Disclaimer: Naruto and its characters are created by Masashi Kishimoto, but the new plots (meaning the ones you don't recognize!) are mine. This fanfiction had been written for entertainment purposes only and without intention of infringing upon any copyright.
A/N: Thanks for reading and reviewing! I have to beg forgiveness for the ridiculously late update. It's holiday season here, so very busy with real life! And no, I'm not abandoning this fic or losing interest or anything ridiculous like that… :P
(Janet, I'm even later than you, so don't worry about it!)
Please enjoy this chapter! For those of you who played the chapter word count guessing game for the Crunchyroll Guess Pass, you might also find the A/N at the end of some interest to you.
The Butterfly - -Chapter 14 - by elle6778
Acknowledging the older man's words with a nod, Itachi considered the layout of the shogi board. The optimum solution came to mind soon enough and he reacted by moving a piece.
Sakura's father frowned as he stared intently at the board laid out on the stone table. A moment later, he exhaled loudly. "You're quite the strategist, aren't you, Itachi-san?"
Itachi chose not to answer. However, it was easy to tell that he was not the only one familiar with strategic shogi moves in this game. The red-headed man was clearly not a beginner, and had so far managed to surprise Itachi with his choices.
After his turn, Sakura's father commented casually, "Maybe that's why you don't talk much." Looking up and smiling, he added, "That mind of yours is too busy thinking."
"This game requires a certain amount of strategizing," Itachi returned politely.
"True, true. And I suppose you're not a stranger to such things. You're used to making decisions, after all."
Itachi did not know if he ought to be amused or offended. The comment was innocuous enough, but not something one would say to a stranger. It almost sounded as if the man knew more than he was revealing.
Once the first shoji piece had been moved, signaling the commencement of the game, Sakura's father had struck up a seemingly casual conversation. However, Itachi was not so obtuse as to miss the subtle interrogation he was being subjected to. The thought that he should kill the man for his impertinence momentarily crossed his mind, but the idea was dismissed soon after. Something like that was pointless and would only upset a certain kunoichi.
"We didn't get a chance to speak much the last time we met. It's a shame, because you probably have many interesting stories to tell."
Spotting an opening, Itachi shifted his shogi piece before responding politely, "I doubt that, Haruno-san."
"I understand that you defected from Konoha a long time ago," her father remarked. "You must have travelled extensively since then."
"Aa." After a pause, he asked, "Did Sakura explain the circumstances of my departure from Konoha?"
The older man shrugged carelessly, and then decisively moved his shogi piece out of harm's way. "She might have mentioned it. But it's all over the grapevine anyway."
Itachi was fairly certain that a civilian would not know much about such an issue. The massacre was not something the Leaf forces were proud of, which made it odd that this civilian knew about it. Was Sakura's father not a mere civilian? That would certainly explain a few things.
The urge to activate his Sharingan immediately came upon him. However, he refrained from doing so. What would be the point? If he allowed the older man to continue talking, he might learn more.
"So what have you been doing since you left Konoha, if you don't mind me asking? It must have been hard having nowhere to go home to."
Those words sent a pang through him. Keeping his eyes on the board, Itachi replied, "I've hired my skills to various parties. It is nothing particularly interesting."
"Mostly, though at one point I was working with a partner," Itachi murmured as he moved a piece.
"I see. And now you're with another partner." Sakura's father shook his head. "Somehow, I seem to have the impression that you're more of a loner."
He did not miss the way the older man had subtly steered the conversation in this direction. If he knew of Itachi's obsession towards his daughter, the older man certainly would have reasons to be concerned. In fact, perhaps Sakura's father already knew and this interrogation was the result.
"Yes, I have a preference for solo tasks," Itachi admitted.
"Is that so? In that case, since this partnership with Sakura is such a new thing, it must have taken some time to get used to being with her."
"She is skilled enough."
Sakura's father leaned back with his palms pressed to the surface of the stone bench he was seated upon. There was a knowing look on his age-lined face, coupled with something stern and uncompromising. Itachi's suspicions solidified.
"I'm not so concerned about her skills as a shinobi. What do you think of her as a person?"
"As a person?" And then Itachi's eyes narrowed. This conversation had moved around in circles long enough. So why not approach this directly? "Or as a woman?"
All signs of geniality left the older man's face, leaving only an unyielding expression. "I'm not blind. I can see the way you look at her. Sakura would ask me to mind my own business. But she would always be my only daughter, and I would always be worried about her."
"Then perhaps you should consider her reaction once she finds out about this conversation?" Itachi pointed out civilly.
Sakura's father grimaced. "Well, I'll deal with it once it comes to that. Look, I appreciate your help very much. Without you, we would probably be used as hostages to secure Sakura's loyalty to Danzou, so this is probably not the best way to show our appreciation. But I need to know. To put it bluntly, what's your intention towards my daughter?"
"I believe that's a rather personal question."
"So what? This is personal." The redheaded man scowled. "Are you just fooling around or are you serious about her?"
"I do not fool around."
"And you just avoided answering my question directly, didn't you?"
"You may take it as you wish."
The redhead's expression hardened further. "I don't want her hurt, Itachi-san. She has gone through too much already. Life as a shinobi is hard enough and there's no need to make it any harder by exposing one to personal vulnerabilities of this nature."
Recognition of those words made something clench within Itachi. Still, the way the man worded his views reiterated Itachi's suspicion that this man knew more about shinobi than a civilian should. It was unlikely that Sakura would or any other shinobi would discuss the details of their shinobi lives so freely with a civilian, even if the civilian was a relative.
"So?" Sakura's father prompted. "Do I have any reason to be concerned about your involvement?"
Sensing a change in his surroundings, Itachi maintained silence. This conversation would end soon enough.
There was a sudden blur of pink hair and cream yukata, and then they were no longer alone.
Itachi's eyes shifted to the irate figure standing behind the man. Her fists were pressed against her hips and her expression was thunderous as she glared down at her father's head. Further back, her mother was just stepping into the living room, grinning in obvious amusement. Itachi was not certain that there was anything humorous about the situation. Her father's probing was irksome, and futile.
Unperturbed, the redheaded man turned around and beamed widely at her. "Sakura-chan. Very nice of you to join us. We are just playing shogi."
"And since when exactly does shogi involve so many words?" Sakura threw back at him.
Her father chuckled. "Unsettling your opponent's concentration is a good strategy, don't you think?" Glancing back at Itachi, the redhead continued, "Itachi-san understands my position very well, I'm sure."
Sakura crossed her arms over her chest, her expression clearly disbelieving. "And you're trying to twist your way out of this. Typical."
Her father shrugged carelessly, and then stood up. "Hm… I think I need my afternoon nap."
Looking as if she was about to stamp her feet in frustration, Sakura yelled, "Otou-san!"
Completely ignoring her, the older man said, "Shall we continue this later, Itachi-san?"
Itachi recognized a strategic retreat when he saw one. "Aa."
He followed the older man's figure as he left the living room, a little intrigued after the exchange. It was almost definite now that Sakura's father was not quite as he seemed; a normal civilian. In fact, Itachi suspected that he was once a shinobi or at least worked very closely with them. And since Sakura was not an average kunoichi, there was a possibility that she had inherited her abilities from him.
Itachi frowned inwardly. He had graduated from the academy at seven, and he was certain that he had never seen this man in the shinobi ranks. Perhaps he had retired by then?
Sakura's seething words broke into his thoughts and Itachi glanced away from the empty doorway where her father had passed through earlier. Her mother was now patting her lightly on the back.
"Well, at least you stopped it before he went too far."
Clearly not mollified, Sakura complained, "Something like this is none of his business. He should know that. Instead, he targeted Itachi for no reason."
Before he could think twice about it, Itachi assured her, "It does not matter."
Her mother beamed. "See? Itachi-san does not mind. So don't hold it against your Otou-san for too long, alright, Sakura-chan?"
"You know I won't do that, no matter what he does." Sakura exhaled loudly, and then turned to him. "I need to talk to you."
Her fingers wrapped around his wrist and she tugged until he stood up. The utter casualness of her action almost made him smirk in satisfaction. It was a proof of how far they had moved on from their days of battling each other, verbally or physically, on sight.
Inclining his head at their older companion, Itachi murmured, "Please excuse us."
He allowed himself to be led out of the living room and into one of the spare bedrooms at the back. It looked like Sakura had claimed this room, judging by the bundle of her meagre belongings on the stone table. As she shut the door behind them, he wondered if Sakura realized that there were only two bedrooms in this place. Unless she wished to sleep on a hard surface, they would have to share a bed.
The notion was… tantalizing.
Completely oblivious of the direction of his thoughts, she turned around and asked, "Are you okay?"
He raised a questioning brow.
She waved a hand in the direction of the living room. "He was grilling you, wasn't he?"
"In a manner of speaking." He reached out and then pulled her close, drawing a gasp of surprise from her. Leaning close over her, he murmured against her ear, "He has a valid reason to be anxious. Especially if he could see this."
She tensed as he nipped her earlobe. "Stop this, Itachi," she hissed in warning. "I'm trying to talk to you here."
"Then talk," he instructed, and then shifted lower to suck on her pulse point beneath her ear.
Her body trembled, and her palms flattened on his chest. After a clearly hesitant pause, Itachi allowed her to push him away. When their eyes met, he could tell that she was torn. It would be much simpler if she would give in, he thought. However, he knew her well enough to understand that she needed time to come to a decision.
And when she finally chose him, victory would taste even better.
But for now, he would endeavor to be patient. With an inward sigh, he sat down on the bed, propping a knee up.
She seriously needed to get a grip. It was as if she turned into this stupid hormonal wreck whenever he touched her, and she could tell that she was growing increasingly susceptible to him. This was beyond bad. And to make it worse, her parents had to be nosy about it. She might have admitted her attraction to him but that did not mean that she had to act on it.
Even now, she found it difficult to drag her eyes away from him. His body appeared utterly relaxed on the bed as he watched her with an unnerving, almost predatory gleam in his eyes. In response, her body reacted with heat pooling low within her abdomen, and she just managed to stop herself from groaning. This was really not the time. They had more important things to deal with, such as the issue with Tsunade and Itachi's less-than-satisfactory health.
She ran her trained eyes over his body, taking care to keep her mindset professional. Ever since her quick fix a little more than twenty-four hours ago, he had shown no signs of ill-health, but that probably meant nothing. He could be suppressing the urge to cough for all she knew.
"How are you feeling?" she asked.
His expression was inscrutable when he replied, "I'm fine."
Well, she was not about to take his word for it. But confirming the state of his health could wait just a few minutes longer. Focusing on the other issue, she asked, "So, will you teach me how to enter one's subconscious using the Sharingan?"
"Aa." He looked away from her to stare out of the window before he continued, "That's why we are here. You require a practice subject."
It took a few moments for her realize what he was implying. And then she gasped. "You want me to practice on my parents? That's impossible! They are civilians!"
"This technique could be applied to both shinobi and civilian."
"Will it endanger them in any way?"
"Surely that depends on your competence?"
She winced. "I'm… I'm not sure I want to risk it."
"If that is your decision…"
Undecided, she dug her fingers into her scalp agitatedly. Itachi's solution to the problem of her practice subject was a good one. However, she was reluctant to use her parents as the test subjects for something new. What if she did something stupid and accidentally hurt them? But what other choice did she have? Wait for a better candidate to show up? Could she afford to be picky about this?
"Is there no other way?" she asked in a small voice.
"This is the most efficient and the least likely to result in some undesirable disclosure."
He had a point. After all, her parents were closest to her and therefore there shouldn't be much she did not know about them, right?
She took a deep breath. "Alright. Let's ask them. But only after I do something else."
Itachi gave her a questioning look.
"I know you said you're fine. But it's best that I run a check on you, and if necessary maybe some healing as well to keep the condition under control."
"That is unwise. You would require a significant amount of chakra to practice, especially if you don't possess an affinity for the technique."
Sakura resolve hardened. "I understand. But I'll make sure you're okay first. Tsunade-sama and Shizune-neechan are in no immediate danger. You, on the other hand, are stupid enough to leave your condition to deteriorate so badly that it could end up being irreparable."
His eyes narrowed, a clear sign that he found her words offensive. That forbidding expression on his face would have once sent shiver of fear down her spine, but now she only returned his stare unflinchingly. She knew she was right, and he knew that too. For some reason, when it came to his health, he was unreasonably careless.
After a long while, he finally exhaled and turned away. "Do as you wish," he murmured and gestured to the space on the bed in front of him.
She took the few steps that brought her to the bed and then sat down opposite him. Charging chakra to her hands, she then pressed her palms against his chest. A muted hum immediately vibrated through the air. She had more strength to work with now and was able to probe deeper into the problem, and what she found send blood rushing from her head.
She must have made an involuntary sound, because Itachi broke the silence with, "Tell me."
"Your lungs are badly inflamed and congested." Her brows furrowed. "It's almost like a mutated, out-of-control case of pneumonia. You said you've had it for a while?"
She stilled and her chakra faded from her hands. Since childhood? If she recalled correctly, he was a genin when he was seven. Considering this, if he had been suffering from this since childhood, then that must mean that he had been stressing his body with training with complete disregard to his condition.
An acute flare of anger rushed through her at his idiocy and before she could stop herself, a hand reached up to swat the side of his head. His disbelieving stare would have been funny if not for the severity of the situation.
"That is really irresponsible, Itachi. If you had gotten this treated and rested properly, then it would not have gotten this bad," she snapped. "I bet you just ignored it and continued training throughout your childhood without even paying a second thought to this, didn't you?"
The look he gave her conveyed his irritation. "You should know by now a shinobi's body is merely a tool."
He was simply unbelievable. "A tool, you say? Then you're clearly not taking care of this particular tool," she pointed out sharply. "I can't believe your parents didn't stop you."
Suddenly, the atmosphere dipped sharply. His expression hardened and he pinned a steely gaze upon her. She refused to flinch, even when his said in an icy tone, "Do not speak of things you know nothing of. My past is none of your concern."
Sakura clenched her jaws tight. He was probably right, because his past was none of her business. She did not know why she even cared. Still, somehow, those words hurt. Pushing it aside, she lifted her chin.
"I shall refrain from intruding then. The fact still remains that if you had taken care of yourself, you wouldn't have ended up in this state," she told him in a clipped tone, keeping her eyes away from his. She had to remain professional, she told herself. "Now stay still. I'm going to try to fix some of the damage. This would take quite a few sessions. Not because I cannot heal it all at once, but I want to try to get your lungs working properly in the long run instead of giving it a temporary fix each time."
Directing chakra to her palms, she fixed her gaze upon his chest and began to heal silently. Clearing the congestion and repairing the damaged cells were almost automatic for her, even though it required a little more concentration than minor injuries. Usually she would have started a conversation but right now, she really did not want to. The effect from their earlier exchange still felt a little raw.
So what if he did not want her butting into his past? Surely that should not come as a surprise. The fact that he did not want her to practice this new technique on him already told her that much, didn't it? Just because he was attracted to her did not mean that he would open up and bare his soul or anything like that. For all she knew, she was only one in a long string of women he was attracted to. So it wasn't as if she was anything special.
Her heart clenched. Disliking how she was reacting to this, she gave herself a mental shake. They did not have a relationship. If anything was to happen between them, it would only be a casual thing. She understood that now.
Exhaling loudly, she finished with this session of healing and then shifted off the bed. She directed a quick glance at his face only to find his head lowered and his features obscured by his bangs. He seemed to be deep in thought.
"Well, we're done for now," she announced blandly.
He looked up with an unreadable expression. "Thank you."
She nodded. "You're welcomed. I think I'll go speak to my parents about the technique. I sensed my father walking up not long ago from his afternoon nap."
With that, she walked out of the room. Her chest felt so much heavier compared to when she had entered the room earlier. The mood had soured significantly since the mention of Itachi's family. She supposed in some way, she should have anticipated that sort of reaction from him and held her tongue. Well, it was too late now.
Sighing, she shook away the moody thoughts and continued to the living room. As expected, her parents were there. They were sitting on the floor opposite each other with a bundle of what appeared to be dried plants between them and were methodically plucking the leaves. At her entry, they looked up and smiled at her.
Raising a brow at her father, she asked drily, "Good nap, Otou-san?"
Her father chuckled. "I'm all refreshed now."
She rolled her eyes and sat down next to her mother. "What are you doing?"
"There are some interesting herbs within the grounds. We have been picking and drying some."
Sakura reached out for one and brought it to her nose. "I don't recognize it."
Her father chuckled. "This is a rather uncommon one. It's not medicinal, so I'm not surprised you don't recognize it. We have bottled quite a few unique herbs over the past months."
Beaming, her mother said, "And you're just waiting for the day when you can sell them all for an exorbitant price, aren't you, Kizashi?"
"Well, it's not as if anyone is objecting. The herbs are just growing wild."
Her mother nodded. "The grounds are enormous. It's a good thing the area is within a barrier, though. Otherwise I wouldn't be able to find him every time he wanders off."
"That's unkind, Mebuki," her father complained.
Chuckling, Sakura watched for a while as they continued to pick the leaves, discarding those they deemed unsatisfactory as they bickered lightly. It had never occurred to her to consider what her parents did all these months in seclusion, but now that she saw them, she could not help but wonder if they were bored. After all, their friends were still in Konoha which meant that they only had each other. But looking at them now, they seemed happy enough.
"Ne, Okaa-san, Otou-san. Are you alright here?" she asked quietly.
They stopped to look up at her, suddenly serious.
Her mother spoke first. "We know why we are here, Sakura-chan."
"And we rather be here than in Konoha, if being in Konoha means that you're being used against your will." Her father shrugged. "Honestly, I'm treating this like a long vacation."
Rolling her eyes, her mother pointed out, "Nothing out of the ordinary then."
"Well, what can I say? It's not a crime to enjoy life, is it?" Shifting his attention to her, the older man continued, "But enough about us. How are you really?"
"It's probably not a good idea to give you any details, but I'm alright. I can't wait for everything to be resolved so that we can go back to Konoha together." She took a deep breath. "And on that note, I need your help with something."
"What is it, Sakura-chan?" her mother asked.
"There's this new technique I need some help with. And I would like either you or Otou-san to help me practice."
Her father frowned. "You want to test something on us?"
"She requires a subject to attempt the technique on," Itachi interjected as he appeared in the living room. "The risk is minimal. The technique involves the executor entering the mind of the subject to locate and communicate with the subject's subconscious."
Her father held Itachi's eyes for a moment, and then exchanged a meaningful look with her mother. "I don't think you should do it, Mebuki."
Her mother only looked down at her hands. There was clearly something they were not telling her and Sakura could not help but wonder what it was. It had never occurred to her to ask what her parents could be hiding from her.
Turning to the older man, Itachi asked, "Then what about you, Haruno-san?"
Her father gave Itachi a long, deliberating look. His expression was more serious than any she had even seen on him before. It must be a difficult decision to make. Having one's daughter enter one's mind was probably not the most comfortable prospect, but it was either him or her mother. If they refused, then she had no idea what she should do.
Finally, the older man sighed. "Very well then. What do I have to do?"
"I need to render you unconscious first," Itachi said.
Sakura stood up and spun towards him, shocked. "You didn't mention that earlier, Itachi!"
"You need to seek his subconscious and awaken him," Itachi pointed out. "There is no other way."
"It's okay, Sakura-chan," her father soothed. "Just don't poke around too much, okay? I still want to keep my dirty secrets under wraps. And of course, I don't want you to lose too much respect for me."
Her mother snorted, while a smile tugged at the corner of Sakura's lips.
"Fine then, Otou-san. I'll try not to peek," she assured, and then faced Itachi. "So, what do I have to do?"
"Activate your Sharingan."
She did so and heard her parents gasp in shock. Turning to them, she flashed them a reassuring smile. "It's okay."
Her father frowned. "But…"
"Long story," she cut in quickly. "I've had it for years and it's fine."
They nodded, but she did not miss the troubled look on their faces. The fact that they were so shocked probably meant that they recognized the Sharingan for what it was, and was concerned about how she could have obtained the kekkei genkai of a specialist clan. She had no idea how she should explain it to them.
Turning to Itachi, she asked, "What next?"
"The seals." He gave her a pointed look. "The speed is important."
He demonstrated the seals. It was a long string of seals and if it wasn't for her enhanced sight, she would never be able to pick them apart, let alone remember a thing. Once he stopped, she ran through the sequence mentally. Slowly, she practiced the seals until the motions became comfortable. She would need to speed up for the real thing.
Itachi nodded once. "Focus all your attention on your father as you execute the seals. You will find yourself in an unfamiliar place."
"What sort of place?" she asked.
"The mindscape varies for different individuals. Once you are there, you must locate your father's consciousness."
It all sounded rather vague. Still, she would probably understand better once she tried it.
Looking back and forth between her parents and Itachi, she said, "Alright. I'm ready. Are we okay to start now?"
Her mother cast an odd look at her father. "Are you sure about this, Anata?"
"Don't worry, Mebuki." Still seated cross-legged on the floor, he turned to Itachi. "I guess it's time I took another nap?"
"You will not feel it."
When Itachi reached out, Sakura felt a stab of alarm. But in a blink of an eye, her father slumped forward, unconscious. Her mother curved an arm around him supportively, looking worried but at the same time, finding enough strength to cast her a reassuring smile.
"Go on, Sakura-chan."
"Thank you, Okaa-san."
She took two steps forward until she was standing directly in front of her father. After exchanging a nod with Itachi, she ran through the seals in her mind one last time and then took a deep breath. Bringing her hands together, she focused all her attention on her father and charged up her chakra. Soon, her fingers were rapidly forming the sequence of seals.
At the completion of the final seal, her chakra flared and she felt an odd sensation of being shifted. The sensation was akin to what she felt when using a transportation jutsu, but more intense.
When she could next see, she was in an unfamiliar place.
It was disorientating and dark and she seemed to be walking on nothing. She could see her feet but there was no floor underneath her boots. Looking up as she began to walk, she studied her surroundings. There were shimmery images floating all over the place. Some were faded like old watercolor paintings and other were sharp and brilliant like brand new oil paintings.
What was interesting were the images themselves. She saw faded flashes of her father growing up in an unfamiliar place. It was a place with an abundance of water; rivers, ponds and waterfalls. A scene flashed past where her father, his hair more red than reddish-grey then, hollered in glee as he flung himself off a cliff to dive into the clear water underneath. There was even one where he sat on a tall tree branch with his arm around her mother.
Trying to respect his privacy, she avoided dwelling on the images and forced herself to move on, even though she would have loved to see more. There were several recent images of his life in Konoha as well, and most of his thoughts seemed to center on either her or her mother.
Nothing was hidden. Her father's life was bared right before her. This was a truly frightening technique if one chose to abuse it. Not that many could do so now, seeing that it was an Uchiha technique and they were all dead except Itachi.
No wonder he did not want her in his mind. She did not know how she would react to seeing a brutal massacre of one's entire clan. It would be certainly disturbing. But would it be disturbing enough to change her attitude towards him? His role in the massacre was nothing new to her, after all. She had always known that he could be cold and merciless. But lately, he had shown her that there were other sides to his character as well.
She sighed inwardly as she continued to move forward. It was probably best not to think about it. Right now, she had to concentrate on finding the representation of her father's consciousness. Even though she had no idea what to look for.
After passing by a long series of images of her father and indistinct images of some friends, she noted a door almost hidden to one side. She paused and stared curiously. It looked like a regular door at first glance but the patterns on it proved that it was not. The details were not anything she had seen before but the seals on it were clearly based on the shinobi arts. And doors with seals typically meant that something was hidden within.
Why would a civilian have something like this in his mind?
She thought back to the images she had seen earlier. Some of his friends appeared to be wearing what looked like headbands, but she could be mistaken since the images were rather unclear. Still, could they be actually wearing hitai-ate? That would suggest that they were shinobi. The geography of that area looked nothing like Konoha, so all of them must have been in some other country. She knew that her parents had moved to Konoha before they had her, so that made sense. Maybe she should ask him if she had the chance.
After wandering for some time, she finally found him sitting cross-legged on a log floating in space, looking as he always looked like with his reddish-grey hair shaped like a huge flower petal. He seemed to be deep in thought. A smile grew on her lips. A sense of relief so strong that her knees almost buckled washed over her.
She could do this.
"Otou-san," she called out.
Her father looked up, and then smiled. "So you made it."
Yes, she could do this. She could save Tsunade-Shishou.
Almost half-an-hour had already passed and yet she was still standing over her father with her eyes shut and her brows furrowed in concentration, Itachi noted with disapproval. Locating one's consciousness should have taken only a few minutes. He wondered if it was taking longer because she was not an Uchiha and thus, incompatible with the jutsu.
Furthermore, when he had activated his Sharingan earlier to inspect her condition, he was able to tell that her chakra was draining at an accelerated rate. She would not last much longer and he could only hope that she was not foolish enough to persevere until she used up the last of her chakra.
"Are they alright?"
Itachi looked up to find Sakura's mother watching the pink-haired kunoichi in undisguised concern. "Aa," he replied.
"How long would this take?"
"It depends on Sakura."
Her mother nodded, seemingly resigned. If only he could be mollified so easily, Itachi thought. Not knowing what to expect with Sakura's first attempt at this technique made him feel on edge and he was beginning to regret suggesting this to her. Perhaps they could have found another way to resolve the problem, instead of risking this.
Regret was not a familiar sensation to him. He might have experienced flashes of it from time to time, but certainly not twice in a row in a span of an hour. The first time was while she had been healing him. Her mention of his parents had sent an uncomfortable twinge through his head followed by a completely inexplicably hollow sensation in his midsection, and he had reacted harsher than he should have. There had been a brief flash of dejection in her eyes before she hid it, and since then, she had kept the interaction between them minimal.
He did not like it.
He liked the uncertainty about this situation even less. However, he was reluctant to force the technique to a stop as it might have a detrimental effect on her.
Before Itachi could decide what to do next, an internal alarm alerted him to an intruder. Eyes narrowed, he glanced sharply out of the window in the direction of the attempted breach at the south-eastern corner of his barrier. In the next moment, there was a flare of chakra from his kunai pouch, a now-familiar signal.
It was Naruto.
With everything that had happened, Itachi had not considered the possibility that Naruto would attempt to get in touch. He should have expected this. After all, the last time he saw the blond nin was when he needed information on Sakura's location. At that time, the younger man had been preoccupied. The fact that he was here now meant that Naruto must have resolved the issues at his end and was now seeking to assure himself that Sakura was unharmed.
Returning his gaze to Sakura, he hesitated. He did not wish to leave her until she completed this exercise but it was clearly more important to deal with Naruto first. The logical choice would be to go to Naruto, so why was he hesitating?
He tamped down his impatience as he stood up.
Why indeed. Each time he considered an irrational option, it was something related to the pink-haired kunoichi one way or another. Surely he should be used to it by now.
He turned to the older woman. "Haruno-san, I need to leave for a moment. I will return soon."
Sakura's mother raised a brow. "You're leaving now?"
"Aa. Naruto is attempting to gain access to this compound."
Her expression immediately brightened. "Naruto? I haven't seen him in years."
Since the young shinobi had been in hiding, that did not come as a surprise. From Haruno Mebuki's expression, it was clear that the woman thought fondly of Naruto. "You should be seeing him soon," he said.
The sky overhead was already dark by the time Itachi left the house and swiftly made his way south-east. It was not long before he was sprinting past the ancient statues of the ninneko and into the forest cloaked within his hostile genjutsu. The technique did not affect him, and thus he was able to run through unfettered. About halfway along the area where others would describe as dark and marshy, he passed through an invisible security barrier.
As expected, the blond shinobi was there.
"Itachi!" Naruto called out exuberantly. "This barrier is something else, isn't it?"
"It's an Uchiha technique."
Naruto chuckled. "It's strong. But well, give me a couple more hours or so and I will figure out how to break through."
The strange thing was, Itachi believed him. Outwardly he said, "There is no need for that now that I'm here."
"That's true." His brows furrowed in concern. "Since I can sense her in there, I guess you found Sakura. Is she alright?"
The reminder of the vulnerable position the foolish woman had left herself in brought forth a flare of ire within Itachi and his hands clenched into fists. If he had been a few minutes later, Sakura would have been teleported to Danzou.
"Hey, hey, is everything okay?" Naruto interjected, looking anxious.
Inhaling slowly, Itachi replied in a calm tone, "Aa. She is unharmed."
A pair of blue eyes studied him for a while, and then Naruto nodded. "Then let's go to her now."
Impatient to return, Itachi nodded. "Aa. Follow me. Quickly."
He turned and began to backtrack in the darkness. The security barrier would recognize that Naruto was with him and would allow the other nin through. They ran for a few minutes in silence before Naruto spoke.
"The plan is in motion," he said pensively. "Kisame is standing by to mobilize. I need you and Sakura to come with me so that we can finalize the plans with Jiraiya and Kakashi."
Itachi glanced at him. "Who else is going?"
"No one will be entering Konoha except a selected number." The blond's expression took on a faraway look. "I don't want to risk any more lives. You guys are different. You have unsettled business with Danzou, and the same goes for Sakura. We will all face him and resolve everything once and for all."
"I don't believe I have any unsettled business with Danzou."
Leaping over a rock, Naruto gave him an odd look. "Really? He cornered you into doing something you would never normally do. As far as I'm concerned, that's unsettled business."
"It is all in the past." After all, with Sasuke dead, there were no longer any ties between him and Konoha. But only a handful of people knew of the truth. "Who told you about this? Jiraiya?"
The younger nin nodded. "Well, he didn't at first. He only told me that you've agreed to act as a double agent subject to Konoha holding up their end of the bargain. Once you agreed to help us, Jiraiya told me more."
Itachi's eyes narrowed. Naruto had always been evasive about what Jiraiya had told him, which made him suspect that there was something that the younger nin was not telling him.
"More? Please elaborate," he pressed.
Naruto looked away. "Not just yet."
The notion that the other man was holding something back irritated him. However, he kept his tone calm when he replied, "Very well."
"Soon." Naruto exhaled loudly, and gave him what could be described as an apologetic look. "Once this mess with Danzou is over, I'll tell you. You have my word."
There was no doubt that Naruto was sincere, and Itachi nodded in acknowledgement as he continued to speed forward.
"Why is Sakura not with you?" the younger nin asked.
"She is attempting a new technique. One which could assist in retrieving the Godaime."
Naruto stumbled, caught himself and then continued to run. "She found Baa-chan?"
"Aa. She would explain how that came about. Suffice to say that the Godaime is not in a state to return on her own and would require some assistance."
Wide-eyes, Naruto murmured, "So, Jiraiya is right. She is hiding in the slug's world."
"That's…" Naruto inhaled deeply. "That's great news."
"The Godaime is not here yet," Itachi cautioned. "What Sakura is attempting is not a tested technique."
"Is she in danger?"
His earlier unease about Sakura returned to Itachi. "The technique is not without risks. But she should be able to cope."
Exhaling, Naruto rubbed the back of his neck. "You sound confident. I guess I should have some faith in her."
As they continued to run, Naruto filled him in with more details about the plan. It was a simple one which should have a reasonable chance of success. The details appeared to have been carefully thought through and the timing calibrated for the optimum results.
Not long afterwards, they arrived at the house. Feeling on edge, Itachi pushed open the door and went in.
The scene that greeted him made his blood run cold. Sakura upper body was cradled in her father's arms, looking pale and lifeless while her legs draped on the floor. At their entry, both Harunos looked up.
"Uchiha-san! She's…" the older woman voice cracked with emotion. "She collapsed."
Her father's expression was grim. "What has this technique done to her? Explain!"
Itachi's sense of misgiving returned forcefully. In a blink of an eye, he was kneeling before her. He checked her pulse and rushed through a basic medical check on her, absently aware that a tension-filled Naruto had also joined them.
Once the brief inspection yielded results, Itachi felt himself almost sagging in relief. The foolish kunoichi…
"She's okay?" Naruto asked quietly.
"Aa." Standing up and stepping back, Itachi continued, "She had overstrained herself, but the effect should only be temporary. Please bring her to the bedroom."
The male Haruno eyed him with a mix of reluctance and anger. Knowing that nothing he could say would appease the man, Itachi simply held his tongue. The only thing he could do now was to assist in Sakura's recovery.
Naruto was the one who finally broke the silence. "It's fine, Haruno-san. He's telling the truth. You can trust him."
Sakura found herself waking up with a pounding headache and an uncomfortable pressure behind her eyes. A groan escaped her lips. She felt awful and the last thing she wanted to do was to open her eyes fully. Her senses felt dull and all she wanted to do was to continue to sleep.
"You are awake."
She peeled her eyes open with some effort and immediately winced at the invasion of brightness. Itachi's features slowly swam into focus. It could be just her mind playing tricks on her, but he looked worried. Before she could say anything, she felt his arm sliding behind her shoulders to prop her up into a sitting position.
"What happened? I feel like hell," she complained as she allowed herself to be supported.
She stared at him in surprise. Collapsed? The technique must have taken a lot out of her if she had collapsed. She tried to call forth some chakra to find only a miserable trickle left within her. Well, at least her condition made sense now.
"I drained my chakra," she stated, feeling a little sheepish.
"Aa. Take this," Itachi instructed as he brought a cup to her lips.
"What is it?" she asked suspiciously.
"A concoction to provide relief following the overuse of Sharingan."
She blinked. "Really? I overused the Sharingan as well as draining my chakra?"
He gave her an inscrutable look. "Aa."
Running a hand down her face, she groaned. How stupid of her. Of course it was possible. She had seen Kakashi collapse from its overuse before. But for some reason, it had not happened to her in all the time that she possessed it, so she had unwisely forgotten about this little side effect.
"I guess it's because I'm not an Uchiha?"
"That only increases the risk. Some Uchiha suffered similarly."
She wanted to ask him more questions about it but she knew that he would not appreciate it. Judging from their past conversations, Itachi was most reticent when it came to discussing his clan. Glancing down at the cup of dark brown liquid, she asked instead, "Where did you get this from?"
"I brewed it. Now drink," he ordered firmly.
She studied him through lowered lashes as she sipped the bitter drink. Even though it was unfamiliar, it tasted like what medicine should taste like and she could tell that it took some effort to get the proportions right for something like this.
He made this for her. The whole notion of him taking the effort to do so made her feel suddenly warm and tingly. Their earlier disagreement, if one could even call it that, seemed so insignificant now. Or was she feeling like this because of the medicine?
She sighed when she finished. Removing the cup, he lowered her back onto the bed.
"Thank you. Where are my parents?"
"Naruto is keeping them distracted."
"Eh? What?" Naruto was keeping them distracted, but why? "What do you mean? Wait! Naruto is here?" she gasped.
He simply stood up without answering and went to the door. "I will let them know that you are awake."
She tried to get up, only to be frozen in place by the warning look he shot her. His expression told her that he would not tolerate any kind of disobedience.
"Remain in bed for at least another hour," he instructed. "You are not to stand up."
His bossiness grated but she swallowed her retort. This was probably his socially stunted way of showing her that he was concerned, after all. Flopping back down, she sighed.
"So Naruto is here?"
"Did I manage to complete the technique? Is Otou-san alright?"
"You did. Your father is unharmed."
Her eyes widened in realization. "They're giving you trouble about this, aren't they?" She sat straight up and her vision swam. Ignoring his unmistakable look of disapproval, she continued, "Tell them it's not your fault. I wanted to this!"
He only stared at her in silence. Much to her frustration, the only response she received from him was, "Do not leave the bed."
And with that, he left the room. Irritation coursed through her and she thumped the mattress with her fist before flopping back down on her back. She did not know who she was more annoyed with, her parents or Itachi. Whilst her mother was more reasonable, her father could be over-protective at times. She didn't even want to imagine what the old man had been saying to Itachi. And she bet Itachi's usual stoicism when faced with such things had not helped.
Before she could continue her thoughts, the sound of rapid footsteps reached her and the next thing she knew, her parents burst into the room. Relief was the predominant expression on her mother's face but her father still looked shocked and worried.
"Sakura-chan, how are you feeling?" her mother asked as her father studied her face intently, as if trying to decide for himself if she was alright.
Sakura smiled and waved dismissively. "I'm fine. New technique and all, you know?" she told them lightly. "It happens."
Her father's expression darkened. "I just don't know what to think. You know I don't like to interfere with your shinobi things, but I don't like this new Sharingan thing you got. How did you get it?"
Uncomfortable, she averted her eyes. "It's the result of some kind of experiment."
A long silence trailed her words but she kept her eyes fixed on the window at the end of the room. This was not going well. How could she explain this to her parents? She had never felt comfortable discussing this with anyone, because the topic would inevitably lead to Sasuke and all that followed. So she never told anyone about it.
Guilt filled her.
Her parents were clearly worried but what would they think if she told them everything that had happened since Danzou came into power? She did not want to hide so many things from them but what else could she do?
When her father finally broke the silence, his tone was grim. "How many died for you to get this?"
Sakura sucked in a sharp breath. "W-What?"
"Kizashi!" her mother snapped. "That's enough."
Clearly agitated, her father ran a hand over his head. "Forget what I said. I'm just glad you're alright."
Without waiting for her response, he strode out of the room, leaving her reeling from his uncharacteristic vehemence. Itachi appeared then and paused outside as her father swept past him. Their eyes met, and from that she could tell that Itachi had heard every word.
"Don't worry about your Otou-san."
She looked up just as her mother reached down to envelop her in a hug.
"Okaa-san," she whispered into her mother's shoulder. "He's angry but I don't blame him. I kept so many secrets from you two."
Straightening, her mother gave her a serious look. "And you think we didn't expect things like this when you decided to become a shinobi? He'll be alright once he simmers down and thinks things through. Besides, it's not as if he doesn't keep secrets of his own. Everyone has their secrets."
Images of her father's memories came to her then, in particular the sealed door. As curious as she was, she probably shouldn't prod. Her mother was right. She was not the only one keeping secrets.
"Don't worry too much about it. Just do what you have to do." Her mother gave her a stern look. "You're a kunoichi. And we are proud of you."
Sakura nodded slowly, feeling less dejected. "I'll be careful."
"That would be good."
Itachi interjected then. "Is your head clear now?"
She glanced at him as his question sank in, and then her eyes widened. "I feel much better now." Her headache was gone and she no longer felt like the light was hurting her eyes. "Your medicine worked!"
She smiled at him. "Thank you."
He looked away. "Then perhaps you could greet another visitor."
As if on cue, the door opened and Naruto stepped in.
"Naruto!" she called out in pleasure.
The blond grinned at her as he came to sit beside her. "You look better now."
"Are you saying that I looked bad before?" she shot back jokingly.
A mischievous twinkle entered those blue eyes, and Sakura realized that she missed that look on Naruto's face. His tone was teasing when he said, "You were as pale and lifeless as a doll a few hours ago. Good thing Itachi was around."
"Itachi-san was worried too," her mother supplied.
Sakura darted a look at Itachi, only to find him staring out of the window. He clearly didn't wish to be part of this banter. What must it be like for him, living as a nukenin for so long and missing out on such normal friendships and interactions? It was almost… sad.
"Itachi?" she called out quietly.
He moved away from the window, but didn't respond to her. Instead, he addressed Naruto. "Perhaps you wish to brief her on what you've raised earlier?"
Her mother promptly moved towards the door. "We have had something to eat for a late dinner but you haven't eaten, Sakura-chan. I'll go prepare some snacks for you in the kitchen."
"Thank you, Okaa-san."
Once they were alone, the atmosphere turned more solemn. She could tell from Naruto's serious expression that the time for them to make a move had finally arrived.
"Are you well enough to travel?" Naruto asked.
She darted a look at Itachi before nodding. "I'll be fine in an hour or so. Are we mobilizing?"
"There are a few last-minute things to resolve, and I need you and Itachi there at the headquarters with me. Once that's done, we're okay to move."
"So when are we heading to Konoha?" she asked.
Naruto's eyes narrowed and his expression filled with determination. "The day after tomorrow."
A/N: Hope you like the chapter. Please review if you have a moment.
Chapter 14 word count guesses for Access Pass… (let me know if I missed someone!)
Blackbloodedkunoichi - 6,300 words
DiizGiirlJess - 7,402 words
Janet - 7, 654 words
Hana-Taisho - 8345 Words
PixyChick84 - 8,446 words
Actual word count is 9141, therefore the winner is… PixyChick84! Congratulations!
I still have spare passes! If you want a 48hr all-access Crunchyroll guest pass, just guess the word count of the next chapter. Closest guess to the one in the email notification will get the pass.