Hey! Long time no see! I've missed you all terribly too! I'm working to get all my stories back on track. I do not want to leave them unfinished, believe me. My lovely beta is helping me lots! It's been a bit slow going with work and moving and…having my hand in a cast for tendon damage. Ugh! I can only type with one finger on my left hand—it's such a pain in the ass! I won't give up though! I have as much fun writing these stories as I do reading other author's awesome works.

3 Many thanks to those who stuck around with me all this time and especially Sakura's Unicorn, for poking me back into shape. xD Woman, we need to co-author some crack soon.

Love ya'll,

K & K

I do not own Naruto

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"We're all mad here… I'm mad. You're mad." ~The Cheshire Cat ~ Lewis Carol

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Cat-o-Nine Tails

Written by K&K

Edited by Sakura's Unicorn

Chapter 37~ Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

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Sasuke watched the shaft of sunlight streaming into the window with half-closed eyes. The tip of his fluffy tail flicked occasionally as lazy motes of dust fell and shifted through the beam of light. It took a great deal of effort to keep from jumping up to capture one of those hovering specks. He shook off the mesmerizing fascination with annoyance. Why did he have this urge to do such ridiculous things?! Chasing after bits of fluff? As he growled under his breath at his lack of discipline, Sasuke's tail curled around him, the tip twitching back and forth. He reached out, slapping his paw on the tip and baring sharp teeth.

His hated brother irked him, his former teammate irked him, but this spell irked him most of all!

He'd left the village to gain control of his destiny. Being trapped went against the control he'd ingrained in himself through thousands of hours of relentless training. So, it wasn't Sakura that he was out to get particularly—it was really his own failure that agitated him. She was simply unfortunate enough to be the one to cross his path when he was feeling most annoyed.

As soon as Itachi grabbed him by the scruff of his neck, Sasuke forgot all about his teammate pestering him and did his damnedest to draw blood. He hissed and spat, swiping his ineffectual claws at his murdering brother. He didn't stop fighting until Itachi shut the bedroom door and set him down. Sasuke cursed his weak cat form as his brother admonished him for frightening the white feline again.

"The kunoichi's vulnerable while she's under the spell of the moon, otouto," Itachi explained patiently. "You know she can't communicate normally with us, but we still need to protect her."

Sasuke rolled his eyes, unable to prevent his ear from flicking as he grunted in agreement. Did his brother have any idea how ridiculous he looked, scolding him with pink hair? As soon as Itachi opened the door again, Sasuke stalked into the living room.

'It's all that idiot's fault,' he thought, 'barging in here, creating chaos. He—'

The hair on the back of Sasuke's neck rose.

"Sakura?"

His feline intuition told him that she wasn't nearby. She wasn't hiding from him—she was just not here. Sasuke knew Naruto was behind this. He turned, locking eyes with his brother, growling deep in his throat.

"They're gone."

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A little pink nose poked from the top of Naruto's jacket, followed by a single paw that batted at the zipper until it was pulled it down a few inches. Emerald green eyes peeked out from between the folds of the jacket, waiting for an opportunity. Twice already, Sakura tried to escape and run back to her apartment. The last time, Naruto caught her and stuffed her into his jacket, zipping her inside.

The village was bustling this morning. Vendors hustled their wares eagerly to the crowds. Children ran, weaving between the stalls, happy and carefree. Many villagers smiled and greeted Naruto as he walked by and he cheerfully hailed them. Young kids gathered around him, always excited to see what the town's most surprising ninja was up to. But today, they were also curious to see the little animal whose bright eyes peered out from inside his jacket.

"Easy guys," he cautioned them as many small hands reached up to pet Sakura. "She's a little shy."

The white cat balked at the sudden bombardment of sticky fingers. She dove down inside Naruto's jacket, determinedly clawing her way around his waist, despite his howling protests and impromptu dancing. Then she saw her opportunity and squeezed out the back of his collar, bolting down the lane.

"Itai! Ack! No!" Naruto screeched while the children laughed and clapped at the kitten's escape. "Oi! Sukoshi, come back, dattebayo!" He groaned. "Sakura-chan's gonna punch me!"

No sooner had Sakura freed herself, when a new problem arose—she was a tiny cat in a very crowded marketplace! She skated around the feet of the lumbering masses, who walked unaware of the cat scrambling beneath them. She saw a hole in a fence and dove for it, disappearing into the maze of alleys that lay beyond.

Sakura lived in this village all her life, but never had a reason to wander the alleyways behind the marketplace. Whereas the markets were bright and cheery, the alleyways were dim and crowded with debris. The unpleasant smell of discarded produce was strong to her sensitive nose. Being as small as she was, everything seemed huge and unfamiliar. She heard the commotion of Naruto in pursuit, and took off in the direction she thought might lead to her apartment.

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Sasuke stepped in front of Itachi before he could open the front door.

"You can't go out into the village disguised as Sakura," he warned. "That moron might be easy to fool, but there are many more who will be suspicious."

"Don't be ridiculous, otouto. My henge of the kunoichi is perfect."

Sasuke thought his had been, too. 'Until I ran into Sakura's mother,' he thought, groaning inwardly at the wedding dress debacle. Itachi could fool a fool, but everyone else?

"No. It's too risky. You'll be stopped a dozen times by people wanting to converse. You stay here and let me look for—"

Before he could finish, Itachi's pink hair dissolved, melting into black as he returned to his former self—a much younger self. To see him dressed all in black with no ponytail drowned Sasuke in a wave of nostalgia.

"We'll find her together, otouto. There are other ways to get around Konoha. I won't be seen." Itachi smirked in silent challenge. "Let's go."

Sasuke growled deep in his throat, still unhappy that the Hokage had seen fit to release his brother from the spell to babysit Sakura, but not himself. 'Itachi's the traitor, isn't he?' He shook the thought away and darted out the door after Itachi before it closed.

In his experience with Team Seven, Naruto was a magnet for trouble. While he didn't consider Sakura stupid, in her current, vulnerable cat form, she could easily get hurt or taken while the dobe was distracted. And if she died, there was no way her master would release him—he'd never see his revenge.

Itachi leaped up to the rooftop and Sasuke followed, both of them disappearing from sight.

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So far, Sakura evaded Naruto's search. However, in the process, she'd gotten a bit turned around and wasn't quite sure where she was anymore. It'd been some time since she heard the sounds of pursuit— had Naruto finally given up? She hid in an empty crate to catch her breath while she decided which way to go next.

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Tobi stalked the back alleys of his home village. He was familiar with the dark passageways of Konoha. He made his way through the shadows, avoiding villagers and ninjas like. Being a cat was the perfect disguise for this sort of mission. Most people ignored cats, considering them harmless. Plus, he was able to travel quickly and silently through the tight, twisting alleys of the seedier side of the town.

He kept his eyes and ears open and considered it no small bit of luck when he found the hated kunoichi's loudmouth teammate—the kyuubi container—trampling through the narrow ways, looking for the object of his obsession.

"Sukoshi! Here kitty-kitty! Sukoshi! Where'd you go?"

'So, she's here,' he thought, hiding between two garbage cans as Naruto passed by. Tobi waited quietly, keeping an eye out for the lost white cat.

As Naruto's voice faded, Sakura peeked around the edge of the crate. Seeing no sign of him, she stepped out, ready to go in the opposite direction.

"Going somewhere, my dear?" Tobi trilled, towering over the little cat.

Sakura hissed, scrambling back into the crate and knocking it over, trapping herself beneath it. Tobi chuckled at her predicament, stalking toward her as she tried fruitlessly to escape from the opposite side.

'So, back here in the village, she's still under the effects of the spell. Curious,' he mused as he set his paw against the top of the crate and flipped it over, cornering Sakura in the box.

"Hello, little one."

Sakura tried to bolt out between Tobi and the crate, but he caught her, pinning her to the ground with one paw on her throat as she struggled. "What's the matter? Cat got your tongue?" He smirked, licking his chops as she fought. "The only place you're going is back to the Uchiha district with me."

Sakura's eyes widened as Tobi leered at her. Using both paws, she tried to push him off her throat, but he was much larger and stronger. She hadn't felt this helpless since she was a genin! Her tiny heart beat a hundred miles an hour as the edges of her vision began to fade. She tried to cry out, hoping Naruto was still nearby. Feeling herself weaken, she clawed at Tobi's eyes.

A ball of black fur flashed across her view and, in an instant, the cat choking her disappeared. Sakura gulped air, panting as she tried to rise, but a human hand held her down. It was gentle and oddly familiar.

Sakura looked up curiously and met a pair of unforgettable, dark eyes. 'Itachi?' she wondered. 'But he looks like a child? Eh?! Then who's the cat fighting Tobi?' She blinked, looking up into Itachi's smiling face for a few seconds before she realized that Sasuke must be here with him.

A loud yowl was followed by a crash across the alley. The two cats were fighting fiercely until the back door of a shop swung open and an angry woman came out with a broom. Sasuke ducked the swing which caught Tobi square in the face. He hissed, cursing under his breath as he scuttled away.

Itachi scooped up Sakura, bowing his head and apologizing to the woman before disappearing down the alley with Sasuke on his heels. Sakura shivered to think of what might have happened if Sasuke hadn't appeared. Sakura wilted in the crook of Itachi's arm, grateful the brothers had come to take her home.

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Tobi limped into the Uchiha district, meeting up with Sasori under the porch.

"You discovered where the girl lives?"

"I discovered better than that," Tobi growled, rubbing at his eye crossly. "I found out that she's still using the form of a cat." He silently vowed to skin her alive if it turned out his eye was damaged.

"A cat?" Sasori considered his words thoughtfully. "Hmm…that makes some sense."

Tobi's tail twitched with impatience as he waited for the puppet master to expand on his musing.

"You said the old woman must have used powerful magic. To capture all of us and hold us in her thrall for years must take a great deal of power."

"What about it?"

Sasori flicked his ear, somewhat irritated. "With all forms of enchantments there must be some give and take. Something is the key to holding the spell." His long tail twitched back and forth as he pondered. "That would also explain our recollections of being switched back to our human forms for the day not long ago. It's hard to remember, but I'm sure it wasn't just a dream. And the kunoichi was just here a few days ago. This would explain her absence now. Maybe there's a link." Sasori lifted his paw to his collar as he thought about it. "Perhaps the spell goes through phases? Like the ebb and flow of a tide…or the wax and wane of the moon?"

"The moon?" Tobi cursed and stopped rubbing his eye. "It can't be… Of all the… The god-damned moon?!"

What did that old witch know about his moon's-eye plan?! "Neko-chan, what are you up to?" he growled under his breath, all signs of Tobi's playful persona vanished. "I'm gonna kill that fucking witch when I get a hold of her."

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The stifled whimpers coming from the violet-eyed boy were really starting to get on Karin's nerves.

"Just shut up already! You sound like a fool, crying over that stupid thing!"

"Shut up, you wretched woman! My baby could be in danger. You don't know a thing about real love! You're just obsessed with looks and power," Suigetsu hissed, crossing his arms in a huff as he leaned on the vendor's cart in the marketplace. Why the hell had he listened to that devil woman when she insisted he leave his sword at the village gate? He could practically feel it begging him to come back and pick it up!

"Of all the silly—" Karin began when a hand with an apple appeared and a kind voice interrupted.

"There, there, deary." An old woman offered Suigetsu a bright, red apple. "Young men are sensitive about the girls they love," she admonished Karin. "You should never scold them for that. A chivalrous man is a blessing."

Karin's jaw dropped and Suigetsu chuckled a bit, taking the offered comfort with a grateful smile at the old woman. "Thank you, obaa-san." He stuck his tongue out at Karin and then smiled, his grin widening when the kind, old woman patted him on the head.

Suigetsu could swear he saw steam rising from his angry teammate's head. He laughed, eyes twinkling at the shopkeep as he took a coin from his pocket and gave it to her before grabbing another apple. "Obaa-san, do you know anything about the Uchiha?" He asked casually, taking a bite of his apple. When Karin opened her mouth to protest, he shoved the other apple into it, making her sputter.

"Oh, yes. A tragedy." The old woman nodded. "The whole clan was killed except for one young boy. I don't know what happened to him, though." She pointed to the north. "The Uchiha district is back that a-ways, but it's abandoned. No one goes there anymore for fear of disturbing the restless spirits of the murdered."

Suigetsu nodded somberly and thanked the old woman again with a wave, nudging Karin in the direction of the Uchiha district.

A grin split his face when Karin bit through her apple to discover the one he'd given her had a worm inside.

Correction—half a worm.

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"Sakura-chan's going to kill me," Naruto groaned, knocking on his teammate's door, running over excuses for why he'd lost her cat.

"You wouldn't believe it! I was mauled by a pack of wild kids and I had to distract them while little Sukoshi escaped. Don't worry, though. I led them far away from her," he explained to the bush next to her door, pretending it was his easily irritated teammate. "I just stopped here to warn you to watch out for those hellions before going back to bring her home."

"You what?"

Naruto jumped and turned toward the open door.

"Sakura-chan! I didn't hear y-"

"You lost my kitten?" The dead calm look Sakura gave him had him shaking in his sandals. Naruto immediately jumped to the roof, a safe distance away from her chakra-fueled fists. Itachi, now henged as Sakura, looked up at him with a single, pink eyebrow raised.

"N-n-n-no!" the blond stuttered guiltily. "We were just playing hide-n-seek! I'm going to find her right now, Sakura-chan! You have my word, dattebayo!"

His scarily calm teammate did not scream or grab him to pound his head in. She merely nodded once, her eyes never leaving his. His knees shook.

"Go. Bring my little one home."

"I-I-I'll go get her right now, Sakura-chan!" Naruto disappeared in an orange blur, not noticing the amused curl of his teammate's lip as the door closed.

Itachi approved of Sakura's effect on the jinchuuriki. 'An afternoon of searching will teach him a lesson,' he thought, turning his head as a foot slipped between the doorjamb, preventing him from shutting the door. His eyebrows rose and he opened the door to find a woman standing there who he'd never seen before. However, this woman had the exact same color eyes as the white kitten hiding behind his ankles. He nodded to her.

"Okaa-san."

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Sakura let out a pent up sigh of relief as Itachi sent Naruto to look for her in the village. Her teammate would stay out of trouble, spending the day looking for a white kitten. He was never very good at locating lost cats, she remembered. Sasuke had always been the one to pinpoint their targets as genin. Naruto usually grabbed them and held on for dear life as they scratched the hell out of him, she thought, smiling to herself.

The small cat's eyes widened immeasurably when a sandaled foot wedged itself in her door. She knew that foot! She scrambled from behind Itachi, leaning both paws on the door with all her weight, trying to close it before he let her mother into her apartment.

'A confrontation with my mother and another Uchiha will only end in disaster!' she thought, panicking.

Sakura tumbled backwards into Sasuke as the door opened, not realizing he was coming to help her close the door. The moment he saw the Sakura's mother, he also felt the impending doom. Itachi picked them both up with a slightly amused scolding look and stepped back, letting Sakura's mother in the door.

"Please come in, Okaa-san," he welcomed her. "May I offer you a cup of tea?"

"About time you remembered your manners." Her mother entered, removing her sandals. She glanced at the pair of squirming kittens in her daughter's arms, wrinkling her nose in distaste. "Cats, Sakura-chan?" she said with a long-suffering sigh, shaking her head. "You really are becoming more of a spinster every minute. We must get you married soon." She exhaled noisily, brushing past to sit in the living room. "This day has been trying. Yes. Get me a cup of tea. Same as always."

"Yes, okaa-san." The pink-haired girl bowed reverently to her mother, setting the cats down before departing for the kitchen.

Sasuke disappeared behind the furniture as Sakura stared at the small smile playing about her mother's lips with a sinking feeling in her stomach. 'She's happy? That can't be good,' she thought, wondering what her mother was up to.

Sakura's mother looked around the room as her daughter made tea, pursing her lips as she wiped her finger across the tabletop and it came away dusty. Sakura winced inwardly.

"The wedding dress I gave you the other day, Sakura. Have you had a chance to try it on yet?" her mother questioned.

Itachi pulled the kettle from the burner just as it started to whistle. "Yes. It's quite lovely, Okaa-san."

Sakura groaned inwardly, running into the kitchen before she did something to draw more attention to herself. She saw Itachi open the cupboard when she kept tea and jumped up to the countertop, standing on her hind legs and pawing the container that held her mother's favorite tea. Itachi smirked at her and added it to the arrangement of items he'd set on a serving tray she'd forgotten she had. He carried the tray to the living room, his sharp eyes catching her mother's disapproving look at the state of her apartment.

"Forgive the disorder, Okaa-san. I've been busy working overtime at the hospital and neglected my cleaning."

Her mother brightened up, seeing the pretty tray of cups and snacks artfully arranged. "My, my! I see you've been practicing, Sakura-chan. Perhaps we should have Hito's family over to the house for tea soon? It would be lovely to show him that you can be a good housewife and not just a skilled burakumin. Hito's mother is still somewhat wary of an eta becoming her daughter-in-law."

Only because Sakura had spent so much time with Itachi did she recognize the look of distaste that crossed his perfectly composed face when her mother called her a lowly killer.

"I'd love to meet them, okaa-san," Itachi said with a smile.

Sakura shivered at the sinister serenity in Itachi's voice. Even Sasuke straightened up from his hidden perch to stare at his brother warily. That unforgettable tone reminded him of the night his entire family was massacred.

Sakura's mother smiled at her daughter, who had suddenly become too quiet. "Don't worry Sakura. Their son is already smitten with your looks, so we have that on our side. Just think how nice it will be to be part of a safe and normal family. You'll forget this ninja nightmare when you're a wife and mother. I'm sure."

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"Oh my god, my baby!" Suigetsu cradled his sword, stroking it lovingly as he whispered to it how he'd never leave it again.

"You are disgusting," Karin sneered.

"Don't listen to that frigid bitch," he cooed to his blade caressing the hilt. "She's just jealous because nobody loves her. Don't worry, baby. I'll never leave you again. I promise yo—ow! What the hell, woman!" The former Mist nin rubbed the back of his head.

Karin smirked, folding her arms as she watched the rock hit the back of her idiot teammates head with satisfaction. "Serves you right. Endangering our mission for a stupid hunk of metal."

"You're a stupid hunk of ugly!"

"Well you're a stupid hunk of—ack!"

Suigetsu held his sword out defensively as he was surrounded by a thousand razor-sharp paper shuriken, pointed at him from every angle while Karin squirmed against a tree, a single, paper kunai held to her throat so tightly that a drop of blood absorbed into the point.

"Children, if you are quite done squabbling then report."

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Reviews=Love=Inspiration

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Things you probably already know:

Burakumin (部落民?, "hamlet people"/"village people") is an outcast group at the bottom of the Japanese social order that has historically been the victim of severe discrimination and ostracism by parts of society that consider themselves higher ups. They were originally members of outcast communities in the Japanese feudal era, composed of those with occupations considered impure or tainted by death, which have severe social stigmas of kegare (穢れ or "defilement") attached to them. Traditionally, the Burakumin lived in their own hamlets or villages.

In the feudal era, the outcasts were called eta (穢多, literally, "an abundance of defilement" or "an abundance of filth"), a term now considered derogatory. Eta towns were called etamura (穢多村).

(Are you starting to understand why Itachi was pissed off now? xD)

Other outcast groups from whom Buraku may have been descended included the hinin (非人—literally "non-human"). The definition of hinin, as well as their social status and typical occupations varied over time, but typically included ex-convicts and vagrants who worked as town guards, street cleaners or entertainers.

In the 19th century the umbrella term burakumin was coined to name the eta and hinin because both classes were forced to live in separate village neighborhoods than normal society.

Cases of social discrimination against residents of buraku areas is still an issue in certain regions of Japan even in present day. Outside of the Kansai region, people in general are often not even aware of the issue, and if they are, usually only as part of feudal history. Due to the taboo nature of the topic it is rarely covered by the media, and people from eastern Japan, for example, are often shocked when they learn that it is a continuing issue.

The prejudice most often manifests itself in the form of marriage discrimination, and less often, in employment. Traditionalist families have been known to check on the backgrounds of potential in-laws to identify people of buraku background, considering them to be worthless or useless and that they could bring down a families worth in society. These checks are now illegal, and marriage discrimination is diminishing.

The term burakumin does not refer to any ethnic minorities in Japan.

I have only pulled bits of information to describe what I needed for the chapter. To find out more about this sort of social classification, check it out on wiki. There is a great deal more on the subject. I find it sort of fascinating.