The sun set on the horizon, casting the path and the buildings into brazen shades of gold. Despite the beauty of the scene before her, however, Sakura was otherwise occupied.
Hours had passed since the retrieval squad had departed. And though she had long wiped away those tears and had even managed to finish the grocery errands her mother had rudely barked at her on her way out (didn’t she care that Sakura was absolutely miserable?), she could no longer ignore the sinking feeling in her stomach that had been present all afternoon.
Weak, the Voice snarled in her head. Weak, weak, weak!
Since the events of a few hours earlier, the Voice—that insidious force that had helped Sakura shove Ino out during the Chunin exams—had been unusually active. And while she was no stranger to it whispering outrageous things, it had never been this vocal.
Righteous indignation alone kept her back straight as she continued her trip back home. Weak? Sakura had done absolutely nothing wrong; she had tried convincing Sasuke with her deep love for him, and when that had failed, there had been no other option. She couldn’t hurt the boy she liked, kunoichi or not.
Fighting and scars and blood had never interested her beyond what was minimally required to beat Ino. It was because of Ino, really, that she had decided to become a kunoichi in the first place. Sakura couldn't really remember ever having had conscious preoccupations with the shinobi lifestyle until meeting her. In the name of competition, nonetheless, she had risen to the top in their academics tests. With regard to taijutu and the more physical aspects of their training, though...well, she had more or less resigned herself to letting Ino take the prize--not unlike how she was content now to let Naruto take up the mantle of bringing Sasuke back.
Sakura couldn’t let her muscles get too big, after all. She couldn’t let her body get scarred, because that’s not what a lady was supposed to look like. Brawling and getting dirty were all well and good for boys, but a decent girl simply didn't demean herself like that. She was happy, in fact, to let Ino win in that particular arena. Incidentally, her mother had made her peace with Sakura’s lifestyle with compromises like these, and her father--a civilian merchant--had yet to say anything otherwise.
And who needed taijutsu anyway? Sakura was good at being a kunoichi. Her Academy teachers told her so. She had about an average amount of chakra, they said, but she also had excellent chakra control, which would make her a good medic-nin if she ever chose it—
Why don’t you make your precious Sasuke-kun bleed yourself? Pretty, pretty blood, I bet he has.
Sakura paled in revulsion at the Voice’s words. “You are violent and crazy!” For as far as she could see, the road was abandoned. Still, she lowered her voice. “I would never do that to Sasuke-kun—or anybody!”
You’re not going to be able to keep me locked away forever.
Oh, yes she was, Sakura thought vehemently to herself.
Her toes stubbed against a rock in her path, and she heard a tearing sound below her. Scowling downwards, she saw that her sandal had gotten caught and torn. She bent to her knees to try and fix the sandal. If she could grab that loose end and make a make-shift knot over here…
The milk bottle lay forgotten at her side, attention devoted to the sandal she was attempting to salvage. The sooner she fixed it, the sooner she could make the rest of the trip home and spend the rest of the evening crying into her pillow. Biting her lip, she grabbed both ends and stretched them toward each other to tie.
She paused when she heard footsteps.
“What’s that?” Sakura whispered, heart pulsing rapidly in her chest. Fingers shaking, she stood up from her kneeling position.
Years later, Sakura would think back to that night. She would think, mainly, about how quickly it all happened—how protracted build ups and prolonged suspense were attributes of stories and kabuki, not real life.
Because in real life, Sakura encountered none of those things.
“Look what we have here.”
From the park’s bushes on either side of her stepped three grown men. Civilians; they wore no hitai-ate. But they were lean and muscled, with a look in their eyes that made her hand go straight for her pouch. Her stomach churned when she realized that she had left it at home.
“Pink hair,” one of them rasped, inching closer. “That’s rare, isn’t it?”
“What do you want?” Sakura demanded. Her mind fumbled to understand what was happening before her. She had walked this path so many times without a problem. Why now?
The third man stepped forward. By the way the other two gave way for them, it appeared that he was the leader. He was the biggest of the three, with black hair and wide, dark eyes.
“I’m a ninja,” Sakura warned. “Don’t come any closer.”
“Really?” the third man drawled, white teeth flashing. “Don’t look it.”
Sakura’s heart plunged into her stomach. No Kunai or shuriken. If they stepped closer, she would—she would have to fight them hand-to-hand.
When the first man laughed nastily and made a grab for her waist, Sakura darted back. She saw the second man move from behind her, but wasn’t fast enough to avoid it. He fisted her hair, thick, calloused hands scraping and drawing blood from her scalp to restrain her.
Sakura twisted—ignoring the sharp pain of hair being ripped from her scalp—to send one leg flying high. Her foot landed squarely on his face, but her strength must have been nothing compared to his mass, and he only staggered back.
“You little bitch,” he snarled. Lunging forward, he punched her right in the stomach. Sakura’s mind went blank with the pain. Thick, cloying liquid dribbled from her mouth.
No. No. This couldn't be happening. Everything had just been so--
“Don’t damage the organs,” the third man hissed. She felt his hands wrap around her arms.
Organ traffickers, she processed in terror. Beginning to cry now, she scrabbled wildly against him, nails flying like claws as she searched for his face. She heard him curse behind her when her nails raked against his cheek. Another hand reached his eyes, and he dropped her reflexively.
When the next came at her, she was more prepared. She feinted to the side like she had been trained at the academy and lashed out with one hand, pushing fingers through his eyeballs and into his head. He released a scream and crumpled to his knees.
One down, the Voice growled in her head, Two more.
But unlike the first, the second man managed to catch her arms. The third man grabbed her legs, neutralizing their maneuverability as easily as the man holding her arms.
“Get off!” Sakura screamed.
“You’ve been more trouble than I anticipated,” the third man chuckled darkly.
She felt the man behind her bend down, sniffing her hair and grunting at the scent of her shampoo. “Hey, she smells good…What do you think?”
“I think it’s only fair compensation, given what she’s done to our friend over there.”
Sakura’s eyes flew open in primal panic at the implication laden in their tone. Wilder than ever, she raged against their hold on her. She could no longer see through the tears in her eyes, the world a blur. Why couldn’t she fight them? Why wouldn’t Sasuke-kun help her?
She felt hands begin tearing at her clothes, and she screamed, loud and high. “No, no, no…let go! Please, please, help! Sasuke-kun!”
He’s not here, the Voice roared.
“Help—help me,” Sakura choked out, limbs twisting, “Kakashi-sensei! Kakashi-sensei!”
They’re not here, Sakura-chan, the Voice told her remorselessly, mockingly. Sakura stilled at the Voice, suddenly numb to the hands at the Voice’s unbelievable coldness. Without warning, it was like her consciousness had been transported to another plane, where it was only her and the Voice. A colder, monstrous version of herself with sharp teeth and terrifying eyes gazed back at her in her mind’s eye, smiling slightly. The creature’s mouth opened:
If you want this to stop—
Sakura’s jaw tightened, breath heaving.
—LET ME OUT!
It was a deafening, primal roar, so guttural that she could feel its force vibrate through her bones.
After that, Sakura knew only darkness.