Disclaimer: Naruto is the property of Masashi Kishimoto.

Rated M: Due to coarse language, violence, and some adult themes.


"Eeehhhmmm?" Sakura groans in response, lethargy greatly hindering her facial muscles from moving to allow correct articulation. Not even able to open her eyes, her body turns in the direction of Itachi's voice, the scrape of the polyester seatbelt barely registering across her cheek. However, the crisp chill of the evening air startles goosebumps into existence over the expanse of her bare arms. Itachi has decided to assist (or rather expedite) her exit from the vehicle, standing at her side with the passenger door open.

Squirming into an unsatisfying stretch within the confines of her seat, Sakura heaves herself awake with an aggravated sigh, her hand lunging out for the handle of the door to better hoist herself out. Yet, in her half-dazed state, she neglects to unclick the strap whose very purpose is to prevent said action.

The sound of a muffled chuckle has Sakura squinting with displeasure as her hands fumble to release the restraint before pushing her way past the bemused Akatsuki member who makes the wise decision to withhold any further remark as the blurry-eyed doctor stumbles across the mostly empty parking lot with defiance. Yet, she doesn't get far before coming to her senses and realizing she has no idea where her feet are leading her.

"Where are we?" she asks, her grumpiness ebbing away as she turns her head this way and that to take in the nondescript motel parking lot. The last fading memories of pinks and purples linger on the horizon while the nearly full moon has already made its nightly debut. In the glow of the parking lot lamplight, their shadows stretch ahead of them as Itachi leads the way to a room designated by the number nine.

"Our stopping point for the time being," Itachi answers simply, slipping a card into the access slot before pulling down on the handle to allow their entrance. Finding the light switch proves to be another fumbling experience as Sakura feels along the wall in the darkened room, silently cursing the closed blinds. But when at last her palm swipes across it, she is greeted with pretty much exactly what she expected.

This room is just as impersonal as her last one, though decidedly less…swanky.

Turning back to glance at Itachi for further direction, she notes that he has yet to move from his lingering position in the doorway.

"I'll be back in twenty minutes or so. Keep the curtains closed and answer the door for no one except me," Itachi instructs, gaze boring into Sakura's to calmly emphasize just how detrimental it is that she follow everything to the letter.

Sakura rubs at her eye, nodding along. Curiosity prickles at her brain, enticing her tongue to speak up and demand more from the stoic Uchiha who offers little in the way of details, but she's too cold and too tired to bother summoning up the energy such an effort would require. Still, the door doesn't shut behind her after a moment's pause, causing Sakura to tear her eyes away from the starched comforter of the bed to glance back at her traveling companion.

Her stiff shoulders drop in realization of what it is he's waiting for.

"I'm not going anywhere. Leave already."

Such words would normally sound harsh, but Sakura's wry expression and gentle tone softens the order and she's almost certain Itachi's posture straightens the slightest degree at receiving her word.

As soon as she finds herself shut in the motel room alone, Sakura hustles over to the door, palms plastered flat against the surface as she brings her eye level to the peephole to track Itachi's movements. Watching as he smoothly slides into the driver's seat and puts the car into reverse to back out onto the main road and cruise away, Sakura ponders what errands he could possibly have to run during such a time, but decides that that line of question will get her nowhere.

Itachi is an enigma. His business is his own and Sakura will just have to accept that lest she have any chance of gaining some peace of mind.

Turning away from the door, she's faced with the heavy, light-canceling curtains colored in some unappealing shade of puke peach that matches the equally awful comforter of blossoms and leaves.

Gag-o-rama. Ino would definitely have words with the interior designer of this place.

Thinking of her blonde friend, Sakura feels a pang of longing jab through her chest before she uses brute will power to force the depressing thoughts from her head.

I'll see them again.

Soon…

Sakura ignores her duffle bag sitting neatly by the front door, awaiting her attention, and decides that unpacking can take place later. For now, she's going to investigate the quality of the mattress to see if it feels as solid and unforgiving as it looks.

It does.

And not for the first time in the last five minutes does she wonder why Itachi would stay in such a two-bit joint when the Akatsuki clearly has money to spare. She doesn't even want to begin to question why he didn't see fit to acquire separate rooms, or at least a room with two beds.

The dank smell of a particular narcotic Sakura has never been enticed by comes in loud and clear through her nostrils courtesy of whomever is occupying a neighboring room. Sighing, Sakura sightlessly kicks off her shoes from her supine position on the mattress, leaving them in the middle of the floor as future potential tripping/murder devices.

It feels like she gets in all of two and a half winks worth of sleep before the electronic beep of the door alerts her to Itachi's return and with little enthusiasm she props herself on her elbows to watch his entrance.

Why do I feel like crap?

Right, the torture.

If she ever meets those Sound thugs again…

No.

She strikes the thought quickly from her mind. She'd rather never see them again and live to tell the tale rather than pathetically pretend she'd ever be able to get any sort of retribution for what they did to her.

Itachi strides in with a few brown paper sacks he piles onto the low-sitting dresser next to the mini fridge, taking the remaining parcels, a small, durable black case with a lock and a nylon messenger bag in a similar shade, to the round glass table in the corner with its uncomfortable armchair.

Even to Sakura's untrained eye, she can guess what the locked case holds.

She swallows with unease, suddenly hyper-aware of the peril she's in.

The crinkling sound of the paper bags has Sakura's attention reverting back to the man rummaging through them to produce…bananas?

"You went grocery shopping?" Sakura asks incredulously, eyes glued to the growing number of items Itachi unsheathes from the bag, from a loaf of bread to deli meat to a package of cookies that has Sakura's eyebrow arching up in amusement.

Itachi shrugs noncommittally, as he transitions from stocking the mini fridge to slapping together a quick meal of cold cuts. Sakura scrambles to her feet, settling on a peanut butter and banana sandwich while eying the package of cookies, not wanting to be the first one to tear into them.

Just as she's polishing off a Golden Delicious apple right to its core, the words of the droning anchorwoman on the TV catches her ears, her apple falling to the paper plate in her lap as she's confronted with a familiar face on the screen.

Her own.

They used her hospital ID photo, her pale skin looking even more washed out against the stark whiteness of her crisp, clean lab coat, but at least her eye make-up had been applied well that day, her face bearing no traces of the usual dark circles. Rationally, Sakura knows she's looking at herself projected on the local news, yet she feels entirely disconnected as though listening to a missing person's report for someone else. Perhaps because she's sitting comfortably enough with life and limbs intact. The newswoman reads off the details of her appearance and last known whereabouts, as well as the fact that her disappearance may be in connection to Itachi Uchiha's recent escape. From there, attention quickly shifts from her own apparent kidnapping to the infamy of the eldest Uchiha son and his descent into crime.

Sakura is little more than a footnote in his long list of "accomplishments."

For his part, Itachi gives no reaction to the televised recap of his past though Sakura knows he must surely be paying close attention from his seat in the corner of the room. It's not until the evening news shifts to the next topic of tragedy for the night that Itachi makes use of the remote gripped in his hand and turns the channel to some trivia show that barely goes noticed by Sakura, her thoughts turned inward on the people back home that must surely be worried sick about her.

"Sakura."

It takes Itachi's calm, penetrating voice to disperse the thick cloud of anxiety stuffing her mind. It's only thanks to him that she realizes her hands are gripping her forearms, her nails biting into the skin. With a weak grimace, she retracts her hold, embarrassedly moving her hands to cover the crescent-shaped indents.

"Yeah?"

Itachi blinks, clearly having noticed her odd behavior, but thankfully refraining from making any comment on it.

"Have you ever used a gun before?"

Sakura is caught off guard by the question, but already her pulse is quickening with worry over where this conversation is headed. Already dreading his response, Sakura knows lying won't get her out of what's to come – he can already read her answer like an open book.

"No. Never."

And that is how Sakura Haruno comes to appreciate the grim, fatal beauty of wielding a weapon with the intention to kill.


With the pop! pop! pop! of the sheriff's pistol ringing through the dusty air in the old Western playing on TV, Sakura gives a tired yawn, signaling her readiness to end the lesson and call it a night as the bad guys are driven out of town.

Rubbing her forehead to relieve some of the strain gathering between her eyes, she has to admit that it wasn't as scary as she had expected it to be. Sure, she may have had doubts that she'd load it incorrectly and the whole thing would somehow backfire and take off her hand and half an arm, but she has to confess there was something satisfying about fitting each bullet into the magazine within a matter of seconds and standing primed for action. Sure she only had the theory of how to properly sight and take aim at her target rather than any practical experience, and she'd rather not find herself in a situation where she has to run around with the safety off in case some enemy is sitting poised to ambush her, but she can't help a tired smile from slipping into place.

She's proud.

She can take apart and reassemble the handgun Itachi has chosen to gift her with – one of several that had been contained within the locked case. The nylon bag, as she had found out early in their lesson, is filled to capacity with ammo, making it much heavier than the easy demeanor with which Itachi carried it implied. She doesn't know how well her two-handed stance will do; Itachi had nudged here and there at her posture as she pretended to take aim at one of the bland landscape photos framed on the wall, coaching her to spread her feet shoulder width apart, knees slightly bent. The hardest part was reminding herself to not lock her elbows as she held her arms straight out while aligning her sights. He had to chastise her on more than one occasion to keep her finger from the trigger until she's completely prepared to fire.

And though neither are certain how her aim is (and Sakura is banking on it being pretty poor), both know that she isn't going to be attempting any flashy sniper shots. No, Itachi has decided to trust a gun in Sakura's hands as a last line of defense in a close range situation in which it's either her life or her attacker's and no one is coming to her rescue. There's no other scenario in which she'd even be remotely comfortable in taking aim at another life.

Hell, even now as she flexes her stiff fingers and deposits the unloaded gun back into its case, she isn't certain she could do it if her life depended on it.

But she has a feeling it likely will.

In fact, when Itachi first unfastened the combination lock, something like destiny flooded her senses as her eyes landed on the matte black object. A tingling buzz zinged across her scalp as Itachi's long fingers wrapped around the selected gun and carefully handed it to her awaiting, novice grasp.

Now, with the gun concealed from sight, Sakura feels as though she can breathe a little bit easier, but also as though she has lost something important. Something comforting.

How funny that she would ever feel any sort of attachment to something that could cause such damage. She had always loathed guns before, never wishing to touch one, yet here she is. Getting gun pointers from Itachi Uchiha no less.

What's my life come to?

With a quick rummage through her duffle bag, she produces an ensemble that will suffice as pajamas and claims the bathroom for a few moments of privacy to talk herself into an uncaring calm over the sleeping arrangement she's about to find herself in. But when she emerges from the bathroom with her teeth freshly brushed, she finds Itachi has yet to move from his seat in the corner of the room, only now she finds him with his fingers marking the pages of a book as he glances up at her dubious expression.

"Aren't you going to sleep?" she asks, eying the dismaying sight of the hotel alarm clock with its glaring red digits.

When did it get to be 1:00 am?!

"Soon," he replies, eyes already resuming the line from whence he broke off.

Sakura frowns at the book, thwarted by its blank, dull green face that reveals nothing of its contents. Had there once been a laminated cover for it, Itachi had since removed it from the hardback text.

Inwardly rolling her eyes at the Uchiha's peculiar inclinations, Sakura climbs into bed, peeling back the stiff comforter to slip between the sheets and rest her head on the lumpy pillow. Yet try as she might, sleep eludes her despite the tiredness burning her eyes and the stiffness creeping into her neck, warning of a fast approaching headache lest she out-race it into unconsciousness.

Scrunching her eyes, Sakura flips from her side to her stomach, but quickly flips to her back after inhaling the unfamiliar, musty scent of the pillowcase.

What she wouldn't give to be home right now.

How has he managed it all these years?

Sakura cracks one eye open to sneak a look at the studious man in the corner, the warm, buttery light of the lamp illuminating the glossy, dark locks that fill Sakura with envy.

He has to be lonely. Does he even have friends?

She knows he certainly doesn't have a family – at least not one that will willingly embrace him any longer. And what of the other members of the Akatsuki? To hear Sasori talk (and to believe him, which might be an entirely different folly), Itachi lies as much to his fellow criminals as he has to her and the police. She has a hard time seeing the group of them going out for pizza and bowling after work, reminiscing on the day's illegal paraphernalia acquisitions and assassinations. No. Definitely not.

A part of her wants to feel pity for him, to grieve for the good life that should have been so assured to someone of his family.

He could've been great.

Famous rather than infamous.

Sakura's eyes close without her knowledge, and a few moments later, Itachi pulls the cord on the lamp to bathe the room in inky black shadows. But Sakura has already been pulled under by the force of slumber by then.


As Sakura walks through the hotel door, she takes a cursory glance at the room's furnishings, admiring the mirrored closet doors and jade green bedding of the king-sized monstrosity book-ended by a matching pair of ebony carved nightstands. Ceramic vases as tall as she is sit on the floor, depicting scenes of valiant samurai and dashing stallions in hues of blue and red. But the orchids and fresh fruit bowls are just quaint blurs of background imagery to the main attraction that has her prowling further into the inner sanctum of this temporary resting place. Feeling the corners of her mouth stretch into a coy smile, her feet come to a halt at the foot of the bed as her eyes drink in the sight of the man awaiting her arrival. She roves over the features of his back, sculpted lines in pale ivory, and his stillness almost misleads her to believe he is nothing more than a marvelous replica.

Then he turns away from the doorway leading out onto the balcony and she catches herself holding her breath as she takes in the details of that exquisite face.

Itachi.

Even the dimly lit room can't conceal the beauty of this man. Clad in nothing but a simple pair of dark gray slacks, he is equal parts right and wrong. Heavenly and sinful.

And Sakura is an obliging creature that is wont to give into temptation.

She'd readily tell him all this, but she's too slow. His lips are on her forehead.

Her cheek.

Her mouth.

Perfection.

His hands slide down her arms, past her wrists and fingertips until they settle at her hips, guiding her body closer until her breathing is frantic with excitement.

But perfection is a fragile thing, never truly existing though one can come so gaspingly close that when it all comes crashing down, fracturing in jagged bits and pieces, all that can be done is to cry out in anguish.

Sakura chokes on a scream.

And bullets are pelting the glass balcony doors like so many fat raindrops sending out shattering ripples with every impact so that Sakura brings her arms up to shield her face.

And still the noise keeps buzzing and she can't breathe and –

Heaving off the burden of sleep with the force one would use to shove away an attacker, Sakura finds her weight settling onto her hands and knees as they press deeply into the mattress to hold herself up while she catches her breath, realizing she had been smothering her face into the lumpy pillow as she sometimes did in sleep.

Uggghhh.

But the noise still persists and she jerks her gaze to the other side of the bed, expecting to find Itachi. But he is still seated in his reading chair, the soft glow of his cellphone illuminating his eyes and cheeks, and the unbidden memory of Sakura's dream lurks at the back of her thoughts until she forces that away too.

"What is it?" she manages to croak in a voice scratchy and dry with sleep. Danzo's name circles through her brain like a hamster in a wheel.

But Itachi has the phone against his ear, the voice on the other end too quiet for Sakura to even hazard a guess at which Akatsuki member might be making such a late night call. Sakura's fists clench into the sheets and she's thankful that the darkened room masks her impatience. With little more than a "Got it," Itachi ends the call and Sakura hears the clack as the phone is deposited on the glass table.

"So?" she implores.

Itachi doesn't answer immediately; causing Sakura's tension to mount before he deigns to reply so that Sakura is like a starved person greedily gobbling up his words when he finally doles them out.

"The Sound has deployed a team more quickly than we anticipated. It was fortunate that we dispatched our own surveillance team as early as we did."

"So that means…?"

"The teams dispatched into Konoha have reported the Sound's success in kidnapping Danzo Shimura from his residence just after 2:00 am. The entire operation took approximately seven minutes, and so far there are two known casualties, both of Danzo's bodyguard."

Stunned by the concise crispness with which Itachi intones these details of an event too surreal for Sakura to properly digest at such an hour, she feels a sense of hysterical disbelief when Itachi off-handedly adds to the report that her old acquaintance Sai had been spotted outside on the estate's front lawn, retreating into the main house under heavy gunfire as the assailants felled the two guards posted at the front entrance. From there, Akatsuki's scouts lost sight of him as he was pursued into the building by Sound agents.

"Do you think he's still alive?" Sakura can't help but ask, can't even decide why she feels the impulse to ask. She has known Sai for a good many years even if she hasn't, apparently, known him all that well.

"It's possible, but too uncertain to tell this early. One team will be sent in to investigate the scene while it's still early enough to make use of the confusion and coverage provided by the extensive damage to the property. However, it won't be long before the police arrive. To that end, it's fortunate that Danzo lives so far from the center of town."

Sakura frowns at this, unsure of just how she feels in regard to Sai and his role in her current state of peril. Had he not involved her, had he not been suspicious of what she knew, how very, pathetically little she knew…!

It's enough to make her pinch the flesh between her eyes in frustration. What a world of trouble she caused for herself by being so inquisitive!

Still, if Sai truly was Danzo's creature, he must either hate her or not care for her one way or the other. Sakura doesn't know which would irk her more, though she supposes the answer doesn't really matter when the outcome is essentially the same. Pushing thoughts of Sai away, she pulls the comforter around her huddled shoulders, encompassing herself in a false sense of security as she nestles into the warm cocoon.

"Are we heading to Oto first thing tomorrow then?" she asks with equal parts trepidation and hopefulness to have this all said and done.

But Itachi exhales heavily, answering with a cryptic, "Not just yet," that leaves Sakura oddly relieved.

"Why not?" Sakura's hands pull the blanket more snuggly around her shoulders. Her eyes have adjusted to the dark, but even so, she hears rather than sees the movement of Itachi's fingers dragging through his bangs.

"To keep up the façade, we must lure them into a false sense of triumph. We can't make it obvious that we're right on their heels or things could turn messy. The Sound are a ruthlessly desperate lot and I'm unwilling to engage with the team they sent out tonight without first allowing for our teams to observe them. They were good, whoever they are. They were practically undetectable up until the moment they opened fire on the guards. After that, they dropped all pretenses of stealth and used sheer force."

None of that description of their enemies makes Sakura feel any better so she can't help the frustrated scowl she shoots Itachi when he suggests she go back to sleep. Not that he can see it anyway.


But she must have returned to sleep at some point, having sunk into her warm, slightly strangling cocoon of sheets and comforter, for her eyelids are fluttering open in the dim morning light and Itachi is still resting in his chair. With a slight flutter of mirth stirring in her throat at catching the Uchiha dozing, Sakura clamps down on the absurd notion to snicker and extricates herself from the bed to go make use of the bathroom.

The sound of a hacking cough broken up by a few ragged gulps for breath has Sakura dashing from the sink, toothbrush clutched tightly between her teeth as she comes upon Itachi clutching uselessly at his throat as he rouses himself to his feet.

Shit.

How could she not have guessed at it? It was common enough for patients suffering from Itachi's condition to prefer sleeping while sitting up or reclined on propped up pillows. It eases the difficulty of breathing brought on when lying on a flat surface. Flicking her toothbrush away to the dresser, she approaches the struggling Uchiha as he battles the clog in his airway that she knows is a frothy accumulation of sputum. His coughs are wet and wheezing as he cups his hands to his mouth to conceal the substance painfully being dislodged from his throat. With a final heave of effort, she can tell when he has at last satisfied himself with a certain level of comfort, clasping his palms together as he trudges past her to the bathroom to wash up.

Sakura pours a glass of water that she very nearly drops at the sound of a thud and Itachi's pained grunt.

Checking on him in the bathroom, she finds he has sunk to his haunches, back to the wall as he clutches at his head.

"Itachi?"

"I'm just…dizzy," he allows, and it's telling when he refuses to move from his position just yet, as though collecting the remnants of his energy for one last, great effort.

In the light of the bathroom, Sakura can see the perspiration dotted across his forehead, his skin waxy pale. She exhales loudly, shaking her head to herself as Itachi's eyes are too unfocused to catch the motion.

"You've exerted yourself too much. Come on, let's get you to bed."

And with that, the tiny, pink-haired doctor bodily hauls Itachi to his unsteady feet, guiding him to the bed where she hurriedly piles a mound of pillows together before insisting he rest. Passing him the water, not missing the slight tremble in his grasp, Sakura next turns her attention to the packages Itachi had stowed just inside the door – the same packages she had caught a brief glimpse of in the trunk of his car. She had guessed they were likely the means by which Itachi has been managing to sustain himself and her hunch now proves correct as she reveals Itachi's supply of self-treatment.

Shaking her head again in wonderment, her fingers work to tear at the plastic packaging, appreciating the directions and dosage levels indicated on each. Itachi has been managing his affairs rather impressively though a part of her shudders that such medication can easily be exchanged into the hands of men of such supposed ill repute, completely under the table. What medical professional would risk their career for such?

How much does Itachi pay for this?

Though a more snide part of her chimes in that he may not pay for this at all. Why buy when blackmail or fear tactics could work just as well?

But refusing to grow bitter and resentful to the more nefarious aspects of her current patient (especially when those aspects may just save her skin), Sakura collects one of the bottles filled with a similar brand of preload reducers she had introduced to Itachi while he was in the hospital . These pills have the job of reducing the pressure brought on by all the fluid buildup in Itachi's lungs and heart. Before turning back to administer the drug to her patient, Sakura's keen eyes do not miss the baby blue pills tucked away in their own tiny pill box.

Morphine.

She wonders how often Itachi had found it necessary to dose himself with that. Judging by the numbers on them, Itachi has seen fit to self-prescribe himself a much higher dosage than what he was receiving while held captive in Suna.

Along with his packaged drugs, she spots a sealed face mask and tubing. If she were to inspect the other packages on the floor, she suspects she'd find a few oxygen reservoir bags as well.

With medicine in hand, she returns to the side of an exhausted Itachi whose eyes remain closed and whose every breath appears to be in defiance of a cruel fate.

"Here, take this."

He complies readily and Sakura entertains the idea of making use of his oxygen supply to ease his breathing and allow for sleep, but Itachi offers a slight smile before permitting himself to sink back peacefully into his pillows.

Wide awake at eight in the morning, Sakura gives precedence to her patient as she gives him full range of the bed and takes up his recently vacated seat. It's just as stiff and unforgiving as she imagined it'd be. But her fingers brush across the thick fabric and cardboard cover of the book Itachi had been reading from, and with one cautious glance at his closed eyes, she quietly cracks it open…

To find perhaps the last type of reading material she would have ever expected to belong to an Akatsuki member: fairy tales.

Green eyes race down the table of contents to find a list of stories compiled by the Grimm brothers.

"You're a strange one," Sakura whispers more to herself than to the sleeping man now at peace before her. With mild fascination, she turns the pages to find them in crisp, pristine condition despite their yellowed coloration. The pages are without dog ears and he doesn't seem to rely on a bookmark to hold his place, so Sakura flips through them indiscriminately, looking for something to catch her eye as she occasionally looks up to glance upon her patient's state of rest.

Settling on the title of The Singing Bone, Sakura permits herself to relaxedly sink into temporary escape from her bizarre state of reality, rising up from the story in intermittent intervals to check on the rhythmic rise and collapse of the sleeping Uchiha's chest. Once finished with the tale, she's left with the queer, troubling sensation of not knowing whether she liked or disliked the story. Somehow her mind keeps trying to make far-reaching connections to poor, murdered Shisui and the cousin mistakenly wrapped up in his disappearance.

Deciding to push onward in her reading as Itachi logs some much needed hours of sleep, she blindly runs her finger up and down the table of contents to halt on the next story. And repeats the process again, and again, and again, drinking up the illustrations with starving eyes until she realizes her stomach is in need of sating too.

The rest of that day and the one after that are spent much in the same manner of vigilantly monitoring Itachi's lungs, punctuated with hours of retreat into his book and a few practice sessions with assembling and loading her gun. Itachi, after the sun has set, leaves each night despite Sakura's protests to go do…whatever it is he does. Sakura doesn't ask and he doesn't offer any explanation, only the same unnecessary instructions to stay inside with the door locked and curtains closed. He takes several phone calls while the two are secluded in their bland, little motel room, but Sakura can glean little from the side of the conversation she is privy to. But finally, on the fourth day, Itachi informs her they'll be moving on. The Akatsuki tracking the Sound's progress back to their hidey hole have confirmed their location as well as sighting Danzo being forcibly moved into their facilities under armed guards.

"Finallyyyy," Sakura raises her arms overhead, curving her back in a satisfying stretch as Itachi shares their plans for the day. Of course, she doesn't know if she'll be so appreciative later in the day of moving on from the relative, albeit mind numbingly dull, safety of their current location.

Still, they wait until the stars blink into existence before bothering to scuttle out from their dwellings with all their belongings in a single, overburdened trip. Sakura considers it over-precaution to wait until dark, after all, they're chasing the Sound, not the other way around.

Or is it?

Paranoid that maybe, just maybe, some stealthy would-be sniper is lurking in the shadows of the sparsely filled parking lot, Sakura scurries faster on the heels of Itachi as the bags containing the remnants of their food supply cuts off circulation at the crease of her elbow, her duffle bag thumping awkwardly against her flank with each step.

Surely the Akatsuki can outthink and outmaneuver the Sound, right? Surely they aren't the ones that have to worry about being ambushed.

All of a sudden, that dank, little motel room is looking mighty appealing.

Itachi is quieter than usual which does nothing to alleviate Sakura's anxiety as she helps stow their luggage and settles in her seat. With the radio off, there is little to distract her other than the sound of the car's engine and her own too-heavy breathing. Absently, she wonders if Itachi should be allowed to drive. If he were to be seized by another coughing attack, it could spell serious trouble for –

"There's something you should be prepared for, should our current intel prove accurate," Itachi breaks into her thoughts solemnly.

Sakura's eyelids flutter in confusion at his tone, unconsciously biting her lip in anticipation.

"What's wrong?"

Because no one's voice drops to such hushed intensity unless the news is bad.

"Earlier this morning, our best spy reported tentative identification of the team believed to have been tasked with apprehending Danzo."

Sakura nods along, "Ah, some of our old friends then?" she asks, false cheer making her voice tight. Suigetsu is never far from her nightmares, and she has never harbored a hatred that burns greater than that which she has for the red-haired witch.

"The woman with glasses that drugged you has been seen…"

Sakura huffs at this.

"As has my little brother."

And chokes on this.

Hand fluttering to her throat uselessly as she manages to clear it, Sakura feels a worm of queasiness roll over in the pit of her belly.

"What did you say?" Sakura notes the tinge of disbelieving panic in her own voice.

"Sasuke has been busy making new friends, it seems," Itachi replies tonelessly. But Sakura knows Itachi (at least she thinks she knows him) well enough to tell that this news affects him more than he's willing to let on. Despite the lack of any outward signs of distress, Sakura is certain that this predicament has him stressed.

Which won't help his heart at all…

"I don't understand…" Sakura muses aloud, "How could Sasuke get in with this Orochimaru character? How would he even meet someone like that?"

"Even I'm surprised at the extent of Orochimaru's influence. He has acquaintances in high and low places and Sasuke would've met countless new people in the military. But I suspect his sway over my little brother stems largely from his search for me."

Sakura scrunches her brows at this.

"You know he's been looking for you?"

"Ever since I left," Itachi chuckles without humor, "But with more guided intent shortly after he graduated high school. When he began to get a little too close, I had to go underground, so to speak. Since then, it's been a risk to do anything in the public eye or to perform my own surveillance of him."

"Wow, that's a really nice, stable, brotherly relationship you have going on there. Not absurd in the slightest," Sakura comments wryly, trying to lighten the mood while also organizing her hectic emotions into order.

Sasuke.

Their paths might just cross after so many years…

Sakura's careless reminiscing is abruptly cut off by the obnoxious rev of a motorcycle fast approaching the passenger side. Squinting at the single headlight zooming into focus in the side mirror, she barely manages an indignant "Hey!" as Itachi's palm forcefully pushes her head down as he uses the other to swerve into the next lane away from the motorist.

A single crack of gunfire provides Sakura with the much needed reasoning behind such a sudden, rough gesture.

Eyes popping wide open, Sakura's breath catches in her throat and sticks as her neck aches from its cramped, awkward position as well as with the ridiculous impulse to glance up and see how close their assailant is.

Stupid! No matter what, he's too close!

Before she can give into said impulse, Itachi's cellphone resting in the cup holder lights up with a chirpy ring.

"Answer it."

Itachi's crisp directive is given as he steps on the gas pedal, neglecting the posted speed limit as their unwanted pursuer easily weaves among the sparse traffic to catch up.

"H-Hello?" Adrenaline leaves Sakura's voice wavery, but her hand clenches the device to her ear with a desperate vengeance.

"Well, well, Pinky, looks like you're in trouble already. Luckily for you, we're already in route to save your sorry asses. Tell Itachi to keep heading north. We'll be caught up with you in about six and a half miles. Take exit 12A. Itachi shouldn't have trouble finding his way to Station 18 from there."

Kisame's booming, gruff voice so close to her ear has alarm bells ringing in her head, but all she can repeat is, "Station 18?"

"Yeah, 18," Kisame answers impatiently, "Now relay the rest of the message like a good little birdy."

Promptly doing so, neck craned around to keep an eye on the motorcycle that's dropped about fifty yards behind them, Sakura tugs at the seatbelt that has suddenly become too restrictive. She wants nothing more than to fly free from here.

Itachi nods at Sakura's provided instructions and has her set the phone to speaker mode. Sakura's eyes dart to the speedometer on the dash worriedly before looking back up to the road ahead of them and the rear end of a van that appears to be decelerating by the second.

Can't they see our lives are in danger?!

"I-Itachi, you're going to end up – "

But her sentence is swallowed up by a tremendous shriek pealing from her lips as the back doors of the utility van are thrust open just enough from within and Itachi has a fraction of a second to shout the command that has Sakura ducking for the floorboards. Itachi himself has to swerve blindly to the right as the windshield is cratered with frosty impact sites, a small, dark circle in the midst of each one to let the rush of the cool evening air into the cab.

Nearly hyperventilating with terror, Sakura now has no inclination of peeking up over the dashboard. Ever. This is where she lives now.

Kisame's voice curses colorfully over the connected line, but Sakura can't discern the words over the rapid thumping emanating from her chest cavity.

"Sakura."

She doesn't answer.

"Sakura," Itachi tries again more sternly.

She glances up at him from her hunkered position, barely daring to turn her head lest she expose anymore of herself.

"Remain calm and reach into the back seat for the case behind me."

Dumbly, Sakura unbends with great effort and twists around to reach into the dark recesses of the back seat. Even as her fingers brush across the cool surface of the case, her thoughts aren't logically skipping ahead to what Itachi will likely ask her to do with it.

Not even when the numbers to the combination lock roll from his tongue and her fingers work to comply.

So when he does ask her, Sakura is left sitting there, unmoving, unblinking, uncomprehending.

"I can't," she manages at last.

At this point, the two are traveling at a speed that makes the dotted white lines on the asphalt turn to one seamless blur in the illumination of the headlights.

"We need the deterrent until Kisame and the rest can cover us."

From the side mirror, Sakura watches as a defenseless, red Fiat is clipped while the van gives chase, completely ignoring lane divisions to the consternation of all innocent, uninvolved drivers. The road becomes a cacophony of car horns and screeching brakes, but they're barely obstacles for the motorcycle rider to weave through.

"You'll be seeing Sasori and Deidara ahead of me. No friendly fire, newbie," Kisame's gravelly voice warns.

Sakura gulps at the previously unthought-of possibility.

There are so many reasons NOT to do this.

She could hit one of the Akatsuki.

She could accidentally hit another vehicle.

What the hell is Itachi thinking?

Still, with fingers shaking, she loads the bullets, eyes squinting with concentration in the dim light, relying more on familiar feel than anything else.

With the motorcyclist nearing the bumper on her side, Sakura takes one last breath to steady her hands.

"Do it. Now."

And her finger releases a burst of energy that pings off the road just close enough to make the rider wobble unsurely before revving the engine to increase speed, one hand raised.

One hand raised with a pistol aimed at Sakura's face.

But the bike gives a death throe-like jerk out from underneath the rider, who is thrown to the ground with unmerciful speed that not even the helmet shielding his face could prove to be much help against. Sakura turns forward again at the first bounce of impact, refusing to have that image seared in her memory. The sparks thrown off from the skidding body of the bike burns an afterimage across her eyes.

The van is still on their tail.

And when Sakura hears the guttural roar of another engine and then another after that, her heart feels as though it's constricting into a tiny, dense ball within her chest, hoping if it shrinks down in size it might just escape notice and survive.

But as the two riders pull up parallel to their car, Itachi orders her to hold fire and Sakura soon sees why. One in all white and one in scarlet and black leather riding gear, the two can only be the Akatsuki tag team she has become so familiar with. Even with a white helmet shielding everything from dome to chin, Deidara's corn silk hair whipping wildly at his back is unmistakable.

"What the hell? He's using a crossbow?!" Sakura momentarily forgets herself as her eyes alight on the ridiculous device strapped over one of Deidara's shoulders.

"Pistol crossbow," Itachi corrects, "He does enjoy being theatrical."

Sakura scoffs, watching as the scarlet rider moves into position behind Deidara, one covering the front wheel on her side, and one the rear.

The Sound's van (and Sakura can only assume it's the Sound though she supposes people like the Akatsuki have more than just one enemy after their heads) has almost caught up with them to run parallel three lanes away from them.

About the only thing Sakura can see that's working in their favor is that any gunfire would have to come from the driver's window.

And it does.

Sasori sends back an answering volley to the spray that pelts the back door of their car, somehow miraculously abstaining from any damage himself. And to Sakura's astonishment and screaming sense of self-preservation, she watches as the Akatsuki on bikes move in near perfect synchronization, crossing lanes toward the enemy vehicle.

Another round of bullets spitting forth from Sasori's gun has the body of the van pierced through in too many places to count and Sakura's eyes widen impossibly further as a body tumbles out of the back doors that must have carelessly been left unlatched.

At the same time, Deidara zeroes in on the driver, spearing his throat with a bolt that has Sakura reaching for her own neck with imagined pain. This leaves Deidara with only the man in the front passenger seat to contend with, one that shares an uncanny resemblance to the driver now slumped forward on the wheel and quickly veering off course.

"Incoming!"

A bestial holler thunders from the forgotten cell phone, but whatever that single word has in store, Sakura notices it has Itachi, Sasori, and Deidara all hauling ass as fast as their respective engines can take them. Hurtling forward at a speed that has her eyes practically watering as the air shooting into her unguarded face from the open window stings her mercilessly, Sakura doesn't catch sight of the freshly waxed, black SUV entering from the on ramp and pummeling pavement to gain ground on the all but settled altercation taking place at top speeds. If she had, she would have witnessed the expertly calculated toss of a small, round something colliding with the roof of the van as the sleek SUV overtook its less than guided path.

But the aftermath of this seemingly careless lob is not to be missed. The road behind them lights up like a too-dry Christmas tree as the van combusts in a fiery inferno, wildly spinning off the shoulder of the road and into the safety guard and ditch where the flames continue to feed from the battered metal husk.

Sakura's neck swivels forward once more, back plastered to her seat.

Did we just do that?

But already, Itachi is maneuvering over to the far right lane, all the traffic left in their dust as they speed toward the exit ramp and away from the distracting light show. The SUV and two motorcycles continue their journey along the highway, abruptly departing ways from Itachi and Sakura without so much as a wave of recognition.

It's done.

The crackling laughter filling the cab returns Sakura's attention to Itachi's phone and she reminds herself to be more aware of the object still gripped in her hand, its time for use now passed.

"Yo, Itachi, you might need to remind Pinky in there the obligations of shotgun. If she can't take the heat, stick to the car seat."

And with that half-intelligible witticism, the gruff voice of the Uchiha's partner cuts out with a final bark of laughter before Sakura can offer any form of protest to the insult.

"Sorry that was my first mobile shootout," Sakura mutters sarcastically at the now silent, disconnected phone.

Itachi calmly turns onto a more residential-looking road before offering any consoling words.

"You performed…satisfactorily for your first time."

Sakura arches a brow that goes unnoticed by the attentive driver.

"You mean I didn't end up accidentally shooting either one of us," Sakura huffs, crossing her arms in semi-real offense, "Satisfactorily is what you say when you can't honestly tell someone they did well, but don't want to upset them by saying they did badly."

"I think I mean what I say," Itachi counters amusedly.

Sakura gives a contemptuous sniff, nevertheless happy to not be fresh Swiss cheese (even if she didn't offer any real help in the matter).

She may just survive this ordeal.


Author's Note: I'm just glad this chapter is out. Did it seem like it would never happen? 'Cause it felt that way to me. I think my problem is that I already have the final chapter done and a pretty clear idea for an epilogue of sorts that it's a strain to do all the work to get to that point . I know, I know, wah wah wah, woe is the writer.

So, thanks for sticking in there during such a long wait. There's more to come!

Thanks for reading!