no time.

It was almost as good as running, to ride a beast as hard and fast as she could. Sakura felt her jaw tingle and wondered if her canines were bleeding again, the way they always bled when she felt them begin to grow back. It was too nice to feel the wing like angry fingers in her hair, tugging at the part of her braid, trying to free her once wild hair. She loved the sting and rush and wanted to swallow to feeling and keep it inside her for years to come.

Sasuke was still ahead but Sakura didn't care, it wasn't important to be first. First wasn't even the best place to be in a pack, depending on what you were after; better off in the center, protected from attack. But then she was ahead of Sasuke, pulling away, out in front where she had just said she wasn't going to go. If Sasuke complained or called out for her to stop she never heard it. She made sure to stay close, her senesce hadn't abandoned her completely, but she wanted to run and she was a better rider in her fitted saddle than Sasuke was at his size.

'Stop.' She wheeled up short, turning sharp and forcing her mare to skid and nearly buck as it adjusted to the new direction. Sasuke skidded up alongside her, huffing angrily as it had been a struggle to push his horse and stay on. Sakura sympathized, her thighs were going to be sore in the morning.

"I told you to stop, what did you think you were doing?" His voice was loud an angry, but Sakura didn't flinch. Her face was flushed and her pupils were still dilated from the rush. The spoiled prince's temper wouldn't dampen what she felt.

"I apologize. I stopped only after I heard your voice, Sasuke."

He was still fuming in his saddle. "Do you even know where we are? That's such a stupid thing, to run out like that! What if you fell off a cliff, there are cliffs here, little ones, but you could have fell off of one anyway." He shook his head, muttering 'stupid woman' under his breath when he could.

Sakura felt too good to not tease him. She wanted to be quiet and let him fume because that seemed to be what he needed to do, but she wanted to tease him and make his squirm for yelling at her. "Careful, you almost sound concerned for me or something. You wouldn't want anyone to get ideas now, would you, little prince? That's not very intimidating," she laughed.

Much to her giddy delight Sasuke's already flushed face took a shade of red that was darker than any of the ones she had seen previous as he fumed with the implications. "I told you to not call me that!" When she kept grinning he only fumed worse. "You're insufferable. I don't get why Itachi wants to see you so much. You're rude and conceited and proud and …and you and you have stupid hair!"

"My hair doesn't look like a duck's butt."

Sasuke actually reached out and tried to hit her, screaming about how he was an Uchiha and he was from a proud race and no one had ever insulted him so much before in his life and how she was a woman of gall to say such things and so on and so forth.

Sakura let him vent, and soon it wasn't so much about her as it was about Itachi and Shisui, about the war meetings, about the nights he was left alone, about the room where there was no longer a mother to crawl to, and about the way his brother pretended not to cry when Sasuke watched him, about being so young, about being left behind.

They dismounted alongside the widest part of the river and Sasuke sat on the rocks while Sakura held onto the reigns of the horses, left on lookout.

She didn't say anything about how they weren't exercising the horses anymore, because it sounded like Sasuke hadn't talked this much in a long time, or that he hadn't had someone he could to to so much in a long time. Even if he only was twelve, he was still a kid, and there weren't any other kids in the Keep for him to talk to or relate to. Who did he share his thoughts with? Itachi? The brother was almost always off on a mission or doing an odd job for their king.

Sakura didn't say anything when the morning turned to noon and the sun began to sink. They had been gone hours, but somehow Sasuke was still talking. Every so often, when there was a lull or a hush, Sakura would say something or add something to the conversation. Sometimes she even asked questions. Whenever she did Sasuke would look back, seemingly surprised she was still there listing. How many others had stayed with him this long?

"We should be heading back, don't you think?" Sakura asked, following along behind the young prince.

Sasuke walked ahead while Sakura led the two horses on foot a short distance behind him. He huffed, sticking his chin up again before speaking. "We'll go back when I'm ready to go back and not before. I'll decide when that is, don't tell me what to do."

She didn't like the way he spoke to her, but didn't comment on it, ignoring it the way she would ignore the most minor of behaviors in a child. "Didn't you say Itachi was going to come back early tonight?"

"It's not nighttime though."

Sakura wanted to roll her eyes but didn't. "We're still far enough away that turning around and riding light would take over an hour. Also, the horses need to be fed and brushed down. That all takes time."

"Who do you think you are talking to? I'm an Uchiha, I'm not in charge of doing the servant's jobs. That sort of work is meant for people like them."

Sakura might have said something about how she didn't appreciate the disparaging comments he made regarding the help or servants in their home, but something still the voice in her throat. The hairs on the back of her neck stood up on end and she felt the charge of electricity that ran across her skin, telling her what her gut always told her in times of danger.

Instead of replying Sakura dashed forward and grabbed Sasuke, roughly brining him back and covering his mouth with her hand. If she hadn't, he would have cried out. When Sasuke turned to glare at her, the look didn't make it to his face. Instead, he suddenly turned scared, seeing her eyes wide and peeled while her pupils dilated into pinpoints that spun.

"Don't make a sound," she whispered, slowly removing her hand. His lips parted, but only for air. "We are not alone in these forest anymore."

She pushed him behind her and grabbed for the rifle hanging off the saddle of her mare. She grabbed Sasuke roughly by the shoulder and dragged him behind her, pinning him between the body of her mare and her own. If it came to trouble, he would be shielded.

She spread her senses and stepped out in front of the two animals to crouch down into the brush and listen. Sasuke's breathing was too heavy, but just like with the horse, she memorized the sound of it and erased it from her hearing. She wasn't listening for him, so was listening for the new sounds, the sounds that followed the feeling of hackles tensing along the cowl of her neck. Some things could be erased, she could file down her teeth and braid back her wild hair, but she would never loose the tension in her body that told her when danger approached. It was too engrained to loose.

There, she saw the white bodies, now more ash and gray from days of wear and layers of dirt. Her eyes knew their form like metal knew the shell of a magnet. The uniform was one she had cursed thousands of times before. Soldiers of the White Tsar's army scattered ahead in between the trees. She couldn't see their faces, but doubted they were the lace knights sewn out of magic. It was too far for the Tzar to stretch his power. These were flesh and blood bodies that could tear Sasuke apart. If they were using enchanted rifles she would be fine, but the flesh soldiers rarely did that. Ammunition was scarce and rare only to the Red King, who didn't have access to the mines in the north.

Still, something was wrong. Sakura and Sasuke had traveled a good number of miles, but they were still close to the city and could see her walls in the distance. They had strayed, but not by that much. This was too far south for white soldiers to make the trek.

She saw the tears in the jackets, the missing buttons and the shabby seams, she saw the lapels that folded incorrectly along the uniform and growled low. Imposters. Possibly bandits masquerading as white solders to scare of starving red citizens. There were enough horror stories brought back from the front to make them monsters in any child's nightmares.

She heard the moment Sasuke saw them too. His breath was a sharp intake and then a whimper.

"No," she hissed back, voice so low she doubted he heard her. She reached back to touch his chest with a hand-her fingers splayed. "It's not them." She tapped his chest again before drawing back her hand. "Don't move."

It was afternoon, but it was an overcast afternoon in the thick of a forest where the only light was filtered through layers of cloud and foliage. Shadows were plentiful and she wasn't wearing white.

There were four, but then there were two before the others could understand what the crack from her rifle meant. She saw one raise his gun, searching for her, and she saw the other stumbling widely. She shot for the one with narrowed eyes and caught his shoulder just as he hit hers. She was faster on the uptake though, and her next shot caught his throat, staining the rest of his coat red.

There was only one left, but he had spotted her already and his gun was just as stead as her's when he fired. He was faster, but Sakura's luck wasn't ready to leave her, as the bullet caught the side of her rifle and bounced. She tried to counter, but her gun was damaged and wouldn't fire, forcing her to take cover behind a tree. There was a knife in her boot, that would have to do.

His aim was good, but his nerves weren't. She got close before he made the mistake of baking up, trying to get her in range again. The steps back put him on defense and made it easier for her to throw him off balance. She swiped once and he was falling over his ankles, a boy too young to even grow a beard.

Sakura used his gun to push up his chin, applying pressure to his throat and pinning one hand down with the barrel of the gun. The other hand was pinned down with her knee leaving her right hand free to wave the blade and use it as she saw fit. He was shivering, not much older than Sasuke, or maybe it was just because he was so thin.

"Please," he whispered, and she recognized the accent. He carried his vowels like he was plowing through them the way farmers from the most isolated corners of their country did. He had the freckles for it too.

She squeezed with her knees and his ribs were unforgiving and sharp through his stolen coat. His teeth were dull just like his skin. The shadows of disease hung in bags under his eyes and Sakura knew he was dying. When she hesitated he laughed; sad and wet, the noise made his throat sound like it had just been ripped apart from the inside. He let his head fall to the side and saw his companions, all dead and bleeding.

"I was there," he whispered to one of the bodies. "I killed your brother when he deserted."

Sakura still held the knife but she didn't move and he didn't look at her again, just closed his eyes, whispering something that sounded like, "I couldn't even die for you. I'm sorry…my debt…"

Then he surged and she moved on a jerk, reacting with her body before her mind knew what she was doing. Her knife entered the side of his neck and came out again. He didn't move again.

It felt like days before Sakura pulled herself up to stand above his body. He had been in the army, he was one of those deserters or cast aways like her. When a unit of hundreds was whittled down to what you could count on your fingers, soldiers were supposed to find the nearest recruiting station and be reabsorbed into the army, but most just never dragged themselves back. There was no one to shoot them in the back if they didn't make it back, which was what happened when someone tried to run the night before. Sakura had seen it more than once. Even when they were low on ammunition and given only a few shots each, those who ran always got led in their head.

Sakura reached down and opened the boy's jacket, searching for anything she could make use out of, remembering the habits the army put into her. She found a pistol on one of them, a few photographs, a scrap of a letter, a lighter, but nothing else worth pulling out.

She started back towards Sasuke but stopped, feeling guilty for leaving the bodies where they were. The deserved to return back to the earth and finally be a rest. Or maybe it was how she hated the sight of dead bodies above earth, even if they were in white coats.

'It's because you killed them. It's your responsibility.'

She came back up to Sasuke to find him cowering between the two mares, holding his head in his hands. He looked up when he heard her coming, but didn't move. She doubted he could run if he was truly that scared.

"Was that a bit too much excitement?" she asked, meaning to sound teasing, even if the weight in her voice dragged everything down.

"Th-they shouldn't have been this close. We have boarders for this reason!"

"They're not white soldiers," Sakura said, tugging Sasuke up and lifting him onto his horse's back before following on hers. He was still stiff, but he grabbed for the reigns easily enough. "They're deserters who were trying to scare others with their coats. Those were your countrymen."

He followed her as she pressed her steed into a canter, his voice gaining strength. "No, that doesn't make sense. We hate the white army. My people would never do such a thing without honor."

"They were your people but that doesn't make them honorable, Sasuke, only hungry. If you've never been both of those things you wouldn't know how easy it is to sacrifice the first for the other. Hurry, we need to make it back before it gets any darker. I'll come back later for the bodies."

She didn't see his face, and he didn't say anything, but she felt his confusion swirl behind her and understood why he would think her words odd. He was a spoiled prince. She didn't expect him to understand what it meant to bury the dead. He didn't know what it felt like to not have enough of a body to bury.

To his credit, Sasuke was a door mouse all the way back and in the stables as she stripped the horses and saddled a third, better rested steed, he hung close to her heels. Stable hands came in to help and she went off, asking about a shovel. The brought her one that was shorter than her shoulder, but sharp enough to break ground.

"You don't have permission to go out on your own. You could run away," Sasuke suddenly spoke up, as if remembering what it would look like for someone like her to go out on her own. His thoughts must have been a mess up till that point.

"I don't have a reason to leave. I'll come back."

"Shisui will be looking for you. He was supposed to see you today…" Sasuke's voice trailed off.

"But you called me away and kept me out extra late to annoy him, didn't you?" When he wouldn't meet her eyes she sighed. "One more hour won't hurt him any. He's important enough that there's probably enough to keep him busy without him thinking about me. Tell him where I'm going if you see him, or don't, that's your choice. I don't plan to stay out long."

She mounted her ride and was turning him around to exit the stables when Sasuke ran out in front of her her, looking almost angry. "But it's dangerous," he exclaimed. His eyes flew to where her shoulder bled from the bullet earlier. She hadn't touched it, and she wouldn't until tonight. It wasn't deep enough to need wrapping, and her kind healed quickly.

"I'll be back." She kicked the sides of her ride and maneuvered around Sasuke, exiting the way she came.

Sasuke was calling out to her again, something about the door and their eyes, but she was in a hurry, so she didn't pause to think about what he was saying.

She was faster without Sasuke. It took her less time to get out the gates, and even less time to reach the bodies again, even though the shadows were all longer and the day was dimmer. She could smell them from nearby, their blood ripe enough for her heightened senses.

It was cold when she began to dig the first grave, and only grew colder as she opened a second and third hole in the ground. The first three were buried as easily as they were killed. The boy she had stabbed through the neck was not so easy to look at, much less move.

His eyes were still open, staring off in the direction of the second boy's grave, the one he had talked to before dying. Sakura wondered what their story was before she remember how little it mattered. She dug another hole in the ground, knowing it had already taken her more than an hour to get this far, and it would be another hour or two before she was done.

She dug up to her waist, and then took another long drag down the earth with the edge of her shovel. When she climbed out, there was a cut to fold his body into more so than a hole, but that just made it easier to fill. She threw down the first shovel of dirt and then looked up to see Ino standing at the base of the grave, staring mournfully down at the right she had been denied when the land mine tore her body apart. Jilted lovers drowned in the water became Ruslicks and white women. Disrespected bodies from the war front became ghosts, and Sakura carried enough of them with her, though none were as focused as Ino.

"What do I say to him?" Sakura asked, unable to look down at the grave. Ino's ghost glanced up at Sakura and shook her head. She was frozen in the body Sakura last saw, because Sakura was the last person to see her alive. Ino's coat was a mess, but her hair was beautifully braided, even if her eyes were heavy and dark.

"What would you have wanted me to say at yours?" Sakura tried again.

Ino opened her mouth but there were no words. There never were.

Sakura said an old prayer that sounded more like a song, but the words were meant for peace; something about a blackbird and broken wings and night time flights. Ino liked it enough when she was alive, and her ghost smiled.

When Sakura looked up Ino was gone, but Itachi was standing there.

He crossed around the graves, taking care not to step over the mounds. The said that to cross one was bad luck-or disrespectful depending on what you believed in. He touched her face and his fingers came away wet.

"You cried like this last time too." She hadn't remembered, but Itachi spoke so softly she didn't believe he could lie with that voice. "What did they do to you?"

"I'm just tired of death." Her voice didn't waver, it just sounded tired. She didn't know why she was crying. She had wept enough to fill the Ravik River when Ino died, but after that it felt as if she didn't have the salt for tears anymore. She couldn't remember the last time she had cried.

He took a step back, as if remembering how close they were could be seen as rude or improper. She looked at what he was wearing and saw the dull black boots, the black coat that came up in a high collar around his face, and the black gloves sticking out of his belt. Dressed for stealth and espionage.

"Sasuke sent me back out to fetch you. He was worried you wouldn't be able to find the door to get back in."

"I can see though your magic," Sakura sighed. "It would have just taken me a little longer to find the door again."

He hummed thoughtfully. "Only Uchiha are supposed to be able to see that entrance. I'll have to talk to Obito about it if you were really able to see through the illusion."

He offered her his hand like a gentleman and she didn't know how to take it, so she held her elbows. Itachi frowned, but lowered his hand before moving towards the horses. His was dark black, just like him. She was close to his side as the dusk brought out the first tint of purple to the sky. By the time they had made it all the way back to the stables the sun had set and the sky was just beginning to forget what it was supposed to look like with light.

Sasuke wasn't there, but Shisui was, standing with his arms crossed over his chest and a scowl set into his features. It looked like he had only recently come out and she wondered how long after Itachi left did it take for Shisui to find out where she had gone. He looked to her first, seeing the tear stains and dirt smudges and then the disorder of her shirt. She knew she was wearing blood, but most of it wasn't her's. He wouldn't see the shoulder wound unless he looked for it, but his eyes were roving, so she shifted in her saddle when she and Itachi passed so that he caught her profile.

He swallowed once before turning his gaze to Itachi. "I could have gone out."

"I was already ready and I didn't mind." Itachi dismounted and led his horse in the rest of the way. "And you know how Sasuke is. He wouldn't have told you if his life depended on it." He unhooked the bridle from his horse and exchanged it for a loose lead.

"Sakura is my charge, she's my responsibility. I already tore your demon spawn brother a new one, if he requests her services he has to ask me first and get my permission as well as hers! He went over my head again and he's not to do that. I don't care if he is a prince."

"It won't happen again," Itachi sighed, looking remorseful for his brother's sake. It made Shisui bite his lip and fume about the wrong brother taking the blame.

Shisui looked from his cousin to Sakura and turned his body towards where she stood alongside her horse. She was unhooking his bridle as well, but paused when Shisui stopped before her. "And you, are you hurt? This blood, is it yours?"

Sakura touched the front of her shirt, picking at the blood smear. "This belonged to the ones I buried."

"And your shoulder?" Itachi asked, cutting in. Shisui's eyes went straight to the red wound bleeding through the shoulder of her navy jacket.

"You were shot!" Shisui gasped, grasping at it as tenderly as he could while still refusing to let her squirm away. You got shot and you never treated it! Why didn't you have this seen too when you came back with the brat?"

"It's shallow. It will be gone in a few days." Sakura tried to shake her shoulder free, but only had any luck when the servants came out to take her horse away and free up her hands. Shisui let her go at last and she reached up to cover the entrance sight with the palm of her hand.

Shisui's eyes were like a pup's when he looked at her face, eyes wide and glassy. "You're not hurting?" She shook her head and he sighed. "That's good. We were supposed to go to dinner tonight, but I don't think we should if you need to get treated. I'll tell the others not to expect you."

"Others?" Itachi echoed. "Is…"

"Madara can wait."

Sakura felt her spine stiffen. Madara was the name of their king. The Red King had wanted to have dinner with her that night. She looked out to the dusky sky and then back to the cousins. "How long until dinner?"

"Sakura, if you're hurt I don't think you should. There will be tomorrow night." Shisui looked to her arm and then to the rest of her dirty body. "Besides, don't you want a good long soak?"

She did, but the Red King had wanted to have dinner with her. The man who moved thousands of men and women like puppets and pawns was going to be there at dinner. She didn't even know if she hated or adored the man who was her king. All she knew was that there was excitement in her got for the prospect of seeing him in the flesh when too may other had perished before they could even see his city. She wanted to see him, she wanted to know what kind of man he was behind all the stories and the rumors.

"No." Itachi's voice cut through her thoughts. It was heavy and dark and demanded all her attention. When he saw her look he elaborated. "I am too weary from my travels. Sleep well tonight. Tomorrow we will both go to the dinner table and meet your kin."

He left them, but Sakura felt like his presence had settled into her jacket and remained around her, ragged but reliable.

Shisui stayed with her until she reached her room, looking like he wanted to speak volumes, but saying nothing. She stopped outside her door and waited before crossing the threshold, feeling the weight of the words he hadn't been able to voice. When he said nothing, she turned to him and spoke first.

"What are you so ashamed of, Shisui? You look like you got caught kissing your brother's wife."

He made a face of disgust at the analogy and she wondered who he pictured kissing? If he had any half brothers, were they married to older women? She knew Shisui was a bastard, born from a Uchiha father and a widower, but she didn't know if he knew who his true father was. There was a lot about Shisui she didn't know.

"I shouldn't have said it like that," he finally confessed.

Sakura blinked, lost. "Said what?"

He wouldn't look at her, shaking his head and making the black ebony curls bounce. "I-that you were my charge and people would have to ask me if it was okay to send you on errands. It sounded wrong as soon as I said it. I don't own you."

Sakura touched her coat and felt the blood stains. It would be heavier to take off than she first assumed, but blood made it easier to remember her nature. When she had been running with nothing more than a knife, she was more beast than man. "No, you don't. But I've spent six years being nothing more than a possession, so it didn't mean as much to me as you might think. And still, I'm a citizen of this land, bowed to its rulers."

"They'll try to make you think like that, and they're good at it. We've had years to master to art of breaking down a man's self worth until that man sees himself as nothing but a tool."

"A pair of boots and a rifle," Sakura hummed, remembering her own thoughts.

Shisui nodded and the shadows of shame crossed his features again. "I am very good at it when I have to be. Don't let me get away with it around you. You may think it's flattering to be possessed, but we are not things."

He left Sakura on the threshold of her door with those words.

Sakura went in to bath herself clean, stripping the bloody pieces of uniform from her body until she was a naked slip of a person, sliding into the copper tub filled with warm water and juniper berries. The maids were silent as ever when they cleaned her body and dressed her wound. There was another cut on her wrist, stretching up to her thumb that she hadn't seen before. It wasn't deep or wide enough to need a bandage like the one on her shoulder. They rubbed something into the wound and it faded from angry red to tired pink. Sakura kissed the wound and felt the bump go smooth. It would be gone in the morning.

They kept the water warm by dropping coals into the bottom, and Sakura felt herself curling in delight at how it nearly burned her. She wasn't used to such luxury, but warm baths reminded her of the natural hots prigs just outside Krepost where the maidens would go before men took them as wives. Sakura loved those springs and the memories they gave her. Where girls could be girls and laugh and giggle and gossip and pretend the world was nothing worth worrying about.

One of the maids gathered Sakura's hair back and began to brush it, tickling Sakura's scalps with a sensation that made her want to melt. The metal brush was heavy, but it was a weight she would gladly fall under. Another maid poured something into her hair and Sakura felt how the oils seeped in between the trails left behind by the brush's points.

Another maid took water and cooled embers from the end of the tub and replaced them with hotter water, making the room steam.

Sakura closed her eyes, easing more than she should have, because when she opened her eyes again she was alone, more completely than before, with a loose braid draped over the end of the tub and the waters less than luke warm. Deciding she must have dozed off. Sakura pulled herself out of the basin and patted down her body with a white towel while perched on the edge. They had left another nightgown for her, this time it was eggshell white, making the silver red threads hidden in her dark hair stand out.

It was warm around her body as she gathered herself into bed and settled under the covers. She thought the bed too soft when she first arrived, and still considered it a bed too luxurious to ever get used to, but she loved how warm it made her feel. All she wanted to do was be warm forever. Warm the way hot springs were warm. Warm the way dog fur was warm. Warm the way she was in front of a fire with a room that smelled like wood smoke and night air. All she wanted was to be warm forever.

'When you are warm you are alive. That is why the ghosts always bring frost on their breaths.'

Her hackles pulled her awake. Sakura's eyes snapped open like they had been made out of gunshots. Night made the room a collection of shadows and silver. It was dark, but the details of everything she knew still stood out. She swallowed, feeling the shift in the room. She wasn't alone.

Warm as she once had been, Sakura pulled herself up and crouched over her covers, bracing on the bed in case she needed to move. Her eyes were wide and scanning, knowing there was something in the room she couldn't see if if she could smell it. Magic made her intruder invisible, but she could still smell him. He was as strong as woodsmoke and dark thoughts.

He hadn't been there a moment before, but then he was, without warning, without announcement, he was just there. Sakura froze, locking in place as she beheld the terrible body of a man in all black with a face made out of white bone. It was a mask, she knew, but it was stark against the darkness and shaped like the skull of a bird with the curved horns of a ram. He was taller than either Itachi or Shisui, but just as lean. When he shifted the massive black wings behind him shifted as well, dropping loose feathers onto her floor. His suit had been made of feathers. And silk. His hands were gloved in black leather, but they were longer and thinner than the should have been beneath that layer.

Through the shadow of a single eye socket one of his eyes began to blow, and then the other. Two spinning red orbs locked her in place as she felt a hoard of spiders run under her skin and race across her body. Something was coiling along the length of her spin, and water was filling her throat.

He hadn't moved aside from a subtle shift, and already she was debilitated with fear. She couldn't breath. She was drowning inside of herself because of magic even though she knew she was supposed to be immune to the thrall of a wizard or Uchiha. She never let a witch touch her so deeply, get to her very soul like this, but without warning this phantom in the night had harpooned her heard with a blade big enough to tear her apart once he disengaged. He was going to kill her. There was no way he was going to let he go, or if he did, she wouldn't survive.

She felt herself falling into his hand, falling into his world, and he held her like a trinket in the palm of his glove, his to be crushed and used however he saw fit. She was so insignificant. She was nothing… Boots and a gun.

She was wearing her jacket again, the nightgown was gone and she was back in her uniform, only this one was the first she ever wore, back when they still made the shoulders bear the stitchings. The first coat she ever put on that made her feel like something less than what she truly was.

Sakura snarled, bearing her teeth and pushing back against the thrall, seeing it for what it was. His magic was only as powerful as she let it be. She resisted magic, she was immune to it. She was a beast. She was above all this.


Sakura felt her mouth bleed as she lowered back into her crouch, the nightgown back and the jacket gone. Her body was drawn taunt enough to snap faster than a cross bow's bowstring.

"And here I was beginning to think you wouldn't be worth the trouble." His voice was the echo of thunder in her bones. More than Shisui, more than Itachi, more than Kagami, this man was an Uchiha. Sakura knew who she was speaking to.

"The Red King finally appears," she said.

He didn't bow, but leaned forward and his wings stretched out, altering slightly downwards as if they were hands that could bow for him."The beast awakens." His tone said things his words didn't. He sounded so pleased that she was rugged and wild and uncontrollable in front of him. She doubted he had ever seen another like her. The blond hell cat and the twin boys were wild beasts as well, but they weren't like Sakura. They were all wild in their own way.

The blood in her mouth was pooling behind her lip, so she sucked it back, swallowing it down like a copper drink. "The best will not serve you, the soldier will."

"I have no need for another soldier, no matter how loyal. The beast is what will do my will."

"Beats know no king." She felt her own blood sing. "You have done a terrible thing."

He was in front of her, only a distance away, but before she could track him he was in front of her, close enough to touch her. She wanted to recoil, to jerk back, but she steadied herself and glared with wide eyes, as if daring him to try her.

"Maybe not a king, but you will serve me, because that is what you want. That is what you are. You are the bullet in the gun, the laces on my shoe, you are the buttons on my coat and every other useful thing in existence because you have to be. Where else would all those spirits go without you to hold onto?"

The world turned cold at the edges and Madara leaned back, his eyes glowing in what she suspected with conceit, or maybe mirth. He touched her braid, lifting it, then letting it drop. "You've bleed too much for one kingdom to let it exsanguinate."

And that was how he left her. Just as quickly and just as suddenly as he had appeared, he was gone. She blinked, searching the room for him with her eyes, unable to sense him otherwise. He truly was gone, as far as his physical body was concerned. Still, her gut told her she wasn't alone. Something of him lingered in the room.

The feeling of spiders under her skin returned and she stiffened. His voice in her head echoed saying, 'Show me.'

He was gone, his body and his voice were gone, but something new was close by. She felt a laughter that wasn't hers rise under her skin and she crept from the bed to stand in the hall. She smelled stone mold, mud, and the sweat of man. She turned down the hall, knowing she wouldn't have to go far before she faced the body. She was halfway there before she recognized her surroundings. They were close to the entrance to the cells below. The cells that held Naruto and Menma back were just up ahead and down the stairs.

"No." She felt the words freeze on her own lips when the smell hit her. Stiffly, she turned down the opposite hall and saw, crouched behind the corner, the body of a boy with bleeding hands. She remembered the fox that stood over her and called out, 'Menma?' but the figure didn't move.

Sakura took a step towards the boy, and then another. The distance between them lessened and more details began to come into focus. His hands were bloody, but it was his wrists that were bleeding, like he had been put in chains and ripped out of them. Judging by the way his thumbs hung limp and blue across the insides of his palm, didn't didn't doubt that exact thing had happened.

She stopped when she saw him twitch. He looked up, and his eyes were dark and red. No, this wasn't menma. This boy was blond, in spite of all the dirt, and his eyes were different. This was the twin, the one Sasuke said he wanted to play with.

"Naruto?" she tried calling out to him, keeping her body taunt and ready to bolt if she needed to. She didn't know how he was out or what he was doing in such a state, but she doubted it had been a coincidence the Red King had visited her that night. She tried calling out to him again. "Naruto, are you Naruto?"

He growled low at her, and the black scars on his cheeks stood out darker, like the whiskers of a fox. "Curr," he said, addressing her.

Sakura tried again. "What are you doing? What happened?"

She took another step around and was able to see more of his body. There was blood all down the front of his shirt, but none of it was his. Only the sores from his wrists. He nearly snarled when she tried to take another step and she saw the blood staining between his teeth.


"Where is Menma? Where is your twin?"

"Curr," Naruto growled again. "Leave before I eat you too. Cur of a wolf or not, I will devour you."

Madara's voice was in her head again saying, 'Show me.'

It clicked, but Sakura only had enough time to let her body do the reacting. Her mind went blank as her body took over, remembering what to do in a fight like this. Naruto was out with his teeth and nails filed sharp, but Sakura was no stranger to a claw fight.

She caught Naruto easily and threw him into a wall. He didn't even flinch as the stone gave in a horrible crack. Spider shaped fingers of cracks grew out from the impact sight, but Naruto was uninjured. He rolled down to his hands and knees, feet digging into the floor, before launching himself at her again.

He was wild, but this time he seemed a bit more controlled. She was able to pivot out of the way, but he was too fast to catch and throw again. He was mad and wild, but not so much that he didn't remember how to fight. He was young, but he was old enough to know how a body in a fight should move. A part of her wondered where that came from, where he learned to be so untethered.

Naruto was a blur behind and around her until he caught her in the back and tore at her shoulder. She felt a sting, but clamped down on the hand in her flesh, using it to pull Naruto closer. He was close enough to bite, and she caught his jaw with her teeth. With a yip he fell apart for her and she pinned him down, bleeding and frenzied with fangs red and long.

They were past words, otherwise she would have yelled at him to stand down, or maybe she would have yelled at him that she was no cur. But something was wrong with her mouth and she didn't know if she had the room for both words and fangs at once.

Naruto pushed against her, but she snapped at his neck again, her hands on his wrists and her knees holding him down. He wasn't bleeding, she was, but she had all the power over him and it was a rush to feel that again after so long. Her pack had wolves the size of horses, they were monsters and they were strong.

"You are not-gah-" his words became a gravely mess of growls as he thrashed again.

Sakura let him lift a little before slamming him back into the stone floor. She could have torn his throat out if she wanted to, and if the situation was different and she honestly feared for her life long term, she would have, but she knew this was a test. It was no coincidence that the Red King had sent his little pet free and then visited her in her room to provoke her. He wanted to see how she measured up, but she doubted she wanted her to kill Naruto.

Or maybe he did.

"Menma, where is he?" she snarled, hating how hard the words were to form in her mouth. It was like learning how to speak all over again.

"I will tear-I-" Naruto was gasping and sweat broke out across his brow. His breath came in shallow gasps and something started to happen to his eyes. The lines on his face, painted like whiskers, faded into his skin and his eyes bled out their red color until they were a striking blue, framed in blond lashes. Then he was sobbing, the nose running, cheeks coloring, eyes swollen type of crying. Sakura dropped him like she had been burned and backup. Naruto curled up into a fetal position on the floor and let the sobs rock his body on jerked breaths.

He held his hands to his chest and she saw the thumbs were fine at last, and the bruises were fading right before her eyes, but he still cried. He seemed to shrink and the boy she had pinned down was more child than even Sasuke. She could probably carry him in her arms, he would drag a bit, but he was so light and small seeming now.

Sakura touched the back of his head, brushing down his untamed mane of hair. His hair was stiff like a dog's, but soft. She whispered hushing sounds into his hair. His sobbing lessened, so she pulled him closer, onto her lap, and brushed his hair back again. She began to hum, the only way her fangs would allow her to hum. Her voice was low and slow, following a melody more like a heartbeat.

When Sakura woke up crying in her sleep Ino would braid her hair, or just brush it back until sleep wasn't such a bad thing. Before Ino, there were distant memories of smoke fire and stories told in songs, and of a woman who's hand would brush back Sakura's hair again and again until the stories were nothing more then echoing hums. Sakura hadn't cried so hard since Ino's death, but she remembered what it had felt like, and she remembered what helped.

She smelled his scent and looked up to see Madara at the end of the hallway, watching her. The Red King still wore his bone mask, but the feathers were gone and in their place a heavy cloak rested around his shoulders. She didn't feel the spiders under her skin though. This time was different.

"Did I prove it to you?" she asked, her voice guttural.

She heard him smile, and then he was gone.

In the morning when the maids came to bath her Sakura was already dressed and cleaned, but told the girls to see to Naruto's needs. The fox kit hadn't stirred since falling asleep last night, and when she had gone back into the dungeons to search for Menma, she found the cells empty.

Shizune came to treat Naruto and told Sakura that Menma had escaped last night and no one could find him. A guard had been killed and Kagami was being chastised for failing to control the beast he brought in off the battlefield, but Sakura knew better. The Uchiha were too keen and too aware and too magical for Menma to have escaped without Naruto.

Sakura felt the tug on her shoulder and frowned when she saw the tub already filled with milk. Even if she had cleaned her wounds last night and scrubbed herself down, they still saw it as necessary. She left Naruto to Shizune and did as she was instructed.

"What did you need this for?" Shizune asked, coming up alongside Sakura with the filer and the cloth filled with bone powder in her hands. Sakura absently ran a tongue over her teeth.

"I needed it for something."

Shizune set the objects back down on the vanity and crossed the room to grab Sakura's face. Sakura hissed and lifted her lips so her perfectly filed teeth could be shown off. Shizune hummed in disapproval. "He would have wanted to see them grow. You're much more dangerous with them in your mouth."

Sakura waved the comment off, returning her hands to the buttons of her shirt. "What will be done to Naruto, now that his twin has left him? Will they still try to get some use out of him or will they kill him?"

"You think I know?" the dark haired woman asked with a huff.

"I think you know more than you say you do," Sakura hummed back.

The last of her buttons was smoothed into place and her collar was the only thing left to straighten. She wore trousers and a dress shirt with her military coat again. Shizune stared a little too long at the pants before sighing and looking to the wardrobe where a dress hung untouched. A new one was set in the wardrobe every morning, and every night, it went unused.

"Someone will be along for the boy. What they do with him after that is not for me to know, nor is it for me to ask about." She pointed to Sakura. "As for you, Shisui will be taking you for the day and asked that I make sure the little prince or any of his other cousins didn't lay claim to your time."

"I'm supposed to just leave Naruto here, without doing anything else?" Sakura asked, frowning at the sound of her words.

She looked to her bed where she had deposited the blond child. He was still fast asleep, and sound like he wouldn't rise anytime soon. The breakfast brought into her had been left on the end table, and after Sakura had her fill, she made sure she piled the extras all in one place to set alongside Naruto's head on the bed. Maybe the smell would wake him, she thought, but he never stirred.

"When is Shisui going to send for me?"

Shizune shook her head. "In a bit, I would imagine. He has meetings in the morning with the others, but I wouldn't go out and do anything too time consuming. Why do you ask?"

"I'll be back in a few minutes," Sakura murmured, picking off another pastry from the plat in front of Naruto's head before slipping out the front door.

She took a few steps then stopped. Her teeth were filed down and smooth, but there was no way to stop how she smelled the world, and this time, that was exactly what she needed. It was too easy to get lost in the Red Keep with only sight to rely on, so Sakura tracked down the little prince the old fashioned way, finding him behind a set of impressive heavy doors that most likely led to his bedroom.

There were other smells inside, but they were the same as Sakura's handmaids, so Sakura knocked. A pretty looking boy with a blank expression answered the door. He was dressed like one of the servants and behind him were two identical lads.

"I don't want to do my maths!" Sasuke called out from inside his room. Sakura couldn't see him, and he couldn't see her, but she doubted he was looking towards the doorway anyways.

"I'd rather not do maths either, but that's not what I came here for," Sakura called back out, tapping the edge of the door with the toe of her boot.

From inside she heard a dull thud and the sounds of wood scrapping. Then there were the footsteps and the footman at the door was being shoved aside by Sasuke, who was a head and a half shorter, making the scene comical. Sakura grinned down at the little prince. "Hello."

"Sakura! What are you doing here?" Sasuke exclaimed. A second later he remembered himself and the expression on his face melted into one of fake boredom. "What could you possibly seek me out for? Didn't you hear Shisui's warning?"

"I only heard that you were not supposed to follow me or take me to help you with stuff without Shisui's permission, but that's not what's happening here. I'm coming to you because I need your help with something."

"You, need me?" Sasuke sounded like he was trying very hard to sound bored, but Sakura didn't miss the way his lip quivered. "Why?"

"Will you come to my room?"

There was a pause before Sasuke answered. "I will get my shoes."

He disappeared and reappeared in moments, his shiny black boots in place, one a bit more straight than the other. He tried his best to look causal, but Sakura could pick up on the way his breathing faltered and fluctuated along with his heartbeat. He was too young and in too small a body to control it.

She found her way back to her room on smell alone, but it was starting to get easier to make her way from one place to another inside the Red Keep. She didn't even pause at the door, but went straight in, not knowing if Shizune and the maids would still be there. They weren't, but Naruto was.

Sasuke took a handful of steps in before he saw what was on her bed and faltered. "What is this?" His voice nearly cracked in surprise.

"Did you hear about what happened last night?"

Sasuke looked from Naruto to Sakura and then back at Naruto before his scowl lessened. "What happened?"

So Sakura recounted her version of the night before, including what happened with Madara before adding what she had heard from the others in the morning. She was surprised Sasuke didn't have any other insight into what would happen to Naruto, but when she mentioned they might kill the blond boy, Sasuke didn't seem happy about it. Even if he was a brat, he did seem to care.

"Has he woken up since then at all?" Sasuke asked.

Sakura shook her head and then jumped onto her bed, crawling over to where Naruto dozed with the food in front of his face. She shook his shoulder, but that did nothing. She looked up at Sasuke and sighed. "I don't know what to do. He might just need sleep. What happened to him last night, it was like he was regressing into another form."

"Can you do that?" Sasuke asked, climbing up into the bed to sit across from her.

Sakura glanced to the vanity were the powder from her teeth still sat on the cloth. "Not in that sort of way. But people like me, when you call us beasts we used to call ourselves Oborotnyk, it means shapeshifter. A long time ago we were able to shed our skin and become the beasts we were raised alongside. Now, or at least when I was a part of Krepost, it's such a rare thing that many believe it to be a myth and nothing more. I've never turned into a wolf, but I've become…wolf like before."

"Is that what happened to Naruto?"

She thought back to the night before and rolled the idea around in her head. "Maybe. He didn't seem like himself though, like there was something else inside of him. His eyes were red, too. I've not heard of eyes changing color before. Sometimes they will alter, become more reflective and such, but his were blood red."

Sasuke grimaced. "I don't know about that, it's possible that an Uchiha could have done something to provoke him, but I don't see why they would."

"Can you do that?" Sakura asked.


Sakura waved a hand in the air in front of his face. "Make magic with your eyes. Itachi's eyes turned red before he tried to enter my mind and the Red King could do things I didn't even understand when his eyes were glowing like that. Are all Uchiha like that?"

Sasuke smiled smugly. "No. Only the best and the most pure of blood are able to." He closed his eyes and when he opened them again one eye was blood red with two spinning dots around the pupil and the other was just red with one spinning dot around his pupil. But he winced after only a few seconds and he had to close his eyes and let them fade to black again. "Mine is still growing."

"Will they all give you the same magic?"

"Sometimes, but they are all unique," Sasuke explained, pretending his eyes weren't bothering him now.

Sakura looked back at Naruto and touched his hair again. It reminded her of animal fur, but was too soft to be wild. "I never got so exhausted after shifting before, so I was worried when he wouldn't wake."

"And you want me to watch him for when he does wake," Sasuke lamely finished, looking out the window with a huff.

"Would you?"

He scrunched up his nose. "There are servants for this sort of stuff."

"But they couldn't do anything if something happened, and I'd trust you to be able to take care of him more than any of them here." She watched for his reaction and pushed on, lowing her lashes and hunching her shoulders. "I'd feel better knowing you were here."

It didn't take much more than that. Sasuke was barely able to contain his pride as he easily rolled his shoulders and pretended to sigh in resignation. "If I must. It's truly as you say, so I suppose you could leave him with me, but I want to stay here. It wouldn't be a good idea to move him like this, and don't you think it would be better if I-if we were both here when you got back?"

She nodded. "I don't know what I'm doing or where I'm going though. Someone said that I might have dinner with the Uchiha family tonight, but I don't know if that is still happening with Kagami going out to hunt for Menma's trail."

"They won't do anything tonight. You'l likely just train with Shisui again. It could be weeks again before they all decide to sit down for a shared dinner. When the hellcat came in with Obito, it took over a month before Madara met her. I' actually surprised Madara decided to seek you out himself so soon."

Sakura thought about the blond beast girl and wondered where she was now. Sakura hadn't seen her since the first time when she spotted her in the training field. Obito had been even more elusive, but between the two of them she got secondhand jitters and knew neither was to be underestimated.

"How do you know he didn't do the same with Yuu? If he did would she tell you?"

Sasuke shook his head, the long black bangs slapping the sides of his head. In the morning his hair was a bit more tousled and she doubted one of the servants had taken to it with a comb yet. There was a whalebone comb on her vanity she reached in two steps. When she came back to the bed she settled herself behind Sasuke and touched the side of his neck, making him stiffen.

"Shh," she whispered, taking the comb to his hair and brushing it back. There were a few tangles she worked through, but his hair was the same silky texture as Itachi's or Shisui's. After a while she felt the boy melt into her hands and hummed in appreciation.

"My mom used to comb my hair," Sasuke whispered to himself after a while.

Sitting behind him, Sakura couldn't see his face, but doubted it was one that he wanted her to see. She nearly paused, be recovered before he could notice her hesitation. In a quiet voice she added, 'mine to.'

When she finished with the tangles she kept brushing, knowing this was something that Sasuke seemed to not mind. His breathing was even again and his shoulders dropped. He finally looked like a child again, and not like a boy trying too hard to grow up an be a man like everyone else around him. When else was he spoiled like a child?

How Itachi indulged Sasuke was a way of Itachi apologizing for his absences and Sasuke knew it. What Sasuke likely didn't know was that it was also to make up for how he killed their mother on orders. (No wonder he was so demented.) The way Itachi spoiled Sasuke was different. When Sakura brushed his hair back it wasn't to buy anything, he had already agreed to help her and she knew she didn't need to do anything more to get him to agree; he was too easy to manipulate. When she decided to treat him like a child it was because she wanted to and because he deserved to be tended to in such a way.

When she had been a girl, this was what she wanted from her mother, and when she had been motherless this had been what she needed.

'Where else are all those thoughts of yours going to get trapped, Sakura?' Ino would ask with a laugh as she worked through Sakura's hair. 'Your hairs a net for all the worries and dreams you think no one can touch.'

She kept brushing, but she added a story to her movements, talking about a fairytale her people told to explain how some wolves became strong and some wolves became fast and how some wolves became men, all depending on what was important to them. The moral was left unsaid, but implied; the choices you make will make you who you are.

"Am I interrupting something?" Shisui asked coming into the room without knocking. He looked like he had rushed over, the way his hair still bounced, but his steps were measured, like he was trying to make himself slow down on purpose. The rest of the world was too slow for the Uchiha who was more wind than bones.

Shisui looked to Sakura in Sasuke's hair and then glanced at Naruto, passed out in her bed. He raised a single brow. "You had a sleepover and you didn't invite me? I'm hurt, Sakura."

"Perverted rot," Sasuke hissed, his eyes narrowed into slits. He looked murderous, but also like a cat. Sakura brushed his hair again, this time with her fingers, and his murderous aura lessened. Shisui tried his hardest not to smirk at this.

"Mou, Sakura, I'm jealous now. I don't even get to keep you to myself today. Why are you so cruel?" Shisui teased, waltzing the rest of the way over to her bed and spreading his arms at the end, showing off is medals again. His grin was rakish as he added, "You wound me."

"You're a peacock," Sasuke grumbled.

"And you're a duck's butt."

Sasuke started to rise, eyes flashing dangerously when Sakura pulled him back, hands on his shoulders. Shisui didn't miss how Sasuke seemed to melt at the touch. He set Sakura a look over Sasuke's shoulder that was part teasing and part disbelieving.

"Where are we going today?" she asked, ignoring the questions his eyes asked her.

"You could wear a dress if you wanted to, it's nowhere strenuous." He nodded to the wardrobe and then glanced at Naruto and then Sasuke. "But it would be a waste of time, I think. Are you ready?"

Sakura nodded, letting go of Sasuke and sliding off the bed. She didn't look back, other than to put the bone comb away until Shisui was already at the door ahead of her. She waved to Sasuke, not willing to say anything more than, 'thank you, I'll try to hurry back.' He looked like a wounded kitten and she didn't know why it made her feel so guilty. Yeah, the kid was messed up, but so was everyone she knew.

Shisui led her to an opposite end of the keep, closer to where she remembered going to meet Itachi. The smell of sweat was most distant and she guessed that was because they were on the opposite side of the training fields. This area of the keep was older.

"You never told me where we were going," Sakura said all of a sudden, noticing how the walls seemed to bow out around them. The walls had a smell too, like they were made out of something different. "Where is it?"

"Depends, can you read?"

Sakura grimaced. "Yes," she admitted after a while. "A little. I learned how to speak Lechitic first though."

Shisui whistled, impressed. "You can speak Lechitic? I thought that was a dead language."

"It is, that's why we spoke it."

There wasn't a lot of difference between mother tongue, (which they all spoke now), and Lechitic considering they were both offshoots of the same master Proto-Slavic language that had united all the countries of the grass lands over a dozen centuries ago. Few people spoke anything other than Mother Tongue anymore, as it had been deemed the official language of the Red Kingdom and speaking or instructing in any other language was still punishable by public displays of torture. Mostly it was just a social stigma that people feared. In the last few decades the ban had been purposefully ignored by law enforcers, but the law still stood.

"So your reading and writing…" he let the sentence hang in the air awkwardly.

"I can read and write just fine," Sakura huffed, feeling his ears burn. "All those in the military had to be literate of course, I'm just a bit rusty."

If she was being honest she was more than just a bit rusty, but she was a quick study. Ino tutored her in the tents after dark and in a few weeks no one could tell how little she really knew. Ino said it was amazing how quickly Sakura picked it up, but that was because Sakura could see the patterns between her native Lechitic and Mother Tongue. She was bright, she knew that, but it hurt to know she was behind others. She liked the feeling of being the smartest and the brightest, because that's how it had been when she was a child. It was just, wrong to not be smart, and she hated the feeling.

They paused in front of a set of doors but Sakura froze in her tracks when she recognized the smell. Shisui stepped into a room that looked more like a balcony overlooking a seat of books before he scooted to the side and glanced backwards. "The library," he explained with a laugh. "It's old, so we can't use it for anything important and there are too many books to store anywhere else." He reached out for her and grabbed her elbow. "Come on, I have someone for you to meet and I think you'll like him."

Sakura let him drag her away, eyes wide and senses shot. These books, some of them, they were as old as the country. She could smell it in the binding, the glue they used to keep the books together was pungent, and had been replaced with a nicer smelling solution eons ago. Only the oldest and most rare still smelled like that. She knew, she had enough tomes of history back in Krepost to love the smell.

Shisui dragged her down the stars to another landing where there was a pair of desks set up for scholars. He traveled down the landing before finding another starcase that led back up to a distant corner of the library with good light and another set of desks piled high with books. In an arm chair set up next to the window with the most light, an old man with gray hair and tanner skin looked up from his reading. He narrowed his eyes through his glasses before he removed the spectacles and nodded, recognizing his guest.

"You're oddly early for a visit, Shisui," the old man grumbled, sounding neither pleased no displeased.

"Sarutob, this is Sakura. She's the one that told me all the stories, the girl I was telling you about." Shisui nodded to the old man before tugging Sakura forward. "Sakura, this is Sarutobi Hiruzen. He's an old scholar and the most read person I've ever met." Shisui said, sounding near giddy. If Sakura had to guess, she would say Shisui was fond of the old man.

Something in Sarutobi's eyes caught fire and she saw the interest spark to life. He moved the cord into his book, closing it and replacing it on the arm table alongside his chair. He leaned out, studying her with a keen eye before he held out his hand, curling fingers in a beckon for her to draw closer. Shisui eagerly encouraged her to do so.

Sakura approached him cautiously, unsure as to why he was being cautious around her. She guessed it was because he knew she was a beast, a novelty, but there was something else that didn't sit right with her. As he looked her over she did the same to him. His skin was wrinkled leather on his bones, hard but strong even in his old age. There were tattooed black lines under his eyes that branched out into points from the corners. Once upon a time they might have made him striking, but now they were nearly undetectable in the mass of wrinkles.

She noticed a few liver spots along his arms and then the black mark of the White Tsar's seal; a curling white yew tree growing up around a spear. It was the oldest seal, though some of the newer generations drew a leaf with a spear through it to keep things more simplistic. The Immortal Yew was sacred to the White Tsar, especially because it was an undying tree in the middle of their white, snow choked world.

"You're a prisoner of war," Sakura breathed, locking eyes with the old man. "You were a part of the White Court."

Sarutobi smiled while Shisui shifted from one foot to the other in the background, twitching. "And they said you wouldn't be bright."

"That was hardly a justification for my intelligence," Sakura said. "You left your sleeves uncovered for that purpose."

"But you bothered to look." He leaned further out, hands on his knees now. "Why?"

Because that is what she did. It was a habit, and it was what kept her alive. It was drilled into her from an early age, 'never walk into a room and not know what you can use from it as a weapon.' Likewise, they also taught her, 'know thy enemy, and all unknown are enemy.' She made observations all the time.

"You're very tan. Is that because you've been here long?" Sakura asked, glancing towards the window. There was a terrace outside where someone might step out to enjoy the sunlight more fully. It was becoming cold in the season, but there was always the summer for such adventures.

He leaned back in his seat, still watching her. "I've been here longer than I care to remember, but my memory isn't what it used to be these days. I don't remember who told me they were dragging in another beast child, but it doesn't look like they took you kicking and screaming, or was I wrong?"

"I was born in Krepost, but I left there to join the military six years ago," Sakura quietly answered, wondering if this would make him more antagonistic towards her. He wasn't fond of the idea of being a prisoner, she could tell, so he probably didn't like most Red citizens.

"Why would you do a thing like that? You look barely old enough to lift a barrel."

Honestly, she had been hungry. That's what attracted her to the boots and muskets. What kept her was all the bloodshed. Ino's ghost kept her there. The weight of sacrifice and countrymen who had been friends kept her there, but it had been nothing more or less than the promise of bread that drove Sakura into their ranks.

"You don't know what Krepost was like," Sakura offered with a dismissive laugh and shrug. "It was just a good choice for me."

"If picking up an empty gun to dance on land mines was a good choice for you I don't think I want to know what a bad choice would be. You still look too young to hold something so dangerous. How old are you?"

Sakura chuckled, shaking her head. "You shouldn't ask a lady her age. I'm old enough to die, what else would anyone care." She coxed her head to one side. "How old are you? You're not as short lived as the others, are you?"

He smiled secretly. "The others?"

"Those who do not have that ancient line of blood flowing back to the first man made gods." She looked him over again and nodded. "You're older than most mortals but you're not like the royal families."

"You can tell all that with a look? What else to you use in your observations, I'm curious." He picked up a pipe from the side table and waved it before striking a match to light it. He started speaking again while puffing smoke out of his mouth around the mouthpiece. "Shisui said you came from a clan of wolves, and Krepost was known back in the day for the Elephant Wolves, the monsters so large they could devour houses."

Sakura nodded. "I remember those stories."

"But they're just stories, eh?" He watched her over the smoke from his pipe's stick."I've always been fascinated with stories, and any city with walls that high surly has some of the best stories around."

Sakura saw the appeal in Sarutobi, and understood why Shisui liked the old man so much. When she had shared her stories with Shisui he had been a child for her, light and mesmerized by her words. Telling a story to Sasuke proved a good decision as well, reinforcing what she already believed: a good story was enough to save the day.

The knowledge made her smile. "How about a deal, then?" she asked, nodding to the fireplace where soft flames licked. "I'll tell you mine if you tell me yours."

Shisui brought them drinks and a throw for Sakura to toss about her legs as she settled into another winged backed chair opposite from Sarutobi. Shisui didn't say anything, and it was apparent he watched to be nothing more than a fly on the wall as the two story tellers settled in for their own type of battle. Sarutobi was old with stories and he had surrounded himself with enough books to last a lifetime, but Sakura's stories came from a secret place.

"I'll tell you of the Lindworm and the woman who saved him from himself with dresses and cow's milk," Sakura said, feeling her voice slip into something deeper.

When it was his turn Sarutobi didn't disappoint, telling a story of a frozen woman and the children that saved her from herself, redeeming her from a curse that transformed her into a tree that would never die, no matter how cold.

Sakura told the story of the girl with silver hands, and Sarutobi countered with the boy who knew too much. They told of old places, of mythic heroes, of bravery in the most unlikely of places, and the weight of conviction. Each had only told a trio of stories when Sakura looked up, noticing their audience. The light was gone from the windows and the day was nearly spent, but Itachi looked ready to slip into a good night's sleep.

"Itachi," Sarutobi greeted, cleaning his pipe before filling it with more of the smoking weed he favored. Sometimes when he blew well enough, Sakura could see the boy who knew too much and the children from the ice queen's story running in the shadows between his smoke clouds. "To what do we owe the honor of such a distinguished prince in our midst. Shisui was already such a dazzling addition I didn't know we would be holding court today." The sarcasm was hard to miss.

"I missed your stories, old man."

"You weren't crying for my stories," Sarutobi snorted, looking over at Sakura and grinning. "Though I have not yet been so moved. I think we are done for today."

"No, one more!" Shisui exclaimed, sitting up from where he had been stretched out on the floor with his snacks and tea.

Itachi sighed. "You were supposed to be working on studies with Sakura, were you not, cousin? Do not neglect her for such selfish ends."

The older cousin rolled his eyes after sharing a look with Sakura. "I doubt one day will be a bother. Madara is still in a dizzy about the foxes and won't notice."

Itachi frowned and Sakura noticed how Sarutobi shifted in his seat, alert. He hadn't known.

"It's time to take Sakura back to her rooms. If you are incapable-"

"I said I would," Shisui said, climbing to his feet with a forced smile. "You can hang out with Sarutobi and talk to him about whatever it is you wanted." He turned to Sakura, offering her his hand and taking her throw with the other. He helped her up and then turned to Sarutobi, nodding in goodbye.

"Sakura." She stopped when she heard Itachi call her name. Looking back she saw he was watching her. "Sasuke has taken your friend to his room for the night so you need no fear any disturbances. I am sure he will wake tomorrow. If you would be so kind, I would appreciate you visiting Sasuke, as he was in a most cantankerous mood when we last spoke."

"That's only because you told him who you were going to visit," Shisui whispered under his breath, rolling his eyes. "Of course he would get pouty, that brat."

"That's the nature of children," Sakura answered with a shrug. She glanced back over her shoulder and saw Itachi was still watching her, even though Sarutobi had gone back to cleaning out his pipe. "I'll make sure to check in on him tomorrow morning if that's alright."

Sakura heard a rustle of papers and smelled something old released into the air. She turned to see Shisui had picked out a pair of old books from a pile on one of the desks and was waving the loose dust free before blowing on the covers. One of the two books smelled old. When he caught her watching he shrugged. "These are for your studies tomorrow." Shisui looked over Sakura's shoulder at his cousin and waved the old tomes. "See, I'm not neglecting the boring stuff." To her he added, "We can come back for different ones later if these aren't any good."

Sakura was curious as to what Shisui had picked up, but he was already turning and heading out, so she kept her question to herself and followed him out. She paused only once, at the top of the stairs leading down to the middle landing, to glance back at the old man in the chair and Itachi. Sarutobi was saying something to Itachi, keeping his voice low as he finished cleaning his pipe, but Itachi was still watching Sakura, even if his body had been turned to face Sarutobi. She descended the stairs and followed Shisui out, but only when the doors closed behind them did she feel the connection sever.

"Are you curious as to what I chose for you?" Shisui asked, waving one of the books. She saw his grin was wide and his cheeks were flushed with pride. She took the book and turned it over in her hands as they walked, eyeing the cover. It was the one that smelled more, but it was also more ornate of a cover.

"This isn't in Mother Tongue," she breathed aloud, recognizing the ancient script. Suddenly the book felt like it would break apart in her hands. No wonder it smelled so old. "I thought these were all destroyed."

"The Uchiha are allowed to hoard whatever they s please. Just because it's a sin to hold one of these in your own library means nothing to our family," Shisui said. "Of course we would hoard the things others were tortured to give up. Not to say I can read any of it. It's all scratch and muck to me, but you might have more luck. It's for you to use as you see fit."

Sakura felt a pain in her chest and held the book close. It wasn't anything important. It was a book on the trade delegations and practical behaviors of merchants, something that was quite popular back when the countries were first starting to open up and speak with each other. It wasn't a story book, nor was it a history book, but it was in her language.

"Thank you," she said out loud, not caring what the other book meant for her or was about.

This one was all she needed.

The next morning she trained bright and early then retreated to a small alcove to read the history book Shisui had given her and told her to memorize. When she had gone to visit Sasuke in the morning she had heard from one of the servants that Naruto had woken up and was out on a walk with Sasuke. She had promised to come back and check in on them when they returned, but she didn't get the chance when she heard their rambunctiousness in the courtyard directly outside her alcove's shade.

In the night a light rain had fallen, leaving the earth just wet enough to make it difficult, but somehow Sasuke and Naruto both found the worst of it to fall into fighting like tom cats. When Sakura came upon them they were both caked in sopping earth clumps and looking ready to murder for different reasons.

"You're such a dead last, rat faced bastard," Naruto struggled, clawing at the mud on his face.

Sasuke seethed off to the side, trying to look away when he felt Sakura's shadow fall over him. "And you are a uncontrolled nightmare in fur."

Naruto stopped clawing at himself when he saw Sakura standing over them. He sniffed at her, experimentally. "Who are you?" he asked, sounding to genuinely mean it. "I've never met you before, but I know you."

"I'm the one you nearly tore apart two nights ago." Sakura grinned, tapping the part of her shoulder that was nearly all healed. It was only pink and ugly looking now. Full mobility came back the next morning, so she had no reason to complain. "I'm also one of the only three beasts here in this keep. My name is Sakura, and you're Naruto."

The boy's bright blue eyes went wide. "Ah, so that's why I recognized your scent. You smell like me."

"She doesn't smell nearly as bad as you," Sasuke snapped, grabbing a handful of mud and chuckling it at Naruto. The blob landed dead center on the blond's face with enough force to nearly sent Naruto backwards.

"Bastard!" Naruto roared, nearly choking on what landed in his mouth.

Sasuke readied another voly but Sakura stepped in and grabbed both boys by their ears, pinching hard. Naruto whimpered like a pup and dropped his fistful right away but Sasuke struggled a bit more before relenting. "That's enough," she intoned, her voice deepening. "Enough is enough, you're both done for now. You can kill each other later when there isn't enough mud to hit the innocent passerby."

"S-sorry," Naruto muttered meekly, holding his hands in front of his face. After a moment and an encouraging shake Sasuke hissed at the nail in his ear and then muttered his own, 'sorry,' so low Naruto wouldn't hear.

"Are you two done or do I need to go on?" Sakura asked, letting both boys go.

"W-we'll be fine," Naruto stuttered, keeping his eyes down. Sasuke just huffed and looked away.


"I don't think I even want to know how the two of you got into such a mess, so I'm going to pretend this didn't happen if you guys can. I was told by Itachi that you were supposed to bring Naruto back after a short walk, but that was hours ago. Did you forget?"

"No, I had every intention of coming back after one lap, but this idiot wanted to just keep running after something stupid like a frog or a snake in the grass and we weren't supposed to go out this far because Kagami isn't here, and-"

"I told you it wasn't a frog, it looked like a snake but it was a peeper!" Naruto growled. "They're magic, that's why you can't see them. They're spies from the Marsh."

Sakura curled her nose. The March was a land no other country wanted to touch, on account of the rank waters and bile smelling pods of earth raised above the shallow wet lands. It was a blight on the map and no one thought it worth fighting over, so naturally the rejects and cast offs drew towards it, populating it with their kind. Sakura heard stories of banned witches and perverted warlocks making the Marsh their home, but didn't give it much credence, since it seemed unlikely anyone worth fearing would live in such a place. Maybe a few caravan witches would make it a place for their kind, but the peepers Naruto was talking about were snake shaped spirits sent by powerful magic users to act as spies, and according to legend they couldn't travel long distances. The Red Keep was protected and leagues from anywhere close to the Marsh.

"Well, it's gone now. Are you two done?"

She offered Sasuke her hand when it looked like he was having trouble standing. He scowled at the gesture and turned his face away, choosing to stand up on his own. Naruto did the same, but kept his eyes down instead of meeting hers. She had the feeling he was intimidated by her, being the older one. He was still trying to claw off the mud on his face though. Both boys were horrid looking, especially Naruto.

"You're a mess," Sakura sighed, trying not to smile at how terrible both boys looked. "You need to get out of those things and wash off. Ugh, strip and get going."

Naruto started to move back towards the walls and after a moment, when it looked like Sasuke wouldn't budge, Sakura followed the blond boy in. The sodden footsteps soon followed and she knew Sasuke was trailing her in. She led Naruto to a wet room on the main level where the soldiers would hose down and left them alone as a pair of mirror servants arrived to help the boys with their clean up. She caught a flash of skin and heard Sasuke protest loudly. Naruto laughed and Sakura heard the word prude before she cut out, leaving the two boys to what little privacy they took.

She picked up her book from where she had left it and went to sit back down in her alcove, but decided against it. She still needed to read, but she wanted to do the rest in her room, or maybe somewhere new. She turned and headed back up the stairs.

She met Itachi on the stairs, and when she stopped suddenly, she knew it wasn't a coincidence. He was there like the shadow was suddenly there. He appeared like Madara had, silently and fully.

"Itachi," she greeted, grabbing the ends of her jacket and straightening it. "You appeared quite suddenly."

"I heard my foolish little brother was in another fight with the fox brat. Were you there?"

Sakura couldn't help herself, she had to grin. "Yes and no. I didn't see how it happened, but I found them throwing mud pies at each other. I think they were having fun, to be honest. They're downstairs in the solider's shower if you wanted to see them."

He noticed the book in her hand and nodded to it. "Where are you going?"

She drew the text closer to her chest, crossing her arms over it as she held it close. "To find somewhere to read. Shisui said he would quiz me, and I haven't finished reading through it the first time. I wanted to do that before mid day, but I guess that didn't happen."

"The Military Campaigns Against the Black Isles is hardly light reading, and not the best use of your time, unless Shisui knows something I do not."

"That's how I feel about everything," Sakura sighed, closing her eyes and trying to think back to a time when she knew what was waiting for her in the took that from her, but at least there routine there.

Itachi hummed, holding out an empty hand and Sakura filled it with her book after a pause for hesitation. He flipped ope to the page she had dog eared and pulled a black feather from inside his cloak to set between the pages as a bookmark. He handed it back to her, wordlessly. Then he was gone.

Sakura wandered upstairs, letting her nose lead her where it wanted. She found nooks and alcoves and plenty of shaded and sunny places good for reading, but her legs didn't like being useless for so long, so she took to walking with the book open in front of her. That lead to her ending up in places and having no idea how she got there. It was easy enough to find her way back now with the aid of her senses, but that din't stop the thrill of fear from forming when she looked up and saw nothing she recognized. She had been in the Red Keep a guest for over two weeks now and still there were whole wings she had yet to explore. It would take years before she felt comfortable with her surroundings.

Sakura turned on her heel, meaning to walk away and head back the way she had come, but the hell cat was there, standing in the middle of the hall, dressed in all black with heavily painted eyes and wraith blond hair cascading down her back in twin tails. "Yuu," Sakura breathed, trying out the name for the first time. This girl was a beast like her, raised by the hellcats.

"You shouldn't be here. How did you ever stumble so deep into the spider's lair?" she asked, her eyes half lidded as darkness seemed to gather between her lashes.

Sakura was momentarily stunned by how attracted the woman was in so simple a manner. She wore no jewels, she was dressed in nothing but simple black, and the only flesh exposed with the skin of her face. Everything else was covered. Still, she was enchanting.


The girl tilted her head in Sakura's direction. "Sakura, yes?"

"What are you doing here?" Sakura asked, feeling her voice in her throat.

"Foolish question, girl. This is where I'm boarded."

Sakura shook her head, finding it hard to keep her lips from going dry and cracking. "No. What are you doing here?" Sakura stressed.

Yuu narrowed her eyes before the recognition made them wide again. "Ah," she hummed. "Poor little lamb is lost and unused, is she?" Yuu murmured. Her voice was something serious and subtle all at once; a knife wrapped in velvet. If Sakura had been a man she would have been on her knees before this woman. She could only imagine what the Man Obito had her doing.

"I want to know."

"But what else do you want. Not even the King can tell you that, and trust me, he wants to know." Yuu took two smooth, measured steps and stopped in front of Sakura. "Do you remember what it was like to want something?"

"Why would I want something?" Sakura turned her face to the side, but didn't retreat. Her feet stayed planted where they were. She was being stalked by a jungle cat, she wouldn't run.

Yuu seemed to enjoy where Sakura stood, since she started to circle the younger girl. "Who doesn't want something. To want is to be alive. You want an end to this war, you want revenge, you want to go home, you want a man in your bed? All of these things could be you, but they aren't. What is it you want?"

Sakura watched as Yuu crossed in front of her, and through the strands of her blond hair Sakura saw Ino, just for a moment, and then the ghost was gone. What did she want? When she ran from Krepost that was all she wanted, just to run. When she took the uniform all she wanted was food. Now that she was where both were accessible, a new hole had opened up in her heart.

Yuu circled again and this time Ino was all the more clear as the beast girl passed. Her eyes were as wide and blue as the underbelly of an August sky.

"I don't think…" Sakura began, closing her eyes to the image. "It would be wise of me to tell you what it is I want. To know an enemy is to love him."

It was something the soldiers used to say. When you knew what a person treasured, it was that much easier to take it from him, though some said it used to mean it was that much harder to take it from him. Regardless of original intent, Sakura knew it wasn't wise of her to give up her motivations to this woman without equal compensation.

"What about you, Yuu." The blond stopped circling. "What do you want?"

A minute passed before anyone breathed. Then the girl cracked a smile and was turning, walking off with a wave over her shoulder. "We'll meet again, little lamb."

Sakura watched her go and knew she would have to do better next time. She knew nothing about the hell cat, and that put her at a disadvantage. The weren't supposed to be enemies, but Sakura felt like a toy being played with when she spoke to Yuu. They weren't supposed to be enemies, but the certainly weren't friends. Even in the Red King's home, his allies have allies of their own.

'And when there are allies, there are enemies,' Ino whispered into the cold air, sounding louder and more solid than ever. It was what happened when women threaten Sakura.

She needed to get back to her part of the Keep, the part where she could safely walk in and out. She had a feeling Yuu meant something more literal than metaphorical when she called this wing the 'Spider's Lair.' Obito seemed like the type to spin webs and suck blood, and she had only seen him once in passing. She didn't doubt her gut on such matters.

Inhaling, Sakura turned around and sprinted back the way she came, not bothering to take her time inside her book. When she passed the walls with windows she saw the sky sink low with clouds and sag with unspilled rain. It would storm that night.

Outside the storm was rolling in and there was nothing anyone could do to make the sound of it less of a horror to hear.

The thunder made her hairs stand on end as the lightning showed off the silhouette of the Red King in her bedroom, standing at the foot of her bed. She swallowed the blood in her mouth, letting it roll down the back of her throat as she willed her teeth to stay small. She didn't want to file them down again.

"You're finally back," she said, keeping her body taunt. More than any other Uchiha, he was the one she feared. Even more than Obito, though she suspected Obito would not deal so favorably with her. "Did I prove myself to you?"

The Red King chuckled, and the sound echoed from behind his bone mask. It was different tonight, but only slightly. The horns curved in a different style and the shape of the skull was wider-less narrow. He seemed a bit more relaxed in front of her, and his wings were absent, replaced by a long black cloak inlaid with feathers.

"I think I shall count myself fortunate, because not even my dear cousin could have predicted how these things could have turned out so well in that brat's favor." He stalked a step closer and Sakura had to steel herself not to shrink in fear of him. He drew his face in close to hers and she could see the red through the eye sockets, burning like the glowing mouths of ancient volcanoes. "Shisui was right to listen to the ramblings of that wild boy half drowned from the river."

Sakura pretended she wasn't confused. He was talking in riddles on purpose. "I don't see any reason you should be so elated. What is it you want?"

Madara leaned back, turning his head slightly to one side. "I wonder how best I can use you now. Of all the pretty pieces on the board, you might just be my favorite pawn."

Sakura bristled and felt more blood in her mouth. "You call me a pawn?" she asked, thinking of how he saw Naruto and even Yuu. "Is that what we are?" Outside the rain fell harder.

He waved off her comment with a chuckle. "Aren't we all? There are things not even she can do for me. Will you be the one to win me over through these quests, little wolf?"

"I don't know if I feel like cooperating with you," Sakura said, being as honest as she dared.

She didn't know how she felt around him, she didn't even know how she felt about the idea of him. Was he her king to whom she would die and fight for like all the other red soldiers in the army, or was he just a man she could tear to shreds for daring to talk down to her in such a way? She was a beast, a thing of power and fitness, but she was also a solider, and she was also a girl.

"You won't even listen to what I ask of you?" he asked, his voice still sounding like it could cut her open.

She turned her head to the slight, lifting her ear as if to better hear what it was he wanted to say. "What do you need from me?"

He brandished his hands, and there, nestled between his palms was an ivory spike decorated in the loose, flowing cursive of an old language, written with black burn script. His hands were larger than hers, and the spike spilled over on both sides at an impressive length. She felt his eyes on her and looked up to see him watching her expression. Behind his mask it was impossible to read his mood, but she could guess.

"Impressive, is it not?"

"That's not Mother Tongue." She didn't know what language the script was in, but she knew she didn't recognize it.

Madara pressed the bone spike into her hands and she felt the weight of it like something sacred. Her hands grew warm around it. "No, it isn' spike is the last part in a lock deep below your feet. It was removed when Menma escaped, but I need you to put it back."

"I need to do it?" She asked, raising a single brow. "Why me?"

Sakura pressed the spike to her heart and felt the heat of it better. It was imbued with magic, and she was protected against it. Magic would never hurt her, so it made sense for Madara to ask her to handle it instead of someone else who might be swayed or jeopardized, but Yuu was older and had been a part of his army for longer. This sounded like a job meant for her.

"Because I asked you to. Others are more or less capable, but I'm asking you, not them."

It wasn't lost on her how he phrased his words so he was asking and not demanding. He didn't need to demand. He was a king, and the desire of a king was just as good as law. The way he asked her too, his voice soft and teasing with just an undertone of sinister to shadow his words, convinced her he knew what sort of power he held over her.

"What if I say no?"

If she could see his lips she had no doubt they would be curved into some sort of wicked smile. "Then the night will be infinitely more boring and you'll never get to see what this goes to or what hides below your feet."

And then he was gone and Sakura wanted to scream because she knew he was right. She tried to convince herself otherwise, she set the spike down beside her bed on the nightstand and turned back into her covers, but her heart was a hammer inside her chest. She screwed her eyes shut and whispered that she needed sleep, that there was nothing for her to worry about, but her brain began to burn from all the thoughts running wild behind her eyes. It was impossible to shut down the thoughts.

With a growl she rose, dressed for the dar, and tucked the spike into a pocket of her jacket. Not knowing what else he could possible mean than 'under your feet,' Sakura headed for the lowest point of the castle, the dungeons where Naruto had been locked up once. It was a short walk, but it felt like no time at all before she was pushing aside the door to the staircase leading down. The walls smelled like moisture and ancient stone and she remembered what the Keep was made out of.

Sakura reached the end of the stairs and sighed, not seeing much in terms of other opportunities to descend further. It was dark and with the storm, there wasn't even moonlight to see by. If she had been born fully human, she would be blind in the dungeon. Her foot hit something and she looked down to a wide dish with water in it. The rain outside gave her idea and she reached for the dish, tipping it over purposefully.

It spilled and streamed to the lowest point of the floor, and Sakura could smell the water run to where the room had been designed with a drain. She stumbled in the dark, and ran into things left on the floor, but she was able to feel her way along the trail of water to the lowest point which was a drain in the middle of the floor. As far as she could see, there was no other door or staircase within sight of the drain.

"That was a stupid idea," she huffed, sitting back on her heels, feeling inside her coat for the spike.

It was still warm and when her fingers touched it, the bone began to glow. It wasn't enough to see by, but it was enough for her eyes to reflect and see better with.

The drain underneath her groaned and she crouched down again, feeling her way across the floor until she felt a change in the texture of stone. Different quarries were used to lay the foundation at this part, that or here was something special up ahead, just beyond her fingers. Her nails caught onto something and she felt the floor groan again.

There was light, soft and green tinted from the moss it lived in, lining the walls all the way down the newly opened floor. She could hear rainwater draining down below and guessed that was what was feeding the moss. She had heard about this before, how there were bioluminescent plants that would glow when being fed or watered, so a passage like this would only be aglow during a rainstorm.

There were stairs, older and more rough than the rest of the keep, but she followed them down further and further as they curved and twisted even deeper into the earth, hitting natural pockets of empty earth with stalactites reaching for stalagmites to connect with. She felt the spike in her jacket grow warmer and knew she was heading in the right direction.

Sakura lost count of all the minuets she spent on those stairs, knowing it wouldn't take as long if she could see better. After what felt like forever the stairs were a landing and stretched out in front of her was a room lined on three out of four sides with crypts built into the walls. The moss grew anywhere and everywhere there was water.

Sakura grabbed a patch off the wall and held it in her hands, deciding it would last long enough to help her do what she needed to do. The fourth wall wasn't a wall at all, but a dark arch leading deeper into the crypt. And while the stairs seemed to have lasted forever, walking along the walls lined with bodes was just as exhausting and monotonous. It was long and dark and quiet enough for her thoughts to start to wander in the worst possible ways.

There were stories about tombs like these from long ago, before the churches were killed, back when people remembered how to burry their dead. And then there were stories from before then, the first stories told before writing was something men could grasp. Those stories survived as superstitions but Sakura remembered them, how kings were buried with their knights so that in death their warriors would rise up to defend their king from looters with the aid of the Holy Ghost. There was even a legend her people whispered about the Sleeping Knights who lived under the mountain of the Koscieliska Valley. It was one of the stories she had shared and it made her wonder if Madara knew when asked her to come down so far and find the crypts.

Sakura hadn't seen what she guessed was a king buried, but there were plenty of well dressed bodies and plenty more men and women buried with their axes crossed over their chests. She stopped to look at one and saw the swirl writing along the handle. The wood was nearly rotted away, but the blade was still sharp somehow.

Sakura kept walking until she thought she would walk straight out of her country and into the sea. Then, out of the darkness there was a difference. Ahead of her was a low arch with stained stones. She held up the moss and was able to see that the stains were writing, but time had worn them away and even if she could read them, they weren't in a language she could read. It might have been the same language as the one found on the spike.

"Better or worse," she sighed out loud to herself, passing under the arch and holding her breath.

There was nothing for a while, not even moss, and then her eyes caught sight of the door made out of polished amber and veins of gold with bone detail. There was an ungodly amount of detail hidden in the door, she noticed as she drew closer. She thought at first the surface was impure resulting in unevenness, but that wasn't the case at all, or if it was she couldn't tell. The door was covered in scrawling scrip and intricate designs so fine it would have to have been made with a needle's edge. She touched a piece and ran her hands over the carriage that was drawn by reindeer chasing the chariot pulled by wild cats with long fur coats and wide eyes. Neither animal had been seen in that variety for hundreds of years. Reighndeer were smaller now, and the wold cats were thought to be excitant.

Her eyes instantly found the crack in the door and took it in, watching the line run up far above her head to a place she couldn't see. Like a jacket, there were claps that folded from one side of the door to the other, each locked with a long bone spike detailed in black cursive. There was only one missing.

"Madara said Menma took this on his way out, but why would he only take the one?" she asked out loud, drawing closer to where the spike needed to be set. "And why would he take it at all. What's there to hold back with such a door?"

The script had to be magical, she decided, and the arch probably acted as some sort of barrier. Her brain buzzed with the suspicion. It was too likely that Madara and his family could not pass under the arch because they, while magical users, were not immune to magic like she, Naruto, Yuu, and Menma were.

Sakura stopped and held the spike closer to her face, knowing there was no doubt it wasn't magic and it made her feel odd. Magic always made her feel odd, it had a way of disagreeing with her condition. It made her queasy and upset whenever she felt it and the things she ate that were laced with magic made her want to vomit. Sometimes that was a good thing, sometimes it wasn't. Soldiers would buy cloth enchanted to taste like food when they knew they were starving, but for her there was no easy way out.

Sakura approached the door and reached out to touch the clasp she would need to fold back in order to thread the spike through. Her fingers touched the brass and the door shook at the touch. Voices rushed out like an old wind hissing, 'help us, release us, rescue us!'

Sakura nearly staggered, but held her ground, gritting against the frenzied pitch. She doubted if she were anyone else, anyone human, she would have been powerless to the thrall. But because she was a beast all she felt was annoyance.

'No, they trapped us in here, trapped us with him. We will not stir until the earth is unmade, until the Old Man wake.'

Sakura heard the capitals in front of the words. Old Man.

She reached out to touch the door again, ignoring their whispers as she pulled the clasp back, swinging it around and positioning the spike's tip at the top of the clasp, preparing to thread it through.

A new voice broke through the others. 'Show her!'

The surface of the door turned translucent, and for a moment Sakura had thought it had disappeared altogether, but it was still there, just…invisible. Beyond the door there was a great canyon, or a canyon of some sort, she only assumed it had to be great because it was filled with something. Nestled in the crack of earth was a man, naked and slumbering with a face full of beard and hair as white as snow. Sakura's eyes widened at the sight, and it was because of his size more than anything. The Old Man was a giant. One of the ancient ones with an eyelash longer than her body.

No wonder Madara didn't dare stir here.

'Free us,' the voices whined again. 'We suffer here for eternity, until the world is to be remade.'

"You, who are you?" Sakura asked, already guessing.

From her stories she knew which ones would make sense. There was more than one about the ancient giants that slumbered under the earth, one for each major direction on the map. The Old Man was one of four that would wake, rise, and turn the world upside down at the end of days.

'We are-' and then the voices became a violence of sound, each one clamoring over the other with a name to scream. Each one an echo of the other, all saying the same thing with different words. They were the damed immortals. The gods who perished in the most ancient wars, loosing their bodies, but not their tethers to this world.

She heard their voices break with pleading, some with threats, others with accusations against her character. All wanted the same thing; release. But release would not give them peace. They were confined for a reason, this was their hell, the payment for their immortality. They were the first to touch what the First God warned them to never touch.

Sakura slammed the clasp over with a loud bang and speared the spike through the latch, igniting the harshest of their tormented screams. As the pike slid into place a muffle went over their voices. She could still hear them, but it was as if they had been drowned in water.


That hadn't been one of the voices. Sakura turned on her heel, body bend, hand a ghost over her boot where the knife hid. She lessened once she saw who it was calling out to her. Shisui looked pale with dark circles under his eyes and a crown of sweat circling his brow. He stood on the other side of the arch, wringing his hands.

"What are you doing here?" Sakura hissed, jogging to his side. "You shouldn't be here, it's dangerous!"

"You too, I had to see you. I heard that he-that he made you come down here. I wanted to warn you about what you would find. There's no way he would have told you."

"I was fine," Sakura said, reaching his side and pushing him back, farther away from the arch. He resisted almost and she frowned, grabbing his arm and dragging him forcefully. The more steps they took the easier it got for him to walk on his own. The tension drained out of him and she felt him deflate. What had the magic done to his body to make him so tense?

"You're still just you. Immune or not, you've lived with humans for half a decade," he said, making her think of how the Uchiha were able to preform minor magic on her. The less she saw herself as a beast the stronger a foothold had on her life, which was one of the reasons they bathed her in milk nearly every morning. It was to wash away what she had become, to bring out her true nature. Shisui's voice caught. "You could have-"

"I wouldn't. Not even at my most human would I have been tempted to let those things loose on the world."

"They would have consumed you, lived in your body."

"I don't think they could have," Sakura answered with a frown, thinking back to the stories. There were none of animals or beasts ever being possessed. Like magic, they were immune to it. "That's the reason he sent me down here, and it's why Naruto's twin came down here in the first place, I bet. He knew this was something that would screw you all over without harming his twin."

Shisui sagged against her, stealing the support from her shoulders as the two walked back past the dead filled crypts. He was beginning to regain color, and didn't look as sick. "He could have asked the Hell Cat to do it for him. She's done plenty of dirty things for Obito."

"Maybe she was busy," Sakura said, even though she knew that wasn't the case. She suspected it had been a test for her. That Madara wanted to see what she could do and would she would choose to do. Even now, she felt like everything she had done had been seen by him.

A favorite pawn.

"He's trying to break you," Shisui grumbled. "He didn't even tell me he had gone to see you, he didn't even ask if he could."

"He's the king."

"But you're mine. He had to ask Obito to use Yuu, and he talks to Kagami enough about the twins that I know there is open communication there, but he never came to me, he never asked me, he never even let me know that he had gone to visit you. He doesn't-" His voice caught and Sakura remembered all the useless medals on his breast coat. "I've never seen his face before. I've never even been in the same room with him."

Sakura couldn't hide her expression, even in the dark, he caught the way her brows rose by the light of the moss. "You're his family, though, and you've both been alive so long. What about-?"

"No." Shisui's voice cut and it was grated in the darkness. She almost had to stop when she felt how harsh he had suddenly become. What had once been his worry for her had turned into something more personal, and she wondered if he would have been this honest with her if he hadn't been feeling so weak. "We're not really family. I was born with their red eyes and my cousins call me cousins, but I was never truly one of them and no matter what I do or what I accomplish in their name, it will never be enough to change what is." She felt more of him drop against her.

"Shisui?" She jostled him and he breathed into her neck a little,but didn't respond. Sakura had to stop when he would move and called out to him again, but all she heard in reply was his breath on her neck. His skin was still cold, and while better than what it had been, it still felt like the underbelly of a fish when she touched his face. He was exhausted, there was no other reason he would have been so open about his melancholy with her.

She shifted him onto her shoulder and lifted him up, carrying him the same way she carried the intact bodies of her beloved dead off the battlefield.

"What do you know about the one who sleeps below the Red Keep?" Sakura asked, falling into the armchair opposite of the one Satarobi sat in.

"You certainly great like one of those beasts. No ceremony or pleasantries about you, are there?"

"You're complaining?" Sakura asked with a raised eyebrow.

The old man shook his head, coughing deeply before speaking. "The devil finally made someone go down there, then. It's been a problem since Menma left."

"That was two days ago."

"A lot can happen in two days," he answered, filling his pipe with dried weeds. Sakura didn't recognize what he smoked and found herself staring.

It was late in the day, and the windows were dim from the low hanging clouds the shade of troubled gray. A fire was roaring in the fireplace, larger and louder than the one previously witnessed. He looked ready to retire into a warm blanket and sleep. It made her want to do the same, but she knew better than to leave herself so vulnerable anywhere aside from a room with a locking door.

Last night when she had brought Shisui back, she had deposited the boy in his own bed, slept in her own for a few hours before rising again. She was supposed to go for a run before the fields were overcrowded, so she dressed for endurance, intending to come back to shower and bath.

Later on Naruto had been called out to one of the yards, and from where Sakura practiced she could see Yuu working in the same yard with Obito watching her every move. Sasuke was with Naruto, but not far away Kagami stood watching over them. Both beasts were with their handlers, but Sakra's was nowhere to be seen, so she trained on her own until the two teams departed to do dissimilar things.

With most of the day over, and her body sore from all the work, Sakura found her feet carrying here back to where the stories were. She hadn't seen Shisuis all day, but she went to visit Sarutobi on her own.

"How long have you known about what sleeps beneath this keep?" Sakura asked again, hands lazily tracing the edges of her armchair. She was watching the old man smoke his pipe, and what drifted from his mouth was enough to lull her. His smoke was near hypnotic.

"Why would I know such a thing? I am not an Uchiha. I am a prisoner here, you should ask someone with the privilege to come and go as they please." His smoke breath was a snake curling upwards, hood flaring, teeth bleeding with venom.

"I'm asking you because you're not so stupid as to not know about such a thing." She leaned forward in her seat, folding her hands around her knee. "Just because they locked you up and confined you to this library in house arrest doesn't mean you don't know stuff."

"Yet, why would I share what I know with you?"

"Because you want to share your stories as much as I do, old man."

She never hesitated and he noticed. Nodding once in her direction he turned his gaze back to the fire. It was hot ad burning high in the fireplace. He must have just stoked it.

"You know why are stories are different, don't you, even though we tell tales about the same sun and moon and rivers and seasons and people."

Sakura felt her lips pull in a smile and pretended to flutter her eye lashes in exaggeration. When she spoke her voice was sugary. "Isn't it because my people got it right and the rest of you are wrong?" She dropped the sickly sweet tone and continued on normally. "Don't tell me you, having collected all the stories you have, and knowing all that you know, believe that your people are the correct ones."

He sighed and it was something that made his whole body sag. She could tell he wasn't going to argue with her tonight. He was too tired for the verbal banter she was ready for. "Take your stories, all of them, the ones from my people, your people, the red king's people, the nomads, the citizens of the black isles, what do they all have in common? I crave the answer to this, and that is why I want your stories. They add another known factor to the equation of unending variables."

"So, the ones who sleep beneath the Red Keep. Who do you think they are?"

His eyes twinkled. "You first."

So Sakura told him the story of her people, where the One Who Has No Beginning spoke to men and warned them against their foolish desires for immortality and godhood. Yet man, in their folly, dug up the ancient tree and ate of her fruits. Sakura spoke of how they ruled and how they grew into cruel things lacking in humanity as their powers grew. Eventually war tore them asunder and their bodies were lost in the black fire and storm light, yet they could not die. Their spirits were harvested into places of confinement by adventurers to wait out the end of days for when they will truly perish.

Sarutobi listened intently, digesting every word as the smoke from his pipe curled upwards, drifting lazily along to the lull of her voice. Outside, the world turned dark.

When she finished her story it was his turn to set aside his pipe and unravel his story of the first tree and the forbidden fruit. A mother, wishing to end war among her people, took the immortal fruit and became the first god of men. She brought in a time of peace, and all her decedents were blessed with her power. But then the powers in her did as all power does, and she descended into darkness. Cruel and evil, it was her firstborn son and his sons who rose up in power to erase her from the world. She called up the darkness to fight for her, but they were defeated as well. Darkness comes at a price, and when it came to seek its debt, the damed souls carried her down into the chasm where she sleeps, waiting to ravage the earth with storm fire.

"Of course it's a woman that's to blame," Sakura cut in before the story could grow cold in her mind. The old man sighed and Sakura sat up straighter. "I've noticed that a bit with your fables. Why is it always the woman who is the supreme evil or the helpless maiden? That model does not accurately reflect the world we live in. Women are soldiers, and no more or less corruptible than men."

"You sound like a woman I once knew. She was my student, and as you said, she was no less or more corruptible than men." Sakura leaned in and Saratobi chuckled at the gleam in her eyes. She knew there was more that he wasn't saying. "I took on three students in my life. Two were faithful to my teachings, the third…well, he fell to the darkness."

"Were you close?"

He scoffed. "Is there a teacher who isn't close to his students?" His pipe was out, so he had to refill it once more, locking Sakura to her seat while she waited for the rest of what he wanted to say. He eyed her over the end of his pipe and shook his head. "Looking back, I see so many similarities between him and these Uchiha. I should have known."

"You believe the Uchiha are evil. You looked friendly with Itachi last time we were here, and Shisui thinks highly of you."

"The Uchiha are the descendants of the men possessed by darkness. They are devils, or the offspring of such. That is why they nest atop the abyss." He left a pause between his words for emphasis and Sakura felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand firm, like tiny toy soldiers. "We are what we are and we are what we choose to be."

"What does that mean for me?"

"What do you think you are?"

The questioned sounded too much like one she had heard before. Behind her, the logs broke in the fire and embers scattered into the air before fizzling out and settling back among the ash piles. What was once a blazing set was now a modest fire, sucking the last dregs of life from infant wood.

"If that's too personal of a question, then tell me why you made the choices you did. You could have gone anywhere, why did you flee to the Red Kingdom, and why would you enter this gods forsaken war? My people would have worshiped you."

"That's not what I wanted," Sakura said, staring down at her hands as they folded over her knees. She shook her head and fought to keep her voice even again. "I just wanted something to eat. And when I left I didn't know for better or worse what one side meant, I only knew they were offering food to those who enlisted."

She looked up and flinched when she saw the pity in his eyes. That hadn't been what she wanted to see. "But you did learn, so why did you stay?"

The fire flickered, falling down and turning the room dark and cold. Only a few stray embers stayed lit, but they were nothing worth seeing by. Sakura breathed out and her breath was a cloud in front of her face, even though the room shouldn't have been that cold that soon. She felt ice crystals crow around the armrests of her chair. Her scalp tingled, like someone was there playing with it.

"I stayed because that was what the dead would have wanted. I loved those girls, and they died in the first few minutes of a day no more or less special than the others. And it will never be fair, no matter how many justifications come forward; it will never be fair how all those children died, gunned down, blown up, torn apart…"

When Sakura looked up she saw Ino standing between her at Sarutobi, translucent and blue and sadly smiling. Sakura stared through her dead friend's stomach to the old man sitting across from her. He was blind to what Sakura could never un-see.

Sakura pulled herself away when she saw the time and traveled down to the pits where she could train. Even if there was nothing she wanted to learn or refine, she knew she was in danger of becoming complacent. The beds were too soft and the baths too warm for someone like her. Six years of trenches, dirt, and threadbare tents helped her learn endurance and perseverance.

So when Sakura trained, she didn't stop when she felt her limit. She lowered herself into the pain and washed in it as her legs burned from the strain. Her arms were just as bad after the lifts. Sakura readied herself to switch off, and with a sharp exhale of breath she tossed the metal training sword that was nothing more than an ornate weight from one hand to the other. She held it out, extended as far as she could make it go, and held it there. One arm extended, she lowered her body once, rose, and then repeated the process.

It wasn't long before she felt the eyes on her again.

She didn't turn her head, but glanced out of the corner of her eye at the shadows under the arches to her right. The blond girl with the low hanging pigtails stood there, observing her. Sakura remembered the others calling her by her nickname, and wondered if Yuu preferred her actual name or their title: Hell Cat.

Sakura felt her wrist start to quiver. The part of her arm closest to her should spasmed as well. She wanted to release her hold on the weight, but swore herself back into submission and inhaled once more. She would hold it until she really did pass out.

Yugito Nii was still watching her.

With a cry, Sakura pivoted and slammed the sword down into the earth behind her, cracking apart the packed clay beneath her. Veins ran out like wild spider legs from where she cracked open the earth. She felt a flash of a memory and wondered what she had done in Krepost that made her think of upheaved roads and crumbling stone homes.

"Yes?" Sakura asked, keeping her eyes fixed down on the hilt of her sword. She didn't turn her face back, but swiveled her eyes again.

Yuu hadn't moved, and was still watching her with the same clear eyes that seemed to eat everything. The Red King's pretty little Assassin, the Hell Cat, Yugito Nii. Sakura didn't know what to make of the girl who was actually a fellow beast. It was hard for Sakura to picture it. Yugito Nii was too perfectly polished to be something so unbridled, no doubt thanks to Obito's efforts.

"Your form is rough."

Sakura blinked, surprised. Yugito was right in front of her and Sakura hadn't even see her move. No wonder she was such a good assassin.

"I was never taught a specific style," Sakura admitted, knowing her moves were crude, standard grade defense training in the army. Most of what she learned came about from practice and practical application.

Yuu reached forward and Sakura willed herself not to flinch as the blond beast took Sakura's wrists and held them up. Yuu turned them slightly and then moved on to her arm, positioning it with expert care. Finally, she touched Sakura's hips with a ghost's presence, causing Sakura to doubt they even shared contact. Yuu turned Sakura slightly and poked her where she needed to stand in more.

"Follow me," Yugito said in a quiet voice as she used her hands on Sakura's arms to lead the girl through the motions of a more fluid fighting style that wasn't unfamiliar to Sakura of her army days. It was like the smooth version of her own rough moves.

When Sakura made a mistake or fell out of line, Yugito easily guided her back into place.

"Why are you helping me?" Sakura asked, knowing this wasn't the first time the blond had watched her from the shadows, though it was the first time Yuu had come out to touch and talk.

"Is there someone who says two girls can't be friends?"

"We wear clothes, and speak, and create civilizations, and believe we are more than wolves. But inside us there is a word we cannot pronounce and that is who we are."
-Anthony Marra, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

That night she retired on her own. In the morning she bathed, dressed, and ran around the keep until she couldn't run anymore. She went to the fields and they showed the same scene as yesterday; Still no sign of Shisui.

When she went to bed at night she felt ready to sleep, but never got deep into anything before the feeling of being watched stabbed her in the back and jerked her awake. She was taunt and alert once again, already knowing who it would be in the middle of her room.

"You came again."

"Did you think I would stay away when you do such stunning work?"

His mask was different yet again. Gone were the bird aspects, this time it was a wide set ram's head with spiraling horns looking ready to gorge men and beast alike. No less or more of his face could be seen, and the twin red jewels staring back at her from the eye sockets were just as unnerving. At least this time his heavy cloak was gone in favor of something short draped over only one shoulder and tied in place by a golden cord, disappearing under the opposite arm. He looked more human this time.

"What do you want from me?"

"Walk with me."

Surprised, Sakura flinched, but jumped from the mattress quickly enough when he began to walk away. She grabbed her boots and stuffed in her feat, socks uneven and wrinkled. Her sleeping clothes would be too much to change, but she wasn't ashamed of the shape of her body through the thin martial. She began to follow him into the hallway when he stopped her.

"Not like that." He looked down and she flushed when she realized where his eyes rested. With a dark chuckle he returned his gaze to her face. "I will wait. Ready yourself for an adventure," he purred before shutting the door between them and laughing on the other side.

She kicked off her boots, dropping her paths and shirt into a mess on the floor. When she opened the wardrobe the dark costume was there, just like the one Yuu wore. She didn't pause to think about it twice, but slipped into the subtle fabric that hug her like a second skin. Of course it was perfect for working in the shadows. This was garb for an assassin.

She reached back and pulled her braid out of her shirt, noticing that the stands colored rose gold were beginning to multiply, especially on the bottom layers. She was regressing, but that's what the Red King wanted, apparently.

Sakura reached for the door and shut it behind her, spotting the man of her thoughts standing a handful of paces away. He looked up at the sound of the door closing, but she couldn't see his expressions because of his bone mask. It made her uneasy.

"Ready?" she asked, trying not to sound like a child grumbling, but her words came out sounding like something Sasuke would say. She hated not seeing what he was feeling on his face. Even if he was as expressionless as Itachi, there would have at least been something for her to look at a judge by. It wasn't fair.

"Come with me," Madara said simply before striding off into the darkness like it was something to see by.

Sakura followed close behind, finding her steps just as muffled as his in the quiet of the hallway. They turned down a corner and Sakura recognized the wing they were visiting. Sasuke and Itachi had rooms down this hallway. These were personal quarters and privet studies. He stopped in front of one and turned on his heel, allowing her to draw up short. She inhaled, already knowing who was on the other side of the door. She wanted to ask why they were where they were, but kept her lips pressed together, unwilling to make herself look like a fool when all she had to do was wait. The answer would reveal itself soon.

Before Madara could even knock the door opened on silent hinges and Itachi looked out. "Uncle," he addressed in a cordial tone, not sounding surprised at all. "Please come in."

Then his eyes turned to see Sakura and she could see them widen, but only just slightly, in the dark. He composed himself quickly enough and stepped aside to allow her to enter as well. She bobbed her head in thanks and followed Madara inside, listening as Itachi closed the door behind them.

"I have a job for you, nephew. I had planned on entrusting this endeavor to pup without aid, but I find myself unwilling to risk so precious a piece. You will be the accompaniment to Sakura on this errand of mine."

"I see." Itachi hadn't so much as blinked upon hearing Madara's words, and Sakura wondered if he was used to such requests. He hadn't even asked why or what the request was. It had to make him curious, though. Sakura was near frantic with the need to ask. She hated waiting in moments of tension and despised pleasantries.

Madara chuckled, gliding into the room and finding a chair to fall into light a feather. "There is a mine, not far from here, and below that mine there is a crypt where an old king sleeps in his bones. I want you to retrieve the dagger he was buried with. Itachi, you won't be able to pass under the arches, but that does not render you useless. The unremembered will be your problem."

Sakura wrinkled her nose. She didn't want to believe in the 'unremembered' legends. Warriors who were buried without proper funeral rites or remembrance rites never rested, becoming monsters of bone that tear apart the living on sight. It was said that old kings would bury men like these on purpose in their tombs so that their wealth would be protected in death.

"I know of which mine you speak," Itachi said in an equally measured voice. "When would you like us to depart?"

Madara waved at the wall and one of the maps hanging there curled up, revealing an older, messier map underneath. Madara pulled a pin from his jacket and snapped his wrist, throwing it onto the map that showed a modest mountain range. Underneath the hum drawings was the word Steczkowska. A jewel at the end of the pin gleamed a wicked shade of red. When Sakura looked back to Madara she saw the same shade of red gleaming from within the pits of his eye sockets. "Immediately." His voice was a purr of velvet on skin. "I've already had two horses prepared. Dress yourself for travel."

A moment later the place where he had been sitting was empty, leaving only raven feathers behind. In the span of time between the flicker of flame in Itachi's hearth, The Red King had departed.

Sakura swallowed and turned to face Itachi, noticing he hadn't moved since she entered the room. "You know where we are to go?" she asked.

He blinked, noticing her again and moving. He crossed the distance to the map on his wall and removed the pin, rolling it around in his hand before dropping in onto the dresser. "I do. It was once a mine owned by the nomad's dead empire before their diaspora. It hasn't been taken advantage of since then, laying empty for centuries."

"You've been there before?" Sakura guessed.

Itachi nodded. "Once, and that was enough." He looked down at the pin and pushed it under some papers before letting his hands return to his sides. "I will be out shortly. If you would like, please meet me at the stables. I won't be long."

Itachi hadn't changed for bed, but Sakura suspected that instead of his standard uniform, he would adapt the black set of clothes she had seen him in when he came to retrieve her the day she rode out with Sasuke. It would make sense, since that was what was left for her to dress in.

Promising Itachi she would be quick, Sakura left the room and headed down to the ground floor where she was able to find the stables with minimal effort. Some things were easier to track by scent than others. Just as Madara had told them, in the stable a pair of dark steeds stood tied up and saddled. Sakura reached for the dappled gray, leaving the midnight colored horse for Itachi to take.

Sakura was untying the lead holding her horse in place when she felt a breeze on her back. Looking up she saw Itachi sliding open the front door to the stables, preparing for their departure.

"That didn't take you long at all," Sakura said, leading her horse out.

Itachi nearly smirked when she passed him, but on Itachi it was only a quirk at the corner of his lips. "You could say I'm full of surprises," he said as he reached his horse, mimicking Sakura's earlier action. He led the horse out behind her and closed the door to the stables, making the scene look just as it had when they arrived. Before he mounted, he drew his horse alongside hers and tugged on her reins, stopping her from leaving.

"But, I appears am not the only one. When was I to know you had squired such favor with our most elusive king?"

"What do you mean, favor? How has he shown this?" Sakura asked.

Itachi mounted and she followed along, guiding her horse out beside his. "You are now running errands for him. This is not the first, is it?"

Sakura shook her head, thinking back. "This is the third time he has asked me to do something for him. The first was when Naruto was loose, the second was… two days ago when I went to return the spike Menma tried stealing on his way out." Sakura then when on to explain the details of her job for Madara, as well as all the things he said to her and told her. "This was the third time," she said, ending her story.

"He trusts you enough to send you on these adventures. If its a special weapon we are after, it might be something he doesn't trust Obito to hand over once Yuu got her hands on it. He must think he can use you."

Sakura thought of the stories she remembered about the unremembered during her childhood. "I don't know if I like the sound of that."Won't that mean I get extra work like this?

Itachi chuckled, leading them the rest of the way out of the Red Keep. He glanced back over at her before tensing his ankles, getting ready to ride hard. "That…is something only you may decide, Sakura."

Sakura was quick to follow, and her mount was quick to race. They were twin blurs in the dark, Sakura behind Itachi, following him as he lead her father and farther away from the Red Keep and all that she knew. From what she saw on the map and what Itachi said of these lands belonging to the nomads before their diaspora, Sakura knew it would take a day and a night to reach where they were headed, even with such quick rides. Was this where Itachi was, during the stretches of time he was never available?

They rode until daylight, rested once for half an hour and then were back on the road for the rest of the day before both horse and rider needed rest. The steeds were of a special breed, but Itachi rode his hard, and they had been going for so long the horses were dangerously close to collapse when they camped for the evening. So they camped for hours and woke when the stars were still bright. It was just enough to give their horses the extra strength to make it the rest of the way. By the morning Sakura could see the top of the mountains above the mines.

"Once more, we should camp. We will make it the rest of the way in a few hours when it's early morning."

Sakura nodded, walking her horse behind Itachi. "That would be wise. I can't imagine how much creepier it would be at night."

Itachi chuckled. "It wouldn't make much of a difference, it's all underground. There is very little light that filters in naturally." He tapped the side of his head, close to his eyes. "It is why you'll find I'm handy to have in the dark. All Uchiha are gifted in such a way."

"I can see fairly well in the dark," Sakura said, trying not to sound like she was pouting. "Not as well as you, probably, but better than the average human at least."

"Then I am glad of it. We will need every advantage available to us in order to enter and leave without incident."

The pair made another small camp and slept for the first few hours of the dim morning, huddled close enough that their body heat was trapped and shared, but not close enough to touch. Falling asleep alongside Itachi was easy, and Sakura had no problem letting her guard down enough to sleep alongside Itachi. She knew she was safe with him, and if anything happened, she would feel the danger before it came.

When she stirred, hours later, she felt her hair had been re-braided again, but this time the braid was close to her scalp until her neck, where it then was left loose to curl down her back or across the ground. In his sleep, Itachi had found a handful and claimed it in his hand, threading his fingers through the log, loose curls that were starting to fade from black to ashy gray. Maybe one day soon she would wake up and see the familiar blush color that made her such an odd ball, even among the other redheads she knew.

Sakura shifted in her roll, moving from one hip to another and turning her head, grabbing her hair back. Itachi's hand followed, sliding under her head, fingers curling around her ear. Sakura huffed, sitting up and detaching his hand from her person, hating how cold she felt when she let go of him.

Frowning, Sakura braided the rest of her hair over her shoulder, deciding it was best yet to always keep it secured. There was a reason the red army girls had a reputation as the 'braided witches.' It was more than just the style or the trend, it was how they took care of themselves.

"You're awake?" Itachi asked in a quiet voice, opening only one eye to see her sitting up. He still looked like he wanted another hour of rest in bed when he yawned into his hand and stretched his other arm above his head. She heard something click and he loosened up, falling back into a comfortable place between the pieces of his bedroll.

"I just woke up."

"How long?" His voice was gravely the way hers was first thing in the morning. It wasn't fair that he showed all the signs of a tired sleeper, except the poor bed hair. Itachi's hair was still somehow perfect.

Sakura shook her head. "Not long, only a few minutes. Come on, there's food to finish before we get going. This is the part where we need our energy."

She didn't look back to see if Itachi was following her, because she could feel him better than that by now. It had been an odd sort of experience, but in spite of how little the said, somewhere over the long miles they had grown closer. She trusted him better for some reason.

She held out a dish when she felt him loom behind her shoulder and he took it with a whispered thanks, his voice still rough from the morning. She served herself and turned to find him sitting on her bedroll, so she sat on his, her knees nearly touching his as they ate in silence. Itachi was a man of few words and Sakura could respect that. It wasn't awkward like she expected, but calming.

"How dangerous is this mine?" Sakura asked when her plate was nearly finished.

Itachi's food lingered on his dish, like he never knew what it felt like to go without. He ate at a leisurely pace, she noticed. Sasuke was the same way. Itachi poked a piece before moving it aside with his fork, nodding his head in thought. "I can not say for sure."

Sakura wanted to push the issue, drag more than that pathetic excuse from him, but her eyes were fixed on the edge of his fork. "Are you even eating anything?" she finally asked, putting her clean dish down.

Itachi glanced up at her face before looking to her plate, and then to his. His lips drew back till they were tight. Hesitating, he slowly shook his head and then handed his plate to her. Sakura took it without objection, spearing her fork through the food as soon as she could.

"You don't need to eat, do you?" she asked, looking up through her lashes before stuffing her face.

Itachi shook his head again. "I eat, but it's not a need. Other Uchiha… ones without red eyes, they need to eat. We are beyond those needs."

"I could see that," Sakura said around the food in her mouth. What she heard in her head echoed. 'They never felt hunger,' and 'they've never felt what it's like to starve.'

"It was not by choice," Itachi said, picking up on the tightness of her words and deducting their meaning for himself. "It was not a fate I chose and if I could share it I would."

"Is that one of the reasons the king doesn't seem concerned with the starvation of his people, the crop failures and the outbreaks? If he didn't understand what hunger was, what true hunger, the kind that drives you made and factors a person down to a single mindedness that abandon morals, logic, and reason, than it made sense for him to be so callous to their plight.

"It's not something anyone could help," Sakura said, finishing his plate off in another second. She wiped her lips with the side of her thumb and bit off the salt stuck in her fingerprints. "What you can help now is what you tell me about what I'm walking into. I have no idea what to brace for. If you know something share it with me."

Itachi looked up quickly. "I don't mean to withhold anything from you, Sakura. The jeopardization of your safety is the last thing I would want. If I sound elusive, it is not intentional."

Sakura didn't say anything, but scraped her teeth along the side of her thumb once more, trying to pick up the last bits of salt from their cured meats. Itachi watched her teeth closely before swallowing and returning his gaze to her eyes. She was waiting for him.

"The mines are old, back when copper was in demand from the white country. It's well developed and should be easy to get through, but the crypts within the mines are what I am most hesitant about. They are more elaborate than the ones below the Red Keep, and better guarded."

"What do you mean better guarded."

Itachi's shoulders rose up. "It will be harder with me there, as the dead will sense what I am. At least beneath the Red Keep we had managed to subvert that problem years ago. This time, all those who may rise will, and the Nomads used to practice ritual killing of the most faithful and loved animals so that they may be buried alongside their masters for life in the afterworld."

"What kind?" Sakura asked, leaning forward. Her eyes were no longer glaring, but remained narrowed.

Itachi stood and began to clean up the camp and Sakura forced herself to move in helping. The rifle she wore across her back hit her hip, so she adjusted the strap before continuing. Itachi called out to her from over her shoulder, not exactly looking at her.

"The most outstanding in my memory is a breed of elk that has since gone extinct. But there are the hunting dogs, the falcons, the rats even. Horses as well as common deer stand in their bones around those crypts."

"And the soldiers…?"

"They were buried as well, but only the most devoted."

Sakura made a noise of acknowledgement before moving towards the horses. Minutes later they were both mounted and urging their steeds towards the mine, reaching it before the sun could even reach halfway point in the sky. Sakura had though the land between their camp and the mine's entrance would stretch on forever, but the ride was done before she could even remember what it was she was doing riding into a sacred sight with the Red King's nephew as her partner.

The entrance to the mines was a gaping mouth in the earth where they could ride their horses in before the darkness spoked them, forcing Sakura and Itachi to attempt the rest on foot.

One empty hole in the ground, with a path winding down like a throat into the earth, was all they had to go on.

"How will we know what we came here for when we look for it? There must be dozens of daggers at rest here."

Itachi hummed, and the walls of stone grew around the, widening as the sound of the footsteps and voices were greedily accepted. "We will know it when we see it," Itachi murmured, keeping his voice low and close to his body so it wouldn't dance away across the walls into places he couldn't see.

"That's cryptic."

"Madara's directions were as clear as they needed to be." When he heard Sakura huff in disbelief he nearly smiled. "You will know because it's one of the few pieces we would not be able to use magic on. It'll feel like you."

Sakura nearly stopped, her narrowed eyes searching for the lines of his shape beside her. "Like me? I have a feeling?"

Itachi's shape nodded and she could see his face turned towards her. "You feel like silence, the silence in the eye of the storm. It's where we can breath."

The darkness around them grew and even less of his features were left for her to see, but Sakura kept moving. She had enough senses to see in ways that didn't always need her eyes. She thought of magic, and how it always tasted so terrible in her mouth or how unpleasant it was on her skin, making it itch something awful. She didn't feel any silence or peace around the Uchiha. For whatever they felt for beasts, Sakura suspected it was the opposite for her and Yuu and Naruto. Only a sliver of her heart felt guilty for feeling repulsion for magic, and that was because she didn't hate some of the Uchiha like Sasuke, Shisui, and Itachi. But witches and devils and men with red spinning eyes would never be the place where she felt safe.

"The path diverts here," Itachi spoke, shattering her thoughts.

Sakura stopped abruptly and moved aside to let Itachi pass her with more than enough shoulder room. She felt the stone back of a wall behind her and shrank against it, watching the outline of Itachi pass her by. Just like he said, ahead of them there was a split in the path where the main road led further down into the mines, beams and rafters guiding the way. She could smell the remnants of veins of copper in the walls and knew this mine had more to offer when it had been abandoned.

"Nomads don't disturb the places of the dead," she breathed out loud, realizing something. The reason the mines were abandoned was because on of their kings decided to make it his tomb.

"No, they don't," Itachi answered, holding out his hand for her to take.

He stood before a sliver in the rock face, looking like it would drop into nothing. Sakura took his hand easily and followed him down. The path grew steep, almost impossibly steep at places, making their travels slow until the moss started to show up. Sakura smelled water and knew they were close to an underground river.

Itachi grabbed a blue path of moss from the wall and held it out for her to take, grabbing another clump for himself. It tickled her palm, but she held it tight, knowing it would be the only light she had to see by for awhile. They could light a flame and carry a torch down, but without any knowledge of the ventilation conditions, it wasn't wise to risk it. To suffocate and die would be tragically pathetic, and she didn't want to die like that.

She heard Itachi inhale sharply from in front of her and looked ahead to see the lake she smelled earlier. Her eyes widened as she rounded the corner and the light grew into something brilliant. The lake was a thin sliver, winding and serpent like, but beneath the lake's surface bloomed an assortment of white, quartz, grown into spear like points. They reflected the light beautifully and the moss was abundant around the edges of the walls.

"It's lovely."

She looked up and saw Itachi watching the reflection, seeing into the water. His eyes were dark again, when before they had glowed red to see by. She thought him softer with the darker eyes and couldn't help but hum in agreement. It was lovely, all of it.

"I can see why he would want to be buried here," she said.

"We'll follow it to find his tomb."

Itachi pulled his eyes away from the sight too easily and replaced his dim moss with the brighter, fuller moth growing along the edge of the stream. Sakura followed his example before trailing him down the quartz lake's edge. It shrank at parts, and grew fat at others until it dipped down out of sight, leaving the rest of the cavern to darkness.

There was still a path, and Sakura knew it was the correct way to go after following it for a handful of minutes when she felt the change under her feet. Looking down she saw raw stone become smoother, and polished. The walls too began to show signs of workmanship. They were smoothed out like someone had spent years wearing away at it with ocean waves or sandpaper. Eventually those smooth surfaces became intricate carvings and columns and busts buried in the wall. The floor beneath them as well grew more decorated in the traditional stare shaped pattern the nomads were famous for before their empire scattered.

The world ahead of them opened up and Sakura held her breath when she felt the vastness surround her. With her moss light she could only see so far in front of her, but even without her sight she could feel the size of the echo chamber she had just walked into. She snapped her fingers once and listened. The sound that bounced back gave her a blurry image of the layout around her. She snapped a few more times, trying to make the picture clearer in her mind, but she had never been talented with some of her gifts, and echolocation was one of them.

"You needn't bother," Itachi interupted, handing off his moss ball to her. Sakura took it without question, seeing something flash from inside his cloak. She wanted to ask about it, to touch what he hand, but he turned away before she could. Seconds later she felt him inhale a great breath and hold it. When he breathed out, his breath was dragon fire, igniting the torches he held in his hand. He looked up, his red eyes spinning in the dark. "It is safe to set a fire here. The chamber will allow it."

"I shouldn't be surprised at this point, of course you can breath fire," Sakura huffed, accepting the offered torch, pocketing both moss clumps.

"One of my many talents," Itachi said, looking back over his shoulder at her. She almost saw him wink, but his fire was still a flicker on his torch, so she told herself she was seeing things in the dark, because Itachi was not the sort of guy to wink at people.

She held her fire above her head and took a step forward, seeing what she had been listening for. The chamber was just as vast as she had suspected it to be. High above them Sakura could swear she saw the vein of sky from where the cavern opened up to the world above them, but that had to be seven or eight stories up. A number of ornate columns lined the floor, and between those columns stood the skeletal bodies of a number of things, the most noticeable3 among them the spider horned elk.

There were stone boxes standing straight up with scrip scrawled across the front in burnt black color. Itachi frowned at it and Sakura knew he could understand it. It was the same sort of writing she had seen on the spike and the door under the Red Keep, or a variation of that language at least. It did look a little different.

"What do they say?" Sakura asked, noticing more than one.

Itachi shook his head. "They are names, these stones are graves. The soldiers most trusted by the nomad king were buried alive in the cement and preserved here."

Sakura looked again and saw there was no way to open what she thought was a box. It was as Itachi had said, there really was no seam to the boxes, as if someone had poured all of it into a mold and buried whatever was inside it many years ago. She looked up, waving her fire around to see exactly how many boxes of stone there were. For as much as she could see, she counted eighteen.

"Wow," Sakura breathed, glancing back at the name scratched out with a messy hand, no doubt shaking at the time. "We must be close to that king then, if we're stumbling across so many of his preserved defenders." She touched the stone surface and ran her hand towards the black script. She hissed when her fingers got close and drew her hand back as if burned.

Itachi stepped close to her, watching. "What happened?"

"It's made with magic. They're magically preserved or something. The black writing is their names and they're written with magic. I…I think those are their true names."

"True names…"

"It was something the nomads believed in, what their people believed in, that someone was born with a true and secret name that made them weak against anyone who knew it. In addition to being given a name, they had another name that represented their most true self, and there are a lot of stories of heroes going on quests to find their true names and of villains discovering a person's true name." She thought back to the stories Saratobi surrounded himself with and wondered how many of those books had nomad stories in them, stories from before they called themselves nomads, back when they were a kingdom.

"I can read the writing," Itachi breathed, looking up at the stone with glowing red eyes. Sakura though of rubies and red diamonds and blood colored crystals set into white tiaras when she saw his eyes. He was too beautiful.

"Don't do it. We don't know what might happen because of it, and we came here to find a king. These guys mean we're close, but we're not there yet."

She touched his shoulder for attention then waved her flame out, eating away some of the darkness. Itachi nodded and followed her deeper in. Together, their lights burned away more and more of the mystery of the tomb they walked through. The pillars grew more elaborate with additional arches connecting some of them, some low, some high.

They passed more and more of the stone coffins, each sporting a new and different name in the ancient black language. There were animal skeletons too, dozens of them, standing upright without support like they had just died moments ago leaving only their bones behind. Sakura saw deer and elk and dogs and things too big for her to put a name to. Most she recognized, some she knew to no longer exist on the earth. A horse stood among two crouching cats and from its skull a spiral horn grew like the tooth of a narwhal.

Then the cavern began to narrow and the columns grew closer to one another, more and more arches making a near roof overhead. Itachi watched them closely, pausing under a coup to check for black writing before moving forward. Sakura remembered how Shisui couldn't pass the arch under the Red Keep and suspected it was the same for Itachi. This was a place meant to keep intruders out, as all tombs were.

The arches drew together at a point and spilled down in a flourish of stonework carved to look like wisteria. Itachi stopped abruptly, cursing at the sight. Sakura glanced between him and the wisteria stonework and he pointed to the beam above the stone flowers. Sakura lifted her light and saw the black script hidden as far up as it could be, near identical to the script that kept Shisui out.

"I will have to stay behind. I can not accompany you any further," he said with a note of regret. "The burial chamber must be just beyond this arch."

"That would make sense," Sakura said, touching the stone flowers that were carved far enough apart for a person to slip between the streams. The stone was of a different composition, likely being brought in after the king was laid to rest. It was pretty to look at though, and she wondered if the flower was significant. Sakura turned back to look at Itachi, starting to slip through. "I'll hurry back."

"Be careful." He took a step closer but no more, clenching the fist that didn't hold his torch. "Watch yourself and don't rush. I will wait here for you."

'Be safe.'

Sakura nodded but turned away and headed on without saying anything. She heard him pace back and forth in front of the stone flowers once before she was too far away to hear his movements over the rush of blood in her body. Something had stirred up her insides and she didn't doubt it had something to do with that last arch.

Sakura grabbed the strap to her rifle and tugged on it, making it looser and more accessible. It had been tight against her back but now it was freed up to swing off at a moment's notice.

The path turned sharply and she gasped, recognizing the glow beyond the corner and the smell that was as loud as the sound of running water up ahead. She sprinted the rest of the way and turned a corner to a room vast and open with a wide pool filled to the tip with quartz and trimmed in moss. There were steps leading down to the polished floor around the lake, and then stairs leading back up to a platform that was richly decorated with the prettiest of columns and stonework.

Sakura ran down and stopped at the base of the second set of stairs, taking one at a time so she could watch carefully for each new thing she saw. At the end of the platform there was a rough stone set into the wall and outlined in copper. The stone was thick with black writing that hadn't faded in the many years since it's writing.

At the base of the stone a long black rectangle stretched out, and Sakura held her breath, recognizing the open faced coffin for what it was. Flanked on either side stood two stone boxes standing straight up with scrip scrawled across the front in burnt black color, only these two held an additional symbol on each. The first had a hand with a dagger through it, the other had a shield split in two by a thorny branch. House sigils.

With fear and trembling in her bones, sakura let her rifle roll off her shoulder and onto her arm. She dropped the torch and grabbed for a knife with her free hand before putting it back in a place that was easier to draw from. She approached the coffin hesitantly and drew up alongside it, straighten enough to peer in. The body was dressed richly in cloth inlaid with jewels and gold thread. A funeral shroud rested over the skeletal body, preserving it, but underneath the black gauze she could see his skeleton fingers resting atop of curved dagger with an eye sigil burned into the hilt.

'You'll know it when you see it.'

She could feel the magic thick and choking in it the same way she could feel the magic in anything written in that black script. Sakura drew her own dagger and cut the funeral shroud before sheathing her dagger and reaching for the one under the dead king's hands. Her fingers curled around the hilt and she felt cold all around her. She pulled it free and looked up to see Ino standing there with wide eyes, shaking her head in warning.

The cavern echoed with a rumble. Sakura didn't stay behind to see what was happening, she crouched low to the ground like a dog and bolted for the end of the room. She made it off the platform in time to miss the two stone coffins explode outwards in a shower of rock and magic. She heard the shift of metal armor and raced faster up the second set of stairs. They were behind her, the two knights from the two nobel houses,

'The pierced palms and shattered shield,' Ino whispered like a wind in her ear before falling behind to make the floor behind Sakura slick with ice. It would slow them, but not stop them.

She neared the stone wisteria arch and saw flames. Itachi was breathing fire like a dragon as a swarm of silver soldiers marched up to stop him. She screamed his name and he turned to look back, seeing her instantly. He swung a black sword from inside his jacket and the stone flowers were smashed to pieces, making it easier for Sakura to run out.

Still running, Sakura leveled her rifle and shot, hitting the knight closest to Itachi. If she had been still it would have been a clean head shot, but all she managed to do was catch him n the chest, making him stagger. It was enough for Itachi, he melted through their silver armor with a breath of fire that kept on coming. The world around them was bright with light.

"I have it," Sakura gasped, brandishing the dagger to show Itachi before replacing it inside her black jacket, where it would be safe and snug.

"We need to make a run for the exit," Itachi said in between breaths of fire. He sounded winded and Sakura wondered how much fire he had breathed since she triggered the spell.

She turned as much as she dared and heard the clatter of metal on metal behind her and knew it wouldn't be long before the two Right Hands came for her. She knew the stories, she knew what it took to be buried with a king, and what she had to fear.

The fire around them grew and Sakura heard it crack as it circled around them, forming a halo. Itachi turned to her and held out an arm. Before she knew what to do he pulled her close, pressed her body against his till she thought she would melt into him, and then the sickness started.

She tasted, smelled, and felt it all around her as Itachi drew on his magic. She couldn't see his eyes, but she guessed they were spinning jewels of red. Sakura steeled her nerves as best she could as he melted around her in a storm of raven feathers. She was caught in a storm of black and red as flames and ravens swirled in a cyclone around her. She felt like she was being torn apart from the inside as the magic pulled on her and she wanted to scream.

She lasted a few seconds before she couldn't stand it anymore and had to pull away. Itachi was trying to use his magic to transport her, but this wasn't like how Shisui made the car she rode in drive faster. No, Itachi was trying to do something to her body with magic and she couldn't stand it.

With a shriek she pulled away and collapsed on the ground, missing the storm of fire and feathers as it blasted like a comet out of the chamber, leaving her behind, gasping.

Sakura looked up and saw Ino standing over her with eyes wide with worry as ice took over what it could of the surviving knights. Many had already been devoured by fire already, but not the two Right Hands. Sakura looked to the left, behind her, and saw the entry way to the king's tomb covered in ice. They wound't reach her.

'Get up!'

Sakura struggled to stand, still feeling like she wanted to retch.

'Get up!'

She had dropped her rifle and her knife was no match for their swords. They would strike her down before she was in range.

'Sakura, get up please!'

She inhaled and felt her teeth grow, making blood in her mouth. Her bones screamed and she knew they were ready. Her hands were claws and her hair was an unbraided mess of wild rose gold around her face.

Six, there were four left who could still move, with a seventh struggling to stand without his legs. Maybe there were more she couldn't see, but there were enough things on fire that she didn't have to worry about the darkness. She tore apart the body of the first one before he could raise his sword, and launched herself into the mass of others before another pair of knights could stop her.

She tore them down without reservation, feeling more and more like her old self, the wild beast self that was more wolf than woman. There was no blood, but she was a mess one way or another.

When the ice shattered and the two Right Hands entered into the open chamber Sakura knew she couldn't be anything but a beast if she was going to survive this.

She woke up swaddled in furs beneath a full moon. She blinked once, trying to place her location in her head before going back to the last thing she remembered. It was a blurry mess, the way things were a mess after a night of drunkenness. She inhaled and felt the pressure on her ribs. They had been broken at one point, but were healing. She would be perfect in a week's time.

"You're awake."

She turned her face enough to see Itachi sitting up from inside his own bed roll situated close to hers. There was a fire between them, crackling and flickering, but she couldn't feel it through the furs. Itachi stood to cross the distance to her and crouched down to pull back the front of her fur covers. She looked down and saw what had likely broken her bones.

Itachi's voice was soft with reservation. "You should have run for it."

"I didn't?"

Itachi shook his head, looking upset about it. "By the time I made it back there was little I could do to prevent anything more. You had already struck down the one, but you were bleeding so much I doubted you would have been able to stand much longer. I wanted to take you back as soon as possible, but you were too hurt to ride, so we've made camp here for the time." He covered her again and then reached for something alongside her head. She saw it was a wooden bowel. "You need to eat."

"I am hungry."

He helped her sit up and drink before spoon feeding her the soft vegetables he had cooked over the fire. She ate tenderly, feeling her fangs still in her mouth. She would have to file them down again when she got back.

"You've been asleep a day and a half night. I was afraid it would be longer."

He moved to pick up a leather bag of something and Sakura smelled berries. She opened her mouth and he fed her one by one, not daring to go too fast least she choke.

"I'll be fine. I just need to rest. You've seen how fast Naruto heals. I would guess Yuu heals fast too."

"Faster than the brat. I wondered if that was because she's used to beatings or because of her sex or age." He looked down at her, bending over her face so his skull blocked out the moon. "She heals faster than you, so it's not determined by sex at least. I can't account for the age either."

Sakura remembered the pale haired girl with cat like eyes. "Obito is her handler, like Shisui is mine. Is there a reason he is such a…?"

"Yes, and no," Itachi interrupted, knowing what she was trying to say. "We've been at war so long there have been none who have survived without loss. Obito was married to a woman he loved since his boyhood. She was a healer and helped all she could with selflessness. They had a son together who was only two years old when he was killed by white assassins. It's what inspired Obito to start his own guild of assassins and become the man he is now. He used to be…not as he is, but I can't remember what I wasn't alive for."

Sakura frowned, not hating the pity she felt for the man. "But didn't Kagami also loose his wife?"

Itachi nodded. "Kagami did also loose his wife the same way. She was expecting a child when she was killed, adding to Kagami's misery."

Kagami was soft and kind and sported only a moth for a medal on his breast coat. "He didn't end up the same way."

Itachi shook his head after a moment. "He has…different ideas on the war in comparison to Obito. Kagami wants peace. Obito wants revenge."

Sakura turned over as much as she dared in her sleeping roll and propped herself up on the elbow that wasn't bandaged, looking around. They were inside a skeleton of stone ruins. She could only guess what she lay inside of once belonged to the nomads, but beyond that she was at a loss.

"Loss," she began to say, "Changes us all in different ways." The ice was gone and her hair was still loose around her face. As an afterthought she added. "I bet the Red King himself has lost as well."

Itachi hummed in acknowledgment, but didn't say anything. Sakura let the silence hang for a little while before she spoke up again and asked him if he had seen a plant with striped leaves and white buds that looked like berries. He gave her paper and an inkwell pen for her to use. She drew the plant twice, and then again from a third angle on the back of the paper before he finally nodded, saying he would be able to find the plant.

"But what do you need it for?"

"It's steeped for a tea that's especially good for sleeping and relaxing the body. I'll heal just fine on my own, but I'll have a hard time sleeping with my senses being as sensitive as they are. I wouldn't be able to sleep hearing and smelling everything I do out here."

Itachi looked back down at the drawing before placing it inside his jacket's innermost pocket. "I'll find the plant for you, but I'll hope you feel safe enough with me here to protect you to not need it."

"Maybe," Sakura said, settling back down into her furs. She closed her eyes and tried to rest. When she opened them again seconds later there wasn't a trace of Itachi aside from a handful of feathers.

Sakura and Itachi made it back without further incident, and in another two days Sakura only had a handful of bruises to betray the beating she had taken. Everything else was healed to completion.

To no surprise she was visited by the Red King again later that week, after even her bruises has faded. He asked her to bring back a mirror that showed the past from an the body of a thief who died before he could deliver it to the Red Kingdom. Sakura left on her own and found the mirror in a pit where mammoth vipers slept. When she brought it back she came back without exhaustion, but no greater wound than a scratch across her knuckles.

Two days later she was sent to the edge of the continent where the black isles sent their boats to trade with the mainland. She tracked down pirates and recovered a wooden box with a lock she swore she wouldn't open. When she handed it back to Madara he covered it in feathers and she never saw it again.

Another two days he came again with another mission involving a firebird, a musket, and an invisible map. Ever two days there was something new for her to do, unless she came back wounded. She didn't know how he knew, because she tried to hide it, but he never sent her out unless she was in perfect condition. The same treatment was standard for beasts like Yuu and Naruto and Menma when he had been a part of the roulette, though Naruto had very few missions to go out on, and they were always with Kagami.

Sometimes she was sent with Itachi as aid, (the way Kagami was always sent with Naruto or one of Obito's men was sent with Yuu), but usually she went on her own. Shisui was never sent with her, no matter how much he complained or protested behind the scenes. He played it off around her like it was no big deal, but Itachi told her it was tormenting him in more ways than one. He didn't feel respected and feared that his accomplishments were being ignored as a result of his status.

"Why does the Red King never meet with Shisui?" she asked one day.

"He has his reasons," was all she could ever get out of Itachi.

One night Sakura woke to the feeling of the hairs on her neck standing up and knew who was in her room. It was a day early, her arm was still bandaged from the last mission, but when she saw up she saw him there, standing at the end of her bed with another bone mask in place to hide his true face.

"What is it going to be this time?" Sakura asked, sitting up. Her teeth were filed down, but not all the way. There were still points, but no one noticed unless they looked for it. They were small enough that her words didn't sound any different, which was the case when they were allowed to grow as much as they could.

"No work tonight, I want you to walk with me."

Sakura frowned, not expecting that. She didn't move at firs, but Madara reached across the bed and grabbed her good arm, pulling her forward. She followed before he could tug again, glaring at the demanding man. She grabbed the robe at the end of her bed and followed him out into the hallway and down to the library where a fire was still going. Sakura tensed, expecting to see Sarutobi somewhere, but the room was empty. Sarutobi had been taken to his room hours ago.

"Why here?" she asked, stopping at a railing and looking around.

Madara drew up alongside her but didn't look down with her. His gaze was elsewhere. When it looked like he wouldn't reply Sakura looked down to see what it was he was staring at. There was a long table set up in front of the largest fireplace, set with food and wine. It took her by surprise because hadn't smelled the roasted rabbit or salted asparagus like she should have when she first walked in, but now she could smell it as clearly as ever. It was as if it appeared by magic.

"I was hungry," his voice still made her shiver.

"In the library? Don't you have half a dozen halls for dinning and eating?"

He pulled away from the railing and Sakura followed after him. He could have been at the table in the blink of an eye, but he took the stairs one at a time, slowly and evenly. At the end of the stairs he paused and turned towards her, offering her his hand to help her down the last few steps as if she was a lady. The thought made her want to grin; she wasn't even human, who was he to treat her like a lady?

"This is for your benefit. I thought a dinner in a place surrounded with stories would make you feel less hostile. Maybe I was wrong. You're never at ease around me." He watched her hand leave his as she stepped down the last few stairs and paced towards the table.

"You will not hold that against me. You are our king."

"But I'm not your king, am I?" He turned his head and the fire made his bone mask glow. "Or am I? You once told me beasts have no king and here you are all lithe muscle and pointed teeth. Have you embraced all that you are, or are you still my little red solider?"

"I wonder if those two things are mutually exclusive. You say you have no use for the one and can't control the other, yet here I am doing what you ask of me with no failures to date."

His red eyes glowed. "What does that make you?"

Sakura didn't have the words to answer, so she just shook her head, holding her elbows. "I don't know. Can't you be happy with this compromise?"

"It's a dangerous thing not to know who the people who do your dirty work are, but you are right, I am more than happy with what you are and what you have been able to do for me. I treat my treasures well." He swept his arm out to the table. "Sit, eat, and indulge yourself. The war goes on, but it is all beyond here, out where I can not reach."

"First it's a pawn now a treasure, what will I be to you tomorrow?" Sakura hummed easily, eyeing the Red King wearily while approaching the table.

There were two settings set, both with plates already piled high. The bread was especially smelled rich with warm honey butter seeping through the layers. When she bit into her loaf she wanted to melt. She always had good food during her time in the keep, but this was especially nice.

"Is it not enough to know you are treasured?" he asked, using her words against her.

Sakura watched Madara, her eyes fixed on his as she raised a leg of meat to her mouth, tearing into it without breaking eye contact. He was still such a mystery to her, she didn't know what he was thinking most of the time, nor did she trust him, but she could at least say he treated her fairly. He had come to visit her enough that she was familiar around him, but not comfortable.

"What do you want from me?" Sakura asked, knowing she was only treated so fairly because she was useful. She did what others couldn't, and that was why she didn't starve. Before the day she ran away, she might have felt guilty for eating and wasting food when she knew there were so many hungry in the world, but she wasn't that child anymore. She was selfish and cruel and maybe a little bit of a beast. Once a beast starves it is never the same.

"I want to know you," he said.

"What do you want me to do for you?" Sakura corrected, her words short and clipped. "There is something, isn't there? You always have something for me to do, someone for Yuu to kill, some task for Naruto to preform on the warfront with Kagami."

Madara looked away uncharacteristically and sighed, tossing his fork back onto his plate and slouching in his seat, face turned towards the fire. "You're just as cold as the other one but you were more than pleasant with the rest of my family while she was a cold as cold could be with no discrimination." He glanced back at her before his eyes wandered to the fire. "Itachi is always pleased to go with you, his brother Sasuke complains to the high heavens about how little of your time you give him, my brother Kagami has only kind things to say of you. Even the bastard is over the moon in love with you."

"You don't think much of Shisui, even though he's proven himself this much," Sakura said, feeling pity for the boy called a bastard by the man who refused to be in the same room as him. There was something about how Madara said it that made Sakura think there was more to it than just social class. "Why won't you let him take me on missions when he's my handler?"

"Obito never takes Yuu on missions. Kagami reigns in Naruto because the boy needs the guidance and dominance."

Sakura reached for more fish, dropping the salted salmon onto her plate before spearing one through with her fork. She shook her head before taking a bit and swallowing to keep her voice clear. "Yuu takes his men, and he's not old enough that he would just slow her down."

Madara barked a laugh. "If you only knew," he sighed turning back in his seat to face her. "No, I don't care much for the boy, he's always made me feel uneasy and it's been said he will be the agent of my undoing, so I'm hesitant to let him live, but I can't justify depriving the world of so effective a weapon. His Sharingan is among the most powerful I've ever seen and he's as loyal as a dog. Would you kill that for a single prophecy?"

"I guess it would depend on the prophecy, they can be terribly misleading."

Madara hummed, and it almost sounded like a smile. "You're the one with all the stories. You tell me."

Sakura thought about it and chewed through another mouthful of fish before uttering her reply. "More often than anything else, the people who hear their future and act on it in fear are almost always the agents that end up bringing about their most feared fate."

Madara watched her with a new sort of intensity. "You share your stories with the old man here. They say you are quite the story teller to keep up with the monkey king of the white country. I thought only nomads treasured stories like an art." His eyes flashed and Sakura could see the black dots around his irises begin to spin, even from so far away, across the table When he spoke again it was a compulsion. "Tell me a story.

She felt the room hold it's breath as the fire whispered a crackle in the background. Sakura frowned, scratching her fork across her empty plate before dropping it so it didn't clatter. Stories were good with fire and after meals, but it felt wrong to tell a story to a king who wore a mask all the time. It was easier to tell stories to Shisui or Sasuke, and when she was with Sarutobi there was equal exchange between their tales. Madara was different.

"What kind of story?" she asked, reaching for the last slice of bread in the basket closest to her.

"It doesn't matter, but don't stop until the fire dies." He wore a mask, but she could hear his smile. "Tell me a story you think I'll like."

"That's a challenge. I didn't think you'd like stories at all," Sakura replied, looking down at her hands dirty with salt and butter. She dragged her teeth along the edge of her thumb, sucking up the taste before clearing her throat. "But there is a story about an old woman and the devil."

So she told him the story of the old crone who made a deal with the devil who couldn't break up two lovers. What the devil couldn't do, the old woman accomplished with deception and silk, only to surprise the devil by going above and beyond by reuniting the heartbroken couple and wining the bet. Then Sakura told another story of three brothers who each set off on a search for magical items to prove to their father they were the most suited to be the next king. As exotic as their finds were, their competition meant nothing when they had to band together to save the princess they all loved. Sakura told more stories from far off and before she knew it the night was ending and dawn was burning outside the windows, coloring the black sky a lighter shade of blue.

The fire dwindled to embers and she felt her exhaustion catch up with her. She hadn't slept a wink, but the table was cleared and her throat was sore from all her speaking. She had filled the whole night with her stories agin.

She felt too tire to start another one, but it was impossible to tell what the Red King thought of her behind his bone mask. He hadn't stirred since she first started speaking of impossible lands and darning old women. She hated that mask, and wished he wouldn't wear it. She didn't feel the need to see his face so much as she needed to know he was real. Behind his bone skull face he could be anything, and that unnerved her.

"Why won't you take that thing off?" she asked.

"My mask is for me. I will not remove it at this time."

"It's not necessary."

"It is mine to wear and do with as I please."

Nearly light, she told a story with her worn out voice of a boy who wished for beauty so much he learned the magic to steal it. That boy turned all the people he knew into goblins when he stole their faces and at the end of the day he was king of the goblins with a face too terrifyingly beautiful to behold, so he locked his face away behind an ugly iron mask and ruled his ugly kingdom.

"And you think I'm terrifying in my beauty," Madara asked in good humor, sounding nearly giddy and more human than ever before. He almost sounded like Shisui after a story.

"Not with relatives as good looking as the ones you have," Sakura joked, feeling too tired to make sense out of her words. She didn't know what she was saying anymore.

Madara chuckled, but it was a different sort of chuckle. Sakura saw him stand and cross the table to stand in front of the fire. It was light out, and the windows were warming up with sunlight, but he stoked the fire again for heat if nothing else. A moment later she saw him turn to her. "You were right when you asked me what I wanted from you. I had you tell me stories to distract you from the question, but I've made up my mind enough to tell you now. There is something I want you to retrieve for me. It's a enchanted water pouch that never empties."

"That sounds like it could be useful," Sakura said around a yawn.

"We wouldn't have to worry about supply trains bringing in enough water." He nodded in agreement. "But those who hold it are the real problem. I can not send you alone and expect it back."

"You'll send Itachi with me?" she asked, doubting he would let Shisui go with her even though it made sense. Itachi had never gone with her anywhere, even though they were supposed to be a partner pair. She yawned and didn't intend to, but his name got out. "Shisui?"

Madara bristled. "No." He didn't turn around to face her and she started to feel her eyes drop. She was almost gone. Sleep was clawing for her but she knew she needed to hear what he was about to say. "I have someone else in mind. You will depart tomorrow. Sleep well for tonight."

When she woke a few hours later she found herself covered by a heavy duvet on a fainting couch from the second floor of the library. She looked out and saw Sarutobi sitting in his regular spot, smoking a pipe. The table from last night was gone, and not a sign of it remained.

Sakura tried to remember what the last thing Madara told her was, after he said he had someone else in mind for her mission, but all she remembered was soft white fog and a heavy heavy temptation to sleep. She must have dozed off not long after that.

She didn't think too deeply about how she got to the second floor of the library, or who had covered her in the duvet, but nestled back down into her covers and slept for another handful of hours before Sasuke, of all people came to wake her up, whining about being ignored and Sakura not playing enough with him during the times Naruto was away on the front lines fighting. Sasuke was supremely bored and only she could appease him.

He roused her by sitting on the lump that was her hip under the covers. He reached out and pulled at the duvet before squeezing his body in between her and the side of the couch, making her grunt in annoyance.

"Wake up, it's nearly noon," he whined, pulling back the covers and making her shiver.

"That's not enough sleep for me," Sakura protested, clawing back the covers and sinking further into the cushions of the couch.

With a whine of annoyance Sasuke vaulted over her and landed on the floor in front of her couch, hands on his hips. He stared down at her and she cracked a single eye to look up at him. She nearly smiled, making him even more annoyed than he had originally been.

"It's not fair. You spend so much time with Itachi on missions and whenever he's here Shisui always hogs you, but now my stupid uncle is taking up your time now too. Tell him to stop. He's too important a person to be concerned with ruining my fun."

"Oh, is that all he was doing?" Sakura hummed, feeling her eyes want to close. "And here I thought he was being responsible with a subordinate."

"Whatever, I'm going to tell him to leave you alone. This is stupid."

Sarutobi's laughter from across the balcony drew Sasuke's ire. Seeing the small prince turn, Sarutobi stood from his seat and walked closer, pipe still in one hand, smoking lazily. "Sorry, little prince, but I'm afraid there's not much of a chance for that. She stayed up all night telling him her stories. There's no way he'll let her go now."

"What does that have to do with anything?" Sasuke whined, glancing down at Sakura who shrugged.

"You've no right to look so confused. Everybody loves a good story, and she told him more than one, so it shouldn't take a seer to see how this will play out. He'll be no better than Shisui at this rate."

"Sakura," the young boy said. Sasuke stomped his foot to get her attention when her eyes wouldn't open. When she opened her eyes he continued. "You're forbidden to tell that man any more of your stories for no good reason. I already don't get enough time with you, I don't need to share with him of all people. You're supposed to play with me today."

"Can't I stay in bed a little longer?" she asked around a yawn.

"You said you would play with me."

"…Mmm. Too tired."

"How are you this tired? You just spent one night awake. It's not like it's that big of a deal."

Sakura groaned, reaching out from under the covers to grab Sasuke by the wrist and drag him closer. Sasuke squeaked like a baby chick when his knees hit the edge of the couch and his body collapsed on top of hers again. Sakura pulled him closer and turned him over so she had him pinned between her body and the back of the couch. Her eyes were still closed but she could feel him tense and shiver.

"Shhh, just play sleep with me for a few more minutes," she lazily drawled, feeling too tired to get out of bed. She yawned again and pulled Sasuke closer to her form, hugging him like a doll before burying her face in the crown of his hair. "Is this not good?"

Sarutobi laughed from where he stood, watching the scene unfold. Sasuke had always been loud, annoying, demanding, and as entitled as they came. Normally an insult or complain wasn't far from his lips, but when Sakura pinned him down in a hug there was nothing but heavy breathing and stunned silence from the boy. Sasuke's face was red and the tips of his ears were heated.

"Enjoy it while you can, brat," Sarutobi hummed, taking a puff from his pipe. "I saw your Red King with her when I came in early this morning."

Sarutobi's eyes grew glassy as he thought back to the scene he had walked in on earlier that morning. He had watched Madara lay her down on the couch and cover her with the duvet, but then Madara lingered at her side, watching her sleep for minutes at a time. Maybe he would have stayed for hours too, if he hadn't sensed the old man coming up the stairs. Madara left without a word after that, but Sarutobi knew better. Nothing had to be said for the old man to understand what he had seen.

"Sakura," Sasuke whined, his voice a whisper as he called out to her reluctantly. "You didn't really tell him your stories, did you?"

"Just a few," Sakura breathed into his hair, eyes still heavy and shut. "It's no big deal."

Sasuke whimpered, burying his face closer to the spot next to her neck. "You're not allowed to turn into someone who doesn't play with me. Missions or no missions, you have to stay my playmate."

Sakura chuckled, and her breath was hot on his scalp. "Of course, of course. Don't worry, little prince."

"I'm not little!"

Sakura hummed in amusement, growing silent once more. She had been too tired for too long to skip out on the hours she needed to sleep. She wouldn't sleep much now, but she liked to think that a quiet rest was the next best thing to actually falling asleep.

She was too tired. She would be better in an hour or two, but at least now Sasuke wasn't complaining anymore.

Sakura looked down when she felt something tug on a loose strand of hair that had been left free from the braid that ended at the nape of her neck. Sasuke was playing with the rose colored strand. Only a few pieces were still black, and in time they would all loose the dark color. She was now almost fully back to her natural hair color.

She remembered something Itachi told her during one of their last missions together when she asked him about Sasuke. He acted younger than his age at times, and then older than the age she first pegged him at. Apparently, he had been asleep for nearly three years in something akin to a coma. During a failed assignation attempt Itachi had to put his brother into a deep sleep to preserve his body.

When Sasuke awoke it was as if he had just taken a nap, but three years of his life were gone, and his childhood was nearly ended. Itachi felt extreme guilt for his decision, even though he knew it was the only true choice he had in the matter. It was during those three years Itachi went out to kill their mother. Sakura didn't ask him about that, and he never mentioned it. She suspected he knew that she had seen that memory of his when he entered her mind that one time.

Absently, she kissed the crown of Sasuke's head, knowing that mentally he was still just a little kid, even though he was turning twelve soon. (Sasuke liked to say he would be thirteen soon, and people took to assuming that meant he was twelve, but he really meant he would be thirteen in two years.) His mind was that of an eight year old's.

Sasuke stiffened under Sakura's touch and she took the opportunity to nestle down into her covers and sleep a little more. Sasuke was stiff as a board, and didn't look like he was going to move anytime soon.

From where he stood watching, Sarutobi chuckled, finding amusement in the scene. He doubted Sasuke knew what was happening, or if he did he was refusing to admit to it, but the young boy was developing a mother themed crush on the rose colored woman. It would be interesting to see in a few years if Sasuke would still look at Sakura like the replacement mother he saw her as, or if he would grow up and see things for how they really were.

"Don't laugh at them, you should help," Itachi sighed in a quiet voice, coming up the stairs behind the old man. His voice was so soft not even Sasuke heard it.

Sarutobi frowned. "I thought you were on a mission."

Itachi watched his brother but answered Sarutobi with an even tone. "I was. It was…not far from here."

Itachi was always a man of half truths and hidden secrets for everyone, and Sarutobi understood that. He was grateful for Itachi talking to him as much as he did. There were few people, and fewer Uchiha the old man could stand, but Itachi's pacifistic nature helped sway Sarutobi into believing there were one or two worth holding out for. The fact that Itachi intentionally leaked information without remorse also helped.

"Was it even a real mission, or was it something to get you out of the Keep while the Red King moved?" Sarutobi wondered out loud, eyeing his pipe.

Itachi didn't say anything, but passed by the old man to cross the room and stop at the end of Sakura's couch. Sakura didn't stir, but Sasuke did. The younger boy blushed brought red and frowned at his older brother, lifting on hand and making a slashing 'go away' motion with it. Itachi smirked, enjoying the sight of his little brother getting all flustered. Sasuke always wanted to impress his big brother, but the situation he was in now was anything but impressive.

Itachi tapped his lips before whispering, "I'm actually here to talk to Sakura."

Sasuke's embarrassment melted and his flustered expression morphed into one more antagonistic. If he had hackles, Itachi guessed they would be raised. 'What for?' Sasuke mouthed, not willing to speak from so close to Sakura, even thought she was likely awake enough to still hear them.

"Just to talk about a mission she might be going on."

"Come back later," Sasuke hissed sharply, his black eyes narrowed.

Itachi wanted to laugh, this was the most antagonized he'd been able to make Sasuke in a long time and it was too cute to leave alone. "Oh, when will she be free?"

"Dinner time."

"Shisui was supposed to have her the rest of the afternoon for training. I can't say anything once he's come to pick her up."

"You're strong than him, distract him, or better yet, murder him in the halls. No one will miss him."

"Mm, Sakura might." Itachi was having a hard time hiding his smile at the way Sasuke prickled like an angry house cat. Sasuke had loved cats enough growing up, maybe their behaviors rubbed off on him.

"Not with me around."

"Oh, you're going to entertain her?"

"She won't need that punk anymore. I'm a hundred times better than that guy!" Sasuke exclaimed, pushing up on his hands and moving away from Sakura.

Sakura grunted when he pushed off from her stomach and he flinched as soon as he noticed. The panic on his face was hard to miss as Sakura sat herself up, eyeing the boy wearily while rubbing the part he had pushed. Sasuke wilted. Sakura turned her attention to Itachi, making a note of how close Sarutobi kept himself.

"You had something to discuss about the mission?" Sakura asked. "Did someone tell you about it?"

"It's been planned for a while, and I'm sure everyone knows about it, but not everyone knows you are the one going to retrieve the waterskin. Rather than what you are retrieving or where you are going, I wanted to ask if you were told who you would be going with. I'm concerned because I was given another mission and I know Kagami is busy with Naruto at the front."

Sakura shook her head. "He didn't tell me who he was sending me off with, but he did say he had someone in mind aside from you and Shisui. If Kagami isn't free than I wouldn't know who he could have me work with." Sakura shook her head, reaching up and combing back the stray strands with her nails. There were only a few of them, but last night's braid wasn't as tight as the others, so she looked a bit more disheveled than normal. "He really seemed to be against the idea of Shisui going with me anywhere."

Itachi hummed, not missing the way Sasuke was trying to discreetly crawl back over to Sakura. "He's angry with our cousin because on the last mission you went on solo someone caught Shisui trying to follow after you. Uncle Madara thinks he's not as disciplined as he could be and hasn't made an effort to hide how he punishes Shisui for his willful behavior."

"I don't believe that's the reason your uncle hates Shisui, and I don't think I even believe it has anything to do with how or to whom he was born. It just seemed a bit more…personal to me, and it didn't have anything to do with what he said it's just a hunch, or a feeling." Sakura glanced down when Sasuke wrapped his arms around her torso and rested his head on her chest, curling up like a house cat.

"I think a story might be what you need," Sarutobi said, coming into her line of sight, smoking something heavy and thick. She could smell the weed grass clearly as it burned in his pipe and made the space in front of his face clouded with smoke.

Sakura's eyes danced at the mention of a story. "What kind of story?" she asked, settling back down into the covers and dragging Sasuke along with her. He seemed happy enough to follow, but made a sound of protest when she moved to remind her of his spoiled nature.

Sarutobi took a seat across from her and inhaled his smoke, closing his eyes to think. Itachi sat up in his chair, holding his breath as the room settled into a silence anyone could crawl into and wear like a cape around their shoulders. Sarutobi cracked a single eye and glanced sideways at Itachi and then smirked, as if anticipating saying something the Uchiha wouldn't like.

"It's a story for young girls and boys, about friendship and power. Long ago, when stories still mattered, there was a village so far and wide no one could see the end of it. In that village lived two families who only had boys. As boys are prone to, they fought for generations, passing down their distrust and ill will to the succeeding offspring, until one day that cycle of hatred was broken. The eldest son of each family used the same stream in the woods to fish from, and it was there they made their friendship. It was a true friendship, pure and innocent as most things are when belonging to children and for a while that was all there was to either of their lives," Sarutobi said, closing his eyes and dragging his voice out over the images he painted in her mind.

Sakura could see the woods stretching out forever and the river were memories were made. She breathed in and smelled the moisture of riverbanks and the thrill of water on flesh. Sarutobi painted even more and she fell deeper into his story as he told his story of how the two brothers sought to bring peace between their families for a time before their efforts were thwarted.

One thing led to another, and children became adults. As adults they became warriors. Sakura felt the weight of the world as the two friends became enemies, weighed down by the ties of tradition and familial honor until their respective patriarchs died to leave their families to the two eldest. In a brave move the brothers quit their fighting and ushered in a time of great peace.

"A beautiful story," Sakura whispered, opening her eyes, assuming the tale was done. When she looked up she saw Sarutobi still smoked his pipe and it was heavy with grass weed. The story wasn't finished.

"No, it's not," he answered, reading her mind with a twinkle to his eyes. The twinkle fizzled out. "No, stories do not always end with the happy ending. Each brother had a younger sibling, a younger brother, and those brothers were not as fond of this peace as they could have been. Too much animosity was too finely drilled into their bones. They didn't know how not to fight. One day, the younger brothers got into a fight and no one can say why or how, but at the end of it all, one of the boys was dead, and the peace was as broken as a thing can get. The brother of the killed boy was devastated and swore revenge, ripping his family away from the light of peace and bathing it in darkness that clouds the village to this day."

"And what point is there to such a story?" Sakura asked, feeling shaken. Stories had a feeling to them that made her feel filled. This story made her feel off balanced, like it was wrong, lacking a moral or ending.

"What do you take from the story?"

"Peace is an illusion," she guessed, missing the way Itachi glared across the room at Sarutobi. Sakura frowned, not liking the way the words felt in her mouth. Stories weren't supposed to feel so emptying. "I don't think I liked your story."

"Then listen to this, the fate of the man who lost his brother is one of pain. His pain was so great he could no longer bear to live with it inside of him, so he removed his heart from his self and hid it away in the eye of a needle that was hidden inside the yoke of an egg that was set inside a tin box that was hidden inside of an shell that was hidden inside the body of a cat that was hidden inside of a iron chest that was hidden inside of a monster that was hidden on an island shrouded in mist."

Sakura sat up, recognizing the set up to a hero story when she heard one. "Who finds his heart?"

"No one."

Sakura growls in response.

"That is where it waits to this day, while war divides the two families. Death can no be overcome so easily."

From on her chest Sasuke pouts and huffs, "I didn't like that story very much. Sakura you said you would play with me when you woke up. You're up now so you need to help me with the cats."

"Sasuke…" Itachi's tone was warning, but Sasuke was good at ignoring things.

Sasuke touched Sakura's neck and she flinched, giving the fullness of his attention to him as he continued to poke at the exposed areas of her body until he was given the attention he desired. "Help me with the cats," was all he would say before Sakura finally agreed to help him out.

Itachi followed the pair at a distance waiting until Sasuke left him an opening to sneak in and steal Sakura away long enough for him to ask her a single question before he was chased off by his younger brother. 'When you are leaving, see me,' was all he said.

Like Itachi summarized, Shisui came to pick her up in a few hours time and Sasuke was doubly upset that he lost is playmate to one of the people he liked the least in his life. For as bad as Sasuke was taking it, Shisui was royally pleased to take Sakura away from his punk cousin and cause the little brat some grief too.

Shisui kept her on the grounds until dinner time, but even then he demanded her time and had dinner served in his room while they read together and talked about what she thought of the last book he put in her hands.

Sakura fell asleep on the carpet in front of his fireplace, and when she woke hours later, when the moon was still high, she found herself moved to Shisui's bed. The boy was nowhere to be found, but she felt startled enough to get up and leave for her own bed and spend the rest of the night there, praying stories wouldn't start about them.

When Shisui came for her the next day he seemed just as eager and not at all changed in how he addressed and interacted with her.

'The book I leant you, have you finished it yet?'

"Is that really the type of book you can read just once. It was hard to make out.'

He never brought up the night before, and with that Sakura felt free enough to let it go and pretend there was nothing more to it than a friend helping a friend out.

Madara came the night after, rousing her from her sleep with nothing more than his appearance. He hovered at the end of her bed, bone mask in place, floating in the face of a gaping void of hood and cowl. "The stables," was all he said.

She expected him to flicker out and away, but he broke into a mass of feather and burst into an unkindness of ravens that flew out the open door into the hallway. The stray feathers left behind crumbled into ash when she reached to touch them, becoming nothing but dust for her fingers.

Sakura didn't think about it, choosing instead to go to her closet and pull the dull black leather down and dress for stealth and mobility. Itachi would be dressed the same if he was going to be her partner.

'Don't go.'

Sakura looked up, startled with the feeling of a voice inside her head. She hadn't heard it, but felt the impression of the worlds. Ghosts couldn't talk with the living, so when she turned and saw Ino standing in front of ht bed with her hair down and eyes red, Sakura had to try her best to read lips and accept the feeling of Ino's intentions. It wasn't hard.

"What is going to happen to me?" Sakura asked, not knowing if Ino would even be able to reply. There were days-weeks even- when the blond couldn't appear in front of Sakura. Most days she chose not to.

Ino's lips moved. 'I can't see it. I can't go.'

Sakura frowned. It was enough to freak Ino out, who could see beyond and through what living souls couldn't. Even though Ino was dead, there was never any hard she wished on Sakura.

"I'll be careful. I think I'll be fine this time." She reached into the wardrobe and slid the leather strap of her rifle over her head and left shoulder, shifting it into place for travel.

Ino frowned once more and turned her face away. A curtain of spun gold feel in front of her face as her hair slipped over her shoulder and Sakura remembered how beautiful Ino was in her life before the ghost was gone from the room, leaving Sakura feeling just as empty.

Down in the stables, Sakura entered with limited hesitation, still a bit unsure about the mission. Ino had made her even more unsure, but in addition to that, there was a gut feeling that told her not to trust in any illusion of safety.

"You're finally here?" a echo of a voice reached her from behind. Sakura spun on her heel and feel into a crouch, body taunt as every hair on her body stood on end. Her eyes widened at the sight, but she didn't move out of her crouch.

"No mask," she breathed, looking up into the shadow underneath his hood to see the dark outline of what she assumed to be his face. There was a cloth high up, covering everything below his eyes. It was hard to see his face, most of it was still hidden, but his eyes were that much closer. He blinked once and the red orbs were gone, replaced with twin black irises. More normal than before, his eyes were still piercing.

Something clicked inside of Sakura and she shivered. "You're…you're my partner this time?" she guessed fearing the answer she knew he would give her.

"No one will know these characters as well as I, and Obito is more than fit to preserve my country in my absence for a handful of days," Madara intoned, shrugging in what could have been nonchalant if he wasn't already so naturally elegant. "You will have to make do with myself. I will be in your care, please watch over me."

Sakura wanted to hiss at his face, but she also wanted to cower with the way he made her feel so small. "Do you really believe this is wise, to leave and risk you life on something I can likely do on my own?" she asked, coming out of her crouch, keeping her stance looser and more natural looking.

There was no way she would be able to do a mission with someone who made her fear for her life with nothing more than his words and the sound of his voice. Maybe she didn't trust the Uchiha fully, but she knew at least to work with Itachi and Shisui and rely on them and believe in them when she needed to. Madara was a whole other story.

"You doubt what you do not know, young thing," he chuckled, clearly amused with her poorly masked fear. She didn't think it was funny.

He strode towards her and she saw more of his face. She thought of Shisui and how alike their faces seemed in the darkness and wondered if Madara was really Shisui's father. The thought made him seem more human.

Sakura touched her tongue to the back of her teeth and breathed out, calming down. Madara was a person that loomed larger than life in her mind, and she didn't want to feel humbled every time he opened his mouth to speak. He was her king, or at the very least a king. She wasn't the mindless little red solider she signed up to be six years ago, but the solider life still clung to her, coloring her personality.

Her tongue quivered behind her teeth and she willed them not to grow, even as her nature grappled for dominance once again, she wrestled it back under control. She had braided her hair too tightly to loose control now. No, now was not the time for fangs and wild throats.

Keeping her tongue pressed against the back of her teeth, Sakura straighten out her collar, making sure it was high around her throat and stiff enough to stand without support. When she looked at him again, she convinced herself he was human. The thought made her chest tighten, but when she visualized him torn up with his blood on her hands she felt less afraid. Maybe killing him was impossible, but if she imagined she could, she felt less intimidated. That was what all the children of Krepost were taught to do for strength, because the idea was never conceived that there would be someone or something that couldn't be torn apart by a pack of red wolves.

"Where are we going?" she asked, looking at him from the corner of her eye, still not facing him fully.

Madara turned from her and mounted a horse, blacker than Itachi's and agitated with impatience. "To the north," was all he said before turned to head out.

Sakura found a horse ready for her and followed close behind. To the North were open plains and beyond those were the war pits, pockets of lands utterly devastated from battles waged against the white kingdom. Further North still was the white country.

Beyond the Red Keep, outside the walls of the city, and far into the surrounding woods, Sakura felt the unpleasant pull of magic as the world around them pulled and groaned. She knew there was something off about the horses, they had been riding hard for hours and they horses didn't even seem aware of the strain they were putting on their bodies. When they stopped at one point the next day Sakura saw the dark purple veins underneath their skin and when she traced her fingers backwards along the trail she felt the texture of magic in their blood.

Madara spoke even less than the horses, if that was possible. By the next night Sakura was almost convinced he was just another animal she was traveling with, saying nothing, but obediently heading in the right direction. It helped preserve her idea of him being human, and the intimidation she felt around him lessened.

The second morning they reached the worst of the war pits.

Madara had stopped his steed dismounted to inspect the damage of the flat, black lands that were littered with fragments of what used to be a stone structure. Sakura did the same, keeping her distance. After a moment he turned to her and spoke. "Do you know what happened here?" he asked, sounding like he already knew the answer to his own question.

Sakura frowned. "I may look like this now, but once upon a time I was nothing more than a grunt in your army. Of course I know what happened here. We were all here at one point or another."

"What did you call this pit?" he asked, his tone changing.

Sakura turned towards him. "We called it the broken needle. Before the terrane was reshaped, there was a narrow path here that the enemies had to pass through. They were always greater in number, but no match for our skill. We could easily pick them off when they came through the pass that used to be here. It was like that for a while before they brought blasting powder in the night."

"And what do you call the day that followed that night?"

Sakura frowned. "Unfortunate."

Madara chuckled and the bad feeling in her gut turned hot and angry. More than anyone,he wasn't allowed to be anything but sober on such a bloody field. She felt her hackles rise but flinched when she saw that it was her he was smiling at.

"What do the other red soldiers call that day?"

"The massacre of the broken needle," she recited, automatically.

"And you were there." He didn't ask. He already knew.

Sakura closed her eyes, wishing she didn't remember. "I've been to too many massacres, I don't know what one's I haven't been a part of anymore. That's the trouble with this over eager regeneration all beasts share."

"We were looking for you after this battle." Hearing his words Sakura looked up and saw where he was standing was closer to a section of earth that looked like it might fall away under his feet. "-You and a handful of others who seemed like ghosts in the night. Those who survive so often in defiance of the odd have a way of attracting a somewhat envied level of attention. That was how we found Yuu and the twins, that was also how we plan on finding the others."

"I don't know of any others left in your army, and I would have been able to tell if I met one," Sakura replied.

"Are you jealous? Don't want competition for my attention?"

Sakura threw up her hands and turned away, not daring to touch that comment with one of her own. He sounded almost playful and it unnerved her. She didn't want to think she cared about other potential soldiers in her position being taken because of something they used to be.

Sakura tugged on the reigns of her horse and led the beast through the blast site, ignoring the way Madara watched her pass. He always seemed to be watching her, even when he wasn't looking at her, he was always aware of her. A moment later he was following along behind her with his own horse on a lead.

When they made camp that night she made sure her bed roll was turned away from his and her saddle between them. She slept, but as all animals do, her sleep was shallow. Once or twice she woke in the night, tense from sounds heard beyond their campfire. The second time she noticed Madara had moved his bedroll closer to her saddle, and angled it around so he was closer to the woods. Another time she woke and saw the color of his red eyes watching her. She didn't look away, and seconds later he blinked, his eyes returning to black before he turned his face away.

It took another day of awkward traveling, with nothing eventful enough to be worth remembering. At one point when they stopped to gather tea roots Sakura sniffed out along the road she asked Madara how much further but he never answered. She didn't want to sound nervous, so she didn't ask again, even though she knew when they passed over the line dividing red country from white.

Sakura took another rest stop just before dusk and when she came back she was in no better a mood, and willing to bit off his ear for it when he smirked at her expression and asked if she wanted to make camp as soon as possible so she could get her 'lady rest.' She didn't even know what he meant by 'lady rest,' but she knew she didn't like it.

"You know where we're going but you refuse to tell me. Is that because we're heading into a white country village or town where you know we'll be invading?" She snapped from behind her horse. The poor beast was starting to show signs of fatigue. She didn't like pushing it so much, even if they did make amazing time.

"Does that make you uncomfortable. You're not a solider right now, you're a beast."

"Does that mean errand girl to you?"

"Maybe." He stepped around her horse so she could see him, face still covered but eyes still bright. "Yuu is my assassin, Naruto is my leashed battlefield monster, and you are my adventurer." Sakura turned and he moved to keep himself in her line of vision. "You each serve a role."

"If I have a role then trust me with it. You've told me nothing of what we are doing on this errand of yours. You can't tell me where we're going or what we might be walking into? What justifies keeping that to yourself?"

Madara moved out of her line of vision and mounted his horse. Sakura felt her hackles wanting to rise. He pulled up alongside her and looked down. His face was masked, but she could tell well enough that he was smirking by the sound of his voice. "You don't think this makes it all the more exciting?"

"You could say I'm not eager."

"Maybe you should just enjoy relying on me until your role emerges, and trust me to take us there in one piece."

"I don't think I could ever trust you, Madara." She could serve and obey him, maybe even one day she might like him the way she liked other Uchiha, but she would never trust someone who unsettled her so much without even trying.

Madara was watching her again. For a stale moment she thought he might say something, but then he broke off with a amused hum and called back over his shoulder, "We shall see if you need to."

Another night they camped in the cold woods and Sakura swore she tasted snow when she inhaled upon waking. Not much more than a handful of leagues away the elevation began to climb and the white powder became almost believable. Sakura saw signs of old snowfalls, looking down she spotted clusters of past snows mostly gone with a handful still frozen to the rocks underfoot.

Before evening could become dusk, Madara reached over and grabbed her reigns. She stopped alongside his steed and looked out in the direction he was gazing. There were houses, crude ones, but warm structure with their lights not turned on. It reminded Sakura of the places she would find closest to the disputed boarder lines and the pits. She thought it was funny how both sides seemed the least developed the closer they were to war.

"They're inside."

"Who?" Sakura hissed, hiking up her shoulders. Her breath was a cloud in front of her face. It had always been cold, but now she could see it.

Madara's voice was equally low. "The people of the town, obviously." He pointed to one of the larger structures with a stable attached. "That's the inn that serves as their town hall, recreation center, and anything else they need. We can book a room there for the night."

She followed him silently, keeping her steed a pace behind his and her head down. No one would be able to tell she was a red solider with the way she was dressed, but that didn't mean she wasn't nervous. She didn't like lying, too many years lying about her heritage alongside Ino made it taste bitter in her mouth.

If Madara noticed he kept it to himself, but she could feel him smile. He led her to the stables where they penned their horses and then went inside to book a room. Sakura held her breath, thinking the inn lady would ask Madara to remove his mask, but she only blushed and muttered to the other girl behind the counter 'how cute the visitor from the north looked.' Sakura smelled magic and frowned, realizing he had used a glamor.

They took a room and he set up a bed before taking her down to the common room for dinner. He put a small potted plant down in front of them and Sakura wrinkled her nose at the flower. No one would be able to hear them as long as the enchanted object stayed between them.

"What?" she asked over her frown.

"She thinks we make a cute couple." He nodded his chin at the inn keeper and her daughter who were laughing to themselves about something.

"Was that-no, never mind. What did you want to tell me that couldn't be overheard. Where is the water skin?"

"In a room upstairs. Sometimes the soldiers in the white army, the ones who hide behind the lace men, they stay here. You should be able to smell your way to the room- it will be the only one that smells like rotting oranges to you." He pretended to brush aside some of her hair and she wondered what other who were seeing their illusion were seeing. "Bring it back here to me. Simple enough."

"Too simple," Sakura ground out, suspecting there was something else he wasn't saying.

She excused herself from the table, pushing her empty plate towards the center before slipping upstairs. The inn was larger than most, likely to compensate for the rest of the town. There were three floors, with each one getting nicer the further she traveled from the main hall. She spied tapestries on the staircase leading to the highest level, and followed her nose up the last set of stairs.

Madara had told her it would be easy, and it was. The smell was enough to make her gag when she looked for it. There was more than just one magical item in the inn. If he wanted her to pick up something else on the way back, he was in to be disappointed. She didn't like not being told what was happening, especially when she was asked to risk her life for it.

One of the doors towards the end of the hall separated her from her mission. She tried the door and felt the enchantments that wouldn't keep her out. She brushed them aside and entered in, breaking the lock without a sound. Stepping over the threshold, she wrinkled her nose in disgust. A solider slept in these quarters, judging by the wrinkled uniforms left out, but he wasn't the only one. Sakura toed the extra small, pink lace panties. That wasn't a surprise, however distasteful.

She took another step in and froze, seeing the still form asleep on the bed. A young girl, too young to be a woman, slept with tears dried on her face. Sakura smelled the magic all around the bed and felt her fangs grow sharper and longer. Her hands were tipped in claws as she scratched her nails against the wood where runes pulsated with energy. By the time she got to the fourth marking, she was mad enough that she clawed the bed post clean through.

The girl jolted awake, looking around, her eyes were disoriented and glazed with confusion. "Mom," she mumbled, and Sakura felt her fingers itch. The girl saw Sakura and started to cry. Sakura shook her head, expecting as much and pulled a shirt from the pile of old laundry. She helped the girl dressed and said nothing, knowing there were no words worth saying.

Sakura licked her lips and in the motion her fangs flashed. The girl saw them and sucked in a breath, letting Sakura know her secret was not as secret as it should have been. Her nails were shrinking back to fleshy fingertips, but her teeth wouldn't.

"Think I'm a monster, neh?" she joked. "Don't worry, I won't eat you."

Sakura set the girl down on the floor, making sure she could stand. The girl took a few shaky steps, each one strained for reasons that made Sakura swear vengeance. The girl stopped and looked back. "No, I know what a monster looks like. You're not one of them."

The girl hobbled out and Sakura made up her mind to follow close behind, just as soon as she grabbed the water skin. She found it in a chest under the bed and took everything that was inside of it, not wanting the men who owned the room to have anything left. She caught up to the girl on the stairs and offered her arm all the way down. She had the girl who's name was Ami, stay in the room she shared with Madara while she hid their things.

Ami said she had family close by, she loved in the village, the girl behind the counter at the front was her friend. They didn't know there was magic involved, but they all knew Ami never went willingly into that room. They came two months ago, and took her after the first month when their squad leader left for the west regiment.

Each line in the story made Sakura shudder with poor rage. It was just as terrible as the first story Ino told her of the boys in the first year who didn't know what it meant to be a solider. True soldiers lost their appetites for sex, they said. Monsters were a different story. Girls like Ino and Sakura, as well as boys like Gennma and Kon dealt with the monsters in their ranks, and it was in their culture to leave those bodies out for the crows where all would be monsters could see what came of such filth.

Sakura felt the commotion coming before she heard it. With a hand motion she told Ami to wait without speaking inside the room while she went out to investigate. The soldiers were coming back from outside, running their horses hard. One was shouting about thieves and integrity and Sakura had an idea what he was talking about. She hadn't been careful to cover her tracks. She wanted this confrontation.

She stood against the banisters overlooking the first floor and watched them stream in. The Inn lady was trying to stop them and calm them down, looking afraid, while her daughter ran off to hide. Everyone looked like they wanted to hide except for Madara who grinned wide behind his mask. Sakura could see the outline of his lips stretching underneath the fabric.

Sakura moved to the head of the stairs and stopped on the first step, waiting. They pushed past the inn lady a moment later and Sakura saw their faces when they caught sight of her. The fangs caught the light and her nails could have been steel arrow tips. She counted four, but the one hanging to the back looked lost. The other three knew what was missing, their scents had been in the room, but not the forth boy.

Sakura snarled, tearing into the first man before he could unhook his pistol. The other two took a bit more effort, but she pulled their bodies open with her bare hands, remembering how it felt to shred sinew from bone on a still living thing. She could almost remember howling when she was like this.

The fight wasn't a challenge, but she was more fang and claw than ever before. It was different from how she was when she fought the two right hands after Itachi left her, and any other time. This time she was anger made manifest in the flesh. This time she was mad enough to want to kill. This wasn't about survival, this was about blood.


She didn't know what he wanted to say, but her hands were deep in his stomach and she was popping the pieces she grabbed like they were flower bulbs. She knew when she popped his lungs when all the air came out of his mouth in a rancid, blood tainted breath that left him still. She let his corpse fall off her wrists and land at her ankles.

Her arms were red all the way up when she looked at the last white solider, trembling in the corner. He had wet himself and looked like he was crying too. She didn't blame him. He was just a kid, so she passed over him, her boots tracking bloody footsteps all the way to the front where the inn woman cowered.

"There's a girl in my room. You know her. When we leave, please see that she is taken care of. She'll be sick for a while, coming out of the thrall she was under. She needs lots of fluids, not snow, that'll dehydrate her."

"Why did you leave that one?" the woman asked, looking at the boy who still hadn't moved. She didn't sound upset, just puzzled.

"He didn't smell like her." Sakura turned and looked back at her mess before side stepping to cut off the older woman's view. "Should I not have." When she stretched her lips to say 'have' she showed off her teeth for too long. It was always the teeth that people get caught on.

"Who are you?"

Sakura didn't have words for the woman anymore. She turned and saw Madara watching her. He was the only one still in the room, seated at his table with the finished plates from their dinner still in front of him. He didn't look scary at all. There was nothing about him she found intimidating. She could rip him apart as easily as she could anyone else, she knew it. The blood lust was making her stronger than ever and she knew, like she knew the sky was gray and the earth was cold, that she could kill anything the way she was then.

"What did you do with the girl?" he asked.

Sakura staggered a bit, feeling like the ground had reached up and subjugated her to gravity once more. She turned and fell backwards onto the bench, looking away from him. Her body sagged and the haze faded, leaving her more empty than before. Madara waited, even after the inn lady left to find her daughter and the surviving white solider ran for the outside, Madara waited while Sakura collected herself.

She heard him move up the stairs, and closed her eyes, imagining the scene as he found her box of magical things and brought it down. She opened her eyes when she heard the thud behind her. Look over, she saw exactly what she expected. But this time Madara wasn't grinning.

"Should we go?"

They hadn't even been there the night. The beds they paid for were going to go to waste, but there was too much of a mess to stay and if Sakura was being honest with herself she would admit she would feel better sleeping outside on the dirt under the stars and between the trees.

Wordlessly, without looking back at him, Sakura stood and left ahead of Madara, going to the stables and taking the lead to her horse. Carrying the saddle on her shoulder, she left ahead of him, not bothering to listen if he was behind her or not. She knew the path back, she didn't need him.

But Madara wasn't one to be so easily dismissed. He was on his horse, coming up fast from behind until he had overtaken her entirely. He was ahead of her, dismounting with a vault from his saddle, and rushing to stand in front of her. He was just a man, she doubted he had ever been anything more. He was saying something too. She didn't want to hear it, but she stopped and pretended to listen. When she didn't react he reached out to touch her, brushing the knuckles of his fingers against the side of her face. Sakura jerked back, eyes wide before narrowing.

"You've not connected with this bestial nature in a long time. You'll be exhausted."

Sakura bared her fangs. "You knew this would happen."

"Ah, I couldn't have predicted this, though maybe I hoped-" he jerked back, sidestepping to avoid the stroke for his face. If he had been anyone else, or any slower, her nails would have found purchase in the flesh over his jaw. He backed up even more and tensed, watching her with wide eyes. He didn't look angry though. In fact, he laughed. "There it is, there is the beast! Nothing less would have snarled at me."

"Shut up," Sakura bit out, feeling her anger flare back up again. He might not have been the monster those men had been, but he must have known, must have planned it to happen like this. He was too sly to not know how this would upset her. He must have known what she did in the camps to men like that. Did he know about Ino's stories too?

"Don't fret, love," he breathed, and he was behind her, both hands on her back and shoulders with his fingers pressed into the dips of her shoulder blades. He moved his hands down to her back and kneeled his knuckle bones into her the way mothers did to their crying young. It made her shiver and relax a bit too much. His fingers moved and she felt them trace circles into the bunches of muscles in her back, working out knots. He lowered his face to settle close to her ear and whispered. "Better?"

"I still want to hurt you," Sakura whispered, letting her eyes fall closed. "I don't like you."

"You wouldn't say that to me unless you abandoned the self that was my little red solider. Have you?"

Sakura looked ahead at the horses. "We got what we came here for?"

When he didn't reply right away she shook off his hands and bent down to grab the saddle she had dropped earlier. Carrying it over to her horse she readied it and mounted. She felt Madara hover nearby at her knees, not yet mounted herself. When he looked up, she could see under his hood. She thought he really did look like the bastard prince he refused to see.

He called her name when she looked like she was about to lead her horse off. She stared at him with half lidded eyes. "There will always be this evil in the world. There is no war to blame for what lies in men's hearts. War only pulls back the ribcages and exposes what's already there." He touched her knee. "You couldn't have prevented any of that."

"Why did you bring me here?" she huffed. "Why do you send me anywhere? It may be winter, and the battle lines may be thinner for the seasons, but we're still at war and we're still bleeding from our wounds that will not heal."

"Winter makes all men tired. We have not had an engagement in weeks. Naruto is a good deterrent, but you know as well as I, how both sides like to pull back for our festivals of light. The war will wait till spring."

Sakura thought Madara's words sounded like something a far off observer would say. Maybe there were no official engagements, but there were still troops stationed out there on the line, shivering and freezing while they watched over their supply lines and prayed the winds wouldn't blow them apart. War would grow silent, the way predictors would grow silent in their stalking. Until there was peace Madara was disillusioned to believed the war would wait.

There were no words between them after that. Sakura turned away and Madara kept close, but never provoked her after that. Like the ride up, he was a silent partner on the road, keeping to himself in both word and deed.

Sakura rode behind Madara, keeping her voice locked in her throat even as he steered them off the path they originally traveled. They were still heading south, but they veered off towards the west, closer to the places between countries that she knew better than others. On the second day she recognized the landmarks with painstaking clarity. Where they made camp, Sakura had to stuff her ears with moss to keep from hearing the sounds her brain would never forget. It wasn't perfect, but it was a good enough excuse for when she had to pretend to not hear when Madara asked her for a story.

When she woke in the morning her braid was tighter than she was used to. She reached behind her head to feel the bumps and recognized the tiny herringbone braids running along the side of her skull. The center most section of her hair was thickly braided up, on, and over itself multiple times. It would have taken Ino a whole day to do this sort of style.

"It looks nice."

Sakura turned her head to see Madara standing not far from his roll, a blanket folded over his arms. He was watching her without his hood, and she could see the mess of raven hair framing his face. He hadn't tied it back or braided it like she had suspected him to do after realizing how long his hair actually was.

He noticed her stare and breathed out an amused sigh, before readjusting the cloth mask on his face and turning away.

Madara lead her dead west, not even bothering to hide his intentions of traveling in a round about way. Sakura wanted to ask why and get answers from him, but her mouth felt like ask whenever she tried to talk to him, like the thought of a conversation with the Red King would be too much. She wouldn't be the first one to speak to him this time. If he wanted to explain himself he would when he was ready. She wouldn't beg him for what he wasn't willing to give up.

The only thing he said to her that night was to ask for a story, but it was in a teasing tone so she ignored him with a huff, hating how easily he grinned at her discomfort. She stuffed her ears with moss once more before laying down.

In the middle of the third night the moss did nothing to help her sleep, so Sakura rose, emptied her ears, and took a walk out through the devastated woods were her unit had once stationed herself. The trees were healing, but many of them were dead where they stood, blasted up at the roots and shocked to death by bullets and fire.

She saw a boy in red lamenting between two yews and stopped herself before she could whisper his name from long ago. No one wore red in the army anymore. If she said his name out loud, however far apart they were, she knew the ghost would hear her and be stuck to her side.

Ino was a special case, already having a bond with Sakura, but there were too many stories of survivors carrying the dead for the rest of their short lives when they said the wrong thing. Childish legends about ghosts became something only adults could stomach once the mines were introduced. With no body to bury or bless, a part of them couldn't move on-not the soul-but something else that made up people.

"What do you see?"

Sakura didn't flinch, but turned to see Madara behind her, watching her with one hand braced against a stunted Maple that would never change color again. Once upon a time this forest must have been beautiful.

"I'd much rather know what you see," Sakura whispered back, speaking for the first time all day.

Madara grinned at her through his mask. It was easier to see the outline of his grin under the moonlight. "You don't really mean that. You don't even look at me anymore. I don't think you care."

Sakura looked back at the boy weeping between the trees and pretended he was the only dead thing she saw. "What did you follow me here?"

"I thought you were going to run away and leave me here." Sakura turned and looked back, hearing his words. The smile was gone, but he continued. "You could have. I wouldn't have been able to catch you if you really tried, at least not the way you are now."

Sakura ran her tongue over her teeth. She didn't need to ask what he meant when he referred to 'the way she was now.' She didn't say anything, and in the next moment he was walking towards her, one step at a time. There was no magic in his movements, no swirl of feathers, or flashing of steps inside of shadows. He was just a man.

"You would have tracked me down eventually," she finally conceded.

"But that's not the reason why you didn't run. I want to know that reason."

He hadn't asked, only demanded. "I don't have one."

"You're very good at lying, but I'm better." He stepped around her, watching her as he circled her from a short distance. "Is it to honor the dead, those who haunt you, is it nationalism for the country that fed you in its famine, or is it because there is no where else to run to in this world? The one who told Shisui your name wanted you dead. He wanted your throat like a zealot wants a pagan."

Sakura almost growled, glaring at him from over her shoulder. Maybe what he said wasn't wrong, the she had no where to run to, and Ino was too constant a reminder of what she was still entrusted to do, but he didn't need to know any of that. His guesses were just that, guesses. He wanted a reaction out of her.

"You think I have a reason to run?" Sakura asked.

"One day my adventures might kill you. Is that what you want?" He stopped circling. "I didn't take you as the suicidal type."

Sakura shut her eyes and looked away, feeling exhausted the way she felt after breaking up a fight between Naruto and Sasuke. "Maybe it wasn't so much a reason not to run as it was a reason to stay." When he didn't reply she cracked open a single eye and almost grinned and his moody expression. "I'll go back because that is where Shisui waits for me, and Itachi and Sasuke and Sarutobi. I'll go back because I want to know Yuu better, and I want to help Kagami and talk to Shizune about why I won't wear a dress. As troublesome as it may be…" she closed her eyes again. "It's the best home I've had in a long time. What would I leave that for?"

He didn't follow her when she walked back to camp and swaddled herself in borrowed furs and stuffed her ears with moss. It didn't make the night quiet, but it was enough got to fall asleep to.

When she awoke in the morning breakfast was uncharacteristically set out for her beside her head. Madara wasn't around, so she rose and ate, wiping down her skin with a damp rag to keep herself clean from the worst of her sweat. She was pulling the front of her outermost jacket closed when he reemerged, silent enough for her to almost not notice.

He didn't say anything, but they worked together to pack things up and put their mess away. The mounted together and Sakura followed as Madara led them deeper into the west.

Before the fourth night could make them camp for the night they broke off from the line that divided white and red lands and turned into the plains that once belonged to the nomads before their diaspora. He made them run much of the way, but less than an hour after nightfall they camped in the ruins of an outpost that provided more shelter than the trees and a sense of closure.

Madara was building a fire when he asked her, "Will you tell me a story?"

She looked back at him and saw the infant flames just beyond his hands, sparked to life by magic.

"No." She ate her food in silence and slept with her face turned away. She didn't need the moss anymore, but she still used it to keep her ears warm, if for nothing else.

The fifth night, they were still far from the Red Keep and not quite turned in the right direction, but he set them down to camp in some more ruins and she helped the way she had all the other nights before. Just like all the the other nights, Madara asked for a story. And just like all the other nights, she told him no. She didn't use the moss anymore.

When she woke up there were new clothes at the foot of her roll, fresh and clean and red as any girl's blood. Sakura took them with her to the river and scrubbed herself down on the banks, not stupid enough to actually take a swim, before dressing in the new things. She hated them in that moment, but her hatred for them grew when she saw the look of triumph on Madara's face when he saw her come back to camp. Throughout the ride, whenever they slowed down, she could feel his eyes on her, watching her uniform like a fire in the dark.

She would change the first chance she got.

"Will you not tell me a story?" he asked again that night. Sakura expected it, knowing that was what he seemed to ask every night for as long as the pattern had begun. But each night she told him no or ignored him, he let it go and never mentioned it again until the next night, when he renewed his request. They didn't talk enough for it to come up on its own.

"What good would a story do you?" Sakura answered in a huff.

"Must it do me good to be worthy of desire?"

Sakura felt her lips turn down. "A story isn't a thing you need right now, and it's not something you've earned from me. They are more than just words spoken. Stories all have a price."

He looked at her like he was ready to mock her for her words. The curve around his eyes was disbelieving. "What price did Shisui pay? What of the old man or the brat kid."

She thought that for someone who disliked Shisui so much, Madara sounded like the younger Uchiha well enough when referring to Sasuke. "Shisui paid in friendship, Sautobi bartered stories."

"And the child?" he prompted.

She remembered Sasuke they way she knew Sasuke didn't want to be remembered; young and frightened under her arms. Maybe a brat, he was still a child and he was still growing. The story she was telling him, the one with the wolves who all became something else based on choices they made, was meant to drive home a lesson. Sasuke was going to be making lots of choices soon, and he needed to feel the weight of them. The story was a lesson.

"Children pay for stories in a different way. They were the first audience, the ones most stories are meant for from the beginning. If the time is ripe for a story, all the child must do is listen, that is what they must pay."

Madara had the fire between them, stoked and feeding before Sakura could world had been dark before, but around the fire, it seemed a deeper shade of black. It was a hungry darkness. "Then what must one such as I pay for the privilege?"

It was the sort of phrase you would use when asking a witch for a favor. The kind of witches who dealt with dreams and recollections, asking for objects most sacred or memories most precious. Sakura didn't like witches, and didn't like the way they worked.

"You have nothing I want. There is no priced to be paid this night." She turned, expecting that to be the end of it, but he stopped her with his next words.

"What if I let you see my face?"

"I don't want to see my face."

Madara laughed. "You're lying."

And because she was, Sakura didn't turn around for fear of him seeing the truth in her eyes as she laid down to bed. She stuffed her ears and pretended she needed the quiet before drifting off. It wasn't as easy as the last few nights, considering how much she wanted to turn around and tear down his mask like the proverbial woman of curiosities. But Sakura didn't. She closed her eyes and promised herself she wouldn't be Pandora, wouldn't be Eve, and fell asleep.

In the morning he lead her even further and then stopped when the rocks overtook the earth and she felt the change around her. They were very deep in the heart of the nomad's territories. It was dryer here, away from the trees and woods. The earth spanned out around them, with the occasional ridge of red rock or formation of sandblasted boulders, made smooth by the winds. Sakura remembered being this far only once, and marveled at how fast and far they must have traveled. Madara must have used magic when she wasn't paying attention. Six days of hard travel took them this far?

But it was only the beginning. Madara led her further into the quasi desert, to the places where the earth turned over and ridges jutted out like lazy elbows on the body of the earth. A few of those formations made alcoves where ancient men dug out homes for themselves. Sand had smoothed down the edges and the exteriors were almost perfectly blended into the rest of the rock face, but the details for decades of craftsmanship was still apparent. It was impossible for Sakura to miss.

She guided her horse around the bend and saw the side of the canyon that had collapsed decades-maybe centuries- ago, crushing the ancient dwellings at the base. The stories of how the survivors went on to become the first nomads. Some said the people died out, others said they built kingdoms in other 's grandmother told the children who would listen what had actually happened.

"What are we doing here?" She asked, feeling tired. She was tired of silence, tired of not knowing. To make it a point, she stopped her horse and held her place, refusing to move.

Madara kept going, but Sakura held still in her saddle, refusing to let her horse move. He was nearly around the next bend when she turned in her saddle, prepared to head back the way they came. Her horse began to turn and she felt the breeze. Madara was there, shedding feathers and magic.

"If you're going to treat me like the wind let me leave as such." She tightened her hold on the black leather reigns.

"We will be there soon."

"That's not an answer." Sakura wanted to growl, the phantom feeling of fur raised into hackles took her over. It was so much easier to fall away from her humanity. She needed to file her fangs down soon.

Madara noticed.

"If you can wait, it will be easier to explain."

Sakura didn't say anything, but turned her horse back around and encourage it to head in the direction Madara had been taking. He stayed close to her and followed at her shoulder. If he wanted to, he could have trotted ahead, but he held back, sticking close to her.

It was late, the evening of the sixth day, and they were farther west than Sakura had likely ever traveled. Krepost had been situated north of the deserts and west of the king's lands. The geography logistics made her head hurt, and she remembered she wasn't good with maps. She found places with other means. Maps were always a puzzle she didn't like solving. It was always easier if she had someone else to tell her were she needed to go.

Still, even if they were in the desert, it was as cold a winter as anywhere else in the red country. It was a desert because there was a sever lack of water, not because it was somehow closer to the sun or warmer than all the other places. If they had been water, Sakura didn't doubt it would freeze overnight if left out. No matter where they went, there was no escaping the winter. If they were going to camp again, they would need to find shelter and pull out their furs.

"We're not much farther now," Madara offered, speaking without prompting. He was talking more than he had in the beginning, which was next to nothing. In comparison to Itachi or Shisui, he was still nearly silent, but Sakura understood he wasn't the type of person that was used to making conversation with those under him.

"This isn't how you earn a story," Sakura huffed, hating how she still didn't know where they were going or what their intentions were in heading into the desert in the first place. It would take just as long to travel back. By the time she returned, she would have gone over two weeks without seeing Shisui and the others. Was that the point in bring her out so far?

"We will find what I'm looking for by tonight. We can make camp and set off first thing in the morning if all goes according to plan." He trotted out ahead of her and she encouraged her horse to keep up at the slightly faster pace.

The pushed their horses into a canter, and once the ground evened out Madara encouraged his steed to adapt a gallop that would have made and other horse a dead thing on four legs. Sakura worried that even with the magic in their veins, their horses wouldn't survive being pushed to go as fast as they did for as long as they have.

The sun was sunk low when they entered into the valley, putting them in the shadows of the high stone walls where the air seemed harsher than before. Even in the desert, she knew she could still freeze. On the side of the rock face there were markings, pictographs, and Sakura din't miss how thy became older and less sparse the further they traveled.

When Madara stopped abruptly Sakura was just as quick to react, slowing her mount to stop alongside his. She saw what had made him stop. Cut into the rock was a mouth opening, it's seam running up high above their heads tot he top of the cliffs. Along each side of the seams were old words in a language Sakura couldn't recognize, much less read. Still, she had a good guess as to what they meant.

Madara dismounted, leaving his horse free to wander. Sakura didn't miss how he reached inside and took an object out of the chest she had stolen from the inn. She didn't say anything about it, didn't even ask what it was. She hadn't seen anything of the contents of the chest and didn't want to if it came from those people.

She followed behind, btu stopped before crossing the threshold into the cave. Madara turned and beckoned her with a smile. She grimaced at what little she could still see of his covered face. "Come," he said.

She took a step, and then another. They got easier to take, and she almost didn't notice taking them the closer she stayed to Madara. Inside there were more drawing on the walls and paintings of hands. It made her grimace again. "These are he caves of the first people," she whispered, knowing he would hear her anyway. "What did you take?"

"You mean what did you take?" He sounded like he wanted to laugh. "You were the one who picked this up in the first place. Really, if only you had left it all alone we wouldn't of had to come out this way."

"I'm not convinced anything we do is as necessary as you say it is," she bit out. Sakura tried her best to remain unaffected by his words, but if nothing else, she found Madara's secrecy childish and annoying. "Why couldn't you have just tossed that trinket in the river and be done with it?"

"And risk one of my enemies finding it and using it against me?"

"You mean against your men. Who could use anything against you directly?" she asked with a sarcastic edge to her words as she followed him deeper in. She almost paused when she thought she recognized some of the wall writing, but she couldn't be sure so she didn't say anything.

He stopped abruptly and reached inside his coat to pull out the thing she had seen him wrap in doubles of cloth. He pulled out and pressed it to her. Sakura felt something hard under the fabric. There was more than one thing, and both objects were long and slender, but not cold the way metal is cold. Sakura started to unwrap the cloth and Madara took a step back, smile gone. Sakura paused, but only for a moment before the red and white cloth fell away. In her hand was a pair of bones, sharpened to unforgiving points. No, the bone wasn't sharpened, it was in its natural state.

"Oh." She looked back at the wall to where she thought she had recognized some of the markings. It was a language she would never be able to read, but the name stood out enough. "You've taken us to one of their shrines."

"Where else should such sacred things be taken?" he said, watching the bones carefully.

Sakura held them tighter in her fist. It was understandable for Madara to react as he had. These bones were naturally grown into weapons that absorbed magic and reflected it. Someone like Madara was near powerless against a master wielder. These would be great tools for Yuu and herself, but it would be wrong to keep them. It was sacrilegious to keep someone else's bones.

He started to turn. "Come, we must be going now."

Sakura kept the bones pressed close to her chest. "You're afraid of these things."

Madara flinched. "Afraid is not the appropriate world," he intoned, loosing his teasing aura. He kept walking, but his shoulders hunched minutely. She could read the tension in his body and was equal parts delighted and apprehensive. She looked seeing him unsettled, it made him appear more human. But Madara was the red king for a reason. If there was something that unsettled even him, Sakura should learn to be cautious. The first people bones unsettled Madara.

"These don't seem very old," Sakura commented after a moment of silence. She didn't think he would respond. It was a comment made for herself.

"Maybe that's because they're not. Someone harvested them from a still living Kaguya spawn. That or it was gifted. Either way, it proves their existence."

"You doubted it?" Sakura asked with a dry laugh.

"There are many extraordinary things in the world but when one has gone enough generations to forget their stories, anything will be unbelievable." In inclined his head and Sakura wished she could have seen his face free of a mask in that moment. "In addition, I do not think it prudent to take my chances with this particular legend."

Sakura remembered the stories of the battle crazed tribe of first people who wore the skin of their dead enemie's dogs and howled like beasts themselves. An anomaly of nature, some say they were the off shoots of beasts and men and that was why the first people were also impervious to magic, but also abel to redirect it. The secret was in their bones, a material they had manipulative powers over. There were stories of boys growing fanged ribcages out of his chest or spears out of his spine for fighting purposes. Sakura knew too many stories to pretend she didn't believe in them.

After a while Madara stopped and held up a hand before pointing ahead. It was dark with less of the natural light coming in front the crack above, but Sakura could see the alter with the bones and the writing all around it. It was dusty, dirty, and old looking. Webs draped over the shapes, thick with a blanket of fuzzy dust. It didn't look like it had been used in a long while. Along either side were faces carved out of stone. They were smoothed down and had only the shadows of features left. Still, the places where their eyes should have been were still plenty hallow.

Madara nodded to her and Sakura stepped forward, clearing a space before setting down both the bones and their cloths. When she turned Madara was already walking away, his pace brisk. He turned half his face to stare back and hissed, 'hurry.' Sakura felt unsettled. Madara was behaving different-almost human.

She followed at a distance, past the marking on the walls and the subtle stone features that might have been faces at one point. She followed him past the cracks in the sides of the cave that she hadn't seen when coming in the opposite direction. There were dips and pockets and bellowing spaces where the cave slit further open allowing for more room. It was in one of these spaces that Madara stopped.

There was silence between them, and the silence transcended sound alone. There was silence in the world, silence in their bones. All the vibrations took a moment to cease while Sakura held her breath. After a moment that was likely no more than a second, Madara turned, looking over his shoulder.

"Ah. Is there no chance for a story now?"

Sakura bristled. "What are you doing asking for something like that now? What's going on?"

The sound still felt strained all around her. Breathing should have been audible with how hard her heart was pounding, but it was like the walls of the cave absorbed all noise. Something was wrong. Everything that made up Sakura was screaming. Something was wrong.

"What have you done?" Sakura hissed, her fangs beginning to bleed.

She couldn't see his face, he had turned it away from her. "It's your own fault. Obito made a compelling argument for your removal. In ways I can't explain you've begun to undo this war and I won't submit to peace just yet." He turned but his face was all shadowed. "I was supposed to be the one that killed you out here, but then that became too difficult, so I brought you here to this place and made you the defiler of their relics." Black feathers fell from the spaces between his cloak's folds. She smelled the magic like stark acid in her nose.

"You brought me here to die," her voice was harsh in her throat.

"But maybe this won't be the end of you and…" he broke off to chuckle. "Maybe I'm as foolish as Obito says I am, but if you can come back to me I won't have you killed at the gates. Consider this a test my red knight."

The last time he had referred to her as a piece on a game board she had been a lowly pawn-a red solider no more valued than the others. She had gained some standing of worth and she wondered how it wasn't enough to keep her alive. It didn't make sense why he would want her dead. Plenty of people hates beasts and thought they were sacrilegious or evil by nature. But Madara wasn't so foolish.

"What makes you think I'd come back to you after something like this, that I wouldn't kill you for this?" Sakura's mouth was too full of teeth, it was hard to form the words with all the anger she wanted to convey.

"I asked you that already, and I still have Sasuke and Itachi and even Shisui. Where else will you go?" He almost took a step towards her but didn't. When he spoke his voice was a whisper. "Maybe I want you to come back and end our war."

"I don't care about the damn war," Sakura hissed, hating how the ice on her neck made guilt sit like a stone in her gut.

She was only as loyal as the love she had for those people made her. She wasn't a red citizen, she was a beast born in a city forbidden to the outside world. Was the end of the war something she wanted? Was it something she even cared about? All she wanted was to kill the people who killed Ino and eat. There was so little room left inside of her for something like hope or peace to take root. She was all top soil and ash. Nothing could grow inside of her anymore except anger.

"Would that really be so bad? Kagami vouched for you. He is the one who wants peace. Obito will bury us in blood for the sake of revenge and I can't say I don't agree with him. You're the same. You want it too, for the girl who braids your hair at night. She's with you because you keep that revenge in your heart. I'm willing to believe you won't be my undoing if you make it back to me after this."

"I won't come back if I survive."

"You will."

Sakura roared and there was a storm of feathers and black smoke. She felt something on her face as the wind passed over her and she wanted to snap her fangs around it. She wanted to bite down on his hand and tear the red king to pieces and watch him bleed. Dust touched her eyes and she hissed and snarled, blood in her mouth as water rushed to clear her vision. When she was able to see again, she was alone, but only just barely.

The silence was gone, and an echo was in it's place.

Swallowing her own blood, Sakura took one step, and then the next. Before long she was running down the spine of the cave, her heart thundering like a war drum behind her breast bones.

They were a swarm at the throat of the cave. Any other place and they wouldn't have seemed so massive a force, but no matter their location Sakura knew they were a threat not to be taken lightly. Ancient things didn't survive for so long without a reason. They were old and dangerous and they had her backed into their cave trapped like rats.

Madara had left her to this, he must have known they would come once they entered the cave. Those sigils and words on the walls weren't meant to keep others out, but to warn them of what would happen if they trespassed. Madara was old enough to know what those marks meant, and even before he saw the signs, he knew what he was leading her into. He had admitted as much to her. He had planned to kill her. He had intended for her to die here.

Blood dripped over the edge of her lips and she let the anger flood her veins. She remembered what anger felt like and let it fill her. Maybe it wasn't as potent as what it had been in the inn, but it was enough to make her hot.

Red tinted the edges of her vision as she took stock of her opponents. There were nearly two dozen of them, all skin and bones with wide hungry, shallow eyes ready for the bloodlust to take them over. At one point they had been healthy and dark, but now they were a shadow of that. Their dark hair was limp and lacking in luster. They were mighty warriors straight out of legend, but they were sick and suffering from malnutrition.

Still, there were about twenty of them. How many could she take on before they overwhelmed her?

One screamed and it sounded like the sky being torn open.

Sakura ran to where the walls were tight and threw a knife behind her, landing in the eye of one of her pursuers. He stumbled, but kept coming until the man behind him cut him down. She had four more blades on her, but doubted they would be any more good. She reached the alter first and took the bone daggers for herself before turning sharply and heading down further into God knows what.

Her claws were focused anger and she used them to tear down the walls behind her. The rubble caught another body ad she heard it torn apart by the others for being slow and hindering their own hunt. Sakura thought of anger and fear and drank her pride like an elixir until it made her strong again.

Knight, he called her.

She rounded and felt the bones inside her body break and shift. Her own scream shuddered the stars above.

She would show him she wasn't a piece on his board game. She was the finger that toppled the Red King.

When Sakura showed up outside the gates to the Red Keep she was redder than the walls of the towers and barely in a stitch of clothing. A rough gray cloth hung about her shoulders, protecting her modesty. When Kagami met her at the gate said spoke without looking at him, her sight saved for what replayed over and over again in her mind. With a haunted look she told Kagami, 'bring me to him,' and answered to nothing.

Sasuke saw her in the hall, but didn't approach her. At one point it looked like he wanted to reach out to her, but Itachi held him back as they passed. Sakura never looked at either of them.

When Kagami brought her to the doors she had never seen before and pushed on aside Sakura blinked for what felt like the first time. It was his war room, and inside beside Madara stood two other generals and the scar faced Obito. Kagami took his place alongside his companions, allowing Sakura to approach the round map table that separated her from the red king. Obito looked murderous while Kagami still seemed pensive. Madara looked like he wanted to grin even though he had slipped on a bone mask the moment the door opened. She could feel his smile, even if there was nothing seen of his face.

Sakura gripped the edges of the table and stepped onto it before straightening. The generals she didn't know the names to began to bluster, but she ignored them, crossing over the details of the painted world under her feet to stop in front of Madara.

Obito grabbed a knife but Kagami held him back. They were shouting. One of the generals looked like he wanted to puke at the sight of her bloodied footprints on their map and the smell of her gore. The rest of the world didn't matter. She had eyes set on Madara and he was watching only her. She stopped at the edge of the table and reached out, grabbing the edges of his mask.

"Once upon a time…" She felt him shiver. "There was a girl who was more than a beast." Her fingers curled around the white bone and pulled. His face was wicked in its beauty, and nothing but smiles for her as Obito ranged behind them. "She killed a whole nation before she remembered who she needed to come back and humble. By the time she returned, she had become something he could never hope to control."

She touched his face and could feel how he was shivering in excitement.

"Madara! Get that filthy mongrel-"

Sakura growled, her nails pressing in hard enough to make sure there was no way he would ever look away, no matter who called hi name. But even without her nails, there wasn't a danger of his eyes ever leaving hers.

"The next time you want me done away with, gut me yourself, if you can!"

The maids put her under water three times, scrubbing her after each rinse. After the fourth rinse they forced her into a bath both hot and cold. Finally, before bed, they drew for her a bath of milk and Sakura snarled, but settled into it, feeling the white, cream waters seep over all her edges.

She emerged with a mind quiet enough to not protest when they braided her hair loosely. She wore only a robe tied loosely and nothing on her feet when the doors split open with a bang and Shisui came rushing in. The maids gasped at the impropriety of it, but Sakura paid them no mind as she was wrapped up into a pair of trembling arms.

She didn't move t return the gesture, but let herself relax against his hold. "I didn't think I was gone that long."

"Three weeks," he seethed over her shoulder. It sounded like he had trouble forming words. "You were gone and I didn't know where to for three weeks. And then Madara came back without you and they said you were dead." He pulled away from her and held her at an arm's length to see her fully. "They had me reassigned. I came back from the North as soon as Itachi's birds came with the news."

"You abandoned your post?" she asked with the shadow of a laugh lacing her words.

"You're my post. There's nothing more important. Madara never should have taken you in the first place. They distracted me on purpose so that I wouldn't throw a fit again, and this isn't the first time, either. Ugh! They always do this to me. Please, don't ever leave like that again."

Sakura remembered the first time she left with Sasuke and how Shisui protested. He was sensitive to being ignored or overlooked, but in this particular instance he was even more emotional than before.

"I'm sorry. When the Red King told me to come you weren't somewhere I could reach on the way. He's your king though. You need to obey him." Sakura pat the side of her head, smoothing down the most wild of his black curls. He leaned into her touch. "And besides, I came back just fine."

"You weren't fine from what Itachi told me. He said you looked like a doll; all glass eyes and void stares." His eyes roved over her face, searching for something. "You're better now? What happened?"

"Now's not really the time, nor is this the place, master Shisui," a new voice cut in. Shizune stood in the door looking tired and mildly pissed. Absently, Sakura reached up to close the front of her robe.

Shisui seemed to notice what she was wearing and how she was dressed for the first time as he blushed and dropped his hands from her side as if burned. He moved a step away from her with a peep sound muffled in his throat, looking red faced and dizzy. He stuttered out an apology Sakura waved off, not really caring.

"I think it best you retire for the night. It's late as all hell's eve and Sakura's had a long enough day just getting here. Let her have her rest before you interrogate the void out of her. You;ll be wanted well enough with Master Kagami for your post position being empty, now won't you?" the dark haired woman asked, not sounding like she wanted an answer as much as she wanted him to leave. When Shisui didn't respond right away she eyed him like mother would a misbehaving child. Shisui shivered beneath her gaze.

"It's fine, Shizune, it's not a bother," Sakura started to say.

Shizune's withering glare fixed on the smaller of the two figures. "No, it's not. Don't talk back to me like you know better, girl. You're hardly on your feet as it is so, don't you tell me you're fine when you're not."

Sakura shook her head, knowing there would be no telling the older woman off. When Shizune set her mind to something, there was no changing it. Some inside the keep whispered about the time before she 'grew a backbone,' back when he mentor had been alive. Since the death of the mentoring doctor, Shizune's attitude evolved overnight.

Sakura turned to Shisui. "I'll see you in the morning. I think you should go for now and see that Kagami has someone to fill your place with the unit you were in charge of. I'll be here resting for a while."

Shisui looked her over once more, searching for signs of abuse or injury. "You're fine?" he asked with a voice full of concern. "You're sure?"

Sakura nodded, feeling her head go heavy with the thought of sleep in a bed for the first time in so many days. She had fallen asleep in the mud of rivers along the way to ease the strain on her sorely abused bones. A bed would be heavenly in comparison. "I'll be well with some rest. I'll tell you whatever you want to know in the morning. Take care of yourself before you worry about others-."

A yawn filled her mouth and she paused, eyes feeling heavy. She didn't notice herself leaning, but her head hit his chest and he caught her before she could slid down. He readjusted his grip and lifted her up into his arms, cradling her.

Shizune flustered in the background as Shisui carried her over to the bed and pulled back the covers with the back of his elbow, keeping both his hands always around her. She mumbled something and her breath was a warm fan on his neck, making his skin break out in gooseflesh.

Shizune said something but all the voices sounded as if they were coming from underwater. The world was distant and the bed was warm. Sakura's bones hadn't stopped screaming since that night in the cave, but with the down feather pillows and king grade mattress, their cries were a little less deafening. She felt like she could begin the heal the way she needed to.

She felt Shisui pull the covers up all around her and tuck her in with all the warmth her body had left. He pat down her hair like she had only moments earlier and whispered something she couldn't hear in her ear before kissing the side of her skull. She was too far gone to remember anything else.

When she woke in the morning the sun was already deep in the sky. She blinked, staring through her messy lashes at the heavy golden glow that was sinking further down. She had slept more than just the night. Nearly a whole day extra, if she guessed correctly.

Sakura turned in her covers and felt the weight around her chest. She looked over and saw a shock of black. Pushing the covers back she saw more of Sasuke's head. He grinned up at her, his smile equal parts cheeky and guilty.

"You're finally awake," he whispered, not moving his arms from around her.

Sakura stared down at him and then frowned. "Are you supposed to be in here right now?" She glanced at the door and then back at the boy. "Does Itachi know you're in here right now?"


'Does he know you're in my bed sleeping next to me."

Sasuke's smile was guilty, and he avoided her eyes. "He might not know that exact detail of my visit." He shrugged nonchalantly. "But I don't think he would be surprised, angry maybe, but not surprised."

Sakura hummed in agreement. "But not as angry as Shisui will be when he comes in to check on me and finds you here. I told him I would have to talk to him as soon as I woke up." Sakura shifted, trying to bend her knees, but Sasuke had curled up tight against her, making it hard to move.

"What are you going to talk to him about?" Sasuke asked, still smiling and still holding on to her. Sakura lightly pushed him away with a hand on his shoulder, but Sasuke didn't seem willing to relent his hold on her. When she glared down on him he smiled wider. He tried wiggling his eye brows but it was a poor attempt. "You could just tell me and I'll tell someone to tell him. That'll work right?"

"Sasuke, you need to let me go, I need to get up." She tried again to push him off but he refused to let go, squeezing tighter around her middle. "This isn't funny anymore, I need to leave."

"But you might not come back!" he blurted out. "You left last time and you didn't come back. They said you had died and I would never see you again, but then you came back all bloody and hurt. What if you-what if it happens again, but this time you never make it back? You can't leave."

His arms were shaking. She touched one and felt it was cold, even through the cotton of his shirt. His eyes were wide too, round and large with a sheen that might have been unshed tears if he was willing to admit to it. Sakura had a hard time believing this was the same boy who terrorized her in the beginning of her stay, and almost had her killed when they visited Menma's cell. He seemed like a completely different person.

"Sasuke," Sakura said, changing her tone. "How well do you know the boy Sai? You remember the one who called me ugly."

The boy around her waist nearly snarled at the memory. "I forgot about him. I'll have to tell Obito to have the brat flogged or something. Has he bothered you since then? You know you're not ugly."

"I don't care what I am as long as I can still kill things." Her hand absently found his head and started to comb through his hair with her fingers. Sasuke purred, leaning into the touch like a cat. He was an entirely different person from before.

Sakura ran her hands down his arms, stopping at his hands behind her back. She slipped her fingers in between his and pried them off. He whined as soon as he knew what she was doing, but she was already out of bed and heading towards the wardrobe. Sasuke huffed at the edge of her bed, pulling all the blankets towards him and wrapping them around his small body until he was a lump of fabric with a human face.

"Are you cold?" she asked with a laugh to her words.

"Yes. Someone stole my heater."

"Maybe your heater ran off because she has things to do."

"She already had things to do, like keeping me warm! What's more important than that?"

Sakura grabbed new clothes and took them into the bathroom, shielding herself from view while she changed into the training trousers and uniform coat. When she emerged Sasuke was still wrapped up in blankets and pouting. When she passed he looked at her with wide, pleading eyes that got him everything he always wanted. Sakura laughed, closing the door behind her.

She couldn't find any sign of Shisui or his older relatives around, but after entering into the courtyard she found a person she didn't mind talking to.

Yuu looked up from the knives she was working with, eyes narrowing only slightly before flicking downwards, as if in submission. Sakura felt a roll in her gut that tasted like hate for the man who made her so submissive. That wasn't Yuu's true nature.

"You don't have to act like that with me, and besides, there's no one here to impress."

"They are all in a meeting." Yuu flickered her eyes upwards before turning her face down to look at her blades again. "There are ambassadors coming in from the Black Isles in a week's time."

"What does that mean for us?" Sakura asked, trying to remember how she was supposed to feel about the Black Isles. They were a separate nation, but they were closely related to the white kingdom and allies to the White Tsar. If they were coming to meet with Madara, did that mean the Red King was considering the state of the war?

"It means nothing unless we are invited. My master Obito has given me an assignment to retrieve an item of importance before that day. I must depart soon."

Sakura clasped her hands behind her back, watching the pale blond girl work on her knives. Yuu's hands were a flicker and Sakura was reminded of the girls on the assembly line in the factories and how quick they had to be with parts. Instead of mecanics, her job was a set of knives. They were oddly formed with windows and pockets for where they could slide into one another and make a fuller blade. They were curved and deadly the way assassin weapons should be.

"You're going on a retrieval mission?" Sakura asked, her curiosity spiked. "Do you usually do those?"

Yuu paused a moment before shaking her head. Her long blond hair was braided down her back instead of sectioned off into twin tails. The weave was one popular for girls in the army. Sakura had sen Ino braid it plenty of times.

"What did he send you to pick up?" Sakura asked. Yuu hesitated, and when it looked like she was going to refuse to answer Sakura quickly but in. "You can tell me since I'm usually the one who does these things. They probably meant to give the job to me originally, but with me still recovering…"

"How is your recovery?" Yuu looked up, eyes wide enough to be genuinely curious. "You look well."

"I feel fine. I was just exhausted, but Shisui likes to worry. Thank you for asking."

Yuu hummed in acknowledgment and Sakura thought the sound was pretty. Everything about the girl was pretty, and if she lifted her eyes more often and dared a smile, Sakura was convinced Yuu was actually quite beautiful. It was a shame she was so broken and humbled as the tool Obito taught her to be.

"Would you let me go with you if I can get Shisui to agree to it?" Sakura asked, feeling something swell in her chest. She wanted to stay with Yuu and see that smile.

"You think you need to travel with me to visit a blood witch?"

Sakura swallowed, face draining of warmth. "Y-you can never be too careful with those types. It would be best to have some back up."

Yuu hummed again. "I doubt it would be necessary, as she is a citizen in one of the factories. Still, I would appreciate your guidance, if nothing else. I have no skill with this type of assignment. My work expertise are a bit less varied. O've never seen a blood witch before."

"That's something you can be grateful for. They're all sorts of nasty witches out there, blood suckers, or blood witches, are my least favorite. It wouldn't be wise to go against one alone." Sakura looked off towards the halls. "I just need to talk to Shisui first. Do you know where he might be?"

Yuu shook her head after a second. "Obito was summoned to one of the war rooms, but I don't know which one. You'd have to sniff him out if you can."

Sakura blinked, a bit taken aback by the last part. "I didn't think…did you just?" Sakura felt her face flush. "Never mind. I'll be back shortly. When did you plan to leave?"

"She lives not far outside the city. I will leave in the morning. Obito still has not given me an exact location. Find me when you can. I'll leave only a little later than the sun."

Sakura nodded, and was gone.

Sniffing Shisui out wasn't difficult, even if she tried to be discrete about it. She didn't like to think of herself as someone easily embarrassed, but smelling her way around the keep instead of asking for directions made her feel like she couldn't meet people's eyes. Still, Shisui was a person she could clearly pick out in a crowd. His scent was strangely unique in a way she didn't want to think about. It almost smelled artificial, or a little bit too much like magic. More than any of the other Uchiha, even the Red King, Shisui smelled the most of that acid magic smell for some reason. It was always easy to find him if she used her nose.

He was inside a room with Kagami and Obito, but Madara was absent, though there were traces of his presence, like he had been there not too long ago. Sakura waited outside the door, pressing her back to the wall and trying her best to be unnoticeable. When the door opened, she didn't want Obito to see her. Thankfully, it was only Shisui that came out. He saw her right away and smiled wide before glancing back and closing the door tight. He must have understood on some level her aversion to Madara's first right hand.

"Come on," he said in a soft voice, taking her by the hand and leading her away.

She followed him into his room and waited where he left her while he doubled back to close the door and cut them off from prying eyes and ears in the hallway. She absently noticed the table in the middle of the room was still set for two, and breakfast foods were set out. She poked the glass covering the petite fours and looked up to see Shisui watching her. He smiled sheepishly.

"That was meant for you, yeah. Did you eat?"

Sakura shook her head and Shisui grinned like he knew what she was going to say. He reached for the chair she stood next to and pulled it out for her. "You did say you were going to tell me all about your adventures. What better way than over food? I've only eaten a little myself."

Sakura glanced at the window and knew she had time, so she sat in the seat offered and pulled back the glass lid. She told Shisui all of what happened to her while she ate, and he listened to everything while he nibbled. Uchiha didn't need food the way humans needed food, so she suspected he was humoring her by eating. He didn't say much while she talked, occasionally he would ask a question or two when she forgot to explain something, but for the most part he was content to let her speak.

"It's not surprising that Obito would have it out for you, but I suspect there is more to it that I'm not privy to. He used to have a lot more pull around here by being the only one in control of an obedient beast. Naruto and Menma were more powerful but…"

"I saw," Sakura finished for Shisui. "They were not the most reliable."

"But then you came along!" Shisui chirped. "You upset the power balance and Obito doesn't like that. Still, it doesn't make sense why he think you would undo this war. It's not like your harping for peace or anything."

Sakura looked down at the crumbs on her plate. The only reason she had put on a uniform in the first place was because she needed food. She didn't care about the war one way or the other. If things had been different, she could have ended up a foot solider in the White Tsar's army.

She didn't truly want peace the way some boys in red prayed and bled and pleaded day and night for. What kept her dressed long after her belly had been fed was the friendships she made, and then the revenge she felt bound to, and then finally the identity she found as a solider. Calling herself a beast again still didn't feel great. She remembered how she ran away the first time.

"Sakura?" she looked up, hearing Shisui call her name. "Did you eat something bad. You were making a pained face."

"Bad memory."

"Ah," he replied like he understood, though she doubted that was the case.

"Is it possible Obito doesn't know what he's talking about and he's just being paranoid. He's brilliant from what I've heard, and many brilliant men are often paranoid enough to suspect their own blood of the worst treasons."

Sakura looked down at her empty plate again and frowned. "Did you tell him not to send me out on any more missions?"

Shisui blinked. "I-yeah. You were recovering. Shizune was right, you needed your rest and you more than earned it. I told the others you wouldn't be going out on any missions for the next week at least." He made a face. "Why?"

"Obito is sending Yuu out to retrieve something that was meant for me to pick up. She won't know what she's doing.

"She'll be fine. She's not one of Obito's best for her pretty face. She's more than capable of doing a simple errand job."

"What is the job?"

Shisui looked like he didn't want to tell her, but relented after a moment. "She's going to meet a blood witch to retrieve a candle."

Sakura didn't like the feeling that ran down her spine when she thought of blood witches. Of all the old women who put their hands into magic, the blood witches were the most…chilling. There was something sacrilegious in their craft for a person like Sakura who shouldn't be affected by their magic. The blood of dead beasts made for a coveted prize among their ranks.

"Yuu told me about the blood witch, and that she works at one of the factories. What's the candle for?" Sakura asked.

"It's a grave candle."

"What kind?"

Sakura had heard of grave candles before, had even seen a few once or twice. They were supposed to attract the dead for communion with the living. The more expensive ones were said to reach further into the void and bring back the long dead, or those who had died without their last rites. The cheep knockoffs were made from poppy extract and provoked a drug induced haze that was banned in the camps, except after great losses.

"The kind a blood witch covets. That is going to be her ticket to freedom. IN exchange for safety and work she's traded in most of her goods. This is the last unit of payment."

"And you don't think that sounds…iffy?" Sakura asked with a lip curled. The whole deal sounded fishy to her. Blood witches didn't renounce their practices to go work in factories. Only someone incredibly foolish or overly swelled with pride would think there wasn't something off about the whole situation.

"That's why we send a beast. You're immune to most of their tricks and can't be harmed by blood magic. In place of you I think Yuu will do just fine. It's not her expertise, but it's not something beyond her abilities."

"I'd like to go with her, just in case."

No!" Shisui looked appalled. "She's leaving tonight or tomorrow, you just got back and haven't yet rested. You were gone for three weeks. Did you not see yourself when you came back? You were-" His voice cut off as he remembered himself. "You need to rest more. I don't want you in danger so soon, especially when I can't go with you."

"Than you think it's dangerous?"

"No, that's not what I meant."

"You can't have it both ways. If it's as simple a mission as you claim it to be I shouldn't be in any danger accompanying a friend out of the city. And if it really is something more, than she needs my help anyway."

Shisui's face wasn't irritated like she though it would be. "You think of her as your friend?"

There was a braid down her back that Sakura subconsciously felt her fingers itch to trace. "Can I not?"

Shisui's expression turned soft as he watched her, like he was watching something young and small take its first steps. "When is she leaving?"

"First light."

Shisui reached forward and grabbed his plate by the side, lifting it up before dumping it's contents onto her plate. "You should eat more if you're going to be leaving so early," he sighed, glancing from the food he had just dumped to her face. When he caught her eye he winked and grinned teasingly. "You'll need your energy in order to get back as quickly as possible."

Sakura was incredibly touched, but didn't have the words to express that, so she numbly nodded and bit into the scone.

She slept early and woke before the sun could color the sky to find Yuu yawning at the gates. By the time Sakura made it down the sky was already pink. Yuu looked surprised to see Sakura for only a minute before the expression on her face was blank again.

"You're late."

Sakura grinned before replying. "You waited."

The blond girl shrugged. "You probably needed more sleep. Dogs always do."

"I think you have us confused with house cats," Sakura chuckled sarcastically. She then noticed the blond girl's hair was messily braided in a fashion popular among girl soldiers. Sakura thought it was intentionally messy, but there were a few places where the strand had been dropped or doubled over and that wasn't a technique in braiding.

"What is it?" Yuu snapped, sounding cattier than usual.

Sakura felt a pull of embarrassment, remembering how awful her own first braids were. It had taken her months to learn and a teacher for guidance. "It's hard to braid your ow hair, especially if you're not used to it." Sakura raised her hands, offering.

Yuu simmered, glaring at a spot on Sakura's shoulder. "It's fine. It keeps my hair out of my face and does what it needs to do. I don't need you help to look prettier."

"You don't think I can't do it in like twelve seconds? Trust me, I'm much faster when I'm doing someone else's hair. I promise it won't be a big deal and it won't take any time. Look," Sakura tugged on the blond's hand and led her to a pony wall for Sakura to climb up onto and sit down on. "It won't set us back long, see?"

Wordlessly, Yuu relented, sighing to herself while turning to offer Sakura the back of her head. Sakura's fingers pulled at the tie at the end and threaded through the messy braid until it was all free, long, and waving like corn silk down the quieter girl's back. Sakura's hands were a blur as she sectioned and tugged and folded one strand over the other, weaving under and over and over and under until a shape started to emerge. It took longer than twelve seconds, but Yuu didn't make a comment about it even when the silent work stretched on for another four minutes.

When Sakura was done, she patted Yuu's shoulder and the blond girl turned to touch the braid and pull it over her shoulder. "It's different."

"This is called a fishtail, or a herringbone braid, and it's easier to do on someone else. It's not as popular because it takes longer, but your hair was so easy to braid I couldn't help myself, sorry. If it's not what you wanted I could just do the regular-"

"No!" Yuu pulled the braid closer. "No, this is fine." The tips of her ears turned red as she turned her face away and dropped her eyes. "We need to go, we've already lost enough time as is. We shouldn't be late to meeting her."

Sakura smiled, recognizing that Yuu could have called their time 'waste' but she didn't. Nodding, Sakura followed Yuu to the garage on the other side of the stables and into the body of a black vehicle. Sakura tried to contain her surprise when Yuu slid in a key and turned the thing to life. With fluidity, Yuu drove them out of the keep and through the city, past the gates, and onto the less used roads.

"If there wasn't' this war, maybe more road would be made for these cars, but that is not important," the blond said after a long moment of silence.

Sakura didn't answer, content to listen to the sound of the motor hum from behind a sheet of metal past her feet. It didn't sound like how she remembered the tanks and war machines sounding on the battlefield. They were always the first things pulled apart with magic-metal was too weak to resist most magics-but that didn't stop either side from melting down homes for the scarps needed to build the machines.

The made slow but steady time over the less preserved roads because the factories were south of the city and well protected with roads that could be traveled by car. Yuu was told to try and engage the old woman before dusk without a reason as to why other than the workers were dismissed then for the day.

Sakura filled the blond in on what she knew of blood witches and why night was a time to be more weary of them. They were some of the types who were not so much stronger, but more aggressive in the dark and dim. They were less controlled and more willing to be vicious for the sake of violent delights. There was no reason for it, but it was accepted as fact easily enough.

"She's been stripped of most of her magic, though," Yuu offered, spotting the factory in the distance beyond their road.

"That just makes me worry all the more. You can't take magic out of something. Seal it, I've seen people do that, but when you remove magic from a magic user you change their nature because magic is supposedly linked to the soul of the user. You are a soul and you have a body, your not a body that has a soul."

Yuu glanced sideways at Sakura before returning her eyes to the road. "Why do you know so much about this? You're like me, so magic means nothing to you."

Before she was a red solider magic did mean nothing to her, but Sakura had spent too many years in the red army with red boys and girls who still wept and crossed their chest at the sight of the dead and avoided sleeping under the stars if the moon was grinning. She had spent so many years pretending to be human, and humans were wildly superstitious, even if they weren't encouraged to be.

The church and the old traditions were things of the past best left forgotten because they would be distractions, the Red Country said. But Sakura knew better than anyone that in times of war, those things survived best. That's why they didn't knock down the churches or tear apart the string stars in between tree branches when they passed by. Ripping away those things would only make them grow stronger in the hearts of the people.

"I used to think I was human," Sakura answered after a while, realizing her thoughts were beginning to wander.

"That's silly. You were never human."

"No," Sakura whispered, closing her eyes and looking down at her hands. She remembered her first braid, remembered dying her hair black, she remembered singing songs and digging graves and wailing over what she could find of Ino's body. She remembered the way her body became someone else's, how she transformed into a pair of boots and a gun for a king she didn't know or care for. "I was human once."

The factory was a ugly solid building shaped like a rectangle and nothing else. Long with plenty of windows it was surrounded by two dozen different failed transportation crafts. Tanks with treads frying along the edges, unevenly proportioned tankettes and a number of other tank craft that had been ripped apart with magic and left to be be observed for improvement.

Yuu parked a distance from the door and led Sakura to the side of the building where the loading docks for deliveries were. The smell of oil and metal was strong, almost as strong as the smell of melted iron and blood mixed with fire. Sakura nearly growled at the stench. Of course that explained why they were at a factory looking for a blood witch. Blood witches were being used to reinforce the metals of the tanks. There was no way that could go bad.

"Do they even know where most of their blood comes from?" Sakura hissed to Yuu, not really expecting an answer. Blood witches got their blood everywhere, but hunted beasts and magic users alike for the best of it.

"No, it was not my place to ask." Sakura hated how much Yuu reminded her of herself from two months ago when she was still a girl in the red army with no worth to speak of.

A factory manager took one look at them and then nodded off tot he side, leading the girls up a staircase that spiraled in metal pieces until they reached a platform with multiple rooms. He told them to wait in the one furthest from the stairs and inside the girls found the office room finely furnished in comparison to the rest of the factory.

Sakura took a seat and folded her hands under her jaw while resting her elbows on her knees. She kept her back curved and her heels pressed to the floor, ready to lunge if the need arose. Yuu stayed standing, keeping herself close to the shadows by the door.

Somewhere outside a break whistle blew and Sakura suspected it was the last break before the end of the day. It wasn't dusk yet, and the setting of the sun was still a couple of hours away.

Nothing happened for a good long while, but then when it seemed like Sakura and Yuu would be waiting forever, steps echoed on the metal of the stairs outside. Sakura tense and Yuu took a step sideways, standing closer to Sakura and facing the door. The shift supervisor opened the door and strode in before standing to the side and letting an older woman in cargo trousers and a dirty cotton shirt pass him by. The supervisor clicked his heels together, bowed, and then left the women alone.

The woman eyed both girls at once, seeing everything in the room with a single blink. Her gray hair had been combed back and braided into a bun to keep out of her face when working. There were blood stains on her shirt.

"They said they were sending one bitch. How'd I rate?"

"Pretend I'm not here," Sakura answered, dipping her head so she had to stare up through her lashes.

Yuu stepped forward. "You have an item for us to transport back to the Red Family?"

"You're the carrier? Why so jumpy. If the old fool is sending two of his only beasts to pick up one simple trinket I'm beginning to think it's not worth selling my lot to one side over the other." The woman shifted the weight of her body from one leg to the other. She regarded Sakura agin, eyeing her more carefully than Yuu. "Why aren't you supposed to be here?"

"I had too much fun last night and needed a chaperone," Sakura bit out with a sarcastic smile. "If you want to stand around and chat all day that's your choice, but do what you were told and deliver the candle."

The witch smiled and her eyes were too bright and still full of life to make Sakura comfortable. "You knew it was a candle, yeah? What else did they tell you?"

Sakura stood and took on a posture of forced nonchalance, on hand resting on her hip where a pistol rested. Shisui had made her wear the better looking uniform and carry the sidearm when she had first wanted to take her rifle and don her old outfit. Shisui insisted, saying she had earned an upgrade and should carry herself with more pride. She wasn't a grunt in the army.

"They told me you're not important enough to keep alive if you don't give us what is rightfully ours to take. Help us do our job or get out of the way."

The old woman hummed, no longer smiling, but the glean that made her eyes mischievous was still there. "I never said I wouldn't help you. Old woman is curious, ain't nothing wrong with that. I'll get your your useless trinket."

Sakura stared down her nose at the woman who was so much shorter, keeping his lids partly lowered. It was dangerous to look at a witch with wide open eyes. They could tell too much and see too much through your eyes.

The woman eyed Yuu before turning around and heading to the back of the room where lockers lined the wall. These were nicer than the cheep metal ones Sakura had seen on the ground floor for the employees. The woman hummed about finding the right key as she patted herself down.

"You never mentioned your names, girlies."

"Neither did you," Sakura answered.

The old woman hummed, pulling out a small ring of keys and fingering through them. "I'm a blood witch, what use have I for a name? After this I'll just be another number, a grain of sand on the Red King's Black Beach or something of that sort." She paused to look at Yuu and then Sakura. "That's not true for you beast ladies." Her eyes stayed on Sakura. "Especially you. Your blood is still angry with what you've done. It'll always be angry with you, a kin killer. What a sight you are to these old eyes."

Yuu frowned and straightened when she saw Sakura stiffen. "Quiet, woman. Find the candle."

The witch cackled, finger fumbling with the keys on purpose. "The blood never lies and I'm not cowed enough to forget it." She eyed Sakura hungrily. "You wouldn't mind donating some of that would you? Either of you girlies?"

Yuu made a move like a step forward, but Sakura held out her hand, stopping the blond from approaching. Yuu wasn't used to banter, she was an assassin. She killed on sight and left without speaking. Obito was pressing his luck in training a girl too keenly in one art and sending her out to do something else.

"Witch," Sakura snarled. "Do not press your luck. We're not here for you. Deliver your goods."

"Sure, sure, just thought no harm in asking. Now, let me find me keys here,eh…" she laughed, looking through her keys once more. She didn't have too many, maybe five, no more than six. Still, they were all similar. "These fingers aren't what they used to be."

Sakura bit the inside of her cheek and folded her arms across her chest. She waited in silence as the woman turned over her keys and fit one and then two different ones to the lock of one of the doors. She made a sound of disapproval before switching out for a new key.

"You know, I once had a beast to bleed back when I was young and nearly pretty. Oh, I think I was more than pretty, but that's only because the boys came so willingly. It was a looooong time ago, before the walls." Sakura stiffened, mind whirling. That made the witch nearly two centuries old if she was telling the truth. "His blood was fine enough, but odd in other ways. You still do that thing where you live only as long as your animals? I don't see you with one now."

Sakura's hand moved to her pistol belt and sat there. She breathed deeply and felt the fabric of her collar around her neck. The witch was trying to get a rise out of the girls. Her words were likely lies. All they were meant for were provoking. Sakura kept her hands loose and her eyes narrowed. She didn't say anything and she tried her best not to react.

The witch found a key she liked and tried it in the lock, found it to be upside down and was readjusting it. "And you, blondie. What a ways from home you are. I've not met a cat beast in a long time. Wolves and bears and foxes are common enough, a hellcat is another story. Who stole you from your cradle?"

The key slid into the lock, and to her credit Yuu never reacted. Her eyes were just as narrowed as Sakura's and all the training Obito put her though kept her as polished and reserved as a pretty china doll. She was not someone Sakura wanted as an enemy.

Eventually the woman opened up the cabinet and pulled out a small wooden box draped in cloth. Sakura looked sideways at Yuu. The blond was watching the box and the hands of the old woman without wavering. Sakura waited with her breath held while the cloth was pulled away and the lid to the wooden box lifted. With old, wrinkled hands, the witch carefully removed a wax candle with a clean wick. It was white with writing down the sides Sakura couldn't read. Still, the smell of magic was strong enough without it being lit that Sakura knew it was more real than the ones she had seen in the camps.

"You need to know it's genuine, don't you?" Sakura didn't trust the old woman's smile.

"That shouldn't be necessary," Sakura began to say, but stopped when she felt Yuu's hand on her shoulder. She looked back at the blond and frowned. Yuu had been given orders. "But that is why we're here. Go ahead."

Sakura took a step back while the woman set up the candle in the stand it came with. She lit a match from somewhere in her shirt and Sakura held her breath as the light in the room flickered. She could smell the pregnant magic.


The moment the flame touched the wick the room went black and then there was a silence that exploded around them. The world had turned off and then it was on again, soundless and new. Sakura felt the sick swell in her gut as magic changed and altered the world around her while leaving her untouched. Sakura blinked and she was back in the room again, but it was darker and covered in a haze or filter that made everything different.

"Ino," Sakura breathed, staring into the eyes of the girl who had existed without a form for years now. In the candlelight Ino was as Sakura last remembered her, but at least now she was smiling. The panic was gone, and her eyes weren't as bloodshot.

"Forehead," the ghost chuckled, speaking a voice that bounced off the walls and vibrated Sakura's bones. In all the years after Ino's death, Sakura had never heard the ghost speak. This was because of the candle.

Sakura turned and saw Yuu staring ahead at something, mouthing words that never left her lips. The witch was looking down at something by her feet. They were all in the haze of the candle's magic, all able to commune with the dead.

"This is wrong magic," Sakura hissed, feeling how different this magic was.

All magic felt wrong to her, but even she could tell the difference. This was beyond the pale sort of stuff. You don't mess with the dead. Ino had died without a body to lay to rest, so it made sense why her spirit still lingered. But when Sakura looked around the room she saw it was choked full of transparent people looking everywhere and anywhere. She recognized nearly all of them as people who had died alongside her, fellow soldiers. In the corner was a family she had once had dinner with. In the night as she and Ino slept in the barn, the main house was swarmed with white men and slaughtered everyone inside.

"You'll make it right in a moment, but first you need to listen to me while you can. I'll never be able to talk to you like this after today. You need to end this war, Sakura."

There were those words again. Madara has said something similar before. Sakura frowned. "What do you mean? That's not something I can do, even if I wanted to."

"No, you're wrong. You're the only one who can do this. You need to return the Red King his heart. The White Tsar has been calling for peace for years, but our king won't listen without a heart. You need to return it."

"You're not making sense, Ino," Sakura hissed, looking around at the other bodies in the room. She wanted them all to go away and leave her alone. She couldn't escape how wrong it all felt and in a few minutes it would be suffocating.

"You've won it, now you just need to return it."

Sakura whimpered, clutching at her hair. "Ino!"

"Please," the blond solider begged and the sound broke Sakura's heart. Ino had pleaded for a few things in her life and Sakura knew what it sounded like. Ino was asking for something she was willing to kill and die for. "Please, Sakura. We need this peace. All the dead need it and so do the living. You need to do this, even if you think peace doesn't matter to you. It's the right thing to do."

Sakura shook her head, hating how it throbbed. "Since when have I ever cared about that?"

"You've always cared. You're not above it now, either." Ino reached forward and Sakura felt where the ghost touched her shoulder. It was cold, but the ice wasn't there. "She's proof enough." Ino was looking at Yuu who still stared off at something Sakura couldn't see. "You'll do what's right when it's time."

Sakura felt another unpleasent roll in her gut and looked to the table where the candle burned with a sick, blue-green light. Spitting into her hand she slammed her palm down onto the burning wick and snuffed out the flames. Ino was gone in a flash along with all the others and the haze that transformed the room.

Yuu blinked, as if coming out of a stupor. The witch looked up slowly where the feet she had been staring at. Sakura glared, her eyes like slits as she used her burned hand to grab the candle and push it into the box she closed and carried. "It works. We're done here."

Sakura stalked out without saying anything else and seconds later Yuu followed. They made it to the care before dusk and wordlessly, the pair drove away. It wasn't until the factory was a speck in the rear view mirror that Yuu chose to speak up. "What did it show you?"

Sakura paused before answering, her voice low. "A friend who died in the war. You?"

The blond made a grimace. "I think he was my father, but I don't remember. That's who he said he was, anyway."

There was more silence between them. After a long while Sakura spoke up again, her voice soft and new sounding. "If you want to have your lunch with me sometimes, I'll make myself available. I've learned to be accommodating."

Yuu smiled in reply. "Thanks. I would like that."

The hot news that made everyone dizzy was the host party to welcome the ambassadors from the Black Isles and Aristocrats from a nobel family. The Hyuga were incredibly close with families of the White Kingdom, traditionally. Ever since the war, trade had been sparse and travel between the two lands was nearly unheard of. Madara inviting them over was almost as bad as extending an olive branch and asking to have peace talks.

Needless to say, Obito was in a foul mood. Yuu came over often enough for breakfast, lunch, and sometimes dinner. Sakura never minded, and Shisui was more than accommodating when Sakura mentioned having the girl come to her room for snacks. Shisui said it was good that Sakura had another female friend she could relate to. He had worried she would be lonely without the female companionship and that made Sakura think he was sweet enough to care in such a way.

"They're ordering dresses for us," Yuu mentioned over duck one evening.

Sakura made a face. "I haven't had to wear one since coming here."

"The same could be said for myself. I am not looking forward to it."

"You're both incredibly spoiled and yet you turn your nose up at the blessings of your station," Sasuke sighed from his corner of the table, annoyed that the dinner he wanted to share with his two favorite people was interrupted by an uninvited party.

"I apologize on his behalf," Itachi placated before giving Sasuke a look. "He forgets his own thanklessness."

Sasuke pouted, poking at his steamed vegetables. He muttered, but it was all under his breath so no one could hear him, though Sakura did pick up on a few words because of her increase d hearing. "-Thought-look good in a-once-dress up-in the-."

"I've never attended anything like a party before. I won't know how to act or behave," Sakura absently commented, dipping her shredded meat int he sauce pooled at the corner of her plate. "I doubt it would make a difference if I was there or not."

"Your attendance, unfortunately, is required. At this event delegates and officials of all capacities and stripes with be there to see Madara's collection of beasts. They will notice, and with Menma's absence, you need to be displayed all the more." Itachi spared Sakura a sympathetic smile. "It is only for one night though. In the past, long ago, there used to be parties that lasted all week to celebrate the first snows of the year. But that was back when it still snowed."

"It sure is cold enough to snow these days," Sakura huffed, remembering how she was better about the cold than other humans. She was just more resilient to the cold, but even she had to admit it was a chilly season.

"It's past the Solstice. But snow is bad for war. My uncles keep the snow from falling for this reason."

"And because they don't like looking like the White Kingdom," Sasuke butt in, grinning mischievously when Itachi spared the youngest Uchiha a withering look.

Sakura looked over at Yuu, who was always quiet unless asked a question directly. "Do you miss the snow?"

The blond looked up, and the silvery blond braid fell back over her shoulder. She blinked once before looking back down at her plate. "I do not remember ever seeing snow, so I can't say I miss it or now." Yuu took a bit, chewed, and swallowed before finishing her thought. "I grew up where it was very warm. There was no snow. I've only ever seen it far off across enemy lines."

"Sucks for you," Sasuke muttered over the rim's edge of his glass, looking like he couldn't care less what Obito's cat said at their table. Sakura glared at Sasuke and the young Uchiha lowered his eyes apologetically but made no excuses for his actions.

"Waa, that's not fair. You all started without me!" Shisui exclaimed, coming into the room with a black tarp folded under his arm. When Sakura turned around to watch him he made a show of looking hurt and clutched at his heart dramatically with his free hand, sobbing fake tears.

"Go away if you're going to act like that!" Sasuke snapped, standing up in his chair and turning around to point at the bastard prince with his fork, ignoring the fact that there was still meat on the end of it.

Itachi groaned, looking like he wanted to hold his head in his hands while Yuu stared on with a pensive expression. Shisui said something else and Sasuke waved his fork until the meat came off and Shisui started screaming about wasting food and getting his dirty and Itachi tried to get Sasuke to sit but someone said something and it made Sasuke feel short-something that was a huge taboo for the little prince. It was a mess that made Sakura's sides hurt when she tried not to laugh. She looked to Yuu who looked like a deer stunned by torchlight or caught in the headlights of a car and it only made Sakura laugh harder. She wanted to cry. She couldn't remember the last time she laughed so well.

They pulled up a seat for Shisui much later and he helped himself to food after explaining the mess everything was going to be the week before the ambassadors arrived. It had been years since the last party and everyone was still stunned by the initial announcement. Madara gave them six days to transform the Red Keep-a military outpost-into a castle retreat.

So many were angry at just that idea. The whole idea behind having his capitol's center be the Red Keep was to send a message that military might was valued above all else, and now he wanted it to be fit for parties. Sakura just knew there would be whispers about how similar this would be to what the White Tsar would do. The White Country was famous for its dances, operas, ballets, and parties. It was a source of pride for Red Citizens that they were not superfluous with their living.

The next day Shisui's training included dance lessons, something Sakura didn't appreciate having to learn once it became obvious that it would be challenging. Dancing was a lot like fighting, and she knew more than one style of self defense, so she assumed she would pick up dancing right away.

Her biggest issue was being the figure that followed while her male partner was supposed to be the one that led. Sakura didn't like relinquishing control, and would growl whenever she ended up on Shisui's feet. He laughed, but she didn't think it was funny.

"I have five days to master this and you have four toes not yet bruised. How is this funny?" she bit out as he reached for her again. He took her and let her settle into his hold and began to move.

"If you have so little faith you can stay only my partner for the night." The turned around the room and suddenly the light from the windows was behind head his and he seemed so bright. "I wouldn't mind keeping you to myself. Bruises and all."

Sakura felt the heat on her neck but ignored it. The fell into a rhythm and for a moment it seemed like Sakura could feel it, but then they turned and Sakura was too strong and pushed against her partner, forgetting to follow. Shisui laughed but Sakura let go and stalked away with a huff.

"This isn't what I was meant for!"

"Don't walk away now. You've already come so far. You just need to practice a bit more."

"Not with you or those feet," Sakura bit out looking at his scuffed shoes and imagining the bruises. He wouldn't mind them, but she hated it.

"Maybe a change in partners would benefit you both," a new voice cut in. Sakura and the bastard prince both turned to see Itachi in the doorway dressed casually with his shoes being the only part of his outfit that seemed especially polished. His hair was tied up high away from his neck for a change. Sakura thought it made his features look all the better.

Shisui smiled and rolled his shoulders. "I'm flattered, Itachi, but I don't think you're my type."

Itachi inclined his head in the direction of his cousin before stepping into the room. "A pity, I'm sure." He turned his face towards Sakura and his eyes softened. "Would you mind if I entertained you for a while?"

"You don't have work to do somewhere?" Sakura asked, glancing at Shisui who was watching the both of them.

"I'm actually avoiding the work I should be doing by being here, so really you would be doing me the favor." He extended a hand. "If you would be so kind."

Shisui took a seat against the far wall and took a drink of water, watching ideally as he lounged with his legs stretched out in front of him. He grinned at her through his lashes and sakura swallowed before turning to Itachi and nodding.

Sakura took his hand and he led her to the center of the room. She held his hand and shoulder, feeling one of his settle on her waist. He wasn't as all as Shisui, and though it was only by a few inches, it made him feel all the more close. Itachi leaned down and whispered in her ear.

"To begin, I want you to close your eyes for this part. You've memorized the steps too well, but you don't know the flow of music."

"We're not practicing with music," she almost bit out, but forced the words to be softer before they left her lips.

"Please, just trust me."

Sakura huffed, but closed her eyes and nodded.

Itachi began to hum and she felt it in her bones from where their hands touched and where he held her. The vibrations between them shook her and she nearly shivered at the sound of his voice. He hummed the waltz and she could feel it as well as she could hear it. They stood for a while, Itachi just humming before he moved.

Sakura followed.

She was drowning in black water and ice on his arms and all she could do was let him guide her through the swell and foam as he hummed into her ears. She felt it in her shoulders and fingers, she felt the surrender in her hips and the obedience of her ankles twisting to follow his around bends and turns.


She let herself drift and drown in his torrents, letting the black waves toss her about without breaking. Itachi was warm and in a cold world that was what she wanted to cling to. There were secrets shared between them and that was enough to make her heartbeat fluter at the feel of his chest nearly touching hers.

His humming stopped and Sakura slid out of the dance, stepping away from him instead of towards him. The hand that was on his shoulders sliding to his wrist where he caught her from leaving him completely. She opened her eyes and saw his face. The sun was setting behind him and the outline of his face glowed with red.

How had it grown so late? They had stopped for lunch only an hour or two ago.

"Much better," Itachi said, his voice like a purr. "I have faith in your excellent performance this Sunday." He turned back to look over his shoulder at Shisui who had been watching the whole thing. "You are teaching her the history of the waltz, correct? Sarutobi will be in an agreeable mood if you mention we are considering allowing him to attend."

"Yeah," Shisui said, closing his eyes and exhaling before standing. "I was planning on doing that before dinner. Looks like you took your good old sweet time, though. What, was than a whole overture?"

"We practiced to fluidity." Itachi looked back and over his shoulder at where his hand still held hers. His eyes found hers and he bowed, touching his forehead to her knuckles before letting her go with the promise that he would check up on her dancing later that week before the party.

After he left Shisui asked Sakura if she wanted to practice one more round and she said she was more eager to eat and find the books from Sarutobi. After all, she had tomorrow and the next three days to perfect it.

As Itachi said, Sarutobi was more than agreeable to help Sakura with the history of dances and their waltzes in particular. He gave her books to read, but he also made sure she stayed with him for dinner as he lectured the way he would have if he had been at a university. Both Sakura and Shisui came back the next day for more before and after dancing.

On the third day Sakura had to be measured for her dress's alterations. One had already been made and they were making the last finishing touches to it without having her see it. That was a part of the surprise Madara wanted to keep to. For some reason he was teasing with the reveal.

Kagami came to dance with Sakura once and complimented her on her progress. Sasuke even showed up one day and asked her to dance before Shisui kicked him out of the practice room, claiming Sasuke didn't meet the height requirement to be able to dance with ladies. That had led to more arguments and fighting and laughing from Sakura.

On the fourth day Kagami brought Naruto and had Sakura practice with him. Yuu came in later and between the two girls they helped Naruto straighten out. He was still young, only a boy of fourteen, but he was tall enough and the only male beast Madara could parade. Naruto had to be shown off.

Later that day, Itachi came in to help the three on a short dance they were required to preform in front of the king. With less than three full days to learn it, Itachi had shortened the number and kept the choreography close to their natural fighting styles.

"If we can't get it in time we'll scratch the idea," Itachi said when he noticed that the girls were progressing without the lone male. It was just harder for Naruto to get the hang of it.

Sakura frowned, looking over at Yuu. "Too bad the two of us can't just dance together and have Naruto come in at the end and do something."

Yuu even smiled back.

"Why not?" Shisui asked, looking up. He glanced towards Itachi. "What about a mirror dance?"

Both girls looked to each other before staring at the Uchiha in question. "A what?" Sakura asked, knowing Yuu wouldn't speak up. The blond edged closer to Sakura, listening intently.

"It's a dance where the performers are two halves of a mirror. Essentially, Yuu and Sakura would both dance the same way across from each other and never touch."

Itachi nodded to Shisui and the two took to the center of the room before Itachi started to move. Itachi read his movements and mimicked perfectly, catching up so that they were raising and walking and turning and twisting across the room as if they were a person and his reflection. It was mesmerizing and made Sakura feel nervous. It seemed magical because Shisui was using his eyes to track and mimic Itachi. Sakura and Yuu would have to rely on their skills alone.

"Do you think you can do it?" Kagami asked, coming up behind the two girls, watching them carefully as Naruto scratched his head.

Sakura grabbed Yuu's hand and felt how warm it was. Yuu squeezed back, making Sakura grin. "Yes, we can."

It didn't matter that both girls stayed up past dark dancing in candlelight when the maids came by to turn off the electric lights, and it didn't matter that Yuu was more lithe and graceful while Sakura's form carried more power and structure. Both were beasts and that thing that connected them was what they played with as they chased each other across the room, dancing till they were parched and soaked at the same time.

Yuu took to falling asleep in Sakura's bed and the two girls ate together each morning until the last day. During one of the nights Sakura woke on her own, feeling her spin tingle the way it did when Madara was in the room, waiting for her, but when she rose from the covers and crouched alongside Yuu, the room was empty. She inhaled and smelled him. He had been here, but then he left. And as uncomfortable as it made her feel to know he could just waltz into her room whenever he wanted, she was grateful he had left before she spotted him. She didn't want to talk to him after what happened between them. Ino said she needed to make peace, but Sakura didn't know how to do such a thing with that man as king.

Shisui always covered for Yuu when Obito asked about her, and Sakura once asked Shisui why he was so in favor of supporting her friendship with Yuu. He just laughed and told her it was because it was something that made her happy. She almost didn't believe him, but didn't bring it up again.

Sakura and Yuu practiced the morning of the party before the handmaids pulled them apart to bathe in rose water and other sweet smelling things. When Sakura was dried they combed through her hair and rolled up on top of her head to save for styling later. The painted her face and stained her lips a dark shade of blood, then dressed her in a slip of white. Another maid came in with a dress covered by a cloth and hung it up behind Sakura. They led her to her rom where they pulled the dress down and laid it over her slip.

Sakura opened her eyes and saw the brilliance Madara had been hiding. The dress was red, like her lips, and dripping in gold sewn in as leaf motifs around her waist and breasts. The sleeves were long and stopped to thread around her longest finger. The skirt flared in volume, ending between her knees and her ankles in atypical fashion for ladies in the winter. But, it was what her people were known to prefer, once upon a time. These skirts for for the ladies who liked to run, the ladies who fought and kicked and moved. How did he know?

"Your hair," Shizune said, guiding Sakura back down to the vanity where two different maids began working at her scalp. Sakura hated the process when it wasn't Ino, so she closed her eyes and waited. She heard the metal of the ornaments they threaded through her hair, complaining about her new color and how poorly it went with the red of her dress. The black was all finally gone and now her hair was caught between red and silver white. In the sunlight it shone a healthy rose, and outside the light it looked pink. It used to be so much more vibrant, before she left the city, before she gave up her girlhood, but seeing it again was better than the darkness she colored it with for so long.

"Don't hate it," Shizune said.

Sakura opened her eyes and caught her breath. Her face was framed in gold leaves and out of the elaborate bun sticks of gold, like sunbeams, stood out to glimmer and catch the light. There were rubies in her hair too.

"Why would I hate it?"

The older woman shrugged. "I've never seen you try to be pretty. You're all uniforms and military braids. When have you ever touched rouge?"

"I…I didn't think I could be pretty." Sakura looked at herself and wanted to cry. She looked like her grandmother when the old woman had been younger. She had seen the paintings and envied the deceased woman for her face. Sakura could scarcely believe what she was looking at. Between being a girl and being a solider, she had never stopped to be a woman.

Shizune laughed, but it wasn't the kind of laugh that made Sakura want to flinch. It was a soft, kind laugh. Sakura felt something on her neck and turned to see the older woman lowering a gold chain before clasping it behind Sakura's neck. Sakura touched the gemstone that rest against her breast before Shizune moved to pin it in place. The gold chain hang in loops on either side the way medals would.

"You will always be radiant, Sakura."

There was a knock at the door and one of the maids went to let Yuu in. Sakura stood from her vanity to turn and face her friend, gasping at the sight. Yuu was a vision of flawless bone china skin, pale gold hair coiled and clipped atop her head in dazzling black jewels. Her dress was nearly identical to Sakura's in deign, but the colors were black and gold.

"You look amazing," Sakura sighed, envious all over again. Yuu was a beauty regardless of what she wore, but tonight in dark colors and rouge on her cheeks, she was transcendent. Yuu looked like a goddess to Sakura.

The blond girl smiled and reached for Sakura's hand. "You're the one who looks stunning." Her hands were warm, but not as warm as before. Sakura squeezed back and the blond brightened. "I'm glad I get to dance with you."

Sakura could only agree.

The two danced once together in costume and only Shizune was there to watch. At the end the old woman could only stare and Sakura knew she and Yuu would be fine.

Arm in arm the two girls went back to Sakura's room where Shisui said he would pick her up and escort her down. From Sakura bedroom she could look out through the window and see down below how the exterior of the keep was lit up in electric lights and groomed to look inviting. Cars were showing up and people were coming to the Keep in dresses and uniforms. There were precious few true nobles left, all those from the Red Country would be members of the military and their spouses.

On such short notice, with only a week to plan, Sakura was surprised how many had responded saying they would come and how nice they looked, as if they had been waiting years to come out and show off. The ladies were all adorned in flattering dresses in darker colors to honor the national country. It was no coincidence that Sakura and Yuu were both in black and red.

"Why are the woman always so much nicer looking then the men?" Sakura asked, watching as a woman in navy skirts that flared out in folds and folds of fabric hung on the arm of her husband in matching military uniform. Another woman stepped out dripping in gold and navy. The ladies were all trying their best, but the men all seemed the same, and Sakura had seen enough uniforms to find them unimpressive.

"That's nature at work, I'm afraid."

Sakura and Yuu both turned to see Sarutobi in the doorway looking more polished and alive than he had ever been among his books. His dress was an impressive emerald green uniform trimmed in black with gold buttons. His beard had been trimmed back and his face was clean. He bowed to both girls.

"You look…" Yuu searched for the word narrowing her eyes. "Nice."

Sarutobi laughed and it was a hearty chuckle. "Nice? Ah, well in comparison to you ladies, I should think to be grateful I'm worth looking at, at all. When did you decide to be so dazzling?"

He held out his arms to both girls and neither felt silly for running towards them and accepting the hug. Apparently, Sarutobi had been a mentor to Yuu as well, earlier on when the girls first started doing things for Obito. Sarutobi hadn't seen Yuu as much recently, but he had a long friendship with the blond beast girl that reminded Sakura of what she thought a grandfather might be like. Naruto already called him that. If Sakura stayed in the Red Keep longer, she didn't doubt she would have thought of Sarutobi the same way.

"Do you have an escort yet," he asked looking at Yuu. When the girl shook her head he let her go and offered her his arm. Yuu smiled and it was so easy Sakura almost felt jealous that Sarutobi could make the cold girl so warm with so simple a gesture. "I'll do the honors."

"Sakura?" Yuu asked, looking to the green eyed girl. "Will you still wait for Shisui?"

Sarutobi wiggled his eyebrows and offered Sakura his other arm, pretending to be tempting. Sakura laughed and shook her head, waving the two off. "I'll wait until he comes, you two go and make a scene. I'll be fashionably late if I have too be."

Yuu shrugged, grinning more easily when next to Sarutobi. "Less dancing for you."

The pair left soon after, promising to come back in a while if Shisui forgot about her. After waving the pair off Sakura stood by the window and watched the cars and carriages roll up. A long silver car with silver ornamentation came up, standing out in a line of dark automobiles. Sakura watched as it pulled up into the turn about and stopped to let the passengers out. Even from so far away Sakura could tell they were from another country by their dress.

Three figures emerged; one male, two female. The waistcoat of the male was eggplant purple with matching striped running down the sides of his white trousers. Sakura though it an odd combination, but the boy was so pretty it hardly mattered. The girls that came out from behind him were dressed in pale purples with silver decorations. They both had dark black hair that seemed almost purple in comparison to everything else.

The male carried both ladies on his arms and walked forward with a face as stony as one would expect. Sakura narrowed her own eyes, not believing wheat she saw, but she could have sworn his eyes were pale moon colored in a way that seemed like magic.

She watched a few more ladies and men come in, admiring the dresses and cars others owned. It seemed like such a long time since Yuu and Sarutobi left. Sakura wanted to call them back to go with them, she was starting to get tired of waiting. It made her anxious.

There was one light on in her room she kept low, so that the glare didn't obscure her view of the outside. Sakura turned it all the way off when she noticed how dark it was outside. She didn't want to draw attention to her room. Turning back to the window she counted the cars still in lined and found it fewer than before. Most of the guests had already showed up.

There was a wide grinning moon out, nearly full and gloriously bright as it reflected off all the fine things passing under it. Everything looked lovely bathed in silver and softness. It almost made her ache for snow.

Sakura turned suddenly, nostrils flaring at the smell. Madara. A light outside her door flickered as a shadow stopped in its place. She heard a knock and wondered why the Red King would be so polite as to knock, but got up to answer it anyways. She pulled the door back and blinked, surprised by what she saw.

"Were you waiting long?" he asked in a deeper than normal voice, looking only mildly nervous. Shisui had combed back his curly hair and it shined through the waves he styled it in. His uniform was bright red and heavy with glittering medals. He swelled a bit when he caught sight of Sakura's gaze. Too many of them were gold or red, complementing her own dress.

Sakura stepped out into the hallway's light and Shisui stumbled a bit to make room for her without looking away from her. He swallowed and then licked his lips and took another step back, clasping his hands behind his back and then dropping them and then trying to do something with them in front of his body before giving up and fisting them at his sides. Shisui coughed once into his fist and then straightened up.

"I'm sorry, I was delayed greeting the dignitaries. I meant to be here sooner."

Sakura shrugged. "I figured it was something like that." She held out her hand. "But we can go now?"

Shisui nodded, taking her by the arm and leading her in the traditional fashion. It was odd, but she had practiced plenty of times with Shisui and Itachi before, so this shouldn't feel unusual. What was unusual was how quiet her partner was being. In the past he never failed to make small talk with her or tease her when she was on his arm, saying things like he would catch her if she tripped or carry her if she was feeling faint. She looked up and him and saw only silence in his face. It din't look like he would say anything anytime soon.

"Were you with the king before coming to get me?" she asked as they rounded a corner. They were close to the main hall of the keep that had been transformed for the sake of the party.

Shisui blinked, looking taken aback by her question. "What? No, why would you ask?"

Sakura shrugged, looking away. She didn't want to admit that Shisui smelled like Madara. It was weird to admit you could distinguish someone by smell and she didn't want people to think she did that regularly. She only mentioned it because usually Shisui smelled like air or water-like he lacked a smell in the first place and Madara's scent was so….memorable. "No reason. Just, you'll be in the same room at long last. Maybe you saw him before you got me."

"I wouldn't let something like that keep me from getting to you," he chuckled. "No, just the Hyuga came and I…we needed to make sure they weren't going to be slaughtered the second they walk through the door. It has everyone on edge because this night could go very badly or be the first step in the direction for peace."

"And that is what you want?" Sakura asked, remembering what Ino told her. "Peace after all these years of war, even at the coast of revenge for everything you've lost?"

He touched the arm she had wrapped around his with his opposite hand. "Yes. At the expense of sounding treasons, yes. I never wanted war. I think since the first memory I've always wanted the opposite of this. I want to see peace and advancement and growth. I want to hear operas again and see plays at the theater and race cars outside the city limits." His voice sounded far off. "I want to see snow again."

Sakura sat the golden glow filtered through colored glass and nearly stopped when the stairs leading down came into view. The party had begun and the floor below was swelled with twirling bodies. There was laughter and shouts from the young girl who danced for the first time. The hall below was open and the second level was open for men and woman who wanted to lean against the railing with their drinks and observe. A few couches were even set up for the more easily exhausted guests.

Shisui sighed alongside her. He felt warm on her arm. "This is nice though. It almost feel like…peace."

Sakura looked to the group again and was able to see Itachi and Sasuke up towards the front, greeting men dressed in red coats. Not far off Kagami stood next to a man in gray fur talking to the Hyuga visitors. Sakura blinked and recognized the man in furs as Madara Uchiha, the Red King. She looked sideways at Shisui to see if he was looking there too, but he was watching her. When she turned to him he tugged on her arm, bringing her closer to him. With all his glittering medals and impressive coats the most captivating thing about him in that moment had to be the the way his face told stories. She hated how much she saw of him in that moment, the insecurities, the intimidation, the fear of rejection, the threadbare hope that maybe it wouldn't be as he imagined. His lips didn't move, but she heard, 'stay with me.'

The small orchestra began to die down and Sakura smiled, recognizing the lull before they would begin again. "You said you would dance with me. I can't promise I won't step on your toes."

He chuckled, bowing his head and nudging her shoulder with his. "I promise not to mind it too much." He loosed his grip on her and led her down the stairs into the mess of it all just as the strings began to vibrate a familiar melody.

Somewhere nearby she felt Yuu dancing with someone and Itachi moving to be a part of the mess as well before she slipped into the rhythm of drowning. She closed her eyes and let herself melt against Shisui, imagining black waters closing in all around her. She was weightless and fluid in her grace. Sakura recognized the score they were playing. The piece was called Waltz Suite for orchestra, Op. 110- No.1- Since We Met, or something exceeding long and cumbersome to say. It was pretty, and one she preferred, but not her favorite.

The dance ended and they were about to separate-partners of varying sexes were looking to cut in for both of them, but then Sakura heard the first notes and grabbed Shisui by the arm before he could let go of her. "You said you wouldn't let me go," she said, tugging on his arm and leading him deeper into the fray away from the people coming up to dance with the boy in too many medals or the girl who was also a beast. She stopped him in a free space before turning around and holding him the way she needed to for the dance. "So don't."

He looked a little too happy to not seem silly as the violins began singing her favorite waltz. Even he recognized the tune of the Waltz That Goes On.

It was too easy for Sakura t fall into black waters this time. She let Shisui take her around and around in the dizzying steps she had memorized and forgotten all for one night. This was one of the scores that best told a story for Sakura, a story with a conflict, a fight, a struggle, a climaxing triumph, and a descending ending. Shisui turned and she felt herself nearly slipping, but then he pulled her back and she was warm again and the scent of woodsmoke and pine trees was in her nose again and she forgot she was afraid of it and loved it for that moment.

Maybe Shisui whispered something in her ear, or maybe it was just his breath, but they were close and the song was ending. She felt so warm and the fur along his collar caressed her face in a way that was nearly familiar. Sakura eyes snapped open the second the violin strings wailed their last note and saw Madara staring down at her, grinning darkly. His mouth was too full of teeth and his body was near burning against her.

Sakura inhaled, feeling her body tremble and her spine tingle. She was so close to him, she could feel all of his body. She felt her lips part and she didn't know what she would say, but his hand was behind her head, pushing it into his chest where she could feel his heart thrum. She smelled magic there, in the emptiness of his heartbeat. Madara Uchiha didn't have a heart in his chest, like in the stories of the man who ripped out his heart.

Sakura struggled and pulled back, only to look up and see Shisui staring down at her, looking concerned. She inhaled and he still smelled like water and pine and woodsmoke. The fur was gone, but there was still magic in his heart, strong than before. She had never noticed where the magic inside of him actually resided.

"Sakura." He sounded concerned. "You okay, you spaced out there for a bit."

He sounded just like how she remembered him but she couldn't see him the same way. Her heart felt heavy for the bastard prince with no father to claim. She reached up and touched his face just enough to pat it once before pulling away. "I'm fine. Don't worry about me."

Before she could fully retract her hand, Shisui turned quickly to grab it and turn it palm side up to kiss. It was more intimate than a kiss to the back of the hand, and it made her shiver. He just grinned at her before winking and melting away to allow Kagami to cut in on his behalf.

She fell into step with the older Uchiha, wordlessly following the lead he set for her. Halways into the song she almost opened her mouth to ask him if he knew, if he knew who Shisui really was and if there was ever a father for the bastard prince, but she couldn't put the breath in her lungs to do anything more than breath.

The set ended and she was about to leave when a new body cut in. Sakura's spine shivered as Obito took her hand and mouthed his pleasantries before pulling her along roughly. He took her to the center and then danced with her to the edges where the others wouldn't be able to see them.

"Have you become too dangerous to leave alone, beast?" he hummed, watching her face from behind a half mask. The half of his face left in scars was covered up in platinum colored leaves made out of metal. It twisted around his skull and without the scars to distract from his beauty, he almost seemed handsome. "Was it not enough I leant you my cat as a distraction? Why did you go poking your nose where it doesn't belong?"

The hand that held hers tightened and Sakura knew she wouldn't be able to pull free, even if she tried. Obito looked ready to rip her apart.

"What do you want? I don't know what you're talking about," Sakura hissed, glancing sideways. Her eyes were searching and finding no one. The dancers glancing her way all had dead looks about them, making her believe they were all part of the RR unit Obito let. She was surrounded by his assassins.

"You know exactly what I'm talking about, storyteller. You've found his heart even after I took such good care to hide it after that bastard Tsar nearly found it the last time I stuck it somewhere."

"I didn't…" Sakura let her sentence hang, knowing it wouldn't do her any good to keep on lying. "I haven't done anything."

"Yet!" He tugged her violently. "You haven't done anything yet, and that's how it is going to stay if my wife is to have any peace in all of this. We've made so many gains and I'm not about to let one deserter undo it all." Obito loomed above her, stopping in the middle of the dance floor, refusing to move. "You're going to leave before you can do any more damage. You will kill the Hyuga ambassador and leave our city, never to return."

"You're crazy!"

"If you don't I will kill Yuu. Her life is mine to take without consequence. The choice is yours to make."

The rest of the world didn't matter. Sakura didn't know what anyone else was doing, or if there even were other people around her. Her body was numb and she felt her head spin as Obito walked away. There was no music, and there was no floor under her feet. Nothing existed apart from the delima. Minutes ago Shisui was talking about peace and operas and the snows he wanted to see, and now she was set up to kill to keep him from that dream.

"No, you're wrong, Sakura. You're the only one who can do this. You need to return the Red King his heart. The White Tsar has been calling for peace for years, but our king won't listen without a heart. You need to return it."

It made sense now, or at least it made more sense than it once did. Shisui was the Red King's heart. It was the reason why he sometimes smelled like Madara and sometimes didn't smell like anything at all. There had been stories before of men being made out of nothing but magic and the fractures shard of something else once living, like a heart. Shisui was just a part of Madara, rejoining them would reconnect theRed King with his remorse and desire for peace.

A hand tapped her shoulder and she flinched, turning to see Itachi. "It's time for your dance," he said.

Sakura's eyes widened. "I can't."

Itachi frowned at the sound of her voice more so than the words from her lips. He could tell that something had happened to her, but he wouldn't be able to know what exactly unless she told him, and she knew how this game was played. Obito didn't need to tell her not to talk about it, it was implied.

"I…no, I'll do the dance."

Sakura lowered her head and stalked past Itachi, keeping her lips pressed tight together. The crowd was already parting and too many eyes were on her for Sakura to say or do something now. And even if they weren't, she couldn't possibly see herself killing one of the ambassadors. She couldn't do the opposite of what everyone had been telling her to do. Ino and all the dead, they were counting on her for this and now she knew what to do.

Sakura looked up and saw Yuu sanding in front of her. The blond raised her hands and Sakura followed, knowing that for the three minutes they mimicked each other, Sakura would know what to do. Once the music stopped, she would be back to being a mess.

The music began and she fell into it. In what felt like seconds later she was back to the end of the routine, having remembered nothing of it. Time didn't touch her until it wanted to hurt her. Sakura gasped, staring across the floor at Yuu who was frozen in the same posture. Secretive as ever, the blond smiled at Sakura and she felt her heart break for her friend and the fate that hung over their heads.

'For the sake of peace what is one life?' a voice inside her head argued and Sakura wanted to scream. What good was a peace for everyone else if she had to loose one more friend. She wasn't even supposed to care about peace in the first place. This wasn't her country, and all it had given her had been things she outgrew. She was beyond her hunger, her rank, her identity of solider. No one called her comrade anymore.

She looked up and saw one of Obito's assassins, the one who called her ugly not too long ago. Someone else was coming up behind Sakura as the audience around the applauded. Sai was watching her. She felt like she wanted to break when he continued to stare until a moment later he nodded in her direction. 'Do it.'

"Sakura." She turned and Shisui was there. He was grinning so much and she felt even worse. How could things fall apart so fast? "You were amazing! I knew you could do it."

Sakura took his face and held it between her hands and then pulled herself up to touch her lips to his. They touched and there was a snap between them before Sakura pulled him closer and erased the space between them. Shisui melted into her, wrapping his arms around her and deepened the kiss. Maybe somewhere Sasuke was screaming in rage. Maybe somewhere Yuu was grinning. Maybe somewhere Obito was watching.

Why did the end of the world have to start with a kiss?

She pulled away just enough to breath and tried not to think about what was going to happen next. Shisui was a glowing mess beneath her fingers as he rambled about how he was going to take care of her forever and she would never have to worry for anything because he would be a good lover, husband, father no matter where he came from and it might be moving too fast but he wanted to share his life with her.

Sakura silenced him with another chaste kiss and he was near boneless when she pulled away. "Do you give me your heart?" she asked in a whisper, eyes half lidded.

His laugh was so full of life and hope and peace it nearly broke her. "Completely!"

She knew how the stories went. Sakura pressed her hand into his chest and grabbed. Her fingers wrapped around something hard and warm and beating and Shisui moaned before he filled with light and melted into the air, his medals clattering to the ground like the suppression talismans they were. In her hands rested a gold egg decorated in diamonds and rubies and laced with gold. It was beating in the palm of her hand with all the love Shisui felt for her.

"The king!" someone shouted.

Madness broke out and people were running. Sakura whirled to see the assassins dressed in black raise their guns. Sai fired and the assassin trained on Sakura dropped dead before he killed the other two members of Obito's RR unit, stepping out to put his back to Sakura who he was protecting. "Go."

There was a ring around Madara who was shivering on the floor in all his furs as he clutched his empty heart. The medals weren't connecting Shisui to him anymore and he would be in pain until Sakura finished what she started. She rushed forward and more bullets rained down, but Yuu drew her blades from inside the folds of her dress and held her own.

'Thank you for believing in me.' There was no way the blond wouldn't know what Obito had promised after so many years under his heel. "Now it's my turn to let you watch my back," she said out loud before making herself a streak of lightning on the floor in a way Sakura had never seen.

Kagami was ushering the Hyuga out the side and Itachi was there. The two would protect their guests from anyone Obito sent their way. Sasuke was no where to be seen, but Sakura knew he was smart enough to find Naruto. She could hear the blond fox cursing at someone.

There were still too many bodies in her way and Obito was there, right in front of Madara, crouched low and looking ready to murder.

Black bodies rushed forward and Sakura grew her claws and fangs, ignoring the mouth full of blood that dripped onto her dress, blending perfectly. She tore into the first one the way she tore into the first people who came at her, and roared when their knives found her ribs. Two were at her feet, but more were swarming, like spiderlings from the back of dead mother.

Too many.

She roared and her wounds meant nothing. Fang and claw, fang over tooth, claw over bite, twist and tear, she let go to the most primal of her instincts. She nearly swelled in size as she landed on a man with her jaw clamped down on his throat. More bullets landed on her body and she felt them pop against her skin.

A new body was a blur of white, sailing through the air and landing atop the attacker with a rifle. Sakura turned and saw Kimimaro, the albino first people she had saved from the caves. It seemed so long ago when she thought she would die when faced against such numbers. She had set to free the chilred she found caged, but only one was left alive for her to carry out. He had been so small and frail looking, but he wasn't a child when he woke up and slaughtered half the people in the cave.

"I apologize if I arrived too early or too late, but Sai did not tell me what to do," the albino said, turning and looking up at Sakura. "He is still shooting things."

"Thanks. You did good," Sakura growled over the fangs in her mouth.

Kimimaro nodded, blushing a bit as his body grew bones all over. He grabbed for one sticking out of his leg and threw it like a knife. It sank into the face of another man and stayed there. "I did well, mother?"

Sakura shook the blood from her hands before reaching over and kissing his forehead. "You made me proud. Keep them occupied while I save my friend."

Wordlessly, the boy nodded and then took off, bones bleeding and singing as they sailed through the air and birthed cries of pain from her enemies. All that was left was Obito.

Sakura stalked the rest of the way, holding onto her side where the open wounds still bled. Most was already healed and burning with regeneration. She only had one or two to worry about. Obito was one man, she would be fine.

"You fool," the scarred Uchiha snarled, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a silver bell. He shook it once and the world did that thing where it stopped all around her before speeding up again with a shriek. A void grew like a mouth between her and Obito, allowing a mass to emerge. "You will never see peace. There is only death in this cycle of living."

Sakura cursed, stepping back as the beast emerged from the darkness. No, it wasn't a beast. Beasts were natural. The thing in front of her was a-a- it was a mess, a mistake. It was made up of the disjoined, fused body parts of different creatures, including humans. Too many arms, too many legs, a tail made out of god knows what, and two mouths right on top of each other. They open and screamed. Sakura wanted to cower. Just like the candle, this thing was wrong. The arms of what could have been a squid or octopus swirled around its head like a crown, slithering and reaching.

It reached for her and it was all Sakura could do to dodge. It reached again and Sakura dived for a pillar to hid behind, but it reached around that and she had to climb to avoid being crushed against the wall. It was a game of catch me if yo can and Sakura was only allowed to miss once before she was crushed to death. Something hit the side of her face and she felt the wet touch of blood running over her skin. She cursed and didn't stop cursing as she skipped across the floor, dodging and running. She was too small, she was too slow, and she was too weak to stand on the same ground as that thing. She could pick away at its health, little by little, but Obito was already moving towards Madara and preparing the body for movement. She needed to win soon or she wouldn't win at all.

"Kin killer."

Sakura whirled and there was the blood witch with a virgin candle. She tossed it and it shouldn't have reached Sakura from all the way across the room, but there it was, in her hand. It was just like the other one but this time it was all black and the markings were in white. She turned it over and saw something she could read in the wax. She looked up with wide eyes at the witch and wanted to tear her apart.

"Light it and see if you really are what they say you are, Kin killer."

A bulb smashed to the floor behind her and the electricity caught on the fabric of a tablecloth. Fire. Light it. See the person who has their name written on the side.

Obito was pulling Madara away. The monster roared. Wrong. Magic was everywhere.

Sakura screamed a curse, plunging her hand with the candle into the fire, not caring is she got burned. The darkness came again, but this time it was only for her and only for one person. Sakura opened her eyes and sobbed at the sight of her kin. Hungry, her blood wolf, the animal she had been bonded to at birth, stood among the flames, nearly real. He looked exactly as she remembered him before her mother killed all the dogs for their meat before they turned to cannibalism. But for Sakura, Hungry was more her brother or kin than any human ever was, and she failed him. She would forever be half of what she once was because she lost her wolf kin and survived him in shame.

Hungry stepped towards her, out of the flames and licked her face. It was nearly more than Sakura could stand. No judgement, no blame, but of course it was Hungry. He was as good as good things come and she had lost him forever.

"This is wrong. I killed you. I didn't stop her, I-I-they were going to eat the babies and I-oh Hungry!" He licked her again and pressed his head into her chest, loving her the way he knew she understood. "I'm so sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry-so sorry- sorry…"

'Now is not the time for that.' He could never speak the way humans did, but he had his own way of speaking to her. 'No time, do what must be done.'

Sakura felt herself surrender and swallowed, bracing for it. Hungry reared and she roared, reaching for the darkest part of herself. They were ancient and they were one the way beasts of Krepost all aspired to be. Sakura wasn't a girl and her wolf wasn't a wolf anymore. Together they were one thing, a monstrous wolf with the strength of ten bears. Some wolves were fast, some were strong, some were wise. Sakura was one of the strongest.

When she roared the earth shook and when she emerged from behind the pillar she towered. The monster reached for her and Sakura caught it between her jaws. She was claws and fang and then she was spinning into the monster, ripping it apart. It shrieked and writhed before Sakura tore at its' head, bursting it like a water skin.

Obito was nearly outside but Sakura was there at the entrance, swiping him back with Madara. The two rolled and Sakura stopped Obito with one paw on his chest. She growled, bearing down on him. It would be so easy now to bite off his head or tear off his legs or pop off one of his arms. She could kill him or make him suffer. She had all the power. They wanted beasts to chain and command, but they had never seen a true beast. Even bonded with her dead partner, Sakura was only a shadow of the might she one boated. They had no idea what they were messing with. The Uchiha were fools to think themselves so superior.

Obito cursed and thrashed, but then resigned himself, knowing she had won and he had nothing left. The bell had been something Sakura retrieved for him long ago and she knew it only worked once for each ringer. That was it for him.

"Do it," the bitter Uchiha hissed.

Sakura pressed and she felt bones break. Obito coughed blood and then Sakura was standing over him, a girl in a red dress with hair flowing free. Her wolf was behind her legs, ready to bite at a moment's notice. Sakura sat down on Obito's broken chest and touched her own breast, poking her heard. She shouldn't have been able to use magic, but Sakura pulled apart her heart and pinched off a piece to hold between her claws. She removed it and pressed it to Obito's chest with the same hand that removed Shisui. She pushed her heart into his and felt the part of him that was dead hiss as it was burned away to make room for the new addition.

Obito cried out in pain and then began to cry tears that put him to sleep. Beneath her, Sakura felt warmth return to his heart.

"Sa-Sak-kura." She turned at the sound of her voice and saw Madara looking like he was ready to fall apart. She touched her heart again and felt the egg she had placed there only moments ago. Madara was reaching for her and he looked so lost and young. He had been only a boy when he removed his heart. He had been young and foolish in his youth and now he would be young again.

She knelt down beside him and pulled his head onto her lap. He kept reaching for her, trying to touch her face, trace her lips. Sakura kissed his fingers and then placed her hands above his chest. "Trust me with your heart?"

He smiled up at her even though she doubted he could see anymore. "Completely."

They tell stories of that day, how a saint saved a devil.

The lady of our faith, the saint called Sakura had been the divine element in the peace between the countries White and Red. With one act of selfless love she erased the hate that made death a daily necessity.

Sakura returned Madara his heart and he went on to rekindle his friendship with the White Tsar and even forgive the younger brother. Things weren't perfect there, but the fighting stopped and the armies went home. The Black Isles touched both kingdoms in trade and between the three roads were built and advancements were made to the point where nearly everyone had access to cars instead of tanks. Operas came back to the Red Country, and on Yule it snowed again.

Obito forgave. A part of his heart that had been missing grew and the pain was old enough to outgrow. Yes, terrible things had happened, but he joined his brother Kagami in making a new future that would maybe one day be peaceful enough for love to grow again like the love he had for his wife Rin. Nothing would replace that love, but he was willing to search for love again.

Shisui was gone. He had never truly existed except as the heart of Madara. Once returned, the boy Shisui was gone and Madara was loud and silly and prone to bouts of arguments with Sasuke over the stupidest of things until someone came in and broke them up.

Sakura woke up smelling peppermint and reached to grab a candy wrapper left behind in her bed. It was a terrible habit to bring food into bed, but during the winter she couldn't help it. The bed got too warm while the rest of the room was too cold. She didn't want to take her trash out when all she wanted was to stay under her covers.

She groaned, realizing there was more wrappers.

"Later," a new voice murmured. She felt his breath on the skin of her back and knew better than to turn around when his arms were around her. Years later and he was still as clingy as a child. "Stay with me."

"You're spoiled," she answered, reaching behind her to tousle his hair.

It was getting longer. Soon she would be able to braid it the way Ino once did hers. The ghost girl hadn't been seen since the day in the great hall where she had returned Madara's heart to him. Sakura was okay with that, knowing her friend was finally at peace.

"Who made me this way?"

"Don't blame me. All I ever do is yell at you and hit you."

He laughed and it was a dark, ancient laugh that reminded her he was so much older than her, even if he acted like a child. "I don't mind when you smack me around. Would you like to do it again, love?"

Sakura groaned, shifting her legs about under the covers. The touched his and he wrapped his around hers in a possessive curl. He was warm though, so she let him."In case you forgot, this wife of yours is pregnant. Smack yourself."

He moved to kiss her neck, one hand reaching around to cup the swell of her stomach where twins were forming. "I love you," he whispered. "Completely."

"This is the story of how I never stopped running. This is the story of how, when the wolves knocked, I met them at the door and I became the beast, instead."
-Ashe Vernon, from "Little Red," Belly of the Beast

We Hid the World Inside an Egg.

"We all have one foot in a fairytale, and the other in the abyss."
-Paulo Coelho

[ROUGH EDIT - First Edit- Second Edit-]

AN:/Two months and 100K later, sometimes I slip up and write a happy ending without killing off any major characters. Oops. You know how many deaths I had planned? Lots more than what I ended up with. Don't get too comfortable with it, though. That's not my dominate style.

This is a rough edit, I will try to get some help in going back and cleaning it up a bit. I just wanted to get this out ASAP for Christmas and as a way of saying thank you to everyone who has encouraged me along the way or shared how my stories helped them at some point. Thank you guys! Happy Holidays.

The way this was heading I could have ripped out the last 5K and left it open for a trilogy. I outlined for a trilogy. And maybe one day I will write that trilogy, because there were things like the White Country and Krepost and Kiba's survival story that I wanted to write about, as well as Sakura's monster transformation. (When she tries to transform into a monster wolf without her wolf kin, she is only one half of the equation and the end result is something monstrous and bleeding and ugly enough to scare men dead.)

There was a lot I never got to and that's okay because this is what I can manage in the two months of stolen breaks. Maybe (likely no) one day I will go back and write the other two novels in the trilogy I had planned, but I'd need a break before than and now.

Also, I have to push Sakura through the last frame of the Obelisk series. I don't plan on that taking forever, but I'm sure it will. The Gate in the Land of Sand and Stone- gladiator Sakura- and the Kingdom of Gods set in what looks like Ancient Egypt. I'm almost nervous to write it, because once I do then Obelisk is done as a series and that became such a big part of my life for so long. I remember telling people about this book I was starting to write and now those people are no longer a part of my life or they've moved on and done stuff. It's so trippy.

Anyway, I hope you liked it even though I meant for more dresses and waltzes and dances and guns to show up. Thank you for reading such a long piece and thank you for sharing how you felt about it in a review.

-Vesper chan