Loophole Chapter 1: Deal Breaker For Wicked Innuendo What a set of sad circumstances Sakura found herself in as she

managed to lift her heavy and pain ladened head from the stone floor. Was it stone? The cold hardness below her cheek for the last hour screamed yes, in a most ungentle way. You’re a fool, she admonished inwardly. Her loud groan echoed off the stone walls around her, bouncing back to mock her pain. “Damn it, damn it.” The irony of it was almost laughable, if laughing wouldn’t have hurt her head at that moment. A bargain and her own choices had landed her in the direst situation of her young life. Silently, she prayed that she was trapped in the tsukiyomi of the elder Uchiha’s eyes but knew it was foolish to wish that. This was real. It was as real as it gets. The large throbbing goose egg hidden under mounds of short pink locks reminded her over and over that she had made her own bed on this one. Sakura’s stomach hitched as waves of nausea crawled through her, but she wouldn’t be sick. God no, I won’t be sick in here. Lying back down on her back, the coolness of the hard rough floor was almost a relief as she held the sore side of her head to it. The chill went right through her red shirt and black shorts. Fighting hard to keep the spinning room at bay, she breathed slowly, vainly fighting to convince her insides that this was not the time to lose it. Lifting her hands up, she took in the bindings around her slender wrists. It was unusual to bind a ninja’s hands in front of them, but this was something special. Useful and calculating in it’s design, the restraint was obviously meant for ninja because it bound the hands back to back. The leather straps crisscrossed over the wrists keeping them immobile. There was no way to do any sort of jutsu in this device. Clever. Well, isn’t he a good little resourceful Uchiha? The position she lay in became uncomfortable and her shoulders ached with the strain of her wrist positioning. But, she didn’t have much longer to dwell on it as footsteps drew near to the darkened wooden door in front of her. Almost as if it were expected, her heart sped up on cue as a shadow loomed at the crease of light under that wooden barrier between she, and most likely, painful death.

The knob turned and her mind instantly replayed how she came to be here as if it were struggling to change the details to something less frightening. It was midday, a water filled canyon and many, many black and red coats engaging their group of determined Leaf nins. Kakashi and Gai had taken point, pressing on to try to get to the leader. But Sakura had a different target. He’d been her target for a while since she learned who he was. There’d been a few defining moments for her since becoming a ninja. The kind of moment that makes everything clear and you almost expect the clouds to part and a ray of light to shine down on such an epiphany. Kakashi’s words had sparked one. “How has your vision been, Itachi?” the silver haired Senpai chided to the deadly Uchiha at their first meeting in the forest. Blindness was creeping into Uchiha Itachi’s life and it suddenly became Sakura’s failsafe. As much as she admired Kakashi, Gai and Naruto, and everyone else there to fight, she could think of no one more able to defeat Orochimaru than Itachi. When the moment came to put her plan into action, she found Itachi among the fray. His blank face looked at hers from just above that wide high collar. There was only animal coldness, like something contemplating how easy it would be to kill you rather than waste time in a pointless fight. There’d been many times she’d felt fear, many times she’d made it through it, but this time was so much worse. Just say the words, she told herself, let the chips fall where they may. “I have a proposition for you, Uchiha-san,” and with that she let some of the strain of the kunai she held against his wane slightly, accentuating her will. Itachi felt her let up and immediately he was on her, the tip of his kunai pressed into her throat. The warm line of blood slid down her skin as she waited to see if he would respond or end her life. Such a foolish gamble. Those few seconds seemed like an eternity as her life began to flash before her. But he just looked at her, cold, impassive, blank. The compulsion to ask him again was playing in her thoughts, but the kunai pressed to her neck so tightly made her worry that even speaking would slit her throat. She resisted even the urge to swallow. His hand was clamped on the back of her neck as the cold steel lay across the plane of her throat. The dark Uchiha’s face was still unreadable, but for a moment his hand loosened. “Five seconds,” he said in that deep soft voice of his.

“I’m a medic nin, trained by Tsunade. I’m the best you’ll meet. I can fix your eyes but in exchange you must help me get Sasuke away from Orochimaru.” Was that longer than five seconds? Her mind shrieked it as her eyes scanned his forehead protector. The line through the steel carved leaf became incredibly interesting to her as she tried so hard not to look into those hauntingly dangerous eyes. The rise of her chest was telling as she began to shake in his grasp. Never before had she felt so close to death. “Hmph,” he smirked. It made her look at his mouth just above that fabric band and she saw a familiar look cross his lips. It had been over two years since she had seen that same Uchiha smirk, but on another man’s mouth. She turned briefly. Kakashi was glancing at her with some strange fear amid his own battle and Naruto seemed to be breaking away from the nins he was fighting. Time was running out. “Is it a deal?” she breathed out carefully. Itachi finally let go and took two steps back, his cloak hiding the rapid movements of his feet. “Kisame,” was all he said. “Kis..?” Sakura began to say, but a crash rang through her head and body bringing everything to darkness. Now, as the door swung fully open ahead of her, casting the yellow glow of man made light across the floor, she squinted at the shadow brushing towards her. The long cloak swayed with his movements as he approached until he was right in front of her prone, straining form on the stone floor. Sakura raised her bound hands to her face, hoping to thwart the blow she half expected him to give her. That cold nothingness filled Itachi’s face as he bent to look at her. “It’s a bargain, Kunoichi, but if you don’t heal my eyes or you break our deal, I’ll kill you.” “I believe you,” she whispered, trying to hide the obvious fear trickling along her body and glowering in her green eyes. “That makes things much easier,” he seemed to smile, but it wasn’t friendly. It didn’t touch those deep red eyes. Another shadow passed through the door and Itachi stood and turned away from her, giving his attention to the other man. “You hit her too hard,” he said quietly, no tone of anger, just indifference. “She’s damaged. Look at her eyes.”

“If she’s a medic, she’ll heal. Aren’t you curious how well she can heal? You can’t just take her word for it.” Kisame growled low and gravelly. A grunting laugh followed his observation. “Yes,” Itachi began, “I am curious. I’ll be returning in two days. We’ll see how well she does.” Even in the dim half-light of the open doorway, Sakura could see the sharkman’s sickly sadistic grin bending the gray flesh around his mouth. What had she gotten herself into? The question seemed to ring over and over in her mind as she watched the conversation end and the two men leave. Now, the pain began to free her from her mental burden for a little longer as the darkness overcame her once again. As her eyes cracked open this time, it was light in the small cell she was in. The walls and floors were gray, hard and dull. The door was indeed wooden and had no window. It appeared to have a slot at the bottom on hinges, likely for pushing food in and out of the room. There was a wire-framed bed, typical of a jail cell, with rusty springs. A striped bedroll was rolled up on it and she hoped that it was clean. A small oil lamp burned on the wall near the door. There was a sink and a toilet, and a drain in the floor. For what, she couldn’t be sure. Maybe it was to wash away the gore after a messy execution? That isn’t helping, she told herself. Managing to sit up, Sakura was startled by the figure at the other side of the room, which she hadn’t taken in yet. The tall ninja sat on the floor, unmoving. His gray-blue epidermis was tinged a muted skin tone in the orange glow of the lamp fire. His black soulless eyes watched her every movement and that same dark smile was on his mouth as if it was still there from the last moment she looked at him. “I’ve been waiting for you to wake up. It’s been another twenty four hours, Kunoichi.” Another twenty-four hours? The fear shook through her body again. She was gone for over two days and no one had come to get her? Obviously this little personal prison was somewhere Naruto and Kakashi couldn’t find her, and that worried her more than it had previously. Before, she hadn’t wanted to be found, but now…now, she wanted to wipe the last couple of days from existence. “Wh…why?” she whispered. Why was he sitting here staring at her? Without any ability to control it, she began to shiver as if the floor had turned to ice. Maybe it was infection fever? Maybe it was blinding fear, who knew? If they’d made a deal, then this man wouldn’t be here to kill her, would he? He would have killed her in her sleep, right? Maybe it wasn’t as fun, she cringed inwardly as the sadism spread across his shark-like face.

That isn’t helping, she reminded herself again. “So, Medic, I’m curious about your healing abilities. The Uchiha genius seems to think you're capable but I’m not convinced.” He chuckled his delight at having such a play toy in his grasp. “I’m not here to aid you,” she managed in an audible tone while swallowing down her fear. His laughter filled the stone room, bouncing off the walls and invading her skin, creating painful ripples of fear. He must have seen it on her face because he laughed harder. “I love your fear, Medic. No, you aren’t here to help me, but I’m curious for a demonstration.” His tone turned softer, but no less deadly. Her eyes snapped to his dark menacing glare and she began to shake her head in understanding of what he meant to do. Standing up in a fluid simple motion, Kisame approached Sakura slowly, enjoying the way she tried to shrink into herself to avoid his incoming grasp. His strong leathery hands grabbed her red shirtfront and pulled her to her feet. The pain filled her body from being immobile on the stone floor for almost two days. Such a sudden shift in positions made her wince more loudly than she would have liked. “Itachi returns tomorrow. I expect you to be healed by then.” His gruff intonation was so nonchalant it was almost humorous. He grinned as his hand cocked back and flew towards her face. In that split second before the heavy blow would take away consciousness again, only one thing ran through her mind. Shit Let it be a dream, just a horrible nightmare I’ll wake up from when that door opens, she prayed silently. Lying frigid and in extreme pain, Sakura tried, in vain, to shift her body. Every movement caused shocks of anguish to ride through her. Bastard, she gritted her teeth as she thought of his pointless beating. Just once. He’d hit her just once and she’d been knocked out cold. He didn’t seem like he wanted to hurt her for fun, well, not completely. It almost seemed like he was testing her. He hit her face once, and once only. Sadly, that was all it took to break her cheekbone. If she could see in a mirror, she’d imagine that her eye was probably full of blood too. The socket felt damaged and the area around it was swelled and pained enough that it was impossible to touch. There was also a cut down her right arm and two fingers were broken, but she didn’t remember how that happened. The way they stuck out at odd angles worried her and she thought that it was perhaps too late to fix them now.

Straining a little, Sakura managed to lift her head from the floor and turn enough to see feet pass in front of the doorway, breaking the small light with it’s shadow. Just as it had before, her heart sped up and the adrenaline stole a little of the pain for it’s fuel. She couldn’t help the small helpless noise that escaped her lips as the doorknob turned and the light began to cut a path over the dark stone floor. Itachi Damn it. Another day passed, she marveled inwardly. Three days gone, no rescue and it seemed like only blinks of conscious and unconscious as they passed. This was probably it, her mind screamed; he was coming to kill her. His steps were slow, measured and sure. He came straight towards her and stopped short of a step. One more and he would have kicked her sick stomach. Actually, she waited for the blow to land. But so far he hadn’t acted, he just stood there and she was afraid to look up at his face. Loosely, the open cloak started pooling around his feet as he crouched low in front of her. Reacting to his movement, Sakura’s hands lifted, still bound in front of her face for what small protection she could give herself. She knew her hands were shaking but she didn’t care. Maybe he wouldn’t want to touch her blood? Yeah, right. Somewhere in her mind, she figured he was going to make good use of that drain in the floor now. “Look at me, Kunoichi,” he said in a low, unreadable tone. It was as emotionless as the creased line that passed for his mouth. She could only make a small sound of pain as she kept her eyes shut, bound hands shaking above her. It was then that the heat of his hand clung around one forearm, but not harshly, not to hurt her. He lowered her hands away from her face, and he felt like fire against her freezing skin. Another small noise of pain escaped her, but in more of a hiss this time. A second figure entered the room behind the Uchiha genius, and Sakura could tell by the smell and the way her back straightened, that it was Kisame. “I told you she couldn’t heal,” he almost laughed, “It would be my pleasure to kill her for you.” “Look at me, Kunoichi. Now,” Itachi said again with a hint of assertiveness, but no malice. With some curiosity of how she’d managed to live past the first few seconds of his entrance, she lowered her hands to look up at him. Blood coloured sharingan stared down at her. His eyelashes were so long, and the shape of his eyes was something akin to a

woman’s femininity. For a moment she felt captured, but not taken. He didn’t use them on her. “How much chakra have you drained from her?” Itachi asked Kisame, his eyes still focused on the pained medic. “I took some every three hours with Samehada, since you left. The fifth Hokage trained her. We don’t need her breaking down the wall with her punches.” “You didn’t leave her enough to heal with. Her hands are still bound. How could she heal herself, Kisame?” The tall sharkman stood there staring at the Uchiha’s back as if the answer might be written there. Itachi was so calm, so close to a whisper that Sakura was misunderstanding the situation a little bit. Was he angry? “Are you this ill educated in chakra that you did not understand she would need some energy and her hands to heal herself?” Oh, I think that one was rhetorical, Sakura warned the sharkman mentally. Something was escalating; she could feel it. Maybe it was Itachi’s power because the room seemed filled with his presence, filled with some sort of prickling energy that scared her even more. “You overestimate her, Itachi. She should be killed,” Kisame growled. “I overestimate you. Shall I kill you too?” Something strange happened at that moment. Itachi was no longer in front of her, but beside Kisame. The sharkman was doubled over and blood dripped on the floor. “Get out of my sight, Kisame. I would make the medic heal you, but since you have prevented that, I guess you'll have to suffer. I’ll make it her choice when she’s able.” Kisame looked up at the Uchiha with a mixed look of something between pain, anger and apology. The last emotion seemed the weakest, of course. Slowly, he hobbled towards the door, a low growl trickling out of his throat. But it wasn’t directed at his partner, it was directed at Sakura. A little more fearful of the growling sharkman, Sakura was also upset that he’d directed the anger at her. It was his mistake, he should own it, but since Itachi was stronger, Kisame would naturally choose to pick on the weakest of their small group. It was survival of the fittest, she supposed. But the anger died fast as the Uchiha turned back to face her, a bloody kunai held in his hand and an impassive look on his face. He was the sort of man who could stab a ‘friend’

and not blink twice. The type of man he was became so clear to her in that second when he looked back down on her. His steps moved him towards her as she struggled to move away. Maybe this was it? And death was creeping up with quiet feet. She closed her eyes.

Loophole Chapter 2: A Little Fear with Lunch. Sakura couldn’t take her eyes off the kunai dangling loosely in the deadly Uchiha’s fingers, tinged with Kisame’s blood. The deep red tint made a hot flash of adrenaline run through the young medic as he approached where she lay. His steps were easy and slow as if he was walking to the cupboard to get something he needed. He stopped momentarily to wipe the blood off the silver weapon using the bedroll, which was still rolled up on the rusty makeshift bed. The fabric ripped with the touch of the extremely sharp blade dragging across it. One swipe from each side of the dirty kunai left two gaping rips with fluff dropping out of them. Turning his attention to the shivering kunoichi, Itachi squatted in front of her, gripping her hands and lifting them up towards him. Sakura hissed audibly as he clutched her disjointed and purple-hued fingers. What does he care? He loves to hurt people. But even as she thought it, his grip loosened and shifted to her wrists instead. “Your chakra won’t reach those fingers,” he said quietly. “They’re broken,” she managed to whisper out from her dry lips and parched throat. She couldn’t be sure if it was her tone or what she said that made him pause, but his movement stopped abruptly. Coming back to himself, he used the kunai to cut the restraint away from her clasped wrists, easily tugging the leather away from her. “How did he break them?” Itachi sounded curious, rather than concerned. She doubted if concern was even possible for him. “I don’t remember,” she answered, trying to rub the angry red marks left on her wrists by the restraints. It seemed that Itachi thought on that for a moment as well, but his face was unreadable. She supposed he would be the best card player in the world with a poker face like that.

Had she not been in so much pain, the thought might have made her laugh. But the last thing she wanted to do was bring more pain upon herself, which is what a little chuckle at his expense would probably do. Somehow the terror was lurking just underneath, and jokes seemed way too much like losing her mind at that moment. So, reasoning told her to can the humor. The fear was displacing it anyway. Itachi stood up as she rubbed her legs trying to get heat, but one pained hand was not enough. The other appendage, with its twisted fingers, was out of commission. “Stand up,” he directed as he stepped back. Making a marked attempt, she knew that lying on the stone floor for two days made it impossible. Her body was cramped, sore, and what she might even term as ‘seized up’ with the cold she’d lay captive of for so long. “I…I…” Admitting that she couldn’t was something she really didn’t want to do. To call his wrath on her so soon was not something that she would want to do. Tempting a wild animal seemed wrong, even on the best of days. Without making her answer fully, Itachi bent and scooped her up. The sensation of being held in a killer’s arms was so strange that she tensed her body in an attempt to weigh nothing. Resisting the urge to lay her tired head on his shoulder, she forced herself to remain unmoving in his strong hold. But he was warm, warmer than anything she had ever felt. The frigidity of the floor had managed to saturate her with the chill, right down to her bones. Even through the dark red and black cloak, she could feel his heat. Itachi carried her out the door of her ‘cell’ and down a long stone hallway. By Sakura’s estimation, the building must have been some sort of jail or holding area, perhaps a military base. Pushing open another door, Itachi entered wordlessly and set Sakura down on her feet. This room had an oriental rug and a wooden desk in it. Two hanging lamps on either side of the door flooded the room in warm light. There was some stationary on the dark wood desk, and a decent sized bed on the other side of the room. The blanket was red and soft, maybe even a duvet of some sort. A solitary bedside table held a half-burned candle. Letting the kunoichi try to stand of her own volition, Itachi kept his arm wrapped around her waist as she limped to sit on the bed. The entire time, Sakura avoided making eye contact with him. It would be a foolish mistake to look Uchiha Itachi in the eyes. The bed was soft under her, and she sank into it without falling, fighting the urge to lie back and sleep. Shocking her a little, Itachi took a seat as well. His warm fingers gripped the underside of her face, gently angling it towards him. He was so close that had he been a friend, she might have thought he was going to kiss her. “You’re close to hypothermia. You have a concussion and a broken cheekbone.”

Sakura just nodded feebly against his fingers. Was that a smirk? She tried hard not to look at his face, but his similarity to Sasuke was so drawing that it was hard to turn away. “Your eye is filled with blood.” His gaze dropped to her fingers. “These need to be set.” Listening to the large number of words he was letting fall from his mouth, Sakura was sort of stunned with the one sided banter. Strange really, she imagined he’d say almost nothing, much like her mental picture of him. His voice was soft, muted, and she believed if she could run her hand over it, it would have a velvety texture. She would find it relaxing, had she heard it in some other circumstance. Why do the Uchihas get the smooth voices? Yes, he was right, she needed to see to her fingers, but the overwhelming sleepiness was getting too close behind her eyes. Maybe just a few more hours sleep. A concussion? This was most likely the reason for the lack of alertness, but perhaps if she slept, she’d die. The possibility occurred to her, but just didn’t sink in. Lifting her hand to fully take in the maimed fingers with her half lidded eyes, she got another shock as she felt his hand grab onto her wrist. He turned and tugged her body close to him. Her chin banged his shoulder as her chest crushed up to the dark cloak draped over him. Trying to ignore the comfort of his body heat, she gave a slight tug back. Her arm was suddenly wrenched under his and the realization of his intention became clear as his arm pinned hers to his body. Grasping feebly at his back, she twisted some of his robe as she felt the first soft touches along where her broken fingers met her knuckle. “Please, don’t,” she begged, “Don’t…” Immediately, she felt the first wrenching pull of her finger and amid her pained shriek, she feared he might have pulled it right off her hand. As the endorphins rushed to the injury, blood flooded her digits again. It throbbed and pulsed in agony. Sakura thought for a moment that she might pass out. All of a sudden, she felt his warmth under her cheek finding herself collapsed against his back while she tried to breathe through the nausea. Her other hand had grabbed his shoulder, but if it bothered him, he didn’t let on. His head turned slightly to look at her. At the angle she laid on him there would be no way to see her, but she felt the sweep of his black ponytail over her hand twisting in his robe. Again, his fingers passed over her knuckle at the base of the other broken finger and she gritted her teeth. She made a small noise in anticipation of the excruciating pain about to happen. He ignored her as another jarring pain encompassed her hand, making white flashes dance in front of her eyes. She made a small shriek into the back of his shoulder as it happened. He didn’t even flinch.

It took three full minutes before Sakura found the constriction in her throat give way. “I’m going to be sick,” she whispered into his back. The waves of pain and nausea drove through Sakura’s stomach and she resisted heaving. The lack of eating for two days was probably a huge contributor to her current condition, but there wasn’t much she could do about that now. She just pressed her forehead against his shoulder and fought it. Throwing up on Uchiha Itachi was not a good idea. Itachi immediately turned around and she collapsed forward without his body propping her up. He caught her by her upper arms and pulled her close so that their faces were almost touching. Sakura’s eyes opened up to look into those beautiful sharingan as they changed into something far more deadly than Sasuke’s had ever been. Fear made her rigid in his grasp. But suddenly, it didn’t matter. Suddenly, nothing mattered. It was like floating on a warm breeze that lulled you to sleep. Nothing hurt, nothing was cold, there was no nausea. It was all just nothing now. Itachi watched the wide jade eyes of his captive close sleepily, glazed over with the druglike effects of the tsukiyomi. She was still caught in his firm grasp, and he admired the way his ability engulfed her. This was the first time that he’d ever used it not to hurt someone. It would have been easy to give her hours of difficult images and painful memories, but that would not suit his purpose. If the elder Uchiha was one thing, it was efficient. Damn it, why do I keep waking up like this? Again she awoke to stone walls and almost utter silence, but at least this time no one was looming over her with shark eyes and a big scaly sword. That was a definite improvement, as was her quarters for the moment. The bed she was on was soft and larger than the rusty looking one in the last room. The heavy red blanket kept her warm and so she resisted moving out of the heated niche her body had carved in the feather mattress. For the first time since Itachi manhandled her fingers, she managed to take a look at them. They were a better colour, with more of a pink tinge to them, and she was grateful that the chakra and blood was flowing through them. They were partially healed, which didn’t surprise her. Somehow since her training with Tsunade, her body healed itself faster on it’s own. A little bonus for top medics, she supposed. They were bandaged at the top and by the knuckles against a small flat stick to keep them immobile. Itachi? Well, she figured it certainly wouldn’t beKisame who helped her if anyone did. He would be more likely to stab the stick through her eye. Stretching out her limbs a little, Saukura realized that a great deal of her body felt better. As she did this, she noticed something on her arm, a bracelet of some sort. Her fingers traced over it. It was a simple silver band, with various seals stamped on it. Admittedly it

wasn’t ugly or unattractive, but she began to wonder why it was there. It had a faint blue glow to it, which she imagined was chakra. She tried to slide it off, but couldn’t. It was too small to slip over her hand and there was no clasp that she could see. Strange, she mused. Turning it slowly around her wrist, she dropped into inner thoughts until she heard a sound in the room. How careless to not even notice someone else was there. Oh yeah, concussion. “That is a chakra band. It’s infused with my chakra,” Itachi’s voice drifted quietly through the room. She couldn’t see him as he sat somewhere near the door behind the head of the bed. “Why?” But she knew the answer. “So I will know where you are at all times. Forgive me if I don’t trust you.” “Well, at least we’ve got that in common,” she mumbled as she took great difficulty in sitting up and turning to look at him. “You won’t be able to remove it. Only I can remove it,” he said softly. “I understand. Thank you for splinting my fingers,” she added, but there was no tone of appreciation. Sakura just felt it was necessary being the person she was. “You’ve been asleep for six hours. Has your nausea passed?” Sakura took a moment to figure out if it had or not. Seemed for now she didn’t need to throw up. Yay for medical chakra. But the tickle of hunger was making that change, little by little. Over two days with no food was too long. Sakura didn’t have a lot of body stores to draw from so she knew that there would be no healing anything until she was fully recharged. “I’m a little queasy,” she replied. “There is food prepared.” His eyes shifted slightly to beside the bed and just then she realized she had been looking into them. Quickly, she turned to look at the bedside table, which held a small tray with soup, fruit, and water on it. “Thank you,” she said softly as her gaze remained on the floor. So as not to insult him, she tried to lift the tray from the table. Unfortunately, her previously mangled hand and still weak body prevented it and in a moment of shock, she could see it start to fall. Closing her eyes, she waited for the crash that never came. As she opened them, Itachi was standing beside the bed, the tray in his hands, nothing spilled.

Fast! “I’m sorry,” she said timidly, her wide eyes drew to the sharingan glaring at her before she realized what she was doing. Her head dropped down with her realization. The shift of the bed indicated he had sat down beside her, and she began to get a little nervous at his close proximity. She felt like she was the most defenseless she had ever been. Her fingers were sore, devoid of strength, and with almost no chakra to call on, she was virtually at his mercy. Then again, chakra or not, he’d already taken her over with the sharingan once. What was to prevent him from doing it again? He set the tray on her outstretched legs, and pulled the small plastic lid off the Styrofoam bowl, which held the steaming soup. “It’s hot,” she marveled, wondering if they knew exactly when she would wake. “My tsukiyomi lasts six hours. The food was brought to you then.” Itachi’s voice was still quiet, but held that little threat of becoming angry just underneath. Dipping the metal utensil in, her hand shook so hard that the soup slid off the spoon, plopping back into the bowl. Vainly, she tried again, managing to get it near her mouth, but she hesitated. Poison, maybe it was poisoned or drugged? If she had thought hard enough about it, she might have realized that Itachi wouldn’t need poison, but there was something preventing coherent thought right now. Her throbbing head still screamed concussion as if it was the headliner in a thrash metal concert. Itachi watched her. He made no move to leave while she tried feebly to eat. Now she was beginning to feel like his science experiment and wondered what else could be in the soup. As if he understood what she was thinking, and most likely he did, he cocked his head before speaking. “There is nothing in that but soup, I assure you.” Her shaking hand still held the spoon in front of her. She continued to hesitate. Without thinking, Itachi grasped her hand and brought the spoon to his own mouth, drawing it in. Without relinquishing her hand, he dipped it back in, and made her feed him again. Then lifting the glass to his lips, he took a drink of the water. Sakura’s eyes were wide. The feel of his hand remained on hers, even though he had let go. She shivered a little, then looked down at the fruit. Itachi, seeing her warranted mistrust, picked up the peach and took a bite. The juice trickled at the side of his mouth, and he licked it quickly. Holding the peach up to Sakura’s mouth, his face was the picture of a blank page. “Eat it.”

Sakura looked at the peach, and then back to him. Something in his tone told her that the time for suspicion was over and if she didn’t eat, he was going to show his darker side. Well there was just no way that she was going go that route. Leaning forward a little, she took a bite of the soft fuzzy skin while his hand held it steadily in front of her. He put the peach down and again grasped the hand that held the spoon, leading it up to her mouth. Her eyebrows creased with the pain of him squeezing her broken fingers. The next spoonful he allowed her to take on her own. Itachi stood up then, feeling that his work was done. “Your clothes are dirty, and you’re covered in blood. There is a bath across the hallway with fresh clothes. You have half an hour to eat and get cleaned up before we discuss our agreement. If you’re not ready then, I will send Kisame for you.” He looked back down at her darkly before leaving. The door snapped shut behind him. What did you get yourself into? She thought angrily Realizing that she wanted to eat, but wanted to take a bath as well, she picked up the bowl and drank the contents down in three large gulps. The water slid down her parched throat next, and it was more refreshing than she could have imagined. Sliding her legs out from under the heavy blanket, she felt dizzy and lightheaded. She teetered on her tired feet, managing to stand up, but winced from the freezing cold on her bare toes. Itachi must have removed her shoes. Grabbing the peach with her good hand, she walked slowly to the door and opened it, fully expecting to see the sharkman on the other side. But he wasn’t there, just an open door across the hall with some steam billowing around a large bath. It was the older kind of bath, wooden and deep. The thought of taking off her clothes and getting in was frightening, but she figured he would be angry if she didn’t get cleaned up. The boiler, heated by fire, sat just outside a window and she could see it seemed to be either early evening or early morning. With the hours of unconsciousness and the unfamiliarity of her surroundings, she was baffled as to what time it must be. As she slid through the doorway of the bedroom, and into the bathroom, she noticed the band on her arm grew warm with chakra for a moment. After putting the peach on the sink, she took off her bloody and ripped garments to slide into the steaming tub. The water calmed her almost immediately, and made her aching body so much more comfortable. Taking a moment, she mused on what he must have done to the chakra band. Obviously his chakra was imbedded in it, and it alerted him when she crossed the doors. But then he must have infused the doorways with his chakra as well. Tricky bastard.

It wasn’t ugly, but she didn’t like the silver bauble’s purpose. She could never move without him knowing where she was. It wasn’t a popular idea in her opinion, but she guessed for now she wasn’t allowed an opinion. The water began to soothe her as the heat washed over her skin. There was soap and a washcloth as well as a fresh towel on the floor beside the glossy wood. Her gaze rested on the small stool at the other side of the room and she saw what looked like dark pants and a dark wrap around shirt with a white tie. The thing that shocked her most was the folded Akatsuki cloak under the clothes. He truly is crazy if he thinks I’m going to wear that, she sneered inwardly. Damn psychopath. She estimated that she had about fifteen minutes left before sharky would come running in the door, ready to sop up what ounce of chakra she had left with his flashy fish sword. So she put her arms on the side of the tub and lay her good cheek on them to try to find some peace. It seemed her heart refused to slow down, even in the searing hot water. Slowly her eyes began to close, and she fought it, but it was no use. Warmth. Coming back to herself, she splashed the water over the edge and onto the stone floor while trying to remember where she was. Damn, damn, damn. She’d fallen asleep again. Looking at her wrist, the silver band had a blue hue glowing around it. “What does that mean?” she whispered. “It means you have failed my directions,” Itachi’s voice said from across the room. He sat on a chair, eating the half peach she had left on the sink. His face was cold and unreadable. Crouching forward, his robe was open, displaying his black mesh shirt and his dark pants. He leaned on his knees, while taking slow bites of the sweet fruit. At least it’s not Kisame. But truly she wasn’t sure which was the lesser evil. Six of one, half-dozen of the other. “I…fell asleep,” she said with placation. She kept her eyes on the peach, instead of his eyes. “Yes, I noticed.” “If you leave, I’ll get out,” she said as calmly as possible, somewhat pleased with the strength of her voice. “I don’t like to wait,” he began. “We’ll discuss the terms of our agreement now.” He took another bite.

“I don’t have any clothes on,” she hissed, finally finding her embarrassment overcoming her fear. “You aren’t offending me,” he said plainly. “I’m not offe….this wasn’t part of the deal,” she pressed. Her eyes met his. It was just too hard to be angry at a peach. It wasn’t like he was getting nothing from their deal. Maybe two could play this game? Really, she did have some leverage with the situation. “This is a bargain. You aren’t doing me a favor. You’ve already tagged me like an animal. What can I do with three minutes getting out of the tub? I’d prefer to keep my dignity.” Silence rode through the room, making the air thick with intensity. Itachi suddenly stood near the tub. The shock that she hadn’t seen him move scared her and she shrank into the water, letting the line of the liquid rest just below her nose. His face was unreadable. He didn’t seem angry, but she likened him to a stray wolf that comes to sniff your hand calmly before taking a chunk of your leg. The adrenaline surged through her and she tried to access some chakra, just in case. The fear was getting to her, as well as the pain and she turned away from him, covering herself with her arms. “Is this what you want? You win. I’m scared. I’m damn well terrified. How far do you need to push me until it ends?” she said, her tone fraught with fear. She trembled against the back of the wooden bath, her body turned and her back exposed to him. Silence filled the room, and the waiting began to kill her. Curiosity on whether he’d kill her in the tub or drag her out first played in her pounding head. But Itachi just stood there, no words, no actions, just a statue. Sakura managed the bravery to turn back a little to see where he was, half expecting him to be standing on the water behind her. But he was still in the same place. When he finally moved, he bent and picked up the towel from the floor to rest it on the side of the tub. “Five minutes,” he whispered, then turned and left. Sakura looked down at her wrist, the blue hue of the silver band died away as she leaned on the side of the tub. Crying would do no good, but unfortunately, there was no way to stop it.

Loophole Chapter 3: Details

Emerging from the steaming bath, Sakura slipped a little on the first step leading down and banged her back on the tub edge. She was already crying so it was just a little extra incentive to keep going. Even the tub is out to get me. Between the lack of chakra and the continuous rehashing of her poor decision making, Sakura was absorbed in self-pity. Pain and fear, mixed with the continuous unpredictable actions of a sociopath clan killer and a bloodthirsty shark, had finally brought her to the breaking point. Crying was just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. At sixteen, Sakura was a well-put-together young woman, but now the unsure child threatened to take over as she sobbed. The whimpering sounds echoed off the stone walls and filled the small bathing room. Trying to compose herself but failing miserably, she grabbed the towel off the side of the tub and held it against her front. Her fingers still throbbed with pain, and her headache was becoming unbearable. In spite of having obsessively checked the silver band every few seconds since Itachi had walked out a few moments ago, Sakura checked it once more. Much to her relief, it still lacked the glow indicating he was in the room. There was nothing else for it; she was consumed with regret at her hasty actions. Well, hasty wasn’t the word, more like not very well thought out actions. Yes, she had pondered Itachi's reaction and what the outcomes might be. But the idea of spending time alone with the pair had never brought out some of the fears she had experienced in that split second when she awoke on the side of the tub. Rousing to find red sharingan staring through you was one thing, but to be naked on top of that…? Taking a sighing and woeful deep breath, she finally managed to slow her tears enough to realize that Itachi was not going to take pity on a crying girl. If anything, he’d be angry. They’d made a deal and she’d just have to abide by it. But a deal also meant rules, which she hoped she might have a part in making. If he could set rules, so she had to be able to as well. Holding her sore back now, she hobbled over to the steamed up mirror hanging over the small sink. In the initial rush to get into the bath she’d forgotten to check her swelled face. Using the towel to wipe off the misty glass, she took in her bruised and broken cheek. The swelling was still profuse, and the blue-black-purple mess looked as painful as it felt. But it was the blood-filled eye that concerned her most. Her vision was slightly cloudy, and she decided that the very first bit of chakra she would use would be to fix that eye. Her gaze finally pried away from the mirror and rested on the clothing neatly folded on the stool. Bet Kisame did that, she smirked angrily. Bet he’s Itachi’s lapdog. The vision of the sharkman folding clothes was ridiculous, but she wasn’t in a laughing mood. Actually, she found she was in more of a stay alive mood at the moment.

Drying off as best she could, Sakura wrapped the towel around her head. Next she dressed in the pants, which fit almost perfectly. Obviously they were men’s as the waistband was wide, but they hung comfortably on her curved hips so she wouldn’t complain. The shirt was slightly too large and when she wrapped it around her, the silken trim around the edge reached all the way to the back of her hip. The silky white tie wrapped around her slender waist twice. She double knotted it out fear of the darker images that slid through her mind when she discovered the Uchiha in the bathroom. How long had he sat there while she slept bare to the world on the tub edge? Her shoes were by the door and she put them on her feet. A last rub of the towel went through her pink locks before Sakura discarded the terrycloth to the silver rail near the sink A deep breath helped her compose herself enough to finally stop crying. Her eyes were obviously puffy and the green of her good eye was bright from the tears. She didn’t care if Itachi knew she’d been crying. It seemed like something he might have been pushing for anyway. Maybe he’d leave her alone now. Yeah, and Kisame will give me a nice kiss hello. Pushing open the door almost too slowly, Sakura slid out of the small opening she made. For a moment, the band grew warm on her wrist as she passed the threshold. Standing beside the partially opened door, she could see Kisame standing in the room across. He seemed very pleased with the damage he’d caused to her face, and he scanned it with a smile of grim satisfaction. “Your face is such an attractive colour, kunoichi,” he laughed. “Would you like me to give you one to match on the other side?” Sakura watched him for a moment. He was dangerous. Not dangerous like Itachi, because Itachi was a type of unknown danger, never predictable. Kisame was like a beast that waits for the right time to strike. Beneath his calm exterior lay a twistedness invisible to the casual eye but understood to the observer. “Is that your blood on the floor?” she said quietly as she noticed a small red pool at the side of his foot. He seemed to grow angry at that observation, obviously still smarting from the wound Itachi had given him. For Sakura to point it out might just have reminded him where to direct his anger. Luckily, he didn’t lunge at her like she half-expected. Instead his expression dulled and became somewhat amused. “Yes, it’s mine now, but it will be yours later,” he laughed. “Itachi is waiting in the other room. Follow me, but don’t get too close. I might take your head off with my sword.” “Thanks for the warning,” she mumbled. It’s not like she couldn’t have guessed he’d say that, let alone do it on a whim. Was he cliché? No, just predictable.

Trudging behind the tall ninja, she could feel how overwhelming his presence was. He was so damn tall, and for lack of a better term, heavy. It seemed like his being weighted her down just by standing near her. For the moment, she felt small and insignificant, like a spider that could get stepped on and easily crushed with no chance to scurry away. Bad analogy, she admonished herself. Moving past a closed door to the next one, Kisame pushed it open to reveal a larger room with the same stone walls. A long table sat in the middle with a few candles burning on it. Itachi sat at one end, leaning on his fist as if he were bored or tired. It looked so unusual for the deadly Uchiha to look like a trite teenager, but he did. Itachi’s eyes flicked to the chair beside the end he sat at, and Kisame pushed Sakura’s back to move her towards it. She shivered at the contact of his big meaty hand as he nudged her, causing her to lurch forward. Moving out of Kisame’s reach, Sakura made her way to the seat Itachi had indicated. “Leave us, Kisame,” Itachi said quietly. Even though the order was gentle, it impressed Sakura somewhat that Kisame would relent so quickly. She could almost feel Kisame’s perturbation, but he complied. She supposed that Itachi was the brains of the operation and Kisame was the big, stupid brawn. Sitting down, Sakura folded her hands in her lap and took in the grain of the wooden table right below her. Without meaning to, she made a small curtain of her wet hair and hid behind it. There were trays of food in front of her. Bread, cheese, fruit, and butter sat waiting for her to gain some courage. Her stomach suddenly felt much more empty. Unfortunately, three gulps of hot soup and one bite of a peach were not enough to satisfy the raging hunger created by days without food. Would a stomach growl be considered a threat? “It’s time to work out the details of our deal, kunoichi,” Itachi began. She saw his fingers reach out to pick up a grape from the tray directly in front of her. His red ring gleamed in the candlelight and inadvertently, her fingers went to the silver band on her own wrist. It was warm and glowing with his chakra. Taking a deep breath, she tried to seem a little stronger than she was feeling. “Sakura,” she said softly. “Hm?” Itachi seemed almost surprised. “My name is Haruno Sakura. I’m a kunoichi and a medic, but these are designations, not names. I wouldn’t call you Akatsuki or ninja, Itachi-san.” She bit her lip. “My apologies, Sakura-san. I was raised with better manners.” His voice seemed cold but it was a start. At least it didn’t seem to anger him.

She nodded a little. “Sakura-san, you have taken a chance in coming here. Kisame wants to kill you. But I believe you’re true to what you have proclaimed about your medical skills.” Sakura could feel his eyes boring into the top of her head, but she resisted looking up. She nodded a little. “I believe I can fix your eyes, Itachi-san. So I’ll trust you to keep your end of the bargain and help me get Sasuke away from Orochimaru.” “How do you propose I do that?” Itachi asked quietly. Sakura thought on that for a minute. She supposed the only true way to stop Orochimaru from stealing Sasuke’s body would be to kill the Sannin. But it seemed so much like a dirty deal to ask someone like Itachi to kill Orochimaru. For now, she didn’t know how to answer him. “You wish me to kill Orochimaru, do you not?” Itachi answered for her. “I think that may be impossible at this time.” “I ask that you do whatever is necessary to get Sasuke back. Nothing more, nothing less.” Sakura tried to be as vague as possible. It would seem wrong to let the dark deeds she expected from him to pass her lips. “Really? I must understand this, kun…Sakura-san. You’ll have me do whatever I find necessary to get Sasuke away from Orochimaru?” Itachi watched her closely, his chin still resting on his fist as he popped the grape in his mouth. Sakura nodded a third time, hoping that he would not push the issue any further. “Then our deal is made. But you can’t hold it against me if I do something you don’t endorse,” he said coolly. “While you’re here, you can look at my eyes. I won’t use the sharingan on you.” She supposed that trying to fix his eyes without looking into them was going to be impossible. Taking a deep breath, she figured he needed her more than he wanted to kill her so she took a chance. Slowly, she looked up at his eyes. Was it to test that promise or just because her neck was hurting from looking straight down? Either way, he seemed true to his word for the moment. Her eyes went to the food from there and she found her stomach begging her to take something with small rumbles. “This food is for you. Eat something so that you’ll be healed enough to fix your injuries.” Itachi seemed to direct the calm statement to the plate of bread in front of him as he took a slice and buttered it. Holding it out for her, he gave away nothing in his face of what he was thinking.

“Thank you,” she said quietly as she took the bread from his hand. “Now, the rules,” he began. “While you’re here, you’ll stay in the room across from the bathroom. That is your room and we will not enter it without your permission. The bathroom is yours also. In return, you will not go into any rooms with closed doors. You will not go outside or try to break any of the windows. You wouldn’t be able to, anyway.” Sakura looked at him with wide eyes, wondering if eventually she’d only be allowed to sit on a bed and think. “The chakra band will tell me if you go where you shouldn’t. If you disobey me, Kisame will punish you.” He took a bite of a peach. “I understand,” she answered. “I’m not finished. You’re to wear the Akatsuki robe at all times when emerging from your room. If you aren’t wearing it, you might get killed.” He still continued to eat and act as if they were just two friends discussing a road map or something insignificant. Life and death seemed really bloody significant to the shaking medic. “The next door down is a kitchen. We keep some supplies here and you may help yourself to whatever food, beverages or liquor that we have. The only thing I expect of you is to fulfill your part in our deal.” Itachi finally looked on her with his piercing red eyes. Sakura met them; feeling for the first time that she was not tempting death or painful genjustu, whichever was worse. “I promise to do my best,” she replied. “Is there anything you’ll need for your medical enquiry?” Itachi’s tone was less harsh, more muted and soft now. “I’ll need a book and pen for writing my observations and logging treatment. I’ll need to heal my fingers, and I’ll need to be able to recharge my chakra.” She felt a little more confident with the situation and answered him truthfully. “Hm,” he agreed. His grazing of the trays halted for a moment and beginning at her face, he let his red eyes slowly rove down her front. Sakura held her breath as his leer traveled down her body. The temptation to slap him was minute, but still there. Itachi must have seen her inner wish on her face, because he smirked at her tinged cheeks. At that moment, he chose to get up and calmly walk around the table to stand behind her. She shook as he watched some stray droplets from her wet hair drip onto her black shirt at the back. Itachi bent low beside her, his hands on the table on either side of her body,

blocking her in. He turned to her ear, and she could feel his warm breath on her cheek. His heat hovered at her back. She couldn’t move as fear gripped her. “This was n…not included in our deal, It…Itachi-san.” The words stuck in her throat. He was so close that she could hear his breathing and smell his musky sandalwood scent. His hands sat on the table, gripping the wooden panels. Sakura trembled at his closeness. He could kill her and she wouldn’t even know it was coming until it was too late. His words drifted softly into her ear. “My interest in you is purely medical, Sakura-san. I was merely observing your chakra.” He stood up and moved to the door. His face became that blank page again. “When you finish here, return to your room to rest. As soon as you’re healed, we’ll begin.” “Of…of course,” she managed to get out, pressing her hand over her chest to hold her heartbeat in. For a second she understood Kisame a little. Any order he’d give her, she’d choose to obey out of sheer intelligence. Itachi would never suffer fools. “Of course,” he echoed as he opened the door and drifted out. Sakura’s head found the table as she tried hard to calm her breathing. Flecks of light danced in front of her eyes, and it became tempting to just pass out. It took almost five full minutes to compose herself, but she managed. Looking at my chakra, my ass! Grabbing up some fruit and bread, she hurried back down the cold, damp hallway to her room. She shut the door with a quiet snap and made her way back to the bed. Setting the fruit and bread down on the table, she lay back and looked at the wooden ceiling. As the shaking died down, she decided that her eye was her first priority. Drawing some chakra into her hand, Sakura became disappointed with the minute amount she had. It was not enough to heal even a paper cut. Maybe a good sleep will help, she sighed inwardly. Getting up and tiptoeing to the bathroom, she slipped on the black and red robe. It fit as well as to be expected. She supposed that they must be Itachi’s robe and pants, as he seemed to be little more than three or four inches taller than her. Kisame’s robe would fit her like a royal wedding dress, dragging out behind her wherever she went. Thank goodness for small favors, she shook her head. Taking another look in the mirror at her swollen and bruised cheek, she silently made herself a promise. I will get Sasuke back, and I’ll suck it up and take it all, as long as it leads to him.

Somewhere in her mind, she knew she’d made a deal with the devil and perhaps Sasuke would never forgive her for that. But at least he’d be alive, she reminded herself. This would be the thought that would allow her to sleep. Spending most of her time in her room, Sakura heard no sound and had no indication that either Itachi or Kisame were anywhere in the building. The chakra band would glow as she passed the thresholds, but there was no one waiting on the other side of the doors at any time. This actually went on for the entire next day and night. It was late afternoon on the third day when someone was finally heard. Sakura had been standing in the kitchen, eyeing some fruit that looked overripe, when she turned to see Itachi standing in the doorway. He looked at her from just over the wide collar of the red and black robe. Even the ends of his raven hair were hidden. A chill rode up her spine at his cold gaze. The Leaf crest, scratched through deeply, was an ominous symbol. Allowing herself to have a good look at him, her eyes finally rested on the thing dangling in his hand. The silver steel attached to a leather band gave it away. It was a headband, and not just any, but a Leaf headband. Sakura couldn’t pull her eyes away from it. Terror ran through her insides thinking that it belonged to someone she cared about or loved. “Whose…is…?” Words came out without care or thought. She’d healed her eye and still had a small reserve of chakra left, which now drew to her right fist. This time, the shaking of her body was in anger instead of fear. The adrenaline had brushed everything else aside. Itachi watched her, observed her change in demeanor with the glint of steel in his hand. He couldn’t help but smile a little, still hidden behind the wide collar. “You want to attack me, Sakura-san?” The tone was almost amused. “Whose headband is that?” she spat. “None of your business,” he replied coolly. Goading her into a fight was becoming a small enjoyment for Itachi. He’d never really seen her in action so the curiosity of her skill level was pushing the dangerous issue a little. “Damn you,” she growled as she crouched. “Tell me now!” She yelled this time. Before she could see it happen, Itachi was on her, forcing her body against the wall with his own. His hands clasped her wrists beside her head and she kicked at him, hitting only his leg guards. The headband dangled along her arm, and now she could see some blood on it.

“I’ll kill you,” she roared into his face. “Try,” he laughed. Sakura fought against him, and finally drew what small bit of chakra she had left to her leg. One good kick might dislodge him and give her a chance to grab a weapon. Itachi’s head cocked slightly as he looked down at her chest. His eyes seemed to be delving deep inside her and his expression changed from amusement to something bordering on deadly seriousness. The chakra had drained down her body and he knew what she was planning now. “Enough. Don’t make me kill you,” his tone changed instantly to smooth deep calmness. “It’s your headband.” “What?” she replied as some anger slipped away. “This is yours,” he said as he released her and dropped it into her hands. “I’ve been making sure your team can’t find you. Hatake Kakashi is a formidable tracker, and Hyuuga would be an inconvenience with his byakugan.” “Kakashi-sensei,” she muttered. “So they’re alive?” “Of course. You should have more faith in your team,” he said quietly, as if she had done something incredibly wrong. “I do have faith in them. It’s you that makes me doubt,” she said half-heartedly, now that her mind had been directed back to her teammates. Obviously, Kakashi would be going out of his mind with worry. Naruto was probably turning over trees looking for her. Thinking about them had made her examine all her decisions for what they were. Selfish and stupid. Everything was for Sasuke. She’d do anything to get him back, and maybe she’d compromised the mission and put her teammates in danger. “Please leave them alone,” she said softly as her fingers curled around her bloodied headband. “That sounds like another deal, Sakura-san,” Itachi smirked. “What shall we bargain for this time?” His hands went back up to the wall on either side of her body. He leaned close to her, his mouth by her ear. “What will you give me to secure this favor?” Sakura closed her eyes. She wasn’t sure what he was asking but of course, she had an inkling of what a man might want in return for a favor. “A…anything,” she whispered, her eyes staring at the piece of metal in her hand. His breath still tickled her ear.

They stood like that for a moment or two, and then Itachi backed away and turned towards the door. “Make some food then.” He strode to the exit without looking back. “What? Itachi-san? Make food?” “Is that too difficult, kunoichi?” He stopped and turned back around to face her. “But, I…is this our deal?” She couldn’t help but ask for clarification. She felt certain that her virtue was up for grabs to the best wheeler-dealer a moment ago. Perplexity filled her face. “I have no intention of seeking out your teammates. I only planned to stall their attempt to find you. I can’t attack at leisure, Sakura-san. I answer to others as well. And truly, you give me no credit.” To say that one must earn it was just on the tip of her tongue, but why tempt fate? Better to just keep it quiet, and live to see tomorrow, she reasoned. Hm, getting quite sensible about this aren’t we, her inner voice chided. She looked at the floor by his feet as she tucked the headband into a pocket of the long cloak draped over her body. “Make something to eat,” he repeated before he strolled out of the kitchen doorway. Sakura dropped to her knees. Taking a second to breathe deeply and compose herself, she realized that Itachi was not just a run of the mill killer. He planned, calculated and measured the efficiency of the hunt, rather than the thrill. And yet, the way he had spurred on the fight moments ago told her that somewhere inside he did, in fact, enjoy it. Well, one more night of rest, and she was certain they could start healing him. The thought served to brush aside her guilt of running out on her teammates. For now, there was nothing but the goal ahead of her. Opening the cupboards, she managed a small smile that things might finally move along. And she wasn’t dead. She managed to live another day around Uchiha Itachi.

Loophole Chapter 4: Compromise Another morning reached its golden rays through the window in the bathroom, which had previously and thankfully been designated as completely hers. The lag from the days of slipping in and out of consciousness had finally righted itself and she was sleeping properly.

Waking up in this dreary stone place was not exactly ambrosia, but for now, it was comfortable enough. The chakra coursed through her fingers and body, fully charged. It would soon be time to start what she had come here to do. Itachi would want some progress, and she was sure she could give him some. All the ways to begin such a medical enquiry had started to run through her mind, but the cooling bathwater was making it harder to relax and concentrate. She sighed as she began to ponder what she had done. Kakashi and Naruto must be having fits by now, she thought guiltily. If only there was some way to tell them she was alright. She supposed they would be imagining all sorts of horrible things happening to her. How could they ever forgive her when they found out the truth, that it was her idea? Pushing it away, she tried to get her mind focused on the path she had chosen. She’d come too far to stop now. If only the place wasn’t so quiet, or if she had something to occupy her time … Lately, Kisame was nowhere to be seen, and only rarely did Itachi make an appearance. The sight of him two nights ago, and the near fight in the kitchen had broken her fear, so to speak. She felt more at home, and for lack of a better term, more confident that she was not going to die in the very near future. Clearly, that would be a bonus in anyone’s book. Slipping out of the lukewarm tub, she got dressed and roamed out into the hallway between the two rooms she could claim as her own. The long Akatsuki robe slid along the floor behind her and the bottom was getting worn and frayed a little from her tendency to pace when thinking. Before she could continue into her bedroom, she became aware of a presence at the other end of the hallway. Without turning to face him, Sakura knew exactly who it was. “Kunoichi, you’re still alive? We’ll have to fix that,” the sharkman growled from the other end of the hallway. Don’t dignify it with a reply, don’t dignify it with a reply, don’t… “Don’t you have some laundry to fold?” Sakura mumbled. “What?” “Nothing,” she waved her hand dismissively. “Itachi sent me to tell you that he’ll be here this evening and expects you to be ready to work, medic. You’d better not fail him. If you are just blowing smoke up his ass, he’ll kill you.” Kisame’s warning was tempered with a gruesome smile. “I’m ready. I’ll wait in my room,” Sakura said as her thoughts began to turn on the fact that they would be spending quite a bit of time together…in close proximity…tonight.

Already, she had dismissed the tall ninja at the end of the hall from her mind as the other one began to consume her. Perhaps that wasn’t a wise thing to do, but she couldn’t help it. When her inner self took over, she was acting with blinders on. Kisame watched her eyes scanning the top of the wall in thought. “Hey, kunoichi, you shouldn’t forget me so easily,” Kisame laughed. “Hm? Why’s that?” Sakura said, finding a little bit of attention to give him. When he didn’t answer, she turned to face him. But, he was gone. Strange, she thought. Turning back to her door, she realized he had moved there, blocking her entrance. His quick, unseen movement made her let out a small gasp of surprise. Slowly, her gaze rose to his black eyes. They glinted with some hidden amusement. Before Sakura could react, his large hand twisted in her shirtfront, lifting her off the ground. “I owe you this,” he sneered before he cocked his hand back, and jammed it hard into her face. The loud crack of her cheekbone splitting filled the stone hallway. With an echoing laugh, Kisame dropped Sakura to the hard floor where she fell bodily against the cool stone. The slow shuffle of his feet got softer as he drew away from the pained and near unconscious medic. Bastard, bastard, bastard… I’ve gotten complacent. I’m too comfortable. I let my guard down. Damn it, Sakura, get it together. Pulling up, Sakura had to brace herself on the wall as she slid back into the bathroom to see what the damage was. The swelling was immediate, and using a bit of chakra, she checked what was happening under the mound of red purple flesh. Fortunately, it was only a fracture. But the dizziness was coming upon her again. Yes, she could heal it, but if she didn’t have enough chakra for Itachi today, the punishment might be much worse Making her way back to her room, she lay down on the bed. The band on her wrist glowed warm as she crossed the doorways, but as of yet, his chakra had not surrounded it. Just a little rest, she told herself, and then I’ll feel better. Without closing the doors between her room and the bathroom, Sakura dozed off, or more likely, fell unconscious on the feather bed. Waking sometime later, Sakura realized that it must be nighttime when her eyes opened and she still saw complete blackness. Cursing her lack of diligence, she got up and

fumbled for the matches in the bedside table. Lighting one, she managed to get the candle burning beside her. It would be enough illumination to get the lanterns lit. Even the small flickering light of a single burning candle hurt her head, and the encompassing pain renewed. With light touches on her sore cheek, she realized the swelling had gotten worse and decided that ice was in order. The dizziness was still there, as well as the pseudo migraine, but there was no time to dwell on that. Getting up to turn on the gas lanterns on either side of the entrance, she stopped as soon as she noticed the form in the corner. Itachi was sitting in the chair by the door, his legs stretched out and his hands clasped lightly together on his stomach. He looked extremely comfortable, and strangely enough, completely different without his robe on. His mesh shirt and dark pants hung lightly on his wiry frame, and for the first time, she saw him for the age he was. The lines on his face betrayed his youth, but without his headband on he looked every bit the young man he was. She guessed his age to be nineteen or twenty. Unfortunately, he did not look happy. Sakura clenched her fists without realizing it, and braced herself for whatever he was going to say or do to punish her. Trying desperately to stand still and straight, she found it a losing battle as the faintness crept over her. It seemed, by his face, that he was not pleased in the least. How long had he been waiting for her to wake up? Finally, he stood and approached her so quickly that it was difficult for her to follow his movements. Sakura trembled as one hand rose towards her and another slid around her back. But instead of striking her, or grabbing her shirt as Kisame had done, he did something she didn’t expect. So very lightly, he touched her chin and throat with his fingertips, gently guiding her face in the direction best suited to see the damage in the dim light. “I apologize for entering your room without permission,” he said in his smooth, muted voice. It was almost a whisper, almost comforting, and very unlike someone who wanted to hurt her. She shifted a little with the euphoria, but Itachi held her steady with his strong hand. “Um…it’s…alright,” Sakura said with some surprise. “Why didn’t you heal this?” he continued as he cocked his head sideways to have a good look. He drew near to her face to see her in the candlelight, or perhaps to give his eyes a better chance to focus on her. His hand felt unusually warm on her back, and the chakra band glowed blue around her wrist.

“I didn’t want to drain my chakra since we were beginning to work on your eyes tonight.” She looked into the red sharingan, which stared through her. He only nodded in response. “There’s food prepared. Come and eat. We can begin after,” he added. She waited for him to leave, but he continued to stand in front of her, his fingers touching her throat so lightly, sending shivers over her skin. Sakura continued to peer into his eyes, but as his fingers neared her cheek, she looked away. It all began to seem a little too intimate, standing there in the candlelight with his hand on the small of her back. The soft touches were not something she expected or even wanted, but his caress was so gentle. In her life, she never had a man touch her so tenderly. It began to make some fear rise up in her stomach; at least she believed it was fear. Taking a deep breath, she bowed her head seeing his fingers drop away from her face. She was almost certain that he was probably not looking at the situation the same as she was, but it was too much like something she had imagined with Sasuke. Soft touches, candlelight and his gentle voice solidified the dream. But it was Itachi, and it felt wrong to be in this sort of moment. Besides, her inner self reminded her, he is not in this moment with you. He might rip your throat out with those fingers tomorrow. But, he looks so much like Sasuke… “Shall I eat here?” she tried to change the mood, which now made him seem entirely too close to her. “No. We’ll eat in the room you and I met in to discuss our arrangement. I want to hear how you plan to begin our inquest.” Itachi relinquished his hold on her and turned to leave, fully expecting her to follow him, which she did. Moving slowly and somewhat unsteadily down the hall and into the large room with the oak table in the middle, Sakura took a place at one end. Relief in the fact that she had managed to make it without falling made her want put her nose up at Kisame. But her better judgment prevailed…well…at least this time. Kisame was two seats away from the other end of the table, where Itachi took a seat. There was quite a bit of food, and Sakura could see that it was take-out from somewhere. Carefully and respectfully, she began to reach for the food. Three things occurred to her then. The first was that they must be near a village to get food and keep it hot. The second was that she wondered how the food that was actually kept there, got there. And lastly, she realized that neither of the two ninja ever cooked. At any rate, she had never seen either of them lift a finger to cook anything.

Oh, well. At least there was a village nearby, she thought. With the fresh injury and the pounding headache, she found every movement to be painful and tiring. The thought that there might be more damage than she originally discovered occurred to her, but for now, nothing was sinking in. As they began to eat, silence fell upon the group. No one spoke. Itachi watched Sakura closely as she shook while trying to lift the spoon to her mouth to take in the first bit of hot soup. Two spoonfuls later, he could see her eyes trying to close. Forcing herself to see if they noticed, she realized that they were both staring at her attempt to eat, and sadly, to stay conscious. A fuzzy outline appeared around both of them as they faded in and out of what looked like shadows. It was becoming no use; Sakura’s head drooped a little as the spoon clanged to the floor. “I’m sorry… Itachi,” she managed to whisper before she lay her good cheek down on the table. The last flutters of understanding began to drain from her mind as she heard a chair squeak a short path across the floor. Unfortunately, she was in too much pain, and too overcome with fatigue to be frightened. Itachi watched the medic’s head lie still on the table. He stood and walked over beside Kisame; his sleek body moving gracefully under the mesh shirt. Slowly, he bent near Kisame’s ear and whispered softly, “Don’t ever touch her again.” Kisame remained still and tried his damnedest not to provoke the volatile Uchiha. Instead he just grunted an acknowledgement. Somewhere in his mind, the sharkman decided revenge could wait until Itachi was done with her. Putting his own life out for grabs was not what he would prefer to do with a partner like the Uchiha clan killer. Sakura could hear the short exchange; then darkness took her. Warmth… As alertness, or something close to it, slipped back into the medic’s mind, she tried not to open her eyes. There was something warm on her face, and there was no pain for a nice change. She was in a bed; of that she was certain. But her body felt so rested and comfortable that she didn’t want to shift it in case it all ended and she found herself lying on the table or worse, in Kisame’s grip. “You’re awake,” the calm voice of Uchiha Itachi whispered. Sakura finally opened her eyes to see him out of one, and feel her eyelashes hit his palm with the other. Instantly, she recognized her own room. “What are you doing?” she asked timidly, mimicking his quiet tone. “Healing your face,” he responded smoothly.

“I mean…why?” She gave him a puzzled look. “You don’t wish to be healed?” “Of course. I just didn’t expect…you….to….uh,” she didn’t know exactly how to say it. “Your opinion of me is low,” he said with no sign of emotion. Sakura just looked at him. Of course her opinion of him was low; he killed his family. He tormented his younger brother into running to Orochimaru for power. Why would he expect her opinion to be anything other than that? Perhaps he truly was a sociopath and didn’t feel he had done anything wrong? “Duh” was just sitting on the edge of her tongue at this point. He took his hand away from her face and she reactively touched it to feel the damage. It wasn’t completely healed, but the pain was gone. “Thank you,” she offered with some sincerity. “You wouldn’t use your own chakra, so I used mine. If you feel up to it, I’d like to start work on my vision. This is what you’re here for and I’m tired of delaying it. Kisame won’t bother you anymore.” Itachi sat back, and Sakura realized he had dragged the chair over next to the bed. He reclined lazily as he had when she found him in her room earlier. Again, the lack of headband and robe made him seem so young. He was attractive, no doubt about it. His dark hair looked soft in the dim glow of the lanterns, and his eyes were so appealing to look at. Maybe that was the lure of sharingan? They drew her in with their beauty so that she was hypnotized for the kill. He had to be one of the most attractive men she had ever seen. Stop thinking like that, she admonished herself. Lifting her hand over her eyes, she tried to regain her senses. Looking at Uchiha Itachi, famed killer, as a sex object was not a smart move any day of the week. Maybe it was teenage hormones, maybe his resemblance to the young man she loved, but this was a bad path to walk. “Are you in pain?” Itachi didn’t sit up and his voice sounded more curious than concerned. “No, no. I think I’ll be able to start working on your eyes. I’ll just get a glass of water.” Itachi placed his feet up on the bed to recline even more as she slipped off it. She found she had to slide along his legs to get out of their proximity and tried hard not to make it obvious how uncomfortable it made her. If she were uncomfortable with touching his legs with hers, then it would end up meaning more than it should.

After a quick glass of cool water, she returned to find him still slumped in the chair like he was getting ready to doze off. She sat at the top edge of the bed and looked at him, their eyes meeting. “Um, Itachi-san? Why don’t you lie on the bed and get comfortable? I want to start by seeing how your sharingan works.” Itachi eyed her for a moment. Sakura was sure it was difficult to let someone get an inside look at how his secret weapon worked, and it seemed like he was going to object. But it had to be done, and as his expression changed to something akin to uncaring, she let out the breath she’d been holding. He stood and moved to the bed as Sakura stood also to give him access to it. He lay down and she took the chair. “I want to see how it works. As you change it, I’ll monitor what it does to your eyes and where the damage is. If I can find what is causing the damage, perhaps I can reverse it.” Itachi put one hand behind his head, taking a lazy, uncaring posture as Sakura drew near. She sat on the edge of the bed next to him and leaned over slightly. Eh, this is intimate, she said inwardly. “Itachi-san, could you turn your eyes back to their original state?” Try as she might, she found her voice sounded strange and quiet. If he didn’t sense her nervousness at their closeness before, that would certainly send up the red flag for him. Without responding verbally, Itachi watched her as his eyes bled to black. The sharingan disappeared in the most unusual way, and Sakura became suddenly fascinated by it. His eyes were the same as Sasuke’s. The deep colour of them looked like a black pearl dipped in dark blue ink. Midnight blue, perhaps. They were beautiful, maybe more so than when they were red. “Shall we begin, Sakura-san?” Itachi seemed to find her reaction amusing, and smiled in the strangest way. “Ah, yes, of course,” she answered, sitting back and taking a quick interest in his crossed feet, trying to find a little composure. With a deep breath, she moved a little closer. Moving her hands to either side of his face, she hesitated before placing her fingers lightly on his temples. His skin was warm to the touch. The urge to see if his hair was as soft as it looked passed fleetingly through her mind. “Would you please switch back to sharingan when you feel my chakra inside you,” she directed.

Molding her energies, she let the blue chakra flow to her fingertips as she closed her eyes. The image of his internal workings appeared inside her head and she was fascinated with how everything changed. It was as if his eyes transformed into something wholly different. They became a vessel of chakra. “Could you switch back, please,” she asked. As requested, Itachi brought his eyes back to black. Sakura sat up and began to take notes. She bent back again, and Itachi could see some sort of excitement behind her gaze. Truly, only a medic would find something so simple so intriguing, he laughed inwardly. This continued for some time, and Sakura became more than a little excited to see how the sharingan changed back and forth. Somewhere in her mind, she thought that perhaps, if she ever had the chance, she could help Kakashi-sensei change his to black as well. After making a few more notes, she turned back to Itachi and bit her lip. His cool gaze just stayed focused on her, waiting for what she was deciding on saying. How could anyone look so emotionless? She wondered. “Itachi-san, your other sharingan, I need to see it work. I am guessing that this is the primary reason for your vision problems so I want to see the impact on your eyes when they change.” She slipped her lower lip in to bite down on it, waiting for his compliance. He watched her for a moment, his hand still lazily tucked behind his head. He seemed to be waiting for something, and Sakura couldn’t fathom what it might be. Her eyebrows rose in puzzlement. “Um….please?” she added softly. Itachi seemed to change a little then; his face became a little more animated as a small smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. Slowly, he sat up until his face was close to hers. Trying hard not to seem intimidated, Sakura sat still and let him near her. But as he got closer, she found it too near. Here they were, sitting on a bed, in a lantern lit room, and his face was an inch away from hers. She fought the shiver that was trying to creep up her back from fear, adrenaline, or something she couldn’t wholly admit to herself. He sat in front of her for a moment, and as she watched, his eyes changed to a different sharingan altogether. They were still red on the outside, but the inside looked more like a pinwheel instead of just the small splashes of black. She knew her eyes were widening, knew they must look like saucers by now, but hell, how often do you see those eyes without dying shortly after? “Sakura,” Itachi said quietly, “shall we continue?”

“Oh, ah, yes. Sorry, Itachi-san. Its just….that sharingan is…” She couldn’t finish what she was saying, and her gaze dropped from his eyes to his mouth, which smirked a little. “This is the mangekyou sharingan. It can only be achieved in a special way,” he goaded. “Special way?” she whispered as she looked back up at him in wonder. “How so?” Itachi watched her for a moment. Her eyes looked at him so innocently. Large, and the colour of jade, they were something he hadn’t seen in a long time. As an Uchiha, that innocent childlike fascination was lost among even the children. Driven hard from an early age to succeed, he felt there was probably never a moment in his life that he felt the way she did right now. For some reason that escaped him, he didn’t feel like telling her how the mangekyou sharingan came to be. Instead, he felt like admiring what he considered a weakness in her, her childlike naivety and innocent fascination. She was like a lamb, and he…he began to feel like the wolf. Not an entirely unpleasant feeling.

Loophole Chapter 5: Progress Two more nights had flown by, bringing Itachi to her room for more medical attention and a slight bit of social interaction each evening. He was quiet most of the time, but through the three or four hours they would spend together, small conversations would occur…usually about nothing. Sakura stretched out on her bed lazily, starting to get a little stir crazy with staring endlessly at the same four walls. There were 86 chipped stones throughout the room, and one stone in particular looked an awful lot like a squirrel. Yep, spending way too much time here, she grumbled inwardly. Where Itachi went throughout the day was a mystery to her, and not one she was interested in solving. But today, footsteps moved up and down the hallway, telling her that Kisame and Itachi were actually skulking around the building rather than running the countryside and doing whatever S-class criminals do. Another hour passed as she still lay on the bed, watching the clock Itachi had given her upon request. Usually, she would go over the findings to do with the damage in the Uchiha’s eyes, but today she just felt like breaking something.

Up to now, everything had gone smoothly with Itachi. It was safe to say that nothing was smooth with Kisame, but luckily she didn’t see him that much. Clearly, he was not going to hit her again, as he had some opportunities but refrained with some sharky inner strength. Another deterrent might be that one warning from Itachi was heeded with the utmost respect. Hell, she wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of his anger, although he never seemed to get really irate, just scary. Even when he stabbed Kisame on that first day, he didn’t seem to have clear-cut fury like she expected. Itachi… He seemed to have dropped the honorific off the end of her name, calling her just Sakura now. This didn’t really bother her, but he seemed so formal before. That first time he showed her his mangekyou sharingan up close, he used her name less formally. She didn’t exactly know how to react to it. Should she call him Itachi from now on? Uchiha? Uchi? Ita-kun? A soft snort came from her bored mouth as she imagined his face if she called him Itakun. Waving her hand as if it was an idea buzzing around her face, she sat up and sighed. There was no point in thinking about it. Maybe just another few days until he would be healed, and then they could carry out his part in the bargain. Immediately, Sakura’s heart beat faster just thinking about seeing Sasuke again. How would he look? How would he act towards her? Would he remember her after all the changes she was sure he would have gone through? That last fight he had with Naruto, the blonde had told her that Sasuke grew wings, and changed into something else. Spending hours researching forbidden jutsu to find a way to reverse it had turned up virtually nothing. Perhaps if he consented to help her find a way to stop it, she could…? Well, that’s not likely is it? she told herself. The only thing Sasuke is bent on doing is killing Ita-kun. A mental picture of the two of them fighting crossed her mind, making her upset. Before, it wouldn’t have mattered if Sasuke killed Itachi, but she’d spent time with him; he’d become a real person to her now. Her chakra had been inside him, his inside her. That was a fairly intimate relationship, bordering on actually calling him familiar. Stop thinking about it, she scolded herself. Standing up and sliding the long robe around her shoulders, Sakura moved to the doorway. A light warm tingle on her wrist flashed as she passed the threshold, but she was almost at the point where she didn’t notice it anymore. The hallway was empty, but one end of it seemed to be bathed in sunlight. Taking a deep breath and moving slowly along the cold, stone floor, she neared it with caution.

“Hurry up if you’re going,” Kisame grunted behind her suddenly. Sakura spun and looked up into his devilishly grinning face. “I was just going….to…get lunch,” she said quietly. “Suit yourself,” he laughed as he brushed past her, blocking out the light momentarily before slipping outside. Still, the door remained open. Moving again, she went towards the light. He said that I couldn’t go through any rooms with closed doors, didn’t he? Well, this door looks open. But he did say not to go outside. I’d be breaking the rules, wouldn’t I? So much reasoning passed through her mind so quickly that she was still not convinced of her actions until she felt the sunlight on her hand. As Sakura stood on the threshold, her wrist felt that tingling warmth from the silver band and her face felt the sun’s heat. She breathed deeply and smiled. “Don’t just stand in the doorway,” Kisame laughed. Peeking slowly around the doorframe, she could see both men near the other side of the expanse. It didn’t seem like Itachi cared if she stayed inside or not, so she thought it might be a good chance to test the boundaries a little. Another small step took her into the grassy courtyard, surrounded by stone walls, with a barbed wire attachment on top. The building certainly looked more like a jail to her from the outside. At least it looks the way it feels, she scoffed to herself. The soft green earth felt good under her bare feet, and the breeze smelled sweet, like jasmine and freshly turned earth. Fully emerging, the other occupants of that courtyard came into complete view. They seemed swallowed up by the walls and ground, standing in the closed-in area. It was quite large, and Sakura could see targets situated around the walls at various heights. Practice dummies were strung at one end, and some sort of wooden training post for taijutsu was at the other. Kisame sat cross-legged against the wall eating what Sakura was sure was something fish-like. Really, she didn’t care to examine it closely, fearing it might make her stomach lurch. Throwing up on her first venture outside was likely to get her sequestered to her little jail cell again. Her eyes scanned everything, taking in the size and scope of the outside. Then she looked at Itachi. He was bent over slightly, and breathing heavily. But this view of him made her breath hitch. For just a second, he looked like a different person. Wearing dark pants and nothing else, his body glistened with beads of perspiration. Obviously, he’d been training, as the

targets all around the courtyard were littered with kunai, shuriken, and senbon. What caught her eye most was the long, dark hair that splashed over his pale shoulders, dangling loosely around his face. She couldn’t see his eyes so she held her breath, waiting for him to acknowledge her. But it became clear to her that he knew she was there. Of course he knew, she told herself, he knows when I go to the bathroom. She played with the bracelet a little as she watched him. “Your team moved in the other direction for now. It’s safe for you to come out here but only if the door is open,” he said coolly, still not raising his face to hers. “Alright,” she said quietly as she took a seat a few feet away from Kisame. “Want some?” Kisame held out what he had been eating, and Sakura tried not to seem too disgusted with the jelly-like fish eyes looking at her from his food as she politely declined. Kisame chuckled with some inner joke. “Kisame,” Itachi began calmly, “come at me.” “I’m eating. Let the kunoichi do it,” Kisame grunted. Sakura looked from one to the other wondering if Itachi was going to get angry at Kisame’s refusal, but he seemed indifferent as he turned his intense gaze to her. “I’ll injure her. Hurry up and eat; I’ll wait for you.” “Itachi, I’m interested to see her abilities. Didn’t you say that you wanted…” “Yes,” Itachi cut in quickly, some inner train of thought stirring his intention. “Sakura, can you spar?” “Sp…ar? Um, yes. Just tai-jutsu?” she asked timidly. Itachi nodded slowly; his mouth curved just a little shy of a smile, or maybe it was a smirk, she couldn’t tell The long robe slid off her shoulders as she pushed herself up, and she found that the sunshine felt even nicer on the silky black shirt she wore. Finally coming to stand about ten feet from Itachi, she crouched a little, and readied her hands in front of her as she had been taught. “Don’t hold back,” he said quietly as he remained in a relaxed stance. “I won’t use my chakra,” she added.

“Why not?” Now he clearly smirked. “I don’t want to hurt you,” she said, though regretting it immediately as it sounded a little too machismo. Itachi actually laughed in a soft manner, making Sakura shiver with how smooth it sounded. “Please, don’t hold back. I’m interested to see what you can do.” Sakura shrugged. Alright, have it your way. Taking the opportunity to start things quickly, she ran at him. Itachi just stood there until her hand almost came in contact with his face. One minute he was there, the next he was gone. Sakura swung around, kicking behind her, figuring that is where he would turn up next. The guess was right on as her leg connected with something. Unfortunately, it was Itachi’s hand and he managed to grab her ankle in the process. Drawing chakra to her foot, she wrenched it from his grasp, and slammed it down onto the ground creating a fissure about six feet long and two feet wide. Itachi had disappeared before her foot hit the earth, most likely sensing what she was about to do. He appeared a little farther away, his face more serious now as Kisame’s heavy chuckling echoed off the stone walls, obviously delighted by something. Such power, Itachi thought, unable to stifle his look of curiosity. “I apologize,” he said softly as he came back to himself. “P…pardon?” Sakura was puzzled. “I underestimated you. I apologize.” She just nodded, feeling a little more confident and eager to continue. To get out, to stretch, and get some exercise was making the day shape up pretty well. “Your strength is remarkable. Are you holding back?” He tipped his head in consideration. Sakura tried not to smile, and made an imperceptible gesture as an answer. The truth was that she had. If she had wanted to, the building could have been taken out with that attack. Again they began, and Itachi seemed much more careful of her hands and feet. The combat remained close however, and unfortunately, Sakura did not have Itachi’s speed.

In a matter of a few moves, he had managed to twist her arm behind her, sweeping her legs out from under her until she fell face first in grass. His strong form had fallen on top of her, and she could feel the line of his body against hers. She couldn’t remember ever having a man so close to her like that. Aggressive or not, it suddenly seemed too close, and her cheeks began to redden. His warm breath tickled her ear. “I concede,” she said quietly. In actuality, she could have kept fighting, but now with his shirtless skin against her, she’d had enough. Without a word, Itachi let her go and stood up. Kisame continued to chuckle as Itachi extended a hand to the kunoichi who had turned over and registered the offering with some small shock. But, Sakura was not one to be rude, so she took his hand and allowed him to help her up. “Itachi-san, I think I’ll go inside and get some lunch now,” she bowed a little with her statement, trying to avoid his eyes. Moving along the wall towards the doorway, Sakura could hear Kisame loudly appraising her strength. A smile tickled at her mouth; they would not underestimate her anymore. As she neared the door, a hand shot out in front of her, and a bare arm blocked her path. Itachi stood there, looking down at her with his hand pressed against the stone wall. She couldn’t move forward anymore without banging into him. As her eyes slowly traveled up his chest to his face, she blinked her amazement at seeing his stunning black eyes returning her regard. His longish dark hair draped over his strong shoulders and she had a little trouble staying focused on his face. “Are you injured?” he asked in his muted voice. “Oh, erm, no, no.” She shook her head. “I’m just starting to get hungry so…” “Is it something else? Something seemed to bother you just then.” Sakura looked into his unusual gaze, and bit her lip. She certainly couldn’t tell him that his half naked body against her on the ground was something a little scary for her. Sorting out that type of moment in her mind might take a little while, and it was certainly something she’d rather do in private. But here he was again, flaunting his sleek frame in front of her, and asking her to tell him what’s wrong? Geez. “Sakura?” She shook her head a little, suppressing the inner thoughts that tended to run away with her mind. “I’m hungry. If we’re going to continue on your eyes, I should keep up my reserves.” Lame, she told herself. A lame excuse, but she couldn’t think of anything else while his dark eyes stared into hers.

“Excuse me please, Itachi-san.” She tried to focus on her feet, but instead stared at the light glow of the silver band on her arm, letting her fingers enjoy the warmth. His hand dropped to his side to let her pass, and she swept through the doorway quickly, heading for the kitchen and a little composure. As she walked past, he watched her with some deep curiosity and a little bit of deviousness. Today had certainly been a nice twist in the circumstances as he continued to rehash her abilities in his mind. Turning back, he looked at Kisame who seemed to be having considerations of his own. Four more nights passed, and Sakura felt that maybe a session or two more would heal him completely. During her enquiry, she discovered that it was not the mangekyou sharingan that damaged his eyes, but the prolonged use of the sharingan. Itachi always kept them on, well, almost always, and she believed this was the root problem. She’d made many sketches, observations, and notations on the amazing processes of the sharingan and strangely enough, she figured it was still incomplete. The possibility of another form was there as some extra channels for chakra existed but were never tapped into. However, giving a killer a better weapon was not something she wanted to do, so for now she’d stay tightlipped. She hadn’t confided in him what the problem with his vision had stemmed from either, so that she could have a longer chance to study them. He was getting better though, and she was eager to get Sasuke, so she inwardly began numbering the remaining days. They hadn’t talked about the plan to retrieve the younger Uchiha since that first day, but she was sure something had to be going on in Itachi’s mind. He seemed to be out in the courtyard all the time, practicing and working on his techniques. Perhaps he had a plan formulated and was rehearsing it. Well, at tonight’s session, she was going to ask him In the days they had spent together, she was finding it a little easier to talk to him. Being a killer was something that she was able to forget about for a little while as they worked on his eyes. As she sat for hours working chakra into him and recording her excitement on the pages of her book, she found that they were able to engage in a few decent conversations. Although they were never heavy or important discussions, she pleasantly discovered that Itachi was quite a cultured person with interesting tastes. Instead of talking about books and history tonight, she decided that they would discuss the plan. If they only had a night or two left together, she had to know what he was planning to do. The thought ran through her mind often, and it would be time to put it into words. For now though, her face was in her book as she bit lightly into a plum and strolled back and forth along the hallway. Passing the doorways, she would stretch out her right hand,

feeling the chakra warm the bracelet. She supposed Itachi was probably imagining her running in and out of rooms like a crazy person. The thought made her laugh a little. Continuing her path to and fro, she pored over her findings in the dim light of the hallway. It was already 8:00 at night, so she figured Itachi would be by anytime. As she reached up to take another bite of plum, she felt a warm sensation on her arm, and saw the light blue glow along her skin. Her eyes went from the silver bracelet to focus on the person standing directly in front of her. Speak of the devil…erm. Itachi stood only a foot away, wearing his usual mesh shirt and open Akatsuki robe. His headband was gone, and his face retained more of his young look without it. As usual, his eyes were sharingan, crimson and sharp, and inwardly, she was put out that he was probably undoing some of the healing she worked so hard on. Just then, his red gaze went from her eyes, to her lips, then to the plum in her right hand. Sakura smiled. She wasn’t sure why she did, but for some reason, she didn’t feel anxious or upset, just sort of peaceful. It was impossible to say that she didn’t feel a bit of nervousness, but it was the sort that makes the stomach flip, not the fearful kind. “Want some?” she half laughed as his gaze moved back to her eyes. She took a lazy lean against the wall, her shoulder pressing against the stone, and her head tipped against it as well. He took a step towards her, and her body tensed, just slightly, but she didn’t shift her position. Itachi tilted his head as he moved to stand almost toe-to-toe with her. Looking down, his eyes went to the plum again. Sakura shivered as his fingers closed around her wrist and raised the fruit, still in her fingers, to his mouth. He took a small bite, licking his lips after; his warm hand still remained closed around her skin. “I….was…just joking.” She tried to lighten the situation, but failed miserably. “You shouldn’t offer what you don’t want to give up,” he said smoothly. Somehow, Sakura didn’t think they were talking about the plum anymore. She could feel some heat burning up her throat to her face. Itachi leaned against the wall as well, without backing away from her. Even though they were standing in a hallway, Sakura felt that their positioning and the tone of the moment was more intimate than she was used to. Lately he’d been touching her more, directing her with a hand on her back, or caressing her shoulder if he was near her. This was not the Itachi she had imagined. The Itachi of

the stories she’d heard was cold, evil, dark, and an emotionless killing machine. This man in front of her had managed to surprise her a few times. Sometimes she could believe that he might have been a good person, might have been someone she would have liked to get to know. Short conversations in the long hours of their sessions were interesting, not very personal, but enjoyable. If he hadn’t gone wrong, hadn’t killed everyone and lived in Konoha still, would she have had a crush on her teammate’s attractive older brother? Well, there would be no way to know that now. It was neither here nor there. “You’re ruining my robe,” he said quietly as he leaned a little over her shoulder and looked down her back at the frayed ends of the cloth. “You should stop pacing the hallways.” He’d come so close to her that she could feel the warmth of his body on her own. “I mean no offense, but I’m getting a little stir crazy in here, and I pace when I think. I’ll try not to drag it anymore,” she said quietly. “It’s alright,” he responded gently, a small smile on his mouth. For some reason, she couldn’t take her eyes off his lips. “It’s your robe now.” Sakura laughed a little, trying to make it sound like a comfortable sound. “Um, I’m ready to start whenever you are,” she sighed calmly. Itachi smiled for a moment. Sakura snapped her book shut and took another bite of the plum. It took her a second to realize she had bit it where he had, and that he was watching her the whole time. Maybe she did it to test the waters, or to enjoy a little more attention from a man without outright demanding it; she couldn’t be sure. The way he was looking at her seemed unfamiliar, seemed like something she’d never had directed at her before. It wasn’t the gushy looks she got from Lee, or the pleading dramatic puppy love looks from Naruto, or even the cold dismissive looks from Sasuke. No, this was darker, something reserved for candlelit rooms and soft sheets. She trembled suddenly, and he saw it. His hand moved slowly up towards hers and touched the silver band, sending a small tingle of chakra into her arm. She sucked in a soft breath with the sensation. Silently, they stood in the hallway for a moment, and Sakura felt her heart pounding so hard, she figured he must have been able to hear it.

Now his hand moved higher, towards her face but stopped suddenly. For whatever reason, his attention had ceased. Sakura was grateful for the halt of what she was scared of from the first moment he surprised her in the bathroom. But he seemed to be looking past her, down the hallway, and it puzzled her. “Ita…” “Shh,” he whispered. Turning slowly to where he was looking, Sakura heard the hinges on the outside door opening. “Who…” A hand suddenly clamped over her mouth and an arm went around her waist, whisking her from where she stood. They flew through her bedroom door, and Itachi managed to close it with almost complete silence. In those few harrowed seconds, she was filled with shock and confusion, but now as he held her up against the wall with his body, fear took over. He was so close to her that his mouth was right against the shell of her ear. When he breathed, it sent a tremble through her that reached places she didn’t expect it to. “Itach…” His hand clamped over her mouth again. “Quiet,” he breathed along her ear and she had to bite her lip to hold in the jumble of emotions she felt. She nodded and he let his hand fall away. “Sakura, there are more Akatsuki here. They don’t know about you. Stay here, don’t make any noise, and keep the door closed.” Understanding the obvious delicacy of the situation, Sakura turned her head, feeling his soft hair against her cheek, and his ear at the corner of her mouth. “Will they find me?” “No. They don’t break my rules here. They won’t go into any closed doors. But I have to go speak with them. Do as I say and you won’t be harmed.” His body started to move away. His eyes, deep and beautiful, looked into hers for confirmation. Sakura nodded slowly and then watched him slip through the door.

Loophole

Chapter 6 In the quiet of the coming night, Sakura silently lay on her bed. Straining to hear anything outside the door, she tried to keep her breathing as quiet as possible. Four hours had passed since Itachi had swept her into her bedroom telling her it wasn’t safe to leave. Each passing moment felt like an eternity. Being in a building surrounded with Akatsuki was not her idea of a party, but Sakura believed beyond a doubt that Itachi would keep her safe. Instead of dwelling on it for now, she tried to think of something less frightening. Of course, her mind kept slipping back to the recent intimate moments in the hallway with Itachi. They were getting more familiar with having to spend so much time together, but that moment with the plum seemed a little more intense than most. Examining it, Sakura would have to say that Itachi almost seemed like he was taking a different sort of interest in her. Sure, attention was nice, but drawing it from a clan killer was not what Mr. and Mrs. Haruno would consider a good choice. The thought that she was flirting with disaster began to sound like a cliché description of exactly what had happened in the hallway. So why did she flirt with him? It would be a grand lie to say she didn’t, but of course, admitting it to herself was hard. Yes, she flirted, and yes, he did too. To pinpoint the last time she had attention from a male that was not whiney or horrifying was virtually and depressingly impossible. All she wanted was for Uchiha Sasuke to want to be with her as badly as she wanted to be with him. But now it seemed that her thoughts were drawn to someone else as well. Sakura was not one to flirt with men she wasn’t interested in; that was an Ino sort of thing to do. Up until a few days ago, she never thought she’d enjoy attention from anyone else other than Sasuke, but Itachi made her feel things she’d never felt before. For lack of a better explanation, she’d have to say it was her first experience with a mature situation, which seemed ridiculous considering her occupation. He’s a killer, she kept telling herself. Well, aren’t we all? Inner Sakura responded. Truth be told, ninja was just another term for hired killer. Sure they were protectors, but they were loaned out to others for a fee for all sorts of jobs. The contracts ranged from babysitting to assassination, so it would be hypocritical to condemn him for what he was raised to be. But of course, he murdered everyone who had raised him… That was the one thing that kept bringing her back to reality. The fact that he belonged to a secret faction of criminals bent on finding power seemed to pale in comparison to his previous deeds.

Sakura thought that perhaps it was the thrill and danger that attracted her to him as she had heard many women suggest before. Boring men were, well, boring. Itachi certainly didn’t fit in that category. Handsome, yes, mysterious, yes, dangerous, yes….killer… unfortunately. Seeing his impressed look when she cracked the hole in the ground had given her some satisfaction; she wanted to impress him. It was most likely because he was the strongest person she knew. Sure, that’s s it. Being impossibly gorgeous had nothing to do with it. Footsteps moved in the hallway, and Sakura shifted with some fear, jerking her head in the direction of the door Trying to dull the danger in her mind, the questions flooded her thoughts. What are they here for? Was Itachi caught with her and punished? Would they kill them all? She began panicking, thinking that everything was going to hit the fan in a few seconds as more feet shuffled through the crease of light at the foot of the door. Sakura held her breath as they passed. Having waited a few more minutes, nothing happened, so she let the air escape her bursting lungs. Did they all leave? She waited again, but the surrounding area seemed silent. Certain that they had exited the building, Sakura felt a little more confident to walk around her room. As she tried to occupy her thoughts with something other than what might have happened if the Akatsuki hadn’t arrived, she grabbed up her dog-eared notebook. Finally taking a seat on the bed with her back against the wall, she began to read over her notes. After another twenty minutes or so, she looked up to see dim hallway light around the doorway, creeping up along the wall diagonal to it. The door was open. Timidly, she slipped off the bed and moved toward the doorway. Shaking fingers eased around the knob as she pulled it slowly until she could see into the stone passageway. It was empty. The quick heat of the silver bracelet made her jump as she stepped out of her room. Taking a deep breath, she moved along, looking into open doorways to see if she was indeed alone. “Itachi-san?” she said quietly. “Kis…same-san?”

The entire place felt empty. Making her way to the kitchen, she could see some remnants of what food was left in the building, strewn around the counters. Moving to the next room, which held the long table, she took in the sight of many sake bottles littering the wooden surface, as well as more food scraps and dirty plates. “Itachi?” She dropped the honorific for efficiency’s sake. She decided that the less she said, the better. Finally sure that there were no Akatsuki left in the building, Sakura wandered back to the kitchen. As she passed the threshold, she felt the warm tingle in the band on her wrist and looked down at it as she crossed into the room. It started glowing. Understanding dawned on her, and she quickly turned to find Itachi leaning on the wall beside the door, staring at her with black eyes. He looked lazy and comfortable, but his gaze was intense. Sakura shivered. “Itachi…san. Were you still interested in working on your eyes?” she asked quickly. Itachi continued to lean, an unreadable line to his mouth. He didn’t answer. “Itachi…um….are you alright? Did something happen?” She continued to try to get a word out of him. Finally, he stood up fully and slowly moved closer to her. The way he was approaching her and the look in his eyes sparked some reaction in Sakura, something foreign but understood all the same. In response, she backed up a step; her wide eyes took in his beautiful black gaze. It was still hypnotic, sharingan or not. “Did…did they hurt you?” she asked in a small voice. Her back bumped the wall, and she flattened herself against it with nowhere else to go. Déjà vu played in her mind recounting the last time he had her up against this wall. At the time, she was ready to give her life in a fight with him; this time though, his gaze held something other than antagonism. The tall Uchiha continued to move forward until he was standing directly in front of her. “Even if they could, why would they would hurt me?” he asked in his soft, muted voice. Sakura stared into his eyes for a moment, straining her hands along her robe in nervous discomfort. The strong scent of sake filled the space between them, gliding out on his words. Being this close frightened her in an exhilarating way. She didn’t fear for her life, but she feared for her ability to stay resolute on her path to Sasuke. “I…I just thought that….I…” Sakura fumbled for an answer. “You seemed….like you didn’t expect them. I thought they might have found me here, and come to hurt you.”

“You don’t acquaint me with them? I’m Akatsuki, Sakura. I have the same goals and objectives. We don’t work like a team as you do, but we are part of the same ideal.” Itachi moved in, closing what remained of the minute space between them. Sakura felt his heated chakra glowing around the silver band and the line of his body against hers. “If they found you here, it wouldn’t have been me whom they hurt,” he said softly, his hands moving to the wall on either side of her. Sakura’s gaze turned to watch him blocking her in, making a wall in front of her with his dangling robe. The situation was surprising, but not exactly a surprise. “They would have killed me?” she asked quietly, and then swallowed hard. Why does fear always grab hold of your throat? “Killed?” He tilted his head, closing his eyes a little in amusement. “You may have wanted that.” The medic could feel her chest rising painfully against his with the unsure situation. Frankly, she believed she would find him relieved that they were gone, not feeling the aftereffects of an Akatsuki-style bar night. Keep him talking, her inner-self urged while she tried to find the right words to end whatever game he was playing. “You…don’t work like a team?” “We are a group of individuals. We’ll aid each other in perpetrating our goals, but, in the end, we look out for ourselves,” Itachi said softly as he leaned closer, so close she felt his breath on her cheek. Sakura tensed – it was too close, too intimate. “I thought that since they surprised you, you might be in danger,” she finally uttered as she felt his cheek brush hers. Her voice was soft and small. “Were you worried for me?” he laughed softly, making her tighten up as the tingle spread through her stomach. Itachi’s fingers lightly ran along the soft strands of short hair lying along the back of her neck. It felt like at any moment these fingers might grab her in a tight hold. His other hand moved closer to her along the wall, his forearm against her arm to bring her into his body. “I…worried? N…no,” she said with some nonchalance, but she closed her eyes in an attempt to block out their proximity. He laughed again, and it was something dark and full of a meaning she tried not to grasp. Fear or thrill, she couldn’t say what was making her body tremble against his.

“Itachi-san, why are you holding me like this? Have I done something wrong?” she whispered while fighting the small whimper rising in her throat from the combination of his touch and voice. “Wrong?” He smiled against the skin of her neck, “No.” “Please…I’m confused,” she whispered, not knowing what else to say. Itachi paused for a moment, but didn’t relinquish his hold on her. “You’re unique. There’s something you exude that I think to be a weakness, but that is fascinating in the same instant,” he whispered. “Weakness?” she couldn’t hide the shock, even in her quiet voice. His mouth continued to move across the skin of her neck as he spoke. “It seems like a weakness, but you aren’t weak. I’ve seen your abilities. They’re intoxicating. I copied your technique, and it impressed me.” Moving slightly, Itachi slid his other hand up her shoulder and into her short hair. “I’m not easily impressed.” Sakura groaned breathily, then bit her lip for giving away a small indication that she might not be hating the way he was making her feel. By now her eyes were closed again, and she concentrated on the shivers his touches were giving her. A small gasp slipped out as she felt a light breath on the shell of her ear. For a second she froze, then felt his teeth gently nip her lobe, making her sigh against her will. In reaction, her hands pressed against his chest. Ears – she never thought being touched there would feel so good. It was too good, and the idea of getting carried away with it struck her suddenly. “Itachi…s…stop…I don’t…” But her words were breathy and unconvinced. Being truthful to herself, she was enjoying his touch and the way her body was responding. Years of waiting for Sasuke were long, and no one had kissed her before. Sixteen and pretty, and no one had kissed her…ever. Never would she have imagined having a moment like this with someone like Itachi, but reason seemed to fly out the window for now. Soft kisses were left along the skin of her neck before he moved to her jaw line. Unable to stop herself, Sakura tipped her head for him, engrossed in how good it felt. One hand slid down into her robe, resting on her slender hip. The other hand snaked through her pink tresses, directing her face to his. Gently, even gentler than she would imagine a man like Itachi to be, he pulled her closer. Their mouths hovered apart, only an inch away.

“St…stop,” she breathed onto his lips. Some reason found its way past her newly experienced urges. He moved closer. She felt the slight brush of his lips, but it wasn’t a kiss. His dark eyes gazed into hers, almost as if he was waiting to see something there. Sakura’s inner battle flared as she sat at the cusp of her first kiss. It was always meant for Sasuke, wasn’t it? You’re in love with Sasuke, aren’t you? Don’t forget who Itachi is, her inner-self argued – but his lips hovering along hers made her will melt. Itachi’s eyes narrowed slightly. “Itachi?” She whispered the question, dropping her line of sight from his face. He didn’t respond. “Not Itachi-san? Have you lost your respect for me, Sakura?” he mused darkly. Silence and stillness filled the room for a moment. Sakura trembled in his strong grasp, and he didn’t relinquish her even minutely. Wondering what the pause was from, she returned his gaze, gasping as he watched her with the mangekyou sharingan. “What are you doing?” she asked in shock. Drunk on sake, drunk on power, Itachi held Sakura as her body filled with adrenaline and fear, her legs threatening to give out on her. Out of reflex, she began to draw chakra to her hands. No matter what she was feeling for him she would never let him have her like that. He was drunk, and she couldn’t be sure of what he’d do. Itachi easily noticed the chakra cascading to her hands. “Planning to kill me?” he asked softly, a grin cast across his face. “No,” she said with conviction. “Because you need me, correct?” “I…” Sakura felt like she had missed something. “You’re drunk, and I won’t let you do this to me!” she hissed with fearful frustration. “I can do anything I want. You know that already.” “I won’t let you have me this way!” Her voice was resolute, fists clenched. Itachi let a small breath come out in a half-laugh as he took a step back, releasing his hold. They stared at each other, Sakura panting and frightened, Itachi’s face slowly losing

its look of amusement. At a loss as to what he was thinking, Sakura finally unclenched her fists. Itachi turned away to walk towards the door, his robe dangling behind him showing an extra sway in his intoxicated steps. When he stopped, he braced himself by putting his hands up on the doorframe. He turned his face a little, and Sakura could only see his strong jaw line, complimented by the smooth curve of his cheek. “I don’t want to have you…this way,” he said emotionlessly. His hands fell to his sides, and he left. With the adrenaline diminishing, Sakura’s shaking legs dropped her to the floor as a confused whirlwind of thoughts clouded her mind. Daylight brought her another step closer to her ultimate goal, but Sakura wasn’t feeling much like she had won anything. Having trouble getting out of the bed, she turned towards the stone wall and stared at the hard, gray surface, scraping her fingernails along its roughness. A restless sleep had proven to be a side effect of Itachi’s advances the night before, and now she wished those intimate moments had never happened. I’d forgotten who he is, she admonished herself. Yes, he was a killer and she was basically an easy target for him, should he choose to make her one. How foolish to put her life in his hands so many times during the days she’d spent with him. Now she could think of nothing else but finishing her business with him, and getting back Sasuke. The night’s events replayed like a bad movie in her mind. She felt wrong for enjoying his advances, for liking the way his lips brought shivers to her skin. In the end, however, all she felt was that irrefutable terror that only someone like Itachi could compel. Was she being completely truthful to herself? She would say yes, but knew the answer was no. Pretending she was innocent of inviting his advances was easier than facing the truth of the matter. He had become an annoying thing, constantly pushing into her thoughts like a puzzle begging to be solved. Only now the puzzle had become an enigma and she was fraught with confusion. He seemed so gentle up until that moment… Whatever triggered the change in him, she was frightened to do it again. But before that second when his eyes narrowed, she wasn’t sure what she would have done if he had continued to persuade her. Lines can become so blurred when looking through arousaltinted glasses.

Perhaps he just wasn’t used to being denied. Not easily impressed? Apparently, being told no falls into the same category. She sighed heavily, knowing she’d have to get up at some point. The clock told her it was long past noon. At least he stopped when asked, she defended. “I don’t want to have you… this way.” Because he was drunk, or because I said no? It wouldn’t have felt right to her to just give in to him, even though somewhere in her mind, body, and other places she wanted to. She could admit to herself that she wanted him to kiss her, but what else would a kiss lead to? That was a line that was very clear to her, and nothing could smudge it – except maybe a matching set of mangekyou sharingan. The day continued to wear on, and Sakura felt she should get up and face the inevitable. Two more nights of working on Itachi’s eyes seemed a reasonable estimation of the end of her part in their bargain. Two more, she said to herself. A whole mix of emotions came with that statement, but she was too tired to examine them right now. Dragging herself up from her bed, she slipped her clothes over her undergarments and moved to the door. Omitting the Akatsuki robe, she decided she’d had enough of dragging around the reminder of what had caused her some unusual stress last night. Moving out into the hallway, she was immediately sorry for it as Kisame stood at the other end. “Where is your robe?” he laughed in a gravelly tone. Some perturbation rose in Sakura, finding herself tired of his constant amusement at her circumstances. “I might have killed you if I didn’t hear you come out of your room.” “Is that why I have to wear it?” she hissed softly, the sarcasm evident. “Yes,” the deep voice came from behind her, but she didn’t turn to face it. The heat on her wrist was enough. Spinning around, she didn’t peer up at Itachi who was standing just behind her. Instead, she brushed past him to slip into her room and grab up the robe in an angry rustle of fabric. Punching her hands into the armholes, she walked back out and straight past the men to the kitchen. Kisame’s laugh followed her in, and she slammed the cup and metal box containing the tea on the gleaming metal countertop. Sensing a form at the kitchen doorframe, Sakura didn’t bother to acknowledge him.

“Sakura, when you’re ready, we’ll work on my eyes.” “Of course, Itachi-san” she exaggerated. After a cup of tea and some bread, Sakura managed to compose her thoughts enough to slow her breathing in preparation to work in his presence. Taking another steaming cup with her, she sauntered slowly into her room, seeing that Itachi had already taken place on what she was assuming was his favorite chair now. “Lie on the bed,” she directed absently as she placed the cup on the nightstand and reached for her book. He did exactly as she asked after dropping his robe onto the chair, positioning his arm under his head in his usual lazy posture. Sakura lay the book open beside his arm across the red duvet and pulled the chair up. Taking a seat, she decidedly took no care to move his robe out of her way as she pushed it to the floor. Itachi fought the smirk that tugged at his mouth. “I want to look at your second sharingan today. I need to see it work.” She managed to make her voice sound business-like, and even impressed herself with her coolness. Immediately, Itachi changed his eyes over to the red and black pinwheels that had frightened her the night before. Drawing all her inner strength, Sakura remained impassive. “Please sit up,” she directed. He did. Pressing her delicate fingers to his temples, she hesitated before speaking again. And just like the skilled shinobi he was, he sensed her pause. He took the opportunity to lock her gaze. Sakura took a deep breath. “I’ll need to see it work.” Itachi smiled a little, but Sakura didn’t notice it for very long as his red eyes spun. Almost as if pulled into a dream, she stood in a red room, with no doors and no windows. Itachi was there too, and he tilted his head as he spoke. “You’re angry.” His voice echoed and trembled through the red room as if it was attuned to his body. “Yes,” she answered as calmly as possible. “Now let me out of here.”

As if her voice had ended it, Sakura found herself falling against the arm of the chair she sat in, weak and disoriented. “I apologize,” he said calmly. “I should have warned you how strong the illusion is.” “I’ve felt it before,” she answered while getting her bearings. “That was a different creation. This is the pinnacle of my ability,” Itachi added. “That other world?” Itachi nodded. “I could trap someone in there for what would seem like a year to them, but only a moment would pass by.” “It strains your eyes badly,” she said softly, finally coming to herself. “The chakra goes through the channels and they actually expand to contain it. It’s a powerful technique, but will cause you problems later unless you can find a way to use less chakra.” “I can feel it,” he continued. “So this is the cause?” “No,” she admitted. “It’s having your sharingan activated all the time that has done it. You draw chakra to them constantly and they have deteriorated from the constant strain. This is how Kakashi knew you had problems, he’s had them as well.” The cards had tumbled out. She had given up what she was holding back, and made a bargain with herself to work twice as hard to finish things tonight. Itachi nodded slowly. “So they will never be completely healed.” “I can completely heal them, but you will just deteriorate them again by having them activated all the time.” Sakura shook her head. “If you can find a way to draw less chakra, or at least give them time to heal between uses, you should have no more deterioration. They are like muscles, that when you use them, they tear and sustain damage. It’s normal, but there must be time in between to heal them.” “I see.” “Shall we continue?” “Of course,” he said absently. Sakura pointed to her pillow to indicate that he was to lie down, and he complied. Drawing chakra, she sat on the edge of her seat, instead of the bed edge like she usually did, and pressed her fingers to his temples. She closed her eyes and began.

“Itachi-san, this will take a while. I’m going to try and finish this tonight so that we can both get back to our normal lives.” “I apologize if I frightened you, Sakura,” Itachi said quietly, his eyes closed as he relaxed under her care. “You did frighten me,” she said equally as quietly. There was no point denying it, and she wanted him to see that he’d ruined a nice moment between them. Even now, just thinking about it angered her a little. “You’ve created a picture of yourself for me that is not very flattering.” Itachi raised an eyebrow. “Please describe it for me.” “Well, one moment I think you are gentle, intelligent, and maybe even caring, and then you do something like you did last night.” “I will never be caring or gentle. That is a misconception you have chosen to create. If I’ve given that impression, it was a mistake.” Sakura creased her brow in confusion. “The way you…well, when you….never mind.” “Sakura, I only do things for my own benefit. Perhaps if you understand that, it will make things clearer for you during your stay,” Itachi said matter of factly. “Then why did you try to kiss me last night?” She crossed her arms tightly over her chest. “Sake, perhaps. Attraction. You fascinate me, and I admit that you’re beautiful. Your power is desirable, and to someone like myself that is always looking for power, you became something to acquire.” He closed his eyes again, waiting for her to continue. “I’m glad that you’ve made me understand, Itachi-san,” she said quietly, “I was mistaken.” Itachi opened his eyes and looked at her for a few moments, their gazes locked. His face didn’t seem as bland and cold as it did a moment before, but whatever he was thinking, she knew it would never come out. “Let’s proceed. I’ll try to finish this tonight so that we may go our separate ways sooner,” Sakura sighed, and resumed her attention on his eyes. “As you wish.”

Loophole

Chapter 7: A New Proposal Sakura took a deep breath, trying to draw in some energy along with the cool night air permeating the stone building. Threatening to close completely, her eyelids slid down, but the sudden tilt of her dropping head brought her back to her surroundings. The continuous pulse of chakra lit a light blue glow around Itachi’s face as she continued her treatment of his eyes. Three hours had dragged by, and Sakura’s back ached painfully from leaning over him. Itachi’s eyes were closed and had not opened for over an hour. They had a few minor discussions throughout their session, but nothing personal or in depth. Actually, he seemed quite cool towards her tonight. After the discussion earlier, she understood there were no pretenses in how he felt about her. He had reduced her to an inanimate source of power, a collector’s thing. By now, with the long hours and the draining energy, fatigue was overcoming Sakura. She was losing her resources and was so tired that when her eyes finally closed, she couldn’t open them again. Itachi lay still for a moment, even after he felt the weight of her head fall on him and her fingers slip away from his temples. Her arms lay splayed over his chest as she stretched out while asleep in the chair. Looking at her, he let a small smile crack his usually vague expression. He reached over and grabbed her wrist; the chakra band glowed around it with their close proximity. Sakura’s skin felt smooth under his fingers, and her warmth radiated over where they touched. He didn’t speak. Maneuvering himself so that he could slip out of her arms, he climbed off the end of the bed. Then tipping her slightly, he slid one arm around her back and another under her knees to lift her up and lay her in the bed. Immediately she rolled over to get comfortable, and he was sure she was completely asleep. After, he sat down in the chair he had just lifted her from and leaned back. With a rare feeling of excitement, Itachi found his eyes working the same as the day he got his sharingan. It had been a couple of years since he could see so clearly. The detail in the room, on the blanket, her pink hair, and the Oriental rug entranced him for a few moments. What a prize he had gained when they made their deal. Waking slowly, Sakura stretched out her limbs like a cat after a long nap. It felt like a Sunday morning when she was a child. The bed, soft and comfortable, cradled her in so

much comfort that it would be easy to slip back into deep sleep. But of course, there was no one waiting outside her room to give her a hug and some breakfast. Rolling over, Sakura had a double take when she noticed the clock. It was 1:30 in the afternoon. How could she possibly have slept so late? Realizing she was still in her clothes, it only took a moment to understand what had happened. The only logical conclusion was that Itachi had put her to bed after she fell asleep. Fair enough, she thought, I won’t read too much into it. Even her inner voice was skeptical when referring to him. Getting up and checking the worn research book that lay on the table, she noticed the chair had been returned next to the door. On it sat some things she never expected to see again. Neatly folded, her red shirt, medic skirt, and black shorts lay in a pile. The leg guards were there also. She’d been allowed to keep her shoes, but the guards had been taken away. Understanding dawned on her that the day had finally arrived and they would begin to act on Itachi’s part in the agreement. Some excitement bubbled beneath her attempt at composure. Darting out into the hallway, Sakura peeked in open doors as she moved along the walls. The last door she looked through was the door to the courtyard. Kisame was there, his back turned to the entrance. Perhaps he was meditating? She couldn’t be sure exactly what he was doing. His arm would move, then he would just sit there. Strange, she thought as she wandered nearer to him. “Kisame-san? Have you seen Itachi-san?” she asked quietly as she continued to move forward. “He left for a little while. Come and sit, kunoichi,” he mumbled in a raspy voice. Sakura could finally see what he’d been doing. On a small metal tray in front of him was a sake bottle and two cups. He’d been taking drinks of it. Meditating, she snorted inwardly, I should have known better. Sakura moved beside him but didn’t sit down. Shuriken littered the targets, and she noticed he looked a little tired. “Training?” she asked quietly hiding the smirk that wanted to come out. “Of course,” Kisame stood up then and walked over to a target. Relieving it of some of the metal weapons piercing the surface, he then returned beside Sakura. With a cocky smile, he lifted his arm and fired off three at once. The gleaming silver stars hit three separate targets at the same instant. He laughed at his own feat.

“Want to spar, kunoichi?” Kisame smirked as he turned to her. “Sure,” Sakura responded with a little bit of confidence to accentuate it. “Keep your chakra under wraps. Itachi will kill me if I kill you,” he laughed. “What fun is that?” She laughed as well, but he was right, there was no sense getting injured now. Kisame tossed away what was left of his shuriken and slipped his long coat off. His outfit underneath was dark, and Sakura shook her head realizing she’d never seen him out of his cloak. “Can I remove mine?” she asked. “You’d better. It’ll only slow you down,” he responded. Tossing her cloak aside, she crouched in preparation for their fight. Kisame watched her for a moment, taking no defensive position at all. “Kunoichi, let me show you something about your stance.” Kisame tilted his head. He walked towards her and pointed to the ground where he wanted her to place her feet. “If you keep your body tight, but feet more apart, you’ll have better balance for a first strike. It will maintain your stance if hit, or when hitting. This also enables you to move forward or backward more quickly. You’re protected better from all sides.” “Uh…thanks,” she said with a little shock. “Come at me with a kick and I’ll show you how to block it. Itachi caught you from behind last time. I’ll teach you how to avoid it as well.” Kisame crouched slightly in the same stance he had just taught her. “Okay…thanks.” Sakura couldn’t quell the incredulous tone in her voice, but was not going to question a little help from an Akatsuki member. Everyone knew they were the most powerful ninja, criminals or not. From what she had read, Kisame was stronger than Itachi, just not as fast or intelligent. Brute strength can only get a ninja so far; it takes a little brains behind it to take him all the way. Following Kisame’s invitation, she ran at him to have her kick easily blocked. Then they did it again before he had her take a turn at blocking as well. Sakura was beginning to think Kisame enjoyed having an underling for a change so she decided to take advantage of it. After repeated exercise and some fatigue from the extensive chakra drain the night before, Sakura waved off the next little lesson in favor of a short rest on the grass. Kisame complied quickly and sat cross-legged next to the tray that held the sake.

Pouring two cups, Kisame took one and eyed Sakura until she tilted her head with his regard. “What?” she asked. “Sake,” he grunted pointing a thick gray finger at the wooden cups. “I…I’m only sixteen,” she responded while shaking her head. “This will be the worst of the things you’ve ever done?” Kisame laughed. “Call it a truce between us. After tonight, I won’t see you again.” “How can you be so sure?” Sakura raised an eyebrow. “Your business is done here. You’ll be moving ahead with your bargain, and Itachi will be retrieving the younger Uchiha.” Sakura’s mind spun almost excitedly. Obviously Kisame would know about the deal, but to hear that he knew Itachi would be getting Sasuke seemed to make it all real. Somewhere in the back of her mind she wondered if Itachi was just playing her for a fool to get his eyes fixed. But hearing Kisame say it seemed to ensure that she’d done the right thing. Picking up the sake cup, Sakura downed the contents, choking a little on the burning sensation trailing heat down her throat. Kisame, of course, found it incredibly funny as he poured her another. After the third cup, Sakura waved off more in favor of saving her stomach from a need for antacids later, and stood back up. “Shall we continue?” “Certainly,” Kisame responded. Beginning their calm sparring lesson, Sakura felt the warmth radiating from her stomach, making her limbs feel warm and lazy. After a few more strikes they began to laugh at nothing in particular and Sakura felt less apprehension about, well, everything in general. After being taught a new taijutsu move, Sakura backed up to try it one more time. Taking her stance, she raised her right hand closer to her cheek, pointing the fingers towards her partner when she felt a warm hand close over her wrist. Another hand gripped her around her waist lightly, holding her in place. She hadn’t even heard him coming. “What is happening here?” Itachi’s smooth voice said from beside her left ear. His body had creased up against hers as he held her still. “The kunoichi and I were just killing time,” Kisame grunted calmly.

Itachi didn’t relinquish his light hold on her. “You smell of sake,” he said quietly. “Just a couple,” Sakura responded coldly. The thought that she liked Kisame better than Itachi at this moment was a little dismaying. Using her arm to spin her, he turned her to face him, still keeping her body close to his with his other hand. His black eyes looked into hers, and she was a little happier to see he wasn’t undoing everything she had done. But being so close, she felt that tingle from enjoying their proximity. The sake was certainly doing nothing to steady her resolve. “So we’re finished now, are we not?” he asked calmly, never taking his eyes from hers. “Actually, there was one more thing I wanted to check, and then yes, we’re finished,” she responded softly, feeling mixed on how he was making her feel. In his arms, she felt wanted, and admired. But his words from the night before, and his coolness after seemed to juxtapose his actions. It was confusing. “What might that be?” “I want you to activate your sharingan for two hours. After, I’d like to see the extent of damage you’ve incurred. Then I would like you to remain like this so that I can check your healing progress every hour until the damage is undone. This will give us some idea of the ratio of activation time to healing time you require.” Sakura blinked, and looked away trying to keep her mind in check with the influence of his attractive gaze and the sake warming her body. “Of course.” He immediately lit the sharingan into his black eyes, and the red bled throughout them with the exception of the three tomoe in each. “So, I wanted to talk about your plan to get Sasuke,” she said softly, inadvertently gulping after. “Later. This is your last night with us. I’d like you to join us for dinner in our dining room tonight.” Itachi finally released her. “We can talk after we eat.” “Um, alright.” “Seven o’clock sharp, Sakura.” Itachi strode back to the building but turned before he stepped inside. “Kisame, don’t drain her too much. She’ll need her chakra.” Kisame nodded, the same smarmy expression on his shark face. “Alright, kunoichi, a little more sparring and then some more sake,” Kisame laughed. Sakura laughed too. Satisfaction and anticipation welled up in her chest.

The day slipped by quickly. After the initial two hours, Itachi came to her room or found her outside with Kisame to have his eyes checked periodically. This continued on all day until it came time for her to go to dinner. Sakura stood in her room and looked down at her freshly laundered garments lying on the chair. A smile spread across her face knowing that she would put them on and become herself again. Taking a few moments to do so, she felt immensely better to be rid of the dark garments that belonged to Itachi. Still donning the robe, she wandered along the stone hallway, the book of her research clutched lightly in her hand. When she entered the room with the long oak table in it, she found a large spread of food, wine, and sweets littering the surface. It looked delicious and welcome after her diet of overripe fruits, hard bread, and day-old rice. Itachi was sitting in his place at the head of the table, and Kisame was beside him on the far side. Sakura was tempted to sit at the foot of the table, but thought better of it. With a motion of his hand, Itachi indicated he wanted her to sit beside him anyway. She took a seat, placing her book on the table. After Kisame began reaching for food, she did also. “What have you discovered about the healing process for my eyes?” Itachi asked as he reached for some noodles. “Well,” Sakura began, “I’ve noticed that it takes about twice as long to heal your eyes as it does to damage them. If you spent all day with your sharingan activated as you normally do and only rest them at night, the damage becomes compounded. When you haven’t rested them, the damage proceeds the next day from the point of healing. So when they are not completely healed, they damage further the next day. This is why your vision has deteriorated to the point it was when we first examined them.” Sakura continued to slowly fill a plate in front of her, and then choose a pair of wooden chopsticks. “I understand. Sakura, you have honored your half of our deal to the fullest extent. I’m sure you are anticipating the end result.” “Yes,” she said quietly, trying to hide her excitement. Sadly, Itachi didn’t seem very pleased, or happy, or anything. She still couldn’t read him even after so many days together. Kisame stood up suddenly and stretched. “I’m going to bed,” he grumbled.

Sakura and Itachi both looked at him, and Sakura could see Kisame was still intoxicated from the spar-drink-spar exercises he did earlier. She could relate as she felt a little headache caused by the dehydration from the fermented beverages as well. Kisame marched out unceremoniously, leaving them alone. Itachi sighed as if Kisame had bored him, or was he thinking about something boring? Damn, he’s unreadable, she grumbled inwardly. “Since it’s our last night together, I wondered if I might ask you a question,” Itachi said smoothly, turning his full attention to Sakura. “Of course, Itachi-san. I can’t promise I can answer it, but I’ll try,” Sakura continued to pick at her food, waiting for him to continue. A paused ensued. It seemed to drag out a little, but Sakura knew that Itachi liked to contemplate everything before committing himself. Haste was never something that fit in his vocabulary. He was calculating; she would give him that. She understood that he would speak when he was sure of what he wanted to relay, giving away nothing else. Sitting back in his chair and taking a lazy half-lean on his hand, Itachi took a slow deep breath. His dark eyes watched her, but some of the intensity that normally sent chills up her spine had receded. Right now he looked just like a young man taking a mild interest in something at the same table with him. It struck Sakura how fascinating he truly was. Every moment he changed but she’d only get an odd glimpse of it before he changed again. Truly, he only showed her what he wanted to and his control was remarkable. “This bargain you’ve struck with me, so many times you could have been killed. Your first few days here, I don’t know if you realize how close to death you came. You put your life in stranger’s hands. I’m curious, Sakura, do you think Sasuke would have done this for you?” His tone was even. He knew his words would elicit emotion, but he continued to regard her as if she was a piece of art he had yet to find the meaning behind. Taking a cue from Itachi, Sakura paused as the question rolled over and over in her mind. The day Sasuke left came back like a bad movie. The confession of love that spilled from her twelve year old lips replayed, as did the last thing he said to her… thank you. The answer was plain and she understood that Itachi already knew what it would be, but he asked it anyway. Obviously he wanted to hear her say it. Sakura managed to whisper out the word, “No.”

Silence filled the room as the pair looked at each other. Sakura didn’t know what Itachi was thinking, but she knew she couldn’t hide her feelings from him. What did it matter now? He would be out of her life tomorrow. “Your loyalty is truly of Konoha caliber,” Itachi said off-handedly, and Sakura couldn’t be sure if it was meant as a compliment or insult. “Thank you,” she said evenly. Itachi laughed a little - a soft smooth sound that gave her chills. “May I ask a question now?” Sakura felt a little emboldened by his calm manner and the fact that they would be ending their companionship in less than a day. Itachi nodded slightly as he reached for a strawberry. “What are you planning to do to Naruto?” Her words came out faster than she had wanted them too. Without indicating that the question bothered him in the least, Itachi plucked the stem from the strawberry while focusing on her. “We’ll take his consciousness out of his body and use the shell to gain control of the Kyuubi.” Itachi put the strawberry to his lips and bit into the soft red flesh. “What could you possibly need him for? Why would you pursue him when you’re strong enough?” Sakura felt the anger making its way to the surface from the place she had hidden it so well up to now. “There’s no such thing as strong enough,” Itachi laughed softly. “Didn’t you ever want to live normally?” she retorted, feeling her anger diffuse but something else replacing it. “What is normal? Our versions are different,” Itachi tilted his head a little as if his curiosity was finally getting the better of him. “It’s how you strive to live happily. It’s your own version of peace, I think,” Sakura struggled for the right words to display her thoughts. Itachi paused again, then he sighed, “What is your version of normal?” “Don’t mock me,” Sakura hissed. “I’m genuinely interested in how you would like to live your life, Sakura. Up to now, I’ve seen you almost throw it away with your choices. It seems as if you decided that there is

only one way to achieve the life you want, and you’ll forsake that life in order to get it. Perhaps you should consider that there are other options.” “I’ve been on the same path for three years now. I’ll never waver from it,” Sakura replied softly. Itachi nodded slowly as if agreeing with some inner thoughts. “It’s as I thought. But remember, Sakura, everyone has their price. Everyone has a point where self-preservation and selfish goals move ahead of everything else. You’re blinded by your desire to help Sasuke. Had it been anyone else, would you have gone to these lengths?” “Sasuke is my comrade, and I’ll admit that I probably would not have asked you to help had it been anyone else. Konoha has abandoned him to Orochimaru and it left me with little choice.” Sakura wrung her hands together under the table. Discomfort made her shift in her seat a little. “Why is it your responsibility to get him? Sasuke left you to go seek power, did he not? Selfish goals, Sakura. Sasuke understands where his ambition lies, and even you couldn’t stop him. He’d never come for you, only for me. Revenge tastes better for an Uchiha.” Itachi sat back and let another silence fall between them. Sakura’s chest heaved, and he could see her jaw clench and unclench almost painfully tight. “I'm his goal. He is yours. The Kyuubi is mine. So whose goal are you?” The unreadable line returned to his lips. “Isn’t that something you might desire?” “Why are you doing this? It seems like you want to ruin the last few hours I’m here. Why does it have to end like this?” Sakura’s brow dipped in wounded frustration. “Explain to me how this is something that can be ruined? What were you expecting to get out of it?” “Stop with the questions. I wasn’t expecting anything! Just dinner. Just a last dinner.” She stood up suddenly, knocking her chair back with her legs. Turning abruptly and striding to the door, she let the black and red robe slide off her shoulders to fall to the floor as she stormed out. Itachi just watched her go. Pacing in frustration, Sakura couldn’t fight Itachi’s questions invading her every thought. What business was it of his to ask her those things? Itachi is selfish, so this is all he can understand. He’s probably never done anything for anyone else in his life. She clicked her tongue on the roof of her mouth in anger. Why did he have to end their time together like this?

It had been almost two hours since she had stormed away from the dinner table and still she paced. Sitting still seemed impossible now, and she was dismayed at how much his words were affecting her. Finally taking a seat on her bed with a huff, she rubbed at her temples roughly. When the knock came at her door, she was utterly surprised. She didn’t want to see him now. All she wanted was to go and get Sasuke, end of story. “Sakura, may I enter?” “No, you may not,” she answered with a sharp edge to her voice. “I have your research, and we should discuss our next undertaking.” Silence fell for a few moments, and Sakura suddenly felt compelled to push through this discomfort. Unfortunately, opening the door meant opening herself up to him emotionally again, but she knew it was necessary. “Come in,” she said, retaining that bite to her tone. The door eased open, and the light crept along the wall of the dark room. Itachi looked around to see the lamps were lit, but the candle was not. The light was ambient, but it seemed to do nothing for the angry kunoichi’s countenance. Itachi entered slowly, closing the door behind him, turning back to watch her. “So talk,” she spat and stood up to pace again. She turned her back on him as she crossed the carpet towards and away from him in a pace unfitting for such a small room. Nothing was uttered, and still she paced. Watching her feet as they moved, she looked up slightly to see his feet before she turned and walked back. Turn. More steps. His feet. Turn. The third time she came towards him, his feet were gone. The next turn she lifted her head but bumped right into him. Immediately his hands grasped her upper arms. “Stop,” he said softly “Let me go,” she hissed. “I can’t.” It was so quiet. “What does that mean?” Her eyes grew wide.

He moved her towards the bed, and she felt her legs bump the side. “I…Itachi-san… please,” she said nervously, some fear or thrill climbing up her throat. “Say my name only, Sakura,” he leaned close, whispering it onto her lips. “I…Itachi,” she said quietly. His mouth hovered over hers, waiting for her acceptance as all the arguments ran through her mind. Sasuke’s kiss…wait for Sasuke…don’t give in. But Itachi’s warmth and dangerous appeal surrounded her. Sakura knew at that moment that she didn’t want to stop him. She’d waited so long for someone to kiss her. There was no anger, hatred, or mocking in his face. He looked young, and full of desire or need. It was such an unexpected sight. “Itachi,” she whispered again, this time with an intonation to reveal that she'd forgo resolve and give in. Her fingers wrapped in his long cloak near his hips, as his hands slid up to cup her face. The moment stretched out between them until the second his lips touched hers. The kiss was soft and chaste, but lingering. Sakura closed her eyes, and wondered somewhere inside if her heart might burst out through her chest. She didn't expect this kind of attention from him, but wasn't completely surprised either. It was ending between them, whatever this was, and the moment to say goodbye had come. Saying it in this way was not entirely unpleasant. Itachi broke the innocent kiss and looked down at her with his exquisite eyes. Sakura stared back, feeling lost and found at the same time. Normally she would question it, and him, and his intentions, but for now she forgot it all. Itachi was dangerous, Itachi was a killer, but he was warm and tender right now. Tomorrow he would be gone, but tonight, she would allow this small intimacy to end their relationship. Truthfully, she could not imagine stopping it. “Itachi,” she whispered again, her fingers grabbing one of his wrists. The warm glow of his chakra lit the silver band on her wrist. With no indication of regret, he bent to her again. This time he kissed her deeply, and she parted her lips to allow it. Feeding off the rhythm and the way her body responded, she made a small whimper. Itachi furthered his attention, relinquishing his kiss, but moving down to taste the supple skin of her neck. Sakura was breathing heavy, her eyes closed; the taste of strawberries lingered in her mouth. Always in control, tonight she’d allow herself to give in to chaos and unrestraint…just for tonight.

Itachi pushed her lightly so that they fell on her bed. He continued to maraud her neck, earlobe, and mouth with a passion that surprised her. His body weighted hers to the bed deliciously. Sakura reached up behind him, tugging the tie from his hair and running her fingers through the strands. It was as soft as it looked. The long darkness of it slid over his shoulders, and he shrugged off his cloak to toss it on the floor. “Sakura,” he breathed onto her neck after some time. His mouth moved to hers again and he kissed her with a feverish need so unlike what she would imagine from such a calculating, cold person. She was lost in it. It felt too good. She’d wondered what her first kiss would be like; now she couldn’t imagine stopping. It went on and on as there became nothing else but each other. “Sakura,” Itachi said again as he moved back to her neck. “Sakura, stay with me. You don’t have to go back.” Immediately, Sakura’s eyes opened wide and her light clench on his shoulders released. “Why would you ask me that? Please, Itachi, don’t ask that,” she whispered. He continued to kiss below her ear, and then moved up to nibble her lobe. He ran his tongue over the shell of her ear, making her gasp in pleasure. “I’ll treat you well,” he whispered as his fingers stroked through her hair. “I’ve grown attached to having you here.” He kissed her again, and she let him. For once in her life, she felt desired and wanted. All the passion he was exuding right now was foreign, something she never imagined he could be. He’d never confess to love or even to like her, but for him to acknowledge that he wanted her to stay was far more than ever expected. Admittedly, the temptation was there, but it was impossible. “I can’t,” she whispered as he kissed her jaw line. “Sakura, be selfish. Stay here.” His tone shocked her. It almost sounded pleading… almost. His attentions ceased for a moment and she knew he was waiting for her answer. “If this had been another way, I would stay with you. But it isn’t. You are Akatsuki, and I am Leaf. Nothing can change that.” Sakura closed her eyes. She didn’t imagine it would be so hard to say. “I understand, Sakura. I hoped it would have been different,” he said softly against the skin of her throat. He moved up one last time to kiss her, and it was so amazing that she almost changed her mind. He drew away, his eyes closed as he hovered just above her.

“You will remember that kiss…for the next twelve hours,” he said quietly before opening his eyes to reveal the mangekyou sharingan. There was only time for one second of terror.

Loophole Chapter 8: The Fine Print A light ache pulsed in Sakura’s head, although she had the most calm and content feeling. It was like she was waking from a comfortable sleep filled with pleasant dreams to find it was a little too deep. She could still feel Itachi’s lips on her own as if they were still lingering above her. But for some strange reason she was cold again. Managing to ease her eyelids open, she expected to see her stone room and feel the soft bed beneath her. Instead, she found herself surrounded by concrete with cold metal cuffs binding her hands. Long chains led from the cuffs and attached to the wall. Again she was bound with the backs of her hands touching, although this time the device was metal, and painfully tight. As she tried to move a little, the silver chakra bracelet on her wrist clanged against the steel and lacked the glow from before. “I…Itachi?” she whispered as her vision cleared enough to see another figure in the room. At first glance, she thought it might be Kakashi by the hair colour. Sadly, when he came into complete focus, she understood that it was a face she hadn’t seen for a long time and had never wanted to again. “Good morning, Sakura,” Kabuto grinned. Everything came to her in a heartbeat. Her mind reeled with the prospect that she was in a worse situation than she ever could have imagined. How could Itachi do this to her? This wasn’t part of the deal. The mangekyou sharingan flashed across her memory. Gritting her teeth, the anger pulsed through her until she screamed. “Itachi!” Kisame laughed lightly as he tread along the forest, possibly spurred on by some inner joke; Itachi didn’t care enough to ask. Shifting the body that lay over his shoulder, Kisame leapt onto a branch behind his nimble partner as they traveled southward. Itachi was scanning the horizon for signs of movement ahead, and Kisame followed like the good little underling that he was.

“Itachi, this boy is heavy and I’m getting hungry.” Reluctantly turning, Itachi looked at his younger likeness dangling over Kisame’s shoulder, oblivious to his surroundings. “Fine,” Itachi said almost too quietly. Leaping down to the mossy ground, they took a place under the canopy of leaves after Kisame set Sasuke down. Itachi examined the boy, determining that he was still out cold and would remain that way. Orochimaru had assured him that he had twenty hours before his brother would awaken. If Orochimaru was one thing, it was diligent with his drugs. Most likely, if Itachi had asked, Orochimaru could have told him the exact minute Sasuke would awaken. But in the end it was irrelevant. Sasuke would be out of their care long before then. Kisame began to eat some dry bread, taking small sips from his canteen. “It’s hot today,” he grumbled, tugging at the long cloak he wore. “It’s because you’re hung over,” Itachi said humorlessly. “Psh, maybe,” Kisame agreed, then took another sip. “Why don’t we just leave him here and go back.” He pulled open the collar to his long cloak with a rough tug. A piercing look was momentarily flashed in the shark man’s direction and the question went unanswered, but Itachi’s intention was clearly understood. With a deep breath and a small shrug, Kisame resumed his pitiful meal. Itachi had been silent for most of the three hours they had been moving through the forest toward the Fire Country. Although normally a pensive man, Itachi was unusually thoughtful this morning. Kisame had spent enough years with him to know that everything was not sitting as well the Uchiha had expected it to. “Is it alright to leave her there?” Kisame took a stab; not that it was a far stretch to guess what was going on. “That subject is not to be brought up.” Itachi didn’t look at his partner, but glanced fleetingly at their new companion. Sasuke lay in a dead heap, breathing steadily. Kisame nodded slowly, finding it interesting to see some minute piece of uncontrolled emotion seeping from the stoic Uchiha. It was a first, really. All along, Kisame suspected that Itachi experimented a little with Sakura, enjoying having a plaything for a short while. But from what he had seen in the last three hours, he began to think Itachi held some regret and that his interest in Sakura was more than previously thought.

Again, Itachi looked at the foliage, his gaze fogged over as he contemplated things inside his own mind. Kisame took another deep breath, trying to quell the stomach upset from his overindulgence when Itachi spoke again. “Orochimaru won’t kill her. This was part of the bargain I made with him. She’ll be treated well.” Kisame could see he was trying to convince himself more than he was trying to convince anyone else. “Doesn’t that nin who helps Orochimaru have some unusual techniques for cooperation?” Kisame said offhandedly. “No,” Itachi affirmed. “Actually, I meant in his treatment of prisoners,” Kisame slowly stood up and wandered to some trees nearby. “She is no more a prisoner there than she was with us,” Itachi bit the words off, imparting that the discussion was over. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Kisame stumble a bit. “What are you doing?” The answer came in the form of loud retching. With a small headshake and some disgust, Itachi averted his eyes to look back at Sasuke. For a long moment, his sight rested on the sleeping figure. “It was not an even trade,” he said quietly. “Don’t touch me,” Sakura screamed in Kabuto’s face as he bent to unlock her chains from the wall. Kicking at him and trying to draw chakra suddenly made her feel fatigued, and pain drove through her body. Gasping, she managed to say, “What the hell did you do to me?” “We can’t have you using your chakra so freely now, can we?” Kabuto responded calmly. “As a student of Tsunade, I’m sure you know how to manifest your chakra into incredible strength.” “What did you do?” she hissed again finding her body had loosened after the initial shock of the pain. “We’ve administered an agent to control your chakra. When we’re ready for you to use it, we’ll administer something else to give you enough to work.” Kabuto finished unlocking the chains and tugged her up to her feet. “I won’t do anything for you. You’ll just have to kill me,” she said defiantly.

“That’s what will happen if you don’t comply. Tsunade refused to heal Orochimaru’s arms so we never thought the opportunity would arise again. Imagine my surprise to receive a message from Uchiha Itachi. He wanted to trade you for his younger brother.” Kabuto laughed and it made Sakura cringe. “Where is Sasuke?” she asked, suddenly realizing he must be in that building. “He’s gone. The older Uchiha took him when he brought you here. This was the deal he made. As I understand it, you’re the one who initiated it.” “No, it wasn’t supposed to be this way,” she whispered. The first conversation about their deal came swimming back amid all the angry confusion in her mind. “I ask that you do whatever is necessary to get Sasuke back. Nothing more, nothing less,” she remembered saying “Really? I must understand this, kun…Sakura-san. You’ll have me do whatever I find necessary to get Sasuke away from Orochimaru?” Itachi replied She nodded “Then our deal is made. But you can’t hold it against me if I do something you don’t endorse.” He knew he was going to do it all along, she growled inwardly. He kissed me, he held me and asked me to stay with him. Is this my punishment for saying no? Then the realization of how foolish she was crept up on her. I agreed to it all. Kabuto watched her inner turmoil. He could see she was working out why she was in this predicament and her own mistakes which brought her to their lair. “Orochimaru-sama wants to see you.” Kabuto tugged the chains, bringing Sakura out of her inner thoughts. “Or…Orochimaru?” Sakura’s voice trembled. She’d met him once when she was in the death forest at the chuunin exams. In a horror filled moment, he had given Sasuke the cursed seal that began this whole thing. But that wasn’t true, was it? It was Itachi and when he killed Sasuke’s family and every other Uchiha that marked the trail of events leading to this moment. Dragging her feet along the stone floors, she began to feel angry, cursing the S-class tendencies for cruelness, and having honor among the devils. Apparently, they also had

penchants for cold, damp buildings, she grumbled to herself, feeling the chill down to her bones. “You seem angry, Sakura,” Kabuto observed nonchalantly. “I’m going to kill Uchiha Itachi when I get out of here,” she spat. “Well, he won’t have to worry, will he? You won’t be getting out of here.” “I think we’re close,” Kisame grumbled, still feeling deeply ill. He wanted to get sick again, but Itachi would probably grow angry due to the mood he was in. Better to deal with it after they had unloaded their human cargo. “I sense someone nearby. We’re on the edge of the Fire Country now,” Itachi whispered back. “We’ll leave him here and rig a small explosion to get attention. Set a charge to go off in twenty minutes. I’m sure some of their pathetic ANBU will be circling the area.” Kisame nodded, practically dropping Sasuke to the ground. Again, the younger Uchiha genius did not stir. As Kisame leapt up a nearby tree to place the exploding seal, Itachi bent low and looked at Sasuke. The young man’s hair had grown long and messy. His tall body was riddled with bruises and some old scars were visible through the tattered remains of a sound uniform. Obviously, he didn’t get what he bargained for with Orochimaru. He was fortunate that someone like Sakura would give up so much for him. “I guess we’ll meet again,” Itachi said darkly. He knew full well that when Sasuke was well enough, he would be out searching for him. What a foolish young man to throw away a life that was given back to him. But such was the fate of Uchiha. Wiping it from the planet was probably a good thing. No one really understood the dark paths the Uchiha traveled along. Itachi was never a child. From the moment he could walk, he was trained to be superior in every way. He never expected Sasuke to understand and didn’t really care if he did or not. If the young man came for him, Itachi would kill him. It was plain and simple. He could never stamp out a lifetime of being bred as an emotionless soldier and the self-preservation ingrained in him. It was what kept him alive so long with every hunter-nin across the five countries out to make a name for himself by catching the infamous clan killer. “It’s ready,” Kisame dropped down from the tree. “Let’s go,” Itachi grumbled. “Don’t you want to see if the Kyuubi shows up? It might be a good opportunity,” Kisame added. “No,” Itachi grunted. “Let’s just go back to the complex. I want to rest.”

Kisame just nodded his agreement. Itachi was not himself, so it was better not to engage in banter that could wind up with an unpredictable ending. “Well, well, kunoichi, I remember you,” Orochimaru said softly in his raspy deep voice. He sat crossed-legged in a large chair, looking very androgynous with his purple adornments, pale façade, and long dark hair. He was slender and feminine in his appearance, even in his mannerisms, but his voice was all male. The juxtaposition was unnerving. “I remember you too,” Sakura responded quietly. Orochimaru laughed darkly. “Do you like your room, Sakura? It’s the one Sasuke-kun spent the last year in. Perhaps you’ll feel closer to him now.” “You bastard. I’ll kill you,” she hissed, finding the anger overcoming the fear for a moment. “No, you’ll heal me,” he answered dryly, losing all hint of amusement. “If you don’t comply, we’ll kill you…slowly. Kabuto has many means at his disposal for extracting information.” “I don’t have any information,” Sakura sneered. “Well, it will just be for pleasure then, won’t it,” Orochimaru laughed again. Kabuto sighed beside Sakura, still holding the heavy chains. “Perhaps you should give her a little taste of what will happen if she doesn’t comply, Kabuto,” he added. Kabuto looked at Sakura, his face turned to a blank expression as he nodded a little. Sakura couldn’t tell if the idea turned his stomach or if he was just thinking ahead. She swore if he laid a hand on her, she’d fight until he had to kill her. With a tug of her chain, Kabuto pulled Sakura out of the room and then began to lead her back down the hallway. The sudden understanding of what might take place in that room frightened her enough to make her pull back and fall to the ground to gain leverage with her feet. No matter what, Sakura did not want to go back in that room. Kabuto stopped moving and just looked down at her. He shook his head and peered somewhere behind her for a moment. It was then that hands grabbed her and hoisted her up high enough that her feet didn’t touch the ground. There was no way to see who had a hold of her, but whoever it was, they were large. The grip she was in was like an iron vice on her arms. When they reached the door to her cell, she was flung in and the chain fell around her legs, bruising and battering them. Sakura hissed with the pain, and felt the first tears straining her vision. “Damn it,” she sobbed softly, “Damn it.”

“We’re all damned, Sakura,” Kabuto said softly. “I’ll do my best not to let them hurt you too badly. If you can’t function, you’ll be of no use.” Sakura managed to raise her face to his as he crouched down in front of her. He looked cold, with no real sincerity. Noticing some other movement in the room, Sakura looked past him to see two men standing in the doorway. Feeling the desperation breaking her composure, she let her forehead rest on the cold stone floor while her tears fell. Night crept in again and Kisame wandered the hallway in their complex until he felt ready to eat, finally staving off his hang over. When he came into the dining room, Itachi was sitting at the long table leafing through the book of research Sakura had written. His dark eyes scanned the pages slowly. “What are you going to do with that?” Kisame asked as he rummaged the table in search of some food amid the greasy cartons there. “Burn it, most likely,” Itachi replied evenly. Kisame nodded as he sat down, fishing out some rice and cold chicken from a paper carton. Taking a place at the other end of the table, he began to devour the food as if he hadn’t eaten for days. “You shouldn’t drink so much. It weakens you,” Itachi said as he snapped the book shut and tossed it on the table. He put his foot on the chair and leaned on his knee in a lazy posture. Using his thumb, he flicked at a stray thread on his pant leg. A gravelly, food filled laugh came from Kisame’s mouth. “The kunoichi was entertaining when she drank.” He continued to laugh thinking about their sparing session. “It was hard to stop.” “I said that subject is dead. It’s not to be brought up again,” Itachi flashed with a hint of anger. A tilt of Kisame’s head showed he was contemplating his superior’s reaction to his words, and Itachi shot a look back indicating the scrutiny was over. “It’s too bad we couldn’t hold onto her a little longer. She would have been the perfect bait for the kyuubi,” Kisame said quietly as he delved into a box of noodles. Pushing the envelope was rare for Kisame, he was usually a little more careful around Itachi, but pressing his buttons occurred from time to time. “Do I have to stop your mouth, Kisame?” Itachi hissed as his palm banged the table in an unusual display of anger.

The two men just stared at each other over the food until Kisame laughed a little. “Do you want me to retrieve her?” “She agreed to this deal. There is no need to change the outcome of our contract. I fulfilled my half, and so did she.” In that instant, Itachi managed to revert back to his calm demeanor after the uncharacteristic display of a moment before. “The subject is dead,” Kisame agreed, “or will be soon at any rate.” “Good Morning again, Sakura,” Kabuto said calmly from the doorway. The sound of the chains dragging across the floor as she moved grated in her sore head. Pain radiated from her head to her feet, and if she had to pinpoint a spot that hurt most to save her own life, she would die right then. The metal restraints felt heavy, and impossible to lift off the floor. The prospect of actually sitting up seemed like a grand feat in itself. From her cold bed of concrete, she stared up at the cracked and crumbing ceiling with her one open eye. The other had bruised shut from her welcome beating the day before. “Two minutes,” Kabuto had said before stepping out of her cell the night before. Just two minutes. Well, it must have been the world’s record for the worst beating in the shortest amount of time. There was so much damage inflicted by two men in just two minutes. Now, as the pain felt worse, and unconsciousness threatened her, she let the tears come again. “I’m sorry.” Kabuto wandered closer and Sakura could see the shadow of another person behind him. She flinched in fear but when a bedroll was dropped beside her, her body released the tension it filled with. Kabuto neared her and unlocked her cuffs, then gently helped her onto the bedroll. With a quick effort, he then healed her eye before tugging up her shirt a little and working on the cracked and bruised ribs. In a matter of twenty minutes, she felt better but not very close to perfect. “You’ll be required to work on Orochimaru-sama today. You must do something or you will be beaten again. Do you understand that they can hurt you again and again, and I will come and heal you again and again? This can go on forever, Sakura. It’s better if you comply and save yourself the pain.” Kabuto’s words were quiet and rapid. Sakura had to wonder if he was playing her for quick cooperation or if he really meant it. Either way, she didn’t want to comply but already began to worry about how long it would take to break her. “Sleep for a little while, Sakura. You’ll be more comfortable like this. I’ll get you a blanket and then I’ll come and get you in a few hours to administer the counter agent for your chakra use. Don’t let him see you cry. He’ll become angry.”

How he could make everything so business-like and tear away his conscience was beyond her. Perhaps he and Itachi would make good friends with so much in common. A small nod was the last movement Sakura made as her eyes closed and she drifted off, feeling some minor relief from the pain. Evening began to fall and Kisame yawned loudly from his reclined position in the training courtyard at the complex. “When are we going to start tracking the kyuubi again?” he asked as he picked at something in his teeth with a senbon. Itachi stood in the center of the grassy opening, heaving from a hard training session as sweat beaded on his bare upper body. He was impressed with how accurate his aim was now that his eyes were perfect again. “In a few days,” Itachi finally responded. “The Leaf are still out tracking in groups, looking for their missing-nin. I want to wait until it dies down.” “I suppose they won’t find her. They won’t even have a clue where she might be,” Kisame said with no particular feeling. Itachi didn’t respond. Instead, he began to pick up the kunai littered around the targets. Thumbing the edge of one, he glanced over at Kisame. “These are getting worn.” “You want me to take them to be sharpened?” Kisame asked. “No,” Itachi said quietly. “Your technique has improved. You didn’t miss a single hit.” Itachi smirked a little, finding some appreciation for the fact that he had become a better killer. How many years had his vision been deteriorating? It had been so long ago since he’d seen this clearly that he wondered if he ever really did. The details were astounding as well as the improvements it gave him in his area of expertise. “I see everything perfectly now,” Itachi said through his dark smile. “You’ll have to take better care now, Itachi-san,” Kisame said mockingly, “She won’t be around to fix them again, and now your little brother will be looking for you.” Itachi took a deep breath and looked up at the last remnants of the sunset as stars began to form in the darker blanket of the sky. He put his fingers on his face and rubbed them over his lips and cheek in a contemplative manner. Instead of giving a biting ‘that subject is dead’, he seemed to fall into some thought over what his partner had just said. Kisame watched the young nin running things through his analytical mind. Not much was ever given away by Itachi when he was planning, but Kisame had wondered when this

inner conflict might come up. Surely Itachi had thought of keeping the medic around in case he needed her again. Itachi was the sort of person who thought five steps ahead when everyone else thought two. The plan was foolproof. Itachi’s eyes were fixed, and the younger Uchiha was free. It was exactly what was agreed upon, and it was Sakura’s own fault not to ensure her own safety. But of course, she managed to have an unusual impact on Itachi, which Kisame had noticed. He treated her better than was expected, became less like the cold killing machine Kisame knew him to be. Certainly the kunoichi had some charm, but aside from being an entertaining drunk, Kisame had no time for her. Funny enough, spurring the Uchiha to go and get her was something the shark man was exacting for his own entertainment. Sadistic bastards could enjoy a little change in the monotony at each other’s expense from time to time. Finally, Itachi broke out of his contemplation. “We’ll go there to make sure he hasn’t killed her. Perhaps in a day or two. It won’t benefit me if she’s dead.” Kisame began to chuckle deeply, and Itachi ignored it. The Uchiha was not one to break his word and Kisame reasoned that in the beginning, this agreement must have seemed like the perfect plan to Itachi. But of course, sometimes there are loopholes in the tightest contracts, if one could call Sakura a loophole. Without being properly awakened, Sakura felt a sharp sting and heard the rubbery snap of the stretchy ribbon releasing from around her bicep. The cool liquid that was injected into her crawled up her arm and seemed to creep around her body. The path it took told her that it was clearing her chakra highway for use, but she still feared drawing chakra due to the pain the day before. “It will give you half an hour of usable chakra. Don’t think to use it against someone; there isn’t enough for a large blow.” Kabuto knelt beside her. “I can’t do this. He attacked my country years ago. I would be a betrayer to my own village. I don’t want to die, but you’ve given me no choice.” Sakura fought crying from frustration, knowing that if she faced Orochimaru with a tear streaked face, he would not be sympathetic; quite the opposite, actually. “I’m sorry you fell into this situation, Sakura. But you, of all people, should know better than to trust an Uchiha,” he said matter of factly. “No one knows you’re here. There are no options left.” Sakura gave a trembling sigh, feeling her side ache from the extended breath.

Kabuto’s hand clamped on her wrist and pulled her up off the bedroll; the tattered blanket fell from her body to expose it to the cold air. She winced with the pain, and felt that death might be a welcome alternative for the servitude she was expected of here. Such torture as being beaten, cured, and then beaten again could go on indefinitely. It was a despicable practice and something a medic should never stoop to. “You are a blight on the medical field, Kabuto. Where is your self-respect?” she asked quietly. Kabuto’s eyes narrowed slightly, showing the cold darkness he usually managed to hide behind an innocent smile. Sakura knew it was there. It only needed a little prompting to reveal itself. “After you refuse tonight, I’ll give them five minutes with you. Push me further and I’ll give them half an hour. What will happen in that amount of time is not so pleasant as a beating,” Kabuto hissed so quietly that she almost missed it. “You are the lowest form of scum, Kabuto.” “What sort of kunoichi betrays her village for a runaway nin, joining with a criminal in the process?” He smiled. “Welcome to the bottom of the barrel.” Sakura stiffened. Sadly, she had to admit she was reaping what she had sowed. Someone like Uchiha Itachi would never do anything that would not benefit himself. She became expendable to him when he’d gained what he desired. Her plan was faulted in so many ways; it was pitiful. “Let’s go,” Kabuto pulled her lightly and she complied. There was no point in fighting it now. As she entered the room that contained a number of sound nin and their leader, trembling began in her knees. For a moment, she thought she might fall down and between the fatigue and pain, remaining lucid was getting difficult. “Sakura, Kabuto tells me you’re still refusing to help. How can I persuade you?” Orochimaru growled. “I am not a patient man.” “Orochimaru-san, I will not betray my country. I must decline to help you,” Sakura said as politely as possible. Orochimaru just nodded, letting his eyes fall to his dead arms. His eyes flashed to Kabuto and then back to Sakura. “Kabuto use the other agent on her. I don’t want to wait anymore.” Kabuto seemed to perk up at his words, and he grinned in such a salacious manner that Sakura tried to step away from him. But she was still caught in his strong grip, which he didn’t relinquish even as he bowed.

“Thank you, Orochimaru-sama. I’ve been looking forward to it.” Many things happened in that moment. Kabuto grabbed Sakura’s arm and held it out. Another man brought a syringe to him and then squeezed her upper arm to produce a vein. Trying hard, but failing to pull out of his grasp, Sakura cried out as the needle was jabbed into her skin. “Missed,” Kabuto said happily, “You’d better hold still or I’ll have to hold you down and inject it straight into your heart.” “You piece of shit,” she growled as other men stepped forward to hold her still. As the plunger depressed, the cold liquid crept up her arm. She could see the purple line making it’s way along under her skin towards her heart. “What did you do?” she said in panic. Complete fear overtook her as she and Kabuto watched the progress of the drug. “This will make you a little more compliant for a day or two. It’s a poison that will kill you in five days if you don’t receive the antidote.” Kabuto shook a vial in front of her, which he had produced from his pocket. “Damn you,” she hissed. “I told you already, Sakura, we are all damned. And you’ve just joined us.”

Loophole Chapter 9: Addendum Tsunade shook her head at the young man lying quietly in a bed in her hospital. Since the ANBU squad brought him back, she found herself getting sick of his line of bullshit lies. Her honey brown eyes quickly took in the metal chakra cuffs holding him to the bed and sucking out his strength as his dark eyes bore into the wall or moved to the night outside his window. “How about coming clean, Uchiha?” she asked one last time. “You’ve nothing to gain by lying.” “I don’t know who brought me here,” he said coldly. “By the marks on your body, I assume that you have not been staying in a hotel.” Sasuke remained silent as his gaze shifted slightly to the crisscrossing scars marring his pale skin. Memories of beatings, chakra draining and his cold cell crept upon him.

“Kakashi will be returning soon. He said he wants to talk to you when he arrives. I don’t know if you know this, but Haruno Sakura has disappeared. She was last seen fighting with Uchiha Itachi over a couple of weeks ago.” Sasuke still did not look at Tsunade but she could see him try to hide the shock her words gave him as his body tensed for a split second. Good, she thought, let him chew on that a while. “Get comfortable, Sasuke. You won’t be leaving Konoha again for a very long time.” With her parting words, she turned on her heel and clacked angry steps to the door. The beat of her heart pulsed in her throat as she grew angrier, thinking Sasuke might have some idea where Sakura might be. So many days had passed and no one had found a trace of her. If Kakashi couldn’t track her, there was no one else that could. Listening to the irritating tap of water on water from some leak along a wall, Sakura tried to slow her breathing as much as possible. After being tossed back in her cell, her body felt invaded and fragile with the foreign substance riding her blood cells to every inch of her. At least her mind was still strong, but for how long? What would this poison do as it cut its way through what was left of her days? Poison. Five Days. Plans crawled over her tired thoughts. Ways to escape seemed fruitless, sad fantasies of someone running in at the last minute to rescue her or some miraculous cataclysmic event that only she survived. Sadly, no one who knew she was there cared if she were dead or alive. Orochimaru must have had a difficult time with Sasuke if he kept him locked up and then gave up on taking his body. So why give him away? Maybe he felt it was more likely that I could fix his arms instead. It doesn't really make sense. Maybe between beatings and poisonings she could ask him over tea. A strangled laugh came from her throat before she admonished herself for speeding up her heart rate to aid the poison destroying her. Maybe madness came first. Gathering the small amount of chakra Kabuto had allowed her with injection number one, she molded it gently and pressed it into her side, letting it flow through her. Finally, it came floating out of the other side surrounding a tiny ball of poison, which even saying it was a centimeter wide would be generous. It spun inside the chakra like a tiny blue planet covered in an ocean of smooth waves.

Already she could feel the chakra dying from her system. When Kabuto said it was only a small usable amount, she couldn’t help but agree as the small bubble began to descend toward her shaking hands. As it escaped her control, ebbing like a tide, she felt the globule splash onto her cupped hands. So very carefully, she rubbed it onto the dirty fabric skirt covering her shorts until it was completely off of her skin and soaked into the light material. The effort was painful and took a lot out of her, but it was complete. Trying hard not to move any more than she had to, her mind went back to planning an imaginary escape as her eyes closed out her prison. Morning trickled in, and Kisame yawned as he scanned the clock in the kitchen. Itachi wasn’t there so he dragged himself along the hallway to the courtyard door. The hinges creaked as he pushed it open and stepped out to look at the pearly grey sky threatening to drench him. Itachi stood in the yard, fully dressed from his leg guards to his cloak, admiring his improved aim once again. In quick blurs the targets became littered with shuriken and kunai. The last kunai in the courtyard was still held in Itachi’s hand. He tapped his forehead protector a couple of times in thought. “Going somewhere?” Kisame asked in a bored tone. “I’ll be back tonight,” Itachi said smoothly, and his face turned to that impassive look he used so frequently. “Didn’t you want me to accompany you?” Kisame hoped he wouldn’t. Due to their years together, Kisame found it possible to read the Uchiha on the rare occasion, and this one told him that Itachi struck that look because he wanted to hide something. Things like that never turned out well. “That won’t be necessary,” Itachi responded, to Kisame’s relief. He nodded even though Itachi was not looking at him. It was not unusual for Itachi to leave the base alone. Sometimes it was Akatsuki business, and sometimes private. Kisame never questioned him, just as he never expected to be questioned about his own personal exploits. Perhaps Itachi had business outside Akatsuki, perhaps he needed some alone time; perhaps he had a lover, most likely he was going to Orochimaru’s. Kisame didn’t really care as long as it stayed out of his business. Immunity from prying was a lovely benefit of an outfit such as the Akatsuki. Unfortunately, the young medic was the first outside business to find its way inside their complex. Kisame didn’t care to invite other people’s lives to intertwine with his own unless he was planning to kill them. He would have happily ended Sakura’s life for her, but Itachi might have been on his heels looking to take his life in return. An unusual

situation, Kisame had never seen Itachi so…well, protective was the wrong word. Covetous might suffice as a better description. “I’m going to get more sake in the village. Do you need anything?” Kisame turned to go back to his bed and a few more hours of delicious sleep. He waited a moment to see if Itachi would mention anything, but the young nin seemed to ignore the question. Just as well, Kisame thought. He’d only drop it on the way back after spending the afternoon at the bar anyway. Orochimaru stared at Sakura’s face in the light of the evening streaming in the windows. He took in the bruises that were partially healed and the shiver of her skin with her first reactions to the poison. He had no expression of emotion that she could glean. Actually, he seemed almost as a statue of himself as he watched Kabuto inject her once again with an agent to clear out some of her chakra highway. Clenching her jaw, she felt it crawl through her system, but wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of knowing it hurt. “Well, kunoichi. I’m wondering if you are still planning to refuse?” Orochimaru let the words slither from his mouth smoothly. “I will…start some research on them…to find out what might be wrong,” she said, finding her voice low and raspy with the effects of the poison and the sickness she could feel creeping up on her from sleeping in her frigid cell. To agree was hard, and she desperately desired to fold in on herself and disappear into nothing, to stay as far away from the man in front of her as possible. But she also needed time and this was the best way. So far, plans of escape had eluded her, but if she had more time… Orochimaru smiled. He was so disgustingly pleased with himself that the urge to punch her chakra-laden fist through his teeth almost overtook her. But the tiny amount she had would suffice to only give him a fist shaped bruise, hardly worth the effort. Slowly and angrily, Sakura let her chakra delve into the problems plaguing Orochimaru. It took twenty minutes to get enough energy into his body to get any sort of information back, and by that time she was too exhausted to continue. Sinking to the floor beside him, she put her hands down to stop herself from crashing face first into the cold concrete. “She’s too weak,” Kabuto insisted. “Perhaps I should give her the antidote.” “No,” Orochimaru bent down to look at her. Her eyes were almost closed. “She can rest for an hour or so, then bring her back.” Kabuto nodded, knowing she would be working slowly in the process of healing like this, but would obey all the same. It seemed obvious to him that Orochimaru would let Sakura die unless some real progress was made, but Kabuto wondered if the process of making her wear out all usable chakra each time might kill her.

Dragging her to her feet, Kabuto bent down and let her fall over his shoulder. Carrying her back to her personal dungeon, he carefully laid her on the bedroll. Her eyes remained closed, so with no reason to stay, Kabuto turned and left. After hearing the door bang shut and the heavy slide bar lock clang into place, Sakura finally opened her eyes. With a strange feeling taking her over, she couldn’t decide whether to laugh or cry at everything she had seen, done and discovered in the last hour. Orochimaru’s arms were dead. No one, not even Tsunade could fix them even if she wanted to. Somehow they were closed off from his body. Everything, including his chakra highways, seemed to be inactive to the point they were in a state of living petrification. He had some movement in them, but even so, they were dead things, useless appendages that would never work again. She couldn’t imagine how it was possible, but it was almost as if the life force in them had been stolen away. A bitter smile crossed her lips. Even if they forced her to work on him until she died, Orochimaru would never be whole again. Fatigue suddenly began winning its battle over her whole self, and knowing she would have to go through the pain of the chakra highways opening up and then working her energies to depletion, she tried to sleep. Truly, it wouldn’t take long. Itachi stood in a tree overlooking the rough stone wall near the edge of Orochimaru’s complex. Ninja would circle near it or walk along it from time to time. It was a crude structure, about eight feet high, but was guarded effectively against normal invaders. Well, Itachi and normal could not be said in the same breath. Night slowly became his cover as it compelled heavy shadows from the trees around him. From where he stood, he could see the entrance and again enjoyed his renewed vision. The risks teetered on an invisible scale in his mind, weighing the pros and cons of risking himself to see if she were still alive. Being Itachi, no one was as important as himself. Slipping past the guards wouldn’t be too difficult, and getting inside would be easier. If anyone gained a footing on him, he could just use the mangekyou sharingan. All the way from his own complex, some thoughts of why he was doing this, coming to see her, surfaced. There was no feeling, he convinced himself. She was important for her skills, important to keep his vision as it was now. The option had to always remain open. If she died, it would not benefit him. If she died, he would miss having the opportunity at hand when needed. If she had agreed to stay in the first place, none of this would have had to take place. A deep breath cleansed out the minute anger he felt rise inside him.

She should have weighed the outcomes with her head, instead of her heart. Konoha shinobi are so weak that way. That’s what makes them so easy to defeat. Itachi turned a kunai over, slowly spinning it in his fingers. He would just have a look to be sure she was still alive. He wasn’t there to remove her or go back on their bargain. To strain relations with Orochimaru would be against Akatsuki orders. Just being there could constitute as breaking their agreements. For now, the former Sannin had to be allowed to maintain his research on the body switching technique. Until then, Akatsuki were not to interfere. Even as a group of individuals, they were still…a group. He was compelled to follow their wishes. In a startled awakening, Sakura felt hands grab her upper arms and pull her to a sitting position. Kabuto straddled her legs as two other nin latched onto her to hold her up. One held out her arm as Kabuto tied the rubber ribbon around it again and injected her. Had an hour passed already? It felt more like a blink of an eye, or maybe a reel from a punch. “Let’s go,” Kabuto indicated to the two nin on either side of her, and they complied by pulling her to her feet. By now she was mostly awake, her head lolling a little with sleepiness and poison. Practically dragging her down the hallway, her feet scraped the concrete as they tried to catch up the momentum. They entered the same room as before and this time she was actually able to take in the surroundings. There were jars of floating things that looked fleshy and organic. Rows of strange bottles and liquids were also among them. A candle sat on the table along with a couple of skulls that sat on shelves amid books and gadgets that looked like medieval medical instruments, or something for slow torture. The chair Orochimaru sat in was lined with deep red velvet and clashed fiercely with his penchant for purple. The only nice thing in the room was a bouquet of flowers, but they were half destroyed, most likely picked apart for their medicinal properties. “I’m ready,” Sakura said softly as they released her to her own strength, and she surprised herself with her ability to stand. A few steps brought her next to Orochimaru where she took a place on a vacant stool. It wouldn’t be long and she’d be back in her cell. Maybe this time, for her hour of sleep, she could dream of Sasuke back home in Konoha. Her chakra began to move over the dead limb. Sasuke. At least she had succeeded in that.

Sadness began to wash over her and so she made a decision. Pulling back the energies swirling from her fingers, she stood up and walked away. “Sakura, what are you doing?” Kabuto hissed from the door. “His arms are dead,” she said matter-of-factly. “I’m wasting your time and mine. They’re impossible to heal.” Words can bring death; she believed that as sure as she believed love could bring happiness. No one would come for her, no rescue or grand reunion with Sasuke would ever happen. At this point, perhaps it was better to die with some dignity and let the last days of her life be washed away in secrecy. Maybe it was meant to be that way. “Liar,” Kabuto said as if he knew it to be a fact while walking over to her. Grabbing her by the front of her shirt, he quietly hissed his question into her face. “You’re a fool. What do you think you’re doing?” “Wiping my feet on the bottom of the barrel,” she said quietly. Orochimaru was shaking in anger; he was boiling over with hate, and death lit his snakelike eyes into a fury that scared Sakura into trembling. “I won’t let you die so easily,” he growled. Sakura could see he was trying to lift his arm to point accusations at her, but he couldn’t. “You’ll beg to die, but I won’t let you.” Kabuto flung her against the wall using his hand at her neck to hold her against the cold hardness that her head banged against. “I’m going to let them beat you until you’re an inch from death, and then I’ll fix you so they can do it again.” Sakura fought against the tight grip on her neck, but flecks of light danced in front of her eyes and mocked her attempt to stay lucid. Don’t pass out, her inner self whispered. Don’t pass out. But it was too hard to fight anymore as the darkness came. As the first traces of light came into her blurred vision, Sakura heard the great pounding of a thunderstorm. Whether it was inside her head or outside of it, she couldn’t really tell. Maybe it was both. The rain had tapped on the roof all day, but now the tempo of a storm washed over the place, bringing a moment of soft contemplation. What if she had said yes to Itachi and stayed? His kiss had lingered in her mind for hours and even now as she felt scorching hate for him, she wanted his kiss as well. It was too bad he wasn’t there to kiss her goodbye.

It was night time, at least that was obvious. The lamp in her cell was only lit at night and the hallway seemed eerily quiet. Lying on her side was most comfortable with the pain in her legs from the chains the day before, and as she tried to move her strained muscles, she waited patiently for her sight to discern the shapes around her. At least the light casting from above her head told her the cell door was open. Trying to focus enough to look around, a sight shocked her into total alertness. Something silver glinted in front of her, and as she moved, there was a reflection of herself moving as well. Slowly pushing through the pain it gave her, she managed to focus on the object. A kunai. It stood erect; its tip buried in the bedroll. The silver steel and the hard iron loop at the end were the most welcome sight she had ever seen. But how did it get there? Surely no one would be stupid enough to drop it and leave it there? As all the reasons and excuses clambered for reality, footsteps shuffled along the hallway outside, bringing her adrenaline to the surface. She grabbed the kunai and tucked it under her shirt, the tip cutting a line along her abdomen as it was hastily shoved into the band of her shorts. Lying back down, she closed her eyes and prayed for the strength to use that one silver weapon to its fullest deadly potential. The coolness of the steel was still gripped in her fingers under her clothing. “She’s not awake,” A rough voice grumbled from the doorway. “Kabuto said it didn’t matter,” the other voice said, much deeper than the first. Sakura’s breathing increased a little with fear and opportunity spurring her. “She’s awake, her breathing just sped up,” the first voice chuckled. “Good try kunoichi.” Before she knew it, they were beside her. Her eyes fully open, she stared up at two large men, sadly familiar from the first beating she received. But this time, the look in their eyes said they were contemplating much worse things than a few hits. Crouching down, the first man moved his face close to hers. “Kabuto said we could do whatever we liked to you,” he whispered. The other man laughed at the innuendo. “If I cooperate, will you promise not to hurt me?” Sakura whispered back in a shaking voice. Shaking with anger. Shaking with readiness.

The first man turned his head and looked at the second as if waiting for confirmation that this would be alright. She took the opportunity to thrust the kunai deep into his throat. A gasp came from his open mouth, but if there was any air there, she couldn’t hear it. In the split second of choas that followed, she turned on his companion. But the second man was ready so he blocked the quick swipe Sakura made to his side. Luckily, she managed to keep a firm grip on the weapon as she stood up to fight, the adrenaline giving her some strength. Pulling a kunai of his own, the second man lunged at her, pushing her body to the floor. His wrist grabbed hers and forced it against the edge of the bedroll. He straddled her but didn’t have enough time to hold down her legs with his, so she curled up underneath him and jammed her feet into his abdomen. The height he gained gave her enough time to get to her feet. To stay in close proximity was the best course of action, as she would need to stop him doing any jutsu. There would be no way to counter it if she didn’t. Drawing as much chakra to her other hand as possible, she found enough there wasn't even enough for one good hit. It wouldn’t even knock him off his feet, but at least it might help. He came at her again, and this time, she remembered what Kisame had taught her and crouched into her stance. A swift side step and a counter move he had practiced with her gave her the upper hand. Gripping his shoulder lightly, she used his momentum to guide him down towards the floor as he lost his footing. Without a thought, she rammed the kunai into the back of his neck before he even hit the hard ground. Blood seeped along the stones as she began to back up. As she turned, a small bit of dizziness crept on her but even so, nothing could stop her from going. Pressing her hands to the doorframe, she leaned out carefully to see if anyone was in the hallway. Luckily the place was empty. Most likely the two dead men in the cell were the night guards and everyone else had gone to bed or maybe for dinner; she had no way to know what time it was. Taking the first timid step across the threshold, something strange happened. A warm tingle ran over her wrist. Examining it, she felt the silver band grow warm in her fingers for a second time after she waved it through the doorway again. Damn. Was he here? Did he bring the kunai? Or was he back for another deal with Orochimaru? So many questions she didn’t have time for. Stumbling along the stone hallway, she felt the warmth at her wrist again when she passed through another doorway at the end. It opened up onto another long hallway that

stretched in both directions. So many things stacked against her as she turned right and moved slowly, but then stopped. She was second guessing herself, which was probably not a good thing. Turning back around, she felt the warmth over her wrist one more time as she passed the other way. He had marked the path she was to take. Was it to him or death with Orochimaru? Perhaps it was both, but it was all she had. Using the cold hard wall as a brace, she struggled along until she came to a door. Pressing her hand against it, the silver band grew warm again. Unfortunately, voices could be heard echoing from where her cell was behind her. She’d forgotten to shut the cell door. Too late. Fighting to slide the steel latch, she managed to push open the door and dart through. It was another dark room with four beds containing four occupants and another door at the far end. No way, she though to herself. With a run no faster than a child, she darted through the room hearing the men rouse a little. She flew through the door at the other end and closed it behind her as quickly and quietly as possible. Another hallway? It was like a maze. The silver band had glowed as she passed the last door so she felt some confidence, although she was putting her trust in the ultimate betrayer. Darting along this hallway, she felt the band guiding her with warm tingles but her feet were giving up. The door banged open from back down the hall and many voices were yelling, bouncing off the walls and echoing behind her. At last, she reached another door and pushed through it. This time it led out onto a grassy lawn, which ran to the crude stone wall with freedom right behind it. Rain poured everywhere, and she was immediately drenched, but who the hell cared? Diving headlong towards the wall, men spied her from both sides as others ran out from the door behind her. She scrambled to climb the wall, her toes digging into the rough mortar. Grunting with determination, she managed to force herself up to fall on the other side. She could feel hands grasping at her legs as they passed over. Picking herself up and fighting the horrible painful exhaustion, she stumbled forward but fell. Feet landed in the mossy dirt behind her breaking sticks and twigs, but she forced

herself up again and ran another twenty yards, if it could be called running. Stumbling again, she felt the futility of her struggle as the feet behind her walked, voices laughed and cursed at her. They would surely kill her this time. Finally, Sakura could only crawl, dragging mud and wet leaves behind her as the rain soaked through her back. When she finally stopped, feet stood directly in front of her and all the noise from her pursuers ceased. Her fingers had touched the legs before her eyes looked up to see who it was. Making an attempt, she found it impossible to lift her head enough to look at her assailant. They would just have to kill her without seeing her terror. Managing to only lift her gaze enough to look ahead, she tried to focus in on the leg guards the man blocking her path wore. Waiting for the blows, she caught sight of a red and black piece of material that crossed in front of her as he actually stepped around her. Then she noticed the blue light of chakra glowing around the silver at her wrist. What happened after that, Sakura would only be able to recall in bits and pieces. She fell over in a heap feeling the rain on her face and the sounds of metal on metal coupled with growls of anger. Some voices yelled in pain, and many times she felt something bump her legs. As she looked around at the drops falling toward her face, and the dark leaves above her, a figure finally came to stand there. He looked down at her with red eyes, and save for the tapping rain on the forest canopy, there were no other sounds. Kakashi sat on a backwards chair, eyeing the cold Uchiha who would not meet his gaze. When he had first walked into the hospital room, Kakashi was stunned at how much Sasuke had grown to look like his elder brother. He was taller now, and his hair was long. Sasuke’s face was thinner; his whole body was drawn with what Kakashi could only imagine included a lack of sunshine and food. Naruto stood by the window, tapping on the ledge with a senbon. He was clicking his tongue, or making angry grunts every few moments and if it was bothering Sasuke, he never let it show. Kakashi, on the other hand, had had enough. “Naruto, if you don’t stop that, you’ll have to leave.” “Then make him tell us where Sakura-chan is!” Naruto growled out. Sasuke finally lifted his head to meet Kakashi’s probing stare. “So she is missing then,” he said quietly. “Yes,” Kakashi said with some tired sentiment to his voice. “She went missing quite a while ago, and we suspect Itachi has taken her.” “What could he possibly want her for?” Sasuke asked; his brow stitched noticeably.

Kakashi sighed. To tell Sasuke everything was probably not prudent. For all they know he could have returned to spy, but Sakura was too important not to try. “He has most likely had problems with his eyes. She’s a medic now, Sasuke. She’s the top medic in Konoha after Tsunade and Shizune. You’ve been away a long time.” “Medic?” Sasuke echoed to no one. “How the hell did you get away? That bastard wanted to take over your body, didn’t he? How did you get out?” Naruto spat. “I don’t know how I got out. I was in my cell one minute, and then the next minute I was here. They kept me drugged so I wouldn’t hurt them. I’ve been held prisoner for the last year.” “I don’t believe you,” Naruto hissed. “This is all your fault!” “Let him speak, Naruto.” The blonde quieted for a moment, making a noticeable huffing sound and crossing his arms tightly over his chest. His gaze finally focused on Sasuke who didn’t return it. Instead, Sasuke took a deep breath while he picked a spot on the wall above Kakashi’s head to speak to. It would be hard. There was a lot to tell.

Loophole Chapter 10: Rescission The wet night air seemed to stick to Sakura’s skin as she fought to stay conscious. Itachi’s warm body felt glorious under her as he carried her on his back while expertly navigating the forest. Hoisting her from where her body lay limp on the wet ground, Itachi had pushed her arms through the armholes of his robe and fastened it closed at the top. When she was carried, the Akatsuki cloak dangled open behind her with the exception of the top button. Sadly, they were both wet through with the rain. Even with the long garment over her body, Sakura felt the chill inside every pore of her skin. But where her front lay on him, she was warm, hot even. Her head fell heavily on the back of his right shoulder, her legs were pressed at his hips and his rough hands held her calves tightly. He was bearing her full weight, and never slowing. Had she been more coherent, she might have been impressed with his chivalry and strength. For now, the only thoughts revolving around her semi-conscious mind were anger and betrayal between bouts of unwanted darkness.

There was no way to know how long they’d been traveling, but when the stone walls around the familiar courtyard came into view, Sakura felt almost safe. Almost. Itachi continued on into the grassy nook, and then proceeded through the door with a limp Sakura still lying against his back. He walked calmly along the inner hallway and Sakura managed to feebly count the doors as they passed, fully expecting to stop at the room she occupied previously. She was surprised when his feet continued to move along, drawing her to somewhere she hadn’t been before. In her time there, she had only been in four rooms. The first was her cell, a place she had no interest to return to. The second was her bedroom, and even now she still considered it her own. The last two were the kitchen and dining room, which were nothing to write home about. But Itachi had passed them all and turned into another hallway through a closed door. When he pushed through the last door to his destination, Sakura managed to lift her head slightly as the grasp on her legs loosened. She had expected a torture chamber or to be back in her bedroom at the very best of circumstances, but she didn’t expect this. It was a large room, much larger than her bedroom. The walls were stone as was the rest of the building. There was a tall set of shelves filled with scrolls and books from floor to ceiling and spanning the entire wall. A low futon covered in what could be nothing but a large goose down duvet, navy blue if the dim lighting wasn’t lying, sat against another wall. On the wall opposite the door, there stood an iron wood burning stove with a stack of wood beside it. Her perusal of the room ended quickly though as Itachi began to put her down. From the position her legs were in, she didn’t really want to test her own strength at the moment. But he slowly lowered himself and let one of her legs go to stretch towards the floor. Sakura winced with the pain of tight muscles that had strained in the cold night air with such a firmly bended positioning for so long. Getting both feet on the floor, she shook and grasped onto his wet black and mesh shirt for fear of falling to the hard floor. Itachi turned quickly and slipped an arm around her back to hold her against him. It was then that their eyes finally met, the red of his penetrating her as if she were fog, as if she were the air itself. But still, she returned his gaze. “Why?” she whispered, trying desperately to keep her eyes open. The question had been in her mind since she first saw his cold face staring down at her at Orochimaru’s, the wet blood sliding down his cheek. But the question pertained to so many things. When she said it, she wasn’t sure which part of her ordeal she wanted him to answer to.

Hate and betrayal filled her mind as his sharingan mocked her lack of a bloodline limit, mocked her absence of chakra. She wanted to scream and make him answer her, but even the flaring thoughts were making her tired. What the hell did he want? He’d left her there to die. He had no right to bring her here. He had no right to be holding her so closely. Her breathing became more rapid as she forced herself to focus on him. His skin was slick with rain, and his hair had come loose to dangle around his shoulders during the run back. His drenched shirt hugged him, and Sakura stared for a moment at the delicate necklace he wore. It looked like small flowers-- a tiny lie of softness clasped around the neck of cruelty. Using the hand he wasn’t holding her with, Itachi slid his fingers inside and up along the edge of the cloak, making Sakura tremble with the feather light touches along her front. Releasing the button that held the garment on her, he seemed purposefully gentle as he peeled the wet fabric away from her shoulders and then relinquished his hold to allow it to fall to the floor. As it pooled in a wet heap, his gaze went back to hers as his arm wrapped back around her. All this time, he hadn’t said anything. There were a lot of things Sakura wanted to say, but her own words had failed. Feelings seemed to take over, but sadly, there was no strength to fuel them. With no adrenaline and no chakra, she was running on empty and her emotions seemed to be dangling on the outside, lying among the beaded rain on her wet skin. Teetering back a little with euphoria but still in his firm hold, Sakura did something she had wanted to do from the moment she awoke from the tsukiyomi at Orochimaru’s. And damned be the consequences. Cocking her hand back, she swung with all the strength she had left. Her open hand slapped hard against Itachi’s face; the satisfying smack of wet skin seemed so loud. Her palm hurt from the contact. She didn’t think she’d be able to do it, mostly because he could have easily stopped her. But he didn’t. He didn’t even move. With that one last effort, she fell forward against his chest and felt the darkness coming. Itachi held her there for her last few moments of consciousness. Kakashi sighed as he looked at the dark night through the windows of the hospital room. They’d sat with Sasuke for a while now and it seemed that his story was finally getting

somewhere. For the young Uchiha to be so forthcoming, Kakashi was taken aback, but he supposed in his weakened state, the young man was lacking a lot of the anger he burned with at twelve. Naruto still seemed skeptical, but it was obvious that his feelings were mixed between happiness and anger. The barrage of emotions seemed to confuse the blonde and so for the last little while, he’d been lost for words. “Go on, Sasuke,” Kakashi began, “We won’t interrupt.” Sasuke took a deep breath and sighed. He didn’t really want to relive his mistakes, but making himself understood was the only way to find some peace. A lot of long days and nights in that cell had taught him some humility and broken him of a lot of fight. For now, he wanted to regroup and make amends. “Alright….Sensei,” he said. He hoped Kakashi wouldn’t object. “I spent a year just training with the Sound-nins and learning how to control the cursed seal, but after a while I felt that I was not the one in control. It was controlling me. I knew Orochimaru wanted me so that he could take me over in the end, but I had never planned to let it get that far. It’s not common knowledge, but Orochimaru’s arms are useless. Seems the Sandaime had used a sealing technique to ruin them. Kabuto keeps trying to heal him, but it’s impossible. They say only Tsunade could heal him, and she refused.” Kakashi seemed to sit up when he heard this, but didn’t interrupt Sasuke. “Anyway, It seemed that Orochimaru sensed that I was not truthful with him about our deal. Kabuto came one day and said that Orochimaru wanted to see me. Orochimaru had found a way to speed up the transfer process and decided that it was time.” “Why would he even think that you’d give him your body?” Kakashi asked. His head cocked in confusion. “Well, I told him I would if he gave me enough power to kill Itachi. But I was becoming too powerful. It was true that Orochimaru could have taken another body early and it became obvious that I had no intention of going along with it. Unfortunately, they believed beforehand that I wouldn’t make good on my part in the deal and planned for it. They drugged me. I don’t even know how they did it, but my chakra was almost gone, not completely, but almost. The only thing that saved me was your seal, Kakashi-sensei. When Orochimaru tried to take me over I had enough chakra to use my sharingan to see what his body was doing. Using the principal from your seal, I was able to prevent Orochimaru from entering my body.” “I don’t know how that’s possible.” Kakashi continued to sound incredulous. “It’s simple. I exploited the idea of using chakra and my will to seal my body against an invader as your seal did. It ended up injuring him and saved me. Over the next few tries, I

continued to use the technique. It took surprisingly little chakra, which was all I had left. In the end, he felt defeated and gave up. They didn’t realize I was sealing against him, they just believed that there was something about an Uchiha that might make it impossible. Anyway, I was able to see how he did the body transfer. I’ll write out everything I know. From then on, to stop me from coming back and telling where his base was, I was chained in a cell. Kabuto promised Orochimaru he’d find a way to take me over. Until then, I was their prisoner.” “Why are you being so cooperative now, Sasuke?” Naruto spat. “It’s not like last time when you punched a hole in my chest to kill me. Remember?” “I’m sorry, Naruto. If I could take it all back, I would,” Sasuke looked at the windows with a vague distant expression, his jaw clenched tightly. Naruto was a little surprised at the apology, and the room fell to silence. Only the sound of the crickets outside managed to close out the discomfort. “Unfortunately, Sasuke, our objective now is to get Sakura back. I can’t believe that you escaping and her disappearing isn’t related.” “How could it be?” Naruto turned to Kakashi. “Well, Sakura disappears with Itachi, and Sasuke shows up soon after. But where she is now is a mystery. I can only guess she’s either with Itachi, or with Orochimaru. It’s more likely the latter.” Kakashi looked at Naruto now, his brow creased with something he really didn’t want to consider. “Her medical skills are almost on par with Tsunade and both men have a need for it.” Slowly opening her tired eyes, Sakura breathed in the dry air and the smell of fire. Thirst was becoming something desperate, but her strange surroundings managed to quell her needs for the moment. The sounds and cracks of wood burning filled the room and she felt warm, warmer than she had in days. The world seemed to begin to return to her in that instant as the room became clearer, as did the body spooned against her. Strange as it sounded, she didn’t expect to be lying there alone when she awoke. For some reason, perhaps it was the constant warmth tickling her wrist or the extra heat of another body that gave it away, but she wasn’t surprised. The soft glow of the fire lit the room as the reflection of the flames licked the walls and made the atmosphere relaxing. It might have been nice to pretend that this was another time and place, and that she wanted to be there, lying in his arms; an impossible fantasy. There was no way to forget being poisoned, or beaten, or betrayed. Even now, as Itachi shifted onto his back with her slight movements, she felt a mix of emotions from having him so close again.

Sakura took a moment to think, just a small moment to collect her thoughts and make her plans, but nothing seemed to come. Death was three days away, her body hurt, and the man who caused it all was lying asleep next to her. His soft breathing filled the space between them and she was sure her own breathing was coming in time with his. Sakura shifted again and because the futon had very little give, Itachi didn’t stir. She took stock in the fact that she was clad in the black silky shirt she had worn the first time she was given clothes there, and only her underwear. Just the idea that he had stripped her clothes off and dressed her in something else infuriated her. Knowing he took such liberties when she was unconscious made her wonder what else he had done. She watched him for another moment, his bare chest rising and falling with gentle fluidity. His dark lashes cast shadows on his face in the orange glow of the firelight. He was so oblivious to suffering that Sakura wanted to show him how it felt. Her face grew hot and her fists clenched. She hated Itachi more than she could ever say. Shifting one last time and trying to draw as much strength as she could, Sakura pushed her body up from the mattress and straddled him, slipping her fingers around his neck. Of course, it was no surprise when he opened his eyes and looked at her. Strangely though, his breath never sped up; he seemed quite calm with the whole situation of having a woman’s fingers clasped around his throat. They looked at each other for a long moment. Slowly, Itachi brought his hands up and placed them on Sakura’s hips. He seemed amused, like he was enjoying the strange matter of his impending death. Certainly, Sakura knew she couldn’t kill him. It would only take a split second for him to change those beautiful dark eyes to blood red and whisk her free thought away. But for now, to have her fingers clenching his windpipe felt morbidly satisfying, even if it cost her life a few days sooner than expected. “I had imagined other circumstances while in this position,” Itachi said quietly, that slight tone of cold amusement to his voice. “Damn you. I want to kill you and you make jokes. I hate you, Itachi,” Sakura growled out as tears began to blur her vision. Her grip was tight on his neck, but not enough to hurt him. He’d never allow her to hurt him. There really wasn’t enough strength left for her to do any damage even if she really did want to. “Hate is a strong word,” Itachi said quietly as his fingertips slid down to her thighs to gently knead her firm skin. “So is betrayal,” she hissed back with all the malice she could put in her voice. Itachi’s eyes seemed to narrow just slightly.

“You undressed me,” she spat. “Your clothes were wet,” he responded evenly. “What else did you do?” “That’s very uncomplimentary, Sakura. Do you think I need to take advantage of unconscious women?” His eyebrows rose slightly. “I think you’ll do whatever you please if it suits you. I think you don’t give a shit about any human being on this planet who isn’t named Uchiha Itachi.” “And you expect me to deny this?” He almost smirked. “I wish I could kill you. At least then I could die with some satisfaction.” Trembling with increased fatigue from her efforts, and anger and sadness, Sakura’s grip loosened. In a sudden movement that she should have expected but didn’t, Itachi spun her body to the bed and held her down. His lightning fast speed ensured that he was able to pin an arm to the firm mattress before she even knew he had a grip on it, but at that same time, her hand had shot up in reaction and grabbed a fistful of his hair. They were locked together, anger and furious intention swelling in the space between them. “You throw your words so easily. You don’t you value your life anymore, Sakura?” Itachi said softly as he hovered just above her. His body lay on top of hers, holding her in place. He really didn’t need to; she was completely exhausted from the effort of her feeble attempt on his life. “I have no life. You ensured that when you traded me to that snake,” she whispered as she tried to stifle the need to sob. Everything was pouring out. The long days and nights of fear, pain and emotional roller coaster rides were seeping their way through any façade she had hoped to keep. “Explain this to me,” he said sharply, sensing that something had happened that he hadn’t expected. “They poisoned me, you bastard. I have no chakra to counter it, and the sample I had on my skirt was destroyed in the rain and mud. I have no life now. You gave it away. I guess you could say I’m feeling pretty free with my words today.” The tears continued though she gritted her teeth in anger while turning her face away from his. Her fingers began to loosen from the stands they were twisting in. Itachi remained hovering above Sakura for a moment, and then slowly released his grip on her wrist without lifting himself off of her. Sakura’s shaking hand hastily wiped the tears away as the other slid down from his hair to his shoulder. For a reason she couldn’t quite say, she kept her hand on his skin, feeling the warmth on her palm.

“I was promised that you would be unharmed,” Itachi said coldly. “I can’t be blamed for their lack of obligation to agreements that they make.” “Seems that their word is as good as yours,” Sakura said, finally finding some composure. “I never lied to you.” His voice had a tinge of anger. “But you were never truthful either,” she whispered. “I did as you asked. Sasuke is in Konoha. You gave me free reign to do as I pleased to free him. I chose the easiest route,” he defended with no hint of remorse. Sakura hissed in anger, “You left me there to die. I gave you your sight back and now you’ve killed me.” “Had I known they would poison you, I would have returned sooner.” Sakura’s face turned back to his. His admission seemed almost repentant. Almost. That impassive look crawled over his face, blanking him of emotion and substance. Itachi the clean slate, she thought minutely. If only he had been born understanding regret and love as normal people did. If only he could have been more of the man she glimpsed in those very few quiet moments when he kissed her. He was her ultimate betrayer now, how could she forgive that? “Why did you do this to me?” she asked, her face pleading for understanding. Itachi seemed unable to answer. “I thought that you…felt something for me. I thought that I was more to you than a simple tool for bartering. I wanted to be more to you.” Sakura felt freedom to say anything now. Death was certainly a way to unshackle emotions. It seemed she could admit things to herself now as well. Such a twist of feelings crawled through her. His body against hers, and the hate she tried to hold onto as his intense gaze broke her to pieces. Why did she have to fight to hate him? Had his tsukiyomi broken her mind? Had it created feelings in her that she could never give up? Even as she wanted to kill him, her fingers ached to slide back into the dark hair that fell over his shoulders and to memorize its soft texture. She wanted to feel his lips on hers just as she had dreamed of for hours and hours making her wake to want more. But from now on with Itachi, it would always teeter between love and hate. It could never just be one or the other. Sakura still waited for an answer that she figured he couldn’t give. When Itachi had asked her to stay with him, maybe he was caught up in something he hadn’t expected either.

“There’s a chemical lab on the lower level. Can you create the antidote?” He became more clinical, despite having his warmth pressed against her on the bed. “I have no sample. I have no chakra to get a sample. I have no more options. Even now, I feel my body hurting and failing from what the poison is doing. In three days or so, it will finish me.” A soft sigh of resignation finally fell from her lips as the crying ended and her eyes felt heavy. Itachi hesitated once again. She wondered if he was calculating a way out of the situation, and it made her curious. “Why, Itachi? Why did you come back for me? Why only leave a kunai beside me?” she whispered as she finally gave into temptation and ran her hand up his chest to touch his dark hair more gently. At this point, holding back on things she wanted to do seemed redundant. “Kisame suggested that they might have killed you. I merely needed to make sure they hadn’t.” His voice was matter of fact. “I only left the kunai so I wouldn’t break my end of the deal I made with them. Had you not been able to free yourself, you wouldn’t have been worth saving. As I said, I just needed to ensure that you were still alive.” “Why?” she reiterated. Another pause. Itachi was never hasty. “It would not suit me to have you killed,” he said as tonelessly as possible, and Sakura wondered if he was having trouble trying to find vague enough words to hold his secrets in. “Because you need me, correct?” she whispered his own words back to him. “Correct,” he whispered his reply, the soft deep tone of his voice making her want to cry again. His hand drew up and ran along her forearm as her fingers continued to caress the ends of his hair. The animosity had died away, and the quiet between them felt so much more natural. Sakura’s eyes blinked slowly, getting harder and harder to open each time. When they finally fell closed and were unable to reopen, her hand slid away from Itachi’s hair. “Itachi,” she whispered, barely audibly. Her body slackened from the tenseness she hadn’t realized she was holding. He bent lower, turning his head so that his ear was near her lips. Breathily, she told him, “I’ll never forgive you.”

Loophole Chapter 11: Parting Company The smell of smoke and fire was not as strong this time as Sakura opened her eyes slowly to the new bedroom. The dim orange glow still flickered over the stone walls, and the duvet felt warm and heavy on her bruised legs. How long she’d been asleep would be anyone’s guess. Pushing to sit up, she had to brace herself to stop from falling over with dizziness. Something told her that she’d been asleep for longer than she would have liked to be and that the poison had enjoyed having some time to work on her. Trying to draw chakra in vain hope, Sakura winced in pain with the attempt. It was still blocked. “Damn it,” she hissed softly. Looking around, she could see the fire happily burning through the open doors of the wood stove, throwing the glow around the room. Itachi was nowhere to be seen, but there was a tray on the floor beside the futon with water, fruit, bread and rice. Sakura couldn’t remember how long it had been since she’d eaten. Certainly this would contribute to the dizziness she felt, so making an effort of epic proportions, she slid her feet to the floor and guided her body to sit beside the tray. As she moved, she noticed the Akatsuki cloak splayed across the foot of the futon, the frayed hem of it telling her it was the one she had always worn. It made her sigh a little. She was reluctant to don it again, but obviously it was still a requirement. Reaching over, she dragged it to herself and sat it between her legs, covering her exposed underwear with the position she sat in. Her left leg was splayed out while the other was up and bent at the knee. The strength was draining away from her with the small effort as she leaned back against the side of the thick futon mattress. Picking up the jug of water with two hands, sadly needing both, she held it to her lips and drank down as much as she could without getting sick. It was so cold, and so she figured it hadn’t been there long. If she wasn’t so thirsty she might have smashed it in frustration. A long sigh escaped her. As much as she tried, she couldn’t stay mad. It was taking too much effort. Sakura picked up the peach next, taking a shallow bite of the sweet flesh. She took a deep breath and slowly chewed, finding an inability to focus as her eyes glazed over and stared at the wall. I don’t want to die.

The words repeated in her head. Dropping the peach back to the tray, she opted for the rice, scooping her fingers through it and bringing it to her mouth. Nothing seemed to taste good. Maybe depression was setting in or maybe it was the poison, but she wanted to cry. She wanted to hit Itachi’s face harder. She wanted him to come and hold her. Picking up the peach again, she took another bite. The door opened then, and Itachi strode in calmly to stop when he noticed her sitting on the floor. Had he just walked in and sat down, Sakura didn’t think she would have been mad. But his eyes seemed to wander up along the exposed plane of her leg. Even in this, he felt no need to hide his intentions as she sat there sick and weak. “Would you like anything else?” Itachi said as he looked down at the tray of half-eaten food. “Antidote. Maybe a medical clinic too,” she said quietly, the hint of anger still there. Itachi didn’t acknowledge this; instead he moved forward and sat down across from her on the opposite side of the tray. Again, his eyes wandered and Sakura felt her hand itching to slap his eyes upward. “I brought you pants to wear. You should put them on. The floor is cold,” he said offhandedly. Sakura’s eyes widened as she turned and looked at the bed. Indeed, the pants were there. They must have been under the cloak. Well, she thought, he was still looking. Itachi reached down and took a peach as well. He took a bite, seeming to savor the taste as he chewed slowly while looking over at the fire. With the warmth in the room, he began to unsnap his cloak and then shrugged it off his shoulders to pool behind him on the stone floor. Sakura sighed, feeling deflated. Without caring if he saw her or not, she struggled to get back up on the low futon, finding her strength ebbing. It was harder than she thought it would be. Down was obviously the easier trip. As she fell onto the bed with the crawling effort, she breathed heavily and felt her body slacken against the soft sheets. Her legs still hung over the edge from her knees down, but right now, she wasn’t going to move another inch. “You’ve grown weaker,” Itachi remarked.

Sakura opened her eyes to see him standing beside her legs and looking down at her with some manner of concentration. He looked so young again without his cloak. He reminded her of Sasuke, the way he stood there with his hands held at his sides as if he was ready at any moment for action. Must be a family trait, she mused inwardly. She wanted to respond to him in a smart way. Of course I’m weaker, or what did you expect? But she wasn’t feeling up to it. Right now she wanted kindness and caring, not a fight. Instead, she just closed her eyes. The futon shifted minutely as he moved onto it, and when she opened her eyes, she found him sitting with his back turned to her. “The poison has slowed my heart, and made my muscles harder to work. By tomorrow, I won’t be able to move.” The words were like a vice in her throat. It was hard to admit what was coming next, but as a medic, it was no mystery. As a shinobi, she would face it head on. Itachi stood back up and walked towards the doorway. He had no response, nothing to say and Sakura was tempted to growl to his back, “that is so like you.” But she was too tired to fight. Another hour or two of sleep, and Sakura was able to pull the pants on. They were bigger on her this time, and she ran her fingers over her protruding hipbones, hating the way her skin seemed to hang on her. But what did it matter now. Making an attempt to stand, she teetered. Her knees buckled under her, and tears began to fill her eyes. Trying again, she managed to get some balance and stumble towards the doorway. She managed to open the door, using the frame to steady her when her wrist felt that familiar warmth as she passed the threshold. Like an alarm went off, Itachi suddenly appeared through a doorway down the hall. Sakura knew he’d sensed she’d passed the doorway. Seeing him was a sudden relief. Right now, she didn’t want to be alone. He strode towards her, his open cloak billowing with his movement, and she realized he must have returned for it while she slept. Without anything said, Itachi came up to her and grasped her around the waist to hold her before she fell. Sakura’s weak fingers gripped the dark fabric. She pressed her face into his shoulder. “I can’t lie still and die,” she said softly. “I need to try.”

He didn’t say anything, not that she expected him to, but when she looked up, his sharingan were lit blood red and beautiful. A small gasp left her mouth, wondering what he was going to do now. “Are you in pain?” he asked very clinically. “N…no,” she whispered, unable to take her eyes off his. His hand slid into her hair as his lips moved so close to hers that she was sure they brushed. “How much longer do you have?” he whispered onto her mouth. “M…maybe…two days,” she said, her tears continuing to fall. “Wh…what are you doing?” she asked, surprise in her tone. “Saying goodbye.” His mouth finally met hers and her knees buckled at the same time. But he held her. His arm kept her against him. She responded; God help her, she wanted to kiss him so badly. She could feel it everywhere and for a few moments she was drunk on it. For a few precious seconds she had his complete attention, his desire and that small bit of emotion she craved to see from him. His hand fisted in her short hair. And as his arm tightened around her, she felt her feet lifted off the ground before he carried her towards the bed. Gently, he lay her down, shrugged off his cloak, and fell above her. He continued to kiss her, moving down her throat and then back up. The whole time, she cried. Her shaking hands held his face as his lips met hers again. One hand slid over him to loosen the tie for his hair. She felt his weight fall a little heavier on her before he rolled beside her. Don’t let it end, she thought sadly. Pulling her over to him, they lay intertwined as he continued to kiss her. The warmth of his tongue swept among hers, making her whimper. This continued on and Sakura prayed that she could stay awake long enough to enjoy him, even if it was for the last time. But to her dismay, he pulled away. His eyes were still red while he looked at her. “Sharingan…why?” she asked while she watched them change again to the mangekyou. “You’re going to use a doujutsu on me again?”

Itachi just stared at her. “Should I say goodbye?” she questioned sadly. “No,” he replied, and she couldn’t quite read the tone. Sakura continued to look at his eyes, waiting for the dream world to suck her in. One last time, he moved forward and kissed her deeply; one of those kisses, just like she had remembered for hours before awakening to the nightmare she was now in. As they broke apart, there was a flash of his eyes and Sakura felt that pull of being torn away from consciousness. Her eyes closed slowly to the room, and to Itachi, and to reality. The Uchiha watched her drift away for a few moments. He could see that she had stopped shaking and her body was at rest. He listened to her steady breathing, running his finger over her slightly parted lips. His fingers ran along the smooth skin of her arm and down to the silver bracelet filled with his chakra and adorned with etched seals. It had been a stroke of genius putting that on her, he thought to himself. Knowing where she was every second was useful. She had turned out to be extremely useful, he thought. She had turned out to be very necessary. It would not suit him if she died. When Sakura finally came too, she felt that familiar euphoria of uncontrolled movement. It was night. Again his warm body was under hers, her head lying heavily on his shoulder. Her legs dangled alongside his, while his strong hands held her thighs against his hips. They were both wearing Akatsuki cloaks. “Itachi,” she mumbled to his back. The sound seemed lost among the rustle of the leaves in the forest around them, but he heard her and slowed his progress through the darkness of the trees. His head turned slightly, and then he jumped down to the mossy ground. Sakura was amazed at how softly his feet landed. The man was truly a genius. Lowering himself until her feet actually touched the ground, Itachi’s hands slid from her legs. “Where are we?” Sakura asked as she teetered before being hugged into his body.

“You don’t recognize your own country?” Itachi said coolly. “Forest is forest,” she mumbled. “How are you feeling?” he asked calmly. “My head hurts and my body is weak. I can’t stand anymore.” “It’s as I thought,” Itachi whispered as he began to undo the buttons of her cloak, still holding her around her waist. “You brought me back?” she asked. “It would not suit me if you died. I may need you again.” Itachi began to slide the cloak from her shoulders. She shivered in the cool night air, only the silky black shirt and dark pants to keep her warm. “Is that all I am to you?” she whispered as her fingers ran up to his face. His skin felt so hot under her fingertips. For a long moment, Itachi’s black eyes stared into hers. Was there an answer behind that coldness? He would never tell. But it almost seemed like there was something there, something that might come out had they had more time. After letting the loose cloak fall over his arm, he used his other hand to place her hand on his shoulder. Gently, his fingers moved down her bare arm until they reached the silver band dangling there. He rubbed it between his fingers for a moment, the blue glow lighting their faces. He was going to remove it. She wondered how far away he could sense the chakra bracelet. He bent and kissed her then, his fingers still playing with the silver band. His lips felt soft on hers, and the kiss was unhurried. It was a kiss goodbye, and it made her feel sad where she thought she would be glad to be rid of the whole ordeal. Itachi reverted back to his cool self as he broke the kiss. “ANBU squads come by here every hour.” “Thank you, Itachi. For Sasuke, and for me,” she whispered. He stared at her for a second and seemed to be contemplating something as his fingers slipped between the bracelet and her cool skin.

Finally he bent next to her ear and whispered, “When he comes for me, I’ll kill him. Don’t forget who I am, Sakura.” Sakura flinched a little in his grasp, but he held her still. “When I find the kyuubi, I will take it,” he added, and Sakura just listened, wide eyed. “When I stumble upon you again, Sakura, I promise you this. I won’t let you leave so easily next time,” he finished. Sakura’s fingers twisted into Itachi’s cloak as he pulled away from her ear, but she used every ounce of strength left to hold him close. She moved her mouth to his and spoke onto his lips. “I will protect Sasuke, and I’ll kill you if you hurt Naruto. And if you stumble upon me again, Uchiha Itachi…I’ll hold you to that promise.” She pressed her mouth to his, instigating a kiss for the first time between them, and he responded heatedly. Such passion she believed she would never find again. This kiss, his kiss would be the one against which all others would be compared. Itachi moved them slowly against a tree so that Sakura could lean against it before he released her. With a small smile, he watched her as his eyes bled to red. Voices were suddenly heard in the forest, and Sakura knew Itachi had timed it perfectly for when the ANBU came by. She could see in his face that he knew they were coming. He seemed to tense, becoming that cold calculating soldier that she had forgotten he was. He leapt into a nearby tree to stand on the branch, and then took one long last look down at her before he was gone. Sakura watched the branch for a long time after he left as the voices got closer and closer. Her body slid down the rough bark with her inability to stand. She hoped they would stumble across her because there was no way she could yell to them. The cold breezed right through her light shirt, and she shivered painfully. The slow blinks of her eyes told her that, no matter how much rest she got, it wasn’t enough. For a moment, a small pang of panic ran through her while the voices seemed to be moving away. She didn’t realize at the time that it was her mind slipping back into the darkness it had become so accustomed to lately. She didn’t even hear the feet land around her. “…cheekbone broken twice, partially healed multiple contusions on her epidermis primarily on lower legs and face, chakra reduction toxin was introduced into her system

as was a poison that would take several days to kill her, broken and poorly healed ribs,” Tsunade’s voice seemed to drift into her mind as her eyes began to open. “…these marks indicate restraints were used. They’re similar to the ones on Sasuke’s wri…oh, Sakura, you’re awake!” Tsunade exclaimed with a shocked expression. “Sh…Shishou?” Sakura whispered, her throat felt dry. Her body was sore, but not too bad considering everything it had been through. The humming fluorescents above her made her close her eyes again as she took a deep breath. “Sakura! I’ve been worried sick about you. Kakashi is here. He’s been looking everywhere for you,” her voice sounded on the verge of the emotion she tried hard not to show, and Sakura smiled weakly hearing it. “You were poisoned. If we hadn’t found you when we did, you would have been beyond help. Tell me where you have been!” Tsunade’s motherly voice, very unhokage-like continued to drown her in questions. Sakura tried to acclimatize to the light while ignoring the tirade. Slowly, her gaze drifted over to Kakashi who stood by the windows, arms crossed tightly over his chest. His silence worried her more than the Hokage’s rant. For a moment, he looked suspicious and angry, but he seemed to melt into relief as they continued to look at each other. Tsunade finally stopped, seeming to run out of questions and comments. She turned to Kakashi as if expecting him to pick up where she left off. “Well, when you are better, we’ll talk,” he said as he raised his hand casually and walked out of the room. So like Kakashi, Sakura thought to herself. She would be in for an interrogation when he got to her; she knew that for sure. Her attention turned back to the near sobbing Tsunade and she smiled as she listened to the renewed string of panic. Nothing seemed to sink in until Tsunade said “And that bracelet, we can’t seem to take it off you…” Sakura’s eyes opened wide for a moment as she lifted her arm and looked at it. It was there, no blue glow or warmth emanating from it, but it was still there.

Loophole Chapter 12: Fall Out A long soft sigh blew out from Sakura’s dry lips. Two days had gone by and she still felt dehydrated and hungry, but her body was better. The hospital bed had made her back and

legs ache and the lack of training and exercise was showing in her constant fatigue. But poisoning does that to you, she supposed. Sitting next to the hospital windows on the highest floor, Sakura looked out over the slowly awakening Konoha. A light rain was coming down and the sky was a murky gray, making everything partially lit look silver in the dimness. She opened her mouth and breathed onto the cool window. Her finger traced a slow circle pattern through the film of silvery fog she left there. Finally, she lay her head on her arm on the metal windowsill while her other was flat against the window, her fingers spread along the cold surface. With each movement of her arm, she made a light tapping sound with her silver bracelet against the glass. It was just before dawn, and only a few vendors moved along the street, placing their wares out for early sales. The watch guards were changing, and she observed the men and women leaping and careening along the wall to their posts. Sakura craved to go out and walk along the streets, even amid the early morning rain. Cooped up in a hospital room felt like she was back in a cell. She was better now, and she wanted to go home. Thankfully, Tsunade had not allowed anyone near her in the last two days so that she could rest and recuperate her strength. But Sakura knew that only a stroll in the fresh air and maybe a big bowl of Ichiraku ramen would work as well as the stuffy hospital room and the constant silence. Taking some more deep breaths, Sakura just watched the clouds swirling overheard as the streetlamps went out along the walkway near the hospital. It had been a long time since she felt this peaceful. Almost three years to be exact. She shifted and looked at her arm, admiring the minute daylight glinting off the etched silver band. She played with it a little, rubbing her fingers on it. It was cool against her skin. Soon the hospital would be waking up and there would be noise everywhere. Medics and nurses would come in and out of her room, taking blood, and checking her vitals. As a medic this wasn’t a mystery to her, and she could probably tell them that it wasn’t entirely necessary, but Tsunade would have her head. Sakura let out a small breath of a laugh and the glass fogged in front of her a little again. In the busy hospital, footsteps seemed to move outside her doorway all day and night so much that she never took any notice. She was a little surprised this morning when the hinges creaked, making her gaze shift from the metal band to the slowly opening door. When Kakashi finally entered the room, she felt a tenseness crawl through her body. Without getting up or greeting him with any sort of vigor, Sakura turned her lazy stare to the window again.

“Kakashi-sensei, I didn’t think anyone was allowed in here yet,” she said softly. It seemed wrong to disturb the peace of the rainy morning with loud voices. “The Hokage isn’t letting anyone in so I came earlier than her,” he said quietly. It seemed he felt the need to keep the tone calm as well, and Sakura was grateful for it. Picking up a chair from the other side of the room, Kakashi placed it next to Sakura and sat backwards on it, also looking out the window. He placed his chin on his hands, folded over one another on the back of the chair. “How are you feeling?” He continued to whisper. “I’m well, Sensei. I’m getting back to normal.” “Sakura,” he said softly, “can you tell me what happened?” Sakura remained quiet for a moment, wondering how long he would sit there and wait for her to spill the beans about her adventure. She struggled to find a way to dissuade his beginning interrogation, but Kakashi was hard to stop when he got his teeth into something. Tipping her head to lie down against her arm, she just looked at him. “I won’t force you,” he added. “Are you alright?” He returned her gaze, but his face was not what she expected. His brow was creased, and his lazy look was a little lower than usual. It was unlike Kakashi to be so timid in questioning and Sakura raised her eyebrows a little in confusion. With her bewildered look, Kakashi seemed to sit up a little, but his shoulders remained dropped. “We looked for you for a long time. Naruto was sick with worry,” he began. “One minute you were fighting Itachi…and the next you were gone. I feared…” “I’m all right, Sensei,” Sakura said quietly. “Shishou took out the poison and my chakra is almost fully recharged. I’ll be going home today, maybe.” It began to dawn on Sakura that Kakashi was not here to interrogate her. He seemed drained and for lack of a better term, guilty. “I’m sorry we didn’t protect you, Sakura. What we imagined might have happened to you…I’m sorry.” “Kakashi-sensei,” Sakura said tenderly, “I’m fine. They didn’t do anything to me. I just had to….my medical skills…” Kakashi’s eye went back to the gray morning. Sakura knew that she would have to come clean eventually, and she hated lying to him. Partial truth seemed the lesser evil, so she decided to try to smooth it out as best she

could. Having Kakashi feeling guilty over something she instigated was like a rock in her stomach. The way he looked right now would bother her for a long time. “Itachi traded me to Orochimaru for Sasuke. I was to heal Orochimaru. His arms were damaged. I’m not sure what happened to them, but they were like dead things. I managed to escape but I don’t think I’m remembering everything too clearly with the poison and all,” Sakura watched his face for reaction. She felt that speaking so much was wrong in the quiet of the sleeping hospital, but he deserved to hear it if it would take away his guilt. “Why would Itachi care to free Sasuke?” he asked. Sakura shrugged a little, “I’m sure he didn’t want Orochimaru to have the sharingan.” “But why bring Sasuke back to Konoha? How did he formulate a plan using you so quickly? What would make that come into his head?” Kakashi sounded a tiny bit more suspicious and Sakura wondered if he was testing the waters for a real interrogation. “Sensei…I…don’t really want to…talk,” she sighed. “I’m sorry, Sakura. I didn’t come here to interrogate you. Tsunade ran down all your injuries with me, broken bones and contusions, cuts. You were treated roughly,” he said calmly, a tone of sadness mingled with his words. “It wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle. Please don’t look like that, Kakashi. Please. I’m fine. My body is healing. I’m really fine.” He nodded a little, looking at Konoha again, and Sakura knew that he would not let go of his guilt so easily. Kakashi always seem to take the emotional burden when the things went bad. She never knew anyone with such strong shoulders. “Sensei? How is Sasuke? Shishou won’t tell me, or talk about him. Have you seen him?” Sakura knew she sounded hopeful, and she worried that he’d deny her any details of the fruition of her contract with Itachi. “He’s fine. His chakra was drained low when we found him. He’s been treated badly as well. He looks a little different; his hair is long and his body has more scars.” “Long hair?” Sakura shook her head thinking of Itachi. Sasuke would probably look so much like him now with age and the long hair. What a strange reunion it will be, she thought. “He’s not the same, Sakura. He spent a year in a cell at Orochimaru’s place. He’s…. broken somewhat.” “Broken?” she repeated.

“Give him time to get back to normal…if he can.” “I understand,” Sakura whispered, not really directing it at Kakashi. “I won’t bother you for more details now, but when you’re better, I’d like to have a longer talk about what happened. There are some things I wonder about. Tsunade told me about that bracelet. She said they can’t remove or break it. Where did you get it?” “This?” Her fingers fumbled with the silver band. “It was on my wrist when I woke up.” “We need to find a way to take that off,” he added, staring at her wrist. Sakura just nodded as she absently spun it. Her gaze went back to the slightly bustling Konoha, as did Kakashi’s. The rain had continued into the evening, and after Tsunade came and saw her again, Sakura was told she could go home in the morning. It was welcome news, but not as good as she expected. If Shishou was one thing, it was thorough, she laughed to herself. Of course, being a pupil of hers, Sakura figured Tsunade took extra care in her treatment so she couldn’t complain. Night had fallen over Konoha and just as she had watched the streetlamps turn off in the morning, she watched them turn on to light the darkening streets. Voices were carrying in the large hallway outside her room and most times she ignored it, but a name caught her attention enough to make her sit up straight in her chair against the windows. “That Uchiha man, did you give him the sedation at 6:00?” the first nurse asked. “Of course. I understand he’ll be interrogated tomorrow. Wouldn’t want him to escape,” the second replied. Sakura strained to hear the rest of the conversation, but it was no use. The two women seemed to wander away as they continued their conversation. Feeling a surge of interest, Sakura got up from her perch, straightening the blue-green hospital gown, and slipped over to her door. Being an employee of the hospital from time to time, Sakura knew the inside functioning of how everything worked. Guards were probably posted outside Sasuke’s door, and he would be restrained in his bed. For now, she would just walk around until she found his room. Dealing with the guard would come second. She wandered around a little, her bare feet padding soundlessly on the cold tile while trying to look as innocent as possible. Finally approaching the east wing, she saw a figure

standing outside a door. This person wore a bright orange jumpsuit, and his golden hair glinted in the dimmed lights of the hallway. “Naruto?” Sakura whispered as she approached. His eyes grew wide when he saw her, and he walked over and wrapped his strong arms around her upper half. “Sakura, damn it. I was so worried. Are you alright? I’m going to kill that bastard Uchiha for hurting you…” His tirade seemed to continue until Sakura slid her hands around his waist and hugged him back. “Uh, um, Sakura?” Naruto said embarrassedly. “Thank you for worrying about me. I’m so sorry to make you and Kakashi-sensei feel so badly. I’m so sorry,” she whispered, hoping he wouldn’t get the double meaning of her words. “No, I’m sorry. We should have protected you better. Kakashi-sensei didn’t sleep the whole time we looked for you. We both feel like we failed you.” “Please don’t say that, Naruto. Please don’t think on it anymore.” Sakura fought tears of guilt and sadness at what she’d put them through. “Sakura, you shouldn’t cry over us. Sasuke is back,” Naruto said quietly. “Are you guarding the door tonight?” Naruto nodded and sighed, “I figured you’d be coming by at some point. Do you want to see him?” Sakura’s eyes widened as she nodded, finding her throat suddenly dry and empty of words. Half leading her by her hand, Naruto pushed the door open and they emerged into the dimly lit hospital room. As they approached the figure in the bed, he moved slightly and sat up a little. Sakura stood at the end of the bed, her hands clasped at her chest as she had done so many times in the past when talking to him. It had seemed like forever since she had they had spoken. Now here he was, the dim light showing a tired face, long hair and restraints holding him to his bed. For a long time, Sakura and Sasuke just stared at each other. Both had changed so much that the other had to make mental adjustments of what they had imagined the other would look like.

Naruto hung by the windows, watching the interaction, uncommonly quiet. Normally, Sakura would have run to him shouting his name and crying, but tonight that seemed wrong. She understood that she didn’t really know the sixteen year old lying in the hospital bed in front of her. All she had were memories of a cold thirteen year-old boy who had been through a lot. “Sakura, you look different,” Sasuke finally broke the silence. Sakura’s eyes widened and she drew in a quick breath with how different Sasuke sounded. It could almost have been Itachi’s voice coming from that tall body. Sasuke’s hair was tied back, and his face looked tired. Sakura wondered if he knew how much he looked like his older brother now. “S…so do you,” she managed. Sasuke continued to look her over, taking in her short pink hair, her stature and how much more beautiful she had become. She was rare among women with her unique look, and her beauty. Being a little older, Sasuke was inclined to notice, not that he cared that much. His gaze took in her hospital gown stamped with the hospital logo on the shoulder and her clenched hands. That’s when he noticed something that caught his eye. On her wrist, a silver etched band dangled as if it were a decoration. But Sasuke knew it was not a store bought trinket. He tried not to make it obvious he noticed it, and was pleased to see that Sakura had not noticed him looking at it. Her gaze had become focused on the wall above his head as she fought not to cry. “Sasuke is going to be interrogated tomorrow and he’ll be put up in front of the council for discipline,” Naruto piped in. Sakura looked back to Sasuke’s face and he nodded as if it were a fate he was willing to accept. “I’m sorry,” she said softly. “For what?” Sasuke asked. Sakura shrugged, she wasn’t sure. For some reason, it seemed right to say. She was sorry that he ran away, sorry that he took up with such a vile thing as Orochimaru, and sorry that he was a captive for a year. The vision of him squaring off to fight Itachi put a pain in her chest. Seeing him lying there at Konoha’s mercy, but knowing he would be a free man one day scared her for so many reasons. She wasn’t sorry that he had not reached his goal. Absently, her fingers played with the cold band on her wrist. It seemed to be a habit she acquired while lying in her hospital bed for a couple of days. Sometimes she would

admonish herself for touching it, knowing she was checking for warmth. Of course she never found any. He was gone, and her goal had been reached. So why did she keep thinking about him? In time it would fade, but for now, she found she replayed some of her fonder moments in his company in her tired mind. His kiss. How could she put that behind her? Looking at the handsome younger Uchiha, she thought she would feel those old encompassing feelings that would overcome her in his presence, but it seemed her will fought between the brothers now. “I don’t know,” she said softly. She turned to Naruto who finally approached and stood at the foot of the bed beside her. “We’re still a team right?” Naruto said with a smirk. “No matter what happens, Sakura and I will be there for you.” Sasuke went through the responses in his head. I don’t need you. I don’t want your help. We haven’t been a team in years. But the only thing that came out was the one thing that seemed right. “I don’t deserve it,” Sasuke sighed. “I know,” Naruto chuckled, thumbing his nose. “But you’re stuck with us, right Sakura?” Sakura nodded slowly, still playing with her silver band. Yes, she would always be there for him. Yes, they were a team. She paid a heavy price to get him back so she would not let him leave again so quickly. The cost? It was possible to say it was her body and medical skills. Perhaps it could be said that she paid for him with her soul. Healing an S-class criminal to make him more dangerous surely would create some bad karma. But if she were realistic, if she was truthful with herself, she would admit that she paid for him with the future she had wanted. It didn’t belong to her, or Konoha, or even Sasuke anymore. It was out there somewhere now, walking along stone hallways in a red and black cloak with soft black hair… …and perfect vision. Needless to say, the next few days were hectic. Sakura checked out of the sterile jail cell she was sworn to by her Shishou with only a few hours of sanity left. Trying to avoid Kakashi became a bit of an adventure and with his tracking abilities and keen senses, it was going to be impossible for too much longer.

Sasuke’s trial came and went. Tsunade and the council conferred about it for three days before they made a decision on what to do with him. When the verdict was rendered, Sasuke was brought to the council chambers, still clasped in wrist cuffs and still drained of his chakra. Sakura could already see in her Shishou’s eyes that she did not have the heart to ban him or jail him. Her speech was quite explanatory and if it were at all possible, Sakura gained more respect for her. “Sasuke,” Tsunade said calmly, “This council has discussed your behavior in the past in relation to your loyalty to Konoha. We find that a power such as Uchiha’s is not to be taken lightly. In running away, you could have had that power turned against us. But we have taken into account your past. You have had a harder life than many young men in Konoha…most, I’d say. Revenge is not something Konoha abides by, or encourages. Your hatred for your brother is merited, but your revenge is not condoned. We believe you could be a valuable asset to Konoha and will give you back your genin standing if you abide by a number of rules.” Sasuke nodded slowly. Sakura got the sense that he was actually weighing his options. At this point, she believed he had no options left and was a little surprised by his lack of compliance. “You will be sequestered to Konoha for a period of three years. In that time you will be put to many tedious or mundane tasks and will perform services to Konoha without question. We will allow you to increase your ranks in the Shinobi as long as we feel there is no ulterior motive.” “Yes, Lady Hokage,” Sasuke began, “I am grateful to be dealt with so kindly.” Tsunade raised her hand, “I’m not finished. You must make a promise to me here and now, Sasuke. This will be your hardest test.” Sasuke blinked slowly, never taking his gaze from Tsunade. “You will swear that your revenge against your brother has finished. You will let ANBU and the elites deal with him. You must forget your vendetta.” Sasuke managed to hide his alarm. It seemed unconscionable to him that they would even ask such a thing. Had she seen her family die in front of her? Had she seen her brother dripping with their blood? How could they possibly ask such a thing? Sakura noticed his fists clench at his sides. Instinctively, she ran her hand up her arm and played with the silver band. She prayed that he wouldn’t look at her; she knew her face would show her shock and fear. But he did look. As his head dropped for a moment, his gaze shifted to her fingers playing with the silver band.

Sasuke closed his eyes, and his expression seemed to change instantly. A shift to eerie calmness seemed to ride over him and he looked back up. “I swear that I will give this up. I’m ready to go on with my life.” “Good,” Tsunade smiled. It was funny how quickly the years flew after that day. Sasuke remained in Konoha, working hard and honing his skills. The three years of his confinement were almost up and he seemed more determined than ever. He was still occasionally cold, and if she looked hard enough, there was something darker underneath. But most times he just seemed to have some inner fire and determination enough to forget other things. She supposed that was something he had always had. Kakashi had found Sakura shortly after Sasuke’s trial and tried to take the band off her arm. He sighed and stared at it for a long time. He put his chakra into it, and used seals on it. Finally speaking after a number of attempts, he admitted that he had never seen anything like it. If he didn’t know better, he would have said it was an ordinary silver band. Over the next few months, when he would see Sakura, he’d ask about it. Did it get warm? Did anything strange happen to it? Had it affected her at all? The day he finally stopped asking, she felt relieved. Naruto and Sasuke resumed their friendship almost immediately, and the competition started about the same time too. But even with striving to surpass each other, the looks on their faces were priceless when Sakura made the ANBU squad before either of them. Suddenly, she was in the competition as well. When they would have lunch together and the banter would start about their ongoing one-upping of each other, Sakura would politely remind them that she had already won. Naruto would scoff, and Sasuke would hmpf in that way he did, but his smile would tell her that he was proud of her. Sometimes that smile told her he was admiring her for more than her skills as well. Ultimately, having him look at her that way was always supposed to be her goal, wasn’t it? Now she wasn’t so sure. “Hey, what do you say we go over to Kakashi-Senpai’s place and make him buy us some ramen,” Naruto yelled out as he started jogging a little ahead. “Sure,” Sakura and Sasuke said in unison. He turned to her and smiled. In the distance they could hear Naruto calling from farther and farther away, “Last one to Hokage is just an ANBU.”

They laughed and she felt Sasuke brush his hand along the back of her arm, inadvertently catching the silver band with his hand. She took a deep breath and let her gaze travel to the tall trees beyond the wall. She knew for certain that if she wanted a future with Sasuke, it was more than possible now. But something else was always there. As the breeze caught the trees, she imagined him standing there, among the branches, the black and red coat swaying with the leaves. Absently, she looked at the silver band, knowing that it was just a silver band. Itachi.

Loophole Chapter 13: 3 Years Later Looking up and around at the black expanse overhead, Sakura admired the bright moon casting its blue light over the camp from her seat on her bedroll. A fire blazed hot at her feet, and she shifted a little to unzip the side of her ANBU vest for comfort. Next she peeled off the long gloves and tucked them into her pack, quietly enjoying the goings-on of a camp before a mission. It was nice to have some peace. Lately everything had revolved around noise and distraction. Naruto, with his boisterous nature, had roped her and Sasuke into drinks, ramen, or whatever else he could concoct just to keep them together all the time. He was the glue in the team 7 mix; that was for sure. But if Naruto was the glue, Sasuke was the fly in the ointment. For the last three years of training together, spending time together, and regrouping as team 7, Sakura felt Sasuke still kept them at a distance. Perhaps he’d lost his sense of camaraderie with the nasty companions he had spent the previous three years with. Naruto was kind enough not to notice, or at least not to focus on it. The energetic blonde would pretend that everything was fine, and Sakura thought that this just might be the way men deal with these types of things. Sasuke was friendly, and as far as companions went he had never sought out anyone other than them. But still, he would never fully let them in either. Maybe it would take a lot more time than anyone could imagine, Sakura thought to herself. No matter what, she would stick by him. On the occasions where it was just her and Sasuke, he was a little warmer. It’s possible that he didn’t want to show weakness in front of Naruto, or perhaps he just liked to talk to

her about himself more, she couldn’t be sure. He contemplated his future, but only minutely. For three years, all of his plans seemed to revolve around becoming ANBU. His three years were finally up. Sakura was a little upset that she had to go on a mission when Sasuke was having his ANBU exams, but she knew he’d succeed whether she was there or not. She had no bearing on the outcome, or his determination for that matter. For three years, his actions hinted that he had some agenda to fill on the third anniversary of his confinement. Well it was tomorrow, and he would finally be able to walk out the front gates of Konoha to whatever was driving him on these past years. Unfortunately, Sakura feared the worst. Sasuke never spoke of Itachi, but how could he ever let that go? She was sure he hadn’t. To Konoha, he’d become the model shinobi but Sakura knew he was putting on a good show. Let ANBU and the elites take care of him, Tsunade had said. Was this the reason for his desire to become one? Itachi was most likely always on Sasuke’s mind. Admittedly, the older Uchiha would find a way into her thoughts often as well. The silver reminder on her wrist, and the hours of remembering his kiss had burned his impression into her mind. Sasuke reminded her of Itachi somewhat. His hair was still long. Seems he had grown attached to it, even remarking that most Uchiha had worn their hair long as they got older. If Sasuke was one thing, it was traditional. He tied it back as well, which made the resemblance striking. But where Itachi had that cool smooth confidence about him, Sasuke seemed darker, or maybe not as comfortable with himself. The day when those two men stood toe to toe, Sakura knew no matter what the outcome, she would never be the same again. She tried to sigh away all the thoughts of Sasuke. She was continually plagued with worrying about him. There was no doubt in her mind that she loved him. But to be in love with him was something a twelve year old would feel and say. As she got older, Sakura wanted deeper things, and a small taste of the butterflies she felt when Itachi’s fingers would caress her throat. To get her mind off it altogether, Sakura pushed up from where she sat on her bedroll and strolled around the camp. There were probably twenty men and women waiting for orders for the next morning. A few elites were there as well, and Sakura waved when Kakashi looked up from where he was lazing by the fire among his squad. He was sitting with a group of people she would often see him with, which always consisted of at least Genma and Asuma. The men were great friends, but Kakashi was like Sasuke in that he never really became close to anyone.

Kakashi had his headband off, and he rubbed at his sharingan with his palm like it was bothering him. Every so often, well, almost every time she would see him, Sakura offered to work on it. This occurred right after Kakashi would ask about her bracelet, so it became almost a game when they ran into each other. With all the research Sakura had done on Itachi, fixing Kakashi’s sharingan would be simple. But she could never admit how she came to have such an in-depth knowledge of the specialized eyes. In the past, no one besides Uchiha had ever been able to study them, so it would be hard to explain where her expertise originated. Wishing to end his pain and improve the vision of her old sensei, she would have risked having to come clean. With a slow push of his hands on his knees, Kakashi got up and moved around his group to walk near Sakura. His steps were as calm and lazy as his demeanor, and it made Sakura smile to see that some things never change. “Senpai, how are you?” Sakura asked, a genuine happiness on her face. “Good, good, Sakura. Anything happening with that?” he asked calmly while pointing to her wrist. “Nope,” she laughed. “Do I get to fix your eye now?” Kakashi sighed, and looked at her for a long moment before answering. “It’s fine.” “You almost seemed like you were willing to give in just then. It’s bothering you. Will you let me just have a look? I am the top ranking medic in Konoha now. I could order you to have it checked.” Sakura grinned, knowing she had found a sure fire way to get his compliance. “Maybe tomorrow,” he sighed. “Now,” she directed as she grabbed his wrist and tugged him toward the campfire near her tent. Upon arrival, Sakura’s squad had unpacked their tents and left to mingle with the other groups around the camp. Sakura was pleased to see that they were still away and that Kakashi and she were alone for the moment. Motioning him to sit on a small folding stool near the fire, he did so without complaint. Sakura moved next to him and placed two fingers on his temple and two on his cheek. “Alright, Senpai, just relax while I have a look with my chakra.” Kakashi took another defeated sigh and closed his eyes. His headband still dangled around his wrist from when he had taken it off earlier. Sakura’s chakra delved into Kakashi’s left temple, pressing into the channels that connected to his eye. Upon the first quick examination, she discovered all the same

channels that Itachi had; although some were damaged from what she concluded must have been the initial transplant. If she had not seen the correct version of the eye as it changed back and forth, it would have probably taken her hours and hours of work to figure out what was what within the mixture of healthy and damaged cells, if even that was possible. Thanks to Itachi, she could heal him swiftly, and perhaps make his life a little easier. “You have some damaged chakra channels and cells. I think I can repair them in time, but we can work on having this eye change back to a normal eye when you don’t need the sharingan first.” “What?” Sakura was sure she had never heard Kakashi so surprised, and realized how much she had underestimated his reaction to her news. His voice was just a quiet breath, but quick and desperate. Crouching down in front of him, Sakura understood that this was something Kakashi hadn’t expected. It was a shock, to say the least. Something in his face told her that this wasn’t all he was contemplating though. She was nineteen now, and three years seemed like a lifetime ago, but the Copy-nin’s memory and ability to put two and two together were sharp. “I can see the damage, and I think I can repair it. There are channels that carry the chakra to and from the eye. Many of the vessels that carry the chakra away from the eye are damaged so you are unable to control the flow. It seems to get stuck in the eye, forcing it to be active without you having to draw chakra to it,” Sakura said calmly, trying to stay more personal than medic-like. “Just like that, you can fix it? Shizune looked at it at least a dozen times and couldn’t decipher what was wrong. She didn’t want to damage anything further so she had declined. You’re telling me with one quick look, you can fix it?” Suspicion painted his words. Sakura could almost see the wheels turning in Kakashi’s head. She figured there would be a risk with helping him, but three years had dulled the fear of someone finding out. Trying to find the right words to begin, she figured the night just got really long. “It would be foolish to lie to me, don’t you think?” he added quietly. “I won’t lie to you, Kakashi. But, I guess I’m afraid of the consequences of the truth.” Sakura bit her lip. “I assume I’m not going to like what I hear.”

Gathering her courage, Sakura sighed. “Before I tell you, you must swear to me that you’ll still let me fix your eye, no matter what you think of me,” she whispered. “Even if you hate me, I want to help you with this. Promise me?” Kakashi’s eyebrows creased, but he finally nodded slowly. It was obvious that he had an inkling of what was coming; she could see it in his face. Closing her eyes and taking a deep breath, she began. “Three years ago, I made a deal…” Three hours had passed quickly, and Sakura was all but worn out from working on Kakashi’s eye. They’d moved twice, had been interrupted four times, and finally ended up at a fire near the edge of the clearing. The sharingan wouldn’t be fixed with just one session, but she began to think that with the repairs she had done on a few of the channels, things might happen for him immediately. She hadn’t even begun to work on the structure of the channels, just the openings. The complete restoration of his sharingan would take many more days of work, but when the chakra began to flow out through what she had opened, she knew it had changed already. “So you’re saying that Itachi came back for you?” he whispered after being silent for an hour. Obviously, she knew he’d been mulling her adventure over in his head before commenting. But the question was not exactly what she expected. Sakura bit her lip and was happy that Kakashi had his eyes closed for the last two hours so she wouldn’t have to be under his strong gaze. She’d managed to omit the more intimate moments between she and Itachi during her confinement at the complex without arousing Kakashi’s keen suspicion. He’d listened patiently, and never interrupted. Getting it out almost seemed like a relief, but waiting for him to pass judgment was hard. “Yes. He only left a kunai for me, but when I got over the wall he was waiting there. He killed the men chasing me.” “Why would he do that?” Kakashi sounded a little shocked. His brow creased over his closed eyes. “He said that he might require my services again. I thought he might have felt some regret for what he did,” Sakura whispered. She shrugged along with her inner thoughts, although Kakashi couldn’t see it. That question had entered her mind so many times over the last three years that hearing someone else ask it seemed strange. “Uchiha Itachi does not feel regret, Sakura. That man has never held an ounce of feeling. You must remember that he’s the type of person who would kill his own mother without

looking back. You put yourself in so much danger, you have no idea.” Kakashi seemed to grumble a little with his statement, but didn’t open his eyes. “I know, Senpai. He reminded me of how dangerous he was before he left me in the forest. I was sixteen. I’d never be so foolish now. I haven’t seen him for three years, so for all we know he’s dead.” Even as the words came out, she didn’t believe them. “It’s long past now, Sakura. We’ll let it stay that way, but you were right to think I might be upset by what I heard. I hope you will make different choices if faced with the same situation again,” Kakashi said. A feeling of being overbearing and preachy caught up with him, and he remembered how he had put off his own mission long ago to help Rin on Obito’s urgings. Had Obito not taught him the strength of comrades that day? Maybe if he were Sakura, he would have chosen to make the same mistakes. But they were hers to make and hers to atone for. Right now, however, he was hard pressed to complain as his eye felt so much better than it had for years. “Do you think you will ever trust me again?” Sakura whispered as she took her fingers off his temples and ran them through her shoulder length hair. “I trust you with my life. I guess I just don’t trust you with your own,” he sighed. “Thank you, Kakashi,” she said softly as she crouched down in front of him. She had so much respect for him, and the thought of him hating or not trusting her was enough to make her quit being shinobi. But if Kakashi was one thing, it was fair. He was balanced with humility and understood that people were not perfect. She admired him for his intelligence and hoped that she could make reparations for her past choices by easing his pain. “I’m finished, but before you open your eyes, just keep in mind that things will seem a little different now. I’ve managed to open up many of the damaged channels. It will take a long time to repair them, but even now, you’ll notice a big difference.” In the slowest possible manner, Kakashi let his eyelids slide open. When they were completely open, he looked at Sakura to see the small astonishment on her face. His eyebrows dipped as he continued to look at her, seeing her clearly with two eyes. For the first time in twenty years, he was able to see out of both eyes without his vision being coupled with the spin of chakra. “Sakura…” he said quietly. He raised his hands up in front of him and began to measure his new depth perception. Sakura felt more emotional than she had in ages as she looked into his eyes. The firelight glowed in both, revealing a slightly different shade in each of them. “Take some time to draw chakra to it, then release it. You’ll need to get used to how it travels through the eye instead of resting in it. Your chakra will have to be focused better,

but I think you’ll find it improved now. The hourly healing to damage ratio is two to one. When we get back to Konoha, we’ll set up a schedule so I can work on it to completion. And you are not allowed to be late,” she laughed shyly. Kakashi looked up at her again. No words came out, and he continued to just gaze with wonder. It was the most unusual thing to see Hatake Kakashi amazed, but there it was, and Sakura was sure it was another look she would never forget. If there was anger in him before, it was gone. “Thank you, Sakura.” From his tone, she understood how much he meant it. The morning sunshine was blocked by a hazy mist, which seemed to float above the ground by a foot or so. Even with the warmth of the morning, Sakura hated the wetness creeping between her toes when she walked. As the stone wall of their objective came into view, she took a deep breath and steeled her will. The crumbling wall encircled the all too familiar complex of the former Sannin Orochimaru. The snake-like man was long dead almost a year. The old killer didn’t have as much impact on Sakura as he had on Sasuke, but she could still recall how eerie he was in life. When Naruto had told them the Akatsuki was rumored to have killed Orochimaru, she hoped that Itachi had done it. Really, it wouldn’t make a difference, but she wanted it to be true. Standing at the complex again after three years, she felt so many things come rushing back to her. The strongest reminiscence was of the form of Uchiha Itachi, standing over her limp body as she lay in the rain. His red eyes hid his true intentions when he saved her and to this day, she still questioned what they were. It was like a burning need to know what he was thinking as he peered down at the dirty, bloody kunoichi, half dead in the rain. So far, the complex had sat empty. After Orochimaru died, no one dared to enter it. Rumors of traps and sure death to anyone who crossed the threshold were rampant in the area. Konoha was called to come and secure the complex…for a small fee, of course. ANBU, led by the elites, entered and began a slow search, room by room. Sakura followed her squad in and when she smelled the first stench of mould and decaying stone, she wanted to run back out. The dripping water was another strong memory cue and her body shook slightly, remembering the pain that her mind tried to shut out. The group of squads she was assigned to began to clear the upper rooms. The elites led the other squads to the sublevel, and Sakura figured they would find some horribly interesting things there. As a medic she’d seen a lot, but she was sure Orochimaru had seen more.

After two hours of searching, nothing had posed any danger, making Sakura more at ease. “Haruno,” her squad leader grunted as they came to a T shaped corridor. “Start on the three rooms on the left.” Sakura nodded and looked down the long hallway, dimly lit and sadly familiar. The cells. I can do this, she told herself. Wandering into the corridor to start at the first room, something made her jump; a warmth. A tiny light and a shock she never expected came upon her. As she crossed the frame of the hallway entrance, the bracelet was set off with chakra. Never in a million years did she expect that bracelet to ever be anything but a permanent reminder of her choices at sixteen. Covering it quickly, Sakura walked to the first room and pushed her way through the rotted door, half hanging on rusty hinges. Again, the light blinked at her wrist and the bracelet grew warm. “Damn it,” she hissed as she stripped one long glove off so that her bare fingers could touch the band. It seemed like the building had breathed life back into that tiny trinket as well as her thoughts of Itachi. What if he can feel this? Upon closer examination of the room she stood in, she could see the heavy iron ring on the wall that her chains were hung on. It was her cell, Sasuke’s cell. Why did I come? Even as a strong ANBU member, she felt some fear for that room. It felt like she had been transported back three years to the moments when she thought she might die. Her skin felt the cold ache that the floor had produced, and she was sure if she looked hard enough, she’d see the bloodstains of the men she killed that day. Why the hell did I come? She knew it was a mission relating to Orochimaru’s complex. Curiosity often drove her actions, but this time, she wished she had bowed to common sense. To be in that cell, in that complex just brought back everything that could have gone wrong. Had Itachi not left that one silver kunai, she would have been done for. Had he not been waiting over that wall, there would be no Haruno Sakura. So why did he? Why? She supposed the answer would never be found, and that is what hurt the most.

Pulling a piece of bandage from her pack, she tied it around her wrist hoping that it would not be so obvious that people would ask about it. She prayed she would not run into Kakashi. The day wore on and as luck would have it, she managed not to see her old teacher. He remained on the sub level and was still there when her squad returned to base. Nothing of interest was found on the upper levels, but the lower levels had produced a couple of unusual things. Sakura believed that anything useful would have been scavenged by the Akatsuki when they came to kill Orochimaru, so there probably wasn’t anything there she cared to see. Now night had fallen and Sakura sat in a tree near the base camp on watch. It was about one AM and she was tired. Working on Kakashi’s eye the night before had run down her chakra. Today’s adventure had taken its toll on her as well, but more mentally than physically. For now, she just wanted to stop thinking. It never ended. Sasuke and Itachi. Why did she have to be plagued by such things? Had she not been put in Team 7, maybe she’d be cozying up to Hyuuga Neji like Ino was, or training for the weapons squad like Tenten. Instead, she had been thrust onto a path that would make her future as undetermined as any had ever been. When she was twelve, she was so sure of everything. Funny how confident we are as children, not really knowing what the world has in store for us, she thought. Maybe if Sasuke opened up, she could love him again like she did then. Admittedly, Sakura had another man that seemed to keep things from progressing with Sasuke, even if she was attracted to him. Until today, she was teetering on the cusp of surety that Itachi would never be in her life again. But his chakra lit her wrist like she had secretly wished it to for three years, shattering the illusions she had almost finished creating. Stop thinking! Perhaps when she got home, she’d get drunk and lie in bed for a couple of days. Blissfully intoxicated or comfortably numb; it all sounded appealing. Maybe Naruto and Sasuke would give her a couple of days before dragging her to the bar to celebrate Sasuke’s ANBU induction. Funny enough, being the last of the three of them to be accepted was fine with Sasuke. Sometimes he still surprised her. With a deep sigh, Sakura tried to stand up from her perch. Her legs were falling asleep from the cold branch and it was time to walk around her designated area. The dark trees swayed and the lack of moonlight made it harder to see. A flashlight was not an option for watch, and so she used chakra to scan the ground in front of her. A few steps into her route she sensed someone. She was not particularly alarmed as she didn’t expect it to be anyone other than another ANBU. Walking closer to the figure she could almost make out among the trees, she was slightly taken aback by his sheer size.

As she tried to force her eyes to make out an ANBU uniform, she froze to see it was more of a dark cloak that surrounded the figure. Maybe things would not be as easy tonight as originally thought. Damn it. Her initial mental plan making was interrupted by the kunai that hit the tree near her head. Immediately she was on the defensive, leaping to a high branch and pulling out two kunai. She waited to hear some noise and nothing came. The silence was so eerie that it dawned on her that the trees had stopped rustling. A genjustu? Trying to break it, she worked her chakra into an uneven pattern, something easy for someone with such control. As she molded her energies and broke it, she could suddenly see the blue glow of the moon casting its light everywhere. The moon? The startling realization came to her that she had most likely been trapped since the sun began to go down. Dropping to the ground, the figure appeared again in front of her, and a reflected light of something large and metal told her that she was in for a fight. His sword was as big as she was. “State your purpose,” she hissed, her hand going to the hilt of the katana on her back as she crouched for battle. “I want to play, kunoichi,” he laughed, gravelly and low. Her katana began to slide from the hilt slowly as recognition shivered up her spine. Kisame. “Why the hell are you here?” Sakura growled. “It was you who came to us,” a voice, smooth and dark whispered into her ear from behind her. A strong hand clamped on hers as she held the katana, forcing the weapon back into the sheath. The fingers of his other hand wrapped around her wrist and she looked down to see the bright light of chakra glowing from her bracelet. She could feel his heat as his body came in contact with hers. That voice cut through every coherent thought she could possibly have running through her mind. How it scared her. How she’d longed to hear it.

“Itachi…”

Loophole Chapter 14: Reunion Still feeling the warmth of the body behind her, Sakura made no attempt to pull away from the fingers around her wrist. Stunned, she stared at the tall shark-man before her. A rubbery feeling crept up her legs as the adrenaline died away with a second of silence. “I’ll go watch the perimeter,” Kisame grumbled as he half turned away from them. “Good to see you remember your stance, kunoichi,” he laughed and then disappeared into the shadows of the trees. Even then, Sakura didn’t turn around. She was sure Itachi could hear her heavy breaths as she fought to keep her heart inside her chest. Finally, the hand holding her hilt was released, and fingers ran down her back to her waist. Itachi’s other hand relinquished its hold on her wrist and dragged up her long glove to where her exposed shoulder was. It felt electric as his fingers traced the ANBU tattoo like a whisper across her skin. When he spoke again, his warm breath was on the shell of her ear. “You’ve changed,” he began in hushed tones. “Taller. Your hair is longer. ANBU suits you.” “Why are you here?” Sakura finally managed to breathe out. Already the conflict in her feelings was making her scared. Scared of being caught. Scared of herself. His hand slid back down her arm and taking her hand, he raised it in front of her. The blue glow of the silver band lit the strong fingers lacing into hers. “I felt you.” “Itachi-san, it’s been three years. I didn’t…I never…” Sakura found the words stuck in her throat. “Yes, it has been three years. I wondered if you might be dead, Sakura. When I felt the chakra band, I became curious, nothing more.” His voice was smooth and deep. If he ever felt an emotion, she could never tell by his tone. “Don’t be so formal with me,” he added in a whisper.

“So you’ve satisfied your curiosity. Now you can go,” she said, her voice still betraying her calm exterior. “I suppose I could go. But my curiosity is not satisfied.” Sakura could almost hear the smirk in that sentence. “I’m interested to know what has changed since I last saw you.” “You want small talk?” Sakura scoffed a little. “I want to know if you’re his,” Itachi whispered softly against her neck. There it was, the end of all her resolve as his lips neared her skin. Years had passed and he could still affect her so quickly, so deeply. His fingers released her and then she felt his warmth slip away. For a split second, she thought he had left, but as she turned, he was there. He eyed her calmly, regarding her as if he was waiting for her to say or do something. Not much had changed about the older Uchiha that Sakura could see. He wore the same cloak, although it was completely black now. His hair was tied back as it usually was but looked a little longer. The robe hung open and the black shirt clung to his sleek upper body. Just one glance told her that she had forgotten his affect on her. Her body was remembering quickly. “I don’t belong to anyone,” Sakura said with a slight sharpness. He openly smirked and she could see it in the moonlight. “Have you satisfied your curiosity enough to leave now?” she added. The fear that someone might stumble upon them was very real in her mind. Even with Kisame watching, other squad members could show up at any time. “Do you really want that?” he asked softly, and took two steps forward so that they were close enough to touch. “I…want…” Sakura knew she couldn’t say what she really wanted. Seeing his red eyes again had touched on every deep wish she had been filled with over the last three years. But they were all in danger, and as interesting as their reunion could be, Sakura didn’t want him to be caught. A small army of ANBU was five minutes away, not to mention Kakashi, so she felt ending their meeting was safer. “What do you want?” Itachi breathed out, closing the last of the distance between them. Their sudden proximity made her step back until she found herself against a tree. Itachi matched her step for step and placed his hands on the trunk to pin her in place. “I wanted to…see you. I’ve thought about you and I wanted to ask you something,” she whispered as her eyes inadvertently flicked down to his lips. Raising two fingers, she

touched them lightly with gloved fingers. A forbidden and dangerous touch, but she couldn’t help herself. For three years she wondered about him and now he was leaning so close, his intentions clear. “Why did you save me from Orochimaru? I have to know,” she said softly. A smile crossed his lips under her fingers. He gently gripped her wrist and lowered her hand away from his face. “Itachi-san, please…” she pleaded in whispers. “Don’t be so formal with me, Sakura,” he replied as he leaned forward, his lips brushing hers. He moved back a little, most likely to look at her reaction but Sakura was not going to let him. Her fingers twisted in the front of his cloak and she pulled him to her, pressing her mouth on his. He would leave in a moment and disappear from her life again. She just wanted something to carry with her. Itachi’s reciprocation was immediate. His body fell lightly against hers as his hands slid around her back and held her close. Sakura let the cloak go and held his face as they kissed relentlessly. It was just as she remembered, and maybe more passionate than before. She knew they were saying goodbye with that kiss. He couldn’t steal her away, no matter how much she wanted him to. After a few moments, he broke the kiss although Sakura could feel he was hesitant. It was probably the first time she could understand his feelings since the moment she initially laid eyes on him years ago. “I can’t keep my promise to you this time, Sakura,” Itachi said smoothly. “I’m pleased to see that you’re alive. Perhaps we’ll meet again.” “Itachi…I…” “Kisame,” Itachi called out quietly. The shark man appeared without hesitation and they nodded curtly to each other as Itachi backed away and stood shrouded in the shadows. “Wait,” Sakura said, holding a hand up to stop him, “Why, Itachi? Why did you come for me then? Can you answer that?” “Yes, I can.”

Sakura watched as Kisame turned and walked away. Itachi stood for a moment more before turning away as well. Sakura clutched her chest as if he had broken something inside her as she realized he would not give the answer away. They disappeared into the night as quietly and smoothly as they had come. Sakura could still feel his hands on her, his lips on hers. Her skin shivered and she was sure it wasn’t the night air. The trek back to Konoha didn’t take long, but she opted to walk the distance instead of use chakra to rush. There was no hurry. She had three days off from ANBU until her next mission so she could catch up with hospital duties as well as her two best friends. And her mind was consumed with Itachi and their brief meeting. Why would he step back in her life now? And why did he care if she belonged to anyone else? She could only assume he meant Sasuke. As she moved along, walking slowly and reaching up to tap leaves as she passed them, she felt a familiar presence behind her. Kakashi was wandering along with a kunoichi who Sakura recognized as someone about his age. She had long hair and a pretty smile. Of course, Sakura was not one to interfere but she stopped when she noticed his headband was up. It was so unusual to see him like that and she felt her chest swell with accomplishment. No matter what, she would never regret her time with Itachi. The rewards were too great. “Sakura,” Kakashi said as he noticed her. He sped up his steps to meet up with her, much to his companion’s chagrin. “How is it feeling?” Sakura inquired, reaching up to open his lazy eyelid a little. “Better than it has in years.” Kakashi smiled, creasing his eyes. Sakura liked the way it looked. She continued to gaze at his eyes, marveling at the different shade. The Uchiha one that looked out at her was so dark, like the blue-black blanket of night. Kakashi’s own eye was a shade lighter, rimmed with dark gray. “I’ll be at the hospital tomorrow, most likely all day. Will you come to see me in the morning?” Sakura inquired, still staring at his eye. Kakashi sighed a breath out, “Okay.” He wasn’t one for hospitals but Sakura figured this was too important for even him to decline. When he did agree, the woman standing just behind him made an impatient noise.

“Well, you’d better get moving. Remember two hours to one for healing.” Sakura waved as she turned and kept moving. Her fingers innocently played with the silver bracelet dangling on her wrist. “Who is that?” she heard a perturbed feminine voice ask as she strolled away. “Oh, no one,” Kakashi said in a devious tone, and Sakura shook her head. Ass, she thought to herself. “Sakura!” Naruto chirped happily at the gates. Slowly stumbling towards him, Sakura sighed, wishing her bed was a lot closer. She could see his happy face and her steps practically slowed to a drag. “Sakura, that bastard passed. We waited for you to celebrate so get your ass moving!” Sakura’s jaw began to ache, making her realize that she had been clenching it. “I’m really worn out, Naruto. I appreciate you waiting for me but I haven’t had a shower in a couple of days and I didn’t sleep well last night. My ass is tired, my friend.” “Well, its only four o’clock. Go have a shower and a nap. Come on. Sasuke is a free man now.” Sakura’s throat felt dry. “Alright, Naruto. Give me a few hours and I’ll meet you there.” “If you’re late, we’ll come and get you,” he chided as he slung his arm around her. Seeing the enthusiastic man’s face fall would have put a cap on the night, so Sakura decided to forgo it. Maybe an hour at the pub was in order. The plan of drinking and staying in bed for two days replayed in her mind. If only things were that easy. By the time she made it home, it was five o’clock. A fast shower and some soft pajamas later, Sakura sat on her bed with her legs under the heavy duvet. The apartment seemed quiet, really quiet. She picked the peach off the night table where she’d placed it to slip into bed, and ran her thumb over the fuzzy skin. She took a bite and shivered from the unusual texture on her tongue. Peaches always seemed to bring back the memories of being at Itachi’s. She’d never forget watching him bite into the sweet flesh of the fruit, enjoying it like it was something forbidden.

She flipped the bracelet with her fingers, making it spin on her wrist. A heavy-handed knock woke her from her dreams. It was obviously a Naruto knock as it was shortly accompanied by his ‘Sakura-chan?’ yell at the top of his lungs. “Coming,” she sighed, and it was no louder than a whisper. Sadly, her body refused to get out of bed. A key jiggled in the lock. Damn it. Spare key. Feet moved through her living room and she pulled the blankets over her head to ignore him. Of course, the blankets would be pulled off of her in no time. Naruto wasn’t about subtlety. But when nothing happened, and the sound of the steps had stopped, Sakura poked her head out of the blankets. A tall man stood there wearing a dark shirt and dark pants. His long dark hair hung down around his face and his arms were leaning up on the doorframe. It was a casual picture of the least casual person she knew. “Sasuke?” Sakura said quietly. His hands dropped to his sides and he approached the bed. “I can pull this blanket off you, or you can get up on your own.” He seemed half amused. “Naruto’s suggestion.” The other half seemed serious. “Ok, I’ll get up.” It had been a couple of days since she’d seen Sasuke, but in such a short time he seemed to have changed. He was usually quieter. To her recollection, this was the first time he’d ever been in her bedroom. The fact that he sat down on the side of her bed was a great shock. She was still in her pajamas. “Um, you’ll have to step out while I get changed.” “If you insist.” Sasuke seemed to smirk then and Sakura creased her brow in amused confusion. Was he actually flirting with her? The tall Uchiha pushed to stand and move out the door. “What’s changed?” she blurted out.

“I have,” Sasuke answered back, and the confidence in his voice was unmistakable. “In three days?” Sakura shook her head. “In three years,” he whispered as he closed the door behind him. The walk down to the pub was quick, and the evening air was crisp enough to wake Sakura up fully. Sasuke walked on one side of her while Naruto practically bounced on the other side. “Think they’ll keep us in team seven as ANBU?” the blond queried. “They will,” Sasuke affirmed. “What makes you so sure?” Sakura asked. “I asked if they would, and Tsunade agreed. We are the strongest team in Konoha, bar none. Why would they split us up when we can accomplish anything?” Sasuke didn’t sound like he was asking a question. Sakura nodded silently. “Our first mission is in two days. I’m looking forward to getting outside of these walls,” Sasuke added in a quieter tone. Naruto and Sakura silently regarded him, but he never turned his face to them. Sakura waited for something to fall out of him, something that would give her a hint at the deeper goings on of the youngest Uchiha. But like Itachi, he seemed to have that ability to shroud his feelings and thoughts. When they finally sat at a table in the bar, Naruto ordered the first round of drinks. Naruto always ordered first. They watched him leaning casually on the bar making eyes at the Chuunin next to him while he waited on the order. Sasuke leaned his chair on the wall behind him. He always insisted on keeping his back to the wall. Sakura fought the urge to give the leg of the chair a little push. Using her arm as a brace, Sakura leaned on her hand. “You look bored,” Sasuke said as the chair legs hit the floor and he leaned close to her. “No, not at all. I’m just tired. I had a long mission and I just want to forget it.” “To his place. I heard.” Sasuke seemed to glaze over for a minute.

“Yes, Sasuke. It’s empty and useless. It’s rotting from the ground up.” Sakura sat up a little and folded her hands on the table before she felt his hand slide between hers. “I know. It’s dead, just like he is,” he said quietly. Silence passed between them for a moment as they looked at each other. Naruto had seemed to forget the order and was writing what looked like his phone number on a matchbook for the young lady beside him. Sakura had turned to watch him hoping that the moment of discomfort would pass. Instead, Sasuke’s hand slid over her wrist, and he let a finger slide under the silver bracelet. “I’ve never seen you take this off. Is it special?” Sasuke inquired gently. Sakura pressed her tongue between her teeth hard. “It’s silver, isn’t it? What are these markings?” Sasuke continued his questioning, running his fingers along the metal. His voice was calm, pleasant even. “Who gave it to you?” “It was a…gift. I can’t take it off. It’s too small to fit over my wrist now.” “I can try to remove it if you want me to,” he added, leaning close enough that a whisper could pass between them and still be heard. Sakura looked at him and believed that a baby couldn’t look any more innocent that he did at that moment. But Sasuke never did anything without intention and it made her shiver enough to tighten her fingers together for composure. “I like it there. I don’t mind keeping it on,” she finally gave up. “I see.” Sasuke sat back, never taking his eyes off of hers. “Finally, here comes Naruto with the drinks.” Sakura looked up and watched the tall blond stroll over with a tray of drinks, balancing it perfectly on his fingers. “Rum all around,” he chuckled as he set a glass in front of his friends. He looked at them with the widest grin, the obvious joy of being with his team alight in his eyes. “Oi, Sakura, you ok? You look a little flushed.” The hospital was quiet as usual. The nurses moved quickly from room to room doing the job that others could never do as perfectly. Sakura treated the nurses well as she knew they kept the hospital running, kept it humming like a well-oiled machine.

Kakashi would be there soon to have his eye worked on. She’d told him ten o’clock so she figured that, in Kakashi time, that meant eleven thirty. For now she was content to go from room to room, tending to injuries and triaging patients as they came through the doors. It was only one more day and she would be expected to go back out in the field with ANBU. Sasuke would be on his first mission, and she and Naruto would round out the elite ANBU squad known as team seven. The orders had come this morning before she left her apartment. Scouting mission. Something simple to reacquaint Sasuke with missions outside of the Konoha gates and most likely to test his abilities. They were supposed to follow the river to the edge of the Fire Country and scout the surrounding borders, periodically crossing over to find weak spots in Konoha’s defense. It would most likely take a week to finish but it would be nice for Sasuke to be more useful to his country again. At least Sakura wanted to believe that was his purpose. Something told her she was doing some wishful thinking. Sasuke had left the pub early, in favor of sleep. Naruto stayed behind, and Sakura bent his ear a little on what he thought their first mission would be like. As the drinks went down, the conversation turned to the fear that Sasuke might still want to find Itachi. Naruto, normally quite absent when heavy things were talked about, had leaned close to Sakura over the shot glasses and confided what he thought. What he said didn’t make Sakura feel any better. “I care about him, Sakura. We are his best friends. For a long time I was alone, but people began to care about me. I don’t know what would have happened to me if I hadn’t met you and him. If he wants to kill Itachi, I’ll help him even if it gets me kicked out of ANBU. I’d do anything for him, just like I’d do anything for you.” Naruto slurred, but meant every word. Sakura could see his intensity under the intoxication. “But…Itachi might kill him. Are we good friends if we let his life be wasted away on revenge? I love him too, Naruto. But I can’t help him destroy his own life with a vendetta that he promised to put behind him.” Sakura grasped at straws. If Naruto would see it her way, at least she’d have an ally in stopping the probable reunion of the two Uchiha. “Even if he gets killed, or I get killed, I’ll help him. If it were me, I know he’d do the same.” The young Jounin downed another shot. “You say you’d do anything for me. Then don’t let Sasuke destroy his life.” Sakura’s brow creased.

“His life was destroyed the day he came home to find his family slaughtered by his brother, Sakura. Nothing could be worse than that. I know you want to help him in your way, but I’m going to help him in mine.” Naruto nodded drunkenly, and Sakura sighed. He was right. Any way she looked at it, Sasuke deserved the chance to kill Itachi. When she examined her own rationale on it, she knew that she was trying to recruit Naruto’s help to save them both. Itachi didn’t really deserve to be protected, not that he needed it. But by saving her life that day at Orochimaru’s complex, she was saddled with a debt that hung over her like an albatross. There was no easy way out of any of it. Eventually, in this twisted life they lived, someone she had feelings for would die.

Loophole Chapter 15: Dreaming The mission seemed to come up quickly in Sakura’s mind. Hospital duties were on hold and now she was heading to the edge of the Fire Country with her two best friends. It could be worse, she imagined. Had Naruto not been there to balance them, things might have been more uncomfortable between she and Sasuke. Walking along the river was peaceful. The birds were making a lot of noise and the breeze smelled sweet, like jasmine. If she didn’t know better, Sakura might have said that it felt like a vacation instead of work. But she knew better. For the last hour, she had walked in silence. Naruto and Sasuke strolled ahead conversing about something that hadn’t caught her interest. The way they were keeping their voices to themselves, Sakura figured they were either talking about her or some other woman. Time had dulled the need to know what their secrets were. They had been walking most of the day, and night was going to fall on them soon. Stars were peeking through the darkening shade of sky above, and the horizon sank to a pinkish hue. It was very serene. It was almost enough to take her mind off Itachi. She watched Sasuke’s long hair dangling down his back, and tilted her head in consideration. He looked at lot like Hyuuga Neji from behind. Both were tall and slender, not bulky like Kiba or Choji. They both walked with a confidence a lot of men didn’t have. But Sasuke seemed less at ease with himself than the Hyuuga did, which was really saying something considering Neji’s past trials. Finally coming to a stop at a small clearing next to the river, they made camp and decided on the roster for watch duty. The first watch was responsible for scouting so Naruto

happily took the first shift. Because they were on the border of the Fire Country along the unprotected land that lay between Waterfall and Sound, they had to be more careful of enemies in the form of bandits and rogue ninja. “Alright, you two. Behave while I’m gone,” Naruto laughed as he leapt into the trees next to the clearing and disappeared into the twilight. Sasuke looked at Sakura and shook his head, which made her laugh. Maybe it would be a good experience for the group. As far as teams went, they had bonded well. As far as comrades, there were none closer, but Sakura always felt like somehow Sasuke would find out her secret and never forgive her. It was the small fear that wouldn’t let her go. She trusted Kakashi implicitly with her secret, but the strong gaze of the Uchiha kept her fearing the worst scenario. “I’ll get some fish. Why don’t you get a fire going? Naruto won’t be back for at least three hours,” Sasuke said calmly as he fished in his pack for line and a hook. “Sure,” Sakura answered as she began to move around the clearing edge looking for kindling and wood for the fire. The three teammates went to their respective duties, and by the time Sasuke drew back from the river, night had completely fallen. He approached Sakura, who was lazing on the grass beside a crackling fire enjoying the calming effect of the flickering flames. Sasuke efficiently gutted the fish and staked them so they sat close to the fire. After he decided his effort was sufficient to provide a decent supper, he sat next to Sakura and leaned back on his elbows with his feet outstretched. “Naruto’s speed has improved again.” He began to make light conversation. “I noticed that. Honestly, I don’t think we’ll ever know his limit. He’s amazing.” “He is,” Sasuke agreed. “Imagine if he had a bloodline limit as well. He’d be unstoppable.” “I think he already is,” Sakura sighed. “I wish I had his energy sometimes.” They looked at each other and laughed comfortably. Those dark Uchiha eyes were captivating in the glow of the campfire. How many times had she stared into Uchiha eyes? Itachi’s, Sasuke’s, and even Kakashi’s were examples of the beauty hiding the danger within them. For a moment, she contemplated the problems that came with having such a bloodline limit as they had. With Kakashi having trouble with his, and the extent to which Itachi’s

eyes had been damaged, she began to think Sasuke must have been having the same problems. “Um, Sasuke. How is your sharingan?” she ventured, not really sure if it was a good topic to broach. “Fine. Why do you ask?” Sasuke inquired, a calm tilt of his head. “Well, Kakashi was having trouble with his so I just wanted to make sure yours was alright.” Sakura bit her lip, wondering if she had gone too far and opened up something to make him suspicious. “Well, Senpai’s eye is always on. I assume that the constant chakra must have damaged it. But you fixed it, didn’t you?” Sasuke looked over at her, and she could see that his gaze was not entirely innocent. “Y…yes. I was able to open up some channels to let the chakra go through it. Its not fully healed, but maybe in time. He looks good without that drooping headband, doesn’t he?” “Hm,” Sasuke grunted and resumed his gaze on the fire. “You look at little tired, Sakura. Are you tired tonight?” “Oh, no, I’m fine. Why do you ask?” “No reason.” Sakura nodded and turned her face back to the fish, forcing her eyes to remain on the flames beneath them. “It’s nice to be out of the village again. I’ve missed the air in the forest. I’ve missed having the freedom to come and go. It almost drove me crazy sometimes in there,” Sasuke sighed. “I never knew. You always seemed so calm about it, like it didn’t bother you.” “Watching you and Naruto go off to missions was hard. I wanted to jump over the walls and escape, but that would end what I’ve been trying to build towards.” “ANBU, right?” she asked nonchalantly. “No,” Sasuke laughed a little, “but I’m glad that this is how it appeared.” “Appeared?” Sakura sat up and turned her full attention to him. “Can you keep a secret, Sakura?”

She stared wide-eyed, shocked that he was about to admit to her something she was sure she had been dreading for three years. “Yes, you can keep a secret, can’t you? You’re very good at it.” Sasuke’s voice wasn’t threatening, but it put fear into her like she could never recall. “Sasuke…w…what are you…” she stammered. Taking a deep breath, Sasuke sat up so they faced each other. “If there was another way, I’d find it. I have to kill him. I only wish I could count on you to help me. Naruto would help me, but I wonder if I was facing my brother, who would you wish to see live?” Sakura’s chest rose and fell quickly. The heat of the fire seemed to crawl up her neck and skin, setting it to flames as well. No words would come; they were stuck in her throat. “I wish I had another choice. I always swore that I wouldn’t use it on you. That day that you told me you loved me before I left kept me going during some dark times. I can’t tell you how much I counted on those words in the years after.” “Sasuke…please…let me explain…” Sakura found a whisper. “Did you ever say it to him, Sakura?” “How do you…I don’t understand…” she puzzled. Sasuke grabbed her wrist, holding it up between them to show her the silver glinting in the firelight. “Why did he leave it on you? Why wouldn’t you let me take it off of you?” Sasuke’s voice was soft, almost pleading for understanding. Sakura felt the knife twist in her chest, edged with her betrayal and guilt. “You know what this is?” she breathed in shock. “It is unique to my family unit. I was very small, and I only saw it once. My father put this on him to punish him once. Only the three of us knew how it worked. It’s a special jutsu and even now, I’m not sure if I can remove it, but I’ll try.” “T…try?” “As I said, I wish there was another way. Please tell Naruto that I couldn’t wait for him,” Sasuke began as he closed his eyes, “And Sakura…I’m sorry for what I have to do.” “Wait,” she hissed as his eyes opened and she saw the sharingan for just a split second.

Naruto jumped from the trees, stretching and grunting in the cool night air. He’d enjoyed the run through the forest so much that he ended up returning an hour later then designated. But he supposed neither of the other two would mind. He was sure it was the kyuubi inside him that made him love nature so much, and perhaps it placated the animal some to feel the breeze in the trees and enjoy the night air. Slowly approaching the fire, he noticed that it was just embers trying desperately to stay alight. Three charred and strange looking lumps hung over the embers on sticks and smelled quite bad up close. Tossing another piece of wood into the small burn pit, Naruto made some hand seals and blew a small fire onto it, effectively lighting it. It was then that he noticed the person lying beside a tent face down. Her pink hair splayed over her face and her hands were tied behind her back. “Sakura!” He ran over and unbound her hands. Turning her over to face him, she looked uninjured, just unconscious. Naruto slapped her face lightly and spoke her name as if trying to wake her from a dream. “Oi, Sakura, wake up. Come on, Haruno.” Sakura’s eyes cracked slightly as a hand came up to try and stop his from tapping her cheek. “Na…ruto?” she whispered. Slowly the stars crept into her hazy vision, then the man holding her across his knees tightly. “Naruto!” she said loudly as she pushed out of his grasp to sit up on her own. “What the hell is going on here? Where is Sasuke?” he growled. “Who tied you up?” “He did, Naruto. Sasuke did,” she blurted out. “Whaaa?” In a moment of complete understanding, she lifted her arm and looked at her wrist. There was no longer a silver band there that had reminded her of Itachi for three long years. “Damn it. Damn it!” she hissed.

“Alright. You better tell me what is going on, right now!” Naruto half yelled. “Where the hell is Uchiha!” “He’s gone to find Itachi. He’s gone to kill Itachi,” she whispered. “How the hell is he going to do that? He doesn’t even know where to look!” “He must have a clue because he waited for tonight to go. He took the bracelet that was on my wrist. It glows when Itachi’s chakra is near. He’s going to use it to track him.” “That bastard! He was supposed to wait for me. Instead he breaks the mission and goes without me. I’ll kill him!” Naruto growled angrily. He stood up and kicked at the fire. “You were going to help him?” Sakura asked incredulously. “Damn right. I told you before that I would. For some reason, he didn’t think you would so we never spoke to you about it. I think you better tell me the whole story, Sakura, while we move.” “We’re going after him?” “What do you think?” Sakura nodded, feeling foolish for even questioning it. The thought of the Uchiha brothers fighting it out was becoming a harsh reality. Sadly, she cared for them both. In her heart she knew that she still cared for Sasuke greatly and her feelings were mixed when it came to Itachi, but she didn’t want either to die. Standing up and grabbing her pack and sword, she strapped her gear on and prepared to move. As they stood in the first tree and began to work out their strategy to track him, Sakura absently reached for the bracelet that had been a source of comfort for years, to feel only her gloved arm. She dug her nails into the fabric. Sasuke stood at the edge of a small village in the open and unclaimed area between Sound and Waterfall. It was rogue country, devoid of a hidden ninja group and dangerous for people crossing it. As an ANBU and an Uchiha, Sasuke wasn’t scared of anything, with the exception of one man. Nightmares came and went, as did his drive to kill Itachi, but as the years wound down into this outside mission, Sasuke knew he had to be strong in his resolve. What he’d gone through with Orochimaru, and the harsh training he’d endured even before that, was all for one goal that he hoped to achieve tonight. “Brother,” he whispered to the night air, “Where are you?”

Digging in his pack, Sasuke pulled out the silver band he had stolen from Sakura’s wrist. All the questions came with it. Why did she have it? Why had he put it on her? What was the nature of their acquaintance? Should he kill her too? She never spoke of what had happened to her between the days that Itachi had stolen her and when he had given her to Orochimaru. He suspected that she had worked on his eyes, but at what price to her? Was it choice, or was it in self- preservation? It would make sense that she did it for him as he ended up rescued in the whole matter. This was not something Itachi would do of his own choice. Sasuke wanted to believe it. She just had to say it and he would believe it. He needed to believe in her because her words had meant so much to him. If she made any excuse, he would take it. But even if she did it all for him, she’d kept that token of Itachi. She played with it when she was nervous or daydreaming. Sasuke wasn’t oblivious to her; in contrast, he was more attentive than any of them knew. He’d seen her faraway gaze as she slid her fingers along it. It made him burn in anger on occasion, but he’d never let on, as it would mean the end of his plans. Sadly, as hard as it was to kill Itachi, he would do it. He’d wrestled with the reasons that could have made Itachi kill every Uchiha except him, but none made sense. Even his reasoning of using them as a measurement for his strength seemed unlike Itachi. Unlike Sakura, Sasuke would not accept any excuses from Itachi; there were none. Sasuke could now admit to himself that his father had not been a loving or caring man. Furthering the Uchiha name and strength was really all he cared about. Because Itachi was strong and had more potential than any other Uchiha, the affection (or more likely attention) was showered on him. But even though attentive, their father was not loving. Driven hard from a young age, Sasuke always thought Itachi would be the most famous shinobi that had come from Konoha. Sadly, his infamy became legendary instead. Perhaps they could end the Uchiha clan together. Perhaps in the grand schemed of life, this was meant to be. Why? Why Itachi? Why Sakura? Why did Sasuke’s thoughts keep slipping back to her? The need to know why she still had the chakra bracelet was almost deeper than the need to kill Itachi. Jealousy and love and revenge made for a bad taste in the mouth. How often those three went hand in hand with him over the years. How easy it was to combine them until they felt the same. Lifting the band between his fingers, he held it tightly and pressed chakra into it. Had Sakura known he could amplify the chakra tracking of the small trinket, would she have kept it? That she had retained it was beneficial, although painful for Sasuke, over the last three years.

“Naruto…sl…slow down,” Sakura panted as she caught her tired leg on a tree branch, which sliced through the black pants of her ANBU uniform. Blood seeped over the material and was warm, then cold as the night air blew over it. At the speed they were traveling, Sakura was finding it too hard to keep up. Naruto had been out on patrol for hours, skimming through the trees like a madman, and even now he had energy to burn. He was truly amazing, and Sakura felt her limitations like she hadn’t felt in years. Grasping at her bleeding thigh, she pushed chakra into the wound to quell the blood flow. The sting dissipated and she felt a little better, though her loud pants were evident in the cool air by her warm misty breaths. “We can’t stop, Sakura,” Naruto said in a low tone. For a moment, she looked up at him and could tell that his inner drive to help Sasuke had kicked in. He wasn’t playful Naruto anymore, but a shinobi bent on a dark mission. That Naruto would help Sasuke almost assured Sakura that Itachi would die. It might have been possible to save them both if it were just a fight between the brothers, but with Naruto in the mix it was a sure death for Itachi. She dropped her head back to her thigh. “I’m sorry, Naruto. Please don’t leave me behind. I just need to catch my breath,” she pleaded breathlessly. “I’ve got his scent. He’s not that far. But he’s traveling into the rogue territory so he must have an idea of where he’s going.” Sakura looked again, and the moonlight suddenly revealed the long fingernails and red eyes of the kyuubi laden Naruto. She was shocked to see him so calm and collected when in that symbiotic form. Three years ago, he still had trouble controlling it, but now he used it efficiently. It made a tingle spread over her spine. “I can smell your fear, Sakura. It’s making it hard to concentrate on Sasuke’s scent,” he said with a slight growl. This did nothing to quell the shivers she was getting along her skin, slick with sweat under the light ANBU shirt and heavy vest. His eyes bore into her and she looked away. “Stop looking at me, and I’ll be fine.” “I’d never hurt you, Sakura,” Naruto whispered as he turned away to look into the trees ahead of them. “I know. I can just feel your energy like its radiating from you. It’s making the hair on the back of my neck stand up,” she said earnestly. As if for her, his energy pulled back a little.

“Why don’t we sit for a moment and you can tell me the whole story. If we run into Sasuke and Itachi, I don’t want to be unprepared for anything,” Naruto said calmly as he leapt to the branch she was on. Sakura noticed that the kyuubi was gone, back under wraps and Naruto was Naruto again. Amazing. Sasuke approached the edge of the village to look up on the dark hillside in the moonlight. After speaking with a few men at a pub, who were fearful of the ANBU uniform, he was told that there was an old military base hidden somewhere on the hill. They would look at him with suspicion, and would glance at the glowing silver ring in his hand. At least they answered his questions truthfully, he thought to himself. Now he was so close to finding Itachi he could feel it as the glow continued to become stronger. He walked out onto the hillside and stood on a post that held up a wire fence to keep farm animals in. The scene was ominous. Everything was black with the exception of the ethereal blue glow of the moon over the treetops. Finding Itachi would be easy now. And by the glow of the band, he knew that Itachi felt him coming, or perhaps he felt Sakura coming. She would unknowingly help him destroy Itachi. Leaping from the fence post, Sasuke ran full tilt into the woods that climbed the hillside. He dodged in and out of the open paths, climbing the trees and surveying the ground with his sharingan. Conserving chakra would be important at this point, because he would need to use his other sharingan. Even Naruto didn’t know he’d achieved mangekyou, only he and Kakashi knew. In retrospect, it would have been smarter to stay in the village and train with Kakashi because his old sensei had achieved it alone, with no killing. But being with Orochimaru was useful in that he could control the cursed seal, which would elevate his strength in what could be his last fight. The military base was harder to find than he imagined, and he had to give some respect to Itachi for his ability to hide. But the chakra band would be useful in bringing Itachi to him. Standing in the forest, he would wait. It would only be a matter of time. Naruto stood at the fence at the edge of the village. They hadn’t stopped at all as they slid over rooftops and through dark streets in the rustic town. Naruto’s red eyes scanned everything and his keen sense of smell followed Sasuke’s trail easily. They’d passed a tavern and Naruto had remarked that Sasuke had lingered there by the accumulation of his trail in that one spot. He wasn’t far away now, Naruto was sure as the trail was getting stronger.

The sharp-clawed hand of the kyuubi filled ninja tapped heavily on the fence post. “He was just here, maybe half an hour ago.” Sakura felt the tingles fill her. Fear delved through her as she began to imagine that it was too late to stop it. But how could she stop it? Naruto would even prevent her from doing that. Everything seemed hopeless. “Let’s go,” Naruto growled. The large figure seemed to step out into the moonlight first. Sasuke knew who he was by the gray tinged skin and the long sword that could suck chakra from a person. But this man was not his objective. The glow of the chakra band in his hand was hot and bright. Itachi was there. Itachi stood behind Kisame, back to back. He could feel the chakra band in the vicinity and wondered what was happening. Sakura didn’t know the way to their base, and yet the chakra band was near. Had he perhaps underestimated her ability to track him? “Stay here, Kisame,” he said quietly, his tone smooth and unwavering. Kisame grunted in response and felt Itachi’s presence immediately gone from his back. In the trees, Sasuke stood on a high branch and waited. If Uchiha Sasuke was one thing, it was patient. He’d waited years for this chance; he could wait a minute or two more. But Itachi didn’t keep him waiting as the figure appeared nearby, and bent to pick up the glowing band thrown among the leaves. The movement of the figure was slow and calm, like he felt no fear. Anger filled Sasuke as Itachi rubbed the silver band between his fingers lovingly, the glow lighting his face. “It’s been a while, Sasuke. I’ve been wondering when we’d be meeting again,” Itachi whispered, without turning in Sasuke’s direction. “Yes, it has,” Sasuke answered a deep tone from a tree branch above. Their voices sounded eerily alike. “Shall we make it the last?” “Hm,” Itachi agreed.

Loophole Chapter 16: Fight Kisame leaned against a tree at the edge of the clearing that the three men had moved to. Dawn was coming slowly over the trees, and the blackness of the night gave way to a

midnight blue, which would get lighter with each passing moment. It was probably five in the morning, and the sharkman yawned in boredom. “Get on with it,” he grumbled quietly, and out of earshot of Itachi. He was never a patient man; it was something he could admit about himself. Itachi stood calmly, the warmth of the special silver band in his left hand, a kunai in his right. He could feel his younger brother’s eyes boring into him, filled with anger and disgust. Tilting his head, he examined the hatred Sasuke had. Maybe it was finally enough for the young man to stand in front of him now. Maybe it was finally enough for Itachi to be challenged by Sasuke. He’d urged him on ten years ago and was satisfied that he’d created enough fire in the youth to finally be able to come at him. “Why?” Sasuke said quietly as his hand rose to the hilt of his white katana. “Be more specific, Sasuke. I don’t have all night,” Itachi said coolly. “Why did you kill our family? Why did you destroy them?” “Because it was right. Do you want rationale or do you want to kill me, Sasuke? Are you hoping for a reason that might make you reconsider your revenge?” “That isn’t possible. I can still see the blood around my mother’s body! That could never be rationalized,” Sasuke spat as the long sword slid out of the sheath. Itachi held up the silver bracelet, alight with his chakra. “Intelligent to use this. I didn’t think you knew what it was. How did you get it from her?” Sasuke watched Itachi for a moment as he played with the band, holding it between his fingers carefully. It lit the side of the older Uchiha’s face to show his look of indifference. That he would ask about her made him sure that Sakura played a bigger part than he wanted to discover. “She gave it to me,” Sasuke lied. For a split second, Itachi’s eyes narrowed and Sasuke saw the proverbial chink in the armor. Sadly, it wasn’t what he wanted to understand. She meant more to Itachi than just a tool. No one meant more to Itachi than a tool, and yet, she did. Sasuke suffered at the thought. “She wanted me to kill you,” Sasuke goaded, hiding the hurt. “Well, here is your chance,” Itachi drawled as he slid the dark cloak from his body. The cold exterior was back in place, and even though Sasuke’s words had affected him minutely, he would not give anything else away. This was Itachi.

Without another word, Sasuke held the sword out and began to mold his chakra. Sakura could just see the red chakra some distance ahead of her. Naruto was too fast to keep up with and she called out to him once in a while, hoping he would slow. After she’d told him of her bargain with Itachi at their last rest, and the purpose of that simple silver bracelet, Naruto became quiet. She knew he didn’t hate her, but he did not fully understand her motives either. None of them would forgive her, she feared. But she’d done it all for Sasuke. It was probably a mistake not to tell either of them, but she feared their reactions. As the fatigue began to set in, she moved at a continually slower pace as the minutes passed. She could see Naruto’s chakra drop from the tree branch a ways ahead. Within a minute, she came to the place where he was crouched on the mossy ground. “Naruto, why did you stop?” she whispered, fearing that something she couldn’t see was there. “They aren’t far. Can’t you smell it?” Naruto growled in a voice deeper and huskier than his normal one. She knew when he turned to look at her red eyes would be glaring up instead of sky blue. “Sm…smell what?” she asked, not really wanting to know. “The blood,” he answered with a hint of excitement. Sakura swallowed so hard, it hurt. Sasuke thrust a kunai again at the man moving almost too fast to see, catching his arm and drawing blood. A satisfied grunt came from the younger Uchiha to see his brother slow down and grimace with pain. Wiping the sweat and blood from his eyes, Sasuke made another run at Itachi who had leapt to a branch in a nearby tree to catch his breath. As Sasuke neared, shuriken suddenly flew in all directions, and he found he’d walked into a trap. Seems Itachi had allowed himself to be injured to draw Sasuke toward him to be showered in the deadly weapons. Three hit him in the back, two in the right leg and one nicked his left cheek right down to the bone. The rest, Sasuke was able to deflect as he continued to come up to Itachi. Before he could take another strike with his sword, Sasuke watched Itachi vanish in a wash of smoke to feel a kunai thrust into his back on the left. Blood flew from Sasuke’s mouth as he bit his tongue in pain. He choked as he tried to breathe in before doubling over for a moment. Itachi also fell to one knee for a second. The fight was taking too long. Sasuke was a strong opponent, stronger than Itachi had ever thought possible and had he not been the

child of their father, he might have told Sasuke how impressed he was. But if he learned one thing from their male parent, it was to never give too much…of anything, except pain. Pain was something Itachi was quite comfortable with now. Reeling a little, Sasuke stood back up; the telltale blood on his ANBU vest lay spattered and vibrant in the coming morning. A light mist rose around their feet and Itachi took a moment to stand up and get his bearings as well. “I haven’t given up yet. How much chakra do you have left?” Sasuke whispered. “Enough,” Itachi answered just as quietly as both men’s sharingan changed to mangekyou. “I didn’t think you had it in you.” “Mangekyou? Or killing my best friend?” Sasuke hissed. “Both,” Itachi said with a small manner of respect. “I haven’t killed anyone I care about. Although, that may change in the future,” Sasuke goaded, hoping to make Itachi slip up. The inference to Sakura was not lost on Itachi, but he knew Sasuke better than that. “The trick is not to care, Sasuke. Then nothing can be taken away from you.” “Your life must have been hard, Itachi. Because I care for them, I am stronger.” Sasuke said calmly. “Ridiculous,” Itachi laughed weakly. “Let’s end this. I’m tired of waiting.” “Of course,” Sasuke said as he began to walk forward. His deep red eyes were vibrant in the coming morning. The misty gray of the earliest hours of day were dull compared to the crimson glare of the two Uchiha. As they both drew chakra, and both tried to use their doujutsu, something strange occurred. A clash of minds seemed to happen and both reeled back in pain, both holding their eyes. Sasuke cursed with the circumstances. He couldn’t affect Itachi, who in turn couldn’t affect him. He hadn’t counted on that. Itachi stood up, pressing his fingers to his forehead, and then he laughed. Sasuke looked up, his brow creasing as he tried to get his focus on the elder. “This fight will be bloodier then I anticipated,” Itachi said with quiet amusement. Sasuke knew what he meant. Neither could use their sharingan on the other. Somehow, they blocked each other as if the doujutsu was cancelled out by the other mangekyou. They would have to fight to the death using their other skills and their own hands.

“Let’s end this!” Sasuke growled as he finally ran forward, taking everything he had and drawing chakra to his hand to produce the brilliant glow of the chidori. Itachi took a kunai in each hand and prepared to finish his young brother’s life. Taking a deep breath, he too moved forward. “I think I can smell chakra!” Naruto yelled to Sakura who was keeping up again with a renewed need to get to them before they were killed. “Chakra?” Sakura said with panic. “What do you mean?” “Chidori,” Naruto grunted, “It’s Sasuke’s chidori.” “No, no, hurry Naruto. They’ll kill each other!” Sakura cried into the gray morning. “We have to let them, Sakura. We can’t stop them. I’ll only kill Itachi if Sasuke can’t. If they kill each other, we have to let it happen,” Naruto slowed a little. “Don’t slow down,” Sakura hissed as she touched his back as she passed him. “We’re already here,” Naruto whispered as he came to a stop, but Sakura ran on ahead, pushing out through the branches that blocked her view of the small clearing. What she saw shocked her beyond what she imagined. Itachi stood tall, his hand twisted in Sasuke’s ANBU vest, lifting him off the ground to hold him there. Both men were covered in blood. Itachi’s skin looked slick and shiny with it through the torn black shirt he wore. Blood dripped from wounds on his arms and face. Sasuke had clasped a hand around the one that Itachi held him with, vainly trying to get the elder to release him. His other hand glowed blue with the remnants of a dying chidori. Itachi held a kunai up, preparing to give the blow to end Sasuke’s life. Sakura’s worst nightmare was unraveling. “Itachi!” she screamed as he cocked back his arm to finish the fight. For a split second everything seemed to slow down and go silent as Itachi turned his head to Sakura. The next second seemed longer still as the half lit chidori struck the elder Uchiha’s abdomen from an underhand swing, Sasuke’s last attempt to save his own life. As the blow landed, Itachi’s hand loosened, dropping the fatigued Sasuke to the dewy grass below. Itachi fell back, crumbling to the ground, clutching his bleeding front. Sakura’s breath sped up as she saw the aftermath. She wanted to move, to run to them but her training insisted she check the area first. Her eyes scanned the clearing to see Kisame

leaning against a tree at the other side, the kunai littering the area, and the blood on tree trunks and plants as if it had been painted there. Lastly, she returned to stare at the two men lying in the grass near each other. A weak feeling crawled over her legs, but the sight of blood and injury awakened the medic in her. Darting quickly to the two men, she shook as she stood above them while she pulled off her long gloves. Sasuke looked up at her with weak eyes, black and listless. His breathing was labored. Itachi’s eyes were closed, the colour draining from his pretty face. Blood covered his body, and his chest rose slowly, too slowly. “Damn it,” Naruto growled from the clearing edge. From the corner of her eye, Sakura saw Kisame stand up straight and give his full attention to the kyuubi-laden man. As much as she wanted to help Sasuke and Itachi, her duty was to the younger. They were a team, and they were sworn to protect each other. Falling to her knees, Sakura began pressing healing properties into Sasuke to stop the bleeding. Her eyes welled with tears and she could never admit what was making them come. Sasuke would never understand. Kisame began to take steps toward Itachi, just as Naruto neared as well. Sakura could tell they were getting ready to fight and now was not the time. “Naruto!” she called to him with a choked voice. “Please, I need your help.” Before she knew it, he was standing on the other side of Sasuke, but his focus remained on the sharkman edging closer by the second. “Sakura, I have to protect you. I can’t help you right now,” Naruto hissed low, still watching Kisame. He felt a tug on his ANBU pant leg and he looked down quickly to see pale green eyes, tear streaked, looking at him with desperation. “Naruto, if we don’t get him back to Konoha, he’ll die. You don’t really want that do you?” Sakura pleaded. “I have to finish it for him,” Naruto answered. “If we take him back, he’ll have another chance. Itachi looks like he’s going to die anyway. Please help me save Sasuke. I’m too weak to get him back in time. You need to carry him. With your strength and speed, he’ll make it.” Naruto looked down at her, and from the corner of her eye, Sakura could see Kisame stop his approach. “I can’t let Itachi get away,” Naruto growled.

“Don’t choose death over life, Naruto. You’ll waste his life away with the time it takes to fight. Sasuke’s life is more valuable than Itachi’s death. Please help me Naruto!” she begged. Fear that he was beyond listening tore at her. Naruto stood silently for a moment, a standoff with Kisame still in full swing. Sakura chanced a look at Kisame who had completely halted and seemed to lack any sign of getting ready for a fight. She cocked her head, and figured he was also buying her time. If he understood what she was trying to do, he never indicated. “You’re right, Sakura, you’re right. I choose life too. Let’s go,” he said with resignation as red chakra glowed brighter around his body. “Thank you, Naruto, thank you,” she uttered in relief. Sakura lifted Sasuke’s arm and Naruto managed to sweep him up over his shoulder. “Hurry back to Konoha and I’ll meet you there soon.” “No…” “I’ll make sure he doesn’t follow. I can’t keep up with you so this job will be mine. You know that they are hunting you still, and I can’t let him try to fight you with Sasuke like that,” she said quietly. “I’ll protect you both.” Naruto breathed out a sigh. Sasuke was too important to him to linger, but leaving Sakura there to keep Kisame at bay was not sitting well. “Are you sure, Sakura,” Naruto asked again. “I swear it, Naruto. Please trust me,” she said with a quiet boldness. She motioned with her hand for Naruto to leave as her eyes lay on Kisame. With a long sigh and a warning in his mind, Naruto did as she indicated. Sakura turned and watched him slip into the trees; she felt better knowing that Sasuke was on his way back to the hospital and safety. A slow turn back to Kisame revealed he had stepped up to kneel beside Itachi. “They fought hard,” Kisame smirked. “It was exciting.” Sakura took three steps towards Itachi whose face was blanched, and his eyes still shut tight. He grunted slightly and opened his mouth to breath, blood coming out instead. “He’ll die soon,” Sakura whispered. She took another step and then knelt beside him. Gently, she placed her hand over the wound on his stomach where Sasuke’s half-chidori had burned through. Blue chakra spilt over him, easing into the wound and clotting the blood. Her other hand touched his neck lightly, feeling his pulse.

When the bleeding ceased, she took her hand away and looked at it, covered in blood and shaking. Her eyes went to Itachi’s face to see him looking at her. They were half lidded and black. He blinked slowly, but said nothing. Even like this, she couldn’t figure what he might think of her. “I couldn’t let you kill him,” she said softly. Itachi still watched her until his eyelids slid down and unconsciousness came. Her chest hitched. Sakura moved back and the sharkman lifted the limp form of Uchiha Itachi, sliding him gently onto his shoulder. “I’ve stopped the bleeding, Kisame. But if he doesn’t get treatment, he’ll die,” Sakura warned as she wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. Kisame nodded briefly and turned away. Within moments he was gone, just as Naruto was, through the trees but in the other direction. Sakura stood alone in the cool of the gray morning, the burgeoning light making its way over everything. The blood was a blatant symbol of the anger and hatred she would never see die unless one them did. She sighed heavily, feeling like she should cry and be angry, but unable to. She felt like this after particularly bad days at the hospital. Usually someone died. This moment felt the same. Dropping her gaze to the ground, she felt so tired now that it seemed like an impossible task to follow Naruto back. It would take her a full day to get there, where it might take him three hours. As she stared at the mossy dampness, the green spattered with red, she saw the tiniest light among some weeds. Moving close to it, she dropped to a knee and reached in to pull out the silver band that had been something she loved for three years. It was glowing slightly, but was dying by the moment. He was getting farther away, as was Sasuke and she could almost feel it through her like the fading silver blue light. She slipped it into her pack after running her fingers over it. Pulling her long black gloves on again, and tightening the strap of her katana sheath, she leapt to the trees and began to make her way home. Naruto stood silently beside the hospital bed in the room full of dull green colours, and the smell of sterility. Sasuke lay on the bed, a small team of people around him using chakra, needles, and other things he couldn’t properly describe to aid the Uchiha. Tsunade stood beside the doorway staring at Naruto, who was engulfed in the spectacle before him. It was a moment or two before she made her presence known, but knowing Naruto, he was aware of her before she stepped into the corridor leading there.

“What happened?” she finally asked as she wandered next to the blond. She peered out the window at the bright afternoon sunlight. Naruto paused before answering; the copy-nin had a definite an influence on him, as it was a habit he picked up in latter years. But any pause meant piecing together exactly what would be said, and Naruto, being Naruto, would have a little more work at it than someone like Sakura would. “He fought. We were in the rogue territory to the North of the Fire Country scouting the border when Sasuke encountered an enemy,” Naruto said. “Who?” Tsunade asked with impatience. “I don’t recall,” Naruto grunted guiltily. Naruto wasn’t one to dismiss the truth so easily and so it pained him. “Is that so? What will make you recall? Where is Sakura?” she continued her interrogation, thinking that perhaps she should get Kakashi to do it instead. Damnable soft spot for the trio. “She’ll be here soon. She was taking up the rear as we returned, but she couldn’t keep up with me so she said to go on ahead,” Naruto responded mechanically, his eyes still on the commotion around Sasuke. “And you left her by herself?” Tsunade accused. Naruto stayed silent for a moment, using this pause to keep his anger in check. “You know her like I do, Tsunade-sama. Is this even an issue?” Tsunade grew quiet now. She felt her own frustration at knowing she wasn’t going to get anywhere with him at all. Sasuke was half-dead and still dying on the table, and she knew that it was most likely Itachi’s doing. Sasuke was one of the greatest shinobi she had ever seen, almost even to Naruto. It would take someone of formidable talent, strength, and intelligence to best him. “Shall I get Kakashi then?” she said quietly. “It'll do no good,” Naruto whispered. “Please, just let it lie for a day or two. Ask Sasuke when he wakes and he’ll tell you what he wants you to know.” “It will be four days. We’re sedating him. There’s some extreme internal damage and he will be in too great of pain if he rouses. That will give you time to decide what you want to tell me before he wakes.”

Naruto took in a deep breath. Tsunade was certainly lenient with them. Maybe it was him, maybe Sakura, but right now he was grateful. His own gaze went to the windows behind them, hoping that Sakura would arrive soon. Being alone at a time like this was hard. Sakura stumbled into the hospital doors, exhausted and dirty, and slightly bloodied. She was sweating a little from the continuous run through the forest, and never thought she’d ever loved the sight of the Konoha gate more than she did a few moments ago. Stopping at the reception desk just in the front lobby of the hospital, she leaned on the counter as she spoke. The nurses both had their mouths open as they waited for her to speak. In a dry voice, she asked, “Uchiha, Sasuke…room number?” “Sakura-san, you look exhausted. Let me get you some water,” one nurse said with shock. “He’s on the second floor. Room 218 in the west wing,” the other said quietly as the first grabbed a water jug and a glass. Sakura waved it off and started her trek to the stairs, ignoring the elevator as usual. As she finally found Sasuke’s room, she entered to find Naruto sitting in a chair with his feet up on the footboard of Sasuke’s bed. He was half asleep until he heard her walk in. “I wondered when you would be back,” he said quietly as he got up and met her midway through the room. She only nodded. Words were too tiring to say right now. Slowly, Naruto’s arms wrapped around her and pulled her close. Her heavy head met his shoulder. “He’s going to be all right. Tsunade said they’re sedating him for a few days until he recovers some. His internal damage was really bad. If he didn’t have care, he would have died. If you hadn’t made me bring him back…he would have died.” Sakura nodded against Naruto’s shoulder. “Tsunade is sending me on a mission for four days. She wants me to have something to do while he recovers. Seems to think I’ll be bouncing off walls or something.” Naruto gave a strained laugh. “Did you tell her?” Sakura finally managed to mumble. “Not really. I wouldn’t know how to start.” “When do you leave?” she asked, her eyes closing. “Before dawn. Why don’t you head home. Kakashi is gone on a mission for two weeks, I’m leaving, and Sasuke is sedated. Maybe you should curl up in your bed and stay there

for a while. You look like you’ve had enough,” he whispered onto her hair as he still held her in the quiet darkness of the hospital room. “I will, Naruto. I feel like I can’t function anymore. Four days, huh? I think I’ll sleep until you get back,” she said blankly before sighing back tears. “I’ll walk you home,” Naruto added, “There’s nothing we can do here. Tsunade is overseeing his care.” Sakura looked at Sasuke, hooked to machines to monitor his breathing, keep him sedated, check his pulse and keep his chakra in check. It all made sense to her, and yet it didn’t. It seemed like nothing would make sense to her ever again, including her own feelings. Naruto led her out of the hospital and down the lamp lit streets of Konoha. It was a warm night but she still shivered. Once she slipped into her apartment, bidding Naruto goodbye and be careful on your mission, she took a hot shower. Itachi’s blood slid along the white porcelain and down the drain. It made her cry. When she was dry, she sat on the edge of her bed, the silver band back in her fingers. It lacked any heat or light, and now it lacked her. She hated that it wasn’t on her wrist anymore. She hated that it was a symbol of Sasuke’s hate and revenge, instead of a memory she shared with Itachi years ago. It wasn’t enough, she told herself. He was probably dead now. Kisame wouldn’t get anyone to help him. She’d done what she could to stop the bleeding, but it would start again. It would surely start again. What could she do? She closed her eyes. ‘Four days,’ Naruto’s words came back to her, ‘four days.’

Loophole Chapter 17: Choice The night blanketed the windows around Sakura’s apartment, but she didn’t notice it. For now, she sat on the edge of the bed facing her mirrored closet door. She took long breaths as she stared at her reflection.

Her shoulder length hair was pulled tightly in a ponytail and her skin looked pale, eyes tired. She wore a black zip-front shirt, long sleeved, with the Haruno circle on the back. The regular shorts she wore under her medic outfit were now under a black skirt that sat mid thigh. It was just understood that kunoichi could wear something as feminine as a skirt just to retain that piece of being a woman that they gave up in their careers. It stretched and moved easily, but looked casual enough to not appear like she was going on a mission. Her thick soled sandals and rigid leg guards made up the rest of the outfit. Had she not known differently, she would feel like she was getting dressed to go out for ramen with the boys. But she knew differently. In four days, Naruto would return, Sasuke would be awake and obligation would take hold. If she were to save him, to keep him alive, she would have to leave now and be back in four days. Finally sitting down at her desk, she wrote a note for Tsunade. With Kakashi and Naruto out on missions, no one would be looking for her but the Hokage. In soft delicate penmanship, she wrote a brief letter. Shishou, I understand you probably have questions for me regarding the happenings yesterday. Unfortunately, I have been called away to the edge of the Fire Country to tend to an injured friend. I am sorry that this will delay our talk. I should return before Sasuke wakes and I thank you for putting him in your care. I think under the circumstances, I would be too close to the situation to remain professional when treating him. I’m sure you understand this. Naruto informs me that Sasuke will be sedated so I will do my best to be here for him when he comes around. Sincerely, Sakura Whether Tsunade fell for it or not, Sakura didn’t really care at that moment. It was enough to be left alone while she went and squared her debt to Itachi. Sliding the letter into one of her monogrammed envelopes, Sakura grabbed up her weapons and the medical rucksack for the journey. She’d have to forgo her katana in favor of keeping a low profile around the Fire Country until she got to the border of the last place she saw Itachi. Moving along the Konoha streets, Sakura checked the clock on the bank. Midnight. Seemed perfect actually. If she slipped away and ran hard all night, she might make it to him by morning. The hard part would be finding him and the complex. What if they’d moved? What if he was already dead?

Sadly, she knew she had hours of running ahead of her and that her mind would hash and rehash everything that happened in the last 24 hours. Upon entering the hospital, Sakura was greeted by a tired looking nurse who was trying to read in the dim light. Sakura nodded to her and then leaned over the counter to slip the note into her shishou’s mail slot. Another brief nod, and she turned and moved out the door, down the streets, and into the forest. The lights of Konoha fell away behind her. Even three hours after she began running, each step landed mechanically and propelled her effortlessly along the canopy of green. She was robotic; her mind wasn’t involved at all. Panic would come and go as each minute came and went. Three years had passed since she’d been there with Itachi, and yet she felt like it was yesterday. Her nineteen year old mind seemed to grasp her feelings better than she did at sixteen. Sadly, she just didn’t want to admit her true feelings, her true purpose for going to him. There was no guilt, no need to turn and go back to Sasuke and sit beside his bed. There was only one path for the moment, and she would follow it no matter where it took her. The forest continued to fly by for another few hours until the day began to peek over the trees in the east. She’d passed into the rogue country between Waterfall and Sound about half an hour before, and her steps were more cautious now. At least the path they had taken last time was still easy to follow, and she knew she would be approaching the scene of the Uchiha’s impressive fight soon enough. In the coming light of the morning, Sakura could see the hillside that led up to the heavy forested ground in which they found Sasuke. At the bottom was a small village. Slowing to a walk, she wandered through a gate and towards the buildings. It had to be around seven AM, and there was no one about on the streets. Broken bottles littered the roadways and smashed windows were almost a given at every shack. A young woman, painted and scantily clad, stood on a balcony in a two-story building. She laughed when she saw the kunoichi pass by and look up at her. The woman winked before Sakura saw a hand slide around her waist from behind. Brothel, Sakura labeled inwardly. From what she had seen already, it was obviously the sort of town where people went to hide. That was what the Rogue country was for. It was a dangerous place for anyone, and not many ninja bothered with it due to the fact that they couldn’t find anything worthwhile in there.

She continued on and began to feel the pain of hunger in her stomach, of which she had ignored for the past few hours. It hadn’t been cumbersome until the smell of something sweet and delicious drifted to her from just ahead. Finally she came upon an open-air restaurant between two dilapidated buildings. It was similar to the Ichiraku, but not as clean or well managed. An older woman with dark hair tinted gray worked a spatula through a wok with ferocity. The rice in it flipped around and smelled wonderful. Taking a seat for a moment on the ripped vinyl covered barstool, Sakura leaned on the counter top and closed her eyes. It was only then that she felt the exhaustion taking hold. Running without using a lot of chakra was hard, but she had to conserve. “Something you want?” the woman called over when she noticed Sakura leaning on her elbows on her counter. “I’m sorry. The food smells so good. Can I buy some?” Sakura asked, suddenly famished. “I’m not open yet, but I was just about to have breakfast. Keep me company for a while, and I’ll give you some.” The woman smiled half-heartedly. “Deal,” Sakura said warmly, but couldn’t manage a large smile either. “I haven’t seen you before. By your clothes, I can tell you don’t work the brothel. What is a young girl like you doing here?” the woman asked as she pushed a bowl of rice and fish towards Sakura. Eagerly, Sakura grabbed some chopsticks from a styrofoam cup on the counter and snapped them apart. “I’m just looking for someone. Just passing through,” she said hurriedly so that she could take a mouthful. It tasted glorious, and very familiar. “A clean cut girl like you should be careful around here. You’re a ninja, aren’t you?” she added as she too took some chopsticks. “Yes.” Sakura looked down at her leg holster briefly. It wasn’t a secret. “I’m actually looking for a stone building or complex; maybe a military base of some kind. You wouldn’t happen to know where I could find a structure like that, do you?” Sakura asked through a rice-filled mouthful. The woman cocked her head a little and her face became stern. “What are you looking for that place for?” “There is a man I need to find,” Sakura said, still absorbed in her food. “Which man is it?” the woman said with a bite in her words.

“You know them?” Sakura asked, her eyes lifting to look at the angry face of the woman. “We don’t give each other up around here. If you want information, you’ve come to the wrong place. You might be better to go home, miss.” “No no, please. He’s injured. I need to help him. If I don’t get to him, he’ll die,” Sakura leaned forward a bit, her hand up in placation. The woman regarded her for a moment, her head cocked slightly as if she was measuring the truthfulness of the young woman she didn’t know. Her brow creased slightly. “He wears a black cloak, and travels with another ninja who looks like a shark.” Sakura looked down at her food. “They get their meals here. I recognize the cartons and the rice. Please help me. I’ll only be delayed if I have to look for it myself. I don’t want him to die.” “I don’t know how I can believe you. They are good customers, and I think they’d kill me if I told an enemy about them. I’m sorry young lady. I can’t help you,” the woman said resolutely, shaking her head. “Please,” Sakura begged softly, “I’m not his enemy. I’m a medic.” She tried to find something to identify their relationship, to make the woman aid her in speeding up her personal mission. “He…has red eyes, and a delicate looking necklace. The place they live in is stone…I’ve been there. Damn it….damn…..he….likes peaches, loves peaches…” For a moment, Sakura paused as she struggled for something else, but the woman’s face seemed to soften a little. They looked at each other, and Sakura felt like she might burst while waiting to see if it was enough. It was. “If they ask how you found them, you never met me. If they kill you, it’s your own fault,” she said quietly as she leaned forward and moved close to Sakura so that they could talk secretively. “Follow the path into the forest. When you reach a small stream, cross it and follow the path there for a while. It’s hard to see, but I’m sure a ninja could follow it better than anyone else. The old base is near a tree that is twice as big as any other.” “Thank you, thank you…”Sakura began. “I’ve never been there, but I hear that people don’t get too close to it. I hear most people get killed near it so you’d better watch out. The forest is filled with low lives. Don’t get killed getting there.” “I can’t thank you enough,” Sakura blurted as she stood up and then finished another mouthful with her fingers. It seemed like her energy returned with the new hope of

finding him sooner. But the cook was right. Kisame could easily kill her if she neared their hideout and he didn’t know who she was. Caution was the right approach. Waving to the woman and nodding another thank you, Sakura moved quickly toward the dark forest up the hill. She glanced back to see the dirty town disappearing behind her as the foliage became thicker with each step into the woods. Already, she could hear voices. Kisame wandered near the stream. He never liked the stench of blood and death, although the sight of it was interesting to him. Itachi was strong, and he hated seeing someone like that weak and half dead. It could put him off his dinner. Dipping his hands in the cool water, he loved the feel of it. Too seldom he got to feel free flowing water on his skin. A bath was just not the same for someone like him. He rubbed the liquid on his face and breathed in the scent of the freshness. The sun occasionally came out from behind the clouds to warm the forest, but only minutely. The trees were so thick in their part of the woods that grass didn’t grow underneath. That was fine with Kisame; he only cared about the water, and absolutely nothing else. Taking a deep breath, he stood silently and listened to the birds and cicadas making a racket. But something else was underneath it. It sounded like footsteps to the sharkman and he chuckled to himself that maybe coming out wouldn’t be a waste at all. He loved a good tussle in the morning with some of the bandits in the forest. Maybe he’d get to kill a couple of them before they ran. He loved it when they ran. Using a jutsu, Kisame managed to press his chakra out into the surrounding area as a sort of trip wire to tell him where an intruder would be coming from. He could spread it for half a mile in all directions in the forest, but four miles in the water. The water was so much better for everything. Almost immediately, he felt like he’d caught a fish on his hook as someone darted over his chakra line. Whoever it was, they were coming right for him. What a good morning. Sakura darted steadily along the tree branches taking care to listen for voices and watch for traps. A few moments before, she felt the hair rise on the back of her neck, but dismissed it as paranoia. The forest was dense, and she hadn’t heard any voices or sensed anyone for a while. The only people who could track her were ninja, and she didn’t figure there would be any in the rogue country worth their salt.

As she continued on, she felt that chill down her back and tried to convince herself it was nothing. Maybe she was tired? Maybe she was losing it. It seemed as if the stream she crossed earlier had crossed back into where she followed the sparse path, so she decided to stop to freshen her face and wake up. Dropping from the tree branches, she was amazed at how clean the water was, and how dark that part of the forest had grown. It felt like night was falling around her and even the trickle of the water or the sound of birds could not take away the eerie feeling. Crouching, she cupped her hands in the water and drew some to her face, splashing it on and finding it refreshing. For a short moment, she sat with her eyes closed, and then opened them to watch the drops fall from her face to the calm stream. What looked back at her wasn’t what she expected. A bright gleam loomed over her reflection, and she flinched in fear as the meager light in the dark forest caught it. She lurched forward trying to avoid the downward thrust of the weapon, feeling the sharp edge graze her thigh and draw blood. It was just a scratch, but if she didn’t get clear, she knew the next one wouldn’t be. Her body fell headlong in the water and she managed to disappear before another strike. Able to reappear in a tree above, she breathed heavy and took a look down at her assailant. He was laughing at her. “Damn you, Kisame. You could have killed me!” she yelled. Her voice echoed through the quiet woods. “I was hoping I would get to kill someone this morning. Why shouldn’t it be you?” He continued to laugh at her as she crouched down, trying to stop her heart from pounding. She attempted to stop her fingers shaking with adrenaline before ringing out the hem of her skirt. The moment passed, and Sakura found her calmness. She looked at Kisame and a silence stretched between them as the jest died away. “Is he dead, Kisame?” she asked quietly. The tall sharkman returned his sword to his back, and took a deep breath, “Almost.” “Will you take me to him?” she added softly, afraid for a moment that he might say no. Kisame was not one for games, not one for compassion, and certainly not one to help. But like the day he taught her some fighting strategies, she wondered if somewhere inside it made him feel important to have the power over decisions. If she had told him to take her, he surely wouldn’t.

Slowly, Kisame’s head bobbed in acquiescence. Sakura would always wonder what he thought at that moment, and if he weighed Itachi’s death as a good thing or a bad thing. They traveled for a few minutes, and Sakura found it hard to keep up with Kisame. How something so large and lumbering, could move so fast was beyond her. When they reached the stone wall, Sakura was grateful she’d run into the Akatsuki member, as she would have spent hours finding it. The outside was covered in dirt and vines, making it just look like part of the forest. Trees littered the surrounding area and provided a camouflage for the old base. She followed Kisame over the wall and along the dirt covered roof until she came to the courtyard she’d spent some time training in. The targets were still there, as was a stray kunai or two. With the lack of trees inside the complex, the sun shone down hot over the grassy nook. Jumping down, Sakura wandered over to the door, and placed her shaking hand on it. Kisame landed in the courtyard as well but didn’t approach her. “I’m going to the village for sake. I might be back tonight. Find a cloak, or I may kill you this time,” he laughed. Sakura didn’t find it funny in the least, and she pushed the wooden door open to let the sunlight cast over the dark stone hallway inside. When she looked back, Kisame was standing on the wall of the courtyard, peering in the other direction. “You’ll find him in his room,” he said, before disappearing. Sakura turned her attention back to the hallway, and felt a jolt of adrenaline as she stepped into it. It was like the fit of an old glove. The marks on the stones, the half open doors to the kitchen, bathroom, and her room were so familiar. It was like three years had passed in a day, and she was sixteen, and waiting for their next healing session. Well, she was half right. Sakura walked slowly down the hall and stopped at the room she occupied during her stay. The bed was unmade, and the rest of the room looked bare, except for a cloak hanging on the chair of the desk. It made her eyes wide to see it there. The frayed bottom was obvious and she knew it was hers. Something happened then. It might have been panic, or distress, but Sakura ran. Her feet smacked the stone floor as she darted to the room in the next hallway. There was no hesitation when she reached the door and pushed through. Only when she saw him did she freeze. The bleeding had started again.

Blood covered his front, and was dabbed on the sheets beneath him. His bedding was pushed down the bed and lay half on the floor at the end. His torn clothes were still on, and his breathing was slow. Sakura approached him slowly, scared that she was too late. But Itachi was a damn hard bastard, and usually the bad ones always lived. That’s what she kept telling herself anyway. As the medic in her finally emerged, she crouched down beside the bed, shrugging off her rucksack. Digging in it, she pulled out some bandages. He needed a lot of work; she hoped she could do enough. The blue light of her chakra finally spilled over his front from her outstretched fingers. She had conserved most of it, and knew she would need it all to fix him. No matter what, she would fix him. The blood flow slowed, and she was pleased with how well it was responding to the medical jutsu she was using. A quick glance up at his pale face, and she caught his dark eyes watching her. “How did he get it?” he said quietly. “Stay quiet. If you move too much, you’ll start the bleeding again.” She tried to hide her emotion with false composure. Itachi’s hand shot up and grabbed Sakura’s in a feeble grip, but a grip none the less. She halted her chakra and looked at him in shock. “How?” he repeated with grunting strain. “He used a doujutsu on me, Itachi-san. He took it off when I was unconscious,” she said softly, still watching his eyes. Itachi was not a trusting man; that was a requirement with his affiliations and line of work, but something in his face told her he believed her immediately. Maybe he just wanted to believe her because he didn’t have the strength not to. “Don’t be so formal with me,” he whispered as he closed his eyes. The hand gripping her wrist finally slid away, and Sakura had to smirk a little at how quickly he gave in. It was rare. She would probably never see it again. Delving her chakra into him again and expecting no more interruptions, she gauged how bad the damage was. Sasuke had managed to hit him with a chidori, and Itachi was lucky that it was just half powered. When Kakashi put his arm through Haku, years ago, Sakura

would never forget the power of that awful jutsu. She always thought Kakashi was wrong to teach it to anyone. “Itachi, you have some internal damage. Your stomach, intestines and part of your lungs are scarred and torn. It will take a lot to heal, and normally at a hospital you would be sedated and worked on for several days,” she began. “Healing can be very hard on your body, so we’ll do it in sessions like when I worked on your eyes.” Itachi opened his eyes again and watched her with that expressionless gaze. Even half dead and bloody, he wouldn’t give anything away. “I’m afraid we don’t have time to do it conventionally. I brought some sedative, and I want to put you out for the next ten hours. I’ll have to work continuously on you and it will be hard on your body, as well as mine. But I think it’s the only way. If it works, you might be up and around as soon as tonight, although still in some pain. If it doesn’t….we both might die.” Itachi continued to watch her. Sakura imagined that his mind was turning with what she told him. As much as she would have loved for him to be weighing the risk to her, she knew he was wondering how dangerous being sedated for ten hours would be to him. She would never understand him. Of this, she was sure. “Do what you must,” he finally whispered. “But I owe you nothing after this.” Sakura creased her brow and took in his words. So cold. She detested his indifference. “And I’ll owe you nothing either, Itachi-san,” she added sharply. Sadly, she knew nothing she could say would bring him to emotion or sting him. If she were feeling less emotional, she would have rationalized that trying to glean feeling from him was futile. “Don’t be so formal…” He closed his eyes. Sakura dug into her pack and pulled out a glass bottle filled with a clear liquid. The needle was next, followed by a sterilizing agent and gauze. She set it on the stone floor next to the bandages, and took a deep breath. “Before you start, Sakura, be sure of what you do,” Itachi said quietly. It startled Sakura, as she thought he had fallen asleep. Tilting her head, her eyes met his. “What do you mean?” “I’ll live and Sasuke will come for me again. Do you want to contribute to his death?” “Why would you ask me this now?” she hissed. “Would you rather just ignore the consequences?” Itachi goaded gently.

Sakura sat for a long while, looking at his blood-covered body, and then at the medicine. Her gaze drew to the fireplace next, then back to Itachi’s dark eyes. “You’re right. If I save you, Sasuke might die. I'm a Leaf medic. My job is to preserve the lives of my team, not destroy them. I don’t understand why you have brought this up, but it’s something I have to consider.” Itachi kept his eyes on hers, the same blank uncaring filling them as if he was just watching an experiment for the result. Sakura finally broke their stare, and hunched over slightly to place her head on the side of the bed. She felt dizzy and couldn’t remember the last time she was faced with such a terrible choice. In her mind, she knew that there should be no other option but to consider Sasuke first, and if Itachi’s death kept Sasuke alive, then so be it. But nothing was that simple or clear cut, was it? “It…Itachi…,” she began, finding the words sticking in her throat. “I’ll make a new bargain with you, a new deal between us. Promise me that you’ll never lay a hand on Sasuke, or I will let you die.” “That is blackmail, Sakura,” Itachi said, a small tug at the corners of his mouth told her that she may have surprised him, or done exactly what he predicted. “Nevertheless, I’ll let you die.” Itachi blinked slowly and Sakura could see in his pale skin and tired look that he was on the verge of unconsciousness. He began to say something and Sakura couldn’t hear it. She leaned close, keeping her eyes on his half-mast gaze, and nearing him so she could hear. When he spoke again, it was only a breath. “Then let me die.” When she heard this, she closed her eyes and sighed. Upon opening them, she could see he’d slipped into unconsciousness and that he was on the verge of death. Still leaning close, she admired his handsome face, more peaceful than she had ever seen it when he was awake. Lifting her fingers, she touched his half parted lips, then slid them down to feel his weak pulse. Before she pulled away, she felt the desperate need to shake him and wake him up, but that wouldn’t help anyone. Bending down, she let her lips brush his in a soft kiss. She whispered something that he would never hear.

“When did I let you get so much control?” Reaching for the bottle and the needle, she silently prayed that what she was about to do would never cost the life of someone she loved.

Loophole Chapter 18: Let Go The needle dimpled Itachi’s skin before puncturing it. Sakura pressed the plunger and felt some minor relief that he was going to be asleep for the next few hours. Again, she looked at his face, which for the first time that she could remember, was at peace. The building was quiet. She didn’t expect Kisame back so the only sound she could hear was the fire crackling in the fireplace. The glow from the flames bathed everything in its orange light and gave Sakura the impression of nighttime. But she knew the morning had just begun. The medical healing on the fly was not exactly how she liked to work. The process would be difficult on her body and chakra highway, and to heal the extent of damage Itachi had sustained, looked impossible in one day. Tsunade had always preached temperance and patience when healing. There was a process that had to be followed. Stop the bleeding. Rest. Heal the worst damage slowly. Rest. Heal the next worst. Rest. It was supposed to take days, allowing the patient and the healer to recuperate between sessions. Just like tearing muscle to build stronger ones, the body needed time to adjust to the healing. But they didn’t have that kind of time. Sakura looked at Itachi’s sleeping face again. With a gentle touch, she ran her finger over the tired lines under his eyes.

She would betray Sasuke and Konoha for him…just this last time…for her own reasons. Tsunade sleepily tugged the mass of mail in her tiny hospital mailbox out to dump it over the floor in the nurse’s station. A slight growl escaped her lips as she allowed the orderly beside her to pick up the mess. With each slow, slightly hung over step towards her office, her heels clicked on the shiny tiled floor. “Good Morning, Hokage-sama,” a nurse said cheerfully at the door of Sasuke’s room. Forcing a fake smile, Tsunade waved and nodded a good morning as she breezed by into the sleeping Uchiha’s room. She plopped down heavily into the chair beside Sasuke’s bed, and let the pile of letters drop onto her lap. That’s when she saw Sakura’s letter. With many sighs, she read through and understood that one of her favorite pupils was gone for a few days. Unfortunately, suspicion arose as well. There was no possible way that Sakura would leave Sasuke’s bedside unless she was planning something on her own. “Damn her stubbornness,” Tsunade said quietly. “Pardon?” Shizune’s voice said from the door. “Oh, Shizune. You surprised me,” Tsunade grumbled, “Sakura left me a note telling me she was going to help a friend. What do you make of that?” “Sakura left Sasuke?” Shizune said with shock. “Exactly my thoughts,” Tsunade mumbled. “What do you think she is doing?” “You don’t think she would go after the person who injured Sasuke, do you?” “I don’t know.” Tsunade rubbed her forehead tersely. “Should I send ANBU out of find her?” Shizune offered. Tsunade took a deep breath and sighed it back out. Her eyes went to the sleeping form of Uchiha Sasuke, hooked to machines, but better than the day before. “She is stubborn, and emotionally driven, but she’s smart and capable. I don’t know what she is up to, but I don’t think she’d take revenge without Naruto. I know exactly where he is so I am going to give her the benefit of the doubt. She said she’d be back before Sasuke wakes. If she isn’t, then we’ll send out a squad.”

“Are you sure?” Shizune’s eyebrows rose. Tsunade looked at her sideways, “No….yes.” The fire was dying. For quite a while, Sakura had been taking a five-minute break at the top of the hour to put wood in the fireplace, and catch her breath. The healing was going well, and she was sure no one would die, but it was exhausting. While she tossed two more pieces of wood on from the pile next to the woodstove, she stared at her bloodied fingers. When she was satisfied with the flames, she returned to Itachi’s bedside. How many hours had gone by? The clock said six, but her body told her it was more like days. From that night of their mission where Sasuke had used the doujutsu on her, she hadn’t slept. It was four o’clock in the afternoon now, and because her brain was reacting sluggishly due to sleep deprivation, it took her the entire five minutes to work out that she had been awake for about 55 hours. So far, Itachi’s body had held up well as she repaired organs and cells, stitching them back together with chakra. She forced her energies into him, piecing together vessels and veins, making the blood flow back into areas it had stopped. The burning was the hardest to fix, but at this point, everything was functioning almost normally. Itachi would bruise and be in pain for a couple of days, but he would live. Grabbing the glass bottle and a fresh needle, Sakura gave Itachi another shot to keep him asleep. By her estimation, it would only take about three more hours and she could leave his body to finish the rest of the healing on its own. With a long sigh, she gave him another shot and positioned her hands over his stomach. The chakra began again, and her hands burned. As the clock flashed 8:30, Sakura grimaced with the pain in her fingers. It had taken a little longer than expected, but she could safely say that Itachi was healed as well as she could do tonight. When he woke, he would be in pain, but he would be able to stand, move around, and perhaps eat something to help regain his strength. Sakura sat back on her heels, feeling like it would be impossible to get up and leave the room. But the dried blood on her fingers begged to be cleaned off. The sweat beading on her upper lip and her body ached for a warm bath. She just wanted to get clean. She glanced at her sleeping patient, still peaceful looking, still breathing steadily. The firelight glowed on his pale skin, and she could make out every contour of his body where the shadows lay. His upper body was bare, save for the bandages she’d wrapped around the tender skin of his abdomen. He still wore his dark pants but nothing on his feet. His stock black Uchiha hair lay loose on the pillow around his handsome face, almost the same as Sasuke’s did in his hospital bed.

“We’re even,” she whispered softly, for anything louder would be impossible. Forcing herself to stand, Sakura wandered out the door of his warm room and into the unusually cold hallway. It was probably a normal temperature, but with the heat in Itachi’s bedroom, the outside felt so much colder. The soft soled sandals on her feet dragged against the stone floor. Small clangs rang out from her shin guards as they banged together with her clumsy steps. The walk to the bathroom seemed so much farther than she remembered. The tub was clean, and thankfully there was soap and shampoo there. Leaning over the large wooden structure, Sakura turned on the faucet and felt the water become hot almost immediately. The blood washed along her arm with the splash from the faucet and she hated the look of it turning pink against her skin. As the tub slowly began to fill, Sakura undressed, stepped in, and sat down. She was tired, and a moment of resting her eyes wouldn’t hurt, or so she figured. Not caring that she was still wearing his blood, she lay her head down on her hand on the edge of the tub and let the hot water rise around her. If someone had told her she could fall asleep in a second, she might not have believed it. Even the water, plunging from the faucet, couldn’t keep her awake. Itachi opened his eyes slowly to see the glow of the firelight on the cracked wooden ceiling. It flickered on the walls, and turned the gray stones gold. A small breath of a laugh escaped his lips. He was still alive when he certainly didn’t expect to be. But even the slight movement of his stomach sent pain shooting through him. His body ached, which was to be expected, but it was better than he imagined it would be. Lifting his hand in front of his face, he could see his skin was a healthier colour, though still pale. By the pink tinge of his nails, he knew the oxygen was getting through his body well, and that she had done the impossible. Steeling his will, he pressed a hand on his stomach and tried to sit up. The first attempt got a grunt of pain out of him, but the second was successful as he swung his legs over the edge of the low bed. For a moment, he looked around to see the blood on the sheets, not heavily soaked, but blotted here and there. The blankets had been spared. Some bloody bandages and a clear bottle, most likely a sedative agent, were on the floor. Itachi looked down at his front and saw the wrap of bandages around his abdomen. Lifting them slightly, he could see that his skin was red and raw, but whole. The efficient wrappings held his stomach tightly and made it harder to move, which was most likely a good thing and the purpose of the dressings. A quick glance at the clock told him it was getting close to nine o’clock at night. He couldn’t remember ever sleeping so soundly.

Uchiha never slept well. As he sat quietly, he couldn’t hear anything and began to wonder if she’d left right after she’d healed him. Itachi couldn’t prevent a small self-appreciative smile knowing that she was a better find than he had ever imagined her to be. Had he left her to die years ago, he might not be alive today. Really, that was neither here nor there, just a typical thing he would think about. Should he kill someone or not? This was the only reasoning or consideration he bothered to give those who crossed his path. Most times he made this determination on the basis of self-preservation and benefit. In Sakura’s case, he’d made all the correct choices. She was the first he made an effort to keep alive, which was very unlike him, but she seemed to make him do things he wasn’t accustomed to. At this point, he couldn’t say if he was comfortable with that or not. Things like feelings had to be examined thoroughly before committing or dismissing as they were few and far between. After a few minutes of working up to it, Itachi finally stood up while only making a small noise of strain. Standing felt better than sitting. Lying down felt better than the rest, but it would be painful to get in that position again. Right now, he was thirstier than he could ever remember and it was overcoming the pain. As he stepped out of the bedroom, the air in the hallway felt cool on his unclothed upper body. Goosebumps rose on his bare skin, but he ignored it. Uchiha men were used to pain and discomfort. It was bred into them, and if it wasn’t innate, it was definitely learned very early on. When he came into the second hallway; the sound of running water caught his attention. Slowly he opened the bathroom door onto something he hadn’t expected. Steam floated around the room; the hot water in the tub was ready to overflow. Sakura was in the water; her head lay against the wooden edge of the large bathtub, and her eyes were closed to the world. Itachi watched her for a moment before walking to the bath and turning off the water. Without realizing it, he had been careful not to step on her clothing. He lingered in front of her and took in the changes that he hadn’t seen clearly in the dark a few days before. She was still exceptionally beautiful, but had a maturity in her face she didn’t have three years ago. Now she was sensual where before she was pretty. She was pale though, and her head seemed slumped against her upper arm in exhaustion as it lay on the edge. The tired lines under her eyes almost matched his, and her hands looked raw and pained under a layer of blood as they dangled down along the wooden façade. He knew what extended chakra use could do to skin. He’d seen it before many times. Fool. The word ran fleetingly through his mind. Walking away from her own village to help a criminal for a second time was surely a sign of lower intelligence. He knew that

wasn’t true, but it was beyond his reasoning to do something so foolish. So led by her emotions, it almost made him sneer at the lack of coldness she possessed as a ninja. But Itachi rarely sneered. Weak, he thought, still weak. She was useful, yes. He had not asked her to come and here she was. Now they were even. If he chose not to kill her for finding his base, then she should be grateful. He was under no obligation to keep her alive. The blood on her fingers made him want to grimace. He was not stranger to blood, but it tainted her soft skin, turning pink and diluted from the water and condensation. A drop fell from her fingertip to the floor. His eyes traced up her arm to her pink hair and then back down to stop at her lips, slightly parted, soft and wet. By her heavy breaths, Itachi figured it would take a little bit to wake her. He looked at her sore hands again, coated with his blood, before turning and moving to the small shelf at the side of the bath. Picking up a washcloth, he moved back to where the bath stairs were and sat on one to get comfortable. The sight of the blood began to make him angry. He took her left hand in his so gently that she didn’t stir. Dipping the cloth into the water, he squeezed it out and then proceeded to work it over her skin. The dampness cooled quickly as he ran the wet cloth over each finger, diligently working around the nail to get all the blood. He slid it over her palm, tracing the lines there and running all the way to her fingertips. He didn’t expect her to sleep through it, quite the opposite. When he finally looked up, her eyes were watching his but her head had not risen. Sakura couldn’t help but feel utterly shocked to have Itachi there, doing something as intimate as helping her wash. The sensation woke her from a deep sleep. She didn’t try to hide herself as she had the first time he entered that room when she bathed years ago. This time, she became transfixed by his touch, the tilt of his head, and the dark eyes that would watch his fingers working, and then return to look into hers. The caress of his fingers as he gently turned her hand to get every inch clean made her lie perfectly still. If she moved in the least, it might end this moment. All that existed for her right then was within those four walls and she didn’t want to think of anything else. His attentions were preventing free thought anyway. “I told you to let me die,” Itachi said quietly.

Sakura closed her eyes as the mood shifted. “I…couldn’t,” she whispered as she raised her head. Itachi stopped working on her fingers, and so she pulled her arms into the bath and turned around to lean against the tub edge. Itachi admired her attractive profile, and the silk of her hair wet with bath water. “This is why you are weak,” he said evenly. Sakura took a deep breath, tipped her head to lie on the tub edge and looked up at the ceiling. “Yes, I know.” Itachi creased his brow minutely, but she didn’t see it. “You admit that you’re weak? No argument?” “If I were stronger…If I had been stronger…we never would have met, Itachi-san,” she said to the ceiling. “Kakashi-senpai told me that he trusted me, and that he hoped I wouldn’t make the same mistakes if faced with the same situation. It is a worse situation now, and I’ve made a worse mistake. Strength is not about power. I’m weak and will never be anything else.” Itachi stood up, and Sakura was jarred from her inner thoughts by his swift movement. He kept his back turned to her as he spoke. “Don’t be so formal with me,” Itachi said coldly. Sakura made an audible sigh. “Yes, I suppose there is nothing formal between us anymore, Uchiha. That is the last time I’ll address you like that. You’ll forgive that I feel comfortable enough to ask you to answer the question I asked you a few days ago. I think you owe me an answer.” “Be careful, kunoichi. I owe nothing. You are trespassing here and I have a right to exert my authority over you. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that I’m in your debt.” Anger and frustration began to weed its way past Sakura’s darker mood. Every time she forgot who he was, he managed to remind her. It was probably a good thing, but it was still hard to take. What a foolish thing to forget how he did not like to be indebted to anyone. Itachi was self-serving only. “Yes, I know, Itachi. You give nothing and only take what you need. I only want to know why you saved me at Orochimaru’s complex that night. Why did you come back?” Itachi stood facing the door and a pause lingered between them. Sakura could be patient; with Itachi it was required so she waited. A drip from the faucet was the only sound in the room.

Finally, he turned his head and she could see part of his profile, just the smooth curve of his cheek. The lean muscles in his strong back tensed momentarily below the dark hair that fell over his shoulders. She hated that she was so attracted to him, even now. “Why give away a tool that is useful?” Itachi said quietly, no anger or warning in his voice. It was just a simple answer. Stunned, Sakura watched the door close slowly behind him leaving her alone again with her thoughts. In her exhaustion, she felt the exchange wear on her emotional state. The tears started, and she half laughed remembering the last time he made her cry in the same bathtub. After a long hot bath, and managing to stay awake a little longer, Sakura got out and got dressed. It was a difficult process, as her hands felt raw and tight. Clenching a fist was almost impossible. Her skin felt hot from the heated bath, and her hair was still damp. She managed to get her shoes and guards back on to complete her outfit, and wondered vaguely if she should head back to the village for rest. Maybe Itachi would kick her out, or maybe he would kill her. While she bathed, the realization that she had found his base made her a little more wary of his coldness, even after he did something as intimate as washing her hands. He seemed to warn her, didn’t he? Trespassing. It came to her that she didn’t really know him. A few weeks together, years ago, was not enough to know someone. Sadly, she knew what he was capable of. Again, she had let emotions make her decision for her. She wondered vaguely what exerting his authority entailed. Stepping cautiously out into the hallway, she turned towards the kitchen for a quick bite, and then planned to go to her old room to sleep. Without the silver bracelet, Itachi would not know where she was or when she crossed the thresholds. If she had to make a run for it, at least there was that. With a light push of the door, Sakura entered the kitchen to find she was not alone. Itachi leaned on the counter as if he were waiting for her to come join him. She didn’t like it. He looked too casual for someone whom she knew was in a great deal of pain. With deliberate slowness, Itachi brought an almost finished peach up to his mouth. He took a bite of the sweet flesh, his eyes never leaving hers. “I apologize. I’ll come back after,” Sakura bowed a little and hastily tried to turn away. “There is no need to leave,” Itachi said smoothly.

Sakura turned back and attempted to read him. Of course it was a waste of time. He took the last bite of the peach, and she felt her mouth water slightly for something sweet and juicy. Watching him eat had made her focus on her own hunger. With cautious steps, she moved nearer to the bowl of fruit and jug of water within an arm’s reach of him. Itachi watched her walk towards him, her eyes half-lidded, her face pale and drawn. She was beyond exhausted and he knew that even in his current state, he could easily overpower her if necessary. Gauging people was a habit he couldn’t put aside. But overpowering women was not Itachi’s way. He preferred a good fight to dominating any day. Sakura finally reached the bowl of fruit and took a peach as well. It almost seemed as if the taste was already in her mouth and she needed more. Before she took a bite, she could feel Itachi’s eyes on the place between her lips and the skin of the peach. She turned her gaze sideways to his to see she wasn’t mistaken. “Why always peaches?” she asked quietly, not really expecting an answer but finding it easier to let words slip out between them after the exchange in the bathroom. There wasn’t much to lose anymore. Itachi paused before answering. His dark eyes shifted to the wall and then back. Not even a twitch revealed what he was thinking. From experience, Sakura figured Itachi was measuring and weighing how much information to give her. It was only a simple question, she thought, but he never revealed anything he didn’t want her to know. After a pause, he spoke. “As a child, I was never allowed to have one. I was never allowed refined sugars or sweets of any kind. The body will not crave what it has never had. Take away the things that can corrupt or divert attention from the important things, and the path will never deviate.” “Peaches corrupt?” Sakura tried not to laugh. “What sort of path would stop a child from having a sweet?” “The path to becoming who I am now, Sakura.” For a moment, she took in what he just said. That he had touched on his childhood had aroused some of her curiosity. “What other important things were not given?” she asked quietly, the peach still hanging just beneath her lips. “Touch was never warm. Food was bland. Sleep was a privilege and privacy unheard of. Indulgence was non-existent. Emotion was not afforded,” he said darkly. Itachi tossed the peach pit he held into the garbage. He slid a fingertip into his mouth to lick the juice from it, still keeping his eyes on hers. With one step he was toe to toe with her, only her upraised hand holding the peach was between them. As he had done before years ago, he slid his fingers around her wrist and brought the peach she held to his mouth to take a bite.

Sakura could feel her pulse quicken, and her chest rise quicker. She didn’t know what to make of the fact that he was telling her these things, and could think of no response. She could only listen with her eyes wide. After a quiet moment, Itachi finished the bite and lowered her wrist. With his other hand, he took the peach from her fingers and placed it on the stainless steel counter without freeing her wrist. He then pulled her slowly towards him with delicate force. “I…Itachi,” Sakura whispered. “When a child is not taught how to care, or feel remorse, then nothing they do can affect them. Death means nothing. Self-preservation becomes the only objective. Removing obstacles and creating power is the only desire.” Sakura felt the fingers of Itachi’s free hand slide up her back now as he pulled her closer to him. It moved over her shoulder and his fingertips caressed her neck. Gently, in almost a whisper of a touch, his hand closed on her throat, one finger touching her jaw line tenderly. His eyes went from her eyes to her lips, and then down to her throat. “Am I an obstacle, Itachi? Do you desire to remove me?” Sakura said fearfully, wondering why he was telling her these things and touching her that way. “That is not what I have planned for you,” he said smoothly as he leaned close to her. His hand slid around to the back of her neck, and he closed the distance between them. At first, Sakura wasn’t sure if she would let things happen this way, but he was strong, even injured, and she was weak with emotion. From the first moment she let her lips touch his this morning, she longed to have him hold her so close. Gently, his lips brushed hers and he took in the fresh scent of her clean hair, his hands felt the heat of the skin at her throat. Her pulse pounded under his fingertip. When he finally pressed his mouth to hers, she was undone. Stepping out of the bathtub, she had expected to be shunned or even treated badly for finding his base after he mentioned trespassing, but he was giving her the piece of him that she craved. Concern was easily forgotten. His hand left her throat and traveled down to the small of her back so he could pull her closer still. Pressed against her, he indulged in the desire the young kunoichi seemed to be able to arouse in him. It was a rare woman who could do that, but of course, he knew she was exceptional for so many reasons. Feverishly, he kissed her, enjoying the way her hands lay against his bare chest. When her fingers slid up into his hair, he felt a small lack of control. Itachi hated losing control but this time, he tolerated it.

Sakura allowed the kiss, perpetuated it. The heat of his mouth, his tongue and the desire inching through her served to make her forget her demons and all her guilt. He tasted like peaches, and she could feel the heat from his body through her clothes. Fingers traced her spine under her shirt, and his mouth continued to engage hers hungrily. He pushed her against the counter and she made a sound of protest as her back hit the cold steel. Itachi slid his hands lower and she gasped into his mouth as his hands ran down her body to the top of the back of her thighs. Without a sound or indication that it pained him, he lifted her up and sat her on the counter. Moving between her open legs, he continued to kiss her mouth, and then descended to her throat. Sakura wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him close. “I’ve wanted this for so long,” she breathed out. But to her dismay, he stopped at the sound of her voice. She still clung to him and wondered fearfully what she might have implied that was upsetting or what it meant to him to make him halt his attention. With his hands on her hips, he slowly moved back so that he could look at her face. Sakura’s half-mast gaze looked upset, and she bit her lip as if admonishing herself for saying something to make it end. Slowly, Itachi’s hand moved up to her face and he ran the palm of his hand along her jaw line and into her hair. Sakura closed her eyes at his touch. “You’re exhausted,” he said evenly. His eyes changed to sharingan, “You have no chakra left.” She couldn’t deny it, but she had waited so long to kiss him that it seemed like a poor excuse to stop things between them. Perhaps he was having second thoughts? Perhaps she was just too tired to understand anything right now. “I am,” she admitted reluctantly. Even now, her head threatened to fall. Itachi’s eyes narrowed slightly as he scrutinized her. Sakura hated that he would do that. Shifting beside her, Itachi slid an arm under her legs and one behind her back to lift her from the counter. The temptation to tell him to stop was there, but Sakura knew he wouldn’t put her down, pain or not. No one told Uchiha Itachi what to do. With her in his arms, he moved into the hallway and calmly walked down the corridor. Sakura laid her head on his shoulder and slid her arms around his shoulders tightly. She pressed her lips to the skin of his neck and felt his hair on her forehead. Closing her eyes, she felt all tenseness leave her body.

She was out before they entered his bedroom.

Loophole: Chapter 19 Day's end. Sakura awoke to the scent of fireplace smoke and warmth. The room was dimly lit; the oil lamp was giving off minute but usable light. She stretched long and hard along the soft sheets, shifting the heavy navy duvet with her movements. Her hand slid over the bed to find that the other occupant she expected to be there was not. Noticing the clock, she almost cursed to find it was 1:26 PM. Sleep had claimed her since last night all the way until the afternoon of the next day. It was to be expected with the length of time she had stayed awake, but the idea that she was incoherent for almost eighteen hours was shocking. Stretching one more time, Sakura then tossed aside the blankets and got up. She was still clothed (not that she didn’t expect to be) but her shoes and leg guards had been removed. Falling lightly against the wall to lean as she tried to attach her leg guards, she stopped for a moment to imagine Itachi putting her to bed the night before. The image of him leaning over her and unsnapping the guards made her stomach flutter. Time had been wasted asleep, and she regretted that now she had little left. One more night and she would have to leave in the early morning. There was no happiness at the thought of leaving. Sakura felt torn up about where her loyalties were. Growing up a ninja in Konoha, the thought of betraying her village never crossed her mind. Now she’d done it and it didn’t seem so bad. That thought in itself made her feel worse than anything she’d done for Itachi. If she stayed with Itachi, she could never go home. If she gave up everything for him, would it be worth it? If he grew tired of her, would she live a life of regret or would he kill her? Yes, there was that too. And what of Naruto, Kakashi, and Tsunade? How could she leave them? How could she live knowing they knew she was a traitor and a deserter? What of her family? And Sasuke…he would want to see her die for even standing in Itachi’s presence without any intention to kill him. Sasuke would want to kill her with his own hands. Her head began to ache. Slowly pulling on her shoes after affixing the metal leg guards and her leg holster, she paced the room once or twice in thought. The fire was almost out and she figured that no one had been around for at least a half an hour.

She never did bother with the cloak. Finally making up her mind, Sakura moved to the door and opened it a crack. The hallway was empty. Returning back to where her pack had been shoved in the corner, she dug around to find the chakra bracelet. When she didn’t come upon it, she dumped the articles out on the bed in a heaped mess of weapons and medical items. Nothing. He most likely took it. Obviously, he didn’t trust her to have it anymore. She took a long breath and pushed her hair from her face. It was about that moment that her stomach reminded her of how little she’d eaten in the last few days. If she didn’t get sustenance, she would probably pass out before long. Creeping out the door and along the hallway, she found the kitchen door open and a mess of empty food containers there. The boxes were reminiscent of the place she stopped to ask directions at and of the suspicious woman who gave in reluctantly. If it weren’t for her, Sakura would have never found Itachi. After rummaging through the cupboards and fridge, Sakura found some cold rice and egg. Had it been an eating contest at that moment, she would have won by the way she wolfed down the food, barely taking a breath. After some cold water, Sakura wandered back out into the hallway. It was too quiet. It felt strange to cross those thresholds and not feel that warmth at her wrist. She missed the silver band. It had become a comfort, a trinket that she would play with to calm herself. Unfortunately, the habit would have to break with the lack of it. Three years it had been on her wrist. She felt its absence deeply. Sakura sighed and it sounded hollow in the cold, empty hallway. Finally, she turned to head outside. If no one were around, then at least she would sit and enjoy the fresh air outside. It felt strange to be alone there anyway. As she emerged, the large figure in the courtyard should have surprised her, but didn’t. His back was hunched a little under the long black cloak and he chuckled deeply as he bent to pick up a kunai from the ground. “You love your sleep, kunoichi. Do you think you’re on vacation?” Kisame scoffed and then laughed at his own jibe. “Yes, Kisame, I’m on vacation.” Sakura couldn’t and didn’t feel like holding back the sarcasm.

Kisame’s laughter died away as he turned to finally look at his companion. “We should have let them kill each other. This foolishness gets in the way of business.” Without acknowleding his remark, Sakura let out a long breath and looked up at the gray murky sky threatening to fall on them. She wanted sunshine and warmth, not rain. “ANBU now, eh?” Kisame continued talking. “You should have joined Akatsuki if you wanted action,” he laughed. “Well, your robes are nice, but I prefer a winning team, Kisame,” Sakura smirked. Kisame laughed again, “Care to test that?” She raised one eyebrow at him. “Hand to hand or weapons?” The sharkman tipped his head a little as a nasty smile crawled over his mouth. Sakura imagined that even at his happiest moment, Kisame would look devious. “One kunai. Unless you’re afraid.” Sakura slid a kunai soundlessly from her holster with a smile. Kisame nodded as they backed away from each other. “Show me that stance,” he growled as he lunged at her. “Sake!” Kisame shouted as he banged two cups down in the room with the long table. He was caked in mud and his jaw was bruised. Sakura suspected one of his fingers were broken, and perhaps a rib, but he’d never show it. Rubbing her own bruised side, Sakura took a cup that Kisame had just filled, and downed the contents quickly. “Woah, kunoichi. You’ve learned to drink.” Kisame laughed “Yep, drinking and sleep. That’s all us wimpy ANBU do,” she laughed as well. “You should see to that gash before you bleed to death.” Kisame pointed to the long cut along Sakura’s arm that ran from her shoulder to mid bicep before downing his own cup. His concern was false as he just wanted to remind her who had won. Sakura rubbed her bruised temple and closed her left eye with the pain radiating to it. Her breathing was only just starting to slow down. A fight with Kisame was never halfway, and she’d try to remember next time to get out of the way quicker. The hour-long fight had worn her out.

Pulling one foot up onto the chair edge, Sakura picked at the mud and grass stuck in the soles of her shoes. The rain had started and made the ground soft and slippery. At least one injury was caused from bad footing in the wetness. She was sure Kisame had earned two for his trouble as well. It was only a sprinkle of a shower, but her clothes felt a little damp. She wasn't chilled, just uncomfortable. “Alright, one more and then I’m going to take a bath,” she pointed to the sake carafe. “Two more.” “Ok,” she said, “three more.” The water in the bath was hot and steam rose around the room, filling it like she was bathing in a cloud. The condensation crawled over the walls and stuck to the wood. The prune like texture began to cover her fingers and she knew she’d been in there too long. But her mind was working too hard to think about getting out and getting dressed. It was probably around four o’clock now and Itachi still hadn’t shown up. Kisame had managed to persuade her into a fourth and fifth sake, and that was her limit. Right now, the warmth of the bath was nothing compared to the lazy heat in her limbs. Of course, she couldn’t help but wonder where Itachi had gone. He was probably still in some pain, although better. Maybe he had left on Akatsuki business and would not return before she had to leave. That thought alone made her upset. Why had she invested so many emotions in such a cold man? He was a killer, something she should never forget. But the peaches…what was the meaning of it? What would a child deprived of every simple pleasure of growing up become? Without morals, without kindness, and without compassion they would become…well…Itachi. Killing without remorse, seeking power at all costs, and having no loyalty but to himself. So how do the peaches fit in? How did she fit in? Her head began to hurt and she was sure it wasn’t the sake or the injuries. I don’t understand him, she told herself. I can’t understand him. It seemed like a small thing to say to herself, but suddenly it meant so much. Itachi would be someone wholly impossible to understand. If she stayed beside him for a year, he would never let her know him. In the end, underneath it all, was there anything there to know besides the perfect soldier he’d become?

But the peaches… Softly dragging her feet along the hallway, Sakura decided to opt for some more fresh air. Kisame was snoring loudly in the room with the long table, obviously three sheets to the wind. She laughed when she heard him. It was like a chainsaw cutting wood. The outside door was open, and she wondered vaguely if she had forgotten to shut it on her way in. The cool wet wind left behind by the passing rain showers seemed to make its way along the cold stones. The door swung lightly with it. Before she could reach the threshold to go outside, she suddenly knew Itachi was there. Her feeling was confirmed when she took in the sight of him standing quietly among the torn up ground where she had battled with Kisame. His face was turned away from her so that she could only see the curve of his cheekbone. The ponytail hung along the black and red robe and she wondered minutely why he wore black sometimes, and red and black at others. “Where is Kisame?” he said quietly. His smooth voice crawled along her skin and gave her goose bumps. It was so muted, as if he wouldn’t be able to yell if he tried. “He’s sleeping.” Sakura answered, finding her voice matching his for soft tone. His head nodded slightly and then he glanced in her direction before returning to the targets across from him. “Did he do that to you?” “Don’t worry, he looks just as bad,” Sakura half smiled, but still kept caution with her approach. “We were just messing around.” Taking measured steps, she wandered slowly over to him, stepping over the large clumps of ground strewn here and there. She stopped when she finally stood in front of him and he looked down at her. His eyes were red with pinwheels. Mangekyou. For a moment, she couldn’t do anything but stare at them. As she watched, they changed back to the normal sharingan that she knew so well. It made every muscle in her body tighten when his eyes changed like that. If he knew she tensed, he never let on. Of course he knew. Uncooperative fingers finally found the bottom of his black shirt, and she lifted it slowly. He didn’t move to stop her. The warmth from his body felt good on her hands as they crawled gently up to touch the bandages wrapped around him. “Are you in pain?” she finally said as she managed to break from his eyes. There was no reply. She knew he must be, but for him to say it would be too unlike an Uchiha. Even if he hated them, he was so very much like them.

Drawing chakra, she pressed the energy into him to force in some pain relief and healing properties to help things along. He allowed it. In the moments she stood in front of him, he had barely moved. “You don’t need me to stay anymore. Everything seems to be healing well.” This time, she didn’t look at him when she spoke. If she expected him to say she was wrong or beg her to stay she would be crazy. There was no response again. Her hands still pressed flat to his tight abdomen, the light fabric bandages were the only thing between his skin and hers. Her chakra explored him, taking away the pain, bit by bit. She continued to heal and work on him quietly, enjoying the contact and the silence. Whenever they spoke, somethingusually went wrong. But as always, everything ended too quickly with them, and she felt his fingers close around her wrists. It made her look up to see his sharingan staring through her. “Come with me,” he said calmly. Sakura could only nod. She didn’t care where he took her, as long as they didn’t separate from each other. He led her along the inner hallways until they reached his bedroom. Itachi let her go as they entered and he moved towards the shelves at the other end of the room. Sakura looked around to see that the bed was the mess she had left it, and the contents of her pack were still strewn about. “What are we doing here?” she asked, her heart beating faster. “I’m finding something I need” With a confused shake of her head, she creased her brow at him. Itachi pulled a book from behind a wooden box on the shelf, and Sakura recognized it as the research book she had written while fixing his eyes three years before. “You…kept it? I thought you had destroyed it,” she said incredulously. “You may keep it. I've removed some information, but it's almost as it was when you wrote it.” Itachi tossed it on the bed and turned back to his books. Gently, his fingers slid over the spines acknowledging his favorites. Sakura looked at the book for a moment and felt compelled to pick it up, but managed to resist. “I don’t understand. Why would you give this to me now?”

“Its of no more use to me. You may have it back.” Itachi didn’t turn around. Usefulness. That word began to anger Sakura every time she heard him utter it. Be it books, weapons, or people, Itachi severed his associations based on self benefit. Sakura couldn’t comprehend what it was like for him. “And what of me? You said I was a useful tool. What happens when I am no longer useful?” She approached him slowly, trying hard to keep the anger out of her voice and face. The desire to pull something from him, be it regret or anger, became overwhelming. With a slow turn, he faced her as she approached, giving nothing away in his face and knowing a non-response would be better than the truth for her. “You’re healed now. I am obsolete,” she goaded as she came face to face with him. “Or do you have other uses for me?” Itachi’s eyes narrowed slightly, and in turn, it made Sakura’s open wider. He understood what she was trying to do and he was not one to be pushed or spurred to any reaction he didn’t want to give. Sakura should have known that, but still she was pressing. It didn’t anger him, however, he was losing his patience. Sakura continued to watch him for some small emotion. A smile? A grimace? Anything. But waiting was foolish; it would never come. “Your coldness makes me hate you.” “I don’t care about your hate,” Itachi said coolly. Sakura closed her eyes deciding what she was going to do. She didn’t want it to end like this. She didn’t want things to become a guessing game of his reaction, or the next step. But she could never change him. She thought she could understand, but she would never understand. She turned away from him then. Being next to him, being able to feel his presence without him even touching her was unbearable. But before she could get two steps away, he grabbed her arm. In a knee jerk reaction, she swung her other fist up to hit his face. She wanted to punch that cold look from it. Itachi easily grabbed her fist before it reached him and they stood deadlocked for a moment. “I allowed you to hit me once, Sakura. I won’t allow it again,” he whispered. In reaction, she gritted her teeth so hard it hurt. Tugging her hand out of his, she swung her leg up to try and connect with his side. But the air was all she hit. A quick spin around revealed Itachi had moved to the other side of the room so quickly that she hadn’t seen it.

Another lunge towards him brought Sakura close enough to sweep at his legs, but he turned and used his leg guard to stop her. The clang of the connection was loud. As they tumbled together, Itachi grasped at Sakura’s upper arm while his other hand protected against the blow she was trying to land. As they both fell onto the carpeted section of the floor, Itachi’s shoulder hit Sakura’s jaw. She rolled over and tried to get to her feet. The pain shot along her face and she spat some blood out. Mentally she worked out that it would take a few minutes to repair the injury but there was no time for that. Itachi stood on the opposite side of the room where the fight had started, still ready for her. Calculating the next move, she wiped the blood from her lips with the back of her hand. An impassive look was on Itachi’s face and he seemed to be watching her reactions as if she were a case study of some sort. She ran at him again feeling her anger letting loose, and Itachi immediately countered. They tangled together, Sakura’s hand managing to twist Itachi’s right wrist as she tried to get her foot under his leg. Itachi gripped a fist full of Sakura’s shirt with his free hand. In anger, Sakura drew chakra to her hand twisting Itachi’s and his red eyes widened to see the chakra drawing there. “Enough,” he said calmly as he swept a leg under hers to bring them both to the floor. They lay there breathing hard while Sakura tried to make sense of what just happened. How long had it been since she let her anger take over like that. She couldn't say it felt bad. It was then that Itachi rolled onto her and pinned her to the floor. His hands managed to hold hers down as his chest and stomach lay flush along hers. Their legs tangled together as she fought him, but his grip was like steel when he took hold. His long cloak seemed to blanket them as his weight held her down. “What do you expect me to say?” he asked with genuine interest. “Are you so foolish as to have some idea that I’m hurt by your words?” “I know you aren't, don’t care at all and that kills me. I won’t be your tool anymore. Kill me or let me go,” she hissed. The pain in her face was blatant, and yet she knew it was nothing to him. “You give me little choice, Sakura. You told me I have no more need of you, so you may leave if that’s what you desire.” Itachi loosened his grip on her as she closed her eyes and seemed to calm down. Pushing himself off, he stood up and walked over to the bed.

Sakura lay still for a moment longer, then got to her feet. The trembling in her legs made it hard to stand and she used the shelves for leverage. With a hand on her chest, she tried to calm the pace of her heart. “I don’t want to leave,” she whispered without looking up at him. Her words were breathy and choked. For a long moment, she grasped the wooden bookshelf and tried to compose herself. So many decisions in her life seemed so hard before this one. So many things seemed unimportant when compared to the last few days. Finally she looked at him, standing across the room and looking at her in his blank way. Still unsteady with emotion and weakness, she walked closer to him. Itachi smoothed his hand through the black hair that had come loose in their fight, but he retained that aloof façade, keeping everything hidden. To tell someone something from deep inside was painful enough for Sakura. But to know that no matter what was said, he would have no reaction to her words was so much harder. “Itachi,” she said softly, finding her voice timid in her throat. She finally stood toe to toe with him. “Itachi, I want to stay.” Still he said nothing, but kept his red eyes locked on hers. With shaking fingers, she reached up and ran them along the edges of the open robe he wore. Her hands slid inside and she felt the tightness of his chest before running them up to his shoulders. She led the robe away from him with her wrists as her fingers continued to explore the warmth of his body. “It was always your decision,” he said quietly. Sakura nodded slowly, sadly, as her eyes seemed to refuse to look up at his. But his fingers went to her chin to raise her face closer to his. “Please…I need you to want me. Even if it’s a lie,” she whispered. “I never lie,” he whispered back.

Loophole Chapter 20: Lie

Sakura stared at the clock, watching each minute blink by. The night had been long, but not in a bad way. Her skin still tingled with remembered pleasure. Even now, Itachi was wrapped around her. His body was heated and pressed against her as they lay in his bed. Flashes of searching fingers and hot skin ran through her mind, making her stomach flutter with desire for him again. But her conscience was still occupied with her choices. How long could something like this last before they came to find her? Sakura was betting two days. How long would Itachi desire her before he grew tired or bored? How long could she live in those stone walls without love or a purpose except to be his? When she said she wanted to stay, she couldn’t really say she meant it. Somewhere inside, she knew that she just meant for the night. Just to be with him one night, like this, was going to have to be enough. If she stayed, there would be no peace. Sasuke, Naruto, and Kakashi wouldn’t rest until they found her. Already, Tsunade probably had an ANBU squad standing by in case she didn’t return when she said she would. There could never be normalcy like this. Shifting slightly, Itachi’s arm tightened on her waist as if making sure she couldn’t get away. But his warm, heavy breaths on her neck told that he was asleep. He was still in pain, she was sure of it, so the night most likely wore him out. If she woke him, what would happen? If she left, would he hate her? Would he miss her? Most likely, it would be neither. For now, she felt the need to memorize the feel of his warm body against hers. Running her fingers softly over the top of his, she tried to figure out how leave him and keep the feel of him in her mind. The minutes continued to tick by, and it was getting close to the time she should leave. To prevent something that would end in the ruin for them both, she had to go back before Sasuke awoke. Today was the day. She closed her eyes and drew in his scent. She touched his arm and felt the muscles just underneath his warm skin. Turning over, she slid her fingers into his hair and pressed her lips softly to his. Itachi’s eyes opened momentarily and looked back and forth at hers before closing again. His arm tightened, this time on her lower back, pressing her body against his.

It was a beautiful lie. “Itachi…” she whispered, finding the rest of her words stuck in her throat. She wanted to say she was leaving but she couldn’t manage to. Itachi didn’t open his eyes; he turned onto his back and released his hold on her. Sakura sat up and let her feet rub on the carpet. The air was cold around them and getting out of the blankets was a small torture for so many reasons. But Konoha and Sasuke wouldn’t wait for her indecision. It had to be this way. As Sakura sat and listened to his breathing, it seemed to deepen again. The low fire threw its light on the bookshelves and the gray walls. The soft crackle of it was soothing, but dying embers were not enough to keep the room warm. Fighting the hollow feeling in her stomach, Sakura took stock of where all her belongings were. Guards, shoes, garments, and her packs were scattered around the room, and feeling worse than ever, she got up and gathered them. When she was dressed and ready to leave, she sat back down on the bed and watched him. He looked similar to when she had sedated him, and was still weak from his injuries. Sadly, she couldn’t stay to make sure he was all right. Sakura finally stood and went to the door. It was just after four am and she needed to get back to Konoha, clean up, and be at the hospital by the early afternoon. Tsunade would be looking for her. Naruto would be returning today as well. As she wandered into the kitchen, she took some leftover food from the boxes on the counter and packed one last peach lovingly in her rucksack. She would never taste another without thinking of him. Regret shook her to her foundations. She turned to leave, but the doorway was blocked. She didn’t even have to look to see who it was. His presence was always so acutely felt. For some reason, she couldn’t take her eyes from the floor. “I didn’t take you for one who lies so convincingly,” Itachi said evenly. “Only as well as you do, Itachi,” she said quietly. “I told you, I never lie.” “Everyone lies.” “I have no need, Sakura. If I hate something, I say so. If I’ve killed someone, I say so. If I want something, I say so. What reason would I have to lie? It would be beneath me.”

Finally her eyes rose to see him leaning comfortably against the kitchen doorframe wearing only his black pants. His bruised body looked so strong. It made Sakura ache to touch him. It would have been so much easier to leave without this conversation. “You’re leaving,” Itachi remarked evenly. “I have to,” she replied, trying to match his cool demeanor. But Sakura always failed at that with him. “Another lie.” “If I stay, they’ll hunt us both down. I can’t live like that. I’ve worked so hard to become who I am. I still love Konoha and I belong there.” Itachi blinked slowly as if he didn’t care either way what decision she made. He made no attempt to rebut what she just said and it stung her. Why did she expect something from him that she would never get? “Whether you believe me or not, I have to go. And whether you believe me or not, I wanted to stay.” Itachi nodded slowly, “I believe you.” Finding some small inner strength, she walked closer to him and pressed her hand to his abdomen. No reaction. “I guess this is finally over between us. We’re even.” Sakura felt heat around her face and throat, and clenched her teeth. “This will never be over.” “Never sounds so much like a promise, Itachi. But I can’t swallow that lie, even from you.” Sakura locked her gaze with his. “I never lie.” The wind had picked up around the rogue country and Sakura moved swiftly in the trees towards the edge of the Fire Country. She glanced up momentarily to see the black cloak nearby, moving through the trees as fast as she was. Itachi never asked to come, or even mentioned that he would, he just slipped on his clothes and led her outside.

Sakura was content that he would come to the edge of the rogue country, but sad that she would have to try to leave him again. When they finally reached a mile-marker indicating that the border to the Fire Country was only a mile away, they stopped. The sun was blocked by an overcast sky, but there would be no rain today. It was one small consolation. Itachi stood facing toward the Fire Country and Sakura wondered vaguely if he ever missed it. She would never know, just as she would never really know anything about him. He’d given her all he could, and she would have to settle for it. “This is far enough,” Itachi said evenly. Sakura stared at him, trying to capture his image for her memories. But Itachi turned and walked toward her. When he stood just in front of her, his hand grasped her hand and raised it. For a moment, Sakura couldn’t understand what he was doing until he ran his fingers over her wrist. “I feel like a part of me is missing,” she said softly as she pulled her hand back. Itachi reached in his cloak and revealed the silver bracelet. Sakura’s brow creased as she felt the tug of regret in her chest. It had been a treasure to her, but almost resulted in Sasuke and Itachi’s deaths. She couldn’t honestly want that sort of impending tragedy on her hands again. It would be a burden more than a comfort now. Itachi held it up and Sakura watched his chakra glow around it. It swelled with the blue energy, and she marveled at how surreal and beautiful it looked in his grasp. He slid his fingers around the inside of it as if he was feeling for something. The chakra finally died away to the regular glow she had always seen from it. Itachi reached down and lifted her wrist again, but this time, he slipped the bracelet over her hand. “Next time, I will kill him.” Sakura touched it, turning it lightly on her wrist. She slid it back off and ran her fingers over it before sliding it back on. “There won’t be a next time.” “Your naivete is not charming. He is an Uchiha, Sakura. There is always a next time.” Sakura looked into the blowing leaves on the trees that she would be traveling through to the Fire Country. They looked sad as if they were fighting the wind.

“I have to go,” she said sadly. Itachi took a step to close the distance between them as he slid a hand into her hair. Sakura obliged by pressing her body and mouth to his. He kissed her hard. But it ended too soon, and she found her fingers unable to let go of his robe. On the trip to the border, she swore to herself that she wouldn’t cry. Of course, some things were harder to control than others, especially for Haruno Sakura. If he cared at all, he never acknowledged it. Taking a step back, Sakura moved slowly away from him until she was out of arm’s reach. Itachi allowed it, and watched her with interest. There were no words. Nothing would be appropriate. She couldn’t say goodbye. Sakura finally turned away and began to walk across the clearing toward the trees. Stray weeds snapped across her leg guards and the rustle of the leaves drowned everything else out. She stopped. She turned slowly to look back. He was gone. Hours passed as she trudged through the Fire Country forests, passed villages, rivers, and temples to get closer to Konoha. The entire way back, she ignored everything. All focus was gone. Finally, as the afternoon sun managed to peek through the breaking clouds, Sakura came upon the large gates. Normally there was excitement or contentedness to be home. This time, there was only something hollow in the pit of her stomach. It felt like it would never be whole again. Checking in with the gate office, the attending guard informed Sakura that Tsunade wanted to be notified when she returned. Something loosened inside and Sakura felt minutely better knowing that her shishou had been watching for her and what it might have meant if she hadn’t been back in time. Finally arriving at her own door, she found her key, went inside, and then went straight for the shower. Aches strung themselves along her arms and legs. Hamstrings felt like

they were on fire. But she was home, and the heat of her shower and the comfort of everything she was familiar with made her feel a little better. She got dressed in normal Jounin wear today. An unusual choice of clothing, but nothing else seemed comfortable at the moment. She felt cold, and the heavy vest and long pants were better than her shorts. Sakura sat on the edge of her bed, toweling her wet hair and staring at the silver bracelet on her lap. Maybe it was wrong to still have it. She tossed the towel in her clothesbasket and wandered to her closet, the bracelet fidgeted among her fingers. She pulled out a box that was given to her by Kakashi on the day she became a Jounin. It held a special kunai with a white handle and kanji on it. He told her that it was given to him when he had become a Jounin by his sensei. Sakura had treasured it. With a sigh, she placed the bracelet inside the box overtop of the kunai, and put it away again. She turned from the closet and took a long deep breath. The hospital was as busy as it usually was, and Sakura walked in behind a group of ninja who had come to see an injured comrade. The waiting room was half full and the orderlies were busy serving dinner to the patients. The carts rolled with squeaky wheels along the shiny floors. Sakura sighed as she passed the nurses’ station. She could see her mailbox was full but she ignored it and continued toward the elevator. Reaching Sasuke’s floor, she cruised calmly past the reception desk there as well. The idea of talking to people right now was unappealing. The hollow pit still residing in her stomach reminded her that she had made a hard decision and words would make it worse. Seeing Sasuke was going to be just as hard. As she wandered into the room, she took in the half drawn curtains and the lack of medical machinery around Sasuke. He was still sleeping, and his body was almost completely repaired. For once, he looked at peace. The black Uchiha hair and pale skin hit Sakura in such a strange way. He looked so much like Itachi that it bothered her. She shifted her eyes from the sleeping man to the chair near the windows where her blonde friend was slouching and sleeping himself. Naruto was still in his ANBU uniform and Sakura figured he had come straight over after returning from his mission. “Naruto,” Sakura said softly. Almost immediately, he opened his eyes to look at her.

“Sakura? Where were you?” No hello, no cordial greeting. “I just needed to get away for a few days,” she said convincingly. “Is that alright?” “Of course. I think I was glad to be away as well. Time to clear my head. Did Tsunade ask you what happened?” he whispered. “I haven’t seen her. I left in the early morning after you left. How was your mission?” She tried to change the subject. “Boring. I ran into Kakashi. He looks so different now that he can turn off the sharingan. He said he’d be back in a week or so.” “Did she ask you what happened?” Sakura asked timidly. “Yeah. I told her to ask Sasuke when he wakes up. I wouldn’t even know where to start.” Sakura nodded slowly, her eyes drifting to the windows and the orange red sky, brilliant after the clouds had dissipated. “I’m sorry we didn’t tell you. But then again, I suppose you would have tried to stop us.” Naruto looked at Sasuke as he spoke. He clasped his long fingers together over his stomach and sighed. “I…just don’t understand anymore.” Sakura breathed out. “What do you mean?” “I can’t imagine what it is like to be him and how it is to want revenge that much. I don’t begrudge him his desire, but I can’t comprehend it. Does that make sense? He’s going to hate me when he wakes up, Naruto. What we have as friends will end and I’m not ready for that.” “Sakura,” Naruto shook his head. “You don’t understand him.” Sakura looked at him, and he seemed more tired than she ever remembered him to be. The room fell silent and Sakura sat at the end of the hospital bed and waited with Naruto. She watched the room darken slowly while shadows moved with the dying sun. After an hour or two, Sasuke finally began to stir and it made her heart pound in her chest. He seemed to become lucid slowly, having trouble opening his eyes and understanding where he was for a few moments. The pair watching him was patient as he finally managed to get his bearings and wake properly. The first sight of those dark Uchiha eyes made Sakura want to run from the room.

“Naruto,” Sasuke finally managed to say through parched lips. “Sakura.” Was that relief in his voice? “Hey Uchiha, I’m getting tired of picking up your sorry ass,” Naruto said with a hint of ribbing and a hint of seriousness. Sasuke laughed a little and displayed some discomfort from moving his stomach so much. His eyes finally rested on Sakura and she couldn’t muster a smile for him. Tears came instead. “Sakura.” Fingers shook as she stood up from the end of the bed by his feet and moved forward. With great effort, Sasuke tried to push himself up to a sitting position. He motioned to the bed beside him and Sakura sat down. “We need to talk,” he said softly. Talk was the last thing Sakura wanted to do. Instead she raised her fingers to his face and touched him gently. No matter what had happened in the four days prior to being there beside him, she couldn’t imagine how hard it would be to lose him. The idea that he could throw away everything to kill Itachi burned her up inside. Her fingers caressed his earlobe and along his jaw line gently, tenderly. “Thank you for saving my life,” he uttered quietly, trying not to break the moment between them. But Sakura stopped touching him and her hand hovered just next to him. She couldn’t look away from his dark eyes, so much like Itachi’s… In a swift move, she cocked her hand back and struck Sasuke hard in the face. He turned with it, but spun his face back to look at her in shock. Sakura cocked her hand and swung again, only this time Sasuke grabbed her wrist. “What the hell, Sakura?” he growled. “I didn’t save your life. You’ll just go back out and risk it again. I won’t go this time. I’ll let you die. I give up on you. I won’t put myself through it again,” she hissed angrily. “Don’t say that,” he countered. “It’s too late. I won’t be a part of this. I can’t. I'm done with you.”

“I don’t want to lose you, Sakura. Do you know what you are asking of me?” Sasuke said with creased brow. “Yes, I do. I’m sorry, but it’s me or him.” Sasuke looked at her for a long time. Giving up on Itachi and revenge was something he could never consider. Her ultimatum was so hard to hear. “I never thought you’d go against me,” Sasuke accused. “If I agree, what does that mean to you? What are we if I agree?” “Together,” she said honestly. Sasuke nodded slowly, wondering if what she was offering was what he had been wanting. Time would tell, he supposed, but to give up his revenge on Itachi was something he couldn’t agree to…well, not honestly. “Give me time to consider it,” he said reluctantly. Sakura looked for a sign of a falsity in his face, but Uchiha were so good at masking themselves and she’d taken his lies for truth before. “Of course,” she relented. Naruto still sat silently in the chair, watching the exchange and making no move to intervene. He didn’t indicate what he thought of it either way, but Sakura knew he would always be on Sasuke’s side. His loyalty was admirable…and infuriating. “Before we discuss what happened and get our stories straight for Tsunade,” Sakura began, “I need to tell you something that happened a long time ago. I think I owe it to you. It’s a long story, but a good one. I hope you’ll both forgive me when I’m finished.” Sasuke looked at her wrist for a moment, and Sakura could tell that he knew what was coming. As with Kakashi, she would keep her personal things personal when it came to Itachi, but Sasuke deserved to know the circumstances surrounding the bracelet. Perhaps when she was finished, nothing would ever be the same between them again. “Three years ago, on the day of an Akatsuki raid, I made a deal…” Time crawled around Konoha as the days passed. Sakura’s fears about Sasuke were dismissed, as he showed no ill will for the circumstances in which she had him rescued. Anger filled him knowing that Itachi had taken him from Orochimaru’s and he had lost a chance to kill him. But being away from Orochimaru seemed to be a victory in itself, albeit tainted. Sakura had lied to him, a regrettable necessity. She told him that she kept the bracelet because it reminded her of what she had done for him and how important getting him back was. Whether Sasuke believed it or not, he forgave her.

Tsunade had been fed a line of bullshit on a silver spoon by the three of them, and she didn’t question it. Sakura knew her better than that though, and understood that they would have to earn her trust back. No one would ever be told that Sasuke was injured by Itachi, not even Kakashi. Sakura knew that when the trio was split into different teams, her Shishou had a hand in it. But who was she to argue? ANBU became her life and she enjoyed the missions she was sent on. Moving through the ranks was easy for someone with medical skills, strength, and analytical abilities such as hers. Sasuke was in a team headed by Hyuuga Neji and seemed content with the extremely volatile missions they were employed with. The high number of bloodline heirs in the team made it designed for dangerous, unranked missions. That group being together was no accident. Naruto should have been in that group as well, but to keep them all apart, he was doing more with the elites instead of ANBU. Tsunade was grooming him to become Hokage one day, or at least that’s what Sakura liked to think. Kakashi would just say that Naruto needed to stay out of trouble, which meant staying away from Sasuke…and her. Four months had passed in long days and easy missions, and Sakura found herself on emergency duty at the hospital for a change. Her ANBU squad was on their month off as per the regular rotation, and sitting around her apartment was not productive. Instead, she wanted to occupy her time while waiting for Naruto and Sasuke to return from their missions with keeping her medical skills honed. Nothing exciting ever happened in those sterile halls except the occasional emergency. This day, not even a paper cut came through the door. Sakura stood at the coin-operated coffee machine, mentally urging the clock to tick faster. It was then that a voice broke her from her usual daydream of warm skin and fire-lit stone walls. “Sakura-sama,” a nurse called over. “Hm?” Sakura turned her eyes to the speaker, slightly put out from being dragged away from her inner torment of remembering Itachi. “Your mailbox is overflowing,” she laughed as she dumped a pile of papers and envelopes on the counter in front of her. Sakura shook her head. “Damn.”

“Looks like it’s been a while since you checked.” “This is only a week,” Sakura said in defeat. Pulling the pile into her arms, she tried hard not to drop any as she wandered to her office. With her foot, she shut the door and let the small mountain of paper fall onto the desk. For fifteen minutes she tossed out newsletters, read memos, and sorted cards from thankful patients. As she picked through, she came across a small flat package and prayed silently that it was a big chocolate bar. Without coffee, the day was going to take forever unless she got some sugar. She eyed the name Haruno Sakura scrawled messily on the front. Unwrapping the twine from the stiff rectangle, she ripped the brown crumpled wrapping from the outside to find a worn, dog-eared notebook. She bit her lip. Opening the cover was slightly difficult with shaking fingers, but she managed to peruse the pages upon pages of sharingan secrets and medical research. Each one held a memory of the moment it was written. Each drawing was an imprint of him. It almost brought tears to her eyes. When she reached the first page after the ragged edges of what he’d ripped out about the mangekyou, she found the first writing that was in a hand other than her own. Her heart pounded hard in her chest. In simple letters was a small note. To anyone else it would have been cryptic, easily dismissed. To Sakura, it was thrilling. Third Monday of the month. Mile-marker. Eight PM. Speeding through the forests again as she often did, Sakura darted aside rivers, through trees, and along paths until she crossed the Konoha border. Had she timed it, she believed she would have arrived at her destination in record time. The rogue country was as unwelcoming as ever, but there was something important there that made the last two weeks of anticipation almost unbearable.

She landed in a tree and played with the silver bracelet dangling on her bare wrist. Standing on a low branch, she eyed the darkening forest in front of her, and the white mile marker in the small clearing ahead. The wait was short. When the familiar tingle of chakra warmed her wrist, she felt like laughing. As she lifted her hand to the hand reaching down from just above her, she admired the blue glow around the silver and smiled.