Chapter 20


Sakura stared at the clock, watching each minute blink by. The night had been long, but not in a bad way. Her skin still tingled with remembered pleasure. Even now, Itachi was wrapped around her. His body was heated and pressed against her as they lay in his bed.

Flashes of searching fingers and hot skin ran through her mind, making her stomach flutter with desire for him again. But her conscience was still occupied with her choices.

How long could something like this last before they came to find her? Sakura was betting two days.

How long would Itachi desire her before he grew tired or bored? How long could she live in those stone walls without love or a purpose except to be his?

When she said she wanted to stay, she couldn't really say she meant it. Somewhere inside, she knew that she just meant for the night. Just to be with him one night, like this, was going to have to be enough.

If she stayed, there would be no peace. Sasuke, Naruto, and Kakashi wouldn't rest until they found her. Already, Tsunade probably had an ANBU squad standing by in case she didn't return when she said she would.

There could never be normalcy like this.

Shifting slightly, Itachi's arm tightened on her waist as if making sure she couldn't get away. But his warm, heavy breaths on her neck told that he was asleep. He was still in pain, she was sure of it, so the night most likely wore him out.

If she woke him, what would happen?

If she left, would he hate her? Would he miss her? Most likely, it would be neither.

For now, she felt the need to memorize the feel of his warm body against hers. Running her fingers softly over the top of his, she tried to figure out how leave him and keep the feel of him in her mind.

The minutes continued to tick by, and it was getting close to the time she should leave. To prevent something that would end in the ruin for them both, she had to go back before Sasuke awoke. Today was the day.

She closed her eyes and drew in his scent. She touched his arm and felt the muscles just underneath his warm skin. Turning over, she slid her fingers into his hair and pressed her lips softly to his.

Itachi's eyes opened momentarily and looked back and forth at hers before closing again. His arm tightened, this time on her lower back, pressing her body against his.

It was a beautiful lie.

"Itachi…" she whispered, finding the rest of her words stuck in her throat. She wanted to say she was leaving but she couldn't manage to.

Itachi didn't open his eyes; he turned onto his back and released his hold on her.

Sakura sat up and let her feet rub on the carpet. The air was cold around them and getting out of the blankets was a small torture for so many reasons. But Konoha and Sasuke wouldn't wait for her indecision. It had to be this way.

As Sakura sat and listened to his breathing, it seemed to deepen again.

The low fire threw its light on the bookshelves and the gray walls. The soft crackle of it was soothing, but dying embers were not enough to keep the room warm.

Fighting the hollow feeling in her stomach, Sakura took stock of where all her belongings were. Guards, shoes, garments, and her packs were scattered around the room, and feeling worse than ever, she got up and gathered them.

When she was dressed and ready to leave, she sat back down on the bed and watched him. He looked similar to when she had sedated him, and was still weak from his injuries. Sadly, she couldn't stay to make sure he was all right.

Sakura finally stood and went to the door. It was just after four am and she needed to get back to Konoha, clean up, and be at the hospital by the early afternoon. Tsunade would be looking for her. Naruto would be returning today as well.

As she wandered into the kitchen, she took some leftover food from the boxes on the counter and packed one last peach lovingly in her rucksack. She would never taste another without thinking of him.

Regret shook her to her foundations. She turned to leave, but the doorway was blocked. She didn't even have to look to see who it was. His presence was always so acutely felt. For some reason, she couldn't take her eyes from the floor.

"I didn't take you for one who lies so convincingly," Itachi said evenly.

"Only as well as you do, Itachi," she said quietly.

"I told you, I never lie."

"Everyone lies."

"I have no need, Sakura. If I hate something, I say so. If I've killed someone, I say so. If I want something, I say so. What reason would I have to lie? It would be beneath me."

Finally her eyes rose to see him leaning comfortably against the kitchen doorframe wearing only his black pants. His bruised body looked so strong. It made Sakura ache to touch him. It would have been so much easier to leave without this conversation.

"You're leaving," Itachi remarked evenly.

"I have to," she replied, trying to match his cool demeanor. But Sakura always failed at that with him.

"Another lie."

"If I stay, they'll hunt us both down. I can't live like that. I've worked so hard to become who I am. I still love Konoha and I belong there."

Itachi blinked slowly as if he didn't care either way what decision she made. He made no attempt to rebut what she just said and it stung her. Why did she expect something from him that she would never get?

"Whether you believe me or not, I have to go. And whether you believe me or not, I wanted to stay."

Itachi nodded slowly, "I believe you."

Finding some small inner strength, she walked closer to him and pressed her hand to his abdomen.

No reaction.

"I guess this is finally over between us. We're even." Sakura felt heat around her face and throat, and clenched her teeth.

"This will never be over."

"Never sounds so much like a promise, Itachi. But I can't swallow that lie, even from you." Sakura locked her gaze with his.

"I never lie."

The wind had picked up around the rogue country and Sakura moved swiftly in the trees towards the edge of the Fire Country. She glanced up momentarily to see the black cloak nearby, moving through the trees as fast as she was.

Itachi never asked to come, or even mentioned that he would, he just slipped on his clothes and led her outside.

Sakura was content that he would come to the edge of the rogue country, but sad that she would have to try to leave him again.

When they finally reached a mile-marker indicating that the border to the Fire Country was only a mile away, they stopped. The sun was blocked by an overcast sky, but there would be no rain today. It was one small consolation.

Itachi stood facing toward the Fire Country and Sakura wondered vaguely if he ever missed it. She would never know, just as she would never really know anything about him. He'd given her all he could, and she would have to settle for it.

"This is far enough," Itachi said evenly.

Sakura stared at him, trying to capture his image for her memories. But Itachi turned and walked toward her. When he stood just in front of her, his hand grasped her hand and raised it. For a moment, Sakura couldn't understand what he was doing until he ran his fingers over her wrist.

"I feel like a part of me is missing," she said softly as she pulled her hand back.

Itachi reached in his cloak and revealed the silver bracelet.

Sakura's brow creased as she felt the tug of regret in her chest. It had been a treasure to her, but almost resulted in Sasuke and Itachi's deaths. She couldn't honestly want that sort of impending tragedy on her hands again. It would be a burden more than a comfort now.

Itachi held it up and Sakura watched his chakra glow around it. It swelled with the blue energy, and she marveled at how surreal and beautiful it looked in his grasp. He slid his fingers around the inside of it as if he was feeling for something. The chakra finally died away to the regular glow she had always seen from it.

Itachi reached down and lifted her wrist again, but this time, he slipped the bracelet over her hand.

"Next time, I will kill him."

Sakura touched it, turning it lightly on her wrist. She slid it back off and ran her fingers over it before sliding it back on.

"There won't be a next time."

"Your naivete is not charming. He is an Uchiha, Sakura. There is always a next time."

Sakura looked into the blowing leaves on the trees that she would be traveling through to the Fire Country. They looked sad as if they were fighting the wind.

"I have to go," she said sadly.

Itachi took a step to close the distance between them as he slid a hand into her hair. Sakura obliged by pressing her body and mouth to his.

He kissed her hard.

But it ended too soon, and she found her fingers unable to let go of his robe. On the trip to the border, she swore to herself that she wouldn't cry. Of course, some things were harder to control than others, especially for Haruno Sakura.

If he cared at all, he never acknowledged it.

Taking a step back, Sakura moved slowly away from him until she was out of arm's reach. Itachi allowed it, and watched her with interest.

There were no words.

Nothing would be appropriate. She couldn't say goodbye.

Sakura finally turned away and began to walk across the clearing toward the trees. Stray weeds snapped across her leg guards and the rustle of the leaves drowned everything else out.

She stopped.

She turned slowly to look back.

He was gone.

Hours passed as she trudged through the Fire Country forests, passed villages, rivers, and temples to get closer to Konoha. The entire way back, she ignored everything. All focus was gone.

Finally, as the afternoon sun managed to peek through the breaking clouds, Sakura came upon the large gates. Normally there was excitement or contentedness to be home. This time, there was only something hollow in the pit of her stomach. It felt like it would never be whole again.

Checking in with the gate office, the attending guard informed Sakura that Tsunade wanted to be notified when she returned. Something loosened inside and Sakura felt minutely better knowing that her shishou had been watching for her and what it might have meant if she hadn't been back in time.

Finally arriving at her own door, she found her key, went inside, and then went straight for the shower. Aches strung themselves along her arms and legs. Hamstrings felt like they were on fire. But she was home, and the heat of her shower and the comfort of everything she was familiar with made her feel a little better.

She got dressed in normal Jounin wear today. An unusual choice of clothing, but nothing else seemed comfortable at the moment. She felt cold, and the heavy vest and long pants were better than her shorts.

Sakura sat on the edge of her bed, toweling her wet hair and staring at the silver bracelet on her lap. Maybe it was wrong to still have it. She tossed the towel in her clothesbasket and wandered to her closet, the bracelet fidgeted among her fingers.

She pulled out a box that was given to her by Kakashi on the day she became a Jounin. It held a special kunai with a white handle and kanji on it. He told her that it was given to him when he had become a Jounin by his sensei. Sakura had treasured it.

With a sigh, she placed the bracelet inside the box overtop of the kunai, and put it away again.

She turned from the closet and took a long deep breath.

The hospital was as busy as it usually was, and Sakura walked in behind a group of ninja who had come to see an injured comrade. The waiting room was half full and the orderlies were busy serving dinner to the patients. The carts rolled with squeaky wheels along the shiny floors.

Sakura sighed as she passed the nurses' station. She could see her mailbox was full but she ignored it and continued toward the elevator.

Reaching Sasuke's floor, she cruised calmly past the reception desk there as well. The idea of talking to people right now was unappealing. The hollow pit still residing in her stomach reminded her that she had made a hard decision and words would make it worse.

Seeing Sasuke was going to be just as hard.

As she wandered into the room, she took in the half drawn curtains and the lack of medical machinery around Sasuke. He was still sleeping, and his body was almost completely repaired. For once, he looked at peace.

The black Uchiha hair and pale skin hit Sakura in such a strange way. He looked so much like Itachi that it bothered her.

She shifted her eyes from the sleeping man to the chair near the windows where her blonde friend was slouching and sleeping himself. Naruto was still in his ANBU uniform and Sakura figured he had come straight over after returning from his mission.

"Naruto," Sakura said softly. Almost immediately, he opened his eyes to look at her.

"Sakura? Where were you?" No hello, no cordial greeting.

"I just needed to get away for a few days," she said convincingly. "Is that alright?"

"Of course. I think I was glad to be away as well. Time to clear my head. Did Tsunade ask you what happened?" he whispered.

"I haven't seen her. I left in the early morning after you left. How was your mission?" She tried to change the subject.

"Boring. I ran into Kakashi. He looks so different now that he can turn off the sharingan. He said he'd be back in a week or so."

"Did she ask you what happened?" Sakura asked timidly.

"Yeah. I told her to ask Sasuke when he wakes up. I wouldn't even know where to start."

Sakura nodded slowly, her eyes drifting to the windows and the orange red sky, brilliant after the clouds had dissipated.

"I'm sorry we didn't tell you. But then again, I suppose you would have tried to stop us." Naruto looked at Sasuke as he spoke. He clasped his long fingers together over his stomach and sighed.

"I…just don't understand anymore." Sakura breathed out.

"What do you mean?"

"I can't imagine what it is like to be him and how it is to want revenge that much. I don't begrudge him his desire, but I can't comprehend it. Does that make sense? He's going to hate me when he wakes up, Naruto. What we have as friends will end and I'm not ready for that."

"Sakura," Naruto shook his head. "You don't understand him."

Sakura looked at him, and he seemed more tired than she ever remembered him to be.

The room fell silent and Sakura sat at the end of the hospital bed and waited with Naruto. She watched the room darken slowly while shadows moved with the dying sun.

After an hour or two, Sasuke finally began to stir and it made her heart pound in her chest. He seemed to become lucid slowly, having trouble opening his eyes and understanding where he was for a few moments. The pair watching him was patient as he finally managed to get his bearings and wake properly.

The first sight of those dark Uchiha eyes made Sakura want to run from the room.

"Naruto," Sasuke finally managed to say through parched lips. "Sakura."

Was that relief in his voice?

"Hey Uchiha, I'm getting tired of picking up your sorry ass," Naruto said with a hint of ribbing and a hint of seriousness.

Sasuke laughed a little and displayed some discomfort from moving his stomach so much. His eyes finally rested on Sakura and she couldn't muster a smile for him. Tears came instead.


Fingers shook as she stood up from the end of the bed by his feet and moved forward. With great effort, Sasuke tried to push himself up to a sitting position. He motioned to the bed beside him and Sakura sat down.

"We need to talk," he said softly.

Talk was the last thing Sakura wanted to do. Instead she raised her fingers to his face and touched him gently. No matter what had happened in the four days prior to being there beside him, she couldn't imagine how hard it would be to lose him. The idea that he could throw away everything to kill Itachi burned her up inside.

Her fingers caressed his earlobe and along his jaw line gently, tenderly.

"Thank you for saving my life," he uttered quietly, trying not to break the moment between them.

But Sakura stopped touching him and her hand hovered just next to him. She couldn't look away from his dark eyes, so much like Itachi's…

In a swift move, she cocked her hand back and struck Sasuke hard in the face. He turned with it, but spun his face back to look at her in shock. Sakura cocked her hand and swung again, only this time Sasuke grabbed her wrist.

"What the hell, Sakura?" he growled.

"I didn't save your life. You'll just go back out and risk it again. I won't go this time. I'll let you die. I give up on you. I won't put myself through it again," she hissed angrily.

"Don't say that," he countered.

"It's too late. I won't be a part of this. I can't. I'm done with you."

"I don't want to lose you, Sakura. Do you know what you are asking of me?" Sasuke said with creased brow.

"Yes, I do. I'm sorry, but it's me or him."

Sasuke looked at her for a long time. Giving up on Itachi and revenge was something he could never consider. Her ultimatum was so hard to hear.

"I never thought you'd go against me," Sasuke accused. "If I agree, what does that mean to you? What are we if I agree?"

"Together," she said honestly.

Sasuke nodded slowly, wondering if what she was offering was what he had been wanting. Time would tell, he supposed, but to give up his revenge on Itachi was something he couldn't agree to…well, not honestly.

"Give me time to consider it," he said reluctantly.

Sakura looked for a sign of a falsity in his face, but Uchiha were so good at masking themselves and she'd taken his lies for truth before. "Of course," she relented.

Naruto still sat silently in the chair, watching the exchange and making no move to intervene. He didn't indicate what he thought of it either way, but Sakura knew he would always be on Sasuke's side. His loyalty was admirable…and infuriating.

"Before we discuss what happened and get our stories straight for Tsunade," Sakura began, "I need to tell you something that happened a long time ago. I think I owe it to you. It's a long story, but a good one. I hope you'll both forgive me when I'm finished."

Sasuke looked at her wrist for a moment, and Sakura could tell that he knew what was coming. As with Kakashi, she would keep her personal things personal when it came to Itachi, but Sasuke deserved to know the circumstances surrounding the bracelet. Perhaps when she was finished, nothing would ever be the same between them again.

"Three years ago, on the day of an Akatsuki raid, I made a deal…"

Time crawled around Konoha as the days passed. Sakura's fears about Sasuke were dismissed, as he showed no ill will for the circumstances in which she had him rescued. Anger filled him knowing that Itachi had taken him from Orochimaru's and he had lost a chance to kill him. But being away from Orochimaru seemed to be a victory in itself, albeit tainted.

Sakura had lied to him, a regrettable necessity. She told him that she kept the bracelet because it reminded her of what she had done for him and how important getting him back was. Whether Sasuke believed it or not, he forgave her.

Tsunade had been fed a line of bullshit on a silver spoon by the three of them, and she didn't question it. Sakura knew her better than that though, and understood that they would have to earn her trust back. No one would ever be told that Sasuke was injured by Itachi, not even Kakashi.

Sakura knew that when the trio was split into different teams, her Shishou had a hand in it. But who was she to argue?

ANBU became her life and she enjoyed the missions she was sent on. Moving through the ranks was easy for someone with medical skills, strength, and analytical abilities such as hers.

Sasuke was in a team headed by Hyuuga Neji and seemed content with the extremely volatile missions they were employed with. The high number of bloodline heirs in the team made it designed for dangerous, unranked missions. That group being together was no accident.

Naruto should have been in that group as well, but to keep them all apart, he was doing more with the elites instead of ANBU.

Tsunade was grooming him to become Hokage one day, or at least that's what Sakura liked to think. Kakashi would just say that Naruto needed to stay out of trouble, which meant staying away from Sasuke…and her.

Four months had passed in long days and easy missions, and Sakura found herself on emergency duty at the hospital for a change. Her ANBU squad was on their month off as per the regular rotation, and sitting around her apartment was not productive. Instead, she wanted to occupy her time while waiting for Naruto and Sasuke to return from their missions with keeping her medical skills honed.

Nothing exciting ever happened in those sterile halls except the occasional emergency. This day, not even a paper cut came through the door.

Sakura stood at the coin-operated coffee machine, mentally urging the clock to tick faster. It was then that a voice broke her from her usual daydream of warm skin and fire-lit stone walls.

"Sakura-sama," a nurse called over.

"Hm?" Sakura turned her eyes to the speaker, slightly put out from being dragged away from her inner torment of remembering Itachi.

"Your mailbox is overflowing," she laughed as she dumped a pile of papers and envelopes on the counter in front of her.

Sakura shook her head. "Damn."

"Looks like it's been a while since you checked."

"This is only a week," Sakura said in defeat. Pulling the pile into her arms, she tried hard not to drop any as she wandered to her office. With her foot, she shut the door and let the small mountain of paper fall onto the desk.

For fifteen minutes she tossed out newsletters, read memos, and sorted cards from thankful patients. As she picked through, she came across a small flat package and prayed silently that it was a big chocolate bar. Without coffee, the day was going to take forever unless she got some sugar.

She eyed the name Haruno Sakura scrawled messily on the front.

Unwrapping the twine from the stiff rectangle, she ripped the brown crumpled wrapping from the outside to find a worn, dog-eared notebook.

She bit her lip.

Opening the cover was slightly difficult with shaking fingers, but she managed to peruse the pages upon pages of sharingan secrets and medical research. Each one held a memory of the moment it was written. Each drawing was an imprint of him. It almost brought tears to her eyes.

When she reached the first page after the ragged edges of what he'd ripped out about the mangekyou, she found the first writing that was in a hand other than her own.

Her heart pounded hard in her chest.

In simple letters was a small note. To anyone else it would have been cryptic, easily dismissed. To Sakura, it was thrilling.

Third Monday of the month.


Eight PM.

Speeding through the forests again as she often did, Sakura darted aside rivers, through trees, and along paths until she crossed the Konoha border. Had she timed it, she believed she would have arrived at her destination in record time.

The rogue country was as unwelcoming as ever, but there was something important there that made the last two weeks of anticipation almost unbearable.

She landed in a tree and played with the silver bracelet dangling on her bare wrist. Standing on a low branch, she eyed the darkening forest in front of her, and the white mile marker in the small clearing ahead.

The wait was short.

When the familiar tingle of chakra warmed her wrist, she felt like laughing.

As she lifted her hand to the hand reaching down from just above her, she admired the blue glow around the silver and smiled.

A/N: 2nd arc finished, yay. I've had some love/hate with this story but I've reread it and think its probably the best story I've written. Thanks to roark28 for betaing and all the wonderful people who gave me supportive reviews.

I've written a third and final arc called "Genshi" and it is a separate story and it is on my profile. I didn't want it to be about reviews and so didn't add it here. This story was posted all at once and is not as long as I originally planned but that is a story in itself. Feel free to read it or skip it.