BLOOD-STAINED CHERRY BLOSSOM

Chapter Twenty-One: A Drunken Night

They walked in silence for the remainder of the trip until Sakura spotted a worn path in the snow with people slowly walking on it. Ahead of them was a grand red gate that was at least twenty-five feet tall and a large grey stone wall that circled around what appeared to be a village, but Sakura could not see over the tall structure to look inside.

"Is this the town?" she asked Itachi while they hid behind a tree so they were out of sight from the passing pedestrians, "Why is it barricaded like a fort? Is it a ninja village?" She hoped not. That would mean they would have to disguise themselves, for they were still wanted criminals, and they would have to be cautious the entire time they were there.

Itachi let go of Sakura and hopped off of her back, taking a moment to silently stretch his legs and back. Sakura did the same. "Quite the opposite, actually," Itachi responded, "It's actually a civilian village in the Land of Hot Water, an exclusively civilian village. No ninja can be found here, which makes it ideal for us to quickly move about while avoiding unwanted confrontation with our enemies."

"Not that I'm complaining, but why are there no ninja here?" Sakura lifted an eyebrow. It was very uncommon for a village to lack ninja, especially since violent outbreaks and feuding have increased dramatically over the past decade due to tension within clans and the ninja countries.

"This village was created by rich and noble clans that detested the fighting and costly wages accompanied by shinobi protection," the Uchiha explained, "So in response for their distaste in war and spending money, they created their own village and shunned anyone that practiced ninja arts from the area."

"So, we are going to pose as civilians, aren't we?"

Itachi nodded. "I suspect that they will have tight security to prevent anyone ninja from invading their village, but it shouldn't be hard to pose as commoners, as long as we are careful not to reveal our abilities."

He shot a brief glance at Sakura, a look that meant no-nonsense, making Sakura scowl. "What are you implying, Uchiha? I'm not that careless to go about and use chakra and blow our cover! Have a little more faith in me, geez!" the pinkette scoffed angrily.

Itachi subtly rolled his eyes. "Your quick temper suggests otherwise," he muttered under his breath.

Sakura was about to scream profanities at her companion until Itachi put a hand to his lips and ducked back around the tree that they were hiding behind. Sakura quickly shut her mouth and lowered her head as a group of merchants passed by the dirt road they were next to. A steady stream of venders and travelers were making their way to the village gate where they awaited inspection from the guards clad in partial samurai armor, who determined who would enter and who were denied access into their village. As Sakura surveyed the events unfolding at the gate through her peripherals, she noticed that the samurai guards were turning away many of the pedestrians. The only people that the guards did let through were dressed in extravagant clothing or were selling expensive wares while the rest of the pedestrians garbed in unflattering attire were turned away, disappointed looks on their faces as they went backwards down the same road they came from. Sakura narrowed her eyes in disgust. The cheap bastards were only letting wealthy people enter so they could bring prosperity and decency to their high-class village.

"There is no way we are going to get in looking like this," Sakura whispered to Itachi. They were basically dressed in rags from their skirmish a few days ago, plus she was sure she smelled like shit considering she was covered in patches of dirt and blood and hadn't washed in the past couple of days. The Uchiha looked no better; he had multiple cuts and bruises on his arms and legs and his torso was still wrapped in the lower half of her sweater that she ripped off to close off his abdominal wound.

"Then we are just going to have to scale the wall and enter without going through security," he stated, his eyes surveying the enclosed village before them.

Sakura lifted an eyebrow in disapproval. "In your condition? Can your body tolerate the stress?"

Itachi shrugged. "Let's find out."

Before Sakura could protest, Itachi peeled off from the tree and quickly and silently darted through the forest and towards the wall, avoiding catching the attention of the pedestrians.

"Itachi!" Sakura quietly hissed at him, trying to persuade him back, but the Uchiha was already surveying the wall before him, looking for footholds in the stone structure. Sakura grunted in disapproval and followed him towards the wall. Damn Uchiha, always has to be so difficult…

By the time she reached him, he was already a few feet upwards, climbing the wall quickly and expertly, but he was clearly experiencing pain as he tried to contain muffled grunts of agony. Sakura sighed at his decision but followed him up, concentrating chakra flow to her feet and walking up the side of the stone wall using ninjutsu similar to her Genin tree-climbing training.

She walked up next to the Uchiha and paused, kneeling down in a sideways position as Itachi continued scaling. "Still can't use chakra?" she asked as she watched him, resting her hand on her chin, taunting him slightly.

Itachi ignored her mocking and continued climbing. "I am conserving what little chakra I regained for when I absolutely require it."

Sakura rolled her eyes. He could be so uptight at times. "Whatever. Let's just hurry up before someone sees us."

Sakura dashed up the wall sideways and reached the top in a matter of seconds. She crouched at the ending of the fifteen foot wall, surveying the terrain before her. The barren winter trees did not offer much coverage to prevent anyone from spotting them, but luckily the traveler's concentrations were at the front gate to the village.

She looked back at Itachi to find him only a few feet away from her, still climbing at a steady rate. She was impressed that he could still have enough strength to scale a wall in his condition and began to think that he could have walked to the village on his own without her assistance. Even she doubted that she could accomplish such a feat if she had experienced the same physical trauma, despite her unnaturally high strength. He was definitely determined, she would give him that.

But even the Uchiha had his limits. Sakura noticed his arm muscles twitching and shaking as he struggled to pull his weight upwards. Afraid that he would soon fall, Sakura reached down and offered him her hand so she could help him the rest of the way up.

Itachi paused as she extended her arm to him, but then resumed climbing. "You have helped me enough today. I can make it up without assistance."

But Sakura still reached her hand towards him. "Don't you get it, Uchiha? We are part of the same team now, if only temporary. We are going to help each other and trust each other. That's what teammates do."

Sakura found it strange that she was referring to the Uchiha as her teammate, and even Itachi stopped and looked up at her when she ended her statement. Did she really consider him her teammate? Maybe not the same type of teammate that Kakashi and Naruto was to her, not someone that she would sacrifice her life for, but a different kind. The kind of teammate that one found themselves in sync to, who were able to work together both physically and mentally without a second thought or moment of hesitation.

Sakura could have sworn that Itachi almost smiled briefly before he took her hand and she helped pull him to the top of the wall. "I haven't been called a teammate in many years," he mentioned as he reached the top and crouched next to the pinkette.

Sakura wasn't sure what to say about his comment, so she just turned to the village below them and motioned to a building rooftop that they could jump down to get into the village. "Let's get going before someone spots us up here."


They walked side-by-side through the streets of the wealthy city, sticking out like sore thumbs. They were two dirty and beaten people that looked as if they crawled out of their graves in the ground, surrounded by bright and clean nobles that spared them disapproving sideways glances before veering away from them as if afraid they would become tainted by their uncleanliness if they so much as breathed the air near them.

While Sakura ignored the critical glances of the rich civilians, Itachi felt a little more… self-conscious. While he was not of noble blood himself, he hated being looked down upon in such a manner, like he was scum. Who were these people to judge him, one of the only two survivors of the mighty Uchiha clan, a powerful force? And Sakura deserved better treatment than this as well. It made him sick. These people knew nothing about him and Sakura, yet they were being treated with such disrespect.

Sakura suddenly collided shoulders with an older man dressed in orange and yellow robes and a long white beard. The man almost lost his footing, but was able to stabilize himself before he could fall onto the cobblestone road. Cheeks red in anger, he turned to Sakura with an expression of pure rage.

Sakura turned to him as well, bowing apologetically. "Please forgive me, sir, I did not mean to-"

"Silence, street rat!" he exclaimed angrily through clenched teeth, "You shall watch where you are walking and stay out of my way, filth! Have you no respect for your superiors? Now be gone before I call the police force on you and have you arrested for your insolence!" Ending with that, he turned his heel and walked away, chin high in the air as he attempted to clean the dirt off his clothing with a handkerchief where Sakura collided with him.

Itachi turned to the man, angry at him for referring to Sakura by such awful and disrespectful names, but said girl grabbed his wrist and they continued walking forwards towards the marketplace.

The Uchiha turned to Sakura, eyebrows raised. It was not like her to take such verbal abuse by anyone, especially by a prissy noble. If he knew her like he think he knew her, then she would not have hesitated to defend herself from the man, either vocally or physically. Yet here she was, calmly walking away from the scene like nothing even happened. Wait, was she smirking?

"Sakura, what was that all about?" Itachi asked the pinkette, referring to her collision with the noble and the pleased expression on her face.

Sakura then tossed something to him, and he caught it. In his hands was a small red bag, filled with something heavy. As he opened the pouch slightly, he saw that it was filled completely with coins. Sakura had just pickpocketed the noble.

"Honestly, what were you planning on buying supplies with, Uchiha?" she said smugly, "We have nothing to barter with these people except for our bodies. And I highly doubt that we could go into prostitution looking like this."

Itachi stopped walking as she finished her sentence and gripped her wrist. "Sakura, don't suggest anything like that again," Itachi stated sternly, glaring at her coldly. Sakura just waved him off nonchalantly.

"Relax, Uchiha, it was just a joke," she stated, rolling her eyes and pulling her arm from his grip, "Do you really think that I would do something like that?"

Itachi shook his head, slightly flustered, as they continued walking. To suggest something so ludicrous and degrading… he should have known she was not being serious.

But at least she was thinking ahead. It was true, he hadn't thought of the fact that they needed to buy supplies for the mission, yet they had no money. "And where did you perfect such methods of thievery?" he asked the girl as he tucked the purse into his pocket.

Sakura shrugged and avoided the Uchiha's gaze. "When you have been living alone on the streets for a few years, you need to learn how to steal in order to get what you need to live though the day."

Again, Itachi felt a wave of guilt pass through him. She learned how to pickpocket when she was exiled from Konoha, living alone without a single possession to her name. And it was his fault. He was the one that corrupted her, took away everything she knew and loved and made her live the rest of her life alone and in fear. It was his doing.

A disturbing thought then came to his mind as he remembered Sakura's earlier comment. "Sakura," he asked suddenly, "I don't mean to pry into your personal life, but did you have to… resort to prostitution before when you were living by yourself?"

Sakura turned to him, eyes round in shock that he asked such a question. Then she quickly adverted her gaze away from him, self-consciously running fingers through her short hair. "I… no! I never did anything like that!" she stuttered. "Why would you care if I did?"

Despite her nervous reaction, Itachi knew she was telling the truth. "I have been the one responsible for everything bad that has happened to you in the last few years," he answered, "And I know that there is nothing I can do to change the past and undo my mistakes. And I know that my apology means nothing to you, but I want to tell you how sorry I am. For everything."

Sakura exhaled long and slowly, saying nothing for a few moments. "You don't know how much I want your apology to fix everything. But we both know that we can't change the past, so let's just focus on the present."

Itachi nodded in agreement. But although she was right, the remorseful feeling still was present in the pit of his stomach, weighing him down.


As they approached the marketplace, Sakura pulled Itachi aside, away from the crowd on the main road, and instructed him to take out the money they had recently acquired. She carefully began sorting the coins, explaining what portion of money they would use to buy certain supplies with. Itachi sighed at her desire to be the leader of this mission (although he was the one who should be the leader, he mentally added), but allowed the girl to have her moment of glory and instruct him. After all, she was the one who obtained the money, so she should decide what should be done with it.

"This can be used for clothing," she stated after counting off a few of the coins and handing them to Itachi, "And this can be used for food," she added, giving him another portion of currency. "I will take the rest of the money and buy weapons."

Itachi raised an eyebrow at the pinkette critically, who returned a narrowed glare. "What? Do you have a problem with my plan, Uchiha?" she asked him curtly, crossing her arms.

"Yes, actually," Itachi replied, "This is a civilian village. There are no ninja here."

Sakura raised a delicate eyebrow, mimicking Itachi's expression. "You already told me that. What's your point?"

"The weapons that are being sold here are bought only by the army, the samurai. And if you haven't noticed, the military is comprises only of men. It would be highly suspicious if a young female came and requested buying weapons. It's practically a giveaway that you are a ninja. It would cause a commotion and would give our enemies a lead to our whereabouts," Itachi explained.

Sakura huffed. He was right. She was wrong. And she hated being wrong. "Fine," she said, not trying to conceal her disgruntlement, "You buy the weapons. I'll get food and clothes. Meet back here when you are done," she then stalked off, but turned back to Itachi and pointed a finger at him, "And they are not our enemies, Uchiha. Whatever Akatsuki member you pissed off that is potentially following us is your problem, not mine."

"We are on the same team, remember?" Itachi retorted, restating her earlier proclamation before they unlawfully entered the village, "My enemies are your enemies."

He watched her face flush in anger and her fists shake. He could tell that she wanted to punch him for mocking her, and she probably would have if there weren't so many witnesses. Sakura sure was an easy person to provoke. No wonder Kisame and Hidan liked aggravating her; her reaction was amusing.

"What kind of weapons do you prefer?" he asked her before she could walk away again.

"Throwing knives," she answered before she turned her heel and walked down the road towards a row of shops.

With the touchy pinkette angry at him, it was probably a better idea for Itachi to not give her the weapons until her urge to kill him waned.


"Damn Uchiha, think he can tell me what to do. "We are on the same team, remember?" How dare he use my own words against me! That bastard."

Sakura quietly muttered curses directed at her companion as she began pulling clothes off the racks that were set up in the clothing shop. She grabbed a white long-sleeved shirt and red jacket for herself and a grey shirt and grey-green jacket for Itachi. She also got them dark cloaks so they could hide their identities when necessary and backpacks to store their supplies in.

Goods piled in her arms, she marched to the resister counter of the store and practically threw the clothing articles at the saleswoman, who jumped in surprise at the brutality of the pink-haired client before her. She quickly counted the prices of the clothes for Sakura, but the pinkette already slammed the proper amount of money on the counter and walked away, stuffing the new clothes in the two backpacks.

As she walked outside, Sakura eventually began to calm down, her seething rage dissipating in the cool winter wind. Perhaps she was overreacting. Her rage was a weakness of hers, as Lady Tsunade pointed out many times during her training as an apprentice. Itachi may have been a difficult person for her to get along with, but if they were going to successfully complete this mission, then they needed to work together. She needed to better control her emotions if she was going to save Sasuke from Orochimaru and Itachi.

Sakura sighed. She vowed that she would help rescue Sasuke for Naruto. Would she be strong enough, both emotionally and physically, to complete such a task?

Her thoughts stopped short as a warm waft of air hit her face. She turned to see that she was walking next to a food store that was selling cooked and raw items. Saliva formed in her mouth as she smelled soups of all flavors and gazed upon baked goods and preserved meats displayed out on shelves in the window of the shop for the public to see. Sakura quickly counted the rest of her money to find that she had plenty for buying food. She rushed into the shop as her stomach growled. After weeks of consuming awful tea and imported legumes and fruits at the Akatsuki base, it would be great to eat some real food for their journey.


Itachi impatiently tapped his foot as he waited for Sakura outside the shops they had stopped by earlier in the day. On his person was various weapons, including swords, knives, and other non-ninja materials. He had enough trouble convincing the weapon shopkeeper to sell him the goods, considering that he looked well below samurai status. But after a little convincing by an artful display of his skill with the sword by beheading a mannequin dressed in samurai attire, the merchant complied with his requests. Itachi even received a discount for promising not to decapitate the shopkeeper.

But when he returned to the spot where he and Sakura last met, she was nowhere to be found. She should have been there by now, considering that it shouldn't take so long to buy the clothes and food. Had she run into trouble? Was she somehow recognized and attacked? He was about to search for her when he saw a bob of pink in the dense crowd of the marketplace and her voice ring out through the horde of people.

"Excuse me, coming through, move outta my way… HEY! If someone touches my ass one more time I will knock their head off their shoulders!"

Sakura eventually pushed her way out of the massive crowd and made her way to Itachi, face flushed. She had two packs on her back and in her hands were multiple grocery bags piled to the brim with food. Itachi resisted the urge to face-palm.

"Sakura, what is all of this?" he asked, trying to keep his voice even.

Said girl blinked her green eyes at him a few times. "Clothes. And food."

Itachi raised an eyebrow critically and crossed his arms. "Sakura, we don't need this much food," he motioned to the grocery bags, "We just needed some sustenance for when we won't be able to hunt and gather. Carrying this ridiculous amount of food will only slow us down."

Sakura pursed her lips into a pout. "But it all looked so good… and I was hungry. Never shop for groceries when you are hungry…" she retorted.

"Please tell me that you did not spend the rest of your money on it."

Sakura gave a dry chuckle and rubbed the back of her neck with her hand. "Well…"

Itachi shook his head at her, deciding against scolding her more. He was hungry as well, and the food did look delicious. Good thing that he received that discount earlier, or they might have been broke. "Let's just find an inn to stay in for the night. Then after, we can go to a restaurant."

Sakura smiled, clearly pleased by the thought at eating at a restaurant and sleeping in a real bed, and shifted the bags in her hands. Before they walked down the dirt road, Itachi wordlessly took the bags from her and carried them, half the reason was because he was a gentleman, and half the reason was his fear that Sakura would eat all of their provisions before the day ended.


They walked into a small and cozy-looking inn that was just outside of the hectic market district. As the two ninja walked through the worn set of green double doors, they were greeted by a cheerful receptionist at a desk that was in front of them.

"Good afternoon, what can I do for you?" she asked, blinking her large eyes and brushing curly brown locks away from her face. She looked to be a few years younger that Sakura.

Itachi spoke first. "We would like a room here."

"A one-bedroom suite is 500 ryo. A two-bedroom suite is 750 ryo."

Sakura hid a grimace. These prices were a bit high. Did they even have enough money for this place?

"A one-bedroom suite will do just fine," Itachi replied. Sakura shot him a glare, which he ignored. They must have not had enough for a two-bedroom suite. She didn't really like the idea of sharing a single bed with Itachi, especially after yesterday's sleeping arrangements. But they can be mature and professional about this situation. She could always punch him square in the jaw if he tried anything, not that he would.

The receptionist grinned even wider, if that was possible. "Ah, I see. You two must be here for your honeymoon!"

Sakura suddenly had a violent coughing attack, almost dropping the backpacks she was carrying. What the hell did this girl just suggest?! That she and Itachi were married?! Were lovers?! Did she make some impression that she actually enjoyed being in his company?

"There is a discount for honeymooners. 475 ryo." the girl trailed off as she began filling out paperwork, a dreamy expression on her face as she ignored Sakura's fit.

"No… we are not…" Sakura tried to correct through her bouts of coughing.

"Yes, we are. How did you know?" Itachi unexpectedly intervened, a soft smile on his face as he patted Sakura's back to help her through her fit.

Sakura couldn't believe what she was hearing. The Uchiha was going along with this, just so they could get a discount?!

The receptionist handed the paperwork to Itachi to sign. "I am a romantic. I can tell when two people are in love. And you two are definitely soul mates. A match made in the heavens."

Sakura wanted to puke at the idea.

Itachi nodded and handed the signed contract back to the receptionist along with the money. She gave him a key in return. "Third floor, Room 328."

"Thank you." Itachi slung a free arm around Sakura's shoulder and began pulling the flabbergasted pinkette with him. "Now let's drop our bags at the room and go eat," he directed towards Sakura, who was still trying to recover at the strangeness of this situation.


"What?" Itachi exhaled, unable to ignore Sakura's glares of pure rage anymore. He lowered the menu down on the table and folded his arms, preparing for her wrath. It was expected, but it was not like he wanted to hear what she had to say about the scene back at the inn. She would undoubtedly have violent and uncouth remarks directed at him.

"You know what the hell what!"

Itachi sighed again. Here we go…

Sakura inhaled to prepare for her current list of grievances. "First off, you got us a one-bedroom apartment, which I wasn't too particularly thrilled about, but nonetheless, you didn't even consult with me about it! Then you had the audacity to say that we are married, for a mere discount?! Geez, Uchiha! Stop making all of the decisions, especially if they involve me and you honeymooning!"

"I don't see what the problem is. I didn't hurt anyone," Itachi retorted, eyes scanning the menu once again. As soon as they threw all of their bags in their room, he and Sakura immediately went to the nearest restaurant only a few blocks away from the inn. She had been pleasantly quiet the whole time until now, and he would have enjoyed the silence more if she stopped glaring at him with a look that could kill. "All I did was lie to a receptionist. What was I supposed to do? Tell her the truth? That we were actually ninja on a mission to invade the notorious snake Sannin's lair? The logical thing to do was appear natural in that situation, and the discount definitely helped our funds, considering you spent the rest of yours on food," he countered.

Sakura's face flushed in anger. "Natural?" she hissed, "Your idea of natural is having us pose as a couple?"

This time, Itachi did put the menu down completely so he could get a better view of the pinkette's face. It was so easy to read her emotions, but impossible to figure out what was going on in her head. Haruno was actually a complicated woman, despite how straightforward her reactions were. Maybe this time he will find out what she is really thinking. "I don't know why you are overreacting so much. Are you that offended by my decisions, or are you just insecure?"

Without warning, Itachi felt something crash into his left shin. Hard. Luckily, he was able to hide the pain that shot up his leg. Sakura had just kicked him. He glared at her in displeasure as his leg began to throb, but Sakura returned a vengeful stare as well. "Insecure my ass. You are sleeping on the floor tonight, sweetheart."

A woman then strode up to the table, a notepad in her hand. "Good afternoon, my name is Emiko. What can I get you folks today?" the waitress asked.

Sakura made a sort of stuttering noise when she appeared, and Itachi knew why. Their waitress was extremely beautiful. She had long black hair that extended all the way down her back, dark bedroom eyes, and round red lips. She was wearing a strapless purple dress that showed her curvaceous form and exposed much of her tanned skin. Sakura was clearly envious of this girl's looks, but hid her face in the menu to hide her expression of distaste.

"I will start with some tea," he said before turning to Sakura, signaling for her to order.

"Same…" Sakura eventually muttered, still hiding her face.

Emiko nodded to them before she walked away, high heels clacking against the wood floor.

Sakura snorted when their server was out of earshot. "No wonder this place gets so much business. The waitresses here dress like hookers."

Itachi couldn't help but chuckle briefly at her statement, earning a raised eyebrow from the pinkette.

"What's so funny?" she asked.

"You're jealous."

Sakura crossed her arms in displeasure at his remark. "You're wrong."

"You obviously dislike her for some reason," Itachi countered.

Sakura was suddenly fumbling for words, her eyes directed elsewhere at not at him. Itachi patiently waited for her to respond. What was going on in her head? He wanted to know so badly for some reason.

The pinkette finally replied, brushing away short strands of hair self-consciously. "I… I don't like the way she looked at you. She regarded you too fondly, you know what I mean?"

Itachi was completely caught off-guard. He hadn't noticed the way Emiko was looking at him, actually. He was too busy observing Sakura, trying to figure out what the pinkette was thinking. Sakura seemed to immediately regret telling him this as she began pulling on her hair again, a nervous habit of hers that Itachi had picked up on. Was she actually afraid of the possibility that he might be attracted to Emiko? While he did think that the waitress was fairly pretty – although she did dress a little inappropriately- it would take far more than mere appearances for him to be attracted to a woman.

Emiko appeared again, this time carrying two white cups of steaming tea. "What else can I get for you?" Itachi noticed that the waitress was indeed focused on him, ignoring Sakura completely. The pinkette promptly raised her menu in front of her face again, seething.

"We will have some miso soup," he spoke for both of them, since Sakura seemed too distracted by her rage to respond to their waitress.

Emiko nodded again, but this time she lingered at their table. Itachi turned to her as she leaned against their table, blinking her dark eyes at him coyly. "Actually, I wanted to ask if you were new here. I know all of the regulars that come into this restaurant, and you are definitely not one of them. I would have remembered seeing a handsome face like yours around here," she winked.

Itachi heard Sakura make a squelching sound, as if she just stuck her tongue out of her mouth. But still the waitress did not regard her presence. Itachi knew that Emiko was probably flirting with him, but it had been so long since an incident like this occurred, he couldn't even be certain.

"Yes," he found himself responding to the server, "I'm actually a tourist. My wife and I are on our honeymoon."

At this mention, Emiko propped herself back into a standing position, looking slightly disappointed. Itachi spared a glance in Sakura's direction, but her face was still hidden by the menu. Emiko followed his gaze as looked at the pinkette sitting across from him, and subtly shook her head.

"I'll be out with that miso soup…" Emiko awkwardly concluded before shuffling off.

As soon as Emiko left, Sakura slammed her menu back down on the table, her eyes glowing in their emerald fire and mouth pulled into a thin line. But something was different about the way she was looking at him; he couldn't quite place the emotion that was on her face.

"What did you do that for? I told you not to talk about that," her voice was hushed and calm.

"You were upset. I was only trying to make you feel better," he responded honestly.

Sakura gave him a hard look and abruptly stood up, almost knocking her chair over. "I don't need your assistance, Uchiha. I can defend myself," she stated, her jaw hard.

Now Itachi was confused. What the hell was she talking about? It was not like they were physically fighting a foe, they were merely having a conversation with a waitress. Why was Sakura suddenly so defensive? This was probably the first time he had been so confused by Sakura's actions.

Sakura turned her body around, as if she was going to leave. But Itachi quickly gripped her slender wrist, stopping her from moving and spinning her around to face him.

"Where are you going?" he demanded, but in a light tone. His voice betrayed some of the confusion that he was feeling.

Sakura easily pulled her hand out of his grip. "Out," she concluded before exiting the restaurant.


Sakura pulled her jacket tighter around her small form as she stepped out into the chilly night air. The crowds from the marketplace earlier that day had disappeared, save a few lingering pedestrians and venders closing shop. The buildings that surrounded her turned on their lights as the sun set over the horizon and the sky faded into darkness.

She sighed, her breath fluttering around her face. She wasn't sure where she was going, but any place where Itachi wasn't was fine with her.

He may have been right; she was overreacting slightly to this situation. But for some reason, the lies that Itachi had been fabricating about them being together… she found it unsettling for some reason. Maybe it was because he seemed so indifferent, or perhaps because she wasn't so laid back about it. Or both. Maybe it was really because she was upset that he wasn't responding the same way she was. Maybe she was angry at herself for overreacting.

But what did it mean, her mixed emotions and Itachi's attitudes about what should be an irrelevant subject?

It meant that she was actually starting to develop feelings for Itachi Uchiha.

Sakura tucked stray locks of hair behind her ears as a gust of wind passed. Ever since he guarded her while she was an Akatsuki prisoner and after he saved her life after she tried to kill him, she knew something changed. She started worrying about him, forgetting about her hate and rage. She cared about his opinion of her. She actually was concerned if he lived or died, no matter how many times she tried to deny how she felt about him.

She wasn't sure what these feelings were. Friendship, romance… she didn't know. All she knew was that she didn't like that Itachi was so insensible about this ordeal. Did he not care about her? Did he not possess these same feelings? Sure, he is an Uchiha, but even Uchihas seek companionship… right?

What made her realize that she was actually caring for Itachi was when Emiko started flirting with him. It angered her for some reason. She tried to ignore it, but she couldn't. All she could think about was Itachi and how she couldn't stand the thought of him being attracted to another girl. And when he told Emiko that they were on their honeymoon… that pushed her over the edge.

He told her that he was only trying to help her, but he was actually doing the opposite. He made her feel weak, like these feelings were damaging her. Yet he was unaffected. Sakura was all too familiar with the feelings of having love weaken a person. The last time she loved someone so dearly, they crushed her heart and almost destroyed her; the day Sasuke chose fulfilling his revenge over her. And after Sasuke left her alone in Konoha while he sought power, she realized that love was dangerous. It weakened shinobi. So she promised that she would never love again.

Sasuke didn't love her. And neither did Itachi. Yet somehow, she still had these feelings for Itachi. Somehow, he tore down her defenses that she built up over the past few years and infected her cold heart.

But it meant nothing if Itachi didn't care about her. She would not suffer through heartbreak ever again.

The pinkette spared a glance behind her to see if he was following her, but she saw no trace of the Uchiha. She wasn't sure if she should be happy that he wasn't pursuing her, or upset by the thought of him not caring enough to search for her.

Sakura shook her head. This was all too confusing. Why did she have to feel this way about him? All she wanted to do was forget. Forget about Emiko. Forget about Sasuke. Forget about Itachi. Forget about everything.

A loud and hearty laughter distracted her. She turned to the left to find that she was standing in front of a tavern, the grimy windows opened ever so slightly to allow a light breeze to enter the building. From the old wood construction of the building, she could tell that it had been around for a long time. Sakura walked up to the windows to spare a glance inside.

The pub was packed, mostly with big and burley men. From the torn and faded attire that the men wore, she could tell that they were the working lower class of this town, not nobles or samurai. Large groups of them crowded around small tables, kicking back and playing card games, drinking, and laughing. It seemed like a decent place to have a drink.

Sakura sighed at the thought. She had always loathed alcohol; its taste was rather unpleasant, and having Lady Tsunade as her teacher discouraged her will to try. She remembered walking into her office countless times in the morning to find her passed out on her desk from drinking the night before and later complaining of a hangover. One time, she even had to forcefully drag the Hokage out of a bar to prevent her from getting into a fight after losing in a game of strip poker.

But although Sakura knew that alcohol would not solve her problems, she desperately wanted to feel at ease for a moment.

She inhaled and walked into the bar, ignoring the sideways glances of the men she passed. She could tell that they were clearly confused on why a young girl was entering the tavern, but no one questioned or stopped her.

Sakura scanned the busy pub before deciding to sit at the deserted bar. She sat on a worn stool and waited for a bartender to appear. She rested her arms across the counter and nervously drummed her fingers against the wood, second-guessing her decision. Maybe she shouldn't be doing this. This was not going to help her at all, nor would Itachi approve. But as she remembered the Uchiha, she inwardly scoffed. To hell with him. He didn't care about her. She is merely a tool for him to use for his benefit. She was going to go to hell and back to heal his Sharingan, and then he was going to dispose of her as if she was garbage. That was what men do; pretend to like a girl and then forget about her when they no longer serve their purpose. That was what Sasuke Uchiha taught her.

"And what can I get you?"

Sakura looked up to see that the bartender had arrived. He was surprisingly old, probably in his late seventies. By the way he squinted his eyes at her, it was obvious that he couldn't see well. Even though she was clearly underage, this man wouldn't be able to perceive how young she actually was.

"Sake, please," she answered. She mentally smacked herself for choosing the same beverage Tsunade preferred. Just how many parallels were between them? Naruto was right; she was exactly like her teacher – minus the busty-ness.

As the old bartender slowly shuffled off, Sakura exhaled and propped her elbows on the counter. She only had a short moment of peace before she saw someone sit on the barstool next to her out of the corner of her eye. She focused her eyes forward, hoping that the person next to her would ignore her, but she received no such luck.

"What's a pretty young girl like you doing here?"

Sakura narrowed her eyes in displeasure but turned to the person who sat next to her at the bar. It was a handsome man in his mid-twenties, with slick black hair, an orange button-down shirt, and a sly grin. She could tell that he was not a constructionist like the rest of the men at the tavern, but he was also not a noble. By the way he smiled, she could tell that he was probably a con artist of some sort.

"Don't want to talk," she replied simply, hoping that it would discourage further conversation. All she wanted to do was drink in peace.

Yet he did not look disheartened in the slightest. "No need to be so touchy. I was just trying to promote a friendly chat with a newcomer."

She sent him a vexed glare. "Look, I had a really bad day today, so I really just want to be alone."

The man was unfazed. "All the more reason to talk with me! I have a way with making ladies smile."

Damn. This guy was stubborn. Sakura turned away from him, hoping he would get the hint and leave her alone.

"Either I can have a friendly chat with you or I can tell the bartender that you are underage."

Sakura exhaled, irritated. Not only was he stubborn, but also an asshole. She turned to him again and crossed her arms. "And who do I owe the pleasure of this 'friendly chat?'"

The man bowed his head to her. "The name is Saburo."

The old bartender came back and set a white porcelain bottle in front of her with a small drinking glass. She ignored the glass and grabbed the bottle. "Sakura. What do you want?" she replied unenthusiastically before taking a hearty swig.

Saburo ran a hand through his dark hair. "Honestly, every guy in here that isn't married is actually quite taken by you. I guess it's because we haven't had a girl as beautiful as you in this waterhole in months."

If she had been in a better mood, she might have blushed or thanked him for the compliment. But instead, she was indifferent. She took another long drink. "Look, I don't know what you are trying to get at, but I am apparently married, so you should waste your energy on someone that actually cares."

Saburo's wide grin lessened ever so slightly as he tried to hide his disappointment. "Apparently married? How can someone be apparently married?"

"It's a complicated story that I am not going to explain." Sakura frowned in displeasure as she recollected.

The perceptive man picked up on her meaning. "Your husband… he's the reason why you are here, isn't he?"

"Yep."

Their conversation ceased for a moment while Sakura once again tipped back the ceramic bottle. It wasn't until she finished her drink when she suddenly realized a problem.

"Dammit!" she exclaimed before harshly slamming the empty flask on the table.

Her sudden outcry made Saburo jump in his seat. "What's wrong?"

Sakura cupped a hand around her mouth and whispered. "I don't have any money to pay the bartender…" she said, a small hiccup escaping her lips. She spent the last of her pickpocketed money buying food and Itachi kept the rest of his cash.

Saburo's smile widened even more, if that was possible. "Well it's your lucky day! I have plenty of cash on me and I happen to be in a giving mood! I can spot you."

He rummaged in his pockets for a moment and pulled out some coins. Sakura smiled as sweetly as she could manage. Despite the fact that she was being a total bitch to him, he still wanted to help her. Maybe all guys weren't jerks. "Oh, thank you so much, Saburo-"

But as she extended her hand to reach for the coins that Saburo held, he quickly closed his hand and pulled it away from her grasp. "Sorry, but if you want my money, then you have to go on a date with me. I don't care if you are 'apparently married.' It can be our little secret. Just one night, that is all I ask."

Sakura narrowed her eyes. Never mind… all guys are jerks. She definitely wasn't going to go on a date with this con, but she also didn't want to not pay the poor old bartender. She would have to con the con.

"I have a better idea…" she slurred. Sakura suddenly began to feel lightheaded and her eyelids heavy. The alcohol was starting to affect her. "How about we arm-wrestle?"

Saburo laughed. "Arm-wrestle? Well I certainly never heard that one before…"

"Just hear me out," she hiccupped again, "If I win, you pay for me and buy me another drink with your money. If you win, we will go on a date."

Saburo raised an eyebrow, looking her up and down. Sakura could tell that he thought that he would win this challenge; she was drunk and she was a girl. He expected that she was weaker than him. Well, he was in for a surprise.

His smile changed into a smirk. "Very well. I accept your proposal, Sakura."

Sakura smiled mischievously as well. This was going to be fun.


Damn. He lost her.

Itachi was trudging through the cold weather of the village, searching for Sakura. As she left the restaurant, he knew that it would be a bad idea to look for her right away. She was clearly agitated and upset, and although he knew that he was the source of her rage, he couldn't determine why.

Something about her changed. It all started only a few days ago when he saved her life when she tried to kill him. After that incident, she had been acting… differently around him. Itachi was usually very perceptive when it came to reading other people. But not Sakura. He could identify her emotions, but not what she was thinking. She was a mystery, something he couldn't wrap his head around. It frustrated him to no end.

Itachi turned down another street and realized that he had walked in circles as he passed the familiar shops. Now he wished he had stopped her earlier. He seriously had no idea where that girl went.

After he left the restaurant, he went back to their room at the inn only to find the suite empty and everything as they left it. So he began wandering through the town, trying to locate her. Every building he entered and every alley he passed, he could find no trace of her. Clearly she had hidden well from him, or she was somewhere he least expected her to be.

Itachi stopped walking for a moment and leaned against a building. He was tired, anxious, and injured, and on top of that, Sakura was missing. He sighed sadly. Sakura probably hated him. And she had every right to. But he didn't want her to hate him. Not after everything they went through, not now, not ever. He didn't know why, but the thought of her loathing him concerned him greatly. He prayed that after this mission was over, that she would forgive him. For everything.

But how could she? He had to be realistic; he ruined her life. He should accept the fact that he would always be known as the dark time in her life, the phantom that plagues her.

His brooding was interrupted as a loud chorus of male laughter disrupted his thoughts. Itachi raised his head to see that he was next to a pub, and the occupants were being rather noisy. Towards the entrance of the building, many more citizens were filing into the tavern to investigate the commotion. But out of the many people that were yelling and cheering, a familiar voice rang through the crowd.

"Who's next?!"

It was Sakura.

Itachi instantly leapt to his feet and pushed his way through the crowd to enter the bar. He had no idea what she was doing at a tavern, but he didn't care. He had finally found her.

Through the crowd of people standing in the small building, Itachi saw a flash of pink hair in the thick mob. No longer trying to be polite, he roughly pushed aside many burley men, all of them too distracted by something to care what he was doing.

Itachi managed to struggle through the last of the people until he came to a table that they were standing around. It was a small wooden table, with one large muscular man sitting across from a small pinkette. And they were… arm-wrestling?

The Uchiha quickly strode next to Sakura and gripped her free arm to get her attention, but she hardly noticed him. Instead, she continued to stare down at her opponent, who was sweating profusely as he struggled to overpower her. His large arm muscles were bulging and the redness of his face indicated that he was struggling against her strength, but all of his effort was wasted. They had no idea that she was actually a powerful ninja with the natural strength of at least five men.

On the other hand, Sakura was smirking as she stared down her challenger, not fatigued in the slightest. She feigned a yawn, earning a hearty laughter from all of the males in the bar that were watching their match. He would have almost found this sight comical – such a small girl beating a large man at arm-wrestling – but he was distracted by the fact that he had finally found her, in a bar of all places.

"Sakura. What are you doing? I have been looking everywhere for you," he tried to explain, shaking her arm to get her attention and trying to keep his voice calm.

She merely swatted him away with her free hand and then picked up a sake bottle, one of many that were next to her on the table. Some were empty, but most were still capped. But by the amount of empty bottles that were present, she was definitely drunk.

Suddenly, a man that was standing over Sakura pointed a finger at him. "Hey, don't touch my money-maker! You will ruin her concentration! If you want a chance to arm-wrestle her, then you need to wait in line like the rest of the guys!" he informed as he brushed back his slick black hair with a hand that was holding a large sum of money.

Itachi ignored him. He grabbed the bottle of sake out of her hands, which definitely got her attention, but she continued her match. Glassy jade eyes looked up to him and widened in recognition. "Hey Itachi!" she smiled, "You finally found me! Long time no see, right?!"

She laughed suddenly, her cheeks flushing a deeper red. Itachi could smell alcohol on her breath. Yes, she was definitely drunk.

"What the hell are you doing here?" he hissed angrily. How could she do this? Not only did he dislike the fact that she was drinking heavily -most likely because of himself - but they were on an important mission. One slipup like this could ruin his plans. He knew that the last few days have been hell for her, but she could have been handling this in a much better way than resorting to drinking.

Sakura frowned at his tone, but did not seem upset. "Well you should know," she slurred while rolling her eyes. Seeing no point in carrying out the arm-wrestling match, she quickly ended the fight by slamming her opponent's hand into the table. The crowd cheered for her as her opponent gave money to the dark-haired man, who smiled wide as he counted the cash. Itachi realized that she was arm-wrestling the men at the bar for money, with the dark-haired male as her manager. By the looks of it, she had not lost a match.

Itachi leaned closer to her and lowered his voice. "Do you realize what you are doing? You are being foolish. At some point, someone is going to realize that you are a ninja conning people out of their money. We will have the samurai after us soon."

Sakura tried opening another sake bottle, but Itachi took it out of her hands. "Gah, I'm just having a little fun. Don't be such a stick in the mud. Join the party," she hiccupped before handing him an unopened flask.

He refused the bottle of alcohol and forcefully gripped her shoulder. "No, Sakura. We are leaving now."

Sakura suddenly became hostile and twisted her shoulder out of his grip before standing abruptly. "No! I'm not going anywhere! I don't have to do anything you say! You don't own me! You don't even care about me! I'm just another pawn to you!" she exclaimed loudly, her featured scrunched in rage.

Itachi found that he had involuntarily taken a step backwards at her outburst. Everyone in the bar fell silent as well as they watched the scene before them. The atmosphere suddenly became tense.

The Uchiha stepped up to her again. Her eyebrows were arched in irritation and her breathing was rapid as she stared him down, but he continued to lock eyes with her. "You are wrong, Sakura. I do care about you. I don't want you to get hurt. We are teammates, remember?" he said softly as he tried to calm her.

His statement only seemed to anger her more. "You Uchihas make me sick! You always make promises you can't keep and betray those who care about you! Damn you and your plans! You just don't want to admit that I'm only here to serve you! That's what this whole mission is about, anyway! You don't care about what will happen to me after I serve your purpose! You don't care about me!"

What had gotten into her? Why was she being so irrational? "Sakura, please listen to me-"

She cut him off with a sharp laughter. "Hell, you sound just like your brother. Every time I look at you, I can see a part of him in you. And you know what? I hate you for it. He took my heart and crushed it until I could no longer love again. And then you come along and give me hope. Sure, I hated you. I still do. But for some reason, I can't help these feelings of affection I have for you. I want so desperately not to care about you, but I do. But I know that if I love you, then you would break my heart, just like he did to me in the past. So I decided that I will fight these feelings and never love you."

Itachi was stunned. What the hell was she talking about? His mind was blank. He couldn't process what she was trying to say. He could only stare at her in disbelief and feel his strange pang in his chest.

Sakura shook her head and smiled at his reaction, but she was far from being happy. "Speechless for once, eh Uchiha? Yes, I admit it. I do care for you. But don't think that you can use that against me anymore. I'm a different person now, Sasuke."

Itachi snapped out of his thoughts. In her drunken state, she was mistaking him for his brother. She believed that he was Sasuke.

Sakura suddenly raised a fist. "This is for breaking my heart, you fucking bastard."

The enraged pinkette swung her fist towards Itachi, but he had plenty of time to avoid her attack. He moved his head to the side, but she could not stop her momentum or keep her balance in her condition. Although her attack missed him completely, she ended up directing a chakra-laden punch towards one of the brutes standing behind the Uchiha, sending him careening backwards into several other men. Seven of them fell harshly to the floor while Sakura bumped into Itachi.

All was silent for a brief moment before someone suddenly yelled.

"BARFIGHT!"

Chaos erupted in mere seconds. Every man in the building suddenly began attacking the nearest person. Tables were turned over. Chairs were used as shields. People began kicking, screaming, and punching anything that moved. Even an old blind bartender expertly began beating people with his cane.

But although turmoil was all around them, Itachi was still holding Sakura. Everything that was happening around them seemed insignificant, and everyone around them ignored them as well.

He had caught her after she fell into him. One of his arms was around her waist while the other hand cradled her head. She had not moved since she had fallen; she remained leaning against him for support with her head resting against his chest and her hands on his shoulders. Never had she been so vulnerable, not in front of him. And she was allowing him to comfort her as they embraced.

Itachi lightly ran his hand through her pink strands and tilted his head towards her ear. "We need to go back, Sakura. We can't stay here," he whispered to her.

"Back to Konoha, Sasuke?" came a sad and muffled reply from the pinkette.

Itachi nodded after a moment. "Yes. Back home to Konoha."


A/N: Sorry for the wait, I am taking some tough classes this semester. You guys deserve a long chapter after waiting for so long. I hope you enjoyed it! This was actually one of the first chapters I developed for this story for some reason... don't ask why. It's actually a significant chapter because I am trying to portray the bond that is forming between Sakura and Itachi. Yeah, 21 chapters in and I'm just starting to expose obvious romance. I don't like rushing into romance because it is unrealistic. And I don't believe in the whole "love at first sight" thing. It's too cheesy.

Thanks for your previous reviews! I am looking forward to your thoughts and opinions on this chapter!