It is a dark night when they first meet, truly face to face for the first time, on a dark road that is framed by latticework of shadows.

They both walk silently; each has a destination that must be reached, but neither hurries. She dreads the imminent confrontation that will—at best—drain her healing powers even more than her work all afternoon on the dying and no longer dying of Konoha and he—well, he will get where he is going eventually.

As is proper of shinobi, their footsteps are muted and unechoing, but she can hear her heart pounding furiously as she looks up and sees him. Her tired and chakra-raw hands tremble as she carefully tucks a strand of bloodstained hair behind her ear and addresses the space above his shoulder, directly to the left of his chin.

"Uchiha Itachi." Her voice comes out pained and weary, she thinks, and winces at the thought of seeming weak before someone like him.

But all he does is tilt his head and return her greeting, albeit more politely. "Haruno Sakura-san." His voice, like that of the clone she encountered before, is calm and unruffled. He seems detached from his emotions, distant somehow. But she can feel his gaze on her averted face, burning with something she cannot name. "You are going after Naruto-kun." There is no question in his voice, but she answers anyway.

"He went after Pein's real body, and they wouldn't let me go after him until everyone who was still alive was healed," she says cautiously, and wonders why she is telling him this—why she is telling him anything.

"Everyone who was… still alive?" He speaks slowly; if he was anybody but Uchiha Itachi, she would call his tone disbelieving.

She nods stiffly. "Pein destroyed most of Konoha with one of his attacks, before Naruto arrived."

He shifts, blinks; she thinks she imagines the brief flash of emotion—painsorrowangergriefworryanxiety—that crosses his alabaster face. Then he is all unyielding stone and his voice is even. All he says in reaction is, "Naruto-kun went alone?"

"Yes." Her eyes flash, daring him to challenge her friend's decision. "But he knew we'd follow him eventually."

"And you go alone, unafraid to travel by yourself?" he murmurs, his eyes still trained on her.

"I hardly expected to find you," she replies quietly, watching his hair blow in the gentle breeze.

"And still, you do not seem surprised," he notes with scant interest.

She laughs softly, raises her eyes to look into his. "After all that has happened in the last few days, I do not believe there is much that would shock me. I watched—" Her voice falls silent for a moment before gaining strength. "I watched it burn. I watched it all burn down, until Konoha was nothing but ash and bodies and screaming and pain and—"

He makes a soft noise deep in his chest and his feet shift slightly, causing her to break off and smile wanly at him.

"But at least I still have my precious people," she whispers, and she sees the anguish and the ghosts (but not regret, because he does not regret what he did) in those startlingly dark, obsidian eyes. "Two days ago, looking through Konoha's old mission records, I realized that you are… the bravest person I know."

Shock and confusion cloud his eyes as he realizes that she knows.

She inclines her head. "Naruto is more than fit to finish the job you began. So… you don't need to worry about that. I'm glad that I finally got to meet you."

He hears the respect—not the innocent adoration of a boy he once knew, the boy for whom he sacrificed everything, not the hidden fear behind a thin veneer of praise from an arrogant clan (now a clan of ghosts and blood), but the honest admiration of a kunoichi who can (almost) understand his pain—in her voice, and he reaches out and grasps her arm as she shuffles past him, having said all she has ever wanted to say to him.

Startled malachite eyes dart up to meet his and she stiffens as he tugs her toward him.

"I am glad," he whispers in her ear, "that our paths were allowed to meet here, Sakura-san. If it has not already been burned down, I ask you to please destroy the Uchiha compound when you return. And…" he hesitates, "tell Sasuke I loved him." A pair of cool lips presses against here own, and she realizes that he has no heartbeat just as he murmurs, "Thank you," against her skin (his fingers stroking her palm and it is calloused and hardened and she is a shinobi and he knows she will understand—someday).

And then he disappears, leaving only dust in the air and a necklace with three rings in her hands, and a scarlet ring drops to the ground silently. She walks forward, crushing it silently with her heel, the last mark of the Akatsuki carried off by the breeze.

"No, Itachi-san," she says to the fine dust that is all that remains of one of Konoha's greatest shinobi. "Thank you."

Her steps grow faster; already the sun is rising to the east, casting shadows on the ruins of Naruto and Pein's battle. Already she is searching for Naruto's chakra signature.

She reaches up and fastens the necklace around her own neck, to rest lightly against her collarbones (near her heart).

"Grant me your courage and your strength to do what I must," she says softly, and strides forward to meet the dawn.

this is not the


only the beginning

It's kind of interesting, that last line. After all, "Akatsuki" can mean "dawn". I thought I should hurry up and post this before Pein and Naruto's battle ended, because it will most likely kill the possible-ness of this plot/story thingy. Just for the record, Sakura isn't talking to Itachi's corpse. It's more like... his spirit. Sasuke isn't mentioned much because... I guess I wanted Itachi to die without realizing that his whole entire plan to protect Konoha epic failed. Yesh. Tell me what you think?