I wish I had the time to update regularly but I honestly hadn't expected to be so busy. I think this semester is determined to eat up my entire life and it's doing quite well so far. Still, I hope this will be able to tide you all over at least for a little bit.
Chapter 25: Today
"Tell me something, Sakura."
Sakura lifted her eyebrow. She didn't remember the last time Deidara had addressed her without one of his usual endearments. Then again, she didn't remember the last time she had been able to keep her eyes open without coffee for the last few weeks. Sleeping 12 hours a night was wonderful even if Itachi worried that it wasn't normal. Raising her arms over her head to stretch, Sakura waited for Deidara to continue speaking. From the other side of the room, Itachi, who had been trying to pull off a one-handed handstand, also looked intrigued. As he teetered on just his right hand, he gave Sakura an equally puzzled look.
"The results come back in a week, yeah?" Deidara asked, claiming her attention again. Sakura nodded. Itachi lost his balance completely and managed to land on his feet before standing upright. He promptly tried again, flipping forward onto his hands.
"And that's when we'll know if you'll be a college student or a sad reject studying for another year, right?"
Sakura nodded slightly slowly this time. Sitting on the ground next to her was Kisame reaching for his toes to stretch his legs. He let out a loud snort of laughter. There was an undignified thump as Itachi chuckled and lost his balance, landing on his back.
"Delicate as always, Deidara," Kisame chuckled. He looked over his shoulder to make sure that Itachi wasn't actually hurt.
"You're not nervous, yeah?" Deidara asked while ignoring Kisame. Sakura frowned at him as she stood up straight. She swung her arms in a circle to loosen up her shoulders. Repeating this a couple times, she knew that her silence was making them worry. Kisame and Deidara stared at her until she finally finished stretching and then smiled.
"Dei-chan, that's a weird question. Of course I'm nervous. But being nervous won't change how well I did a week ago," she finally responded, nudging him with her elbow.
"Yeah, Dei-chan. Sakura-chan says you're dumb," Kisame snickered.
"Shut up, Trilobite-kun," Deidara snapped with a vicious smile. As they began bickering like usual, Sakura walked over to Sasori lying on his stomach in the corner. She stepped carefully as he concentrated on fitting a glass bead onto a chain of many others. Just the other day Kisame had interrupted Sasori as he attempted to thread a needle and had ended up with a pincushion shoved down the back of his pants. Even now Kisame kept his distance, shooting wary glances at Sasori every once in a while. When the bead was securely slid into place and the thread knotted so the lines of clear beads wouldn't slip free, Sasori looked up with the vaguely sleepy expression he always had on.
"How're things going?" she inquired as she sat down in front of him. Letting out a heavy sigh, Sasori reached back to grab his thickest sketchbook and slid it over to her. Then, like the simple action had drained all strength from his body, Sasori flopped onto his back while Sakura flipped through the pages.
Sasori and Deidara had submitted their preliminary sketches along with the usual sample photos of the few pieces they had already finished. Their model, though whiny and demanding as ever, had come out very nicely in the pictures. After some helpful critique from their advisors, Sasori had begun putting together their final pieces for the show next month. Last year's theme had been an evening gown. This year's theme was "springtime". This, of course, explained the vast quantities swatches exploding out of Sasori's bag in dizzying rainbows of neon and bright graphic prints.
"What the hell kind of nonsense theme is that, yeah?" Deidara had complained after he had revealed it to Sakura. Even though she really had no part in the project this year, Sasori and Deidara were careful to keep her updated. Sometimes they asked her opinion on colors or fabrics. They wavered between various ensembles, choosing one and then switching it a million times in the next hour. Sakura's gaze lingered on one particular drawing. It was a sundress. She could tell that Sasori had a soft spot for them because he always seemed to be sketching them. But the bodice was, from what she could tell, supposed to be some sort of sheer layer over solid fabric along with a swirling floral pattern twisting down the flowing skirt. Sasori sat up and caught her tracing the outline of the dress with her pointer finger before she cleared her throat and flipped to the next page to resume her casual browsing.
"You're looking a lot better. Getting some rest?" Sasori commented, taking his face in her hands. She let him turn her face to the left and to the right without much protest. Sasori preferred physical contact sometimes and she had known him long enough to just not mind anymore. His honey-colored gaze swept over her face several times before he seemed satisfied.
"I'm slowly weaning myself off the coffee and actually sleeping at night," she reported. Sasori nodded his approval before he pulled her in for a hug.
"Good girl," Sasori muttered as he rested his chin on her shoulder. When he didn't move for a while, Sakura grew a little worried and angled her head back to look at him.
"He fell asleep," she remarked. Kisame trotted over with a quizzical expression. But Sakura just pointed at Sasori, afraid to shrug. Kisame crouched, waving his hand in front of Sasori's nose until he too seemed to conclude that the redhead had in fact fallen asleep that easily. Sitting down cross-legged next to Sakura, Kisame let out harried sigh.
"Come on, Sassy-senpai. That's no way to treat another man's lady," Kisame admonished half-seriously. Muttering something under his breath, Sasori decided to slide off of Sakura's shoulder in favor of letting Kisame's knee become his new pillow.
"Sassy-senpai," Sakura repeated with a snort of a laugh. With his arm as limp as a noodle, Sasori swatted at Sakura's leg.
"Bad Sakura-chan," he mumbled before falling silent again. Looking at each other with wide eyes, Kisame and Sakura tried to choke down their giggles. When Kisame let a noise escape, Sakura pressed her pointer finger against his lips to silence him even as her own face turned pink from the effort not to burst out in loud honks of laughter. It was then, of course, that Itachi managed to sit up, rubbing at his sore shoulder blade. He looked slowly from Sasori to Kisame to Sakura before looking back at Kisame again with a hint of a glare.
It was no use. Sakura and Kisame burst into obnoxious guffaws and squeaks. And for some odd reason, Sasori slept on quite comfortably during this ordeal with the most peaceful expression.
To be completely honest, Sakura was actually extremely nervous to find out whether she was going to college next year. But there was something even more unnerving than that. It was related, but so much more horrific and trying.
Her father's family absolutely adored her.
It was a concept that puzzled both her and Itachi. And between them, they were usually able to figure out most things with the power of pure logic (or in Sakura's case, hitting electronics until they worked again).
Apparently, Ryuu, upon his return home, had gushed all about his wonderful daughter to his wife and son. She was student council president, she danced, and she was going to be an amazing doctor. According to Ryuu, her half-brother, Yuki, loved to hear stories about her all the time. Ryuu had run out of real stories to tell him after a week and had started concocting ridiculous tales to placate his son. Sakura had a headache just thinking about all the things the poor boy was being told.
"Watch, we'll meet and he'll be demanding to know why I can't fly or why I don't really own a pet unicorn or something," Sakura grumbled once as she got off the phone. From the other end of the sofa, Itachi tried his best not to smile. Itachi closed his notebook and set it aside to give Sakura his full attention.
"Seems like you're getting along with them," he remarked. Idly wriggling her toes, Sakura shrugged.
"Jennifer-san's Japanese is really good. Apparently she's a Japanese teacher at a high school in the next town over. And Yuki calls me 'Onee-san' a lot," Sakura said without much tone. She didn't really know how to feel. Her own mother had explicitly stated that she was happy for Ryuu and was glad that Sakura was getting along with that strange sort-of-family side of the family. Maybe it was just her being weird by herself. Maybe she was the only one that couldn't quite wrap her head around the idea.
"I mean, they say they like me. But how do I know that she doesn't secretly hate me? What if it's my stupid dad's idea for me to live with them and Jennifer-san's just too polite to say no?" Sakura groaned, running her fingers through her hair so hard that it hurt a little. Itachi fixed her with an exasperated look.
"This is stupid. I'm overthinking things again," Sakura added. Itachi nodded.
"But still. What woman would like her husband's brat from a previous marriage? Wouldn't that mess with inheritance rights or something?" she fretted again. Itachi took hold of her big toe and squeezed hard enough for her to scowl.
"There are two things I find severely flawed about your argument," Itachi stated.
"Indulge me, Great Lawyer Itachi-sama," Sakura prompted with a mischievous smile. Ignoring her sass, Itachi counted off on his fingers as he spoke.
"First point: Your father's wife has already proven her good will when she forced him to come to Japan to make amends with you," Itachi stated. Crossing her arms over her chest, Sakura put on her best stern expression.
"Objection sustained. Please continue," Sakura responded in a grave tone.
"Second point: What inheritance?" Itachi concluded a little smugly.
"So I'm really just overthinking?" she asked. When she looked up, she found that Itachi was watching her with great consideration. After a moment, he shook his head.
"I don't think so. I just think you're putting too much pressure on yourself. I keep telling you that it's okay to be spoiled a little," he replied.
"I've been indulged plenty, thank you very much," Sakura sniffed. To prove her point, she slid over and deposited herself in Itachi's lap. She pretended to be busy rubbing at a wrinkle on his shirt while he eyed her. Finally, after a very long moment of his staring, Sakura looked up at him, fluttering her eyelashes in exaggerated blinks.
"Yes?" she asked innocently in response to his silence.
"You're right. Much too pampered, in fact. Since when is it okay to treat me as your armchair?" he demanded in a grave tone. Sakura shrugged.
"You don't pay rent, you eat all the ice cream, and now I've been demoted to furniture," Itachi sighed.
"Yes but I do most of the cooking and the cleaning and half of the laundry. And I also do this!" Before Itachi could react, Sakura bit him on the ear and then ran off to the kitchen. When she peeked over her shoulder, she could see his absolutely stupefied expression fixated on the place she had been. As she yanked the refrigerator door open, she heard the slow creak of him getting off the sofa.
"Hm…what should we have for dinner?" Sakura mused out loud, purposely ignoring the sound of his approaching footsteps. Prodding at the various groceries stacked neatly inside, Sakura sighed exaggeratedly until a shadow fell over the inside of the refrigerator. She feigned ignorance when his fingers wrapped around the metal door handle just above hers. His other hand came to rest on top of the refrigerator.
"Sakura," Itachi said in an even tone.
"What is it?" she responded just as lightly. When he tried to push the door shut, she resisted. His chin rested on top of her head.
"Just what do you think you're doing?" he inquired.
"Good question. I think I'll make miso soup today," Sakura hummed. She carefully sneaked a glance at him and met his eyes. He regarded her with the same look of exasperation she recognized from when they had first met and he had started insisting on carrying her bag for her all the time. When she blinked owlishly, his mouth puckered into a frown.
"You're trying to kill me."
Not a question. A simple statement. Sakura shrugged.
"I don't know what you're talking about," she sang as she ducked under his arm and took a few steps back. They eyed each other warily before Sakura spun on her heel and turned to run. She made it about four steps before he hooked his arm around her waist. Squealing with laughter, she let him twirl her around the kitchen in time to soundless music until her head was spinning just as hard.
The next Saturday, Sakura stumbled out of bed to shut her alarm off. Itachi had left early for work but not before waking her up at 7 to kiss her and wish her luck. The sound of his rasping voice in her ear always sent delicious shivers tingling all the way down to her toes. Looping her arms around his neck, she lifted herself to kiss him back before snuggling back into the warm covers. An hour later, she woke again, this time a little less happily, and climbed down from the loft.
After her usual cup of coffee, she perked up enough to shower without drowning. With damp hair and before she had swallowed her last bite of toast, Sakura was out the door. She skipped the elevator and hurried down the stairs into the lobby. The landlord was outside brushing stray litter off the sidewalk and into a dustpan. He returned her sluggish greeting with a cheerful smile and the regular "how are you" and "where are you heading this fine day".
Hands shoved into the pockets of her favorite white hoodie, she slouched all the way to the university where there was already a crowd of anxious students. They milled around the large bulletin board where lists of numbers had been firmly stapled. And they stood, eyes wide as they scoured the lines as if it was some prophecy declaring either their individual safety or eternal doom. In a way, that was exactly what was happening. Someone would periodically burst into tears and run off, letting everyone know that he or she had been rejected. No one seemed to mind, though. There would just be a little jostling until they filled in the space left behind so someone else would get a chance to peer at the board.
Sakura stood patiently in the back, rocking back and forth on the heels of her boots until she could squeeze in to look. She quickly scanned for her four-digit number, running through the dizzying patterns of numbers until she got to the very last page of numbers and she could feel her heart pounding in her ears. A strange, strangled noise left her when she finally saw a familiar set of digits. Halfway down the page, there were the shining figures, gleaming proudly in black ink. Sakura rubbed her eyes once to make sure she wasn't hallucinating. She even checked the scrap of paper clenched in her hand to make sure she wasn't just looking at the wrong numbers.
But no, they were hers. She was accepted. With her ears ringing, she stepped out of the throng to let more people surge forward. Almost numbly, she cast her gaze around the parts of KU campus she could see. Then, after a moment of consideration, she let her feet carry her off. She traveled the familiar concrete paths, admiring the trimmed lawns and the beautiful sculptures either donated by alumni or created by students. Some of them were twisted works of metal- others were more classical works chiseled in stone.
For a moment, she considered popping in on Sasori or Deidara who would probably be holed up in one of the two buildings designated for students of fashion design or cosmetology across campus. She had accompanied them once and the windows and rows and unlimited supplies of shining tools had left her breathless for a while. But they would be busy. They would be delighted, but essentially soulless and mostly on the brink of death.
She could go visit Kisame to deliver the good news but that would involve taking a bus to the zoo the next city over where there was a large aquarium affiliated with the university's marine biology program. According to Kisame, since the aquarium sat on the shore, it allowed the creatures to roam comfortably in natural waters while keeping them close for safety. He boasted the large collection of sharks, which always led to Deidara snickering some snide comment about Kisame going to visit his family. But no. Kisame was busy too.
Instead, Sakura climbed up to the second floor in a familiar building that smelled like paint thinner and clay. The air always felt a little dusty in her nose but it wasn't an unfamiliar feeling. It took some searching because the specific rooms always changed based on which student was using which medium. But after a minute, Sakura opened the door to a brightly-lit room. The blinds had been shoved to the top, drapes yanked to the sides to ensure maximum sunlight pouring inside. She opened her mouth to speak but then Konan saw her out of the corner of her eye and pressed her index finger to her lips.
"Nagato's sleeping," Konan whispered in barely audible voice. Sakura entered the room on the tips of her toes. She glided across the hard tile until she saw that Konan was sitting on one of the lounge chairs scattered around. Sakura had noticed that there were a lot more couches in the studio than expected. And there were even a couple rooms where hammocks were strung from the ceiling and pillows were heaped on top of filing cabinets to make beds. According to Konan, some of the art students practically lived there- sleeping in hammocks and taking their meals here too as they worked.
However, it wasn't Konan slumbering away but her boyfriend. He was sitting at a table, his laptop open in front of him. His cheek rested on his arm, pushing his glasses askew. And Konan sat a few feet in front of him, her sketchbook open in her lap. Instead of a pencil or paint, there was a stubby piece of charcoal pinched between her first three fingers.
"I pulled an all-nighter and he insisted on staying with me," Konan quietly explained as she continued drawing long, even strokes onto the thick paper. Sakura pulled up a stool next to her and sat to watch. Slowly, but steadily, Pein's short hair emerged. And then the slope of his forehead was followed by his straight nose. Konan etched in each detail so carefully that it almost felt like the person on the paper might start breathing evenly in his dreams.
"Congratulations, by the way. Am I the first person you're telling?"
Sakura tried her best not to laugh as she nodded. She watched as Konan's arm swept across the page as she drew in the broad lines of the curtains behind him.
"I'm moving right after graduation. Nagato's taking a job offer in Sapporo in the summer. So this will probably be the last time we'll see each other before I go," Konan casually added in. Chewing on her lower lip, Sakura felt just a little bad that she wasn't all that surprised. Konan had always been an existence that seemed ready to fly away at the faintest puff of wind. Still, she was saddened by the news.
"I'll miss you, senpai," was all Sakura could think to say in that moment. Konan turned her head to look at her, her eyes widening.
"Of course," Sakura almost snorted. Konan pursed her lips before looking back to her drawing and then up at Nagato still sleeping peacefully.
"Oh...that's good. Because I'll miss you too," Konan replied rather awkwardly. Smiling, Sakura continued looking over her friend's shoulder until the sketch was finished.
Sakura left soon after. Pein woke up not long after Konan was finished and Sakura was still intimidated by him even after knowing him for almost a year. Making up a half-hearted excuse, Sakura left the couple in favor of leaving university property altogether. For the first time in a very, very long time, she went home to crawl back into bed before dark. And she gave herself that Saturday.
She slept until nearly noon and when she woke up, she didn't bother to change out of her pajamas. Instead of doing homework due on Monday, Sakura did the laundry, using the time in-between each load to finish up a book Hinata had recommended to her nearly a month before. For lunch, she indulged in cup ramen: bursting with chemicals and preservatives but filling her stomach with a warm mélange of brothy goodness. After folding the clean clothes and putting them away, she curled up on the sofa for a long nap that was only interrupted when Itachi came home a little before 4. She felt his lips against her temple before she opened her eyes halfway.
"Hi," she greeted with a lazy smile that he promptly kissed.
"What's the verdict?" he inquired. At this, her eyes opened all the way. She had been planning some diabolical ruse to trick him into thinking that she had failed miserably. But she was just too happy and too excited to do anything but smile and shrug.
"I guess all the coffee paid off," she told him after a moment. She would have said something else too but in the next instant his entire face lit up as he lifted her off the sofa. Laughing, she threw her arms around his neck and planted a noisy kiss to his cheek.
Before anything else could happen, Itachi urged her to call her mother. So, with a little reluctance, Sakura dialed Kirie's number, half-expecting voicemail. But Kirie picked up after three rings, despite the fact that it would be late at night for her.
"Sorry to bother you. Were you sleeping?" asked Sakura. She sat on the arm of the sofa, her fingers drawing circles into the soft leather.
"No. How've you been, sweetheart?" Kirie greeted in the same bright voice as always. Swallowing the strange lump that always seemed to form in her throat when she spoke with her mother, Sakura steeled herself. She had thought up a million things to say once her mother picked up. It was all planned out neatly in her brain, the exciting news, the everyday gossip Kirie loved to hear.
For some odd reason, however, none of those things were the words to leave her mouth. Instead, the two things that she blurted out were:
"I got into Konoha University. So I'm studying abroad in America next year."
She could feel Itachi's eyes on the side of her face. Although he was aware that she was swaying toward leaving the country, she hadn't decided on anything yet. But the statements had tumbled out and there was no way to grab them and shove them back down her throat. Biting on her lower lip, she slowly looked over at him to gauge his expression. Unsurprisingly, there was a deep line furrowing his forehead while the corners of his mouth turned down. He sunk down on the sofa right beside her, eyes never leaving her face.
"Oh. Well…This is…sudden?" Kirie eventually answered.
"Yeah," Sakura said faintly, her gaze locking with Itachi's.
"Well…would you be coming to LA?" inquired her mother after a length.
"Not…exactly. Dad invited me to stay with him for the year."
There was more silence. She was too much like her mother. They both didn't know what to say at awkward times like this.
"You could come visit me during your breaks," Kirie finally suggested. A smile tugged at Sakura's lips.
"I could. And we could go shopping and go eat food and you could help me with my English," added Sakura. Kirie's laugh rang brightly. Then after a moment, something struck Sakura as a little odd.
"Wait. LA? Weren't you in Chicago?"
"Oh, I didn't tell you, did I? They swapped me to California instead. The weather here is so nice! You'd love it!" exclaimed Kirie. As her mother launched into her story, Sakura watched Itachi get to his feet. He silently walked to the kitchen. The motions of him putting water into the coffee maker were very familiar to her by now. It was the tense lines of his shoulders and the way he didn't look at her even once that worried her. He leaned against the counter, tapping his fingers in the rhythm of a song she couldn't hear. The tilt of his head and then the silent sigh were all she could focus on. But then the coffee maker finished brewing and Kirie was asking for Sakura's opinion in her ear.
"Huh? Sorry," Sakura replied.
"I was asking, silly, if you'd consider coming to LA right after graduation? You could spend summer here and then go to New York," suggested Kirie. That caught her attention.
"I don't know. You wouldn't mind?"
"Why would I mind? Oh it'll be so much fun! You should meet my friend Cheryl! She's just hysterical!"
As Kirie bubbled over with more words, Sakura stared at Itachi pouring out his coffee. A splash of milk and a heaping spoonful of sugar later, he was sitting back on the sofa next to her. He continued stirring at the cooling drink with his spoon, not even once lifting it up to his mouth to drink. It seemed an eternity before Kirie seemed to run out of steam. She let out a big sigh, reclaiming Sakura's attention.
"Well it's late for me, sweetheart. Let's talk again and then we'll sort out all the details," said Kirie. Her words were punctuated by a large yawn from her end. Eyes still fixed on Itachi, Sakura hummed her consent. They exchanged the usual greetings and promised to talk again within the next few days before hanging up. As soon as she set her phone down, Sakura scrunched her face up in a frown.
"You're mad," she immediately said.
"Not mad," Itachi slowly admitted. That did little to reassure her.
"Not mad? Or are you not mad?" Sakura carefully probed. Only when Itachi regarded her with one of his half-smiles did she feel the anxiety loosen a little in her chest.
"I'm not angry, I promise," was what he responded with.
"Sorry. This is a little sudden, right?" she sighed. Itachi placed his mug down on the coffee table, nudging it further away with his fingertips.
"I…No. It's nothing,"
Face scrunching up in a frown Sakura tugged on his sleeve. But his gaze stayed focused on his coffee. Breathing a sigh of frustration, she wormed her way under his left arm to peer up at him. It was then that he blinked out of his daze.
"Itachi," she called his name softly.
"Tell me," Sakura insisted while putting on her best pout until he cracked a full smile. The way his dark eyes searched her face was a little worrying. After a moment, a low breath left his mouth. He lifted his arm to let her scoot closer to him.
"I'm almost…embarrassed…to admit this," Itachi began very slowly. Crossing her arms over her chest, Sakura narrowed her eyes at him. She had had her share of embarrassing things to say during their relationship while he had almost always remained the pinnacle of cool composure. Catching sight of her expression, he let out a light chuckle.
"It just feels like I might lose you," he relented.
She stared at him.
"Why?" she asked. Usually she was rather adept at deciphering his leaps in logic. She had learned from experience that geniuses like him sometimes thought one or two or ten steps ahead. But she was stumped. Bewildered.
"You just…You're just always smiling and trying new things and at some point I looked at you and I realized that you're just…"
"Just what?" she prompted as gently as she could.
"I'm worried you're going to spread wings and fly off somewhere. You'll leave and see wonderful things…the world here is small…Will you want to come back?"
He couldn't even articulate full sentences.
So Sakura reached.
For all this time, he had been the one to pull her up. He had guided her, nurtured her, and been the one to always remind her to just take time to remember to live. Resting her cheek against his chest, Sakura listened to his deep breaths.
"Sure. This little place I know is probably really small compared to what I might see," she softly said.
"But that doesn't mean it isn't home," Sakura added after some thought. She could feel Itachi's eyes on her.
"Besides, who else is going to put up with my temper tantrums? There's nowhere better for me to go, Itachi-kun," was her final answer. She gave him a moment for her words to fully sink in. A low hum travelled up his throat as he thought.
"I'll miss you too much," Itachi sighed. Letting out a giggle, she twisted her neck to look up at him.
"Good. You'd better," she sniffed until he pressed a smiling kiss to her mouth.
Valentine's Day crept up so silently that Sakura would have forgotten all about it had it not been for Hinata. For some reason, Hinata had gotten it into her head to give Naruto homemade sweets. Though Hinata was a skilled baker, she had absolutely zero experience with candies and the chef at her house seemed equally clueless. Luckily, when Hinata called, Sakura was sitting in the library with Ino two days before Valentine's Day.
"Make chocolate? That sounds nice," Sakura hummed into the phone. Ino's pencil abruptly stopped moving. When her bright blue gaze darted to meet Sakura's, Sakura let out a little sigh.
"Sure. But I'm bringing Ino-chan," Sakura warned.
They burnt two batches of chocolate and ruined another one with too much milk before they got anywhere. As they stood taking turns squeezing the chocolate into molds, Ino bumped her hip into Sakura's.
"Hey! Watch it, Piggy!" Sakura exclaimed as she nearly squirted outside the metal heart. But Ino just grinned and dipped her finger into a stray glob of cooling chocolate on the edge of the tray before sticking it into her mouth.
"So I've been talking to Shikamaru and he tells me that Sasuke-kun says that you're going to America?" pried Ino with an eager smile. Sakura took a moment to roll her eyes at Hinata before turning back to her gossip-loving friend.
"So if you've already heard, why are you asking me?" asked Sakura.
"Don't be rude, Forehead. You're thinking of leaving without telling me?" insisted Ino, really sounding a little hurt. In response, Sakura squirted a little chocolate onto Ino's nose before calmly resuming her careful decoration.
"I wasn't even sure until a few days ago. And I'm sure you won't miss me too much with Shikamaru to jabber at you," Sakura joked. Ino rubbed the corner of her apron across her face.
"So you're really going?" Hinata spoke up. Sakura handed the piping bag off to Ino before looking up. Her two friends were staring at her. It was clear that nothing else was getting done until she gave them an answer.
"I guess I am," Sakura sighed. With a loud harrumph, Ino squeezed too much chocolate into her mold until the heart shape overflowed.
"Well at least bring me back a nice souvenir or something!" Ino said too loudly.
"Only if you save some chocolate for Hinata-chan too! Geez you're wasting it all!" reprimanded Sakura as she slapped Ino's arm.
That Thursday was the usual rush of blushing faces and soft giggles that accompanied the holiday. Sasuke, as usual, darted in and out of shadows around the school like fugitive to avoid being seen. Unfortunately, his fans had grown smart and discovered him before first period even began. He skulked into their classroom to join them for lunch with a couple red blotches on his collar and cheek that looked suspiciously like lipstick he had tried to smear away. But this year it seemed that Naruto had also garnered a significant amount of attention. The two captains of the basketball club were hard to miss, after all. Both were tall and both boasted nice physique from sports. Naruto's easy-going smile and Sasuke's taciturn demeanor had become somewhat famous.
Sasuke was used to the attention, however, and resigned himself to opening up his shoe locker and watching an impossible amount of chocolates and letters spill onto his feet. Naruto, however, eyed his own stack of gifts with guilty awe before he stammered out unneeded apologies to Hinata. Smiling fondly, she knelt to help him pick up his valentines and deposit them in a paper bag. When Sasuke began shoving his into a pile with his foot, he caught Sakura's glower.
"No," she sternly said. Hovering over him, she crossed her arms over her chest. Behind her, Moegi and Udon poked their heads out to watch while trying their best not to laugh.
"Since when does the student council care about valentines?" grumbled Sasuke as he crouched down to gather them into his arms.
"Do it or I'll tell your mother on you," warned Sakura. Sasuke hesitated for a moment before he began hurriedly shoving the envelopes into his pockets too.
Even socially awkward Sai had managed to catch the eye of one giggling freshman. When her chocolate was met with one of his blinding smiles, she immediately turned scarlet. This pleasant blush soon darkened to an angry flush when Sai commented on how misshapen and strange her chocolate looked. Sakura patted his back soothingly while Hinata helped him put an ice pack on the handprint gracing his cheek.
As they had done last year, Sakura and Itachi ditched their friends in favor of having a date. Unsurprisingly, it was a busy day as couples all over the city went out to celebrate. They dropped by a small café to avoid the worst of the crowds and to share a slice of cheesecake over cups of coffee. As Sakura sat sipping at her ceramic mug, Itachi crossed one leg over the other. He began jiggling his leg until his foot was bouncing in time to the beat of the soft guitar music playing over the speakers.
"Are you alright?" she slowly asked as her eyes fixed on his flailing foot. Following her line of vision, he quickly uncrossed his legs.
"We won't get to do this next year," Itachi pointed out. Her smile faded. The sound of her mug against the tabletop sounded heavy for no reason. Their fingers inched toward each other until he could put his hand over hers. Even after all this time, her nails remained unpainted. He had always liked that about her hands. The sight of long, artificial nails covered with gems and glitter had never appealed to him.
"I don't like thinking about that," Sakura finally declared. The corners of his mouth pulled up into something that didn't quite look like a smile.
"Me neither," he sighed.
They quickly decided that they were depressing themselves. With the usual bickering over who would pay for their food, Sakura won by pulling out her best pout. Ignoring Itachi's frown, she headed outside with an extra spring in her step. Turning around, she took his hands and swung them around until he let out a sigh.
"You're impossible," Itachi remarked. Giving him a proud grin, she pressed herself against his side. Their fingers neatly laced together, arms tucked between them. Once they reached the end of the quiet street and turned onto one of the city's bigger avenues, the noise hit them again. It was the rumble of cars and the sharp clack of shoes on the sidewalk as people rushed to their destinations without noticing anything around them. They stayed close to the right side, pausing to look into shop windows. Whenever Itachi offered to buy whatever Sakura was admiring, she glanced at the price tag and, eyes widening, would drag him further down the sidewalk while he laughed at her horrified expression.
They ducked into a park, following the winding path past the playground. As they passed the swings, a toddler ambled out and tripped over a rock. She burst into loud wails that should have immediately drawn her mother if she were anywhere nearby. It didn't matter though because Sakura immediately knelt at her side. She helped the little girl to her feet, frantically checking her scraped knee for any serious damage.
"Manami! There you are!" a woman called as she ran over, huffing and puffing. There was a little boy trailing after her. And even though they had done nothing, she thanked the couple profusely for finding her daughter. Bowing awkwardly, Sakura and Itachi continued their walk. A few steps away, Sakura paused to look back and Itachi did the same.
The girl had stopped crying as her mother swept her up into her arms. It was like a magic spell, the way a mother could whisper and pat her child's head to stop tears. Sakura didn't know what kind of face she had on but Itachi suddenly leaned over to kiss her.
"What was that for?" she inquired. Smiling mysteriously, he guided them back to their walk without explaining anything else.
They wandered the city for a long time. Without a specific destination, they found themselves weaving in and out of the tiny shops no one ever took notice of. They ended the day with a paper bag full of still-hot steamed buns and a few colorful mugs they had found in a pawn shop. And as usual, they walked back to the apartment ("Our apartment," Itachi always emphasized with a smirk.) to have dinner. As they stood side by side chopping cucumbers for a salad, Sakura suddenly turned to look at him
"Do you think we're a boring couple?" Sakura queried. Itachi eyed the knife held loosely in her hand.
"If I give you the wrong answer, will you stab me?" he responded gravely. Sakura fixed him with a pointed look.
"Why? Are you bored?" Itachi asked.
"Then we're not boring," he declared so easily that she almost felt stupid for having asked the question at all. Mollified, Sakura turned back to peeling the vegetables.
The next day at school, Ino and Hinata sat recounting their romantic Valentine's Day dates. Shikamaru, surprisingly, had thought to take Ino to a nice Italian restaurant while Naruto and Hinata had gone to the movies together. Sakura almost hesitated to share her story. But when she listed off the things she had done, Ino and Hinata suddenly became very quiet.
"That sounds…" Ino began as she looked over at Hinata.
"Really comfortable," Hinata finished for her. Sakura raised her eyebrows at them.
"You guys have such a low-pressure relationship. I'm jealous. It's like you're soul mates or something," Ino added, wrinkling her nose in exaggerated disgust. Flashing an evil grin, Sakura snatched up the last of Ino's favorite cherry tomatoes.
"YOU TRAITOR!" Ino shouted as she jabbed at Sakura's sides with her chopsticks and Hinata laughed at her friends' antics.
The rest of February passed in a busy array of paperwork and applications and scholarships. Sakura met with one of the administrators at Konoha University to explain that she wanted to go abroad her freshman year. She half-expected some sort of red tape to hold her back. Surprisingly, her choice wasn't an uncommon one and the friendly older woman had helped her through the process. With all the letters and signatures sent off in the mail, there wasn't much left to do but relax.
The only thing that had really changed was her work at school. Seniors were exempted from final exams and attendance wasn't really even mandatory at this part. Still, Sakura went to deal with tying up loose ends for the student council. She occasionally saw her friends as they popped in and out for clubs or just to visit her as she worked. Ino showed up on more than one occasion with a roll cake and cartons of strawberry milk to keep Sakura company as she worked. Sakura didn't say anything but she knew it was because Ino was feeling some guilt over leaving her with all the class representative work the year before.
And for the first time in such a long time, Sakura had time to really dance.
She spun across the polished wood floors and threw herself into the music. Sometimes the world twirled sideways as she moved so quickly. And sometimes it felt like the ground was moving so fast underneath her soles that it might go on spinning without her. But as long as there was a beat to cling to, she was never completely lost.
There were no performances to get ready for. There was no real choreography to learn. Most of her hours went by letting her body flow to whatever new songs were on the radio that day. Sometimes she worked out routines with Kisame or Itachi since Deidara and Sasori were completely consumed with trying to finish their work for the show next month. She took a few days to learn how to do the foxtrot with Itachi. Kisame roared with laughter as he took videos and uploaded them to the internet.
March was coming.
Sometimes Sakura reminded herself of this and she almost felt sick to her stomach with the anxiety of it all.
In a rare moment when everyone was together, Kisame brought up the topic.
"Kitten's graduating soon," Kisame suddenly remarked.
"Don't remind me. It makes me feel so old, yeah," grumbled Deidara.
"What'll we even do when you're gone, Sakura-chan? I can't even remember what we did before you," sighed Kisame in an ancient voice.
"Probably wallow in despair," Sasori responded.
Someone should have come up with a witty comeback. But it was too real so they all regarded each other and then let out a unanimous sigh. Deidara fell over sideways to let his head rest in Sakura's lap. And for once, nobody smacked him or called him names.
At the end of February, Sakura sat inside an unfamiliar coffee shop with her phone held in her right hand. She had suddenly gotten a text from Sasori the night before. He had asked her to meet him here in the morning so she had obliged. And because she was impossibly punctual, she had showed up 10 minutes early. That wasn't much of a problem, though. Sasori showed up five minutes early. While Sasori ordered their drinks, Sakura looked around for a nice place to sit and talk. But Sasori took her by the elbow and strolled outside into the cool morning.
"It's cold," Sakura grumped out, snuggling deeper into her thick blue scarf.
"You like the cold," responded Sasori. She bumped her elbow into his side in response.
"Your drink," said Sasori after a minute of walking. Sakura held out her hands, eagerly anticipating the warmth of a hot drink to warm her fingertips. Instead a yelp left her when he slipped the cold plastic into her waiting palms.
"Saso-kun, why'd you get me ice coffee? It's freezing out here!" laughed Sakura. She pulled her sleeves down to cover her hands before gripping her drink again.
"But you always get ice coffee," replied Sasori.
"During the summer, maybe," Sakura pointed out. And she watched as his gold eyes widened. She could see the information clicking together in his brain before he let out a short "Oh". Still, she was grateful for the drink and sipped at it as they continued down the sidewalk.
"So…What's going on? Why would the busy Sasori-sama grace me with his presence?" teased Sakura after a minute. Sasori turned his head to look her as he took a slurp of his iced coffee.
"Human stuff. I'm giving you a talk," was his simple response.
"A talk? We talk all the time," she reminded him. Granted, most of their conversation was about what kinds of foods they liked and insults about Deidara and Kisame. But sometimes they would have real talks too. Like heart-to-heart talks that ended up with her realizing just how thoroughly Sasori understood people. It was as if because he didn't speak as much, he listened and watched twice as well.
"Sakura-chan," Sasori said in as stern a tone as a Sasori could muster.
"Fine," Sakura relented. Their pace slowed to as they began crossing a large bridge. Sasori's eyes were drawn to the gurgling river underneath so Sakura stopped walking to let him watch. His head tilted slightly to one side like it always did when he was thinking very hard. Leaning her forearms against the metal railing, Sakura looked Sasori over.
Sasori was a static person so he had remained relatively unchanged since she had first met him a year ago. He had let some of his earholes close up leaving him with just three piercings in each ear. And he had taken to letting his hair grow out a little bit. Whenever his bangs got into his eyes, he would clip them back and go on with his work. And maybe he had started eating even more lollipops than usual. As she thought this, Sasori pulled a candy out of the pocket of his jacket and began peeling the wrapper.
"Why're you so obsessed with candy?" Sakura asked as he popped the lollipop into his mouth.
"They helped me quit smoking," he said. Sakura frowned down at her coffee.
"In high school. I quit because it made my teeth yellow," explained Sasori as serenely as usual.
"Oh," Sakura simply added. Another long moment passed before Sasori took a deep breath and then leaned on the railing next to her. He rolled his weight onto his left leg, scuffing at the ground with his right foot as he gathered his words.
"I've watched you grow into a person," he finally declared.
"That's weird to say. I was always a person," Sakura quipped. When she met his stare, she realized that he was being completely serious.
"Not you. You were someone. But not you," corrected Sasori. He shook his coffee a little and the ice rattled around inside the clear plastic cup.
"You mean I wasn't 'My-chan' yet?" she laughed. Shaking her head, she took another sip of cool coffee. The sweetness almost hurt her teeth.
"Basically," he conceded. It wasn't quite what he meant but close enough.
"Saso-kun, do you like me?" Sakura suddenly demanded. Well, her words were sudden but the thought wasn't. It had always been a nagging concern in the back of her mind that she couldn't quite ignore.
"Of course," said Sasori as he sounded almost a little offended.
"No, I mean 'like'. As in how a man likes a woman."
It took him a couple seconds to answer this time.
"I could. But I don't," he firmly stated. Sakura stared at him with a blank expression.
"It doesn't matter," Sasori sighed.
"What do you mean it doesn't matter?" she demanded. Lips puckering around her straw, she glowered at him. He shifted his weight to his other foot. His answering shrug earned him the bump of her hip against the side of his right leg.
"It does because I want to know. What do you mean?" Sakura insisted with such a fierce frown that Sasori caved in.
"Have you ever loved someone so deeply that you would give up anything for them? Have you ever cared about someone enough that their happiness and their success can mean more to you than your own accomplishments?" Sakura felt a lump forming in the back of her throat at Sasori's words. She began to fiercely regret even bringing up the subject. She knew that if she heard a confession from Sasori right now that she would probably fling her coffee into the river and run off blushing and screaming. She was a lot like her father in that she had no idea how to deal with even her own emotions.
"It's this feeling of sincerely wanting the very best of the best for them. But not being interested in intimacy with them whatsoever," added Sasori.
"Huh?" she blurted out.
"I definitely love you, Sakura. You're very important to me and I'll always be thinking about you. But I have absolutely zero romantic interest in you," Sasori said in his signature flat tone. As her heart rate returned to normal, Sakura let out a deep sigh of relief.
"No romantic interest? Whatsoever?"
"Not at all," he confirmed with a sage nod. Sakura's face scrunched up as she thought back to all the times he had made Itachi blanch.
"Then what about all the jokes about going to Fiji or marrying me?" she inquired.
"Because it's fun to tease Itachi," was his honest reply. Gulping down another mouthful of coffee, Sakura slowly shook her head.
"Is that too cruel? I'm sorry," Sasori stated.
"No you're not," she giggled as she remembered Itachi's stony expression each time Sasori threw out one of his usual threats to whisk her off to a romantic country of sparkling beaches and sunset walks along the sand.
"You're right. I'm not sorry at all," he agreed, slowly bobbing his head.
"You're horrible, Saso-kun," Sakura grumbled mostly under her breath. They stood in amicable quiet there for a while, just listening to the rush of passing water for a long time before either of them made any noise again. This time, it was Sasori who broke the silence.
"Why? Would you prefer that I was in love with you? I guess I could pretend to be if that's what you need," Sasori offered. In response, Sakura furiously shook her head.
"What is this, some badly written daytime drama? No thank you. One is more than enough for me to handle," she huffed.
"I could reveal that you and I are secretly half-siblings halfway through the series," Sasori tacked on, seriously considering all the clichéd plot twists beaten to death by the media.
"Saso-kun," Sakura groaned.
"Or I could reveal that Itachi's father and mine had some serious grudge and that I'm determined to carry on his revenge for him?" he suggested too.
"Stop being weird, Saso-kun!" Sakura scolded as she shoved into his side again. Sasori glanced down at her for a moment before he put his arm around her in a one-armed hug.
"No," he flatly said. Even without looking at him, Sakura knew he would be smiling just the tiniest bit.
There was just one other notable event in the month of February. Besides the jokes and the laughter and the warm swath of happiness Sakura had wrapped herself in, there was one thing that shook her deeply. Almost to the core.
As she contacted her father and his family in America, she discovered that Jennifer seemed to like her so much- maybe even more than she liked her own husband. If Sakura called, Ryuu would maybe get in a few minutes before the phone was torn away and Jennifer burst in like a ray of sunshine. She was fascinated by every aspect of Sakura's life. She laughed exuberantly when she heard about the amusing stories and huffed with real anger when Sakura recounted the bad. Jennifer sighed like a fresh-faced schoolgirl whenever Sakura brought up Itachi too.
It seemed almost impossible that such a stepmother could exist.
She was so perfect that she broke Sakura's heart.
Almost at the end of February, Sakura and Itachi came home after a long afternoon of dance and then dinner with Kisame. As Itachi sorted through the letters they had picked up from their box downstairs, Sakura checked her phone for new emails. Unsurprisingly, there was a new message from her father.
"Dad wants to know if I have any food allergies," Sakura read out loud. When she passed by Itachi, he nudged her arm with something and she took it without looking. Only after she finished typing out a response did Sakura finally notice that it was a thick white envelope sent from America. The return address confirmed that it was from her father's house. Face puckering with confusion, Sakura held the letter out to Itachi who looked equally perplexed.
"I wonder if it's more paperwork," she mused as she opened up the envelope and pulled out its contents. There was some sort of handwritten letter and from the slightly awkward strokes, she knew that it was from Jennifer and not her father. There were some photos of Yuki and some of the three together doing things like walking in the park or playing at home. At the very bottom of the pile, there was another smaller envelope made of lighter paper.
"What's that?" inquired Itachi. He glanced at it for a moment before moving away to take off his coat and hang it on the rack. When Sakura didn't answer, he looked at her again.
"Sakura, what's wrong?" he demanded, slipping his arms around her. She didn't understand his concern until he reached up to touch her cheek. Tears glistened on the tips of his fingers that she almost didn't understand as hers until she felt her eyes stinging. Sniffing, she tried to wipe her face dry with her sleeve.
"Oh, just…an ultrasound. Look," Sakura cheerfully said, holding it up for him to see. Jennifer had placed a post-it on top with the words 'It's not a girl. It's a boy!' written on it. Itachi stared at it for a long time before his gaze focused back on her.
"It's alright to be upset, Sakura," he began in a gentle tone that stung at her already throbbing heart. She shook her head so hard that it began to hurt.
"No, no, no, I'm not sad. I'm just excited! I'm just so…" she trailed off when Itachi pressed his lips to her temple.
"I'm really sad… Why am I so sad?" Sakura whispered, staring into his eyes like she might find an answer there. But Itachi looked just as perplexed as she felt. She stood there wrapped up in his arms for quite some time before she could sort out the muddled twist of her emotions.
"Do you think they were as excited about me before I was born?" she suddenly inquired. It took Itachi a second to decipher her words. But then he was hugging her closer, tucking her under his chin where she fit so perfectly.
"I'm sure they couldn't wait to meet you," he assured her.
"Am I being ridiculously spoiled?"
He didn't have to hesitate this time.
"Perfectly, wonderfully spoiled," Itachi responded as he let her cry like a little girl.
So when Sakura sent an email to Jennifer later that evening, she thanked her for the wonderful photos and congratulated her on having another son.
Because that was what adults did: they smiled through the pain so the world could continue spinning.
I'm a little sorry that this chapter did end on such a sad note. And I'm also a little sorry that it's taken me so long to get this stupid chapter up. Thanks to everyone still sticking around to deal with my nonsense.
Be sure to leave a review if you liked this chapter! There's only one left so here's basically your last chance to make your opinions known!