[AN: And so we come to the end (for real, this time... I think!). Thank you so much for reading, favoriting, following, and commenting! It's been a pleasure to have hopefully kept you entertained! For now, I'm planning on turning my attentions back to my other in-progress story (Secrets of the Sharingan)... if you're looking for lighter fare from me, I have a few other ideas percolating that I'll hopefully get to writing one of these days. As usual, this content is rated M, and I most definitely do not own Naruto.]

The sun was shining, the birds were singing, and the leaves on the trees were green. It was mid-April, and spring had come to Konoha. And, with it, arrived Uchiha Itachi, home from Kumogakure after over a month away.

As he approached the famed gates of his village, Itachi let out a heavy sigh, rolling his shoulders and stretching his neck. His trip to Hidden Cloud had been long yet pleasurable and the mission a resounding success. The Raikage had ranted and raved for several weeks this time around, but under Itachi's firmly administered politeness and clearheaded rationality, he'd gradually come around to signing the new alliance Minato had tasked him with obtaining. It was truly a pity that this trip was likely to be his last for a good long while, if not for forever. For, prior to his departure early last month, his oto-san had made crystal clear that it was high time for Itachi to set aside his role in ANBU and prized place as the Yondaime's chief representative abroad and turn his attentions fully to Uchiha clan affairs.

While he didn't wish to comply with his father's demands, it was his born responsibility, and there was no real way of denying that. Fugaku had occupied the position of Uchiha clan head for thirty-three years - longer than his eldest son had even been alive - and he (and his mother) certainly deserved a long and peaceful retirement. Yet, Itachi couldn't help but question whether leading the Uchiha was really the best way for him to serve the village. He didn't doubt that his skills as a negotiator would come in handy - the clan elders were a difficult, crusty lot - but it seemed a bit wasteful. Yes, the Uchiha clan was important, storied, powerful, and integral to the fibers of Konoha, and Itachi admittedly looked forward to sitting on the High Council side-by-side with the other clan heads, but he was well aware that much of what his father did on a day-to-day basis was decidedly mundane and even, at times, petty. Settling a dispute between his second cousin twice-removed and his great uncle over who owed who gambling money? No, no thank you. He'd much rather be off in Kirigakure, developing trading agreements and politely (always politely) fending off the advances of the lovely Fifth Mizukage. Who was admittedly rather attractive… but probably (definitely) crazy.

Besides, there was the not so insignificant issue that most of the Uchiha elders regarded him as a dirty traitor and turncoat for his starring role in talking them out of their suicidal plot against the village seventeen odd years ago. He'd ally himself with Minato if asked to do it again a thousand times, but the fallout was decidedly problematic when it came to cultivating good relations with his clansmen. The younger generation forgave him, or at least understood where he was coming from on his insistence that loyalty to Konoha came first, but those who dated themselves to the era before the modern Academy system - back when education was more fully handled by the clan - didn't really understand all that. Through his years of public service, his steady presence at clan meetings, and his reputation throughout the shinobi world as the greatest Uchiha since Madara himself (probably a bit of an exaggeration), he'd restored his standing somewhat. But the elders would never accept him like they had his father - he was not nearly so foolish to expect that - and they would likely be a thorn in his side until they kicked the bucket. Which, given the Uchiha penchant for stubbornness, would probably not be for a good, long time. Not that he wished death upon them, or anything like that.

Turning his mind away from his current plight, Itachi nodded to Kotetsu and Izumo as he made his way through the open gates, charting a course for Haruno Sakura's apartment. By his reckoning, it was Sunday afternoon, which meant that she was apt to be at home. A very good thing, for he was hoping she'd give his lungs their usual tune-up.

At the age of eighteen, shortly after his first-ever mission to Kumo, Itachi had developed a rather uncomfortable burning sensation whenever he took a deep breath. He initially hadn't thought much of it, assuming that he'd simply caught cold or overdone it more than usual in one of his admittedly brutal spars with Shisui. After several weeks of pain and a few coughing fits that had left his okaa-san clucking her tongue in disapproval, however, he'd booked an appointment at the hospital with his regular medic at the time, only to be rushed at the first touch of Shizune's cold stethoscope to his chest to Tsunade-sama herself for an emergency examination. One painfully dull week on bed-rest later, he'd learned that he very fortunately wasn't dying. Instead, he'd developed an extremely rare, chronic lung condition exacerbated by high altitudes that required regular, preventative treatment sessions with a fully trained medic.

The whole situation was decidedly annoying. He liked Sakura quite a bit, but monthly health consultations weren't his preferred way to spend his painfully rare free time. Still, it could most definitely be worse, and he wasn't about to screw around with his health or career by neglecting his body. And so, he developed a post-long-term-mission routine: Check-in with the gate guards, head to Sakura's for a check-up, report to Minato, and then make his way home for a good long sleep and his mother's glorious home cooking.

Itachi rapped politely on the door of the kunoichi's apartment and waited, somewhat surprised that she wasn't answering. He was by no means a sensory ninja, but he knew enough to be fairly confident that Sakura was home. Vaguely disgruntled - he was rather looking forward to a hot bath and really didn't want to have to come back later - he did something he didn't usually do: Exited the apartment, scaled the building, and let himself in through her living room window. Yes, it was kind of rude and definitely on the invasive side, but Shisui totally did it on a regular basis (and he'd wager a fair bit that Kakashi, Sasuke, and Naruto all did too), so it wasn't unprecedented by any stretch of the imagination.

Upon entering, Itachi noticed three distinct points.

The first was that Sakura had evidently done some redecorating. For the last time he'd been by, back in February, her couch had been light grey, and now it was black. A good decision, in his irrelevant opinion, but, then again, as an Uchiha, his preference for all things inky was basically a part of his DNA.

The second was that Sakura hadn't answered the door because she hadn't heard him. A silencing jutsu had been put in place around the perimeter of her apartment. Which was decidedly odd, actually. What need had a solitary kunoichi for stealth while in the comfort of her own apartment in the middle of one of the safest ninja villages in the world?

The third and final point answered his question. Haruno Sakura had company. And, as it happened, said company was currently fucking her soundly as she lay on her back on her kitchen table, chest heaving with every thrust (since when had little Sakura-chan gotten so busty?), head hanging off of the edge, eyes clamped shut (good thing too, or he'd probably be a dead man), and full lips open in ecstasy as she emitted a steady stream of moans and wails. It was pretty damn hot, actually. But Itachi refused to permit himself those thoughts. How his medic chose to spend her leisure time was really none of his business, after all, and he had less than no right to witness this. No, he'd just carefully, quietly extricate himself, exit through the same accursed window through which he'd been stupid enough to enter, and leave Sakura and whatever lucky sap was screwing her to it. Hopefully, the horny bastard at least had the sense to know how good he had it. And to use protection.

He'd averted his eyes, had made it all the way back to the window sill, and was just a second away from leaping out to safety when a particularly sharp cry caught his attention, drawing his gaze insistently back to the couple. "Ah, Sasuke-kun! More… please… I'm so close..."

Sasuke-kun? Oh, sweet, Kami, no. Please not...

There could be no denying it. For a familiar voice responded to her wail, far darker and rougher that Itachi had ever before heard it, yet utterly unmistakable. "More, Sakura? Uhn... so eager today..."

For a moment, Itachi stood frozen in utter and complete horror. He'd just walked in on his baby brother. Banging their medic. His not-so-virgin eyes were never going to recover from this one. Then, with a new urgency, he barreled out of the window to the safety of the ground, willing his mind to forget what he'd just witnessed and praying fervently to all of the shinobi gods at once that Sakura and Sasuke hadn't noticed his intrusion. The first wish was completely in vain - there was no unseeing Sakura's almost O-face - but he was somewhat optimistic about the second. After all, the happy couple had been pretty absorbed in their affairs, and his stealthiness was S-class level.

Mind racing, Itachi reset his course for Shisui's apartment on the outskirts of the Uchiha District. His check-in with Minato could wait. For it appeared that little Sasuke-kun had been exceedingly busy over the past month, and, as his admittedly overprotective (and rather curious) elder brother, he wanted answers.

Very fortunately, Shisui was home, answering his door, and not in the middle of fucking anyone's brains out. He greeted Itachi with a wide smile that the Uchiha heir did his best to return, quickly ushering him into the living room of his apartment. "Tachi! How the hell are you? Did you just get back? How was Kumo? I assume that the Raikage is still his usual ornery self? Can I get you anything? Tea, coffee, water?"

"Hn. Do you have anything stronger?" Itachi asked, seating himself gratefully on the black leather couch and running his hands over his poor, tortured eyes. He loved Shisui dearly, but the man's rapid-fire questions were not what he currently needed.

Shisui chuckled as he ducked out of sight into his kitchen. "Ah, negotiations went that well? Not to worry, I'm sure Minato will understand. He knows from personal experience was an asshole Ay can be. You can spare me the bloody details; I'm honestly not that interested. Anyway, looks like I've got beer, vodka, gin, maybe even wine if I can find a corkscrew. What'll it be?"

"Beer would be great." Itachi leaned back, arms coming behind his head for additional neck support and legs stretched out before him under Shisui's oak coffee table. "The mission was fine. Successful. Samui-san sends her regards."

Shisui reentered the room, casually passing Itachi an open bottle, and plopped down next to him on the sofa with a rakish grin. "Does she now? You know, Itachi, not that I think Fugaku-oji-san will ever agree to you sullying his precious line with foreign blood or that the Raikage would give her up, but Samui-san would be perfect for you. Ice-cold personality, ironclad discipline, a mind for diplomacy, and a body to kill for… she's basically the female equivalent of you, you know. Well, minus the Kekkei Genkai and the clan nonsense."

Itachi took a welcome sip of his beer and then frowned dismissively. "Tch. Such foolishness. You sound like okaa-san."

"That's probably fair. Which reminds me. Have you been home to see oba-san yet? I think you'll find her a bit less fixated on your marriage prospects these days." The corners of his mouth turned up in that familiar, devilish smirk that always accompanied good gossip. "You owe little Sasuke-kun big time, Tachi. Believe it or not, he finally started shacking up with Sakura a few weeks ago, and Mikoto's in heaven. I've seriously never seen her so happy."

"I had heard. Seen, actually," Itachi admitted shortly, taking another swig of his beverage in an effort to chase away the searing image of Sakura's bare breasts that was haunting his thoughts.

Shisui let out a deluge of giggles, dark eyes sparkling in boyish amusement. "Ah, did you come across them kissing too? Who knew that the broody little guy would be so comfortable with public displays of affection, right? Then again, he has always been rather territorial. Remember how pissed off he'd get when we ditched him to go sparring as kids? I'd never before realized how bloodthirsty a cute little six-year-old -"

"Tch, it was more than kissing," Itachi interrupted. "But, no matter. It's serious, then?" If his mother knew, it had to be. Well, either that or Sasuke was a far bigger fool than he thought. He did wonder how all this had happened, though. The last time he and Sasuke had had one of their more serious brother-to-brother chats, back in mid-February, his otouto had been all about making ANBU captain and increasing his visibility at clan meetings. Tying himself to Sakura was by no means a bad move from an Uchiha viewpoint - she was a wonderful, talented woman, and he had no doubt that his father and the clan elders would firmly approve of the match despite her lack of Uchiha blood - but, from an ANBU perspective, it was nothing short of career suicide. For the Black Ops required full, unfettered commitment, particularly from an infiltration, espionage, and assassination specialist such as his brother, and girlfriends definitely weren't part of that equation. Personally, Itachi didn't mind the idea of Sasuke putting his operative days behind him. He'd never exactly been fond of his brother putting his life on the line, even when it came to Konoha's security. But he wanted Sasuke to be happy, and he'd gotten the sense that his otouto's career was, for better or for worse, his chief concern at this time.

As he worked through his thoughts, Itachi was well aware that Shisui was watching him carefully, the mouth of his beer bottle hanging a few inches from his lips. Itachi was a master of self-control, but his friend had a lifetime of experience with reading him, and he could sense the man putting that knowledge to use now. "It's for his own good, Tachi," the older man murmured rather seriously. "I wouldn't have interfered had I felt any differently."


Shisui shrugged rather ruefully. "Don't kill me for this, but I might have helped nudge the two lovebirds together. It was really Yamanaka Ino's idea, and my hands were pretty much tied, but I didn't think it would do any harm. Besides, you brother was well on his way to bungling everything. It was an act of charity, I tell you."

Of course, Yamanaka Ino was involved. If memory served him right, the woman was Sakura's closest friend, and Itachi knew from Shisui's experiences with her that she was one dreadfully manipulative kunoichi. "Let me guess. Yamanaka-san cast you in the part of the rival lover, and you were happy to comply given that you've made a lifetime habit out of torturing my brother."

His cousin chuckled. "Pretty much. Ino-chan's not so subtle, is she? You missed the whole bit about their little one-night stand setting the stage for everything, but that admittedly came as a surprise to me as well, so full marks."

A one-night stand. With his longtime teammate and medic. Well, that definitely sounded like his little brother. Unfortunately. "And is Sasuke… happy about these developments?"

Shisui grinned, taking another swig of beer. "He's admittedly been keeping his distance from me since the whole rival lovers thing. I think he knows the truth about why I tried to hook up with Sakura, but he's cranky about having been manipulated. From what I've observed from afar, though, he seems pretty damn content. They're like two horny little bunnies, Itachi. They just can't get enough of each other. You have no idea how weird it's been to see Sasuke so… not mopey all the time."

Oh, to the contrary. As of forty-five minutes ago, he had way too much of an idea what that was like. Itachi drained the rest of his bottle, setting it down on the coffee table with a flourish. "Hn. Well, much as I'd like to stay longer, I suppose I should probably be heading out, Shi-kun. Minato awaits. And after that, Mikoto and Fugaku. And Sasuke, if I'm fortunate."

His cousin chuckled. "That's some schedule. You know, Itachi, I have to say. I don't envy you."

"Hn. Me neither."

And with that, Itachi bid his cousin a fond farewell and headed swiftly to Minato's office, the late afternoon sun at his back and his thoughts consumed by his foolish little brother. For, as pleased as the Uchiha heir was that Sasuke had apparently found happiness with Sakura, he was also extremely wary as to where his brother's newfound relationship would lead him. A life as a non-ANBU jounin could be a fulfilling one - Kakashi-senpai was a wonderful example of that - but he knew his otouto well. At not even twenty-five, with his ego, his drive, and his thirst to prove himself, there was simply no way that an ordinary jounin lifestyle would keep him sated. No, Sasuke required a constant challenge, a healthy amount of structure, and, for better or for worse, a sense of power. ANBU offered him all that, and filling the void was going to be difficult, if not impossible.

Reaching Minato's office door, Itachi was rapidly ushered inside by Nara Shikamaru with a bored yet respectful nod. Greeting the Hokage with a courteous little bow and a deferential "Hokage-sama," Itachi glanced up, waiting for the Yondaime to address him. Over the course of the past decade, the two had grown extremely close as collaborators, political allies, and personal friends. When not off on a mission or sparring with other jounin, Itachi could often be found by the older man's side, discussing and strategizing about the village's place in the shinobi world order and offering his support and perspective on a myriad of issues related to Konoha's well-being. He held no official title beyond that of ANBU captain - given his role as Uchiha heir, the High Council would have been up in arms at the very thought of Itachi being given any additional prestige - but such formalities were trivial between the pair.

Minato smiled warmly over his stack of paperwork, blue eyes shining merrily as their gazes met. "Welcome home, Itachi-kun. I understand from your advance report that negotiations in Kumo were successful. As usual, you have my utmost thanks and gratitude. The trip home was smooth?"

"Hai, Hokage-sama. I'll have a full report in order by Wednesday. The Raikage asked me to pass along his best wishes."

The Yondaime chuckled benevolently. "Always the true diplomat these days. I'm sure Ay-sama's actual message was nowhere near so flattering. No rush on the report, although I have no doubt that it will be on my desk soon enough, Itachi. You truly never fail to impress."

Itachi's lower lip twitched upwards slightly in acknowledgment of the compliment. "Given that this may be my final assignment for some time, I intend to fully meet all expectations." At that, Minato frowned. "I assume that my oto-san has kept you apprised of his intentions to begin transitioning over his responsibilities as clan head to me?"

"Hai, Fugaku-san and I have spoken," the Hokage confirmed shortly, expression impassive. "We can address the details more fully at a later date, but I do look forward to working with you in your new role, Itachi."

The Uchiha nodded, not trusting himself to speak further. While he considered Minato a friend and confidant, he was also his Hokage, and, as such, there was no need for him to know how conflicted he felt about assuming his father's mantle. His personal feelings were irrelevant, after all, and it was really clan business.

Ever the perceptive shinobi, the Yondaime seemed to sense his companion's unease. His usual benevolent smile returning to his face, Minato rose to his feet behind his desk. "Well, Itachi, let me see you out. As much as I enjoy our longer conversations, I suspect that you're eager to be getting home to the Uchiha District today, and I don't wish to keep you. After all, you and your family have much to discuss."

"Hai, Minato-sama." And with that, Itachi allowed himself to be escorted out of the Hokage's office, trying not to let the awareness that this was very likely his last post-mission ANBU audience too fully get to him. Kami, was he going to miss it.

Entering his family home, Itachi kicked off his shinobi sandals, noting the three sets of shoes by the door, and breathed in deeply, the smell of freshly baked sweets slightly lifting his rather low spirits. "Itachi-kun, is that you?" came the familiar call of his mother's voice from the kitchen. He'd sent a crow to his father last night letting him know he'd be home the following day, and, knowing his mother, she'd very likely spent the afternoon whipping up a feast of his favorites for dinner.

Joining Mikoto in their kitchen, he greeted her warmly, gladly accepting her hug and kiss on the cheek as his eyes took in her form, her spotless white apron subtly emphasizing her still-slender waist. His mother had been famed for her beauty in her youth, and she was still an undeniably handsome woman in her middle age, the streaks of silver through her thick, dark hair and the soft lines on her face giving her appearance a soft wisdom. "It's so good to have you home, Tachi," she murmured fondly, before releasing him to arm's length and beginning her careful inspection of his appearance. "Tch, your face has gotten too thin. What did they feed you in Kumo, clouds?"

Itachi smiled softly at his mother's concern, well used to it. "The food was fine, okaa-san. It's just that no one's cooking can rival yours. But not to worry. Now that I'm home for good, you'll have all the time in the world to fatten me up."

"Hn," his mother agreed idly before turning her attention back to the stove where a stew of some kind was vigorously bubbling away. "Can I get you anything to drink? Water, tea? We should still have some of that chamomile one you liked, I think."

"I'm fine, kaa-san. I had a drink at Shisui's before coming here. Where are Sasuke-kun and tou-san?"

"Your father's in his study, working as usual," Mikoto replied, and Itachi felt a vague stirring of revulsion in his stomach. His mother meant utterly nothing by the comment - it was a simple fact - but the very knowledge that Fugaku was spending another Sunday locked away with paperwork was just another reminder of his too-soon fate. Well, he'd never been one to shy away from hard work before. He'd survive it, dull as it might be.

"And Sasuke?"

"In the shower, I think." His mother turned around from the stove, her cheeks suddenly rosy. "Oh, Tachi, that reminds me. Did Shisui-kun tell you about your otouto's big news? Sasuke-kun has a girlfriend! Haruno Sakura. Isn't she a perfect match? It's been so wonderful having her around the house the past couple of weeks. Well, the first night he had her over was a little... awkward. I know the two of you are full-grown men, but there are certain things I'm just not sure a mother can ever get used to hearing her sons engage in."

Seriously, otouto? The family house? With your parents down the hall? Mikoto chuckled in vague embarrassment. "But, other than that one little slip-up, it's been delightful. And I've never seen Sasuke so happy. Your father and I are just thrilled, of course. And you know how exacting your oto-san can be..."

"Hn, Shisui mentioned something about Sakura-san," Itachi replied vaguely, the image of his brother vigorously thrusting into Sakura's nude form dancing through his mind once again in a torture almost as cruel as Tsukuyomi. Gods, was this his life now? "Well, I think I'm going to go lie down for a spell, kaa-san. Unless there's anything I can assist with for dinner?"

"Oh no, Itachi-kun. I can handle it," Mikoto replied kindly, still clearly over-the-moon about his little brother's relationship. "You must be exhausted after all of your work the past month. It should only be another hour or so. I'll wake you up when we're ready to eat."

She shooed him out of the kitchen, and Itachi traced his familiar way down the hallway that led to his and Sasuke's bedrooms and their shared bathroom. Just as he was about to turn into his room, the bathroom door swung open, and his otouto stepped out in a wave of steam, bare chested, his dark hair a mess and a white towel wrapped around his waist. Itachi's eyes ran over his brother's face and torso, noticing with vague disgust several telltale bruises along his collarbone. He was sleeping with a medic, and he couldn't even do the world the courtesy of having her heal away his hickeys. Very tacky, little brother.

"Nii-san. You're home," Sasuke observed rather flatly, expression impassive. It was such a contrast with his wild hair that Itachi found himself fighting back a snort of amusement. "Do you have time to talk? There's something I want to ask you about."

"Ah. Put on some clothing, and we'll meet in my room," Itachi agreed. He'd been rather looking forward to his catnap, if the truth be told, but he suspected that Sasuke could use some good, strong advice, particularly since he'd apparently been giving Shisui that cold shoulder for the past few weeks.

Sasuke nodded and continued his way down the hall. As Itachi's eyes followed his brother's retreating figure, he noticed with another shudder the nail marks that had been scratched into his otouto's back. It wasn't exactly a surprise to discover that Sakura could be a bit of an aggressive lover - she was a kunoichi, after all, and her fighting style had always been quite taijutsu-centric - but seriously, couldn't she patch him up a little bit after? As Sasuke's older brother, he really, really didn't want to know the gory details of his sex life...

Entering his room, Itachi put down his pack and opened the window. The cool mid-April breeze hit his face, and he breathed in deeply, savoring the scent of the fresh Konoha air. Being in the village really wasn't so bad. The adjustment period to serving as clan head was liable to be rough, but, perhaps, he'd get used to it in time.

A soft knock alerted Itachi to his brother's presence. "Come in, Sasuke," he called out softly, turning from the window to meet his brother's gaze. The younger man had changed into a pair of loose, dark pants and a navy clan shirt with the traditional high collar that the Uchiha were known for (perfect for hiding love bites, he suddenly realized). Wordlessly, he took the desk chair, while Itachi stretched himself out on the bed, his body suddenly feeling the weight of the month-long negotiations and travel home from Kumo. "So, otouto, how are things?" He asked casually, propping his head up with his folded arms so that he could still see Sasuke's face.

"Fine. How was the mission?"

Tch, playing hard to get, Sasuke-kun? It's much too late for that. Itachi sighed, not particularly looking forward to having to draw out his brother after a solid month of dealing with Ay. "Successful."

"As usual."

Well, he didn't have to sound so morose about it. "Ah. Have you ever been to Kumo, Sasuke-kun? It's quite nice. Spectacular views."

"Hn. No. Little work for an infiltration and espionage specialist in our allied villages," his brother observed shortly.

"That's fair. I suppose you tend to spend more time in Sound and Rain, neh?"

"Stone, too. At least until that treaty you oversaw last fall."

Sasuke fell silent, and Itachi eyed him rather expectantly, one eyebrow raised. "Surely, otouto, you had something of more personal significance to discuss than my diplomatic endeavors," he prompted the younger man as the silence stretched into its sixth minute. Because, yes, Itachi totally counted the awkward pauses in his conversations with his little brother. It was a bit of a hobby, actually. The record was nine minutes and fifty-two seconds, back when Sasuke had been thirteen, awkward as fuck, and had come to him about the birds and the bees.

"Ah," Sasuke agreed before falling silent again.

Damn it all. Did he really expect his nii-san to do all the heavy lifting in this conversation? It appeared so, for the man's lips remained firmly pressed together in a semi-scowl while his hands twitched slightly on the desk in what Itachi immediately recognized as nervousness. Well, he'd always been a benevolent brother - too nice, according to Shisui - so he'd once again help his otouto out. "So, tell me about Haruno Sakura," Itachi prompted, forcefully willing his mind not to jump back to his encounter with the couple just a couple of hours prior.

"I love her," Sasuke replied flatly, his hands twitching more forcefully on the desk. Kami, could he be any less enthusiastic about his feelings? But no, that wasn't entirely fair. This was Sasuke, and Itachi knew his little brother well. The very fact that he was admitting to caring was a stark statement of how deeply he felt about the pink-haired medic.

Taking pity on the man, Itachi casually tossed him a shuriken, which he began spinning forcefully. "Well… that's good, Sasuke, right?" Itachi noted. "I just spoke with kaa-san about it, actually. It sounds like everyone in the clan approves, so I don't see what the prob-"

"Tch. I'm to be deployed on a seduction mission to Ame on Wednesday, and I don't know what to tell her. I was informed this morning." For a moment, the man stopped fidgeting and glared at Itachi as if he'd been the one to give him the assignment, before promptly redirecting his gaze down to the shuriken and continued twirling it even more angrily than before.

So Sasuke had figured out the whole ANBU and relationships don't jive thing. Itachi wasn't really surprised. After all, despite his dreadful way with words, Sasuke was quite bright, and he'd spent enough time in ANBU to see how their fellow operatives had tried (and usually) failed to manage their own romantic headaches. Moreover, even if he wasn't an emotional genius, his otouto obviously had to know that Sakura wouldn't take so kindly to him sleeping with anyone else, even for the sake of a mission. She was a fine kunoichi, but she was also a woman. And she had an excellent point... after all, Itachi would never permit his girlfriend to take a seduction mission. If he actually had one, that was. "Hn, well, that does sound problematic," Itachi admitted. "I suppose you're telling me this because you want me to find you a way out?

"Ah," Sasuke agreed earnestly. "I don't want to do it. But I can't just turn down a mission, Tachi…"

"Why not?"


"Why not just turn it down?" Itachi asked. He obviously knew the answer: No one turned down a Black Ops assignment, and certainly not for a personal reason like a girlfriend getting upset about her partner possibly being required to seduce a target. But he'd always rather liked to play the role of devil's advocate. For Sasuke tended to think rather linearly, and pushing him out of his comfort zone could sometimes yield surprisingly fruitful solutions.

"My ANBU career would be over," Sasuke replied darkly, a decidedly haunted expression coming over his face. "Right after I first told Sakura… how I felt, I thought about just walking away from the Black Ops. But, well, I need ANBU, Tachi. It's not like you, with the clan."

Tch. Sasuke had no idea how onerous the clan obligation felt at the moment. But, of course, that was his own problem, and he certainly wasn't about to burden his already stressed-out otouto with it. Itachi sighed, running his hands over his face. Maybe he'd just skip dinner and sleep once this increasingly hellish conversation was over. "Well, Sasuke, it appears that you have three options. Don't do it. Tell Sakura, hope she understands, and do it. Or do it and don't tell her." Sasuke's dark brows shot up towards his hairline at the third option, and Itachi quickly added, "But not telling is basically dooming your relationship. She's your medic, Sasuke. Even if you lie and she buys into it this time, she's eventually going to find out. If you come home with some sort of... illness or something..."

Sasuke swallowed hard. "I guess I have to tell her then. Fuck. Everything had been going so well too..."

"Hn, yes, so I'd seen." Sasuke's eyes widened in surprise, and Itachi realized what a horrific slip-up that had been. Gods, his mind was even more exhausted from Ay's buffoonery than he'd thought. "Heard, I mean. Heard from Shisui and kaa-san."

Sasuke eyed him suspiciously. "Itachi. You didn't try to stop by Sakura's apartment this after-"

"Boys! Dinner!"

Oh, thank Kami. His mother truly was a treasure. Itachi quickly sprung off the bed and dashed towards the door, ignoring Sasuke's curious expression as he made a beeline for the kitchen where he found his mother and father already seated at the table. "Ah, Itachi. Mikoto informed me that you'd returned home about an hour ago," his father observed by way of a greeting. "How was your mission?"

"It went well, oto-san. The Raikage agreed to a five-year extension of our shared intelligence treaty, with the option of extending it further in the fourth year."

"Hn. Good to hear. Minato-sama tells me you've become a true asset when it comes to intra-village negotiations." Sasuke had joined them while Fugaku was talking, slipping into his seat across from Itachi with a silent glare.

"I do my best, oto-san," Itachi replied simply, tucking into the cabbage stew his mother had prepared and shooting Sasuke a somewhat apologetic glance. Well aware of his brother's unfortunate inferiority complex, he usually tried to keep such talk with his father to a minimum.

Unfortunately for Sasuke's sanity, it seemed that Fugaku was very much into the idea of highlighting Itachi's accomplishments tonight, however, for he took a sip of water and then continued. "As you know, Itachi, I'd been skeptical when the Hokage started giving you these noncombat assignments, but it seems that I may have underestimated their value. I understand that the Raikage and the Mizukage both consider you a personal friend these days. Such connections are truly valuable to the clan. And Konoha, I suppose."

Tch, he better believe they were valuable to Konoha. After the Raikage's ranting and raving for the past month about damn Leaf shinobi and the Mizukage's failed seduction of him four months prior, it was rather amusing to hear that they apparently considered Itachi their friends, but, well, he wasn't about to correct his father. That never ended well.

Glancing over at Sasuke - who was studiously staring down at his plate of untouched stew with a white-knuckled grip on his chopsticks - Itachi swallowed his mouthful of cabbage and nodded in acknowledgment. "I've been fortunate to have had the exposures," he commented noncommittally. "Hopefully, my experiences will translate over to relations with the elders as I assume my role as head of the clan."

Unexpectedly, Mikoto chose that moment to jump into the conversation, giving her husband a rather fixed look from across the table. After all, she usually kept herself firmly out of such political talk. "Itachi-kun, your oto-san had something to say about that, actually. Didn't you, Fugaku?"

Itachi's eyebrows shot up towards his forehead. Glancing quickly across the table at Sasuke, he discovered that his surprise was mirrored by his wide-eyed otouto. Then, shifting his gaze to his father, Itachi was rather nonplussed by the discovery that the man looked distinctly uncomfortable, almost as if he'd swallowed a lemon. He'd couldn't recall ever seeing his father so caught off guard, although, needless to say, it was not a good look. "Hn. Mikoto, do we have to do this now? Over dinner? I thought we could wait a couple of weeks. Itachi just returned from his mission, after all, and -"

"Fugaku, we're discussed this, and the Elders and Hokage have all signed off. And Sasuke-kun is to be deployed on a... problematic mission this week, you know. Remember our little chat about Sakura-san? Time is of the essence."

Itachi smirked as Sasuke choked on his mouthful of cabbage. "Kaa-san. My mission's supposed to be classified. How did you -"

Mikoto smiled rather gamely, and Itachi felt a surge of respect for his mother reverberate through his chest. "Sasuke-kun, your kaa-san has ears, you know. I couldn't help but overhear your little chat with your brother in his room. For future reference, noises of all kinds carry a lot farther in this house than you'd think." She paused, and Itachi noticed with infinite bemusement that his brother's ears had turned scarlet. "But no matter; I won't tell Minato-sama about your little slip-up. Now, Fugaku? Care to do the honors, or shall I?"

His mother had always handled his father so well. It was rather remarkable, actually, as well as infinitely amusing to see such a proud man put in his place. Fugaku cleared his throat, his dark eyes narrowing in displeasure as he met his eldest son's eyes. "Itachi. As you know, your title as Uchiha clan heir is your birthright. Barring defection or expulsion from the clan, it is something that cannot be taken away from you or transferred to another. Now, traditionally, the title comes with a rather narrowly defined role, the position you've witnessed me serving in over the course of your lifetime. But, the duties of clan head are those of custom, not of law. You are technically allowed to delegate your responsibilities and decision making as fully as you wish." With that, his lips clamped firmly shut in a tight line, and he glared rather peevishly at his triumphant wife.

Well, that was… positively perfect. Itachi shot a furtive glance across the table at Sasuke to discover with glee that his brother's mouth was hanging wide open in shock, a mouthful of stew forgotten several inches above his plate. "I see. Otouto, I'm sure this is going to come as a disappointment, but I'm afraid you're going to need to inform Minato-sama that you won't be able to take that mission to Amegakure, after all. As Uchiha clan heir, I have urgent need of your services in Konoha for the foreseeable future. In fact, you may want to consider speaking with him about coming off of the ANBU active roster altogether, at least until we've fully transitioned oto-san's daily responsibilities over to you."

"Nii-san. Are you… sure…?" Sasuke's eyes were almost bugging out of his head, yet the manner in which his lips were twitching slightly upwards suggested that it was a distinctly positive sort of shock, as if all of his hopes and dreams were suddenly coming true at once.

Foolish little brother. He had utterly no idea what he was getting himself into. But he would learn. Hell, given his lifelong desire for recognition from the clan, he might even enjoy himself. At the very least, he'd most certainly get his wish: The elders would soon know exactly who he was. "Sasuke, I've never been more certain of anything in my life," Itachi replied smoothly, well aware that Fugaku was hanging onto his every word. "As much as it pains me to admit it, I have yet to identify a jutsu that allows me to be in multiple places at once for an extended period of time. Given my obligations to Minato-sama, which I feel a responsibility to continue as a loyal citizen of Konoha now that I'm fully aware of my options, it would be unfair to the clan for me to do anything but ask you to step in and handle day-to-day operations in my too-frequent absences." Yes, well said. Respectful of the opportunity yet firm in his intention. There was no way his oto-san could object to any of that.

"Ah, well, that's settled," Mikoto interjected forcefully, dark eyes shining in pleasure. "That is, unless you have any objections, Sasuke-kun?"

"Tch, no, kaa-san. If this is really what Itachi wants, though. I mean I don't want him to feel like he's being forced to give -"

Itachi resisted the urge to roll his eyes, aware that his otouto's stalling could easily open the situation up enough for his glowering father to express his doubts and/or displeasure. "Sasuke. Enough. It's what I want. Now, why don't you finish your dinner? I suspect that you'll be eager to break the news to Sakura-chan, neh?"


Yes, Itachi suspected that Haruno Sakura was going to be one very happy kunoichi indeed.

The next few weeks were a blur in the Uchiha household: multi-hour meetings with the elders, late-night discussions with Fugaku (for the man seemed to think that enough persistence might dissuade Itachi from his decision to leave all daily clan affairs to his brother… very unlikely), and daily rounds of planning sessions with Sasuke and Shisui, whom Itachi had managed to convince to serve as Sasuke's unofficial advisor when not off on one of his own ANBU missions. After getting over the initial shock and sleeping off what had likely been an extremely heated and late night at Sakura-chan's following the big reveal (at least judging from his uncharacteristic laziness the following day), Sasuke was handling it all rather well. While Itachi expected that his brother would eventually come to miss the excitement that came from receiving an S-class assassination mission (they were shinobi, after all, and it did evoke a certain rush), he was optimistic that the twin lures of serving as acting clan head in Itachi's absence and a representative on the High Council would keep him more-or-less sated. Besides, it wasn't like Itachi would be out of Konoha for good. He'd give Sasuke a periodic break from his day-to-day responsibilities for a nice, healthy mission or two. Occasionally. If he was feeling generous.

And, of course, Sakura's presence was another massive reward for putting up with all the elders' crap. For there was no denying that Sasuke was completely smitten with the pink-haired medic. He might not be the most eloquent when it came to verbally expressing his love, but, to Itachi's well-trained eye, the change in his brother's mannerisms were loud and clear. The light in his eyes, the soft upturn of his lips, the slightly more laid-back stance whenever she was around all spoke to how deeply he cared for the woman.

A month following his return to Konoha from Kumo - he and Minato had agreed that it would be wise if he stayed local for the most critical time of transition, well aware of the Uchiha elders' rich history of attempting to overthrow the public order - Itachi received his next assignment. He was off to Suna to represent Minato at a routine gathering of allies. He'd returned home from the Hokage's office following his briefing and was putting the finishing touches on his travel pack when a familiar knock interrupted his thoughts. "Otouto. Come in."

Glancing up from his bag, he met his brother's steady gaze, noticing a certain, nervously twitchy aura that hadn't manifested itself nearly as often of late. "Nii-san, do you have a minute?"

"What's going on, Sasuke?" Itachi was somewhat nonplussed by how tentative his otouto sounded. After all, he'd known from the minute Itachi had first asked him to serve in his stead as leader of the Uchiha that he was going to be leaving the village on a regular basis. The was kind of the point of the whole arrangement, after all. Was Sasuke getting cold feet now, hours before he was scheduled to depart for a two-plus-week assignment? It seemed rather unlike him - if anything, his brother usually tended to be a bit overconfident about his abilities - but given the current circumstances, it was hard to imagine what else he could possibly want.

"I was hoping you could give me some advice before you left. It's about Sakura, and it's personal. I'd rather talk to you than Shisui…" He trailed off looking rather helpless, and Itachi's left eyebrow shot towards the ceiling in surprise.

That was fair given Shisui's track record for mercilessly teasing his "little cousin" at every opportunity possible. Now, something personal involving Sakura than Sasuke apparently didn't want to approach Shisui or kaa-san about. Hn…

"Sasuke... Sakura-chan's not pregnant, is she?"

"Nii-san!" Sasuke had the good sense to look somewhat scandalized, and Itachi found himself letting out a large sigh of relief. He rather liked the idea of nieces and nephews down the road, but he wasn't sure he'd be able to live under the same roof as Mikoto if she got wind that her first grandchild was on the way. The "whole Sasuke-kun-has-a-girlfriend" thing had been bad enough. Besides, a baby could really throw a rusty kunai in their "acting clan head" plan. For the elders were traditionalists and definitely wouldn't like the idea of a main branch child being conceived out of wedlock. As far as they were concerned, premarital sex itself was highly questionable, a fact that had prompted Itachi to give his otouto a rather stern, decidedly uncomfortable, talking to about keeping his nocturnal visits to Sakura's apartment and their resultant "battle wounds" somewhat discrete.

"Well, then, what is it?" Itachi was in no real mood for twenty questions, Sasuke-kun-style today. He had a timetable to try and keep, after all.

The silence stretched… seven… eight… nine minutes… were they going to hit a new record? Nine-thirty… nine-forty… it was looking likely! But no, at nine minutes and forty-six seconds, Sasuke licked his lips and murmured almost under his breath, "Nii-san. I… want to propose. To Sakura."

Itachi blinked to suppress the jolt of shock. Which was a reasonable reaction. In some ways, it was rather sudden. After all, Sasuke and Sakura had really only been together for slightly over a month by his reckoning, and given how busy he'd been with clan affairs and she with the hospital, they hadn't exactly spent every single day by one another's sides. And yet, it was really a long time coming, now, wasn't it? For they'd known one another since they were children, and there had been a certain, relationship-like familiarity between them for much of the last decade. A "sexual tension," as Shisui rather foully liked to put it (just to make Itachi squirm, of course). "Well, Sasuke, have you talked to anyone else about this? Like… Sakura, for example?"

"Not yet. I was going to talk to kaa-san and oto-san after you, and then the elders at the next clan meeting, tomorrow evening. And then Sakura... and her parents." He looked positively nauseous at the thought, which was fair. After all, he might be a talented shinobi from a storied clan, but one's prospective in-laws were one's prospective in-laws.

"Hn. Maybe talk to the Harunos before the elders, Sasuke. In my admittedly limited experience, parents usually like to know these sorts of things, and there's no point falsely getting the elders' hopes up if Sakura says no."

"Ah." Sasuke's brows contracted. "You don't think she'll say no, do you?"

Poor, tortured otouto. "Well, Sasuke, you never know… you're not the easiest man to live with." At that, Sasuke's expression became so pained that Itachi felt himself feeling rather guilty for the tease. How did Shisui do it so flawlessly? Hn, perhaps his cousin was more of a heartless bastard than he thought. "But no, I don't."

Sasuke let out an audible sigh of relief, shoulders dropping as if a literal weight had been lifted. That was, until a new wave of terror suddenly seemed to grip him, dark eyes widening in a sudden panic. "But nii-san… what do I say?"

For the almost quarter century that he'd been Sasuke's brother, Itachi had been answering this very question. How to tell kaa-san he didn't actually want a cookie but would prefer a tomato, thank you very much. How to ask oto-san to get around with teaching him their clan's signature Katon no Jutsu. What to say to Iruka-sensei on his first day at the academy, to his teammates when the genin pairs were decided on, to Kakashi-senpai at their first official Team 7 meeting. How to behave in front of Minato-sama at their first genin mission assignment, their first chunin assignment, and later his jounin swearing-in ceremony and his first ANBU audience. Indeed, over the past month, he'd been advising his otouto on what to say more than ever, as he navigated relations with their still-reluctant father and the dubious clan elders and made his first few appearances in a leading role at clan and High Council meetings.

But, when it came to this…. Giving the man before him a small smile, Itachi picked up his pack, slung it over his shoulder, and then turned in the direction of the door. Stopping next to Sasuke, he looked up - for his little brother had a good inch or two on him these days - and raised his left index and middle fingers to his forehead, tapping it slightly in the center in a gesture that dated far back to their childhood.

"That, otouto, I leave to you."

Itachi was a week into his time in Suna and had just returned to his inn after an early dinner when a gentle cawing alerted him to the presence of a raven on the railing of the little balcony outside his room. Immediately recognizing the summons as one of Sasuke's, he quickly stepped out into the rapidly cooling dusk and fetched the bird to discover a trio of letters. Returning to his room, he settled onto the bed, rather eager for the promised news from home.

The first message was from his father. As was always the case with Fugaku, it was extremely short, businesslike, and to the point. Sasuke's first week in his new role appeared to be going well, or, at least, his name was completely absent from the note, which suggested that there was nothing that his always exacting oto-san could complain about. He wished Itachi success at the meeting and inquired as to whether his son could arrange a meeting between a few of the more conniving clan elders and the Raikage. Short answer: Hell no.

Next, came a tome from his mother, whose writing style had always been as detailed and emotive as his father's was not. She inquired as to his health, the climate of Suna, the condition of his lungs, and whether the desert sands would exacerbate it. Next came the standard questions about marriage: Whether there were any female diplomats at the conference and/or that lovely blonde sister of the Kazekage's. Yes, she was there. She was fine. He still wasn't interested. Nor would it ever work. Which she knew. She was just being difficult. Then, moving on from her oldest son, her handwriting growing a bit sloppier in testament to what he suspected was an emotional maelstrom, and he received the news he'd been hoping for ever since departing Konoha last week. Sasuke was officially engaged. He'd proposed after a one-on-one spar on Training Ground 3 in a move that Mikoto seemed rather horrified by but Itachi found to be utterly classic Sasuke, and the wedding would be in early June. Because, apparently, the couple was just that eager.

He quickly skimmed the final fifteen paragraphs - all details regarding wedding planning that he was sure he was going to hear the minute he crossed the threshold of their family home next week - and then turned his attention to the final letter in the packet. The letter from Sasuke.

Like his father, Sasuke's note was short and to the point. In two sentences, he confirmed that clan affairs and work on the High Council were going as well as to be expected. Sentence three was dedicated to the news of his engagement, stating that Sakura had accepted and that their kaa-san had roped the medic into daily wedding planning meetings. For denied a daughter, it appeared that his mother intended to make up for lost time. Yes, it was all rather expected… until he got to the last few sentences.

"PS: I lied. Sakura's pregnant. You're the first person we've told. What do we say?"

Foolish little brother. Well, there was officially no doubt about it. He might one day pine for the excitement of his ANBU days, but it appeared that life in Konoha had plenty in store for Uchiha Sasuke for a good long while.