When In Middle Earth: The edited, revised and face-lifted edition:

When in Middle Earth, do as the Middle-Earthlings do. Sakura finds herself in the midst of Middle Earth, immersed in a war she has no part in, saving a world and people she doesn't know, and why? Because Naruto would be disappointed in her if she ever got back and told him she hadn't...

Chapter Thirteen:

The freakishly long chapter:

In which the heroine learns the value of proper communication: mainly that it saves time, because Aragorn is a clever bloke who'll figure it out eventually anyway.

It really is best to come clean.

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Disclaimer:

The Lord of The Rings, its associated characters and components are copyright and property of its author J. R. R. Tolkien, the actors that played them, and the director of the trilogy of films of the same name, Peter Jackson. The character Sakura and any components associated with the manga and anime 'Naruto' are property and copyright of Masashi Kishimoto

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The story continues:

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Sixth day of Hobbits' stay in Rivendell: Mid-day…

"How did the nine fall?"

Gandalf blinked, momentarily thrown for a loop by the seemingly out-of-the-blue question. His bristly brows drew down to a point over his large, squashed nose, and he puffed his pipe with long deliberation. He had been forced to leave Rivendell for two nights and a day; rumours of black horse's roaming the countryside east of the Bruinen drawing he and a half-dozen of Elrond's finest out, to be certain of Rivendell's continued safety. Aragorn had remained at his behest – an order he hadn't taken lightly – but he hadn't expected to be accosted in such a way fair hours after his return with tidings of relief.

He mused over the sudden confrontation. At last, his eyes flicked up, eyeing his companion shrewdly from under their wrinkled hoods.

"You know the answer to that, Aragorn. They succumbed to the nine rings of men, gifted to them by the dark lord, who took their greed and bent their souls to his own purpose."

"But how did they do so?"

Gandalf was honestly surprised. Aragorn had never asked such questions before. Now, however, there seemed to be a strange sort of desperate earnestness in his posture. He was very tense. The wizard frowned. His lips drew smoke from the pipe, blowing it out in perfect concentric circles as he thought about the answer, not only to Aragorn's question, but to the many nuances beneath it. He wriggled his bottom a little more firmly into the soft cushion of his chair, and generously gestured for the man to take a seat before him. Aragorn sank onto the proffered stool, but did not lean back or relax as Gandalf did. He sat forward, his legs open and his elbows rested on his knees, his fingers gripping his forearms.

Of all of this, Gandalf took note.

"As you know, the nine rings of men were wrought in the land of Mordor and given to the nine Kings of Men, as they stood in the First Age."

Aragorn nodded impatiently.

"You must understand, Aragorn, is that in that time Sauron was held in as much regard as one of my own Order. He had not yet shown his true colours, nor his intentions. The rings were taken at face value – that of a gift of peace. A show of good faith, if you will. However magic, just as it is now, was a strange and fearsome force, treated with wariness at best. The Nine Kings were not as foolish as some that tell of the story would have you believe. Some, yes, wore the pretty trinkets with little thought to it, but not all. There were those that secreted them away in some trinket box or such. Kept but not worn…or not at first, at least."

"Something made them put them on?" Aragorn had finally sat up straight. Gandalf nodded.

"Something made them keep them on," he corrected mildly, "the complete corruption of one's soul and the methodical dissolution of one's humanity does not occur overnight, after all."

Strangely enough, this seemed to relax the ranger somewhat. Gandalf carefully noted this and put it to the corner of his mind for later consideration.

"Which brings us, I believe, to your question. I can tell you only what I can theorise, from what I have read or heard of in my long years. Remember that my research has been on the One, rather than the Nine."

A nod. Gandalf paused to puff thoughtful smoke rings, as if assembling his thoughts. Aragorn was utterly still, determined not to fidget like an impatient schoolboy. He had almost lost the battle, when Gandalf continued:

"It seems to me, that the Nine rings recognised, by the gifting, or else by the first human touch or some such thing, those which they were to consume. That is, only the nine Kings were affected, however that may have been. That is to say, that each ring, so I believe, knew its owner." Here he paused, as if to gauge whether his audience was following. He was; used to Gandalf's dizzying thought processes. Satisfied, the wizard nodded, puffed, and went on.

"My readings – though on a different subject – often made reference to the Nine, the Seven and Three. As I recall, there was some such reference to madness, induced in a human King, a despondency – or melancholy – in another. Such things were noted in passing – mere strange changes of behaviour – not connected with their change to Wraithdom 'til the dreadful deed was done. However…" Gandalf paused again to collect his thoughts, sifting through the dusty library of memory.

"You must understand," he began again, "that the One ring itself cannot give Power, only the illusion of Power. Such it must also be for the lesser rings." He stopped again, much to Aragorn's dismay. Fortunately, he was simply running his sentence through his head a second time, to check that it did indeed make some sort of sense, as Aragorn was beginning again to look agitated.

"The illusion of power then, is what must have made the Kings of Old wear those rings so loyally."

"But the Kings of Men had power," Aragorn interjected grimly. "Were they truly so insatiable in their quest for it?"

"I believe not," said the wizard. "However, you also have power Aragorn, do you not? In your sword and your bow you have power; in your blood and your name. And yet, were you to lose your sword, would you not strive to find it? Do you not strive to regain the kingdom that was lost?"

He raised a hand to forestall Aragorn's offense. "I mean not to upset you Aragorn, as you well know. My point, dear boy, is that power lost is infinitely more compelling than the mere promise of power."

Aragorn's face cleared, understanding dawning. And then he went suddenly, deathly pale.

"Power lost?" he repeated, and Gandalf was concerned to hear the hoarseness of his voice.

"I believe so," he said slowly. "It is a theory, nothing more. But perhaps the King who found himself weak – or thought himself to be getting weaker - might look to another means of restoring himself to his original strength. A King, after all, cannot afford weakness. Perhaps in donning the ring, he finds he feels strong again. He takes it off, and the feeling of power fades, leaving him feeling weaker than before, and so again he puts on his ring and wears it this time for longer. Perhaps this time he feels a darkness in it, because all rings are linked to the One. Perhaps Sauron begins to show his true intention. He again removes it, fearful and disgusted. But now, his feeling of weakness and vulnerability – real or imagined – has grown. He cannot bear it. And so he wears his ring, and he continues to wear it, fearing that he will fade and fall apart, unable to lead his people if he does not."

"And so the ring consumes him, and he becomes a slave to the One." Aragorn finished for him, voice quiet with dread.

"It is off course, merely a theory," the wizard sighed around his pipe, and crinkled his eyes in a friendly, reassuring fashion. "And as the Nine rings are firmly accounted for by the nine riders, I doubt we have much to fear of it happening twice that we may find our theory to be correct or not. I do not think even for a moment that Frodo will meet the same fate."

At this, Aragorn snapped up his head, a look of undisguised surprise on his face. Gandalf chuckled to himself, proud to have correctly guessed the source of this sudden interest and anxiety.

"I-," Aragorn paused, "Yes. I am sure you are right Gandalf. Thank you for your answer."

The wizard waved him off in a friendly fashion as the Ranger stood, making his excuses.

"Off you go my boy, and lay your fears to rest now. Visit your young friend, the…ninja did you say she called herself?" Aragorn nodded. "Yes, go visit her. She'll be grateful for some company I expect. Perhaps if she is willing, I might visit her myself this evening. I have been lax and it is a meeting late in coming, but you did promise her my aide didn't you?" He laughed as Aragorn took on a vaguely guilty expression, but quickly became more grave. "I can make no promises; time is, after all, in short supply at the present. But I shall do what I can for her. Go now, and tell her so. Take your mind off Frodo for a time; he is in safe hands now."

Aragorn again made his thanks to the wizard, before quickly scurrying away. He didn't have the heart, yet, to tell the wizard that it was not Frodo that had his worry.

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Sixth day of Hobbits' stay in Rivendell: About brunch

Three days. Three days. It had been three days since she'd been tied down to the bed "to stop her aggravating her injuries and slowing her healing." Sakura would have spat in disgust if not for the fact that it'd have come straight back down on her face. Disgusting.

The first day, she'd felt weak, helpless, and angry. The second, she'd felt weak, angry, and bored. She'd been so bored she'd even tried talking to the guard, what with Glorfindel the B*****d keeping her from having visitors. She glanced warmly at the vase by her bed. Gimli had snuck in anyhow, while the guard relieved himself in her bathroom, leaving an enormous bouquet of flowers on her side-table. He'd picked them for the their appearance rather than their scent or match: they were undoubtedly the biggest and showiest of the garden – their petals long and thick, bursting with colour and vibrancy, their stems bright green and crowded with leaves, their stoma jutting proudly from within. Their scents mingled strangely in the air, sweet but not quite in harmony – and they were tied with what she recognised as one of the leather ribbons he'd had plaited into his beard, beads and all.

She was touched.

The guard had been flabbergasted when he returned to the room to find them sitting there in all their obnoxiously defiant glory.

The worst thing to Sakura's mind was that she couldn't just heal herself. She rated everything Glorfindel did by how much faster, or more efficiently, she could have done it herself. He told her that it would have been faster if she'd rested as she'd been told. She refuted this loudly and derisively, but was hard pressed not to begrudgingly admit, if only in her own mind, that despite three days of enforced bed-rest her ribs were feeling better. So was her elbow in fact – Glorfindel had even taken off the brace and sling.

'Well it's faster than healing the natural way, I'll admit' her thoughts put in peevishly, 'but elfish hoodoo has nothing on chakra.'

She shifted uncomfortably, trying to ease the cramp in her neck. Her restraints pushed against her chest and upper arms, and she sighed, wondering despondently whether Glorfindel might take them off now that she was finally showing some improvement. Not that she'd ever admit to his, just possibly, being right…

CLATTER!

BANG!

THUMP THUMP THUMP!

A sudden noise from the hallway had her guard hurtling to his feet, wrenching open the door even as someone thumped loudly on the other side of it. He swung it open just before the third landed, paling and standing frozen, eyes wide, as the fist jerked to a stop mid-air, a scant half inch from his nose.

"Ah," said the fist, "My apologies."

It was a deep, cultured voice that could only belong to an elf, but it wasn't one that Sakura remembered hearing before. The young guard however, immediately began to exude such an overwhelming sense of dedication to duty and devotion that Sakura swore it made the air heavier. As it was, she could just about see, from the corner of her eye, his shoulders as they tried valiantly to reach the ceiling. He was making quite the effort to stand up straighter. Sakura strained against her ropes, trying to get a look at the intruder than seemed so important, but couldn't twist around far enough. An unhappy grunt left her lips.

In short order, however, she found that there was no need, because two small and rather excitable figures bounded over to the bed and leaned over her; their silhouettes blocking the sunlight from the window as cheery smiles and curly hair filling her vision.

"Hi, Miss Stranger," Pippin grinned; saluting.

"Good afternoon my lady," said Merry with a courtly bow. But he quite ruined the grand gesture by cheekily blowing her a kiss afterward.

Sakura was distracted from her reply as the intruder and another elf swept into the room.

"More bloody elves?" she muttered under her breath, eying them both with distinct mistrust as they moved to the end of her bed and finally brought themselves into view.

They must have heard her, because their smirks instantly widened, and both bowed mockingly from where they stood; their long unbound hair sweeping over their shoulders, the colour of richest dark chocolate. She glared, trying not to think of how ridiculous she must look from that angle.

Merry too, laughed at her low comment, and perched himself on her right; the mattress dipping with his modest weight.

"Since we young hoodlums aided you in your night-time 'shenanigan', we've been assigned guards of our own," he stage-whispered, conspiratorially.

He made a jest of it, smiling as he said it, but Sakura winced at the stab of guilt that hit her. She hadn't meant to get Merry and Pippin in trouble with her idiocy as well. Merry saw the change in her face and shook his head, straightening and gesturing to the two elves behind him. "Never fear, Miss Stranger, our guards are not at all like yours, most notably because we haven't been able to give them the slip even once." Farahad glowered from the corner. Merry winked at her, and she couldn't quite help the smug little smile that tugged at her mouth.

"They are, in fact, rather companionable," he added, "they may even be elves that you like."

The look on her face said quite clearly that she doubted it. Sakura craned her neck to look at the two at the end of the bed. They appeared to be quite happy to let Merry wax lyrical about them, and stood with nothing more than folded arms and matching smirks, in silence. In other words, they looked like they were up to something. She cocked an eyebrow rudely.

"High expectations," she drawled.

Much to her disgust, they actually looked amused. One even let out a little laugh of delight, before he smothered it with a sleeve and watched her over the fabric with twinkling grey eyes. High-quality clothes, her ninja's mind noted; Hand-stitched by the look of it and heavily embroidered; lots of workmanship: Probably rich or important or both. They made no move to respond however, and her brow furrowed, equal parts in frustration and confusion. But Merry clearly hadn't finished. He stood, gesturing grandly.

"My esteemed Lady, allow me to formally introduce to you, their Lordships Elrohir and Elladan; sons of Elrond Half-Elven, and elder brothers to the lovely Lady Arwen Eveningstar. Esteemed Lords; Miss Stranger: valiant human warrior, hobbit-saviour, doer-of-amazing-deeds, and occasionally Ranger." He finished with a jaunty little bow to Sakura.

It was only now that the 'official' introduction had been made that the brothers stepped forward: one to either side of her bed. But they did not speak to her. Rather, they stopped a scant foot from her and addressed each other instead, over the top of her prone form. Their expressions were exaggerated and showed great shock and disappointment.

"Well now, dear brother, we cannot greet the young lady like this."

"Indeed not brother, it is most improper and not at all suited to her station."

So saying, they nodded sharply, and with a swift movement that set off every ninja-instinct Sakura had, the twin brothers drew daggers from their belts and sliced through the air. Unable to react any other way, Sakura turned her head and clenched her eyes shut and her jaw close. Her fingers fisted in the fabric of her sheets and her teeth ached they were so tight together. Her whole body tensed…only for her eyes to snap open at the sound of tearing fabric. She blinked. Experimentally, she moved. The restraints slid off of her torso like water off a ducks back, allowing her to sit up properly for the first time in days.

Pippin reached behind her and began fluffing her pillow.

Sakura stared slack-jawed. She was too gobsmacked to even sit up properly, the move was so unexpected. She lay half on her side, propped up by her healing elbow, and expression of utter surprise on her face. Undeterred, Elladan scooped up her hand from the mattress, turned it palm-down, and kissed the back of it. She couldn't feel it, but she was aware of Elrohir pressing his lips to her bandaged knuckles on the other side of the bed, at the same time. She growled as the motion took away her support but refused to let them see her fall back onto the pillows. Her abdominals were really starting to hurt with the effort of keeping her up though…

"A pleasure to make your acquaintance, madam."

Her eyes widened. Good grief, they even spoke in unison. It was even worse than seeing Lee and Gai together.

"Um…" said Sakura.

She wanted to say a whole plethora of things, ranging from her elf-bias and pro-dwarfism to questioning just what kind of men had hair that shiny. However, Merry himself had just identified them as the sons of their elusive host, and they had just cut her loose, at least by half, which was infinitely more comfortable. And unfortunately that meant that diplomacy was the better form of valour, and that she was going to have to suck it up.

She forced a smile and jerked her hands roughly out of their respective grips.

"Do the other ones, and then we'll talk."

Then again, she was never very good at diplomacy.

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Sixth day of Hobbits' stay in Rivendell: Approaching lunchtime…

Gimli would be disgusted, Sakura thought idly as she reclined against her luxuriously fluffed pillows-a-la-Pippin, to see her actually getting along with an elf. Let alone two of them. Elrond's sons were, just as Merry had told her, surprisingly likeable. They knew their manners, certainly, but they performed them with a kind of cheeky eloquence that made them seem both noble and approachable at on and the same time. They had an appreciation for mischief not unlike Merry and Pippin's, and never was it more expressed than in their smirking congratulations for the trouble she'd put her poor minders through. They laughed outright to hear Arwen's part in it, while the guard, Farahad, sulked in a corner of the room, displeased with their amusement at his expense but unable to contest his master's sons.

"Ah, our dear baby sister," said one merrily. She was not entirely sure which one, as Elladan and Elrohir were more or less identical. The other picked up his speech before he finished, finishing the sentence for him: "She never did like to see anything in a cage." Sakura cocked an eyebrow, expressing herself unimpressed at the comparison to some sort of zoo animal.

"Dear Arwen is a deplorably free spirit," the first twin went on, ignoring her expression. "Poor father can never keep track of her, and our dear Estel has even less luck of late. No doubt she felt you'd appreciate the sunshine more than the concern." His eyes twinkled with some unspoken delight, but whether in his sister's wilfulness or the trouble which Sakura herself had caused, she couldn't tell. Seeing that the elf expected some sort of response from her however, Sakura snorted and folded her arms, folding her legs and enjoying the unrestricted movement.

"I was certainly enjoying my time with Gimli until your damned healer came and kidnapped me," she replied drolly. Surprisingly this verbal banter was actually somewhat amusing. Talking to these elves was not as trying an endeavour as she'd expected.

Elladan looked horrified.

"The dwarf? Oh you can find better company than that dear Lady."

"Funnily enough, he'd say the same of your company."

Merry and Pippin sniggered around the mouthfuls of food they were ingesting. Keeping company with the masters of the house certainly came with its perks. There were more snacks and servants through the room in the last hour than there'd been during her entire stay. Her stomach rumbled appreciatively as she nibbled a thick slice of fruit. She didn't recognise the name or taste, but it was gloriously sweet and juicy. Pippin swallowed hurriedly and perked up in a move Sakura was starting to recognise as: 'Pippin just thought of a question and his eagerness will overwhelm you both if you don't answer fast.'

She tilted her head at him.

"What are dwarves like, Miss Stranger, if you've met one? Are they at all like hobbits?"

"Not at all," Elrohir interjected. "They are dirty, smelly, crude creatures with no manners."

"And no taste," added his brother. Both nodded pompously. Sakura smiled sweetly, and threw a pillow at the nearest. Elrohir squeaked as the soft projectile hit him firmly in the ear, much to the surprise and laughter of his twin. Sakura triumphantly lifted her chin, looking down her nose with an expression that just dared him to say anything more. He rubbed his sensitive lobes ruefully, but wisely stayed quiet.

"They are not at like that, Pippin, and you'd be wise not to base your opinions of a dwarf on what an elf tells you. They are not friends it seems," she remarked with rolled eyes. "The dwarf I met was very gentlemanly, though not much like a hobbit. He was a bit taller than you, and not a lot shorter than me."

"You are quite short," interrupted Elladan innocently. She scowled and waved her remaining pillow threateningly.

"I found his company very pleasant," she told the hobbit, who nodded. "He was quite impressed by our little trick." She shared a conspiratorial grin with Pippin, who puffed out his chest proudly.

"As only a dwarf would. It is not to be congratulated," the guard put in reproachfully, unable to keep silent at their blatant pride. "To show such disregard for Master Glorfindel's efforts, and such disrespect for the esteemed guards of Lord Elrond, ought not to be a point of pride." His look seemed to express the unmentioned but obvious 'for shame', and he turned almost expectantly to Elladan and Elrohir to back him up on the point.

Elladan snorted. "The 'esteemed guards' are a joke, and too over-confident by far, if they fall for such paltry tricks. One who is so easily fooled deserves to be."

The guard looked aghast, but was silenced by the compelling look sent him by the twin. Elrohir continued for his brother:

"Quite. And as to the matter of the young lady's injuries, while we would all undoubtedly like to see her recover, they are nonetheless her injuries and she may do as she likes with them," he nodded his respect to the medi-nin, who smiled appreciatively, if a little doubtful about his logic. "Who are we to cage a free spirit?"

This time Merry and Pippin joined in with vigorous nodding, and scowled at the guard.

"And it was a very clever trick," Pippin added loyally with a frown loaded with meaning at Elladan, who conceded the point with a graceful dip of his head. Sakura rolled her eyes none too discreetly, catching the unhappy scowl on the guards face as she did so. She raised an eyebrow in his direction, drawing the attention of the Elrohir, who was nearest. He also turned looked at him. She had to give Farahad points for acting at least – his face was wiped smooth and blank in seconds. He looked back at the young lord with polite query.

"Speaking of your injuries, though, dear Lady," Elladan spoke again, unaware or choosing to ignore the little exchange. Sakura and Elrohir gave him their attention. "There seems to be very little known, even among those usually in the know-"; here, Sakura detected the underlying meaning, and guessed that Elladan and Elrohir were usually among 'those'; "-the extent nor in fact, the true cause of your injuries, dear lady. Our sister could tell us very little, only that you were caught in the flood with one of the Nine…?"

Sakura's good mood started to dissipate, as the non-too-subtle probing revealed the true reason for Elladan and Elrohir's visit. But she was spared answering – an answer that would no doubt have lacked diplomacy entirely – by the surprisingly aggressive defence of her accomplices.

"She doesn't want to talk about it," Merry growled, rising from the bed.

"If all you came for is a story, then forget about it," Pippin objected, standing protectively between the bed and the elf who'd spoken.

The elves in question were completely taken aback – where had their cheery little companions gone? The cross, defensive hobbits that stood before them no were almost inconceivably different, and they immediately realised their mistake, and regretted their nosiness.

"Forgive me, I meant no offense," Elladan tried to sooth, raising his hands placatingly.

"It is only concern for the lady that draws our questions," Elrohir added, "Forgive our intrusion lady; we will not speak of it again."

Sakura snorted disbelievingly.

"You just wanted to know if it was true that I fought a Ringwraith, or not," she accused. Farahad gasped openly – he'd not been privy to that information. Nor it seemed had Elladan and Elrohir, as they became unmistakeably tense. Sakura tossed her hair out of her face, revealing the full force of her contempt. With her right arm she gestured to herself.

"I did, and you see what it did to me. Would you want to talk about it?"

Secretly she revelled in the expressions of shock, horror and intense guilt that settled on the elves faces. Outwardly, however, she turned her face away, playing up the badly-done-to female card for all it was worth. Normally she'd resolve her issues much more forcefully, but she wasn't a kunoichi for nothing and this method appeased her vindictive streak just as well. They'd no right to demand answers of her and if hitting them in the guilt worked then she'd damn well use it to her advantage.

What followed were earnest apologies and entreaties for forgiveness, and it was with some surprise that she realised the looks on the twins faces were of genuine regret and distress. She drummed her fingers on the bed, eyes fixed on the wall, considering. Merry still looked cross and stern, but Pippin gently touched her shoulder.

"I think they mean it, Miss Stranger," he said softly. She looked at him. Pippin was a forgiving soul, and something in his open gaze reminded her just enough of Naruto to break her heart, just a little bit. She missed him terribly.

"Fine," she muttered. She shifted uncomfortably and huffed. She didn't want to talk about what had happened to her; the loss of her chakra was a blow still too raw to discuss, but, that didn't mean it wasn't preying on her mind. And with nobody else to ask…Sakura sighed. Well, while the subject was at hand…

"Has a Ringwraith ever been killed?" she asked in a deplorably small voice. She groaned inwardly – that hadn't been nearly as offhand as she'd have liked.

Elladan and Elrohir did a fine job of hiding their thoughts this time – their faces went poker-blank. The young elf, however, looked at her like he couldn't decide if she was being deliberately obtuse, or if she really was so thick as to ask such a monumentally stupid question. Being young, he was still impulsive by elf standards and this was no exception. Once more he found himself unable to keep silent, especially since his lords appeared to give no intention to answer. His voice, when he deigned to use it, was snobbish and condescending, and appeared to travel the full length of his nose before reaching her.

"Of course not. The Nine are immortal, soulless creatures. One cannot kill the un-dead."

"No?"

"No. It is impossible. Such a thing has never been done."

The twins glared at the impudent and wholly untactful guard. The poor girl was obviously distressed and looking for some reassurance or chance of retribution after her terrifying encounter, and here he was trampling over her feelings like a rampaging oliphaunt!

Sakura nodded, troubled. Not because she thought that hadn't killed it, because she was entirely certain that she had, but because nobody had ever succeeded in doing it before her. And that meant that she had no way of knowing what was going to happen next. It also meant that the likelihood of anyone actually believing her was probably slim, even if she did finally overcome her pride and distrust long enough to tell Glorfindel the true extent and cause of her injuries, which, in all likelihood, were a direct result of killing a Ringwraith, and which he probably wouldn't know what to do with anyway, because it had never happened before.

At this point Sakura stopped thinking, because she was fairly sure the circular thought process was making her seasick. Curiosity however, could not be contained, and not noticing the expressions of his lords, Farahad finally lost the battle with his will and asked:

"Why would you ask such a foo-… such a question?"

"Morbid curiosity. Why do you look in the mirror every morning?"

She treated him to her best Naruto-prankster-smirk, even as his lips clamped suddenly shut, as if it had finally occurred to him that picking a fight with his charge would not do him any favours in the eyes of the Dúnedan, or his masters, whom he'd finally noticed were looking at him most displeased. It didn't stop his fierce scowl however. She nodded at him, as if pretending to be pleased with his performance, and stirred the shit a little more.

"That's it. You're getting better. Now all you have to work on is not staring, drooling, and stammering whenever the Lady Arwen stops by to say hello."

He paled. Elladan and Elrohir turned their entire bodies toward him, towering over the guard like impending doom personified.

"Do you often have trouble with that?" The latter asked, in a voice as pleasant as a snowstorm in summer.

Elladan was decidedly less patient than his brother however.

"Out."

"M-my Lord?"

"You have spoken out of turn and insulted our guest, and that is more than enough reason to have you leave this room, the insinuation regarding our beloved sister notwithstanding," he folded his arms and glared. "Outside. Now."

She may not have understood a word of elvish, but the looming and the posturing were hallmark 'protective-brother' behaviour. She exchanged a smug little wink with the hobbits while the elves' backs were turned and their attention was on the guard, who slunk out not long after with the metaphorical tail between his legs. It seemed her little "slip" about their baby sister had served its purpose. She was getting sick and tired of him, and now that Elladan and Elrohir and cut her loose she had every intention of giving him the slip once more and going in search of Gimli.

Her smug countenance fell from her face as the door opened again, not minutes later. Elladan and Elrohir had barely gotten back into their seats.

But the body that came around the doorframe was neither blonde, nor particularly young, and nor was it an elf at all.

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Sixth day of Hobbits' stay in Rivendell: Shortly after Mid-day…

It was with considerable consternation that Aragorn approached Sakura's bed chambers. This was not a conversation which he could approach lightly or discreetly – it had to be confronted. But how to begin was a question he troubled over to no avail, until he found himself at her door no closer to knowing what he was going to say than when he first left Gandalf. Needless to say his mood was not lightened by the sight of Sakura's guard outside her room, instead of inside where he was supposed to be. He paced the floor, looking decidedly unhappy and muttering to himself in a low voice, stopping occasionally and leaning against the door frame, only to fidget too much to stay still and propel himself to his feet once more.

Aragorn's step on the floorboard had the elf's head jerk up. He came forwards, clearly expecting a harsh reprimand but determined to circumvent it if he could.

"Forgive me my lord," he spoke before Aragorn could scold him again, "but the Lord Elladan and Lord Elrohir are within and bade me sit outside for the duration of their visit. It was an order, sir," he added by way of explanation. He left out the exact time-frame in which they'd made the order, and carefully skirted around their reason for doing so.

Aragorn's brow furrowed. Elladan and Elrohir? What purpose did they have to visit Sakura?

"Uh…they cut her bonds, sir," the elf added, not above diverting the Ranger's attention when it came to planting blame. He wasn't going to be held responsible if she escaped a second time.

His frown deepened, but he nodded his understanding to the guard, brushing past him and opening the door without preamble. Uncertain as to what he should do, Farahad hovered in the doorway. The Dúnedan looked troubled.

"Strider!" chorused Merry and Pippin, looking up with cheery greetings.

'Of course', Aragorn thought privately, even as he returned the hobbits' hellos, 'the hobbits are under their care. No doubt the visit was Merry and Pippin's idea.' Relief flooded him. If the reason for the twins' presence was innocent, he still had time to discuss with Sakura his theories, however far-fetched they may seem to some, in private before he'd have to make the decision as to whether to inform Lord Elrond. He was mixed parts glad and weary that the decision had not yet been taken off his shoulders to make.

His respite however, was short lived.

"Estel!"

For the second time in as many minutes, the twins leapt up and he groaned slightly as they bodily accosted him, throwing their arms over his shoulders.

"You've been neglecting us little brother," chimed Elladan in his right ear, bumping his shoulder in a teasing manner, if a little roughly.

"He certainly hasn't been neglecting our dear sister," observed Elrohir, his arm crooked at the elbow so that he could look his 'younger brother' in the eye. Aragorn flushed uncomfortably.

He knew that they were only teasing. On any other day, at any other time, he'd gladly have sat with them, joined in their banter and laughed with them happily. For the longest time, these had indeed been the only family he'd known and he loved them as if they were his own blood. But today, he could not afford to sit or to laugh. Dark fears preyed on his mind, and he needed to speak to Sakura. He shrugged the twins off as inoffensively as he could, explaining himself to them in low elvish, as best he could without giving away what he knew or suspected. It was not that he did not wish to spend time with his honorary brothers, he tried to tell them, but there was a greater need pressing on his mind. He was unyielding in his need to speak with Sakura alone.

Sakura watched suspiciously, cataloguing their interaction. Elladan and Elrohir looked unhappy – they seemed to be questioning him – and Aragorn's voice took on a firmer tone. The twins frowned, apparently dissatisfied with his answer, but before they could say anything more Aragorn seemed to lose his patience. He finally snapped out something in elvish that had the two looking distinctly offended.

"Master Meriadoc, Master Peregrin; it seems we are in the way. It is time to depart," Elrohir said frostily.

The hobbits looked lost and confused. "But we just got here!" Pippin objected.

"Now," said Elladan, and began shepherding them toward the door.

Farahad peered around the frame, curious and awkward, only to be pushed out of the way by the exiting elves and the loudly complaining hobbits.

"And why exactly do they have to leave?" Sakura growled out, displeased with this turn of events.

Dammit she was finally getting her mind off things and actually starting to enjoy a bit of company and Aragorn was barging in and taking over and ruining it. Not to mention, she could hardly do another runner with the Ranger hanging about. Why couldn't he just leave well enough alone and adopt a bit of the twins' attitude? Their bargain was over, she'd filled her half, and they now had no more business to conclude. And that meant, once and for all, that she had absolutely no obligation to as he said anymore.

She was about to tell him as much, too, but one looked at the gaunt, haunted look in his eyes stopped her. It occurred to Sakura all of a sudden, that underneath the underneath something was very wrong…and just this once she might benefit from sitting still obediently and listening. For a moment she felt a wild impulsion to run from Aragorn and whatever ill news he brought with him – she could almost feel the wind on her face as she leapt from the window and took to the trees… -but she shook it off violently. Quite apart from the churning of her conscience she didn't have the power to do it anymore. That sort of manoeuvre required chakra, after all. She swallowed down the bile that rose in her throat, and squashed back the sudden wetness of her eyes.

Dammit she would not become an emotional train-wreck at the drop of a hat! That didn't help anyone.

He did not answer her question. He did not even turn to properly face her until he was certain that all had left the room. Then:

"Tell me the truth Sakura."

It was not a request. It was not even an order: it was a demand. It was also deplorably vague, and though Sakura could make a pretty well-educated guess she was not about to let him off that easy.

"And what truth would that be? If you are going to demand answers of me at least have the decency to afford me clarity," she crossed her arms and turned her nose up at him. Admittedly, pulling a sulky-teenage-smartass manoeuvre like that was unlikely to alter his treatment of her as a child, but Sakura was getting very, very tired of Aragorn's bossiness. He frustratedly ran a hand through his hair, hissing when his fingers caught and yanked a clump out.

She stared him down unsympathetically, debating whether or not to forego her earlier decision and give him, essentially, the 'you're not boss of me' line anyway. He hadn't even started with a "Hello Sakura" let alone actual courtesy.

If she'd been in a more forgiving state of mind, Sakura might have noticed that this was in and of itself a strange and rare occurrence for the usually mild mannered and well-spoken Ranger – an indication of his agitation. At present however, she was hard pressed not to petulantly stick her tongue out at him and simply refuse to tell him anything. But she couldn't deny that the haggard look to his face wasn't bothersome…one might even say worrying.

He took to pacing the room and abruptly changed tack; a tactic he'd used before when she was being difficult.

"Shall I guess then?" he asked in her general direction, but steam-rollered on over any reply she might have made. "You may correct me when I am incorrect."

Sakura's eyes narrowed, remembering the sharp-eyed way he'd examined the river-bank, and suddenly wished she'd made an excuse to use the bathroom earlier while the getting was still good and retrieved the ring…or at least moved it somewhere else. He took her silence for acquiescence – or the closest thing to it he was likely to get.

"You successfully reached the shores of the Bruinen and got Frodo safely to the other side. Arwen flooded the canyon and you insured that all the wraiths fell prey to it, even to the point of dragging one into the water yourself."

Momentary pause.

Raised Eyebrow; terse nod. Nothing he couldn't have found out from a quick chat with Arwen.

He continued. "At some point you were able to emerge from the River, however at that point or at another location along the riverbank you entered a physical fight with one of the Nazgul, not unlike that we participated in atop Weathertop." This time he didn't pause longer than a breath; his eyes gauged her reaction. "It came to blows. You were able to fend it off, but were eventually forced to draw a weapon. You came into close enough proximity that it was able to stab you," he briefly indicated her right elbow. "In return, you cut off one of its fingers."

This time, Sakura's hesitance was marked. But even a civilian could see that Aragorn would not believe a shaken head now. This part he knew for a fact – everything in his tone and posture said so. Her mouth tightened. That must have been what he'd seen, when his attention had been miraculously caught before he'd seen the wraith's ring in her hand. She nodded, tortoise-slow. He faced her, expression grave but face open.

"This is where I need you to fill in the blanks Sakura," he told her solemnly.

But Sakura hesitated and was silent. How could she tell him that the power and strength he'd admired in her were gone? She could barely acknowledge it to herself. Already, he treated her differently, like she was fragile, what would it be if he knew the full extent of it? She looked into his eyes – the eyes of a good man – and unperceptively flinched.

How could she admit to taking –hiding- something like the wraith ring from him? To having gone out of her way to do so? She might not know a lot about Middle Earth, but everything she'd been told pointed to anything like that being bad news.

And if she did tell him…would he believe her? What would it mean for her?

Aragorn let out a noise of frustration, once more pacing and pulling at the ends of his hair. Finally he lost his last shred of patience, and with it, any compulsion to spare her feelings.

"You've lost your power," he stated bluntly. The whiplash flinch and the expression of outright agony crossed her features before she could get a hold on herself. Her eyes were wide and fearful when she looked at him. He waved his hands agitatedly, as if gesturing to an invisible audience. "Not weeks ago, I saw you lift a man bodily off his feet, and not a small man either, and yet you allow three elves to wrestle you to the bed? I have seen you break the ground with your bare fists and you do not use the same method to free yourself, even when you make no secret of your opposition to being bound? Why?" He stared her down, his eyes alight with confirmed belief. She set her shoulders and raised her chin, defiant to the end. He answered his own question in any case.

"Not because you will not," he said quietly, "but because you cannot."

The silence hung in the room and grew thick, fed by tension, stress, and grim conviction. The silence took on a weight of its own, filling each corner and pressing down on the occupants of the room, 'til Sakura's very throat seemed to grow heavy and constricted, choking down her words. This was the sort of silence that could not be cut with a knife: it needed a guillotine.

Her fists clenched and unclenched rhythmically. Aragorn took note that her bandages stayed fresh and unmarked by the motion, and put it to the back of his mind to discuss later. He dared not press her more, but this was a conversation too long avoided. If she did not say something soon…

"No," she said at last in a voice so small she may almost have not said it at all. "I cannot." Her shoulders started to shake, and without thinking he took two strides across the room, and would have embraced her in comfort if her head had not snapped up with a furious glare. She reminded him in that moment of a cornered animal, fierce with fear, and he stopped dead. Her head rose higher. "I cannot," she said again in a stronger voice, thick with bitterness. "Is that what you wanted to hear?"

But she found she couldn't face the all-consuming pity in his eyes and turned to the wall, her expression growing cold as she hid once more behind the mask of a ninja.

"What did it do to you Sakura?"

Unthinkingly her hand found her bandaged arm and gripped it tight.

"Wrong question," she managed, hoarsely. The dread grew.

"What…did you do to it, Sakura?"

He wasn't expecting the despairing, defeated gaze when it once more swung to him. She looked as if she already expected the worst sort of reaction from him.

"I destroyed it."

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Sixth day of Hobbits' stay in Rivendell: Late

"Destroyed it!"

Glorfindel gaped unattractively. He'd have ridiculed the notion if not for the decidedly serious expressions on their faces. Sakura nodded.

"Do you remember…" she started hesitantly, "I told you about chakra?"

"You told me it was gone," Glorfindel stated, looking confused, "though what it has to do with-"

"-It has everything to do with it." She interrupted, but the malice behind her words was gone. "Chakra is…an energy. A life energy, that people like me harness and use. It's how I fight, how I heal…If everything else of me was stripped away, that's what would be left. I thought maybe a Ringwraith might be something similar," here she laughed bitterly, "it's not like I had anything to lose at the time – or so I thought. There is a technique we use in healing to perform complex surgeries" – Aragorn looked a little ill, but Glorfindel looked exceedingly interested. Sakura looked at the floor- "it creates a scalpel – very thin knife – out of chakra. It's sharper and thinner than anything even an elf could make with their bare hands. That's what I used to cut off the wraith's fingers – I thought maybe if I separated it from its ring maybe it would be more susceptible to attack. It worked, and I used the remainder of my chakra to charge my fist, enhancing my physical strength. I was going to hit it, with the aim to incapacitate, but the armour of its breastplate was dented and weak, and my hand went right through."

Two sets of eyes zeroed in on her bandaged left arm. She rubbed it self-consciously.

"My chakra discharged erratically. It more or less ripped the thing apart from the inside."

"What happened to the ring?"

Sakura's eye snapped to Aragorn. Was it her or was there something…accusatory in the question?

'I found it,' her brain confessed.

"I have no idea," her mouth replied of its own accord, smooth and unwavering in its lie.

'It's under the bathroom floor!' Brain cried.

"I don't have it." Her traitorous body backed up her treacherous mouth with an innocent shrug.

Aragorn's eyes narrowed briefly, examining her own, before he let it go with a trusting nod and a gentle, reassuring squeeze of her shoulder. She felt like someone had just crushed all of the air out of her lungs. He was just going to take her at her word?

"Your chakra; what of it now?" Glorfindel asked; brows knit in consternation as he unknowingly broke into her mental dialogue. He was just going to let that go?

"Present but unusable," she summarised shortly.

Glorfindel met the eyes of Aragorn. This was…heavy news. On the one hand, Sakura was a hero of the highest kind. She had done what no other before her had done. But what that meant for her…

"Your arm," Glorfindel began, "is the one that was inside the Ringwraith when it…died?" It wasn't the right word, but his mind was such a muddle that he could think of no other. A nod was his only answer. His fingers began drumming on his forearms as he considered this.

"Then we have three variables: your arm, your 'chakra' energy, and whatever dark force makes up the wraith under the armour." He began to move: three strides toward the window, three back. "Logically, we must conclude that the damage to the first variable resulted from the second or third."

Sakura wrinkled her nose at her arm being called a 'variable' like she was nothing more than a science experiment, but she sighed and applied her brain to the equation. She didn't have that wide forehead for nothing – there was a damn big brain behind it and it was high time she used it.

"Chakra backlash is a possibility – it's rare, but it's been known to cause damage to chakra pathways in severe cases," she rubbed her arm despondently, "but it has never been documented as producing an effect like this." She raised her left arm half off the bed to illustrate the point.

Aragorn seemed to be looking at it from a different angle.

"How does chakra," he hesitated a little over the strange word, "discharge?"

Sakura spread the fingers of her right hand and held it aloft to show him. "Through the pores of the skin; infinitesimally small vents that cannot be easily seen with the naked eye, unless you know what to look for…"

"And, once discharged, can you…bring it back?" He ruefully put a hand to his head, searching for the right phrase, "…re-absorb it?"

"It requires training, but yes in theory, as long as you don't let go of it in the first place. It's a technique involved in many medical procedures; trainable but difficult to learn."

Glorfindel stopped pacing, drawing level with Aragorn. Sakura looked uneasy.

"You don't think…?"

Aragorn sighed. At this point Sakura, I'm not sure any of us know what to think."

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Seventh day of Hobbits' stay in Rivendell: Early morning

It had not been easy to refrain, the night before as they sat theorising late into the night, but Glorfindel had insisted that his method be followed. Her arm had shown progress, left undisturbed to heal, and undisturbed it would stay for another day yet.

But even he could not quite restrain himself, and after a night of no sleep, much pondering and endless tossing and turning, he rose with a new determination. This was not something that they could sit on.

So it was that the sun had barely graced the sky – twelve hours had scarce passed – that Glorfindel approached Sakura's room with the unmistakeable tools: a pair of scissors and a bucket. Aragorn would not be present – she knew he'd left the vale to search for the missing ring, though without much hope of success.

The pair held their collective breath as the bandages were unwound. He began at the shoulder, gently pulling the pins from the fabric and dropping them carelessly into the basin on the stand. His nimble fingers plucked the tucked end from its place beneath the fold and tugged carefully. The fabric peeled slowly away from the lower lengths of linen, the fibres clinging to one another from being so long in the same place. The end was frayed, and the healer made a noise of irritation in the back of his throat as his fingers slipped, the ends unravelling in a spiderweb of strings before he could correct his grip.

It was possibly the tensest unwrapping in the history of healing.

Both were quiet; Glorfindel in his concentration and Sakura in her apprehension. The bandages were unwound loop by loop, Glorfindel making smart work of undoing them to her wrist. He hooked a finger under the second layer of binding, loosening the bandage like one might loosen the laces on a sports shoe. That done he peeled the remainder off of her arm like a sleeve, from shoulder to fingertips, and let it drop onto the floor.

Sakura's breath stopped. Glorfindel was hard pressed to stifle his gasp. Both looked in astonished horror.

Slowly, her fingers shaking, Sakura lifted her left hand to eye level. She swallowed, feeling bile rise in her throat and nausea threaten to overcome her. Morbid fascination had her experimentally wiggle her fingers – they wiggled – but the feeling she got from them was less sensory than it was…awareness. The true sense of touch was muted and almost completely stifled. Glorfindel shuddered slightly as the movement redirected the light, and it seemed to shine right through her flesh.

Sakura's skin had become so pale and deathly white as to be nearly translucent. The growing light from the window, such as it was, shone through, showing without mistake the silhouette of her bones, the pale light shining through the spaces of her joints. The bones were obscured only by the bright blue and deep red of her veins and arteries, clearly visible in their path down her arms and the faint weave of their interlocking webs where they became venules and capillary beds within her washed-out, ghostly flesh and muscle. She watched, with sick captivation, the rhythmic pulsing of her arteries that marked her own heartbeat.

Here and there a blue glow seemed to flicker in her skin, and it was with despair that Sakura recognised the fragmented and broken litter of what were once her chakra pathways, still sparking with the energy that simmer and flashed under her skin, but utterly disconnected and useless. She doubted Glorfindel would see it, chakra was something one had to train oneself to see, and short of a Hyuuga it took years for most Medi-nin to master.

The word that came to her mind was completely irrational; not even a medical term, the word was wholly inadequate description for what she saw. But she could think of nothing else in the current moment that might describe it more accurately.

'I…have a zombie arm,' went the numb thought in her head.

Glorfindel's face was grim as their eyes met. Wordlessly he reached out to take her fingers and flex them. The skin was smooth and bent like rubber over her knuckles, and he shivered slightly at the unnatural coolness of her hand, a few degrees below that of the rest of her body. Sakura too, ran her free fingers along the back of her hand, startled and confused to realise that the fine pink hair that normally covered her skin was absent entirely – there was not a follicle of body hair in that flesh. The condition ran from her hand to half-way up her upper arm. There, the whiteness began to darken to a pale pink and eventually to the normal tone of her skin, but the flesh was lacking moisture there and felt dry and rough to the touch.

Glorfindel turned her arm this way and that, examining the condition with a troubled frown. She watched him dully, and when their eyes met again he didn't need to tell her that he didn't know what this condition was.

"Sakura," he said softly, the gentlest tone she'd ever heard from him. "You must tell Gandalf."

Her lips tightened and she pulled her arm away. He didn't resist, merely letting her wrist and fingers slide out of his grasp. She cradled her arm to her chest like an injured animal. And then, abruptly, she brought it fist down onto the side table with a resounding slam. The pitcher and basin rattled with the force of it.

"I can still use it," she said; grimly determined. "I may not be able to feel much, but I can move it. I can use it, and I think we both know that from now on this is the best it's likely to be, no?"

Glorfindel suppressed a sigh.

"Wrap it up again," she ordered quietly. "Nobody needs to see that."

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What's this? Explanation…? Answers…? Chapters of remarkable length…?

Surely not.

All new, never before seen content.

Just shy of 10,000 words in a single chapter. Don't get used to it.

Also, kudos and free cookies to the couple of scarily psychic reviewers that guessed very, very close, if not perfectly. Either I need to be less obvious or you guys are just scarily accurate O.o

~Devi1OnUrShou1der~