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: Well, the final chapter is finally here! You can't believe how happy I am that this story is finished. Now I can start the process of writing another story and agonizing over the plots and updates. Many thanks to littleredcoat for her hard work fixing my mistakes in this chapter. Without her, you will be reading lots of bad grammar and sentences with misplaced commas!
The Return of the Heir by elle6778 – Chapter 16– betaed by littleredcoat
"You're the rightful heir to Yugakure."
Filled with a sense of utter disbelief, Sakura stared at Shiraishi. The words rang in her head, but it was hard to take in. What the hell did Shiraishi mean? She was no way the heir to Yugakure. She did not even know about the entire Shinju thing until seven years ago, when Danzou discovered it.
Disconcerted, but striving not to let her voice betray it, she asked, "You want to explain things a bit better? I can't possibly be the heir to the clan. I'm only a half-blood, remember? My mother married outside the Shinju clan."
Shiraishi nodded. "I know. I'm the last pure-blooded Shinju left. My parents are distant cousins. As far as I know, there was a tendency to marry within the clan to keep the bloodline pure." He flicked a glance at Itachi as he added, "Not unlike the Uchiha and the Hyuuga clan, I believe." Turning back to Sakura, he continued, "Naturally, inbreeding gradually lessened our number. My father told me that when the war with Konoha broke out several decades ago there were less than twenty of us left. Too few to stand against the large-scale attack."
"Okay. I'm afraid I still don't get it," she said agitatedly. "How am I the heir?"
"I'm getting there." Taking on a thoughtful expression, Shiraishi continued, "The Shinju clan operates as a matriarchal society, simply because the ability to manipulate the Shinjutama runs more strongly in the female line. It is understood that women can wield the Shinjutama better. I was told that as children, my father, your mother's elder brother, did not even possess half the strength your mother was able to demonstrate. You're the heir because you're the sole surviving female."
Sakura dropped to her knees beside the Yugakure nin, the shock making her feel as if she ought to sit down. "I find that hard to believe," she protested, recalling the effort it had taken her in the past to extract the Shinjutama fragments from the main Shinjutama in the cave. The ones Shiraishi had used earlier to hold Ryo captive had been fist-sized, much larger than what she had extracted. "Surely you have more control over the gemstone than I do, judging by the size of the ones you used earlier."
Still seated on the floor, Shiraishi shrugged. "Perhaps you're using the wrong technique. You weren't trained for it, I assume? Anyway, it doesn't really matter at this point. It was widely accepted within the clan that women held the power to the Shinjutama. So your mother was the heir, after our grandmother. She was the only female offspring from our grandparents, after all, and she would have risen to power if Yugakure had not been taken down in the war decades ago. My father told me that both he and your mother were very young when their minders escaped with them and a handful of other children. My father and my mother were injured, so they had to stop in Suna, while your mother's minder took the rest of the children and went further. That was the last he saw of her."
"She came to Konoha when she was sixteen," Sakura murmured quietly. "Her file said that she was a civilian."
"It was probably wise of her to assume the role of a civilian, otherwise she could've been targeted. My father was seven when they left, and I understood that she was a few years younger, but she should have been aware of her powers. She and her minder must have stayed elsewhere in Fire Country for a while before moving to Konoha." Shiraishi's brows furrowed as he continued, "There were others, I know. I tried, but I couldn't locate them. I don't know if any of them survived. So, as far as I can tell, you're the last one left."
Sakura remained unconvinced. Or perhaps she simply did not want to believe it. Because if it was true, then what did this mean for her? "If that is the case, then seven years ago when I first came to live in Yugakure, surely someone would have mentioned something about this whole thing, right?"
Shiraishi shook his head, propping an arm on a bent knee. "The Shinju clan traditions disappeared at the end of that old war, together with the members. Seven years ago, those you met knew nothing about it because Yugakure had been a civilian village for decades after the war."
She pinched the bridge of her nose, trying to digest all this information. So where did this leave her? She glanced at Itachi, wondering what he made of all this, but his expression gave nothing away. Cautiously, she turned back to Shiraishi and ventured, "You can't be sure that we are the only two left of the clan. The others could be out there, for all we know."
"Possibly. But I cannot locate a single one of them." He shook his head. "You're the only one I can find."
She exhaled loudly. And then, thinking of why she was there in the first place, she asked, "Why couldn't you have told me all this without kidnapping us? Was all that violence necessary?"
"I did cordially invite you to visit once, if you recall," Shiraishi pointed out dryly, raising a challenging brow. "Surely you remember? It was not so long ago, after all."
She blinked as she thought back to their previous meetings. He must mean the time when she and her ANBU team came to deliver the scroll. She vaguely remembered how unnerved she had felt at that time when Shiraishi kept staring at her intently. And now that she thought about it, he could have mentioned something along those lines.
"That was it?" she muttered.
His lips curled bitterly. "You were rather dismissive at that time. It wasn't encouraging."
And when she recalled what had happened after that, she straightened in affront. "And when I declined, you sent your shinobi to attack us!" she accused heatedly.
"They were under instructions not to kill, and only retrieve you alive. I simply wanted to speak to you in private." He frowned then. "However, it was clear from their failure that they were still insufficiently trained."
"Yugakure's reinstatement as a shinobi village is recent, and such things take time," Itachi remarked mildly, breaking his silence.
Shiraishi's lips quirked. "Perhaps."
Sakura rubbed her forehead with her palm. So they had not really been aiming to kill her? She felt guilty now that she had killed all those Yugakure nins. But how was she supposed to know that they had not intended to kill her?
"So I suppose now that the truth is out, you have a decision to make," Shiraishi told her.
Her nerves stretched taut. "What decision?" she asked warily, even though she could guess what was coming.
Shiraishi gave her a knowing look. "I want you to stay and rule Yugakure with me."
She could feel Itachi tense beside her. But before she could say anything, Shiraishi told him, "In the past, it was known that male and female siblings or cousins rule together." His lips quirked in amusement. "I assure you that it's all quite platonic so you have no cause for concern, Uchiha."
Sakura stifled a grin at the barely-veiled irritation on Itachi's face, enjoying his rare display of what was obviously jealousy. Knowing that this was not the time to tease him, however, she turned her attention back to Shiraishi. What he was asking meant she would have to leave Konoha, but was that something she was willing to do? It was such a huge change, simply for the sake of some long-forgotten tradition. Her home was Konoha, not Yugakure. Her friends were in Konoha, not in Yugakure. To do what Shiraishi suggested meant that she would have to completely uproot herself and also her son. And what about Itachi? She could not think of a future without him.
She sighed inwardly. Perhaps there was another way to resolve this without her participation. "You mentioned earlier that the new generation of shinobi is not aware of this Shinju tradition."
Feeling a little bit more optimistic now, she suggested, "Then can't you just rule Yugakure alone? No one would know any better, right? It is not as if I will challenge you for the position."
Shiraishi shot to his feet. The look he gave her was nothing short of offended. "I don't wish to do so."
Bewildered, she glared at him as she straightened as well. "Why not?" she shot back, planting her hands on her hips.
This time, Itachi interjected, "Perhaps he doesn't wish to simply dismiss generations of tradition."
She darted Itachi a disbelieving look. Why was he taking Shiraishi's side? And he was not just saying it, either. She could tell from the intensity of his expression that Itachi felt strongly about what he had said. That he understood where Shiraishi was coming from.
She bit her lip as a thought occurred to her. Perhaps Itachi could relate somewhat to Shiraishi in terms of losing his clan. As usual, her heart twisted at the thought of what he had been made to do. He was probably the only person around who knew the old traditions of the Uchiha clan. And she was sure that a clan so old and established would have had many traditions that outsiders like her knew nothing about. Could it be that he missed it? Maybe one day she should broach the topic to see what Itachi felt about sharing a little bit of his clan with their son. After all, Ryo was an Uchiha.
Now, turning to the irate Shiraishi, she asked curiously, "Is that true? Is it because you don't want to throw away tradition?"
He waved around them, gesturing at the domed stone structure over their head. "This was built in the image of the old building, based on the plans in the historical archive. And it is not the only one. Everything was destroyed in the old war." The muscle in Shiraishi's jaw ticked as he glance away, his face taking on a strained expression. "There's almost nothing left of the Shinju clan, not to mention its beliefs and customs. But now that there's the opportunity, I cannot let what little bit is left die just like that," he stressed.
She exhaled loudly, feeling the weight of what he had just said pressing upon her. Now that he had explained things, it was not as if she deliberately did not want to help him. But how could he expect her to do what he had asked? Despite their shared bloodline, she did not have that sort of bond with the Shinju clan. Her bonds were back in Konoha, with Ryo, Itachi, and her friends.
"You're asking me to leave Konoha, my home. My friends are all there. Everything I know is there," she said in an attempt to get him to understand.
"You have lived away from Konoha for years," Shiraishi pointed out insistently. "You lived in Suna, and then here."
"Not voluntarily. I was ordered to remain outside of Konoha." Then, turning to a contemplative Itachi, she asked, "What do you think?"
The look he gave her betrayed nothing. "It is your choice, Sakura."
It was a big decision, one that she could not make just on a whim. She closed her eyes slowly. When she opened them, she exhaled loudly and said the only thing that she could say at that point.
"Give me some time. I have to think about it."
A couple of hours later, Itachi found himself standing just inside the gates of Yugakure. In the periphery of his vision, he could see that the sun was beginning its descent from the sky, and was casting long shadows on the ground.
He felt somewhat discomfited by the attention from the Yugakure nins watching him reverse Amaterasu to release their bewildered comrades. Shiraishi gave them no explanation as to what had happened, only that for now, there was a truce between Konoha and Yugakure.
Itachi could tell that the Yugakure nins were still wary, and he did not blame them. One usually did not embrace one's opponents mere hours after battles. And one did not usually promise to release spies, either. Speaking of spies, where were those captured Leaf-nins? He would have to debrief them thoroughly to discover how three of the most skilled Leaf ANBU had been captured, and address the weakness accordingly.
A flash of yellow caught Itachi's eyes, drawing his attention to Naruto. Despite everything that had happened just hours ago, Naruto had clearly forgiven all, as he was chattering away at some bewildered-looking Yugakure nins. Itachi mused that he would make a good leader one day.
Further away, Sakura was healing a number of Yugakure nins under the watchful guard of Idate and Kouga. The latter two clearly did not quite trust the about-turn of the other nins, even though they had been very briefly apprised of the reasons behind Shiraishi's moves. The tension in their postures clearly displayed their wariness.
"Taichou, there are three more over there," Yuugao informed him, gesturing to the shinobi trapped in a small circle of dark fire with Raido standing nearby. "I think that's the last."
Itachi nodded, and proceeded to release the technique.
As the last of the Amaterasu technique dissipated, Sai appeared, a mild smile on his face as he made his way towards them. Beside him, Ryo was riding on an ink tiger, looking around him cautiously.
Itachi's shoulders sagged slightly in relief at the sight of his son.
"Ryo!" Sakura cried out joyfully, her patients forgotten.
Heart contracting with emotion, Itachi watched as Ryo's eyes shot towards them.
"Okaa-san! Otou-san!" the boy yelled excitedly as he launched off the tiger with an agility that betrayed his shinobi training.
Rushing forward, Sakura met him halfway, swinging him into her arms for a tight hug while Itachi made his way towards them at a more moderate pace. He scanned his son's slight figure thoroughly, needing to assure himself that Ryo was indeed unharmed. Much to his satisfaction, the boy seemed whole.
Peeling away from Sakura, Ryo turned to face him. Itachi sank into a crouch. Without hesitation, the boy flung a pair of thin arms around him. As Itachi hugged him back, there was a tight feeling in his throat, making it hard for him to swallow. The strength of his emotion was so sharp that he could hardly believe he could actually feel this way.
He met Sakura's damp eyes over their son's shoulder. At this very moment, it occurred to him that he would never let either of them go. This was the only family he had left, and he would treasure them. He would give his life for them, and as far as he was concerned, could think of no price too high to keep them safe and happy.
"Can we go now?" Ryo murmured into his shoulder. "I want to go home."
Itachi closed his eyes briefly. Where was home for Ryo? Suna or Konoha? Or even Yugakure? It was something that Sakura would have to decide on soon. But to Itachi, where they would reside did not really matter that much. After years of traipsing the world, he could adapt to any kind of environment. He only needed Sakura and Ryo with him. His home was where she and their son were.
Realizing that he had not answered his son's question, Itachi pulled back to look at the pair of green eyes staring at him quizzically. "I believe your mother has to finish healing her patients before we will be able to leave."
Ryo stared the Yugakure nins, his expression filled with misgiving. "But…"
Sakura knelt down beside him. "We'll explain everything on our way back home, okay?"
Ryo nodded, and then his brows furrowed in thought. "We're going back to Konoha, right?"
"So, Suna is on the way back, right?" the boy asked.
Ah, Ryo appeared to miss Suna. And perhaps Gaara? It occurred to Itachi then that in his absence, the boy might have viewed the Kazekage as a surrogate father. The notion stung, but he could do nothing about it. To keep Ryo from Suna would achieve nothing except resentment from his son.
"You may visit Suna if you wish," Itachi told him before Sakura could. Turning to her, he added, "You will remain with him while I return to Konoha with the rest."
Judging by her expression, she did not seem pleased with his announcement.
"What's the matter?" he asked.
"Why don't you stay with us in Suna for a while? I'm sure Ryo has many things to show you," she told him. "You didn't stay long the last time."
Two pairs of green eyes stared at him beseechingly, and Itachi felt himself weaken. It looked like his willpower was non-existent under the dual assault.
"Hey, I think I should come along as well," Naruto piped up enthusiastically. "Haven't seen Gaara for a while. You don't mind, do you, Taichou?"
"I have read about things like this. It's called a family vacation. You will only be in the way, Dickless," Sai pointed out.
"I'm NOT Dickless!"
Itachi sighed inwardly at the now-familiar exchange.
"Taichou, we can make it back to Konoha on our own and report to the Hokage," Sai interjected then. "And Naruto will come with us."
The blond protested, "But-"
Yuugao elbowed Naruto into silence. "We can manage, I'm sure," she insisted.
Itachi sighed inwardly. "Very well then," he relented.
Both mother and son beamed at him, much to his amusement.
A moment later, Aburame Shino, Hyuuga Neji and Yamashiro Aoba appeared from the domed building. They were dirt-streaked and weary, but otherwise unharmed, from what he could tell. It would certainly strain relations if Shiraishi had injured the Konoha spies. Fortunately, it appeared that Shiraishi truly had not intended them any harm.
"Taichou," they greeted him in unison, their voices subdued, tinged with wariness.
Itachi inclined his head in acknowledgement.
"We received your message, but we were imprisoned before we could act," Shino explained.
The Hyuuga glanced around briefly. "We are no longer at odds with Yugakure?" he queried mildly.
"Aa," Itachi replied. "We have arrived at an understanding."
"So, what is the plan now?" Aoba asked.
Before he could answer, the Leaf spies tensed collectively at the approach of their captor. Shiraishi, appearing none worse for wear after their confrontation earlier, stepped up to them calmly.
"We will be leaving soon," Itachi announced.
"There's no need to leave so soon." Shiraishi glanced at the darkening sky. "You could stay for the night and leave next morning."
Itachi slanted a quick glance at Sakura, immediately understanding her unspoken wish. The rest of the Leaf nins' clear reluctance was just as obvious. In a polite tone, he told Shiraishi, "It is best that we leave now."
There was a flash of something akin to disappointment in those pale eyes, but the other nin masked it before it could take hold. Despite everything that had happened, Itachi felt a flash of compassion for him. Shiraishi obviously wished to deepen the relationship between him and Sakura, only to have this entire debacle affect it adversely. Itachi could tell him that Sakura has a tender heart, and would not reject what could be her only family relation outright. But Shiraishi would probably need to learn this on his own.
"Very well then." Turning to Sakura, the leader of Yugakure added quietly, "I wish you a good journey home."
Sakura's voice was a little stilted when she replied, "Thanks."
"You will make contact when you reach a decision."
It was not a question, but Sakura answered, "I told you I'll have to think about it." She sighed. "But yes, I'll let you know."
Shiraishi inclined his head once in acknowledgement, and then left them.
Only then did Sakura's shoulders slump wearily.
Itachi reached out to give her arms a reassuring squeeze. "Come. We should leave now if we wish to arrive at Suna around midnight."
Her lips quirked, and then she grinned. "Gaara will be so pleased to see us at that time in the night."
Ryo grinned. "Of course. Now, let's go!"
Two weeks later, Sakura sat crosslegged on a wooden bench, staring thoughtfully at the little fountain set in a cluster of natural rock forming small decorative pools in Itachi's backyard. Further at the back of the fenced area was a practice ground, large enough for most shinobi to do a bit of light training.
She and Ryo had been here with Itachi since yesterday, spending the night for the first time in his house. It was much bigger than her modest apartment, boasting two levels of modern brick and concrete construction, something which struck her as odd considering what she remembered of the Uchiha compound, which could only be described as traditional. The tour they had been given yesterday told her that there were many rooms, many more than Itachi could possibly utilize on his own, but she had not wanted to ask him about it.
They had not discussed their future at all thus far, even knowing that she had to make the decision that she had promised Shiraishi two weeks ago. Since that day, they had spent some time in Suna. The Sand siblings had welcomed them enthusiastically, touching her with their response. They had spent the week catching up on many things that had happened over the past few months. Although Gaara had not made a big spectacle of it, he had reshuffled his busy schedule to spend time with Ryo, something which told her that he had missed the boy in those months that he had been absent from Suna. Therefore, the opportunity for a lengthy private conversation about the future was simply not there, seeing that they had barely been left alone.
She had delayed long enough, though. Shiraishi would be impatient to know her decision and she really wanted to get this whole thing out of the way. Right now, she felt as if she was in some kind of limbo, not knowing what the future held.
It should be an easy decision, really, seeing that her home was always Konoha, despite what Shiraishi had told her about her responsibility as the sole surviving female of the Shinju clan.
But surely it was not only Shiraishi's opinion that mattered here.
Naruto, when he had heard about the entire episode with Shiraishi on their journey between Yugakure and Suna, had cheerfully announced that Shiraishi must be mad to even suggest it. Her home was Konoha, wasn't it? That was how he had seen it, and had given the issue no further thought. Instead, he had regaled her with the tale of how speedily he had secured the western perimeter of Yugakure by using his Kage Bunshin technique. As if she had not seen such a thing with her own eyes many times before.
And when they had arrived at Konoha a few days ago, her meeting with Kakashi had given her another set of issues to consider. Scratching his head in bemusement, Kakashi had admitted that he was not certain of the laws involving such transfers, and had sent a couple of chuunin to research the information from their external storage vault, the place at the edge of Fire Country where they kept backup copies of information on such things. Until now, she still felt a bit apprehensive by Kakashi's declaration that he suspected Yugakure had the right to demand her return, considering the circumstances. He had also raised the issue of Itachi and his possible preference to leave Konoha in the light of the massacre, something which had only just now occurred to her.
To make things more muddled, there was the issue of Ryo, who was currently a Suna resident. What would Gaara make of this whole mess? They had not spoken of this issue before they left Suna. She knew that he would not hold Ryo in Suna if she wished to settle in Konoha with her son, but what would he think of Yugakure? While Suna was situated between Yugakure and Konoha, Yugakure was actually closer, so Gaara might prefer them to stay in Spring Country. Not that it was his decision ultimately, but she still had to consider him, seeing his importance in Ryo's life.
Speaking of Ryo, would he even want to return to Yugakure considering his less-than-pleasant visit there? For all she knew, Ryo would prefer to return to Suna, instead of remaining in Konoha or moving to Yugakure. What would she do if that was the case?
Sakura almost groaned out loud.
An easy decision? Perhaps not quite that easy.
She darted a look over her shoulder. At the moment, Itachi was playing shogi with Ryo, who was wearing an intensely focused expression just before he moved a piece on the board. Father and son were both seated at the wooden table placed on the shaded patio at the back of the house.
They needed to speak about the future as soon as she could get him alone. This was not a decision that she wanted to make on her own. What else could she do? She could no longer imagine a future without Itachi. As it was, too many years had been wasted when they could have been together.
What would he prefer? To remain in Konoha or to move to Yugakure? It was hard to tell. Kakashi had reminded her that as far as Itachi was concerned, there were many issues in Konoha, and they mainly stemmed from the Uchiha massacre. Although some of the ranks of shinobi respected him, and some were even of the opinion there was more to the massacre than met the eye, many still did not accept him. Itachi did not seem to be affected by the opinion of others, from what she could tell, but still, it must not be too comfortable walking down the street and having people staring at you all the time.
She did not even know how he felt about the whole issue. For all she knew, once Kakashi had pardoned him Itachi had agreed to return because of the bond he had with this village. He must have a very strong bond to the village if he was willing to sacrifice his whole life for it. It was, after all, this very same bond that made her hesitate to agree to what Shiraishi was asking. Even if she somehow came to the conclusion that she would move to Yugakure, it might not mean that Itachi would feel the same way. Where did that leave them then?
One thing she was sure was that she follow Itachi whatever he chose to do.
Before she knew it, the shoji game was over, as announced by Ryo's disgruntled groan which broke into her contemplations. Curious, she turned around and shuffled to the low table, taking in the pieces on the board.
"I can't believe I lost!" Ryo grumbled out loud.
"You rushed your moves," Itachi pointed out mildly. "There are times when patience is necessary."
Ryo sighed resignedly, drawing a fond smile from Sakura. Clearly, Itachi did not believe in coddling Ryo, even when it came to games. It was for the best, she admitted.
"I think I'll go practice some jutsu now. I haven't gotten the hang of the ones you taught me yesterday, Otou-san."
Itachi nodded, and both of them watched as the boy jumped to his feet to speed to the end of the backyard. The protective scrolls Itachi had placed around the training ground would ensure that the attacks would merely bounce off and not destroy the main house should an accident occur.
When Ryo began to run through his seals, Sakura shifted her attention to Itachi.
"We need to talk."
Itachi quirked a questioning brow at her. "According to most men, that phrase is something to be wary of."
Unamused, she blew out an exasperated breath. "About Shiraishi and what he said to us," she clarified. "He's waiting for a decision."
"A decision which is yours to make, I believe," Itachi pointed out mildly.
She frowned. "How can you say that? It involves you as well." A moment of uncertainty struck her then, of the possible reason why they had not discussed the future thus far in their relationship. With a hesitant voice, she asked, "Unless you don't want to be. Involved, that is."
The way he eyed her contemplatively made her nervous. Surely she could not have misjudged his intentions towards her. Surely he wanted to be with her as much as she wanted to be with him.
When he finally spoke, his words were full of conviction. "Sakura, I will remain by your side, whatever choice you make." The corner of his lips tilting wryly, he added, "After all, you're the sole reason for my return to Konoha."
"I am?" she blurted out, even as relief coursed through her at the knowledge that they were on the same page.
"I thought you came back because you miss Konoha."
"It is the people within, not the place, that are important." His eyes fixed onto hers intently. "And you and Ryo are important to me."
Her heart gave a happy thump. "So, you'll really go where I go?"
His unwavering response made her so happy that she did not know quite how to react. Furthermore, it gave her a certain measure of confidence to press on. Trying to find answers to her earlier mental questions, she asked, "We never really discussed it, so I still don't know how you feel about remaining in Konoha in the long term." She gestured in the general direction of the old Uchiha compound at the opposite end of Konoha. "There's a lot of… history… for you here."
Growing a little exasperated by his monosyllabic answers, she scowled. "I need some input here, Itachi. I can't read your mind."
"And I maintain that this should be your decision," he returned calmly.
She crossed her arms over her chest, irritated. "At least tell me how you feel about the entire Uchiha thing."
He glanced away, taking on a thoughtful expression. A few moments passed before he replied, "The Uchiha clan, as most people know it, is in the past. All its beliefs and customs are now obsolete."
When he said nothing else, she pressed, "And? Do you want to keep it going the way Shiraishi wants to?"
Itachi took a deep breath, and then his eyes shifted to Ryo. She followed his gaze to find their son running towards them.
He skidded to a halt between them. "Okaa-san, Otou-san! Can you help me with this new fire jutsu, please?"
"Perhaps later, Ryo-chan. Your father and I have things to discuss."
"Discuss?" The boy gave them both questioning looks. "Discuss what?"
"We are discussing the past," Itachi supplied. After a brief pause, he added, "And the future."
Curiosity immediately sparked in Ryo's green eyes. "The past? Like what happened to the Uchiha clan?"
Deciding to put a stop to what could potentially be Ryo's tactless questions, Sakura interjected, "Maybe you should continue practicing on your own for a while. We will join you later."
"Or perhaps he could remain, and learn the truth about the Uchiha clan," Itachi murmured.
Sakura darted him a surprised look. "Really?" she blurted out, not expecting Itachi to want to broach such an issue with Ryo.
"Really?" their son repeated, sounding half fascinated and half apprehensive. Eyes not leaving his father, Ryo sat down at the table before adding, "You're going to tell me about the curse on the clan?"
Sakura winced while Itachi blinked slowly. "The curse?" he queried mildly.
Ryo frowned, clearly sensing that something was not right. "You know, the curse?" he reiterated. "The one where the Uchiha clan exchange their lives for the power of the Sharingan?"
A light of understanding flashed across Itachi's features. "Ah, that curse."
Nodding, Ryo remarked, "You must be special, right, since you're not affected."
"Ryo…" Sakura began, only to be interrupted by Itachi.
"Truthfully, there isn't a curse as such," he said carefully, his eyes fixed on Ryo. "But perhaps I should begin at the beginning."
Ryo listened with rapt attention as Itachi began to tell him about the Sharingan, the price of its destructive powers, Madara and the ultimate Sharingan attained at the cost of his own brother's sight. Once he covered that and the founding of Konoha, Itachi went on with the Uchiha clan's plan to overthrow the Konoha administration, and his own role as a double agent spying on his own clan. He went on to say how he had attempted subtly to sway his father's views, to no avail, and had ended up growing more and more disenchanted with the Uchiha clan's narrow-minded outlook. The Sandaime had no choice but to give in to the pressures of the council, had no choice but to protect Konoha instead of allowing one selfish clan to ruin the relative peace, and that the deed had been carried out when he knew that Sasuke would be away.
All the while, Itachi's tone remained unemotional, as if he was simply reciting from a report. And all the while, Sakura felt her heart break for him. Listening like this, as a third party, she could see how hard he was hiding his own pain. He had regretted the necessity of the entire thing, but had gone ahead and killed the only family he had known anyway.
"You…" Ryo sputtered, his eyes rounded with horror. "You killed them all?"
Itachi nodded curtly. "Except Sasuke. My little brother."
It was then that she saw it.
A flash of red in Ryo's eyes.
But it was gone as fast as it had appeared, making her wonder if she was seeing things. A quick glance at Itachi, however, told her that he had seen the same thing, for he had visibly stiffened. Was Ryo actually manifesting the Sharingan so soon? He was barely six years old. But maybe it was just a trick of the light.
"Did you see that?" she whispered a little shakily.
Ryo's brows scrunched. "See what?"
Sakura shook her head, not knowing what to say, while Itachi merely murmured, "Something we have to discuss later."
"Discuss later?" Ryo echoed in confusion.
"Yes," Itachi said firmly.
"Okay," Ryo muttered, and then asked, "So what happened to Sasuke?"
Itachi's expression clouded slightly.
All thoughts of Ryo's possible Sharingan flew out of her mind as she listened to Itachi relate how he had encouraged Sasuke to hate him so that one day, his little brother might exact revenge for the clan. Her eyes stung at the barely hidden sorrow in his increasingly hoarse voice as he spoke of their battle, of how he thought he had succeeded in his aim to protect Sasuke and give him the satisfaction of revenge. Fate, however, had other ideas. Ultimately, despite all of Itachi's good intentions, events had driven Sasuke to hate Konoha instead and had led to his eventual demise.
All the while, Ryo remained silent and Sakura wondered worriedly just how he viewed Itachi now that the truth was out. The boy's hero worship up to this moment had been evident, but how would this revelation change things between them? Sakura only hoped that their son would understand his father's point of view. Itachi would be heartbroken if he lost the respect of his son.
It seemed like forever that the three of them just sat there, lost in their own thoughts, even though it could only have been minutes after he had ended the narration of the past. There was unease in the atmosphere, unsurprisingly, Itachi thought with some resignation. He could only hope that Ryo was mature enough to accept that certain things had to be done and certain actions had to be taken, because the consequences of not doing so would exact a much greater price.
Finally, Ryo broke the silence.
"So there was no curse." He frowned as he turned over the information in his mind. "Then why does everyone say there was one?"
Itachi blinked once, a little bewildered by the one mundane issue Ryo managed to pick on first. He had expected worse.
"It is a tale told to children, I suspect," Sakura replied. "Besides, most of Konoha still doesn't know the truth about the massacre. I only found out recently."
Ryo nodded thoughtfully, before shifting his attention away from his mother. "Do you miss them?" he asked. "Your family?"
A lump formed at the base of his throat, making it difficult for him to respond. So much for picking on mundane issues. Of all things for him to ask, Ryo had to ask one of the more difficult ones. Did he miss his family? Had he the right to miss them after ending their lives with his own hands?
Finally, he admitted, "Yes."
Ryo nodded solemnly, as if expecting that answer anyway. "Naruto-Oji-chan always says that family and friends are important."
"But I suppose if they're bad…" Ryo trailed off uncertainly.
"People are not always good or bad," Itachi interjected. "Often, there are areas in between, grey areas where things are neither truly black nor white. And it is at those times that one finds themselves tested."
Ryo blinked at him blankly, making him realize that perhaps this concept required a more detailed explanation. It made him realize just how innocent the boy was in comparison with his own darker childhood. At only four, he had already seen a large-scale war, the Third Shinobi World War, and that was enough to scar him emotionally and mentally. Ryo, in comparison, was still a clean slate.
He vowed to himself that if he could help it, Ryo would never have to experience such darkness.
Ryo's voice broke him out of his contemplations, and Itachi had to take a brief moment to recall what he had been about to say.
"In the case of the Uchiha massacre, the justification was that the death of a clan ensured the safety of most of the village. However, no one could tell the future, or if the Uchiha clan would ultimately execute the planned coup to overthrow the administration. The decision to eliminate was carried out to prevent an event from happening, but who could tell for sure if such an event would actually take place in reality?" Itachi glanced down at his hands, the bloodied hands which had wielded the blade which killed his own relatives. "Does that make it right? Does that justify the action of ending so many lives? To prevent something that might occur? On the other hand, if it had not been done, then more lives would have been at risk. Innocents could have died needlessly."
Silence greeted his words, and then a warm hand enveloped his. When he glanced up, it was to meet Sakura's damp eyes. Reaching out, he rubbed a teardrop away from the corner of her left eye, drawing a wobbling smile from her.
Ryo's voice was small when he asked, "So, what should we do when we're faced with this sort of situation?"
Itachi inhaled deeply. "One could only do what one think is right, and then accept the responsibility for it. Even if the outcome is unpleasant."
After another moment of silence, Sakura squeezed his hand and turned to Ryo. "Well, the reason this whole issue came up is because of the decision I have to make, whether to remain in Konoha or to move to Yugakure." Uncertainty flashed in her green eyes as she asked the boy, "Unless you're thinking of staying in Suna?"
Ryo blinked, and then gave her a slightly offended look, as if he could not believe she was even asking. "I want to stay with you, Okaa-san. Wherever we are, I'm sure we can visit Suna as often as we want." His brows furrowed. "Although I'll miss them very much," he added in a subdued tone.
Rather relieved to have the topic of the massacre behind them, at least for now, Itachi contributed, "Suna is relatively close to both Konoha and Yugakure. I do not foresee a problem with visits." Turning to Sakura, he continued, "As for your earlier question about traditions, I believe that some should be maintained, while others should be discarded. However, this does not require us to remain in Konoha, should you wish to relocate to Yugakure."
Sakura huffed in exasperation. "You're not helping!"
His lips quirked in amusement. "It should be your decision. As I have pointed out many times."
Glowering at him, she crossed her arms over her chest. "Fine then."
This time, he gave her a smile. "Choose wisely, Sakura."
Days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months, and the next thing Sakura knew, a little more than seven years had passed since Itachi set foot in Konoha as a free man. And a little less than seven years since she had made the decision that affected the lives of three people, at least.
Oh, well, maybe more, she thought as she slid a sidelong glance at the redheaded man seated in what could only be described as the throne some distance away, his eyes fixed towards the sand-covered battle arena below. They were not the only ones in the shaded raised viewing gallery, though. The leaders of other shinobi nations as well as selected members of the shinobi community were also there. Like her, some were standing at the edge of the platform, while others, like Gaara and Kakashi, were seated. The rest of the spectators were cheering from the stepped viewing galleries around the circular arena. They were all watching the final round of the friendly battle between two jounin finalists. It was a tournament which took place annually, with the aim to strengthen the relationship between Konoha, Suna, Yugakure, Tanigakure and a handful of other small shinobi nations.
She glanced around at the leaders of the different villages which had entered an alliance three years ago in the interest of preserving peace. As the result of this, troublemakers tended to think twice before causing problems lest they attract the wrath of this major alliance. Sometimes, it was hard to believe that the peace which they had fought for so earnestly was finally in hand and many shinobi now felt safer travelling to and fro, especially within these few countries. Compared to the old way of segregation between the different countries, it felt as if the world was positively shrinking.
A sharp crack rang out in the air over the arena, drawing her attention back to the battle. The dry Suna dust had barely settled from the previous technique when a light purple streak shot in an arc around the space, sending another plume of dust trailing behind. Almost as quickly, a shot of hot steam was directed at the other competitor, making Sakura's heart thud faster with anxiety. But she should not have worried, for the lanky redheaded shinobi immediately countered with a blast of fire which swallowed the steam with a loud hiss.
Ryo did not waste any time waiting for his opponent to make the next move. At thirteen-years-old, he had already attained the level of a jounin and possessed the skills to back the title up. Still, his favorite techniques were those he had learnt from her. According to him, it was much more satisfying to use his fists against his opponent than to attack with some element. And it was this technique that he chose to use now, against an opponent that he knew was weaker in close-quarter combat. It reminded her of her battle with Shiraishi, actually.
The bright sunlight made the sharp metal glint blindingly as his opponent flung a storm of shuriken in the attempt to stall his approach. In response, Ryo vaulted back and forth out of danger's way. Avoiding projectiles was something Itachi had drilled into him years ago and the training had been carried out so thoroughly that the moves had become almost instinctive for Ryo. She smiled at the recollection of Ryo's complaints at the need for such basic training, but Itachi had stressed that the basics needed to be flawless to provide a foundation for other things.
Itachi had also always insisted that Ryo trained without his Sharingan, telling their son that the bloodline limit's power did not come without a price. Sakura still remembered how, after their first brief sighting of Ryo's Sharingan, they had both continued to look out for it for months afterwards but without any result. Itachi had then told her that such a thing was quite common, and that it was a sign that Ryo would definitely manifest the Sharingan at some point in the future. True enough, two years later, when Ryo turned eight, his Sharingan had appeared in all its full glory during his chuunin exams. One of his Leaf teammates had been in danger from an opponent and Ryo's Sharingan had appeared when he charged to the rescue.
Now, she watched as Ryo swung a glowing foot upwards in an arc, heading for his opponent's upper arm with the clear intent to disable the limb. However, his opponent was ready for him. With a crack of colliding chakra, Ryo's kick bounced off an invisible barrier. Unlike her own experience with such Shinju barriers, Sakura knew that Akari's would be difficult to breach, if not impossible.
Even from this distance, she could hear his disgruntled yells.
"That's not fair!" he protested, launching a punch this time, only to be met by the same frustrating outcome.
"Not fair? It's my kekkei genkai, idiot!" came the blistering rejoinder from his fourteen-years-old opponent.
An irritated sound exploded from Ryo before he protested, "I'm not an idiot!"
"Then don't say stupid things!" she snapped, tossing a ball of hot water at him.
Ryo backflipped, avoiding the hit, and retaliated with a spear of fire. "I don't say stupid things!"
"Can you just shut up and fight, Ryo? I'm trying to concentrate," Akari ground out as she pulled up a barrier to deflect his attack.
"What? Can't multitask?" Ryo taunted.
An impressively loud, teasing voice broke from the crowd of spectators, "Oi! Are you two fighting or flirting?"
Ryo and Akari paused mid-fight, their glaring eyes zoning in on a particular cheeky-looking Leaf chuunin. Sakura let out a chuckle at the sight, and shared a quick look of amusement with Itachi, who was standing to her left. Glancing over her shoulder, she took note of Shiraishi's exasperated look.
"Shut up, Minato!" Akari shouted at the blond boy, shaking her clenched fist threateningly.
Sakura grinned at the familiar exchange, and then watched as they refocused on the fight. It was not the first time Ryo had gone head to head with the light-purple haired kunoichi of Yugakure. Though usually, it was a more informal occasion during one of their trips to Yugakure to visit Shiraishi. Akari was one of Ryo's distant cousins, one which they had managed to locate. Fortunately.
Shortly after she had told Shiraishi that she would not be relocating to Yugakure, she had sweetened the rejection by helping him to search for the other Shinju clan members, convinced that they must have survived. Kakashi had been persuaded by Itachi to release Naruto and Sai to help with the task. So the search had commenced without delay. Itachi, Ryo and Naruto had gone in one direction, and she had gone with Sai and Idate in another direction, while Shiraishi took his shinobi in another.
She had been the one to find them, or rather, one of Sai's ink mice had found Akari. The girl was one year older than Ryo, living on one of the islands off the Land of Water with her little brother, mother and her aunt. Akari's father had passed away shortly after her birth, but there was another surviving male Shinju cousin there as well. The five of them had been living there, surviving on the island's natural resources all this time.
According to them, when their minders had escaped from Yugakure with them, leaving the adults to battle the invasion, their destination had always been this island. It was the Shinju clan's secret sanctuary. Shiraishi's father and mother had been unable to make it that far because they had been injured in the escape, and therefore had to stop in Suna. After that Sakura's mother, being only four at that time, had fallen ill just as they were crossing Fire Country, and so had to remain there. The intention had been for them to make their way to the island to join the rest, but somehow it had never happened.
When Sakura had explained to them what had occurred in Yugakure, Akari, her brother, her mother, her aunt and their elderly male cousin were happy enough to leave the secluded island to return to their proper home.
And since then, Shiraishi had happily shared the leadership of Yugakure with Akari's mother, Hanako, who turned out to be an exceptionally talented shinobi. Sakura smiled as she glanced at the pale-haired kunoichi in her early thirties seated not far from them. Shiraishi was standing beside her chair, both of them sharing enough of the same Shinju genes to look similar, but according to the gossips of Yugakure medics, distantly related enough that they could safely have children if they wished to. Neither of them had vocalized such an intention, but Sakura had seen enough of their interaction to know that it was only a matter of time before they got together.
The air crackled with a sudden increase of chakra levels, and she jerked her eyes back to the battle arena. Techniques were flying with furious intensity back and forth between the two competitors, drawing cheers and gasps from the spectators. Ryo and Akari drew together, and then flung apart, and the process repeated itself.
Then, with a final explosion of chakra, it was over in an instant.
Akari was lying on her back, pale pink hair fanned out as her chest heaved up and down with each desperate gulp of air, while a panting Ryo stood over her with the tip of his katana pressed to her neck. A deafening cheer rang through the air from one section of the spectators, while the Yugakure section groaned in disappointment.
Amidst the noise, Sakura watched as the dusty and bloodied Ryo resheathed his katana to extend a hand to Akari, helping her to her feet. Their lips moved but the words were too soft for anyone to hear. Whatever it was, it succeeded in getting a reluctant smile out of Akari. It was quite obvious that the crowd of spectators had seen the same thing, for suddenly, a series of wolf-whistles pierced through the air.
Once again, an impressively loud voice made itself heard over the commotion, "Hey, are we going to see a kiss?"
Ryo only glared at the younger boy before he turned away to walk to the main platform.
"Minato can't wait to become jounin."
Sakura grinned as she turned to face Naruto. "When that happens, I suppose he wants to enter this tournament as well?"
Naruto laughed, something that he did more and more often nowadays. "He can't wait to catch up with Ryo. From what I heard, he's attempting the next jounin exams so that he can join next year." His brows furrowed suddenly, and then he continued, "Though I can't say I'd like to see Minato and Ryo going head to head in this sort of thing."
"I'm sure it will be okay," Sakura assured. "It's not as if either of them will be out to kill each other. Look at Ryo and Akari. Both made it to the end fairly intact. Besides, it's a friendly competition."
"Heh, I guess." Her blond friend shifted his attention to Gaara then, grinning widely. Smacking the Kazekage heartily on his back, Naruto declared, "So it's Suna's victory this year."
"It seems so," Gaara responded mildly.
"Congratulations, Kazekage-sama," Hanako, the leader of Yugakure said with a pleasant smile. "Your jounin has done well."
Graciously accepting, Gaara inclined his head. "As did yours. Akari battled skillfully." And then, with a sidelong glance at Kakashi, he commented, "It's good that for once, Konoha is not the winner."
The Copy-Nin chuckled. "That's only because you enticed our shinobi away from us. Ryo could have been Konoha's representative this year if not for the transfer."
Sakura winced at that, but they were interrupted by a Suna chuunin.
"Kazekage-sama. It is time for the presentation. If you could move to the center of the stage?"
With a nod, Gaara moved away.
Only then did Sakura poke Kakashi in the arm. "Ne, Kakashi, that's not how it happened, and you know it. Gaara didn't do anything to make us move here. Keep talking like that and someone might believe it one day."
Shiraishi joined them, clearly having caught the thread of the conversation. "Theoretically, Yugakure could lay claim to the boy as well," he pointed out calmly.
"Hey, Ryo is not some object to be tossed about between the villages," she protested indignantly.
"Sakura is right," Hanako said, giving Shiraishi a meaningful look. "Don't you think it is time you stop riling her over this?"
Shiraishi scowled. "Fine. But the boy still has some Shinju blood in him."
"And Uchiha blood as well," Kakashi interjected, tapping his chin. "Does that mean I should reclaim him? He's part of one of Konoha's founding clans."
Sakura groaned. "Kakashi…"
To her disgust, Kakashi ruffled her head, much like he had done when she was twelve. The corner of his visible eye creased as he said, "Stop worrying, Sakura-chan. I was just teasing. We all know that with the truth out, things were a little awkward for Ryo. The relocation is a good move."
She felt a reassuring grip on her shoulder then, and turned around to find Itachi nodding at her. Although he had not contributed to the exchange, he had heard everything and in his own way, was trying to tell her that it was alright. His quiet support was nothing new, and for that she was grateful. He was always like a steady rock in the face of any form of conflict, even when things threatened to turn his world upside down. Even when the revelation of the truth made things unpleasant for him, Itachi simply carried on with his own concerns, not allowing anything to faze him.
Kakashi could have kept quiet about the entire Uchiha situation, but Naruto, who was by then accepted widely as the primary candidate for the next Hokage, had felt that people should know the truth. That Itachi should not carry the whole weight of the responsibility on his shoulders, and that the Konoha administration at that time had played a part in it. So, shortly after Ryo's chuunin exams, they had broken the truth to Konoha. The outcome had not been comfortable, even though some had suspected that things with the Uchiha massacre were not as they appeared outwardly. With the disclosure, some felt disillusioned by the administration, though Naruto had pointed out that the orders came from the Council, which no longer existed, so a similar situation would hopefully be avoided. Others felt gratitude that Itachi pretty much single-handedly prevented the arrival of another ninja war. However, there were also those who felt that regardless of the reason, one should not slaughter one's own flesh and blood in such a brutal way. The reactions were mixed, but one thing that was evident was the way Itachi and Ryo were suddenly in the center of attention.
It was highly uncomfortable, to say the least.
While Itachi had simply ignored the attention, Ryo had not taken it too well. Talented chuunin or not, Ryo had only been eight at that time, and was sensitive to all the attention. It had gotten bad enough that he was uncomfortable training in the public grounds in broad daylight, and had begun to disappear more and more often on longer external missions, something which Sakura had felt was getting a little out of hand. Itachi had agreed with her that they had to take steps to control the situation.
It had taken many discussions between them and with their friends, but finally it was decided that it was best for them to go somewhere where Uchiha was not such a prominent name. And with Ryo's background, the best place was Suna.
Despite the fact that he had said that he would be happy to be with his mother wherever she was, once they were back in Suna, it was clear to everyone that Ryo was happier than he had been in Konoha. He had spent most of his life in the desert village, after all, and all his friends were there. Konoha had always been just a place he visited, albeit in long stretches.
Gaara was ecstatic, in his own understated way, of course. She knew that he had been annoyed with her ever since she had decided to bring Ryo back to Konoha to live with her and Itachi. Therefore, when she and Itachi had spoken to him about the new plan, it had taken no time at all for Gaara to discuss terms of the transfer with Kakashi. Most of the terms were standard confidentiality clauses but Kakashi had also stipulated that any skills such as her medical knowledge had to be passed on to medics in Konoha and that the Uchiha clan's kekkei genkai was not to be used in any form directly or indirectly against Konoha. To balance things further, Gaara had offered the transfer of two of his skilled shinobi in exchange. It was an offer which Kakashi had accepted with an enthusiastic eye-crinkle since one of those shinobi was also the author of a new series of novels the Hokage had embraced almost as heartily as he had the Icha-Icha series.
The agreement meant that over the past few years she was in Konoha pretty regularly to supervise and train the medics. Although it was tiring, flitting back and forth between the two villages, she was glad that she was still in touch with her friends. Her friends also tended to visit often, which made her feel as if she was the luckiest person alive since they were still close despite the fact that she was now living in Suna with her family.
She smiled as she thought of their house, a house which Kankurou had helped build with his puppets. It was only a single storey domed building, but the rooms were generously proportioned to give it an airy feel. There were more than enough rooms for the three of them and the occasional guests. Itachi had quietly requested a small training area at the back of the house, a request which Kankurou had gladly accommodated. Because even though Itachi had given up active shinobi duty, he still wished to keep his skills sharp and play a part in Ryo's training, not that the boy would allow otherwise.
She still remembered the conversation they had over his retirement. It had taken place right after they had been informed of Kakashi's stipulation that Itachi was not to use the Uchiha clan's kekkei genkai in any form against Konoha. Itachi had calmly, but firmly told the Kazekage and the Hokage that with all due respect, he wished to retire from active shinobi duty. She had gaped at him then, unable to believe that he wanted to do such a thing especially considering his skills. Still, she had held her tongue until they had reached home, at which time Itachi had explained to her that he was weary of the battles and would like to avoid them unless truly necessary, such as during an emergency.
"You are distracted," a quiet voice said in her ear.
She turned to find Itachi eyeing her questioningly. And only then did she notice that they were the only two left standing. As she had lost herself in memories, the rest had returned to their seats further back on the platform to view the presentation.
"Sakura?" he prompted.
With a small smile, she assured him, "It's nothing. Just thinking about how we came to be here in Suna."
"Aa." He turned away from her to watch the two contestants approach the platform, amidst applause from the spectators. "It has turned out quite well."
"You think so?" she mused, joining in with the clapping now.
He inclined his head in Ryo's direction. "He is happy." His eyes met hers again as he added, "And that is most important."
"It is, isn't it," she agreed. Grinning, she clapped harder. "He must be even happier that he won, especially since this is his first year competing. Come, let's get closer to Gaara."
Sakura stopped a couple of steps behind the Kazekage just as Ryo and Akari reached the center of the platform, where a raised stage had been set up. It was easy to see that her son's smile was threatening to split his face. In contrast, Akari looked positively disgruntled by her failure to win this year. Sakura shook her head at their antics, knowing that the two of them would always be in competition no matter what, even more so because they were distant cousins. And if Minato truly joined in next year, the competition would be even more heated.
The applause died down as Gaara raised his hand for silence. As the host of the event this year, he stepped forward to announce the victor formally, as well as present Ryo with an engraved, gleaming kunai.
"Congratulations. You bring honor to Suna."
"Thank you, Kazekage-sama," Ryo said with a respectful bow.
In a quieter voice that could only be heard by Ryo, and herself since she was standing so close by, Gaara said, "Ensure that you win again next year. It would not do to lose to Konoha or Yugakure."
Sakura rolled her eyes as Ryo brightened visibly with a new level of determination to crush his opponents.
Then, turning to the crowd, Gaara proclaimed, "This marks the end of this year's tournament. Refreshments will be provided shortly, and I hope you will enjoy Suna's fare. On behalf of all the village leaders, I thank you for attending and we hope to see you next year at Yugakure."
Cheers rang out in the air as large tents, food and drinks were brought out to the middle of the battle arena and the food and drinks were served. Sakura and Itachi hung back a little while the crowd converged towards the tents, parched and hungry from the day's activities.
Reaching up, she swiped the back of her hand across her damp forehead. "So hot!" she exclaimed.
Beside her, Itachi murmured, "Surely you don't expect any differently."
She gave him an irritated, sidelong glance, not missing the fact that he looked as cool as a cucumber despite his long hair. "I don't see you sweating. As usual."
"Hm… Excitement tends to make some people perspire."
She rolled her eyes at his bland remark and chose not to comment. She never won their verbal spars, anyway, so why get even more worked up? Turning away, she caught her son's eye and waved him over.
When he reached them, she drew him into a tight hug, not failing to notice that he was already as tall as she was. "Well done, Ryo-chan!"
Pulling back, he made a face at her. "Ne, 'Kaa-san, don't call me that in public."
"Oh, too big for such things now, are we?"
"You did well," Itachi told him, his eyes shining with unmistakable pride.
Ryo chuckled a little sheepishly. "Can't let Akari win now, can I? She would be unbearable!"
Sakura teased lightly, "What's with you and Akari? Always fighting over this or that."
At one time, that phrase would have sent her blood pressure rocketing if it had been directed at her. But that was a long time ago. Now, she only shook her head at her son, giving him a chastising look.
"Don't say such things."
Ryo had the grace to look abashed.
Chuckling, Sakura linked her arms with her son and Itachi, happy to have both of her favorite men with her. Her teenage son protested mildly at the undignified arm-linkage, but she simply ignored him as she dragged them both towards the tents. It came as no surprise when Ryo immediately pulled away the moment they reached the tents, quickly disappearing into the crowd without even a goodbye, no doubt to join up with his friends. Not that this was something new. Sometimes Ryo seem to appear as if he preferred to be with his friends rather than his parents.
"Well, that makes me feel wanted," she grumbled under her breath as her steps slowed to a complete halt.
"His behavior is fairly typical of a teenager."
"I know. You're right." Sighing morosely, she added, "I don't want him to cling, but I kind of miss the time we used to spend together. He's growing up so fast."
A finger on her chin nudged her to face her dark-haired partner. His expression was tender as he smiled at her, sending a glowing warmth spreading through her. Even after so many years and so many obstacles, their attraction for each other was still strong. His fingers threaded through hers as he leaned closer, clearly seeking some privacy.
And then, in a quiet, mildly amused tone, he asked, "Do you wish for another child to spoil?"
Her breath caught in her throat, and then she sputtered, "W-what?"
"I'm merely enquiring if you wished for another child."
With that, he straightened away from her and proceeded to continue walking to the tent as if he had not just dropped this gigantic bombshell on her. She was stunned. Her feet seemed glued to the hot sandy ground as she blinked in stupefaction at him, his words playing over and over again through her mind.
Was he serious?
It was not as if the thought had not occurred to her in the past. Of course it had, but the topic simply never came up for discussion. Whilst it was taken for granted that they would remain together, they had not really sat down to go over the specifics of their future bar the location of their main residence. She supposed that was not surprising considering how they had been conditioned from their youth. The uncertainty of their lives due to the volatile nature of their profession made it difficult to plan much ahead of time. Not that their lives were very volatile nowadays. With the relative peace surrounding the shinobi nations and the fact that Itachi was no longer an active shinobi, things were quite stable in their lives.
By the time she managed to get her feet to move, Itachi had disappeared into the tent. Determined not to let him rattle her and get away with it, she rushed into the tent with her senses on full alert.
A blast of cool air hit her face, courtesy of the portable air conditioning someone had installed in the tents. The melodic strains of traditional Suna music threaded through the air, the subtle background music adding to the exotic atmosphere. As attuned as she was to Itachi's chakra signature, it took her no time at all to lock in on his location in the crowd. At the far end of the brightly decorated tent, he was standing next to Kankurou and there was a bottle of something in his hand.
She immediately made a beeline towards him, and then grasped his arm to urge him to face her. But when he did, the expression on his face stilled whatever she had wanted to say. It was not as if he had not looked at her that way before, but never so intensely, and never when they were surrounded by so many people. She could almost feel everyone around them fade away, leaving only the two of them to stare at each other.
So, instead of saying whatever she had intended to say, she breathed out shakily, "I… I love you."
His eyes flashed red briefly, and in the next breath, she found herself enveloped in his strong arms, her face pressed to his chest. She could hear the steady beats within, and somehow, it soothed her.
His words were warm against her ear when he murmured, "And I love you too."
It was stupid, because suddenly, her eyes stung with tears. She was behaving like an idiotic hormonal woman instead of a sensible one. It was not as if she and Itachi had not been living together sharing their lives all these years. And it was not as if they had not said those words to each other before, actually it had happened plenty of times. But somehow, this time, it was different.
It was almost as if the declaration together with that little question he had asked earlier he had opened another door to their future. Yeah, it was a silly thing to get emotional about, but she simply could not help it.
"About what you asked earlier?" she murmured, her voice muffled by his chest.
She grinned against his chest, blinking back the dampness in her eyes.
"Oi! Get a room!"
The familiar voice jolted her out of her warm cocoon and Sakura jerked back from Itachi to glare at her grinning blond friend. It was only then that she realized that they had gained a small audience, which included their very embarrassed son, who was trying extremely hard to look anywhere but at his parents. Her cheeks immediately reddened in mortification.
"You two are behaving like teenagers!" Naruto added, clearly undaunted by her expression. "All the public displays of affection… there are kids in here, you know?"
Annoyance immediately chased off her embarrassment. "Naruto…" she ground out threateningly, cracking her knuckles as she started towards him.
Finally realizing that he was about to be pounded within an inch of his life, Naruto's grin died and he backed away apprehensively. But before she could really give chase, she felt Itachi's restraining hand on her shoulder.
"It'd be unseemly for the future Hokage to walk around with an imprint of your fist on his face."
She blinked, and then the irritation drained out of her at the mental picture of Itachi's words. Her lips twitched, and then she chuckled. "Right, I get it."
From some safe distance away, Naruto waved at her. "You know I was just joking, right, Sakura-chan?"
She rolled her eyes at him, and then followed it with a smile to let her friend know that it was alright. Relief flashed across Naruto's face at the realization that he was safe from her wrath, and the sight almost made her laugh out loud. Really, his reaction was ridiculous because Naruto was so much more skilled than her that he could probably flatten her in mere seconds. Naruto was easily the strongest shinobi in Konoha now.
"Are you hungry?" Itachi suddenly asked.
She glanced around the room, noting the delicious food and drinks, but none appealed to her. "Actually, no."
"Then perhaps we should leave."
Her breath caught in her throat as she took in his unmistakable expression. It held equal portions of desire, possessiveness and affection, and as always, she found herself unable to resist the pull.
"Come, let's go," she urged in an embarrassingly husky voice.
She was about to drag him out of the tent with her when she faltered.
"Wait! What about Ryo?" she asked.
Amusement gleamed in Itachi's dark eyes as he replied, "I'm certain Ryo would prefer if we make ourselves scarce, in light of the commotion earlier. Besides, we require some privacy for what I have in mind."
And with that remark, he nudged her towards the opening of the tent. Needing no further encouragement, she went willingly, her hand now clasped in his larger one.
As they walked out into the sunlight, heading towards the dome-shaped home they shared, Sakura could not help but think back to the past once again.
What were the chances of them getting together in the first place? A trusted Konoha medic and an S-ranked missing nin? Against all odds, their lives had intertwined so far away from Fire Country as they fell for each other. Then things had gone all wrong, and they had separated, but even then, she always had a part of him with her in the form of Ryo. In all those years they were apart, she had never forgotten him, despite her conviction that she despised him.
She was so fortunate that fate had somehow saw fit to throw Itachi back in her life. It was difficult now to even remember just how angry she had been with him for his deception all those years ago and how she had feared his reaction to the discovery of a son. She could not help but cringe at the way she had treated him when he had just returned to Konoha. Itachi was not the bad person she had somehow convinced herself he was, despite the massacre. Itachi only did what he had to do, what he thought he had to do. In fact, he was one of the most caring people she had known.
And as if he had read her mind, Sakura felt Itachi's fingers tightening around hers. Squeezing back, she then released his hand to slide her arm around his waist. He reciprocated by wrapping an arm around her shoulder and pulling her tight to his side as they both walked home.
There were no guarantees in life, but no matter what had happened in the past, she knew that as long as they were able, they would remain together now and in the future.
A/N: Thank you all so much for following this story. I hope you've enjoyed it, and if you can, please leave a review!