A/N: Oh, hi there. Bet you thought I was dead. Surprise! Enjoy responsibly. Or not...I don't care.

A cool gust of wind nearly toppled her over the second she walked out the door of the shop, already top-heavy with all the bags she was trying to balance in her grip. They weren't too heavy—not for someone who could heave a house-sized boulder through the air, or wave a tree like a bat—but it was bulky and awkward and holy cow where did that wind come from anyway? Autumn was making its presence known this evening.

"Hahh.." She laughed nervously, catching her footing and shifting the bulky bags back into position. Some were filled with groceries, others basic necessities. With how busy she was, it was hard to find time to get the boring chores out of the way, let alone shop. This trip was long overdue, but the embarrassing thing was she only made it happen for one reason, and it had nothing to do with the bunches of fresh leafy greens poking out of the bags and shuddering with each step she took down the road. Partially obscuring her view as she made her journey back home while trying not to knock shoulders with anyone passing her.

There was four bags hanging from each arm, and two more clutched to her chest, but a single, small object tucked into one of them was the focal point of her attention. All she wanted to do was sprint the rest of the way home so she could dig through the mess and find it, but she would have to be patient for a little longer.

Two weeks had passed since her showdown with Sasuke, and almost three since her dinner with his family. Crazy how fast time was flying. There were never enough hours in the day anymore. That didn't excuse him, though. The infuriating, indecisive, hypocritical ass hadn't spoken a single word to her since he abandoned her in the crispy and dusty remains of their battlefield. He walked away from her without so much as a glance, and then seemed to have dropped off the face of the earth.

Sakura could feel her jaw begin to tense as she replayed the memories that had already made their rounds in her head over and over again. It was maddening not having any sense of closure. He dropped a bomb on her that she never saw coming, and then vanished. Not cool. That was an understatement... He fucked up. This was more than not cool, and there was no way in hell she could let this slide. It was too much. And she was sick. Sick of all the shit she put up with from him for so long. She didn't deserve this! Not by a long shot! Didn't she finally give him exactly what he wanted? Didn't he want her to leave him alone? Get off his back and stop being so 'annoying'? Apparently not, since the moment she complied, he turned into a completely different person. She felt...betrayed. Yes, that was the word.

The shuddering vegetables stilled as she came to an abrupt halt. Eyes closing, she bowed her head slightly and took in a slow, deep breath. She was working herself up again. The anger was stinging her cheeks and burning a hole in her chest. She was doing what she always did; thinking herself in circles about things she had no control over. Marinating in misery, and for what purpose? It was about time she started trying to deescalate the stress in her life, instead of exacerbating everything. Easier said than done...but at least she was aware of the pattern she kept herself trapped in mentally. It wasn't healthy, and it was adding to her fatigue.

The burning subsided slowly, but as she willed herself to be calm and to recede from dwelling on the injustice she suffered at his hand, the coldness and the cruelty, the passion, and all the confusing things he did and said, she could only sink into sadness.

All she wanted was an explanation...much more than a sincere apology, even. She just wanted to understand him. Rip open his brain and put together the pieces of what happened to make him react the way he did, because it truly did not add up for her.

No. She would not wriggle free of her anger only to get entangled in sadness. This was just as pointless, and she was done making her head hurt. It was time to focus on something happy until fate was done cooking up whatever it was going to throw at her next. Sooner or later, Sasuke would have to face her, and she would worry about the rest when the time came.

Feet scraping quietly along the ground as she started walking, a small smile blossomed as her thoughts drifted to Itachi. She hadn't spoken to him much since they talked on the way home from her fight with Sasuke, but he was as busy as she was now. It was still too soon for him to be sent on any missions, but with his recovery coming along so quickly, he was starting to rebuild his strength and hone his skills once more, with Shisui practicing at his side during most of his free time.

She missed him. Every day he crept into her thoughts more times than she could count, and it made her feel giddy and lonely at the same time. She just wanted to steal him away and hog him all to herself, but she would have to be patient. They both had important things to do.

Another harsh gust of wind snuck up on her and sent her teetering to the side as she fought to keep her balance. She sighed, watching the frayed curtain of pink whisk to and fro in front of her eyes, joining her veggies in blocking a good chunk of her view as she walked. The bags shivered, drawing her eyes down to the armful of stuff bulging against her. Reminding her of the main reason she went to the store in the first place.

As her thoughts drifted back to Itachi, she felt her stomach do a couple of slow, nervous churns. Smile waning and lips parting gently, an apprehensive look crept into her eyes as she stared off into the distance through the flickering pink and green. Remembering what she would have to deal with once she got home.

Turning the corner, the wind gave her a shove and sent her hopping on one foot as she leaned too far. "Haaa..! Seriously..." She grumbled quietly to herself, happy to see her front door now, inching closer and closer. The fun part would be opening the door without setting her bags down. They were bound to go sliding and tumbling away if she did.


A lost magazine flailed down the street and burst through the swaying veggies, smacking over her face. Sakura froze, head masked completely as the pages shivered around her cheeks. Then it whipped past and went swirling away as she jerked her head sharply to the side. Eyes alight with a twinkling green fire, she broke into a jog and didn't stop until she reached her door, groceries jostling about and teeth gritting.


"What?!" She nearly shouted without even turning to see who was there, so caught up in her aggravation, but then she recognized his voice. Peeking over her shoulder as she paused with her hand reaching for the door knob, she blinked an eye through an angry swirl of pink at her sensei standing behind her. Silver hair dancing in the breeze like moonlit grass, somehow so tame compared to her own, lazy black eye watching her calmly, hands nestled in the pockets of his pants. Looking as if he hadn't a care in the world. Until she snapped at him... Then he blinked a couple times and gave her a funny look.

"Oh, sorry sensei. I didn't mean to yell at you..." She exhaled loudly and turned to face him, looking down at her bags. "This damn wind is driving me crazy."

"Ah.. Yes, it's a little windy today." He glanced up nonchalantly at the sky, watching the clouds sail past quickly in the turbulent night sky. So indifferent about it all. But he wasn't trying to carry ten bags back to his house, either. As if he just realized her predicament, he looked down at the bags swaying between them. "Need help?"

A bundle of carrots poked through one of the bags as it began to tear at the bottom, and Sakura forced the sweetest smile at him as the corner of her eye twitched.

"Yeah, maybe a little. Can you get the door for me?" A fist bracing the bags to her chest opened, revealing a small key dangled from the ring around her finger. He took it from her and opened the door.

"Thanks, sensei." She wandered past him into the empty house. Finally free from the wind, and about to be free of her paper and plastic restraints. She shuffled down the hall and to the nearest table, blowing fervently up at the clump of hair that made its final flop over her eyes once the wind disappeared. Trying to shift it out of the way with no luck.

"You can come in!" She called back while flicking on a couple lights, realizing she'd never heard his footsteps follow. He had lingered by the door while she neared the end of her struggle...which under normal circumstances was the polite thing to do, but right now she wished he'd just come after her and relieved her of some of the bags. Ah, men... Was this why he was still single?

The door shut behind her, just as she bumped into the table. Reaching it more quickly than she ancitipated, but that's what happens when you can't see very well. "Oof.." She grunted, and a strap on one of the bags snapped and spilled some of its contents to the floor. She shoved the rest of them roughly onto the table, tipping another over to gush some of its produce and other mundane necessities.

"So what's going on? How's Naruto's training?" She asked, only half-interested in his response as she started picking things off the floor and stuffing them back into the broken bag. Kakashi had been spending more time with Naruto than her and Sasuke lately, so she hadn't seen much of him. If she wasn't already so distracted by what was unfolding in her own life between two exhausting Uchihas, she would be more curious as to why he showed up at her house at all, but her mind was elsewhere.

"It's going...well." Not the most convincing tone of voice, but he seemed just about as interested in discussing the subject as she was about hearing it. He sauntered slowly down the hall, watching her with his single eye and keeping his hands in his pockets.

"Oh.." Was all she had to say about that, not even glancing at him as she finished assembling her bag, and plopped it onto the counter so carelessly he wondered why she even bothered putting it back together.

"Just the wind?" He asked skeptically, believing there was something more to it than that. A haggard sort of energy was weighing her down, even if she was doing her best to mask its presence. Easy for him to detect, since he spent the past few years training her, and therefore knew her about as well as her own parents—perhaps even more than her own parents. He was also a former ANBU member, so it was second nature for him to pick up on even subtle difference as easily as Itachi and Sishui could. She really could not catch a break with the men in her life.

"She looked back at him and reluctantly gave a weak smile. "Yeah...well, I've been kind of stressed lately. Sorry. Got a lot going on."

Kakashi nodded, and looked down at the other spilled bag on the table next to her. Calm eye roaming aimlessly over everything. Looking for clues, absentmindedly.

"So, you don't usually visit..." Putting more effort into giving him her undivided attention, she tried to wipe the concern and fatigue from her face and push the rest of her problems to the side for now. Watching him curiously as he stood in the doorway of her kitchen.

He seemed almost bored, or maybe just lost in thought, until that eye sharpened suddenly and she saw his brow crease. Sakura blinked, waiting for him to speak. Unaware that what caught his attention was something external, rather than the subject that brought him here in the first place.

He took a couple slow steps forward, keen on whatever it was that caught his attention. It took a few seconds of silence before she glanced back to see what he was looking at, and what she found amidst the food and other random items was a small white and pink box. An uninteresting thing really, until you caught the bold print under the brand name that read Pregnancy Test.

You know that feeling you get when you've just been caught red-headed by your parents doing something reeaally bad? Yeah, it was chill-inducing. The dawn of horror, embarrassment, and panic shot her nerves as she stared down that dreaded little box like it was a paper bomb about to blow.

A hundred different dialogues played out in her head within the few awkward seconds that she kept her face hidden from him. Everything from pretending she grabbed someone else's bag by mistake, to acting like she had no idea how it got there, to insisting she bought it for someone else.

He was still staring down at it when she cautiously turned to face him, catching his disturbed expression, and swallowing quietly. All the possible scenarios she wanted to mislead him with went out the window, replaced with an exasperated sigh. He would never believe one of those lies. He was too smart, and she didn't have the energy to spin the web it would take to deceive him, if it was even possible. All these months of harboring secrets and overthinking things, and then getting mindfucked by Sasuke, drained her reservoir of anything creative or convincing. She was spent.

The creaking table was the only sound in the house as she leaned her hips back into it, and braced her palms on the edge. Messy pink curtain of hair falling forward, she stared down at the floor in resignation. Feeling almost calm, now that she gave up trying to hide anything.

"Yep..." Sakura smirked in ironic amusement, and a little bitterness. Part of her in awe that she wasn't freaking out more than that initial shock. Maybe because she was far more apprehensive about taking the test itself than having someone discover it. If it was positive, everyone close to her was bound to find out anyway.

"How late are you?" He finally asked with a gruff clearing of his throat. Sounding much less like the easygoing, almost-always-late, carefree sensei she was so used to. More like the startled and angry father-figure she was rightfully afraid he'd become.

"Late enough, sensei...does it matter?"

He was glaring at her. She could feel it even while she kept her gaze down, and it made her glad he only had one eye to drill into her right now instead of two. A sound of shifting fabric made her peak up nervously, watching him pulling his sleeves up a little and crossing his arms over his chest. Then, he exhaled loudly, shook his head, and looked away from her.

A stab of guilt and shame troubled her first, but they were quickly overcome with stark resentment and indignation. "Look, it's not your problem, so don't worry about it. There's enough going on in my life right now. I don't need you lecturing me about something like this. I already know I messed up, and I'll handle whatever the consequences are."

That was more sass than he was used to getting from her, and it caused him to glance back with an even angrier look than before. "You are still my student, and you are sixteen years old, Sakura. It is a problem for me, but that's not the point. This should not be something you have to deal with right now. What the hell are you doing? When did you get involved with someone?"

His voice was restrained, like it took effort for him to be patient and calm with her. She countered it with a wall of cold steel that would have contested Sasuke's, speaking quietly and firmly, with a pair of suddenly fearless eyes targeting him from between her strands of tussled hair. "You have no responsibility for my personal life, sensei...and I know how old I am. If Konoha can send me on life-threatening missions, I can decide what to do with my own body."

He was studying her, black eye flickering all over her face and down her posture. Analyzing everything from what she said, to how she said it, to the way she was looking at him, and even how she clutched the edge of the table behind her. This wasn't the best situation for him to judge her, but he still recognized some serious changes were taking place within. He had to pause, finding himself stuck at a crossroads in how to address her now. Something he wasn't expecting. She was certainly starting to grow up, but she still had a lot more to learn.

"Ok, Sakura... Tell me what you're going to do if that test is positive." He insisted coolly, head cocking.

"I'll figure it out." She fired back, staring him down as if he was the enemy. Like he was overreacting, and his concern was an inconvenience she didn't have time for.

"Uh huh." He nodded, believing none of it. "So, who's responsible?"

"Me, obviously." She snorted in annoyance.

"It takes two, Sakura."

Eyes widening in realization, she straightened her back and folded her arms across her chest to match him. "It doesn't matter who—the result is the same! Why would I tell you anyway, so you can interrogate them or throw them into jail or something?"

His single eye narrowed, a little bit confused. "I can't interrogate someone or throw them in jail for having sex...and if I could, you think I'm that kind of person?"

"I dunno, maybe! Even your closest friends can become a completely different person overnight, apparently! How should I know what you would do?" Her voice cracked, a glimmer of emotion breaking free. She was never good at being the cold, steely type...

Kakashi was quiet for a moment. Watching her with the same discerning curiosity, but his anger was subsiding as something dawned on him. Whatever was going on—and he would eventually get to the bottom of it eventually—he would need to take a different approach. This was more complex than it seemed.

"Is it Sasuke?" He asked abruptly, quietly, as if he was sure he already knew the answer. Who else would it be? Sakura spent years obsessing over him. He never heard her mention another boy's name, let alone caught her looking at one. Absolutely difficult to believe, with how hard Sasuke tried to brush her off...but still a possibility. That kid was bound to lose a battle against his hormones sooner or later. He was a prodigy like his brother, raised in a home that prized discipline and excellency, but he was still human. Sakura made herself quite accessible to him, as well.

Her breath caught in her throat, looking at him as if he slapped her in the face. "NO! Why would you—" An angry sniffle finished her sentence as she whipped her head away from him, face screwing up into a pained grimace as she fought to find some of that steeliness she mastered but a fleeting moment ago. She didn't want to be having this conversation with anyone right now, least of all someone like him. An authority figure who knew her too well, and wouldn't let her wriggle away no matter how much she wanted to avoid this.

The kitchen fell silent again, save for the angry breaths that puffed through her steadily clogging nose. While she tried not to cry, casting a spiteful glare at something on the wall, he observed her stoicly. Seeming unaffected by her internal conflict.

He wasn't. He was thinking. In the grand scheme of things, the main issue was not who she was involved with, whether it was a serious relationship or a sudden fling—but the latter, he doubted. What mattered was what she was going to do if that test did not read negative. Even if she wanted to be stubborn and in denial, he knew she was not prepared for the harsh dose of reality that came with a positive result.

His arms dropped and he rubbed the back of his neck with a groaning sigh. What a headache this day was going to be. This was not what he expected to be faced with when he showed up. There was too much going on already, and now this complicated wrench was being thrown into the mix. Kakashi moved forward and grabbed the small box, something he never thought he would be touching in his life, and leaned against the table next to her. She did not look at him.

"Take it."

An mistrusting glance regarded the box in his gloved hand as she turned her head just slightly. A strange tickle in the back of her mind wondered why he insisted. She always thought conversations like these were ones he would avoid at all costs. Anything relating to girls and their personal problems was not exactly where his expertise or interest generally lied. She was surprised he wasn't running in the opposite direction already to wash his hands of the situation before they could even get dirty. Guess she underestimated him.

Uhg, but she wished he would run away. Go hide in one of his Icha Icha books and leave her alone.

"...I would rather take it alone, sensei...no offence..." She mumbled sourly. Defeated, as if she already knew what was in store. The bags behind him rustled as she decided now would be a good time to start putting her groceries away. Anything to distract her from his uncomfortable conversation. She grabbed an armful of vegetables and moved to the fridge.

"I can't leave until you take it, Sakura." He pressed gently but firmly, leaving no room for debate.

She sighed, condiments clanking together when she closed the fridge door more roughly than she should have. "Then you better make yourself comfortable, because you'll be waiting a while."

"Ok...we'll just wait for your parents to come home then."

The bags rustled in the gust when she spun quickly, fists clenching lightly at her sides as she stared daggers. "You won't tell them!"

"I won't have to. I'll just stand here with the box." He tilted his head to look at her, a glint of irritation in his eye. This was already taking too long. She needed to just suck it up and get this over with.

She was calculating now. Watching him intently, and glancing periodically to the box in his hand. He knew her motive before she moved, and spun out of the way the second she lunged for him. The box was held up in the air, then hidden behind his back. She missed every swipe, growling each time her fingers clutched air or grazed fabric.

It scraped across the table away from her with a toss when she thought she had him cornered. She dove, smacking chest first onto the surface, but he was snatching it away from the other side like he'd always been there. She rolled off and chased him through her house, suddenly recalling the time they first met. The bells...those stupid, little bells that were impossible to get away from him no matter how hard she tried. Even with Naruto and Sasuke working with her as a team, none of them stood a chance back then...and probably not now, either. This wasn't going to work, but she couldn't stop reaching for it.

A smaller table jabbed her in the hip when she grew careless, knocking a small picture of Team 7 to the floor behind her. The pane broke on contact, glittering the hallway with its remains while she pressed on. The box whizzed past her ear with another throw. Clattering to the floor and sliding into the bathroom. She ran for it, miraculously smacking her palm down on over it before he could get there. She grinned in triumph, until the door slammed shut behind her, and she heard the thud of Kakashi's back serving as the lock to her prison cell.

That was dumb. Of course the only reason she caught it was because he let her! Now she was stuck. Her enraged wail echoed off the cramped walls around her, the box denting under her fingers. She should have seen this coming. "You know I can punch through both the door and you!" She threatened him.

He wasn't phased, keeping his back planted against her only exit with his arms crossed. "You won't do that. Take the test, Sakura."

Head dropping, she sighed loudly, caught in her bluff. A destroyed door was not something she wanted to explain to her mother...on top of anything else she might have to explain in the near future. "Kakashi-sensei... I mean this with the utmost respect..."

His ear cocked to the door.

"You are an asshole."

The nod was brief and unseen from the other side. Her petty insult meant nothing to him. While she stewed in her numerous regrets, he looked over at the shattered picture left face down on the floor a few feet away from them. The flecks of twinkling light softened the stern look in his eye, and he let his mind reflect hesitantly on the past...

"Why do you have to be here? I'll tell you the answer when I find out, I just...want to be alone..." The voice behind him was quieter, knowing she would get nowhere. At this point, she just wanted to know why he was so unrelenting.

"I can't leave until you take it."

"Why, sensei?"

"I'm supposed to bring you to the Hokage's office. I can't show up with you if you are pregnant, and I can't show up without you if you are not."

Sakura raised her head to stare at the blank door curiously. So he did have a good reason for paying her a visit. "What do you mean? What's going on?"

"There's a mission you are being considered for."

"Yeah...? What kind of mission?" She asked, a little bit excited, but also a little bit nervous.

The sigh was soft enough she almost didn't hear it, but even so quiet, it sounded unusually heavy and reticent. "We will discuss it there, but before that happens, you need to take that test."

There was an uncertain pause, and then she asked, "Why did they send you?"

"Because they want my support for this. I haven't decided if I'm going to give it."

She looked down at the damaged box in her hand, wondering what chain of events were bound to unfold next. Positive or negative, it looked like something big was in store for her.

When he heard nothing more from her but tentative rustling, Kakashi eased away from the door and wandered down the hall, trusting she would finally listen to him. The broken glass was scooped up in his hands carefully, with the gloves mostly protecting them. They were dumped into the kitchen trash, and he returned to set the the picture back on the table in its original position. The image wasn't damaged, and that's what mattered. Everything else was replaceable.

The minutes felt like hours for them both, and he lost himself in the picture with his arms folded once more. This was one of the last scenarios he expected to find himself in, especially with his own student, and she probably felt the same. Normally, something like this would have him throwing his hands up and backing away, perhaps passing on the problem to someone more adept in dealing with these things, but that was not an option today. It was so surreal it was hard for him to wrap his head around the whole thing, let alone what would come next if her test was positive. How did this happen? She should know better, especially working in healthcare. She had to know more about reproduction than Naruto and Sasuke combined. Someone her age should already be on birth control anyway. Many shinobi women were, to help prevent...well, stuff like this from happening. One less thing to worry about when you're in the middle of a long and arduous mission.

An uncontrollable squeal erupted from the bathroom, breaking his train of thought. He looked at the door skeptically, unsure of what that noise meant. Was it a happy squeal, or a terrified squeal? Girls made so many strange noises. Every time he tried to guess what one meant, he was wrong. That was one reason he liked his books. Everything could be explained in them. He could always trust them to have happy endings too, unlike real life...

The bathroom was silent after that. Kakashi took his time shuffling down the hall to stand in front of the door. "Sakura..." His hand reached to tap lightly, but it flung open quickly and something came flying towards his face. He stumbled backwards, ready to block a punch, but then peaked past his hand when nothing hit it. A thin plastic strip was hovering inches away from his masked face, and he blinked suspiciously.

"Uh... Sakura... I don't know what that means."

"I'm not pregnant!" The words exploded from her in unbridled excitement. She did a couple spins, bathing in surely one of the most relieving moments of her life thus far. He was right. She was in no way prepared to deal with a baby yet, and now that her fear was quelled, she couldn't contain herself.

The silver-haired nin didn't appear to be in the same celebratory mood she was, however. The dancing and hopping about stopped, and she looked expectantly up at him. Curious of the stony look aimed down at her. "This isn't something you should take lightly, Sakura."

"I didn't take it lightly! Believe me, I've been dreading this for two days now!"

"If you didn't take it lightly, you wouldn't have found yourself in this mess in the first place."

He had a point there, but she fired back in frustration, "I made a mistake, sensei! I know! There's nothing I can do about it now...but trust me when I say I'll never make another one like this!"

"I hope you're right." He countered in a mistrustful mutter.

"Anyway, so now will you tell me what's going on? What kind of mission is this?" She turned to collect the empty box and prance down the hall to expertly hide it among all the bags she collected. Stuffed down the garbage in such a way, no one would accidentally find it unless they were really digging for something.

"I said we'll talk about it once we get there...and Sakura, this mission is another thing you should not take lightly."

"Why, are you sending me on a super-secret, S-rank mission that will test my limits and possibly kill me?" The joking tone bounced down the hall to him as she finished putting everything away. It was difficult to kill her good mood now, and she was going to ride this high as long as she could.

He never answered. Head peaking around the corner, she found him staring down at the picture of Team 7. Vaguely recalling the small crash when she bumped it with her hip earlier, she thought nothing of it and instead watched him, waiting. He turned and headed for the door slowly, holding up his hand and flicking two fingers for her to follow.

The topic of her pregnancy scare was not over, as far as he was concerned, but it would have to wait a while. Now, there more pressing matters to attend to.

She studied him mutely, trying to decode what his silence meant, and then eagerly ran after him out the door.

The sound of a door sliding open and closed drew his attention away from the blinding light of the fridge. A loud gurgle from an empty stomach betrayed his location as he waited to see who would be coming down the hall. The footsteps were light, but not his mother's. They were purposefully light, the kind that took years of training, but once mastered became a permanent skill that was second nature; not the kind of light from someone who was small and didn't weigh much. This only made him curious.

Soon, his older brother was drifting past the kitchen like a lost spirit. Sasuke's head turned slowly with him, noting the blotches of dirt and sweat all over. Long hair loosened from its ponytail with some wet strands sticking to his pale face.

He snatched something hastily from the fridge and let it ease shut on its own. Heavier feet pattered out of the kitchen. "Itachi..."

When he turned to the side, a worn and wrinkled gaze questioned him without a word. He had pushed himself harder than he should have in his training tonight. All it took was a glance to know that. Even with such a powerful blast of chakra, and a whole team of medics, he still had some mending to finish before he was back to his old self. A few weeks wasn't enough, it seemed.

A fat, red tomato hung in his younger brother's hand, looking like it was about to burst. Itachi looked at it, blinking slowly when he heard his voice. "I thought you were at the clan meeting."

"Mm... No." He murmured the obvious. Suddenly aware of how thirsty he was, he turned fully and wandered past Sasuke and into the kitchen. The younger man's eyes were glued to his every move, lips parted in confusion.

"Aren't you supposed to be there?" He pressed, more inquisitive than concerned. Their father took clan meetings seriously. There weren't as many now as there were years ago. When he was around five, it seemed like there was one every week that his parents and Itachi disappeared to. Always leaving him behind to finish his homework or train alone. His brother never gave the impression he enjoyed going to them. They were likely boring and full of politics, but still... He didn't miss them often.

But now that he gave it some thought, the meetings did seem to be picking up again. Maybe one day he would get to go to one...but the idea didn't excite him. Probably because it never excited Itachi.

"They don't need me." He answered impassively. Sasuke watched him more closely now. His limbs were limp, moving like they were pulled by puppet strings. Looking like he could easily fall asleep standing upright.

Another loud growl complained from his stomach. Sasuke took a bite of the tomato, hoping that would make it shut up for a while.

"Are you hungry?" Itachi asked, glancing his way as he took a drink of water.

"Hn...yeah. All the leftovers are gone." Times like this made him appreciate their mother tenfold. He always forgot how important food was until she wasn't around to make it for him, and since he couldn't cook worth a damn on his own, he was kind of screwed.

The next thing he knew, Itachi was washing his hands and gathering some vegetables, noodles, and an array of condiments and spices on the counter. Sasuke stared in disbelief mid-bite. "Wait, you can cook?"

"Simple things." His brother shrugged, puppet-limbs arranging some peppers, onions, and bok choy on a cutting board to chop as if he'd done so a thousand times before. His movements almost mechanical. Sadly, none of that looked simple to Sasuke, especially all the sauces and spices on the counter. How did he know how much of each to use? Did there really need to be that many?

"Huh..." He gaped in awe, wondering how this skill slipped past him until now. Better yet, how was he doing this when it looked like he was about to fall over from exhaustion? Well, he wasn't going to complain. He was hungrier than he wanted to admit.

"But shouldn't you be there? You're the next clan leader, it's important—" A loud chop paused him, and Sasuke watched a chunk of onion spin and wobble off the cutting board. Itachi's hand stilled for a moment, then continued chopping more gently.

"They're not talking about anything I don't already know. Don't worry, Sasuke..." He answered, voice as soft as his chopping now, but too soft. Like he was forcing his calm.

His younger brother turned the partially eaten tomato in his hand, staring through it as he withdrew into his thoughts. Knowing there was something more to his issue with their clan meetings than just boredom, but also knowing that trying to pry the information from him wasn't going to work. He was almost always like this when the subject came up. Even worse when the subject included both meetings and their father.

"Shouldn't you be apologizing to Sakura?" The question, though sounding so apathetic, was like nails on a chalkboard to him. Sasuke winced unseen as his brother piled the noodles in a pot and readied a large fry pan for the veggies.

Something in his chest tightened. An uncomfortable feeling he hadn't endured since the day they fought a couple weeks ago. A feeling he never wanted to revisit. "...I will..." He ground out with some effort, keeping his eyes down despite knowing his brother's back was turned to him.

Itachi didn't respond. There was nothing to say. It was meant as a reminder, a small jab to let him know he still had some unfinished business. He would not let it go until it was done. He didn't care to be there, or to know anything that was said between them, so long as it happened. All Sasuke would have to say is that he apologized, and he would believe him. They both knew that, and his younger brother was grateful for it...but the task was still daunting. He already put it off for too long.

When he spoke again, the pot was boiling and the pan sizzling loudly with the stir-fry. "Do you think it's...going to turn into anything serious...?" The tomato was still his focal point, though he could hardly see it now, so lost in his own mind. The dark figure in front of the stove bathed in steam and heat, mere feet away, yet somehow feeling farther.

A glass container of dried herbs sitting on the counter was what Itachi chose to focus on. Hands moving of their own accord to toss varying amounts of liquids and spices into the pan to marinate the vegetables. His eyes were utterly lifeless for a time, as if he was sucked into another world entirely, but then they squinted. A hint of sadness, and something else...

"Would that bother you?" He asked, instead of giving a straight answer.

Sasuke's head snapped up. A dribble of juice dripped from the tomato when he squeezed it absently. "No. I just...wondered."

Itachi contemplated. Half in a daze from training, but there was certainly some mental exhaustion fraying his edges too—and it involved more than Sakura.

"It's too early to know anything." He stated easily. Not quite a lie, but still a deflection in its own way. Something he already said a couple weeks ago, but it didn't matter. He would not make promises or declarations when so much was still hanging in limbo.

"Well... Mom keeps talking about her now. It's kind of annoying." Sure, because that was the real reason he brought it up. His older brother made a noise in his throat, but otherwise said nothing. He was busy mixing the finished noodles into the pan and plopping everything into a bowl. Sasuke looked up as he set it on the table. Done so fast, and it smelled amazing.

He meant to utter a word of thanks, but before he could, Itachi walked out of the kitchen, snatching the tomato from his hand along the way. "Hey—" A hard tap on his forehead stopped him, one of so many he tolerated in his short lifetime, and he was left to grumble bitterly as Itachi continued down the hall toward the bathroom for a badly needed shower.

"Clean up when you're done." He called back, taking a bite of the stolen tomato.

Sasuke smirked and sat down to eat.

The wind howled above, threatening in vain the protected garden. They were not untouchable, but the rustling of the small maple and the surrounding plants was tame in comparison to what lied outside the walls. The stars twinkled vibrantly between the flashes of drifting clouds. Bright specks in the late evening sky.

A small chime sang its high-pitched melody nearby, ceaseless in the tumultuous weather. A swirl of colorful leaves, torn prematurely from their branches, twirled in a rapid circle. They sucked up into the darkness, disappearing beyond the roof. The death throws of a long, eventful summer that refused to go quietly. These winds were full of change.

He stood mute at the edge of the porch. A hard gaze, so full of secrets and knowledge, considered the harassed scenery before him. It was cool, but no enough for a coat yet. Still, his arms were crossed tightly to his proud chest. Standing like an unsympathetic sentry to his meticulously manicured garden. It had taken a long time for things to mature into their current shape. He was not prepared to let it run wild or uproot just yet, and it was about time to do some weeding.

"Where were you, Itachi?" A voice low and deep questioned the figure next to him, yet there was no emotion.

The blissful darkness was stolen from him by a sound that he found abrasive. His groggy head lifted with effort to look around him, neck pinching in pain from hanging too long. Wondering, for the briefest moment, what could create such an unwelcome noise...and then the noise came into focus. The words sharpening in his mind. His father was speaking to him.

He was seated on the porch with his back against the wall. Dressed in a warm robe he threw on after his hot shower. Hair still somewhat damp, but dry enough that he realized he must have been snoozing for a while. He never meant to fall asleep. He wanted to sit and think, and this was one of his favorite places for that.

Itachi glanced with disinterest to the man standing close to him. This confrontation didn't come as a surprise. He only wished that he could have been spared the trouble until the morning.

"I was training." His tone mirrored his father's. Devoid of any true feeling, as if they had been down this road before, and it drained them of all their emotions long ago.

"You have plenty of time to train while you recover. If it is so easy for you to shirk your responsibilities, then I am concerned for the future of this clan."

"My first responsibility is to protect Konoha. I have been gone too long already." This wasn't the first time he admitted his true allegiance without shame, and it likely would not be the last. He was weary from this struggle. Every couple years they seemed to find themselves in this tense dance that yielded no resolution.

"Your first responsibility is to lead the Uchiha, Itachi." A trace of ire seeped into those disagreeing words, while Fugaku's shadowed eyes beheld the twisting and swaying shapes in the landscape. Their priorities and expectations were so different. Neither of them would budge in their stance, and yet he still persisted after so long.

A pale hand turned over slowly as he remained seated, revealing the faint scars along his palm that disappeared up into his sleeve. A small glimpse of the sacrifices he'd made for so many. It was never enough. The threats never ended, both external and internal. The politics were always murky and shrouded in deceit, treason, greed, lust for power... He was tired. He was twenty-one years old, but he felt so much older. The only reason he continued to shoulder this burden was so Sasuke didn't have to.

"A clan poisoned by their own hate and distrust..." He retorted, just above a whisper. Lost in the creases of his marred skin. His fingers closed into a loose fist.

"A clan that has suffered injustice and oppression for too long." His father countered in a harsh, confident murmur. The divide between them was growing. Cracking and groaning like a rift splitting into a canyon after years of earthquakes.

They built a bridge once, so long ago, yet Itachi remembered as clearly as if it was yesterday. How could he not, when they were the worst weeks of his life? Every day spent preparing for when the tension would erupt, and what little control he had would spiral out of his hands. Forcing him to make a decision he never wanted to fathom.

It was like watching a tsunami rushing to shore, and he had the bird's eye view. The crest looming in the distance, stretching far as the eye could see. Promising to annihilate everything it touched with the unimaginable force that propelled it to life. A village below that didn't stand a chance, with its desire for peace ignored. What could he do against a force so much larger than him... But then, it melted back into the sea, creating only a ripple of high tide to wash the beach. He found a way to subdue it, if barely. Leaving most none-the-wiser to the chaos, pain, and destruction that was so close to washing away what had taken decades to build.

"I thought we were past this." His son glanced up to watch the garden with him. The younger branches of the maple bent and churned in the forceful wind, but some of the older, stiffer ones creaked in warning. They were bound to snap in their inflexible nature.

"So did I." His father's eyes hardened unforgivingly. "Little has changed since the attack of the Nine Tails. We have spent years rebuilding and serving this country, and are regarded with suspicion. We are kept at arm's length, cast out from the village we sacrifice our lives to protect. Held hostage in a position always under surveilence, and denied—"

"Where were you when the Nine Tails attacked?" Itachi interrupted him, his tone soft, yet its implication was another story.

Fugaku bristled visibly under the veiled accusation. His teeth grit and jaw flexed in the dim light. "After all these years, you still suspect me..."

"Eleven years ago, you planned a coup'. You would have slaughtered anyone that stood in your way, for power. Tell me why I should not suspect you." Unlike his father, he was calm. It was alarming, given the weight of their conversation, and yet he found it difficult to feel anymore, when it came to this... As if he expected, once more, that nothing would be resolved.

"You believe that I would play the role of a terrorist?" His tone was low as always, to avoid rousing suspicion from anyone indoors, but it rolled from his throat like thunder. Menacing in his damaged pride.

"You will die."

The burning scorn flickered away. Slapped into oblivion. He stared mutely at his son, arms slowly falling from their tight hold against his chest.

"Unless you learn forgiveness, and release your grip on vengeance, our entire family will die... Our clan will fade into history as traitors. You will be their reaper; the ultimate end to the clan you care so much about. I will not help you." Itachi took a slow, deep breath. Serene as someone in a wakeful meditation. As if he accepted everything that was transpiring now, and weaving into the future unknown. In reality, he simply felt numb...

Fugaku observed his son suddenly as if he was a stranger insulting him without warrant. "Are you threatening me, Itachi?" He whispered suspiciously, studying him in a new light. A hint of fear slithered into his heart to begin permeating its poison, but the agonizing sting of betrayal overshadowed.

Itachi was quiet as he stood. Every muscle in his body ached. His head felt dizzy. He turned to face his father, meeting him eye-level. A clash of black—one full of anticipation, clouded judgement, and stubborn pride; the other, faint silhouettes of pain, regret, and a sense of finality.

The door slid open between them, and Sasuke took one bare step onto the porch before freezing. He glanced back and forth between the two ominous, dark statues. A bowl of steaming sauteed veggies and noodles in one hand, and chopsticks in the other. Indifference seized into caution.

Neither his father nor his brother looked at him, as if he wasn't there at all...and yet he felt incredibly uncomfortable. The air among the three was thick, and beyond, it roared in a chorus with the contrasting chimes dangling from a branch.

Without acknowledging his younger son, Fugaku turned and walked past Sasuke into the house. He stepped obediently aside for him, and watched his father disappear. Whatever he stumbled into, it appeared to end anticlimactically because of him. He didn't know if that was a good thing or a bad thing.

Itachi was blinking down at the stir-fry like nothing of interest transpired. "You're eating again?"

Sasuke turned quickly to look at him. Slipping out of the doorway, he slid it shut behind him. Intelligent eyes considered his older brother for a moment. Wanting to probe him with questions, but knowing it would get him nothing of substance in return. He let it go.

"No, this is yours." He held the bowl out.

Itachi regarded it curiously, like it was something far more strange than food.

"You didn't eat anything earlier. I reheated it..." Sasuke explained slowly when he didn't answer.

Itachi stared at it for longer than he should have, mind already wandering onto something else as the steam brushed his face. "Thank you, Sasuke." He murmured finally, and to his brother's surprise, turned and walked along the porch and vanished through another door.

It was so abrupt, all he could do was stand there with his arms held out. Frozen in place again out of sheer confusion. The only thing keeping him from running after his brother was seeing that he left the door open, which meant he would probably be coming back.

Left alone to brood, he looked out at the sky. Watching the flashes of stars diminish as the clouds rolling in grew thicker, suffocating the light, and making it almost impossible to see in the darkness.

Just as he was planning to illuminate the garden, the numerous lanterns flickered to life with their small flames. The muffled footsteps of his brother were coming back down the walkway, something small bundled under one arm. It was far from bright, but it provided enough light for them to see easily now.

He sat down on the edge of the porch, and Sasuke knelt next to him. "I told you, you should have gone..."

His older brother only grunted, taking the bowl of food in his lap. Sasuke looked curiously down at the roll of cloth that was spread out on the wooden floor between them. Dark blue, or black, he couldn't tell in the faint light. Then, one glass bottle stained white clanked down above it, then a red one, and a couple of small paintbrushes.

"Make an Uchiha symbol." His brother ordered with a slurp of noodles. Sasuke's eyes narrowed at the arrangement, trying to figure out what this was all about.

"Uh... Why?" He glanced up searchingly, but his brother was more interested in his late dinner than explaining anything. Sasuke waited in vain for a few seconds, and then sighed. He got to work drawing the simple outline of the red and white fan, alternating between the two brushes. Working his brain to figure out why this was necessary. He couldn't remember the original bandana he painted. He was far too young back then, and never saw it again once it was finished. For all he knew, it got lost somewhere, or thrown away.

Itachi stole a peek down at the image when he was done. It was less sloppy than the first ones, all those years ago. He liked the old one better, but...it was gone forever. Discaded with the rest of his shredded and badly stained uniform the night his corpse arrived in the hospital. This one would do just fine.

Sasuke watched him with a half-lidded gaze. Irritated knowing that most things he asked him right now would probably go unanswered. He was in one of those cryptic moods, where he kept everything to himself.

"What would you do if you had to choose between saving Konoha, and saving our clan?" His older brother posed suddenly, derailing his thoughts and stretching his eyes wide in shock.

"What? What kind of question is that?"

Itachi shrugged easily, like this was a game. "Just answer it."

Sasuke watched him chew his food happily, staring into the garden so content that he almost believed this was just a game. "Er... I would save both."

Itachi shook his damp head. "No, you can only save one."

"That's dumb. I'm saving both." He insisted sharply. "You can't ask a question like that... You really think I can pick one?"

"What if you had to, Sasuke?" He paused, setting his chopsticks down and giving his younger brother a soul-piercing look. "Life throws hard choices at you all the time. You have to be prepared for them. Choose." Sasuke felt his mind quiet down as he stared back.

"Alright... Fine. I'd save Konoha." He shook his head, palm smacking down on the wood next to him as he looked away. What a pain in the ass.

"Why?" Itachi fired, and Sasuke turned his head slightly to consider him. Something about this made him squirm a little. He didn't like this question.

"Because... There's more people in Konoha than our village. I'd be saving more lives."

"You're saying that for the sake of the greater good, you would spare Konoha, and let your own family perish?"

The ghostly face was vacant. Eyes flitting over Itachi like he didn't trust any answer was the 'right' one. He was being tested, wasn't he...but for what?

"Yeah, if I have to pick. But it would never come to that. I wouldn't let it."

"Things aren't so simple, Sasuke. You can't always save both."

"Tch, only if you give up! I would never give up. I would find a way to save both. Don't tell me I can't." His little brother snapped, seeming to take this hypothetical question much too personally. Itachi shot him a surprised look, his half-full bowl now forgotten.

Despite the mild anger creeping into his brother's face, Itachi gave him the faintest smile, but it came at a price. That was the answer he wanted to hear, deep down, but believed he never would. Not from the brother who was so obsessed with impressing their father...and him. He misjudged him.

"What?" Sasuke eyed him apprehensively, wondering why he was being stared at like that. It made him feel like he was under a magnifying glass.

Itachi barely shook his head, and stood with the bowl. An hand swiped down to retrieve the drying bandana. "Nothing, Sasuke. Thank you..." The long strip of cloth billowed as he turned to enter the house, leaving the door open for Sasuke to follow if he wanted. A soft bed awaited him once he cleaned his bowl and chopsticks. The rest of the world's problems would have to wait until morning.

Sasuke stared long and hard through the doorway behind him, and then flopped down on his back. Heaving a sigh into the night air while one of the paintbrushes clattered on its side and rolled next to him.