Grass Country – approx. thirteen months ago
"Saké," she said and flopped down like a limp bird on one of the rickety chairs that were lined up along the bar counter. The barkeeper, an overweight man with feathery hair and a beard as voluminous as his stomach, gave her a look that made her want to crack his face open.
"Ya sure, missy?"
Ichiro was dead, dishonorably beheaded with his back to his opponent, and in a day or two Sakura was the one who would have to step forward and pass on that bit of information to the Hokage. Her first official mission as jonin and she was bringing death home with her. Sakura knew that she had picked the right place to drink away her worries; a seedy, rundown and isolated local bar. It would be okay.
"Saké," she said again and stressed the word. The barkeeper considered her for a minute and saw how her shoulders sagged and her head hung low. Then he reached out for a black bottle below the bar. The drink was poured, emptied and refilled.
"Somethin' eating ya up?" the large man asked.
"No," Sakura answered and threw the man a look. He backed off and went to service the other end of the bar. Naruto would have hugged her. Sai would have patted her shoulder, and told her that it was statistically impossible for all individuals in their profession to live beyond thirty. Kakashi wouldn't have done much, but he would have been ready to lend her a few comforting words if needed. Tsunade would have told her to go fetch her nuts from the place where she had dropped them. Tough loving was her forte. And what was Sakura doing? Being a pathetic, sniveling girl. She had no nuts.
"I'm excused this time," she said to herself. Until morning, she was excused. She hadn't known Ichiro prior to their mission together. He had been a qualified substitute for her permanent teammates while they had been out philandering about or whatever else they had been doing outside the village. But, unlike Sakura herself, someone else had known Ichiro as more than just a face and a name. That someone's world was gonna crash when Sakura stepped through the Konoha gates. Sometimes she thought that she would be better off doing what she did if she swapped gender. The statistics all said it. Women retired early and they were less likely to accept high class missions. Sakura had broken the stereotype all her life, but sometimes the pressure of her life philosophy grew too hard. She wasn't as strong as Tsunade, but she was stronger than Ino and Hinata.
"Anythin' else, sir?" the barkeeper said to Sakura's left. He was speaking to another customer.
Sakura looked to her left. She nearly took a giant bite out of her glass when she recognized the face of the man on the stool next to her. He wasn't wearing his signature red and black coat and he had escaped her notice until now. Her tongue turned into a fat and juicy mushroom, and her face froze up. Uchiha Itachi, sans cloak and hat, was sitting next to her. A sociopathic criminal and the man who had been the recurring monster of her nightmares as a kid sat in the seat next to hers. Her brain immediately went through various scenarios of chopping up Uchiha Itachi's spine or his face.
"I would not cause a commotion if I were in your situation," Itachi said, his voice so strangely quiet and soft that it made her think of Neji and Hinata. Sakura prepared to slide off her chair and head for the exit, screw subtlety six days to Sunday, but Itachi's voice alone stopped her.
"I don't intend to harm you," the Uchiha said with his black stare fastened to a spot on the wall behind the grimy counter. Not on her, she noted, and for that she took the man on his word. He would fight back if she started a fight, but he wouldn't start a fight himself.
"I find that hard to believe," she said. It was hard to sit still when every bone in your body tingled with adrenaline. There was a twitch of muscles near the corner of Itachi's mouth, but Sakura wasn't going to stick around long enough to see what that would develop into. When she slid off her chair this time, there was no voice dragging her back onto it. In the mission report she delivered to Tsunade's office five days later, Uchiha Itachi was not mentioned in any part of it. As if by coincidence, neither was Sakura's tottering walk back home from an inn she didn't remember having checked into. Ichiro's funeral was held one week after her return to the village and Sakura didn't attend.
Fire Country – present day
Blonde hair colored the bottom of her bathtub a moldy yellow. The wet and spongy mass clogged the drain like fungus. Sakura's bathtub had grown fur overnight. She returned home from a fourteen hour shift at the hospital and a pet zoo had moved into her bathroom.
"Ino. Get your ass in here!"
"Try not to break the decibel levels for my sake, Sakura," Ino's voice resonated throughout the apartment.
"All right, all right. Hold on a sec."
"I'm here, already! You're so easy to piss off lately," Ino said from the open doorway where faded blue paint fell off the frame in tiny flakes. Back when Tsunade had announced that their jonin test results would be delayed due to an unexpected ambush at an outpost outside the village, Sakura and Ino had spent hours scraping off the paint with their fingernails. They had put their anxiety to good use, but they hadn't repainted the door afterwards. Now it looked like they had locked a stray dog inside the bathroom with no food or water for a week.
"You look awful," Ino said. "Did a patient die on you?"
"There's a yellow furball in my bathtub," Sakura said.
"Your furball," Sakura said and Ino bent down to pick up the soaked blob of hair.
"Shikamaru was relocated off intensive today," Sakura said and watched Ino dump the hair into the toilet bin with a satisfying plop. "He can accept visitors now."
"I ain't visiting him," Ino said. "He put himself there without my help. He can get out of there without my help too."
Sakura stepped around Ino where the other woman leaned up against the sink with the small of her back. They cleaned the apartment. Their schedules made it hard, but they did. Still, more often than not, the bathroom tended to slip their notice. Both of them preferred to get their hands dirty from killing and not from scrubbing the toilet clean.
"You cheated on him weeks before he cheated on you," Sakura said. "You both messed up on this one. Admit it and reconcile. I'm getting sick of hiding behind food stalls when I see him on the street."
"I never told you to do that."
"Not out loud," Sakura said and opened the cabinet beneath the sink. She pulled out a freshly laundered towel. It was the same navy blue color that dominated the couch pillows in the living room. Color coordination was Ino's patented obsessive compulsive disorder. Sakura had learned early on to let Ino do the shopping after one incident where she had returned home beige curtains and Ino had nearly gutted her. The salesman at the store had recommended the beige color and claimed that it was softer than eggshell and meshed with a bigger variety of colors than eggshell did, but of course Ino knew better than the man who was educated to know best.
"Gonna use that towel or can I shove it down your throat?" Ino asked.
"Gonna use it. Besides, I don't remember you and Shikamaru going exclusive," Sakura told Ino. "Last thing I heard you were barely past the eye-flickering phase, so how could either of you cheat on the other if there was no relationship to start with?"
"The what phase?" Ino asked.
"Just ask the guy to be your boyfriend."
"Boyfriend," Ino said. "You make it sound so lovey-dovey. We fuck. That's what there is to it."
"Past tense," Sakura reminded her blonde friend. "You used to fuck, remember? Now get out, so I can shower."
She had the day off tomorrow. Thank God, she had the day off tomorrow.
"Did you know that condoms were originally made of animal intestines?"
There was no God. She had the day off, but there was no God. Sakura took her eyes off the eagle that was circling the air above training ground three where Konohamaru and his genin teammates were sweating bullets practicing together with their sensei for the upcoming chunin exam.
"Sex Ed 101?" she asked Sai and spared him an uninterested glance.
He shook his head. "Health and Sex: The Natural Symbiosis."
"Really," she said. Was there a bookstore somewhere dedicated to that sort of shitty reading material? There probably was. Naruto had suggested that the three of them should stop by and watch Konohamaru's training session. They all had the day off, and it would give Konohamaru a major ego boost. Sakura had been sorely tempted to point out that the last thing the boy needed was a major ego anything, but her schedule had been disappointingly empty before Naruto had showed up. She wasn't used to days off. None of them were.
"Did you know that men who watch porn produce a greater amount of sperm?" Naruto asked.
"I haven't come across any passages in my books that have claimed such," Sai said out loud. He didn't take his eyes off the sketchpad in his lap, but he scrunched his brow in a way that was extremely expressive for him.
"Your collection sucks," Naruto said and picked up a small pebble from the ground. He threw it aimlessly in the direction of the paler boy. It missed, horribly, and hit the gnarly surface of the tree root Sai sat perched upon. Sitting on the root, he was elevated above the ground with one leg dangling back and forth in empty air and the other folded up beneath his body. Sakura would have laughed if Naruto's miss hadn't been intentional.
"Of course it sucks when Kakashi-sensei is responsible for over half of it," Sakura said and defended Sai's tacky reading material for God knows what reason. Naruto sent Sakura a sly look There was a break in the conversation; a silence in which the sound of Sai's pen sweeping over the page was only heard. Then Sakura broke the silence.
"Did you know that in most recorded cases of penile fracture the woman was the one who was on top?"
Naruto shot her a baffled look. "Pencil what?"
"Your dick snaps in half," she said and slipped from medic-mode into man-mode. Naruto blanched and Sai looked up from his sketchpad.
"That is not possible," he said.
"No," Sakura agreed. "But I bet you that I can be the first person ever to make it possible if you don't stop bringing up these conversations in public."
Sakura looked back at the center of the training ground just in time to see Konohamaru tackle the petite brunette of his team to the ground. Sakura could easily recall how she had constantly strived for Kakashi's approval as a genin and later chunin. Now, as she had his approval for good, she had no one else to impress but herself. It was disappointing in a way. You had to find your motivation elsewhere, and you had to be in charge of it yourself. Sasuke, the Uchiha prodigy himself, fit the example perfectly.
"Don't do that," Naruto said and brought Sakura back from her musings.
"Don't do what?" she asked.
"Naruto," Sai stepped in. "The boy is calling out for your attention. You might want to go to him."
Sakura blocked out Naruto's response and Konohamaru's insistent yelling across the field. Her attention was on Sai. Perhaps Sai was more integrated in their lives than what she had previously given him credit for. Perhaps he had heard the silent conversation between her and Naruto, too?
"You get a look in your eyes when you think about him," Sai said. "Naruto gets the same look. It's faraway. Pensive. You don't like speaking about it, but you think a lot about it."
"Thanks," she said. Sai stared at her for a long time.
"You pick your own destiny. Am I not right?" he asked.
"Ask me that later," she said with a yawn. "When it's not nine in the morning."
"What difference does the time of the day make?"
"What are you drawing?" she changed the subject and spared Naruto a look when he got up and took off in a run towards Konohamaru and his team. He had stayed to hear the conversation between her and Sai, she realized.
"It's part of a concept I am working on," Sai said.
"What's the concept?"
"Color and light."
Give her a tree and she could beatit into splinters with one precise hit. Give her a concept named color and she wouldn't know what to do with it. There was a change in the air, almost as if the air rolled in on itself, and then Neji popped up out of nowhere in front of her and Sai. When anybody popped up out of nowhere, it was never a good sign. Sakura had long ago become too jaded to think otherwise.
"Neji," she greeted him.
"The Hokage wishes to see you and Naruto," he said. His eyes scouted the area and found Naruto. Naruto noticed him around the same time, and the blond turned around to say his goodbye to Konohamaru and his team. Slowly, Sakura got up from her position on the ground and sent Sai a wary glance to see his reaction to being excluded. As she should have known, there was none. He didn't see it as exclusion. He saw it as a fact. Neji waited until Naruto had reached the group, before he gave out more information. The usual grin on Naruto's tanned face had faded away the moment he had come close enough to pick up on the tense atmosphere.
"Uchiha Itachi has returned," Neji said in a tone that didn't fit the words. Sakura felt all blood in her body rush south. Next to her Naruto stood ramrod straight. There really was no God.
A/N: Edited November 7, 2013