Title: cabbage patch

Author: paws-bells

Beta-ed by: MelissaRose85

Characters/Pairing: Haruno Sakura and Uchiha Itachi

Type: Continuous (InComplete)

Genre: Romance/General/Humor

Word Count: 9278

Theme: LJ Community, 50-shinobi theme #23, cabbage patch

Rating: T (Contains content not suitable for children)

Disclaimer: Naruto belongs to Kishimoto-san.

Summary: Non-massacre AU. Their story began long before anyone could realize it. The story of a little pink-haired girl child, and a stoic young boy.

Created on: 17/11/11

Completed on: 24/11/11

Chapter Last Revised on: 14/01/12

Chapter Nine

Sakura hummed happily to herself as she carefully shaped a rice ball in her small hands. This particular omusubi was packed with okaka and bits of chopped tomatoes just the way a certain sulky Uchiha liked it, and standing on a short stool against the kitchen table with her pet Itachi-chan plopped on its surface beside her, the young girl was patiently packing lunch for herself, Sasuke, and not surprisingly, Naruto as well. Rice balls were one of the things that Kaa-san had taught her to make when she was four years old; it was cheap, simple to prepare, and one could never get bored of it because there were so many different fillings to choose from. It wasn't exactly her favorite food per se, but it was nice and filled her stomach and Sakura wasn't very picky about what she ate.

Perched on the table beside her, Itachi-chan was digging with gusto into the small saucer of rice that she had set out for him. The little weasel was by now a handsome, full grown adult all of eighteen inches long, and he did his species proud by being as lazy as he could physically get and responding to situations only with the promise of good food and much cuddling. Right now, the black-furred mustelid was completely engrossed in his meal, so much so that nearly half of his sleek, elongated body was somehow inside the shallow bowl, a dimensionally improbable feat all things considered, and Sakura giggled when she saw the grains of rice stuck to her pet's quivering whiskers.

Putting the last of Sasuke's lunch in the bento box that also housed hers and Naruto's, Sakura carefully closed the lid over it and proceeded to wrap the wooden lunch box in a bright yellow handkerchief, setting it aside on the kitchen table to be brought to school the next day. Kaa-san's bento had already been prepared as well, and even though the older Haruno had often told her daughter that she could pack her own meal, Sakura was always more than happy to do so for her mother. After all, Kaa-san often had to work double shifts and usually came home exhausted and weary, so preparing lunch for her parent was the least the little girl could do to help ease the older female's heavy load. Even now, her mother was still on the job, working a night shift that ensured she wouldn't be home until the next morning.

Naruto had also left a few hours ago, her blonde friend all but bursting with happiness and pride as he finally completed his homework for the very first time. The young boy had enthusiastically promised Sakura that he would practice his penmanship at home, and had promptly departed for a long anticipated ramen dinner at Ichiraku. Sakura had fixed herself a sandwich after her friend's departure, put some rice into the rice cooker to cook, tidied up the house a little, and then got right down to the business of making lunch for herself, her mother, and her friends. Of course, Itachi-chan had his share of rice too, and the little weasel finished gorging himself just as his young mistress packed away the last of her handmade rice balls.

"Alright, I have already done the laundry and washed the dishes. Homework is all done too," Sakura mused to herself. "What should we do now, Itachi-chan?"

The sleek, black mustelid merely yawned at her, flashing sharp little fangs in the process. Now that it was fully fed and its little belly bloated with food, it was time to find a nice, dark spot to nap in and digest the meal that it had just eaten. Before it could skitter off its owner's shoulder, however, there was a knock on the door, and both human and animal turned to stare at the entrance of the apartment. Sakura had not expected any guests at this hour of the evening; it was already around nine and since Kaa-san was out working, there shouldn't be anyone who would visit today, so who-

Once more, the ensuing silence in the apartment was disrupted by another quiet knock on the door, and this time around, Itachi-chan chittered in response. Sakura turned to look at her pet.

"Friend?" she asked the little weasel, and the young animal answered by quickly climbing down the length of its mistress' body and scurrying to the entrance, implying that whoever was on the other side of the door was no stranger. The pink-haired eight year old relaxed minutely and followed slowly after her pet, trusting in its instincts and ability to recognize the scent and auras of the people around them.

The young weasel slunk up the small table stand beside the doorway in a quick flash of black, carefully avoiding the small vase that sat on the surface as it gathered itself to jump across the space between the stand and the door. The well trained animal landed deftly on the narrow, inch-wide door handle on its hind legs in an impressive display of balance and agility, and then proceeded to vertically stretch out to its full length and use its little forepaws to disengage the door chain before butting its furry head against the latch of the lock on the door and undoing the deadbolt with an audible schlick. Then, the intelligent mustelid carefully balanced itself off the edge of the door handle, hanging on with its front claws and dangling its entire weight on it, depressing the lever downwards and using the momentum of its sleek, elongated body to swing open the door before dropping soundlessly onto the ground to proudly await its reward.

Sakura automatically took out a small piece of biscuit from her pocket and passed it over to the grabby paws of her precocious pet. "Itachi-chan, you are going to grow fat if you keep eating so much," she chided halfheartedly, but of course the little weasel completely ignored her and just busied itself by stuffing the biscuit into its bulging cheeks. Shaking her head slightly, the girl lifted her gaze to the doorway next.

Sakura looked cautiously towards the person standing outside the entrance of her house. Recognition struck immediately, and the young girl's initial reticence changed quickly to joyous surprise and a happy expression of welcome as she went forward unhesitatingly to receive her visitor.

"Itachi-kun?" the little girl greeted softly, her bright green eyes shining with childish pleasure. "Come in!"

As always, the pink-haired child displayed delight at the presence of the Uchiha heir, welcoming him with warmth and sweet spontaneity. The eight year old reached out fearlessly to the older boy, grabbing his hand and tugging him into her house, shutting the door behind them and then happily pulling him into her living room. Even though his visit was an unexpected one, Sakura was very glad to see her friend all the same. As always, the stoic teen deferred to the young girl's enthusiasm, following after her in his typically subdued manner that most would have interpreted as disinterest or even sheer indifference, but Sakura had never let that bother or intimidate her. Itachi-kun would never purposely hurt the feelings of others like that; even though he was very quiet and he didn't talk much, he was the kindest person she knew, and that made her feel a bit sad too, because somebody as kind and gentle as Itachi-kun should not look like he always did—so…empty and hurt…as if something inside him was broken and could never be fixed.

By now, even Sakura had realized that there was something wrong with this much cherished friend of hers. She had known him since she was four, and to the eight year old, that was nearly half her entire life she had spent learning about this wonderful, raven-haired boy who was so precious to her. He was her role model, a shining star who had appeared before her when she most needed him, who was always nearby so that she could depend on him whenever she needed to. He might not know it, but she had always drawn inspiration from his quiet, unwavering courage, this boy who always seemed so strong no matter how he was silently suffering inside, and as such, young Sakura greatly admired her Itachi-kun.

It was her deepest hope to be like him when she grew up, so that one day, one fine day, she would become strong enough to protect him just as he had always watched over her, and she could tell him that it was alright; he didn't have to fight alone anymore, and she would fight with him, for him, so that he wouldn't have to be so sad anymore, so that he could smile and be happy.

For now though, the little girl knew that she was not good enough yet, or even adequately trained, to be able to help him or even try to understand what he was going through, and so she could only do the next best thing—smile for her Itachi-kun because he could not quite seem to be able to do it for himself, and hold his hand in hers because no matter how it looked as though he didn't need to be touched, he never did let go of her whenever she reached out for him.

"Sit here," the pink-haired girl gently but firmly made her guest at home on the couch of her living room, at last reluctantly releasing his hand. His very cold hand. "Eeh, Itachi-kun, you are freezing! Were you outside for very long just now? Wait; I will go prepare tea. Be right out in a minute!"

More than willing to play host, Sakura trotted quickly into the kitchenette before she could be called back. Meanwhile, her pet weasel had already made short work of the treat that it had been given and came loping back into the small living area as well, but instead of trailing after its mistress, the small critter clambered unceremoniously up the couch as well, and completely ignoring the human who shared his name, curled up at the opposite end of the sofa and settled down for a nice nap. The little black mustelid showed every sign of being perfectly at ease around the other Itachi, barely even flicking its ear as it hid its pointed muzzle under its long bottlebrush tail and closed its eyes to sleep.

Sakura pattered out of the kitchen area soon after, carefully balancing a small tray in her hands that contained two mugs of hot green tea. The pink-haired child placed the drinks on the coffee table, kneeling at the raven-haired boy's side as she handed one of the steaming cups over to him. "Careful, it's hot," Sakura cautioned even as her friend took a polite sip of the beverage. The fragrant brew burned a searing path down his throat and straight to his empty, roiling stomach, warming the drawn-looking boy instantly. Cupping the mug in his icy hands, Itachi swallowed another mouthful of the hot tea, and then another, and another, greedily absorbing the heat from the drink as he felt his spirits slowly revive themselves, as he started to feel a bit better, less stiff.

Sakura stared at her friend attentively, her bright green eyes running carefully over his strained features. Itachi-kun looked terrible. The parallel lines of stress that etched down alongside his nose seemed so much harsher than usual, and his face was ashen and strained, exhaustion evident in the dark smudges under his eyes and on the grim line of his mouth. It was so obvious that the older boy was suffering once again, and even though she didn't fully understand this powerful feeling that overcame her then, pure compassion welled within the young girl for her friend. Still crouched at the feet of the Uchiha heir, the pink-haired child placed one hand on his knee to gain his attention whereas the other reached instinctively for his face, trembling slightly as she stretched up towards him and brushed her fingertips against the side of his chilly, pale cheek, instinctively trying to offer him whatever meager comfort she could provide.

The tentative touch of her small hand felt wondrously warm and unimaginably precious against his cold skin. Like the arrival of Spring gently but surely vanquishing the frozen, deathly clutches of Winter, the desperately needed human contact slowly thawed out the very numbness that encroached upon his soul, momentarily dispelling the smothering despair that rendered him emotionally immobile, threatened to drown him in its grasping, murky depths. Something indescribable flickered across Itachi's deadened, fathomless eyes then, and before this little girl whose unexplainable presence had never failed to resonate so strongly, comfortingly, with his own, life slowly and silently stirred in his dulled gaze. As if awakening from a vicious nightmare, a fine, minute shudder briefly overtook the lean, slender frame of the youth, the edgy tension in his body draining away visibly, and the teen sighed inaudibly, nearly slumping over with weariness and fatigue. He was so tired.

Lowering his guard in an unspoken display of trust, the boy closed his eyes and impulsively leaned his head slightly to the side, pressing his cheek fully into the palm of Sakura's small, warm hand, revealing a rare moment of weakness he knew innately that she would never exploit. Meeting Sakura those years ago had truly been a blessing in disguise—Itachi still did not understand why he was able to derive such emotional comfort and peace from this innocent civilian child, but he was not about to look a gift horse in the mouth, especially when he needed it, needed her, so desperately at times, when it felt as if nothing in his life was going right, as if he was just an insignificant, helpless leaf being swirled around violent river rapids, subject to the whims of powerful currents, barely struggling to remain afloat.

When everything else was a dizzying, distressing blur of missions, duties and responsibilities, continuously and unceasingly pressing in upon him until he felt like he was going to throw up, about to give in to the strangling panic, her shy, soothing presence centered him before he could succumb to the painful pressure of his life. Even if she didn't know it, this little girl was his saving grace, one that he was simply unwilling and unable to give up, not even now, when everything he thought he once knew was false, when even he himself had no idea what would happen next, so uncertain and unstable was his life at the moment. In the end, he could only retreat deep within himself, deliberately putting his chaotic emotions in deep freeze, depending mechanically on his highly prized logic to do what had to be done, but even that had not been enough, and something inside him was slowly dying.

The enlightening conversation with Shousui-sama had eased his turbulent confusion and shame slightly, the knowledge that his Commander was still willing to stand behind him despite his clan's dishonor heartening. The meeting with Shisui had showed him that he was not entirely alone in his fight against the more traitorous members of his bloodline, and that there might be hope for the Uchiha still. The chance encounter with Naruto-kun had opened his eyes to the true meaning of the Will of Fire, exposing him to the error of his self-sacrificing—or was it self-serving?—decision before it was too late and, at the same time, revealing to him other alternatives that could better safeguard Konoha and, by extent, his clan.

The starkly emotional gratitude that the young Uzumaki had shown at the mere promise to help the little blonde achieve his dream was something Itachi would never forget for as long as he lived, especially since the truth was that it was Naruto who would help save him and his undeserving clan more than the other way around, and Itachi had made a silent vow to himself that one day the child would know and understand just how much the Uchiha were indebted to he and his family.

Slowly but surely, Itachi was regaining his purpose, carefully reassessing his shattered loyalties and priorities, resolutely rebuilding the foundation of his shaken trust and faith in all the matters that were so important to him. He was trying his best to understand what was going on around him, painstakingly looking underneath the underneath, making plans in his head a mile a minute, so that he would not feel so lost anymore, so that he would never be so utterly blindsided again.

It was a hard lesson learned, but the teenaged ANBU Captain had always been an exceptional student, and he never forgot what was taught to him.

He would do anything to ensure the safety of Konoha. The wellbeing of his village was essential to the survival of his clan and everyone else precious to him, and if it meant that he had to put Konoha above Uchiha in his list of priorities, then he would do it without hesitation. The latter would never survive without the former after all, and if he had to tie himself down to the village and eventually force every member of his bloodline to serve as its protector and guardian in penance for his clan's sins, then so be it. From now on, there would be no more conflict of duty between his clan and village—at least not for him—and his decision was oddly relieving and liberating, as if a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders.

The Will of Fire—he would protect and defend it with his very being.

It was strange how his priorities had quickly restructured themselves now that his focus had shifted, but Itachi knew innately that he had made the right choice—and there was no going back. Uchiha Madara, although still an extremely pressing concern, was no longer at the very forefront of his mind. Itachi had every faith that the orange masked terrorist would be dealt with eventually, but the Uchiha heir no longer felt that it was his duty alone to see to the downfall of the dangerous nukenin. Shousui-sama was right; he was still young and lacking in experience—to believe, if even for the slightest moments, that he could be on par with someone who claimed to be his ancestor—a being who must have had lived hundreds of years and most definitely possessed unrivalled cunning—was wishful thinking at best and sheer foolishness at worst.

The heavy, distracting issue of clan pride and honor had severely clouded his thinking, but after that had been privately dealt with, it was obvious to Itachi that the threat of Uchiha Madara would be for now better handled by others—preferably individuals who were just as shrewd and as experienced as their wily opponent. Every ninja knew that the only being more deadly than an accomplished shinobi was an old one. It was a well-known fact that while many good ninjas die young, those who managed to survive to a ripe old age were the truly dangerous ones worth respecting and should be approached with extreme caution. Needless to say, as the strongest Hidden Village in the world, Konoha possessed its fair share of the seemingly frail but deceptively powerful geriatric warriors. To compare the worldly experiences of those elders to that of his own was akin to trying to measure the difference between a whale and a river trout—it was no wonder that his Commander had hardly taken him seriously at all; thinking back of his exchange with the Akikaze patriarch, Itachi realized with inward chagrin that he had reacted unthinkingly and impulsively, had been arrogant and overly presumptuous.

For now, Itachi accepted that Uchiha Madara was out of his league, an opponent that he was unable to deal with, but that did not mean that there was nothing else for the teen to focus on until that changed. Ensuring the internal security of Konoha was an equally important endeavor, and even if he could not engage their enemies directly, the young ANBU Captain was aware that he could still make himself useful in other ways. At least a dozen plans were brewing in his head at any one time, and even though nothing was set in stone yet, the possibilities were endless, and for the first time since he had learned the horrible truth of his clan, Itachi felt…hopeful.

Maybe it would all work out in the end, after all.

A small hand squeezing his knee returned his attention back to the present, and the raven-haired teen slowly reopened his eyes to look at the worried features of the young pink-haired girl whose home he was currently ensconced in. Truth to be told, it had not been his intention to turn up at the doorstep of the Haruno family. After parting ways from Naruto-kun earlier, Itachi's feet had automatically led him to his current destination, and he had been struck by a sense of impulsiveness to knock on the door. After all, there was no other place to turn to, nowhere else he could possibly go. With his newfound revelation and understanding, Itachi had balked at the notion of returning to the Uchiha compound at that moment. He was simply not ready to do so yet; his emotions had hardly settled and he was not confident of his ability to maintain his neutrality and continue to feign ignorance of the dark knowledge that he had learned in the Naka Shrine. A part of him dreaded running into his parents, doubted that he would be able to stop himself from blurting out his accusations if he had—Have you known all along? Why have you kept it from us all this time? Why haven't you done anything to fix this?

And Sasuke—Itachi did not know how to even look at his innocent little brother right now; that lively, inquisitive child had always been so proud of their clan, had always strove to be one of its protectors one day—how was he supposed to tell his impressionable, younger sibling that it had all been false, that their noble clan was not so noble after all, that their unique, accursed, kekkei genkai held a secret so bloody and tainted that it should never be brought to light?

Itachi was starting to tense once more, his pale face strained and his jaw muscle ticking reflexively in reaction to his increasing stress levels. Alarmed by his visibly drawn appearance, his young companion tapped lightly at his cheek to gain his attention once more, distracting him from his anxious thoughts.

"Itachi-kun," Sakura whispered then, concern shining clearly in her deep verdant gaze. Her friend's wavering attention span and blank, dull expression worried her greatly, especially since she had never seen him quite like this before. It was obvious to her that he was agitated and upset over something, and that upset her greatly as well in return. She desperately wanted to fix him, but wasn't quite sure how to go about doing it. "Uhm, I made onigiri just now. I was going to ask Sasuke to bring some to you tomorrow, but since you are here, will you have some? Please?"

Dark onyx flickered over to meet the quietly pleading gaze of the young girl. Sakura was biting her lower lip and looking very concerned. It quickly occurred to Itachi that perhaps he should not have come here after all; his edgy, high strung demeanor was clearly distressing Sakura even as he selfishly tried to distract himself with her presence. Once again, guilt ate at him. He could never do anything right, could he.

The Uchiha heir deliberately forced himself to relax, and then he nodded slightly. "I haven't eaten yet," he admitted to her in his quiet voice. He still didn't have much of an appetite at the moment even though his last meal was probably taken some time the day before, but was willing to concede otherwise in order to reassure the pink-haired child. "I'd be grateful for your onigiri."

Sakura tipped her head slightly to the side at the civil reply. Itachi-kun was always polite no matter what he did, but this time, Sakura wanted to tell him that it was okay; he didn't always have to say things like that to her because they were friends. The little pink-haired girl held her tongue, though, and withdrew her hands from him. "I will go get the rice balls," she told him softly, as if afraid that she would somehow damage him if she spoke any louder. "You still feel so cold! Drink more tea; have mine too!"

It was a very odd feeling to be fussed over by an eight year old. By observation, most children her age were still self-preoccupied and more concerned with their own sense of being than that of others, and even though that would change as they grew older, Sakura did not seem to be of quite the same ilk as the rest. The little girl he had found himself so partial to had always been uncannily perceptive even at a very young age, and perhaps it was her single parent family background that had made her more independent than other children, that had forced her to mature faster than her peers, though not quite at the same rate as himself, but it always seemed to him that she was unusually empathetic and considerate to the wellbeing of others, and this time was no different.

Itachi watched as his young companion scampered back into the kitchen area, and then very quickly returned with a bento box in her hands. Once again, she came to a kneel at his feet, placing the traditional lunchbox on the low rise coffee table and carefully undoing the knotted dark blue cloth that had been aesthetically wrapped around it. Sakura lifted the cover of the bento and set it aside next, revealing a bi-partitioned interior, the larger compartment filled with neat rows of plain onigiri, whereas the smaller segment contained a small stack of nori to complement the rice balls. Though the fare was nothing fancy and the arrangement of the bento more practical than decorative, the fact that this young child had cared enough to remember his preferences, had painstakingly made each of the onigiri in her small hands, just for him, made something tangible squeeze in his chest at the realization.

It made him feel…contented, he realized belatedly. The flicker of warmth licked at his frozen emotions, and he grabbed at it immediately with both hands. The string of events from the past few days had been nothing short of a complete nightmare for him, and right now, this small bit of happiness meant the world to him, even if he didn't know how to show it, or his gratitude to the young girl who had unknowingly given him this priceless gift. Sakura didn't seem to notice the dazed, wondering stare that her Itachi-kun was leveling at her though. Focused on her task, she carefully took one of the onigiri in her hand, picked up a thin piece of nori, and then deftly wrapped the dried, crisp seaweed around the rice ball. The sensible eight year old then turned to her best friend, took his empty cup from him and then firmly pushed the rice ball towards him for him to take.

"Here, eat, eat!" Sakura commanded in a fussing, grown up manner that she easily emulated from her mother. She watched as the raven-haired Uchiha slowly lifted the onigiri to his mouth and took a small bite. The girl eyed Itachi in a slightly anxious manner. "Is it good?" she asked hesitantly at last, worried that perhaps he did not find the omusubi to his liking.

Dark onyx eyes warmed imperceptibly, and Itachi slowly swallowed the mouthful of rice and seaweed. "It is very good," he told her softly, sincerely. "Thank you, Sakura."

The little girl all but brightened at the praise, and she beamed at the teen. "Then, please eat more, okay? It'd make me very happy if you eat more and feel better afterwards."

Her genuine, earnest entreaty made the warmth in his heart spread further, and the comforting sensation felt so precious that Itachi struggled to commit this treasured feeling to memory. The boy did not know what he had done in the past to earn respite in the form of this eight year old girl, but he was immensely thankful for it all the same. At last, the raven-haired teen placed his hand on Sakura's head and gently patted her soft pink hair in response to her remark. She smiled shyly and butted lightly against him with corresponding affection, glad to see some semblance of life returning to the bleak gaze of her friend. Sakura was pleased to remain where she was then; sitting on the back of her calves as she watched him polish off the rest of the rice ball, and then fixing him another one as his appetite slowly returned to him.

Much to her delight, Itachi-kun ended up having three servings of the onigiri. The plain but filling fare was quickly becoming a particular favorite of his, and consuming the simple homemade meal calmed and relaxed him, not to mention had also satisfied his hunger, the latter of which had made itself known with a near vicious intensity after his long, unintentional fast. Sakura repacked the bento after he had his fill, replacing the lid and retying the dark blue cloth around the simple wooden container and leaving it on the coffee table. There were still enough leftovers inside the lunchbox for another meal at least, and she made him promise to bring it home so that he could have the rest when he was hungry again. Like her mother had taught her, the well-mannered pink-haired child carefully poured more tea for her guest, making sure that his cup was never empty. Itachi-kun appeared slightly more alert now that he had eaten, but he was still quiet as always, and as much as Sakura wanted to know what was wrong with him, the little girl did not ask. He still looked distracted but was more pensive now, though no longer as tensed and stiff, and she did not want him to feel like earlier when he first came to visit, so visibly unhappy and upset.

Unobtrusively, Sakura left the older boy to his contemplation, choosing instead to occupy herself in other ways. It was not the first time that the two of them were together like this; content enough to be in each other's calming presences even if nothing else was exchanged. Though hardly a reclusive introvert, the special circumstances of her humble family background ensured that Sakura was no stranger to long bouts of silence and loneliness, and young as she was, she had long since taught herself to accept and appreciate the peaceful quietness as a companion rather than to dread and resent it. The little girl appreciated companionship and enjoyed participating in social interactions as much as any other eight year old, but also did not mind doing without them if she had to. Her versatile nature certainly explained why she could be so comfortable around the Uchiha heir, especially since the boy's own quiet and reticent character usually ensured that most children her age (or even those his age) did not find his silent, watchful company interesting or particularly engaging at all.

This young tensai who, for all his supreme intellect and battlefield genius, was woefully socially inept with his distant demeanor and clear inability to participate in casual societal norms that the people around him found such ease in performing. As such, the fact that there was this little girl constantly reaching out to him despite his inadequacies in interpersonal relations, seeing past his withdrawn and aloof nature for the person he really was underneath it all, quickly made Sakura worth her weight in gold in his regard, and even if the child herself did not know it yet, even if Itachi himself did not know it yet, the unwavering attention of this scion of the powerful clan of Sharingan wielders would eventually belong to her for as long as she willed it. The undeniable connection between the two had begun to grow from the very moment they first met, though both were still too young and unaware to recognize it, and even as the Wheel of Time continued to turn, the many intricate bonds that continued to form as a result of endless encounters and gradual understandings would only serve to draw the two closer and closer to each other, until they were both inexplicably entwined and tightly bound. It was as the fates had ordained; one day, this rare bond of innocent friendship borne from need and trust would bloom into something spectacularly breathtaking and lasting, but until then, like a fragile sprout, it would have to be carefully nurtured and protected, patiently waiting for its turn to blossom.

At the moment, the young pink-haired girl picked up a pencil, her textbook and a blank parchment before rejoining her friend. This time, she climbed onto the couch to sit beside him, making herself comfortable before she cracked open the book and started to study the passages, occasionally jotting down certain characters onto the empty piece of paper as she did so. Eventually, her peculiar practice of writing down what looked like random words on the paper caught Itachi's attention and roused his curiosity enough for him to observe her briefly, and when he still found no rhyme or reason to her action, he asked for an explanation.

Sakura blinked owlishly at him, surprised that he had broken the silence. "I was just picking out some words to help Naruto with tomorrow," she confided good naturedly. "I'm teaching him how to read and write; he's really terrible at those!"

The raven-haired Uchiha recalled the blonde's comment about how Sakura had helped him with his homework. He looked at the young girl carefully. "You are helping Naruto-kun?" he probed. Sakura nodded.

"Yep! Naruto needs help," Sakura replied decisively. "The sensei in school is not teaching him right," she told the older boy worriedly. "I don't know why they don't like him, but it cannot be his fault. He didn't do anything wrong!"

Sakura was feeling righteously angry on her friend's behalf, and Itachi silently agreed with her, even if the young girl had no idea just how correct she was.

"I will help as well," the young ANBU Captain volunteered, interest stirring slowly in his quietly watchful gaze. "What are you teaching him?"

The pink-haired girl brightened at his question. "Uhm, we are working on the common characters right now," she informed him thoughtfully. "I think it'd be easier to start with those."

It made sense, and knowledge of the common words and vowels would give the young blonde a higher chance of at least comprehending the gist of whatever he was reading even if he failed to understand all of it. Sakura would know, having taught herself to read and recognize the characters at the age of four. Itachi nodded in agreement, and then proceeded to spend the next hour or so helping her to pick out the important kanji that would benefit Naruto's learning. It was easy to immerse himself in the endeavor since the task provided the necessary distraction to keep him from fretting over the messy state of affairs of his clan, and temporarily at least, Itachi gladly welcomed the brief respite, and for a moment or two, could almost pretend that he had nothing more pressing to attend to.

It was nearing midnight when they were done, and by then, Sakura was already drooping with exhaustion and losing the fight with sleep. The little girl could barely mask the large yawns that took up half of her face, and her emerald eyes blinked sleepily as she closed her textbook at last and dropped it, along with the now filled sheet of parchment and pencil, onto the coffee table. Then, the child slumped back onto the couch and pressed instinctively into the side of her dear friend. Well used to the little girl's innocent, trusting displays towards him, Itachi relaxed as well and unthinkingly lifted his hand to stroke her hair idly, and in response, she nuzzled deeper against him, sighing with undiluted contentment.

"You should prepare for bed," Itachi told her slowly after a while, but yet none of them felt ready to move. Itachi was quite comfortable where he was on this worn, well used couch, his lack of rest for the past few days quickly pressing him with a vengeance now that he was no longer tensed and stressed enough to willfully deny the needs of his highly fatigued body. His instincts registered that he was safe here, sheltered in this tiny haven tucked away in the civilian neighborhood of Konoha, and his guard was lowered enough for sleep to start creeping in.

Sakura shook her head slightly, drawing her skinny legs into her chest and tucking herself even more snugly against him. "Mmm wanna be with Itachi-kun for a little longer," she mumbled, her eyes already drifting shut, her hand reaching out to clutch onto the hem of his shirt.

"So don't go anywhere…kay?"

Itachi stiffened. Her request floored him.

The Uchiha turned his head sharply to stare at the young girl, for a brief moment, muted surprise flickering in his dark eyes. How could she have known? Sakura failed to give him an answer; she had already fallen asleep, her head resting trustingly against him, her soft pink hair spilling over to his shoulder, her eyes closed, long, dense eyelashes the palest shade of rose fanning the milky skin of her cheeks, her small rosebud mouth slightly parted as she breathed softly. The child radiated such innocence and trust in her repose, and as always, watching over her wrought a bittersweet sensation of fleeting peace in him, followed quickly by an instinctive urge to hoard and covet that feeling to himself for as long as he possibly could, basking greedily under that gentle warmth.

Unlike himself, this little girl was still innocent, still possessed an unlimited amount of purity and goodness in her heart and soul, untainted and untouched by the ugliness and sins of the world. Even though he knew that it was impossible to do so, a part of him desperately wanted this compassionate, kindhearted child to forever remain as she was. He dreaded the day when she had to open her eyes and see the truth for herself, that the world was not as wonderful or as perfect as she had always believed, that fairy tales only ever happened in storybooks, that he was really nowhere near as special or as amazing as she had always thought that he was.

There was no use denying it; she would grow up eventually, the rose-tinted glasses of childhood would come off, and she would realize what he really was and become disenchanted, just as Sasuke would as well, in time. He hoped that they would forgive him for his weakness then, for not being strong enough to tell them otherwise, for being selfish—desperate—enough to use their innocence to soothe his wounded, broken soul—

But even then, until this beautiful dream ended, he would still not seek to change a thing.

Slowly, hesitantly, his hand came up to Sakura's peaceful features, nervous, finely shaking, rough, calloused fingers—flesh that was forever marked by strife and violence even at an age so young—gently stroking the soft, tender skin of the young girl's cheek with heart aching care. She did not stir from her sleep, and at last, he lowered his hand back to his lap, all the while silently contemplating the complicated circumstances of his life. It was quiet and peaceful here, and he found that he could think so much better right now, with his needs more or less assuaged and his emotions calmed.

Itachi was unaware of the time that had passed as he sat there beside Sakura and tentatively made plans for both the immediate and distant future. Everything was still so uncertain, and anyone in his shoes would have cowered, hid and cried—he had every right to succumb to the paralyzing fear, he was only thirteen years old and what could he do against a cunning, shrewd enemy so maliciously evil, so incredibly powerful, who was intent on nothing less than the complete annihilation of everything that he held dear—but the warm, reassuring weight beside him never failed to help center and calm the agitated nerves of the teenage boy every time his thoughts became tainted with fear and anxiety.

Itachi would not deny it; he was terrified of what the future might bring, visions of war and the skies stained red with rage and hatred, but at the same time, the physical reminder of little Sakura, the precious, sacred things that she represented—comfort, hope, happiness, home—drove him to push past the debilitating fear and crippling panic, forced him to focus on what was most important.

In the darkest hour of Itachi's life, the young ANBU Captain quietly drew strength from the calming, reassuring presence of his young, pink-haired companion and silently formed his conclusion. He now understood the belief that he would spend the rest of his life fighting for. It was a good cause, he truly believed, to risk everything for. Dark onyx eyes, previously dulled from an unrelenting series of shock and despair, slowly hardened with purpose.

He would do whatever it took to protect that which was so precious to him.

Kokkai crossed his arms over his chest and eyed the young Uchiha neutrally as the latter was once again crouched respectfully at the elder's feet. True to his command, Itachi had appeared at the light of dawn to give his Commander his answer, and although the raven-haired teen still looked visibly tensed and quite obviously on edge, he no longer seemed to be as agitated or as conflicted as the day before. It was apparent that his subordinate had already made his decision, judging by the resolute air that surrounded him, and now all that was left was the hope that the boy had at least the good sense to choose wisely.

"Did you find it?" the shousui asked gruffly at last, breaking the silence between himself and the teen.

Itachi nodded once. "I did, Shousui-sama." His voice was composed, firm, every bit the ANBU that he was. The boy had regained his composure in a remarkably short period of time, all things considered, and was returning to his usual prompt, professional self. Kokkai nodded in satisfaction, pleased that the Uchiha heir had managed to make his peace with the unexpected discovery of the sordid affairs of his clan. That had been part of the elder's intention, after all, when he had sent the young Captain out to the village to look for his answer—that Itachi be allowed to calm down before he could make any rash decisions.

"Have you also given careful thought to what I want you to consider?" Kokkai continued to ask.

There was a short pause before Itachi replied. "I did, Shousui-sama."

"And have you chosen?" the Akikaze pressed calmly.

"Yes," Itachi whispered. The scion of the Uchiha clan raised his head to meet the collected, calm gaze of his Commander. This time around, no hesitation or doubt lingered in the teen's dark eyes, even if he looked visibly pained by his reply. "My loyalty is to Konoha. I will do my duty to my village."

The shousui did not react to the harshly resolute declaration for a long while. His stern, age hewn features revealed neither joy nor relief at the knowledge of young Itachi's answer. There was nothing to be happy about in this situation; the boy was performing a sacrifice that not many would have done in his shoes, and his Commander would not cheapen his subordinate's decision by gloating needlessly about it.

At last, the wizened old man could only quote an old Japanese proverb in sympathy. "Death is lighter than a feather, but duty, heavier than a mountain," Kokkai offered quietly. "Do you understand why you must choose, Itachi?"

The young Uchiha closed his eyes and bowed his head. "I understand your lesson, Shousui-sama," he replied softly. "And that is why I will choose Konoha every time. The honor of my clan…is not worth the sacrifice of the village."

He had already figured it out by himself, had understood the necessity of what he had to do. If he chose to side with his own blood, the best he could hope for was to conceal and hide the past sins of his clan, and that was not nearly enough because the stains of treachery would never truly go away. However, by choosing Konoha and the Will of Fire, therein laid the path of redemption for his clan, because only by protecting the future, would the Uchiha clan have the chance to regain their honor. The truth of the matter was that the fate of his clan would always be intricately tied to that of his village—without Konoha, there would be no Uchiha—it was as simple as that.

Kokkai arched a thick, bushy brow. "Not everyone in your clan will agree with your statement, boy," the elder remarked dryly.

"With all due respect, Shousui-sama," Itachi responded steadily. "I will deal with the members of my family when the time is right."

The boy was only thirteen, but it was apparent that all that intensive clan heir training and mandatory attendance in clan meetings would give him an undeniable edge in the political battleground in the future, one that Kokkai was eager to help hone as well in preparation for his future administrative duties as ANBU fukushousui. Itachi was not nearly old or experienced enough to be butting heads with the shrewd elders of his clan yet of course, but if he was planning to take on that pack of slavering wolves, then he was definitely going to need all the help he could get. The Uchiha heir was going to be in for one hell of a fight if he fully intended to quell the unruly members of his clan the way Kokkai suspected, but that particular battle was far off in the future still, and therefore not a pressing issue for now.

The ANBU shousui nodded slowly, changing the subject.

"Hokage-sama has been apprised of the situation, and after much careful deliberation, we are both on the common accord that it is best for you to remain uninvolved in this investigation at this time." Itachi did not react visibly to the decision of the higher-ups, had already guessed as much that this would be the likely outcome. Kokkai continued.

"We have been hearing rumors of this Akatsuki for the past few years now, especially since our good friend Orochimaru is apparently also a member of theirs, and therefore have some of our intelligence networks actively gathering information on that group. As such, it is not necessary to dispatch you to track their movements as well. Besides, your forte is not in espionage and counterintelligence, but in strategic maneuvering and tactics, both of which I will be directly overseeing your training in from now on, along with other skills and knowledge that I deem important for you to pick up and further expand upon."

The ANBU shousui paused briefly for the young Captain to absorb the significance of his remark, and the Uchiha did not disappoint. Itachi stilled with surprise, quickly lifting his onyx eyes to meet the sharp emerald gaze of the elder.

"…Shousui-sama?" The boy's unasked question was promptly answered by a nod of confirmation from his Commander. Itachi looked faintly stunned, and Kokkai just harrumphed under his breath.

"There's no need to look so surprised, boy. Most nin your age are usually placed in teams of three under the supervision of a Jounin-sensei, and, in rare exceptions, if proven to be outstandingly skilled or have shown aptitude in a particular aspect of the ninja arts, may also be apprenticed to a highly specialized mentor to further develop their abilities. You are a special case, having been made Genin at seven and Chuunin by the age of ten, and you have the attention and expectations of many placed upon you. I, too, have been monitoring your growth and progress closely since you entered ANBU. In the last three years, you have shown remarkable potential and also possess the appropriate traits for the position that I have in mind and would like to groom you for."

Kokkai propped his hip against the edge of his study table and looked down challengingly at the Uchiha.

"What say you, boy? Are you willing to be trained to become my right hand and eventual successor, Uchiha Itachi?"

The verbal confirmation of the elder's offer briefly threw Itachi in for a loop. He had not expected to receive such favor from his Commander, especially not since the latter was fully aware of the precariously dangerous state of affairs that his clan was currently situated. Families with backgrounds of traitorous involvements against their countries, no matter how mild, were often stigmatized and shunned by the rest of the community once the knowledge of their members' treacherous deeds were made known to the public. Even if the rest of the family had no involvement in the act itself, they were usually cast as outsiders all the same, resented and reviled, branded by the rest as a family of traitors and never trusted again. Even though the entire village was not aware of the truth behind the Kyuubi no Kitsune's rampage eight years ago, the highest rank of Konoha's ruling circle knew very well of the Uchiha's involvement—and had proceeded to systematically curtail and limit the clan's influence and power over the years. Itachi understood their reasons for doing what they did, but it hadn't made the pain of distrust hurt any less.

Now, his Commander was giving him an opportunity to turn the situation around. It wouldn't be an instant, miraculous transition; it would take time, effort, and much sacrifice, but he instantly recognized that the benefits far outweighed the costs, and he was willing to do it. The prestige and honor of the position awarded to him would serve to soothe the wounded pride of his family, affording the clan elders the recognition and respect amongst the village that they had so desperately sought. Most importantly of all, the training that he would receive from his Shousui would further hone his skillset and greatly aid in his long term objective of protecting Konoha, both internally and externally, ultimately preparing him to effectively deal with and defeat the powerful enemies that threatened their village.

Uchiha Madara. That name would haunt Itachi until that man finally ceased to exist, and until that day came, the raven-haired scion of the Uchiha clan knew that he would do whatever it took to keep chasing after that maliciously evil man until he could be brought down once and for all. This offer that his Shousui had proposed was simply the beginning, and would one day pave the way to all of his goals.

Itachi grabbed it with both hands. The teenage ANBU Captain briefly lowered his head before his Commander, and now mentor, humbly.

"It'd be my honor to serve and train under your guidance, Shousui-sama," the boy declared quietly but firmly.

Kokkai cracked an amused smirk. The kid was utterly respectful and as mindful of his elders as always, even in a situation where most in his shoes would be jumping up and down for joy at the opportunity to be officially apprenticed to one of the more powerful and experienced shinobi in Konoha, the head of the ANBU forces.

"Very well," the aged Akikaze replied at last, satisfaction lacing his usually dry tone. "I will inform your family of the apprenticeship in due time, but I'm certain that they'd approve. From now on, you will accompany me to all council meetings as my personal guard detail, whereupon I want you to make your presence scarce, but watch very carefully and learn. You will be entering an entirely different kind of battleground in those gatherings and I'd suggest you quickly pick up the necessary skills to navigate those minefields, especially if you plan to wrest back control of your clan in the future."

The surprise that flickered past the boy's dark eyes was pretty entertaining to watch, and Kokkai huffed softly under his breath. "Boy, you have a good poker face for one your age, but I can still read your intentions like an open book," the shousui explained with grim humor, much to the teen's mild shift of unease. "And if I can do that, you can be assured that those vultures in your clan will be able to do so as well." The elder waved his gnarled hand carelessly at his now uncomfortable looking new student. "Do not worry, that'd be the first lesson you will master. You will learn how to play the game, and I will teach you to do it with enough finesse that your opponents will not know what hit them until it is too late."

Strike quickly, decisively, and silently. Kokkai would make sure that his protégé would be a credit to his ANBU background in every way, and for the first time in years, the old man actually found himself looking forward to seeing what the future would bring. Once again, they were living in interesting times, and although not everyone would share in his amusement, Kokkai decided that it was better than just sitting around ruminating about the past. Bah, he'd live now that he was still alive; he'd stew on his regrets when he was dead.

"You will continue with your usual ANBU duties along with the rest of your new responsibilities," the grizzled Commander directed after a pause. He did not ask if the teen was amenable to his terms, but acted as if his demands were simple enough that even a young child could fulfill them. Itachi did not refute him; the elder was his master now, and as apprentice, he was honor bound to do anything the old man asked of him.

"And as I mentioned earlier, you are not authorized to deal with Akatsuki and Uchiha Madara until I deem you capable enough. Besides, judging by the nature of your encounter with your unwanted visitor, it is obvious that they are still recruiting members—all the pawns are not fully gathered yet, and he will need a full set before he can even think of taking us on. We will use this time to prepare ourselves for what is to come." The Commander looked at his young subordinate. "Be patient; you will get your chance eventually, but now is not the time for you to show your hand yet."

"I understand, Shousui-sama," Itachi replied steadily, and he really did. "I will not heed the summons of Uchiha Madara or the Akatsuki."

"Good," Kokkai retorted shortly, surely. "Because that choice is no longer yours to make, boy. From this day on, you are one of ours. You will die only at the behest of Konoha, or none at all."


Questions That I Would Like To Answer Before You Ask:

Hi, guys! My apologies for the late update! Real life has been a bit hectic for me recently; I got caught up in the festive mood, ended up procrastinating somewhat and putting my fics on the backburner for a while to celebrate Christmas and New Year, and then ran off on a short trip overseas with my friends last week (too busy having fun to think of ItaSaku, haha). Then the new academic semester started this week and I got preoccupied rearranging my schedule and getting back in gear for yet another crazy school term, and following that, the Chinese New Year is coming next week and there will be yet another whirlwind of activities to deal with…yeah, I have been quite busy lately, so please do forgive me for this late installment!

By the way, a belated Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all readers, since I missed the chance to wish all of you last year! Hope all of you had a great start to 2012!


Here, we finally have the long awaited appearance of Itachi-chan! Clearly, after four years of being Sakura's pet, the weasel is a full grown animal by now, and he is both smart and lazy in terms of character, always looking for maximum gains for minimum efforts. He will be having some cameo appearances every now and then, and for those who asked, yes, he is a nin-animal and will therefore enjoy a lifespan longer than the average wild weasel. I'm still not decided whether to let Itachi-chan participate as a ninja tool in Sakura's future, but even if that does come into play, he will obviously not be the combative type, but will take a more supporting/recon role in consideration of his size and deceptive cuteness!


Also, as promised, some ItaSaku interaction, even though there's not much going on between those two for now, and this installment is more of a filler chapter than anything else, really, helping to tie up some loose ends before the next mini timeskip. More development between our two lead characters to come in subsequent updates, though, so do watch out for those!


According to the Third Naruto Databook, Itachi's two favorite foods were cabbage and onigiri with seaweed. It's an interesting observation to me; the Uchiha brothers' tastes in food are surprisingly modest and simple despite being born to the main family of a ninja high clan.


For those who are wondering about Sasuke and his conspicuous absence in the current events of CP, rest assured that he will make his appearance very soon. I won't neglect the brotherly bond between Itachi and Sasuke; that will come into play soon enough. For now though, Sasuke will remain oblivious to his brother's inner turmoil, which I feel is compliant to canon-verse as canon!Sasuke had been more or less ignorant of Itachi's conflicted stand between the Uchiha and Konoha until he came home one evening and found his entire clan murdered in cold blood, supposedly under the hands of his older brother.

Since I still intend to keep the plot as close to canon as possible and there will be no Uchiha massacre in CP-verse to force Sasuke to grow up abruptly, he will need a bit more time to mature mentally before he can take a more active role in the grand scheme of things, so as to speak.


This latest plot development shouldn't come as a complete surprise to you guys. At thirteen, Itachi (the human one) is at the age where he would either be put in a team to be mentored by a Jounin sensei or apprenticed to a high ranking ninja for advanced, specialized training according to his personal field of merit. He has been marked down from the very beginning as a potential fukushousui candidate from the moment he entered ANBU, so it is only fitting that the shousui would officially take Itachi under his wings to be groomed as his future successor.

Of course, I'm also trying to follow the main gist of succession in the Naruto storyline: Naruto to Jiraiya, Sakura to Tsunade, and Sasuke to Orochimaru, since, apparently, it takes a legend to teach another legend.


Your reviews fuel my passion for writing. So please leave a comment if you like this fic!