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Itachi hasn't seen Sakura in years, but he recognises her instantly upon boarding the bus to Tanzaku-gai. It's mid-afternoon, the bus is almost empty, and her hair is still brightly, absurdly pink. To his knowledge she's never had it dyed.

He sits down next to her and learns that she's going right up so Sound University. She's been invited for Sasuke's graduation, too.

This seems strange, since Itachi himself had difficulty getting an invitation out of his brother. He mentions it.

"Well," Sakura says, very awkwardly and with a tiny twitch above her eye, "I think so, anyway. He told me the time and the date, and I said I would come, and he..." she pauses. Hesitates.

Reading between the lines, Itachi understands this to mean that Sasuke told her the date, ignored her a lot, and then said 'whatever,' when she let him know she would be there. Itachi nods politely and doesn't make her actually describe this process. It's classic Sasuke. Practically a handwritten invitation, really.

And it's nice to know that Sasuke is like this with other people, too.

"I understand completely," he says, instead.

Somehow this bland statement startles laughter from her. She covers her mouth.

Sakura is Sasuke's least awful friend, and she likes Itachi, unaccountably, to a strange and flattering degree. It can't just be because he has the best snacks.

He asks her about school, and listens with half an ear, watching the sun halo her hair to a brazen shine through the dirty window, until it's the colour of flamingo feathers, a weird, ruddy pink. Her eyes are very green through the spill of it, and she is animated in her expressions and...

He likes her, is all. And he feels the urge to look at someone so rarely that he cannot seem to stop his dull, failing eyes from tracking down the angle of her jaw, down the soft-looking curve of her neck, where her pulse beats gently against the skin. She'd smell good there, he bets, and then he blinks away.

The bus ride takes hours. He has plenty of time to contemplate. The novelty doesn't wane.

She glances with only mild curiosity while he pricks a finger and gets blood smeared across his hands when the bus turns a corner with unexpected speed.

"Umm," she says, politely averting her eyes from the glucometer screen. "Is that...? That is, are you..."

He supposes nobody's perfect.

"It's fine," he cuts her off, digging back into his backpack for food. He knows to stock up on certified allergy-free food before heading to an unfamiliar location, but it's still an extra thing to think about. "What about the program?" he prompts her.

"Well," she says, evidently relieved with the change of topic, "Tsunade-sensei is very... devoted. Her classes can be intense! But I think I'm going to pass, at least."

Tsunade-sensei is Senjuu Tsunade, who is one of the most notoriously difficult teachers - and people - in the country. Sakura's confidence in passing is impressive.

It's a nice bus ride, which is a pity, because Itachi suspects he'll have occasion to compare the trip from the bus station - all fourteen hours of it - very unfavourably.

Not as unfavourably as Sakura, he finds out.

"You're taking the train?" he says, and from the flicker of her expression he knows she has heard how disapproving he feels.

"I'm an adult," she reminds him. They've been talking long enough that he doesn't think she's really offended, but her voice is a little cooler. It doesn't stop her relaxed body from leaning into his while the bus swings around a roundabout. He was right. She does smell good.

He doesn't pull her in, but the thought crosses his mind. She's small. It'd be easy.

"It's not very nice," he says mildly. It's not. It's expensive, relatively speaking, and there are suspect stains on the seats, and the floors are sticky and the people are... the people are certainly a gamble, diplomatically put. He can't imagine Sakura would actually sleep on the carriage--that privilege seems to be reserved for incoherent drunks and unwashed miscreants.

Sakura's expression is polite but her twitching eyebrow says 'regrettably I left my car and chauffeur at home today, didn't I, you rich asshole' and her smile is very fixed. "I'm sure I'll be alright."

"I have a..." he pauses. How to categorise Deidara? In Itachi's head, Deidara is a... lot of things. A lot, in general. Compelling, but horrible. But compelling. "... friend driving. I'm sure he could be prevailed upon."

Itachi could have taken the train, too, but he chose to dragoon Deidara into driving. He wanted the car without the driver--Deidara is a lot, and that's even when he's not in a confined space for hours upon hours--but even putting up the collateral for Deidara's bail last year hadn't granted him that much favour. Especially not since Deidara had, in fact, shown up to court.

At the time, Deidara had said, bluntly, "Sure, fine, whatever. But I'm not loaning my car to a moron who's going blind, yeah," and hung up.

Sakura's uncertain, and she still seems uncertain when they arrive and get off the bus.

They linger in the sun outside, waiting for the bags to be unloaded from the compartment at the bottom of the bus. They each have luggage for two nights, at least, he assumes - the road up there is one night, and Sasuke doesn't graduate until the day after tomorrow. He wonders if she has somewhere to stay. Somewhere good, or at least safe.

The smell of old cigarette smoke rises from the concrete around the bus terminus, sunk into everything from years of passengers and drivers getting their hit in before they return to the smoke-free environment of the interior. "The four thirty-two bus to Rock has been delayed," says a pleasant and unrepentant voice over the public address system.

Their bus driver unloads baggage from the bottom compartment, but he isn't young and it seems to take quite some time. Passengers mill around watching uncertainly, clearly unwilling to mess with any system that might be in place.

"You're sure your friend won't mind?" Sakura says. Her hands are propped on her hips and her green eyes are fixed on the bus driver critically. The soft tone of the muscle in her arms is clear in the warm, late sunlight. Itachi lets his eyes drift over the swell of her hip.

"I'm certain," Itachi responds. He isn't.

It's likely Deidara will mind a lot, actually - not because he actually cares, Itachi thinks, but because he feels like he should protest. It will be loud and largely performative.

"I came prepared to catch the train up there--hang on," Sakura interrupts herself. She takes a deep breath, strides forward, murmurs 'Excuse me,' to the driver and leans in past him. She hauls free not only her own bag but also Itachi's, from the great mess of luggage. Her legs brace under her skirt and shorts, a noticeable shift of muscle beneath the soft looking skin of her thighs.

She turns back, one bag in each hand, and wades out from between other people's luggage with them. "--here," she pushes Itachi's bag into his chest. He takes it with numb fingers, mostly on reflex.

"I came prepared to take the train," she says again, slinging her bag easily over her shoulder and tugging stray strands of pink hair out from under the strap. "I don't want to inconvenience your friend."

Itachi hefts his own bag. It seems heavier than she made it look. "He won't be an more inconvenienced then he already is," he points out serenely. It is the absolute truth.

"It would be a lot cheaper," Sakura says, in a tone of weakening resolve.

"I would welcome the company," he tells her. His eyes are poor, but he still registers the change of colour in her face. His first thought is, Oh, perhaps she shouldn't have lifted both of those bags? Sakura seems so athletic, but such a thing isn't so easy to tell - people used to call Itachi athletic, after all. Before he was diagnosed with... everything.

But then he revisits the thought, and the flush of colour on her face, and the way she looks sideways at him from beneath her eyelashes, and something sweet and warm and possessive unfurls low in his belly instead. Ah.

This is not a feeling he's used to. It does not automatically follow that he dislikes it, though.

"Oh, um," she says, "well. I'd... appreciate the ride. But only if you're sure--"

"I'm sure," he says firmly.

She closes her mouth. Bites her lip. He can see where her teeth dig into it. It looks soft. "Yeah," she says.

They pause, unmoving on the footpath, for a few moments. Itachi opens his mouth to speak.

His phone rings, loud and tinny. It's the default ring tone. He answers it without looking away from Sakura. She doesn't look away either. It's... nice.

"If you don't want to catch the train you need to hurry the hell up, yeah!" Deidara yells into his ear.

"Mm," says Itachi, uncommitted. "We're on our way. A friend of mine is coming as well."

"Excuse me? What the hell, Itachi, I'm not a taxi service--"

Itachi flips the phone closed again with a little click and it cuts Deidara off just as he begins to swear.

"Ah..." says Sakura in a tone that suggests she has definitely overheard both sides of that conversation. When Itachi looks at her face properly instead of just eyeing her mouth and swaying unconsciously closer, her expression seems sort of forced. That eyebrow seems to be giving its tell-tale little twitch again. "Are you sure...?"

"I'm sure." He slides his phone back into his pocket and adjusts the bag on his shoulder. Deidara will wait as long as he has to, with bad grace. And he'll take Sakura, too.

"Shall we?" he asks her. It is rhetorical.

"I..." she pauses. Likely, he thinks, she is thinking about the train ride - expensive ticket, vile, stained seats with the stuffing ripped out the sides, uncertain company...

Her eyes dart away, and then back to him again. She bites her lip. She's close enough that he can see it, and he watches--avidly.

"Sure," she says.