Chapter Twenty-One: Epilogue
The bird drifted in and about the clouds lazily. It was one of those green and yellow ones she saw every winter, when they showed up to escape whatever cold area they come from. She idly wondered if Itachi would know what species it was. Who knew where he obtained his seemingly infinite knowledge about such trivial details from, but she was grateful for it. She shifted her weight, soft sand reshuffling itself around her body to accommodate the change in her position. She should probably be getting ready soon, and she'd have a hell of a time extracting the grains from her hair, but the sun felt so good on her face that she didn't want to move.
Her eyelids had just slipped closed when a familiar voice resonated in her ears. She blinked up into the face of her husband.
"If you fall asleep, you'll miss him." Amusement crinkled the corners of his black eyes, already beginning to grow fine lines from the years. The ghost of a smile tugged at his lips.
Sakura offered him a drowsy grin in return — a reflex upon seeing his face. She coaxed her uncooperative limbs into a sitting position. "Caught me again, huh?"
He chuckled, offering a hand to help her to her feet. He tried to brush the sand from her shoulders, but it was a rather hopeless endeavour. "For a shinobi, you're not very stealthy. A blind man could spot you napping in the middle of the beach."
Sakura rolled her eyes, bare feet beginning their trek across the white sand towards the bamboo house at the edge of the rainforest. "I'm a what, now?"
He hummed, strolling by her side. "My apologies. Former shinobi."
Sakura laughed and grabbed his hand, leaning up to capture his lips with hers. The kiss was slow and languid. They mapped each other's mouths with the kind of comfortable familiarity that only tens of thousands of kisses can bring. They'd shared passionate ones, bored ones, perfunctory ones, angry ones. Sakura thought the best kind, however, were the lazy ones. Like this. She sighed into his mouth.
"Eww!" A high voice broke into their private moment. They jumped apart like criminals, caught red-handed.
A small boy of five darted across the beach like an over-exuberant whirlwind with legs. He attached himself to his mother's knee and glared up at her with the trademark black eyes of the Uchiha clan. "Why are you guys so gross?"
Itachi suppressed a chuckle, not wanting to encourage the bad behavior. His son may have inherited his looks, but he claimed no responsibility for that spitfire of a personality. Sakura, however, had no such reservations and promptly bonked her son on the head.
"Hey, no disrespecting the parents, Itsuki. No matter how gross we are."
The boy frowned, a challenging glint creeping into his eyes. "Or what?"
She peeled him from her leg and started back towards the house again, Itachi following. "I'm sure Uncle Naruto didn't really want to see you after all," she commented lightly, eliciting a gasp.
"We're gonna visit Uncle Naru today?! Is he coming here, or are we going to Wave Country again?"
"Your mother and I are meeting him near the Great Naruto Bridge, but only well-behaved boys are allowed to visit with the Hokage," Itachi replied seriously.
Itsuki rolled his eyes but put on his best angelic expression. "Will Aunt Hinata and Sasumi be there? How 'bout Uncle Kaka or Auntie Pig?"
Sakura shook her head, long braid swishing behind her as she passed the iris-lined herb garden. She slid open the front door and stepped inside, her family trailing like oversized ducklings. And indeed, Itsuki's short hair stuck up in back much like that of the uncle he'd never meet. Sakura ruffled her fingers through it, making him jerk away in embarrassment. He tried to flatten it out with his small palms, but it sprang right back into place as though glued there, making his parents laugh. "Just Uncle Naruto this time. Your best buddy has a mission and the others have to watch Konoha while the Rokudaime is away."
Itsuki scowled. "Sasumi isn't my friend! She's my rival," he corrected pointedly. He scuffed his feet against the hardwood floor of the hall, tracking sand into the house as he followed his parents into the master bedroom. Sand was an inevitable part of living on an island: it was in your food, your clothes, your shoes. Sakura stopped bothering to chastise the boy for bringing half the beach inside with him long ago; they just swept up a lot. He climbed up on the bed and started pestering the cat while he watched them get ready. "I wanna take missions too," he grumbled.
Sakura paused in the middle of tugging a brush through her sandy hair. She and her husband exchanged a glance.
"When you're older," Itachi evaded with the usual excuse. In actuality, after all the difficulties he and Sakura had been through, they were unconvinced that the shinobi lifestyle was really the ideal choice for their only child — or any child, at that. Ultimately they could never interfere with his dreams and career decisions, but they still hoped to put it off for as long as possible.
"You always say that," he grumbled. Sakura tossed a pillow at him.
"No whining. Go change into something nicer for your uncle," she admonished with a disapproving glance at the holes in his favorite baggy shirt, the one with the Uchiha crest on the back.
Muttering about the unfairness of the world under his breath, Itsuki scrambled off the bed and down the hall to his room. Sakura turned to Itachi with a frown, but he answered her thoughts before she spoke.
"We will cross that bridge if or when we come to it," he reminded her. Sakura's frown deeped. Suddenly a warm arm snaked around her waist from behind, a pair of lips brushing her curtain of hair aside to kiss the crook of her neck. His mouth trailed along her shoulder, then back up to nibble at her earlobe. Sakura hummed, partly in pleasure and partly in warning.
"Keep that up and Naruto will have eaten all the food in the restaurant by the time we get there," she intoned, making no move to step away.
"I wasn't really hungry anyway," Itachi mused, sliding his hands up her shirt. "Were you?"
"Maybe not for ramen," she replied archly, grasping his arms around her and guiding him to the bed with a smirk.
They were late, of course. By the time they stepped through the crowded dining room of Ichiraku II (the newest branch in Wave Country, built partly to accommodate a certain infamous fan's request), the Rokudaime was halfway through his second bowl of pork ramen.
"Uncle Naru!" Itsuki burst out, a black-haired blur shooting through the waitresses' legs in his haste to get to his favorite uncle.
"Itsuki!" Naruto chuckled, dropping his busy chopsticks to open his arms wide for his godchild. Itsuki scrambled into them without pause. Naruto shot a knowing look over the boy's shoulder at his tardy parents. "And look who's finally here. Honestly Sakura-chan, ever since you retired you're nothing like your old punctual self." He offered a similarly amused glance at her husband. "You too, Itachi-san. Which of you is rubbing off on the other?"
Itachi raised his eyebrows slightly. "Naruto-kun, I believe it was Kakashi-san who first ingrained that particular habit into my wife, who then passed it onto me," he intoned with his serious face, earning himself a playful swat.
Though Naruto and Itachi had been like family for years, the blonde never quite managed to drop the honorific. Itachi too seemed only able to think of the other man as 'Naruto-kun.' Once upon a time, their friendship would have seemed like an utter impossibility to Sakura. But after she and Itachi left Akatsuki twelve years ago and quit service to Konoha, Itachi had eventually relented in his wish to be close-mouthed about the true nature of the Uchiha massacre (at least with a select few of her friends, anyway). It had taken lots of yelling, major shifts in perspective, and time, but eventually Sakura's closest friends had come to accept Itachi — and her relationship with him. It wouldn't have been possible at all without Tsunade's support and patient explanations.
Now Sakura and Itachi met with Naruto (or a clone, or one of his trustworthy envoys...if anyone could call Kakashi 'trustworthy') once or twice a month to have lunch and act as unofficial advisors to the Hokage. As per the usual, they ordered (miso ramen for Sakura, vegetarian for Itachi. Itsuki wanted pork ramen like Uncle Naruto of course) and dove straight into business so they could enjoy the remainder of the day together. They discussed the upcoming chuunin exams, and the tension with Lightning Country. Secluded as they were on their island home, Sakura and Itachi were ill-informed of the goings-on in the world outside of their private bubble. But as a diligent Hokage, that never stopped Naruto from asking. They gave him all the news from the coastal area and the south that they could, and stuck with subjects they were familiar with, like what genjutsu to test the chuunin with.
"Any word on Akatsuki's movement?" Naruto inquired between bites, a little too casually. They shot him two identical flat looks.
"Hey, hey, it never hurts to ask!" he backtracked with a laugh.
Truth be told, they hadn't really known what was going on in Akatsuki for a long time now (not that they necessarily would've told Naruto about it even if they had). Before leaving, they took personal side missions for a few years to accumulate enough wealth to live comfortably on for a good long time. Eventually they decided they'd had enough of the tenuous moral difficulties of that lifestyle. They'd spent years trying to pay for their sins against Sasuke and the innocent lives they'd taken through service to Konoha and the ninja world, working to slow Akatsuki and prolong peace. That mission was never-ending, but after bearing the hardship of the world on their shoulders for so long, even they concluded it was time to pursue some personal happiness. They disappeared one day with the blessings of Kisame, Tobi, and Deidara.
Even if they hadn't been experts at vanishing into shadow by then, Akatsuki never seemed to pursue them terribly hard. With their friends still responsible for the majority of the organization's footwork, it wasn't surprising that they conveniently never picked up their trail. When it became clear that Itachi and Sakura were not going to spill any major secrets and just wanted to be uninvolved with politics, Leader-sama must have decided to leave well enough alone, like he had when Orochimaru defected before them. A few years later, after Itsuki had been born, they received a surprise message on the back of a shark from Water Country. Ever since then they'd met periodically with their old comrades to catch up on things, though they never talked business. Kisame in particular was enamoured with Itsuki, christening him 'little hellion,' (and earning himself a warning look from Itachi each time he used it).
Sakura was jolted out of her thoughts by a tug on her sleeve. "Mommy, I'm sleepy," Itsuki mumbled, rubbing his eyes. She laughed, scooping the boneless child off his uncle's lap and into her own. He rested a heavy head on her shoulder.
"That's just because you ate all that ramen. Take a nap now so you have energy to play with Uncle Naruto later." She really needn't have said anything though, because within moments he was drooling on her shirt. The soft looks the other two men gave her son warmed her heart.
The three old friends continued their meals and conversation, sharing a few carafes of sake between them (though it was Naruto and Sakura who did most of the drinking; some things never changed). By the time they finished there were contented smiles all around. Itachi cradled the limp body of his son as Sakura and Naruto squabbled over who would pay the bill, neither realizing Itachi had already left a generous amount on the table until he began walking out. They hurried after him, happy bickering shifting to another topic.
Itsuki woke up halfway home, full of energy and demanding his uncle race him the rest of the way. Still competitive as ever, Naruto complied, sparing no mercy on the boy just because he was a child with legs a quarter of the length of his own.
Itachi and Sakura took their time on the return trip, strolling across the waves towards the island hand in hand. Their boat was still docked at the mainland, so they could only assume Naruto had piggybacked his godson across. The sun was sinking over the water in a glorious blaze of red and gold, and as Sakura gazed at it she reflected that there was little else she wanted from life at this point. Itachi was still sick, and she knew he'd disappear some day. In reality, the same could be said of anyone's husband; with Itachi the immediate truth of it was just a little more certain. In some ways it was a good thing, because it allowed them to appreciate today with an intensity couples rarely got to enjoy. For now, his hand was warm and strong in hers, and that was all that mattered.
They arrived home just as the stars were beginning to come out, faint pinpricks of light against the velvet backdrop. Naruto had managed to teach Itsuki to walk on water in the space of half an hour. His parents just shook their heads, because of course Naruto wouldn't be the one who'd have to deal with a ridiculously advanced five year old now free to get into mischief off their island in addition to on it. Sakura conked both troublemakers on their heads, earning a laugh from the big one and an indignant hiss from the small one. They chatted until it was long past Itsuki's bedtime. Eventually Naruto said he had to be getting back home to Hinata and Sasumi. They hugged goodbye, and Naruto disappeared in a grinning puff of smoke.
Itsuki knew he was in trouble. "I'm not sleeeeeeepy!" he declared, taking off down the beach at a run. His father appeared in his path and promptly slung the protesting boy over his shoulder. "Bed," he stated in no uncertain terms.
That night Sakura lay under the sheets in that hazy twilight state halfway between sleep and wakefulness. Itsuki was snoring peacefully in his room down the hall, the cat was curled up at her feet, and the familiar body of her husband lay beside hers. A feeling of deep tranquility settled over the ex-kunoichi. She rolled onto her side and wrapped an arm around Itachi, who unconsciously pulled her closer. The comforting sound of waves washing onto shore floated in through the open window, mixing with his quiet breathing and lulling her towards sleep. She'd like nothing more than to wake up tomorrow to another day like today. Just another day in paradise...
She drifted off with a smile on her face.
- fin -
A/N: Well, that about does it. I left the back door open for a possible sequel in the future, but it wouldn't happen for a long time (other projects first, and letting this one sit long enough for me to rewrite with fresh eyes, etc). Meanwhile, I'll make a separate fic for oneshots from the Contagious-verse. There are still a few short stories to tell: Sakura's pregnancy, more Akatsuki antics, some of Itachi's thoughts on previous events...smut, heh.
I can't thank you all enough for reading this fic. It's an awesome feeling to know that there are other people out there enjoying the strange ramblings of my brain. Truly. I got spoiled by the best readers in the fandom.
I might disappear for a while (with the exception of the oneshots I can't seem to stop cranking out) to write out the entire first draft of the next ItaSakuSasu. Many of you told me you appreciated the update speed of this one, which was only possible because all I had to do between posts was edit/re-write like a madwoman. So forgive me if there's a long hiatus between fics! If you want to vote on your preferred update speed, there is...a new poll in my profile (yes, I like polls. A lot). The last one resulted in overwhelming support for the Yakuza/Japan setting, so it looks like that's what it'll be.
I learned so much while writing this, my next fic is going to be so much better. I'm excited! THANK YOU ALL SO MUCH FOR YOUR SUPPORT THROUGHOUT THIS PROCESS! I look forward to writing many more things for you to enjoy in the future.
~R.B. out! :D