-Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto or its characters. I do, however, own my OC's such as Akane, Saku, Arata, and the like.

-In commemoration of 50 followers on Tumblr and 400+ reviews on this story, I've decided to update Tabula Rasa faster than expected.

-Thank you so much for the feedback and support! :D know it's been a really long time, SO for the benefit of old readers who want a refresher: (quite long)

Itachi Uchiha finds young Sakura Haruno at the night of his clan's massacre. With that, he takes her and together joins the Akatsuki although Sakura is unaware of the group's job description. Sakura grows up with the Akatsuki as her niisans until one day, as Hidan and Kakuzu are left to baby sit her, Konoha shinobi attack the Konoha base. Sakura gets caught in the ramble and is taken to Konoha. There, she lives her life as the series showed: Meeting her teammates and friends with the exception of her constantly thinking of her niisans. The 'fast forward' goes on 'play' when Sasuke returns to Konoha after killing Orochimaru. There Sakura tries to get her beloved Sasuke to recover from his pains. However, things aren't as resolved as they are assigned to deal with the Akatsuki—a dangerous S-class criminal group. After several missed attempts, they finally meet the Akatsuki to have Sakura get the biggest shock of her life! The Akatsuki turn out to be her beloved nii sans! To save her brothers, she concocts a pact between Konoha and the Akatsuki—asking them to live with her in Konoha in order to change their ways. Reluctantly, they agree. As they begin their new life in Konoha (With the citizens still outraged at the idea), several mishaps such as the death of Sakura's aunt and the unveiling of several hidden truths such as Itachi's back story on the clan killing, Akane's connection to several conspiracies, and the truth of Sakura's family, lead to the uncovering of a new enemy: Madara Uchiha. As the threat of Madara Uchiha slowly becomes real to Sakura and the gang, Sasuke breaks down and fights Itachi, putting Itachi into a coma. Riddled with guilt, Sasuke begins struggling with his inner anger. After several pep-talks, he finally manages to acknowledge his feelings. However, as one problem is solved, another dilemma is brewing outside of Konoha with several Shinobi from different nations setting the Konoha mine on fire. Is this a declaration of war? Does this have something to do with Madara Uchiha? And will Itachi ever wake up from his coma? And what about this disease that Tsunade-hime mentioned?

-Because of recent FF changes, the explicit parts have been edited out of this chapter and been moved elsewhere and is covered by this warning:

[Because of the nature of the content within the next few lines, this has been censored. Please refer to the cut out of this chapter.]

To see the part that's been cut out of the chapter please refer to the links displayed in my profile page. It's inconvenient, I know, but it's to avoid being purged out of

XxxxxxxxxX

Chapter 24

~Analeptic~

"Itachi…?"

XxxxxxX

There was nothing but the darkness around him. He felt himself move, stir from his sleep, but he could not see anything. His felt his eyelids open and shut, but still the darkness surrounded him.

He grinned in the dark, his hands roughing up his own hair. "I see. Have I gone blind? But I hear nothing; I must be dead, and this must be hell."

"Poetic as always," He turned towards the source of the voice. Within the darkness, he saw a small glimmer of light. "Shisui," He muttered. He spied the familiar black unkept hair and definitive eyelashes. He was just as he remembered him except this Shisui had both his eyes relative to his last memory where he lacked both, his last memory of Shisui. "…Why? Have you come to fetch my soul?"

Shisui grinned, "No, I'm here to keep you company."

Itachi frowned, quirking his brow inquisitively, "I hardly think company is what I need now."

"Are you kidding me? I think company's EXACTLY what you need now." Shisui stood before him and grasped his right shoulder, his touch more real than anything. "Come, brother, let's catch up on the old times."

XxxxxX

From the shadows, Shisui was eluded in a strange yet faint glow; his grin plastered on his face as if he were alive. They sat across one another, Itachi seeing nothing but Shisui. He was silent. After relaying everything that was and is, he fell into a silent stupor.

"You've lived an exciting life, Itachi." He chuckled, one that was responded with a grunt. "You've grown cold and…old. Are you really in your 20's?" He smirked but again was rewarded with a simple grunt. "But really, with everything that's happened, there's something bothering you isn't there? It's about the guilt you feel, isn't it?"

Itachi did not speak. How did catching up lead to this? He simply lowered his gaze into the nothingness in an attempt to avoid the question.

"Oh come on Itachi. You're my best friend. I know you like I know the back of my hand. Something's bothering you, and I have an inkling I know what it is. It's regret."

"Regret?"

"Mhm. Not guilt, but regret."

This statement stunned him. How was regret any different from guilt? Weren't they the same? "Is regret any different from guilt when my guilt makes me regret? Are they not one and the same?"

"Wrong!" Shisui pointed a corrective finger at him, "Do you know why? Because you aren't guilty at all."

"You're making no sense, Shisui. Do the dead often riddle the living?"

"Please, with the way things look, I'm more alive than you are."

Itachi scoffed, finding no reason to oppose him. He was right there, at least.

"I'm saying what you're feeling isn't guilt because, brother, if you had gone back in time—you'd do it again."

"If there was a forbidden technique—"

"Ah but there is. Isn't there?" Shisui quirked a brow at him, as if nudging him to forgo something.

"Izanagi? That technique isn't so powerful as to achieve that."

"But it has the power to make illusion a reality for the briefest of moments—to have want turn into what is." Shisui leaned back gazing upwards into, from Itachi's eyes, was nothing but darkness. "Aren't the stars beautiful tonight?"

Itachi squinted his eyes but saw nothing. "Stars?"

Shisui turned his gaze towards Itachi. "If you believe that what you see above you are stars, then you will see the stars."

He turned away from the sky, refusing to play along with Shisui's mind games, "Enough. I know what you're trying to say. I sinned because I believe I sinned—is that it?"

Shisui chuckled, "They didn't call you the genius of our clan for nothing." He shrugged, extending his arm across and patting his friend on the shoulder.

"But that way of thinking—that is lying to yourself, is it not? Deviating from the truth, creating a false reality and—"

"AH but how do you know what reality is? How are you so sure that the life you've lived is reality? Or if that life is even yours to begin with? Or if the truth you know is indeed your truth?" Shisui's face grew serious, "You want reality? Fine, I'll give you the 'reality' you so love."

He stood and tossed his hand to the side as if pushing something away. And, as if a mist of clouds had lifted, what appeared through the darkness were corpses of the entire Uchiha clan and his parents—bloodied, cold, and utterly dead. On top of the pile sat Uchiha Sasuke, his brother, clutching his head as if in a state of madness. He too was bloodied, but he was alive—alive like the vilest of creatures. However, that wasn't the end of it. From the smallest corner of the darkness stood Sakura, tears running down her face, but she was so far away, she appeared like a glimmer of light that was fading.

"Shisui, what on ear—SHISUI!" He pulled back, for the man before him was not Shisui. At least, it did not appear like him. This man was bloodied, both his eyes gauged out and was covered in blood from head to toe. His mouth opened to speak, "This is the reality you live with. We're all dead, and it's all because of you. You shouldered the burden but you couldn't handle it and in the end this is what happened. Your precious Sakura is an unattainable light. You're a wretch after all. Piece of scum like you—you don't deserve her."

He took a step closer. Itachi stepped back, fear gripping his heart. Was this a genjutsu? Yes, that's what it probably was: some sort of Genjutsu. He tried activating his Sharingan, for as an Uchiha he was the master of illusions, but why? Why wasn't the image before him disappearing? This wasn't a genjutsu? Was this a Nightmare? Or was this indeed hell?

Shisui let out a dark rumble of laughter, "Oh yes. You are indeed dead, and this is hell." He crept closer, bloodied hands reaching out to touch his face, "You'll be forced to see this for eternity, Itachi. After all, it is what you want isn't it? This is your reality. This is the reality you so dearly hold on to."

Itachi shut his eyes and wacked away the creature's hand, "NO!"

"Then what do you want?" He opened his eyes and they were back where they began. Shisui looked as alive as ever and sat across him with a grin. He looked right and left. There were no corpses. No monstrous Sasuke. No fading Sakura. Just Shisui as he remembered him. "Perhaps this is what you wanted?" Itachi felt an ominous feeling and immediately attempted to stop Shisui, but before he could do anything, Shisui had waved his hand and in the blink of an eye the scenery changed.

He stood inside the Uchiha Mansion; his room to be exact. Everything looked the way he remembered it to be. "Could it be…?" In a state of reverie, he pulled open his door to see the rest of his home. The kitchen, the hallways, the living room, it was exactly as he remembered it. "Itachi!" He knew that voice. That sweet voice that he loved and had missed; that warm voice of his mother beckoned for him to come outside. He would've rushed outside to see his mother, had he remembered the gruesome truth.

Was the person he would meet really his mother? What if it had been one of hell's deceptions? He sighed, gathering whatever courage he could find. With that, he slid the door open ready to accept hell. But what he saw was not hell. His mother stood outside, hanging the sheets. She poked her head through one of the sheets and grinned at him, "Itachi, where've you been? Your father's gone on a mission, and Sasuke was summoned to the Godaime's office. I think Hatake-san had to do extra training with Sasuke"

He was speechless, his mouth hanging in utter shock. "Uh—'kaa san."

"Yes?" Mikoto raised a brow at him. "What's wrong?" With a grin, she approached him and touched the top of his head as if seeing if he had a fever, "I know what it is. You're worried about your proposal tomorrow, yes? Don't worry, I'm sure Sakura chan will say yes. After all, how can she turn down a splendid man like my little boy?" She chuckled, wrapping her arms around Itachi's head. Itachi stiffened, basking in the feel of his mother's arms around him. His mother. How he had missed her so. "My little boy isn't little anymore." She pulled away, wiping the small tears that had formed in her eyes.

"Mother," he muttered, debating with himself whether any of this was real or not. Apparently, he was going to be engaged to Sakura and his parents were alive and well. Konoha still stood and everything was…peaceful. On an urge, he reached out to touch his mother.

But she faded even before he had reached her. "That was what you wanted, was it not?"

Again, he sat across Shisui, but he was no longer as surprised or shaken up as he was previously. He stared at Shisui, a sense of overwhelming sadness within him.

"I'll say it again. Truth of the matter is, Itachi, you regret. You are not guilty. You don't feel guilt."

"I don't understand." He was growing cross with every roundabout game Shisui threw at him.

"Guilt is when you did something that you knew was wrong—"

"BUT I DID do something that was wrong! I killed OUR family! That first vision you showed me. THAT is what I did, Shisui!" Itachi argued in a bare scream.

"But at the time, you believed you were doing the right thing."

"But was I? Was I doing the right thing?"

"Killing is never a good thing to do, Itachi, but sometimes it's inevitable." Shisui cast his eyes downwards, he too had killed once upon a time.

Itachi stayed his tongue, listening to every word his ghost of a friend was saying.

"You feel regret, because…" He paused "because now you realize that things could've been done differently. An alternative path was there, but you were blinded momentarily that you lost sight of it. But that can be forgiven."

"…Can it? I could've done so many things, but I did not. Can short-sightedness be forgiven?"

Shisui smiled, a grin that held so much meaning, it surprised Itachi. "Itachi, is your pride so big that you refuse to admit that you aren't perfect? You're human, Itachi. We make mistakes. If you were placed in the same situation as you had back then, you would've done it again, I'm sure. That's because you believed in justice, and you loved your family and the village. Had you spared the Uchihas, war would've stricken our village and more death would've come." He stood from his seat, "I'm not saying what you did was right, but I'm saying that at that time, you did the right thing."

"But Shisui, I could've spoken with father. I could've told him to stop anything he was attempting to do and—"

"Yes Itachi, you could have, but you had thought of that, didn't you? You had so many options but crossed each one of them out until the only option you had left was to forcefully end the clan. Remember what I taught you? Being selfless and nameless, and silently working for the protection of the village—no—the greater good is what being a True Shinobi means. But you weren't just a True Shinobi, Itachi. You were much, much more than that. You were a True Man, and the love that flows within you and the goodness of your heart will bring you happiness. You told yourself you had forgiven yourself, didn't you? Are you willing to make the same mistake and break promises all over again?" Shisui had meant the decision he had made not too long ago.

"Shisui I—"

"After what you did, there was hell to pay, but that was simply the price of sin. However, the gravity of sin can always be made right as long as you're sincere about it. Repentance, dear brother, and an open heart can go a long way. I'm sure all these years you've tried your best to make right what you had done years ago, did you not? And you did this with every shred of regret you had. I think it's about time you learn to forgive yourself. The wounds you inflicted on others will heal with Time, understanding, and good will. The people you've wronged can forgive you an infinite number of times, but if you never forgive yourself then nothing will change." Shisui pointed behind Itachi, a huge grin on his face. "Look, Mikoto-san and Fugaku-san have something to say."

Itachi looked in the direction he was pointing to see two glowing figures of light behind him. He turned back towards Shisui but found that he had disappeared. "Shisui…I'm sorry. Thank you for everything."

XxxxxX

His father was silent. His face was as stern as he remembered it. "Otou-san" he lowered his head in habit, "I don't know if you're real but…please forgive me."

"No," Was the blunt reply of his father. Itachi's head shot up. He could see the strictness in his countenance and knew what his answer was. In dejection, Itachi lowered his head.

"Please forgive me, son." Itachi piqued, meeting his father's despairing eyes. Was this really his father? Prideful Fugaku Uchiha? No! It couldn't be! Could it? "I was so set on bringing honor to the Uchiha clan that…that I lost sight of where I was heading to. If you hadn't stopped the clan, who knows how low the Uchiha honor would've fallen. And Sasuke—" Fugaku glanced at his wife whose expression had changed to one of sadness, "It was the both of you who paid for my mistakes." He reached out almost as if to hug his son, but stopped midway and instead grasped Itachi's shoulders.

"Itachi, I can never make up for the things I'd done. To Sasuke and to you—especially you. Your honor, your future, gone because of what I'd ignited. If I could turn the clocks back, if I could—" He rambled aimlessly on.

Itachi listened to his father's drabble. He watched his father's fragile form, pity bubbling up in his gut. His father who was so strong and determined in real life had fallen so much in death. When Fugaku fell to his knees, Itachi followed suit and grasped his father into an embrace. "No father, if I had faced you back then, perhaps things would've ended differently." He held his father and cradled him like a child. He would've cried, but he kept his tears in his heart.

Fugaku shook his head, "What happened was inevitable. Perhaps even…fate." He contradicted himself, "Do you remember what I said on that night?"

Itachi lowered his gaze, turning his head away from his trembling father who tried to put up a prideful front—the front he always had, "I was proud of you. I still am. You chose that path, and that path is something you shouldn't regret. It was I who sent you down that path—that I deeply regret."

He was still, listening to the thumping heart of his father. Or was it his? "Otou san, please, I don't blame you. I never did. You were simply doing what you thought was best—" Then the realization struck him. Were these words really meant for his father? Or towards himself?

Fugaku's head dropped, burying his face into Itachi's shoulder. "You truly are…such a gentle child." Was all his father muttered before fading away. That phrase again? Itachi had his eyes wide open, seeing his father fade with the most peculiar expression. A smile. When had his father smiled like that? He remembered the stern training and the rough pressure given to him by the hard-faced man that was his father. He had to admit there was a time when he felt so much anger towards his father. But now, as he saw what could've been his father's soul fade with a rare smile he had never seen, he felt nothing but sadness and an immeasurable sense of calm.

Why had it taken this long for them to reconcile? So much damage was inflicted, and it had taken death and time to mend wounds.

Moments after his father had faded, his mother stepped forward. His mother. His beloved mother.

"Itachi, my boy, I'm glad you're doing okay." Mikoto wound her arms around Itachi much like she did in the alternative reality Shisui gave him. "Okaa-san, I'm sorry, I'm still not sure if father or you are real. Perhaps this is all a genjutsu—or death—I don't know."

Mikoto smiled, the brightness of her smile sent shivers down his spine. She was so real—even the warmth of her smile "Well you just believe what you want to believe, dear. Just as long as you listen." She caressed his face whilst her eyes stared into his. Okaa san…

"Itachi," She kept her grin on, "Thank you for taking care of Sasuke. You were always his big brother. Please continue to take care of Sasuke. But, take care of yourself too, alright? You deserve happiness too. Both of you do."

Then she placed her hands on her hips, and a frown appeared on her face, "AND make sure to properly introduce this Sakura girl that you and your brother have been fighting over."

When she saw Itachi taken aback, her grin returned, "She seems like a sweet girl. Don't make her cry, alright? A real man wouldn't make a girl cry! Remember that!" She giggled as Itachi's face softened.

Mikoto's eyes grew weary as did her stature, "You'll have to forgive your mother. I should've stopped your father when I had the chance. I wasn't a good moth—"

"Don't say that, okaa san. You were our mother. You did all that you could." Itachi was quick to reply, utterly rejecting the idea of his mother having wronged.

Mikoto smiled and wound her arms around her son all over again. "You've grown so much. My big boy. You have such a big heart. But…" She pulled away, "Why is it so easy for you to forgive others but not yourself?" She pressed her palm against his chest, "I told you back then didn't I?" Memories of that night once again flooded his mind, "We understood your actions. But it seems you've been blaming yourself for it all these years. Nothing pains me more than to see you hurting yourself, Itachi."

She stood on her tip toes and kissed the top of Itachi's forehead. "Let go, son. Let go and find happiness. You have more years ahead of you. Don't waste it by blaming yourself. If you're truly sorry, live a good life."

In an act of playfulness, she pressed both her hands against Itachi's cheeks, "And one more way to repent is to give me grandchildren! Do that and your okaa san will forgive you, okay? Raise them well and protect them. Don't make the same mistakes the people before you made. Build a better future. It's what your father wanted for all of us. Now, I think it's time for me to go. Your father's telling me I'm taking too long," She chuckled, looking up as she did so.

"Know that your father and I love you and Sasuke equally. Be happy, Itachi—the both of you. We will always be watching over you." And with that, she began fading just as her father did, her kind smile bearing weight on his chest.

Itachi's emotional wall was crumbling. When he saw his mother's smiling face fade away, he began attempting to grasp her hands as if to stop her. "Okaa san!" And as he lunged to grab her, she faded into nothingness. And as he fell, he thought he would've landed on the floor, but he didn't. Instead, the floor beneath broke just as he almost touched it.

And thus, he fell. "…Sakura!" Was all he could scream.

XxxxxX

He could hear the faded sounds of a high pitched, rhythmic sound somewhere. He slowly felt his body, as if his soul were slowly slipping into each cell of his body—like gloves fitting perfectly into his hands. He felt cold and wet. He could feel beads of water drip down his entire body. Was that sweat? Was he sweating? He willed his eyes to open, but could only muster a slight twitch. He tried to move his hands, but again only a twitch was activated.

Then he heard it.

"Itachi…?" That voice. That sweet voice that he longed to hear. Damnit open! He mentally screamed for his eyes to open. Mustering what will he had, he ordered his eyes to open. Then, he felt his heart hammering within his chest. Light surged in, a bright white then a blur of pink. "Sa…" It was as if he had lost his voice. He could slightly hear himself, but his voice was drowned out by the pinkette's hard sobbing. He attempted to move his hands, try to wipe her tears away, but his body was too worn out.

"Sa…ra…" He whispered. In his mind, he was screaming her name, but it came out in a bare whisper.

Sakura jolted upwards, her green eyes widened in shock. "Itachi…? ITACHI!" In shock she threw herself at him carelessly, encircling his chest tightly with her slender arms. "Itachi! Oh Itachi!"

Sweat was trickling down the sides of her face. She appeared tired. How long had she been here? Where was 'here' anyway? He attempted to move his head, but could only make out the faint green lines of the ECG monitor. Hospital?

"Itachi!" It was a deep voice this time. He couldn't see him, but he knew it was his younger brother.

"Itachi, you're finally awake. I thought…I thought…" Sakura was hiccupping in between her sobs. She attempted to laugh, but her tears were overpowering her. She could hardly talk—a choke in every word she spoke. In the end his name was all she could perfectly say.

Feeling slightly better and with the need to hold Sakura, he attempted to get up. He mustered the strength to push himself up, but faltered half way. It was a good thing Sakura caught him before he slammed himself against the bed.

"No, don't. You're tired." He shook his head. Seeing as their faces were inches apart, her arms encircled around him to prevent him from falling, he leaned over and brushed his lips against her forehead but was too weak to press any further. "Sa…kura…" He uttered before he fell onto his bed and into another slumber.

"Itachi," She smiled and kissed him back on the forehead, grasping the sheets with her hands and tucking him in. She wiped her tears away, straightening herself and turning to Sasuke who had become white as a sheet. To ease him, she raised her hands and gave him the peace sign to signal Itachi's recovery. With that, Sasuke gave out a heavy sigh. His knees buckled from the relief and he fell onto the couch. "Aniki…!" He grumbled as he smirked at his slumbering brother.

XxxxX

The next time he awoke, he felt so rejuvenated he began wondering just how long he had been out. He attempted to sit up, but found himself stopping when he noticed the fluff of pink right next to him. He looked around and saw no one else around. With that, he felt it safe to grin carelessly. He remembered the dream with Shisui and his parents. It all felt so real. But no matter if it was real or not, he felt like a changed man. He felt so light. He felt like the world didn't weigh on his shoulders anymore. Is that what forgiveness does?

Lovingly, he caressed her sleeping face. Upon sliding his finger across her chin, she began to stir in her sleep. Quickly, he recoiled his hand. When he saw those familiar pair of greens, he found himself grinning even wider. He leaned in close and whispered her name onto her ear, "Sakura,"

"mm…Itachi…" She whispered back as if she were dreaming. With a chuckle he leaned in closer, "If you don't wake up I'll attack you in your sleep." With that, Sakura jolted up with a start. Still groggy and half asleep she looked around, "ITACHI!" She yelled. Upon seeing her zeal, Itachi smiled and cupped her cheek with his hand, "I finally get to see your face."

She blushed a deep shade of red, her brows furrowing in an attempt to hide her embarrassment and show anger instead. "S-stop it! How dare you go into a coma and then suddenly…I thought you would've…" She paused as she lost her strength.

With that, Itachi frowned. Then suddenly, he leaned forward and pulled Sakura into a deep kiss. Although Sakura tried to say something—probably something along the lines of "this is a hospital"—it ended up being muffled by the kiss, she eventually just shut up and kissed him back. Her arms unconsciously wound up behind his head as he continued his ministrations. His hand circled the small of her back, his tongue tracing her dried lips. She was so weary. When Sakura attempted to gasp for air, he took it as an opportunity to plunge his tongue into her mouth.

He was famished. It was as if that coma had deprived him so much that he was practically begging for Sakura-contact. And though physically exhausted, he was too busy reconciling with Sakura that his mind was blank and all he could think of was how good it felt to be near Sakura—touching her like this.

When Sakura anchored herself up the bed, because she too felt needy, he slid his hand beneath her thighs to prop her up so she sat on top of him. When he found that he was out of breath and noticed Sakura was attempting to gasp air much more frequently, he pulled away. Sakura's eyes shot open as his mouth left hers and found herself mentally shrieking at their current…position. "I-itachi," She blushed an even deeper shade of red. What on earth had happened? She attempted to get off but Itachi wouldn't let her.

He grasped her arm as if tying her into place. "Stay," he ordered. Upon hearing that stern voice of his, she quickly obeyed and didn't struggle. She stared into his onyx eyes and found herself swimming in them. All thoughts of courtesy and sense of self lost her. She leaned in and pressed her face against his chest, her arms tightly wound around his waist. "Itachi, don't ever do that again. You're…you're all I have left."

He lifted her chin. "You know that isn't true."

"BUT I'd DIE without you, right?"

So unrestrained, her words were like something straight from a soap opera. How adorable, but he couldn't help but feel the same way.

"Hn," he grunted. When he saw Sakura's face change to one of annoyance, he began chuckling and kissed the top of her head. "I'd die without you too."

"You don't mean that." She muttered although Itachi did hear it which caused him to frown.

"I mean it." Sakura didn't say anything, "You don't believe me?" Still Sakura didn't say anything. He sighed. "Sakura," He tangled his fingers into her hair, "I love you."

Sakura twitched, his words were so tender. She shut her eyes in an attempt to avoid looking at him. However, when he kept silent and the tension thickened in the air, she couldn't help but open her eyes to meet those hypnotic gray eyes. He pulled her close, kissing the tips of her hair first, then her cheek, then her other cheek, then her chin, and finally her lips once again. "I am never letting you go. Never." He whispered, one hand grasping her hair and nape whilst the other held onto her waist.

In moments, they were caught in each other's grasp once again. Sakura felt her tongue entwine with Itachi's, her lips occasionally nibbling on his bottom lip. She felt his hands travel up and down her back. Slowly, she felt something churn inside her. It was a foreign feeling, but she had a hint of what it was, versed in the human body as she was. She hated to admit it, but quite simply, as her inner self mentally shrieked it out: She was wet. She wanted him, and it showed in the way she subtly pressed her lower body against his.

Was he feeling the same? Dear kami, this was insane. Would they finally…?

She pressed herself against Itachi, her arms tightly holding on to him as if she'd fall if she let go. Itachi had stopped his endeavors on her mouth and had travelled to leaving butterfly kisses along the length of her neck and collar bone. He felt so different. The way he held her, the way he kissed her, it was as if he was a different person. She had only seen him like this once, and even then he wasn't as aggressive as he was now.

She felt his lips on hers again. This time, however, she was more responsive. She let out a soft moan between the kiss shocking him and Itachi, but they didn't stop. Slowly, that heat within her bubbled into something else, her innards twisting and turning. It was clear: She wanted him. NOW.

"And here we came thinking our poor, weak Itachi would've been too tired to get up. Seems you have all your energy back, Itachi."

Upon hearing another person's voice, they both quickly parted out of breath and huffing. They both turned their heads around, Sakura looking completely flustered and a bright red whilst Itachi had turned on his emotionless mask on, with just a slight tinge of pink on his face. "K-K-Kisame nii kun!" Sakura fumbled about. "Everyone! I um we um…" She stuttered. The entire Akatsuki had apparently come in and were giving them that look.

Among them, it was Sasori, Kakuzu and Nagato who appeared as indifferent as ever. Konan had her head slightly turned elsewhere, a demure shade of pink on her face. Kisame had that awful goofy grin on his face that was screaming everything he was thinking. Hidan and Deidara, on the other hand, were the more responsive of the crowd. "WHAT THE FUCK?" Was what Hidan kept repeating over and over again.

"Y-YOU!" Was what an outraged Deidara said as he charged towards the couple and pulled Sakura away from Itachi's lap.

He held Sakura over the shoulders, much to Sakura's surprise, "BASTARD! How DARE you defile my Sakura like this?" He carefully placed Sakura down as he began yelling at Itachi.

She didn't know what to do. It was pure chaos. "Dei-nii chan p-please! This is a hospital and there are patients and…"

But Deidara could care less. "I don't CARE if you've been in a coma! Bastard! Seducing Sakura! I'll KILL you!" When he attempted to lunge at Itachi, Sakura quickly grasped Deidara by the arms and used her inhuman strength to hold him back, careful not to unleash her monster strength and accidentally toss him aside. "DEIDARA NII CHAN!" In a flurry, Kisame and Sasori quickly came to help and held Deidara down.

"Sakura why'd you let this guy do that to you?" Deidara huffed moments after he was finally calmed down.

"That…um…" Slowly, the blood started rushing to her face, "W-well that's because erm…"

"What's with everyone 'ttebayo?" Naruto and Sasuke popped into the room, a cheeky grin plastered on Naruto's face. "Oi, what's wrong with Sakura?"

Deidara rose from his seat and pointed accusingly at Itachi, "Th-th-that bastard, yeah! He…he.."

Naruto looked back and forth between Deidara and Itachi, "He what?" He saw Deidara glared at him before he rambled something unintelligible. Fortunately, Naruto's ears were quick to pick up the words Made out, Sakura, Itachi, bed, lap and tongue. It was more than enough for Naruto to connect. In the end, he had ended up joining Deidara in bad mouthing Itachi and cursing him. "ITACHI YOU BASTARD 'TTEBAYO!"

Sasuke, who stood next to Itachi, could only sigh. To tell the truth, he too was upset on the 'news' but it wasn't like he didn't know. It wasn't the first time he'd seen them…'make out' so to speak. He cleared his throat before a death glare made Deidara and Naruto stop their struggling.

The others, obviously amazed, would've applauded lest they admit their amazement. They were too proud to admit it. When the tension lessened to some degree, Sasuke fell to his corner. The group began lively conversations all circling around the topic of Itachi and Sakura as a couple. Sasuke was affected—it being out in the open now—but to be honest, he had bigger things on his mind. Once in a while, he'd glance at Itachi who was too focused on the others—Sakura—to notice his intermittently shifting gaze.

Sakura, on the other hand, was attentive enough to notice Sasuke's odd behavior. It was as if he had something to say but couldn't say it. And truthfully, she just wanted an excuse to get out of the room. Her face was still beat red, but she insisted that she keep calm. With that, she stood up and began telling the others to leave.

"What, so you can make out with Itachi, eh?" Hidan was suggestive, nudging at the pinkette who could only blush in response and yell, "NO!" at Hidan. Truth of the matter was, she wouldn't mind spending some more alone time with Itachi. Maybe even…NO! She'd shake those things off of her mind. The last time they came close to actually…making love…Itachi had stopped them.

Clearing her throat, she regained her resolve. With a lot of effort on her part, she finally managed to shove the Akatsuki and Naruto out leaving Sasuke and Itachi alone in the room.

XxxxX

Had the room been this spacious the entire time? With the Akatsuki, Sakura and Naruto gone, the room felt like it was suffocating him. He dwindled with the hem of his loose white shirt, his teeth silently gnashing from nervousness. What was he going to say?

"Are you well, Sasuke?" Itachi was the first to break the silence.

"Mm," was his quick answer. Sasuke turned to Itachi albeit his eyes averted and avoiding his gaze. His brother always had a piercing gaze, one that often revealed the truth before it was even unveiled.

Itachi studied his brother. He appeared anxious from the restlessness of his hands to the slight tremble in his voice and eyes. "Sasuke, what's wrong?" He cocked his head to the side ever so slightly, careful not to press any unwanted buttons.

"Nothing," Sasuke glanced at his brother's worried face. Damn it. Calm down! His thoughts raced, repeating words of calm over and over until he finally sucked in enough air to calm himself down for good. "I'm glad you're okay." He muttered out albeit loud enough for Itachi to hear.

Itachi was taken aback. Was this really the deranged—and he scoffed at his term—brother? He grinned, something that had been lost to Sasuke for a long time, "As long as you're okay, Sasuke." Then he remembered his mother's words: Take care of Sasuke.

Sasuke lowered his gaze onto the white hospital floor. He had fallen silent and didn't know what to say next. The silence was insufferable. They were next to one another in the room, but it felt like they were distances apart.

Itachi replayed that night over and over in his head—the blood, the betrayal, the stench of death. He felt a surge of emotion rise within him, his hands gripping the sheets tightly as his frustrations got the better of him.

"At that time," He blurted out of the blue causing Sasuke to twitch in alert, eyes wide and mind open. "I didn't know what else to do. I didn't want a war to break out, and, worse, I didn't want the Uchiha name to be stained." He gave those reasons, but he began to wonder: was that what he really wanted? Perhaps those were greater reasons that came along with his true wish—his selfish wish. "No," he recoiled his previous statement, "The truth was, what I really wanted was to prote—"

To protect you, Sasuke, my little brother…

"Enough," Sasuke stopped him. Itachi attempted to study his face but found no light to his thoughts. What was Sasuke thinking? He couldn't tell. He could only wait in anguish for what was to come next.

Sasuke took a step closer, his face and aura unreadable. He was silent, and the air was growing tense with each second that it was unbearable to breathe. He stopped, swallowing a nervous lump in his throat.

"I forgive you."

It was straightforward, hurried and awkward. A slight tinge of red had lit up his face, an awkward gaze averted at something other than his brother.

Itachi had repeated each syllable in his head. I forgive you. He felt his heart race.

"I think I understand that what you did," Sasuke awkwardly said, "You were driven to a corner and that was the only choice you had." Sasuke stared at the palms of his hands, seeing them pale and tremble slightly, "You were trying to protect as many people as you could."

He was stunned, his tongue in a bind to say anything. Forgiveness when he deserved none? "Sasuke…" He uttered out. "I—" He cut himself off, trying to find the words to say. He had no excuses for the crimes he had committed in the past. Just as Shisui had said in his "dream", no matter the reason, killing was still killing and on its own a sin. However, was this what Shisui meant? That the wounds would heal, but if he did not learn to forgive himself then it would surmount to nothing?

I think it's about time you forgive yourself, Shisui had said. Within the depths of his soul, he searched himself for an answer. Repentance, dear brother, can go a long way.

Then he remembered. You're human, Itachi. That's right. He was human, and it was human to err. "Forgiving oneself is hard indeed" He thought. He grinned to himself, one that caught Sasuke, who was silently waiting in anticipation, off guard. If indeed he had wronged, then he would simply correct it to his best capabilities. Yes, that sounded right.

And when he finally, truly, decided that he would forgive himself for the errors he had committed in his past and use the time given to him to repent for his sins, he suddenly felt the world clear. It was as if the world was at peace and everything felt right again. But the world hadn't changed, that he knew as much. No, it was he that had changed. He was different.

He basked in this newly found feeling, a tiny bubble of light erupting from within him. Inner peace. All was right in the world and he felt nothing but complete and utter bliss—Happiness. And in his glee he said nothing more but simply grasped his brother's head into a headlock.

"O-Oi!" Sasuke, flustered, said as he felt the top of his head impact his brother's stern shoulder. "L-let go of me!"

Itachi chuckled, holding his brother in his grasp, "Sorry, Sasuke. I'm just happy."

Sasuke studied his brother's expressions. Happy? That was evident, but it was odd for Itachi Uchiha to be practically glowing with it. Oh well, he thought as his brother finally loosened his grip, giving Sasuke leeway to pull his head out. "Wh-whatever! Anyway," Sasuke straightened his top, "Don't go falling into any comas sometime soon. You were out for so long, Sakura was beginning to worry." He muttered out, his gaze still averted somewhere, arms folded across his chest.

The older Uchiha gazed at him for a while, picking up the truth behind his words. He extended his hand, ruffling up the top of his brother's duck hair. "I worried you, didn't I? Gomen."

Sasuke flushed, "I-I wasn't worried! Th-that's just stupid!"

He saw his older brother's smile widen, an extremely odd gesture that he found unnerving. Itachi kept his hand on his now ruffled hair, but for some odd reason, he couldn't find it in himself to whack it away.

"Don't worry, Sasuke. Your big brother is here to protect you, no matter what happens."

For a moment, Sasuke was awestruck, and then he felt the blood rush to his face. "Wh-who ever said I needed protection? A-Anyway, I still don't like you. I still haven't forgiven you for Sakura." He huffed quite childishly. Oh dear lord, his façade was breaking.

Itachi was silent for a few moments. His eyes did not wander off; rather, they were intently fixed on his brother. He sighed, "Sorry, Sasuke. I'd do anything for you…except that. She's the one thing I can't give you." Itachi outright refused. There were moments when he thought it best to hand over Sakura to Sasuke, but the very thought killed him. Thus, he indulged his desires however few.

"Hmph. I'd thought you'd almost give in." Sasuke turned back to his brother with a straight face.

"Did I fail your expectations?"

"Hn. I'm leaving." Sasuke was about to leave when his brother grasped him from behind to give him another bear hug. "Oi! Aniki!" Regardless of the situation, 'aniki' had slipped out without him meaning to.

When Itachi heard his brother call out 'aniki' he felt much happier and only tightened his grip on his brother. For a moment, he held onto his brother, relishing the thought of being able to reconcile with him. Then he stopped, loosening his grip on his brother, "You know, I spoke to okaa san and otou san." Sasuke stopped struggling, whipping his head around in surprise. "What?"

Itachi quieted down as he took in a deep breath. "I'm still uncertain on whether what I saw was some sort of dream, hallucination or genjutsu. But I saw them Sasuke. They looked and felt so…alive." His eyes were downcast, his voice slightly trembling.

"It was probably a dream."

"Well, whatever it was, it released me."

"Released you?"

Itachi snorted, "Yeah. By the way, okaa san told me to tell you that she loved the both of us and that we should both find happiness."

Sasuke was silent; he scrutinized his brother's face. In the end, he ended up smirking. "Aa. Let's both do that then."

"Ah and she told me one more thing."

"What?"

Itachi stared deep into Sasuke's eyes before he let the words go, "She told me to hurry up and give her grandchildren."

Sasuke stuttered in his shock, almost falling over from his mother's, apparently, wishes. "hah?"

Itachi had said this in an extremely serious manner. The tone of his voice revealed how much their mother's wish weighed heavily on his shoulders. He appeared to struggle with his thoughts before he finally turned to Sasuke once again, "I badly want to fulfill mother's wishes, but Sakura's too young. For her to bear a child at her age would be—"

Itachi saw his brother's eyes widen in shock—and probable disgust—before he attempted to tackle him. "OI! Who said it was YOU who had to give okaa san grandchildren with Sakura?"

"Well it's only logical. After all, I'm older, and she's my lover." He had said this without a hint of embarrassment, hesitance, restraint or change of expression. It was simply Itachi regally stating facts.

Sasuke could feel his guts churn with a resurrected hate for his brother. It was that same hate when Itachi was just simply better than him in everything. But he wouldn't yield. "I just forgave you. Don't push your luck, Itachi-teme. And don't forget, I'm younger. I have more stamina than you."

"Do you?" Itachi raised a brow at him, "Even IF that were so, I still have better techniques than you."

Sasuke gawked, "W-well you're ill." He stuck his nose up in the air, "I'm in better health than you are."

"I have more experience."

Sasuke felt his eye twitch in frustration. He couldn't argue with that one. He did try, however it ended to no avail. In the end, the argument had ended with Itachi finally mentioning the word that had Sasuke completely at his mercy, "Virgin."

Although unwilling to make use of this small trivia, Itachi had to admit that he had his little trysts—he was still a man after all—but he had done so in Sakura's absence—when he thought her gone. To attempt to bury his mourning for Sakura's apparently fake death, he had gone over and…garnered experience.

Of course, this was done under the influence of Kisame's wondrous alcohol temptations—one which he never wanted to repeat again. He always ended up waking next to some naked woman with no recollection of the night whatsoever. After a few meetings, Itachi had decided he was done with drowning himself in alcoholism and quit listening to Kisame's advises entirely.

Itachi never wanted to look back at those hazy moments with even hazier women, but his pride in having the right to "procreate" with Sakura was on the line. Despite his best efforts to never speak of those nights, he had to use it against his younger brother. With that, the winner of their little banter was decided.

Damn Itachi. Was all Sasuke could respond with.

XxxxxxX

Sakura Haruno stood before the Nurse's desks, finishing up the last of Itachi Uchiha's discharge papers. The physicians had all marked their notes as "to go home" with just a few take home medications on the side. This would be no trouble for Sakura, however, who was well versed in their orders. She double checked each page, making sure not to miss out any papers that needed signing.

"Did you see them earlier? Those Akatsuki walked in and out of this place as if they weren't wanted criminals," She overheard the gossiping of two on-duty nurses who were too engrossed in their own paperwork and endorsements to notice the pinkette standing inches from them.

"Yeah, scary. I don't understand why the godaime would allow such monsters to roam the streets."

"Well it was her apprentice that suggested it."

"Haruno san? It seems that she has a bit of history with them."

"I heard of that too. People said that there was a time when Haruno disappeared without a trace. Apparently, she'd been living with the Akatsuki."

"Oh my god, I didn't hear that one. What if she's in on them? Like they're planning to take over Konoha or something?"

"What, like they did some sort of mind control jutsu to the Hokage? She seems perfectly fine though."

"Maybe that's what they want us to think, ne?"

"Maybe."

"But…Did you hear about the mine incident? Apparently the Akatsuki saved the miners."

The other scrunched up her face in disbelief, "But who's to say they didn't start it in the first place? I hear one of them can make bombs or something."

"That's true too."

Although Sakura tried her best not to listen in, she couldn't help but feel drawn into their conversation. She felt berated. Here were her nii sans honestly trying to win the hearts of the citizens, but it would only back fire against them. Why didn't anyone try and see the good in them? She sighed. The two nurses had stopped gossiping when a phone call disrupted one of them, forcing the other one to focus on work.

When the latter glanced up to see who it was standing before them, thinking it was a patient or relative of one, she found herself reeling at the mess of pink. "Ha-Haruno san! P-pleasure to see you." Had they been found out?

"Hello," Was Sakura's pleasant greeting. She noticed the one on the phone had attempted to avoid meeting her gaze or joining in the conversation.

"I'm just finishing these discharge papers. Uchiha Itachi is ready to be discharged later this evening. I hope things will be in order by then."

"A-aa, of course Haruno san." The nurse attempted to smile at Sakura—a ditch effort to rid the awkward atmosphere. Sakura didn't look it, but the Nurse had a gut feeling that their resident medic nin had heard more than she should've. "We'll have the papers ready on the double!"

"Mm, thank you." She began walking away when she quickly turned around. She could've held her tongue—kept walking—but she just couldn't let it slide. "And just to let you know, the mine attack was caused by shinobi from different villages. It wasn't the Akatsuki. In fact, they just saved Konoha from being attacked. Also, I don't think it's good conduct for Nurses to be judgmental. Our job is to help save lives, see patients holistically, and care for our clients. We do all of this without a single shred of prejudice or discrimination."

Snapping some sense into the two nurses, the two lowered their heads in apology.

"Believe me when I say this: those men are good people. They may have done things in the past, but they're trying to make up for them. They're human, just as we are, and like all humans, they have remorse. It may seem impossible, but they do feel things. And right now, they're doing all they can to rid themselves of their reputation—no matter how useless it may seem. They're trying their best to change themselves. Real men. That's what my nii sans are."

Sakura lowered her head, hoping that somehow the message would get through to them. After her attempt to change their mindsets, no matter what the outcome was, Sakura simply began walking away. She prayed, hoped, that the people of Konoha would change their minds and learn to accept the Akatsuki.

After all, the Akatsuki weren't bad people. They were simply misunderstood. That's what Sakura believed. True, if she too hadn't known the Akatsuki for who they were and had simply gotten to know them for what they appeared to be, she too would've been untrusting and spiteful. However the thing was, she did know them for who they were, and sinful or not, she loved them as family. They say that the one thing people can't choose to have is family. And she agreed entirely. However given the choice, she wouldn't change the way things were. Mother, Father, aunt, Akatsuki—everyone had their sins, but she'd love them and accept them for who they were—freckles and all.

XxxxX

Sakura stood next to the slightly cracked open door. Within the room, she could hear the mumbled conversations of Sasuke and Itachi. Did she mistake that? They were laughing? Well, with the Uchihas, laughter was more of a grunt and a chuckle, but they seemed…happy? Sakura silently smiled to herself. At least she had nothing more to worry about when it came to the two. She tried listening in to the actual conversation, but found that they were speaking too softly too be understood. Even if their voices were slightly raised, it was difficult to make out any dialogues exchanged.

She shrugged, shaking her head to dismiss the thoughts. Did what they say matter? As long as they were getting along, and nothing appeared to be burned to bits then everything was fine, wasn't it?

She waited until silence befell the room. When she felt that everything had settled, she knocked on the door and proceeded within. She found Sasuke looking annoyed and Itachi chuckling at his brother. Hold on, chuckling? At Sasuke? How unexpected. She sighed in relief and walked up to the two. "I'm glad you two have made up."

Sasuke grunted before taking his place beside Sakura. Protectively, he wound his arm around Sakura's waist, "What do you see in that guy? He's nothing but a lecherous pedophile." Sasuke flicked his hand at Itachi as if shooing him away.

Sakura cocked her head to the side, dismissing his comment about Itachi being a pedophile with a chuckle. Looking back, she vaguely remembered Itachi being called that a long time ago. When was it? "Well anyway, Tsunade sama and the doctors have given you permission to be discharged today. I'll start gathering your things."

"Home, huh?" Itachi muttered. Where was home? The depraved Uchiha manor? Could that still be called home?

"Sasuke-kun, come help too."

Itachi stared at the two people he cared for the most. Grinning from ear to ear, Sakura sorted out his things however few, and his brother, still-faced as always, obediently followed Sakura's orders. With a sigh, he mentally kicked himself. Of course, home wasn't a place per se. His home was wherever these two were.

"Let's go home then," he quietly said to himself, a small smile plastered on his face.

XxxxxX

Sakura had her hands behind her back, eyes carefully ogling the room and checking if everything was in place. The Haruno compound was small, but it was enough for the Akatsuki, Sasuke, Akane—she prayed for her soul—and her to live in. It was a miracle how they did, but she was at least thankful that they could all stay under one roof like one big happy family.

"Itachi," She turned, grasping the injured man by the arm, and guided him towards the bed. "Don't strain yourself so much. You're still recovering."

"Aa," he sighed, "I hate being the patient."

Sakura giggled, one which Itachi responded with a blank-faced cock of the head.

"What?"

"Nothing. It's just…it's not like you to air your complaints. Did something happen?"

He was silent for a few moments before he turned away. "Hn. Nothing in particular."

Sakura simply responded with a grin before opting to stand. "Well, I should go. Deidara nii chan is on full alert mode. I think he's still angry about that." After Deidara had witnessed such an eye-opening scene, he had thoroughly refused to let Sakura alone with Itachi. It had taken a disgruntled Kisame and a firm Nagato to allow Sakura to escort Itachi to his room.

Itachi watched as Sakura made her way to the door. He watched her approach the door before he suddenly remembered his dream with Shisui and felt an impulse to pull Sakura back. He jerked towards Sakura, but ended up wincing in pain. It appeared that his ribs weren't as healed as he thought.

"Itachi!" Sakura was quick to respond, grasping him by the shoulder and attempting to ease his pain. She was sitting beside him, a warm hand placed on his chest as the chakra flowed from them. She was so engrossed in her healing that she had not noticed the needy look Itachi had in his eyes. "I told you not to—" She was silenced with a desperate and heated kiss.

With a deep blush on her cheeks, she attempted to scold Itachi for his brashness, "Mou, Itachi you—"

"Don't go."

Sakura felt all thoughts leave her head. Speechless, she could only gawk as she attempted to process his words. The next thing she knew, she felt Itachi's hands coil around her waist, her face forcibly pressed against his chest, "I won't let you go." He whispered like a mantra over and over again. Sakura didn't know how to respond, she let Itachi cling to her like a scared little boy. In her unsettled self, she instinctively caressed his face with her hand in comfort.

Itachi's eyes widened in surprise, the touch of her finger tips sending a distinctive warmth rippling through him. He let his hand travel towards her nape, applying pressure so she had to lift her gaze. He lowered himself onto her, capturing her lips into a gentle, chaste kiss.

Sakura reveled in the feel of Itachi's helplessness. She wondered why he had suddenly changed into something like this, but she didn't ask. She simply smiled within the kiss and pulled him closer through the wringing of her hands upon his nape. It was meant to be a loving gesture, nothing more. It was meant to be their usual kiss.

But something bubbled inside of her, and she felt something awaken within her. She had felt it before: on that night when Itachi confessed to her, and previously when Itachi had kissed her oh so sweetly. It was supposed to feel wrong, but it didn't. Somehow, between the way Itachi stroked her thighs and coiled his tongue around hers, everything felt right.

In an act of self restraint—little as it was—she attempted to push him off but found no strength—or will—to do so. She briefly stopped the kiss, taking the moment to gaze into his endless gray orbs. They were hypnotizing. He leaned in closer, ghosting his lips on her ears before gently breathing into them like a predatory animal. "Sakura," he whispered. And just like that, all rationality left her.

She let herself fall onto the bed, Itachi finding his footing and settling on top of her, encasing her with his knees. With just the need to be touched, she guided his hand towards her top's zipper as if coaxing him to take it off. She saw Itachi's face briefly change emotion. Was that a flicker of doubt? She felt Itachi shift his weight, his gaze turning elsewhere. Were his injuries bothering him? If so, then wasn't it better to stop?

"Itachi," She whispered, gently brushing her fingertips on his cheeks so he would turn to look at her, "Does it hurt?" When he shook his head, she quickly lifted his black meshed shirt, revealing his many bandages that endowed his scar-ridden chest. She ran her fingers over his wounds, seeing if he would wince. When he attempted to hide the pain, she frowned. She jabbed at his wound until Itachi couldn't resist twitching in pain. "Liar."

"This is…nothing."

"There you go again!" Sakura wrapped her arms around his waist, catching the Uchiha by surprise. "It's always like this. Ever since before, even if you were injured you'd never say anything. You'd always shoulder everything like it was your burden."

"Why do you and Sasuke do that? Why do you both hurt yourselves? Why bottle things up like that?"

Tears were welling in her eyes, but she couldn't shed them—no—not now. She had to be strong. She had to be the girl who didn't cry anymore. She gazed upwards, catching Itachi's gaze.

"Don't you trust me?"

Itachi froze. Ah, that's right. The lack of trust, indeed. The reason why he had done everything in his power to shelter Sakura and Sasuke all these years from the pain was because he hadn't trusted them to bear it. He shouldered everything because he thought that the two of them couldn't have handled it. But did it lead anywhere? Did it make things better? He supposed not.

If anything, he probably broke them more than he protected them. He hurt them more than anyone did.

Looking back, he had always thought of Sakura and Sasuke as the innocent ones that he had to protect. They were children who were born into this world with nothing but a clean slate. They had no sins. They were clean. They were Tabula Rasa.

And he attempted to keep them that way. He went to great lengths to ensure that Sasuke and Sakura were never to be tainted with the world.

But that was inevitable wasn't it? Sooner or later, the corrupted world would take them and poison them anyway. So, if he knew that, why did he bother in the first place? His sense of redemption? His self-decided act of "good"? Or was this his way of selfishly holding on to something that reminded him of everything that was good?

He stared down at Sakura, taking in her form now. Her womanly body, her direct gaze, her trained intellect, her roughened hands—she was in no way a child. The child he attempted to shelter had, by herself, grown up. He had to admit, if he could've kept her as a child forever, things would've been easier. But despite his great efforts, she had bloomed into a flower. It seemed that he had forgotten his greatest enemy: Time.

Though noting the course of things, Time was probably his savior as well as his teacher.

In his reverie, he had almost forgotten to answer her question. In response, he lowered himself against her and pressed his lips against her forehead. "Forgive me." He caressed her face, gazing at her with a sad expression.

"Itachi?"

He pulled himself off of her, turning his back towards her. "I lost myself there. You may retire to your room now."

Go away? Is that what he meant? She stared at his back, ogling the way it appeared small and helpless. On an impulse, she wrapped her arms around his chest from behind, "I don't want to leave you. I won't. I'll stay here, even if you tell me to leave."

Itachi chuckled, turning towards her and cupping her face into his hands, "You won't leave?"

"No."

"Never?"

"Never ever."

"How stubborn," he said whilst he sighed in defeat. "I really can't win against you, can I?" A smile graced his features.

Sakura gave out a hearty chuckle, giving him a cheeky grin afterwards.

"You used to do everything I said."

"That was when I was a kid, Itachi nii san." She saw Itachi's face twitch at the honorific. "Itachi, do I still appear as a child to you? Do you want me to stay as a child?"

"That—that's not possible. It is inevitable that you won't stay a child forever." He gazed at something non-existant.

"BUT if it were possible. Would you?"

Now Itachi was stumped. Given the chance, assuming there was, did he want her to stay as a child? Well 'of course' would've been his usual response. That's what he had been trying to do all those years, wasn't it? Shelter her and protect her so her innocence as a child would never disappear. So why, despite his ideologies, did he had a desire to contradict himself? To tell himself that that wasn't what he really wanted?

Then it struck him. As he gazed into Sakura's soul-filled green orbs, he realized the answer that was staring right at him: Sakura. Sakura was Sakura. This beautiful 17 year old that was staring right at him was Sakura Haruno. In the past, she was quite different but she was still Sakura Haruno.

Wasn't that the answer? Wasn't that what mattered?

Despite everything—change and all—she was still Sakura Haruno. It didn't matter what form she was in, what mattered was her heart. And frankly, even as the years passed and she was in her own right different, her heart was the same. Kind, strong, and perceptive—his Sakura.

"Does it matter?" he finally answered. And when he saw Sakura's brows frown in confusion, he expounded, "The Sakura Before and the Sakura Now, they're all different, but I like all of those Sakuras."

All sides of Sakura, innocent or not. What was his basis of innocence anyway? Being sinless? Being good? Being ideal? Being Tabula Rasa? Being perfect? Foolish thinking. There was no such thing as innocence, he decided, because from the very beginning we're born human. Humans inevitably make mistakes, and that in itself shatters the "cleanliness" he held dear.

If people were born as Tabula Rasas, that wasn't meant to last. Sooner or later, a mistake would've been committed. But no matter how many stains are on the tablet, it was meant to shape people into something wasn't it? Mistakes mold people, or so he thought. Thus, this Sakura before him, tainted or not, was molded by her experiences in life. This Sakura was a different Sakura from the one he knew back then, yet at the same time those Sakuras were one and the same in some ironic mesh. Besides, considering things, was innocence as important anyway? He began doubting his ideologies. What was important was the love, wasn't it?

They had stayed silent. The night was still, and the lush leaves of Konoha could be heard rustling amidst the unmoving black, star-filled sky. "Well I like all of Itachi too. Whether it's Itachi nii san or the needy Itachi, I like them all."

"Even the killer Itachi?"

"Mm. The killer Itachi is still a kind man. Even that Itachi is gentle—I like everything about Itachi." She giggled, pulling herself closer towards the small of Itachi's chest. "Itachi, I love you. So please, trust me a little. Don't shoulder everything."

"Aa," he smiled, "well then, if you say so." He leaned in towards her, "Shall I be honest?"

Sakura nodded, feeling the blood rush towards her face due to his proximity.

"My body hurts." He nonchalantly said before grasping her hand and placing it on his chest area, "But my heart hurts even more."

"Wh-why?" She felt his breath. What was that look in his eyes?

"Because I want to hold you, Sakura." Bluntly said, Sakura was at a loss for words, "I want to hold you until the sun rises up and even after that. I want to hold you so close to me and so hard that you won't be able to go anywhere."

Sakura gulped down, feeling her heart suddenly hammer against her chest. This was too much honesty in one blow! Squeezing her eyes shut, she blurted out the first thing that came to her mind, "Th-then why don't you?" …what did she say?

She saw Itachi's face change to one of surprise, and then a deep-set delight. "Are you certain?"

She mustered courage, "Y-you were the one who s-stopped before." She stuttered, referring to the events of before.

Itachi chuckled, "Aa, forgive me. I was…different back then." He stroked her hair, "So will you let me embrace you?" His straightforwardness caused Sakura's blush to deepen, "If you don't want to, you only need to tell me. I will wait for you, Sakura no matter how long you wish."

"I…" This was all happening so fast. It was true that she wasn't satisfied with their heated make out sessions, but it was also true that her chastity was something she treasured. But if it was Itachi, he'd cherish her. She swallowed hard, biting her lip from the tension. Then she lifted her gaze to stare intently into his eyes.

"Please embrace me."

With a smile, Itachi grasped her fingers and kissed them one at a time. "As you wish."

XxxxxX

[Because of the nature of the content within the next few lines, this has been censored. Please refer to the cut out of this chapter.]

XxxxxX

-There you have it. I'm so glad Sakura and Itachi finally xx'ed. xD Although it wasn't as rough as most of you probably…wanted…? (o/o) I did intend it to be sweet and slow. After all, it's their first time.

-Anyway, thank you so much for those who reviewed my story and for those who took the time to read it. I am very grateful for my readers' never ending support despite the lack of activity. ^ ^ ; Please continue to support it :D Until next time! ^ ^

-To see the part that's been cut out of the chapter please refer to the links displayed in my profile page. It's inconvenient, I know, but it's to avoid being purged out of

-off topic: Have you all read the latest Naruto chapters with Itachi and his new last words to Sasuke? I'm squealing in pity, sadness and happiness. 3 of course, having read the manga, I edited this chapter to include minor details from that chapter. (My update and Kishi's update were so perfectly timed with one another)

-"I will always love you" -Itachi Uchiha