Hello~

Finally! I finished moving (well, for the most part) and I've begun to pick up where I left off before the chaos started. My apologies for the wait! I also have been longing for quiet moments to get my stories down on paper (so to speak).

I want to thank Sakura's Unicorn, who has been nearly as busy as me—perhaps even more so!—for taking the time to put my thoughts in order and making my writing legible, lol. She's such a lovely friend with a brilliant mind!

SU also suggested a recap for any who might have forgotten the story in my absence (if anyone's still out there x'D **crickets chirruping**).

I do hope you enjoy the tail, er, I mean tale, and the new Co9t chapter and perhaps leave a review~ Just let me tell you, when I need motivation to get back into the story, I reread your reviews and they filled me with love, laughs, and inspiration. Thank you!

Also, FYI, I am working on the final chapters for Finders Keepers. And a few other stories. This girl is on fire, lol.

Love to you all,

K&K

0o0o0

0o0o0

0o0o0

DNON

Cat-O-Nine Tails

Chapter 38~ D-E-N-I-A-L

0o0o0

0o0o0

"Women and cats will do as they please, and men and dogs should relax and get used to the idea."
Robert A. Heinlein

0o0o0

0o0o0

0o0o0

Previously~

Our heroine, Hanuro Sakura, the young medic-nin from the hidden village of Konoha, is on a particularly dangerous, secret mission: capture the Akatsuki.

Well, at least one Akatsuki—Uchiha Itachi—and bring him back to his village to get some real answers for the brutal crime he is supposed to have committed against his clan. Sakura is chosen for this mission by the Hokage, Senju Tsunade, and the Uchiha Loremaster, Neko-baa, for the simple reason that the girl cares so deeply for her former teammate, Uchiha Sasuke, and is willing to do her best to help him find justice for his clan's murders. With a little luck, the young kunoichi-turned-feline captures Itachi, as well as a few more of his partners in crime by turning them into cats.

In an unfortunate—yet perhaps fated—meeting, the young man Sakura set out to help is also ensnared by her spell and forced to return to Konoha with her, creating an unusual family reunion where sparks (and fur) fly. So far, we've found out that not only has Itachi been played as a pawn in a sinister plot, but, tragically, he is terminally ill! *cue dramatic music*

Sakura's mission is now expanded to save the elder brother, all while trying to appease the younger and manage the personalities of a rather rough bunch of characters! At the same time, Sakura's mother is plotting to saddle the girl with a husband not of the medic's choosing, not knowing that Sakura already has her hands full with eight men-turned-cat, who would pounce on any chance to break the three-year spell she's bound them to in order to take over the world!

Girl's got 99 problems…and the Will of Fire~

0o0o0

0o0o0

0o0o0

An errant wind blew, scattering the bilious clouds, breaking them apart just enough for the warm rays of sun to pierce through. Nara Shikamaru leaned back on the roof, folding his arms to cushion his head as he gazed at the clearing sky.

As he watched, a slip of paper floated down from the weakening current, twisting and fluttering in the playful wind's grip. The paper drifted peacefully past the peak of the roof where he kept guard when suddenly, an orange blur shot past him, sailing clean off the roof's edge to snatch the scrap. With a single eyebrow raised, Shikamaru observed the Iwa nukenin-turned-cat roll in midair then land on his feet, triumphantly clutching the bit of debris between his teeth.

"Unya!" The orange and white cat disappeared in a flash of silver and the paper floated to the ground, forgotten, as two cats crashed into the nearby bushes and a frenzied fight ensued.

"Oi! Cool it, you two," Nara warned them, barely turning his head. He wouldn't call his current job of cat-sitting easy, but it beat having to work in the Hokage's office any day. He looked longingly back up at the clouds rolling by, keeping an ear on the hissing screeches coming from the brush to make sure no one got seriously hurt.

"Goddammit! I saw it first!" Hidan yowled, trying to bite the six-toed paw shoved up his nose. "It's mine!"

"Yeah, but I caught it, loser!"

"Jashin will SMITE you, motherfucker!"

Shikamaru sighed and sat up, pulling open the flap of his jacket. The insults escalated and he knew it was time to intervene. "What a drag," he murmured, folding the paper he'd taken from his pocket.

Deidara snickered at the priest's snarled death threats. Especially in cat form, the Iwa nukenin's instincts were honed razor sharp. So much so that even taunting one of the zombie twins was almost too easy. Their battle raged on as his opponent screeched curses at him until, suddenly, his keen ear caught the almost imperceptible sound of an object in flight.

In a flash of orange and white fur, Deidara was gone, but not before his thick, fluffy tail slapped the silver cat in the face. Hidan sputtered and leapt to his feet, tilting his head in confusion for only a moment before he realized that he'd won! His tail whipped saucily back and forth in victory. His lord never let him down!

"That's right, asshole! Run away!" he yelled, failing to see—or perhaps in denial—that Deidara had found more exciting prey. With a noisy harrumph, Hidan picked up his fallen prize and turned the opposite way, going to add his new trophy to his pile of sacrifices to Jashin.

"As for you, my prey, get ready, cause this is gonna hurt." The violet-eyed cat purred contentedly as he felt the paper butterfly quivering in fear between his teeth. Surely his god would notice the near-fatal effort that Hidan had exerted to capture his most recent victim.

So, while Deidara raced off to chase the paper airplane and Hidan skulked away with his slobbery trinket, Shikamaru leaned back. Placing his hand behind his head, he gazed up at the clouds, thinking he ought to come up with more sophisticated ways to distract the prisoners occasionally.

"Hm," he sighed. "Maybe I should ask if Kankuro has a few small puppets that could keep them busy." He closed his eyes, instead thinking of a tall, cool blonde in the heart of the desert he might send a message to—in the line of duty, of course.

He wondered if Temari liked cats.

0o0o0

0o0o0

It had only been a few hours since Sakura's meddlesome mother left—not even half a day before she'd come sweeping back to inform her daughter that they had an omiai with Hito's family, a dinner date at the Uzumi estate that evening.

Itachi didn't even blink when Mother Haruno swept in carrying a formal dress kimono for her daughter. Even when the real Sakura, still transformed into a cat, yowled loudly in protest, Itachi kept his perfect composure, his henge as Sakura never wavered. He merely thanked her, accepting the dress and promising to be ready when she returned to escort her later.

Sasuke sat, silently staring as the little white cat growled as she paced up and down the hall, stopped in front of her bedroom door as if about to demand entrance, and then mewled as she turned away, frustrated by her inability to speak anything but feline while under Nekobaa's spell.

A short while later, Itachi appeared, still transformed as the pink-haired girl, but in the lovely formal kimono the elder Haruno had given him. The distress was evident in Sakura's cry. Even if she couldn't speak, Sasuke could tell from her plaintive mews that she was begging Itachi not to attend some ceremony that could end up with her as a married woman.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?" Sasuke growled low in his throat. "The last thing we need is another idiot around her to deal with." There was no way in hell he'd live with Sakura and a new husband for years. He'd take the damned curse before that!

"I know that you've already attempted to repudiate Sakura's suitor on your own, Sasuke, but courtesy has never been your strong suit." Itachi's sharp stare fell on the younger Uchiha and the black cat lowered his gaze uncomfortably. "I'll handle this, foolish little brother," Itachi said, tapping Sasuke's head in a way that paralyzed the cat with nostalgia.

Sakura's head was similarly poked when she jumped up on the back of the chair, pleading with him in unintelligible cat-speak not to go.

Itachi smirked at her when a knock sounded at the door. "Stop worrying so, Sukoshi."

0o0o0

0o0o0

Madara skulked back into the Uchiha district, squeezing through the crack in the wall he'd snuck out of earlier. Peering first left then right to see if anyone was searching for him, the black and orange cat crept through the shadows along the edge of the property until he neared the house. Seeing there was none the wiser of his adventures, he held his head high and puffed out his chest as he walked up the steps to the Uchiha house, his tail snapping smugly.

"Well, well. Look who the cat dragged in," Nekobaa quietly greeted as she sipped her tea.

"Old witch!" he hissed under his breath, surprised by the old woman's presence.

"Tch. Now, there's the pot calling the kettle black," another woman murmured as she entered from the kitchen and seated herself beside the Uchiha Loremaster.

Madara muttered, looking back toward the exit as Tsunade set two sake cups on the table and poured from a ceramic decanter.

"Explain yourself!" Tsunade snapped, making the orange and black cat jump. "Or would you rather just receive your punishment?" The blonde smirked at him. "I myself would prefer to skip the plea bargaining."

Madara sniffed, casually resting on his haunches as he silently studied the two women, trying to figure out if they'd figured him out yet. What would they be punishing him for now? Wasn't the fur suit bad enough?!

'Damn it!' he thought sourly. 'Had that little white cat ratted him out about him trapping her in the alleyway?'

Rubbish! He'd barely laid a paw on her before that little shit avenger had tackled him.

But what else could it be? Those two women looked like the cat's who'd stole the cream. What were they trying to get him to confess to? He wasn't about to reveal his secret plans.

"It's not true! Tobi helped! The little kitty was lost in the marketplace and the kitty looked scared and—and Tobi simply tried to—"

"Cut the crap, Uchiha. We haven't even spoken to Sakura yet."

The black and orange cat tilted his head.

"Then why are you here with Tobi?"

They were trying to trick him into some sort of confession, he was sure of it! His ear flicked in aggravation. Had his Uchiha descendants said something? Or had someone in his organization betrayed his plans in hopes of getting a reprieve?

Madara cursed under his breath, his ears flattened and he looked away, tail twitching madly. He absolutely hated being a pawn in the game where he should be the one moving the pieces and sacrificing others for his own gain.

Both women ignored his question, quietly savoring their sake while Madara fidgeted in the corner. Neither was willing to give the crafty old cat the slightest bit of information that might clue him in to the fact that the spell connected them all—they already knew he was looking for anything that might release him from their enchantment. The women's eyes met in unspoken agreement and Tsunade lifted her cup to daintily take a drink before she turned back to the twitchy cat.

"Hmph!" Tsunade scoffed lightly. "Did you really think I wouldn't have you watched?" The Godaime Hokage asked him, keeping her look steady when he turned to glare at her. She would let him chew on that idea for now.

"Tsk, tsk, tsk. Sneaking around the village like a wayward child," Nekobaa shook her head. Madara's ear flicked, but he remained stoic, not rising to their taunts. If they hadn't spoken to the girl yet, perhaps he still had some wiggle room.

0o0o0

0o0o0

While it was true that they hadn't spoken to Sakura or her Uchiha protectors, both Tsunade and Nekobaa had felt through the spell distributed between them Sakura's distress —as well as her relief when the boys protected her. And it didn't take a genius to figure out Madara had been up to mischief, since all the other Akatsuki in their care were accounted for.

Nekobaa showed him her teeth, but it was certainly not a friendly smile. "You know, Nade-chan, it may just be that he really likes his new skin. Perhaps we should make it permanent right now."

"You may be right, Baa-chan." The blonde's grin emerged just as feral as the elder's. "I know that Madame Shijimi is looking for a new snuggle-buddy. This feline's markings are quite fetching. I think she'd really love him—to death. Well, Tobi," she said the name with derision, "the choice is up to you."

0o0o0

The fur on Madara's back rose when the old witch's chatted about making him a cat permanently. He twisted away, backing into the corner with a hiss.

"No! Tobi doesn't want to be a cat forever! Tobi was just playing with Sakura-chan!"

A single golden eyebrow rose. "Playing?" Tsunade scoffed. "I don't believe it."

"No!" The cat shook his head and lowered it to the floor, covering it with both paws. "Sakura-chan was lost! Tobi was just trying to bring her home." He peeked out at the women eyeing him skeptically and purred at the glance they shared.

"Home?"

"Here! Tobi's home!" He jumped up and landed on the table between them, his tail waving. "Gomen-nya! I'm sorry if I frightened the kitty!" He rolled over onto his back, pawing at the air. "Nyan! Tobi is a good boy!"

"Cut the clown act," Tsunade sneered. "You're not fooling anyone. Give me one good reason, Uchiha, why I shouldn't just fulfill your destiny to remain four-footed right this instant!"

Madara sighed and rolled onto his feet, facing them—all manner of silliness gone. "I made a mistake, Nekobaa. Please do not extinguish my clan's bloodline by making the spell permanent."

"Oh no! There's still two much younger, incredibly strong, and frankly, better-looking Uchiha within this village, old man," Tsunade reminded him but the cat shook his head emphatically.

"There isn't, Senju. Itachi's blood is tainted and possibly his brother's, also. I alone am the last of the pure Uchiha blood."

The women seemed surprised for a moment, arousing his curiousity. Had they thought no one else knew about Itachi's illness? He sensed an opening, a breach in their defense.

"I ought to skin you right now!" Nekobaa's cat ears laid back and she growled protectively. "What do you know of Itachi's infirmity?"

Madara let out the breath he'd been holding. He was walking a fine line between the life and death of his plans, but he knew he had to delay long enough for Pein to liberate them. "I am, or rather, was the head of the Uchiha clan as you know, Neko. I have always made it my business to know everything about my people, especially the strongest of my line." He'd been watching over the clan's prodigy. He'd noticed Mikoto was hiding something about her child from a very young age. "What Itachi has is incurable…and probably hereditary," he assured them. "If you destroy me, you destroy the clan."

"Bullshit," Tsunade cursed. "I will find a way to—"

"I do not wish for my bloodline to be extinguished either," Madara assured her. "Perhaps my own DNA could be of use in your research?" Madara reclined on the table, his tail swaying slowly as he calmed, sure in the knowledge that he'd firmly placed doubt in their minds over his punishment. Just as always, the tide shifted so easily for him, like it was fate—his destiny.

Madara purred. "The choice, as you've said, ladies, is up to you."

0o0o0

0o0o0

"Stop worrying, Sukoshi."

Sure, it was easy for Itachi to say. He wasn't about to be trapped in a loveless marriage for the rest of his life.

Stop worrying?

HOW COULD SHE NOT WORRY?!

Sakura's heart pounded as her mind raced with possibilities of the sort of damage Uchiha Itachi could cause if he left for this omiai with her mother!

He could be taking revenge on her! She'd turned him into a cat, forcing him to obey Nekobaa and the Hokage for years. She'd trapped his gang and ruined whatever plans they'd had to destroy and pillage. It would be so easy for him to decide to torture her with a loveless marriage to some stranger. In fact, he could be taking some sort of perverse pleasure in this predicament. He seemed to enjoy Sasuke's torment at times—and he was Itachi's little brother! If Sakura was preoccupied with a demanding husband, he wouldn't have to waste so much of his time doing his captor's bidding.

Sakura knew she was panicking and quite possibly jumping to conclusions, but she just couldn't help the wild emotion of feeling completely out of control of this situation. Itachi had come to her aid before, but right now she couldn't read his intentions when it came to her mother. After many years of avoiding her mother's wish that she settle down and have a family, it appeared likely she'd just run out of luck. She whined pitifully and the elder Uchiha brother chuckled.

"Would a husband really be so awful, little one?" Green eyes twinkled mirthfully at the two cats before he turned away.

"Nii-san!" Sasuke hissed as Itachi walked to the door.

Itachi ignored him, opening the door and greeting Sakura's mother with a formal bow. Sasuke made a sour face when the old hen began fussing—turning the girl around and giving her a thorough once-over before clapping her hands and nodding her approval.

"For once, my dear daughter, you look perfect. Uzumi Hito won't be able to resist my beautiful child!"

Itachi's lips twitched at her backhanded compliment, but he simply bowed his head and thanked her. "Shall we go, kaasan?"

0o0o

Sasuke saw the irritated twitch on his brother's face and, for a split-second, wondered if Sakura's rude mother might go the same way the rest of the Uchiha clan had. The hair rose on the back of his neck as he shivered.

This was a bad idea—whatever his brother planned, he was sure that nothing good could come of it.

Itachi opened the door for Sakura's mother to go out and Sasuke shot out of the door in a flash. Mother Haruno exclaimed when the black cat brushed by her, frowning when the white cat high-tailed after as if the house had caught fire.

"Sakura-dear, you must get rid of those creatures!" she clucked.

Itachi smiled at her coldly. "After you, kaasan."

0o0o0

0o0o0

Sakura's mother guided the way across the merchants' district, proudly leading her fine-looking daughter.

'A lamb to the slaughter,' Sakura's Inner lamented as the white and black cats followed them stealthily. The Haruno's were met by a servant at the gates of the Uzumi house and led into the gardens where they were greeted by her soon-to-be fiancé and his parents; his father was a mousy little man, clearly overshadowed by his overbearing wife who stepped in front of her husband to do all the talking.

Sakura and Sasuke followed cautiously, climbing the courtyard wall and hiding in the rose bushes at the edge of the garden. Without realizing it, the white cat growled as she watched her proposed bridegroom staring lasciviously at her henged form. Crouched low and ready to pounce, Sakura hadn't even realized she was making noise until she felt Sasuke's paw atop her head. She started then looked up at him sheepishly, unable to hide her mortification.

"Be quiet or we'll be found out." Sasuke nodded toward the elder lady. Hito's mother was holding a small pug. The dog's ears were at attention as he sniffed the air, looking toward the rose bushes where they hid and licking his chops.

Hito took Itachi's hand, bowing and kissing it as he smiled greedily. "My dear Sakura-chan, your eyes are so intense! I feel that if I stare into them for too long, you might transport me into another world. A man could lose his head to your beauty."

"You really think so, Uzumi-san?" the henged Uchiha answered, slowly prying his hand from Hito's adoring, death grip. "Perhaps that could be arranged?"

Mother Haruno tittered, holding her hand to the side of her mouth and whispering loudly to Hito's mother who frowned at Sakura's peculiar comment. "Look! They're already flirting! What a fine match they'll make, Uzumi-san."

"Hmm, yes. Sakura, is it?" She looked the pink-haired girl up and down critically. "Come. Let me see you."

Sasuke watched rapt when he saw Itachi's eyebrow twitch in what he hoped was amusement and not murderous intent. The disguised Uchiha held his head straight when he approached Uzumi-san, bowing only as low a protocol demanded. The pug in the woman's arms growled and barked at him.

"That's odd," Uzumi-san mused. "My baby's usually such a good judge of character." She eyed her prospective daughter-in-law skeptically. "Hold out your hand, girl. Let him get to know you."

Itachi raised his hand, palm out to the pug and the dog snapped at him, growling.

"Oh, my little Poopsie!" The Uzumi matriarch gasped, turning the pug to face her. "Do you not like your new sister?" The insufferable woman cajoled her testy pooch, completely ignoring her prospective daughter-in-law. "Don't be jealous now. You're still mommy's favorite!" she cooed at the bug-eyed, slobbering beast. "My poor little angel must be hungry. Come, Haruno-san," she addressed Sakura's mother. "I'll give you a tour of our home while the children get to know each other a bit more." She beamed at her son. "Now behave, you two. I don't want to be made a grandmother before the nuptials!"

Sakura's mother laughed at her teasing joke, but gave Sakura a warning look before following the other lady up the stairs and into the house.

"Haruno-san, you must tell me where that pink hair comes from?" Hito's mother asked as they entered her house. "And I must know if it is a genetic deficiency…"

0o0o0

"My darling little Sakura-chan," Hito clucked, touching a tendril of the girl's pink hair that had escaped from her updo. "Don't listen to my mother. I think your hair is lovely and exotic." He grinned at her. "And don't worry about the dog. My mother dotes on him even more than she does me!" he chuckled. "Once we're married, I'll build my own home. We won't have to live with my parents for more than a year."

He took her arm, leading her through the gardens roundabout the house to a second entrance. "We'll need a larger home, though, because we'll have our own family started by then," he assured her with a wink. "Come with me, Sakura-chan. Before we join our family for supper, I want you to see the wing where we'll stay after our wedding."

"Come on!" Sasuke hissed softly, jumping from the bush and stealing across the way after Hito and Itachi. Sakura was right behind as the black and white cats raced across the courtyard, however, both made it to the doors a split-second too late, and were left standing outside.

Sakura scratched at the door until Sasuke nudged her, shaking his head. "Let's look for another way inside."

0o0o0

By the time they found an open window, ten minutes passed and Hito and Itachi had joined the party in the formal dining room for dinner. Sasuke and Sakura hid behind a potted palm that was near enough so that they could hear the conversation.

The affianced pair were seated across the table from each other, but Sasuke only had a clear sightline on Hito. Sakura was a bundle of nerves, the little white cat fidgeting as much as Naruto used to when they had to wait for Teuchi to make a new batch of ramen.

Sakura's restlessness was making it hard for him to follow the conversation, however, the younger Uchiha could tell something had changed. Hito was still conversing with Itachi, but the flirtatiousness he'd shown before had become reserved. Something was up. Hito was definitely—

Sakura's snow-white head popped up beside his over the lip of the pot and, irritated, he put his paw atop her head, pushing her lower. He was about to scold her about being a ninja and the importance of stealth when a low growl came from under the table.

The white cat hissed and swept past him, nearly knocking Sasuke from his feet. The pug was on him almost as fast, yapping and snapping at his face, but he shot out and followed Sakura out of the room. The pug, too big for their hiding spot, knocked the urn over, spilling the contents in its haste to chase them.

"Poopsie!" Hito's mother screeched seeing her dog create a commotion before he tore out the door, chasing god knows what. "You naughty baby! Oh my goodness!" She apologized to her guests. "I just don't know what's gotten into my baby today!"

The loud voices faded as the cats sped down the hall. Sakura and Sasuke were pursued by the dog until they scooted out the open kitchen window they'd snuck into earlier. 'Poopsie' chased them all the way to the courtyard wall, nipping at their heels as they climbed up and over to the safety outside.

"Come on."

Sakura ignored him, sitting and watching outside the wall wherein her fate was being decided. She wanted nothing more than to sneak back in and find a way to prevent the omiai from going forward.

Sasuke gently bumped his head against her shoulder, prodding her to move away from the entrance. Ears laid flat, Sakura gave in and slunk behind him back to her apartment.

'There's nothing I could do to stop it anyhow,' she thought miserably, 'I'm stuck like this until morning, and by then, my fate will be set in stone.' There was no way her mother would let her back out.

Sasuke glanced back occasionally to see if she was still following. He was tempted to tell her to quit worrying but he wasn't so sure she should.

0o0o0

0o0o0

Kakuzu sat, flicking his tail distractedly as Hidan carefully planted toothpicks into the ground in the middle of a piss-poor pentagram that he'd painstakingly pawed into the dust.

"You're wasting your time, idiot. It's never going to work."

"Fuck off, Kakauzu! Jashin will not forsake me!" The silver cat preened, flashing a sharp-toothed grin. "I am his favorite acolyte after all."

"Favorite idiot, maybe," the tortoiseshell manx ridiculed, watching Hidan crouch down low with his butt high in the air before he leapt up and spun over his tiny forest of skewers, falling atop them with a grunt. Kakuzu closed his eyes, shaking his head. "Definitely."

"I did it!" Hidan shrieked, rolling to his feet and spinning in a circle proudly. "Look, Kakuzu!"

"What are you?" Kakuzu chuckled, "Hedgehog or porcupine?"

"FUCK YOU, KAKUZU! YOU'RE JUST JEALOUS OF MY TALEN—mpgh—HEY!"

Kakuzu removed his paw from Hidan's mouth as he glanced stealthily around with green-red eyes. Making sure the coast was clear, he tracked over to the pile of sacrifices and swiped the butterfly-shaped piece of paper fluttering weakly at the top.

"Perhaps Jashin does hear your prayers, you imbecile."

0o0o0

0o0o0

0o0o0

Things you probably already know:

Omiai-a date of sorts, very often including families of the potential couple for approval of the courtship.

Acolyte-A follower, or assistant in the performance of religious rites.

Reviews=Love=Author's Inspiration