Equinox – an Itachi & Sakura story
By: MitsukiShiroi

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


Chapter XVII

Love, it will not betray, dismay or enslave you, it will set you free.
Be more like the man you were made to be.

- Mumford and Son's "Sigh no more".

Locking the door to her home, Haruno Sakura inhaled the crisp scent of the morning's wintry air. Clouds scuttled across the sky and the sun broke through in bursts as she made her way to the crowded main street. The pale winter sky overhead presaged snow and her thoughts drifted to the ceremony she was about to attend. Time to promote another batch of promising Chuunin to the rank of Jounin.

She smiled brightly to those who stopped in their tracks to greet her and put her ceremonial hat on. Sakura briskly made her way to her office, waving briefly at Ino as the blonde called out to her from her flower shop.

As she passed the Academy, Sakura stopped by Iruka, who sat in the courtyard, working with the newest students. Amongst the group was a dark-haired, boisterous boy who ran up to her. "Hokage-sama! One day, I'll come to take your place!" He proclaimed, much to the amusement of his fellow students. He blushed furiously but kept his eyes on her, challenging her.

Sakura laughed softly. "I think you're going to have to fight over the title of Eighth with Naruto there," she said, pointing at the blond as he reached the courtyard, his nose scrunched up. Her former team mate stared at the young boy in mock anger and crouched down beside him.

"You're Asuma's kid, aren't you?" Naruto said, raising an eyebrow.

"You're my rival!" the Sarutobi boy declared, pointing at Naruto.

"Kid, you have no idea how many people have said that to me," Naruto said, breaking into a large grin. He straightened himself and ruffled the boy's head before turning to her. "Good morning, Hokage-sama."

"Morning, Naruto," she said sweetly. She glanced up at Iruka, noting the first signs of aging lining his face and a streak of grey near his temples. The Chuunin teacher was nearing his fourth decade, she realized with some shock. It had been little more than twenty years ago that he had first introduced himself to her as their new Academy teacher. 'Time truly flies,' Sakura thought with a wistful smile.

"Iruka, are you happy with what you do?" She asked, watching as the children continued to run around the field.

"Yes, Hokage-sama," Iruka said with a smile. "I firmly believe in the 'Will of Fire' and I still find joy in passing that wisdom on to the next generations."

"I'm glad to hear that," Sakura said, looking at him from the corner of her eye. "I always enjoyed your classes."

"High praise, Hokage-sama," Iruka blushed, scratching the back of his head.

"You're lighting up like a bonfire, Iruka-sensei," Naruto said teasingly, belting out a hearty laugh. Iruka raised his fist in mock anger, causing Naruto to flinch and hold up his hands in a pacifying gesture, though the laughter didn't leave his face. He focused his electric blue eyes on Sakura. "They're waiting, Hokage-sama."

"Right," Sakura said, walking to him. "Good luck with the next generation, Iruka," she said, smiling as they walked off.

"Asuma's kid sure is loud though," Naruto said, grinning as they walked to the Hokage Tower. Sakura laughed as she listened to him rattle on about the energetic boy, reminded of another loud child that was once her classmate. Looking up at the twenty-nine year old man he had become, it was hard to imagine she had once disliked him and thought he was nothing more than a pest. "… Though he reminds me of myself," Naruto concluded his lengthy tirade, eliciting another laugh from his Hokage.

Climbing the staircase that circled around the administration building, Sakura looked up at the rebuilt village. It had been six years since Akatsuki's final attack and rebuilding the village to restore it to its former glory had been an arduous undertaking. The village had been returned to its beautiful self—if a little changed. A square had been made in the exact location where Pein's attack had started to commemorate those lost in the onslaught.

She found herself there often, knowing that was the place she had last seen Itachi. Several benches had been placed and flowers were planted all over the square, courtesy of Yamanaka Flowers. Sakura loved spending time there, watching people as they passed by and the children that played there without a care in the world.

Somehow, she felt closer to Itachi just being there.

Inside, the rest of Team Uzumaki awaited them. Sai and Sasuke were talking quietly to each other and nodded respectfully as Sakura entered the building. Sakura glanced at the last Uchiha for a moment, not having seen him for a while and greeted both men in return. As she entered her office, Sakura first saw the pile of paperwork that awaited her and sighed heavily.

"So, any missions for us today?" Naruto asked as he pocketed his hands. She held up her hand to pacify him for the time being and sifted through the mission list, checking whether there was anything suitable for them to do.

"A-Class mission," Sakura said, holding up the scroll. "It's near the border of Lightning. The Raikage has been increasing his military strength for a while now, as if preparing for war. Follow the instructions," Sakura leaned back in her chair. "Bring Ino with you. She'll be able to help infiltrate and work as a medic if you need her."

"Yes, Hokage-sama," Naruto replied, excitement lighting his eyes.

"Be careful," she said to her favorite team just before they vanished from her office.

Sighing, Sakura leaned back in her chair and turned slightly, looking over the village. Gently stroking one of the three silver rings of Itachi's old necklace, Sakura leaned back, waiting to be picked up for the ceremony. She loved quiet little moments like these—over the years, her new function had kept her so busy there was hardly time to breathe, much less relax.

Sensing a shinobi walking up to the door, Sakura reopened her eyes and sat up straight. Her moment of respite had ended.

"Six new Jounin," Kotetsu nodded with satisfaction. "They're skilled too."

"I can't believe Konohamaru made Jounin," Sakura said, laughing silently. "I remember when he was just this little kid who could barely manage to camouflage himself, not even a Genin yet."

"Time does fly," Izumo added, shifting the papers he held in his hands.

"I remember when the two of you were strapping young men," Sakura teased her aides, laughing as Izumo blushed furiously. His hair had recently started to grey a little and Izumo had been the butt of Kotetsu's old man jokes for the better part of the last few months. As the other man beside her laughed, Sakura raised an eyebrow. "Are you sure you should be laughing? As I recall, you're almost half a year older!"

"Ha!" Izumo said, glad she picked his side.

"That may be so, Hokage-sama," Kotetsu said, amusement twinkling in his onyx eyes. "But I'm not greying just yet."

"Just you wait," Izumo muttered.

Sakura giggled softly as they entered the administration building again. Leaving Kotetsu and Izumo with their duties, the roseate Hokage calmly strode back to her office, intending on passing by the Cryptology office on her way back. Peering inside, Sakura could make out Shiho's form.

The blonde woman was toying with her glasses, blushing furiously as she smiled at someone she couldn't see. Just as Sakura was about to enter, Shikamaru took a couple of steps closer, closing the distance. He sat down on her desk and extended one hand to touch her face, stroking a thumb over her cheek. Shiho simply looked up, completely and utterly under his spell as her mouth fell open. Shikamaru slowly leaned forward to kiss her.

As quietly as she could, Sakura moved from the scene, feeling she'd intruded on something that wasn't meant for her eyes. She straightened her clothes and strutted from the office, determined to return later on for her documents. Though she smiled, Sakura couldn't shake off the pang she felt as yet another one of her former teammates found happiness with someone else.

She should've been one of them, happy to have found the man she wanted to spend the rest of her life with. Halting in one of the darker hallways of the building, Sakura leaned against one of the walls, allowing memories to overtake her for only a brief moment.

Seven years had passed since he'd defected from Konoha after making love to her. Two thousand three-hundred and seventy-four days since he'd passed from this world and left her. It was like an invisible clock in her head kept ticking, a daily reminder of the man she had lost.

Sometimes, she worried she was forgetting the sound of his voice. It only took a moment of digging to bring back all the memories she had tried so hard to store away. From the deep, sweet tone of his voice to his calloused fingers and heated kisses and his overwhelming, heady scent.

Looking out of one of the windows, Sakura could see the Uchiha Square, as they had so aptly dubbed it—the place where she had been forced to leave Itachi's body.

There was a part of her, tiny as it may be, that still hoped. The light that Itachi had kindled still flickered inside Sakura's chest, no matter how hard she tried to stomp it out. The images of Konoha's destruction were still crisp in her memory. Kakashi's last smirk, the enormous, ragged hole torn in Shikaku's chest, and Jiraiya's severed limbs. She had stood amid the carnage, screaming at Itachi for abandoning them, at Kakashi for leaving her behind.

And still, she hoped.

It was like a small rodent, cowering in the corner of her mind, frightened by anger, grief and despair. Yet every time she tried to grab hold of it, hope slipped to another part of her heart. It reminded her over and over of a simple fact; Itachi's body had never been found. There was a tiny part of her that still waited for Itachi to one day show up and take her into his arms as he always did.

Her mind knew better though.

Pushing herself away from the wall, Sakura trudged to her office and closed the door behind her, falling into her chair. Had she not kindled that fire, that sliver of hope, Sakura might've given into Naruto's advances before he'd finally ceased his attempts. She smiled bitterly. Perhaps she would've even given into Sasuke just to smell that same scent and see those same midnight blue eyes burn into her.

He was an Uchiha she was sure would never leave. Not after her covering for him simply to protect him. Over the years, Sasuke had warmed to her, going out for drinks now and then. He had grown to be a true member of Team Uzumaki and Sakura was happy for him. 'At least some of your dreams came true, Itachi,' she thought, just as a knock sounded.

"Come in," Sakura called out, depositing her hat on her desk.

Shikamaru walked in, a grin lighting his face. "Hokage-sama," he greeted.

"Shikamaru," Sakura answered warmly. "What can I do for you?"

"I just wanted to inform you that we've received a message from Mist. They're readying for the final round of the Chuunin exams and would like to know when you'll be arriving. The exams are a week from now," Shikamaru said.

"Naruto and his team should be returning tomorrow evening," Sakura said, counting days. "I'll be departing for Mist the day after tomorrow."

"Yes, Hokage-sama," Shikamaru said with a smile. "Are you taking anyone else, or just Team Uzumaki?"

"I don't think I'll need more protection," Sakura said with a frown as she dug through various scrolls to find one warning her of a mysterious plague running amok in one of the neighboring villages. Tapping her fingers on the desk, Sakura read through the report once more while Shikamaru stood by. "On second thought, inform them I'll be arriving in five days from now. This plague has got me worried and I'd like to investigate it."

"Will it be dangerous?" Shikamaru said, raising an eyebrow as he grabbed the scroll, reading through it quickly.

"Dangerous, no," Sakura said confidently. "However, I'd like to check it out anyway. I have a bad feeling about this."

"Of course, Hokage-sama." Shikamaru cocked his head slightly and observed her for a moment longer, intelligent eyes roaming over her face, as if searching for something.

"Spit it out, Shikamaru," Sakura said amusedly.

"You look tired," he said, a tiny fragment of worry lacing his voice.

"I feel tired," she said truthfully. "That's why I think this little expedition might do me some good. Work here keeps piling up and that's fine, of course, but I've been doing more writing than using my abilities for the past couple of years."

"Going out there and using your medical abilities will help," Shikamaru said.

"I trust you to do a good job while I'm out," Sakura joked.

"Come back soon," Shikamaru said, faking despondency.

"Come to think of it, I might just take some extra days off." Unable to hide her mirth, Sakura chuckled softly as Shikamaru buried his hands in his hair. He had stopped wearing a ponytail a while ago, letting his long hair pool around his shoulders in a half-ponytail. "I thought you liked doing nothing."

Shikamaru laughed heartily as he turned to walk out the door. "I prefer you doing the hard work, Hokage-sama," he teased, raising his hand in a wave before disappearing through the door.

"Reporting to you is kind of hard if you're not in your office," Naruto's deep voice disturbed her from her reverie. Smiling, Sakura looked up as he sat down beside her, overlooking the village from her place on top of her carved head. The blond elbowed her gently and took his mask off, stretching his long legs as they dangled over the rocky surface.

"If you noticed, it's after business hours," she said, punctuating her remark with a wave to the dark night sky. She tittered as Naruto rolled his eyes. "Watch it, I'm Hokage. You can't just be rude to me."

"Is that a threat?" Naruto asked, elbowing her once more.

"Elbow me again and I'll be happy to show you how threatening I am," Sakura warned with a smile.

Holding up his hands, Naruto laid down on the solid rock. "I give up."

"So, how was the mission?" Sakura asked, handing him her flask of water.

He sipped from it. "It went well. Nothing out of the ordinary to mention, although that rarely says anything… We didn't get any action though."

Sakura looked over her shoulder at the smiling blond. "The three of you have seen enough action. I'm surprised Ino didn't drive you to the brink of insanity though."

"About that," Naruto said seriously, sitting upright as he grabbed her shoulders and looked her in the eye. "Please, don't ever put her on our team again. She was all over Sai while we were making camp and I swear I've never seen Sasuke as grouchy as I did then."

Sakura laughed hard. "Ah, to be young and in love," she said, looking up at the stars.

Naruto didn't respond to what she said, but simply wrapped his arm around her shoulders and pulled her in close for a half hug. "So, I heard we're off again tomorrow, but this time, we'll be accompanying you?" he asked, voice husky in her ear.

"Chuunin Exams in Mist," Sakura explained. "There's a village I want to stop by though. Did you read about Nagano?"

"The plague village?" Naruto asked. "We're stopping there?"

"Yes," she replied. "I want to see what is going on there. The villagers started to get sick one by one. It doesn't seem like a coincidence anymore but if it were a normal plague, I assume it would spread to other villages. So far, it's been contained. Something seems off about this whole thing."

"Follow your instincts," Naruto said, standing from his place. He gave her a quick kiss on her forehead and stretched. "I'm going to get some sleep, if you don't mind. What time are we assembling tomorrow? I'll have to pick up the bastard and the pale bastard."

Sakura chuckled. "Nine, at the Main Gate."

"Yes, Hokage-sama," he said, saluting before disappearing into the night.

As they assembled the next day in front of the large, imposing gates, Sakura took a moment to look back at the mountain. The only area not presently illuminated by the sun towered over the south side of town, the monolith's majestic tops providing stark contrast for a cloudless azure sky.

The morning air was cool and Sakura was grateful for her midnight colored scarf, pulling it closer to her as they awaited Sai's arrival. Faintly wishing she still had the one Itachi had left, Sakura admired the scarf's dark color as it billowed with every passing breeze. Listening in on Sasuke and Naruto's incessant bickering, Sakura closed her eyes for a moment, feeling completely at ease.

Reopening her eyes, Sakura noticed Sasuke was staring at her. Dark blue eyes swept over her momentarily, calculating and yet filled with a hint of kindness. He flashed a tiny smile and looked away again when she raised an eyebrow. Sai joined them shortly after, apologizing profusely for his tardiness. He flashed his ridiculous, fake smile when Naruto called him a liar and simply followed them as they walked out the main gate into the grasslands and forests beyond.

'How long has it been since I last left?' Sakura thought, using her chakra to the fullest as they sprinted through the forest that surrounded her beloved village. 'Nine months? Perhaps even a year?'

As much as she loved being the pillar that held Konoha together, to protect and serve her village, the outside world beckoned for her to come. She missed grass between her toes, tickling her as she attempted to sleep under the bare sky. She missed the bonfires and the jokes and anecdotes she would share with Naruto and the others. Never in a million years had she expected herself to end up Hokage and secluded from the rest of the world.

Even now, it felt like a dream.

The road to Nagano climbed into a forest to twist along the top of a broad river gorge. The ice laden boughs of fir trees gradually closed in on their left, the rush of the river followed them on the right. Behind her, Naruto complained about the cold weather and Sakura couldn't help but smile.

'There are some things that will never change,' she thought, briefly reminded of her first missions in ANBU. Itachi had led them through the icy forests of the Water Country, in search of Akatsuki members. Even then, Naruto had complained about the cold temperatures and had sworn never to go out on a mission to the Water Country during winter again.

Ironically, he had been sent out each year for at least one mission to the cold country.

Closing her eyes, Sakura saw Itachi's form in front of her, contrasting starkly against the bleak wintry landscape. He had been worlds away to her then—the legendary ANBU Captain. Not even the cold fazed him; a simple scarf enough to protect him from the frigid breezes. 'I miss you,' she thought, as she looked up to the first flakes of snow falling down around them, dancing on the wind.

Shadowed buildings loomed in the night around her. Nagano was surrounded by several lakes, their glassy surfaces reflecting the curling and coiling mists that seemed to linger around the town. A single lantern hung by the city gates, the guard simply stared up at them lifelessly as they approached.

"I'm Haruno Sakura," the roseate kunoichi announced. "I was informed there is an illness plaguing this town?"

"Ah," the man said, a spark of recognition in his eyes. "The Seventh Hokage. We've been expecting you." He gave a weary, three-toothed smile. "You're needed at the hospital, Ma'am."

Sakura crouched down beside the man. "Hold still."

He obeyed her order and watched with detached fascination as green chakra lit under her fingers, probing him and searching him for whatever ailed him. Frowning, Sakura increased her chakra and furthered her search, finding absolutely nothing. "How long have you been sick?"

"Three days, Ma'am," the man answered.

"And your symptoms?"

"My hands, feet and mouth go numb from time to time… And my vision gets discombobulated," the man answered, fear touching his voice though he tried hard to keep it out.

"Come to the hospital after your shift," Sakura instructed. "I'll take a better look."

"Yes Ma'am."

Glancing at the three men behind her, Naruto nodded and gave a quick signal. Immediately, Sai and Sasuke left their formation, undoubtedly searching the environment for any clues. Naruto followed her as she walked to the tallest building in the tiny village and glanced around. "There is no-one here," he remarked.

"They're either sick or dead," Sakura said, frowning still as she entered the hospital.

A nurse came running at her immediately, her grey eyes wide. "Can I help you?"

"My name is Haruno Sakura," Sakura replied, scanning the hospital. "You asked for me?"

"Hokage-sama!" The nurse cried out with relief. "Oh thank you for coming. My name is Namie." She grabbed one of Sakura's hands and squeezed it. "Thank you."

Smiling, Sakura shook her hand and turned to Naruto. "Can you find us a place to stay for the night? I'll be here for a while. Explore the town if you'd like. I'll call on you when I need assistance."

"Yes, Hokage-sama," Naruto said dutifully, leaving the hospital at once.

"Right, Namie-san, update me on the situation," Sakura said, slipping into medic mode immediately. Feeling a surge of adrenaline, she listened carefully as Namie outlined the standard complaints and brought her to one of the patients. She assured the elderly man she wasn't going to harm him and probed his body with her chakra. Minutes past and still, Sakura found nothing—not a virus or bacterial infection.

'Damn. It can't be,' Sakura thought, brow furrowing. Looking up at Namie, Sakura carefully masked her worry from her face. "Namie-san, I'm going to need several blood samples from the sick patients. Also, I'll need a microscope and access to any medicine you have stored here."

"Right," the mousy nurse answered, rushing off. Grabbing the hand of the old man in the bed, Sakura squeezed it gently and smiled sweetly at him.

Hours later, Sakura leaned back in her chair, massaging her neck as she peered at her notes. The mercury levels inside the blood of those ailed by the mysterious disease had surprised her. They matched with the symptoms of those dying of the plague—except it wasn't a plague. They were systematically being poisoned.

Standing from her desk, Sakura rushed through the hospital to Namie, finding her at the reception. "Namie-san," Sakura called out, grabbing her attention. "Help me think here for a moment. Is there a central food storage where everyone gets their food from in this town? Or anything else that can be used to spread a disease from?"

The girl's eyes widened as she looked at the ceiling, as if the answers were written there. "Well… There's the market. That's it though," Namie replied.

"What about your water supply?" Sakura asked.

"Ah, we get our water from one of the surrounding lakes," Namie said proudly. "There's a water filtration tank near Lake Shinji. There are two more around Lake Biwa and Lake Nakaumi, but I'm not sure if they're currently in use."

Sakura nodded. "Naruto," she called out, flaring her chakra. He appeared by her side a second later, Sasuke and Sai following him. "I need you to get a sample of the food in the local market," she said, handing him some test tubes. "Do not, under any circumstance, touch the food with your hands or with anything other than leather gloves."

"Sasuke, Sai," Sakura continued, turning to both dark-haired men. "I need you each to go to one of the lakes we saw prior to entering the village and get a sample of the water. Also, search the area around the lakes for any recent footprints."

"Yes, Hokage-sama," the three men replied and disappeared from the hospital after grabbing their test tubes.

"I'll be checking in on Lake Shinji myself," Sakura replied to Namie. "I'm suspecting dimethyl mercury poisoning, so please be careful of what you touch."

The wide-eyed nurse nodded solemnly and watched as the pink haired kunoichi turned and stalked out of the hospital. 'Lake Shinji is on the other side of town,' Sakura recalled, bee-lining for the northern gate.

As she reached the town square, Sakura was relieved to see some people up and about. Though it was almost midnight, some villagers were sitting outside, happily eating from the food stands there. Hoping her theory would be proven wrong, Sakura eyed them momentarily and turned to walk on.

A man caught her eye then.

Sakura realized immediately that the man was a shinobi—his bearing was that of confidence and strength, but he seemed weary and careful at the same time. As he turned, she gasped softly, feeling her knees buckle under her weight. Long raven hair framed his face, his nose perfectly straight and his thin lips set in a tiny smile, as if enjoying the environment. His eyes were hidden from view, covered with some pristine white bandages. "Itachi…" she whispered, calling out to him.

A hand landed on her shoulder, jerking her back to reality. She whirled, shocked, only to find the young nurse staring at her as she held up a pair of leather gloves. "You forgot these," Namie said, smiling carefully. Whipping her head around, Sakura scanned the vicinity, but found the man had vanished.

Momentarily stunned, Sakura looked around once more but the man had completely disappeared. 'I'm an idiot,' she thought, shaking her head. She waved goodbye to Namie and looked once more before forcing herself to continue onward. 'Not him, Sakura. Not him.'

She found the lake easily enough, hidden between trees and small hilltops that surrounded Nagano. A large water filtration system pumped freshly filtered water to the town behind her through a single pipeline. She halted in front of the lake, dipping in a test tube for a sample. Checking the water filtration, Sakura found nothing out of the ordinary.

Shivering, Sakura wrapped her Hokage cloak closer around her body, retying it. Biting her thumb hard enough to draw blood, she slammed her hand onto the mossy ground. Pakkun appeared almost instantly, barking a salute. Crouching down, Sakura patted him quickly. "Hi Pakkun, it's been a while."

"Sakura. Who am I tracking down today?" Pakkun asked, nose in the air.

"This lake may be poisoned by someone. I need you to check if you find any fresh trails."

"Poisoned, huh?" Pakkun said, sniffing the air experimentally. "Let me make a quick round to see what I find."

He rushed away, Sakura following quickly. Watching with a small smile as Pakkun sniffled the soil here and there, she was strangely reminded of the first time she saw him, almost two decades ago. "Do you miss Kakashi?" She blurted out suddenly.

The pug stopped and turned. Pakkun's face drooped further as he remembered his previous master and Sakura couldn't help but pat him once more as he made a tiny, sad sound. "He was a good man. The best," Pakkun said eventually, turning back to the lake.

"That he was," Sakura affirmed.

"Smelled like dog though."

Sakura laughed hard. "I never noticed."

"No matter how hard he scrubbed. The second Bull got near him, he wouldn't smell the same for weeks," Pakkun continued. "At least you wash."

"If I recall correctly, we used to use the same shampoo."

"Yes. Shame you switched brands."

"It's not exactly a compliment when a dog uses the same brand."

"Oh, but it is!"

"How so?" She asked.

"Best sense of smell. We know which brands are the best and which aren't."

They stopped at the north side of the lake. "I never thought of that," Sakura laughed. "Perhaps I should switch back."

She raised an eyebrow, noticing how Pakkun was sniffing the tall grass. Though it was still hard for her to tell apart his different looks, puzzlement was clear on his face now. "What is it?"

"I smell something, but… This is odd."

"I've never seen you so unsure, Pakkun."

"Sakura," he said, playful tone gone as he turned around and sat down, pointing at the grass with a paw. "I recognize that scent, but it… shouldn't be here. I would tell you, but I think it's better to go see for ourselves before I make a hasty conclusion."

"Should I call for Naruto and the others?" She asked, immediately activating her chakra to scout the area.

"Let's just wait until we get confirmation of who this is," Pakkun said calmly. He stood again and set off, not waiting for Sakura's reply.

'Truly, Pakkun uncertain of what it is he's smelling, that's worrying,' Sakura thought, hastily following the tiny pug. They raced through the tall grass, circling around the lake to the eastern gate of Nagano, back into the tiny town. Pakkun stopped, sniffing for an instant before setting off again. As they turned into a quiet little alleyway, they ran into Team Uzumaki, returning with their test tubes.

"Hokage-sama," Naruto called out, blond hair working as a beacon. He flashed a quick smile and held up the tube. "I got a sample."

"Same here," Sasuke said, handing her a tube filled with water. He had labeled it quickly for her, 'Biwa' written in hastily drawn kanji. "I found no tracks or any other evidence that anyone went near the lake."

"Nakaumi is untouched too, Hokage-sama," Sai piped in.

She was about to tell them what Pakkun and she had found back at Lake Shinji, but just as she opened her mouth to speak, she caught the pug's eyes. He silently shook his head before reaching out to bite Naruto in his rear when the blond almost stepped on him. "Sorry Pakkun!" Naruto cried out.

"Good job," Sakura said, carefully placing the tubes in her pouch. "I'll be going to the hospital to analyze the samples. The three of you can go to the inn and await my instructions there."

They bowed quickly. "Yes, Hokage-sama!"

Naruto winked before he left the area with a soft 'poof', Sasuke and Sai following suit. "This isn't like you Pakkun."

"I've rarely been wrong in my findings, Sakura. But I like to proceed with caution when I'm uncertain."

"So why didn't you want Naruto to come along?"

"Do you trust me?"

"Yes," she said without hesitation.

"Come along then," he said, leading her through a maze of streets back to the hospital.

The hospital was mostly dark when they arrived. As she walked up to the reception, Sakura found the desk empty—Namie must've gone home for the night. Following Pakkun up the stairs, Sakura passed a male nurse who frowned at the pug, but hastily bowed when he noticed 'Seventh Hokage' embroidered on her coat.

Pakkun led her to a dark little hallway. As she peeked into the doors through the windows, Sakura found very few patients here. "Where are you taking me?"

"To the owner of the scent we tracked," Pakkun replied simply, stopping at the last door in the hallway.

Probing the room with her own chakra, Sakura found no chakra levels she recognized. 'Suppressing it, huh?' she thought, analyzing the situation. Pakkun didn't think she would have to call in back up—did that mean this was a civilian? 'Only one way to find out, Sakura.'

She slid open the door. It was dark except for the faint strip of light that washed in through the open door. Accumulating chakra to her fist just to be sure, Sakura stepped into the light. In the back of the room, someone moved.

That's when she smelled it.


Eyes widening, Sakura fully pushed open the door, allowing the light to reach the back of the room. A single bed was occupied by the same man that she had seen earlier in the town square—an illusion, or so she thought.

If he were able to watch, his intense midnight eyes would now be sweeping over her frame. Instead, she was forced to look at white bandages wrapped around his head. His head cocked ever so slightly as his lips formed a tiny, hesitant smile and formed her name on his lips. As he spoke and the deep voice resounded through the empty room, Sakura felt as though she were falling.

Steadying herself by making a step forward, Sakura didn't bother to mask her tears as Itachi would be unable to see them anyway. She inhaled the intoxicating scent that belonged to him and decided that even if this were a dream or perhaps even a cruel illusion, she would take it and savor every last minute of it because this was the realest her dreams had ever become.

"Tell me, Itachi, what was your third dream?" Sakura asked quietly, hoping it would be the same as hers.

A/N: Okay, I give in to all the demands and my plotbunnies. Last arc, three chapters to go after this. :)

A huge thanks to ImperfectSnow for her ridiculously fast beta work! Check her out on DeviantArt too (Teine-tor), she's an amazing artist!

See you next time!

Mitsuki Shiroi