Chapter Twenty: Strange Coincidences

"Sakura, wake up."

Itachi began lightly shaking the slender shoulder of the pink-haired medic before him, who was currently curled up on her side, sleeping silently and soundly - far too deep to rouse her from her slumber by mere vocal command.

They had awkwardly entered the makeshift shelter that Sakura constructed late last night, both of them recalling the strange morning when Sakura had practically laid on top of him to conserve their body heat. While Itachi hardly seemed embarrassed by the previous ordeal, Sakura was blushing so deeply that her entire face was red. She insisted her flushed face was caused by the cold night air.

She decided that they still lay next to each other, but slept back-to-back so they still could rely on the body heat of the other and so Sakura didn't have to "see his ugly mug" when she woke. While Itachi was growing more accustom to her verbal threats and insults, he still found them less than entertaining. But he agreed to her plan and they slept next to each other on the cold ground in the shelter, backs touching each other ever so slightly. It took him several hours just to fall asleep because of the discomfort of the environment, but Sakura easily dozed off in a matter of minutes. Itachi assumed it was because of the energy exhaustion she experienced the last few days.

But now it was morning, almost afternoon when Itachi awoke, yet Sakura was still sleeping. While he wanted to let her continue to rest, she insisted that she wanted to start their mission as soon as possible, and he agreed completely. Sasuke and Orochimaru would not stay in the same place for long.

Itachi continued to shake the slumbering female until she managed to open her eyes, wincing at the morning light streaming between the sticks of their housing. But instead of the desired effect of waking her, Sakura simply curled herself into a tighter ball and lazily batted his hand away.

"A little longer…" she mumbled to him, shutting her jade eyes again.

"No, Sakura, we need to get moving. We have a mission, remember?" Itachi reminded her, but she still refused to move.

"Just five more minutes, then…"

Itachi scowled at her stubbornness. Did this girl even comprehend their situation? For as smart as she was, it appeared that Haruno could not mentally function well in the morning. Well, if she wasn't going to move on her own accord, then he was going to make her move.

Crouching in the small structure, he grabbed both of her ankles and began dragging her out of the opening serving as a doorway. It took Sakura a delayed few seconds before she understood what was going on and began thrashing wildly about as she was pulled across the frozen earth by the Uchiha.

"Damn it, Uchiha! Let me go! I'm awake, you bastard!" she protested angrily as she tried to twist her legs out of his grip.

Itachi obeyed her command and released her, but by the time she came to, they were already outside of their camp. Sakura let out a snarl at the man before her as she propped herself up by her elbows, her breath visible in the chilly morning air. Itachi offered his hand to the sitting girl, but she just glared at him angrily and stood up without his assistance.

"If you are ready to go, let's get a move on," the Uchiha replied as he crossed his arms and Sakura dusted the snow off of her person, taking satisfaction in her flustered state. If she was going to continue to be rude to him, then there is no point in trying to be a gentleman to her.

"Asshole," Sakura retorted before they left behind their camp and began walking northwest.

He didn't make it half a mile.

Sakura sighed as she turned around yet again, rolling her eyes as she looked back behind her to find that the Uchiha was several yards away, weaving between the thin dark trees of the forest as he trudged through the snow. He had been walking so slowly since they left, that he constantly fell behind her until she had to stop walking and wait for him to catch up. She didn't think that she was walking exceptionally fast, but she did want to get to wherever they were going soon so they could start their mission. Itachi said earlier that they needed to stop at a nearby village to stock up on supplies and find a place to stay before the day ends. But at the rate they were travelling, they were not going to make it to the village by sundown.

"You are supposed to be leading!" Sakura called impatiently to him, hands on her hips as her voice echoed through the snow-covered forest. "I don't know where the hell we are going!"

She couldn't see Itachi's expression from their distance, but she certain that he was irritated by the tone of his voice. "I'm still injured, you know," he replied to her, stepping over a small fallen tree, "You didn't heal all of my external injuries, remember? Plus I'm still recovering from using the Mangekyo Sharingan."

"You didn't seem so injured when you dragged me out of our shelter!" the pinkette countered bitterly.

Sakura couldn't hear what he said next as Itachi muttered something to himself, but it seemed to involve something like "unsympathetic female."

Before Sakura could argue with him, Itachi suddenly gripped his head and grunted in pain as he leaned against a tree for support. Sakura's instincts kicked in as she quickly rushed over to the Uchiha to inspect.

"What's wrong?" Sakura asked him, trying to get a better look at him, but he still supported himself against the tree, shaking slightly.

Before Itachi could respond, he coughed and spat briefly, but his lips betrayed traces of blood as well as crimson stains in the snow below him before he could wipe it away. "I told you I was injured," he said, refusing to meet her eyes. "But you are right. We should move faster. We don't have time to waste."

But as the Uchiha tried to move, his legs suddenly buckled beneath him and he fell to his knees. Sakura instantly leaned down to help him, but he shrugged away her hands that gripped his shoulders.

"No, I can do this on my own," Itachi quickly replied, "This injury is just the effect of my Sharingan; it will pass in a few moments. Just give me a minute to recuperate, and I'll be fine."

Sakura continued to kneel down next to him as he regained his breathing and spat out a bit more blood. She suddenly felt guilty for insulting him earlier. He didn't deserve her wrath, especially now while he was injured. "No, you are right. You are wounded. I should be helping you, not arguing with you. I apologize," she said softly, bowing her head in shame.

Itachi nodded in acceptance of her apology, a bit surprised by her gentle action. Although they were allies, he knew that she still detested him greatly, and was not shy to show it. But now that she was exposing her tender side, he felt that he was getting to know the real Sakura, the kind, gentle Sakura that once existed before he took her life away.

"We really should get moving, though," Itachi stated, quickly looking away from the pinkette when he realized his gaze was lingering too long on her form.

Itachi shakily stood and began walking forward, trying to ignore the soreness and pain in his limbs and his slightly blurred vision. Why was he still in so much agony? It usually didn't take this long for the aftereffects to remain. He noticed that each time he used the Mangekyo Sharingan, the longer it took for him to recover from its side effects. Was he reaching his limit?

Sakura stood slowly, observing the Uchiha struggle and wince with each step he took. Was he seriously planning on walking the whole way there in this condition?

"Uchiha, stop," she commanded, easily matching his gait as she swiftly strode up next to him and grabbed his arm to halt him. "You can't carry on like this."

Itachi easily twisted his arm out of her grip. "I can make it," he stated, not breaking his stride.

Sakura felt her face flush in anger. Was he really this stupid, or was he trying to get himself killed? He was obviously too weak to do anything at the moment, including walking, and he knew it. He was going to end up hurting himself again before they would even arrive at the village, and she wasn't sure if she had the chakra to spontaneously heal his ass again.

She stopped walking, her hands balled into tight fists. "I said stop, Itachi!"

Her exclamation caused a fight of birds perched in a tree to take wing at the sudden sound. Itachi halted as well and slowly turned around, his mouth set in a thin line. He didn't usually like taking commands; he always considered himself a natural leader. But it seemed that Sakura had the same mindset; her intelligence made her a quick thinker and gave her the incentive to make decisions in the field. But only one of them could make the judgments now. Who was going to be the leader and who the follower?

"We are not going any further until you are fully rested," she said boldly, her arms crossed and stance wide.

Itachi too crossed his arms. "No," he countered, "We need to get going. Weren't you just complaining moments ago how we were travelling too slowly?"

Sakura scrunched her features at his comeback, but remained resolute. "I changed my mind. You are too weak to do this right now, and you are just going to end up injuring yourself more!"

Itachi's eyebrows arched in annoyance. "You don't get it, Sakura. This isn't about me, it's about our mission. Let's get going. Now."

Sakura remained where she was. "What are you talking about? This entire mission is about you and your stupid family quarrel! And I'm not going to miss this opportunity to save Sasuke because you died from your own pride and foolishness!"

Itachi flinched slightly at her retort. So any kindness she was displaying to him was solely because she wanted to save her teammate? Although it was understandable, the thought strangely troubled him a bit. "You know nothing about this mission, Sakura, and you know nothing about me. What I say is final, and you will obey without question. Understood?"

Sakura's features wavered at the harshness of his voice; even Itachi was surprised at his outburst. He never let his anger cloud his judgment, but he could not inwardly contain his rage as it escaped into his words. This seemed to be happening a lot lately, especially when he was around Sakura. What was wrong with him?

Sakura suddenly sat down, her gaze hard and cold as she directed her jade eyes up at the Uchiha. "No," she stated defiantly, "You may know where Sasuke is and the rest of the mission details, but so long as I am working with you, we will consider each other equals. And as equals, we shall compromise. Until then, I am not moving from this spot, and there is nothing you can do to stop me in your weakened state."

Itachi found himself lost for words. She was right. He couldn't move her by force; he lacked the strength and chakra. He exhaled slowly. The only way he could get her to move was by compromise.

"Very well," he stated calmly, "What do you propose we do?"

"We stay another night in the forest so you can rest."

The Uchiha immediately shook his head. "I disagree. We have little time to complete this mission. If we miss our chance to find Orochimaru's hideout, we will not receive another opportunity to do so again."

Sakura furrowed her brow in thought as she continued to sit on the ground. After a brief moment, her jade orbs lit up as she turned to face him. "Fine. We will go to the village. But you are not walking there."

Itachi raised an eyebrow. "What exactly are you suggesting, Sakura?" he asked, although he had an idea of what the answer would be.

The pink-haired medic raised her chin slightly. "I'll carry you to the village."

The Uchiha almost laughed aloud at the ridiculous thought. "That is not happening."

Sakura scowled as she noticed that Itachi was not taking her request seriously. "Do you have any better ideas?" Sakura hissed at him, "I'm certainly strong enough to carry you there, and you know it! So forget about your arrogance and let me assist you! Or so help me, I will haul you over my shoulder like last night's dinner and take you there kicking and screaming if I must!"

Once again, Itachi was speechless. What ever happened to compromise? But yet again, she was right, despite the fact that she acting rather childish. Why was he even trying to argue with her at this point? They were wasting time and getting nowhere.

"Fine," Itachi muttered after a brief moment of thought, pinching the bridge of his nose in defeat, "You can… carry me there."

Sakura sat up and smirked in triumph as she made her way to the Uchiha. When she approached him, she turned around and leaned down so the back of her bent form was facing him. Itachi lifted an eyebrow. Was she seriously suggesting that she give him a piggyback ride?

Sakura turned her head slightly to face him as he hesitated. "You agreed to this," she reminded him, "So get on my back."

"If you become too fatigued, then we are still going, but I will walk on my own," Itachi stated suddenly.

Sakura nodded at his abrupt request, holding back a smile by biting her lip. She could easily detect his embarrassment at her carrying him during their journey. Not only was his reaction amusing, but it also made him appear… more human. It was kind of interesting to see the impassive Uchiha break away from his cool exterior to expose the fact that he too possesses emotional weaknesses like everyone else, despite how expertly he conceals them.

After another few moments of hesitation, Sakura felt Itachi slowly press his upper body against her back and loosely wrap his arms around her neck. She felt his body tense at their close physical contact. Indeed, it was strange for her too, being so close to him, but at least she was able to hide her discomfort.

She wrapped her arms around each of his legs to secure him in place and stood up to her full height with the Uchiha still clinging to her form. He wasn't too heavy, but he was taller than her; his feet were only dangling a foot above the ground. She could defiantly make it a few miles carrying him like this.

"Which way?" she asked him, prepared for their journey.

"West," Itachi replied. As he spoke, an involuntary shiver shot down Sakura's spine. His head was close to her left ear, close enough that she could feel his warm breath of the side of her face sending chills from her neck down her back. She tried to ignore the strange sensation and hoped that Itachi didn't notice.

She began walking at a good pace, not wanting to appear like she was slowed down by his weight. After walking for a few minutes, she became warmer and no longer shivered in the cold weather. The vigorous activity and shared body heat was keeping her warm despite the chilly climate.

"Are you sure you can do this?" the Uchiha asked tentatively, noting the perspiration forming on the back of her neck. "We still have a few miles to go."

"Of course," Sakura answered confidently, "Did you forget that I am the former apprentice of Lady Tsunade? This is child's play compared to what I endured as her student."

Itachi nodded in agreement and the conversation between them ceased after that. Time seemed to move slower as they trekked through the forest, not saying a word. But the silence bored Sakura. The Uchiha may not care much for chatting, but Sakura had many unanswered questions about the mission. Maybe she could even acquire some information about her new ally.

"Since you have nothing better to do," Sakura awkwardly broke their brief moment of silence, "You might as well answer a few questions for me before we reach the village."

She felt the Uchiha exhale as a warm breath fluttered around her cheek. "Hn," he sighed. Sakura took his reply as a signal that he would answer her questions, although it appeared he didn't want to. Was he still hiding something from her? If so, she would find out.

"It's about Kakashi," she began, "You're not… going to kill him because I defied the Akatsuki, are you?"

Itachi noticed how her voice broke in worry for her former sensei's safety. "I don't think so," he tried to reassure her.

Sakura furrowed her brow in confusion and anger. "You don't think so?" she said, repeating the Uchiha's response, "You are seriously not going to use him as leverage again to make sure I follow your orders, are you, Uchiha? If so, we have a major problem," she threatened.

"No," Itachi quickly denied her accusation, "What I mean is that Hatake will most likely not be killed, but I cannot say for certain because I was never the one keeping track of his whereabouts."

Sakura felt some of her fear wane, but remained wary. "Who is tracking him?"

"Deidara," Itachi answered, "He placed a small clay bomb on him when he came in contact with him during a mission while Hatake was trailing the Akatsuki during his ANBU assignments to look for you. His clay device serves as an indication when Hatake gets close to Deidara. It sends a chakra signal once in range and alerts Deidara of his location. The Akatsuki used it to trace Kakashi's positions so we could use him to find you. That was how we located you the day after Hatake stayed at your house before we abducted you; Deidara traced his location through the bomb and noticed he stayed in that area for an extended period of time. As far as I know, the device is still on Hatake, so Deidara is still capable of tracking him. I highly doubt that he will use this opportunity to try to kill him, but I cannot control if he chooses to do so."

Sakura found herself silently praying that Deidara would not try to kill her sensei with the bomb. As long as Kakashi stayed away from Deidara and the rest of the Akatsuki, he should be safe. But still, she needed to send another message to him somehow to alert him of this danger. She would have to find a subtle way to do so, for the Uchiha might not approve of her communication with Kakashi while on their mission.

"Any more questions?" Itachi asked her, appearing cooperative.

"Yes. Why are we invading Orochimaru's hideout while he is actually there? Wouldn't it be easier to obtain the documents when he is gone?"

"If he was staying at a normal hideout, yes," Itachi replied, "But this base is very peculiar. I was searching through a few Akatsuki documents in the study after you left for your mission with Kakuzu and Hidan, trying to find a specific scroll that listed the locations of Orochimaru's hideouts. A few years ago, Kisame and I were on a mission to gather information about Orochimaru soon after he departed from the Akatsuki just in case he ever decided to use any Intel he gathered about the organization against us. We infiltrated Otogakure to find several bases Orochimaru established around the village, and he constantly rotated between the hideouts to prevent his enemies from effectively tracking him. But while Kisame and I managed to map most of his hideouts for our Leader over the course of a few years, we found one strange hideout that he visited once about every four months. It was his data collection vault, a well-guarded base that Orochimaru kept all of his documents about his experiments and jutsu. I have only seen him enter the base once and never personally infiltrated it before. But when we observed Orochimaru enter the base…"

Sakura tilted her head in the direction of the Uchiha when he paused. "What? What happened?" she asked, although feared of what the answer could be. Knowing the snake Sannin, it was defiantly something cruel and unethical.

"To open the entrance to the hideout, there must be a human sacrifice."

Sakura's eyes widened in terror and quickly turned her head away from the Uchiha to conceal her fearful expression. A human sacrifice? What kind of sick person uses the life of another to protect mere documents?

"It's a forbidden jutsu," Itachi began explaining, "One that involves the opening of a passage by leeching the life force of another. It is a powerful jutsu that cannot be undone or predominated by another jutsu. Orochimaru is using this technique to protect his life work; it is expected that he would take such drastic measures to seal this hideout."

"You are not saying that we are going to kill someone to enter the hideout, are you?" Sakura questioned, her voice breaking at the word 'kill.'

"No, that is why we are going to invade the hideout while Orochimaru is entering; so we don't have to murder an innocent person. It will be extremely risky, but I highly doubt that you are willing to take a life for that purpose."

Sakura exhaled shakily. He was right. But was this plan going to be worth it if they ended up dying trying to invade Orochimaru's lair? She began to think that agreeing to Itachi's plan was not worth all of the trouble and risks the mission entailed. But she couldn't back out now, not when she was so close to rescuing Sasuke.

"Why are you giving me all of this information now, and not when we made the deal?" Sakura asked her companion, her voice a bit bitter, "Why are you withholding the mission details from me?"

"To protect you," the Uchiha stated simply.

Sakura lifted an eyebrow. Why was everyone so concerned with protecting her? "I am perfectly capable of protecting myself," Sakura stated, "I agreed to help you, no? So spare me your courtesy for defending a woman's life and just tell me what you are protecting me from, Uchiha."

Itachi sighed at the girl's assertion for her independence. It could make her so naïve. "Don't you think it's strange? All of the coincidences that led to your escape?"

Sakura furrowed her brow. Now that she thought about it, there were many coincidences that occurred that played major roles in her escape. "What are you getting at, Uchiha? Don't think you can avoid answering my question by asking another question-"

"I'm not," Itachi interrupted her, "What I have to say is completely relevant to your question, if you allow me to answer."

Sakura instantly closed her mouth and huffed angrily as the Uchiha hinted at her blabber-mouthing.

"Let's consider some key events that happened before you escaped," Itachi continued, "Who was the person that requested that you go on the mission to find the monk Kuma, who just happened to reside in our hideout before it became Akatsuki property, the sole person that knew of the only escape route? And who gave you the dagger to use to help you on that mission? And who was the person that saved your life just before you escaped?"

"You…" Sakura stated quietly.

Itachi nodded. "You didn't honestly think that all of that was just luck, did you? That the events that helped you escape were just extremely fortunate coincidences? No, you had assistance, my assistance. I was secretly guiding your actions to ensure that you would try to leave the Akatsuki hideout by your own accord."

"You… manipulated me?" Sakura said suddenly as her face showed a mixture of confusion and rage as she processed his statement.

"In a sense… yes," Itachi said, searching for the right words to say in this situation. He didn't want Sakura to distrust him any more than she already did. "I planted the keys to help you escape, and you used them as I predicted. Despite your escape being successful, I did not plan for you trying to kill us all before leaving. That was a definite hindrance…"

Sakura stopped walking for a moment as she continued to think back to the day she first resided with the Akatsuki. All of her actions were being controlled by the Uchiha? It seemed so. She based her plans off of the information and tools the Uchiha provided for her. She thought she was acting on her own, but now she learned that that was not true. She was clever, but so was Itachi, perhaps even more intelligent than herself. To make such an elaborate plan for her to follow by her own will was risky. He would have had to make many assumptions and know her personality and how she thought. Itachi probably studied her for years to understand everything about her. He probably knew her better than her friends even did, which was a scary thought. Was he still able to use this information about her now, to bend her to his own will? Was she still under his control?

"Why?" Sakura found herself asking, "Why would you even capture me in the first place if you were planning on me escaping from the Akatsuki?"

"I told you. I wanted to protect you."

Sakura turned to him and gave him a spiteful and quizzical glare.

Itachi sighed at her. "There is someone in the Akatsuki who is against me, and he doesn't agree with what I am planning. He strongly dislikes that I have captured you to help heal my Sharingan before I fight my brother. I needed to capture you because I couldn't just leave the organization for my own personal reasons; it would be too suspicious. That is why I needed you to escape on your own, so he would not become wary of my tactics and try to stop me early on by trying to kill you. By escaping, you create an opportunity and a reason for me to be absent from under the watchful eye of the Akatsuki while I conduct my plans without disruption. So far, he has been silent and has not attempted to thwart me, but he is powerful and determined. I would not be surprised if he tried to stop me at some point in the near future."

Sakura huffed at his response and continued walking after realizing that the Uchiha was not going to name his adversary, "for her protection," he would reason again. She could only guess at who he was referring to. The only two Akatsuki members that came to mind were Kakuzu and Deidara. The immortal had constantly given the Uchiha menacing glances whenever they were in the same room, plus he strongly disliked Itachi ordering him around. Deidara was more vocal about his dislike towards the Uchiha, stating that he wanted to kill Itachi because of his grudge against him. Or maybe it was an Akatsuki member she hadn't encountered yet. She didn't know who it was, but having to worry about Orochimaru plus another powerful opponent was extremely nerve-wracking.

"You're not exactly the most popular person, are you Uchiha?" Sakura stated despite her anxiety.

Itachi gave a dry chuckle at her remark. "I guess not."

After a brief moment of silence, Sakura spoke again. "I have one more question for you, Uchiha."


Sakura momentarily glanced gleaming jade eyes in his direction before quickly casting her gaze downwards, her face betraying an expression of sadness. "Why do you have to kill your brother?" she asked quietly.

Itachi's jaw hardened at her question, delaying his answer for a few moments. "… I never said I was going to kill him."

It was not the answer she was expecting, nor did she suspect it was the truth, but she let the subject drop. He probably felt uncomfortable discussing such a touchy issue with someone like her, someone who wouldn't understand how he felt about this situation and the person who was once teammates with his brother. Maybe, in time, when she got to know Itachi better, he would tell her the real answer. Maybe she would even be able to convince him not to fight Sasuke. But for now she would just have to wait.

A/N: Ah, feels so good to be back and not worry about school. This holiday has been mostly stress-free, minus a few sick family members that are keeping me on my toes. But I hope everyone has had a good holiday so far!

A mystery enemy was mentioned, but I think you all might have a good guess who it is.

I am usually good about ending chapters, but this ending seems a bit awkward. That was because I actually wasn't planning on concluding it there and wrote more after this, but I decided for it to be included in the next chapter. Sooooo the next chappie will be extra-long for ya!

Gah… I'm getting behind on my chapters. I usually plan and write a few chapters before I post one, but I have been slacking. There might be a point in time where I might not post for a few months because of this. But don't most fanfiction writers not end up posting for years? I promise that it won't take me a year to write a chapter, but I hope that you readers understand that I am a busy person and fanfiction is merely a hobby for me and does not take really take priority over anything. You readers are the only thing that keeps me posting. Without you guys, I would lose my motivation and stop writing. But if there comes a time when I don't post for a really long time, a friendly reminder will probably get me back on track.

So to my followers, reviewers, and readers… thank you so much. You don't know how happy you make me, but I can only tell you that your kind words do not go unappreciated. So thanks, and Happy New Year!