Disclaimer: Naruto is the property of Kishimoto Masashi.


1. Mask of a Clown

As Yamato-taichou gave the order to attack, Sakura cast a quick glance at Naruto, knowing that he above them all needed to keep his temper. But his face was still calm, brilliant blue eyes steady and determined. It eased her own anger: this time nothing would stop them from reaching Sasuke-kun.

The branch the Akatsuki was standing on began to distort, and the familiar chirring of Kakashi-sensei's chidori almost drowned Hinata's murmured, "Byakugan!" Sakura moved to guard her as Naruto created another half-dozen shadow clones and charged. As Yamato-taichou's jutsu closed in a wooden fist around the black-robed man, Kakashi-sensei thrust chidori through the branch-like fingers and Naruto matched him with a rasengan from the opposite direction.

"Is it tag? Who wants to be It?"

The Akatsuki had moved, was behind them! Sakura pivoted, snapping off a kunai, while a stream of ink spiders flowed from the scroll Sai had unfurled. Akamaru leapt upward to one of the massive leaning tree trunks, gracefully avoiding the black and red blur. "His scent is wrong. A genjutsu?" Kiba called.

"He –" Hinata was shaking her head disbelieving. "I've never seen anything like-"


Too swift to follow, the Akatsuki bounced behind Hinata's small form. Sakura didn't see his strike, only heard the soft gasp of pain, the distinctive crunch of breaking bone. She was impressed that, even as the force of the blow thrust her forward, Hinata spun, kicking out, her foot passing through the enemy's mid-section.

It hadn't been a trick of the eye – the Akatsuki must be using a jutsu which made him incorporeal. As both Shino and one of Naruto's shadow clones intercepted Hinata, Sakura found herself face-to-face with the man's swirling orange mask. With only a moment to react, she dodged down, not attempting to attack, but reaching out one of her hands to pass through black cloth and whatever lay beneath, attempting the simplest of medical diagnostics.

The ground sank beneath her. Caught off-guard, Sakura leapt awkwardly for the edge of a rapidly-growing pit, but the sides were slippery, and she sank into mud. Genjutsu! It had to be, though one of the most intense she'd ever experienced. The weight of the mud dragging her under, the rotting stench of it, the chill and slickness, all so very hard to disbelieve. Mustering all her will, she worked to disrupt the flow of chakra around her, spitting foul-tasting earth to gasp out the release command.

"-down!" Something exploded, and Sakura twisted in leafy mulch as wooden fragments were sprayed in every direction. She re-oriented herself as she moved and spotted Hinata lying back by the water's edge, the shadow clone who had been shielding her from the splintered rain vanishing into smoke.

Plucking at a fragment which had lodged in the meat of her thigh, Sakura dashed to Hinata's side. A glance showed her the Akatsuki back in the trees, hooting and shouting "Hide and Seek! Hide and Seek!" as he leapt from branch to branch, a swarm of Shino's insects trailing close behind. He was playing with them.

"Naruto..." she murmured, seeing the expression on her friend's face, but then resolutely turned back to Hinata. The Akatsuki had hit her hard, leaving a badly broken collar bone and considerable tissue damage. It wasn't the kind of thing Sakura could heal quickly, but she could set the bone in place and lessen Hinata's pain.

Above, the Akatsuki was shrieking and shouting unconvincingly as Shino's insects engulfed him. Despite the concentration needed for healing, Sakura was able to make out Kakashi-sensei's cautious orders, and a lull in the noise prompted her to look up in time to see the insects fall away, leaving nothing behind.

"Bastard! Stop hiding!" Naruto shouted. Sakura looked up at him worriedly, then choked as she was wrenched her off her knees by someone grabbing the back of her shirt.

"Sakura-san!" Hinata snatched at her hand, and gasped as their fingers intersected and passed through each other.

The Akatsuki began rapidly sinking, taking Sakura down with him. Pulled up against heavy cloth smelling of old blood, Sakura twisted for a frantic moment, then began focusing chakra into her fist. However this phasing jutsu worked, if he had made her intangible as well, he'd find that Tsunade-sama's apprentice was not the easy target he'd obviously expected.

"That's a good way to kill yourself," the Akatsuki said softly, his voice losing all aspect of fool and gaining a thousand degrees of menace.

As they dropped below the forest floor into darkness, Sakura froze, then carefully released the chakra she'd started building. He was right. However this jutsu worked, if she interrupted it while she wasn't fully on the surface, the consequences could be deadly. It was totally black around them, but she could sense a downward motion.

"Besides," he continued, cool and self-satisfied. "You'll be thanking me in a moment. I'm giving you what you want."

"What do you know of what I want, you bastard?" Sakura asked, furious to be helpless yet again. No matter how strong she grew, she was always too far behind. They'd been so close to Sasuke, and now-

"I think I can make an educated guess," said the Akatsuki, as they broke through into a lighted chamber below, and dropped lightly to the ground.

Sakura, released abruptly onto a slick, wet floor, stared around her in disbelief. Some kind of throne room, old and abandoned, walls scarred from recent battle, the air still acrid with smoke. A man was propped against the lowest step before the throne, badly wounded but immediately recognisable. She would never forget those eyes, cold and dead no matter how steadily his heart beat. Uchiha Itachi.

Dread swelled to block her throat, and a shudder ran through her so strongly she saw spots before her eyes. And then she looked down. At the slowly spreading pool of blood. At the shape of him, so familiar for all the differences three years had made. At long lashes which dipped wearily then lifted from black eyes fixed not on her but on the one so central to his existence.