Maybe I'm just on a music kick, but if you're so inclined? Go to YouTube, type in "Decode", by Paramore, and you will find the perfect ItaSaku theme song. Honestly. Incidentally, that particular song fits in great with the last chapter, as well as this one. :) Another track that just fits is "Put On," by Young Jeezy and Kanye West. Not my usual listening material, but it's a really dramatic song, and this is a really dramatic chapter. Anyway, thank you guys so much for reading and for the feedback!
Part three of three.
Lives and fate and honor hinge upon this secret; luckily, Sakura's always been good at keeping secrets, and the select few individuals Itachi tells are too fond of teasing him relentlessly to ever let the information fall into less-than-discreet hands.
Nights are the only time Sakura has to herself, and once, she asks Itachi how he manages to spend them with her. "Don't you have important business to attend to – not that I'm complaining," she adds hastily, as he raises an eyebrow at her. "But isn't the Akatsuki far too nefarious to engage in their customary activities during the daylight?"
Itachi clears his throat in a somewhat awkward manner. "Kisame…approves of you. Wholeheartedly. Therefore, he is willing to make certain – allowances."
Sakura gives him an amused look. "I'm honored."
Her duties as a Konoha shinobi consume her waking hours, but after night falls, she has nine hours of borrowed time. The time they spend together always goes too soon; when the first rays of sunlight touch the horizon, Itachi kisses her goodbye, and disappears. Sakura sleeps for three hours, before rising and preparing for work – she fears that it is not a lifestyle conducive to optimum performance as a shinobi, but if she were completely honest with herself, she would admit that she wouldn't have it any other way.
Itachi has never admitted to happiness, but he is starting to acknowledge that this may be the closest that he has ever come to it in his entire life. Perhaps it is just the nuances of the attitude he has developed over the past sixteen years of living as a renegade, but he cannot shake the feeling that this will not last long; that it is just the exquisite calm preceding a particularly violent storm.
If this is so, this is the longest calm he has experienced; long enough for the Akatsuki to shift focus to the eight-tailed beast, in distant Kumokagure. A few diplomatic words to the Leader were all it took – a risk that he would never have been willing to undergo, prior to this, but the look in Sakura's eyes when he had told her that her closest friend would have another year or two of safety, at least, had been entirely worth it.
The interlude is long enough for Sakura's hair to grow out properly, until it reaches halfway down her back. Itachi tells her that it is impractical, in his typically impassive tone, but his expression says otherwise, and Sakura smirks to herself and refrains from cutting it.
Itachi has almost become accustomed to it, this strange state of peace that he has found, until one fateful evening in early autumn; almost one year after their…relationship…had formed. He and Kisame are on the border between the Land of Wind and the Land of Fire, when Sakura emerges, in a tempestuous whirl of cherry blossoms, and flings herself into Itachi's arms with a squeal of joy. "I'm in!" Before he has much time to do more than blink, Sakura has planted a kiss on his jaw and landed back on the ground, her eyes sparkling with pure, unadulterated joy. "Well, not in, officially, but Tsunade-shishou submitted my name for official consideration this afternoon…"
She continues to chatter; excited, in a way that Itachi has rarely seen her before, but then, he supposes, this must be something extraordinary, because she has never sought him out without the protection granted by the night sky. Kisame looks far too amused for his own good, and mutters something about needing to be somewhere else, before vanishing, as if on the breeze, leaving Itachi to take Sakura by the elbows and press a light kiss to her forehead. "ANBU, or Special Jounin?"
He hopes for the latter, but expects the former, and is not surprised in the least when that is the one she indicates. Almost as suddenly as her appearance, she sobers, taking his hand in hers and entwining their fingers. "You're…familiar with the nature of the entrance exams."
A shadow passes over Itachi's eyes as he nods, and, not for the first time, Sakura tries to comprehend the depth of his genius; he had undergone those trials as a mere child, and had not only passed, but excelled, setting unspoken standards for shinobi of her year. "Then," she presses on, looking up at him intently, "you know that this is something that I need to do – on my own."
When he replies, his voice is tighter and more strained than it had been previously. "You cannot begin to understand what it will be like."
Some small part of her reflects, with unease, that if it had that large of an impact on him; this test runs a great risk of tearing her to shreds. Shoving that annoying little voice aside, Sakura pulls herself up to her full height, her jaw achieving that stubborn tilt to it that he finds both infuriating and endearing. "I know it's going to be difficult. But I can do it."
Itachi should agree with her – he knows what a formidable opponent she is – but the ANBU entrance exams are nothing like anything she has ever experienced before. Even to him, it had been an excruciatingly difficult and painful trial; years after passing, his memories of those nights had still manifested in nightmares. His fingers tighten around hers. "When?" he asks abruptly.
Sakura cannot help but wince, and when he notices, it takes a conscious effort to loosen his grip. "The written exams are on November twenty-fourth and twenty-fifth, and the practicals start on the twenty-sixth and go on until the twenty-ninth. Three days and nights." Involuntarily, she remembers the Forest of Death from the chunin exams; Neji, the first of her friends who had taken the ANBU exams, had grimly stated that the practical aspect of the test had made the Forest of Death sound like a walk in the park.
Itachi's eyes narrow in concentration. "That gives us approximately one and a half months to prepare." He glances at Sakura. "If I am allowed to help you prepare, of course."
The tone of his voice implies that, despite his polite wording, this will not be an option, and Sakura laughs a little, despite the slowly increasing magnitude of her nerves. "Yes. As long as you give me your word to be somewhere far, far away from Nara Forest on November twenty-sixth."
It is a difficult term for him to promise to, but at last, Itachi nods grudgingly. "Very well." A breeze stirs the sand dunes around them, and Sakura inclines her head to the sky; the last rays of sparse sunlight touch her features, and for a moment, he is nearly lost for words. Finally, he finds it within himself to step forward and, gently, press his palm to her face, stroking the delicate line of her cheekbone with his thumb – much as he had done during that fateful first encounter in the clearing, so long ago.
He should tell her that he is proud of her; that this everything she deserves, for being a truly exceptional, almost-legendary kunoichi and medic, and that this is the next logical step forward in what is already a shining career, but his bitterness for the village that had once been his, and the one that she still calls home, is too thoroughly ingrained to allow him to express these sentiments. Sakura offers him a small smile, at once regretful and accepting, before standing on the tips of her toes and giving him a lingering kiss that he finds too bittersweet for comfort.
Her hands are small and light on his chest, but Itachi knows the power within them, and he wraps his arms around her tightly, so that for a few moments, she is completely swathed in his Akatsuki cloak. Irrationally, he thinks the black and dark, subtle maroon are becoming on her, so very becoming, but when Sakura finally slips out his hold, she is all Fire again – the silvery steel of her forehead protector, and the blazing red of her sleeveless shirt. Despite himself, he bends down and kisses her again; she is surprised, but reciprocates wholeheartedly.
When Itachi finally pulls away, his voice is a little rawer than it had been previously. "Go home," he says softly. "Sleep. Tomorrow night, meet me in the clearing, and we will begin to prepare."
Sakura hesitates momentarily. "When I was in Tsunade-shisou's office, earlier, one of the village elders was in there as well. He and the other elders think that tracking down Akatsuki should be made a higher priority, even though they're currently not focusing any attention on Naruto…so, maybe it would be safer for us to meet outside the village walls."
This information has the potential to be rather worrisome, and Itachi files it away in his mind for future reference. "Very well."
He takes her hand, brushing her knuckles with a light kiss; despite the gloves, the touch sends shivers down Sakura's spine. "Until tomorrow," Itachi says softly, and as she forms her few hand signs and disappears, his troubled eyes are the last thing to fade from her vision.
When Kisame returns, all Itachi has to tell him, in his customary monotone, is that Sakura is slated to take the ANBU entrance exams this November. It is only by virtue of his knowing the Uchiha prodigy for sixteen long years that Kisame can identify the tension in his partner's shoulders and cadence of his speech. Itachi is worried, for whatever reasons, and the concept of Itachi worried is enough to disturb Kisame's peace of mind. He suspects that it may just be for his girlfriend's safety, but at the same time, some ancient instinct tells him that it might be darker and more complicated than that.
The town that they are passing through is small and nearly deserted; save for drunks and vagabonds that slump in front of the boarded-up buildings, on the dusty streets. Kisame has never seen quite so many utterly drunk people in one place before – the scent of strong sake practically pervades the still night air – but he plunges on stoically, even though he can nearly sense the distaste that seems to emanate off Itachi's body in waves.
Night has fallen completely; the narrow street is illuminated only by dilapidated paper lanterns that hang crookedly outside every few doors, so when the small, emaciated man appears out of the shadows, in front of them, Kisame just barely manages to restrain himself from pulling out Samehada, on instinct. Beside him, Itachi tenses, as if preparing for a fight, but then Kisame realizes that this is nothing more than a drunken old fool, unable to even walk straight, and spewing out nonsense. He relaxes fractionally, his hand leaving the hilt of the sword.
The man weaves closer to them, tottering dangerously and, perhaps because of Kisame's physically intimidating appearance, chooses to bypass the former Mist-nin in favor of his comrade. Itachi nearly recoils from him; the sudden odor of alcohol is almost overwhelming. The man's eyes are a peculiar, almost translucent shade of a gray, he realizes, like crushed worms. Itachi moves to swipe him aside, derisively, but the man locks his bony hand around his wrist, and he is momentarily taken aback at the amount of strength within that fragile-looking grip.
He leans close to the Uchiha heir, and his voice is high and reedy, but strangely sibilant, while his eyes roll crazily in his head. "You will lose…everything…" he hisses.
Within the space of time it takes Kisame to blink, unsettled, Itachi's kunai has already embedded itself, hilt-deep, into the man's chest. His eyes are still open, and they stare, unseeingly, into the distant horizon, before he crumples to the ground.
Itachi pulls out the kunai as he goes, wiping it dispassionately on a corner of his cloak. He pushes past Kisame and strides on, leaving the blood of the dead man to soak into the earth, turning it a sickening, unnatural color.
Kisame follows, with one look back; for the rest of the night, Itachi is dangerously silent, but Kisame does not miss the way his hands shake, ever so slightly, when he tends to the fire.
The letter that she had found waiting on the covers of her bed had been written in Itachi's elegant script, as usual, naming a location and suggesting that they try a mock exam. Sakura had replied in the affirmative, of course – she got off work two hours early, with Tsunade's permission, in order to train. A slightly ironic smile touches Sakura's lips as she imagines her Hokage's reaction if she knew just who she was training with.
Sakura is early, and she settles herself under a tree to meditate, as is her custom. After a few moments of thought, she can put a name to the emotions swirling within her – this evening is oddly reminiscent, in nearly every way, of the night almost a year ago, when she had challenged Itachi to a fight, hoping that that would succeed in getting him to leave her alone, once and for all. Tonight is just as still and beautiful…and like last year, tonight, Itachi is her enemy and opponent, nothing more. The thought fills her with a strange sense of trepidation; with the exception of a few spars (most of which had culminated in rather satisfying releases of sexual tension, anyway), she has almost forgotten what it had been like, facing Itachi from across enemy lines.
The memories that remain are nothing less than frightening; to say that he had been a dangerous opponent would be the understatement of the century, and later, Sakura had even learned that he had been going easy on her – but still, she had learned from the experience. She frowns, standing up, and stretching once; she can feel the chakra pulsing through her blood, sensitizing her every nerve. Almost casually, she takes a spare kunai from her belt, and with one flick of her wrist, it buries itself into the trunk of a nearby tree.
"I'm ready when you are," Sakura calls, into the seemingly empty forest, and that is when the first kunai nearly impales her heart.
It is a narrow escape, born only of the flexibility that Tsunade had emphasized was necessary to her training, but in the two seconds it takes for her to emerge from the back bend and reverse handspring, Itachi is already in front of her, and his punch causes her to collide, back first, with the nearest tree. One small gasp of pain is all she allows herself, before springing forward.
They are more or less evenly matched at first, only because Itachi refrains from using his doujutsu; the shinobi testing Sakura do not have the advantage of eye-related techniques. Sakura quickly realizes that, despite their equal brutality in hand-to-hand combat, his greater speed gives him a slight advantage over her – a point that is emphasized every time that she lands against a tree, or on the ground. She always manages to drag herself to her feet and retaliate fairly quickly, but that is before the weapons start flying.
These have never been her strong suit, and it is not long before she is gasping for air and bleeding from numerous wounds. The first time she ducks behind a tree for cover, and attempts to heal them herself, she suddenly feels Itachi's palm over hers, quelling the flame of chakra. "Don't," he says, breaking the terse silence of their fight. "During the real thing, you won't have time."
Sakura takes the opportunity to give him a chakra-loaded punch to the jaw. It sends him flying, but he manages to land on his feet, and she can see the brief glint of approval in his crimson eyes, before he unleashes a rain of shuriken on her.
Her adrenaline carries her through the first hour; the second is trying, during the third, she is pushing herself to the limits. At the end of the fourth consecutive hour, she finally falls to her knees. Her head is pounding, her muscles feel as if they're on fire, and Sakura honestly cannot recall another fight that has this sort of effect on her. Her eyes lose focus momentarily, and she realizes, dazed, that the blood steadily spotting the earth below her is her own. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Itachi approach. "Get up," he tells her tonelessly.
Sakura tries to reply, but all that comes out is a harsh, painful cough, and more blood lands on her hands. Then, his hand is around her wrist, pulling her to her feet, and she sways, momentarily dizzy, leaning against a tree for support. Itachi fills her blurred vision, and she blinks as it clears. "That was almost five hours. A…remarkable…beginning." His voice catches every few words, even though he doesn't seem to be as badly injured as she is, although upon this closer inspection, she can see the amount of bruises, scratches, and thin cuts along his face and throat; the slight catch of breath every so often must be due to a broken rib.
"Five hours," Itachi continues, his eyes inspecting her battered body thoughtfully. Then, he moves his hand from her wrist, to settle around her neck, in a chokehold with no pressure. "You will be in the forest for three days. If you think that this was difficult," – he strokes her jugular vein with the tip of his fingernail speculatively, and Sakura cannot help but swallow – "then imagine what you just experienced times five. That will be the amount of shinobi that will be testing you."
Sakura closes her eyes, and after a moment, it occurs to her that she cannot remember the last time she felt so completely, utterly defeated. "Can I do it?" she asks, her voice sounding unusually rough; Itachi allows her to lift a hand, and she winces as she feels the mottled bruises around her throat.
"Yes," he says, his eyes clouding over with long-suppressed memories. "However, it is up to you to decide if it is worth it."
Sakura looks at him, as if surprised that he would even ask; Itachi lets her down, keeping a hand on her arm to steady her, but she removes it gently, and manages to smile at him. "It's what I want."
It is an excruciating nightly routine that truly acquaints Sakura, for the first time, with the meaning of pain. Itachi dislikes being the one to instruct her in this, but she makes it clear to him, in no uncertain terms, that she will do whatever it takes in order to make herself capable of passing this test.
Every night, for six weeks, they meet in the forest. It is a comparably short time to build up a great deal of endurance, but the first time Sakura battles two Itachis – one real, and one a clone – and manages to hold her own for five long hours, the first thing she does, after regaining consciousness, is fling her arms around him. "It's working," she claims, pulling herself to her feet and settling into a fighting stance. "Come on. There are a few more hours until daylight."
Once, during a break in a particularly long and violent spar, Itachi is bandaging Sakura's wounds, while she takes deep, calming breaths in order to restore her chakra. When he is finished, he moves to stand up, but, unusually enough; she reaches out and takes his hand, pulling him back down. He raises an eyebrow inquisitively, and Sakura leans in, brushing a few stray locks of hair behind his ear, so that her fingers inadvertently trail over his face. "What were you?" she asks tentatively.
They only rarely speak about his childhood in Konoha, and even then, the information is offered of his own accord – but this is a journey that she is preparing to make, and one that he has taken already, and part of Sakura longs to know these details. Itachi blinks, and his eyes flicker from crimson to black. "…Falcon," he says at last. "They never used it again, after – it was replaced by the Hawk, a position traditionally given to Captains."
"Neji," Sakura replies absentmindedly, and for a moment, she imagines what life would have been like if Konoha's village elders had never given that fateful order. "Uchiha Itachi, ANBU Captain?" she wonders aloud. "It suits you."
Despite himself, his throat tightens, and nearly closes over. "Dreams of that nature," he says, and even the words sound painful, "died, a long time ago."
Three times in a row, they spar all through the night, until the sun begins to rise over the horizon. On the third time, Sakura collapses into Itachi's arms, nearly numb with exhaustion, before pulling herself away, struggling to maintain proper balance. Her eyes are bloodshot, but they glitter with triumph. Sakura's breath comes in harsh, unsteady gasps, thanks to a broken rib; her hair is matted with blood, after he had kicked her into a tree, and her usually flawless skin is marred by countless scratches and small cuts, and, perversely, Itachi thinks that he has never seen her look so beautiful.
He reaches out a hand, to steady her, but Sakura steps out of his path with a smile. Despite the nine hours of battle with him and two clones, she still has the ability to stand tall and proud. "I'm ready," she says, and it is not a question.
It is sunrise on the morning of November twenty-sixth, and she is scheduled to be at the gates of Hokage Tower in half an hour, but Sakura is in the middle of a remote forest with Konoha's public enemy number one, kissing him as if she will never see him again. "Promise," she gasps, at last, "that you won't worry."
Itachi frowns at her. "I will not make promises that I cannot keep."
Sakura can't help but smile at him tremulously, and this kiss is so heartbreakingly gentle that when she disappears, in a swirl of cherry blossoms, that he stares at the spot for a minute afterwards, and it takes a great deal of willpower for him to turn around and walk away.
During the next three days, Itachi is absent. He is physically there and as efficient as he always has been, Kisame supposes, but emotionally, mentally, psychologically, whatever, he is wishing, with every fiber of his being, that he had not made Sakura that promise to stay clear of Nara Forest.
The twenty-ninth is the hardest day of all.
When Sakura appears in the middle of their makeshift campsite, one minute before midnight, Itachi almost kills her on principle. This isn't some sort of attempt at retribution for actually making him worried, but the Sakura that he knew is gone; covered up in black pants and a matching sleeveless shirt, worn under the sleek, silver flak jacket that is regulation for female ANBU members. Her face is concealed by a porcelain mask, delicately crafted into the likeness of a cat. In fact, the only identifying feature remaining is the long, pink hair, until she slides the mask up. "What's wrong?" she teases lightly. "Why, Itachi, did you forget me?"
Their kiss is passionate, and he can taste her exhilaration and the subtle tang of blood on her lips and mouth. As Sakura presses her hand to his face, stroking the skin under his eye with the tip of her thumb, as the rest of her hand tangles in his hair, Itachi thinks momentarily that even her touch feels different, before he realizes it is because of the tight, midnight-colored chakra-enhancing gloves that encase her arms, only leaving the patch of skin with her ANBU tattoo visible. His hands begin to trace their familiar path down her back, before meeting with an unexpected obstacle – a long, thin, all too familiar katana.
Sakura pulls away far too soon, leaving him strangely empty and wanting. "Sorry," she breathes, "but I only have a few minutes before I'm supposed to meet Tsunade-sama and the village officials so that they can draw up the official papers."
Itachi brushes a tendril of hair behind her ear. "Then go," he replies simply.
She kisses him again, fast and hard, before pulling down the mask again and bounding away under the cover of darkness, leaving him standing, alone, in the center of the clearing.
The next day, she is assigned her team. It is a predictable lineup, but formidable all the same. "Captain Hyuuga Neji, Aburame Shino, and Haruno Sakura," Tsunade instructs, surveying the three capable shinobi that stand in front of her desk. "ANBU Task Force Number Three." She rises, before walking to a filing cabinet and unearthing a battered manila folder. "As you know, the village elders feel that hunting down the Akatsuki should be made first priority."
The manila folder is thrown down on the desk, and Shino raises an eyebrow as he hears the weighty thud of the paper within. "You three are some of the most capable individuals of your generation," she informs them. "For that reason, you have been assigned Targets 2 and 3 from the organization in question."
By this time in her life, Sakura is well acquainted with the fact that fate is a bitch. When Neji steps forward and opens the file, and she sees two very familiar faces fixing stationary, murderous stares back at her – well, she almost expects it, but still, she is glad for the privacy granted by the mask.
"Uchiha Itachi and Hoshigaki Kisame," Tsunade explains unnecessarily. "You have six months. When you encounter them, you have the choice of either killing them on the spot, or subduing and returning them to Konoha. It is the same two choices that have been offered to Task Force Four, who are in pursuit of Hidan and Kakuzu. However, in light of the increased danger posed by these two individuals, you are authorized to use immediate lethal force, with no obligation to interrogate or extract any information whatsoever. Do you accept this responsibility?"
The three of them bow and murmur their individual assent, and Sakura thinks that a small part of her may just have died on the inside.
This has always been a dangerous game, but now the stakes are unimaginably higher. That night, she leaves her apartment and seeks him out; after a quick, breathless greeting, Sakura tells him all that she is allowed to. "Akatsuki has been moved up to priority number one, regardless of how many countries your members are scattered over." She takes a deep breath. "Task Force Four is out for Hidan and Kakuzu, and…"
Sakura stops abruptly, torn over whether to continue, but Itachi saves her by placing one finger, lightly, over her lips. "Don't," he says, quiet yet firm. Once he is sure that she will remain silent, he steps back, and disappears into nothing, as if blown away by the breeze.
She stands there for a few moments, before pulling down the mask, concealing the treacherous tears that threaten to fall.
At sunrise, she meets Neji and Shino just outside the village gates. "Ready?" Neji asks her, as he activates his bloodline limit.
Sakura looks toward the rising sun, and it nearly blinds her. "Of course."
It takes them two weeks before they come across Itachi and Kisame's elusive trail – a relatively short time, she supposes, thanks to Neji's Byakugan and Shino's tracking insects. She and Shino are sitting under the shelter of a massive cedar tree as he fries a fish that she had caught from the nearby stream, when Neji materializes. "Found them," he says grimly, and Sakura's fingernails bite into her palm, despite the gloves. "They're about ten miles from here." Their captain looks up at the setting sun. "We'll attack at midnight. Is everyone clear on the plan?"
Shino and Sakura nod; they have been rehearsing it, verbally and otherwise, since the outset of their mission.
Neji and Shino meditate in preparation for the conflict, food forgotten; Sakura tries her best to do the same, but her thoughts are anything but restful. It is nearly half an hour before she realizes that she feels clammy and pale, and occasional tremors run through her body. She runs her hands through her hair, desperately willing her body to calm.
Somehow, maybe subconsciously, she had always known that this was coming. She just had not bargained on it being this soon.
The hours drag on agonizingly slowly, and Sakura keeps her eyes fixed on the sun as it disappears beneath the horizon, only to be replaced by the slowly rising moon, until Neji finally opens his eyes. "It's time."
The tension, between them and in general, is palpable – she has been assigned with Neji and Shino on several missions throughout the years, enough for her to call Neji one of her closest friends, and even the typically enigmatic Shino. She would trust them with her life, she knows, and they would do the same for her, but that fact aside, they are about to engage in combat with two of the most lethal missing-nin in history, which is enough to wreak havoc on the nerves of even the most stoic shinobi.
That's without the added tension brought on by her rather…special relationship…with one of said lethal missing-nin.
They come to rest in the towering treetops that surround the campsite, so silent and unobtrusive that not even a leaf stirs; Sakura's stomach lurches when she notices the familiar figure, leaning against a boulder opposite from them. He is sitting cross-legged, cloak pulled around him. The hood is up, so that all she can see is the very end of his ponytail. Kisame is slumped in front of the fire, apparently asleep.
"Perfect," breathes Neji, before gesturing to Shino, who, out of them, has the most impeccable aim. "The Uchiha first. Do the honors?"
Shino remains silent, but a dagger slides down his sleeve, into his waiting palm. Sakura cannot help but swallow when she sees it; it is viciously sharp, and long, the size of her arm from the tips of her fingers to her elbow.
He perfects his aim; a miss could send the dagger thudding into the boulder, which would surely awaken Itachi and Kisame, and make a rather simple objective all the more complicated.
Her fingers are digging into the bark of the tree, and her palms are moist underneath the cover of the gloves. It is the worst kind of traitorous thought, worse, even, than Itachi's own crimes, but she is suddenly praying, to whoever will listen, that it cannot end this way, so quickly and so simply, and—
A droplet of water lands on the branch that Neji and Shino are standing on.
Shino is too intently focused on his target to notice, and Neji has his Byakugan fully engaged, while supporting Shino with a firm hand on his back to prevent him from losing his balance during the throw.
Another droplet of water joins the first, and they pool into one. Despite the relentless pounding of her heart, Sakura looks up, momentarily distracted—it isn't raining—
Shino throws the dagger; it makes a sharp, whistling noise as it flies through the air, and Sakura cannot help but gasp when Itachi reaches out, grabbing it in midair and avoiding the blade by a hair's width. He swings it around, and as if from far away, Sakura hears Neji and Shino's exclamations of shock as he straightens slowly.
The hood falls from his face as he stares right up at them, and she can see that he has the Sharingan fully engaged. He spins the dagger by the hilt, almost idly, gaze flickering to all three of them in turn, and lingering for a moment on Sakura. "Why," Itachi hisses softly, narrowing his eyes, and they lean forward in order to catch every word. "Wherever is Kisame?"
Shino manages to turn first, and Sakura watches, with a kind of frozen horror, as the flat of Samehada's blade collides with his head. It is an unlikely strike, and the mighty sword would have separated Shino's head from his body, if not for the fact that Neji had thrown himself, bodily, on Kisame, his fingers locking around the shark-man's neck in a merciless grip.
She does not have time to watch Kisame's reaction, because she is already halfway to the earth, catching Shino's unconscious body as they fall, together. She lands on her feet, and manages to settle her comrade's body under the tree, before tossing off his bloodied mask and bringing chakra to her hands, trying her best to ignore the sounds from up above as Neji and Kisame battle it out—
The steel of the dagger is cold against her throat. "Why, Sakura," Itachi breathes into her ear. "Did you forget me?"
Sakura spins around, and her chakra burns a scalding wound on his hip. He cannot see her face, but her shoulders heave, under the uniform, and it is not surprising, for the strength of her emotions have always been her weakness. "Don't do this," she warns. "Please."
Itachi hardens his heart, and his kunai only misses her arm by a fraction of an inch.
They fight their way into the forest, and it is near hell to pretend not to hear Neji and Kisame, still in the clearing, and, in one crazy moment, Sakura imagines that she can still hear Shino's ragged breaths.
She throws a punch at Itachi's jaw. "I don't want this!"
He counters it easily, and kicks her into a tree, driving the breath from her body. For a moment, he is pressed against her, their noses almost touching, and then she can taste the blood in his kiss. "Neither do I."
"Surrender," she almost begs, as she watches the blood drip from the shallow stab wound she had inflicted on him. "We'll take you back to Konoha; tell Tsunade what you told me, and I'm sure she'll make some allowances –"
Itachi pulls the kunai out of the offending wound, and throws it back at her. "I don't want allowances."
"It's curious," he observes, after a while; they are circling each other, exhausted. "I don't hear Kisame and your friend, anymore."
Sakura cuts her losses and runs, as fast as she can, back to the clearing. There is a brief moment of panic when she sees neither Neji nor Kisame, just Shino's still-unconscious, broken body—
Then Kisame nearly falls from the tree, and she experiences a jolt of heart-stopping horror when she sees the way he grips Neji's half-conscious form, before Sakura sees the amount of wounds that the shark-man himself has sustained. He is dripping blood, purple blood, and regardless of her personal feelings for him in a time that now feels long ago, Sakura lunges at him, kunai in hand.
With his last vestiges of strength, Kisame backhands her; it had been a weak blow, for him, but it is enough to send Sakura reeling, and for a moment, everything goes black.
When she regains consciousness, a few minutes later, she finds Itachi supporting Kisame's weight. Neji has been forced into a kneeling position. "The Captain," gasps Kisame, coughing blood, "has done his job far too well."
Sakura tries to get up, but her limbs are leaden, as she sees Itachi gently ease his partner onto the ground, before approaching Neji. The long fingers that had stroked her body so gently are ruthless when they bury themselves in Neji's hair, forcing his head upward, so that he can meet his dangerously pinwheeling Sharingan gaze. "Well, then," Itachi nearly purrs. "We will have to teach him a lesson."
There are a few moments of silence, before Neji's screams begin to echo around the empty forest.
When Sakura comes to, again, it is daylight. She, Shino, and Neji have been moved so that they lie together, tangled, in a heap. Her head throbs mercilessly, but she summons her chakra and begins to probe them, fearing the worst.
After an hour of nearly continuous healing, Sakura is dizzy and nearly starving, but Shino has stabilized; the wound on the side of his head is fully healed, and his chakra stores are replenishing themselves. Neji had been much more difficult, but now, his bones are on the mend, and she had closed the gaping wound in his side with the last of her chakra. The effects of the Tsukiyomi, however, are not so easily fixed.
She is in no state to be doing this, but she uses the few remaining vestiges of chakra to form the requisite hand seals, before flickering out of sight.
Sakura finds him on a clifftop, staring out over the surrounding country. She flings the mask off as soon as her feet touch solid ground, and the resulting clatter makes him turn.
It is difficult to walk, at this point, but she storms over to him nevertheless; powered by pure rage and equally crushing sorrow. "You," she hisses, drawing her shaking hand across her pale forehead. "Last night – you tortured my best friend. And you enjoyed it."
Itachi neither accepts nor denies this charge; instead, his eyes catalogue the extensive physical battering she had undergone – most of it, at his hands. "Your best friend," he says, at last, and he cannot control the way his voice catches on the last word, "is the reason my partner may die. Your comrades, Inuzuka Kiba and Rock Lee, are the reason Hidan and Kakuzu's lifeless bodies were found in a deserted clearing two days ago."
Predictably enough, her eyes widen at this information, as if he had struck her; before they just spill over with tears. Sakura is crying for the first time in more years than she can remember, in front of the one person she would hate to cry in front of, right now, but no matter how hard she tries, she cannot seem to stop. Itachi nearly recoils in the face of her distress, before reaching out in an attempt to comfort her, tentatively, as if her tears may burn him, but Sakura steps out of his path quickly, turning her face away.
It takes a few moments before she achieves some semblance of control, and she wipes the heels of her hands roughly against her eyes. "Look at us," she gasps. "Your comrades are killing mine, and mine are killing yours, and where does that leave us?"
Itachi says nothing, but he reaches into the inner pockets of his cloak; emerging with one clenched fist as Sakura watches him guardedly. When he stretches the other hand out expectantly, she hesitates for a few brief moments before lightly placing her left hand in his – although she keeps a small flame of chakra alive in her palm, just in case.
Sakura allows him to peel off her glove, and although her expression remains inscrutable, he can feel her hand begin to tremble as he places the ring on her finger. It is the very picture of elegance and good taste – wrought out of the finest silver, with a glistening emerald in the center, and it fits perfectly. "Itachi," she says, her voice cracking on the one syllable; yet, she can't quite pull away. "I can't—"
He opens the palm that is still closed, and all she can see is a small cluster of scarlet fire against his pale, scarred hand, bound by a thin string of silver. "I know it doesn't match," Itachi says, his voice achieving a somewhat rougher timbre, as he gently slides the necklace into her cupped hand. "It belonged to my mother. In another time…" he pauses, looking away, and his next words, when they come, are so soft she can barely hear them. "She would have liked you."
This piece of information, more than any other, reduces Sakura to speechlessness. Her fingers curl around the ruby necklace, and she draws it to her chest wordlessly, as she surveys him.
Itachi takes a step back, so that he is dangerously close to the edge of the precipice. His eyes tear themselves away from her, at last, to focus on a distant point somewhere in the depths of the forest. "Kisame," he murmurs distantly, unaware that he is already, prematurely, using the past tense in reference to his partner, "always enjoyed chicken."
With these last, awkwardly chosen words, he disappears – presumably to a market to obtain chicken, Sakura thinks, dazed.
This may be the second highest on the list of most irrational things she has ever done in her life – the first; becoming involved with Uchiha Itachi in the first place, she thinks – but she walks through the forest, almost blindly, until she finds him. Itachi had placed him under a tree, bandaged all of his wounds to his best ability, and thoroughly covered him with his cloak.
Hoshigaki Kisame, public enemy number two, of her village, is dying.
The weight of her katana is heavy across her shoulders as she stares down at him; almost as heavy as the ring, and the necklace—
Your duty is to save lives.
It is both the most difficult and the simplest decision of her life, and finally, Sakura lays down the katana, setting it, reverently, behind her, and kneels at Kisame's side. The strain on her body is immense, but before long, the healing chakra wells up within her open palms.
When Itachi returns, balancing an immense amount of chicken teriyaki on a large tray, he receives what may be one of the largest shocks of his life when he finds Kisame sitting up, leaning against a tree – sound asleep, yes, but alive and whole.
He had not expected it in the least, but he knows who to thank.
Shino and Sakura make their way to Konoha that same day, after writing the Hokage an urgent report and sending it by way of Shino's animal summons; Neji is still unconscious, suffering the aftereffects of the Tsukiyomi. They link his arms over their shoulders, and carry him all the way home in silence that is heavy with both of their tormented thoughts.
"I'm sorry," Shino blurts at last. "I shouldn't have taken so long to throw the dagger—"
"Don't," Sakura whispers. "It's not your fault."
It in the early hours of the morning when they arrive back at their village and check Neji into the hospital. The two of them sit at his side, drifting off periodically, until Tsunade arrives for the morning, three hours later, looking more fretful than Sakura has ever seen her. When they rise to bow to her in greeting, she fairly shoves the both of them back into their chairs with strict orders to ignore formality for the sake of their own health. She sends Shino back to the Aburame compound immediately in order to rest and appease his parents' worries.
"Sakura," she says, taking a moment from her inspection of Neji, in order to survey her former apprentice, who looks alarmingly close to some sort of physical or emotional breakdown, "you've done more than enough – your report mentioned at least ten more major injuries, which you've already healed. There's nothing more you can do here. It would be best for you to just go home and relax."
The concern in Tsunade's eyes is so painfully obvious that for a brief moment, it makes Sakura want to cry. It is an emotion that has periodically been attacking her since her encounter with Itachi on the cliff, and she almost comes clean, almost sobs out the whole painful, traitorous story to her Hokage, but then she is standing up on unsteady feet, nodding her assent and bidding Tsunade a subdued farewell.
Within the space of a few moments, she is at home, in the comfort of her familiar bedroom, and Sakura's throat closes over as she approaches the mirror; without the mask, she is pale, and still looks much the worse for wear after her battle with Itachi and Kisame – livid bruises mark her skin, but she can deal with them tomorrow, and her eyes are red and swollen. The twelve small rubies and the single emerald offer the only color to the reflection that she sees in the mirror.
Sakura strips off her ANBU uniform methodically, and falls into bed. Unconsciousness claims her immediately, but her dreams are all of Itachi, and she wakes the next morning with tears spilling down her cheeks.
"Neji," Tsunade says, as she shuffles the papers that are on her desk, "will be quite fine, after a few more days of recuperation." She smiles at the still somewhat wan-looking ANBU Cat. "What was it that you wanted to talk to me about?"
Sakura is not dressed in her ANBU uniform today; instead, she is wearing a standard-regulation set of black pants, a green turtleneck, and the olive flak jacket customary to all Konoha jounin. They are all new and feel somewhat unusual, but she does not think that she feels up to wearing her uniform right now, in light of recent events. She twists her hands together nervously. "Actually, Tsunade-shishou, I wanted to ask you about –" she pauses momentarily "– the chief diplomatic envoy position that just opened a month ago. If you haven't appointed anyone else already, that is."
Tsunade sets down her cup of tea, her brow furrowing slightly. "The spot is still open, Sakura. Are you expressing interest in it?"
Sakura nods tersely. "Yes, Tsunade-shishou. If you didn't have anybody else in mind, that is."
"There are very, very few," the Hokage replies, leaning back and regarding her curiously, "whom I trust more than you with a position of such importance. I would offer this to you in a heartbeat, if it's what you really want – but I must admit, I didn't think that you had any prior interest in becoming so embroiled in intrigue and international affairs, rather than field missions. Especially now that you've become an ANBU operative."
Sakura's gaze falls; she can say nothing to this.
There are a few moments of silence, and when she speaks, Tsunade's voice is unusually soft and gentle. "Sakura," she says. "Does this have anything to do with Uchiha Itachi?"
Her head snaps up, and Sakura does not think she has ever felt so shocked in her life; even if she had any inclination to deny it, she does not think she could, with the vehemence of her reaction. "Tsunade-shishou! I – I…" her voice breaks momentarily. "How did you know?"
Tsunade slides the cup of tea over to the distraught young woman, feeling that she may be in more need of it, now. "Uchiha Mikoto and I were friends, at the Academy. We weren't assigned to the same genin team, but we continued our friendship up until her marriage. Not too long afterwards, I left the village, although I came back, once, to visit her after the birth of her eldest newborn son." She pauses, and her gaze drifts to the place on Sakura's collarbone where the necklace rests, although it is thoroughly covered by the turtleneck. "I cried for two days when I learned of what happened…" Her voice wavers briefly, but after a moment, it returns to its original cadence. "I would recognize her chakra signature anywhere." She nods at the necklace, and then at Sakura's bare left ring finger. "It's lingering there, too – even though you took it off this morning, it was on when you made your report last night."
Nearly overwhelmed, Sakura buries her head in her hands; she feels her heartbeat slow down alarmingly, and then spike again. When she looks up and meets the Godaime's nonjudgmental gaze, she is torn between a thousand apologies and explanations. "The Uchiha Massacre –" she blurts out at last. "He didn't –"
Tsunade lifts a hand, and, despite the physical illusion, she looks much older than her years. "I know," she says wearily. "It came out, while your team was gone, and I was in a council meeting with the elders."
Sakura is shocked to see tears shimmer on the surface of Tsunade's eyes. "Tsunade-shishou, I…"
The Hokage pushes her chair back from the desk, and goes to stand by the large window, surveying her village. She takes a deep, steadying breath. "It's nothing I would ever have condoned," she replies flatly. "It makes me regret leaving."
Sakura watches, almost unable to speak, as Tsunade walks back to her desk, opens a drawer, and withdraws an elaborate certificate, before beginning to initial every indicated blank. "I will miss you, Sakura," she admits softly. "If I were to be completely honest, I would say this is not the path I would have chosen for you. But I know you well enough to be fully sure that, no matter what you do, you will achieve greatness."
Despite her best efforts, a tear drops into Sakura's lap, as her Hokage slides the certificate over to her. "You know the official constituents of the job; there will be a great deal of traveling involved. You may take whoever you wish, but you will return, and report directly to me – and Naruto, later – at the end of every month." She hesitates. "After my time, when Naruto steps in – he will elect a council of new officials. I don't intend to give you false hope, but, perhaps, someday…your children will be able to train as Konoha shinobi."
"I would love that, Tsunade-shishou," Sakura replies, sounding slightly choked.
She rises, and Sakura does as well. "Come back around seven this evening," Tsunade says, trying her best to return to a professional tone. "You will have to be officially sworn in, and I will send the paperwork to the ANBU officials and to the surrounding countries. But now," she smiles, a little of the customary spirit returning to her countenance, "I expect you will want to inform certain individuals of this latest development."
Sakura nods, and for the first time in what feels like a long time, her smile is fully content. "Thank you, Tsunade-shishou."
She finds Itachi standing in the center of a meadow, watching the distant figure of Kisame reacquaint himself with his muscles, as he spins his massive sword through a set of practice patterns.
To an untrained gaze, he would look as unsurprised as always to see her stumble out of thin air to materialize in front of him, tightly gripping an official-looking certificate bearing the seal of the Godaime Hokage, but Sakura can see the way his eyes widen a fraction of inch. She forestalls a greeting, and plunges on – "Chief official diplomat of the Village Hidden in the Leaves," Sakura informs him breathlessly. "I'm going to be sworn in later this evening."
Itachi's eyes drift to the hand holding the certificate, and he has to admit to some pleasure at seeing that the ring is still in place. "In that case, I believe congratulations are in order." He regards her typical jounin clothing, and raises one eyebrow.
Sakura reaches out, and takes his hand somewhat shyly. His fingers curl around hers, as the breeze stirs the grass. "Maybe," she says, her eyes seeking his, "it wasn't what I wanted, after all."
Itachi says nothing, but for the first time in what feels like an eternity, his smile reaches his eyes.
Sixteen Years Later
Even from the other end of the clearing, Uchiha Isaru's kunai thuds, dead center, into the target. A small smile struggles with his shy features, before finally breaking free and lighting up his face. Almost unconsciously, his hand goes up to his new forehead protector; touching it lightly, as if to reassure himself that it is, indeed, real.
From inside the compound, Sakura pauses momentarily in her survey of the latest peace treaty between Sound and Konoha. "He'll be surprised that you've come home early just to congratulate him, you know," she says mildly, before getting up and joining her husband, who leans against the window, watching their son with a smile of approval hovering around the edges of his face, as the Sharingan fades from his eyes, leaving them as black as night.
"Yes, well," Itachi replies. "It doesn't happen every day." Another kunai finds its mark in the center of the target, and he inclines his head briefly and turns to look at her, sounding momentarily uncertain. "I just never thought – "
He trails off, and Sakura stands on the tips of her toes, pressing a soft kiss to his cheek. "Neither did I," she echoes softly, a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. "Neither did I."
And, one week to the publish date, exactly, there you have it. The end. :) Thank you so much to the people who have been kind enough to review! It really does make my day.
Anyway, I really hope you guys liked the last chapter, and any feedback would be very much appreciated.