Itachi was not a spontaneous individual. He knew this himself. He had been bred to turn out as a being of great intellect and logical sense. Konoha had wanted a prodigy on the battlefield to tip the future odds in their favor. This was no secret. They still wanted prodigies. Every village did. Later, he had been made into a scapegoat, but that was a different can of worms.
Itachi was also an individual who knew what he wanted and went for it.
He calculated and he waited, but he didn't hesitate.
His kiss with Sakura was explainable. They shared a mutual attraction.
Yes, mutual. Itachi felt it, too. He was not above admitting that and accepting it for what it was.
The trigger behind the kiss hadn't been the battle or the blood. The trigger had been Sakura's total disregard for propriety and etiquette. She had yelled and screamed at him. Few people did. If more had done it in the past, Itachi might not have liked it as much as he did nowadays. Or maybe that was only the case with Sakura. He couldn't know for sure.
Truthfully, he had activated his Sharingan out of habit. Not because he needed it. And once the damage was already done, he had simply rolled with it.
But Sakura had been angry. Very angry.
Itachi admired determination and focus in his lovers, few of them as there had been over the years. Anger was an emotion he responded well to. Sakura had been both determined and angry.
That was why the kiss had happened.
"We're moving as one?" Sakura asked.
"Hyuuga takes the front and clears the road through the building," Itachi answered. "I will take the back."
The four of them sat crouched in the brushwood of the brothel once more. Now, after having slept two hours inside a cold and clammy cave, the sun was breaking the horizon in the east and the group was prepared to finish the mission. The dirt under their feet was soft and unspoiled, indicating that their current position was a non-trafficked area and a safe rendezvous point. Sakura's ribs were healed, as were all injuries within the team, but she wouldn't willingly take a second hit to the newly mended bones. The same went for Itachi. She had given him strict orders only to use the Sharingan if it was a matter of life or death.
This time he had better listen.
Up until now, he had kept his eyes inactivate, but Sakura didn't dare presume anything once the final battle began. Whether or not he realized it, Itachi was dependent on his Sharingan to a degree where it was downright pitiful. He took it for granted, used it whenever he wanted. It was weapon. Not a children's toy. She had tried to knock that fact into his head yesterday, but then he had kissed her.
He had kissed her.
"We should be out in maximum half an hour if we can set a cleared route to the target's position," Itachi said.
"Go," he then said with a nod at Shikamaru.
Shikamaru picked open the lock of a nearby window. No alarms went off. Then, after he had nudged the window fully open, they slipped inside with Neji in the front. Sometimes the easiest way inside was the least expected one and therefore the smartest one.
As their group moved down the various corridors of the building, they met their first resistance five minutes into trespassing. Three guards stood before them, two men and one woman. Up until then, the pathways and corridors had been empty with a sort of stale smell haunting the small spaces and cramped halls. The smell of sex and sweat was ever present, but Sakura blocked it out like she would have blocked out the smell of blood. Eyes on the prize, they said.
Neji sidestepped the guards.
Shikamaru, who was behind Neji, delivered an effective punch to the face of the largest man. His nose cracked soundly and he went down hard. His partner almost tripped over him. Sakura dodged the partner and Itachi took him out with a dull thud that piqued Sakura's curiosity. She almost craned her neck backwards to see what Itachi had done.
The third guard, the female, got a hit in on Neji, but he knocked her unconscious with a blow to the head. Her body tumbled across the floor like a bag of potatoes.
Five minutes later they stood within the office of Hayashi.
And it was empty.
But it didn't look abandoned. There were still papers scattered across the desk and a pair of pants thrown over the back of the chair. A picture frame with an old photograph of a kid hugging a slobbering dog had fallen to the floor next to the chair, the glass broken and fractured. Sakura chest hollowed out for a second as she was reminded that their target was a person with a life and people who cared about him. Then she pushed the feeling aside and looked at her teammates to see what they would do now.
"We gonna retreat?" Shikamaru asked. He was guarding the door to the office. By now, someone should have discovered the three guards that they had taken down earlier. They didn't have much time left. They had to move fast. But now Hayashi was missing.
"No," Itachi said. "Our target knows we are here."
"He hasn't had time to leave the building," Sakura said. "We would have noticed. He must have relocated to someplace else within the building. Someplace he thinks is safe from us."
"Yes," Itachi said. "Hyuuga and Nara, dispatch and search above ground. Haruno and I will take below ground. Move fast."
The brothel had an extensive underground tunnel system that consisted of countless locked rooms with iron chains and bolts imbedded in the doors and walls. Oil torches, some lit and some not, were the only source of light so far below the ground. Sakura suspected that there might even be a dragon hidden down here somewhere, medieval as the atmosphere felt.
Medieval and in shabby condition.
Sakura had a feeling that Hayashi's drugs business had taken a hard fall recently, one that Tsunade-shishou and their team was not aware of. That could explain the raids, as well. If his narcotics business was failing, Hayashi had looked elsewhere. Then again, Tsunade had said that Hayashi was retired from the narcotics business. His brothel ran prosperous as ever, but his drugs business was a closed chapter. Maybe he had tried to boost his drugs business back up, but it had failed. Or maybe he had retired from it exactly because it failed.
Below ground was the real heart, the headquarters, of Hayashi's drugs business. Above ground was the brothel. These were two separate things, Sakura was beginning to understand.
Anyhow, none of these speculations mattered. They were here to kill Hayashi for his many illegal misdeeds in life, primarily for raping minors and killing their parents to keep them quiet. They weren't here to ponder over the 'why' and the 'how' of Hayashi's crumbling empire.
This, the shabby and rundown underground tunnel system, was where Sakura and Itachi began their search for Hayashi.
As they delved deeper into the underground heart of Hayashi's headquarters, Sakura didn't try to think of the uses for the rooms that she and Itachi passed by in their search. Unlike earlier, when the four of them had breezed along corridors and hallways, Itachi and Sakura crept through the underground pathways like noiseless mice. The air was stale down there, heavy with something not definable and sick.
She was sweating, she noticed.
Nothing profusely, but a light layer that shone on her face, neck and collarbone. Her skin was clammy too, with the lack of air inside the corridors. Moldy, she thought. The air was moldy and thick, and it would dull her senses if she didn't stay alert.
Sakura opened her mouth to whisper, but she was silenced with a look from Itachi.
There were voices ahead of them. She could hear them now. It was impossible to decipher what they were saying, but they were definitely there. Itachi gave Sakura a second look, as if to stress his earlier point, and she returned it with a contrite stare.
As the two of them crept closer, the voices became more distinguished.
"What… you think?"
"Boss said… should be soon, now."
"Yah," one voice said. Momentary shuffles filled the silence. Sakura and Itachi stopped moving, separated from the voices only by the L-shape of the corridor that they stood in.
"What does it even matter?" the first voice asked. "It's not like I can abandon post and go to-"
Itachi moved without warning Sakura, disappearing around the corner.
Sakura followed him.
She knew without question that she was to play his backup, but when she turned around the corner and caught up with the situation, she stopped. One decapitated body lay on the floor with blood oozing from a sliced neck. The head lay a couple of inches to the left of the dead man's foot. The black hair shone like a raven's wing, at once beautiful and ominous and dead. Another man, still alive, stood frozen in fear and watched Itachi. Sakura still didn't move. Nothing good could come from that, she thought.
"Where?" Itachi asked the man that was still alive.
"Room twenty-one. Down that hallway," the man said with his eyes glued to his decapitated partner, possibly friend. When the pool of blood grew bigger and reached the man's feet, he didn't even have the sense to back up as the thick substance flooded his toes and sandals. Sakura almost pitied the guy. Itachi's attack had come out of nowhere. And, as impressive as that was, Sakura also found it rather aggressive. Efficiency was all right, but not at the expense of a higher body count.
"We're going after Hayashi without Neji and Shikamaru?" Sakura asked Itachi. Itachi opened his mouth to answer. Then he closed it again.
"What?" Sakura asked, suddenly wary.
"The man is lying," Itachi said. The statement triggered no response from the man standing indecisively beside his friend's lifeless body. Shock did that to you.
"Don't use your eyes," Sakura said. "I know what you're hinting at, and no, I'm not allowing it. Believe it or not, but people who have no convenient bloodline limit at their disposal have other ways to achieve the truth."
This was when the man next to Itachi woke up from his near comatose state, dragging his eyes of his dead friend. He charged at Itachi, mindless with either rage or fear, but Sakura was in the way. She managed to kick the man in the gut, after which Itachi grabbed the man by his neck. This left Sakura sandwiched in between the two men with her face pressed up against Itachi's shoulder. She stood still, knowing that any movement could compromise the result of what was about to happen. Their opponent stood tense behind her, held in Itachi's unforgiving grip. Itachi's arm, the one that held their opponent in a death grip, rested on Sakura's shoulder. When a harsh breath fanned out across the back of Sakura's neck, she knew that Itachi had tightened his grip on the man's throat.
"Where is Hayashi?" Itachi asked the man over Sakura's shoulder. His voice sounded so dead that Sakura felt a piece of her inner self shrivel up and die. She now realized that throughout all their encounters in the past, Itachi had never showed any true killing intent toward her and Naruto. He had showed plenty of malicious intent, but she had never before been this close to Itachi and felt like she did now. He wasn't scary. He was beyond such a simple definition.
"The room at the end of the corridor," the man said at last.
There was a gurgling sound and another harsh breath.
"'s the truth!"
The words were distorted, but the meaning was clear enough. In front of her, Itachi moved closer as he adjusted his grip on the man behind her. For a moment Sakura slipped away from her surroundings as she got a whiff of Itachi's warmth and scent. It was a pleasant mix of pine, coriander and rainwater. An earthy scent, she thought. It was around the same time that she heard a loud snap and the breathing behind her stopped. A paused ensued, one in which neither Sakura nor Itachi moved.
"At least you're sure you got the true answer?" she asked. "Now that you've killed both of our possible leads?"
There was a huff of air against her scalp. Sakura thought it was a laugh. She caught herself quirking her lips in return and quickly schooled her face into a more proper expression.
"Do not worry," Itachi said. He dumped the body to the floor behind her.
Then, before she even knew of it herself, she planted her fist in his face. To his credit, he didn't back up. He took the hit, the impact turning his head to the side where Sakura could see a nasty blue bruise already forming.
"I told you not to," she said and stared into his red eyes. It wasn't so much the fact that he had turned on the Sharingan and ignored doctor's orders. Her orders. She had expected him to at some point, really. It was more so the fact that for the past ten minutes, Sakura had felt completely out of control of the occurrences around her. And they both knew that Itachi was partly to blame for that. He took the 'keep the medic safe' principle a little too far. Sakura wasn't defenseless. He knew this.
"I apologize," Itachi said.
"No," Sakura answered. "You don't. Not really."
He studied her for a moment.
"I don't," he said. When Sakura's fist went for him a second time, he grabbed it within his larger hand and applied enough pressure to make Sakura flinch.
"We have two dead bodies and a possible location for our target," he said. "I would think it unwise to stall any longer for internal team complications."
Sakura would be seething right now if she hadn't been subjected to Naruto's idiotic tendencies for half a lifetime.
"This isn't team complications, Itachi," she said. "It's you not caring whatsoever about my medical treatment of you. A medical treatment that I've worked my ass off trying to complete. We've had major setbacks on this mission. Major unnecessary setbacks. If I had known that you would disregard my advice as your doctor this completely, I would have objected to this mission ever being set into action. I would have demanded that you be kept out of the field. I've sat in a damned cave fixing those eyes of yours. Dammit."
She dropped her fist to her side, Itachi releasing it in the process.
"I need you to start thinking before you activate the Sharingan. You need to quit that habit," she said, shaking her head. "I obviously can't keep you from using your Sharingan at all, but I need you to stop and think before you activate it. Otherwise, all this will be for naught. All my work and time will be for naught."
Sakura squared her shoulders and took a deeper breath. She felt more in control again.
"It's not just about my eyes," Itachi said, looking at her. "You wouldn't be this upset if it was just about my eyes."
"No," she said. "Let's just move on and fetch the others. We're reconvening before going for Hayashi, right? Let's get the others and go down that corridor and find Hayashi. What do we do about these bodies? We're gonna hide them or take the risk and leave them?"
Hayashi was dead when they found him.
He lay on the floor of what looked like a storage room. It smelled like sewer, rot and cardboard. Sakura saw a rat scamper across Hayashi's fat, hairy ankle and disappear into the deeper shadows of the room. She raised the torch in her hand higher and they all looked down at Hayashi.
"He's dead," Shikamaru said.
"This is an unexpected turn of events," Neji said.
"He took poison," Sakura said with a look at the dead body. The air around the body smelled acidic and sulfuric. Sakura's eyes scanned the room for any possible residue of the poison. It was liquid, thankfully, or else she would have evacuated the room upon immediate entrance.
Itachi moved closer to Hayashi's dead body. The rest of them stood immobile, trying to process that they had fought their way to their target in vain. Or, well, not completely in vain.
"This is really anticlimactic," Shikamaru said and scratched the back of his neck. "But at least he spared us the trouble of killing him ourselves."
"I understand how," Sakura began, "but not why. Did he truly feel this threatened by us? Did he send those professional assassins after us the other day? And when they failed to snap our necks, he saw no other way out than to kill himself?"
Sakura's hand had unknowingly gone up to her ribs. They still felt sore.
"It is possible that we were a minor influence on something bigger. Perhaps he had indebted himself and couldn't repay, or perhaps he was sick and was set to die soon from natural causes," Itachi said and crouched down next to the dead man's face and his matted, watery eyes. Sakura had never liked the eyes of a dead person. Eyes were for the living.
"We were the drop that spilled the cup," Shikamaru said and pocketed his hands.
It still felt anticlimactic.
"This sucks," Sakura said, loud and clear. Neji nodded in soundless reply.
"I guess we're celebrating tonight," Shikamaru said. "Captain?"
"Yes," Itachi said. "I think a celebration is in order. But first we must get out of here. I hear footsteps. Grab that and go. Leave no clues behind, or there'll be a chase tonight instead of a celebration. Hyuuga, go first. Haruno, you're in front of me."
Sakura was no stranger to bars and large quantities of alcohol. Her accidental encounter with Itachi in Grass all that time ago was a testament to that. This bar was nothing out of the ordinary. The light was dim and the noise was loud. At places the light even seemed completely lacking, which Sakura was sure came in handy for the more adventurous patrons. The air was like a vacuum in there, heavy and suctioning. If you closed your eyes and pretended to be in a different village and with different company, it felt like home.
Sakura had sat with Itachi for a while now. Shikamaru had disappeared outside to grab a smoke some time ago, and around that same time Neji had announced that he needed a refill. Neither of them had returned yet and Sakura hadn't bothered to keep them in sight once they abandoned ship.
"'S funny," she said to Itachi.
"What is funny?" he asked. He sounded bored, but he wouldn't have responded if that had been the case. Sakura's tipsy mind knew that much. It encouraged her to continue.
"In profile, your nose is straight, but it doesn't look like that from this angle," she said and reached up towards the Uchiha's face to drag the pad of her finger down the line of his nose. She rested her finger against the slightly curved tip, before she let her hand fall back into her lap. Sakura knew that Itachi wouldn't have allowed her to enter his private space like that if it hadn't been for their kiss those days ago. Hell, she never would have touched him this openly if it hadn't been for that kiss. The blasted kiss which they yet had to discuss in greater detail. Sakura opened her mouth to say something, but then she spotted Shikamaru in the distance. It drew her attention away from Itachi. Shikamaru was chatting up a woman in black stockings and high heels.
"Would you pick her up?" she asked Itachi with a nod towards Shikamaru's lady friend.
"That would depend on many things," Itachi answered.
"Heels are bad for your spine," Sakura said and ran her thumb along the hemline of her skirt. She knew she was about to ask something stupid.
"You think I should wear heels? Not here on the mission, of course, but in some other setting. I don't even own a pair."
"Which is for the better," Itachi said. "Your legs need no accentuation. They're fine."
"Thanks. I guess," Sakura said. She was about to get up from her seat and go over to Shikamaru, but Itachi's voice stopped her.
"Beauty alone does not hold my interest for more than a week. I like to think all wise men agree with me on that," he said. Sakura's stomach flipped and curled up into a ball.
"Why did you kiss me?" she asked.
"I wanted to," he answered.
"Do you need more of a reason?" Itachi asked and looked at her askance.
"Excuse me," she said. "I need to go to the restroom."
Ten minutes later, as Sakura stared at her raccoon eyes and matted skin in the cracked mirror above the sink, she decided that the lighting in the ladies room was thoroughly unflattering. She looked like crap. Like a sack of crap. She missed Naruto. She always missed him, but now it was even worse. In an angry motion, she turned off the hot water and prepared to exit the cramped room. She should probably go sleep her anger off. If not, something ugly would surely happen, and she wouldn't be able to account for it once she woke up with a splitting headache and a sore body in a room that didn't necessarily have to be hers. She had passed one or two men on her way to the restroom that she wouldn't mind inviting home. Then there was Itachi, of course, though that was so much more complicated. And she couldn't do complicated when she was drunk. Or, well, she actually did complicated best when she was drunk. It was the consequences after that weren't so good.
"Bed," she said to herself. She flung out her arm and pushed her way out the door. She continued down the corridor and back towards the bar where she had seen Shikamaru earlier. She reached him, completely ignorant of the woman who had her body wrapped around the jonin like a vine.
"Goin' to bed," she said too close to Shikamaru's face. Her depth perception was off.
"Might wanna pass that on to Itachi," Shikamaru said.
"Don't wait up," Sakura replied.
"Whatever," the strategist said and let the medic wander off without further protest.
The cool night air cleared up Sakura's fuzzy mind. She had barely stepped a foot outside before she was overwhelmed by the urge to simply take off and run, her feet hitting the soil in a steady beat. Predictable like a drum and the rise of the sun.
Yes. That sounded nice.
She had rounded the corner of the bar when she realized that she had no idea where to go. She didn't remember where their inn was at. She didn't remember what direction it lay in. She came to a slow halt, debating whether she should keep walking in a random direction or return to the bar. Her choice was taken away from her quickly enough when Itachi walked up next to her.
"Where did you come from?" she asked. "Did you follow me?"
"You must report a departure," Itachi said, but he didn't put much feeling into it.
"We're off duty," Sakura said. She didn't care why he was there, though a tiny voice inside her head pointed out that the Uchiha had went out of his way to follow her outside. Few men had ever followed her anywhere. Not like this.
"We are off duty when we pass the gates of Konoha," Itachi said.
"I forgot the way back," Sakura said. "Can you point out the direction?"
"I could," Itachi said. "Though I doubt your current state of mind would be able to tell the difference between south and north if I chose to tell you."
"No matter," she said. "I'll find m'way."
It was fine. She was in no need of a chaperone to defend her virtue. Those who dared assault her would quickly find themselves missing vital reproductive organs. Also, there was no actual virtue to protect in the first place, so it was bad metaphor, anyway.
Sakura stopped mid-step and looked back over her shoulder at Itachi.
"The opposite direction. Go directly to bed," he said. Sakura fought off a smile. He might have kissed her, but this was so much better than that. If she had had a journal, this would have filled an entire section in it. She would have dotted the 'i's with hearts and other girly stuff. No self-respecting kunoichi kept a journal, though. That was just wrong. Her thoughts sufficiently distracted, Sakura changed route and followed the direction that Itachi had pointed out to her.