Chapter Eighteen

"Itachi…" his name fell from my lips like a gasp of air.

The minute I whispered his name I could feel his eyes on me. Or the eyes that had once belonged to Hyuuga Neji. I was still crouched over, my body contorted awkwardly in the corner as I tried to stop the involuntary heaves my stomach was making. I couldn't make sense of this….I couldn't make sense of myself. I felt like hundreds of emotions were barreling through my blood stream and flooding my head with loud, incoherent thoughts. On one hand I was sick—on the other I was extremely hungry. My skin felt like it was burning up, the sweat pooling on my neck and palms clear. Yet, I was shivering.

My body could not decide what it wanted to be…what it wanted to feel.

"Ah!" I screamed, the sound reminiscent of a wounded feline. Without any prior warning, I was on my knees, clutching at my head in distress. Something was literally, and quite determinedly, trying to claw its way out of my skull. And then everything seemed to deliberately unwind for and I felt my vision begin to unfocus. My brain was making things clearer for me and I realized that adrenaline, dangerously high, could be switched on and off. It was like my body knew where it wanted to go but had no map. All of those tiny miniscule emotions erupted into one single feeling—wrath.

I wanted to scream.

And then I remembered I already had, right after I threw up all over the linen next to me. Still half-crouched over with my hands planted onto my knees for support, I sucked in air until my lungs hurt.

This couldn't be happening. Neji had lost his body…that now belonged to Uchiha Itachi.

"I take it this news displeases you?" Madara asked. He was maskless and smiling. "I'll go get someone to clean this up. In the mean time, will you watch over this one?" He was talking to Itachi now, his tone suddenly serious. "Be careful, she's a runner."

We were left alone after that, the room filled with tension, most of it radiating from myself. I watched, my eyes still large and watered over as Itachi locked the door once more. He turned to look at me, his now-white eyes narrowed.

He looked mad, his mouth pressed into a fixed line. "We do not have much time." Neji's voice. Itachi's words.

I was still too stunned to speak, my heartbeat thundering in my ears.

"Sit," he said.

I did, but only because I was finding it incredibly hard to stand. He crossed the space between us, pulling up a chair from the oak desk in the corner as he went. "I'm about to tell you things—things that will not leave this room."

I realized that while his words felt like an order, he had positioned them so that they hung as a question instead. I nodded…it seemed like the right thing to do.

"You can't be turned – not completely."

"Why?" I stared at him, my mind reeling about his statement.

"Because you love my brother," Itachi said plainly. "Among other factors."

I stilled, everything going cold. I opened my mouth, a retort half formed in my throat when I realized there was nothing for me to say.

Because he had spoken the truth.

Ironically, hearing it from someone else, from his dead—now reanimated—brother made it real. "Yes," I whispered. "Yes, I do."

Itachi stared at me, something changing in his expression. Had I imagined a smile on his lips? "Madara knows you are strong, unique unto yourself. He never expected your mind to be gone right away…he knows it will be gradual. By nightfall, he will anticipate your full cooperation."

"But I thought you just said I couldn't be turned?"

"I did." And then he moved closer, so that his face was inches from mine. "You will have to trust me."

"I don't know you."

"Do you love my brother?"

"Yes—you've already got that confession out of me."

"I love him too." He said, once again unabashed and unashamed. "So you are going to have to trust that."

"…I trust very few things these days." I looked away, feeling the beginnings of tears in my eyes. "Not even myself."

I stared at my reflection, touching the glass with a shyness I had not felt since my adolescence. Where I had once been uniquely flawed—large forehead, sun-damaged skin from my countless treks through the Suna Sun, various scars from battle—the Infection had glossed over my blemishes, transfiguring them instead into distinctive features.

My skin was no longer tan and rough but back to its original pallor. And I noted with a stab of dissatisfaction, my forehead was still quite large, though nowhere near annoying as it had been during my Genin days. And there were other things—the sun-bleached strands of my hair were now fully pink again and my scars had faded considerably.

But most of all there was a rage brewing within, trying its best to claw its way out.

"It's time," Itachi said.

I whirled on my feet, only to spot him standing in the doorway. He stared at me impassively, though his head was cocked to one side, as if he were trying his very best to study me.

"How long have you been there?" I demanded.

"Long enough," he replied, turning to leave. "Follow me."

"Where are we going?" I asked, falling into step beside him.

"To Madara," Itachi answered in a voice that assured me he wasn't in the mood for conversation.

Madara's fortress, with its sensual designs—dark draperies, bejeweled fixtures, and muted lighting—and its sensual inhabitants—the lounging Infected—revealed itself to be a place of great discomfort for myself; I had hunted most of these people and their friends…and now I was simply one of them?

Itachi led me outside, the cool draft rifling through my hair and gown, the moonlight seeming to tickle the surface of my skin pleasantly, a sensation I had never experienced as a human. I followed him to a carriage that was being pulled by two silvery maned horses.

"Get in," Itachi instructed.

I did, only to jump at the sight of Madara; he watched me, maskless and smiling.

"Do not be afraid, dear child. You are my family now, born again in the image of Uchiha, as it should be," Madara said.

I remained silent, drawing myself backward into my seat. The moment Itachi joined us, the carriage set off through tree shaded road where the moonlight had stained everything in pools of silver. "Where are we going?" I asked.

"To have a little fun. I would think, after such a long time of being asleep, that you would enjoy the opportunity to stretch your legs," Madara said.

Though my memory was shaken, it had never occurred to me that I had been asleep for a particularly long time. "How long was I asleep?" Madara smiled, as if he were reveling in my anxiousness. "Six months."

I froze. If I had been asleep for nearly half a year, everything could be—would be—different. My friends could be dead. My mother and father could be dead. Sasuke could be dead. How odd that I as a human I went so long in denial of my feelings but upon awakening as an Infected, I could admit that I loved him. Or maybe I had fallen in love with him somewhere in the end of our time together…or the middle. Or maybe, a small voice reminded me, I had loved him all along.

And Madara knew that. Itachi knew that. Everyone knew that I loved Sasuke, but did he know that? I doubted it considering how tempestuous our last few moments together had been.

"We are here," Madara said, clapping his hands together excitedly.

As I watched him exit the carriage followed by Itachi, I realized how strange it was to be in the company of both Uchihas, Sasuke's last surviving family. They were both tangible, breathing individuals, and yet I could not help but feel as if weren't real at all. Madara was only alive because of his lust for power and Itachi was nothing more than a pawn in his game with Sasuke.

"Come, Sakura," Madara instructed. "And see what your family has done in honor of your awakening."

I looked about the scene, an uncontrollable horror enveloping at the sight; we were in a small village, whose thatched roofs had been set ablaze and whose inhabitants were running hopelessly along as a slew of Infected chased them.

"What is this?" I questioned, my voice catching at the sight of mangled bodies and screaming children.

"Your initiation, of course," Madara answered, as if it should all be very obvious to me. "And to prove your loyalty to your new family, I want you to bring me back a victim. A victim whose life you have claimed."

"You want me to kill someone?" I asked in a shaking voice.

"Oh, come now, Sakura. You are a kunoichi—I'm sure you have taken a few lives along the way. Maybe even an innocent's," Madara said.

I turned to Itachi, hoping that he might dissuade Madara somehow. But he merely shook his head, directing his eyes out into the wreckage as if to say, "Do it and do it now."

I wanted to scream in horror or to perhaps run, fleeing in the chaos of things. But I remained still, my thoughts circling back to Itachi's earlier words—to trust him, or more specifically, to trust him the way Sasuke once had. And so I set off into the village, taking off down a lane of burning houses.

Sai and Kiba were having their fun throwing around the charred corpse of a woman. I ignored them, hoping to find someone that was close to dying so that I could simply put them out of their misery when I happened upon a young girl instead.

She could be no older than five and with an abundance of pearly blonde hair, she painfully reminded me of a young Ino. "The survivors…they left," the child whimpered. "My momma left with them."

I stared at her, trying in vain to think of something. If I did not act swiftly enough, other Infected would come, attracted to her humanness. "Listen," I said, bending down so that I was her height. "I'm going to do something very painful that is going to save your life. You are going to have to trust me. If you don't, then you will end up dead like the rest of your people," I instructed in a whisper.

The young girl nodded, though her large blue eyes were starting to tear up. "…maybe death would be better," she whispered back.

"No," I whispered harshly. "You promise me that when this is all over, after you do exactly as I say, that you are going to go far from here, and never look back. Your mother and the rest of the survivors could not have gotten far, in fact they will have made camp only a little while away," I said.

"What are you going to do?" she asked.

"I'm going to do something very, very painful. It will make you feel sick, the most terrible you have ever felt in your life. But it will keep you alive and that is all I can do for you. When everyone is gone, I want you to run north from here and follow the trail. Never return," I said.

"How are you going to help me—"

I put a palm to the young girl's chest and caught her when she fell motionless into my arms; I had slowed her heart rate down to nearly an undetectable level, making it hard for even Infected to hear her heart. I proceeded back towards where Madara and Itachi waited, praying under my breath that everything would work.

When I approached them with the young girl's limbs swinging haphazardly as I walked, Madara grinned.
"An innocent! I knew that you had it in you, Sakura," he exclaimed.

I placed the child upon the ground and took my place next to Itachi. We boarded the carriage, taking back out towards the Infected fortress once more. "Sakura," Madara began, prying his eyes away from the carriage window to survey me with serious eyes. "…do try to kill your victim next time…or I will."

"You've made things worse, far worse than you can imagine," Itachi said, once we were alone.

We were within my room once more, the door locked, and Itachi looking at me with Neji's eyes.

"I wasn't going to kill an innocent. I refuse to be a part of this sick game," I replied.

"You have no choice! All you had to do was make one sacrifice, just one! It was a test, Sakura. A test to see if you had fully transitioned. And now he knows that not only did you not complete the transformation, but that you are unable to," Itachi said.

"How can I trust you? You took my friend's body! Neji is a good man and he doesn't deserve to be used even if it is to keep you alive!" I retorted.

"This body is the only one capable of holding me outside of an Uchiha host. As you may already know, there aren't any around," he said.

"Because of you," I snapped.

"Don't," he warned in a dangerous tone, "speak of things that you do not know."

"I know that what you did all of those years ago…the pain you caused…it set Sasuke up on a path of destruction," I said, unafraid.

Itachi surveyed me, his eyes seeming to measure me while his lips twitched into either the start of a small smile or a sneer. "With a family like ours, with or without my influence, Sasuke would have ended up on a path of destruction."

There was a knock at the door. "What?" Itachi snapped, his eyes still trained on mine.

"Master summons you," an amused voice answered. I recognized it as Sai's; in all honesty, even before he had become an Infected his voice had always come across as being inappropriately amused.

Itachi went to the door, preparing himself to brush past, when Sai called out, "…the girl, too."

"For what purpose?" Itachi demanded.

Sai shrugged in a way that suggested he knew exactly what Madara wanted. Itachi glanced at me, beckoning me to follow with a nod of his head. But as we set off down the halls together, I was made acutely aware that something was terribly wrong.

We entered what seemed to be the common room; it was the largest gathering of Infected I had ever witnessed, though they were all lounging about, fanning themselves with Uchiha paper fans. Sasuke would be deeply disturbed, were he present. Itachi looked over them with indifference.

At the helm of the room was a throne-like chair where Madara had smugly seated himself, looking out over his 'court' in a self-satisfied manner. "Ah, Itachi and Sakura!" he acknowledged when we stood but a few feet apart.

"What is it that you need, Madara?" Itachi asked.

Madara smiled. "Always so eager to please, Itachi. That is what I have always liked about you. A duty to your family. Your real family. I will be the first to admit that your parents"—Itachi's eyes narrowed—"were of little concern to me. They elected to rule themselves and to worry about trivial matters within Konoha instead of concerning themselves with more pressing issues. As you may well know, there is a world outside of Konoha and I have conquered it—with the help of my people, of course."

"Your gloating could have waited until morning, Madara," Itachi said, unamused with all of the talk.

"Loyal but dismissive, that has always been your nature, Itachi. But you are right, there will be other times for talk. What I require now is something a tad bit more difficult—I require retribution," Madara said.

"Retribution?" I questioned, unable to stop myself.

"Yes, dear Sakura," Madara murmured, his eyes deepening into a shade of red that was nearly black. "Retribution, as in revenge. Having such a close relationship with Sasuke all of these years has surely familiarized you with all of its wonders."

His comment affected me, internally striking me somewhere with a silent poignancy few could accomplish. And he knew it too.

"Stop your riddles. Speak what you have to say or be done with it," Itachi demanded.

"Sasuke always has been a touchy subject for the both of you. How amusing. But the matter at hand is this: I gave our dear Sakura a very important gift. Remember it was she who gave me her word nearly six months ago. She sought me out. And now she disobeys my orders?"

"And what are you going to do about it? Punish her?" Itachi asked in a furious voice.

"Your words, not mine," Madara answered. "And besides, it is not what I want, it is what they want, we are a family after all."

Itachi and I both turned, only to fall upon the sight of the gathered Infected; they had been enlivened by the discussion, their lust for power—for blood?—growing at each furious breath Itachi took. I realized, staring into the crowd, that I recognized more faces than I would have liked. And they recognized me too.

"They demand blood for her crimes of disobedience. And I have a duty to oblige them," Madara explained as if it were all very clear.

Itachi stepped in front of me as the crowd drew closer, their Sharingan eyes spinning violently. In some way, I was shocked. Though I had encountered Madara on opposite sides more times than I could count, he had always engaged me with a sense of curiosity, but never with the intent for serious harm. And now…he was simply handing me over to be 'punished'.

"This wasn't a part of our agreement," I found myself saying desperately.

"Neither was your disobedience, I'm afraid. You have broken our laws, Sakura. And now the punishment must be fulfilled. Don't fear, they will not kill you, but simply beat you within an inch of your life," Madara answered.

I froze.

Itachi, his silvery eyes seeming to ever calculate the possible outcomes—turned to face Madara. "I'll do it," he declared suddenly. "I should be the one to do it."

I gaped at Itachi, the breath leaving my body. There was no way I could survive such a beating, I was sure. I already knew my chances against Sasuke were slim. But against his older, more accomplished brother? I had no delusions—I would die. And die, I would.

I expected Madara to refuse, to let the mob of Infected tear me apart, when he merely reclined in his seat, his red eyes assessing the growing developments. "Hm, that does make it interesting at least."

Itachi remained calm, refusing to meet me eyes. Maybe it was better that way, for he would be spared the sight of my eyes full of betrayal. And I was no fool. In such a short time if I could feel properly betrayed by him, I must have trusted him too.

"Fine," Madara finally agreed. "Uchiha Itachi will serve as the court's avenger. But," he added with a sly shifting of his eyes. "the family shall choose the method. My only request is that her face be left alone, that would be a shame to disfigure."

Itachi turned away from Madara, his eyes finally meeting mine. His were impassive, restrained, as if he had simply shut it all off. Someone from the crowd stepped forward, placing a long, knotted whip within Itachi's hands.

"Kneel," he instructed, emotionlessly.


"Kneel," he repeated coldly.

Kiba and Sai approached, both of them holding my hands down to my sides. If I was going to fight—I would die. If I submitted, maybe it would be quicker. After all, it was I who had sought this life out, a cynical voice reminded me.

I crouched beside him, dropping my knees against the marble floor; I stared down at the dark, glassy stone, watching my own, ashen, frightened face peer back at me. Itachi's reflection appeared as he stood over my shoulder. He knelt beside me, quick enough to whisper. "I am a killer—not a torturer."

With that, he tore at the back of my gown, so that it ripped down just enough that a good deal of flesh was exposed. I gritted my teeth. This would not be the first time I had been tortured, except the other times had been intended—parts to play on missions, nothing I couldn't heal myself.

Without warning, the whip descended on my back and I shook from the weight of it. I refused to scream. Even still, the first hit had been the worse—bitter and stinging, the leather seemed to sink into my flesh instead of simply landing upon it.

The next hit was…dull. Like a throbbing ache, the kind that resulted from a troubled sleep or an unfortunate tumble down the stairs. The next lash, though quicker than the rest, had been reduced to a slight twinge. The following lash—nothing. It went on like that, the crowd cheering at my perceived agony while I was forced to stare down at the floors, perplexed, my only wound being my ego.

And then it was over and the crowd had dwindled until finally dispersing in all directions. A puddle of blood, my own blood, pooled at my feet while Itachi simply dropped the whip, gave Madara one long, hard look and swept from the room.

I was carried back to my room where I was unceremoniously placed upon the bed. Even still, the pain in my back was nonexistent. I stripped down from the torn gown and stared at my naked back in the mirror; the skin was torn, slashed and leaking. Immediately, I went to work, mending what I could. When all traces of the lashes had been reduced to ugly violet marks, I collapsed upon the bed, exhausted.

Hours passed and without any sort of light or clock to guide the time, it could have simply been two or ten. Something had startled me awake. It was a low mumbling, coming from the corner of the room. I dragged myself from the bed, crept forward into the darkness, only to trip over a strewn body.

Itachi was sprawled on the floor next to the bed, mumbling incoherently to himself.

"Itachi?" I questioned.

He stared absently ahead, only vaguely aware of my presence.

"Itachi, its me, Sakura," I said, crouching next to him.

I touched his shoulder, as if to jog him from his reverie, only to find my fingers wet, covered in blood—his blood. I lifted the corner of his shirt, peeking down the back of it, only to withdraw in surprise. He had lash marks, swollen and oozing, strewn across his pale flesh.

By some means, he had taken the pain…all of it…for me.

"Sasuke?" he questioned, as I helped him to the bed, his voice sounding uncharacteristically hopeful.

I hesitated. He was in shock, medically speaking, and had no idea what he was saying. Of course he thought I was Sasuke, the only person to have ever truly loved him.

"Yes, yes, it's me," I whispered. "I'm here."

He exhaled, his breath ragged. "…After so many years. There are no words."

"Its alright," I said, resisting the urge to choke up. Even if I was simply indulging his shocked state, it felt wrong as if I were intruding on something deeply personal.

"No little brother," he croaked. "…So sorry."

"I know," I whispered back.

His lips formed the ghost of a smile as if those few words had somehow changed him, a hidden weight that had been lifted off in such a brief exchange. I pulled him up to the bed, stripped him of his clothes, and went to work mending what I could. His wounds, or my wounds I should say, were extraordinary. It was a wonder he hadn't simply bled out.

It was only several hours later when he shifted again and I could tell from the gravity of his eyes that he remembered it all. "This body is weak," he croaked. What he meant to say was that he was weak for having shown me that small part of him.

I had always felt there was a sort of myth about him, his presence, his fighting, his reputation…all sinister in stories. But what they hadn't told in those stories, what they had failed to capture, was the serenity in which he operated. If I had not known that he was a killer, I would have sworn that he was simply a scholar or gentle vagrant.

Even still, I did not like Uchiha Itachi. But I had, in the impossibly small amount of time we had been given, learned to respect him. I placed a damp cloth on his forehead. As I removed my hand, he caught it quickly by the wrist.

"Perhaps…I am beginning to see in you what my brother always has," Itachi whispered after a moment of silence.

"Perhaps," I echoed, "your brother is the only one I see."

Author's Note: I apologize for the lack of updates. I don't think this merits repeating but when I give an estimated time line of an update, sometimes life gets in the way. I work, go to school, and write professionally. That is not to say that fanfiction is not important to me. I just try to write when I have the time. Now, in terms of manga, I really have lost interest in where Kishi is taking it. Do I even need to mention Neji? :( But, I do still enjoy the idea of Sasuke and Sakura through fanfiction and other mediums. Anyways, I will try to respond to everyone's pms and reviews quickly, but I love each and every one of you. For real. Wish there was a way to have a more interactive experience. That's partly why I'm working on a personal blog where I hope to lead conversations with fans/readers/writers. I would be able to update that more frequently.

But, I do expect to update soon in between my school writing and wedding planning.

Much Love,