Soundtrack for this chapter (albums):
Elliot Smith - either/or
The Mars Volta - De-Loused in the Comatorium
Also random mixes that friends have made, consisting of various rock artists and techno/trance sets.

Whew. Took me absolutely forever to write this. Sorry! It's just been so crazy - I haven't been getting in till ten/eleven at night, and I've got loads of stuff to do once I get in. That doesn't leave much time for me to write.

I just noticed that my chapter formats are all different – sometimes I put a title at the top, sometimes I don't. D'oh.

Enjoy, everyone.

And for months it lasted, the early morning wake-ups, the training, and the studying. Sakura found herself learning more in those few months than she did in an entire year in the academy. Her entire body had grown even leaner, stronger. She could pull up a more massive reserve of chakra, and regenerate it much faster. She was mastering new jutsu almost every day, ranging throughout all the elements and illusions. Her taijutsu had improved by leaps and bounds so vastly that her limbs were mere blurs when in motion.

And it was all thanks to one Uchiha Itachi.

She was intrigued, to be seeing a different side to the man who had supposedly killed his whole clan but for one. Growing up, all she had heard about him was what kind of a monster her was, of how much dreadful power he abused. Sure, the man was frightening - only a fool wouldn't fear him to some degree - but he was also wise and calm and, however odd the trait seemed on him, fair. It was a shocker to discover that the man had a sense of humor, too; though, it wasn't all "knock-knock" jokes – it was dry, sardonic and sarcastic. Sakura enjoyed bantering with him, baiting one another with biting and oftentimes insulting comments. She hated to be cliché, but their nitpicking really made a connection. It was much easier to talk to him and work with him now than it was before they spent all day insulting one another.

Which in Sakura-inner-monologue speech, translated to: Well, he's an asshole, but he's one cool sonuvabitch.

And aforementioned sonuvabitch was out on a mission, leaving her with almost nothing to do. He'd told her, between scathing remarks, that it wasn't going to take all that long, and it was to help prep for another mission. One that she would be accompanying him on.

The idea filled her with a strange mix of trepidation and elation. All her hard work, all the lies and bloodshed; they had led to this moment, when she would be considered one of the organization and able to kill under their name. Able to access information she would be otherwise denied.

It had rained heavily for the past week, and Itachi had left when it was at its worst. The soil was all mud littered with thick, tall grass that reached out and tangled you in the stalks, pulling you into the mire. One of the trainees that Sakura had spoken with on several occasions actually lost his shoes in the mess.

Rolling her neck and shoulders, feeling them crack and pop, she unfolded her legs and stepped away from the window ledge. Her arms came up, fingers lacing together behind her head, and she vacated the quiet room. The mess hall was nearly dead, so she took up residence in one of the corners, taking her time with lunch and letting her eyes slide over the words of the text she was supposed to be studying.

She finally ended up sprawling on one of the back porches, lying along the cool wood on her stomach, chin propped up in her palm. The book lay open before her, and she'd been on the same sentence for the last fifteen minutes.

"You look like a kicked puppy."

Her head jerked off her hand at the low rumble, eyes snapping fully open. A slim figure stood on the porch stairs, watching her. She made a vague sound of indifference when she made out whom it was. She went back to her book and didn't look back up again until the sound of muddy feet approaching started.

"Miss me?" Itachi's red eyes stared down at her.

She shrugged the best she could in her position. "What, you were gone?"

"I'll take that as a yes," he replied smoothly, stepping over her prone form, letting his cloak drag over her as he passed. He sidestepped her arm when she tried to trip him. "As much as your antics amuse me, I'm needed elsewhere. I'll find you later."

"I'm thrilled," Sakura mumbled, turning the page.

When he finally found her again, she was curled up on her bed, sharpening knives and kunai. He slipped in quietly, tossed a package onto the coverlet and sank onto the wide window ledge. She looked up and raised one thin, pink eyebrow. He made a gesture that silently told her to open it.

Her fingers tugged the string binding off the paper-wrapped lump, peeling back the flaps. Dark material tumbled into her lap. Holding up what looked to be a shirt, she looked back up at Itachi. "What's this?"

"You uniform. You're to wear it from now on."

A small thrill worked its way down Saukra's spine. In her hands was physical proof that she had successfully integrated herself into the Akatsuki. Something unidentifiable swelled in her chest as her fingers lightly traced along the red cloud stitched on the breast of the shirt.

She didn't smile, but Itachi could feel how pleased she was.

And unfortunately, he didn't find anything suspicious about it.

A messenger had delivered the summons to Iwa's office; she was to come to him, in full uniform, that evening. Probably to get instructions for her upcoming assignment, she mused while stepping into the legs of her new pants.

The clothing was form fitting, but loose enough for her to be able to move efficiently. She tuckered her shirt into her pants, fingering the stitching above her heart for a moment before she hastily tied the sash about her waist. She fixed her collar as she trekked down the halls. The shirt didn't stop at her neck; instead, it formed an attached mask that would cover the lower half of her face. She folded it down, since she wouldn't be wearing it for the meeting.

She hesitantly strolled into Iwa's small reception room, the man behind the desk looking up immediately upon her entry. "Can I help you?"

She shuffled over to him. "Yeah. I was sent for a little while ago." The man nodded, and moved past her to the closed doors on the right. He announced her arrival, then ushered her inside the room.

Sakura came up to the man's large desk, bowing at the waist. "Good evening, Iwa-sama. I have come, as per request."

"Take a seat." His hand swept out to indicate the chair across from his desk. Sakura slipped into her seat, finally taking the time to acknowledge the presence of her mentor in the chair beside her. She kept her attention away from him, and he seemed to be doing likewise to her.

Iwa's voice was a monotonous droll as he laid out the plans to their assignment. He went over the background and history of their target, the layout of his residence and place of work, as well as any other information that Itachi and Sakura would need.

Eventually, the man turned his entire focus on Sakura. She met his small, dark eyes unwaveringly. "This is your first mission as a member of our organization. You wear our uniform. Let the red cloud on your breast act as a warning – should you fail or betray us, a blade will find its way to that cloud and the flesh beneath it."

Sakura dipped her head in a slow nod, keeping her eyes on his the whole time, not bringing her head up as high when she was done with the motion.

Itachi watched the exchange coolly, catching a small feel of the girl's forced humility. She was a good actress. He allowed her to pull ahead of him as they left the room, passing through the reception room and into the hallways. As they went, he found his eyes traveling across her shoulders, down the slender column of her back and hips, then her legs. He dragged his eyes up slowly to follow the flutter of her pink hair.

Contrary to popular opinion, he wasn't without any feeling. He was a man like any other, and he had to admit to himself that she did look good in that uniform. It clung quite nicely –

She stopped and turned around suddenly. "What?" she snapped, hands on her hips and green eyes narrowed. He raised an eyebrow a fraction of an inch. "You haven't stopped staring at me since we left the office."

He let her green eyes stay on his for a few moments, and then pushed past her, replying at he went. "You feign docility well, woman."

He could tell that she didn't like the answer, but she accepted it begrudgingly. "Yeah, well, it's all about the womanly wiles."

He left her to pack whatever she needed, returning as dusk faded along the horizon. She had a grim air about her, mouth set in a flat line, eyes dark and thoughtful. Alone, the two started out under cover of darkness, moving with fleet, sure strides through the wilderness. They didn't bother with the excess of conversation; it would serve only as a distraction and a waste of energy. Besides, they didn't have anything nice to say to the other, and if one didn't have something nice to say, one shouldn't say anything at all.

They traveled quite some distance through the night, stopping on the outskirts of the targeted town at dawn. They meandered through the almost empty streets silently, opting to keep their heads low and stay off the radar for as long as they could.

Finally, Sakura and Itachi halted at a local inn, intent on finding themselves a few hours of deserved rest. The hostess handed them keys and led them through the communal dining room to their rooms, ushering them inside and offering any service she could. They declined assistance, closed their doors, and made sure they were secured tightly. It wouldn't do to have someone break in while they were sleeping.

Sakura dropped her pack with a thud, hearing an answering thud through the thin wall when Itachi dropped his. Her bed creaked lightly as she eased into it, muscles burning tiredly. She wasted no time in falling asleep.

Sakura popped open the door to the tiny adjoining bathroom, stretching her arms high above her head. Steam billowed around her, and she sighed happily, not minding the heat of the bedroom at all. Her damp pink hair was a shade darker from the water, dripping liquid onto her bare shoulders. The droplets ran down the indent of her back, tickling the base of her spine as she sung lowly, continuing the tune she had begun during her shower.

The warmth in the room seemed to drop a few degrees when she met her partner's red stare from the area of the room where her bed lay. He sat on the edge of the mattress, arms crossed across his mesh-covered shirt, coolly observing her.

She hardened immediately, glowering as she shuffled to her pack. Digging around for clothing, she sent a sharp glare his way. "Do you make it a habit to invite yourself into girl's rooms and then ogle them while they're naked?"

He made a gruff noise in his throat. "I see nothing worth ogling. Do you?" The extra wiggle she put into her hips as she slipped on pants wasn't lost on him. He watched her dress, following the column of her smooth back, loosing his focus in her damp pink hair. He tried not to think about what was buzzing around his head. He wasn't so cold; he was a man like any other, only better at hiding what he was feeling. And he found himself hard-pressed, more and more frequently, to hide what kind of things she was making him feel. What man wouldn't react to having an attractive, naked woman, within arm's reach?

Sakura was running a brush quickly through her hair when his hands were sliding along her sides. She paused, but did not jerk away. One hand brushed up along her ribs, ghosting across her breast, settling there and cupping gently. The other hand spread open on her hip, fingers lightly rubbing through the material of her clothes to the heated skin below. She could feel him sidle up behind her, pressing and touching, his breath fanning across her neck, his nose pushing into her hair. She shivered agreeably. To think that a man so deadly could touch so softly…

She turned to face him just as he began tugging her backwards; she ended up straddling his lap while he perched on the bed, hands moving up to tangle deep in her hair, giving him the hold he needed to tip her head back. His mouth descended on her neck, biting hard, soft, and everything in between, tongue snaking out to taste her skin, making her sigh and press harder against him. He stifled a groan as she unconsciously created friction at their joined hips.

Warmth was growing in Sakura's belly, warmth she knew, and welcomed. Biting her lip as he sank his teeth lightly into the juncture of her shoulder and neck, she rocked harder against him, daring to snake a hand into his hair, cradling the back of his head, while the other gripped tightly at his shoulder.

Her mouth dry, she nudged his cheek, letting her breath blow across his ear before she took the lobe into her mouth. As she nipped and sucked, his mouth paused on her neck, and his fingers idly traced along her hair and neck, eventually sliding lower to clutch at her hips, jerking them against him in a harsher rhythm.

As they moved faster, Sakura tensed and relaxed alternately, wrapping her arms around his neck and pressing her face hard against him, moaning softly through a clenched jaw, lips trembling. She felt lips against her ear, brushing her skin as they moved. His voice, strained and in a tone she had never heard, was what broke her, catapulting her over the edge just before the world shattered into a million pieces.

Of course he would find some way to jab fun at her, in his own little way, even in such a heavy moment.

"Maybe it was your horrifying siren's song that pulled me so close…"

I do not sing badly, was all she managed to piece together before she slipped into darkness.

Erm, well, yes. Yet again, Itachi's gone and done whatever the hell he wants. The mission was supposed to be in this chapter But I don't think little ol' Sakura-chan is going to complain...

ppiglette: Yeah, I got what you mean about the whole 'literate' thing. Comes from being a complete and total bookworm/nerd who eats literature for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Heh.

kookey: You comment cracked me up! I was laughing for a good ten minutes. (gives you a tissue for the nosebleed) Oops - I never noticed that "the" "they" typo. Thanks, for pointing out that mistake.

Youko Mitsutama: Hee. ;3 (loves you back) Glad you like!

I huggle Isiri for all the great emails she sent, the ideas she's lent and the overall enjoyment she's sent my way. Thank you, dear!