A/N: I don't abandon my stories. I may take (sometimes very) long breaks, but I don't abandon them. I write original fiction on the side and plan to become published and go professional eventually, but fanfiction will always have a place in my heart. This is where I grew up. I won't abandon it.
On another note, this chapter includes the scene that I used for inspiration for this fic's title. This is the scene between Sakura and Itachi. I hadn't written the scene when I came up with the title long ago, but I had a variation of the scene planned for the future. Now, eighteen chapters later and a couple of years(?), I finally arrive at that scene. So. Go me!
"My parents want you over for dinner," Sakura said and zipped up her dress. She brushed her fingers through her tangled hair and turned to look at Itachi. He lay sprawled on her bed, hair loose and the rest of him naked. He had his arms crossed behind his head and his legs likewise crossed by his ankles. A bright pink sheet was thrown haphazardly across his hips, but the rest of him was on display for Sakura to ogle and appreciate. And appreciate she did. Itachi's muscles were of the wiry and smooth sort, not the bulky and brawny sort, and his skin was a whole two shades paler than Neji's, yet not quite as pale as Sai's. Sakura found Itachi's scars the most intriguing part of his body. There were many of them, but they were neat and precise. It wasn't like Sai, who had jagged scars as large as Sakura's shin. Naruto, of course, had none, courtesy of the fox sealed inside him. Sakura herself had a couple from before she had been Tsunade's apprentice and thus yet had to learn the medic trade. She could heal them now, of course, but it was nice to have some memories from her childhood forever etched into her skin. There were a great many other childhood memories that she had forced herself to forget, after all. One of which had returned to Konoha very recently. And you couldn't forget scars. They were physical reminders.
"I had to tell them about the engagement," Sakura said and raised her eyes from Itachi's chest to his eyes. "I'm sorry."
"I'll come to the dinner," Itachi said and opened his eyes to lock gazes with Sakura. "It will solidify the engagement. Make it believable."
None of them wanted to point out that they would be lying straight to Sakura's parents' faces. It seemed redundant. They were lying straight to nearly everybody's faces. What difference did blood ties make?
"Right," Sakura said and her eyes diverted down to Itachi's chest again. "Speaking of that, we should get a ring."
Itachi sat up, the sheet pooling in his lap.
"You want a ring?" he asked and popped a joint in his shoulder. He looked cute. Sakura didn't want to think of Itachi as cute, but he looked cute. His hair was in mild disarray and while he didn't have an outright sleepy expression on his face, his eyes were squinty and smaller than usual.
"Ino mentioned it," Sakura said and looked away to hide her blush. Sakura didn't blush often, but Itachi had the ability to make her blush without trying. "It has to look real, right? Without an engagement ring, it smells fishy."
"You're not a material person," Itachi said. "It doesn't smell that fishy."
"I just figured I'd mention it. I thought Ino had a valid point," Sakura said and searched for her lip balm. She found it under the bed. Of all places. When she crouched down on the floor to get it, she was all too aware of her ass poking up into the air and Itachi's perfect vantage point to ogle it. When she finally caught the blasted lip balm and sat back up on her haunches, Itachi was looking at her with a bemused smile stretched across his lips.
"Oh, shut up," Sakura said and stood up, dusting off her knees for effect.
"Where are you off to?" Itachi asked and grabbed her wrist before she could step away from the bed.
"Training grounds. With Naruto and Sai," she said and tugged halfheartedly at his grip on her wrist. "You can show yourself out, right? I don't need to stay, do I?"
"I'm fine," Itachi said. His thumb grazed back and forth on the inside of her wrist. Sakura felt all sorts of tickles run up and down her spine.
"Stop that," she said. "I have to leave."
"Then you shouldn't have gotten down on all fours right under my nose," Itachi said.
"I didn't do that on purpose and you know it."
"It doesn't change the fact that you did it."
"Can we stop discussing my butt?"
"What else do you want to discuss?"
Sakura didn't have time to stop and censor herself. She said the first thing that came to mind.
"Why don't you want the public to know about your position as a double agent?"
Already before Itachi dropped her wrist, Sakura knew that she shouldn't have brought up the subject of Itachi's scapegoat fate yet again. But it was so hard not to. He had to understand that.
"We've talked about it before. I know. But you haven't given me an answer," she said. "And there is more at stake now than before. Won't you tell me? Please?"
Itachi looked down at the sheet pooled in his lap. His hair obscured his face. For a long moment, the air inside the room stood still. Sakura could hear her own heart beating in the silence. It was a harsh and unrelenting sound. She wasn't afraid that Itachi would suddenly rise up and attack her. She was afraid that he would get up and leave. And somehow the latter felt much more real than the former.
Finally Itachi raised his head and looked at Sakura.
"What do you see when you look in the mirror?" he asked. Sakura wet her lips.
Itachi nodded and scratched at a dry spot of skin on his forearm.
"I see a shadow of myself," he said, staring at his forearm. "I see a bad person, if you will. And as long as this holds true, I don't want the public to know the truth and what part I played in it."
"Why not?" Sakura asked. She didn't ask why he thought of himself as a bad person. That was obvious, after all. And they would work on that. The two of them would work on that. She would help Itachi reverse that perception of himself, but it would do her no good to tell him that she wanted to help. You didn't help a wrecked psyche by giving it a heads-up that you were about to help it. That was the basest of psychology.
"I don't want them to think of me any differently than how I think of myself," Itachi said and looked up from his arm. His face looked normal. Sakura was almost grateful. If there had been sorrow or regret on his face, she would have been at a loss.
"Do you really think that of yourself?" she asked instead.
"I had to," Itachi said. "How else do you think I played my part as a member of Akatsuki?"
"I was a double agent," Itachi said. "I worked undercover for years. I did horrible things in that time. How do you think I was able to do those things if I didn't think of myself as a-"
"Don't say it."
Itachi's lips twitched with a suppressed smile.
"As a monster," he finished.
"I told you not to say it," Sakura said and sat down on the bed next to him. She sighed and ran a hand across her downturned mouth. Itachi reached out and touched her elbow. She looked at him and let out another sigh.
"You had to," she said and looked him in the eye. "You had to think of yourself like that, you say?"
"Exactly," Sakura said and held his gaze. "Had. You had to. You don't have to anymore."
"It doesn't work like that, Sakura."
"What if your perception of yourself is supposed to change together with the public's perception?" Sakura said. "And not as a consequence of the public's changed perception. What about that?"
"I don't think that will work either," Itachi answered and Sakura was mildly surprised that he had even understood her murky question.
"But what about-"
"No, what about-"
"Stop saying my name!"
The room fell silent. It was as if Sakura had detonated a bomb inside of it. Itachi sat still and quiet next to her. It was the kind of stillness that could only be born from deadly concentration and outmost caution. If Sakura hadn't already dropped a bomb on the room, she certainly felt unhinged enough to do it at the smallest movement from Itachi next to her. He understood this and didn't move a muscle.
"Please," she said and clutched the edge of the mattress with tense hands. "Please stop saying my name."
Silence hovered for another couple of seconds. Then Itachi broke it.
"This is hard for you," he said. "I will-"
"I don't know what to think anymore," Sakura said with a quiet derisive laugh. "I don't know if you're real or if you're fake, or if you're lying to me or telling me the truth. I don't know. It's all a big clusterfuck of messy shit that I don't understand, and yet people keep coming to me for the answers. I try to give those answers, but half the time I have no idea what I'm giving advice on. And then there is you. I'm sharing my bed with you, night after night, pretending to be your fake fiancée, but I'm not even sure what's fake and what's not fake anymore. And then there's Madara and Sasuke and your clan. I don't want to see Sasuke, but I have to. And I haven't talked to Sai in weeks, so I have no idea how he is taking all of this. And I can't pin down that antidote for Madara's poison. It keeps slipping out of my grasp and I need it to save you-"
"Did anybody ever tell you that you can't carry the weight of the world on your shoulders?"
Sakura stopped and blinked with her mouth half agape.
"What?" she asked.
Itachi scooted forward on the bed and held up a slow hand to touch Sakura's temple.
"You can't carry the weight of the world on your shoulders," he said and tugged a lock of pink hair behind Sakura's ear. She stared at him, stared deep into the charcoal seas of his eyes, and felt a sense of calm and reason settle around her. It was different than Kakashi. Different than Naruto, even. She had rarely felt this sort of complete calmness in her life. The only comparable event she could think of was when had been ten years old and had burnt her hands on the hot stove. Her mom had taken her up in her lap and looked her in the eyes without saying a word. Sakura had promptly stopped crying.
"No," she said to Itachi, the image of her mom still flittering before her inner eye. "You're right. I can't. You're right. I'm sorry. I freaked out."
"No harm done," Itachi said.
"And I didn't mean what I said about the engagement," Sakura said. "Obviously, it's not real. We're helping each other out for personal gain."
"That we are," Itachi said and stood up from the bed, comfortable in his nudity like only a person who had had lovers before could be. Sakura checked behind her to see if the door to the bedroom was closed in case that Ino was home.
"Didn't you have somewhere to be by now?" Itachi asked and grabbed his shirt and pants from the floor. "Something about Naruto and Sai?"
"Yes," she said and fiddled with her hands in her lap. "I'm late, I think."
"Then perhaps you should hurry?"
"Or I could stay here," Sakura said. "I'm late, anyway. They probably think I got called in at the hospital."
Itachi pushed his head through the threadbare collar of his shirt. When his head emerged, messy and uncombed, he looked at Sakura sitting on the bed.
"Stay here and do what?" he asked and began to button up his pants.
"Oh, this and that," Sakura said and pulled her legs up onto the bed. At the movement, Itachi's hands stilled above the last button of his pants and his eyes focused on Sakura's bare legs on top of the pink cotton sheets. He let his hands drop to his sides and pulled his eyes up to Sakura's face.
"This and that, you say?"
"Maybe a little less of that?" Sakura said and scooted further up the bed. "And a little more of this?"
When Sakura met up with Naruto and Sai one hour later, she found Naruto hanging upside-down from a tree and Sai sitting cross-legged on the ground below the tree. Sai had his sketchpad open and Naruto chewed on a blade of grass while he tried to catch a glimpse of what Sai was drawing. Neither of the men looked up when Sakura arrived. Sakura sat down next to Sai and let the rays of the sun caress her face and body. Summer was Sakura's season. Summer and spring. Anything else was too windy, cold and soggy.
"Is it a bird?" Naruto asked Sai.
"No," Sai answered.
Sakura opened her eyes and craned her neck sideways to look at Sai's sketch.
"Is it a man?" she asked.
"No," Naruto answered for Sai. "I already asked him that."
"Hm," Sakura said and pursed her lips. "Is it a tree?"
"No," Sai answered. He touched the tip of his pencil to his sketch and swept it down and upwards with an admirable flourish that had Sakura and Naruto nodding in acknowledgement and approval of their friend's skills.
"Sasuke wants to stay in Konoha," Naruto said from where he still hung upside-down from the tree. He should have looked stupid, but Sakura was either too used to his antics by now, or he simply felt too comfortable in his own skin to look uncomfortable to others.
"You talked to him again?" Sakura asked with her eyes still trained on Sai's sketch.
"Yeah," Naruto said. "Did Itachi see him yet?"
"Yes," Sakura answered. "I'm not sure how well it went, to be honest. Can't help you much there."
"Have you seen Sasuke yet?" Sai asked Sakura and looked up from his sketch.
"No," she answered Sai and then turned towards Naruto. "Why does Sasuke want to stay in Konoha?"
"Dunno," Naruto said. "I don't think he even knows himself. Also, he keeps asking for you."
"Keeps?" Sakura asked. "You've talked to him twice."
"You can't stall it forever," Naruto said. Sai kept his head down in his sketchbook. Sakura watched the smooth flow of his pencil swooping across the page. It had a strange calming effect. Perhaps that was why Sai had taken up the hobby in the first place. Maybe Sakura herself needed a hobby. She could start to write books. Become the next Jiraiya. Or something.
"Sasuke doesn't know about you and Itachi's engagement," Naruto said. At this, Sai's hand stilled on top of the page. Sakura realized that she hadn't talked to Sai about the engagement yet.
"Why do you think I'm stalling my visit to him?" she asked Naruto. The sun no longer felt nice on her skin. It smothered her. She took a deep breath, her chest expanding and her lungs filling with air. Then she let it out, slow and easy.
"I heard of your engagement," Sai said to her. "The custom is to congratulate the happy couple."
"It's not a real engagement. You don't need to congratulate me," Sakura said and watched a lone, wayward ant travel up her ankle.
"I said the custom was to do it," Sai said. "Not that I was doing it."
"Hey," Sakura said and bumped him with her shoulder. Sai bumped her back, always mimicking and reciprocating gestures to make sure that he didn't mess up a social custom by accident.
"Why is the engagement not real?"
"I made a deal with him," Sakura said and picked the lone ant off her leg, dropping it back into the grass. "He will disclose the truth of the Uchiha massacre to me if I play his fiancée to get the council off his back. They want him to secure the Uchiha bloodline or something equally old-fashioned. They're forcing a marriage on him."
For a moment, Sakura wondered if Sai even knew about the Uchiha massacre. How isolated, how truly isolated, was the life of a Root agent? He would know of Sasuke, surely, but what about Itachi?
"Naruto told me about it," Sai said. "He told me why your friendship with Uchiha Itachi is controversial."
"He did, did he?" Sakura asked with a look up at Naruto still hanging from the tree.
"I also told Sai that Itachi was a double agent," Naruto said. "And that he shouldn't believe what the villagers all say about him."
"If I believed what the villagers say, I should believe that the Hokage is secretly a man and that Lee-san is gay for his teacher," Sai said.
Naruto and Sakura shared a look.
"Good point," Sakura said.
"That's my man," Naruto said and gave Sai an upside-down thumbs-up.
The three of them fell into a comfortable silence. Birds chirped around them and Sakura could hear the sweet lullaby of a nearby stream as splashes of water passed over rocks and sand. Insects buzzed in the air and a wobbly string of ants made their way across one of Sakura's sandals. A couple of them had traipsed up her ankle. She must have sat down close to one of their trails and now her foot obscured the trail and hindered the ants from going about their daily business. Sakura removed her foot and let the ants travel along unhindered once again.
"Okay," Naruto said suddenly and jumped down from the branch, landing squarely in front of Sakura. His face shone a healthy red from having hung upside-down for so long and sweat clung to the sides of his face.
"Why don't you ditch your jacket?" Sakura asked him.
"A little heat doesn't bother me," Naruto said, winking at her. "So, did we come here to train or to hang out?"
"You did a pretty good job of the latter," Sakura said with a look towards the tree.
"I'm done," Sai said and stood up. "Let's practice."
Barely had he finished talking before Sakura had charged at him. And if Sakura's punches were a little harder than normal and if Naruto reciprocated in kind, nobody commented on it. This was how shinobi worked off frustration and steam, after all. And Sai, caught in the middle of Sakura's and Naruto's combined frustration and steam, was wise enough not to ask exactly why his two teammates needed to punch so hard.