Before The Dawn
Sakura would never have expected to become a traitor to her village at the age of fifteen, but in a Konoha ruled by Danzou, she has no other choice. Finding her path entangling with one of her village's most infamous renegades, though, was another story entirely. [ItaSaku AU.]
This story works under the completely and blatantly alternate universe premise that, after Sakura and Naruto's team returned from the hunt for Itachi, they came home to find that in their absence, Danzou, Root, and many other sympathizers with their cause had overthrown and assassinated Tsunade, subdued all jounin who refused to swear loyalty to the new leadership, and subjugated Konoha to a state of near-military dictatorship.
Chapter One: Confrontation
Sakura had never really given much thought as to how she would die.
Which is really quite unreasonable, now that she thinks about it. For any shinobi, death could come at any time, at any place. Judging from her reaction – or lack thereof – right now, she is fairly certain that, maybe subconsciously, she had resigned herself to her eventual end a long time ago.
When, even she isn't sure. Maybe it had been during her first brush with death, as a mere genin on that mission to the Land of Waves. Maybe the realization had come later, as Ino held Sakura, while the two of them cried over Sakura's parents' bodies; it had been both of their first real, first-hand experiences with the inherently cruel nature of human mortality.
Sakura steps back a few paces, narrowly avoiding tripping over an exposed tree root. Her green eyes dart quickly through the clearing, cataloguing and analyzing her own position in relation to the three black-clad, faceless ANBU Root members that face her. Not for the first time, she tries to bring chakra to her fists, to her feet, or anywhere, but it is a fruitless attempt. For somebody who has become so used to tapping into such an extensive resolve of unrivaled physical strength, this feeling of utter powerlessness is the worst kind of psychological battering that that her pursuers could ever give her.
"S-ranked chakra-sealing jutsu," Sakura murmurs under her breath, sharp mind frantically trying to remember any antidote to the forbidden technique, that Tsunade-shishou might have taught her, before…
But no. Tsunade had never taught her a way to counterattack this particular jutsu – after all, the counterattack is an S-ranked technique as well, and despite the talents that everybody says she has, Sakura is still a fifteen-year-old chunin who wouldn't even need to know something that advanced. Not yet, anyway. Tsunade had mentioned it in passing, though, and told her apprentice that she would teach it to her immediately before her jounin exams.
Danzou had made sure that would never happen.
The first Root member moves with speed that she didn't even know was possible; in less time than it takes her to blink an eye, he is in front of her, and then Sakura is knocked back against a tree with the force of his back-handed slap. The impact feels like it had been enough to shatter her spine, and for a few moments, her vision goes black as she digs her fingernails into the bark of the tree, fighting to keep herself upright, even as she coughs, and dazedly notices a few drops of her own blood spattering onto the soil beneath her.
"Surrender," the closest one – and the leader of the elite hunting squad – instructs impassively. "Danzou-sama would prefer that you be returned to him alive, in any case."
In the next second, Sakura's punch collides squarely with his jaw. It is an impressive strike, considering that it is fueled by raw power alone; enough to send his head spinning to the right with a sickening crack. "Never," she hisses, backing away.
And, just like that, Sakura turns and runs, faster than she ever has before, even though her ribs catch and burn with every single movement, probably due to a few fractures sustained in the earlier chase. The dark forest tears past her, and she forgets her mission – the fees were just a few thousand ryou, anyway, and she can probably survive for about a week without food, thanks to the soldier pills that Inoichi had given her before she had left. Besides, the contractor had said that he had another missing-nin on the hunt for the target, as well, so let the other guy get the money, because right now, she has much more pressing concerns.
She dodges a shuriken by a fraction of an inch, but then, a wind jutsu – not unlike the one Temari of the Sand often uses – collides with her back, knocking her facefirst into yet another tree. This time, the blinding impact against the right side of her face is enough to send her crumpling bonelessly to her knees with a moan of pain. That had been a concussion, without doubt, and before she can do more than gasp for breath, an icy grip locks around her wrists, and drags her up to her feet, before throwing her front against the tree again, and twisting and pinning her arms mercilessly against her already bruised back.
The Root captain's breath is harsh against the back of her neck, and the point of one of his teammates' katanas rests squarely between her shoulder blades. Sakura considers kicking out, but it would be a blind hit, and if they even detected a twitch of muscle, the guy holding the katana to her back would cheerfully impale her. So she forces herself to stand still, and for a few moments, the only sounds in the clearing are that of her ragged breathing, and the easily audible pounding of her heart.
She cannot see anything but the shadowed bark of the tree in front of her, but Sakura feels the Root captain – the one she had punched earlier, so maybe that had been a mistake – lean down, brushing the sensitive skin on the top of her neck with his lips. "Excellent," he murmurs, while whoever is holding the katana inches the tip of the cold steel down her spine, almost teasingly. "After all, Danzou-sama explicitly instructed us to bring you back alive, if it proved to be possible."
"Go to hell," Sakura manages, through teeth that are gritted to keep them from trembling with fright.
With that, the captain presses her tighter against the tree, pinning her completely with his own weight, and Sakura bites her lip so hard that it almost bleeds, to keep from whimpering with the strain that this puts on her injured back, arms, and shoulders. Unconcerned, he lets his fingertips ghost up and down her exposed arms, and Sakura can't do anything to keep herself from shivering. "He warned us that you were going to be difficult," he says softly, trailing one of his fingers down the back of her neck, so that it slips down past the top of her sleeveless red vest. "You have no idea how frustrating the past six months have been."
Sakura closes her eyes, trying to overcome the chakra-suppressing seal with every ounce of strength that she possesses, before this already terrible situation can get any worse, but then the third Root member, the only one that has remained silent for this entire time, speaks up. His voice is as emotionless as could be expected from a member of this despicable force, but Sakura can detect the thin note of strain in it. "Captain."
"Yes?" he replies politely, even though his grip on Sakura does not loosen in the least.
"Two unknown elements, rapidly approaching from the east," the third member reports quickly. "One is obviously in pursuit of the other. Judging from the presence of our missing-nin target, and another in the near vicinity, who are both apparently in pursuit of a third party, I would infer that we are in the midst of a hunting expedition."
Sakura tenses even further – these new arrivals must be the other, unknown missing-nin whom the contractor had assigned to this mission…and the target, a renowned assassin from Sand.
The captain curses quietly at this unexpected and dangerous twist in his plans, and Sakura tries her best to twist around, but the leanly muscled weight of his body pinning hers renders it impossible. "We will retreat immediately – I have no desire to be caught in the midst of a battle between two rogue elements," he orders swiftly.
"The girl?" The katana-wielding Root member asks quietly, while he withdraws his sword. "By the time we properly subdue her, it may be too late to avoid a confrontation with the other two unknown factors."
Sakura closes her eyes for a moment, steeling herself for what she is about to do.
With her absolute last vestiges of strength, Sakura wrenches herself out of the captain's suffocating grip, despite the blinding pain in her ribs, back, and head, and for the second time that night, begins a desperate, pulse-pounding sprint due east – the suppressing seal is still binding her chakra, but she hadn't gone through pure speed training with Lee for nothing. It may be a suicidal exploit, but she has no intentions of letting herself fall into the hands of the Root hunters again.
There is the slightest flicker of movement in front of her, and deciding to save caution for later, Sakura skids to a halt, unearths her last kunai, and throws it at the disturbance, praying for accuracy, even as she hears the rapid approach of the Root team behind her. The foliage is much thicker in this area of the forest, and she stumbles as she tries to pinpoint the area she had thrown the kunai, while looking back and forth desperately. Maybe it's just the stress of the situation talking, but in the past six months of being a missing-nin, she has never felt this much like a hunted animal.
She hears a choked gasp of breath a little in front of her, and Sakura jumps over an exposed tree root and ducks behind an massive fallen oak tree, trying her best to follow the sound, even in the darkness of the night. In the end, she almost trips on the body; despite being a missing-nin, he still wears Sand's ANBU uniform, and in a sheer stroke of luck, her kunai had gone straight through his heart.
Horrified, she realizes that she is standing in a puddle of his blood, and it is covering her boots, and Sakura rips her gaze away from the dying man, hastily tripping her way deeper into the forest, even as she senses the Root members' chakra signatures immediately behind her.
"You're leading us right to you, little girl," the captain says loudly, and Sakura swallows over her dry throat and searing, pounding headache when she realizes just how close they are – separated from her only by two trees. Despite her best efforts, her breathing is fast and shallow as she walks backward, keeping her eyes trained on the approaching Root trackers. Her shoulders are shaking, and for a moment, she wildly considers stopping the attempt to escape, and standing and fighting…she has no doubt that they will slaughter her, but—
In the next moment, Sakura is pulled roughly behind a large, completely shadowed tree, and her first instinct is to scream – but before she can even inhale, she finds a cool hand pressed firmly against her mouth.
"If you have any desire to live, do not say a word," the voice instructs coolly, although he is so quiet that Sakura has to strain to hear him – for the smooth tenor is unmistakably masculine, and familiar in a way that she can't place – over the frightened pounding of her own heart. She nods once, hypersensitive of the presence of the Root members, only a few feet away, and whoever it is slides his hand from over her mouth to hold her in place, wrapping both of his arms around her waist. It is a firm but not unpleasantly tight grip, and Sakura lets her head fall back against his chest, her muscles quivering with barely repressed tension. She closes her eyes in order to attempt to come to grips with the blinding, white-hot stabs of pain in her head where the Root captain had thrown her against the tree, but it is no use.
In a marked contrast to Sakura's own, near-panicked state, she can feel the other missing-nin's calm, steady heartbeat pressed against her own right shoulder, which is reassuring in a perverse kind of way, especially when she senses that he is using his chakra to flawlessly cloak both of their presences. Then she understands the motivation for his actions – if the Root team happened upon her at any point during this night, they would be certain to find him as well, considering that all of them are in such close vicinity of each other.
Sakura has to bite her already-bruised lip in order to force her breathing to steady as the Root squad passes within a few feet of them, before continuing deeper into the forest, heading west – toward the direction of the nearest town.
Within the space of five tense minutes, their chakra signatures fade into nothing, and Sakura's knees almost buckle with relief, as the other male's arms unwrap themselves from around her waist. She takes a few deep breaths, steadying herself, before she opens her eyes and turns around to face her unlikely savior—
—And finds herself staring up into a pair of dark crimson eyes that she hasn't seen in months.
Sakura's heart rate, which had just begin to calm, starts up again at an alarming speed, and she retreats from the other missing-nin as fast as she can, despite her weakened state. "…Sasuke-ku—Sasuke?" she asks in a whisper, aghast, as she shakes her head hard, in a desperate attempt to clear it, because there is no way, there really has to be no way…
The man across from her raises one eyebrow in slight amusement, even as he surveys the battered kunoichi in front of him thoughtfully. "Not quite."
The concussion is making her perilously unsteady on her feet, but despite the disorientation, she can still think and draw the proper conclusions (but there are really not many conclusions to draw anyway, because there is only one other person on this earth who could look so much like Sasuke), but when the realization hits her, Sakura turns even paler than before. She backs away even further, only to find herself cornered against yet another tree, as she remembers the last mission that Tsunade had ever assigned her, with a sense of dawning horror. "This isn't right," she shakes her head slowly, disbelievingly. "You're not supposed to be – but you were…"
Sakura trails off, half-believing that this is just a hallucination brought on by the severity of her concussion, because there could be no way that a dead man is standing right in front of her, talking, breathing, alive.
Itachi Uchiha cannot help but smirk humorlessly as he takes in the stunned expression on the younger kunoichi's face. "Dead?" he suggests evenly. "Yes."
Sakura is fully aware that her life has honestly become nightmarish beyond belief in the past eight months, but this is really, really pushing it, and she trips over a low-hanging vine as she frantically attempts to extricate herself from her inconveniently cornered location. First there had been Danzou's takeover and Tsunade's death and then Naruto going into hiding with Jiraiya, and then Kakashi-sensei's disappearance, not to mention being Sakura herself being forced to betray everything that she had once believed in by going missing-nin in order to escape Danzou's machinations…
And, of course, the past six months as a renegade have been hard enough, until now, when inexplicably enough, she has just found herself rescued by the most infamous – and, apparently, recently recruited into the leagues of the undead – Akatsuki member and Konoha missing-nin in history.
Itachi merely arches an eyebrow again upon being faced with the pink-haired kunoichi's tangible fear and distress, and before she can even blink – and for the second time today; this is getting really old – he is in front of her, and with a casual flick of his left wrist, a veritable wall of his chakra secures Sakura back against the tree.
Her complete lack of chakra, concussion, fractured ribs and thoroughly bruised spine aside, Sakura immediately starts to struggle against the invisible force that pins her down. "What the hell?" she shrieks at the infuriatingly impassive man, as she is too physically pained and disturbed to necessarily care that this particular individual has probably killed others for giving him considerably less provocation than this. Hell, Sakura thinks miserably, even as she futilely tries to rip her way out of the chakra barrier, if I had known that this was what I was going to run into after trying to escape, I would have stayed with the Root hunters. "Let me go!"
Itachi narrows his crimson eyes at the girl, obviously displeased with her show of temper, before stepping even closer to her, and despite her best efforts to be brave, Sakura closes her eyes quickly and flinches back against the tree, expecting the strike that is coming and knowing that she can do nothing to counteract it.
Instead, Itachi reaches forward, only to lightly draw the calloused tip of his index finger along the length of the deep gash across the emblem on her forehead protector, with an expression on his face that could almost amount to curiosity. Upon hearing the light pull of his purple-painted fingernail against metal, Sakura cracks an eye open, looking shocked at the almost gentle contact. Still, she tries her best to fight her head away from his touch, struggling against the restraining barricade of chakra. "Don't touch me," she says heatedly, trying her best to make her voice achieve some semblance of calm, even as she determinedly fixes her gaze on a distant point somewhere behind his left shoulder; after all, she has no desire to find out whether undead shinobi can still utilize their bloodline limits.
She doubts that it had anything to do with her words, but he withdraws his hand from her forehead, anyway. "I will release you," Itachi tells her quietly, and she feels his soft breath (are the undead even supposed to breathe? Inner Sakura asks her, intrigued) lightly stir the pink hair near the top of her head. He is more than a head taller than her – she only comes up to his collarbone – and Sakura resents the extreme proximity; she does not like feeling so physically cornered. "After you answer some questions for me," he murmurs.
Sakura actually pales even further at this, and wonders if she has enough guts to tell him that Tsunade-shishou had taught her a lot of things, but nothing that remotely involved un-zombifying crazy psychopaths who were blatantly violating the fundamental laws of mortality.
Sakura dares to look up at him, then, to find Itachi staring down at her, and she realizes then that she is even more frightened by him now than she had been when Naruto, Kakashi-sensei, and herself had battled one of his projections when Itachi had attempted to detain them from finding Gaara. And that is definitely saying something.
…Okay, so she does not have enough guts to crack a bad joke about his apparently zombified state.
"…Fine," Sakura acquiesces, after a few more moments of thought, because she has no illusions about what he will do to her otherwise. Actually, she doesn't even want to think about it.
Itachi's eyes gleam a clear blood-red in satisfaction, and Sakura can't help but swallow slightly.
Yeah, the past eight months of her life have been the stuff of nightmares, but Sakura has that unsettling, creepy, chills-down-her-spine feeling that things are only going to get worse from here.
Her inner self, which has always been somewhat lacking in dignity, cringes into the depths of Sakura's consciousness rather than risk facing Itachi. Oh, Sakura-chan, you have no idea how right you are.
As if he is reading her mind, a slight smirk touches one corner of Itachi's lips.
Sakura winces, and decides that everything would have been a lot better if she had just never gotten out of bed this morning.
to be continued
Okay, first of all, I know that a lot of people are going to ask me why the hell I'm posting a new chaptered story when I'm supposed to be busy working on the final installment of Heartless. But the past week has been really, really rough for me, because I'm going through a lot of major personal problems right now…and I really couldn't bring myself to think of or write something happy and humorous, even though I tried. I'm sorry, guys. I'll try to work through my issues and get back on track in a timely fashion.
Anyway, on to the current issue at hand. I know the story is a bit vague at this point, and if you have any questions, feel free to ask in a review and I will definitely reply, but all kinds of important things will become clearer over the next few chapters. Including, but not limited to, whether Itachi is really "undead" or "zombified", or if that's just poor Sakura's concussion speaking. :D
Any and all feedback would be very much appreciated. :)