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春 一

28, March, 1000

It’s Sakura’s birthday and she’s disposing of a body.

The move up to the Northern Hideout brought with it a change in scenery, climate, and altitude. It’s also introduced a different class of rote, mind-numbing busywork. Sakura has been reduced to a glorified zookeeper, going from cage to cage in the ever-expanding grid of iron and stone halls, feeding the living prisoners and cleaning the cells of the deceased. That, of course, involves removing corpses. It’s inefficient to lug whole bodies all the way back to the labs, so Kabuto and Orochimaru have devised a system that’s somehow much more gruesome.

Kabuto’s instructions read almost like a recipe: Take samples of the hair, blood, and skin. Remove the list of organs tattooed on the small of the prisoner’s back. Remove the prisoner’s hands. Remove the prisoner’s clothes and burn them. Separate the head, torso, arms, and legs. Cut the torso and each limb in half. Douse the parts in oil. Set fire to the parts without using chakra. Drop the parts down the chute to The Pit once they’ve finished burning. Rinse and repeat.

The first time she’d dissected and dismembered a corpse, Sakura had vomited in the corner of the room and sobbed into the sleeves of her hand-me-down yukata. The fifth time, she’d gotten sick enough of mopping up her own vomit that she forced her gag reflex to cooperate and cried quietly as she worked. Now, the twenty-fifth time, Sakura’s eyes are half-lidded and she’s listlessly going through the motions. Apparently a shinobi really can get used to anything for the sake of the mission.

Sakura wheels two carts behind her through the halls, one filled with dozens of identical bento boxes and the other with refrigerated cases to hold the organs and samples. She’s tucked her scalpels into her weapons pouch on her thigh and shoved the bone saw into her obi, staining it red. The ring of cell keys jangles around her wrist like an oversized bracelet. Sakura’s sense of humor is wearing down like a shoreline enduring eons of tides, because she’s starting to wonder what would happen if she switched one of the bento boxes with one of the sample cases, and every ghoulish image her brain is concocting just makes her snicker all the harder.

Sakura shoves a burst of chakra into her feet and picks up the pace. She needs to get out of this hideout and get some fresh air or she’s going to completely lose her mind.

Her final stop breaks her out of her pattern. This cell has a grand total of seven locks, five on the door and two securing a pair of flimsy chains across it. Sakura’s brow immediately furrows. The locks aren’t her concern. The chains are completely out of place. They aren’t reinforced with chakra or connected to any kind of seal. These chains wouldn’t stand up to an enterprising bicycle thief, let alone a shinobi. They’re pure security theater, but for whom, Sakura has no idea.

She frowns as she undoes the five locks on the door. Information is worth more than gold right now. Time to get digging.

Sakura follows standard procedure, opening the door six inches and pushing her hair out of her eyes as she peers inside. There’s a young man curled in the far corner directly across from the door. The fluorescent light catches on his bright orange hair and brings attention to the rise and fall of his broad, muscular shoulders. Sakura’s eyes trace down his body and stop at a big, ugly cuff around his ankle made from black iron. The cuff trickles down into a chain connected to an iron ball twice the size of her head.

Before Sakura can start making inferences, the prisoner’s head tilts to reveal one burnt red eye, staring directly at her. She freezes.

His brow furrows, and in a deep voice he murmurs, "Kimimaro? Is that you?"

Sakura bites the inside of her lower lip. Backlit and from a distance she probably does look a bit like Kimimaro, doesn’t she? The Sound uniform and all the weight she’s lost certainly don’t help. She’ll have to approach this delicately–

The young man’s eye suddenly goes wide and his voice drops into a snarl; "No, you’re… You’re a stranger. You’re a girl. You’re not him."

It happens so fast Sakura almost doesn’t see it. The young man leaps to his feet with a swiftness belied by his tall, robust frame. Black splotches ooze across his skin like a slime mold. His right arm and leg change, flesh shifting and growing to form a long grasping claw and some kind of vent on the back of his calf. There’s a burst of chakra from the vent. The young man comes rocketing across the cell, claw grabbing for her face.

Sakura’s curse mark flares painfully to life. She channels cursed chakra into her arms and shoulder checks the heavy steel door. She slams it down on the young man’s wrist and pins it in place. He swipes at her with his claws and she watches the keratin rearrange itself, creating serrations. The claws scrape against the metal, drawing sparks that dance in the glow from the young man’s one gold eye.

He growls like an animal, "Another copy, and a bad one too! I’ll shred you into tiny pieces, until you’re just lean meat!"

Sakura grits her teeth and thinks as fast as she can. Whatever’s wrong with him has to do with the curse mark, release of adrenaline and chakra can make the curse mark activate on it’s own, if she can trick his adrenal glands into thinking the threat is gone that will at least shut off the flow of cursed chakra. It’s the best plan she can come up with on such short notice, so it’s what she’s going with.

Orochimaru’s voice plays in her head and her skin crawls as she reverse engineers a genjutsu he taught her, meant to trick the Fight or Flight response into making the body freeze in response to imaginary danger. If it can be used to make the body think there’s danger, it can be used to make it think the danger’s gone. Orochimaru could do it in an instant. Sakura’s going to need a few seconds she may not have.

Sakura weaves her fine net of Yin chakra, shouting to keep the young man’s attention, "Calm down! I’m not going to hurt you–!"

The door rocks against her hold, straining against the flimsy chains; "You won’t get the chance! I’m gonna hurt you, gonna make you scream and cry and beg and then I’ll kill you!"

Sakura grits her teeth, focus split between the genjutsu, holding the door, and her distraction; "Just listen to me! I’m not a threat, you don’t need to kill me, just calm down and we can talk!"

For a split second, Sakura lets herself throw all her focus into the genjutsu. The young man lurches against the door, shoving his whole head and shoulders out through the crack and lunging for her with his claw. Sakura weaves the finishing threads of chakra around his mind and slams her hands into the tiger sign.

The net closes.

His hand stops an inch from her throat.

The young man’s breathing starts to slow. His claws go still, his pupils dilate, his shoulders sink down from up around his ears. The transformed areas of his body don’t recede, not right away, and Sakura gets dangerously close to panicking before the young man takes a deep breath. On the exhale, the muddy gray skin fades to it’s normal pallor and his limbs twist back into a standard arm and leg. Sakura lets her brow furrow. Either he has better control over the curse mark than she thought, or his mark works differently than hers.

Information is worth more than gold.

The young man shrinks away from the door, pulling it almost all the way closed. He peeks out at her through a gap an inch wide, his eye locked on her in something like awe. Sakura takes a few deep breaths of her own and draws the cursed chakra back into the mark. He’s not the only one who needs to calm down.

He whispers in a shaking voice, "How did you do that?"

Sakura shrugs one shoulder, her lips quirking up at one corner into the best smile she can manage; "Genjutsu. Nothing harmful, I promise. It’ll wear off on it’s own after about an hour."

He blinks slowly, his voice coming out in a crawl; "Who are you?"

"Sakura Haruno, Lord Orochimaru and Kabuto’s research assistant," she replies, bowing slightly at the shoulder, "I briefly met Kimimaro when I joined. Were you two friends?"

The young man’s fingers tense on the door; "He’s my friend. He is… He was the only person who could calm me down, he’s the reason I’m here… Did the illness finally take him?"

Sakura runs her hand through her bangs with a sigh, "I honestly don’t know. Kimimaro helped me get to Sound, some six months back. I was being chased, he let me know how to find the main hideout and stayed behind to fight my… my pursuers. Either they killed him or the illness did."

The young man’s eyes rest on her feet for a few moments before he shakes his head; "No. He never wanted to waste away. He went down fighting…"

His eyes slowly travel up to meet hers; "… Fighting for you… Why?"

Sakura presses her lips into a thin line. Kimimaro didn’t die for her. He died for Orochimaru. He died for the body Orochimaru would one day inhabit. He died secure in the knowledge that he’d helped prolong his master’s life when Sakura’s only goal was to cut it short.

Sakura has two options. Either she licks Orochimaru’s boots or she puts traitorous words in a dead man’s mouth. She lets her eyes roam around the hallway, feeling with her chakra for hidden cameras and wiretaps. There are two cameras facing the door and one in the young man’s cell. Sakura bites the inside of her cheek– genjutsu can trick whoever’s on the other end of a camera a lot better than the machine itself, and she doesn’t know any Lightning style techniques that could fry the systems, even temporarily.

So she smiles at the young man and deflects, "He and I believed in the same thing. Well, introductions are a two way street– What’s your name?"

The young man’s eyes dart from her to the chains and back again; "I… My name is Jūgo. Please, do whatever you came to do and go. When your genjutsu wears off I might try to kill you again, and I don’t want to kill you. Especially not if you were important to Kimimaro."

It clicks like a lock in Sakura’s mind exactly who these chains on the door are meant to reassure.

Sakura frowns as she grabs one of the bento; "Is that why you’re here? To keep you from hurting people?"

Jūgo nods; "Orochimaru and I have a… a deal, I guess. He keeps me contained and I let him experiment on me."

Sakura has so many questions and each and every one of them would be way too incriminating and invasive for a first meeting. This isn’t like Suigetsu. The last thing in the world this guy wants is to leave. She’s going to have to become his friend before he becomes her ally.

Sakura strategically pushes her bangs out of her eyes and speaks a piece of her mind; "That’s a shame. You shouldn’t have to resort to something this drastic to get help."

Jūgo twitches a shoulder in a shrug; "Nothing else has worked. At least, not for longer than an hour."

Sakura hands him the bento and replies brightly, "Well, while I’m around I’ll do my best to keep you calm. Here’s your dinner," she leans in with a grin and pitches her voice down into a whisper, "Let me know if there’s anything you want me to sneak into yours next time."

Jūgo tentatively opens the flimsy plastic bento, trying and failing to hide how his nose wrinkles at the rice and canned pork. Sakura winces in solidarity with him. The only fresh and plentiful food they have in the hideouts is rice, thanks to the Land of Sound formerly being the Land of Rice Paddies. Everything else is canned, dehydrated, or modified in ways Sakura isn’t willing to mess with.

She’s so busy thinking about eating a real, home-cooked meal that Sakura near misses Jūgo mumbling, "Beef is probably too much to ask for… Too expensive… But maybe sardines…"

Sakura grins and steps back from the door; "That I can definitely do. See you tomorrow, Jūgo."

Sakura shuts the door, locks all five locks, and heads for fresh air.

9, April, 1000

The cherry blossoms are in full bloom as Hakumei sips her coffee and watches Sasuke somersault out of the way of another boulder. Her intern, a main house kid by name of Taiyō, is staring wide-eyed at the action two floors below. If he were any more engrossed (or three years younger) his face would be pressed right to the window. Hakumei can’t exactly blame him. Watching a fully matured Sharingan at work is always a trip, one way or another.

He glances over his shoulder at her, agog; "Do they do this every day?"

"You should’ve been here last week," Hakumei replies, deadpan, "She was making him dodge arquebus bullets."

And down to the floor goes Taiyō’s jaw.

"Don’t be too impressed," Hakumei remarks around another sip, "Like I said, he was dodging bullets last week. He’s supposed to be breaking those boulders now."

Taiyō stares at her like she’s grown a second head; "The Fifth Hokage is teaching the last Uchiha how to break boulders and you’re telling me I shouldn’t be impressed."

"Yeah, because you should be doing my paperwork," Hakumei shoots back, "Hop to it, little cricket."

"One time, I ate a bug one time when I was seven and no one in this clan will let me live it down," Taiyō grumbles.

He plops back down across the table from Hakumei, getting back to filling out medication orders and discharge papers with a running commentary of whispered bitching. He activates his Byakugan and Hakumei rolls her eyes. If he wants to make himself sick trying to focus on two things at once that’s his mistake to make. It’s a Hyuuga rite of passage at this point.

Hakumei’s eyes move in lazy arcs, tracking the motion of the boulders Tsunade throws and Sasuke ducking out of the way of them at the last possible second like it’s a giant game of chicken. They’re coming faster and faster now. It’s turning into a veritable meteor shower out there. The kid is fast, but he’s not omniscient. And Tsunade’s never lost a game of chicken in her life. Something’s gonna give in three… two…

One of the boulders slams right into Sasuke and sends him flying into the nearby trees.

"Aaaannnd one," Hakumei mutters.

Taiyō winces hard; "Is he gonna be alright?"

"Could be, could not be," Hakumei replies with a loose shrug, "Why do you think Tsunade trains him next to the hospital?"

Taiyō nods to himself; "Yeah, yeah actually that tracks."

Hakumei props up her chin, eyes following the distant figure of Tsunade as she stomps over to Sasuke and peels him off a tree that’s buckled nearly in half. She doesn’t need to see her face to know she’s scolding him. She has her hands on her hips and is tapping her foot like she always would when Jiraiya was being an idiot or Orochimaru was being stuck up. Sasuke is dusting himself off, scowling at the grass.

After a few moments his head whips up and he’s snapping something back at Tsunade. Hakumei arches a brow– the kid must be either brave or stupid to mouth off to the Fifth Hokage. Probably the usual, unstable, Uchiha cocktail of both. Sasuke and Tsunade’s voices slowly rise to the point where Hakumei can faintly hear them through the glass. She thinks she picks out the words 'brat', 'pissant', and 'shove my foot so far up your ass'. Standard Tsunade vocabulary.

Taiyō frowns; "What are they doing now?"

"Screaming at each other, by the sound of it," Hakumei replies, "And after about five more seconds of this Sasuke’s gonna go storming off and Tsunade’s gonna uproot one of those trees."

Taiyō grimaces; "Do they do this every day?"

"No," Hakumei grouses, "This is a new one. But the kid’s a testy teenager, it was gonna happen eventually."

Like clockwork, Sasuke storms off in a random direction and Tsunade watches him go for a few seconds before turning and roundhouse kicking an oak tree right out of the ground. Hakumei rolls her eyes, sets her coffee down on the table, and opens the window.

"I’m taking a walk," Hakumei says, already halfway out the window, "Those better all be done when I get back."

Taiyō glares at her back; "You’re the worst. You’re the complete, absolute worst."

Hakumei smirks over her shoulder at him; "Don’t I know it, Cricket."

She hops out the window, the sound of Taiyō yelping "ONE TIME!" quickly disappearing as she falls two stories, a burst of chakra from her feet cushioning her landing. She starts walking after Sasuke and whistles high and sharp to draw Tsunade’s attention.

Tsunade glances over at her and Hakumei calls across the grass, "Yo, Slug Queen! You need Good Cop or Bad Cop?"

Tsunade rubs at her temples with a groan of, "The kid’s a tangled mess, so… 'Not-Mad-Just-Disappointed' Cop?"

Hakumei shrugs; "I’ll give it a shot."

She strolls down the petal-littered street at a leisurely pace. The intermittent monsoons have been making the kid’s knee ache like an old veteran’s war wounds, there’s no way he got far. And far he did not get, since Hakumei finds him on the rocky bank of the Sōgyō River, ostensibly attempting to skip stones across it’s wide expanse but really just throwing rocks in it.

Hakumei puts her hands in her lab coat pockets and lets Sasuke chuck a few more stones before she remarks, "You’re gonna give some poor fish a concussion, kid."

"Go away," Sasuke snaps without even looking at her. He picks up another stone and throws it with an unnecessarily loud grunt. Hakumei forms the tiger seal and a gust of wind blows the rock back at Sasuke, hitting him in the center of the forehead.

"For an Uchiha you’ve got shit for manners," Hakumei remarks, heading down the bank to stand next to Sasuke, "You back-talk like that in the Hyuuga house you’re getting fifty lashes with a bamboo switch."

Sasuke’s eyes flicker in recognition, but he stubbornly keeps his jaw clenched shut and refuses to look at her. Hakumei closes her eyes and pinches the bridge of her nose. Fuck’s sake, she gets enough of this from Neji. How did she let managing the emotions of teenage dirtbags leak into her professional life, too? Put another tally mark under 'Things Tsunade Owes Her For'. Alright, alright, take a breath. Sasuke and Neji are bizarrely similar, when Neji gets like this all he really wants is an excuse to rant about everything pissing him off. Time to bait the hook.

Hakumei’s hands go back to her coat pockets and she idly asks, "Training isn’t going well, huh?"

Sasuke shuts his eyes and takes a deep breath in. Hook, line, sinker.

His mouth opens and he’s off to the races; "There’s no point in learning that strength-enhancing technique! A medic’s supposed to never get hit, I’ve got that down! She trained me to be fast, Kakashi’s training me to be fast, I have all three tomoe, I know the chidori I’m working on the chakra scalpel I don’t need to punch someone’s head off their shoulders when I already know how to kill people in one strike! What’s the point?! If it’s really so important that I learn this why can’t I use my Sharingan and copy it from her?! We’re wasting time!"

Hakumei rolls her eyes; "So the genius prodigy actually has to work at something for once. My heart absolutely breaks for you, kid."

Sasuke proves himself the most easily baited person on the planet as he shoots back, "I’m fine with working, I’ve been breaking my back and losing hours of sleep learning basic medical ninjutsu, I’ve been living in the on-call room, I can handle that! I’d rather be doing that then learning some stupid technique I’m not gonna use! Tsunade won’t let me enter the Chunin Exams until she thinks I’m ready and I’m already ready, I was ready in January and I’ll be ready in July but she’s so obsessed with this dumb fucking strength technique thing that I’ll never be ready to her!"

Sasuke flops down into a crouch, rubbing at his left knee and scowling out at the river. His eyes track the cherry blossom petals drifting along it’s surface. He’s staring at them with enough heat to set them on fire.

Hakumei will give teenage boys one thing– they’re easy to read. The kid is going stir-crazy as a genin with no team and stewing in his own inadequacies as the rains and an entire season named after the girl who abandoned him only make it worse. Standard angst, easily untangled.

"If you want a couple of practical reasons why you need to be that strong," Hakumei remarks, looking for a flat stone to skip, "The first is that a field medic is gonna be paying the bills with disaster relief missions. You need to be able to remove any obstacle between you and the wounded yourself, because your team won’t always be there to do it for you."

Some of the tension drains from Sasuke’s shoulders. His eyes dart down to his feet. Kid’s definitely kicking himself for not considering non-combat applications of the technique.

"Reason the second," Hakumei continues, picking up a rock the perfect size and shape for skipping, "Is that incorporating fine-tuned chakra control-based techniques into combat conditions your muscle memory. If it’s not just something you whip out when you have to heal it’s easier to do on a moment’s notice. That’s not just Tsunade’s philosophy, that’s standard practice. For example, check this shit out."

Hakumei skips her stone. The moment after it hits the water Hakumei forms half a hand sign and sends a thin, concentrated gust of wind after the stone. It bounces the stone up, higher and higher, like it’s skipping through air. Once it’s ten feet up, Hakumei whips her fingers around in a circle. The wind cuts clean through the stone, dicing it up into a collection of tiny cubes before scattering it into the water. Sasuke’s eyes are wide, but his jaw still tightly shut– this time to keep it from dropping.

She puts her hands on her hips; "Any teacher worth her salt knows to play to her students’ strengths. Mine taught me ninjutsu, and kid, you take to taijutsu like a duck to water. You’re already blending Lee’s style, our style, and your medical knowledge to hit soft spots and hit them hard. It’d be a waste not to teach you how to punch people’s heads off their shoulders."

Sasuke lets out a sigh through his nose. He’s still not looking at her, but he’s traded in impotent rage for simple sullenness.

Hakumei turns to face him, steel in her eyes; "If you’re serious about being a medic, you need to leave this attitude problem of yours at the door. The enemy and the whims of fate don’t give two shits about your personal problems. If you break chain of command in the middle of a crisis because you’re pissed off that’s an entire mission down the drain. That’s lives lost, people hurt, and security compromised. But you already know that, don’t you?"

Sasuke nods, murmuring, "Yeah… Yeah I do."

"Good. Now," Hakumei grabs Sasuke by the back of the collar and yanks him up, "Go apologize to Tsunade and get back to work. Double-time, Uchiha!"

Sasuke glares at her, but there’s no fire in it. He turns on his heel and starts jogging back to the hospital, grumbling all the while under his breath about how all these crazy women in his life just can’t get enough of dragging him around by the collar and maybe he will stop wearing these shirts, it’d serve them right.

Hakumei allows herself a smirk, and follows casually behind, taking her sweet time. After all, Taiyō needs all the help he can get if he’s gonna be done with her paperwork by the time she’s back.

13, May, 1000

Sakura scuttles along the ceiling like a spider, eyes locked on her opponent. The young man, some poor unfortunate abducted from the Land of Grass, is still occupied with a swarm of illusory duplicates dancing circles around him on the floor. He shoots streams of acid from his palms, passing right through them and melting sections of the floor down through the soil. Orochimaru and Kabuto look on from the far wall, Kabuto vaguely focused on the action on the floor with the glazed eyes and slight frown of someone who has much better things to be doing while Orochimaru’s eyes have been flawlessly tracking her through her Greater Invisibility Jutsu.

She frowns and forms the ram seal– let’s make him work for it. Sakura sinks into the ceiling, sliding down through the concrete into the floor. She slides around him in wide circles, looking for the perfect opening to slip between her duplicates and strike. The second she sees one she starts darting in, but the young man flies through a few hand signs and stomps his heel against the stone. Rays of acidic chakra flare out across the ground, melting everything in their path. And one is coming right for Sakura.

Sakura swears under her breath and leaps up out of the ground. She throws that momentum into a back handspring, bouncing out of immediate danger. The young man’s eyes zero in on her between two of her duplicates. He charges at her, zooming through yet more hand signs before firing another gout of acid from his hands. Sakura bobs and weaves around the acid, strafing to the right and sending her duplicates whirling the opposite direction. He stays on her tail, focusing fire and chasing her down.

From the corner of her eye Sakura sees Orochimaru lean back against the wall, crossing his arms over his chest. She hates that she’s already gotten so used to picking apart his every move to try and divine anything about his mood. She hasn’t even gotten any good at it. If she had to guess, he’s getting bored.

To be fair, so is she.

She lets the young man keep her on the back step, kiting around the acid and running in a serpentine pattern to draw them both to the center of the room. She draws a kunai and it’s glint in the harsh white light immediately draws the young man’s eye. Hand seals flash and now he’s spitting acid right at her wrist. Sakura jerks her hand out of the way, getting clipped across the knuckles instead of losing her hand. The pain is still enough to make her drop the kunai in shock. He grabs it out of the air and stabs for her eye.

Sakura doesn’t have time for all the hand signs. She releases the valve on the curse mark, the cursed chakra exploding across her skin like water from a broken hydrant.

She slams her hands together into the hare sign and snarls, "Sensory Overload Justu!"

The young man’s eyes go wide, his pupils dilating to nearly fill the iris. He recoils with a scream, immediately covering his own ears. She knows what’s going on behind those gigantic pupils. The lights are now blindingly bright, every sound loud as a bullhorn, the feeling of his prisoner uniform against his skin is scratching at him like dozens of tiny claws. Sakura jukes backward and the young man tears his hands away from his ears.

With a snarl he starts blind-firing acid, and as she swerves around it Sakura glances from the corner of her eye to Orochimaru. He’s back up off the wall, but other than that, no hint of approval or disapproval.

Fine then, time to end this.

She drops the sensory overload jutsu, freeing up space in her mind for concentration. Sakura only needs to run through dog and snake now before her visible, tangible form blows away on an illusory breeze. The Binding Death Tree isn’t ideal for a wide open space like this with no backup, but that’s not what she needs it for. Before setting the tree she has a precious five seconds of being completely invisible and completely untouchable. It’s the only way she’ll survive long enough to find an opening in this acid rainstorm. Sakura prowls around her opponent, holding her breath. She watches for an opening, counting down the seconds.

Five… four… three… two… For a split second he whirls so his back is to her and he’s firing at the opposite wall. Now.

Sakura conjures the tree around him, imagining the feeling of bark biting into her skin and a thick, heavy tree trunk against her back. She merges with the image of the tree, kicking up the young man’s back and perching above his shoulders. She melts from the tree, pulling a senbon from the holster on her thigh as she locks an arm around his throat.

She raises the senbon and briefly meets Orochimaru’s eyes across the concrete expanse. She has her opponent immobilized, unable to make hand signs, and completely at her mercy. That would be proof enough of her skill anywhere else. But not here. Orochimaru arches a brow, cocking his head to one side in silent challenge.

Sakura looks down at the young man’s face. His features are still soft, his pulse races against her grip, his eyes dart between her and Orochimaru as they silently plead for his life.

Sakura purses her lips. She thrusts her senbon into the exact right spot on his throat. Just as Kabuto said it would be, the effect is instantaneous. The young man jerks once in her grip before sagging with a long wheeze. The tree dissolves into fog and Sakura lets the young man’s corpse crumple to the ground, stepping back. If she did it right, he didn’t feel a thing.

Sakura is drawn back to the world by the sound of clapping harmonizing with Orochimaru chuckling, "Very nice, little flower! It seems fluorescents have been doing you as much good as sunlight."

She straightens to meet his gaze, smiling deferentially in the face of his patronizing grin; "Thank you, sir."

If Orochimaru is anything more than amused, he doesn’t show it; "Kabuto can assist you with the clean-up. Once that’s through, report to Lab 114. I’ll give you further orders then."

Orochimaru turns on his heel and trots out of the room. Sakura stares after him, taking deep breaths through her nose, until Kabuto comes to a stop at her side. There’s only one body and neither one of them wants to test their field dissection skills, so Sakura takes the shoulders and Kabuto takes the legs. They wordlessly heft what had been a young man fighting desperately for his freedom only seconds ago up off the stone floor and make their way to the Mortuary Lab.

Kabuto breaks the silence; "You’re a quick study."

Sakura twitches a shoulder; "Lord Orochimaru is a good teacher."

Kabuto’s lips quirk up at the corner; "That’s not what I’m talking about."

Sakura forces herself to keep breathing easy, to focus on putting one foot in front of the other; "Oh?"

Kabuto nods; "You’ve learned the most important lesson Sound can teach you. That when you’re in the pits of Hell, a painless death is the greatest kindness you can give anyone stuck down there with you."