Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto.

This life starts with a heartbeat,

Is it beat, beat, beat, beat, beating me down, like the loser I am?

The sunset was tinting the village in bright hues of pink and orange, the tall trees of its forests creating black silhouettes in stark contrast. It was the beginning of summer, so it was already eight o'clock at night, and the air was still suffocatingly hot, bordering unbearable. In the shade, however, the summer's heat was something more tolerable.

After a long, peaceful day to himself, Uchiha Itachi now found himself reclined on the branch of a tall elm tree on the edge of Konoha's great woods the village had been named for. He much preferred to lounge here after training all day to returning to the Uchiha compound. His mother certainly complained about it, since it was rare when he got a day off, as the youngest ANBU captain in Konoha history.

She always argued that he hardly needed to train more, since he was only thirteen, and was already so highly ranked, but he disagreed. There was something worth being stronger for. If he wanted to be capable of protecting his family, he had to be more powerful than anyone else. That adage, there is always a bigger fish, stood true, and Itachi did not want to risk meeting someone capable of beating him, if it meant his family would be in danger.

He understood his mother's concern, because though she had once been a kunoichi herself, she had never wanted her children to follow in the footsteps of her and their father. As it was, though, Itachi was already a renowned shinobi, and his little brother had recently been enrolled in Konoha's ninja academy. It was what was expected of them both, as heirs to the Uchiha clan.

Besides, his mother had known what was expected of her when she had agreed to marry his father, head of their clan. One day, he too would be expected to find a suitable bride, preferably within the women of his clan. Momentarily, Itachi wondered if he would, like his father, feel proud of the macabre prizes his own children brought home with each defeat.

Somehow, it had not felt right to celebrate his first kill, but his father had seen him as the pride of his clan. He had been a child, and his mother would have interjected, saying he still was a child, even if he was given the burdens of a grown man. It had been a time of war, and though he still thought of that fateful day with uneasiness, killing his enemy had been necessary. It was either live as a killer, or die as an innocent child. He had chosen to live, accepting the consequences of being a murder, even if it meant being damned into hell.

His only hope now was that he could protect Sasuke from the fate he suffered. He was a child, and had never seen the horrors of war. Itachi suspected that he never would, considering how powerful Konoha had become, exiting that war. No one dared bother them, now that they were the strongest shinobi nation out of the five main hidden villages.

Now, if they were somehow weakened from the inside, that was a completely different matter. He knew that, for the longest time, the Uchiha clan had planned to overtake the village, but that had been quickly put to an end. Itachi had immediately gone to the Sandaime, hoping that the current Hokage would somehow be able to help. It had been a matter of top security in their village, and naturally, he had asked for consultation from his council of elders.

Danzo, the only of Konoha's elders that Itachi had not been too familiar with, since he was mostly in charge of an underground organization, kept deeper undercover than ANBU, had been hasty to suggest the clan be annihilated. Itachi had understood the warmonger's reasoning, but this idea was unacceptable. Killing his family, or letting someone else do so, was not something he could possibly do. Thankfully, the Hokage had resolved to reason with the Uchiha clan in a peaceful manner, and the issue had been dealt with.

Understanding that the Uchiha clan wished for a sense of power that had not been permitted to them by the Senju for generations, the Hokage had been able to give them what they deserved. Their clan had always been neglected, and not allowed to take part in Konoha's government. The Sandaime could see now that this had been unjust, and gave Uchiha Fugaku, the head of the Uchiha clan, a seat on his council.

Itachi was just glad his father had accepted the position he had been offered, rather than fighting. Perhaps his father was not as aggressive as he had originally thought, and only wanted justice for his clan.

Sighing to himself, Itachi propped his arms behind his back. Perhaps he would pick up a small snack before returning home. It still felt awkward within the walls of his clan's compound, because everyone knew that he had been the one to warn the Hokage of their intentions. He could not yet tell if they were angered by his actions, or relieved that he had gone to the Sandaime, so they had not needed to make such a drastic move to get what they wanted.

Either way, he knew that the feeling was pass in a year or two, and the mess would be completely forgotten. It was not as if they talked about him at all, and at least no one his age was aware of it, so he was still able to interact with some of the clan members. Not that he was much of a social person either way.

Silently contemplating over what he should pick up to snack on later, his thoughts were interrupted by the seemingly loud snap of a twig. Instantly, he was on his guard, crouched over on his branch with Sharingan spinning wildly and katana drawn. The culprit in question came tumbling into view a few seconds later, her pink hair flurried, her vivid, emerald eyes wide and terrified. He let out a breath of relief, sheathing his katana, before inspecting the young girl more closely.

The girl, whoever she was, had been badly beaten, and was covered with bruises. She did not seem to realize he was there, but the source of her fear, and the reason she had hobbled into his training area quickly made itself known with the sounds of laughter. His eyebrows knit together in curiosity as she brought her clenched fists up to her chest in a form of self-preservation and silently sobbed.

Her pursuers stalked into the training area soon after, cackling at her pathetic state, and sharing high-fives at their success at terrorizing the small girl. The group that had been following after the beaten child consisted mostly of other young girls in her age range, and perhaps a few that were a year or two older. What had stunned Itachi was that he recognized some of the faces bellow, who had spent the late afternoon tormenting the poor girl, by the looks of it.

Frowning, he observed as the group started to move towards to young girl, who had backed herself into the tree had been lazing in. He knew he could not knowingly let the group pick on her further, especially since some of the girls beneath him were from his own clan. Gracefully, he leapt from the tall elm's branch, landing with ease in front of the abused girl. He did not turn to see her reaction, instead glaring at the young girls who had been clearly torturing her earlier.

While most of the gang had run off in fear like the cowards they were, the Uchiha girls had known better. Either way, he would be speaking to their parents about their disgraceful behavior, but it was better that they faced him now, rather than later, when their parents had fully scolded them. He was the heir, and they automatically respected him, already in training to become a proper, Uchiha bride at their young age.

He crossed his arms though, and already he could sense their panic. "Is this any way for an Uchiha to act?" Itachi asked stonily, sending one of his most frightening scowls in their general direction. "I am most displeased with what I have seen."

The three Uchiha girls stared at their feet, unable to summon the strength to look him in the eye. He could tell that they had tears in their eyes, mortified that they had done anything considered shameful by the Uchiha heir. Satisfied, he commanded, "I want you to apologize."

"We're sorry, Uchiha-sama, for our disgraceful behavior," they intoned in unison, each still unable to look at him in shame.

"I didn't mean to apologize to me." He returned sternly, stepping aside to give them a full view of their own handiwork. The young girl stared up in shock, first at the young man who had come to her rescue, then at the three who had been bullying her all day. To say she was surprised that this mysterious boy cared enough to make them ask for her forgiveness.

Three heads shot up in surprise, clearly showing that they were not repentant for their actions in the least. Not that Itachi was too astonished by this, taking into account the battered girl's appearance.

Sakura was tempted to tell the boy who had appeared as if by magic that she was fine, and it was not necessary that he make them apologize to her. It was not as if this was the first time it had happened. Ever since she had entered the ninja academy, her classmates had done nothing but pester her for her abnormally large forehead. She was smart enough to know it was less because of her unusual characteristics, and more because she had one of the brightest minds in the class, and was Iruka-sensei's favorite.

She was under the impression that he would not appreciate if she said this though, so refrained herself from bothering him, when he had been so kind to save her to begin with. All she could think was that she was lucky she had run into this part of the forest, so he could swoop down and help her. It was the first time anyone had payed her much attention. Many people thought it was not right that a girl from a civilian family should be more knowledgeable than those from a shinobi background.

Much to her surprise, all three girls got onto their hands and knees, begging for her forgiveness. Their apology was stunning, though she was not deluded into thinking she was doing it for her sake. This boy, whoever he was, had some sort of power over them. Considering their matching, long black hair and pale skin, she could only guess that they were related somehow. That's right, the boy had said Uchiha. They must have been from the same clan.

For a second, she had been tempted to not accept their apologies, but after looking at their pitiful expressions, she could not help but smile. She was not the sort to hold anyone in contempt anyway. Only slightly relieved, the three girls ran off, leaving her alone with the strange, older boy.

He turned on her, his expression changing from the hard, pointed glare he had given her bullies to a blank, impassive one she could not read. She looked up at him in a sort of awe, wondering why an Uchiha would ever help her. Sakura was just another civilian girl, with no abnormal abilities or talent as a kunoichi in training. He had no reason to assist her, when several other shinobi had seen her being picked on, and never cared to come to her aid.

He reached to grab her chin gently, but before he could do so, she flinched away from him. Itachi was not sure why this bothered him so; it was understandable that a girl that had been beaten black and blue would be wary of him, especially since he had just scared off her tormentors. If anything, she must have thought him to be more formidable than they were. Exhaling slowly, he knelt down to her level, carefully inspecting the swelling bumps on her face and arms.

Not wanting to startle her, he reached into his back pouch, pulling out a tube of salve he always kept on hand, in case of sustaining injuries. Dabbing the tip of his finger with the thick ointment, he spread it over the sensitive skin of her face, then her bruised arms. Sakura subconsciously relaxed at his tentative care, even though she had flinched away from him a few moments before.

Finished, Itachi put the salve back into his weapons pouch. She stared up at him expectantly, as if waiting for him to back out of her personal space. He chuckled in his own amusement, parting her pink bangs to tap her forehead with his pointer finger. Sakura hardly knew what to do with this strange action, and continued to gaze up at him in confusion.

"Why were they picking on you?"

His tone had been unusually indifferent, lacking the care she had been expecting from someone who had just treated her injuries. Sakura blinked, turning away in embarrassment. She did not want to tell her rescuer the truth, that she was too weak to protect herself from bullies. She was all brains and no brawn, and needed someone there to keep the teasing children from shinobi families at bay.

Sakura did not even understand why they hated her so much. She had never done anything to them, at least, as far as she was concerned. Most of them, she had never even seen before the first day at the academy. Even then, she had never spoken with any of the shinobi children before attending. She lived in a normal, civilian family, that had never seen any true strife.

She hardly knew why she even wanted to become a shinobi, since she had never grown up around violence. Sakura just had that urge to protect her little family, and she knew she could do that, if she became a kunoichi. Her parents certainly did not approve of her choice, not wanting their only daughter to be corrupted by the savage ways of shinobi. They had undoubtedly expected their sole child to grow up and become a proper wife to some foreign businessman. That was what most civilian parents hoped for.

Perhaps she was not cut out for the life of a kunoichi, but Sakura still wanted to try. Maybe no one she knew wanted to help her, besides Iruka-sensei, but eventually, she wanted to do something useful for her village. She just had to get stronger.

Itachi realized that she was not going to respond so easily. He could see tears threatening to spill, and knew that he had to figure this out using a different tactic. He hardly knew why he even cared, but something about this little girl was unalike anyone else he knew.

"You are in the ninja academy, are you not?" He asked cautiously, drawing her teary gaze back to him. Biting her pink, lower lip, she nodded her head, sniffling quietly, wide, verdant eyes focussed on him. She certainly was bold with him, though he suspected that she had no idea who he even was, or his rank. If so, she was undoubtedly have been scrambling for her precious life, as the others had. He often had that sort of affect on people, especially those that were younger.

"Then why didn't you defend yourself against them?" Itachi questioned.

She whispered something so quietly, even his trained ears could not detect it, not that he needed to. Itachi had trained himself to read lips for the sake of espionage. As a shinobi, this skill often came into use.

"I'm not good enough."

Itachi hardly knew how to respond to this. He had never really experienced that feeling of being able to defend himself against his own peers. He took in her small body, knowing she probably was not able to keep up with other girls because of her petite form. This girl had grown up like any typical, civilian child, not eating the same foods and going through the same exercises that shinobi children often did. Compared to the others entering the ninja academy, she had been unprepared.

"Then become good enough," Itachi finally replied. It may have sounded cold coming from his mouth, but it was not ill-meant.

He watched as the girl's bottom lip quivered slightly, her fine, pink eyebrows scrunching together. Something in her erupted, and much to his incredulity, she shot forward, reaching small arms around him as she smothered her tears into his shirt. Completely caught off guard, he gaped down at her, the sound of her stifled sobs the only thing he could hear and his arms at his sides.

This was such a peculiar occurrence for him, and he was uncertain of how to comfort her. Sasuke had been a particularly whiny baby, but once he grew out of that stage, his habit of crying had been quickly put to an end by their father, as it had been inappropriate for an Uchiha son to act so childishly. Now, this little girl had thrown herself into his care, trusting him to comfort her, even if he did not know how.

It really should have bothered him, but for reasons Itachi could not explain, he found this unusually refreshing. In all honesty, no one trusted a shinobi with his experience, when they were aware of his violent past. This was what it meant to be ANBU, and he had accepted this willingly, knowing he was pushing others away by becoming so powerful. He was certainly admired by many, but feared to an extent that villagers walked on the other side of the street from him. Itachi was considered uncontrollable, even if his temper was calm and composed, and he had never harmed anyone besides his own enemies.

Yet, this girl he did not know had cast herself at him, not suspecting him able to dare hurt her, not that he would. He did not think her capable of the insight to see that he was no monster, even if his lifestyle caused him to act like one, and assumed that she was merely ignorant. Whatever the case, she had confidence in him, unlike anyone else of his acquaintance.

Though hesitant, Itachi he placed his palm down on the crown of her head, the other resting on her back. Much to his surprise, the slight measure of showing his sympathy gave him the sudden feeling of weightlessness. Even with Sasuke, he had never been able to do this, and he wished he had. The Uchiha clan did not value human contact in any form, so he had very little experience with it. Even his mother had not cuddled with him as a toddler, or any time, as far as he could remember.

Bewildered, he stayed in that position until she had exhausted herself, and could not cry any longer. Sniffling, she looked up at him again with those vibrant, demure orbs, long, moistened, pink eyelashes framing them elegantly. He could feel her soft, warm breath through his shirt, where her salty tears had soaked through the material. It felt surreally silent, as if he could nearly hear the subtle beating of her heart.

Awkwardly, she looked down at the wet marks on his shirt, whispering, "They were making fun of my forehead." Answering his first question at last. "Everyone keeps telling me it's too big," she added for his benefit. Understanding this, he gives her an uncharacteristic smile.

"Don't be ashamed of who you are." He replied lithely, releasing his hold on her.

With that, he turned, stepping lightly from the training grounds.

Sakura would never have been able to believe that she would one day see that boy that had saved her from bullies again. She had not known even his name, and had no idea that he was the older brother to her teammate and crush. Sakura had suspected that he was an Uchiha, but had not put too much thought into his strange appearance after it had passed. She doubted that he even remembered her, from all those years before.

She had only been picked on once after that, and then she had met Yamanaka Ino, one of her classmates. Like the strange boy had told her, Ino had told her that it would not do to hide her brow, as if she were humiliated by it. The fashionista she was, Ino had gladly helped her find a hairstyle that fit her nicely. To this day, she still wore her hair in the same way, only instead of a red ribbon, Sakura proudly displayed her forehead, tying her hair back with her hitai-ate.

Ino had helped her finally feel confident in herself, and they had become the closest of friends because of it. She and Ino had been practically inseparable, until they discovered something crucial. They both were infatuated with Uchiha Sasuke. He was the strongest boy in their class, and was definitely more smooth than anyone else. Sakura knew that most people saw him as cold, and apathetic, but she knew he was more than the dispassionate boy that everyone assumed he was.

Sakura had known that their friendship would not last, if they were trying to catch the attention of the same boy. She had chosen Sasuke, knowing that he would chose her over Ino. She was the smart one, and he had to be interested in that.

Now, though, she was face to face with her past again.

And she suddenly felt like she had not gotten stronger at all. This was the second time he would see her in such a pathetic, beaten state. She could only hope that he did not remember their first meeting.

It was in the middle of The Forest of Death, during their second test to the chunin exams. Sakura hardly knew what was going on, besides a creep named Orochimaru wanted Sasuke's sharingan. He had attacked her poor, dearest Sasuke-kun with a curse mark, and since then, her teammate had been unconscious and in pain. The worst part of it all, she could not do a thing about it.

After Orochimaru had attacked their team, Naruto was out, injured, and Sasuke had been feverish. Then, the snake who had left their team in absolute shambles had sent a few hit-men to kill them. More pathetic then the fact she had been taken lightly by Orochimaru was that she could not even defeat the shinobi that he had sent them. Naruto or Sasuke would have been able to handle them easily, but she could not.

Now, because of her, Lee had stepped into a fight he was not originally involved in, and got himself hurt. She would have cried, but he had seen that from her before, and she did not want to ever stoop to that level again. She just was too pitiful. Sasuke had finally gotten to his feet though, and had been about to defend her, when his brother appeared, as if out of thin air.

Sasuke had never introduced his brother to her and Naruto, and Sakura had never really been interested in knowing Itachi. All she knew was that Sasuke very nearly worshiped him, and that he was an ANBU captain. Besides that, she knew virtually nothing about Sasuke's illustrious, older brother. It was only know that it registered in her mind that she knew a little more about Uchiha Itachi than originally perceived.

He had been the one to tell her to become stronger, all those years before. She hated that she had not done a very good job of this, and had made herself more into a nuisance than anything else. When he had told her to not be ashamed of herself, she recognized what he had really meant. Don't be like them.

Sadly, she comprehended, Sakura had become just as superficial as the girls who had teased her for her appearance as a child. Once realizing she was in love with Sasuke, she had only cared for her looks, rather than doing what she had wanted to since entering the ninja academy. She was supposed to do something that mattered, and protect her special people. So far, she had not done that at all.

The man glanced back at her, or so she thought, until Sakura realized he was looking at Sasuke, not her. It was to be expected, that he would want to look after his younger brother, especially after he had been injured. Sasuke did not seem to like that his brother was there, hogging his glory, but Itachi would not be budged. In speeds that she could not read, he had knocked out each of Orochimaru's thugs, then tied them up.

Silently, he had summoned his brother towards him. Sakura watched as Sasuke stalked towards his older brother, fuming. Just moments before, he had been releasing a chakra that she had never felt from him before, and she wondered for a moment if it had to do with the curse mark Orochimaru had given him. She was not given much time to think though, before both Team Ten and Team Gai appeared out of the brush.

Hyuga Neji collected their teammate, glancing at the two Uchiha, before frowning and stalking off. Tenten, who she only knew slightly, shrugged, before sending her a grin and following after her teammates. They were gone as quickly as they had come.

Ino had approached her, then offered, "I can at least even your hair out before we go." Sakura dared not refuse her.

Her long, beautiful hair was gone, crudely cut to a bob when she had fought with the oto-nin. Sasuke was known for liking girls with long hair, and now, it would take years for her to grow her lustrous, pink locks out again, but she was beginning to muse if this was for the best. She needed to concentrate less on her physical beauty, and more on her training as a kunoichi. This chunin exam had proven that to her.

She would not be that weak, useless girl anymore, who could do nothing but stare at her teammate's backs. She loved Sasuke dearly, and had the feeling that would not change in a long time, but she had her priorities out of order. It was foolish, all the things she had done to make him notice her, and she had given up so much.

As Ino stood behind her, Sakura could not help wishing that she had never grown fond of Sasuke, and pushed their friendship aside. "Hey, Ino-pig."

The girl behind her growled under her breath. "What, Forehead?"

Sakura just spoke out with it. "Is Sasuke really worth the friendship we used to have?"

There was a long silence as this mulled over. Usually, Ino would have answered immediately, but she was too stunned by her question to answer straight out. It was Sakura that had decided that, because they both liked the same boy, they had to be rivals. Ino had been surprised when Sakura had so quickly ended their friendship, and angry that she thought that she had no say in the matter. Furious, she had accepted Sakura's wishes, becoming a nightmare.

Really though, she knew now that he was only one boy. The chances of either one of them getting him were slim, knowing how antisocial and cold he was. It was foolish, Sakura could not help to think, that she had sacrificed what would have been a friendship to last a lifetime for a boy who would never feel the same way that she did. She still cared very deeply for her teammate, but it was time she put her attention into something else.

Ino gave a long, weighty sigh. "I'm not giving him up to anyone, even you."

This was far from being the answer Sakura had been looking for, but she accepted it. Ino may have not known Sasuke as much as she did, not being on a genin team with him, but she still held an affection for him that was hard to hold a candle to. Sakura knew that she and Ino were not the only ones to be infatuated with Sasuke; practically every girl in the village had a crush on him. It was pointless.

Ino finished with her hair, handing her a mirror. Sakura glanced at herself in the small compact, smiling softly. Her pink hair was now a bob, just barely reaching her chin, yet she could not help liking the way she looked. It was different to be sure, but seemed to fit her face much better. This would represent her decision to never become so superficial again. Her training as a kunoichi would now come first. Sakura resolved then to never let her hair grow out again.

Closing her eyes tiredly, she quietly thanked Ino, handing back the mirror. Her face was bruised and bloody, but she supposed that there was nothing she could really do about it for the time being. She glanced curiously at the two Uchiha brothers as the conversed, hoping her teammate was fine, after such a threatening fever and curse put onto him. A few moments later, they concluded their discussion, the younger brother stalking off in a huff, his hands shoved into his pockets.

Her heart could not help clenching as he walked towards her. He did not stop though, making his way past her then stopping at Naruto. Her shoulders slumped slightly, even if she had been expecting it.

Itachi had noticed the pink haired girl since his appearance. He could easily recognize her as the same girl he had once defended at thirteen years old. Itachi was simply surprised to learn that she was the Haruno Sakura on his younger brother's team. It should not have been so shocking, after all, the name fit her appearance scarily well.

He grimaced, remembering what he had told her five years previous. It appeared that she had been working on it, at least, but not nearly hard enough to survive the chunin exams. She was lucky to still be in one piece.

Slowly breathing out through his nose, he reached for the ointment in his back pouch. He advanced towards her, belatedly wondering if he should seriously apply it on her face again, as he had last time. It hardly felt appropriate to do it again, especially with the audience. He settled however, that it did not matter much. They were both shinobi, and it was normal to share supplies between colleagues.

She turned red with shame as he sat across from her, unable to look in his direction. In that instance, she had not changed much from the child he had helped years before. Unscrewing the cap to the tube of ointment, she knew better than to wait for him to force her to face him properly, like he had the time before.

He had removed a glove to spread the salve onto her face, and his skin was rough and calloused from his life as a shinobi. He was gentle though, and startlingly silent. The atmosphere he created managed to smother her under its pressure. She felt that she should say something, to acknowledge that she remembered him from that late afternoon years before, but did not want to make it more uncomfortable than it already was.

As seconds ticked past, however, she could not bear it any longer. She just had to tell him that she remembered what he had done for her. Somehow, though, she could not find the right words. At last, she relented, and said, "You must think I'm a fool."

The fact she had the courage to speak to him startled Itachi, not that he minded. By now, as a graduate of the ninja academy, she must have known his name, and his reputation. Yet, she still seemed to hold no fear for him. Either she did not care that he was skilled beyond his years, or was oblivious. He could see in her eyes, though, that she was much too intelligent to be ignorant of who he was. She knew he had been a member of the ANBU Black Operatives since he was her age, or even younger.

He sort of liked that she wanted to speak to him, strangely enough. "I do not know you well enough to make that sort of assumption on your character." He replied eloquently, before adding, "Though, you do seem fond of getting yourself into trouble. I would have hoped last time would be the last seeing you in such a state."

She smiled weakly, sighing. "I'm not very cut out for this, am I?"

Itachi frowned. That was not what he had implied, but she did seem sort of weak, as far as her fighting skills went. This girl, Haruno Sakura, had a certain brightness to her though, that made it obvious she could become a formidable kunoichi, if she truly put her heart to it. He had seen people grow through this process, and knew that she was simply a late bloomer. One day, she would be looked upon as one of the most powerful shinobi of her generation, he could tell.

"No, I would not say that." He answered calmly. She watched as he placed his tube of cream, which if she remembered correctly, worked rather well, back into his back pouch.

"However, I do believe that you have yet to learn to accept." Itachi murmured, lifting strands of shortened, pink hair to her eye level. With that he stood, giving Sasuke a glance, as if to say he needed to look after his team members better. Then, he was gone, leaving a very confused crowd of genin in his wake.

Not that Sakura was ever going to dare explain how she knew the Uchiha heir. Really though, she hardly did know him. Whatever the case, Sasuke did not look pleased.

A/N: I got this out much faster than I anticipated. Consider this chapter a sort of prologue, if you will. The rest of this fic will be set five years in the future, when Sakura is eighteen.

If you were wondering what the lyrics were from in the beginning of the chapter, they were by Atreyu, in there song Gallows.