Equinox – an Itachi & Sakura story
By: MitsukiShiroi

Disclaimer: Naruto and all its characters belong to Masashi Kishimoto.

Chapter X

Sakura hurdled over a fallen tree, her heart in her mouth and salty sweat stinging her eyes. She moved quicker than she had ever done in her life, amassing all her chakra to her feet. She had long since left the icy forests that belonged to the Water Country, over the water that separated Water from the Fire Country, and into the thick, luscious forest she knew so well.

As she passed one of the ANBU control posts, she whistled and called out, "It's Haruno. I need assistance!" Continuing on her way, she was satisfied to see that a team comprised of four men immediately appeared around her. The closest to her, she recognized as Tenzou, his short brown hair whipping in the wind as he hopped from branch to branch, taking his mask off his face.

"I lost Naruto to Akatsuki," she explained briefly, looking into his onyx eyes. "Sai has been severely injured and Shikamaru is taking him back to Konoha so that he can be healed. I can still sense Naruto but I need back-up to chase him. Preferably a tracker." She exhaled deeply. "They're heading for Rain."

Rain was notorious. The Five Countries had long since begun to suspect it of harboring Akatsuki members and other criminals, though nothing could be confirmed. The country itself was secluded, all trespassers were attacked immediately and the country had never even bothered to ally itself with one of the stronger surrounding countries. Hanzou of the Salamander was ruling there with an iron fist. If Akatsuki was affiliated to him, infiltrating would only be that much harder. This went beyond a regular S-Class mission rank, but if she didn't pursue, Naruto would be dead in a couple of days. She wouldn't ever forgive herself if that happened.

Faintly, she thought of what Kakashi would have said about her actions, before remembering one of his wisest lessons fondly. 'In the shinobi world, those who break the rules are trash… but those who abandon their comrades are worse than trash.' No, she might end up killing herself, but she would never be able to abandon her comrade.

Tenzou sighed but nodded. "Neji is patrolling the border of the northern part of River, just a few kilometers away from Rain." He remained silent for a moment longer. "Kiba is in his team."

'One of the other captains in charge of chasing Akatsuki along with a fantastic tracker,' she thought. 'Them being one of the Akatsuki Division's teams means that they can abandon their post for the hunting mission.'

"Thank you. Do me a favor and send out a messenger hawk to the Sixth to ask for a replacement for Captain Hyuuga's team and one to Captain Hyuuga to let him know I'm coming. Shikamaru will report the rest to Hokage-sama."

"Of course. I'll dispatch the messages immediately. We were on our way back to Konoha as it is... I'll try to come along as your back-up."

"Thank you, Tenzou," she repeated, speeding up again as he lowered the mask back over his face and disappeared along with his team. She landed into the open grasslands and sprinted through the tall grass, breathing hard.

'I used most of my chakra when I healed Sai,' she thought, adrenaline pumping furiously through her body, fueling her even when she minimized her chakra usage for enhanced running. 'I can go a little further, but I have to preserve it.'

Sakura watched the sun, her eyes following the giant red disk as it crept toward the horizon. 'It'll take me a full day longer before I reach the border between River and Konoha. I need to rest a little to recharge. In the end, I'll end up getting there faster.' Her reasoning was solid but she couldn't help but feel weak and useless when she dropped down in the grass and leaned against one of the surrounding trees, her head bumping hard against the bark. 'I'm coming for you, Naruto. I promise.'

Finding herself alone in the shrubs, Sakura wrapped her blue scarf closer around her face, not caring that she didn't need it in the warmer Fire Country. She inhaled deeply, the faint scent of embers calming her. Unable to stop herself from crying, she pressed the fabric to her eyes, letting it catch all of her tears. 'I failed, I failed, I failed, I failed,' she repeated to herself like a mantra. 'You were wrong, Itachi, I'm not suited to be a captain. Who makes rookie mistakes like this?'

'I trust you, Sakura-chan,' Naruto's voice ghosted in her mind.

'I'm going to be Hokage one day… then the whole village will acknowledge my existence!'

'Someone once asked me what a ninja was. My sensei told me that a ninja is one that endures.'

'He also told me… to never forget my comrades.'

"Naruto," she whispered, gritting her teeth as she tried to stop herself from crying. Her hands clenched into the soft fabric as she sobbed a little longer. 'As usual, you're quick to break into tears, Sakura-chan. Don't worry.'

She woke a couple of hours later, green eyes wide as she observed her environment. She exhaled, satisfied to feel her chakra had returned somewhat and stood from her place at the tree, brushing leaves and dirt from her skirt. Downing a couple sips of water, Sakura quickly started sprinting into the direction where Neji's team would be. 'I hope Tenzou got to them in time. Patrolling missions take a couple of days, especially when it's so far away from Konoha. They should still be there.'

The undulating green vista in front of her was netted with rivers that stretched to the lowlands on the western horizon. 'River,' she ascertained, noting a couple more familiar chakra sources patrolling around the vicinity. Fueling her steps even further, she sprinted, following the border of the River Country northward with certain desperation in her step. Last she sensed Naruto, he had gone near the giant chakra source she had sensed before but his chakra had vanished now. 'Two more days. He's not dead yet,' she said, convincing herself over and over. 'He has entered Rain and that chakra presence is muffling away all the other signatures.'

'This is suicide,' Inner Sakura warned her. 'Remember the last time you fought an Akatsuki member on your own? It ended with your death. You didn't accumulate enough chakra to pull that move again.'

She shook her head. 'For Naruto, I'll happily lay down my life.'

Sakura repeated the words in her head, finding them to sound truer and truer each time she did, effectively shushing the other voice in her head. The boy who she had once intensely disliked, who was annoying and good for nothing, the boy who had slowly stole her heart over their months together, who she loved like a younger brother… the boy who turned into a Chuunin and then Jounin alongside her. Even back during their Genin times, she wanted to protect his silly dream of becoming Hokage and he was so close now… 'I swore to protect you, Naruto. I knew what it meant being your captain in ANBU, I was prepared for everything. I'll get you back. I promise.'

Crossing from the grasslands into the wild, rolling moors and mist-shrouded forests that separated the Fire Country from Rain, Sakura stopped momentarily to find her bearings. Mist drifted lazily over the glassy lakes ahead and pooled on the forest floor, creeping across the dirt like a hesitant animal. A cool breeze slipped across, shifting the haze, brushing against Sakura's cheek like an exhaled breath. She stood completely still, feeling vaguely uncomfortable as the thick mists reminded her of her first mission against Momochi Zabuza and his deadly silent attacks. Ignoring the hair that stood up in her neck, she focused, scanning the environment in an attempt to pinpoint Neji's chakra.

A prickling sensation at the back of her head suddenly alerted her to something. Four chakra signatures she recognized were stalking her, moving around her like predators around prey. Holding up her hands, she called out, "It's Haruno Sakura. I'm in need of help."

A dog barked in return and she could hear Akamaru padding loudly through the moorlands before she could even see him. Following Akamaru, a tall ANBU member with long coffee-brown hair stepped out of the mist. "Neji," she greeted as the Hyuuga pulled his mask off. Behind him, two more figures appeared from the mist—their masked faces shrouded.

"We got a message you were coming," he said, pearl eyes focused on her. "What happened?"

"I lost Naruto on a mission in the Water Country. Akatsuki took him to Rain. I need to retrieve him," she explained quickly.

"Oi, oi, Sakura, that's suicide," Kiba's voice chimed in. He stepped forward, removing his dog-shaped porcelain mask. "Rain is impossible to get into."

"We must go," another voice spoke. As the mists cleared more and more, Sakura could almost peer through the silvery shroud. Through the thick foliage, she could see another member sitting there, wearing a green-lined mask that oddly reminded her of a praying mantis. "Why? Because Naruto is our comrade."

'That way of speaking… Shino?' she thought.

Focusing her eyes back on Neji, she took her mask off. "Neji… Keeping Naruto safe is top priority. It might be suicide, but allowing Akatsuki to use Naruto for whatever it is they're up to isn't an option. Even if you don't go, I will."

The third team member walked toward her from the mist. Long dark hair tied in a high ponytail and a mask she couldn't place staring at her briefly before the kunoichi turned to her captain. "We should go, Captain Hyuuga," she spoke, her high-pitched voice immediately giving her away as Tenten.

'They're all members of the Konoha Twelve,' she thought, strangely reassured.

"What happened to the rest of your team?" Neji spoke softly.

"Sai was with Naruto when he was attacked. Shikamaru and I were taking out another member. Shikamaru took Sai back to Konoha for further healing," she said. "I ran into Tenzou on the way here. He's going back to Konoha and might return as back-up if granted permission."

Neji shared a look with his team members and waited for a moment, thinking it all over. Just as he opened his mouth, another hawk swooped in, landing on his arm. Unwrapping the message from the bird's claw, Neji quickly glanced at it. Finally, he spoke. "Hokage-sama is sending replacements for us. Pack up. We're going to Rain."

Akamaru barked once more as Kiba walked up to him, petting him before mounting him. Sakura walked over to the dog and its tamer, holding out Naruto's ANBU mask. "This is Naruto's mask. It might be tainted by Sai's blood but you should be able to locate his scent from this," she handed the item to Kiba. "I lost track of him when he entered Rain."

Kiba nodded, grasping the mask and sniffing it himself before holding it out to Akamaru. "Let's just head towards where you last sensed him. We'll be able to pick him up there."

"Right," she said, smiling behind her mask in gratitude as Tenten, Shino and Neji joined them.

"Lead the way, Captain Haruno," Neji said softly, strapping his katana to his back. He activated his Byakugan and put his bird mask back in place. With a quick nod, she turned and sprinted to the last location she had sensed Naruto.

Seconds ticked on and turned into minutes, minutes into hours, before they reached the border. They had ended up on the cliffs at the very edge of the Fire Country, looking down onto the dark and rather empty country that stretched before them. Though the sky above the Fire Country was azure and the sun shone brightly, the sky above the Rain Country was looking like an impervious carpet of grey.

"Captain Hyuuga, can you see anything?" Sakura asked, looking over her shoulder. He walked up to her, silent for a moment as he perused the environment.

"It's raining," he said quietly. "Most of the land is empty, the only location I can detect with crowds is the hidden village up ahead," he said, pointing at some distant lights. Even through the thick haze, Sakura could see that the village shone with neon lights, giving the surrounding mists a variegated glow. "Akatsuki most likely has their base here, so I wouldn't be surprised if it was located in the middle of the village. It's the hardest place to reach."

"Makes sense," she answered.

Sakura glanced over her shoulder once. Shino, Tenten, Kiba… Neji. Was she leading all of them to their early deaths? She hesitated, not sure whether to tell them to go back home anyway and let her do this or to just go for it. Sakura caught Neji's expression then; he had taken his mask off and was staring at her with those impenetrable white eyes of his. He smiled an extremely brief smile, encouraging her ever so slightly. She nodded in return. "Let's go," she said.

"Yes!" the other four responded.

A knock on the door interrupted him. "Come in," Kakashi called out, his lazy eye never leaving Shikamaru.

The door opened and Tenzou stepped in, removing his mask immediately. Noticing Shikamaru there, Tenzou put a hand on his back. "Good to see you're okay, Nara," Tenzou said calmly, nodding in greeting. Shikamaru glanced back at him, bowing a little deeper.

"It's good to see you too, Captain."

A little reverently, Tenzou looked at the Sixth, who waited patiently. "The border is secured, Hokage-sama. Captain Inoue took over just after sunset," he said, bowing deeply.

"Good," Kakashi said, trimming his sole eye on Tenzou. "Captain Haruno?"

"I ran into her near the border. She was running out of chakra but otherwise unharmed," Tenzou continued, glancing at Shikamaru who sighed in relief. "I passed the Aviary before coming here. She's successfully met up with Captain Hyuuga and is on her way to Amegakure."

Kakashi nodded. Both Team Haruno and Team Hyuuga were placed in the Akatsuki division for a reason. If any of his current ANBU teams were able to pull of such a dangerous mission, it was them. "It'll be a delicate situation though," Tenzou continued. "We're not sure how much control Akatsuki holds in Rain. If discovered, they could treat this as a hostile action from the Leaf." Tenzou turned back to Shikamaru. "How is Sai?"

"Alive," Shikamaru said quietly. "Barely."

Both men turned their heads to Kakashi. The silver-haired Hokage laced his fingers together and leaned on his desk. There was no doubt in either of their minds that Kakashi would much rather be on the outside, helping his former students out than be stuck in the Hokage's Office. But, after Tsunade resigned, he had been the only person suitable for the role and Kakashi wouldn't be Kakashi if he ever ignored such a request from his village.

They knew the situation they were in was risky at best. If Tenzou were to follow, Kakashi might lose two of his best ANBU platoons. If Tenzou didn't act as back-up, Team Hyuuga's chances of survival would be significantly lower. Kakashi sighed. "Tenzou, prepare your team and head to Rain as back-up. Shikamaru, go with him," Kakashi said, his lone eye serious. "We'll need your strategic planning."

"Yes, Hokage-sama," both men said in unison, before disappearing in a puff of smoke.

The Sixth stood from his desk and walked out of his office. He climbed the stairs until he reached the roof and walked to the railing, inhaling the fresh, crisp air of Konoha's winter. Grasping the railing with his gloved hands, he looked over his hidden village.

Rin's smiling face came to mind, how she would blush whenever he looked at her and her warmth. Obito's crying face came to mind, how he would call Kakashi out whenever he was being a jerk and taught him about friendship. His sensei's calm face came to mind and Kakashi looked up to the mountain, inspecting it for a while longer. 'I wasn't able to save the three of you, but I'll make sure your son is safe, sensei.'

Heavy rain greeted them as they went up for air, the hidden village ahead of them still clouded with thick mist, the lights burning brightly behind the silvery fog. She gasped lightly, her eyes feasting on the sight in front of her.

The city was mostly comprised of oddly shaped sky-scrapers, reaching far into the perpetually darkened sky. It looked more modern than any of the other hidden villages she had ever seen and she couldn't help but stare in wonder at it as the rest of Team Hyuuga made their way out of the water, using chakra to balance themselves. "You don't see that every day," Kiba said, patting Akamaru as the great dog shook water from his fur.

"Akamaru is going to attract some attention if we go into town," Neji said, taking his mask off. "Best to transform him. The rest of you, take your masks off and hide your gear with your cloaks. I think it's best to infiltrate like we're regular visitors rather than shinobi."

"But this place is one of the most secluded villages… They won't buy that excuse easily," Tenten pointed out as she took off her mask.

"Visitors are rare, but they do come around," Sakura said simply. "They would be out of jobs if civilians didn't enter the city to ask for aid."

"Maybe they don't go out on regular missions like we do…" Kiba argued.

"Then where would their funds come from?" Sakura raised an eyebrow. "Even if Akatsuki is leading this show, they've got a whole village to take care of. They employ their members as bounty hunters now and then but there are plenty of normal Rain shinobi around too."

Neji nodded. "Shino, scout the environment for us and keep me posted on the happenings inside town. Kiba, can you pick up Naruto's scent?"

The Inuzuka clan member shook his head. "The rain is washing his scent away."

"I was afraid that would happen," Sakura sighed softly. Akamaru stood next to her, changed into a seemingly normal Inuzuka member that slightly resembled Kiba. She patted his head affectionately and glanced at Neji. "Let's move into town and see if they picked up on Naruto or Tobi."


They pulled their cloaks over their heads and made their way off the water. As they reached the city itself and clambered onto the pier, Sakura couldn't help but feel like they were being watched. She glanced around, but there was nothing but the ceaseless downpour. She probed the area for familiar chakra sources, but found none. "Let's go to that store over there," she whispered to Neji.

A steamed bun place loomed ahead of them, a tiny old woman sitting in the entrance, covered from the rain by the roof of the shop. She rocked back and forth in her chair, staring into the darkness up ahead. "Good afternoon," Neji greeted cordially as he walked up to the little lady. "I'd like one of the steamed buns please."

The old woman stared at Neji momentarily; distrust clear in her eyes as she continued to rock in her chair. Finally, she handed him one of the buns, keeping her eyes on him at all time. The woman looked at all of them, making Kiba fidget a little beside her with the intensity of her gaze. "I haven't seen your faces around here before." She leaned back. "You're not from here, are you?" It was more a statement than a question.

"I'm a writer," Tenten said, smiling brightly as she peered around Neji's shoulder. "These guys are my friends. We're traveling around a little to see other cities and countries and write about regional specialties."

As if to affirm what Tenten was saying, Neji took a bite of his steamed bun. The old lady looked a little impressed. "Oh, I see. So, what do you think of my pork buns?" she asked a little warily.

"They're good," Neji said, clearly forcing himself to smile.

Tenten picked the bun from his hands and took a bite herself. "Oh, just like the rumors said, this is incredible." Sakura had to give her props when Tenten produces a notepad out of seemingly nowhere and jolted some things down. The old lady began to smile enthusiastically. "We might just write about these in the magazine!"

'I've got to hand it to them, perhaps it was all the years of working with Gai and Lee, but they really know how to work this little act,' Sakura thought, watching them closely. 'They know exactly how to pull this off.'

Faintly, she wondered if she was the same with Naruto, before shrugging it off. Thinking about it now would only cause her more pain. She needed to keep her eyes open. 'I'm close now, Naruto. I'm coming.'

"This place sure is peaceful," Kiba spoke, observing the environment.

"Right?" the lady said, eyes twinkling. "This village is no longer suffering, all thanks to Pein-sama." She folded her hands together as if in prayer. "All praise to him."

The name sent a wave of shock through all five of them, but Neji recuperated quickly enough. "Pein?"

"Yes," the lady said, her tone almost strict. "Pein-sama."

"Whatever happened to Hanzou of the Salamander?" Neji asked. It was a question burning on all their minds. They had known Akatsuki to have their base of operations set here, but for normal civilians to even know Akatsuki's leader's name… it was unheard of.

"Huh?" the lady said, as if not understanding.

Neji leaned in closer to say it again but stopped mid-pace, turning around. The four around him turned also to find the bystanders were all watching them suspiciously, almost angrily. "Thank you for the buns, sorry for bothering you," Tenten said, smiling brightly as she grabbed Neji's sleeve and pulled him with her. Sakura, Shino and Kiba quickly followed as they rushed around a corner, away from the onlooker's apprehensive glowers.

"Not very helpful," Neji gestured in sign-language as they walked past more people.

"Still, we know Akatsuki truly runs this show now. It seems Hanzou is disposed of or taboo to talk about at the very least," Sakura motioned back.

"Guys," Kiba called out, causing them to look over their shoulders. He stood next to a small Japanese style café, which painfully reminded her of the cafes Itachi used to frequent. The smell of green tea and freshly made sweets was always one of his favorites. Her heart clenched inside her chest as she closed the distance between her and Kiba to inspect what he was so curious about.

A small paper origami figure formed like an angel hung from the side of the store, moving gently in the wind. She touched it with the tips of her fingers and looked inside the store, beckoning one of the waitresses. "Can I ask you something?" she said sweetly.

"Of course," the girl replied.

"What exactly is this?"

"Oh, she's our lady Angel. Don't you know about her? There's a rumor that says if you place an origami of her in front of your shop, you'll have good fortune."

'The unconfirmed Akatsuki member was nicknamed Lady Angel…' she thought, shocked. 'What is going on here? Instead of a divided country, we find it's unified… and what's more, it seems like Akatsuki is revered here, instead of hated?'

"Is she the leader of this town?" she asked curiously.

"Oh, you must not be from around here," the girl replied with a smile. "Pein-sama is our leader."

"Didn't it used to be Hanzou of the Sala—"

The girl put her finger on Sakura's mouth to silence her, looking around the perimeter to make sure nobody heard. "Don't talk about such things here! You'll get yourself killed if they think you're one of Hanzou's comrades," she said, lowering her voice.

"Oh, that sounds dangerous," Kiba said, feigning surprise.

"Our new leader, Pein-sama, is very strict. He won't show mercy to anyone he's suspicious of. At least, that's what I've heard from my boyfriend. He's a Genin in this village." She smiled, looking up at the dreary sky from under the roof. "According to him, the rain is falling because of Pein-sama's technique. With that technique, he's able to sense what everyone's doing." The girl pointed up at highest tower in the village. "They say that's Pein-sama's tower. He watches over us from there."

From behind her, she could tell Neji and Shino, who still stood in the rain, had tensed. She glanced over her shoulder, pretending to be impressed and noticed how Neji was hiding his face from anyone walking by—probably using Byakugan to scout the environment. They stood perfectly still, but if what the girl was saying was true, Pein might already know they were there. All kinds of colorful profanities crossed her mind, but she grabbed the girls hand and shook it. "Thank you," she said.

The girl retreated back into the shop and the two men walked until they were sheltered from the rain. "So, he's already watching us?" Tenten said apprehensively.

"He might know we're here but he's not watching us," Shino's soft voice sounded. "Why do I know that? He hasn't come for us yet."

"It's most likely a jutsu to handle intruders," Sakura said, looking up to the dark clouds, shying away from the downpour as lightning flashed, followed swiftly by the rolling sound of thunder. "Hence why it's so secluded. He just kills anyone that enters without permission."

"Now what? We can't just hide under here forever," Tenten said softly.

"We're going to keep on walking. Shino, are you still scouting the area?" Neji said.

"Yes Captain," Shino replied. "Nothing strange yet."

"Pein's tower huh?" Neji said, eyeing the colossal tower in front of them. The veins next to his eyes puffed up and he pulled his hood farther over his face to cover himself, searching for something. His eyes widened slightly and he stepped forward, as if that could improve his vision somehow. "I see him."

"Naruto?" Sakura asked, grasping his sleeve.

Neji nodded calmly. "They haven't started sealing him yet. He's in a room high up inside the tower."

"Is he okay?" she asked breathlessly, wishing she could see what he did.

"He's alive," Neji answered. His eyes moved down a little. "Shinobi are guarding the tower's base." Pearl-colored eyes move upward. "… Pein is on the top floor, looking down at the city. There's another member standing beside him. Female. Blue hair."

"Lady Angel," Tenten said softly.

"Pein… Just one of his bodies?" Sakura questioned.

"Seems so."

"Which one is it?"

"Reasonably tall, six piercings through the nose, seven in the ear, two through his lip," Neji recited. He ended the jutsu, glancing at her. "It's the one Itachi supposedly sealed after winning the fight."

She hated the way he said 'supposedly'; just like everyone else, Neji believed Uchiha Itachi to be a traitor. Sakura closed her eyes briefly, biting down what she wanted to say to the Hyuuga, knowing that from his perspective, Uchiha Itachi was a heartless traitor. "So this one is able to push and pull using himself as a center of gravity."

"We're not going to be able to win that one," Kiba said calmly. She glanced over her shoulder at the Inuzuka clan member who stood there, quiet determination in his eyes. "The Sixth and Jiraiya could barely handle them."

'Itachi was there too, you know.'

"Kiba is right," she admitted reluctantly, thinking back to the Pein that ruthlessly jammed a rod through her chest. "But we're going to have to retrieve Naruto from that tower, one way or another."

"How about a distraction move?" Shino said quietly.

Four pairs of eyes concentrated on the silent member of Team Hyuuga. "Pein and the Angel are onto us, if the girl is correct. If we split into a diversion team and a rescue team, they will have to leave the tower. It will make it easier for us to rescue Naruto."

"But the diversion team would be at great risk…" Tenten said weakly.

"In a shinobi's life, there are things we have to make sacrifices for," Shino said softly. "If the Nine-Tails is extracted, Akatsuki will only have the Seven-Tailed beast left before they're finished. It'll unchain a world war."

"Shino… I've never heard you talk so much," Kiba said wryly. "Surprisingly… you're right."

"No," Sakura interjected. "Absolutely not."

"Sakura," Neji spoke calmly. He gazed at every single member of his team. "This is my team. Since joining the Akatsuki division, we've all been prepared for the worst. This isn't about a life or two anymore. This is about the world."

She remained silent as his white eyes focused on her. "We're also Naruto's comrades," Neji said softly, Kiba and Tenten beside him nodded. "And we're all Konoha shinobi."

Sakura felt like she was going to be sick. She wanted to volunteer for the division team, wanted to take responsibility for losing Naruto during her mission, but she was the only medic in the team. She was needed on the sidelines now and had to stay away from danger. 'I hate being in this position.'

"Right. Shino, Tenten, you're coming with me as the diversion team," Neji spoke calmly. "Kiba, you take Akamaru and go with Sakura."

They nodded dutifully. "What happens when the rescue is complete?" Kiba asked.

"I'll keep an eye on you," Neji said. "Once you're out of the tower and out of danger, we'll follow you back to Konoha."

Sakura found herself unable to swallow the lump in her throat. This was a shinobi's life, Shino was right about that. Sacrifice was sometimes part of the game—sometimes, it needed to be done for the greater good. But she simply couldn't walk away. They stared at her, smiling and gentle as if saying goodbye already. "Please… Come back alive," Sakura said, her voice breaking.

"You got it!" Tenten replied, giving her a thumbs up, a blush staining her cheeks.

"Of course," Shino said simply.

"We'll see you soon," Neji raised his hand in a farewell.

The three disappeared, leaving her, Kiba, and a transformed Akamaru. Kiba grasped her shoulder affectionately, giving her a toothy grin. "Nej—Captain Hyuuga and the others aren't going to die so easily, Captain Haruno," his grin faded. "They're going to be fine."

Somehow, she knew Kiba wasn't as confident as he made himself out to be. She inhaled deeply and looked around. "We should make our way to the tower."

Following Kiba's nose and hunter instincts, Sakura trailed behind him as he stealthily made his way to the looming building, but she couldn't help but be momentarily distracted as a man walked past her. He was a little taller than her with long raven hair tied in a low ponytail. Her breathing hitched and her heart pounded loudly inside her chest as she took another step. 'Itachi, is that you?' she thought, her fingers immediately shooting up to the necklace she wore around her neck.

The man turned around the corner and from his profile, Sakura realized with devastating certainty it wasn't him. 'Not him,' she repeated over and over in her head. She felt even colder inside. 'Not him.'

"Four at the entrance," Kiba signaled to her, pointing up at a hole in the tower, thirteen meters off the ground. "That entryway is not guarded though."

They sneaked past some guards and used their chakra to rush up the wall into the hole. The inside of the tower looked like it was mostly comprised of pipes and empty chambers, Sakura noted, before a huge explosion drew her attention. Bewildered, she turned around to see a large plume of smoke coming from the other side of town.

"They've started their attack," Kiba said, sniffing the air experimentally. "This way, Captain."

With one last glance over her shoulder, Sakura followed Kiba as he began to approach the staircase, transforming Akamaru back into his usual dog shape. Kiba followed Akamaru up the stairs quickly, beckoning for Sakura to follow him. Having no other choice but to rely on his canine instincts, Sakura kept a close watch on their backs, making sure they wouldn't be taken off guard.

Wrapping her scarf closely around her face, she took off the cloak, stowing it in her backpack while rushing after Kiba. He dashed up flight after flight of stairs, stopping from time to time to let someone pass them by before continuing.

As they continued upward, the lights began to become dimmer and dimmer, darkness slowly washing over them. She probed the vicinity now and then, finding Neji and his team very much alive and Pein's distinctive chakra near them, alongside another chakra source she couldn't quite recognize. "Captain Hyuuga and the others are still alive," she informed Kiba softly.

The ANBU looked slightly relieved as he petted Akamaru distractedly. "From here on out, it'll be a maze," Kiba said, pointing up to the last stairs. "Naruto's scent is all over the place. He's definitely here."

"Lead the way, Kiba," Sakura said, trying to sense if she could feel Naruto anywhere. No luck, again. 'His chakra must be almost completely drained…'

Kiba rushed up the last flight of stairs, searching momentarily and followed Akamaru when the great dog went ahead of him. Sakura followed swiftly, a kunai drawn in her hand. Just as she began to think the upper side of the tower was abandoned, a shinobi appeared out of nowhere, stunned for a brief moment to find them there, before reaching for a weapon.

Sakura's training kicked in as she dashed past Kiba, avoiding the incoming kicks from the Rain ninja. Turning all of her emotions off, she hit him right in his heart with her kunai and he dropped to his knees, blood slowly streaming from his lips before keeling over and dropping to the cold floor. 'Sorry,' she thought, looking over her shoulder. Kiba stood there, admiring her for a brief moment, before continuing the task of locating Naruto.

They rushed through several more hallways, Akamaru leading the way. Luckily, most of the tower seemed to be completely empty. 'Is Pein keeping shinobi away from this place for a reason?' she contemplated momentarily.

"Here!" Kiba called out. They sprinted through the last corridor and Akamaru rammed through a door on their left, followed closely by Sakura and Kiba.

The room was circular; pipe lines the only decoration in the dimly lit room. In the middle of it was Naruto, lying on his back. He was unconscious, but that wasn't what worried her. Something dark moved in the room and when she squinted, Sakura noticed red clouds coming into view, billowing with each step.

Zetsu came into view, a grin on the white part of his face—the dark side of it was still hidden in shadows. Sharp teeth greeted her as his golden eyes roved over both her and Kiba momentarily. "Hello!" the lighter voice called out enthusiastically. "Leader! We have company!"

Momentarily stunned, she watched as he split right through the middle, the black side regarding her before it sunk into the floor. 'He's going to warn Pein!' Inner Sakura roared. 'Move, Sakura! Move!'

Amassing all her chakra to her hands, Sakura punched the floor, causing the room to shake and collapse under their feet. Utilizing her speed to the fullest, she dashed forward, grabbing Naruto and slinging him over her shoulder. She ignored Zetsu, knowing he was a spy first before a fighter and left the room, following Kiba as he sped down the stairs with Akamaru.

"Kiba!" she called out, noticing the shinobi that started to rush into the tower. The dog tamer stopped in his tracks and turned around just as Sakura punched a large hole into the wall. Inhaling the heavy rain-laden scent, Sakura jumped from the tower. She bit her thumb hard enough to draw blood and quickly made some hand seals.

'The stealthy part of this mission is over,' she thought with an odd sense of mirth as the great slug Katsuyu appeared under her, cushioning her and Kiba's fall. "Katsuyu!" she called out loud.

"Yes, Sakura-sama?" the slug's eyestalks swiveled in her direction. "Where are we?"

"Hidden Village of Rain. There's no time to explain," Sakura said hastily. "I need you to take Naruto and Kiba and bring them to the Shikkotsu Forest. Return after that to get Captain Hyuuga, Tenten and Shino further up ahead and bring them to safety. They're one kilometer in that direction," she said, pointing. "When you've got them all, take them all to Konoha."

"Yes, Sakura," Katsuyu replied in her wispy, soft voice.

"What about you?" Kiba called out from behind her.

"It'll take a while for Katsuyu to collect all of you and reverse summon herself," Sakura said, standing up. She smiled as a smaller version of Katsuyu formed on the slug's back and attached itself to Naruto. "I'm going to distract Pein with a fake."

"Sakura, that's suicide!" Kiba said, his eyes wild.

"No more than what Neji and the others just did," Sakura shot back. "This is an order Kiba, follow it. Stay with Katsuyu and protect Naruto in my stead."

Forming a few more hand seals, Sakura make a shadow clone of herself, thankful that Naruto had shared his favorite technique with her. Promptly, she transformed it into a perfect copy of Naruto and slung it over her shoulder. "Go!" she called out, jumping off the slug into the direction that would lead her out of Rain again.

Smashing up parts of the street and several buildings as she went, she attempted to draw Pein's attention, satisfied to feel he was moving away from Neji's group. The pandemonium at the tower and Zetsu had most likely alerted him even before she started her punching spree and she smiled with satisfaction when she felt Kiba's chakra leave the perimeter. 'Naruto is safe,' she thought, exhaling as she fuelled her steps even further with her chakra.

Just as she left the sprawling sky-scrapers behind her, Sakura felt Katsuyu return to take Neji's team with her. 'Mission accomplished,' she thought, rushing through the gates, past the Rain shinobi guarding it. She ignored them as they called out to her, kunai and shuriken flying all around her. Sakura turned, avoiding all of them before coming to a complete halt, her hands flying to form seals. Using the strongest genjutsu Itachi had taught her before leaving, she captured the minds of the five ninja pursuing her, satisfied to see it worked.

The feeling of asphyxiation overwhelmed her just as she turned around, forcing her to frantically gulp for sweet relief. Looking up at the sky, she noticed the rain had stopped and a paper butterfly circled around her. Somewhere, Pein had homed in on her and was moving towards her with dazzling speed. She felt his all-encompassing chakra like an iron hand around her neck and hopelessness gnawed at her insides. Breathing heavily, she started to push herself beyond all endurance, sprinting away from the rainy city, away from Pein's cruel eyes and the killing intent that followed her.

Using a kunai, she quickly disposed of the paper butterfly, knowing Pein's 'Lady Angel' was tracking her with it. Frantically, her mind went over the options she had. Fighting him wasn't one of them. The last time she tried to fight him one-on-one, it had ended up with her dying. She was running out of chakra too. Hiding wouldn't help. The man could make it rain and track her movements with it—it was over.

'I'm sorry Kimimaro. At the very end, I was only able to live a little longer,' she thought. 'At least I honored your wish. Naruto is safe.'

Her chakra was almost completely depleted. She just had enough for a few chakra enhanced taijutsu moves. Praying it would be enough, Sakura stopped in her tracks and turned around to face the distant capital of the unknown country. 'Itachi…'

Just as she raised her face to the skies, the first drop of rain hit her face. Surprised, she looked up to the dark clouds, rain beginning to pelt down again. 'Did he lose my trail?' she thought confusedly. 'No, that's not possible. He was so close to me…' Probing the vicinity, she realized the overwhelming chakra that belonged to Pein had disappeared.

'Either he lost me… Or he isn't worried about me getting away…' Sakura thought, raising an eyebrow. 'He's got someone waiting for me... Tobi?'

The gruesome sight of Sai's injury and the blood-stained floor came back to mind and Sakura suppressed a shudder. Calmly, she turned around and started walking again into the direction she was headed, determined to put as much distance between her and the Akatsuki leader as possible.

It didn't take long for her to find Pein's last sentinel.

He stood in the middle of the road, Akatsuki cloak billowing with every breeze that passed, seemingly unaffected by the ceaseless rain. Her breathing hitched as she took another step closer, her foot landing in a puddle of water. It drew his attention and he looked over his shoulder. Even through the haze, Sakura could clearly see his crimson eyes burning.

"Tell me, Itachi, what was your second dream?" Sakura asked, smiling through her tears.

A/N: I have a ridiculous fondness for Amegakure. I love how the skyscrapers and the industrial look works and at the same time, look completely out of place for a series like Naruto! :)

Something I've been dying to get off my chest is how much writing means to me, really. I wrote the Metamorphosis trilogy during a really rough time of mine in which I experienced loss like I never had before… Twilight when I needed to feel and write about strength to continue… and the list continues. Every fiction I write has a piece of me in it—Equinox has a piece of the loneliness I've felt for a while and the resulting hope that stemmed from someone loving me, if only for a short while. So because of that, I sincerely want to thank you all for reviewing and liking this story, because it means my feelings reached you and perhaps resonated with you. If so, my job is done and I hope you'll find hope in this story.

I know the story might be different than what you anticipated it to be like when we first started out (god knows, it is for me), but the keyword for Equinox is and will always be "hope." Sun sets but there will always be a dawn.

On another note, I tried to give my old hands a little challenge and made an illustration of chapter 8 (yes, the naughty part!) It's over at my DevArt account if you'd like to see it! The link to my DevArt account can be found in my profile!

Again, thank you all for reading. All your feedback and sweet words are immensely appreciated. See you next time!

Mitsuki Shiroi