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Chapter Twenty: The Wake
Sasuke truly hadn't wanted to kill her, until she had opened her stupid mouth and attempted to tell him that lie about Itachi.
The depths to which she showed herself to be willing to sink to were disgusting. Sakura had already deceived him once during their encounter, and he would not be fooled again. And even after he had confronted her about it – about her audacity in daring to use Itachi in an attempt to trap him – his former teammate had kept maintaining that it was the truth, and begging him to cease his attack on her. It had irritated him. No, more than that, it had incensed him, and when he lifted his katana one last time, he had fully intended on going in for the killing strike. He had given her ample opportunity to escape, and she had repaid his mercy with the most atrocious attempt at emotional manipulation.
It would be no more difficult than killing a lamb up for slaughter. Sakura was weak, her chakra was sorely depleted, and her stamina had nearly exhausted itself.
It was only after Sasuke had lunged forward that he realized what a terrible mistake he had made. How often had he been taught not to underestimate his opponents? But, as had happened a few times before…his emotions got in the way. He had been blinded by his fury, by his desire for revenge. And by the time he felt the tendrils of ice from Sakura's paralysis ninjutsu snaking up his feet, ankles, and legs, with impossible speed, binding him in a grip stronger than iron, it was too late. In a second, the tendrils solidified into a massive, oversized ice crystal that encased him from head to toe, literally freezing him in place. He recognized this technique – it was a favorite of Suigetsu's. When I lock someone in this, there's no escaping, his teammate had bragged. You can't melt through it. You can't move a muscle. You can't even blink.
Sasuke had never given Suigetsu's boasts much thought, figuring that the former Mist-nin was just exaggerating, as usual. He had never thought he would be in a position to experience it for himself.
…But Suigetsu had been telling the truth. It was even worse than he had made it sound. Not only was he utterly paralyzed, but he could barely even breathe. A wave of intense claustrophobia hit Sasuke at once, making his head spin. Regardless of all of his attempts, he couldn't move. Not a single one of the nerves or muscles in his body was able to respond to his frantic commands. He hadn't experienced a feeling of helplessness on this magnitude in ten years, and it frightened him and enraged him all at once.
His view of the world outside his prison was clouded significantly by the ice. He could barely discern Sakura's figure – damn her, damn her, the thought of being defeated by somebody so weak and insignificant was more than he could bear – as she stood in front of him. She said something that he could hardly hear, her voice flat. Something about how she would send a team out here to retrieve him once all the fighting was done.
The words only made him struggle more, but to absolutely no avail. Sakura turned away, and in the next step, she staggered and almost fell. Even from the confines of the ninjutsu, Sasuke could tell that she was now even more weakened than she had been before. She had exhausted the last of her chakra on the technique that she had used on him. Good, he thought spitefully. You'll be no use in combat or as a medic in this state, let's see you help your pathetic little village now—
He wasn't even finished with that train of thought before his world turned upside down.
At first, Sasuke thought it was some kind of hallucination, brought on by emotional strain, chakra exertion, a further escalation of a gradual lapse in sanity, something along those lines. There had been times, in his most intense period of mourning, and even sometimes afterward, too, after Madara had told him the truth, that he had been outside, walking the streets of a town or standing in a crowded market, and he'd thought he had seen his brother standing amidst the crowd of people. He knew better, he should have known better, but he would always stop sharply and take a second or third look at the person. It was never Itachi, of course, and even though it was foolish and nonsensical on his part, Sasuke would always feel even more bereft in the few minutes afterward.
He ruled out the possibility of a hallucination fairly quickly, though. Then he thought that it was some kind of genjutsu, and he quickly dismissed that idea as well. And then he thought that it must have been a mistake; that it must be somebody else that had just materialized in front of Sakura. His vision was just failing him, or it was distorted by the ice.
Because there was no way – no possible way – that his brother could have actually materialized in front of him. Battered. Bleeding. Clutching a blood-soaked hand to a gaping wound in his chest. But looking at him, nevertheless, right in the eye, his expression almost one of relief.
But chakra doesn't lie, Sasuke realized faintly. His head was pounding. If it wasn't for the ice holding him in his position, he might have fallen to his knees in shock. Chakra never lies. He had spent so many years of his life obsessed with that chakra signature. Itachi's chakra signature had been the very first he had learned, besides his mother's, since both of them had spent so much time taking care of him. It had been a source of comfort and reassurance for years. Whenever he had sensed that familiar chakra approaching as a toddler and child, no matter where in the compound he was, he remembered running, or trying to run, to the gates of the compound, in order to meet Itachi as he returned from a mission.
Years later, that once-beloved chakra signature had become a source of fear and hatred. He had countless nightmares about how it had felt on that fateful night of the massacre – dark, hateful, suffocating. He had spent so long trying to hunt it down, in order to get his revenge. In any case, it was one as familiar to him as his own. It was unmistakable.
The implications of that fact hit Sasuke like a ton of bricks, with an intensity more shocking than the most violent physical assault he had ever faced during his life as a shinobi. Itachi was really alive. Which meant that Sakura had been telling the truth all along when she had been begging him to go find Madara with her, in order to back up his brother during the fight. He had refused and accused her of being a liar, and…
Sasuke couldn't look away from the blood that soaked Itachi's dark clothes and spilled over his hand, from the stab wound right above his heart, and his stomach turned over due to sheer horror. He redoubled his efforts to break free of the paralysis ninjutsu somehow, as Sakura rushed to his brother's side, her sharp cry of anguish clearly audible even through the ice. She supported Itachi's weight against her, prying his hand away from his chest to ascertain the damage, and the look on her face as she regarded the injury made Sasuke feel as though the ice surrounding him had crept underneath his skin and into his veins. Itachi was touching her face, trying to say something to her, but Sakura kept shaking her head, obviously distraught, as she lowered him to the ground.
Under normal circumstances, Sasuke wouldn't have been too concerned. He had heard that the once-useless little Sakura had grown up to be a powerful A-ranked kunoichi and one of the most skilled medic-nin in the world, as a result of her apprenticeship with the Fifth Hokage. Of course she would be capable of healing Itachi. Rumor had it that she was so talented she could bring people back from the brink of death, and from injuries even more severe than this.
But these weren't normal circumstances. Sakura's chakra had been spent. She had used the last of it fighting him, Sasuke knew, and the sense of horror he felt was growing ever stronger. He could sense that she had nothing left to give energy to the healing but her own life force…which she was already pouring into Itachi's body, heedless – or uncaring – of the consequences.
But the thing was, it might not be enough. He wasn't sure how these things worked. His brother had been gravely injured. Even if by some miracle he managed to survive… He had seen the way Itachi had embraced his former teammate, as well as Sakura's powerful emotional reaction to seeing Itachi so badly hurt. For some reason, his brother seemed to value Sakura. It would devastate him to wake up and realize that a person he cared about had knowingly sacrificed their life for his. And that was if whatever Sakura intended to do even worked. Sasuke could sense that she only had a few minutes left – not enough, he suspected – and that was a rough approximation. If she died before the healing was complete, Itachi would die as well. Both of them, right in front of his eyes. While he was powerless to do anything more than watch from the confines of his prison.
The thought was enough to snap what felt like the last vestige of sanity that he had left. Sasuke wanted to scream at the injustice; at his foolishness; at everything, until there was no breath left in his body. More than anything else, the desire to fall to his knees and sob was overwhelming. The idea of losing Itachi like this, after everything – before they had even got a chance to speak to one another again – was incomprehensible. His eyes stung, but the tears couldn't form. That was impossible. There was only one thing that he could do.
Sasuke began to fight, harder than he ever had in his life. These paralysis ninjutsu were notoriously hard to break – but he had defeated Orochimaru, one of the legendary Sannin and an S-ranked shinobi; he had even been able to hold his own against Itachi in combat. If he could do that, then he could manage this. He marshaled every bit of chakra he possessed, bringing it to the surface as he struggled to shatter the bonds that held him. The effort was tremendous, but after a long, agonizing minute, he could feel the prison of ice begin to weaken slightly. Not enough to break free, but enough to give him some hope. He threw yet more chakra into the fight, drawing from his deepest reserves, and gritting his teeth as he did so. The physical strain was crushing. He couldn't remember the last time he had expended this much sheer willpower and physical and mental effort in a fight. But there was no alternative. His time was running out. All of theirs was.
Sasuke's heart nearly stopped as, through the sweat that beaded on his forehead and ran down into his eyes, he saw Sakura collapse on top of his unconscious brother. The energy flowing from her hands to Itachi's still-critical wounds was getting weaker. The dread he felt threatened to choke him.
Come on, Sasuke thought desperately, redoubling his efforts yet again. His vision was clouded by pain and tears. Please. Please. He remembered his mother and father and the clan with agonizing vividness. They lay buried not far from here; Madara's corpse was probably nearby as well. He would not be able to survive burying his last living relative. It was uncharacteristic, but he threw a wild prayer to the sky. Give me your strength, all of you, please—
One more desperate surge of chakra, and the ice crystal shattered into a thousand tiny fragments, freeing him from his prison. Hardly able to breathe for gratitude, Sasuke stumbled forward, throwing aside his sword, and sunk to his knees beside Sakura and Itachi, his eyes already bleeding crimson with the light of the Sharingan. He took in the healing technique Sakura was using on the stab wound on Itachi's chest, copying it in an instant, before grabbing Sakura by the shoulder roughly, hauling her upright and pulling her away from Itachi before she could drain any more of her critically fragile life force. She fell against him, and her eyelids drifted open as she looked, bewildered, at the chakra-covered hands he placed on Itachi's chest to continue the healing.
"Shut up," Sasuke managed, under his breath. To his immediate and all-consuming relief, the copied healing technique worked perfectly. With his considerably stronger chakra reserves to power the effort, the gaping, mangled wound in Itachi's chest was slowly but surely repairing itself. A sound halfway between a laugh and a strangled sob escaped his throat. "I'm helping, see? I'm helping."
As if reassured, Sakura's eyelids fluttered shut again. She leaned against him heavily, one of her hands still clutching Itachi's motionless fingers, as she succumbed to unconsciousness once more. Sasuke spared her a glance that wasn't as dispassionate as it had been fifteen minutes ago, when they had first encountered one another. She had come very close to sacrificing her own life to save his brother. According to his best guess, he thought she would live – if she got medical attention, fast.
Sasuke steadily continued the healing until the stab wound had closed over, and only then did he allow himself to breathe a shaky sigh of relief. He stroked Itachi's injured face and blood-matted hair with tremulous hands. It looked like Madara had tried to gauge his left eye from its socket, and only narrowly missed. He had no idea how to heal a wound like that. He couldn't help but think that once it was healed, it might leave a scar similar to the one Kakashi had.
Kakashi…he was probably still in Konoha, trying to protect the village. The man was too formidable a shinobi to have been killed already. And thoughts of Kakashi immediately lead to thoughts of Naruto, and…
Am I making the right decision? Sasuke wondered briefly, and then his shoulders slumped, after another brief sigh. Itachi would think it was the honorable course of action.
He realized the magnitude of what he was about to do. The consequences were unsettling to behold. But really, he had no other choice.
Sasuke released the genjutsu that masked his chakra. With a sense of bitter amusement, he imagined Naruto and Kakashi and all the rest, at that very second, stopping whatever they were doing and tilting their faces to the sky, like dogs on a hunt. And then, just to make things very clear for them; to speed up this entire process…he lifted one fist into the air and shot a beacon of flame sixty feet high, letting it linger for a few moments. Even when he released the technique and brought his hand down, resting it on Itachi's forehead, he could feel the heat lingering in the air. It took him a while to realize the unsettled feeling in the pit of his stomach was apprehension at what he would soon be facing.
He bowed his head, trying to regain some semblance of calm. He kept holding on to Itachi and put his other arm around Sakura, supporting her. It was better that they immediately see him as nonthreatening; that would lessen his chances of being killed on sight. And Sasuke closed his eyes briefly, waiting for help to come.
For a long time, there was nothing except darkness.
She had the sense that there was something that she was supposed to do. Disjointed images flashed behind her eyelids, of Itachi's motionless body, lying prone on the blood-soaked grass. Sakura tried to stir, restless, and desperate to continue the healing, but she couldn't open her eyes or lift her hands. Despite her best efforts, she couldn't even move a single muscle. When she tried to call for help, no sound escaped her aching throat.
There was no choice but to remain still and mute, trapped in a vacuum inside her own body. It could have been hours, days, weeks, or months that she just lay there, before she heard the sound – the first sound she remembered hearing since the faint recollection of Itachi saying goodbye to her. The mere thought made Sakura's stomach clench up with dread, a feeling only enhanced by the steady, monotonous, mechanical-sounding beeping noise that seemed to be emanating from her own arm.
Don't open your eyes, she thought, somewhat irrationally. The memories of that horrible night were trickling back to her now – her evacuation of the civilians and her time tending to the severely injured, defending the hospital with the other jounin and taking down the snake summons, seeing Itachi again, fighting Sasuke, and then…
A shudder wracked her entire body. She was too afraid of what she would see – and what knowledge she would wake up to – if she opened her eyes now. She was a kunoichi, she was brave, but there were some possibilities so frightening that you couldn't face them head-on.
Sakura stayed still, marshaling her courage and strength for a few moments. Her eyelids felt heavy and leaden as she fought to open them, and keeping them from automatically drifting shut again was a struggle as well. She blinked a few times, her sleep-fogged vision taking some time to clear, as her surroundings eventually became apparent. She was stretched out on a hospital bed, in a darkened single room of Konoha's hospital. Room 314 or 317, most likely, she thought to herself, dazed, as she stared at the wall immediately in front of her. Once, she and Ino had decided that these two rooms had the ugliest floral paintings hung on their walls.
And the very fact that she was lying here that meant that the hospital had survived the attack, and her sigh of relief came out as just a small, ragged breath. Moving her head even an inch to the side was an excruciating effort that sent a sharp pain through her stiff, aching neck, but it was enough for the pink-haired kunoichi to see the three intravenous needles stuck into her arm. All of them were connected to separate machines.
Comprehension dawned slowly. She had survived her attempt at healing Itachi…which she honestly hadn't been expecting to do. From how awful and sore she felt, Sakura guessed that she had fallen into a chakra exhaustion-induced coma during the healing. The symptoms were always so easy to recognize. A thought suddenly occurred to her, making her already stiff muscles tense up even further. If she hadn't been able to complete the healing…
Sakura turned her head to the other side slowly, wincing at the protest of her aching muscles, as she finally registered the gentle pressure surrounding her right hand. A tiny smile spread across her lips as the sight in front of her sunk in, and the pure, all-compassing joy and relief she felt was enough to bring tears to her eyes.
Itachi sat, sound asleep, in a chair pulled as close to her bed as it would get. His clothes were slightly wrinkled, his hair in a state of disarray – by his standards – and the stress lines underneath his eyes seemed deeper and more pronounced than usual. The dark circles under his eyes and his unusually stiff posture clearly showed that he was sleep-deprived and that he had been huddled up in this uncomfortable chair for quite some time – but the important thing was that he was alive, and whole, in such dramatic contrast to how she had last seen him. Sakura took it all in, down to the most minute detail, like how his long eyelashes looked against his skin, for a moment, overwhelmed. Itachi held her hand in his, and she savored the strength and warmth of his palm and fingers, and the way she could see his pulse beating ever so slightly underneath the skin of his wrist.
It was almost too much to believe, and in an attempt to convince herself that all of this wasn't just some kind of dream, Sakura carefully brushed the tips of her fingers against Itachi's palm, feeling it twitch. His fingers intertwined with hers instinctively, and she watched, unable to keep herself from smiling, as Itachi's eyes drifted open – and he sat up straight, startled.
"Hi," Sakura murmured, her voice rusty from lack of use, as she rubbed her thumb across his knuckles.
The look on Itachi's face was reminiscent of his expression in the instant before he had kissed her so unexpectedly in the middle of the battle. He said her name, his voice sounding just as hoarse as hers, and then he slid forward, wrapping his arms around her and embracing her as best as he could, considering their awkward positioning. Sakura couldn't quite reciprocate, thanks to the needles stuck into her immobile left arm, but she arched her neck upward in order to press a soft kiss to his cheek. His breathing was slightly unsteady, and when she inhaled, Sakura caught the scent of tears, as he kissed her on the forehead. "I am so glad that you are all right," he whispered, looking her in the eye searchingly, and his hand shook somewhat as he stroked her tangled hair back from her face.
Itachi's worry was obvious, and Sakura shifted restlessly in the bed, wishing that she could sit up and hold him in her arms. She felt disturbingly weak and frail, and from what she had seen of her arms, they looked thinner than she remembered. She had to settle for squeezing his hand, looking up at him pleadingly. It made her think back to the time in Cloud, when she had woken up with total amnesia after her head injury, and gone to him in search of answers. So much had taken place since then…
"I'm fine, but what – what happened?" she asked, coughing. "With the sealing, with Sasuke – how long have I been out? How are you feeling?"
Before Itachi could respond, there was a brisk knock on the door, which then swung open with a bang as Naruto charged inside, looking anxious and ecstatic all at once. "Sakura-chan! You're finally awake! Are you okay?"
He rushed over and hugged her tightly, despite the barrier provided by the machines. Tsunade followed him inside at a more sedate pace, giving both Itachi and Sakura a nod of greeting. Sakura felt a small part of the tight, nervous knot inside her unclench at the confirmation that the two of them – two of the people she had worried for the most – were okay. The Hokage looked drained, through, pale with stress and older than her years, but she smiled nevertheless. "I thought I sensed your chakra, Sakura. You've been out for four days. How are you feeling?"
Naruto pulled the blinds open, filling the room with early morning sunshine. Sakura craned her neck in a desperate attempt to see the village outside of the window and assess the situation, while Tsunade checked her vital stats. "Thank you, shishou. And I feel fine – I was just asking Itachi to fill me in on everything that happened since I passed out…" She couldn't help the urgency and impatience that crept into her voice. Ever since taking the position of the Hokage's apprentice five years ago, she had never been out of the loop and uninformed. She had always been on top of the situation, and never been the last one to know anything, let alone something as crucial as this.
"The sealing had just been completed by the time I defeated Madara, before I found you and Sasuke," Itachi began quietly, while Tsunade nodded.
"Asuma is doing well," she responded, forestalling the question halfway out of Sakura's lips.
Naruto perched on the railing of the hospital bed, a dark expression in his blue eyes. "It was just a couple of minutes after we had finished the sealing when I sensed Sasuke's chakra. It was like it came out of nowhere. Kakashi-sensei, Sai, and Yamato-sensei were all near me; we all felt it at the same time. But Neji was the one who saw the fire first – it was like this giant column, Sakura-chan, shooting about sixty feet into the sky. It was unbelievable. I knew Itachi had gone off earlier to look for Madara, and then it hit me that I couldn't sense his chakra anymore, or yours, or Madara's—" He stopped dead, looking anguished. "…Just Sasuke's. I didn't know what to think. I didn't wait for orders or anything, I just followed Sasuke's chakra signature to its source. Kakashi-sensei must have guessed what I was about to do, because he showed up with the others a second later."
Sakura blinked as she slowly put the pieces together, realizing what must have happened. "I wasn't sure what I would find," Naruto said, his voice shaking a little. "I thought that we were going to fight. But Sasuke…he was just kneeling there, in front of Itachi's body. There was blood everywhere, but Itachi didn't look hurt. Sasuke was holding you, too, and both of you were so still I thought…" He lapsed into silence for a few moments, looking down at the floor. "…So I got ready to attack him. I had the Rasengan all fired up and everything – but then he yelled at me to stop and said he would surrender, and he told me what happened to you guys."
Sakura looked up at the Hokage and Itachi incredulously. "You don't mean to say that—"
Tsunade nodded, looking grudgingly respectful. "He shattered the ninjutsu you had trapped him in. He also saw what you were trying to do and disrupted the healing just before your life force exhausted itself. Then he used the Sharingan to copy your healing technique, and he used that to save Itachi."
Sakura closed her eyes, feeling a massive headache coming on as she tried to envision it. She literally could not believe it – if only she had seen it herself… She felt overwhelmed by a dozen emotions at once. It was clear now that Sasuke had quite possibly saved both her and Itachi's lives. It was equally obvious that he was also at least partly responsible for this heinous attack on Konoha in the first place. Although Madara would have probably eventually attacked Konoha with or without Sasuke; he hated it that much, Inner Sakura pointed out, trying to be the voice of reason for once.
"What happened after that?" she asked, struggling to keep her tone calm, and wondering what she wanted the answer to be. "…To Sasuke, I mean?"
It was Itachi who spoke this time. "He and three of his companions have been imprisoned and are being held in the maximum-security cells underneath Hokage Tower, as the Strict Correctional Facility was destroyed in the attack."
His tone was carefully impassive, and his face looked like it had been carved in stone. Sakura felt her chest tighten with worry. It couldn't have been clearer that, despite Sasuke's action in saving both of their lives, Itachi hadn't forgiven his brother for his complicity in such a terribly devastating attack on their own village. The wanton violence, destruction, and loss of life went against everything that he stood for. Sasuke and Madara, by unleashing the Eight-Tailed Demon on Konoha, had come very close to utterly destroying everything that Itachi had sacrificed so much to protect. On the other side of her bed, Naruto looked similarly torn. He loved Sasuke like a brother, but his loyalty to his home made him see that his actions were inexcusable.
"As you know, the penalty for an offense such as this is death," Tsunade said quietly. "A lot of the village is already calling for the execution," – Naruto flinched visibly at the word, and Itachi took a deep, steadying breath – "…to take place as soon as possible." She sighed, rubbing her forehead tiredly. The dark, bruise-like circles underneath her eyes were even worse than Itachi's. "However, considering the circumstances, I'm not so sure that would be the wisest course of action. Either way, it will be quite some time before a decision is made. Reconstruction is our priority right now."
Reconstruction. The word jolted her out of the maelstrom of emotion she felt regarding Sasuke and execution – it hurt, physically, to even think those words in the same sentence. Sakura remembered her horror at seeing how badly even the small section of the village, near the hospital, had fared in the attack. She knew that the hospital and Hokage Tower were still standing, but she wasn't sure of much else. The damage must have been even more extensive than she imagined.
There was another related question that had been burning in Sakura's mind since she had woken up, but her fear of the answer filled her throat like a stone, making it difficult for the words to choke past it. "Were there…were there any fatalities?"
Of course there must have been, she knew that on a rational level. That didn't make it any less painful when Tsunade inclined her head slowly, in confirmation. "We lost twenty civilians and eighteen shinobi in the attack, including Raidou, Iruka, and Aki and Hiro Aburame."
The words were like a slap to the face, and Sakura blinked, stunned. The numbers seemed unreal. Impossibly high. Almost forty people dead. Those thirty-eight people were mothers, fathers, children, brothers and sisters…two of Shino's own cousins. And Raidou, who was like a brother to Shizune and Genma; who had been their genin teammate…and Iruka-sensei, who was so kind, universally beloved by every student who had ever been through the Academy. All of them had been alive that morning, and on the night of the attack, they must have gone to bed in their own homes, believing themselves safe; believing that they would wake up the next morning and go about their lives as usual. Her eyes filled with tears as she shook her head mutely, unable to believe the senseless cruelty and injustice of it. Beside her, Naruto wiped the tears from his face with his sleeve.
"We didn't lose anybody in our eleven, though," he tried to assure her, his voice trembling. "Or the jounin-sensei. Everybody's injuries were all pretty minor. Lee got a concussion from where a beam fell on him while he was getting a kid out of a burning house, but Shizune fixed him up right away."
Sakura sighed, thankful for at least that small mercy. The sorrow was too much, and she swallowed over the tightness in her throat. "I am so glad that you three are all right," she managed, as she looked at all of them in turn. If anything had happened to them…she couldn't even contemplate it. It made the tears even harder to hold back. "Really."
Tsunade patted her hand in a rare tender gesture. "The same goes for you, Sakura. You gave everybody a real scare when you came in." Naruto nodded fervently, while she gave the monitors one last check. The Hokage began to remove the tangle of wires and IV tubes that were hooked up to her arm. "You're in stable condition now, though, and I think it would do you better to rest at home than to remain here."
"Yes, please," Sakura sighed gratefully. She had only been hospitalized once before, for a brief overnight stay. She had been hit by a poison-filled dart during a mission shortly after being promoted to chunin. Neutralizing the effects of the poison on the field had been simple enough, but Shizune had kept her for monitoring, just in case. It had taken her just a few hours to determine that she liked the hospital as a patient much less than she did as a medic-nin.
Naruto spared a glance at the clock in the corner of the room and then let out an exclamation of surprise, jumping off the railing hurriedly. "I totally forgot that I promised Hinata-chan that I would be at the Hyuuga compound to help with the rebuilding half an hour ago! Sorry, Sakura-chan, but I've got to run." He gave her a winning grin, even as she shook her head in mock exasperation. "I'll stop by to see you as soon as we're done this evening, okay?"
He hugged her tightly again, before saying his goodbyes to Itachi and Tsunade, and Sakura watched him affectionately as he dashed out the door. She rubbed her arm then, relieved at the absence of the needles, and looked up at the Hokage, an idea suddenly occurring to her. "Tsunade-shishou, while I'm here, can I do a couple of rounds? You, Shizune, Ino, and the others must be really overworked, considering the large influx of patients—"
"No!" Tsunade and Itachi both snapped in unison, glancing at each other and then back down at her. The look on both of their faces was so intimidating that Sakura wilted against her pillows, thinking that this would have been amusing, under any other circumstances.
"Absolutely not," Tsunade clarified, reaching out and helping her struggle into a sitting position. "You are not to use any chakra at all, for anything, for at least the next three days, do you hear me? And I want you to take it easy for one week afterwards as well. Nothing more demanding per day than the chakra use required for one moderate internal healing."
Sakura pulled a rebellious face at the strict instructions – they ensured that she would be just about useless in any facet of the rebuilding effort – but immediately assumed an appropriately subdued expression once she saw Tsunade glowering at her. "…Yes, shishou."
"In addition, you should take your three-hundred milligram fortified ginseng capsules twice a day with meals, while avoiding any strenuous activity for the next week, to aid in the recuperation process," the Hokage continued, glancing over her head at Itachi. "I am officially releasing you into Itachi's care, and I will not be happy if you end up back here tomorrow after overexerting yourself. Keep an eye on her, Uchiha."
"I will, Tsunade-sama," he agreed, as dutiful as ever.
Sakura raised a skeptical eyebrow at her shishou – who gave her a deadpan look, revealing nothing. Her expression softened in the next moment, though. "I am proud of everything you did on the night of the attack, Sakura. You showed tremendous courage and dedication, and fulfilled your duties as a medic-nin and a kunoichi admirably, as always. Come see me if you feel as if your recovery is not progressing as it should. And, Uchiha," – her gaze flickered over to Itachi – "I would like to meet with you early next week to discuss your brother. Let me know what time is most convenient for you."
They both acquiesced, bowing their heads respectfully, and Tsunade gave them another tired smile before she swept out of the room, leaving both of them alone together once again.
There was really only one thing to do, and Sakura turned, holding her arms out to Itachi in a silent invitation. He returned the gesture, hugging her close, and she felt all the breath leave his body in a soft sigh as she ran her hands over his back, tucking her head against the side of his neck and breathing him in. In the year that had passed since they had interacted with one another like this, she had almost forgotten how much pure warmth and comfort could arise from such a simple gesture. There had been a reason she had always sought him out after suffering one of her nightmares, during the time when her darker memories had returned to her.
For the second time in what felt like five minutes, Sakura had to blink hard to keep the tears welling up in her eyes from spilling over. It seemed so surreal, impossible almost, that the inevitable conflict that had been looming over them for so long was finally over. And that both of them had been a hairsbreadth away from never experiencing this again.
She could tell that Itachi was thinking the same thing, as he drew back slightly, his eyes reddened. Sakura took his hands in hers and lifted them up, pressing a gentle kiss to his fingers. "Are you okay?" she asked softly, looking into his eyes. "Considering everything…that's been going on with Sasuke, and all. How are you feeling?"
Itachi's shoulders slumped a little, and he looked away for a moment. The tension in his face was so pronounced that she longed to reach out and try and smooth the stress lines, and all the grief that had caused them, away. "Well," he responded, at length. "…Considering the circumstances." He tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear. "Much better now that you're awake," he confessed, his voice barely audible.
It was evident that he didn't want to talk about it, not yet, and she had to respect that. Put yourself in his shoes, Inner Sakura advised. You've been agonizing about nothing but that one issue for the past four days, when finally your loved one wakes up from a coma that you didn't know when – or if – they would come out of. It's only natural that you'd want to let yourself have that little bit of happiness. He'll probably be ready to talk about it later.
In silent agreement with her inner self, Sakura winced at the feeling of Itachi's fingers in her tangled hair…and the odd, vaguely reptilian odor that hit her nose when she looked down at her hair. She glanced at herself curiously, vaguely remembering how soaked with snake guts and blood her clothes had been after she had taken down the snake. Somebody had changed her out of those, thankfully, into a thin hospital gown. But her hair was still coated in a not-so-thin layer of grime; only her face, arms, and legs, had been wiped down.
"Ugh," Sakura mumbled, disgusted, as she pulled away, lifting a lock of hair to her nose and sniffing it, wrinkling her nose as she did so. "I can't believe I let you hug me. Sorry."
A small smile tugged on the corners of Itachi's lips as he squeezed her hand teasingly. "You've smelled worse."
"Oh, please don't remind me." Sakura blushed, mortified. The incident Itachi was referencing…it had been that time – that one time – Kisame had taken her out hunting. In the process (she still wasn't quite sure how), she had inadvertently gotten herself sprayed by a protective mother skunk. Kisame had laughed about it literally the entire way home, even though her stench had frightened away all the prey in the vicinity. The look on Itachi's face as she had stepped over the threshold of the base had been absolutely priceless…in reflection. Unable to stop the giggles rising in her throat, Sakura punched her smug-looking former teammate in the arm. "But you didn't let me hug you! All I wanted was a little affection and consolation, and you wouldn't even come near me!"
Itachi coughed to mask his laughter. "You smelled vile, Sakura. It was a reasonable response on my part. Instead of demonstrating understanding, you chased me around the upstairs, loudly demanding, 'Let me love you!'"
The words and his deadpan impersonation brought it all back, and Sakura couldn't help but laugh, for the first time in what felt like forever. It felt wrong to do so, in the aftermath of everything that had happened in the attack. After all that had been lost, and with Sasuke sitting in a jail cell, potentially facing execution for his crimes…but she knew that if she didn't allow herself to laugh at this small snippet of joy, and appreciate the fact that she and Itachi were both still around to appreciate it, together, the full realization of the loss and sorrow would be too overwhelming, and she would start crying and then be unable to stop.
In the end, she had finally tackled Itachi onto his bed and held him there, plastering him with kisses. He had looked like he was about to cry from the overwhelmingly close proximity to the smell, and eventually, they had to use half of her bottle of bubble bath solution to rinse the foul-smelling spray off each other. That was the first time they had ever taken a bath together, and the memory of his hands on her skin, lifting her hair off her shoulders and rubbing against her back, sent pleasurable shivers down her spine…and motivated her to get out of bed so they could make their way back to one of their apartments as soon as possible. Contrary to the "information" presented in numerous volumes of Icha Icha and its spinoffs, not all medic-nin had a secret desire to use private hospital rooms for romantic liaisons.
"Anyway, I had better shower, then," Sakura sighed, grimacing as she swung her legs off the edge of the bed and tentatively stood up. All of the muscles from her hips down felt hopelessly stiff, and even taking the first small step forward, toward the adjoined bathroom, made her wobble slightly. It was disconcerting, to feel this weak.
Itachi rose from his chair, moving to support her. "Will you be all right? The shower is just a stall, so you will have to stand."
"I'll be fine," Sakura replied, stretching up on the tips of her toes to give him a quick kiss on the cheek. "I won't be in too long, but try and get some rest, okay?"
Thankfully, the worst of the spasms in her aching muscles subsided by the time she got to the bathroom, and the pink-haired kunoichi closed the door with a tired sigh. Somebody had left a bag of her possessions, including a toothbrush and some paste, a comb, and a complete change of clothes, lying against the wall. A handwritten get-well note from Ino was tucked between her vest and skirt, and Sakura smiled, placing it into the inside zipper of her vest.
The shower stall was cramped, but the water was steaming hot and just what she needed to feel human again. She stood under the stream of water and let it wash the filth and grime away, unable to summon the energy to scrub her skin or deal with her hair quite yet. Her mind still struggled to comprehend the full reality of what Tsunade-shishou, Itachi, and Naruto had told her. That outside of the protected bubble of her hospital room, while she lay sleeping, so much had happened. Sakura's lips twisted sorrowfully, her hands curling into fists. So many funerals…
The first thing she would do was visit Shizune and Genma to express her condolences, and it would probably be best if she took something with her as well. Food, perhaps – not only were they deep in mourning, but undoubtedly they had both been working around the clock, Shizune in the hospital, and Genma with the rebuilding effort. Sakura leaned against the tiles for a moment, wrapping her arms around herself. She felt cold, despite the warmth of the water. To lose a genin teammate like that; a lifelong friend and companion…it was like losing an arm, or something equally integral. They were just as much a part of you as any limb. And Shino, too, had lost members of his own family – cousins who had likely been childhood playmates. The Aburame clan was very close-knit, and the loss must have been heartbreaking. She and Shino had never been particularly close, but it was only right to go see him as well. Especially since it was her former teammate who had been at least somewhat responsible for his cousins' deaths—
Sakura shook her head hard, trying to rid herself of the thoughts. She squeezed the entire travel-sized bottle of shampoo into her hands and began to work it through her hair with more force than was really necessary. She could not think about Sasuke right now. She absolutely couldn't. All of her thoughts on the matter were a mess of hopeless, stomach-churning conflict. Yes, he had done something unspeakably horrible. He had the blood of almost forty people on his hands. Countless more lives, of the loved ones of the deceased, had been ripped apart as well. He deserved to be punished; that much was clear.
And yet…when it came down to it, she knew that Itachi and Naruto could never accept his execution. It would devastate them. Itachi had been through so much already. To watch Sasuke be executed would break him.
Sakura bowed her head, trying to focus on scrubbing her hair and body clean, and clear her thoughts of anything else. You heard what Tsunade-shishou said, her inner self assured her, sounding subdued. There's going to be enough time to worry about that later. She was right. Rebuilding Konoha is the priority.
The last few traces of snake slime and innards swirled around her feet for a moment, before getting sucked down the drain. Sakura watched, her right hand tingling at the remembered sensation of slicing through the beast like a knife. The memory of what came afterward was more satisfying, and she reluctantly shut off the shower. For the first time, despite the affection they had shared earlier, it really hit her that she and Itachi seemed to be back together again. A quick glance in the mirror, as she wrapped the towel around herself and began to run her chakra-warmed hands through her hair to dry it, confirmed that the smile that had spread across her face at the thought was indeed as large and ridiculously happy as she had suspected. At the beginning of the night of the attack, she had been miserable, under the assumption that he was interested in somebody else and that any chance they had was over for good this time. But by the end… Well, at least one good thing had come out of everything that had happened.
Sakura got dressed as quickly as she could, reveling in the feeling of the clean, fresh-smelling clothes against her skin. Grabbing her bag, she slipped out of the bathroom to find Itachi dozing in the chair, though his eyes flickered open as soon as she came within a foot of him. "Ready?"
"Definitely." She held a hand out, helping him up.
They made their way out of the room, and as she had thought, the hospital was filled to capacity with injured shinobi and civilians. It felt wrong, to walk past the rooms and not go in and help. Itachi must have seen the frustration on her face, because he took her hand in his, giving it a brief squeeze. "It is all right, Sakura. I am sure that a lot of these patients will return for appointments with you after this week passes."
"I know," Sakura murmured, throwing a regretful glance into another one of the rooms she passed. A man lay in bed, half of his face bandaged, from what must have been a burn. "I just feel useless not being able to help them right now."
They took the stairs in silence and then stepped outside, into the bright sunlight. Sakura squinted, looking around and trying to take in as much as possible. It had been right here that she and the jounin team had that terrifying confrontation with the snake. The remnants of the grocery store and the cafe had been cleaned up, and the massive serpent's corpse had been disposed of. As they made their way down the street, back toward their apartment building, she looked around in all directions, wide-eyed. In the bright sunlight, with the streets bustling with activity as shinobi and civilians of all ages worked to clear the huge amounts of debris and fix up what buildings and storefronts they could, her recollection of the night of the invasion seemed like a nightmare. The darkness, the smoke clouding her vision, the deserted streets and destroyed buildings… Even now, though, with the rebuilding effort four days in, she could tell that the damage the village suffered had been immense. It looked like almost every street had felt the wrath of either the snakes or the Eight-Tailed Demon in some way or another.
"It's a miracle that you guys managed to corral the Eight-tails before it got to Hokage Tower," Sakura mused, watching a group of genin trying to salvage what was left of the stock of the armory from the rubble. "What's the extent of the damage? Is our building okay?"
"Eighty percent of the village has been affected in some way or another," Itachi frowned. "The residential area of the Hokage and the Council members, including the surrounding civilian neighborhoods, has been burnt to the ground. Two of the shinobi apartment complexes near Naruto's collapsed, and the Hyuuga and Inuzuka compounds both sustained fairly heavy damage. Our building survived, though."
Sakura lifted a hand to rub her neck wearily, thinking with a pang of all the civilians she had helped evacuate. The mother and father with the two small children, the elderly couple…there were so many people, who were now homeless; their houses and all of their worldly possessions burnt away in a matter of minutes. "It's a good thing that Tsunade-shishou always prioritized keeping the reparations accounts full," she mumbled. The old Council of Elders had disapproved of the large sums of money the Hokage set aside every quarter, but Tsunade had always overruled them. "A lot of people are going to need it."
She spared a fleeting thought for the fate of her childhood home. It was near Ino's and Shikamaru's, and Itachi hadn't mentioned the Yamanaka or Nara homes being damaged. When she finally found her parents and brought them back, she knew that was the home they would want to return to. The street that their apartment was on had been one of the parts of the village left relatively untouched by the violence, as well, and for that, Sakura was grateful.
"Do you need anything from your apartment?" Itachi asked, as they climbed to the third floor, where both of them lived. He had the grace to shoot her an apologetic look. "Tsunade-sama heavily implied that she would prefer for you to stay with me initially. She mentioned something about you occasionally being too stubborn for your own good, and like Naruto, lacking a basic self-preservation instinct."
"Oh, she's one to talk," Sakura scoffed, amused. "Tsunade-sama also believes that she is the village's best and most subtle matchmaker…if you haven't figured that out already."
"Yes, I got that impression as well," Itachi responded dryly, before unlocking and opening the door. His apartment was unsurprisingly immaculate, save for the few books that lay scattered on the coffee table, and an open scroll covered in desert recipes, in what looked like Chouji's handwriting.
"Oh, are the special lemon bars on there?" Sakura bent down to stare at the scroll, feeling her mouth water. "Once a week, Chouji, Ino, and I would go to his house after training for the chunin exams, and his mom would make them for us. Ino and I were always asking her for the secret ingredient, but she would just tell us it was love."
Itachi smiled – the expression looked beautiful on his tired face – and wrapped an arm around her. "I am sure that contributed as well, but the key ingredient you were probably thinking of was the passionfruit extract. I'll make them for you tomorrow."
"Passionfruit extract? I never would have thought…" Sakura mused, surprised, before shaking her head and linking her arm through his. Itachi then proceeded to give her a thoroughly unnecessary tour of his apartment, considering that hers was the same layout as his, and she just nodded, not quite taking anything in. It was still jarring, to see him so whole and physically intact, when in her last memory before losing consciousness, he had lost so much blood from that horrible, mangled stab wound, and he'd had that wide, vicious-looking kunai gash near the eye. He had looked half dead already, and just thinking back to it gave her chills.
"…And this is the bedroom," he finally concluded, leading her inside. The room was sparsely furnished but looked comfortable, like his bedroom at the Akatsuki base in Cloud had been. At that time, she had noted the complete lack of personal mementos on the walls or tables, but now, Itachi had framed the old family photograph of his parents and Sasuke and set it at his bedside. It was the same one she had commented on once, before she had fully regained her memory, and it made her heart ache to see it.
The bedroom also obviously hadn't been properly used in a while. The bed looked like it hadn't been touched in days, the curtains were drawn to cover the window, and from the half-open positions of the dresser drawers, Sakura guessed that Itachi had only been coming in and out to shower and grab a change of clothes every so often. She reached out, touching his chest, and it was difficult to restrain the impulse to do a diagnostic chakra test on him. Everything felt all right, though. Sasuke had done a good job, as had whoever fixed up his head wound and eye. There wasn't even a scar. "Have you been sleeping in the hospital every night?" she asked, dismayed. "I don't think that was conducive to the healing process…"
"I am fine, Sakura," Itachi stressed, putting his hand on hers. "I regained consciousness in a few hours, by dawn. Somebody had already taken care of my other wounds, and aside from exhaustion caused by moderate chakra depletion, I felt well."
"There were no complications, or anything?"
For some inexplicable reason, Itachi smirked a little. "I was rather dazed and confused for a few minutes after waking up. A couple of the attending medics initially feared memory loss."
Sakura laughed, surprised. On an entirely selfish note, she would have been furious if he had ended up with some kind of amnesia, and promptly forgotten about her, and their history together. I mean, how on earth would you begin to explain that to someone? Inner Sakura commented sardonically. What a long and convoluted story that would be. "How ironic."
"Indeed." Itachi gently wrapped his fingers around the back of her neck, drawing her close, to press a tender kiss against her forehead. Sakura thought that he would draw back for a proper kiss, then – she longed for it with such intensity that it was almost embarrassing, and she assumed that he felt the same way – but he stayed where he was, and his quiet sigh ruffled the hair on top of her head. She waited patiently, figuring that he would open up about whatever was on his mind sooner rather than later. True enough, he pulled away a little and looked at her seriously, the expression on his face troubled. "…Why did you do it, Sakura?"
Sakura frowned, confused. "Do what?"
"You compromised your own life in order to heal me. If it had taken Sasuke another thirty seconds to break free of that ninjutsu…" Itachi closed his eyes for a moment, looking overwhelmed. "…You could have died," he said, his voice barely audible. "We would have lost you."
Sakura reached up, cupping his face in one hand. He stared back at her, his face showing no sign of softening. "I knew what I was doing, Itachi."
He stepped back, away from her touch. If anything, her words seemed to disconcert him, rather than having the reassuring effect she had expected. "I would have never wanted you to sacrifice your life for me," he told her sharply. "Never. There are so many people who love you and care for you, and if Sasuke hadn't broken free of the ninjutsu, and I had woken up to find that you were gone—" Itachi stopped abruptly and looked away, his whole body tensing up, and he took a few deep breaths before continuing. "…It would have been too devastating to bear. I thought you knew that."
Touched by the uncharacteristic show of emotion, Sakura took his hand in hers, tugging on it lightly until he faced her again. "I did," she said softly. It was getting hard to speak around the lump in her throat.
"Then?" Itachi replied tersely. "Why did you—?"
Sakura shrugged one shoulder, at a loss for how best to justify her actions, as she looked up into his eyes. "Because I love you," she said simply. "And…I already thought that I had lost you once. It hurt so badly that it almost broke me. I just couldn't stand the thought of losing you again, right in front of my eyes – when I had just found you, after so long…"
Sakura trailed off, fighting back tears as she looked at the ground, trying to regain her composure. Itachi's light touch startled her, as he tilted her face back up to his, and wiped away her tears with the pad of his thumb. He looked as though he was struggling to maintain his composure as well. "I love you too, Sakura," he whispered, his voice somewhat less steady than usual. "I love you too. And please don't ever do that again."
It felt like a weight had lifted off her heart, at saying and hearing those words again, after so very long, and she suspected that he felt the same way. It was the last thing they had said to each other before Itachi had knocked her out and returned her to Konoha – words that both of them must have thought in silence countless times over the period of their separation. Sakura couldn't stop the huge smile that spread across her face, as she curled her hand around Itachi's long ponytail, where it fell over his shoulder. He raised an eyebrow at her, looking happier than she had seen him in a long time, and she stayed still for a moment, savoring the mutual anticipation that charged the air between them, before slowly pulling him down to her for a kiss.
The sensation was indescribably perfect, and even sweeter than their reunion a few days ago had been, due to the fact that they were free of distractions, this time. They spared a few moments to savor the simple press of their lips against one another's, and as hopelessly sentimental as it sounded, Sakura felt something crumble within her heart and then re-form as she pressed herself closer to him – as if she was a puzzle piece that had finally found its other half again. She had forgotten how much she and Itachi fit together, in more ways than one. As if he had read her mind, Itachi sighed into her mouth, the sound quiet and somehow broken, as he slid his arms around her waist, deepening the kiss with a gentleness that seemed incongruous, considering the almost-desperation of his grip. Sakura moaned softly, her hands moving to wrap around the back of his neck, anchoring herself to him upon feeling her knees actually tremble a little and threaten to give out.
Despite their mutual eagerness, they took it slow, in silent agreement. She couldn't remember the last time they had been so content to just kiss, and look into one another's eyes, treasuring every moment and tender touch. Eventually, though, the desire to be closer started to become overwhelming, and Sakura couldn't keep herself from sliding her hands down the collar of Itachi's long-sleeved black shirt, her palms caressing the warm skin of his shoulders and back, feeling the interplay of the strong muscles there. Itachi shivered beneath her touch, kissing her more firmly, his teeth nipping ever so slightly on her bottom lip. His thumbs inched under the hemline of her red vest, rubbing achingly slow, sensual circles against the bare skin of her waist, and Sakura felt her entire body tremble. She had wanted this – to be with the man she loved – on some level or another, ever since they had first been separated from each other, and she didn't think she could wait any longer.
She pulled away from him a fraction of an inch on impulse, taking his right hand and moving it from her waist, to place it on the zipper of her vest instead. "There," Sakura breathed, watching Itachi's eyes darken with desire, as she leaned toward him again. "That's better."
Itachi toyed with the zipper, but didn't pull it down. "We don't have to…go all the way," he whispered, pressing a line of kisses from her ear down her jawbone. "You are still recovering from an extremely taxing physical ordeal."
Sakura fought the urge to smile at how he could sound determined yet uncertain all at once. It brought back memories of the first night they had ever shared together. She tugged the zipper down a few inches, moving her cheek away from Itachi's lips and cupping his chin in her hands, making him look down at her. "But I want to." She bit her lip delicately, looking up at him through lowered eyelashes. During their first relationship, she had eventually discovered that utilizing this particular expression was one of the easiest ways to convince him to do something or another. In one memorable case, it had helped her convince him to role-play a scene from her favorite romance novel. Itachi had been reluctant at first, but they had both ended up enjoying it. "…Don't you?"
Itachi picked up on the allusion, as she had expected, and his lips curved upward a little, out of amusement as well as affection. "Some things never change, do they?" He kissed her again, long and sweet, until they were both breathless. He brushed his fingers against her exposed collarbone in a feather-light touch, his resolve visibly wavering, before looking down at her with a worried frown. "Would this violate Tsunade-sama's orders for you to avoid strenuous activity?"
Sakura had to laugh at his seriousness. She knew that if she said yes, he would promptly quarantine her in the bedroom and retreat to the security of the kitchen, ignoring every little bit of temptation he felt, and he raised an eyebrow in mild disapproval. "It doesn't have to, if you know what I mean," she said, purposefully being outrageously flirtatious.
Predictably enough, Itachi blushed, in a marked departure from his usual stoic demeanor. Rather than taking the opportunity to tease him, Sakura stood on the tips of her toes, giving him another kiss – and then she yelped, surprised, as he lifted her off her feet, supporting her with one arm underneath her knees and the other against her back. He walked her over to the bed, gently setting her down on the covers, against the pillows, and Sakura pulled him down with her, twining her arms around his shoulders and holding him close.
"I missed you," Itachi said, his voice low and barely audible, and revealing more emotion than she was used to hearing, as he settled next to her, nuzzling against her neck. "I never thought that…"
Sakura smoothed her fingers through his hair tenderly, resting her cheek against the top of his head for a moment. "I know," she replied, her voice catching in her throat. They had really found their way back to each other against all odds. There were so many times when, if just one thing had played out a little differently, they might have lost one another for good. "Me too."
What happened after felt like as much an exercise in patience as it was a reaffirmation of love. Again, through unspoken but mutual agreement, they took it slow, taking their time removing each layer of clothing, while pressing kisses and tender caresses to every inch of exposed skin. It was even more of an emotionally intense experience as it was a physical one, more so than it had ever been before. It was almost too overwhelming – she was beaming so hard her face hurt one moment, and on the verge of tears the next – and Sakura could tell that despite his less expressive demeanor, Itachi was just as deeply affected as she was.
They lay curled up together, afterwards, in relative silence, enjoying the feeling and unshakable sense of love and security that they had both missed so deeply. Sakura wanted to talk – there were so many things she wanted to say – but then Itachi leaned close and started brushing gentle kisses to her forehead and eyelids and nose and cheeks and lips, and the exhaustion was starting to creep back, slowly but surely, and her heart felt so full that it felt like it could burst. And for the first time in a very long time, it was from pure happiness and contentment, rather than heartache and anguish.
It wasn't a bad way to fall asleep, not at all, and Sakura didn't fight it for a moment.
By the time she awoke again, lifting her head off the pillow a fraction of an inch, and blinking at her surroundings blearily, feeling momentarily disoriented, light had stopped streaming through the curtains. From what she could see through the gap between the curtains and the wall, the sun had set and evening had fallen. Itachi was still lying next to her, holding her rather protectively, but he was fully dressed now, and Sakura's gaze focused on something in the room that hadn't been there before. A large vase of colorful orchids, beautifully arranged, sat on the bedside table. There was a get-well soon card propped open in front of it, and every inch of space was taken up by notes from her friends. Careful not to wake her companion, Sakura reached out, taking the card and drawing it closer to her.
"Naruto and Team Ten stopped by half an hour ago," Itachi said, making her jump, as he sat up. His smooth movements made it obvious that he hadn't been asleep, only resting, and in response to the playful swat she sent in his direction, he gave her a wry smile and a poke on the forehead. "I told them that you were sleeping, and they asked me to convey their regards. Naruto and Ino said they would like to visit you at this time tomorrow evening, if you are feeling up to it."
"I would love that." Sakura sat up as well, pulling the covers to her chest. Her stomach gave a painful twinge of hunger, and she winced. "How long have I been asleep?"
"About five hours."
"Hmm," Sakura rested her head against his shoulder, contemplating the ceiling. "Naruto didn't happen to bring any ramen, did he?"
Itachi shook his head ruefully. "Ichiraku's was destroyed in the attack. Teuchi and his family survived, though, and Naruto, Chouji, and a few of the other Akimichis are helping them rebuild the restaurant."
Sakura sighed, wrapping her arms around her knees. "I'm so glad that they're all okay – you know that they lived right above the shop, right? Although I'm not sure how Naruto's going to survive for more than a week without his favorite food…"
"He'll manage," Itachi replied dryly, before taking one of her hands in his. Ever since he and Naruto had become reacquainted, he had been trying – and failing – to convince the younger shinobi to adopt a more healthy and balanced diet. "Are you hungry?"
Sakura pulled a face. "Horribly. I could eat a whole rack of those barbecued ribs that Kisame loved to make."
Itachi tilted his head thoughtfully, evidently mentally cataloguing the contents of his refrigerator. "I do not have any pork. Does spicy stir-fried noodles with chicken sound like an adequate replacement?"
"Is the sky blue?" Sakura asked, straight-faced. "Is the grass green?"
"…I will take that as a yes."
Itachi gave a lock of her hair a light, playful tug, before getting out of bed. Sakura got dressed as well, abandoning her vest, skirt, and shorts for an extra pair of his pajamas, and they made their way out of the bedroom, hand in hand. Predictably enough, he refused all four of her offers to help prepare dinner, and eventually, the pink-haired kunoichi drifted over to the leather sofa beside the window and settled down there, resting the side of her head against the wall. Outside of the open window, it was a beautiful evening. Konoha seemed to be saturated in the precise shade of lovely dark blue that occurred after sunset but before true nightfall, and she had never appreciated the sight of the village's lights against the darkness more. Her gaze lingered on each visible house and building, including Hokage Tower, in the distance, and her chest hurt with how much she grieved for those who would never take in this sight again.
It could have been much worse, though, Inner Sakura stated somberly. While there had been so many individual losses…as a whole, they had managed to survive. It was remarkable, considering the circumstances of the attack. And even though their ordeal was over, just thinking along those lines made her feel somewhat panicked. The terrible, all-consuming traumatic shock she had felt when she had pulled open the curtains in her bedroom to reveal the nightmarish sight of the village in flames, the specter of the Eight-Tailed Demon visible among them, would take a long time to subside.
Sakura kept looking out of the window for several minutes, lost in thought, and she gave a start of surprise at Itachi's light touch on her shoulder. He held two plates, piled high with streaming hot noodles, and she smiled at him gratefully, accepting one of them with a word of thanks. He sat close beside her as she dug into the noodles, too ravenous to spare a thought for decorum.
"You looked rather contemplative," he observed, and Sakura looked up at him wide-eyed, her mouth stuffed full to the point of bursting. The sight was rather reminiscent of a chipmunk, and he was unable to keep himself from laughing a little. "Not now. Earlier."
Sakura chewed determinedly for about a minute straight, before swallowing the massive mouthful of noodles, and then elbowing him in the ribs for laughing at her. "I was just wondering how long it would take to rebuild the village," she said, picking up another piece of chicken with her chopsticks. "And I was hoping that it doesn't put us in a vulnerable position."
Itachi shook his head contemplatively as he considered her question. "It might take up to two months before everything is fully repaired, and I do not anticipate that we will be seriously vulnerable to missing-nin or enemy villages during this time. I believe that Tsunade-sama had the same concerns, and she decided to keep most of the village's active duty forces in or near the village until it is rebuilt, just in case we need to defend ourselves."
Sakura nodded seriously, nestling her head against his shoulder. That was one less thing to worry about, at least. "I was thinking about Sasuke, too," she admitted quietly, feeling him tense up beneath her. "It keeps coming back to me – the thought of him chained up in one of those cells underneath Hokage Tower, for god knows how long, until everybody decides what to do with him." She stopped, taking a deep, shuddering breath. She had attempted to keep these thoughts at bay since she had regained consciousness, but it was no use, and she tried to wipe her eyes discreetly. "He's all alone. And he must be really, really scared."
"Yes," Itachi replied, his voice barely audible. Sasuke had an abundance of courage, to the point of recklessness, but even he must have been aware that his situation was dire; there was no chance that he would be able to escape the village. His fate lay in the hands of others, and he was powerless to stop it.
"You know, he could have run," Sakura continued, sitting up straight, and struggling to understand what had been going on in Sasuke's mind in the minutes after he had broken free of her ninjutsu. "After he finished healing you, he could have just sent up the flare to show Naruto and the others where we were, and disappeared. Their priority would have been to get us to safety, and you know that Sasuke would have been able to mask his chakra, and go somewhere, anywhere, to escape detection. Like you did, for so long. But he chose to stay, knowing what the consequences would be."
Itachi inclined his head a fraction of an inch, looking troubled. "It was the only honorable course of action, after everything else he did."
Sakura reached up, cupping his face in her hand and gently rubbing her thumb against the stress lines on his face. "It was seeing you that motivated him to do it, I'm sure. And…" she sighed, her shoulders slumping. "And I don't want him to be punished like that for it."
Itachi wrapped his arms around her, holding her close. "Neither do I," he murmured, his voice sounding dangerously close to breaking. Sakura returned the embrace, trying to give him as much comfort as she could. Finally, all the breath left his body in a long exhalation, as he pulled back enough to look her in the eye. "I am trying not to be foolishly optimistic," he said, weighing each word carefully before speaking. The stress of the last several days made him look older than his years. "But instinct leads me to believe that ultimately, Tsunade-sama will not order an execution. The bloodline limit is valued too deeply, and it is in the village's interests to preserve and restore it."
Sakura bit her lip, concerned, as she considered the alternatives. "He might have his chakra sealed, then, and be confined to the village for the rest of his life."
"Most likely." Itachi eyed his remaining noodles for a few moments and then leaned over to put the plate on the coffee table, evidently having lost his appetite. "Sasuke deserves to face the consequences of his actions, and I think that would be a more appropriate method than execution."
"He's probably going to hate it," Sakura said flatly.
"It is better than the alternative, though, and I believe that Sasuke will see that – and eventually understand that it is the price to pay for what he did."
Sakura nodded in agreement, and they sighed in unison, intertwining their fingers together. After several minutes of sitting in comfortable silence, she spoke up again, tilting her head to look up at him curiously. "Itachi? Does…well, does this feel different to you at all? Now, and earlier, when we were…"
He raised an eyebrow, obviously puzzled and about to ask for clarification, but then she saw understanding dawn on his face, before he inclined his head in acknowledgement. "It does," he confessed, sounding slightly confused. "…In a good way, though."
Sakura gently tugged their intertwined fingers closer to her face, before resting her cheek against their joined hands. The thought had initially crossed her mind right after they had first been together, before she had succumbed to sleep, and her conviction had only been strengthened while she had been waiting for him to finish cooking, earlier. "I know. I think it's because it was the first time we were ever together…" she hesitated momentarily, not wanting to hurt his feelings, but Itachi squeezed her hand lightly, the expression on his face prompting her to continue. "Honestly. With no secrets or lies between us."
Itachi made a small sound of assent in the back of his throat, evidently understanding her meaning. He reached out and touched her face, skimming his thumb down the line of her cheekbone in a feather-light caress, and his gaze flickered to his own hand, the expression in his eyes inscrutable. "You know who I am, now."
Sakura realized the direction his thoughts were going, and she leaned her face into his hand, pressing a soft kiss to the inside of his palm. "I do," she said firmly, her tone brooking no argument. "You're an honorable shinobi of Konoha, and an incredibly courageous person."
Itachi smiled at her slightly, although it was tinged with sadness. "You know what I mean, Sakura."
"I do," she repeated, holding his gaze. "…And if anything, it only makes me love you more."
Itachi just looked at her, evidently lost for words. It was true, though, on more levels than one. While she had fallen in love with him during her time with the Akatsuki…well, the emotion had been very real, but looking back now, Sakura couldn't really compare it to what she felt currently, and what she had felt, ever since she had found out that he was still alive. She didn't want to call it shallow, but – as long as her memory had been gone, although key parts of her personality still survived…she had been a fraction of herself, essentially. Now that she had recovered, and she was really, truly herself again…well, she loved him with everything that she was. It was beyond comparison to the way things used to be.
Itachi leaned in to kiss her then, soft and slow and tender, and when they finally pulled apart, he looked into her eyes…and then gave her a somewhat awkward pat on the knee. It was an amusing throwback to their first relationship, when he had first told her he loved her. Immediately afterwards, unsure of how to react as she stared at him, lost for words, he had just as awkwardly patted the top of her head. From the look on Itachi's face, she could tell that he was remembering the same thing, and he gave an abashed sigh. "…I don't think I can properly tell you how happy that you make me."
Sakura beamed, ignoring Inner Sakura's squealing about how adorable his occasional difficulties expressing deep emotion were. Much to Itachi's surprise, she grabbed his cheeks and pinched them affectionately. "You don't have to tell me!" she exclaimed. "Just smile more often. It would be nice to see some smile lines on your face rather than those old frown lines, Uchiha."
Itachi blinked, mortified. "I will do my best."
Sakura clapped her hands together, pleased. "Good. Otherwise I'd have to actually heal away those lines, and that would just be unnecessary effort."
Itachi watched her quietly for a few moments, taking in her bright, lively visage, and he was unable to keep from thinking back to the moment he had first laid eyes on her, on that brutally cold winter's night in the middle of the Land of Lighting. Sakura had been nothing more than a small figure, lying in the snow with her forehead terribly bruised and her eyes closed, in a pool of her own blood…half dead already. He still remembered how he had insisted that she could be saved, and how Kisame had argued that it wasn't possible, and that she was too far gone. It seemed like an eternity ago, and at that time, he could never have imagined how much she would come to mean to him. So much had taken place since then. Finding Sakura in the forest had set in place a chain of events that he would have thought utterly unfathomable – and much of it went back to the week that she had inadvertently discovered his illness and healed him. If it hadn't been for that, he would have succumbed to it a year ago, and "died" at Sasuke's hands, just like he had always planned.
But more importantly, throughout everything that had happened, he had changed. Itachi had never realized it as much as he did at this moment, but he was a very different person than the one who had walked into that frozen forest with Kisame two years ago. A different person…with a different fate. Sakura had ensured that every time he had received the benefit of her care – through the illness, the crippling nerve damage he had suffered in the aftermath of his fight with Sasuke, and the fatal wound that he had taken during the last battle, with Madara…
…And in actuality, now that he thought about it, the idea that his life had been irrevocably changed just every time she had healed him, was flawed. It started much before then. Sakura had ensured that from the very first night that she had found her way into his life. He would never stop being grateful for the circumstances that had brought them both together.
Itachi cupped her face in both of his slightly trembling hands, ignoring the quizzical look in her eyes, and kissed her again, trying to convey all the emotion raging inside him with that one simple gesture. When they drew apart, at long last, Sakura blinked at him, her eyes looking suspiciously shiny, and then she lightly stroked the bridge of his nose with the tip of her finger. "What was that for?" she asked softly.
Itachi looked into her eyes unblinkingly, taking her hands in his. "…You have healed me in more ways than you could possibly imagine," he said slowly, carefully, but despite his best efforts, his voice shook a little. "…And I never want to let you go again."
The smile that spread across Sakura's face as soon as she comprehended the meaning of the words was one of the most beautiful things that Itachi had ever seen. She leaned forward and kissed him on the lips, the touch soft and light. "You'll never have to," she whispered, her voice catching in her throat, as she looked up at him. "I promise."
There was nothing that he could do now but stand up, and offer his hand to her, which he did. Sakura took it, playfully tapping her finger against the gentle smile that curved Itachi's lips as she rose to her feet. He wrapped an arm around her shoulder, and she slid hers around his waist, and as they walked back to the bedroom, turning the lights off as they did so, both of them reflected, separately, that the future had never looked brighter.
I would like to thank all of you so much for reading, and for your amazing patience in following this story from beginning to end. :) I am also tremendously grateful to everybody who has ever left any comments or feedback. I enjoyed reading every single one of them, and they gave me encouragement during every one of my occasional fits of writer's block.
Writing this story was really different, because in all of my previous ItaSaku fics, Itachi and Sakura met, instantly hated each other, and then eventually fell in love. With this one, I just wanted to do it in reverse…but then eventually work it around to the happy ending that I felt both of them deserved. So the idea for this piece, with Sakura's amnesia, has been lingering in my head for literally years, since after I completed Before The Dawn. It was wonderful to finally tell the story that I've wanted to for so long, and I hope that you enjoyed reading it as well.
There will also be an epilogue chapter coming up soon, to provide some insight into the rest of Itachi and Sakura's life together, and tie up a couple of loose ends. Until then, I would love to hear your thoughts, and as always, any and all feedback would be very much appreciated. :)