Disclaimer: Naruto and its characters are created by Masashi Kishimoto, but the new plots (meaning the ones you don't recognize!) are mine. This fanfiction has been written for entertainment purposes only and without intention of infringing upon any copyright.
A/N: As always, thank you so much for your reviews! I'm glad you like the final chapter of The Contentious Heart. And now, I hope you'll enjoy the epilogue.
The Contentious Heart by elle6778 – Epilogue
More than six months had passed since the battle against Madara. The village of Konoha had since been restored to its original state, the damages from the furious battle all but erased physically. And yet, one could clearly note the repercussions of that particular event in the lives of the shinobi in the village.
The most evident was the Hokage's decision to appoint a successor. Barely a month had passed after the incident when Tsunade announced that she would spend the next two years training her successor in preparation to hand over the reins of Hokage-ship. Her choice did not come as a surprise to most, although there were a number of people who felt that she might be making a mistake.
Naruto, of course, was overjoyed by the decision. For days after the announcement, the blonde could hardly keep his grin off his face. His exuberance was expected, for it had always been his ambition to become a Hokage.
The exuberance, however, had soon faded once his apprenticeship with Tsunade commenced.
Curious onlookers who had initially crowded around the Hokage's office in those early days did not remain long, for the fear of their own safety. The verbal exchanges between the two volatile personalities were unforgettable to whomever that had the misfortune to listen to them. But the worst had to be the physical exchanges that usually followed.
None of that was unexpected, though. Not like his own predicament.
Kakashi sighed as he stared blankly at his latest volume of Icha Icha. Things had changed for him too. Before this mess, he had settled back in ANBU, carrying out missions with Naruto and Sai by his side. But now, thanks to his own stupidity in killing off Danzou, and the fact that Naruto now spent most of his time in the Hokage Tower, he had been put in charge of all the ANBU Root operatives with Sai as his unlikely assistant.
Someone had to, he supposed. After all, Danzou had kept a tight rein on them and without him around, the ANBU Root operatives were somewhat… lost.
Listlessly, Kakashi glanced over his books towards the thirty-odd blank-faced Root shinobi occupying the training grounds in front of him. His task was to instill some sort of humanity in them, including traits like loyalty and so on. A task that was growing increasingly impossible as the months crawled by, he thought as he straightened, lifting himself off the grass.
"Hatake-Taishou," a brisk voice called out.
Kakashi lifted his head slightly, gazing out of his one visible. The person who had called out was a tall purple-haired kunoichi.
"Permission to speak."
He waved his hands about, signaling her to proceed. Try as he might, he could not stop them from behaving like that. It was far too ingrained in their minds. Which made it even more astounding that Sai had turned out pretty normal after all those years of working with them. 'Normal' being relative, of course.
"When will we be assigned a mission?"
When he could see more humanity in them, Kakashi responded in his head. Outwardly, he plastered on a casual smile.
"Ah, funny you should ask. I was thinking about the same thing myself."
The kunoichi stared at him solemnly, expectantly. Kakashi sighed inwardly. If he had responded like that to Naruto or Sakura, they would have given him very skeptical looks. Ah, he actually missed those two.
Alas, kids had to grow up sometime. And it looked as if Naruto and Sakura had finally done so. Whilst Naruto was on his way to become the Rokudaime, Sakura was already one of the top medics in Konoha. At that thought, he glanced towards the hospital building in the distance. She had been working so hard that he barely saw her around Konoha. Idly, he wondered if it was 'that' time yet. Then, a quick mental calculation told him that yes, the time was approaching and she would receive a visitor soon.
He would simply have to turn a blind eye to it again. Sakura was all grown up and she should know what she was doing. Provided there was no risk to Konoha, he did not see the risk in allowing it to continue.
"Hatake-Taishou. Could you clarify that statement?"
Shifting his full attention to the kunoichi before him, Kakashi resigned himself to the fact that he had better make sure this crowd grew up fast. Because that was the only way he could get rid of them.
Then at least he would be left in peace.
"There you go, Kiba," Sakura said as she lifted her hands from the shinobi's bare shoulder. "Almost as good as new."
Winking at her before he pulled his vest back on, Kiba said, "Thanks, Sakura."
She waved a dismissive hand about. "It's my job."
Kiba grinned as he stood up, gathering the rest of his attire before he made for the door. "You've only been back half a year and we can already see the improvement in the services."
Sakura smiled. "If you say so."
Kiba was about to leave the examination room when he suddenly paused and turned around. To her surprise, he was wearing a contemplative look.
"What's wrong?" Sakura asked, frowning slightly as she took a step towards him.
"Are you okay, Sakura?"
Her eyes widened at the unexpected question. "What? Of course I am. What made you ask?"
He shrugged. "Thought you seem a little restless sometimes."
She forced out a laugh. "Now why would I be restless?"
Kiba stared at her for a moment, and then his lips twisted into a wry grin. "Must be my imagination then. Or rather, Akamaru's imagination. Forget I said anything."
With that, Kiba left the room. Only then did Sakura exhale loudly. Thinking over Kiba's words, she made her way across the room.
Kiba was right. She had been feeling restless for a while, but she thought she had hid it pretty well. The feeling had been bugging her for a while now. At first, she had assumed that it was simply because she had been away for so long, and it took time to reacclimatize to the daily routine of a medic-nin. But as the months flew by, the itch only intensified. Perhaps she was not really suited to be a hospital-based medic-nin.
She supposed she could have asked Tsunade to assign her to fieldwork. But she was reluctant to do so because fieldwork meant that she would be allocated a team, and a team meant greater difficulty for her to find time alone. And if she was not alone, Itachi could not approach her. It was dangerous enough as it was.
She gave herself a mental shake. No, she would not think about that now.
Standing at the window of the empty examination room, she stared out into the nearby training ground. Kakashi was there with his group of ex-Root operatives. Sakura felt her lips twitch as she eyed her ex-sensei. She bet that this was not exactly what Kakashi had anticipated when he had volunteered to take down Danzou. As fond as she was of her ex-sensei, she had to admit that he was not the best person around to train those ex-ANBU-Roots.
Shifting her gaze away from the training grounds, she scanned the street in front of the hospital, wondering absently if she should leave the examination room for a quick breath of fresh air.
Then she saw the familiar sight of Naruto's orange attire, and beside him, a darker figure. Sasuke could now walk freely around Konoha, but not beyond its walls. It had taken a while for him to capitulate, but Sasuke had finally accepted the deal offered to him three months ago. He had agreed to supply Konoha with fresh Uchiha blood in exchange for some freedom.
Much to her chagrin, Sasuke had propositioned her soon after his 'release'. Until now, the thought of it made her twitch. And not in a good way. Who did he think he was, coming up to him and without preamble, ask her to marry him? Did he think that she was so desperate for company that she would accept him?
His proposition had come as a shock to her, especially considering that they were not exactly that close. But she had finally deduced that he had done so only because she was the only female around his age who was on 'speaking terms' with him.
She had not needed any time to consider it. The answer was clear. First of all, she no longer harbored such feelings for him, and she had too much self-respect to think that she could be happy tying herself down to someone she did not love. And secondly, she knew exactly why Sasuke had approached her even though their relationship had been nothing but unpleasant ever since they fought back when she had still been an Akatsuki.
The reason was Itachi. Somehow or other, Sasuke must have sensed that she harbored feelings for his brother. She still recalled how he had accused her of consorting with Itachi when the discussion had gotten a little heated. So what if she was? It was not as if it was any of Sasuke's business.
So she had refused him.
Sasuke had not been pleased with her. But she was done trying to win his approval. Besides, there were other girls in Konoha, right? Surely there was at least one who would overlook his constant surliness. That was, if he bothered to even talk to them in the first place.
Banishing Sasuke from her thoughts, she turned in the direction of the tall gates separating the village from the surrounding forest, the corner of her lips tilting wistfully as she did so.
Almost two weeks had passed since the last time she saw Itachi and she could not help but wonder if she would see him again. So far, he had turned up in Konoha every fortnight, give or take a couple of days. Much as she enjoyed seeing him, with each of his visit, she grew increasingly concerned that he might get himself caught. In fact, she did not understand how he could have carried on in this manner for so long without being detected by the guards patrolling the grounds or the rest of the Leaf nins.
She rolled her eyes. What was she thinking about? He had managed to walk into Konoha five years ago without a problem, had he not? He had even managed to smuggle her out of Konoha in the middle of the night to see Kisame and Deidara on several occasions.
Sometimes, she wished she could be out there with them. But it was obviously not feasible. She was a Leaf kunoichi, not a missing-nin anymore, even though she still wore her slashed hitai-ate. She grinned at the recollection of just how bewildered everyone was when she told them that she preferred to wear her slashed hitai-ate rather than a new one. Memories, she had said.
They must think she was mad.
And sometime, she actually felt as if she was going mad. Working in the hospital for the last half a year had been such a massive change from her life as a missing-nin. Not that she did not enjoy it. But it tended to grow a little tedious after a while.
Yeah, Kiba was right.
She was restless.
The light from the burning fire cast shadowy shapes over the occupants of the discreet campsite. Sheltered by the dense foliage, the night air around them was still. There was no sign of life around them, bar the occasional hoots on an owl on the hunt.
"We're finally in Fire Country," Kisame announced needlessly, tossing another twig into the fire.
Itachi was fully aware of Kisame's and Deidara's questioning stares, but he did not look away from the small fire burning in front of him. Yes, they were in Fire Country. By now, he had stopped denying that he had deliberately picked the routes such that it brought them there every two weeks.
And yet, it was still not enough. He had thought that in time, the separation would become easier to handle. But he was wrong. The desire to see Sakura never abated.
"Oi, Uchiha, just go, yeah," Deidara called out.
Itachi slanted him an icy glance, but the blonde simply smirked at him. He watched as the blonde missing-nin folded his arms behind his head before he laid down on the grass to stare up into the dark sky. To all appearances, Deidara looked so relaxed that he might as well be asleep. But in the last six month, it had become apparent that despite this attitude of his, Deidara was a useful shinobi to have on one's side.
After spending more than a decade carrying out Akatsuki's orders, the last six months had been considerably different for them. They no longer worked for others, instead, they chose new missions for themselves for the purpose of funding themselves. It was rather liberating.
Subtly nudging his head towards the carriage some distance away, Kisame said, "We can handle the package on our own."
That Itachi had no doubt. After all, the mission was so simple that any one of them would have been able to do the job without too much trouble. Itachi glanced at the carriage, wondering if their client truly expected anyone to actually kidnap his daughter, or he was simply humoring the female.
As if on cue, the carriage door opened and out stepped a tall, thin woman. From what Itachi could tell, she was in her early-twenties.
"Hoshigaki-san!" she called out.
Deidara instantly sat up and smirked. "Oi, Kisame. You heard that? Your woman is calling for you."
Kisame bit back a curse. Glaring at her, he snapped, "What the hell do you want now?"
Completely unperturbed by his tone, she held out a small container. "I need water."
Eyes narrowing, Kisame hissed, "I brought you some just an hour ago."
She pouted. "But I finished it. Please, I need some more."
"Go get it yourself!"
"But it's too dark!" she whined.
Itachi was fairly certain that the girl had deliberately set out to annoy Kisame. After all, she had never spoken in that manner to him or Deidara. Somehow, she was fascinated by Kisame and clearly wished to rile the Mist shinobi whenever she could.
Deidara was grinning widely now. "Just go, yeah. Who knows, she might even invite you to share her carriage when you bring back her water."
With a growl of displeasure, Kisame shot to his feet. "Not my type. She's too skinny and too noisy."
Without another word, the blue-skinned nin went to snatch the container from her and proceeded to walk towards the nearby river. Wearing a self-satisfied look, the woman gave them a nod before she retreated back into her carriage.
Deidara laid back down on the grass. "You can go, you know."
"The mission is not over," Itachi pointed out blandly.
"Won't make a difference, yeah. You might as well spend an extra day with Sakura."
Itachi did not answer. But he was tempted to leave them to conclude the mission without him. He spent too little time with Sakura as it was, and one additional day would be welcomed. However, to leave now clearly displayed his… infatuation with the kunoichi.
And yet, did it matter? After all, Kisame and Deidara already knew about it. They could hardly miss the fact that he visited her every other week without fail. As annoying as it was to listen to Deidara's taunting remarks, Itachi had no intention of stopping. Those visits were important to him.
Sakura's smile flashed across his eyes, and a sharp longing jolted through him.
Perhaps Deidara was right.
Itachi stood up abruptly. Without looking at Deidara, for he knew that the blonde would be smirking smugly, Itachi picked up his plain black cloak and put it on. It would take him half a day to reach Konoha, which meant that he would arrive in the evening.
"I'll find you in three days," he announced, walking away from their campsite.
A chuckle sounded behind him. "No need for that. We'll deliver the woman when the sun comes up. After that, we'll head to Konoha. Make sure you bring Sakura out at dawn tomorrow. The usual place. We haven't seen her for a while."
Itachi glowered inwardly.
"Don't worry, we won't take up too much of your time with her, yeah. I'm sure Kisame would like to say a few words to her too," Deidara added.
With that, Itachi began his journey to Konoha.
It was almost four in the morning when Sakura finally made it home even though her shift had ended ten hours ago. The incoming emergency had required all the available staff, so she had stayed to help with the squad of injured ANBU. For a long while, things had been critical, but between her, Shizune and several other medics, they managed to stabilize their conditions.
Almost dead on her feet, she pushed open her front door wearily.
And then Sakura froze, instantly wide awake. She felt his familiar presence the moment she stepped into her apartment. She immediately pressed her glowing hand against a tag buried in the wall next to the door. A pulse of chakra surged through her apartment, telling her that her privacy was secured.
Only then did she call out. "Itachi?"
A shadowy figure moved near the window, pulling the curtains shut. Sakura reached out to switch on the light. She blinked against the sudden brightness until Itachi's familiar form came into focus. Right before her eyes, his crimson orbs turned onyx. And still, he said nothing and he did not move, simply allowing his eyes to run over her.
Glad so see him, she quickly closed the distance between them.
"I missed you," she declared, sliding her arms around him. Smiling against his chest, she continued, "I know it'd just been a little more than two weeks, but I still miss you."
His hand came up to caress the back of her neck as he nuzzled the top of her head in the most heartwarming gesture. "Hm."
Then to her surprise, he circled her arms with his hands and firmly set her away from him.
He was eyeing her clothes. Wondering what had caught his attention, she glanced down. She immediately grimaced when she saw the red blood staining her white uniform. A shower was definitely needed.
"It is not yours," Itachi murmured, giving her a questioning look.
She shook her head. "There was an emergency today. An ANBU squad got injured badly in a mission."
Itachi raised a brow. "They are so incompetent?"
Instantly riled, she pulled away from him and scowled. "They were ambushed, alright?" she bit out tightly.
"They got the wrong information."
She threw up her hands in annoyance and stalked towards her bedroom. "I'm not going to discuss this with you," she threw over her shoulder. She was tired, cranky and however much she missed him, she was simply not up to their usual verbal sparring.
Walking into her en-suite bathroom, she began to unbutton her blood-stained medic uniform, intent on cleaning the blood and the smell of the hospital off her. But before she could even reach the second button, Itachi was standing in the bathroom right in front of her.
She opened her mouth to tell him to wait outside, but her words died in her throat at the look on his face. Her breath hitched when his hands touched her top. His whole attention was fixed on her buttons as he steadily undid the fastenings one after another, as if there was nothing else more important to him.
Heat washed over her, replacing her irritation. "Itachi…"
She decided not to protest as he methodically removed her clothes. His expression remained impassive the entire time, seemingly unmoved by what he was doing. But Sakura knew him well enough to be certain that he was definitely straining to control himself. The heated look in his onyx orbs coupled with the way he was swallowing hard told her as much.
Once completely unclothed, he pushed her into the shower cubicle. She went without protest and turned the knob, welcoming the cascade of warm water over her. It felt good, and she allowed herself to relax.
Then she felt his touch on her waist.
"Stay still," he murmured as he joined her in the shower cubicle.
Giving in to him, Sakura sighed. She closed her eyes, letting the shower cascade over her.
Then, Itachi proceeded to wash all the tension out of her with his soapy hands.
Tsunade glanced away from the window. Lips thinning, she strode towards her desk and sat down. She did not know why she continued to stand there so long after she sensed the presence of the intruder. But as she had done many times before, she did not raise the alarm.
She poured sake into a saucer and then tossed the beverage down her throat. Placing the ceramic down with a clink, she glowered unseeingly at the paper on her desk.
The sheer arrogance of that brat grated on her nerves. Whilst it was true that he had aided Konoha in defeating Madara, it did not give him the right to do whatever he wished within its grounds. He was still responsible, albeit not fully, for the massacre of his clan, regardless of his actions six months ago. He was still a wanted S-class missing-nin.
A knock sounded on the door and Tsunade looked up. "What is it?"
The door opened and Kakashi stepped in. "Hokage-sama."
She raised a questioning brow.
Waving a sheet of paper in the air, Kakashi walked towards her and then placed said paper on her desk. "The progress report on Root."
Surprised that Kakashi had bothered to hand in a report at this early pre-dawn hour, Tsunade eyed him intently. "What did you do to them?"
His eye crinkled. "Just a little night exercise."
She picked the report up, glancing disinterestedly at the barely legible scrawl peppering the page. Attempting to read it was probably not worth the effort. She was fairly certain that that Kakashi's progress with those Root operatives could barely be called progress at this point, still.
Besides, there was another matter on her mind.
"Tell me I'm not the only one who had noticed it."
Kakashi blinked. "Eh?"
Comprehension dawned. "Ah."
Kakashi nodded. "He's not making much effort to hide himself."
"So that Uchiha knows that we know, and he still has the nerve to walk through Konoha like he owns it," Tsunade muttered darkly.
"Considering that he's a wanted missing-nin, he sure is fearless."
"That's all you have to say, Hatake?"
He raised his visible brow. "You want me to apprehend him?" he asked innocently.
Tsunade let out an exasperated sigh before she shook her head. After a while, she finally murmured, "No. Sakura probably won't survive it, even if anyone manages to capture him in the first place."
"He's been visiting her every other week. Without fail," Kakashi mused.
"For six months."
Her expression turned darker. "I can see that."
"It's somewhat worrying," Kakashi pointed out.
She shot him an irritated look. "Do you take me for an idiot, Hatake? Of course it is worrying!" After a short pause, she continued, "What's more worrying is that face Sakura puts on in between his visits."
Tsunade sighed. "It was that mission, wasn't it?"
"It is not unexpected."
She nodded. "The outside environment tends to do that to certain shinobi. Who knew that Sakura would be one of them?"
"And yet, she was the best choice for the mission at that time."
Frowning thoughtfully, Tsunade tapped a finger against her desk. Sakura might have thought that she was hiding it well, but the girl was clearly unsettled, even after half a year of being in Konoha. It was not only the lifestyle of a missing-nin that Sakura missed. Much as she disliked to think about it, Tsunade knew that Sakura had feelings for Uchiha Itachi and she missed him.
It was not as if Sakura was so restless that she was ineffective at her job. In fact, it was almost as if Sakura was trying to drown herself in work, judging from the number of cases she was handling.
Tsunade sighed. She had to do something about the situation. Besides, an idea had been prodding at her recently. But first, she needed to hear the truth from Sakura's own mouth. The girl had kept silent long enough. The tapping fingers stopped and she pinned her gaze on Kakashi.
"Uh, Hokage-sama…" Kakashi faltered, sounding uncertain.
She eyed him impatiently. "What is it now?"
"She's probably still with Uchiha Itachi at the moment." He paused, looking rather disturbed. "Not a good time to… interrupt them."
Tsunade's lips thinned in disapproval. "Hatake. Are you questioning orders?"
A single eye blinked once, and then Kakashi chuckled uncomfortably. "Fine. Fine. I'll… summon Sakura."
"Good. Go now."
With that, Kakashi backed away from her desk. Moments later, he disappeared with a puff of smoke.
"So? What happened next?"
They were resting on her bed, where he was holding her securely in his arms. He was telling her about the antics of their most recent charge, but the way she was gazing up at him brought forth other thoughts. Thoughts that warmed his blood. It seemed that he could not get enough of her.
"Itachi?" she prompted.
"She demanded that Kisame carried her until another carriage was found."
"How did he take it?" Sakura asked eagerly, her eyes shining.
"Kisame was not pleased."
She grinned. "I wish I could have seen that. It sounds bad, but I really couldn't imagine someone coming on to Kisame."
"Perhaps she finds it amusing."
"And Kisame can't say no to her?" she asked.
Itachi nodded, watching with amusement as she broke into hysterical laughter. He did not know when it had begun, these sessions of him telling her what he and the other two had gone through between their meetings. It was most unlike him to speak to someone else of his movements. However, the first time he had done so, her pleasure had been so genuine that he felt compelled to continue to exercise.
Her laughter soon subsided, and she sighed. "So, what's the next mission for the three of you?"
He searched her face, not missing the wistful tone in her voice. She was growing increasingly restless, remaining in Konoha the way she had been doing for the last half a year, and yet, she had told him sometime ago that she had declined field missions offered to her. Perhaps it reminded her too much of her days as an Akatsuki.
"Itachi?" she prompted.
Recalling her question, he replied, "It is within Fire Country."
Her eyes narrowed. "Itachi, you're not-"
"We will not come against Konoha," he interjected smoothly. "It is merely an escort mission. We will escort the woman back to Wave Country. There, we will commence a delivery mission."
She gave him a skeptical look. "You took on a delivery mission? It's not something you usually do."
"It is convenient."
She shook her head slowly in disbelief.
Glancing out of the window, he noted the slight glow in the horizon which signaled the approach of dawn. It was time. And if he got this out of the way, he could spend the next two nights with Sakura without interruption.
He stood up from the bed. "Come," he invited as he strode to the window.
A shuffle sounded behind him. "What do you mean? Where are we going?"
He inclined his head westwards out of the window. "Kisame and Deidara are waiting." That was what Deidara had said yesterday.
She brightened visibly at his proclamation. And then she sobered quickly. "You're leaving so soon?"
Her obvious disappointment amused him. "No," he responded.
Her relief was clear. "So how long are you staying this time?" she asked.
"Two more nights. Then we will escort the woman home."
Smiling widely, she walked up to join him next to the window. "So, what are you going to do these two nights?" she asked teasingly.
He raised a brow at her. "Perhaps I should join Kisame and Deidara at the inn."
Emerald eyes narrowed at him. "Don't you dare." After a short pause, she added, "Anyway, it's less risky for you to stay put instead of moving in and out of Konoha so much."
Concern clouded her features. "I mean it, Itachi. What if the guards see you?"
"They will not." This was not the first time she had voiced her concern, but each time she did so, it reiterated just how much she cared for him. Tapping her on her forehead, he added, "I will be careful."
She sighed. "I guess that's all I can ask." Turning to the window, she said, "So, they are out there, huh?"
He did not wish to leave now, but he knew that it was best to get the meeting over with. Gesturing towards a point in the distance, Itachi said, "That's where they are waiting."
She nodded. "Let's go."
He reactivated his Sharingan. Cloaked in darkness, they exited through her bedroom window. Once outside, they stealthily made their way across the empty streets of Konoha, deftly avoiding the chuunin sentries posted in various locations.
They were almost at the boundary wall when Itachi picked up the presence of another shinobi. Without breaking a single step, he focused on the presence, attempting to determine if there was a risk of them being discovered. The shinobi was headed in their direction, but he was still quite far away. And if Itachi was not mistaken, it was none other than the Copy-nin.
What did Hatake Kakashi want? The fact that he had sensed no danger from the other nin was not the only reason why he had not alerted Sakura to the Copy-nin's presence. This was not the first time Hatake was aware of his presence, but it was the first time he chose to approach. So Itachi was curious to see what the other shinobi would do.
Itachi continued to keep track of the Copy-nin's movement even after they scaled the tall boundary wall. Landing on the grassy ground on the other side of the wall, they straightened and sped into the forest until they reached a clearing. Kisame and Deidara were already there. Both of them were leaning against a large tree trunk, arms crossed over their chests.
Deidara was the first one to speak. "It's about time, yeah." He scowled. "What the hell took you so long, hm?"
Walking up to them, Sakura planted her hands on her hips and smirked. "Do you really want to know?"
Deidara gave her a disgusted look. "Forget I asked, yeah. I don't' need the details."
"Good." She ran her eyes over them. "So, I see you two managed to stay alive since the last time I saw you."
Kisame frowned at her. "What do you take us for, kunoichi?"
She grinned. "Who knows what you guys have been up to out there?"
Deidara snorted. "Missions, what else?"
She turned to the blonde. "So, I heard it's an escort mission. Not something I see you doing willingly." Her tone was teasing.
The look on Deidara's face clearly displayed his amusement. "It's an easy one, yeah. You should ask Kisame about it."
Her eyes gleaming, she prompted, "Kisame?"
"Just mind your own business, kunoichi," Kisame growled darkly.
"Sure you don't want to tell me?" she pressed, her smile widening. "I'd be glad to hand you some tips on women."
Deidara coughed as Kisame reddened. "I don't need you to tutor me about women, kunoichi," he snapped. "I know things that you haven't even learnt yet."
She raised a brow. "Oh, then maybe it's been so long that you're simply out of practice," she remarked innocently.
"Kunoichi…" Kisame growled.
As they continued to bicker, Itachi could feel the Copy-nin approaching faster and faster. He would soon be upon them. A quick glance towards Deidara told Itachi that the blonde had sensed the same thing, for he had tensed, but it was obvious that Kisame and Sakura were far too immersed in their conversation to sense anything.
"Sakura, Kisame," Itachi called out.
Both of them broke off and turned around.
"We have company, yeah," Deidara announced grimly.
Sakura spun around, automatically adopting a fight stance. Then her jaw dropped at the sight of the familiar shinobi appearing from the shadows. Oh, no. This was bad, she immediately thought.
"Yo," Kakashi greeted, his single visible eye creasing.
Sakura gulped. What was he doing here? Talk about being caught red-handed. What would Kakashi do now that he knew that she still kept in contact with these three?
"What are you doing here, hm?" Deidara snapped.
Kakashi raised a brow and then glanced around pointedly. "Last I checked, this is Leaf's territory."
Deidara simply crossed his arms over his chest. "And so?"
"Deidara," Itachi intoned quietly, warning him to be silent.
Worried, Sakura eyed them all cautiously. What would Kakashi do to them? Or perhaps she should ask what would they do to Kakashi? After all, there were three of them against Kakashi. She clenched her hands into fists as her panic rose. After all this time, would she be forced to choose sides? Who would she chose if that was the case?
"I say we get out of here," Kisame remarked casually. Then, turning to Kakashi, he bared his jagged teeth and swung Samehada forward. "Unless, of course, Copy-nin here wants to fight."
"We are not here to fight," Itachi declared calmly.
"Oh?" Sounding completely innocent, Kakashi continued, "So, why are you three here then?"
Kisame smirked. "Just taking a walk, Hatake."
"Really," Kakashi intoned flatly. "I find that difficult to believe. So let's try again. Why are you here?"
Sakura could not move even if she wanted to. Rooted to the spot, she continued to stare disbelievingly at the scene playing out before her. This would not end well at all, she thought. Although everyone seemed relatively calm now, there was no telling how long it would last. She had to think of something to defuse the situation. But before she could act on her thoughts, Deidara stepped towards her.
To her shock, cold metal touched her neck. She froze in reaction. "W-What? Dei-"
"Why, we're here to kidnap this little kunoichi, of course," Deidara proclaimed smugly. The kunai pressed harder against her skin. "After all, she has a number of useful skills, yeah."
Kakashi tensed visibly.
"Release her," Itachi bit out tersely.
"What the hell are you doing, you idiot!"
With that, Kisame yanked him away from her, much to her relief. She jumped a fair distance away from the blonde, staring warily at him as she rubbed her neck. Deidara was completely unperturbed by the exchange. Instead, he was calmly twirling his kunai on the tip of his finger. Her eyes narrowed. Was he deliberately asking for a fight or something? The escort mission must be more boring that she had thought.
A familiar sound broke into her thoughts and she swung around to see Kakashi chuckling at them.
"What's so funny?" she ground out irritably. The whole situation was bizarre and confusing, not at all funny. So why was Kakashi laughing?
He shook his head as his chuckles subsided. "Nothing."
All of them stared at each other for a long while.
"The Hokage wants to see you, Sakura," Kakashi finally announced.
She blinked. Was this simply a ruse to get her out of the way? "Sensei…" she ventured uncertainly.
"Go now, Sakura," he instructed calmly, his eyes not leaving the three male shinobi. "You know she doesn't like to be kept waiting."
And yet, she hesitated to leave the four of them alone. She did not know who she was more worried about, Kakashi or the rest. And what was odd was the fact that Kakashi did not even bother asking what she was doing there. It must have been glaringly obvious that she had not been treating the three ex-Akatsuki as enemies. So why had Kakashi said nothing?
"Are you coming with me, sensei?" she asked.
He shook his head once, his attention still fixed on the other three. "Maybe later."
"Go," Itachi suddenly said.
Her eyes snapped towards him, but his expression betrayed nothing. In fact, he was not even looking at her. Him and the rest were having this weird staring contest with Kakashi. What the hell was wrong with them?
Suddenly, she felt irritated.
Glaring at them, she bit out, "Just do yourselves a favor and don't fight, okay."
None of them responded to her, so she simply turned around and walked away quickly, glowering all the time. The faster she went to Tsunade, the faster she could see what her shishou wanted and then get back here.
Before they killed each other.
She doubted that they would actually do something as stupid as that, but one could not tell.
Before long, she was standing outside Tsunade's office. Raising her hand, she rapped on the door. "It's me, shishou," she called out.
She pushed the door open. Tsunade looked up from her desk when she stepped into the office. As she closed the door behind her, her shishou's amber eyes remained fixed on her, unnerving her a little. Tsunade could not possibly know about what happened outside the gates, could she?
"Shishou," she greeted, walking up to the desk. "You summoned me?"
Tapping her fingers on the table, Tsunade stared at her assessingly. "Is there something I should know about, Sakura?"
"Any visitors lately?"
Sakura forced herself not to wince. In as calm a voice as she could manage, she asked cautiously, "I'm not sure I know what you mean."
Tsunade's lips thinned as she stood up. "Don't play dumb, Sakura. You've been seeing Uchiha Itachi," she bit out sternly, placing her palms flat against the desk as she leaned forward.
This time, Sakura did wince. So, her shishou knew after all. There was no point in denying it since her shishou clearly knew what was going on. So what did this mean for her? Would she be punished for consorting with the enemy? Would she be kicked out of Konoha for this aberration?
Would Tsunade ban her from ever seeing Itachi again? The idea of not seeing Itachi was unbearable.
"Answer me, Sakura!" the Hokage barked.
Sakura jumped slightly. This was it. The cat was out of the bag. There was no point in hiding anything any longer. Straightening, she stared her shishou straight in the eye.
"Yes, Shishou. I've been seeing Itachi," she admitted.
Tsunade did not even pause. "How long?" she asked.
"And do you think your actions are appropriate for a Leaf kunoichi? Consorting with an S-class missing-nin? An S-class LEAF missing-nin at that?" Tsunade asked, her voice growing louder and louder as she glared at her. "One would think that such a thing amounts to the betrayal of Konoha."
Sakura instantly stiffened, offended by the implication of those words. "I didn't betray Konoha," she defended quickly. "I know that according to the books, being involved with a missing-nin is not right." Her expression turned mutinous. "With all due respect, Hokage-sama, I can't help feeling the way I do. And it's not something I can control. But what I can make sure of is that I would never betray Konoha to anyone."
"Even the Uchiha?"
Sakura shook her head. "My loyalty is to Konoha first."
Tsunade eyed her assessingly. "So, given a choice between running off with Itachi and remaining in Konoha, you would choose Konoha?"
Why was she asking so many questions? It was as if Tsunade was trying to prolong her torture. Sakura exhaled. "I've already made that choice six months ago, Hokage-sama. I chose Konoha. And here I am."
"And do you think it is the right choice?"
She nodded without hesitation. "I will never betray Konoha."
"So if I order you to cease these… meetings with Itachi, you will obey me?" Tsunade challenged.
A lump formed in her throat. Not to see Itachi again? Ever?
Sure it had been hard, hiding from everyone every two weeks, but each minute with Itachi was so precious that it had all been worth the effort. How would she deal with not seeing Itachi at all? How could she survive not talking to him, touching him… just BEING with him? But what was the alternative? Would she allow herself to be cast out of Konoha, separated from all she had known since she was born?
"Sakura. Answer me."
Years of training kicked in. She was a kunoichi and she had pledged her loyalty to Konoha. No matter how painful it was for herself, the answer was clear.
She met her shishou's gaze. "I will obey your instructions, Hokage-sama."
Tsunade's eyes flickered, and then she sat back down on her chair. A pause followed before she spoke again. "Will you be content to remain in Konoha if that was the case?"
Sakura exhaled loudly. Lying to Tsunade was not an option. "Shishou, I'll miss him. Even separated, I doubt I'll forget Itachi. He's… important to me. But whatever happens, I assure you that I will not do anything to jeopardize my missions or Konoha."
Tsunade continued to stare at her contemplatively. It was clear that something was on her mind. The question was, what was it? Swallowing hard, Sakura stared silently at her shishou, nervously awaiting her sentence.
"I need an informant."
Sakura frowned at the sudden turnaround in topic. "Shishou?"
As if she had not heard her, Tsunade leaned forward against the desk. "That brat Uzumaki will probably need it too, and preferably it's someone he can get along with." Resting her chin on her clasped hands, she continued thoughtfully, "So it might work."
Sakura was utterly confused now. One minute, her shishou was ripping her apart for seeing Itachi. And now, she was talking about Naruto. What the hell was going on?
"Shishou? I'm afraid I don't understand."
Tsunade finally looked at her. Then shaking her head, she made a dismissive gesture with her hands. "That will be all, Sakura. Go get Uzumaki for me. You can leave now."
Sakura's lips parted in astonishment. Leave? Tsunade was allowing her to leave after all that?
"What are you waiting for?" Tsunade snapped irritably. "Go!"
She quickly nodded. "Yes, Hokage-sama."
Naruto frowned deeply as he exited Tsunade's office. Stepping out into the early morning sunlight, he paused and stretched, mulling over the discussion he had with Tsunade just a few minutes ago.
It had been an odd meeting. Tsunade had been crankier than usual, but after all these months, he was used to it. The topic of the meeting was not something new. They had been aware of the necessity of the mission for sometime now, even though they had not allocated anyone to the task.
He could not help but feel a little concerned about the entire situation. But as Tsunade had pointed out earlier, Sakura was the best person for the task. After all, it would not be as if it was something new to her. Still, the whole thing was much too sudden for him to absorb. Naruto sighed. Much as he liked the way things were moving along now, he knew that he had to put Konoha first.
And now he had to go tell Sakura. He just hoped that she would not take her annoyance out on him. Who knew how she would take the news.
Standing in the streets, Naruto glanced left and right, trying to spot the mop of pink hair. Not having any luck there, he ran across Konoha in search of Sakura.
Where was she?
Skidding to a halt beside Ichiraku Ramen, Naruto called out to Ayame. "Ayame! Have you seen Sakura?"
The girl looked up from the counter. "Sakura?" Then she inclined her head in the direction of the Konoha gates. "I think she went in that direction not long ago."
With that, he dashed away. Soon, he was at the guard post.
"Kotetsu! Did Sakura come this way?"
The other shinobi gestured towards the outside. "She went out."
Naruto frowned. As far as he knew, she was not on a mission or anything like that. So why did she leave the compound? Going for a walk?
Shrugging inwardly, he progressed in the direction Kotetsu had indicated and began to track her. It was not long before he detected the presence of a number of shinobi in the clearing up ahead. A little puzzled, he continued at a more cautious pace until he reached it. Cloaking his presence, he peered through the gaps in the bushes to find out what was going on.
He froze at the sight which greeted him.
Itachi, Deidara and Kisame were standing in the clearing, facing a very still Kakashi. Standing between them was a scowling Sakura, her arms crossed over her chest as she glared at Kakashi and the ex-Akatsuki in turn.
What the hell were those three doing here? Well, he would soon find out. He sped forward, and then leaped into the clearing next to the unmoving Kakashi.
Pasting a wide smile on his face, he greeted cheerfully, "Oi! What's going on here?"
Sakura flicked an irritated glance at him and he gulped in reaction. The dark look on her face did not bode well for them. Best not to antagonize her further, he thought as he shifted his attention to the ex-Akatsuki. To his surprise, Itachi was looking at him.
Recalling the Uchiha's role in the fight against Madara, Naruto inclined his head at him. "So, how are things going for you three now that Akatsuki is gone? All going well?"
Itachi raised a single brow. "Yes."
Beside him, Deidara snorted. "At least we don't answer to anyone now, yeah."
Kisame merely grunted.
Naruto gaze landed on Kakashi. "Sensei? Is everything okay?"
Kakashi's eye creased. "Of course. Everything is fine."
Finally losing the little patience he had, Naruto frowned. "Then why are you all standing like you're about to fight at any second?"
"I'm just making sure they behave, Naruto," Kakashi remarked. "It's Leaf's territory after all."
Deidara's eyes narrowed. "We're just taking a walk out here, yeah. What's your problem?"
Kakashi's brow rose. "Problem? There's no problem."
Naruto pinched the bridge of his nose. This was bizarre.
"Why are you here, Naruto?" Sakura asked, sounding exasperated. "And don't tell me you're here to make small talk. Or to say hi to Itachi and the rest."
"Uh… Sakura-chan. I've got something to tell you." Well aware of her bad mood, Naruto laughed uncomfortably as he rubbed the back of his neck. "But it can wait. I'll tell you later."
Her eyes narrowed. "What is it? Tell me now."
He eyed the rest of the people in the clearing. "But there are others…"
He jumped at her uncompromising tone. Well, if she wanted it this way, he would not argue. After all, those three ex-Akatsuki were her friends, and considering the nature of the mission, he guessed that they would find out sooner or later.
"Umm… I spoke to Baa-chan," he began. "She told me to tell you something."
Much to his surprise, Sakura tensed while a look of comprehension crossed her face. She blinked a couple of times, and then sagged visibly, this time looking resigned. And sad. Maybe she had some idea of what was coming.
She sighed heavily. "Naruto, just tell me, okay?"
There was no point putting it off then. Steeling himself, he fixed his eyes on her and adopted what he had come to think as his Hokage tone.
"Haruno Sakura. Konoha has a mission for you."
Her brows furrowed in confusion. "What mission?"
Was this not what she had expected? Brushing the thought away, he withdrew a mission scroll from his pocket. The words scribbled within was a mere formality, but one of the things he had learnt from all those months under Tsunade tutorage was that paperwork was important, as troublesome as it was.
Tossing the scroll to Sakura, he waited for her to catch it before he continued, "This is your new mission if you choose to accept it. You will be Konoha's informant, a spy. Until further notice, you will be based outside Konoha permanently."
She gaped at him, the scroll hanging limp from her fingers. Naruto flicked a quick glance at the rest of the shinobi. Kakashi did not look too surprised, but there were odd looks on the three ex-Akatsuki's faces. Itachi's crimson eyes had taken on a weird gleam.
Dragging his attention back to the shell-shocked Sakura, Naruto continued, "You will present either a verbal or a written report to the Hokage at least once a month, giving an account of all the information you have collected on the activities of other villages and organizations. And-"
"Somewhat like Jiraiya," Kakashi suddenly interjected, looking amused. "Not a bad thing."
Deciding that he had said enough, Naruto gestured to the scroll. "Well, the details are all in there. You better read it, just in case I forgot to tell you something."
For a moment, there was nothing but silence. It was as if everyone was trying to digest the implications of Sakura's latest mission. Except Sakura herself. She looked as if she was far away, albeit with a disbelieving look still plastered on her face.
And then Kisame stepped towards the still-frozen Sakura. "Kunoichi, you're going to read that or what?"
Deidara smirked. "Better check the small print, yeah. Who knows what else you'll be agreeing to when you take the mission, hm. Especially considering that you'd be traveling with us."
Finally breaking out of her stupor, Sakura spun towards Deidara. "Who said I'm taking the mission?" she shot back. "Or traveling with you?"
Deidara's smirk widened. "Oh. I get it, yeah. You need to… discuss this with Itachi."
Sakura flushed as she darted a quick look at the impassive Uchiha. Wait, were Itachi's lips twitching? Naruto squinted harder at the Uchiha to make sure, but saw nothing except his still features. Then he frowned when Deidara's words sank in. It did not make sense.
Turning to the long-haired blonde, Naruto asked, "Why should she discuss this with Itachi? It's her choice."
A snort came from Kisame, while Kakashi directed his attention somewhere sky-wards. Itachi did not move a muscle, but Naruto could see the amusement lighting his eyes, while Sakura turned her eyes down to inspect her toes.
"Isn't it?" he added hesitantly.
Naruto felt a growing sense of unease. Something was nudging at the back of his mind. Something was telling him that it was something obvious. But for some reason, he could not grasp it. He glanced around again. Whatever it was, the rest of them knew about it.
"Sakura-chan? What's going on?"
Too many things had happened, and all too quickly.
First was Kakashi's and Naruto's sudden appearance. What was with everyone catching her in the company of the three ex-Akatsuki today? Six months had passed without her getting caught seeing them, and now it had to happen?
Then Naruto had to drop that bombshell of a mission. It was obviously Tsunade's doing, but why did her shishou do such a thing? The mission effectively allowed her to leave Konoha, to live outside with whomever she pleased. It gave her total freedom without betraying Konoha. Something like that was a great honor, a sign of just how much her shishou trusted her.
The mission allowed her to be with Itachi, just the way she had always dreamed of.
She snuck a glance at the Uchiha, only to find him observing her with his usual blank expression. They had never discussed the future, which meant that she did not know what he thought of this development. Would he be happy to have her around indefinitely? She would like to think so, but she did not know if she should make such an assumption.
Naruto's voice jolted her out of her contemplations, and she dragged her eyes away from Itachi to look at her friend. His features displayed an odd mix of expressions; concern, confusion and trepidation. Then she recalled his question and she had to fight a wince. Right. Naruto wanted to know what was going on. She supposed it was time to tell him.
"Uh, Naruto…" She paused uncertainly, and then took a deep breath. "I've been seeing Itachi."
"Seeing Itachi?" he echoed, sounding puzzled.
Naruto looked blank for a moment, and then his eyes widened like saucers as comprehension dawned. His tone was incredulous when he cried out, "SEEING Itachi?! As in…" He broke off abruptly, darting a beseeching look at Kakashi. "Really?"
"You heard her, Naruto," the Copy-nin murmured.
Naruto stared, slack-jawed.
"Don't look so surprised, Naruto. It's quite obvious," Kakashi murmured behind his mask.
Deidara snickered, while Kisame chucked. Sakura glared hard at them, willing them to stop, but they simply ignored her. At least Itachi had the sense to remain quiet, she thought as she slanted a glance at the stoic Uchiha.
Eyes still wide in disbelief, Naruto stabbed a finger in her direction. "You…" And then he pointed at Itachi. "And HIM?"
Uncomfortable with Naruto's reaction, Sakura bristled. "Yes, me and him," she hissed. "What's wrong with that?"
"But how-" Naruto paused, blinking as something occurred to him.
She was surprised that he was taking this so well, considering who he was. In fact, she had expected him to protest vehemently, but perhaps he had matured. She had noticed that he often paused to think nowadays, as strange as it was to see sometimes. It should not be surprising, considering he was currently being groomed to be the next Hokage.
Then he gasped. "Wait! Is that why you rejected Sasuke?"
"Naruto!" Sakura snapped in warning before she shot a nervous look at Itachi.
She had not told Itachi about Sasuke's proposals, simply because she did not know how the older Uchiha would take it. And now, from the look Itachi was currently giving her, she knew that she could not remain silent on the matter any longer. Itachi wanted to know what she had been hiding from him. Her suspicions were confirmed a second later.
"Sasuke is pursuing you?" he asked silkily.
She shook her head. "No."
Naruto scratched his chin thoughtfully. "I don't think he has given up yet."
Itachi's eyes narrowed slightly. "Is that so?" he murmured silkily.
"I've already told him that I'll never accept his proposal," she bit out tightly.
The hardness in Itachi's eyes bled away, leaving faint traces of male satisfaction. "Hm."
Sakura scowled at his possessiveness.
A loud throat-clearing from Kakashi drew everyone's attention. "Naruto. Let's go."
"Huh? But Tsunade will want to know Sakura's decision about-"
"Later," the Copy-nin interjected calmly. "I'm sure Sakura needs some time to think over it. It is a big decision, isn't it, Sakura?"
Thankful for the temporary reprieve, Sakura quickly nodded. Then turning to Naruto, she said, "I won't take long. I'll let you know by the end of the day."
Naruto looked doubtful, but he nodded anyway. Without another word, he went with Kakashi towards the village. As she watched them leave, she could not help but wonder just what decision she would end up making. Whatever it was, she could not make it alone. It would affect Itachi, after all.
Turning back to the obviously bemused Deidara and Kisame, she narrowed her eyes pointedly. Kisame continued to smirk while Deidara adopted an innocent look.
"What?" the latter asked.
"Don't you have something else to do?" she asked.
He shrugged. "I can't think of anything, yeah."
"He's got a death wish," Kisame muttered.
Sakura felt a vein pop on her forehead. Cracking her knuckles, she took a threatening step towards the blonde. Her movement, however, was halted by a firm grip on her arm. She turned to the side to find Itachi staring at his two comrades.
"Leave," Itachi finally said, in a tone which clearly stated that he would not accept no for an answer.
Kisame nodded. "I'll be at the inn." Then, inclining his head at her, he added, "I'll see you around."
She did not know what to say, so she simply smiled.
Finally relenting to the pressure, Deidara shrugged. "Well, I guess I'd better go as well, yeah."
Sakura rolled her eyes at him. "It's about time."
Deidara grinned just before he turned to walk away. "Make sure you make the right decision, yeah, Sakura."
"I hope I will," she murmured, and then watched as the two of them left, heading away from the hidden village.
Now there were only her and Itachi in the clearing.
They were finally alone once again, Itachi thought as he gazed at the kunoichi before him.
"Come," he invited.
Without waiting for a response, he leapt into the trees and began to travel eastwards. As the trees sped by around him, the shift of the air behind him told him that she was following. His lips tilted slightly at the recollection of just how many times they had travelled like this when she had still been with them.
And they might do so again.
The Hokage's decree came as a surprise to him, but it was one he welcomed. However, he was uncertain how Sakura felt about it. They had never discussed the possibility of this, mainly because they were simply handling their relationship on a daily basis. But now that the notion had been put forth, he wondered what were her thoughts on it.
Whilst he was aware of just how close she was to him, and how much she loved him, he did not know if she was willing to leave her village. Unlike him, she had formed many attachments as she grew up there. Accepting the mission would mean that she would see them only on rare occasions. Was she willing to accept such a change?
He continued to mull over the latest development as he sped through the trees. After a while, he arrived at the desired destination. The morning sunshine sparkled off the surface of the water, giving it an almost surreal atmosphere. Stopping by the side of the secluded lake, he waited until Sakura reached him before turning around to face her.
Eyes pinned to the view in front of her, she exclaimed in surprise. "I never realized it looks like this in the morning. And I thought it's already beautiful at night."
He nodded, walking till he reached the edge of the water. They had taken walks around this area at night when he had visited her in the past. He knew that she liked this place, and had always been pleased to be there. But today, there was a strange somberness in the air. Slanting a glance to the side, he saw that Sakura had settled down on one of the smooth rocks.
"So," she began, her eyes fixed on the lake. "I have to make a decision.
"What do you think?" she asked quietly.
"It is your choice."
She exhaled loudly, and then turned to frown at him. "You know fully well that if I accept, I'll be traveling with you and the other two. So, the decision affects you as well."
"Is that all you've got to say?" she asked, sounding irritated.
No. He wanted to demand that she accept the mission so that they would no longer be separated. He wanted to demand that she leave her friends behind to be with him. In fact, he distinctly recall asking her to choose him instead of Konoha six months ago. But she had declined then. And although the situation was different this time, he was not certain of decision she would make.
"Itachi," she prompted. "What do you think?"
"What do you wish to do?"
"To accept the mission, of course." She sighed. "Then I could be with you. All I want is to be with you without betraying Konoha."
Her words brought forth a wash of relief upon him. Then relief quickly turned into shots of elation coursing through him, and yet, his expression remained bland. This time, she was choosing him instead of her life in Konoha.
Shrugging, she continued, "We couldn't really continue sneaking around anyway."
"Do you mind?" she asked in a quiet voice. "I mean, you wouldn't be able to get rid of me then."
He knelt down in front of her, staring at her intently. The foolish girl. "Have I given the impression that I wish to do so?"
When she shook her head slowly, he reached up to cup a hand against the side of her cheek. She nuzzled his palm gently, closing her eyes. His other hand came up to cup the other side, and then he leaned towards her. Their lips met and her fingers gripped his shoulder to pull him closer. For a while, he could feel and taste nothing but her.
When they finally broke apart, he ran his eyes over her flushed cheeks.
"Tell them now," he instructed, impatient to secure the arrangement.
Her passion-glazed eyes stared at him. "Huh?"
"Your decision. That you will accept the mission."
She blinked slowly, and then smiled knowingly. "I won't change my mind, Itachi."
She had better not, he thought inwardly as he stood up, pulling her alone with him.
"Are you happy?" she asked suddenly asked.
He eyed her silently. And then he smiled.
She had spoken to Tsunade, Kakashi, Shikamaru and Naruto at length after the acceptance of the mission. In fact, she had spent most of the last few days stuck in Tsunade's office, discussing the mission and what was expected of her. She had sighed scrolls after scrolls, declaring her loyalty and everything she was agreeing to by accepting the mission.
Knowing the world of shinobi, although the threat of Madara and the Akatsuki was now gone, it was likely that some other thing would crop up before long. And her task, like Jiraiya's, was to make sure that Konoha received the pertinent information early, so that they were prepared for every eventuality.
Tsunade expected a monthly report from her, detailing everything she had learnt about other villages and the conditions outside in general. She would be paid a small sum by Konoha, though it was understood that the funds from any external missions she completed would be hers alone. These external missions, of course, had to be only those which did not jeopardize the Leaf. Then they had touched upon her choice of company. Tsunade had made it clear that like the missions, she was expected to remain loyal to Konoha no matter what, despite her company.
Tsunade had retained her briskness throughout the last few days, until last night. Drenched in sake, her shishou had admitted that she would be missed. It was a touching moment, one which Sakura would not forget anytime soon.
Patting her small pack, Sakura straightened and glanced around her room, feeling a little sad that she would be leaving it for good. Yesterday, when Naruto had come to pick up her belongings to store them in his place, she could not help but feel like another chapter of her life was over. When she came back to make her reports, she would probably have to stay with one of her friends or at an inn. It would never be the same again.
But she would be out there once more. A small smile crossed her lips as she thought of how she could stretch her skills. Much as she loved her work in the hospital, it was never as challenging as what she had gone through in those two years outside Konoha.
A knock sounded on her front door.
Knowing that it was Ino, Sakura called out, "Come in."
The door creaked open and then shut. A moment later, Ino strode into her room. "All packed?" the blonde asked.
Sakura nodded. "I have to be outside the gates soon. I don't want to hold anyone up."
Ino looked surprised. "The Uchiha and the other two are waiting for you?"
"They are on their way out of Fire Country. So I thought I might as well travel with them."
Arms crossed over her chest, Ino scowled at her. "I still can't believe you didn't tell me about Itachi earlier."
Sakura looked sheepish. "Naruto found out a few days ago, so it was a matter of time before everyone else did as well."
Ino huffed. "Still. You should have told me."
"He's a missing-nin, Ino. I can't tell you something like that. It'll put you in an awkward position."
"It's not like Konoha is planning on arresting him or anything like that."
"Not that I know of," Sakura muttered as she walked to the door. Spinning around to face her small apartment, she let out a sad sigh. "Well, I guess it's time to leave."
Ino gave her a small smile. "Make sure you come back every month, okay?"
Sakura nodded, and then reached forward to envelop her friend in a tight hug. "If I'm not being held up by something, I'll be back here."
Ino's eyes were suspiciously damp when she pulled away. "Come on, let's go."
With that, they left the apartment and walked out into the streets. As she walked towards the main gates of Konoha, Sakura ran her eyes over the familiar buildings and people, committing them to memory. Perhaps she was being silly about it. After all, it was not as if she could not come back this time, right? In a month, she would set foot in Konoha again.
Then her steps faltered slightly when she heard Naruto's voice in the distance. He was shouting at someone.
"Come on. We're going to miss her!"
His companion muttered something incomprehensible.
Naruto snapped, "What the hell, Teme! Look, don't you at least want to say goodbye or something?"
Sakura scowled. So Naruto was trying to get Sasuke to say goodbye to her. Fat chance of that ever happening. Especially now that she had accepted this mission. They had not spoken about it, but she knew that Sasuke would take it as another rejection and would be suitably sullen.
"Look, it's Naruto and Sasuke," Ino pointed out, gesturing into the distance.
Sakura watched as a grinning Naruto jogged towards her, with an obviously reluctant Sasuke trailing behind.
"Sakura-chan!" Naruto hollered as he reached her.
She winced at the volume of his voice. "Naruto."
His eyes went to her small pack. "That's all you're bringing?"
"It's enough. I'm used to traveling light."
Naruto laughed. "Yeah, I almost forgot. You've done this before." He glanced behind him. "Oi! Hurry up, Teme!" And then he gave her a sheepish grin. "You know what he's like."
"Hm," Sakura mumbled noncommittally.
Ino rolled her eyes just as Sasuke reached them. "He's just sore that he's still bound to Konoha while Sakura's free to roam outside." Pinning a pointed look at the Uchiha, she asked sweetly, "Isn't that right, Sasuke-kun?"
Sasuke gave her a disdainful look, which Ino simply brushed away. It was clear that her blonde friend had gotten over her crush on the Uchiha as well, Sakura thought with an inward smile. At the rate things were going to Sasuke, she wondered just how he was supposed to make sure that he resurrected the clan. Because if he did not, he would remain forever bound within Konoha. Sakura glanced at the bands around his wrists. The bands would make sure of that.
"You are leaving."
She looked back up at him, surprised that he had actually spoken. And then she nodded. "It's a long term mission."
Sasuke's lips thinned slightly. "No doubt you won't be traveling alone."
"Oh, she'll be traveling with Itachi." Naruto laughed, prodding Sasuke with his elbow. "Give it up, Teme. She had already chosen."
The Uchiha glared at the future Hokage. "Shut up, Dobe."
Sighing in resignation, she shook her head slowly. Some things just never changed.
"Sakura! We just heard the news!" a feminine voice called out.
Sakura spun around to see Neji, Lee and Ten Ten heading towards her. Not far behind them were the rest of her friends. Her lips parted in surprise as she waited for them to watch up. She did not expect such a huge crowd to turn up.
One by one, she greeted them warmly.
"I'm not going away for good, you know. This is not like the last time," she said.
Shikamaru nodded. "Less troublesome this time, of course."
"At least we don't have to chase after her," Chouji remarked.
Sakura grinned. "Not as exciting today, huh?"
Ino rolled her eyes. "Just make sure you get back here in one piece one month from now."
She accepted hugs from Kurenai, Shino, Kiba, Lee, Neji and even Gai. Sasuke stood slightly apart from them, wearing a disinterested look. Sakura decided to ignore him. Sooner or later, he would get over whatever it was that was bothering him.
Then Hinata stepped forward, extending her hands. Clasping the slender digits, Sakura smiled. "Thanks for coming to see me off."
Pale eyes searched hers. "Be careful out there, Sakura," Hinata advised.
"I will," she said. "Take care of her, Naruto."
Naruto hugged her tight, and she squeezed back. Her eyes stung a little, and she quickly blinked to disguise her emotions before pulling back. Although this time was different from the last time she had left Konoha, it was just as painful.
"You know how to contact me, right?" she asked.
Naruto nodded, looking a little sad. "Don't worry, Sakura-chan. You're not the only one who will be making reports. I'll keep you up to date on what's happening back here."
"Make sure you do."
He grinned. "Might as well make use of the wind jutsu you taught me, right?"
Recalling how she had done so when Naruto had asked how she managed to get information back to Tsunade while she was in Akatsuki, Sakura smiled. It was definitely a useful technique.
Kakashi placed a hand on her shoulder, and she looked up at his somber expression. Well, what she could see of his exposed face, anyway.
She smiled up at him. "So, you're right after all, sensei."
A single brow rose. "Hm?"
"You know, what you told me before the Akatsuki mission. About how those kinds of missions could change someone inside out?"
Comprehension dawned in his visible eye. "Ah, that."
"And now I'm heading back out there."
"Do you regret it?" he asked quietly.
She shook her head without hesitation. "No."
His eye creased as he smiled. "Good. Now take care of yourself."
At his small push, she began to walk towards the gates. She had barely reached it when a loud voice bellowed, stilling her steps.
Sakura turned around to see Tsunade rushing towards her, pushing past her friends. Her eyes widened in surprise. Why was she here when she had declared last night that she wouldn't come?
Tsunade's brisk steps halted before her, and shoved something towards her. The impact knocked the breath out of her lungs, even as her hands automatically came up to catch whatever it was that had hit her.
Then Sakura glanced down, and she blinked in confusion.
"That's another task for you while you're out there," Tsunade said.
"Eh?" Sakura peered down at the Bingo book curiously before glancing up at her shishou. Then panic welled up within her as she comprehended what it meant. When she finally found her voice, she protested, "But I don't want to be a hunter-nin!"
Tsunade sighed in exasperation. "I'm not asking you to be one. But while you're out there, keep your eyes open for the missing-nins listed in the books, just those that are not crossed out. It's best to get the right information before I send the hunter-nins out."
Frowning, Sakura dropped her eyes down and began to scan the pages. All those missing-nins wanted by Konoha would be listed in there. As well as her Akatsuki friends.
She gulped, looking up. "Shishou…" she began hesitantly, wondering how she could possibly say no to this addition to the mission without sounding as if she was betraying Konoha.
Tsunade gave her a pointed look. "Study the book carefully before you make any assumptions."
A little baffled by her shishou's words, Sakura shifted her attention back down to the book. She began to flip through it slowly, trying to see what Tsunade meant. When she reached the page with Kisame's picture, she gasped.
There was a black cross over Kisame's picture.
Quickly flipping through the pages, she soon found similar marks on Deidara's and Itachi's pages. What did it mean?
"Shishou?" she ventured uncertainly.
Tsunade shrugged casually. "You're going to travel with them, are you not?"
Sakura thought to protest, but she finally nodded. No point in lying, especially considering that her relationship with them was practically public knowledge amongst her friends.
"They'll probably be involved in anything you do." Tsunade's eyes gleamed. "I checked it out. Those three are quite expensive to hire, you know. So, the way I see it, this makes sure that we get their services for free."
Sakura gaped at her, stunned into speechlessness.
"Now go," Tsunade ordered brusquely. "You're lingering over here too long."
As she walked away, she heard Tsunade bellow, "And the rest of you, don't you have any work to do? GO!"
Chuckling at the sound of her friends scrambling back to their respective jobs, she walked out of the gates. She stopped just outside, at the edge of the forest. Inhaling deeply, her eyes closed, she savored the crisp forest air surrounding her. So this was it, huh? This was the beginning of her new life.
The shift in her surroundings was subtle, but she felt it clearly.
Opening her eyes, she was unsurprised to see Itachi standing a few feet in front of her. A smile tilted her lips. So, he had come to meet her, as he had said he would a few days ago.
"Itachi," she called out as she made her way towards him.
Glad to see him, she reached out to greet him with her usual hug. He responded, but to her surprise, his touch was restrained. Confused, she looked up at him, only to find that his eyes were trained to a spot behind her, towards the Konoha gates. Slowly, she detached herself and turned around.
Only then did she notice that Sasuke was still standing just behind the gates, staring out at Itachi. And Itachi was staring right back. The tension between them was palpable. Uh-oh, Sakura thought worriedly. Was Sasuke's hatred strong enough to allow him to break out of Konoha to attack Itachi? This was not really how she wished to start her mission.
"Um, Itachi?" she began.
To her surprise, keeping his eyes locked on his younger brother, Itachi inclined his head in acknowledgement. Sasuke immediately stiffened. And then, abruptly, he turned and walked away proudly.
Sakura let out the breath she did not realize she was holding. Before she could make sense of what had just happened, Itachi began to walk into the forest, away from Konoha. His movement jolted her into action.
Running up to Itachi, she asked, "What was that all about?"
He stared straight ahead. "Nothing."
She raised a brow. "Nothing? He didn't try to charge at you and you think it was nothing?" she exclaimed incredulously.
Itachi did not respond.
No, it was not nothing, Itachi admitted silently. No words had been spoken, but the exchange was significant. Sasuke could have issued a verbal threat then, but he had not. Instead, he had simply walked away. It could be considered a turning point, or perhaps, it was simply the end of a chapter in their lives.
Sakura's irate voice broke him out of his contemplations, and he stopped. Slanting a sideway glance at her, the corner of his lips tilted slightly. It bemused him how easily she could be riled. Such a thing encouraged one to do so as often as one could.
She crossed her arms over her chest, pinning her uncompromising emerald orbs on him. "What happened back there with Sasuke? And don't tell me it's nothing."
"Perhaps he had decided to stop running after me," he intoned calmly.
"Running after you?" she echoed, confused. "You mean for revenge? I don't get it."
"It is historical."
"Tell me," she pressed.
"We are wasting time, kunoichi."
She glowered at him. "We have plenty of time. We're traveling together now, remember?"
"So tell me."
"Perhaps another time."
"I'll find out eventually, you know."
Well aware of her persistence, he knew that it was only a matter of time until she did. In the meantime, it would be amusing to see how far she would go to pry the information out of him.
"Enough of Sasuke," he murmured. "Let's go."
Reaching out, he exerted a firm pressure on the small of her back, urging her forward. With a muttered grumble, she began to walk and he followed suit. They could have taken to the trees, but he felt no such urgency. After all, it had been some time since they could simply walk together side by side without the concern that they might be discovered.
Before long, he sensed Kisame and Deidara in the distance. They were waiting together with the carriage, where he had left them just an hour ago. Their next destination was Wave Country, where they would drop off their charge and then pick up a new mission. Although Sakura was supposed to only travel with them, he wondered if she would actively participate in the mission. Something told him that she would only be too happy to do so.
"Kisame and Deidara are close by, aren't they?"
"So, we're heading to Wave Country?"
A pause followed. And then she remarked casually, "You know, since I'm around, I could always help out with your missions."
He stopped at her words, and then glanced down at her to see a pair of emerald orbs staring at him, shining in anticipation.
"If you wish," he responded.
She immediately brightened. "It'll be like old times once again. Don't you think?"
Slipping her arm into the crook of his elbow, she continued to walk with a bounce in her steps. He could not recall seeing her this carefree, this happy in recent days. The faint shadows that had lurked around her for the past six months were now gone.
A sense of peace washed over him. Something told him that this was how things should be and this was how he wished for things to remain.
With Sakura by his side.
A/N: It is finally over! Thank you all for supporting me through all these months of writing. I'm happy that so many are actually reading this story, considering it is my first attempt at a multichaptered Naruto fic. Your encouragements were crucial in keeping me focused, or else this would never have finished, hehe! I hope you've enjoyed the entirety of the story. There will be no sequel to The Contentious Heart, but my next project is the sequel to The Chance.