A/N: Sorry for the absence. I just got back into the country recently. Updates will be more frequent from now on.

Thank you for reading and reviewing.

Chapter Twenty Five

Many trials faced Aki's new, unimproved and hopelessly lost pupil. Regretfully, he admitted to himself that he had never had a student before. Mostly because he was only nineteen years old and hardly qualified (in his mind) to be able to mentor anyone, much less a broken doll with candy colored hair and jade green eyes. However, he owed it to the Hokage and to himself to at least give it a shot.

"Easier said than done," he thought aloud.

For all intents and purposes, Aki had Sakura bound and locked away in a cellar he borrowed from a comrade he knew only by Gin. He trusted the old man, but not enough to discuss with him why he had a 12 year old girl tied up in a murky old wine cellar.

"This is just a test." Aki had told him. "I want to see if she can escape without my aide."

Which was partially true—he did want to experiment and see how far Kakashi had come with the girl. Truthfully, his main objective in all of this was to see a 'reaction.' He only wished the Hokage had given him a better idea of what exactly he was looking for.

"Looks like 'dat girl 'taint doin' so well." Gin observed from his chair beside Aki.

Sakura was restless; he could feel the tension in her body through the thick mirrored wall that separated them. Maybe he was going over board?

"I'd a thought yo' Momma woulda taught'cha how ta' treat a lady a lil' better 'dan t'at."

"That's her problem," Aki said after a moment of digesting Gin's poor English. "Everyone's been treating her like a 'girl' instead of a person—or a ninja."

Gin nodded thoughtfully, "I suppose yous know what's best fer 'er. I won't say an'ther word."

Truth to his word, Gin did stay silent for the rest of the night. Aki later realized, after tearing his gaze away from Sakura, that the old man had dosed off some time ago. He stifled a laugh and turned his attentions back to the girl lying lifelessly on the floor. It bothered him to see anyone he considered his ally acting in such a manner. He couldn't even recall the last time he had seen her move.

A sigh escaped his lips and he propped his chin up on his elbow. He understood why she would feel depressed, being taken from her home and all. What he didn't understand was why it made her react the exact opposite he would expect any ninja to, and that was to find another way.

"There's always a way," he muttered to no one in particular. "You're said to be one of the brightest in Konoha, but you can't even seem to figure that out."

Suddenly, he felt depressed.

Terror reaped havoc on Sakura's self resolve and she did nothing but curl into herself and weep like a child. Two days of self-loathing later, she woke to find that once again she was bound and swallowed by darkness.

Tears came and went until she had none left. It was so like her, she reminded herself, to be crying instead of acting. It couldn't be helped. Her spirit had been cracked for some time, but now it was beginning to break.

She was beginning to break.

Names, dates, times, places, things—they all reminded her of a home she was no longer allowed to exist in. Aki had been completely straight forward with her from the start. He had even seemed to know something about her 'condition,' but it was a subtle understanding that she wasn't going to make any assumptions about until she had solid proof. What's more, she wasn't going to offer him any information, either. For all she knew he had just been the first to find her and was actually working side by side with Orochimaru.

'Shut up,' she thought. 'You're being stupid.'

'So are you.'

Sakura froze. 'Saijou?'

Saijou's image wavered in her mind until it conformed to his shape. As usual, he had a smirk on his face. 'In the flesh,' he responded cockily. 'Or should I say, "In the mind"?'

She shivered at the sensations his voice created in her body—like playing a piano, with each press of the keys a different vibration reverberated through the wires and created unique sounds of music. 'Why does it sound like you're so close?'

'Because I am,' he said.

'Great,' she thought, and took a deep breath. 'This whole situation is just laughable. I'm banned from Konoha, I have a new "sensei" that has decided to ditch me, my hands and legs are bound and now you're back. Oh, lest we forget, I have no idea where I am. Anything else you'd care to add to this?'

'As enthralled as I am with your sarcasm,' Saijou started rather sharply, 'I came to offer you a chance at freedom.'

'Oh, that sounds great.' Sakura snickered to herself. 'I'm weak not stupid.'

'You don't have to be either.'

She looked skeptical. 'What do you mean?'

Saijou smiled. 'You want to see them again, don't you?'

Sakura clenched her jaw tightly. 'Don't play with me, Saijou. I'm not going to buy it.'

'They aren't coming for you—you know that better than I do. Not because they can't, but won't, come save you from this hell. So where does that leave you?'

'Shut up!'

'I can help you, Sakura.'

'You're lying!'

'All you have to do is let me in and everything will disappear; your pain, your fears, your regrets, all of it. Isn't that what you want? A chance at real happiness is right here in front of you, Sakura. No one will judge you or leave you behind.'

'Be quiet!'

'You can go to a place where you'll be acknowledged for who you are, instead of how strong you can be. That's what true friendship is, isn't it?'

Sakura felt at a loss for words. Partly because nearly everything Saijou had said was true and also because she wasn't completely sure she'd be able to refuse him. He was already so close. It felt as if his body was wrapped around hers, and, regrettably, she admitted that it was actually kind of nice.

The smile on Saijou's face thinned into a serious line and he extended his hand out to her. No words were needed—Sakura understood his actions better than he would have guessed. Briefly, she reflected on the consequences that would surely result should she take this path, but what other choices did she have?

In the darkness, lying on the hard dirt ground, Haruno Sakura forced a small smile as the last of her external tears fell from the curtain of her messy pink locks.

In her mind, she reached out and rested her hand into Saijou's upturned palm. His smile returned, he interlaced their fingers and gently pulled her closer to him. Leaning over her, he pressed his forehead against hers and looked directly into her empty eyes.

"Everything's going to be alright now, Sakura."

Sakura bit her lip; she could actually feel Saijou's body melting into her own. It hurt so much, but the comfort brought by his gentle touch seemed to make the transition a little more bearable, even as her own screams echoed in her ears.

"It'll all be over soon…"

And then suddenly, it was.

Naruto jolted out of bed to the sound of his heart rapidly thundering in his chest. His limbs were tangled in his sheets and he struggled for several breathless moments to break free. Cold sweat trickled along the curve of his jaw, but he ignored it. When he glanced at the clock beside his bed, he sighed—it was 3 AM.

For a while, he just laid there and stared at the ceiling. His thoughts and dreams were constantly plagued with images of a certain pink haired girl that he hadn't even the strength to say the name of, much less think of it.

"I'm sorry, Naruto."

That was all Kakashi had said about it. "Sorry," as if it were no big deal. Naruto fisted his sheets and forced himself to calm down. He couldn't afford to have another episode; he was already forbidden to see the Hokage because he had nearly destroyed the old man's office trying to get some sense out of the whole situation.

"You only want to hear what you want to hear, Naruto." The Hokage said. "When you're ready to listen like a mature adult, I'll tell you everything I know."

"That isn't good enough," Naruto said aloud through clenched teeth. "Why the hell is this happening?"

"You've already asked that." Sasuke said. He was standing on the ceiling with his arms crossed, looking at the blonde boy who was now face planted in the floor. "Idiot, what if I was an enemy? You were looking right at me and didn't even see me."

"Shut up! I was thinking!" Naruto clamored after he regained his footing. "What the hell are you doing here anyway!"

Sasuke managed a smirk and released himself from the ceiling to fall gracefully on his feet in front of Naruto. Sliding his hands into his pockets, "I should be asking you the same."

"Stop talking in riddles, damnit! What do you want?" He demanded.

"Answers," Sasuke said simply, his smirk gone. "Just like you."

Naruto blinked at the regret he found when he looked into his rival's dark eyes. For once, he caught on to what Sasuke had been referring to and a smile replaced the blonde boy's dumbfounded expression.

"Let's go."

Aki had stood watch over Sakura for nearly 78 hours, looking for some kind of indication of what it was he was up against. Now that it was here, however, he admitted that it wasn't anything like he had expected.

"Gin, get the hell out of here!" Aki shouted and shoved the older man towards the stairs leading out of the basement. "I'll take care of this."

As soon as his friend was safe, Aki immediately returned to the room and flipped the light switch to the cellar on. What he saw, then, both intrigued and horrified him.

Sakura's body was twisting and thrashing about like she had rubber for bones. After careful observation, he realized that she appeared to be stretching, growing larger to accommodate what resided within her.

Right then, Aki knew she wasn't ready, and if he allowed it to finish she would surely die. But what was he going to do?

"Remember: No matter what, Sakura's still Sakura."

Aki sighed and brought his hands together in preparation for a jutsu.

"You better be right, old man."

A/N: Sorry if this is getting too weird. I guess this story would be better if drawn instead of written. --