Chapter Fifteen: The Future

I held you tight to me

But you slipped away

You promised to return to me

And I believed, I believed

Like all of Fire country, summers in Konoha were always hot and predominantly humid. The heat pressed down upon the earth like a physical weight, the relentless sun scorching the pavement and clay tiled rooftops. Sometimes, out of nowhere, a brief, intense storm would bring reprieve and wash the clammy thickness from the air, leaving behind the metallic tinge of ozone and damp, sun-baked earth.

Today was one of those days, and Sakura stared vacantly out the rain-spattered window, drumming the tip of her pen in an inattentive rhythm against the countertop. She wished there were a way to open it and feel the cool breeze against her face—much welcome after the record temperatures of yesterday—but the laboratory windows in the hospital's research and development sector were all sealed for safety reasons.

The test results would take four hours to reveal. Sakura glanced at the wall clock again—as of now, there was still three hours and twenty-four minutes to go. Her research was very important and she enjoyed what she was doing, but she wished certain parts of the scientific process weren't so tediously boring.

In recent weeks there had been several small incidents along the southwestern border involving shinobi from Swamp country. They were coating their weapons with a strange poison and a few Konoha nin had died. Based on the toxicology reports from the autopsies, Sakura and a team of assistants had been studying the poison all week, and today they were conducting the first trial for an antidote. Once that was successful, the next step was to figure out how to replicate the toxin for Leaf's own uses.

There had been a long lull of peace after Naruto became Hokage, but now some of the smaller villages seemed to think that having an eighteen year-old leader made Hidden Leaf weak, and they were testing.

Tsunade had retired only a few months after they rescued her and put an end to Danzou's short-lived reign of tyranny. The ordeals she'd undergone in those few months, most especially the attack on Konoha, had left her exhausted in more than a physical way. The last of the Sannin was still involved in village affairs as a mentor for Naruto and for her medical expertise.

Kakashi had evaded the responsibility of Kageship himself and instead became the chief advisor, acting as a sounding board for Naruto, who had an enormous amount of expectation riding on him as Konoha's savior. Even the most confident leaders could be unsure at times. Naruto had been a little overwhelmed by the administrative aspects of leading a nation at first, but he was doing an excellent job overall. The people loved him as much, if not more than they had loved his father. Sai was the Hokage's eyes and ears in ANBU, ensuring there was no further Root activity or other splinter factions among Konoha's forces. And Sakura…the very day she made jounin she was promoted to Chief Medic, and also became the unofficial right hand of the Hokage. When things needed to get done, she had the reputation and the forceful personality to make it happen.

But now Sakura caught herself nodding off; the low drone of the lab machinery was putting her to sleep. With a yawn and stretch, she stood and meandered down the hall to the break room for a cup of the hospital's notoriously strong and always slightly burnt coffee. When she returned with the steaming cup—loaded with extra amounts of cheap powdered creamer—she pulled her chair up to the window and resumed watching the storm.

A rumble of thunder echoed quietly in the distance. Maybe there would be a lightning storm, she mused. Her mild excitement at the prospect soon faded, replaced by a faint sense of familiar melancholy.

Rain and thunder always reminded her of Itachi and their time together in that isolated cabin.

Almost a year and a half had passed since he and Sasuke disappeared into the fog one early morning to track down Uchiha Madara.

Sakura knew that the brothers sent messages to the Hokage periodically; brief updates on their progress carried by Sasuke's hawk summons. But there was never a letter for her, not even any mention of her for Naruto to pass along. Something like that would be tantamount to talking about their relationship with a third party, and Itachi just wasn't that kind of person. She was just glad to know they were both alright. Though naturally she'd had moments of doubt in the past, moments where she couldn't help but wonder if so much time and distance had eroded what they had to nothing more than a pleasant memory. Maybe he was over her. But she had to have faith. Itachi wouldn't have promised to return to her if he hadn't meant it completely.

Aside from her teammates and Tsunade, no one else knew about them. Her other friends all thought she was missing out on one of the best parts of life and couldn't understand why she didn't date. Ino was always trying to hook her up, especially since her nineteenth birthday a few months ago. She was wasting her youth, her friend would say. She wouldn't stay pretty forever…did she want to be a spinster?

But Sakura wasn't interested. Her heart was bound to another, and she couldn't pretend otherwise. The nearly physical ache of missing him had faded over time, but she was left with a loneliness that never quite seemed to go away. A subtle, hollow feeling, as if a part of her was missing. At important events in her life she would feel his absence most strongly. Two birthdays, passing the jounin exams with ease, receiving her new position of respect and influence…they had all been just a little less joyful than they could have been, because he wasn't there to share it with her.

Nine weeks was all they had together, such a short time when she looked back, and much of that time was spent apart. But those nine weeks had been some of the most wonderful in her life. They had shared and experienced so much together, grown together, and even after so long she could not forget how special that time was, or how much he meant to her. She would wait for him as promised, until he came back to her or she received confirmation of his death.

Sakura was running out of clever excuses to refuse the obnoxious but well-meaning interference of her friends, but she couldn't tell anyone about her involvement with Itachi. The cover story needed to remain airtight.

In Itachi's absence, a briefing was given to the jounin and ANBU explaining the retraction of his missing-nin status and his full pardon. A general announcement had been disbursed among the civilian population as well. Konoha was prepared for his return, and Uchiha Itachi would receive a welcome he was not expecting. Sakura had a feeling he would not be entirely pleased about it.

The faint echo of footsteps in the hallway right outside drew her back to the present. She looked toward the door as one of her lab assistants came in.

Sakura and Shiho had met when they worked together on a high-level encryption assignment with Shikamaru—the morning of the Akatsuki attack on Konoha. Before everything went to hell that day, Sakura had been impressed with how smart and diligent the mousy girl was, and even though she wasn't exactly a scientist, Sakura didn't hesitate to ask for her help when Naruto gave her the task of finding this antidote.

"I thought you might be in here," Shiho said. "I was passing by Reception and a page was asking for you. He didn't have clearance to enter this sector. I told him I would let you know myself."

"What's up?" Sakura rose and set her coffee on the counter.

Shiho pushed her bottle thick glasses up her nose. "The Hokage wants to see you."

He probably wanted to know how the test results were coming. He was still as impatient as ever. Whatever the reason, she had nothing else to do for the next two and a half hours and a distraction was welcome. "Keep an eye on things here until I get back?"

"Sure," Shiho said, and pulled a Sudoku book out of her lab coat before taking Sakura's vacated seat.

"Thanks," Sakura called on her way out.

Seven years ago, when she became a genin and was assigned to Team Seven, she never would have believed that one day she would be at the beck and call of Uzumaki Naruto. But both of them were very different people than they were back then—for the most part. The mantle of responsibility had given a new maturity and wisdom to her once tactless and boisterous teammate, and the altered nature of their relationship had only brought them closer. Though she still saw the need to smack him occasionally.

When she reached the Hokage tower and made her way up to the office she was mildly surprised to find the thick double doors closed and two ANBU guards stationed outside, silent and watchful. Sakura had been wrong; this was obviously not about the test results. Had something bad happened? Her stomach curled anxiously. There hadn't been a report from the Uchiha brothers in a couple months, what if….

One of the guards nodded curtly and let her in, closing the door behind her.

Naruto sat at his desk, and Kakashi stood off to the side with his hands in his pockets. Tsunade was there as well, seated on a chair to Naruto's right, arms and legs crossed comfortably. But Sakura hardly saw them, for there were five heads that turned at her entry.

Standing before the Hokage's desk were Itachi and Sasuke.

Surprise showed clearly on her face, as well as every other emotion she felt in that moment. Naruto hadn't told her…she hadn't known they were coming back. Had they not sent any notice, or had Naruto purposely kept it from her?

He confirmed it a moment later. "Sakura-chan," he greeted cheerfully, grinning in a self-satisfied way. "Surprise."

"You're back!" she exclaimed, too happy and excited to care if she sounded lame or redundant. "You did it, then?"

The brothers both nodded.

The knot of suppressed anxiety Itachi had been carrying inside for days melted away at the sight of her. Sakura. Memory was a fickle thing that only seemed to sharpen the things one didn't want to recall, and faded out the rest. He had forgotten how her presence lit up the room, how her eyes were so sharp and radiant, how her smile could momentarily make him forget to breathe. He hadn't known what to expect upon seeing her, and had pessimistically imagined the worst. He knew he hadn't done enough to keep her, had left too much unsaid. She was the best thing to ever happen to him and he had walked away from her to follow after Madara; he had no choice but to see itthrough to the end. She'd said she understood, but he knew the heart and mind didn't always cooperate. And then he'd sent no communication, given her no reassurances, no hope for her to cling to. The world changes and people often change with it despite their intentions, and she had been so young…he'd been reluctant to hold out hope that she would still be his.

Yet here she was, with her heart on her sleeve, smiling at him in a way that sent a flooding warmth through his chest and filled it so full he thought he might burst.

Sakura tore her eyes away from Itachi long enough to notice a medium-sized wicker basket with a broken seal on the desk. She knew what was in it without having to ask. They had succeeded in their quest. Uchiha Madara was dead, and Konoha was safe from his madness. The meeting had been going on a while, it seemed, and she had missed hearing the details of their mission and how they had succeeded in taking Madara down. It was frustrating, but she would have to find out on her own later.

She drank in the sight of them both. Their cloaks were worn and travel stained, but they looked rested and well. Sasuke seemed a little taller, almost the height of his brother. And there was another difference, more noticeable to those who knew him well. The dark, half-mad aura and the internal chaos he'd carried for so long were gone. There was a serenity about him; a stillness within, like he was finally at peace with himself and the world. The journey with his brother to reconcile the past had clearly done a great deal for him.

Itachi looked the same as when he'd left—only more handsome. Achingly handsome. His reaction to seeing her again after a well over a year was frustratingly composed, though Sakura hadn't really expected otherwise. But the intensity of his gaze made her heart flutter; his dark eyes were filled with longing and anticipation, like a man in the desert who had just spotted an oasis. In that moment she felt silly for her doubts, because it was clear he was no more over her than she was over him.

Sakura wanted so badly to run to his arms, but everyone was watching and it didn't seem quite appropriate. They were still discussing official business, and so she held herself back. Barely.

"I guess we should move on to what's happened while you were gone and how things are going to be now that you're back," Naruto said. His political manner was as laid back and informal as his personal manner, though somehow it was no less effective than if he had been stern and intimidating. Everyone said his father had been the same way.

"You already know," he continued, speaking to Itachi, "that not long after you left, your official pardon was passed and you were reinstated as a Konoha shinobi. By now all the villages know about it."

"What did you have to tell them?" Itachi asked expectantly.

"That it was Madara who massacred the Uchiha clan, and that you were forced to help him because you were already under secret orders to gain his trust and infiltrate Akatsuki. That you've been under orders from Konoha all this time, and were feeding us intel on the organization." Naruto smiled, that foxlike grin he got whenever he'd pulled off something sly. "The other Kages were kind of pissed that we didn't tell them we had a man on the inside, but there are no records and there's enough truth in the story that no one's questioned it."

Sakura watched Itachi carefully. Of course he'd known there would have to be some careful spinning of the truth in order to pull off such a drastic move as pardoning one of the most notorious missing-nin in the world, without fully exposing the darkness of Konoha's past. The village now thought of him as some kind of tragic hero, which he was in a way, but the cover story greatly exaggerated it. As she'd suspected, Itachi didn't look very happy that the blame and responsibility had been lifted from him entirely.

Naruto noticed as well. "It's the only way. If the real truth were exposed, for one thing, the people would start to question their faith in Konoha's government. On top of that, the Uchiha name would be permanently ruined by their attempt at rebellion and political assassination. Konoha needs the Uchiha clan, and it's better for everyone to have a fresh start."

Itachi simply nodded, and Naruto took that as both acknowledgement and acceptance. He looked to Sasuke next, and his expression became grim.

"It's a little more difficult in your case, Sasuke." It wasn't easy for him to be the objective and stern leader in this situation, but he was resigned to do the right thing. "What Itachi did was a long time ago, and it only involved Konoha. None of the other villages ever really cared in the first place, so it's easier for them to accept his pardon. But you pissed off a lot of important people and created a diplomatic nightmare. The Raikage is a stubborn old bastard and he still wants your head no matter how often I've tried to reason with him, and the Daimyo of Iron country is backing him because of the mess you made in his territory. Konoha couldn't even cover for you because you attacked the other Kages and you would never have done that if you were working with us."

Sasuke listened impassively, though he wasn't apathetic anymore. He'd reconciled the past; he had a brother again; he had friends waiting for him. He wanted to live. But he knew he couldn't escape the consequences of his choices forever. Before he ever walked back through Konoha's gates today, he was resolved to accept whatever fate awaited him.

Naruto was about to continue, but sounds at the door made him pause. It was opened by the guards outside, and they all turned.

Karin entered cautiously, not quite sure why she'd been summoned. She froze when she saw Sasuke, her expression caught somewhere between happiness and fear. Sasuke's eyes went wide, his mouth falling slack.

Karin was carrying a very small child in her arms…an adorable boy with a shock of unruly black hair and unmistakable Uchiha features.

The room went absolutely still. For a long minute Sasuke just stared at the tiny person clinging to his mother, uncertain of the new strangers. Finally he took a slow, tentative step forward, then another. His eyes never left boy's face.

"I didn't know…" he said, nearly a whisper. The boy hid half his face in Karin's hair at the sudden attention, but his wide eyes were bold and curious. Sasuke finally looked at Karin, confused, but not yet angry. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"I tried to at first, but you never wanted to talk about…us." She tried not to sound resentful. The past was in the past, and the only way this would work was if everyone moved on. "Then everything happened with Madara and your brother, and you were leaving…."

"I wouldn't have gone if I knew you were…pregnant," he argued mutedly, though it was impossible to keep the conversation between the two of them no matter how he lowered his voice.

"That's exactly why I didn't tell you." It hadn't been easy, and there were times in the beginning when she'd questioned her decision to keep the baby, to stay in Konoha and be a part of its life once it was born. She was young; she wasn't ready; Sasuke was absent; she was dependent on Konoha for support, and they only gave it because her child was an Uchiha. It had been rough for a while. But now she was content, and could no longer imagine having chosen differently.

"I should have taken responsibility," he maintained, growing more bewildered by the moment. "I should have been here."

"You're here now," Karin said, quietly firm. She wasn't the same person she'd been two years ago. Raising a child tended to make people grow up, fast. Especially when they did it alone. She still cared for Sasuke, loved him even, but he was no longer the center of her universe. Her child was the most important thing in the world now, and all that mattered was his safety and happiness.

She gave Sasuke a small smile. "Do you want to hold him?"

Sasuke focused on the boy again, who was still staring at him with the kind of unabashed interest only babies can have. He swallowed thickly, his mouth going strangely dry. Karin detached the child from herself and turned him, holding him out for Sasuke to take.

He was suddenly terrified of this little creature. Would he drop it? Break it? Ruin it somehow? He had no idea how to hold a baby. But it wasn't a baby-baby, it was more like a…toddler? Where was he supposed to put his hands?

Karin chuckled softly, and he had a feeling it was at his expense. But she helped him settle the boy into the curve of his arm, with a supporting hand under his small chubby legs. The seemingly fragile little person was warm and solid and surprisingly heavy, and Sasuke relaxed slightly as he realized he was probably not going to break him.

Sasuke and the boy simply stared at each other. The little face pulled together in an appraising frown as he tried to figure the new person out, signs of an already developing intellect behind his brown-black eyes. He seemed perfectly content to be where he was and didn't squirm or fuss, as if he somehow sensed that this stranger was just as connected to him as his mother was.

"His name is Koichi," Karin said, smiling a little. "He was born last July," she added, as if providing evidence.

There had never been a second of doubt in his mind—not with those eyes and a face that could once have been his own. "Koichi," he murmured softly, and the name resonated through him like a song. 'Happiness', it meant. Sasuke stared at the child in his arms—his son—and suddenly understood why Karin did it, why she kept her pregnancy a secret and let him leave without knowing when he would return, if ever. He wasn't fit to be a parent back then, not even close, and if he had stayed he would probably never have reached a place where he was capable of being a good father.

Sasuke tore his eyes away from the boy and looked at Karin for a long time, seeing her in a new light. The mother of his child. Someone who understood him better than most, and had cared enough to let him go. He had taken her for granted, he knew. He would make up for it if he could.

Karin's eyes were bright with tears, because Sasuke was smiling. A true, genuine smile which she had never seen, one he probably hadn't shown since long before meeting her. Koichi grinned back, proudly displaying his pink gums and a few baby teeth, and with a happy gurgle he suddenly tried to put his fingers in Sasuke's mouth. That was when Sasuke shocked them all.

He laughed.

The silent tension in the room broke as everyone laughed as well, surprised and delighted by the scene before them and the changes in their friend. Watching Sasuke and Karin, it was clear that they cared for each other. Maybe someday what they had would grow into love, and they would be happy as a family.

Sakura had been wondering when Naruto would enlighten Sasuke about the fact that he'd been a father for about a year. She knew exactly why he'd chosen this moment. He was cleverer than most people believed.

"After this long, it's clear that Cloud and Iron aren't going to back down, Sasuke," Naruto continued at last, more quietly than before. "Konoha can't afford to hand you over to them and jeopardize the Uchiha bloodline, but at the same time we're not going to start a war over you. There's only one option that might work for everyone."

Sasuke sobered, his miraculous smile fading as he turned to regard the Hokage. "What is it?"

"To have your chakra sealed, for a minimum of five years. You would also have to undergo periodic psychological evaluations. After the determined time, the council would decide whether or not to unseal your chakra and reinstate you as a genin—which is what you were when you left." Naruto sucked in a deep breath. "If you don't agree to it, then the only other options are imprisonment for at least twice that long, or being handed over to Cloud, where they'll probably execute you—after we've blinded you, of course. So they can't get the Sharingan."

Sasuke looked again at Koichi. His son. The boy looked back at him, trusting and curious and beautiful. The decision was already made. It was amazing how instantly and completely your entire perspective could shift when faced with a life-altering circumstance. He no longer simply wanted to live. He had to live. No matter what he was forced to endure, he had to be there for this precious child—his 'happiness.' He had to watch him grow up, and teach him to be the kind of man Sasuke had wanted to be, before hatred and grief had eaten away at his soul. The kind of man he hoped he could be from now on.

"Do it," he said quietly, looking at Naruto again. "Seal my chakra."

Naruto nodded, and gave his friend an understanding smile. He then gave the floor to Tsunade, who was more knowledgeable about the formalities of the agreement and the details of the procedure, which she would perform herself. She was soon interrupted by the door opening a third time.

A masked guard poked her head in and announced that there was someone outside with an urgent message for Sakura. Frowning curiously, Sakura went to the door and stepped out into the hallway. It was Shiho, looking highly wound up.

"What is it?" Sakura wanted to know. "Did something happen with the test?"

"No. Well, yes, kind of." She took a breath. "Another poison victim has just been brought back. This one is still alive."

Sakura's eyes widened, suddenly feeling the same sense of urgency as her assistant. "We can test the antidote on them."

"But it's not ready, is it?"

"Ready enough. If it fails we can possibly still save the victim and run further tests based on their bloodwork. Go begin preparations. I'm right behind you."

Shiho took off at a jog, and Sakura went back into the office and quickly informed Naruto of the situation. He urged her to hurry, and Tsunade said she would come to assist when she was finished here. Sasuke barely spared a glance at her departure. He was still completely fixated on the little boy in his arms.

Before heading out the door she cast a rueful look at Itachi. She wished she could stay and talk to him, wished they could reunite properly. But it would have to wait. She held his gaze and felt a thrill at the silent promise that passed between them. He would find her later.

Itachi intentionally looked down at the floor as Sakura left. It took discipline; he was surprised by the sharp intensity of his desire to watch her. As the doors shut behind her, it seemed to him that the colors in the room faded, the air cooled and resettled. He had so much to say to her, to show her, but right now he needed to focus for just a little longer on the matters at hand. He breathed carefully to hide a smile, amused at the power of happiness.

"So," Naruto said, picking up where they left off. "About the sealing…"

The next few hours were maddening for Sakura. Preparing the antidote, working to keep the suffering patient alive in the meantime, administering the untried formula, then waiting with bated breath and crossed fingers that it would work. The waiting was the worst, for it allowed her mind to wander and become distracted.

When would Sasuke's chakra be sealed? How would he adapt to living as a civilian for the next five years? To suddenly being a father? What did Itachi think of all this? What was he doing right this minute?

Tsunade arrived after a while, and after Sakura apprised her of the situation they talked about the Uchiha brothers while waiting.

"I think you should perform a full exam on Itachi when you can," her shishou said, "to make sure he's not ill again before he returns to service."

Sakura had worried about that as well; that Itachi's condition would return, that his eyesight would begin to fail again. "I planned to."

Tsunade smirked knowingly. "Of course." She crossed her arms over her chest. "I'd like you to be present at Sasuke's first psych evaluation as well. You know him better than anyone else who will be there."

Sakura was skeptical; knowing Sasuke well was a relative term these days. "That hardly qualifies anymore, don't you think? Itachi would be a better choice."

"He's not medically qualified," she countered. "Though I suppose an exception could be made in this circumstance. I'd still like you to attend."

"Alright," she agreed. She leaned against the wall and looked at her mentor. "Do you really think Sasuke is…I don't know. Faking compliance?"

"Strangely, No. I believe he's genuine. I think the Uchiha Sasuke who returned to Konoha today is not the same one who left. What do you think?"

Sakura agreed. "He's a father now," she said, smiling faintly at the idea. "The idea of a peaceful life is probably very appealing. Even if he has to live it as a civilian."

Tsunade frowned thoughtfully, nodding. "Even if he is just biding his time, five years is a long time. And with nothing to hate, hatred is hard to hold on to."

Their conversation ended when one of the attending medics opened the door of the trauma room and beckoned them inside. The patient was awake: he was going to live. The antidote was mostly a success, although it was still too slow. If the poison's spread had been more advanced, or had the patient been a little weaker, he would have died. The good news was they now had his antibodies to study in order to create a more effective result.

Sakura wrapped up her work at the hospital as fast as she possibly could without slacking, though the temptation to just drop everything and run out the door was strong. On her way out, she was filled again with the same excited thrill. Was Itachi as eager to see her as she was to see him? What would happen when they met again, and had some private time? Maybe he was waiting for her outside?

He wasn't, and some of her excitement faded. He was probably still finishing some finalizing paperwork at the Hokage tower, and so rather than wait around, she headed over there to try and find him.

Naruto was rushing through the last of the day's work when she got there, muttering something about Hinata making him dinner tonight and he didn't want to be late. It had taken him weeks to muster the clarity and courage to talk to her after what she did during the attack. It had taken even longer for him to make a move, but he finally had about a year ago and now they were living together.

Itachi obviously wasn't there, and Naruto explained that he and Sasuke had finished their processing a while ago and had both left. He had no idea where they were.

Out of ideas, and not wanting to wander around town like a desperate fool, Sakura decided to go home. The rain had finally stopped and an overcast dusk was falling, the sky turning a curious amber color. By the time she reached her front door she was feeling a little dejected. She didn't know what to expect after so long and she didn't want to start speculating, so she was determined to just not think about it. Much.

She went inside, dropped her lab coat over the back of the couch, and went straight into the kitchen to put the tea on. She filled the kettle and clicked on the stove, and was pulling a cup out of the cupboard when she realized she wasn't alone.

Her heart skipped a beat, and she quickly set the cup on the counter before she dropped it. Then in afterthought, grinning madly, she reached up and pulled a second cup down and set it next to hers. And then she slowly turned around.

She didn't know how he knew where she lived or how he'd gotten in, if he followed her or if he'd been waiting here all along. At the moment she didn't care. He was here, smiling just a little in his tentative way. He took a half step toward her, dark eyes filled with longing. She rushed the last few steps to him, laughing breathlessly when he caught her in his arms tightly enough to lift her off the floor. Even when her feet touched down again she didn't let go, and neither did he. When their embrace finally relaxed, it was only so they could look into each other's eyes.

"Naruto didn't tell me you were on your way back," she breathed, her hands slipping from around his neck to rest against his chest.

"I'm glad he didn't. I enjoyed your surprise." He brushed his fingers over her cheek. "You're more beautiful than I remember."

The smooth, rich sound of his voice filled her with warmth, and his unexpected openness surprised her. "So are you," she laughed softly. "And you're more expressive than I remember."

"I have no reason to hide anymore," he explained simply. "I learned to be myself again."

Sakura grinned, beyond happy. "What will you do now?" she asked him. "You're being reinstated?"

He nodded. "I've been asked to take over as head of foreign intelligence. Apparently the last one was a supporter of Root."

Sakura was aware; the position had been vacant for months, and Morino Ibiki had been covering both national and foreign sectors. She had to wonder just how long Naruto had known of Itachi's imminent return, if he had kept the office open on purpose specifically for him. Itachi was inarguably the best spy Konoha had ever seen, and had intimate knowledge of the operations of many criminal circles.

"But that's ANBU," she pointed out skeptically. "I thought you didn't want to be part of that again."

"It's mostly a desk job. If I was ever needed on a mission it would only be recon."

"I suppose you are just a little too infamous to be an undercover agent again," she mused. "But I'm surprised the Hokage would want one of his best sitting behind a desk."

"I would also oversee the testing of applicants and training new recruits."

Ah. That made more sense. "And this is something you want to do?" she asked. The last thing she wanted was for him to feel bound by duty to accept something he didn't want again.

"I've already accepted." His expression turned thoughtful. "Naruto…he believes in peace. Not through control by fear or victory in war, but in justice without bloodshed. I want to see if he can do it."

"He will," she assured confidently. "Because of him, our world is slowly changing."

His hand rose again, and he carefully removed the pencil that had held her hair up most of the day. He watched her long locks fall in soft waves around her shoulders and across her back with an intensity that told her he very much liked the new look, and it was only a moment before his fingers were smoothing through the tousled strands. Sakura smiled. She'd started growing it because she knew he adored her hair, but also because he was right. The cropped hair had made a statement that she no longer needed to prove. She felt the long hair suited her now, inside and out.

But she wasn't the only one who looked different. She could see now what his cloak had hidden before: his hair was unbound, and only fell just past his collarbones. "You cut yours," she observed softly, reaching up to finger the much shorter ends.

"I had to," he explained. "It was…damaged, in the fight with Madara."

The images the statement conjured were a strange mixture of danger and hilarity. She probably didn't want to know exactly how it happened, as she might feel useless worry after the fact, or worse, she might laugh. His long hair had been so beautiful, but she was starting to think he was even more devastatingly handsome this way.

"You were gone for so long…how far did you have to go?"

"We tracked him far to the west," he said. "To a land so different from ours it's like another world. There are no shinobi there, and we believe he meant to install himself as a force of power. It took weeks to get back to Fire country."

"Will you tell me all about it later?" She was eager to know what had happened, but long conversations were not at the top of her list of things she wanted to do with him at the moment.

He gave a faint nod, and quiet fell as they gazed at each other. Sakura leaned just a little closer and felt the space between them charge with anticipation. Itachi's hands were still in her hair, and they threaded further through the locks as he gently tilted her head upward. She held her breath, her eyes fluttering half closed as she waited for the moment she'd been longing for—when their lips would meet again after all this time.

The air suddenly filled with an aggravating, high-pitched whine that refused to go away no matter how hard she cursed the universe and everything in it just then. The spell was broken, and Sakura quickly went to remove the teakettle from the stove before their sensitive hearing drove them both mad.

"Honey?" she asked over her shoulder, recalling his taste for all things sweet. She tried not to sound too frustrated.


She gleaned nothing from his tone, but of course that wasn't unusual. Sakura prepared the cups and set them on the opposite counter to cool. He'd followed her into the kitchen, and she leaned one hip against the cabinet and faced him. Neither of them seemed to know where to pick up after such an awkward interruption. The air between them wasn't really uncomfortable, just…stuck.

Surprisingly, Itachi was the one to break the silence.

"Sasuke challenged Naruto to a rematch of the fight they had before we left on our mission," he said. "He insisted he was previously weakened by chakra loss after fighting Madara and therefore it wasn't a true draw. Naruto said he'd already known that and had gone easy on him because of it."

Sakura could picture the conversation exactly, and rolled her eyes. "I am completely unsurprised," she said dryly. "That's how it always is with them. When is it?"

"Noon tomorrow. Sasuke is to have his chakra sealed immediately afterward."

Of course they would want to get one last brawl in before that happened. "Well, at least I don't have to get up early," she quipped.

Then she thought about what her words might imply, and blushed. She didn't know what was wrong with her. They'd had a very comfortable intimacy before he left, and he'd been seconds away from kissing her when the damn kettle went off. But it had been a long time since they had seen each other and where they stood hadn't been clearly reestablished. She wasn't sure how bold she should be.

Itachi didn't react one way or the other, and for once she was grateful for his unrivaled ability to conceal what he was thinking. They fell silent for a minute, sipping their tea while casting brief glances at each other. Every time their eyes met Sakura hoped something might happen, thought she might throw caution to the wind, grab him by the shirtfront and kiss him senseless. She couldn't quite do it.

Itachi suddenly smirked at some inner thought.


"Sasuke is a father," he said quietly, staring into his tea with slight bemusement.

"And you're an uncle," she pointed out.

His smirk widened into a faint smile. It was certainly something he never expected to be. There were many elements to his life these days that he never expected, and surprisingly, most of them were welcome. "Karin…is she a good mother?" he wanted to know.

"She is, actually." Sakura replied. "She only does what's best for Koichi." Motherhood had softened many of Karin's hard edges, though sometimes she was still rather standoffish. Sakura got along with her well enough, though it would be a stretch to say they were good friends. "He's a wonderful baby," she added. "Ridiculously smart." Sakura wasn't a fan of small children, but she adored this particular one. She looked up at him curiously. "How is he taking it?"

"I'm sure you could tell. He's understandably overwhelmed…but happy. He will adjust to the rest." He studied her expression, and quietly asked, "Have you forgiven him?"

That was a good question, one she'd been thinking a lot about today. "We'll see how he treats me from now on," she said. "But he doesn't seem to be the same person anymore. I hope we can finally be friends."

But Sasuke wasn't what she wanted to talk about. Itachi's hand rested on the countertop, and she reached out to touch his forearm. "Are you happy?" she asked.

He gazed at her with a rare open expression, and smiled in that shy way she adored. "I am now."

Every part of her grew warm and fluttery, but there was something there in his eyes that made her pause. Her smile faded slightly. "…But?"

Itachi shook his head faintly. "No but," he assured quietly. However, he couldn't deny the lingering trace of uncertainty he felt. She was clearly happy to see him, had welcomed him with joy and the sweet affection he had missed while away. But as much as he'd hoped for it, he hadn't actually expected her to still be waiting for him. He needed to know exactly what she wanted from him before he made a fool of himself. "I have been gone a long time. I would understand if…."

Sakura just stared at him. It was the silliest thing he'd ever said to her. "Are you kidding?" she laughed incredulously. "You worried I'd moved on?" How silly of them both, to hesitate with each other over imagined fears. She set her cup down and moved forward, closing the distance between them. Her hands rose to his face. "I've missed you so much, Itachi," she said softly, holding his gaze. "I thought of you every day, wishing you were here with me. I've been waiting for this moment ever since you left." He smiled, and she matched it with her own. "Now kiss me already."

He did, softly at first, and then with the passion of nearly two years' longing. It was everything she'd hoped for and more. Their lips met again and again and again, making up for all the time lost between them. They parted breathless, and he held her to him and buried his face in her hair.

"Sakura…" he murmured, so faintly it was little more than a whisper just above her ear. "I love you."

He'd barely spoken, yet she heard it with absolute clarity. For a moment she was stunned. Even if part of her had known, she hadn't expected to ever hear him say it. It was just too emotional…but he had. There were no words to describe her overwhelming happiness. She drew back to look at him. "I love you too," she told him, smiling, eyes glistening. "I wanted to tell you before you left, but I just didn't know…."

Itachi had realized the depth of his feelings before he left as well, only he didn't know how to say it, and because of that, she didn't know if she should. But a year and a half without her smile, her warmth, her wit, and even her quick temper had been more than enough time for him to conclude that Haruno Sakura was the only woman he would ever love and he wanted her by his side for the rest of his life. He had sworn to himself that if he was able to return home he would tell her. He would give all of himself to her, hold nothing back.

Sakura thought he might kiss her again, but he only looked at her, and the unguarded feelings she saw in his eyes were sweeter than any kiss.

"The darkness of the past is gone," he said, still so quiet. It was still difficult for him, to be open with others, but with her it was easiest. "For the first time in my life, I can look forward to the future."

"What sort of future did you have in mind?" she asked, playfully tugging on his collar.

Itachi smirked slyly, the way he did when he used to tease her. "I only have one because of you," he returned smoothly, sliding his hands over her waist. "It's only right that you spend it with me."

Sakura was shocked again, but she was quickly growing to love this new side of him. This was the real Itachi, who had slowly learned to strip away the layers of his mask, and to heal those invisible scars. This was the man she loved with all her heart.

She rose up on her toes and kissed him. It quickly deepened and grew more passionate, and soon she was pulling him by the shoulders and guiding him to the stairs.

He went along with her eagerly, and parted from her lips only long enough to ask, "Is that a yes, then?"

"It's definitely a yes," she murmured onto his mouth, before initiating another heated kiss. They reached the stairs, and he suddenly grasped her thighs and lifted her up. Her legs locked around his waist and she laughed as he climbed the steps two at a time.

Their tea, and the rest of the world, was forgotten until morning.

The End