Disclaimer - I don't own Naruto. It is the sole property of Kishimoto-san and those who have purchased the rights.

Yes, I'm back... for a minute. I know I said I was going to take a break but this idea hit me while I was working on my Itachi/Sakura fanart, which in turn was inspired by another story here at ffnet. Yeah, a lot of inspiration going on there. Anyway, this is my first time attempting any type of Naruto fic and semi-canon at that (sans pairing of course), so please forgive me if it isn't very good. I would also like to give my beta, MelyCat, a resounding thank you for her awesome tweakage of this. It wouldn't read nearly as well without her additions.

Also if you wish to see the fanart, you will find a link to it on my profile page. But please note that this is my first fanart ever and only my second piece of completed artwork in over twenty years so don't expect much. Although I did try my best.

Okay, with all that said, on with the story. Hope you like it.

The One

Uchiha Itachi was tired.

And it wasn't just the typical worn out from a long day tired either, but more like a bone deep exhaustion that seemed to sap what little bit of energy he managed to regain. And yet, there was no outward sign of his weariness as he effortlessly flew from branch to branch towards home through the thick forest protecting Konohagakure.

Stifling a yawn, Itachi dropped down closer to the ground as an earth shaking crash of thunder rumbled through the forest and picked up his pace a little. In all honesty, he shouldn't be as exhausted as he was since his five day trip to Kaminari no Kuni was supposed to have been a vacation.

A vacation he most likely wouldn't have taken had his mother not wheedled him into it.

A tiny humorless smile curled the edge of his lips. And that should have been his first clue that something wasn't quite right about this so called vacation. Uchiha Mikoto never wheedled. She always simply asked or told, because there were none who could deny her. Well, none save himself which he now understood had been the sole reason for her unusual behavior. He should have listened to his gut instinct and continued to refuse.

But he hadn't and now he felt like a worn out pair of socks. Who would have thought that meeting a prospective bride would leave him feeling so drained. Granted, he hadn't known that was the case until he'd arrived in Kumogakure, but even so, he had always prided himself on his ability to adjust to any given situation with surprising ease and minimal effort, and it shouldn't have been any different this time.

It wasn't as if this was the first time he had endured his mother's match making either. In the last three years since Sasuke had made chuunin, the clan had been pressuring him to take a wife and pass on his exceptional genes. ANBU Captain or no they all wanted him to succeed the clan even if he had no interest. Which, in all honesty, he didn't.

Another leaf shaking crash of thunder made the tree limbs tremble under his feet and Itachi sped up even more in an effort to outrun the storm that must be brewing.

The truth is he didn't have any interest in finding a wife either. So far, all the kunoichi he'd encountered or been introduced to within the clan, or even Konoha itself, had done nothing but solidify his belief that marriage was not something he wanted to enter into any time soon. So far all of them had either been intimidated by his intelligence and skill, or nothing but conniving bitches out for the Uchiha name and all it came with.

The Cloud woman had been of the second breed. Unhappy with her station as second daughter as well as aspiring to nothing more than a second rate kunoichi. She had somehow managed to convince his mother, when his parents had visited the hidden village a few months ago, that she would be his perfect match. How she had managed that he would never know, since his mother had always been good at reading people. Something he would have to point out to her once he arrived home.

With a soft sigh, Itachi adjusted his course to intercept the main gate as he began closing the last three miles to Konoha. He had yet to find one single female who could meet him on an intellectual level as well as being attractive enough to catch his attention. Someone who could meet him on even footing and, if luck would have it, see the man beyond the status. Maybe when he did he would rethink his stand on marriage, but until then he would much rather his mother found something else to keep her entertained.

All of a sudden a teeth-grinding crack exploded into the quiet afternoon, catching Itachi completely off guard. He immediately stopped as a violent, bone jarring tremor rocked the forest floor with such force that the tree beneath his feet began swaying precariously. The animals, finding refuge in the dense ground foliage, taking flight as the land rolled under their feet.

Without another thought Itachi activated his sharingan, searching for the source of the disturbance that he now knew was most definitely not the thunder he'd originally thought but more likely an enemy already engaged in combat with those on guard.

Unable to see anything of significance in the surrounding area, he quickly shot up to the canopy to find the battleground. It only took a heartbeat to see the huge cloud of dust drifting over the settling forest a mile off to his right. Taking to the topmost limbs, Itachi flew over the trees, his hand dipping into the weapons pouch at his hip to tuck a kunai between each knuckle in preparation, as he masked his own chakra from detection.

Akatsuki. Or at least their Iwa lackeys. Most likely the latter this close to Konoha. The Earth country had started nosing around a little bit more lately. It wouldn't be long before they started coming at them seriously with the chaos currently rolling through the five nations. Another reason why he had no need for marriage right now, though he was sure his parents, if not clan, would beg to differ.

Another tree shuddering crash exploded through the forest, the resulting cloud obscuring the battleground again. Quickly closing the last quarter mile, he searched for chakra signatures to see how many shinobi were engaged and was stunned to find that, instead of the four or so he figured, there was actually only one extremely volatile signature in the middle of the dust now settling back to the ground.

Which meant the others must be cloaked.

Immediately on guard, Itachi barely noticed the last two hundred yards disappear beneath his feet before he dropped down under cover and stopped at the very edge of the trees encircling the dusty glade. Sharingan still activated, he quickly searched the seemingly empty meadow and surrounding trees for the enemy and was once again shocked to find none save the small figure, whose chakra signature was moderate at best, in the middle of the settling debris.

His eyebrows lifted slightly in surprise. There were no others? Then what had caused the forest to shake as if hit by an earthquake? Only a battle between highly skilled shinobi would cause such a upheaval.

At a loss for the first time in his life, Itachi slowly shifted his full attention back to the slight figure seeming to be the cause of the severely damaged earth now coming into view and waited to see if the person was friend or foe. He had no idea who it could be if it was friend, so most likely it had to be an enemy. But why would they destroy a single glade three miles out from Konoha? The distance was too far away from the gates to catch a guard's attention. Only someone like himself who had been traveling in the forest would have noticed. Why bother trying to draw attention when there was none to draw?

Unable to answer those simple questions, Itachi continued to wait patiently for a glimpse of the person so he could gauge their skill and reason for being here in the first place.

But unfortunately the person within the glade had other ideas.

The haze had only settled enough for him to tell that the figure was a woman with, if he wasn't mistaken, bright pink hair when an ear piercing scream of rage suddenly split the eerie silence and then she gathered a precise amount of chakra in her right fist and slammed it into the fragmented ground at her feet.

Wincing slightly at the resounding crack that came from the already damaged earth, he grabbed onto the trunk of the tree he was crouching in and quickly buried the kunai still in his hand into the limb beneath his feet so he could cover his nose and mouth to block the cloud of dirt that exploded out from the clearing.

Narrowing his eyes, Itachi stared intently at the spot he'd last seen the coral haired woman, oblivious to the small chucks of earth starting to rain down around him. Pink hair? Where had he seen that hair color before? On a mission?... No, that wasn't it. He'd come across this person before, right here in Konoha.

And then it hit him just as another crack, not quite as loud as the last, exploded into the dust-filled air, quickly followed by what could only be described as a flat palmed smack.

Sakura. Haruno Sakura, Sasuke's chuunin teammate.

And that was as far as he got in indentifying her when he saw the human sized boulder flying through the air, aiming dead at him. Without another thought, Itachi flash stepped to the next tree to avoid the deadly projectile and tucked himself deeper into the foliage wondering if he had somehow been detected. But that was impossible. No one could detect him unless he chose to reveal himself. None save the Godaime herself.

At the thought of the fifth Hokage, Itachi suddenly remembered the rest of what he knew about this particular kunoichi. Haruno Sakura wasn't only his little brother's teammate, she was also the Godaime's apprentice. Which would explain her superhuman strength and absolute chakra control. But he also knew that even if she was Tsunade-sama's apprentice, she wouldn't be able to sense him. She wasn't on the same level as the slug sannin and most likely never would be, given her modest chakra signature.

But much to Itachi's surprise, he found that theory shaken a moment later when a loud thump echoed into battered glade, quickly followed by another boulder flying straight at his new hiding spot. Flash stepping two more trees over, he barely had time to settle on a thick branch when another boulder came flying through the steadily clearing air, once again aiming dead for him.

Now more irritated than surprised, Itachi jumped to another limb higher up and was just about to make his move to restrain the obviously infuriated female when she shrieked, "Whoever you are, Get Lost!... Or the next one's getting shoved up your ass!"

Itachi's eyes flew wide, his sharingan easily picking out the black scowl directed in his general direction by the angry green-eyed vixen quickly coming into view as the last of the dust she'd kicked up in her rage drifted back to the rubble littered ground surrounding her.

She could sense him. How was that possible?

If he had been anyone else, he mostly likely would have done what she asked but Itachi was extremely curious now and just the tiniest bit perturbed that this little pink haired kunoichi had somehow managed to see through his defenses when no else could, not even his own parents. Decision made, he let his sharingan fade and stepped lightly from the limb to land soundlessly on a chunk of earth leaning haphazardly against the trunk of the tree he'd been using as cover.

"How did you know I was there?"

For her part, Sakura was quite proud of herself for managing to keep her chin from hitting the ground as the black clad Uchiha heir suddenly materialized across from her, his long, jet black, ponytailed hair trailing softly behind him as he dropped effortlessly into the clearing. Staring at him in abject horror, all the anger and hurt that had driven her to destroy the once beautiful glade flooded out of her in a rush leaving her feeling completely wrung out.

Of all the people in the world to come across her right now why did it have to be him? Was Kami-sama really out to completely ruin her life?

And then the truth that she'd been flinging human size boulders at Konoha's most prized ANBU Captain slapped her in the face and she groaned softly. Yes, Kami-sama was definitely out to get her today, or at least have a good laugh at her expense anyway.

With a dejected sigh, Sakura sagged tiredly to the broken earth and dropped her head into her hands. Could this day get any worse? With a soft snort, she shook her head. Maybe, if she was lucky, he'd go away and forget he'd ever seen her.

But unfortunately, it seemed any luck she may have had decided to completely abandon her at that point because a moment later the soft scraping of standard issue shinobi sandals across tiny pebbles of dirt drifted to her ears, signaling his advance. And for some reason that simple act of disregard for her need of privacy managed to spark her anger all over again.

Beyond irritated, Sakura snapped her head up so fast she was surprised she didn't give herself whiplash and cut him an icy glare, "What the hell do you want, Uchiha? Can't you just leave me alone!"

Caught off guard by her sudden outburst, Itachi stopped ten yards away and met the flinty emerald glare fixed on him, surprised by both her tone and her lack of any type of honorific. He hadn't expected that at all. Maybe his earlier assumption that she was nothing more than his brother and the Uzumaki boy's shadow had been unfounded. If the glare she was currently trying to incinerate him with said anything about her character, she had quite a bit more backbone than he'd originally thought. Especially yelling at him like that. There were very few shinobi he knew that dared to speak to him so without fear of repercussions. And none at all that didn't at least know him on some level other than as the Uchiha heir and ANBU Captain.

Interest now thoroughly aroused, Itachi continued to silently eye the angry young woman still waiting impatiently for his reply or hasty retreat. To be honest he really knew very little about this particular kunoichi, and what little bit he did know had never really piqued his interest. As a member of Team Seven, he had always considered her the lesser of the three, even if she was the Godaime's apprentice. Which had lead him to believe she wasn't worth his further interest. Plus the few times he'd happened upon her by chance in the streets of Konoha, she'd always shied away from him and he'd simply taken her avoidance as fear.

But it seemed he had made a grave mistake in making those assumptions. If he was reading this feisty young woman right, she had no fear of him, nor did she seem to be the least bit intimidated by him or who he was. Unless whatever had angered had pushed her to the point where she didn't care what she was saying and to whom. A possibility.

With an inward shrug, Itachi silently resumed his advance and almost smiled at the tell-tale narrowing of her eyes. Anger or no, it was refreshing to be talking with someone who didn't hide behind a smiling facade just because of who he was. But how long would it be before that changed?

Closing the last few feet between them, he crouched down on the upturned piece of earth leaning against the one she was sitting on and said, "I simply want an answer to my question. How did you sense my presence?"

Sakura's eyes narrowed even more before she scoffed softly and rolled her eyes, "To be honest... I don't know. One minute I was all by myself, happily venting my frustration on this innocent clearing. And the next I found I had an audience." Giving him a sideways look, she smiled coldly, "And since when did the great Uchiha Itachi become a peeping tom?"

Itachi snorted softly under his breath, unfazed by her attempt to get under his skin. "I was returning from Kaminari no Kuni when I felt the tremors and came to investigate..." pausing, he waited until she gave him her undivided attention, then continued, "...and would have engaged had you been an enemy."

A miniscule smirk curled the edge of his lips as Sakura paled then reddened in what he assumed to be embarrassment. Must be she hadn't really thought about how her actions would be perceived by an outsider. "You're lucky it was me and not a more... enthusiastic shinobi. You could have been severely hurt before they realized you weren't a threat." He added, driving home his point.

Far from being embarrassed, Sakura clenched her bruised fists tight and gritted her teeth in an effort to keep a tight rein on her awakening temper. ANBU Captain or no, he really was a complete ass. Granted she hadn't really thought about that but still, most Konoha shinobi would have known her on sight by her signature and actions. It wasn't her fault he had always felt she was beneath his notice. Maybe the great Uchiha-san should pay more attention.

Pinning him with an icy glare, she replied, "That may be true, Uchiha-san, but the reason I chose this place was its distance from Konoha. I didn't expect anyone to find me here, unless of course they were an enemy. If that had been the case I would have simply vented my fury on them instead."

Itachi gave her an indulgent smile that set Sakura's blood to boiling and she just barely managed to keep herself from driving a fist into his face.

"Don't patronize me, Uchiha!" She bit out sharply, thoroughly fed up with his condescending manner. "Did you forget that just a few minutes ago you tried, unsuccessfully, sneaking up on me! I am not as helpless as you'd like to think!"

Itachi's smile dropped into a knowing smirk as his eyes narrowed into slits and then he purred, "But you said sensing me was by pure chance. If that's the case, you were vulnerable no matter your skill."

Sakura bit her tongue to keep from screaming in frustration and glared at him in exasperation as the urge to wipe the smug smirk off his face raced through her body. And she was in the midst of conceiving a plan to do just that when she suddenly realized something the great Uchiha Itachi had missed. Something so simple that she almost chuckled at his oversight.

Immensely relieved to finally see an ending to this argument Sakura gave Itachi a bright smile and nodded, "Yes, it was by chance." And then her smile morphed into a sly grin and she leaned forward just enough to capture his full attention and continued, "But what you have failed to comprehend is the fact that regardless if it was by chance or not, I still sensed you. Wouldn't that mean then that I would sense anyone else as well." With a mocking tilt to her head, she smiled knowingly, "You weren't by chance masking you chakra, were you, Uchiha-san?"

The satisfied smile that had been teasing Itachi's lips at her initial agreement fell away to be replaced by the blank look she knew all too well thanks to years of working with Sasuke. Sakura secretly smiled, she was right and he knew it. But would he admit it? She snorted silently under her breath and resisted the urge to shake her head. Not likely. Both Uchiha were stubborn and Sasuke never admitted it when she was right. She usually only got the non-committal 'Hn' as an answer.

And that's what she had expected from the elder Uchiha too, or at least something similar, but it seemed she didn't know this Uchiha nearly as well as she did his brother. Not if the calculating look that was slowly darkening his coal black eyes said anything about what he was thinking.

Swallowing thickly as the look intensified, Sakura dropped her eyes from his and started picking nervously at the cuff of her glove, now simply praying he would decide this was all a waste of his time and leave.

But unbeknownst to her, Itachi had no such thought or inclination. Instead, he quietly eyed the fidgeting coral haired kunoichi before him, surprised to find himself intrigued and even a little bit excited that she had done what very few have. She had bested him in a battle of wits and she had done it so smoothly that he could do nothing but agree.

"You're right," he finally admitted, breaking the silence. "Which leads us back to how you managed to sense me. I am still curious to know how you did that." She was right but he wasn't going to let her off the hook that easily. After all, despite the fact he had masked his chakra before arriving at the scene of her temper tantrum hadn't helped. Was he losing his edge? An inward frown of concern, as well as a slight blow to his pride was starting to afflict him.

Stunned, Sakura snapped her head up and simply stared at the elder Uchiha as if he'd grown a second head. Did he just admit she was right? No... that was impossible... she must have been hearing things. But the curious look in his eyes belied her attempt at rationalization and she found herself fidgeting even more under his intense regard. The thing was, she couldn't answer that question. She still had no idea how she had sensed him. He had simply... been there.

With a soft sigh, she let her eyes drift from his and settle on the destroyed glade over his shoulder. Okay, maybe that wasn't completely true. Lately it seemed she always knew when he was near, whether it be in passing in the streets, or in the Hokage tower, or even when he came in for treatment at the hospital. But she wasn't about to tell him that. It would sound so stalker like it wasn't even funny. And she flat out refused to consciously acknowledge the possible true reason for her attunement to the ANBU Captain. There was no way her hormones would do that to her again. One Uchiha crush in a lifetime was enough, even if the old one no longer existed. Besides, she had no use for crushes now. Not after what her mother had just done to her.

The soft clearing of his throat brought Sakura's attention back to said ANBU Captain and she blushed lightly at the expectant black gaze still fixed on her. Afraid of what she might say if she opened her mouth, she simply shrugged and hummed 'I don't know', hoping that would satisfy him.

But Itachi wasn't falling for it.

A tiny little smirk of disbelief curled the edge of his lips and he almost chuckled at the defensive glare she leveled on him. She was a lively one, but also very naive. For the last minute or so he had watched a myriad of emotions play across her face, two being the obvious understanding and grudging acceptance of whatever had been running through her mind. That alone called her a liar. She knew, yet she refused to tell him for some reason.

With an inaudible sigh, Itachi decided to let the matter drop for now. He'd get the answer sooner or later, for now he would let her believe she had succeeded in dodging the question. It would be easier to get an honest answer out of her when he caught her off guard later on.

But she wasn't entirely off the hook yet. There was one more question that had been bugging him since he'd found her. And he seriously doubted she'd want to answer this one either, but this time she would. Whether she liked it or not.

Dropping from his crouch into a much more comfortable sitting position, Itachi hooked an arm around his bent knee and smiled at the suddenly ill at ease young woman eyeing him distrustfully.

"Since you refuse to give me a straight answer to that question. Will you at least tell me why you were out here destroying this clearing in the first place?"

Sakura chuckled sarcastically and shook her head as the sinking feeling that had settled into the pit of her stomach intensified. "You don't know when to give up do you, Uchiha-san?"

Itachi said nothing but his quirked eyebrow spoke volumes. No, he didn't, and he wasn't about to start now.

Narrowing her eyes at his confidence, she wanted to ignore him, she really did, for some reason she could no longer find the will to argue with the elder Uchiha. The rawness of her situation made her vulnerable and the last thing she needed was to be pitied. By him, especially. Now all she wanted was for him to leave so she could wallow in her misery.

With a weary sigh, Sakura dropped her attention to her gloved hands. "Trust me, you wouldn't understand..." She hedged, desperately hoping he'd take the hint and just go away. She had absolutely no desire to bare her soul. Least of all to him.

Unfortunately a soft "Try me" came from the man before her instead, and Sakura clenched her fists. Now she was getting irritated again. Snapping her head up, she pinned him with a frosty glare.

"Try you? Why should I?" Biting her lower lip she tried to rein in the tumultuous emotions that roiled under the surface. Somehow those two words of his pricked at the fragile bubble she had managed to surround her raw nerves with.

"Maybe an impartial listener could give you some insight into whatever has upset you," he replied calmly, unperturbed by the spiky aura surrounding the kunoichi that was almost tangible and growing. "Perhaps whatever the situation is really isn't as difficult as you might think."

Sakura stared at him, blinked and stared again. He wasn't implying that she was being irrational….was he? Later she would wonder if the bubble exploded or merely evaporated under the heat of her anger. How dare he? Was he belittling her? Did he honestly think she would be out in the middle of nowhere decimating nature over a simple nuisance? The hell he'd get away even thinking that!

"Alright Uchiha-san, please tell me how you, the great Uchiha heir, could possibly understand anything about my problems!" She bit out angrily. "Have you ever had to listen to your mother tell you that she only allowed you to train as a shinobi because she wanted to humor you?... Or that now that you're of age it's time to set aside your 'fanciful dreams' and become the husband and father you are suppose to? Leave the life of a ninja behind and turn your back on your teammates and friends, because she's too afraid you might die during one of your missions like your father!" Sakura all but shouted the last, the agony those few words created making her see red. It hurt more than anything had before to know that her mother had so little faith in her abilities.

Pausing for a moment to catch her breath, she dropped her attention to her lap as the knee weakening ache that had driven her here in the first place gripped her chest again and she wilted, thoroughly worn out by the whole mess.

"My mother has arranged for me to be married to the son of one of the Feudal Lord's most trusted advisors to keep me from progressing any further as a kunoichi." She continued hollowly, not caring anymore that she was baring her soul when she'd been determined not to. "They approve of what Tsunade-shishou has taught me in the medical field so I can at least still work as a medic wherever I end up, but still…."

Exhaling softly into the quiet that fell at her admission, Sakura kept her attention trained on the hem of her shirt and waited for some type of reaction from the elder Uchiha. Or, if she was lucky, the sound of him leaving.

But Itachi wasn't inclined to do either as he watched her shoulder length pink hair dance softly in the gentle breeze now stirring through the demolished glade. Because for the second time in less than an hour he found himself completely at a loss.

She was right, he didn't understand. He doubted anyone in Konoha would understand what she now faced. While he too was facing pressure of marriage from his clan, still it was nothing on this level.

He knew, in the villages and towns dotting the rest of the known world, arranged marriages were common place and most times were even expected when dealing with those of higher rank. But he'd never thought he would encounter something like that here. For all that she was still young and partially untrained Sakura was a kunoichi by birth, born into a small but still viable and respected clan.

According to his parents, Sakura's mother had been nothing more than a merchant's daughter when she'd married Seiji-san which might lead to her insecurities but she still must have known and accepted the risks her husband had taken on a daily basis. Death was a part of a shinobi's life. Any who walked the path accepted that possibility. If she truly had not wanted Sakura to become a full-fledged kunoichi she should have never let Sakura begin to train in the first place. Why make her suffer for her father's death now when she had already come so far in her training?

Itachi exhaled silently and shook his head, irritated that he couldn't answer that one simple question.

But one thing he could and did understand now was the rage and hurt that had sent her out here to begin with. And given the circumstances he could even forgive her earlier lack of control of her emotions in this situation. Marriage to someone that close to the Lord of Fire was going to essentially clip her wings. She would no longer be given assignments if the husband didn't wish it. And if he wasn't mistaken she was only sixteen which made it impossible for her to do anything but go along with what her mother wished. They had effectively trapped her.

With a soft sigh, Itachi smiled ruefully to himself as he continued to eye Sakura's bowed head thoughtfully. It was a shame really, he would have liked to have had a bit more time to form a better opinion of her himself. Especially since she'd managed to rouse his interest more than any other kunoichi had so far. And the true miracle was the fact that she'd done it in less than fifteen minutes. But even beyond that Konoha would be losing an excellent medic, and if her earlier demonstration had been any indication of what was still to come, a powerful kunoichi too.

"What does the Godaime say of this?" He finally asked, curious to see if she had tried that route yet.

A tiny smirk touched Itachi's lips when Sakura jumped at the sound of his voice. Must be she'd forgotten he was there. The smirk vanished though when she finally looked up at him, the defeated look on her face hitting him harder than he thought possible.

But before he could even begin to analyze why that was, she sighed dejectedly and shrugged. "She says I can either file for emancipation or get engaged to someone in one of the more prominent families in Konoha." Scoffing softly as if the very thought was too much, she shook her head. "But I can't do either and she knows it. I refuse to emancipate myself and leave my mother all by herself even if she is trying to ruin my life."

"And the engagement," Sakura muttered sarcastically. "Isn't even a real option because there is no one who would do that to themselves just so I can stay in Konoha. And even if there was I don't want to do that either. I wouldn't want to be married for that reason alone."

With a tired sigh, she shifted her attention out over the destroyed glade and mumbled, "I'm stuck no matter how I look at it."

Itachi remained silent, somewhat surprised that she'd given up so easily. But he had to admit, her options were anything but. Emancipation would ruin what little home life she had and most likely her relationship with her mother.

As to the engagement, he was surprised Tsunade had even offered that as an option. If Sakura had decided to attempt that without any type of courtship with whoever agreed, it would have easily been seen for what is was. A desperate act to keep from fulfilling the agreement made between her mother and the Lord. And should the Godaime have allowed it, her reputation, and that of the whole village would have been tarnished. Granted, the Hokage and the Lord were on equal footing but a slight like that would not go unnoticed, nor be forgiven.

It was true, either way she was stuck...

Or was she...

With a small calculating smile, Itachi eyed Sakura's downcast profile as his mind rapidly pondered another, more acceptable solution that had come to him while he'd been thinking over her options. A solution that, if she accepted, would solve both her problem, and his own.

Smirking slightly at the prospect, he said, "If you are willing, there is another way for you to remain in Konoha without directly defying your mother."

Sakura scoffed softly under her breath and immediately stomped down the tiny flower of hope that tried to blossom in her chest. She seriously doubted the great Uchiha Itachi could have thought of something Tsunade-sama hadn't. She was sure the Uchiha heir knew very little, if anything, about this type of thing. No matter how intelligent he was.

Sliding a wary glance his way, she decided to humor him anyway just to see what he had to say. "And how would I manage that, Uchiha-san?"

Itachi inwardly smiled at her sarcastic tone and the distrustful look she had leveled on him. "By agreeing to a courtship with a member of the Uchiha clan," he stated bluntly to get her undivided attention.

Caught completely off guard, Sakura stiffened in shock and swung her entire attention to the poker faced, black haired man sitting across from her. To be honest, she wasn't sure what she had expected the elder Uchiha to say but one thing she knew for certain it most definitely had not been that! Staring at him in horror all she could do was shake her head. He was insane... he had to be!

"The Uchiha..." Itachi continued, before she could voice her opinion on his mental state. "..are held in high regard by the Lord because of the aid we give him above and beyond the normal missions. If a member of my family professes an interest in courting you, your mother and the Lord would have no choice but to suspend the agreement made with his advisor until you have come to a decision on whether to marry into the clan or end the courtship."

Itachi paused for a moment to let that sink in, then continued before she could refuse his offer without understanding it completely.

"And once in the courtship all you need to do is postpone the decision until you are of age. Then you will be able to end the courtship if you choose to and still decline the arranged marriage without repercussions to you or your mother."

Nothing but silence met his declaration and Itachi smiled to himself at the look of utter disbelief that settled on Sakura's face.

To be honest he couldn't believe he was contemplating this route either but after three years of dealing with his mother and all the others trying to marry him off he was more than willing to enter into this. If Sakura agreed he'd finally have his freedom back and with a possible war looming on the horizon, he could use all the time he could get without the clan elders and his mother meddling in his affairs. Not to mention the next two years would give him the time he needed to get to know Sakura better too. He'd overlooked much with this particular kunoichi and now he would have a chance to remedy that mistake. And he had a feeling it would be well worth his time.

Oblivious to the Uchiha's true intentions and interests, Sakura simply stared at him in stunned silence, the refusal that had been burning her tongue moments before all but vanishing as the implications of what he'd offered fully hit her.

If she agreed to this and accepted a courtship with Sasuke, she'd be able to stay in Konoha. And she would still be able to train! A huge grin spread across her face at the thought. She would be free! And a courtship with one of her best friends would be the best solution. She wouldn't have to worry about falling in love because she'd already been there and done that with Sasuke and neither of them had any desire to ruin the friendship they'd built after her little crush.

But then another truth slapped her hard in the face and her smile vanished. With a heavy sigh, Sakura shook her head and glanced to Itachi.

"That won't work," she murmured wearily. "If I agree to date Sasuke-kun, everyone will know that the courtship is a fake. Especially my mother. She knows Sasuke-kun and I are only friends. There is no way we'd be able to pull that off."

Itachi couldn't help but smile at her misreading. Leaning forward just a little, he said, "I wasn't referring to Sasuke..."

Sakura's eyebrows creased in confusion and she replied, "Then who? I don't know any other Uchiha."

Itachi held his tongue and simply smiled, waiting for her to put two and two together. He didn't have to wait long, a heartbeat later her bright green eyes flew wide and she inhaled sharply as the color faded from her cheeks.

If he had been anyone else he probably would have been offended by the look of absolute horror she now had fixed on him. But he could understand. It wasn't every day a man six years her senior offered to give up two years of his life to keep her from having to leave the village and chosen path. Not to mention he was an ANBU Captain and the Heir to the Uchiha clan. She must think him insane for even considering this.

His thoughts were proven correct when she mumbled, "You can't be serious..."

Itachi swallowed a chuckle and smirked, "Yes, Haruno-san, I am."

At a complete loss, Sakura could only stare at him dumbly as what blood was left in her body seemed to vanish. She involuntarily shivered at its lack and swallowed thickly. A courtship with... him...?

The very thought made her grimace as her stomach tightened into a rock hard fist. Why would he even offer to do that for her? For kami's sake, he didn't even know her? And up until this very moment he'd never even made an attempt to! As far as she knew, he thought she was nothing but an annoying little girl not worthy of his attention!

At the sharp reminder of her previous importance to him, Sakura's anger cooled almost immediately and she frowned as she eyed the stoic Uchiha skeptically, now more wary than unnerved by his offer.

"Why?" She asked suspiciously.

Itachi secretly smiled at her wariness. "Honestly? To keep my mother and the clan elders at bay. I too have been tasked to marry and for the last three years have endured their meddling. If you agree to this courtship, then I will no longer be expected to search for a wife."

Itachi's smile widened a little as her face darkened even more. She obviously didn't like the thought of being a tool as well as using one herself. Well he could remedy that. "But.." he continued before she could vent the irritation clearly swimming in her eyes, "that isn't the only reason. I have also come to realize that there is quite a bit more to you than I had originally thought, and this will allow me the time I wanted to get to know you."

Startled into silence by his admission, Sakura could do nothing but stare wide eyed at the gently smiling Uchiha as a mixture of soul searing heat and bone chilling ice flowed through her veins, the sensation nearly stealing her breath away. Did that mean?...

Her heart thumped almost painfully against her ribs at the thought and she tried to stomp down the ecstatic little voice that rose up in her head, cooing that maybe this time her crush would work out. Shoving the annoying voice into the very depths of her mind, she finally managed to come to her senses and scoffed softly under her breath. No, she was most likely reading way too much into his words. More than likely he only meant he wanted to know more about her as a kunoichi and nothing else.

Taking a deep breath in an effort to lessen the sting that truth caused, Sakura glanced back out over the destroyed glade to avoid the expectant black gaze Itachi had fixed on her. But even so could she really do this, tie herself to none other than the Uchiha heir himself for her freedom?

The knot in her gut tightened again, threatening her hold on the onigiri she'd had for lunch. As much as she hated to admit it she did, inexplicably, have a crush on the darkly handsome Uchiha heir. Could she really enter into this knowing that all he wanted was a shield? That he expected to be nothing more to her as well? But it was only two years. She could keep her emotions in check for that time, couldn't she?

Snorting silently, she clenched her teeth as her stomach rolled again. It didn't matter if she could or not. If she didn't accept this offer then she'd be sent out of the village to marry whoever it was her mother had chosen. She would lose her entire self if she gave up this one chance.

"Will it really work?" She asked suddenly, desperately needing some kind of reassurance before she accepted.

Itachi smiled and inclined his head, "Yes. Once I have announced my intentions towards you, the Lord and his advisor will have no choice but to grant us the time we need to decide if we should progress to the next step."

Sakura swallowed nervously and tried to ignore the funny things his 'us' and 'we' were doing to her insides. "And you won't regret it?" She pushed on. "Tying yourself to me for the next two years?"

Itachi chuckled lightly at that, "No, Sakura-san, I won't regret it." His dark eyes hinted at some inexplicable emotion.

Sakura fended off the blush his easy laughter caused and hesitated for a moment longer before she finally murmured, "Okay... I'll do it."

Itachi breathed an inaudible sigh of relief. Good. Now all that was left was to announce his decision and convince his father to send a letter to the Lord, proclaiming his interest. With a smile, he rose to his feet in one fluid motion and held his hand out to Sakura. "Then I suggest we return to Konoha so I can set things into motion."

For a long moment Sakura simply stared at his outstretched hand and wondered if she'd made the right decision. Snorting softly to herself, she reached out and placed her hand in his before she somehow managed to talk herself out of it. Right now this was the only way. And who knows maybe someday the stoic Uchiha would see her as more than just a shield. Scoffing at her traitorous thoughts, she quickly gained her feet and dropped Itachi's hand before she inadvertently let him know how she truly felt.

And immediately regretted her childishness as the chunk of earth she'd been using as a perch suddenly shifted beneath her feet, knocking her off balance.

Startled, Sakura instinctively jumped to the right to get away from the shuddering chunk of damaged earth and once again regretted her rash action as her feet landed on a piece even more unsettled than the one she'd just left. Bounding away from that one, she danced over several more precariously laid pieces; aiming for the edge of the forest where the ground remained unbroken.

But unfortunately it seemed that whatever force had designated this day to be her most miserable yet decided at that very moment to strike again and she miscalculated the distance from her last footfall to the steady ground ten feet away.

Seeing her mistake too late, Sakura did all she could to correct the awkward landing she could see coming but it wasn't enough and she landed bone crushingly hard on her right ankle. A cry of pain ripped from her throat as her ankle twisted to the breaking point under her weight and then she pitched forward as it gave out completely and she crashed to her hands and knees; the small pebbles littering the area digging painfully into her gloved palms and unprotected knees.

With an angry growl, she pounded her fist against the unforgiving ground in frustration, and desperately tried to fend off the tears burning her eyes. Just when she thought things were finally looking up! What next? Death by dismemberment?

She nearly groaned when a pair of sandals came into view in her peripheral vision. No, something far worse... embarrassment and shame in front of Konoha's most elite shinobi and her soon to be fake fiancé. Life truly did suck these days.

"Are you all right?" Itachi asked as he crouched down beside her, his tone more concerned than she expected it to be.

Beyond embarrassed, Sakura flushed three shades of red and studiously avoided his gaze. "I don't know yet."

When nothing but silence met her statement, she swallowed her pride and slowly turned herself over until she could sit to assess the damage. If she was lucky it would only be sprained but to be honest she didn't think she was going to get off that easy. Not if today's other events said anything about her fortune.

Scowling blackly, Sakura did her best to ignore the black eyes boring into her skin and gingerly probed at her ankle. Tears sprang to her eyes again as the slight pressure caused by her chakra laced fingers set off little bolts of agony clear up to her belly. Ignoring the pain the best she could, she slowly ran her fingers along the entire bone and joint and was pleased to find no trace of a fracture or break.

With a deep sigh of relief, she gathered more chakra into her hand and set to work relieving the sprain. "I'm okay, it's only sprained. I'll have it fixed in a minute."

A quiet affirmation came from Itachi, but Sakura barely heard it because no sooner had the words left her mouth then the green hued chakra enveloping her hand suddenly faded, leaving her with nothing but the faint lingering warmth of her healing and a dull throb pulsing out from the partially healed ankle.

Stunned, she simply stared at the offending hand in confusion for a moment until it finally dawned on her what must have happened. She had, in her earlier rage, managed to drain just about every last ounce of her chakra, without even realizing it. Dropping her head into the now useless hand, she chuckled hollowly. And there would be the icing on her already charred proverbial cake. She refrained from thinking it couldn't get any worse, because so far she'd managed to prove herself wrong.

A moment later a soft scraping reminded her that she wasn't alone and Sakura sighed and slowly glanced up ready to tell the Uchiha that he might as well head back by himself because she wasn't going anywhere just yet. There was no reason for him to wait the hour or two it would take for her to regain the chakra she'd need to heal it enough to walk on. The words died in her throat though when instead of finding Itachi where she'd last seen him beside her, she found him right in front of her, his broad back presented to her in silent invitation.

Her eyes widened in surprise and she swallowed thickly in an effort to wet her suddenly dry mouth. "Um... you don't really - "

She was stopped cold when Itachi glanced over his shoulder, the penetrating look in his coal black eyes stealing her ability to speak. "Yes, I do. It will be dark before you're able to walk again and I won't leave you here unable to protect yourself."

Sakura's independent side rose up in a rush but she managed to beat it back before she said anything stupid and grudgingly, if silently agreed. He was right, it would be reckless of her to stay here when she was already severely handicapped, but that didn't mean she was ready to touch him either. Actually the very thought was doing odd things to her belly and below that she'd much rather not think about right now.

"You will have to touch me sometime if this courtship is going to work, Sakura." Itachi said smoothly, somehow reading her thoughts.

Sakura scowled and desperately tried to ignore the tiny flutter that whispered through her chest as her name rolled of his tongue. If he kept that up she'd never get through these next two years unscathed. But she had to admit, he was right again.

Ignoring the butterflies dancing madly in her stomach, she took a deep breath in an effort to gather what courage she could, and gingerly scooted forward as far as her injured ankle would let her then slowly levered herself up until she was crouched and balancing on her good ankle. And then before she could think about it too much more, she draped her arms over his shoulders and leaned into his back until her body was flush against his. She nearly jumped back as what she could only describe as an electric shock shot through her entire body at the contact. But before she had a chance to Itachi leaned forward to keep her where she was, hooking his arms under her thighs he then literally swept her off her foot.

Sakura had no choice but to lock her hands together and hold on as he stood to his full height which, she absently noted, was at least a foot taller than Sasuke. And then with no more warning than a soft 'hold on', Itachi bounded into the trees aiming for the front gate. Startled, Sakura instinctively hugged him a little bit tighter and buried her face in his neck to keep from being blinded by the wind created by his speed. And she almost regretted it as his musky scent filled her nose, the earthy and purely masculine undertones flowing deep into her lungs; wrapping around her very being.

Blushing at the unexpected warmth that spread through her entire body, Sakura thanked every god she could think of that Itachi couldn't see her and silently scolded herself for acting like a lovesick teenager. But that didn't stop her from inhaling again as she settled even more comfortably against his flexing muscles. Maybe her injured ankle wasn't so bad after all. She'd never, in her wildest dreams, thought she would get this close to the great Uchiha Itachi, and who knew if she'd ever be able to again. But even if she never did, she still had the next two years with him, that would have to be enough.

For his part, Itachi simply smiled to himself and continued rocketing smoothly between branches as Sakura sighed and settled even more against him. Never had he run across anyone quite like this pink haired kunoichi, she truly was unique. There were none who would be so comfortable with him after such a short time, that alone made her stand out from all the others. But what he found even more surprising was the way she seemed to fit to him where none had before. Granted the only other female he'd ever carried like this had been Inuzuka Hana once when she had been too badly injured during a mission to have her dog carry her. But even so the Inuzuka had never felt as... right... as Sakura did now. It was... unsettling and yet strangely... calming to have Sakura rely on him wholeheartedly like she was now. He wasn't quite sure how to take this new feeling.

With a soft sigh, Itachi smiled thoughtfully and adjusted their course to intercept the main gate less than a half mile away now. Maybe there really was something to his mother's 'The One' theory. He'd never really believed in such a thing since just about every woman he'd ever held in consideration did nothing but get on his nerves. But now, after his brief yet meaningful meeting with the kunoichi resting on his back he had to wonder.

And thankfully he'd have the next two years to find out if Sakura truly was 'The One'.

Two years that could very well turn into a lifetime if she was.

And there you have it. Personally I love this just the way it is, however if you do wish for a bit of closure there is now a separate one shot called 'A Lifetime It Is' that gives an ending to this. No chapter fic though. Sorry.

Now I'm off for another break... I hope.