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take it, take it again, stitch the spine back in

-o-

After spending days in the man's company back in the Forest of Death, for a brief, chilling moment, Sakura entertained the thought she was memorable enough for Kabuto to recognise.

She wasn't.

Her eyes had stared, wide and focused, on his, but the man had not deigned for her a second's attention in return. Sakura was just one in a group of prisoners and his gaze had scanned over her like a person mulling over which of the yet ripened fruit might be worth purchasing. (None, for the moment.)

Including herself, there were twenty two people in the room. She had counted as many as she had gotten the schematics of her environment. But that opportunity to take in any visual details had been short; almost immediately since, both her eyes had been sealed shut and her hands bound behind her back. To further restrain her mobility, a rope ran from a collar around her neck to one of several metal bars overhead. They were all on leashes and its system was rigged so that there was never any slack in the line. Her communication was also limited, physically she and her fellow prisoners were only capable of soft hums from their throats and not much else in way of speaking. The sound of skin clapping against skin and the constant bumps of someone against her informed Sakura they were all as naked as she felt.

Kabuto had seen them, gone without comment, and then they had been hosed down with gravel rough water and repackaged into their current state.

Before the shower, she had determined that the room wasn't impenetrable. It was a ten metre by ten metre by fifteen metre space. Tiled around, two doors opposite another about six metres off the floor, bisecting the room with a metal walkway stretching between them. Pipes came out from the walls near the ceiling and were fitted with a sprinkler system. Drains in the form of a shallow trough outlined the floor. There were seats along the walls, but they were awkwardly high up and too narrow for a comfortable perch. There was enough lead from their collars for them to move to the seats, but not enough space on the shallow edge for each of them to sit at one time. About twelve, she estimated, if people were generous with personal boundaries.

Even with her hands tied and her eyes blinded, she could get out. The Oto nin had done nothing to limit her chakra, likely assuming taking away the ability to form hand seals, their bare vulnerability and mounting physical fatigue together were enough of a dissuasion to keep any of them from attempting escape. She guessed it might have been the appropriate estimation for most everyone in the room with her, but assumptions were never safe.

When one of them made the clever decision to climb up the person next to them, making to leap to the walkway, an electric current shocked through their leashes.

For a long while, no one tried any more tricks.

At one point, Sakura started to count the time. A day and more passed and she stopped.

Sakura waited and she occupied her mind with any all thoughts that could come to her. The room around her assaulted her senses and, taking what vital information she had been able, she quickly closed herself off to what was happening with her other prisoners. The smells, the sounds, the textures of unseen but unavoidable things around her.

Shit, urine, sweat, vomit, bile, blood. And then the showers would turn on again, followed by hot blasts of air from fans high on the walls, and it was a constant cycle. Sakura turned her chin up to the water and drank as much as she could. It tasted the way a twang on metal wire sounded. It was their only means of hydration and their was nothing more for sustenance.

What was the point? She wondered.

She was pretty sure she knew the answer.

At times she would make her way to the wall to sleep. A few seconds rest and then her body would start to slacken and the collar round her neck would tighten and she would jerk back awake. This was another cycle. Some of the prisoners didn't much appreciate it. Tempers and exhaustion and the lack of rational thinking led to frustrated conflicts. A lot of body checks and kicking.

Sakura was at the wall, "sleeping," when she felt another body pressed against her. The person was hard and she wanted to die, but maybe not as much as the boy attached to the illogical and insistent thing between them. She eventually became more used to the things that still happened in the room – despite it's remorselessly vile situation.

What was the purpose of all this?

Someone still had tears in them and the room for a while filled with muted sobbing.

Another shower, two minutes. The fans ran again, ten minutes. The fans coincided with a different electric humming from the lights, and Sakura thought they were heat lights to help the prisoners dry faster. Weakened and remorsefully shamed, but the showers and warming process were meant for something. Maybe to keep them minimally intact in order to serve some other purpose?

One of the group died in a scuffle. It sounded like they had been bitten and gnawed on until they started to bleed out. The fight invited the showers and during the spray, the dying prisoner was removed. Sakura smelled the Oto nin and their cleanliness was enviable and intoxicating. That was the first death and it opened a gate to welcome others to the same end. Their number dropped.

Sakura didn't sleep enough and her body shook for two days straight. Her system expelled anything and more she had inside her. She sweated and forgot her mind for just as long.

She woke up with bodies slumped against her on either side and the feeling was no longer anything to note. Bones pushed out against skin and when any of them moved, it was like sticks knocked together.

Her nails became longer and her head itched with hair growth.

The real estate of the suspended benches was valuable. A person could sleep best there and everyone wanted to get their feet off the permanently slick, always a little bit damp tiles beneath their feet. Sakura would stand on one foot and let the other recover before switching. It was a mind numbing existence and she would have slit a man's throat to be able to feel her eyes blinking again. Damned if she saw anything, she just wanted to blink.

She began to worry when she lost interest in feeling those sensations again. Too much time was passing.

More than what she suspected – What was the point?

It was however long after arriving in the room when something changed. A scraping sound of metal sliding on metal and then the downpour of the showers. The water didn't drain. Instead, it collected at their feet until they were ankle deep. It remained there for hours. And hours. And longer still. The reason for this wasn't immediately apparent.

As they had all tried to get away from the wetness of the tiled floor before, the renewed and more imperative effort to free their skin of the perpetual water started to eat away at any remaining control and patience between them.

And in the madness to hold onto any space above the ground, Sakura remembered what she had earlier supposed was the ultimate purpose of the room: stressors to awaken something one or more of them might not have ever realised previously. Orochimaru was still searching for bloodline limits – even now resorting to attempting to stimulate dormant abilities in prisoners he had scouted from unaffiliated clans. The observation came from a quiet part of her mind – somewhere drowned out by adrenaline and survival instincts.

It seemed the recent batch including her was lacking.

No one had any 'awakening' of any sort. They merely devolved into a brawling mass of teeth and knees. She used her head to knock out someone and she was pretty certain their immobile body was suffocating on their collared noose behind her. No mind. There were more people crowding around her, trying to get to higher ground and so she used their bodies like stepping stones, hooked her leg around a neck and squeezed. From there, she channeled chakra to her feet and kicked at a sternum attached to some other body. She took out legs and kneed a nose into a skull.

Really, all she wanted was out from the water and the torrential rain of the showers.

The loud water and the shouts and the storm of her pulse. Underneath it all, the mantra of her rank and her mission. She was blinded, but she heard the person charging her, knew which foot was coming up for a hit to her head, knew how to dodge around their momentum. She stopped herself from returning the kick in kind. She had to stop reacting and start thinking.

And she realised who was shouting; not other prisoners, muted as she was, but guards. The guards only entered for the reason of removing bodies. She wasn't one of the bodies, but she had made bodies. Did that count? Would they take her too? She couldn't afford to get their attention – Let her stay in the room, she hoped – Let her stay and smash her way out – Let her use her fists

But they found her.

-o-

Her body was attached to her cot like the two were magnets. Sakura thought a jutsu was at fault at first, but her mind cleared and she understood her exhaustion for what it was. Her eyes burned and watered, she clenched them shut but soon realised she could open them. It had been so long the sensation was foreign and painful. She could see, if only with very blurry vision and an extreme sensitivity to light.

She was waking up. She had been lying down. She felt dry and even clean. Sore and almost without energy, but somehow refreshed.

A chemical smell and the intravenous line in her arm told her she was in hospital. A catheter, too. She'd been out for awhile. Or under?

Sakura wondered, only then, where she was.

She was in the prisoner's cell last... The guards had come and gotten her and then she had slept. Until...

She was still in Otogakure.

The answer didn't come from her, so much as in the form of the man who appeared at her bedside just as the question occurred to her.

He was, as was his style, smiling in a very benign manner.

"Your eyes speak of recognition," Kabuto said, not glancing up from the notes he was reading. The smile peaked at one corner. "That's a...sign. You've been with us, but not exactly cognisant, for several days."

He put aside the clipboard to lean over her.

Sakura tried to throw her arms up and failed. They were tied at her sides. So she squirmed and tried to shrink away in futility.

"I only want to ask you to follow a few, simple commands. That's all." More smiles and gentle words. "Relax. You have it good here, little girl. I could have authorised you for Juugo's study. See? That would be a cause for concern."

Juugo's study meant nothing to her, but its introduction made her pause. It was out of curiosity, but Kabuto thought she calmed from his reassurances.

"That's good, that's good," he cooed. "You understand me? Yes. Make a fist for me? Good, good. And move your toes? I see, that's functioning, too. Left foot? Now the right? I see, I see. Interesting. Well."

Sakura narrowed her eyes as the man contemplated her successful tasks.

He sighed, disheartened. "Well," he repeated, and tacked another smile to his face. "I'll try again tomorrow."

Tapping her forehead with the clipboard, he gave her an indulgent once over. He didn't seem to be addressing Sakura so much as himself. "Don't frown. I'll crack her jutsu. Eventually."

Again, meaningless words.

Kabuto withdrew a bottle from his lab coat pocket and a needle, adding the bottle's contents to her IV line. A sedative or similar, Sakura thought. She would have enough time to wait until he departed before removing her restraints and the line –

And then his hand connected with her forehead and she saw black.

-o-

"You're awake. That's good. And you can understand me? Yes? Good. You've been in and out before now, but it seems this time your more cognisant. Don't worry, don't worry. I'm just going to ask you to do a few tasks for me. Can you make a fist with your left hand? Good, that's good. And your right? Well. We'll try again tomorrow."

-o-

"You can understand me? Good, good. We've met before, but I'm afraid you might not have had your wits about you. You're doing better today. Shh, shh. Relax. There's no need to fuss, I'm just going to ask a few simple tasks of you. Can you move your right foot for me? Just the toes – ah, there. Good. Good. And your left? Ah, I see."

-o-

"...Hello. You're awake. That's good. I can see in your eyes that you're more with us today than you have been in the past. That's good. And can you understand me? Yes, good..."

-o-

"Why wasn't this one moved on to the selection process in S-unit?" Asked a new voice.

Someone she didn't know was talking. And they were close to her. They might have been the person touching her. She was scared for a second, but then thought that it was good someone was there. Someone to latch onto to keep her from falling back to the darkness.

"Showed symptoms of withdrawal. Automatic 'no.'"

"Oh. She was strong though, wasn't she?"

At least two people in the room with her. She thought it was inside a room, at least. The warmth of the air, the hum of electric lights. Inside, she thought, definitely. Her body was heavy and unresponsive. She felt hungover.

"Tch. I'm stronger than her," came the second speaker's voice. It was a touch defensive. And then, more reluctantly softer, "do you need help?"

The sound of material ripping apart and suddenly her ankle and then her arm were free from their restraints. Her lethargy kept her in place, though.

"No, I'm fine. They're all featherlight at this point."

She was being flipped onto her stomach and scrubbed with a cloth. A dry bath. The action was familiar to her, but from a cotton-swabbed distance. She knew what it was called and that it was used on patients who couldn't wash themselves.

"Hold on!"

She felt the hands gently scrubbing her back still, and then the second person in the room was leaning over her. The air around this person was different, more intense and less amiable. Her hands were rougher and they swept over a particular spot on her back with purpose and wonder.

"No way," that person said, disbelief quieting her words. The fingers ghosting her back went to her nape and flitted over the locks of hair laid down her neck. "I know her. I fought her. During the Miyabe raid. What...what the hell is she doing here? Don't – don't – no, never mind. I'll be back in a moment."

"Karin?" The first person asked after the second, who had quickly left the room. And then, seemingly alone again, the person mimicked in an amused way, "I'm stronger than her! Ha! I mean, maybe she's right, but the gall..."

On her bed, flipped over and vulnerable as she was, something in her head played on repeat like a tolling bell. Miyabe. She knew that name. It was important to her.

A slide slotted into place and she remembered. Miyabe Shoma. He was important to her and he was dead and these people were responsible.

She smelled fire and burning flesh. It was in her nose and her throat, her lungs and in her head.

A second passed and the thunk of metal colliding with skin and bone resonated in her ears. She was upright on her mattress, three of her limbs free from their restraints, and her right arm still tied to the bar she held in that hand. The metal had ripped from its welded points in her grip. She had swung the makeshift weapon with ease at the person's head and now they were on the floor, a slack heap of person in a growing circle of red.

"That was for him," she thought in response to the unconscious girl on the floor. Closing her eyes, Reina felt vindicated.

There was work to do.

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-o-