A/N: Hey, guys. I'm so sorry it took so long. I've been going through a major writer's block and I only get trickles of inspiration. I'm trying to watch the anime to hopefully kick start it back into gear. I know you guys are chomping at the bit to have Sasuke come in but please be patient. Remember that only five days have elapsed inside the story, and he isn't necessary just yet. Also, I encourage the readers who don't check it, to look at the Facebook link on my page. It gives you a more definitive idea of the progress of an update so please check that instead of posting reviews urging me to update. As much as they give me a kick up the butt, it doesn't change much. As always, thank you so much to those that review. It helps a bunch.

Beta'd by: None

Warnings: None

Effort Or Nothing - Chapter XXV

Patience had never been Naruto's forte.

It hadn't been when he was a child and certainly not now that he was an adult. It was only because of his respect for Jiraiya that he had agreed to wait until Tuesday to go to Hong Kong and begin his search for his best friend with the others. The last hope that Sakura had merely gone conveniently missing and would eventually show up, was gone with the news of a phone call received at Konoha General Hospital earlier in the day.

Granted, Shikamaru and Sai had been unable to trace the call after reviewing the phone lines and the receptionist had not been given any fundamental information from Sakura, but it was a start. It was confirmation that Sakura really had been kidnapped. By who and why were questions without answers. At least now Naruto had somewhere to start: Hong Kong. And whether it was instinct or the sensation in his gut, he was positive that the culprit was Itachi Uchiha.

Kurama stirred at the restlessness he sensed in the kit and said reassuringly, "We will turn Hong Kong inside out to find her, Naruto."

Oh, that was all but guaranteed, and risking the wrath of law enforcement in Hong Kong was a risk they were all willing to take. But those risks came with consequences. There was the potential for injury, if not death, and Naruto had made it very clear to Shikamaru and Sai, who were just beginning to start their own families, that returning was not guaranteed. Stubbornly, they had both waved off his concerns and proclaimed that they were going, and both Temari and Ino had approved of the decision just as fiercely. Though Kiba and Akamaru had no such family to speak of, they were just as eager to go.

Still, it was unsettling. Naruto sighed and conceded that he could only do what he could do, and the rest would be up to fate and the precautions they already had a rough idea of. "Yeah. I know, Kurama. Thanks."

"You do not believe we will succeed." The fox demon deduced, sending a ripple through conscious thought as he stood above his young kit.

Now settled deep into their shared conscious, Naruto stared down at his reflection with a furrowed brow. "It's not that. I just…I'm worried for the others. It's not that I doubt their abilities but the Akatsuki are dangerous. They almost killed Gaara…they almost killed Sakura…none of this makes sense."

Even now, after three years, Naruto could still recall the moment with crystal clear clarity when he had barged into the storage section of the warehouse to find Itachi Uchiha, his Sharingan gleaming with viciousness as he holstered a smoking gun, and at his feet had been Sakura, unconscious from blood loss and shock. It was an image that still haunted him at night, wrought with rage and agony as Naruto held his bleeding friend in his arms and waited for an ambulance to arrive.

That was the day that Sasuke had disappeared, which had spurred news reporters into a frenzy when information had leaked that the young Uchiha had been stealing heroin evidence from storage and had evidently been using it. Naruto hadn't wanted to believe it when he found used syringes at the Uchiha estate, coupled with Sakura's health decline while in hospital, it had been a political and emotional nightmare of a week.

Itachi Uchiha shooting Sakura (supposedly, seeing as there had been no witness to the act) and then kidnapping her three years later for intentions unknown didn't add up. And Sasuke was not the type of person to up and run away just because there were allegations that he had been administering drugs to himself. Nothing fit and no explanation seemed plausible for the available facts.

Carefully lifting his paw, Kurama curled it just so that he could place it around Naruto's body, as if he were preparing to crush him but was in fact, the only form of a hug the demon could give due to their size difference. The Jinchuriki looked up at the contact, his big blue eyes conflicted and confused but not as distressed as they had been five days ago when they had discovered Sakura's disappearance – there was hope in them now.

"No, no it doesn't but you mustn't focus on that right now." Kurama said. "Focus on finding your friend and bringing her home safely. When that's done, and you have her kidnapper in custody, then you can satisfy your sense-making."

Though Kurama's words were meant in comfort, they both knew that if the culprit was Itachi Uchiha, there was no way in hell Hong Kong law enforcement would allow one of their own to be taken out of the country, not when the Yakuza had them deep in their pockets. Not to mention that the Akatsuki consisted of several shinobi of S-ranking that would, despite their questionable morals, prevent anyone from taking their leader. It was going to be an extremely difficult venture, one that Naruto was very much just laying down basic foundations to start with: a place to stay in Hong Kong, getting their weapons across the ocean and travel arrangements. Beyond that, he was winging it. He had no idea where to start, how to find Itachi's base of operations or what to do first.

But, that was where Kakashi came in; the older shinobi's experience would be invaluable and even though Naruto was technically the one in charge, there was little doubt the Copy Ninja would be calling some if not all of the shots.

Coming back to full awareness, Naruto realised that someone had been knocking on the door to his office for a solid thirty seconds, if only out of politeness seeing as the door was open and within the frame stood Kakashi.

There was nothing to be embarrassed about as most people were now aware of Naruto's internal communication with the fox demon, but to be caught unawares still irked the blonde and gave him the need to apologise. "Sorry, Kakashi-sensei. I was chatting to Kurama."

Flapping his hand in a dismissive gesture, the Copy Ninja stepped into the room and took a seat opposite the desk behind which Naruto sat. "Enough with the sensei, and you know you don't have to apologise."

Naruto gave him a wry smirk. "Old habits. Has Jiraiya-sensei calmed down granny Tsunade?"

Receptionists at Konoha General Hospital did not have a difficult job; they fielded calls and directed them to the appropriate place and person as necessary. Putting someone unknown through to the Chief of Staff, otherwise known as the Medical Director of the hospital was not common practise, and as such, the receptionist that had taken the phone call from Sakura had been doing her job, correctly and efficiently.

And even though Tsunade had been responsible for creating the policies and procedures that the receptionists followed, she had not been pleased when she had been told an hour after the call had been received that her apprentice had called, asking for her.

Jiraiya had spent the better part of the afternoon trying to persuade and console his distraught wife that nothing would come of firing the receptionist and that there was no possible criminal conviction to pin the poor girl with. But Tsunade had insisted that some description of an investigation be performed – it was unnecessary, of course but placating the woman was wiser than allowing the Sanin to enact justice upon an innocent. Shikamaru and Sai, as the investigating officers, had thoroughly questioned and interviewed the receptionist and when they had deemed there had been no ill intent or malpractice after listening to the phone call, they allowed the poor girl to go home and handed their report to Naruto who then passed it to Jiraiya for final approval.

Eventually, Tsunade had been persuaded to see reason, if only after being involved in a heated argument with her husband, and advised the receptionist she could keep her job but had also set down a new mandate in hospital policy for as long as her apprentice was missing: if anyone heard from Sakura or of her, they were tasked to put them through to Tsunade or Konoha Police where appropriate, no questions asked.

Kakashi chuckled. "No, not really but he managed to prevent Tsunade from firing the poor girl. As it is, I'll be surprised if she wants to return to work after Tsunade screamed in her face."

Naruto winced at the imagery. He had been on the receiving end of Tsunade's rage on more than one occasion and would not wish her temper on anyone. He had felt sorry for the receptionist and the situation she had been inadvertently placed in but even Naruto had not been immune to the sense of disappointment and irritation that they had been no closer to discovering Sakura's whereabouts simply because one person was ignorant to his friend's status as Tsunade's apprentice. He could no more fault the receptionist's ignorance than he could fault himself for being unable to prevent Sakura's kidnapping.

That aside, Naruto took the opportunity to begin asking the question that had been plaguing his mind since he'd gone to Hong Kong. "Do you have any idea where Itachi's base of operations is?"

Kakashi relaxed into his chair and answered carefully, "Not…exactly. Rumours and hearsay, mostly. I've heard that the location can only be garnered through the Black Market which is said to be under the direction of Madara Uchiha, and they are very careful with who they disclose the location to."

The fine hairs on Naruto's nape stood on end at the mention of the name. "How is that old fossil still alive?"

"Something is keeping him young though I have no idea as to what. He's going to create a problem. One Uchiha is bad enough without adding two to the equation." Though Kakashi knew it would cut Naruto to mention, he meant it as he added, "It's too bad Sasuke isn't here – he would have been able to track his brother much easier than us."

And Naruto did indeed react to the reminder of his absent friend as a shadow fell over his face and he turned his eyes away from his sensei. It was like watching a turtle withdraw into its shell; all emotion was wiped and eyes the colour of the sky became forlorn and brooding. Kakashi felt a little ashamed for conjuring such a reaction from his old student but felt it was necessary – he couldn't imagine what Sakura would have been like if she could actually remember Sasuke. Memory lapse was common in situations of great peril or injury, taking days or sometimes months to return depending on how traumatic the incident was. However, having a single person as opposed to several all but disappear from a person's memory was very odd. Sakura had not reacted at all to the questions posed to her after she had recovered from her brush with death – not even the slightest hint of recognition had sparked in her eyes or expression on hearing Sasuke's name, the man who had been her boyfriend for a rocky three years and childhood friend for longer.

It had vexed those present, even doctors experienced with amnesia, and Kakashi had the distinct feeling that Itachi had something to do with it. Shinobi could not alter memory (even one as formidable as Itachi), as far as he knew, but how else could Sakura have lost the memory of one specific person? A specific person that had been absent when he ought to have been present and had not shown his face since that day?

Bothersome, very bothersome. Kakashi was only slightly disappointed to be called away from his holiday but found that that was unremarkable when the concern and worry for Sakura's wellbeing had risen to the forefront. He wanted her safe; sure, he trusted her ability to keep herself safe but against Akatsuki, even he would be toing the line. Just once – once, he had been under the Mangekyo and he had experienced more pain than he had in his entire shinobi career. It was enough to be cautious of any of the Akatsuki members, particularly Itachi.

A contingency plan would not be completely effective but it would assist in deciding what to do if they were challenged to battle by any of the Akatsuki members, and from what Kakashi knew of, there were at least ten to contend with. They were going to be heavily outnumbered and embarrassingly outgunned but the Copy Ninja liked to think that Itachi was a businessman first and foremost, and that the members of the Inner Circle would be off on individual assignments instead of hanging around their base of operations.

Learning the schedule of the Akatsuki once finding their location would be preferable but there was no way of knowing just how much time they would have before law enforcement in Hong Kong jumped down their throats so it was a matter of playing it by ear.

Deciding that he had allowed Naruto to wallow long enough, Kakashi cleared his throat and slapped a hand on the desk between them, startling the blonde back into awareness as he said cheerfully, "All righty. Let's start brainstorming!"

It had the desired effect Kakashi meant it to. Naruto was at first perplexed by the statement before the laughter shined in his brilliant blue eyes and escaped his lips in a hearty guffaw before he grinned. "Hell yeah!"

And, true to form in terms of interruptions, a commotion outside the office drew Kakashi and Naruto away from their moment of comradery as papers went flying and a haphazard Shikamaru collided with the doorframe, reeling back with a startled curse as he passed a hand over his nose. Under any other circumstances it would have been hysterical but that was far too out of character for the normally controlled and collected Intelligence Agent. Naruto stood up immediately with a look of alarm and Kakashi was quick to follow.

"Boss, you've got to see this."

Before either shinobi had a chance to question his actions, Shikamaru was out of the doorframe as quickly as he had arrived. Kakashi and Naruto glanced at each other quizzically before stepping out into the office floor which was normally filled with people working dutifully at their desks or whizzing around the photocopier. Now, it appeared as if the vast majority of the workplace were currently gathered around the large television raised against the far wall. And it was not difficult to see why.

The TV was used to monitor news stories around the world, consistently observed by an officer or Intelligence Agent should any information that would benefit the Konoha Police Department arise; ranging from homicides, gang activity, crime statistics and most concerning at this point in time, missing persons. Naruto felt his mouth go dry, willing his brain not to short circuit on him. He became oblivious to Shikamaru acting on his behalf and badgering orders at the other officers as they scrambled to make a copy of the news feed. The footage was quite shaky and grainy but the pink-hair and jade eyes could belong to no other person save for his best friend. And was that blood on her jumper? Why was she running through a crowd of people? Why the hell did she have a yellowing bruise on her cheekbone?

The amateur holding the phone was speaking rapidly in Chinese and his hand could be seen pointing at the fleeing woman off to the side. It didn't take long at all for an ambulance to come racing into view, and by the time Sakura disappeared around the corner, the owner of the phone was more interested in recording the chatter around him than anything further, and gaining his fifteen seconds of fame.

Kakashi's eye was narrowed at the feed and he gently grasped Naruto's elbow to bring him out of his concentrated state as he intoned, "It doesn't look like the blood is hers but there's no telling what happened that led to that, or to that bruise."

Naruto could only nod, warring with numbness and indignant rage. Numb to the fact that such a convenient scene had been captured, and that it showed his friend was very much alive and more than likely still free of whoever her captor happened to be. And the rage was deciding who was going to meet his fists first.

"She's definitely in Hong Kong." Shikamaru informed the two as he continued rubbing his sore nose. "That's one of the local news channels."

"How old?"

"About two hours, maybe a little older."

Time, place and circumstance were not on their side, even with the news feed. Naruto frowned at the television and clenched his hands into fists. It changed nothing; there was no feasible way for them to jump onto a plane and head to Hong Kong in that instance. Perhaps in a movie but not in real life. There were rules to follow, policies to adhere to and hopping on a plane with no plan of action would only hinder the rescue team. Granted, they had already broken several laws and constitutions by blackmailing a Customs Officer to get their weapons into Hong Kong (presumably) and would likely break several more when they got there, but Naruto had promised Jiraiya he would wait until Tuesday. He never broke his promises.

The other occupants of the office were now looking to him for direction, and as much as Naruto might like Shikamaru or Kakashi to take control while he recovered from his shock, he had a job to do. Straightening, the blonde looked around at the expectant expressions on their faces before barking, "I want the exact location of where the news feed was filmed. I want witness details," People started scurrying immediately to obey his requests, and Naruto remained oblivious to the pride shining in the Copy Ninja's eye as he continued, "If there was anything left at the scene, I want to know about it. Contact the councils within that area and see if they have CCTV footage of the surrounding streets. Let's do this!"

A chorus of 'yes, Chief' and 'yes, Boss' echoed around the office with enthusiasm as people darted in different directions, some going to their desks to make calls while others went off to consult separate departments.

"Once we have the location of where that was recorded, we can start there." Kakashi suggested, his lips quirking beneath his mask to see the encouraged gleam in the younger's eyes. "You said that Kiba found Sakura's hitai-ate. We can start with that. Weather inference is likely going to be an issue but I'm sure we'll find something."

Naruto nodded with enthusiasm. "Nothing can beat Akamaru and Kiba's combined noses." He then turned, while trying to keep a straight face, to Shikamaru whose lips were pursued and looked quite ready to defend himself. "And speaking of noses, how's yours, Shika?"

"Shut up."

Looking after a child would be a piece of cake, he said.

Lasting through the day would be easy, he said.

Deidara could feel his eye perpetually twitching in its socket from the stress of looking after an eight-year-old. The morning had started off without a hitch, besides the error of judgement in allowing the child to have any form of sugar even if it was contained in cereal. Alecia had been perfectly behaved for a time as the marksman made his way slowly to the surveillance room; she'd been most inquisitive in the dark space and had asked many, many questions about the purpose of the many cameras and other various buttons within the room. At first he had humoured her, and engaged quite readily in her queries but when said queries continued on and on, and transformed into even more queries, Deidara found his good humour accompanied with the pain from his wound, gradually sucked away.

Being confined in a dark room with Alecia had him inching closer and closer to using some devious and terrible way of disposing of her without anyone noticing, but the constant reminder of Itachi's wrath stayed his hand. Just. To pass the time of his surveillance shift, he had tried ignoring the girl swinging in circles on the other chair but she had continued pestering him, not put off with his silence, but encouraged by it. By eleven o'clock, and his reprieve for surveillance arrived, Deidara nearly bowled the other man over in his haste to escape the room. A rather pathetic thing to do seeing as he was doomed to look after the kid until Sasori returned to the Organisation which would not be for several hours.

And to make things worse, Alecia had taken to calling him –

"Deidara-senpai! Wait up!" Folding an arm over the wound of his chest, Deidara snarled and tried to concentrate on the pain caused by moving instead of the insolent little pest tottering up to his side. "It's lunch time! Can you make me pancakes?"

What the actual fuck! Deidara had considered the possibilities many, many times in his service to the Akatsuki, and he was still very serious when he thought about killing Itachi Uchiha. Who in their right mind wanted to be saddled with a kid asking for pancakes and lunch at eleven in the morning? Yes, his pottery classes were important and yes, he wanted to get back in Itachi's good graces but the man should have forewarned him about the infinite requests and possibilities a child could create. Shooting a glower at his elbow where Alecia walked innocently at his side, the blonde grit his teeth and said, "You can have lunch in an hour but I'm not making you pancakes."

Someone also should have warned him about temper tantrums, for it took him a moment to realise that Alecia had stopped in the middle of the hallway and had developed what he considered to be a constipated expression, her lips pursed tightly together and her cheeks puffed out. As the seconds passed and the eight-year-old was unusually silent, Deidara observed that she began to shake, her fingers clasped into tight fists at her side as she glared at him. Was she holding her breath? Astounded that the child could be so damn frustrating, the blonde swung back around and reached out to grasp her upper arms, conscious of not harming her despite how he might have wished to.

"Stop that." He scolded with a frown, growing further irritated as she continued to hold her breath and was gradually turning red. "I said stop it, Alecia. Now."

Was she really going to push the issue to the point of fainting? No amount of gentle shaking or admonishments helped, so for fear of causing the accidental death of the girl, Deidara conceded in a rush. "All right, all right! I'll make you pancakes right now if you stop that, hmm."

As easy as pushing a button, Alecia gasped and took in several deep breaths before giving the blonde a toothy grin. "Yay!"

It didn't stop there. Even after making the requested pancakes, Alecia had continued to demand and demand no matter how many times he said no, and would resort to ridiculous methods of persuasion being holding her breath or (which had been a nightmare to stop) screaming at the top of her lungs. Deidara was at wits end by the time it got to three in the afternoon and he was on perimeter patrol which involved circulating the outside of the building foundation. It was extremely cold and had just begun to rain, and no level-headed adult would allow an eight-year-old out into a deluge without protection so the marksman had to procure a warm coat that draped over Alecia's feet and an umbrella to keep the rain off them both – normally he wouldn't have bothered but being injured and having the child accompany him, it seemed a sound decision.

And as amusing as it had been to see Alecia's eyes blow huge on seeing Deidara equip his gun holster and slot his 34 Glocks in place, it had worn off rather quickly when she kept asking to play with them. What was the point of having guns (besides shooting people) if they didn't even intimidate an eight-year-old girl!?

"It's too cold." Alecia complained as they rounded another corner of the building, startling several people on the sidewalk as they recognised the Akatsuki cloak draped around Deidara and gave the two a wide berth. As curious as they were about a child accompanying one of Akatsuki, they were not so curious to risk their lives.

Deidara ignored her.

Thirty seconds later, Alecia whined again, "I'm hungry."

Blue eyes rolled skyward in exasperation. "Do you ever stop being hungry, hmm?"

"No." The child replied petulantly.

Another teeth-gnawing, jaw grinding ten minutes elapsed in which Deidara finished his patrol and handed over to the next shift with Alecia whining and chucking a hissy fit about everything within a metre radius. Why did people have children? Deidara found himself wondering what enjoyment anyone got out of having a child, particularly this one, and something dark and horribly cruel within snidely commented about the fact that she was likely an orphan for that very reason. Reality bespoke that her parents were likely murdered, and he admitted that he was being a little unfair. The kid had been raped, after all, with nowhere to go and an unknown future. The least he could do is be pleasant and patient with her for a few hours.


Unless she called him that! He was going to kill Tobi.

"-I'm tired."

Sighing for what felt like the hundredth time in the space of a thirty seconds, Deidara glanced at his shorter companion and noticed that Alecia really did look tired – he had been dragging her across the compound for most of the morning and afternoon, and he doubted most eight-year-old's started the day at six in the morning. And now that he had paused, the pain in his chest and back reminded the marksman that he was due for his own break.

A buzz from the pocket of his coat sent a surprised twitch through the blonde, making him wince as the stitches tightened around his wound. Fishing for his phone, Deidara retrieved it and chuckled sardonically the second he saw the message highlighted on the screen. There was a specific system in place for all Inner Circle members to receive automated messages where necessary, just as there was one for the Akatsuki Organisation as a whole. He was not really surprised to see the message; amused but not surprised.

Automated message IC: Target – Caucasian female, pink hair, 161CM, slim build, green eyes. Haruno, Sakura. Last seen wearing jeans and a purple sweater. Caution – inhibitor no longer on target. Detain and contact AL for further direction.

All Inner Circles members, except for Konan and Yahiko, would have received the text and no doubt had a variety of reactions. What Deidara really wanted to know was how Sakura had managed to escape. Again. Sasori might piss the blonde off in terms of being an anti-babe magnet but he was a proficient shinobi – how had Sakura slipped under his notice? Evaded his chakra lines? And why the hell had Itachi removed the inhibitor? To be a fly on the wall when Itachi had discovered her absence…Deidara shook his head and acknowledged the message by replying with just the letter A. There wasn't anything he could do about it. However, even though the others were on assignment, provided it didn't interfere with what they were doing, they would keep a lookout for Sakura and apprehend her if the opportunity presented itself.

Leading a grumpy, whining Alecia back into the relative warmer atmosphere of the Organisation, Deidara could not help wincing as his wounds protested the movement. Normal people would have been assigned to bed rest and heavy doses of medication. A ninja? Oh, just let them do their regular jobs and they'll be right as rain. Most of the time, that was the practice but not many shinobi were impaled with a tree branch! And a week was a long time to be restricted to the duties of grunt work. Deidara was far, far too over qualified to be doing perimeter patrols let alone sitting in the surveillance room and staring at cameras all day. And let us not explore the topic of baby-sitting!

Deidara grunted as Alecia's warm weight jostled his side and his eyes flickered to her, mouth opening to bark a reprimand when he faltered upon seeing her half-closed eyes and almost vacant expression that generally accompanied exhaustion. Another sigh escaped him and rather unwillingly, the marksman slipped his arm around her shoulders to keep the child upright as he lead her in the direction of his room. Rory, the painting of the woman over his bed, was not appropriate by any means for a child to see but given the fact that Alecia was dead on her feet and he would be dead if he didn't lay down for a spell, left him with little will to care or go searching for another room to toss her in so she could have a nap.

Together the two of them made a slow, agonising, hobbling-walk to Deidara's room where he raised his free hand and keyed in the code. A button near the handle flashed green and he pushed the door open to reveal one of the few places he could be himself. As with all the Inner Circle members, each had been given their own room to do with what they would, whether to decorate it or keep it sparse was entirely their own choice. Most of the walls were decorated with abstract pieces of art that Deidara had either procured or done himself. Against the wall to the right of the doorway was a display cabinet filled with various pieces of pottery and life-like figurines of animals and figures that had no name. His workstation was at the opposite wall of the doorway, neat and tidy just as he had left it with a half-made model of a clay puppy situated in the centre. He had all the tools he required to do anything he wished within the Organisation but there was something satisfying about attending classes and creating art with other people.

Nudging Alecia toward the king size bed centred along the other wall, Deidara pivoted and shut the door behind him, a sense of unnecessary relief filling him as it locked automatically. Sleeping was always a perilous task where shinobis were concerned and the marksman never felt secure unless he had done all he could to ensure his sleeping area was as safe as possible. The window above his work desk is reinforced and rigged with explosives should any burglar or assassin get too game with their intentions. Just the idea of someone attempting to come through had a wicked grin tugging at his lips but it was very unlikely. It had happened in the past but only to Itachi seeing as he was the most valuable person in the Organisation being its leader. However, members of the public, other Yakuza and the 14k Triads did try to kill other members of the Inner Circle whilst they were out and about so they all had their fair share of making satisfying kills and the hunters becoming the hunted.

Shrugging out of his heavy Akatsuki cloak, Deidara noted in his peripheral that Alecia had taken his little nudge to good advice and had promptly collapsed face down on the end of his bed, just the toes of her feet hanging over the edge. Her soft snoring was oddly endearing instead of annoying as he would have expected it to be. Against better judgement, the marksman placed the cloak over the chair at his work desk and approached the girl, gently situating her on her side before tugging part of the duvet down over her so it created a blanket, surprised that she didn't stir or remotely react to being moved around while unconscious. He wished he could fall asleep that quickly! Just as well the other Akatsuki were all out on assignment – they would have a fit to know Deidara was being so gentle with a child.

Instead of checking his bandages as he probably should – although shinobi generally healed quickly and didn't generally develop many illnesses through injury – Deidara decided he could not be bothered with the effort that involved and instead carefully stretched out sideways at the top end of his bed, putting the majority of his weight on his left hip so he could alleviate the stress from his chest and back and also keep an eye on the duvet-covered lump at the end. He sighed in appreciation for the comfort the bed afforded and was set on closing his eyes for a spell when the lump moved. Alecia's auburn head popped out of the covers he had placed over her and she appeared visibly confused and bleary-eyed until her head tilted backwards and she spotted him.

Words failed him as the small child quietly went about shoving the duvet back up the bed until it was just within his reach. Deidara thought he should be protesting or be visibly irritated with what he could see she was intending to do but he was strangely…content with her actions, even as Alecia crawled into the space between his body and the duvet before tugging it forward so it covered her again, cuddling as close as she dared to his chest. Blinking down at the mop of auburn hair resting on his bicep, Deidara was quite surprised to feel something besides the hot, painful ache in his chest and without really being aware of it, he curled the arm she was resting on toward his body so that he was as much cradling her as she was cuddling him.

He sighed tiredly against her hair and closed his eyes as the lull of the bed and her warmth against his injury pulled him to the land of sleep. Whether or not there was a small smile on his face at the moment was nothing he or Alecia were going to question.

Goddamn, the others were going to have a field day when, not if, they found out.

Three hours.

For three hours, from the moment Itachi Uchiha had stepped into the medical practice and informed the receptionists to cancel Dr Faustus's appointments for the rest of the day, even those who had just arrived, and made his way down the corridor, past the dubious and terrified members of staff and doctors, and into their boss's office, members of staff had been hesitant to even go within five metres of the door. Patients had been furious over the lack of notice, until of course the receptionists had informed them that if they had any issues they could address them to the leader of the Akatsuki Organisation. After that the patients had backed off but it didn't negate the stress of wondering just what sort of trouble Dr Faustus was in. The Yakuza had not looked pleased when he had entered, which the receptionists had associated with the disappearance of the pink-haired woman who he had brought to the practice earlier that day, and expected to receive their own forms of reprimand but he had been perfectly polite and cordial.

Now nearing half past five in the evening, the receptionists were very concerned for the welfare of their boss. They had heard many rumours where Itachi Uchiha was concerned, how he disembowelled his victims or could somehow make them relive nightmares just by looking into the red of his eyes. Neither had any proof of such rumours being truth, but those were a few of the distinctive ones among many others heard over the years.

Both were quite startled when the man himself all but glided into the entryway from the corridor, appearing unruffled and carrying his normal air of indifference as he turned just so to face them. "Dr Faustus does not wish to be disturbed. Do not enter her office under any circumstances unless she calls for you. Is that clear?"

On receiving two anxious nods, the Akatsuki leader paused a moment longer to give them an appraising, almost dubious glance before striding out of the practice, leaving them both in a whirlwind of confusion and an intense desire to go against his instructions and check on Dr Faustus. Which, evidently proved unnecessary as the aforementioned woman stumbled into the wall dividing the waiting room and corridor, giving the poor receptionists another unneeded fright. There was a pregnant pause as all three women listened to the Mustang's engine rumble to life before it gradually faded into the distance. Dr Faustus's hair was askew, her makeup was smeared and both receptionists were quite sure that her blouse was inside out and her skirt was worn far too high for business standards.

"Cancel…all my appointments tomorrow please." The woman's voice was hoarse, as if she had been screaming for hours. "And then you two can go home."

When Dr Faustus tottered back down the corridor with a rather suspicious gait that belied questionable activities, the receptionists looked at each other before commencing with her request, knowing better than to ask.

Upon reaching the safety of her office, Melanie quietly closed the door and observed the state with a bleak expression. They had tried to avoid breaking valuable objects but she was positive a few thousand would be going in to replace the desktop which had been knocked to the floor with one sweep of Itachi's arm. Rubbing at her eyes, Dr Faustus could see nothing save for the various places Itachi's rampage of lust had taken them; across the desk, in her chair, on the exam bed, against the wall, under her damn desk, on the floor and various other areas in a variety of positions. There had been no love in it, no feeling and certainly no opportunity for anything to eventuate from it.

Despite how it hurt, how she had practically been used to prevent an embarrassing, possibly life-threatening medical problem for Itachi, Melanie found that she could not regret it. And yet, why were there tears forming in her eyes? Why were the countless aches (besides the obvious) she felt not attached with sound reasoning to the lack of regret? Was she lying to herself? Certainly, part of her had hoped that such a situation would spark Itachi's interest in her again but all he had done in the end was politely and gratefully thank her for assistance, pressed a kiss to her mouth and then left without a backward glance.

The only reason Dr Faustus was still awake, still functioning, was due to her immense frustration and stress over the situation. Never had she been through a bout of sex like that; not for so long or so many times without pause – how he hadn't managed to break her pelvis with the force he had exerted the last few times was not something she was willing to explore. Shinobi had more strength than the average human, and to be taken that many times by a man holding onto his self-control by just a thread was likely not the wisest decision she had ever made. And now, she was paying the price, both mentally and physically.

They had not spoken a word after she had submitted to the handsome Sharingan user – even when he had been under the influence of a powerful aphrodisiac, he was just as quiet as he had been during their years of physical intimacy. Though to be fair, he wasn't much of a converser outside of the bedroom anyway. Melanie had cleaned up the room to the best of her ability, and to his credit, Itachi had assisted her – there wasn't really a sign of their couplings save for the pieces of computer stacked neatly in the trash bin. Itachi had of course said he would cover the materialistic side of things but that wasn't the point. Moving quietly to her cupboard, Melanie retrieved her towel and bathing items, intent on washing away the self-doubt and regret that threatened to enclose upon her. She had made her bed, now she had to lay in it.

As she moved toward the staff bathroom, the doctor wondered idly how Sakura would handle Itachi's actions when she discovered what had happened. Dr Faustus held no sense of satisfaction or gloating over the situation – it wasn't like she had accomplished or gained anything through it - and felt oddly sympathetic for the younger woman. It would not be in Itachi's nature to keep something like that from a current or potential lover. And considering that Sakura had some description of feelings for him, there was no knowing what sort of reaction the news would broker.

That is, if Itachi managed to get Sakura back before someone worse got their hands on her.

Why was it always raining? Sakura understood that it was January, and that the weather was doomed to be cold and miserable, but why did it have to be bucketing cats and dogs when she was trying to make what was unquestionably the first proper escape attempt? Still categorised as an escape due to the fact that she was nowhere near optimistic enough to believe she was in the clear. The Akatsuki, particularly Itachi Uchiha, would not give up while she was still in the same country. Maybe not even after that.

Which then begged the question: how long had she been running around for with no sign of the infamous Akatsuki? A few minutes? An hour? It felt like ten but she reasoned that it had to have at least been two or three.

A chillingly cold splash of water struck Sakura's nose as she huddled in misery between two large skip-bins outside of a restaurant. It didn't afford a lot of cover weather wise but it kept her concealed from the street and hopefully unfriendly eyes. A tickle in her nose soon formed into a gigantic sneeze, the sound ricocheting off the surrounding walls. Typical. She would likely still have been running, searching blindly for a police station if it weren't for the fact that she was exhausted. Coupled with the cold, the aches of her body from the previous night and the still moderately slow regeneration of her chakra, it was a wonder she hadn't just collapsed. Stubbornness really went a long way sometimes and it was a trait she would be eternally thankful for once the nightmare was all over.

At the very least in terms of good news, the deluge had gotten rid of much of Sasori's blood staining the sweater. It now looked like a very bad dye job where someone had decided they couldn't be bothered and stopped halfway through. Her jeans were sticking to her skin like an uncomfortable second layer and she didn't even want to think about the state of her shoes – the flats were ancient and had already seen better days prior to this nonsense. Tugging at several lose pieces of threading, Sakura sighed and tucked them back into place as best she could. Running around Hong Kong barefoot was not something she was interested in doing.

With the dull pitter-patter of rain fuelling her morose mood, Sakura rested her chin on her folded arms and summarised her situation. People were undoubtedly looking for her, and not specifically the Akatsuki. No doubt she had made the news – someone would have captured the fiasco on a mobile, and it would have been advertised across all of Hong Kong that there was an unusual, pink-haired female running around with blood-stained clothing. She shuddered at the possibility that Orochimaru, Danzo or, God forbid, Madara were avid news watchers but it wouldn't surprise her if they started looking for her, too.

Nearby, what was likely the kitchen exit door to the restaurant banged open, putting Sakura on instant alert as she observed a kitchen-hand step into the alley with a rubbish bag, heading in her direction. When he spotted her, the employee's expression was anything but kind and he barked something in Chinese and made a shooing gesturing with his free hand. Stubbornly, Sakura set her jaw, ignoring the ache in her cheek as she did so, and did not react save for blinking at him. The man continued to gesticulate at her as he threw the bag into the bin and made motions out of the alley. Clearly he assumed she was something of a street rat, planning to take scraps out of the bin at the first opportunity. Tempting, but she wasn't that hungry. Yet.

Just make things worse for yourself, honey. You're damn good at it. Goddamn it. The snippy bitch was back again.

Sakura was internally seething at her subconscious. I'm not leaving until I'm good and ready to. By all means, they can call the police! It'll save the searching.

However, that did not happen, and Sakura became immediately incensed when the stranger marched over to her, still sprouting Chinese and reached out to grab her. After being rough-housed, abused and disrespected physically by the Akatsuki, Itachi and Madara, the Kunoichi had had her fill of people thinking they could freely touch her. Having enough sense of mind not to accidentally break his hand, Sakura swatted it away with a glare and even though he wouldn't understand her she said, "Don't touch me."

The man appeared startled by her defiance along with the language barrier, and reeled back, clutching his hand to his chest. Though she hadn't broken it, Sakura had clearly used too much force if the pain etched into his expression was anything to go by. Guilt was quick to threaten Sakura's airway as her nurturing nature rebelled against her action and almost subconsciously she reached out to soothe the hurt she had created, her green eyes wide and honest while an unhappy frown pulled at her lips. Apparently the expression and gesture wasn't enough to placate the man for he began shouting at her in Chinese, spittle flying and narrowly missing Sakura's cheek.

And just to make things interesting, a second kitchen-hand emerged from the exit door, taking stock of the situation before he too was rattling off in Chinese. Sakura heaved a mental sigh. No one was going to give her a break. The most logical thing to do would be to get up and find an alternative place to rest but she was stiff, hungry, sore and tired. Moving sounded so difficult but perhaps not quite as difficult as explaining to the authorities how a young female had managed to incapacitate two grown men trying to usher her off the property. Raising her hands in a placating gesture, Sakura frowned at them and used the wall at her back to get to her feet.

Part of the problem with the lack of the inhibitor was not just the slow regeneration rate of her chakra, but the fact that she was constantly diverting to using that slow gain to keep moving, to keep herself awake. If the Akatsuki found her now, she was most assuredly screwed. There was no way she would last in a fight – just as defenceless as she had been while wearing the inhibitor. Running was possible, a daunting prospect, but possible. A flash of something red was all Sakura could discern before something heavy struck her bruised cheek, causing her to stagger, yelp and damn near trip over the cabbage now collecting water at her feet. Emerald eyes flew to the kitchen-hands who were sporting several more used vegetables in their hands, and Sakura was torn between anger and bemusement, trying to ignore the now irritating throb in her abused cheek.

Throwing vegetables? Really? Another cabbage was tossed at her and this time she dodged it, tracking backwards as they advanced on her with their assortment of vegetables. Once the distance was great enough between the three to be labelled as suitable, the kitchen-hands tossed the remains in the bins and graced her with some rather rude and eyebrow raising hand gestures before they disappeared back inside the building. Still a little bewildered at having a cabbage thrown at her, it took Sakura a few moments to realise that she was standing smack dab in the middle of the downpour. The water seeped from porcelain skin and joined the already water-logged clothing adorning her form.

It could not get any worse.

That was, of course, the worst assumption one could make in such a situation. But, seeing as she wasn't neck deep in Akatsuki, Sakura decided she could afford to be a little optimistic and pivoted, heading further into the alley as opposed to returning to the street she had entered from. After all, it was the first time she had managed to evade the bastards for hours as opposed to minutes. Now that the adrenaline had worn off, the chill was setting in again and gooseflesh arose on her skin. Trudging on through the wet, the Kunoichi blinked water from her eyelashes and forced herself to pay attention to her surroundings. Bleak, grey walls and the odd bit of graffiti stared back at her – hardly the atmosphere for a triumphant escape but beggars can't be choosers.

Judging by the shadows creeping along the alley, there was perhaps only an hour of sunlight left and Sakura knew that it would not do to be skulking around alleys when the more ominous figures of Hong Kong generally came out at night. Quickening her pace to a fast walk and rubbing continuously at her cold arms, the nurse passed other alleys that branched off in different directions, spotting a few people congregating here and there. Pink hair made her unique and at this point in time, Sakura rued the day her parents copulated for it was attracting some much unneeded attention. Guess it was too much to hope that people (even though they were of questionable description and hanging around an alley) would just ignore a dishevelled, young, pink-haired woman.

Shooting an exasperated glance over her shoulder at the handful of bedraggled males and females, some more dicey than others, Sakura picked up into a light jog, wincing as muscles made their protest known. Perhaps they just wanted to see if she was ok but judging by the irritated tone that underlined the Chinese words traded between them and the waggling fingers, Sakura was making the right choice by booking it – straight into a wall. The impact sent her reeling and her eyes watered at the very prominent sting emanating from her nose, hands cupping the poor thing as it throbbed from abuse. Through a veil of water, Sakura observed that the object was becoming less and less wall-like and creating the silhouette of a man.

The surge of fear was so profound that it negated the instinctual reaction of her shinobi abilities, and Sakura struggled to do something more than just stand there like an idiot, oh and shiver, really badly! The rain became intermittent enough to identify the man as unknown but as he leaned in close to Sakura, the stench of alcohol wafted to her nose and made her flinch back towards the crowd of approaching rag-tags. Another shiver threatened to make her lose control of all motor function, followed by an earth-shattering sneeze that made her eyes water with the force.

Simultaneously, the group of people following after the nurse flinched or jumped as the sound echoed in the alley, including the man that Sakura had bumped into. Which afforded the much needed distraction and encouragement for the Kunoichi to snap out of her moment and get her arse back into gear. Easily avoiding the outstretched hand of the drunk, Sakura shivered her way to the end of the alley, aware that the posse was still ambling after her. For what purpose, who knew. Perhaps her suspicion was right and she had been advertised on the news already or maybe they were just looking for someone to mug. Good luck to them – it wasn't as if she had anything of value on her anyway.

Although she had to remain aware of the group behind, Sakura was cautious in her approach as she carefully looked around the wall at the end of alley, observing each section of the street before inching onto the footpath. By now there was only a slight array of light from the declining sun; the shadows ominous and growing in volume around her. At least the street was still heavily populated by people, many sporting umbrellas and raincoats as the downpour continued, not sparing a second glance at the wet, downtrodden young female slipping into their midst.

For a time, Sakura let the crowd jostle her in their desired directions and more often than not took advantage of the moving cover of their umbrellas to avoid the weather. It didn't really help seeing as she was already soaked to the bone and shivering like no one's business. Hypothermia was guaranteed. Again. And this time around, there was no way of knowing if she would be able to seek a dry, warm place before it grew too serious to come back from. Asking the surrounding people for the location of a police station would likely be just as fruitless as it was the last time she had tried. But standing around and waiting for someone to recognise her, be it Akatsuki or someone who watched the news, was too dangerous to risk, not when there were others with unknown intentions toward her like Madara Uchiha.

Something tapped at her toes and the nurse nearly jumped out of her skin to see a small, wooden bear toy with hollow eyes staring up at her as it wrapped its tiny arms around her toe. When one sees a toy, the first question is who it belongs to. The second is why it's at its current location. Sakura was more concerned about why the hell it was capable of attaching itself to her foot, and why in God's name did it open its mouth with an audible crack and emit an ear-splitting screech! People around her were startled by the sound but due to the volume of bodies, it was difficult for them to discern exactly where it was coming from, giving Sakura the opportunity to kick her foot in the empty air, dislodging the small toy and sending it careening into the nearest wall.

There was no mistaking how a toy was capable of moving, if that is even what it was. Sakura's mind flashed back instantly to Sasori's ability of controlling chakra lines; this must be his form of a tracking system, where the toys – things – or whatever they were released a sound when they located their target. Which meant Sakura was in trouble. Retreating backwards, the nurse sent several people stumbling as she hastily took off in the opposite direction down the footpath, working against the flow of foot traffic. It could have been her imagination or paranoia but she knew she could hear several tiny footsteps, even amidst the rain and sounds of other people walking along. This was confirmed when less than thirty seconds after her initial surprise with the bear, another toy appeared, distinctly human in appearance but seeming to be made of wood, dashed between a set of legs of the person to her left. Sakura glared viciously at it as it kept pace with her through the crowd.

Taking a risk, Sakura pushed her way through the throng of bodies directly onto the road, their mass having hidden the fact that it was quite populated with moving vehicles. Among the list of stupid decisions she had made, that was definitely up in the top five. There was the illumination of bright lights filling her vision on either side; the distinct squeal of brakes locking up and tyres sliding on wet asphalt. People started shouting and yelling in alarm when they observed a pink-haired female step out into the middle of traffic, only to stare in bewilderment when said female disappeared from sight.

I am such an idiot.

Ya got that right. You were conserving chakra so well until you went and did that!

That, being a moderately powerful genjutsu to mask her presence from human eyes and burning more energy than necessary to leap up onto the roof of the nearest building. Muscles in her legs screamed in protest and before the idea of taking a quick rest even tried to present itself to her tired brain, more trouble joined her on the roof in the form of half a dozen toys of various shapes and sizes, none larger than a cat. Sakura would later learn that they were puppets but at the moment, they were toys, with hollow eyes and opening their mouths to make horrendous - worthy of ear bleeding - noise.

Sakura dropped the genjutsu before it could suck any further vestiges of chakra from her body and tried to figure out a way to escape but no thoughts were forthcoming. Though none of the little toys came within three feet of her since the first one, they would likely continue to tail her wherever she went and she rather doubted it would be possible to destroy all of them, not in her current condition. A violent shiver wracked her frame and without her say so, the strength in her legs went on holiday and her knees collided painfully with the cement of the building. Sakura grunted at the impact and fell forward onto the palms of her hands, just in time to see a pair of feet alight on the roof in front of her.

"Miss Haruno, it is time to return." Sasori's bland and unemotional tone informed her.

It was all over. That brief, tantalising period of a few hours of freedom had disappeared as easily as sand through a sieve. Resentment and a fierce sense of self-loathing filled Sakura's chest at the realisation that she had failed. The tears were extremely unwelcome as they stung at her eyes but she refused to let them fall, her chin quivering with effort as she felt Sasori continue to stare impassively down at her. It escaped her notice that he was actually holding an umbrella and preventing the downpour from further soaking her chilled skin.

"Miss Haruno, you're shivering. Come now, let's get you back before you freeze."

Concern from the guy that had manhandled and groped her this afternoon was laughable but deep down, the humanitarian inside was appreciating it, if only slightly. Sakura grit her teeth. It couldn't end this way, not when she had been so close to escaping the Akatsuki and…and freezing to death? Being hit by a car? Almost being hit by several cars? Almost kidnapped by a deranged psychopath? Perhaps a tiny bit of an oversight on her part. Nothing good had come of trying to escape. Maybe that was a hint. Another shiver zipping through her frame had her teeth chattering and she clenched her jaw so tightly that she swore she heard something crack. It could not end like this – it would not end like this.

While Sasori was in the midst of explaining how he had found her, without her prompting, Sakura used her current position to kick out with her leg, sweeping both of his out from underneath him. Under any other circumstances, the movement could be seen as an engagement for a brawl. On this particular occasion, it was Sakura's head start. Nearly groaning aloud as the muscles in her body ached and screeched in protest, the nurse clambered to her feet and darted away, several of Sasori's toys crunching beneath her shoes. Though leaping across roof tops might be the easier option, it offered less cover and would allow her to be in sight the whole time.

Approaching the edge of the roof, Sakura's eyes scanned for the best vantage point to begin a descent. There was none, and she didn't have the time to go roof hopping to find one. A thirteen foot drop would cause injury to the average human but with chakra protecting the sensitive tendons in her feet and legs, if only just, Sakura made it safely to the ground but it did not save her from the jarring impact that caused her to stagger and lose precious seconds in the chase. At this stage, it didn't matter what direction she went, as long as she got away. By now, the sun was completely gone and her sense of direction was led by street lights alone.

Hearing the rustle of Sasori's coat, Sakura bolted away as fast as her sore legs could carry her, darting through the arrangement of alleys and knocking as many obstacles into the shinobi's path as much as possible, be it a skip-bin or stumbling homeless person (which she regretted immediately) before she finally made it back into a populated street, tripped over a street drain and landed straight onto the warm hood of a vehicle. For a moment, she was nearly content to just lay there and absorb the heat and maybe fall asleep but, priorities! Groaning as the collision caused forgotten bruises to ache anew, Sakura glanced down to observe the metallic black paint shining wetly, her reflection slightly visible with the direction of light. As her senses returned one by one, she became aware that the vehicle was emitting a rumbling purr, that of a V8 engine. The hair on the back of her neck stood on end as apprehension and fierce hope that she was dead wrong began to consume her, tightening like a vice about her throat as Sakura casually turned her head to the windscreen.

A pair of gleaming red eyes, almost smug in nature, stared back at her.

Like it? Hate it? I'm half and half, personally.

Thanks to Hana-Taisho for the idea of involving the media! It's amazing how I didn't think of something so obvious to implement.

And no one had to panic about a potential Melanie X Itachi scene! Yay! Writing it didn't appeal to me very much.

I'm a couple thousand words into the next chapter, and I'll try to work on it on a daily basis even if its just a bit at a time. I do appreciate your patience, dearies! See you next chapter.

Ciao, dearies!