No Strings Attached

Itachi, Sakura, a cold, rainy night, and a hot spring. Before The Dawn AU.

AU after Chapter Fifteen. Itachi and Sakura continue traveling together and plotting to destroy Madara, but after their hook-up on the night of his birthday, the two of them begin a strictly "friends-with-benefits" relationship.

The place that they were staying in for the night had their own indoor hot spring facility.

The two of them had mutually agreed that this asset was worth paying an extra one hundred and fifty ryou for their room. The inn on the other side of town was cheaper, yes, but also much smaller. They could afford this indulgence, in any case. And even though it was still summer and there should have been no need for a hot spring anyway – monsoon season had just started, and they had been stuck in a surprisingly strong downpour for two hours while hunting down their target.

As it always did, the wind made Sakura's head ache and her body feel frozen from the inside out, and she could tell from the look on Itachi's face and the set of his shoulders that the rain had made the muscles in his back go stiff again. He had told her once that when he was young (taking the chunin exams at eight years old) he had been fighting against three opponents. One of them had sliced his back open with a katana, in a wide gash that traveled from his left shoulder to his right hip. The medics had done a decent job of healing it up, but the scar remained – Sakura had measured it with the length of her hand the last time they had been in bed together – and it still bothered him, when it rained.

She placed the keys to the room on the dresser, glancing around the dimly lit room appraisingly. The bed was large and looked soft, and thankfully, it was piled high with blankets. The prospect of crawling in right now and wrapping herself in them, before letting the steadily pounding sound of the rain lull her to sleep, was appealing. But one of her many quirks was that no matter what, she could never get into bed without a hot shower first. It thawed her out and made her feel clean and human again, especially on nights like these.

Sakura directed a questioning look over at Itachi, who had shed his soaking wet Akatsuki cloak and hung it out to dry on the back of a chair. As he always did, he understood the wordless query perfectly, and shook his head slightly. He looked as stressed and exhausted as she felt. "You may have the shower. I am going to the hot springs."

"All right," Sakura replied, leaning down and working her boots off her calves and aching feet. She gave a sigh of pure relief as her cold, bare toes sank into the plush warmth of the carpet. "Take the keys, then. I might be asleep by the time you get back."

Itachi nodded his assent, before wordlessly leaving the room. The sound of the door shutting behind him was heavy and oddly final, and Sakura stayed still for several moments, before gradually making her way to the bathroom, unbuckling her skirt and tossing it aside as she did so. Even the prospect of the hot shower and a good night's sleep – and a feather bed and soft pillows and comfortable blankets, luxuries that she'd hardly had since leaving Konoha – did little to alleviate the sudden wave of disheartened melancholy that swept over her, as she slowly stripped the rest of her clothes off, hanging them up on the towel rack. The room was nice, sure, but the silence felt thick and oppressive, weighing her down like solid lead. Despite her state of physical exhaustion, she felt restless, somehow, and uncomfortable. Whether it was here or in her own skin, she couldn't tell.

This was loneliness; Sakura detachedly recognized that much, after a short delay. It was the same terrible, creeping, disconcerting feeling that had plagued her in the months after she had fled Konoha, after Danzou's takeover. She used to force herself to get through the days on autopilot, and then huddle under the covers at night, unable to sleep, unable to relax; craving the company of her parents, long gone…even before the coup…and the friends she had left behind. Naruto, Ino, Shikamaru, Chouji, Tsunade-shishou, Shizune, Tenten and all the rest. She had longed for them, for affectionate human contact with her most beloved people, with the same overwhelming intensity that somebody starving to death longed for just one bite of food. That had been the worst part of those months after leaving Konoha. It wasn't the fear of the teams of Root hunter-nin that had been sent after her, but the all-encompassing, cold, pervasive sense of loneliness. It had been so awful that sometimes, she had felt like she was going to die from it.

What she was feeling now wasn't the same degree of crippling pain, but it was bad enough. She hadn't realized it earlier, but she had wanted Itachi's company tonight. Not like that, not like they usually did – but it would have been so nice to just snuggle up with him under the covers, and rest her head against his chest, and talk until sleep claimed them both.

The thought made her chest feel strangely tight. Sakura climbed into the shower stall hurriedly, turning the tap on and sticking her toe under the flow of water to test the temperature. She winced at the cold; it made her feel even worse, and she forced herself to wait patiently for the water to heat up.

It wasn't any use to entertain thoughts like that, she told herself, for the hundredth time. That wasn't…that wasn't the kind of relationship that she and Itachi had.

Relationship? Inner Sakura snorted brutally, within the confines of her own mind. Please. You can't even call this a 'relationship.' It's just—

Sex, Sakura completed flatly, numbly watching her foot shiver from the cold. She turned the knob as far as it would go to the red side, willing the hot water to come on already. It was possible that most of it was being directed to the hot springs.

It was true. It wasn't anything more than that. Sure, when they had first stupidly, impulsively hooked up on the night of Itachi's twenty-first birthday, she had thought that it would be more; that it would be the beginning of a real relationship. But the morning after, and all the days and weeks that followed, Itachi had made it clear that…it wasn't.

He just went back to treating her the same as he always had, with his usual quiet, reserved demeanor and polite courtesy. He never once acknowledged what had happened between them.

Sakura shied away from the memories of those first few weeks afterward. They were too painful to remember; her hurt and confusion was still too raw. It had taken her a while to understand that Itachi hadn't viewed what happened between them in the same way she had. In reflection, it hadn't been much of a surprise. While she had always longed for a real relationship, Itachi still had too many issues to make one work. She doubted that he even knew how to be somebody's partner, in a romantic sense.

But that didn't mean that he didn't have desires, Sakura reflected somewhat bitterly, as she finally pulled her foot back and stepped out of the shower stall, wrapping the towel around herself. It was no use for now; she would try again in a few minutes, or attempt to summon the initiative to go to the hot springs herself. She went to the mirror and ran her fingers through her damp, tangled hair, carefully smoothing out the knots and looking at her bedraggled reflection without taking anything in.

Yes, like any living, breathing human, Itachi had desires, and he had found her a willing and available outlet for them, on the night of his birthday…and the several, several more incidences after that. She hardly even remembered what had triggered the second time, only that she had been healing one of his injuries after a mission, and he had leaned in and kissed her by way of thanks.

By then, Sakura's naïve little illusions were gone, and when she had responded to him, she knew – feeling a cold knot form inside her stomach and her eyes sting with repressed tears, even as she wrapped her arms around Itachi's neck and pressed herself close – exactly what she was getting into. From conversations with Ino, she was aware that not everybody had the same feelings that she did. For a lot of people, especially shinobi, sex was just stress relief. And apparently Itachi was one of them.

She had never wanted to be in a relationship – an arrangement – whatever – like this. Sakura had never been able to understand the appeal of casual, no-strings-attached sex. While Itachi was obviously very content with it…no matter what she tried to tell herself, it didn't make her happy, not really. And yet, saying no wasn't really an option.

Well, that wasn't right. It was an option, but it was one that she couldn't bring herself to take. She knew that Itachi would never force her or anything like that, and he would still care for her as a partner if she told him that she wanted their current arrangement to come to an end, but—

Sakura sighed, turning her back to the mirror and leaning against the wall, and she raked her fingers through her hair, unable to come to terms with the feelings of frustration and disgust and self-loathing that welled up inside her. She found herself on the verge of tears, as she always was whenever she thought about this particular issue for too long, but she was already too drained to give in and cry.

She could listen to Inner Sakura and her common sense and stop whatever was going on between them right now. It would be simple, easily done in one sentence: the next time he reached out to her, she could just say, I'm sorry, I'm not comfortable with doing this anymore. It would be the kinder and less painful thing to do for her. But she didn't want to. There was no point denying any longer that she had feelings for Itachi – that she had, for a long time. It ran deeper than the physical attraction that he obviously had for her, and even deeper than the platonic friendship and caring that had sprung up between them initially. That was the entire reason she was so unsatisfied with the way things were now – she desperately, desperately wanted more than what he was able or willing to give her.

And yet, Sakura reflected dully, as she stepped out of the bathroom and headed for the door, it's better than nothing. With things as they were right now, she could still be close to Itachi, even if it wasn't exactly in the way that she wanted. When they were together, she could pretend that it meant more than it did. Their sexual encounters alleviated her ever-present loneliness; his touch and attention was the closest thing to love and affection that she had experienced since her parents died and Danzou took over Konoha and Tsunade-shishou was killed and Naruto left. And sex was physically gratifying, at least, and it helped her sleep. And it made Itachi happy – as happy as Itachi could be, anyway – and as stupidly and pointlessly and foolishly in love with him as she was, she was glad that she could do something for him.

The inn's hallways were deserted, as it was so late, so she didn't feel self-conscious at padding barefoot through the halls toward the hot springs, clad in only the white towel. It was easy to find the women's changing rooms, and Sakura felt her shoulders relax fractionally as she stepped inside. The air was as warm and damp as a sauna. She showered quickly but thoroughly, scrubbing herself with the bar of mint-scented soap that had been provided. After drying herself with the towel and wrapping it around her again, she entered the springs, looking around quietly.

The room was achingly familiar; it looked exactly like the bath house in Konoha, where she and her fellow kunoichi would often go to unwind after missions. The floor and walls were all dark wood, and the springs were large and rectangular, steam emanating from the water. There was a barrier and a large screen that separated the men's and women's sides, as usual. The women's side of the springs was empty, as was the men's…save for one. Itachi reclined against the opposite wall, leaning against the barrier and looking as comfortable and relaxed as Sakura had ever seen him, as the hot water lapped against his chest. His skin was flushed from the heat, his damp, unbound hair clinging to his muscled arms, and she tried not to stare. His towel was neatly folded in a square and deposited behind his head. At the sound of the door, as soft as it was, he cracked one eye open, and then raised an eyebrow in acknowledgement.

Sakura gave him a small wave, before walking out of his sight, past the barrier and toward the women's bathing area. There were a few moments of silence, and then above the soothing rush of the water, Itachi heard the rustle of fabric, a few soft splashing sounds that indicated that she had climbed inside, and then a soft sigh of contentment. He closed his eyes again and leaned back, relaxing against the soothing pulse of the jets of steaming water, and he felt a small smile tug at the corners of his lips. He understood Sakura's reaction. The Uchiha compound had its own bath house, and he had always looked forward to returning home from missions and attempting to clear his mind with a long, hot soak.

Unfortunately, as much as Itachi enjoyed it, he hadn't had the opportunity to do that more than a handful of times since his forced defection from Konoha, so many years ago. Bath houses and hot springs were by nature so heavily frequented and social in nature that he and Kisame had to avoid them, just to be safe.

Kisame was in Waterfall with Hidan now, still unaware of his resurrection at Pein and Konan's hands. The last he and Sakura had heard, with Kisame and Madara's help, Hidan had assumed control of Waterfall and was now its Kage. Itachi frowned at the troubling thought. If Hidan had been successfully installed as leader, would that mean Madara wanted Kisame to form a plan to take Mist?

Although Madara's scheme was what he and Sakura had been determinedly working against for the past three months, the thought of Kisame as Mizukage was almost enough to make Itachi laugh. He envisioned it – flowing robes and hat and all – and decided that if it wasn't in the context of Madara's plan, Kisame would make a very good Mizukage indeed. He actually did laugh quietly then, unable to keep it suppressed for any longer.

But then he heard an unmistakable shriek come from the far side of the tall barrier, and all vestige of amusement and relaxation disappeared abruptly. Itachi sat up straight and his eyes snapped open, his gaze instantaneously flickering around the room, cataloguing every tiny detail. The door to the springs was closed as Sakura had left it, there was no trace of foreign chakra in the room, nor any other sign of disturbance. He quickly placed his hand on the concrete barrier, feeling his chest tighten with foreboding. He had never wished for the Hyuuga bloodline limit or Sakura's super strength as much as he did now. "Sakura?" Itachi called, hearing his worried tones echo around the room.

She had said that she was tired earlier; she might have had a muscle cramp and slipped under the water unexpectedly…and yet, the thought – the fear – of Madara refused to be dispelled. There were certain techniques that allowed experienced genjutsu users to attack somebody from a great distance away… Itachi gripped the edge of the wall, getting ready to rise. "Sakura? Are you all right?"

"I'm fine!"

Sakura's voice was shaky, but sounded otherwise normal, and Itachi realized that she was much closer now than when she had initially cried out – directly across from him, on the other side of the barrier, if he guessed correctly. He imagined her small hand pressed against the wall, opposite his own, and Itachi moved restlessly, wishing that there was some way he could see her. If she had been hit by a remote genjutsu, he would be able to tell from looking into her eyes. "What happened?"

"Here," Sakura replied, her voice muffled by the wall. "It'll be easier this way, I don't want to yell. Come to the corner."

No sooner than he had wedged himself into the corner between the rectangular springs' bathing area and the wall, was there a massive crunching, grinding sound. Right before Itachi's startled gaze, the entire concrete barrier shifted to the side a few inches. The movement allowed him a limited view of the breathless Sakura, who appeared to have pried the concrete away from the wall with her bare hands. "Sorry," she managed. She appeared to be shivering; her arms were wrapped around her chest, and her wet, bright hair was a stark contrast to how pale her skin had suddenly become. "I was sitting at the far end, near the jets. I guess I must have dozed off or something. I think the water heater for this side might have given out for a second, maybe because of the storm. There was this rush of absolutely freezing water…"

She sighed ruefully, sinking deeper into the lukewarm water that had begun to seep into Itachi's side of the springs, thanks to the displaced barrier, and looking at him with those large, doe-like eyes of hers…which were unmistakably genjutsu-free. "Sorry. I really didn't mean to bother you."

Sakura made to slide the wall back into place, but Itachi stayed her hand on impulse, without even fully thinking about it. "The water is better on this side," he told her softly. It was true; despite the brief influx of cooler water, this side of the indoor springs was still quite literally emitting steam. "If you want to come over."

Sakura brushed her fingers against his, as Itachi reflected that the best thing about their changed relationship was that he no longer had to strictly watch his tongue to keep from making statements or offers that ran the risk of sounding like inappropriate sexual advances. She finally smiled a little shyly and withdrew. "I think I will."

Itachi pulled his hand away as the wall crunched back into place. He settled back against the side of the springs, reclining comfortably. He heard the splash that indicated Sakura must have pulled herself out of the water, and he hesitated briefly, before turning his head toward the concrete barrier and studying its spiderweb cracks and ridges with feigned interest. His peripheral vision was still functional, though, and it allowed him to notice – notice briefly, not stare like a dog at a bone, he hastily told himself – that Sakura had eschewed wrapping the towel around herself for the few steps' walk required to get to the men's side of the springs.

It was true that he had seen her naked quite a few times in the past few months, but…still. It was unseemly to stare, and Itachi kept studying the nondescript wall until he heard Sakura slip into the water, and then – after a few moments of indecision – paddle over to join him.

The water was deliciously hot here, and Sakura felt the tension seep out of her muscles all over again. She felt warm from the inside out; from the tingle of her skin to the fullness of her heart. It had everything to do with the water, and nothing to do with the company, she told herself. Itachi moved a little to the side, making room for her, and Sakura joined him. The pressure of the jets of water against her back felt every bit as good as a real massage, and she practically melted, looking up at Itachi gratefully. "Thanks. This feels really nice."

He nodded in assent, lifting one hand to rub the back of his neck. "It would be excellent if every place that we stayed had these kinds of accommodations."

"It would be great if we could afford that," Sakura replied dryly. "If the storm blows over, we'll probably have to spend the next week camping outdoors and sleeping on the hard, cold ground to conserve funds and make up for this little indulgence." She lifted a finger and ran it down the part of his scar that was visible. "How's your back?"

Her touch had been brief, the concern in her voice genuine, and although he was submerged in heat, Itachi felt a brief shiver go down his spine nevertheless. "Better," he said shortly. "Enough to withstand the abuses promised by the coming week." Although that had definitely not been his intention in inviting her here, he felt his gaze drawn to the lines of Sakura's neck and her bare shoulders, down to the skin of her exposed upper shoulder blades. So simple, and yet so fascinating, and he found himself imagining – remembering – retracing the path his eyes had just taken, with lips and teeth instead.

The memories were powerful, and Itachi took a deep breath. Sakura was looking away, toward the door, and he felt her twitch of surprise when he traced two fingers across the back of her neck, and then slowly moved them over her shoulder blades. She practically trembled, looking down at the water and moving her legs closer to his, and he used his thumb to rub a gentle, slow circle against the place where her neck met her shoulder. "Yours?" he asked quietly.

"Excellent," Sakura responded, a little shakily, and Itachi wished that he knew what she was thinking – if this was a simple physiological reaction or if she really – "just excellent."

Sakura curled against him fully, then, turning to the side and leaning her face against the top of his chest, near his neck, and her other hand came up to rest squarely on his heart. Itachi could feel her breathing, every inhale and exhale, and he spared a moment to wrap his arms around her, enjoying the change in position. Sakura leaned into the embrace, enjoying the warmth and intimacy of it. While Itachi did usually hold her afterward, he rarely physically expressed affection or a desire for closeness at other times. Her bare chest was pressed to his, and the feeling of hard muscle against her sensitive breasts sent tingles all over her body and straight to her core.

She felt the hard metal of his necklace pressing against the skin of her temple, though, and she moved her face slightly, tilting it upward and kissing his neck, where the necklace lay against it. Sakura felt Itachi's intake of breath, and she looked up to see him watching her, an unreadable expression in his dark gray eyes. She touched the necklace's abstract metal flowers, wondering for the millionth time who had given it to him. Whoever it was…he or she must have been very precious to him. She had never seen him take the necklace off.

"You shouldn't wear this in the water," she told him earnestly. "You don't want it to tarnish, because this kind of silver never looks the same, even when it's re-polished. Ino had this ring once, and—"

Sakura hadn't even finished the sentence by the time Itachi cut her off with a kiss. His lips were warm, as were his hands where they gripped her upper arms, and she could sense the intoxicating mix of hunger and passion all wrapped up into one. The thought of all that emotion, directed at her, never failed to drive her wild. He wants me for me, she tried to convince herself then, just as she always did when they started this. Not just because I'm the only person available.

Sakura reached up, moving even closer to Itachi and wrapping her arms around his neck, kissing him back with equal abandon. She felt his soft sigh of contentment, and she raked her short fingernails against the skin of his shoulder blades as their lips met over and over again, each kiss seeming more desperate and intense than the last. Finally, Itachi's hands moved downwards, until – it was surprising how skin could respond to touch even underwater, the pink-haired kunoichi noted hazily – they reached her waist, and he easily pulled her into his lap, so that she straddled his thighs. Sakura gasped at the feeling, almost falling forward, and supporting herself by twining her fingers into his hair. "What are you doing?"

"I thought that this would be more comfortable," Itachi replied seriously, gently pulling her forward, and Sakura couldn't help but moan softly at the way their chests pressed against each other. But instead of kissing her as she had expected, he wrapped his fingers in her hair and drew her close, and then he kissed the soft spot behind her ear…before turning the lingering touch into the most gentle of bites.

Sakura trembled from head to toe as Itachi continued to trail similar kisses down the side of her neck. The light scrape of his teeth against the delicate tendons, along with the play of his hands down her bare back… She buried her head against his neck, overwhelmed. After a few moments of struggling to decide how to best reciprocate his attentions, she stretched up a little, taking his earlobe between her teeth and tugging at it ever so slightly, while caressing the hard planes of his chest. Itachi's lips froze on her neck. "Stop that," he murmured. "You're distracting me."

Sakura giggled despite herself, taking a break from nibbling along the shell of his ear. "That was the point."

Itachi frowned, and retaliated by lifting her higher up on his lap, triggering another sharp gasp at the change in position. It gave her the height advantage for once, and he smirked a little at the look on her face. "Careful, Sakura," he breathed, nuzzling against her ear. "You're bruising my shoulders."

Mortified, Sakura released him, and then wrapped her arms around his neck instead, uncaring that they were now pinned between him and the wall. She apologized, her face burning – it wasn't the first time she had forgotten about her strength in an…intimate…context, as embarrassing as it was. Itachi almost always ended up with a remarkable array of bruises on his upper arms, shoulders, and back, which she always blushingly healed the next morning. On a couple of separate incidents, she had nearly broken his collarbone and his ribs. She had gotten much better at avoiding that, though.

To her relief, he actually had a sense of humor about it, in his own very subtle way. Right now, his lips curved upward a fraction of an inch, for about a second – one of the most open displays of amusement that she had seen from him recently. But then Itachi's gaze slowly traveled downward…about eight inches from her eyes. Though his hands remained at her waist, Sakura unconsciously responded to the look as she would have to his touch, arching her back toward him a little and pushing her shoulders backwards. Itachi was a gentleman and hardly ever stared (or he was too good of a shinobi to get caught, and managed to do so while she was unaware, Inner Sakura pointed out dryly), so on the rare occasion that he did, it made her feel…

Sakura lost her train of thought then, as Itachi moved his hands up the side of her body in a slow caress, until his fingers traced the sensitive skin right underneath and around her breasts. He took his time, but when his thumbs finally brushed and teased first one nipple, and then the other, she hazily wondered if he could feel how hard her heart was pounding. She was practically panting for breath, and she felt consumed by heat everywhere. She tangled her fingers in his hair, biting her lip to keep from moaning out loud.

"It's all right," Itachi murmured, his voice low, eliciting just as much of a physical response from her as everything else he was doing. "I'm sure you'll find a way to make it up to me."

Itachi leaned forward and pressed a warm kiss against the flushed skin at the hollow of her throat, still cupping her breasts, and Sakura closed her eyes, overwhelmed already, as he took his time traveling lower, his hands sliding down to grip her hips. Don't bother, she wanted to say, even as she arched even further into his touch. They were both already aroused to the maximum anyway. On nights like this, when they were both consumed by stress, it didn't take much to get each other wound up and ready. Tonight had already been overkill. Last time, she had given Itachi one look and a suggestive touch to the arm, and they had ripped one another's clothes off and ended up in bed a mere few minutes later.

But at the same time, Sakura kind of liked when he paid her a lot of attention like this, visually or otherwise. She had always been insecure and self-conscious about her small breasts and whether men would really find them sexually appealing. The first time she and Itachi had hooked up, she had been overwhelmingly nervous about letting him see her topless. But he had put her fears to rest, on that night and all the times that had followed.

Itachi's mouth closed over the sensitive peak of her breast then, and all thought was wiped clean from Sakura's mind as she gave a sharp gasp. No matter how many times they did this, it still had as powerful an effect on her as it had the first time. She was vaguely conscious of whimpering or moaning his name, and grinding her hips in time with the movement of his mouth and tongue. He held her as still as he could, eventually kissing his way over to her other breast, and by the time he finally drew back, Sakura could hardly see straight for arousal. Itachi looked all too pleased with himself – goodness, this was embarrassing, her inner self groaned with mortification, and she privately resolved to go down on him again sometime soon, just to turn the tables.

The thought and memory made her even hotter, and Sakura could practically feel the way her gaze went momentarily out of focus. She noticed that Itachi's eyes had darkened until they were nearly black, as well, and he took her face in both of his hands, pulling her in for a long kiss.

By the time they released one another, Sakura was even more breathless. Itachi's shoulders were rising and falling much harder than usual as he stared at her, and she could relate. She wanted him so badly that it actually hurt. But…

"Should we go back to the room?" the pink-haired kunoichi asked uncertainly, knowing even as she said it that it wouldn't work. She realized their mistake now. They had let it go too far – the second they had started making out, they should have gotten out of the springs and gone back to their room. The thought of getting up now, getting dried and dressed, walking back to their room, and then doing it seemed, without a doubt, completely impossible. And although she was always willing to try something different, doing it on the hard wooden benches in the changing rooms would be uncomfortable.

Sakura could tell that the same thoughts were running through Itachi's mind. Even as preoccupied as she was, she smiled at the barely perceptible look of consternation on her partner's face. But then his gaze flickered over to the closed door and back to her again, and upon catching his meaning, her breath caught in her throat. "No," she managed, utterly scandalized.

She was completely shocked – and a little turned on, to be honest – at the thought of prim, proper Itachi suggesting such a thing. Sex in an onsen or bath house was the ultimate social faux pas, after all. She still remembered how she had actually snorted tea up her nose after discovering that Genma and Shizune had been issued a lifetime ban from Konoha's bath house for doing just that.

"It must be past midnight, Sakura," Itachi replied, sounding as sensible as always, while trailing his fingers up and down her thigh. It tingled, even underwater. "Everybody else in the inn is likely asleep. I cannot sense any presences in the changing room or the nearby hallways."

Sakura sighed, debating the pros and cons at length while running her hands over his muscled upper arms, and then she pressed a kiss to the sharp ridge of his collarbone. "Fine," she relented, at last, before fixing him with a warning glare. "But if we get caught and kicked out of the inn, it is so your fault."

Realizing that she was teasing, Itachi made a small, amused sound in the back of his throat, as he curled his fingers around the back of her thigh. "That is a risk that I am willing to take."

He tugged her closer, and all the breath left Sakura's body in a combined sigh and moan as she settled on top of him. She braced her hands on his shoulders, her entire body trembling. Itachi closed his eyes, letting his head fall backward as a soft, involuntary sound worked its way free of his throat. They stayed like that, breathing hard, for a few moments, before he finally placed his hands on her hips to guide her as she moved with him.

Sakura was grateful for the help – she had never been a natural when it came to being on top. The expression on Itachi's face perfectly mirrored the white-hot pleasure and ecstasy that lanced through her with every slow grind. He didn't seem to mind the way she raked her short nails over the back of his neck and shoulder blades, the same as she actually enjoyed the feeling of his long fingers digging into the skin of her hips. All of that seemed to pale in comparison to everything else they were doing, and Sakura was vaguely aware of the way her wanton moans were echoing around the room, but she couldn't bring herself to care.

She leaned forward, changing their position a little bit and earning a soft exhalation of surprise from Itachi, before burying her head in the side of his neck, overwhelmed. This was why, no matter what her doubts and anguish were in the light of day…why she would never end this arrangement between them. When he was on top of her, wrapped around her, inside her, most of her ever-present loneliness – that eternal ache – was alleviated, and Sakura had to bite her lip to keep his name from escaping her mouth.

But she thought it, and as over-sensitized and overstimulated as she was, Sakura came undone hard. She pressed her face into Itachi's damp, unbound hair – still as soft as silk against her flushed cheek – to muffle her voice as she cried out. It took a little while for her to even begin to recover from the shockingly intense climax, and by that time, she could already hear the soft sounds Itachi was making as he held her close. His grip on her tightened to the point where it was almost painful, and then he came as well, her name leaving his lips in a ragged, tortured-sounding gasp.

They clung on to each other for quite some time, and there was no sound in the springs save for their mingled gasps for breath and the rush of the water as it lapped against their bodies and the walls. Itachi's arms slid up to wrap around her, holding her in a proper embrace, and Sakura reciprocated the contact eagerly, resting her head against his shoulder and nestling against his chest. She could hear the comfortable, steady rhythm of his heartbeat; she could feel her body rise and fall with every slight movement of his chest, and she closed her eyes, feeling truly contented for the first time since she'd woken up in the morning.

She could have happily stayed like that forever, but after a while, she felt Itachi's hand brush against her cheek, ever so slightly, until she opened his eyes and looked up at him. "Sakura," he said quietly and a little hoarsely, drawing back. "Come. We can't sleep here."

He was right. As reluctant as she was to leave the comfort of the hot water – to move at all; these moments between them were fleeting and far between – Sakura lifted her head, reluctantly untangling herself from him. When she pulled herself from the water, her muscles feeling more loose and relaxed than they had in recent memory, she noted with displeasure that thanks to the prolonged water exposure, her skin had become wrinkled and pruny, like a raisin. Not her best look by any means.

"Do you want to go and get your clothes?" Itachi suggested, as he wrapped the towel around his waist and wrung out his long hair.

"I didn't bring anything, just the towel," Sakura confessed, as she did the same. She knew it was a little irrational, but she felt…weird, after what they had just done, having such a mundane conversation. It should be no surprise, her inner self said coolly. This was how it always had been – incredibly hot sex by night, and back to business by the next morning. "It was late, and the water in the room was running cold, so…"

"It's all right. We can both dry off." All traces of stress and tension seemed to have been washed away in the bath. Itachi looked positively languid, and as stupid and dysfunctional and contrary that she was, she still felt pleased, somehow, that she had helped with that.

They made their way to the men's changing rooms in silence, not touching. The room was warm but pleasantly dry, unlike the women's room. Itachi made his way to the shelf where he had deposited his neatly folded clothes, and Sakura gave a quiet sigh of pleasure, reaching up and tousling her wet, unbound hair in the hopes it would dry a little before bed. She was immersed in the process of detangling the disarrayed locks when she suddenly felt a warm, soft – but heavy – weight settling on her shoulders.

She turned, startled, to see a dry and dressed Itachi draping a fresh towel around her. Before Sakura could react, he tugged the damp towel she was wearing to the floor, and then began to matter-of-factly rub her down with the new one. The feeling of his hands through the thick material made her arch her body into his touch all over again, and, trying to hide her surprise, the pink-haired kunoichi reached up, bringing chakra to her hands and running them through his hair from root to tip, drying it with every stroke. Itachi tilted his head to the side a little, looking surprised yet fascinated, and evidently enjoying the caress. He kept rubbing the towel over her arms, but his eyes bled from their usual charcoal-gray to the deep crimson of his bloodline limit, and Sakura knew that he was copying the technique.

She dried her own hair while Itachi finished drying her off, at one point sinking to his knees to deal with her calves and feet. Why would he do this? she thought, staring down at the top of his head. The old ache in her stomach was beginning to return. He has to care. He has to.

Not necessarily, Inner Sakura countered, as logically as always. Remember how he brought us breakfast in bed after the first time we did it, and then, afterwards, never even verbally acknowledged what we had done? So…more accurately, he may care…but not in the way you want him to. Hence, friends with benefits.

When Itachi rose again, the expression on his face was unreadable, and Sakura could only hope that hers was the same. He brought her yet another new towel, depositing the two used ones on the designated shelf, while she wrapped the new one around herself. It was thicker and softer than the one she had brought from their room, and it felt like an embrace. "Shall we?" she asked softly, stifling a yawn.

The dimly lit hallways were as silent and still as a dream, as they made their way back to their room in silence. Sakura was acutely aware of Itachi's presence less than a foot from her; of his arm and hand's position relative to his side. She longed, with a visceral intensity almost embarrassing to admit – even within the privacy of her own mind – for him to reach out and place an arm around her shoulders or waist, holding her close…or even just to take her hand and intertwine their fingers together. It seemed so strange, that they had been that close, as physically close as two human beings could be, less than half an hour ago…and now, they shied away from even the simplest and most casual forms of intimacy.

She could do it. If she reached out and took Itachi's hand right now, if she leaned against him, he wouldn't shake her off. He would hold her until they got back to their room, out of politeness if nothing else, and just like with everything else, she could pretend that it meant more than it did. But her pride wouldn't allow her to do it, and Sakura kept still.

She sighed quietly when they finally got back to their room, eyeing the luxuriously large, soft-looking bed, piled high with blankets and pillows, longingly. The thought of just tossing the towel aside and crawling under the covers was tempting…but that meant that she and Itachi would ultimately end up getting even less sleep, and it was past midnight already. Sakura pulled her pajamas out and got dressed as quickly as she could, while Itachi did the same on the other side of the room. The worn, too-large orange plaid pants were the same, but she had tucked away Naruto's matching, still faintly ramen-scented shirt at the bottom of her pack. She wore Itachi's shirt now – it was a loose, nondescript black t-shirt; the one he had given her after the first time they had slept together. At first, she had wondered whether to give it back to him or not, but then she realized that wearing Naruto's just didn't feel right anymore, considering the circumstances.

Sakura made it into bed first, and she was pleased to find that it was as comfortable as it looked. She curled up on her side and snuggled into the pillows, breathing in deeply in an attempt to relax the anxious knot that had formed in her chest. After a little while, there was the soft click of the lamp being turned off, plunging the room into darkness. The bed dipped a few inches as Itachi settled under the covers as well. Unlike most of the places they stayed, this bed was large enough that both of them would have adequate room to themselves.

The seconds ticked by, turning into minutes, as Sakura lay motionless, still all too conscious of the silence, and the distance that separated them. It was likely that he had gone to sleep already, she told herself. Still…

"Good night, Itachi," she said quietly, without turning to face him.

She hadn't been expecting a reply, but then she heard his voice, just as soft as hers had been. "Sleep well, Sakura."

It was so little, so terribly, achingly little, but Sakura couldn't suppress the tiny smile that spread across her face.

After half an hour, after Itachi was sure that she had finally drifted off to sleep, he placed a gentle hand on the curve of her waist, and only then was he able to do the same.

the end

Hi everybody! It has been a really long time, and I am so sorry for that. I've had an extremely tough semester, the end of which has been miserable. Thankfully it's over now. :) I know you guys were probably expecting the new chapter of Bluebird, since it's been over a month, but unfortunately I still don't have that completed just yet.

I felt pretty silly, writing an AU for my own long-completed fic and posting it to my livejournal, but this piece was a cure for the extreme attack of writer's block that hit me over the past month. Plus, lemon? :D I was thinking about Bluebird, and came to the conclusion that Itachi and Sakura should have had more sex over the course of the chapters where they lived together and she didn't know the truth. I mean, the setup was perfect, but it was hard to find places to put it in. (No pun intended, haha.) Really though, that's the same problem I have with all of my ItaSaku chaptered fics, after they do it for the first time. After that critical point, the plot hits high gear, so there isn't any more time for it being "onscreen." So I figure that when it comes to ItaSaku of this particular nature, it's best addressed through one-shots. :)

I also wanted to clarify that this Itachi is not a jerk who is just using Sakura for sex – BeforeTheDawn!Itachi had serious difficulties expressing his emotions and understanding Sakura's. By the events of Chapter 14/15, where this deviates from "canon," Itachi was already in love with Sakura, but he didn't want to be, kept fighting it, and was generally confused about it. He also didn't realize the depth of her feelings for him. I do think they could have easily gone down this road if it had not been for the events that led to the reconciliation in the cave by the sea in Chapter 16.

Anyway, I hope that you all enjoyed this! Any and all feedback would be very much appreciated. :)