Disclaimer: Naruto and its characters are created by Masashi Kishimoto, but the new plots are mine. This fanfiction had been written for entertainment purposes only and without intention of infringing upon any copyright.
Warning: This is an AU story in a canon setting. Or rather, the canon facts have been twisted beyond recognition. Only suitable for fans of ItaSaku AND DeiSaku. If you object to either of these couples, then you won't like this story.
Title: The Truth behind the Mask
50-shinobi Theme No #32: Hunternin
A/N: Happy New Year everyone! Welcome to this new multi-chaptered fanfiction. Note the warning above before you read. Other than that, please enjoy!
The Truth behind the Mask by elle6778 – Prologue
(Beta-ed by littleredcoat)
It was raining again.
From her perch above the east tower of the perimeter wall surrounding Konoha, Sakura squinted through her moisture-clumped lashes. Although it was only late afternoon, there was hardly any natural light illuminating her surroundings. The grey clouds lining the sky made sure of that. Konoha was barely visible in the almost-solid sheets of relentless rainwater.
With a hopeful sigh, she shifted her gaze to the opposite direction towards the forest surrounding her beloved village. She could barely make out the shapes of the trees ahead through the rain. She thought with a worried frown that surely the rain would cease at some point, otherwise the threat of a flood was becoming increasingly real.
"They will be back soon."
She just managed not to jump in surprise at the suddenness of those words. Smiling, she turned to the kunoichi who, unlike her, was on duty today. She should be out there carrying out missions like any other real kunoichi. But from what she had gathered so far, it was simply not allowed.
'Should just tell them to stuff it!'
She blew away a strand of pink hair from her eye, trying to ignore her inner self's grumblings, which were getting increasingly persistent of late. Funny, the inner voice had been mostly silent for so many years that she had thought that she had outgrown it or something. Clearly not, she thought dryly.
Recalling the younger girl's implied question, she replied, "I hope so, Moegi."
The chuunin smiled reassuringly. "Uchiha-san will be back in time for the wedding. The day after tomorrow, right? We are all looking forward to the celebration."
As if she needed a reminder. Everyone was talking about it. This marriage of an Uchiha to someone outside the Uchiha clan, the first one in many years, must be one of the most publicized events she had ever known. Sasuke had mentioned once that in the quest to keep their bloodlines pure, the clan members inter-marry. To do otherwise, especially when it was one of the clan leader's son, was unheard of.
Sometimes, she wondered if it was alright for them to break such an old tradition. She knew that not everyone in the clan approved of the match. In fact, some were openly hostile towards the idea, especially those families with daughters they had hoped would marry into the leading Uchiha family. Sakura supposed she should not blame them.
Irritation coursed through her then. As far as everyone was concerned, this was an arranged marriage, a political one to secure the Uchihas' position in Konoha. That should be enough for them, shouldn't it? So what was their problem? She and Naruto had spoken about the topic at length, and he told her that eventually, they would accept it, as unconventional as it was.
Now, if only she could convince herself of the same.
Unaware of her troubled thoughts, Moegi continued, "Konohamaru and Udon can't stop talking about it. It's good of Hokage-sama to give us all a day off, isn't it?"
"Not everyone is off, though," Sakura corrected absently. "There are still guards around."
The chuunin grinned sheepishly. "Oh yes. The ANBU are still on duty, right?" Her brows furrowed. "So what about Uchiha-san's friends? They are ANBU, right? Will they be attending the wedding?"
At the mention of the elites, a surge of envy shot through her and her hands clenched into fists. She forcibly relaxed them, telling herself that she had made her decision half a year ago when she accepted the proposal. She would stand by her decision now, even if it meant that her dream of joining her old team in ANBU was dashed to pieces. She had other dreams to look forward to, like a family instead of a career. Many women were happy with that.
Turning her attention back to the chuunin, she replied, "Some of them are. And I'm sure the rest will be around to watch the wedding even though we can't see them."
Moegi exclaimed animatedly, "Ha, that's right! They are so cool. One day I want to be just like them! After I catch up with Konohamaru, that is."
Sakura only smiled at her exuberance. "ANBU training is rigorous and the qualifying examination is not something you'll ever forget. But I'm sure if you work hard, you will get there." After all, she had managed it, had she not?
"Look! I see someone coming!" Moegi exclaimed.
Tensing, her eyes immediately darted to the surrounding forest, her senses expanding in preparation for the unexpected. Unlike the excited Moegi, she was more wary of the possibility of approaching danger. Really, Moegi should be a bit more cautious or she would get into trouble one day. It was not that long ago that Pein had all but walked into Konoha.
She relaxed when she recognized the chakra signature of a familiar team of shinobi. And a moment later, their voices reached her.
"… slow and useless."
"What did you say? I'm not slow and useless."
"Right. You're just Dickless."
"Shut up, Sai!"
Sakura rolled her eyes at the familiar banter as she tugged the hood of her cloak closer around her. Then, a grin lighting up her face, she took a leaping jump off the 30-feet high wall. Her feet barely touched the ground before she sped forward towards her friends, who immediately ceased their bickering when they saw her. Under their respective white cloaks, which were unbelievably left open despite the rain, Naruto was dressed in his usual loud orange outfit and Sai was wearing his usual half-top. Kakashi was strolling along behind them, his orange book nowhere in sight, no doubt carefully protected from the rain. It looked as if they had been on a regular mission, not an ANBU one since they were not in the elite's gear.
"Sakura-ch-Ooomph!" Naruto burst out when she flung herself on him in a bear hug.
Pulling back to study the blond's water-streaked features, she said, "You're back, Naruto!"
Smiling so widely that his blue eyes were mere slits in his face, Naruto exclaimed, "What are you talking about! I wouldn't miss your wedding." After a brief pause, he added mischievously, "Of course, it would be better if you were marrying ME!"
Laughing now, she shoved him away and turned to Sai. "Sai."
Sakura growled in annoyance. "Clearly all those rehabilitation sessions haven't helped your social skills that much. Maybe you need a refresher course."
Sai merely smiled his fake smile.
Two years ago, the Konohagakure ANBU Root subdivision which had been founded by Danzou was disbanded. She knew Tsunade had been trying to break up that division for a long time, and it was only finally successfully disbanded when Danzou had died during the battle with Madara, and the two old council members Mitokado Homura and Utatane Koharu were replaced by younger advisors.
Since then, as one of Tsunade's most trusted shinobi, she had been given the responsibility to study and rehabilitate the ex-Root nins. Her first project was Sai.
Sakura smiled as she recalled the destruction and chaos which followed before she and Sai had come to some form of understanding, which in turn had deepened her understanding of Root. At first, she had been horrified by everything she had learnt, from the fact that they were made to kill their comrades to the cursed seal on their tongue. But now, she could understand how certain characteristic of the Root nins might be useful in the field. It was important to blank out one's emotion during certain types of missions, or one might not recover from the horrors of them. However, Root's method of training was completely unacceptable.
She turned her attention to the silver-haired squad leader. "Kakashi-sensei."
The corner of his visible eye crinkled. "All set?"
"Just about." At least, that was what she tried to tell herself. But what bride was not nervous about the wedding? "You coming tomorrow, right, Sensei?"
The silver-haired nin nodded.
Linking her arm through Naruto's, leaving Kakashi and Sai to walk behind them, she walked towards the east gate. "Good mission?" she asked.
Nodding in greeting to the guards at the gate, Naruto replied, "We had a bit of a problem. Some rogue-nins were on our tail half the time, but we got the package safely to Tea in the end."
Naruto rubbed his stomach then. "Now I could do with some ramen."
"Dickless, we must report to the Hokage."
Naruto glared over his shoulder at his mission partner. "Sai, call me that again and I will shove your di-"
"Naruto!" she interrupted, before the whole thing turned into an explosive brawl. Narrowing her eyes at Sai, she warned, "You know the terms of the agreement, Sai. Calling people names is not the way to integrate yourself into society."
Unperturbed, Sai smiled. Again. "I understand that pet names are taken as a sign of affection."
"Not insulting ones," Sakura ground out irritably, itching to smack Sai upside the head. Sometimes, it seemed like he said such things deliberately just to provoke a reaction.
"Hokage-sama will be cross if we make her wait," Kakashi pointed out, absently rubbing his wet mask. "And I'd like to get into something dry."
Naruto cricked his neck from side to side. "Ah, well. Maybe we should just get the reporting over now." Nodding in the direction of the Hokage Tower, he continued, "Let's go, Kakashi-sensei, Sai."
"See you guys around," she called out as her friends moved away from her.
She watched their backs until they disappeared from sight. Then, alone once more, she made her way back to eastern perimeter walls to wait for another person. Tsunade said that he was expected back today, after all.
Her husband-to-be had better return in time for the wedding.
Her inner self snorted.
It was raining again in Konoha.
The drumming of raindrops against the canopy of leaves overhead was loud in the relative silence of the night, drowning out all other sounds. Looking forward to being home where he could finally rest after the grueling month-long mission, Itachi sped up. He was one day late, but it could not be helped. There had been some complications at the Earth-Grass border that he had not expected. Fortunately, he had been able to slip away from an even worse delay.
The regulation black ANBU cloak he wore kept his body relatively dry, but his sandals were soaked through, making them rather uncomfortable to move in. With each step he took there was a squeaking sound that was audible only to him, he was sure, but it was enough to irk him.
A muted sigh left him. Perhaps that was not the reason for his irritation. He should be honest with himself at least, if nothing else. The truth was, he was simply dreading the upcoming event tomorrow.
The wedding day.
The wedding day had been looming closer and closer, and he wondered if there was something he could do to stall or even stop the event. He had not expected things to progress this far, but he had been preoccupied with missions, as well as other matters. But it was too late now to do anything about it. It would have to go ahead, or there would be even more trouble. The entire situation was vexing.
He sped up when he caught sight of the eastern perimeter wall, eager to end his long journey, even though he did not look forward to the impending conversation with his parents, his father in particular. Perhaps he should simply not visit them tonight. They would be too busy with the wedding preparations to lecture him properly at any rate. His mother usually was easier to talk to, but when his father was present, she tended to keep her opinions to herself, regardless of whether she personally agreed with his views or not.
His mother was good Uchiha wife. From what he had gathered, Uchiha Mikoto was an above-average chuunin when her parents had agreed to a match between her and Fugaku. Once they were wedded, her priority had shifted to her new family, leaving behind something which could have been a good shinobi career. She never seemed to regret it, from what everyone could tell on the surface, but then again, she was always exceptionally good at presenting a pleasant façade, despite all the restrictions and traditions weighing down upon her. Sometimes, Itachi wondered if she was truly happy.
It appalled him to think that any woman marrying an Uchiha would be subjected to such restrictions.
Reaching the edge of the forest, he dropped down from the tree limb to land on the soft wet ground. His sandals squelched irritatingly as he stepped towards the gates, glancing up briefly at the kunoichi standing on the top of the wall. The markings on the perimeter wall drew his eyes. They were part of the enhanced security laid in place during the rebuilding of Konoha after Pein's invasion three years ago.
As he approached, the kunoichi nodded respectfully at him and he returned the nod. She was the Sandaime's grandson's teammate, if he recalled correctly. Masked as he was, like all ANBU on covert duty, no one could identify him. So when he reached the gates, he slid down his black cloak to reveal the ANBU tattoo on his arm, allowing the guard on duty to inspect it with the appropriate security jutsu. Once cleared, the door opened to allow him through.
It took him less than two minutes to reach the Hokage Tower. As he knocked on the door he nodded a brief greeting to the two ANBU guards that were flanking the entrance.
They inclined their heads in acknowledgement just before the Hokage said, "Come in."
Without further ado, Itachi entered. "Hokage-sama," he greeted, closing the door quietly behind him.
"Ah, you're back, Uchiha." Tsunade eyed him intently. "So, how is the situation in Iwagakure?"
"Unsettled, with the possibility of an attempt to overthrow the Tsuchikage."
Itachi inclined his head.
Tsunade huffed. "That old man should retire soon anyway. Why is he hanging on to power? Besides, with the back pain he's always complaining about, he can't possibly be the strongest shinobi in Iwa."
Itachi refrained from pointing out to the volatile Hokage that she was not the strongest shinobi in Konoha either. That honor fell to a certain blond jinchuuriki. By that logic, the nineteen-year-old should be leading Konoha. Now, that would prove to be interesting, he mused.
He kept his thoughts to himself, and instead said, "There are unconfirmed rumors about the Tsuchikage's reticence to retire."
"Some say that he has a secret successor."
"Unlikely," the Godaime muttered. "He's too arrogant. Would never be able to keep a secret like that."
"Another rumor is that he could never find someone to replace an old student of his. That everyone else falls short."
"What happened to this student?"
"He stole a forbidden technique, fled Iwagakure and became a missing nin."
"Ah, the usual story." After a brief pause, Tsunade asked, "Did you manage to find out if the Tsuchikage is likely to agree to assist us?"
"Iwa's medical skills are subpar. If Konoha were to offer a good incentive, he would be more receptive to suggestions."
"That's good. We can try that. And he was reasonable to work with during the Shinobi Alliance. Absolutely shocking," she said drily.
Itachi agreed. Even though he had not been present in Konoha during this period of unrest, he had heard from Shisui that the Shinobi Alliance was surprisingly effective. It seemed that the leaders of the five major shinobi nations and Mifune, the general of the Land of Iron, had been able to set aside their differences to work together to battle Madara and his plan to take over the world.
The Hokage slammed a decisive hand on her desk, causing the stacks of paper around her to tremble precariously. "In that case, I should arrange to meet him. Trade medical jutsu for his assistance with the stone tablet."
Thinking of the wedding and what was to follow, Itachi volunteered, "I can deliver the message."
"The wedding is tomorrow." Brows furrowing, Tsunade gave him an odd look. A suspicious look. "Or are you offering because of that?"
Itachi shook his head once, calmly. He only hoped that the Hokage did not perceive his feelings of guilt. "I would not miss the wedding. I mean to go after the event. It would be more efficient, since I'm familiar with the country."
Tsunade eyed him shrewdly.
He felt compelled to add, "This is my mission, Hokage-sama."
She narrowed her eyes. "And who's running this village? Yes, you brought it to my attention in the first place. But I still get to decide what my shinobi do."
A little more than a year ago, he had overheard his father discussing the stone tablet with his little brother. What he had heard worried him, but Fugaku clearly did not want him to know, as both he and Sasuke had fallen silent when he approached. All he had managed to discern was that this matter had originated from Madara. Apparently, one of Madara's last words to Fugaku was that the Uchiha would lose out like the rest of his enemies once the stone tablet was found. After that, it had taken Itachi a month or so of spying on his family to find out what the stone tablet did, and by then, he was certain that Fugaku had no intention of sharing the information with the Hokage.
So Itachi did what he had to do, and had given Tsunade the information in confidence.
Tsunade was rightly apprehensive about the implication of this stone tablet on the shinobi world, and had promptly dispatched him to search for it. His mission to locate the stone tablet had brought him to Earth Country almost a year ago, and since then, he had spent a lot of time there. He was definitely more familiar with Earth Country when compared to the rest of Konoha shinobi.
"Well, there's no need for you to leave so soon. A team of genin is quite capable of taking a message to request a meeting."
"Of course, Hokage-sama."
The Hokage looked as if she was about to dismiss him, but there was something else he needed to discuss with her. "I've been approached again."
She raised a brow, her earlier suspicion replaced by surprise. "Again? It has been what? Four years since the last attempt?"
Tsunade leaned back, frowning thoughtfully. "I was under the impression that Akatsuki was disbanded after we destroyed Madara. We have heard nothing from them for years."
"I'm not certain if this nin represents Akatsuki or a new organization. He asked me to consider joining his organization."
Tsunade scowled. "You think the remaining members of the Akatsuki formed a new organization?"
"It's unlikely to be Akatsuki. None were left alive after the war."
"Stranger things have happened." She peered at him consideringly. Even before she opened her mouth, he knew what she was going to say, because this conversation was very similar to the one they had five years ago. "You know what I'm going to ask," she began. "I would like you to think over it again."
"With all due respect, Hokage-sama, this is not the right time to move in that direction," Itachi responded evenly. "The situation in the Uchiha clan is too uncertain."
"I see." After a brief pause, she demanded sternly, "Now tell me. Honestly. Is there a problem with the wedding?"
For a moment, he wondered if it was worth discussing his concerns with the Hokage. No, it was probably unwise to provoke her wrath since it was unlikely that anything said would change the outcome.
"No," he finally said.
There was a glint of warning in the Hokage's eyes. "Because, favoritism or not, Sakura is important to me."
Itachi inclined his head. "I'm aware of that."
Tsunade huffed while frowning at him.
"If there's nothing else, Hokage-sama?"
She leaned back against her chair and tapped her fingers on her desk. "Very well. You're dismissed."
With a nod, Itachi left the way he came. Not long afterwards, he was on the rooftops, leaping from one to another, heading in the direction of his house just outside the Uchiha compound.
He had always been of the opinion that the segregation of the Uchiha from the rest of Konoha was unhealthy. Still, although the Godaime Hokage had no objections to him and a handful of other young Uchiha nins moving out of the compound into the main residential area of Konoha, the Uchiha elders had plenty to say. It took him a while to persuade the elders that such a move was to the benefit of the Uchiha clan, that the Uchiha had to be seen as a part of Konoha, and not a separate entity.
Fugaku had disapproved of the entire idea, while Mikoto said nothing, even though there was no mistaking the resigned expression which had flashed across her features when he had told them of his intention to move out. Sasuke had immediately decided to join him. With both him and Sasuke united in their desire, there was nothing much Fugaku could have said. At least, not without alienating both his sons. Besides, by then, the sixteen-year-old Sasuke had already been a jounin for a year and it would have been demeaning to tie him to the family home if he wished to move out.
They finally compromised. Itachi and Sasuke could move out, but would stay near the Uchiha compound and return often for clan meetings and visits.
A familiar flash of pink caught his sight, breaking into his thoughts. He slowed curiously and peered out from behind a tall brick parapet to watch her.
It was not so much the owner of the pink hair that drew his interest, but the location she was in. Standing outside a bar most notorious for drunken shinobi behaving wild and unrestrained was not where he had expected to see her. After all, the kunoichi would be married by tomorrow.
But it brought back memories.
He recalled a night very similar to this one, minus the rain, when he had been travelling back from one of his many missions. It was the day of Sasuke's seventeenth birthday two years ago when he had caught sight of his brother, his old teammates, and their other friends celebrating in this very same bar. He had paused at this very spot then as well, curious to see what they were up to.
All of them had not been exactly sober, but he could tell that they were not completely insensible either. The celebration had carried on with toast after toast for Sasuke, and he had been quite certain that his little brother would soon succumb to unconsciousness at the rate he was going.
However, a moment later, he had changed his mind about that. From where he stood, he had been able to see the pink-haired kunoichi standing behind Sasuke quite clearly. She had worn a dress of deep green which dipped disturbingly low at the back, revealing the seductive curve of her spine. One of her hands had been laid against Sasuke's back, and he had been able to tell from the subtle green glow that Sakura was helping Sasuke burn off the alcohol he was steadily consuming. Her other hand had been trapped between Sasuke's hand and his hip.
He recalled how he had to forcibly drag his eyes away from the seductive curve of her spine, chastising himself harshly for eyeing someone who had feelings for Sasuke. Feelings that Sasuke reciprocated based on the way his little brother had reddened each time he had been teased about it. And later that night, in the house he shared with Sasuke, he had heard the disquieting but unmistakable sounds of the physical confirmation of those feelings between Sasuke and Sakura.
Now he was hidden at the same spot, once again watching the kunoichi forbidden to him. She was outside the bar but this time, there was no smile on her lips. Instead, frustration colored her expression as she stood facing the Yamanaka girl, both of them standing apart from the rest of their friends.
His brows furrowed when he saw the way the Yamanaka girl was sneering at Sakura. From what he could recall they were supposed to be good friends, but since her engagement, he had never seen them together. Perhaps there was trouble in their friendship? After all, Sasuke had once told him that the two kunoichi always had an odd rivalry going on between them. Perhaps they were currently embroiled in another one of their battles.
He should not concern himself with this, he decided, turning away to continue on his journey.
Ino was drunk. One could tell by the way she was swaying on her bright blue stiletto heels which matched the miniscule blue dress that barely covered enough to be decent.
It seemed to her that Ino was drunk more often than not lately, something which worried Sakura somewhat. It could not be healthy. Still, today was not the day to bring the topic up. Cheeks flushed and eyes glassy, the blonde girl was already working up to a fine temper. Sakura had to tell herself to remain calm, that to shout at Ino would be akin to pouring fuel on fire at this point.
So she said evenly, "I'm only asking if you can confirm that you'll be one of my attendants during the wedding ceremony, Ino. That's all."
The blonde swallowed the rest of her drink, some kind of strong spirit, in one gulp before answering, "I don't know, okay? I might not be around." She shook a dismissive hand about. "Missions and all."
'The self-absorbed bitch needs a slap!'
"The wedding's tomorrow. Surely if there's an upcoming mission, you should know by now," Sakura pointed out tersely, ignoring her inner voice's angry words.
Ino's blue eyes flashed. "Not everyone can afford to turn down missions, you know. If there's one at the last minute, I'll have to take it."
'That's just a lame excuse!'
Sakura bit back the urge to say exactly that. "I want you to be my attendant, Ino. We made a promise to each other, remember? But you need to give me an answer. Mikoto-san is asking if she should find a replacement for you."
Snorting, Ino sneered, "Wow, now you're even replacing your supposed best-friend. What? Old Ino-Pig isn't suitable as best-friend material now that you're marrying into the Uchiha clan?"
'She DID NOT just say that, the jealous pig!'
"That's not what I meant!" Sakura ground out, her tether on her temper slipping.
What the hell was wrong with Ino these days? Even before she had gotten engaged, Ino had been weird like this. Yes, they used to bicker, but this was not bickering anymore. This was practically open hostility. They barely even talked these days. Ino had not even bothered to turn up when she had a little dinner to celebrate her nineteenth birthday a month ago.
Ignoring her, Ino went on, slurring as she did so, "Everyone thinks you're so good and all. In the end, you're still a kunoichi like us. So why do you get to be the Hokage's one prized apprentice? Even Shizune is not given the sort of preferential treatment you get. Everyone knows the Godaime sees you as a daughter. Talk about favoritism."
Sakura sucked in a sharp breath, hurt by Ino's words. "What? I-"
But Ino was not done. "Not only the surrogate daughter, but also good enough to be traded to that stuck-up Uchiha clan. Figures."
Her own temper rising, Sakura snapped, "What are you talking about, Ino?"
Ino gave her a mock-pitying look. "Do you think he wants you for yourself? It's your connection to the Hokage that his father wants. Marry Sakura and get the Hokage's ears. Don't delude yourself, forehead. Why do you think he agreed to marry you? You're not particularly attractive or skilled. Not even good enough to be sent to seduction missions."
Even though all of Ino's words felt like individual stab wounds, everything else Ino had said except for 'seduction mission' flew from Sakura's mind, as the possible reason for the blonde's animosity over the past year emerged. Keeping her voice low as not to allow others to hear them, Sakura asked, "You've been sent on seduction missions?"
Ino's lips curled. "Of course. Like any competent kunoichi, I've been on those," she said flippantly.
Sakura's heart squeezed. "Oh, Ino…" she murmured.
"What? Is that sympathy I see in your face? There's no need for that." Blue eyes glared at her. "I'll have you know that the pay is fantastic. I earned more in the past year than all my previous paychecks combined. You should try it." A patently false expression of surprise crossed Ino's face. "Oh, yeah, I forgot. You're nowhere near acceptable for those kinds of missions. Pity. Just as well you'll have the Uchiha to support you in the future."
Why, oh why, did Ino accept such missions in the first place? She could always say no. And Sakura knew this because Tsunade had told her so when she had been given the option about a year ago when she turned eighteen.
"You could have said no."
Ino raised a brow. "And miss out on the pay?"
"It's not like you're destitute, Ino!" Sakura snapped, patience waning.
Blue eyes narrowed. "You're looking down on me now, are you?"
Sakura threw her arms up in frustration. "Oh, for kami's sake! That's not what I meant!"
But Ino was already wobbling away from her, muttering under her breath about so-called friends. Sakura was about to start after her when she saw Shikamaru detaching himself from Chouji, a frown marring his brows as he made a beeline for his old female teammate. Ino's relationship with Shikamaru was strained as well, and now Sakura understood why. Shikamaru could not be happy about Ino's decision to accept those seduction missions.
Knowing that Ino would be alright, Sakura decided that she should find Naruto and tell the blond she was leaving. She was hardly in the mood to talk to anyone else after this. And besides, this was just one of those informal gatherings of friends, so no one expected anyone to stay until the very end. No one would really care if she disappeared home.
Before she could find her friend, however, her path was blocked by a familiar-looking girl. Her dark hair was twisted up in a sophisticated style which made her own pink ponytail look positively childish. Further down, an elegant grey and black dress adorned the girl's slender figure. Sakura resisted the impulse to look down at her own dark red dress which had seen better days, knowing that such reaction would no doubt please Uchiha Mai.
She remembered the first time she had met the girl. The encounter had taken place at Sasuke's housewarming party, when he first moved out of the family home with Itachi three years ago. The girl had draped herself over Sasuke every chance she got, ignoring Sasuke's every attempt to detach her. When all else failed, Sasuke had finally dragged her between them to act as a human barrier. That same day also marked the commencement of Mai's hostility towards her.
"Ah, Haruno-san. What a coincidence."
Sakura smiled tightly, telling herself to be civil. After all, she would be part of Mai's clan soon. "Uchiha-san. Out with friends tonight?"
A well-shaped brow arched. "Dinner. Just passing by on my way home." She flicked a disdainful glance at the bar. "This is not my sort of place."
Something in her head began to throb in warning, and her inner self growled menacingly. Biting her tongue, Sakura decided that it was best not to answer. The girl would go away eventually and leave her in peace.
"I'm surprised to find you here, though." Another pointed glance at the bar. "Look, I'm going to help you out with a bit of advice here, alright?"
'Oh, stuff the advice and shut her mouth with our fists!'
Her inner voice had a point. Sakura had a feeling that she would not like the advice.
"You're about to marry into the Uchiha clan, so you should watch who you mix with and where you go. If not, you'll reflect badly on your new husband." Dark eyes narrowed. "We wouldn't want that now, would we?"
It was hard, but Sakura managed to grind out, "Thank you for your advice, Uchiha-san. I will be more circumspect in the future."
"Call me Mai. After all, we'll soon be family. I'm sure you don't mind me calling you Sakura, right?"
"Right," Sakura bit out.
A haughty smile curved Mai's lips. "Well then, I'd better get home. It's far too late to be loitering around the streets of Konoha."
It was another stab at her, Sakura knew it. But she bit her tongue and simply waved the other girl goodbye. After all, this was not the first Uchiha female to approach her with such words lately. And it would not be the last, that was for sure. She would get used to it after a while, she supposed.
Another glance at the crowded bar made her decide that Naruto probably would not miss her. Shrugging, she left the bar. As she made her way down the darkened streets, she debated if she should just go home or go do some work. Ever since she had been taken off the active duty roster, she had been spending more and more time in the hospital and assisting Tsunade with administrative work.
Sakura glanced at her watch, conscious that she should not be spending the whole night before her wedding working. But it was only eight and she really did not relish the idea of being home alone with only her thoughts for company.
Yes. She would go to the hospital and do a few hours of work.
Itachi stood at the door to Sasuke's bedroom. It was open, revealing everything within as it usually did for the past three years. From the day both of them moved in together Sasuke had never bothered to shut the door if he were not inside.
Itachi scanned the contents of the room. There was a neatly-made double bed on the far wall just two steps away from the window, a wardrobe on the opposite side, a desk and a bookshelf half filled with books. The other half was filled with an assortment of Sasuke's personal belongings, which included a shelf of pictures.
He stepped closer to the shelf to study the pictures. They were placed in chronological order. The first one was a photograph of their family, all four of them. The next one was of himself and Sasuke. It had been taken on the day Sasuke entered the Academy. Following that was a picture of Team 7. Kakashi and Sakura were smiling, while Naruto and Sasuke scowled at each other over the pink-haired kunoichi's head. Itachi never failed to be amused at the sight of this picture.
His brother was a few years older in the next picture. It was of him and Naruto, both bloodied and weary after passing their jounin exams at fifteen. The exams had taken place in Suna that year, he recalled.
Then there was another picture of their family of four, taken a year later outside the new family house they had built after Konoha's destruction. Itachi frowned deeply at the disturbing memories of how close their village had come to being completely wiped out. If not for Naruto's persuasive skills, he was certain that no one would survive. Once he sobered up a little, Naruto would make a good Hokage, a much better one than he could ever be, Itachi thought. Besides, the kyuubi jinchuuriki was the strongest shinobi in Konoha. If only Fugaku would agree, Itachi's life would be less stressful.
The next photograph was taken a few months later, when he and Sasuke had moved into this house within the Uchiha compound. One of his cousins had taken a picture of them on the couch in the living room. There was Shisui balanced on the armrest, then himself, Sakura, Sasuke, Naruto and Kakashi.
And finally, the latest additions were taken on Sasuke's seventeenth birthday, clearly before anyone had become inebriated with legal intoxicants. There was one of the entire group of friends and another one with only a grinning Sakura and a slightly-smiling Sasuke slanting a glance down at her.
If he had any doubts about their feelings for each other, this picture would erase them all. It was only a matter of time before they ended up together, provided nothing stood in their way.
A heavy sigh left Itachi as he turned away from the shelf to leave the room, rubbing his forehead as he did so. As weary as he was from his mission and the report he had presented to Tsunade earlier, he found himself frustratingly restless. He needed to wind down before he could even think of sleeping.
He had been sitting down with a book for ten minutes when he sensed a familiar presence approaching and had to bite back the urge to groan.
Without looking up from the book in front of him, Itachi murmured, "Shisui, has it occurred to you to use the door instead of the window?"
The thump of sandal against floor sounded, signaling his cousin's entry to his living room. "Just dropped by to tell you some juicy news, 'Tachi-chan."
Itachi sighed inwardly, knowing that he would have no peace until he saw to his cousin's demands. He glanced up to find Shisui leaning against the wall next to the living room window. His cousin was dressed casually in the typical Uchiha collared shirt, complete with the Uchiha emblem at the bottom left corner and dark pants. The dark markings around his eyes were tipped up even further at the corners as he grinned widely.
Itachi raised a brow. "You have my attention."
Shisui made a face. "So proper, as always."
"What do you want, Shisui? It's rather late."
Shisui walked over and leaned against the desk, peering at the book he was reading. Itachi promptly flipped the book shut, eliciting another grin from his cousin. He did not wish for Shisui to pick on his choice of book. It did not matter what topic it was on, Shisui would certainly find a way to tease him about it.
"Alright, alright. I'll tell you."
"Mai is playing her usual games."
"Games?" Itachi prompted, as a spike of wariness stabbed him. "What games?"
"I saw her outside the Crystal bar, you know, the one with all the unruly youngsters?" Shisui waited for him to nod before continuing, "She was talking to Sakura."
Itachi bit back a groan. That could not be good. Uchiha Mai had always been, and would always be, a troublemaker. She also made no secret of her interest in joining the head family of the Uchiha clan. It had not even mattered to her whether it was himself or Sasuke, which was a clear indication that her heart was not involved in her decision. Both he and Sasuke had dealt with considerable grief over her actions over the years since they could not really avoid her. After all, she was one of their cousins. Her father was their father's first cousin.
"What did she say?" Itachi finally asked.
Shisui shrugged. "Too far to hear anything. But nothing good seeing that Sakura was definitely pissed."
Itachi lowered his gaze to the book in front of him, tracing the spine of the book with a finger thoughtfully. What were the chances of Mai disrupting the wedding tomorrow? Would it be sufficient to delay or even cancel it?
Shisui shook his head. "You should have just married Mai to save us from all the chaos that girl will no doubt create."
"Why don't you marry her?"
Placing a palm on his chest, Shisui widened his eyes and said, "But I'm not as good a catch as the son of Uchiha Fugaku. I'm merely their lowly cousin."
Itachi felt his lips twitch at Shisui's theatrics. "Do you think she will cause trouble?"
"On the wedding day, you mean? Tomorrow?" Shisui wrinkled his nose. "Probably not. For all her attention-seeking antics, she wouldn't shame her parents that way."
"Anyway, I should let you rest." Shisui arched a brow meaningfully at the book on the desk. "Long day tomorrow."
"My mother expects me to make myself useful." Shisui grimaced. "So I'd better catch some sleep."
And with that, Shisui left the way he came, leaving him to his own troubled thoughts. The book in front of him caught his eye, but somehow, he was no longer in the state on mind to read it.
All he could think about was tomorrow.
Today was the day.
It was her wedding day, but somehow, it did not seem any different from any other day this week. The sky was overcast, as usual, threatening to rain at any moment. The weather was truly depressing lately. But since the ceremonies would be conducted indoors, it did not really matter. The Uchiha Shrine was large enough to accommodate all the guests, after all.
A pat on her shoulder made her turn away from the window to lock her gaze on a smiling Tsunade. Her Shishou had been here with her for the past half an hour or so, seeming to know that she needed the support.
"Nervous, Sakura?" she asked.
Tsunade chuckled. "No need to be. And besides, if your husband misbehaves, you can always land a punch he'll never forget."
Sakura smiled slightly. "I doubt I can land a hit on him, Tsunade-Shishou."
"Don't sell yourself short, Sakura." Tsunade have her a fond smile. "I trained you, after all. No thanks to that lazy-ass Kakashi."
A grin broke out. "Ne, Shishou. That happened when I was twelve, seven years ago. You're still going on about it?"
"Who knew what he was thinking, missing your potential like that and focusing only on the boys." Her brows furrowed briefly. "Correction. He only focused on Sasuke. Jiraiya trained Naruto practically from scratch. I would have docked his pay if I was in the Sandaime's shoes." She huffed and then continued, "Well, it's almost time. I'd better go join the others now."
Tsunade have her shoulder a reassuring squeeze, and then left the room.
Left alone, Sakura studied herself in the mirror, barely recognizing herself. Her colored eyes and lips stood out starkly against the whiteness of her face, framed by a white headdress. Her kimono was also white, with the red and white Uchiha crest decorating the back. It was not something she would chose to wear if the choice was hers, but she had to agree to the traditional customs followed by the Uchiha clan.
She should be happy and excited. It was her wedding day, after all. But, hell, she was so nervous that she had to consciously stop her hands from shaking. She felt as if she was about to walk up to a precipice and perch there, all alone. What made it even worse was that her inner self was so silent that she almost wished for her to start ranting again.
The shoji screen to the room she had been stowed in since early this morning slid open with a muffled scrape. A stern, grey-haired Uchiha matron stepped in.
"The ceremony is about to begin."
Sakura nodded, not able to speak past the growing lump in her throat. Nervous? Definitely. Maybe even… terrified? Hell, yes. This whole thing was happening at the speed of an uncontrollable, runaway horse in panic. Sometimes, she wished she had more control over the event, instead of allowing the Uchiha clan to arrange everything to their liking. Then, maybe she would not feel so disconnected and uncertain about this day. Or maybe this whole thing was just wedding jitters.
Her eyes suddenly misted as she thought of her parents. What would her parents make of this? Would they be happy for her? She could admit that they had spoiled their only daughter terribly and would have probably continued to do so if they had not died when she was twelve of some infection they had caught from outside Konoha. It was this tragedy that had pushed her to approach Tsunade for training soon afterwards.
She probably would not feel this unsettled if her parents were here to support her. Even though Tsunade was like a surrogate mother to her for years, Sakura did not think that it was right to tell Tsunade these things. The Hokage might feel that she wanted to back out of things. Which was definitely not what she wanted to do. She had been infatuated with her husband-to-be for a while now, after all. But maybe that was the problem. Although she knew how she felt, she had no idea what he felt for her.
She wished she had someone to talk to about her feelings. But Ino was barely speaking to her and Naruto was, well, as good a friend as he was, Naruto was a guy. Besides, Naruto would just tell her that things would turn out fine. And as much as she looked up to Kakashi, this was not a topic she wanted to broach with him. She was not particularly close to the rest of the group of friends, as she had been spending most of her time working directly under Tsunade these few years and acting as a medic for ANBU teams. She shook her head slowly. The workaholic would turn into a wife today.
Sakura blinked, jolted out of her thoughts. She allowed herself to be herded out of the room, keeping her eyes lowered as she had frequently been reminded by the matron at her side. Two young Uchiha girls she did not recognize were acting as her attendants, helping her with the very long kimono as she walked. She refused to think that one of them should be Ino.
And the next thing she knew, she was standing by his side.
A sideway glance out of the corner of her eyes revealed his tall figure clad in black formal kimono with the Uchiha crest adorning the front and back. With his black hair swept back, all of his features were displayed prominently for her perusal, something that she rarely had the luxury of doing when they were on missions. He was staring straight ahead, his emotions completely hidden behind his blank façade as always. As long as she had known him, he had never been openly emotional, so she was not unduly concerned. He had always been reserved, after all.
"Are you well?" he asked unexpectedly.
She almost winced. He had not even spared her a single glance, but did she really look so bad? She did get home before midnight last night, although that was neither here nor there because she had spent the rest of the night tossing and turning in bed. It meant that she barely had two hours sleep. The evidence was probably displayed on her face, despite the thick plaster of makeup. Figured that she would look awful for her own wedding.
"Sakura?" her husband-to-be prompted.
Smile, Sakura, smile. Or he would think that she did not want to do this. "I'm fine. Just didn't sleep that well last night."
And that, it seemed, was all he wished to say to his future wife. His attention was now focused fully on the Shinto priest preparing to conduct the ceremony. In less than an hour, she would be his wife. The thought of it made her nervous, not knowing if she would be a satisfactory one or not. Whether or not he would regret asking her.
No, she should not be so pessimistic. She would make him a good wife. It would not be said that she did not give all her best to make her husband happy. They would live happily ever after, as much as possible for a shinobi family, with two and a half kids in a house surrounded by white picket fence.
Yes, neither of them would regret this marriage.
A/N: And that's the end of the Prologue. Hope you've enjoyed this so far. As always, please review if you can. Thanks!