AN: (This was written before every other chapter, and has recently been updated, but this was the plan from the very beginning if you were wondering. Many of the plots of this fic were meticulously planned including Sasuke's faked death thus the name Cherry Picking. Thank you for kind words, and reviews. You have kept this writer's fire going. There may be more, see the note at the end)
Music of the update: "Devils back bone" Civil wars, "One that got away" Civil Wars, "Kindgom come" Civil wars,
"The timing of death, like the ending of a story, gives a changed meaning to what preceded it." -Mary Catherine Bateson-
"Go away Sakura" Itachi cringed, the hole in his side, deep and dark, his pale face pulled taught with pain as he bled freely, blood pooling where he lay. The sticky mess was congealing against him but it would not be in time to save him. His upper torso was leaning against the rocky wall for support."Let me die in peace." He spat, coughing blood and phlegm with his morbid wish.
Desperation born of her panic, Sakura had sought him out, using every means necessary. It hadn't taken long as she had grown accustomed to him, to his chakra signature. She would not loose him again.
"You know I can't do that." Sakura replied evenly, coming out from the shadows of the entrance to the cave Itachi had crawled himself into.
"You have no right to decide how I die." Itachi declared, gasping as he panted for breathe, writhing against the rock wall of the cave in tormented agony. His insides burned, every labored breathe taking it's toll. This was not the greatest way to die most assuredly, but he deserved no more, no less for his sins. She was one of them. And he would drown in them all.
"I'm a medic, Itachi. As if I'm going to stand here and let you die. And you know what? You don't want to die either." Sakura replied answering his declaration with one of her own.
This wasn't the way he wanted to die. Who would want to die like this? but he would accept it, so long as it was his decision to accept. As long as it was his own. His entire life had been a lie. His entire existence had been a charade. He had been indentured; servitude first under the clan and then under the sandaime, until the very bitter end. In this, he was realistic, that the world held nothing for him. He wanted to die, was ready for it no matter how torturous the process.
Itachi half chuckled half choked blood flecking his lips. "And what's that supposed to mean?" He asked, cynicism wearing through. "Trying to be like the Yamanaka? You could never read my thoughts, much less guess them, so starting now is meaningless."
He had no need to hide his emotions from her. Not anymore. Not in the end. It didn't matter did it? He was going to die and there was no stopping it. He didn't care. He welcomed it.
"Of all of the times you could have picked to just lay down and die, this is the absolute worst." Sakura told him. "Your brother needs you, damn it! And you're just going to go down quietly, and let Madara take him? Where the hell is your courage, now? Your philosophical prattle? Your hatred?" Sakura snapped.
Itachi said nothing. For what else was there to say? His entire life had been a phasade, a mask to keep the truth from bleeding through the pages. The blood was spilt, the damage done, and he was bleeding out, fading.
"All this time I thought you were talking about Sasuke, but you were really talking about Madara. You wanted to die to let your brother live, but did you ever stop to think about the quality of Sasuke's life? He's not a better person for it. In fact, he's lost. I'm just starting to realize that he's been lost all along. And you're the only one who can bring him back!" Sakura demanded, pointing at him
"There's nothing I can do. I've already failed him" He cringed, writhing in agony. The pain was so intense, he was shaking. Uchiha Itachi, a man with a pain tolerance unimaginable, was shaking. It must be something awful, his pain.
"And that's precisely why you have to live!" She demanded. "I'm not letting you die...not until you fix this." Sakura told him.
"No." Itachi hissed between clenched teeth.
"You're the only one who can!" Sakura shouted. "And I need you, damn it... I can't do this alone" Sakura replied, her last admonition small and quiet. He barely heard it. But it did not change things.
Itachi's eyes narrowed. "You're not going to manipulate me, Sakura. Give me the decency to choose how I die." Itachi replied through his clenched jaw. Blood trickled from his curled lips.
"In shame? In disgrace? No, that's not decent in my book. That's stupid." Sakura replied.
"Its my death. I killed them all, Sasuke is lost, and now I'll die alone, nothing I don't deserve." Itachi said, eyes losing their intensity, their focus. "Where is your love for your country now Sakura? Have you given up every belief for me? I am trying to do you and the rest of the ninja world a favor."
He was giving up. After everything he was giving up. His words stung, but that was his intent to find her weakness and lay purchase, hitting hard so she would not force his hand. She had promised herself she would not let him push her away again.
"I wont let you go, Itachi. Not when I can save you" Sakura replied swallowing her emotion. She was a professional damn it. Pulling herself together she approached him, making those sharingan eyes flare as he tried to move and failed miserably.
"You don't have the chakra and to try is practically suicide." Itachi replied.
"Now, as always, Itachi, I'm with you. Do you think the world would still hold meaning for me, my nindo still hold meaning for me, if I didn't try? You think is contrary to my beliefs, and instead this is the culmination of them" Sakura replied swallowing a soldier pill. Something shimmered on her forehead and the bright green burst all around them.
Itachi tried to fight her but he couldn't. He was simply too weak, had lost too much blood. He could feel his life slipping away from him and he welcomed it, welcomed the peaceful abyss that would take him. The blackness. No more fighting, no more suffering. And then he felt her weight settle against him. She began pumping healing chakra into him, forcing the skin together as only an expert medical kunoichi could do in such a short time. She had refused to use the green diamond on her forehead to save her own life fighting against Sasuke, but had saved it, all this time, expecting to need it to save her precious nakama. Had she saved it, expecting him to save her. No. Sakura had never had high regards for herself, but always for her nakama. He was not one of them. Itachi strained against her.
"Damn it, Itachi, stop fighting me. For once" Sakura cried, as she kept him down.
She sat on him mostly to keep him from thrashing. Ridiculous that she had to go to this amount of effort for him. Ridiculous that while he was indeed dying, if she did not use her chakra, he was still able to fight against her like this. Itachi had no choice in the matter, and was fighting a loosing battle.
It wasn't what she had said that had forced him into submission. It was simply that Itachi didn't have the strength to fight her any longer. It was a submission of sorts, her first win against the formidable ninja. He fell weak beneath her as she knit the very skin and tissue and bone together. She pumped her healing chakra into him like a tornado through his chakra coils, spiraling through his body at an alarming rate. The color and pallor of his face returned, and Sakura collapsed against him, forehead resting against his as she gasped for breathe. She was out of chakra but she had pulled him out of danger... for now. She had snatched him straight out of death's hands. With a waning smile, she rolled off of him, staggering as she grabbed her medical kit. As tired as she was, she couldn't leave him like this.
She pulled out the bandages and ointments, and got to work. It took hours to clean the surface of his body to treat the abrasions and surface level area on his skin. She worked hard, sewing up the wounds that needed it, disinfecting as needed and binding the wounds still on the surface level of his skin. Time lost it's meaning as Sakura honed in on her work. Sometime after she had patched him up and took a final reading of his vitals she felt him stir, twitch beneath her touch.
Itachi opened his eyes. He had lost consciousness. Dark circles beneath her eyes told him she'd been up the entire time. He could feel her settle herself again, and with the amount of shock forced upon his body, he didn't fight her. She pressed those palms against his naked chest and pumped the chakra she'd gathered from his unconciousness into him. He felt the needle in his arm. Apparently she'd had a field I.V. handy.
"You should have let me die" He told her, voice hoarse as she propped him against the rock so he could sit up. His ribs were bruised still and the miscellanious cuts and abrasions pulled. His body had been through hell and back in more ways than one.
"I couldn't." Sakura couldn't look him in the eye.
"Why not?" He asked, partly in cynicism and partly curiosity. Death would not have hurt this much.
"Why did you want to give up?" Sakura answered with a question og her own.
Itachi winced, wondering what it could be. She wouldn't have healed him to kill him, but he couldn't expect anything. Now that he was alive he supposed he would have to keep it that way. Though He didn't know what she was going to say or do.
"I am so tired, Sakura." Itachi replied with a sigh.
Sakura wilted, "Then I guess I'll let you get some rest-"
"That is not what I am referring to." Itachi interrupted, irritated. "I have lived lifetimes, committed acts so dark that sleep will not come, but in short intervals of limbo between this waking hell. You were the only thing that shined in my darkness. But at that point in time, I did not want to continue."
Sakura felt her heart and breathe catch in her throat.
"Coward." She murmured. He did not deny it.
"Too afraid to tell Sasuke the truth, to face Madara, to return to Konoha. It has all has led up to here." Itachi replied wearily.
"So now what?" Sakura asked him
"I have no idea, Sakura. My whole life has been planned, plotted to the exact point of reference. Now, I feel lost at sea, fading, like I've failed them." He said, eyes closing in pain.
"Them?" Sakura asked confused. Her eyes widened as she realized who he was referring to. His parents.
"You ask me what happens now, and I don't have an answer for you, Sakura. I am useless, in the only task I was supposed to be good for, dying to make things right." Itachi told her.
Sakura's jade eyes ignited.
"You are not useless! You never planned on me and look where that has brought us!" She shouted at him.
Sharingan flared, heat making flames pool in the pit of her stomach as he stared at her.
"I know what it's like to be useless Itachi. To have to stare at the backs of my teammates, trying to chase after their shadows. I was trying catch up to them so they wouldn't leave me behind, trying to become powerful enough so that I'd stop being a burden to them. When we lost Sasuke, I lost myself, my goals, my world. Don't you understand? You taught me that I wasn't useless. That I had nothing to prove to anyone but myself. You helped me become strong for myself, not others. I'm sorry if I ruined your grand plans, but I simply had to save you, Itachi. I could not be rendered useless to save the life of the man I love." Sakura told him.
Itachi choked, coughing as he tried to catch himself.
"Stop." Sakura ordered him, sharply. "I don't want to hear it. My feelings aren't based on what you feel for me Itachi, but on how I feel about you. I know you are scared, even if you won't admit it, and that living means so much more fight then you feel ready or able to take on. But I couldn't do this without you. I-I love you. "
Itachi paused, startled by the notion. Love? Him? What did this mean? Itachi's mind crashed with those three words. Sakura had confessed in roundabout ways of her feelings. He had done everything in his power to discourage her, push her away. Those three words could not be denied any longer. They had come too far to turn back. Those three words. Itachi hadn't planned on Sakura. But now he had to. Everything. Everything had changed.
"When did this happen?" Itachi asked, his rational mind trying to catch up to her words, trying to formulate and logically approach and access the situation as he senses exploded to life.
His heart beat was palpable to him, beating faster, as he took a sharp breathe. He needed something, anything to say in response. He did not want to reject her feelings, to hurt her. But he had no words to equate the emotions coursing through him.
"I think I was in love with you before I found out about your family and the Sandaime ordering it. I don't know when it happened but I know it's real. Its as real as anything I have ever felt. And it's not with strings attached, Itachi. I didn't love you because you were loyal to Konoha. I loved you as you were, and now as you are. Forgive me for being selfish, but I couldn't let you die before I told you." Sakura told him as she looked deep into his eyes.
Hungry lips converged on his, and he put some of the fire he felt into their touch, hoping somehow words that were lacking could be conveyed through the volatile touch and taste. She broke it off, backing away.
"I don't expect anything in return. I know you can't-I mean I know it isn't easy for you to hear it, or even to receive it. I-it's enough that I feel it. I...I just. I just wanted you to know, okay?" She said, suddenly shy under his watchful gaze.
She retreated outside the cave. Red sharingan followed her the questioning look in his thoughtful gaze still there. Pain and the overwhelming shock on his body forced his unconsciousness before he could answer her, for though she had healed him, his system was still recovering. Sakura returned after composing herself again to find him fast asleep.
"Damn it. My own fault." She cursed.
She stroked a tendril of his bangs out of his face. Normally the Uchiha had the most delicate of senses. She would have been pinned to the floor by now. He really was exhausted. The lines of his face were more pronounced in his condition. Judging by the light it had been 36 hours since the battle. Sighing, she lay down beside him, curled next to him as she laid her head on his chest.
Itachi's eyes opened as he heard her quiet breathing. Everything had changed. Sakura loved him, and he could tell it was not the infantile, juvenile, love she had felt for his brother. Sakura's love had matured, settled. And he wanted nothing more than to return it, than to take her fiercely and passionately and make her his forever.
Itachi wanted to return her love, which was the biggest shock of all. But there were too many variables. Itachi had not counted on this. He had too many enemies that would make short work of Sakura, and would ruin any happiness he sought. He could not ask Sakura to stay an S class nin with him, constantly on the run.
Clearly her heart, her thoughts were with her country. It was no way to live if he planned on a future with her. He had too many demons he had to lay to rest for Sakura and his life to be truly safe. It startled Itachi at first to comprehend that he was already planning on a life with her, was already thinking of how the variables could come together. His first choice was made. But now he needed to find a way to make it last. Analyzing the situation, mulling over possible plans, he had only one choice. His hands whirled through seals, placing the sleep seal over the dozing cherry blossom woman he now could acknowledge he loved.
"I will return, love." He said, kissing her forehead. "Of that you can be assured."
When she awoke, Itachi was gone. Rising, all the sleep and fatigue left her, giving way to panic as it coursed it's way through her. Green eyes searched for any trace of him, any clues, when she felt the weight against her neck. His ring was threaded through a silver chain. The ring was warm, but gave no clues as to where the raven haired Uchiha had gone. Sakura clutched it, as she felt the tears fall.
Tsunade was no fool by any stretch of the means. She had lived long enough to gain wisdom in dealing with S class ninja, and to deal it out with impunity should the occasion arise. With Kakashi and Yamato at her side, and the rest of an the anbu squadron surrounding him and the dark forest they were meeting in, she had nothing to fear from the sharingan user. It was a good thing they were off Konoha soil. She might need the room for the clobbering she planned to give should things turn South.
As it was, she was surprised by this meeting. That someone of his caliber would approach her, was beyond her. Then again Uchiha never were what they seemed. Tsunade's guard tripled, as she considered. This could be some elaborate trap and it would not be beyond his orchestration. But she had to hear it out. She was as stuck as he was.
"Godaime Hokage sama." Itachi greeted formally bowing.
He could hear the sound of Raikiri summoned and he smirked. The copy nin still did not trust him, feared him. Good. Then he had learned his lesson well. Sasuke had needed to be prepared. While Itachi regretted forcing the White haired nin's hand, he saw the results in his little brother. As much as it pained him, Sakura was right. He had to put an end to this and finish what he had started. Death had been a convenience. Itachi had many wrongs to right, and it had to start, here and now, if there was to be any future. He could not afford to daly, Tsunade needed to believe him, and take him in.
Tsunade's authoritative look had the Raikiri gone.
"I'm not even sure how you are still standing, with the wounds I heard were inflicted upon you, though I can't say I'm ungrateful for you tolling out damage to Madara. What do you want Uchiha?" Tsunade asked getting right down to business as he had known she would.
"You should know better than I, Godaime sama, the work of your student's hands." Itachi replied with a small smirk.
There it was, the taunt that Sakura had left their country for him. She would not be baited so easily. Tsunade's eyes narrowed. "You still have not answered the question."
Itachi sighed. He had hoped to fetter out her resistance immediately by his taunt. She was on to him. He could not get anything without offering something in return. Tsunade was a gambler. He could be no less skilled in this transaction. "I have come to throw up the white flag, so to speak." Itachi replied.
This did not sit well with the anbu around them. Many remembered the Uchiha, and the damage he had done to anbu ranks in the past. Itachi ignored them.
"You've never surrendered before. Why now?" Tsunade replied. She was no less sharp than he anticipated. Sakura's mentor was formidable certainly. With her bearing, and life experience, defeating her would be no small task. But he was here for peace, not war. And if she did not concede and offer him sanctuary, he could have no decent future with Sakura.
"I have come with a proposition. Is there somewhere we can speak that is less conspicuous?" Itachi asked, hoping to speak to the woman alone, without as many witnesses. The less people that knew he had lived, and the exact details of the proposition he wanted to make, the better.
"You will say what you have to here and now." Tsunade replied with a no nonsense tone. Of course she didn't trust him. Itachi expected no less of the woman.
"Very well. I have come to seek amnesty from the fire nation." Itachi replied as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. Anbu members exchanged thunderstruck glances, and swords rattled through their dark campground.
Kakashi choked, but got himself under control. Even Yamato looked disconcerted. Tsunade's face was that of a gambler, revealing nothing of her thoughts. Her features softened as the silence rolled on. Tsunade's look was calculating. This was it. He had bet everything on her risk taking abilities. It was this and many other skills that made her such a worthy leader. However this particular skill would be the crux, and the crucible that his offer depended on; her ventures of risk, the catalyst. It was what he was counting on now, and he prayed he had not read her wrong.
"Why now? You had all the opportunities of the past to approach us. Why me?" Tsunade asked.
She would not jump into this risk, as she had in days of her youth. Itachi nodded, regarded the skill of his opponent. Tsunade had not taken the role of hokage lightly, and it seemed she had learned from her past mistakes.
"You have heard my tale by now from the mouths of your nin at battle, and have not been blinded by the hatred of the former kages. You will deal with me fairly. Can you tell me that your predecessors would have heard me out, instead of capturing or killing me on sight for the rich reward in the bingo books? Or worse, offering me to the highest bidding country of my enemies?" Itachi declared.
"That still does not explain your motivation." Tsunade remarked.
"I could not have shared my story and been believed by your predecessors, Godaime Hokage sama. Now that the tale is out, and not by my own words, but the words of our enemies, I could approach you freely, without fear of impunity or immediate execution."
"Our enemies? Impunity is still yet to be decided, Itachi and you are still wearing the colors of an enemy of Konoha. Make no assumptions of this meeting." Tsunade replied eying the Akatsuki cloak with contempt.
Itachi bowed again, his hands very visable. He had nothing up his sleeves except getting her to trust him. He had to make this right. For himself. For Sakura.
"What would you gain from allying yourself to us?" Tsunade asked.
Good question, a question worthy of a kage of her caliber.
The love and ardent admiration of your student and the chance to build a life that would see her flourish and never need to give up what she loved for him again Itachi thought.
This answer however would displease her, and ruin the entire purpose of his approach. He needed her to agree to it, so that he would have the means and resources necessary to hunt down all of his enemies, thus ensuring Sakura and their country's safety in the future. He would not settle down with her in a land marked by war and his former enemies.
"I am here to offer and render my services and allegiance to Konoha in exchange for amnesty and complete pardon and citizenship of Konoha. I would gain the alliance, benefits and security of such a country, rendering my S class missing ninja status and it's notoriety in the bingo books and among renegade ninja seeking revenge, along with the resources and physical ninja power to pursue the end of Uchiha Madara, and Sasuke's reign of terror once and for all." Itachi replied fluidly.
Tsunade knew he was holding back. Just what had happened between him and Sakura to bring about such a change? Perhaps it had nothing to do with her apprentice, but Itachi's selfishness at finally being ousted, but Tsunade knew there was something he wasn't telling her.
"Those things never stopped you before, never even made you blink an eyelash. Once again, why now? What has changed in your twisted thinking, to make you think this is possible?" Tsunade asked.
Itachi knew he was loosing her. Could tell it, from her nonverbal communication and it gave him rise to panic. He could not afford to loose this. Not here. Not now. He had come too far to back down. The truth
"In light of my answer, and how it could be misconceived, and misconstrued, I would request a formal audience with you, Kakashi, and Yamato alone." Itachi replied.
Tsunade's look grew considering and he calmly breathed in relief. If she was considering she hadn't completely refused him outright. Hope burned in those sharingan eyes.
"Granted." She replied to the doubly thunderstruck anbu members. She had to know what the aspects of the deal were, and if Itachi was being this subtle and hush hush about it, it might be to save Sakura's reputation and status among the other ninja. Tsunade had to hear him out.
"Leave us." She ordered.
The hesitation rolled through the anbu ranks in waves, causing Tsunade's chakra to flare in response.
"NOW." Her order was firm.
Ninja smoke breezed through the trees, as the light wind picked up. All but Tsunade, Kakashi and Yamato remained. Tsunade settled down, taking a soothing breathe.
"Your answer, Uchiha?" Tsunade insisted, her chakra buzzing comfortingly should he be stupid enough to try anything. Kakashi and Yamato stood ready with weapons drawn.
"In honesty, Hokage sama, it was your apprentice that allowed me to make such a change. I intend to pursue that." Itachi replied.
Kakashi's Raikiri flared up again, and Tsunade's eyes narrowed with a look telling him to stand down. "What interest do you have in Sakura?"
He could not lie to these three and walk away. They had an added interest in the affairs of his cherry blossom. Lying would not earn him their favor in the long run, and they were merely looking out for her. If he told them the truth it would only go to benefit his cause, and hopefully provide grounds for them to begin to trust him. It appeared impossible. But Itachi would not desist, now at the end of all things. He had plotted this course of action. He would pursue it, even if it led to execution.
"That I am in love with her. That I wish to be with her and allow her to be happy. In order to do that, I need to render all of my demons and prove my worth to her through the only real thing that matters to her; the people in her life, and the love of her country. Therefore I need to revoke my former sins, and settle all of my enemies debts and have come to you to do so." Itachi replied.
"I can't trust this from you. You know that. Why would I even consider such a thing?" Tsunade replied.
"While I cannot remark on your own personal feelings towards Sakura and her feelings on the matter, I can speak of how this would only benefit you." Itachi replied.
"Benefit me?" Tsunade asked incredulously. "You give yourself too much credit, Itachi. How would housing an notorious S class ninja who had spilled Konoha ninjas blood and countless others, even his own family's blood benefit me? Taking you in could cause a mutiny, and certainly jeopardize our standings with the other ninja countries. Why would I do this, for you?" Tsunade asked him.
Skilled. His respect for her rose, as did his determination. He would not be hindered by his past. Sakura was not. He would not be either. He had committed himself to this. He would see it through, and prove himself through his actions. Now he just had to convince her to let him try.
"Because you know my worth, and value as a ninja and having me on your side would aid greatly in the task of proving Konoha's might and will of fire to the rest of the ninja world." Itachi replied. "That I could be commanded by the Godaime Hokage when no other kage could boast such a claim in my past history, Sandaime aside, would not escape other country's notice."
"Speak clearly, Uchiha. I tire of the politics and theoretical prattle of this proposition. I need something substantial. Get to the point and concessions" Tsunade demanded.
"I can give you the names, networks, and locations, of all of my former colleagues and contacts including known locations of Akatsuki members that have pursued jinchuriki in the past. Through this information and my own assistance, I can help you to shut down syndicates across the known ninja world that have plagued your people, causing needless casualties and undue harm to your ninja to try and right my wrongs and prove to you my fealty. I would do all of this and more for the fire country, surrendering myself totally and completely to this endeavor."
Tsunade's eyes widened. "And you would do this? For a country you hate?"
"I have never hated Konoha. I hate the systems that make up the ninja world. I have always hated politics for gain, and the destructive power of war and the victims it leaves behind. I hate injustice, but am not afraid to get my hands dirty to prevent the wider spread of it. I would ally myself to you completely with the understanding to prevent those things. That is my concession" Itachi said.
"So you would swear complete allegiance to Konoha, giving up all of your information for the country's benefit, and fight to the death for her? I find that very hard to believe" Tsunade replied.
Whether the her referenced was Sakura or Konoha, Itachi was not sure.
"Doubtless you would want to safeguard your own operatives as I prove my value. Actions speak louder than words. I would prove it through my actions. You may place any stipulation to those tasks as you see fit, to take precaution for your people. I do have one other concession."
Tsunade's eyes narrowed. "Speak."
"I would that Sakura not know about me, or any of the details of our proposition, until a time of my own choosing." Itachi replied. "Should I fall by death in the line of duty, she need not be harmed by the knowledge."
It was that, that made Tsunade consider his words. He was serious. He wanted to pursue her apprentice, was serious about it, enough to make her allegiances his, and put his own demons to rest for her. That sort of commitment meant he was playing for keeps. He would settle in Konoha with Sakura if all went as he planned. Tsunade needed time to consider all of this and what would be best for Sakura, but the offer was tempting. To have the true sharingan back in their village would stop many of their enemies from trying to extract information. Tsunade nodded, acknowledging his earlier statement as she thought through her own reply.
"I will have an answer for you in three days time." She gave descriptions of the meeting point her answer would come to, and they departed, ninja smoke clearing.
Itachi's eyes gleamed in victory. He had analyzed her emotions and feelings during the talk and memorized them. She would agree.
Wait for me Sakura. For I promise it will be worth the wait.
(and that's the end of chapters! Eventually there will be an epilogue posted, but I'm considering writing about Itachi's mis-adventures as a Konoha ninja operative first. Anybody interested? Let me know by reviewing)