Disclaimer: Naruto and its characters are created by Masashi Kishimoto, but the new plots are mine. This fanfiction had been written for entertainment purposes only and without intention of infringing upon any copyright.
A/N: Finally, the last chapter of this story. Enjoy!
The Lost One by elle6778 – Chapter 16
Silence reined in the small clearing just an hour's travel away from Yugakure. The balmy morning air was scented with a telltale smell of charged chakra and burnt wood, and the scorch marks from fire techniques marred the otherwise beautiful forest.
But Sakura barely noticed any of these. She could only stare at the person standing in front of her, unable to utter anything else except his real name.
The past half an hour had shot by with a surreal quality. The moment she had finished healing her wounds and replaced her tattered clothing, she had sped towards the area where there was an alarming frequency of chakra explosions, thanking the fact that the Shinjutama fragments had lived up to expectations and stored more than enough chakra for her to heal all her wounds. Although it had been experimental, the technique had worked surprisingly well. Until now, the Shinjutama-fuelled chakra was still raging through her veins, feeling more substantial than her own. And frighteningly, less easy to control. While she had made her way swiftly through the forest, her mind had continued to reel from the fact that Itsuki was a shinobi, not a civilian, which explained many things when she thought about it. Even so, she was aware that the Root was more skilled than the average shinobi, which meant that Itsuki would need help in fighting them.
But now, staring at the man she had thought she known, she wished she had stayed where she was. Her entire body felt frozen now, as if she could not move if she tried. Her mind was still trying to assimilate the information that she knew would throw her entire world upside down.
She could not believe it.
All this time, she had not seen it. How could she not? Granted, she had only seen him once, many years ago from a distance. At that time, she had been too busy trying to avoid looking into his eyes, which meant that she had only caught a glimpse of his face. She had thought that his features were somewhat familiar from day one, and yet, she had stupidly not pieced it together. How could she be so oblivious and stupid? Or had he been using some sort of genjutsu on her all this time?
"Sakura…" he began.
He took a slow step towards her, as if trying not to frighten her. In response, she took a step back, her mind whirring with the implications of the discovery and her body trembling slightly with a mix of anger and fear and other emotions she could not name.
He was Uchiha Itachi. The S-class missing nin of a deadly organization who had massacred his entire clan, save Sasuke. The man who was standing before her now was the one who had caught Kakashi in a technique that landed him in the hospital for weeks. An Akatsuki who wanted to capture her best friend, Naruto, to extract the kyuubi from him, despite knowing that such a thing would kill the blond. The same one who had sent Sasuke running to Orochimaru for power. The reason Sasuke had left Konoha and the reason he did not want to return.
He was the same man she had laughed, joked and slept with. Someone she had seriously contemplated a future with. Things had been going so well between them. She still could hardly swallow the fact that the man she had been intimate with someone who had kept something his true identity from her.
She felt somewhat… cheated.
Then something else occurred to her. Lips parting with a horrified gasp, she realized that she had not censored her words with him all that much, thinking that he was a harmless civilian. She could not remember the specifics now, but she had definitely spoken of Konoha and possibly mentioned things that she should not have uttered in the presence of a missing nin. Confidential things, sensitive things that could be used against Konoha.
And the information was a weapon in his hands.
Her heart twisted at the thought of him betraying her. Vaguely, she noted that this must be what heartbreak felt like. Funnily enough, she did not think that the pain would actually manifest itself physically.
Her breath turned more ragged as she took a few more steps back away from the Uchiha.
This man… this man whom she had felt so happy with, did not exist. This whole relationship was fake. A charade. Some people said love blinded. That particular saying sure was valid when it came to her. Worse still, in doing so, she had placed her beloved village in danger because of her gullibility.
"Calm down, Sakura."
His smooth words pierced her, snapping her out of that surreal shock which had enveloped her.
"Calm down?" she managed to choke out. "You're telling me to … CALM DOWN?" Her voice rose to a shriek. "YOU DECEIVED ME!"
He only regarded her wordlessly.
A lot of things made sense now. Sasuke had seen Itachi, had seen through the façade. He had, and she hadn't. Was she truly such an incompetent kunoichi? In addition to her lacking battle skills, she was also easily duped? Or perhaps she should have been more observant in the past. She should have memorized his features instead of averting her eyes from him.
Sasuke knew that Itachi was alive and therefore was still hunting him. That was why Sasuke had seemed so mad when she had mentioned Itachi's death back then. The wounds suddenly made sense. Both Itachi's and Sasuke's. They had been fighting each other, the way they had always done. And she had remained ignorant of it all, healing both their wounds without suspecting anything. Without suspecting that they had been attempting to what? Kill each other again?
She managed to choke the words out. "You've been fighting Sasuke."
His expression hardened instantly, confirming her suspicions. Her heart sank even further at the uncharacteristic display of expression on his face. It was a mix of anger, irritation, and something darker and more violent. Was this the expression he had worn when he had massacred his clan? The thought of it, the thought of the way she had been sleeping with a mass murderer, made her feel slightly sick. It made her fear him in the way she had never thought she would.
But despite all of that, he had spared her. He had not harmed her. He had even gone out of his way to save her from trouble. And so, maybe, there was something she could do about this. Maybe he would listen to her.
"Please, can't you just leave Sasuke alone?" she pled in a whisper. "Sasuke left Konoha because of you. He won't return until you're dead. And now, he is still out there, hunting for you because he knows that you're alive. Can't you just… let it be?"
His jaw tightened visibly. "Sasuke and I have our own issues to resolve."
Sakura swallowed at his cold tone, the reality of the situation reinforced by his words. Itsuki had never spoken to her like this. This was not her lover anymore. This man was different. He was harder, and he was frightening. An S-class missing nin that had no qualms about killing his entire clan, and to top it off, he would not even allow Sasuke to live peacefully. Instead, he had to taunt his little brother at every opportunity. With Itachi alive, and Sasuke's vengeance unsatisfied, her old teammate would never return to Konoha, and Naruto, Kakashi and her would keep on chasing after him. But for how long?
All would be solved if Itachi was brought back to Konoha.
She was a Konoha kunoichi and was bound to follow the rules, and the rules were clear on situations like this. She had to bring him back to Konoha, or failing that, kill him. That was the protocol in regards to missing nins. Especially one who possessed dangerous knowledge about the village, thanks to her.
But she could not. Despite everything, her body trembled at the thought of hurting the man she had been in a relationship with for the past half a year. Not only that, she was probably one of the weakest jounin in existence, based on her recent performance. She could not handle ANBU Root, not even close, while both her teammates had taken down many other more powerful opponents. And this was Uchiha Itachi, someone who had been hailed as the genius of the Uchiha clan. There was no way she could apprehend him or kill him. He would not allow her to, regardless of this messed-up relationship of theirs.
Relationship? What relationship? No, he might look like the person she loved but really, it was all a façade, was it not? It was all fake, she insisted to himself. FAKE! She was in love with someone who did not exist. Nakamura Itsuki did not exist. Uchiha Itachi had destroyed Sasuke and then destroyed Itsuki. All him, and how could he just stand there, as if he had done nothing but told a simple white lie?
It was all just a mirage, what she had with Nakamura Itsuki. None of it was real, like a carefully crafted genjutsu. Uchiha Itachi was the best at things like that, she had heard.
It occurred to her then that she might be rapidly going insane.
He was still staring at her silently in his usual impassive manner. Her eyes traced his features, noting just how different and healthy he looked compared to what he was like years ago. And not dead. Her breath hitched slightly with emotion when she realized that if he had truly died in that battle with Sasuke, then the past one year with him would not have occurred. She wouldn't have gotten to know him.
Hell, she still did not know him. The person she had known was Nakamura Itsuki, not Uchiha Itachi. They were two different people.
She asked in a trembling voice, "How did you survive the battle with Sasuke?"
Shocked by his words, she sucked in a sharp breath. Cautiously, she asked, "What do you mean? You… died?"
He nodded curtly. "Pein resurrected me."
Comprehension slammed through her and she cursed herself once again for failing to make the connection. If Pein could bring to life practically the whole of Konoha, then resurrecting one single Akatsuki member should not be a problem for him.
"What about the rest of the dead Akatsuki? Are they alive as well?"
Itachi shook his head. "I'm not certain."
The notion that the Akatsuki they had killed might have all been resurrected made her hands clench into tight fists. The medic in her screamed that this was wrong, that this was unnatural, but the technique had also brought Kakashi and the rest of her friends back to her, hadn't it? The technique was the same, whether used to revive the Akatsuki or Leaf nins. Why should one be more acceptable than the other? Was she being a hypocrite?
She wished suddenly that Naruto was here by her side. He always was able to see through things, unlike most other people. He always seemed to be able to achieve the unachievable. Until now, it still seemed unreal that Naruto had managed to get Pein to do a complete turnabout. No one really knew the full story, but Naruto always had something special about him. Somehow, he had convinced Pein to cease the destruction.
Hope suddenly bloomed as an idea took hold. If Pein could change so drastically, then maybe Uchiha Itachi was different now too. After all, he had not done anything to harm her in all this time they had been together. In fact, he had saved her twice now. He could have changed since his resurrection.
The feeling of bubbling hope intensified and she could not help but grasp desperately at it. But there was one thing she needed to know first.
Eyes searching his face intently, she asked in a shaky voice, "Why didn't you just tell me who you are right from the start?"
Please, please, let him come up with something that could justify this.
Itachi felt a heavy weight settle upon him at the sight of her expression. She was grasping at straws, perhaps attempting to find a way to place the blame elsewhere, so that she could work a way out of this predicament. It showed him just how much he meant to her. And he truly wanted to give her that hope that they could weather this.
But inside, he knew that it was too late for that. He had kept too many secrets from her and some had to remain secrets. He was not supposed to divulge his role as a double agent, even if Konoha no longer expected anything from him, thinking that he was dead. It would be difficult to explain things fully to her. However, he would tell her as much as he could.
"My memories were… compromised."
A mildly horrified look flashed across her features. Then, in a flat voice, she asked, "Compromised? You have amnesia?"
"Something of that sort," he admitted. "The technique Pein used was experimental, but he had deliberately blocked off my memories. I recall nothing but my own name and several disjointed images of the past."
"But now, you remember everything."
"When did this happen?" Her hands clenched and then unclenched. "When did you regain your memories?"
Itachi remained silent, knowing that the truth would not be what she wished to hear. Despite his resolution to tell her the truth, he found it rather difficult to put into practice. This particular truth would condemn him. The small voice at the back of his mind told him that he was delaying the inevitable. Sakura would push for an answer, and eventually he would have to give it to her.
"Tell me." She darted towards him, fisting his top in her small, white knuckled grip. "TELL ME!" she hissed, her expression displaying a mix of desperation and hope.
"Three months ago."
She sucked in a sharp breath, her grip slackening as she took one and then two steps away from him. She looked betrayed and he knew that he was the only who had betrayed her. He had betrayed her trust and something told him that it would not be easily repaired.
"A-All this time…" Her unsteady words broke off with a choked sound. She took a deep breath, her eyes taking on a wild look, and then she burst out, "THREE MONTHS? You knew three months ago and you didn't think it was necessary to tell me?"
He shook his head once, having nothing to say.
She turned away from him, head bowed, but not before he saw the shimmer of tears in her eyes. The ragged heave of her shoulders, a reaction from her silent sobs, broke something within him. The urge to reach out, to comfort her was strong, but he knew with all certainty that she would not allow him to touch her. And so, he curled his fingers into his palms, keeping them tightly locked so that they would not reach out of their own volition.
When she regained some semblance of calm, she turned back to him, asking in a still-shaky voice, "How did you remember?" Something flickered in her expression. "Was it something I said about Konoha? Did anything I say trigger your memories?"
She looked pained. Her words were uncertain, almost fearful when she continued, "It was never the Shinjutama, was it? You approached me back then because you wanted your memories back. Because I reminded you of something."
Itachi swallowed past the tightness of his throat. He had known that this would happen, but he had not expected it to be so difficult to bear. "At first, yes."
Her bottom lip trembled as she stared at him with a pair of betrayed, emerald orbs. "I… I see."
Feeling the need to explain further, he added, "My past only returned fully when I saw the Bingo Book."
Sakura's eyes widened. "You…" she broke off. Right before his eyes, he saw her anguish give way to anger. And to him, any form of anger was certainly more desirable than the agonized hurt she had previously worn.
"How dare you take it?" she hissed furiously. "It's not yours to take."
Yes, her anger was much more palatable than her anguish. Calmly, he elaborated, "It fell out of your pack. Without it, I would never have recalled who I was. Without it, I would never have realized that you were foolishly risking your life, ignoring the fact that you're being monitored by Root."
She bristled indignantly. "I wasn't being foolish. I tried to be careful, but there were things I had to do. You know about Tsunade!" she spat. "I might not have used her name, but surely you know who I was talking about all this time. And if you know that, then you should know just how important it is for me to help heal her."
"To restore peace to Konoha."
"Not only to Konoha!" She took a deep breath, her eyes darting towards the dead ANBU Root. "You wouldn't understand."
His lips thinned at her unspoken condemnation. Much as he disliked killing, it had been necessary in this case. Leaving them alive would pose too much risk to Sakura and to himself. "They had to be eliminated, Sakura. Root will not stop until they get what they want. Danzou's training had seen to that."
"Then you should understand why I need to do this," she retorted heatedly. "Danzou is destroying everything."
"Danzou views the world from a different perspective."
"You weren't even there, were you? What do you know about it?"
His lips twisted bitterly. "I know more than I care to."
She stared at him wordlessly, as if she was trying to see through him. His statement most likely had confused her, something which did not surprise him. The events of the past had happened long before she had become a fully-fledged shinobi, after all. She had not seen what a war could do to a village or its shinobi. She did not know that if an order could prevent an all-out war, it should be executed even at the expense of one's life.
"What do you know about Danzou?" she finally asked.
"He is… uncompromising."
She blinked slowly, absorbing his words. "That's why we need Tsunade back in power." Her expression hardened. "And don't you even think of stopping me."
"I have no intention of doing such a thing." He hated the blatant distrust in her expression. "I have no wish to harm you, Sakura."
She stared at him, as if measuring his words, clearly wary him. Any notion of revealing the whole truth about his role as a double agent to her disappeared then. She might misjudge him, and he did not care to put himself in such a vulnerable position. As it was, thus far, he had felt more distress than he recalled ever feeling. Emotions usually did not come easily to him and he had never allowed the emotions of others to affect him either. Therefore, it had not been difficult to dismiss all the hatred directed at him over all these years, but Itachi found it impossible to do so when it came to Sakura. Her opinion was important to him and he did not wish for her to view him in an unfavorable light.
But that was clearly a futile wish. It was too much to hope that she would accept this revelation gracefully. With their pasts and their current statuses, anything resembling a personal relationship between them would be impossible. This was clear to him ever since his memories had returned. He should have cut his losses and separated from her then, but he had foolishly clung to the hope that… what? That she would accept him?
Clearly, he had been deluding himself.
And now, it was time to make the break, as painful as it was for him, and most likely for her as well.
"I will leave you here," he told her quietly.
Her eyes widened as her breath hitched. "No!" she blurted out.
Her quick response surprised him. Uncertain how to respond, he only stared at her, waiting for her to say something else. He could see that she was wracking her mind, as if considering what she should say to him.
Finally, she spoke hesitantly, "You're Konoha's missing nin."
So, this was why she wanted him to keep him from leaving? Her unspoken demand was clear but he had no intention of making such a foolish step, especially now that Danzou was in power. Itachi knew that the man sought to remove him from the picture so that the events from past did not have an opportunity to resurface. Despite its effectiveness, the decision to eliminate the Uchiha clan did not put the Danzou and the rest of the council in a good light. To hand himself to Konoha now was akin to signing his own execution.
"I will not turn myself in," he told her mildly.
Her expression hardened at his words. "And then I'll have to take you in."
He shook his head. "You are not capable of it."
"Do not slight me!" she retorted heatedly.
Directing a pointed glance in the direction of Tsunade's village, he remarked softly, "Surely you have a more important task to handle now, than to bring back a long-forgotten missing nin."
"I doubt they've forgotten you." Her tone was dry.
"Perhaps. You should settle the matter concerning your Hokage, not apprehending a missing nin."
"Konoha would want you." Her words wavered slightly there. "You are at the top of the list as far as the village is concerned."
"Perhaps," he murmured.
"There is no 'perhaps' about it! Konoha is not the type to let its missing nin run wild! As a Leaf nin, I'm expected to bring you back. Or at least report you," she told him harshly, but the sheen in her eyes betrayed her emotion, of her lack of conviction in her own words.
"You sound so certain, Sakura. So certain that you're doing the right thing." He regarded her intently, hoping that his words would get through to her. Perhaps she would understand the hint he was about to give her. "Then again, ignorance tends to do that. There are many things about Konoha that you do not know."
Her wariness returned full-force. "What do you mean by that?"
"We are all shinobi, Sakura." He paused, weighing his words before he continued, "And we have all been conditioned to follow orders, for the good of our village, despite the cost to ourselves."
"For the good of our village?" she echoed numbly. And then, voice shaking slightly with suppressed emotion, she continued, "Is that why you obeyed Akatsuki and massacred the Uchiha clan? For the good of Konoha? Is that why you caused Sasuke so much pain that he is where he is now? Is that why you hunt Naruto?"
Itachi felt something twist in his chest. She did not understand, but then again, he had not expected her to. She seemed to be bent on seeing him in an unflattering light, believing in the rumors that he had massacred the clan on Akatsuki's whim. She could not seem to comprehend that Konoha would issue such an order. But then again, no one else expected it as well. Which was why it had worked so well.
Deciding to answer her questions, he murmured, "Yes. It was for the good of Konoha. As for Sasuke, I've simply pushed him to strengthen himself. His methods, however, are questionable."
"Don't try to justify your actions," she snapped sharply.
And then she dragged in a deep breath, as if to calm herself. Itachi watched with a feeling of resignation as a myriad of emotions crossed her features; hurt, anger, sorrow, confusion and finally, dejection. It was as if this revelation had taken so much out of her that she did not have the ability to fight anymore. The fact that he was the cause of all this was not lost on him, although he had not set out to do so. He had not expected anything like this when he had first pursued her a year ago. Things had turned out very complicated.
"Don't," she interjected heavily, eyes closing. "It's… This is just too much." She took another deep breath, and then her eyes opened, revealing moist emerald orbs. "This…" Gesturing weakly between the two of them, she continued in a shaky voice, "This isn't going to work, is it?"
He stared at her silently. That was something he had known since the return of his memories, but having it put into words stung more than he had anticipated.
A bitter laugh bubbled from her lips and Itachi decided there and then that he hated the sound. It was a far cry from her usual lighthearted laughter.
Her voice cracked when she said, almost plaintively, "You're a missing nin. I'm a Konoha jounin."
She reached out to him, eyes shimmering with unshed tears of anger and sorrow. Itachi felt his heart twist painfully at the sight. He had not wished to hurt her so badly, but he knew that she would not view it in that manner.
Her palms connected gently with his cheeks, cupping his face as she stared up at him and he gave in to the urge to kiss her. Their lips met softly, and then their movements became more desperate, more urgent, as if both of them knew that this would not last for long. He knew whatever that they had between them was now over. It was something he had anticipated, but knowing did not make him feel better.
That name again, he despaired inwardly as his hands tightened around her upper arms. Needing to hear it from her, even though it would certainly invite pain, he murmured against her lips, "Sakura, my real name…" Just once, he added silently.
She froze in his arms, making him almost regret his demand. But he needed to hear it. He needed her to acknowledge who he was. Even though he was not proud of some of the things he had done, it was still him. No one had forced him into anything. Everything he had done had happened because he had chosen. It was him, Uchiha Itachi.
"I-Itachi…" she whispered brokenly as her hands trembled against his cheeks.
And then he parted her lips with his, kissing her deeply again, pulling her closer to him. Just kissing was never enough, but Itachi knew that he no longer could ask for more. This was the last time.
It was at that moment that her hands left his cheeks to slide down to his chest. A tiny prickle of warning made him tense, forcing him to break the kiss. In a blink of an eye, as if by reflex, he caught her wrist, slowly removing her hand from his person. His reaction, in turn, made her smile brokenly, as if she felt the loss of trust as acutely as he did.
Sakura had not known that it was possible to feel this level of anguish. But it was to be expected, really, considering the impossible situation. Already, she could feel her throat tightening up with emotion and her vision growing blurry with her unshed tears.
All those times in the early days when she had been so wary of him, all those times she told herself that she was being paranoid, those had been her instincts warning her after all. After spending more time with him, the suspicion had gradually eased until it was no longer present. Now, the wariness and distance was back again between them. He was wary of her intentions, she knew.
And it hurt.
She had held on to her emotions so tightly ever since she had realized who he was. But now, the feeling of hysteria bubbled over, and she gave in to it. She allowed herself to crack.
"Why… WHY?" she cried, launching himself at him.
She beat at his chest, weakly at first. And then with more and more strength until Itachi was thrown backwards against a tree. And yet, he just allowed her to release all her pent-up emotions until she stopped, backing away from him, even as she kept her eyes on him warily at all times. This powerful missing nin just let her vent without any retaliation, leaving himself open and vulnerable. Tears were running down her face, leaving wet, humiliating tracks. She hated that she was crying, and she hated that he was there to see it.
Her frantic movements finally stilled, and she let her hands fall to her side. The tears kept coming, much to her shame and disgust. She kept crying, first for Sasuke and now him.
"I…" She broke off, dragging in a deep breath as she dashed her tears away. Raising her eyes to him, she found him staring sadly at her and understood then that this was not easy for him as well. "I don't want things to be this way," she finally told him plaintively.
He closed his eyes briefly, and then reached out to place a hand on her shoulder. It was a gesture meant to console, she knew. The urge to lean down, to rub her cheek against his hand, was strong, but she refrained from it. It would be too intimate, at this point.
"Things do not always turn out as we wish," he told her quietly, his hand sliding off her slowly.
"Is there no way…" she trailed off, not able to voice the traitorous words.
He shook his head. "Not at the present."
She bowed her head sadly, knowing that he was right. This was Uchiha Itachi, a wanted missing-nin. No matter what she felt for him, her loyalty was to Konoha. Therefore, it was impossible for them to be together. No matter what she felt for him, she could not throw her whole life, her friends, her home… everything… for him.
Maybe that meant she did not feel enough for him, even though she knew that she already felt more than she should. But as much as strong as her feeling was, she knew that she had only one option. One path to take, and no other.
"This is it, isn't it?" she whispered.
He inclined his head. "Yes. It is best that we part ways."
She took a step backwards away from him. "Will I see you again?"
And she knew. She just knew that he would be watching her for a while more, even as she took the first few steps to distance them. It was no use. She did not need more time to think about this because nothing would change. Turning from him, she began to walk away swiftly. The faster they separated, the better it was. She just had to hold on to her composure until she was sure that he was not watching.
The next time they saw each other, it would be across enemy lines.
Her breath hitched at the thought, and her steps stilled. Would she be able to make herself fight him? Would he kill her in retaliation?
His voice was soft, barely audible, but she heard it all the same. She was so attuned to him at that moment that she would have heard each and every bit of his whisper should he decide to do so.
She really should go, but instead, she stopped.
She stopped, turning around to face him fully.
And that was when she felt it.
A hiss of irritation almost escaped Itachi's lips. He could walk away now to intercept Sasuke and commence their usual battle, but he knew that to do so would mean that Sakura would interrupt them. And Sasuke could be rash enough that he would not care if his ex-teammate was caught in the crossfire.
He needed to deal with Sasuke now, without Sakura's presence. Perhaps discourage Sasuke from battling there and then. Before Sakura noticed that her old teammate was heading straight towards them.
However, luck was not on his side. Sakura's eyes were widened in recognition as she stared past him. It was clear that she had noticed Sasuke's approach, he thought with a grimace.
"S-Sasuke?" Sakura whispered, her voice carrying a tinge of fear.
Something within him splintered at the sound. He had held his emotions on a tight leash throughout this entire encounter, but this appeared to be the last straw. A flash of anger coursed through him.
Why must Sasuke appear now? Must everything centered on him? He had focused his entire life around the boy, but this was one thing he wished to keep private. Sakura was someone wished to keep to himself. But it was clearly not possible. His hands clenched into tight fists as he glared into the distance in the direction of where his little brother was coming from, hardly able to keep his resentment to himself.
Then he inhaled deeply, willing himself to remain calm. Losing his temper would not be beneficial at this point. He had to think objectively, he thought, as he considered his choices.
He could confront Sasuke, with Sakura there to witness the battle. Who would she side with then? Him or Sasuke? As much as he loathed to admit it, Itachi knew that it was unlikely for her to take his side against her teammate's. His other option was to disappear in the other direction, and attempt to outrun Sasuke. It guaranteed that Sakura would give chase as well, but her target would not be him, but Sasuke. In both scenarios, it would be impossible to avoid a confrontation.
Of the two options, the former would be preferable. For the latter would only delay the inevitable. And he was thoroughly weary of any form of avoidances now.
He locked eyes with Sakura then, watching as she grew increasingly pale.
"No…" she whispered, her voice tinted with dread. "Don't go after him."
"He is coming for me, Sakura," he told her flatly.
It displeased him that she immediately assumed that he would attack Sasuke, instead of the other way round. He could explain things to her, tell her that he was attempting to stop Sasuke from attacking Konoha, but he did not wish to be subjected to her disbelief. Such a thing would pain him even further. Because he understood her well enough to know that where teammates were concerned, she was not objective at all.
Her fists clenched by her side. "Stay away from him, please?"
Irritated, he asked her, "Why are you so certain that it's not Sasuke initializing this attack?"
"Of course I know he is! He wants to…kill you," she trailed off, looking torn. "For revenge."
Growing increasingly incensed by her blind loyalty to Sasuke, he turned away from her. "Think what you wish."
Without another word, he streaked away from her. Although it was a given that she would follow, he knew that he would reach Sasuke before her. Perhaps there was still enough time for him to salvage this mess.
His hands came together for the seals for a teleportation jutsu, and with a flare of chakra and a puff of smoke, he was transported a significant distance. He sped through the rest of the forest without pause, tracking Sasuke's trail. His little brother had not bothered to conceal his presence, which was fortunate, because Itachi was feeling too impatient to hunt today.
The green blur of the forest flashed past as he focused in the distance, and with both of them moving towards each other, it was not long before Itachi found himself standing on the edge of a cliff, staring down at the figure standing there at the base a hundred feet or so below him.
As he watched, Sasuke infused chakra to his feet and swiftly scaled the rocky cliff face until they were standing in front of each other. His little brother's eyes were darting left and right, his expression sharp as he searched for something.
"Sasuke, this is not a convenient time for our battle," he told the younger Uchiha without preamble.
"What is going on, Itachi?" Sasuke's eyes focused over his shoulders. "I felt bursts of chakra. Who are you fighting?"
"Konoha?" Sasuke frowned. "What are they doing here?"
Bristling, Sasuke returned, "Don't patronize me. It's obviously not nothing." He eyed the area speculatively before returning his gaze to Itachi. "You were fighting Konoha ANBU Root. Does that mean that you're finally changed your mind?"
"You have not defeated me yet, have you, Sasuke?" he challenged mildly.
"But if you're fighting Konoha…"
"No," Itachi interjected impatiently. "We should continue this another day. It is not very convenient right now."
"I'm not here for you convenience, Itachi," Sasuke shot back. "You're behaving strange. What's really going on?"
Still staring at a point beyond him, Sasuke tensed. For a brief moment, Itachi saw concern flash across his little brother's face, and as much as he disliked to admit it, he could guess that Sakura was the cause of it. Sasuke had obviously just sensed his old teammate's rapid approach. And the flash of concern? Itachi did not even want to contemplate what it might imply.
When Sasuke turned back to him, his expression was a mix of confusion and caution. "You were fighting my old teammate?"
"Then why is she headed this way?"
"To see you, perhaps."
Sasuke's eyes flickered with suspicion, and a hint of threat. "You don't seem surprised by her presence. Are you acquainted with her?"
Something inside Itachi chilled at Sasuke's dark tone. It occurred to him then that it would not do for Sasuke to find out about him and Sakura. Perhaps his little brother had feelings for the pink-haired kunoichi. He seemed to trust her enough. There was no telling how Sasuke would react to the news of their intimacy, especially if he realized that Sakura had been healing both of them, and therefore, indirectly making it more difficult for Sasuke to defeat him.
Things seemed to be getting worse. He had to stop this before the situation spiraled out of control. Knowing how fond Sakura was of Sasuke, Itachi knew that she would be crushed if she found out that Sasuke wished to unleash a bijuu upon Konoha. It was best that she remained ignorant of this little fact. It was yet another truth he had to keep from her.
All he needed was time. If he managed to convince his little brother to let go of this plan, no one had to know that Sasuke had even thought to betray Konoha. Perhaps Sasuke could even go back there, to a relatively normal life with his friends once Tsunade wrestled the control of the village back from Danzou. Sasuke did not have to live the life of a missing nin. He could even settle down with… Sakura… and go about his task of reviving the clan.
An insidious, selfish voice whispered in his mind then, telling him that revealing the truth would swiftly rid Sakura of her infatuation with Sasuke. Then, perhaps Sakura would see him, and not Sasuke.
He dismissed it immediately. It was the foolish hope of a desperate man, because he knew that Sasuke only a small part in their pending separation.
A loud shout pierced the air then, interrupting his thoughts.
Both of them tensed as the pink-haired kunoichi burst into the area, breathless with the exertion. Her emerald green eyes swung from one to the other, her trepidation unmasked for all to see. She had hoped not to see them facing each other like this, clearly.
"What are you doing here, Sakura?" his little brother asked.
"I…" she faltered uncertainly, her eyes continuing to flit back and forth between them. Then, almost as if she had arrived at some sort of conclusion, she turned to him. "Don't fight him, Itachi."
Sasuke tensed visibly. "What are you saying Sakura? Stay out of this."
"I can't! I can't watch both of you fight each other like this!" she cried out.
Itachi tensed further as comprehension dawned upon Sasuke's features.
"Sakura. Who is Itachi to you?" he asked, a small frown appearing between his brows.
Much to Itachi's relief, Sasuke only seemed confused and curious, instead of angered. Perhaps his little brother truly did not return Sakura's feelings. Perhaps revealing this particular truth would not be too detrimental to anyone, after all.
Itachi watched silently as the kunoichi glanced away, biting her bottom lip, her eyes clouded with uncertainty. She could not even meet his eyes. It was almost as if she was ashamed of their relationship. It had not been an issue when he was Nakamura Itsuki, but now that he was Uchiha Itachi, she clearly wanted nothing to do with him.
The crack within his chest seemed to stretch wider, making him ache.
Before anyone else could say a word, Itachi broke the silence. "No one. Our paths coincided occasionally, but she only discovered my identity today. When she saw my picture in the Bingo book," he fabricated.
Sakura's eyes shot up to meet his, surprised and confused, while Sasuke gave her an incredulous look. "You didn't recognize him?" he asked.
A grimace appeared on her face. "I've only seen him once, back when I was fifteen. I was trying to avoid looking at his eyes then," she admitted.
Sasuke eyed them thoughtfully, as if trying to decide if they were telling the truth. He must have, for shortly afterwards, he told her, "Stay out of this, Sakura. It's none of your business."
Stubbornness tightened her chin. "I'm making it my business."
Displeasure washed over Sasuke's features. "You're annoying."
Itachi did not like how Sakura wince at his little brother's words. But she did not seem surprised by it. Clearly this was not the first time she had been subjected to Sasuke's thoughtlessness. How could she be so loyal to Sasuke, in the face of his treatment towards her? Their relationship was bewildering, and what was worse was that Itachi found himself jealous of her blind loyalty to his sibling.
"Leave now, Sasuke. We will deal with our issues some other day," Itachi told him, diverting his little brother's attention away from the kunoichi.
"No," Sasuke immediately returned. "We will handle things now. Just the two of us."
Sakura held herself rigidly under Sasuke's pointed stare, ignoring his unspoken request. Her eyes flitted once again between the both of them, as if expecting them to attack each other at any moment. Itachi was not surprised, for the tension in the air was coiling tighter as each second passed.
"I'm not going anywhere," she finally told them.
Sasuke took a step towards her.
Itachi immediately knew that he was aiming to knock the kunoichi out. But that would not serve his purpose. He did not wish to battle with Sasuke now. He did not wish for Sakura to wake up to realize that they had been fighting again, and she had been unable to stop them. It was Sasuke who needed to leave them alone for now, especially since he and Sakura had yet to reach a final closure.
Clearly catching on to the younger Uchiha's intent, Sakura took an anxious step backwards. "Sasuke, don't do this," she warned.
Sasuke's eyes remained on the pink-haired kunoichi. "It's only for a while, Sakura," he told her with a hint of regret in his tone.
Itachi made his move then, making a beeline for Sasuke's back as the younger shinobi turned away from him. He caught a glimpse of Sakura's eyes widening in horror at his approach, but he focused his attention on Sasuke, just managing to catch the younger man off-guard before he twisted around.
A well-placed jab at a specific pressure point was all it took to reduce Sasuke to unconsciousness. Slipping his arms around his brother, Itachi caught him before he could hit the ground.
"Stop it!" Sakura shrieked suddenly. "Don't hurt him!"
Then there was a blur of pink speeding towards him. Too late, he realized that Sakura had misread the situation. At that angle, she probably had not been able to tell that he had not harmed Sasuke.
He jerked away, but Sasuke's limp body hampered his movements. The burst of chakra which connected with his left arm was still unexpected, as well as the odd hum which flooded his entire body in an instant. He pushed her away, but to his dismay, he found that his limbs were quickly growing numb. He fell to his knees, releasing Sasuke's limp body as he did so. She must have used some form of medical technique on him. Unfortunately, it was not something he was familiar with, and he had no idea as to how he could dispel the technique.
The silence around them seemed loud, making her single footstep sound louder that it actually was as her sandals crunched subtly on the dry ground. Their eyes met then, and he could see that hers were filled with moisture. Her movements were cautious as she knelt down beside his brother, only breaking eye contact long enough to drag Sasuke's limp body away from him. And then she resumed watching him with a troubled expression, as if expecting him to attack at any moment.
But he wouldn't do such a thing, would he? It was just pathetic, the way he had allowed her to do this with nothing but a mild glare in her direction. Despite everything, he had not expected her to do such a thing. Another part of him reasoned that she had done so because she had thought that he was about to harm Sasuke.
Still, if it had not been clear before, it was as clear as crystal now. The trust they had built between them over the past year was certainly gone as if it had not been there in the first place.
Then, just as abruptly as it had begun, it was over.
The hold her chakra had on him dissipated, feeling as if a tight lock had broken. He flexed his muscles then. Much to his relief, he found himself able to move again, although his muscles felt a little sluggish. Standing not far away, Sakura gasped in surprise, clearly not expecting her technique to release so soon. Her arms went around Sasuke protectively, no doubt expecting an attack from him.
Just as Itachi straightened to his feet, he felt something shift within him, something which he instinctively knew was important. Much to his consternation, it was something he could not put a name to. It was almost as if part of his senses was dulled.
"What did you do?" he asked stonily.
Her expression was a picture of guilt as she averted her eyes. Instead, she kept her eyes on Sasuke's unconscious form as she murmured, "I'm sorry."
She really meant it, he realized with a twist within his chest. Whatever technique it was that she had used, it had probably hurt her to use it against him. It saddened him, the fact that it had come to this. Perhaps he should tell her that he had no intention of harming Sasuke in the first place.
"Sakura…" he began.
Her voice cracking, she snapped, "Don't!"
His lips pressed together, studying her wordlessly. It would seem that fate would not allow the truth of his actions to be revealed this time. There was nothing he could say to her at this juncture, he supposed. It was too late for words. Besides, didn't someone say that actions spoke louder than words? Their actions, misinterpreted or not, had spoken loudly for them.
And speaking of her actions, until now, he was still conscious of that odd feeling of incompleteness within him. Concerned about what she might have done to damage him, he decided to test himself, summoning chakra to his limbs.
Sakura's eyes immediately widened in alarm. "Please, don't…"
Ignoring her, he flicked through a series of seals. He felt something resist within him, something which was trying to prevent him from drawing forth the necessary chakra for the jutsu. But it did not take him long to break through it. But it was enough to tell him what he wanted to know.
He released the fire attack safely to his left, ignoring the scent of burning shrubbery as he turned his gaze on her. She was staring at him wide-eyed, her expression conveying her disbelief. It was clear what she had attempted to do. It was a cruel measure to inflict on a shinobi whose main skill depended on chakra. But she knew that. Strategically, it was the best thing she could do. For her village, for Konoha. Not for him.
The realization displeased him greatly.
Despite her failure to pull off the technique successfully, he knew that she had managed to tamper with something else. However, he chose not to divulge the information to her. Clearly, they were once again at opposing sides if she had no qualms about using such a technique against him, and therefore, it would not be wise to hand her information that she could use against him one day. Her action had just proven that she would not betray Konoha, even for him, despite her obvious reluctance.
Still, through his haze of anger, he could admit that in an odd, twisted way, he was proud of her. The village still had hope if it managed to produce a kunoichi as loyal like her. Someone who would not sway in the face of personal emotions.
"You will leave me unable to utilize my chakra?" he asked quietly, not bothering to hide his displeasure. "To leave me vulnerable?"
A pained look crossed her features briefly, only to be hidden rather unsuccessfully by a wavering mask of indifference. "It wasn't supposed-" She broke off, inhaling deeply before she continued, "I just didn't want you to kill Sasuke."
"If I had wanted to do so, he would be dead when he was five," Itachi threw back, his tone growing tighter at the mention of Sasuke.
"And I'm supposed to believe you?" she cried out. "You attacked him!"
What could he say to that? Nothing, surely, he thought bitterly.
For a long time, they simply stared at each other wordlessly, each of them lost in their own tumultuous emotions. Sakura was the one who finally broke their eye contact, heaving a large sigh as she did so.
"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry things turned out this way."
He agreed wholeheartedly, but said nothing.
She closed her eyes briefly, and then opened them again to run her emerald orbs over him. He felt as if she needed to memorize his features. Almost as if they would never see each other again. But one could never tell with such things.
"What if we meet again?" she blurted out, clearly thinking along the same vein.
"Do you wish to do so?"
Her answer did not surprise him, and he had to agree that it was best if they did not meet again. He simply had to forget her, to move on. Surely such a thing was not impossible.
In a barely audible voice, she asked, "Was it… real? For you?"
There was no hesitation as he nodded. "Yes."
Her bottom lip trembled slightly. "Me too."
He inhaled slowly and deeply, trying to still the unfamiliar churn of emotions. These… confessions… were making it even more difficult for them to walk away from each other. But they had to.
"Can I ask you for… one last thing?"
He knew what was coming as her arms tightened around the unconscious Sasuke's waist.
His suspicions was confirmed when she asked, "Please, don't kill Sasuke."
Without answering her, he turned around with a soft, murmured, "Goodbye, Sakura."
Her only response was a hitch in her breath, before he felt the burst of chakra which signaled a short distance teleportation jutsu.
Then, all he could feel was the steadily diminishing sense of her presence, followed swiftly by the steadily increasing press of sorrow in his chest.
The first and foremost thought in Sakura's mind was that she had to run. She had to put as much distance as she could between her and Itachi.
Her heart wrenched painfully, so suddenly that she almost stumbled. Tightening her hold on Sasuke, shifting him into a better position on her shoulder, she continued to move away from where she knew a certain missing nin stood.
Yes, she had to run away. Because if she did not, she might just turn around and run straight back to him, despite his attack of Sasuke earlier. The urge to do so was so strong that it frightened her. It frightened her that she might throw away everything for him, even to the extent of betraying Konoha.
No, she wouldn't, she insisted to himself.
Her cheeks stung, and she realized belatedly that she was crying. Biting her lips did not help. The tears kept coming.
She did not want to leave him, but what else could she do? The two of them would never work. He had demonstrated it earlier, in the way he had attacked Sasuke. How many of her friends would suffer at his hands? How could she possibly condone it? He treated her well, but for them to be together, she had to choose either the life she had known for so long and her friends, or him and a life of a missing nin.
Not that he had asked her to stay. He probably came to the conclusion that it would not work out either. Besides, she was certain now that he hated her, judging by his expression of hurt when she had attacked him earlier.
She had not meant it to be a full attack. It was just supposed to numb him briefly, but the moment her chakra burst forth into him, she had known that she had underestimated the strength of the Shinjutama-enhanced chakra. So, instead of just numbing him, she had come close to disrupting his chakra pathways. It had frightened her, the fact that she had almost hurt him badly. And that was the last thing she wanted to do.
A part of her hoped that this whole thing was a bad dream, that she would wake up to find him sleeping beside her, or propped up on his elbows gazing at her with that affectionate light in his eyes. She already missed it. She already missed him. It was unreal how much this hurt. All that she knew now was that she felt emptier than she had ever felt before. And something told her that she would feel this way for a very long time.
Her throat tightened as a sob escaped.
She had to stop thinking about it. She had to stop thinking about him. They were still not out of danger, and she did not know if more ANBU Root would turn up to hunt her. She remained in danger as long as she was in Spring Country, and as long as Sasuke was with her, she was putting him in danger as well.
They had to split up. That meant that Sasuke had to wake up. And that meant that she had to use more of the Shinjutama-enhanced chakra she was beginning to fear. What if it hurt Sasuke? But it had not hurt her when she was healing herself, had it? Maybe it would be okay if she was very careful.
There was no choice. She had to do it.
When she was sure that she had travelled close enough to Wind Country, she dropped to her knees to release her load. Sasuke was heavy and she doubted that she could run much longer supporting his weight. As he rolled onto the grass, she placed glowing hands on him, trying to stimulate him into consciousness. She felt his system respond, stirring sluggishly. What the hell had Itachi done to him?
No, she really did not need to think about Itachi now.
Resolutely focusing on Sasuke, she carefully pushed some healing chakra into him, until she saw his fingers twitch. Deciding that it was enough, she retracted her chakra. She did not want to risk using more than necessary.
Only then did she slump backward, stretched out fully on the grass beside Sasuke. Her breath was ragged with exhaustion. A stitch at her side made her press a hand to her midsection. And the moment she did so, she became aware that she had forgotten to check on something. If there was any time to do it, it would be now. Before Sasuke woke up.
Sitting up, she carefully executed the necessary seals, hoping that she could pull this off with her depleted level of chakra.
She almost cried out with relief when a large slug materialized in front of her. It was not one she recognized.
"Thank you for coming," she told the slug gratefully.
The slug nodded. It reminded her that she should really learn all their names, but so far, she had not done so. She promised herself that she would do so the first chance she got. Now, she needed information.
So she asked, "Do you know if Tsunade has left the village?"
The slug seemed to pause briefly, and then it nodded.
A relieved exhale of breath left her. "That's good news. Did she get to Suna?"
The slug hesitated then, and concern shot up Sakura's spine. "You don't know?" she prompted.
The slug shook its head slowly.
Maybe the tiny palm-sized slug summon had only stayed long enough to see Tsunade leave the village, after delivering the message. In that case, they would not know much about Tsunade's movements beyond that. They should be okay if they were disguised, she told herself, knowing that it was pointless to worry about it now. Smiling gratefully, she thanked the slug summon again before dismissing it.
Turning to Sasuke, she noted that he was already waking. A quick scan of his body told her that if she did not want to answer some awkward questions, she had better leave now. From what she could tell from her earlier treatment of Sasuke, he was physically fine, and would be able to defend himself if the need arose.
With that thought, she straightened and fed chakra to her feet. Before long, she was running again.
It took hours, but fueled by desperation and other emotions she did not care to name now, she did not stop until she reached Suna. She only hoped that Tsunade and the other two medics had arrived safely there. And hoped that Gaara had cleaned up the spies before their arrival, although it wouldn't make that much of a difference to her now, since they already know about her and Tsunade.
She was standing in front of the gates of Suna just as the sun set. The guards recognized her on sight, allowing her to enter the village after a quick scan to make sure that she was not bringing in anything illegal. Vaguely, she wondered what they were looking for, but she brushed the thought to the back of her mind, concentrating instead on reaching the administration office. She could see the top of its domed roof peeking over the roofs of the lower buildings surrounding it, and the sight of it was strangely reassuring. She had definitely developed some sort of bond to this place, judging by her reactions.
Before she knew it, she was standing in the Kazekage's office, having being let in by Kankurou. Seated behind his desk, the redheaded leader of Suna stared at her intently, obviously noting her battle and travel-weary state.
"Gaara," she greeted briefly, still feeling nervous and tense.
"What happened?" he asked, going straight to the point.
"I'll explain later. Is Tsunade here?"
The Kazekage regarded her thoughtfully for a moment, before nodding once, "The Godaime is here with her assistant."
An exhalation of sheer relief escaped her. "I'm so glad they made it. What about Rin?"
"Two arrived, that's all."
Sakura frowned in confusion. What happened to Rin then? Had she decided to stay back? Tsunade would surely know. "Can I see them?" she asked.
"That would not be advisable. They are in disguise. I will inform them of your arrival."
And that meant they should not have any contact with a certain pink-haired kunoichi, Sakura thought a little dejectedly. But at least they made it to Suna safely. Now that they were secure, she had to focus on her own safety. She had no doubt that Root would somehow trace her to Suna. And when they did, would Gaara hand her over the way he had done with the previous group of missing nins? It would be risky to remain here but she needed to stay until she could join up with Kakashi and Naruto.
"What about Kakashi and Naruto?" she asked.
"They are aware that the Godaime is alive. They are gathering forces as we speak."
Her eyes widened. "So soon?"
"Yes. Now tell me what happened to you," he ordered, his tone uncompromising.
"I…" She halted uncertainly, fearing his reaction. Inhaling deeply, she continued, "I just escaped a squad of ANBU Root. They… might come looking for me here."
Opposite her, Gaara's countenance chilled visibly, sending a stab of apprehension through her. She understood the Kazekage's position. After all, he had explained it to her. For the safety of his own village, he would have to turn her over to Danzou.
"How did they find out?" he asked tonelessly.
She pinched the bridge of her nose. "I don't know. Spies, probably. I was on my way back to Yugakure when they surrounded me." She turned a pair of pleading eyes towards him. "Gaara, please, I have nowhere else to go right now."
"They are hunting you." His eyes narrowed. "You were careless and they found out."
"I know." She hated to beg him, but she was left with no other option. "Just… let me stay for a while? At least, until I join Kakashi and Naruto?"
"Hm." He looked thoughtful. "Where are the ANBU Root now?"
"I… um…" She could not bring him up. "I escaped."
Gaara was clearly skeptical of that answer, but he only continued to stare at her. The uncertainty of where she stood was beginning to unnerve her, and she began to fidget.
He regarded her critically, as if trying to see through her. Finally, when she thought that he would say no, he revealed, "I know what Danzou needs you for. And he will not release you easily."
He held a hand up to silence her, before continuing, "A trade will be necessary."
Now she was confused. "A trade?"
"Like for like." After a pause, he added, "A Shinju descendant for a Shinju descendant."
She gasped in surprise as his words sank in. "There are others?"
He nodded curtly. Sweeping his eyes over her, obviously disapproving of her bedraggled appearance, he ordered, "Get yourself cleaned. Then go to the guestroom and stay there until you're told otherwise. It is not safe for you to wander around until this is resolved. Now, go."
Her mind was still reeling with what he had just told her. A trade? Another Shinju descendant? It seemed a little too much to take in all at once. Whilst she was relieved, it did not escape her notice that Gaara was taking a huge risk for her. Something which was odd, based on his previous actions with the Konoha missing nins.
So, just before she left the room, she asked, "Gaara?"
He gave her an impatient look.
"Not that I'm not grateful. But why did you agree to help me when you let them take the other Konoha nins?"
A clearly irritated expression flashed across his features. "You're different."
"Why? Because of Naruto?"
He turned his attention back to the mission scrolls on his desk before responding curtly, "No."
She pushed softly, "Then why?"
Without looking up, he told her, "That is a conversation for another day. Now, you're dismissed."
Understanding that that was as much as Gaara could take from her, she nodded and made her way out of the room. Still, she could not help but wonder why he was making an exception for her. It was probably because of Naruto, and Gaara simply had not felt like admitting it just now.
Whatever it was, she was glad that she was safe for now. She should be happy that Tsunade was safe here too, under disguise, of course, and that Kakashi and Naruto had rallied enough force to start preparing to take back Konoha.
But somehow, she could not muster that feeling of happiness within her.
The only feeling that dominated was this awful sense of emptiness.
It had been eight months since Itachi had last seen a certain pink-haired kunoichi, and longer still since he had last set foot in Konoha. And now, he was standing there in the land where he had been born, his entire body frozen to the spot as he absorbed the information he had just been given.
A shiver ran up Itachi's spine, but it had nothing to do with the wintry chill which swept through the area. His lips quirked slightly as he thought of the previous winter. Things had seemed so simple then, with him living the life of a civilian. It was a lie, of course, but it had been nice while it had lasted, especially when Sakura was in it.
The last time he had laid eyes on her was the day she had ran from him, with a sad but determined gaze that told him she would push what they had to the back of her mind and carry on as if they had never met. It was the day he had vowed to do the same, just before he ventured in the opposite direction from her.
If only it was that simple.
For a while, he had managed it. As he travelled from country to country, he had kept his focus on the reintroduction into the rogue shinobi world. Not wishing to invite trouble, he had concentrated on keeping a low profile. To survive, he had taken easy assignments from unknown contractors in distant lands. As far as he knew, no one suspected his true identity.
Then, gradually, his mind had begun to fill with thoughts of her. Every little thing he encountered seemed to remind him of things that they had shared. Even absent, she played a large role in his life, despite his attempts to pretend that their relationship had never existed.
It had taken him merely three months to arrive at the conclusion that it was impossible to push Sakura to the back of his mind, let alone the completely eradicate her from his thoughts. Three months was the span of time it had taken for him to realize that he had to find her.
Now, as he stood in Konoha amidst unsuspecting Leaf nins, five months after the commencement of his search, he finally discovered what had become of the pink haired kunoichi. The information had come from the chuunin in front of him, a young kunoichi who had no notion that she was giving out information to an S-class missing nin.
Her information explained why he had not been able to find her, even though he had searched all of Spring Country and Fire Country, twice over. It explained why he had not heard any news about her over the past eight months. Shinobi usually did not remain static, especially one involved in such a large rebellion. She would be moving around, avoiding capture, but there would still be sightings. That was what he had been counting on in his search.
Now, after his conversation with the chuunin, her absence made sense.
He was too late.
Numbly, Itachi stared out into the distance, finding it difficult to believe what he had just heard from the shinobi in front of him. It was a mere chuunin, no one of great importance, and certainly not someone who could recognize him under the well-executed henge. But he was acutely aware that the information she had given him would influence him for the rest of his life.
"Koga-san? You okay?"
The chuunin's words snapped him out of his thoughts, bringing his attention back to the teenage girl before him. She had addressed him by the name of the shinobi he had borrowed this identity from. Moegi was this chuunin's name, if he recalled correctly. She was the teammate of the Sandaime's grandson.
"I'm fine," he assured her.
Her eyes clouded. "I'm sorry you have to hear it from me. I didn't know you were close to her at all."
"She healed me once."
Moegi nodded somberly. "She did a lot of that. She was a great kunoichi." She glanced around nervously, before saying, "It's just too sad that she was a casualty in the first wave of attack. At least, that's what I heard. The battle happened close to the border, when they tried to get in."
Itachi nodded, somewhat numbly.
His task was done now. There was no reason for him to remain in Konoha any longer.
"Have a good day," he told her politely.
He did not wait for her response. Instead, he quickly made his way out of the shinobi village, suddenly feeling a little suffocated.
However, even when he had cleared Konoha's boundary walls by miles, the feeling of suffocation remained. His chest was heavy and there was a coil of tightness within him, making him feel intensely uncomfortable. He did not know what he could do to ease it. His genius mind could not provide him a solution to this.
He felt… lost.
And he could not help but wonder how long he would feel this way.
A pink-haired kunoichi stepped into the newly built ceremony hall, and was instantly surrounded by what seemed like hundreds of people. Conversations flowed freely as shinobi and civilians alike laughed and joked, lending light to one of the most important events in Konoha. The atmosphere inside was a far cry from the empty streets outside.
Catching a familiar face, a medic colleague who stared at her with gaping jaws, she smiled widely and waved at him, before pushing her way through the throng.
She had not seen Konoha for years. Six, to be precise. And most of the shinobi and civilians of Konoha had not seen her in all that time. Which explained the various shocked looks directed at her. The questions were varies, but the meaning was the same.
"What sick joke is this?" one shinobi had snarled viciously at her. "This is not funny, you know. Release the henge!"
Another one cried out with wide, horror-struck eyes. "I thought you were dead!"
"Is that really, really… you, Sakura?"
"What the hell? Has Naruto seen you?"
"Sakura-san! You're alive!"
She had handled the exclamations with as much composure as she could muster. Really, she should have expected it. Despite Gaara mollifying Danzou with her Shinju relative, Tsunade had wanted to make doubly sure that she was safe from the angry Rokudaime, who might seek retribution for the part she had played in the rebellion. And to do so, the moment the rebellion against Konoha commenced, the Godaime had spread the rumor that a pink-haired kunoichi had been slain in battle. Only a few trusted people knew that she was safely hidden in Suna, parading around with a henge. She had balked at the idea of staying behind, but she had relented eventually, knowing that she had other priorities to take care of.
Sakura glanced around at the happy revelers, a soft smile lighting her lips.
So much had changed since she had last seen Konoha. She had been sixteen when she left the crumbling remains of the village, and now she was twenty-two, back to see Konoha's leadership in new, but capable hands. The take-over had not been swift. In fact, it was the opposite. Tsunade and her supporters had fought hard for four years, fighting their way through Danzou's allies and Root. It was only earlier that week that they had gotten Konoha back, thanks to Tsunade. Sadly, her shishou had not survived the battle.
Realizing that she had fallen into the all-too-familiar habit of mulling over the past, she shook it away and pushed past the crowd. She was making a beeline for a certain triangular hat poking upwards, close to where to podium was situated. Her lips quirked slightly at the thought of the new Hokage wearing such a thing on a daily basis. Somehow, she was certain that the unfortunate hat would find itself in a trashcan as soon as this formal ceremony was over.
Finally, she reached the mask shinobi, who was obviously feeling a little ill at ease by all the attention he was getting. Her practiced medic's eyes scanned him quickly. He looked whole and well, albeit a little weary. The moment he saw her, his single visible eye creased.
"Congratulations, Kakashi-sensei," she exclaimed with a large smile.
"Ah, Sakura-chan. My favorite kunoichi. You made it back in time."
"I wouldn't miss this," she told him.
He gave her a fond look. "The last time we've seen each other was back in Suna. I was afraid that you might have gotten lost on the road of life."
She rolled her eyes at the familiarity of his words, even as she continued to smile. The last time they had seen each other was four years ago, just before he led a faction of the rebellion towards Konoha. There was so much she wanted to say to him, and so much she wanted to tell him. But she knew that this was not the appropriate time. They could catch up later.
She turned around with an excited smile. However, her excitement dimmed slightly when she saw his face. The grin he was wearing was a pale imitation of his usual one. They had not seen each other for a while now, but the last time she had seen him about a year ago, he was his old, cheerful self, even amidst all the fighting. Almost immediately, concern coursed through her. It took a lot to subdue Naruto, and whatever that was bothering him enough to do so was definitely serious.
"What's wrong, Naruto?"
He looked pained, struggling to keep his grin intact. "Tell you later."
"What is it?"
Her eyes widened in surprise. She had not seen Sasuke ever since that day she had left him at the Wind Country border. Had they found him? Surely if they had, she would have heard something by now. If she was honest with herself, she had to admit that Sasuke had not been on her mind much. She had been rather occupied over the past few years.
She was about to open her mouth to ask Naruto to explain when the people around her began to hush. Her attention was diverted to the podium a few feet away, where Kakashi had stepped onto to address the crowd.
A feeling of pride washed over her then. Kakashi would be a good Hokage, she knew. Like her, the crowd fell silent, listening intently to their new Hokage. One could hear a pin drop in the silence.
Kakashi cleared his throat, looking a little discomfited until someone yelled, "Oi, Hatake, say something already!"
The tension broke as the crowd chuckled. There were also calls of, "Shut up, Genma!"
Kakashi waved his hands in a placating motion. "No bickering in the ceremony hall."
He waited for the crowd to settle again before he began to speak. "The past few years have been difficult for most of us. Some of us stayed in Konoha, while many others left." A single dark eye swept over them before he continued, "Sadly, whether they stayed or not, some of our precious people did not survive Danzou's regime."
The crowd of shinobi and civilian alike murmured in agreement as Sakura blinked back the tears which threatened to escape. Tsunade should be here to see this. But then again, without her sacrifice, this day would never exist. It was just so unfair that after everything, the most important woman was not there.
"However, it is important to remember that even though they are not physically present, they are here," Kakashi paused as he thumped a fist against his heart. "Our precious people will always be here with us."
Precious people, she thought as a lump grew in her throat. While Kakashi went on, the memory of a pair of dark eyes fringed with thick lashes surfaced in her mind. No, no, she did not want to think of him. She did not want to think of just how difficult it was to forget him, even after four years of separation. As it was, she was constantly reminded of him.
Scanning the crowd, Kakashi continued, "Between us all, we will build a new Konoha. A village where all of us can live in peace, where our loved ones are nurtured and our shinobi strengths are advanced to its peak. A Konoha where teamwork and bonds are valued." His tone hardened as he continued, "A Konoha where military ruthlessness is only considered as a last measure."
Loud cries of agreement rang out while some punched fists upwards.
Kakashi nodded solemnly. "That's right. Things will be different. But that doesn't mean that we'll allow others to walk all over us."
Rumbles of assent undulated through the mass of shinobi and civilians as Kakashi assured them that Konoha would remain strong. Sakura smiled softly as she watched her sensei with undisguised admiration. Who knew that the lackadaisical jounin would be so good at this? He was saying what Konoha needed to hear to motivate them for the future. And she knew that he meant every word.
As Kakashi went on speaking, she glanced around at the crowd of many familiar faces, allowing a welcoming warmth to seep into her. It was time for her to embrace this, for her to leave parts of her past behind. It was time to accept that although the void in her heart left by a certain Uchiha would always be there, she had to move on.
She had stayed too long in Suna, and it was time for her to come home.
It was as if Kakashi had read her mind, for his single visible eye settled on her then. "There are still many of us out there, many still in hiding, many still too afraid to return home. We will spread the word so that they know they still have a home here. We will spread the word so that all lost Leaf nins can find their way back to where they belong."
She felt a strong arm squeeze her then, and she did not need to turn around to know that it was Naruto. Her eyes dampened slightly at Kakashi's words, but she managed to keep smiling.
Up on the podium, Kakashi raised a fist up in the air, his voice ringing clear in the sky, "To a new Konoha."
A/N: I can hear the sounds of protests out there. But no fear – the first few chapters of the sequel "The Return of the Heir" are already posted. Then again, most of you already know that (grins).
For those of you who are interested, The Lost One was not supposed to be a story on its own at first. I was planning on writing The Return of the Heir with LOTS of flashbacks, but halfway through, I realised that the sheer amount of the flashbacks was getting ridiculous. So that was how The Lost One was born. And now that it is done, let us move on to the main story… erm… sequel…The Return of the Heir.
As always, I'd love it if you could review. Thanks!