"Ah, Konoha nin-san," a man called as he came down the small dirt path to greet them while they approached the Shadow country's
castle. The man stopped about three yards away and bowed deeply, smiling.
Itachi, as the captain, stepped forward, bowing slightly as well. "You are Taikama-san, correct?" he asked, straightening.
The man nodded. "Yes, I am Taikama Yosuke. Thank you very much for assisting our precious princess. I, for one, will rest
easy know that she is safe in your capable hands, ninja-san."
Itachi nodded curtly. "I am captain Itachi," he said and gestured toward his team. "This is Nara, Sai and Haruno, our medic.
If possible, I would like for her to take a look at your princess before we leave."
Taikama shifted uneasily. "Ah, Haruno-san... Hokage-sama informed me that she would be telling you the nature of..." He
trailed off and glanced at Itachi, whose eyes narrowed. At the look, the man stiffened and looked pleadingly at Sakura.
She sighed. "Yes, Taikama-san. She told me everything. My team do not know, but you may speak in their presence of it.
I trust them." She pasted on that overly sweet, fake smile that made Sai shift away from her and Shikamaru stiffen slightly
before stepping forward and offering a bow to the man. "Please. Escort me directly to Nina-hime."
Relieved, Taikama nodded. "Yes, of course, Haruno-san. This way, please." They followed him to the castle, where he motioned
for a passing servant to come to him. The man bowed and Taikama coolly ordered, "Escort these gentlemen to lodgings for the
evening. Come, man! Hurry up!"
Chastized, the servant bowed to the trio of males and bid they follow. Itachi didn't budge, and Sai paused after a few
"I will remain with Sakura-san," Itachi answered. "Make sure our rooms are secure."
Sai bowed, acknowledging Itachi's order as one from his captain. "Hai, taicho," he agreed and then hurried after the servant
Taikama frowned slightly at Itachi. "Ah, Itachi-san, it's not really nece-"
"I will remain with my medic," Itachi said firmly, meeting Sakura's eyes.
Her fake smile relaxed a little, becoming a little more sincere, as she gave a tiny nod. "He's just doing his job, Taikama-san,"
she explained, catching the man's attention. "His job is to protect me and the hime, and he's doing that. I already told you
it's fine; please show me to the princess."
Still looking unsure, Taikama nodded and lead them toward a set of stairs. He lead them up several levels - six, to be
exact - and down a long, drafty hall before stopping in front of an ornate, dark oak door. He reached up and rapped sharply
on it, sweeping through when what looked like a guard pulled it open for them. Sakura and Itachi followed him in, finding
themselves in a richly decorated bedroom.
The curtains over the sole, floor-to-ceiling window were a dark, royal purple, matching the sheets and bedspread on the
bed large enough to easily fit four people comfortably. Aside from the bed, and a large dresser made with some sort of white
wood, though, the room was bare.
Sitting in the middle of the bed, wrapped in a thin white nemaki, sat a tiny, black-haired woman, not much older than Sakura.
Her hair had been braided and then wrapped up in a bun, which was anchored in place by a single ivory hair stick. On the end
of the white stick sat what appeared to be a miniature black dragon with rubies for eyes and an emerald grin. It's tail wrapped
all the way down, around and around the hair stick, disappearing into the woman's dark hair. Calm, crystal grey eyes peered
up at them from a pale face, reminding Itachi of a China doll. High cheek-bones, almond-shaped eyes, a tiny mouth and thin
brows completed the oval of her face, despite her stubborn chin.
The woman's small frame looked even smaller, placed as it was, swathed in purple sheets in the dead center of the too-large
bed. Her hands were dainty, almost small enough to be termed 'child-like', and her skin appeared unblemished by pain or injury.
All in all, however, she was quite an attractive person, if you ignored her pallor.
Not that Itachi was interested, really.
"Nina-hime," Taikama greeted with a deep bow. He gestured to the ninja just behind him. "This is Itachi taicho and Haruno-san.
Haruno-san is the medic Hokage-sama wrote about; she's here to take a look at you."
The woman's pretty grey eyes moved over Itachi for a moment before turning to survey Sakura with the same intensity. "Haruno-san,"
she greeted softly, her voice cultured and smooth like any royal's Itachi had met. Her gaze then turned back to Itachi, meeting
his eyes. "Itachi taicho."
"'San' is fine, hime," Itachi replied, voice just as soft as her's. He noticed - to his amusement - the irritated look
Sakura shot him.
"Of course, Itachi-san," she agreed with a slight smile, eyes lingering on his face perhaps a little longer than necessary
before she finally looked back at Sakura. "Haruno-san. You wished to see to me?" she asked.
"Yes, Nina-hime," Sakura agreed, ignoring the others in the room as she approached the princess' side. She sat on the edge
of the bed and held out her hand. "May I?"
Nina nodded and placed her own hand palm-up in Sakura's, blinking curiously when Sakura's hand lit with probing chakra
that ran along the hime's arm, disappearing into her chest. Both women were completely still for nearly five minutes before
Sakura sat back, looking dejected and weary. She shook her head to some internal thought before turning to glare impressively
at Taikama (who took a step back, making sure that Itachi was between them).
"Taikama-san," she said, frowning. "How long has she been sick? Are any others sick like this?"
He gulped and quickly shook his head. "N-no one else!" he said, paling under her stare. "No similar sickness has been reported."
"How long, Taikama-san," Sakura repeated, starting to scowl.
"A-a week?" It came out more a question than an answer, as the man was trying to placate her and not panic at the same
time. And failing miserably at both.
"A WEEK?" she screeched, face turning red as she stood up and advanced on the man, poking him in the chest. "And no one
thought to quarantine the possibly contagious princess?"
"Bull!" She pointed at the two guards standing by the door. Inside the room.
He followed the direction of her finger and swallowed again. "But we can't leave her undefend-"
"Fine!" Sakura poked him again. "But did you think to keep the same damn guards in here! Or at least make them clean themselves
before leaving the palace?" He didn't answer, which, really, was answer enough. "I didn't think so! God! You IDIOT!" She spun
on her heel and stomped back to the hime's side, sitting on the bed again. Then she turned and glowered at the men in the
room. "If anyone even tries to leave this room before I say you can, I will make sure you won't be going anywhere for a month,"
she promised in a low voice, eyes narrowed on Taikama and the guards. "Am I clear?"
Obviously terrified, all three nodded hurriedly, much to Itachi's amusement.
The first day, they made good time, especially considering they now had extra baggage. After some arguing, Itachi had convinced
Taikama not to send any maids or extra guards. They would only have slowed them down further. Sakura had administered the
antidote to Nina-hime the day before, and after some discussion, had decided to heal her bit by bit so as to conserve chakra.
Just in case.
After she finished that night, she relaxed against her futon, nibbling on some dried jerky left over from her moose a couple
days before. Shikamaru had coaxed their guest into a game of shogi, and Sai appeared to be drawing. All in all, everything
was peaceful for the time being, for which Itachi was glad.
Reclining against a tree, he craned his neck to peer up through the boughs at the stars. They twinkled merrily at the group,
offering promises of freedom and peace. Itachi wasn't sure this was what was in store for him at all. He wasn't stupid. He
knew the Konoha council of elders was probably chomping at the bit to cut his head off and shove it in a box. They had to
be quite anxious to get rid of him, knowing what he did. He didn't know if Tsunade was aware of what really happened back
then or not, but... He supposed he should be grateful that she appeared to be on his side, if only because her student was
Speaking of Sakura...
"Sakura-san," he said, lowering his head to look at her.
Sakura blinked and looked up from where she'd been spacing out, staring into the fire. "Huh?"
He refrained from smirking at her response. "How do you feel?"
"Um..." She gave him a confused look. "Fine?"
Itachi nodded. "Good."
They fell silent, but - unfortunately for them and the peace of the environment - the conversation had been enough to fuel
Sai's odd need to piss people off. The painter looked up, a weird gleam in his eyes, that stupid fake smile on his lips. He
opened his mouth, and Itachi had a strange premonition of doom.
"Hey, Ugly," he said, appearing thoughtful. "You and Itachi-san have been friends for a while, ne?"
Itachi's eyes narrowed suspiciously, even as Sakura answered with a bemused, "About a month, give or take. Why?"
"So, I was wondering..." His gaze flickered toward Itachi as he rolled up his scroll and put his painting things away (which
really should have clued those in the clearing in on what he was up to). "When are you planning on making a move on him? Or
at least cluing him in on you being ready for him to make a move on you."
At that, the clearing fell silent, every set of eyes landing on a very still Sakura. "What."
Out of the corner of his vision, Itachi saw Shikamaru pinch the bridge of his nose. Sai, seemingly oblivious, continued.
"Itachi. When are you going to make a move on him?"
Sakura growled softly in warning, then took a deep breath, not daring to meet Itachi's eyes for fear of knowing exactly
how he was taking this. "Sai?"
Sai was unperturbed, and even got to his feet at this point. He picked up a long branch from the pile of kindling. "I've
seen this sort of thing in many books," he said knowingly, gesturing to the branch. With a quick jutsu, it turned into...
Sakura. Said medic nin gaped at him. "Where the male takes the female," he grabbed "Sakura" around the waist before dipping
her backward, "And tips her over, then kisses her passionately." Thankfully, he didn't demonstrate (perhaps out of some belated
survival instinct, but his refraining from doing so probably saved his life).
Sakura was glowering angrily at the pale painted man by now, fists clenched at her sides while she sat up straight on her
futon. "The hell've you been reading, you stupid emotionless pervert?" she demanded. "Icha Icha?"
Sai blinked as "Sakura" turned back into a branch. "How'd you guess?"
Shikamaru cleared his throat at this point, not looking up from the shogi board in front of him (though he and Nina were
no longer playing, as her gaze was focused on the ruckus). "A wise man would shut up about now," he said thoughtfully, making
his move. "Then again, a wise man wouldn't have said anything from the start."
He went ignored, though, as Itachi made to get up and Sakura was already on her feet. Sai appeared oblivious to his inevitable
death (for the moment). "And then, while you're distracted by his passionate embrace..." It was at this point that Sai finally
looked up and noticed the advancing duo. His mouth shut for a moment before he swallowed at the murderous glares pinning him
in place - one made twice as effected by the activation of the Sharringan. "Um..."
"I tried to warn you," Shikamaru muttered, more to himself than the ex-Root. "Nina-hime, your turn. And perhaps you shouldn't
watch anymore. It may get bloody." A little paler than she'd been a moment ago, she nodded and returned her attention to the
game before her, peeking through her lashes at the spectacle the three were making on the other side of the clearing. Shikamaru
didn't bother to stop her.
Sakura growled, still not looking at her captain. "Itachi-san, back off," she snapped angrily. "He's mine."
"Of course," Itachi agreed amiably, then added, "As soon as I am finished with him." She didn't bother to correct him.
"Just don't kill him, please," Shikamaru inserted, tapping his fingers on his knee and trying to pretend he didn't notice
the scuffle breaking out.
"Ug- er, Sakura-san," Sai began, apparently deciding that pleading for his life was a good idea right about now, "I was
only speaking the truth. You know, telling Itachi-san's inner most feelin-"
Itachi punch him in the face, making him stumble back into a tree five feet behind him and fall onto his butt. Itachi smirked.
That felt way too good. Beside him, Sakura began cracking her knuckles. "Okay," she said firmly, "You had your go. Now it's
He bowed slightly and backed up, really not wanting to get between her and Sai. He sat down, finding that he had a very
good view of the proceedings from his original seat. Sakura continued, even as Sai got shakily to his feet, holding his bleeding
- probably broken - nose. "Oh, Saaii," she said in a sing-song voice. Sai stumbled back away from her, eyes wide. Sakura smiled
"Pass," Sai replied and darted into the surrounding forest, Sakura hot on his tail. They wouldn't return for about an hour.
Itachi darted quickly through the trees, hoping to reach her before it was too late. He had to find her; had to save her.
Akatsuki would kill her, he knew they would, if only because she was associated with him. Thanks to Shikamaru's warning, he'd
be able to save her, he would-
"Sakura!" he called, dropping from the trees to find her kneeling beside the brook she'd been going to before they were
Startled, she looked up, one hand glowing chakra green. When she realized it was him, the glow dissipated and she smiled
"We have to go." They had to run. Run far, far away... "Now."
"What?" If anything, she looked even more confused. "Itachi-sa-"
He reached out and grabbed her bicep, cutting her off, and pulled her against him, staring down into her eyes in hopes
of drilling the urgency he felt into her head. "We must go," he said softly. "I cannot let them kill you."
"Itachi-san... What is wrong with you?" she asked, trying to pull back.
He shook his head, refusing to let her go. "No. We have to go."
She lifted a hand and put it against his chest, likely about to shove him away, but he suddenly - irrationally - pulled
her into a crushing, desperate kiss that stilled her movements. He dipped her over backward and-
-sat straight up in his futon, eyes wide. What the hell? Did he just have a dream about kissing Sakura?
Itachi's eyes strayed through the dark to where Sakura was sleeping beside Nina-hime. He was pretty sure he'd just had
a dream about kissing Sakura. It had to be that stupid boy's fault. If he hadn't gone and started spouting such inane, ridiculous
theories, Itachi would never have dreamed about kissing Sakura.
He looked over, meeting Shikamaru's gaze, and decided he couldn't possibly go back to sleep now. "I'll take watch now,"
Shikamaru shrugged and sprawled on his futon. "Sure." He was out pretty quickly.
Sighing, Itachi glared at Sai's sleeping - and heavily bruised - form. He would get revenge. Kissing Sakura... He snorted
at the thought. Even if he had been interested - which he wasn't - she would kill him for trying (or try to, at least,
and as she was a friend and good person, he would hate to have to kill for trying to kill him). He shook his head and stared
up at the peaceful stars, vowing vengeance on Sai tomorrow.
As the day progressed, Sakura got more and more irritated with Sai. Itachi could see the warning signs, and knew that if
the ex-Root didn't stop bugging her about her relationship with the Uchiha, she might just beat him to a pulp. Of course,
this wouldn't be a good thing (as much as Itachi really wouldn't mind seeing Sai in excruciating pain), as it would hinder
their progress. So he decided to do something about it.
"Sai, it is your turn to care for the princess," he stated with authority, and waited until the pale nin slowed to match
her pace before speeding up to match Sakura's.
At first, she merely ignored him, obviously not in the mood to talk, not that he minded. If she wanted to discuss it, he'd
wait for her to broach the topic. And she did, just as he'd known she would. She was Haruno Sakura. She couldn't stand silence
for too long, especially a silence like this.
"He's really pissing me off," she declared, voice soft and eyes narrowed.
She nodded, not looking at him. "Yes. I don't know where he got the idea that we're... that you and I... That I... You
know," she finished lamely, blushing slightly.
He found it a rather odd reaction, but pushed the thought to the back of his mind. "There is a hot-springs inn about an
hour away. We should reach it by sundown," he said. "We will stop there for the night."
Sakura blinked and stared at him for a moment as they walked, then smiled. "Thank you, Itachi-san," she said.
After a moment, he slowly inclined his head, a little surprised by the grateful light in her eyes. "Of course, Sakura-san,"
he replied, head tilted curiously as he stared into her eyes for a second longer than was necessary. Odd, he mused,
recalling a conversation with Rock Lee a week and a half prior, that I hadn't noticed their exact shade... Closer to...
moss, than emeralds. He clearly has no idea what he's talking about. And they weren't completely green, either, he noted.
There were a few flecks of murky brown in their depths, giving the color the illusion of being darker than it was.
She suddenly cleared her throat and looked away, speeding her step anxiously. "Yeah, so... Uhm... Right." She coughed a
bit and then slowed abruptly so she could fall back to Shikamaru's side. The lazy nin said something to her that made her
blush and scowl, and Itachi was left to his thoughts.
Strange... He looked ahead, blinking slowly, and came to a realization; his vision had improved. It wasn't one hundred
percent yet, but it was much better than it had been. He was a little surprised. Slowly, hesitantly, he lifted a hand and
touched the skin just below his left eye, as if able to prove this development simply by that. It was a ridiculous notion,
but he couldn't help himself. His eyes really were getting better. Sakura's treatments were working.
Soon, very soon, he'd be back to full health, and then... Slowly, unseen by his companions, a very slight, bone-chilling
smile graced his mouth. And then, Madara and Akatsuki would fall for good. His mission would finally be over.
Sakura shed her bathrobe and stepped gingerly into the steaming spring-fed bath, breathing a sigh of relief. It was perfect.
"Nina-hime," she said over her shoulder, "It's wonderful. Are you almost finished?"
"Yes, Sakura-san," Nina said softly, and a moment later, she too stepped into the hot water. She offered a small smile
for Sakura before seating herself on one of the stone benches built into the large pool-sized tub. She chuckled. "This is
"Does it help? It should make your muscles feel better," Sakura said, also sitting.
Nina nodded, skimming her palm lightly over the surface of the water idly. "Yes. It does."
"Well, that's good." They fell silent for a bit, basking in the relaxing heat and the thin layer of steam, before Sakura
finally rose and took a seat beside Nina. "Here. I'll do tonight's session while we're in here. That way we can be more comfortable
Nina smiled slightly. "Thank you," she murmured, leaning back against the rim of the tub as Sakura placed one hand on each
of her shoulders. A moment passed before she spoke up again, voice as soft and smooth as normal. "Sakura-san, do you mind
if I ask you a somewhat... personal question?"
Sakura frowned slightly, opening her eyes to see the hime peering curiously up at her. She debated it for a moment, and
decided there was no harm. "I won't answer anything confidential, but go ahead," she agreed.
Nina flashed her another smile and closed her eyes. "You... Do you and... Itachi-san... Are you a couple, as Sai-san has
A scowl instantly jumped to Sakura's face but she quickly smoothed it and paused a beat to make sure she wouldn't sound
as annoyed as she felt. "No," she replied slowly, carefully measuring her words. "We are not. Itachi-san is a friend, and
the brother... The brother of the man that I once loved, but there is nothing like that between us."
Nina's eyes opened in surprise. "You loved his brother?" she asked, astonished.
Smiling sadly, Sakura dipped her head and let her bangs fall forward, shadowing her expression. "Yes, Nina-hime, I did."
"Is he...?" But Nina stopped, as if unsure whether to voice her question or not.
"He's a traitor," Sakura said after a long pause, in which she finished the healing and sat back, letting her hands sink
into the water and into her lap. "Sasuke... he left. He became a missing nin."
Nina appeared positively heartbroken. "That must have been horrible for you to go through, having to watch him leave,"
she murmured sadly, placing a hesitant, gentle hand on Sakura's shoulder. "Did he ever... feel the same for you?"
Sakura sighed and pulled away, wading deeper into the pool. Finally, she shook her head. "No, he was too obsessed with
his own agenda, and too blind to see that everything wasn't as black and white as he wanted to believe it was. He may have
seen me, a girl with an obsessive crush on him, but he never knew that, despite his belief otherwise, someone did truly love
him for him. And now he's gone, and I want nothing to do with him any longer." Sakura looked up, a shiny, plastic smile on
her face. "What about you? Have you ever been in love?"
Nina blushed. "I'm unsure," she admitted. "I haven't had much outside contact; I was to be pampered and protected, but
never lower myself to speak with others. I was a doll on display, nothing more."
Sakura felt a pang in her chest for the poor girl, but in the next moment, she forgot about it and their previous conversation.
Spinning around, her hand began to glow with chakra and she made sure to put herself between Nina and whoever was hiding in
the decorative bushes. "Who's there? Come out now!"
There was a brief pause before the person straightened, leaving Sakura speechless for all of ten seconds. And then, "ITACHI-SAN?
WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU?" she screamed, satisfied when he winced faintly.
"There is no need for such volume," the Uchiha said, hand lifting and then dropping, as if he'd wanted to rub his ear but
refrained. "I was merely-"
"You were peeking on the princess," she snapped, eyes narrowed. As her back was turned to Nina, she didn't notice the bright,
embarrassed blush that covered the woman's face. Itachi frowned and opened his mouth, but Sakura was already speaking again.
"I swear! What is it with male ninja? Must they ALL be freaking perverts? Do you have no sense of freaking decency, Uchiha-san?"
she demanded harshly.
He flinched, just a little bit, at the reversion to his family name. "Sakura-san, I-"
"You what?" she demanded. "Do you have something to say for yourse-"
Itachi's eyes suddenly going Sharringan red instantly cut her off and she sucked in a shocked breath, eyes widening. Satisfied
that she would cease from interrupting him, he let the Sharringan drain away and bowed deeply. "My conduct has been most inappropriate.
I merely wished to see that your injury from before had been taken care of. I apologize, Sakura-san," he said, form tense.
Understanding dawned in her face and she slumped, looking slightly irritated. "You're forgiven," she muttered, then added
sheepishly, "I'm sorry for freaking out like that..."
He nodded, not looking at them, and left. Sakura frowned. Dammit. She hadn't meant to upset him like that. Even if he had
been peeking at them, good reason or not.
"... Sakura-san?" When Nina had the medic's attention, she asked bemusedly, "You're injured?"
Sakura huffed and shook her head. "No. I was before, and he asked about it, but I healed it right after that."
"Oh, I see..." Nina tilted her head curiously. "How did it happen?"
"I scratched myself on a tree-branch while I was bathing in a stream," Sakura said, embarrassed. "I slipped on a wet rock."
She shook her head, scowling. "I was wondering why Sai was spinning tales to Shikamaru about it being... from a battle. He
must have been teasing Itachi-san again." Damn Sai.