As always, thank you to everybody who was marvelous enough to review. :) I sincerely apologize for the long wait for this chapter – my laptop crashed, taking quite a bit of this chapter with it. I had to send it in to be repaired, and I just got it back a few days ago. Also! Before The Dawn now officially has two lovely pieces of fanart, by the incredibly talented skyblueocean and Angie-san. The links are on my profile…and you guys should definitely check it out, if you've got time.
Chapter Twenty-One: Daybreak
It is a little past midnight, and the storm still hasn't passed.
Even from here, standing in the middle of the forest exactly one mile out from Konoha's east gate, Sakura can still smell the residue of the two fires that had raged earlier in the night – ash and smoke, choked by the distinctive scent of damp earth and rain. The strong scent makes her nose twitch slightly, as the pink-haired kunoichi shifts uncomfortably, wrapping her arms around herself. The thin material of her olive-green turtleneck clings to her skin, chilling her through to the bone; it is still drizzling, and the air is thick with cold mist.
It is more than likely that Naruto, Sasuke, Tenten, Lee, Ino, Shikamaru, and the rest of her friends and their families will be up for the rest of the night, trying their best to repair the damage that had been done to Konoha in the past few hours. She should be helping Naruto, Sasuke, and Sai clear up the wreckage that is the lower few stories of Hokage Tower, but…
Sakura bites her lip, staring out into the dark forest. She had sent her slug summons to Itachi a little less than an hour ago, so he should be here any minute. Naruto and Sasuke had both given her oddly knowing looks when she had quietly told them she had some business to attend to and slipped out of the tower, the promise that she had – stupidly, foolishly – made Naruto immediately after their victory still hanging in the air between them.
The wind blows again, sudden and cold, rattling the branches of the nearby trees and ripping countless leaves off them, so that they swirl disconsolately in the air once, before being pushed along the muddy dirt path of the forest, back toward Konoha. She turns away to watch, and it captures Sakura's attention so thoroughly that, when she feels the feather-light brush of his fingers against her cheek, she turns toward Itachi so quickly that she nearly pulls a muscle in her neck.
Itachi barely has enough time to register that, save for a small, scabbed-over cut on Sakura's neck, the severely singed ends of her hair, and the smudged paint and ash that have smeared hopelessly against her cheekbones, she looks completely unharmed, before Sakura actually jumps into his arms with enough force to knock both of them back several feet, so that his back lands squarely against the trunk of the nearest tree.
As Sakura could have easily predicted, Itachi says nothing, but he pulls her close and holds her so tightly that her ribs scream out in protest and feel just about ready to give out from the pressure, his fingers tangling roughly in her ponytail as he closes his eyes, breathing her in, before finally letting out a long sigh that sounds almost tortured. Pressed as she is against his chest, Sakura can hear how much his heart is racing, and her stomach twists at the realization of how much Itachi must have worried for her. She had been so absorbed in her own nerves about the coup that she hadn't realized how difficult it must have been for him.
"You shouldn't have worried," Sakura manages reproachfully, finally extricating herself from the embrace and reaching up and smoothing a disarrayed strand of hair behind her lover's ear. "Danzou and his supporters are dead, Naruto is officially the Seventh Hokage, and there were no casualties on our side—"
Apparently somewhat recovered, Itachi raises an eyebrow disbelievingly. "Statistically improbable."
"Yes, but not impossible," Sakura counters, undaunted, and she can't help but smile again, standing on the tips of her toes in order to press a kiss to his cheek.
The corner of Itachi's mouth quirks a little in the manner that indicates that he is attempting to murder a smile before it gets out, and in order to mask it, he gently touches the small cut on her throat. "You told me not to worry," he comments coolly. "Knowing your luck, though, it is an entirely welcome surprise that this was not more serious."
Sakura shrugs, flustered at the mention of her infamously horrible luck, before taking his hand in hers and intertwining their fingers, and she can't help but determinedly look down at the ground. "It probably would have been," she replies, a little guiltily, "if your brother hadn't stepped in and helped me decimate that Root guard with his Chidori."
If Itachi had been a lesser man, he would have choked out loud. As it is, he takes a step back, the color slowly draining out of his face. "…Pardon?" he asks guardedly.
"Sasuke," Sakura sighs, lifting one hand to rub the back of her sore neck. "Out of nowhere, he and his little team decided to join the fight – he heard about the coup, and came to hunt down Danzou…to, um," – she glances up at Itachi, almost nervously – "to avenge your clan," she finishes, in a rush. "…And he said he did it for you, too. In the end, I…held Danzou still, and Naruto and Sasuke finished him off in the same second."
In one of the rare expressions of physical emotion that she has ever seen from him, Itachi closes his eyes and turns away. The quiet pain radiating from every aspect of his body actually brings a fresh sting of tears to Sakura's eyes as she reaches out to him a little unsteadily, placing her hand on his shoulder. Sasuke would understand Itachi's anguish better than she does, but maybe that will come later. Danzou is finished, and…even though it won't bring the Uchiha clan back, it might finally give the only two remaining members some closure and the strength and capability to move on.
It is a long time before the knot in Itachi's chest and throat loosens enough to allow him to speak. "Sasuke?" he asks softly.
Sakura rubs his shoulders gently, before withdrawing. "Sasuke is staying in Konoha," she murmurs. "He says – he says that now, his purpose in life has been completed, and he has no reason to stay away. Naruto says that he's thinking about reestablishing the village's police force, and naming Sasuke the head of it."
Itachi glances up at the darkened sky, his eyes shadowed somewhat. "Ah."
A long, slightly uncomfortable silence dawns over them, before Itachi inclines his head toward Sakura again. "And you?"
The question takes Sakura by surprise, and she looks up at him, startled. "Head of the hospital and director of everything in the village remotely related to the medical field – just like…Tsunade-shishou used to, along with an official spot as one of the Hokage's personal political advisors." She hesitates, forcing herself to shake her head dismissively, as she tries to dislodge the sudden, unyielding lump in her throat. "But all of that doesn't matter; I mean, it's not like I'm going to—"
"—Stay," Itachi finishes quietly.
"Yeah," Sakura responds, forcing her tone to remain steady. She's going to hate herself for this in the morning, and she's going to have to hope that Naruto doesn't, but no matter how much she wants to stay in Konoha, she can never force Itachi to stay – and she can never leave him, either.
It is with that thought in her mind that she turns away, looking back toward the familiar gates. "Stay here," Sakura finally manages, and it is a wonder that the words don't get stuck in her throat. "I'll be back in half an hour or less. I just want to say good-bye to Naruto, Sasuke and a few other of my friends…"
The word is quiet and gently spoken, even though Itachi looks almost in pain as he says it, and Sakura blinks, stunned. "What—"
He tries to stop himself, but Itachi reaches out nevertheless, brushing his palm lightly against her paint-smeared face and rubbing his thumb along her cheekbone as if he aims to memorize its contours. "Stay," he echoes, his voice almost lost in the wind.
There can be no question of her mishearing it, but the shock is cold and numbing, starting in her toes and slowly working its way up, leaving Sakura's hands trembling a little. It must be some sort of misunderstanding, and she forces herself to brush a lock of hair behind her ear in a falsely casual gesture. "You're not," she begins, her voice feeling a little too loud for the eerie hush of the dark forest. "You're not breaking up with me, are you?"
The term sounds so pathetically juvenile in this context that it makes some small part of her want to laugh hysterically, but for just about the third time that night, her eyes fill up with tears, and for the briefest moment, Sakura can actually swear that Itachi flinches. "Sakura," he says quietly. "I most certainly am not – it is just that I…" – he struggles with the words for a few moments – "I know how much you want this," he finally finishes, too emotionally overwrought to phrase things with his typical tact and smoothness.
Sakura turns on him with sudden fury, though, glaring at him venomously. "I do want it!" she hisses, seeing red for a moment, as she locks gazes with him. "I want it with all my heart – but I also want you, you idiot, and I've made my choice! Can't you see that? Do you have to play the fucking martyr every single time?"
Perversely enough, the verbal assault makes something in Itachi's gaze soften minutely, and even though her eyes are still smoldering rebelliously, Sakura does not resist as he reaches toward her again. "Try to understand, Sakura," he murmurs, his voice low. "I know how deeply you feel about returning to Konoha; I know how much you want it, and I do not wish for you to ever have second thoughts about our relationship, and our future together – I never want you to regret any of the choices that you have made."
It feels like too vague of an explanation, but Itachi knows that there is no way that he can ever tell her that, for once in their time together, and appropriately enough now that they are engaged and therefore committing their entire lives to one another, he wants to have her – all of her, with no regrets or apprehensions or conflicts or torn loyalties – to himself. And this, painful though it may be, is the only way to guarantee that if-when (he cannot decide which) Sakura returns to him, it will be because she truly wants to be there; because she has finally, irrevocably, chosen him over the other, equally important and desired aspects of her life.
"And you're doing this by?" Sakura asks coldly, forcing herself to not see the reason in his words; forcing herself to believe that, if she goes with him now, she will never, ever have any regrets about what she is leaving behind.
This is easily one of the hardest things he has ever done, but Itachi folds his hands within the sleeves of his Akatsuki cloak. Sakura looks small and uncertain underneath the brave façade, and, kami, despite how miserable she looks, why is it so hard for him to believe that she will miss him even after a few days back in Konoha? "Stay for as long as you wish," he responds, trying to keep his tone as tightly controlled as possible. "I will be in Rain, if you choose to seek me out."
It feels like something rock-hard and immovable has crawled up into her throat and died there, but Sakura makes herself incline her head coolly. She feels horrible that he's doing this to her; she feels horrible that she's ever given him reason to do this to her (because she has, way too much), and she feels the worst sort of disloyalty at the fact that some rational part of her has acknowledged that it is really very smart of Itachi, because otherwise, she would have spent their entire life together wondering about what could have been, and who knows what those kind of second-thoughts could have led to—
The pink-haired kunoichi swallows hard, and before she even realizes what she is doing, she is already peeling off the skintight black glove that covers her left hand. Her grip is steady as she pulls off the emerald-and-silver engagement ring from her finger, and Itachi looks almost stricken as she forces it into his cool palm, along with that one glove. "Something to remember me by," Sakura comments softly, unable to bring herself to look him in the eye. "When you're back in Rain and all."
She sees three years' worth of memories reflected in Itachi's charcoal-gray eyes (their entirely awkward first meetings, their disastrous first kiss, their first time, the countless instances she had forced him to go shopping with her, the rainy afternoons that he would spend reading his poetry and she would curl up next to him, reading her medical textbooks, the one night in Rice Country that they had actually stayed up the entire night talking about their respective childhoods, and a million more too numerous and diverse to name), and then he is wrapping his arms around her again, pulling her close, and Sakura braces her hands against his chest, trying her best to catch her breath.
"It is unlikely that I could ever forget," Itachi replies, and momentarily, Sakura wonders whether it's just her imagination or the rush of the rain or whether he does actually sound a little choked, but—
She stands on the tips of her toes, and he leans down to meet her, and they kiss, long and hard, but in the next second, he is gone, leaving her with nothing but a handful of ash.
Sakura stands there for a few long minutes, completely unsure of what to feel, and finally, just as the rain begins to pick up in earnest, she turns back on the path, ready to return to her home.
Konoha; Two Months Later
Despite the fact that soft flutters of snowflakes – half-snow, half-rain, and likely to be completely melted by night, as Sasuke the incurable pessimist took joy in reminding her this morning; effectively ruining her excitement – cool her brow, dampen her hair, and generally chill every inch of her skin that they come in contact with, Sakura is still panting and the tiniest bit out of breath by the time she emerges from the narrow, winding path that leads to the top of the mountain.
The stone is icy; slippery underneath her feet even with the help of her customary thick-heeled boots, and she takes care as she cautiously traverses the trail passing through the tops of the heads of her village's most esteemed leaders. Even though he is not the one she is seeking, Sakura pauses a moment, looking down at the stone features of the Fourth Hokage, and she can't help but direct the slightest smile over to the carving in progress, three spots down the mountain. Naruto's carving is only one-fourth of the way completed, but it is already shaping up to look so much like his father's that the resemblance is almost startling – save for the minutest of differences, the two of them could be twins.
At this altitude, the wind whistles through her ears so loudly that it is almost painful, and it takes Sakura a moment's concentration to adequately judge the distance between the path, and the top of the carving of the Godaime Hokage's likeness. Even though it is technically forbidden, Naruto had confessed that he does this all the time, when he wants to do some serious thinking or get in touch with himself, and it is that conversation of two days ago that has motivated her to seek out this remote location.
The leap from the path had been nothing excessively nerve-wracking, but still, Sakura sits down a little tremulously, on the ridge of Tsunade's precisely carved blonde hair. She presses her palms to the stone beneath her, and exhales deeply, looking out at the village beneath her – the village that her shishou had loved so much, and the one that she and all of her childhood teammates and friends had been willing to fight to the death for. The fully-repaired Konoha looks deceptively serene right now; carpeted in an ethereally thin layer of snow, and from this spectacular vantage point, she can see everything – the Academy, where Iruka and Hinata must be patiently instructing the next generation of shinobi, and where Karin is likely in her element, not only teaching specialized kunoichi skills to the girls, but training all of the classes in how to better utilize their chakra to track any given individual. The nearby ANBU offices, where Neji, Shino, and Sai should be working on reviewing the qualifications of the season's hopeful new recruits, and Hokage Tower, where Naruto, Sasuke, and Shikamaru are probably ripping their hair out in boredom as they sort through the immense lists of new diplomatic business to take care of, now that the leadership of Konoha and its foreign policy has changed so dramatically. And, of course, the hospital, Sakura's own pride and joy, now refurbished and reorganized and well on its way to regaining its former state of glory and reputation for cutting-edge medical technology.
Sakura traces her cold, nearly-numb fingertips over the stone beneath her – tan and weathered, so different from the vibrant, meticulously cared-for blonde of Tsunade's long mane. She is happy here in Konoha, and she almost hates herself for it.
She looks down at the empty spot on her left hand, formerly occupied by her engagement ring, and the sight no longer makes tears come to her eyes – just…a strange, deep feeling of emptiness.
Itachi had told her to find him in Rain, if-when she was ready. It sounds so incredibly simple, but it is anything but – she has no idea what to do. Being back in Konoha and living like this is a dream come true; it is what she has always wanted for herself, from when she was a little girl. She had imagined her future life to be like this, back when she had been a just-turned-fifteen idealistic chunin, blossoming under the tutelage of Tsunade, and glorying in her newfound skills as a truly powerful kunoichi.
Almost absentmindedly, Sakura reaches up to touch the new forehead protector tied around her head – brand-new, unslashed metal, which Naruto had given to her personally, the morning after the coup. Most of her other friends who had been branded as missing-nin had actually burned their slashed forehead protectors, but she had taken hers home and placed it at her bedside. It contains far too many memories for her to ever even consider disposing of it.
She is incredibly busy by day, between advising Naruto, caring for various patients, and running the hospital, and every night, she, Sasuke, and Naruto have dinner together, and usually spend the next few hours after that lounging around and just talking. It is just so…idealistic. Content. Happy.
Too good to be true.
Whenever Sakura actually stops and thinks about it – and she tries not to – it feels like she is missing a limb…or something else, something internal, and equally crucial to her. How many times has she seen a shadow shift in the darkness of her apartment and turned to it, expecting to see Itachi? How many times has she seen Sasuke using the Sharingan and then stumbled through the rest of the day, distracted beyond all belief?
Why had she stayed awake for almost all of last night, unable to keep herself from thinking of last winter – the almost-perfect winter that she had spent with Itachi? The smallest things remind her of him; this first snow had brought back memories of all the times she had tried – and failed – to engage him in a proper snowball fight, and she can't even pass the window displays at the bookstore because they happen to be doing a promotion of his favorite poet's latest compilation.
Leaving Konoha, the new, improved and entirely wonderful Konoha, behind again…it'll hurt her a lot, nearly as deeply, if not more, than the previous time did. At the same time, never seeing Itachi; never being with him ever again…
Maybe the pain of their separation will dull, after a few more months. Maybe she'll learn how to truly move on with her life and fully enjoy the second chance that she's been given, here.
And maybe she won't.
And, most troublesome of all, does she even want to?
Sakura sighs, tormented, raking her fingers through her long hair out of sheer desperation. The wind is even colder now, icy pinpricks sharp against her face and bringing tears to her eyes.
Once she has regained some of her composure, the pink-haired kunoichi places both hands flat against the stone beneath her. Logically, she knows that this is just an extraordinary likeness; there is nothing of Tsunade's heart and soul and attitude in it, but—
A fresh wave of despair washes over her, leaving Sakura feeling lost and somewhat bereft.
"What would you do, shishou?" she whispers, the question to the person she had respected most in the world almost lost in the howling of the wind. "Please, just give me something – anything – to go on; just give me some kind of sign—"
Long minutes pass in tense silence, the wind continues howling, and snowflakes swirl in endless circles in front of her as they cascade to the ground, but other than that, there is nothing.
To be fair, it isn't like Sakura had expected the stormclouds above her to mysteriously swirl into a representation of Tsunade's face and have that speak to her through the wind or something, but she has always trusted in the powers of spirituality, and now, disappointment is a punch in the stomach.
Dejected, Sakura looks away from the village, back toward the path. Maybe this had been a stupid idea, and she would be better off not wasting her precious couple of hours off, or at least, maybe she should save the deep thinking for the warmth of the coffee shop near the hospital—
"Forehead Girl! Hello? Can you hear me?"
The shrill voice is such a sudden interruption from her silent, morose contemplations that Sakura very nearly falls off the edge of the mountain as she swivels backward incredulously. "Ino-pig?" she asks, trying to mask her disbelief, while craning her neck in order to stare at her loud blonde friend, who is swathed in a very fashion-forward purple parka and making her way down the icy path, toward her. "What are you doing here?"
Ino scowls as she hops the short distance from the path to the stone likeness of Tsunade's hair. "Very nice greeting, Sakura-chan," she replies grumpily, stretching her legs out in front of her and making herself comfortable. "I blow off lunch with poor, overworked Shino-kun to try and find my mysteriously absent very best friend in the whole world and this is what I get. How lovely."
"Sorry, Ino," Sakura rolls her eyes, and despite her bad mood, she can't help but smile a little at the mention of Shino. Needless to say, she had been absolutely shockedto find out about Ino and Shino's engagement – the two of them had been dating since Ino turned sixteen, it turned out, when the two of them had bonded during the secret inter-clan meetings that Inoichi had coordinated. Apparently, Shino was the calming force for the high-strung, restless, and often dangerously impulsive Ino; while Ino's unbreakable spirit had given Shino hope during the times when things looked darkest. Sakura can easily admit that the two of them are the most well-suited couple she has ever encountered in her entire life.
"Yeah, well," Ino disclaims, flapping one gloved hand nonchalantly. "You can make it up to me by telling me what's wrong."
Sakura blinks, looking away. "What gives you that idea?"
"You're sitting alone, on top of Hokage Mountain, obviously freezing your ass off and looking like you're about to burst out in tears at any given moment," Ino replies succinctly. When Sakura says nothing, still determinedly avoiding her gaze, the blonde kunoichi raises her voice just a little bit. "And you've seemed just a little out of sorts for this entire past month, so are you sure there's nothing you want to tell me?"
Sakura closes her eyes exhaustedly. "Go away, Ino."
"I will do no such thing, Forehead Girl," Ino glowers. "Look, whatever it is, it's bothering you a lot and I can help, and you have nothing whatsoever to lose by telling me, so…"
She trails off meaningfully, and try as she might, Sakura can't help but see her best friend's logic. She has never told Ino about Itachi, and…well, there would appear to be no harm in doing so now. Besides, she will not make the mistake of underestimating Ino's sheer stubbornness, combined with her refusal to take no for an answer, and her spectacular deductive skills. It is a dangerous combination, to say the least.
"It's a really long story," Sakura finally mumbles, by way of an answer.
"All the better," Ino chirps brightly.
"Keep an open mind, okay?"
"Would you expect anything less from your best friend?"
For a moment, Sakura has a painful flashback to the Naruto incident of two years ago, and she has to force herself to put it out of her mind. "…Right. Well…" she hesitates, looking at the vast expanse of forest outside of Konoha, leading to the rest of the Fire Country. "It started almost exactly three years ago…"
Sakura talks until her lips are thoroughly chapped, her throat is raw from the too-cold wind, and her voice threatens to give out. She doesn't look at Ino at all throughout, instead forcing herself to focus on the village beneath her. There are times when it takes an effort not to tear up, and others when she feels a slightly nostalgic smile tugging at the corners of her lips.
The story ends on a somewhat flat note, though, leaving Sakura with nothing to do save for wrapping her arms around herself, biting her lip in an instinctive nervous gesture.
Ino's voice, when it finally comes, is surprisingly toneless. "Is that it?"
Sakura dares to glance back at her, and she finds Ino twisting her fingers together in her lap, a somewhat familiar look in her cornflower-blue eyes. "Yeah, it is."
"He left," Ino confirms, "because he didn't want you to go with him and spend the rest of your life regretting the idea of what could have been."
Sakura winces somewhat, not entirely because of the cold. "…Yes."
"And you're here now. Still."
The attack comes so fast that Sakura has no hopes of defending herself – in one quick, smooth movement, Ino pulls out her favorite fan from one of her pockets and smacks Sakura on the head, hard, with the heavy ebony siding. "You idiot, Forehead Girl! What the hell are you doing? What were you thinking? You were supposed to be the smart one out of the two of us!"
Completely taken aback by the sudden offensive, Sakura throws her hands on top of her head in a futile attempt to protect herself. The ebony is cold and hard and it stings, and— "Stop it, you pig! Ouch!"
Her delicate features flushed with anger, Ino snaps the scarlet-and-gold fan closed with a decisive click. "You deserved that."
Sakura rubs the rapidly-growing bump on her head ruefully, glaring at her so-called best friend. "How so?" she asks acidly.
"For being an imbecile! Home is where the heart is, Sakura-chan. Everybody knows that."
There is a moment of dawning horror at the realization that Ino might actually be making sense, but Sakura can't just sit by and let this go. "But Ino—"
"But nothing!" Ino fairly screeches, now looking even more enraged. "Itachi loves you, Forehead Girl, and you love him, and that's one of the most precious and wonderful gifts that life can ever give you, but you had to go and make everything so fucking complicated! It wasn't your fault that he had to go all noble self-sacrificing martyr on you, but you didn't have to carry this on for so long and make his stupid idea justified!"
Sakura stares at Ino incredulously, feeling more than a little beleaguered. "But…Konoha – you – Naruto—"
Ino sighs deeply. "Konoha," she says calmly, "is always going to be here. I am always going to be here, and so are Naruto, Sasuke, Tenten, Lee…you get the picture. You don't have to live here permanently for it to always be a part of you, and vice versa."
Knowing that she has her best friend right where she wants her, Ino takes Sakura by the hand gently, and the two kunoichi stare out over the village. "Look," Ino begins abruptly. "I'm not going to lie. I would love for you to live here. When you were gone, before the coup, I used to dream about how I wanted things to be, afterward. I wanted you and everyone else back here, to stay. I used to imagine some kind of idealistic happy life where we would all live on the same street and get together for lunch every day, and raise our children together, and somehow they would end up being best friends as well—"
"Except that life doesn't necessarily work out like that," Sakura completes wistfully.
"Yeah," Ino acknowledges softly. "I could be selfish on my part and everyone else's, because I can guarantee that nobody really wants to see you run off to Rain with Itachi, but I'm not, because I – like everybody else, no matter how much of a fuss they'll make about it – just want you to be happy. So you have to give up a little to do so…so what? In the larger scheme of things, it's worth it. It won't be like last time, Sakura. You can come home – um, come here – whenever you want, and we'll be counting on it."
Discreetly, Sakura wipes a few of the stray tears away from her cheeks before they freeze there. "When did you get so wise, Ino-pig?" she asks quietly.
Ino grins cheekily, fluttering her fan at herself and basking in the praise. "I guess it's because I always knew you, in all of your great intelligence, would screw up someday – and really, who else would be kind enough to step in and save your ass?"
"Right," Sakura smiles, before standing up, a little unsteadily. She can't believe that she is doing this, but something in Ino's words rings so true, and now, she actually feels a little bit ashamed at herself for being so stupid for so long – and hopefully, hopefully, it isn't too late for her to make things right. "I guess – I guess that I should go talk to Naruto, then."
Ino rises as well, her eyes looking suspiciously bright. "You're right; there's no point in waiting any longer, I guess. So, I better not see you walking home tonight after your last shift at the hospital, Sakura."
This shouldn't be so hard, since it isn't like last time, but Sakura's throat nearly closes over, nevertheless, as she attempts a smile. "Don't worry – I won't be."
They hug tightly, and even though it is incredibly hard to let go, Sakura finally does, giving her best friend a bittersweet smile over her shoulder as she makes her way back onto the path. "See you later, Ino-pig."
"Yeah, Forehead Girl," Ino sniffles, and when Sakura is halfway out of sight already, the blonde kunoichi raises her voice to make sure it is heard over the wind. "You had better come back for my wedding, Sakura, or I swear that I'll hunt you down myself!"
Even though Ino cannot see it, Sakura smiles as she shoves her hands into her pockets. "I wouldn't miss it for the world, Ino," she replies softly.
And then they are separated by a rocky outcrop, and Sakura looks up at the stormy gray sky, remembering another talented, loud, and fierce-tempered blonde kunoichi. It appears that signs can come in all shapes, sizes, and forms…
Thank you, Tsunade-shishou.
The guards at the door wave Sakura inside after the briefest glimpse of her telltale pink hair, and she slips past the heavy wooden door as quietly as possible. After so long spent sitting outside in the freezing cold, the Hokage's private office is incredibly, welcomingly warm and comfortingly ramen-scented – likely because of how Naruto appears to be slurping from the largest bowl of noodles she has ever seen, while simultaneously and very intently reviewing what appears to be a new treaty agreement with—
Sakura stops dead, startled, and Sasuke, lounging on a nearby armchair while perusing the files of several prospective Konoha Police Force recruits, glances up at her, unconcerned. "I bought onigiri with umeboshi, too," he states casually. "Naruto 'had a feeling', apparently, that you would drop by."
"Oh, really?" Sakura asks, not a little suspiciously, eyeing her guilty-looking best friend and Hokage. "Why is that?"
Naruto grins at her through a mouthful of noodles. "How could you stay away, knowing your two bestest friends in the whole world are slaving away over mountains of paperwork, Sakura-chan? Grab a file and get to work, and I'll give you food!"
Sakura winces a little as she takes the seat in front of Naruto's desk, and it takes a real effort for her to rest her hands calmly and composedly on her lap. "I did want to talk to you two," she begins levelly, "but not about paperwork."
Sasuke suddenly looks at her very sharply, rising from the armchair in order to slink over to Naruto's side like a dark shadow, but Naruto just shrugs, apparently oblivious. "Go ahead, Sakura-chan."
Sakura keeps it concise and unapologetic, and in less than a minute, where there had previously been a comfortable atmosphere, there is now nothing but dead silence.
She cannot read Naruto or Sasuke's facial expressions – truth be told; she doesn't even want to try – but now, startlingly enough, Sakura feels nothing but calm resolve as she reaches up to her forehead protector, tugging the ribbon free of her hair with steady hands.
"Hokage-sama," she murmurs formally, folding it neatly and placing the rectangle of shiny metal on the desk in front of the stricken-looking Naruto, "Shizune Shiranui is an equally capable medic-nin who will more than adequately take my place. With this assurance that I am not abandoning my post to a less-than-capable successor, please accept my formal and complete resignation as a Konoha shinobi."
Sakura meets their gazes evenly, and to her surprise, Sasuke reacts first; inclining his head a fraction of an inch, his darkened gray eyes showing something along the lines of – respect? Acceptance?
Naruto recovers a moment later – his face has been forced into staying completely expressionless, although Sakura can see the grief in his eyes, and it does hurt a little – and his right hand shakes a little as he reaches out, confiscating her Konoha forehead protector. "I accept," he states quietly, looking down at his desk for a fraction of a moment. "Sakura Haruno, do you fully understand and realize the consequences of your actions, effective immediately, or will you require a clear delineation of said consequences?"
"That will not be necessary, Hokage-sama," Sakura replies softly, feeling something in her heart fracture a little. "I understand."
Naruto smiles a little bitterly, opening a drawer in his desk, and carefully depositing her forehead protector inside it. "Then so be it."
There is a moment when all three members of the original Team Seven sigh in unison, and now, formality dispensed with, Sakura looks at her best friend, anguished. "Naruto—"
"No, Sakura-chan," Naruto replies firmly, and he attempts a smile. "Go and be happy, and you had better write and stuff as soon as you get there, all right? Also, you should give us a couple of months advance notice as to when exactly you're getting hitched, so I can get clearance for diplomatic leave ahead of time—"
Sakura swallows determinedly, but the knot in her throat gives no indication of going away, as she crosses over to the other side of the desk and hugs him around the shoulders tightly. "Thank you so much, Naruto," she whispers.
Sasuke is leaning against the wall, looking out of the window – due east, in the direction of Rain, and Sakura stops awkwardly, momentarily unsure of what to do or say. "Sasuke…"
"You're making the right decision," Sasuke says abruptly, and before Sakura can even attempt to formulate a reply, he swallows very conspicuously, refusing to look at her. "Tell him," he begins at last. "Tell Itachi—"
Sasuke gestures vaguely with one hand, still staring at the floor and looking more emotionally involved than she has seen in a long time, and Sakura can't help but smile softly, reaching out and wrapping her arms around him for a moment. "Maybe you should tell him in person, sometime."
Sasuke actually reciprocates the contact for a fraction of a second. "Yeah," he echoes, sounding thoughtful. "Maybe I should. …I'd like that."
"Get out of here before I change my mind, Sakura-chan," Naruto declares, trying – and failing – to sound gruff and detached, although the pretense stops in the very next second, as Sakura begins to make her way to the door. "Wear a jacket – like, get one of those stupid fluffy parkas that Ino loves, because it's cold, and remember that there's no better travel food than hot, steamy ramen, and—"
"…Shut up, dobe. You're forgetting that she's more intelligent than you and will make it to Rain without a problem."
The door closes behind her, and Sakura wipes her eyes with the back of her hands, taking a deep breath, as she rushes down the familiar spiral steps for the last time.
It's too cold and wet to wear anything but her jounin uniform on the way to Rain – even though she has no rights to wear it any longer, Sakura knows that Naruto won't mind, although the chunin guards at the eastern perimeter give her strange looks upon noting her conspicuous lack of a forehead protector, coupled with the light pack that she has slung over one shoulder.
She is standing alone in front of the open gate – the same gate that she had snuck out through, in the middle of the night, three years ago. Sakura just stares at it, and at what is beyond, for what feels like a long time.
Last time, she had been afraid; running from a fate too horrible to comprehend – toward the unknown, which was just as frightening. This time…
A tiny smile touches the corner of her mouth as Sakura turns and takes one look back at Konoha. This time, she's not afraid. She's running to something (something that she should have never let go), and really, that makes all the difference.
It had taken five days.
Five long, horrible, utterly agonizing days, and it feels like she has never been so happy to lay eyes on one single location in her entire life thus far.
To be fair, Sakura reasons, as she offers her security clearance to the guards at the gate in order to enter the city – one seemingly indestructible origami water lily, folded by Konan herself; the golden paper embossed with her personal stamp – Rain is not the miserable, dilapidated ghost town that it had been two and a half years ago, when she had first seen it. Under the leadership of Pein and Konan, it has definitely blossomed. Every single road and side street has been fully, impeccably paved, and dilapidated wrecks that used to serve as civilian housing and various storefronts have been replaced by clean, elegant-looking buildings with undoubtedly sophisticated architecture and design, and the city itself has expanded somewhat; this is the housing area, which means that things are pretty much darkened for the night, but a few blocks over, Sakura can make out the glow of lights in the distance.
This place had been so unfamiliar and forbidding to her when she had first seen it, but now, Sakura's feet seem to carry her over of their own accord, through the side path of trees and the secluded path leading to the large field that the Akatsuki headquarters are located under. There is at least five inches of mud underneath her feet, making even her thick-heeled boots sink somewhat, and the pink-haired kunoichi winces, struggling to make her way over to the middle of the field. It has been raining nonstop for the past five days, and she is soaked through and, by now, mud has probably become chemically bonded in some way to her body. Be that as it may, this is still a horribly ignominious location, though, and thankfully, Konan has been pleading with Pein for the past year for the Akatsuki to consider relocating their headquarters to an aboveground location, but he had said it would take at least another six months to garner the requisite funds.
Sakura comes to a stop at the middle of the field, right above where the kitchen should be, and she stares down at the ground beneath her apprehensively. She has never done this without Itachi, but Sakura knows that Pein and Konan had added her chakra signature to the list of those accepted through the barrier defense. Still, she experiences a moment of numbing trepidation as she screws her eyes shut and concentrates her hardest, and then—
There is a curious tingling sensation throughout the length of her spine, and a sudden, overwhelming sensation of the most total and complete dizziness she has ever experienced. For a second after Sakura forces her eyes open, vaguely registering that she appears to be leaning against a wall in order to keep her balance, she sees nothing but hazy, floating purple spots juxtaposed against a background of pitch black.
The voice is soft, serene, and familiar, and by the time Sakura's vision clears, Konan is already pressing a warm cup of something fragrant and steaming hot into her hands. The blue-haired kunoichi gives her a gentle smile, as if she is not surprised in the least to witness the very sudden and impromptu return of a missing member – who happens to be dripping a river's worth of water and vile mud onto the pristine, dark-wooden floors of the kitchen.
"Thank you," Sakura mumbles, meeting the other woman's gaze, and feeling slightly abashed. "I—"
"I knew you would return," Konan states, in her usual calm, implacable manner, and once she has judged Sakura to be relatively steady on her feet, she steps back, returning to the stove, where she had apparently been working prior to this. "Onigiri with umeboshi, I presume? You must be incredibly hungry."
Sakura places her cup of orange tea down on the counter, distracted, and unable to even spare the briefest of moments to enjoy the welcome warmth and dryness of the kitchen, even though she hasn't experienced anything of the sort in the past five days. "Konan, I'm sorry, but I need to see Itachi—"
There is suddenly something cold and steely at her back, and every muscle in Sakura's bone-weary body tenses as she turns around slowly.
"Kisame, please," Konan murmurs, without looking up from her careful pursuit of shaping the rice just how Sakura likes it. "Spare us the theatrics; she has been through enough."
"Bullshit," Kisame growls, even though he pulls Samehada back, albeit reluctantly. He glares at Sakura, who simply meets his gaze evenly, not intimidated by the nearly two and a half feet that he has on her – she had a lot of time to think on the journey here, and she predicted as much, after all. She and Kisame had actually formed a friendship, of sorts, in the past two years…but she has always known that Kisame's relationship with Itachi is infinitely stronger.
The two shinobi size each other up for a few long moments, before Kisame finally deigns to speak. "What the hell took you so long, kunoichi?" he asks roughly. "What makes you think you can just walk back in here after what you did and—"
"—I made a mistake," Sakura hisses back, drawing herself up to her full height. "I'm not going to apologize for it, but I've come to terms with my life, and I've made my choices. Now, move."
Kisame looks her over appraisingly, and Sakura has the satisfaction of seeing his eyes widen when they land on her conspicuous lack of Konoha forehead protector, slashed or otherwise, either tied in her hair or across her forehead. "…I see," he comments, at last, still looking somewhat flabbergasted.
He steps aside, and with one last look back at Konan, who gives her a small, encouraging sort of smile, Sakura strides out of the kitchen, unable to still the suddenly rapid pacing of her heart. Instead of staying back, though, Kisame follows at her side. "Sorry," he says brusquely, not looking at her. "It was just that…"
Sakura keeps her eyes fixed on the path ahead as well. The interior of the headquarters has undergone a dramatic transformation since Madara's death – the corridors, once pitch-black and nothing less than menacing, are warmly and brightly lit with soft orbs of golden chakra-fire. "How is he?" she asks abruptly, trying to keep herself sounding at least somewhat composed.
"Awful," Kisame replies succinctly. "He hasn't set foot outside the headquarters since then. He and Konan are the Leader's official political and diplomatic advisors, so he keeps himself buried in paperwork to stay occupied. It's hard enough getting him to come out for meals – he survived entirely on tea for a few days, until Konan started bringing a tray over." The former Mist shinobi gives her a sideways look. "I tried to get him to come out on an assignment with me the day afterward, for old times' sake and all that, but I get the feeling that he was always worried that you would come over at any time and he would miss you."
The words feel almost like a physical blow, and Sakura has to close her eyes for a moment, willing herself to stay calm. "…Oh," she says, at last, her voice a million times smaller than she would have liked.
Seemingly taking pity on her, Kisame pats her on the shoulder gruffly, as they come to a stop outside of Itachi's room. "Itachi's talking to the Leader right now about some treaty with Konoha," he offers, before turning away. "He should be back in about half an hour or so."
Sakura tries her best to offer him some semblance of a smile. "Thank you, Kisame."
His back turned to her, the shark-man lifts one hand casually. "No problem, kid. It's good to have you back."
It takes a little while of rummaging around in her pockets for Sakura to find the key to Itachi's room, and in the next second, she is stepping into the empty area, carefully flicking on the light switch at the side of the door.
It smells like him, and like tea, and the sudden sensation actually makes Sakura's chest constrict out of sheer nostalgia as she glances around the room. The first thing that strikes her is that there is paper everywhere; large, neat piles of rough drafts of various international treaties located all over the desk space and the foot of the bed. There are a few abandoned, half-drunk cups of tea scattered above them, but Sakura still makes her way to the edge of his bed, her soaked, muddy clothes be damned.
She sinks down on it, gently running her hands over the woven, dark red comforter, and by pure coincidence, the next thing her eyes light on is Itachi's bedside table.
It is completely bare, save for a picture of the two of them – taken about a year and a half ago, while they had been passing through a crowded city market. She had been the one to notice the little photo booth, and the seemingly endless amount of teenage civilian couples who had deposited small amounts of money outside of it, on order to disappear behind the black curtains and emerge about a minute later, giggling and clutching two identical strips of film, each with four separate photos on it.
It had taken quite a bit of effort, but she had dragged the highly irritated Itachi into the photo booth in question, loudly assuring him that it would be fun.
She has her photo strip somewhere, carefully folded into her favorite novel and deposited at the bottom of her bag. She had assumed Itachi had burned his at the soonest possible opportunity.
She had been wearing a bright yellow summer dress, and had somehow convinced Itachi to abandon his usual black-and-gray wardrobe in order to purchase an absolutely gorgeous emerald green, elbow-sleeved shirt – which might have been why he was in such a bad mood that day. The first three frames consist of her shooting coy, adorable looks and poses at the camera, while simultaneously attempting to force Itachi to do something besides glare murderously at it. The last frame captured the exact moment that Sakura had given up hope, pounced on the shocked Itachi's lap, and planted a very affectionate kiss on his lips.
("I love you, Itachi-kun!" she had proclaimed loudly and mischievously, wrapping her arms around his neck as tightly as possible, and Itachi had practically clawed at her back and ordered her to get off in his most frightening tone – the resulting struggle had nearly knocked both of them off the tiny bench in the photo booth and onto the floor.)
Sakura glances away from the picture – looking at it is hurting her too much, but next to it…is her glove. And her engagement ring.
The photo, glove, and ring would be the last thing he sees every night, and the first thing he sees every morning.
She tries to keep it at bay, but at that moment, every development of the past month catches up to her, in what has to be the most delayed reaction of all time. The physical, mental, and emotional stress and exhaustion of the past five days, losing Itachi, leaving Konoha for good this time, resigning as a kunoichi for life, missing Naruto and Sasuke and her friends, missing Itachi so much that it hurts; knowing that she was stupid enough to let Itachi go, and…never, ever thinking that this would hurt him so much.
Sakura isn't fully aware of collapsing down onto the pillow, but some part of her does register reaching out, taking the ring in a hand that trembles slightly, and then slipping it onto her finger.
And only then does the pink-haired former kunoichi allow herself to cry herself to sleep.
She wakes the second that he takes a seat next to her, fifteen minutes later.
Itachi looks like he's just seen a ghost, and Sakura catches him a fraction of a moment before his fingertips make contact with the chilled, damp skin of her face.
The impact of her embrace, as Sakura sits up so fast that she nearly sprains her back and then literally throws herself at the stunned Uchiha, is enough to knock both of them almost flat on the bed.
"I'm sorry," she says, as fast as she can, holding him tight and burying her face in his shoulder, and for a moment, Sakura feels so overwhelmed by emotion that she could swear that she's sixteen years old again and telling Itachi that she loved him, for the first time. "I'm an idiot – there are no words to describe it—"
Itachi has always been a man of actions rather than words, and without sparing even another second, he buries his fingers in her hair roughly, pulling her face up to his, before crushing their lips together, hard.
Afterward, Sakura closes her eyes as she curls up against him trustingly, and Itachi quietly brushes a few stray strands of hair out of her face and behind one ear. His fingers brush against her forehead, and then he carefully runs them through her hair. It is then, as he silently reminisces about the past hour, that he realizes what is missing about her – that, at any point, he didn't have to pull that bright red length of ribbon, tied to her forehead protector, free of Sakura's long hair, or struggle to untie it from her forehead without accidentally pulling a few locks of hair and making her yelp.
Itachi is unnerved enough by the conclusions that he is drawing that he pulls his hand back suddenly, as if burned. "Sakura," he says abruptly, regardless of how asleep she looks. "What did you do?"
Sakura blinks up at him blearily, before sitting up and pulling a pillow to her chest. Itachi is eyeing her quite suspiciously, and, well, she had expected him to notice earlier, but in all fairness, the two of them had been rather…distracted. "What do you think?" she asks evenly.
Itachi looks more than a little disconcerted. "…Why?" he finally replies, appearing to be somewhat lost for words. "That was irrational and impulsive, Sakura – we could have made some arrangements to purchase a house in one of Konoha's border towns—"
"Yeah, which would have worked perfectly for me," she retorts, "but how would you still manage to work with the Akatsuki from that far away?"
"It does not—"
"Yes, it does, Itachi!" Sakura replies sharply, fighting to keep her temper under control. "Look, it doesn't matter to me, all right? I made my choice. I'll always be a kunoichi here," – she touches her chest lightly – "if nowhere else, and that's all that I really need."
It takes a little while of tugging on his hand insistently, but Itachi finally relents, leaning against the headboard, even though he is far from relaxed. Sakura sighs softly and rests her head on his shoulder, placing one slender hand on his muscled upper arm. "Anything else you want to tell me?"
"It will become clear tomorrow."
Too tired to contest the ambiguous reply, Sakura yawns and slides down further into the bed. Itachi follows a little while after, seemingly casually wrapping an arm around her and drawing her closer to him, and she closes her eyes and smiles, and for the first time in what feels like forever, she sleeps well.
The Next Morning
It would be a lie to say that Sakura is not unsure about what will become of her future now that she has cast the one thing that had defined her most out of the window.
It's not that she regrets it, but – uncertainty is a rather dreadful feeling, and Sakura closes her eyes, stirring her cup of blueberry tea listlessly. Despite last night's words to Itachi; hell, she knows that it's probably an irrational feeling on her part, but it does feel like, through resigning as a kunoichi, she has lost a good part of her identity. All of her skills are still more than present, but…where will she go from here, and what will she do with herself?
There is a sudden thud of paper, solid enough to shake the entire kitchen table as it lands squarely in front of her, and Sakura looks up from her cup of tea, startled.
Pein looks down at her expressionlessly. "This assignment will be yours and yours alone, Sakura." Without waiting for a reply and ignoring her obvious confusion, he leans down and whisks the cover sheet off the thick stack of paper, exposing a glossy sheet of laminated paper featuring a large picture of an expansive, sprawling, at least six-story building.
"Rain currently does not have a hospital…or, in fact, any medical amenities save for a tiny clinic in a nearby border town." Pein points out, indicating the picture emotionlessly. "This is unacceptable. We have this building, and we have enough funds to purchase any resource that you find necessary. Your long-term mission will be to rectify the problem in question. Is that clear?"
Numb with shock, Sakura manages to nod once, and Pein sweeps out of the kitchen without another word.
From the privacy of the hallway, Itachi smirks a little as he watches Pein depart, and, now that she is certain that she is alone, Sakura literally collapses out of disbelief, burying her head in her arms.
"Impossible," she keeps mumbling, almost unable to believe whether that surreal encounter had really just happened or not. Pein's verbal assignments to them are all usually abrupt, concise, and blunt, but this had just been…weird. "Ridiculous. It's a dream come true."
Feeling more than a little pleased with himself, Itachi enters the kitchen quietly, placing one hand on his fiancée's head and ruffling her hair. "Surprise," he comments softly.
Sakura lifts her head and looks up at him, stunned. "…What?"
"I have been talking to him about it since before the coup." Itachi purrs, looking exquisitely amused. "I believed it would be an appropriate career for you. Give it a few years, Sakura, and you might be Rain's very own Tsunade."
The sentiment, the thought, and the sheer wonder of this unexpected opportunity makes Sakura's throat tighten a little. "I never thought it would all go down like this," she confesses in a rare moment of utter candidness, taking his hand in hers, and thinking of where this had all started, after Itachi's death and Danzou's takeover…and how her life has unfolded since then. "I never thought that this is how I would end up living my life."
She smiles a little at the guarded look on Itachi's face, and reaches out to pat his cheek gently. "I'm not saying that that's a bad thing, though."
Four Months Later
"Wow," Naruto says, as he stops in the middle of the small Zen garden in order to take in the view around him, looking utterly amazed. "This is nicer than my place, Sakura-chan! I can't believe you and Itachi are going to live here. Huh, maybe when I'm hideously old and decrepit and have to retire and stuff, I should move to Rain too…"
Sakura tries to shrug modestly, although it doesn't quite have the intended effect, as she is still admiring the place that, two days from now, she can finally call hers. The small, although airily structured and elegantly furnished house, complete with large, adjacent and separate Zen and water gardens, is a million times more serene and beautiful than she could ever have imagined even in her wildest dreams.
"Consider it a little wedding present, of sorts," Konan had disclaimed mildly. "As you can imagine, it isn't often that Pein and I receive the opportunity to spend Akatsuki funding on something as harmonious and pleasant as this."
Sakura smiles at the thought, but Naruto misinterprets it, and elbows her in the side with a distinctly mischievous grin. "You're going to have a really hard time leaving here, right?"
Sakura blinks, looking back at him in confusion, as they continue their walk from the Zen garden over to the edge of the water garden. "What?"
Naruto glances over at her, narrowly avoiding tripping on a stray branch from one of the weeping willow trees that separate the gardens, all of which are in bloom. "Well, aren't you going to bring the kids back someday?" he asks, sounding equally confused. "For shinobi training and all – hell, you and Itachi's kids probably have the potential to be the most powerful shinobi in generations, and Rain is a civilian city. Besides, you and Itachi used to belong to Konoha, anyway, so it makes sense, doesn't it?"
"Oh," Sakura acknowledges, picking up one fallen purple blossom absentmindedly and tucking it behind her ear. It is cool in the shade of the willows – monsoon season is finally over and the incessant rain has stopped, but Rain never gets too warm, not even in spring and summer. "Well…honestly, I'm not too sure about that." In response to Naruto's downright aghast look, she nudges him playfully. "Just listen, all right?"
The topic had come up, quite by accident, a few weeks ago, after Pein and Konan had showed them the house for the first time. Sakura offhandedly commented about the number of bedrooms and had absentmindedly stated that there would be one for them, three for the children, one for any guest that happened to be stopping by, and yet another one that could be converted into a study for the both of them to work in.
Itachi had stopped dead, nearly crashing into a coffee table, and it was only then that Sakura realized her mistake, because seriously, what guy wanted to discuss the issue of children before they were even married?
"Sorry," she had apologized hastily, taking Itachi by the hand and dragging him into the spacious kitchen. "It doesn't matter, I wasn't thinking—"
For a few minutes, there had been nothing but awkward silence as Itachi made his way to the counter, detachedly opening drawers and observing the contents within. He had stopped at one in particular, staring down into it with an expression that could almost be described as tortured, and Sakura joined him just in time to see that the drawer was filled with knives, before he slammed it shut, turning his back to the counter and resting against it with a ragged breath. "I never thought that I would live long enough to have a family of my own," he said abruptly, curling his hand into a fist and looking down at it. "Sakura, I never want our children to have to take the life of another person."
Naruto blinks a few times, looking completely flabbergasted, as Sakura finishes relaying the story, looking down at the leaves beneath her feet as she does so. "…I guess it makes sense, since he was a born pacifist and all," he says slowly. "It's just – wow. They'll probably be the first Uchiha in history to ever live as civilians."
Sakura shrugs one shoulder, looking out at the lily-covered expanse of still water garden wistfully. "I respect his opinion – and we'll deal with that when we come to it."
Slowly recovering from his shock, Naruto sighs deeply, reaching one hand backwards in order to rub his neck. "Well," he says, giving her a rather cheesy grin. "I still can't believe that you're getting married in two days, Sakura-chan – to the dobe's older brother, no less." The Seventh Hokage's grin shrinks a few molars as he stands up on the tips of his toes, craning his neck in order to look around the expansive, shaded water garden. "…Where are they, anyway?"
Sakura elbows Naruto in the ribs, this time, silently nodding over to the very edge of the water farthest away from them. Itachi and Sasuke are sitting next to each other, immersed in quiet conversation while skipping pebbles out into the water – as they have been for the past three hours, ever since the small group of Konoha shinobi arrived on their 'mission of high diplomatic importance.' Naruto, Sasuke, Ino, and Shino had been the first to arrive – Ino, however, is busy doing a city-wide search for the most high-class cosmetic and styling products available, as she will be the one gifted with the honor of doing Sakura's hair and makeup two days from now, and Shino had been dispatched along to help her carry bags – and Lee, Tenten, and Kakashi should be coming at some point tomorrow.
As Sakura watches, she sees Sasuke smile again – smile, not smirk, which would definitely be a first for him, if he hadn't been caught in the act doing the same at least seven times earlier in the space of the same conversation – and, after a few moments, the expression is echoed on Itachi's face as well.
"Guh," Naruto articulates coherently, in yet another display of the wonderfully intellectual brilliance that had earned him the position of Seventh Hokage. "I think my brain just got scrambled." He kicks the dirt ruefully. "Seriously, Sakura-chan, I never thought I'd see the day."
"Neither did I," Sakura replies, still a little torn between amazement and pride. The two of them retreat back into the weeping willow borders, leaving the two Uchiha to themselves, and Rain's pink-haired medical director reaches up to catch a fragrant purple blossom that the breeze had torn free of its branch. "Everything is falling into place, isn't it?" she asks quietly, the words almost lost in the gentle rush of the breeze.
"Yeah," Naruto acknowledges wisely, sticking his hands into his pockets. "And it's about time."
Two Days Later
"Are you ready?"
Sakura swallows nervously, and Ino gives a slight huff of irritation. "Forehead Girl, I helped you pick out the most glorious wedding kimono in the history of Japan – except for mine, of course – and I just slaved away for hours and hours in order to do your hair and makeup. You had better be ready."
"Fine," Sakura acquiesces, closing her eyes for a moment.
In one smooth movement, Ino places her hands firmly on Sakura's shoulders, spinning her around in order to face the full-length mirror, and the blonde kunoichi whistles appreciatively. "Hot damn, Lady Uchiha."
"Not yet," Sakura manages, staring, wide-eyed, at her reflection, whom she doesn't quite recognize, between the exquisite scarlet, pink, and silver kimono, heavily kohl-rimmed and emerald-shadowed eyes, and elaborately arranged long cascades of hair, completed with delicate silver ornaments. "One more hour. And kami, Ino, you've outdone yourself."
Ino fusses with the sleeves of her own simple, yet elegant periwinkle-blue kimono, looking as distinctly overemotional as Sakura had looked at her wedding. "I'm so happy for you, Sakura," she manages, fanning herself and looking somewhat overwrought. "You have no idea."
For a few long moments, the two lifelong best friends, now separated by distance and alliances, though nothing else, stand beside each other, watching their reflections in the mirror, and at last, Ino sighs softly. "Did you ever think that our friendship, and everything in general, would lead us to this point?"
Unable to bring herself to be surprised at the way Ino has just read her mind, Sakura smiles a little. "Not in my wildest dreams…Lady Aburame. But," – she offers Ino her arm, and the other woman takes it courteously, as they begin to walk out of the dressing room – "…honestly, I can't bring myself to regret one single thing."
Ino smiles as well, a little wistfully, remembering the little pink-haired five-year-old girl, burdened with such crippling insecurities and low self-esteem – and look where that little girl is, now. "…I'm proud of you, Forehead Girl," she declares, with a proud toss of her long blonde mane. "I don't think you know how far you've come."
"I think I do – but…I'm proud of you too, Ino-pig. Seriously."
"…Thanks, Sakura. Now!" Ino declares forcefully, tightening her grip on Sakura's arm. "Are you ready to go out there and get married?"
Sakura winces a little, but she is unable to hide the humorous tilt of her lips. "Never more than right now."
Later That Night
The ceremony had been so many different kinds of surreal that it was nearly overwhelming.
Even now, so many hours later, Itachi is almost unable to wrap his mind around the fact that, after so long, and against all odds, he and Sakura are…married. He struggles with the thought, still, but in the past four years, both of them have defied fate in every way possible.
Sakura is nestled contentedly under several layers of blankets, all of which are pulled just high enough to cover her chest. Itachi observes the gentle rise and fall of her bare shoulders, and…it has been four years, now – enough so that every day is not spent reflecting in some way about the fact that, if not for some downright uncanny twist of fate, he would still be dead, and Sakura—
For the longest time after his revival, he had been unable to appreciate the second chance at life that he had been given.
And then came Sakura.
She had disrupted everything, and made him feel more intensely than he had in years. At the risk of sounding theatrical and overdramatic, after Shisui, Itachi had never envisioned himself loving another – he had no reason to live, save for redeeming Sasuke.
It is strange, though. When he had been younger, before his death, he had never allowed himself to think about all of the opportunities in life that he would never experience – to be part of a love story that didn't have a horribly tragic ending, for instance, or the idea of someday getting married and devoting his life to protecting another.
And now, this…
Itachi smiles, a little ironically, reaching out and carefully tracing the contours of Sakura's face with the lightest touch possible.
For the first time, he is looking forward to living his life, and for the first time, Itachi can actually envision the life that he will live, spread out so clearly before him that it almost seems ethereal. A long, happy, and completely peaceful life – spent at the side of Sakura and, someday, their children. And, also for the first time, he is just a little bit impatient, because there is so much that he wants to see and experience, with her, and—
Sakura stirs beneath his touch, fighting to open her eyes, and her long pink eyelashes flutter a few times as she looks up at him incredulously. Her makeup, so precisely and carefully applied, had become completely smudged during their earlier activities, but she is still beautiful enough to make Itachi's breath catch in his chest for a moment. "What are you doing?" she asks bluntly, rubbing her eyes. "You should be tired…"
"Just thinking," Itachi replies quietly, brushing a few tangled locks of hair against her forehead, and even after so long, the touch and gesture still sends a few delightful shivers up and down Sakura's spine.
Still, Sakura pushes herself up into a sitting position, before twining her arms around Itachi and pulling him back down with her, and remembering his strange propensity for nighttime thinking sessions from all the way back when they had first met, when she had just been fifteen. "You think too much, Itachi," she assures him firmly, wrapping one arm around his chest and resting her head on his shoulder, already closing her eyes again. "There's going to be enough time for that, later…"
Sakura lapses back into sleep, but Itachi stares up at the ceiling, gently caressing her back. Through the heavy, dark green curtains, he can see that dawn is breaking, replacing the previous darkness with the palest blades of faded golden sunlight.
He loves Sakura, yes, but she is wrong on this one; still, Itachi turns toward her a fraction of an inch, so that the fragrant pink strands of her hair tickle his nose, and he savors every slight sensation – the feel of her hair, her skin, and even the thought of how she will glare at him and maybe even slam him in the face with a pillow, when he invariably butchers her morning waffles in a few hours, as he always ends up doing.
It is dawn, and there is no time to sleep, when there is so much to see. (to live.)
I would like to thank each and every one of you for reading, and for your support. To those of you who have reviewed, you've not only given me encouragement to keep writing, but a lot of your kind words, encouragement, support, and prayers got me through the most difficult time of my life – and for that, I can never thank you enough.
I hope that you guys have had as much fun reading this as I had while writing it. :) I've actually planned for this ending all along, but if anyone found it objectionable or had any questions or comments, feel free to ask, and I'll do my best to reply through the little review reply feature.
Again, thank you for reading, and any and all feedback would be very much appreciated. :)