Down the Road


Itachi had never been a great talker. He had been praised for his great mind and his considerate nature in the past, but being pressed to ever excel upwards in the ranks had left him naturally quiet and withdrawn.

Sakura, on the other hand, seemed to excel at carrying a conversation for miles on her own shoulders. Maybe that was a consequence of her job as a medic—to talk about everything and nothing as she tried to keep her patients calm or as she sat with them in their final moments.

And while Itachi knew no more now what to say than he did at the start, he didn't want her to stop.

"You don't need to pack the dirt so tightly. The water needs to get into the soil, but it needs to drain away too. I might have learned that after I almost killed Kakashi's pet cactus after transplanting him to a bigger pot. I think Kakashi might have forgiven me sooner if I had almost killed him instead…"

The garden was an overturned patch of soil located a good walk from the house proper. Sakura suspected that this had as much to do with Itachi's personal preferences for solitude as it did with practicality. It was a modest plot and it was reassuring to know that for all his prowess in every other field, even Itachi knew to start small when it came to such unexplored waters.

Sakura dug her hands into the dirt and created a small hole with sloping sides. The ground here was the rich black earth that was typical of Fire country and it stained everything it touched, which was why she had daintily removed her flats before kneeling down to look at anything. Hopefully there was still some way to save her shift and Itachi's poor tunic.

"Okay, this should be deep enough. Now, you try."

Itachi looked skeptical at best and eyed the delicate sprout and the clod of soil Sakura then deposited in his hands. He eyed the hole she had created and then, with great care, he dropped the seedling into place, and started to rake the black earth back around it with his fingers so that the roots were covered.

Sakura looked at him with wide happy eyes and then threw her hands in the air victoriously. "And now he gardens!" she said. Reaching over and gently pinching his arm, she added: "The Yamanakas better watch out."

Itachi couldn't help but smile back. It was excessive praise for an insubstantial "victory", but he would gladly and selfishly bask in it but for just a moment.

Sakura rocked back on her heels and dusted off her palms. "Okay, next row."

Their progress continued in companionable silence. Eventually, Sakura began to coach with gestures alone. At last, Itachi finished the last row by himself and the plants were neatly aligned and appeared no worse for their handling.

"Kisame's going to be disappointed," Sakura said with a bit of mischief.

He humored her with a small smile and then looked back at the garden. Reaching down, he stroked one of the delicate leaves of the nearest sprout. He had already talked with Kisame about his meeting with Kakashi and received a carefully "nothing" sort of response. He suspected he knew his partner's real thoughts on the matter, but that he had held back because they had both spent too long being force-fed others' opinions.

"The Elders have offered to reinstate me."

There was a pinch that happened above the girl's brow, but it was for just an instant. Then Sakura's expression became otherwise unreadable. "Kakashi told me," she said at last.

"Do you have an opinion?"

She gave him a sideways look. "You don't know me very well yet or you would know that I have an opinion about everything."

His smile was more sincere this time as he rose to his feet. He offered her a hand up and asked: "Will you tell me?"

Sakura sighed as she accepted and then began to dust off her hands and shins. "I can't tell you what to do, but I think you should wait. Give it a year, maybe, until you acclimate to being home again. Then, whatever you do decide, remember that you don't owe those old farts on the council anything. This is supposed to be your life now."

An age old mantra from a lifetime ago came back to him and the words that had long turned into a bitter lie spilled out before he knew truly what he was saying: "Their methods serve us."

The medic snorted as they started toward the house at an ambling pace. "No they don't." It was said with the same bitter knowing. "They aren't really thinking about what's good for you or the village. If they cared about you, they wouldn't even ask, and if they cared about the village… well…" She huffed and looked at him. "If I can be your medic for a second? I want you to think about you. There are enough people worrying about Konoha." She paused a second and then let out a sigh that sounded defeated. Her shoulders sank and she regarded him with a frank and open expression. "Itachi, has anyone ever asked you what you want?"

They hadn't, but he had rather thought that a mercy.

Wanting things was dangerous. Each of the Akatsuki had wanted more than they had the right to take and Madara had used their greed to make them his toys in a larger game beyond their ken. Itachi had wanted and had paid with his clan's good name and blood. Konoha fed their children into the grinding maw of war chasing their want of peace down the bloodiest given path.

The breeze had picked up again and was pulling gently at their clothes and hair, tangling them with the scents of flowers and freshly bloomed spring green. In the distance, the bustle of the village underpinned the quiet and the warmth of the afternoon. It helped Itachi shake free of his thoughts, now painted in shades of gray and blood spatter.

"I do not know what I would ask for if they had."

He was tired of fighting, he thought. But a lifetime of premeditating his next two steps and at least five ways to escape them would not let admit to such a weakness. Still, the rest of him ached with an exhausted weariness that had seeped like a rot into his bones. Even his spirit felt the burden of it.

When he finally looked at Sakura again and he was not met with the look of pity that he had been anticipating with some dread. Instead, she was frowning at him.

He mimicked her, unable to help himself. "What?"

This startled a smile out of Sakura, who was reminded suddenly that Itachi had been a normal older brother once a very long time ago. From what she understood watching Neji and Hinata, this meant either being wildly overprotective or blisteringly annoying.

It only just distracted her from the darkness she had just watched come and go from the man's expression, as if he had travelled to and from somewhere very bleak without ever leaving her side. So, she chose the most neutral answer she could think of; one that would still make her opinion clear. "Maybe when you're acclimating over the next year, you can think about it.

Sakura took the time before leaving to look around the house proper and privately decide whether or not she approved, because Itachi and Kisame were reforming criminals but she had started to consider them both very much her responsibility despite her best efforts.

And quickly enough she decided that she had to send Yamato something nice on their behalf. It was a lovely home. It was small, sure, but it was just the two of them and more space meant more cleaning as far as she was concerned and she couldn't see either of them dedicating much time to that, as fastidious a person as Itachi seemed. (And she would have killed for windows like this with such a beautiful, uninterrupted view of open space.)

She was less impressed with how it was being used. She was pretty sure they were subsisting on dried rations and that Itachi slept in the loft like a goat and Kisame was making use of some kind of net-hammock jobby on the porch. Ugh, men.

But things were otherwise orderly and she left content in the knowledge that they were settling in as well as they could be expected to at this stage.

Everything else would take time.

Sakura declined Itachi's offer to walk with her back to the village (and did not miss how visibly relieved he appeared when she did so), so her journey back was quiet and contemplative.

She was inclined to like Itachi, she thought, more than she really ought to. It was the problem she had tried to give voice to when speaking to Ino and couldn't find the right words for.

Her generation had been raised on stories of the Uchiha betrayal and the monstrous actions of their deceptive heir. Knowing the truth now helped, but she understood the human mind. She understood the root of the hesitation the villagers—and other ninja—still felt at the prospect of two former enemies openly walking their streets. The brain didn't work like that; couldn't be turned on a pin after years of being taught one way.

So, what was it?

Sakura considered the man himself and the nonthreatening, nonentity he was now compared to the terrifying phantom cut from the whole-cloth of fear he had been. It was like the Itachi of today went out of his way to roll over and show his belly at the first sign of confrontation.

And maybe that was it; the thing that made her uneasy. Because no one did that. No one became a black ops captain if their first instinct was to roll over and play opossum.

Furthermore, she wanted to know why.

Sakura didn't think anyone was necessarily going to miss the facet of Uchiha Itachi that had coldly slaughtered his clan in a desperate "with us or against us" bid to save the village, but she suspected Uchiha Itachi had once had opinions. It was not a wild supposition. He could be polite and deferential and have thoughts of his own; that great tactical mind that had had so wowed everyone in his day.

So, why was he letting the Council pressure him? Why couldn't he make a relatively simple choice about his medical care? (She thought that his headaches would his first priority upon entering Konoha.) Why defer so much to her or Kakashi or anyone?

These thoughts circled in her mind all the way back to the streets of the village proper.

Sakura suspected that many of the stairs in Konoha never saw much use with so many ninja launching themselves off the walls and propelling themselves through windows.

This was true for her too, even though she lived on the uppermost floor of her building and the stairs might have been the easiest way, in theory. Although, taking the rooftops and coming in through the balcony allowed her to check on her plants. She had repurposed the terrace to be something of an outdoor garden of potted plants, succulents in shallow basins, and window boxes on the railings filled with medicinal herbs.

Satisfied with their state and making the mental note to water them come morning, Sakura headed inside.

Kakashi had nagged in his own way before she accepted this "assignment". Was she sure she wanted to get involved? Given that she was dealing with her own host of leftover problems from the war, trying to sort out Itachi's personal demons would probably only make things more difficult for her when it came to hers. How could she heal if she was diving into someone else's mental sludge?

But she wasn't sure how she was supposed to heal just sitting around.

The war didn't go away. The things that bothered her—what haunted her in the night and the things that came back to her in flashbacks or during her moments of respite—those things hadn't just disappeared because she wasn't in the field anymore. The village had not spontaneously fixed itself.

Fixing it required action. It was why she worked with the orphans, maintained her shifts at the hospital, and helped at the greenhouse.

And now, with luck, she could do something for Itachi too.

Sakura finished her shower and threw her dirty clothes into the hamper. Damp from the shower and smelling of mint, she switched off the bathroom light and traipsed back into her bedroom.

Her bedroom, like her whole apartment, was cleanly minimalist, the floor a white maple, and the bedspread and sheets a soft heather. A single skylight over the bed let her look up into the starry night and when she laid back she found herself thinking of her new "charge" again.

Whoever objected to Itachi's presence in Konoha, they ought to keep their distance at least. Sakura felt confident in that much. It was the only reason to be grateful for his reputation being what it was. That is, she didn't believe that anyone would be stupid enough to confront him. At the very least, they wouldn't risk confront him and Kisame. Or she hoped not. And if they did. Well. The village wouldn't suffer much from their loss, would it?

She considered her first report and then decided that that too could simply wait. The Council had tried to give some orders about demanding them after every meeting but they had about as much power over her as they did over the population of fleas infesting the ninken's kennels.

What would she say anyway? Met patient, did some gardening, lovely chat, major hair-envy?

On second thought. That's exactly what she was going to write. Seriously, screw the Council.

1. I feel the tone shifts here and that it doesn't.

2. And that's going to be true about 50% of the time. We're dealing with major themes of trauma and PTSD. Shit's going to be sad. Not in a "everyone is going to die" way, but in a "let's sit down and talk about our trauma and confront that shit" way.

3. ... yaaaay?