It's the very last chapter! It's finally done! As much as I loved writing this, there's a great sense of accomplishment in having finished it XD. Later I'm sure I'll go back and correct any little mistakes that are here that I'm too tired to correct now...but for now I hope everyone loved and enjoyed reading With Practice, and really, really enjoy this chapter! The muse says thanks for all the cookies and sweets, and I really loved all the reviews you guys sent me! This story would not have been as awesome without your guys' support!
Please, do enjoy!
Disclaimer: There is no owning of the Naruto here XD
Chapter 7: Rationale
Wood struck wood with just enough force that neither the heavy oaken shuriken nor the dead tree shattered. Sakura had made certain long ago, when she had first trained under Tsunade and turned one of her old cherry wood shuriken into matchsticks, how much chakra would be just enough to create maximum impact without damaging her precious shuriken.
A furious snarl rose to her throat as her empty hands curled into fists, Sakura resisting the urge to pound a crater into the dirt.
"Precious shuriken," she bit out angrily, growing even more incensed when her eyes suddenly blurred with unwanted tears. "That…that bastard!"
Finally succumbing to temptation, she whirled around, her fist burning with ice-blue chakra as it hurtled towards a tree-trunk like a comet portending the apocalypse—
A hair's breadth from the bark, Sakura froze.
At fist level were two, old blade marks. She knew exactly where those had come from. She could still hear the kunai and shuriken strikes from that day when she closed her eyes.
Biting her lip to swallow down a sob, Sakura wrapped her arm around the tree, and slid to her knees, pressing her forehead, once the source of much derision, against its rough bark.
Betrayal made pain blossom under her breastbone, the throb of hurt like a kunai thrust that hadn't healed.
Long minutes passed until the urge to cry abated and Sakura allowed herself the freedom to turn, sitting back against the tree as she sighed, tumultuous emotions fading to reluctant resignation.
Across the clearing, moonlight glinted off her tempered-steel shuriken, embedded in a tight circle below the hollowed-out place in the dead tree where she had placed Itachi's gift little more than seven years ago. Sakura used the moon's reflection off the burnished steel of one gauntlet to bounce light in scattered shards from the bladed weapons fixed into the deadwood tree-trunk.
With fingers that trembled only a little, Sakura touched the porcelain mask that lay atop her rose-pink locks. She could still remember the thrill of pride and victory she had felt when Yamato-taichou, her ANBU trainer, had appeared at the hospital during her shift with the mask in his hands. It had been the happiest birthday in her eighteen years.
But on the tail of that victory came a sharp stab of sorrow that she couldn't stave off. Her ability to dodge an enemy's strikes had no defenses when the hurt came from inside.
All members of ANBU were loosely affiliated with a squad that they took a large portion of their missions with, though individual members moved from squad to squad all the time. Tsunade had told her, more than once, that just because her regular assignment might not include Naruto or Sasuke, it did not mean she would never take missions with them. To hear it from Sai, Yamato-taichou, or Kakashi-sensei, she would be changing squads more often than her two teammates based on her talents as a medic-nin.
But she had still harbored the secret, naïve, desire to be placed as the primary medic on ANBU's elite squad: the one led by Uchiha Itachi.
One hand clenched into a weak fist, Sakura unable to muster any real anger at his decision just then; there was too much despondency in her for resentment.
He had refused her placement on his squad.
The age-old hurt and fear, that another perceived her as week, had choked her, the feeling made more prominent coming from him. The one who had been the first to truly see her as a future shinobi.
Itachi had given her six-year-old self her very first lesson in the shinobi arts, driving on Sakura's budding passion to become a powerful kunoichi though she came from no long-standing ninja clan. He had gifted her with practice shuriken and, later, a set crafted of beautiful, deadly steel. He had even been the cause of her childhood crush on Sasuke!
She could still remember the day her fellow teammate had flashed her a quick smile, and instead of feeling the thrill she had grown accustomed to experiencing when Sasuke gave her any attention, there was this sense of wrongness because the expression had not been on the right brother's face. She'd felt like a bolt of lightning had rocked her world, realizing that three years' worth of infatuation had been because Sasuke reminded her of Itachi.
The feeling of betrayal, the realization that the older Uchiha saw her as weak, frail, inadequate, cut deep.
It might have helped if Itachi's refusal had been curt. She could have fumed and muttered about Uchiha arrogance, or snapped back an argument why, as one of the top ranking rookies of that year's examinations as well as Konoha General Hospital's most skilled medic, she stood a chance on his squad. Against a quiet aura of polite objection, she could muster no response.
So she had submitted to his decision with as much grace as she could manage. And when Yamato-taichou had approached her with a position on his squad, she had said yes.
She knew that it hadn't been a bad decision.
Yamato's team dealt primarily with rescue and retrieval missions, a mission type that appealed to her compassionate nature. And her earth-based techniques well complemented her squad captain's Wood Release, Neji's fluid Gentle Fist, and Uchiha Shisui's katon and Sharingan. She fit in Squad 23.
The soft squeak of leather against wood broke her reverie, and Sakura shifted seamlessly from sitting with her back against the tree-trunk, to a defensive crouch with a kunai in her hand.
On the other side of the clearing stood Itachi, one of her practice shuriken in his hand.
The wrath she had thought controlled sprang free, the picture he made as he held the symbol of their friendship like salt on an open wound. It felt like a mockery of her feelings, so long kept secret.
With a snarl of anger, she lunged.
Itachi effortlessly ducked under the high kick she aimed at his head, but took the expected follow-up blow when the first hit transitioned flawlessly into a low, dragon-tail sweet, landing him on his back with Sakura on top of him as she straddled his waist. He refused to fight back. Her fist slammed into the ground by his cheek.
The snap of wood, another of her treasured practice shuriken, breaking under impact echoed sharply through the clearing.
Moonlight illuminated the tableau of the slim girl, barely a week into eighteen, straddling the prone male, her hands framing his face as they dug into the dirt on either side of his head. Her skin, his, their ANBU armor, and porcelain masks gleamed in the silvery shine, stark contrast to the night's darkness. And from the darkness of the skin-tight sleeveless that was regulation ANBU wear, gleamed familiar, inexpertly fashioned metal.
Through the fog of wrath clouding her thoughts, a single, other emotion rose to the surface. Surprise.
He was wearing it; the necklace. Other than maybe Naruto, who wore the necklace given to him by Tsunade-shishou around his neck against the day he would become Rokudaime Hokage, Sakura could not think of another male willingly wearing one, such accessories deemed…emasculating.
But he wore it anyway, metal pieces resting gently against the contours of his clavicles.
Silence descended, long minutes of it as they stayed almost absolutely still, the only sound Sakura's breathing as she fought the sudden impulse of tears. Though they made her eyes gleam in the darkness, they didn't fall; and her throat quivered with the effort as she forced out the question she had been too afraid to ask earlier that day.
'Why didn't you take me? Why did you refuse? Why…wasn't I good enough?'
All her questions, unvoiced but clear to Itachi in the glimmer of unshed tears in her eyes, tears she refused to let fall, echoed through her head in a sudden clamor.
"Hokage-sama asked me whether I had considered you for placement on Squad 15 the day you passed ANBU examinations."
Squad 15. Itachi's squad.
The semi non sequitur silenced the majority of the inner questions, her focus shifting to his explanation.
"She said that the only thing that might stop her from sanctioning the squad placement would be the mission types that Squad 15 takes."
Espionage. Assassination. They were either long or bloody, and always dangerous; more dangerous than the already perilous standards of ANBU missions.
"But she had no other objections. She told me that Squad 15 needed a medic."
Itachi's eyes revealed nothing as they met hers as he spoke.
But he hadn't chosen her. He had told her, with manners he had probably learned in training to be the future clan leader of the Uchiha, that it was regrettable but he could not place her on his squad.
"Squad 15 takes on more high-risk missions than almost any other ANBU squad. It needs a medic on hand so that all members have the highest probability of returning to Konoha alive."
But he hadn't chosen her!
It was like hearing his refusal all over again, the pain that his words invoked just as sharp as it had been several hours ago.
"You told Tsunade-shishou no."
Her words weren't a question but a statement of fact. She knew that he must have told her former teacher that he would not take her on during that conversation, or he would not have denied her earlier today. Her tone held nothing more than defeat. She already knew there was no way to fight the final decision.
"I told her I would not," he confirmed.
'Well that's that,' Sakura thought bitterly, feeling the unshed tears drying from her eyes. 'He wasn't going accept me into Squad 15 from the start. Weakness, inexperience, whatever it was.'
"Why?" she wanted to know, the word coming easier now, though it had still hurt like hell to ask.
"Because I could not."
Sakura's eyes widened, then narrowed, the fury that had abated in the face of her sadness coming back in full force.
"Bullshit!" she snapped, drawing back a little as she glared down at him from her superior position. "Don't give me that crap, Uchiha. If it was because I was a rookie, then say so. If you think I'm weak, tell me to my face! Don't just say that you couldn't, because that's no reason to—,"
"ANBU regulation," Itachi interrupted, silencing her, "states that no two shinobi engaged in a relationship may be placed on the same squad in case a conflict of interests arises."
Drawing himself up onto an elbow, Sakura's eyes filling with mingled surprise and sudden promise, he fisted a gauntleted hand in hair that reminded him of cherry blossoms just blooming, and fiercely claimed her lips.
Her body gave a jolt of shock as he invaded her warm mouth, her mind struggling sluggishly to comprehend what was happening under the onslaught of pleasure as he dominated her, though it was she straddling him and not the other way around. She had no way of knowing that he kissed her through the growing thrum of an unfamiliar feeling, fear, as it tingled down his spine at her unresponsiveness. He tasted her, not knowing if this would be the first and last time he did, wanting to memorize the moment with every fiber of his being.
And then she relented, in sweetest submission as she responded to his touch, and there was no greater victory.
Her hands tangled in his hair, slim fingers dislodging the tie that kept the ebony strands bound. With a groan that was lost between their lips, Itachi dispensed with passive aggression, throwing an arm around her waist as he sat up to take better control of the kiss.
She was breathless when he pulled away.
"You know why I could not have you join Squad 15," he murmured against her lips. "With you there…" He would do everything within his power to protect her, choose her above all else, jeopardizing himself and the mission.
She understood. There would be other missions together.
For the first time that night, Sakura could feel herself smiling, lips curving against the corner of Itachi's mouth, his mimicking hers in reaction. She could feel the upward tilt of his lips against her cheek.
"I must admit to being jealous of my cousin," he told her softly, the words tickling as they brushed past her ear.
Sakura made a noise, like the tail end of a question, in the back of her throat. "Of Shisui?" she wanted to know. "Why?"
"Because of this, the top ranking medic in Konoha is on his squad instead of mine."
Her laughter was dazzling as she turned her face up for another kiss.
And there you have it! The very end of With Practice! The lovely Itaweasel-hime made me a pretty fanart of what she felt the kiss looked like, and I hope to have it in my favorites on my dA before long! That being said, if anyone else feels like making a fan art of that particular scene, I'd love to see it! I really want to know if what you guys thought is the same as the scene in my head! Please vote on the Itachi Birthday Poll on my profile!
The muse feels smug because this is technically the second time I'm posting this, and she really likes that more people will get to see it XD (she made me write this in such a short time that she feels she has a right to be smug...)
Thanks for all your lovely reviews! The muse will use them as fuel for my next ItaSaku non-mass chapter fic for your consumption!