Disclaimer: Naruto and any of its characters do not belong to me.

The Air We Breathe

Part I

The first time Sakura saw him was when she was five.

She had been with her mother on the busy market streets of Konoha when she'd spotted the darkest black hair she'd ever seen, the darkest black eyes she'd ever seen. But the moment she had blinked those bright emeralds of hers he had vanished as if he'd never been there at all.

The second time Sakura saw him was two years later after her seventh birthday.

It had been raining the whole day and as they ran out of the Academy, he was standing by the tree with the wooden swing. She quietly watched as her classmate Uchiha Sasuke ran over to him with a surprised grin on his face. And she watched them walk away in the rain, a large black umbrella held above them.

Her young heart had been curious…maybe even stolen.

The first time Sakura heard his voice was a year later.

They weren't supposed to be out on the training grounds but Uzumaki Naruto had insisted that in order to become the best ninjas they could possibly be some observing needed to be done. She, along with Sasuke had been reluctantly dragged along on his little adventure. They quietly hid in a tree only to have several shuriken come spiraling at them and they would've been pinned to the trunk if they hadn't conveniently fallen off the tree limb and onto the grass. He had stood over them with a displeased look on his face before telling Sasuke to go home and stay out of trouble. She had thought to herself then that he had a very nice voice, one that she wanted to hear again.

The first time Sakura ever talked to him was when she was ten.

Standing outside the Uchiha Compound during Christmas Eve was the only way she could think of to get Sasuke's present to him. A few hard knocks and shakes on the wooden gate and still no one came and she wondered what they were all doing. About to just leave the small box wrapped in green in hopes that someone would find it and bring it in, she spotted a figure walking towards her and realized that it was him. He stopped in front of her with a dark brow raised, asked her what she wanted.

She had then thrust the green wrapped box in front of her. "Can you please give this to Sasuke-kun?"

He had looked at her for a long intense moment before taking the present.

"Thank you Uchiha-san and Merry Christmas." She had smiled at him before turning around and heading back home. Her heart she wore on the sleeve of her shirt captured, caged, and all aflutter.

It would be every so often after that Christmas Eve when she would see him. They were small insignificant glimpses though, here and there where she would catch the flutter of his ebony hair or the sleekness of his body among the crowded streets of Konoha, sometimes streaking across the rooftops. But they were never enough for her, never enough to sate the confusing longing she felt.

Life however, was happening at the speed of light all around her for her to linger on this Uchiha who had captured her young and impressionable heart. Friends and boys. Studies and girly mischief. Each day blurred into the next until everything suddenly came to a screeching halt and the air was ripped from her lungs.

Breathless and alone, she found her heart breaking on that sunny shimmering day, heard the birds singing and saw the bluest blue skies this side of heaven had to give when Hokage-sama told her her parents were dead.

Sakura didn't make the graduation ceremony that would officially declare her a genin that day. She didn't celebrate with Naruto and Sasuke or the rest of the Rookie Nine. She was too busy trying not to break into a million little pieces. She was too numb to care about her future because all she really wanted was to relive her past where everyone there was still breathing.

Nothing was ever quite the same after.

Her home had been sold—too many happy memories there that left her heart aching she had told the Sandaime. He helped her find a one bedroom apartment because he'd been good friends with her parents who were among Konoha's best shinobi. He felt it was the least he could do.

Sakura had asked him if he did this for every child—for all the Naruto's and the Sakura's—whose parents had died for the Leaf. Maybe she had surprised him a little because despite what others thought of her and her natural pink hair, she was actually quite intelligent and insightful. He'd only patted her head though and heaved a lengthy sigh. His silence had been enough of an answer.

Later, as the heavens cried and everyone said their final goodbyes to their beloved Hokage, she would come to realize that he had suffered just as much pain and regret as the she and the rest of the kids just like her. Perhaps even more so since he was the one who gave the final missions and orders to be carried out by the shinobi of the Leaf.

She wondered how he or any Kage or team leader for that matter coped with losing their people when it was partly their duty to protect them. And she thought then, while the rain fell and she gazed sadly at his cold departed body encased in the finest glass that they had to be some of the strongest sort of people, the most admirable and loving. Perhaps that was why shinobi risked their lives for their Kage and village. Perhaps it was more than duty, more than just the honor that went with it. Maybe it was a genuine love and an unbreakable commitment that allowed them to fight with every fiber of their being—their lives the ultimate cost.

It was with a new understanding that Sakura continued life as it was, forging an unclear path for herself.

It wasn't an easy thing being on the same team as Sasuke, Naruto, and Hatake Kakashi though. The feelings of inadequacy were sometimes near unbearable and she found herself gazing at their backs more often than she cared to admit. In her eyes they were more than just their last names and their 

lineages. They were stronger than her. Better than her. Faster and more driven. They had purpose and somewhere along the way, Sakura had wondered where hers' had gone off too—wondered if she ever had one to begin with.

It was a year later, at thirteen years old when she entered her apprenticeship with the Godaime, the Legendary Sannin Tsunade.

And it was when she would begin to find herself, grow into her own as time sped by all around her.

It was also when she would once again catch those small insignificant glimpses of Uchiha Itachi.

The first time Itachi saw her was when he was ten.

She'd been such a tiny little thing. A walking, breathing cherry blossom. How could he not notice her when she stuck out like a sore thumb among the market crowd? Bright and innocent forest green eyes, pink hair. She was like a little sprite, belonging more to the forest than this shinobi village. She could be no older than his younger brother and yet, she'd effortlessly caught his attention.

He was gone before he could get in too deep.

The second time Itachi saw her was a year and a half later.

He'd just returned from a mission with his three man cell. Upon passing the small park on the way to the Hokage Tower a flash of pink had caught his onyx eyes. And there she was, the little forest sprite with shining emeralds for eyes chasing a blond boy whom he recognized as his brother's friend also.

Her laugh was light and carefree, untainted by the reality they all lived in. He wondered how long she would remain innocent and naïve…quietly hoped that it was far longer than he because truth be told, he kind of liked the sound of her laugh…the brightness in her eyes.

And he knew then that he was already in too deep.

The third time Itachi saw her was six months later.

It had been raining that day and since he had nothing better to do (he'd trained all morning and his next mission didn't begin until tomorrow) and Sasuke had forgotten his umbrella, he decided to be the caring older brother and fetch the little brat from the Academy. At least then he wouldn't have to listen to his mother hover all over her drenched little baby while shooting daggers at him for not showing a little more brotherly affection.

And as he stood by the tree with the wooden swing, he saw her run out with the other eager students only to stop and look directly at him. He saw the curiosity flicker across those green windows to her soul. It appeared she was just as intrigued by him as he was of her.

The first time Itachi let her hear him was when he was thirteen.

He had opted for the more spacious training ground four instead of the usual ANBU grounds because he'd wanted to test out a new earth jutsu he'd acquired on his latest mission. A rustle in the second tree to his left told him he had visitors and with a few easy flicks of his wrist, sent his shuriken flying. And as he amusedly watched his younger brother and his two friends fall to the ground, he made his way over to the peeping trio.

His dark eyes which moments ago held the Sharingan darted to the pink haired sprite who was currently a jumble of awkward limbs and muttering lips before straying to Sasuke and telling him to go back to the compound and stay out of trouble. He wondered what the breathing cherry blossom thought of his voice now that she'd heard him speak.

The first time she spoke to him was on his fifteenth Christmas Eve.

For the sake of what little sanity he had left, he had managed to escape the Uchiha Compound and all the party planning that had taken over almost every Uchiha female. Now nearing mid afternoon and with a slight chill to the air, he had deemed it safe to return.

And so, as he neared the wooden gates that led into his home, he was pleasantly surprised to find the little forest sprite in front of the gates. Seeing the small green package in her hand hinted as to why she was here but he feigned ignorance and asked her anyway.

"Can you please give this to Sasuke-kun?" The little package was thrust in front of her, a pleading look in her eyes.

He regarded her for a few long moments. Her delicate nose and high cheekbones. The pink brows and the milky skin with a touch of pink from the winter chill. She was going to be a beautiful kunoichi one day.

He took the package and watched a genuine smile only she could give curve her rosy lips.

"Thank you Uchiha-san and Merry Christmas."

He never gave her present to Sasuke. He rather liked the simple black friendship ring that dangled on a silver chain necklace. He rather liked it around his own neck.

Itachi hardly ever saw her after that. Being the genius he was, ANBU kept him busy day in and day out. And whatever spare time he was able to gather was sucked up by clan affairs he couldn't care less about. His father was adamant that he know everything concerning the Uchiha clan while his mother admonished Fugaku for being so stringent on his eldest son.

The clan elders were constant thorns in his side but they dared not cross him, knowing what they did about his skills. He and his brother were the future of the clan after all. He (and his mother for that matter) had no qualms about letting them know that if they desired this future, they would do well to limit their interference and prodding.

Occupied by his way of life, Itachi slowly dashed her from his mind. But he would hear snippets about her from time to time from his brother. 'Her parents died.' 'She lives alone.' 'She's training under the Hokage.'

And as the years went by, as the countless ANBU missions ate up his sands of time, he found himself desiring to see her more than he wanted to admit. He was curious to lay eyes on this Haruno Sakura after going without her for so long. He was curious to see if she still sparked his intrigue…if he still sparked hers.

Glimpses of Uchiha Itachi were more than enough for her but this…this was a bit much.

Now twenty two years old, she had labeled whatever her young heart had felt as mere curiosity. Childish intrigue. Longing for something she could never have. And it was the truth…at least most of it anyway. So maybe it'd been a little crush, but that was the past and the past seemed more far away than ever before.

"Stay with me, Tiger." Sakura whispered as she darted through the trees, supporting his weight. They had taken to calling each other code names because one could never be too careful. Better safe than sorry they figured.

Shisui gave a wobbly nod against her shoulder, his high ponytail in disarray and too exhausted and bleeding to death to do anything more. Sakura then glanced—still peeved that he hadn't allowed her to join the fight but in the end self satisfied when she did anyway—ahead of her where their ANBU Captain supported their fourth wounded teammate, Shiranui Genma. She had managed to close his chest wound with what little time they had during their escape but it had been quick, meant to stagger the blood flow only and she was afraid it would reopen.

She didn't even want to think about Itachi. Even though he seemed invincible with his Sharingan and all, he was still a living breathing human being and that meant he could bleed and hurt. It meant he was hurt if the blood seeping through his vest and staining it a deep red wasn't obvious enough. But there wasn't time because even though they had killed the enemy, they still needed to get as far away as possible. With only the moonlight to guide them through the darkness, it was imperative they find a safe place to stop so she could start the healing immediately. Already Shisui was starting to lose consciousness from all the blood loss.

Sakura heaved an internal sigh of relief when they finally descended and hurried into a barely noticeable cave. Whipping her mask off, she gently placed Shisui on the ground, heard him groan with pain and dug through her pack for a flashlight. A fire wasn't safe in the off chance that they had gained pursuers and she wasn't willing to risk it either. A quick glance to her left told her Itachi had also placed Genma on the ground. When he leaned against the cold rock surface of the cave for support she knew time was of essence, that even though these men were three very capable shinobi who would fight to live, sometimes even they needed help.

And so she instantly got into medic mode and took an inventory of Shisui's injuries. Three deep lacerations to his middle that nearly cut him open, a mild concussion, a dislocated shoulder, and bruises and cuts aplenty. Brushing his long hair aside, Sakura expertly weaved her healing chakra into his system, slowly and methodically sealing the lacerations as he slipped into unconsciousness. She then popped his shoulder back into place and rapidly bandaged him up before moving on to Genma.

By then Itachi had shoved away from the wall and walked out of the cave, no doubt to secure their surroundings. She was going to protest, insist he stay put so as to not agitate his already seeping wound but his eyes said it all. 'Don't. Just heal them.' And so she acquiesced with his silent demand because truthfully, she trusted him and his judgment. They wouldn't have made it out alive otherwise.

Genma's breathing was severely labored as she worked on his deep chest wound. Her chakra accelerated his cell regeneration and as the minutes crawled by and perspiration trickled down her temple, Sakura was able to fully heal the wound, nothing but fresh sensitive skin in its wake. He'd lost consciousness moments before and so she went to work on his fractured leg, mending bone and muscle.

By the time she was done Itachi had reentered the cave with quick purposeful strides, as if he wasn't injured at all. She stood up, wiping bloodstained hands on her skintight black pants and just as quickly walked over to him. All the while her keen emerald eyes were scanning his body, mentally noting his external wounds and linking possible internal ones.

He keeled over just in time for her to catch him, but he immediately attempted to push off her shoulders. Sakura slapped his hands away before lowering him to the ground, a fierce scowl on her face that equally matched the prodigious Uchiha's.

Medic Sakura was currently in control and she'd be damned if anyone under her care wasn't treated to the best of her ability because they refused to shove aside their stubbornness and male pride long enough for her to save their sorry asses.

Straddling his legs, she looked directly into his hard onyx eyes, unafraid and unyielding. "Please be cooperative Uchiha-san. Hokage-sama would have my head if I didn't bring you back alive. Now, remove your vest and undershirt."

Itachi made no move to comply and was that…amusement flickering across his eyes? A spark of challenge even? She mentally shook her head. Now was not the time to be seeing things. Inhaling a deep calming breath, Sakura resisted the urge to pound something into oblivion, namely Uchiha Itachi.

"Please Uchiha-san. Medic's honor that I won't touch you longer than necessary. Now, can we please get past this so you don't bleed to death?"

The tension in her shoulders relaxed when he nodded, the motion barely perceptible. Her hands made quick work of his bloody vest and undershirt and after she set them aside, Sakura immediately channeled healing chakra to her hands and began to probe his body with her soothing touch. She ignored the stiffening of his frame, but was glad when he relaxed a few moments later.

It was an ugly, jagged sword wound coupled with broken ribs and chakra depletion. She knew though that if it hadn't been for him, they'd all be getting tortured or maybe even dead.

"Shisui and Genma should be fine." Sakura murmured into the thick silence surrounding them, thinking he would probably like to know about the statuses of their conditions.

And then she tilted her head as green eyes narrowed, leaned closer to see better with her little flashlight.

"Poison…" She murmured. "But it's weak. Nothing I can't handle." And she pressed her hand to his side and soon lost herself in repairing the bone and separated muscle and skin, drowned herself in her teammates' shallow and steadying breaths all around her.

Missions were ever rarely what they seemed on the surface which was why he always prided himself on being one step ahead, on anticipating his opponent's next action. Genius though he was, the odds had been against them when the hundred or so soldiers mixed with weak rogue shinobi had descended upon them after Genma had assassinated their leader's second in command. A senbon would soon meet its true target moments later, but by then they'd all been engrossed in a fierce battle of survival.

With his Sharingan spinning death, he'd taken down enemy after enemy. Quick glances around him and he saw his cousin faring decently along with Shiranui. But he had forbidden Sakura from getting into this mess (her flare of anger had burned in her eyes but he knew she would come to understand). He knew they would all need her operating at full capacity in the aftermath that was to come.

The sword wound and broken ribs he'd suffered was courtesy of saving Shisui's life at the last possible second. But it was shortly after when he felt Sakura's chakra surge beneath him and grabbing both his severely wounded teammates, flickered to the safety of the trees just in time to avoid the crumbling earth, the magnificent splitting and shattering of the ground beneath them as it swallowed the unsuspecting enemy.

He'd felt his fascination and extreme displeasure—he wasn't one to tolerate disobedience but maybe, just maybe he'd make an exception for her just this once—for her so strongly in that moment when he saw her straighten from her crouched position, clad in ANBU gear that shouldn't look nearly as enticing as it did on her.

But all thoughts had been pushed aside when she hurried over and quickly did the best she could to seal Genma's wound in the little time they had. Taking Shisui into her arms, she promptly ignored his glare and followed him into the impending darkness of the surrounding forest. Never one to delude himself, he realized the extent of his own injury, realized his chakra was low and that his team would die if he didn't find safe shelter as soon as possible so Sakura could start healing them.

It was after some time and enough distance put between them and any possible pursuers that he had led them to the cave he'd noted on the way to the assassination point. And now as he sat against the cold stone rock letting the medic heal him, he couldn't help but notice how much she'd changed from that innocent little forest sprite all those years ago when he'd first laid eyes on her.

When he'd requested a capable medic for this mission, he hadn't been expecting the Godaime's apprentice. Not the woman who over the years had become like a daughter to their childless Hokage. It also wasn't how he pictured meeting her again after so long. But he could hardly complain as she straddled his thighs and sent her soothing chakra tingling over his skin, acting as if she belonged there.

Uchiha prodigy he may be but he was still a male, albeit a wounded chakra drained male but a male nonetheless with a beautiful woman (he was of course correct when he'd predicted she would be, once she grew into her own) in such close contact. Even if it was strictly medical in nature.

Itachi knew then that yes, he was indeed still intrigued by this Haruno Sakura. Perhaps even more so now than ever before…

"Sleep Uchiha-san. You need it to recover your chakra." Sakura said once she was done.

She stood up and with feline grace stretched out the kinks in her back and legs before rolling her eyes in annoyance when the ANBU captain moved to do the same. But of course she couldn't allow him to do so and she was perfectly willing to use some of her chakra enhanced strength to get her point across if need be.

"Sleep, Uchiha-san." She ordered in her no nonsense tone.

And she would have squirmed a little (or maybe a lot) when she was subjected to the infamous death glare that only those of the Uchiha clan possessed but she had long since grown immune to them. Having Sasuke for a friend and teammate did that to a person.

"And I suppose you'll take up watch duty?" He asked dryly.

"I'd say at the moment, I'm the better choice." She replied, understanding now why he wanted her to stay out of the fight. He knew they would need her one hundred percent after all was said and done.

"Don't worry Uchiha-san. I'm quite capable." Sakura smiled, heard his quiet 'hn' and turned around, intent on doing a quick check on her other two teammates. Seeing Shisui's torn uniform, she slipped off her bloodstained vest and placed it over him. He'd need the warmth on this chilly night.

On her way towards the narrow opening of the cave, she tossed a glance at Itachi from over her shoulder and saw with what little light there was, his eyes closed, the regulated breathing and steady rise and fall of his chest.

No, going on an S-class mission with him and his ANBU team hadn't been her idea of reacquainting with him. Not that she was acquainted with the elusive Uchiha to begin with, but she would've been perfectly content with what little she had from the past and the occasional glimpse now and then around the Hokage tower or the hospital.

But now, as she sat herself as comfortable as possible on a strong tree limb directly in front of the cave, Sakura felt that all too familiar nibble of curiosity.

She was feeling five, seven, eight and ten years old all over again.

And she was trying to decide if that was a good thing or a bad thing.

...to be continued…