A/N: I have a second installment prepared for this. And a third. But it depends on the response I'm getting for this first installment. And, yes, I know I have several WIPs going at the moment, but for now, all I seem to be able to focus on are smaller pieces like this one. Pieces that I can expand on whenever I get the inspiration, but which I'm not forced to write more on if I don't have the inspiration. Nothing kills the muse faster than forced inspiration. There is a fine line between urged/cultivated inspiration and forced inspiration. Also, sorry for any typos that you find. I proof-read, but I changed from past tense to present tense mid-way in the story, and I might not have caught all the verbs in the process.
The Uchiha Household
Part I: The First Years
Unsurprisingly, after years of war and death, Konoha accepted the truth behind the Uchiha massacre much like somebody would accept a bad hair day or being stuck in traffic and coming in late to work. There was nothing to do about it, nothing that really needed to be done, and so it simply was. Uchiha Itachi's name was cleared and his reputation redeemed. Uchiha Sasuke was granted lenience for his desertion, because he had been misled by an enemy of Konoha that the people hated more than Sasuke himself. Lucky bastard, Naruto had said. Lucky bastard that Orochimaru had been blacklisted by the people way before Sasuke himself. That had been his saving.
In the immediate months after the war, the people of Konoha had played the roles of judge, jury and executioner. The government had been unable to invoke and enforce its laws. It was like this – by the people – that Naruto was chosen as the Sixth Hokage. He formed a temporary council, and soon enough he had lived up the people's hope that he could rebuild Konoha into a new golden age. That was five years ago.
Two years after Naruto took up the Hokage duty, Sasuke and Itachi were reinstated as citizens of the village. One year after that, they were reintegrated into the shinobi force. The two brothers split up the old Uchiha compound, each respectively inhabiting different parts. They shared the compound's vast training ground, and later opened it up to public use, provided that you were bold enough to use it. Aside from herself and the two Uchiha brothers, Sakura had only ever seen it be used by Naruto, Kakashi, and some guy with a name that she couldn't remember, but whom she often saw walking together with Itachi. Sakura was fine with people lacking the guts to use it. That meant she got it almost exclusively to herself. It was the wet dream of all training grounds in the area. It was equipped better than the Hyuuga's, and that was no small feat.
"Why is your left leg lagging behind your right?" Sasuke asks one early morning out on the training ground. He has watched the last ten minutes of her training session, sitting perched on a dummy and eating an apple. The apple looks as juicy as Sakura feels sweaty. She looks up at him, wiping sweat from her brow.
"You're noticing this now?" she asks.
"I'm asking it now," Sasuke says and jumps down from the dummy. He lands on the ground soundlessly, light as a feather. Sakura picks a pebble out of a gash in her palm and heals it with the green glow of her chakra.
"Old injury," she answers and wipes her palm on her thigh. Sasuke takes another bite of his apple without letting his eyes fall from her face. She shrugs. Yes, she gave him the easy answer. Yes, they both know that it is an old injury. And yes, he had expected her to go into more detail about it, but she hadn't. If he wants details, he must specify and ask directly for it. After all these years, Sakura is still housebreaking him. He also still looks as damn delectable as ever, she thinks. Immediately after Sasuke's return, interactions had been tense between the two of them. Now, three years later, they are on civil ground with each other, sometimes slipping into friendly ground as if by accident. This morning they had slipped into friendly ground.
"I'm sorry. Let me rephrase," Sasuke says. "How did you obtain the injury, and when did it occur?"
"Five years ago in Suna against Egami Kenta," Sakura says with a sassy smile of her own. "Bastard jumped me with my back turned. I was healing a comrade."
"Don't know him," Sasuke says and looks up towards the compound on the hill above them. The training ground is located a little off from the compound, at the bottom of the hill that the compound itself is located on. If it had been placed closer to the buildings of the compound, Sakura doubts that the brothers would have made it available for public use. It has fences, high and spiky, but nothing else signals that it is property of the Uchiha household.
"I killed him. Maybe that's why you don't know him," Sakura says and follows Sasuke's line of sight. Itachi is walking towards them, descending the hill with admirable elegance, and Sakura marvels not for the first time over the similarity between the two brothers. Still, it is a superficial similarity, she reminds herself. Itachi is the taller of the two, but Sasuke is lankier, so he often looks as tall as Itachi. Itachi's hair is darker and straighter, and the black of Sasuke's eyes has more depth than Itachi's. Sakura knows that Itachi's eyesight has been damaged by excessive use of his Sharingan, so that might play a role in the matted color of his eyes. Their facial features are probably the closest way in which they mimic each other. They both have angular, straight features and a jawline that Sakura envies.
When Itachi reaches Sakura and Sasuke, he gives Sakura a short nod in greeting. She responds in kind.
"You have a visitor," he says to Sasuke. Sasuke takes a last bite of his apple and tosses it over his shoulder. Itachi looks at the spot in the grass where the apple lands with a soft thump.
"The birds will eat it," Sasuke says, already heading up the hill and towards the compound. The sun is rising, casting an eerie shimmery glow onto the walls of the compound, and Sakura admires the vibrant display of colors. She realizes too late that Itachi is still there.
"Did you want to talk to me?" she asks him. She rocks back onto the balls of her feet and folds her hands loosely in front of her body. Itachi has come to her on previous occasions, asking for professional medical advice. Once or twice, he has struck up random conversation with her, but they don't generally interact much. He doesn't make her uncomfortable, not anymore, but he makes her awkward. Today, he is wearing a loose-fitting grey shirt and black slacks. Both look soft and worn. He has bunched up the sleeves of his shirt, and even though the shirt is loose-fitting, it moves when he walks and you can catch a hint of muscle underneath.
"I want to thank you," he says. "You make Sasuke feel at ease. You and Naruto."
"We grew up together. We fought together," Sakura answers. Itachi's eyes flick back to hers with the force of a bee sting, and she has to stiffen her arm not to reach up and touch her face. She zips her mouth shut and squints against the sharp morning sun.
"I'll get going," she says.
"You know him," Itachi says. "Tell me what you think."
'About me and him' is omitted from the sentence, but Sakura hears it as explicitly as if Itachi has screamed it at her. Even though the two brothers live together, it is no secret that their relationship is strained.
"I don't have anything to tell," she says. The sun is climbing higher on the sky, heating up Sakura's back where the rays fall across her still damp clothes. They are damp with sweat, and Sakura wants nothing more than to go home and take a post-workout shower, but Itachi isn't keen on her leaving. This is a situation that she has never thought she would find herself in, and she has no idea how to escape it in a civil manner. She can run, but that isn't civil, and she probably won't ever be able to face Itachi again. That won't work, since she is friends with Sasuke and uses this training ground an awful lot. Something that has put her in this situation in the first place. It is an evil circle. Evil.
"I don't really know him. Not the person that he is now," she says. "I know who he used to be, and he still has some of those traits, but he has a lot of new traits that I know nothing about."
"You're the only woman close to him," Itachi says. "Women have an emphatic understanding of the world. This is a perspective that I don't have."
The intensity in Itachi's voice, coupled with the demand that he is making of her, almost makes Sakura go cross-eyed with performance anxiety. She doesn't understand why Itachi is seeking out her opinion. She looks up towards the compound, the place where she saw Sasuke disappear moments ago, and allows herself a couple of seconds to think about her answer.
"I think you need to choose your battles wisely," she says. "Your intentions with Sasuke have always been good from your perspective, but I doubt they felt good to him. Maybe not even to you. What do I know? I think both of you are lucky that you didn't end up killing each other. Yes, I think you should choose your battles wisely. Let him come to you. Don't chase him."
When she looks back at Itachi's face, she knows that she was right to tell him the truth as she saw it.
"Why didn't you heal it?"
She blinks. "What?"
"Your hip injury," Itachi says and ducks his head forward. Sakura goggles. She doesn't even hide it. He had overheard her conversation with Sasuke?
"I had the choice between spending my last energy resources on saving my comrade's life, or fixing the fractures in my hipbone. I chose the former."
"The Hokage is up there," he says with a vague motion towards the compound. "Maybe you want to say hello, too."
Naruto is Sasuke's visitor? Has Naruto said anything to Itachi? Is that why Itachi is talking about Sasuke's happiness? Sakura fights a grimace. These thoughts are disturbing.
"Maybe," Sakura says, but Itachi has already turned his back on her. As she watches, he walks in the opposite direction of the compound, and Sakura feels a drop of sweat trickle down from her hairline to her temple. Cold or hot, she isn't sure.
From then on, Sakura begins to pay more attention. Before that morning at the Uchiha compound, she had never considered Itachi a multi-faceted person. Or just a person. It is cruel, but it is true. Everybody have people like that. People that you see regularly, but which are inconsequential like the pebbles on the road that you pass on your way to work. Now Sakura's mind is in overdrive, picking apart every action she overlooks Itachi doing, and trying to piece it into a bigger picture. All of sudden, Itachi has so many facets that Sakura hardly know where to look first.
Once she sees him stop in front of a pet store. Is he an animal lover?
Another time, she sees him wander through a bookstore and stop at the cooking shelf. Does he cook?
Then there is the time where they bump into each other at the jonin headquarters, and he is carrying a present in his arms. Does he go to parties? Does anybody invite him to parties?
What about that time where she sees him walking down the road at midnight with a woman. Does he date?
On multiple occasions, she has seen him stagger through the village gates late at night, looking more dead than alive. Is he active in the force? She knows that Sasuke is, but is Itachi?
What does she actually know about Itachi?
A month after her encounter with Itachi, Kakashi joins her in one of her training sessions at the compound. He has retired from the force, but he still keeps in shape. There is no reason not to. Also, in their profession, you make many enemies, and there is no easier target than a retired shinobi who has let his guard down and gained a few pounds.
"I think I need to tell you something," Sakura says.
Kakashi knows her well enough to ask: "What is stopping you?"
They both sit on the ground and gaze at nature stretching wide in the horizon. The sky is blue, but the autumn wind has a chill that bites you if you sit still for too long. These moments remind Sakura of the times before the war. Good times with Kakashi, Naruto and Sai. But Sai is dead. Sometimes Sakura forgets. A lot of people have died in the war, and sometimes, just for moment, she forgets who.
"This wouldn't have anything to do with the person who is about to join us?" Kakashi asks. Craning her neck around, Sakura looks over her shoulder to see Sasuke striding towards them. He joins them in the grass, and Kakashi's floppy wave looks like a lazy muscle spasm rather than a greeting.
"Naruto wants me to try out for ANBU," Sasuke says. He sits cross-legged with his arms on his knees. Sasuke doesn't beat around the bush. That isn't his style. Consequently, conversations with him always tend to be short and to the point.
"You would do well," Kakashi says.
"You can say no," Sakura says. Naruto has told her about this already. Honestly, Sakura thinks that Naruto simply wants Sasuke to make more for himself in life, but she doesn't think that will go over well with Sasuke, so she keeps her mouth shut.
"Naruto is tired, too," Kakashi says after a bout of silence in which Sasuke hasn't responded to either of them. Tired of bloodshed, tired of pain, tired of struggling. Tired of getting by and aiming for the lowest expectations, because the life of a shinobi is abrupt and unpredictable, and you shouldn't expect too much, because surely it will be ripped away from you sooner rather than later. Oh yes, this mindset has been driven into them since their time at the Academy. Is Sakura bitter? Hell yes. Does she have regrets? She has some. Is it worth it? Yes. Self-sacrifice is always worth it. She learnt that not from lessons at the Academy, but from practical experience.
"This isn't what I expected," Sasuke says. Sakura throws him a sideways glance. In life? In love? In friendship?
"It never is," Kakashi answers.
"You messed up," Sakura says to Sasuke. Her mind is still wandering, and she forgets to filter her words. Kakashi chortles once behind his mask. Sasuke's face doesn't change.
"You mean that my exploitations with Orochimaru wasn't very fruitful or resourceful?" he asks. "Oh, it was never a question about doing the right or wrong thing. It was about picking the lesser evil. Staying in Konoha was an evil, and leaving Konoha was an evil, but I would do more damage if I stayed, so I left when Orochimaru offered it."
"I don't see how staying would have been an evil," Sakura says. "I don't see how you would have done any damage staying here."
"I'm a killer. I'm trained to only do damage, be it here or somewhere else," Sasuke says, but that makes no sense, because they are all trained to kill, and if they are all trained to only do damage, they should all have left Konoha by now, but Sasuke has been the only one to leave, and none of this makes any sense.
"Sasuke is a bit of a pessimist," Kakashi says and Sasuke smiles ruefully in response. "But I agree with his sentiment. You're a killer like us, Sakura, but you're also a healer. You see the side that we don't see. You perform the side that we don't. You have more perspective."
"You never left," Sakura says to Kakashi.
"When I was young, I thought about it," Kakashi says with his head tilted skywards.
"Itachi was also outside the village gates," Sasuke says, dropping the ace up his sleeve.
There is nothing to say to that.
"I guess Naruto is a special case," Sakura says in an effort to clear the air and lighten the mood. "I doubt he has ever considered leaving Konoha at any point in his life."
"Naruto's loyalty is his most admirable trait," Kakashi says.
"Enviable," Sasuke says in correction, and Sakura feels a splinter of her heart break free and soar towards the dark-haired man sitting next to her.
They talk about quintessential topics after that. What have you been doing, what are you doing later, what did you eat for breakfast, did you see the new updated examination criteria? After maybe fifteen minutes, Sasuke stands up and leaves. He has an appointment somewhere, he says. Five minutes passes in silence between Sakura and Kakashi, and then Sakura breaks it.
"My problem has to do with Itachi," Sakura says, answering Kakashi's question from before.
"Itachi said something to me that has…"
"Altered your perception of him?" Kakashi asks. "Yes, he does that. I faintly remember him doing the same to Naruto not too long ago."
"You're saying I should ask Naruto? Follow in his steps and go with the flow, is that it?" Sakura asks, lashing out without meaning to and immediately feeling the sting of guilt afterwards. Their conversation with Sasuke has put her on edge, and she is feeling the aftereffects. Her shoulders are tight with tension and her head pounds uncomfortably. When Kakashi doesn't say anything in response, the sting of guilt grows too hard to ignore. She apologizes.
"Sorry," she says. "I didn't mean to snap."
"When Itachi drops his guard, it stays down," Kakashi says.
Sakura lets that one fester.
Is she the next person in line that Itachi is dropping his guard for? What has she done to provoke that?
"I think we should throw Sasuke a surprise birthday party," Naruto says weeks later. They are at Sakura's apartment. Naruto has slept over after a long day at the office. In the past, the pressure of learning the Hokage duty resulted in Naruto falling asleep inside his office instead of at home. After Sakura walked in on him one morning sleeping on the floor of his office, she nudged him awake (not kicked, nudged!) and told him to crash at her place rather than sleeping on the floor like a dog. Nowadays, he still crashes at her apartment, even though he has mastered his new job and no longer suffers from sleep-deprivation and panic attacks. Sakura has to admit that the amount of paperwork has shocked her, too. Tsunade never had so much paperwork. Either she had been scarily efficient at it, or there simply had been less paperwork pre-war. Sakura is leaning towards the latter.
"And how are you gonna do that?" Sakura asks Naruto with an upturned brow. Over by the kitchen table, Naruto sits on a chair and flips through the newspaper with his chin resting in his palm. Sakura is poking at her coffee machine. It refuses to turn on. She needs to buy a new one. This one put her at the end of her rope months ago, so why is it still here?
"Don't hit it," Naruto says without looking up from the paper. Sakura scowls and lowers her fist from mid-air.
"Alright, Eagle Eyes," she says. "But I can't give you any coffee."
"Hitting it won't give me any coffee, either."
"Don't get cheeky," Sakura says and flops down in the chair next to him. He points to an article in the newspaper, and Sakura leans over to skim it. She hums in response.
"I've talked to Itachi. He'll help," Naruto says and flips to the backend of the paper. He thwacks it once with his palm, as if thanking it for a good read, and stands up from the table with a stretch that pops several joints in his shoulders and neck.
"Really?" Sakura asks.
"Yup. Itachi will keep Sasuke out of the compound, so we can set up the party. Then he'll bring Sasuke back at the right time."
"All right. Who are we inviting? And are you sure Sasuke wants this?"
"He's gonna get it, even if he doesn't."
"Because you know what he needs better than he does," Sakura says. They have been through this before.
"Precisely," Naruto says and thumbs his nose. "I'm off. You're working today?"
"Mondays at the hospital are off, and you put me off missions until November," Sakura says and picks up the newspaper. "I'll send you happy thoughts from my couch."
"I've farted on that couch," Naruto says and grabs a carton of juice from the fridge on his way out the door. He turns the corner just in time for the newspaper to miss his face and smack into the doorframe instead.
As with every party that Naruto throws in honor of someone, there is enough alcohol to kill an army. Sakura is nursing her fifth beer of the evening when Kakashi strides past her. He claps her shoulder, a silent goodbye, and she watches him head out the front door and leave the compound. For a moment, she considers following his example. Sasuke seems to be enjoying the evening, especially with Naruto working his magic as the sociable host of the evening. Naruto is the sun and everybody rotates around him. For tonight, Sasuke stands in that sun, and Sakura can imagine that this is one of the few times where any kind of true sun has lit its shine on him since his return to the village. Even after the official reinstatement and working on the government's payroll, there will always be whispers in the shadows about the estranged brothers of the Uchiha clan. The past never stays in the past. Even now, Sakura has spotted people at the party that haven't come to celebrate, but rather to gloat, sneer or gossip. Sakura gives both Itachi and Sasuke credit for opening up their lives as publicly as they have. She, and possibly every other villager, had expected them to shut down and isolate themselves at the compound. Without Naruto as the Hokage, they probably would have.
Sakura brings the beer bottle down from her lips and flicks a nail against the neck of it. Bringing her foot up on the wall behind her, she pushes away from the corner and into the crowd of people that swarm the high-ceilinged room. They are in the main house of the Uchiha compound. Normally, the main house stands empty, while Sasuke and Itachi inhabit separate parts of the overall compound. The main house is neutral ground. Sakura wonders why the party is held here.
A hand grips her shoulder. From the pressure and size, Sakura recognizes the grip as Ino's.
Ino is wearing a purple dress that hugs her figure like a second skin. Her blonde hair is loose and wavy, and Sakura tries to remember Ino's chubby face as a child. With her pale skin, deep blue eyes and love for purple, Ino is beautiful like the moon on a cloudless night. Sakura has always been prettiest in the sun, where the trees and flowers can reflect in her eyes and hair. For this party, Sakura is wearing a jade dress that is from her jonin inauguration days. It isn't the latest fashion, but it is the dress that she is most often complimented for, and the low draped back is timeless and accentuates her waist nicely. It is also the only dress that has survived the war, and thus has great sentimental value. Even if it is worn in places, and has been dry-cleaned one time too many.
"Naruto is asking for you," Ino says. With wispy fingers, she grabs Sakura's wrist and pulls her through the throng of people and to wherever Naruto is at.
"Sit," Ino orders and pushes Sakura down on a chair. Sitting down upon command, Sakura takes in her surroundings. Sasuke, not Naruto, is sitting in a chair opposite of hers. On the table between them is a mixed array of glasses and bottles. Next to the table stands Naruto. He is smiling. So is Sasuke. So is everybody around them. Sakura realizes what this is.
"Winner gets the bragging right," Naruto says and his smile grows into a cheshire grin. A series of hoots and jeers loom around the trio, and Sakura catches Sasuke's eyes from across the table. She starts to shake her head.
"Afraid you'll lose?" Sasuke asks. Sakura counts the bottles on the table.
"Loser kisses Naruto," she says.
"Hey," Naruto says in mock objection. Sakura uncrosses her legs and sits forward in the chair, getting her mind into the game. Her dress is knee-length, and only a small portion of her thighs are exposed from her change in position, but Sasuke's eyes draw downwards anyway. Sasuke is drunk. It isn't obvious, but he is drunk. It is like this with all of them. No matter how drunk they get, they maintains full control of their motor skills. Alcohol can't impair a life of strict physical training and psychological drilling. They never look particularly drunk, even though they definitely are.
Sakura has the advantage over Sasuke. She has been subjected to Naruto's party games for years. She beats Sasuke by two bottles, chugging down the dregs of the last and smacking her lips as the big, great finale. Cheering erupts around the table. Sasuke graciously acknowledges his defeat. With a smile, he stands up from his chair with his hands held up and his palms facing outward in the universal gesture of complacence. Sakura stays in her seat. She crosses her legs and leans back, both to watch the kiss that is about to unfold and undoubtedly will go down in history, but also because that last bottle had hit her in a hard place, and she can sense a strong case of double-vision coming up.
"Make it a lasting one," Kiba says to Naruto from where he leans up against the back of Sakura's chair. Ino is behind Kiba, hooting loudly, and Hinata stands next to Ino, looking giddier than usual. Shikamaru pops up next to Naruto and makes a big show out of clapping his back and hugging him to give him courage. These are some of the people that first accepted Sasuke back into the village, because they are the ones with personal memories of him, and some of those memories are good enough to have outlasted time and circumstances.
"All right, all right," Naruto says and pushes people off him. "Give a guy a chance to live up to your expectations!"
"I am in no rush," Sasuke says. "Please, spend more time gallivanting around. Get the crowd hyped up."
Sakura misses the actual kiss, because seconds before it happens, she catches sight of Itachi's face in the nearby crowd. Standing up from her chair, she doesn't look back when she hears the catcalls and whistles detonate like a bomb behind her. With everybody gyrating around the table in order to catch a better look of the Naruto and Sasuke smooch, Sakura can easily follow Itachi outside onto the porch.
The night air is crisp and clean, and the porch is sparsely illuminated. A single light bulb lights up the old, brown wood, and a moth circulates the bulb, enamored with its glow and heat. Itachi stands beneath the moth and the bulb. His eyes fan across Sakura's face and neck, stalling at the earrings hanging from her ears and the soft swipe of lipstick across her lips.
"Sorry," Sakura says. She reaches up to wipe the corners of her mouth. When she drops her hand back to her side, Itachi's eyes follow the movement.
"Sorry," she says again. With an indiscernible nod, Itachi turns his back on her and steps down from the porch. At the bottom, he stops. His back is still turned on Sakura, but even though his back is turned, Sakura reads the stop in his steps as an invitation. She steps down the porch and stops next to him.
"Have you been here all evening?" she asks. She knows that Itachi was the one who brought Sasuke back to the compound for his surprise, but she arrived late to the festivities, and she hasn't seen Itachi anywhere before now.
"No," Itachi says. "Social gatherings offer me little enjoyment."
Having lived half of his life as a criminal, Sakura can understand Itachi's aversion to social gatherings. She thinks that maybe even Sasuke feels the same way, but this particular gathering is an exception for him. First of all, it is on his territory, it is his friends, and it is his birthday. Itachi only checks one of those boxes, and it isn't really a full check.
Itachi begins to walk away from the building. Sakura follows him, but not without casting a quick glance behind them. The porch is empty. It is hard to walk in her heels on the grass. With every step she takes, each heel sinks far down into the grass. Finally fed up, she bends down and slides the heels off her feet. The grass is cold and dewy, but it is better than feeling as if she is walking on quicksand.
"I've seen you around in town more than usual," Sakura says.
"I have had more time to spare than usual," Itachi says.
The night air has cleared up the alcohol in Sakura's blood. Now, it is a still buzz in her bones. Pleasantly distracting, but easy enough for her to disregard.
"Thank you for your advice," Itachi says.
"My pleasure," Sakura answers, thinking back to that early morning months ago. Her advice hadn't been terribly good. She hadn't know exactly what she was giving advice on, since Itachi hadn't explained the problem in any detail, but apparently it had worked well enough. She is glad.
They cross the kitchen garden together in silence, and Sakura knows from memory how excellent an assortment of herbs that thrive here. She doesn't know if the brothers hire a gardener or cultivate it themselves, but Sakura is envious of it. Living in an apartment, she has no garden herself and no chance of growing herbs at home. Only as potted plants, but that is a cheap fix.
"Where you headed back to your own quarters?" Sakura asks. "Did I hinder you?"
Itachi doesn't answer. He keeps up the leisure pace across the kitchen garden and towards the training ground. Away from the artificial light of the porch and outside in the pure moonlight, Itachi's skin is almost luminous, and Sakura has a strange urge to reach up and touch it. She isn't stupid. She knows that her newly found interest in Itachi is at least partly grounded in physical attraction. What she doesn't understand is when that attraction had taken hold and become something tangible. Any person with eyes could appreciate Itachi's looks, but Sakura's attraction has gone beyond appreciation and into genuine interest. And it doesn't all have to do with Itachi's looks. Itachi has a lot more going for himself than just his looks. Of course, he also has a lot of baggage going for him, but somehow this seems trivial out here in the crisp night air amidst the rustling leaves and singing cicadas.
"Where are we going?" Sakura asks. They are going for the training ground, obviously, but she is really asking why and not where. She hopes that Itachi hears the question for what it is, and that she won't have to ask the real question.
"Walking before bed quietens my mind," Itachi says.
"So, you were headed for your quarters?"
"I'm curious," Sakura says, her heels bumping together where they dangle in their straps from her lax fingers. "Are you on the payroll like Sasuke?"
"Curiosity killed the cat," Itachi says.
"I'll live," Sakura answers. The atmosphere changes. The tension that has simmered below the surface springs above the surface, and when Itachi looks sideways at Sakura, she feels her skin prickle and her pulse pump faster.
"You have a mouth on you," Itachi says. "I can see why my brother keeps you around."
"Nobody keeps me anywhere."
"That was not what I meant."
"Why are we stopping?" Sakura asks. They have stopped in the middle of the vast space of the training ground. Itachi turns around to face Sakura. Without her heels on, Itachi is plenty taller than Sakura, and in the shadowy darkness of this hour, he gives off a menacing vibe that probably has more to do with Sakura's childhood memories of him rather than his actual presence in this moment. In any case, Sakura locks her knees to stop herself from taking a defensive stance against him.
"Why did you follow me?" he counters her question. His voice leaves no room for discussion. She either answers him honestly, or she gets the hell out of his sight.
Sakura does him one better.
She gets up on her tip-toes, puts a tentative hand on his shoulder to keep him from putting her in a headlock, and kisses him. The kiss is chaste and jittery, but when Sakura draws back, Itachi follows her. He tugs her in for another kiss, meshing their mouths together in a soft, filthy rush of yesyesyes, and Sakura's mind blanks out like a spoonful of creamy hot chocolate. Her body feels stretched taut, with her breasts rubbing against the fabric of her dress and her fingertips buzzing with the rush of blood.
"This is what you want," Itachi says into the kiss, his lips brushing hers when he speaks. It's wet and dry, and it's good, and Sakura itches to shimmer out of her dress and press her naked skin against Itachi's, feel the contrast between his hot skin and the cool night air. She wants to fill herself up with him, and the urgency is new, but not strange.
"This is what you want, too," she says and catches his eyes. They are heavy-lidded, but she sees suspicion and appraisal in there, and that has to go. She followed him here, she thinks. She followed him here, because he let her follow him. He invited her to come along. He stopped at the bottom of that sparsely lit porch, and he waited for her to come to him. He waited, she thinks.
"Let me have you," she says and touches his collarbone where his shirt hangs low and his skin lights up in the dark. His eyes are two black stones in his face, and Sakura feels something loosen inside her chest.
He swallows her words in a kiss that taste like surrender.
"Let me keep you," she says, and it is loud enough to be heard, but low enough for Itachi not to act on.
The cat is out of the bag one month later, when Sakura wakes up in Itachi's bed and finds Sasuke looking down at her.
"This feels wrong," he says. He is making fun of her, alluding to her childhood crush on him, so Sakura isn't too worried. She reaches up and rubs her eyes, but she makes sure that the sheet still covers her body.
"Shut up," she tells him and rolls over. She is surprised when she comes into contact with Itachi's shoulder. Itachi is still in bed with her? He always gets up before her.
"Wake him up," Sasuke says and heads for the door. "He needs to stop by headquarters. Next time, don't wear him out before a mission briefing."
.end part I.