Disclaimer: Unfortunately, I do not own Naruto or any of its affiliations…I am merely borrowing its characters and settings to indulge my own fantasies and then share said fantasies with other people who equally do not own Naruto. I am not making any profit off this.

Author's Note: this story... ah, to think it started with the random image of Deidara in a corvette...

- o -

Chapter One: The Forecast Is Grey

Underwater I wrote drowning

I used to be such a good, good swimmer

- o -

Café Vittoria was neutral territory these days, so it made an ideal place for them to meet –not to mention the caffee macchiato they served was the best in the city.

As always, Itachi had managed to find a two person table in the back room of the small establishment where he waited for her patiently while nursing his favourite drink. No matter the venue, privacy was always a priority.

He turned a page in his book between sips and discreetly looked over his red-tinted sunglasses for any sign of his expected guest. She was always one for being punctual, but too often, she was held up by overly protective senior members of Konoha, or she would be pestered into an emergency surgery, or something else that was equally tedious. Haruno Sakura was just one to be sought after.

If it wasn't for her medical background or her deadly accuracy with any gun, then it was for her charm or her devastating looks. She was still young (too young for the business, but then, so were many others), and, despite her upbringing, rather innocent. She was never one to say 'no' to someone in need. Though at times, the 'need' a person claimed to have for her was usually rather insufficient, in Itachi's opinion.

He was not being hypocritical, of course.

If anything, these few monthly visits that they shared were mostly for her benefit. It seemed that after he had saved her life that one time —and back then, it had been purely for Sasuke's sake— Sakura could not let go of him. She had used her connections with Lady Tsunade to look at all the information they had on him, and from there, logically deduced the places she would most likely run into him. She would have been killed again, too, had she stumbled across him even minutes earlier, as he had just finished a drop-off with Deidara, but somehow Sakura had been lucky enough to survive that day as well. Itachi had been surprised to see her, but even more so when she stepped right up to him, her hands empty and non-threatening, and without touching him elsewhere, kissed the side of his jaw before uttering a nervous 'thank you, for that.'

And then, with more confidence, Sakura proceeded to tell him that she was not at all convinced he was working solely with the Akatsuki. She listed the results of her research on him, combined with suspicious actions of his that she had seen first-hand, and said quite bluntly that she was sure he had faked his falling out with Konoha for the sake of his younger brother. And that she was convinced, though it had yet to be confirmed by her superiors, that he was currently an acting double agent.

Itachi had inwardly cursed her intelligent sleuthing and told her aloud that she was clearly mistaken – he wouldn't hesitate to kill her. To prove his point, he had dragged her down an alley — one that was conveniently shadowy and grungy — quite smoothly put a gun to her head and cocked it, the metallic clicking sound loud even in the midst of city noises.

Sakura's body might have been straight and tense, but her eyes had been as steady as his grip and she had said evenly, "put the gun down. Killing me here would only be a larger mess for you. And anyway, we have corresponding interests"

From there, he had eventually agreed to her invitation to coffee in order to discuss Sasuke. Sakura had seemed quite hung up on his brother back then, and Itachi had grudgingly attempted to guide her because she was from his old syndicate, and he felt oddly responsible for her after saving her life. Though over time, they began to speak less of Sasuke and more about trivial, less dangerous subjects, but Itachi wasn't sure if that was because her feelings for his younger brother had faded, or because it had become very obvious that Sasuke was closer to killing him with each passing day and Sakura thought it too raw a subject to discuss.

Instead, they had traded opinions on literature, discussed the economy, and even finished a crossword puzzle together. Sakura was especially remarkable company, Itachi had finally admitted to himself one day. She was well-read and up to date on world events —let alone everything that was going on in their world— and she always had a well founded opinion to share. She was always smiling, too. With her soft green eyes and exotic hair, she was a welcomed sight on every occasion.

It was becoming harder to see Sakura regularly, though, and already it had been five weeks since he had last met with her. For a two week block of time they would decide on a new place to exchange information, usually in the form of a letter, and her most recent note had said that she would meet him at eleven in the morning at this shop. He had checked the box this morning to see if she had cancelled last minute, but there had not been anything new for him to read.

Eventually, while reaching for his handkerchief, Itachi glanced at his watch and subsequently frowned as he realised that she was running over an hour late. It was not a record, but it was getting up there. Telling himself he should not feel so distracted by her absence, he went back to reading his book.

Two hours later, after Itachi had been forced to switch to ordering water lest he have some sort of undignified caffeine and sugar high, Sakura still hadn't shown up.

They had a rule that the meeting had a two hour window for the both of them to show up, which meant Itachi had already given her an extra hour. They had never missed a chance to see each other in the past, and he couldn't help but wonder what it was that held her up so badly today.

Strictly due to the nature of their occupations, images of a hurt, shot, or dead Sakura flashed through Itachi's mind. She was, after all, a high profile target for several organizations, and any day now, a hit could be ordered on her. Even Akatsuki was keeping an eye on Sakura —especially after what had happened between her and Sasori not too long ago. If his boss found out that Itachi had been secretly traipsing around the city with a Konoha operative, then it wouldn't be Itachi's head Pain would be after.

That man would find Sakura first and try to rip as much information out of her as possible. If at all he felt that one of his highest ranked subordinates had betrayed him, he would not hesitate to take even Lady Tsunade's exalted protégé. And he would not bother to be gentle with her.

Another image, this time of Hidan standing over a bloody, pink-haired form, came to his mind, and Itachi had to massage his temples and take a deep breath before his heart calmed again. That, thankfully, was not a possibility he had to worry about — the last he heard, Hidan had been incapacitated by the heir of the Nara clan.

At any rate, he needed to stop letting his thoughts get the better of him. Yes, there were possible scenarios where Sakura could get hurt, but they were unlikely. He and Sakura were both well trained in staying untraceable, and so far, neither of them had encountered even small amounts of suspicion from their respective groups.

She had probably just been stuck in surgery, pulling bullets out of that Inuzuka kid again.

Reluctantly, Itachi paid his bill and made his way out of the café. Outside it was cloudy and cool and he thought that, even in this weather, Sakura would still shine as prettily as ever.

Because the girl was pretty, despite how hard it was for him to acknowledge the fact. She had pleasing features, smooth skin and nice bone structure, and a lithe body that was toned as well as feminine. But there was more to Sakura than just 'pretty'; she had an inner light that radiated strength and warmth simultaneously. It was the glow of a girl who had the right balance of willpower and compassion.

Itachi stifled his rather positive observations concerning the Haruno girl before they touched upon forbidden territory. She was a young girl who was not ugly, that was all.

Except, even Itachi was forced to admit that this was blatant self-delusion, Sakura was more than that, and being attractive or standing out physically in the kind of world in which they lived was a dangerous thing for a woman. If Sakura had been kidnapped, any man would jump at the chance to touch her. She was so delicate but stubbornly determined, that any cruel person, certainly, would start to obsess over breaking her. And once again, Itachi was somewhat relieved that the torture specialist, Hidan, was no longer around. However, there were others in the organization who would happily leave nothing of Sakura behind had they the chance to get near her.

Again, Itachi had to snap his thoughts away from dark places. Sakura was just as much a member of the underground society as he —she wouldn't get caught so easily. She knew the risks and how to avoid bad situations.

Undoubtedly, she had learned from her past experience with Akatsuki and the rash decision that had almost cost her life, he reassured himself.

Itachi arrived at the parking garage where he had left his Aston Martin, but when his car came into sight, there was an unpleasant smear across its hood.

The smear was actually Deidara, but the boy was unpleasant nonetheless, and Itachi chose not to think about how he had managed to slip into the secure valet parking. The younger man grinned at Itachi from his perch and said to him when he had walked close enough, "Ain't she pretty, hm?"

Itachi didn't answer the blonde, choosing instead to move past him and patiently slip on his leather driving gloves before unlocking his door. Deidara swivelled in his spot to watch him and the sound of the movement on the surface of Itachi's car was jarring and far too squeaky. Trying to ignore his fellow Akatsuki, Itachi started to get behind the wheel when Deidara's voice stopped him.

"I asked if you agreed that Haruno Sakura was pretty, Itachi."

In the Akatsuki, Deidara fulfilled two very important roles: explosives expert and reconnaissance agent. Whereas Sasori had been a more traditional mechanic, Deidara was a genius with electronics and had an unnatural enthusiasm for mixing unstable chemicals. He could set up cameras anywhere and run a feed back to the base to be watched live or recorded, and then with a press of a button, he would destroy the recording device once its use had run out.

For him of all people to mention Sakura meant for certain he was not bluffing. Deidara may often be volatile and noisy, but he was very rarely wrong when it came to his job. He was the best at what he did, after all.

"Get in," Itachi said edgily, as he slid into the seat. A moment later Deidara was settling into the passenger side of the coupé, excitedly touching every interior surface of the Vantage and trying the radio dials. "Stop it," Itachi ordered, resisting the temptation to swat at the wandering fingers. He started the engine and started to drive, waiting until they were on the main road to speak again. "What do you know?" he asked, forcing the tension from his voice.

Deidara, who was still happily working on adjusting his seat, answered him easily enough. "I know you two have been meeting each other in different places across the city. Usually small bistros and like 'couple spots'. You guys decide on a location to exchange information and then on the time and location of where you can see each other in person."

It was better than, 'I know your history and that you are a double agent', Itachi thought ironically. "Anything else?"

"She kissed you, but only once, and it was that first time she saw you, hm," Deidara twisted slightly in the car so that he could look at Itachi straight on. "That day after the Nibi drop-off. I was going through destroying my security cams when I saw you and her talking. You were expressionless as always, but I couldn't see her for the most part, just the back of her head. Oh, and then you dragged her into the alleyway and I was positive you were gonna get your rocks off right there, but I couldn't see. But when you walked back into view, neither of you looked messed up or anything."

Disregarding his passenger's rather crass commenting, Itachi asked, his voice tight, "What do you suspect?"

"Hey, listen, if you think you can just shoot me and be done with it, I have a trigger here attached to my palm and with one fist I can have a composite video of your little trysts sent directly to Pain's personal blackberry." The blonde gave him a cool smirk. "But you, especially you, Itachi, know that I am not one to die for the sake of Akatsuki. I'm only here because it's a high-paying job and I like the thrills. I just thought we could work out an agreement, hm."

Itachi glanced over at Deidara and took a moment to decide the best course of action, but he wasn't given the chance.

"I'll leave her alone if you let me have the Kyuubi or your brother," Deidara stated smugly, knowing that he was the one with the power in this situation. From the perspective of someone who took Itachi at face value, as a cold-blooded and psychotic bastard, then this probably sounded like a fair deal. For all Deidara knew, Itachi could care less about Sasuke, and Uzumaki Naruto was just another container.

"You really think she is that important to me, do you?" Itachi asked coolly, and Deidara nodded his head with obvious conviction.

"She's the first girl I've seen you talk to in almost four years. Well, not counting Konan and the ones we've done business with."

Had it really been so long? Itachi had not really considered it before, seeing as he wasn't one to socialize with members of either gender too often, but he supposed that was about right. After he had killed his cousin and his mother, he had lost touch with the other sex. There was no longer any purpose in pursuing a woman for reasons other than his job. "She is interesting company." Itachi replied evasively.

"Yeah, but if I had some time alone with her, I'd make her do more than talk, if you know what I mean?" Deidara raised his eyebrows suggestively while a feral grin twisted his lips.

Perhaps Itachi applied a bit too much pressure to his brakes when he came to a stop just then; while he had a seatbelt on and was relatively unaffected, Deidara flew off the leather seat only to smash into the dashboard. He had been sitting sideways, so his arm took the brunt of the hit, but the sight of him fussing over his hair and cursing Itachi was amusing enough.

The blonde took only a little amount of time to right himself and properly secure the strap across his chest before he spoke again. "Okay, so the girl is clearly your territory —too bad, but whatever, hm. So, who's it gonna be, the Kyuubi or Sasuke?"

From some time ago, the Akatsuki had been tracking Sasuke's movements, and not once at the mention of his possible death had Itachi reacted with any interest. If he were to suddenly act possessive of him now, it would be out of his character. Sasuke had taken down Orochimaru; surely he could handle Deidara. And if he failed to defeat the sadistic 'artist' then it would hardly have been believable for him to defeat Itachi. He just had to trust in his brother's skill and his will to live so that he could get revenge for the clan.

Sasuke was also a better choice, because at least with his confrontation with Akatsuki, there wasn't chance of an apocalypse. Selfishly, Itachi wanted his brother to live, but in the end, the general population and peace took precedent over one life.

While Uzumaki was pretty well-covered at all times, if by some chance the Akatsuki did manage to get a hold of him, then everything would be over. Pain had already managed to procure seven of the nine different, equally destructive, plague-like bacterial strands, and if he gained control of the Kyuubi, then the Akatsuki would be one step closer to an inescapable biochemical war.

As it had been for the other containers, only Naruto's body was capable of living with one of the particular bacteria because of a mutagenic property of his chromosomes. And the research that Senju, and then Namikaze, had carried out to develop a cure had only gotten so far as to keep the Uzumaki boy from being contagious. Only a direct transfer of blood would be enough to infect others. As of yet, Konoha was still struggling to create a cure.

Itachi needed to make sure they had enough time to engineer something and mass produce it; otherwise, the results would be devastating.

Though it went against every fibre in his heart, he said, "Do what you will with Sasuke."

"Ah, ruthless," Deidara said with a wide grin. "I've had a problem with that kid ever since he killed off Orochimaru. I guess now I have the chance to get him back. Ah, hey, you can let me off here."

Itachi directed the car to the curve and slowed to a stop, not bothering to turn to Deidara even as the blonde opened the car door, still speaking. "You should really make your code harder to break in the future. And reading the letter at the box and destroying it right there is good most of the time, but not when it can be caught on camera anyway."

Deidara stepped out onto the curb, but then almost immediately leaned back into the car with more parting words. "Oh yeah, and one wrong move, Uchiha, and I'll make the girl go bang."

To make his meaning clear, he held up his other hand to show Itachi a second remote detonator in the centre of his palm. He flexed his fingers in a threatening tease and flashed one last dangerous smile. "Be careful, now, hm."

And with that, the younger man was gone —off to prepare for battle. Itachi watched his platinum ponytail for as long as he could until it eventually disappeared in the crowd of people on the side walk.

Shit. He needed to find Sakura.

The only place he could start would be their message box, which was actually the underside of a newspaper dispenser outside a general store on the other end of the city. First off, however, he needed to get a new car. Deidara had been alone with his Vantage for up to possibly three hours; there was no telling what he had done to it.

Itachi spent the latter part of the afternoon driving to the outer metropolitan area in order to leave his car in an Akatsuki storehouse. He made sure to be subtle about where he parked it, but if some of Deidara's spare technology got caught in the explosion, well then he would be very sorry for the blonde's loss.

When he exited the building, which was industrial and quite unsightly, Kisame had already arrived to pick him up. He was leaning against the hood of his Rolls-Royce, Phantom Drophead Coupé —the only sedan capable of supporting his massive frame—enjoying a smoke as he waited. Itachi frowned at his partner and brought his silk pocket square to his mouth as he coughed.

"Something wrong with the Aston Martin?" Kisame asked as he guiltily put out his cigarette.

Itachi went straight for the passenger door and said by way of complete explanation, "Deidara."

"Ah, yeah. I heard the kid's on the move against Sasuke," Kisame said as he got into his car, Itachi doing the same on the other side. "You all right with that?"

Itachi gave his long-time colleague a quiet look, but it was mostly lost behind the scarlet shades he wore. In any case, Kisame understood; he had become an expert at reading the stoic man's minute expressions. Of course, Itachi's countenance read 'That is none of your concern' at the moment, so really, his skills were not especially helpful. He barked out a laugh at this and started the engine.

"All right, we're off!" Kisame pulled out of the lot and they started to travel back into the innermost cities of the metropolis.

For a long while, the two occupants were silent and lost in thought. Itachi's focus, unfortunately, was switching back and forth between Sasuke and Sakura and their increasing chances of death by 'being blasted into many small pieces'.

How was it that he had allowed two people to get dragged into the web of a crazed explosives expert? Why hadn't he tried harder to protect Sasuke? If things continued as they were now, then Itachi really would be responsible for the deaths of his entire family.

Then there was Sakura —a girl he did not even have the right to associate with, and now he was going to get her killed. He should have never allowed her to manipulate him like she did so easily half a year ago. She had been so adamant and sure of herself that he had given up the thought of arguing with her almost immediately.

If he hadn't, though, then she certainly would have tracked him down again, in any case.

But he could have outsmarted Sakura somehow. Itachi was a genius as well, if not even more so than her, and now, in hindsight, he continually thought of ways in which he could have discouraged her from her inappropriate pursuit of him. There were so many other choices that he could have made in order to prevent this situation from happening.

Eventually, however, as time passed, Itachi grew too weary to continue trying to relive his past mistakes in ways that would have changed the current situation. Yes, he had made miscalculations, but the thing he needed to think about now was protecting Sakura. The threat to her life was more immediate —it would take several days for Deidara to corner Sasuke into a fight, at the very least.

"I need to get to get to Kusa," Itachi said as he rested his head against the cool glass window with a shallow sigh. "As fast as you can, Kisame, please."

Kisame, who had probably been waiting the entire time for his passenger to say something, gave Itachi a cocky grin. It was an unsettling sight because, for one thing, it greatly contrasted Itachi's mood at the moment, and it just looked strange on his partner's heavily tattooed face —and that Kisame was wearing his grill tonight as well just made it worse.

Completely unaware of Itachi's thoughts on his looks, Kisame said cheerfully, "I won't ask if something is going on, but will you need any back up?"

"I think something of mine has been compromised." Itachi replied vaguely. Of course, Sakura really wasn't his, but Kisame did not know that. And by "compromised", he meant that she was in serious danger of being assassinated.

If what Deidara claimed was true, and that at a moment's notice he could kill her, then it meant that the bomb was not planted in her apartment or workplace. It had to be something that she travelled with constantly. Maybe her pocket book or her lip gloss.

There was a vivid image, then, of Sakura going to apply make up only to have the bomb detonate as she reached her face.

More images of the girl being killed entered his head, and after awhile the scenarios completely strayed altogether from death by 'being a blast! Literally!' to things that were much darker and more drawn-out.

Itachi cursed mentally and glanced at the navigation system on the console. They still had quite a distance to travel, and the closer they got, the worse traffic would get. He needed to move fast, and there was very little possibility of Kisame's monstrous sedan weaving between cars on the streets with ease.

"Kisame," Itachi said, finally breaking the long pause in conversation. "If you could just get me to the South End Tunnel, then that would be sufficient."

"So, that's a 'negative' for back up, huh?" his partner quipped.

"For now," he answered, and he saw that Kisame actually looked surprised by the serious answer. Itachi ignored the glances being sent his way, and instead retrieved his cellular phone from the inside pocket of his suit and quickly dialled Zetsu. "Get my BMW to the westbound entrance of the South End Tunnel, ASAP," he said without any preamble when the other line picked up.

"I'll have it there in twenty," was the confident response and then the call cut off abruptly. It had been Zetsu, of course, as he was the one in charge of all the units of transportation that Akatsuki used. For all the years Itachi had known him, he had never missed a rendezvous. How he could move anything that quickly in the city was nearly beyond the laws of physics, but Itachi did not dwell on the means (though he suspected it had something to do with the subterranean electrical circuit maintenance passages), but rather on the fact that the task would get done.

"It's unusual for you to change your mind," Kisame observed after Itachi had hung up. "Must be something important."

Saving any life, really, was something important.

It was just that, at the moment, Haruno Sakura's was taking priority.

"Hn," he answered non-committally. Itachi remained silent until he saw that they were approaching the tunnel and that, sure enough, standing perfectly unscathed on the other side of the concrete barriers, was his sleek and manoeuvrable BMW.

"Get off at the Highway Maintenance stop up ahead," he said, already sitting up straighter in anticipation.

"Yeah, yeah. I see it." The Rolls-Royce looked extremely out of place —and if it had been possible, a little uncomfortable as Kisame drove it up alongside the grungy and obnoxiously coloured service vehicles. "Itachi," Kisame hesitated a bit, and for once he seemed to speak without humour. "Are you sure you're fit to drive that?"

There wasn't time for him not be, he answered internally. Aloud, he just gave another vague, dismissive answer as he exited the sedan. Hovering between the open door and the seat of the car, he bowed his head respectfully. "Thank you, Kisame."

"Keep watch, kid," was Kisame's farewell before he drove off and Itachi was on his own again.

Adjusting his gloves and coat, Itachi turned to take in the welcomed site of his custom built, black and vermilion BMW K 1300 sport bike. He would find Sakura in no time. Kisame had only ever driven cars, and therefore had no appreciation for the sophisticated, high-performance ride that a motorcycle like this offered.

He quickly secured his phone's handless earpiece and slipped his helmet on. Normally, he would wear more appropriate, sturdier fabrics when riding, and so a small part of him briefly lamented over the damage he would indisputably inflict upon his superfine-wool suit, but it could not be helped.

Just sitting on the bike reminded Itachi of the stability and power it offered. Even for someone in his condition, he still navigated the roads with ease —weaving between cars effortlessly on his way to Kusa. His ultimate destination was Hi no Kuni, but there was no way he could mention that to another Akatsuki without someone questioning his motives or at the very least, imposing him with their company.

It was easy enough to get into the districts that made up the City of Fire, despite that he was using his distinctive motorcycle that he knew Tsunade had marked, but the real trouble would be getting into the central hub of Konohagakure. Itachi had been able to use his knowledge from his stint in ANBU the last time he had entered that territory, but by now they would have updated their security for certain.

Itachi's best chance for infiltration would be the pier side of the Konohagakure district, which was a steel, labyrinthine forest of freighters and shipping containers on its border with Kusa. From there he'd travel through the Aburame clan's district and then eventually to Sakura's apartment. If she wasn't in, which was a certain possibility given her occupation, then he could at least have a solid place to begin looking for her. At the very least he could check her home for any of Deidara's electronics or explosives.

Above the noise of the streets and the tops of the skyscrapers, there was an approaching noise of thunder and the distinct promise of a storm. Unconcerned with how his bike performed on slick pavement, Itachi was more worried for the other approaching storms that involved his insane comrade, his kin, and the only girl he would ever care to miss were she to disappear from his life.

- o -

Chapter Two: And to My Heart Confusion Rose Against

The muscles fought so long

to control against the pull of one magnet to another

- o -

Surprisingly enough, it was Itachi himself that caused Sakura to miss her scheduled meeting with him earlier in the day.

Not him personally, as much as Lady Tsunade, who had informed Sakura and her cell that the ex-Konoha syndicate member had been spotted near the City of Fire recently and that they were responsible for tracking him down. Naruto's suggestion of finding Itachi and subsequently encountering Sasuke was finally being put into action. They only had a couple of hours to prepare, and a trip to the drop-off box had been an impossibility, although she doubted Itachi would be too upset at her absence. She just made a silent plea that he had abandoned the thought of meeting her at Café Vittoria by now. She didn't want to have to engage in a fight with him if he had happened to stick around the area.

Sakura glanced around her 'efficiency apartment' once again, this time to locate her pistol holster (one that more resembled lingerie than anything else). She spotted it on her dresser top and made quick work of securing it on her thigh, where it was hidden safely by the hemline of her skirt and petticoat. Besides looking for Itachi, the other part of the mission involved locating Sasuke, who had also been close as of late, so she had to be sure to be extra prepared. The last time she had seen the younger Uchiha, he had tried to shoot her.

It looked promising for rain outside, and Sakura understood that a skirt and blouse outfit wasn't the optimal choice of wear for the day, but it was the best coverage she had for the assortment of weapons she had decided to carry. Being a woman, and a young and petite one at that, she was unapologetic about self-defence and had some of the most dangerous little tricks that anyone would care to have. Including the 'standard' poisonous needles, assassination wire, and throwing knives, the gun she was strapping to her thigh was one of Shiho's newest devices, straight out of the lab. It fired white phosphorous micro bombs that were capable of burning straight through any combustible material, including human flesh.

She grimaced at the weapon, but slipped it into the holster nonetheless. It would be aimed at a person only as a last resort.

There was also her trusted pair of tempered steel knuckles. They always made smashing things much easier. She placed the leather gloves they were attached to on the inside pocket of her rain coat.

"Sakura, we're heading out," her cell leader's smooth voice came over her wireless suddenly. "Meet at the West Gate in ten."

"Affirmative, Yamato-taichou," she replied, while strapping on her deceptively stylish combat boots. As if on cue, there was a knock on her apartment door. She clipped on her coat before opening it to reveal a rather subdued Naruto.

"Sakura-chan..." her team mate said in greeting, his normal smile absent. She hadn't really expected to see it and found that she was equally incapable of conjuring a cheerful façade.

Their gazes met and Sakura felt her heart tighten a little bit at the uncertainty that was so plainly visible in his eyes. She joined him outside, locking the door behind her, and peered over the railing to see that Sai was standing in the street below. That was good, she wanted to say this privately. "Listen Naruto, I think I should share something with you."

She bit her lip. Should she tell Naruto? But then, the order was not to kill Itachi, only capture him. Except she did not want him to be in the custody of Konoha ANBU either. Maybe she should just trust his ability to not get caught.

Noticing her hesitation and completely assuming the wrong thing, Naruto laid his hands on Sakura's shoulders reassuringly. "You don't have to explain anything Sakura-chan, I know how you feel. We'll get that teme back! I promised, remember?"

"That's–" she faltered. What did he mean by 'know how she feels'? Sakura did not even know how she felt these days. But Naruto's face was so sincere that she could not bring herself to admit to her own doubts. He just needed her support, to know that even if all of Konoha turned its back on Sasuke, at least she would still be standing there with him, ready to go after their lost team mate. "Thanks, Naruto. Let's bring him back together."

His cheeky grin reappeared and he squeezed her shoulders again before turning to make his way down to the road. She felt colder as he left.

It was quiet as the three walked and Sakura's thoughts wandered.

She had been sixteen at the time, and she and Naruto had only just reunited after separate apprenticeships, when the call for assistance came from Suna. Gaara, it was reported, had been taken hostage by Akatsuki while fighting to protect his men. He was the fourth container to be captured and his syndicate did not have the resources to retrieve him on their own.

The two responsible for Gaara's defeat were Deidara, a former Iwa member, and Sasori, a former tech developer of Suna. As Sakura quickly found out, Sasori's speciality was AI.

With her squad and backup scattered throughout the city streets of Kaze, Sakura had been left to fight him on her own while Chiyo dictated her moves over her earpiece. The woman had been an upper level agent in the Suna group many years ago, but her extensive fighting experience had not depreciated at all.

Sasori's location of choice to deal with Sakura had been a partially gutted old toy factory. It was dilapidated, dark, and full with rusting webs of ageing assembly lines and parts distributors. The place was spooky for one thing, but incredibly difficult to navigate for another, and she had been naïve enough to rush into it although her enemy had already had plenty of time to prepare to fight her there.

Avoiding Sasori's traps and robotic brood had been difficult, and she survived them strictly because of Chiyo's forewarnings. The robots, strange devices he would plant in strategic places that reacted to heat signatures, would have been almost impossible to defeat, but Chiyo had been familiar with their attack pattern programming, and therefore was able to tell her how she could get in close to disarm or otherwise destroy them. Outsmarting the traps had been more about Sakura predicting where and how the ex-Suna operative would use them.

But then Chiyo had been taken out. She had not known what happened, only that her communications shut off with a loud collection of static.

When Sakura was finally able to confront Sasori face to face, the situation deteriorated even further. He was faster and stronger than his slender form lead her to believe and she was without backup. They traded a few blows, but it had not taken him long to corner her. She gave herself some time to think by getting him to talk; she questioned how he still looked the way he did when her intelligence told her that he should have been middle aged.

Sasori admitted that his interests in AI had developed into a fascination with bio-mechanical engineering and self-application. He explained, with no shortage of narcissism, that he had come the closest ever out of any human to obtain immortality. Sakura had been honestly intrigued.

Replacing organs with synthetic duplicates was the key, he had told her. It was a scientific breakthrough that even Tsunade had never considered. The lines he had crossed concerning bio-ethics were many, however, and Sakura could only be a bit horrified by his existence. She also hadn't expected the traps he had implanted in his own body.

When he had been sharing his triumphs with her, Sasori had wandered nearer. It was an intimidation technique, to get close to her and unnerve her. He had already disarmed her and most likely felt up to a game of cat and mouse. Sakura was only a little girl, after all, so what did an experienced assassin like himself to fear?

The thing about being a little girl, however, was that everyone underestimated Sakura. The fact that she had lost her Barreta probably made Sasori feel safer and bold enough to get within her reach. His first movement had been her only chance to attack him, and she had. When his arm came for her, she did what any person trained in ninjutsu would do –use his own actions to her advantage. It was his left arm, so using her right hand, she had grabbed his wrist and gathering all of her remaining strength, pivoted to the opening on that side and slammed her elbow into his temple without releasing her hold.

The hit had grazed him. She had quickly tried for another when her hold of him suddenly dropped away. Or more that his arm suddenly dropped out of his shoulder socket. Sakura stumbled with the loss of his resistance and had still been trying to understand what had happened when she turned around to face him.

Then he had stabbed her.

It was not an injury that would bleed her out immediately, but it was also not one she would be able to walk away from. He had laughed as she grabbed at his remaining arm and demanded to know how.

"Prosthetics, of course," he said around a smile. "Technology is great, is it not?"

With her hands fumbling at her waist where the hilt stopped, he had not noticed her detaching the 'last resort' weapon from beneath her silk belt.

"Tell me, how long do you think you can last with a synthetic brain, huh?" she remembered asking while watching his maniacal smile slide off his face. Sword still deep in her side, she found his neck with one hand and drove the five inch blade of her shobo into his skull with the other.

They both collapsed. There was blood everywhere, gathering and mixing between them as they had laid on the concrete floor of the old toy factory. Her vision had almost gone, the darkness swiftly closing in. She was going to die, she had thought.

And then he had arrived. Sakura had not recognised him at first, in fact, she had thought he was someone else entirely. But his hair had been too long, his face a bit too mature, his arms a little too strong and certain. Except it could not possibly be the only other person who came to mind, she had told herself as delirium grabbed at her.

The red cloud insignia was the last thing she had focused on before she lost consciousness.

She woke up in an emergency room two days later, her head pounding and her stomach churning. She learned from a frazzled young ER doctor that she had died once on the table and had come close again with her stats dropped in the ICU. He did not ask her any questions about how she had gotten so close to death in the first place, probably recognising who she was (or at least with whom she was affiliated).

Someone had saved her and she had a good suspicion as to whom – but why would Uchiha Itachi ever do such a compromising, high risk, foolish thing?

"Sakura-chan!" Sakura snapped out of her reminiscing and blinked up at the source of the voice.

It was Naruto. "What? What's up?"

He pointed down the street and she saw that they had arrived at the West Gate, which contrary to its name, was actually a parking garage. It was a twelve story high concrete block that looked somewhat odd positioned between two marvellously designed glass skyscrapers.

The meeting place was in the basement, though, and soon the three were underground in the shady, damp subterranean level. Whenever a squad was due to move out, their vehicles were moved here for convenience. Already, Sakura could see a group of people standing around Kakashi's silver Mosler.

"Hinata! Kiba! Shino!"

Team Eight and Team Yamato exchanged greetings and Sakura was happy to see that Naruto had cheered up some.

"Alright, here's the plan," Kakashi said, directing everyone's attention back to the mission. "Today is about tracking down both Uchiha Sasuke and Uchiha Itachi. Sasuke is our first priority, but if you happen to encounter Itachi first, do not engage on your own."

"What do you mean?" Sakura frowned at her sensei. "Are you sending us out there individually?"

Kakashi gave her a nonplussed look. "You'll each have two of my dogs with you. That should be enough."

As if out of thin air, Kakashi's pack appeared. Eight expertly trained and dangerous hounds joined the the platoon. Sakura eyed the pair that had come up to her side rather quickly.

"They know what scents to track. Radio in when you have confirmed the target." Kakashi mapped out the territories each person would cover and set up the next rendezvous point. Then he went over the standard reminders about being thorough, inconspicuous, and aware of their environment and limitations. When he was finished, they scattered and Sakura started on her way to Hi no Kuni's commercial district.

All the businesses of the commercial district were flashy and dealt mostly with entertainment blowing. The buildings weren't very tall or impressive, but the sheer amount of lights and advertisements and live video feeds made up for that. There were no cars allowed, but the shopping bags and souvenir carts made weaving through the crowds difficult even for Sakura. The back alleys made good spots for seedy operations.

But there was no chance that she would run into either of the Uchiha siblings in this area, and after two hours of checking out possible haunts she'd grown weary. If she really wanted to find Itachi, then she could always do what she had done the first time she had tried to track him down. She took out her Chairman smartphone to pull up some files, but her earpiece crackling to life interrupted her.

"Hey, Cherry, report."

"Damnit Sensei, I told you not to call me that! It's so obvious too," Sakura grumbled aloud and a passer-by gave her an odd look. "Anyway, there's nothing on my end so far. I had one false lead, but that was it."

"Did you at least pick me up a gift?" Kakashi's dry voice gained a teasing edge.

She sighed. If he was joking with her, then no one had any news to share. "A diamond studded thong," she said, inspired by one of the many window signs. "Hot pink."

"Can't wait to try it out. I hope you picked up a pair for yourself." He answered, unaffected, and her cheeks warmed. He continued, sounding a bit less cheerful, "Don't forget to check in every once in a while, ok?"

The man may have been a philandering lazy ass, but he generally looked out for her and she was grateful.

"And also..."

"Yes, Sensei?"

"Make sure to get the black one for yourself." But most of the time he was just digging his own grave.

The correspondence ended and Sakura turned her gaze skyward to see that the clouds had darkened and that the rain that had been hovering all afternoon looked just about ready to fall. Changing her mind, she put her smartphone away; she could not afford to just do as she pleased right now.

Tsunade had never found out about her earlier researches and personal missions, but she could not risk doing something like that again. Right?

Maybe it had only started as a vague interest in finding out more about the older Uchiha, because, after the incident, Sakura realised she had never known too much about him in the first place. She knew that he had killed his family but left Sasuke alive on a whim. Except that there was never any mention of why he might have done such a thing. He had gone from perfect operative to renegade weapon literally overnight.

Her curiosity soon developed into something more and it had become imperative to her to understand why she had been saved that night. There had been no favor demanded in return, no mentions of his deed to the Konoha Syndicate, and he had not even stuck around to make sure she was aware of just who her rescuer was. Itachi might not even had known himself that Sakura had identified him. She had become determined to unravel his reasoning.

It had been unhealthy, but also a bit admirable that she had poured so many hours into her investigation. Bypassing security and breaking into forbidden records could have gotten her hand cut off, or worse ‒killed. But it was the only way she would have had a chance to find out the full story of the Uchiha Massacre, as it had come to be referred as.

Sakura was not a book smart and hard working genius for nothing. When she had procured Itachi's old ANBU folder, the many pages of inked out text definitely aroused her suspicion. And then there was the fact that neither Fugaku or Mikoto had any ANBU files to speak of also caught her interest. They were both highly skilled and highly ranked members of Konoha, why hadn't they been involved in the Black Ops? Unless they had never been as trusted as she was previously led to believe...

She had done a full scale review of the Uchiha family operations sanctioned by the syndicate after that. It had taken months to do it, being that she had to do it with complete discretion. She discovered that while Itachi had been taken of his ANBU missions and was supposed to have been working as an intelligence officer, he had worked out his jobs so that he rarely went. His parents, coincidentally, had been pulled from the active roster.

It was odd, she had thought, that someone with the intent to destroy his family and attack the syndicate from within had not bothered to use his intelligence position to his advantage. Had someone suspected him already at that point? Had he been placed there merely to be monitored? No, that would be too risky.

And why had his entire family slowly been pushed away from the heart of the organization?

Itachi's medical records had also puzzled her. While much of the information had also been censored, the frequency of his visits remained the same when he was working on the field compared to when he had reportedly been restricted to base operations. His physician had changed, however, but Sakura had not recognized the name, even though she knew every one that Konoha ever used for medical treatment.

With all the free time he should have had before the massacre, there was surprisingly little about his movements. Even Sakura, apprentices to Lady Tsunade, knew that she was being watched and clocked. The only way she could sneak around for research was by setting up decoy situations that were reported in. But there was still something said about where she was (despite that it was false), but Itachi had nothing. His relatives, on the other hand, Konoha had been watching like hawks. All the information there was also blacked out. Even Sasuke had been tagged by someone.

She had been on the verge of discovery something big, Sakura knew, because she had suddenly picked up a flea herself. He had not found her while she had been doing anything risky, but one of the higher ups lap dogs had found her one afternoon in the Archives and started asking questions. His name was Hyo, and though she had never met him before, she had seen him hanging around at times. His face was always obscured, but the hair had still been a give away; he was one of Danzou's men.

"Hey, what are you doing down here, pup," he had asked with a friendly air though he was blatantly leaning in a doorway and blocking her exit from one of the stacks rooms. "How long does that leash let you wander, anyway?"

No direct accusations, no intentions for her to become worried, but Sakura was not stupid. She knew when someone was concerned about her actions and had decided to keep tabs on her. She had halted her research after that.

Except her mind had not stopped. She spent hours reviewing everything she had read and had not read. Questions plagued her and wild ideas filled her mind.

Konoha had not been watching Itachi; they had been watching everyone else in his family. And she was starting to believe that he had been the one to do it for them.

There was no way for her to prove this, though. Her theories had to remain in her head. So for a couple more months she had let the thoughts simmer while she kept doing her job and going on normally. There was no new information for her to go over, all she had was what the files had told her and what she had seen Itachi do with her own eyes. And what everyone else had seen him do.

Like when Itachi had attacked Kakashi and could have killed him. Or when he had confronted her and Naruto in Suna. Or when he had infiltrated Konohagakure after Orochimaru's failed takeover.

For someone so feared, she had thought, he had not done very many terrible things since he fled, even though he had had plenty of opportunities.

And then he had saved her. He had arrived too quickly for him to arrive by chance just after she had been fatally stabbed, so he must have been watching from somewhere. But he had saved her, not his own associate.

Thinking back about that incident and Sasori, Sakura remembered what the man had told her as they traded hits. Something about a reward were she to defeat him. I have a spy in Orochimaru's subordinates, win and I'll tell you where to find him. That was the type of world she lived in ‒one where territories changed daily and people switched sides and sold information in order to survive. A world where spies were used and existed within every gang.

Could she believe that one even existed within Akatsuki?

With a loud clap of thunder, the heavens finally cracked opened and a torrent of water suddenly crashed down on the commercial district. Umbrellas sprung open, people jogged to get inside, and newspapers became makeshift hoods. The daytime visitors were starting to move on and travel elsewhere for dinner.

Fortunately for Sakura, things in her world always started to pick up once night arrived, and it was getting late. She brought up her hood and headed for the bar and club circuit ‒where everyone wanted to unwind, lips loosened, and information started to flow.

It was strange how people always seemed to forget that others could hear them when they were drinking. Plenty of secrets had been leaked when someone a bit too inebriated failed to mind his words.

Like Jiraiya and Tsunade for example.

Incredibly powerful and dangerous though they were, Sakura had learned early on in her apprenticeship that the both of them were only to happy to share drinks and relax whenever they met up. Sometimes their talk would be all about sex and crude things that Sakura tried to block out from where she studied her medical books two tables over by stuffing wads of paper in her ears. Other times, however, the talk would turn serious.

During one of those serious drunken conferences, while Jiraiya and Tsunade huddled over a table and sake set together, the frog hermit had offered up some interesting news. My contact says that Akats'ki will be -be on ...a hold for a month or one -sorry, two. Summa bout time to -to impr'v technol...gee. And then he had said something about her master's breasts and the subject never got back on track.

Sakura had stopped reading and her heart had started to pound right out of her ribcage. A contact? There was a contact in the Akatsuki. The news repeated over and over in her head that night.

After uncovering enough about him to write a biography, Sakura felt compelled to meet the lost Uchiha prodigy. She thought maybe she was convincing herself of a non-truth, and that it was possible that Itachi was what everyone had always told her he was ‒a cold-blooded murderer. But then, so was she. He may have tormented Sasuke, but beyond some bruising and a battered ego, Itachi had pretty much left his brother physically unharmed. And he had not killed him in the first place.

Was it possible that the Uchiha family... She had felt ill to think it, but‒ had Itachi had been ordered to kill them? That they had been suspects of Konoha's syndicate and put to death by their own son to cover up the fact that such a well respected family was actually treacherous?

Danzou's involvement made her think it was not so improbable. If anyone would have ordered such an abomination of a mission, it would have been the most militant and heartless of Konoha's senior members.

Itachi had met Naruto twice and failed to kidnap him by sloppily letting his advantages slip away. How could an unparalleled agent since the age of six suddenly lose such an edge? The truth, Sakura finally admitted to herself, was that he had let Naruto escape. He had been protecting Konoha all along. Playing a part and living through hell in order to help his people.

And he saved her. She had to meet him. She wanted to thank him.

The district was starting to light up brilliantly with neon signs, most pointing to shows or to alcohol. The first bar she came across was a little hole in the wall owned by an ex operative of Hayashi no Kuni. Rumour had it he was only given a license to work here because Konoha wanted to keep an eye on him. He must have been aware of that, but his establishment attracted trouble any how. Sasuke might have been through here before, looking for any signs of his brother, but Sakura knew he would not have found anything.

Itachi was careful and it was impossible to track him. If ever someone thought he had finally been the one to manage the impossible, it always turned out that Itachi had been stringing him along the entire time. Sakura had known that before she had started looking for him.

When she had wanted to find Itachi, it had been about predicting his movements, not trying to track them. Of course that was nowhere near as easy as it sounded, but she happened to have inside information. She had not needed to worry about predicting the movements of a sociopath, because Itachi happened to be the very opposite.

But it was still much more difficult than she had imagined. She did not know enough about Akatsuki to just be able to read its activity, and he was still a member after all.

After she had followed a few false leads, Sakura had become a bit discouraged in her search. It was only by chance that she had encountered Itachi while she was on a completely unrelated mission for Tsunade. He had just been walking down the very street of the Yama prefecture that she had happened to be on.

The day had been chilly and a bit grey, but for her, there was no mistaking his face. It jumped out of the crowd the same way a shooting star caught her eye in the night sky. She had been looking at pictures of it for close to half a year and she saw it many nights while she slept. Her body had frozen up as soon as she had spotted him, and for some reason she could not name, she felt her heart skip a beat and then lodge itself in her throat.

He was walking towards her. Walking, walking. Was he looking to cross the street?

Her legs moved without a thought.

She hadn't wanted him to disappear.

It was a few stops later, at the limits of the commercial district, when Sakura struck gold. She was sitting next to some civilian at the bar in the Stick-Pop Gentlemen's Club when he mentioned he had seen a sweet ride that night on the traffic control systems' monitor.

"A brand spanking new ZR1. With a fancy ass paint job, too," he said to his friend, his back to Sakura.

Her attention immediately honed in on the slurred conversation and she titled her covered head to hear better. The car the man was talking about did not belong to either of her intended marks, but she did know at least one person of interest who had recently acquired a new toy fitting that description. Now, where was it? Say where you saw it, she thought impatiently.

"Odd place it was at, though. Down town by the old ammunitions depot," he murmured as if in response to her. He went on to say something about the engine but she didn't care to listen.

Sakura sat up quickly from her place at the counter and made for the back alley exit without further hesitation. Outside the two dogs were waiting for her and they perked up at her arrival.

"Ok Biscuit, Shiba, this is just a quick detour," she said, kneeling down to feed them a couple of peanuts she'd swiped from the bar, "But I'm willing to wager that Deidara can provide some information for us."

- o -

Chapter Three: Tell Me That I'm Taken

Tell me if I'm yours

- o -

It really was an ingenious device, she admitted to herself. He could detonate a vast number of explosives by merely tapping his fingertips together.

Well, actually, Sakura could not say that for certain, but it was pretty easy to ascertain the purpose of Deidara's wickedly outfitted hands. Through the scope of her binoculars, from where she crouched on top of a stack of boxcars, she was free to observe his strange devices as he tested them out. At the moment, in place of explosives, they were triggered to make what looked like neon bulbs turn on, and so far he had been satisfied with the results as light after light responded to his commands.

The central computer chip and transmitter that each of the pads on his fingers were connected to by lines of wire was in the centre of his palm on each hand. She had already known about those, but had been confident that each hand could only be programmed for one task. These new little thimble-tap things had just opened a terribly expansive and adaptable arsenal of bombs for Deidara to exploit to the fullest.

Even from a hundred metres away, his gleeful (and slightly mad) grin was clearly visible ‒she didn't need her magnified lenses to see his triumphant expression.

Sakura cursed under her breath. This guy was not exactly approachable.

It was getting dark, the rain relentlessly pouring, and she was starting to question what she could learn from accosting Deidara. Sure, he apparently had a considerable grudge against Sasuke, but that did not necessarily mean he was any more the wiser to her (ex) team mate's whereabouts than she. And Sakura couldn't just leave Shiba and Bisuke hanging around on their own for too long. Unbelievably expensive and expertly trained as they were, dogs were still prone to meander off after any old scent that caught their interest.

Below her, she noticed that Deidara seemed to be wrapping up his trial run. The lights going off now were getting farther out from his central position as he tested their utmost limits. He was not as confident as he was before, trying each one out, but he was all the more ecstatic when they worked.

Oh, she smiled, figuring out his execution design. Clever.

It was not that he had memorized a specific pattern of taps for each explosive ‒rather one set for distance, and another for its directional orientation. A light went off at what she estimated to be ninety metres out, south-east by south, just to the left of her.

Deidara's grin widened and he tried another sequence. A light, this one strapped to the side of a goods van just below her, went off, and her eyes flicked to it for a second before they were back to watching Deidara.

Except now he was staring right back at her.

And that was when Sakura noticed she was glowing.

- o -

It was the first argument they'd ever had. And it wasn't terrible, but it unsettled him nonetheless.

The meeting place was a quaint Turkish tea house, which was narrow and cluttered and somehow still distinctly charming. Sakura had picked it out. It was a perfect spot, really, with a private veranda in the back that they had all to themselves, and they had talked freely with little worry about being overheard.

Maybe it was because the atmosphere had been so relaxed that she felt able to broach the subject. With flowers draped over every surface and romantically patterned iron-wrought chairs, the setting was almost surreal. It must have given her a sort of spiritual boost.

"Isn't that book a bit depressing?" Sakura asked, voice soft and not all aggressive. Just sincere with curiosity.

Itachi glanced at what she was referring to; a non-fiction novel that sat to the side of the samovar between them. The title read 'Black Mornings: Slave Labour and the Child Workers of Tsuchi no Kuni'. He took a slow sip of his drink while he considered his most recent literary endeavour. "It is very sad," he agreed quietly.

"It is a bit beyond me how you can manage to read this after you've just finished 'The History of the Demon of Kirigakure'," she murmured.

At the time, he had not recognised the bait for what it was.

"I suppose it is because I like to keep my life in perspective," Itachi replied honestly, not really thinking the answer to be so important.

But Sakura sighed knowingly, as if expecting his answer. He realised later that she actually had.

"What is it?" he asked, her expression a bit disconcerting. Her eyes, which had been determinedly staring away, finally found his, and they were brimming with concern and trepidation.

"You don't have to keep punishing yourself, Itachi."

The blunt observation and slight chastisement took him off-guard and he could not think of an immediate response; though Sakura didn't allow him much time to think of one.

"You don't need to remind yourself that other people have lives worse than your own," she clarified, sounding a little sad and the slightest amount exasperated. "What you have experienced in your life is devastating, and no matter the number of other tragic accounts you come across, that fact will never change."

Itachi wanted to explain that she was completely wrong and that he was only reading these books to satisfy a more scholarly interest. ...Except, it was quite feasible there was a deep seeded part of him that had a much more solemn reason to keep searching these stories out.

Of course she had been the one to see and acknowledge the strange and austere behaviour that drove him to humble his own mind-numbing agony.

Itachi looked away from her and back to his book, reaching out to let his fingers run over the smooth surface distractedly. There had been times in his life that he had lamented, Why me? Why did I have to live this nightmare? He had never received an answer and had felt immediately disgusted with himself for being so selfish. That was why he read the books that he did – because there were many people in horrible situations who kept living, despite the hate of the gods bearing down their necks every day. He was no different, really.

Besides the unavoidable fact that his life was this way because he had chosen it to be so. And in that manner, he did not have the right to grieve as did these others. Below-caste people forced into mines, children ordered to kill one another by dastardly syndicates, women shackled into prostitution... At least he had been given the honest opportunity to say 'no'.

He could have told Danzou and the elders that he was unable to carry out the mission.

He had not.

"Itachi," he heard distantly over his thoughts and he sluggishly regained his ability to focus on his company. A hand had joined his as he had been reflecting and he hadn't even noticed. He was suddenly very aware of the gentle massage Sakura was giving him, ghosting her fingers over his own, back and forth with slow purposeful strokes.

Something swelled in his chest; a breath he was unconsciously holding.

"You did not have a choice." Sakura was a mind reader, he decided, but Itachi was unable to look away from where her pale delicate hand rested with his own, which was stained and calloused. He could not bring himself to speak, and she must have correctly inferred that to mean that she had figured him out just right. So she continued, taking the conversation in a slightly different direction, "It would be foolish of me to ask you to stop mourning, but... I want you to know that..."

Itachi listened as she trailed off, too fixated on where their bodies met to prompt her to finish. He was too cold and she too warm, but slowly he could feel the heat transferring between them. He moved his hand to catch hers instead, holding her fingers and sweeping his thumbs over her knuckles.

Sakura tightened her hold on him, returning his gestures. "You don't have to be alone in this any more."

He stilled his movements and finally glanced at her face again. She looked so inviting with her tender expression and hopeful smile, but she was offering him too much, and he wondered if she even understood what she was saying. Itachi said her name quietly, trying to warn her away.

Ignoring his cautionary tone, she broke his gaze and looked at their linked grip, bringing up her other hand to further envelop his own. It was inadvertent, but he held onto her just a little tighter as she did so. "Okay," Sakura said after a long while, "you don't have to accept anything now, but I am not going to take back anything I have said."

She withdrew her hands all the same, and he refused to frown at their sudden absence. Itachi took another sip of his tea then, occupying himself to keep from reaching out and seeking her warmth. There was a strong to desire to feel that soft skin again under his fingertips.

He noted absently that the tea was cold.

- o -

Even now, months later, Itachi could still imagine the feel of her hands on his. It was the last time they had touched, and he wondered if it would remain that way forever now. There had always been the strict rule that he would never initiate any physical contact with her and curb any that she attempted, but now that it seemed so eminently possible that he really would never hold her again, it was almost...

Itachi swore and ran his hand threw his hair to shake his train of thought. He exhaled loudly, his breath cloudy and visible in the cool air. The rain was bordering on sleet now, and he had pulled his bike into a abandoned mechanic's garage for a few moments while he considered his next course of action.

Konohagakure had offered nothing in terms of Sakura's whereabouts, only that she wasn't at her apartment or at the old ANBU clinic where she had been working on occasion as an emergency surgeon. There were so many places she could be, completely unaware of the bomb strapped to her body, and it turned his stomach to admit he may never find her fast enough.

Itachi couldn't help but think how he could have prevented all of this. Or of how he should have taken her offer the moment it left her lips and pulled her against him; kept her close to him, where no one else could touch her.

The oddly possessive urge came to him unbidden, but not exactly out of nowhere. It had only taken that initial kiss from Sakura to stir up his stifled male instincts, and he had been battling them ever since. But repressing them and ignoring them had done Itachi no help, especially now, when they were threatening to finally snap and override his rationality altogether. Perhaps if he had simply indulged in these biological impulses earlier, he would at this time be able to handle them more appropriately.

As it was now, all he could think about was finding that little blonde haired 'colleague' of his and loading him so full of lead that even his descendants would be sick with poison. For Deidara to threaten Sakura as he had –it was unforgivable.

But Itachi also felt that he should have cared to protect her more.

He wanted to have her with him again, safe.

- o -

Sakura did not waste time returning Deidara's dumbfounded stare and immediately ducked under more cover. Shit, shit, shit. Her heart was pumping three extra beats a second and the chill of the air around her seemed to have frozen over the rest of her insides. She had to make up her mind quickly; fight or flee.

The boxcars were stacked four high and the only way up was the same way down, makeshift ladders melded directly into the metal siding. Thankfully enough, the goods vans were arranged in such a pattern that allowed for more than one route of descent, but she was still a highly visible target. She would have to try and throw Deidara off her trail.

She managed to climb down to the next layer of vans before she slipped her cloak off her shoulders, instantly bracing against the harsh temperature, to hook it around one of the ladder steps. It was partially visible from the ground angle, and she hoped it would be enough to catch Deidara's attention and stall him for a few minutes.

Her fingers were numb and a little clumsy as she reached for her throwing knives. Despite the fact she was going for a clean getaway, having weapons at the ready was always a good idea. The rain and wind helped mask her footsteps as she hurried along the roofs of the boxcars, making her way north west, towards Deidara. Behind the stacks she was out of his view, and so she felt secure enough backtracking. He would most likely assume she had gone in the opposite direction from him.

"Hey, Konoha skirt!" Sakura heard him shout as she dropped down another level, and she realised with a jolt in her stomach that he was already much closer. Her pace slowed considerably with her effort to mute her movements. The Akatsuki could probably hear the hollow echo of her boots hitting the metal surface with each step, "you should be careful about where you walk you know!"

He was talking about his bombs, of course. Sakura could see them stuck to different places around her on all sides, and so far, had been quite mindful to avoid them. It was futile, maybe, but she prayed that he would not detonate any of them.

There was a loud boom from behind her and Sakura dropped to her knees as the explosion reverberated through the boxcar structures. Shit, shit, shit. Out of instinct, she had covered her head protectively when she had gone down, but she slowly brought her hands away as she craned her neck to see what had happened.

The van where she had left her cloak dummy had been blown apart. Shit, she thought again, he's way too close. The throwing knives she was holding were gone in the next second as she launched them away, hoping the clang of metal on metal would again divert his attention. She was up and running in the following second.

"Ha!" he exclaimed and another bomb in the distance was set off. Sakura was able to retain her balance, but only just. It was time to call for back up.

Her hand reached for her earpiece, "Yamato-Taichou" already out of her mouth before she realised it was missing. She whipped her head back around and wondered if she had dropped it somewhere. Sakura squinted her eyes, straining to see the dark little shape anywhere, when, without any preamble, it was inexplicably floating right before her face.

She paused and stared bewilderedly at it as it hung in the air, swaying slightly. "The hell," she started to say before a light grip on her chin cut her off. She swore she felt her heart stopped beating as the breath in her lungs left her.

"Are you looking for this?" a low and darkly amused voice asked from in front of her, though Sakura continued to look into empty space. The grip tugged her face upwards and she forgot to struggle as a form started to take shape where there previously had been nothing.

The orange mask was the first thing to reveal itself fully, and the last thing she saw as she belatedly tried to wrench away and something struck her neck in return. As her vision swirled into blackness and she began to slump forward, the voice spoke again. "Oh, Itachi, the silly little things you cherish."

And then she was caught up in someone's arms and she blacked out completely.

- o -

She wasn't aware that he was looking, and really, Itachi was a bit glad he was able to just observe her.

It was a summer evening and they had met up at an outdoor café in Tsuki no Kuni just as the sun was setting. They had already spent some time talking about the recent economic recession and employment trends and net changes in response, but the conversation eventually played out and now they were both left to contemplate the maturing nightfall.

At least he figured that was what Sakura was doing, her eyes focused on the red sky visible between breaks in the park's trees and the skyscrapers beyond. He couldn't be bothered to join her, as she was a much more preferable sight.

The majority of the past month for Itachi had consisted of tracking down the Yonbi jinchuuriki with Kisame. It had been difficult and tedious, and he had been unsuccessful in disrupting his partner's ability to subdue the container, Roushi. It was another loss for Itachi's personal agenda, and another loss for his former syndicate. He had felt his shoulders sag with the added guilt of his failure.

"You're still doing everything you can to help Konoha. No one expects that of you, and no one is disappointed," Sakura had said after he had shared his worries with her. She had made to comfort him, her hand stretching out to his arm, before she had withdrawn and smiled forlornly. "It may sound crass, but thank you."

It was not crass at all. It had lightened his heart and made him want her to reach out for him again so that he could meet her halfway.

Itachi contented himself by taking in as much of Sakura as he could with his eyes. He traced the profile of her face, memorized the elegant line of her neck, and studied how the smooth cream colour of her skin glowed softly with the oranges and reds of the dusk.

Why was she here with him, he kept asking. And when would she leave him?

- o -

When she came around, it was from a sharp slap across her cheek. Sakura moaned and blinked her eyes open, only to focus on the blue hood of Deidara's Corvette, and she wanted to shut them again, if only to wish she could reopen them and be somewhere else. She wasn't given the opportunity.

She felt someone, probably the person who had slapped her, pull at her shoulder until she was sitting upright and facing the assailant.

It was the explosives and reconnaissance expert himself. Even with the thick black scarf wrapped around his neck, she could tell Deidara was grinning.

"Sakura-chan," he said, and she was surprised to hear he knew her name, "why so far from home, hm? Isn't this a fair distance for even a blossom such as yourself to wander?"

She didn't answer him, partly out of stubbornness, and partly because her teeth were starting to clatter terribly from the cold. Her cloak was gone and her blouse was already soaked and had begun to stiffen in the cold weather. She was vulnerable in more than one way. If Deidara didn't set her on fire first, then she would surely freeze to death.

How could this have happened? Where had she messed up?

"It's thanks to Tobi, hm," Deidara supplied helpfully, reading her confused expression as she looked around.

"What do you mean?" Sakura asked, her words scratchy and unevenly paced. She flexed her hands, wondering why she couldn't feel them properly, and found that they were restrained behind her back, bound by rope. The low circulation and temperature had made them useless.

"Well, he may be an idiot at times, but that guy sure can sneak around like no other. He said he had been sitting with you for quite some time."

Sakura felt a chill go down her spine that was not at all related to the weather. An idiot? The same person who had knocked her out? And, she realised with a sickening twist to her stomach, the same person who had mentioned Itachi?

"...Really useful for placing my bombs, hm," Deidara concluded. He had made a little speech about the troubles of his partner, though she hadn't paid any mind. This 'Tobi' was certainly not who Deidara thought he was, and seemed to display serious pathological discrepancies.

As her head continued to clear and her thoughts righted themselves –being forced into unconsciousness had a tendency to confuse a person‒ Sakura remembered what had made her run in the first place. "Why was I glowing?" she asked, not having the grace to refrain from frowning up at the man in front of her.

Deidara smiled. It was unlike the grin from earlier, not at all flamboyant and mad, but refined and somehow much more pensive. "Because of the electrical current that went through the curium hydroxide in your pendant," he purred.

In a way, the cool satisfaction dripping from his sultry voice was much worse than the crazy laughter from earlier. Sakura swallowed thickly and asked the obvious. "Why is 'curium hydroxide' in my pendant?"

She felt the heavy leaf symbol resting above her sternum. It instantly weighed a hell of a lot more than it ever had in the past. The only thing that kept her from panicking was the fact that he would not detonate it while standing hardly a pace from her. She wriggled around uncomfortably nonetheless.

"Well, obviously because I put it there. You were showering the other day and I switched the original with the current." He recalled this with pride and brought a hand to her face to pet it gently with his fingertips. "You should really consider upping your security, hm."

Sakura pulled her head away but was glad to note that Deidara had removed the experimental device from earlier. He was back to the standard two detonators in his palms.

"Any particular reason for placing a bomb on me and then not making it explode?"

"Well, that's the purpose of blackmail, isn't it?"

Shit. Did this have something to do with what that masked man had said? Itachi and something about cherishing this or that?

Sakura readjusted her seat, moving her feet along the grill in a distracted display of nervousness. "You're using me as some sort of leverage? Like some weak little doll to screw around with?" Her voice was even more wretched as she leaned away, trying to hide her face behind her hair.

"Don't look so sad, hm," Deidara said easily, no idea of her past insecurities as a burden to her team mates. The smooth and enticingly low purr returned. "I promise to treat you real nice."

- o -

Itachi was a bit surprised that the empty street he had been staring at while thinking of what to do next was unexpectedly not so empty. He straightened automatically and slipped off his bike to stand under the threshold of the old garage. Making only slow and obvious movements, he regarded his new guests with caution and forced the tension from his body. It would not be good to come off as anything but relaxed and non-threatening in front of these two.

From where they lingered in the street, Shiba and Bisuke warily considered him in return.

Back in the day, when he had not even reached his teen years, Itachi remembered the first time Kakashi had introduced him to the pack. Some of them were still pups themselves and he had gotten along just fine with hounds; youngsters bonding in the face of working alongside seasoned experts.

But there was none of that camaraderie between them any more. Itachi tried not to flinch as Shiba bared his teeth and started a low growl, and he wondered why they had not already attacked him.

Well, they were alone, so perhaps because no one was around to give the order?


Something clicked and he knew immediately why such coveted and irreplaceable tools were out on their own. "Where's Sakura?"

The two animals recognised the 'Sakura' sound and glanced at each other with what could only be a doggy equivalent to 'Oh, hell'. The secondary mission to detain the enemy was overridden by the primary focus of protecting Kakashi's student and without a second sniff in his direction, both Shiba and Bisuke abandoned Itachi to sprint off down the street.

Not hesitating any himself, Itachi activated his Sharingan and quickly mounted his bike to take off after the little dots in the distance. The rain wasn't an issue through his red lenses and keeping up with the inhumanly fast hounds was not a problem with his BMW. He exhaled roughly, caught between being anxious and relieved. Finally, finally he would be able to get to Sakura.

He just hoped there was still the proper amount of her left when he made it.

- o -

'Treat you nice' was just barely off his lips when Sakura's solidly reinforced foot landed a sound hit on Deidara's left temple.

Her hands, freed from the rope thanks to the concealed and snap-accessible blade (for just this purpose) on her belt, were instantly tearing at the necklace until it snapped and she flung it a good ten metres away. And in the next second Sakura followed the clip to the head with a soundly placed blow to Deidara's ribs.

The Akatsuki was dazed but still conscious, and the next kick he blocked. Sakura reached for her gun instinctively, but it was unsurprisingly missing. Deidara managed to get to his feet and start matching her attacks. Despite being an engineer and typically engaged long-distance offensive, he was still more than proficient in hand to hand combat. Nearly a head taller than her and with roughly half her weight in added muscle, he was definitely someone to be careful around.

At 161 cm and 45 kg, Sakura on the other hand, was someone who most definitely appeared harmless.

Which was why her mentor had trained her extensively in Edo jujitsu; using the force and balance of an opponent against himself.

An exchange of strikes between the two of them eventually turned in Deidara's favour.

"Such a rush!" he breathed, arm moving towards Sakura's head with tremendous force; a knockout punch if she'd ever encountered one.

So it was only fitting that Sakura avoided it by a hairsbreadth and grabbed onto the arm to use his momentum to help her push him into the ground. She snapped his arm behind his back and held him down with her foot at the top of his spine.

"Who was I blackmail against?" she bit out between quick breaths, unknowingly matching the hurried pants of the man secured beneath her.

Sakura had expected him to be shocked, or maybe even sarcastic, but she was caught off guard by Deidara's laughter. She watched, her body paralysed with dread and otherwise too occupied holding him down to do anything, as he uncovered the detonator in his palm and tightened his fist.

- o -

The explosion was towering and blazing in the dark sky. Itachi braked and veered to a sharp stop reflexively, his eyes drawn to the swirling flames and billowing smoke. Ahead of him, the dogs had startled and were skirting nervously back and forth across the street as they two watched the sky.

It didn't last very long. The fire died down soon enough so that it had disappeared behind a wall of goods vans and then all that was left was the column of smoke rising into the air. Itachi belatedly tore his eyes from the scene, his breathing uncontrolled and his grip white from where he clutched the handlebars.

He couldn't admit it, but it scared him all the same: For whom was that blast intended?

Abandoning his bike, Itachi took off on foot towards the origin of the explosion. Shiba and Bisuke were quick to follow and he kept pace with them as they navigated through the stacks of boxcars. His Sharingan picked up the signature of combustible compounds and chemicals as they moved, and in preparation, he loaded his double-action .50 calibre revolver, not deterred by its weight as he slipped the cartridges into place while still running. If he came across Deidara, at this moment, he couldn't be sure he wouldn't pull the trigger on his alleged comrade.

That bomb had been for Sakura. Itachi felt that truth settle deep in his heart and he grit his teeth to keep from putting a hand to his chest in an effort to physically tear the overwhelming certainty away. It should not have been meant for her, but it was.

He had condemned it to be so the moment he lowered his gun from her impossibly patient face. If he had not let her live then...or if he had not let her live after she fought Sasori... If he had stepped away and let fate work itself out, he would not be heading towards what would surely be her third meeting with death.

But Itachi was never one to let Death move along at its own pace. He'd stolen the lives of targets, of Jinchuuriki, of his parents –he had even set a time for his own demise– and so was it not natural that he tamper with Sakura's as well?

It was only appropriate. Even the most striking moth would still burn in the presence of Amaterasu. Itachi's black flame consumed everyone who dared come near him.

His musings quieted as he turned a corner and saw the still burning remnants of what could only be Deidara's work. It was a fantastically warped piece of metal and plastic. There may have been an axle and gear visible, though he could not be sure. There was someone obscuring his view, her small frame taking up all of his vision. She was the only thing he could look at.


He was saying her name, and not in mourning and with regret, but because she was standing a few metres from him. Sakura didn't hear him, and busied herself gingerly picking something up off the ground. All her limbs were still intact and functioning properly –he even heard her curse over the crackling of the fire, apparently dismayed with the state of whatever it was she had in her hands.

And then Itachi remembered that she was presently wearing a bomb, as the recently detonated one was obviously something else.

"Sakura," Itachi repeated, this time loudly enough for her to hear as he made his way to her. She turned to him, a dazed expression painted across her smudged and weary face. God, she was beautiful. He had the strongest urge to smile, laugh, make some sort of exorbitant exclamation that she was alive. But first he had to get that damn explosive off her.

"Itachi, why are you here...?" she started to ask as he reached her, but she stopped when he dropped to examine her boots without further comment. "And Shiba and Bisuke came back too."

"How often do you wear these?" he ignored her greetings for the dogs, intent instead on feeling out every little crevice and surface of her shoes.

Sakura wasn't in the frame of mind to question his behaviour, and she answered tiredly, "Often enough when I'm on active duty for missions. Though I have to replace them–"

'Not all the time' was all he heard and so Itachi lost interest in them and instead slid his hands up her calves and over her knees. "What about the holster, the skirt?"

"I don't know...the skirt every once and a while, the holster more regularly..." she trailed off as he started on her blouse next, smoothing it out under his palms. "All right, what's this about? I mean, I'm all for the 'reaffirming life' excuse, but I wouldn't have expected you to be into that sort of thing."

Itachi was about to pop off the top button when Sakura finally halted his movements, her thin fingers wrapping around his wrists with an unexpectedly firm grip. Even cold and wet with rain, her touch still ignited a strong, warm feeling in him. Itachi snapped his eyes to meet hers. "Tell me, what do you wear most frequently?"

She frowned at him, clearly unable to follow his actions or questions. And then a thought occurred to her and he watched as her eyes lit up with recognition. "Oh! You mean the bomb? Yeah, it's gone. Deidara was only happy enough to tell me about it, so I was able to get rid of the thing right after I kicked him and got my hands loose–"

Itachi wrapped his arms around her and tugged her against his chest, burying his nose into her hair. His gun got in the way and her arms were stuck between them awkwardly.

"And then he blew his car up and while I was still recovering the bastard slipped away." Sakura finished, speaking into his suit. She was a bit out of it, so he released her and replaced his gun into his holster, before he cupped her face and made her focus on him. She found his wrists again.

"Are you going to be all right?" He felt the question was a bit trite, but he had to ask. She was drenched and shivering and more than a little dishevelled.

Sakura took a deep breath and smiled shakily, nodding her head. She said rather shyly, "So, does this mean you are no longer interested in handling everything by yourself? Are you finally going to let me in?"

She wasn't a moth. Though she appeared delicate and soft, there was so much strength and tenacity in Sakura that she could never be something so dainty. She was willing to bleed and was able to handle herself with plenty of cunning and vigour. The warmth he always associated with her wasn't just from her compassion, of which she did have plenty, but because she was a flame just like himself.

Sakura would match his black with all the red she could give.

He did not have to push her away with the reasoning that it was for her own good. She did not need to be protected.

This time when Itachi pulled her towards him, she moved with him and their faces met seamlessly. Suddenly the rain was not so frigid any more.

- o -

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