Chapter still on schedule! So tired! Haha I'm feeling a little ridiculous right now so I'm glad I can go to bed after posting this.

Disclaimer: I just want to take the characters out to play! I swear I'll give them back...

Enjoy!


Chapter 20: Shifting Loyalties

Itachi's eyes widened, his heart stopped as every fiber of his being trembled. This had happened once already; he did not know if he could stand her not remembering him again. The pain of that moment had left a wound long ignored to open anew, and he was already so raw with emotion from the last couple of days.

"It…it is you. I'd…I'd forgotten…"

Those words sent his breath out in a sigh of desperate relief, of surcease from remembering alone.

"So…you do remember me?"

Sakura nodded gingerly, cautiously, as if her body still ached from the pain of being sick. "I do…sort of. I remember that we were friends…you were there for me." Her smile of gratitude had Itachi gripping her sheets again in an attempt not to pull her straight into his arms and hold her until he was satisfied. "You were always looking after us…"

"Is that…is that all?" He hated asking but he had to know, though he didn't think she had remembered either Orochimaru's attack or any sign of his feelings for her by the way she was reacting. Her next words confirmed his thoughts.

"For the most part. But…I do remember being happy with you." And Sakura gave him a shy smile.

For a second he was filled with such conflicting emotions that it was stifling. The elation that she did remember him, the searing ache that she remembered him only as a comforting older brother figure. And the cold relief that she didn't remember Orochimaru. Because that would have killed him.

A warm, dry hand curled around one of his, jerking Itachi back to this reality, to the girl who he had loved for so long, and she was smiling back at him in a way that made his heart beat too fast, made him hope. And he hadn't allowed himself to hope for this in so long, not truly, that it was almost a physical ache in his chest. His hand squeezed hers, a gesture almost more intimate than a kiss because it spoke of a meeting of minds rather than bodies. Perhaps she hadn't remembered him all the way yet, but she remembered. That was enough.

"I am…very happy you remember me, Sakura."

The roseate-haired girl frowned slightly then, her brow crinkling in what could only be discontent. "You called me Sakura-chan when you were little…do you not want to call me that any more?"

Itachi managed not to blink in surprise, though his raised eyebrow of curiosity was a beat late as he forced himself to process. "I…I do."

Sakura smiled. "Please?"

"I am very happy you remember me…Sakura-chan."

The girl shivered and her smile grew just a little, her eyes warming in a way that made the Uchiha heir's heart squeeze. She had no idea what she did to him. No idea at all.

It was a perfect moment, and it couldn't last. With a groan, Sakura closed her eyes again, and Itachi noticed that a light sheen of sweat had ghosted across her cheeks while he had been preoccupied. Instantly alert, he was leaning over her with a glass of water, the lines on his face deepening in worry.

"Sakura…Sakura-chan, tell me what's wrong."

"Just…just nauseous. Thirsty. Hungry but not," Sakura gritted out as she rode out a wave of dizziness and stomach roiling that was about half a day's walk away from enjoyable. "It's because I haven't eaten much in the last however long I was out-,"

"Three days?"

"…Wow…three days? Really? Okay…three days," Sakura muttered mostly to herself. "I want to eat but I've been so empty that the feeling's turned into being nauseated. It's normal."

"I'll go get you some toast or soup," Itachi volunteered, instantly on his feet. "Do you want anything else?"

Sakura shook her head, doing her best to smile reassuringly though her stomach was on the edge of revolt. "Toast sounds great. I'm going to need to get my strength back after missing so many days."


"I see Haruno-san has again failed to show up to class today."

Orochimaru's insidious voice oozed through Sasori's thoughts, though he kept his eyes carefully trained on the worksheet that had just been handed out. Today they were watching a video tutorial on elements of the periodic table that were too volatile or expensive to be handled in the lab itself, and the worksheet was to make sure they paid attention. But Sasori found himself having some difficulty keeping his mind on track as various elements were set on fire, exploded, or used to create any number of complex compounds. In fact, by the end of the class, he looked down to find his paper would just barely manage to scrape a B- grade with its lackluster work.

He had been too distracted worrying about Sakura and the gleefully cruel promise in the chemistry teacher's voice at her eventual return to classes.

And it was made all the worse by the fact that Sakura still hadn't woken up yet except to eat small amounts of food and water, and then go straight back to sleep.

Worry knotted his stomach, an emotion he was rather unfamiliar with, though he kept his face smooth and unconcerned as he lined up with the other students to submit their papers. On purpose, he managed to make himself the last person in line.

Orochimaru smiled as he approached, a discomfiting expression so cruel and truculent and yet gleeful that the redhead found himself unconsciously taking smaller steps forward as their eyes locked.

"Last one in line again today," Orochimaru commented as he took Sasori's paper, scanned it briefly, and tutted. "I assume you are here to pick up Haruno-san's homework. Again."

"Yes, sensei."

"Here."

The packet was heavy, probably twice as thick as the homework everyone else had gotten today, and it had been the same with yesterday's packet. Sasori suppressed the fierce urge to glare or snarl profanity at his teacher, neither of which would have gone over well. They would only have alerted Orochimaru that all was not as he thought. That Sasori didn't feel nothing for Sakura, double negatives or not, but that he felt…something. And Sasori was beginning to suspect that the something feeling was something quite intense and deep and much more meaningful than so many feelings he had had besides.

But Orochimaru was never to know that, so the redhead accepted the packet with a noncommittal noise in the back of his throat.

"Thank you. Sensei."

It wasn't until Sasori had turned away that Orochimaru said, "You're very kind to her, Sasori. Fetching her homework every day."

Ice and fear filled his veins, intense and painful, but he forced himself to be nonchalant as he paused and glanced over his shoulder. The sneer that twisted his face then disgusted him, but he tamped down that feeling and let only disdain fill his eyes. "I drew the short straw. And I was already in this class anyway."

Orochimaru's chuckle followed him out the door.

So. Little had changed. The chemistry teacher found himself inordinately pleased with that development. The months had slipped past, August into November, and still they had not warmed up to the little pink haired girl who flitted about so innocently in school. She wasn't nearly cowed enough to suit him, but he supposed that rather than intimidate her they had just chosen to ignore the girl and leave her…wherever she slept in that dorm house. He imagined she was like a mouse, mostly keeping to her den and only scurrying out for meals and such. It was a cheering thought.

With another quiet chuckle, Orochimaru flipped through his gradebook and marked another tick by Sakura's name. He couldn't do more to her than take points off for not attending classes, but he planned on demanding all the homework he'd given her over the last two days as soon as she was well enough to come back to school. And chances were, it wouldn't be done. At least not all the way done. Just as he wanted.

Akatsuki dorm had been his to manage, his to rule, and this girl from his past, hated, hated girl had deposed him. She was not going to get away with it, and he was going to make her life miserable in every way, shape, and form.

It was his war, and soon, his victory.

Students filtered into the chemistry classroom, giving each other nervous glances as Orochimaru's sinister mirth quietly echoed from the front.


In Sakura's room, somewhere tucked under a fold of her bedsheets, her cellphone buzzed…and buzzed…and buzzed…

Click. "Hello, this is Haruno Sakura. I'm sorry I missed your call, I'm probably busy or in class right now but I want to hear from you so please leave your name and number and I'll call you back as soon as I can. Thanks so much! Bye!"

A long message recorded, and the screen shone displaying a missed call and voicemail received.

Downstairs in the common room, Sakura sat almost completely engulfed by blankets with Itachi on one side and Deidara on the other, a plate of toast balanced on her knee with a glass of orange juice in her hands, laughing for the first time in days.

Sakura sighed as she finished the last piece of toast. "Finally. Food," she said with a soft giggle as she dusted her fingers of crumbs. "It's so nice not to have your stomach knotting every time you move. Thanks for carrying me downstairs by the way, Itachi-nii," she added.

The look in her eyes was soft, comforting, and Deidara could tell that her gaze warmed the other junior incredibly. Itachi's jet-black eyes matched hers. It made something coil in the blond's gut, something that wasn't relief to find Sakura awake and eating. And she had begun to call him 'Itachi-nii'. It was both incredibly confusing and somewhat…worrying.

The thought rose unbidden that perhaps he was losing the pink-haired girl, losing her to the Uchiha. But did that make any sense? He had never had her to begin with…and neither had Itachi. But now…

No, Deidara told himself sharply, keeping his facial features pleasant as his fingers unconsciously sought Sakura's. You can't dictate who she likes and there's no saying she doesn't like you too… His comfort came in the form of the girl's hand, unhesitatingly twining fingers with his when he reached for her. She was not turning him away.

It still made his chest constrict when Itachi brushed his fingers gently across Sakura's cheek to tuck a lock of strawberry-cream hair behind an ear, and Sakura's response was a widening of the eyes and the words, "I remember!" in a soft gasp.

It still hurt.

Sakura chuckled as her eyes slid glances at the Uchiha under thick lashes. "You used to do that before, too."

"Aa."

Itachi. Himself. They were both at this girl's mercy. Her hand still kept his prisoner, willing prisoner, as she murmured things to the dark-haired boy. Selfishly, he wished her attention was his and his alone, but too many months had passed sharing between so many people who all wished her well. He had learned to accept it…

Or not.

With a look that might have constituted as pout had it been on the face of a five-year-old girl, Deidara swooped Sakura away from Itachi, blankets and all, to bury his face in her neck and sigh.

A giggle, a real laugh, erupted from the rose-haired girl's lips as she squeaked for him to let go. "Stop! D-Deidara! I'm ticklish!" Soft breathing on her neck had always been Sakura's weakness, and she squirmed and squealed going bright red in the face as she made a weak and halfhearted struggle for freedom. It was futile and she knew it. The laughs streamed out of her like bubbles in a fish tank.

And then Deidara, in a fit of mischief, licked her neck.

Sakura's face exploded in crimson, making it so dark that for a second Itachi was genuinely afraid, and then she swung around and smacked Deidara's arm so hard that both boys were certain there'd be a bright red handprint on the blond's bicep for weeks. Literal weeks. Okay, maybe not literal weeks but at least a couple of hours and possibly the rest of the day.

"Ow! Sakura-chan!" Deidara whined, his brilliant blue eyes gleaming to give lie to his tone. He was more than happy, even for this kind of attention if it was undivided and from Sakura. He was in love, he knew it, and he really didn't care.

But even that giddiness diminished a bit when Sakura laughed and groaned and huffed and finally settled back into her blankets with a sigh, the flush that had risen to her cheeks only ebbing the tiniest bit. "I think…I think I need to get back to bed," she muttered thickly, a hand coming up to press her forehead. "After doing nothing but sleep for days, using so much energy at once really took it out of me."

"I'll take her back upstairs," Itachi declared quickly, scooping up Sakura in his arms bridal style so that she trailed blankets behind her like a bizarre, patchwork wedding gown.

Deidara nodded mutely over Sakura's protests that she was fully able to walk on her own now that she'd had some food, and soon found himself alone. The couch was still warm with the body heat of three people, and from somewhere above Sakura's voice could be heard growing fainter and fainter. The blond tucked his feet under a couch cushion and sighed.

"I'm jealous."

The monster within had reared its ugly head, gnashing its teeth. It wanted Sakura for itself, no sharing, no being the bigger person.

"And Sakura is her own person." With a grimace, Deidara forced himself to placate the beast. If he could not tuck it back behind some remote door in his mind, he could at least lull it so that it didn't feel too tempted to punch housemates in the face or take up too much of Sakura's time by himself. That was something Sakura would not appreciate, and he wasn't going to let anything get in the way of being there for her, not even himself.

But it took every bit of effort to stay seated on the couch with Itachi tenderly carrying the pinkette upstairs. Deidara couldn't help feeling it should have been him.

"It's…so strange," Sakura murmured, a yawn tripping her words as she let Itachi tuck her into bed. For a moment she wondered if this reminded him of their childhood. It did for her. She wanted to sift through those memories that she had back and take her time with them, but being so easily fatigued made her mind refuse to focus.

So she basked in this regained comfort she felt around Itachi, as pervasive as the one she felt when with Naruto or Sasuke or even Kisame and Deidara. It felt like brotherly affection, like the gentle warmth that was her two best friends, except…

Except not only that.

Something made her reach out and catch his sleeve as he straightened, made her tug him down.

The urge was soul-deep and impulsive; she didn't even let herself think as she rose up on one elbow and ever so gently brushed a kiss to Itachi's cheek.

His skin was warm and soft under her lips, growing warmer as she pulled just a little away. It felt appropriate, like she had done this before as a child, and for now she suspended the thought that she was no longer seven years old, leaving the face-heating embarrassment behind as she smiled just a little sleepily into Itachi's eyes.

Those obsidian orbs were unreadable, hard as flint and soft as down, filled with conflict. And then in a single, smooth movement, Itachi turned his head just the right amount and his lips descended on hers.

It was nothing like kissing his cheek, nothing like initiating the moment herself. In an instant Sakura felt filled to the brim with a golden heat that wrapped her up in its warm embrace until she was drowning in the very rightness of it. Lips that were gentle and tender brushed against hers in a teasing parody of what she had done to his cheek, and then his lips parted, hers following suit, and she was lost.

Slow, sweet, loving, these were all words she would have used to describe (had she any thoughts available for describing instead of just experiencing) the kiss. Perfect. Itachi kissed her like it was all he wanted in life, as if he had all the time in the world, and especially as though he could do it forever. Even the slight hesitancy she noticed right at the beginning before the experience engulfed her entirely was touching.

And she found herself sighing into his mouth as her arms snaked around his shoulders and her hands found their way to his hair. Somewhere along the way Itachi's hand had cupped the back of her neck to better angle his tender assault on her senses, and his hair-tie tangled in her fingers so that the inky strands of his hair shrouded them in a dark curtain. His tongue gently stole her soul away with every golden second that passed. Her body was melting into a puddle of perfect happiness.

She found herself wishing the moment would never end.

It was years, or perhaps only seconds, later that Itachi slowly pulled away to take in her reaction, as if her sweet response to every stroke of his tongue hadn't been proof enough of her willingness. Her cheeks were barely flushed, her eyes hooded and sleepy, their emerald depths curtained by pale pink lashes. Her lips were just the tiniest bit puffy and glistened invitingly.

She should not have been allowed to look like that, or to smile so winsomely afterwards. And somehow she found the wherewithal to mumble, "I don't remember anything like that from our childhood," before her eyelids fluttered and closed, concealing lush green eyes in sleep.

For long moments Itachi stayed perfectly still, hovering over Sakura with both hands fisted in her sheets, until he was certain by her even breathing that she was truly and deeply gone to the land of dreams. Only then did he move, slowly and quietly, from his position. He did not go very far.

Slumping down at the foot of her bed, Itachi found himself doing something he had never thought he would do and buried his face in his hands.

So much…has changed.

She remembered him. That dimension of their relationship had obviously colored their most recent interactions downstairs with Deidara. He found a deep-seated appreciation for how relaxed she had become with him, as if unlocking that part of her memory kept her from shying away at his every touch. But this kiss…

Itachi could feel her lips against his even now, his mind conjuring up the exquisite feeling. It had been so intimate and slow and passionate, and it awoke a craving in him for another. And another. It was so unlike the episode during the Halloween party. She had willingly kissed him on the cheek, and taking that for acceptance he had claimed her mouth.

He remembered that spike of fear in his blood as his lips melted against hers that perhaps he was doing irreparable damage to their relationship…and suddenly she was kissing him back and her arms were around his neck and her fingers in his hair. The ink-black locks still pooled over his shoulders, free of the tie he usually used to keep them neat.

It had been too much. The desire that had filled him on Halloween was back just as strong, awakened by a kiss like something out of a fairytale. Had he lesser self-control he might just turn around, wake Sakura, and begin where they had left off.

In the silence of Sakura's room, Itachi allowed himself a soft groan.

It was unbecoming of an Uchiha, but this girl tried him like nothing he had ever encountered, a nexus of insanity that he welcomed into his life. He wanted her, chaos and all. He watched her roll onto her side and tuck a hand under her cheek, his own coming around to gently tap against the fingertips of her free hand. They twitched in response, bringing a slight smile to his lips.

Somewhere downstairs, he heard the rest of the dorm come home and hear the good news of Sakura's awakening from a cheery Deidara. He ought to get up and join them, but as he moved to do so, a clatter almost made him jump.

Almost.

Being so startled would probably also have constituted behavior unbecoming of an Uchiha, and he'd already done enough of that today if you counted quiet groaning and losing his control to kiss Sakura on the lips.

Her cellphone lay on the floor, the screen having turned on at the impact. Clearly displayed was a missed call and a voicemail, the number a familiar one. It was from his little brother.

Sakura generally took her cellphone everywhere; she had gotten into the habit of doing so since her trip to Bellflower Square with Ino that had left Kisame very annoyed with her during the first week of school. That she had left it up here…did that mean that her feverish mind was still rather addled? Or, better still, that perhaps she hadn't thought of it because she already had what she wanted here. With them.

Warmed by the thought, one that his heart desperately wished to be true, he got up and made his way downstairs to join the celebration of his housemates.


"So Sakura's awake!"

His otouto's friend was displaying his penchant for yelling at the top of his lungs, causing a ruckus that allowed Itachi to slip unnoticed into the common room. Deidara had obviously been telling the others that Sakura was finally awake and conscious and staying so for more than the time it took to take a couple sips of water and have a little food, and the information had had mixed results, it appeared. Kisame seemed to have been in the middle of lecturing Deidara, so much Itachi could tell from their postures, when Naruto had interrupted.

He could also see the blond filling his lungs to make another ninety decibel bellow, and thought of the sleeping Sakura three floors up. Sleeping Sakura who had kissed him so sweetly…

Mind on track, Uchiha.

"Sakura was awake," he corrected, pitching his voice so that they all heard him despite the quiet tone. "She is not any longer."

"WH-"

"Dobe!" Sasuke's low hiss stopped Naruto, mid cry, the dark glare reminding the overly energetic blond that their best friend was still sick. His subsequent, "What?!" was just a stage whisper, losing none of its disbelief.

"How come she's back to sleeping?"

"Those who have been ill for a while are sometimes easily fatigued when they attempt to go back to their routines. Sakura needed a nap," Itachi explained with the patient air of someone stating the obvious.

"But she was awake earlier, aniki. Awake and coherent."

Itachi nodded curtly at his brother's questioning. "Aa."

"Then why didn't she answer our phone call?"

"You called her? Seriously. During damn school hours?" Hidan all but barked, either annoyed that they could have woken her or possibly annoyed that he hadn't thought to do that himself.

"It was during the break between classes," Naruto replied smugly. "I borrowed teme's phone and tried to contact Sakura-chan, but she wouldn't pick up. I guess she was napping."

No, I'm pretty certain they called while Sakura was downstairs with Deidara and I, Itachi thought, feeling inordinately pleased. If they'd called before, either Deidara or I would have noticed. Sakura hasn't been sleeping by herself since…

Since she'd first gotten sick.

But no need for the loudmouth blond kid to know that.

"Well, if she's napping now," Naruto said at last, "I guess teme and I are going to just have to wait here until she wakes."

"No."

"Shut up, Naruto," Sasuke cut in before the blond said anything, sizing up Kisame. The gill-tattooed senior had just refused to let them stay in Akatsuki dorm while they waited for Sakura to wake up, and Sasuke wanted to know why. Naruto's straightforward approach had some benefits, but this was not a situation where he felt it would…really come to the best advantage. "Why are you not willing to let us stay."

Kisame smirked. If the sophomore brat thought he was going to be intimidated by Uchiha non-questions, the kid had another thing coming. He wasn't Itachi's roommate and sort of best friend for nothing. "Because he," he said, indicating Naruto, "Is loud and probably won't be able to stay quiet and neither of you know when she's going to wake. You're just going to be wasting time sitting around here and the rest of us have stuff to do."

"What kind of stuff?" Naruto wanted to know, his cerulean eyes narrowed suspiciously. He hadn't appreciated Kisame's reasoning for not wanting him around. Sakura was one of his best friends, damn it, and he wasn't about to forget it. She would have waited up for them if one of them had been sick.

"Classwork. Homework. Responsible upperclassmen stuff," Kisame quipped. "Unlike you squirts, we have some pretty serious real work to do. And," he added, noticing that Naruto was geared to argue, "Sakura wouldn't want you getting in the way of that."

Naruto mentally stuttered to a halt. As much as he hated to admit it, the senior was right. Sakura took studying pretty seriously; she had to with her ambitions to become a world-class doctor like her mother, and she could be very fierce when either of them disrespectfully disturbed the studies of, well, anyone. Damn.

Kisame's smirk said he knew he'd won.

"Fine," Naruto all but spat out, his face showing every iota of disgruntlement he felt. "We're going to go for Sakura, but you better tell us when she's awake." And with that piece of eloquence, he stalked out.

Dispassionately, Itachi analyzed the set of the boy's shoulders, the volatile reactions, and drew the conclusion that he was truly and deeply concerned for Sakura's health. Knowing that he could have talked to her and been assured that she was recovering but wouldn't be able to for who knew how long was something Naruto had not appreciated. In fact, he hated it. The boy loved his friend like a sister he'd never had, and his annoying flashes of temper were all rooted in his desire to watch over one of the people who were precious to him. It was forgivable, if a bit irksome.

Sasuke was making for the door too, seeing no reason to linger when the person he had been seeking was in no state to be receiving visitors. But he did pause in the doorway and toss over his shoulder, "We will be back. Sakura has others than just Akatsuki dorm in her life," before disappearing.

The words had less impact than his fierce speech the day before, delivered as he slipped away. The upperclassmen knew that, in this confrontation over Sakura, they had won.


"To Sakura!"

Glasses rose in the air, filled with everything from water to orange juice to milk to soda, as the girl being toasted blushed prettily in her seat. She'd woken up from her nap to find a very attentive Hidan (it had been strange to find him so solicitous and his speech free of profanity) at her side wanting to know if she might be strong enough to join them for dinner.

She hadn't been, not exactly anyway, but she hadn't had the heart to tell Hidan so when the silver-haired senior looked at her with such caring and relief in his eyes. Her cheeks had heated under his gaze, and she'd nodded her agreement without much consideration. And he had immediately scooped her up as Itachi had earlier that day, bridal style with blankets trailing, and brought her downstairs to happy cheers to be enthroned at the dinner table.

"Your little friends came by after classes again," Kisame informed her as the others busied themselves with dishing out dinner (salad and miso soup and plain onigiri with umeboshi inside, invalid food and all things that would settle well in her stomach Sakura was delighted to find), smirking a little as Sakura's cheeks grew darker than her hair. "You were sleeping and I didn't want to wake you, so I kicked 'em out."

"Kisame-nii!" Sakura cried, half distressed and half amused, though she felt bad for Sasuke and Naruto's sakes. They had probably been rather worried about her, and though she vaguely remembered them bringing dinner the night before, everything was rather fogged by her fever. I'll have to remember to call them when I get upstairs.

"Quit worrying, candy girl," Kisame drawled, tugging a lock of her bubblegum-pink hair gently between two fingers. "I told 'em I'd let you know they dropped by if you woke up."

"Mou…"

"Enough teasing, Sakura-chan gets tired out quickly, yeah," Deidara admonished, gently shoving a full plate in front of the girl. "You're too energetic, Kisame."

"Says the guy who's motto is 'Art is an explosion' or something like that," Hidan snorted, his mouth half full of rice and nori. "I mean, seriously-,"

"Shut up!"

Sakura chuckled softly, her viridian eyes glowing with mirth as she sipped at her soup. The good-natured bickering around the table washed over her, more rejuvenating than any medication. This was comforting and familiar and…and home.

The thought was startling and unbidden, rising from the depths of her mind like some forgotten garden rake in the overgrown lawn of her thoughts to smack her dead in the face with the wooden handle. And like she had really been literally poleaxed, Sakura sat staring and her dinner without seeing it as she turned the word over in her mind.

Home.

Home not like she felt living with her mother, because that was a totally different feeling all together, but home like she had imagined it in her mind. Filled with laughter and warmth and caring and love.

Some kinds of love, anyway.

Kisame was brotherly and the others were…very nice…

And she was going to steer clear of that thought for now…

But, home! She had found a home. And it felt good to be here and have these people celebrate her recovery and know that they cared.

So she nibbled away at her dinner as she chatted away with them, meeting their happy-and-yet-concerned-and-cautious glances with a reassuring one of her own, letting them know that she was on the way to getting better. She felt a lot more awake than she had earlier that day; she knew she was improving.

"Sakura…do you feel like going back to bed?" Zetsu asked as the dinner dishes were cleared away (without her help because the boys weren't letting her lift a finger yet), the hopeful tone in his voice unmistakable. He wanted her to stay up, and by the glances of the others, they did too.

Thankfully, she was quite recovered with the help of food and drink, so she agreed readily and soon found herself on the couch in the common room with a blanket over her lap and a cup of chamomile tea on the table by her elbow, a small stack of books at her side. Sakura blinked. The move had occurred within seconds, and had left her feeling a tiny bit disoriented at their efficiency. "That was…quick."

Zetsu grinned at her and then, as if it was the most natural thing in the world, plucked a flower from the vase on the table and tucked it behind her ear.

Sakura flushed, unknowingly creating a gradient that the green-haired boy admired between the dark pink of her cheeks, the lighter pink of her hair, and the very white of the flower. A sweet perfume drifted down from the blossom, filling each breath with its delicate scent. "Th-thank you, Zetsu," Sakura stammered, feeling her natural shyness reassert itself with full force. "I…I don't know what to say…"

"You're welcome," Zetsu replied with studied nonchalance, hoping to put the girl at ease. "They're all for you, the ones in the vase. I thought you might like them."

"They smell lovely." Sakura breathed in the heady scent with a sigh, burying her face in the pale blooms. "What are they?"

"Sweet pea," the other boy replied. "I got them from a greenhouse I help out at."

"They're beautiful, Zetsu," she murmured. "Thank you."

His answering smile was as sweet as the scent of the flowers before he drifted away to do laundry.

Sakura exchanged the vase of sweet pea she'd been holding for her mug of hot chamomile tea, her body relaxing as the herbal scent of the tea mingled with the fragrance of the blossom in her hair. It was so nice to feel wanted, and though she had no desire to be sick again just to have this experience, she couldn't help but enjoy the pleasant side effects.

Zetsu had given her flowers, Hidan hadn't used a single bit of profanity all evening, and Itachi…

Her face superheated suddenly as the memory of the kiss came rushing back to her. She had kissed Itachi! She had kissed Itachi! She had been the instigator, at least of the kiss on the cheek, and a full and willing participant to everything that had followed! Sakura would not have been surprised if Zetsu's flower had sizzled from the heat radiating off her face. Suddenly the chamomile tea was too hot and she would have given anything for something iced to cool herself down. Why had she done it?!

And…had she liked it?

The thought brought her up short. She had enjoyed kissing Itachi. She couldn't deny that. But compared to the only other kiss she could remember, Deidara's, it had sparked a completely different reaction. It had been slow and sweet and intimate, while the blond's kiss was all fireworks and pent up heat. Had it been the moment? The fact that she hadn't known Deidara very well when it happened? Or because she'd just regained a part of herself and her relationship with Itachi that made his kiss so delicious?

Had she just described a kiss as delicious?

With a groan, Sakura buried her face in the blanket over her knees. Why was she even thinking about this? It had to be fever ramblings or something!

"Sakura?"

She yelped, her face popping up out of the plush quilt to almost head-butt Sasori in the nose. The redhead managed to pull out of the way just in time, but raised an elegant eyebrow in her direction, an inquiry as to her state of distress.

"Sorry, sorry, I'm just…spazzing. Still a little sick, after all," Sakura said quickly, hoping he bought her story. She couldn't very well tell him she had been thinking about the kisses she had shared with his roommate and another of their housemates. The very thought sent her mind reeling.

"Ah, well if you aren't feeling your best…" Sasori turned and the slump of his shoulders, as well as the slight edge to his tone, said he wanted to stay.

Sakura's hand caught his before she realized she was moving, tugging him down even as his stiff posture relaxed. She did her best not to think of how the last time she had caught a boy in this impulsive fashion she had ended up kissing Itachi.

"Please, you don't have to go."

There was a second's hesitation, and then Sasori was settled next to her, caging her in between the arm of the couch and his body. Sakura waited for the guy-shy reaction she usually had, but only comfort settled through her body. The surprise was a flutter in the back of her mind as she was thoroughly distracted by the thick packet in the boy's hands and the apologetic look on his face. "Sasori?"

"This is your homework. The snake scum set it for you."

The mention of Orochimaru made Sakura grimace, but flipping through the packet made it grow more fierce as she realized just how much work it was. Pages and pages of problems assaulted her eyes, all on the classes she had missed. How was she to know how to figure these out? "Of course. This is just so typical of him," she spat venomously as she riffled through the sheets. "This is probably going to take me all day tomorrow with a textbook."

"No, it will not."

"Hmm?" She glanced up with mild confusion in her eyes, her mind clearly still buzzing with chemistry.

"I will help you."

Sakura's eyes widened at his offer. "Sasori, this is going to take a while. You need to do your own homework too, don't you?"

The redhead shook his head. "I will take tomorrow off and spend it helping you with your homework. Kisame promised I could do so," he added before she could protest further. "There is no reason for concern."

"There are plenty of reasons for concern," Sakura muttered under her breath, worried how Orochimaru might see Sasori's sudden absence from class. But she did need her help and his offer had been so genuine. Her cheeks flushed with warmth, the same feeling flooding her chest as her hand found his and squeezed to let him know how much she appreciated what he was doing for her. "Thank you, Sasori."

The light in his eyes made her blush darker still, the rush of blood somehow making her lightheaded as she sat. Sasori was more observant than she thought he was, for he shook his head and presented her with his back.

"You still need to stay rested," he said over her soft protests. "Don't worry about the chemistry homework. I will definitely make sure you finish every problem correctly so the snake can't dock any more points off you than he has."

She mumbled her thanks, her blushes not helping with the lightheadedness in the least, and clung to Sasori as he made the trek back up the stairs with her on his back. She felt like a little girl again, doing the same thing to Itachi when she was too tuckered out to walk on her own. It was…nice. She snuggled a little closer and yawned, and yawned again.

They didn't stop as Sasori said goodnight and she changed into a pair of pink pajama pants with snails printed all over (a present from her mother…really, snails…) and the t-shirt she'd gotten from Zetsu, and five minutes later she was almost asleep when a knock on the door brought her back from the brink of unconsciousness.

"Yes?"

To her surprise, she had been expecting Itachi or Deidara or Kisame if anyone at all, it was Kakuzu who pushed her door open. Not really knowing what to do, she offered him the chair that had been at her bedside for three days and sat up. She wasn't exactly certain what Kakuzu would possibly want with her, and she was a little cranky being so sleepy and all, but he must have watched over her like the others and she was too grateful of that to be annoyed at his intrusion.

The senior shuffled over, an uncharacteristically shy gesture that would have tipped Sakura immediately that something was up, but she was too tired to register it really. Instead she glanced over to him expectantly, wondering just what had Kakuzu in her room when it was obvious from the look of her that she needed a good night's sleep.

Finally, the silence stretched out so long that the gratefulness did fade, bringing a touch of irritation to her thoughts. "Do I have to pay to get you to talk?" Sakura asked more sharply than she'd intended, her brows slightly furrowed.

"No. Here."

A package she hadn't noticed before was shoved into her hands.

Eyes wide with surprise and no trace of sleepiness left, Sakura gingerly unwrapped the garishly colored wrapping paper (leftovers from some past Christmas, Kakuzu could be a real skinflint sometimes) that fell away easily under her hands. It was a book.

Other people might have been annoyed to get a book, other people might not have thought this slightly tattered copy of Grimm's Fairytales to be particularly unique in any way, but Sakura was not other people.

"Oh, Kakuzu," she breathed, awe evident in her voice as her fingers delicately stroked the book's leather-bound spine. "For me?"

Kakuzu's nod was all the affirmation she needed; Sakura unashamedly turned back to her gift with delight in her eyes. It was bound in leather that had been dyed blue at one point in time. Now it was more of a faded greyish color that had hints of the deep navy that was once its primary color. The pages were slightly yellowed, but in good condition, the ink still dark in spite of the passage of time. Collecting, and reading, old books was a favorite pastime of Kakuzu's that Sakura had noted a couple times. She wasn't certain whether he liked them for literary value, because they could be cheap, or because they could be expensive. But they meant something to him, and she knew the value of this gift.

The brown-haired male fidgeted as Sakura ran her fingers lightly over the cover and reverently flipped through the pages, staring down at the scar that crossed his arm (from a childhood accident) so that he didn't feel so self-conscious. He had found the book in a second-hand bookshop, a lovely gem amid tattered pages, and he'd thought of her. She reminded him of fairytales, and if he let himself admit it in the privacy of his mind, of princesses.

A gentle touch of her fingertips to his arm jerked him from his thoughts. Eyes of jade met eyes of emerald and shone with admiration and thanks, warming his blood.

"Thank you, Kakuzu," she murmured with quiet happiness, her fingers curled protectively around the volume of stories. "Thank you so much."

"You're welcome." And then to cover up the feelings her genuine words had created, he added gruffly, "Don't stay up reading them. You need to rest," and slipped out before she could say more to create unfamiliar feelings in his chest. The heat was welcome but too different to allow for long without analyzing thoroughly. He had to analyze it. Possibly right now so that he didn't stay here.

He met Kisame on the way down the stairs, the other senior sitting on one of the steps in a manner that was deceptively nonchalant.

"What'd you take upstairs?"

Kakuzu narrowed his eyes. "Why does it matter?"

The other shrugged.

Kakuzu sighed. "Sakura now has a volume of Grimm fairytales."

"One that she didn't have before?"

"…Yes."

Kisame's eyes narrowed, then widened suddenly. "Don't tell me you gave her something. You. You bought Sakura something."

Kakuzu's complete and utter lack of a comment was answer enough.

The gill-tattooed senior goggled at him, then got to his feet with an abruptness that nearly unbalanced him. "You bought her something."

"She means a lot to the dorm."

"The entire dorm," Kisame muttered, casting sharp glances at the green-eyed male at his side. With a sigh he started to stalk off down the stairs to his room, declaring, "I'm going to bed."

It was too much to take in all at once.

And upstairs in Sakura's room, the rose-haired girl succumbed to exhausted sleep, her phone untouched by her bedside.


I hope you enjoyed this chapter, and if you did please review! Your comments fuel my inspiration!

Aria, out.