Author's Note: Thank you so much to the 100+ followers I've gained thus far! It amazes me how many of you return to this story, and I can't tell you enough how appreciative I am that you do. Thank you, thank you, thank you! As a gift, I've made this an extra long chapter ;) Enjoy!

By the way, I'm working on another fanfic! This time it's for the Harry Potter fandom. I'm still in the plot-refining stage, but the first chapter should be posted in a few weeks along with the next chapter for A Rat's Nest :)

Disclaimer: Naruto doth not belong to I.

~ Chapter 6: Promises ~

"They're going to what!?" Gaku said, getting up to yell the words into Yaku's face. The information shocked Itachi, but from a logic standpoint, he was more surprised they hadn't already killed her. The moment they captured him, what did they need Sakura for? In fact, Itachi wondered what, if anything, had kept Sakura alive thus far.

Yaku looked down at his feet. "Yeah. Look, just give her the message and tell her it's from me," he said.

Before Yaku could turn to leave, Gaku grabbed his shoulder. "Wait! You can't – you can't just tell me that and then leave!" he said, his voice straining to remain calm.

Yaku's brow furrowed as he looked at the hand on his shoulder. "I can, and I am," Yaku said. He turned his attention to Itachi and the unconscious Sakura. "Sorry."

"Wait, Yaku! Please," Gaku shouted this time, "Please. She can't die."

"Gaku, what the hell is going on? What's with this sad puppy routine? She's a prisoner. She's going to be hung. End of story." Yaku jerked his shoulder away from Gaku's hand and walked away from them, staring at the ground the whole time. Gaku's arm fell limp at his side.

Itachi silently observed the two men. As he processed the scene, Itachi reconsidered the pathetic Kumo guard. From whatever romantic feelings he had, the guard was desperate to keep Sakura alive.

He waited in the silence that hung between them, letting Gaku's mind calm down from the conversation. When Itachi felt the guard had enough time, he cleared his throat.

"So," he said, "You don't want her to die."

Gaku turned to him, shock clear on his features. Whether is was shock at Itachi speaking or from what Itachi said, he wasn't sure. The guard continued to stare but eventually nodded.

"Well, obviously, I don't want Sakura to die either," Itachi said. He left the statement there, hoping it was open-ended enough for the guard to respond.

Within a few moments, the guard took Itachi's bait. "I don't want her to die . . . but I don't want trouble," the guard said, slowly choosing his words.

"You wouldn't get in trouble. All you have to do is make a few things easier for us, and we'll do the rest." The logic was sound – exploiting the man's affection was something he'd do on a normal mission – but the words still felt strange on his tongue. Itachi carried out his mission based off careful statistical analysis and defined probabilities. For the first time since he was an academy student, he was uncertain his plan would succeed; while it was a malleable weakness, the guard's infatuation was an unpredictable variable.

The guard looked down, staring at his shoes as though the curves of the laces spelled his answer. The staring seemed to go on for ten minutes, before he squeezed his eyes shut. His voice was barely a whisper, and Itachi strained to hear him. "Okay."

As Yaku exited the underground interrogation unit, he was more confused than he'd felt in a long time. It wasn't like he wanted the pink chick to hang, but what choice did he have? The Raikage clearly had some vendetta against her and her blonde friend, and anyone who interfered would hang along side them.

There was supposed to be a party in his honor tonight for capturing the Konoha girl. Instead of heading into town, he began to walk home, not feeling like celebrating. He was all for having a good time and milking any five minutes of fame he could get, but it seemed like a lopsided exchange: her life for a fun night as the town hero.

His walk home was done half-consciously; he knew the road home well enough to let his mind wander. But as soon as he wasn't concentrated on his steps, his mind latched onto the pink girl. He thought of their encounter in the forest.

Yes, she'd killed one of his teammates, but he honestly didn't even know the guy, and he would have done the same if he were in her position. As for his other teammate, the one recuperating in the hospital, she'd been rather merciful. She was right, he'd need a lot of physical therapy, but he would live. And she was cooperative during their travel to the Kumo gates, even healing their injuries.

When the Raikage had ordered the military draft, calling to arms all able-bodied men and women, Yaku had been pissed that it wasn't a paid position. Now he was just pissed at the work, which was a first for him. Yaku was a merchant; he didn't belong to some buddy-buddy team or anything like that. He was just a businessman who happened to know a thing or two about fighting. And, as a man of business, it was almost required of him to ignore the morality of his work. Jobs put bread on the table and ale in his stomach. The day he worried about right and wrong would be the day he was starving and sober, two things Yaku didn't want to be.


He'd received a special commendation from the Raikage himself, a hefty reward, and a night of celebration in his name. His bank account was full, his belly even fuller, but he couldn't forget the pink girl. She was by far the most kind-hearted person he'd dealt with in his career, and he repaid her with a death sentence. He was a man without morals, a man who just wanted his check. But, if he was willing to give up a young woman's life for a paycheck, what else would he lower himself to? He was essentially murdering for money now.

He was a businessman, not a hitman.

Before Yaku could change his mind, he turned around. He wasn't going to add murderer to his résumé. His walk turned into a run, and he was out of breath by the time he was outside the interrogation unit.

The shinobi at the entrance was thankfully asleep, probably from all the booze circulating the town. He forced some chakra into the door's lock, and quietly shut the door behind him. There wasn't a secondary guard on duty, so Yaku made it to the basement cells within seconds. He ran down the cement corridor, not caring about noise level at this point.

He stopped himself in front of the cell. No Gaku, no blonde boy, no pink girl. It was empty. Where the hell did they go!? Yaku's mind immediately assumed the worst: the blonde guy killed Gaku and escaped with the girl. He ran up stairs he had entered through only moments ago and kicked awake the shinobi guarding the unit entrance. He didn't wake up. Yaku felt the guy's pulse; it was there, but it was slow. Assuming he was just under a genjutsu, Yaku left the guard and started sprinting to the Raikage tower.

Ignoring the ANBU guarding the door, Yaku burst into the Raikage's office. The action seemed justified before he did it, but as he stood in the office, his gasping slowing down along with his heart rate, he reconsidered the action. The Raikage stood behind his desk, and a man in a deep navy cloak sat across from him.

Both men turned to him, and Yaku pulled himself together as best as he could, hoping his merchant charm would ease this situation. "Raikage-sama, I hadn't realized you'd be busy," he started. "I was hoping to have a word with you."

The Raikage smiled at him; not really a comforting image, but Yaku would take a smile over a scowl any day. "Yaku, you should be celebrating! Whatever it is, it can wait until tomorrow," the Raikage laughed.

"Trust me, I'd be warm with ale and women right about now," he said, returning the Raikage's smile, "But, both can wait until I've talked with you."

The Raikage's smile slipped a little, but he sat down and motioned for Yaku to do the same. Yaku walked to the seats across from the Raikage's desk, but he couldn't help but notice the cloaked man was still there. He turned to the Raikage, clearing his throat and nodding his head in the cloaked man's direction.

"Whatever you have to say, he can hear as well." Yaku was skeptical but decided to not to push the subject.

"Sir," Yaku slowly started. He wanted to make sure his words were the right ones. "Sir, the ANBU guard named Gaku and the two Konoha prisoners are no longer in the interrogation unit. They're gone."

He barely finished his statement when the cloaked figure stood up. The man turned to the Raikage, "Explain. Now." At the same time, the Raikage turned to Yaku, shouting, "What do you mean, 'they're gone'?"

The two statements erupted into chaos as the three men yelled at one another, defending and accusing each other. "Explain, Raikage!" "Where did they go!" "I don't know." "You're the one telling us, how can you not know!" "I will not be ignored, Raikage!"

The yelling continued until they were all out of breath, and the situation was no clearer than when Yaku came in. They stood still, breathing heavily. Annoyed, Yaku broke the silence. "I was visiting Gaku in the cells. We may have exchanged a few heated words, but I went home without any incident. But, when I returned to the cell, they weren't there. That's all I know."

The information processed in the other minds in the room, and Yaku fell into his chair, exhausted. His propped his head on his hand, sighing into his palm. "I . . . I fear that the ANBU guard may have been killed, and the two Konoha shinobi escaped."

"And why is that? Was there any evidence of a struggle?" the Raikage said.

"Well, no. But Gaku is a Kumo shinobi through-and-through. There's no way he would have conspired with the prisoners. Even if he wanted to, he's aware of what happens to traitors," Yaku explained. Gaku was a bleeding heart, but he wasn't a stupid bleeding heart.

The cloaked figure sat beside Yaku. "What was this argument you had?"

Yaku looked at the man in surprise. Of all the facts he presented, the man had focused on the one detail he had reworded for Gaku's sake. "It was nothing. Just a disagreement over some news I brought."

"Well, what news did you bring?" the cloaked man pursued.

Yaku swallowed. The news was public knowledge – it was obnoxious how many posters were put up about it – but Yaku felt an unexplainable unease about saying anything. "I told Gaku about the, uh . . . the prisoner hanging tomorrow," he finally said. It wasn't a complete lie. Yes, he had gone down to originally tell the girl about it, but Gaku ended up receiving the message.

The cloaked man turned from Yaku to the Raikage. "Oh, really? And which prisoner was to be hung?" His voice was flat, but his words put the Raikage on edge. Yaku had never seen anyone do that to the Raikage.

"It was just going to be a publicity stunt – we weren't actually going to hang her," the Raikage said with a nervous laugh. Fascinated by the Raikage's flustered behavior, Yaku sat back and watched the hooded figure skillfully manipulate the massive man.

The hooded man made hmph nosie from the back of his throat. "Right, you wouldn't dare do such a thing . . . Let's play a game, shall we?" The man folded his hands in his lap. "Let's pretend you aren't an egocentric, hot-headed idiot, but instead you are a reasonably intelligent man. Now, let's pretend you had hung her. As a smart man, what do you think would have happen?" The Raikage said nothing. "Would she just be another dead prisoner of war? Would Konoha not notice her death, would I not notice her death? Did you think I'd forget our deal?" The Raikage remained perfectly still. "Well? Which is it?"

The air in the room was thick. Yaku swore he saw the tiniest clench in the Raikage's jaw. No one moved – they barely breathed.

"Listen carefully. You will find Sakura, and I suggest you find her soon. Do I make myself clear?" The hooded figure stood up. "You have three days."

The man disappeared. Yaku didn't dare look at the Raikage. After the belittling he just suffered, the Raikage would take anything as a challenge. He stared at his hands and awaited orders.

"Find her." Yaku sprinted out the door. Yaku ran for the forest, not sure where to start; he just wanted to get as far away as possible from the Raikage and his temper; he mentally apologized to the poor soul that would receive the blunt of the Raikage's rage.

Yaku stood in the middle of the forest, thinking. It wasn't long before he heard the hurried shouts of ANBU teams passing overhead. The manhunt had begun.

Itachi readjusted his grip on Sakura, nudging her torso so it leaned against his. They had stopped a moment for Gaku to catch his breath. The Kumo shinobi had done more than loosen their shackles; he'd become their accomplice. Itachi hadn't calculated that development, assuming his sense of self-preservation would prevent him from incriminating himself. Itachi was reluctant to admit his prediction had been wrong.

Other than a few groans and muscle twitches, Sakura had been lifeless in his arms the whole trip. He had wanted to examine her after the shackles had come off, but Itachi wanted needed time to do that – time he didn't have while running from Kumo shinobi. He had heard of cases where med-nin could heal themselves whilst unconscious, but that didn't appear to be happening with Sakura. Many of her wounds were still secreting puss and blood, and many areas of her body were swelling from both injury and infection. It was situations like this that were the reasons that med-nin taught not to be self-sacrificing; if they went down, there was no one to heal them. Itachi made a note to talk to Sakura about her stupidity of wasting the chakra on him instead of healing herself.

"How much farther?" Itachi asked.

"Not much farther," Gaku said, taking a few more deep breaths, "Ready when you are." Itachi began sprinting again.

Gaku had agreed to let them hide at his house, which was apparently on the outer edges of the city. Itachi agreed to this plan; the farther away from the capital, the better off they would be. While he was nervous about entering the home of a Kumo shinobi, the benefits outweighed the risks. Most of all, a safe house would give him an opportunity to deal with Sakura's wounds and general well-being. If he didn't, he was sure she would make the return trip home.

There was nothing he could do for Sakura at that moment, so he instead focused on the shinobi running in front of him – the enigma, more like it. They'd talked a bit on their trip, and he'd collected a few pieces of knowledge. He'd learned that Gaku wasn't a "true" ANBU operative; he explained that the Raikage had promoted all chunin and jonin to ANBU so they could be sent on higher ranked missions. Also, genin were promoted to chunin so they could take care of any domestic issues, while the other ranks were gone fighting the Raikage's war.

Itachi scoffed at the idea. "Higher ranked missions" was just a euphemism for war campaigns, and there was no way a mere genin could handle the responsibility given to chunin. The fact that this was the Raikage's idea worried him the most. Such a reckless and impulsive decision made was an indicator of the Raikage's mental state; he was essentially sending young, inexperienced shinobi to their grave. It was also during this conversation that Gaku told Itachi about the shinobi draft, which made even less sense. The idea of farmers or cooks on a battlefield was more idiotic than promoting unqualified shinobi.

Gaku and Itachi ran for quite some time before they began to hear the Kumo teams. They'd made it farther than they'd expected to, but it wasn't far enough. They found a small stone alcove and hid under it until the voices above them passed by. Itachi still couldn't sense the Kumo shinobi's chakra, one of many things inexplicable things that he'd experienced on this mission. Of all of them, the inability to sense chakra was the most infuriating. Not that he was incapable of fighting without it, of course; it was just annoying.

He turned to Gaku, who appeared to be able to sense the chakra. He face also seemed to be pained; Itachi would bet he recognized some of the chakra signatures.

"When I was unconscious, did you or your men use any jutsu on me?" Itachi asked. The sudden question startled Gaku, who jumped at the sound of his voice.

"Not that I know of, no," Gaku said.

"Then why can't I sense you or your comrades," Itachi pressed. If he wasn't under the effects of a jutsu, there was little else Itachi could think as a cause to this problem.

"I don't…" Gaku's brow furrowed, but the expression was replaced with realization. "Oh. That."

Itachi rolled his eyes. "And 'that' is…"

"Oh, well, all Kumo shinobi are required to submit to this required chakra-veiling jutsu."

"Since when?" Itachi asked, incredulous. It was a fairly easy technique, but he'd never heard of a mandated chakra-veiling.

"Since the war started. They had us one-by-one meet with this random guy who performed the jutsu," Gaku said. Random guy? Itachi thought. Kumo shinobi are known for their their raw strength and offense-type ninjutsu, not their knowledge of sealing techniques. "Random guy" was probably outsourced from another shinobi country.

"You don't remember who it was?" Itachi asked.

Gaku shook his head. "He wore a hooded cloak, so I couldn't get a look at his face or anything. And I couldn't hear his voice either, since he did the jutsu silently. It was definitely a guy, though."

Itachi mulled over this information. A mysterious man was sealing the chakra of all Kumo shinobi. It couldn't be another Kumo shinobi, or they wouldn't be worried about their identity – why hide your contribution to helping your country win a war? And it couldn't be a Kumo ally, or they wouldn't feel their work needed to be hidden.

That left two shinobi nations as possibilities: Konoha and Suna. But Suna was an unlikely option as the country was declared neutral; the entire Suna population happily agreed to the decision, and there was little to no chance of a rogue helping Kumo. That left Konoha, but within Konoha, the impending war was a well-kept secret amongst those who knew, and only the Hokage, the council, and any ANBU involved knew about it.

So, the mystery shinobi must be a male Konoha ANBU, secretly helping the Raikage's war campaign. Great. Konoha has a rat, Itachi scoffed. This mission was just getting better and better.

"Can I ask you something?" Gaku said. Itachi nodded, gladly accepting any distraction from how ridiculous this mission was. Gaku cleared his throat and looked away from Itachi. "Can you tell me about her . . . about Sakura?" His voice hesitated on her name, like he wasn't sure he had a right to say it. Itachi sighed; this wasn't a distraction, it was another problem.

Itachi wasn't about the prattle on Sakura; he barely knew her outside what of Sasuke has said about her or what little information he gathered when she treated him. He didn't know anything about her family, what she was like outside of the hospital, or anything like that. Nonetheless, Naruto would know all about Sakura, and therefore Itachi had to pretend he did as well.

He shrugged. "What do you want to know?"

Gaku's eyes went wide, probably not expecting Itachi – Naruto – to agree. He mumbled and fidgeted for a few moments before forming a question. "Does she have a family?"

Itachi wasn't entirely aware of Sakura's family situation. He'd heard about her parents' untimely deaths, but he didn't know of any siblings. "No."

"Not at all?"

"Dead parents. No siblings." Itachi panned.

Gaku made an "Oh" sound. He was silent for a few more moments before deciding his next question. A blush preluded this one. "Does she have a, uh, boyfriend? You know, back home or wherever?"

"No." Unless you counted Sasuke's recently revealed crush, but that wasn't part of the question.

"No one?" Gaku smiled.

Itachi rolled his eyes, wondering if every one of his answers needed to be reconfirmed. "She isn't dating anyone. Next question."

"Is that her natural hair color?"

"Yes." What shinobi in their right mind would dye their hair pink, of all colors? Itachi frequently wondered why the med-nin never dyed her hair black or brown or some other neutral color. Pink hair makes you a beacon for attackers.

"Really? It's so pretty. I wish it were longer. She would look so beautiful with long hair," Gaku mused, not breaking his gaze from Sakura's hair and face. Itachi looked at her as well, realizing for the first time that Sakura did, indeed, have short hair.

"No, the short hair is better," Itachi said. Gaku hummed in agreement, but still seemed to be imaging Sakura with long hair.

Itachi's brow furrowed. He hadn't realized he had an opinion in the matter, but that didn't make the statement any less true. Practically, long hair would get in the way of shinobi arts, especially if you were a med-nin. And long hair didn't suit Sakura; it would have made her seem weak and feminine, when she was the quite opposite. Yes, short hair better suited her.

From that point, questions about Sakura turned into an annoying trivia game – and Itachi wasn't even getting paid for his answers. The questions eventually dwindled; Itachi had basically recited Sakura's life story, and there was little else to tell. Gaku also seemed to realize this, taking more and more time to think of questions.

Gaku had one more question, but he seemed to be struggling with it. "I know you probably can't answer – shinobi code or whatever – but I can't help but wonder, you know?" Gaku sighed, "Why are you guys here? Why is she here?"

"You know why we're here."

"No, I know – what I meant was, why her? Why not someone else?" Gaku turned his gaze away from Sakura

Before Itachi could think about the question, Sakura started convulsing, drawing both their eyes to her seizing form.

They both rushed to her side, and without really thinking, Itachi swatted Gaku's hands away. "I've got it. Go get water." Gaku frowned but followed Itachi's orders nonetheless. With Gaku gone, Itachi took Sakura into his arms, holding up her torso so she wouldn't choke. Her seizing slowed to a stop, but her muscles – especially the bruising muscles – would twitch with irregular spasms.

Itachi knew Gaku would be gone finding water for a long time, so he took advantage of the relative privacy to examine her wounds. When they got out of the prison, Itachi hadn't thought to grab her torn clothes; other than her pants, the rest of Sakura's body was hastily covered in bandages. The bandages were there more for modesty than healing purposes, and her current wounds really needed to be bandaged; being exposed to the elements was only worsening their condition. And since it looked like they'd be camping here for the night with the manhunt still underway, this was a good time as any to take care of Sakura.

Itachi could just imagine his mother yelling about the purity of a woman and its need to be protected. Unfortunately for Mikoto, wounds took precedence over modesty. Besides, Naruto was like a brother to Sakura, so she probably wouldn't be angry about being exposed in front of him. Probably.

Before he could treat anything, he would need to the water Gaku was retrieving to wash the bandages and wounds. Itachi sighed. That meant he'd have to expose her in front of both himself and Gaku. He'd have to set strict rules with the Kumo shinobi if he was going to treat Sakura in front of the man.

As Itachi finished his thought, the man in question appeared with a pouch of water. Gaku put the pouch next to Itachi, looking over his shoulder to peak at Sakura. Itachi cleared his throat, causing Gaku to flinch and back up. "Thank you for the water," Itachi started, "Where did you find it?"

"There's a river not too far from here," Gaku said, pointing in the direction of the river. Itachi looked at the pouch of water; it wouldn't be enough.

"Listen to me carefully, Gaku: I'm going to take Sakura to the river to wash and treat her wounds. You will stay here and guard our supplies. You will not follow us to the river, and you will not try to peek. Do I make myself clear?" Itachi slowly said, "Do I have your word, Gaku?"

Gaku nodded, walking over to their bags to sit down. Itachi tossed the water pouch over to Gaku, "Keep the water for yourself. We'll refill it before we start traveling again." Gaku nodded and mumbled a thank you.

Carefully avoiding her wounds, Itachi scooped Sakura off the ground and headed to the river Gaku pointed to. Just as Gaku said, the river was close to their camp, and it didn't take more than a minute to get there.

The river had a gentle current, and the water was clear. At this latitude, the water would be cold, but that was hardly something to worry about.

Itachi rest Sakura against the trunk of a tree, considering his next move. Sakura's wounds needed more than a quick wipe; she needed to soak in the water, drawing all the puss and bacteria out of the wounds. And after their imprisonment and travel, Kami knew they both smelled, too.

Still feeling weird about undressing Sakura, Itachi started with himself. He peeled off his clothes, taking off everything expect his boxers; Naruto might feel confortable nude in front of Sakura, but Itachi definitely did not. It wasn't medically necessary for him o be completely nude, and he wanted to retain some modicum of decency. He was about bathe with a naked woman, after all. It was the gentlemanly thing to do.

He took off Sakura clothes much slower than he had taken his own off. Some of her wounds had crusted and attached to the fabric, and they reopened as the clothes were peeled away. Sakura's unconscious form groaned. Itachi ignored the noise, assuming it was involuntary, and continued undressing her. He was about to take her pants off when her eyes fluttered opened; apparently the pain of reopening wounds was enough to force her conscious again.

"Fuck, that hurts," she moaned. Her eyes were looking everywhere, struggling to focus. "Ugh . . . N-Naruto?" She mumbled.

Itachi quickly reverted to his Naruto persona, making sure he was smiling. "Hey, Sakura-chan! Gave me quite a scare there."

"Where . . . Where are we?" She asked, gaining more clarity, "What happened to the prison?"

Itachi internally sighed with relief; mission debriefing was familiar territory to him, and he was glad Sakura's first thoughts were about the mission's status.

"The Raikage was planning to hang you tomorrow morning, so I convinced Gaku assist our escape. It's been at least four hours since then, and the Raikage has finally sent out teams to recapture us." Itachi explained, helping Sakura sit up against a tree trunk while he spoke. "We were heading to Gaku's home, planning to stow away until the teams gave up, but we didn't make it in time. We set up camp in a fairly concealed rock alcove in the forest. It should make do until morning."

Sakura nodded between grimaces. "Gaku helped us escape?" Her voice was breathless from the pain. Itachi nodded. "So . . . why are you undressed?" She tried to laugh, but it just ended up as a hiss of pain.

Itachi gave her a small smile. "You're wounds are festering, Sakura-chan. I was going to bring you into the river to wash them," He said, pointing to the river behind him. "I don't suppose you can heal yourself now that you're awake?"

Sakura leaned away from the tree, looking at herself and her injuries. "No, I can't. The river is a good idea." She motioned for his help, and he pulled her off the ground to a standing position. While he held her steady, she unraveled the chest bandages, piling them on the ground. She then looped her fingers under her pant's waistband. Itachi focused his eyes above her head, but his gaze snapped back to her when she gasped. She seemed to be having problems with her pants.

"Fuck . . . my back . . . I can't bend it," she said through gritted teeth. Itachi was reluctant to acknowledge the unspoken request: could he help her take her pants off. He thought he'd avoided the whole undressing ordeal when she's woken up, but apparently Itachi had one more reason to curse her injuries.

Remember, you're Naruto, Itachi chided himself, Naruto wouldn't hesitate to help Sakura. He mumbled "of course" as he put her hands on his shoulder so that his own hands were free. He looped his fingers under the waistband. You are Naruto. He tugged to fabric down, pausing only when her breath hitched. When the pants pooled at her feet, her lifted one leg and then the other, tossing it into the pile of discarded bandages. All the while, Itachi kept his mind blank and thoughtless. He was not a strange man undressing a woman he barely knew. He was a brother helping his sister treat her wounds.

"Can you walk?" Itachi asked. Sakura took a tentative step, knees buckling almost immediately. Clearing his throat, he held lowered himself and opened his arms. "Come on, Sakura-chan. I'll carry you into the river." Sakura wrapped her arms around his neck, clutching with what little strengths she had. Resting a hand under her knees and one on her back, he leaned her against his torso, as he had done only moments earlier when he carried her here.

You are Naruto, he thought more forcefully when she held him closer, her bare chest pressed against his. Perhaps a little to hastily, Itachi walked into the river. It was freezing. It was really fucking freezing.

Itachi was a man of restraint and control. His control over his body and mind was absolute – he could control his heart rate at will, if he wanted to. Under normal circumstances, a naked woman was nothing more than a body. As long as he was in control, a naked woman was no more tempting than a naked corpse. He was a shinobi. Bodies were nothing more tissue and blood to him – nothing more than targets for his kunai.

But in this infernal country, with its infernal cold and this infernal river and the infernal circumstance, he was losing it. He was cold. He was tired. He was sick of being Naruto. He was sick of this mission. He wanted to go home, where it wasn't fucking freezing and he wasn't impersonating Naruto and he didn't have to hold Sakura's warm, naked body. Damn it all to hell. Why didn't they just send Sasuke on this mission? Kami knows he'd love to be Itachi's position right now.

Sakura needed to be treated, and he had to do it before he lost it and killed every last Kumo shinobi.

Itachi charged into the water, ignoring her gasp from the water's temperature. Walking until the water was up to his chest, he lowered Sakura into the water, letting the water's buoyancy carry her weight. She was shivering, but her pained expression was eased away from the water's weightless support.

It didn't take long for the crusted blood and puss to soften and fall away from her skin. The water's current slid against the wounds, drawing out discolored blood that had been festering while Sakura had been unconscious. He watched, fascinated, as Sakura used to hands spread cuts open to let the water clean more deeply. Streams of yellows, reds, and browns stemmed from her, drawn downstream.

"You know, you should be bathing, too," Sakura laughed. Her face was much smoother, no longer tight and strained. He looked down at his arms and how they contrasted against her skin. Now that she was clean, his dirty arms were noticeably darker. Her looked back at her to she her bubbling smile, which he gladly returned. "Here," she said, reaching for his shoulders, "I'll hold onto you, that way you can wash up, okay?" Itachi nodded. He liked the idea of finally bathing, despite the bath being a river of ice.

Itachi helped Sakura onto his back so she could securely wrap her arms and legs around him. The cold water was barely enough to distract him from the returning feeling of Sakura pressed against him. He didn't even want to think about what was being pressed against him. But, with his arms now free of naked women, Itachi submerged himself further into the icy water. The water may have been cold, but it rejuvenated his dry, caked skin, and with the help of his hands, the current cleaned him of the dirt and sweat he'd accumulated in the prison and forest.

After feeling he'd indulged enough, he rose out of the water, supporting Sakura on his back while he walked back to their clothes. He lowered her to the forest floor, filling instead with their dirty clothes. "We can't have your wounds wrapped in dirty bandages, and I might as well clean our clothes while I'm at it," he explained. Itachi didn't wait for a response and trotted back to the river, rinsing the bandages and clothes. While he washed them, he realized her lack of clothing would be a problem in this cold weather; the last thing they needed was her being injured and sick. That would be a nightmare.

It was a trivial thing, but Itachi wished he could produce a katon jutsu to dry their clothes. Because of the shackles, they would have to wait for the clothes to drip dry, which would take forever in this cold climate. He could ask Gaku to come and dry them, but that involved the possibility of Gaku seeing Sakura naked, which wouldn't be unacceptable.

Itachi trotted back to where Sakura was, hanging their clothes on the branches nearby. She was shivering against the tree, hugging her knees. Naruto or not – nudity or not – he couldn't let a teammate freeze on the forest floor. Without even asking, he scooped Sakura off the ground. She squeaked, mumbling incoherent protests as he sat back down with her facing forward in his lap. Their combined body heat would be enough to warm them until the clothes were dry. Sakura seemed to get the idea and eventually leaned back against him, sighing.

Sakura relaxed against Naruto's chest. She didn't want to just passively wait here, but sitting with Naruto really was the best option right now. The warmth radiating form him was too good to pass up and shushed any qualms she had.

Accepting this new position, she readjusted herself in his lap, getting cozy for what looked like the long haul. She felt Naruto's breath get deeper and his heart rate slow. After all he'd done, he deserved some sleep. His wispy breath became white noise, and it didn't take long for Sakura's worn body to be tempted. Her eyes were lulled shut, and she fell asleep in seconds.

The hours eased into the morning daylight, and they both looked better, their systems reigniting from rest. Sakura was the first to wake, surprised by how much heat they had generated together. The heat wasn't uncomfortable, though, and Sakura nuzzled closer to Naruto. This mission was a mess, but the instant he'd entered it, Sakura had felt ten times better. He was warm, caring, and the best medicine she could think of for their situation. Sure, he was probably breaking countless rules by being here, but his smile alone was guarantee enough that all would be well.

She reached behind her, her hands searching for his. His body twitched awake, breath hitching. "Hm?" he murmured. She could feel his voice reverberate into her back, low and tired.

"Give me your hands," Sakura said. He obliged, giving his hands over to hers, and she pulled them around her torso. She couldn't help but giggled when his arms went stiff after grazing her chest, and her laugh only made him stiffen more. Over the near decade they'd known each other, they'd seen each other naked countless times – treating him, bathing on missions, Naruto's propensity to randomly strip – he was still modest when she was nude in front of him. She bet that if she turned around she would see a red-faced Naruto.

The thought spurred something in her, and she turned her head enough for her cheek to rest against his chest. "Naruto?"

"Yes, Sakura-chan?" he said, voice tense; his body hadn't relaxed an inch.

She tried to encourage him to relax, rubbing her hands up and down his arms. She curled her legs so she was a ball in his lap, keeping his arms around her. "I'm glad you're here, Naruto."

She felt his body still at her words as the sound of the harsh wind washed between them. Naruto didn't respond right away. His body responded before his words, and his arms were more confident as they pulled her closer. "Me too, Sakura-chan," he said. His voice was so quiet that Sakura barely heard it over the wind. She wanted to keep him talking; she enjoyed the way his voice echoed into her chest.

"Naruto? Why did you come to Kumo?" She asked, rubbing her thumb in circles on his forearm. She didn't want to ruin this moment of peace, but they were on a mission and no amount of cuddling would change that.

Naruto picked up on the tone shift and cleared his throat. "We received a letter from you."

"But I didn't send–" She half-turned to look at him, but his arms prevented her from moving freely.

"We know," he adjusted his hold, giving her a reassuring squeeze before he continued. "It was a fake letter. It asked that Nar – I come to Kumo to sign a treaty."

Sakura frowned. When the Raikage imprisoned her, he'd effectively refused to cooperate with Konoha. Why would the Raikage offer a treaty? It doesn't make sense . . . Oh! Sakura's thoughts were halted by the memory of what the Raikage told her moments before she was knocked out: he wanted Naruto dead.

"It was a trap," she mumbled, half aware she'd said anything. The realization, though, was enough to make Sakura wrench herself free from their entangled arms. "Why did you come, Naruto? He wants you dead!" She wanted to bash in his head for being so stupid! "What if we hadn't escaped that prison, Naruto? He could have killed you! Why on earth would you just waltz into a trap like that?" She didn't care that she was yelling now; he may be the future Hokage, but Naruto needed to be yelled at every once in a while.

She turned completely around to face him, to make sure he felt her anger and realized how stupid he was being. When she turned around, though, his expression wasn't at all what he expected. At this point, Naruto would normally be begging for mercy from her wrath, or at the very least cowering in a corner. The Naruto in front of her then was completely stoic, unfazed by her anger. Her resolve was only strengthened by the need to teach Naruto this lesson. "Why, Naruto? Why would you do something so stupid! Ugh!"

She tore herself away from him, practically jumping out of his lap. She refused to let herself miss his warm when the freezing northern air sent shivers up her naked spine. "You're the Kyuubi's container and the future leader of Konoha – you can't just prance off to an enemy nation whenever you fee like it!" The forest floor crinkled as Naruto also stood up. She walked over to where their clothes hung, yanking them off the branch. "I know we're close, but our friendship isn't worth losing you. Your life is worth much more than mine–"

Naruto grabbed her by the arm and pulled it, forcing her to face him. Her rant died in her throat, replaced by heavy, angry breathes as her heart rate refused to calm down. She wanted to say more, to beat into him that she was just a single shinobi, a solder whose purpose was to be sacrificed to protect people like him. Her life for his – that's the way it always was and will be.

"Sakura, don't you dare think you aren't important," Naruto said, punctuating each word and increasing the pressure of his grip. Her arm was starting to hurt, but she wasn't about to give him the satisfaction of seeing her in pain; Naruto wasn't going to win this argument. She tried to twist her arm free, but Naruto's grip held stronger.

Itachi hadn't expected her anger. He had fully expected her to trust Naruto's decision, both as her friend and future Hokage. Sakura wasn't wrong; if the real Naruto were in front of her, he'd join her in chastising the blonde's actions. But, her anger left him unprepared; he didn't know how Naruto acted under such criticism. Would he fight back and counter her argument? Or would he wilt under the pressure? He didn't want to take a chance by wrongly guessing Naruto's reaction, so he instead reacted how he would – how Itachi would. Itachi was regularly yelled at, whether it was his father or his teammates; people seemed to always be angry with him. His face closed itself, as it always did when facing the outward emotions of others.

But his mask only held for so long. Everything she had said he agreed with, until she mentioned her life. Itachi didn't know much about Sakura or her sense of self-importance. But when she claimed to be just another solider, just another death to safe someone proclaimed to be "more important" – that hit him hard and broke his mask.

His hand whipped out to grab her, so stop whatever thought was ripping through her. "Sakura, don't you dare think you aren't important."

His mask may have broken, but nearly a decade of missions allowed him to hold a semblance of Naruto's personality. He wanted to tell Sakura that she was wrong, that they weren't just solders waiting to die at someone's command. They were humans, and they were important. He wanted to tell her all these things, but Naruto had to say them, so he expressed himself as best as Naruto would allow him.

Realizing a little late how hard he was gripping he, he released her arm. She stood there, silent. Itachi wasn't sure if that mean he'd reacted right as Naruto, or if Naruto's outburst shocked her. In that moment, he didn't care about whether or not he was Naruto or Itachi, he just cared about setting Sakura straight.

"I wouldn't be here if you weren't important. You're my best friend, and when the time comes, you'll probably be my advisor. I need you just as much as Konoha needs me." He stumbled over the words at first, but his voice became more confident as he spoke. He knew what he was saying was true, but he had said something like this to anyone. Maybe Sasuke, when he was younger and idolized Itachi, but that was it.

"Naruto, you don't need me," she said with a small smile. Itachi didn't know why she was smiling; nothing he'd said should have garnered such a response.

"Yes, Sakura, I–"

"No." Her eyes softened while she kept smiling. "You see, if I die–"

"You're not going to–" He walked toward her, hoping his proximity would stop her if his words didn't.

"Stop!" she yelled, holding her hand up to stop his progression toward her. "If I die – No . . . when I die, you will be able to live without me. Your life does not require mine. You'll be sad, I'm sure, but you don't need me to continue living. My existence is optional."

"Sakura . . . that's not true. You know that's not true!" He wanted to shake her, to rip whatever had caused such things to root themselves in her mind. He had no idea that Haruno Sakura thought this way. She always seemed like a strong-willed and caring woman who was a fiercely loyal when protecting her people. She was like a mother bear protecting her cubs, tearing to shreds those that threatened their way of life. He didn't know what or who had somehow ingrained such a philosophy in the bright, pink-haired shinobi, but it wasn't healthy. Shinobi or not, no one could carry on while believing such things.

"Konoha needs you, Naruto, not me. Everything I know can be taught to others, so that if I die, they can just train someone new to fill my place." She turned away from him again, fidgeting with the bandages she'd pulled off the branch. Her head hung low as she stared at the ground below her; it seemed to be the only thing holding her up now. "I'm replaceable, Naruto."

"No!" He practically screamed. He hadn't planned on saying that or saying it so loud, and his voice was enough to shock them both into silence. He recovered from his own shock quickly, but that didn't lessen the anger he felt. Sakura was not replaceable. Itachi didn't understand why, but he needed her to understand that. He needed to bring her back to Konoha safe, and he needed her to understand that she was worth being saved from Kumo. If she didn't, Itachi knew she would do something stupid to save his life. Sasuke, Naruto . . . no one would forgive Itachi for being the one who got Konoha's cherry blossom killed.

Ignoring her earlier protest, Itachi walked to where she stood. He stood just a few inches from her, but despite his proximity, she refused to look at him. If she refused going to look at him, he would make her.

Trailing his hand down her arm, he took the bandages from her hand. Her arm flinched at the initial contact, but it wasn't enough to make her look up at him. Unraveling the long strip of canvas cloth, he knelt next to her thigh. He hesitated only for moment before he resting his hand against her thigh, his thumb grazing the three, tiny holes marring the soft skin. He could feel and hear her gasp at the touch. He wanted to smile, but he instead focused on the task at hand: wrapping her wounds.

Strip by strip, he encircled her the wounded parts of her in the bandages. There was only one wound left, and it her ribs. He stood at his full height to meet her eyes for the first time since their argument had begun. Her eyes were watery with sadness and confusion. "You shouldn't have come here, Naruto." Her voice was no more than a whisper, but it was enough to make Itachi smile.

He didn't really know what he was doing, but it seemed to be working. Sure, she wasn't smiling or laughing, but her whispering voice was a hundred times better than her shouting one.

When he was finished wrapping her broken ribs, he kept his palms on her ribcage. His fingers were a hair's breath away from the porcelain skin of her breast. His thumb swung up, skimming the curve of her breast. He felt her chest expanding and contracting faster, and he knew that if he was going to say or do anything, this would be the moment. Itachi was sure that hundreds of miles away, Naruto was cursing Itachi to every hell there was for doing this, but Itachi knew it was what the mission and Sakura needed.

"Sakura, you could never be replaced. If you died, I wouldn't know what to do with myself . . . I – I would never be the same without you," he whispered, resting his forehead against hers. He didn't know where the words came from – he wasn't a romantic man, by any means – but he thanked whatever god put them in his mouth. He believed his own words, and as Sakura's eyes met his, he knew she believed them too.

Author's Note: *Dies from carpal tunnel* SO. MANY. WORDS. Well, I hope that the 8,000+ words were enough to make up for how long it took to write this. And finally some ItaSaku action! Err, well . . . kind of ItaSaku . . . (It's the thought that counts?) At least I didn't leave a huge cliffhanger like last time :P Anyway, hoped you guys enjoyed it!

Please Read and Review! :D