Chapter 26: Zero

It all returns to nothing

His hands were trembling. He pressed a kiss to the inside of her wrist.

Sakura stared up at his silhouette in the night. His hair spilled, dark as ink down the side of his throat. She watched the way his throat quivered.

"Are you crying?" she asked. His tears gleamed, like gems in the darkness.

"I never thought that…I…if ever…with someone like you…" Itachi trailed off. She smiled. Reaching up, she stroked the side of his face. Itachi leaned over until his forehead almost touched hers. She linked her fingers behind his neck, drawing him even closer.

"I knew that it would be you…" she replied.

"You did?" he asked. She could hear the bewilderment in his tone. It tinged her words with gentleness.

"From that time you brought me flowers when I was poisoned. The peonies," she whispered. She remembered the rounded buds, such a light shade of purple that they were nearly grey.

The light fragrance, almost a citrus scent. The way the blooms had sat in a crystal vase at her bedside. The way the petals has withered and fallen as the days had gone by. She remembered them all with such clarity.

"Was that all it took to woo you? Flowers?" Itachi asked.

"Yes and no. Only because it was you," replied Sakura.

He let out a deep sigh, his warm breath tickling her cheek. And then he chuckled, his laughs shaking her. The sound was so warm and deep that he almost sounded like someone else.

"What?" she asked, smiling too.

"I really..." Itachi paused. He pressed his lips to hers for a moment. And then he lifted his head. "I really did miss you," he concluded.

His weight settled over her. The touches of his fingers tickled as he struggled to gauge where and how to touch. The awkwardness, in its own way, was almost charming. And she laughed through that nervousness. The both of them blushed and fumbled for the right words, the right expressions.

He cried again. The silent tears gathering in the corners of his sepia eyes. Sakura kissed them away, her heart filling with tenderness. She burned every detail into memory. The flex of his back under her palms. The touch of his forehead against her shoulder.

How endearing she found each of these minute things. And she wondered, for the briefest moment, if she would always feel this way. So enamored by every movement.

She cradled his head over her heart. His ear pressed to the slowing rhythm inside her chest. And she was suddenly and keenly aware of how breakable he was.

As the deepest darkness of night fell over them, they slept. His chest rose and fell with ease. Hands tucked under her cheek, Sakura dreamt of a night without stars. A dark blue sky lit only by the golden moon. She dreamt of tides that rushed in, sea foam flooding tide pools. And in that dream, she saw a woman with golden hair holding the hand of a handsome General. They wandered those cool shores, the waves wiping away their footprints in the sand.

Sakura recounted this dream to Itachi in the morning. Wrapped up in his arms and a little too warm for comfort. Her hair spilling across his shoulder. He listened, eyes focused on the ceiling. When she fell silent, his gaze flickered to her.

"Would they have liked me?" he queried.

Sakura considered her memories of Queen Tsunade. Of her silver spectacles and her towers of books. She tilted her head.

"My mother? She might have liked you more than she liked me," she stated. But then she considered her father. His rumbling voice and hands that engulfed hers. "I was my father's only child, though. He might have been less enthusiastic about you," she then concluded.

She smiled again, briefly.

"No. You're kind, you're loyal. He would have come to like you," she amended.

They had known that a knock would come. This golden quiet couldn't last forever. Three sturdy thumps on the mahogany door cleaved the peace.

"My Lady," came Zetsu's voice.

Itachi's hands began clawing. He pulled at the sheets. It took Sakura a moment to realize that he was trying to cover her. Laughing, she helped him preserve her modesty.

"Come in, Zetsu," she replied only after Itachi approved. When the door swung open, Itachi still hadn't decided whether he was there or not. He settled for laying down on the bed. An especially oblivious visitor wouldn't have noticed him at all, curled up behind her. But Zetsu was observant. The steward's eyebrows rose, then fell.

He was also gracious enough not to comment.

"Lady Sakura, an envoy from the Yamanaka family will be arriving shortly. We've received word from your… associates," reported Zetsu. He paused, eyes flickering to the window.

"Ah. Kushimaru only appears murderous. He's actually quite pleasant once you get to know him," Sakura assured him. Zetsu's mouth pursed.

"I will relay that to his many weapons, My Lady," he replied in a flat voice. He changed the topic.

"Breakfast, then, My Lady?" he queried.

Sakura nodded.

"Indoors by the terrace? It's still rather cold today."

Sakura nodded again.

Zetsu's eyes flickered to the lump behind her.

"…Would my lady and my lord prefer blackberry mint or rosemary scones this morning with their tea?" he questioned. At this, Sakura suppressed a smile. Pulling the covers up tighter, Sakura tilted her head back to meet Itachi's nervous gaze. She tried very hard not to laugh at him.

"What do you think? Mint or rosemary?" Sakura asked.

"Rosemary," he mouthed. Sakura turned back to the door.

"Rosemary," she reported to Zetsu. Turning away, he murmured something in the corridor. Two servant girls entered bearing fresh clothing and towels. They bowed, keeping their eyes averted. Zetsu then bowed, one hand behind his back. He saw the servants out before swinging the door shut with the softest click.

Sakura remained sitting upright. Stretching her arms in front of her, she listened to her bones pop and crack. She felt the light touch of Itachi's hand on her back. The tip of his finger tugged at the sheet. She turned, ready to scold his cheekiness so early in the morning, but stopped at the expression on his face. He traced the azure shape of the peacock up her spine. Then down, the feathers fanning across the back of her ribs.

"How painful this must have been," he murmured. She almost brushed aside his concern. But then she realized that he was feeling for the scars hidden by the ink. The remnants of cuts and gouges that had faded with time. Even the most recent one. His knuckles followed the diagonal path of the long slash from her left shoulder blade. Itachi pressed his thumb to the raised line. The puckered skin still didn't feel quite right.

The bed moved under his shifting weight. Itachi's lips touched the base of her neck, molding around the curve of her spine. He grasped her shoulders. The warmth from his palms seeped into her skin.

"Itachi, what is it?" she asked. Another kiss, this one between her shoulder blades. And then another, right on the scar hidden in feathers.

"I'm terribly sad," he stated. She twisted to look at him.

"Why?" demanded Sakura. Almost offended that something would ever make him feel that way. A smile warmed Itachi's face. He leaned forward, resting his chin on her shoulder.

"To see all these hurts. It only reminds me how you always endure everything on your own," he uttered.

"I'm alright, you know," she assured him. She found his hands in the sheets, took them in her own to wrap his arms around her. His fingers uncurled across her stomach.

"I often feel helpless with you. At least allow me to worry," sighed Itachi. There was an edge of irritation to his voice. She realized where he was looking. The scars on her left arm from when she had shielded him from broken pottery. An odd coincidence, now that she considered it. In all her years of overseeing archery practice, she had never seen anything like that. It was normal for the shards to scatter. These almost seemed aimed. Almost...

And suddenly she didn't feel like smiling anymore.

Sakura turned her head to the side. She kissed him.

"Of course you can worry," she assured him.

Sakura raised Itachi's hand to press a kiss to his fingers before she pulled away. His arms relaxed so that she could slide off the bed. Itachi averted his gaze as she picked up her robe. As she walked past the bed, Itachi called out her name. She took a few steps back.

"I'm going to return to my room… to make myself presentable," he told her. After a kiss on the lips, Sakura left Itachi to wash up. She heard the click of the door closing a minute later.

Sakura didn't linger in the bathtub. She dressed in tugs and yanks, clothing clinging to her damp skin. She lost patience with the buttons of her blouse and left the top few open.

As she stepped into the hallway, Sakura heard a cough. Kisame stepped into the light, his oversized sword strapped to his back.

"Good morning, Kisame," she greeted him with a nod.

"A good morning indeed, M'Lady," replied the mercenary. Sakura didn't comment on his strange tone. But that didn't seem to matter. He cleared his throat far too many times. Glancing at her out of the corners of his eyes, Kisame stood too straight.

"You look well-rested," he commented. His eyes didn't know where to settle.

"Thank you. As do you," she said in turn. They began walking down the hall together. And Kisame shot her several more nervous looks before he coughed again.

"I trust that…the prince arrived safely last night," he went on. Sakura pretended not to understand where this conversation was heading.

"Yes, he did," she responded.

Before Kisame could open his mouth again, Sakura held up her hand.

"Kisame, before you make this even more uncomfortable, I'd advise you to stop," she stated. Kisame looked somewhat relieved. They said nothing else as they walked through the halls and out onto the back terrace.

"Where is Naruto?" she asked. It was surprising that her cousin hadn't already come knocking at her door. This was much later than she woke for breakfast and he must have been starving by now. Naruto had come to expect routine from her.

"The little lord had breakfast on his own. He went into town with Zabuza and Haku for some errands," reported Kisame. His lip curled when he said the other mercenary's name. Nodding, Sakura took a seat at the table. When she pointed to one of the chairs, Kisame sat too. He sagged into the cushioned seat. The wood chair groaned in protest.

Sakura opened her mouth. Closed it again. She pursed her lips. Kisame's eyebrows rose.

"I…hm…" She trailed off, still articulating. Kisame leaned forward, elbows on his thighs.

Sakura signaled for some tea. Kisame wasn't the biggest fan of the beverage, she knew. (Why drink something that won't get me drunk?) But it was rare for them to be able to sit idle. Not fretting about the future or searching the shadows for a threat. She waited for Zetsu to arrive bearing a tray. He set out a teacup and saucer in front of Sakura, then in front of Kisame.

Steam fluttered up from the cups when Zetsu poured the drinks out. Kisame scrutinized her through that haze. Only after the steward departed did Sakura open her mouth again.

"I am not entirely comfortable leaving Naruto in the care of Zabuza," she confessed. Kisame looked unsurprised, almost disappointed by the suspense. He eased back into his seat.

"Makes sense. Have you told the little lord about what happened?" asked the mercenary. Sakura colored a little. She kept her eyes fixated on her tea.

"No. I was…distracted last night," was all she said.

Kisame pursed his lips. He tapped his fingers against his legs, clearing his throat.

"Uh. Of course," he finally answered.

Sakura took a sip of her tea, just to have something to do. Kisame coughed into his fist before he spoke again.

"At any rate, Zabuza is completely enamored with Haku. He wouldn't do anything rash in front of him. As long as Haku is with him, the little lord won't meet any harm," Kisame reasoned. Sakura listened, nodding. When she lifted her head to meet his gaze, she gave a faint smile.

"Let's move on to a more pleasant topic."

By the time Itachi joined them, his hair combed but damp, Kisame roared with laughter.

"His whole head?" he asked.

Sakura nodded. "The whole thing. Stuck."

As Itachi sat next to her, Sakura offered him a smile.

"Who are you mocking now?" he asked. She pushed over a plate towering with rosemary scones. Itachi took one of the dense pastries. It was still warm when he split it open.

"I'm telling Kisame about the time Naruto got his head stuck in the bannisters. At Lord Yamanaka's estate," replied Sakura. Itachi's eyes widened.

"It seems cruel to tell such a story without him here," he pointed out.

"It would be far crueler to tell it while he was here," she corrected. Itachi looked ready to argue, but then shrugged.

"How did they get him out?" wondered Itachi.

"Some lard and a strong grip," replied Sakura, holding up her hands. When she wiggled her fingers, Itachi gave her an incredulous look.

"How old were you?" he questioned.

Sakura touched her chin as she thought.

"It was after I went away to the Academy. So…about 13," she mused. Her smile lingered as she held his gaze. And then, clearing her throat, she turned back to Kisame.

"Any pressing news for me, Kisame?" asked Sakura.

"Suigetsu claims that he has a message from your prince's father," Kisame informed her. As he spoke, he jerked his chin toward Itachi. Sakura's eyebrows rose.

"Claims?" repeated Sakura. Kisame scratched at his stubble.

"The brat refuses to give it to me. Says it's for your eyes only, M'lady," he grumbled. That was odd to Sakura. Suigetsu, out of all the swordsmen, looked up to Kisame the most. It was strange for him to withhold anything from Kisame. What was even more unusual was that it was Mangetsu, not Suigetsu who had escorted Itachi. The old mercenary didn't say anything else, but nodded at the way she narrowed her eyes.

"I assume that he will find me when he is prepared to speak with me," she said after some thought. Kisame nodded again.

"On a less worrisome note, Kushimaru says that he's located your aunt. They should arrive today," he added.

With the most pressing business out of the way, they chatted at length about other matters. By the time Kisame excused himself, the tea had gone completely cold. A servant girl quietly came to pour them fresh cups. Her hand slipped and she set Sakura's drink down a little too hard on the saucer. The sound drew Itachi and Sakura's attention; they stopped talking. The color drained out of the girl's face. She froze, shoulders stiff. When no reprimand came from either noble, she rushed to set down the rest of the refreshments. Tray covering the lower half of her face, she gave a hurried bow before scuttling off.

"See? You should relax. Your face is beginning to frighten the servants," Itachi pointed out.

"And you should stop trying to delay me. Like I was saying…" Sakura said in return.

Sakura listed out her plan for the day, already tired at the mere thought of her schedule. Itachi looked eager to stay at her side, but Sakura glowered until he agreed to go back to bed. After his long journey down from the mountains, he wasn't quite recovered. Next time, she promised him as she kissed the top of his head.

This time, when Sakura entered the stables, the men jumped to their feet. They scrambled to outfit her horse before she could lift a finger. When one of them offered a hand to help her mount her steed, she shook her head. Grabbing hold of Kaze's mane, she hoisted herself up, hooking her leg over his back.

Mangetsu greeted her there. He offered to go with her on the trip, but she declined, asking him to watch over Itachi instead. Thinking again, she motioned for him to come closer. She leaned down, mouth just next to his ear. As she whispered, Mangetsu's face scrunched up.

"What if you're wrong?" he asked once she finished speaking. Sakura righted herself. Grasping the reins, she smirked.

"I'm not. I've got a good eye for faces," she simply answered.

She rode into town, her wolf-skin cloak draped over her shoulders. The morning chill lingered in the air, despite early buds forming on trees.

Here the streets were already bustling with activity. Carts and mules parted to allow her passage. Brave hands reached up to touch her legs and the sides of her horse as she passed. She felt a rustle as someone slipped a scrap of parchment under her cloak. Sakura thought she heard the tinkle of a bell.

Sakura passed the Inuzuka family estate on the western edge of the city. And then she left the city gates, raising a hand to the soldiers guarding the entrance. They thumped their fists to their hearts.

She took the smooth forest path. Lady Inuzuka had invested much time and money paving the road in and out of her city with flat stones. There was the occasional patch of mud or a fallen branch, but for the most part, it was an easy ride. Kaze kept a brisk pace, hooves hitting the stone in a steady trot. Within a couple hours, they reached a fork in the road. To the right, the paved path curved on, tracing the path of the hills. But to the left, nestled between sagging branches, was a dirt road. Someone riding quickly would have missed it completely.

Sakura guided Kaze to the left. She pushed the branches away with her forearms, ducking beneath the heavier boughs. She searched the surrounding area. Broken branches, traces from cart wheels spinning through the mud. Someone had done a creditable job of covering up the heaviest signs of travel. The melting snow had uncovered an old campfire that had been hastily buried many months ago. Kaze moved around a shallow ditch, snuffling at the air.

Sunlight dappled the forest floor. It was even cooler here, where the light only touched down in sporadic bursts. Their breaths huffed out in front of them, little ghosts of mist. She pulled her cloak tighter around her shoulders, glad for the warmth. Her gloved hand rubbed the side of her horse's neck before tightening on the reins again. Uttering a soft encouragement under her breath, she urged Kaze on.

Leaves and brush crunched under hooves. The huffs of the horse's breaths slipped into her ears. Birds chattered above. It wasn't yet their mating season so they weren't quite as territorial. Their shrill singing did little more than irritate her.

Soon, she could hear human voices. The rhythmic thuds of axes hacking away.

"Draw some water from the well!"

"The damn thing's still frozen!"

"Well use your damn axe, fool!"

Men roared with laughter. It rose high in the air, along with the smell of wood smoke.

Clearing her throat, Sakura called out: "Good morning!"

The sudden silence seemed to cleave the air. There was one final thud of an axe before someone shushed it. As she rode on, she could hear the rustle of people moving through the underbrush.

"Where are the guards I assigned you?" she asked.

"Ah! Stand down, lads. It's the princess!"

A scattering of exclamations.

"Put down yer axes, boys! It's Her Majesty!"

The leaves shook as several men emerged from the forest. Despite the morning cold, they were already sweaty, their wool sleeves rolled up. Some of them hefted their axes over their shoulders, eyes still wary until they saw her.

"The soldiers?" she asked again. Kaze came to a stop so that she could dismount.

A middle-aged man took several steps forward to bow at the waist. As he straightened, he quickly took off his cap. The other men copied him, lowering their tools.

"We sent them in to eat. They should be back shortly, Your Grace," he informed her.

"I trust that things have been busy out here, Yamato," she greeted him. She reached out. Yamato stared at her fingers for a long time before he grasped her hand. She gave it a firm shake. He broke into a wide smile.

"Of course, Your Grace." He twisted to point deeper into the forest. "I can have one of the boys show you in while we finish up here," he offered. It was Sakura's turn to smile. It had been a good choice to leave the carver in charge of the settlement.

"That sounds wonderful," she agreed.

Sakura took Kaze's reins and followed after the teenager that Yamato had indicated. The boy seemed a little younger than Haku. He chattered about how he had been cutting wood with Yamato's men all winter. That even though he was young, Yamato took him in because of his strength. Sakura listened to all of this with a patient smile.

As they walked deeper into the woods, the sounds of life swelled in a glorious crescendo. They crossed over a few gentle hills. And as they walked over a final hump, a large village came into view. Wooden posts had been driven into the earth to create a wall around the perimeter of the settlement. There were even guard towers at each corner with platforms for archers to keep watch.

Men wearing dark green uniforms stood at the front gate. As they approached, the boy waved his free hand around. When they noticed them, the men waved back.

"It's the General!" one of the men exclaimed. All five of them immediately stood at attention, shoulders straight, right fist over their hearts.

"At ease, soldiers," Sakura said as they drew near. The men lowered their fists.

"Where's your Lieutenant General?" she asked one of the soldiers. He pointed toward the city.

"He was just leaving the blacksmith when we left the village, Ma'am," he reported. Nodding, Sakura headed in past the gates. The young woodcutter offered to take her mount. Kaze allowed him to take the reins without much protest. He nudged Sakura in the shoulder once before being led off.

It had taken several weeks to bring all the tools and materials out to their patch of the forests. Lady Inuzuka had, of course, played a pivotal role in all of this. She had hidden these materials in the shipments coming into Whitewave. The ledgers describing their arrival were mysteriously misplaced. Lady Inuzuka went so far as to arrange for merchants to cart the nails and cutting tools out here. And Lord Aburame had sent along workers to begin clearing trees and stripping the bark. Some of those workers complained that the tools smelled of salted fish, but that was a small price to pray for discretion.

As the frosts began to creep down the coast, they had hurried to level the land and build a settlement. When the ground froze, it would be impossible to drive the posts in to create the outer walls of the village. The men had worked tirelessly to set up the foundation for the many homes and buildings necessary. And as they worked, people began arriving to this hidden spot in the woods.

Bakers and shoemakers. Blacksmiths and woodworkers. They rode in on mules, dragging along carts filled with their possessions. Women and children rode in with bundles on their backs, just as the wells grew a thin layer of ice during the night.

In November, Nara and a small company completed inspections of the northern border. As they began gathering supplies for their journey back, a messenger bird arrived. It bore a sealed letter from General Haruno, ordering Nara to this remote location. When the soldiers arrived, they set to work. The extra hands helped the scattering of wooden skeletons become warm buildings.

By the time the first frosts arrived, the settlement was beginning to take shape. Several families crowded into each of the finished buildings. It was cramped and messy, but frostbite took no lives during the winter. In-between the snowfalls, they continued to construct houses and shops. Lady Inuzuka and Lord Aburame continued to supply food and supplies as winter went on.

Now that the snow had melted, building had restarted in earnest. Every corner of the village was noisy with sawing and smashing. There wasn't an idle hand to be seen. Even the children ran about gathering the scraps of wood and bark for kindling later.

Several soldiers ran past, each pushing a wheelbarrow filled with stones. They yelled out greetings to her. As the villagers recognized her, they called out to her too. Sakura only had the time to smile back as she hurried on.

In the center of the village sat a square stone building. Someone had done their best to carve a wooden sign for the structure with the rough tools that they had. Two men stood outside, smoke streaming from both their mouths.

"I see everyone hard at work. And then I see you two," she greeted them.

Shikamaru looked up first, grinning around his smoking pipe. He took two steps toward her, fist already rising to salute her. But Sakura grabbed his forearm. Shikamaru's eyebrows rose. His fingers closed around her forearm in return. She held his gaze, searching his eyes for a long time. His stare didn't waver.

"Sakura," said Shikamaru.

"Shikamaru," she said in return. When she finally smiled, his expression brightened too. She released him, taking a step back to look at the other man.

"You received my message, then?" asked Sakura, needlessly. Sasori arched an eyebrow.

"I left the same day that you did, love," he replied. He took her hand to kiss the back of it. Sakura pulled it away. And for an instant, she could see the hurt filter into his gaze. Instead, she pointed to her cheek. Relief flooded his face instead. Sasori kissed her right cheek, and then her left.

Grasping his forearms, Sakura pulled Sasori closer.

"You've been touching my things again," she murmured against the side of his face. And then she released him. Sasori cleared his throat.

"Only because I deemed it absolutely necessary, darling," Sasori protested, his tone light. She didn't smile back.

"Lieutenant General. An update, if you would," she said, still pinning Sasori with her stare. Shikamaru was smart enough not to comment on the tension. One hand in his pocket, he gestured to the north end of the settlement. A rectangular building peered out from behind some houses.

"Dormitories for the soldiers."

He pulled his pipe out and used it to point to the east next.

"The boys are building a mill. We're hoping to clear some land nearby to start growing our own wheat. It's not as fertile as the valley, but it might be worthwhile."

"It would reduce the financial burden on the nearby cities," Sakura agreed. Shikamaru pivoted again to point to the entrance of the village.

"Lady Inuzuka brought in that iron gate for us before the first snow. It's been helpful at keeping the foxes away from the livestock. We lost about two dozen chickens before that."

Teeth closing around the pipe again, Shikamaru finally pointed east, back toward Whitewave.

"The Admiral suggested sending out some of the men to begin paving a real road. Although we'd need to bring in a road-builder and laborers from a city. Not to mention that it would somewhat ruin the secrecy…" Shikamaru trailed off. His mouth pursed around his pipe.

"What purpose would a paved road serve?" Sakura asked. Shikamaru scratched the back of his neck.

"It would shorten the time that it took to travel from here to Whitewave. We could begin transporting larger loads. And once …" Shikamaru paused. He waved his hand at everything in general: "All of this is settled, it would make it easier for merchants to come here."

Sakura considered all this. A road did sound like a worthwhile investment. But there were too many other things to consider at the moment.

"Shikamaru, I'm interested in this idea, but I fear that this is not the best time for it. Perhaps once all of…this," said Sakura, copying Shikamaru's earlier movement, "Is resolved, like you said." Shikamaru nodded.

"What do the men back home think?" he inquired.

"They are concerned at the likely possibility that you've betrayed me," replied Sakura.

"Even Aburame? So much for forged brothers," snickered Shikamaru, half joking. Sakura put her hand on his shoulder. He didn't look at her.

"This is a wretched role I've given you to play. Please forgive me, Shikamaru," she said. Shikamaru put his hand over hers for a moment. And then he pushed it away. Sticking his pipe back in his mouth, he shrugged with one shoulder.

"If I die, I trust that you'll be there to tell the true story. And if I live, I can tell it myself," he stated. Sakura's lips thinned. Shikamaru pivoted away from her. He put his hand in his pocket.

For months, Shikamaru had indeed been in correspondence with Lord Danzo. It had all been Sasori's idea- ingratiate himself with the one-eyed lord and gain his trust. Though the duke revealed little of his intentions, every bit was valuable intelligence. Even her suspicions about Shikamaru- those had been orchestrated. The cryptic letters and her scornful looks had all been staged, of course.

Naruto's discovery of Shikamaru's betrayal had potentially been disastrous. Sasori had been right to ignore his pleas for help. Sakura was thankful that his realizations had driven Naruto straight to her. Had he revealed these things to anyone else, he could have ruined a plan years in the making.

Upon learning the truth, Naruto had flushed about four different colors. Running his hands through his hair, he cringed.

"I almost ruined everything!" he exclaimed.

"But you didn't," she corrected him.

It pleased her to see how much effort Naruto now exerted. He shadowed her everywhere he could. He observed the way she spoke with her advisors and allies. More importantly, he learned the way she handled her enemies. In the moments when he didn't quite understand what had happened, he was no longer as afraid to ask. And in turn, she learned to temper her explanations with patience.

Surprisingly, Naruto often offered valuable information. His knowledge of his father's thinking often provided unique insights. And because of his ignorance, others had often spoken too much around him. Naruto had overhead things should not have been voiced so openly. And, of course, he spilled all these things into her ears without hesitation. Some of those things confirmed old suspicions. Some of things opened her eyes to new possibilities.

Naruto returned from the city a little before Sakura rode back from the settlement. She stood in the foyer of the estate, waiting for a servant to bring her shoes to change into. Her boots were caked with mud and bits of dead leaves. Naruto walked past, bread stuffed into his mouth. He wielded more loaves in each of his hands. He froze. They stood staring at one another.

Naruto mumbled something in a completely garbled voice. He looked around, trying to solve his many-bread dilemma. Finally, he held out one of the loaves to her. She took it. The bottom half was wrapped in a clean cloth. Naruto used his newly-freed hand to take the bread from his mouth.

"I was about to go looking for you. This is for you. And this one's for Prince Itachi," Naruto declared, waving with the whole loaf in his other hand.

"Naruto, there's plenty of food here," she pointed out. Naruto nodded.

"I know. It's just that they smelled so good and I wanted to share," he explained.

Letting out a helpless sort of sigh, Sakura smiled.

"I'm sure that they'll make a nice addition to…whatever they have cooking in the kitchen," relented Sakura. Naruto flashed a grin.

"Do you need me to do anything?" he then queried. Sakura shook her head.

"Alright. I'm taking these to the kitchen. I'll see you for supper," Naruto declared before wedging the bread back into his mouth. He took the loaf from Sakura and continued on his merry way.

As a smile pulled at Sakura's lips, her eyes caught an odd shape. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the shape of a man. And then, Suigetsu pulled the hood of his cloak down. Sakura waved at Naruto as he waved one last time before she slipped into the servants' corridor. Suigetsu walked too quickly, arms held stiff at his sides.

"Suigetsu," Sakura called. Suigetsu jerked his head back to glower at her.

"Not here!" the mercenary hissed out. His eyes darted around. The crazed look in his eyes made Sakura pause. She checked over her shoulder too. When she turned back, Suigetsu was already moving again.

"Sui-Suig- wait!" she whispered.

These narrow, dim passages were meant for the servants to move quickly and quietly. Though nowhere near as winding as the paths in Leaves, it was difficult to know where they were going. She stumbled a few times over the worn stones.

Suigetsu took a sharp left turn, disappearing into the shadows that the torches couldn't quite banish. When Sakura followed, his arm shot out. He pulled her into the alcove, his eyes still darting around like a madman.

"Suigetsu, you need to explain yourself. What's this message from Itachi's father that I've heard about?" sighed Sakura, pulling out of his grasp.


His gaze finally settled on her. He let out a deep breath.

"Big Boss?" he asked. Sakura blinked a couple times.

"Kisame? Uh… I expect that he's around somewhere?" Sakura replied. Suigetsu purse his lips.

"You have a problem, M'Lady. I'm not even sure whether we can trust Big Boss," he said, voice dropping low. Sakura nodded.

"Yes, I discovered it not too long ago. Zabuza attempted to poison me. The message, Suigetsu," she responded. Suigetsu's eyes grew even wider.

"Zabuza? Are you alright? Poison?" he barked.

"I'm fine. The message," she sighed.

"I made it up! There's no message," Suigetsu growled. She stared at him.

"So there's no need for all this hysteria, correct?" she then said. But Suigetsu shook his head, molars grinding together.

"Zabuza. I can't believe- Alright, fine. Later. What I need to tell you is that your aunt was at the dam. Talking to the man in the white mask," Suigetsu told her. For a moment, all Sakura could do was smile. She laughed, shaking her head.

"Y'think I'm a liar," Suigetsu said. He scowled.

"You must have misunderstood. I don't think that you're a liar," she countered. Suigetsu's lower jaw jutted out. He let out a long breath, teeth clicking together like a gate closing.

"You're a hunter out in the forest. Your hunting dog starts barking, what do you do?" he asked.

"Hunting dog? Suigetsu, what are you-"

"Dog's barking. Do you ignore it?" Suigetsu pressed. She shrugged.

"There must be something I don't see yet," she replied. Suigetsu pointed at her.


He then took the same hand to jab his thumb into his sternum.

"Dog. Barking."

Sakura searched his face. Her gaze lingered on the scar on his nose, just inside his nostril. She grabbed him by the front of his shirt. The scent of liquor didn't linger on his breath. And his eyes didn't waver.

"The man in the white mask?" she finally repeated. He nodded.

"Same stripe on his chin?"

Suigetsu nodded again.

"Tell me everything. And then tell me about the dam."

The scratch at the window made Itachi pause mid-sentence. Itachi lifted his head from her lap, his eyes falling open. She touched her hand to his forehead, whispering "shhh". Her fingers slid under her skirt, easing a single blade from her holster. Suddenly, Kushimaru's mask appeared among the trees. Sakura sighed. Itachi's head flopped back down.

"What news?" she asked as Kushimaru pulled the window open.

The swordsman climbed inside. He brushed some leaves from his hair. Hooking his thumb under the bottom of his mask, he raised it to expose his mouth. He licked his dry lips.

"She left the city. Chojuro is bringing her," reported Kushimaru.

"That would be Aunt Kurenai, then," Sakura deduced. Kushimaru nodded.

Itachi, who had lounged in bed all day, looked down at his clothes.

"I should change. It would be improper to receive a guest like this," he remarked. Sakura patted his chest.

"I think you look wonderful. If that's any consolation, anyway," Sakura interjected. Itachi let out a small laugh.

"It is very comforting, if unhelpful," he answered.

But then the smile faded from Sakura's face. And Itachi's smile followed.

"It might actually be better for you not to be there," Sakura stated. Itachi held her gaze for a long time.

"Are you in danger?" he questioned. Kushimaru tensed. The arrows on his back bumped together in the leather holder.

"No. But the Haruno clan is loyal only to itself. And you're not blood, Itachi," Sakura pointed out. Her hand cupped his cheek. She blew out a long breath.

"That sounded wrong. What I meant was that she might be more wary of your presence. I may not get all the information I need," she amended. His lips turned upwards. He covered her hand with his, the callouses brushing her knuckles.

"Sometimes, you're so clumsy with your words. I know better than to take offense," assured Itachi. Turning his head to the side, he kissed her palm. And then he sat up.

"I can find something to keep myself occupied. Come find me once you're done," Itachi said. He reached over her to gather his novels. Sakura grimaced, sinking lower into her seat.

"You should just sleep. These talks get long," Sakura sighed, shaking her head. Her neck was already sore at the thought. Itachi paused at the door.

"I don't care if you're late. Come anyway," Itachi insisted. He smiled, face so filled with warmth. She craned her neck to look at him, eyes narrowing.

"…Those pleading eyes. Will I ever win an argument against you?" she huffed.

"I doubt it, General," answered Itachi before closing the door.

"Kushimaru, please make sure he gets to his room safely. And have someone watch over him. I want you here when my aunt arrives," Sakura said, eyes fixed on the window. The floorboards creaked under the mercenary's shifting weight.

"You said Haruno's are loyal," Kushimaru croaked, his pointed teeth flashing a grin.

"The first queen of the Haruno dynasty, Kaguya- do you know of her?" asked Sakura. Kushimaru grunted. She folded her arms across her chest.

"She had twin sons. The elder one slit his brother's throat in the bath, then raised his orphaned nieces and nephews as his own. The concept of loyalty is a little complicated when it comes to my family," she stated in a flat voice. When she turned her head, she looked directly into his eyes.

"I want you here," she said again.

Kushimaru pulled his mask back down. He nodded.

Lady Kurenai arrived just before sundown.

Sakura didn't greet her at the door. She sat in the salon- the usual reception area for guests of import. The green rug was flecked with white flowers and diamonds. She had never noticed the design before. When Zetsu showed the guest in, Sakura was holding a glass of wine. It was deep burgundy. In the flickering light of the fire, it almost looked black.

"Good evening, darling. It's a bit dark in here, isn't it," remarked Kurenai, shedding her furs. She leaned across the low table to kiss both of Sakura's cheeks. Sakura returned the greeting. Pinning Kurenai with her eyes, she took a long sip of wine. She didn't offer any to her guest. Before they could speak, the door creaked open. Chojuro's spectacles glinted even in the low light.

He dipped his head.

"M'Lady," he said.

"I'm glad to see you unharmed, Chojuro. We will speak later," Sakura greeted him. His eyes narrowed a little. With another bob of his head, he disappeared, door clicking shut behind him.

Kurenai folded her hands in her lap.

"He's an odd one. So many secrets in that darling head of his," she murmured.

"Be careful, Aunt Kurenai. Some of those secrets are mine," Sakura replied. Kurenai tittered, eyes squinting into half-moons.

"All the more reason to dig. Your letters have been far and few. I was beginning to worry that you had forgotten me," Kurenai said.

"Silence is not equivalent to forgetfulness, Aunt Kurenai. Sometimes silence is just…silence." Something in Kurenai's gaze sharpened at that. But Sakura only stared at her as she took another sip of wine. She ran her tongue along her teeth, tasting the acid that lingered. When she lowered her glass, she smiled with her lips.

"How long have you been lying to me, Lady Kurenai?"

She asked it. And it pierced the air like many knives. Kurenai's expression didn't change.

"Whatever are you talking about, my dear? When did I lie to you?" Kurenai asked in return. In the firelight, her eyelashes cast exaggerated shadows across her face. It was shrouded in darkness, leaving only her eyes, red and luminous.

"Please. I would hate to have to be rude to you," Sakura added.

"I'm not quite as sharp as I once was, darling. I don't believe I quite understand," Kurenai answered. Her eyes faded into a laugh, but there was nothing humorous in her gaze.

Sakura's eyes never left Kurenai as she spoke: "Kushimaru, please have Mangetsu bring me my present for my dear aunt."

For a second, Kurenai looks bewildered. Her eyes darted all around the room. But when a shadow shifted among the rafters, she found it immediately. Kushimaru slid from his hiding spot. He swung down, touching the floor with barely a creak. He rose to full height, staring directly at Kurenai. Then he crossed the room to open the door. He disappeared into the hallway, almost a phantom.

"There was no need to hide him, dear. I wouldn't have minded his company," Kurenai stated, smiling again.

Sakura said nothing in return.

"No need for the scary face, love. Tell me. What's upsetting you so?" queried Kurenai. She leaned forward, as if preparing to listen.

Sakura swirled her wine around. It coated the walls of the glass for an instant before falling back to the bottom. She held it up, inspecting it in the firelight.

"There were a few things that concerned me in the last few years, Aunt Kurenai. Let me list them for you since you seem so intent on relieving me of my burdens," Sakura began after a long time.

"The first: the lack of correspondence I received from Naruto and his family. It seemed that whenever I was home in Plumeria, I would scarcely hear word from them. And when I was elsewhere, Naruto couldn't seem to stop sending messages. Strange, isn't it?"

Sakura's eyes flickered away from the wine. She looked at Kurenai who only shook her head.

"Sending messages with birds over the sea is unreliable. I, myself, have lost several letters, darling," she replied. Sakura smiled at that.

"Yes. I said the same thing to Naruto…who then told me just how often he's written to me in the last several years. Nearly a letter every week. How…odd that the birds would have lost so many of his messages." Kurenai looked appropriately startled.

"And that whatever correspondence I received only contained upsetting news. What a queer coincidence."

Sakura took her time drinking more wine. Kurenai sat up straighter now. Her hands separating and then rubbing together once. Clasping them together, she let them fall into her lap again. Sakura lowered her glass.

"The second interesting phenomenon was just how well you've been dressing these days, my lovely aunt."

Kurenai shifted in her seat.

"Granted, I have no qualms about providing my dear family with the things they desire. I only ask that these things are appropriately recorded so that my Lord of Finance can note them," Sakura went on. And then she looked Kurenai in the eyes again.

"Of course, I'm not accusing you of stealing, Aunt Kurenai. You would never do such a thing." The assurance only made Kurenai tense more.

"You're careful not to wear them all at once. But I've noticed them. New jewelry. A fancy dress here and there. A silver fox cloak. Even I don't own one of those," Sakura listed.

"They were gifts, of course. You know that I'm not someone who enjoys wasting your money," Kurenai answered, her smile a little tight.

"From your lover, then? Lord Sarutobi?" responded Sakura, matching her smile. "Lord Sarutobi, who maintains such precise financial records that he even reports when he purchases just one new bowl?"

Kurenai frowned.

"Sakura, will you trust the Lord of Finance's words over mine? How can you know that his calculations are accurate when he's nearly always intoxicated?" Her voice held an edge.

Sakura nodded.

"True. It's easy for a man's hand to slip when he's had too much wine. Fortunately, I-"

They were interrupted by the door slamming open. Mangetsu entered, holding a servant by the upper arm. She flailed against his grip. She kicked at his shins, clawing at his restraining hand. Mangetsu said nothing, upper lip stiff as he held on to her.

"You're too early. I wasn't finished with the other points yet," sighed Sakura. Mangetsu met her look and he visibly struggled not to roll his eyes. Kushimaru walked into the room, too. Instead of climbing back up into the rafters, he stood behind Sakura. He leaned against the back of the sofa, arms crossed and facing away from them. The point of his sword twinkled faintly in the firelight.

Sakura cleared her throat. "Like I was saying, even though the Lord of Finance is a drunk, I always have Kankuro check these records. And he has yet to discover any of these expenses in Lord Sarutobi's spending." As she finished talking, she looked over to find the girl now attempting to bite Mangetsu's arm.

"Moegi, a little dignity, please," she sighed. The girl froze.

"A wig and makeup can only do so much for you. Did you really think I wouldn't recognize you after spending months with you?" Sakura demanded.

"Ino wrote to me when she first went home. She remarked how her mother had fired so many of the staff she liked. Including the lady's maid she had grown so attached to. You got fired on purpose so that you could come work here instead."

Moegi didn't meet her eyes.

"That was the third thing, by the way," Sakura added, looking at Kurenai now. The older woman didn't move. It almost looked like she wasn't breathing.

"I realize that my explanation was a little long, but this is what I mean, Aunt Kurenai. How long have you been lying to me?" she concluded, staring at Kurenai until she finally met her gaze. It was difficult to read her expression with those wooden eyes. Sakura waited. Only silence met her.

"Will you tell me?" she inquired.

Kurenai's neck moved like it was on wooden joints. She jerked her head to the left, right, and then left again. Her upper lip quivered, but she made no sound.

"What will you do?" asked Mangetsu.

Sakura didn't have to consider. She had already decided.

"Let them continue. There's no sense in pulling weeds if you can't pluck the root as well. Mangetsu, I'm putting you in charge of watching them," she answered. Sakura held Kurenai's gaze for a moment, and then held Moegi's.

"And don't even consider running. My hounds will catch you before you make it out the city gates," she warned. At this, Kushimaru glanced over his shoulder at the two women.

"As far as my dearest Sasori knows, I'm still blissfully unaware of this artifice. I need to see just where he plans to go with this," Sakura then said. She pinned Kurenai under her stare until the other woman nodded.

Mangetsu escorted Kurenai to the best guestroom while Kushimaru took Moegi back to the servants' quarters.

"Mangetsu," called Sakura as she watched him walk down the hallway. He turned and so did Kurenai. He was too far away for her to make out his face in the dim light.

"Send my thanks to your brother. He's saved me a bigger headache down the road," she said. Mangetsu lifted a hand before he turned back. Hand on Kurenai's shoulder, he gave her a light shove to get her moving again.

Once they had disappeared into the dark, Sakura made her way to Itachi's room upstairs. She softly tapped her knuckles against his door. When she peeked her head in, he was sitting with his back to the door. Across from him sat Kisame. They both stood at her entrance. Kisame opened his mouth to greet her, but something in her expression made him stop.

"Kisame. Things have changed. Mangetsu will fill you in on the details. Put Suigetsu in charge of watching the girl. If I'm not there, I want you by Itachi's side always." The words tumbled out, sharp orders.

"The girl? What's happened? Are you hurt? Is it Zabuza again?" Kisame's questions replied just as sharply. He took three sweeping steps toward her. His shadow engulfed her until he could only see her eyes shining wetly.

"Find Mangetsu and bring Zabuza with you," she directed again.

Kisame sighed, rubbing the back of his head.

"Apparently we'll have plenty of time to continue this chat later, M'Lord. If you'll excuse me. Can't refuse M'Lady anything," he said, nodding to Itachi.

"Of course, Kisame. Thank you for keeping me company," answered Itachi. As Kisame walked past, he grasped Sakura's upper arm.

"Are you certain about Zabuza?" he whispered. Sakura arched her eyebrows.

"A dog that bites his master's hand will starve. Use him," she confirmed.

Clicking his tongue against his teeth, Kisame took his leave.

Sakura ran her hand through her hair. And then she rubbed at both her eyes, squeezing them shut.

"See? That didn't take so long," Itachi spoke up. Sakura lifted her head. He was sitting again, one arm draped over the back of the sofa. She found a smile for him.

"Some things have changed. There wasn't much to say," she replied. She shed her outer jacket. The gleaming medals hit the floor with a metallic thud. Pulling the tie from her hair, she leaned against Itachi's armrest. She lifted her right knee to tug at the laces of her boot.

"Things didn't go well?" queried Itachi.

"They went…just as about as well…as they could," Sakura grunted, sliding her boot off. She let it fall to the floor before raising her other knee. Repeating the process. Picking the knot apart and peeling the boot off her foot. When she straightened, Itachi took her hand. She didn't protest when he gave a light tug. She turned and slid off the armrest, straight into his lap.

"It's all terrible and messy," she added, finally meeting his eyes. She stretched her legs out, rotating her stiff ankles.

"It's something you can't tell me," guessed Itachi.

"No. It's something I won't tell you," Sakura corrected him. She touched the back of her hand to his temple for a moment. And then she let her hand fall to rest on his shoulder. Her finger traced the shape of his collar. She touched the gold buttons.

"Sakura," he sighed. His hand found her cheek, sliding back, into her hair. Closing her eyes, she sank into his touch. Let him hold her head up.

"Not because I don't trust you. But because I don't want you to have to know. I just want you to be safe. I don't want you to be involved in so much ugliness," Sakura explained. She turned her head, lips pressing to his palm. Then she held his hand in both of hers, pushing it against her cheek again. She opened her eyes.

"This will only make you worry more," she inferred.

"You are going to be the death of me. I'll fret until all my hair goes grey," Itachi confirmed. But he pulled free of her grasp to wrap his arms around her.

"I can't force you to tell me. So I'm going to worry about you every second of every day," he declared. She laughed a little. Hands rubbing across his back, she pressed her cheek against the side of his neck.

"Then worry to your heart's content for now. Once this is over, I'll make it so that you never feel so anxious again."

She felt another long sigh leave him.

"I've already told you. Whatever happens, you're stuck with me," he murmured. Squeezing her eyes shut even tighter, she smiled.

"Papa really would have liked you, Itachi."

The mists cleared ahead. She fumbled her way through. Oddly enough, she was not afraid. As it grew clearer, Sakura began to recognize the place. These were the piers on the south end of Plumeria; she had spent so much time here as a child. The waters were tinged with grey. She could even see the boats bobbing on distant waves.

As she walked on, she saw an odd shape set on the end of the pier.

She hesitated. The dock creaked. As a large wave splashed at her toes, she saw the big silhouette stir. He patted the spot beside him.


Sakura took the last few steps. His silver mane was damp. When she sat, she dunked her toes in the cool water. Fingers twisting into her skirts, she finally worked up the courage to look at the strange man.

"You certainly took long enough. I've been waiting forever to see you," remarked King Jiraiya. He smiled. His eyes crinkled as he looked at her for a long while. He turned his head back to look out at the waters again.

"You've grown," he added.

Sakura couldn't say anything. Hands clenching tighter, she looked out at the ocean too.



Sakura shook her head. "Nothing. It's…just been a long time."

Jiraiya chuckled. He pointed.

"What's this you've brought?" he queried. Suddenly, there was a smooth glass ball in her hands. It was filled with greenery, tiny little trees sprouting between even tinier blades of grass. There were narrow buildings made of stone and dew. Towers laced with twisting vines of ivy.

Sakura stared down at the ball. And when she looked up, her eyes filled with tears.

"It's a kingdom. I made it, Father," declared Sakura.

Jiraiya held out a hand to her. She pressed the orb into his palm. He held it up to the light, squinting through one eye.

"Well isn't it a pretty little thing," he mused. He turned it over in his hand once, twice. He even spun it, carefully inspecting every facet of it before he handed it back to her.

Sighing, Jiraiya leaned forward, elbows resting on his thighs.

"It looks like you built some of that up from the ground. I'm sorry about that," he said, staring out at the ocean. He glanced her way and added: "I meant to give you so much more."

She swallowed.

"I had to let parts of it break…and then I built over them. But I still let it break. I'm sorry, Father," she confessed.

"There's nothing to be sorry for," answered Jiraiya.

"I should have taken better care of it. You and mother entrusted it to me," she insisted.

Jiraiya chuckled, eyes squinting shut. He reached over, taking her hand in his. His signet ring was cool against her finger.

"Like I said. Nothing to be sorry for," he said again.

The conversation petered out. They looked toward the ocean again. She stared hard at the horizon, at the way the blue of the sea and the blue of the sky blurred together. Tears began to gather in the corners of her eyes- stinging and bitter.

"I'm…angry. I'm angry at you and Mother for dying so early. I'm angry at the way the nobles and Uncle handled the situation-" Sakura broke off. And she could feel Jiraiya's stare on the side of her face.

She choked on her breath.

"I wanted you to always be with me. To teach me. To help me."

Jiraiya beamed.

"My child. My heart," he murmured. He enveloped her in his arms. And his touch was solid but so, so cold.

"Papa…I just wanted you to be proud of me," she confessed.

She felt him kiss the top of her head.

"You know that this isn't really me, Sakura. All you're trying to do is comfort yourself," he whispered into her ear. She squeezed her eyes shut even tighter.

"But what else can I do? You aren't here to comfort me."

And with that, he evaporated into mist in her arms.

Sakura gasped, eyes flying open. The night was calm.

She was standing on the beach, black sand between her toes. The steadfast tides swooshed in and out, smoothing over the shore. Carving down the rough edges of stone until they gleamed like glass. The ceaseless rhythm of the waves filled her ears as she took in deep breaths.

She heard footsteps crunching through the sand.


She didn't turn back to him. Tears welled in her eyes, wobbling and spilling over. She folded her arms over her chest, caging her heart in. Hugging all the hurts in as they throbbed between her ribs.

"Sakura, what is it?"

His hands slipped under her arms, worming their way in. Weaving her fingers between his.

"Sasori," she sobbed. His fingers tightened. And then her back hit his chest as he pulled her close.

"Sasori, I had such a sad dream. I feel so alone," hiccuped Sakura. His sigh echoed low and even.

"Ah, don't cry, love. I'll always be here, darling." And for a moment, she felt secure in his arms. The memories of sunlight and little feet. Of days when both of them had fit in narrow passages and cupboards.

"Liar," Sakura whispered as she felt herself dissolving, scattered foam in the strong wind.

When Sakura opened her eyes, she wasn't standing on a shore. She didn't smell salt or flowers.

"She's so upset. I wish there was something I could do to help her," she heard Itachi say. His chest vibrated with the words. His hand stroked through her hair as he spoke. She kept her eyes closed, stayed as still as she could. She had dozed off in his lap, her head on his shoulder.

"I often feel the same way, Your Highness," Haku said. He was speaking from the seat that Kisame had previously occupied. The floorboards near the window creaked. There was a fourth person in the room.

"But she's taught me that each person has his burden to bear in life. We can't take on anyone else's burdens. All we can do is offer a brief respite," Haku went on. Itachi's hand stilled.

"How do you do that?" he asked.

Haku chuckled.

"It looks like you're doing it right now. I've never seen Lady Sakura look so sloppy before. She must feel at ease with you."

Sakura struggled not to say something in return.

Itachi resumed stroking her head. She was glad for it.

"I hope so. When my father first fell ill, she was such a great comfort to my brother and myself. I don't know if this is enough, in comparison," confessed Itachi.

Something about Haku's voice sounded so like Shizune. Gentle and warm, not at all hurried. As if there was nothing else to be doing but having this exact conversation. Even the way he laughed sounded a little like her.

"I worry about that, too. When I first saw her here, I cried like a child. It was quite embarrassing, honestly. But she said that seeing how much I missed her made her feel special," he answered.

"Can you imagine that? I'm some orphan that she took in. She saved my life, gave me purpose. Made a home for me. And I make her feel special?" And he was chuckling again.

Itachi laughed too.

"You're very important to her. You shouldn't downplay your value like that," he told Haku.

"And neither should you, Your Highness," answered Haku.

There was a long pause.

The floor by the window creaked again.

"Well, sounds like you've answered each others' worries, then," Kisame declared. His footsteps clomped over.

"We should get going, boy. Sorry to intrude on your private time like this, Prince," declared the swordsman. Sakura could feel Itachi shake his head.

"Not at all. It's always a pleasure speaking with you both."

Haku got to his feet too.

"Are you sure you don't want us to move her to the bed? You must be uncomfortable," asked Haku. Itachi shook his head again.

"If I could keep to myself her like this forever, I would. Good night, gentlemen," he replied.

The two sets of footsteps filed out.

"Kushimaru'll be just outside this door if you need him. Good night, Prince," Kisame said. And then he door shut. Cool air from the hall gusted in for a moment. Itachi's shoulders tensed. He tucked her hair behind her ear. Sakura leaned in to the touch.

"You would keep me here forever?" she repeated, eyes still closed.

He jolted.

"How long have you been awake?" he asked.

"About five minutes or so. I didn't hear the whole thing," Sakura assured him. She opened her eyes. She linked her hands behind his neck.

"When did they get here?" she asked.

"Not that long ago. You've only been asleep for about half an hour or so," Itachi told her. Sakura hummed in response.

"Entirely your fault. Your lap is too comfortable."

He laughed.

"Are you going to spend the whole night here?" he asked. She nodded.

"I'm not strong enough to carry you, Sakura. My legs are going numb," he tried again. Sakura gazed at him from beneath her eyelashes. And suddenly she felt his expression shift too.

"Then maybe you can find a way to persuade me to move? Put that silver tongue of yours to use?" she suggested. Even in the dark, she could see his cheeks darken, flushing as he understood the implications.

"You honestly will be the death of me," he grumbled. She laughed as she lifted her head to kiss him.