Disclaimer: Naruto is solely the possession of Kishimoto-sensei.

Author's Note: Right! The first arc -entitled The Fame: Monster Arc- is now finished. Now it's time to start the second and final arc: An End Has A Start. I hope that this (short) Interlude will keep you busy until I've fully planned out the next chapter and written it; it should provide some good character development and a nice teaser at the end.

Interlude II: An End Has A Start

Sakura found herself with a grim smile, but she could not help herself from feeling a strong sense of foreboding now that she knew just how important her training apparently was. And she could not stop herself from asking a fleet of questions that appeared in her mind.

'How long have we got before the training is over?'

'How many people do I have to kill?

'What is the mission we'll have to do?'

'Will we survive?'

Itachi had walked them to a different location, one that was just as green and floral as the other. It was divided into two sections by a quaint river.

Sakura could feel dried, congealed blood underneath her fingernails. She had dipped her hands in a nearby river to remove its traces, but they were still there. And so was that revolting, gag-inducing stench of gore. Despite the fact that hers was the quickest, and smoothest of executions, she could still visualise her kunai sliding through the thin skin of the neck, the sharp edge of the blade caressing a delicate vein.

She shuddered, and picked at her nails. 'If I can't get the blood from underneath them, then I'll make sure I can wipe it away,' she thought obsessively. She bit at the tip of a nail with a grimace, and felt the now-brown blood on her tongue. She spat it out on the floor with disgust and bit off the tip of her nail neurotically, and wiped the exposed flesh in the water. The blood came off with ease this time, and she heaved a sigh of relief.

She examined her other nails and realised the rest were exactly the same. 'It looks like long nails aren't really useful for a ninja to have…' she thought idly. 'I'll have to cut them down when I get home I suppose.'

She had spent quite a while making her hands presentable in the academy. Her parents had not allowed her to paint her nails, but they had let her use varnishes and provided her with all sorts of products she had needed to feel pretty and lovely anyway. 'I guess some things are more important that feeling pretty,' Sakura thought numbly, as she self-consciously bit at another nail. She cringed as the same coppery taste of blood entered her mouth again.

Naruto and Sasuke had washed the blood off of their hands (both physically and mentally as far as she could tell) and they had started shuffling back to Itachi-sensei. Sakura, however, did not think she would ever forget the moment Itachi had revealed the dead 'goat.' The man was wearing a prisoner's uniform, so he had obviously committed crimes against them, and everything they stood for.

But as she looked into the water, she pictured his dead and lifeless eyes. They were similar to Naruto's in a way, and were bright and colourful. In fact, Sakura was sure that had he been alive, those eyes would have been just as expressive and attractive as her old rival Ino.

"You've matured into a beautiful flower now, Sakura-chan," Ino smiled back at her gracefully, "And you are most definitely a hibiscus."

A rare and delicate beauty.

"I wonder," Sakura muttered as she got to her feet steadily. She spared a look at her palms and noticed the skin on her hands had shrivelled from their prolonged contact with water, and her nails had been trimmed messily from her biting them. "I wonder if Ino would still consider me to be a hibiscus if she knew what I have done."

The Akatsuki stood solemnly, each of them had been asked to attend a full meeting at exactly one in the afternoon. And so they had. Zabuza and Haku, the newest members of the group had yet to be sent on a mission for the Akatsuki, and Zabuza himself had thought that this was due to distrust.

He was right.

The Leader stood at the centre of the room, with the rest of his Akatsuki members gathered around him. The Leader that the Akatsuki knew of at least. 'Pain is simply the front man,' thought an aged ninja with a chuckle. 'As far as the others know, Pain is the avatar of change. They believe that Pain will lead them into an age of darkness or a time of peace. Zabuza and his pawn don't even know of that just yet.'

The aged man placed his bright orange mask over his face, a spiral ran over it, and the eye of the spiral just happened to be in the place his eye normally would be. 'And Pain believes that he knows everything. How amusing.'

He lined his mask up with his face, and placed it in the most comfortable position. 'As if I would let someone else know my plans. Why would I, Madara Uchiha, submit to a pawn?'

Madara sat on his thrown, out of sight of the others, and watched them all. 'Why would I tell them of my plans, when they are all just as vulnerable to it as my enemies are?' He chuckled darkly, 'Even if I have lost control of the Mist, it does not matter…'

He grinned darkly beneath his mask, 'All that matters is my revenge on Konoha, and the Moon's Eye Plan.'