AN – I'm back, and I brought fics! :) It was my 20th last Monday and I figured I'd update as a present to all those people who have stuck around, and it's a nice long one too so hopefully you'll like it :). I know I left it at an awful spot last time too (sorry!) so hopefully this will also make up for it a bit -crosses fingers- :). There's some graphic stuff in this one too so you may want to keep that in mind and decide whether you want to read it or not, it's not an scene of anything, only the aftermath but it is a bit... well, graphic... if you don't want to read it the most full-on stuff ends at the first liney thing, from there it's better... sort of... you'll know what I mean :). If after reading it you're concerned at all let me know but I can assure you I don't know of anyone this is happening to and if you do you should tell someone who can help (like an adult... or a ninja :)).

And as for the note on my profile, it's still true and this story's updates will be slower because of it (although hopefully not as slow as it was this time :)) but I'm at a better place in life right now so it will be finished as I always meant it to be.

I can't remember if I responded to all the reviews for last chapter or not, if I didn't I'm really sorry. I love every one and I know for a fact that they help all the time, whether it's encouraging me to write the next one or reminding me of something I've forgotten (which I would love people to continue doing if you think of anything :)) or giving me new ideas. They always make my day :)

I hope everyone I've missed in the last few months is well and happy and smiling heaps, please let me know :)

Last chapter:

Her feet landed softly on the floor with a quiet thud and she padded slowly to her wardrobe, counting under her breath the entire time. It took her thirty four careful seconds to get to the wardrobe, twelve to open it all the way without it creaking, only six to find the particular items of clothing she wanted as she had thought ahead to where each one would be, twenty four to take each one out - only two changes of outfit, she had to be quick but she didn't want to have to come back again tomorrow - and nine to close the door again with the clothes hanging over one arm. It only took a second for her to register the sound of a footfall directly behind her. She didn't register the pain as something heavy was brought down on her head. The previous eighty six seconds ceased to mean anything.

And now, enjoy :)

Masked Happiness

Chapter 24: When It Rains

Everything was a blur. Colours bled into each other in a horrifyingly dizzy mess that made her head pound uncomfortably. Sakura thought she was physically unable to bear the sickening pressure for even a second longer until she tried to focus and lift her head at the same time. The pounding became a vicious stabbing that pierced from the back of her neck through to her forehead like a white-hot poker again and again and again. Evidently she was able to bear it; or at least her body thought so, as she was still conscious. She really missed the black nothingness she had just left behind. She wanted to scream from the pain but all that came out was a gurgling moan. It took her a long moment to hear anything through the rushing noise in her ears that accompanied the pain in her head, but when she did she wished more fervently for unconsciousness. She could hear faint chuckling from somewhere off to her left.

She opened her eyes again, not realising she'd closed them, keeping completely still for fear of the pain becoming impossibly worse, and tried to see past the technicolour nightmare the world had become. Her eyes took a moment to clear and clouds seemed to linger at the edges of her vision but eventually instead of a messy, pain-filled rainbow, her eyes showed her a room - my mother's room, her brain belatedly supplied - and when she very slowly and very carefully turned her head an inch to the left, she saw her father leaning against the doorframe. The sight of him was enough to make her stomach churn but she wasn't able to tell if it was fear or revulsion, knowing it was more than likely both. She hated the way he leant against it casually, normally, like there was nothing wrong. She hated the self-satisfied smirk - so close to the fatherly smile she had loved once - that distorted his features. She hated him. And herself. Less than two minutes inside this house and all of her training, experience, and (admittedly meagre) planning had come to nothing. She came to nothing in less than two minutes in the face of this man. His voice made her stomach twist into tense little knots.

"'Bout time you woke up. You've been out for ages dear and I just couldn't wait." The smirk never left his face and that, more than anything else - more than his presence or his alarming words - left her frozen with fear.

Then the words broke through the haze properly, penetrating her mind and she shot up to a sitting position, having to fight to stay that way. She instantly regretted the movement, the pain was unbearable, but the fact that it wasn't confined to her head left her reeling so she desperately tried to see past the white that had once again engulfed her vision. She couldn't afford to lose any of her senses, especially not sight. Not with him in the room. She didn't take her eyes off of the man who stayed unmoving in the doorway, trying to keep him in focus despite the futility of the action. Keeping him in focus, keeping her eyes on him, wouldn't prevent what he had already done and probably wouldn't stop him from doing more if he decided to either. She didn't want to look at the new source of pain. Instead, she used her peripheral vision and focused her attention on the feel beneath her palms where they rested at her sides, taking in the fact that she was sitting in the middle of her mother's bed.

It sickened her to think that he had knocked her out and brought her to the bed of his wife, the woman he had kidnapped. She refused to consider the possibility that she might not still be alive. The fact that the situation was so much worse than that was beyond sickening and she tried not to consider the wetness she could feel for as long as possible, but eventually looking into her father's eyes became too hard and she could see quite clearly in them that he wasn't going to try anything for the moment; he was too confident to fight her now. He thought he'd won. As she looked down, Sakura had a hard time not believing it herself.

She was wrapped in a sheet. One he must have brought from the linen cupboard in the hallway because her mother's bed seemed relatively undisturbed beneath her. She was wrapped in a thin white sheet, and nothing else. Beneath it she was naked and she had never felt more vulnerable in her life. It took one long, endless moment for her suddenly stinging eyes to actually register the large stain of glistening crimson soaking through the white. Between her legs. Her legs were spread before her and in the middle was a large patch of red. Everything seemed to be taking too long, moving too slowly. Life had slowed. Her eyes moved over the area in a lingering, disconnected way. She couldn't quite comprehend the scene literally spread before her. The white seemed to make the bright red brighter, too bright. The scene tattooed itself behind her eyes and refused to go away no matter where she looked. Too red.

It wasn't until she shivered that she realised she'd been putting on a show. She didn't know how long she'd been sitting and trying to understand the situation but the entire time her father had stood quietly, contentedly, in the doorway, watching. The smirk had turned into a smile of genuine happiness - the kind that made her skin crawl - as he just watched, a solitary witness to the pain he had caused. She shivered again, barely covered as she was, and realised absently that she was freezing. Goosebumps rose all over her skin, arms, chest, legs, making them burn. Her legs were burning. Sakura winced, trying not to give her audience any satisfaction from her pain, and looked down. The blood must not have had time to clot because the patch on the sheet had grown in the short time she had been watching. Red spreading across white like a plague, tainting as it went.

Sakura felt entirely disconnected, far away, as though she wasn't really in this room with him watching, and so it was with an almost clinical purpose that she lifted the sheet from her legs with a steady hand - a steadiness she wasn't sure how she achieved - pulling it up to the top of her legs to reveal the deep gashes high on her inner thighs. Both of her legs were a bloody mess, many long, deep cuts littering the area, crisscrossing in long lines. A shiver ran through her, rocking her entire body like a cold autumn breeze through tall grass and raising the goosebumps further which in turn irritated the wounded, bloody flesh on her legs as it was automatically manipulated into the tiny pale bumps.

She didn't understand the point. The gashes weren't deep enough, they hadn't killed her. Wouldn't kill her. Probably. It wasn't his purpose for doing it. So why had he? And did that mean he hadn't...?

"Y-you... you didn't...?" Sakura said quietly. Her mouth was dry and she found it hard to speak for many obvious reasons, so the words came out stilted and with difficulty, yet somehow utterly emotionless. She couldn't finish the question. She couldn't say it aloud. She couldn't make the possibility any more real than it already was. He chuckled, a deep sound of sheer happiness that normally sent a thrill of terror or disgust or something through her and this time failed to. She was in sensory overload. A part of her was surprised she was still conscious.

"You'll never know for sure will you?"

He spoke quietly, seriously despite the lingering smile, and his tone reminded her of that which a doctor might use when speaking to a patient. She stared at him, entirely emotionless, face blank and eyes glassy as he continued to find joy in the scene before him. When his amusement began to dwindle he stood straight, pushing leisurely away from the doorway and moving a step toward the bed. She didn't recoil and didn't have the headspace to wonder why.

"I'm done with you for today. You should probably leave before I change my mind."

He sounded as though he was imparting some great wisdom, as though he was helping her the way a friend might. She wondered why it didn't break through the defences her mind had automatically put up to preserve her sanity from the shock, from the impossibly deep hatred and sadness welling inside her, just beyond reach. The emotionlessness, the blank face and mind. There was nothing there in that moment, and she was fine with that. She was fine. Fine, fine, fine.

She had to get out.

She pushed herself with difficulty to the edge of the bed. It was painful, but still in that disconnected sort of way, as though someone else was experiencing it. Numbness seemed to have spread through her body to match her mind, but her limbs shook and no part of her body seemed to want to obey her. She tried to stand on trembling legs and crumpled to her knees. The painful jolt it sent through her body reminded her oddly of Sasuke.


Everything had abruptly become too much to handle.

Fear, fatigue and lack of food made her knees hit the ground with a thud and more pain registered in her mind sharply because of it.


(end flashback)

But Sasuke wasn't here now. He couldn't help her. No one could help her, except her, and at that moment she was just too far away. Her father's laughter rang out around the room and she was certain the disgusting sound was echoing, though she was unsure of whether it was really rebounding off of the white walls or merely resonating in the confines of her head. She felt dizzy again. He'd moved back to the door and was leaning against it, watching her fall.

"Your clothes are where you left them." He said through his amusement. She could hear the smile in his voice.

She was completely detached, eyes downcast, looking at the floor as she moved past him. She had no choice if she wanted the clothes she had come here for in the first place - still in her room where she had dropped them - and she didn't want to go against him when he seemed as though he was in a rare good mood. She ignored what it took to get him there.

She wasn't in any shape to defend herself and if it came down to it right now she wasn't sure she'd want to. He knew that. That's why he wouldn't attack. He wouldn't need to bother. For the moment she was as broken as he could make her and he was satisfied. It didn't necessarily mean he wouldn't do more to her to prove a point though, so she wanted to leave quickly. She had to get out.

As she passed through the doorway, not feeling anything as her body moved on its own, she unavoidably brushed his arms which were folded against his chest, obstructing the narrow exit; and though her mind recoiled, her body didn't respond. She heard his foot move. She was looking down, she saw it, but she didn't react when he tripped her. There was no point. She fell to the floor and he laughed as she tried, failed, and tried again to stand back up using trembling limbs.

The kick seemed to come from nowhere and she simply went limp as her father's foot pummelled her stomach. Not once but twice, though that seemed enough for him. The vicious stabbing sensation she hadn't noticed before pierced her chest and she somehow knew she had been feeling it the entire time, she just hadn't noticed. It was too insistent to ignore any longer however and she coughed, spraying blood on the carpet beneath her cheek. She could feel a sickening swish in her stomach and several small creaks in her chest as she tried to move. She noticed absently that he was standing against the wall again, watching with that damn smile as she squirmed painfully at his feet. It took her a long time to move without the world going momentarily dark.

She used the wall to support herself. Sliding down the hallway with her shoulder against the cool smoothness as though someone were dragging her there with a magnet on the opposite side, she saw small, random smears of drying blood on the floor. No wonder her head hurt. He wouldn't have cut her - or done anything else to me, her mind absently supplied - in her bedroom, he would have waited until she was on the bed in her mother's room. He would have wanted to draw it out, enjoy himself. He would have liked the mess. No doubt he thought it artistic.

He had dragged her from her bedroom by her feet, her head left to trail on the carpet leaving blood behind from the head wound she could feel from where he'd hit her. She wondered if it was disgust, fear or blood she could now feel running down her spine. She fell to the floor again once she got to her room, crawling to the pile of clothes she had dropped. Gathering them up in a bundle, Sakura used her bed and her shaking arms to stand again, taking a moment to move to the window.

She had numbly climbed halfway through the gap she had made earlier with one leg in and one outside, hanging in the now heavy rain, when she looked back and saw him watching her, this time from her doorway. She stopped and his face remained unchanging, a small smile lingering at the edges of his mouth; his amusement– his euphoria – clear. They watched each other for a long moment, neither of their expressions changing. Then Sakura slipped the rest of the way through the window. She looked back again through the glass. Any other time she might have screamed upon seeing his face so close, looking back at her from less than a foot away, equally emotionless with weirdly vacant eyes. Not a hint of amusement left. It wasn't a warning, it wasn't a threat, it wasn't an order and it wasn't a question. Just words.

"Come back soon, let's do this again sometime."

Sakura turned and walked away, hearing the glass pane in the window rattle and the wood creak. A loud bang shattered the night around her like a gunshot but was quickly muted by the heavy moisture still smothering the air and she wondered if the glass broke when he slammed the window. It wouldn't be locked. He wanted her to go back. Sakura shuddered and fell in a heap once she'd reached the tree.

She was sitting in a deep patch of mud, though she suspected absently that after a full day of rain everywhere would be this muddy. The rain had her drenched in minutes and rolled off of her white skin and dripped from her hair unnoticed. She pulled the sheet tighter around herself - the only reason the white wasn't completely see-through was because she was small enough to be able to have wrapped it around herself several times. She couldn't deny that it had been more an effort to make herself as small as possible in the hopes of disappearing. Holding her knees to her chest and unconsciously rocking back and forth she stared blankly ahead at nothing. All of it, everything, who she was, it had all come down to nothing. One tear was all she had in her. The rest stayed inside her, a burning miasma in her chest that refused to be released. The tear blended with the rain and soon she sat, drenched and frozen to the bone but miles away, somewhere where she was still capable of crying, deep inside herself and out of herself altogether. Gone.

Sasuke walked slowly home that night. It didn't matter that it was raining; he didn't really mind the rain. It was actually helping to rinse off some of the mud that had been an unavoidable part of training. His stomach was full - uncomfortably so, Naruto had far too much of an appetite and it was hardly Sasuke's fault that a competition had begun. He was exhausted, too-full and covered in mud, but content for the most part. Other than the rain which he and Naruto had tried to wait out and had eventually realised was only getting heavier, he realised Naruto had been right, the night was quite nice.

He was in no hurry, it wasn't too late and he needed to wind down and clear his head. He was already drenched and he didn't see how he could possibly get any wetter so he didn't bother hurrying for that reason. It was nice to empty his mind and remember his goals, his ultimate goal. It had taken a back seat lately and he needed to stay focused. He hadn't taken the detour on purpose, hadn't meant to go so far out of his way that he found himself walking past Sakura's house. And he didn't notice when he did. He was focused entirely upon his thoughts, his plans, his future. He only had room for those thoughts in his head, his legs automatically taking him the longest way home he knew and his sight and hearing reduced only to what he absolutely needed to continue walking safely. He didn't notice any sounds - out of the ordinary or not - and didn't see even the faintest glimmer of white amidst the rain.

When he reached his front door he regained awareness and turned, scanning the darkness behind him, though he wasn't sure why. He put it down to over-sensitive shinobi perception and stepped through the door, closing it behind him and relishing the dryness of the room. He really needed a shower and his bed.

Naruto couldn't stop grinning as he walked home from his dinner - eating contest - with Sasuke. It had been nice. It would have been nicer if Sakura and Kakashi had been there. He may not have had to pay if they had been there. Then again, Kakashi... maybe it was better that it had just been Sasuke and Naruto.

His stomach felt comfortably full and his heart light as he meandered home. He didn't mind the rain. It was nice and refreshing to Naruto, like he was being washed clean of any negativity he'd felt earlier that night. Of course nothing had changed except his outlook on the situation but that made the world of difference. It was like his outlook on his own life. He had had no one and now he had a team, three people who were precious to him and who found him precious. Three people he had saved and who had saved him on more than one occasion. And they would again, he was sure of it. That was why he wasn't worried. Everything was looking up, becoming clearer with the rain as it washed away the negativity surrounding him and gave him hope.

He grinned and then scrunched his nose up and his eyes shut. Everything may be looking up, but I probably shouldn't, he thought as more of the fat raindrops followed the first into his eyes, blinding him and making him laugh at his own stupidity whilst simultaneously smiling up at the sky, enjoying the cleansing, invigorating effect that the water had on his face. Everything would be fine. He'd do his best to make sure of it.

Kakashi looked up at the obscured sky from his window, enjoying the quiet patters of the rain as it impacted and trailed down the glass, each drop choosing its own separate journey, some following the paths of others, some making their own. He realised just how long he had been standing there staring and contemplating and smiled beneath his mask. Nostalgia. Must be getting old, he thought to himself with a chuckle.

He sat heavily in an arm chair nearest to the window and continued to stare at the window and beyond it, seeing both and neither. Eventually he reached to the coffee table and picked up his book again. His thoughts and emotions stayed locked in his head, nothing except his small smile showing on his face and that was hidden by the mask. It was too early to speculate on anything. Anything at all in life really, he reflected contemplatively, long- or short-term. Too early to decide on anything. Too early to see the end. So he sat at the window and continued to watch the many separate, similar journeys the rain took as each drop found its way and he wondered when his students would do the same and what it would lead them to.

Sakura was lost to the world as she fell in and out of consciousness, nightmares plaguing her waking mind just as often as when she dozed. She sat numbly when she was awake and unknown tears, lost to the rain, ran unchecked as she slept; unstoppable but unknown. She couldn't feel her body anymore. The detachment had worn off - she felt the horror, the disgust, the pain, the fear, she felt it all - but the air was freezing and on her wet skin it was somehow unimaginably colder, numbing her entire body. She was a mass of broken emotion in a cold, disconnected shell.

The rain hadn't let up at all; just a long relentless shower and Sakura vaguely remembered her conversation with Gaara which seemed like centuries ago now. She had thought, just that morning about how she would spend tonight. Naive enough to think that returning to the house would be simple. In and out and it would be done.

'It would just be a cold, wet night'.

She knew better now.

She had spent so long trying to decipher her own thoughts and motivations. Her own limits. She had been asking herself; should she kill him? Was it wrong?

She knew better now, she had no answers but now she knew the question she should have been asking.

Had she really thought...?

Did she really think she could win?

It wasn't down to her at all. She had no choice in any of this. This had happened - probably would have done - whether she existed or not. Her mother still probably would have been kidnapped or perhaps might have taken her place tonight, or her parents would have had a different daughter who would have suffered the same thing. None of it would be any different. She was nothing. Her skills, her personality, her experiences, her life came down to nothing. Nothing at all. It was a truth she simply hadn't acknowledged before now and tonight had stripped her of any remaining doubt. Any remaining worth. She didn't even need to know what had happened while she had been unconscious. If he really had done anything or was simply trying to make her believe he had with the gashes on her legs. It didn't matter.

She rocked back and forth. She had never stopped, whether awake or asleep, needing to move, needing the movement. The semblance of action. She felt like all her ties to life were slipping away. Slowly but inevitably slipping from her, tickling her fingertips as they passed beyond them and there was absolutely nothing she could do to retrieve them. As her thoughts spiralled out of control, her doubts eating away at her more and more viciously, her personality - the parts of herself that made her Sakura - falling to pieces, ripped, torn and bleeding; she rocked back and forth, back and forth, faster and faster.

The numbness had returned. She couldn't feel anything again. Or maybe she was feeling too much. She wasn't sure; she just knew that the rocking was keeping her sane. She just couldn't stop rocking.

Out of nowhere, memories plagued her. Memories of the last few hours playing again and again, as if on repeat in her mind's eye. She cringed away from them, from herself, curling tighter into herself for protection, wanting to get away from herself to put some distance between the memories and her fragile mind. She wanted to disappear, or rip herself open and remove the contaminated parts. She was too far gone to realise that this was what he had planned all along. He wanted her to doubt what had happened. To invent the worst case scenario for herself in her mind and convince herself through doubt that that was what happened. But she couldn't think straight. Thoughts of cutting herself open sounded appealing for a second too long and she shrank away from the idea after a vivid imagining of it. But the thoughts of cutting triggered something else. For the first time she remembered that she had lost the clothes she had been wearing when she entered the house and that in them had been her kunai knives. All of them. She was completely defenceless and she would be until she got them back.

The thought made her shiver, irritating the skin of her thighs and setting them on fire again. Somehow the pain warmed her up, helped her think. It cleared her mind momentarily, slicing through the haze as the pain separated the concept of feeling from her emotions, allowing Sakura to think logically again. It was enough to convince her of one thing. She needed to find somewhere to stay before she lost her rationality... again. She needed to go somewhere. Somewhere she could think... or not think. She didn't want to think. Thinking brought back bad memories. But then they were back and she was helpless in the face of them. She curled tighter into herself and resumed rocking. She needed to think, but not think. She did the only thing she could think of. The only thing which had worked so far.

Sakura spread her legs out in front of her, ignoring the mud that sucked at her skin and squelched loudly with her movements and the rain which now had more skin to pound against like thousands of stinging, freezing darts. Slowly, putting as much pressure and what was left of her failing strength behind the movement as she could, Sakura dragged her fingernails over the gashes on her thighs. The blood which had been flowing sluggishly before began to pool and gush once again, mixing with the rain and spreading easily to cover her more completely in a new layer of red and to stain the ground she sat on.

She ignored the feeling of having her torn flesh and dried blood beneath her fingernails. The pain came in an excruciating wave seconds later that stung all the more for the rain beating down on the inflamed skin, but the pain brought with it another small piece of clarity. The haze was sliced and shattered and she felt cold and the sharp rush of adrenaline and sensation, she felt. Felt without feeling.

Ignoring the pain, pushing the distraction of the physical feeling to one side, Sakura used the brief reprieve from her fear of insanity and leant against the tree trunk she had been huddled against, using it to stand and wrapping the sopping wet sheet tighter around herself, grateful that she had thought to slip her underwear back on at some point. The soft, worn, slightly threadbare fabric was heavy with rain but she gripped it tightly until her knuckles were white; the ridges over her shaking fingers somehow becoming whiter than her pallid skin, an eerie, almost-green colour. She started walking, one painful step at a time as the newly irritated skin on the insides of her thighs rubbed against each other with the movement. She could feel the warm, stickiness streaming down her legs. It made her feel sick but it wasn't as bad as other things she had faced that night so she kept walking. Walking away from the house, her house. Her home. It wasn't now.

Sakura didn't know where she was going, her feet taking her down the street and picking a new direction on their own. She didn't actually care where she was going. She was on autopilot, thrilled that walking was even better than rocking had been. She walked faster, eager to get to her unknown destination and despite the pain that flamed through her legs and the new flow of blood that ran between them, she smiled. Then giggled. Her head felt light and the pain was reducing her ability to think of anything other than the feeling of it coursing through her body like blood, intoxicating as alcohol, setting all of her nerves on fire. The pain was no longer cutting through the haze in her mind, it was adding to it, making her delirious.

She tried to keep to the grass, some part of her turbulent mind in its complete loss of rationality somehow remembering not to leave a trail of blood too noticeably. She didn't want anyone hunting her down. She giggled again, losing her footing as her head swam and she fell into the mud. Her hands shot out to break her fall and the sheet nearly fell from her body. Suddenly she was terrified and held the sheet to her body so tight the fabric was digging into her skin, making a red line bloom on the pale skin of her chest as her shaking hands fisted the fabric. He'd already seen, no one else could see. She couldn't let anyone else see her.

She kept walking, carefully now. Each step tentative. She didn't know it, having lost any perception of time and its passing, but it took her twice as long to get to where she was going as it should have. It wasn't until she stood outside the door that she realised where she had been heading all along and she faltered. She couldn't ask him for help. She couldn't. She had plenty of good reasons why she couldn't, she knew she did. At some point she had. She couldn't remember them now but they were very good reasons.

But then, she had nowhere else to go and she couldn't stand here all night - if she wasn't walking or rocking or something she might lose this last piece of sanity she'd clung onto so tightly, tighter than the sheet she held to her body. The two things her world was reduced to; stay sane, keep covered. She couldn't let go, not know. Some part of her refused to give up. It was that part of her that forced her fisted hand to the door. It was the rest of her - the larger, dominant part that no longer felt human, simply... used - that made the fist simply drag across the wood instead of knocking. Her stinging, burning skin felt the coarse grainy wood against her knuckles and she swallowed hard, forcing herself with the last of her resolve - she had some after all, she simply hadn't been looking hard enough - to knock. Just once, that's all she could manage. If it took any more than that then this was well and truly beyond her.

As soon as the sound of her knuckles hitting the wood split the air around her - though it was immediately muted as all others were by the rain - her resolve shattered into too many pieces for her to possibly salvage and she turned and started walking away. Running away. That made her stop. She never ran away. The thought brought with it a little tiny bit of Sakura, more than all the pain in the world could have done and she thought clearly for a moment. A moment was all she needed. She didn't have to be afraid. Not of Sasuke. It took an effort to think and believe that, but it was true. And she really couldn't stand having her back to the door. Not when he might appear there soon. Her paranoia failed to worry her as it was a small part of the mounting hysteria that she'd lost track of awhile ago.

She stood in the tiny amount of cover that Sasuke's narrow veranda afforded, forgetting where she was as time passed, eyes vacant and glazing over as she fought. She was at war with herself. The ultimate war. She had been for awhile now but at that moment she was equal parts determination and cowardice. She wanted to leave, to leave everything, to not concern anyone else with her and her life. To leave the job of finding her mum, of facing her father, of life. She wanted just as badly to talk to Sasuke. To Kakashi, Naruto or Sasuke. But especially Sasuke. He... understood... somehow...

She wanted... help.

Unnoticed tears squeezed from the corners of her eyes and made their way quietly down her cheeks. She felt... she didn't know anymore. Nothing seemed to fit properly in her head and she couldn't force them to. She stood on Sasuke's doorstep in the middle of the night, benumbed by the cold as the rain fell like a thousand stinging bullets from above and she felt... defeated. She'd lost.

Sasuke was in the middle of a very long, too-hot shower when he heard a tapping sound, a knock that wasn't part of the noises he had been contentedly listening to, created by the rain. He blamed his over-sensitive hearing and what must be a stray branch in the wind and continued his shower. Once dressed and on his way to bed the thought niggled at him. If it hadn't been so short and quiet he would have thought it had been a knock at the door. But it was the middle of the night and he'd heard it just the once. Who would it be at this time of night and if they wanted to see him badly enough to come over so late, why only knock once? He sighed as his training took over and he went to the door anyway, the kunai always located on the small table near the door in reaching distance, just in case. He opened it somewhat cautiously and looked out through the small crack, opening it a little wider when he couldn't make sense of what he was seeing.

He saw the outline of her, he saw pink gleaming dully in the faint moonlight and he flung the door wide. He was momentarily frozen in that moment as he took in the sight of her. He couldn't quite comprehend what he was seeing and it rendered him speechless. Useless. He was unable to do anything except stand and stare at her, his mouth uncharacteristically falling open.

She didn't look... real. He felt as though he was intruding on something other-worldly as Sakura stood, clothed entirely in white, luminous and shining from the rain in the faint light given by the crescent moon. Her thin, white arms wrapped around her body tightly, as though she was desperately holding herself in one piece, and smears and flecks of mud blocked her brilliance, large dark smudges obstructing her luminescence and melding her with the night. Her hair, darker in the gloom of the hour and streaked with mud seemed almost red, a rusty colour that made her skin seem paler, and it struck Sasuke how macabre the scene looked. Everything paled in comparison to her; she shone amongst the darkness of midnight and the rain that was still falling. It was such a surreal sight that Sasuke soon felt light-headed having not realised he'd been holding his breath. It was amazing, beautiful and it made his heart ache. For all its beauty it was... wrong.

The white sheet she was wrapped in offered little modesty no matter how many times it had been wound around her too-thin body. Her fingers, clutching each other and the sheet underneath her chin, were clenching spasmodically in the fabric and their tremors were noticeable. Her fingers were white. Sasuke's eyes roamed over her slowly, still widened in shock. She was white. Deathly so. The sheet, the white on white made her look luminous. Inhumanly beautiful. Sasuke felt sick.

He noticed that the weather had no effect on Sakura. She didn't flinch as each stinging drop fell on her frail body, her head, dripping from the ends of her hair. He wondered how long she had been outside to be so immune to the cold. He could see she wasn't though, only her lack of expression made her seem so. She was swaying on the spot, shifting her weight from foot to foot, listing one way then the other. She looked as though she would fall with every soft breath she took. Then his eyes caught on hers. They were empty, utterly hollow and his heart broke that little bit more as he came back to himself. Sakura was drenched and on his doorstep in nothing but mud, a soaked sheet and her own too-white skin. Her stare was vacant and was trained on something beyond Sasuke. Stepping forward, just passed the dry warmth and illumination that tried to stretch from his house into the night and failed, Sasuke extended an unusually hesitant hand, denying the tremor in it and his voice when it was breathed into the cool air.

"Sakura?" It was a question. He wanted to know if she was really there, though not physically. He wanted to know if she was still there, in that body she wore so loosely. Her eyes flickered in recognition and he inhaled sharply – the frigid air prickling his nose and throat. "What are you doing here?" he breathed, his voice full of the disbelief he'd held in earlier. He wondered if she would answer at all and waited patiently as she opened her mouth a little, breathing in so much that her pale shoulders rose beneath her dripping hair. But then her eyelashes were fluttering and she was teetering, not shifting her weight but losing it and he lunged forward fast enough to catch her body as it crumpled in on itself.

In his arms in a heap, Sasuke could finally see just how small Sakura had become and he leant over her, covering her completely as his back bore the brunt of the harsh deluge showering him for a second time that night. He looked down into her face, so close now, and felt a sharp spike of concern in his chest at how immobile her face looked. As though it had never worn emotion or life of any kind. As though her eyes had never opened and never would again. She was so pale...

Lifting her with a hand at her back – the ridges of her spine digging into his palm – and the other behind her knees, he stopped when he felt warmth and lifted his hand from her legs to support them with his elbow so he could see his fingers over her. He saw red, literally this time. His fingers were coated in blood and it streamed down his upheld palm, over his wrist and down his arm in pink rivulets as the rain washed it away. But not from her. Fear spiked in his chest now and he lifted his precious, muddy, frozen bundle into his arms and stood, backing into the house and elbowing the door closed.

He was suddenly aware, in the harsher lights of his living room, that Sakura wore very, very little. The sheet was thin and even wrapped around her three or four times it was still thin enough to cling to her like a second skin, mud and blood plastering it to her body. Even with the extra padding of the fabric Sasuke could feel things he wasn't supposed to – ribs and spine and various other nubs of bone that should have been protected by flesh and were instead felt and even seen through the sheet. There was a niggling thought in the back of Sasuke's brain that refused to be quieted and for just a moment he allowed himself to stand with her cradled in his arms as he wonder why, of all things, why would she be wrapped in a bed sheet? The obvious answer was battered into submission and he pushed it away violently in favour of moving to take Sakura into his bedroom and lay her down once more on the bed. He rethought this when he felt the stickiness beneath his hand once more and changed direction mid-step, taking her instead to the bathroom.

Laying her down gently in the bath and cradling her head in his hand until he could slip a towel behind it to protect it from the unforgiving porcelain, Sasuke took a moment to prepare himself. No matter what he had seen before he somehow knew this would be worse and he wasn't sure for a moment if he could handle this. This was Sakura. Their Sakura – his and Naruto's and Kakashi's. His. What had happened? Was he actually able to see for himself? Berating himself as the worse kind of coward he took a deep breath and focussed on his hands as they steadied, plugged the bath and turned on the taps. He filled the water with soothing salts he sometimes had to use when he returned from missions and watched as the warm, cloudy water rose, covering Sakura slowly and making the ends of the sheet and her hair wave lazily in the water. It would have been a beautiful image if she hadn't been so pale. As it was she looked like a corpse. But she wasn't. and Sasuke had to tell himself that over and over and over again, frequently stopping what he was doing to check her breathing, her pulse; to convince himself she was still there and alive and breathing.

When Sakura was lying in a warm, soothing bath that covered her to her neck, Sasuke braced himself and set his shoulders – so focussed that he didn't have room to be surprised at his own hesitancy – and reached into the water, finding the edges of the sheet and pulling it away. He looked at it a moment, sparing it a brief disdainful examination and seeing the large stain of what had to be blood almost completely covering the saturated fabric at the back before flinging the sodden mess into the corner of the bathroom, content if he never had to see it again. Finding a soft sponge in the cupboard beneath the sink he brushed the milky water in small, soft circles over Sakura's cheeks and across her forehead, catching drips that came too close to her ears as he cleaned her face with a gentleness he had never used before or known himself capable of.

Any hesitancy he had still possessed was lost when Sakura moaned and shifted restlessly and he spoke softly, soothingly to her to quiet her, forgetting all of his previous nervousness as he cleaned the blood, rain and mud from her body beneath the cloudy water. It was with a sharp curse that managed not to wake Sakura that Sasuke realised the patch of discoloured skin on her neck that he had been gently washing wasn't mud but another large thumbprint and that the dark red and black splotches continued around her neck.

Lifting her carefully once her pale skin was free of grime, he wrapped her in a soft, blue towel and went to his room, setting her on the bed and retrieving the items he thought he might need. Sitting himself on the side of the bed next to her, he couldn't help comparing the small Sakura he had helped not long ago to the positively tiny one he watched over now. She still looked awfully white and the bruised neck was like a black collar, standing out starkly against her pallor, but there was a flush to her cheeks from the warm bath and her skin was pinker than it had been.

Though he felt a surge of hope at the sight of blood in her cheeks that proved that she would be okay eventually, he couldn't help feeling a little resigned as he reached for her arms and checked her wrists. The resignation turned to confusion, where had the blood come from then? Whoever had left the bruises, had they made her bleed too? He gritted his teeth and thoroughly checked her arms, shoulders, feet and legs and would have stayed confused if he hadn't seen the end of a deep gash reaching down to the middle of her thigh.

Lifting the towel he couldn't stop his sharp inhalation or the quiet string of furious expletives that followed. Blood was already pouring sluggishly down her legs from the wounds on her thighs and the skin around them was swollen and bruised and angrily red. It turned his stomach as he couldn't help but add that to his suspicions with the bed sheet she'd been wearing. It took a great force of will to push these thoughts aside for later when he didn't have an unconscious, still-bleeding Sakura on his bed. Taking up the roll of bandages and salve he had brought in with him, he set to work once more, fervently hoping this would be the last time he would have to see his friend this way. No, it would be. No more hoping. He'd make sure it was.

Are you all appeased? -Tentatively hides behind my big orange birthday balloon- please be appeased? :)

Like I said, this story may take me longer than I anticipated and updates will be... well, take them as pleasant surprises, especially since they will be pleasanter from here on, looking up now after all 'cos we have Sasuke :) (not to mention Gaara. Naruto and Kakashi who will not be happy when they find out as you can probably imagine)

Please let me know if you think of something I've forgotten or you think is important and let me know what you think! I feed off of opinions and the more anticipation from you for the next chapter, the more anticipation from myself and since I'll write it, hey presto! New chapter! (did I spell that right? Hey presto? Isn't that a kind of pasta? Damn, now I'm hungry... TT... Never mind :D)

I really want to thank every since person who has taken the time to leave a review for this fic and especially the wonderful people I've met who have encouraged me since I dipped my toes in the fanfic waters in - can you believe? – 2007 (yes, I take my time with stories... clearly lol :)) Thank you, so much. There is so much I owe to so many people on here, not least of which is the fact that I'm still writing at all. There have been so many times I would have thrown in the towel and stopped writing for good and you made sure I didn't, there aren't words for how grateful I am for those who have read what I've written and encouraged me despite that (even if they say 'because of' :)) Orange balloons filled with the best wishes in the world for everyone, you deserve them :)

My most heartfelt thanks to Daily-chan who takes the time to remind me I'm human as often as possible and somehow forces me to believe it :) *huggles!* :)

And now that the mush is over (for the moment :)) please leave a review and let me know what you think... even if it's that you're going to hide in my room and attack me with oreos the second I go in there :D (the oreos weren't my idea! I prefer blueberry muffins... hint hint :))

(By the way... nearly finished I promise :) – is anyone opposed to me uploading my harry potter fics from P&S on here? Some people seem to have author alerted me because of Naruto fics and I would hate to inundate you with alerts from those if you don't like them... I have another Naruto fic I'll be uploading soon if it helps? – I'm finishing it first to ensure regular updates, wont that make for happy little chappies? Okay, now I'm definitely done :))

Have fun x