It started as a routine mission – Sakura's second ever solo mission, and an opportunity too great for her to pass up. But then everything went horribly wrong. ItaSaku AU; set immediately after the Gaara Retrieval arc in Part II of the manga.

Chapter One: The List

It started with a list.

It had been a long day – one of the longest and hardest in recent memory. Sakura had woken at dawn and spent the next three hours training with Naruto and Kakashi-sensei, and after the shortest of breaks, she had immediately headed over to the hospital and then worked the longest and most grueling shift she'd had in weeks. The jounin exams were currently underway; taking place in Konoha, and the injuries sustained in the combat matches seemed especially brutal this cycle. In a matter of a few hours, there had been seven shinobi with serious internal organ damage to see too, as well as several more who had shattered, broken limbs or ribs that needed to be set and repaired. That wasn't even counting the amount that came in with stab wounds inflicted by kunai or other weapons. Not to mention that once all thatwas over, Sakura had gone to the lab at Shizune's request in order to help assemble a new batch of antidotes to the poisons that Konoha's enemies were most fond of using.

The sun was setting in a riot of vivid pinks and oranges that Sakura observed vaguely, almost too exhausted to keep her hands steady, as she triple-checked and capped the vials. She was ravenously hungry as a result of such a large amount of chakra use, and she had been thinking longingly of her soft, quilt-covered bed for the past hour, despite her most valiant attempts to stay focused.

And that was precisely when the messenger quietly entered the lab to tell her that the Godaime Hokage requested her presence in her office immediately.

Sakura came to stand in front of Tsunade's desk, hands clasped in front of her and her head bowed respectfully, and even though she still felt as hungry and tired as she had two minutes earlier in the lab, now, her heart was beating a little faster, and she couldn't ignore the curiosity fluttering through her veins. She had already met with her shishou earlier in the morning, as they always did, and she couldn't think of a single reason why Tsunade would summon her here again, unless—

"Sit, Sakura," Tsunade ordered, without looking up from the thick stack of paperwork that she was rifling through, a troubled look on her face. "You look dead on your feet. Give me a few moments to find the report that I'm looking for."

Sakura complied gratefully, although privately, she thought that her shishou looked even wearier than she felt. Frown lines had settled into the artificial youth of her face, making her look closer to her true age – and the faintest sense of unease stirred in the pit of the pink-haired kunoichi's stomach. There were few things that could truly disturb her shishou, and her first thought was of Naruto. Naruto, who had been as bright and rambunctious as ever this morning, despite the fact that the sun hadn't even been in the sky for half an hour. Naruto, who had advanced so much in the two and a half years that he had been away, that he was still amazing her…not that she'd ever admit it to him.

Naruto, who through no fault of his own, contained something that the world's most infamous criminal organization was currently desperate to possess. The memory of the desperate search for Gaara was still too close to the surface, and Sakura had to repress a shudder. That had only emphasized the danger that Naruto was in, and for an instant, she was gripped by a fear for him so strong that it nearly stole her breath away. If Tsunade had received word that the Akatsuki was near – if they were trying to take Naruto now, after their recent success with extracting Gaara's Shukaku, she would…

A memory of facing down that horrible illusion of Itachi Uchiha returned, and Sakura blinked and tried not to shift in her chair.

You'll what? Inner Sakura asked gloomily. You'll try to fight against that?

But she and Chiyo had fought against another Akatsuki member, and they had killed him. Sakura's stomach gave a painful twinge at the thought, an echo of where Sasori had impaled her with his poisoned sword. It had been the most difficult fight of her life, but she would do it again in a heartbeat, if it meant protecting her sole remaining teammate.

Finally, Tsunade set her stack of papers aside with a long sigh, regarding her seriously, and Sakura sat up a little straighter, steeling herself for whatever bad news her shishou had to give her. "Yes, Tsunade-shishou?"

Tsunade reached up to rub the back of her neck, her gaze not leaving her apprentice. "You are familiar with the treaty that we are trying to negotiate with Cloud, correct?"

Sakura nodded at once, trying to mask her surprise at the direction their conversation had taken. "And I understand your reasoning in doing so, even though…" she hesitated, knowing how unpopular Tsunade's idea had been with Konoha's council, and she wondered whether they had managed to harass her out of it.

"Even though the last attempt at a peace treaty ended up with Cloud's representative attempting to kidnap Hinata Hyuga, and the resulting…events that ensued," Tsunade finished heavily. "Yes. I know. But our villages living at the edge of war with one another is unacceptable in these times, when we should be united against the common threat of the Akatsuki."

Sakura inclined her head. She remembered the initial correspondence in which her shishou and the Raikage were trying to work out what the treaty would entail – but then Naruto had returned, and so much had happened since then. "Are things moving along well, shishou?"

"The negotiations are approaching their final stages," Tsunade replied, resting her chin on top of her interlaced fingers. "The Raikage is ready to proceed now, but I am not so sure."

This time, Sakura couldn't hide her surprise. In the time before Naruto had come back, when she had spent a few hours a day here in Tsunade-shishou's office studying the thick medical volumes from her personal study, she had overheard Tsunade arguing with her councilors about this. She had been extremely determined to make this treaty from the start. "If I may ask, shishou," she inquired cautiously, "why pause the proceedings now?"

By way of response, Tsunade just reached into the stack of paperwork and withdrew one slightly yellowed scroll. She placed it in front of her student, and Sakura glanced at it curiously, wondering what the significance was. It appeared to be a list – one that was made up solely of twenty names, none of which were familiar to her.

She looked up at Tsunade, noting the grim expression on her shishou's face. "Konoha jounin, missing in action since early last year," the Hokage explained. "Twenty of our best. It's as if they vanished – and there's absolutely no evidence that they were killed in action." She indicated her stack of paperwork. "The intelligence we have been collected leads me to believe that they may still be alive, which only means that—"

Sakura sat back in her chair as the weight of the implication hit her. "They could be prisoners of war," she finished, stunned.

"Right. And you know what a risk that is – they'd be tortured and interrogated for any information they could provide on the workings of the village."

Sakura tried not to flinch. Ino's dad had worked with Ibiki Morino before, and he had told them about the brutal methods that Konoha used to extract information from their enemies. According to him, though, in comparison to the other villages, theirs was quite humane. "But…the potassium cyanide tablets?" she asked quietly. "All jounin carry them when they leave on missions. They know what to do if captured by the enemy."

"True," Tsunade acknowledged. "But you should know that we've taken our share of enemies alive, regardless. Most shinobi know the common places to hide the tablets – in a necklace, in a hidden seam of a sleeve or glove or mask, or something of the sort. So other shinobi know where their prisoner is going to go, and if they're fast enough, they can beat them to it and destroy the pill before it can be ingested. And I'm fairly sure that's what happened in the case of these jounin."

Sakura stared at the list for a few moments, until the names before her eyes blurred. Emi Kido, Kiyomi Okui, Ryu Nakamoto, Kohei Okimoto…for this past year, had they all been forced into a shinobi's worst nightmare? Imprisoned and tortured for sensitive information about their village – which they had sworn to protect with their lives – and with no way out of their suffering? It was truly awful.

Sakura had to shake her head a few times to clear it, and only then did the realization sink in. Tsunade-shishou had this list, she suspected that they were prisoners of war, and she had just received information that made her reluctant to sign the treaty with Cloud—

She looked up so fast that she almost pulled a muscle in her neck. "Tsunade-shishou, you don't think—"

Tsunade massaged her temples with the tips of her fingers, scowling. "Our sources have ruled out them being captives of the other villages. It's either Cloud or Sound. While I do think it's extremely likely that Orochimaru could be behind this, I can't go ahead with the treaty with Cloud while I know that they might have our shinobi. It would mean that they've been double-crossing us this entire time, with the Raikage speaking of peace with me, while he sanctions his shinobi taking ours prisoner and torturing them for information. What I need is to know definitively, one way or another, which village has our shinobi." She paused, looking at her student contemplatively. "And that is where you come in."

Sakura stilled, startled by her shishou's word choice. It seemed to indicate a solo mission – solo reconnaissance. It was all she could do not to ask the Hokage to repeat herself in order to clarify.

It was downright shocking. Out of all the kunoichi in Konoha, she had performed the lowest number of solo missions, only second to Hinata, and that was just because the Hyuga clan would not allow its heiress to undertake such a potentially dangerous task. She had no clan to keep her from doing such a thing, and while Sakura understood that Tenten and Ino had quite different skill sets than hers, on some level, she did feel like it was demoralizing to be so far behind them. Especially Ino, who teased her about it on a regular basis.

But then the rest of Tsunade's statement sunk in, and her reference to Orochimaru and Sound made Sakura's throat go dry. She couldn't help but think of Sasuke (of the last time she had seen him, in the instant before he knocked her unconscious, and she wondered what he would look like now), and her fingers dug into the chair's hard wooden armrest so hard that her knuckles went white.

"You want me to go to Sound?" she asked, almost unable to hear her own voice over the thudding of her heart. Going to Sound, even if she were in disguise, would mean she could very well see Sasuke again, and perhaps if she could find him she could convince him to come home—

In response to her question, Tsunade only looked startled for a moment, before she shook her head. "No," she said firmly. "Sakura, I understand better than anybody else how much you have progressed, but I would never send you, or anybody else, there on your own. I intend for you to go to Cloud. The infiltration process will be much easier and less dangerous."

Sakura just nodded, hoping that her disappointment didn't show on her face. Tsunade, who knew her better than that, frowned, but refrained from making a comment. "I thought you would appreciate the opportunity to do something different," she said finally. "I know that in terms of experience, you've received far less solo missions than the other kunoichi, but your skill set seems perfect for this mission. Now, would you prefer to be briefed right now, or tomorrow at dawn?"

Sakura spared a brief, longing thought for the dinner that was likely waiting for her at home, but she brushed it aside. "Now would be fine, shishou."

"Good." Tsunade leaned back in her chair, tapping one long, red-painted fingernail against her desk as she spoke. "The primary reason I chose you for this mission is that, conveniently enough, Cloud is experiencing a shortage of medics right now. They don't have a comprehensive system for training medic-nin, and they're actually opening their village up to civilian medics because of the shortage. You have an affinity for genjutsu, and I intend for you to use that to conceal your true appearance. First, you will travel to Cloud, pose as a local civilian medic from one of the surrounding towns, and then gain entry into the village. From there, after a few days of work and scoping out the area, you will have to find a way to infiltrate the Raikage's office and search for any records you can find that indicate the detention of our shinobi in their village. If you find any such document, take the original, replicate a copy to hold its place, and bring the original back to Konoha immediately."

Sakura bit her lip, deep in thought, as she envisioned herself going through the outline of the mission. She wasn't trying to be arrogant at all, but it seemed well within her capabilities. She would have to be cautious, observant, and pay attention to detail in order to be successful and escape detection, and those were all qualities that she possessed naturally. Her last recon mission had been quite similar. There was only one thing that caused her concern. "Do we have a blueprint of the Raikage's building here, or will I have to find one in a library in their village?" she asked, at last.

Tsunade shook her head. "I have files on Cloud from the last recon mission that you'll need to study on your way there – it should tell you what to expect in detail regarding their village's security as well. It's been two years, so I doubt there would have been any significant changes that you would be unable to determine through observation."

Sakura nodded resolutely, once again analyzing everything the mission called for, and she felt the weight of responsibility settle on her shoulders. The twenty Konoha shinobi on that list were now depending on her in order to come one step closer to freedom. "I won't let you down, Tsunade-shishou."

The expression on Tsunade's face softened a little. "I know you won't. Now, you'll need to report here tomorrow morning at seven o' clock sharp so you can get the rest of the information you need…"

"…and those are the parameters for this mission. Tsunade-shishou said that I should be back approximately two and a half weeks from tomorrow."

For a few long moments, silence reigned at the dinner table, broken only by the gentle clink of Satoshi Haruno's chopsticks against the porcelain bowl. Next to him, Sakura's mother had put hers down as she stared at her only child, and Sakura had to bite her lip to keep herself from sighing exasperatedly. She knew it was only because her mother cared about her, but going through this before every single mission was so tiring. And she had grown so much stronger over the past two years, too, but even after her mother had seen the things she could do now, she was still so anxious about missions…

"You said this is a solo mission?" Sayuri Haruno repeated, her wide, expressive green eyes filling with worry.

"Yes, mom," Sakura replied patiently, throwing a glance at her ever-unruffled father. "It's nothing to worry about, though – it's really no different from the ones I've gone on before. Actually, this one is less challenging than some of the team missions I've done in the past…"

Her mother just sighed, obviously not reassured by her statement. "I don't mean to offend you, Sakura-chan, but this is just too dangerous. You're going right into the territory of the people who you suspect took those poor shinobi captive, and you're spying on them – what if they catch you? They won't want Konoha to find out about any proof that they have those captives; they might imprison you, or worse—"

Sakura interrupted, wanting to derail her mother's train of thought before she could get too worked up with morbid scenarios that would likely never happen. "I'll be careful, they're not going to—"

Her mother raised her voice, speaking over her effortlessly. "How do you know, Sakura? You're going to be all alone there; you won't even have any teammates to support you! I would feel better if Naruto-kun and Kakashi-sensei—"

Sakura dropped her chopsticks into her empty rice bowl, struggling to keep her temper under control. This had been the exact same dialogue that had played out before her last solo mission. "I don't need them to be holding my hands through every mission I go on," she said, through gritted teeth. "You saw me at the chunin exams, you know that I'm not the weakling I used to be!"

Across from her, her mother was obviously trying hard to restrain her temper as well. After taking a deep breath and pushing a lock of strawberry-blonde hair behind her ear, she turned to her husband. "What do you think about this?" she asked, her voice tightly controlled.

Sakura watched her father warily. For as long as she could remember, he had always sided with her – from the moment when she first dreamed of being a kunoichi, like Ino, and begged her parents to enroll her in the Academy. Like her mother, he was a civilian – an accountant – but unlike her mother, he understood her. He had wanted to be a shinobi when he was young, and his parents had forbidden him from doing so. They had granted the privilege to his older brother, who had died sixteen years ago, during the Nine-Tails' attack on Konoha. For that reason, Sakura knew she could count on her father to support her. Not that it really mattered, anyway, part of her realized, because orders were orders, and missions could not be turned down unless there was a truly pressing reason…but at the same time, she didn't want to leave with both of her parents upset at her.

Satoshi Haruno placed his chopsticks down and pushed his bowl away with a quiet sigh. "As always, I trust completely in Tsunade-sama's judgment," he said, at last, sounding as always as if he was weighing each word deliberately before he spoke. "Yes, Sayuri, it does sound dangerous, but if Tsunade-sama believes that Sakura has the ability to perform this mission on her own and succeed at it, then I do as well. And I personally believe that Sakura is capable of any task, any mission, no matter how challenging, that she sets her mind to."

Sakura couldn't help but smile, pleased and proud at his praise. "Thanks, Dad."

Sayuri's gaze flickered from her husband to her daughter, and, her lips thinning with displeasure, she rose and swept out of the room.

Sakura sighed, running her fingers through her hair, and once her mother was out of earshot, she looked at her father pleadingly. "Every single time, Dad. Really? Of course missions are going to get more challenging as I rise through the ranks. She should know I'm not just going to stop…"

Her father rose from the table, before coming to stand next to her and placing a gentle hand on her shoulder. "You know it's only because she cares, Sakura-chan," he admonished softly. "I will talk to her, but I don't know how much good it will do. Try not to be angry – you must understand that you are our only child. No matter how strong a kunoichi you become, we will always worry."

Sakura propped her head up in her hands, suddenly feeling all the exhaustion of the day catch up with her, and irrationally, her eyes stung with tears. "I know," she mumbled. "I know."

Sakura rose with the sun the next morning. She prepared on autopilot, as she always did for missions, methodically filling her pack to the brim with supplies, extra clothes, and medical scrolls and textbooks, before pulling on her typical clothes and securing her weapons. Finally, she shut the door behind her with a definitive, final-sounding click, and then made her way down the hall to her parents' room, listening quietly by the door. Deciding to give it a try, she opened the door softly and slipped inside – but her mother wasn't asleep, as she had expected; she was standing near the window and watching the sunrise, her arms crossed over her chest.

Sakura paused, but her mother turned toward her and held out one arm. In the soft morning light, she didn't look angry anymore – just calm and tired and resigned, with the fine lines around her eyes and mouth somewhat more pronounced.

She joined her mother by the window, hugging her tight, and Sakura felt and heard her sigh, holding her close, as if she didn't want to let go. But she did, as she brushed a stray lock of hair away from her daughter's eyes. "Be careful, Sakura-chan. Please."

Remembering her father's words of the previous night, Sakura just nodded, before embracing her mother again quickly. "I will, Mom. Don't worry."

She found her father waiting by the front door, dressed for work, and he put his arms around her for a moment. "I know you will do well," he told her reassuringly, with such obvious faith in her that it made her smile. "Come home safely, Sakura."

"I will, Dad."

She opened the door for him and watched him go, clutching his briefcase in one hand, until he disappeared down the path.

One hour later, after stopping by Naruto's apartment, climbing in through the fire escape, and writing him a note telling him where she had gone, and after a quick stop at the flower shop as well to leave another note for Ino, Sakura entered Hokage Tower for the last pieces of information she would need before beginning her mission – the last report on security she could expect to see in Cloud, as well as the list of the twenty Konoha jounin. She had placed the report in her bag to read when she took a break later, but the list, she folded and put in a secure inner pocket of her vest, close to her heart.

At half-past seven, she walked through Konoha's East Gate, passing through security detail without a problem. Sakura turned to look at the familiar and beloved gates of her home one last time before beginning her journey, and a sense of resolve swept over her, quite overwhelming her last vestiges of nervousness. She would help Tsunade-shishou find out exactly what happened to the twenty missing shinobi, so that hopefully, they would be able to return to their home someday soon as well.

With that thought foremost in her mind, Sakura leapt lightly and easily up into the branches of the nearest tree, and began the journey north, to Cloud.

to be continued

Hello again, everybody!

I'm so sorry that it's been so very long – my first semester of college was extremely difficult and busy, and at the same time, I was struck with a case of writer's block unlike anything I've ever experienced before. Thankfully, I've got my inspiration back now, and this is an idea I've had for more than a year, but I never had the time to flesh it out until now. It's rather different from Lost and Found and Before The Dawn, and while I am always nervous before starting a new project, I really wanted to explore the ItaSaku pairing from a fresher angle. :)

I apologize for the slowness (and the lack of Itachi) in this chapter, but this was intended to serve as a prologue, of sorts. Things will pick up very soon.

As always, any and all feedback would be very much appreciated. :)