Incantations

- Part 3 -

Speak Softly Under the Light of the Moon

::

When Monday morning came in Miyako, several townsfolk were met with a disturbing surprise.

The little apothecary on Noren Street was found empty - devoid of not only its medicinal merchandise, but all furniture and decor as well.

As well as the sweet, pink-haired owner.

One of the shop's frequent customers, an older man who often bought salves from the apothecary that helped with his joint pain, visited early that morning, right around the time the young woman usually opened up her shop, only to find a shattered window and an eerily dark interior.

News quickly spread on the small street and local residents came to investigate, searching the barren building for any sign of life. They found nothing but dust and weeds growing through the floorboards and the townsfolk could only wonder what might have happened during the weekend. Many people stopped by throughout the day, some coming purely to see if the local gossip was true while others visited in concern for the kind shopkeep.

Amongst the visitors was a young girl, worried at the news of the pink-haired woman's disappearance and inwardly wondering if the shop's owner had been in more trouble than she had let on two days ago when she passed through her mother's bakery.

It wasn't until later in the afternoon, after most of the curious crowd, growing throughout the day as word continued to spread, had finally dwindled down, that a particular individual, unfamiliar to the townsfolk he passed, entered the abandoned shop. No one paid him any mind and he was left to his own devices, eventually finding what he was searching for near the back of the building.

The stranger laid the single pink hair in a clean handkerchief before folding and tucking the cloth into the pocket of his jacket, a devious grin on his face and the light of the sun catching on his glasses as he made his way back down the street.

::

The moment Sakura recognized the voice of her captor, her struggling turned violent, angrily screaming through the hand over her mouth and jabbing her elbows backward in hope of landing a hit to the warlock as she kicked her legs wildly.

"Calm down." He hissed into her ear, adjusting his grip on her waist and keeping his hand firmly planted over her mouth.

She yelled muffled obscenities back at him, twisting and struggling in his hold as fury bubbled up within her. Sasori gave a growl of frustration, trying to steady them both so they didn't fall over while the witch continued to squirm violently and try to hit him.

"Will you stop?! I'm not going t- OW!" He cut himself off with a yelp of pain when she suddenly bit down on his hand, hard enough to break the skin and draw blood. The warlock stubbornly held onto her but moved his slightly bleeding hand away from her face to wrap the arm around her shoulders.

"Let me go, you bastard!" Now that his hand was gone, she was free to scream and curse as she pleased, one foot slamming down in hopes of stomping on his feet.

"You little-" Gritting his teeth in annoyance at her insistent struggling, Sasori tried to hold her still, the energy of his magic starting to feel a little suffocating in the dark room. "UGH, just calm down! You're being ridiculous-"

"Excuse me?! You kidnapped me!"

"I just want to talk!" He gave another growl before finally releasing her, scrambling backwards when she instantly twisted around in attempt to land a punch. The warlock caught her wrist just in time, but missed her other fist, giving a grunt of pain as she punched him in the gut before quickly grabbing that arm as well.

"Calm down, Sakura-"

"Fuck you!"

"-I just want to ask you a few questions!"

She glared up at him, both hands still clenched and itching to rip her wrists from his hold, but his grip was strong and he narrowly avoided a kick to the knee, her posture tense and ready to bolt the moment she was free.

"And you expect me to listen to you?! You've been stalking me! You burst in like you're welcomed and have the audacity to think you can just show up, kidnap me, and have a pleasant conversation?!"

"I hadn't sensed you in days!" He shouted back, glaring back at her and missing the way her eyes narrowed slightly at his words, "It wasn't the best idea to barge in like that, I know, but I was worried! I needed to make sure you weren't-"

He cut himself off with another growl, adjusting his grip on her wrists as he stared back at her, frustrated brown locked with enraged green. "I'm not here to hurt you, Sakura. I promise."

As if to prove that he was telling her the truth, he released his hold on her wrists, taking a step back and holding his hands up to placate her. He forced his glare away but still looked incredibly annoyed, taking a few slow breaths to calm himself as well.

"I just want to speak with you."

Her eyes had long since adjusted to the darkness and she looked him over with a dark glare, her fists slightly raised and her hand itching to move for her wand. She doubted she'd be able to move fast enough to remove it from her boot before the warlock managed to grab her - or, worse, use his own magic - and, instead, she kept still and watched him warily, their combined energies heavy in the air. She slowly let her posture relax, only slightly, but enough for him to notice, and took a deep breath, her glare still pinned to him.

After a moment, she crossed her arms over her chest, replying with a simple, stubborn, "No."

Sasori stared at her with a blank look, his hands falling slightly.

"What."

"You heard me," Sakura raised her head slightly, turning her nose up at him. "No."

He reached up to pinch the bridge of his nose, gritting his teeth as he held back another growl. "Don't be a damn child. I just want to ask you a few que- Where are you going?"

The witch had turned around, stomping towards the door he had pulled her through and not even sparing him a glance over her shoulder.

"Anywhere that's not here! I'm leaving, you warlock bastard," She reached for the doorknob, ignoring the feeling of his irritated glare drilling into the back of her head and missing the way his fingers twitched, fingertips glowing blue for a moment.

"And if I ever see you again, I'll break your face. I swe- SHIT!"

She cut off with a shriek the moment she opened the door, facing an open night sky and the lights of a large city far, far below her. One foot was out the door and she quickly stepped back, heart racing as she stared down in shock.

He'd pulled her in from the street, why were they in the sky?!

Sakura was just about to whirl around to angrily confront him when she felt a hand rest between her shoulder blades, his palm warm and alarmingly steady.

The witch glanced over just in time for her incredulous eyes to catch his annoyed expression before he shoved her forward.

She screamed, but was only free-falling for mere seconds before she felt a hand wrap around her wrist and, suddenly, she was no longer plummeting down through the air. Sakura was vaguely aware of the scent of clay as she became weightless, a light breeze whirling around her as Sasori surrounded them with his magic. She realized within moments what he was doing and panicked slightly, reaching up for her plum branch tucked in her hair - she'd never mastered aidless flight.

The warlock swatted her hands away and took both of her wrists once more, his grip firm but gentle as he held her hands above her head. "Calm down, I'm not going to drop you."

It was a reflex for Sakura to tuck her legs up underneath her as they floated in midair, instantly wishing she was on the safety of her broom.

"Put me down! What the hell is wrong with you?!"

"I told you," He hissed into her ear as he 'stood' behind her, "I just want to talk. You're completely safe with me, Sakura."

"Oh, sure-"

"Just trust me," Sasori interrupted with an annoyed groan, meeting her glare as she looked over her shoulder at him.

"Right, I'm just supposed to trust my stalker - kidnapper! - and have a nice chat." She grit her teeth and resisted the urge to continue her struggling, inwardly glad that she hadn't decided to wear a skirt or dress today - dressed instead in loose, open shoulder white blouse with wide, billowing sleeves and black trousers, silver stitching down the sides that seemed to glint like starlight when the light caught the threads just right - as the wind blew gently around them and ruffled the loose bottom of her shirt, exposing her stomach to the night air.

"Please, Sakura," The warlock sounded oddly pained at having to beg, taking a step back through the air and pulling her with him. "I promise. Just let me ask you a few questions and then I'll take you back. Will you cooperate with me?"

She continued to glare at him, sparing a glance down below to the large, unfamiliar city under them. There was no way that was Genki. Where on Earth had he taken her?!

Grinding her teeth for a moment, Sakura finally gave a frustrated groan, shoulders slumping as she looked back at him angrily, but defeated.

"Fine. Start talking."

He let out a sigh of relief and took a step forward through the air, the pair of them bobbing lower slightly. A quick glance down confirmed that her legs were still tucked up close to her and Sasori snorted, his grip on her wrists moving to her hands.

"Straighten your legs out. Walk with me, Sakura."

She frowned at the command but tentively stretched her legs out, swinging through the air slightly as if to find purchase before she caught the rhythm of his own steps, the witch and warlock gliding slowly through the sky. Satisfied, he spoke again.

"Have you come in contact with either Orochimaru or Kabuto since you left Miyako?"

Her frown deepened and she paused, glancing to her right as they passed a tall clock tower, before thinking the question over. Sakura vaguely recalled Sasori mentioning the first name when she had last seen him and, chewing on her lip, she pieced things together.

"Orochimaru is..." Another pause as a bird passed them and she inwardly wondered if the pedestrians down below could see them through the darkness of the night. "He's that creepy snake mage, right?"

She glanced over her shoulder to catch his curt nod before he shifted their path slightly through the sky. Her eyebrows furrowed in confusion as she thought over the second, unfamiliar name.

"But who is Kabuto?"

Sasori was quiet for a moment as they passed over another building, the crescent moon casting enough light for him to pick a path. "He's Orochimaru's apprentice. Silver hair, usually in a ponytail, glasses-"

"Oh, him." The one that started this whole mess by slipping that spying serpent into her coinpurse - she remembered him.

If she ever saw this 'Kabuto' again, she'd be sure to thank him with a hard punch to the face.

When she didn't immediately answer his first question, Sasori gave one of her hands a short squeeze, rolling his eyes at her huff.

"Well? Have you seen either of them - have they approached you?"

He maneuvered them around a chimney that was spewing smoke and she shook her head, glancing up at the stars above.

"No, I have seen neither of those bastards. Only you."

Sasori breathed a sigh of relief and was silent for another moment, relaxing noticeably as he gathered his thoughts.

Sakura was quiet as well, trying to focus more on the city below than the frustrating warlock so close behind her. She had to admit, there was something incredibly satisfying about stepping on a rooftop and using it to kick off into the sky again...

"Orochimaru expressed an unnerving interest in you, when I last saw him in Miyako."

Sakura's attention snapped to Sasori, an eyebrow quirked as she stared at him. She thought back to that evening in her shop, remembering the mage's reaction to the reveal that she was a witch.

"He..." She frowned to herself, allowing Sasori to turn her slightly and guide them over a market square. "He mentioned my old teacher. I think they know each other and I'm trying to find her now so I can find out what she knows."

The warlock was quiet, but she felt his hands tense slightly around her own.

"Does the name Tsunade sound familiar?" Sakura asked after a moment. She felt him shrug in reply behind her, glancing back to watch him.

"I don't know everyone from Orochimaru's past."

"But you do know him personally, don't you?" She persisted, feeling pretty confident about her suspicions.

Again, he was quiet for a moment before finally replying.

"I did at one point." Sasori quickly continued when it looked like she was going to question him further. "But that is unimportant. Just know that I know him well enough to know that he's not one to give up when he has his mind set on something."

Sakura fell silent at his foreboding reply, frowning to herself as she inwardly wondered if this dangerous mage was really coming after her for some unknown reason.

"I..." He paused and she glanced over her shoulder at him when he suddenly spoke, a little surprised by his embarrassed, yet earnest, expression.

"I must apologize for what happened," The warlock finally continued, "It really wasn't my intention to get you involved in all of this."

"Oh?"

He glowered at her response before letting out another sigh, the pair passing by the clock tower once more.

"I was visiting Miyako purely on business. But, Orochimaru has a knack for showing up in whatever city I'm in shortly after I arrive." They caught a small breeze and climbed further into the air, still walking through the sky as he spoke. The stars overhead twinkled and sparkled, catching her eye and might have left her a little dazzled if she wasn't in her current predicament. "We aren't on good terms. He's been following me for years now because-"

"Because you stole something from him." Sakura interrupted, remembering what Orochimaru had said in her shop. She glanced back at him, expression curious. "What did you steal?"

A short pause as he glanced away, inwardly debating something for a moment. "Unimportant. He won't be getting it back."

She sent him an irritated look, about to berate him for being so frustrating, when he had them drop down several feet, the warlock smirking when she squeezed his hands in surprise.

"As I said," He continued after a moment, "I was only visiting Miyako. But, I happened to see you in the market one day and I knew I would need to keep an eye on you because someone always gets hurt when Orochimaru is around."

He either didn't notice or simply ignored her frown and continued, starting to ramble a bit as they stepped off another chimney.

"Of course, I didn't know at the time that you were a witch, but sometimes that bastard takes civilians instead of wizards and other mages and-"

"Wait, wait, wait," She interrupted, looking back at him with furrowed eyebrows before she seemed to come to a realization as she suddenly remembered that conversation between the two men at the market. "Orochimaru is the one that's been kidnapping spell-sellers and wizards all over the country?! Why?"

Sasori gave another shrug, watching a pair of birds pass as they paused on a rooftop. "I believe so. As for why, I have my suspicions."

Eyebrow quirked, she watched and waited for him to continue, frowning when he remained silent. "Well? Are you going to enlighten me or...?"

"It's nothing to concern yourself with."

"Excuse me?" She sent him an incredulous look, glancing away only when they stepped back into the air and gritting her teeth in frustration. "You're the one saying he might be coming after me! You can at least have the decency to explain what you think he's doing."

The warlock stubbornly remained silent and Sakura growled under her breath, grumbling to herself until something dawned on her.

"Alright, wait..."

He sent her a curious look and the witch frowned back at him over her shoulder.

"Why do you feel the need to watch out for me? You don't seem much like the 'knight in shining armor' type, especially when it's for random strangers."

Sasori had this odd look on his face, like he wanted to say something before he changed his mind, glancing away with the barest hint of a blush on his face.

At least, she thought it was a blush - it was kind of hard to tell in the dark.

"I'm..." He paused after finally speaking, still refusing to look at her as he frowned down at the buildings they were floating over.

"I'm indebted to you." The warlock missed her confused expression, staring away from her as he continued. "I don't like owing anyone anything and when I saw you in Miyako for the first time, over a month ago, I knew this would be a chance to repay my debt to you."

Sakura silently processed his reply, still incredibly confused until, suddenly, it clicked.

"We've met before, haven't we?"

The warlock finally looked back at her and they stared at each other for a moment, their weightless bodies gliding through the air as they walked and the breeze ruffling clothing and tussling hair. Eventually he gave a curt nod and Sakura frowned to herself - so that's why he looked familiar - and tried to recall just when they'd met in the past. She was about to start interrogating him further but he seemed to anticipate her question, looking away with a blank face.

"But that's a tale for another time."

Sakura bristled and shot him a glare, squeezing his hands painfully hard when he continued to ignore her.

"You can't keep doing that!"

"Doing what?"

As if he didn't know.

She resisted the urge to aim a kick back at him and simply pinned the warlock with her glower.

"You can't keep dropping information like that and then not giving me more details. I thought you wanted to talk."

"I'm only giving you the information you need, for now." He returned the frown, holding her gaze. "I thought you didn't want to be here."

Sakura was silent at that, looking away with a glare as she turned her attention to the city below. Well, he wasn't wrong - she definitely didn't want to be here, kidnapped by a frustrating warlock and forced to walk through the sky as he gave less-than-satisfying explanations for his actions.

But, she had to admit, it was kind of nice to glide through the air on such a pretty night, using a technique she never mastered to travel under the twinkling stars and glowing moon...

She quickly shook her head to clear her mind of these thoughts, stubbornly forcing down the "Kind of romantic too" comment that was suddenly rolling through her mind

"Fine, keep being vague." She finally said, frowning back at him with narrowed, annoyed eyes. "We're done here. Take me back, like you promised."

Sasori looked like he wanted to argue further but he gave a short nod instead, changing their path slightly and climbing higher into the sky.

"I thought you liked flying." He suddenly said, catching her attention as they traveled back over the city.

"Excuse me?"

"You seem pretty attached to that broom of yours." The warlock replied when she sent him a confused look, shrugging to himself. "I thought you might enjoy this at least a little."

Sakura bristled slightly, gaze narrowing as she felt oddly insulted. "I love flying. I'm just not too keen on my current company. And..."

Trailing off, she glanced away before sighing, pouting through her embarrassment. "I never really mastered sky-walking or any aidless flight. So I prefer my broom."

She happened to glance over her shoulder just in time to see him quirk an eyebrow, a slightly amused look on his face.

"Really? You don't seem like the type to have trouble mastering spells."

Sakura quickly looked away, feeling her face turn pink. Was that a compliment?

"My teacher wasn't too interested in the air arts." The witch admitted, staring down at the rooftops. "Tsunade hates not having her feet on the ground. So, I taught myself how to fly on a broom and tried to learn other types of flight, but I never got the hang of it on my own."

Sasori was quiet for a moment as they walked through the air, until he finally broke the silence, the feeling of his breath just barely brushing the back of her neck and his hands warm around hers.

"It's a pretty easy technique to learn. A little more difficult on your own, true. I know from experience - I taught myself the method years ago."

Sakura nearly shot him a glare, figuring he was trying to belittle her, but he continued, unaware of the growing blush on her face.

"I could teach you." Sasori offered, his voice earnest, if a little hesitant. "I know a lot of wand-less magic that I'm sure you'd be able to pick up fairly easily."

She bit her lip, gaze pinned on a street far below.

There was little Sakura loved more than learning...

Before her thoughts could stray too far, the witch shook her head, grumbling to herself for a moment. "No thanks. I don't plan on spending anymore time with you after this."

He gave a snort that had her frown deepening, refusing to look back at him.

"I'm afraid that's not up to you, little girl. I can't consider my debt to you repayed after all that's happened." She stiffened at his words, her expression incredulous and steadily growing angry once more.

"I plan on keeping an eye on you to make sure Orochimaru doesn't... bother you. At least until you find this 'Tsunade' of yours"

"No." The witch quickly replied, jaw clenched. "Hell no. You are not traveling with me."

Sasori shrugged, unbothered by her angry look. "I don't have to travel with you. I can easily follow you around, regardless of whether you like it or not."

Sakura was just about to start struggling in his hold again when she remembered the metal flower that she had thrown out, smirking to herself.

"Tough luck, old man. I got rid of your little tracker."

A pause.

"You did what?"

Her smirk widened into a grin at the incredulous, slightly angry sound of his voice. So she had been right about him tracking her through the gift. The witch sent him a smug look, pleased with herself.

"I figured out what it was and threw it out. Good luck following me around now."

Eyes narrowed, Sasori growled under his breath and she felt his fingers tighten around her hands but, before he could reply, they stepped out of the sky and onto a balcony.

Sakura blinked in surprise - they hadn't been facing a building, where did this balcony come from? - until she recognized it as the same spot where their little 'walk' had started.

The balcony was small, a short railing on either side of the opening that led out into the open air, and extended barely two feet out in front of a door. She took a moment to look around, aware of Sasori finally releasing her hands and stepping away as they landed in the small, flat space. The building - a quick glance behind her to the city below revealed that they were way too high in the air for this to be a normal building - curved upwards as well as downwards and left much to the imagination, the smell of clay heavy in the air. She was unable to tell just what material the building was made out of in the darkness, but the clay scene gave her a pretty good guess.

She was about to question the warlock - she swore she could hear the sound of large wings beating through the air somewhere nearby - when he stepped forward to open the door, a street suspiciously similar to the one he'd snatched her off of on the other side. He watched her silently, his expression unreadable, but Sakura was perfectly fine with not exchanging goodbyes, sending Sasori a final frown as she stepped towards the open door.

Just before she passed over the threshold, he reached out and grabbed her wrist, black sand suddenly pouring out from one of his sleeves. She barely had a moment to process what was happening, let alone struggle, and could only watch in horror as the iron sand encircled her wrist before hardening into a band, the odd bracelet weighing heavily around her wrist.

"What the he-?!"

Before she could properly react, Sasori shoved her through the open doorway and onto the street, quickly closing the door behind her.

::

By the time Sakura made it back to the inn, her anger hadn't lessened any.

That bastard.

He'd slapped another tracker onto her and, no matter how hard she tried, she couldn't get rid of it. It was loose enough around her wrist to move around, but she just couldn't seem to pull it past her hand, the iron warm on her skin and it's weight a constant reminder of that infuriating warlock.

After spending a few minutes banging on the door and attempting to wrestle the band off of her wrist, Sakura finally gave up and hurried back to the inn, jaw clenched and eyes narrowed in a perpetual glare. She passed few townsfolk, as it was pretty late in the evening now, and the ones she did see seemed to realize she was in a nasty mood and kept their distance.

She stomped up the stairs of the inn to her room and threw the door open, bee-lining for the bed. Sakura flopped down face-first on the mattress and grabbed a pillow, muffling her scream into it.

"Mistress Sakura!"

The witch turned slightly at the sound of Shiori's voice in her mind, expression turning apologetic when she realized how panicked the slug sounded. Shiori quickly crawled over to her, feelers brushing over her shoulder and face as if to make sure she was okay.

"What happened?" The familiar thought into her mind again, still sounding pretty distressed. "You were gone for so long and I couldn't sense you at all!"

Sakura sighed, sitting up and glaring down at the black iron band around her wrist as she proceeded to tell the slug about being kidnapped by the warlock and their midair conversation. Her familiar was attentive, obviously locking all of this new information away for further investigation in the future. When she finally finished, Sakura offered her wrist for Shiori to examine, suspicions confirmed when the small slug recoiled slightly at the touch of the bracelet.

"It's the same substance as that metal flower, but the magical energy radiating off of it is much stronger." Shiori paused, gently brushing her feelers over the band once more. After a thorough investigation, the slug spoke again, voice sounding apologetic. "There's no seam or clasp - no weak point to take advantage of in an attempt to break it..."

The witch nodded, expression glum as she ran a finger over the smooth metal. "I doubt asking nicely will convince that ass to take it off. UGH, I don't want that bastard following after me everywhere!"

Shiori's voice was sympathetic and she moved to rest on her knee, facing Sakura. "Please don't worry, Mistress Sakura - I'm sure there's an alternative method to removing it. Mistress Tsunade may be able to figure it out..."

She looked thoughtful for a moment, gently brushing a finger down the slug's back. "Sasori said he would keep following me until I at least find Tsunade. Regardless of whether he was lying or not, the quicker I find her, the quicker I get this damned cuff off."

Sighing, she fell back and splayed out on the mattress, glaring up at the ceiling. After a couple minutes, she rolled over and off of the bed, beginning to gather her belongings.

"We'll leave first thing in the morning. Breaks between traveling will be short - I don't want to interact with that warlock bastard ever again, unless it's to have him remove his little tracking device."

::

Sakura awoke to the distant cry of a rooster, groaning into her pillow as memories rushed into her mind. For a moment, while her brain was still fuzzy and she clutched to the lingering lull of sleep, she thought - hoped - it had all been a bad dream.

But a quick glance down to her wrist confirmed that the iron band was still present and the impromptu conversation with Sasori had indeed happened.

Resisting the urge to bury herself back under her bedsheets and bemoan her rotten luck, the witch begrudgingly got out of bed, glaring out her window at the warms rays of a cheery sunrise.

By the time she was dressed and ready - sporting a pale yellow sundress with a lacy neckline and matching sleeves (a few handy spells stitched into the lace on her arms) and her black cloak - Sakura had made up her mind in regards to her travel plans. She'd be spending most of the day in the air (the dress was made of a soft, light material that would be comfortable to fly in) and spend minimal time on the ground as she headed for the mountains, giving the red-haired warlock little chance of being able to contact her.

She planned to aggressively ignore him even if he tried to interact with her.

Heading down to the market to quickly stock up on food and traveling supplies, Sakura greeted the townsfolk she'd befriended over the last few days with a tired, yet appreciative smile. A few seemed to realize that she was packed and ready to leave Genki and offered her well-wishes on her future travels, letting the witch know she was always welcomed in their town. Shiori was perched on her shoulder, nodding kindly to the townsfolk that greeted the slug as well, and Sakura could feel the warm flutter at the edge of her awareness that let her know that her familiar was keeping watch.

She was in the middle of purchasing a couple apples when she felt Shiori stiffen and inch closer to her neck, her voice soft, yet wary, in her mind.

"I sense an... unfriendly presence, Mistress."

Sakura reached up to tuck a few stray strands of pink hair behind her ear, using the motion to inconspicuously glance over her shoulder as she murmured her reply to the slug.

"Sasori? Can't he give me at least one day of peace..."

"No, Mistress." Shiori replied, threading her awareness with Sakura's to give the witch a wider reach as they simultaneously searched. She resisted the urge to reach up and remove her broom charm from her messy bun, instead moving down to a different vendor as the slug continued.

"This aura is much more..." She paused unsurely, her small body giving a short shudder. "Dark. It is not that of the warlock's."

Sakura was sure she visibly paled as her suspicions grew but she managed to steel her nerves as a group of children rushed over, greeting her with gleeful smiles and hopeful eyes. She held back her grimace, hoping her smile didn't look too panicked, and relented to the childrens' wishes for a magic show. Crouching down to their level, she removed her hawthorn wand from her boot and tapped it to the patch of grass she was standing on, smiling to herself as a few lavender flowers quickly sprang up.

They were obviously magical, as they were giving off a soft purple glow, and Sakura beckoned the kids to each pick a flower, one for each child. When the children had plucked their flowers, clutching the blooms close as they stared at the glowing blossoms in wonder, the witch stood, resisting the urge to glance around the busy market.

"Now run home and put your flower under your pillow right away." She instructed, unable to pinpoint the presence that was worrying Shiori, "You'll all have fantastic dreams tonight and for a few nights after until the flowers wilt. But you have to put them under your pillows quickly or the magic will disappear! So hurry home, okay?"

Best to get the kids safe and out of the way, just in case a fight was about to break out.

The group of children gave her awed and happy words of thanks before quickly rushing off, presumably towards their respective homes. Relaxing slightly and hiding her wand in the sleeve of her cloak, Sakura carefully made her way towards the edge of the market, moving slow and unassumingly so she didn't catch anyone's attention. Passing by a vendor who was selling fresh bread, she tilted her head slightly to whisper to Shiori, her heart thudding in her chest.

"Orochimaru?"

"I don't think so, Mistress..." Sakura's relief was short-lived as the slug continued, "It doesn't feel like that mage's aura. It's... similar, but not exactly the same. I don't recognize this presence."

The witch frowned to herself, thoughts buzzing as she worked her mind for an answer. She was just passing a booth that was selling fabric when she felt a hand suddenly grab her upper arm (not strong enough to elicit anything more than a sudden flinch from her, but a tight enough grip to keep her in place), a person moving to walk next to her.

"You're a tricky girl to track down, Miss Witch."

Sakura stiffened at the horribly familiar voice and glanced to her right to see the silver-haired man - Kabuto, as the warlock had called him - smiling back at her, his hand gripping her arm and guiding her out of the market.

"You!" She kept her voice hushed, hoping to keep the Genki townsfolk out of danger, and simply sent him an accusatory hiss, recoiling when he pulled her closer.

"Ah! So you remember me. I'm fla-"

"Fuck off."

Kabuto gave an amused chuckle, tutting down at her as he looped his arm through hers and glanced at the wary Shiori perched on her shoulder, his pace steady as the pair passed through the marketplace.

"Language, Miss Sakura. There's no need to be so testy. I'm not here to hurt you."

"Bullshit. How did you find me, Kabuto?"

That seemed to catch him off-guard. The apprentice looked a little surprised at her knowing his name, but he quickly hid his shock behind another unnerving smile, his free hand raising and reaching towards her head. Sakura's hand shot up on reflex to catch his wrist, but not quick enough to stop him from curling a few pink strands of her hair around his finger. She growled under her breath, hand glowing the barest amount of blue as she squeezed his wrist painfully hard.

Kabuto's lips twitched as he suppressed his grimace. "Some Finding spells, though difficult, need no more than a single hair to locate someone. You left Miyako in such a hurry, but you weren't quite as careful as you thought, Miss Sakura."

He turned her down an empty alleyway and finally stepped away, removing his arm from hers and resisting the urge to rub his sore wrist when she finally released it as he faced her. Sakura grit her teeth and clenched her fists, stance wary and ready to fight if Kabuto made any move to attack her. Instead, the silver-haired apprentice regarded her with a calm smile, his glasses glinting dangerously as he stood mere feet from her.

He was unaware of how the white lace of her sleeves were starting to glow in places under her cloak, small, pebble-sized balls of magical energy gathering and at the ready.

"Let me first congratulate you, Miss Witch, for catching Lord Orochimaru's attention." Kabuto began, taking a moment to bow regally - even the movement felt sarcastic - but not looking away from her. "It isn't often that my master takes an interest in common witches - even ones as lovely as you-"

"Cut the horseshit," Sakura interrupted, glaring darkly at him and lining the small balls of energy up down the length of her wrists. "What do you want?"

He tilted his head slightly, the light catching on the lenses of his glasses again, and he motioned towards her.

"That slug on your shoulder," She resisted the urge to reach up to Shiori protectively at his words, emerald eyes narrowing, "It's from the Shikkotsu Forest, is it not?"

Sakura turned her body slightly to a more defensive stance, moving her familiar out of Kabuto's sight.

"Why do you want to know?"

Kabuto's smile widened into a grin and she could spot just the barest glow of light purple energy gathering at his fingertips.

"Lord Orochimaru knows of only one other witch in the world that possesses a slug familiar from the Shikkotsu Forest. He is immensely interested in formally meeting the apprentice of one of his rivals."

The purple gathering at his fingers was now dripping down to the ground, the drops of magical energy hissing like acid when it met the cobblestones below, and Sakura pinned him with a steady glare, her angry expression hiding how fast her heart was beating.

"You're making a lot of assumptions about me." She replied, shoulders stiff. "Besides, your master lost any chance at a civil conversation with me when he destroyed my home."

Kabuto had the gall to feign an apologetic look and he regarded her with a friendly, fakely-sympathetic smile. "My Lord Orochimaru sends his deepest apologies for his part in the destruction of your... quaint little shop."

The apprentice certainly took after the master, in all sorts mannerisms.

He ignored her scoff and continued, raising his hands with a placating air, though they still dripped vicious purple energy.

"He'd be more than happy to reimburse you for the damages done to your home, if you'd be so kind as to give him the whereabouts of the warlock Akasuna no Sasori."

Sakura frowned to herself - even if she did know where, exactly, Sasori was, it was doubtful that these dark mages would leave her alone.

"You can tell your Lord Orochimaru to fuck off - I don't want anything to do with any of you."

An angry look flashed over Kabuto's face but, before he could reply, Sakura quickly spun on her heel, flinging her arm out and sending the energy pebbles flying at Kabuto at an aggressively high speed. The small balls of white light crackled with energy and steadily growing static, impacting the apprentice and sending sudden volts of electricity through his body as she took the brief moment to raise her wand. The crackle of electricity in the air mixed with his cry of pain but Sakura moved quickly, uncaringly of the dangerous mage's wellbeing.

With her free hand, glowing blue with strength-enhancing energy, Sakura landed a hard punch to Kabuto's chest, sending him flying backwards a few feet before giving her wand a quick flick. Immediately, vines burst through the cracks in the ground near the man's feet, coiling around his legs and pinning him in place as she sprinted past him and out of the alley.

The witch turned a corner sharply, her mind racing with her body as she pulled up the mental map she'd created of Genki, aiming to get near the edge of town and draw Kabuto away from the townsfolk before making her escape.

She heard Shiori's sudden shout in her mind to duck just barely in time, dodging out of the way of a sudden bolt of purple energy whizzing past her ear and hitting a stone wall. Glancing over her shoulder as she raced down the street, Sakura could spot Kabuto chasing after her, a few dead vines still clinging to his ankles as he shot another beam of energy at her, very reminiscent of his master's attack.

The pinkette turned another corner, only to quickly skid to a halt when she found her path barred by a vicious looking serpent, it's fangs dripping with venom as it hissed angrily at her.

Gritting her teeth - Kabuto would be rounding the same corner in moments, she guessed - Sakura quickly reached up to pull her plum branch out of her hair, sidestepping a strike from the snake before quickly pointing her wand at it. Gathering the small balls of light from her other sleeve in her wand, Sakura shot a beam of energy at the serpent, jumping over it as it recoiled in on itself and seemed to melt into acid.

She'd just managed to make her broom grow to its full size and slip her wand into her boot when another purple bolt shot past her, just barely missing her arm. Sakura glanced over her shoulder, heart pounding and Shiori's voice panicked, only to find Kabuto missing.

Shrieking in surprise when something grabbed her arms painfully tight, the witch turned her attention forward once more and found the apprentice in front of her, his expression dangerous. More acidic energy was dripping from his hands, burning through the sleeves of her cloak and the lace sleeves of her dress to bite into her skin.

Sakura cried out in pain, the dark energy shooting through her, stemming from where Kabuto's hands met her arms, and her knees threatened to buckle at the sudden immense pain. The silver-haired man eyed the plum branch broom in her hand with a sneer, vicious magic surrounding his hands as his grip tightened on her arms.

"I'm afraid you won't be escaping into the air again, Sakura. As I said, my Lord Orochimaru wishes to meet you."

Sakura clenched her eyes shut in an attempt to block the burning pain in her arms, gritting her teeth as she fought to keep control of her tiring body. Shiori's desperate cries of encouragement sounded far-away as she struggled, the slug's energy threading through her in an attempt to battle the mage's harmful magic. Managing to adjust her stance slightly, the witch sent him an angry glare, baring her teeth in a snarl.

"And as I said, fuck off!"

Planting one leg firmly on the ground, Sakura leaned back and forced Kabuto to bend forward just enough for her to bring her other leg up quickly, her knee connecting with his chin and making a painful crack echo through the alley. He gave a pained yelp and she managed to rip her arms out of his grip, spinning on her heel for a roundhouse kick at her assailant.

Unfortunately, Kabuto managed to catch her ankle with one hand, his other arm swinging out towards her as she tried to lean back out of the way.

It looked as if she was far enough out of his reach and safe from his strike, but then time seemed to slow to a crawl for a moment. A bright blue glow encased his hand in a wicked blade and extended his length of reach just enough to make contact with her plum branch, still clutched in her hand.

Sakura could only watch in horror as Kabuto's energy blade sliced clean through the wood of her broom, her step faltering and allowing his strike to hit her side as well.

The pain of his magical blade cutting her side was dulled by the sight of one half of the plum branch falling to the cobblestone ground, both parts of the broom glowing a bright green before there was a sudden crackle and pop. The magic in her broom snapped out of existence in a burst of pale blue and green sparks and the alleyway was briefly filled with the scent of plums, the blossoms on the branch halves quickly wilting as the wood seemed to crack and shrivel.

Eyes wide in horror and her heart clenching in anguish, Sakura was vaguely aware of tears gathering in her eyes, time still moving painfully slow, and the sharp sound of wood hitting stone still ringing in her ears as she stared down at her broken broom. The witch felt a sudden burning pain shoot through her body - but not from any sort of attack from the grinning Kabuto, who looked both amused and triumphant - as the years-old bond of the magic threaded between her and the branch snapped.

She wasn't aware of falling to her knees, only of reaching out desperately for the other half of her broom before recoiling as Kabuto kicked it away. He ripped the half in her hand from her grip and tossed it down the alley as well, an amused look on his face as he grasped her wrist, his hand brushing over the black iron band.

Before Kabuto could speak, a sneering response practically dripping from his lips, there was a sudden thud and snap and the alleyway was filled with hot, angry energy.

Wind kicked up in the alley in a furious flurry, dust and sand whipping around the pair and forcing Sakura to close her eyes, a burning heat threaded through what should have been an icy gust. She managed to peek up at the sound of a shout above her just in time to find a burst of red energy hit Kabuto square in the chest and send him flying backwards away from her. The gale continued to whip around her and Sakura was only vaguely aware of Shiori pressing herself close to her neck.

Suddenly, there was a hand taking hold of her own, grip soft but strong, and an arm gently wrapped around her waist, steadily pulling her to her feet and back against a chest. As the wind stormed around them, her hair loose from its bun and blowing freely in the strong breeze, Sakura looked weakly over her shoulder to see Sasori holding her protectively close, his expression angry and focused somewhere ahead of her.

His black cloak billowed and fluttered around them and, for a moment, Sakura felt weightless.

And then the alley disappeared and she watched as they passed backwards through a doorway, the door closing in front of her in a very familiar fashion before she was enveloped in darkness once more.

::

notes: merry belated Christmas! fun chapter, huh? ovo

obligatory howls moving castle sky-walking scene and slightly more plot! please leave a review if you enjoyed!