Note: As per the advice of a reviewer, I've cut up the oneshot into two parts and added something small to the ending that I felt was missing from the first version. Sorry if any of you previous readers expected a whole new chapter, but I'd love to hear what you think of the tiny edit.

Before she knew it, they fell into a pattern.

They weren't always in Konoha at the same time. In fact, the rest of the first month passed without either Itachi or Hana entering the building while the other was present. Separate missions took them out of town according to schedules that refused to match up – Hana needed the money, and Itachi was probably spending most of his time on the northwestern border, because of unrest in the region around Amegakure.

The second time that Itachi appeared in the same way, he had left his uniform behind, and was already in a simple half-sleeve shirt with mesh netting at the collar. On Hana's wordless invitation, he took up the same seat he had the previous time, and she made tea. Just as before, he left after finishing one cup.

If Hana had to point out the moment when it began to change, it might have been the day (two a.m., during the week when the weather got much colder again before it got warmer for the springtime) that Itachi knocked on her door and she answered it to find that he had showered beforehand. He hadn't really freshened up aside from taking the most basic of showers, and his all-black outfit wasn't something she thought anyone would consider dressing to impress. But the fact remained that he turned up already clean, which meant that he'd had the option of heading straight to his own apartment, or staying there, instead of stopping by for what was probably not very good tea. (Hana had arrived at this conclusion about the quality of the tea because Itachi still left after drinking only one cup. Maybe he was a secret optimist who hoped, before every visit, that perhaps this time it would taste marginally better.)

It was possible that Itachi believed she avoided physical contact with him because he had been filthy on all previous occasions. That was a long shot, but Hana wondered anyway.

They didn't have deep, heartfelt conversations. The situation always felt a bit too surreal for small talk, or one or both of them were too tired to want to string too many words together; ultimately, Hana came to enjoy the simple tradition – because by the sixth or seventh time, it had developed a more or less set procedure – of making tea, drinking it in silence, and seeing Itachi out the door.

Outside of those windows of time, during the daylight hours, for instance, they didn't acknowledge anything. Hana and Itachi interacted on a level of superficial politeness when their paths crossed, usually whenever he handed in a report in person. Encounters on the street were rarer but not unheard of; the most they did was have brief eye contact, maybe a tiny nod, or a "good morning" if Hana really wanted to be polite. For the most part, the latter was more like referring to an inside joke. Anyway, it was sometimes nice to have someone with whom you could relax the usual standards of politeness without feeling incredibly rude. It was just funny how that someone had turned out to be an Uchiha.

So Hana was surprised by Iruka's offhand remark, the day that they joined Kotetsu and Izumo for lunch at the yakiniku restaurant diagonally opposite Ramen Ichiraku.

"Tsunade-sama has been making us go through a section of the village archives," Kotetsu said. "We just found a lot of dirt on Danzou… it'll be pretty hard for him to keep his seat on the council after it's all publicized."

Iruka put another slice of beef on the grill. "Are you sure it'll be publicized at all?"

Kotetsu nodded. "Even if Tsunade-sama wanted to sweep it under the rug – and if that's true, Orochimaru is the protector of cute things and bunnies – I highly doubt that Uchiha Itachi could be persuaded to shut up. You should see –" Izumo's elbow jabbed him in the ribs. Kotetsu grimaced.

"Until then, it's all confidential," said Izumo seriously, shooting a look of disapproval at his friend and colleague.

Hana gave Kotetsu a fixed stare, knowing who to target for information. "Does Itachi have a reason to hold a special grudge against Danzou?"

Kotetsu looked apologetic. "Sorry, I really can't tell you, Hana."

"Have you tried asking Itachi himself?" said Iruka. "He might let you know."

Hana opened her mouth to reply, but Kotetsu broke in. "Hold up there – why would Itachi be likely to give a straight answer to Hana, anyway?" His eyes darted from Hana to Iruka and back again.

"I was about to ask that myself," Hana said slowly. She couldn't think of how Iruka would have gotten that impression. Unless he knew about the random tea hours they kept…

Caught, and unwilling to accidentally embarrass anyone, Iruka managed a helpless, good-natured shrug. "Well, maybe not."

After splitting the bill, Kotetsu and Izumo returned to the Hokage's office, and Hana and Iruka went back to their part-time job of filing.

They had worked in relative silence for several minutes when Iruka said earnestly, "I'm sorry if I made you uncomfortable over lunch."

Hana glanced up. "Not at all. I was just surprised that you had suggested I ask Itachi directly."

"I assumed the two of you were on speaking terms."

"I guess we are," she said, flipping through the dividers in an open cabinet drawer. "We do say good morning sometimes."

"By 'speaking terms,' I meant… " Iruka hesitated, seeming to look for a good way to put it. "It's like you see each other regularly. Maybe not romantically," he amended, "but I've been an instructor at the Ninja Academy for a number of years, and I can tell which kids stick together, which ones are friends…"

"So what you're saying is that Itachi and I are like kids who stick together, sort of?"

"Sort of."

Hana thought about it for a moment. "Ok." And went back to filing.

That didn't sound bad. What was bad was how curiosity started to eat away at Hana. The mystery about Danzou had started it, but the area of interest expanded overnight to: What would make Itachi move out of the Uchiha Compound? Why didn't he go home when he came back from missions, instead of stopping at Hana's apartment? What kind of tea did he actually like? Did he even like tea?

Sometimes, to find out something, you had to introduce a little change.

One night in late March, Hana answered the door with the words, "I've run out of tea."

This was not a falsehood. Only a couple flakes remained of a full jar of tealeaves – part of a gift tea set from an old teammate who'd since transferred into Torture and Interrogation - that had gathered dust among her possessions for a year and a half.

The part that felt false about the admittance was that Hana had seen the supply of tea dwindle with each visit, and done nothing about it.

"I'll buy some," said Itachi, turning to go.

"Hold on." He glanced over his shoulder, his face partly obscured by his bangs. "I'd like to go." Hana felt uneasily responsible, as if she had somehow failed to uphold her end of a tacit deal: he came over to have tea, she made tea… Wait a minute; she was providing everything!

But Hana had already grabbed her old coin purse off the bedroom dresser, so she might as well.

The only place still open was the twenty-four seven supermarket. Hana followed her nose to the tea aisle, walking slowly past the boxed teabags to see what Itachi would pick out.

He scanned the various items on the shelf. "Do you have a preference, Inuzuka?"

"No, not really," she said, watching him reach for a jar of loose leaf tea labeled sencha. She hadn't realized before that she had yet to give him permission to call her by name, when he'd let her use his a long time ago. "You can call me Hana, by the way."

It didn't occur to her to rummage for coins until Itachi had already picked up the jar from the counter so that the bleary-eyed cashier could ring up the purchases of the blond girl behind them. "How much was it?"

"Forget it, Hana."

The unfamiliar familiarity elicited a tiny shiver down her spine. Hana ignored it. "Fine. I'll get the next one."

It wasn't until they walked out the door that she realized that Itachi was financially invested in prolonging their inexplicable teatime, and that she had responded as if taking its continuation for granted. She didn't even want to imagine what sort of terrible drivel her mouth would blurt if they actually talked more.

But the wonderful part about being a real idiot was never having enough time to dwell on your last mistake because you had already made another one. It was the only consolation that Hana could find, aside from finally going home, after dodging hundreds of bloodthirsty, probably S-class ninja (whom they only escaped by being insufficiently interesting) throughout the Land of Water for over three weeks, in search of the local daimyou's nephew.

Not even the Haimaru brothers got a break after the mission; they took their turn supporting Kotetsu, who moaned intermittently that the Hokage was never ever going to let him do more than desk work again. At which point, Aoba, the leader of their cell, would amiably tell him to shut up. Oukei, who had signed up for the C-class mission in anticipation of the extra financial payoff, trudged home the most bitterly disappointed of them all.

Their mission had been to re-kidnap the reckless runaway nephew of the daimyou of Water. The young man was a romantic and a poet without a single practical bone fragment, and in the course of his attempted elopement with the daughter of another noble family in Water, he had brought them to the verge of declaring a dynasty-long feud. The daimyou just wanted his nephew back, probably to lock him up, so that he could stop messing up the political landscape. He'd hired foreign ninja because, as rumor had it, Kiri was out of control these days, with no clear Mizukage in charge. Or worse – there was one, but he didn't seem very receptive to the daimyou whose support the village supposedly needed.

The least that one might expect was to go home weary but comforted by the paycheck. Sadly, even this was not to be. Of all the enemies in the world, they ran into a greedy missing-nin from Takigakure who gave them a predictable ultimatum. Oukei had been ready to fight him for demanding the entirety of their hard-earned bonus.

An extremely pathetic-looking team staggered through the main gates of Konoha three days later, with one teammate incapacitated (Kotetsu), one still pallid from near-constant vomiting over the crossing back to the continent (Aoba), one severely beaten up and poorer he had started (Oukei), and one who felt and probably looked absolutely destroyed (Hana).

As team leader, Aoba took it upon himself to make encouraging comments. "Oukei, at least we got to enjoy ten percent of our extra earnings."

"Buying medical supplies and renting rooms at a crappy inn!" snarled Oukei, shifting his glare from the trees on the side of the road to Aoba.

"And Hana," Aoba started, "if you talk to the village elders right now, they'll approve Tsunade-sama's petition to put a medic on every team for sure!"

Three deep-throated, angry growls from the enormous dogs loping beside Aoba persuaded him to drop the subject. Hana didn't deign to reply.

The medic-nin treating her wounds was so gentle and sympathetic that Hana resolved to avoid all mirrors for the duration. She must have looked horrific – and indeed, Oyone promised her regretfully that she might feel worse after a good night's rest. "But that's the way it goes until it gets better." Another medic-nin interrupted their session to have a few words. As Oyone left the room, Hana could hear the medic remark, "Now I know why I prefer doing necroscopies, Kumadori … clinic rotation is so traumatizing."

Hana waited patiently for half an hour before asking a passing nurse about Oyone's whereabouts. "Just saw the man go out for lunch." Unlike Oyone, the nurse eyed Hana with a pronounced lack of sympathy, more of a cold inquisitiveness – as one might survey a disgusting thief who had gotten punched in the face.

Hungry, sore, and exhausted, Hana rounded up the Haimaru brothers from the small park across from the hospital to head home. She would have liked to see how Kiba was doing – Oyone had offhandedly mentioned seeing another Inuzuka earlier that week who was preparing for his evaluation for jounin status – but the Inuzuka house had never seemed farther.

This was a day she would have used her chakra to leap up to her living room window and dismantle the trap there, except that the medic had warned against it. There was nothing to do but climb up the stairs, one step at a time.

She had just passed the second floor when someone else entered the stairwell. "Hi, Itachi," she said dully.

"Who was it?"

Of course; not even a How are you or Feeling better. "Some massive asshole who called himself Kakuzu. What you're looking at is mainly his handiwork."

"He used both lightning and earth-based techniques," observed Itachi.

"But this is fascinating. Why don't you tell me all about it?"

"I could." The sarcasm hadn't affected him. "I'll be at Ichiraku."

The link between those two sentences took a while to register on Hana. By then, they had reached the third floor. "You know," she said slowly, "it's half-past noon." Bright sunlight shafted into the stairwell from the windows on each landing. It wasn't really the usual "hours" they kept.

"I'm aware of that," Itachi said, in a tone so patient that it was obvious he wasn't feeling all that patient. "I wouldn't otherwise invite you to have lunch with me."

"Oh," said Hana. She had more to say after that, but her mind had ground to a halt and left her hanging. Eternity came and went before she managed, "Give me fifteen minutes."

The short walk to the ramen stand helped her process the idea of being friends in public with Itachi. For one, it seemed to involve being stared at a lot (though thankfully, she was mostly delirious from fatigue and didn't feel as awkward as she normally might). With the Haimaru brothers sleeping like the dead on the couch, anyone who wanted to ogle them on the street did so at will. One of the passers-by, a girl with a long blond ponytail who looked vaguely familiar, gasped and said loudly to the round-faced Akimichi boy beside her, "I knew it – I totally called it!"

Yeah, so that was a bit weird. Hana could feel a twinge of pity for Itachi, if people thought it plausible that he would someday take a romantic interest to Ichiraku – which, while it served decent ramen, was really a haunt for cheapskates.

Which explained why Kakashi and his team of former genin were also having their lunch there. "Oh, they're out of stools," said Hana, oddly relieved to see that only one open spot remained.

Ayame, the girl behind the counter, broke in. "I'll look for an extra stool, Uchiha-sama, it'll be just a second!"

Talk about preferential treatment. Hana greeted Kakashi and the younger ninja, whose antics through the years had acquainted her with their names. They returned the greeting fairly cheerfully, even Sasuke, who had always struck Hana as an essentially happy kid who perpetually tried and failed to assume the dour, stick-up-the-ass attitude of the majority of his clan.

It was more interesting to see how each of them reacted to Itachi's greeting. Kakashi sounded like his customary disinterested self; just as he had while addressing Hana, Naruto responded with an exuberant exclamation that sprayed fragments of ramen over a half-meter radius; Sasuke squashed his involuntary smile and grunted, and Sakura glanced very briefly at Itachi's face and blushed, seeming both flattered and intimidated to be acknowledged by her teammate's older brother.

"Hey, hey," Naruto burst out, "Are either of you going to attend the jounin evaluations? Since Kiba and this bastard are going to – ow!"

"Naruto." Itachi's calm voice cut in before the two shinobi started a full-out fight. "I'm afraid I can't allow you to go on calling Sasuke a bastard." Naruto appeared to wilt slightly under Itachi's gaze, while Sasuke began to smirk. The smug look fell off the younger Uchiha's face as Itachi continued, "My mother doesn't deserve that kind of disrespect. However, I'm sure you can think of some adequate substitutes for that particular insult."

Hana had been paying more attention to the exchange between the Uchiha brothers and only knew that Kakashi had just said something to her. "Sorry, I didn't catch that," she said, transferring her gaze to him.

"I asked you if you've met Jiraiya before." Kakashi tapped the cover of his book. "He's the author of the Icha Icha series."

Hana didn't know why he was opening up about his literature of choice. "No, I've never met him in person. Why?"

"Well, his latest work in the series seems to be inspired by some real-life events…"

"Kakashi-sensei, those books are gross," interjected Sakura, wrinkling her nose. "Tsunade-shishou told me they were nothing but soft porn."

"They're boring," said Naruto. "I flipped through them before. This one ended a little differently, though –"

Kakashi shushed him hastily as he turned the page. "Don't ruin it." Somehow he managed to tilt the book so that Hana caught sight of a particular line containing the phrase Hana's demon-wolf growled as his mistress rapturously embraced the tall, raven-haired ANBU captain –

Hana looked away at something innocuous at once, like the menus stacked at the end of the counter. All her imagination, definitely. But would she have imagined her name with the wrong kanji? Tsume hadn't named her a flower, after all.

Ayame reemerged from the back, wringing her hands. "I'm so sorry; if you don't mind waiting for five more minutes, I can see if the dango stand owner will loan us a seat."

Kakashi slid off his stool. "Ah, that won't be necessary, Ayame-chan. Sasuke's brother can have mine." He acknowledged Itachi's nod of thanks with an equally laconic nod and strolled off onto the sunlit street.

"Hey," Sakura observed stridently, "Kakashi-sensei left us with his bill again!"

The trio let out a collective groan. Sasuke started counting out his own portion.

"Since I'm taking your sensei's seat, I could cover his share this time," said Itachi, earning himself two shocked, then adoring gazes.

"Thanks, Itachi-san!"

"Wow! Sasuke, your brother's not a dickhead like you," Naruto declared. "H – ow!"

"You wouldn't pay for me," Sasuke told his brother.

"Do you not make sure you have enough before eating out?"

Sasuke scowled. "I didn't say I needed you to pay for me. Of course I can pay for myself. Sakura, let's go."

"Sure, I'm done."

"But Sakura, you still have some left and – hey, could I –"

A timely insult distracted Naruto from finishing the request. Grumbling in a way that, at his age, shouldn't have been the slightest bit endearing, he slid off his stool to join his teammates. By the time his feet touched the floor, he had already lost his bad mood.

Kakashi and his team might as well have sucked the air out of Ichiraku with their departure. Itachi's presence transformed the ordinary experience of ordering ramen into something unrecognizable. Even though they had spoken to each other a couple of times in the filing office, it was a little bizarre to interact with Itachi in broad daylight. Maybe it was the lack of a professional context this time.

"One medium beef ramen and one medium miso ramen." Teuchi set the bowls down before them with a smile.

Itachi waited until she had broken apart her chopsticks before saying, "Tell me about the mission."

Well, why not? It hadn't been a confidential mission. Since he could have looked up the parameters of the assignment for himself, Hana summarized that part quickly. To her surprise, she didn't mind admitting all the abysmal problems the team had encountered. Itachi listened without speaking for as long as she was willing to talk, and his questions functioned more as prompts.

She paused in the narrative when she came to the part where the daimyou gave them bonuses from his personal treasury. "Does the outsourcing bother you at all? The daimyou of Water hired us to recapture his nephew instead of approaching Kiri. It's unlikely that he made the offer to Kirigakure at all; they'd have taken it for sure." Kirigakure was too poor to turn anything down, especially a sum like that.

"That's exactly why," said Itachi. "Kirigakure is in shambles. Because of their old tryout process, their population is dangerously low and half of their strongest ninja are missing-nin. If they can't straighten out their own affairs, how can the daimyou consider sending a job their way?"

"Still… what if it encourages our own daimyou?"

"Daimyou change."

Hana had to concede that Gaara had set a precedent. Suna's new Kazekage had told the daimyou of the Land of Wind he needed to increase funding but stop supporting corrupt elements in Suna's infrastructure. The man had refused. He was now no longer the daimyou of Wind. The marvel of it was that Gaara had achieved this without letting Wind descend into civil war.

"But it's a different situation in Water, isn't it? Kirigakure is so unstable that increasing numbers of missing-nin are moving in to take advantage of it. I can't see a weakened Kirigakure benefiting any of the hidden villages in the long run…" A minute flicker in Itachi's expression pulled her up short. Oh, duh. He was in ANBU and dealing with matters of internal and foreign security every moment of his work. He knew all this already. "Sorry, I didn't mean to lecture you on a topic you're probably sick of."

Itachi's grey gaze met hers. "I don't mind," he said quietly.

And then a third person slid onto the stool on Itachi's other side. "Hey, cousin." The newcomer leaned back to stare at Hana, who returned his blatant assessment with more annoyance than curiosity. His eyebrows shot up to somewhere behind his forehead protector. "I guess the rumors are true."

The slightly wavy hair might have thrown Hana off, but his scent, the wide-collared shirt, and trademark facial structure meant that he might as well have the word Uchiha stamped all over him.

"Hana," said Itachi, "this is Shisui."

She tried to read Itachi for some clue of what to expect, but he had put on his blandest, most indecipherable expression. He might as well have donned his ANBU mask. All his scent told her was that he felt much tenser than he looked.

Greetings apparently dealt with, Shisui addressed his cousin alone. "I didn't just come over to harass you, as torturous as you might find it. I'm here on Sayuri's behalf."

For the first time, Itachi turned his head to look at Shisui. "Did someone appoint you her representative?"

"Yes – me."

Itachi returned his attention to his food, apparently bored. The simple act of draping ramen neatly into a spoon became an artistic study.

"I wouldn't accuse you of taking the rebellious teen act into your twenties," said Shisui, somehow managing to do exactly that, "although you were a rather rebellious thirteen-year-old. But are you sure you want to let it go like this? She's leaving for the daimyou's castle tomorrow. Permanently."

"That's her decision."

"That's cold, Itachi." Shisui paused. Hana tried to concentrate on eating, both wanting to hear more and wishing she was elsewhere. "You're my favorite cousin and all, but I have a soft spot for Sayuri. She doesn't deserve that kind of farewell. Or non-farewell."

"I'll see her when I intend to," said Itachi, which could mean more than one thing, but it seemed to satisfy his cousin.

Shisui leaned an arm on the counter. "You know," he said, dropping all subterfuge, "It would be kind of nice to see you around the Uchiha Compound more often aside from meetings. Are you coming home for my dad's celebratory dinner? In Mikoto-sama's words – 'It'd be good to have the entire family present for Yashiro's birthday.'" He got to his feet. "Think about it."

About to duck under the noren curtains, Shisui looked back and addressed Hana with what he probably thought was a solicitous air. "I know my cousin is considered a great catch, but you can afford to go to the hospital first, Hana. It's not as if you'd ever come close if he wants to run out on you, anyway."

Hana put down her chopsticks and tried to think of something to say other than F – you, Uchiha. The sentiment lingered even after Shisui was gone. In an effort to distract herself, she took a sip of the complimentary hot tea. It tasted watery, but at least it was still warm. Focusing on the tea cooled her irritation enough to remind her how tired she was. The urge to pick fights and sustain a grudge belonged to the domain of activities of more energetic people.

She let out her breath in a long sigh and happened to glance at Itachi. It might have been a moment of rare mutual insight, or maybe they were just the right combination of tired and relieved. Whatever it was, Hana looked into Itachi's eyes, and he looked at hers, and suddenly they were laughing together.

"You could have avoided these if you had moved faster." Itachi's callused fingers would have felt rough on her shoulder; separated by a layer of bandages, they imparted only a trace of warmth and contact, like feathers on the skin. "Weight training would improve your speed."

"I should have planned a few alternatives in the first place," said Hana, picking up her cup from the low table. They had returned to the apartment after finishing lunch, where a familiar pattern reasserted itself. Only for a short while, however; they hadn't used to say more than fifteen words while having tea. "Shikaku-sensei would be so ashamed."

Of course, Hana was of the opinion that her old instructor had other reasons to feel let down by the only kunoichi in his genin team. His two other students had gone on to have prestigious, important careers: Riichi had become a jounin two years ago, and last she had heard, Mozuku was doing well in the T&I division.

"Never mind that," said Itachi, inadvertently betraying how much he had cared about his instructor's opinion of him, if at all. "Work on your speed. That's a shortcoming you don't have to second-guess."

"Thanks." Sarcasm slid off Itachi like water off a duck, so why not indulge in it?

"You're welcome." He did look faintly amused, even if his voice was blandly polite.

"I was thanking you for the advice," said Hana. "Doesn't mean I'm going to take it. I have other things to do." Like hours of filing duty to make up for the part of the rent she'd planned to pay with all the extra wealth that hadn't made it back from Water.

Itachi just did that thing where he smiled slightly with his eyes. "If you say so." As Hana was carrying the empty cups to the kitchen, he lifted his hand as if to brush a strand of hair from her face.

Completely taken aback, Hana froze.

Seconds later, she felt the sharp sting of his fingers flicking her in the temple.

Indignation sent a surge of adrenaline through her veins. Hana tossed the cups into the air and yanked the door open, but Itachi was long gone. She went back and caught the cups before they hit the floor.

So he thought he'd give her incentive by treating her as if she were twelve years old! And the worst part? It was working.

Or not. Maybe the worst part of it was that she ended up smiling as she rinsed the cups, thinking about lunch and drinking tea, and wishing him a good dinner that night with his family, whatever lay between them.

As anyone might have predicted, achieving jounin status had only made Kiba more reckless, not more responsible. While the Haimaru brothers nuzzled a catatonic Akamaru, who was lying on a cushion two meters from the bed, Hana opened the window. Her brother had been moved to a south-facing room since leaving the intensive care wing, and the first scents of spring wafted in with the fresh breeze.

Behind her, she heard Kiba stir. Coming around to the bedside, Hana loomed over him. "If you come back in this state again because of sheer stupidity, I'll rip your throat out and throw you into the Naka River," she said placidly.

"Thanks for caring, neesan," retorted Kiba, grinning up at her. Aside from the heavily bandaged left shoulder, the cast on his right arm, and the gauze patch taped across his right cheek and nose, he had even managed to chip a tooth. An impressive feat, for an Inuzuka. He'd already told her the grim story of how the "Sannin-level shinobi" – who had bright orange hair, according to all reports – would have exacted a much harsher toll but for Naruto's intervention.

She sat down at the edge of the bed, giving her brother a hand as he sat up. "You'd better recover in time to attend Chigako's wedding. If you leave me to deal with Aunt Fuuko by myself, I'll never forgive you."

Kiba rubbed his eye and winced. "Do I have to?" he asked plaintively.

She adopted a voice several octaves higher than normal. "'Hana, why don't you learn from your cousin's example?' 'Time is ticking, Hana - before you know it, you'll be menopausal, or dead. You don't want to wait… the longer you do, the more complications there could be'; 'You're already twenty', 'Tsume was already working on your brother four years later –'"

"Too much information," Kiba said loudly.

"You're lucky you have me to distract her." Hana was only a little bitter about it.

"Why don't you bring someone, anyone? It doesn't have to be for real; she's not staying after the wedding. You could even, uh, bring Itachi or something."

Hana glanced at him sharply. "No! Why would that be a good idea?"

Kiba shrugged with his uninjured shoulder. "Seriously, neesan, what's going on between you two? Or is it all bullshit?"

She opened her mouth to agree with the latter, but this was her brother. Kiba wasn't the most discreet person in the world, but he knew to keep his mouth shut when it mattered. Did this matter? "Hey, just between you and me…"

Kiba groaned. "Damn! Why couldn't it be someone I could beat up?"

Hana punched him in the knee, which was one of the few, relatively uninjured areas of his body. "Let me finish. I was about to tell you that Itachi and I are neighbors. That's basically it."

Her brother's eyes narrowed as he leaned closer. "So," he started in a low, cautious voice, "You guys aren't…?" His breath gusted out of him in a sigh. "Oh, good! Do you have any idea how weird it would've been?"

"Don't be ridiculous." His obvious relief unaccountably irritated Hana. "That would have required some level of communication between us, and it's not like we talk all that much when we're together - get your mind out of the gutter!" She added, because Kiba's eyes had widened to improbable sizes. "We drink tea."

Her brother visibly swallowed. "And, uh…" His voice had shrunk to a croak. "That's not a euphemism for anything, right? Ow!" He eyed her warily, leaning back in case she wanted to swat him in the head a second time. "Ok! I get the point."

"You're sure?"

"Yes." Kiba grumbled and flopped back onto the pillows. There was a lull. "Hey, neesan…" His eyes were intent on her face. "You don't actually think you'd ever…"

Hana stared out the window. Think of quiet, sunny afternoons (Itachi telling her that he'd be at Ichiraku) – think of staying in on the peaceful evening right after a mission (with rain slipping over the glass in broken sheets and the weight of a grey gaze that was darker than the night outside the window) –

It was no use – her scent admitted everything. Even Akamaru had raised his head and joined the four other individuals in the room in their slack-jawed scrutiny of Hana. The Haimaru brothers had gotten to their feet. Shosa padded over and simply leaned against Hana's legs, unhappy with the tension.

"What?" she said defensively. "It's not as if…" As if she thought about him regularly? Fondly? As if she wasn't aware that his every visit left the faint scent of pine and something indefinably him? As if she didn't remember the first time she had heard Itachi's low, gentle voice speak her name?

At least she wouldn't actively worry about him when he went on missions; Hana was mostly of the opinion that he could take care of himself. Except when he started climbing up the stairs like a bloody automaton and needed to be made to sit down and do something normal so that he could be human again. For Tsume's children, beating the stuffing out of inanimate objects had worked. For Itachi, Hana supposed, tea might have sufficed.

But then, why hadn't he just brought the tea home with him that night and drunk it by himself?

She looked at her brother again, unsettled by her own hope. "Kiba?"

"Huh." He was staring blindly at the wall opposite him. His expression reminded her of the one he'd been wearing on the day he came home from being punched in the face by Hinata in taijutsu practice. (Said Hyuuga had hurried over and said she was very sorry.) A long moment passed before he said anything else, and this was simply to repeat, "Huh."

"Don't worry, Kiba." Hana's voice sounded dull and tired to her own ears. "In case you haven't noticed or you're still waiting for an Uchiha to enlighten you, he's heir to one of Konoha's four noble families, an ANBU captain, and way out of my league. We're friends, maybe friendly acquaintances – that's all."

Kiba shook his head. Unexpectedly, he met her eyes and said, "You sell yourself short, neesan."

"Don't you think you're just a little biased?" Hana asked dryly.

"Nope. I don'tlike the idea of you and Uchiha, but you're a dumbass if you think that's a good reason against it. If it matters that much to you, why don't you try for jounin rank? I never got why you didn't want to."

While Hana formulated a reply, she rubbed the ruff of fur around Shosa's neck. This earned her a doggy smile, which was mostly a lot of tongue-lolling, happy shivers, and tail-wagging that provoked a fair amount of sibling rivalry as his brothers decided they, too, were interested. Chusa, who was physically smaller than Akamaru, jumped onto the bed and sprawled over Kiba's feet. "You're a bit young to remember much," she began. "But –"

"Back in the days of Senju Hashirama," intoned Kiba, flinching away from a mock-punch. "Sorry, neesan, go on and don't hit me?"

Hana relented. "What I was trying to tell you is that I remember living through the Third Secret World War. It wasn't pretty. After it ended, there were plenty of people who thought the same way that you do now – they wanted to become jounin, or as strong in offensive jutsu as they could be, to avoid ever reexperiencing that chaos. They took on a lot of assignments that Konoha's elders commissioned in response to foreign security scares, and because of these, most of the shinobi and kunoichi in my year died in the first five years after the war, when peace was still new. The Uchiha and Hyuuga coped in their own way, so I think they're not missing as many family members around my age. But haven't you noticed how small the Akimichi Clan is now? Or the Aburame?"

"Shino said something about it once," Kiba said quietly. "I used to think he'd lost that many cousins to some insect-y sickness."

Hana smoothed down the covers that Kiba had wrinkled by sitting up. "Personally, after seeing what the war had done, I didn't want to go outside Konoha at all for the longest time. I thought all the village council did was to send my friends to death. So I stopped caring about politics and what everyone was saying."

She glanced at Kiba, who had gone very silent, but his eyes were still intent on her face.

"I did become a chuunin, but then I had a talk with Shikaku-sensei, and he told me I had strong empathy, and if I was interested, he'd introduce me to Ibiki. That's how I ended up meeting Anko – I trained with her under Ibiki in Torture and Interrogation for three and a half years."

"Were you bad at it?" Kiba asked bluntly.

Hana gave him a wry smile. "No, actually, your neesan was good at it. But it was a horrible job and I decided that if this was where my 'talent' had put me, I didn't want any part of it. So I quit. Luckily, I also turned out to be handy at patching up animals, so I had something else to do."

"Ok." Kiba scratched his head. "Then who cares if you're a chuunin and Itachi's ANBU? Hell, I'll straighten out anyone who has a problem with it, if you can't be bothered to do it yourself." He actually started to grin in anticipation.

"The thing is, Kiba," Hana confided with a sinking feeling that this was true, "your neesan also suspects that the other reason is that she's a coward."

"The reason you haven't tried to become a jounin?"

"Among other things."

Kiba frowned. A visible war played out on his battered face, between a brother's powerful, natural resistance to the idea of his sister seeing anyone romantically, and his own integrity.

"Anyway, it's just tea," said Hana aloud. "Tea is sustainable."

"Your call, neesan. Just don't lie to yourself about being friends if you don't want to stay friends, ok? It hurts more in the long run."

Hana gave him a sly glance. "You sound as though you're speaking from experience."

"Maybe." A smile broke through his serious expression. "Kiba's Awesome Advice isn't free, you know! I want to eat yakiniku, not this sludgy hospital crap."

She knew for a fact that Itachi was away on a mission when she approached Koharu to terminate her lease three weeks later. "My five months are up, so I'll be out as soon as you finalize it."

Koharu opened a drawer and took out a stack of papers. "You don't want to stay longer?"

Hana didn't like the shrewd look in her eyes.

"It wouldn't make sense to stay longer." Chigako was married, Aunt Fuuko was heading home that afternoon…

Hana had nothing against her cousin, but she was relieved the wedding was over. Despite Kiba's advice, she hadn't brought anyone (let alone Itachi) to satisfy Aunt Fuuko's demands. In hindsight, it might have been nice… Much nicer, anyway, than sitting opposite the nondescript young man whom Aunt Fuuko had clearly assigned her niece at the singles table. She'd found herself overeating, and even her favorite dishes had tasted like the awful field rations Konoha had once imported from the Land of Waves.

"What do you do?" she had tried to ask.

"Dad's a sake brewer."

"And you?"

He leered at her, somehow looking both sly and stupid at the same time. "I let him know if it's any good. If you want, I can show you where we put all of it, and we can have our own private celebration in the back room…"

But now Hana was at peace with her cowardice. Kiba had convinced her, if perhaps not in the way he'd intended. If she couldn't handle being just friends with Itachi, and she honestly thought nothing was possible between them, then giving herself these opportunities to imagine that Itachi cared would only make the inevitable disillusionment burn even more. It was time to let it go.

"I'm not pleased with the couple who've asked me about an apartment," said Koharu, "so you could potentially stay for another month. I expect there'll be a screaming baby three months later, and then they move out crying louder than the little runt itself… oh, these things happen," she assured Hana.


"But if you're sure…"

"I'll stay for a few more weeks," said Hana.

Maybe she was just a f – ing moron.

Hana started spending more time on the Inuzuka grounds anyway, in an attempt to stop herself from finding out when Itachi was returning. Her friends insisted on letting her know, perhaps because they were as misguided about Hana's nonexistent relationship with the Uchiha as everyone else in Konoha. "Have you seen Itachi?" and "Well, he's in the _ if you're looking for him."

Hana started out trying to thank them for their well-meaning pointers, but by the time the third person informed her of Itachi's whereabouts (he had only made it from the Hokage's office to the ground-floor lobby), she said point-blank, "We're not together."

"What?" said Shizune with slightly wider eyes. "Oh, I'm sorry…"

It seemed that the woman had interpreted it as an admittance of relationship problems instead, not a total denial of any relationship. This occurred to Hana as she received not a few sneers from some of the nurses and medic-nins (mostly female) that were also in the restaurant district for their lunch break.

She hadn't banked on having to see Itachi so soon. It was a hazard (or a perk?) of filing duty, which – thanks to the friendship Hana had formed with Iruka – she no longer shirked as diligently. Or maybe her decision had been based on the not-so-subliminal awareness that Itachi would show up in the next few days.

When the bell on the front desk rang, Hana picked up a few extra files. "Iruka, can you get that? My hands are full."

Iruka had peered around the corner and said, "Why don't you? It's Itachi." He smiled so genuinely that she was sure he hadn't heard the other false rumor in circulation.

Hana dumped the files on top of another pile and stalked to the desk. "Hi, do you have a report to turn in?"

Itachi's eyebrows rose a fraction of a centimeter at her tone, but he gave her the report.

"Have a nice day."

"Will you be in tonight?"

She flinched. He wasn't supposed to ask questions like that. Didn't he know that false hope hurt? "I don't think so." Her voice, at least, sounded casual and detached. "I have to take care of something at the house."

"You're lying," he observed.

Hana had gotten rusty with verbal deception – even if it was only to be expected that Itachi would sense something amiss. He had ANBU training and years of experience, after all. She focused on the thought of cleaning up the shed behind the kennels and said, "No, I really do have something to do."

He looked at her for another long moment until Hana wanted to squirm under that intent grey gaze. Then he just nodded and left the office, freeing her to exhale in relief. Why did it even matter? It was all in her head.

Hana hated to be caught in a lie, so directly after leaving the office that evening, she went to deal with the shed. At least one good thing would come out of it.

One quarter into the task, she heard Tsume bellow, "Hana! An Uchiha's asking for you at the door!"

Her heart skipped. "Tell him I'm busy and I'll get back to him!"

"It's the police!" She heard her mother snarl in frustration and advise the visitor to go around to the back. Tsume cared about drop-ins by the police, but only to a point. Resolutely, Hana sank the long shovel into another heap and dumped the clod of loose dirt over a partially buried mound of dog poop.

Three menacing growls warned Hana in advance that it wasn't whom she'd been half-expecting.

"Thanks for this," said a familiar voice. "Now I get to tell Itachi that you'd literally prefer to clean up shit than see him."

Hana's head whipped around. At that moment, she would have given nearly anything not to have Uchiha Shisui staring at her with that air of amused superiority and skepticism. It only brought home the differences between her and Itachi.

"You know, I really don't know what you think these games will accomplish," Shisui went on. He was no longer smiling. "Why are you jerking my cousin around?"

"We were never together," cut in Hana. Her knuckles were white from gripping the shovel.

"You can explain that to Sasuke... Itachi nearly reduced him to tears, and he's, what, fifteen years old and hasn't cried since he was eight. Don't tell him I told you that." It was a redundant plea, since Hana didn't really talk to the Uchiha in question. "The point is, there was something, and now that you're pretending to be coy –"

"I am not!" Did he not realize that she had a weapon in her hands?

"Can we kill him?" asked Taisa, ever mature and responsible. Chusa and Shosa had already circled around Shisui eagerly, although the man didn't look concerned.

"– acting like you don't know what you're doing," amended Shisui unsatisfactorily, "Itachi's bringing his funk to the Uchiha Compound, and considering that you're the final straw that made things this bad between him and his old man, you could stand to be a little more considerate… and call off your dogs," he added impatiently.

"Go inside the house," Hana told them. After the Haimaru brothers had slunk off with a parting glare, she looked back at Shisui. "How am I the final straw of anything?"

"The whole Sayuri fiasco, for starters – and now, because Itachi seems to blame us for the way you're behaving. What the f – is going through that thick skull of yours, Inuzuka? Actually, I wonder if anything is going through it."

"Don't be ridiculous," snapped Hana. "And it'd help if someone told me what I'm being blamed for. I don't even know what the Sayuri fiasco is."

Shisui glanced skywards as if his patience had reached dangerously low levels. "As you might realize, it's our duty as Uchiha to guard and preserve our bloodline limit so that it doesn't fall into the hands of any shitfaced maniac like Danzou. Do I have to explain the reference to you?"

"No," said Hana stiffly. Everyone knew at least a couple sordid details after Danzou's public trial – and also what had happened to him after the scandal had come to light.

"Guarding the Sharingan involves selective marriage. Itachi was supposed to marry one of our distant cousins, Sayuri – her bloodline is fine even if she hasn't activated her Sharingan – and I know they made some promise when they were thirteen against the marriage, but Fugaku-sama and Mikoto-sama figured they would grow out of it. Hell, they weren't the first to agree not to let the marriage go through in case either one of them objected. Well, Sayuri announced last winter that she'd changed her mind. They were going to get married." He gave Hana a dark look. "Now she's serving the daimyou as captain of his personal guard, fifteen hundred f – ing kilometers away."

It sounded impressive and overdramatic, like everything the Uchiha did. Some part of her had to admire the conviction of feeling behind Sayuri's decision. Actually, Hana felt a painful sympathy with her. But not responsible.

"Then you know why Itachi wouldn't marry her, don't you? He didn't change his mind. It had nothing to do with me!"

It was Shisui's turn to snap, "Don't be ridiculous. He'd have come around. Life for us isn't about hooking up with whoever we happen to take a fancy to."

"You honestly think that life for anyone who isn't from a so-called noble clan is about hooking up with whoever we fancy? Here's something I should have said to you the first time we met: F – you."

Shit. She had just said f- you to an Uchiha. To someone with whom Itachi was probably childhood friends.

"I apologize," she said bleakly.

Shisui hadn't even seemed that surprised, which grated. Hana wanted to kick herself for living up to his expectations. "You need to talk to him," he said. "He thinks the clan is the reason you broke things off."

"He… he said that?"

Shisui rolled his eyes in exasperation. "Not in so many words, but he didn't need to."

A disbelieving laugh spurted from Hana. "I'm not his girlfriend, alright? I'm like – I'm like his therapist or something. I just make tea!" Yet with each additional point, Shisui only looked increasingly bemused. "You think we talk? All he does when he comes over is drink one cup of tea and then leave."

"He comes over by himself?"

After all his insane accusations, this threw Shisui for a loop? "Well, I invited him the first time," Hana said reluctantly, "because he looked like he …"

"Like what?"

Like he had been half-dead, sick and ready to quit the world. She didn't know if Itachi actually spent much time in his apartment, but she suspected now that he had just wanted a place outside the Uchiha Compound to which he could go. "Like he could have used a cup of tea," she finished lamely.

"Itachi's made it clear through the years that he disagrees with a lot of the clan elders' policies, and I don't blame him. But he used to know how to deal with it." Shisui's brows furrowed. "Do you know what's been eating at him then, if not … whatever is going on between you two?"

She shrugged. "I don't know. I told you, we don't talk much."

Except earlier that day, when Itachi had asked her if she would be around – maybe he had been considering it.

"I could… ask him?" offered Hana.

Shisui started to give her a withering look, but visibly changed tack halfway through. "Would he tell you?"

The truth was that Hana had never tried.

Shisui shrugged. "I suppose it can't hurt. Do that, and let me know –"

"I'm not your lackey, Uchiha."

The Uchiha seemed to find her declaration singularly unpleasant. "Fine. Would you be so kind?"

Hana sighed. Shisui was an ass, but he was an ass who cared about his cousin, and she had been extremely rude a few minutes ago. "I'll let you know his answer."

"Want us to go with you?" asked Chusa.

"I'll be fine." Hana held the jar of tealeaves to the light. There was several centimeters' depth left. It was almost time to buy more tea – except she didn't know if there'd be a point. "Unless you don't see me tomorrow. Then dig me out of the hole I've crawled into and kill me or something."

The Haimaru brothers didn't look reassured.

The trek up the stairs wasn't especially long. All too soon, she found herself before the familiar, unremarkable white door of Unit 4-2, with the same dilemma. Was the doorbell rigged? Maybe she should try the window? Right, go for the opening that was definitely rigged.

From within came the faint sound of someone coughing.

Acting on impulse, Hana wrapped her fingers around the doorknob and twisted as she pushed in. The door swung open. Had it been unlocked all along?

She started to step back outside, appalled. In unprofessional settings, an unlocked door did not equal an invitation. Taking a breath, Hana prepared to close the door and call Itachi's name, when the scent hit her olfactory system.

There was the strong odor of pine, yes – what she had come to expect and associate with Itachi – but just beneath the surface was the odor she had smelled that night on the stairs. It wasn't that she hadn't smelled it on Itachi on earlier occasions, but it hadn't struck her as quite as disturbing. Here, it was definitely stronger now, almost overwhelming.

Hana recoiled when she figured out what it reminded her of – the emergency wing, where Kiba had spent six days.

Itachi smelled like the dying.

She could locate him in the apartment by sound alone, another disturbing detail that showed the severity of his condition. The bathroom door was ajar.

He had braced his hands on the counter of the sink. Blood flecked the enamel surface, and as Hana watched, a shudder rippled through his body. His hair was coming out of its ponytail and slipping over his shoulders. He hadn't even changed out of the ANBU vest, so the blood and violent deaths of all the individuals he had killed in his last mission overlaid the scent of his sickness.

The combined stench made her stomach turn. She swallowed the bile in her throat. "Itachi, let me get you to the hospital." She reached for his shoulder and stopped, surprised by the jar of tea still in her hands. It landed on the mat and rolled to a stop before making it to the tiles. "Do you have any medicine?"

At his nod, Hana left the bathroom and started searching with both eyes and nose. As she returned to the sitting room area, she noticed its bareness, the table and the chairs and a single matching cabinet with a framed photo on top. No, not there – maybe the kitchen? – she opened all the doors and then almost kicked herself for stupidity. Of course Itachi would keep a stash of this all-important medicine with him at all times.

Hana rushed into the bedroom, hardly noticing anything but the pouch on top of the desk. The only items in the smallest inner compartment were soldier pills and a packet of smaller white tablets that had to be Itachi's medicine.

"Here." She deposited two of the pills in Itachi's palm, and he took them dry. He didn't take his hand away, and when the next round of coughing brought up blood, she learned why. "Has Tsunade-sama seen you?" He was in no state to answer questions, but Hana had no other way to struggle against the feeling of helplessness. And what was she going to tell Shisui…

Her mind blanked. She suddenly knew, without a doubt, that Itachi hadn't told any of his family about his illness. Or had he? Would that be why the Uchiha clan elders wanted so urgently for him to marry and have heirs who might inherit his prodigious abilities? No – Shisui wouldn't have any questions about his cousin's behavior then.

Hana didn't have training in sniffing out disease, but she'd felt disturbed by Itachi's scent at the time. His condition had probably worsened sometime around his reappearance that night, as he tracked rain and blood up the stairs. That was why he must have wanted an apartment outside the Uchiha Compound. For one, he needed it to hide his deteriorating health.

But why? Why not just inform his family, instead of suffering by himself?

Itachi's voice broke through her thoughts. "She knows." He paused as another cough wracked through his frame, forcing him to bend over the sink if he didn't want to splatter the floor. "She has been studying me for a cure."

"Who else knows?" asked Hana. She was afraid to ask what was really on her mind.

The sound of Itachi's labored breathing seemed to fill the room. "The Hokage. Shizune, possibly." He gave her a sidelong glance. "You."

"Anyone could have come through that door and found out this way." For a brief instant, Hana wondered if she'd even closed it, then remembered seeing it shut when she had gone to look for Itachi's medications.

A half-smile flickered onto his face, visible to Hana only in the mirror. "You assume anyone would have been permitted to enter." He straightened, wiping his face with a damp towel from one of the bars affixed to the wall.

"Can you go to the hospital right now?"

Itachi walked around her to the bedroom. "I'm leaving for another mission."

"Hilarious," she said flatly. With a sinking feeling, she realized that this was probably why he still wore part of his ANBU uniform. He'd have to pick up the rest of his gear from the ANBU Compound. "The Hokage is sending you on another mission when he knows you're like this?"

His hands swept up the items scattered over his desk – the disorder that had come from Hana rummaging through the pouch. "I asked for it."

"Why?" She burst out. "Why can't you let your family know?"

Even mortally ill, Itachi could certainly manage to get out of the apartment whether or not Hana budged from the door. She was banking on two facts: he'd much prefer not to encounter any obstacles, and he seemed to have prepared for her to find out.

"The Uchiha Clan is organized around a single bloodline limit, the Sharingan. With it, we can copy techniques flawlessly, predict what our opponents will do, learn jutsu at an accelerated rate. There are enough forbidden techniques hidden in our archives to occupy missing-nin like Orochimaru for life – I've told the Hokage where to look. And by now, I've seen most of them."

Hana frowned up at him. "How is this relevant?"

"One thing this clan has never done," said Itachi in a harsh voice that she had never heard him use before, "is learn healing techniques, despite knowing what every forbidden doujutsu we hoard will someday do to the one who masters it. When my cousin Obito died, all the elders cared about was that Hatake Kakashi received the Sharingan. Informing them of my condition would benefit no one."

"Have you stopped to think that maybe some of your family cares about you, not just your abilities? Your parents, for instance? Sasuke? Shisui cares enough that he talked to me, and you know how much we like each other."

Hana stepped back and took in his appearance. Itachi had replaced his shuriken holster and retied his ponytail. He was wearing all black and looked pristine and deadly as a sharp blade, not as if he had been coughing out his lungs mere seconds ago in the bathroom, where the scent of his blood still marked some of the fixtures. He was also very handsome.

"F – ing idiot," she said bitterly.

"Thank you." She could only tell he was hiding a smile from the way his eyes narrowed slightly. "You're always so polite, Hana."

"I know. I told your cousin to f – off earlier."

"He told me."

Hana crossed the short distance between them in a single stride and saw him tense. "Just stand still for a moment," she said in a low voice, just before putting her arms around him. F – Jiraiya.

On second thought, no. Ew.

Itachi didn't exactly hug her back, but she felt his ear against her cheek and the weight of his head on her shoulder for a brief instant. This close to him, she could smell the illness on his skin, a trace of sweat on his clothes, and a slightly acrid smell of charcoal that she could come to like.

She released him when he pushed her back gently by the shoulders. "I brought the tea over."

"Keep it at your place."

"I don't know if it's ever occurred to you," she said, "but I don't even like drinking it that much."

"It's occurred to me," said Itachi, which made her flush; the abysmal way she prepared the stuff had probably given it away. "How much is left from the last jar?"

"Enough that I don't want to drink it by myself. By the way, do you know around when you'll be back?" As if Itachi planned to be back. Hana stared at him, daring him to state the intention explicitly. She had no business demanding information so close to the classified details of his assignment, but she'd let him drop by whenever he wanted to have tea in silence for far too long.

And he did answer her. "From this assignment…" He met her gaze evenly. "Over a week, or nine to twelve days."

"Fine," said Hana. "I'm moving out in two weeks. My cousin's already married and my relatives have left," she explained. "So you had better be back before then."

"And after?"

He had leaned closer to speak quietly in her ear, his breath dusting her jaw. She was suddenly struck by the memory of a D-rank mission almost a decade ago, when the Haimaru brothers had cornered a runaway cat on a tree. It had reached a standstill, and for a while (before Hana had simply climbed the tree and the ninken started barking again) they had regarded each other in absolute stillness.

"Would you consider letting Tsunade-sama inform more people of your condition? A few more medic-nin researching your illness might make things go faster, especially when she's so busy herself." He looked away. "I'm not asking for promises." Although if Hana had been a medic-nin herself, not a mere veterinarian, she would have pushed for a lot more.

"Until then."

And he was simply gone.

Hana leaned the back of her head against the doorjamb and closed her eyes, wondering if that was the last time she'd see him.

Two weeks passed, then three.

When Hana dumped the boxes in her room, she realized that she would have to get used to the ambient noise all over again. Traces of its last inhabitants lingered in the form of scraps of ribbon, different scents overlaying the extra futons in the closet. For all that, the place felt weirdly empty.

There wasn't much to unpack. Hana had left Kurenai's furniture behind for the next tenant, so she only had the items she'd first brought to the apartment, minus the tea that she had included in the box in case any guests stopped by. At the end of her lease, she had asked Shisui to take the second jar off her hands.

"How did you get this out of Itachi's room?" He had asked flatly.

"I don't know what you're talking about," Hana said, bewildered. "He bought it and left it with me."

To which the Uchiha had stared at her, at the jar in his hands, and then back again. He started to shake his head. "Damn." In true Uchiha fashion, Shisui forbore to explain his reaction.

It was sometime in early June when the news reached Konoha – apparently via messenger bird. The Hokage had yet to make the official announcement, but Hana had run into Natori upon leaving the yakiniku restaurant with Kiba. Natori claimed the news wasn't to be spread around yet, but he seemed to think the matter was basically settled.

"The negotiations with Amegakure are in the finalization stage – all we need is for Konoha's council to ratify it." Natori paused. "Ame is going to gain an official status equivalent to a recognized shinobi country."

"But it's a hidden village," argued Kiba. "A grimy, butt-ugly village." Clearly, he didn't have fond memories.

"Not so hidden," said Natori. "Their leader's strong enough to protect its autonomy against the neighboring daimyou. He wants Amegakure to be a republic."

Every word out of the man's mouth dropped like miniature bombs on their ears. Amegakure was a hidden village – its very name said so. Gaara might have set some precedents as a beloved and respected Kazekage, but this was on a whole other level. "Anything else you want to tell us?" Hana asked weakly.

"No, except that the Kazekage already wrote in to give his support. The memo from our contact came in about the same time as the first message direct from the Kazekage."

Hana got her hands on a copy of the memo five days later, while on filing duty. She read the whole thing through, catching the particular tone and style in which it had been written, and just knew. Itachi was in Sunagakure. He was still most assuredly alive. And near the bottom, the memo mentioned the Kazekage's plan to ease tensions and differences between the villages by sending some of his village's best medics to treat the wounded of both Ame and Konoha. They included Chiyo of Sunagakure, whose name had been well-known in Konoha since the Second Secret World War… or rather, notorious, but there were reasons for hope:

When Hana had inquired after the research being done on Itachi, Tsunade-sama had answered that his illness had begun due to exposure to a highly lethal poison. Chiyo was a poison and antidotes expert, and – reading between the lines - Itachi was spending an extended time in Sunagakure before escorting the Suna medic-nin to Ame. Maybe? Possibly?

On a night twenty days later – or a morning twenty-one days later – her loosely-curled fist was poised above a white-painted door. Courage, she thought. He'd done it so many times. She hadn't even thought about it from the other side.

And then Hana lowered her hand, seeing the name plaque. Someone called Tatami Iwashi now lived in Unit 4-2.

Hana stared at the printed kanji in disappointment. Perhaps Itachi had done the smart thing and moved back into the Uchiha Compound. After he'd been away for so long, it was only reasonable for Koharu to accommodate other tenants.

As she stalked down the stairs, her head and heart filling with regret, a faint scent caught her attention. She froze. Itachi had left a trail of where he had gone, and it wasn't all that old.

Hana flew down the remaining steps to the third floor. There, she pulled up before Unit 3-2 and rang the bell. The door opened.

"Hi," she said, a little breathlessly.

He looked clean and beautiful, silhouetted against the warm glow of Kurenai's floor lamp. There was a pouch in his hands and a damp shine to his hair – she could smell the soap and shampoo he had used, no longer pine but something subtler, like almonds, which wouldn't nearly be enough to hide the odor of death –

An odor that was no longer part of his scent. The fragrant smell of simmering tea wafted over from the kitchen.

"You moved," Hana said, because when at a loss, stating the obvious was certainly the way to go.

"I always wanted this apartment," said Itachi.

"And now you have it." Maybe that was too much of the obvious. "May I come in?" she asked humbly. As she turned from closing the door behind her, Itachi had already reemerged from the kitchen with two cups.

It could have been an effect of the lighting, but his expression looked softer, more relaxed than Hana remembered. His eyes, though, hadn't changed much. Still dark grey and somewhat intense, even if they held a bit more patience and warmth.

"There's something I wish I did before you left," she said quietly. Itachi stood still and let her reach for his face...

And, even as Hana's smile betrayed her intentions, flick him in the temple.

'Cause if this is what we've got, then what we've got is gold