Title: Gainsay

Summary: Coming out of retirement for "one last mission" was the last thing he wanted to do -especially with Haruno Sakura as his team captain and Deidara of Iwagakure as their target. [Non-massacre.]

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

Note: You all know what happens when I put these three in a story together...

O O O

You wake up in the night and refuse to be afraid of the now

O O O

"Yes, Tsunade-sama," the young woman said mildly, speaking from behind a painted mask. He knew she was just covering up her frustration, though. The Haruno girl had quite a reputation for being a bit arrogant and independent; she must have been burning up inside after her solo mission had been taken away.

The Godaime Hokage, from where she leaned over the large topographical map, barely glanced up at her apprentice as she continued talking. "I have given you half a year to track him down, and I cannot afford to waste your skills on this any more. With the two of you out there, I am sure this will be dealt with more efficiently. My contact's latest intell puts the Missing-Nin in this area," she tapped the Kouseki Mountain range, "one week ago, heading south. I want him captured alive, so use excessive force with caution."

"Yes Hokage-sama," his partner said, and he echoed her.

The village leader eyed the two ANBU shinobi critically. She knew they wouldn't work together perfectly, given their situations, but there was no other option with the war demanding time from all of her other operatives. Though she doubted most of the friction would be coming from the man wearing the marten mask; Sakura was more likely to antagonize Itachi than the other way around. Trying not to linger on her feelings of misgiving, Tsunade waved her hand dismissively. "Leave immediately. You know the time line."

Itachi and Sakura both dropped to their knees, bowing respectively, before they each dispersed in a subtle cloud of smoke.

He reappeared at the West Gate, Sakura doing the same just to the right of him. They didn't bother to sign out of the village, as was customary for normal cells, and instead started on their mission right away. Sakura took the lead, barking orders at him to keep watch on their tail, and he wondered if she would behave differently knowing it was an Uchiha heir acting as her subordinate.

Probably not.

Ever since her days with Sasuke back in Team Seven, Sakura had never really had any qualms about talking back to any of the clan members. She seemed to feel that having her heart broken and pride trampled over was more than enough reason to disrespect her village's police force; especially with the powerful position she held now.

For his own preservation, he thought it best to remain quiet while they travelled. Every now and then, Sakura would bark a command over his earpiece, adjusting their direction or sometimes asking him to pick up his pace. He frowned. It had been almost ten years since he had gone on his last mission, but it wasn't as if he had allowed his body to soften. He was in charge of training the younger members of the military police, and so had to remain in top condition. For her to tell him to hurry up was a bit strange to accept, but he kept silent. Sakura didn't seem too concerned with chatter either.

On missions, so he had heard, his new partner had a very strict reputation of being efficient, punctual, and extremely professional. She had a good mix of genjutsu, taijutsu, and medical techniques that were formidable for most. In fact, there were some who might question why Deidara no Iwa was proving such an elusive target for her.

Itachi knew why, however. Deidara was a nin who specialised in long to mid-range attacks, Sakura's natural fighting adversary. She was good at close combat, where her hands caused most of the damage, but -by having someone like himself on her side- Itachi knew he could easily compensate for her shortcomings.

"I got Deidara with a tracking tag last time we fought," Sakura's voice suddenly announced over their headset – probably referring the tag technique she had developed herself. During battle, when physical contact was made, Sakura's excellent chakra control allowed her to insert some of her own chakra into her opponent's system, meaning she could sense their location within reasonable distance. She continued, "there's a small city fifteen degrees north by north-east of us, ETA two days. Seems like our man's found himself a place to hide low there. I'd like for us to scout out the location before making contact."

He answered in the affirmative.

"We'll camp by the Torenge River as it meets with the border." And then more silence until nightfall. At their small fire, provided by scroll, she spoke to him again. "Are you a new recruit?"

Sakura was sitting across from him, mask still tightly in place, just like his own. Her question came from behind the smiling veneer of a cat. Through the feline eyes, he could see the green of her irises shimmering in the flicker of the light. Itachi inclined his head.

"Yeah, I was pretty quiet on my first mission, too," she said in a reminiscent tone, looking away to poke at their shared meal warming over the flames. He didn't bother to more fully explain his situation. Yes, he was freshly recruited for this specific mission, but his total of S-rank files was very comfortably in the double digits. "Probably nerves, huh?"

He wondered if his lack of response would ever get to her, but Sakura didn't seem to be one to get anxious easily. For all she said about her first mission, she did not give away any sign of unease now. While his posture was rigid (out of etiquette), she was very comfortably draped across the ground. The posture would have looked lewd on anyone else, he thought, but she brought a sort of unquestionable dignity to it.

Back in her genin and chuunin days, Sakura would have likely torn hair out before ever looking so casual. Itachi assumed this was because at that time she had still been primarily focused on impressing Fugaku and the Uchiha clan by trying to cultivate the perfect feminine image. A misguided attempt, in the end, because the Uchiha clan preferred strong men and women who balanced both poise and combat skill. And bloodlines. The Uchiha would never have looked twice at a first-generation kunoichi for the son of their leader.

During her teenage years, this truth had eventually become undeniable to Sakura, as Mikoto had told her honestly that Sasuke was otherwise engaged. Literally – to a distant cousin.

The gossip about this rejection had spread like wildfire around Konoha and Sakura disappeared in shame. Awhile later she reappeared with choppy locks and an apprenticeship under Tsunade-Hime. Her growth as a shinobi had not since stalled once. Even when Sasuke was named heir over Itachi and married off, she never broke stride. It was now rumoured that her goal in life had become to prove the worthlessness of clan politics and the value of individual shinobi.

Itachi could see some points in her position. He also empathised with how hard it must have been for her to find out that Naruto, a previous shining exam in her argument, was in fact the product of two very respected lineages, including a jinchuuriki and Hokage. The former Number One Nobody was currently leading and winning the war in Amegakure.

Sakura busied herself by proving her worth on the peripheral of the battle: tracking down an Akatsuki operative. And although a solo mission is something exciting, she was already softening to the idea of encouraging her "new" subordinate. Along with her natural fighting style, she was just as naturally compassionate, despite how much she tended to hide it.

"Three hour shifts sound good to you?" she asked, expecting his nod as she hopped to her feet to dispose of their camp. She checked the perimeter again and then told him he could keep watch first. It was a small gesture, again, of support. This way he would be the better rested of the two when they set out again.

"Good night," she said, settling into a standard issue hammock.

Very quietly, "good night, Sakura-san."

O O O

The child gave him a very assertive nod and tapped her temple twice before waving two fingers forward.

Most civilians would have thought the whole image odd, but being that it was his CO in henge giving him information, Itachi had no trouble accepting it. He was a ten year old too, as far as anyone else could tell, and who was to say they weren't just "playing ninja"?

The pair had arrived in the mountain city of Gongjin that afternoon, ahead of schedule and ready to work. Sakura had deciphered Deidara's whereabouts within half a square mile, and they were steadily closing in on him. Their plan was a simple tactic of 'confront from ahead, kill from the back'. The security and safety of the environment was another issue, especially with the type of weapons Deidara tended to employ. But as Sakura had mentioned, trapping their target in a tight space would discourage explosives due to the risk he would create for himself.

"He's up the mountainside," Sakura signalled, confirming which of their plans would need to be employed. Itachi inclined his head and set off to the northern side of the summit from where he would ascend the ridge and come down to finish the target from the high ground.

Deidara had found a temple for his present spot of repose. It looked and felt as ancient as the geography around it, seeming to unfold from the land just as easily as the giant trees that made up the surrounding forest. Every surface was natural and slick with heavy moss and tangling vines. The stone steps leading to the entrance were bowed in the centre from the sheer number of those passing over it for centuries.

Sakura gave him one last "go" before she turned and ran up the steps herself. He watched the little bobbing pink head for a moment before taking off on his own route through the woods.

The air seemed heavy under the canopy of the trees. It was somehow more of a task to breathe, but not in an unpleasant way - as if each breath had the saturation of a thousand ones taken elsewhere. Time was slower here, Itachi thought as he made his way around rocks and roots and ferns.

It was many minutes before he had scaled enough of the mountainside to make an ideal path back down to the temple. When he came to a landmarked cliff edge above the building, he crouched low and released his henge, blending with the imposing shadows of the trees. He waited for the signal to move.

A beetle was making its way up one of his fingers when the chakra flare twinkled into life to his left. He stretched up and was about to leap down the cliff when an explosion halted him.

Bursting forth from the roof of one of the temples numerous rooms was a giant bird carrying the notorious former Akatsuki – and also one very determined Konoha ANBU.

It was an unexpected sight for several reasons, not the least of which was that, and Itachi felt a curious twist in his chest with this discovery, it was a genjutsu.

O O O

Deidara was not one for genjutsu. The boy made a big fuss of his particular "art" and was at least true to only employing that style of fighting. While most definitely a dangerous and formidable strategist, he had his area of expertise and did not stray.

Which meant there was only one other likely candidate for deploying the technique, and for her to do such a thing was more than a little troubling. Sakura had the skill to use such a complicated genjutsu, as well as the historical record of such employment, and it would have fooled plenty of elite nin if it weren't for the fact he had finally activated his Sharingan. And she would have had time to prepare it, he realised, being that she had set out to the temple earlier than him on a much more direct path.

Leaving Itachi to wonder about her motivations.

No immediate explanation occurred, prompting him to carefully dispel the sleeping spell coming from the genjutsu that was attempting to catch him, and to continue down to the building. He slipped into the temple under a small alcove where a large rafter connected to the corner of the structure's walls. From there he was able to make his way along support beams that ran above a false ceiling. Light in the rooms below found its way through gaps of the wood and met with more rays from outside sneaking through cracks of the roof. Itachi avoided all of these dust filled beams, mindful not to make a sound or cast a shadow.

Sakura's voice reached him before his eyes could spot her. He slowly circled closer to where he could soon tell she was standing. It was in one of the larger rooms, where a statue dominated one end and others littered the rest of the space. He settled into the corner of one of the building's dormers where a particularly generous gap in the boards allowed him to see his partner clearly.

A scuffle had already taken place. Sakura was breathing just heavily enough to be noticeable, and already her mask had been lost as well as one strap of her vest. Deidara, similarly just dishevelled enough, was a few paces in front of her, three kunai spinning in one hand.

"Alone again, Kunoichi-sama?" the blonde said, his voice incongruously low for his still young stature.

"Of course," Sakura lied smoothly. A kunai whipped past her head, but her hand was fast enough to catch the loop at its tail and send it back to Deidara without pause. He moved his head to the side and let the lethally aimed weapon sail by unimpeded. "I know you like using your hands, so why don't you just come at me?"

They met somewhere in the middle, neither one interested in waiting. Sakura led her assault with her firsts, using her legs defensively as Deidara tried primarily to strike at her core and kidneys. He fell into a retreat, concerned with dodging her pulverizing hits. He made the mistake of twisting into a back kick prematurely and Sakura deflected his leg, getting just enough advantage to reach for his head.

At the last second the Iwa nin fazed out of view, but his chakra signature dropped to the floor, his body falling to a leg sweep. Deidara knocked into her leg and Sakura rolled from her break fall seamlessly into a defensive stance, already blocking Deidara's fists as he struck out for her face.

The exchange continued, fast and impressive, but watching it left the distinct sense that the two had gone through the motions many times before. Each body moved and anticipated the other in the manner of choreography, already familiar with the dance. It was more fluid and effortless than even the Sharingan could accommodate.

And then Deidara was behind Sakura, stretching to catch her in a strangle hold. She tucked her chin down and to the side, avoiding the crush of his bicep, and instead flipped him clear over her shoulder onto the ground. She maintained her grip on his forearm and soon trapped him under a full mount, securing his torso between her thighs as she rested her full weight on his diaphragm. Drawing his entire arm against her chest, bending it slightly against the natural joint of the elbow, Sakura smiled triumphantly down at her opponent.

"You always like the top, yeah." The blonde smirked. A tongue lazed out of one of his signature palm-mouths and flicked at the exposed skin of Sakura's neck. Her shiver at the sensation was enough freedom for Deidara to once again faze away. She bounced back to her feet, and this time, when the man was once again at her back, she had a hand out ready to catch his hip when he wrapped around her.

But no other move followed.

The two stood pressed together, breathing quickly, and suddenly the struggle had changed. There was still tension and antagonism strung tightly around them, straining the very air, but the contact had changed from sharp to something much heavier, slower. Darker.

"And what does this habit of yours say about you?" The words left her lips rough and quiet, like the voice of someone coming out of a deep sleep. And her body, too, stretched as if being awoken. Her spine curved dangerously and wonderfully, her ribs calling to the ceiling as the man at her backside discouraged any space between them from remaining. Tiny, little swaying and Sakura's hand was lost in long, bright strands.

Deidara leaned forward, matching her tone as he spoke something indiscernible into Sakura's ear. The sound of the kunoichi's light, fluttery laughter rose to the rafters. Itachi's stomach dropped rather suddenly, and as he was quite unfamiliar with the feeling of surprise, his balance shifted with the uneasy feeling.

There was a protest from the wood beneath him as his weight resettled, but the normally fatal noise did nothing to rouse the two elite nin metres below where Itachi knelt. Without having left the room at all, they were gone, somehow transported away into their own little world. They moved and spoke as if no one was watching, as if they did not care if anyone was watching. A complete disregard for everything the ninja world represented.

Itachi felt sick. He felt his heart speed up, a concentrated feeling of shame towards his partner tightened down low inside him. A strange muffled silence entered his head -distorting everything but his breathing and the loud thumping of his blood. The slight change in his posture had exposed Sakura's ANBU mask from where it had been discarded just above where the pair now fell tangled.

Its hollow eyes found him, knowing what he was intruding upon. Knowing when his gaze wandered back again.

He watched.

O O O

Sakura had found him on the cliff, apparently asleep, and was only a little gentle in her scorning him for falling victim to Deidara's attack. Just because the target did not have a history of genjutsu, she said, did that mean an ANBU operative should be so easily subdued. And she said it very convincingly too, as if it was not her own jutsu that was meant to have taken him out of commission.

"His trail is gone again," she said with a sigh, very sincere sounding and utterly practised. Itachi was inclined to frown at the deceit Sakura was playing, though refrained. Her uniform was torn and frayed in a manner consistent with a brutal skirmish, and this was partly because she and Deidara each seemed to enjoy destruction on some level, but it nonetheless supplied a sympathetic image. So when she turned to him, looking so weary and lost, and inquired kindly if he would be interested in taking a room out for the night, Itachi could not decline.

"You must be disappointed." It was said quietly hours later. Sakura was behind the door of the room's bathroom, having just finished a shower. Steam escaped from the generous gaps between the frame.

Disappointed about the mission, he surmised. He said, unwittingly aloud, "I am." The two truthful words were out before he had a mind to stop them. Which was unlike him. But what he had witnessed earlier had disturbed him on a very deep, sensitive level that seemed determined to be recognised.

All afternoon his gaze had been repeatedly finding his commanding officer, furtively enough where the action was legitimately unconscious. And images, unbidden, would resurface and stay starkly imprinted even on the backs of his eye lids. A scent would catch his attention and remind him of the stagnant air in the rafters, and then abruptly he would be back there, in the moment, seeing, hearing, experiencing the memories again.

On the twin bed situated nearest the window, Itachi released a long breath. He was sitting on its edge, still fully clothed and finding it increasingly difficult to breathe with his mask on. Disappointed, he wanted to spit the word out. His fingers curled into the quilt.

A handle turned, hinges squeaked. His partner emerged like a wraith, the water laden air following her movements with curious curls. She was once again in the standard issue top and pants, missing only the armour, which she tossed into a chair. Her mask was pulled over her face, expectedly, even as she scrunched a towel through her cherry blossom locks. Looking elsewhere, he wondered then why she bothered with the disguise, given her trademark hair was unabashedly visible. What a terrible oversight, Itachi chided. Did she not care if she was giving away her identity, -her value- so readily?

"Things go wrong sometimes," Sakura admitted, unaware of his thoughts. She made herself comfortable on her mattress. "No one will blame you for that."

Itachi's grip on the old patchwork tightened. She was only saying these things to "reassure" him, despite the fact that her own actions had guaranteed the mission's failure. He asked, "blame?"

He let the syllable hang in the air, as if merely uttering it could inspire some trouble within Sakura.

"I will talk it over with the Godaime. She'll understand." Sakura had her back to him, and didn't see Itachi straighten at this assurance. If Sakura told the Godaime that he, Itachi, had been tricked by such a jutsu, even Tsunade would not stop an investigation into their story.

"No," he said urgently, beside himself. After a calming second, "no. I couldn't stand returning to the village so quickly. We should continue."

His captain craned around to face him, pausing in her ministrations. A patch of skin above her collar was visible, pale and unblemished. That morning Itachi had very clearly seen Deidara no Iwa close his mouth around that very same skin and bite and suck at it until it had gone red and purple.

Itachi quelled the observation.

"Are you sure?" she asked.

"He can't have gone very far." A miscalculation, he knew. He needed to convince her to try. "Surely there is a way to track him?"

Sakura turned away, moving her mask slightly as she brought a thumb to rest contemplatively at her bottom lip. "Our target is low on clay, which is his primary choice of travel. He'll need time to make more and will probably be travelling by foot for now. Deidara's fast though, even injured. I doubt he would have allowed himself the opportunity to lick his wounds before setting off. We can't wait around, either."

Facing him again, she spoke with an audible smile. Lower, almost teasing, daring. "Are you really down for it?"

Why don't you just come at me?

A short hitch in his breathing -which Itachi pointedly ignored. "You have a plan?"

O O O

Two soldier pills later, one for each of them, and the two-man cell was back out in the forests of Tea Country. They stopped just outside of the town limits. Sakura had pulled a scroll from within her pouch and was scribbling a hasty character across the blank parchment. She bit her thumb and, after a seal, wiped the blood across the message. All it said was, 'Spares?'

The character glowed a brilliant blue for a second before it fizzled out and disappeared. Nothing happened for several minutes, although this didn't seem to surprise his captain.

Then the scroll glowed red, highlighting, 'Number one for my Number One' punctuated with a poorly scrawled heart. Sakura let out a short laugh.

Itachi quirked an eyebrow despite himself.

From the same scroll, further along its length, Sakura summoned a vial. It looked and, he found, smelled like blood. "I'm just going to borrow something from a friend," she said in lieu of an explanation. Another set of characters written from the vial's contents and a cloud of smoke appeared.

"Sakura-chan, evenin'."

The voice was familiar, Itachi recognised. The cloud dispersed to reveal a grouchy ninja dog. Ninja pug, rather.

"Shh, Pakkun, you can't just go announcing that," Sakura whined, seamlessly regressing to a tween in the company of her sensei's summon.

"Oh? Ah, ANBU mission. Right." The pug switched his focus to Itachi. There was a brief thrill of cold apprehension through his veins as he waited for the inevitable reveal. Kakashi-senpai had once been Itachi's captain, too. Years ago – but a dog's nose knows.

"Evening to you," Pakkun offered, and Itachi let his lungs relax from their unconscious seizure. Sakura's admonishment had unknowingly spared him.

Courteously, Itachi inclined his head in greeting.

"What can I do ya?" the hound asked, to which Sakura replied by fetching a shuriken out of her hip holster. From its edges she carefully pulled off a piece of fabric. He wrinkled his nose. "This guy?"

"Can you get anything?"

"I can smell him all over you."

Sakura answered easily. "Sorry. You know I like to fight close."

Pakkun gave an uncommitted mumble and set to work. It took some time, but eventually the pug got his bearings. Sakura valiantly concealed her excitement, Itachi only noticed the minuscule skip in her stride and how her shoulders were very straight in anticipation. He was sure her eyes would be unable to hide her true feelings. Several times he tried to spy them from beneath the shadow of the cat's painted face, but he never did.

In the light of the ripe waxing moon, the smiling feline veneer was luminescent. It mocked him.

O O O

Author's Note: Yeeeah...I know. Another multi-chap when I have bigger and better things to finish. Inspiration – y'know how it is. This could probably work fine enough as a really long one-shot... but ehn.