A/N: I wanted to write a story in which Itachi returned home and lived his life. This oneshot became a result of that. For one reason or another, I ended up writing it from Sakura's perspective. Possibly because I work better with female minds and she is my favorite leading female character to write. And it became one heck of a long oneshot. Way too long than what I had expected. 15.000 words. I just can't rush my relationships, it seems. Especially not when it comes to Sakura and Itachi. They just don't work that way in my head. And I also think that this is one of my most realistic and angsty fics that I've posted on here. I'm actually quite happy with it. I hope you guys will be, too.
The Taste of Peaches
The peach dropped from her hand to the ground and knocked into the wheel of the fruit stand with a soft thud. The town was crackling with life this close to the festival. People shuffled from destination to destination on the crowded roads. A fine layer of dust rose from beneath their feet and perfumed the air together with the sweltering heat that dominated year around in Wind Country. She was there on an unofficial errand, but she was fairly sure that the errand had just been deprioritized in favor of duty. He looked so ordinary that she had almost missed him in the crowd. In fact, the domesticity of the scene was what made her hesitate. That and the fact that Uchiha Itachi had walked right up next to her and was currently conflicted between buying either a dozen pears or a dozen plums.
She watched in stunned silence as he bought his pears and said his goodbyes to the vendor. He wasn't wearing his Akatsuki robes. That made sense, she thought. He had defected from the organization, so why would he still be wearing the uniform? His civilian clothes were entirely unimpressionable and looked strangely worn. They looked cheap. Unmemorable.
She had heard of the rumors a couple of years into the war. The rumors that the infamous Uchiha Itachi had fled from his organization of criminals, because he had lost his most valuable asset. His prized bloodline limit. In the past, she had tried grilling Kakashi about his own eye. He had only recently allowed her to examine the mysteries of the Sharingan. Like every other professional in their field, Itachi's senses were highly advanced. But in a bustling crowd like this and with the unlikeliness of an enemy ambush this many years after the war, he could only have missed her presence this badly because he was blind. Really, anybody who missed her bright pink palette of hair had to be blind.
He was hiding his loss of sight well, but she could see it now.
He was also leaving, she realized.
"Uch-," she cut herself off, knowing better. "Itachi-san."
She didn't know what she had intended to say, but when he stopped to look back over his shoulder, she knew what a loss he had suffered. During peacetimes, you couldn't recklessly wreak havoc in a territory that wasn't your own. This wasn't Konoha jurisdiction. Also, she could just imagine the amount of paperwork that would forever haunt the person who tracked down the vindicated Uchiha Itachi and brought the last heir of the Uchiha legacy back home.
"Haruno Sakura," Itachi greeted her evenly, tipping his head forward in a move that shadowed his face and eyes. She felt an unwanted pang of sympathy. The last time she had seen him, he had worn his eyes with pride.
This time she knew exactly what to say: "We have orders to bring you home."
Around them, town life continued on as the sun baked down on the oval marketplace. Bickering mothers and children walked past them. Some even walked in between them. And the shrill laughter of teenagers could be heard somewhere off to Sakura's left. But Sakura recognized a standoff. And in a standoff you didn't let external factors interfere. She was just as tuned in to Itachi as he was tuned in to her. Civilians might be present, but they weren't of any consequence as of yet. Professionalism was hard to shake once it had set, and it set automatically when you encountered Uchiha Itachi. Vindicated and possibly blind, Itachi still posed a very real threat.
"I have been approached by others before you," Itachi answered, his head turning to the left when he spoke. She could feel her face settle into some odd mixture between a smile and a scowl. The Uchiha impudence was infamous. She remembered Sasuke's with fondness. Less could be said for his elder brother.
"Let me guess," she said. "You persuaded them to do the opposite?"
"In a way."
"Your name has been cleared."
"I am aware."
It was actually quite a feat that Sakura hadn't made Itachi lose interest in the conversation yet.
"I understand that you probably don't think of Konoha as home, but the gates are open to you. They should have been the entire time."
She knew she had gone too far when his head sunk lower and cast shadows on his face. "It is not my intention to return. You can pass that message on to your Hokage."
Sakura looked off to the side where a crowd of bustling kids were chasing a cat up a roof.
"Naruto's sense of justice is infallible," she said. "He'll keep sending search parties to retrieve you no matter what message of yours I bring home to him."
She didn't know if Itachi was aware that Naruto had become Hokage, but she couldn't see the harm in indirectly passing on that bit of information. Naruto had a way of getting through to people. The only reason that he hadn't set out searching for Itachi himself was the formalities and the paperwork that kept him from doing exactly so. He whined about it, the paperwork and the office hours, but Sakura suspected that he actually enjoyed getting a little downtime. He had worked his ass off for his entire life. The guy deserved a break. He might grow restless in a year or two, but he still needed the break.
"We would all like to know why you did it," Sakura said when she sensed that Itachi was about to make his departure. "When you're ready, Konoha and its people will make its amends."
It sounded horribly formal and incredibly pretentious, but Sakura felt that somebody needed to say it. And Itachi clearly hadn't given the earlier retrieval teams the chance. They had all returned home empty-handed and badly beaten up. Itachi's sight and body might be deteriorating, but he was still a threat.
"I am not interested in amends."
"I don't think you are. But you hate the people who made you the sacrificial lamb. Not Konoha itself."
It was a wild assumption, but it could very well be a true one.
"The fact still stands," she said before she lost her nerve. "You can return whenever you wish to."
She had nothing more to say and neither did he. He took a smooth step to the right and disappeared into the crowd of people that flocked the road like disoriented farm animals.
Sakura bought her peaches.
A year went by before Itachi's name became a pressing matter again. In that time, Sakura had forgotten about her brief run in with the man. For some reason she had bumped into him on quite a few occasions in her lifetime. The encounters weren't very groundbreaking at this point. Now, in Naruto's office and with the mission scroll in her hand, their last encounter was pushed to the forefront of her mind. She went over every little detail of that chance meeting, but nothing seemed to stick out as odd or uncharacteristic. Of course, she didn't know Itachi well enough to speak of his characteristics, but she was fairly certain that he hadn't been plotting a coup de grâce at the time.
"What do you mean?" Sakura asked Naruto while she looked over the mission scroll.
"I think it's Itachi," Naruto answered.
"I don't think he's in the shape to stage an attack of this size. I don't think he wants to," she said and put down the scroll on the desktop.
"He doesn't," Naruto said and waved his hands in the air. "It's a cry for help."
Sakura tried picturing Itachi crying for help. It didn't work. Then she tried picturing Naruto who was impatient enough to see schemes that weren't there. That worked.
"If Itachi doesn't want you to make it up to him, you can't force it on him," Sakura said and walked around the desk to sit on the armrest of Naruto's chair. He adjusted himself so she had enough space to sit comfortably. "I know you want to make up for the way that the village manipulated Itachi and Sasuke, but it doesn't work that way."
"I need to make it up to them."
"The village has double-crossed more people than just the Uchiha clan. You can't make it up to everyone. That's not your job. Your job is to run the village in the present. Not try to make up for the mistakes of the previous leaders."
"Sasuke wants redemption."
"Sasuke is dead," Sakura said bluntly. "Itachi isn't. If you want to be a good leader, you need to take the wishes of the living into consideration before honoring the wishes of the dead. Lay off Itachi. He doesn't want to come back."
It was wearing him down. That was the only reason Sakura was arguing with him. She wanted Itachi back, too. She also felt the guilt and shame. But she wanted Naruto sane. And this witch-hunt of his had become his newest obsession. He had basically changed one Uchiha obsession with another. Retrieving Itachi had become his new goal in life, and it did nothing to keep Naruto's sanity intact. And what little he had left of his sanity was precious. Sakura would protect it until the day she died. Itachi didn't want redemption. Sasuke would have wanted that. But Itachi wasn't Sasuke. Naruto had to stop projecting the ideals of Sasuke onto Itachi. Sasuke wouldn't be brought back to life just because Itachi was reinserted into Konoha. Naruto couldn't see that. Sakura didn't really blame him. They had never found Sasuke's body. They all wanted closure. When he had gone off grid in the middle of the war, they had all assumed he was dead. He would never run from a fight, so it had seemed likely at the time. Then Itachi had fled from the war, and it no longer seemed unlikely that Sasuke would have done the same. Nevertheless, his desertion from the war had been a needed opportunity to give up on their long-lost friend. No ceremony had been held and nothing had been finalized on paper, but in their minds Sasuke was no longer alive. It was better. It was healthy.
"I can't," Naruto said and stood up from the chair. The movement was harsh and pushed the chair back from the desk. Sakura used the momentum to slide off the armrest and stand up herself.
"How can you?" he asked and rounded on her. She stared at him. He was trying to start a fight.
"I want a family someday," she said. "I want children. I don't want to fight for my country all of my life. I want to have a life left to live. I can't have that if I don't let go of the memory of Sasuke and several others. You should know this. And don't give me that face. I know you think I'm dishonoring everybody's memory, but I'm really not. Stop trying to pick a fight. I don't want to fight you."
He lowered his hackles and looked extremely thoughtful. Then his body seemed to deflate and he sat back down in his chair with a nod of silent acquiescence. Sakura walked over and gave his shoulder a light pat and squeeze. She was proud of him and what he had achieved, but he could still be incredibly thickheaded.
"And this," Sakura said as she grabbed the mission scroll, "you will put out of your mind. Completely. Don't purposely track down Itachi as the target. He might have been scouted around the borders of Waterfall, but he is not in charge of this. Don't pin this on him and use it as an excuse to take him in."
Sakura cared about Itachi's lifelong sacrifice for Konoha, but she ultimately cared the most about Naruto's wellbeing.
"Yes, yes," he said and snatched the scroll from her hand. "I need to ask a favor before you leave. Next weekend, Hinata and I-"
"I'm not babysitting your twins. Last time they dyed my hair blue. It turned out purple."
"But Kakashi already said no."
"If Kakashi gets to say no, I get to say the same. Trick Konohamaru into doing it."
"But he won't want kids after he takes care of mine."
"You see my point, then."
Sakura left Naruto's office and went on a stroll through the village. After the war, she had taken up permanent residence as a medic. When Tsunade had retired, Sakura had become the head of the hospital. It suited her fine. Just like the Hokage position suited Naruto. They all needed some downtime. They were nearing their thirties. It wasn't old, but now was the time that the younger shinobi should make their mark in history. It was time for the jaded warriors to step down. Tsunade and Kakashi had already done so. Sakura and Naruto were next in line, and this was how they had chosen to start their journey towards retirement.
Sakura had rounded the eastern corner of the town park when she bumped into Sai. Sai's social skills had improved over the years, but he would always remain a little too inconsiderate in his mannerisms.
"Can you take Naruto out for a drink tonight?" she asked him.
"Should he not be home and take care of his kids?"
"Do your duty as man buddy," she said. "Take the Hokage out for some male bonding."
"I am not sure that term applies to Naruto."
"Buddy or man?"
"You're speaking gibberish, woman."
Incidentally, Itachi returned six months after Sakura's talk with Naruto. Naruto called in his board of advisors for a private consultation on the matter. Sakura was among them.
"Is he staying at the old Uchiha Compound? That's unnecessarily traumatizing, isn't it?" Sakura said and a few of the other advisors nodded. Shikamaru was among them. He looked contemplative.
"He insisted," Naruto said and tugged at the loose sleeves of his Hokage robes.
"How do we break the news to the public?"
"I'll cast a poll on that," Naruto said. "Who says we announce it with immediate effect and who says we let the rumor mill do its work beforehand?"
"The village will expect an official and public announcement at some point," Shikamaru said. "I don't see why we should drag it out. It doesn't matter if they've heard rumors first. It doesn't change the facts."
"An announcement might cause unfavorable reactions from the villagers," one of the female advisors said. Sakura didn't remember her name. She was new. "But the same can be said for the rumor mill. It would be safer for the village to officially know right from the start that Uchiha is living here. The sooner the better. If they simply stumbled upon him, they might attack him. Even if they had heard the rumors beforehand."
Naruto listened to the discussion with great intensity. Sakura didn't join in on it. It seemed excessive. She would cast her vote when called for, but she didn't want to discuss the politics of Itachi's return. She wanted to discuss the consequences that it would have on herself and Naruto, but this was not the right setting to do that. At best, she wanted to discuss the politics of Itachi's return with Itachi himself. He would know best why he had returned and he would know best what approach the government should take on it. That was Sakura's opinion. But perhaps she was also biased in Itachi's favor. She didn't know when that had happened, but both her and Naruto no longer held any grudges towards the eldest Uchiha. It was a drastic shift. They had hated him. Sasuke had hated him. Maybe that had been the problem. Maybe they had never judged Itachi outside of Sasuke's judgment of him. Maybe they had just jumped the wagon and taken Sasuke's side because it was easiest. If they had bothered to take a good look at Itachi when they had been young, would they have suspected his hidden loyalty to Konoha? Would they have suspected that he was a good guy in disguise? Probably not. But if they had, they would feel less guilty now.
"Sakura? What's your vote?" Naruto asked.
"I vote in favor of an official announcement with Itachi present. If he agrees to it."
Naruto looked as though he hadn't considered that.
"You will ask him."
Sakura stared. "What?"
"You will ask him," Naruto repeated. "Today. So we can set the plan into motion."
"Yes, Hokage-sama," she said. "It will be my top priority for the day."
Naruto responded with a lopsided grin and Sakura saw a glimpse of his younger self in that smile.
When the last of the advisors had exited the conference room half an hour later, Sakura turned to Naruto with an expectant look on her face.
"You were the last person to talk to him," Naruto immediately said. "I want him to feel comfortable. And I can't believe I just said that about Itachi. Just make him feel at home, Sakura-chan. He'll be expecting someone to stop by with information about his official reinsertion. I choose that someone to be you."
"You make a great leader. But you make a lousy friend," she told him frankly.
"I think I make a good friend," he said.
She tried not to slap him. She tried hard and she succeeded just barely. He might not have said it out loud, but she heard him anyway.
"If you're implying that I need closure from Sasuke, you're wrong. You need that more than me. Just because I haven't married and carried on my lineage it doesn't mean my life is at a standstill. Don't be chauvinistic."
"Go to the Uchiha Compound," Naruto said with a bit of an edge to his voice. "I would dispatch a unit with you, but that seems hostile and Itachi probably won't react very well to that. Try not to get yourself killed."
"He won't attack me."
"Because if he does, I'll execute him on the spot."
She went to the Uchiha Compound because it had been a direct order from the Hokage. She didn't question when she had started differentiating between Naruto as her friend and Naruto as the Hokage. It had happened automatically and it was expected of her. She had to show her Hokage respect. It was just unfortunate that the Hokage was also her best and oldest friend. He had all the odds in his favor. He could play her better than any other shinobi in the village, and she hated that he used his two titles to manipulate her. It didn't matter that he only ever did it when she was in the wrong and he was in the right. She still hated it.
The Uchiha Compound looked ghastly on the outside and she doubted it looked any better on the inside. The government regularly dispatched maintenance services to the buildings in the hopes that it would one day either be inhabited by the Uchiha clan itself or by a newly established clan. As it was, Itachi had now returned to his old home. It didn't look as though the cleaning services had done a very good job on the area, though. The wooden buildings didn't look shabby and they weren't particularly wobbly or unsteady, but the general impression wasn't pretty or awe-inspiring. It was sort of depressing. And Itachi had sentenced himself to live there.
Sakura entered the compound with her senses alert. Itachi would know that someone was there. He could probably sense that it was a non-hostile presence, but Sakura didn't take any chances on that account. She didn't know in which building he resided, so she chose to knock on the main one. He would hear her knock no matter where he was. She felt remarkably relaxed considering that this was the place where Itachi had slaughtered his family. Granted, he had done it on the command of his superiors, but this was still the exact spot. This was the spot where Sasuke had lost his family and his life in one get-go. She had never been in the compound before. Maybe she wasn't relaxed. Maybe she had just detached herself emotionally from the situation. She wouldn't be able to tell the difference.
While she waited for Itachi to make his presence known in one way or another, she wondered what she should say. How she should approach him. This was new ground for both of them, and she suspected that she would be the one to control how the encounter went. Even though they were within the Uchiha Compound, Konoha was Sakura's turf more than it was Itachi's. She would have to run the show.
Sakura didn't flinch. She had felt him come up behind her. He had wanted her to feel it.
"Uchiha-san," she greeted the older man. "I'm here on an official errand."
He walked past her and entered the main building. She followed him silently. He didn't walk like a person with bad eyesight. He walked steadily and smoothly as if he was walking on water or air. Sakura was keeping a close eye on her heart rate. It wouldn't do to let it spike when he had his back turned on her. He might think she was about to lunge at him. Strangely enough, she wasn't overly afraid that he would lunge at her. He was smarter than that. Besides, she could think of no reason that he would kill her. Without the war, they had no disputes between them. And Itachi was a reasonable man. She had discovered that first hand during the war. Even the bad guys didn't kill needlessly. The bad guys had goals, too. And for the bad guys, those goals were good. Good and bad wasn't black and white. Kakashi had probably tried to teach them that early on in their career, but some lessons were just not understood that quickly. Some lessons took time. Most lessons took experience.
There was no furniture in the room that they eventually stopped in. There was a simple lumpy futon on the floor and a small backpack settled down next to it. Sakura wondered if Itachi had kept his Akatsuki uniform or if he had disposed of it and the memories that it represented. She wondered if he was the nostalgic type. Then she remembered that she was there on business, and she had information to pass on to the man that she was currently psychoanalyzing.
"Naru- the Hokage has ordered an official announcement to be made regarding your reinsertion into Konoha. He wishes for you to be publicly present during it."
"What purpose would that serve?"
There were no lamps in the room. Orange-red sunlight fell in from one window and cast moving shadows onto the wall and floor. One ray of light caught Itachi's face and painted it a dark red. Sakura watched as he inched his chin upwards and escaped the sunbeam. How much could he still see? Surely, he wasn't completely blind. Sakura knew the behaviorisms of blind shinobi. Itachi might be powerful, but he wasn't that different from other warriors gone blind. He had resigned himself to his fate, obviously. The same way he had done it back when he was ordered to murder his family. But this wasn't resignation she saw in his behaviorisms. Sakura was convinced that there was some sight left. Perhaps ten or twenty percent.
"I don't care for politics, so I cannot answer that," she answered honestly. "But I was the one who suggested it and the rest of the board voted in favor of it."
Technically, Naruto had pulled his Hokage card and decided authoritatively what they would do.
"If it was your suggestion, you should know the intention behind it," Itachi said. Sakura could see his point.
"I don't, really," she said and fidgeted with her gloves. She stopped when Itachi's body grew too still. She didn't know when he had stopped looking like Sasuke and had started looking like Itachi. Perhaps it had been around their fifth encounter that he had gained his own identity in her mind? At the beginning, he had been the older brother of Sasuke. She had thought of him only in relation to Sasuke. At some point that had stopped. She didn't know how she thought of him now, save for the fact that Sasuke's name no longer sat plastered to his forehead.
"If the Hokage wishes it, I will obey," Itachi said.
"You have the option to say no."
"I am saying yes."
"You're saying yes because you believe you have to," Sakura said before she had the mind to stop herself. "I will pass your answer on to the Hokage. You should be informed of when the announcement will take place and when your presence is required."
He didn't answer and she didn't have more to say. But she also didn't want to appear rude and simply leave. Perhaps that also had something to do with the fact that she wasn't entirely comfortable turning her back on him. And she had to do exactly that if she wanted to exit the building.
"Do you have any questions?" she asked.
"Would you show me to the door, please?"
Itachi didn't bother with social etiquette in general. He knew how to use it, but he didn't bother. Sasuke had never known how to use it, Sakura thought.
Itachi kept to himself. Sakura only caught a glimpse of him every other month. She asked Naruto if he went on solo missions to keep himself occupied. Naruto had told her that the village was paying him a generous dispensation for his service in the past, so there was no need for him to leave the village in order to make a living. Itachi had retired. It was probably confidential, but Naruto didn't really bother with confidentiality around Sakura. But while Itachi had indeed retired, Sakura couldn't imagine that he would be happy lazing about at the compound with nothing to do. On the other hand, he had spent his entire life doing the bidding of others, so he probably didn't think much of his own wishes. If the village had wanted him to retire, he would retire. Sasuke had been the opposite. He had been selfish. Sakura could see that now. Itachi was selfless. Half of the village still believed the lie of Uchiha Itachi's life. The other half believed the truth. The village was neutral. It was rather anticlimactic. No public disputes or demonstrations against the government had erupted so far. Sakura had expected a little more, but maybe the citizens were tired of fighting. Maybe they just wanted peace. Maybe Itachi just wanted that.
"Naruto won't be home for some hours," Hinata said when she let Sakura inside the Naruto-Hinata household. Ino was already there, sipping on her tea from a cup painted with bright orange swirls.
"Are the twins sleeping?" Sakura asked and sat down in the chair next to Ino.
"Don't they start at the Academy this year?" Ino asked and put down her cup. "Or is it too early?"
"They start next year," Hinata answered softly and joined the other two women by the kitchen table.
"Are you going to the cemetery later?" Ino asked Sakura.
"I thought you took off the day to do exactly that?"
"And other things," Sakura answered vaguely and turned back to Hinata. "Did you already arrange plans for Naruto's birthday?"
She went to the cemetery two hours later. Ino had been right. She had taken the day off to go there. She knew that she didn't owe it to Sasuke, but she had taken up the habit of visiting the grave of his parents once a year in lieu of visiting him. He had no grave. They weren't sure he was dead. But once a year she went to his mother's and father's graves so she could mourn him. Naruto hadn't picked up on it yet, but she often found him circling that same area of the cemetery in general, so she would have ammunition to blackmail him with the day that he did pick up on her unhealthy habit.
She hadn't given it a thought that Itachi might be at the graveside. By the time that she noticed him standing there, she knew that he had already sensed her coming. He still put her nerves on edge, but she gathered her courage around her and walked the rest of the way up to the grave. If he hadn't wanted company, he would have left. That was her interpretation of the situation.
It made sense that Itachi would be here. He had never had the opportunity to visit the graveside of his parents before. At least not this easily or legally. Sakura couldn't imagine the guilt he had to be carrying around. If she felt guilty for abandoning Sasuke, Itachi carried the guilt that came with murdering all his clan members save for his little brother. It might have been hypocritical of her, but she had come to admire him a great deal after learning the truth behind the Uchiha massacre.
"Do you know?" Sakura asked after a long stretch of silence. "Do you know if he's dead?"
Itachi didn't move. He kept his eyes lowered to the grave, but she knew that he had heard her.
"I suppose it doesn't matter," she answered her own question. "He's dead to us now."
Sasuke was the one thing in her life that Sakura had ever given up on. The same counted for Naruto.
"I do not know the whereabouts of my brother. Or the state he is in," Itachi said. His voice was smooth despite the fact that he probably hadn't used it for a long time. Who would he talk to? Sakura didn't really know why she was making small talk, but surprisingly Itachi didn't seem completely averse it.
"You have retired from duty," Sakura said. "You need to stop by the hospital and get a retirement checkup."
She hadn't pushed the issue because Itachi's circumstances were special, but he clearly wasn't handling his reinsertion very well. He had reinserted himself in his old home and that was the extent of his efforts. She had arranged for the hospital to call him in officially sometime next week, but he probably needed time to adjust to the idea, so she could just as well hint at it now. It was the perfect opportunity and setting. Also, it was possible that he would be less opposed to the idea if it came from her instead of a stranger. He knew the extent of her medical skills. He respected them. He had to. She had certainly lived up to her reputation on numerous occasions where he had been present. They had shared a battle field more than once during the war.
"Courtesy of my old teacher, we have a bit of experience with deteriorating eyesight as a result of excessive Sharingan use," she declared boldly. "If the rumors about your eyes are true, of course."
Now that Itachi no longer had a murderous character to play and live up to, it was a testament to his true character that he didn't automatically decapitate her for addressing his growing blindness. He shifted his weight from one foot to another, but that was a move of discomfort and not anger or irritation.
"There are a lot of rumors circulating my eyes. Which one in particular do you refer to?"
He was going to make her say it.
"You're growing blind. I don't think you're fully blind yet, but you probably will be one day," she said and studied the tombstones of Fugaku and Mikoto Uchiha. "We can reverse some of the damage and remove some of the pain, but we can't fully stop the process. If that is why you returned, I will have to disappoint you."
They didn't speak for some time after that. Then it started raining, a fine and light drizzle, and Sakura decided that she should leave. She should have left when she had first noticed Itachi standing by the graveside.
Kakashi was there when Sakura walked into Naruto's office with the result of Itachi's checkup. She had requested for him to be there. She didn't see the older man much these days, but his presence always put a smile on her face and a sense of peace in her body that she seldom found elsewhere. He had retired a couple of years ago. He still wore his old jonin uniform, but that was due to comfort rather than practicality or formality. He had directly told her as much the last time that they had bumped into each other. Kakashi could have kept going. He was only a little past his prime era. But even though he was hopelessly devoted to his village, Naruto had taken over the post-war Hokage position and had convinced the other man to step down and enjoy life. Contrary to how he had presented himself for years on end, Kakashi hadn't enjoyed life prior to his retirement. No shinobi really did. It was a rollercoaster ride and there were far too many bad bumps for the good bumps to come out on top. That was just the way it was.
"I estimate he has about 20-30 percent of his eyesight left. I can't fully determine the deterioration rate from Kakashi's statistics. It's more complex since Itachi has a different control over the Sharingan and it heals differently. Possibly because it's not a borrowed eye," she said with an apologetic look in Kakashi's direction. He smiled at her, his eye crinkling in the corner. Being retired, he couldn't wear the hitai-ate and the formalities and procedures that it represented. At first, he hadn't cared. Nowadays, he had taken to wearing an eye patch instead. Now, half a year later, Naruto still found that highly amusing.
"You did the diagnosis yourself?" Naruto asked Sakura and popped his legs up on his desk. Kakashi was standing off to the side, leaning up against the wall with his arms comfortably crossed. Sakura walked over and dumped the file onto Naruto's lap.
"Of course," she said with a raised brow. Others could have done it, but she hadn't trusted others with Itachi's eyes. The initial diagnosis was alpha omega. There were too many risks involved.
"Are we going to offer him treatment or will he have to apply for it?" she asked.
"He'll get it for free," Naruto said and picked up the file.
"What do you think?" Sakura asked Kakashi. "Can I apply the same treatment to him that I did on you?"
"Probably not. You said it yourself. His eyes are genetically his own, but that should be an advantage and not a handicap. It probably makes it easier, if anything."
"I still can't restore his vision," she said. "I can stop the pain of the process and slow it down, but he'll go blind sooner rather than later. But that almost doesn't even matter. Flip to page three and you can read the absurdly extensive list of health issues I bumped into while I checked him. He has a decade left to live. At most. I don't understand how he picked up this many injuries and diseases. It's highly abnormal. He shouldn't even be standing at this point."
"Did you tell him?" Naruto asked as he flipped to page three. Kakashi walked over to join Naruto.
"I think he knows already."
"He does," Kakashi confirmed. Nobody asked how he knew.
"Alright," Naruto said and put down the file. "Sakura, you find a way for him to make peace with his upcoming blindness and I'll provide the funds for it. Do whatever you feel like about the other health stuff, too. Get him as healthy as possible."
"I'll assemble a team. It should be good for him to interact with people."
After the war, Sakura had turned into a social worker rather than a contract killer. She was tired of killing. She had never liked it, thankfully, but she had never been opposed to it either. That had changed after the war. Or during it, more precisely.
"You're not afraid around him," Naruto said. "Make sure that you assemble a team that feels the same as you. Or at least knows how to fake it."
"I am afraid. I hide it well."
Sakura had learned that lesson early in life. If you hid your fear of the threat, the threat would fear you instead. It was a neat trick.
It was two months later that Sakura realized how circumstances had changed between her and Itachi. They were five weeks into the treatment of his eyes and Sakura had decided to stop by the Uchiha Compound to have a personal talk with the patient regarding the final part of the procedure. She had worked on his eyes at the hospital a couple of times, but generally she assigned the task to the other medics on the Uchiha treatment team that she had assembled. Itachi still didn't walk around the village much, but the village gossip concerning his return had thankfully stopped. Maybe he was afraid that the gossip would restart if he began making public appearances around the village. Naruto was still keeping an eye on Itachi, but he had stopped stalking the man. Maybe he thought that he had cast that responsibility onto Sakura and he could now relax. To be fair, he sort of had cast the responsibility onto her. She didn't mind terribly much.
"Itachi-san?" Sakura called into the open air. It was a sunny day and the temperatures had recently gone up a tad. Sakura appreciated the warmer weather. The Uchiha Compound was scarily peaceful to step into. It wasn't the atmosphere you normally associated with Itachi, but Sakura had learned not to associate anything with the man. She was slowly starting to realize that Itachi had played a false character the entire time that she had known him. Now, he had dropped that character and this was his own self walking around in his skin. As it should be. It just posed a bit of a problem since his mannerisms and reactions no longer were predictable.
She found Itachi in the small herb garden behind the main house. He sat cross-legged on the ground with his head tipped skywards. He had grown his hair longer after returning to the village. It suited him. Today Sakura was mildly surprised to find it braided and not tied back in its usual sloppy fashion. He was wearing lighter clothes as a result of the warmer weather. His shirt was made of thin cotton and blew free in the light breeze. It was a very picturesque sight. And a sight that Sakura still had trouble associating with Uchiha Itachi. He was the most peaceful man that she had ever had the pleasure of knowing, and he had played the role of a murderer for years on end. How he had succeeded in that role was a mystery to her. He was the exact opposite of a mindless murderer.
"Sakura-san," Itachi greeted her when she stepped up next to him.
"Nice weather today," Sakura said. "We need to talk about your treatment procedure. Would now be a good time for you?"
"Now is as good as any other time," he answered and stood up from the ground. Sakura stepped back to give him space to maneuver. She hadn't needed to. He rose like a snake, curling upwards like a vine reaching for the sun. They went inside the main building. Itachi had acquired furniture at this point. It looked secondhand. Itachi wasn't a high maintenance person, so it wasn't all that surprising. Sakura followed him into what she thought to be the living room. Itachi gestured for her to sit down on the couch. She did so and pulled out his medical file. He was silent while she flipped through the pages. When she cleared her throat and prepared to speak, he sat down in a nearby armchair. It didn't escape her notice that he moved slower than usual.
"Is it bad today?" she asked and put down the file in her lap.
"It is better outside."
Sakura took a quick look around. "You should get better lighting inside."
"I prefer being outside."
That made sense, she thought. He was probably used to being outside rather than inside.
"I think we should start by discussing the final steps of the treatment," Sakura began with a look in Itachi's direction. "I estimate there will be about a month of work left. Then you will need to stop by the hospital once every month, so we can monitor if there are any treatable setbacks or any new damage that we can isolate. Would that work for you?"
He didn't have much else to do, honestly. She hadn't expected anything else.
"What about the effect so far? Have you experienced any changes?"
Technically, they could have had this consultation at the hospital, but Naruto had said to make Itachi comfortable, and he was ultimately most comfortable in his old home. Paradoxically enough, since the worst memory of his life took place here. Perhaps this was his way of atoning for his sins. Perhaps he was living here as atonement? That wasn't a very happy thought and Sakura quickly pushed it aside.
"There is less pain," Itachi said. While he always answered her questions, he was typically very vague in his replies. It made him a difficult patient.
"Less pain? That means that you still feel some pain," she concluded. "We will need to look at that. When does that pain typically appear?"
"In the mornings."
She pulled out a pen and noted down the information. Itachi watched her. Itachi was the sort of person who concentrated intensely on one thing at a time. He was observant like every other shinobi had to be, but he had enough overall control of his surroundings to often narrow down his concentration to one specific thing. Even with his failing eyesight, his scrutiny was unnerving. Half a year ago, it would have made her nervous and she would have fidgeted. Nowadays, she could look past it most of the time. Today was a bit different. Today he made her uneasy.
They kept discussing the treatment for a good fifteen minutes. Then Sakura ran out of questions.
"I think I have all I need," she said.
"Thank you for coming here," Itachi said and inclined his head in a polite nod. "I understand that we could have done this at the hospital."
"We could," Sakura said and stood up from the couch. She dusted off imaginary dirt on her knees. "But I didn't see the need."
Nothing extraordinarily big had happened during her visit to the Uchiha Compound, but Sakura still left with a lighter heart and a better mood. This was when she admitted to herself that circumstances had changed. She might have known before, but in this moment she admitted it. Itachi appealed to her as a potential friend. For her, that was a very mature step to take, and she wished she could tell it to someone without receiving a raised eyebrow in return.
She began stopping by the Uchiha Compound for small errands and tasks. The peace that surrounded Itachi and his home was addictive. Sakura liked that peace. There was a silence and an acceptance of life that you seldom found elsewhere in a town as big as Konoha. You found it on missions when you travelled by sunlit roads through forests, mountains and dipping valleys, but you didn't find it this close to the center of civilization and commerce. She wasn't surprised that she liked the peace. She was surprised, however, that Itachi wasn't bothered by her company. Then again, she supposed that every living being needed a little socialization to stay relatively sane. Since she stopped by the Uchiha household on her own accord, it was free and effortless socialization on Itachi's part. He stayed at home and the socialization came to him. Why would he complain about that?
Itachi was outside hanging laundry to dry when Sakura stopped by one Monday morning. Domestic acts were a new thing in their acquaintanceship. Maybe it was just because Sakura stopped by more often that she caught him doing it, but it was still an odd sight every time.
"Good morning," she called across the vast space of the inner yard.
"You announce your arrival out loud each time," he said when she reached him. "I do not need my eyes to see you approaching."
She watched him raise a hand and fasten a damp sleeve onto the drying rack. The rest of the shirt followed with practiced ease. She would never stop being amazed by how well he had adapted to his lack of sight. It was sad, in a way.
"I don't call out to make you aware of my presence," she said and cast a look up at the bright blue sky. "I don't see you around the village training grounds. Have you stopped practicing all together?"
"A private training ground is established within the compound," he answered and finished with the last piece of laundry. Sakura probably should have thought of that herself. Itachi wouldn't let his shape drop any lower than perfect, retired or not. Of course there would be a private training ground within the prestigious Uchiha Compound.
"Really? Where?" she asked nonetheless. Naruto had rubbed off on her. Her mouth had begun talking before her brain got in its two cents of worth. Itachi pointed to her left where a small gate made of ash-grey wood blocked a narrow alleyway between two buildings. It was locked. At least as far as she could see.
"Can I see?" she asked on a whim. That was new, too. "If you're not busy."
"I am no busier than you."
The Uchiha household's private training ground had passed its prime a long time ago. You could still see the general outline and the abundance of equipment, but most of it had broken down with time, lack of use and harsh weather conditions. It was still impressive, but more in the nostalgic and antique way rather than in the modern and fancy way. While the Uchiha Compound itself had been cleaned and groomed over the years to stay in relative shape, the adjoined training ground surely hadn't.
"Are you planning to have it restored?" Sakura asked. She wondered not for the tenth time how her life had come to this; standing in the middle of the Uchiha Compound and having a civil conversation with Uchiha Itachi by her side.
"I will do it myself," he answered. "It will be a welcome distraction."
"Can you do it yourself?"
He angled his head in her direction. It was a miniscule and slow movement, and Sakura realized that she had offended him. She hadn't meant to, but it had come off as such. He was the last person she wanted to appear uncivilized towards. For a great number of reasons. Mostly because the man oozed nobility and blue blood, but also because she wanted to represent Konoha. She wanted him to feel at home not just in the Uchiha household, but outside on the streets of Konoha as well. Befriending her would be a good place to start. She had probably become too invested in the Uchiha. She had claimed Naruto to be obsessed with the Uchiha family, but apparently she wasn't much better herself. Maybe she was just a sucker for lost souls. It would explain her choice of profession. Not to mention her social circle.
"Do you want to spar?" she asked to alleviate the tension of the moment.
"You want to fight me?"
Sakura realized the absurdity of her request.
"We joined forces once on the battlefield," she said. "Will this really be much different from that?"
Itachi seemed to consider her argument. She allowed herself to observe him while he appeared lost in contemplation. Itachi had many of the same features that she associated with Sasuke. High cheekbones, straight nose, sharply angled jawbones and a wiry build. His hair was a tad bit darker and had bluish tones to it when the sun hit it from a specific angle. Sasuke's eyes had been prettier. But Sakura suspected that the color and spark of Itachi's eyes had dimmed as a result of his deteriorating sight. All in all, the brothers had slightly effeminate features, and if Itachi hadn't spent a lifetime on shaping his body into a killer instrument, his body wouldn't have sported the amount of musculature that it did now. Naruto and Kakashi were built for bulk. The Uchiha men weren't. They worked harder for it.
"If you are finished memorizing the characteristics of my person, should we engage in a sparring session?" Itachi asked, his voice breaking through her reverie.
"Are you being funny?" she asked and blatantly ignored the fact that he had caught her ogling him. It wasn't easy, but she managed. Mostly because Itachi threw a punch at her face right then and she had to dodge it if she didn't want her head to get knocked off her shoulders.
"No foul play," she said from where she had crouched down behind a wooden dummy.
"You will not distract me with speech," Itachi warned her. True to his words, he didn't wait around for one of her sassy battle replies. He lunged at her a second time and almost managed to land a blow on her leg. Itachi was fast. Unsurprisingly. She immediately entered defense mode and cartwheeled her way around the dummy, no hands, and used the wooden structure as a physical buffer between her and Itachi.
"But I like to hear myself talk," she said and backed up a couple of steps when Itachi stepped around the dummy.
"You should not bait your enemy. Overconfidence puts you at a disadvantage."
She ignored the fact that the term 'enemy' was incredibly ambiguous when it came to Itachi.
"When did you last fight for fun?" she asked and swept her hair out of her eyes.
"Fighting becomes distinctly unfunny if you carry the title of village traitor."
He had stunned her with his answer. She wasn't prepared when he grabbed her midriff and dragged her to the ground with him. Her back hit the dirt with a painful crunch and she grunted at the impact. The ground was dry from heat and she got dust in her mouth. He sat above her, holding her down with his presence rather than his hands or legs. In fact, he wasn't holding her down physically at all. But she didn't even consider pushing past him. He might not be holding her down with his physical hands, but he was holding her down with his phantom ones. Immobilized like this, with Itachi close enough for her to see the unfocused pupils of his eyes, Sakura's memories took over. She felt the first honest burst of fear when the past memories of Itachi surfaced in her mind. It was a violent burst that put glittery black spots before her vision, and she could feel her breath get caught in her throat like a ball of greasy fat.
"I understand your reasons for befriending me," Itachi spoke softly as if he was trying not to scare off his prey. "But you cannot take on the guilt of an entire village and try to nullify it through the actions of yourself alone. You will not succeed."
"You haven't tried to stop me."
"I should not need to," he said.
There was a truth to his words that made her swallow past the fear that had seized her.
"Why did you defect from the Akatsuki organization?" she asked.
"I was never ordered to stay," Itachi answered smoothly and got up from the ground. She could breathe again, but she didn't get up from the ground herself. Itachi watched her silently.
"Something happened between you and Sasuke," she said and observed the small pinprick of a bird as it performed elaborate loops and somersaults high up in the sky. "Something that made it okay for you to stop pretending to be a killer and made him go off the grid for one reason or another. You wouldn't defect because your eyesight turned bad. Because you acquired a physical handicap. You wouldn't do that. I know that now."
"You presume a lot."
"I wouldn't presume if you gave a public statement and cleared up the confusion," she said.
"I made a public appearance," Itachi told her. "That was what you requested of me."
"Why did you come back if you won't make a personal effort to clear your name?"
Officially, the Uchiha name had been cleared. But they both knew that the name was still tainted in the minds of the villagers. He was still tainted. Sakura probably shouldn't expect Itachi to make a conscious effort to change the mindset of the villagers, but she couldn't understand why he would condemn himself to live a life where he was hated for actions that had never been his own.
"Why do my actions interest you so?" he asked and sounded genuinely curious.
Sakura stood up from the ground. It gave her time to think of an answer.
"Because I don't agree with them," she answered eventually.
"You would rather that I had not returned?" Itachi asked.
"I would rather that you gave Konoha the chance to forgive you. You've been a scapegoat for nearly a decade. Are you so satisfied with being one that you do not wish to make the effort to change it?"
Itachi was listening to her. He understood her words and he appeared to be thinking them over, but Sakura knew that they would have absolutely no impact on the man.
"It doesn't matter," she said and turned to leave.
"If it did not matter, you would not get upset over it," Itachi spoke to her retreating back. She didn't stop and she didn't offer him a reply. She left the Uchiha Compound with the feeling that she had just experienced the greatest defeat of her life.
She stopped coming by the Uchiha Compound. It wasn't so much a conscious effort as it was a natural development. They had parted on bad terms and it seemed like a natural progression when Sakura stopped her visits. Itachi had begun making regular trips to the village. At first, it created a lot of unpleasant rumors and gathered whispering crowds on the streets. Then, as people gradually realized that Itachi did nothing more extraordinary than buying his groceries and making an occasional stop at a random store, the novelty of the situation was lost. The whispering crowds stopped and broke apart. Itachi himself didn't engage in conversation with the villagers and nobody approached him. But he was there and he appeared to be doing fine. Sakura knew that Kakashi stopped by the Uchiha household on the rare occasion. He probably did it for the same reason that Naruto and Sakura herself did it. They felt responsible. And with their close ties to Sasuke, it seemed natural that they would fear Itachi less than the rest of the village.
"Not here," Sakura muttered to Tsubasa when he inched two fingers up under the hemline of her shirt. The man's fingers retreated, but only because Sakura pinched his wrist in a quiet warning.
She had reluctantly agreed to go on a date with Tsubasa one month ago. Ino had set them up. That first date had escalated to an on-and-off relationship. At the moment, Tsubasa thought it was on. For Sakura, it had been off for a little over two weeks. She doubted that it would come back on for her, but she still hadn't figured out a nice way to tell such news to Tsubasa. So, for the time being, she let him tail her around town while she went about her usual business. Today he was in a particular touchy mood. In the literal sense. He kept showering her with little touches and nudges and she was growing irritated with the constant affection. She was on her way to make a dentist appointment, and she didn't plan on conceiving a child on her way there. And certainly not with the jonin currently by her side. There was nothing specifically wrong about him. He worked hard, he was handsome and he was smitten with her. She just wasn't smitten with him.
"Can we stop here?" Tsubasa asked and grabbed her hand. "I need to pick up something."
She nodded, not really caring what he intended to pick up a barbershop. He went inside the shop, and two minutes later Sakura caught sight of Itachi. He was on his way home. Or so she guessed, since the direction fit. Predictably, he was alone. Since her last visit to his home, they had exchanged only brief greetings whenever they had bumped into each other on the streets. Sakura didn't know how he could tell her apart from the rest of the crowd. Back in Wind, when they had first met, he hadn't sensed her at all despite the fact that she had been standing right next to him. Something had changed that now allowed him to pick her out more easily from a crowd. This time was no different.
"Hello," she smiled when he came to a halt a couple of steps away from her. A couple of civilians sent them odd glances, but nobody dared to stop and watch the situation unfold. Sakura didn't know if it was her reputation or Itachi's that lay to reason for that. It could have been both. Sakura out of respect, and Itachi out of fear. It was a very enlightening moment for her personally.
"You have not been present for my past two checkups," Itachi said, referring to his eyes.
The treatment procedure itself was finished, but he still had to go in for regular checkups to ensure that there were no setbacks and no new damage. Provided that he refrained from using the Sharingan, there should be no setbacks. And that was a given since he had retired from the shinobi profession. Ideally, he would have to go to checkups for the rest of his life. But his life wouldn't last much longer with the multiple health issues he carried around, so the checkups were more of a formality than a necessity in his case.
"I supervised the first checkup," she said and looked inside the windows of the barbershop. "Have there been any problems? Are you not comfortable with the medic in charge? The comfort of the patient comes first. I can arrange a change, but you must go the legal way and file a complaint."
"I would like to have you."
She reminded herself that Itachi was talking about his eyes.
"But you have grown weary of me," he added and took a step closer. Was he talking about his eyes? She had to tilt her head back to look him in the face. He was close, she realized. Probably closer than what was advisable. She could hold her own in a fight, but this didn't feel like a fight.
"What?" she asked dumbly.
"What did I do to make you flee so dramatically from my person?"
He sounded as if he had enjoyed her company and now found it missing. It made sense. In a way. He had precious few people to talk to and she had probably been his largest source for socialization at one point. And she had deprived him of that, quite unceremoniously, because she had moved too fast for herself to follow. She had backed out of her own game. But she had only done so because she hadn't realized that Itachi had entered the game. In hindsight, she ought to have noticed. Instead she had run to Tsubasa. Her decision to date him made a lot more sense now, she thought. Sakura always finished her battles, but she got the distinct feeling that she had fled from an unexpected one in which Itachi had been her opponent.
"We parted on bad terms," she said and felt the need to study the soft slant of his brow bone and nose. His eyes were dim with sickness, but his voice and presence alone held more than enough intensity to make nervous energy rise and cackle between them. For all that they were in a public place, the moment was undoubtedly intimate. They did say that absence made the heart grow fonder. Itachi's scent grew stronger in her nose for each breath that she took. She knew attraction, but this was not the right place to indulge in it.
"You should have told me," Itachi said and his eyes flickered off to the side where a group of kids were playing catch and throw with a yellow ball the size of a watermelon. Sakura followed his line of sight. She took her eyes off the windows of the barbershop.
"Told you what?" she asked and looked back at him.
"The real reason to why my actions interest you," he answered. "If you had done so, we would not have parted on bad terms."
"I do think you're taking the wrong approach towards your reinsertion," she said. "I didn't lie about that."
"But that is not the main reason to your interest. This is," he said and illustrated his point by reaching out blindly and sweeping his fingers delicately across her right forearm and wrist. They had touched each other many times in the past. Skin on skin contact, too. But those occasions had always been related to the battlefield. To be touched now, like this, was something entirely else. She didn't have enough breath left in her lungs to protest against the intimate touch, but when his hand fell back to his side, her body swayed closer to his in an attempt to compensate for the loss of contact. She blamed it on instinct. His outright pursuit of her person had caught her off guard. His assertiveness was uncharacteristic. Or maybe not. He had always been assertive, but the character trait had never taken on this form of outlet. She had never seen it take on this form. And she had certainly never been on the receiving end of it. Her body knew what it wanted though, and truthfully her mind wasn't far behind. Social etiquette was the one to make her see sense. Social etiquette and the fact that she caught sight of Tsubasa through the windows of the barbershop.
"I have a boyfriend."
It wasn't entirely true, but it would do for now. Time was running out.
"What need do you have of a boy?"
The question was rhetorical, but Sakura would have answered if Tsubasa hadn't made his appearance just then. She didn't need a boy. She needed a man. Itachi was right about that. Regrettably, Itachi might prove to be too much of a man. And that was just as bad as being a boy.
She ended her relationship with Tsubasa one week later. She didn't have to wait one week, but she chose to do so out of sheer spite.
"I don't think I'm the person you should go to for relationship advice," Kakashi said and handed her a mug of coffee. The mug had a cow printed on it. The cow was wearing bright red lipstick and glittery blue eye shadow. Sakura tried to put it out of her mind, but she kept getting distracted by the picture.
"You're the person I go to for all advice," she said.
"It's been four weeks since we last talked."
"I don't need a lot of advice," she answered and took her first sip of the bitter beverage. They were in Kakashi's apartment. His living room, to be more exact. The sun was setting and Sakura was feeling both restless and peaceful. It was the contrasting forces of Kakashi's calm presence and her own erratic mind, she guessed. She watched as the man in question plopped down on the couch next to her. He was holding his own mug in his right hand. His mug had a sunflower printed on it. It was less distracting than the cow. Sakura was sure that Kakashi had given her the cow on purpose.
"You have a lot of work cut out for you," he said, referring to Itachi.
"I haven't made a decision yet."
"You have," he corrected her. "And you want me to tell you if you're wrong or if you're right. Which one is it?"
"Tell me I'm right," she said.
"But I'm not right," she exclaimed and sat up straighter in the couch. The coffee nearly sloshed over the rim of her mug, but she managed to ease it back down before spilling anything. It wouldn't do to spill coffee all over Kakashi's couch, although it had probably tried worse in the decade that he had owned it.
"This was always the hardest part to teach you," Kakashi said solemnly.
"You think too much."
She looked at him flatly. "Look underneath the underneath. You taught us that."
"On the battlefield, yes," he agreed. "But your life is not a battlefield."
She snorted and raised the mug to her lips. "Clearly you don't know my life."
"You wanted my advice," Kakashi began. "I advise you to let Itachi take the lead. He appears to know what he is doing. You don't."
"I need to think of the consequences," she protested. "It's Uchiha Itachi. The consequences are far more severe than if it was anyone else."
"Possibly. But if you wanted anyone else, you wouldn't have invaded my home and proceeded to pour your heart out like a starstruck teenage girl."
"Did my unannounced visit keep you from your plans?" she asked sarcastically. He was retired. The man had no plans.
"I promised to go over some papers with the Hokage. That was two hours ago," he said flippantly. "But I'll just tell him I was talking to you. He'll go easy on me."
Sakura's mouth had dropped open and she fought hard not to dump her coffee in the man's lap. "Don't use me as a leeway. Get your ass over there!"
The Uchiha Compound didn't look the same in sunny weather as it did in cloudy weather. Or maybe she was just feeling grim because of her quest and not the weather. That seemed more likely. She had been standing outside the gate for almost ten minutes. She knew that he had sensed her presence by now, so she didn't understand why she didn't just walk inside. On the other hand, she didn't understand why he didn't walk out to meet her. She clearly had trouble walking inside. Crossing the threshold was a finalizing act. If she crossed it, she couldn't back out from the confrontation that lay behind it. Maybe that was why Itachi was waiting for her to take the step herself. Technically, Itachi had taken the first step back at the barbershop. They had to meet halfway. That was the mature approach. It was her turn to take the second step. Dammit.
Sakura shook off the last traces of her indecision and stepped through the gate.
As it would happen, Itachi was standing right inside the gate. He was leaning up against the wooden planks, his shoulder blades touching the wood ever so slightly. He had his arms crossed over his chest and lifted his head when she stepped through the entrance. He had been standing there for the whole ten minutes. She was sure of it.
"All right," she said. "I care about your actions. And I do it, because I care about you."
His gaze was a steady weight on her face, and she realized what she had just said.
"Because I am attracted to you," she said, amending her first statement. "Because of the chemistry that... we have."
He still didn't move and Sakura grew impatient. Impatient and nervous.
"Are you going to let me stand here for the rest of the day?" she asked. A thunderclap rolled across the treetops and mountains in the distance and it seemed to shake Itachi out of whatever stupor he had been in. He pushed himself off the gate and headed for one of the side buildings. Sakura followed. She didn't understand why he was guiding her in the opposite direction of the main house. He had only ever brought her to the main house in the past. They entered one of the side buildings. The temperature was warmer inside, a sort of clammy warmth that had her wipe off imaginary sweat across her brow and neck. The walked through a small kitchen that was equipped with several kitchen instruments that Sakura couldn't name. She had never been a great cook.
"This is where you sleep," she said when they stopped in what could only be his bedroom. This was why the main house has always felt empty to her, despite the furniture Itachi had stocked it with. It was not where he lived. This was where he lived.
"The main house is too large," he said as a way of explaining. He discarded his grey cloak and folded it on top of a stack of books that reached all the way up to her waist. He pulled his hair free from its ponytail and placed the small brown leather band on top of the folded cloak. Sakura felt oddly detached from the situation. She recognized the intimacy, but she didn't fully register it. Perhaps that would backfire on her in a couple of minutes. Or perhaps she had accepted the situation and the fact that she was currently instigating a romantic relationship with Uchiha Itachi. She didn't know which. But she knew that she felt no urge to flee from the situation. That had to count for something.
"You listened to what I said," she said and watched him untangle a few knots in his hair. The action should have been girlish, but he managed to make it look masculine. "You've starting appearing more around the village."
"I do not concern myself with the opinion of the masses. It was for the sake of others that I saw sense in your words."
"For the sake of me," she clarified. "For the sake of this."
"I do not concern myself with the opinion of the masses," he repeated.
Sakura looked around and tried not to shiver at the foreboding feeling to his words.
"It stands to reason that you wouldn't concern yourself with that. You lived your life being hated by the masses for something you didn't do," she said. He shook his head.
"They died by my hands," he said.
"They died by the order of your superiors."
"I do not wish to discuss this."
"You need to tell the Hokage about your encounter with Sasuke," Sakura said and turned the boat around. "Whatever transpired, it needs to be recorded and written down."
"In time," Itachi said and sat down on the edge of his futon.
"Will you not tell me if he's dead?"
It was a time for truths and confrontations, it seemed. Itachi looked up at her with a blank expression, but it was the honesty in his voice that pacified her.
"I truly do not know the physical condition of my brother," he said.
"Alright," she said and moved hesitantly towards the futon. "I believe you."
She stopped in front of him. He tilted his head to look up at her face, and the position struck her as strange and oddly exposed. She wouldn't use the word vulnerable. Itachi was taller than her, and he had always opted for height on the battlefield as opposed to attacks from below. This was the first time that she had ever had to look down at him. It was an exhilarating change, if not rather disconcerting. She opened her mouth to say something. She didn't know what. But her words got caught in her throat when Itachi raised a hand and grasped the back of her knee. She took a small step forward and Itachi followed her movement by resting his forehead against the knobby front of her knee. She almost moved back in a moment of self-consciousness, but Itachi's hand rode up to clutch the back of her thigh and stabilized her. He kept her where she was. Before thinking too much of it, Sakura lifted her own hand and let her fingers slide through the silky locks of his loose hair. Her chest felt light. She would have expected it to feel heavy. The lightness made her breathe a little faster and made her vision blurry around the edges.
"I'm going to sit down," she said. She didn't know who she was speaking to, but she knelt down in front of Itachi without waiting for an answer. His nose grazed her cheek on the way down, and she grabbed the edge of the futon to steady herself. Itachi rearranged her hands to grab the top of his knees.
"You are okay with this," he said. There was a question in there somewhere.
"I don't know yet," she said and studied the curves of his mouth. "But I need to try."
"We will try."
A small smile broke out on her lips. It was smothered when Itachi dipped forward and caught her lips in a chaste kiss. She had expected the pang of excitement that rushed up her spine, but she hadn't expected the plush contact of skin to make her lose her balance and tip forward into Itachi's body. He adjusted to the change in their position by leaning backwards on his elbows. Sakura was mildly amazed that he could support both of their weights like that, but then she reminded herself that she was being stupid. The man was one of the most physically fit persons she had ever come across.
"It seems to work fine so far," she said with a hint of nervous laughter to her voice. Itachi leaned forward and kissed her a second time. If that was his response, it had to be a positive one. The second kiss was deeper and moved at a more fluid pace than the previous one. It was the way that Sakura expected lovers to kiss. She engaged heartily in the feeling. She felt sedated. Centered. It was a feeling that had her press closer to Itachi. In turn, he pressed upwards and for a moment she was confused. He pushed harder and she moved back. With more space at his disposal, he grabbed her shoulder and tipped them around. Her back hit the mattress with a soft thud and the moment reminded her of their failed sparring session from months ago. Itachi was above her. He was resting the weight of his upper body on his forearms which were placed on both sides of her face. His loose hair was falling down the sides of their faces and encased them in a world of black and solitude. Some of his hair had pooled in the hollow where her collarbone met her shoulder and the silky feeling against her skin was making her stomach tie knots on itself.
"I'm sorry that I made you fight me that day," she said. His hair smelled like the forest. It smelt like home, she thought.
"You did not know what you were asking," he said and brushed his nose against hers. She let out a shaky breath that had her frowning afterwards.
"I suppose I didn't. Did you know?"
"I might not interact well with other people, but I am exceptionally skilled at interpreting the various psychological meanings behind their actions."
"Are you mocking me?"
The corner of his mouth twitched and he pressed a kiss to her jaw, nudging her head upwards so he could bury his nose in her neck and inhale the scent of her skin and hair. She shifted beneath him and let out a soft laugh.
"You have a sense of humor," she said, her voice escaping her towards the end when Itachi pushed her blouse aside and bared one shoulder.
"Only in so far that I can find the humor in entertaining people with my versatile personality."
"You're doing it again," she said and leaned up to nip at his jaw with her teeth. His response was a roll of his hips that made her draw in a sharp breath of anticipation. She pushed at his shirt and he took her cue. There was a brief pause in their conversation when he raised himself up from the mattress to pull his shirt over his head. He tossed it to the ground and Sakura reached out with her hand to trace an intricate pattern of scars that spanned from his ribs and up to his shoulder.
"Is this a burn?" she asked and tapped at the part where the scar tissue was thickest. Itachi wasn't the self-conscious type. She knew that she wasn't pushing any boundaries. He wouldn't have let this go so far if he wasn't certain. And she wouldn't have let him do it if she wasn't certain.
"Yes," he answered in an even voice and reached down to unbutton her blouse. She was distracted from his scars and watched his face instead. She wondered if he was feeling particularly irritated with his eyes in a situation like this, but he didn't have too much trouble with the buttons. His fingers slipped once in a while, but nothing too noticeable. And she didn't mind the fact that he appeared to use touch to aid him in his task. His hands never rose too far from her body as he worked the buttons loose. Then she wondered if he had done this after his vision had turned bad, or if physical enjoyment had been too unimportant to work harder for. She shrugged out of her top when Itachi finished with the last button. She brought him down for a kiss, both to ease her nerves and to reassure herself that she didn't mind who he had done this with before. He was doing it with her now.
"Please," she asked when they parted from the kiss. Something in her voice ruined the peace of the moment. Clothes were disposed of quicker than Sakura had ever tried it before, and at one point she thought that she heard seams rip. Sakura was modest by nature, but she had long ago learnt to rid herself of that modesty in the bedroom. Itachi was the same, but he seemed too apathetic to care about nudity in any scenario. That was Sakura's belief, anyway. Itachi was built much like any other shinobi that she had been with or had worked with at the hospital. He was wiry and lean by nature, but had acquired a healthy amount of muscle that had been built up over the years. One thing stood out to her, though. He moved with an agility and dexterity that you rarely experienced in a male shinobi. Itachi wasn't just brute force. He was fluidity, too. Smoothness. Long planes of skin that ran along her body like the spring breeze or the autumn sea.
They had moved up the bed at some point. The sheets had bunched up beneath her and itched against her back.
"Twist your back," Itachi ordered and slid a hand beneath her body. He slid closer up between her legs and heat wafted off his skin in waves. She wondered if he felt as suffocated as her. Then her mind stopped working well enough for her to think in coherent sentences, much less think at all. There was movement. Slick, sweaty and slippery, and Sakura felt like a hatchling snake rolling around in the grass beneath the hot summer sun.
Itachi had brought her home.
Living permanently in the Uchiha household stole most of the mystery that had surrounded the area in the past. It was her home and it was supposed to be like that. It wasn't supposed to be a mystery when you ate and slept amidst the many walls of the household. They didn't fight very often. Itachi wasn't the type to rise to her bait whenever she instigated an argument. Somewhere along the road, as the years of cohabitation passed, his calm demeanor rubbed off on her. She stopped looking for fights. Naruto often joked about that. Sakura didn't mind it. Only one argument stood clear in her mind. It was the only one where they had ever become truly angry with each other. Or at least that was what she believed. They had never talked about it afterwards and she couldn't really speak on Itachi's behalf. Sakura knew that most of it had been her fault, but Itachi had been disappointed with her at the time and she hadn't been able to look past it.
"We can try alternative methods," Sakura said and scrubbed hard at the plate emerged in soapy water.
"I do not want to."
"But I do," Sakura said and dropped the plate into the water in order to turn around and face her lover.
"I cannot give you this. Ask for anything else," Itachi said and his voice was hard.
"I know you can't. That's why I'm suggestion adoption," she said.
She tried to see the situation from Itachi's perspective, but that had always been difficult for her. She might be one of the people who knew him best, but she still didn't know very much. She had accepted that. There were things she didn't tell him, too. But today, with this precise discussion, she didn't want to understand his perspective. She wanted him to understand hers.
"Is it because of your health?" she asked and took a step towards the kitchen table where Itachi was mending a fishing net as a favor to whomever. She hadn't listened at the time when he had told her. "We're all victims of our bad health. It comes with the job."
He put down the net, probably sensing that the argument was skidding out of proportions.
"I will not raise a child knowing that I will die before it sees its tenth birthday," he said with a placating look in her direction.
"You will still make a good father," she said and she could feel her face settling into an unpleasant frown.
"A good father does not die on his child."
Sakura knew that Itachi was hung up on his past. And she was angry for herself for even phrasing it like that in her head. Itachi deserved her understanding. He already had her love and he deserved to have her act on that and not on her own selfish desires. But she hadn't been ready for him to tell her no. And that was why she came to regret the words she said next.
"You turned out fine without a father."
Itachi's face shut down and Sakura felt her stomach plummet to the ground. He hadn't looked at her like that for years. She must have blacked out for a moment. She didn't remember that Itachi stood up from the kitchen chair and left the room. When she came to, he was just gone. She raised a shaky hand to run it along her nose and mouth. That hadn't been the plan at all.
Itachi didn't come back for two days. For two days she was alone in the family compound. That was one of the main reasons to why this particular argument would forever stand unfairly clear to her in her mind. For those two days, she prepared a heartfelt and eloquent apology. She recited it over and over in her head until the words sounded like gibberish. She even recited it to the bathroom mirror. But when Itachi came back on the third day, she was too angry to remember any of her preparations. The day had been horrible right from the start. She had gone to work and had lost two patients. A foreign virus had grabbed hold of the village, one from territories that lay far beyond their own. The hospital didn't have the necessary resources and healing remedies at hand. They had to request for assistance from the neighboring countries and transportation of medicine in large quantities took time. When Itachi showed up at the house, Sakura had just returned home and hadn't yet changed from her hospital uniform into the more comfortable clothes that she wore at home. She felt sticky, fluffed up and terribly incompetent. Seeing Itachi didn't make any of that better, and she certainly didn't have enough energy left to apologize for day-old misdoings. Her misdoings from today were more than enough.
"There's food in the fridge if you didn't already eat," she said with a vague gesture towards the kitchen. "Remember to put it back in if you don't eat it all."
She walked into the bedroom without a second look at her live-in lover. She had pulled on her pants and was in the middle of slipping on one of Itachi's shirts when she felt him come up behind her. He wrapped his arms around her waist and eased her into a loose embrace.
"I love you also," he said and rested his chin on top of her head. She closed her eyes and tried to regain control over her wildly spiraling feelings.
"Why did I get so upset?" she asked around the ball in her throat.
"You are maternal by nature," he replied and tightened his hold on her waist in a reassuring gesture. "The thought of children is a natural one to you. You did not anticipate that it was possible for you to choose a man with whom children was not a natural follow-up."
"It's not a follow-up with you," she said and tilted her head back until it rested against the sloping contours of his neck and collarbone. "I knew that already. Why do I need you to tell me things that I already know?"
"Sometimes it helps to hear your thoughts verbalized by others."
Sakura smiled and tried to hide it by disentangling herself from their embrace. Itachi let her go free and she turned around to face him with a cheeky reply on the tip of her tongue: "I picked a smart man."
He blinked in amusement. "You picked a wise man."
"Wise is for old people. Smart is for adult and sexy," she said. Make up sex was even better when you loved the person that you did it with. That night was a first time for both of them in ways that weren't clear to the naked eye. But eyes were also overrated. Itachi would be the first to tell Sakura that.
"I think you have a prettier face than me," Sakura said afterwards. She slid up closer to his face, her breasts sticking to his sweaty skin when she lay down halfway on top of his chest. She reached up to run a fingertip along the bridge of his nose and she got a small smile in return. He snatched her wrist with his hand and pulled her fully on top of him. The air of the room was cold against her bare skin and she leaned down to get closer to Itachi's warmth. His palms slid up her legs to steady her while they kissed.
"I could use a haircut," he spoke against her lips.
"You're not cutting your hair," she said. "I like it."
"It's my hair."
"You're mine. And so is your hair."
"Bossy," he said with a tiny smirk and pushed upwards with his hips. She both felt and got the hint.
When he died at the age of forty, Sakura wasn't surprised. She was a medic. She knew the signs. To be honest, she had spent the past three years waiting for them to gradually show up. They had done so. One by one. She wasn't surprised. But you could never fully prepare yourself for a loss of that size. She was happy that he died in the comfort of a home and not out on the battlefield as a scapegoat and sacrifice for an ungrateful village.
"The twins would love to have you staying with us," Naruto said after the funeral had finished and most of the attendees had gone home.
"I'm not moving out," she said. Kakashi walked up next to them. The three of them studied the gravestone for a couple of silent minutes. Then she noticed Kakashi grab Naruto's shoulder.
"If you need us, you know where we are," Kakashi told her and Sakura also noticed the strength with which he had to move Naruto from his spot next to her. There was no grand flurry of movement, but she could see the muscles of Kakashi's arm contract in time with the muscles of Naruto's neck and shoulder. It was obvious if you knew what to look for. Kakashi succeeded in pulling Naruto free from his spot and they left without offering any polite partings. Sakura didn't care. She didn't care about much today.
"It's okay," she told the gravestone. She thought that her voice sounded hollow because of the vast open space of the cemetery, but she could have been wrong. "I needed only what you could give."
It really was okay. She turned her back on the grave and headed for the marketplace. The taste of peaches was strong on her tongue and she figured that she shouldn't deprive herself of a luxury like that.