Itachi, from beginning to end. Because S-class criminals are human, too. Mentions of canon-compatible ItaSaku; complete. Beware spoilers for The Truth About Itachi, of course. The epilogue segment ends immediately before the current manga arc, and mentions a minor plot development that occurs slightly before that.
Itachi is diagnosed at six years old.
At first, Fugaku does not even want to take him to see the medic-nin at the hospital – there is nothing wrong with his son, he insists, and if the boy is a little ill at times, it has absolutely no effect on the outstanding potential he promises to show as a shinobi, and that is, ultimately, what matters most.
But Mikoto is the one who stays up all night with him, holding his small body as he threatens to cough his lungs out. By the time he is six, she has made him countless concoctions of herbal teas and warm milk and honey, and anything that she thinks will soothe that raging sickness inside of him; these work for a few hours, at most, even the most powerful remedies, and Itachi grits his teeth together in an attempt to stifle the coughing.
Mikoto worries for her eldest son, every minute of every day and every night, and Fugaku is strong and can be unyielding and unbending, but he has never been able to refuse her.
So they sit in a small examination room in the hospital, Mikoto twisting her hands together in her lap nervously and trying to stop herself for Itachi's sake, and Fugaku keeping a gentle hand on her arm. Itachi sits on the small white bed in front of them, poring over advanced Chunin-level scrolls, and turning away from them occasionally, his already-scarred fingers clutching at the sheets as his shoulders shake with silent coughs.
"Eighteen," Mikoto says, and her voice rings flat. "…Eighteen. Twelve more years. And there isn't even a cure."
In the privacy of their bedroom, Fugaku turns away from her. "Mikoto," and his voice is sharper than it's ever been, with her. "Don't."
She just shakes her head, and her eyes are so red with suppressed tears that he could almost believe that she has her Sharingan activated. From another room, they hear Sasuke's thin wail, and Mikoto murmurs something under her breath, before slipping out of the door.
From their window, Fugaku can see Itachi, throwing kunai after kunai into the bulls-eye on the far end of the Uchiha training grounds. He doesn't seem to be exerting much effort, and yet, each kunai hits dead center.
Fugaku's hands clench around the windowsill, whitening his knuckles. Such potential…such immense skill that it almost seems impossible that so much talent could be concentrated into one dark-haired, crimson-eyed boy.
He will see to it that his son becomes a legend within the Uchiha clan, within the history of Konoha and the Fire Country itself, terminal disease or not.
A lot of things can happen in twelve years.
At thirteen, Itachi is the strongest shinobi of the Uchiha Clan and already said to be the most skilled ANBU Captain in Konoha's history.
He comes home at midnight or later, his clothes and katana stained with the blood of the enemy. He is barely a teenager, but as he stands in the doorway of Mikoto's pristine kitchen, he looks as if he has been sent to inspect a slaughterhouse. The katana drops from his nerveless grip, and in the privacy of the kitchen, with only his mother to see, Itachi falls to his knees, shaking with long-suppressed coughing. Fugaku has ensured that the disease is a well-kept secret; in front of outsiders, Itachi is able to stifle the physical symptoms with a heavy layer of chakra – it is successful, but the toll it takes on his body is immense.
Mikoto rushes to him, and even though he is already shaping up to be taller than her, it seems as if Itachi is feather-light as he leans heavily against her, while she eases him to his feet.
"Mother," he murmurs, when he catches his breath, and nods faintly to the dark red bloodstains on the previously ivory floor. "…Sorry…"
Mikoto shakes her head and settles him into one of the kitchen table chairs gently, before placing a warm cup of milk and honey in front of him.
Itachi isn't a child anymore, and maybe he never has been, but the warm sweetness soothes his raw throat and aching chest so much that it almost brings tears to his eyes. Or maybe it is just because of his mother rubbing his upper back lightly, before tucking a few stray strands of long hair behind his ears, in the kind of tender gesture that he doesn't allow so much anymore.
This time, though, Itachi closes his eyes for a brief moment, bent over the cup of milk and honey, trying to memorize how this feels – his mother and her small fingers and her soft voice, the warm drink, the smell of the scented sakura candles that she always keeps lighted, the cool floor of the kitchen beneath his bare feet, the solid wood of the table underneath his elbows…
There is exactly one week until his final mission as a Konoha shinobi.
Despite his mother's gentle ministrations, one last, rebellious cough forces its way out of his aching chest, and Mikoto does not see the small droplet of water that falls into his cup. Even if she had, she would have hugged him and tried to tell him that they would find a cure someday, and just…misunderstood terribly. As usual.
Itachi lifts the cup to his mouth, tasting the sweet milk and honey and the salt of his single tear, before leaning against his surprised mother's shoulder for what will be the last time, and thinks that maybe it's better this way, after all.
Initially, Hoshigaki Kisame isn't all too pleased to hear that his new partner is going to be a tiny little sprog of thirteen, but then Leader-sama gives him more details about the kid, and his interest is officially captured.
His first encounter with Uchiha Itachi occurs a day after Itachi is officially inducted into the Akatsuki, and a day before their partnership is due to become official. It is late at night, and Kisame is heading into the kitchen in search of some more food – not an unusual occurrence by any means, but he does actually flinch when he enters the kitchen in order to find none other than their newest recruit, standing with his back to the door and concocting something rather…mysterious and sweet-smelling. Kisame wrinkles his nose, but takes a seat at the kitchen table nevertheless. "Hey, kid," he says, by way of greeting. "Shouldn't you be asleep?"
Itachi is swathed in his too-big Akatsuki robes, but he still manages to make an intimidating sight when he turns to face the much larger shark-man impassively. "Hello. I presume that you are Hoshigaki Kisame, my new partner. Please refrain from calling me kid. And I keep irregular hours."
Kisame blinks, for quite a few reasons. One thing is for sure – one minute into knowing the kid, and he's already made himself completely unique. The second is that, by the act of turning around, Kisame is able to deduce that the odd smell had been created by Itachi evidently attempting to mix honey into milk and heat it with his own chakra. "…Uh, sorry, Itachi." He nods toward the unusual concoction, searching for a conversational topic. "Interesting drink you've got there."
The teenager inclines his head slightly. "Ah. Yes." Curling his small, almost-frail hands around the large mug, he takes a seat across from Kisame, watching him warily, as he lifts the mug to his lips and takes a sip.
The heat is welcome relief to his throat and chest, and for a moment, the chakra shield that Itachi has so carefully crafted trembles, causing Kisame to raise an eyebrow – curious, he thinks, and he wonders what the boy is hiding. The waver had been momentary, but the Mist missing-nin – and his sword – can now easily detect the fair wall of chakra that the kid shields himself with.
Itachi's eyes narrow in response.
The silent warning is enough for Kisame to get the picture; he lifts his hands defensively, reaching for the bowl of cold noodles he had left on the table after his last meal. "Relax, ki—Itachi. Whatever floats your boat."
Itachi inclines his head a fraction of an inch, acknowledging the statement, but to his quiet dismay, the shark-man doesn't leave. He slurps down his noodles with a kind of joy in the simple miso recipe that reminds him almost painfully of what Sasuke used to do at dinner, and Itachi's fingers tighten around the mug. He fights to drain the cup, and the sweet aroma of mingled milk and honey pervades his senses, making him think of his mother, as gentle and harmless as the drink she would always make him, and the sakura candles that lit their house and the kitchen she took so much pride in and the blood on the floor, soaking into and staining the floorboards forever—
Itachi's chest convulses suddenly, and he almost chokes on his milk, slamming the mug back down on the table, and all of a sudden, he is back in Akatsuki Headquarters and the kitchen isn't bright and cheerful; it smells of miso soup and not sakura candles, the floor is rough beneath his feet and the wood of the table is splintering under his elbows, and his mother is not here to brush his hair behind his ear and smile at him and tell him that everything will be alright. There is only Hoshigaki Kisame, who is staring at him, obviously worried for his health, and saying something that he can't hear, and Itachi feels this irrational need to let the chakra shield down and cough and have somebody comfort him, but that is a luxury that he will never have again, and he will have to get used to it if he wants to survive.
Suddenly, there is a blinding impact against his upper spine, and Itachi actually does choke this time. He spins around, the Sharingan flaring, before he realizes that it is just Kisame, pounding him on the back. "Come on, kid! Don't die or anything!"
"Kisame," Itachi manages, at last, fighting to get control of the pain in his chest, as he pushes his chair away from the table and stands, facing his partner. "I am fine."
He takes the mug in his still-slightly-unsteady hands and sweeps toward the sink, and Kisame watches him speechlessly as Itachi pours the few remaining sips of milk and honey down the drain.
"Didn't agree with you?" Kisame croaks, finally.
Itachi shakes his head, silently replacing the cup in one of the cabinets. "Not anymore."
Itachi is seventeen, now, and his time is almost running out. According to the initial diagnosis, he has one more year, and that is not enough, nowhere near enough, because Sasuke is only just twelve and nowhere near strong enough to defeat him yet.
They had met, a few weeks ago, and it is a testament to Itachi's strength that the brief encounter doesn't rip him apart. But perhaps that had happened to him a long time ago.
In the past four years that he has been with Akatsuki, nobody has come to know about his – affliction. Hiding it from Kisame is both the easiest and hardest part; they are tracking the Kyuubi and performing secondary assignments constantly, and Itachi is lucky if he gets a few moments to himself every few days, to let down the chakra shield and cough silently until he ends up on his knees, with no memory of how he got there. Kisame knows that he is hiding something, but he is wise enough to know not to ask; after all, he trusts Itachi's judgment.
The Leader knows. When Itachi turns fifteen, the Leader gives him a bag of potent pills, and his instructions are as concise as always – this is medication that will not cure the disease, but keep it at bay for as long as he needs, within a reasonable time frame. His years have now been numbered to twenty-one, instead of eighteen; three more years for Sasuke to find him, to catch up, to finish the job that fate had started the very moment Itachi had been born.
These pills, however, do nothing to alleviate the symptoms, which get worse with age. This is how Itachi ends up alone in the small hotel room that he and Kisame had reserved, on their way out of Konoha and back to Amekagure, kneeling in a corner and trying his best not to cough his lungs out. His head and eyes throb mercilessly, a side effect of using the Mangekyou earlier in the day, while his chest aches as it never has before, enough to bring tears of pain to his eyes.
Itachi is strong and has always been strong, but similarly, this is the only thing that he will never be able to fight. The infection doesn't care that he's a genius, a prodigy, and one of the most brilliant shinobi the world has ever seen or ever will see. It will rip him apart from the inside out, tearing him to pieces and shattering him, just like it would any other person.
Itachi dimly registers the door opening and closing, and the aura of chakra that signals Kisame and the scent that screams hot miso soup, and he tries his level best to grit his teeth together and summon his chakra shield, but this is the one time that he cannot do anything, and this realization is a bitter pill to swallow, literally and figuratively.
Kisame is nowhere near as gentle as Mikoto had been, so many years ago, but as his eyes light on his partner, he assesses the situation swiftly, and then lifts Itachi to his feet just as easily, before leading him over to a chair. He takes one of the hot bowls of soup and presses it into his hands firmly. "Drink," he instructs. "It'll make it better."
Itachi doesn't believe him, not really, but he drinks anyway, and the steaming, savory soup does calm the spasms in his chest and throat, giving them a few precious moments of respite. He keeps his gaze fixed into the murky depths of the soup as he drinks, and Kisame, thankfully, remains silent until both of them have finished.
"Thank you," Itachi murmurs, at last, to a spot on the ceiling.
Kisame looks up at the same spot. "…How long, kid?" he asks at last.
Itachi lifts a hand to rub his sore neck, struggling for a moment; he has never talked about this to anybody, but lying to Kisame would be completely pointless. "I was diagnosed at six," he says flatly. "I have had it since I was born."
Kisame is unable to help whistling softly. "I knew there was a reason for – the whole chakra shield deal and all."
Kisame supposes he should keep silent, but it isn't morbid curiosity that prompts him to speak; the younger Uchiha, after all, is likely the closest thing he has ever had to a friend. "Is there a cure?"
He is expecting an answer in the affirmative, after all, this is the age of medic-nin as strong as the legendary Tsunade, and he blinks when Itachi shakes his head slowly. "No." A heartbeat of silence. "I have three more years."
There is nothing that Kisame can say to this, and in the end, he just passes him another bowl of miso soup. Blind optimism isn't usually his thing, but these are special circumstances. "…We'll find a way."
Itachi takes the soup, nodding his thanks. "You can try."
Itachi hadn't wanted to tell Kisame because he thought it would negatively impact his respect for him, or their working dynamic, but nothing of the sort happens. Nothing changes between them as time drags on, except now, when Itachi has a coughing fit, he has Kisame to flatly instruct him to drink some damn soup, the hotter the better, before Kisame places a bowl of the soup in question in his hands, leaving no room for argument. Sometimes Itachi finds stray cough drops nestled into his usual supplies, or a cup of herbal tea waiting for him in the mornings, and he will never admit it for the sake of his pride, but these small gestures do help a great deal.
(Times like these, Itachi cannot sleep; he sits by the window, sharpening his kunai absentmindedly, coughing every so often, and he cannot help but think of his parents.)
vii. (three years later.)
"They have begun an expedition to rescue the Kazekage," Kisame informs the Leader. "The squad that is closest to us includes…"
He trails off for a moment glances at Itachi, who continues with a nod. "The vessel of the Kyuubi, Hatake Kakashi, and Haruno Sakura."
Zetsu thinks about this for a moment. "The Kyuubi's vessel, the infamous Copy Ninja, and…the kunoichi is the apprentice of the Godaime Hokage, if I'm not mistaken. Medical chakra is her specialty, although she apparently has an affinity for taijutsu, aided by her chakra control."
"Medical chakra," Kisame muses, raising an eyebrow at his partner. "…Interesting."
Itachi's face shows no expression at all. "Indeed."
"She killed Sasori."
"…I am aware."
"According to our spies, she saved the Kazekage's brother from a lethal poison attack that even Suna's best couldn't find a cure for. And she's only fifteen."
Itachi pauses momentarily, turning to look back at his partner. "What is your point?"
Kisame sighs, deciding to drop the pretense. "The Godaime Hokage is supposed to be one of the best medic-nin in history, and this kunoichi is her apprentice. Medically, she would be the next best thing to the Godaime herself, or close to it."
Itachi runs a hand through his hair, trying to keep his voice even. "The Godaime herself would not be able to do anything about this, let alone a girl of fifteen."
Kisame lowers his voice slightly, quickening his step in order to stay in pace with the Uchiha. "According to what you told me, when…you know…you have a year left."
"If that," Itachi allows, seeming completely unconcerned. "Perhaps a few months."
The silence stretches between them for a few minutes, before Kisame rubs his neck, puzzled. "You sound as if it doesn't bother you – like you've already given up."
Incongruously, a ghost of a smile flickers over Itachi's normally impassive face. "Kisame, there was never anything to fight in the first place."
Kisame shakes his head, almost unable to believe it. "The kunoichi and her teammates just started traveling back to Konoha, and we're only about half a day from them," he says, at last. "If you change your mind – if you think it would be worth a try…"
He lets the statement hang open-ended, but Itachi merely continues on his way, in silence.
Itachi watches her from the shadows of a nearby clearing; it is dark, or almost, and she leaves the small camp that Hatake Kakashi and the Kyuubi vessel set up, looking for a stream in which to catch fish. The stream isn't too far from the campsite, only two miles, and she navigates the twilight forest with a kind of self-assured ease and confidence that there is nothing strange out here, nothing unfamiliar or hostile, nothing that will hurt her.
Despite her reputation, there is nothing physically intimidating about Haruno Sakura; she would only come up to the hollow of his throat, if that, and she is all exaggeratedly bright color, pink and green and red, standing out even in the muted light. She is supposedly capable of strength enough to shatter a stone wall to rubble with one punch, but when alone and unthreatened, her movements are soft and graceful.
Still, Itachi watches as she kneels on the banks of the stream, and his chakra signature has been fully cloaked, but still, her green eyes begin to sweep the clearing that he is hidden in warily, as if she knows that something is not completely right. Eventually, perhaps chalking it up to paranoia, she bends over the water anyway, her namesake-pink hair falling over her eyes, and waits for some unsuspecting trout to swim into her waiting grasp.
By the time Sakura stands, clutching three dead fish in her grasp, it has become completely dark. They are separated only by the stream, and Itachi can sense the incredible reserves of her chakra, which, in turn, seems to be straining itself in order to detect the elusive foreign presence. Sakura's eyes narrow and she is obviously thinking about crossing the stream and entering the other clearing to investigate, but Itachi just stands and observes, knowing that she will not, because – very justifiably – one part of her does not want to know what lies on the other side.
So Sakura turns her back, disappearing into the dark depths of the forest, looking back every so often, and Itachi decides that this one bears watching.
"You're thinking about it, aren't you?"
Startled out of his reverie, Itachi blinks, looking over at his partner. "Hm?"
"The kunoichi." When Itachi shows no sign of response, Kisame snorts slightly, relaxing against his tree. "You've been mysteriously vanishing for an hour every night, and yeah, I do notice."
They lapse into silence again, and Itachi closes his eyes, ignoring the constricting pressure deep within his chest. From the moment he had become aware of his affliction, he had accepted his premature death as a certainty; even now, with only months remaining, he cannot bring himself to feel regret or sorrow – there is only a strange, cold emptiness, filled with thoughts of his mother and father and Sasuke, and of the past that he tries his very best to forget.
Itachi does not want to die, but he has been trained in acceptance; to believe – to delude himself – that there is hope, even if only for a moment, will just make the end even more painful when it comes.
The final confrontation and all that it entails are all he thinks about now; Itachi is positioning himself closer and closer to Sasuke, waiting for his younger brother to come. He can sense that Kisame is worried about his health, but thankfully, he seems to have abandoned the futile idea of seeking help from the pink-haired kunoichi, regardless of her apparent skill.
It hurts more and more with every day that goes by, and Itachi can feel his body slowly, agonizingly, shutting down. Nights are the worst, from sunset to sunrise, and Itachi barricades himself in his room, squeezing his eyes shut as his systems shatter into pieces. Dying like this is, literally, torture, and he would frankly prefer to have been impaled by an enemy katana during his short-lived days as an ANBU Captain.
Kisame respects how difficult this is for him, and keeps to himself most of the time, letting Itachi have all the rest he needs, and only comes in every once in a while to check on him. As such, one balmy summer night, roughly three months before the end is scheduled to begin, Itachi is surprised when he hears a sudden knock on his door. Taking a deep breath in order to steady himself from the latest bout of silent coughing, Itachi pulls himself up from the floor, before crossing over to the door and swinging it open.
It takes his weakened eyes a few moments to adjust to even the soft light of the hallway, as compared to the few candles that burn within his room, and Itachi can just make out the form of Kisame – holding something in his arms. Something limp and pink and green and red, and Itachi blinks when the realization hits. "Kisame—"
"Just do yourself a favor and take her, kid." With that, the unconscious form of Haruno Sakura is deposited unceremoniously into Itachi's reluctant grip. "She must have been working late at the hospital or something – either way, she took a shortcut home through some alley. Didn't know what hit her." Kisame nods toward Sakura, and then indicates the massive sword strapped to his back. "It may take her a little while to come around, but you'll find that she has enough chakra to do medical stuff, but nowhere near enough to summon any sort of superhuman strength."
"Kisame," – Sakura feels warm, through the layers of clothing that separate them, and Itachi realizes that he never feels warm, not anymore, and that it hurts to breathe, yes, but it hurts even more to hope. "I do not want this. There is no point."
"You don't know that," Kisame points out softly, before turning away and padding off down the hallway, leaving Itachi with the burden of a fifteen – wait, sixteen-year-old girl, and the dead, unnecessary weight of futile hopes. He cannot decide which one is worse, and on top of that, he has a sneaking suspicion that both are irrevocably intertwined.
Sakura is light, in his arms, and Itachi awkwardly sweeps off some dark blankets from the dilapidated leather sofa in the corner of the room, arranging her on the cushions and settling her head on the armrest. He takes a seat on the other end of the sofa and waits; despite the warmth of the night, her exposed arms and the stretch of bare legs revealed by her short skirt tremble every so often. Eventually her face drops onto her outstretched inner arm, and Sakura mumbles something soft and incoherent under her breath, perhaps subconsciously aware that this is not where she is supposed to be, and she is being watched by somebody who she is most definitely not supposed to be with.
Itachi stares at her, turning away every so often to submit to his coughs. He knows better, he should know better, but there is a strange sense of trepidation coursing through his veins, and a small voice in his head persists, one that he thought died a long time ago, pleads maybemaybemaybe, and it refuses to be silenced.
It takes twenty minutes for Sakura to regain consciousness, a testament to her degree of chakra control. Her eyes flutter open slowly, their vibrant color dulled by pain, even as she glances around the unfamiliar room, assessing the simple, unmistakably masculine décor of dark red and black. A few candles are lit – unscented – in the corner, and this sparse light is enough for her to deduce, even in her weakened state, that this is most certainly not the room of anybody she knows.
Itachi eyes her impassively as the girl struggles to pull herself up into a sitting position; her faint, somewhat unsteady movements scream of the customary splitting headache that comes hand-in-hand with encounters with Kisame's chakra-stealing sword, and her disorientation is obvious. So obvious, in fact, that when her eyes light on him, they widen with something approaching recognition, which they most certainly should not.
Sakura lifts her hand to her eyes, rubbing at them blearily, and staring at the man who sits at the opposite end of the couch, watching her. "…Sasuke-ku—Sasuke?" she mumbles, disbelievingly, her hands dropping to her lap in obvious surprise.
Itachi hadn't expected that; his lips quirk up at the ends in a somewhat amused smirk. "Not quite." He pauses – from the stricken way the girl is looking at him, he realizes with a pang that he has not seen his younger brother since the age of twelve, and at sixteen, Sasuke would be shaping up to look extremely similar to him; a resemblance that will only become more apparent with the older he gets.
Sakura frowns, reaching out an arm to steady herself, and Itachi can see the thoughts racing through her mind. It is almost unsettling; this is the first time he has been in any contact with a female since – since his mother, and after spending so much time with Kisame, he has forgotten how easy they are to read.
Predictably enough, Sakura's eyes widen alarmingly once she puts two and two together. Regardless of her physical state, the kunoichi stands up all too fast; her feet tangle in one of the discarded blankets, and she nearly falls down again. Her gaze flickers from him to the door rapidly, and she tries to back away, despite the fact that she has nowhere to go. A look of panic flits through her eyes when she realizes that she has no chakra to defend herself with, as well, and Itachi takes one look at her and decides to be merciful, because he has nothing left to lose.
"Sakura," he says, his voice somewhat roughened by the coughing fit earlier, and Itachi raises an eyebrow, glancing down at her abandoned seat beside him. "Sit."
Sakura flinches almost imperceptibly at the order and takes a few steps back, before her legs give out on her, and she collapses on the edge of his bed, before trying to make it look like she had retreated there on purpose. "Don't come any closer," she glares, even though she is nearly trembling with fright and barely able to see straight.
Rolling his eyes minutely and biting back a cough, Itachi rises from the sofa, and in two smooth, graceful strides, he takes the girl by the wrist and pulls her back to him. "Sit."
Sakura lands next to him on the sofa, looking as if she is about to go into shock, before plastering herself as far away from him, on the most distant side of the armrest, as possible. "You should know that no matter what you threaten to do to me, I won't heal your eyes," she grits out, looking furious at her predicament.
Itachi actually smirks a little – if it is only that simple. "This is not about my eyes," he tells her evenly. "And I do not intend on threatening you."
The two simple sentences work magic; Sakura blinks, confused, and looks him over again, as if seeing him for the first time. "I-I wasn't aware that you had any other health problems," she replies cautiously.
"Not many are," Itachi allows.
A few heartbeats of silence pass, with both of them eyeing the other warily. Sakura looks as if she is desperately battling curiosity, while Itachi takes a deep breath, trying to come to terms with what the impact and implications of what he is going to do.
"Evaluate me," he says, at last. "That is all I ask. A simple medical evaluation."
Sakura stares at him, now almost too intrigued to be frightened. To her, he is slowly going from criminal to patient, and the latter category is something that she cannot ignore, no matter what she thinks his crimes have been. "…What do you have?" she asks, finally.
Itachi winces slightly, adjusting himself against the sofa. Aside from the one episode when he was six, he has never seen a medical professional – telling Kisame had been one thing, but confessing to this pink-haired stranger will be another matter entirely. "A relatively rare and unknown virus that targets the respiratory system. I was diagnosed at six," he explains flatly. "I have had it since I was born. I was supposed to die three years ago."
Sakura's eyes widen upon hearing this, and for a brief, startling moment, he thinks it could be with recognition of the syndrome. "Then…what sort of medication have you been taking?"
Itachi tells her. It is illegally obtained, of course, with ingredients that have not been officially approved, but they have obviously been successful; Sakura nods, cataloguing them in her head, and then she draws chakra to her hands, looks at him, and hesitates for a few long moments. Her trepidation is obvious, and it is clear that she would rather be anywhere but here, but her honor as a medic-nin prevails in the end.
Sakura slides close to him, closer than anybody has been in several long years, while drawing a thin sheet of pale green chakra to her hands. "Stay still," she instructs, a professional veneer slipping over her features, and her jaw hardening in determination. "This will feel a little – intrusive."
Itachi nods tersely, but he hadn't been expecting Sakura to reach out and put one small hand squarely on his chest. An small, involuntary exhalation escapes him as he feels her chakra slip into his body, sweeping through his chest, heart, throat – it tingles and burns as it goes, and even though it is a disconcerting feeling, he forces himself to keep his eyes open. Closing them in the presence of an enemy kunoichi would be nothing less than stupid, even though her gaze is intently trained on his chest, focusing on the paths of her chakra that are testing his system.
"You're cold," Sakura observes, as her probing chakra centers in a mass around his lungs.
Itachi's smirk has absolutely no humor in it. "I always am."
They sit like this for a long time, although toward the end, Sakura has to straddle his knees in order to properly inspect and probe his throat and all the glands within it. "Um…is this okay?" she asks, in a somewhat higher-pitched voice than normal, as she settles herself there, and Itachi wraps his arms around her hips to steady her, murmuring his assent.
It is a very curious position to be in (one that he may have allowed himself to enjoy, under different circumstances), and Itachi observes her expression with his customary intentness, as she pokes and directs her chakra through his system. Her instincts as a medic have taken over fully, and she is less expressive than she had been earlier, but Itachi can still see the way her eyebrows occasionally draw together, and the way she bites her lip with worry, neither of which are necessarily good signs.
(Itachi should not be feeling disappointed, he should not feel like something inside him is fracturing, he should not feel like the pain is worse, but he does, and he hates it.)
In the end, when Sakura abruptly slips off his lap, her eyes are curiously flat and expressionless, and she keeps worrying her lower lip with her teeth. "…What did you want to know?" she asks, in an uncharacteristically small voice.
Itachi raises an eyebrow at the sudden change in her demeanor. "What did you see?" he returns simply.
Sakura turns away for a moment, reaching up to brush a stray lock of hair behind her ear, with hands that tremble slightly, and Itachi realizes then. She is sixteen, with enough experience to have dealt with gruesome, near-fatal injuries, but not enough to have realized that there are some things that even medic-nin cannot fight, and this will be a bitter first lesson to learn.
If Itachi had more humanity left in him, he would save her from saying it aloud, but then Sakura takes a few deep breaths; she is obviously disturbed, knows that she shouldn't be, and that, of course, only serves to upset her further.
"There's nothing I can do," Sakura says, at last, the breath leaving her body in a defeated sigh. "I doubt that there's anything that anybody could do, not even Tsunade-shishou. I've never seen anything like it before – it's horrible."
She looks up at him, begging for that to be enough, but Itachi just stares back, his onyx eyes as stony as always. "How long?"
Sakura hesitates a few moments, before wrapping her arms around herself, obviously needing some sort of reassurance. "Three months," she murmurs. "Three and a half, at most."
She is telling him what he has known for years, and Itachi inclines his head a fraction of an inch. "Ah."
Sakura blinks a few times at his lack of response, and confusion touches her delicate features, followed by shocked, slowly dawning realization. "…You knew?"
"How long?" she presses incredulously.
"…Since I have been seventeen."
This – knowing when one is going to die, and simply accepting it wordlessly – is something that Sakura just cannot believe, and she tells him so in no uncertain terms.
A slight smile touches the corner of Itachi's lips; if he didn't know better, he could infer that the kunoichi is worried about him. "In the larger scheme of things, it does not matter," he tells her cryptically. "It works in accordance with my plans."
He says too much intentionally, and Sakura blinks again. "…Plans? What plans?"
Her inquisitiveness is becoming of someone much younger, and Itachi raises an eyebrow. "You will know, later."
Sakura frowns at him. "But by then, you'll be…" she stops, unable to say it.
"Dead," Itachi completes tonelessly. "Yes." It is a good sign that he can say it and not feel emotion; maybe this encounter with the kunoichi has not damaged him as much as he initially thought.
Sakura observes him silently, twisting her hands together in her lap. From what she has seen tonight, Uchiha Itachi does not seem to be the cold, callous murderer that his reputation indicates he is, and she remembers Kakashi-sensei's voice, telling her to look underneath the underneath. That will come later, though, it has to, and for now, she looks up again, forcing herself to meet his cool gaze. "…Do you need anything?" she asks, almost timidly.
Itachi blinks, momentarily thrown, and wondering if he had just been asked if he had any last requests. "I need…nothing." It isn't necessarily the truth, because she has no capacity to give him what he needs more than anything. Nobody alive can, save for his younger brother.
Sakura raises an eyebrow at him skeptically. "Everybody needs something."
Itachi considers her for a few moments, before deciding to give this girl what she wants. "Fine," he allows. "Forgive my brother."
Sakura definitely had not been expecting this; she chokes on nothing, before staring at him, obviously shocked. "…Pardon?"
Itachi's eyes focus on the flickering flame of the nearest candle. "He was a victim of circumstance. I do not wish to see him suffer for – events of the past."
Sakura stares at him outright, this mysterious, enigmatic man whom she has only known for an hour and a half. "You know," she says, at last. "Kakashi-sensei always told me to look underneath the underneath, and now that I've met you, I think I understand what he means." She hesitates momentarily, her pale complexion warmed by the candlelight. "There's more to you than what meets the eye, isn't there? And I don't think anyone knows just how much more there is."
Itachi merely watches her for a few moments. "That is correct," he says at length. "And nobody ever will."
Itachi kisses Sakura then. It isn't reasonable or logical or rational, and he does it because he only has three months to live. It is the only thing in his entire life that he has done without a reason and a whole list of explanations to justify his actions. It is the only purely selfish thing he has ever done, in that it will benefit him and only him. Itachi doesn't even quite think it through; it is enough that she is there, with her soft green eyes and her compassion and the fact that she may be one of two or three people who may remember something of him besides the legacy of bloodshed he has been forced to leave behind.
His hand has curled around her upper arm, and that is all of them that is touching besides their lips, but it is the most intimate physical contact he has ever had with another person. Perhaps it is the sheer shock, but Sakura has forgotten to pull back as well, and he has no intention of doing so. This is the first and last time he will ever live vicariously, and Itachi wants to savor every moment of it.
They stay like this for a long time, and when Itachi withdraws, he realizes belatedly that it wasn't enough, and he wants more, so much more. The look in Sakura's eyes is somewhat lost and hurt and confused enough that he thinks that if he turns back to her, presses his lips to hers again, she is likely to give him anything that he wants, because she is too compassionate to refuse the last wish of a dying man.
To be completely honest, it is a tempting prospect, but Itachi does not wish for that – it would be too unfair for somebody of her nature to live with. "Sakura," he says softly.
When she looks up, she finds herself eye-to-eye with the Mangekyou Sharingan. Despite this, she fights unconsciousness valiantly, staring at him with fluttering eyelids, and Itachi reaches out and pokes her on the forehead, once. "…Thank you."
This is the last time Itachi will ever see Konoha, and it is through the spectrum of Sakura's bedroom window. He peels the patchwork quilt back from her bed and settles the unconscious girl against the pillows, before somewhat arranging the blankets around her. In sleep, the distressed expression she had worn while in his room gives way to complete relaxation, and as he watches, she turns on her side and pulls the blankets tighter around her, mumbling something in her sleep.
She is sixteen and strong and beautiful, with a brilliant future awaiting her, so much that Itachi could be bitter, but this close to the end, he cannot find it within himself to do so.
Itachi kisses her on the cheek, as a farewell, and disappears in a whirl of ash, and that is the last time they will ever see each other.
Sakura wakes late the next morning with a splitting headache and lips that are slightly swollen from having her first kiss stolen by the wrong man. There is a newly-delivered mission scroll on her bedside table, stating that she has been inducted into an eight-man team assigned to track down Uchiha Itachi and, by extension, Uchiha Sasuke.
She spends the next half hour staring blankly at the wall, her arms wrapped around her knees, and when Sakura finally drags herself to the bathroom, she sees that her eyes are so red that they could pass for having the Sharingan.
"I'm really going to miss you, kid," Kisame says to him once, when he thinks that Itachi is asleep.
xix. (three months later.)
This is the last night that Itachi will spend alive, and he looks down at Kisame's sleeping form. They have been partners, and, yes, friends for eight years now, and there are no words for a farewell like this.
Itachi places the letter on the unoccupied half of Kisame's pillow – it will be the first thing he sees when he wakes up in the morning – and then slips out of the small room quietly. He has nothing but the clothing on his back and two kunai (he will not need anything more than this, where he's going), and it takes all of his strength not to look back.
"What does your Sharingan see, Sasuke?" Itachi asks softly, and he wonders how and why, whywhywhy it has come to this.
The light catches Sasuke's eyes, illuminating the sharp crimson-and-black pinwheels within them, and his younger brother smirks humorlessly. "Your death."
This is not the most difficult thing that Itachi has ever done, but it is close.
This is what dying feels like. The pain, of course, is immense; wracking every inch of his body with a sharp viciousness that makes it even harder to breathe. However, Itachi does not fear death – he has never feared anything – because he is resigned to it, and always has been. Life and death are just two sides of the same coin, after all.
His vision is the first to go, and his body is becoming colder and colder, but Itachi won't – can't – close his eyes to the world just yet. He steps forward, toward Sasuke, and it takes every last remaining inch of effort, but at last, he is finally before his little brother. It seems as if every step he has taken throughout his life has been for the express purpose of bringing him here, to this bloodstained field, with his blood on Sasuke's kunai, so that the two of them can finally confront their destiny.
With his last vestiges of energy, Itachi lifts one of his fingers, and gently pokes his younger brother on the forehead. He does not need sight to know the expression on Sasuke's face.
"Sorry, Sasuke," Itachi murmurs softly – and he is half gone already, half talking to the little five-year-old who used to beg him to train with him – as the world slowly shifts to black in front of him. "…But there won't be a next time."
It isn't much, really. It's a small grave, marked by a smooth gray stone, in which the kanji for his name has been carved by the tip of what may have been a large sword made out of shark scales. Sakura doesn't know why she would have been expecting anything more glamorous – from what little contact she had with Itachi, she doesn't think he would have wanted anything like that.
It is located at the edge of a forest, and Sakura lingers behind a tree, her chakra signature cloaked, as she gazes at the only other visitor.
He is heartbreakingly familiar, although dressed in dark clothing and a long Akatsuki cloak, which had most definitely not been present the last time they had encountered one another. From this angle, he even looks like his elder brother, so much that it is hardly any surprise that she had confused them when she had first seen Itachi.
She should leave at once, and inform Tsunade-shishou of this new development immediately. But Sakura waits silently, and she wonders if it's just her imagination, or whether Sasuke is trying to grow out his hair. It'll be a few months before it is long as Itachi's had been, but it is getting there.
Sasuke stands, at last, and inclines his head at his brother's grave. He leaves quietly, slipping off through the dark trees only a few meters away from her, but despite Itachi's request, Sakura doesn't say anything. Not yet.
The soil is damp underneath her bare knees, as Sakura settles into the same patch of earth that Sasuke had occupied mere minutes earlier. She can't stop herself from reaching out and tracing the rough kanji of Itachi's name – she is her sensei's student in every way, and Tsunade-shishou has records of every mission ever assigned.
Here, alone, as the sun slips beneath the cloud-covered horizon, Sakura allows herself to wonder what if. How all of their lives could have been irrevocably altered if Itachi had never been assigned that fateful mission – it makes her head spin to even contemplate such things, and her heart aches at the thought far more than it should.
After a long while, she pulls the small cluster of cherry blossoms out of her pocket, and settles them gently at the base of the grave marker.
It isn't much. But it is enough.
Sakura pulls herself to her feet, then, and turns her back on the small grave and walks away, until she disappears completely into the dark forest.
As always, feedback appreciated. :)