After my father died, I remember wishing that the grief mechanism within me would turn off after a certain period of time. It was long before any medic-nin training, but although I was still old enough to know better…I imagined that there was a small black switch in my heart, flicked upwards to the 'on' position, nestled neatly between all the valves. This switch was responsible for the times I was lying in bed at night, even after a perfectly uneventful day, and then I would suddenly find my throat closing over and my eyes burning with tears, before I ended up crying myself to sleep. It was responsible for the fact that, every day after five in the evening, whenever I heard the door open, no matter where I was in the house, I would be up on my feet, halfway to the living room, with a smile on my face and my latest test with a perfect score marked on the top clutched in my white-knuckled hand, before I remembered.

As much as I hate what happened to my father, in reflection, it gave me a little bit of preparation for what happened with Itachi.

I told myself that I would be strong. That I would go on with life, and set aside a short period of time every day, that I could think about him and allow myself to miss him. I was older now than when I lost my father, and I was stronger and braver and better able to cope.

It didn't take me long to find that it didn't really work like that.

To be completely honest, at first, I thought I was going crazy. I would be in bed, half-asleep, and change my positioning slightly, and I could have sworn that I felt him next to me, holding me warmly and securely, like he used to. When I was training with Tsunade-shishou, every time she nodded approvingly at me after I mastered a new skill, for a long time, the first thought that flickered happily through my mind was, 'I can't wait to tell Itachi when I get home.' Sometimes, when I was preoccupied and had a lot of things on my mind, I'd enter my apartment and absentmindedly go through rooms, looking for him.

It just goes to show that no matter how intelligent or mature you are, this kind of loss leaves a mark on you. I've always been considered book-smart, and everybody tells me that if I keep going at the rate I am now, I may surpass Tsunade-shishou someday. And in spite of all that, some small part of me keeps believing that he'll come back, somehow. It's not rational, I know. But I can't explain it.

I don't remember what life was like in the immediate aftermath, really, just bits and pieces of things. Tsunade-shishou giving me a long, serious, worried look the first time she saw me, and finally saying that I would be a stronger person for this. It didn't make sense to me, until Naruto told me what happened with her and Dan. Maybe I missed the point of his story in doing so, but one thing I thought of afterwards is that, well – she hasn't loved anybody else since then, has she?

Another thing I remember was that I found it perversely amusing, even then, that the only thing that could get Ino and Karin to set their differences aside was their need to look out for me, afterward. They supported me when I was down, and then helped me back to my feet.

It wasn't easy. I made myself train with Tsunade-shishou every day, and go on missions with Naruto and Sasuke, after Sasuke exhausted his probation peacefully and without incident (we were all still genin at that point – unimaginable), and afterwards, I would join Sasuke, Naruto, Jugo, Suigetsu, Karin, and Ino at the Uchiha Compound to try and relax. I thought I was acting normal, under the circumstances, but underneath the façade of normalcy, there was this impossible weight and heaviness in my chest that wouldn't go away, no matter how hard I tried.

It felt like it lasted a long time – the fresh, raw pain and sorrow dulled over the weeks and months that passed, as was natural, but it left behind something hard and strange that I couldn't comprehend. But I can pinpoint the exact moment that things changed. It was winter, and it was the actual blush on Jugo's face when he announced to our little group that he and Ino were going to attend the New Year's festival as a couple. This was immediately followed by Karin's expression of utter shock and horror, and I – I don't know. This dam burst within me, and before I even realized what was happening, I was doubled over in my kitchen chair, laughing harder than I had laughed in a long time, and even louder than Suigetsu was.

When I finally stopped, everybody was staring at me. Not in a bad way or anything, but just…shocked. Astonished, I guess. They looked surprised, but happy, and it was only later that night that I realized why they had reacted the way they did. It had really been that long that they had forgotten.

I lay on my bed and looked up at the ceiling and I wondered. It felt like a bit of the ever-present tightness around my chest had eased, but it surprised me a little that I didn't feel guilty about what had happened, or like I was betraying Itachi's memory by allowing myself to start to recover again. Itachi would have wanted me to be happy.

Time is a strange thing. It was an effort to keep living and functioning, and at first, every day was just the same harsh grind as the day before, but one day, two weeks after I turned seventeen, I looked at myself in the mirror and for the first time in a long time, I really paid attention to the person I saw staring back at me. The whites of my eyes were…white, not red, and my eyes looked bright again. The dark circles beneath them had more or less vanished, and the color of my face was beginning to look healthier. I wasn't actively smiling, but my lips turned upwards a little bit at the edges anyway. It took me a little while to register what I was seeing. I wasn't the same drawn, pale shadow of myself that I had been for the several months after Itachi's death, and now that I was aware of it, when I looked inward, I felt the changes on the inside as clearly as I saw them on the outside.

It happened like that. Gradually, in increments so small that I barely even noticed it. The pain began to ease, little bit by bit, loosening its tight grip on me. There was more of 'the old Sakura,' as Naruto once put it.

I cried a lot less and laughed with more ease. I spent time with my extended team, and Tsunade-shishou said that she noticed that this time, when I devoted myself wholeheartedly to training, it wasn't just an escape attempt. Nights were peaceful again.

Be that as it may, Itachi was still the first person I thought of, when Naruto, Sasuke, and I were fast-tracked through the chunin exams; when Tsunade-shishou finally told me that I had learned all that she had to offer and that she was truly proud of me; and on festivals and birthdays and such. No matter what else was on my mind, in the few moments before I fell asleep, I would remember something about him. The way he kissed my forehead; the way he said my name. The thoughts used to hurt so much, at first after it happened, that I would have to bite back tears when they flitted through my mind. But eventually, they came to have a different effect on me. I still wished Itachi was here to share these things with me, but I would find myself gripping the necklace tightly, feeling the cool metal against my palm, and gradually, those thoughts finally became more of a silent source of reassurance and comfort, than those of sorrow.

I'm not a very religious person, you know. I can't even imagine what the 'afterlife' would be. And yet, sometimes I wonder whether Itachi keeps tabs on me, so to speak – if he has seen what I have done, since, and he is proud of it. Or if he knows that, though considering and caring are not second nature to Sasuke like they had been for him, Sasuke makes an effort with me. It's not perfect by any means. Sometimes he just forgets, or he says something wrong, remains silent when he shouldn't, or is just plain awkward. But he gives me his long-sleeved shirt when it's cold, and he tries his hardest to be kind, and he walks me home every night after we're done training. On the days that I feel the loss hardest, we sit on my sofa together, and though he doesn't say anything, the fact that he is there, and he understands, makes all the difference.

I wonder if Itachi saw that it took three years before Sasuke kissed me – that he had waited patiently, for so long – and that afterward, I stumbled into my apartment and held the necklace tightly, sitting on my sofa with my head in my hands for two hours, before I made up my mind. And I wonder what he would have thought if he knew that when Sasuke asked me to marry him, he had been unable to look into my eyes for more than a few moments, before redirecting his gaze to the abstract metal circles that hung around my neck, and finished his question by quietly saying that he would treat me as well as Itachi would have – and that this, more than anything else, was what finally motivated me to nod shakily, trying my best to hold on to my composure.

I am all grown up now, as Ino said – okay, well, sniffled – when she made a toast at my twenty-sixth birthday, a few months ago. It has been approximately nine and a half years since Itachi and I met, and ten that he's been gone.

The purpose of this is to answer a couple of questions I carried within me when I was sixteen. Firstly – yes, I moved on, and in some ways, I didn't.

Perhaps this just goes to show that I never grew out of my anatomically incorrect heart imagery, not even after taking over as Konoha's top medic-nin in the wake of Tsunade-shishou's retirement, but…there is a place in my heart that will always belong to Itachi, for as long as I live. A little room that looks similar to one of those in the house we shared for those few months.

That probably could answer the second question in itself. When I was younger, I would wonder if, someday, when I'd be a successful kunoichi and eventually get married and have a family of my own and others to love…would I ever forget about Itachi? Would there ever be a time when I simply ceased to think about him, and kept moving forward with my life, burying him in the past?

It seemed unconscionable to me at the time. Speaking fairly, it still does now. On a purely visceral level, Sasuke has come to resemble Itachi more with every year that passes, and that similarity is only compounded by the fact that Sasuke's been letting his hair grow out. It falls bluntly to his shoulders now, and he keeps it tied back. I could never forget Itachi when every look at Sasuke is, to some deep, subconscious area of my mind, a reminder. Be that as it may, Sasuke and I hardly ever speak of Itachi to one another beyond the passing mention of his name once or twice every year or so, and that is why I am so surprised when it happens.

Despite Sasuke's long-ago statement about wanting to re-establish his clan, one of the things that Itachi had managed to impress upon him during their last conversation together was that the Uchiha clan had brought their demise upon themselves due to their power-hungry maneuverings. It was because of this that Sasuke flatly stated, during our engagement, that he intended to let the clan die with him. He thought, in light of everything that had happened with them, and with him and Itachi…that the clan itself, and everybody in it, was cursed.

I tried to reason with him, saying that we could start anew; raising our children to be peaceful, loyal members of Konoha just like us…and just like Itachi's vision of what the Uchiha clan should have been like. What he wanted the next generation of the clan to be like, honestly; when he ensured that Sasuke would settle down and live peacefully in Konoha. I admit that maybe it was unfair of me to pull that emotional card on him, knowing the effect it would probably have, but still, Sasuke refused.

He hadn't been happy when I had become pregnant, about a year after we got married. It was an accident – and yes, it is possible for medic-nin to have accidents like that. I had been tired; my chakra control had been a little off. That's all it takes.

In Sasuke's defense, despite his refusal to speak of anything whatsoever baby-related, he had looked after me with as much consideration and care as possible. Nine months later, when it was all finally over and I was curled up in bed, exhausted to the bone, with the tiny baby boy nestled in my arms and Tsunade's gentle words of congratulations ringing in my ears, and when Sasuke finally walked into the room, looking drawn and weary, he simply stared down at us, obviously at a loss for what to do or say. I waited with bated breath, and after a few moments, he reached down and tenderly touched our son on the forehead, gently smoothing his fingers against his thick black hair. I couldn't help but stare up at Sasuke apprehensively, waiting for a reaction and willing him to remember the positive things I had said when I had first told him, and—

"Itachi," Sasuke said, finally and very quietly, before turning around and leaving the room, presumably to tell Tsunade-shishou the name and ask her to put it on the records. For my part, I just stared at his retreating back, completely and utterly lost for words.

The only explanation that I ever get from Sasuke is that he wanted to honor the older brother who had sacrificed so much to save his life, and who had therefore been the sole reason he had lived to see this.

So, no, in answer to my long-ago question. I never forget Itachi.

I have worn the necklace for twelve years now, but it is not just a piece of jewelry to me; nor merely is it the Uchiha family heirloom that I will pass on to little Tachi-kun when he is older.

Just for the record, I am not a superstitious person, either. Suigetsu and Naruto always got on my case for being the one out to ruin every Ouija board game that we played with my supercilious statements about how everything was just completely fake.

However, I have to admit that sometimes, I have doubts. I'm a medic-nin. An intellectual. I respect intuition and feeling too, but Kabuto-sensei and Tsunade-shishou taught me to question anything that's not written down in a book.

There are things that I can't explain, though, about the necklace. Regardless of its personal significance to me, it is, physically, just polished metal embellished with red stones and strung on a silver chain. But when I wear it…

I passed the jounin exams with the exact same scores on each quadrant that Itachi received, when he took it. When I'm healing somebody, in the most intense, life-or-death, high-stress situations, I've never run out of chakra. No matter how impossibly drained I was before, I can finish the healing the person in the instant before my chakra burns itself out, so that they can get themselves back on their feet. It's almost like there is someone beside me, pressing their hands on top of mine, and giving me the infusion of chakra that I so desperately need. I kept Itachi's advice in mind and never joined ANBU, despite the fact that Sasuke, Suigetsu, Jugo, and Karin really wanted me to join their team, but I served as the medic for countless jounin teams on dangerous A- and S-ranked missions. I've lost count of the times that weapons or deadly jutsu have missed me by a mere fraction of an inch.

It's statistically improbable. I respect my own abilities, but I know that I'm not that good.

It is on days like these, as I slowly walk through the compound's courtyard, gently holding little Tachi-kun's hand as he toddles along at my side, that I can't help but dwell on these things, and wonder. It is mid-autumn, and the air is cool but still, and the orange-purple leaves of the maple trees that line the path are beginning to fall. I glance up from Tachi-kun – his free hand reaching out in a futile attempt to grab a leaf; his small face puckered with displeasure at the fact that all the pretty toys are out of his reach – and catch a glimpse of Sasuke chopping vegetables through the kitchen window. He is watching Tachi-kun affectionately, and when his gaze meets mine, I smile at him and he smirks back, self-conscious at being caught in such a pure, unguarded moment. Old habits die hard.

When we've passed the kitchen, I reach up, unable to keep my attention from drifting again as my fingers close around the necklace absentmindedly. But the second they do so, the wind picks up, gusting just lightly and almost playfully enough that it stirs the leaves and sends them flying, and Tachi-kun crows with delight as he snatches an orange leaf from the air.

I stare, momentarily startled. But the spell is broken in the next moment, when I have to dissuade Tachi-kun from stuffing the leaf into his mouth, and by the time I straighten again, holding him on my hip as he rubs the leaf into my hair happily, the path is still again.

I don't think it's about religion, or about superstition, but I think I can see now, that maybe, in some way or another, the ones we love never truly leave us.

So this doesn't have anything to do with the necklace, as I thought earlier. Maybe Sasuke feels it too, sometimes, and Suigetsu, and Naruto, and everybody who's ever lost a parent or sibling or somebody close to them; somebody whom they loved.

Still, the necklace is the only tangible thing that I have left of Itachi. I've grown up now. I'm an active-duty kunoichi and a happily married wife and mother. But I'm not ashamed to admit that I find some reassurance in the fact that in some way, he's looking out for me.

I adjust the collar of my jounin vest again, slipping the necklace back under the cloth and out of sight, and I turn, resting my back against the counter and closing my eyes. I'll never forget Itachi and the role he played in my life – not just for our time together, but for the fact that he saved Sasuke and, by preventing an Uchiha rebellion, potentially saved Konoha and everything I hold dear, as well.

But just in case I ever wake up in the morning and turn my head against Sasuke's neck and breathe in his scent as his arms tighten around me, and the first thought in my head is not one of simple gratitude that he's alive and well, against all odds – or if I'm ever not brave enough to explain the significance of Tachi-kun's name to him the first time a peer brings it up in an unpleasant way…

The cool metal against my collarbone is my reminder of a truly brave, noble shinobi, who should have lived longer. Whom I loved. I take him with me, wherever I go.

I would like to thank each and every one of you for reading, and for the kind words and support you've given me along the way. Reading your comments really made my day every single time, and I loved seeing every single one. As always, I hope that you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it. :) The ending message of this story strikes really close to home, and as I usually do, I had the idea for this epilogue sketched out even before I began writing the story itself. If you have any questions or comments or anything, you can always message me and I'll message back or reply through the little review reply feature.

I'm kind of sad to be saying this, but I feel that it's necessary, just in case. I graduate from high school in two weeks (!!!), and I'll be working and taking college classes all summer long. This fall, I'm starting as a full-time student at the University of Arizona. While I do have a few fledgling ideas for future ItaSaku fics in my head, it may be a while until I write again, at least until my life settles down and I'm less busy – or I learn how to manage my busy-ness and find time to do what I love again. There may be a one-shot in the interim, or a few. I'm not sure yet. I just wanted to let you know. I will be back at some point in the future, though!

Again, thank you so much for reading, and any and all feedback would be very much appreciated. :)