Disclaimer: Naruto and its characters are created by Masashi Kishimoto, but the new plots (meaning the ones you don't recognize!) are mine. This fanfiction has been written for entertainment purposes only and without intention of infringing upon any copyright.
A/N: YES! This is the final chapter of this story. Can you just HEAR how happy I am? I thank all of you for following this story, and to those who had reviewed, thank you for all the encouragement and support. Big glomps to all! And without further ado, here's the conclusion of this story...
The Centerpiece by elle6778 – Chapter 17
Sakura stood in her shishou's office, flanked by Naruto and Sasuke. She could feel Kakashi's solid form behind her, flush against her back in the crowded room. Tsunade was standing in front, behind her desk, as she spoke about the performance of the ANBU as a whole that year. Sakura was only listening with half an ear. It was hard to pay attention when Tsunade herself sounded bored.
"… treaty between Suna and ourselves. The new proposal to collaborate…"
Apparently, this was a formality that took place annually, not that she knew about it before, of course. After all, she had just made ANBU three months ago together with Naruto and Sasuke. The examination had been grueling, and they had barely made it. The damned thing had been a bewildering mix of genjutsu and reality, and it had been almost impossible to distinguish the two. They had fought with all their strength, of course. Team Kakashi never gave up.
In the end, they had made it, even though Naruto had to be carried out on Sasuke's back and she had remained conscious from sheer pig-headedness until they exited the examination grounds. Only then did she collapse in a heap of exhaustion.
"… the shared resources of the two villages meant an increase in efficiency in the border…"
As Tsunade's speech continued, Sakura thought back to what happened next. Her body exhausted and chakra-drained, she had not woken until four days later, while Naruto had remained unconscious in the hospital for two days. The only one who had escaped the thing without a prolonged stay at the hospital was Sasuke, who had used his Sharingan to its full capacity during the genjutsu phases.
Kakashi had put in the paperwork to reactivate his ANBU status shortly afterwards, and a month after the examination, the four of them had formed a new ANBU squad. Just as planned.
She was happy.
The thought made her inhale slowly.
She was happy, she reiterated stubbornly, refusing to look to her left. It was bad enough that out of the periphery of her vision, she could see a familiar mask covering the face of a familiar dark-haired ANBU.
For the past three months, after that painful conversation they had shared, she had seen him less than a handful of times. Each time, it was from across a safe distance. Thankfully, in all those times, Itachi had appeared to be in a rush to go somewhere else. That helped, because she really had no intention of talking to him. She had no intention of staring into those dark eyes, remembering things that was better left buried deep in the recesses of her mind. Things like the confusion, the shattering pain she had felt, or the constriction in her throat that had eventually given way to the flood of tears, or the blinding anger she had felt once the tears had stopped.
"… and the number of successful missions this year means that we have enough funds…"
She could admit that she had not managed to get over him. She had not even tried, because she knew that it would be useless. In time, things would seem better. Yes, because time healed everything, right?
Thankfully, at her lowest point, the pressure of the ANBU examination had given her something else to focus on than her heartbreak. And by the time the examination had finished and she had been discharged from the hospital, two weeks had passed and the numbness had set in… somewhat.
People had tip-toed cautiously around her after the news of the separation had spread, but luckily, her three teammates barely mentioned it, as they thought that it was just a part of the mission. No one knew the whole truth.
Well, actually one person did know, she amended.
Sakura darted a quick glance at the Hyuuga in question, who was standing with his own team at the far right hand side of the room. She had caved one day and cried, and Neji had stumbled upon her, promptly demanding to know what had happened. He had been adamant, and she had finally given in. But he had been made to promise not to say a word to Itachi. She knew she could trust Neji. He was hardly the type to gossip.
So, apart from Neji, no one knew the truth. It made it easier to push the entire debacle to the back of her mind.
That was what she had been doing ever since; pushing Uchiha Itachi and their time together into this dark little compartment in her mind, away from everyday thoughts. And the less she saw of him, the more effective method was.
This meeting today was the closest they had been in three months. The meeting was unavoidable, but it only occurred once a year, so she could handle it. After this, she would walk out of the door and forget she ever saw Itachi in here.
Yes, she really should not dredge it up again. Eventually, she would forget, or maybe get over it naturally. Right? Then this hollow feeling inside her would be gone.
Unable to help herself, she darted a surreptitious glance at his static figure. He was so still that he could almost pass as a statue. Something painful squeezed within her as she studied him, almost wishing that he did not have his mask on so that he could see him. Or stand closer so that she could feel the warmth of his body. Another part of her, however, wanted to tear him from limb to limb because he had led her to believe that what they had was real.
Pathetic, that was what she was. Uchiha Itachi did not want her, that was clear enough. The explanation was simple, once she had thought about it. He was a man, and she had been a convenient body during the mission, that was all. He felt nothing for her. She had seen something where there was nothing, and now she was paying the price for her idiocy.
Gritting her teeth, she forced her eyes away from Uchiha Itachi. Her ANBU activities had kept most of her attention away from the pain and bewilderment of Itachi rejection, but sometimes, she found herself sinking into these sorts of emotionally contemplative phases. She had learnt over the last couple of months that the only way to make it better was to keep herself busy, doing whatever she could lay her hands on.
A sharp elbow digging into her side jolted her rudely out of her thoughts, and Sakura whipped her head around to see Naruto's mask turned towards her. His body was coiled tightly with excitement, strangely enough.
"Hear that, Sakura-chan?! A bonus! Baa-chan is giving us a bonus!"
She blinked. They were getting a bonus? Her eyes flicked to her shishou. What else had she missed?
Tsunade continued, "Of course this bonus relates to the number of missions you've completed this year."
"What?! We've only done three," he whined from behind the mask. "Baa-chan should have sent us out on more missions."
Having heard his complaint from across the room, Tsunade paused in her words, pinning a glare on the oblivious blonde ANBU. The rest of the room stilled, all still facing front but obviously waiting for an explosion from either the Hokage or Naruto. Sakura stifled the urge to groan.
"Sakura, shut him up," Sasuke muttered from her other side.
Sakura rolled her eyes in exasperation, but she dutifully turned to Naruto. Before she could open her mouth, however, Kakashi reached forward to smack the back of Naruto's head, causing the blonde to sputter indignantly.
"Quiet, Naruto," Kakashi muttered under his breath. "Don't make a scene."
She reached out and clamped her steely fingers around his wrist. "Naruto…" she ground out in warning. "Don't say another word."
Naruto tensed, and then slumped in resignation.
Sakura sighed in relief when Tsunade removed her eyes from them and continued to speak. She really did not feel like putting Naruto back together, should her shishou decide to physically teach her blonde teammate a lesson in protocol.
The briefing soon ended, and murmurs of conversation commenced as the ANBU operatives made their way out of the room. She took her mask off, following the example of her teammates. Today, it had been donned for the sake of formality only.
"Let's go," she said, tugging at Naruto, who looked as if he wanted to go to Tsunade. No doubt to plead his case about the bonus. "Ramen, Naruto. It's lunchtime."
She immediately got his attention.
"Good idea, Sakura-chan. I'm starving!" he exclaimed, pushing past her in his hurry to reach the door.
Her lips quirked at his predictability as she followed him out of the Hokage's office. Sometimes she wondered if Naruto was just humoring them whenever it came to ramen, or was he really that obsessed with the fast food.
"Shouldn't encourage him," Sasuke muttered beside her.
She shrugged, grinning, eliciting a quiet grunt from her dark-haired teammate. The four of them descended the stairs, walking toward the main exit.
Then her steps halted abruptly, her eyes widening as she took in the sight of three familiar figures there.
Itachi and his squad was standing by the door, discussing something. She would have to pass right next to him if she wanted to get out of that door, something she really did not want to do. It would bring them uncomfortably close. Could they not go elsewhere to discuss whatever it was they had to discuss? Why block the exit?
But knowing that she had no choice but go out of that door, she held her head high and commanded her feet to move.
She looked over her shoulder at Kakashi. "What?"
"You're blocking the way. Move."
Her feet finally obeyed her command, and she strode towards the door, fully intending to make a quick exit. Eyes away from the Uchiha squad. Away… away… She could pretend she did not see them, as ridiculous as the idea was. The door was closer now. She was almost there.
Luck, however, was not on her side.
A familiar voice called out enthusiastically, "Sakura! Over here!"
Groaning inwardly, Sakura turned to Genma, whose mask was hanging under his chin, smiling widely at her. She knew the smile she returned was weak at best, but that was all she could do in the circumstances.
"Aren't you going over there to say hello, Sakura?" Kakashi nudged.
Naruto grinned. "So long as you're not joining that squad."
"As if I will, Naruto," she growled.
"Just hurry up," Sasuke muttered.
"Come over here, Sakura!" Genma called out.
Resigned to the fact that there was no escaping the inevitable, she went up to the trio, aware that her teammates did not follow her.
"Kakashi? Sasuke?" she called out.
Kakashi waved over his shoulder. "See you outside."
All on her own, then. She inhaled deeply to fortify herself. It had been three months, so by now, she should be strong enough to face him, right? Her legs definitely did not feel strong when they brought her closer to the ANBU trio. She carefully kept her eyes averted from one particular masked face. The professional front must be kept intact, she reminded herself.
"Sakura," Genma called out fondly, flinging an arm over her shoulders. "I didn't know you made it into ANBU. Congratulations!"
"Thanks, Genma. I've only been an ANBU for a few months. How's life?"
"Missions, women and drinking." He grinned rakishly. "The usual."
A genuine smile appeared on her face. "You're terrible, Genma."
"It is polite to greet the rest of us as well, Sakura," came a bland comment from Shino.
She turned to the other ANBU and laughed. A part of her missed this, missed them. "Hello, Shino. How have you been?" she asked, carefully not looking at Itachi, even though she could feel his eyes on her.
"As well as can be expected without a medic in the squad," he replied.
A forced laugh broke from her. "No one's stopping you from getting a new medic."
Both Genma and Shino turned pointedly towards their captain. Right, she cringed inwardly. This was the dreaded moment, then.
Slowly, she turned until she was face to face with Itachi's masked figure. Something ached within her at the knowledge that they were standing close enough to touch, and her breath wanted to leave her in a rush. She felt lightheaded, and she felt stupid for it. After three months of no direct contact, she was still affected by him.
Outwardly, she smiled cordially. "Uchiha-san."
They were back to surnames, she thought, suddenly feeling the urge to laugh. Not laugh in amusement, but in the bitterness of knowing just how much things had changed between them. Well, she could handle this the way she had handled the past three months. She would not let him know that he had affected her in any way.
"Oi, what's with the formality, you two?" Genma asked.
"It is awkward," Shino pointed out. "They broke up, after all."
Thanks, Shino, Sakura thought dryly. One could always count on Shino to point out the obvious, especially when it was embarrassing or painful.
Genma rubbed the back of his head sheepishly. "Oh, yes."
A heavy silence descended upon them.
She had to get out of her before she lost her composure. With that thought, she forced out another smile, feeling as if her face might crack with the effort.
"Well, I'd better go. Kakashi and the rest are waiting for me outside."
Itachi could not take his eyes off her.
He was thankful that he had not removed his mask for the small barrier afforded him some privacy. The unexpectedness of having Sakura so close brought forth everything that he had fought to suppress over the past months. He was inundated by so many emotions, emotions that he had never thought he was capable of experiencing, but mostly, he felt… longing.
He longed for Sakura.
And it was only the tight control he held over himself and the reminder that she should be with Sasuke prevented him from doing anything about it. As far as he knew, Sasuke had not made a move. Itachi did not know if he wanted his brother to do so sooner, or later. Either way, it would not be pleasant. And therefore, he should continue to distance himself from her the way he had been doing recently.
And yet, now that she was right in front of him, he could not stop his eyes from running over her.
Sakura looked a little weary, but that was usual for all new ANBU recruits. They'd already been on several missions, it seemed. Rumor also had it that Hatake's ANBU squad was one of the best ANBU squads to form recently, but that did not surprise him. They worked particularly well together, after all.
A part of him wondered if the weariness could be attributed to their separation, and it was the same part that fervently hoped not. But he knew that he had hurt her badly then with his deliberately cold words. It had been necessary, for he knew that she would seek him out otherwise. And that would not do. The separation had to be irreparable.
Outwardly, she had taken it well, but her bewilderment at his words was unmistakable. Had she gotten over their 'relationship' now, or was she experiencing the same sort of deadened pain that he felt each time he thought of her? He could not tell, for the woman standing in front of him now gave away nothing in the way she held herself.
It was more likely the former, for she clearly did not wish to be near him, judging by the way she was attempting to leave. He could not blame her for her aversion towards him; he had caused it himself.
"Oh, come on, Sakura. We haven't seen each other for a while. Let's go for lunch," Genma invited. "It'll be like old times."
Her chuckle was forced, and it hurt Itachi to hear it. And then she shook her head. "I'm afraid not this time, Genma. I'm heading to Ichiraku with the rest of my team."
Genma opened his mouth, no doubt to persuade her, but the emergence of another figure stilled his words. Clad in full ANBU gear, like the rest of them, Hyuuga Neji strode towards them.
"Sakura," he greeted, stopping beside her.
The obvious relief in Sakura's voice grated at Itachi. She was clearly happy to see the Hyuuga, seeing how she immediately latched on to his arm. Itachi felt a piercing pain within him when he observed just how comfortable they were with each other. And the silent look exchanged between them did not go unnoticed, either.
The Hyuuga inclined his head in acknowledgement at them before turning his attention back to the pink-haired kunoichi. "I need to speak to you. It will only take a few minutes."
Sakura nodded, and then glanced around to wave at them. "I'll see you all around, okay?"
And with that, she walked back up the stairs with the Hyuuga, leaving Itachi to stare after them with a feeling of irritation that he knew he had no right to.
"You okay?" Genma asked, casually, but there was a barely veiled hint of concern in his tone.
Out of the corner of his eyes, he saw Shino elbow Genma not so discreetly.
Turning to face them fully, he finally removed his mask. There was no need for it now.
Sakura was no longer there.
Kakashi leaned against a tree trunk outside the administration building, staring silently at the door. Nearby, Naruto and Sasuke were arguing about something, but Kakashi ignored them. He was more concerned about the female member of his newly formed ANBU squad.
Sakura might think that she was hiding it well, and he conceded that she was, to those who had not watched her grow up.
However, Kakashi knew better. He had seen the way her eyes would glaze over in sadness when she thought no one was looking and how she would fall into a contemplative silence for no apparent reason. Incredibly, her performance as a kunoichi was not affected by this affliction of hers. In fact, she was more determined. It did not escape his notice that her attacks had been far more powerful and violent than they needed to be. Her work seemed to be her escape.
Kakashi was not stupid. Whatever Uchiha Itachi felt towards Sakura, Kakashi knew that a part of it was true affection. One simply could not fake that particular light in one's eyes when gazing at the recipient of said affection. And he guessed Sakura returned the feelings as well.
And then the so-called separation had occurred. It had been that day when Uchiha Itachi had approached them while they were having lunch in Ichiraku. Even then, he could tell from the Uchiha's countenance that the ANBU captain had something unpleasant to say to Sakura. It had been difficult to miss, actually. Uchiha Itachi was uncharacteristically cold towards Sakura.
Kakashi sighed, running a hand through his hair. He had warned the Uchiha then. It had been a subtle warning, but he was certain that the ANBU captain had understood perfectly. Unfortunately, it did not seem to have helped any. They had broken up, leaving Sakura hurt and angry.
And she was still hurting and angry.
Taking his gaze away from the door, he slanted an eye at Naruto, who was peering at him questioningly. "Hm?"
"What's with that face?"
"You can see my face, Naruto?" He pretended to tug his mask up.
Exasperated, Naruto huffed, crossing his arms over his chest. "Yeah, your forehead is all wrinkled. Like you're thinking real hard."
Wrinkled? He did not have wrinkles, Kakashi thought, offended. The little brat had some nerve.
"Eh, isn't that Itachi, Sasuke?"
"Where's Sakura, then?"
Kakashi looked back to the door to find Uchiha Itachi and his squad leaving the building, without Sakura in sight. She must have gone back in for something. Or at least, used that as an excuse.
Suddenly, Sasuke remarked gruffly, "Itachi's been… off. Quieter than usual."
Kakashi's brow rose. That was saying something, considering the fact that Uchiha Itachi was not particularly talkative in the first place. So, it was not only Sakura who was still affected by the break-up. He was growing increasing curious about the entire situation. He still did not understand why Uchiha Itachi did what he had done. It appeared that all it had achieved was to make both of them miserable.
Naruto frowned, confused. "What has that got to do with anything?"
"That relationship between him and Sakura," Sasuke muttered.
"What are you talking about? That was not-" Naruto broke off, and then blinked slowly. "Wait… That was… real?"
Naruto was not so oblivious, after all, Kakashi thought.
"I think Itachi feels something for Sakura," Sasuke admitted, clearly discomfited by the idea.
Naruto looked shocked. For a moment, he did not speak, and then he asked, "What do you think, Kakashi-sensei?"
He shrugged noncommittally. "Looks like it."
Naruto frowned. "They broke up months ago."
"The mission dictated that they break up when Daisuke's caught," Sasuke pointed out. "So they broke up."
"But why did they do it if they are really together?" Naruto asked, bewildered. "That doesn't make sense."
"No, it doesn't," Kakashi agreed.
"Maybe it's only your brother. Maybe Sakura doesn't like him that way," Naruto pointed out.
Sasuke exhaled slowly. "Maybe she doesn't."
Alright, maybe Naruto was still a little oblivious, Kakashi thought with an inward sigh. Then again, maybe he could not blame the blonde. Sakura was a surprisingly convincing actress. However, he was surprised that Sasuke had not picked up on it. Perhaps it was because the boy hardly had any experience in such things.
"Yeah, how could she even like your brother, Teme?" Naruto pointed out with a scowl.
"Do not insult Itachi!" Sasuke snapped.
"I'm not insulting him. I'm just saying Sakura doesn't like him like that."
Deciding that the argument was ridiculous, Kakashi remarked, "Sakura is more affected that you think."
Naruto blinked. "Oh."
"So… So that's why she seems sad sometimes," Naruto muttered.
"Probably," Kakashi agreed.
The three of them fell into a thoughtful silence, each mulling over the situation. Kakashi knew that like him, Naruto and Sasuke would like Sakura to be happy. And it was beginning to appear as if Sakura was not planning to help out on that end.
Should they interfere?
Kakashi supposed as close as they were, the possibility was there. But what could they do? Uchiha Itachi was immovable once he decided on something. And Sakura clearly had her pride and anger and hurt to stop her from approaching the ANBU captain.
"There she is! We're here, Sakura!" Naruto hollered.
"She can see us, Dobe. She's coming right this way," Sasuke muttered. "What is he doing with her?"
Kakashi's eye landed on the tall figure of Hyuuga Neji walking by Sakura's side. They seemed to be deep in discussion, judging by the small frown on Sakura's forehead.
"Neji, join us for lunch?" Naruto invited immediately.
Sasuke bristled, much to Kakashi's amusement. The competitiveness between those two never seemed to end, but it might have something to do with the fact that they came from rival clans. As he watched Sakura and Neji approach, something occurred to him.
And a plan began to take root in his mind.
Itachi sat stiffly across the room from the elders and his father. There were three elders, each wearing a stern expression as they regarded him thoughtfully. Itachi simply returned their perusal unblinkingly.
He knew why he was being summoned. The clan meeting few nights ago, which he had missed due to a mission, and the fact that his father was there, told him much about their intentions. It was something that he had hoped to avoid for longer, but it seemed that he had run out of time.
"Itachi, we've called you here to speak to you about your current status," one of the elders began.
Itachi nodded once, waiting for them to continue.
"We have been through this before, and we're certain you're aware of your duties to this clan."
He responded evenly, "Yes."
"Then we hope that you'd reconsider the separation between you and Haruno Sakura."
Itachi stiffened. He had not expected this. What he had expected was yet another arranged marriage. The topic of Sakura was an unsettling one, and he truly did not wish to discuss it, especially with the elders. He darted a glance at his father, who simply sat silently with a grim expression on his face. Fugaku had not spoken once in this meeting, and Itachi wondered why.
"The separation is final," he managed to respond.
"Perhaps you should speak to her again. And resolve any misunderstandings you may have." The elder's lips tightened. "We may not have fully approved of her initially, as unconventional as she was as a candidate, but we are disappointed that it did not progress as planned."
Itachi felt an odd pressure within him at the mention of the failed engagement. Ignoring it, he said calmly, "Extenuating circumstances prevented it."
"We heard. She was not able to envisage herself living in the compound."
"Surely you could persuade her?"
"No," Itachi responded resolutely. "I will not force the unwilling."
"We are more gracious than the Hyuuga."
So, they had found out about that as well. It was surprising that they still pressed him to speak to her, considering her previous association with a Hyuuga.
"Sakura had made her decision."
One of the elders huffed. "Youngsters today make too much out of nothing. She would adapt like every Uchiha wife in the compound."
"Her temperament will not allow it." Itachi's tone was clipped.
"No." Itachi stood up abruptly, having heard enough. "I do not wish to speak of this any further. Haruno Sakura and I separated three months ago. She is no longer an option."
"You still need to wed, Itachi."
"It is noted."
Without waiting for a response, Itachi made his way to the shoji screen. The unwanted pressure from the clan and his own unresolved emotions concerning Sakura were fraying his temper gradually, and he refused to display any form of emotional weakness before these old men. He had to leave.
"We are not finished, Itachi."
He ignored the elder and continued to walk.
"Itachi, this is your responsibility and you are shirking it," one of them admonished disapprovingly. "You're the heir, or have you forgotten?"
Something snapped within him then, and Itachi spun around to face the wrinkled features of the Uchiha elder. Did the fact that he was the heir mean that they had the right to order him about and interfere in his personal affairs? Perhaps he had been too passive in the past. Perhaps was time to let them know that he would not be coerced or threatened into anything.
His expression hard, he told them, "Perhaps you should consider another heir then."
They gasped in shock, but Itachi pushed the screen open and walked out. The moment the screen slid shut, he heard his father's voice.
"I warned you not to push him."
Itachi inhaled deeply, and continued to walk.
His temper was closer to the surface these days, and it unsettled him. However, the elders had meddled enough. The urge to blame them for the situation between him and Sakura was strong, but Itachi knew that he was not blameless.
Itachi gritted his teeth in annoyance as he strode into his room and slid the door shut. Once assured of his privacy, he allowed a scowl to surface.
It had only been three months since his broken engagement, and they were already pressuring him.
And he knew that things would only get worse for him in the clan.
Especially once Sasuke decided to pursue Sakura.
The sound of even taps on the door rang through the apartment.
Sakura sat up, yawning widely before she got to her feet and walked out of her bedroom. A quick glance at the clock told her that it was only nine in the morning. Immediately, a scowl appeared on her face. Who would knock on her door so early in the morning on her day off? It could not be Naruto, because the knocks sounded much too… polite.
Two more taps came just as Sakura reached the door.
She yanked it open to reveal the figure of her uninvited visitor.
"Neji?" she blurted out. "What are you doing here?"
Lips quirking slightly as he ran his pale eyes over her obviously less-than-pristine condition, he asked, "Still sleeping, Sakura?"
She rolled her eyes, and then stepped away from the doorway to allow him in. "Don't you dare make any comments about my appearance."
He shrugged as he walked in. "It is fortunate that I don't have to wake up beside you every morning then."
"What did I say about comments?" she growled as she sat down on the couch, running her fingers through her hair to smooth it down. "So, what brings you here?"
Neji dropped a bag in front of her on the coffee table and opened it. "Breakfast."
Sakura's mouth watered as the scent of fresh food wafted right into her face. She had not realized that she was so hungry. Reaching out, she grabbed a cup of what smelled like green tea and brought it to her lips.
"Neji, I could kiss you," she breathed out gratefully as she took a careful sip of the hot beverage, letting the liquid warm her insides.
"I would not object," he returned with a glint of amusement in his eyes.
She chuckled. "A platonic kiss, that's it!"
"Did I suggest otherwise?"
Shaking her head, she ignored him in favor of breakfast. He must have gotten the food from the shop on his way here, because she recognized the packaging. There were rice, eggs, some pickles and miso soup, all packed in little plastic containers.
Neji sat beside her as she ate, idly flicking through a weapons catalogue she had left on the coffee table. She wondered why he was here, because as grateful as she was for breakfast, Neji must have another reason for coming here so early in the morning.
After a while, when she had almost finished, he replaced the catalogue on the coffee table and turned to face her.
"How are you doing?"
She swallowed before answering. "What do you mean? I'm doing okay, I guess. We have a mission lined up for this weekend, so Naruto's all excited and can't stop talking about it." She shook her head in exasperation. "It's supposed to be confidential, so I hope he's not talking about it to others."
"Naruto knows when to stop. But that's not what I meant."
"The situation with Uchiha Itachi."
His name immediately brought forth a mix of anger and hurt, diminishing her appetite. Dropping her chopsticks, she reached out for the cup of tea and took a sip. She knew Neji was still waiting for an answer. He knew the truth about them, and he was the only person who did. She could not even tell Ino because she did not want the lectures and the advices which would no doubt come from her blonde friend if she found out about the truth.
"What about him? I'm fine so long as I don't see him."
"I see." He paused, and then commented casually, "Apparently, the Uchiha clan is pressuring Itachi to wed. Again."
Sakura froze, and then lowered her cup from her lips. The thought of Itachi getting married to some unnamed woman made her stomach churn uneasily. But she knew it had to happen some day, right? He was the Uchiha heir, and therefore, he was expected to marry and start working on little Sharingan-wielding babies.
"And why are you telling me this?" she asked in a strained voice.
"I thought you should know. People might make certain comments to you, since you were engaged to him once." He held up a hand. "I know it's not real, but to the rest of Konoha, it is."
She did not want to talk about it. "Is there something else we could talk about?"
Ignoring her, Neji went on, "Rumor is, Itachi threatened to give up his position."
Why was Neji persisting with this? Angered, she slammed her cup down by her side, spilling what was left of her tea. "I don't want to talk about this, Neji."
"You don't have to," he replied calmly. "Just listen."
What was wrong with him? Why did he want to talk about Itachi suddenly? As far as she knew, they did not really get along. The barely restrained hostility was unmistakable, each time Neji and Itachi had come face to face, especially when she was involved.
Hissing, she sat back against the back of the couch. "How do you know all this anyway? You don't gossip, and you're not exactly best friends with the Uchiha."
"Sasuke told me."
Her eyes widened in surprise. "Am I missing something here? Sasuke told you?"
"We were all in the bath when the topic came up. Naruto, Sasuke, Kakashi and I."
Naruto, Sasuke, Kakashi and Neji in the hot bath… Sakura quickly brushed away the imagery of the four of them dripping wet in the shared bath. It would not do to think of these four in such an inappropriate way.
Fixing a stubborn look on him, she retorted, "Well, like I said before, I prefer not to talk about it. And you know why."
He sighed. "Yes. I know."
"So, tell me about what's going on with you and that girl," she demanded, changing the topic.
Neji's cheeks reddened slightly. "You mean Ayumi."
"Who else?" She grinned. "Last I heard, you were going to ask her out. So, did you?"
Sakura stared at him disbelievingly. "You didn't? Neji, you told me you were going to ask her out something like two weeks ago!"
"I didn't say when I would ask her out. I was merely considering the possibility," he defended.
She huffed irritably. "She's going to be snatched up right before your eyes if you're not careful."
Neji frowned thoughtfully, looking a little anxious.
Sakura was about to press him to hurry up and make a move when a series of knocks sounded on her door.
"Alright, now who is it?" she grumbled, about to get up, but a hand on her shoulder stilled her movements.
"I'll get it. You finish your tea."
Itachi froze when the door opened, revealing the figure of a pale-eyed shinobi. Surreptitiously gathering his composure, he inclined his head at the other man, who was eyeing him questioningly.
"Hyuuga-san," he greeted evenly. He refused to consider the implication of the man's presence in Sakura's apartment so early in the morning.
"Uchiha-san," the Hyuuga returned. He gestured over his shoulders. "I assume you came to see Sakura?"
Itachi nodded, glancing past the Hyuuga into the living room to see Sakura standing up, wearing nothing but her sleeping attire. Their eyes met over the distance, and he could tell that she was surprised and far from pleased to see him. He immediately thought back to his meeting with the elders. If he had any intention of obeying the elder's orders, Sakura's expression today convinced him that he would certainly fail in persuading her to return to him.
She was walking toward them now, stopping only when she stood by the Hyuuga's side, completely blocking the doorway. Itachi felt his heart contract painfully at the sight.
"Uchiha-san, how may I help?" she asked politely.
"The Hokage wishes to see us. It is about Uchiha Daisuke."
"Oh. I take it the sentence is out then."
"It seems so."
She nodded expressionlessly. "I'll get changed. You don't have to wait for me."
Itachi knew that he should leave. Instead, he said, "I will wait."
Turning away from him, she looked up at the Hyuuga. "Sorry to cut things short, Neji."
"I'll come again some other time," the Hyuuga said.
Itachi had never felt the level of unease he was currently experiencing, watching the interaction between the two. Once the Hyuuga had left, Sakura's smile faded away as she looked at him.
"I won't be long."
And she walked into the bedroom. It did not escape his notice that she had not invited him into her apartment, but he shook the thought away. She had no reason to invite him in.
As he stood waiting for her, Itachi could not help but wonder if Sakura had rekindled her relationship with the Hyuuga. Sharp anger coursed through him at the thought. He had not released her so that the Hyuuga could step in. He had done it for Sasuke.
Sakura stepped out of her room, dressed in her jounin uniform. Without another word, she pushed past him and locked the door behind her.
They walked in silence all the way to the Hokage tower, with a respectful distance between them. The urge to reach out to touch her was strong, but Itachi suppressed it. Fortunately, the journey was short, and soon, they were standing within the Hokage's office with Kakashi, Naruto and Sasuke, the three whom he had rounded up earlier. He had simply left Sakura till the last.
Tsunade proceeded to update them on the progress of the case since Daisuke's capture. For the past few months, the interrogation department had been working on the many captives from that battle. Only now did they manage to compile sufficient information to persecute the offenders.
"We have all the information we need from him, so Daisuke will be executed tomorrow for treason."
"What about the rest?" Kakashi asked.
"Those who are obviously hired hands are to be released after Ibiki is done with them. We need to make sure they don't hold any damaging information about Konoha." Her expression turned grim. "The rest will share Daisuke's fate."
The Hokage turned to him and gave him a nod. "I've taken into consideration your report on Uchiha Katsuo. You're right. He wishes to return to Konoha. I'll allow him, but he will be on probation for two years, and will not practice as a shinobi until further notice."
Itachi inclined his head. "Thank you, Hokage-sama."
The debriefing continued for several minutes more, and then the Hokage dismissed them.
Itachi turned around as they began to file out of the room, his eyes immediately landing on Sakura. She had her back turned to him, and absently, he wondered if every interaction they had would be like that days. And how long it would be before he removed himself completely from the possibility of such interactions.
"She will not give in."
Those were the first words Hyuuga Neji uttered when he joined the three men at the local watering hole.
He knew that he had promised Sakura not to speak about the issue with Itachi with others, but he made an exception for these three. They wanted to help her as much as he did, and if she had not gotten over the Uchiha after three months of minimal contact, it was unlikely that she ever would. So he had agreed to participate when the Copy-Nin suggested that they took matters into their own hands.
Kakashi took a sip of his sake before he spoke. "Can't say I'm too surprised."
"Did you tell her?" Naruto asked.
Neji shook his head. "She refused to listen."
"That's just annoying," Naruto groaned. "Neh, Teme, you think your brother will listen?"
Sasuke's brows furrowed. "I don't know."
"But you're going to try, right?"
"He came to her apartment this morning," Neji told them.
"What?" Naruto exclaimed.
"They walked into the meeting together this morning, Dobe," Sasuke pointed out.
"Oh. So he went to get her as well," Naruto thought out loud. "Why didn't he just ask one of us to get her?"
"Perhaps he simply wanted to talk to her," Neji suggested, knowing that it was the most likely scenario.
Idly, he wondered what Uchiha Itachi made of the fact that Sakura was not alone. If what Sasuke had said was true, then Neji doubted that Uchiha Itachi had been pleased to see him with her. However, their brief interaction at the doorway that morning had revealed nothing, for Uchiha Itachi had not allowed a single emotion to surface.
"It doesn't matter now." Kakashi glanced at Sasuke. "You know what you have to do."
Naruto reached over to prod the Uchiha. "Can you look a bit happier about it?" he asked irritably. "We're trying to help Sakura here, remember?"
"Don't push me, Dobe."
Neji flicked his eyes between the two, wondering how they had survived so long as teammates with their volatile relationship. Then again, he had to admit that he still kept in touch with Lee, so perhaps Naruto and Sasuke's relationship was not so unbelievable, after all.
Sasuke stood up. "I'll speak to him."
"Make sure you get him to talk to Sakura," Naruto reminded.
"I know," Sasuke replied irritably as he began to walk away from them.
Neji reached out, fingers clamping around Sasuke's upper arm. The Uchiha froze, and then slowly turned around, giving his hand a pointed look. Slowly, Neji released his grip.
"However this ends, make sure your brother doesn't hurt her anymore than he already did."
"Do not insult my intelligence, Hyuuga."
Neji smirked. "I'm merely uncertain if stupidity ran in the family."
Sasuke's eyes flashed dangerously, but before he could say a word, Naruto barged between them.
"Go already, Sasuke! What are you waiting for?"
With a grunt, the dark-haired shinobi left the bar.
Sasuke walked out of his bedroom and paused. It was still very early in the morning, and both his father and mother were still asleep, judging by the silence and darkness.
Quietly, Sasuke padded across the tatami mat to his brother's bedroom. The light shone through the paper-thin shoji screen, telling Sasuke that Itachi was already awake. He had tried to talk to Itachi last night, but he had been too late. By the time he had returned, everyone was already asleep.
His teammates' words, with the exception of Sakura's of course, rang in his head. Resigning himself to an uncomfortable early-morning conversation, he walked up and tapped on the screen.
"Come in, Sasuke."
He pushed the shoji screen to the side and stepped in, sliding the screen shut behind him. Itachi was seated cross-legged behind a low table, reading through some scrolls.
Itachi looked up at him, raising a single questioning brow. Sasuke noticed that the grooves under his eyes were more pronounced and he appeared wearier. It was quite clear that the whole situation with Sakura had affected his oblivious brother.
Sasuke truly did not want to do this. It was embarrassing and awkward for him. However, if it could make both his brother and Sakura happier, then he would endeavor to see this through. Now, the next question was how he should approach this.
Perhaps it was best to tackle the issue head on.
"Why did you break up with Sakura?"
Itachi's immediate reaction was the almost imperceptible stiffening of his shoulders. Something that Sasuke knew he would not even notice if he had not been watching intently for some sort of response.
Itachi's reply, when it came, was bland. "There was no longer a need for the charade. The assignment was completed successfully."
Sasuke had expected the answer, but he had to ask. And then he went on, "You should talk to Sakura."
Sasuke bit back his irritation. So, this was going to be one of those conversations, was it?
"Nii-san. You're… unhappy," he pointed out.
Itachi looked amused now. "Is that so, Sasuke?"
"Yes," he replied curtly. "And you should do something about it."
"And what might that be?"
Sasuke suppressed his annoyance. "I just told you."
And Itachi looked away from him, a move which was measured and deliberate. Sasuke closed his eyes briefly, irritated by his lack of progress. If not for Sakura…
"Nii-san. She is as unhappy as you are."
"You assume too much, Sasuke."
"I think it's obvious enough," Sasuke returned with a scowl. "Just talk to her. Nothing more."
"I recall we have spoken recently."
"Not about work. About other… things."
Itachi raised a brow. "Perhaps you should elaborate."
Sasuke knew what his brother was doing. Itachi wanted to make him uncomfortable enough to stop the conversation. But he was not planning on giving in to such blatant manipulation. He was not a kid anymore.
"She is very close to Hyuuga Neji," Itachi suddenly said.
"You are not troubled by it?"
Sasuke frowned, wondering what this had to do with anything. "I do not like Neji, but he is a good friend to Sakura."
"Just friends," Itachi murmured thoughtfully.
Sasuke shrugged. "I suppose."
"You do not mind losing her then?"
Itachi's tone was harsh, making Sasuke frown in confusion. He really could not see what this had to do with him. This was not about him. However, he could tell that Itachi was growing increasingly unsettled as the conversation progressed into this new territory. In fact, Sasuke could not help but feel a little anxious. Itachi could be unpredictable when he was in a temper, as rare as such a thing was.
"Nii-san," he ventured again. "This has nothing to do with me. You clearly have… feelings for her. It's not like you to not pursue something you want."
Face set in a stony expression, Itachi stood up abruptly. "Do you not desire her for yourself? Or have you exhausted your own interest in her?"
Shock rooted Sasuke to the spot. His mind whirred with the implication of his brother's words. As ridiculous as it was, it sounded like Itachi thought he was romantically involved with Sakura. But this was clearly not right. He had been confused for a while a few months ago, but he had eventually come to the conclusion that his feelings for Sakura did not extend in that direction. She was a close friend, one whom he had come to appreciate.
"Answer me, Sasuke," Itachi bit out.
Self preservation dictated that he took a step back, and Sasuke did exactly that. However, he would not be swayed from what he came to say. Especially now that he was beginning to understand why exactly Itachi had broken up with Sakura despite his own feelings.
He needed to set this right. It seemed that Itachi had broken up with Sakura because Itachi assumed he, Sasuke, wanted to be with Sakura, and had stepped aside. The notion that his older brother rather sacrificed his own happiness like that made Sasuke appreciate just how much his brother cared for him.
Steeling himself, Sasuke said, "You seem to think that I'm interested in her."
"Do you not?" Itachi asked icily.
Sasuke spoke carefully. "I care for her. Maybe even love her-"
Itachi's eyes flickered, and this time, Sasuke was close enough to see the pain in Itachi's dark orbs before it was hidden behind the impassive mask again.
"And I suspect I always will." Sasuke continued, "Because she's my teammate and one of my best friends. Nothing more and nothing less. There is nothing of a romantic nature between us. Sakura is free to date whomever she wants." Within reason, he added silently.
Itachi tensed, staring at Sasuke as if he could not understand what he was saying. His already fair complexion appeared to be turning paler, though.
"Nii-san, why do you think there's something going on between me and Sakura?"
Slowly, Itachi responded with a question. "Have you considered the notion of courting her?"
The last thing he wanted to do was to dredge that up, but it could not be helped. "I did, but it went nowhere. No, I'm not planning on courting her. Naruto helped me see that I don't want her in the romantic sense."
Sasuke twitched. "I do not want to… kiss her. Couldn't see myself doing so."
There was a flare of something dangerous in Itachi's eyes, but Sasuke stood his ground this time. Itachi was only reacting because he was possessive of Sakura. And for Sakura's sake, Sasuke hoped that she would be able to take Itachi's brand of attention.
"Sakura has… feelings for you, Nii-san." After a pause, Sasuke added, "So just go talk to her, alright? Fix things."
And then, in a blink of an eye, Itachi was gone from the room without a further word.
Finally, Sasuke thought as he stared at the empty space which had been occupied by Itachi just a moment ago. It had taken his oblivious brother long enough. He remembered Neji's warning, and the fact that he had said nothing to Itachi about it.
Sasuke shook his head.
Itachi would rather willingly hurt himself than Sakura.
Chin propped up on one hand, Sakura stared at the silver-haired shinobi seated across the table as she chewed the end of her pen, waiting for him to say something.
When Kakashi continued to look lost in his own thoughts, she sighed and glanced around the room. They were sitting in what could be considered a common room in the ANBU headquarters, trying to get their report done. Besides them, there were a handful of other ANBU operatives scattered around the large room, sitting on the old couch drinking coffee and discussing missions. One was even snoozing on the desk in the corner.
She returned her attention to the Copy-Nin. Kakashi was sure taking his time thinking over what to say, or was it too early in the morning for him to function? Too bad, they did not have much time left. The report for the mission they had gone on a week ago was due on Tsunade's desk by the end of the day, and Sakura was beginning to wonder if Kakashi had forgotten what it was all about. Otherwise, it could be a deliberate ploy of his, annoying her until she caved and did that report for him.
No. She refused to do it out of principle. Kakashi was the team leader, after all, and should be doing the report. The only problem was, the last few reports had ended up being thrown back at them by Tsunade, and Sakura had ended up rewriting them again. So this time, she wanted to make sure that they submitted a decently written report. Tsunade was clearly stricter on ANBU reports.
"Ah… So who took out the assassin? Naruto or Sasuke?" he suddenly asked.
Sakura groaned out loud, slumping forward onto the desk. "Kakashi-sensei… Those two didn't do it. You did."
Comprehension dawned in his single visible eye. "Ah. I remember now. One Chidori to the chest."
Sakura groaned out loud. She was doomed to stay there the entire day, it would seem, Sakura thought dejectedly. Well, she could always do the whole report and ask Kakashi to sign it at the end, if she was desperate enough.
The sound of the door opening some distance behind her registered, but she ignored it. However, she could see that Kakashi had his eyes on whomever that had just entered.
Then she felt the uncomfortable pinprick at the back of neck, followed by the alarming realization that a particular someone was standing right behind her.
Her first response was the shock that he was once again using her first name. Composing her expression, she turned around slowly until he came into view. He was casually dressed in his clan attire, she noticed.
It seemed like the entire room had paused whatever they were doing to watch the exchange, much to Sakura's chagrin. However, she kept her attention on the dark-haired man, and a tight grip on her emotions.
"Can I help?" she asked.
"Come with me."
The words rang ominously in her head. Those were the same words Itachi had used months ago just before he broke her heart into pieces. And damn it, she would not allow him to do the same thing again. Whatever he wanted to say, he could say it here.
"Not a good idea," she replied with a wry twist of her lips.
Surprise flashed briefly across his features, before the mask came up again. "Why not?" he asked.
She returned her eyes to the scroll before her. Stay calm, she told herself as she wrote another couple of pointless words. There was no need to be hostile. Itachi might have a valid, impersonal, reason for seeking her out.
"I'm in the middle of something. And you can always say whatever you came to say here," she told him evenly.
His eyes flickered, and then he scanned the room. Sakura could tell that he was reluctant to talk although there were only Kakashi and a handful of other ANBU operatives there. Which suited her just fine. There was really nothing left for them to say to each other and she just wanted him to keep his distance so that she did not have to feel this awful mix of feelings.
"It is… personal."
No! She closed her eyes, exhaling loudly. "Is this absolutely necessary?"
"Can it wait?"
What else did she expect him to say? When Uchiha Itachi wanted something, he wanted it there and then. Well, tough. He was not getting what he wanted so easily this time. Irritated now, she turned to him and lowered her voice.
"Is this about our past relationship?"
"Look, I'd prefer not to have a conversation about that, if that's alright with you."
He tensed slightly. "We need to speak… Sakura."
This time, she almost groaned at the sound of her name from his lips. What happened to impersonal surnames? Why was he reverting back to this? Was the man trying to drive her out of her mind?
The loud sound of chair scraping against floor rang out, and Sakura glanced across the table to see Kakashi getting up and stretching.
"I'm going for a drink," he announced.
Her eyes widened. "A drink? It's morning!"
"Well, tea, then."
He waved dismissively. "I'll do it later."
Her lips parted in surprise. Kakashi never wanted to do reports. That was how it had been for years. And all this because he did not want to remain in that room? The coward!
"Anyone up for a drink? Tea?" Kakashi called out loudly. "My treat."
This time, she gasped out loud. Kakashi treating anyone anything was unheard of. And of course, the room reacted favorably, enthusiastically to his invitation. One would not turn down such a rare thing, after all, Sakura thought sourly.
In seconds, the room was cleared, leaving her and Itachi alone.
The urge to punt Kakashi across Konoha was almost overwhelming. Just wait until she caught hold of the manipulative little-
Why the sound of her name in his voice made her feel all out of sorts when it barely affected her before? It did not matter. What mattered now was letting him say whatever he came to say so that she could remove herself from his presence as fast as she could afterwards.
Her hand tightened around her pen. She was handling things reasonably well for the past three months, and she really did not need this.
Suddenly, something Neji had said recently came to her and her eyes widened.
No, he would not have the nerve to ask her to help him out with his little problem in the clan again, would he? After what Neji had told her, it was possible that Itachi was once again on the prowl for gullible, love-sick kunoichi who'd save him from a true marriage.
Realizing that she might be letting her imagination run away from her, she quickly stopped that line of thought.
"What is it?" she asked evenly.
"There is something I wish to explain."
She waited, watching as he seemed to struggle silently for the words. His lips thinned briefly, and then he let out an almost imperceptible exhale of breath.
"I made an erroneous decision."
Her brows shot up at the unexpected declaration. After a moment, she asked warily, "What do you mean, an erroneous decision?"
"Our separation. I had every intention of continuing our relationship after the mission… in the view of making it permanent."
Sakura inhaled sharply at his proclamation, her eyes wide with disbelief. For a moment, it simply did not make sense. What was he saying? If he wanted to continue, then why the hell did he end it without a single explanation?
"I-I don't understand," she said shakily.
His expression tightened, as if in pain. But it was only a brief flash. When he spoke again, his features were impassive. "I was under the impression that Sasuke wishes to court you. There was a conversation between Naruto and Sasuke that I've overheard. It led to my decision to… step aside."
Her breath suspended in her chest, and something cold rushed over her.
"I have since been informed that I had assumed wrongly. That Sasuke had no such intentions towards you." He inhaled deeply. "I regret my actions. I shouldn't have… ended the relationship."
His words hit her hard, and Sakura could hear the blood thundering in her ears.
He regretted it? He broke her into so many pieces that she still was not fully recovered now, and he regretted it? The cold rush turned into something hot as Sakura felt her temper rise. And fury set in quickly afterwards.
"You… You…" she faltered, so angry and hurt that she could not get the words out.
He had put her through all this heartache just because he had overheard Naruto and Sasuke's discussion about her and had arrived at the wrong conclusion? Did it not occur to him to speak to any of them about it before he went and made all the decisions all by himself?
Furthermore, how could he even consider the possibility of her and Sasuke? After what they had together, how could he even think of stepping aside to let Sasuke have a chance at her? What the hell? She was not some object to be passed around.
Itachi continued to watch her silently, but the blank mask was not so intact now. There was frustration and regret in his countenance.
But what about it? After all this, what did he want from her? Forgiveness?
Unable to face him any longer, Sakura spun around and stormed out of the room.
Itachi closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose.
It had not gone well. In fact, it was worse than he had expected.
Opening his eyes, Itachi went to the nearby table and sat on its edge. What had he expected, exactly? He had caused both of them unnecessary distress over the past few months. Sakura was understandably displeased at him for it. It was only moments ago that he had understood the extent of her distress.
She had been masking her emotions the last time they had spoken, and had done so well that he had failed to see the betrayal, anger and hurt underneath her mask. He had broken her trust, belittling her feelings for him when he had broken up with her.
Did she still have any feelings for him now? If she felt the same way for him as he did for her, perhaps she would relent after he had given her some time to consider what he had just told her. Perhaps he should wait until she had calmed down.
However, the notion did not sit well with him.
No, that would not do. He did not wish to wait passively any longer. It was not how he usually resolved issues, and he had no intention of beginning now. He might be guilty of wrongdoing this time, but he would not step back, trite and remorseful. That simply achieved nothing.
Straightening from the desk, he made his way across the room to the door, fully intending to find the pink-haired kunoichi, who had become someone central to his life.
Itachi stilled at the unexpected sound of the Copy-Nin's voice.
When he turned around, he found Hatake Kakashi outside the window, leaning against the window sill. The silver-haired shinobi might appear relaxed, but Itachi could see the steely glint in his eye.
"She didn't stay around for long, I see," Kakashi mused, scanning the room.
"No she did not."
"You're going after her?"
Itachi nodded curtly, unsurprised by the Copy-nin's perception.
"You did a pathetic job the last time I asked you to leave her in one piece," Kakashi pointed out evenly, but he was clearly annoyed.
Itachi's lips thinned.
"If you hurt her again, we won't be just talking about it afterwards."
Itachi bristled inwardly at the warning, but he knew that Sakura's teammates cared very much for her. For that, he would allow the Copy-Nin to speak to him in that manner without retaliation. Besides, he had no intention of further distressing Sakura. That would not work in his favor in the long term.
"Understood," he responded smoothly. A brief pause followed before he remarked, "I was under the impression that you were treating our comrades to drinks."
"Ah, that…" Kakashi's eye creased. "They should know me better than to expect that."
A smirk of amusement crossed Itachi's lips as the Copy-Nin disappeared from the window opening, leaving him alone once again in the room.
Without further ado, Itachi walked to the door, intent on finding a certain pink-haired kunoichi.
She needed to get to the hospital. It was probably not the best place to hide, but she could not think of anywhere else.
Sakura did not know that it was possible to feel so many emotions and so numb all at the same time. She was angry with Itachi for what he had assumed, sad that they had broken off because of some idiotic misunderstanding, disgusted at herself for running away from the conversation like a coward, confused and fearing what was to come next.
Why after all this time? Why must he come now to upset everything? She was doing fine!
Her inner voice snorted, pointing out that she was far from fine.
Still, she did not need this complication now. She had her friends, her team and her ANBU missions. That was more than enough to keep her busy.
Things she did to keep from thinking too much about Itachi, her inner voice added. Those were the things she had been using as a shield to hide behind.
Sakura exhaled loudly as she continued to walk rapidly along the busy main street, eager to put a great distance between herself and the ANBU headquarters. Away from Uchiha Itachi.
Then she felt it.
She almost stumbled over her own feet when she sensed the sudden emergence of a familiar presence. A hiss left her as she stared straight ahead, refusing to glance backwards at Itachi. She continued to walk, heading straight for the hospital.
He was closer now, so close that she could almost feel his body heat right behind her.
"Sakura," he called out, his breath brushing her hair.
"I'm in a rush."
It was not quite a lie. She was in a rush to get to the hospital, to escape him. Now, if only he would cooperate and leave her alone, everything would be fine.
"Stop," he instructed.
"No. You're the one who need to stop. Stop following me," she hissed, speeding up.
He sounded completely unfazed when he said, "We need to talk."
"And I need some time alone."
Striding rapidly down the street, she avoided catching anyone's eyes. But she knew that people were watching the interaction, and Sakura wanted to simply shout at them to mind their own businesses. Then again, the sight of Uchiha Itachi trailing her like this was not a common one, so in a way, their curiosity was justified. But she did not care. This was private!
"We could go somewhere else," he offered calmly.
This time, she stopped abruptly and spun around. Her breath threatened to hitch at the sight of him so close to her, so close that if she leaned forward just a couple of inches, they would be touching. She immediately took a step backwards, separating them by an arm's length.
Glaring at him, she snapped, "I want to be ALONE, not with you. I need to THINK!"
"It is why you should not be alone. You will over think matters," he pointed out quietly.
She fumed. "And so what? So what if I want to do that?"
"Be reasonable, Sakura."
She felt a vein pop.
"REASONABLE?" She snorted. "I think I'm being reasonable. If I'm not, I'd have punched a hole through your head for what you've just told me just now. If I'm not reasonable, I'd have done that three months ago for making me feel like hell!"
His eyes flickered around them. "Do you truly wish for the public to hear our conversation?"
"We are NOT having a conversation," she spat in a tone of finality and then spun around to walk away.
Then, much to her indignation, he grabbed her around the waist. Blinded by a cloud of smoke, she felt herself being pulled up in that familiar sensation which told her that a transportation jutsu was being used. When her feet hit the ground and the smoke from around her cleared, she wretched herself away from Itachi.
A quick glance around told her that he had brought them to her apartment. Her eyes then landed on Itachi. He was simply standing by her couch, staring at her intently. Calmly. How could he be so calm when she felt so churned up? And what was so important that he had to do this to her?
"Get out," she snapped, pointing to the door.
"What else do you have to say?"
He stared at her silently.
A brittle laugh left her. "See? You really don't have much left to say, do you?"
Itachi remained silent.
"I'm going to my bedroom. Don't even think to follow me," she warned in a jagged voice.
Her hand closed around the doorknob, fully intending to slam the door shut after her.
She stopped then, her chest heaving with the effort of controlling her temper and the tears which were precariously close to the surface. Itachi was pleading for her to stop, and she had not heard him use that tone before. Somehow, she simply could not make herself slam the door in his face.
Instead, months of emotion welled up within her. It was because he was so close… so close. And he would not leave her alone. Why now? Why after so many months? Did he not understand that she could not handle more of this from him? She was barely hanging on as it was.
"W-What do you want from me, Itachi?" she asked shakily.
Itachi almost flinched at the raw, desperate pain in her voice. Her face was averted, and something told him that she would not appreciate him looking at her.
Then, a shudder ran through her. Slowly, her shoulders began to shake, and her head bowed forward.
She was sobbing.
His breath left him in a rush, and in a blink of an eye, he was right behind her.
He reached out slowly, hesitantly, until his fingers pressed against her trembling shoulder. She tensed at his touch, but did not push him away. For a long moment, he simply stood there, his palm against her, his other hand limp by his side, not knowing how to proceed.
The urge to surround her with himself was strong. He wanted to comfort her, to let her know that he would do all he could to make amends.
So he moved closer, sliding his arms around her trembling body, hoping that she would not reject his touch. Laying his cheek upon the top of her head, he breathed in deeply, taking in her scent. He had missed this. He had missed her and he wished to have her back.
"I'm sorry," he whispered against her hair.
She tensed momentarily, and then her trembling intensified. That was when Itachi heard a choked sob. His throat tightened, making it difficult for him to speak.
"Do not do this to yourself, Sakura."
She shifted slightly within his arms, her hand coming up to her swipe over her face. "W-Why?"
He blinked. Why?
"Why didn't you even talk to me about it?" she choked out. "I-I thought we had something real. That it was not an act."
"It is not an act."
"Then why did you-"
"It was a mistake," he interjected quickly.
His arms fell off her when she spun towards him, her eyelashes glistening with tears. Her expression, however, was fierce. "So you keep saying. But why?" she demanded harshly.
He inhaled deeply. "Sasuke. I did not want him to be unhappy."
Her eyes narrowed. "Because you thought he's in love with me?"
Itachi nodded once.
Sakura clenched and unclenched her hands, a furious expression on her face. "And what about you, Itachi? And what about me?"
"I was under the impression that you used to have… feelings for Sasuke."
"Used to!" she exploded, slamming a hand hard against his chest.
Itachi flinched at the sting of her attack, but stood still. It was fortunate that she had not used any chakra, or he would no longer be standing there.
"I told Sasuke I love him when I was TWELVE, you idiot!" she snarled, slamming her palm on his chest again. "Do you think I'd kiss you the way I did if I was in love with your brother?"
Itachi closed his eyes in defeat. He was feeling increasingly foolish as the day progressed, all because of something he had assumed. Sakura was correct in questioning why he had not spoken to her about it. Or spoken to anyone else, for that matter. For if he had done so, then this confrontation need not happen.
"And you didn't answer my question, Itachi. What do you want from me now?"
He opened his eyes and exhaled loudly, knowing that he was not in the position to demand anything, but wanting to do so regardless. So he settled for the simple truth.
"Everything. And I will give you the same."
She was clearly shocked by his answer. Her mouth parted, drawing his attention to her damp lips. His hand came up of its own volition, and his thumb traced her bottom lip slowly. He could feel the warm exhale of her breath against his thumb and he shivered in reaction.
Uncertain of the response he would receive, but unable to resist any longer, Itachi lowered his lips to hers. A choked sound burst from her just before she reached up for him, pulling him downwards, fusing their lips together. They fell against the door, but he did not release his hold, and neither did she.
Heat flooded his body as the kiss intensified. Needing more contact with her, his hands slid further down, over her curves and then under her ANBU vest. He felt her breath hitch in reaction to his caresses, and that fuelled his desire even further. He could hear his breath growing increasingly uneven, his senses filled only with the responsive woman in his arms. Her scent, her heat, and the sounds she was making.
With each of Sakura's breathy moans, Itachi felt his control slipping further away from him. They needed to stop. Now was not the appropriate time to take this to the next level. Things were still too new, wounds closed too recently and the feelings underneath still raw.
As if sensing his thoughts, Sakura pulled back slightly, breaking the contact between their lips. Her hands, however was still clutching his neck, and his own dropped down to wrap around her waist.
Forehead against forehead, they held on to each other until their breaths eventually evened out.
Only then did Itachi drew back to look her in the eye. This time, she would be told exactly what his intentions were. He would not leave any room for misunderstandings or misinterpretations.
Things were moving so fast. One moment, she had been furious with him and the next, she had cried the tears she had long suppressed. And now, she was in his arms, feeling more complete than she had ever felt for the past few months.
At some point, it had occurred to her that Itachi truly wanted her, or he would not have come to her like this. And then it seemed pointless to protest when it was something she wanted all along.
"I will court you."
Sakura blinked at Itachi's sudden declaration. He was watching her intently, his expression telling her that he meant every word.
"That sounds like a threat, Itachi," she retorted teasingly, unsure how else she should react.
He was clearly not amused, for she found her wrist captured in a firm grip. "Sakura…"
"I'm just a little afraid, I suppose," she admitted, sobering up.
"You do not need to."
Well, she supposed that now the misunderstanding was cleared up, she should look ahead. However, no one knew just how things would turn out this time. So, she took a deep breath and said, "Let's just take it slow."
"We had courted for almost half a year."
"That wasn't real," she pointed out. "Most of it, at the beginning, wasn't real. Even the engagement."
"This time, it will be."
Shocked, her mind scrambled to process his words. In a slightly unsteady voice, she said, "That had better not be a proposal."
"Will you accept?"
She shrugged, but the smile on her lips was enough to answer him.
His grip on her wrist tightened. "Even if you are to reside in the Uchiha compound?"
Her lips parted at the seriousness of his tone. "Um… Don't you think it's too soon to consider that?"
"It is significant." He paused, and then said quietly, "I'm aware of your aversion towards restrictions. If it displeases you, we could reside elsewhere."
She did not know what to say. It touched her that he thought so much of her that he would give up his position in the clan, because moving out would mean exactly that. But she did not think it would be fair on him. If he wanted to leave, then it should not be because of her.
"I've lived there for almost a month and survived," she pointed out wryly. "So if I have to, I think I'll manage."
He studied her carefully, as if trying to see if she was simply humoring him.
"Hm. You will let me know if you changed your mind."
"You're talking as if I've accepted your proposal," she teased. "I haven't, you know."
She chuckled, astounded by his confidence. Then again, this was the Itachi she knew and loved. The past hour, however, had also shown her another side of him. An emotional side that she knew she would not be seeing very often.
"Outside," he suddenly said.
Sakura's eyes widened as his words sank in.
She jumped up immediately and rushed to the nearest window. The second she looked out of the window, she caught sight of her teammates across the road. Kakashi simply waved at her from the distance, while Naruto and Sasuke stood stock still, staring at her. Their expressions were a curious mix of uncertainty and concern.
A moment later, Naruto flung a fist in the air and hollered something she did not quite catch. What the hell?
It was only when she felt Itachi's arms around her shoulders that she realized what they must have done. Those sneaky little… Just wait until she got her hands on those meddling teammates of hers.
But there was a smile on her lips even as the threat crossed her mind.
And behind her, Itachi tightened his arms and murmured into her hair, "They are meddlesome."
She smiled. "And I love them. They mean well."
"He warned me."
Stepping away from the window, she turned around in the circle of his arm. "About what?" she asked curiously.
"He warned me not to hurt you."
"Are you intending to?" she asked quietly.
His tone was uncompromising when he declared, "No."
She grinned. "Then we are okay, aren't we?" Sobering up slightly, she said, "Just promise me something."
He arched a brow.
"The next time something happens, talk to me, okay? Don't go off and make decisions all by yourself." She reached up, running her fingers down one cheek. "Because I'm here as well, in this relationship together with you."
"Aa." His eyes flickered. "And you will not keep anything from me."
Puzzled, she frowned slightly. "But I don't."
"Not intentionally." He sighed, looking slightly reluctant to continue, but he did anyway. "I wish to know things that your team knows about you. With the exception of confidential matters."
Comprehension dawned, and Sakura flushed guiltily. "I'm sorry. I just didn't think you'd be interested about my past."
Warmth flooded through her. Itachi could be so sweet when he was open like this. "We have time. I'll tell you everything you want to know."
The affection in his eyes was unmistakable as he gazed down at her. "That is acceptable," he said quietly.
Sakura sighed as she rested her head against his chest, feeling the soothing beat of his heart. Yesterday, she could not have envisaged that she would be standing here in Itachi's arm, both resolving to do better for each other, both committed to making this relationship work. But she would not trade this moment for anything else. The contented pleasure currently coursing through her told her that this was where she belonged, close to Itachi.
She did not know how things would pan out for them in the long term. The future was uncertain. It always was. But at the moment, all was right in the world for them.
And she knew that both of them would endeavor to keep it that way.
A/N: (Happy Beam) And that's a wrap up! Hope you've had fun reading the whole story, as I've had writing it. There had been ups and downs, slow updates and fast updates, but since you've managed to get to this point without abandoning the story, I thank you very much for it. (Hugs) Ahh… feel a bit emotional suddenly! There will definitely be no epilogue, though there is a tiny chance that I might do one shots based on this universe for the 50 shinobi themes. But that's not in the immediate future.
The next story up will either be the sequel to Evil Hair Clip, or a new multichaptered ItaSaku story. But since I'm going on holiday this weekend, I won't be able to get anything up until November, I think. Anyway, hope to see you all again!