Itachi stood in the hallway of his home, staring at a photo on the wall. When he'd arrived home, late the night before, he hadn't realised it was still there. Looking at the picture threatened to disturb his emotional balance but he couldn't bring himself to walk away. Involuntarily, his hand rose to rest against the frame, next to the smiling face of a beautiful young woman. He closed his eyes as a pain grew in his chest.
Taking a deep breath, he steadied himself.
He'd managed to halt his hyperventilating when the phone rang downstairs. The old familiar sound threatened to overwhelm him with nostalgia once more, but with a shake of his head, he brought himself back to the present.
He was going to see Sasuke today. He needed his head in the right place if he was going to help his brother.
The phone was answered by Kisame, who had spent the night on the floor in the living room. This was because Itachi's house had no king-sized bed and the living room had the plushest carpet.
"Sir. He hasn't come downstairs yet, but since I've answered the phone, you know we've returned to the city."
"Obviously, I am aware of that. Why have you not contacted me earlier?"
Kisame pulled a face at the imperious tone of his employer. He knew that excuses were frowned upon, but in cases involving Itachi, he preferred to think of them as reasons.
"The cabin is out of range for cellular phones, sir, and he'd disabled all communication devices before I arrived. I spent the last month rebuilding the fax machine!"
He took a breath before continuing. "And I would have called when we arrived, sir, but I'd hate to disturb you while you're sleeping."
"Enough, Kisame. You've wasted enough time. I wish to speak to him."
Kisame grimaced as he turned. If his hearing was correct, Itachi had just left the building.
"Good morning, Karin"
"Morning." Karin replied as she took her seat behind the desk in the reception of Zenkan International, the premier architectural firm of the region. "All ready for another tedious day of keyboard bashing and phone answering?"
Hinata smiled uncertainly as her red-headed co-worker set up her side of the desk for the day.
"I guess." She replied softly, picking up her headset. "Are you alright?"
Karin looked up from her computer screen, "It's nothing." She waved dismissively, "Just my terribly lacking love life. I heard even Sasuke's got himself a girlfriend."
"Oh, yes." Hinata shuffled through a sheaf of papers, hoping to end the conversation. It was well known that Karin had been carrying a fervently burning torch for Sasuke since she'd started with the firm. "That's true."
"Oh, what awful twist of fate is this!" Karin spouted theatrically, "I shall be forced to don my mourning garb, for my love has been torn from me!"
Hinata couldn't help but giggle. Karin grinned at her.
"Were you expecting a different reaction?"
"I know there are rumours about me, Hinata." Karin stated, turning back to her computer. "But Sasuke isn't the only good looking guy around."
"Yes." Hinata replied softly, looking at her own computer screen. She looked up when she heard a chuckle.
"So, how's your love life going?" Karin asked with a devious smirk, "Making any progress with our dim-witted wonder?"
"Naruto is not dim-witted!" Hinata bit back, trying to fight, and failing dismally, the blush that spread across her face.
"Is that so?" Karin asked sardonically.
Hinata turned away in a huff as the phone rang.
"Reception, this is Hinata."
"Hey Hinata, its Naruto."
Hinata gulped, glancing at Karin out of the corner of her eye and hoping that her co-worker hadn't realised who had called.
"Are you there?"
"Y-yes." Hinata cursed herself internally. Her stutter always gave her away. Sure enough Karin had looked over at her.
"Have you seen Suigetsu?"
"N-no, n-not t-today…" Hinata tried to calm herself.
Without warning, Karin switched the call to her headset.
"Good morning, Karin. I'm well. How are you?"
Karin rolled her eyes before answering, "What do you want, Naruto?"
"Just looking for Suigetsu."
"And you called us, why?" She asked, sending a smug look toward Hinata whose face had bloomed into a brilliant red, "You know he doesn't use the front entrance."
"Well, Karin. I heard an interesting story the other day."
Karin's face paled. Naruto was laughing down the phone line.
"If he's trapped under your desk again, we'll need you to let him out."
Her mouth dropped open, then moved voicelessly as her face turned red. She jerked backwards, pulling her headset out and cutting off the call. Eyes flashing, she turned on Hinata and managed to choke out, "I don't know what you see in him!"
Ignoring Hinata's questioning look, she plugged the cord back into the switchboard as another call came through.
"Reception, this is Karin."
"Surely you can go one day without him, Karin."
"Naruto, you are a pervert." Karin hissed.
"Well, you're not very nice either."
She hung up on him because she could tell he'd poked his tongue out at the phone.
"You can take the next call, Hinata." She stated after taking several deep breaths and switching her board to outside calls.
Five seconds later the phone rang again.
"Reception, this is Hinata."
"Hey Hinata. You're nicer than Karin. Can you take all my calls from now on?"
"Th-that's n-not really h-how it w-works, N-Naruto." Hinata stammered out, leaning away from Karin and watching the volatile woman with wide eyes as she reached forward.
Karin managed to grabbed Hinata's headset and removed it forcibly, "These are business lines, Naruto!"
"And I was discussing business with Hinata!" Naruto replied, a hint of a whine in his voice.
In answer, Karin hung up.
"If he rings again, we're making a complaint."
"Oh, I wouldn't want to cause him trouble." Hinata murmured, her blush growing darker.
"I would." Karin grinned evilly, "Besides he causes trouble by himself. It would do him good to be taken down a peg."
"Much like yourself." A third voice suggested and both women looked up to find Suigetsu crossing the foyer.
"Suigetsu, you're late." Karin growled through gritted teeth. "And why the hell are you coming in through here?"
"Well, I would tell you but, thankfully, I don't report to you, Karin." He replied cutting her off with a snarky grin before focusing on Hinata. "Does Naruto know you blush that pretty pink, Hinata?"
Hinata stilled as her blush deepened yet again and Karin opened her mouth to tell him off only to be cut off as he walked away.
"Don't even try, Karin. It'll clash with your hair."
Karin's mouth shut with an audible click and she fumed silently for the time it took to count to ten. Hinata attempted to return to her work but found it quite difficult to focus, especially with Karin sitting next to her.
"I hate him!"
"How unfortunate for him, then." A smooth voice brought both women back to their task: serving as the front for their company. The blush Hinata had been valiantly fighting won out once more.
"How nice to see you again, Hinata."
"Who is it?" Sasuke called, not looking up from the diagram in front of him.
"Sasuke, you have a visitor." Hinata answered, opening the door.
"Thank you. I won't be a moment."
The door closed quietly.
"Good morning, little brother."
Sasuke looked up; work forgotten at the sound of his brother's voice. He stood from his desk, coming around to greet him.
"Itachi! You came!" He exclaimed, offering his hand to shake.
Itachi looked down at it briefly before taking it in his. Before Sasuke could pull away, he was enveloped in a tight embrace.
"Of course I came, Sasuke. I will always help you." Itachi replied as he released him. He poked his brother's forehead and Sasuke batted his hand away.
"I wasn't sure if that fax went through." He said, stepping back. "I'd already sent you a few emails and it was too urgent to leave it for the post."
"Fortunately for you, Kisame fixed the fax machine."
"Mother mentioned that he'd gone to find you. Have you spoken to her yet?" Sasuke asked as he sat, indicating that Itachi take a seat, and carefully avoiding staring at his brother's long hair.
"No, not yet."
"When did you arrive?"
"Late last night." Itachi leaned back in his seat, scanning his brother's profile. "Tell me about this lady."
Sasuke sat up a little straighter, and Itachi could see he was preparing to report. It was a habit drilled into them both as children. He watched the process with interest.
Sasuke's eyes were moving, as if he was scanning a file in front of him. Itachi knew he was compiling information and searching for an appropriate starting point. As Sasuke continued, Itachi glanced around his office; attempting to reconcile the man in front of him with the brother he left behind over two years previously.
"She approached me in the park."
Itachi looked back at his brother in surprise. Being approached by women wasn't unusual but carrying on into a relationship with one of them was out of the ordinary.
Sasuke watched his brother's reaction as he continued in a measured tone. "She asked me to marry her."
His lips quirked when Itachi's eyes widened but Itachi recovered quickly, raising an eyebrow in question.
"It wasn't for the usual reason though."
"She found you "drop dead gorgeous" or she wanted your money and status as an Uchiha?" Itachi asked, regarding his brother closely.
"Well, she told me I was very attractive." Sasuke replied, settling back into his seat, "And she knew I was an Uchiha."
"Then what was unusual?"
"Sakura is the epitome of unusual." Sasuke said, amusement colouring his tone as he recalled various moments spent with his new girlfriend.
"Is that so?"
"She must be extraordinary, little brother. It's unlike you to react like this to a girl."
Sasuke chose to ignore that comment because pointing out Itachi's recent long-term absence would only sour the conversation.
"She asked me to marry her so that her children would have black hair." He stated boldly, before a thought struck him, "Did you know that Father was adopted?"
Itachi looked confused, "What? Yes. What do you mean about the hair? Is there something wrong with her mind?"
Favouring teasing his older brother over digging deeper into family secrets, Sasuke smirked, "Perhaps, but she had an interesting theory to back it up."
He paused, dragging out Itachi's confusion, "She stated that due to the overwhelming evidence, the gene for black hair must be dominant in our family, an idea that may not be entirely inaccurate."
"So, she's able to use scientific theory. That doesn't make her sane."
"I'd be inclined to agree with that, except the Konoha Hospital doesn't employ insane general surgeons."
Itachi considered that little nugget of information, "What's with her fixation?"
"With hair? Her natural colour is unusual." Sasuke smirked again as Itachi's brows rose. "I think it suits her, quite admirably, but I have to agree, it would be better if male offspring did not inherit it."
Itachi pulled a face at his brother's deliberate baiting and impatiently waved him on.
Itachi shot him a questioning glance before muttering to himself, "The world has changed more than I thought. I wonder it there's a time warp in the mountains…"
"What are you talking about?"
"When I left two years ago, pink was not a natural hair colour." Itachi answered forcefully, "So, I've either gone through a time warp or a wormhole or something, or you've been duped."
Sasuke grinned at his brother's reaction. It was a little weirder than he had expected but two years alone in the mountains could probably do that. "I'd say it's been a natural hair colour for at least twenty five years, possibly longer."
"Oh, come now, Sasuke. That can not be natural. What are you thinking?"
Sasuke shrugged, "I haven't verified it personally, but I don't doubt her. Why would a respectable woman, a doctor no less, dye her hair that colour and face the daily ridicule and censure that it evokes?"
Itachi considered this, "Perhaps she is lying about her occupation?"
"No, I've investigated that." Sasuke countered, "I have a very reliable source in the hospital."
Itachi smirked; he had a fair idea who that might be. Sasuke continued, ignoring his brother's knowing look.
"I also have character witnesses."
"Oh, really? And who might they be?"
"Naruto attended the same high school and Hinata is a close personal friend of hers."
"Hmmm, Naruto, we could disregard…"
"Agreed," Sasuke nodded, "But Hinata would never lie to me."
Itachi shook his head at that fact, "I'll never understand why she feels so comfortable around you, and so nervous around me. I'm clearly the friendlier of the two of us."
Sasuke snorted, "Didn't you know? Hinata was terrified of you when we were younger. Neji used to tell her horrible stories of how you stalked the streets at night with a blood soaked sword."
Itachi stared at him blankly, "I beg your pardon?"
"His stories were nothing compared to the ones she heard from me."
"You're such a sensitive friend, Sasuke." Itachi replied sardonically, filing that topic away for further investigation. "Back to the subject at hand, you say Naruto went to school with her?"
"What was his reaction to the news?"
Sasuke smirked, "He threatened bodily harm if I hurt her."
Itachi shared his brother's amusement, "Are they close?"
"A juvenile infatuation; he fancies himself in love with her." Sasuke waved it off. "She tells me she was never interested."
Both brothers were silent, with Sasuke hoping Itachi would expound on that point and Itachi waiting for Sasuke to continue. Itachi broke the silence.
"Your fax suggested a sense of urgency."
"I like her, Itachi."
"No, I really like her. She's unlike anyone I've ever encountered and…"
"And I've never done this before. I'm out of my depth. She's just so different; I'm out of my comfort zone. I don't know what to do, or what to talk about. I don't know where to take her or…"
"Exactly how serious are you about this woman?" Itachi asked sharply.
Sasuke sat back, startled by the abrupt interruption. His brows drew together as he frowned. "You think I'm rushing into this?"
Itachi didn't answer his question directly, choosing to continue his own quest for information.
"How long have you known her?"
"Less than a week."
"And how many times have you seen her?"
"Have you had intercourse?"
"No?" Itachi was surprised as much by the smug look on his brother's face, as he was by his answer.
"No, she doesn't want to have sex yet. I have agreed to wait."
Itachi was now frowning, as he evaluated this new piece of information. Factoring it into his understanding of the situation was playing havoc with his conclusions.
"I wanted your advice on interactions." Sasuke stated, after fortifying himself with a deep breath.
"Yes, your experience with these situations is woeful." Itachi muttered.
"I am aware of that!" Sasuke shot back, before turning away, unable to face his brother as he admitted, "I even listened to Naruto's advice, though I don't know that it was all that helpful."
He looked over to see Itachi's hand covering his face as he stared at his lap.
"Don't laugh at me, brother!"
"I'm sorry, Sasuke." Itachi managed to say without laughing, "What did he say?"
"Well, he prattled on about what he perceives as my faults for a bit then told me it was important to talk to her about everything and treat her like an equal."
Itachi stilled, "He said that?"
"Yes, can you believe it?"
"No, I have underestimated him."
"Sasuke, those are important points to consider, especially when it concerns women in romantic relationships."
Sasuke shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He would never have expected his own brother to side with Naruto, and on romantic issues no less.
"Oh, Sasuke. You're more hopeless than I thought." Itachi murmured.
Sasuke shot him an annoyed look and Itachi regretted saying that out loud. The last thing he needed right now was to make his brother defensive.
"You said she's a doctor, correct?" He asked, leaning forward in his seat.
Sasuke nodded, "A surgeon."
"Having worked her way up to the position implies that she is intelligent, determined and independent. She would not be a surgeon without those qualities. I would say that puts her on an even par with your intellectual capabilities, if not ahead of you."
Itachi paused here, hoping that what he'd said was sinking in. He considered his own experiences, trying to decide what to say next.
"I know you've never been very vocal, Sasuke, but I think you'll find that communicating with anyone of equal or greater intelligence is mentally stimulating. In a romantic setting, it brings the relationship to higher levels of intimacy and companionship."
Worried that he may have overdone it a bit, Itachi fell silent. He could only hope his brother was willing to consider his advice. Just when the silence was stretching to that awkward somebody really needs to talk stage, Sasuke spoke.
"And a relationship without everyday communication will fall apart." He said quietly.
Itachi felt so proud of his brother right then. He restrained himself from moving but it took quite a bit of effort. He settled for changing the subject, if only slightly.
"Well, at least you don't have to court her."
Sasuke looked up, confused by the statement.
"She asked you to marry her, Sasuke. And she seems quite serious about it. She appears to be mentally sound and I'm sure your friends are good judges of character. Now, you must learn about her."
"I'd say she's a step ahead of you there, brother." Sasuke said wryly.
"Why is that?"
"She surprised me yesterday and bombarded me with questions. It was a 'learn every insignificant detail' session." Sasuke smiled in memory, "She answered all of her questions too, as well as mine."
There was a sharp glint in Itachi's eyes as he leaned forward once more, attempting to draw the information out of Sasuke mentally. It certainly sounded like an interesting conversation.
"I now know that her favourite colour is yellow, she prefers white chocolate and tulips over roses. She enjoys reading mysteries but dislikes soap operas. She likes red wine and gardening, collects comfortable chairs and attends recitals as often as possible. She particularly loves Aunt Sayuri's performances."
"She has good taste." Itachi agreed, being an avid fan of their aunt's musical abilities himself.
"That wasn't all. She dislikes cats, is allergic to dogs and is scared of horses."
Itachi tried and failed to hide a malicious grin, "And you answered all of her questions?"
"She left me little choice." Sasuke replied through gritted teeth. He knew exactly what his brother was thinking of.
"So, she knows that your favourite colour is purple, you like hibiscus and garish beach-themed shirts and are terminally afraid of snakes?"
"You know that shirt was a gag gift from Naruto." Sasuke fumed.
"And yet, I'm sure if we investigated your closet we'd find at least one there." Itachi laughed as Sasuke muttered darkly about Naruto and his persistence in buying the awful floral shirts.
"Relax, Sasuke. You have to laugh at yourself at some point. How does Sake react to your sullen silences?"
"It's Sakura." Sasuke corrected him bluntly before withdrawing again.
"Is that so?" Itachi asked, bemused at how quickly his brother had grown protective of the woman.
"I didn't ask for your ridicule." Sasuke bit out.
"Oh, then why did you ask me here?" Itachi asked, playfully, testing how far he could push before Sasuke stopped dancing around the issue.
"You know why. Stop teasing me, brother." He sulked, "Stop making this harder for me."
Itachi watched his brother sulk, retaining his amused smile all the while, as he thought about Sasuke's situation. His little brother was woefully prepared for a serious relationship, that much was obvious just from their conversation today. His issues with communication stemmed back from his shyness as a child, a trait that their mother had unfortunately never discouraged. Sasuke was a determined introvert; Itachi was a little surprised that he'd made so much headway with this girl by himself.
However, he knew his brother was intelligent. He had always been a quick learner and Itachi had every confidence that Sasuke would succeed here too. Especially since this woman, this Sakura, seemed to be patient and understanding. All Sasuke really needed was a little bit of time to sort himself out.
"Sasuke?" Itachi paused, waiting for his brother's full attention, "Do you still enjoy taking walks?"
"Yes." Sasuke replied, a little surprised by the question, but suddenly understanding where his brother was headed. "Yes, I do."
"Then I suggest you share this activity with her." Itachi continued, "You may spend time in her company in a socially acceptable fashion, and the changing surroundings will aid you in making conversation."
Sasuke sat back in his chair, thinking that advice over. It was so simple; it was right in front of him the whole time and he'd been blind to it.
"It's quite all right, Sasuke." Itachi responded, rising from his seat. "That's what I'm here for."
He stared down at his brother, momentarily seeing his face from two years previous, asking the same question, eyes filled with confusion and sadness. Itachi blinked and the ghost from his past dissipated.
"Yes, as you say, I really must see Mother." He reached across the desk and tapped Sasuke's forehead. "Don't forget to eat your lunch, little brother."
Sasuke batted his hand away in annoyance, and Itachi turned towards the door. His hand was reaching for the handle when Sasuke spoke again.
"You won't leave again, will you Itachi?"
He glanced back over his shoulder and shook his head, "No, Sasuke, I won't be leaving again."
The lift dinged and Hinata looked up as the doors opened, revealing two men who caused her uneasiness. Itachi stepped out first, with Naruto following close behind, explaining his tale exuberantly. Lowering her head, as she could already feel the heat of her blush, Hinata tried to avoid their attention.
It didn't work.
Karin glanced over from her seat, where she was busy with a phone call, only to be distracted by the situation in front of her. Itachi Uchiha was trying to catch Hinata's attention, Naruto was failing to retain Itachi's attention and Hinata was trying to ignore them both.
Swallowing her laughter, she turned away, asking the man on the phone to repeat his last sentence. Hinata shot her a sideways glance of annoyance, before realising that both men were now standing in front of her and silently waiting for her to look up.
"Oh, Itachi," She stammered, "I d-didn't see y-you there."
"I'm sure." Itachi replied with a warm smile.
Naruto looked between them in confusion.
"Hinata, I'd like to have a word with your cousin. Do you know where I can find him?"
"Oh, h-he'll b-be at w-work r-right n-now." Hinata replied, her stutter growing worse as her blush drained away. Embarrassment was swiftly being replaced by worry. She swallowed nervously, "W-what w-was it ab-bout?"
"Relax, Hinata. It's nothing too serious." Itachi continued smiling down at her, trying to set her at ease, "I just want to clear a few things up."
"I didn't know you guys knew each other." Naruto interrupted before Itachi could ask again.
"Oh, yes. We're old friends, aren't we, Hinata?" Itachi prompted.
Hinata felt dizzy as all the blood rushed back to her face.
"Yes, Itachi." She answered obediently.
Itachi leaned over and ruffled her hair affectionately. "It's okay, Hinata. It can wait."
He turned and shook Naruto's hand, smiled once more to Hinata and nodded in farewell to Karin, walking out just as she finished her phone call.
Naruto chuckled at Karin's frustration and Hinata turned away to hide her smile. She didn't want Karin to think she was laughing at her. Naruto's laugh always made her smile. It just grated on Karin's nerves.
"Naruto, take your gay happiness and sunshine act away from here." Karin ordered, directing him imperiously towards the lifts.
Naruto left, still chuckling.
Sasuke finished work a little later than usual that day. He had aimed at taking the time he'd spent talking to Itachi out of his lunch break, but his hunger had won out in the end. Then there had been an issue with the application for one of his projects and he'd been forced to redo the entire thing.
He didn't mind overly, though. He'd memorized Sakura's work schedule the day before and a glance at the clock said she would be arriving home just as he was leaving work. So, he headed over to her apartment to surprise her.
He stepped out of the lift onto her floor and stopped short. He could hear loud voices down the hallway leading to her apartment and as he walked closer, he saw that her door was ajar.