The first time Itachi went to the Haruno Tea Shop, it was actually a street vendor’s cart. The cart had been passing by their training ground just as his newly formed genin team had been leaving it.
“Let’s celebrate!” Hideki-sensei said. He darted across the street to the cart. Like a ragged procession of murderous ducklings, Itachi, Iruka and Hana darted after him. They joined him in time to hear him say to the street cart vendor, “I’ll buy tea and two sticks of dango for everyone.”
The civilian woman smiled. A long red scarf was looped around and across her chest. It secured a bundle to her back. The scarf tucked in the edges of her dress, emphasizing how much smaller she was than the garment she was wearing. Assuming the dress belonged to her, she had been quite a bit bigger when she had bought it. The woman’s vibrant pink hair served to make the bags under her eyes darker and her skin paler. She looked tired, even unwell.
Itachi’s heart clenched. He disliked it when people looked like that. It reminded him of the kyuubi and the war. People who looked like that usually died.
“That’s wonderful,” she said as she passed out dango. Her tone was bright even though the edges of her voice seemed worn and tired to Itachi’s ears. “Congratulations!”
Hana and Iruka beamed. Itachi smiled politely.
When everyone hand their dango sticks, she squatted to retrieve bamboo cups for them. Itachi could finally see what the woman had so carefully tied to her back.
It was a baby.
It was small and swaddled in so many blankets against the cold that Itachi had no idea if it was a boy or a girl. It was just a little bit bigger than Sasuke.
Shock jolted through Itachi.
“You have a baby!” he blurted.
Iruka, his cheeks puffed out like a chipmunk’s, blinked at Itachi like he doubted Itachi’s sanity.
Even though he knew they were laughing at him, all Itachi could feel was sadness.
When the woman dies, who will look after her baby?
The woman straightened. She smiled at him before she began pouring four cups of chilled green tea for his team.
“Yes. Her name is Sakura.” She considered Itachi for a moment before she said, “Would you like to see her?”
“No,” Itachi said. His voice was as stiff and cold as his face felt.
He stuffed a dango in his mouth. It tasted good in a sad sort of way. Itachi chewed it extra hard for making him feel sadder.
Hana and Iruka – who were both older than him – exchanged what was meant to be a heavily coded teenager look. Itachi ignored it. Let them be super secret teenagers together. Someday, he would be a teenager and have someone to share super secret looks with too.
The woman nodded as if Itachi had not been rude.
And that should have been it.
But Itachi found himself worrying about that baby at odd moments like when he brushed his teeth or walked to his team’s meeting place.
What if the woman had died? What if the baby had no father? What if no one found the baby and took it to an orphanage? What if it died because no one cared to look for it?
Two days after he had first set eyes on the woman and her baby, Itachi decided he was hungry for dango. Instead of going straight home after Hideki-sensei dismissed them for the afternoon, he went looking for that woman.
It took him three hours to find her cart. She looked worse than he remembered. And this time, her nose was very pink. Her baby was cuddled against her chest.
“Two sticks of dango and green tea, please,” Itachi said.
The woman gave him two of her last sticks. When she bent to get a cup for his tea, Itachi studied the baby covertly. Pink wisps had escaped the swaddling. It seemed to be asleep.
Itachi paid for his snack and left.
A week later, Hideki-sensei said that they should have a team lunch somewhere.
“The dango cart,” Itachi said immediately.
“Yeah!” Iruka agreed enthusiastically. “It’s tradition!”
Hana shot them both scornful looks.
“I’m not eating dango for lunch,” she said. “I need meat!”
One of her puppies yipped his agreement with her. Itachi had trouble keeping the puppies’ names straight.
“Real food first, dango for desert,” Hideki-sensei decreed.
They ended up eating yakisoba then going for dango. Hana wanted to go to the nearest tea shop but Itachi stubbornly insisted on the tea cart. Fortunately, Iruka and tradition were on his side.
Hana and her puppies stomped after them.
When they arrived, the civilian and her baby were still alive. This time, the baby was secured to her mother’s front. A tiny hand fisted itself into her mother’s neckline. The baby was savagely gumming on a new stuffed tiger.
“Hello again!” the vendor said cheerfully. She seemed better than before. “What’ll it be?”
The dango were delicious.
Itachi wondered why he had never noticed that before.
Every week after that, Team Twelve ate real food somewhere then went for dango at their tea cart. They ate there even when the baby fussed and wailed, much to Hana’s (very vocal) horror.
One day, Itachi noticed that the baby was looking at him. Smiling, he looked up from his snack.
Itachi stilled. His breath shuddered out of him.
The baby’s eyes were bright green.
He stared. The baby stared back.
Pink hair was rare but green eyes were rarer.
They’re beautiful, Itachi thought.
When he came back the next day without his team, Itachi was disappointed to find that the baby’s pretty eyes were closed. She was asleep.
He bought himself a stick of dango anyway.
After that, Itachi looked for the baby’s eyes every time he visited the cart.
Two months later, after Itachi had made a third tomae appear in his sharingan, his team celebrated by taking him out to the dango stand.
It was winter and windy. The dango seller had on several coats and a cloak. Most of her hair was tucked up in a fuzzy hat and everything but her wide brown eyes was hidden by her woolly scarf. Her baby was just a misshapen bulge at the front of her body.
Itachi was both relieved and disappointed. He was glad that the baby was being kept warm. He was disappointed that there was no hope of seeing the baby’s green eyes in the near future.
Just after the New Year, the civilian woman traded in her dango cart for a dango stall.
The cherry blossoms were blooming when Itachi next saw the baby’s eyes. By then, the baby was wiggly, energetic and loud. She babbled real and nonsense words, scribbled on menus, banged on pots somewhere behind the counter and gleefully shrieked ‘Doggie!’ every time she set eyes on Hana’s canine partners. To their credit, the puppies patiently put up with tail tugging, rough baby pats and accidental ear twists.
With her pale skin, green eyes and pink hair, Sakura resembled the trees for which she had been named.
She was a beautiful baby.
Iruka and Hideki-sensei seemed to have a way with her. They would coax the little girl close for hugs and silly games and taught her to say irritating phrases to Itachi. Hana, who had never been particularly attached to the child, was less than impressed.
So was Itachi. The girl talked, played and seemed to understand more than Sasuke did but his little brother was more fun. Sasuke could run and kick and catch things. The girl still toddled about on unsteady legs. And Sasuke cuddled and sloppily kissed and never bit Itachi.
Sakura bit Itachi all the time.
The first time, Sakura lured Itachi close by offering him her sippy cup. The next thing Itachi knew, he was holding her sippy cup and she was happily chomping on his hand. After that, it was impossible for Itachi to visit the stand without getting bitten by Sakura.
She would crawl over to play with the puppies and then, when Itachi was sipping his tea or distracted by Hana, she would attack. Itachi always caught Sakura to protect her from sharp corners and head bumping. As soon as he plucked her out of danger, Sakura always sank her impossibly sharp baby teeth into Itachi’s flesh. And she usually drew blood. The only scar on Itachi’s entire body was a bite mark on his calf. It had just been too embarrassing to get it seen to by a medic nin.
It was clear to Itachi that Sakura’s father had been a green-eyed shark. And no amount of science from Hana or teasing from Iruka was going to change Itachi’s mind.
Hana, who strongly disapproved of Sakura’s attentions to her dogs, thought it was hysterical.
“She’s doing it on purpose,” Hana said once while putting antiseptic on Itachi’s newest bite mark. It was on his forearm.
“Babies aren’t that smart,” Itachi immediately argued.
Hana snorted. “They’re smart enough to notice cause and effect.”
Itachi frowned at Hana.
“It’s a trap,” Hana said with a toothy smile. “And you fall for it every time.”
The next time Itachi went to the tea shop, he was alone.
“Hello, Itachi,” said Mrs. Haruno with a bright smile.
“Hello. I’d like a stick of dango, please,” Itachi replied as the tiny pink terror toddled around the corner of the counter. She was dragging a worn stuffed tiger in her wake. When Sakura trained her fantastic eyes on him and smiled her sweet, baby smile at him, Itachi smiled back.
Then she toddled toward him. Somewhere along the way, she tripped on a particularly thick patch of air. When Itachi caught her, he was careful to grab her from behind. He hated to see a child get hurt but he was very tired of being bitten.
Sakura looked thoroughly put out.
“No biting,” Itachi said sternly. “Biting bad.”
Sakura pouted at him as if she might actually understand what he was saying.
“No biting,” Itachi repeated.
When he set her on her feet, Sakura turned around and bit the side of his leg.
“Hana was wrong. You have no idea what I’m saying.”
Sakura gave his thigh a friendly gnaw.
The first time Itachi’s team left the village it was to escort an old man to a mostly civilian city in Suna. It was a boring trip. While he was in the foreign city, Itachi bought a stuffed dinosaur for Sasuke and green ribbons for Sakura’s hair.
Sasuke dragged that dinosaur everywhere with him.
Sakura wore those ribbons until they were filthy and tattered.
Itachi continued to bring them little things – pretty seashells from a beach in Wave Country, sweets from a town in Land of Honey and oranges from a plantation in Land of Birds.
When Hideki-sensei signed Team Twelve up for the chunin exams in Rock, the entire team ate lunch at the Haruno Tea Shop before leaving. Sakura, who seemed to understand that they were going away for a long time, gave everyone a crayon.
One of Hana’s dogs ate her good luck crayon before they left the village. Hideki-sensei used his to kill a bandit on the way to Rock. Iruka used his to pass the second portion of the exams. Itachi, proudly wearing his new chunin vest, brought his home again. It was undamaged and had a pair of yellow hair ribbons tied to it.
Itachi was not the only one with a new vest. Hana and Iruka had them too. Hideki-sensei was terribly proud of Team Twelve. It made Itachi feel warm and proud and cared for.
At home, his father nodded sharply at him then went to tell the clan council. His mother hugged him. Sasuke and Green (the dinosaur) hugged him, kissed his cheeks and went to play with the set of magnetic rocks Itachi had brought him.
His family celebrated with a clan feast in their house. The elders made long, boring toasts and everyone congratulated Itachi’s father on having such a talented son. No one seemed to notice when Itachi slipped upstairs to play with Sasuke.
His team celebrated with a party at the Haruno Tea Shop. (It was still really a stall.) When Itachi gave Sakura her crayon and her hair ribbons, she squealed and bounced and clapped. She immediately made Hideki-sensei put the ribbons in her hair. The bows his sensei tied were lopsided and messy but Itachi liked to look at the patches of yellow in her pink hair. Iruka gave Sakura a new box of crayons to replace the ones that were destroyed. Sakura bounced and giggled and clapped over that too.
He could never prove it, but Itachi was nearly certain that Iruka put little Sakura up to kissing his cheek and then biting his ear during their team dinner. He just looked far too pleased with himself to be uninvolved.
At least Sakura no longer drew blood when she bit.
After that, Itachi’s missions changed. They were harder, bloodier and more exciting. Sometimes, they were without his genin team. They made Itachi feel… bad.
When he came home from them, he spent more time with Sasuke and Sakura.
The first time Itachi killed a man, he was ten and a half years old. The man’s blood had spattered across his face and hands. It was very warm. And messy. There seemed to be… fleshy chunks… and white chips of bone… everywhere.
He’s messy, Itachi corrected himself. And… getting colder… and everywhere… I put him everywhere. And… he smells like roasted pork…
Itachi promptly vomited yellow stomach bile all over what was left of his enemy. Hideki-sensei was busy making sure that Hana survived. Iruka was nearby though. When Itachi finished vomiting, Iruka passed him a canteen. Itachi swished the water around his mouth and between his teeth. He was very careful to spit the water to the side of the man.
The corpse, Itachi corrected himself. He blinked his eyes and stilled his sharingan. The image of the dead man – the man he had killed – was there behind his eyelids. Thanks to the sharingan, it would always be behind Itachi’s eyelids. He’s not a man any longer. Now he’s just dead.
Itachi had nightmares about that man’s (nonexistent) face for a long time.
After getting back to Konohagakure and being debriefed, Itachi went home to hug Sasuke. Itachi hugged Sasuke until his eyes started to prickle. That was about the time Sasuke got bored of hugging Itachi and squirmed away.
“Aniki, what did you bring me?” the little boy demanded.
“Nothing. There was…” Itachi’s words caught in his throat. “There was nothing good on the trip.”
Sasuke nodded trustingly. He held up a little shinobi action figure.
“Wanna play Shinobi with me?”
Itachi’s stomach swooped sickeningly.
“Not – Not right now.” When Sasuke pouted at him cutely, Itachi gently flicked Sasuke’s forehead. “Forgive me Sasuke. Next time.”
Sasuke stomped off to play Shinobi with Green the Dinosaur. Itachi went in search of their mother.
She was in the kitchen making dinner.
“Welcome back, Itachi,” she said without looking up from where she was chopping carrots into small, equally sized chunks. “There are onigiri in the refrigerator if you’re hungry.”
“Mother,” Itachi said. “May I have a moment?”
When his mother put down her knife and turned to him, Itachi fell against her. He wrapped his arms around her waist and held on as tightly as he could. Her arms closed around him – not nearly tightly enough – and her familiar scent enveloped him. Itachi slowly relaxed. For a few moments, everything was alright.
Itachi’s eyes started to burn again.
“Itachi, I’m glad to see you but your father will be home soon,” she said. “He won’t approve. You’re too old to coddle.”
Itachi’s grip tightened, his fingers digging into his mother’s soft waist. He wanted to be hugged and coddled and loved on.
“Itachi…” His mother hesitated for a long, delicate moment. “Has anything happened?”
“I killed a man.”
“Ah. That’s just part of being a shinobi.”
Shock then horror flooded Itachi’s veins. He had just admitted to having done a terrible thing that no one should ever forgive. What if that man had had little brothers and parents and a wife? What if he had had children? Was someone still waiting for him to come home? Or did they already know what Itachi had done? Was he already hated?
Why doesn’t she care?
“Then I don’t want to be one anymore.”
“Don’t be silly Itachi. You’re a wonderful and talented shinobi. The first death is always the hardest. But I promise you, in a few months you won’t give it another thought.”
I don’t want to get used to killing people! I don’t want to be this person!
His mother gave Itachi’s shoulder a little pat.
“I need to get back to work. I promised your father that dinner would be ready when he got home.”
Itachi forced himself to relax his grip and straighten up.
His mother immediately turned back to chopping hapless vegetables.
It was an effort to keep his tone cool and collected.
“My team and I are meeting up to work on our reports. I may be out late.”
“Your father will be disappointed to have missed you.” The rhythmic thunk thunk thunk of his mother’s knife paused. She smiled at Itachi over her shoulder. “But he’ll be glad to hear that you’re working so hard. Please take all of the onigiri to your team meeting.”
Itachi packed the onigiri, several blank scrolls, ink and writing utensils into a satchel. Then he went to the dango stall.
Even before he went beyond the hanging flaps, Itachi could hear Sakura’s high, childish voice chattering to her mother. He hesitated. Uncertainty and need pulled through him.
Need won out.
Itachi went into the dango stall.
The familiar scents of hot tea and dango washed over him. There were people at the counter and –
– A small, pink-haired girl raced for his legs. Itachi leaned down for his third hug.
Sakura's small body strained upward to wrap short arms around his neck. A sticky mouth pressed a kiss into the side of his neck… then carefully bit it.
Itachi burst into tears.
“Itachi!” Sakura wailed. His ear rang from it. “Sorry! Sorry!”
Itachi honestly tried to lean back or stop crying or something but Sakura’s arms were like vices around his neck. If he was too old for hugs, he was much too old to cry except he could not seem to stop or let go of Sakura or anything. When she burst into tears too, Itachi gave up. He wrapped his arms around Sakura’s lean shoulders and cried.
When a second set of arms curled around him and Sakura, Itachi nearly hit someone. Except whomever those arms belonged to was hugging him and Sakura and kept hugging him and that was exactly what Itachi needed.
When Itachi finally calmed down, his eyes hurt, his nose was stopped up and he was gasping for breaths through his mouth. His face was hot and wet. The thick strands of Sakura’s hair were sticking to it. Sakura was still leaning against him but her grip on him had loosened considerably. Her hot, moist breaths fanned over the place where his neck met his shoulder. Sakura’s mother was still hugging both of them. Over Sakura’s shoulder, Itachi could see that the stall was empty. Someone had left money on the counter.
“Sorry,” he mumbled feeing both horribly embarrassed and infinitely better at the same time. He was not so embarrassed as to give up his hugs, however.
“Everyone has bad days,” Mrs. Haruno said kindly. She pressed a kiss against his temple then pressed another one against the top of Sakura’s head. “I’ll make you some hot cocoa and you can stay for supper.”
Itachi really wanted the hot cocoa and the dinner and more hugs.
“I don’t want to be a bother.”
“I’ll make you dango, too.”
It was definitely a weakness. His father had always taught him to excise his weaknesses lest they be used against him. But Itachi was fairly certain that no enemy nin was going to stop and offer him dango and hugs in the middle of a battle so he felt that those were weaknesses that he could afford to overlook.
Itachi felt cold when Mrs. Haruno let go of him and stood up. It was downright lonely when Sakura wriggled away from him. But then she put her hand in his so that was closer to okay.
They went back to the counter. Sakura drew with her new crayon set while Mrs. Haruno closed up the shop. Itachi sat quietly and watched them. Watching them was… not bad.
Afterwards, he walked Mrs. Haruno and Sakura home. Their house was tiny. It was just a set of rooms over a sweets shop. Itachi let Sakura show him her room. While Itachi played dolls with Sakura, Mrs. Haruno bustled around the other rooms.
They had dinner at a tiny kitchen table. Itachi sat across from Mrs. Haruno while Sakura sat at the side of the table between them. Dinner was chicken noodle soup, grilled cheese sandwiches, onigiri and hot cocoa with little marshmallows in it. There was a pitcher of cool water too.
Sakura bit into one of Itachi’s onigiri. She wrinkled her nose at it.
“My mom makes better ones.”
“Sakura!” her mother gasped. “That’s impolite! Apologize!”
“It’s okay.” Itachi smiled. “My mother isn’t a very good cook. But she tries hard.”
“That’s what really matters,” Mrs. Haruno assured him. “You get better at things by practicing them.”
Itachi hesitated, carefully choosing his words. Praise was rare in his family and Itachi was uncertain if he knew how to do it. But, judging by how effusively Mrs. Haruno had praised Sakura's accomplishments in the past, it was appreciated in the Haruno family.
“You’re a good cook,” he said slowly and very precisely. “If you sold food in your tea house, I’d eat meals there.”
Mrs. Haruno beamed.
“Thank you, Itachi. That’s very kind.”
Pleasure and relief coursed through Itachi. He had done it right!
I should do that again. But on a different day so that I don't mess up today's perfect record.
After dinner, Itachi (reluctantly) made his excuses.
“Please remember that you’re always welcome here, Itachi,” said Mrs. Haruno.
It was months before Itach went back to the Haruno Tea Shop.
He had seriously intended never to go back there ever again. It was not that he was avoiding Sakura or her mother or because he felt embarrassed over crying like a child. He was just avoiding unhealthy foods. There was nothing insane or cowardly about wanting to eat healthily for the rest of his life.
He definitely, positively did not miss Sakura’s green eyes or the way that she watched him or her silly happiness or her awful biting. And he had a mother of his own, thank you very much. He had no need of a cheerful, dango stall-owning substitute or her hugs.
There was only one minor flaw with that plan…
Itachi obediently stopped walking and turned to wait for his former teammate. Iruka rushed up to him. He… looked exactly the same. He was taller, his shoulders were broader and his face was less goofy than when they had been genin but Iruka was still Iruka.
Itachi was obscurely comforted by that.
“I looked for you at the dango stall,” Iruka said. “Mrs. Haruno says that you haven’t been there in ages.”
“I’ve been busy,” Itachi lied.
Iruka nodded trustingly.
“That’s what I told her! Anyway, I wanted us all to get together and go to the dango shop.” Iruka’s smile widened. He rocked onto his toes and then his heels. “Guess what? Hana got it!”
“It?” Itachi repeated blankly.
“The apprenticeship! At the hospital!”
“Oh,” Itachi said blankly.
He dredged up his memories of Team Twelve’s introductions. Hana had wanted to be a veterinarian. Iruka had wanted to be a teacher so that he could look out for orphaned kids like himself. Itachi had wanted to be a great shinobi so that Father and Mother could be proud of him.
It seemed like such a long time ago.
Itachi smiled. He was genuinely happy for Hana.
“I’m glad that she’s achieved her dream.”
Iruka’s smile was as goofy as ever. Itachi liked that.
“So I want Team Twelve to meet up at the Haruno Dango Shop tomorrow at nineteen hundred hours. You’re free, right?”
“Great! See you then!”
Iruka raced off.
Itachi fully appreciated how neatly Iruka had trapped him.
He would be dangerous if he could do things like this on purpose, Itachi mused.
Itachi showed up at the dango stall thirty minutes early.
Mrs. Haruno smiled at him.
Sakura sat on his foot and twined her limbs around his calf. She leaned her head back and grinned up at him. Her lovely eyes sparkled with happiness. There was no biting.
Itachi smiled down at her.
And that was it.
Itachi was suddenly ravenously hungry for dango and tea. Unfortunately, everyone else was going to arrive later.
“I took your advice to heart,” Mrs. Haruno said. She slid a menu across the countertop to him. “It was very good advice, too!”
In addition to the normal teas and dangos she had always offered, there were also riceballs and miso soup on the menu.
Itachi felt his face go hot and his mouth turn up in a smile. Embarrassment, pleasure and excitement mixed together in him into some strange, bright thing that burned… but not in a bad way.
He touched the menu with gentle fingertips. They trembled.
Itachi blinked at his hand, surprised and bewildered by it. His hand had never shaken before.
By the time his teammates arrived, Itachi had coaxed Sakura off of his leg and onto the stool next to him. She was reading a book to him about a dancing little leaf. At home, Sasuke still showed him the pictures and made up stories about them for Itachi.
Mrs. Haruno called Sakura to come help her in the kitchen, his old teammates settled around him and Itachi felt… happy.
He ate a lot more often at the Haruno Tea Shop after that.
There were never any more bites from Sakura.
Ironically, Itachi missed them.
As far as Itachi knew, he was the only one she had greeted with a wide smile, a careful bite and a hug. It had nothing to do with bloodline limits or being acknowledged as a genius shinobi or being the heir to a prestigious ninja clans. She just… liked him in her own, toothy sort of way. He still had the faded bite scar to prove it.
Now no one got bitten.
Even though Sakura no longer bit Itachi, she often claimed the seat next to him. While he ate, Sakura would read or color or laboriously fold napkins into orgami shapes for her mother.
Once, Itachi bought sets of jacks for Sakura and Sasuke when he was away on a mission. The civilian that he had purchased them from promised him that children loved the game. From watching a group of civilian children play, Itachi was fairly certain that Father would approve of it.
His brother had taken his game and gone to play with Mother.
Sakura had demanded that Itachi play with her.
Itachi had stopped playing games when he was younger than Sakura. But her green eyes were pleading and he liked it when she was happy so Itachi shrugged and said, “If you wish.”
He was excellent at snatching jacks up before the ball reached its zenith. Sakura’s reflexes, hand-eye coordination and jack-snatching technique needed improvement. Lots of it. That was the only reason he agreed to so many rematches.
Sometimes Sakura sat in his lap and read her library books to him. When that happened, Itachi would carefully wrap his arms around her waist, rest his cheek against her soft hair and enjoy her warmth and the happy cadence of her voice. It was like a reverse hug technique.
Occasionally, when he came by later in the evening, Sakura would start out reading to him and end up falling asleep against him. Itachi liked those times best. Sakura was a warm, trusting weight snuggled against his chest that he could hug for as long as he wanted… or until her mother noticed and put Sakura to sleep in a cot that she kept under the counter.
It was… nice, especially since Sakura and Sasuke were the only people who touched him outside of team practices and missions. And Sasuke had recently declared that he was ‘not a baby.’ There were fewer touches and far more childish attacks. It was… really nice to be able to touch and be touched without the potential for pain being a factor in it.
Even so, Itachi still missed those bites. He missed being special.