I am back. I still do not have a solid Beta, but as promised, here is a super long chapter :)

This will be the norm from now on.

Also, when I write for Madara, I tend to get a little mysterious.

Please pay attention to his sections. I don't come out right and say things, but his scenes are very important.

They hold A LOT of hidden meaning.

Hopefully, I can get this beta thing figured out *sigh*

Oh, well. ENJOY! :D Leave plenty of comments to let me know how you feel.


Chapter 15: "Ill take you to the top of this building and I'll push you off."

― You're Cute When You Scream by Senses Fail

Sunlight poured into the window of the tea shop, bathing the customers in a brilliant glow. Sakura set down her tea-cup and lifted a hand to block the light from her sensitive eyes. The weather was incredible. Yesterday, she'd trudged through the worst snow storm she'd ever seen. Today was a completely different story. It was still cold and snow still covered everything within the small town, but the sun shone brightly in a clear blue sky. Sakura scrunched up her nose, gazing through the window she sat beside to absently watch the comings and goings of the townspeople.


Sakura turned her attention to her companion with blatant disdain. Deidara slammed his cup down on the tiny table and the piece of furniture trembled from the force.

"Don't like your tea?" Sakura asked with disinterest.

"Tastes like shit," the blond commented.

Sakura suppressed the urge to roll her eyes and picked up her own cup. She brought the cup to her lip and, as she tilted it back, Sakura peered over at the target: Dato Amane. He seemed like a normal guy. He wore a formal suit and his black hair was cropped short with a streak of grey at his temples. His eyes were a soft shade of brown and danced around the room with mild interest. His laugh was light-hearted even though his companion's jokes were dull. He neither attracted attention nor hid in the shadows. He didn't outright scream, "I'm a shady arms dealer who works with terrorist groups!" If Sakura had seen him in the streets, she wouldn't have given him a second glance.

That made him all the more dangerous.

The girl lowered her tea-cup and looked at Deidara, who lounged in the seat across from her casually. One arm was draped over the top of the chair and the other rested on the table. Sakura dropped her hand on top of his, holding down her gag of displeasure. Deidara didn't play along quite so well.

"What are you doing?"

"Aren't we on a date?" Sakura placed emphasis on their code word.

Deidara had come back this morning to let Itachi and Sakura know that Dato had just left the hotel. Dato knew all too well who Itachi was so Deidara and Sakura were sent in to do a closer detail on the suspicious, yet not so suspicious, Dato character. Being with the blond for such a prolonged period reminded Sakura of their earlier mission together. The memory wasn't pleasant.

Deidara smirked without any mirth. "Don't get so comfortable."

Sakura wanted to flip the table over with frustration - Deidara had that effect on her. She squeezed his hand tighter than was necessary and forced a smile. Deidara hardly noticed and turned his face back to the window.

Dato's friend rose up from the table, shook Dato's hand, and promptly departed from the tea shop. Dato, however, didn't move from the table. The bell above the shop door jingled and Sakura turned to catch a glimpse of the new customer. There wasn't much Sakura could deduce about the woman; long wavy black hair hid most of the new arrival's face. From what Sakura could see, the woman was dressed in an odd style of clothing and was incredibly tall. Whoever she was, she immediately got a reaction from Deidara.

"Shit," the blond muttered under his breath, keeping his eyes glued to the window. He sat in his chair just as leisurely as before, but Sakura noticed a tension in the man's blue eyes. Deidara muttered something inaudible.

"What? Ex girlfriend?" Sakura jabbed as she eye-stalked the female newcomer.

Deidara snorted. "Aren't you cute."

"Well, do you know her?" Sakura asked impatiently as the girl sat down at Dato's table.

"I don't have to. I can tell from the way she walks where she's from."

"I didn't think you were so observatory," Sakura blurted, honestly surprised.

Deidara frowned, unamused by Sakura's comment. "Just shut up."

Dato extended his hand politely and the mystery girl ignored it. She dropped down in the chair across from Dato, draping her arm over the chair casually. The woman tilted her head to the side and her black hair parted slightly to reveal one brilliant blue eye lined with thick lashes.

"Could they be negotiating something?" Sakura murmured aloud, keeping her face turned toward Deidara to hide her interest in Dato's table. Oddly enough, neither of the suspicious targets spoke. They simply shared knowing gazes.

"I don't like this," Deidara whispered as the waitress came up beside him.

"Can I help you?" the worker asked cheerfully.

"Leave," Deidara demanded.

Sakura winced at the idiot's callous dismissal of the poor woman; she was just doing her job. Thoroughly annoyed, Sakura moved without thinking and smashed her foot into the leg of Deidara's chair. As expected, the chair tipped toward the table from the force and a look of surprise passed over the blond's face just before he face planted into the table. The ruckus made all eyes turn to them, but it bought Sakura an excuse to glance around, feigning embarrassment. She caught a glimpse of the mystery woman, who looked directly at the pinkette. Only half of the woman's face was exposed, but Sakura was positive that she saw the woman's lips tilt upward in a ghoulish smile. Dato seemed oblivious and stared at Deidara like everyone else in the room.

The waitress ran over to help clean up the mess Deidara's face plant had made. Seizing the opportunity, Sakura bolted upright and ran from the room. Unknowingly behaving just as Sakura desired, Deidara thrust out a hand and shouted for her to come back. To the silent shop customers, it appeared like a disgruntled cry from a lover to stop his humiliated date from running far. Unfortunately for Sakura, it was more like a "get back here so I can slaughter you" kind of cry. The fleeing pinkette threw open the shop door and darted down the nearest alley. When Deidara ran out of the shop after her, Sakura grasped his jacket and yanked him into the shadows with her.

The blond was fuming. His face was red and tea dripped from the ends of his hair. Sakura could practically see the steam puffing out of his nostrils. "What. The. Fu-"

Sakura shoved a single finger up against Deidara's lips. "Shh."

Something snapped in the blond's eyes and Sakura gulped nervously. A bell rang, distracting Sakura, and Deidara took her by surprise. He seized her wrist and slammed her up against the brick wall.

"Don't scream," he hissed just before pressing his lips to her neck.

At first, Sakura fully intended to scream bloody murder, thinking that the damn pervert was going to do something sick in this back alley. His intentions were more complex than that, however. The sadistic freak sunk his teeth into Sakura's skin, biting down on the tender flesh with a gleam in his eyes. Sakura's mangled scream died in her throat as Dato waltzed by with his mysterious guest. Sakura's fists clenched and she mentally counted down the seconds that passed as she felt warm blood trickle down the side of her neck. Apparently passing Sakura and Deidara off as hyper-sexualized lovers, Dato simply stuffed his hands deep into his pockets and moved away from the mouth of the alley. The woman, however, remained a few moments longer, staring into the passage with her haunting blue eyes sparkling mischievously.

Despite his risky behavior, Deidara wasn't stupid. He'd made sure to bite Sakura on the left side of her neck, the side facing away from the prying blue eyes that watched them with a mixture of suspicion and glee. Sakura let out a shaky breath, praying that it could pass for one of arousal and not one of the true fear and pain she actually felt. The longer the woman stared, the more worried Sakura grew. Taking her performance to the next level, Sakura shook her wrists free, tangled her fingers in Deidara's free-flowing hair, and tugged gently. Truthfully, she wished she could yank out every blond thread, root and all. Deidara groaned accordingly, although, to Sakura's ears it seemed more like a pissed off snort. Dato shifted uncomfortably and his female companion finally turned her hawk eyes away from Sakura and Deidara. She moved from the mouth of the alley with a wicked smile on her pretty lips and disappeared from sight.




Sakura yanked her fingers from Deidara's hair and smashed her fist into the artist's temple. He dropped to the ground, sending up a flurry of snow from the force. As if he hadn't just gulped down a mouthful of snow, Deidara propped himself up on one elbow and tilted his face to the side. Somehow, Sakura felt more terrified staring at him now than she had with his teeth in her skin. Panic made her breathing unsteady. She attempted to pass it off as anger.

"What the hell?" the pinkette snapped in a hushed whisper.

"You seem to think we're best friends." Deidara's smirk ignited a cold terror in Sakura's chest. "I don't recall ever liking you."

"So you decide to do something like that!?"

"I was going to smash you through the wall or possibly blow your face off, but I thought that a love-bite better suited the mission," Deidara shot back.

"I was trying to cooperate!"

Deidara snorted with contempt. "Maybe now you'll learn."

"Stay the hell away from me," Sakura blurted out of frustration, her breath puffing out frantically.

Deidara's form burst to life before her in less than a second. He grinned down at the pinkette, blue eyes wide with hatred and a threatening grin plastered on his face. Her blood still painted his lips and chin. "I'm getting sick of being ordered around. I don't take orders well."

Sakura sucked in a gasp just before Deidara's fingers closed around her wind pipe. Instinctively, Sakura shoved her hand under Deidara's chin in an attempt to push him away. If she pushed hard enough and just the right way, she could...

A shiver raced up the pinkette's spine as she heard the sound of someone dropping from above.

"Dato is moving," Itachi announced calmly, as if his comrades weren't literally at each other's throats.

Unexpectedly, Deidara shoved Sakura away and detached himself from her neck. Sakura stumbled backward in the snow until she felt a gentle hand press itself firmly against the middle of her back, steadying her. Deidara grinned, as if the thought of blowing things up interested him much more than strangling Sakura. The girl puffed out a sigh of relief at the thought. Her heart still thundered in her ears and her body was practically oozing adrenaline. Their mission was drawing near and that thought made the tempo of her already spastic heartbeat increase.


Itachi stood behind a chunk of ice and rock, patiently waiting for Dato to leave the tiny shop and continue to the warehouse. Deidara was across the way and closer to the shop so he could block the back exit. Sakura crouched beside Itachi, peering into the window of the shop. Dato had been in the small sweet shop for over ten minutes now. It was suspicious, but they simply had to wait it out. If any of the Akatsuki members got close, it would raise Dato's own suspicions.

Unable to bear the silence any longer, Sakura blurted, "Why haven't you said something?"

"Is there something to say?" Itachi asked calmly.

"I caused a fight during a mission."

"You act like I'm supposed to be the one to punish you."

"Aren't you?" Sakura squeaked meekly.

Was that what she thought of him? Itachi ignored the dull thud in his chest and kept his eyes forward. "I'm not. "

He tried not to notice the relief in her expression. "Deidara's insane," Sakura pouted.

"Not as much as you," Itachi murmured.

Sakura's cheeks went beet red and she jerked her small face to the side so she could stare up at him indignantly. "What does that mean? I'm more insane than a guy who bites his comrades?"

"You're insane for trying to handle insanity with sanity."

She fell silent and, after a few moments, pursed her lips. Thankfully, she said no more. Conversations were tiresome.

Dato opened the door to the shop and his female counterpart trotted out behind him. Itachi suppressed the urge to clench his teeth as the woman lifted her gaze. It looked as if staring directly at him. With his blurred vision, it was hard to tell if she truly was looking at him, but it hadn't done much; the woman was a walking warning sign as far as Itachi was concerned. The way she looked, walked, and moved sent up red flares: she wasn't a date, she was a mercenary – a damn good one. It wasn't as if they hadn't prepared for this, but it unnerved Itachi just how dangerous the woman looked. Unconsciously, Itachi snuck a glance at Sakura.

Realizing his mistake, he dragged his gaze back to Dato and the man's murderous-looking companion. She had her back to Itachi as she walked behind Dato like a shadow, but she didn't appear to be doing anything suspicious. Yet.

Sakura shifted beside Itachi and, despite the cold, a bead of sweat formed at the girl's temple. Itachi crushed the urge to reassure her and simply tapped her shoulder. Recognizing the signal, Sakura fled to the back of their formation as planned. Itachi glanced across the snow-covered road to see Deidara's signal that he was ready to move. Letting out a slow breath, Itachi tensed his muscles and took off, treading lightly across the powdery snow.


Sakura grimaced and gently pressed a hand to the bandage on her neck as she carefully followed behind her comrades and the target. The wound didn't hurt much, but she was annoyed that she couldn't waste the chakra on healing the ugly mark. She'd actually covered it with the bandage just so she wouldn't have to see Deidara smirk triumphantly every time he glanced at her. It hadn't helped; the smug bastard couldn't help himself. The pinkette scanned the area, forcing herself to locate each of her hidden teammates. It wasn't particularly easy or fun but it passed the time effectively.

The chilled wind bit at Sakura's cheeks and turned her insides cold. The deserted road stretched out before her was quiet, it seemed as if even animals had abandoned this niche of the world. Dato and his companion hardly spoke a word to one another during their snowy trek; it was slightly unnerving.

Speaking of unnerving...Sakura's thought trailed off as she tossed a glance over her shoulder. Throughout the entire mission, Sakura had a sneaking suspicion that she was being watched. The idea gave her chills.

Could Leader have sent someone to check up on Sakura? The pinkette had barely gotten away with helping kill Sasori. What if Leader was suspicious? Sakura tried to act otherwise, but truthfully the man frightened her—the mystery behind his identity alone was enough to elicit fear in the young kunoichi. She had barely done anything in the last mission, she couldn't afford to let her performance slip in this one. She needed to fly under the radar. She needed to be useful to the Akatsuki if she hoped to stay and finish her goal of helping her village from the shadows. She needed to play the game to keep alive long enough to be useful to her home.

Dato's mystery woman came to a complete and sudden stop in a wide clearing. A puzzled Dato glanced over his shoulder at his inert companion.

"Ume?" he muttered her name was if it were a question with some hidden meaning and the woman replied accordingly with a lifted hand, palm facing Dato.

It was some kind of signal. Dato's eyes flew open wide and the well-dressed man took off.

I can't let him get away, Sakura thought as she raced out into the opening, kunai withdrawn.

Out of the left side of the forest, Itachi burst into the clearing, his arm catching and stopping Sakura before she could reach either Ume or Dato. The pinkette had the wind knocked from her lungs as her chest collided with the Uchiha's solid arm but was otherwise unhurt. A whoosh of air made Sakura jerk her head upward in just enough time to see Ume diving from above. Instinctively, Sakura knocked Itachi aside and jumped back. The pinkette curled her body into a back hand-spring to avoid the attack herself. The black-haired woman hacked and slashed at Sakura wildly; it took every ounce of concentration from the pinkette to dodge the blows.

Out of the corner of her eye, Sakura spotted a white bird flapping its wings in the sky; Deidara was on the move. Pain exploded in Sakura's abdomen and, with surprise, she realized that Ume had intentionally punctured her diaphragm. Sakura felt her breathing get shallow and was unable to block the solid kick to the side of the face coming her way. The pink-haired girl flew through the air and landed in the heavy snow. Sakura placed a trembling hand to her bleeding middle and poured green chakra into her body. The diaphragm was a respiratory organ. When injured, breathing would become more difficult and death was a possibility. Also, because it was constantly in motion, the diaphragm wouldn't heal on its own; medical attention was absolutely necessary. Only a handful of people ever attacked the diaphragm because it didn't provide a quick death and was fixed easily by medical jutsu. Plus, it wasn't easy to nick since it sat just under the lungs and was somewhat protected by the ribs.

Ume spun around aggressively, kicking up snow. Her lips parted in a grin as her blazing sapphire eyes found Sakura. Despite her deranged appearance, Ume was precise. She'd meant to hit the diaphragm. If Sakura wasn't a medical ninja, she more than likely would have died. With unease, Sakura recognized that her opponent had a decent amount of medical training and, silently, the girl cursed her luck. Usually, her superior medical skills gave her an upper hand, but if the opponent had the same training, things would be more even and the chances of success on the pinkette's side would greatly decrease.

Ume turned her head so that her long hair parted and revealed half of her visage. The expression on her pale face was disturbing to say the least. Her lips curled in a callous grin and her radiant eyes narrowed. She let out a tinkling laugh, "This will be fun."

Slowly, the skin along Ume's arms began to drip as if it were melting away. It turned charcoal black and her form expanded slightly as she walked steadily toward Sakura. "You won't go any farther," Ume rasped.

"Why are you protecting Dato?" Sakura wheezed. Her punctured diaphragm made yelling a bit of a challenge but Sakura desperately needed to buy time.

Ume snorted with laughter, some of the skin on her face dripping down as well. "Money."

"So you're a hired mercenary?"

"Among other things." Ume's clothes and hair began dissolving as well; the sight was gruesome and reminded Sakura of a wax doll slowly burning. When the small black droplets touched the snow, the ground sent up a feral hiss.

Ume dropped down to her knees before Sakura and the snow melted beneath her instantly. The woman bent over Sakura, leaning in as if she were going to whisper into the pinkette's ear. Beads of black dripped down onto her, searing the girl's clothing and exposed flesh. Ume was so close Sakura could see the insanity lingering in the woman's wide blue eyes.

"It's thanks to that Uchiha that I'm free," the melting female murmured.

Without realizing, Sakura glanced to the left, searching for Itachi. He was no where to be seen. Had he left her behind with this insane woman?

"Not that Uchiha," Ume corrected, assuming incorrectly the reason for Sakura's wandering gaze.

Her words made Sakura's stomach flip spastically. There was only one other Uchiha alive in this world.

"Sasuke freed you?" Sakura whispered breathlessly. It hurt to say his name.

Ume looked genuinely confused. She pursed her lips and turned her head before nodding, "Yes, that was his name."

Sakura clenched her jaw. Guilt stabbed through her chest, hurting much more than Ume's attack. She'd nearly forgotten about Sasuke. She'd been so absorbed by her own predicament that the love of her life had slipped her mind. She was disgusted with herself.

Sakura wiggled backward in an attempt to get away but Ume seized her wrist. It burned. It felt as if her flesh would melt off just like Ume's had. Sakura flinched as bright red flames engulfed the black-haired woman seemingly out of nowhere. She could feel the heat of the fire but was safe from the flames. The pinkette traced the line of fire to Itachi, who stood off to the left of the clearing with his body hunched in a fighting position. Sakura refused to admit that she was delighted to see him. The girl scooted back and away from the burning opponent, relishing the feel of the snow on her burnt flesh. The flames died down and Sakura bowed her head, letting out a sigh of relief. Itachi appeared beside her and gently took her wrist in his hand. Black goo still clung to Sakura's skin where it had dripped from Ume. It sizzled and burned as it ate away at anything it came into contact with. Itachi's brow furrowed the slightest, but said nothing. Sakura infused the last bit of chakra into her diaphragm and took a deep breath to make sure the organ was healed to her satisfaction. Now all they had to do was...

"That stings."

Sakura's heart went cold in her chest and she lifted her face to see a charred, bubbling, barely-humanoid figure standing before her. The creature looked as if it had been dragged out of a tar pit. Its back appeared to have sustained damage from Itachi's attack, however, goo bubbled up from the scarred tissue as if trying to repair itself. It turned its malformed head toward Sakura and the girl saw twin pin-pricks of sapphire blue trapped in the black ooze. The muck creature lunged at Sakura, swinging its dripping black arms chaotically. The Akatsuki pair leapt out of the way to avoid the dangerous looking limbs, but Sakura could not escape the smell. The creature reeked like burnt tar.

"What are you?" Sakura hissed unconsciously.

Ume's tinkling laugh was replaced by a deep belly roar in this new form. Ignoring Sakura's question, Ume charged ahead again only to be swallowed up by flames once more. This time, Sakura didn't turn away. The left side of Ume's body, currently being seared by the Uchiha's fire, crackled and hardened. The flames died down and Ume appeared to be stuck where she was. Still, the tension remained in Sakura's muscles. Not a sound could be heard in the tiny clearing except for the hissing smolder of Ume's black flesh.


The wind blew gently against Itachi's face as he stared unblinkingly at the charred mass before him. The back and left sides of the creature were hardened and crispy but the right side still bubbled actively. Itachi had theories, none of which he could prove just yet. Normally, he would charge off into the building while the woman was frozen in placeshe was not his target. He'd actually fully intended to leave the pesky woman behind to purse Dato. Seeing Sakura nearly engulfed by the black muck, however, had sent the Uchiha into action. Fire had sprung from his lips before he could stop himself. When he'd come back to fight, he'd heard something, something that kept Itachi rooted to this area.

The woman had mentioned Sasuke.

Additionally, the muck she had left behind on Sakura had an oddly familiar chakra. Its ability, color, and energy all reminded Itachi of his own attack, Amaterasu. He couldn't understand much with the bare-bone information he had. All he had was an arsenal of theories. He would rip out more information from the mysterious woman if he had to.

The creature's humanoid head snapped back. Its skin crackled and flaked off as the being began to regain mobility. Itachi narrowed his eyes as one of his theories became more likely; the beast couldn't be killed by fire alone. Strangely, despite her apparent healing, Ume still seemed affected by the attack. Itachi wondered if a simultaneous blast on all sides with enough intensity could permanently freeze the woman in place. Deidara's art would be perfect for such a task but the artist was currently busy setting up for his upcoming show. Itachi would have to come up with a way himself.

The beast laughed and swung its right arm out. As if a hose had been turned on, black goo burst out from the creature's palm toward Sakura. The girl managed to dodge, but the creature wasn't going to let her off that easily. For an oozing muck monster, Ume moved quickly. She reached out for Sakura, her disgusting finger splayed wide. Warmth built up in Itachi's stomach and he inhaled sharply, feeding the flames within. As he exhaled, a stream of fire raced toward and swallowed up Ume, striking her right side.

As Ume stood petrified, Sakura stormed up to the monster, a fierce look on her small face. "Where did you see Sasuke?"

Itachi lifted an eyebrow. He remembered Sakura murmuring his brother's name once before and he knew they were acquainted, but the tone of Sakura's voice suggested much more than a simple acquaintanceship.

Ume's white teeth stood out starkly against the black ooze surrounding her mouth. "The Den."

Itachi's breath halted in his lungs. He'd faced numerous groups of Orochimaru's henchmen and they all referred to a "Den". None ever elaborated or told him where this den was. Ume, however, didn't seem to mind sharing information with Sakura. The mercenary wasn't stupid and she was definitely not afraid of the tiny pink-haired kunoichi or Itachi. So why then, was she coughing up such sensitive information?

"You're his friend, aren't you? No, more. Lover?" Ume teased as her body sizzled.

The muscle along Sakura's jaw ticked and Itachi felt a dull pain throb in his chest.

"Where's the Den?" Sakura questioned.

"Don't go there."


"He's not there," Ume hissed playfully.

"Then where is he!?" Sakura demanded impatiently.

"Definitely a lover," Ume chuckled to herself. "He left. I left. We all left."


Itachi straightened his back as the information sunk in: Sasuke had been in Orochimaru's mysterious "den" and escaped. There was no escaping from Orochimaru once you were his. Even if Sasuke managed to get away alone, why would all of the henchmen leave? Also, Ume didn't seem like much of a loyal henchman, so why had she been at the Den?

Ume's skin began to crackle as she once again gained the ability to move; she was done talking.

Sakura turned her blazing gaze Itachi's way and a message beamed in her eyes. Surprised by this sudden demanding strength and determination, Itachi simply nodded in agreement. He remained where he was as Sakura's figure shuddered out of view. He sucked in a deep breath and launched another volley of fire at the muck monster. This time, however, several kunai burst out of the forest as well, tags fluttering in the wind behind them. The pointed weapons landed in the ground and the explosive tags attached to them lit up at just the right moment to combine with Itachi's attack. Fire consumed the creature, burning intensely until there was nothing but a charred mound left behind.

Itachi intended to ignore Ume's monstrous corpse. He had no need for her now and she was most certainly dead. He'd wasted enough time already. He needed to complete the mission. Sakura, however, had other intentions. She burst out of the bushes and swung her leg at the monster. She knocked the creature's head from its body and landed in the snow softly. The fire burning hotly in her green eyes reminded Itachi of his Amaterasu in that moment: all-consuming and near uncontrollable. He turned away.

"The warehouse should be just up ahead," he stated blandly.


Sakura jogged behind Itachi, her feet kicking up snow as she ran. She couldn't deny the unbidden and intense anger she felt toward the man. Hearing about Sasuke had triggered something in the kunoichi and brought up a massive amount of anger. How could she have been so stupid? How could she have let herself get sucked in by this? Had she forgotten about her home and her friends? More importantly, how could she have tricked herself into believing that Itachi was anything but a selfish murderer? He may not have Ume's appearance, but Itachi was definitely a monster.

Despite her inward declaration, she was still doubtful of her decision. She couldn't put her finger on why and, instead, brushed the feeling aside with agitation. She wanted to be angry. She wanted to vent. She didn't want to fall into the infuriating trap of trying to figure out Itachi. Not again. She burned holes into the Uchiha's back, contemplating jabbing a kunai right between his shoulder blades.

The girl dragged herself from her thoughts and slid to a halt as she came upon a peculiar sight: an enormous and incredibly daunting castle-esque building sitting atop a frozen lake. Timidly, Sakura placed a foot on the icy lake. Her labored breath puffed out in tiny clouds as the temperature grew colder. How could such a fragile surface hold up such an awesome structure? Deciding that there wasn't a moment to lose, Sakura bolted out onto the lake. The lake was slippery, but the freshly falling snow helped make the jog manageable. Caught up by the surroundings, she'd almost forgotten about Itachi running beside her. She jerked her head to the side childishly to avoid looking at him.

The Akatsuki pair reached the front of the warehouse in a matter of minutes and, thankfully, Deidara had blown the thick steel door right off its hinges. Despite the fact that he'd never been there before, Itachi moved around the dark, frigid halls confidently. In actuality, he was more than likely just as lost as Sakura. Finally, they reached the top floor and found the door to Dato's office; it was the only room on this level.

Sakura reached out, her fingers curling around the cool metal surface. The girl froze, however, as she realized what was about to happen in the next few minutes. She was about to watch a man be interrogated by having his mind messed with in a gruesome fashion. She wouldn't see what Dato was experiencing, but she would hear him scream and see him writhe. She swallowed hard around the lump in her throat as she recalled the days she'd spent in the Akatsuki's torture room. She could remember the night she'd been first approached by Itachi. They hadn't even spoken then, but he'd sparked enough terror in her to make the vivid memory nightmarish. That night, he'd been sent to torture her and, for whatever reason, he hadn't. But Sakura could still taste that same fear as if she were sitting back in that candle lit room again.

A warm hand lightly touched hers and Sakura looked up to see Itachi staring blankly at her. "Wait outside," he murmured.

Assuming that he was ordering her around, Sakura lifted her chin defiantly. However, a tiny flicker in his eyes led her to believe in other motives for the command. Her shoulders sagged as all anger washed away. She scrambled to retain that empowering anger but it slipped from her grasp.

She retracted her hand, allowing Itachi to take the handle and open the door. As he did, however, the tang of blood floated out of the room and up Sakura's nostrils. The kunoichi's eyes snapped open wide and she peered inside the room. The dark walls were coated in blood. The balcony doors were open wide and the curtains adorning them danced in the wind. More curiously, Dato lay on the floor near his desk.

The blood drained from Sakura's face. If they couldn't interrogate Dato, the mission would be a failure. Yet another failed mission with one crucial player ending up suspiciously dead. This would not look good for either her or Itachi.

"There's a chance he could be alive," Sakura stammered. "If there's even the smallest ounce of life in him, I could heal him—"

"He's dead," Itachi insisted.

"Katsu!" a familiar voice boomed.

The entire warehouse trembled, sending Sakura scrambling to stand upright on her feet. Itachi made a discontented face and held out his hand to the pinkette.

"We can't leave," Sakura blurted defiantly.

"You won't have time to save him."

"Then we have to take him with us."

Itachi's red eyes blazed fiercely. "Are you willing to die for this?"

The building shuddered and a shower of dust rained down from the ceiling. Sakura threw her hands over her head, tucking her chin to her chest and squeezing her eyes shut to keep away the debris. When she opened her eyes, Itachi was on the balcony, his back to her. Dato still lay several feet away in a pool of his own blood.

Sakura's head swiveled between the two men so quickly that she thought her neck would snap. Did she complete the mission even if it meant ending her own life? Normally, she would have no problem choosing, but this wasn't a mission to better her village. This was a mission given by the Akatsuki. This was a mission to help her enemies. Sakura glanced over her shoulder at Itachi, thinking the man had already jumped over the railing to get away from the fiery blasts. Her breath tumbled out of her lungs, however, as she realized that he was still standing there, watching her intently. The icy wind gently shook his midnight black hair.

What is he doing?! He should be gone.

One look in his eyes explained exactly what he was doing: he was waiting. His eyes gently prodded her to make a decision but his body remained still. He had no intentions of leaving her behind. He was willing to wait for her to make an unimportant decision that didn't involve him. He would risk being blow apart just for her to decide between her loyalties and commitment to survival.

As if a bell had been struck in her chest, Sakura's entire being shuddered and began to vibrate along with the deteriorating building. The uneasy girl gripped her shirtfront nervously as a foreign and overwhelming feeling washed over her and, with it, came a new way of seeing things. When she looked at Itachi now, it was as if a film had been lifted from her eyes. He was no longer the emotionless and murderous psychopath she was used to seeing. In this moment of clarity, he exuded compassion and understanding. She hated seeing the man in this new light. She despised the warmth she saw in his eyes. She hated the way her entire body both relaxed and tensed the moment she locked gazes with him.

The pinkette bowed her head and screamed above the roar, "You idiot!"

She charged forward, lunging at Itachi just as Dato's office exploded in a blast of orange flames and rock chunks. The force sent her flying into Itachi harder than she'd expected, but succeeded in shoving them both over the railing. Huge pieces of the building had already poked holes in the thick sheet of ice on which the warehouse had been built - a feat Sakura would have assumed impossible. The frigid wind clawed at her face, burning her skin. Her robe fluttered chaotically as she tumbled though the night sky. As they drew closer to the ground, Sakura glanced at Itachi, wondering why he wasn't positioning himself for the incoming landing. With a sick dread, Sakura noticed the blood trickling from the nasty gash in the man's head. He was completely unconscious.

It's fine, she thought in an attempt to calm herself. I'll just stick the landing for us both.

Landing for two, especially for someone much bigger than her, would hurt, but it could be done. However, there was no longer anything to land on. The tumbling rocks had succeeded in decimating the ice and revealed the choppy, dark waters beneath. She could attempt to land on her feet but the choppy waters and bulky baggage would offset her balance and they could end up falling into the water anyway. Hitting water as cold as that would be enough to end both of their lives in a matter of minutes. If the fall didn't kill them, the temperature would. Panic clawed at the girl's insides and delirious laughter bubbled in her chest.

I'm going to die, she shrieked inwardly as she stared ahead at the icy vortex ready to swallow her up.

As if glass shattered in her chest, the girl sucked in a sharp breath. A familiar warm sensation exploded in her gut and Sakura felt a realization dawn on her: she was going to fall into the water. She'd known that beforeanyone with common sense could have deduced that muchbut her panic about the situation had been pushed aside in favor of unexpected and, more than likely, undeserved determination; she would fall, but she wouldn't die.

And she wouldn't let Itachi die either.

Sakura ignored that last addition and latched onto Itachi's robe as the warm feeling radiated throughout her body and pulsated in her fingertips. A shaky grimace parted Sakura's lips as she squeezed her eyes shut. She filled every crevice of her lungs just before slipping deep into the ice-cold water.


Madara watched as the scenery was painted with bright flashes of red and orange. He listened intently as the ice shattered and cracked from the falling debris. He could hear Deidara's joyous cackle echo across the night sky and the masked man grimaced. Deidara was a ticking time-bomb. His explosive behavior made him unpredictable and dangerous and it seemed that the loss of his partner had only riled the blond up more.

He needs to be watched more intently, Madara thought as a particularly large cloud of flame plumed out of the middle of the crumbling building.

Madara peered out through the hole in his mask and easily found Dato's office, the room where his corpse now lay. Despite himself, Madara smirked. He touched a gloved a hand to the section of his mask where his mouth would be in mild amusement. That amusement fled the moment he watched a peculiar sight appear at Dato's balcony.

Madara's eyes narrowed as he watched Sakura and Itachi fall over the railing and plummet. His grin mutated into a scowl. Those two shouldn't have been here. They shouldn't have been involved. When they last spoke, Nagato had said that he planned to simply send Deidara to destroy the traitor's warehouse. He failed to mention that he sent Itachi to extract information from Dato. Madara bit his lip. Because of Nagato's lapse, the masked Uchiha had had to take matters into his own hands. While Dato's mercenaries had distracted Sakura and Itachi, Madara had snuck in to visit the man. The surprise on Dato's face was laughable. It never occurred to anyone that Dato had hired that failed experiment for protection against Madara.

Despite his wealth, Dato had fallen as easily as any other man. It hadn't even taken him more than a minute to bleed out. A peculiar sight caught Madara's eye and the man watched with mild interest as Sakura and Itachi plunged into the icy lake.

"What idiots," he murmured.

Despite his statement, he was still curious as to why they'd both decided to chance the waters. Two intelligent people like them wouldn't risk hypothermia without having some way to survive? Or was he overestimating their intelligence? Madara hadn't expected a turn of events like this. If Itachi and Sakura died here, then his future preventative measures would be unneeded. Madara crossed his arms. His red eye riveted itself to the spot he'd last seen the pair before they'd been sucked in by the lake and he patiently waited for the outcome.


Naruto sagged against Tsunade's desk as if all the strength had left his body. His face revealed every ounce of shock, pain, and, oddly enough, joy that the blond-haired boy felt. Each emotion fluttered in his eyes at a sickening speed and left him looking a little unsteady. Tsunade locked her hawk eyes on the young ninja cautiously and lifted a suspicious eyebrow.

"Sasuke really did it? He really killed Orochimaru?" Naruto blurted. He looked like he was on the verge of breaking down into tears.

Tsunade nodded slowly, not speaking a word.

"Do you think he'll come home?"

"It's doubtful," Shizune replied from her spot beside her master.

Naruto's hope didn't fade and Tsunade felt her heart crack. Truthfully, she didn't believe that Sasuke was racing home back into the loving arms of his village. But it hurt to see so much unwavering faith in this young man. There was a knock at the door and Tsunade barked out for them to enter. Kakashi, finally released from the hospital, stepped into the Hokage's office and Naruto's face broke out in a gigantic grin.

"Naruto," Kakashi greeted.

Desipte his relaxed stance, Tsunade sensed the unease in the jonin. His calm air was forced and his gaze unsettled the Hokage.

"You're early, Kakashi," Tsunade said as her brow furrowed suspiciously. "Did you let the nurses properly discharge you?"

"Don't get too mad, Granny! Look he's perfectly fine!" Naruto beamed as he slapped his teacher on the back.

"Madam Hokage," Kakashi began, "May I speak with you?"

Naruto's grin of joy faltered as he sensed the serious tone coming from his teacher. "Should I leave?"

"No, Naruto." Kakashi placed a hand on his student's shoulder. "This involves you."

Tsunade felt her mood sour even further. She knew what the man would ask.

"What is it?" she asked with an edge in her voice, as if daring the man to ask the question she knew he would.

"I would like to gather a team"Kakashi's visible eye locked defiantly with Tsunade's"to pursue Sasuke."

Naruto stumbled back as if he'd been struck. Then, all at once, his excitement boiled over. He punched the air and howled with delight.

"You're not kidding, are you, Kakashi? Oh man, this is awesome!" the blond rambled.

Tsunade smashed her fist onto her desk, making both Shizune and Naruto jump. Shizune held out a trembling hand to her master. The poor woman looked like she was going to be sick. "L-lady Tsunade, the desk...costs...money..."

Ignoring her assistant, Tsunade roared, "I haven't said yes! "

Naruto gulped and touched a hand to the back of his head bashfully. Tsunade turned her fiery glare Kakashi's way and her hand clenched into a tighter fist. Questions raged in her mind, falling over one another chaotically. Was it a good idea to let someone emotionally invested go on such a mission? Was it a bad idea to not allow someone emotionally invested to pursue Sasuke? If she sent someone random, it would be doomed from the start. The Hokage considered if she, truthfully, wanted the grim Uchiha boy to return. The answer was a resounding "yes". She wasn't particularly fond of Sasuke, but he was a citizen of Konoha and, as such, he was their responsibility. Just the thought of having someone as dangerous as Sasuke running around wildly gave the Hokage a headache.

Why does he want to do this? the woman asked herself.

As she looked into the jonin's eye, Tsunade felt a clear recognition ring in her chest. The anger, fear, and determination she saw in that visible dark eye mirrored her own. The emotions were somehow darker, however, and bordered on terrifying.

Oblivious to the silent battle passing between the two authority figures in the room, Naruto butted in, "Why are you coming on the mission, Kakashi? You just got out of the hospital. Don't you think I can handle it myself?"

That thought was laughable and Tsunade turned her face to see if the boy was truly serious. He was.

"Sasuke is my responsibility," Kakashi answered.

His tone of voice and words, which mimicked her own, sent shudders down Tsunade's spine and the woman clenched her teeth. The way the jonin spoke, it didn't seem as if he were himself. If the mission was going to be successful, Kakashi needed to be his usual cool-headed self, especially if he was bringing the hot-tempered Naruto along.

"It would be the perfect timing. I doubt anyone has had time to get to Sasuke yet," Shizune added.

"I know," Tsunade growled lowly.

She wanted to say no. She wanted to trust her gut and pass off the mission to someone else. She knew, however, that she couldn't. Kakashi and Naruto were the only ones who had even a chance of getting through to and bringing Sasuke home. She needed to maintain control of the situation, however. She couldn't let things get out of hand like they usually did where Sasuke was concerned. All eyes turned to her for her answer. Tsunade knew she couldn't think about this any longerthey only had a slim window of opportunitybut she also knew that she didn't have to agree to anyone else's terms. That was the best part about being Hokage.

"You can go. But I'll choose your teammates."

WELL, was it worth the wait?

Don't hate me because of the cliffhanger xD The chapter was getting too long! I had to break it up! I can manage to write 8,000 word chapters a week but 11,000? No. I will work myself to death.


Anywho, leave comments or favorite me! Whatever floats your boat :D -Anii