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All the World's a Stage

Chapter Text

The alarm clock was motionless, counting down the seconds until its awful loud bell would sound and indicate it was half six. The sun hadn't risen yet, so the room was cast in shadow. Hidden by the curtains, several books lay on the window sill, neatly stacked next to a dusty collection of snow globes. On the bookshelf, a large picture of a woman with light pink hair and melancholic eyes in an ornate frame rested, wiped clean of dust. A large poster of a man holding a skull was displayed over the head of the bed. The bed itself was white and decorated with stickers, faded stars and hearts adorned the plastic frame.

In the bed lay Haruno Sakura, eyes wide and open, staring at the ceiling. She was waiting for that great clanging bell to sound, waiting for it to be time to get up and face the world. She hadn't slept much that night, her mind having been consumed by thoughts of the next day.

Today was the first day of the new term of college. It was the first time Sakura would see her classmates again after a few weeks' holiday, and she wasn't exactly eager to see them.

To pass the time, because she didn't want to get up just yet, Sakura played her favourite game. She stared at the splotchy ceiling coloured off-white and thought hard. If she could be like anyone, who would she be? Boadicea, she thought to herself, the Queen who had no fear. Today, Sakura would have to be fearless. She would have to go back to college and see a few people who had no trouble teaching her what her place was. At their feet. Sakura rolled her eyes and frowned, hugging the pillow and gazing at the clock.

She was full of wishes and dreams, but never expected anything to come of them. She believed that you had to work for what you wanted. She didn't want much, but she'd have to work hard even just for that.

She held a hand up to the ceiling to watch herself count down her dreams.

One, to be a successful actress.

Two, to be liked be everyone and known by everyone.

Three, to become the person she wanted to be.

She laughed quietly, withdrawing her hand. Her dreams were hardly humble, but they were honest.

She loved to act. To put on a mask and become someone else, anyone else… to stand on stage and know that the audience is watching you. To pour your heart and soul into a performance, to really feel the dialogue, to believe in the character, to become your role… There was nothing like it in the world.

At the moment she felt a little… unnoticed. She had her own crowd of friends, but she was often lost in the crowd of laughter and people talking all at once. She had her own best friend, Tenten, but she couldn't help longing for more. To be recognised by the people who were recognised by everyone else.

Yamanaka Ino and Uchiha Sasuke. The dream couple. Not that they'd confirmed their relationship, they seemed to find it amusing that everyone else speculated and argued hotly over whether or not they really were a couple. Ino, Sakura admired for her beauty, confidence and poise. Ino was a dancer. You could see it in the way she moved, the delicate wrists, the excellent posture. She was everything Sakura wanted to be and more. Sasuke, Sakura just admired. He was handsome, sure, but he was also intelligent and excelled in every area.

Sakura gave a sheepish little grin at the thought of Sasuke. While Ino was who Sakura wanted to be, Sasuke was who she wanted. She'd barely spoken to him, but on the rare occasions that she had, she'd noticed the intensity in his eyes, the way he focused completely on the person he was talking to.

The alarm clock went off suddenly, bells chiming loudly, scaring Sakura out of bed. She fumbled with the clock for a while before managing to turn it off.

She listened carefully for sounds of her father waking up. Nothing. She slumped in disappointment, realising he must have closed his bedroom door. That, or he was ignoring the alarm.

The bottle of perfume stood next to the photo of her mother. Sakura, still in her soft, childish pyjamas, crossed the carpeted floor with her bare feet and picked up the bottle. It was a glass bottle twisted and shaped until it was almost difficult to hold. The liquid inside was pale pink. Sakura opened the bottle and smelt it, the mixture of rose petals and sugar. It was too sweet for her tastes, but she wore it nevertheless.

She examined the lid. The glass was covered in dainty little fingerprints. Sakura wondered which were her own and which her mother's were.

She had used the perfume on days that she needed it to comfort herself since the day she found it, hidden away at the back of her mother's wardrobe, covered in dust. It was still almost full, because she used it sparingly, reverently.

The clothes she had picked out the night before were in a neat pile on her desk. She unfolded them and held them up.

It was just a simple wine-coloured floaty blouse with a black cardigan and tight black jeans. After a split second hesitation, Sakura lifted a necklace out of a black velvet box. Another one of her mother's. It was a chunky, silver necklace beset with pearls. It was unfashionable, but her mother loved it. She tied it around her neck, feeling the cold seep through her skin. She shuddered and closed the box. She looked in the mirror. She looked like her mother. She wasn't sure if that was good or bad.

She picked up the perfume again and sprayed herself lightly, smelling the sweet roses instantly.

xxxxxxxx

"…And that's how they died." Obito said, still looking slightly confused himself, "Everyone get that? It's a tragedy. Very sad."

Romeo and Juliet, Sakura thought to herself. It was the third time she'd studied it in her life and, dare she say it, she'd grown a little bored of the wangsty teen instant love story. Juliet was all, "Dost thou love me?" Demanding bitch that she was, and Romeo was all, "You are the prettiest flower and, er… the moon does not compare to… your cheeks! Yes, that's it. Your cheeks are far rounder! Very nice."

Besides, she hated the ending. It made the whole story pointless.

Obito, the teacher who wore 'prescription goggles' for some unfathomable reason, was trying to hide his tears.

"Oi, sensei, are you crying again?" Kiba asked, grinning.

"No!" Obito waved his hands and turned his back, sniffing, "It's just… dust! Dust in my eyes!"

Sakura let her chin drop to rest on the desk, unimpressed with her sensei sobbing in the corner because of Romeo and Juliet's untimely deaths.

"Sensei, can we go?" Ami asked, in her creepy-crawly, look-at-me-I'm-such-a-good-student-voice.

"Huh?" Obito said blearily, turning round to look at the clock, "Oh, it's time to go already? OK. Bye then."

The class pushed back their chairs in unison and started to file out of the room. Sakura was pleased. There, her one lesson of the day over and done with already.

As she stepped out of the room, she heard a squeal.

"Sasuke-kun!" Ino said gleefully, "You let your hair grow longer!"

Sakura felt her cheeks grow hot at the mere sight of him and turned to hide her blush, cursing inwardly.

Ino was right. Sasuke's hair was only slightly longer than usual but since he controlled his appearance (like every other aspect of his life) rigidly, it was highly unusual to see him change anything about himself. Sakura sighed. It only made him look cuter.

Damn him.

Damn him and his pale skin and dark eyes and perfect face and perfect everything…

Sakura turned to watch them.

Ino was fussing about his hair, but he was looking at Sakura.

She nearly jumped backwards in shock, but there he was, a slightly quizzical smirk on his face, intensely dark eyes on her face.

Eek.

Since she had met Sasuke at the start of college, she had harboured a deep and rather pathetic love for him. She hadn't quite reached the stage of doodling 'Uchiha Sakura' on her homework but she was pretty damn close.

"Oh hi, Sakura!" Ami screeched from behind her. Sakura froze. The group of girls Ami always travelled with, like a flock of evil, laughed uproariously at nothing in particular, but it sure as hell managed to humiliate Sakura.

She had no idea what she'd done to earn Ami's hatred. She suspected she may have once accidently blinked at her. At any rate, whenever she saw her, Ami was hateful and bitchy as always, but Sakura had hoped – prayed – that maybe now, after the Christmas holiday, Ami might not be such a ginormous bitch.

"I like your outfit!" One of the girls with Ami exclaimed.

"Yeah, Sakura, where ever did you find it?" Ami asked, a malicious glint in her eyes, "Been dumpster diving again, have we?"

Oh yeah, that's witty. Sakura nearly rolled her eyes, but was pretty sure Ami would strangle her with her hair extensions if she openly mocked her.

Instead, she walked off down the hall, not eager to get into another fight.

She was walking towards Sasuke and Ino when a sharp tug on her hair halted her. Sasuke looked up, his eyes narrowing. Ino frowned.

"I was talking to you." Ami said sweetly, letting go of her hair, "It's rude to just walk off from a conversation."

Sakura swallowed. The sweeter Ami got, the more poisonous she could be.

"Sorry." She muttered, her hands beginning to sweat. She hated the reaction she had to Ami. She hated that Ami could get under her skin so easily.

"That's fine," Ami smiled, "But, we were talking about your outfit, right? What's this tacky crap?" She pulled at Sakura's necklace.

Sakura automatically pulled away, her hands moving to shield her mother's necklace.

"It's so ugly!" Ami crowed, so loudly that the few students in the hall looked up. Sasuke's gaze was burning a hole in Sakura's back.

She wanted to sink through the floor and die.

"No, it's not." Sakura said quietly, not meeting Ami's eyes.

"Excuse me?" Ami said, her voice honey-sweet, "Did you just disagree with me?"

Sakura bit her lip. She was seventeen years old, she shouldn't be afraid of some skinny bitch who liked to boss her around.

"Did you think you'd get cool?" Ami asked, eyebrow raised, "I saw you looking at Sasuke-kun. I bet you like him, don't you? Ha, that's it!"

Sakura had blushed in response. She was trying so hard to hold back tears, knowing Sasuke could hear every loud word Ami was saying.

"Aw, you couldn't possibly think you'd have a chance at getting with Sasuke-kun! A girl worthy of an Uchiha has to be pretty, popular and talented… Are you any of those things?" Ami tilted her head mockingly, "No, you aren't."

That was it.

Sakura pushed past Ami and ran into the girl's bathroom, hoping to God Ami wouldn't follow her in there.

She sat in a cubicle and cried.

Why was she the ugly, untalented, unpopular one? Shouldn't Ami be ugly? She was a horrible person on the inside, so surely she should be horrible on the outside too?

Sakura just wanted to be special.

She jumped when someone knocked on the cubicle door.

"Hi, are you OK in there?" A feminine voice asked.

Sakura's heart gave a jolt. She recognised that voice. It was Ino, beautiful, talented Ino, one of the last people she wanted to see her looking like this.

"I'm fine!" Sakura called back, sounding anything but. She wiped her eyes hastily and unlocked the door.

Ino put her hands on hips and gave her a sympathetic look, "Ami's a right cow, isn't she? Don't worry, she's just upset 'cause she's riddled with genital warts. I'm only joking, don't look so disgusted!"

Sakura sniffed and gave a watery smile.

"Aw," Ino melted, "Look, that bitch said you wanted to be popular, right? Well, I could help with that. If you just want to be liked, then hang out with me and you will be! But if you want something a little more… permanent, you're gonna have to go for fame. Something that'll boost your reputation. But, it'll be risky!"

Sakura smoothed her hair back and listened.

xxxxxxxx

Deidara was talking too quickly.

Itachi was walking down the college halls with the blonde man at his side, trying to keep up with every word the science teacher said. Itachi was smartly dressed in a black suit, wearing black, thin-framed glasses.

"…Cause I said to him about my theory, you know, 'bout explosions being a form of artwork, and he called me a fucking terrorist!" Deidara ranted, his tone indignant.

"I'm sure Sasori did not mean it." Itachi said in an attempt pacify the other man. It didn't work.

"Yes he did, he thinks the only kind of art is those fucking creepy puppet things he makes, un. So I accused him of just being another Geppetto looking for a Pinocchio, and he threw a block of wood at my head!"

"Are we actually going to see the science labs at any point, Deidara?" Itachi asked pointedly.

"Why do you want to be a science teacher anyway? The most boring fucking job in the world, you get fired if you blow anything up!" Deidara complained.

Itachi caught sight of the headmaster's office and halted. Deidara carried on walking for a second and then backpedalled.

"Pain asked me to pick up some files of his if I was passing by." Itachi explained, "You go on ahead."

"Yeah yeah," Deidara grumbled, "Maybe I'll go find Obito… I can blow up his goggles again till he cries…"

Shaking his head incredulously, Itachi opened Pain's office door.

And promptly caught a pink-haired girl dithering with a waste-paper bin in her hands.

He frowned, closing the door behind him automatically, plunging the room into darkness.

He flipped the light switch and raised an eyebrow, "What are you doing?"

The girl panicked, putting the bin down and obviously trying to think of reasons she could plausibly be in the headmaster's office, abusing his bin.

"And don't lie to me," He drawled, fixing her with an intense glare, "I will know."

"OK!" The girl babbled, "Ino told me to mess up the headmaster's office and then she'd tell everyone and they'd all like me and I'd be popular and Ami wouldn't tease me anymore and Sasuke would like me!" She took a deep breath, obviously intending to carry on babbling.

Itachi held up a hand.

"So, you intended to destroy Pain's office. To become popular." Itachi said, somehow managing to inject every word with bare scorn until the girl was cringing.

"I… I…" The girl was shaking, "It's stupid and pathetic, I know! I hate it! If I could just be popular… Everything would be better. I'm sure of it!"

Now Itachi was concerned, despite himself. He crossed the room in three purposeful strides, standing directly in front of her.

"Are you alright?" He asked, his voice coming out surprisingly gentle without his consent.

The little bit of sympathy tipped her over the edge and tears dribbled down her cheeks. She looked down at the ground.

"I'm fine." She replied quietly.

"Didn't I tell you not to lie to me? Tell me what is wrong." Itachi's voice was slick and soft. The girl smelt of roses.

"Everything's wrong!" The girl declared, throwing her hands up in despair, sinking down to the floor, crossing her arms angrily.

Itachi sighed and slid down the wall to sit next to her.

"Oh don't," She protested, "You'll wrinkle your suit!"

Itachi looked down at his 'casual' black suit. He genuinely did not mind wrinkling this one, but it was nice of the girl to be concerned.

"What's your name?" He asked, genuinely curious.

She seemed reluctant to tell him at first, but clearly realised her cover was already blown anyway.

"Haruno Sakura." She replied, "And yours?"

"Itachi." He responded, "Now, can you give me something specific that is wrong?"

Sakura was silent for a while, one finger tracing her pearl necklace.

"The college is having a play," She said in a low voice, "Hamlet. I really, really want to be Ophelia. But I'm not brave enough. I'm no good performing in front of people."

"You should at least audition." Itachi said, "I think you would make a good Ophelia."

Perhaps it wasn't much of a compliment, knowing what happened to Ophelia later in the play, but the girl seemed fragile and sweet, which was fairly suitable to play the submissive, meek Ophelia, in his opinion.

Sakura turned to stare at him, eyes wide, "Really? Do you think so? Maybe I will… Thanks."

"Is there anything else wrong?" He asked, knowing that there was more than a college play bugging this girl.

"Have you ever wanted something so much that it takes over you?" She asked.

He thought about it.

"No, I don't think so."

"Oh," She sighed, "Well, I do. I want to be special. I want to be liked and I want people to know who I am. I'm sick of being anonymous. I know it isn't a very important dream, but it's mine. I wanted to be popular so much… A cool girl named Ino, she offered me a chance. She told me to trash this office and then she'd tell everyone, and they'd all think I was cool, too."

Itachi's lip curled.

"And this girl, Ino… how unintelligent is she, exactly?" He sneered, "Why would you believe such a ridiculous lie? She must have planned to get you in trouble."

Sakura looked downcast, "Do you think so? I just thought she was being nice to me… Giving me a chance… I was so pleased."

Itachi pushed his glasses up from where they had been slipping down the bridge of his nose. For a moment they just sat in companionable silence.

"There was something else," Sakura said, almost shyly, "I wanted to be popular because it would allow me to be closer to the guy I like."

Oh no, Itachi's head slipped back and hit the wall, she was going to treat him like an agony aunt. After this, she was sure to ask him about menstruation and puppy fat. Joy.

"There's a boy," Itachi said, amused, "Isn't there always?"

"Yes, but Sasuke is special!" Sakura argued.

Itachi nearly swallowed his tongue, "Sasuke?" His eyebrows twitched. His little brother. This girl, this Ophelia wannabe… she was in love with Sasuke. He almost felt sorry for her. There was no way Sasuke would even look at a girl who had pink hair or acted this chipper.

"He's actually very kind," Sakura informed him, "Though a lot of people think he isn't."

Itachi struggled to keep a straight face. Sakura had gotten Sasuke so wrong…

"Is he handsome?" Itachi asked knowingly.

"Yes," Sakura said in tones of complete disinterest, "But, I know what you're thinking. I don't just like him because he is attractive. 'Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind,'" Sakura quoted.

"A Midsummer Night's Dream." Itachi said cynically, "A comedy, if I remember rightly."

"It might be a comedy," Sakura gave him a smile, "But I agree with its message."

"What, stumble about in unrequited love enough and a fairy will take pity on you and force your object of affection to love you back?" Itachi snorted.

Sakura's eyes slid away from him, clearly embarrassed.

"I hope you aren't planning to take any more advice from that girl, Ino." Itachi changed the subject hastily.

"Probably not," Sakura's smile turned wry, "And I really thought she was nice."

"Well, people aren't always what they appear to be." Itachi shrugged. He froze almost imperceptibly, realising he was now leaning so close to the girl that he could smell her rose perfume.

He moved back hurriedly.

Just in time too, as Pain opened the door and walked in, taking his suit jacket off halfway before noticing the two stowaways sitting on his office floor.

"Pain," Itachi said smoothly, standing up and gesturing for Sakura to do the same, "I was just talking to Sakura. Here are the files you wanted." He rifled through a drawer until he found them and handed them to the headmaster.

Pain looked at Sakura, pointing at her, "Haruno Sakura, 2nd year student, seventeen years old, correct?"

"Yes!" She squeaked.

"Leave." He said, his voice deep.

She fled the office, but not before glancing back at Itachi one last time. She could have sworn, just before the office door clicked shut behind her, that he winked at her.

Chapter Text

The gym was enormous. It was mostly used for basketball practice and tournaments, but students were allowed to use it for any kind of sport training.

Sakura slid back, her top riding up, giving her a nasty friction burn on her back as she flew across the shiny wooden floor.

She rolled to a halt and immediately clutched her back, groaning.

"Ow, God, Tenten, go easy on the novice, yeah?" Sakura grumbled, trying to check her back for marks but not quite flexible enough to see.

Tenten put her hands on her hips and grinned. She, unlike Sakura, had dressed for the occasion, wearing a short-sleeved white top that exposed her toned stomach and grey tracksuit bottoms. Sakura wore a sparkling black shirt with orange sequins (another relic of her mother's) and jeans.

"Aw, Sakura, I didn't hit you that hard." She said modestly, offering her a hand up.

Sakura warily took it, allowing herself to be pulled up from the floor.

"Let's look at it this way," Sakura said, panting, "You're a Jedi Master. I'm a padawan. You're awesome at this and I suck. Be gentle."

"Fighting is not as hard as it looks," Tenten disagreed, "You just have to learn the moves and improve your reflexes. The state you're in now… you don't have reflexes. But I'm sure you'll learn!"

Sakura had, frustrated, begged Tenten to teach her how to fight. She had wanted to be able to defend herself if Ami and her gang ever turned violent, and she also wanted to better herself. After having that talk with Itachi, she'd been looking at herself more objectively, and she didn't like what she saw.

She started to examine the bruises she'd received during the 'gentle training exercise' Tenten had promised. There was an interesting one on her forearm that looked like a baguette.

She was about to point this out gleefully, when Tenten spoke up, her face creased in confusion, "By the way, what's a padawan?"

Sakura stared at her in disbelief, "What? It's – you – you aren't cool anymore."

"Neither are you!" Tenten laughed, pushing her playfully.

Sakura smiled weakly, feeling that comment slice like a knife through her self-esteem.

"Oh, that's not what I meant." Tenten frowned, "Being cool isn't all that, you know. It's got to be boring as hell. You've got to look perfect every day, everyone wants to know what's going on in your private life, everyone's lying to your face and talking about you behind your back…"

"Sounds like you speak from experience." Sakura commented.

"Tenten has never once for one second in her life experienced popularity," A cold voice spoke up from the gym entrance.

It was Hyuuga Neji, strolling in with none other than Uchiha Sasuke by his side, clad in basketball uniform.

Sakura felt her stomach drop to her feet and make a run for it. Sasuke, here, when she was wearing the sparkly top that even her mother had hated…

Aaaaaaaah.

The two of them walked right up to them, Neji glaring and Sasuke looking as apathetic as ever.

"Well, you know," Tenten said, continuing as though there had been no interruption, "When your arch-nemesis is inexplicably popular, you have to do your homework. Keep your friends close," She said with a mischievous grin, slipping one sweaty arm around Neji's middle, pulling him towards her, "And your enemies closer."

Neji immediately pushed her away, looking disgusted; just the tiniest pink flush gracing his cheeks, "You need to move. We need this space for basketball practice."

"Well, we aren't done here yet. You'll have to wait till we are." Tenten said stubbornly.

Neji's glare grew icier, "I said we need this space."

"And I said you will have to wait." Tenten refused to budge, arms crossed.

As the two of them started to argue furiously, Sakura dared look at Sasuke. He raised an eyebrow at Tenten and Neji's antics, offering Sakura a tiny smirk that set her heart aflutter.

"Like an old married couple," Sakura jabbed a thumb at the two of them, grinning half-heartedly. She knew Sasuke had to have heard what Ami said about Sakura liking him. The fact that he hadn't run off screaming, "Plague! Plague!"yet was surely a good sign.

"I've told him over and over to just jump her and be done with it." Sasuke said flatly.

"Well, I don't think Tenten would go for it," Sakura shook her head, "She hates him."

Sasuke tilted his head, looking almost intrigued, "You don't think they fancy each other? Really?"

"Um, no," Sakura said, blushing. Why was he looking at her like that? "They're horrible to each other. Tenten broke his nose."

Sasuke's smirk grew wider, "I think they call that flirting."

Sakura looked incredulous, "Isn't it a little too violent to be flirting?"

"Some people like to flirt that way," Sasuke said, his eyes burning into Sakura's, "But I guess others prefer the subtle approach."

"There you are!" Ino said triumphantly, walking through the gym entrance, "I've been looking everywhere for you!"

She grabbed Sasuke by the arm and smiled coquettishly at him. She turned on Sakura, "Where've you been? I thought you were going to wreck Pain's office?"

"What, so you could tell the teachers who did it and get me expelled?" Sakura snapped, still furious about being tricked.

Ino looked confused, "I wouldn't have told the teachers! I was just going to tell my friends and they would have seen how cool you are."

"Yeah right," Sakura said hotly, "You're the one who told me to wreck his office. Why would you care about me being cool? Well, guess what? I don't care about me being cool either! I don't care. I'd rather be pond scum on the social scale than at the top with you two-faced bitches."

"Are you including me on the two-faced bitch front?" Sasuke asked, looking amused.

"No! Of course not." Sakura said firmly, "I know you aren't like that."

Sasuke's face changed – his smirk was still there, but there was something about his eyes that made Sakura think she'd surprised him somehow.

"I'm sorry, you've spoken to me once and now you're the authority on my personality? You think I'm a two-faced bitch? I was trying to help you because I felt bad about what Ami said!" Ino protested.

"It's kind of obvious you were trying to get her in trouble, Ino." Sasuke said coldly, removing her hand from his arm and moving to stand next to Sakura.

"No, I wasn't –" Ino began to say, looking stricken.

Tenten flicked Neji's face and bounded over to them, looking cheerful and satisfied. Sakura looked at her suspiciously. All this time, had she liked Neji?

"Oh, hi." She said, surprised, looking at Ino, "What are you doing in the gym of all places?"

"I was with –" Ino pointed vaguely in Sasuke's direction, though it was pretty obvious Sasuke wasn't 'with' her now, judging by the scowl on his face.

Neji pushed past Tenten angrily and stood next to Sasuke, noting the other's proximity with Sakura with a sly smirk.

"We should get to R.E." He said, looking at Tenten, "Goodbye failure."

"Bye fuckwad." Tenten replied casually.

Sakura snorted with laughter. Even Sasuke looked amused at that. Neji only scowled and stormed off.

"Oh, I'll see you later then, Sakura, I've not got a lesson for another half hour." Tenten said.

Ino followed Neji quietly, head down, looking dejected.

"I have R.E. with you, right?" Sasuke looked down at his basketball outfit, "Guess wearing this was pointless today. No time to practice with Mr and Mrs Hyuuga going at it."

At the phrase 'going at it' Sakura immediately tried to straighten out her embarrassed face into one of thoughtful contemplation.

"I heard that," Tenten called from where she was kicking a practice dummy in the crotch, presumably picturing Neji.

"I'm going to class, you coming?" Sasuke said, raising his eyebrows invitingly, pointing to the door.

Sakura nearly melted.

Uchiha Sasuke wanted to walk with her to class.

Her!

Sakura!

She managed a rather solemn nod, this time schooling her features into disinterest as opposed to her actual feelings, total jubilation.

"OK." She smiled casually, starting to follow him out.

She shot Tenten a look that said, 'my God, I'm walking to class with Uchiha Sasuke.'

Tenten gave her the thumbs up.

xxxxxxxx

"OK, you're all going to fuckin' hell." Hidan the R.E. teacher said, slamming the bible to the desk with a grimace, as though the holy text had offended him.

"I do believe that's blasphemy." Sai, the creepy art student said with an absent smile.

"Why are we going to hell this time?" Shikamaru yawned, stretched out over his desk.

"You're going to fuckin' hell," Hidan yelled, "Because you are worshipping the wrong God."

"Aha! You just admitted He exists!" Kiba crowed, triumphant, "Last week you said He didn't!"

"I can change my fuckin' mind!" Hidan said, offended, "But, no he doesn't fuckin' exist, you little moron, you know why? 'Cause even if he did at some point, Jashin would've killed the motherfucker!"

"Blasphemy!" Sai sang out.

Sakura winced and pretended to cover her head, as though shielding herself. Sasuke, who was sitting next to her, smirked and copied her, awaiting Hidan's inevitable explosion. He always exploded into an eruption of profanity when pushed too far. It was the highlight of the students' day.

"I don't give a shit if it's fuckin' blasphemy for your false fuckin' God you little fucker, I'll fuckin' strangle you!" Hidan erupted, outraged.

"Er, Hidan?" Deidara poked his head through the door, "Pain-sama says if you continue to swear at the students he's going to take away your access to the Jashinist Church."

"What?" Hidan grabbed the Jashin symbol around his neck as though for comfort, "I'll fu- ARGH, whatever."

"Also," Deidara said, now looking pained, "You've got yourself an observer for this lesson. He's gonna be here for a while, un. So play nice."

For some reason, Deidara looked around the room until his eye found Sasuke. He sneered at him.

He opened the door fully and walked in.

"Deidara-sensei!" Sai exclaimed, absolutely no emotion in his voice, a gigantic fake smile on his face.

Deidara stiffened at the sound of his voice. He slowly turned and glared at him.

"Hidan, can you keep… that quiet, un?" Deidara said with a scowl.

"I don't even know what he is, man, he's a fu – um, he's a robot, Deidara-chan. "

"Excuse me, Deidara-sensei, I can't help questioning something..." Sai said, that irritatingly fake wide smile on his face.

Deidara took a deep breath, steeling himself, "What?"

"Your gender." Sai said, still smiling. Deidara's single eye widened, "I do not believe you have the... necessary equipment, to be considered male."

The class broke out in giggles.

Deidara was visibly controlling his temper, "I can assure you, I do."

"There is no shame in it," Sai said, oblivious to his sensei's growing rage, "I know plenty of people who are without the proper genitalia. My 'friend' Naruto, for example, is just as dickless as you –"

"I swear to God if you don't stop talking right now I will prove to you that I have 'the necessary equipment,' un." Deidara spat, seething with rage.

Sai was quiet for a second.

"How will you show me, sensei? I believe any method of proving such a thing is illegal in all states."

"Hidan, do me a favour?" Deidara turned to the other man, looking agonised, "Kill him for me. Your God will love you for it."

"True, but murdering a student isn't considered a good thing amongst us mere mortals." A deep voice came from the door.

Beside Sakura, Sasuke stiffened in shock. She was frowning, puzzled. The voice was oddly familiar.

Then Itachi strolled through the doorway and into the room, peering at the students from behind his glasses.

Sakura's mouth hung open.

"Itachi?" She said in disbelief. What was he doing here? Come to think of it, why had he been in Pain's office anyway?

Sasuke looked at her sharply.

Itachi looked around and gave Sakura a little wave, "Sakura. It is good to see you looking more cheerful than yesterday. Sasuke," He nodded at his brother in acknowledgment.

"Wait, how do you know Sakura?" Sasuke demanded, looking more and more pissed off by the second.

Itachi looked at his brother and shrugged, infuriating him.

"I know you." Hidan said, pointing at Itachi, "You're the brat's big brother, aren't you? Got the same face."

Deidara gave Itachi a filthy look, "I brought you here, so I'm going now. I shouldn't have to babysit a fucking grown up, un."

There was a screech as Sai poked the swear jar on the counter. It was overflowing with notes and coins from Hidan's weekly explosions.

He gave Deidara an expectant look. The older man threw him an icy scowl and left the room, muttering about needing to blow something up.

Sai's smile slipped. He looked genuinely confused.

Sakura, meanwhile, was panicking. She hadn't exactly expected the mystery man she'd poured her heart out to would appear in her class, in front of her! And Sasuke! He was Sasuke's brother! And she'd told him she liked him… Oh no…

She wanted to run out of the room with a bag over her head, anything to avoid the mildly interested look Itachi was giving her and the confused scowl Sasuke was throwing her way.

"So, why are you here?" Hidan asked Itachi whilst studying the Bible intently.

"Just to observe." Itachi said mildly.

"That doesn't fuckin' tell me a thing, Uchiha." Hidan complained.

Sai diligently offered him the swear jar.

Hidan took one look at him and dropped the entire contents of his wallet in, a massive scowl on his face.

Itachi sat down on a chair near Hidan and waited for him to begin the lesson again.

Hidan did so, opening the Bible once more and scanning its contents.

"Well, that's wrong for a start," He muttered, "Oh come the fuck on! That never fuckin' happened! Dammit Sai, leave me alone!"

Itachi got out a notebook and began making what looked like meticulously detailed notes.

Sakura spent the lesson wincing at the palpable tension rolling off of Sasuke and watching Itachi closely, amused at the attentive way he was listening to Hidan swear at the class.

After the class was over and Sasuke had barged out, Sakura was gathering her things when Itachi stopped her.

"You didn't seem pleased to see me earlier." He said, one eyebrow raised.

Hidan had long since left, chucking the Bible to the floor in a fit of frustration.

"Well, you never told me you were Sasuke's brother!" Sakura accused him, feeling herself blush at the realisation that Sasuke's brother knew she liked him. She didn't even know he had a brother until now.

"I suppose I didn't." Itachi sighed, "I couldn't think of a way to bring it up without embarrassing you. I was surprised to see the two of you sitting next to each other. Is that a regular thing or…?"

"No, we never sit together," Sakura replied, "But he suddenly asked me to today… I was shocked."

"And pleased, I take it?" Itachi gave her a knowing look.

Sakura rolled her eyes, "Well, yeah! I can't help that. Please don't tell him what I've told you. I know I don't have a chance with him. It's not like I'm hoping for anything to happen, I know I'm not his type."

"Who is his type, then?" Itachi replied, looking at her with that same intensity Sasuke always had. It must be an Uchiha thing.

Sakura sat on the edge of the desk and rested her chin on her hands, looking doleful, "Ino," She said finally, her eyes downcast, "Pretty, popular girls like Ino."

"Ino again." Itachi grimaced, "Well, if it makes you feel any better, girls like Ino don't interest everyone."

Sakura grinned and threw herself across the desk dramatically, "Oh yeah, any guy with a pulse likes Ino!" She proclaimed, prostrating herself in feigned woe.

"I wouldn't," Itachi said bluntly, "She sounds awful."

"Yes," Sakura said, more reserved now, sitting back upright, "But she's beautiful."

"Then she's nothing but a beautiful, shining apple that's rotten to the core," Itachi said, sitting down next to her on the desks, "I know plenty of girls like that. Girls who think because they're beautiful, they don't have to make any effort to be a good person. So they flounce around bossing everyone about and acting like they matter, when in actual fact they don't, in the grand scheme of things. Beauty fades, but being a good person is eternal. I would vastly prefer an unattractive, nice woman, to a beautiful, rotten one."

Sakura was slightly taken aback. There had been a glimpse of darkness in Itachi's expression as he spoke, a grim cast to his voice that hadn't been there before.

"Then you're the exception," She said glumly, "Even Sasuke kisses her feet."

"I doubt that," Itachi said, "My little brother doesn't care about appearances. And yes, I would never go for a girl like Ino."

"What kind of girl would you go for?" Sakura said curiously.

Itachi looked at her. He seemed to realise they were sitting rather close together, because he shifted away from her, turning his head so that she couldn't see his face.

"I said it before," Itachi replied, slightly impatiently, "A good woman. I wouldn't care if she was pretty or hideous. As long as she isn't fake."

"Huh." Sakura said thoughtfully, musing over Itachi's words. So, he didn't care if a girl was beautiful or not? Yeah, right, she thought cynically.

Besides, she thought to herself, the world valued beautiful people.

Images of beautiful women she had seen rained down in her memory like a shower glitter – Marilyn Monroe, pouting to a camera, Brooke Shields and those famous jeans, Ginger Rogers… They were all admired and revered for their talent and beauty. Sakura was sure they were all good people as well as beautiful, but she didn't understand Itachi's complete dismissal of the importance of looks.

Not only that, Sakura thought, glancing at Itachi, but he was beautiful too.

He had pale skin that was not marred by any imperfections. His eyes were dark and expressive, glittering with amusement most of the time. He had taken off his glasses as he became lost in thought, and was absently biting down on one of the plastic sides, his glasses swinging precariously from his mouth. His teeth were white and even.

He was tall and obviously physically fit.

Sakura smiled to herself.

"You and Sasuke don't care about beauty," Sakura said, "Because you are both conventionally attractive."

"Only conventionally?" Itachi turned to her with a mock-mournful look, "I don't see what my own prescribed attractiveness has to do with my own value of 'good' women."

"I can sit back and be objective about this, because I'm not beautiful," Sakura said easily, no shame or self-pity in her voice, "But you –"

"Hold on," Itachi held up a hand, putting his glasses back on, "But you are beautiful."

Sakura stared at him, speechless.

He stared back at her without a trace of embarrassment or any other indication that he had just said something incredible.

"A-Anyway," Sakura managed to say, blushing violently now, "I just mean that attractive people act like it isn't important to be attractive, because they've never had to struggle with their self-esteem, or worry that they aren't pretty enough."

"How do you know?"

"What?"

"How do you know they don't struggle with their self-esteem?" Itachi asked.

Sakura opened her mouth to answer and then closed it, confused. It had never occurred to her that even beautiful people could worry about their looks.

"I don't know." Sakura frowned, "I just assumed they didn't. After watching all of these beautiful people on TV and in real life, I noticed they all seemed really confident, sure of themselves. But I guess that could be an act."

Itachi nodded, his mouth twitching into a smirk, "By the way, it took me an hour to convince Pain that you had simply gotten lost and accidently wandered into his office, where you met me and we chatted, losing track of time… So, you owe me."

"Oh, do I?" Sakura said warily, "What do you want me to do for you?"

Itachi lifted his eyes to the heavens, wishing she wouldn't use such provocative words.

He coughed, "I want you to audition for that play."

Sakura made a face, "I don't think I want to now… I've been reading Hamlet and I'm not sure about Ophelia… She seems like an idiot."

Itachi gave her a wry smile, "Ophelia is a misunderstood character. She is young, she lost her mother –"

At that, Sakura looked away, biting her lip, hard.

"-And even though she was in the rotten state of Denmark, she remained good and pure. Undervalued virtues in today's society, which views her as weak. To me, there is something beautiful and admirable in her innocence and caring." He finished, nodding to himself.

Sakura thought about it. Perhaps Ophelia wasn't so bad after all.

"Well, I'd rather be her than Gertrude, anyway." Sakura said with a frown.

Itachi gave a short laugh.

"I ought to be going," He said, "I need to go shadow another lesson. I can trust, of course, that you will not be coerced into committing acts of villainy by this Ino-creature in my absence?"

"I'll do my best," Sakura said, deadpan, "But it'll be tricky."

His smirk smoothed out into a genuine, small smile. He waved again and left.

Sakura let out a breath she hadn't known she'd been holding. Wow. He was so different from the rest of the people she knew… It was probably because he was older, more mature.

He was definitely odd. At times he seemed to drift off, offering thoughtful, insightful comments, whereas other times he was cold and hard. But at the end there she felt she'd coaxed a sincere smile from him, and she counted it as a victory against the notoriously unemotional Uchihas.

How could she have not known Sasuke had a brother? Granted, before today she'd never really spoken to him properly, but she liked him so much… surely she ought to have known that.

Ugh.

Nothing was simple anymore. Tenten and Neji apparently didn't hate each other, they were just 'flirting,' Sasuke had taken her side over Ino's and Itachi had made her question everything she thought she knew.

xxxxxxxx

That night she sat in her bedroom, surrounded by cut-out pictures of celebrities, beautiful faces littering her floor, sparkling eyes, full lips and high cheekbones fell from her lap as she sat up and stretched.

There was a creak in the hallway as her father passed by. He stopped and looked in on her, glancing around her messy room.

Sakura, covered in bits of paper and faces, gave a sheepish grin, "I have no idea how any of this got here." She said cheerily.

Her father, looking grey and unshaven, put a hand on the doorframe and looked at her with shadowed eyes.

"Clean it up," Was all he said, his voice hoarse.

Sakura slumped, dejected.

She looked at all of the smiling, happy faces all around her, and grew angry.

She crumpled up the pictures in her hands, relishing the fact that she didn't care she was ruining them.

Itachi was right, she thought savagely, being beautiful counts for nothing.

It's talent that counts.

She glanced up at the picture of her mother, who smiled vacantly down at her with those melancholic eyes.

Chapter Text

The Drama classroom was silent. It was dimly lit – heavy black curtains prevented sunlight from reaching the room, having a few lights attached to the ceiling, designed to follow performers on stage. One half of the classroom was made up of a large wooden stage. The other half was filled with stacked chairs, which were carefully set out whenever the drama students needed to practice a play.

Sakura stood on stage and spread her arms out wide.

Right, take control of the character. Immerse yourself within them, know their wants, fears, dreams and pretend they are your own.

Ophelia. A young woman, valued for her beauty and submissiveness. Notable for simply 'going with the flow,' doing whatever she is told – the only freedom, the only choice she makes, is her own death. Sweet, unassuming and innocent, her only flaw in Hamlet's eyes was her undying loyalty to her father. When her father is killed, she loses her sanity. A weak-willed, kindly woman who was pushed around her entire life, snaps, and spends the rest of the play singing bawdy songs and descending into madness until she apparently drowns herself.

A tragic figure.

Sakura opened her eyes.

She spread her fingers out delicately and made a show of examining the stage. Her eyes were slightly too wide, her mouth agape. She swayed slightly, as though tipsy.

She clutched her arms to herself.

Sakura wasn't the best singer in the world, but her voice was soft and she could at least hold a tune.

"How should I your true love know, From another one? By his cockle hat and staff, And his sandal shoon." She sang quietly, the light of madness in her eyes.

"He is dead and gone, lady, He is dead and gone; At his head a grass-green turf, At his heels a stone." She sang haltingly, melancholy staining her every word. At the word 'dead,' she swallowed back a sob.

She spread her arms out once more, bathed in the stage spotlight, and looked upwards.

"A haunting performance." A deep voice came from the stack of chairs.

Sakura gave an undignified squeak and felt Ophelia's character wash away. She was no longer graceful and beautiful, she was gawky, ugly Sakura once more.

Itachi came out from behind the stack of chairs, clapping lightly, a smirk on his face.

Sakura felt as though she had been walked in on whilst changing. It was the same feeling of bare humiliation. She had just given a performance for herself, meant for her ears alone, and to realise someone (a very cool, older someone at that) had been listening in was damn near horrifying.

"What were you doing back there?" She said, blushing, "Hiding? Lurking? That's pretty damn creepy, Itachi."

"I was examining the artwork," Itachi pointed at the faded pictures on the wall behind the chairs, "But then you walked in. I was going to call out, but you climbed on stage and started performing and… I forgot to call out. You are very, very good. I knew you would be a good Ophelia."

Sakura's frown softened into a pout. His praise was very welcome, though she wasn't certain if he meant it or was just trying to get back in her good books.

"How do you know about Ophelia anyway? Have you read Hamlet?" Sakura asked, sitting down on the edge of the stage.

Itachi made a face, one that seemed to imply he was considering what to reply.

"…Yes." He said after a while, walking a little closer to her.

"Did you like it?" Sakura asked eagerly. The other drama students either disliked Hamlet or Sakura, meaning she had never had the opportunity to discuss it with anyone.

Itachi smiled a little at Sakura's enthusiasm, "I think it is a very good play for its time." Though he had offered his opinion, he was still being a little cagey.

"I really like it," Sakura said, smiling at her bag on the edge of the stage, knowing it held a very annotated copy of Hamlet within, "But I think Hamlet's an idiot."

Itachi smile flickered, "Oh?"

"Well, he plots and plots, but he never actually does anything." Sakura frowned.

"He killed Claudius," Itachi pointed out, "And he got his revenge."

"But he took forever to do it! He had chances to kill Claudius before, but he didn't. He's eaten up by indecision, and almost every character dies in the end because he claimed his revenge too late." She said firmly.

"He was worried about killing – he feared for his immortal soul." Itachi said, his head tilting as he looked at her with that intense gaze of his – the one that made her feel like they were the only two people in the world, as though Earth had shrunk to nothing but this darkened classroom. The thought was not as suffocating as it should have felt.

"Oh yeah?" Sakura whispered as Itachi got even closer, almost brushing against her knees as he stepped forwards, "Then why did he kill Polonius? He didn't even hesitate and he didn't regret it, either."

Itachi looked… entertained, that was the word. Intellectually stimulated, if Sakura was being kind on herself.

"Hamlet is a complex character. He is an avenger, but he is also passive and struggles to make choices. That is his flaw, what keeps him from being a traditional revenge hero. Laertes is a much straighter example of an avenger, if you prefer uncomplicated, one-dimensional walking plot devices."

"You sound like my textbooks," Sakura raised a pale eyebrow, "Have you studied English?"

Itachi's face twisted again and Sakura was suddenly amused at his pitiful attempt at deception.

"…Yes." He answered, sounding pained.

"Did you not enjoy it?"

"I did enjoy it." Itachi sighed, "In fact, I miss studying English. It was my favourite subject."

"I could tell," Sakura said with some amusement, hopping off of the stage, "It's great being able to talk about Shakespeare with someone."

Itachi leant closer to her, still keeping up the intensity of his stare. He leaned on the stage, one elbow propping himself up, looking irritatingly cool. He was wearing a black, tight top and jeans today, and Sakura ignored the small voice inside her head voicing its approval of Itachi's casual wear, especially as she could see every muscle lined under the cloth and denim.

"How many friends do you have in college?" He asked suddenly, eyes so piercing that Sakura felt certain if she attempted to lie, he would know immediately.

"Would you like me to count?" Sakura tried to laugh off the odd question, but Itachi would not be swayed, those suspicious, dark eyes digging into her skull as though they could pull the truth out through hard gaze alone.

"Yes." He replied instantly.

She blinked.

"Um," She held up her hand, feeling more than a little awkward and embarrassed, "…One."

Itachi's gaze turned pitying and Sakura felt a flicker of rare anger at the sight.

"Do not even go there," She warned him. He looked confused, "Don't play dumb with me. It doesn't suit you. I've got one friend in college, but I've got plenty in the outside world, where people are less… bitchy."

"Who is your friend?" Itachi asked softly, seemingly unaffected by Sakura's anger.

"Her name's Tenten. We've known each other since we were babies, pretty much."

"So, you aren't friends with Sasuke?" Itachi asked, pursing his lips slightly.

Sakura glared at him, "What's with the questions? I don't mean to be rude, but I don't know you that well." She didn't add that she felt stupidly comfortable around this oddly intelligent near-stranger.

"I care about my little brother," Itachi said slowly, "I only wondered if the two of you were close."

Suddenly, Sakura was almost palpably leaking misery and insecurity, "No," She said quietly, sitting back down on the stage, looking a lot younger than her real age, "We've barely spoken."

Itachi looked troubled, "But I thought you said you loved him?"

Sakura's head snapped up from where she had been frowning at the floor. Now she was glaring right up at him, "I do! Of course I do!"

"But you haven't spoken to him." Itachi said, not wanting to push further. Sakura seemed emotionally frail – one misspoken word, and she would crumble.

"But I've seen him! He chews on his pencil when he's thinking about a problem, he treats everyone like dirt, even his best friend, but that's only so no one will notice he cares about them, he's awful at English and brilliant and Maths, he hates rap music and loves classical, he's the smartest, kindest guy I've ever met, and I know all that because I'm the only one who bothers to look underneath his 'cool guy' façade!" Sakura said hotly, clenching her fists.

"Your personality is interesting," Itachi stated, ignoring her outburst, "You act meek and submissive to others, but you treat me, a virtual stranger, like a friend. You don't have a bad thing to say about anyone, but you will flare up and defend what you believe is love. I am Sasuke's brother and I am sorry to say, the boy you described is not him. You are in love with your own perception of Sasuke, not with the real thing. You claim you are the only person who sees the real him, but what makes you so certain that what you see is real?"

Sakura had not felt this angry in a very long time. She leapt up from the stage and walked away from him, heading for the stacks of chairs. She pulled one down and sat on it, fuming.

"You are angry with me, yet you would rather physically remove yourself from a confrontation than argue with me." Itachi noted, walking towards her, looking utterly unconcerned.

"You want me to be angry? How about this? I love Sasuke. I do. Whether it's the idea of him or the real him, I'd do anything for him. I get angry if someone insults him, I want to defend him and see him every day and when I do see him, I get major butterflies in my stomach. I just feel… happy, when he's around. You're trying to squeeze love into neat compartmentalised sections, but it doesn't work like that. I'm never going to be with Sasuke, so you don't have to worry about my fake love hurting him." Sakura was sneering now, all meekness stripped away until Itachi looked at her with renewed interest.

"Now, where did the innocent Ophelia go?" Itachi's smirk had come out full force now, and coupled with the intense gaze it made Sakura feel slightly light-headed.

"Where did Sasuke's nice brother go?" Sakura snapped in response. She wasn't sure what to make of this man – he seemed nice at times and then he'd get her angry just to provoke a response. She didn't like feeling like an experiment.

"It was you who made the assumption I was nice." Itachi's perfect teeth were bared in a tight smile, "I never claimed to be nice."

"You acted like a nice person," Sakura faltered, "You helped me with the situation with Ino."

Itachi said nothing, but relaxed noticeably. Sakura realised that while Itachi seemed nice and informal at times, he was wound as tight as a clock, always crossing his arms and frowning, checking his watch constantly as though time might have sped up incalculably since he last checked.

Sakura's anger drained away and she was left frowning, studying the man before her. Her gut instincts told her that her first impression of him had been correct – he really was a nice guy, but for some reason he kept going weird on her… He looked pale, unnaturally so, and he had huge bags under his eyes, almost hidden by his glasses. To put it simply… he looked exhausted.

"Are you OK?" Sakura put her hands on her hips and glared at him, wordlessly daring him to lie to her.

For a split-second, he looked shocked, his eyes widening, his eyebrows shooting up. What was wrong with this man that he was shocked by a simple enquiry of his health?

"I thought you were angry with me." He ignored her question pointedly.

"I may have overreacted," She said dismissively, with a dramatic hand wave to punctuate her remark. Itachi's eyes tracked the movement, a corner of his mouth quirking upwards, "But I asked you a question."

"I'm perfectly well." He said stiffly, not meeting her eyes.

"You are a terrible liar," Sakura grinned, "And you look tired. Have you been working too hard lately? Wait, why are you even here? Are you… a teacher?"

"So many questions," Itachi made a dramatic hand gesture that didn't seem to fit his personality, "To answer chronologically, no, I've not been working at all, I'm here because I wanted to observe the drama class and no, I'm not a teacher."

Sakura must have looked suspicious, because he laughed.

"Don't worry, I am allowed to be here, I'm not a predator of some kind." Itachi said, possibly in an attempt to be reassuring.

Sakura took a step back, "In my experience, if you have to actively let someone know you are not a predator, it doesn't do too well for your non-predatory vibes."

Itachi looked exasperated, "I am here to observe the classes, and that is all. In truth, the only reason I'm allowed here is because the headmaster is an old acquaintance of mine. I have only just finished studying a few courses and now… I've found myself at a loss of what to do with myself. I have always had the vague aim of going into teaching, but I've never known what subject to teach. So I am here to see which would suit my talents best."

"Surely you aren't qualified to teach all kinds of college-level subjects?" Sakura raised an eyebrow. She stood behind a stack of chairs and craned her neck trying to look at a picture on the wall. Itachi peeped around the chairs in order to answer.

Itachi actually looked embarrassed, "No, of course not." He denied.

"Hmmm," Sakura said, unconvinced, "So, you said English is your favourite, why not teach that?"

Itachi looked around the room slowly, his eyes dragging across the stage, the spotlights, the dark curtains and finally, Sakura herself.

"Actually, I have become more interested in Drama recently." He replied finally.

She practically bubbled with happiness, "Really?"

He looked as though he was trying not to laugh, "Well, it has become more appealing as of late."

"Itachi-nii-san." A deeply annoyed voice said from the doorway.

Sasuke walked into the room, lifting his bag from where it had been cutting into his shoulder. He looked around briefly and spotted Sakura's bag on the stage. Almost furtively, he put his next to hers.

"Oh, hi, Sasuke-kun." Sakura came out from behind the chairs, greeting him with a smile, cheeks flushing. Itachi gave her a funny look.

Sasuke looked surprised, "Sakura? I saw your bag here, but I… I didn't…" He laughed nervously, pulling at his collar.

Itachi looked a little confused.

"Sasuke, this flustered, halting speech is atypical for you." He noted with a frown.

Sakura looked at Itachi sharply, all of a sudden he sounded wooden and emotionless, his speech becoming overly formal once more. Weird.

Sasuke's pale cheeks flushed. He looked particularly adorable today, with big, chunky skull headphones on either side of his head, dressed in a black and white checked shirt and skinny jeans.

"What are you even doing here, nii-san?" Sasuke hissed, widening his eyes at his brother as though trying to convey some sort of hidden meaning.

Itachi leant against a stack of chairs and gave a careless shrug, to Sasuke's annoyance.

"He's here to –" Sakura started to say.

Itachi elbowed her sharply in the ribs.

Sakura made an outraged noise and shoved at him in retaliation. He stopped the stack of chairs from toppling over with one, almost absent-minded hand.

Sakura stared at him, amazed.

Sasuke gritted his teeth, "If you're here to follow me around all day, please don't. I see you enough already."

Itachi turned wounded eyes on his little brother, "Such cruelty from my beloved brother! Surely you missed me?"

His tone was playful and his expression looked hopeful, which made it all the more crushing when Sasuke scoffed at him.

"No," Sasuke said bluntly, "Now you've moved out your friends aren't always hanging out in my room."

"It's good to see you appreciate the little things in life." Itachi said wryly.

The door opened with a bang and the drama students entered, all tattoos, piercings and interesting hair colours. It was the one place Sakura's hair colour didn't make her stand out.

Itachi examined the crowd, taking off his glasses and spinning them idly in his hand.

Sasuke moved to stand next to Sakura casually; obviously unaware it nearly sent her into a rapturous coma.

The teacher, Konan, walked into the room slowly, looking around. She looked just as cool as her students, her blue hair and piercing marking her out as one of the cooler teachers. She was wearing a loose black top and dark leggings patterned with silvery cobwebs.

"Itachi," She nodded at him, her facial expression not showing even a fraction of surprise at seeing him there, "I trust you will be quiet and you will not disturb the students?"

Itachi only smiled at that, giving Sakura and Sasuke a sideways glance.

Sakura looked unimpressed. Well, he'd disturbed her thus far.

"Today," Konan said in her quiet, dry voice, "We are holding auditions for the college play, Hamlet. Arrange yourselves in groups of the role you wish to audition for. Hamlet, over there. Ophelia, over on that side. Horatio, nearer the stage…"

As Konan directed the students, Sakura suddenly felt a surge of fear. The prettiest, most talented girls were grouping up to audition for Ophelia. Since the play offered very few female roles, the class was split into Ophelia vs Gertrude. Very few girls were trying out for Gertrude.

As though reading her thoughts, Itachi put a hand on her shoulder, "Don't worry. Just perform how you performed for me, and you'll get the part."

Sasuke turned around, his mouth half-open as though he was about to say something. He frowned.

"Sakura," He said, walking over to her, ignoring the enamoured stares the wannabe-Ophelias were giving him, "Are you auditioning?"

"Yeah, for Ophelia," Sakura said nervously, fiddling with her hair. Itachi's hand slipped off of her shoulder as Sasuke glared at him, "I'm not getting my hopes up though."

"I'm going to be Hamlet," Sasuke said carelessly. He looked down at the dog-eared, well-loved copy of the play in Sakura's hand, "Aren't Hamlet and Ophelia love interests?"

Sakura looked up at him, wide-eyed. He was smiling slightly, but the trademark Uchiha intense gaze had been strengthened up to eleven, leaving her almost weak-kneed.

He'd surprised her into silence and for a moment they just stared at each other, smiling.

Itachi put his head near Sakura's and said loudly, "Actually, Hamlet kills Ophelia's father, driving her to suicide. He also tells her to become a prostitute."

"Who asked you?" Sasuke said rudely, moving to join the other Hamlets in a huff.

"He secretly likes me." Itachi confided with a smirk.

Konan called for the Hamlets to go first. A few boys all climbed onto the stage one after the other, some clutching a copy of the play and squinting at the pages whilst reading their lines monotonously, others delivering the soliloquies with too much passion, waving their arms dramatically.

Finally, it was Sasuke's turn, and with one last I-can't-believe-you're-here-you-are-so-embarrassing- looks normally reserved for parents aimed at Itachi, he climbed on the stage.

He pulled out a pair of thick-framed black glasses from his back pocket and put them on, quickly scanning Sakura's copy of Hamlet. He put the book down and stared up at the lights. Itachi clapped and cheered, obviously trying to embarrass his little brother.

It worked, his pale cheeks flushed red and he glared at nothing in particular, the hot, bright lights beating down upon him mercilessly.

"What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form, in moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not me; no, nor woman neither, though, by your smiling, you seem to say so." Sasuke spat out, his mouth twisted as the bitterly sarcastic words left him, occasionally throwing out a frustrated sigh and pacing up and down the stage.

Sakura was entranced.

He was spitting out his lines with unnecessary fury, but somehow… it was mesmeric. His eyes flashing in anger, the spotlights highlighting his ferocity, hands flying up in gesticulation...

She spotted Konan watching him with one eyebrow raised. One of her many-ringed fingers was rubbing her chin thoughtfully.

When he was finished, the class erupted into applause, Sakura the loudest and most enthusiastic.

Itachi clapped quietly, unheard over the din of the thunderous applause.

Sasuke panted slightly, his eyes searching the crowd. He found Sakura and allowed himself a small, triumphant smile at the look of awe on her face.

After Sasuke had casually strolled away from the stage, the compliments rolling off him like water on a duck's back, he handed Sakura her book back and settled down next to her and Itachi to intimidate the rest of the Hamlet-hopefuls with his eyes.

And then the Hamlets had dwindled to none and the Ophelias filed onto the stage dutifully. Many of them were melodramatic, bemoaning their fate, a few of them were just whiny and others had tried to follow Sasuke's example, bellowing their lines with feigned fury, watching for his approval.

Konan shook her head.

Sakura felt her stomach twist as Konan announced her name and the class turned to look at her.

Sasuke offered her a rare, encouraging smile.

She had to be Ophelia. She just had to. To act opposite Sasuke seemed like a dream, but it was achievable, unlike so many of her dreams. She just had to act like she had for Itachi.

Speaking of Itachi, upon hearing her name, he had put away the notebook he had been religiously writing notes in for the last twenty minutes and focused his full attention upon her. It was unnerving.

Sakura left her copy of Hamlet in Sasuke's care and walked on stage, her legs shaking. If performing in front of Itachi had embarrassed her, how would she act in front of all her classmates, knowing they were watching and judging her performance?

While Sakura wasn't actively despised by her classmates, she was fully aware even they considered her a social pariah. Maybe it was the Shakespeare tomes in her bag, maybe it was the shy, hesitant way she spoke. Either way, the stares she was receiving were either scornful or downright hostile.

Sakura stood in the middle of the stage and stared out, the lights hitting her, making her quiver in dread. This was potentially going to be her first and worst performance ever. Or her masterpiece.

Not knowing why, Sakura searched the crowd until she saw Itachi. He smiled and waved.

She took a deep breath.

She began the scene, pausing where other characters would speak, her voice shaky and noticeably frightened. She saw Konan shaking her head again.

Just when she was beginning to panic, and the other students began to giggle, she looked around wildly and spotted Itachi. He was mouthing the other characters' lines.

She felt herself relax and smiled in gratitude. She closed her eyes, immersing herself in the character, lifting her arms up, allowing her head to loll on her shoulders, once again finding Ophelia's madness.

"I hope all will be well," She said quietly, opening her eyes and smiling vaguely. Her eyes locked on Itachi's, "We must be patient: but I cannot choose but weep, to think they should lay him i' the cold ground. My brother shall know of it: and so I thank you for your good counsel. Come, my coach! Good night, ladies; good night, sweet ladies; good night, good night."

Her voice had become high and sweet, slightly tinged in madness, steadily growing hysterical as her speech progressed. She allowed tears to come to her eyes, glittering under the spotlights, her arms spread out wide, shining white.

She felt utterly unlike herself. She had become Ophelia.

Finally, she was done, and she let her arms drop, shaking off the character.

There was a terrifying moment of silence.

And then, ear-splitting applause. The whole class were on their feet, clapping wildly, grinning in amazement, cheering for her.

Konan placed her clipboard under one arm and clapped along with the class.

Itachi was clapping harder than anyone else.

Sakura grinned, elated, and took a bow.

Chapter Text

Her hand felt heavy resting on her stomach. Her hair was caught underneath her head, not quite painful, but uncomfortable enough to make her sweep the trapped pink strands away carefully. She was watching the tiny dust motes floating through the air. There was no real light, except for the golden rectangle shining through the gap underneath the door. Her feet were placed on the rectangle, making them glow softly in the gloom.

The drama cupboard was filled with all sorts of interesting things. Skulls, for one. Konan seemed to have an unhealthy obsession with them. Plastic skulls lined the shelves and posters of grinning, eerie skulls plastered the walls. A mop was resting in the corner.

Sakura lay on the floor, looking up at the ceiling of the cupboard. She wasn't exactly comfortable, but after lying in silence for a while she felt content and restful.

She could hear the faint murmurs of the students from outside the cupboard. She wasn't worried, though. Students never came near this cupboard. It was Konan's private space and she didn't share it with anyone.

Except, unknowingly, with Sakura.

When she had first stumbled across this handy hideaway, she had felt guilty for trespassing, but after repeated returns to the cupboard, she got the feeling Konan knew about the frequent, secret visits.

When all of the thoughts competing with each other for attention inside her mind got too much, she came here to 'switch off.' She found that just lying down helped a lot.

This morning the topic of Gertrude, and whether she had been a good mother or not, had come up in drama class.

Sakura had gratefully crept unseen into the cupboard and stayed there until her mind stopped buzzing.

Most people said that when she got overloaded with thoughts she should just talk to someone about them, but she was firm believer in keeping your problems to yourself. Talking never helped. Besides, the thoughts buzzing in her mind were usually painful and private. To share them would be like undressing in public. Stripping herself bare for the casual stranger to judge. No. She would never do that.

At the forefront of her mind, to her surprise, was Itachi. She found herself musing on him as she lay in silence.

He was a big contradiction, a frustratingly nosy stranger at worst and an impartial, kind confidante at best. She wasn't even sure if she liked him or not. The feeling she got from him was somehow different from liking or not liking. It was intrigue. She wanted to know more about him.

It was entirely possible her interest was because of his relation to her crush, but she didn't think so. He was perfect. That much was clear. There were no visible flaws, anyway. Sakura had the image of an unmarred canvas when she thought of him. Beautifully pristine, full of potential, but ultimately empty. He was the prelude to a picture of perfection at the moment.

If she got to talk with him more often, she could fill that canvas out until she got the full picture.

She conjured up a mental image of an empty canvas. His easy charisma, his noticeable good looks and charm earned him a yellow glow emanating from the centre of the canvas. But she recalled the darkness she had glimpsed when he was talking about attractive women. She added a mental swirl of black paint at the edges of the canvas, to indicate the darkness creeping in on the yellow glow.

She could not paint in real life, only in her mind. Her hand felt clumsy holding a paintbrush. The lines on the pages never went the way she wanted them to.

There was another reason she liked this cupboard.

Konan used it to store her pictures.

She kept them in rolled up stacks in the dark corner of the cupboard, half-hidden behind large grinning skull.

Sakura pulled herself up slowly, breathing out, relishing the calm sensation of quiet the cupboard gave her.

The papers rustled as she unfurled them.

Konan had painted indigo butterfly wings, shimmering azure as though simulating flight. The wings both ended in broken fragments, purple and blue swirls denoting the end of flight for the painted butterfly.

Sakura stared at it for a long time, her breath caught in her throat. It was beautiful.

She was so caught up in the picture that she actually didn't hear the scrape of the doorknob turning behind her until it was too late.

The little room's darkness was banished by the outside light as the door opened.

Sasuke stood frozen in the doorway at the sight of her.

"Ah –" She said, startled beyond belief.

"I saw you come in here." Sasuke said, sounding almost awkward, "Earlier, I mean. I thought you should know that the class has finished, so you can go to lunch now if you want."

She blinked at him. What an oddly nice thing to do.

"You didn't tell Konan-sensei I was in here, did you?" Sakura's voice came out rougher than intended, owed to her long period of blissful silence.

He shook his head.

An uncomfortable silence fell between them, with Sasuke frowning deeply at his own thoughts, and Sakura desperately trying to think of something to say.

"I'm going to lunch now." He jabbed a thumb behind him, still frowning, "You coming?"

Was that an invitation?

"Sure," She said, trying to sound casual, "Can I join you if we're going the same way?"

Sasuke's frown smoothed out into something almost like a smile, "That's fine. You'll have to ignore Naruto's poor table manners, though."

Sakura beamed at him. This day was getting better and better.

xxxxxxxx

The first thing Sakura noticed about popular girls was that they talked a lot, mostly about nothing.

"Did you watch that show?" Ami demanded, turning to one of her friends.

Her friend thought about it slowly whilst drinking juice. She finally licked her lips and spoke up, "What show?"

"The one about the elephants. I told you to watch it." Ami said, irritated.

"I think I fell asleep." The girl shrugged.

Sakura was sitting in between Sasuke and Naruto. She wondered if the seating had been prearranged, because Naruto had happily plonked himself down beside her without saying anything and Sasuke had glared at one of his friends who had been about to sit next to her before taking the seat for himself.

Sakura had sat down cautiously, spotting Ami and her crew the moment she walked into the canteen. Ami had looked at her for a long, heart-stopping moment, but had clearly decided against saying anything with Sasuke right there.

"Sakura-chan," Naruto said around a mouthful of noodles, grinning widely, displaying the contents of his mouth for the table to see, "How're you?"

Sakura felt herself frown at the disgusting display of partially-chewed noodles oozing out of Naruto's mouth, but forced herself to reply, "I'm fine, thanks." She smiled, poking at her own lunch with little enthusiasm.

Sasuke reached around her, the warmth of his arm resting on her back, and slapped Naruto upside the head.

"Close your mouth, dobe." He grunted.

Naruto had looked outraged at first but then his eyes fell on Sakura and his expression turned sheepish.

"Hehe, sorry Sakura-chan. I just love ramen! Do you like ramen? Me too!" Naruto went on for a while, babbling about everything and nothing in particular.

Sakura tried hard to listen, but when Sasuke had put his arm out to hit Naruto, he had left it resting on the back of her chair, so casually and unremarkably that she couldn't think of a thing to say about it. Maybe he did it without thinking and had no motive behind the move. At any rate, she focused on the bright smile on Naruto's face and absolutely not the warmth of Sasuke's arm seeping through the back of her shirt.

She bit into her apple and was pleased at its sweetness. As she was savouring the fruit, she happened to glance upwards and froze in shock.

Itachi was sitting at the table opposite hers, the one normally occupied by the teachers. He sat next to Konan and Deidara, eating some kind of onigiri.

He was also staring directly at her.

His dark eyes switched from her to Sasuke and back. Something like a smirk fluttered across his lips, quickly replaced by a politely blank look when Konan said something to him.

Sasuke seemed to notice her inattention and followed her gaze to Itachi. He scowled upon recognising his brother.

"What the hell is he even doing here?" He muttered, so quietly Sakura was sure he hadn't intended anyone to hear. She glanced around the table. Everyone seemed to be either engrossed in their food (Naruto) or their reflection on the back of a spoon (Ami). Sakura let her fingers twitch next to Sasuke's face to get his attention.

His sudden gaze took her breath away. She still couldn't quite grasp what she was doing here, sitting at the table filled with popular people, next to the reigning king of the beautiful people, looking for all the world as though she belonged here.

"Did he not tell you?" Sakura asked the younger Uchiha brother.

He was toying with his napkin whilst staring hard at Itachi, who, by the sudden interest in his onigiri, was clearly aware of his brother's scrutiny but, for reasons known only to himself, chose not to look back.

"No." Sasuke said shortly.

Sakura's lips twitched into a confused frown.

But, after a bit of verbal prodding, he'd told her readily enough.

Odd.

Decision made, she stood up.

Sasuke's eyes tracked her movements and he sent her a questioning frown.

"I'm just going to go talk to your brother." Sakura explained.

Ami put down her spoon and stared.

"Sasuke's brother?" Her eyebrows drew together sharply. She looked around the room and instantly spotted Itachi, drawing the obvious conclusion based on Itachi's similarity to Sasuke. She rested her cheek on her hand and smirked.

"Ooh," She said coquettishly, "Sasuke-kun, you never told me you had a brother. Or that he was a teacher. Or that he was so… cute."

Sakura felt an odd, unpleasant twinge in her stomach at Ami's words. She disliked Ami's obvious attraction to Itachi and her interest in him. Itachi had come to be like an imaginary friend to Sakura, someone only she spoke to. She didn't want to share him with someone like Ami.

Sasuke evidently shared her annoyance, given that he snarled at Ami, "He isn't a teacher. And you'll do well to notice good looks don't make a good person."

Sakura raised an eyebrow. Itachi had said Sasuke didn't value good looks, but even though he was insinuating Itachi was a bad person, he was also echoing something Itachi had said before. Perhaps she wasn't the only one subjected to Itachi's lectures on morality.

"I never said he was good or bad," Ami laughed, a fluttery sound that grated on Sakura's nerves, "I couldn't care less if he was either. Though now that you mention it… bad does sound interesting."

Sasuke gave her a look of pure disgust.

Sakura rolled her eyes and walked around the edge of the table, heading for the teachers.

Ami's hand reached out and caught her sleeve so quickly Sakura didn't realise what was holding her back for a few seconds.

The purple-haired girl didn't even look away from her spoon, so Sakura focused her gaze on Ami's distorted reflection on the utensil. Even though her face was twisted beyond recognition on the warped metal, she still managed to look beautiful.

"Don't sit with us again." She said very, very quietly, still gazing at her reflection.

Naruto put down his fork and abandoned his ramen in favour of staring at Ami and Sakura's near silent confrontation.

Sakura wasn't sure how to respond. It was not a threat. It was a warning, a hint of promised retribution if Sakura dared defy Queen Ami's orders. For whatever reason, Ami did not want her there.

Sakura ripped her sleeve out of Ami's surprisingly strong grip.

"Whatever." She said flatly and stormed off.

Itachi's eyes rose to meet her as she approached. She ignored his gaze and flung herself on the seat opposite his own, in between Sasori and Hidan.

"Do you have business with one of us?" Sasori asked solemnly.

Sakura thought of Ami's cruelty, her warning, the sharp words she always had on hand to puncture Sakura's fragile ego…

"No," Sakura said, defeated, "Just felt like talking to Itachi."

Konan's eyebrows rose ever so slightly, "You are familiar with Itachi?" She asked, one finger toying with the metal stud in her chin.

Her gaze was surprisingly disquieting.

"We are familiar," Itachi agrees, not looking up from his cabbage onigiri, "Sakura and I are both philosophers, you see."

It's not how Sakura would have described herself, but the inquisitive look in Konan's eyes dwindles away, to her relief.

She wasn't quite sure how to describe her relationship with Itachi yet. Acquaintances? But, she'd told him so many personal things…

She frowned, realising she'd let go of her own personal beliefs, telling Itachi about herself instead of keeping quiet. She'd told him things she hadn't even told Tenten. There was a reason the other girl didn't understand Sakura's fascination with beauty.

She didn't like the idea of Itachi being someone who could coax bits of information from her.

Sasori was ignoring Deidara's insults.

"And I said to him, 'how can you possibly think that those wooden puppets sitting there, gathering dust, could ever be real art?" Deidara was addressing Itachi, but his eye was on Sasori, a ferocious scowl on his face.

"And I replied," Sasori said calmly, "Be quiet, brat."

Deidara flushed, "I was about to say that!"

"Deidara-chan," Hidan spoke up, "That fucking weird kid's staring at you again."

The whole table turned to gaze at Sai, who was indeed staring at Deidara. The pale boy was, oddly enough, sitting at a table with just Ino, who was sitting three seats away from him. He had no food with him, and his eyes were fixed on Deidara.

The blonde teacher made a disgusted face.

"Think he's got a fucking crush on you, Deidara-chan." Hidan noted with a sly look towards Sasori.

Sakura was interested to see that, although Sasori did not turn to look at Sai, his hand clenched in a fist. His face was completely expressionless, but his body language said it all for him, tight and angry.

"Haruno, have you ever thought about taking up art?" Konan said, her voice paper dry. It was funny how the woman could ask a question without any inflection in her voice. Her tone was bare and emotionless.

Itachi looked up for the first time, seemingly curious.

Sakura flushed. Dear God, she did know about the cupboard!

"Um, not really." She said quietly, "I'm no good at it."

"Babies aren't good at speaking when they are born," Konan traced a pattern on the table with her finger, "But they learn. I can see you have The Eye for Art," She said in tones that made it obvious she was capitalising certain words, "You should not waste it."

"You didn't tell me you had an interest in art?" Itachi was staring again, just as intensely as before.

Sasori spoke up for the first time since Sai's unwitting interruption, "Are you in my class?"

As he was the art teacher, no, Sakura had never once set foot in his classroom.

She shook her head.

"Maybe you should be." He said, looking her up and down in a thoroughly uninterested fashion, but with a spark in his eye that said maybe he thought what he saw was worth looking at. She was wearing a black hat, a matching scarf and shoes that she had doodled on herself, so perhaps her inner artist was showing on the outside.

"I'm no good at art." Sakura quietly insisted again.

Itachi's eyes were annoying her. So intense, so deep and full of meaning that she didn't understand. It was like there was a constant unanswered question between them, but for the life of her she didn't know what the answer was.

"My brother is very upset that you are sitting here." Itachi said suddenly, smiling.

Sakura dared glanced behind her. Sasuke didn't look upset, but his eyes were on her and he hadn't touched his lunch since she'd left the table. Naruto was trying to talk to Ami, who looked like she was ignoring him.

"Damn." She cursed, pulling a face.

She liked Sasuke. Too much, probably. It had seemed like they were at the beginning of a new relationship, maybe something more than friendship… She didn't want to lose that. But it was as though with Sasuke it was either him or his brother. She couldn't be friends with both.

Not that she was friends with either of them, really.

She looked around the table. The teachers were chatting amiably now, though Deidara was blushing as Sasori's sharp tongue cut through his words. This was an already formed group, with established barriers and members. She didn't belong here. Even though Itachi was new, and not really one of them, he knew them all personally and thus he fit in perfectly, sitting at the white table gazing at his empty plate.

Sakura thought of the popular table. It wasn't how she imagined. She didn't instantly connect with anyone there. Not even Sasuke. So, she didn't belong with them either.

Her eyes were drawn by Sai and Ino's odd table. They had been joined by Shikamaru and Chouji, two students Sakura knew of, but had never thought of.

They were laughing and chatting easily. Ino sat in silence, the gap between her and the others obvious and painful-looking. Sakura didn't know why she wasn't sitting with Sasuke like usual. All she knew was Ino didn't look like she belonged either.

"I've got to go." Sakura muttered, standing up and brushing herself down to remove stray crumbs.

She knew one person who accepted her without hesitation, and they didn't possess the trademark piercing Uchiha eyes.

Two pairs of such eyes followed her as she left the canteen.

xxxxxxxx

Sakura pushed open the gym's double doors and peered into the large room.

"Aha!" She said triumphantly upon spotting Tenten's trademark buns, "I knew you'd be here –"

But Tenten wasn't alone.

Hyuuga Neji was currently pinning her wrists to the wall and glaring into her face.

Tenten rarely looked anything other than happy, so it was disorienting to see her looking upset and confused, two expressions that should never have gone near the girl.

"What are you doing?" Sakura asked, stepping further into the gym. The coldness of her voice surprised her.

Neji turned his head slowly to look at her, his hair spilling over his shoulder with the movement.

Unfortunately for him, Tenten took the opportunity to knee him in the stomach, hard.

He let out a little choked wheeze and sank to the floor, clutching his stomach.

"We were fighting." Tenten said, her tone matter-of-fact. At the sight of Sakura, she had relaxed visibly, "I was explaining to Neji why he is a bitch."

"I see." Sakura said, though she didn't, not really.

Neji got to his feet, face red with anger.

"You'll pay for that, Tenten." He vowed, spitting the words out with fury.

"Aw, what's wrong Neji-kun?" Tenten asked, her sweet voice mocking, "Afraid you broke a nail?"

His murderous glare turns poisonous, "I will only put up with so much, Tenten." He said coldly. It was clearly a warning, but Tenten didn't look perturbed.

He left with an arrogant toss of his head, his long hair flying out in a shining arc.

Tenten stuck her tongue out at his retreating back.

"Are you OK?" Sakura asked anxiously.

Tenten blew up her cheeks like a puffer fish as she contemplated the question.

"Yes." She said finally, a hand reaching up to smooth out her fringe, "Neji was just getting his bitch on a little more than usual. He… he told me that he puts up with me because he thinks I'm interesting, but there are parts of me that he finds… unattractive and annoying. I told him he had no business 'putting up with me' at all, and that if he didn't like me he could fuck off, but he got upset. Not angry, upset. I could tell."

"So he pinned you to a wall?" Sakura said disbelievingly.

"Neji's a simple kind of guy," Tenten shrugged, "If you piss him off you're going to be in for a world of hurt. 'Cause he's so strong, he has to hold back all of that anger he's got boiling inside him… Otherwise, he might hurt someone. He might be a big old bitch with a stick up his arse, but he still doesn't want to hurt anyone. But, me, I'm different. I'm strong. I can cope with that. I think that's why he 'puts up with me.'"

"You aren't suggesting he beats you." Sakura said flatly, only half-joking.

"Nope," Tenten winked, "I'm just saying he doesn't have to worry about me shrieking or getting scared if he grabs my shoulders or something. And you saw what happened. I put a stop to it went he went too far, got too angry. I guess he appreciates that."

"Tell me you don't like him." Sakura requested, "I need a good dose of normal, please."

Tenten held a finger up to her lips and glanced sideways at the door.

Sakura looked and nearly jumped out of her skin.

Itachi's face was peeking around the door, his dark eyes fixed on her. At the sight of her staring at him, he hid.

"Does he think he's being subtle?" Sakura sighed.

"Who is that?" Tenten asked.

"Sasuke's big brother. He's… er… a friend of mine, I guess."

"More than Sasuke is?" Tenten twisted her mouth into a pout, eyebrows furrowing.

Sakura gave the little slice of Itachi that she could see through the gap in the door a quick glance before hissing in reply, "Yes."

"And he's spying on you?"

Sakura pulled a face, "Looks like. I'm gonna go talk to him, see what he wants. Are you sure you're OK?"

She only asked out of politeness, but the moment she does, Tenten's soft brown eyes darken with some unknown emotion. Sakura was startled by her friend's sudden change in disposition, but the trace of negative feeling disappeared as quickly as it appeared.

Tenten smiled and waved her hands, "I'm fine, fine. Go and talk to your stalker."

Sakura had always viewed Tenten as an uncomplicated, nice girl. But now it seemed there were layers she hadn't noticed before, and it was obvious something was troubling her friend.

The thought was displeasing. Sakura didn't like leaving Tenten standing in the empty gym on her own with that fake smile on her face, but she knew Tenten wouldn't want her to make a fuss.

So she reluctantly left the gym to face Sasuke's older brother.

He was leaning against one of the doors – the one you had to pull to open – and frowning at nothing in particular.

Since he hadn't seemed to notice her yet, she decided to take the time to scrutinise him.

He appeared to be in his early twenties. He was wearing a suit, charcoal black with a crisp white shirt and shiny black shoes. He looked every inch the successful, stern businessman, though she knew this wasn't the case. The thin lines underneath his eyes seemed to be permanent, and only added to the overall weariness of his appearance.

Sakura noticed, when he thought he was alone, he looked completely different.

There was no sardonic smirk or frown adorning his face, no self-important air, no affectation of cool.

He just stood there looking so weary and… something else.

If Sakura hadn't known he was so popular or had the evidence of his attractiveness before her eyes, she would have said he looked… lonely.

Before she could stop herself, she started babbling.

"Are you OK? You really don't look good. When was the last time you slept? You look awfully tired and upset… Um, not upset, it's more like… um… loneliness. I'm sorry, that isn't very nice to say, but I guess I'm just a little worried and I know I'm babbling but it's only because you make me uncomfortable."

After her speech there was a long, uncomfortable silence.

Itachi looked mildly astonished.

"…You think I look lonely?" He asked curiously, "I have plenty of friends. I see one right before me here, in fact."

"You can be lonely in a crowd," Sakura replied, blushing with embarrassment at her stupid babbling, "And you can be lonely without being alone."

The look Itachi gave her was scorching, it was as though she had voiced something he had dared to think of himself. He seemed angry for the first time since she'd met him, truly incensed.

"I am not lonely." He put emphasis on every word, his gaze heated. He very deliberately placed his hands either side of her face, "I have as many friends as I need."

Sakura had just enough time to ponder the scandalous position they were in when a voice cut through the oppressive silence that had built between them.

"Nii-san." Sasuke's voice was quiet, but liberally laced with poison.

Chapter Text

Her father's bedroom was dark and smelt musty. Sakura pushed the door open a little further, hardly daring to breathe. Though considering what her main objective was, being afraid of waking him up was stupid beyond belief.

Mind made up, she stepped decisively into the dark room, leaving the door open so she could see where she was going.

She gently shook her father. He mumbled a bit in his sleep but didn't wake up.

"Dad?" She whispered, "Dad? Wake up."

He stirred, eyes flickering open. He looked up at her blearily.

"What? What time is it?" He yawned.

"It's one in the afternoon, Dad. I was hoping you'd get dressed today." Sakura said softly.

His eyes were red, from sleep or something else, she didn't know.

He pulled the covers around him tighter and closed his eyes, "Leave me alone, Sakura." He didn't say with any heat or anger in his voice, but it hurt all the same.

Sakura was left in the dark, staring at her father's face, hoping he'd change his mind. After thirty seconds she patted his shoulder and left the room.

She was down in the kitchen carefully pouring out tiny measurements of her dad's favourite alcohol down the sink, as she did steadily every day, to make it run out quicker. Of course, this usually meant he'd just buy more sooner, but she liked to think it helped his liver, if only a little bit.

Sometimes she hated him.

It was easy to stand there, fully dressed, fresh from the shower and washing up the dishes from last night, and judge him for sleeping all day and only getting up to drink in the night.

But on the rare occasions he was sober and awake, he was so apologetic. "I don't deserve you," He'd once said tearfully as she tidied his room for him, "I know I don't. But please, please don't leave me. You're the only person I have left."

Sakura sniffed and wiped her face with her wrist, since her hands were in sopping wet gloves. She hated herself for resenting him.

The phone rang shrilly.

Sakura cursed and whipped off her washing up gloves, lunging for the phone before the mystery caller hung up.

"Hello?" She said hastily, praying her hands weren't wet and she was going to somehow electrocute herself.

There was a moment of silence and then a dry chuckle.

"Would that be Haruno Sakura?"

"Yes, who's speaking?" Sakura frowned at a smudge on one of the glasses she'd left to dry and rubbed at it absently.

"Itachi." The velvety voice said wryly, "I'm hurt you didn't recognise my voice."

She nearly dropped the phone in the sink.

"Oh!" She said, flustered, "What's wrong?" Why was he calling her? Why was he calling her house? Even Tenten just called her mobile at Sakura's personal request. What if her father had answered?

"Nothing's wrong," Itachi slurred, and she realised exactly what the problem was. He was drunk. Absolutely pissed. What the hell? "I looked your number up. I wanted to talk to you. I wanted to tell you I thought it was sad that you didn't have any friends."

Sakura tried hard not grind her teeth or clench her jaw for fear of damaging something important, but this was an exception. She breathed out sharply and prepared herself for a tirade.

"Uchiha Itachi, I don't know why or how you're drunk when it's not even two o'clock in the afternoon, but I'll have you know I have plenty of friends!"

"You have one," He corrected her, sounding giddy, "Can't rem'ber her name. Like a number. Anyway, I thought of a great idea…"

"Was it how to sober up in thirty seconds? Because, if not, then I'm hanging up."

"Don't be facetious," He chided her, and how unfair was it that he still sounded like a dictionary even when pissed out of his mind? "I know how to help you. I'm going to tutor you in Sasuke-speak."

Sakura pursed her lips, not in the mood for drunken rambling, "Start making sense or I'm going." She warned.

"I'll tell you what he likes. Make you… more suited. Then, you and Sasuke will be in love and you'll be my sister-in-law and you can act out Ophelia every Sunday brunch at the Uchiha manor." Itachi said, sounding pleased with himself.

"You've got it all figured out." Sakura rolled her eyes.

"Yes," Itachi said smugly, "My mother will like you."

Sakura muttered a prayer to the heavens. Itachi was a weird drunk.

"Yay." She said, deadpan. She wasn't in the mood for this, "Bye then."

"Wait, I wanted to tell you about Sasuke's favourite colour –"

She hung up, stabbing the end call button.

Who would have thought Itachi was the type to make drunk calls? And to think, he'd actually gone to the trouble of looking up her number just to ramble down the phone about his insane plans about hooking her and Sasuke up. Good God, he'd wanted her to perform at 'Sunday brunch.'

xxxxxxxx

The next day a miracle happened.

Her father was already in the bathroom by the time she tripped down the hall to have a shower. She could hear the hiss of water and the gurgle of pipes through the wall, and smiled. He'd gotten up before she did, and was having a shower without being poked and prodded into it.

It had to be a good omen.

She made breakfast with a constant smile on her face, humming as she peeled some oranges she'd bought the day before.

She had her father's breakfast ready for him by the time he got downstairs.

She straightened the plate just before he entered the kitchen, and made sure the knife and fork were in the right place. He was the type who couldn't relax until everything was perfect.

He had shaved for the first time in ages. His face was thinner than she remembered now that it was clean-shaven.

He took one look at the plate of buttery toast and went green.

Sakura's smile faded, hangover.

"No thanks, I'm not well today." He sighed, walking past the table.

"Headache?" She sighed.

He only nodded, going into the living room to read the newspaper she had bought for him that morning.

Sakura looked down at the cooling toast and tossed it in the bin in a sudden flare of anger. What a waste.

She retreated to her bedroom and put a DVD on.

An image of a smiling woman wearing sunglasses filled the screen. Sakura leant forward and drank in every detail hungrily. A pouting mouth, high cheekbones, clear skin. Sakura knew that lurking underneath those dark glasses were two melancholic eyes.

The woman turned to the camera and laughed, showing her white teeth.

It was her mother, aged about twenty years old, before everything collapsed all around her.

She was the single most beautiful woman Sakura had ever seen, and she was sure she'd never see someone whose beauty could compare. Ino, Ami, all of the sparkly-eyed, curvy girls at her college had got nothing on her mother's sad, sad eyes and tall, lean body.

Her mother was surrounded by friends at a party. She said something and they all laughed, every one of them staring at her in awe or adoration.

Sakura paid close attention to her mother's every movement, trying to imitate her languid body language, the way she managed to lounge on a chair with her feet tucked under her like a child whilst looking effortlessly chic.

The camera zoomed in on her face when the lights dimmed and someone brought a cake out. The candles spluttered wax all over the icing but Sakura's mother looked absolutely delighted, gushing over the modest chocolate cake like it was the most delicious thing she'd ever seen.

Women like that, they just bubbled over with infectious enthusiasm, filling everyone around them with energy and joy.

Sakura paused the TV as her mother blew out the candles, her mouth in a perfect moue, holding her hair back carefully.

She whispered, "Happy Birthday, Mum."

She only realised she was crying after she absently touched her face and found it was wet.

Her phone trilled out a happy melody, signalling she had an incoming call.

She wiped her face and practiced saying 'hello' a few times to make sure her voice wasn't shaky or teary.

"Hello?" She finally said huskily, resisting the urge to sniff, her fingers wiping the last of the tears away.

"Sakura," Itachi drawled, "Don't hang up."

She sighed, "What do you want now? Do you want to tell me what Sasuke wears, boxers or briefs?"

"I'm afraid I couldn't possibly divulge such salacious information to a perfect stranger," Itachi said smugly, "I'm calling to apologise for yesterday."

"That's fine, but make sure you call someone else next time you get blind drunk."

Itachi coughed, "It won't happen again. I don't normally drink. Let me take you out for lunch, my treat."

Sakura made a face because Itachi clearly hadn't got the memo about his inherent coolness and her current loser-status. Cool and loser did not mix, like oil and water.

"I'm all lunched out, thanks." She replied, mimicking his casual drawl. It was true, she'd had a tuna sandwich and a few biscuits for lunch already.

"I'll pick you up in… well, that depends where you live."

Sakura thought about Itachi showing up at her seedy, crappy excuse for a house, taking one look at it and backing away, muttering excuses about having places to be.

"You can meet me at the college, since we both know where it is." She said firmly, because there was no way he was coming anywhere near her house without a blindfold and a severe concussion.

Itachi hummed and eventually said, "Fine. What time?"

"Half an hour, if you can." Sakura said even though she was inwardly freaking out because she was going out, on a social event, with an Uchiha and all of her clothes sucked.

"Works for me," He said cheerfully, "I need time to slap some makeup on."

"Dear God, no." Sakura blurted out without thinking, because the thought of Itachi with a face full of makeup was just too funny for words.

"Sarcasm, my dear," He sighed, "I will teach you."

When she'd finally got him off the phone – because it turned out he was a chatty caller – she furiously dug around her chest-of-drawers until she found her mother's makeup collection.

It was a pretty big box set up like an artist's palette, with all of the colours neatly arranged in a rainbow formation. Her mother was pretty scuzzy so the colours had all leaked into each other and smudged the container beyond recognition.

Nevertheless, she found an unmolested shade of black – because her mother hated drab, dark colours and preferred to dress like a butterfly – and carefully daubed it along her eyelids, along with a touch of grey glitter. She lined her eyes with thick, black kohl, leaving tiny points either side to make her eyelashes look bigger, and assaulted her lashes with copious amounts of mascara.

She was about ten percent more tanned now that she'd practically painted herself with all sorts of golden powder, and was now a pore-free zone. Her mother had taught her how to put on makeup aged five, so she was pretty much a self-declared expert.

When you had pink hair, you automatically had to be very careful with your colour selection. She picked up a see through, black blouse that was tipping the scale of frumpy vs fierce on the frumpy side, and teamed it with a vest and a wine-coloured cardigan. She put on a black lacy skirt that reached her knees, its length cancelling out its potential sexiness. She wriggled into sheer tights and managed to squeeze her feet into her mother's tiny, spiky high heels.

She was perfectly aware that she was slightly dressed up for lunch.

She also knew that no one on Uchiha Itachi's side of popularity had ever even asked her out to the back of the college to beat the shit out of her, let alone to lunch.

She absolutely had to look her best.

xxxxxxxx

Standing outside of her college on a Sunday when the temperature had dropped below freezing wasn't part of her relaxing Sunday – especially not when it was her mother's birthday. But she'd wanted nothing more than to leave the house when her father had got out his wedding album and a bottle of vodka, cradling the bottle to his head like a child with a comfort blanket.

Itachi pulled up in a sleek, black vehicle that was so close to the road it was almost scraping the tarmac.

"Get in loser, we're going shopping." He grinned at her, winding the window down to peer at her over his sunglasses.

Sakura burst out laughing.

"W-why are you quoting Mean Girls?" She spluttered.

He made a face, "I'll have you know it's a very cleverly written film, with excellent dialogue and character development."

She was still laughing by the time he opened the passenger side up for her with button on his dashboard.

The car was toasty when she slid in. She sighed in contentment as her iced body began to thaw. The leather seat she was residing on was softer than a cloud, and could perform a number of functions according to the label. It could recline until it was totally horizontal (Sakura was certain this had to be illegal, or at least breached several safety laws) and apparently contained several litres of beer. Yup, she was in the illegal-mobile.

Itachi noticed her stiffen in her seat. "Why are you shooting me death glares?"

"Because I just realised I've gotten into a car with an older guy I don't know very well, and you are currently sporting a rape face."

Itachi blinked at that, apparently not realising that smirking like the Cheshire Cat had some negative connotations.

"Rape face?" He raised an eyebrow, pulling his sunglasses up so they completely shielded his eyes from her accusing glare, "I don't have a rape face. I am incapable of facial expressions that do not indicate how morally pure and noble my intentions are."

"OK, but you should know I have pepper spray and a rape alarm." She warned him.

If she didn't know any better, she'd say he was pouting, "You are joking, right? I don't think I could handle you trying to impugn my virtue."

"I'm joking," Sakura sighed, "Just drive the car."

"OK," He turned the key in the ignition, a pleased smile crossing his face as the car purred in response, "What an engine. Oh, and you look very nice today."

Sakura flushed and didn't say anything, ignoring the smirk on Itachi's rape face.

xxxxxxxx

They ended up in a pub.

Itachi was currently texting one-handed on a very posh phone whilst holding his mug of black coffee to his forehead, glancing at the phone's screen and wincing when he received a text.

"Why are you wearing those sunglasses indoors?" Sakura asked, picking at the bowl of salty chips Itachi had insisted on ordering for the two of them to share.

He waved a hand insouciantly, "Guess."

"Hungover?" She tried, smirking when he nodded.

"I bet your head hurts, huh?" She said sympathetically. He gave a pitiful whimper in response.

With a smile, she grabbed the bowl of chips and brought it down on the table, hard.

He nearly passed out from the resulting bang.

"That was for saying I have no friends." She sniffed.

"You are a very horrible person," Itachi moaned, gulping down his coffee like it was a hangover cure, "Your soul is black."

"My soul is a shiny pink colour," She countered, "And you didn't seem the type to get drunk at one in the afternoon."

He must be one of those party-hard types, who think any hour is a reasonable hour to go out and wiggle to some deafening frat-boy dubstep whilst downing any alcoholic beverage in the nearest vicinity.

"Yes, well," He winced, "I had an argument. I was… annoyed. I don't normally drink, so when I did actually consume alcohol, it… affected me more than the average person."

"Who was your argument with?"

Itachi gestured to his phone, where he was having a fierce text war using only his thumb, to Sakura's awe, "My girlfriend," He said casually, "Sachiko."

Sakura felt her insides drop and her smile melt away. She had no idea why, seeing as it was pretty obvious a guy like Itachi would already be taken. She really shouldn't be so surprised…

"She still mad then?" Sakura pointed at his phone, which was buzzing angrily.

He sighed, a deep, wretched sigh, "So it would seem. I have no idea why. I've already sent her three bouquets and a teddy bear."

"You can't buy her love." Sakura snorted, sipping her cherry drink slowly, trying to recover from the unpleasant surprise that had been Sachiko.

Itachi gave her a long, measured look, "With Sachiko, you could probably buy her love by complimenting her hair."

"She sounds deep." Sakura grunted.

"A little catty, don't you think?" He raised an eyebrow, "You haven't even met her."

"Is she deep?"

He didn't even have to think about it, "No, she isn't. But she is a good person, and that's what I need right now."

"You and your obsession with 'good people.'" Sakura grumbled, "What's wrong with people who live on the morally grey side of life?"

"Like you?" He tilted his head and Sakura realised where the conversation was heading.

"No! God no!" She babbled, "I'm really young and I misquote Shakespeare and I don't really have a social life. I was so not suggesting someone like you would go for someone like me."

He took off his sunglasses and flinched at the dim lighting in the room.

"Sakura," He said lazily, "Why are you so down on yourself?"

"I'm not! I'm a super happy person, apart from the sulking, because I can sulk for hours, seriously."

He reached over and took her wrist in his hand, rubbing his thumb over her pulse comfortingly, "There's something wrong with you today and for the life of me I can't work out what it is."

Sakura tried to pull her wrist back but he held it captive against his chest, casually sipping from his mug as though he wasn't grossly invading her personal space.

"I'm fine." Sakura said firmly, "Absolutely fine."

He pinned her with his intense gaze, "Tell me."

She nearly cracked, but her strict policy of not over-sharing stilled her tongue.

"I swear I'm fine," She managed a very shaky smile, grimacing at the sugary aftertaste of the cherry drink.

He squeezed her hand warningly, "If you don't tell me I'm going to cut off your fingers."

She rolled her eyes, "Oh please, I'm not scared of a guy who quotes chick flicks."

"I'll tell Sasuke you love him." He said, and that was a really low blow…

She sucked in a breath, furious, "Fine. I'm a bit upset because it's my Mum's birthday and she… isn't here anymore."

Itachi's thumb halted its stroking motions as he stared at her, "Not here anymore?"

"Dead," She clarified, feeling her eyes well up at the mere word, "Deceased. No longer with us. In a better place. Take your pick."

And suddenly the tight grip on her hand loosened and he was walking around the table to pull her head into his chest.

She sat there, breathing in his expensive cologne and shaking.

"Come on," He murmured into her hair, "It's OK to cry."

"No, it really isn't," She said flatly, moving her head away from his one-sided embrace, "I'm fine."

He held her at arm's length, ignoring her ferocious scowl, "Don't do that. Don't pretend you're OK if you aren't. That's unbelievably unhealthy."

"Oh and going off in hysterics in a public place is healthy?" Sakura said incredulously, "Look, you don't know me very well, this is how I look when I'm absolutely fine, so stop going on about it."

She pushed her chair back and threw some money on the table, "I'll just be off, then." She said, ignoring the stupid wobble in her voice and the sudden wetness in her eyes.

Itachi picked up her money and slid it into her pocket, slapping a few large bills down onto the table instead.

She ignored him and swept out of the building, feeling like a complete moron because she knew she was overreacting but she could also feel tears coming down her face and she was a total idiot for crying in public like a baby…

But when her feet hit the pavement, a hand shot out and grabbed her shoulder. She struggled, not wanting him to see her so upset, but he forcibly turned her around.

She stood there, shivering in the freezing cold, tears pouring down her face, being stared at by this stupidly gorgeous man who so obviously had a girlfriend, and she hadn't even been aware that she'd had a stupid little girl crush on him until this point. But she knew now, because it hurt.

Beautiful people like Itachi were never interested in dull as mud, ugly, useless drama freaks like Sakura.

It was Sasuke and Ino all over again, but about a thousand times worse.

And now he'd forced her to think of her mother on the day she really didn't want to think of her, and now she was crying like a child.

He gathered her into his arms, murmuring apologies and soothing words.

"I'm sorry," He said softly, "I'm so sorry."

The comfort only made her bawl harder, fisting the cloth of his shirt in her hands and sobbing into his chest.

She eventually calmed down long enough to move away from him, wiping her sore eyes.

"I d-didn't mean to get your shirt wet," She swallowed back more tears, "I'm sorry."

"It'll dry out," He said carelessly, "I didn't mean to upset you. I only wanted to meet up to apologise and now I've gone and made you cry…"

"It's OK," She laughed, her grin wry, "I really am fine now."

"Good, because I have a proposition for you." He said, suddenly serious. She got the feeling they were finally getting down to the business end of this tête-à-tête, "I may have said a few stupid things when I was drunk, but I think I hit on a good idea. I can help you with Sasuke."

She frowned at him, wiping her eyes carefully to avoid smudging her eyeliner.

"I am something of a Sasuke-expert, having practically raised him myself," He said modestly, "I can help you become a little more Sasuke friendly. It'll improve your chances, at least."

"…I'm not going to dress up in leather and go around singing 'You're the One that I Want." Sakura said emphatically.

Itachi's smirk twitched and she got the feeling he was suppressing laughter, "Yes, well, after Sasuke's reaction to me putting my hands near your face, I think you don't have to go that far…"

Sakura's smile died at the memory of Sasuke's furious reaction.

Itachi and his little brother had had a spat, in which Itachi spoke very mildly and calmly, accidently driving Sasuke further into frothing rage which culminated in him pointing at Itachi and declaring, "You just can't help yourself, can you? You can't let me have one thing!"

Itachi had gotten angry himself by that point, though in hindsight telling Sasuke, "you are acting like a child," in the coldest voice he could muster was probably a bad idea.

Sakura got the feeling that their argument was about something completely different.

"Very well," She said laughingly, "Teach me, oh wise Sasuke-whisperer."

"Do not disappoint me, grasshopper." He said sternly, his eyes flashing.

He then ruined the effect by bursting out laughing.

Chapter Text

The sun was rising. The sky was clear of clouds, faintly blue and orange through the streaked window, the rich sound of birdsong muffled by the glass.

Itachi sat at his desk, his laptop open in his lap, a glass of gin in his hand. He breathed out slowly, feeling yesterday's headache reappear, little spikes of pain drilling through his skull. He sipped the gin grimly, ignoring the bitter aftertaste, smacking his lips.

He was just bending down to retrieve the bottle he had locked in his desk drawer when his hand stilled. What was he doing? He wasn't a drinker, not even a little bit. A tiny bottle could floor him in seconds. The bottle had been a gift. He had only kept it because he hated wasting things, and this liquor was a particularly expensive gift from his father.

But something that was troubling him kept running through his head.

Sakura's tearstained face, her shaking body pressed against his, her agony so clearly visible…

Oh, he had sensed there was something lurking underneath that meek façade – he simply hadn't suspected it was tragedy that had destroyed her so completely. How could he refer to her as anything but destroyed, after realising the extent of her self-esteem issues? The thing she had said desperately when they had first met still bothered him now. If she could just be popular, everything would be better….

How could she believe that? That being popular would erase the pain of her mother's death and make her happy and perfect? Itachi looked down at the glass of gin in his hand and smirked ruefully. He knew all too well you could not simply block out the pain with false happiness. It worked for a while, but when the pain caught up with you…

He frowned at the laptop screen, tired eyes flickering over the figures and sums he had painstakingly spent the night typing up. He looked at the digital clock on the desk, the red numbers glowing in the dim room. It was only six o'clock. He'd been up all night working on the same damn report and he didn't really feel he'd even contributed anything worthy to the business at all. Who cared if their finances were slightly tweaked to save a minor percentage annually? No one.

Except, perhaps, his father. His father might notice. He'd notice if Itachi didn't submit the report on time too, with every number and sum carefully plotted out to perfection.

With a sigh, Itachi downed the gin and let his fingers hover over the keyboard, fully intending to continue the report until he managed to finish it. Despite most people's claims that he was a genius, he still couldn't quite grasp exactly how he was supposed to perform the tasks his father wanted him to perform.

Not only that, but he was supposed to be shadowing Hidan's class again today.

He chewed his glasses' arm thoughtfully, letting them hang from his mouth as he mused. What was it Sakura had said to him? When was the last time you slept? You look awfully tired and upset.

How had she noticed? Not even his mother noticed when he'd pulled an all-nighter these days, as was his wont. And yet, she'd stood there, her large eyes worried and oddly perceptive, seeing past all of the charm and noticing his weary state.

He let out a low chuckle. Damn the report. His father could either wait a day or do it himself.

He couldn't wait to see the expression on his father's face when he informed him he hadn't completed the report… Actually, he could wait to see that. He would not be pleased.

The sun was now hanging hot and heavy in the sky and the birds were tweeting a morning greeting to it, their relentless chirping like an axe to Itachi's hungover head.

He had to be at the college by two in the afternoon. The report could wait. He wasn't going to miss Hidan's latest outburst or Sasuke's annoyance at his brother's presence for a report that wasn't even necessary to finish for at least another month.

Idly, he picked up his mobile phone and flicked through his contacts, his eyes beginning to droop from tiredness. Sakura's number was there and though it was burned into his near-perfect memory, he liked having it there. When he had first met her, he had thought it would be incredibly easy to worm his way into her affections, she seemed so timid and unassuming. But there had been flashes of anger when he had prodded too far, anger that intrigued him. Which was she? Pushover or gutsy?

Having her number there under the nickname Drama Queen made him feel like he'd scored a point in her favour. She had willingly given him her number, even after the awful drunk dialling debacle. There was nothing he liked more than making someone who disliked him, like him. It was one of his few flaws. He hated being hated. He couldn't tell if Sakura liked or disliked him, which… worried him, for some reason.

Shaking his head at his own special brand of idiocy, he saved the document and switched off the laptop.

Determined to salvage at least a few hours' sleep before he was forced to wake up to worry about the report, he slid into his soft double bed.

He loved his bed.

It was king's size and, obviously, huge. His sheets were silk and dark, dark red, like very fine wine. The same material hung around his bed like curtains. He liked to use them to block out the Sun's light, as he was often forced to sleep through the day after working all night and the tiniest ray of light could wake him.

The only thing that bothered him was the fact that his bed was obviously meant for two people. In fact, so was his house. He had an oak dining table with two velvet-lined chairs. He had two bathrooms upstairs and downstairs. He had a study for himself and a walk-in wardrobe that was currently unused. Despite the fact that he hated swimming, he had a pool. The whole house had been decorated in a very arty, modernistic style, twisted metal sculptures looming menacingly in the living room, paintings of famous chefs in the kitchen and the lounge was decorated in a rustic, farmhouse style.

He had moved into this house and spent a fortune getting it decorated in a way he despised, all for her.

Sachiko.

And yet, on the rare occasions he remembered to eat, he ate alone. Three of the four bathrooms were totally clean because he never used them. He only needed one, after all. He had no need for a walk-in wardrobe, so the shelves lay bare and unused. He had a pool cleaner employed on a weekly basis, but he never swam in it. He hated the whole house's decorative style.

All because she had decided not to move in with him at the last minute.

It had been difficult explaining that to his father. Oh yes, you know that house you helped me buy because I said things were getting serious with Sachiko? Well, whoops! She doesn't want to move in after all. Did you keep the receipt?

It hadn't been well-received, though Sasuke had clearly been amused.

Sachiko was something else. How could he explain her? Sakura had not seemed terribly impressed with his brief description of her.

In his never-ending search for The One (who, in his mind, wore black and red, smiled a lot, liked the same black and white films he liked, was kind to children and animals, could hold a conversation about Nietzsche but wasn't too serious), he had stumbled across Sachiko.

Despite what he had told Sakura about not valuing beauty, Sachiko was, undeniably, exceedingly beautiful, to the point of being stopped and offered modelling contracts on the street. Frequently.

Itachi closed his eyes. He didn't want to think about Sachiko, not when he was so tired and she'd stopped returning his calls.

So, instead, he thought about Sakura.

The girl was mystery to him.

He'd ridiculed her love for Sasuke at first before seeing that she really appeared to care for him and he… tolerated her affections.

Itachi knew his brother. He would have expected him to despise a girl like Sakura, but he had sought out her company, spoke to her in the auditions, sat next to her in the canteen, had grown angry upon seeing Itachi near Sakura…

It didn't add up.

There was an obvious answer to the Sasuke + Sakura equation but Itachi didn't want to solve it. Not this time. It seemed far more preferable to turn over and sleep than think about the troubling concept of Sasuke's interest in Sakura being more than platonic.

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Deidara was sitting on the edge of Hidan's desk.

Hidan was studying the Bible with a little frown on his face, ignoring the science teacher's legs swinging perilously close to him.

"I think he's stalking me." Deidara announced.

Itachi looked up from his laptop, "Who?" He asked, concerned.

Deidara made a face, "That blank-faced creepy brat, Sai. He keeps staring at me! Even Sasori-no-danna noticed it, un!"

"Of course Sasori fucking noticed," Hidan snorted, turning a page, "That old dude doesn't take his eyes off you. 'Course he'd notice if someone started doing the same."

"That's just 'cause he hates me," Deidara said dismissively, "But this Sai kid doesn't even look heartsick or loving or whatever stalkers look like, un, he just looks blank whenever he stares at me. It's fucking creepy. I swear, I'm gonna wake up and he's gonna be there standing over my bed, watching me sleep with that blank fucking expression on his creepy face…"

"Maybe he doesn't like you, Deidara. Perhaps there is another issue at hand." Itachi began to type again, frowning at the figures as they failed to perform the tricks he was trying to prod them into doing.

"Like what?" Hidan marked a page in the bible for future reference, his frown wrinkling his brow, "Like he hates Deidara-chan? Guess you were right about that fucked up standing-over-your-bed crap, but he'll have a sodding axe in his hand, Deidara-chan… We could totally get him expelled, the blank-faced fucker."

"He doesn't hate Deidara." Sasori said calmly, making them all jump as he had entered the room soundlessly, "It's something else."

"How long you been there, creepy?" Deidara scowled at him, "You're just as much of a lurker as he is, un!"

"Not long," Sasori sighed, exasperated at Deidara's antagonistic attitude, "I just came in to let Hidan know a queue has formed outside his classroom. Did you forget you have class today again?"

"Shit!" Hidan exclaimed after glancing at the clock, "Fuck! Let 'em in, quick!"

Sasori opened the door and said a few words sharply.

The students piled into the room messily, chatting noisily with each other, rushing to claim their respective seats.

Sai walked in on his own, his plain, black bag on his shoulder, wearing white so his pale skin looked ghostly.

He looked at Deidara for just a second, but the moment he did, Sasori stepped between the two smoothly and glared at Sai. Deidara stared at Sasori's back, puzzled but relieved.

Sai bit his lip in an uncharacteristic display of nerves and walked up to the teachers.

Itachi stiffened in his seat, concerned for his friend. Hidan just rolled his eyes, muttering curses. Sasori's glare hardened.

"Deidara-sensei?" Sai said quietly in an almost respectful tone, "I have been informed that I have been breaching the rules of social conduct in regards to my behaviour towards you. I wanted to inform you that I will endeavour to cease my unwanted attention straightaway. I… apologise for the rudeness. You just… look like someone I know."

Deidara frowned, moving around Sasori. The older man grabbed his arm and tugged him behind him, clearly not yet convinced in Sai's contrition being genuine.

"Who?" Deidara asked, scowling at the back of Sasori's head and attempting to yank his arm away, to no avail.

But Sai was backing away, shaking his head, that damn fake grin plastered over his face.

He took a seat and stared at the wall instead of Deidara, for once.

The teachers stood there in silence for a moment as the students rushed around them, chatting and laughing.

"…Well that was pretty fucking weird." Hidan announced, getting up to stand at the front of the class.

Deidara and Itachi nodded fervently, but Sasori was too busy glaring suspiciously at Sai, who, to his credit, was not flinching or blinking as he returned the stare, merely looking confused at the teacher's attention.

But Itachi's own attention was taken the moment Sakura and Sasuke entered the room. Sakura was wearing a black and white blouse and a smart black skirt, teamed with sheer tights and high heels that were making her walk more of a wobble. She was wearing that awful black eye makeup again but her lips were a glossy red that made her skin look even paler somehow.

Sasuke was hovering around her almost protectively, as though he had sensed the fragile air she had been exuding ever since her and Itachi's lunch together.

Itachi's mouth twisted in wry amusement. Seeing Sasuke acting so oddly was strange for him to witness – normally, Sasuke had his status quo behaviour and rigidly stuck to it, his normal behaviour being sullen and annoyed.

They both sat down next to each other, Sakura resting her chin on her hand and gazing out of the window, looking absent and deep in thought. Sasuke was watching her with a displeased frown on his face. Itachi knew that more than anything, Sasuke hated being ignored.

Just before the lesson was due to begin (as it should have done ten minutes ago), Itachi's phone went off as he received a text. He skilfully retrieved his phone without anyone noticing, believing it would be unprofessional to be seen texting in class.

Sachiko

Nt mad anymore, got bttle of wine for 2night.

U up for it?

Luv u Xxxxxx

Itachi sighed. No matter how many times he gently pointed out that typing the few extra letters in order to make her texts legible wouldn't cost her anything but a slightly sore thumb, Sachiko insisted on texting like a twelve year old who hadn't quite grasped the concept of English grammar yet.

And yet, he found himself smiling at the screen. Sachiko wasn't angry anymore. Thank God, because that woman could hold a grudge like no one else. He'd never admit to himself, but the thought of them breaking up filled him with dread. Not just because he loved her, but because his father's reaction…

He looked up and found himself meeting Sakura's eyes. She had obviously torn herself out of her daydreaming, because she was gazing at him, her eyes cutting through him, her lip curled. He knew that she could tell exactly who he was texting, but he couldn't explain why he felt so embarrassed and caught out.

Ignoring her perceptive gaze, he continued to form his reply. It took him a while to think of something suitable to say to her.

You missed a few vowels, Sachiko. You know I don't like wine. Or alcohol, for that matter. Make it a black coffee and one of those mind-numbingly dull chick flicks and I'm there. I'm glad you aren't angry anymore.

Love you too. X

"Please tell me you aren't going to send that message." Sakura said suddenly, making him start at her sudden proximity.

The class were filing out obediently under Hidan's belligerent cursing at them to move the fuck on.

How had class ended so quickly? Had he really spent all that time worrying over what to say to Sachiko in his text?

Pretty soon, they were the only ones left in the room, except for Sasuke, who was lagging behind with an expectant look on his face.

Sakura waved him off dismissively, "I'll catch up, Sasuke."

Sasuke glared darkly at his brother for a moment, cursing under his breath as he left.

After Itachi had gotten over his unease at Sasuke's sudden enmity, he turned to Sakura with a confused frown, "What's wrong with the text?"

"It's really patronising. You corrected her grammar, for God's sake! Gimme the phone." She demanded, fumbling with the phone until he took pity on her and relinquished his grip on it.

She frowned in concentration, erasing the message he'd spent the whole of R.E. class diligently formulating in favour of typing something completely new.

She showed him the text when she was done with a self-satisfied expression on her face.

I'm glad you aren't angry anymore, she'd kept in, he noted with approval. But the rest of the message was a complete fabrication on her part, you were right all along. I'm sorry for being an idiot. Red wine sounds great. How about we watch what you want tonight?

Love you too. Xxxx

"I cannot send this." Itachi said in undisguised horror, "She wasn't right all along. I am certainly not an idiot. I hate red wine. I'm not sending this. She'll know it wasn't me."

But, to his shock and horror, Sakura smugly pressed the send button before he could even begin to make a grab for the phone.

"Sakura!" He complained, snatching the phone back, "You little monster!"

"You'll thank me later." She said breezily, "Want to go for another lunch? It'll be on me this time."

Itachi looked at her, cradling his violated phone in his hands lovingly. "You won't be paying. But, of course, lunch sounds good. Even though it's three o'clock and we'll both be spoiling our dinners. Don't make that face at me, you know it's true. Wasn't Sasuke waiting for you?"

Sakura glanced at the door and back, her expression sour, "I'm sure he has plenty of friends to heal the wound of my rejection," She said caustically, "I'm only a friend of convenience, after all."

Ah. So he'd been wrong. It wasn't her mother's death that was bothering her, but something Sasuke had apparently said or done.

He simply raised an eyebrow in question, still checking his phone every ten seconds to see if he'd missed Sachiko's reply, which was sure to be a furious inquiry as to what alien had seized his phone and was attempting to impersonate him.

"Oh, it was just the usual. Walked in on Sasuke assuring Neji that I was just someone he hung out with when there was no one else around. Stuck up bastard!" She seethed, but Itachi noticed the tears in her eyes and realised her ire was just a front to hide exactly how much Sasuke had hurt her.

He sighed and placed a heavy hand on her head, ignoring her furious attempts to shake him off. Oh, Sasuke. You idiot.

It took ten minutes to persuade Sakura to go to lunch because she had suddenly been gripped by a determination to find Sasuke and demand an answer from him.

They went back to the pub and ordered dinner, since Sakura claimed it would be better than anything she'd be eating at home and Itachi couldn't be bothered to cook something for himself later. That was the problem with living alone. He didn't like to waste a good meal on just himself, so he snacked instead. If Sachiko came over more, maybe…

Itachi's phone vibrated in his pocket.

Sachiko

O sweetheart! U little diamond! Dnt feel bad bout being wrong, hppens 2 the best of us :) Luv u lots and lots! Xxxxx

He looked up and met Sakura's eyes. She looked so irritatingly smug that he flicked a chip at her.

Itachi sighed, replying to Sachiko to tell her where he was and what he was doing and yes, he'd buy the wine and no, she could not watch John Tucker Must Die with him tonight. He personally felt Mean Girls was far superior.

Sakura was just examining her burger and chips gleefully when Itachi spoke up.

"So, you wanted advice on how to charm Sasuke, hm?" He idly poked his fork through the steak on his plate, wondering why it smelled so burnt when he'd ordered rare, "I have plenty. Listen closely. Sasuke does not like sycophants. Sure, he surrounds himself with idiots who're willing to do whatever he says, but he doesn't like them. Stop fawning over him. Treat him like a real person, not like a God. There is a crowd of brainless girls constantly around Sasuke, all of them clueless as to how annoying he finds them… Why aren't you writing this down? Use the napkin. OK? Right. Sasuke's favourite colour is dark blue. He likes fighting and tomatoes more than anything else. He likes all of those angry teenage TV programmes that involve lots of drugs and risk-taking, blah blah blah and he likes to watch boxing. Don't talk to him about wrestling unless you want him to talk your ear off about 'fake fighting' and 'idiotic productions of combat.' He listens to music like Slipknot, Three Days Grace, Breaking Benjamin… I can't remember any others. The type of music that involves ear-meltingly loud guitars and screaming. Lots of screaming. Don't admit you like angry girl music. Oh, don't look so surprised, your taste in music is obvious with that all eyeliner and the fact that you draw on your shoes."

Sakura was so busy writing it all down that she didn't notice the woman approaching until she had reached their table.

"Darling!" The woman cried out, falling upon Itachi in a flurry of air kisses and real kisses, all the while saying, "I can't believe you admitted you were wrong!"

Itachi looked somewhat bemused and pushed the woman back slightly.

"Sweetheart, manners." He said, smiling thinly and nodding at Sakura.

The woman gasped, clasping her hands together, aghast at her bad manners. Sakura blinked.

"Oh, dear, I'm sorry for ignoring you!" The woman said brightly, "I'm Sachiko!"

Of course she was.

She was beautifully tanned, skin like clear caramel. Her hair fell down to her ears in perky, frothy waves, dyed a thousand shades of brown and blonde until it shimmered. She wore big hoop gold earrings that swung as she cheerfully clapped her hands. She wore a simple yet classic black dress that barely covered her thighs, which were adorned with black, glittery tights. Her heels were so huge she towered over Itachi, though Sakura could tell she would actually be quite short without the aid of her shoes. Her mouth was covered in a nude lipstick that drew attention to just how perfectly shaped her lips were. Her eyes were dressed in shimmering gold, with just a touch of liquid eyeliner, drawn across both lids, ancient Egyptian style.

She was so beautiful that the ridiculously straight Sakura felt her mouth gape open gormlessly at the sight of her.

Guh.

That pretty summed up what Sakura was thinking.

Oh, and, why is she so bloody pretty, stupid Itachi, oh look at me, I don't like pretty people, I'm all about the inner goodness! Liar!

Sachiko was beaming at her expectantly and Sakura realised belatedly that she was supposed to respond to Sachiko's introduction in kind, like a normal person.

"I'm Haruno Sakura." She mumbled, waving a reluctant hand, resisting the temptation to look at Itachi to see what he looked like. Was he totally different around her? Did he light up when he saw her?

"Oh, that Sakura!" Sachiko astonished her by exclaiming, "Itachi talks about you all the time. You're Sasuke's friend, aren't you? It's good to see the little punk doesn't totally lack the ability to make friends." She softened her words with a smile that was as sweet as chocolate.

Oh God, she couldn't hate her. She was just too nice.

Damn her.

No, damn Sakura and her stupid fledgling crush on unattainable attractive older guys who have equally attractive girlfriends!

"Yeah," She replied with a weak, not so sweet smile, looking up and meeting Itachi's inscrutable eye, "I'm Sasuke's… friend."

Itachi raised an eyebrow at her suggestive pause, but Sachiko leapt upon it delightedly, proclaiming that it was lovely Sasuke had found someone as pretty and nice as Sakura. Sachiko then spent ten minutes extolling Sakura's many virtues that she seemed to have picked out of the sky, because the smart, beautiful and talented girl Itachi's lovely girlfriend was describing certainly wasn't her.

Sakura found the time in between shovelling chips down her throat in a very unhealthy comfort food kind of way her mother would have scolded her for and smiling at Sachiko to stare at Itachi, who stared back at her.

Somehow, Sachiko's cheerful babbling died down and the noise of the pub faded until all that was left was Itachi and Sakura, just sitting and staring at each other, Itachi's expression enigmatic as always, a low burning sensation in Sakura's stomach searing from the stare, which felt as real and tangible as the wooden table underneath her fingers.

Chapter Text

Tenten sat in her sociology class, feeling Neji's pale eyes burning two holes into her back. Ever since the day Sakura had walked in on them fighting, Neji had been like an anal retentive thorn in her side, constantly dropping insults wherever she went, always staring at her, trying to pick fights…

If Tenten didn't know any better, she'd say he was trying to get her attention.

But she knew better. As it was, Neji liked sparring with her, physically and verbally. They were on (very terse) speaking terms. But they certainly weren't friends. Or more than friends. Never mind Sakura's suspicious glances and accusations of sexual tension.

And, well, in truth, Neji was just… too pretty for her. Tenten had always been the girl who liked sports and mud and bugs, she had spurned her Barbie dolls and those creepy plastic baby dolls her mother always bought her and focused on kicking a ball about her garden. So, pretty had always been a fairly abstract concept to her, something other girls cared about, not her.

Never mind that Neji had beautifully flawless skin, pale, pale eyes and long, lustrous dark hair, so much shinier and healthier than Tenten's dull as mud tresses.

Tenten didn't care about dating. She cared about progressing, not staying stagnant and decaying, about getting better, being the best at everything she excelled in.

Unfortunately, Neji also excelled in every one of those areas, and he did it better.

He was even better than she was at sparring. Oh, she longed for the day when she could kick the stick out of his arse, but it looked like that day wasn't arriving any time soon.

When Sakura had looked at her, partly shocked and mostly appalled at her lack of caring about Neji pushing her around, she'd laughed it off, but it had affected her more than she let on. Neji lost to her in one area. While she was calm and placid, he was stoic and had a temper that could trigger at the slightest offence. It wasn't as though he beat her, but when he lost his temper… She hated seeing him like that, so out of control, so angry…. that wasn't Neji. That wasn't the stuck up, serenely composed guy she knew so well.

If Sakura was under the illusion that Tenten was desperately and hopelessly in love with Neji, she needed to stop watching so many romance films. The only desire Neji roused in Tenten was the desire to beat him at something, anything.

Tenten got up and started putting her books away into her bag, when she felt someone approach her from behind. She tensed up when there was a hot breath on the back of her neck, somehow knowing exactly who it was before he even spoke up.

"The gym's free for a sparring session. Come." Neji said quietly before turning on his heel and heading for the door.

She could have said no. She could have pointed out that she had lunch with Sakura. She could have even popped out one of those witty one liners Sakura found so funny. But when it came down to it, just her and Neji, she lost all of her bravado, her spark… there was something about those cold, perceptive eyes that saw past the humour and mild temperament to the vulnerability within. Sometimes Tenten did feel vulnerable, right down to the bone. She was thick-skinned and actually liked herself most of the time, but she felt like a ticking time bomb, that any second now someone would see through her and she'd lose the good reputation she'd built for herself at this college…

Sakura knew, obviously.

But Neji, he had no idea. They hadn't gone to the same school, but they'd known each other since they were mere foetuses hanging out in their respective wombs, seeing as their mothers were old friends.

She wondered if he'd respect her if he knew the real her, the way he seemed to when he glared at her with those penetrating eyes…

And now, he was turning to glare at her as though he'd read her thoughts, "Are you coming or not?"

Tenten swallowed. When he spoke to her like that, his voice all sharp and annoyed, it just brought back memories of when… when…

"No." She made herself shake her head, "I'm not in the mood for fighting."

She'd thought he'd be angry but he just looked at her, confused, "Is there something wrong?"

"Nothing, I just promised Sakura we'd have lunch together."

Neji sneered, "Why do you bother with that girl? She's a shallow waste of flesh."

Tenten didn't get angry often, but when she did other people always said the change in her was startling.

She stood upright, folding her arms and glaring, "She is not a shallow waste of flesh, actually. She's one of the nicest people I've ever met."

"Oh, come on," He scoffed, "She's a pathetic little doormat, have you not seen her tremble when that Ami girl goes near her? And how she fawns over Sasuke? She's one of those girls that have never known tragedy, that live their lives in a bubble of ignorance, living out a wasteful, shallow existence based on hair products and what happened in the last episode of glee."

"Sakura is nothing like that! You have no idea the horrible things that have happened to her! She's been through hell and you shouldn't be so quick to judge people you barely know!" Tenten snapped.

Neji said nothing, but his unconvinced sneer said it all.

"You don't believe me? Well, well, how about this?" She blustered, "Sakura's mother died in her prison cell! Sakura was only fourteen! And – and what about this, she's been bullied all her life! So don't talk to me about Sakura being shallow and pathetic, she's my best friend and you've got no right to talk shit about her! She has known tragedy, she just doesn't go shouting about it, so – so, just shut up."

Neji's eyes narrowed. For a wild moment, Tenten thought he'd lost his temper again, but he only looked thoughtful, rubbing his jaw with one delicate hand.

"…I didn't know any of that. Fourteen's a bad age to lose a parent." His eyes were shadowed, "Any age is." Suddenly, he straightened up and offered her a tiny bow, "Please accept my sincere apologies. I meant no offence. I had no idea that she'd… she'd been through so much."

Tenten's eyebrows shot up. Neji was… apologising? Neji?

"That's OK," She said uncomfortably, coming down from the high of her rage and beginning to sense she shouldn't have told Neji any of that, but she couldn't just let him go on thinking Sakura was shallow… "Don't worry about it."

Neji walked closer towards her. Tenten realised that they were still in the empty sociology classroom and she'd been shouting at him in the middle of the college. What if one of the teachers had walked past? Ugh.

"Do you forgive me?" He asked, his eyelids shutting halfway so he was looking up at her through his lashes. His mouth was curved up into a smirk.

He got closer, close enough that Tenten could reach out and touch his face easily if she wanted to. Which she didn't, naturally.

"I already said I did." She frowned; backing up until the backs of her knees met the desk's edge. She hissed painfully, rubbing her legs, not noticing Neji get even closer until he was right in front of her.

He really was too pretty, she noted resentfully as his hand reached up to touch the back of her neck.

"Why don't you wear your hair down?" Neji asked softly, his breath puffing across her lips, her sensitive flesh protesting at the light touch, his eyes burning intensely into hers, "In all the years I have known you, I don't think I have ever seen your hair out of those buns of yours."

He tugged at one bun, his smirk turning playful, "Did you know Sasuke thinks I should just get you out of my system, since my ability to play basketball seems to have been affected by this," He gestured between them and Tenten, dry-mouthed, wanted to protest what 'this,' since when has there been a 'this?'

His eyes were dark now, his soft hair falling in silky strands past his face, tickling hers, "Do you know what he suggested I do to get you out of my system?"

When Tenten didn't answer, just widened her eyes in shock, he moved forwards slightly, brushing his lips against hers, his mouth soft and pliant.

She made a sound of protest deep in the back of her throat, ignoring the way every one of her nerves seemed to have set on fire, yanking her head away.

He placed two hands down on either side of the desk behind her, effectively trapping her between him and the table.

"It doesn't seem to have worked," He said, half-joking and half-frustrated.

Tenten managed to collect herself and pushed him backwards lightly.

"Don't," She tried to say, her voice coming out rough on the first try. She wetted her lips with her tongue, "Don't do that again."

Neji wiped his mouth absently, "I won't make any promises I don't intend to keep."

"OK, how about this?" She said angrily, "Don't touch me without explicit permission."

He looked at her then, his gaze searing, "Fine. I'll just have to get you to give me permission next time."

Tenten became aware that she was blushing, "There won't be a next time! I thought you hated me!" That last part had just slipped out, she hadn't intended to say it but now that she had she realised how very odd Neji was acting.

He gave a self-deprecating chuckle, "Thin line between love and hate?" He offered.

"So, what, you love me all of a sudden?"

Maybe it was her incredulous tone, maybe it was the enormity of the situation finally hitting him, but his eyes suddenly grew cold and his tone hard, "Don't be ridiculous. Now, I'm assuming you still don't want to spar, so I'll take my leave."

She had no choice but to step back and let him pass, because the look on his face said he wouldn't hesitate to knock her over if she didn't move out of the way.

She was left to stare after him, confused beyond belief.

What the hell just happened?

xxxxxxxx

Ami was bored. Her friends/minions couldn't conjure up an interesting conversation topic if someone had a gun to their favourite Jimmy Choo shoes or threatened to light their Chihuahua on fire.

Not only was she bored, she was unsettled. Whilst her friends/minions were too damn stupid to realise that even the great Sasuke could make mistakes, Ami was all too aware of his latest blunder.

Having a crush on Haruno Sakura. My God, that alone was surely heinous enough to earn him a one-way ticket to Loserville!

Her friends/minions seemed determined to blind themselves to Sasuke's faults and his little dalliance with the Haruno bitch, but Ami could see it like they couldn't, could read Sasuke's motivations in the way he marked his territory, placing his arm around Sakura's seat, sitting next to her in class and the cafeteria, insisting to everyone that she was 'just a friend,' when Ami could tell he wanted her to be a lot more.

The direct approach wouldn't work. Simply going up to Sasuke and making up a bunch of lies about Sakura would only earn her his disdain and he'd surely blacklist her from being his potential girlfriend.

No, she'd have to be sneakier. She'd done this sort of thing before, of course. How many reputations had she destroyed with nothing more than a carefully crafted gossip network of lies?

Ami pulled out the phone that her mummy had forced her daddy to buy for her, even after she'd broken the fifteenth one and he'd sworn she'd have to pay for the next one herself. Ami had cried and her mother had nagged him into submission until he'd finally caved in and handed her an expensive diamante encrusted pink mobile with the strictest instructions that she was not allowed to break this one.

She went onto the internet and logged onto her blog, the one that half the college read every day for her latest slanderous rant on the more unsightly members of the college.

She chewed her lip, thinking. What would Sasuke find unattractive in a girl?

She heard raised voices and giggled to herself, thinking score, gossip!

"You don't believe me? Well, well, how about this?" Ami heard a girl's high voice practically shriek, "Sakura's mother died in her prison cell! Sakura was only fourteen! And – and what about this, she's been bullied all her life! So don't talk to me about Sakura being shallow and pathetic, she's my best friend and you've got no right to talk shit about her! She has known tragedy, she just doesn't go shouting about it, so – so, just shut up."

Ami felt a grin spread across her face. Oh, this was just too good!

Sasuke's father had been Chief of the police force, hadn't he? Now he was some rich businessman, blah blah, she couldn't remember the details, but surely Sasuke would hate to find out Sakura's mother had been a criminal, right?

Even though she hadn't heard why she was in prison… Well, never mind, she could make up something even more tantalising and reputation damaging!

She started a new blog post with clever, practised fingers sweeping across the mini keyboard.

Haruno Sakura's Jailbird Mom Shock!

Well, maybe she could come up with a better title later. But for now this was sure to get the college's attention. It wouldn't take too long for Sasuke to find out…

Her smirk now victorious, she finished the lengthy blog on Sakura's mother's damning character assassination, detailing how she'd sold drugs to anyone, including kids, and resorted to prostitution to pay for her drug habit (laughing as she typed it all up, knowing the gullible idiots in their college would believe every word and never ask for proof), which included heroin, and how she'd gotten her daughter hooked on the stuff in the womb, etc, etc…

Oh God, it was almost too easy.

Haruno Sakura had been a pink-haired nuisance ever since she'd arrived in college and caught Sasuke's eye. Ami, who'd loved Sasuke since they were kids in the sandbox together, playing Let's Get Married, loathed Sakura with a fiery intensity. So what, she thought she could just show up and steal the man Ami had adored for practically all of her life? No way would Ami just lie down and let that happen.

Besides, Sakura was a big old doormat marked 'please step all over me.' It was simply too easy to torture her. She took all the fun out of it when she just stood there, all quivery and upset. Ami always found it hilarious when Sakura spoke to her so sweetly even after Ami insulted her. Girls like that, all weak and useless, deserved to be pushed around.

Ami posted the blog and looked into the classroom she'd been eavesdropping on.

Hyuuga Neji and some brown-haired girl were kissing! More gossip fodder!

This was the best day ever, Ami decided, tucking her phone away for later scandals. Sasuke would find out that Sakura's mother was a crack whore and he'd lose all respect for Sakura. Then, Ami would point out her own parents' spotless criminal record and how she'd never take drugs, and he'd realise she was the one for him.

Not stupid, drama-obsessed, pink-haired Haruno Sakura.

xxxxxxxx

Obito was still going on about Romeo and Juliet.

"Can someone tell me which of the main couple is the leader in the power dynamic?" He asked the class, looking slightly lost himself.

He pointed to Kiba, who shrugged, "I dunno, Romeo?"

Obito scowled, "Do you have any textual evidence to support that theory?"

Kiba looked at Shino in question. Shino shook his head sharply. Kiba looked back at Obito solemnly, "No."

As Obito started going on about power struggles and Juliet's girlish view of love, Sakura was trying to ignore Sasuke's relentless stare.

This was a class in which Obito enforced strict seating arrangements, so Sasuke was on the other side of the room. He rarely even showed up for this class, he usually lurked in the hallway outside to wait for Ino or his friend Naruto. Now Ino wasn't his friend and Naruto wasn't in, Sasuke sat in his usual seat next to Ami, staring straight at Sakura.

Sakura had followed Itachi's advice religiously.

She was wearing a dark blue, short-sleeved top with a black shirt underneath. She just wore grey jeans and black boots for her lower half, seeing as Itachi didn't know what Sasuke preferred in a girl's choice in legwear.

She'd also greeted him absently, as though she was busy thinking about something else, and ignored him for the entire lunch hour (in which Tenten was absent). He'd practically ran up to her with a big, slightly scary grin, wanting to know if she'd walk with him to class.

She said yes very casually and then pointedly didn't talk to him all the way to English. He seemed agitated by the change in her, trying to think of topics to talk about and laughing nervously to fill the silence.

Whilst Sakura was indeed playing out Itachi's plan, she was also detached and aloof because she was thinking about Sasuke's older brother, not him.

That little hypocrite.

Going on and on about inner goodness and how beauty was only temporary, and then his girlfriend shows up and she's practically a bloody goddess!

Sodding paragon of virtue, there.

Why had Sachiko been so damn nice? Sakura had sat there the whole time thinking of how annoyingly pretty the older girl was, but when she waited for the rush of hate to come, it wouldn't. How could you hate someone who was as lovely as that?

It wasn't fair.

All Sakura had wanted was to be pretty and special.

And Itachi had come along, complimenting her Ophelia and calling her beautiful, and suddenly, here was a guy who seemed to think she was both pretty and special, just what she had always wanted, and yet…

She was an utter fool. What had she been expecting? That Itachi, the guy who'd wandered into her life by accident, would turn out to be her Prince Charming, or some other kind of fairy tale bullshit? Well, she could safely forget about that being a possibility. Not when it turned out Sachiko was the princess all along, and all Sakura had ever been was the ugly step-sister.

She'd cut off this fledgling crush before it had the chance to grow and become something infinitely more damaging. She refused to be one of those girls who thought there was nothing wrong with pining after someone else's boyfriend. Urgh, never.

Obito closed the book with a snap and gestured for them to leave with a grin.

Sakura forgot about ignoring Sasuke and naturally fell in step with him as they left the room. He looked surprised and maybe a little pleased.

Sasuke got a text and scanned his phone quickly.

He frowned, glancing up at Sakura, who smiled warily at him.

She spotted Itachi standing with Deidara and Sasori. He was looking in their direction with a carefully blank expression.

Suddenly someone bumped into Sakura from behind, hard. She stumbled forward, Sasuke grabbing her arm to stop her falling over.

"Whoops!" Ami said sweetly, "Sorry about that! Oh, it's you… wow, I'm amazed you're brave enough to show your face here…"

Sakura backed up slightly, shocked that Ami could have snuck up behind her without her noticing.

"What do you mean?" Sakura bit her lip, noting that Itachi and Sasuke were both watching the confrontation with matching looks of concern.

Ami looked confused, "Oh, haven't you heard? It's all over college by now…"

"Ami, shut up." Sasuke snapped, glancing down at his phone again, scowling.

"Everyone knows about your mother." Ami smiled.

Stupidly, Sakura turned wildly in Itachi's direction, automatically assuming it had been him, he'd told everyone her mother had died, and why would anyone gossip about that –

But he clearly interpreted her wild look as a plea for help, as he immediately headed towards them.

"About how she was in prison for dealing drugs when she died." Ami looked concerned, "Didn't someone tell you already? It's on the internet."

Sakura's blood ran cold.

Sasuke put his hand on her shoulder just as Itachi drew up next to them.

Ami glared at Sasuke's hand and snapped, "Everyone knows your mother was a crack whore bitch. I don't know how you live with yourself, God the shame of it!"

Sakura couldn't breathe.

There was a roaring in her ears and her stomach was churning so violently she thought she might be sick.

"I told you to shut up!" Sasuke snapped right back at her.

Itachi had obviously heard Ami's spiteful comment, because his concerned expression had hardened into something a little more dangerous.

"I take it you are the fabled Ami, yes?" He asked.

She fluttered her eyelashes at him flirtatiously, "I don't know about fabled, but yeah."

"You can fuck off then." Itachi jabbed a thumb behind him and glared at her, hard.

Sakura could hear Ami's indignant squawks but she turned away, focusing on walking to the bathroom, just finding somewhere to sit down.

She could hear both Itachi and Sasuke calling after her but focused on putting one foot in front of the other.

Suddenly, a flash of anger pierced the fog in her mind and she was whirling around to point at Ami, "My mother," She seethed, feeling maliciously pleased when Ami looked taken aback at her vehemence, "never did drugs in her life!"

Then, because the anger was still racing through her and it seemed like a good idea, she raised her hand and slapped Ami across the face so hard her palm stung from the impact of the blow.

Chapter Text

When her mother died, she took six months off school. She came in for exams and sort of passed them, but she didn't go to classes. The kids gossiped about her, wondering what had happened, thinking up the worst case scenarios to really ruin her reputation forever and stupidly believing their own bullshit rumours.

She sat on her sofa every day and worked her way through her mother's massive collection of DVDs. She didn't care about getting dressed or clean. She wanted to have her mind occupied by something nicer than the not-nice thoughts constantly assaulting her brain.

So she'd watch about five films a day on average, re-watching the good ones on weekends. Her mother loved anything to do with beauty, glamour and fashion, so Sakura learnt a lot about her mother from the films. She'd apparently learnt to put her hair in that elegant twist from a movie made in the 40s, and most of her make up expertise came from her favourite fashion films.

Her mother had wanted to be an actress, but she'd got pregnant with Sakura very young and got married and just stopped longing for the limelight. When Sakura asked why she didn't want to be an actress anymore, she'd replied, 'Dreaming about being an actress is more exciting than being one."

She'd googled that line out of suspicion and found it was a famous Marilyn Monroe quote.

Watching her mother's favourite movies was less painful than looking at her pictures or listening to her father talk about her. It was a harmless way of feeling connected to her. But every time the movie finished and the credits rolled, reality rushed in and buried her with the knowledge that her mother was gone and no amount of Hollywood movies would change that.

The funeral.

Oh God, the funeral was a nightmare. She'd sat in a big black car, following the hearse with her dad sitting next to her, family members in cars behind her, forced into a black dress, forced into a church, forced to sit with her father clutching her hand for strength and her aunt sobbing on her shoulder.

She wished she'd cried.

But how could she?

The whole thing was a mockery. Flowers everywhere, lilies that stank, red roses that were totally inappropriate for a funeral, sobbing adults all around one sullen, angry teenager who was just so damn confused about what the hell was going on.

She'd screamed.

At the wake. She didn't have it in her at the time to be embarrassed by her screaming, but seeing everyone dancing, eating food at the buffet like it was just a good party and not a memorial service, made her so angry that she fallen to the floor, screaming and weeping, the tears finally coming to her.

She remembered light touches at her back, relatives crowding around her, people trying to tug her to her feet, people whispering things in her ear, her father snapping something before his voice cracked and he started sobbing too.

She remembered being overwhelmed by a general feeling of the world being wrong, like someone had broken the world by accident and put it back together, forgetting a few vital pieces. Pain, low in her gut like a physical wound, searing and aching.

She was fourteen for God's sake, she hated the world anyway and it just had to prove it hated her back.

That pain was back now, the stinging of her palm nothing like the ache in her gut.

Ami stared at her, shocked, hand held over the slapped cheek.

Sasuke's eyebrows had shot up.

Only Itachi seemed mostly unaffected, shooting Sakura a concerned look before seizing Ami's forearm.

"Oh dear," He said sweetly, "Looks like that hurt. Better toddle off to the nurse's office, right? Just remember, Ami-san, if you really feel obliged to report Sakura, I can and will make things bad for you."

Ami looked appalled. But her watery eyes darted from Itachi to the teachers, who were just standing there watching, not one of them making a move to confront Sakura for her assault. Maybe it was because she was crying and Itachi was sending them glares warning them to stay back.

Sasuke narrowed his eyes in suspicion at his older brother, who ignored him in favour of gently shoving Ami in the direction of the nurse's office. The purple-haired girl went without struggling, obviously intimidated by Itachi's earlier threat.

Sakura put a hand over her face to hide the humiliating tears and ran.

One of the two brothers made a protesting noise as she left hastily, but she was running too quickly to make sense of who it was or what they said. She had a feeling it was Itachi.

She tried to shut her mind down, the way she did in Drama in Konan's cupboard, but images kept racing through her mind.

Her mother, thinner than usual, smiling tightly and walking out of the house and never coming back. Her father pleading with the police, explaining everything, begging for her release. There was nothing anyone could do.

Sakura wiped the tears away, not wanting to remember, wanting nothing more than to forget. God, she needed the stage right now, needed Ophelia and her sweet madness, needed to be someone else.

If I could be anyone else right now, who would I be? She thought to herself as she ran through the identical corridors, ignoring the startled looks of the people she passed on the way to wherever she was heading.

Anyone but me.

She ended up in an unfamiliar hallway. The walls were covered by posters, pictures of roses, sad faces, animals, everything. Some in paint, some in chalk, but all of them were made by skilled hands.

Ah, she'd drifted into the art section of the college. It was close to the drama section, but she'd never had to come down this way before. There were rumours of students who'd found themselves here and never found their way back. More likely, they enrolled in art after seeing the awesome pictures.

Sakura was just absently examining a pencil sketch of a kitten when she heard footsteps approaching.

Sai, wearing a thick black coat with a checked scarf peeking out of his collar from where it had been tucked in and very tight grey jeans, was walking down the hall hand in hand with Yamanaka Ino.

Sakura, forgetting her grief and shock for a moment, stared at them.

Ino was flushed, smiling gently at Sai, holding his hand tightly. She'd dressed to match him, wearing a slimming black coat with a silk belt, a red skirt with matching boots and lipstick.

She spotted Sakura and froze, ripping her hand out of Sai's.

Sai looked down at his now-empty hand in mild surprise and confusion.

"Sakura?" Ino's brow twisted with concern, "Have you been crying?"

Sakura scowled furiously and wiped the last of the tears off of her face, "No," She lied unconvincingly, "I'm fine."

"Sure you are." Ino snorted, "That's why you look like someone shot your dog."

Sai looked even more confused, "Would the murder of her pet not upset her?"

Sakura expected Ino to get annoyed or frustrated, but she only rolled her eyes good-naturedly, "Sarcasm, Sai."

Sai's face cleared of confusion and the corners of his mouth lifted in the closest thing Sakura had ever seen to a real smile on his face.

"Oh, I see." He almost-smiled at the blonde girl.

"Well, Sakura, I understand you think I'm the Wicked Witch of the West right now, but if you ever need anyone to talk to about how very fine you aren't, I'm here." Ino said breezily, "Not right now though. I'm going home."

She started to leave and Sai made to follow her.

"Um, I'll go alone, Sai." Ino said hastily.

He stopped and stared at her, "But I thought we were both going to your house now. That is what we agreed. Now, at this time, we were going to go eat dinner at your place."

Ino winced, "I know, Sai. Another time, OK?"

She left Sai looking confused once more. He turned to Sakura after Ino had disappeared into the lift heading to the ground floor.

"I really do not understand her." Sai said bluntly.

"No one does," Sakura grinned, "She's a law unto herself. Are you two dating?"

Sai thought about it for a while and slowly nodded, "I believe so."

"But I thought – um, I thought you liked… Deidara-sensei?" Sakura said uncomfortably, not wanting to think about Deidara and a student… at all. Oh, gross thoughts.

Sai's eyebrows drew together sharply, "Deidara-sensei? You thought I was romantically inclined to the science teacher? No, I am not. Whatever attention I paid to him was because… I wanted to see what it was like."

"What?"

Sai gazed at her; those blank, unfathomably dark eyes making her fidget with unease, "Ino is in love with Uchiha Sasuke. She believes I resemble him. When she looks at me, she sees him. She wanted us to be more than 'friends' for this purpose, so she could look at me and pretend I am him. I disliked this. I do not know why, but I felt… bad. I wanted to see what she saw, so I looked at Deidara-sensei as though he was her, because I thought they looked almost as though they could be related. It didn't work. I only saw him, not her."

Sakura didn't know what to say. She almost wished Sai would show some sadness about it, because the quiet confusion he was displaying instead was breaking her heart. Ino knew full well that Sai didn't have a clue she was using him and, judging by the look on his face and his attempt to find his girlfriend in Deidara, he was in love with her.

She put a hand on his shoulder in comfort. He looked at it blankly, clearly having no idea what she was doing.

"Dump her." Sakura said fiercely, "She doesn't deserve you."

Sai spent a while digesting her words with a thoughtful look on his pale face, "I don't think I will. Even this, even knowing she doesn't see me, is better than not being with her. I know that."

Sakura turned away with a frustrated sigh, examining the drawing of the kitten again, knowing that reasoning with Sai was impossible. He did what he wanted and didn't understand when people tried to change his mind.

"You like cats?" He asked solemnly, pointing at the picture.

"Yep," Sakura nodded, "But I'm more interested in the drawing, to be honest."

"Are you an artist?" A spark blew into those blank eyes, lighting them with interest. He gestured at the plastic carrier with large pieces of paper carefully slotted in, "I am."

"No," Sakura denied, starting to say she had no artistic talent but something stopped her, "I'd like to be, though."

Sai cocked his head, his smile turning sweet, even if it was fake, "I could teach you."

xxxxxxxx

"You are not ready for the paints," Sai said sternly, confiscating the pots of paint from her and pushing pencils in her direction, "Learn basic form, shading techniques and anatomy, then try painting."

Sakura grumbled, eyeing this perfect shade of red that would have looked great, but otherwise did what she was told.

Sai was the worst teacher ever.

She'd expected him to demonstrate how to do things and then let her try them, but instead he just stood over and barked orders.

He'd told her to search inside herself and pull out a feeling, a feeling that was screaming to be let out. He'd said quite casually that this was something he found impossible, because whilst he felt feelings, he couldn't name or categorise them, and he definitely couldn't express them, in paint or words.

But he thought she could do it.

That easy belief in her was so rare and welcome that it pushed her to try harder, to grab the pencil and hold it tightly, pushing the point around the page until something emerged.

Sai was busy painting something when her inspiration struck.

She felt angry. Churning, gripping anger boiling in the pit of her stomach, an ugly emotion that fuelled her choppy pencil strokes

Ami's stupid high voice warbling those lies about her mother.

Her father being too drunk to make dinner yesterday.

Her mother, for dying so suddenly without warning, for all of the lies and deception and the unanswered questions that no one cared to answer even now.

She was just scratching out a rough shape, a deep, angry furrow between her brows, when a light touch at her shoulder startled her.

"Oh!" She jumped back against the desk.

Itachi was staring down at her picture. He leant across her to get a better look, examining the paper with an intent expression. Sai didn't even look up, probably taking her little, "Oh!" as inspiration or something.

What she had drawn was a face. Well, it was a rough sketch, the eye just two black gaps, the mouth a dark slash across the face, but what made the picture stand out were all of the little red and black lines she had taken ages to painstakingly draw all around the face, twisting and spiky, some forming roses and skulls, others branching across the face like a macabre tattoo.

It was how she felt.

Itachi's eyebrows rose, just a little bit, as his eyes swept the picture.

"Wow," He drawled, "Multi-talented, you are."

Maybe it was all of the angry thoughts buzzing around in her brain, maybe it was the way he was looking at her, but she suddenly felt really, really irritated.

"It's nothing," She snapped, putting herself in between him and the picture, feeling oddly self-conscious, "What do you want?"

"Seeing as I just spent a long time (once again) persuading teachers not to punish you, I think I deserve a little more gratitude than that, surely?" He was joking, of course, but Sakura was tired of him. Tired of his little jokes, his flirty comments, his general air of coolness and superiority.

"No," She said sharply, "Thanks for helping me, but I'm busy."

She thought she saw amusement flicker over his face, "Sakura, you can't be serious," He drawled, leaning against the desk and looking at her imploringly, "I thought we could go for lunch. See if you were OK."

"Oh yes, because your intentions are always strictly noble," She spat, turning back to her drawing and ignoring him, "You never say or do the wrong thing. You don't have a single flaw. You are so very, very perfect and no one else can compare."

Itachi made a humming noise as though thinking about what she had said. Another annoying thing. Where's your temper, Itachi? Except for that one time when she'd asked him about him looking lonely, he hadn't truly lost his temper once.

He was rich, that much she could tell from his car alone, not to mention his clothes. After what Ami had blurted out today, she was terrified he was looking down his nose at her mum, judging her for being in prison, and why she was in prison.

The thought of anyone judging her mother or thinking badly of her made her feel furious, but if it was Itachi… it would be so much worse.

Itachi sighed and stretched his arms out like a cat, spinning around so he was leaning against the desk, facing away from her, "Perfection is subjective," He finally said with a nonchalant shrug, "What you might see as perfect might be something else entirely to me."

"Oh really?" She snapped, nostrils flaring as her anger grew. She knew Itachi wasn't the real reason she was mad, but for some reason she wanted to hurt him, wanted to get under his skin and break that mask of perfection, to find the real person underneath his flawless façade, "You don't think you're perfect? Then tell me, what flaws do you have? What makes you real?"

Sai was still painting diligently, but he was eyeing their exchange curiously.

"Too many to list," Itachi quirked his eyebrow at her with a sharp-edged smirk, "You think I'm perfect? You don't know me. I told you that your feelings for Sasuke were based on your own preconceptions about him. It's the same with me. You assume I'm perfect and don't bother to look any deeper. You ignore my admittedly rather obvious flaws, because you are obsessed with perfection. You need someone to idolise at all times. You aspire to be perfect yourself, so you seek to surround yourself with perfection. I'm not perfect. I'm a person."

Why wouldn't he get angry?

Her mouth curled into a sneer, "You just said I don't know you, and then you make a bunch of assumptions about me."

"Exactly right," He beamed, patting her on the head patronisingly, "Assumptions. We don't know each other well enough yet to try to pick out each other's flaws, so why don't we go back to the real issue at hand? What that girl said."

Sakura flinched, closing her eyes. "Quit acting like a teacher. Don't tell me what to do!"

"Sakura," He said, suddenly serious, crowding her against the desk after turning again, "Are you alright?"

I'm fine!

She wanted to scream the words at him. She wanted him to leave her alone, to get out of her life, to stop trying to change her, stop picking at her behaviour, her mind-set, her mother.

"Sakura appears to be exhibiting emotional distress," Sai stood up straight, placing his paintbrush into a pot of water, meeting Itachi's eyes, "Perhaps it would be best if you would leave."

Sakura could see where Ino had got the idea that he was like Sasuke, he had the Uchiha cold-voice hot glare down pat.

Itachi pushed a hand through his bangs, looking at Sai with interest. Perhaps he was noting the similarity to his brother.

"I only want to help." Itachi said mildly, looking almost offended.

"Wanting to help does not equal succeeding," Sai rebutted, putting his hands on his hips like Ino did so often, "Cutting off the source of emotional distress is usually effective when seeking to help. As you appear to be the source, I believe you should distance yourself."

"There's no need," Itachi frowned, "I'm not the real reason she's upset."

Sakura watched the paint on Sai's brush begin to swirl around the water in blue clouds, and wished she could be somewhere else, not caught in between the two of them starting an argument.

"That is subjective," A corner of Sai's mouth lifted in a smirk and Sakura realised his choice of words was intentional, "But if you insist you deserve to be here, I wonder if you could explain to the headmaster why you were in the art block without permission? You are not a teacher. You are meant to simply shadow other lessons. There is no lesson taking place here today. You are technically trespassing and harassing students."

Itachi stared at him, "How do you know about why I'm here?"

Sai shrugged, his dark eyes dancing with mirth, "I hear things. Are you going to leave now, willingly, or later, in the tender care of the security guards?"

Itachi laughed, "I won't be escorted out. I do have permission to explore the college. I'm not harassing any student."

"Well, I believe you have hurt Sakura's feelings somehow," Sai said stubbornly, "I think you should leave."

"I would never –"

"I'm not fine." Sakura said quietly. She couldn't believe she was admitting it, couldn't believe she was speaking up about it, but she wanted to, all of a sudden.

Itachi looked at her, his eyes shadowed by his hair so she couldn't read his expression.

"I'm angry," She looked right at him, wanting to see him, not the perfection she or he had built him up to be, "I hate Ami. I hate her. I hate my mother. I hate it all…" Her words dissolved as tears threatened, a block in her throat expanding to painful levels, her mouth stuttering shut.

Itachi put his hands on her shoulders and bent down to look her firmly in the eye. Sai watched with bare confusion on his pale face.

"Why?" Itachi asked simply, "What did your mother do? I don't believe that girl said anything true, but did your mother –"

"I DON'T KNOW!" Sakura knocked his hands away and shouted in his face, "I don't know what she did! No one ever told me! All I know is we were happy and fine one day and the next she was in court! All I know it must have been awful, because my dad hid it from me, he wouldn't talk about it, not ever, not when I begged and cried, so I don't know what she did. He just told me she'd been in court and it had gone badly and that she was going to be gone for a while and then it had been months and I hadn't seen her and then they called and my dad cried and she was dead in her cell!"

Itachi looked stunned.

Sai's confused expression had frozen over.

"She was just dead all of a sudden. I don't even know why she was in prison, but she died there and I don't know if she deserved it or not! She could have killed someone, she could have done exactly what Ami said and I will never, ever know!"

"And I can't ask my dad because in the brief moments he's sober, he's still too upset to talk about it. My other relatives don't talk about it. My mum's parents don't want to see us, and they said she was a waste of space and had brought shame on herself and us. Her crime wasn't in the newspapers or on TV, or if it was they didn't name her. I just keep thinking, I don't know who my mother was. She might have been innocent. She might have been evil. I can't think about her because I don't know what to think about her! I miss her and then I feel guilty for it! Our house is full of her stuff that my dad won't touch or throw out, so I keep it all in my room and wonder if I can tell what kind of a person she was by the stuff she owned but I can't," She wailed, tears spilling down her cheeks, horror and humiliation stinging her but she couldn't for the life of her stop talking, "I know everything about her apart from why she was in prison and why she died!"

And then Sai was stumbling forward and his arms were around her in a clumsy embrace and Itachi's hands were gripping hers and he was saying over and over again,

"It's OK, it's fine, don't cry, it's OK…"

And despite her hatred of talking about her secrets, as Itachi held her hands tightly and murmured comfortingly and Sai tried his best to wordlessly comfort her, she felt like an immense weight had been plucked from her shoulders and thrown away.

Chapter Text

The cupboard wasn't the same. It didn't have the same comforting air it used to have; she couldn't sit there and relax, feel her stress and pain wash away. Now, she sat rigidly against the back wall, arms wrapped tightly around her knees.

She felt like she was suffocating.

The darkness of the cupboard was surrounding her, choking her, pressing against her painfully, making her push her face down on top of her knees to block out the overpowering gloom.

The noises emanating from the drama classroom outside weren't muffled and quiet. They were sharp and loud, chairs cracking against the floor, voices snapping, pens scratching against paper, Konan's quiet murmur becoming a harsh whisper.

She grasped both of her wrists in her hands loosely, feeling herself tremble lightly, trying to settle her nerves, to ground herself to be in this moment, now, because she kept sinking into memories.

Her mother washing up. That's it, nothing dramatic or sentimental, just this crystal clear image of her with her arms halfway disappearing into bubbles, her eyes narrowed in concentration and her little pink tongue sticking out of her mouth as she scrubbed.

Sakura wore those same gloves when she washed up, narrowed her eyes and stuck out her tongue, but she didn't come to close to the real thing.

How can someone so alive die? A woman filled to the brim with crackling energy, eyes that lit up with glee, a mouth that grinned permanently, always happy, always smiling, never a bad word to say about anyone or anything.

She was thin, maybe too thin, and those dark circles under her eyes were at their worst by the time she disappeared. Her skin was dull grey colour and she'd chewed her lips to pieces. But she was still beautiful.

Sakura felt the tears come and gave in to them for once, not having the energy to fight. She put her hands behind her head and tugged at the ends of her hair, rocking back and forth, her mouth open in a silent wail as she struggled to supress the sounds of her grief.

Did it get easier?

There had been a door in the hospital she'd been to once, when her father had had his tonsils out and there'd been complications. The door had the words 'Grief counselling' on it.

Her GP, when she'd tried in vain to get sleeping pills from him, had tried to persuade her to go to counselling after her mother died. Sakura had only had a vague image of someone in glasses trying to get her to talk about her memories or something. It hadn't seemed appealing.

Maybe she was stupid, maybe she was naïve, but when her father started putting his favourite brand of beer on the list of necessities for their weekly shop, it hadn't occurred to her that something was wrong. Self-medication, the GP had declared, and then tried to fob them off with leaflets. When she was fourteen, she'd just thought, so what if he wanted a beer? Maybe getting drunk and forgetting everything would make the pain go away. She didn't even have that option. Her father didn't care about his own health, but he cared enough about hers to snap at her if she even timidly suggested trying a bit of alcohol at Christmas.

But now, she could see where the GP was coming from. Her father slept as much as possible and drank in the hours he was awake. Somehow, he still had his job, but Sakura was pretty certain they would only put up with so much. Shaky hands and impaired concentration weren't going to help him do his job.

What would happen if he lost his job? Going to college was expensive. The travel alone cost a bomb. Would she really have to stop going?

She couldn't stop herself, little whimpers were escaping her mouth as she rocked, the feel of her fingers pulling at her hair not keeping the edge off like it usually did. The pain was there, a searing ache in her limbs that made them feel heavy and useless. She wanted to crawl into bed and hide under the covers.

She heard Konan's voice snap something and then chairs scraped back, feet hit the floor and moved towards the exit. Class was over.

As the noise faded away, Sakura allowed herself one big muffled sob, her fist in her mouth, and rested her head against the wall, waiting for everyone to leave so she could really be free to cry.

The door was yanked open and light from outside flooded in.

Sakura ducked her head stupidly as though that would hide her tears. Konan stood impassively in the doorway, one hand on the handle, the other outstretched towards Sakura.

She blinked back more tears and took the hand, barely feeling the embarrassment at being caught looking so weak and stupid, just needing comfort.

Konan pulled her to her feet and with a split-second of hesitation, brushed her down brusquely without attempting to be comforting or soothing, but then again, for Konan, physical contact meant something to her – the fact that she'd grabbed Sakura's hand and had brushed her down indicated she wanted to help, but didn't quite know how.

"I ended the class early when I heard you crying," Konan said bluntly, moving out of the cupboard so Sakura had no choice but to follow. At her horrified look, she merely shook her head, "Do not worry, no one else heard you."

"I'm sorry," Sakura said hastily, wiping her face discreetly as Konan's eyes slid away, "I shouldn't have been in there."

"There is no real rule against it," Konan gave a half-shrug, one shoulder lifting coolly as though she didn't really care about finding a student in her private cupboard, "Are you willing to speak about why you were upset?"

Sakura gave a shaky laugh, wondering if she had a say in the matter. Of course she was going to have to say something – Konan's eyes were piercing and curious. If she tried to skirt around the issue, she might dig around elsewhere, and with Ami's rumours going around Sakura had no desire to see her drama teacher converted to the 'Sakura's mother's a crack whore' team. Not that Konan would care, but Sakura figured that one less person believing that rubbish would be a small victory.

"My mum died a few years back," She said, hearing her voice say the words coldly and completely devoid of emotion. Laying the bare facts was easy. Lining the story with the pain made it hard. The word 'died' had nothing to do with her pain, it was the scientific, factual reason she wasn't here anymore. Words like why and I don't understand and I miss her were inflammatory, "Something triggered the – um, the feelings, I guess, and I just needed somewhere quiet and relatively private."

In school, when her mother had just died and she'd come back from the six month break, every single teacher knew about it. The new teachers read her file or saw something attached to her name on the register.

Problem child.

She was now one of the children who had pasts and problems, like the too-thin, hollow-cheeked students who were followed to the bathroom after lunch and the kids who had brothers and sisters in comas, etc. One of the kids the teachers spoke to gently and treated like geniuses/idiots. If they got a question right or did well on their homework, they'd coo and flatter, saying how clever they were and well done, that's exactly right. But the rest of the time they spoke to them like they were completely brainless and now needed assistance for everything. That's right, you go to the bathroom if you need to. No need to ask. Don't worry, being late's no problem at all! Don't sign on the late register, just pop into class and we'll sort it.

Didn't they see she didn't want special treatment? She wanted to slip into her old seat, to speak with her old friends, to just sneak back into her old life. But teachers loudly addressed her in class, welcome back, Sakura! We hope things have improved for you.

She'd thought viciously after one teacher had said that, well, thanks for fuelling the rumours that I was pregnant.

Konan's fingers tapped her mouth thoughtfully, the nails black and sharp. Not one emotion flickered in her eyes when Sakura had mentioned death and she wanted to give her a big hug for it. No false pity or exaggerated concern from this teacher.

Yesterday, Itachi hadn't seemed pitying either, he'd just been comforting. Poor Sai, he'd been so confused and was convinced Sakura required a long hug to get over her sadness and it had taken a while to pry him off.

"That is shit," Konan blinked her dark eyelids like even she wasn't used to hearing herself swear (Sakura had nearly dropped her mouth as it gaped open in shock, she didn't think she'd ever even heard Konan say darn), "You must have a lot of pain and rage. I meant what I said the other day. You have the Eye for Art. I have a project going on at the moment with Sasori. Would you be interested in helping us paint the corridors of the art block?"

"I don't know," Sakura shifted uncomfortably, "That sounds very permanent and I don't want to ruin the walls."

Konan rolled her eyes and clicked her fingers, "You mess it up, we paint over it. Come. You will feel much better, I guarantee it."

"Well, what are we painting?"

"Whatever Sasori thinks best." Konan narrowed her eyes, "Though I will be free from his artistic constraints. I have no love for that man's art. There is something… dead about puppets. My art is about life, creation. No matter how fragile, I am interested in life."

That sounded nice.

Life.

"OK," Sakura agreed shyly, feeling her face begin to itch under the dried tears, "I'll help."

xxxxxxxx

Sasori had given her a pencil to lay the basic foundations of her painting out, and she'd lightly sketched out her plan. Despite what she had insisted to everyone about having no artistic experience, she used to draw a lot in her spare time, and remembered enough to be able to achieve what she wanted.

She was just carefully sketching a daisy chain around a bony, limp wrist, when she sensed someone behind her.

She looked behind her and sighed deeply, turning back to her work.

"Why are you everywhere?" She complained, softening the petals with the edge of the pencil point.

"I always meet Sasori at this time to shadow his art lesson. Are you alrig –"

"I'm fine," She snapped, harsher than intended. She closed her eyes and grimaced, "I really am fine. Trying to keep busy. How's Sachiko?"

She'd thrown the last bit out because of desperation – she had nothing to say to Itachi and she was pretty sure he didn't have much to chat about either.

But, she was genuinely curious. That woman had been so beautiful, and so confident and sweet and generally perfect. She was proof that perfection existed. Sakura just had to find it, and then – well, she was pleased that Sachiko was so amazing, but she couldn't help but feel very lacking comparison.

Sakura was sort of short and of average weight, with a normal face and pink hair. That was all that could be said about her appearance. But Sachiko… you could write a poem about her feet and it would sell for millions. A goddess in real life… She should have guessed that Itachi's girlfriend would be just as attractive as he was, but for some reason his little speech about inner goodness had convinced her. Maybe he was right about his imperfections – he was a fucking hypocrite.

Sasori was murmuring something to Deidara as they both painted the same wall. Deidara was painting streaks of gold and red in an explosion of paint and Sasori was calmly painting a phoenix rising from Deidara's explosion.

Students were milling about noisily in the background, but Sakura could only hear Itachi as he spoke up, "Sachiko is fine, thank you for asking. She's been working hard recently – she works in fashion design, you see. A rather important client is demanding a wedding dress in twenty-four hours with the works – ribbons, frills, etc. She's a bit stressed."

She worked in fashion. Sakura reached for the peach paint and coated her brush with it. She chewed her lip and stroked the paint over the arms she had drawn, avoiding the daisy chain. Of course Sachiko worked in fashion. Perfect job for a perfect girl.

Suddenly, Itachi reached past her and wiped away some paint that was running down the wall with one finger, still examining the picture.

It was Ophelia. Lying on her back in a lake, her eyes closed. Sakura didn't know why she'd chosen to paint Ophelia's suicide, but it was turning out quite nicely, though all Sasori had to say about it was, "That girl was an idiot." Deidara, however, had appeared impressed by the subject she'd chosen, mentioning 'fragility of life,' and 'going out with a bang.'

"You have become fond of Ophelia, haven't you?" Itachi asked, amused.

Sakura added a touch of blue to the dead girl's lips and shrugged, "She's OK, I guess."

Out of the corner of her eye, she watched a boy and a girl walking down the corridor, the girl somehow managing to turn her whole body toward him whilst walking, her eyes locked on his, a wide, lipgloss-smeared smile on her face. He was at least a whole foot taller than her, and kept his long, skinny arms tucked behind his head. He wasn't looking at her, but his head was tilted to hear what she had to say better.

The boy dropped his phone and cursed, the girl's tongue clicking the roof of her mouth in a teasing sound of chastisement.

"What are you playing at?" She cried, her grin now lighting up her face with mirth, mock-slapping him on the arm as though he'd intentionally dropped his phone.

He acted bashful, rubbing his head and making an imploring face at the girl who laughed and sneakily linked arms with him without making a big deal out of it.

Flirting, Sakura noted, paintbrush frozen in the air. Maybe she should have taken notes.

Itachi had watched the pair as well, a little secretive smile on his face. Maybe he was thinking about Sachiko.

Sakura painted a swirl of ice-blue water under Ophelia's neck angrily, not even sure why she was mad.

"Now, when you say you are fine," Itachi began cautiously.

"Itachi, either grab a paintbrush and help or go away and stop bothering Sakura." Sasori suddenly snapped, turning away from Deidara in order to glare at his friend.

Itachi was too mature to make a face at Sasori's back, so he just shrugged and stayed exactly where he was.

"-Do you actually mean that you are fine, or do you mean that you are actually not fine at all?" He sought clarification, speaking as smoothly as though he hadn't been interrupted at all.

"I mean I am cranky and wielding a paintbrush," Sakura clarified, "Let's just stop talking about it, shall we?"

"It's funny," Itachi began, "You are only rude to me –"

"Please, I don't need any more character analysis from you," Sakura gripped the paintbrush, her knuckles turning white in anger, "You haven't got a clue."

"Don't I?" Itachi said in his mild I'm-so-smart-and-cool-and-you-are-a-foolish-teenager voice.

"No, actually. Do you psychoanalyse all of your friends like this?"

"Only the confusing ones." Itachi laughed.

There. Sakura dropped the brush and wiped her hands on the overalls Konan had loaned her. Ophelia lay half-submerged in water, lilies surrounding her prone, white form, her pale body concealed only by a soaking wet dress, one hand outstretched, a daisy chain circling the wrist.

It was beautiful, but disturbing.

Itachi gave a little sigh as he stared at the wall. Sasori's brush painted confident, quick strokes of red plume to make the phoenix's tail, but his gaze was on Sakura's creation. Deidara was openly admiring it, smiling.

Someone tapped her on the shoulder and Sakura looked around.

Konan gestured to the space where Ophelia's hand was reaching for.

"Do you mind if I add something to this?" She asked, eyes alight with passion, surprising Sakura with the depth, "It has really inspired me."

Sakura could only nod, and backed away to stand with Itachi to watch her paint.

Konan painted a purple butterfly dancing just out of Ophelia's reach, long wings proud and glittering.

Ophelia's face was no longer the blank corpse visage Sakura had painted; the butterfly added a mournful edge to her blue-tinged lips.

She was floating in a lake, her white dress billowing about her, lilies dotted around her body, one hand reaching for an elusive butterfly as she sank, which danced in the air out of her reach.

It was impossibly sad.

Itachi seemed to think so, as he leant heavily against her back, putting his chin on her shoulder and whispering, "I just want to give her a hug."

Konan heard him and gave him a sharp look, her eyes cutting and dripping with scorn. Itachi moved away from Sakura as though burned.

"Sakura." Sasuke's voice said loudly, making the teachers turn to stare at him, gauging whether he was a troublemaker or not.

Itachi sighed.

Sakura felt that familiar flutter in her stomach at the sound of his voice and quelled it with an inward glare. He was not her friend, so she had no right to be crushing on him. Who needed the heartache, really?

"Sasuke." She returned the greeting as coldly as possible despite her flushed cheeks, ignoring the amusement glittering in Itachi's eyes.

Sasuke frowned. Sakura was beginning to believe he only had about three expressions, angry, sulky and blank.

"Can we talk?" Sasuke asked, jerking his head back to indicate they should relocate elsewhere.

Sakura gave him a sneer that said, well I can, don't know about you.

He grimaced – look! A fourth expression! – and shook his head, "I didn't mean what I said to Neji."

"Is that an apology?" Sakura raised an eyebrow, fighting the urge to simper and forgive him instantly. Really, no man should have such an attractive face.

"You can be quite cold when you want to be," Itachi murmured, "You don't just show that side to me then."

For some reason, he sounded almost forlorn.

Sasuke glared at his brother. He stepped forward and put a hand around Sakura's wrist, slowly and deliberately, "I want to explain." He insisted, taking a step backwards, testing to see if she would follow him.

She resisted his pull and scowled at both of them. "You can explain here."

"It doesn't matter," Itachi put his hands up in the air with a grin, "I'll leave if you want privacy."

Sasuke eyed him suspiciously, but nodded.

Sakura, remembering the time he tried to eavesdrop on her and Tenten, gave him the coldest glare she could muster to show him she would not tolerate a repeat of last time.

In answer, he merely flashed a smirk her way and patronisingly patted her on the head, as he so often did. Sasuke's narrowed eyes followed the movement.

The moment Itachi left their sight down the corridor, Sasuke rounded on her, "How do you know my brother?"

Sakura was hardly going to say, oh, I was trying to destroy the headmaster's office at your ex-girlfriend's behest and now he's teaching me how to emotionally seduce you.

"I met him in college," Sakura shrugged, "We chatted. We get on, most of the time."

"Your number is in his phone, under the name 'Drama Queen.'" Sasuke said, watching her closely.

"So it is." Sakura didn't see where he was going with this.

"Not many people get on with him that well." Sasuke licked his lips, still holding her gaze, "What makes you different?"

That was a surprise. Not many people get on with him that well? But he was charming, handsome, successful, rich…

"Surely he gets on with Sachiko?" Sakura asked, genuinely confused by Sasuke's statement, not fishing for information on Itachi's girlfriend.

Sasuke looked surprised, "You know about Sachiko? I figured he hadn't told you…"

"..What, you thought he was…" Sakura screwed up her face, unable to complete the sentence without feeling ridiculous, Of course Itachi wasn't –

"…Leading you on," Sasuke finished, "He seemed to be quite flirty," he made a face as though using this word in relation to his brother physically pained him, "around you. It wouldn't be the first time."

What? Serious, cold, business-like Itachi, messing around –

"Until our father intervened, Itachi had as many girlfriends that he wanted. He gets bored easily, you see. He can't stick with one girl and try to make it work. He went through so many girls, some important businesswomen and heirs of companies, that Father thought it best to threaten to disinherit him if he continued. Those important women he went through, he dumped them all as harshly as possible to keep them from hanging around. Father was beginning to get in trouble for what his heir was doing."

Flirtatious, childish Itachi, the man with no sense of personal space, who threw around compliments carelessly, who always seemed to be where she was, who claimed to have no interest in beautiful women despite his beautiful girlfriend, who waited a long time to mention said beautiful girlfriend, long enough that she'd developed a fledgling crush on him, who patted her on the head, leant against her, whispered in her ear, leant past her to wipe paint away, comforted her about her mother, always dug for more information about her, which always made her cry, leading him to hug her, complimented her face, her Ophelia, her drawings, her everything.

But, her mind tried to intervene, he never made a move on her, he was a good man (the kind of man that Konan saw fit to glare at after he touched her, the kind of man who made friends with stupid, vulnerable teenage girls and made them trust him), he took her out to lunch and made sure to pay, he (drunkenly called her in the afternoon and insulted her) he talked to her about her mother (but not about his, and told her nothing, nothing at all about anything concrete and real to do with him) and he pushed her towards Sasuke (after scorning her love for him in the first place).

Sakura stared at Sasuke, who looked satisfied by the raw shock on her face.

"He's my brother, but I don't agree with how he treats women. I was worried he might be manipulating you." Sasuke said calmly.

"Oh you know me." Sakura said blankly, still shocked, "I'm above falling for that stuff."

You're an idiot, Sakura.

(I know)

"Good," Sasuke straightened up, "About what I said to Neji… he'd been talking about you and me… how we were hanging out more. He implied something was going on. I knew he wouldn't let the idea go if I didn't convince him otherwise… he's as stubborn as Naruto. So, I tried to make out you weren't really a friend. I didn't mean it."

"Something was going on?" Sakura repeated, wondering why he had chosen to drop his little bomb about Itachi just before his almost-apology.

"Something," Sasuke shrugged, looking almost flustered, "Anyway, I'm sorry. Really. Would-you-like-to-come-to-my-house-for-dinner-tonight?" He asked in a rush.

Sakura must not have been able to hide her shock, because he hastened to add, "Just as a friend thing. To show we're really friends."

Sakura slowly nodded but added warily, "Itachi won't be there, will he?"

Sasuke shook his head again, "He doesn't live at home anymore and he told me he'd rather stick pins in his eyes than stay in our father's company for more than one second."

"Well, OK then." Sakura smiled, feeling exhilarated.

Because she wasn't looking, she missed Sasuke's triumphant smirk.

xxxxxxxx

"Fugaku, sweetheart, Sasuke's brought a lovely little friend around for dinner!" Mikoto called, standing in the living room doorway and calling out to the room's occupants.

"Oh?" Came a gruff voice, "Better not be that Naruto again."

"Would Mother call Naruto lovely?" Sasuke rolled his eyes, brushing past his mother into the living room.

"You never know," Mikoto said brightly, "In you go dear, go join the others. I'll bring the tea out later."

Sakura, so nervous she was shaking, moved from the large hall into the smaller room Sasuke had disappeared into.

A tall, unsmiling man stood at the fireplace with a wine glass in hand, somehow radiating elegance despite his rugged looks, wearing a smart black shirt and matching trousers.

Sasuke leant against the wall glaring at the back wall, where a settee sat.

Itachi sat next to Sachiko on the settee, one arm slung around her shoulders, a gap between them made obvious by Sachiko's hand, which rested between them. They looked a little uncomfortable.

"Oh, Sakura-chan!" Sachiko exclaimed, "You're Sasuke's lovely friend?"

"So it would seem." Itachi said, no trace of a smile in his eyes or mouth. Not a glimpse of the flirty man she thought she knew.

"Nice to see you again." He greeted her, his smirk cold and bland.

He reached for Sachiko's hand suddenly, startling her, meeting Sakura's eyes almost defensively.

Chapter Text

Sakura, to her shock and delight, had actually discovered a flaw in Sachiko's personality.

She. Never. Stopped. Talking.

Ever.

"So I asked her really nicely, please give me more time to sort out the fabric, one day is so not enough time to decide on these things, you know?" Sachiko explained to the group, her expression earnest. Mikoto listened intently, looking engrossed in the conversation, "But she wouldn't have it. So, I spent six hours frantically looking for just the right type of fabric, soft but not shiny was what she wanted, the most expensive kind I could get my hands on, so once I found the perfect material I got to work, all through the night, even going as far as to make little white silk flowers to sew along the front. So, she shows up the next day and demands to see the dress. There's me thinking, oh God, what if I hadn't finished it in time? But I'm obviously getting ahead of myself there, feeling relieved already, because what did she do? The mardy cow moans that it isn't the right length! She's got to be at the church in an hour and I'm freaking out, so I make her get in the dress and I grab a pair of scissors, and she looks at me like I'm crazy, but really, what else could I do? And then I cut –"

Sakura tuned out of Sachiko's speech, sinking into her own thoughts and musing on why Sasuke had invited her here. He'd made out that Itachi was definitely not going to be here, when it was obvious that this was all prearranged and he must have known in advance. So, Sasuke wanted her to be here today to witness something or do something to do with Itachi?

Sachiko looked as lovely as ever, tanned skin flawless and her smile managed to light up not only her face but the whole room. Sakura dug deep inside her and forcefully attempted to generate some hatred for the perfect woman.

But just then, Sachiko suddenly turned and beamed at Sakura, "I was so pleased to hear about you and Sasu-chan, Sakura-chan!" She clapped her hands together excitedly, her many bracelets clanging together. "Ooh, I've got it! Sasu-chan and Saku-chan! Adorable!"

Mikoto's smile widened as Sachiko spoke, "Sasuke! You never said you were dating!"

Sasuke's only response was to mess up his hair slightly, looking embarrassed, but also slightly pleased with himself.

He also didn't deny it.

"Thank you, but we aren't –" Sakura tried to say, but was cut off when Sasuke cleared his throat and straightened out his hair.

"Mother, is it alright if Sakura stays for dinner?" He asked, ignoring Sakura's annoyance at being interrupted.

Itachi made eye contact with Sakura, his expression contemplative.

She'd been expecting a sarcastic comment, or even for him to make a heart with his fingers and point it to her and Sasuke with a grin. That seemed like something he'd do.

But he kept silent, just staring and staring without a funny quip or gesture.

"Of course! Is that alright with you, Sakura-chan?" Mikoto beamed at her.

Fugaku still hadn't said anything. He was still stood at the fireplace, glass of wine in hand, looking over his shoulder subtly at her. His expression was as unreadable as his older son's.

"Oh, you must!" Sachiko's beam was just as bright and persuasive as Mikoto's, "I'm helping with dinner tonight! It's kind of a big deal. I'm really useless at cooking, so tonight's my chance to learn something."

Sakura, whose eggs were always runny and her toast always burnt, could empathise with the bad cooking skills thing. But the atmosphere in the Uchiha Manor was pretty damn weird – Fugaku was silent yet managed to radiate cold, unfriendliness, Mikoto was too happy about everything, Sasuke was far too pleased with himself and they seemed to be one-way dating without her permission and whatever Itachi was feeling, he was keeping it to himself. Sachiko was the only one who seemed to be acting normal.

"If you don't mind, I'd like to have dinner." Sakura said politely, stumbling over her words when Itachi looked at her.

Fugaku's mouth, normally a hard line, twitched into a tiny smirk. Sakura was struck by how much the Uchihas all resembled each other – both Sasuke and Itachi had inherited Fugaku's looks and habits, the tiny smirk being one of them. Even Mikoto's smile had a hard edge to it.

"So gracious." Fugaku commented, draining his wine glass, tipping its content down his throat.

Mikoto looked at Sakura, gaze suddenly scrutinising.

As the Uchihas all stared at her, she felt as if her every flaw was being dissected and laid before her under their hard gazes. It didn't seem unfriendly, just slightly cold.

"Th-thank you." She dipped her head in a stupid little bowing movement, her hands clasped in her lap.

Sachiko smiled at her sweetly, putting her hand on her shoulder and squeezing it slightly.

"You're doing well." She whispered, so quietly only Sakura could hear her.

Sakura managed a weak smile.

What the hell was this, an interview?

"Right!" Mikoto declared suddenly, slapping her hands on her thighs and standing up, "I better get dinner on. Sachiko, sweetheart, you can help peel the carrots, OK?"

"Sasuke, before dinner, we will speak in my study, privately." Fugaku looked at his youngest son, his voice brooking no arguments.

Sasuke shrugged as though he didn't care either way and put his hand on the door, "We can talk now, Father."

Fugaku followed him out into the hall, already talking.

Sakura caught snippets of their conversation as they walked off, "Is this serious? Can we trust-" and, "Father, I know what I'm doing."

Sachiko, positively quivering with excitement, followed Mikoto into the kitchen after giving Itachi a kiss on the cheek.

Now it was just Sakura and Itachi left in the living room, sitting together in silence, Itachi actively seeking her gaze, Sakura trying her best to avoid his.

"So," Itachi started, his voice falsely bright and cheery, "My tutoring paid off, did it?"

Sakura shook her head, feeling rather like she'd been lured into the lion's den and left alone with the beast.

If it helped, Sachiko was definitely one of her kind. A lion she was not.

"We aren't going out," Sakura denied, "It might look like we are, but we aren't."

Itachi tapped his chin, seemingly deep in thought. He spoke up, gazing at the floor between them, "Then why didn't Sasuke correct Mother? Oh…"

"What?" Sakura narrowed her eyes suspiciously.

His little, 'Oh' had seemed like he'd had an idea, but he looked downcast as a result of whatever he'd thought up.

"Well… Sasuke isn't great at dealing with rejection. He isn't the type to outright do anything if he thinks there's even the slightest chance he won't win or succeed. "

"So?"

"So… he wouldn't ask you out to your face, so he thought you'd understand if he didn't say you weren't going out."

"That doesn't make any sense." Sakura scowled.

"He wants you to make the first move." Itachi said plainly, "To remove all chances of failure. Now he's made it obvious he likes you, he wants you to follow through with that."

"That's ridiculous." Sakura said flatly, "If Sasuke liked me; he'd just ask me out. He doesn't get scared of things like rejection."

"Not fear exactly," Itachi wagged his finger at her, "Embarrassment. He has his pride, you know. He can't stand the idea of one little nice girl being able to humiliate him."

"One little nice girl." Sakura grumbled, "Go away."

"I am an Uchiha," Itachi grinned, "I belong here. Speaking of which, I wasn't exactly expecting to have my student in my family home for dinner. What brings you here?"

"What do you think? Sasuke invited me over to convince me we were really friends. And now his parents think we're dating. Well, them and Sachiko. Yay."

"Hey, aren't you hopelessly, irrevocably in love with Sasu-chan?" Itachi tilted his head and fluttered his eyelashes at her in a rather disturbingly convincing imitation of a lovestruck teenage girl. Sakura tried to ignore the urge to vomit, which only increased with Itachi's next words, "Or rather, in crush with him?"

"You can't be 'in crush' with someone, you crush on them." Sakura corrected.

"I'm sorry, I'm not really 'hip' to the youth's lingo these days." Itachi said, deadpan, "Crushing on someone sounds painful, at any rate."

"Yes, well, good thing I'm not crushing on anyone, isn't it?" Sakura snapped.

Itachi's mirth disappeared instantly. He stared at her, his gaze intense.

She squirmed in her seat again, feeling awkward, "I thought we established this already? I, um… I don't have a crush on Sasuke, I love him."

Itachi removed his glasses and cleaned them with the hem of his shirt, his movements slow and methodical, seemingly greatly concerned with removing every trace of dust and grime from his lenses.

She felt her blush grow more obvious as he ignored her, certain that her cheeks were on fire.

"I do." She asserted, her tone emphatic.

Though Itachi's head was down, his gaze focused on his glasses, she caught the edge of a smirk the little she could see of his face.

"Itachi," She said seriously. He finally looked up as her tone grew more sober, "I do."

"What's his favourite colour?" Itachi immediately fired off the question with the delivery of a TV host with decades of experience behind him.

"Dark blue." Sakura said automatically. She glared when he looked surprised, "What? You told me already!"

"Well, anyway," Itachi waved his hand, "Knowing what someone's favourite colour doesn't equal love. And that's often a hotly disputed topic anyway, look at Oprah. I still maintain her favourite colour is green, but others say purple. Don't look at me like that, it's a perfectly good example. How old are you, again?"

"I'm nearly eighteen."

"Seventeen. Hm. Nearly an adult, huh? Exciting. You'll be able to gamble and get married without parental consent, you lucky thing. Oh, and drink. Don't do that, it's naughty. Where was I? Oh yeah, about Sasu-chan, I actually can't predict his behaviour when he's around you. I'm rather good at reading people if I do say so myself… and yet, he acts the opposite to what I'd assume when you two are together. If I were to read between the lines and see the, quite frankly, obvious, I would assume you are the reason for this change in his behaviour." Itachi breathed in deeply, his fingers in a steeple position.

"I don't think he acts differently?" Sakura raised her eyebrows, confused.

"How would you know if he did? There is a very clear reason for his personality shift…" He glanced at her, listening to him raptly, "…But that is a tale for another day, my dear."

"My dear," Sakura pulled a face, "Don't call me that."

Itachi grinned at that, getting up and squeezing her cheeks like her aunt at parties, who always felt the need to painfully tweak her face to near breaking point. It was how she showed affection, much like, apparently, Itachi. How bizarre.

"Anyway, why were you all glary before? And before you correct me, I know glary isn't a real word."

"Actually, it is." Itachi said absently, "Glary? I was never glary. I do not glare."

"You so were. I came in the room with Sasuke and you glared at me."

"Ah! That is my default expression."

"Itachi…"

"Fine, fine… I just… wasn't expecting to see you there, OK? I was surprised. But you are lucky, in a way, I suppose. You are meek and polite enough for my mother to like you, and obedient and gracious enough for my father to approve of you. You will make a lovely wife for Sasuke one day." Itachi said, a trace of bitterness in his voice. His eyes were distant, as though he was seeing through her, "Sasuke does like to compete with me in every area, after all… Looks like he might actually win this time, too…"

"What are you talking about?" Sakura asked, baffled, "I'm not planning on marrying anyone! I'm seventeen, I'm still in college, I barely know Sasuke, we aren't even dating!"

Itachi blinked, looking at her as though surprised she was still there, "Oh, I wasn't really talking about now… the distant future, perhaps. Either way, you are Uchiha wife material. Kind, yet willing to overlook more unscrupulous behaviour…" There was more than a trace of bitterness in his voice now, his voice was outright sour.

"What the hell are you talking about?" Sakura's brow twisted in confusion.

He laughed, "OK, it's nothing for you to worry about. Just another reason to not believe in perfection – people always let you down, and if your expectations are sky-high, the inevitable fall from grace is so much harder."

For a moment she stared at him, frustrated, and then she stood up and said, "I can do the mysterious mentor shtick too you know. Oh, Itachi! Beware all cats, for they are mysterious and have wily ways… I won't tell you why, though. People are twisty, corrupty meanies, and you should only think bad thoughts… your love is fake, you're an idiot if you think otherwise…" At first she was just playing around, spinning slightly and affecting a wise voice, with Itachi grinning in amusement, but then his smile faded and his eyes hardened.

She realised what she had said: Your love is fake, you're an idiot if you think otherwise.

"I didn't mean –" She started to say, her voice slightly horrified.

"I know." He said curtly.

"I was just…" She grimaced when he looked at her as if to say, yes, you were just what exactly?, "It gets a little frustrating sometimes, when you hint at things but never actually say anything concrete… it kind of feels like you're jerking me around."

A flicker of a smile, "You sound like you're from a cop sitcom. No, I am not 'jerking you around,' I just have a tendency to say whatever I'm musing on, but I always try to censor my babble so I don't… say things I shouldn't. It's a curse."

"Well, it's annoying," Sakura widened her eyes with a grin, "Try to censor all of the babble, so I don't feel like I'm talking to Yoda."

"Let me guess, you've seen the prequel films but not the sequels, but you think you're an expert on Star Wars, am I right?" Itachi winked.

She made a monumental effort not to scream in his face and smack him. Violence helps no one, padawan. "There! That's annoying too! The whole psychobabble analysis thing! You can't go a second without diagnosing anything I say, do or think!"

Itachi looked wonderfully dismissive, "That's just for kicks and giggles. I enjoy analysing people. I'm normally very good at it. Though you and Sasuke seem to be heading in an unpredictable direction." He frowned.

"How cute, you don't like not understanding something, do you, genius?" She poked him in the chest with a grin.

"How cutting." He said dryly, flicking her finger aside, "You have laid bare my flaws and laid waste to my self-esteem," He raised his arms and closed his eyes dramatically, "You may now ravage my corpse of its last vestiges of dignity."

"Are you suggesting I rob you of your modesty?" Sakura stifled a laugh at Itachi's mock-outraged look.

"How dare you suggest you may – actually, come to think of it, my modesty was robbed long ago." He waved a careless hand.

"Ew," Sakura screwed up her face, then gasped in realisation, "I just remembered! You! You bloody liar! You messed around loads of women, important heirs of stuff, businesswomen! You're a playboy or something!"

Itachi looked astonished, "A playboy – what the - how could you even? I don't… I might have once… or twice… Honestly Sakura, where is this coming from?" He demanded, finally, actually seeming flustered for once.

"Are you or are you not a man whore?" Sakura said accusingly, trying and failing to keep a straight face at Itachi's expression.

"A man what?" Itachi spluttered.

Unable to keep it in any longer, Sakura burst out laughing, "Ha! I knew it! I knew you weren't some morally deficient playboy bastard!"

"I'm sorry, I must have blacked out and dreamed the last part of the conversation." Itachi shrugged, still looking baffled.

"Sasuke told me that you slept around and broke a lot of women's hearts," Sakura laughed, "I knew it couldn't be true."

Itachi didn't respond.

Her smile slowly died, "Itachi?"

He turned to her with a sheepish grin, holding his hands up, "I did warn you. People always let you down, and if your expectations are sky-high, the inevitable fall from grace is so much harder. Yes, I messed around. I broke some hearts. I was a bastard."

Sakura stared at him, utterly confused. So… he was exactly what she'd hoped he wasn't? Exactly what Sasuke had said he was?

"But… why?"

"Why does anyone do that?" Itachi finally put his glasses back on, turning around so she couldn't see his face, "We all have our vices."

Sakura shook her head without even realising it, "No, I don't believe you'd do that."

He laughed shortly without mirth and turned back to face her, "I did exactly that. Sasuke was right. I won't try to justify it to you. It was inexcusable. I was going through a rebellious phase."

Sakura was aware she was blushing, humiliatingly enough. The thought of her friend, her sort of tutor, an older, cooler guy… doing things, breaking hearts… It was weird.

"Does Sachiko know?" She asked.

"No." Itachi closed his eyes, fiddling with his glasses nervously, "I didn't think she'd want to know."

"I won't tell her." Sakura immediately promised, simply because he looked so worried all of a sudden.

"Well… thank you. I don't know how she'd react. She's like you, you see. She sees the best in everyone, she doesn't believe in nasty things or cruelty. She certainly doesn't think me capable of it… I'd like to keep it that way."

"Were you tryingto be cruel?" She asked, almost curious.

"Hmmm… I don't believe I was, at least, not most of the time. I was angry. With everything. Like any teenager, I suppose. I don't want Sachiko to know I'm capable of such things… she's too kind and innocent in that way… I didn't want you to know either… I'm afraid you might have walked into a den of vice here." He made a face at her, gesturing to their surroundings.

"Does my innocence and kindness make me stick out too much?" Sakura asked wryly.

"Not with all of this eyeliner." He made a half-hearted attempt at a laugh, and walked towards her.

His thumbs rested gently on her eyelids, and he wiped them both clean of the black kohl she'd smeared there earlier.

He was standing only inches away, his expression focused, his gaze on her face, his hands touching her skin… Feeling all too aware of his old playboy status, Sakura found herself feeling uncomfortable at their closeness. The sensation of his thumbs lightly sweeping away the eyeliner made her shiver very slightly. His eyes were half-lidded, his mouth open. He must have felt her shiver, because his eyes moved from her eyelids to her face, his expression scrutinising.

"Alright! I peeled the carrots and sliced the vegetables –" Sachiko said cheerily, stopping dead at the sight of them standing so close together, Itachi's hands on Sakura's face.

"I was just explaining to Sakura that she wears too much makeup." Itachi said breezily without a shred of hesitation, showing Sachiko his eyeliner-smeared thumbs, "Isn't she gross?"

Sakura rolled her eyes, chewing her bottom lip worriedly. He had been so quick to lie to Sachiko, so practised and at ease… Wait, no, he hadn't been lying at all, had he? The situation looked a lot worse than it was, it was actually quite innocent…

She was overthinking things, as per usual.

But Sachiko clearly didn't have the same problem, as her frown cleared and a huge smile broke out onto her face, "Itachi! Saku-chan looks lovely! Ooh, you've ruined her makeup! Sweetheart, why don't we go upstairs into Itachi's old room and I'll fix it up for you?"

Well, she couldn't pass up a chance to see Itachi's room, now could she? Though by the sound of things, she and Sachiko would certainly not be the first girls to see it. Ew.

"If he doesn't mind…" Sakura cast a glance at Itachi, who slowly drew his finger across his neck in warning.

She grinned at him mischievously, "Yes please."

"Perfect." Itachi muttered under his breath.

Chapter Text

Sachiko's eyes were narrowed in concentration, her breath softly puffing onto Sakura's face as she drew the liquid eyeliner across her lid. Her hand was totally steady; the line came out smooth and perfect.

"The trick," She said quietly, her eyes never leaving the point of the eyeliner as it swooped across, "Is to angle it upwards. When I was just learning to do makeup, I drew a dot in the corner of my eye and another at the side and then connected the dots."

Sachiko talked in emoticons. Sakura could almost hear the smiley faces popping up after every sentence, so filled with cheer and joy and all sorts of annoyingly lovable qualities…

I can do makeup, Sakura thought grumpily, my mother taught me how. Yeah, maybe it's not to everyone's taste, but who cares? It's my face.

But Sachiko was smiling absently as she applied some sparkly eyeshadow, and Sakura could tell she was one of those happy people who smiled all the time for no real reason. She probably emptied her purse walking home, handing out money to the homeless and people with collecting cans for charities. She probably had more friends than she knew what to do with but still managed to stay in contact with them all. She probably went for walks in forests and sang with the little woodland creatures.

Itachi's room was huge, like she'd guessed. Black and white, fashionable even as a teenager. There was a wooden chest of drawers with pictures on the top, photos of Itachi and Sasuke. That was it, just the two of them, a smiling, young Sasuke standing next to a beaming Itachi. The brothers eating ice cream at the park, Sasuke pointing at a giraffe at the zoo, a close up shot of them pulling faces… Where were the pictures of his childhood friends? His girlfriends?

"So, how long have you been dating Sasu-chan?" Sachiko asked, moving back on the bed to inspect her handiwork. Judging by her pleased smile, she liked the results.

Sakura decided to just go with the truth, "Uh, we aren't really dating. I just didn't like to correct Mikoto-san."

Sachiko blinked, looking disappointed, "Oh… That's a real shame," She said sincerely, "I thought you would be very good for him."

You don't even know me, Sakura wanted to say. I'm nothing special. Stop being so nice to me.

She felt her anger at Itachi grow. Sachiko was a lovely person and she had no idea that Itachi slept around and broke girls' hearts. What was worse was that Sasuke implied that Itachi did it for fun.

Maybe this was some part of becoming an adult she didn't know yet. Maybe she was just being a child. She looked at Sachiko. Here was a full-grown adult woman, with her own job and boyfriend. They came from different worlds. How could she compare? Not that she wanted to, really. After hearing from Itachi himself how he treated women in the past, her stupid little crush had had the stuffing knocked out of it.

So, Sasuke and his parents, they all knew about Itachi's past behaviour, and Sachiko didn't have a clue. What if they were laughing at her? As annoyingly perfect as Sachiko undoubtedly was, she didn't deserve this.

Not only that, but Itachi had said Sachiko wasn't 'deep,' but that she was a 'good person' and that was what he needed. Surely you didn't look for inner goodness in your possible girlfriends? Was he referring to his past? Maybe he wanted an honest relationship with a good girl for once, instead of… whatever it was he'd been doing.

"Thank you, Sachiko-san." Sakura said, trying not to look as grim as she felt.

"Call me Sachiko!" She insisted, "Even if you aren't really Sasu-chan's girlfriend, you're Itachi's friend, so that makes you part of the family!"

Um, woah.

"Thank you?" Sakura said, befuddled.

Sachiko played with a little brush, her smile oddly shy, "Well, I only have Mikoto-san to talk to when I'm here… Fugaku-san doesn't talk to me and Sasu-chan… well, we don't have anything in common. Itachi and me don't really talk much anyway… Our connection goes beyond that, I think. It's like, spiritual. So when we do these little dinners and have family gatherings, it'd be great to have someone to talk to…"

Guh. It was like being struck by a bullet. She immediately wanted to be Sachiko's best friend, she wanted to be the person she talked to at gatherings, pictured the two of them sitting together on the couch downstairs giggling happily, the strangely cold atmosphere gone…

Itachi staring at them all the while, making snide little comments, or worse, ignoring the pair of them.

"Well, it's not like I don't like Sasuke." Sakura admitted, wanting to please the older woman. Not only that, but there was something very comforting about her open, friendly demeanour. Perhaps this was what Itachi meant by 'inner goodness.' Talking with Sachiko made her feel at ease. She felt prompted to tell the truth, to confide in her.

Sachiko beamed, her white, even teeth contrasting with her red lipstick, "That's great! Have you talked to him about it?"

Sakura tried to sigh around Sachiko smudging lipgloss on her mouth, "No. I know he must seem like he's just another teenager to you, but in my college, he's like a big deal. He had this really beautiful girlfriend, Ino. She's a dancer. Me and Sasuke are friends, but… I think he's ashamed of me. I heard him telling his friend that I wasn't his friend, I was just someone he talked to… I don't get it. How can you like a person so much when they don't even think about you? I just feel like a creepy stalker sometimes, because that's how he makes me feel. Like I'm so insignificant in his life and it's weird that I consider him such a big part of mine. The worst thing is that I have all these feelings like I know him really well and that I really care about him, but I don't know anything about him. Not really. He's a stranger who I've projected this image of perfection onto. It's my fault. I'm sorry, listen to me babbling on…" She swallowed, feeling like a huge fool. Babbling to a pretty, cool woman as if her own problems mattered one iota in her life!

Sachiko carefully folded her hands in her lap, looking down. They were both sitting on the bed, cross-legged, facing each other. Sachiko's dress floated about her knees, revealing her slim legs clothed in black tights. Her expression was pensive, like she was thinking hard about what Sakura had said.

Then she opened her mouth, "Saku-chan. Don't ever feel creepy or stupid or insignificant for liking someone. There's no shame at all in liking someone you've not talked to much. That's called having a connection with someone, feeling a bond before you even know them. Having a crush on a guy rules your heart and your head when you're a teenager, you're young, you've never felt stuff this intensely before, it's all new and exciting and fresh… Being in love is one of the hardest things ever – it really changes your behaviour and how you think of things… it can make you feel ashamed and childish, but you have to just carry on, ignoring the pain. Unrequited love is one of the most painful things I've ever experienced and it will go on and on until you act. What you have to do is tell Sasu-chan exactly how you feel. If you don't, you'll never get closure, and you'll wonder 'what if' for the rest of your life. Trust me, Sasu-chan's a nice guy at heart. If he doesn't like you back, he'll let you down gently. You can talk to him about it and you can become friends afterwards. After that, knowing you won't ever be with him will make the love slowly go away. But, if he likes you back, you don't just get a new friend, you get a boyfriend! I know the confession is the most difficult part. But do it quickly without thinking too much about it, like ripping a plaster off. Once it's out there, you'll feel instantly better, trust me. And hey, if you ever have a problem, don't hesitate to come talk to me about it. I'm happy to listen, even if you think it's a silly problem."

Sakura was speechless.

Sachiko's comforting words were forcing her to think about things she'd forced to the back of her mind.

Her mother, sitting on the settee, Sakura on her knee, occasionally jerking her leg up to make her squeal with laughter. One hand on the arm of the settee, the other around Sakura's round stomach, keeping her from falling down.

The television was showing a woman in a sparkly dress smirking at a man in a grey suit.

"Now, Sakura," Her mother had murmured, "One day, you'll be like that lady on the TV. You'll meet a lovely man, like Cinderella or Snow White did, and it'll be like he was made just for you. He'll like you for who you are, no matter what. Did I tell you about the beautiful princess with pink hair?"

Sakura shook her head, mouth open, dazed at the coincidence of the princess having the same colour hair as hers.

"She was only a little princess, you see. Around about, hmm, well, around about your height, actually! She had the biggest, most beautiful green eyes anyone had ever seen. Her nose was little and snub. Her hair was short, curling around her ears. This little princess lived in a very tall tower, all on her own. The tower was pure white and had ivy and honeysuckle creeping up it. Bees and butterflies danced outside the little princess' window, the sun shining so bright it filled everyone with cheer at the sight of it. Even though the little princess lived alone, she was very happy with her white tower and her bees and the sunshine. She had her own, very special mirror, a bit like the one Daddy bought you for your fourth birthday, Sakura! When she looked into it, she saw a beautiful young woman, with long pink hair and big green eyes, and she realised, it was herself, only older. Knowing that she would be beautiful and happy, the little princess put the mirror away, deciding to do her best to grow into the woman she saw in the glass. And do you know what? When she was nineteen, she took the mirror out of where she hid it and looked at the reflection. It was herself. It mirrored her perfectly. She was very happy, knowing that she had become the girl she had wanted to be." Her mother stroked her hair as she talked, her voice soft and melodic, almost lulling Sakura to sleep.

Sakura looked up at her mother with her own big green eyes, "Was she me, Mummy? Am I that princess?"

Her mother chuckled, "Yes you are," She said, pulling Sakura into a tight embrace, the little chubby girl cuddling up to her mother happily, breathing in her rosy scent, "You're my smart, beautiful little princess and I just know you'll grow into that wonderful woman one day. I can't wait to meet her, sweetheart."

Sakura blinked. She hadn't thought of that day in years. What would her mother think of her now? Was she the woman she'd wanted to meet?

Sachiko was fiddling about with an eyebrow pencil, waiting for Sakura's response.

She was just like her mother.

Perfect, beautiful and kind.

"Thank you, Sachiko-san." Sakura said, totally sincere.

Sachiko blushed, shaking her head, "Ah, don't listen to me talk rubbish! I just thought it was shame, a girl as beautiful and lovely as you having confidence issues."

Sakura laughed ruefully, "Nice try, Sachiko-san. I know I'm not beautiful, and I'm OK with that –"

Sachiko's eyebrows shot up in surprise. Wordlessly, she grabbed Sakura's shoulders and gently pulled her around until she was facing the chest of drawers.

There was a huge mirror hanging on the wall.

Sakura gaped at her reflection.

She looked… pretty.

Sachiko had drawn the same Egyptian-style liquid eyeliner that she herself wore, but had also daubed some glittery gel-like substance over her eyelids. Her cheeks glowed pink, her skin tone golden with powder. Her lips were shiny baby-pink.

"Beautiful." Sachiko said firmly.

Sakura moved closer to the mirror, still staring in amazement at her face.

Her arms twitched with longing to reach out and hug Sachiko in thanks, but she restrained herself.

"C-can you – can you teach me how to do that?" She asked hopefully.

"Sure," Sachiko said eagerly, "If there's one thing I'm good at, it's makeup."

She pulled her massive leather makeup bag over on the bed, powders and brushes spilling out.

"Now, if you want to check what colours suit you best…" She began rifling through her bag excitedly.

After hearing about Itachi's past behaviour and now seeing just how wonderful his girlfriend was, Sakura could almost feel her crush die. She would never want to hurt Sachiko, especially after she advised her on her actual love for Sasuke. From now on, she would focus solely on Sasuke. She and Itachi would just be good friends.

xxxxxxxx

Itachi sat downstairs, sulking.

His girlfriend had vanished, inconsiderately stealing his friend at the same time, leaving him with absolutely no one to speak to, on account of how his father had been forced to run off to sort out some pesky figures, his mother was merrily chained to a sink, being the bane of every feminists' existence and his brother wouldn't talk to him.

Well, except to accuse him.

"Why are you and Sakura suddenly best friends?" Sasuke asked, the slightest touch of suspicion in his tone. He sat on the couch opposite Itachi, one leg carelessly thrown over the other.

"What did you talk about with Daddy Dearest?" Itachi shot back.

Sasuke grimaced, "Nothing you'd care about. Answer my question."

Itachi sighed, "Well, it was the oddest thing, Sasuke. I met Sakura one day, we talked and actually… got on. I know, it's so weird, right? After that we, like, talked some more and bonded platonically. And then we were friends. Was simple enough for you to comprehend?"

"Why are you even in my college?"

"Stalking you, obviously."

"Be serious for once in your life. Listen and copy my example. I like Sakura. I have for a while. I was pleased she was so suitable, Father would approve because she was really quiet and kind. But then you come along and steal her." Sasuke said quietly without anger or bitterness, just resentment colouring his words.

"I'm sorry, what?" Itachi's face twisted with incredulity, "You think I've 'stolen' Sakura?"

"I finally had the chance to prove myself in an area that you couldn't hope to compete in," Sasuke said heatedly, "Everyone knows Sachiko is stupid beyond comprehension. Sure, she's obedient, but she talks way too much and she's too thick to be an Uchiha. If I could come up with a perfect girlfriend, Father would be proud and it'd make it obvious just how irritating Sachiko is. Do you think you can trust that blabbermouth with anything? Sakura is perfect. She's obedient, quiet and she wouldn't question me on anything because she's in love with me. You've always been awful with girls, so I figured that I could actually win this time. I'd pick the right girl, and you'd have to admit I was better than you."

Itachi was about to reply on several matters – Sasuke was seriously underestimating Sachiko's intelligence, which pissed him off, and he seemed to think Sakura was a perfect little robot wifey, ready-made to take orders – when he heard a strangled sob.

Sachiko was standing in the doorway, Sakura standing behind her. The older girl was looking at Sasuke, with teary eyes, her mouth quivering.

"Is that what you really think of me, Sasuke?" She asked, sounding distraught, "You think I'm irritating?"

Sasuke flushed red at being caught out.

Itachi's jaw clenched at the upset expressions both girls wore.

"What, no Sasu-chan this time?" Sasuke snapped, "Yes, believe it or not, the loud-mouthed idiocy you frequently display is irritating to me. I'm sorry, but I just despise girls like you –"

"Shut the hell up!" Sakura burst out, pushing past Sachiko to stand in front of Sasuke.

Fugaku quietly slipped through the front door, listening intently.

"You think Sachiko's irritating? Let me tell you what's annoying. Hearing some judgemental, arrogant dick insulting one of the nicest, sweetest people on Earth as though his apparent perfection makes him worthy of criticising decent people. Well, guess what? I just figured out that you aren't perfect, you're an inconsiderate bastard with serious issues and you need help to fix that skewed image of women you seem to have. You think the perfect woman is obedient? Fuck you. Fuck you and your inflated self-worth, Sasuke. I'm not obedient. I'm not going to be your brainless, submissive little girlfriend, complimenting you all the time and making you feel better about yourself. Does insulting people make you feel special, Sasuke? You aren't special, dicks like you are a dime a dozen." She ranted on and on, watching the embarrassed flush on Sasuke's face increase tenfold, barely noticing Itachi clapping or Sachiko's wide-eyed expression.

She was just so disappointed.

She'd just convinced herself to give her love for Sasuke a try, and here he was, perfection personified, suddenly revealing his real self as being cruel and insulting.

"No wonder you told Neji we weren't friends," Sakura threw her hands up in anger, "Because you thought of me as a silent, obedient servant. Not worth being friends with! Only worthy of being your girlfriend because you actually believed I wouldn't complain if you did something wrong. Well, you were wrong."

"Obviously, Sakura's far too compassionate and human for you, Sasuke. You'll have to pick up an inflatable doll if you want to meet Daddy Dearest's standards." Itachi smirked at his red-faced brother.

"That's quite enough, all of you." Fugaku said, suddenly pushing past Sachiko to get into the living room, "Itachi, hold that disrespectful tongue of yours."

Itachi lightly grasped the end of his tongue and stared stonily at his father.

Sakura froze on the spot at the sight of Itachi's scary father. He'd actually heard her ranting at his son…

"An inflatable doll would be capable of a more meaningful and real relationship than you and Sachiko, that's for sure." Sasuke snorted, apparently made braver by his father's reappearance.

Itachi let go of his tongue and glared at his brother, "Be quiet, Sasuke."

Sachiko looked confused, still a bit teary-eyed.

"It's obvious you don't love the poor girl, Itachi." Fugaku said tiredly, "Can you not just cut her loose already? It has been a long time and she gets more and more attached by the day. It's cruel."

Sachiko's hand went to her throat, playing with the chunky necklace she wore, her expression confused and upset, "Itachi? He's joking, isn't he? This has all been one big joke, right? Sasuke doesn't hate me and Fugaku-san… he's wrong. Please, tell me he's wrong." Her voice quivered, turning plaintive.

Itachi closed his eyes and took a deep breath. When he opened them again, he quickly glanced at Sakura, biting his lip.

"He's wrong," He said with complete certainty, "I do love you."

Sachiko managed a watery smile, "Oh! Oh, good! Ha ha, it wouldn't be great if… if all of you hated me…"

"Sachiko-san, you gave me some very wise advice upstairs. You are a very clever person. Sasuke just can't understand anyone who isn't himself, clearly. Don't listen to him." Sakura said, almost pleading. The older woman looked so hurt.

"Thanks, Saku-chan." Sachiko smiled at her, but the sight of it was painful to Sakura, like a knife to the heart. She clearly didn't believe her.

Sakura thought of her mother, of little princesses in towers with magic mirrors that let them see the wonderful person they'd grow up to be.

"I know you worked hard on the dinner, Sachiko-san," Sakura said carefully, ignoring the eyes of the male Uchihas upon her, "But why don't you come with me and Itachi, and we'll go eat somewhere else?"

Sachiko patted Sakura on the shoulder, but her mouth was trembling violently and tears began to fall, leaving streaks in her makeup. She didn't look so perfect now.

"I'm sorry, I have to go." She sobbed, rushing through the front door and out of the house without looking behind her, running in those tall heels without a single stumble.

"Sachiko has very low self-esteem, you total fucking morons," Itachi said through clenched teeth, looking as though he was seconds from launching himself at his father and brother, "And well done, Sasuke, you managed to find her weak spot and exploited it just like Dad taught you. I'm so proud. These little family dinners are done, invite someone else to fill the seats. Sakura, come on."

He turned and held out his hand to her.

Sasuke glared at him. Fugaku was watching, those cold, calculating eyes probably figuring out the probability of Sakura leaving or something.

Sakura didn't grab his hand, but stepped through the living room doorway, heading out.

"Sakura! This isn't right, let me explain properly!" Sasuke insisted.

"Itachi, what's going on?" Mikoto poked her head around the kitchen door, "I heard shouting."

"Sakura and I are leaving. We don't really feel like playing 'Let's Pretend We're the Perfect Family,' today, so sorry, we must do this again sometime… Sasuke, I hope Dad doesn't screw you up too much. You don't always have to please him, you know." Itachi gazed at his brother with something akin to regret in his eyes.

Sasuke frowned in confusion at his brother's words.

Mikoto looked upset but Fugaku didn't seem affected in the slightest by Itachi's rudeness or sudden farewell.

"But Sakura-chan is Sasuke's friend." Mikoto said perplexedly.

Sasuke met Sakura's eyes. Itachi pushed her lightly through the door out of sight.

"Why don't you ask Sasuke what his definition of a 'friend' is?" Itachi suggested, slamming the door behind them.

"Right." He said slowly, brushing himself down, "Meeting the parents… That went well."

Sakura scrubbed at her face with her hands, frustrated, unwittingly removing the makeup Sachiko had painstakingly applied for her.

"Well, what did Sasuke mean by you'd 'stolen' me?"

Itachi tripped down the steps, regaining his cool in seconds, turning his lurch towards the ground into a swaggering walk.

"Nothing, nothing, Let's go find Sachiko before she finds a cake shop. That's where she'll have headed, you know."

Chapter Text

They never caught up with Sachiko. For a girl in heels, she was oddly fast.

Sakura poked her chocolate cake with a fork moodily. Itachi had been craving sweets after declaring that Sachiko would be in a cake shop, meaning they'd checked every single one in walking distance before Itachi spied a pink cake and demanded they stay to eat.

"I don't really want cake…" Sakura had said, thinking of the dinner she hadn't got to eat back at the Uchiha's.

But he'd bought her one anyway, ignoring her protests.

"Do you think Sachiko's alright?" Sakura asked anxiously, cutting her cake up and eyeing him closely. He seemed almost… giddy.

"What? Oh, Sachiko… I suspect not. She takes blows to her character rather hard… She feels too deeply. She is an emphatic, caring individual, and she believes the world to be a wonderful place. When it strives to prove her wrong, she takes it very badly." Itachi ate his cherry cake absently with an expression of slight surprise etched on his features.

"Shouldn't you call her?" Sakura frowned at him.

"She won't be up to talking. She was fond of Sasuke, thought the world of him. Thought he returned the sentiment, you see. Finding out his true feelings… Very upsetting surprise, I imagine. She will call me in a few days, after she's gotten over it."

"Call her anyway!" Sakura jabbed her fork at him, "Surely she'll want to speak with you!"

Itachi looked thoughtful, "Actually, she never wants to speak to me when she is upset."

Sakura sighed heavily.

What a mess… Sasuke proved to be a cruel bastard with backwards views, she'd shouted at him and made a fool out of herself, and Itachi had pretty much cut all ties with his family.

"Well," Sakura let her head drop onto the table, mumbling into the wood, "That was a disaster. I can't believe Sasuke knew I liked him and that he was going to ask me out, just so he'd have a girlfriend who was meek and submissive. What does that even mean?"

"It means Sasuke wants to please our father in every way, including future spouse. I imagine Father advised him on what the perfect woman was, and told him it was a woman who was silent, obedient, happy to be walked over. My father doesn't live in this century, Sakura. He's a relic from the good old days where sexism was rife but not a word yet."

"Lovely," Sakura rolled her eyes, "What was that all about with your dad? He wanted you to dump Sachiko!"

Itachi stuffed a piece of cake in his mouth and chewed furiously, looking at the ceiling in a heroic attempt to avoid answering her question.

"Tell me." Sakura glared at him.

He swallowed and grimaced, "He doesn't think I love her."

"Oh?" Sakura's eyebrows rose slowly and she tilted her head as she gazed at him, "And do you?"

Itachi paused, looking down at his plate contemplatively. He gave her a quick little smirk and licked his lips, "Of course. She's perfect for me."

"Perfect as in, your personalities mesh, you get along, she makes you laugh, or perfect as in, obedient, silent and willing to overlook stuff?" Sakura's glare darkened at his awkward expression.

Itachi rolled his eyes, wiping his mouth delicately with a napkin, "Perfect as in, absolutely gorgeous, kind and compassionate. Would you like me to compose a poem? A sonnet, perhaps, fourteen lines of justification to appeal to your suspicious nature? Yes, shockingly enough, I love my girlfriend."

"The lady doth protest too much, methinks." Sakura raised her eyebrows at him.

"Well done for quoting that correctly, you little genius. Don't worry, my father is wrong in most areas… including this one. Don't dwell on it." Itachi's tone was light, but his expression brooked no argument or continuation on the subject.

Sakura glanced around the restaurant as Itachi began to mash up his cake into creamy little bits, glaring at his plate like it had personally offended him. Everything was perfect. The walls were painted a sugary kind of pink, the wooden chairs each decorated with lime green cushions and there were touches of yellow everywhere that managed to brighten the room up, like the sunshine-yellow clock and lemon floor linoleum.

"This place is nice," Sakura gestured around them at the smiley-face napkins and the chocolate fountain, "Looks expensive."

Itachi looked up from his plate and grabbed a menu, examining it swiftly. "No, it's fine." He said simply.

Sakura took a peek when he was once again focused on his cake-mashing, and nearly gagged. The prices would not have been out of place in a jewellery shop. What the…?

"Itachi…" She began cautiously.

"Hmm?" He spooned some mashed cake into his mouth with a pleased grin.

"How rich are you?" She asked bluntly. Even she had her pride and being taken out for free lunches was bad enough – expensive free lunches were too much to bear. It was nice to have a good friend, but she didn't want him thinking he had to pay for everything. Her father gave her some money every month, even she could afford to treat Itachi every once in a while.

Itachi paused, considering the question, "You know, I've lost count."

She wondered what it would be like, to have so much money you lost count of how much there was. She decided it would be disorganised and frustrating, and tried to ignore the little flickers of jealousy she felt. If – when she was famous, she would use her money to send her dad to one of those drying out clinic things. She knew celebrities went into rehab for 'emotional' problems, she figured they'd take her dad, no problem, as long as she had the money to pay for him.

Her dad would be out in no time and they'd pour all his alcohol down the sink together. He'd throw out that old dressing gown he was glued to and she'd buy him a new one, a black one, the kind that he used to look at in shops. But he'd never wear it because he'd never stay in bed all day and he'd get dressed every morning and they'd go to the park and get coffee and watch the sunrise like they used to when she was very little.

Who would she be if she could be anyone?

Maybe Paris Hilton, she had loads of money, didn't she? Hmm… maybe not. Sakura didn't think she was cut out for that kind of lifestyle.

Itachi called over the waitress, who came over so quickly Sakura figured she'd been watching them closely for a while.

The waitress was pretty in a vacuous kind of way. She smiled at Itachi, "Is there a problem, sir?" She didn't look at Sakura.

"Not at all, sweetheart," He said casually, doing his slow-smirk thing at the woman, making her blush, "Is there any chance I could get a pot of honey to go with this cake?"

"Yeah, if you want diabetes." Sakura muttered.

Itachi glanced at her, looking amused, "And please take my cute little student's cake away, she doesn't appear to like it that much… And a coffee for me, lots of cream, sugar… what do you want, darling?"

Cute little student. Darling.

Bastard.

Sakura glared mutinously at him, "Black coffee, please."

"And do you do meals? Not just desserts?" Itachi looked up at the waitress hopefully.

"Of course, sir. I'll be back with a dinner menu, plus your drinks and honey." The waitress fluttered her eyelashes and smiled flirtatiously at him before leaving with Sakura's uneaten cake.

"Man whore." Sakura scowled.

"What?" Itachi asked, looking genuinely confused.

"You've got a girlfriend!" Sakura pointed out, incredulous.

"…I know?"

"So, you were flirting with that waitress!"

Itachi looked at her like she was crazy, "Actually, I wasn't."

Could he not even tell when he was flirting? Did he just do it automatically?

Sakura huffed and looked away.

"Oh, so you're mad at me now?" Itachi sounded exasperated, "I shouldn't be nice to waitresses?"

Nice? He... He called her sweetheart, and smirked and…

Gah. Sakura ran a hand through her hair. She was overreacting like she always did. She was such a moron sometimes.

"I don't know… you're all smirky and you say darling like your voice is dripping with, I dunno, honey, which makes sense considering you appear to be pining after honey right now." She pointed at him redundantly with two fingers, as if to emphasise the extent he was pining for the honey.

To be fair, he was craning his neck to see if the waitress was coming back with a look of mild frustration on his face. Sakura felt a smirk of her own bloom into being with the mental image of Itachi desperately downing honey to get a sugar rush.

"No, I just…" Itachi sighed heavily, rubbing his chin. Sakura frowned a little at the bag under his eyes, the paleness of his skin. Once again, he looked unhealthily tired, "I was a bastard once. I didn't care about anyone's feelings. I thought the worst of everyone and didn't care what they thought of me. I took what I wanted and never gave anything in return. I don't want to be that person anymore."

"You aren't." Sakura said instantly.

He raised an eyebrow, fixing his glasses so he could peer at her over them imperiously, "How would you know?"

"You always want to help me out with my problems. Like, you never think they're too small or dumb or childish to bother with, you just listen and give me advice without judging me. You've been kind to me. Would you have been so nice to me before?" Sakura spotted the waitress coming back with their orders and tried her best not to glare at her.

"Oh yeah," Itachi mumbled, eyes on the approaching honey, "Just to get in your pants, mind. I'd have been the nicest guy you'd ever met, until I wasn't."

While it was gross and discomfiting to hear that her friend would have lied to her and acted nice just to try to get her to sleep with him, it was also oddly flattering. Not in a oh-my-gosh-that-is-so-nice-of-you-to-say kind of way, more of a what-the-hell-you'd-go-that-far-for-a-shag? kind of way.

"What made you change?" Sakura asked him curiously.

He waved a hand carelessly, "God knows. There was no specific incident that forced me to change my ways. I just gradually got sick of everything. Daddy Dearest threatening to cut me off helped, though. I cared more, back then, about what he thought. Even after… well, after everything. Stupid of me."

"Here's your honey!" The waitress danced over, shoving Sakura's black coffee at her without care and then slowly sliding the honey onto the table next to Itachi's elbow, chest strategically positioned so that the only way for him to avoid making eye contact with her heaving bosoms was to stare manfully at the ceiling instead.

Sakura watched, growing increasingly more irritated, as the waitress flirted with Itachi, twirling her curls around her finger, leaning her entire body towards him with an inviting smile.

Itachi turned, gave her a thoroughly disinterested look, and then started to paint his mashed up cake with honey.

The waitress drooped in disappointment, heaving bosoms and all.

Almost like an afterthought, she dropped a little piece of paper on Itachi's plate and drifted off sadly.

"I think you dented her perk." Sakura said, hoping she didn't look too pleased in Itachi's disinterest.

"Hmm? Really? She seems plenty perky to me." He said, bored, not even looking at the poor woman.

Sakura plucked the piece of paper from his plate before he could read it.

Heya cutie ;) Here's my number.

She'd written her number on the back in lipstick. How depressing. Itachi inspired this sort of lovestruck behaviour often, huh?

Well, Itachi had a girlfriend anyway. Sakura crumpled the paper up stealthily whilst Itachi was still making eyes at his glistening honey-cake monstrosity. He didn't need a girl's phone number.

"So, tell me about this Ami girl then." Itachi commanded, pointing his fork at her.

Sakura felt her mouth pucker up in disgust. The last person she wanted to talk about was that purple-haired skinny bitch. Especially after the lies she'd told about Sakura's mother. Sakura had a very good idea about what had put those ideas into Ami's head, and she was not happy about them at all.

"She's… she's just some girl who got the wrong idea about my mum."

"Bull," Itachi said calmly, "Tell me."

Sakura bit her lip. No. She'd overshared already, whining about her mother and her father. God, the day she'd actually broken down and cried in Sai's arms, Itachi having to actually comfort her… that was too embarrassing.

"Tell me, Sakura," Itachi's dark eyes connected with her own, "I want to know. You found out about my past, now tell me about this girl so we're equal."

Sakura made a silent snarl at him, lips curled, teeth bared. He recoiled in mock-horror.

"Fine, it's a short, boring story anyway. I didn't know Ami till last year when I started college. I didn't know her but I'd noticed her and her friends laughed at me a lot in the corridors. I thought I was being paranoid, but she stopped me one day when I was walking past her and said, 'Don't you ever wash your face?' I had my make up on, you see…" Sakura gestured towards her eyes, usually smeared with eyeliner. Itachi said nothing, just watched her, "So after that I was wary of her, tried to avoid her. Didn't want any hassle. But she did. She wanted to upset me. Kept making niggling little comments about how I looked and stuff. Every now and then, she'd give me a little push, just to scare me, I guess. It worked, I started learning how to fight from my friend Tenten, just in case she ever got violent with me. She never did, but she probably will now after I slapped her…"

Sakura sighed deeply, looking down at her lap, "I don't really want to go back to college tomorrow. I know she'll have something planned."

She jumped when a cold hand suddenly covered hers on the table. Itachi leant forward, rubbing her hand with his thumb, "Well, you won't be alone. You'll have me, and your friend Tenten."

Sakura saw what they must look like to the rest of the café, a boy and a girl, the boy touching the girl's hand, looking into her eyes and smiling. They looked like they were together. Was it wrong that she didn't want the moment to end, just so that she could have this feeling for longer, so that, just for another second and only in a stranger's mind, they were a couple?

Yes.

She pulled her hand away hastily, face flushing pink.

Itachi narrowed his eyes.

xxxxxxxx

English was uneventful. Obito was just as sleepy as the rest of the class, sitting at his desk in front of the room, yawning and occasionally mumbling facts about Shakespeare.

It was a hot, drowsy sort of day. The window next to Sakura was open, the smell of cut grass and fresh flowers drifted into the room. The sky was deep blue, uninterrupted by clouds, the air hot and heavy, weighing the classroom down.

Sakura rested her head on the desk, staring outside the window at the grounds outside. Ami hadn't said anything, hadn't even looked at her all day. Sasuke hadn't even shown up.

There was a slight, blissful breeze that set the dandelions outside dancing, little blurs of butter-yellow against green grass.

Ino sat alone, a little anxious frown puckering her forehead, restlessly tapping her foot on the ground and staring at the door.

"Can we go yet?" Ami's sharp voice suddenly cut through the heavy silence, slicing through the lazy atmosphere of the room and startling Sakura out of her lethargic state.

Sakura glanced at the clock. Huh. The entire English lesson had sped by.

She'd been frightened when she realised Itachi wasn't going to be shadowing today's class, but it seemed like she'd had nothing to worry about.

The class filed out of the room after Obito lazily pointed at the door and fell asleep, head on his desk.

Sakura was just wandering out, a safe distance behind Ami, when a hand dropped on her shoulder.

Stifling a shriek, she turned.

Konan stood before her, wearing a black, tight t-shirt with many belt buckles strapped around her waist, a skirt with a newspaper printed pattern and knee-high boots. Sakura would have wondered why the head teacher allowed Konan to dress as she did, but she had seen his orange hair and multiple facial piercings and realised this wasn't that kind of college.

"You will have to be prepared to give up a lot of your free time." Konan warned her, passing her a piece of paper.

Confused, Sakura scanned the page's contents.

Haruno Sakura…. after audition process, in which many… has been selected to play Ophelia in the upcoming play, Hamlet… please devote at least an hour a day to rehearsal, and never skip practice unless necessary.

"I'm going to be Ophelia?" Sakura's eyes went wide and she couldn't fight the massive smile that broke out.

"Yes," Konan didn't smile, but her constant scowl lessened somewhat under Sakura's enthusiasm, "I chose you personally. I feel I should warn you, we've been making changes to the play and there are some requirements… Itachi told me you were more than capable for the job."

"Eh? Itachi?" Sakura looked up.

Konan pointed behind her.

Itachi winked at her, grinning like a maniac.

Without even thinking, she leapt at him, throwing her arms around his neck and squealing.

I'm Ophelia! She thought joyfully, she'd actually got the part!

Itachi chuckled, wrapping his arms around her waist to stop her falling.

"Oh and," Konan said suddenly, seemingly unfazed by one of the students launching themselves at a teacher in training, "Uchiha-san? I have a letter for you."

Sakura's smile dropped in her confusion. What?

She turned her head as Konan walked past them. Sasuke stepped up from behind and took the letter off of Konan, glaring hotly at Itachi and Sakura.

"You got the part of Hamlet." Konan told him, "Well done."

Sakura felt herself slip out of Itachi's arms. Hamlet and Ophelia.

Fuck.

Sasuke briefly glanced at the paper and smirked, those dark eyes flicking Sakura's way, "Oh, I'll be playing your love interest, Sakura? You should probably let go of her, then, nii-san."

Itachi's hands tightened on her waist, then let go completely.

"If you actually read the play," Sakura said, her voice only wobbling a bit from the shock and anger, "You'd realise that we aren't love interests at all, really."

"Well, I know Ophelia loved Hamlet." He contradicted her with his smirk growing every second, "She always made it so… obvious." His eyes were boring into hers intensely, making it clear exactly who he was referring to.

Konan shrugged, "Love or not, you two ought to socialise with each other more, to get a rapport going. Your relationship needs to be believable."

"Believable?" Sakura scoffed, "Sasuke couldn't go a minute without lying or deceiving someone. That's what he considers a relationship. Forgive me for being unable to achieve an authentic rapport with someone like that."

Some people considered Sakura shy. It was true that conflict literally made her feel sick to her stomach, but sometimes, when pushed too far, she'd bite back. Those people never liked it when she did.

She turned on her heel and left, ignoring Sasuke's last comment.

"Maybe you're more like me than you think. What would Sachiko think if she'd seen that hug?"

She heard Itachi snap, "She wouldn't think anything of it, Sasuke, and at the moment I don't even want you using her name."

"Yes," Sasuke tone was musing, "She did always like me better, didn't she?"

xxxxxxxx

She was fuming!

Who would she be if she could be anyone?

The She-Hulk. Supergirl. Batgirl. Wonderwoman.

Anyone capable of grabbing Sasuke by his stupid, arrogant face and punting him across a football field!

Not that Batgirl could punt anyone across the length of a football field. She had some cool toys she could hurt Sasuke with, though.

How dare he? How dare he? To insinuate things between her and Itachi were more than platonic, to imply that Sachiko preferred him over Itachi, to make comments about their mutual love interest state! Revolting little… urgh!

Sakura marched to R.E., still furious with Sasuke, with Ami, with herself. If she hadn't been stupid enough to jump at Itachi…

Though he'd caught her. Slipped his hands around her waist like it came naturally to him. Didn't push her away or complain, or even joke.

Then again, knowing his previous manwhore status, Sakura found this distinctly uncomforting.

Of course catching flailing women came naturally to him. He'd practically made a career out of it.

She'd been so happy about being Ophelia, and now Sasuke had to ruin it by being Hamlet… How was she supposed to act like she even cared about him?

"Hey, Sakura," A feminine voice said from behind, "I haven't seen you in a while."

Sakura stiffened.

Tenten.

"Of course you haven't," Sakura said, turning, "You fucking told Ami about my mother, you made up lies about her and now everyone believes the crap you made up!"

Tenten took a step back, astonished by Sakura's fury. Neji stood next to her, mouth tightening at Sakura's words.

"I didn't," Tenten spluttered, "I would never - !"

"Who else knew my mum died? Who else knew she died in prison?" Sakura was horrified to feel her bottom lip quivering and knew tears weren't far off, "I told you that in person, after two months of not talking about it. I came to your house and we sat on your porch and I told you everything I knew. We both cried about it. How could you do this to me?"

"Sakura, I swear, I never made up anything about your mum!" Tenten promised, tears glittering in her eyes.

Neji took a step forward, crossing his arms, "You've got it wrong, Sakura."

"No one else knew!" Sakura shouted, "I never told anyone else, just my best friend!"

The R.E. class had shown up, Ami at the head of the pack, scenting gossip like a bloodhound and heading right to the source. Ino frowned and put a hand on Sai's arm, who shook her off. She looked upset at his reaction.

And of course, where her class went…

…Itachi always followed.

"Sakura, you walk incredibly quickly, do you always power-walk to your lessons?" He huffed, moving to stand next to her, ignoring his glowering little brother.

"I don't know how Ami found out about your mother because I didn't tell her!" Tenten said desperately, "Please don't be mad at me!"

"I've only ever told two people and you are lucky enough to be one of them!" Sakura yelled, ignoring Itachi's look of surprise.

Ami giggled. Sakura wanted to whirl around and snap at her, but her courage had deserted her by that point.

"Actually, I did hear it from Tenten," Ami said smugly, smirking, "The whole juicy tale of Sakura's crackwhore mummy dearest."

Shut up, Sakura thought viciously, why don't you shut up for once in your life?

Tenten looked horrified, "I didn't tell you anything!"

"Oh? That's not what I remember. You told me all about how Sakura's mother sold herself to fund her crack habit –"

"Shut the fuck up." Itachi said coldly, his voice injected with icy fury.

Ami flinched, perhaps remembering Itachi's threat to her in the past.

Ino chipped in, her voice dry, "Ami, have you taken that STD test yet? I'm pretty sure I can smell the crabs coming off you."

Sai looked puzzled, scenting the air.

Sakura spotted Hidan moving towards the crowd, heading towards his classroom.

"Tenten didn't tell you a thing." Neji spat.

Regaining some of her confidence, Ami flicked her hair back and smirked, "Didn't she? Then how did I know about it?"

"I don't know how you heard it. I can only assume that, like the filthy, sneaking little rat you are, you lurked around the college until you heard something interesting. Tenten only told one person of Sakura's personal tragedy, and that was myself, and only in defence of Sakura." Neji said in clipped tones.

Sakura stared incredulously at Tenten, "You did tell! You treated my mother's death like gossip!"

Tenten shook her head, clearly upset, "It wasn't like that –"

Sakura cut her off by turning away, shaking her own head in amazement and anger.

"Hey, I just explained to you what happened. Don't take this out on Tenten, you moron." Neji's voice rose in anger.

"I think it's best if you all went into class, and if you never spoke to Sakura like that again." Itachi said mildly.

"If she's intent on blindly remaining convinced that Tenten would do such a thing, then I will dedicate my time to drilling it into her head how utterly stupid she is for believing it!" Neji snapped.

Hidan broke through the crowd and slapped Itachi on the shoulder casually, "Right you, pipe the fuck down. Everybody shut the fuck up and get in the fucking classroom now. Not you, purple. Go to Pain-sama's office and write down on the floor in tiny writing exactly why Jashin would fucking burn you for talking shit about people." He pointed at Ami with a glare. When she looked furious, he stuck his tongue out, "Hey, I don't make the rules."

He thought about it, "After that, clean Pain-sama's floor 'cause he gets fussy when I make kids write on his shit. You could just not use ink, I guess. Got any lipstick? Blood would work. Aw, hell, just fucking go to his office and tell him what you did, OK kid?"

Ami left, muttering furiously about psychotic R.E. teachers.

Sasuke entered the classroom, but not before giving Itachi a thoroughly scrutinising look. Ino followed Sai in, but smiled at Sakura before she entered the room.

Tenten allowed Neji to tug her into the room, looking back at Sakura with the saddest expression she'd ever seen on the other girl's face.

Sakura had about thirty seconds to feel truly alone, before a hand settled on her head and Itachi muttered, "I don't know about your friend Tenten, but you still have me, if it helps."

Chapter Text

The wig was too damn heavy and itchy. It was blonde with twisting ringlets that fell down to Sakura's arse (highlighting the fact that Ophelia was obviously supposed to be played by a taller girl) and made her head fell hot and heavy. Not only that, but Konan had dragged out a pink flowery dress that covered every inch of her, her arms, legs and chest all swathed in fabric and faux-flowers. She looked like a walking blossom. Not good.

Sasuke was wearing some ugly doublet and hose combination with a tunic. He still somehow managed to pull it off. He also wore an infuriating smirk that told Sakura he was loving every minute of this.

Sakura would manage to stammer out a line and then Konan would snap, no, that's all wrong, look each other's eyes and act like you are deeply in love, for Christ's sake.

Sakura looked into Sasuke's eyes and kind of wished he would die, right there and then on the stage, clutching his throat and sinking to his knees, that damned smirk vanishing without a trace.

"I can't wait until Hamlet dies." Sakura said fervently, ignoring the little pull in her abdomen that wanted to get closer to Sasuke, to put her hand on his shoulder and pull herself nearer…

She didn't know if he could feel it too, but he looked deeply into her eyes and smirked again, this time the smirk was heavy with meaning that made Sakura's mouth run dry and she couldn't fathom why her feet were suddenly moving closer to him.

"That's it." Konan called from the side of the stage, "That's the atmosphere."

She tapped the stage to get their attention. Sakura jumped violently and realised that Sasuke's arm was loosely draped around her waist. She shoved him off, ignoring his amusement.

"Now, there are certain alterations I have made to this play in order to entertain a modern audience," Konan said without a trace of shame, "Firstly, it will be a musical –"

"What." Sasuke said flatly, all amusement gone from his expression.

"You will have four songs, Uchiha-san. Haruno-san, you have two. Itachi informed me that you, Haruno-san, are a capable singer. Also, the most famous and popular play of Shakespeare's is, arguably, Romeo and Juliet. Audiences respond well to romance and tragedy. Considering this, I have lengthened the scenes Hamlet and Ophelia have together to increase the romantic edge. Lastly," She said, consulting the script in her hands, "I've written in a kiss. Is that a problem for either of you?"

"No." Sasuke said instantly.

"Yes!" Sakura yelled out incredulously, "How can you warp Shakespeare? And there is no way I'm going to kiss that –"

"Haruno-san," Konan said calmly, "Do you want to be Ophelia? If you are serious about a career in theatre, you need to be able to perform roles you dislike, wear uncomfortable costumes and kiss your co-stars. I'm not asking for anything untoward, a simple, platonic kiss. It will last ten seconds at the most."

"Shouldn't we rehearse?" Sasuke looked downright evil when he gloated about anything.

Konan tilted her head to the side, tapping the stage with her script, "Hm… Well, for the first time, I will leave the room to give you privacy, and then with further rehearsals we will gradually introduce more of the cast so you become used to an audience and don't feel sheepish on the day. I trust you two to act professionally and bear in mind that when on the stage, you wear a mask like a new identity. Ophelia and Hamlet are now a tragic love story. I would like to see the both of you shed your own identities in order to perform Hamlet 2.0."

"You can't improve on Shakespeare!" Sakura yelled, incensed, as Konan left the room with an absent smile.

Sasuke turned to her, stepping closer. For all his smirks and apparent eagerness, he looked a little apprehensive as he approached.

Sakura took a firm step backwards, annoyed at herself for reacting so obviously and annoyed with both Konan and Sasuke for taking liberties with Shakespeare.

"Well, come on then." Sasuke muttered, sounding a little perturbed.

"I'm not kissing you, no way," Sakura spat, "You really hurt Sachiko's feelings and you didn't even apologise."

A strange look crossed Sasuke's face – guilt, annoyance? It flitted too quickly across his handsome features for Sakura to name it. At any rate, it was clear he had been affected by his and Sachiko's argument. If you could call completely destroying someone's self-esteem while they stood there and cried an argument.

"It isn't my fault that she is so sensitive to criticism. I wasn't even aware she could hear me."

"Oh, it's never your fault, huh? And how about you wanting to be with me because you thought you could control me?"

"That was… that was more about my father. You don't understand, you didn't see his face every time nii-san messed around and upset important women… I knew this was an area I could exceed even Itachi's record in. I had no intention of messing around. I wanted to make the perfect choice, a woman I could be happy with and yet also be suitable in my father's eyes. In my household, my father's approval is… well sought after." Sasuke said tonelessly. If Sakura was astonished at the personal information Sasuke had handed over without hesitation, she thought she hid it rather well.

"You hurt Sachiko's feelings." Sakura repeated, her voice gentler now. So, Sasuke's father was the root of the issue here. Yet, Sasuke was still a jerk with misogynistic tendencies.

"I'll call her and apologise." Sasuke said carelessly.

"Good." Sakura pursed her lips, "But I don't believe you. Do it now."

Sasuke raised one eyebrow, making it obvious he was doubting both her sanity and her intelligence. And yet, he picked took out his phone from where he had tucked it in his tunic, the weirdo, and dialled a number, still making eye contact with Sakura, almost defiantly.

Sachiko evidently picked up on the first ring, judging by Sasuke's mildly disconcerted expression and the tinny voice saying, "Hello Sasuke. Did I leave something at your house?"

Sasuke had put the woman on loudspeaker and to Sakura's surprise it was necessary, Sachiko's normally too-loud, motor-mouth speech was quiet and hesitant now.

"No, you didn't." Sasuke drawled, "I wanted to apologise."

A pause in conversation.

Sachiko sounded suspiciously close to tears once more, "Oh, Sasuke. That's really not necessary, everyone has the right to express their own opinion."

"Why don't you ever get mad?" Sasuke looked exasperated, "I… I insulted you. I didn't intend for you to hear me, and I was only attempting to annoy nii-san… I shouldn't have done it. Look, stop being so nice about everything. It's annoying."

A quiet sob came through the speakers.

Sakura glared at Sasuke until he squirmed slightly, cheeks very pale pink.

"Don't cry, for God's sake. You aren't an idiot. You're good at that fashion stuff you do. I was trying to get to nii-san, not you, so stop crying. Right. Good. I'm hanging up now." Sasuke said, his expression frustrated with a tiny hint of amusement.

"Thank you, Sasuke." Sachiko said, sounding like she was smiling.

Sasuke rolled his eyes, muttering a quick, "Don't worry about it. Bye." Sachiko was far too nice to have been pleased by that half-hearted apology, Sakura thought to herself. And was it just her imagination, or were Sasuke's cheeks a little redder?

She eyed him suspiciously as he hung up.

"I was going to apologise anyway." Sasuke tucked his phone back in his own tunic, the colour from his cheeks fading.

"Sure you were." Sakura teased him. She knew that Sasuke was truly screwed up, his view of the world coloured by his father's own prejudice, but after feeling the way she had for so long, had felt right up until this week, she couldn't stop herself from smiling at him.

Sasuke's smirk came back full-force, echoing her own smile, and his feet were light as he moved towards her once more, barely making a sound on the wooden stage.

Sakura felt her face flush with the knowledge that Sasuke was still intent on continuing the rehearsal. She cursed how hot the drama rooms got sometimes, now she was trapped in that stupidly tight dress and the heat was making it stick to her skin.

She wondered if Ophelia ever told Hamlet to fuck off.

No way.

But she wasn't moving back any further, just standing there, silently watching Sasuke approach.

It seemed to take him an age to reach her, to stand so close they had no choice but to look each other in the eye and wordlessly assess what they saw. Sakura, mouth bone-dry and butterflies frolicking merrily in her stomach, saw a beautiful young man with razor-sharp cheekbones, a strong jaw and two intelligent, unfathomable dark eyes, which from up close seemed more inky blue than pure black. She could only guess what Sasuke saw – a girl with big green eyes, soft features and big forehead, maybe.

Whatever it was he saw, he started to lean in, his breath fanning across her face in quick, oddly nervous puffs of air. He smelt fresh and clean and Sakura would later blame this pleasant scent as the reason why she didn't move away as Sasuke's mouth touched hers.

Her hands were up against their chests, preventing Sasuke from pushing forward further, and his hands were holding hers as though he had wanted to move them away but lost the urge.

She felt too hot, her limbs were air and her head was a cloud as the heat seeped through her and she was afloat, on stage with her Hamlet, her infuriating, misogynistic Hamlet in all his skewed perfection, both of them locked in a dance. She actually felt her feet leave the ground gently as Sasuke's hands touched her shoulders.

A cough, masculine and forced.

Sasuke jerked away and the dance ended, their feet touched the ground and Sakura didn't just feel hot now, she felt faint and dizzy too.

Itachi stood by the stage, one elbow resting on the surface, his pristine suit wrinkling. His smile was the ugliest thing Sakura had ever seen on his face, twisted and so obviously fake – when Itachi was one of the best liars and the smoothest man she'd ever met, his smile should have been shining in sincerity.

And yet, his eyes were narrowed and there was no disguising the angry furrow between his brows, no matter how casual his stance was.

Trailing behind him was Sai, looking awkward beyond belief and Ino, staring straight up at the two of them, her expression curiously unreadable.

"We were rehearsing." Sakura blurted out, her voice sounding loud and stupid, echoing through the room. She winced.

Itachi's smile turned nasty, his eyes glittering with malice, "Is that what it's called now?" He drawled, "Make a note, people. Rehearsing."

"What's your problem, nii-san?" Sasuke asked sullenly. Sakura was privately impressed he managed to inject the word 'nii-san' with such heavy sarcasm without altering his blank expression, "Am I not allowed to rehearse anymore without you barging in? Are you going to follow me into the bathroom too? It's only one step further than what you've been doing, being in all of my classes, trying to talk to me in the corridors, getting angry when I rehearse, be serious now and tell me, what is your problem?"

Itachi's smile was dazzling now, "Oh, Sasuke-chan. No problem at all. Oh, Sakura, darling? Could we have a word in private? Don't take off the wig, you're working it well."

Sakura felt her hands fly up to the frizzy blonde monstrosity on top of her head, her expression defensive, "Look, I have to wear it –"

"Are you coming or not?" He interrupted, turning to leave, his tone sharp and cutting.

Sakura hadn't expected that from him. Not from the person who had been rapidly becoming her best friend, the person she had begun to open up to, despite hating telling people about herself.

Itachi knew her, he really did, and she thought she knew him too.

She always stood up for herself when it counted. Her father had taught her how to fight once, when she was a kid, and made her promise not to let people walk all over her. She found it easier to let people get what they wanted, unless they roused her anger.

"No." She bit out, fists clenched, "Believe it or not, I really do have to rehearse right now, and you are being an ass, so no, I'm not coming."

Itachi sighed, his shoulders slumping. He turned around, "Do we really have to do this here?" He asked wearily.

"Do what?" Sakura yelled, losing her temper, "What am I supposed to have done? We were rehearsing!"

"Hamlet and Ophelia don't kiss!" Itachi shouted, banging his fist on the side of the stage in a rare flare of anger, "There is no kiss in the entire play. Don't try to feed me that crap."

Sakura stared at him, aware of Sasuke's shock. So it wasn't just her who was surprised. Itachi didn't get angry, he never got angry.

"Have you fought with Sachiko or something?" Sakura asked after a brief pause, her voice trembling slightly, "Because I don't understand why you're angry at me. Konan-sensei, she changed the script for Hamlet. She asked you about it, you told her I could sing."

She saw realisation dawn on his face, as well as the growing shame and regret.

Yeah, well, he could take his shame and regret and shove it where the sun don't shine after that performance.

"Sakura…" His voice was pained now, "I'm sorry… I didn't realise –"

"So?" She snapped, "So what? What would you care if I was rehearsing for real or not? It's none of your business, Itachi! I don't owe you any explanations for what I choose to do! This time was a rehearsal, yeah, but what if I was with Sasuke? Do you not approve of me, or something? Is that it; is this you doing some overprotective big brother thing?"

She was snapping too many questions out in rapid-fire precision, but she was too busy being majorly pissed off to rein in her anger.

Itachi shook his head, looking from her to Sasuke and back again. Finally, he said quietly, "It's none of my business. I apologise."

He left, his suit wrinkled even more from where he had been leaning against the stage, the doors swinging shut behind him.

Sasuke had been silent throughout Sakura and Itachi's spat, but he spoke up now, "Ino. What are you doing here?"

Ino raised her pale eyebrows at him and Sakura remembered that she was in love with him, and was using Sai as a second-best alternative. Itachi's cryptic comments had mystified Sai completely, he looked confused beyond belief.

"My crazy boy- um, my Sai, he started shouting at – is that your brother? Yeah, at your brother, and I didn't even know he could shout, and then he followed him in here when he said he wanted to see Sakura. And I, er, followed him." Ino said, stumbling awkwardly over her words.

Sasuke gave Sai a quick once-over, examining him from head-to-toe, "Fine." He said, "You should leave. Konan will be annoyed."

"I want to talk to Sakura." Sai said stubbornly.

"Doesn't everyone?" Sasuke sighed, sitting down on the stage and rifling through his bag, pulling out a new copy of Hamlet and beginning to read.

Sakura climbed down from the stage with difficulty, considering her dress, and made her way over to the stacked chairs, gesturing for Sai to join her.

"What's up?" She whispered, trying to ignore Ino's irritated glare boring into the side of her head. Surely she didn't have any right to be jealous when someone talked to her fake-boyfriend?

Sai was smiling again, his big fake smile that always made Sakura feel uneasy, "I had an idea, when I saw you and the Uchiha on stage. You should go out with him."

"What, Sasuke?" Sakura hissed.

"Yes. It's perfect. If he had a girlfriend, he wouldn't think about other girls, and Ino doesn't steal other girls' boyfriends, she told me that once. So, you go out with him and Ino will give up on him." Sai said smugly, as though his plan was the work of genius.

"Your logic is insane." Sakura said flatly.

"Well, Ino said she believed Sasuke was attracted to you. He is one of the more popular members of the college. I believe you should be 'extremely excited.'" Sai listed the emotion with total boredom, even giving her an empty thumbs up to seal the deal, "I need this. I think she might seek a boyfriend elsewhere, and I enjoy being her boyfriend. I take her to the cinema every other Tuesday and I walk her home every day. I call her Beautiful and she calls me Crazy. Pet names, you see. I never believed I would enter a relationship, so this one is… precious to me."

At this, Sakura whirled around and shot Ino a venomous glare. She blinked in surprise.

Bitch.

Using Sai for own gain, planning on discarding him for Sasuke the first chance she got. Not that she'd get a chance, Sasuke seemed to really dislike her for what she had done to Sakura. Though Sakura couldn't understand why he had taken her side so easily, when he was supposed to be friends with Ino. It made him seem disingenuous.

"I'll think about it, OK, Sai?" Sakura said unenthusiastically, hoping for some way to persuade Sai she didn't have to ask out Sasuke to ensure Ino and Sai's continued happiness. She could picture exactly how smug Sasuke would look if she ever asked him out.

Bastard.

He and Ino really would make a lovely couple.

"Thank you," Sai gave a sweeping, beautifully-executed bow, "I appreciate this. I won't tell Ino, however. I dislike secrets. But I imagine she would not be happy."

"Well, no." Sakura murmured, waving him off with a tired sigh, climbing back on stage.

Sai joined Ino where she stood, inspecting her nails carefully, his fake smile less bright, a bit more genuine.

Ino gave Sai the sweetest smile Sakura had ever seen on the normally sour girl's face, then took his arm in a friendly, look-how-close-we-are-platonically kind of way. They left the room, chatting quietly in low voices.

"So," Sakura said, her voice carrying easily in the emptier room, "Do you have any idea what was up with Itachi?"

Sasuke rolled his eyes, "Obviously. He is my brother, unfortunately. I know how he works."

"Care to share with the group?"

He eyed her, then smirked, "No, despite what he thinks, that would only benefit him."

Sakura nearly growled in exasperation, she was this close to hitting the next person who spoke to her cryptically, right in their cryptic mouth.

"Fine, whatever… Let's rehearse."

She pulled off the wig and threw it, hard, off the stage. Damn the stupid itchy thing to burn in hair hell.

Sasuke put down his copy of Hamlet and they began.

Maybe it was because they were both still angry, maybe it was the difficulty of working around the new, vaguely Shakespearian lines Konan had written in, but their performance was electrifying.

They spat their lines out like curses, they circled each other predatorily and they never once broke eye contact.

Finally they came together once more, both glaring hard into each other's eyes like they wanted nothing more than the other person to drop down dead, and when they kissed, it was full of savage passion, more like striking a blow rather than sweetening an argument with a romantic gesture.

They broke apart to the sound of faint clapping.

"That," Konan said firmly, "is perfection."

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Sakura escaped the theatre room, relieved to be free, shutting the doors behind her and hoping neither Sasuke nor Konan wanted to talk, rehearse or do anything for the next week. She was sick and tired of drama.

She opened her eyes and groaned.

Oh hi drama!

Itachi was lurking sheepishly to the right of the door, fiddling with his glasses.

"Go away," She said, "I'm incredibly busy ignoring you."

"Sakura…" He wheedled, "I didn't mean to lose my temper."

"Don't grovel, Itachi, it doesn't suit you," She said, moving away from the door to stand opposite him, not wanting to come any closer, knowing he'd just turn on the charm and sometimes she just found his excessively charismatic nature exhausting to deal with. He was fun in small doses but came across as fake in large ones.

"You said to me once," Itachi said, eyes shadowed but fixed on her, "That you can be lonely inside a crowd. Well, that scared me. It was like you'd got inside my head or something, as though you knew how I felt. You've become a person I rely upon and trust, Sakura. I have always been selfish with the things I cling to… I am a solitary person by nature, yet, yes, I have been lonely… Perhaps I had a problem with the idea of you and Sasuke, because I believed that if you and he had… well, I didn't want to lose you. A friend. I told you, I don't have that many friends."

"I don't believe that," Sakura said, now grinning incredulously, "Charming guy like you?"

"I may have been too charming," He agreed, "All of my male friends stopped being my friends when I flirted with their girlfriends. I can never just be friends with a female, they always want more," His dark eyes landed on her face, looking speculative, "Sometimes I wanted more too. But at the end of the day, I always ended up alone. You've stuck around, Sakura. I've spent years trying to change and having you… and Sachiko makes me believe I've succeeded."

Sakura looked unimpressed, "I can't feel sorry for you. You didn't have friends because you kept screwing them over, so now you want to hold onto the one's you've got? I might not end up with Sasuke, Itachi, because I can't forgive him for what he's done, but I'll end up with someone, hopefully. You can't throw a tantrum when I get a boyfriend, OK? Otherwise you'll only have Sachiko. I'm not putting up with you if you ever act like that again."

"Fair enough," Itachi nodded, smiling slightly, "Shall I take you out for lunch? I'll pay."

"No, I'll pay," Sakura insisted, "Because we're going to a fast food place and we're gonna eat our weight in grease."

Itachi gagged silently.

"Don't worry, I'm sure they serve foie gras." Sakura said cheerfully.

"I'd never eat it if they did, do you know how barbaric the process of making foie gras is? They take…" Itachi said incredulously, babbling on about venison and other high-priced food all the way to the car.

Chapter Text

The streets were empty of people as Itachi led her down to his car, parked in the college's car park, in the teachers' section. The day was still warm, the sun low in the sky. Itachi had been silent the whole time, no sarcastic remarks or charming compliments, his hand on her arm as they walked to where he had parked his car.

He opened the door for her, waiting until she had entered the car before closing it once more, the door automatically softening the force he used to a gentle push, clicking shut. It told you how expensive a car was when it refused to allow you to slam its doors shut.

He sat in the driver's seat, faintly aware that Sakura was confused by something, likely his uncharacteristic silence. He wondered if she even sensed his words were often forced, his charm a mask. He hooked up his phone to the car, fiddling absently with the keys, deep in thought.

To be selfish, he contemplated, or be unhappy? Being selfish in this situation would bring him great happiness, but it would be temporary, and there was every chance he would cause pain. Being unhappy was something he was used to, it was an occupational hazard of being the favoured older son for so many years.

When he had tired of playing perfect, he had rebelled in the most stupid, selfish way, and he was still paying for his actions now. Keiko-san, a kind, successful executive, had crossed the street to avoid him yesterday. His own fault, of course.

It was almost amusing how his thirst for friends had hampered his chances of ever gaining a meaningful relationship.

His phone bleeped a warning before he pressed a button on his car and his father's voice filled the space.

"Itachi," Fugaku said, his voice rolling out, deep and authoritative. Itachi spotted Sakura's frown and felt disquieted. Now, she would know what a coward he really was.

"Have you completed the task I set you?" His father asked.

Itachi sighed, "No, not yet. I apologise."

Sakura gave him a look, one of those glances females reserved in their arsenal for a moment they wanted to convey deep irritation and heavy scorn. The look cut him to the quick.

One little girl could affect him so. It was embarrassing.

"I need it done by tonight." Fugaku said sharply, "I trust you with these tasks because you are both my son and my most competent worker. After your little display in front of that Haruno girl, you should be grateful I still trust you to do anything at all."

Sakura glared at the phone, mouthing Haruno girl with a look of disgust.

Itachi shook his head at her, silently begging her not to say anything.

"I will complete it quickly, Father, I promise." He said hastily, hoping to cut the conversation off quickly to avoid Sakura revealing herself.

"I don't doubt it," Fugaku said coldly, "Unless you actually enjoy failing me. You have been displaying a near constant ineptitude I do not doubt has something to do with your dalliance with that girl. These distractions cloud your judgement. I believed that at least, by choosing Sachiko, you had chosen a girl who would respect your work and not disrupt you. I can tell that she has lost your fleeting interest and you have once again proven yourself to be fickle and childish. What happened to my accomplished, skilled son that I was so honoured to have raised? You disappoint me with your –"

"Shut the fuck up." Sakura's voice snapped out like a whip, startling Itachi out of the melancholy his father's words had driven him into. He glanced at her, shocked and alarmed, but she didn't look at him, was preoccupied in giving his phone the mother of all death glares.

Fugaku spluttered, "Who on earth? Itachi, who is –"

"It's that awful Haruno girl," Sakura said mockingly, "Disrupting Itachi with my presence and disrespecting his father. How dare you talk to your own son like that? He's intelligent and competent and not fickle or childish at all, it just shows how little you know him!"

Itachi put his head in his hands.

Fugaku's voice, when it came out after a long, ominous pause, was dangerously quiet, "How long have you known my son? I take it you were there at his birth? You named him? You watched him grow from a prodigy into a lazy, slovenly teenager? You saw how he systematically destroyed everything his father worked for? Every business deal was interrupted by his sarcastic remarks, every woman involved in my work became part of a game for him to belittle my business and destroy my financial prospects! A lesser man would have disowned him for these offences alone! I did not. I kept him on as an employee and I allowed him to continue living with us. Yes, he may appear to have redeemed himself now, but too many times he has ignored work in favour of going off somewhere to work mischief instead, he has –"

"He is your son," Sakura spat, "Stop talking to him like he is trash."

Fugaku fell silent once more.

"I – I apologise, Father –" Itachi began to say hesitantly.

"Enough, Itachi." Fugaku said, sounding infinitely weary. Weary of what? Sakura's angry tirade? Being forced to listen to a young girl being so disrespectful towards him? "I have heard enough. If this is the company you keep, I can defend you no longer. Every detractor of yours that came to me, advising, demanding, that I cut you off, disown and disinherit you, I ignored. I believed you could improve and become the pride of the family again. But this? I'm extremely disappointed in you, Itachi. I can only ask that you either end your involvement with that girl, or inform Sachiko. Despite her flagrant stupidity, the woman deserves more than this… illicit behaviour. You have one week, or I will inform her myself. I will need you to clear out your office and hand in your card key by tomorrow."

"I'm not in a relationship with Itachi –" Sakura protested over the sound of Itachi's voice as he spoke up.

"Father, I –"

The phone beeped again to signal disconnection.

Itachi stared at it, struck dumb.

"Itachi…" Sakura said, horrified at what she had caused.

So, he had been weary of Itachi himself.

It was only to be expected. He had been a disappointment for so long, anything would have tipped him over the edge soon, he tried to reason with himself.

There was really no sense in the crushing sense of shame and regret that he felt.

"It's fine," He heard himself say, turning the key in the ignition, "I will just pick up a few things from my office, before we go to that restaurant. The building should be fairly empty now and I would like to avoid causing a scene."

"But…" Sakura was still gazing at him, looking for all the world as though something terrible had just transpired, "I thought… I thought you didn't care what he thought? You told your father off, stormed out… I thought you didn't want anything to do with them?"

Itachi started the car, looking out at the setting sun, "I was angry. And that… I did that for your benefit. So you wouldn't think badly of me, that I was some kind of pushover who put up with his family belittling his girlfriend. But I phoned my father to apologise the first chance I got." He looked down at his lap, clenching the steering wheel, "I am the dutiful son. When I rebelled, I hurt my family. I wanted to go back to being perfect, to pleasing my mother, making my father proud. But nothing I do is ever right, not after I went off the rails."

Sakura sighed deeply, a tired kind of sigh he would have normally associated with a much older and more world-weary woman, not a seventeen year old girl.

Seventeen.

Itachi laughed bitterly.

What was he doing?

"And now he wants me to tell Sachiko that I've cheated on her with you, which is, as I'm sure you are aware, entirely false."

"But if you don't, he will." Sakura frowned.

The car rolled down the slope, entering traffic smoothly.

"If he does, I will simply tell her the truth." Itachi said firmly, winding his window down and resting his elbow on the edge of the glass as the car ground to a halt at the traffic lights.

"And she'll believe you?"

Itachi laughed again, "I have no idea."

xxxxxxxx

The office building was one of those modern designs – lots of polished metal and glass, reaching up to touch the sky, built into a twisting spiral shape. Despite what Itachi said, there as a crowd of people at the entrance, many of them talking angrily with each other or their phones.

A man in a suit shouted into his phone, "I wanted that deal made in thirty minutes. Is that so hard to comprehend? Really? I pay you to sit on your butt and file your nails? No. Next time he calls, tell him to go to hell and take his cheap offers elsewhere. Do I look like the kinda schmuck who sells lawn furniture?"

Sakura gave the man an unimpressed look as she and Itachi passed him.

They entered the lobby, which was all impeccably clean tiles and marble, as she'd expected.

Itachi ignored the man at the desk who stared as they walked past him, and headed straight for the lift. He pressed the button, looking around him shiftily. Sakura remembered he didn't want to cause a scene and resisted the urge to loudly ask him if he was OK.

The lift doors opened with a soft bell sound chiming. They got in with a bunch of other people, who clustered in theirs despite the huge amount of lifts dotted about the lobby.

The men and women in suits all stared at Itachi with shamelessly, open looks of curiosity on their faces. Sakura's heavy eyeliner and clothes (a white baggy top with a crown and the words DRAMA QUEEN emblazoned on the front, with a long black skirt and butterfly-patterned tights) drew a few stares too. Sakura backed against the wall as far she could and tried to ignore everyone, especially Itachi, seeing as she was currently squished against his back.

The doors opened once more and Itachi snapped a quick, "Excuse me," and the crowd scattered. Sakura followed him hastily, not wanting to get stuck in there with the suited, staring strangers.

As they headed down a long corridor, Sakura kept her eyes on Itachi's back. He looked completely different now he was in his workplace, his father's business. His body language was stiff and unapproachable, his fists clenched at his sides, his strides long and fast. Sakura struggled to keep up, feeling a little anxious. This reminded her of the first time she had met Itachi – when he'd been in a suit and had seemed cold at first. Was this the real him, or just the side of him that his co-workers saw?

They came to a door that had a small gold plaque reading Uchiha Itachi nailed to the wood. Itachi swiped his card through a little metal reader built into the door below the handle, then punched in a code.

"This card can get me into half the rooms in this building alone," Itachi said with a wry grin, "I suppose my father will want it back now I no longer work here. I always envied his card. It was gold and could open every single door, including the canteen after it had been locked up. Had I been in his position, no cake would have been safe from me after the workers had gone home."

Itachi's office was just as bare as his bedroom, no personal affects decorating the shelves or the walls. There was a desk in front of a large, wall-length window and a few bookcases. Itachi started to rifle through his drawers, looking for something.

Sakura edged closer to the desk and realised something, "The only picture you have is of you and Sasuke." She said, confused, "Shouldn't you have one of Sachiko too? And your other friends?"

"Other friends," Itachi muttered under his breath, "I can count them on one hand, and none of them are the picture-taking types. Sasori, Konan, Deidara… and even they… I'm not particularly close to any of them."

"Well," Sakura said, giving him a sweet smile, "I'm your friend. And I love taking pictures!"

She was just trying to reassure him, but Itachi's smirk turned mischievous. "Is that so?" He drawled, strolling towards her. He whipped out his phone and aimed it at her face.

She pulled a face immediately, crossing her eyes and sticking out her tongue.

Itachi kept a straight face, snapping a picture, "Beautiful," He proclaimed, "Now, one together?"

He pulled her next to him and they both smiled as he pressed the button. They examined it to reveal a pink-cheeked Sakura beaming next to a coolly calm Itachi, his arm casually slung around her shoulders.

"That one's a keeper." He said cheerily, randomly taking another picture of her unprepared face, "That one too."

Sakura rolled her eyes at him, then looked around the office, "So, what do you need to take with you?"

Itachi started tapping away at his touch-screen phone, peering at some files he had pulled out of the drawer, "I don't need anything, really, I just want to tweak a few things and I should definitely organise these files for the next person so it's all in order. I've spent years sorting this –"

"Itachi, you don't need to help your father with anything." Sakura insisted, "He disowned you! You can't spend your new day off organising his files."

Itachi's eyebrows rose. He looked down at his phone and then, without changing his expression, turned it off and started to rummage in the desk drawers again.

Just when Sakura was about to yell at him for ignoring her, he turned around with a large bottle of clear liquid that sloshed around its container in a way that sounded suspiciously unlike water.

"This was a present my father gave me when I first started here," Itachi said wryly, "Yes, he knew I didn't drink. He hoped I'd start and that we'd go out for drinks with clients or something. My schmoozing power knew no bounds, after all. I was quite good at persuading potential buyers to," He unscrewed the cap and took a swig, immediately screwing his face up at the taste, "Urgh, ah, gross. Well, I was good at persuading them to buy whatever we tried to sell."

He wiggled the bottle at her with an expectant look on his face. Suspecting that it was no longer likely that they were going to a fast food restaurant, Sakura took the bottle with a weary sigh.

Itachi slid down the wall and sat down with his legs crossed, meditation-style.

Sakura joined him, taking an experimental sip as she sat down, her side brushing against Itachi's as she did so. Her tongue shrivelled up at the intensely strong taste and she gagged immediately.

"Paint stripper," She remarked when her tongue stopped burning, "Lovely. Your father has good taste."

She handed him the bottle and he took a healthy gulp bravely, "My God, that is vile," He said, taking a few more sips cautiously, "People drink this for fun? Really?"

Sakura shrugged, "I wouldn't know. I guess we aren't 'people.'"

Itachi laughed, giving her the bottle, "Good. I'd rather be a nerdy, teetotal workaholic than a drug-addled, beer-swigging moron dragging my knuckles on the ground with the rest of my equally moronic brethren."

"You're very wordy today." Sakura remarked.

"It's the drink." He shrugged, "You know, I have a lot more stashed away everywhere. Birthday presents, Christmas presents, thanks-so-much-for-helping-us-swindle-that-major-company presents. Daddy Dearest just loves to give. He's a very generous man."

"I guess I should call my dad to tell him I might be late…" Sakura said reluctantly, ignoring Itachi's spark of interest at the rare mention of her father.

He tipped the bottle up, chugging the contents.

xxxxxxxx

Itachi looked at her very seriously, his tie tied around his forehead, "Sakura," He slurred, "I'm afraid I'm entirely sober. This m'alcohol doesn't work at all…"

Sakura looked up at him from where she was lying on the ground, "I'm doing fine, myself," She said smugly, a blue bottle Itachi had prised from his cupboard clutched to her chest, "I only feel slightly dizzy."

Itachi looked puzzled, then grabbed a hold of his own shirt, "Oh, I remember what dizzy is," He said faintly, sitting down with a thump, "Everything is swaying."

"I have the strangest urge to eat pancakes." Sakura mused.

Itachi laughed too loudly, "Oh, Sakura… I know we've only known each other for about three… three years… hours? I don't know. But I think we're good friends, right?"

Sakura sat up, slightly flushed. She knew her limits with alcohol and she'd be fine if she didn't drink any more.

"Sure we are."

"Good. Well, friends want what's best for their friends. Do you think Sachiko is best for me?" Itachi looked at her earnestly.

Sakura hesitated, something inside her screaming just say no. But, remembering Sachiko's devastated expression when Fugaku only implied Itachi did not love her, Sakura couldn't go through with it, and simply nodded.

"Yeah, she's lovely."

Through the haze of alcohol, Sakura thought Itachi's eyes were awful sharp and lucid for a drunk man. He tilted his head, his tie flapping in his face, then smirked, "She is lovely, isn't she? Do you know how we met? One of my father's clients was in the lobby, screaming at this woman, telling her that the dress she'd brought in was not the one she'd ordered. And this woman was just standing there, her chin wobbling, just taking the abuse, not saying a word. I thought to myself, this girl is lovely. I asked her out there and then and she admitted she'd come to this company frequently and had seen me multiple times, and already liked me. How handy, I thought to myself! She had no idea what I had been like, she liked me already so I didn't feel the need to turn on the charm and she was beautiful and kind. We've been together ever since."

"Romantic." Sakura snorted.

"Thank you."

They were silent for a while, the alcohol buzzing in their systems, until Sakura spoke up, "Itachi? Did your dad mean everything he said?"

"What, about me being a disappointment, fickle and childish? Ha, of course he did. He also did genuinely just disinherit, disown and sack me in one phone conversation as well. Don't feel to blame. It would have only taken one more slip up from myself and he would have disowned me anyway. It's fine."

He suddenly rolled on his side so they were lying on the office carpet, side by side. His expression was serious.

"A final act of rebellion, now," He murmured, "Would you like to know why I broke hearts and disrupted my father's meetings?"

Sakura nodded.

"This whole company," Itachi grinned bitterly, "Is a sham. My father uses it to cover up his less than savoury deals. I was sixteen when he let me work in here for the day for experience, and he confided in me that the way the company made the majority of its money was by smuggling goods out of the country at the behest of several naughty organisations. I was horrified. I stupidly told my mother, expecting her to be shocked. I remember actually worrying about who would get custody of Sasuke and I when my parents inevitably divorced. I was wrong. She already knew. She'd known all along, but didn't care. I've told you this twice, because it was so difficult for me to believe, but, 'People always let you down, and if your expectations are sky-high, the inevitable fall from grace is so much harder.'"

Sakura was aware she was gaping at him, but couldn't stop herself.

"It was difficult believing my father was a criminal. But my mother? Impossible. But suddenly, everything my father had ever said to me about marriage made sense: he always told me to find a girl who would be happy to look the other way if you needed to do something she wouldn't agree with. The perfect Uchiha woman is submissive and obedient. My mother does her job very well. I was furious, disillusioned… I'd been lied to all along. I felt stupid and naïve. So the next week, when my father took me into a meeting, I insulted all of his clients and told them my father's products were knock offs. A woman, one of my father's business partners, came to see me in the office my father had given me. She had found me funny. She asked me out for a drink. I said yes. She was in her early thirties. Upon reading the files my father gave me to research the company, I knew she was also in charge of the tobacco shipments my father illegally had shipped out of the country once a year. A massive operation, costing thousands to fund and raking in more in profit. She was aware of the illegality of her little operations, she laughed with me about how many people she'd had to screw over to get her position in my father's business." Itachi's voice was calm, steady, but he was lightly shaking all over.

"I slept with her. It was my first time. I felt… I can't tell you how I felt. Empty, maybe. I couldn't remember it, I just woke up with her in a hotel bed and freaked out. I insulted her the next day and refused to call her. She pursued me anyway. Rich suitors are hard to shake. I finally told her what I thought of her, that she was evil for getting me drunk and taking me to a hotel, evil for helping my father commit his crimes, and that she deserved to go to prison for a very long time. She was so upset, she called off the tobacco operations. My father was furious. After that, any woman who could affect my father's profits, I pursued. I wanted to stop him making money out of smuggling, I wanted him to just work legitimate business, like all of my friends' parents. I was so afraid that one day he'd be arrested and Sasuke would find out everything and end up like me," He gave an empty laugh, "But of course, that wasn't an issue. On Sasuke's sixteenth birthday, they told him everything. He's been brainwashed by them his whole life, so he accepted it all easily, believing that our father was only getting what the government owed him."

"I don't understand," Sakura whispered, "Your father used to be a police officer."

"Yes. Former Police Chiefs have more power than you'd think, you know. He made many friends during his time as an officer. Made a few deals, had lots of fingers in naughty pies, and so on. So there you go," He said brightly, "That's why I screwed around. I was a bastard. Those women might have been implicated in criminal businesses, maybe, but I shouldn't have done what I did."

"That's why you wanted to be with Sachiko. Because she was kind and sweet, and she'd never do anything those women would do. Oh, God, Itachi, your first time with that bitch and you were only sixteen and she was twice your age… That's horrible!" Sakura said indignantly, sitting up and scooting closer to him, still shocked by the recent revelations.

"Sachiko," Itachi said, pressing his fingers against his forehead after untying the tie, looking pained, "Those women stole, cheated, lied and a few were even violent. Sachiko was a breath of fresh air after them. She's a wonderful girl. I suppose, after years of only being with women in order to screw over my father, I wanted to be happy. Is it selfish, to want to be happy?"

"No," Sakura said emphatically, "You deserve happiness."

Itachi looked frustrated, almost to the point of angry tears, "I want to be a good person. I don't want to go back to how I was. But I want to be happy. Being happy would mean… doing something awful, breaking hearts again… And I refuse to do that again."

He stared at her, his eyes seemingly caught by her own.

"I've called you beautiful many times," He drawled, "But for some reason, you look especially stunning today."

Sakura's breath caught in her throat.

She shook her head, blushing, "Don't be stupid." She laughed nervously.

He just leant back against the wall and smiled lazily at her, as though he hadn't just divulged some highly personal and painful information.

"Itachi…" Sakura asked, licking her lips, hoping he didn't get mad. He looked up, "Are you happy with Sachiko?"

Itachi frowned, sighing, "You cut me to the quick. No. No, I'm not."

Sakura's heart was beating so, so quickly.

"Marilyn Monroe said, it's better to be unhappy alone than to be unhappy with someone." She quoted. She also insisted men were best in bed when they were cheating on their wives, but Sakura didn't particularly like that pearl of wisdom.

Itachi laughed out loud, a genuine, deep laugh Sakura rarely heard. Her insides clenched at the thought. That meant his laughter around her was usually fake. Who was Itachi, really? What he had described sounded so horrible for a teenager to go through…

"I apologise." Itachi said sadly, "It seems… that I really haven't changed at all."

Then, his hand reached out and caught her sleeve, pulling it gently. Sakura moved forward, her expression confused, her hands moving up to stop her fall, when Itachi's face came in front of hers and his hands were on her shoulders and –

It registered in her mind that this was the second Uchiha to kiss her today.

Chapter Text

Just a light pressure, feather-soft, gentle enough to be irritating. Like a hair tickling your skin. A niggling sensation that cannot be ignored. Sakura was listing these things as her eyes examined Itachi's strangely close face. His lashes really were like a girl's, his skin just as soft, smooth and flawless as she had once thought back when they had first met. That older man in a suit, his expression so serious, yet still willing to listen to her stupid problems, she had never once imagined that that man might one day want to kiss her.

Sakura wrenched her head away, gasping for air, staring and staring at him with judgmental, angry eyes.

"Why… Why would you do that?" She spluttered, dumbfounded by what he had just done. Her mind simply could not compute what had just occurred. She felt like her brain had ground to a halt.

"I knew you wouldn't kiss me back." Itachi said, his tone flat and final. His expression was carefully blank, "That's why I like you. But I didn't plan for this." He closed his eyes, "I didn't plan to fall in love with you."

"Love?" Sakura gasped, staring at him in utter amazement. Where had all this come from? The idea of Itachi, handsome, clever, perfect Itachi being in love with her… it was too impossible to get her head round it. It was as if he'd suddenly turned round and said he was secretly a woman or something… it was that level of what the fuck, seriously? You hid that well!

"I may as well say it," He looked resigned; "I love you. I don't believe I've ever loved anyone as much as I love you."

"But…" Sakura looked away, out the window at the amazing view of the city, skyscrapers reaching up to touch the clouds, the sun setting into the horizon, the whole sky turning red as this part of the world began the transition into night, "But I'm me," She said dumbly, "Just me. How could you… love me?"

"Oh, let see," He said mildly, adjusting his glasses, "You are smart, beautiful, extremely talented in the arts, kind, humble, sweet, funny and I think you are one of the only people I can act like myself around. I used to be able to be normal around Sasuke but… but he changed, so I had to as well."

Sakura's cheeks glowed red, "But the person you're describing isn't me!"

It was Sachiko all over again – the first time they had met Sachiko had gushed over all of the imaginary qualities Sakura supposedly possessed, acting as if she was some amazingly beautiful, talented person. Maybe perfect people like Itachi and Sachiko thought everyone operated on the same level of perfection as themselves?

"Humble to a fault." Itachi laughed, "You have your flaws of course, but no one's perfect. You are too self-deprecating, you let yourself get bullied by that little bitch and you simply cannot accept compliments. But, somehow," He heaved a great sigh, "I think I love those flaws too. Oh dear."

"I just don't understand… I never thought someone like you would ever be interested in me… I mean, you're perfect –"

"Come on Sakura," He said gently, "You don't really believe that, do you? I'm not perfect. I'm might be devilishly handsome, but I'm not perfect. And I'm afraid if you keep insulting yourself I'm going to have to kill you for insulting the woman I love."

"What about Sachiko?" Sakura said exasperatedly, "Why are you with her if you don't love her?"

"I don't do confrontation very well," Itachi admitted, "And I certainly hate having to hurt people on purpose. I used to break up with women all the time, intentionally causing them pain… when I wasn't with women to hurt my father's plans, I distanced myself from any woman who showed interest. I should never have asked Sachiko out, I should have stayed away. I suppose her kind nature drew me in. However, it wasn't enough to stop me…" He looked at Sakura helplessly, "from falling for someone else. After dedicating my teen years to breaking women's hearts and generally being a bastard, the first, pure relationship not built on my desire to ruin my father is precious to me. How could I shatter that?"

"You're just a coward!" Sakura burst out angrily, unable to stop herself, "To keep Sachiko hanging on even though you don't love her! How long are you going to drag it out? She'll find out one day and the longer you stay with her the worse it'll get! Better for her to feel heartbroken now than destroyed years later!"

"I know, I know." Itachi looked down at his feet, looking vulnerable, "But what can I do?"

Sakura was silent for a moment, looking at him.

He was the most beautiful man she had ever seen in her life. Not only that, he'd been kind to her, he'd hung out with her, listened to her, generally acted like a good person. It was no wonder she'd had that little crush on him not long ago.

"…Break up with her." Sakura said, her voice barely above a whisper.

Itachi looked up sharply, "Break up with her? How could I?"

"Face to face, not in public, gently and eloquently explaining exactly why you don't think you're right for her." Sakura said firmly, parroting what she'd learnt from watching her mother's romantic comedies.

"I – I couldn't…" Itachi shook his head, looking horrified at the thought, "What if she cried?"

"What are you doing here?" Sakura took a step towards him, furious, "Why did you kiss me, confess your love for me, if you don't plan to do anything about it?"

Itachi gazed at her breathlessly, silent.

"You're a coward." Sakura repeated herself, this time in a low, resigned voice, "You'll stay with Sachiko until she breaks up with you, if she breaks up with you, simply because you are too afraid to do the right thing."

"I wouldn't even stand a chance, if I tried to…" Itachi started to defend himself and then stopped abruptly when she glared at him.

"To what?"

"To… to pursue you romantically. Sasuke beat me to it. You like him. I don't have a chance at being with you. If I broke up with Sachiko, I would be alone, having to watch you and Sasuke chase each other until one of you conceded and you started dating… I couldn't bear that."

However, some words of his hung unspoken in the air.

Do I have a chance with you?

There's no chance. Sakura wanted to say it so badly. Why did she have to be the strong one? Why was it up to her? He was the adult, with the money, the car, the girlfriend, why wasn't he putting his foot down on this mess? In fact, he was the one who had instigated this whole thing; he was the one who had initiated the kiss… How would Sachiko feel if Itachi dumped her one day and the next he had a new girlfriend? And that girlfriend was Sakura, someone who was supposed to be Sachiko's friend?

She'd buried her stupid crush and watched Itachi with Sachiko without a single complaint. She never tried to monopolise his time, always sat back and didn't interfere. She'd been proud of herself, well done for not trying anything, well done for not being a pathetic girl who pined after men who were taken.

This was not what she had wanted.

She had wanted Sasuke, who she'd known for longer, who had been attractive, hardworking and, above all, single.

Now this?

"Sachiko deserves better," Sakura said bitterly, "If you don't love her, then you shouldn't stay with her."

Itachi was silent for a full minute. Sakura stared at the wall and tried to gather her muddled thoughts.

"My father detests me for how I treated women. I hate myself for what I've done. How can I do this to Sachiko? How can I break up with her? She loves me too much. I care about her. Causing others pain is the last thing I want to do." Itachi muttered, sounding as though he was trying to convince himself more than talk to her.

"Did you mean it when you said you loved me?" Sakura asked, heart pounding violently.

Itachi sat up, gazing at her, expressionless.

"What's wrong with me?" He groaned suddenly, "I'm leading you on, aren't I? I… I could never bring myself to break up with Sachiko, and yet I've confessed my love, kissed you…"

"You aren't leading me on," Sakura denied, "I'm not interested in you like that. E-even though Sasuke hurt me… I still…"

Itachi stood up suddenly, fists clenched, "Ah, I forgot. Silly me. Hamlet and Ophelia."

"Don't get mad at me for liking someone when you have a girlfriend." Sakura snapped.

"Mad? I'm not mad. I'm just wondering how you go about achieving such total devotion in your admirers," He said bitterly, "So much so that they forgive every sin you commit."

"I've not forgotten anything." Sakura said, nostrils flared in annoyance, "Believe it or not, falling in love with someone doesn't erase my basic common sense! I'm still pissed off with Sasuke for what he's done, but I can't just stop feeling how I do…"

"Oh, how many times are we going to go over this? You don't love Sasuke! It was a childish little crush –" Itachi started to lecture before he was cut off.

"SHUT UP!" Sakura roared at him, shoving him backwards and thrusting an accusing finger at his chest, "Stop treating me like a child! I'm nearly eighteen, I've gone through a lot of shit in my life, I'm not some naïve little girl who thinks she's in love, I know, I can feel it! Sasuke was one of the only people who were nice to me in this college after Ami made it clear I was uncool, I loved the way he didn't care that I was unpopular but I wanted to be popular just so I could stand next to him! I longed for the day when he would turn around and see me, really see me and find something –" Her words were rapidly dissolving as she started to cry, "See something special in me! Maybe I've never had fucking caviar, maybe I say the wrong things all the time, maybe I'm not tall, slim and beautiful, but that doesn't make me some child you can patronise and pat on the head!"

Itachi stared at her, completely flummoxed.

Sakura wiped her eyes, smearing her mascara without caring, shoulders shaking as she cried.

Without warning, the door beeped softly and opened.

Fugaku emerged through the open door, running a hand through his hair and looking agitated. His dark eyes flickered over Itachi's office, lingering on Sakura's face. His lip curled in distaste.

He stood there in the doorway for a moment, taking in the scene before him: Itachi looking flushed and ashamed, Sakura crying and wiping her eyes.

He sighed wearily, "Itachi, why do you do these things? I didn't raise you this way. You need to learn women are not toys –"

"It isn't what it looks like," Sakura insisted softly, sniffing, "I have allergies, I really do. Itachi hasn't done anything. And sir? I'm very sorry for shouting at you on the phone. I had no right to be so rude. I was just angry that you upset Itachi. But you were wrong, sir, he isn't cheating on Sachiko, he never would."

"Your lipstick is smudged." Fugaku said simply, raising one eyebrow at his estranged son, who winced tellingly.

"Are you going to tell Sachiko?" Itachi asked, sounding defeated and thoroughly ashamed of himself.

"…No." Fugaku said icily, "I would judge that your responsibility. Had Sasuke not warned me of your drifting affections, I would never have –"

"Sasuke told you that?" Itachi asked, affecting a nonchalant tone.

"He told me that you did not love Sachiko, that you were interested in his young friend. I see now that his suspicions were correct. In this family, we do not take kindly to adulterers –"

"Oh, so you would disown me for infidelity, but should I decide to join you for a good round of smuggling and embezzlement, you'd be proud of me?" Itachi gave his father a cheesy grin and a thumbs up.

"Don't be facetious and stop interrupting me. Come, Sakura-san. I'll give you a lift home." Fugaku turned to her, gesturing for her to follow him.

Sakura glanced at Itachi, who shook his head very subtly, staring up at the ceiling.

"No thank you, I'll be fine –"

"What do you intend to do, get the bus? Follow me."

Sakura sighed, moving to obey his clipped order. Itachi's hand caught her sleeve as she passed.

He looked deeply into her eyes and gave a plastic-perfect smile, "Thank you for sticking up for me. We'll talk later."

"I think it's best if we don't hang out anymore." Sakura said firmly, ignoring the little voice in the back of her head protesting at the thought of not seeing Itachi, "For Sachiko's sake. Even though nothing would ever… happen." She stared back at him, silently pleading, say something. Protest. Fight for me. Be brave for once, you stupid bastard, or be stuck playing the nice guy for the rest of your life.

Itachi's fake smile died away slowly.

"Well, if you change your mind…" He said bleakly, "I'll be waiting."

"I expect your things to be gone by morning." Fugaku called over his shoulder as he left.

Itachi nodded automatically, ever the golden boy, always willing to take orders even after disownment.

Then, for a second, Sakura truly hated him. This complicated, beautiful mess, oozing charm and perfection but hiding his desperate need to be good, so desperate to be liked and to always make the right choice, covering up his flaws with fake smiles and charisma. She just wished she knew where the plastic-perfect façade ended and the real Itachi began.

Sakura remembered constructing a painting of Itachi's personality in her mind ages ago, and tore it to pieces mentally. She didn't have a clue who he really was, only that he wasn't brave enough to break up with the poor woman he was clinging to, denying himself happiness.

She glanced back at Itachi as she left, feeling unutterably sorry for him that he refused to help himself.

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"This… is where you live?" Fugaku said incredulously, lip curled in disgust.

Sakura looked at her crappy, run-down house and flushed in shame and anger. She felt like shouting in his face 'oh I'm sorry, this is what houses look like when you don't break the law to pay for them!' However, she knew that she'd already said too much. Her little rant had pretty much caused all this mess anyway, what was the point of adding fuel to the fire?

She just opened the car door and carefully stepped down, trying not to trip, not able to see much in the gloomy night.

Fugaku shook his head and drove off abruptly, clearly not wanting to hang around in his fancy car in such a deprived area.

Sakura turned the key in the lock of the front door, giving it a light kick when it refused to open. She entered the dark hallway, pulling off her shoes.

"Dad?" She called cautiously.

"I'm here." He called back, his words slurred.

Heart sinking, she followed his voice to the living room. He hadn't bothered to turn the light on, so the TV, the screen showing a paused image of a close-up of her mother's face, lit up the room. It was the wedding video and her mother looked breathtakingly gorgeous, her hair curling around her face, her veil flying up in the breeze, her radiant smile lighting up the screen.

"…I didn't deserve her, you know." Her father said quietly, his voice slurred from both tears and drink, "That's what her family said. Her sister slapped me at the funeral, said it was my fault, my influence that had caused it all. Poor boy from the wrong side of the tracks, you know," He said self-deprecatingly, "Didn't even have the courtesy of being handsome to excuse her slumming it with me. But that's… that's not why she picked me, above all of the other lads who loved her. She picked me because she loved me back. I know she loved me," His eyes filled with tears, staring at the screen, "I know she did."

Sakura didn't know what to say. She sat down on the sofa next to him hesitantly, squirming uncomfortably.

Her father lay back on the sofa, using his sleeve to wipe his eyes. He was wearing his dressing gown again and had a bottle of beer in his lap. His feet were bare and looked cold. His face was tight and drawn with grief.

"You never told me," Sakura said carefully, "How she died."

He put his head in his hands. Sakura looked away, feeling guilty for bringing it up.

He laughed hoarsely, shaking his head, "It's not the time to be talking about that. C'mere for a second, love."

He held his arm out for a hug, his eyes silently pleading with her to drop the subject.

Sakura held back the tears and shifted over on the sofa. He wrapped his arm around her and for a moment, she just sat there, content, letting the familiar Dad-smells wash over her. But then she put her arm around him to return the hug, and felt just how thin he was. The main scent emanating from him was the strong smell of alcohol.

Her head rested against his chest. His shirt quickly grew damp beneath her tears.

xxxxxxxx

For some reason, after the revelations that had come out the day before, Sakura almost expected the college to be buzzing with the news. As if students would suddenly nudge each other and say, "Did you hear about Uchiha Itachi and Haruno Sakura? He told her he loved her! Oh and, by the way, he isn't going to leave his girlfriend for her!"

But of course, no one knew but those involved, and the college carried on as usual. Konan was smoking in the girl's bathrooms again with Deidara - who could easily pass for a girl enough to gain admission - as the boy's toilets were notoriously difficult to sneak cigarettes in, given that Gai enjoyed randomly pouncing on students and teachers and frisking them before they entered.

Sasori stood with Hidan, having a heated discussion conducted entirely in whispers and swear words.

"Pain's getting irritated. Itachi was supposed to stop this shadowing nonsense a few days ago." Sasori whispered.

"What the fuck is up with that creepy bastard?" Hidan snorted loudly, "He's only been coming to my classes on certain days, when his brother's class is in. Think he's just being an overprotective little shit?"

"I think it's someone else he's here to see, actually." Sasori said meaningfully, still pointlessly whispering his half of the conversation, given that Hidan was bellowing his responses. He looked up and spotted Sakura, standing in the middle of the hall, frozen, and looked surprised.

Hidan turned to look at what Sasori was staring at. Sakura took a step backwards, embarrassed and stupidly ashamed. She wasn't in a relationship with Itachi, he'd just kissed her and confessed to her and – oh God, her cheeks burned at the mere thought of it.

"Tell me it isn't true." Ami said flatly, the sound of her high voice making Sakura's heart sink in fear.

"W-what isn't true?" Sakura turned around to face Ami, who gave a little sneer at the sight of Sakura's kohl-smeared eyes.

Ami tossed her head proudly, her purple hair so fixed with hairspray that it sat upon her head rigidly, not a hair moving out of place.

"You're in some crappy play, right?" Ami said acidly, smirking, "You get to kiss Sasuke-kun. Tell me it isn't true."

Despite the girl's obvious amusement, there was an underlying threat in her voice as she spoke that frightened Sakura.

I'm such a coward, Sakura thought miserably. But there was something about Ami that completely stripped Sakura of all confidence and bravado.

"Um, I do, I'm sorry." Sakura muttered softly, almost hoping Ami wouldn't hear.

"God, poor Sasuke-kun!" Ami tittered, "Having to kiss your virgin, sweaty nerd lips. I bet he'll take one look at you and puke. Ha! Aw, no, don't look so upset! I'm sure your crackhead mother thinks you're pretty!"

"Shut up…" Sakura said quietly, voice trembling with emotion, "You don't know anything about my mother."

"I know enough," Ami smiled spitefully, "I also know that you like Sasuke-kun. I could tell from the start. You remember what I said to you? You'll never be pretty enough for him, Sakura. Pathetic little geeks like you, gagging for attention, making eyes at the most popular guys in the college… man, it makes me laugh so much!"

Tears pricked Sakura's eyes. She looked down at the floor straightaway, not wanting Ami to see how upset she was.

"Ha! Oh my GOD are you really crying? Good." Ami suddenly stepped closer, her voice low, her eyes glaring, "Because if you keep going after Sasuke-kun, I swear to God I will make you cry every single day until you finally do the world a favour and end your loser-life."

"Ami, why don't you go puke up your lunch? I'm sure all that bullshit you've been talking's added at least ten pounds." Ino suddenly came out of the girl's bathroom, a cloud of smoke drifting through the open door as she left the room.

Ami took a step backwards, "Oh, hey Ino…" She said warily.

"Hey, Ami! If I ever hear you've spoken to Sakura like that again, I will nail you to the wall by those ratty hair extensions!" Ino said in a mock-cheerful voice, wrapping an arm around Sakura's shoulders and pulling her close.

Ami touched her hair self-consciously and took another step back, "Jesus, Ino, I was just joking," She whined, "Don't have a fucking cow."

"That's good to hear," Ino smiled politely, "Now fuck off."

Ami glared daggers at both of them, but seemed intimidated by Ino's words and she quickly turned on her heel and sped off down the corridor. Hidan and Sasori watched her go with matching frowns.

"You need a keeper." Ino said casually, raising her eyebrows.

"I don't!" Sakura denied, pouting, wiping away her tears.

Ino laughed, "Aw, I wish you'd listened to me before. We could have been good friends."

"Yeah right, after you tried to trick me." Sakura frowned, still disconcerted by how easily she'd been taken in by Ino's cool big sis act.

"Well, that's just it," Ino shrugged, "I don't know where you got the idea that I was trying to get you in trouble, but I wasn't. I was just going to tell my friends that the person who'd trashed Pain's office was you, and they would definitely have thought you were cool."

"I'm not so bothered about being cool now." Sakura said flatly, wrinkling her nose. There was Ami, rabid Bitch Queen Extraordinaire. Then there was Sasuke, He Of the Ever Changing Moods and Opinions. And lastly, Itachi, the Fantastic Faux Prince Charming. After getting close to them and catching a glimpse of their plastic, bitchy little world, Sakura wasn't sure being popular was what she wanted at all.

Ino gave her a crooked smile, "Wanna try this friend thing again? I promise you won't have to trash any offices."

Chapter Text

Sitting on shiny, polished wooden floor with a wall-length mirror in front of her was not the way she had intended to spend her break.

But Ino practiced her dancing every break, and new friends could wait. So Sakura found herself watching Ino fling herself around on her toes, looking flexible, strong and graceful. And beautiful, can't forget that. But now, covered in sweat and panting, she didn't look as perfect as Sakura was used to seeing her.

Ino placed her gym bag on the floor next to Sakura, and flung herself down with a self-satisfied sigh of a job well done. She stretched her limbs out as she sat down, clearly revelling in the aching of her muscles.

"So, why was the lovely Ami so pissed with you?" She asked, pulling her hair down from its tight ponytail, shining platinum locks raining across her back. Her light blue eyes twinkled mischievously.

"I'm in Hamlet with Sasuke and I have to kiss him. She didn't exactly jump for joy about it."

"Man, that girl needs a slap." Ino rolled her eyes.

"I have slapped her before, you know…" Sakura said shyly, hoping to score some cool-points.

Ino looked at her incredulously before giving a tinkling laugh, "Ha, you didn't! That is awesome. She needs putting down, I swear she's a bitch in heat."

Sakura smiled happily, knowing it was stupid, but having the beautiful and much-adored Ino compliment her was soothing – especially the horrible, horrible day she'd had yesterday.

But, surely Ino was overlooking something?

"You aren't mad about me kissing Sasuke?" Sakura asked timidly.

Ino narrowed her eyes and her mouth formed a lovely moue. She gave Sakura a pouting look, "Are you confusing me with Ami? Why would I care if you kissed Sasuke? Or…" She suddenly smirked, "do you think I'm jealous of Sasuke…?"

She nudged Sakura with her elbow, the other girl falling over slightly and laughing. Sakura pulled herself back up, still giggling feebly as Ino tickled her arm, "OK, I guess not. But Sai told me…" She stopped talking, not wanting to get him in trouble.

But Ino frowned, "No, what did he tell you?"

Sakura made a face.

Ino glared at her.

"He said that you were in love with Sasuke and that you were only with him because you were using him a second-best replacement boyfriend." Sakura said honestly after remembering the look on Sai's face when he had said that he didn't like lying to Ino. It was probably time for the truth to come out.

Ino looked stunned, her blue eyes widening, her perfect pout gaping open in shock, "I'm sorry, what? That is all complete bullshit!"

"Well, why doesn't anyone know that you're going out?" Sakura pressed.

Ino folded her arms, looking disgruntled, "Have you seen the morons I hang out with? If they knew I was going out with Sai, they would tear him apart. Sai doesn't understand all that social crap, he wouldn't realise what they were doing… They've done it before with one of my old boyfriends. They destroyed his reputation with bullshit rumours and they made him feel like shit. They said they did it because I was 'too good' for him. Sai's not like everyone else, he's different and he already gets grief for that… I just wanted to be with him without bringing all this stupid drama down on his head, you know?"

"If your friends are that horrible, why are they your friends?" Sakura asked, making a face.

The look Ino gave Sakura was almost pitying, "Ever heard of frenemies? Friend-enemies. Yeah, if they're my 'friends,' they'll bitch about me behind my back, but they won't try to destabilise my position at the top. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer, right? At least this way I can keep an eye on them."

Sakura shook her head, baffled.

"I always figured you liked Sasuke, anyway…" Ino said slyly, "But that was before I saw the look on his brother's yummy face when we walked in on you and Sasuke kissing…"

"We were rehearsing!" Sakura insisted hotly.

Ino tilted her head, giving her a knowing look. Her smile was mischievous, "I'm just saying I think he wanted to do a little rehearsing with you himself…"

You don't know how right you are, Sakura thought sadly. Some part of her ached deep down at the mere thought of it. Itachi claimed to love her and yet wanted to stay with Sachiko.

She could cry about it, she could confront him and demand he end his relationship, she could hurt everyone… or she could be a grown up about it and rise above it all. Forget the pain and the bitterness (so what if Sachiko got there first, she doesn't know him like I do, doesn't accept every part of him like I do) and just accept it wasn't fair but there was nothing she could do. Well, there were things she could do – storming the Uchiha manor on a white horse and sweeping Itachi up came to mind – but she didn't think she could bring herself to do them. Maybe she was a little selfish, but she definitely wasn't cruel.

"Well, so what?" She mumbled irritably, not thinking, "Doesn't matter either way."

"Wait, wait, oh my God he does like you!" Ino said delightedly, "I knew it!"

Sakura just looked at her, wide-eyed in realisation that she had said more than she should have.

"How old is he? Older than us, for sure. And he's rich, handsome and an Uchiha! You lucky, lucky girl."

I'm not lucky, Sakura thought sullenly, if I was, then I'd be as beautiful as Sachiko and Itachi's girlfriend.

"Well, I thought you liked Sasuke!" Sakura said stupidly, wanting to get one over on the cooler girl, who seemed to exude confidence from every pore.

Ino's pink tongue flicked out to wet her lips, and she smirked slowly, "I've known Sasuke since we were kids. Went to school with him, just like the lovely Ami. I'll admit, when I was younger I thought he was cute and everything, but as we got older… Let's just say I'll never forget that snot-nosed sulky brat he used to be. It's hard to be attracted to someone you remember running around your house naked… and not in a good way."

Sakura felt oddly disappointed. The whole college had watched the beautiful couple, rapt, eager for any scraps of gossip about them. She'd joined in with the speculation and the bets and sincerely believing every rumour. She remembered discussing everything with Tenten… Tenten, who'd known Ino vaguely, well enough to be on speaking terms with. Tenten. Sakura sighed. That was one more loose end she had to tie up. Just thinking about what Tenten had done angered her.

Ami's foul lies had dogged Sakura's step ever since, strangers in the college corridors giggling at her, rumours and lewd comments plastered all over the internet, Ami's stupid blog getting at least a hundred new loyal followers, every one of them eager for more news of Sakura's crackwhore mother. Sakura was uncomfortably reminded of her own past eagerness to hear unpleasant news of Ino, back when she thought the girl was dating the boy she believed she loved.

She'd thought and believed a lot of lies.

Wait –

"If you and Ami have known Sasuke for so long, how come you don't know his brother?" She asked suspiciously.

Ino shrugged, "I dunno, I knew he had a brother but I never saw him that much. He didn't go to our school, I guess."

The only photos Itachi had seen fit to frame and place on his dresser were old ones of him and Sasuke, when they were young. Sakura frowned at the thought that she really didn't know much about the man who had confessed his supposed love for her.

"Anyway, never mind all that," Ino said brusquely, her tone suddenly business-like, "Do you wanna know how we're gonna get Ami off your back?"

"Shoot her?" Sakura suggested jokily. Ino gave a little laugh and shook her head.

"Nah. Ami's popular because she knows exactly who to suck up to and who to treat like dirt. You need to become one of the people she wants to suck up to. And to do that… you need to be popular."

"Look, I don't want to break any rules," Sakura started to say firmly, well aware that she wouldn't be lucky enough for Itachi to intervene this time.

"You won't have to. I told you ages ago, if you want to be popular, all you have to do is change your look a bit and hang out with me and the frenemies. Ami won't be able to touch you. She's terrified of people who are cooler than she is, cause they can destroy her with one negative comment. Easy."

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Her aunt was an emotional, dramatic kind of person. She'd sat next to Sakura at the funeral and sobbed so hard her voice broke, fingers digging into Sakura's shoulder painfully. She was the older sibling and had inherited all of the lesser genes from their parents.. But she'd loved her perfect little sister without the tiniest trace of jealousy that plainer siblings usually felt.

If anyone was going to tell Sakura the truth, it would be her honest, kindly aunt.

In front of the college they had a huge fountain made of smooth, grey stone. Coins glittered in the water. Benches formed a circle around the giant water feature. There was a block of black marble next to the fountain with gold letters declaring 'cantet erit fugere dum flores manere fundati.'

Sakura sat on the bench, staring down at her mobile sitting in her lap, trying to work up the courage to dial her aunt's home number.

The trouble was, ever since the terrible day that Sakura's mother had vanished off to court, her fate had never been discussed. Sakura had brought up the subject a few times, cried and pleaded with her father just to tell her the truth, but he had never budged. It had become one of those things that families naturally avoided talking about.

So she'd never asked her aunt. She had no idea if she'd tell her the truth or if she'd get angry or upset at being asked, like her father.

What if she didn't get angry? What if she told her the truth?

What if it was bad?

Sakura sucked in a breath, wiping her eyes with her sleeve. Could she bear it if the truth wasn't what she wanted to hear? Her worst fear was that her mother had been a murderer, a cold-hearted psychopath who'd cared nothing for Sakura or her husband. Imagining her mother sitting in a cell one day, another prisoner slipping in with a sharpened comb, getting revenge for someone…

No.

She needed to have faith.

Her mother had been the nicest, most caring person she had ever known and was ever likely to meet. Sakura knew that the woman she had known and loved would never, ever hurt another person. She used to cry at puppy commercials, mourned whenever she accidentally killed a bug, kissed Sakura on the forehead every night with a sweet smile…

Sakura's shoulders shook a little at the memory. They slipped into her thoughts every so often. They reminded her that everyday troubles were nothing compared to the pain of losing her mother. She was grateful for them. They put things into perspective.

"Sakura?" Itachi's voice broke through her reverie.

She flinched, her phone slipping from her lap as she automatically stood up in surprise.

He bent down and retrieved it with his free hand, the other busy holding a steaming paper cup, presumably full of coffee, judging by the delicious smell drifting out. He was wearing a crisp white shirt underneath a heavy overcoat, a black silk scarf carelessly draped around his neck and tight trousers.

He looked wary as he handed her phone back, as though expecting her to blow up in his face.

Sakura just looked at him and sighed, taking the phone without a word. She scrolled down her contacts and stared hard at her aunt's name and number, biting her lip.

"Um… shouldn't you be in class now?" Itachi asked cautiously, straightening his glasses.

"Shouldn't you?" Sakura raised an eyebrow.

"What?"

"Well, you've been going to all of my classes. You aren't even supposed to be here anymore. You've got no excuse for stalking me, Itachi."

A muscle in Itachi's jaw leapt as he ground his teeth, "I'm hardly stalking you. I was keeping an eye on you after that little cow upset you so much that you were frightened of going back."

"And yet here you are." Sakura said coolly, "Where I am, yet again. You have a talent for that, it seems."

He raised his eyes to the sky as though asking for guidance.

It was colder than usual, the air had a harsh bite to it. Sakura pulled her sleeves over her hands and rubbed her thighs to get warm, careful not to drop her phone this time.

Itachi's eyes softened at the sight, and he sat down next to her on the bench, taking a sip of his coffee before offering it to her.

She ignored him, looking down at her feet.

"It's black…" He said temptingly, waving the cup in front of her nose, causing the scent to waft around, making her mouth water.

She rolled her eyes and took the cup with a mumbled, "Thanks." The gulp she took warmed her right down to her toes until she felt downright toasty. She could smell her own rose perfume, making her think that she'd put too much on, instantly making her self-conscious.

She flicked a glance his way again and, the ice in her voice thawing slightly, offered a more sincere thank you.

He smiled at her, waving a hand when she tried to give the coffee back.

"Itachi." Sakura said, her voice wavering slightly. His eyes narrowed. "Don't ask me any questions. Just do me a favour, please. Hold my hand, just while I call someone. Please?"

Itachi took a good look at her face, seeing the naked desperation and pain there, and slowly slipped his hand into hers without a word.

She put the coffee on the ground at her feet. Her frozen fingers clumsily pressed a few buttons on her phone, and suddenly, her heart lurching, she realised this might be it.

Time to find out who her mother really was.

"Hello?" Her aunt said after the fourth ring, her voice slightly distant as though her mouth wasn't close enough to the phone.

"It's Sakura." She said quietly.

Silence.

"Huh." The older woman said after a while, sounding resigned, "I figured you'd call one day. Didn't think it'd be this soon."

"Please tell me," Sakura said, trying hard not to burst into tears, her voice coming out thick and emotional, "Please tell me what happened to her."

Itachi looked at her sharply.

Her aunt sighed wearily. "I really think you should just ask your father…"

"Do you think I haven't asked? Do you honestly believe he'd ever tell me?" Sakura demanded, getting angry.

"…Fine. I'll tell you. But it shouldn't be over the phone, come to –"

"No, please, just tell me now. I need to know."

Sakura clutched Itachi's hand tightly. He squeezed it back comfortingly.

She could hear the pain in her aunt's voice, "He really didn't tell you anything? I can't believe it. Well, straight off, sweetheart, you need to know that your mother wasn't as perfect as she made out –"

"That's not true!" Sakura snapped angrily without thinking.

"I'm trying to explain. You must have noticed. She was pale, thin, constantly tired…"

"She was stressed." Sakura defended.

"She was on drugs." Her aunt corrected her.

Sakura froze.

"I don't know what she was doing. I do know she was an alcoholic as well as a drug user, though."

"You're lying." Sakura whispered, mind racing. She held Itachi's hand as tightly as a lifeline. She'd defended her mother when Ami slandered her name. There was no chance Ami had guessed right.

"Oh, Sakura…" Her aunt said sadly, "I'm so sorry."

"Why was she arrested?" Sakura bit her lip hard, tears beginning to form in her eyes.

"She went to a shopping mall, drunk out of her mind. She tried to steal a mirror, but dropped it while she was running away. The mall's security guards came for her and she fought them, screaming and shouting. Then, when the police came, she assaulted one of them. She was arrested for being drunk and disorderly, shoplifting, assaulting a police officer and resisting arrest, I think. She was supposed to be in prison for about… I think, two years? But then –"

"She stole a mirror?" Sakura breathed out, her legs shaking violently. Itachi placed his hand on her knee.

She had her own, very special mirror, a bit like the one Daddy bought you for your fourth birthday, Sakura!

How many mirrors had Sakura's mother given her over the years?

"Oh God…" Sakura bent over, tears dripping down her face, great big sobs wrenching their way out of her mouth. She dropped the phone and covered her face with her hands, bawling her heart out.

Itachi acted quickly. He scooped her up like she weighed nothing, pulling her into a tight, soothing embrace. She buried her face in his chest, hearing her agonised sobs grow muffled.

He managed to grab Sakura's phone and held it to his ear, holding Sakura up against him with his other hand to stop her falling to the ground.

Sakura could hear her aunt's voice, sounding tinny in the phone's speakers, saying Sakura's name over and over again. She sounded worried.

"Hello?" Itachi said calmly, "I'm a friend of Sakura's. Yes, she's very upset. What did you say to her? … I understand. No, don't tell me. It's none of my concern. I'll get her home safely. Goodbye for now."

He hung up and shifted so Sakura was sitting more comfortably in his lap. Sakura lifted her head to look him in the eye. He smiled at her kindly, wiping her tears away.

"Want me to give you a lift home?" He asked.

Sakura hesitated, then nodded gratefully.

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She made him drop her off a few streets away. After his father's reaction to her house, she certainly did not want him to see it and judge her.

He'd argued, obviously concerned, but the grief that had washed over Sakura had died during the car ride. She was now angry.

She put her key in the lock.

The front door swung open. She walked in, her face set in grim determination, certain of a confrontation.

She found her father pouring a drink in the kitchen.

"Sakura, what're you doing here?" He demanded, his words garbled, holding the bottle loosely.

Sakura took the bottle from him calmly, ignoring his struggle to keep his grip on it, and casually threw it across the room. It bounced off the wall, a large crack in the side. Amber-coloured liquid began to sluggishly leak out.

"Sakura!" He shouted in disbelief, his eyes wide and bloodshot.

"Mum was an alcoholic, wasn't she." Sakura stated. The look on her face was dangerous, daring her father to argue or contradict her word.

His face sort of collapsed in on itself, his eyes tearing up instantly, "Sakura, you have to understand –"

"Do I?" Sakura yelled, "There's a fucking change! You actually think I need to know something! You're too late, I had to find out what happened from my aunt! Not you, my fucking aunt had to tell me, years after Mum died, years!"

"She begged me not to tell you." He said regretfully.

"How could she?" Sakura snorted, "She was dead!"

He flinched.

"Before…" He started carefully, "before she died, when she was arrested, she begged me not to tell you why. She was so ashamed of herself. She was depressed, clinically depressed. She had been ever since she was a teenager. She was so special… I don't want you to think badly of her. She would have hated that more than anything."

"She was on drugs!" Sakura shouted, "She stole a mirror!"

"She was so, so ill," He broke down, holding his arm against his face, shoulders shuddering, "She wasn't like everyone else, Sakura. She was the kindest woman… the kin-kindest… the… she couldn't cope with all of the evil in the world. Every murder on the news, every starved animal on the street, every hint of darkness wore her down. She used to spend days in bed, do you remember? She wouldn't let me in the bedroom to see her, because she wasn't wearing her makeup. She hated herself. She believed she was ugly and useless. When you're depressed, there's a voice in the back of your head constantly telling you that you are a terrible person, that you don't deserve to live. The alcohol, the drugs… they helped for a while. Made her feel better. But it didn't last."

Sakura was crying again, "But I remember, she was happy and healthy –"

"She kept it from you," He shook his head, looking pale and drained, "She never let you see how bad things had gotten. She hid the bottles, never took drugs in the house, never came near you when she was drunk or high… You were the most important person to her in the world. She loved you so much."

Sakura finally crumbled upon hearing that, her worst fears denied – her mother truly had loved her – and stumbled into her father's arms.

"I'm so sorry I didn't tell you," He rasped, hugging her tightly, "But she begged me."

"How did she die?" Sakura asked, unsure of whether she was ready to hear it.

"She had an epileptic seizure in her cell and then a cardiac arrest." He said quietly, "It all happened when she was sleeping, so don't worry, she wasn't in any pain."

Sakura sagged in his arms, stunned. She had wondered for so long about her mother's fate… to learn the truth now, it seemed almost mundane.

She cried into his shoulder for a while as he rubbed her back and murmured comforting phrases.

"I thought she'd done something terrible," Sakura cried, "Like she'd killed someone or something, and you were too ashamed to tell me."

"No," He said sadly, "No. She was just unwell. She was getting help in prison, for the alcohol and everything else."

"I always looked up to her, I wanted to be her one day… what am I supposed to think now? I thought she was perfect."

"Perfect…? Sweetheart. I didn't fall in love with your mother because she was perfect. I fell in love with her because she wasn't, not really, not underneath the beautiful façade. She was a lovely woman, but she overreacted about anything, she could be jealous and she whined about not getting her way," He was laughing just at the memory, "The point is, all of those guys who claimed to love her only knew her perfections… I knew everything about her and I loved her completely, imperfections and all. Don't ever feel ashamed of her."

"It killed me to see what she was doing to herself. I hated her sometimes." He looked at the cracked bottle on the ground, at the pool of amber-coloured liquid lying next to it, "I hate myself sometimes too. When she died, I felt so empty… I found her stashes of alcohol and started throwing it all out. But it was dark one night without her, and I was cold and lonely, and I found her favourite wine and drank the bottle. And the next one. And the next. It spiralled from there. And I don't think I'm very well right now," He blinked back tears, "I promise, I'll get better. I'll stop drinking."

Sakura tightened her grip on him, smiling through the tears "Good. I don't think I could go through it all again."

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The framed picture of her mother sat on the shelf. She looked down at Sakura with her melancholic eyes.

Sakura placed the bottle of perfume carefully back on the shelf.

It was late at night, but she could hear the gurgle of the shower going as her father made an effort to clean himself up. After they'd cleaned up the bottle, they'd gone through the house thoroughly and disposed of every bottle they could find.

Sakura stared into her mother's sad, sad eyes and wondered how she'd never known.

Deep down, she felt upset that her parents had been keeping everything from her. She was the only one who didn't know. The last person to get the joke.

She'd never thought badly of addicts in general, never considered them evil or shameful, but now, now that it was her mother who'd been addicted to the drugs, who'd drank and been imprisoned, she suddenly felt disappointed.

She looked at her mother's perfect face and suddenly dissolved into tears.

Her mother must have been so depressed and ill…

And she'd smiled through it all, never let Sakura know what was going on, never inflicted her suffering on her daughter.

"If I could be like anyone," Sakura sobbed, "I would want to be like you, Mum. You must have been in a lot of pain, but you were brave. You never burdened me with anything. I'm so pissed off that you hid it all from me. We could have talked, you know? I might have been able to help. All that time, I was wondering what had happened, was worrying that I'd never really known you at all, and maybe I was right. You were the kindest, sweetest person I ever knew and I hope one day that I can be as compassionate as you were. I'll be an actress, just like you wanted. I promise. I'll make you proud."

It was probably just her imagination, but her mother's eyes looked like they were sparkling with happiness.

Chapter Text

After the recent revelations that had shaken her world, Sakura had promised herself not to do anything to compromise her own beliefs – now, being popular was nothing but a means to keep away a Queen Bee intent on stinging her to death and she no longer dreamt of being perfect Sasuke's equally perfect girlfriend.

Maybe as recently as a week ago, she would have viewed a makeover by one of the most popular girls in the college as a dream come true. Now, she merely found herself mildly amused that Ino's 'life-changing' makeover seemed to include sluttifying her up. Expose a little cleavage, wear shorter skirts, show some skin here and there. This was Ino's experienced advice. Sakura, who had watched more movies in her life than she viewed healthy, was aware that being popular was just following every teen chick flick cliché to the letter.

Homely, plain (but secretly attractive, given that Hollywood rarely handed out lead roles to less-than-stunning women) and criminally virginal, this girl would be taken under the wing of the Alpha Bitch, who would be obviously sociopathic to the audience but a sympathetic ear to the pathetic and slightly useless main character.

Sakura had watched films like that over and over in her room, wondering if she'd ever have her Cinderella moment.

"Pout for God's sake." Ino cursed, "Work that lipgloss! Gimme a sultry look. Oh damn, you just look constipated. Don't worry about it! I'll soon get you –"

"-looking like a cheap prostitute." Sakura deadpanned.

Ino fluttered her eyelashes at her in a practised, sultry movement, "Prostitutes demand pay and put out. You are going to dress hot and act hot. If you get paid for looking hot, I'm gonna have to back out of this deal. I'm not going to be your clothes pimp."

Sakura spluttered with laughter.

Ino crossed her closet in a few quick strides, coming back with an armful of clothes.

"OK, dark colours will make you look pale and interesting if you work them right. I can pull off the fragile waif look when I dress all in black, you just look sick, no offense. Make-up can reduce the corpse look. You are going to wear this on Monday," She indicated a black and white polka dot dress, "weird as it is, I think you work the nun look. So team this dress with some tights and shoes with actual heel, please, and you'll have the boys drooling."

"That's not actually our objective here, Ino." Sakura reminded her.

"Che, it's a bonus," Ino said dismissively, "You get instant protection from Ami and Sasuke's delectable brother won't be able to take his eyes off you."

Sakura looked down at her feet.

"So, what's the story there?" Ino asked, beginning to sort her make-up into neat piles.

"What?" Sakura stalled, trying to think of a convincing cover story.

"If you like him and he likes you, how come you aren't…?" Ino paused delicately.

Oh, he used to be a playboy to spite his rich, bastard father and now he's terrified he'll regress back to that state of dickitude so being with me goes against his moral principles because he already has a girlfriend who he doesn't love, who happens to be absolutely gorgeous and the nicest human being in existence, Sakura thought idly, imagining Ino's shocked face upon hearing the full story.

Sakura looked at Ino carefully. The other girl picked up some mascara and examined it closely.

It would be nice to be able to tell someone…

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Ino had refused to allow her to wear her usual thick eyeliner, instead, she taught her how to minimise her make-up whilst maximising the effects. A touch of blush brightened her cheeks, glitter enhanced her eyes, a swirl of lipgloss plumped her lips. She ended up looking as she had the day Sachiko had performed her little make-up miracle.

Ino had been careful to warn her that this was no magical makeover, she shouldn't expect to waltz into college and have people double take at the sight of her – it was all purely to make her fit in with the Ino-clones, securing her a spot with the popular girls.

Still, Sakura had glanced in her mirror that morning (wondering if the mirror was even legitimately hers or if it still had the security tag on it somewhere) and she'd definitely considered her appearance an improvement.

She sat in the corridor on a bench, her bag at her feet, her hands in her lap. She couldn't deny being nervous. The black and white dress she wore was too tight at the waist, making every breath a struggle.

Ino had given her a few home-truths.

"So, you wanna be a famous actress when you grow up?" She'd repeated, raising her eyebrow, after Sakura had answered her question about careers "You aim high, that's cool. I'm going to be a dancer, obviously. I'm curious, do you do the whole wide-eyed ingénue look on purpose? You know, the naiveté's cute when you're a kid but when you start getting older and you want guys to notice you, confidence is the key, not shyness. You've already hooked Itachi (you lucky bitch) with your adorable innocence, I guess, but from what I've heard about the guy, he has a serious virgin complex. Oh goodness and purity are the only things I desire in this cruel, ugly world!" She'd mocked, spinning around in her bedroom, "Lemme just go get my soapbox so I can preach! Hey, Sakura, did you know that beauty is only skin-deep? And have you met my girlfriend who happens to be a model by the way?"

Ino's reaction had surprised Sakura. She'd thought that she'd be impressed that Itachi had confessed to her, and that she might think badly of her for liking a guy who was taken (hadn't Sai said once that Ino would never try to steal someone else's guy?), but Ino had immediately mocked Itachi's cowardice, his selfishness, his hypocrisy… and she'd started pointing out things even Sakura hadn't thought of… Like why had he taken such an interest in her in the first place? If he knew she liked his little brother, why didn't he just set them up on dates or make sure they were left alone together? Why would he go to the trouble of taking her out and 'educating' her in Sasuke-speak? Ino had scathingly said, "It's obvious, he was interested from the start and the only way he could get close to you without feeling guilty was by pretending he was trying to help you get with his brother. He sounds like a moron and a freaking coward, all he has to do to be with you is dump his precious Sachiko, and he's too afraid! Seriously, Sakura… you could do a lot better than him. Like, maybe Sasuke?"

All in all, as she sat there waiting for the rest of the class to arrive, she had a lot to think about. Her mother was not perfect, she hadn't been framed, she wasn't innocent.. She'd been addicted to drugs and alcohol and she'd died of natural causes, no foul play involved at all. It was difficult for Sakura to get her head around.

Itachi had comforted her after she'd broken down, hugged her and driven her home. He didn't have to do any of that. He didn't get anything out of it. But there was no denying that he was taken and intent on staying that way.

Sasuke rounded the corner, Ami at his heels chatting away in her high-pitched voice.

"…and the bitch couldn't even take it, I swear to God she was crying right there in the middle of the road and I was so sure she was gonna get run over and I was laughing so hard but then –"

They both stopped dead at the sight of Sakura sitting there alone, trademark eyeliner gone and in a form-hugging dress. She gave them both a wry smile, amused at the mild surprise on Sasuke's face and the dumbfounded expression on Ami's.

"Hi." She wiggled her fingers at them in a delicate little wave she'd seen Ino do a thousand times.

Sasuke raised one dark eyebrow at her, shaking Ami off his arm and taking a step towards Sakura.

"Have you seen my brother lately?" He asked with a knowing smirk.

You knew, Sakura thought angrily. He must have known all along about Itachi's feelings for her! He was the one who'd told Fugaku about her and Itachi, after all.

"No, and I'm not likely to either." Sakura said coldly.

His lips thinned, pressing together in an irked frown, "Did something happen?"

"Ask him," She said shortly, "I don't like to gossip."

He smirked at that, clearly understanding what she was implying, "Neither do I. Except for when it's necessary to get something I want."

"Don't you think that's a little selfish?" Sakura scowled at him. What was he saying? He'd told his father about Itachi's feelings because… he wanted Sakura for himself? No, something about that didn't ring true…

"Sasuke-kun…" Ami whined, pulling on his arm again, "Can we go inside the class now? I'm boooored."

Sasuke didn't even spare her a glance, still looking at Sakura, "You know, you turned out to be smarter than I gave you credit for. And you didn't stand for me insulting Sachiko or what I had planned for you. I chose poorly with you, but that reflects well on your personality, I think."

Translation of cryptic Sasuke-speak: You were supposed to be submissive and obedient and that's why I picked you to be my girlfriend, but you turned out to be too smart, it's a compliment, okay?

"I think Ami would be a great choice for you." Sakura gave him a wide, innocent smile, "I'm sure she'd do anything for you and she'd never question what you do."

Ami threw her a suspicious glare, but simpered, "Oh, I totally would do anything for you, Sasuke-kun! We've known each other for so long it's like we've got a special bond, unlike so many other girls around here." She eyed Sakura, smirking.

Sasuke rolled his eyes.

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After R.E., Ino had come out of nowhere to clutch her arm and drag her off to the cafeteria, Sasuke watching with a raised eyebrow.

If she was disappointed that Itachi hadn't shown up that day and had obviously missed her make-under (as opposed to over), she hoped Ino couldn't tell.

"Sit with me," Ino whispered in her ear as she marched her through the cafeteria, the bellow of the students increasing with wolf-whistles and howls at the sight of them. Sakura's legs felt curiously bare in their black tights, especially when she noticed a few boys looking at them, "Just act cool, nonchalant, like you don't really give a crap that you're here."

Sakura's walk became something comparable to a swagger, to her inner shame, as her confidence built. There she was, walking with Yamanaka Ino (wearing her clothes, too!), about to sit at what the teen films all classed as the 'cool table.'

It looked fairly average, white and somewhat rectangular, but looks could be deceptive, she thought optimistically.

There were no boys sitting at the table, but there were a few sitting all around, gazing longingly at the girls like lions surrounding gazelles.

These girls were undaunted by the hungry looks. Practically all of them were stunningly attractive, glowing with golden tans, razor-sharp cheekbones, each of them painted with every type of make-up under the sun.

Sakura wondered what the ordinary-looking ones had done to earn a place at the table. Then she remembered her own miraculous invite and sardonically considered the idea that they were all charity cases, done up to match the pretty ones, allowed to sit with them out of pity.

"Hey girls!" Ino trilled, waving a greeting, her bracelets tinkling against each other. The occupants of the table looked up and immediately all cooed a friendly reply each, most of them sounding completely insincere.

"Ino!" One of them said chirpily, "Sit down! Who's your friend? She's so pretty. Love the dress."

"So pretty." The rest of them echoed.

"This is Haruno Sakura, we've only just met but I can tell she is like, insanely cool." Ino said casually, taking a seat and gesturing for Sakura to join her, "I mean, she's got a hot, rich older guy chasing after her! But she said she's not in the right place for a relationship right now, plus he was like, so clingy." Ino rolled her eyes.

Sakura sat down, staring incredulously at Ino, silently begging her with her eyes not to let anything else slip.

But the rest of the girls were looking at her with something akin to respect – admiration, maybe?

"Urgh, clingy guys are the worst." A brunette said nasally.

They all looked at Sakura, presumably awaiting her sage response.

Just act cool, Ino had whispered.

"Well, you know how it is," Sakura shrugged, heaving an aggrieved sigh, "Some guys get so attached."

At that, they all nodded like she'd said something shrewd and it had never occurred to them before.

So maybe some film clichés were true. Some popular, beautiful girls could be pretty dumb. But Ino was an exception there. Watching her throughout lunch, it was obvious that she had a fairly intelligent mind hidden behind the façade, she knew just what to say to flatter a friend, how to subtly tear down someone trying to rebel against her (like when Mitsuru tried to say shows about elephants were stupid, contrary to Ino's earlier statement that elephants were 'like, so cool and huge,') and how to take control of the conversation.

Everything at this table was serious business. Having too much coursework meant you were dying, the cafeteria's food was poison, and if a boy you had your eye on had sent you a text? Well, that was fit for a ten-minute inspection. They'd done that when Mitsuru had proudly announced she'd received a dirty text and Sakura had watched, bewildered, as she passed it around the table for them all to dissect. Ino had declared it, 'pure filth, but the three kisses means it's not just sex he's after.'

Sakura laughed at something one of the less godly members of the table had quipped (clearly proving that her place at the table had been earned by being charming and witty), and accidentally glanced at her old table, where Tenten sat alone.

Tenten wasn't like her. Sitting alone wasn't the most humiliating experience of her life, it was just fifteen minutes of silence whilst eating lunch. But she was looking at them, a frown wrinkling her forehead.

Sakura looked away, her face hot.

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Tenten watched Sakura flush bright red when they made eye contact, before she looked away quickly.

Something she had seen earlier that day had bothered her. The same guy who'd been following Sakura ages ago, Sasuke's brother, had been walking quickly through the corridors, avoiding eye contact with anyone like he didn't want to be recognised. Sakura's odd friendship with the guy had irked Tenten, if only because she missed her best friend and seeing this suspicious older guy cosying up to Sakura (who was too naïve to sense any ulterior motives) worried her.

And now, Sakura was sitting with Ino and her pampered, perfumed friends, dressed just like them, wearing that fake smile Tenten knew too well – she wore it whenever she felt out of her depth.

Tenten knew Sakura wouldn't want to speak with her. She could hold grudges for an insane amount of time.

So, she waited until lunch was over and the students were all filing out of the room, and took her chance.

Ino had just said goodbye to Sakura and was going off to her dance studio when Tenten pounced.

"Hey, what's up with you and Sakura being best friends all of a sudden?" She demanded.

For a second, Ino looked startled, before she smirked, "Oh, I forgot about you. Well, after you blabbed about Sakura's mother –"

"I didn't blab, I said too much when I defended her." Tenten said hotly.

"And how'd that work out for ya?" Ino yawned lazily, "Sakura falling at your feet in gratitude? Didn't think so. What do you want, Tenten?"

"Tell me what's been going on with Sakura, I'm really worried about her." She hadn't meant for that last part to slip out, but it did, and with it came the tears. Damn it. She never cried. Especially not in public.

Ino lost her smirk and she tilted her head, sizing her up.

"Tell you what. I'll do a Tenten and tell you what's up with Sakura, but only because I actually think the situation she's in is super fucked up and she needs your help. Or at least, your support."

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Itachi sat in Deidara's empty lab, idly flicking the gas for the Bunsen burners on and off. If Deidara knew what he was doing… well, he'd probably join in, get some matches to start a real firework show. The guy was borderline insane. Sasori seem to like him enough, though.

Speaking of Sasori… Itachi scowled, flicking the gas valve. He had run into him earlier. He'd had some guff to waffle about Itachi messing about with students and ephebophilia. Itachi had had a ridiculous sinking feeling of horror and the thought, he knows. But then he'd remembered that he had never displayed a preference for sexual partners in their teens and that he had only ever kissed Sakura, nothing more. If he'd ever tried anything with her, he was sure his moral compass would march in protest.

The door opened.

A girl around Sakura's age, seventeen or eighteen, entered the room. She had dark hair in buns.

"Oh," He said, "Sakura's friend. The one with a name like a number."

"Ex-friend now, I guess," She replied, her voice high and feminine, "I'm Tenten. You're Uchiha Itachi."

"Am I?" Itachi said, widening his eyes in feigned shock.

"Yep. And you need to leave Sakura alone." Tenten said coolly, gazing at him with a composed expression.

Itachi narrowed his eyes.

"You have a girlfriend. Sakura's only seventeen and this is not the time for her to be stressed out, not when she's in college and she's got exams and stuff coming up," Tenten said stiffly, "You're being selfish just by being here."

Itachi stared at her. He flicked the gas valve off.

"Am I? Yes, I have a girlfriend. She's lovely, by the way. Sakura's actually nearly eighteen. I'm not trying to stress her out at all. I don't know how much she's told you, but I feel comfortable letting you know, I would never cheat on my girlfriend."

"Not even for Sakura?" Tenten's dark eyes bored into his, demanding honesty.

"I – I…" He stuttered.

"Would you leave her for Sakura?"

He fell silent, clenching his jaw.

"There. Sakura loves you, I could see it just by how she acted around you. I won't let anyone hurt my best friend and, like it or not, you are going to hurt her if you continue doing what you are doing." Tenten walked closer to the table he was sitting on, her arms crossed, a bulky bag bumping against her leg with every step.

Sakura loved him? Itachi's eyebrows shot up.

"I'm not doing anything." He gritted out.

"You kissed her and confessed your love," She spat, lip curled, "have you ever heard of emotional cheating? You take her out for dinner. You visit this college just to see her. You act jealous when she shows interest in someone else. If you have no intention of actually getting in a relationship with her, leave her alone. You are so concerned with breaking your girlfriend's heart, and yet you have no such concern for Sakura!"

How much had Sakura told this girl?

"Look, I've tried to stay away –"

"Why are you here?" Her eyes flashed dangerously, "If not to see Sakura, why are you here?"

Itachi, the normally smooth liar, found himself incapable of answering that.

"Break up with your girlfriend," Tenten practically growled, "Or leave Sakura alone."

He tried to grab her sleeve to prevent her from leaving, wanting this emotionally savvy seventeen year old to offer him some advice on how to actually leave someone alone when they become the only thing on your mind.

Tenten knocked his hand away and grabbed the front of his shirt, pulling him off the table, glaring into his face, "You have no idea the damage you could do to her, do you? With all of the shit that's happened to her, she's fragile. She's too young and naïve to be in a serious relationship, and she's too good to be your bit on the side. You have power over her, you're smarter, more experienced and from what I've heard, you are very good at manipulating people. So, to put it bluntly, go near her again and I will put you in a hole in the ground, understand? Thought so."

She shoved Itachi back onto the table, shifting her bag to hang more securely on her shoulder, and left the room.

Well.

No one had warned Itachi that Sakura had a brother.

xxxxxxxx

"This better be good." Fugaku said flatly, eyeing his son as he paced up and down the office.

"No, it's bad," Itachi shook his head, "I think I'm straying. From Sachiko. I don't want to. You have to believe me, I don't want to be the man I used to be. I don't want to hurt people like that anymore. And I don't want to be a disappointment to you either." He rubbed at his head distractedly, feeling wretched.

His father's permanent frown deepened, the lines etched in his face cast in shadow, "Then do not stray. Prove to me that you have it in you to make a relationship work, the emotional maturity and the necessary sense of responsibility, and I will restore your place in this company, and my family, as my son and heir."

"Stay with Sachiko?" Itachi asked, his palms beginning to sweat, "But, Father, I don't think I love her."

"You don't love her because you've never allowed yourself to get close to your women," Fugaku said bluntly, "If you stop distancing yourself from her, you will be sure to develop feelings. I know that you do care for her, at least. To stay with her is in her best interests, Itachi. Relationships take time and effort from both parties."

Itachi nodded jerkily, "You're right, of course you're right. I've been selfish. I think I was afraid of committing to someone, after the relationships I've had… Sachiko is lovely, and she deserves to have a fully committed boyfriend."

Fugaku raised his head, a glint of approval in his eyes, "Good. I'm proud of you."

"What?" Itachi turned to face his father, putting his hands on the desk he sat at, "Proud? Of me?"

"Of course. I feel that you are finally returning to the son I was once so proud of… hard-working, considerate, polite… Keep it up, Itachi."

Itachi stared at him in shock. His father was proud of him. This was it. No more playboy behaviour, no more selfishness. From now on, he was going to be a proper Uchiha that his father would feel honoured to have as his son.

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It was probably nerves more than anything that had driven him to the bar. Alcohol had led him to confess to Sakura, and he was well aware that it drove away those pesky inhibitions humans tended to have. He would be able to go to Sachiko's place, straighten out their relationship and start to figure out how he was going to stay away from Sakura from now on.

But, as he walked home from the bar, he saw a light on through his living room window. Oh my. Ballsy burglars.

But no, as he walked into the living room, lampshade held aloft as a makeshift weapon (hastily taken from the hall), he spotted Sachiko's perfectly coiffed head and realised the intruder had a key.

"Oh!" He exclaimed happily, Sachiko, just the girl he wanted to see, "Hi, sweetheart."

She looked surprised at his enthusiasm, but pleased as she smiled shyly at him, "Hi Itachi. I wanted to talk to you, so I came here but I guess you were out… I wanted to ask you something."

"Ask away." Itachi said brightly. Alcohol really was fantastic.

"Can I please move in with you?" She bit her lip and looked at him pleadingly, "I know I was supposed to move in ages ago, but I didn't feel you loved me but now I know you do because you said so I feel better about the whole thing in general and I just wanted to –"

"Yes." Itachi said magnanimously, "By all means, move in now!"

"R-really?" Sachiko stared at him in stunned disbelief, "You mean it?"

"Sure, why not?" He shrugged casually. This must be a sign. Here he was, wanting to fix their relationship and commit to his beautiful, slightly boring girlfriend, and there she was, asking to move in!

In fact…

"We could get married." He suggested, smiling soppily as his head spun.

Sachiko gasped.

"Married? Are you making fun of me?" She asked hesitantly, "Have I missed your sarcasm again?"

"Nope," He grinned, "In fact… um… Sachiko, will you do me the honour of becoming my beloved… wife or… no, I've forgotten."

Sachiko blinked rapidly, apparently trying not to cry.

"I can't believe it!" She threw her arms around him, "Marry you, of course I'll marry you!"

Caught up in the moment, he gamely swung her around as she laughed delightedly. He thought vaguely, ha, I win, Tenten. Look at me all committed.

Then, under the sea of alcohol and euphoria, Sakura's face swam into his mind and he thought one word that adequately summed up the whole situation.

Fuck.

Chapter Text

Itachi woke up with the immediate sense that he was a moron and in great trouble.

He lurched up into a sitting position and immediately let out a pathetic moan as his head split open. "Gurghghruh." He groaned eloquently, letting go of the bed sheets to clutch his head.

"Hangover?" Sachiko mumbled sleepily from beside him.

"Mmgrh." He agreed, feeling as though a steamroller had ran over his head… and backed up several times to do it again.

He'd asked Sachiko to marry him.

He'd always assumed that when he proposed to a girl, it would be because he loved her enough to force her to take his horrible name, not because he'd been drunk and obsessing over his father's and Tenten's words. Commit commit commit, their voices had chanted in his head as the nausea had swirled around his stomach, and he'd just taken the next logical step after Sachiko had already decided to move in. His inebriated mind had thought it was a great idea.

Sakura.

He let his head drop back in his hands. What was she going to say? Even if she didn't return his feelings – it didn't matter, he'd confessed and she'd demanded he break up with Sachiko for her own sake, rather than stringing her along.

How was he going to tell her?

It was going to have to be him. If he left it to someone else, she'd be even angrier and more hurt. Besides, it was his mess.

He glanced at the beautiful, sleeping woman lying next to him, a smile on her achingly perfect face.

She was gorgeous, sweet and completely loyal.

And he didn't love her at all. If he felt anything for her, it was the kind of vague, easily replaced affection you had for a clumsy pet, inept and at times frustrating, yet charming. Not love. Not what he felt for Sakura.

He slipped out of bed, considering his situation.

Could he marry her?

Should he?

To marry her, make her his wife, knowing she loved him deeply and he did not return her affection? To pay – or more likely, for his father to pay – for a huge, white wedding, the kind she'd likely dreamed about ever since she was a child, to watch her walk up the aisle wishing she was younger, paler, shorter… Sakura.

But this?

To drunkenly propose was bad enough, but to immediately take back the offer the moment he sobered up? How would she feel about that?

He'd thought himself a coward so many times, but he'd never considered himself the sort of person who wouldn't accept the consequences of his mistakes. To run away from this, from Sachiko, would be too cruel for words. The best thing to do, for now, was to let everyone know what he had done. To take responsibility.

His father first.

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All of the workers had steered clear the moment Itachi had swept into the building, clearly expecting a scene. Itachi could care less as to why they had all reached the conclusion that he was there to make trouble – all they'd know is that his own father had fired him and now here he was, storming back in.

The lift was free for once and he nipped in, pressing the correct button that would take him to his father's floor. This building was more familiar to him than his own home, he knew the name of every person he worked with, knew the layout of the offices better than a blueprint. He'd memorised every corner, every water-cooler, every cubicle, in his attempt to be fully prepared for what he'd assumed would be his life's work. As his father seemed determined to ruin them with shady deals in the night, at day, Itachi dedicated himself to bringing them into the light.

He wondered if he would receive his own office again. He had a picture of himself and Sasuke on the desk that he'd like to have back, if the whole room was not possible. The picture had been taken back in the good times, before Itachi had ruined everything, fucked around and left a trail of devastation in his wake. Sasuke, the new golden boy of the family and suffering under the weight of sudden responsibility, had never forgiven him for it.

He had never had many friends. His brother had been his best friend, his confidante and emotional rock. All before a woman with cherry-red lips and an endless supply of dizzying alcohol had changed him for good.

He found his father in his office, thankfully not detained in some charade of a meeting, going over the plans for his next nefarious scheme.

Uchiha Fugaku's eyes narrowed as his oldest son entered the room, immediately sitting up in his chair, lacing his fingers together, "So?" He asked, looking sternly expectant. What Father wanted, Father got.

"I have proposed to Sachiko." Itachi said clearly, enunciating every word.

Fugaku's eyes flickered with something – disbelief? pride? – and he stood, "And you have broken it off with the Haruno girl?"

"I intend to do that straightaway." Itachi said promptly, not bothering to argue the definition of an affair – do you know what emotional cheating is? Tenten's words rang through his mind – because he truly had every intention of telling Sakura everything, the proposal, his own feelings for her, and finish his confession with a sincere apology about the emotional turmoil he had inadvertently caused her.

Fugaku's lips twitched in an actual smile, not a dark smirk or a teeth-baring grimace, a smile of pride and pleasure.

"Well done, son." He let the words fall out carefully, watching Itachi as if knowing how the words would affect him.

Itachi breathed in slowly, trying to school his features into an impassive expression. He fails, and a broad grin spread across his face unbidden.

"Thank you, Father."

"I'm proud." Fugaku said quietly, "It is like having my son back."

Itachi nodded, pressing his lips together to force away the smile, "I won't let you down again, I promise."

His father's lips quirked up again, and he waved him out with a look of genuine affection.

But as Itachi's hand finds the door handle, it is turned from the other side and Sasuke is revealed, standing outside in the hallway. His brother favoured him with a look of mild exasperation.

"Oh. You. Come to beg for your place back like a good little dog?" Sasuke sneered at him.

Somehow, Sasuke's spiteful words had never been able to hurt Itachi. Perhaps it was because he still saw him as a child, one who did not understand or mean the blunt, cruel things he said.

So Itachi merely smiled and stepped back to allow Sasuke to walk in. His brother's annoyance was palpable as he did so, walking over to their father's desk with stomping footsteps.

"Oh, Itachi," Fugaku called as Itachi moved to leave, "Why don't you tell your brother the good news?"

"Of course," Itachi smiled, though he was inwardly worrying over his brother's reaction. He'd already revealed that he strongly disliked Sachiko… "I'm getting married!"

Sasuke stared at him.

Seconds ticked by, Itachi's smile growing more and more awkward as Sasuke failed to react. Fugaku began to frown at his youngest son.

"To Sachiko." Sasuke said flatly.

"Yes?" Itachi replied, perplexed and not liking having no idea what his brother was thinking. Was he angry, happy for him, upset?

Crack.

Sasuke's fist smacked into his jaw before he could even think of moving out of the way, and he fell backwards, dragging the rubbish bin down with him and landing hard on the floor.

"You selfish bastard!" Sasuke glared down at him, chest heaving in angry pants, "You don't even love her!"

"Sasuke!" Fugaku barked, "What are you thinking?!"

Itachi stood up slowly, hands up as though trying to pacify a wild animal, "You have no idea, Sasuke," He said calmly, feeling his jaw throb in response to the hard blow, "Relationships are built on hard work and compromise and –"

"Compromise?!" Sasuke yelled, "What are you compromising on? You think you'll make her happy if you marry her? She – even she deserves more than a loveless marriage, you idiot!"

"You don't understand," Itachi's voice was low and hard, "I've been selfish and cruel. I've hurt so many women in the past. It's time I started facing up to my responsibilities, I owe Sachiko –"

"Oh," Sasuke breathed out, looking between his brother and his father, "This is his influence, isn't it? You have no idea how he has shaped your idiotic notions about yourself, your guilt complex, your constant need to be a martyr. You are a slave to 'doing the right thing' at the expense of your happiness and others'. You made mistakes, yes, but you've more than paid for it with the amount of self-sacrificing, moronic behaviour you are so fucking prone to!"

Itachi stared at his brother in shock.

Fugaku's frown was an ugly, dark thing to behold.

"This isn't the right thing." Sasuke insisted, his eyes pleading with Itachi over something, "You are only going to hurt more people."

"I-I thought –" Itachi began to stammer, but his father slammed his fist down on the desk.

"He is atoning for his past mistakes by becoming a responsible adult, Sasuke," Fugaku bit out, glaring daggers at his son who bore it with a defiant glare of his own, "something a child like you could never understand!"

"Child," Sasuke said bitterly, "I am eighteen this year, and yet you all see me as an ignorant infant. For a while I was your blessed pride and joy when Itachi couldn't cope with the strain, do you remember that? I listened to your rants of family pride, your plans to defraud companies and not once did I ever give the indication that I wasn't on your side. I even looked for a girlfriend you'd approve of, all to keep you in the dark."

It was Fugaku's turn to stare at Sasuke, disbelieving.

"You fucking broke Itachi," Sasuke seethed, "You made him think he was evil. He spent years believing he didn't deserve to be happy, that he always had to do the right thing to make up for what he'd done to spite you. You couldn't cope with your precious son making a fool out of you so you set him aside and told him he was a monster for hurting those bitches you worked with. You think, after seeing all that, that I'd be stupid enough to tell you what I really thought of your company? I haven't been a child since I was sixteen."

Itachi rubbed his aching jaw, struggling to take it all in, what his brother was suddenly coming out with. It was true, his father had been the one to stop his reign of chaos against his company, telling him exactly what damage he had caused and how terrible he was, but that was the truth and he was a better man for it now.

"I've actually thanked God on more than one occasion that I was not unlucky enough to be born first," Sasuke said darkly, "After witnessing the pressure you put on him, the lengths he'd go to please you. You were the one who forced him to study for six hours every day he had spare, the one who'd pushed him to take the chance to skip so many grades that he lost every friend he'd ever made of his own age, and became incapable of making any more. You were the one who crippled him into obedience. Everything he does, he does to make you proud. You'd deny him happiness out of petty spite because for once in his life, he chose to disobey you!"

Itachi shook his head, "No, Sasuke, it isn't like that. I make my own choices."

"You love Haruno Sakura, you idiot." Sasuke spat, "Was it your own choice to be with someone else?"

I will restore your place in this company, and my family, as my son and heir, Fugaku had promised him. He would give him back his job, his pride and his family. All he had to do was prove himself. There was hardly anything sinister in that.

Itachi gave his brother a flinty-eyed look of irritation, "Sakura was a mistake, I should never have strayed –"

"No, you should have left Sachiko the moment you realised you loved someone else," Sasuke said meaningfully, "That is doing the right thing. Not just blindly obeying our father because that's what he taught you to do."

"You are being ridiculous." Fugaku accused him, sneering.

"Oh, is it my turn to be the black sheep?" Sasuke actually laughed at his father, "Good. I didn't enjoy your fleeting favour."

And with that, he left the room, slamming the door shut behind him.

xxxxxxxx

Bewilderment confusing his thoughts, Itachi could only focus on what he had promised himself that he would do, and he asked his father where Sakura lived.

Fugaku had looked at him with a complex expression of disbelief and pride, that his son could ignore such a damning report and continue following his father's demands was a pleasant surprise.

Sakura lived in a poor, filthy neighbourhood.

Itachi drove slowly, all car doors locked just in case, looking around the streets in consternation. Litter decorated the pavement, covering every square inch with faded crisp packets and plastic bottles. Someone had left a beer can in a hedge. Broken glass glittered in the road, so extensive and widely spread that Itachi was forced to carefully drive around it.

Sakura lived here of all places.

He stepped out of his car, his nose wrinkled in distaste at the sight of the crumbling, rundown house his father had informed him Sakura lived in.

He walked down the path to the door, knocking carefully. His mind was wiped blank in his efforts not to allow Sasuke to get to him. What he had said had smacked terrifyingly of the truth, but it was all twisted somehow to make their father seem manipulative and evil. Itachi assumed that Sasuke sought to gain something out of Itachi's loss, but could not understand it.

It was true, what Sasuke had said. Itachi had skipped a fair few grades, and had found himself among peers that he still outshone and none could rival him. It was not surprising that this had earned him no friends, but after years of social isolation, he had found himself incapable of forming friendships. It had been lonely, especially after Sasuke had withdrawn from him. He had long since learned to use charm and flattery to make others like him, but there were few that he was truly close to. Sakura was one.

He needed to fix this.

A man answered the door, his face clean-shaven, his clothes shabby and well-worn. He eyed Itachi with confusion, obviously taking in his expensive suit, his sleek car and wondering what the hell someone like him was doing in his neighbourhood.

Oh God, it was Sakura's father.

"Hello," Itachi said brightly, hoping his fear wasn't shining naked in his expression, "Is Sakura in?"

At this, the man's expression turned distrustful, "Who are you?" He asked, frowning.

Sakura's mother had died, Itachi knew. This meant that her father was likely to be more protective and far more conscious of the possibility of losing her.

"I'm Uchiha Itachi, a friend of your daughter's," He said politely, "I hope this is no imposition on my part, but I'd like to see her."

Some bourgeois part of his mind that he liked to pretend didn't exist had already dismissed this man as unintelligent, so he was surprised when he found himself being thoroughly scanned by the older man standing before him.

"How old are you?" The man grunted, suspicion coating his words.

Honestly. Itachi wanted to shout to the world, I am not a predator!

Just then, Sakura came down the hall and at the sight of him stopped dead, eyes bulging in shock.

"Oh, hi." He waved at her.

She waved back, looking unutterably confused to see him standing on her doorstep.

Her father gave him a long, measured look that said plainly, hurt my daughter, and you die slowly.

What an eloquent look that was, Itachi silently marvelled.

xxxxxxxx

Sakura's insistence on having no sugar or milk in her coffee pained him.

"Out with it." She said, blunt as ever, her tone brooking no charming compliments or obfuscating riddles.

Itachi held his own mug carefully, wondering if she'd throw hers at him when he told her.

He took a deep breath, ignoring her look of curiosity, "I have asked Sachiko to marry me."

He watched Sakura, wincing at what he was sure would be an explosive reaction. Perhaps she would hit him too, and he would have two bruises to remind him of his mistake.

She gazed at him, clutching her mug, her mouth twitching as though her mind was throwing up several things she wanted to say.

And then – and then –

She laughed.

Itachi stared at her, feeling almost offended that she found his engagement amusing, but quickly realised there was no mirth in her laugh.

"You idiot," She choked out in between hysterical gasps of laughter, "You total fucking idiot."

He sat there for a full minute as she laughed and laughed, feeling cold and confused.

When her laughter had finally fallen silent, she fixed him with an incredulous look, her teeth bared in something not quite like a smile, the edge of which was as sharp as a knife.

"All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts." Sakura quoted with that horrible, sharp un-smile, "You do love to play your part well. Prodigal son. Loving boyfriend – whoops, fiancé! – and caring friend. You've come to let me down gently. You've come to tell me I am a mistake and that you feel horribly, painfully guilty about what you've done."

"Well, yes I thought it best –"

"Of course you did. Tie up loose ends. Be a good person. It's all so important to you, isn't it? But did it ever occur to you that what is good and moral is not unquestionably up to you to decide? That other people might think differently? Marrying someone who loves you that you don't love in return, that's not good by anyone's opinion."

"You know, I am tired of being lectured, by you, my brother, Tenten, even –"

"You are a very selfish man." Sakura said quietly, her green eyes burning into his.

Itachi felt his stomach drop at her words.

She was crying.

"Sakura, what –" He said, startled.

"Get out," She placed a hand over her eyes, shielding them from view. He couldn't miss her shaking shoulders, "Just go. Please."

He hovered over her helplessly, "I just… I just wanted to do the right thing. Make my father proud. Make Sachiko happy. Stop bothering you. I didn't want to be selfish. I don't understand."

He took the coffee mug away from her gently when her shaking hand threatened to spill the hot liquid over herself. She didn't fight him.

"Bothering me." Sakura repeated his words in a dull, flat tone, her eyes still shielded from him.

"Yes," He said earnestly, "I get it now, I should never have kissed you and the moment I realised I liked you, I should have cut off all interaction –"

"Then that's what we'll do," Sakura said calmly, moving her hand and looking up at him with those guileless green eyes, shining with unshed tears.

"I'm sorry, what?" He asked, confused.

"We won't speak," She said firmly, "You don't come to my college, ever. I won't come to your house. We don't go to lunch. You don't call me when you're drunk. This is it. If you really think marrying Sachiko is the right thing to do. I won't stop you. It's not my place. I hope you see sense soon, because it's her you'll be hurting if you don't."

Itachi stared at her, feeling hopelessly lost and as if the world was spinning the wrong way under his feet. He struggled to regain his footing, "If – if that's what you want."

"It's not," She said, biting her lip, "But you shouldn't just do things to please others all the time. Think of yourself."

"I do that too often," He gave a shaky laugh, "I'm selfish, remember?"

"You're a study in contradictions," She smiled at him, no warmth or affection in that smile. It was the saddest smile he'd ever seen, and he hated himself for being the cause, "You don't always have to play the martyr, you know."

Both Sasuke and Sakura seemed to think he was doing this against his will but he clung to his knowledge that he had chosen this, however mistakenly, he had chosen to follow through. The thought of not being in control, of slipping up and being the puppet once more - I am the dutiful son – frightened him more than he would admit.

"But I play my part so well," He gave her his best cheeky grin. No amusement lit up her features, she continued to stare up at him with sad, dead eyes, "I've decided to do this because I want to be a better person. I don't ask for your forgiveness, for my leading you on, even if you really don't feel anything for me –"

She glared at him suddenly, "You can be really fucking stupid sometimes."

She stood up abruptly. He stepped back.

For one insane moment, he thought she was going to kiss him and all of his plans of redemption were going to come crashing down all around him.

But she just glared into his eyes and spat, "You are a coward. You want to be a good person but you don't understand how painful your actions are. You are a spineless little daddy's boy and sometimes, you make it very easy to hate you."

"Sakura, I –"

"Fuck you." She said coldly, "Get out of my house. Sachiko deserves better."

He turned around and left the room, actually feeling a physical ache in his chest. Sakura's father was standing in the hall, clearly able to hear everything, and he gave him a venomous glare that spoke reams.

Itachi managed to open the front door and leave, but not before he'd heard Sakura give into heart-wrenching sobs, her father already murmuring comforting words.

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Sachiko always had trouble sleeping. Itachi would roll over and mutter something and she'd just grab a book and flick the lamp on and he'd be asleep within seconds. It was amazing, how easily he could sleep.

The book she was trying to read was sad, too many orphans and every page dripped with main character's unrequited love. She shifted in bed, feeling far too hot and uncomfortable for sleep.

Itachi mumbled something, his face pressed against his pillow, looking sweetly youthful in his sleep.

She idly moved closer to him, turning the page, just to catch what he was sleepily saying.

"Sakura…" He said clearly, distinctly, the name falling from his lips with such eloquence that Sachiko could not mistake it for any other word.

She actually felt herself stiffen. She mentally replayed the word, Sakura. Sa-ku-ra. She hadn't misheard her own name Sachiko, Sa-chi-ko, being said in such a breathless, emotional way. She didn't think she'd ever heard him speak like that.

Her phone was on the bedside table. A quick scrolling down revealed the name she had purposefully been ignoring for the past few months. Uchiha, Sasuke. She had once labelled his number Sasu-chan, a cute, forced endearment she used to create a boundary between them, I am an adult and you are not, a way of staving off the thrill of delight she suffered from whenever she spoke his name aloud. She'd tried to treat him like a little brother-to-be, even before Itachi had drunkenly proposed and she hadn't realised she was in this relationship for the long-haul.

Sasuke had always been intense, stoical and impossible to read. She'd thought he hated her at first, coolly ignoring her smiles, sneering at her small talk, muttering sarcastic comments whenever she walked past.

But then, she was in the Uchiha kitchen, crying because Itachi's parents didn't seem to like her at all and they'd made it clear that Itachi had brought home better prospects than her. The kitchen had a sliding door at the time, she remembered, and it always opened soundlessly. They'd replaced it with a regular door later, but then Sasuke had slipped in without making a noise to alert her of his presence.

"Stop crying." He said from behind her, his voice softer than she'd thought possible.

She jumped in surprise, wiping her eyes hastily.

"They're testing you," He said, jerking his head towards the living room where the rest of the Uchihas lurked, "They want to see if you'll stand up for yourself."

"Why?" Sachiko asked, sniffing, horrified to see mascara smeared on her hand from where she'd wiped her eyes.

Sasuke shrugged slowly, "That's what they do. There's no point hiding in here."

And the whole meeting had been strange and dreamlike, because the Sasuke she had formed in her mind had just been Itachi's little brother, a fifteen – or was he older? – year old who didn't seem to like her at all.

But at one point, Sachiko remembered, he'd brushed past her to get a drink and then, when returning, had leant into her, her back touching the counter, his handsome, youthful face in hers, and he'd muttered something.

"I can see why he chose you." His eyes were dark and intelligent and Sachiko had the curious sensation of feeling inferior to a teenager and immense pride at being complimented by him.

At least, she'd thought it was a compliment at the time, but then he'd gone on to say, "You'll put up with his bad behaviour and you won't leave him before he leaves you. He thinks you're dull, by the way."

It had been a stab of pain, that icy little comment, and it had left her reeling before he finished her off with this:

"Of course, your beauty speaks volumes about why he picked you. 'She was a phantom of delight/ /When first she gleamed upon my sight.'" He quoted, his voice a touch mocking, as if he could tell from her befuddled expression that she didn't get the reference.

"Was that a compliment?" She asked stupidly.

"You don't need any compliments," Sasuke rolled his eyes, his fingers accidentally brushing against her side as he put his glass back on the counter, "You'll remain beautiful whether someone tells you or not."

She gazed at him long enough that he coughed, his cheeks pale pink under her scrutiny. He was just as handsome as Itachi, but he was softer, smoother somehow, the high cheekbones he shared with his brother not so razor sharp, no shadows under his eyes. She fancied briefly, that he wasn't the type to cry out in his sleep as a nightmare swallows him, or the type who would carelessly call her the wrong name and never notice the fractured, devastated look on her face.

"Thank you." She replied, and it would have been a stupid answer to his patronising compliments, had she not been thanking him for more than that.

He gave her a long, measured look, then laughed, "'A perfect Woman, nobly planned/To warm, to comfort, and command; /And yet a Spirit still, and bright/With something of angelic light.' As long as you remember that you're here to stand around and look pretty. If you want someone to take you seriously, nii-san isn't the man for the job."

Sachiko shivered lightly, feeling horribly off-balance. Itachi's little brother wasn't supposed to be leaning against her and quoting poetry and calling her beautiful… This was wrong, wasn't it? And even if Itachi didn't seem very interested in her these days, if he snapped a little too harshly when she pressed him about the nightmares, if he rolled his eyes too emphatically when she said something stupid, she still knew he'd be hurt by… whatever this was.

"Do you know a man who is?" She asked, smiling wryly. She stepped around him clumsily, wiping her eyes more carefully this time, "A relationship isn't a job, Sasu-chan."

That was the first time she'd used that cute, patronising little nickname, and she hadn't missed the darkening of Sasuke's blush, the annoyance glinting in his eyes at being outstepped in this little dance.

"Tiresome all the same." He drained his glass, eyeing her malevolently.

She could have been cruel, could have pointed out that at sixteen, he was unlikely to have ever had a meaningful relationship to be worthy of judging hers, but for all her faults, Sachiko had never been cruel.

"Well, I think Itachi's more than suitable," She said charitably, "He's kind, sweet, funny –"

"- Handsome, rich," Sasuke continued, looking bored, "Worship his assumed virtues if you wish, but in my opinion, he's more suited to La Belle Dame Sans Merci types as opposed to ladies of obvious virtue like yourself." He gave her a slow, derisive smirk, looking her up and down.

"Stop quoting Shakespeare." Sachiko frowned, feeling very much out of her depth, talking to this clever, cultured sixteen year old. She was just a shop manager's daughter, not some debutante educated in poetry from the age of three by a private tutor from France.

"It's not Shakespeare." Sasuke said, surprisingly without the scorn she knew Itachi would have displayed had she made such a mistake in his presence, "I've quoted Wordsworth and Keats. You should read them, you'd like them. I'm not a fan of the Bard, myself."

"I'm not clever enough for that sort of stuff," Sachiko said sadly, "I never got it in school."

"I'll read it to you." Sasuke's smirk grew naughty, like a shared secret, and her face flamed for no good reason. Fancy blushing because someone offered to read you poetry! She felt like a right idiot, and backed away out of embarrassment.

"Goodnight, Sasu-chan," She said quietly, slipping back into the living room to face the cold glares of Itachi's family.

He raised his glass to her in a mocking salute.

If she ever used his phrase 'you'll remain beautiful whether someone tells you or not,' to comfort herself whenever she felt ugly or alone, she never mentioned it to him, and never allowed herself to think on what it might mean.

Chapter Text

This chapter is extra-long and filled with Shakespeare goodness!

Give thy thoughts no tongue,

Nor any unproportion'd thought his act.

Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.

Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,

Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel;

But do not dull thy palm with entertainment

Of each new-hatch'd, unfledg'd comrade. Beware

Of entrance to a quarrel; but, being in,

Bear't that the opposed may beware of thee.

Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice:

Take each man's censure, but reserve thy judgment.

Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,

But not express'd in fancy; rich, not gaudy:

For the apparel oft proclaims the man;

And they in France of the best rank and station

Are most select and generous chief in that.

Neither a borrower nor a lender be:

For loan oft loses both itself and friend;

And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.

This above all,—to thine own self be true;

And it must follow, as the night the day,

Thou canst not then be false to any man.

Act I, scene iii (59–80) – Polonius advising Laertes.

Crying in a toilet stall, Sakura reflected, was both tragic and clichéd. She sat on the toilet seat with her head in her hands, trying to keep quiet in case someone walked in. She wouldn't normally pick the college bathroom to have a little pity party in, but the mere sight of Sasuke and his irritatingly familiar facial features had brought on a sudden need to sob into a few rolls of tissue.

The date of Itachi and Sachiko's wedding kept creeping closer and as the days passed by Sakura's mood grew darker and darker, like a black cloud threatening to burst into rain any minute. She was sure to explode soon, she thought, how could she not? Her rage and sadness and every other negative emotion kept building slowly until they eclipsed every other feeling.

The door banged open and immediately the room was filled with people, she could hear heels clacking against the tiles, giggling and whispering and someone turned a tap on so water gushed out loudly.

Ah, crap.

She wiped her eyes hastily and raised her feet up, hugging her knees.

"Ami, did you remember the homework we were supposed to do?" A high voice asked from Sakura's right, the tap's water gushing off the sink and echoing around the room.

Someone turned the tap off with a decisive twist, the water cutting off with a metallic screech, "Yeah, totally. Of course I did. Right before I started trading cards with tweens and wearing socks with sandals. No, actually, I didn't. You know why? Because the teacher is full of shit." Ami snorted.

"It's not nerdy to do your homework on time," Another voice chimed in, "Bet you'll wish you did it when you fail the whole year."

"Yeah, I'll be so devastated I'll delay my vacation in Cyprus by a week," Sakura could feel Ami's eye roll, audible as it was, "Like I'd really give a crap if I failed. My dad would bitch for an hour and then buy me a purse, like always."

The other girls laughed loudly.

"You checked out the Yamanaka situation yet?"

Ami giggled, "Are we really still calling it that? Well, Sai's still totally convinced she's after Sasuke-kun. I told you that would work, he's entirely naïve underneath the freakish exterior. He actually asked me if I would talk to Ino for him. It was so hard not to just laugh in his face."

"Can we quit with the Ino thing," Another girl whined, "Even if he broke up with her it's not like she'd become unpopular overnight. I don't get why we're sabotaging that."

Ami made an incoherent noise of contempt, "Do you seriously think this about popularity? That bitch fucking mocks me to my face every fucking day."

"Anyone seen Hidan-sensei's swear jar?" Someone said dryly.

"Shut up," Ami snapped, "I hate that cow, I swear, she's worse than that Haruno girl."

Sakura stiffened.

"Haruno? Who's that?"

"You know, the girl whose mother slept with guys for money for drugs," A girl said in a hushed voice.

"That's a fucking lie!" Sakura snapped, unable to stop herself from reacting at the sound of some girl she didn't even know slandering her mother's name.

The girls fell silent.

Sakura got up and opened the cubicle door, revealing about five shocked teenage girls and one impassive-looking Ami.

"I am like, so sorry," The girl who had gossiped about her mother said, blinking rapidly.

Sakura stared at Ami, feeling every drop of her venomous hatred pour into her outraged glare.

Ami returned her gaze without a flicker of fear, "You going to wash your hands?"

"You going to tell Ino, or will I?" Sakura countered.

"Because honestly, it's kind of gross if you don't." Ami shrugged.

Saying 'I was just hiding in there for a good cry' seemed like a good way to be mocked mercilessly, so Sakura turned the tap on, thrust her hands underneath the water and then shook her hands out angrily, spraying Ami and the girl next to her.

"Get out, all of you." Sakura snapped, "Except you, Ami."

Ami tilted her head curiously. The other girls lingered at her side.

She clicked her fingers with a smirk, "Go on, you heard the whore."

The other girls giggled nervously and started to file out.

"What," Sakura began, pseudo-calmly, "is your fucking problem?"

Ami's lips twisted upwards in amusement, "Oh, it's nothing personal. You just make this all so easy."

"Do you enjoy making my life a misery?" Sakura asked wretchedly.

"That's your problem right there," Ami nodded sagely, "You tell me this stuff bothers you. You cry, you slap me, you react. You get me attention, blog hits, sympathy. You let me walk all over you. It was easy to ruin you. Hardly any fun at all."

"You didn't seem to be having fun when Ino made you wet yourself the other day." Sakura raised her eyebrows.

Ami laughed sincerely, "Oh, yeah. Ino knows how to play the game. Can't keep her freak boyfriend a secret, though. Walks around holding hands, then shits herself if anyone sees!"

"Don't call Sai a freak," Sakura said in a level voice, "Don't ever talk about my mother, me, Ino, anyone I care about."

"Or what?" Ami smirked at her, combing her hair through with her fingers until it lay flat on her shoulders.

Sakura grinned at that, mentally thanking Tenten for all those painful afternoons she'd forced her to practice wrestling with her.

She stepped forward and pinned Ami against the sink, her elbow against her neck, sweeping her legs out from under her, leaving her squirming and kicking for purchase. One swift movement and the other girl was at her mercy.

Ami's eyes were bulging out with shock and fear, "Let me up you fucking bitch, my hair!" She howled, trying to kick Sakura, "My hair will get wet!"

"I'm guessing your precious daddy never spent money on self-defence lessons?" Sakura said scathingly, "This is what I'll do. One more word about my friends, me, my family, anyone, and I will shave your spoiled little head, and there will be nothing you can do to stop me. If you really have been targeting me just because I make it easy for you, then you should know that I won't from now on."

Ami spluttered, the odd composure she'd been displaying ever since Sakura had left the cubicle completely erased. She looked thoroughly miserable and frightened. That uncharacteristic expression caused the small twinge of guilt in Sakura's guilt. Ami was a bully who used spiteful insults and falsified rumours to take down people for fun, but doing this – holding her down, threatening her – made Sakura just as bad.

Still. So much for doormat Sakura.

Sakura removed her elbow with a chuckle. After causing your own personal bully to lose their composure so completely, it was only natural that they would also lose their air of menace – Ami looked more like a drowned rat than someone who used to make her shake when she saw her coming.

"Think about it," Sakura advised, moving towards the door, "Which do you value more? Making me miserable or your precious, expensive hair?"

Ami straightened up as Sakura left the room, rubbing her neck, a thunderous expression settling on her pretty features.

"Now," She said meaningfully, "it's personal, bitch."

Horatio:

He waxes desperate with imagination.

Marcellus:

Let's follow. 'Tis not fit thus to obey him.

Horatio:

Have after. To what issue will this come?

Marcellus:

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

Horatio:

Heaven will direct it.

Marcellus:

Nay, let's follow him. [Exeunt.]

Hamlet Act 1, scene 4, 87–91

"If you can find a way to not screw up, this might be the greatest performance of your lives." Konan said seriously, staring at them all in turn with her intense gaze, "Remember to pause between lines, don't just babble everything you can remember. Allow the lines to come to you naturally, as if you are thinking of them on the spot. Uchiha-san, for Hamlet's soliloquies, you are the sole occupant of the stage. It is your stage at that point, own it and use it. Move around, don't just stand in the centre and mindlessly recite your lines like a poem. Layer every line with sincere emotion, let that seething pot of rage inside you boil over and spit out your lines, and yet whisper lines of love with gentle softness… Hamlet is constantly shifting from one emotion to the other. You need to be able to cope with his mood swings."

"Haruno-san," Konan turned to Sakura, her mouth flickering into a barely-there smile, "I've been sensing intense emotion in your performances lately. Genuine loathing, resentment, jealousy, sadness, rage… I've been impressed. But remember, Ophelia was a sweet, well-meaning girl. Don't try to bring a Katherina flavour to her character. I cast you as Ophelia because you had the ideal naïve, gentle nature required for the role, but you could also handle Ophelia's loss of sanity with impressive flair. Keep at it."

Sakura nodded. Thankfully, Konan had decided her wig was too much, and now allowed her to simply curl her own hair and thread flowers in it for a gentle, feminine look. She wore a long white, lacy dress that went past her knees. It would be smeared with grass stains and soaked for her drowning scene. She was barefoot, to evoke the innocent little-girl feel. This outfit made her feel like she was about to go skipping through meadows and pick flowers.

Sasuke stood next to her, fidgeting in an uncharacteristic show of nerves. He seemed on edge, constantly looking through the gap in the curtains at the audience – or at least, the people who had shown up early to check out the theatre room. Sakura glimpsed a small group of people walking around slowly, and felt a flicker of anticipation. She'd been practicing for this for months now… she had to deliver a perfect performance. Konan expected nothing less than perfection.

"What's your problem?" Sakura whispered to Sasuke, "Nervous?"

His eyebrows half-rose in a quick movement, his expression changing too quickly to complete the last – he went from amused to impassive in two seconds.

Aha. Something was wrong.

"I got a text from Itachi," Sasuke said bluntly, his eyes scanning her face.

Her heart leaped at the sound of his name.

Itachi.

She self-consciously smoothed her hair back, her mind racing at the news. Sasuke never spoke of his brother, not since he'd proposed to Sachiko. All he'd said was that Itachi was a fool and he didn't approve. Sakura, remembering how he disliked Sachiko, knew she had an ally in him against the wedding. The only problem was, she had no intention of stopping it.

Sasuke had found out just how determined she was to stick to her ideals and not break them up when he subtly brought up the idea of her persuading Itachi not to marry Sachiko, and Sakura had laughed in his face.

Was that ever really an option? Sakura pondered this as Sasuke retrieved his phone from his pocket, could she ever bring herself to do that to Sachiko? No, she resolved, feeling relief sinking in. No, she wasn't that far gone yet. As naïve and oblivious as Sachiko was, to steal away her fiancé out of the blue… that would crush the poor, daft woman.

"He's coming here to watch the play," Sasuke showed her his phone, "I'm telling you this because I know you'd freeze or start crying if you saw him in the audience without being warned first."

Sasuke – Sachiko's insisting on coming to your play. I'm coming as well because, once again, she insists. If you say one harsh word to her, I swear I will not even clap for you. I will sit in stony silence. Love and kisses, your caring big brother. xxx

Sakura sighed wearily, "Well… that sounds like him. Why does Sachiko want to come?"

Sasuke glanced through the gap in the curtains again, pulling at his tunic in a reflexive, involuntary movement. "For the same reason I want to stop the wedding."

Sakura made a noise of agreement, rubbing her mouth, "He's digging his own grave with his stupid need to be a good guy."

Sasuke let out a sarcastic huff of laughter, "He's always enjoyed sabotaging himself. Speak of the devil," He pointed through the gap. Sakura stiffened.

Itachi and Sachiko shuffled past the stage, sitting down on the plastic chairs set out for the audience. Itachi looked a little thinner than usual, swamped in a large black overcoat, his glasses perched on his nose. Sachiko was radiant in a modest white dress, sleeves extending just past her wrists so every now and then she would push them up slightly, freeze and then look around guiltily.

She and Sasuke watched them for a while, the other cast members chatting and laughing in the background as they stood apart from the rest of them in grim silence.

"You could stop this easier than I could." Sasuke admitted, turning to her with dark, angry eyes, "You know Itachi's resolve would crumble if you told him you returned his feelings. Have you even told him that yet?"

"Not in so many words," Sakura shrugged helplessly, "There was never a good opportunity. Even whilst confessing to me, he was moaning about how immoral it all was. I could hardly say, oh yeah, totally immoral, by the way I like you back."

"And you're concerned about Sachiko's feelings." Sasuke said flatly, heaving a sigh as he looked at his brother and his fiancée.

"I can't imagine her taking it well."

"I'm sorry to interrupt," Konan said from behind. They both turned, Sasuke looking coolly unruffled, Sakura defensive, "As fascinating as your scheming undoubtedly is, you have a show to perform."

Konan could never quite manage the art of sarcasm. Everything she said sounded bluntly straightforward. She could say that she was a green squirrel with the ability to shoot nuts out of her fingers and it would come across as searing honesty.

"Hamlet and Ophelia," She said, putting a reluctant hand on both of their shoulders, "Do better than your best tonight. I want the audience in tears by the end. Uchiha-san, I'm still disappointed in your lack of enthusiasm for singing."

"Would you sing?" Sasuke muttered angrily.

"If I was instructed to do so for a role, yes." She replied, unbothered by her student's rudeness, "Now get ready for the first scene. Haruno-san, your flowers are askew."

Hamlet:

I'll have grounds

More relative than this—the play's the thing

Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King.

Hamlet Act 2, scene 2, 603–605

Talk to the spotlights, direct your lines above and ignore the audience completely. One look at their faces, one accidental meeting of the eyes, and you are lost, suddenly finding yourself being judged by hundreds of strangers.

Sakura was repeating strings of advice Konan had given her over the months over and over in her mind, committing herself to the teachings, strengthening her posture, breathing in and out like the ocean tide, steady and unrushed.

She walked onto the stage, head held high, an unbroken noble girl now, fake daisies in her hair, a cool white dress swishing at her thighs, the floor hard and cold beneath her bare feet.

Sakura stepped forward, glancing around unhurriedly. She saw a man, older than her, dark hair and matching eyes, leaning forward in his chair in an uncomfortable, forced position. Itachi's eyes met hers.

If Sasuke had expected her to blow up or melt down at the sight of his fool brother who still unfairly held her affections, he must have been disappointed by what actually happened.

Sakura, in the guise of Ophelia, gave him the softest smile she could muster, the spotlights bathing her skin white, an unknown confidence bubbling up inside her. Maybe she was the picture of the naïve girl Itachi had been so reluctant to corrupt, and yet so eager to scoff at, but today she felt on top of the world.

Sachiko caught her eye and waved. Sakura acknowledged the greeting with a brief flutter of her eyelashes, and moved to her allocated spot on stage. Laertes, her stage brother, glanced at her as she took her place. The pieces settled, the game began, words flying like bullets, dramatic hand gestures like striking out at an opponent.

As all of this was going on, the Sakura part of her buried beneath Ophelia was dimly aware of Itachi's attention, his rapt, totally focused face constantly turned to face her figure.

Ever since he had come to her to confess his marriage proposal to Sachiko, she knew two things, one, that she loved Itachi as much as he claimed to love her, and two, she loved him not for the perfect, charming, sarcastic man he pretended to be, but for the cowardly, pessimistic broken mess of a man he truly was. And what does that make her?

As big a fool as he is.

Looking away from his open, captivated face, she shed the last vestiges of herself and stepped into her role.

If she could be like anyone, who would she be? Ophelia the self-sacrificing, sweet-natured girl? It would depend on the nature of her Hamlet.

Hamlet:

I did love you once.

Ophelia:

Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so.

Hamlet:

You should not have believ'd me, for virtue cannot so

inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of it. I lov'd you not.

Ophelia:

I was the more deceiv'd.

Hamlet:

Get thee to a nunn'ry, why woulds't thou be a breeder of

sinners?

Hamlet Act 3, scene 1, 114–121

The Death of the Swan was her swansong, Ophelia's last plaintive cry for her dead father, her lost mother, her spurned love.

The room they were in was large, big enough to fit in a stage and a seating area for at least a hundred people, probably more on a good day. Heavy black curtains blacked out the windows, leaving no natural light whatsoever, the swinging spotlights the only illumination provided. The chairs were the uncomfortable, hard breed that seemed designed to leave the user's backside totally numb after ten minutes sitting down.

Sakura had the stage to herself, her white arms spread out wide as though she wished to embrace the entire audience, her sad, upturned face glittering with tears.

Itachi watched, unaware that his mouth was hanging open or that Sachiko kept casting sad glances his way.

But as Sakura began to sing, her voice tremulously high, indisputably unhinged and otherworldly, Itachi spotted movement from above the stage.

What he saw made him roll his eyes so hard it actually hurt.

That idiotic, purple-headed moronic little bitch. The clichéd trick she was clearly intent of playing was inelegant, ill-planned and just plain stupid. It seemed his last warning had not sunk in.

The girl who Sakura had once slapped was standing on the balcony above the stage, barely visible, struggling to lift a huge vat of red liquid.

He stood, ignoring the irritated mutters of those around him, and began to move between the seats. A hand caught the back of his coat and he turned.

Sachiko looked confused, "What's wrong, Itachi? The toilets are that way, I think."

"Don't panic, but we have a tiny situation and I don't really have time to explain. I'll be back in a bit. Tell me how brilliantly she performed."

He ignored Sachiko's bleating of, "Watch it yourself, you can't just go, not when Saku-chan's performing," with surprising ease, and headed towards the stage.

It was fairly difficult, tearing his eyes away from Sakura so he could begin to climb, unnoticed, up the frame that enclosed the stage, a balcony of wooden planks above where the girl was lurking.

He came across the girl as he carefully, noiselessly, climbed up the ladder and onto the balcony as she worked to lift a huge vat of something red and viscous.

"Dear God, that can't be real blood, can it?" He asked without thinking, horrified.

The girl's head shot up – why couldn't he remember her name? – and she gave him a wide-eyed, shocked stare.

"…It's just sauce. Tomato." She said finally, eyes still wide and frightened.

"How very Carrie of you," He remarked, stomach settled now he knew the vat's contents were harmless, "I suppose you've watched the movie?"

She nodded, backing up slightly.

"Ah, ah," He waggled a finger reprovingly at her, "Don't be too hasty. We're quite high up and I'm sure you wouldn't want to interrupt Sakura's performance by plunging face-first into the stage, though I'm sure it would add a certain drama to it."

"Was that a threat?" She asked, suddenly haughty and unimpressed even in these circumstances.

"No," Itachi elongated the single syllable into a stretching sound, as though he was mulling it over and hadn't quite decided, "Your falling body would probably hit Sakura."

"Well then, by all means," She held her arms out in mocking invitation, "I'd die happy knowing I'd squashed that bitch on my way out."

"Funny," Itachi said, deadpan, "But I'm afraid you're going to have to come down now. Did you have anything else planned for Sakura?"

"Like I'd tell you that." She scoffed, casting the vat a longing look. But she edged past him to the ladder and started to climb down.

Itachi raised an eyebrow at the vat, wondering exactly how this girl had planned to lift it up and tip it over Sakura, considering its weight.

What on earth did they learn in this college?

He climbed down after her, fully aware that if anyone could see them in the shadows they would look ridiculous.

"Right," He said calmly after reaching the floor, reaching out to lightly hold her shoulder. She tensed, looking at him suspiciously. He looked around and smiled, "I'll let you out after the play. Try not to make too much noise, you might scare the spiders."

"Spiders?" She wrinkled her nose, looking bewildered.

He opened the nearby cupboard and pushed her into it unceremoniously, slamming it behind him and trying to look innocuous in case anyone walked past.

"Let me out! I'll pay you!" She shrieked, banging on the door.

He turned the lock.

"Pay me? Very poor choice of bribery. Now, cake, I might have done it for cake."

He walked off, whistling innocently, ignoring the girl's shrieks of, "I'll buy you cake! I'll buy you lots of cake!"

Ophelia:

I hope all will be well. We must be patient: but I

cannot choose but weep, to think they should lay him

i' the cold ground. My brother shall know of it:

and so I thank you for your good counsel. Come, my

coach! Good night, ladies; good night, sweet ladies;

good night, good night.

Hamlet Act 4, scene 5 66-69

Itachi had simply left just as her last song began. Sakura had glanced at him as he walked past the stage, but he hadn't looked up at her.

Her throat tightened and her voice wavered on a high note. Grateful that her character was insane and thus probably not expected to be terribly good at singing, she tried not to freak out.

Where was her confidence? Why was she suddenly incapable of performing to her best standard, as she was certain she had been up until this point? At the back of the audience, standing with her arms crossed, Konan took a step forward to see the stage clearer.

Sachiko watched her with a friendly smile, occasionally waving as though incapable of containing herself.

The spotlights shone down on her harshly. She felt bleached by naked sunlight.

She kept singing Konan's stupid song about feathers and drowning, cursing its length and Itachi for leaving and herself for lacking focus, raising her arms up and down slowly to imitate a swan flapping its wings. Usually, this song made her feel elegant and graceful, but now she may as well have been a plodding duck waddling across the stage.

And suddenly – there, Itachi's dark figure started to make his way back to his seat next to his girlfri – fiancée – and her focus was back.

She smiled at him without thinking, watching as he sat back down, absently patting Sachiko's hand.

And now it was time for Ophelia to die.

She backed away, still singing about her mourning her lost love, eyes glued to Itachi's. She felt a burst of emotion and poured her heart into the song, tipping her head back, eyes still connected with Itachi's, arms outstretched.

And then the spotlights dimmed and she backed offstage. There was a moment of silence and then –

Thunderous applause.

She peeked around the curtain, shocked, as the entire audience leapt to their feet and clapped, cheering and whistling. For her.

Itachi, restrained, controlled Itachi, was on his feet like the rest of them, clapping harder than anyone else, his face bright and proud, his grin wide and sincere. Sachiko clapped next to him, jumping up and down on the spot.

Sakura looked across the stage and saw Sasuke opposite her, standing behind the curtain. He offered her a nod and a short but genuine clap of congratulations.

Horatio:

Now cracks a noble heart. Good-night, sweet prince;

And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

Hamlet, Act V, scene ii

Itachi rose from his seat, clapping wildly. God, it wasn't just him, was it? No, he looked around at the rest of the audience. They were all on their feet, clapping just as enthusiastically as he was. Sakura's performance had been heart breaking; the transformation from innocent maid to suicidal mess was believable and saddening to witness. Sasuke had been electrifying all night, passionate in ways Itachi could never have anticipated, spitting his lines out with fury and drawling sarcastic, witty comments the other actors struggled to keep up with. Itachi could tell that Sasuke was ad-libbing for the most part, throwing in a vaguely Shakespearian-sounding line here and there, an eye-roll or a sardonic smirk for the audience's benefit.

And they loved it.

They sat down for the next scene but after Ophelia was brought on stage with sopping wet clothes, grass stains on her legs and flowers missing from her hair and pronounced dead on the spot, Itachi lost his wild enthusiasm for the play. Now that Sakura was no longer on stage, his interest waned, sparking only when Sasuke said something clever or Claudius popped up (Itachi was a stickler for Shakespeare's villains).

Every now and then someone coughed or a chair leg scraped against the floor. Itachi tapped his foot impatiently, eyes tracking the stage. He really hadn't wanted to come here tonight. He'd enjoyed Sakura's brief performances the few times he'd seen them, but he knew showing up was a terrible idea. But Sachiko had been determined to go, insisting that it was 'Saku-chan's' special day and they needed to be there. She obviously had no idea about why Sakura and Itachi had fallen out (because he'd had to tell her they weren't talking, if he hadn't she would have invited her to dinner a thousand times before she got the message) as he hadn't been able to explain, 'she doesn't think we should be getting married because I don't love you.'

I don't love you. He thought about it, glancing at his fiancée, wife-to-be, supposed love of his life. She was lovely, there was no denying it. She was kind, considerate, caring, beautiful… but he never had anything to say to her, they had nothing in common at all.

He pictured being married to her.

He couldn't do it. Besides Sachiko bouncing around a meadow with three perfectly groomed children, nothing sprung to mind when he tried to picture their married life.

A flash of pink caught his eye.

He turned to see Sakura making her way down the aisle of chairs, accepting various congratulations from audience members. He strained to see where she was heading.

Konan was leaning against the back wall, watching the stage with analytical interest.

Sakura came to stand next to her, beaming, and Konan patted her on the shoulder.

"Excuse me for a minute, dear." Itachi said absently, getting up again to a chorus of complaints from all of those around him.

Sachiko appeared to be about to question him, then she followed his line of sight and saw Sakura. She sat back down in her chair, expression tightening up, her smile fading.

"Oh," She said, her voice very quiet, "OK. See you later."

He negotiated his way through the maze of chairs and irate people, moving closer to Sakura until finally he disentangled his coat from someone's head and tripped right next to her.

"Hello," He said casually, trying not to look flustered, "Konan, Sakura."

Konan raised one perfectly sculptured, pierced eyebrow at him, "Itachi," She said tonelessly, "I heard you've finally been tied down."

Itachi flicked a glance at Sakura's face, unable to stop himself. She looked stricken.

"Yes, I'm marrying Sachiko any day now, it'll be great, I'm looking forward to it." He gabbled, pulling at his collar, which seemed far too restrictive.

"Huh," Konan said blankly, "So what are you doing here? You know you have to pay for tickets to see this performance."

Itachi made a face and took a few bills out of his coat pocket, shoving them at Konan, "Here, take it. I'm here to watch Sasuke perform."

"You seem to have misunderstood the basic premise of watching someone perform." Konan said dryly, "The stage is over there."

Itachi glanced at the stage.

Sasuke was pissing about with some fake-looking sword.

"Hmm," He said, "You know, I think you're right."

"Why are you here?" Sakura interrupted suddenly, her face drawn and sombre.

Itachi's jokey exterior melted away at the sight of her serious expression, "Sachiko wanted to watch you perform," He said quietly, "I didn't know how to refuse her without –" He looked at Konan, who assumed an, 'I'm not listening' expression, " – without making her suspicious."

"I don't need this, Itachi." Sakura said honestly, "I'm tired. You want to be a nice guy, that's fine. But you keep making all of these mistakes and it's other people who suffer because of them. I'm not going to wait for you to realise the mess you're in, I'll move on without you."

"Wait," He ducked down to meet her eyes even as she looked away, her face sullen, defiant, "Move on?"

Konan walked off awkwardly, stage-right.

"Do I have to spell it out for you?" She asked, eyes flashing angrily, "What you don't feel for Sachiko is how I feel about you."

She brushed off Itachi's loose grip and stormed off.

xxxxxxxx

The play had ended and everyone had stood up to clap for ages and ages. Sachiko's palms stung by the end of it, and her face ached from all of the grinning she'd done. It was utterly fantastic, even though she didn't understand most of what was being said, she got the gist of it alright and Sakura had looked very sweet in her dress.

She pushed her chair back, rooting around on the floor for her handbag. Itachi still hadn't come back and she was in the middle of a huge, noisy crowd. Everyone had just exploded into conversation after the play had ended, discussions of who was best and who had messed up going on all around her.

She was just fishing through her bag to find her phone when Sasuke stepped through the crowd and suddenly appeared in front of her.

To his credit, he looked just as surprised as she felt to see her there, so he obviously wasn't looking for her.

"Oh!" She said, startled, "Hi, Sasuke, um… are you looking for Itachi?"

His mouth quirked up in a half-grin at that, "No, not him," He replied easily, "But what are you doing here?"

"It's Saku-chan's night, it's special." Sachiko said firmly.

Sasuke nodded, his eyes dark and unfathomable, "That's why you came?"

She nodded back, a touch defiantly, "Yes, of course. She's my friend."

He winced at that for some reason. "Friend. Of course she is. What did you think of the play?"

"Oh, it was amazing!" She gushed, unable to rein in her enthusiasm, "Saku-chan nearly made me cry and you were brilliant –"

"Was I?" He drawled, tilting his head.

She stuttered to a halt, "Oh, well… Sasuke," She said, her voice suddenly firm, "You have to stop this."

"Stop what?"

"This. This, whatever it is. I think you flirt with me sometimes and it's not appropriate at all." She said, frowning deeply, biting her lip, forgetting her lipstick completely.

Sasuke glanced over in the direction Itachi had disappeared, "There are many things I could say that wouldn't be appropriate at all, especially about my brother. You shouldn't marry him."

"You say that but you don't say why." Sachiko ran a hand through her curls, "He loves me, I love him. He asked me to marry him and since it's just a natural progression of our relationship, I said yes. That's it."

"You just pointed out I flirt with you sometimes," Sasuke stepped closer, "Does that not give you a hint as to why I don't want you to marry my brother?"

"You're just a child, Sasu-"

"What?" He glared at her, "Sasu-chan? Really? I'm eighteen. You are only a few years older than me. Do not call me a child. I'm old enough to marry you, in fact."

She gazed at him, biting her lip, hard. She made a panicky, fluttery motion with her hands, "But it's wrong, don't you see? I couldn't possibly… I'm marrying your brother, it would be awful of me to go off with you… I can't believe I'm even discussing it with you!"

"I'm not asking you to marry me," He said dryly, "I don't make false promises like some people."

"False?" Sachiko drew herself up, furious, "He asked me himself, because he loves me and we've been together –"

"Is that what he told you? Or did he cry about being a bad person, wear a lot of black, quote Chekov at you and you thought he was proposing? He doesn't love you, you stupid woman –"

"Not you, Sasuke," She said, suddenly tearful, "You never treated me like I was stupid."

Sasuke looked surprised, stepping back a bit.

"Sachiko!" Itachi said with false cheer, slipping through the crowd to their side. Sakura, pale-faced, brushed past Sasuke towards the exit.

"Come on, let's go," Itachi smiled at Sachiko, but Sasuke knew his brother well enough to see when he was in pain. Somehow, beneath the smile he looked close to tears.

Sasuke seethed as Sachiko took Itachi's hand even as she looked back at his little brother hesitantly, and Itachi looked over his shoulder at Sakura's retreating back, longing and sadness written all over his face.

"Show's over." Itachi gave Sachiko a quick, one-armed hug, pulling her to the door.

Chapter Text

Itachi is having dinner at the Uchiha Manor tonight. If you think you can talk him out of this farce, please come and do so, because he won't listen to me.

Sasuke.

Sakura stood outside the Uchiha Manor, looking at the exterior of the house speculatively. She still remembered the first time she had visited this place. She had thought herself in love with Sasuke and Sachiko and Itachi were still the most perfect people in the world to her. Now she and Sasuke had an uneasy truce based on mutual understanding and she knew Sachiko was too emotional and Itachi was a spineless, lonely man.

Now, because of Itachi's desperate need to do everything right, he had forced them all into impossible positions – Sasuke hated Sachiko and was going to be forced to endure her becoming a member of his family, Sakura loved Itachi and was going to be forced to watch him marry someone else and Sachiko was marrying someone who she mistakenly believed loved her.

All because Itachi needed to be a good man.

It was the day before the wedding and Sakura's tears had long since dried up.

She had decided the night before as she lay in bed trying to get to sleep. She was not going to let this ruin her life. If Itachi chose to marry Sachiko after all, then she wouldn't break down. She would pity the two of them and then get on with her life.

It was easy enough to declare that she could walk away unhurt from this, but she knew from experience that heartbreak came whether you expected it to or not. Running away wouldn't solve anything.

So she would grit her teeth and bear the pain. She would congratulate the married couple, maybe buy Sachiko some flowers (because she really deserved them), help Sasuke get over his hatred for Sachiko, and wait a few years until the ache in her chest went away.

And in the meantime, she had a few options to distract herself from the pain of losing Itachi. In her pocket lay the business card of a woman who had come to her house after the play and told her she had potential. The woman was a talent scout, and it was the chance Sakura had been waiting for.

Sakura looked up at the sky.

It was white with clouds, not a hint of blue showing. The wind had a chilly bite to it that made her instinctively think of snow.

"So, Mum," She said quietly, eyes on the sky, "I'm going to make you proud. I'm going to follow my dream. And I won't lose myself along the way, don't worry."

Then she took a deep breath to give her courage and pulled the cord next to the grand entrance door. She heard a deep tolling sound ring through the house.

Mikoto answered the door.

"Sakura-chan!" She said brightly, her smile slightly forced, "Are you here to see Sasuke?"

"No," Sakura said brusquely as if she wasn't terrified of what she was doing, invading the Uchiha manor, "I think you know who I'm here to see."

"He is getting married tomorrow." Mikoto said coldly, "He doesn't need you messing things up for him."

"What could I mess up?" Sakura asked, triumphantly crowing inside. She knew Fugaku would have told Mikoto all about what a filthy little homewrecker she was, "He's my friend. If he really wants to get married, he will. He's a big boy after all. Makes his own decisions."

Mikoto gave her a look of pure poison, "I believed you were a nice girl when you first came round here."

"I never pegged you for a criminal." Sakura said pointedly. No way was this woman accusing her of anything when she was responsible for at least fifty percent of Itachi's screwed up nature.

Mikoto actually laughed, "I don't know what my sons have told you, but I have never committed a crime in my life."

"You've been party to some." Sakura smiled nastily at her, "Or are you trying to tell me you had no idea what Fugaku was doing?"

"My wife and I share everything." Fugaku's voice rumbled down the hall, and then his broad shape appeared.

Despite herself, Sakura shrank back. Fugaku had sneered at her house and made it clear he thought of her as nothing more than a skanky tramp who wasn't good enough for either of his sons.

She felt a hand on her shoulder and a whisper, clear as day, in her ear, You're my smart, beautiful little princess and I just know you'll grow into that wonderful woman one day.

She closed her eyes and laughed wryly. She turned around and looked up at the sky.

It didn't matter what they thought of her. She was her own person and she wasn't going to change for anyone.

"Oh yeah?" Sakura replied, baring her teeth in an almost-smile as Fugaku bore down on her, "Did she keep lookout for you?"

"You aren't welcome here." Fugaku isn't even bothering to hide behind a pretence of politeness, just scowls hard down at her in a way that makes her think she threatens him somehow. Or his plans, at least.

"I'm sorry to hear that. But I've been invited to come here. I can leave and come back another time, if you like – "

"Come in, Sakura." Sasuke said, standing on the stairs in the middle of the entrance hall.

" – I'll just be coming in, then –" She said smugly, slipping lithely past Fugaku's surprised form, ignoring Mikoto's outraged noise.

"Come up to my room first." Sasuke said casually and even though they were only going to make nefarious plots to bring down the dreaded wedding Sakura's stomach still did a giddy little flip at being invited into Uchiha Sasuke's bedroom. So yeah. She's still a little pathetic.

"I want that door left open!" Mikoto called up the stairs half-heartedly.

Sakura turned slightly as she travelled up the stairs and treated the irritated Uchiha parents to a saucy wink, chuckling at Mikoto's immediate paling.

"I think your mother believes I have designs on your person." Sakura informed Sasuke as they crossed the large landing.

Sasuke just shrugged because he was a handsome bastard and frankly, she couldn't think of anyone who didn't want to jump his bones. Maybe Ino, she seemed to have zero interest in him.

"You did, once." Sasuke said shamelessly, opening a polished door and slipping into the room.

"It's OK," Sakura followed him in, "You come up with a new way to remind me why I never went there every single day."

Sasuke's room was just as dull and monochrome as Itachi's, the only difference being that he had a bunk bed. The top bunk had an orange blanket, oddly enough, and a worn, old frog toy lying on the pillow. The carpet was soft and black and so devoid of typical boy-messes like crumbs that Sakura suspected Mikoto assaulted it with a vacuum cleaner daily.

"So, where's Itachi?" She asked, lowering her voice unnecessarily.

Sasuke rolled his eyes, "You do have it bad. He's downstairs somewhere, I don't know. He might still be writing his vows."

Sakura winced. Handwritten vows?

"I'm not having an affair with him, you know. He only kissed me once and I wasn't very happy about it."

"I believe you." Sasuke sat down on his bed and yawned lazily.

Sakura looked around awkwardly for somewhere to sit, really not wanting to squeeze in the bunk next to him, and finally settled for sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of him.

"So, why do you want to stop them getting married so badly? You can't hate Sachiko that much." Sakura asked curiously.

Sasuke gave a snarky little laugh at that, tugging his hand through the dark spikes of his hair.

"You're right. I don't hate her at all."

"Then… why…?"

"Why don't you want Itachi to marry Sachiko?"

"Because I love him." Sakura said with absolute conviction then froze. She had never said that out loud before. She had never really even acknowledged it to herself.

"Oh God. I'm so pathetic." She put her head in her hands.

"Then I'm just as pathetic as you." Sasuke drawled, "Because I don't want Sachiko to marry Itachi."

She slowly lifted her head, "I'm sorry – what?"

He didn't elaborate, just stared at her with slightly raised eyebrows, allowing the little bomb he'd dropped to detonate.

"You love Sachiko." Sakura stated. "SACHIKO. SHE OF THE FLAGRANT STUPIDITY."

"I may have overstated my hatred of her." Sasuke said casually, "I didn't exactly want Itachi to know I liked his girlfriend, after all."

"I am very confused." Sakura said blankly.

"I know. Unlike you, I didn't shout it from the rooftops, so I can see why it surprised you."

"You made her cry, you called her stupid…"

"She isn't as weak as she seems." Sasuke said with a touch of defensiveness in his tone, "She wouldn't have cried if you called her stupid. She thought I hated her."

"Does she like you back?"

All this time Fugaku and Mikoto had been worried about Sakura ruining their son's perfect relationship when all along Sasuke was the filthy little homewrecker!

"She's never said anything. But I know she does." Sasuke said nonchalantly.

Sakura was seized with a sudden desire to plead with him to teach her his all-knowing ways so she too could possess the power of perceiving when someone actually liked her.

"All this time… I've felt so guilty for liking Itachi and him liking me and argh! She likes you! I don't get this at all…"

"She wouldn't cheat on Itachi with me and you wouldn't let Itachi cheat on her with you." Sasuke pointed out.

"Wow. This is… complicated… No, wait, do you think Sachiko would leave Itachi for you?"

"No." Sasuke said bluntly. "She isn't as naïve as you think, by the way. She has some idea of what's going on between you and Itachi, but she still thinks she'd be breaking Itachi's heart if she left him. Would Itachi leave Sachiko for you?"

"Oh my God this is so weird. I can't believe we're even discussing this. No, I don't think he would. He's still hung up on being a nice guy, I guess. We really fail at being homewreckers."

"What?"

"Nothing. Um, what if –"

"Sasuke, do you have a pen? I broke mine –"

Itachi barrelled straight into the room holding a broken pen aloft and a crumpled, screwed up piece of paper by his side.

He immediately stared at Sakura, sitting on the floor looking majorly out of place.

He stumbled somehow whilst standing stock still and gawped at her openly.

"Hi there." She said feebly, just as shocked as him by his sudden appearance.

Sasuke gave an annoyed tuh, "Go buy your own fucking pen."

Itachi's face crumpled suddenly and he whirled around, hands in his hair, "What are you doing here? I can't do this." He said helplessly.

"You really can." Sasuke chimed in.

"Please do." Sakura requested.

Itachi sighed, rubbing his forehead like he was in for a serious headache later, and said, "OK, Sasuke, out of the room now."

"This is my room." Sasuke grumbled but was already off the bed and making his way out. He turned and gave Sakura a meaningful look, as if to say don't screw up.

Itachi closed the door behind him and stood in front of Sakura. He paced a bit and then, seeming to decide something, plonked himself down on the floor next to her.

"Please don't marry Sachiko." Sakura said pleadingly. Now that she was here, saying the words, it hit her what exactly she was doing and how big it was. She, an eighteen year old nobody - a smart, beautiful little princess, she repeated her mother's words savagely to herself – trying to come between a twenty-something year old man and his perfect fiancée…

"It's the day before my wedding," Itachi replied, and something in his voice sounded like a plea too, "You had to do this now? Not weeks ago? Not back when I first told you I loved you?"

"How could I, when you were with someone else, someone sweet and lovely and…"

"So what's changed?" Itachi said urgently, "Sachiko is still sweet and lovely, as far as I know."

Sasuke and Sachiko are in love, Sakura thought. That's what changed.

A little flicker of doubt crossed her mind. Sachiko had never told Sasuke she loved him back. She wanted to marry Itachi, she'd said yes when he asked her, she'd not backed out at all and seemed so happy to be with him…

"You don't love her." Sakura said simply, because that was the important thing.

His face crumpled and he squeezed his fist up against his mouth, his words coming out muffled and desperate, "I just want to be a good person. I don't know how to do that."

"This isn't the way. You can't be perfect, no one is –"

"You are the one who wanted to be perfect!" Itachi argued, "What happened to the shy girl with dreams of being popular?"

"Maybe I grew up." Sakura said, refusing to rise to the bait, "You should probably do the same. I can't fix this for you. I can't tell Sachiko why your marriage won't work. All I can do is ask you to think about what you really want. Would you be happy if tomorrow, everything worked out fine, you married Sachiko, spent a few months with her and realised you couldn't do it? Aren't you tired of living a lie? Being a good little boy for your father instead of living for yourself like the grown man you actually are? Putting on a mask to charm people, never being honest with anyone, especially not yourself… You are never going to be happy if you just do what you think other people want you to do! Especially when that person doesn't have your best interests at heart!"

Itachi stared at her.

"You can be lonely inside a crowd." Sakura said slowly, "If you go ahead with this, you don't just lose me. You lose Sasuke. I don't know how many friends you've got, but you only have one brother and I know you care about him more than you let on. You'll have Sachiko for as long as you can convince her you love her and that marrying her was the best thing that ever happened to you. You'll have your dad's approval, for whatever that's worth, or however long it lasts. This is your mistake and no one can fix it but you."

"I just… I don't know if I can tell her…" Itachi said honestly, his voice sounding hoarse and broken, thick with unshed tears.

"You need to be honest with her for once. She doesn't deserve to be treated like a child that needs to be protected from everything. You approached her, flirted with her, asked her out, asked her to marry you. It has all been you. You started this, you need to finish it. She won't make it easy for you."

"God, I've been… just terrible. What have I been doing? I just thought… I thought you were so young… haven't even finished college yet. Still a kid, really. But you were smart and funny and I hadn't been able to talk to someone so easily for a long time. Beautiful, talented, kind… self-deprecating. You reminded me a little of me. Ha. I wanted to help you out with Sasuke but right from the start, it bothered me that you might be together one day. When I finally figured out why it bothered me, I felt like I had been manipulating you, messing you around with Sasuke for my own means, just so I could see you more. I didn't think I was good for you, so even if you reciprocated my feelings, I couldn't do anything about it. I didn't know what to do… I felt so torn… I've made mistakes before. Big ones. They nearly cost me my family. Risking it all… I'm not capable…" Itachi broke off from his long speech, his head dropping down dejectedly.

"What are you risking? What you stand to lose from this, is Sachiko and your parents. Is keeping them happy really worth making you unhappy?"

"Oh, when did you get so wise?" Itachi laughed, "I thought of you as my student, someone I could teach, when it turns out you've always been smarter than me. But I love my parents. I care for Sachiko. It isn't as simple as you say, black and white, Sachiko and my parents or you and Sasuke."

"It's as simple as marry her or don't. You need to at least consider –"

"Itachi."

Itachi's head shot up at the sound of his father's voice.

Fugaku's frowning face came into view, his hands bracing himself on the doorframe as he leant into the room, "I want a word with you."

"We're talking." Sakura glared at him.

"Don't push your luck." Fugaku returned her look with a venomous glare of his own, "Itachi. Now."

Sasuke hovered in the hallway behind his father, scowling furiously.

"Five minutes." Sakura said, pushing herself up to her feet, surprised at her authoritative tone, "I'm not done talking to him myself."

"You don't tell me how long I have to talk to my own son!"

"Five minutes." Itachi said calmly, his eyes dry, voice steady.

Fugaku moved out of the way so Sakura could pass, stopping her by lightly grabbing her shoulder.

"Do not interfere in our business, little girl." He said coldly.

"Not little," She returned, shaking herself free, "And it is completely my business. Anything that involves Itachi is my business."

Fugaku slammed Sasuke's door shut behind him, ignoring her last statement.

"You have a lovely father." Sakura told Sasuke, grimacing at him.

"I know. How did you do with Itachi?"

"He isn't listening. He's afraid of telling Sachiko, of upsetting everyone."

Sasuke hesitated, thinking. "Maybe I should just tell Sachiko. It's simpler that way."

"He doesn't get off that easily! This is his mistake, his responsibility! Besides, would she even believe you?"

"She'd believe you." Sasuke's gaze was steady and confident, "You're her friend, and you're part of the reason."

"But he needs to do this himself –"

"This isn't some kind of test," Sasuke hissed, "The longer this goes on, the less chance we have of stopping this. Divorce is messy and painful for everyone involved. Do you want that?"

"…No." Sakura closed her eyes. "Shit. Does it have to be me?"

"She'd just think I was trying to break them up. It's worth you giving it a shot."

"Do you… do you really like her?" Sakura asked with genuine curiosity.

Sasuke eyed her with confusion, then straightened up, pulling his phone out of his pocket, "Yes."

"I just didn't see it coming at all. The two of you are total opposites, you know?"

"She tries to cook even though she's no good at it." Sasuke said resignedly, as if he knew she wanted details, "She's enthusiastic about everything. When she compliments someone she means it. She's honest and she couldn't hide her feelings if you put a gun to her head. Everyone in this damn house is fake. She's… not."

Sakura gave him a wide grin, "Wow, this is so weird! You do realise you and Itachi liked each other's girlfriends, huh?"

"You were never my girlfriend." Sasuke rolled his eyes.

"As good as!" Sakura said, stung, "You introduced me to your parents! Oh, God… you didn't do that to make Sachiko jealous, did you?"

Sasuke turned around, tapping buttons on his phone, "Shut up, I'm calling her."

"Sasuke and Sachiko, sitting in a tree…" Sakura sang under her breath.

"Shut. Up. Now," Sasuke gave her a fierce scowl, then looked startled, blushing, "Oh, Sachiko? I know. No, I don't want that. Look, come round to the house. Itachi and Sakura are here. I'm trying to sort this all out… Are you… it's just, you sound calm… OK. No, I'm not – Fine, just get over here quickly. Itachi's got something to say to you." He made eye contact with Sakura, nodding seriously.

She sighed.

xxxxxxxx

So drinking tea with Mikoto was weird.

"Is it good?" Mikoto asked politely, no trace of her earlier antagonism in her mannerisms now.

Sakura took a sip from the china cup, savouring the tea's beautiful scent, "It's yummy!" She declared, smiling despite herself.

"Jasmine tea." Mikoto informed her, "My personal favourite."

Sasuke sat on the sofa next to Sakura, his own cup untouched, his foot tapping restlessly. He kept shooting the door anxious glances.

Itachi still hadn't come downstairs.

Sakura gave Sasuke a worried look. He nodded, acknowledging her concern.

"Mikoto-san," Sakura turned to Sasuke's mother, who stood before them, making a show of dusting the mantelpiece, "I don't want to start an argument, but I can't help noticing… Fugaku-san seems to really want Itachi to marry Sachiko. Before, it didn't seem like he approved of her that much, so…"

"We were never really sure what he was doing with her," Mikoto said quietly, eyes on the mantelpiece, "Fugaku told me to leave him to make his own mistakes. He didn't want us to interfere."

Sakura sat in silence, the tea settling in the cup, the warmth leeching into her hands.

There was a creak on the stairs and Sasuke's head shot up.

Itachi opened the living room door and peered in. There was a livid red mark blooming on his cheekbone.

Mikoto let out a breath and clenched her hand around the cloth she was using to polish the ornaments.

"What happened?!" Sakura asked furiously, standing up, hands on her hips.

Itachi shook his head in warning, but started in surprise as a deep tolling sound filled the house. The doorbell.

Sasuke's phone buzzed in his hand. He didn't even look at it, staring as Fugaku came down the stairs after Itachi.

There was a moment of tense silence.

"I'll get it." Sakura volunteered, standing up and placing her cup neatly onto the polished table.

Surprisingly, no one tried to stop her as she crossed the entrance hall and made for the door.

Sachiko stood outside, a big fluffy coat covering her up, her cheeks rosy from the cold.

She blinked at Sakura, then gave her the saddest look of understanding possible.

"Itachi wanted to tell me something." Sachiko said, then winced. She had no reason to feel the need to justify her presence in her boyfriend's house to Sakura, after all.

God, this was all so fucked up.

"Want to go for a walk?" Sakura asked, trying her best to smile at the woman despite the raging churn of guilt bitterness sadness anger in her stomach, almost overcome from the intense rush of emotion.

Sachiko nodded, putting her phone back in her pocket.

Sakura glanced back at the house as she shut the front door behind her. Sasuke was staring out of the window. She waved subtly at him, Sachiko already turned away to walk down the icy path. He nodded.

Sakura followed the girl down the road, trying not to notice the shaking of her shoulders underneath her big, fuzzy coat.

xxxxxxxx

They ended up in a playground, standing next to a frozen lake. Sachiko stared down at her frozen reflection with a complex, unreadable expression on her face.

"I used to be overweight." Sachiko said quietly, so quietly that Sakura had to move closer to hear her, "I was bullied a lot because of it. The other kids told me I was ugly as well as fat. I wasn't good at school, I couldn't do the work like everyone else could. I never got better at school but I lost weight and found out how to do makeup and my hair. I always liked clothes, I liked looking in glossy magazines my mum would leave around the house, see the pretty dresses I could never wear. When I got thin, I got a job making dresses. Most of the time, they were wedding dresses. And… suddenly, I was stuck looking at dresses I would never wear again."

Sakura couldn't look at her, not when it was obvious she had started to cry. Instead, she watched the slick blur of her face move on the ice, her hand reaching up to wipe her eyes.

And then she was pulling her coat sleeve back and Sakura had to look.

Sachiko had silvery scars, neat, regimented, all above the cluster of blue veins in her wrist. Her arm was literally covered in the faded lines.

"When people tell you you're ugly, you believe them," Sachiko said softly, "I could never stop believing them."

For some reason, all Sakura could think of was one of the first conversations she had ever had with Itachi.

"How do you know they don't struggle with their self-esteem?" Itachi had asked when she spoke jealously of confident, beautiful people.

"I'm sorry, Sachiko." Sakura said sincerely, her voice trembling.

Their reflections shimmered as the sun came out from behind the clouds.

Sakura's breath came out in little puffs of mist. Her fingers stung from the bitter wind until she stuck them in her pockets.

"You love Itachi, don't you?" Sachiko asked, swallowing nervously, still wiping her eyes.

"…I think I do." Sakura replied after a long, tense pause. "I really am sorry. About everything."

"I am too," Sachiko pulled her sleeve back down, shivering, "I love him too, you know."

"What about Sasuke?"

Sachiko shot her a look at that. "I don't know. I really don't. I wish I did."

"Do you want to marry Itachi?"

"Yes," Sachiko replied, and Sakura's breath whooshed out of her in shock but then she continued, "I want to wear the dress I didn't have to make for someone else. I want to stand at an altar and know the man standing next to me loves me and only me. I want to be happy."

Sakura's eyes stung. She looked up at the grey and white clouds covering the sky, lost for words.

"But it's not going to happen." Sachiko said thoughtfully, "Not with Itachi."

"Sasuke loves you." Sakura said, trying to ease the pain the older woman was clearly in.

"I guess that's something," Sachiko laughed through her tears, "It's a shame my fiancé doesn't feel that about me instead."

"What are you going to do?"

"Go home. Cry as much as I need. Call my Mum, tell her the wedding's cancelled, hope she's happy to deal with the fallout. Cry some more." Sachiko's mouth trembled, bare of lipstick, and she let out a little despairing sound.

Sakura couldn't hold herself back, she threw her arms around Sachiko and sobbed out, "I am so sorry, please don't – p-please don't hate me, I never wanted this, not ever!"

She felt Sachiko tense in surprise but her thin arms slowly reached up to clutch Sakura back. She smelled like flowers and spice, a rich, mature kind of perfume Sakura still felt too young to wear.

"I'd like to be your friend, still, if that's OK," Sachiko breathed out, a trace of hope in her voice, "I'd miss you."

"I should be the one asking you that." Sakura laughed out shakily, "I'll always be your friend, Sachiko."

Sachiko hugged Sakura tighter.

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Somehow, when she walked back to the Uchiha manor, streaks of dark blue and red mingling in the sky, she felt as though she had grown up in that one moment, next to a frozen lake and a broken woman. She felt like she understood more, a quiet kind of confidence slotting neatly into place where her doubts and insecurities used to lie.

She had not asked for this. She had never wanted to be the cause of someone's relationship breaking up, least of all a friend. But it had happened, despite her wishes, and she couldn't take it back.

Sasuke answered the door.

"Sachiko needs you." Sakura said without preamble.

He barrelled past her, already whipping his phone out.

"See you later, then." She called after him, rolling her eyes fondly.

She stepped into the house, wiping her feet on the welcome mat automatically. The entrance hall was dark and silent, all polished wood and dim lighting. She could hear murmuring voices coming from the living room.

She pushed the door open slowly to reveal Itachi sitting on the sofa where she had previously sat, Mikoto uselessly scrubbing at the mantelpiece and Fugaku residing over court, standing over Itachi.

Sakura cleared her throat.

Mikoto gasped and nearly dropped the ugly porcelain clown she was holding. Fugaku turned slightly, his face grim and drawn. Itachi didn't look up, his hands squeezed tight in his lap, the red mark on his face still there.

"Itachi, we need to talk. Again. Outside." Sakura said firmly, not looking at the very frightening Fugaku or the frantically cleaning Mikoto.

Itachi looked up at her from the sofa, his hands clenched together. He stood without a word, and followed her out.

She led him outside, where snow had just begun to fall softly, the world a blur of white shapes.

"So I was going to show up at the church and drag you out if came to it," Sakura said honestly, "But I decided to do the grown up thing."

Itachi just looked at her.

"…Well… being a grown up sucks sometimes." She continued, feeling a warmth flood her eyes and spill over her cheeks, "I feel like I just befriended a puppy, earned its trust, then kicked it in the face."

"You told Sachiko."

"I did."

"Why?"

"You weren't going to. And you weren't the only one who'd be affected if you got married. It would hurt her too, to find out later."

Itachi exhaled, one pale hand reaching up to cover the red mark on his cheekbone. "It should have been me to tell her. I should have at least been there when she was told."

"It wouldn't have helped. Sasuke's with her now."

"Sasuke? Oh. I see. I thought he might…"

"Sachiko is going to go home and call her mother. Her mother is going to cancel the wedding, and handle everything. How are your parents going to react?"

"My father…" Itachi's face looked sore in the cold, fading light of day, "He will not be happy."

"Then I'll be the one to tell him." Sakura said decisively.

"No." Itachi grabbed her shoulders, suddenly fierce, "You can't do everything for me. And I don't want you near him, not ever. I'll tell him myself."

"I'm not stupid, Itachi, he hit you today –"

"He won't do it again. Not in front of my mother."

"Oh well, that's alright then! He must be a great guy after all, he hides his abuse from his wife, how very selfless!" Sakura was spitting mad, "No, I'll tell him and if he tries to lay a finger on me I swear to God the mood I'm in, I will break it!"

Itachi smiled slowly, his eyes crinkling upwards, "Do you realise something, Sakura?"

"Huh? No.."

He darted forward and planted a kiss on her mouth, grinning madly.

Sakura felt her lips tingle in response to the sudden warmth, her whole body flushing as she realised what had just happened.

"I'm not getting married tomorrow," Itachi said, still wearing that wide, uncharacteristic grin, "And you aren't pining after Sasuke."

"Ha," Sakura scrubbed at her flushing cheeks, suddenly horribly embarrassed and yet impossibly pleased at the same time, "So you aren't mad about me telling Sachiko…?"

"No, not really, but it's impossible to get mad at you anyway. You just did what I couldn't, I know I'm going to have deal with this, have a long conversation with Sachiko about everything and sort it all out." Itachi said firmly, his voice even and stern, "And now, I'm going to go inform my mother she bought a splendid new hat for nothing and that my father wasted money on a wedding that will never happen."

Sakura thought about protesting, thought about grabbing him by the sleeve, pulling him back, but it felt too much like holding him back from progress. Itachi had been held back ever since he was a teenager, still young and unsure, and never allowed to mature.

So she linked her arm in his and fell into step with him, "We'll tell them together."

Itachi looked down at her and smiled wryly. He dropped a dry, chaste kiss on top of her head and led her back into the manor.

Chapter Text

The Uchihas stood in silence in the living room, Mikoto's mouth twisting worriedly as they walked in, Fugaku ignoring them both completely.

"Mother, Father," Itachi looked between them both, taking a deep breath to steel himself, "The wedding between Sachiko and I is off."

Mikoto just closed her eyes and turned away, but Fugaku slammed the side of his fist against the wall, his eyes glinting like hard chips of onyx, "I knew you would do something like this!"

Sakura squared her shoulders, returning Fugaku's glare with a vicious one of her own, but Itachi laid a hand on her shoulder and smiled down at her.

"I truly am sorry for the inconvenience, the waste of money and the shame this may bring the family. But this is what I want. I proposed to Sachiko out of desperation, wanting to finally make you proud of me again, to do something right for a change. But Sakura made me realise that what I considered 'right' was selfish. I have caused many people pain because I didn't believe I deserved to be happy. Now, I am not saying I am the perfect person for Sakura. I know I'm not. I know that there are a thousand men out there who are kinder, wiser, better for her. But because of what she has taught me, I'm know I have the right to try my utmost to make her happy despite that. I love Sakura and somehow, miraculously, she feels the same way. I've made my choice and I hope you can respect that." Throughout his speech, Itachi's voice was calm and steady, but on his last sentence it hardened, his expression firm.

His parents stood in silence. Sakura took Itachi's hand, wanting to comfort him. His grip tightened when Mikoto turned back to face them.

"How is Sachiko?" She asked.

"She's a little upset," Sakura said, ignoring Fugaku's incredulous snort, "but she agreed the marriage would be a mistake."

"Then there isn't a problem," Mikoto said calmly, "We'll ring around, let everyone know what's happened. I'm sure we can get refunds on most of the wedding gifts. I just want you to be happy, Itachi," Her expression softened and she took a step towards them, putting her hands on Itachi's shoulders, "If Sakura can make you happy, I'll support you both no matter what."

"Mikoto!" Fugaku sounded disgusted, but Itachi wasn't having any of it.

"And Father, I have a proposition for you. Well, actually it's more like a threat. I want you to stop dealing with stolen goods. I want you to stop dealing with anything criminal at all. Before you scoff, as is your wont, here is your threat: if you don't stop, I will take the extensive evidence I have gathered over the years to the police, and I will gladly see you go to jail for everything you have done. I'm giving you a chance here. Don't blow it." Itachi stood up straighter and Sakura noticed for the first time that he was taller than his father.

Fugaku had gone pale, pulling at his collar as though it was choking him.

"Like I said," Mikoto said carefully, "I'll support you no matter what." She took his arm and smiled.

"Thank you." Itachi said, placing his hand over hers.

"How could you do this to me, after all I've done for you –" Fugaku began furiously.

"Easily," Itachi snapped, "It is because of what you have done for me that I am doing this. You need to learn that I am not a puppet you can bend at your will. I will have no more to do with your company. I'm going to begin training to become a teacher."

"B-but –"

"That's all," Itachi said firmly, "I'm not going to change my mind. Thank you again, Mother. Come on, Sakura."

As they left the room, Fugaku looking purple and incensed, Sakura heard Mikoto say very quietly, "And I want a divorce."

They shut the door behind them and stepped out together.

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Tenten was jogging on the spot by the time Ino got to the meeting place, outside the music shop in the mall. She fought her way through the crowd to get to the girl with trademark buns, dodging a man wearing dark red lipstick and a fabulous sheer blouse – she got distracted wondering where he got it from – and finally came to stand next to Tenten, slightly out of breath.

"You do realise you look like a crazy person, right?" Ino panted, glancing at Tenten's sports gear, "Who exercises at the mall?"

"People with a set fitness routine," Tenten said placidly, unruffled by Ino's incredulity, "Can you see Sakura yet?"

"No but it'll only be a matter of time, she's fairly easy to spot – aha! I got her. Pink hair by the hot dog stand, next to a rather yummy-looking man – oh my God it's Sasuke's brother." Ino stood on her tiptoes, straining to see Sakura with Itachi on the other side of the court.

"What?!" Tenten looked wildly around, looking for a tell-tale flash of pink, "I told him to stay away from her!"

"Why? He's yummy."

"And taken! Priorities, Ino! Get some!"

"They're looking pretty cosy." Ino smirked, looking like the cat that got the cream.

She was right. Itachi had an arm around Sakura as they walked against the flow of people. Sakura looked up at him with a big, happy grin and he looked down at her, his gaze soft and fond.

"Oi!" Ino yelled, waving furiously, "You guys! Over here!"

Sakura looked up and smiled. Itachi looked nervously at Tenten, edging a little behind Sakura as they both walked towards them.

"So," Tenten began when they were in earshot, "You decided –"

"I called you two here today because we need to have a chat." Sakura interrupted, lacing her fingers through Itachi's, "First, you guys should know that Itachi and I are together now – " Ino squealed, jumping up and down, " – and Ino is obviously very happy about that. Second, I've been informed about both of you interfering in my life. I get that you guys want the best for me. That makes me really happy. But please realise I am an adult and this is my life. I make my decisions and my own mistakes. I don't need to be regulated or monitored. I appreciate your concern, I really do, so thanks."

And then she smiled, a full, genuinely happy smile that lit up her whole face in a way Tenten hadn't seen for years.

Tenten looked at Itachi and understood.

"I'm sorry, Sakura," She said sincerely, "I just wanted to help. I was afraid he was using you. I can see he makes you happy now."

Ino slung her arm around Tenten's shoulder, "All worked out for the best, didn't it?"

Sakura made a face at her and laughed when she stuck her tongue out in reply, "Yeah, I guess."

"Oh!" Ino suddenly gave a surprised gasp, staring over Itachi's shoulder.

Sai stood behind them, holding a hat in his hands. He nervously fiddled with it, his pale fingers shaking against the blue cloth.

"Sai…" Ino gave a sincere smile at the sight of him.

"I know you didn't want to see me in public," Sai began, his mouth trembling as he spoke, "But I just saw you from the escalator and I couldn't ignore you…"

Ino pushed past Itachi and Sakura and yanked Sai into an open-mouthed kiss, her eyes squeezed shut, his wide open.

"You idiot!" She said fiercely after she'd pulled back, "I love you, you total moron! I'm not ashamed of you! I don't care who sees us together, I was just worried about how people would treat you if they knew about us."

Sai blinked, his cheeks red.

Itachi looked baffled by the drama unfolding before him.

Sakura was grinning ear to ear.

"…Really?" Sai said eventually, looking poleaxed.

"Totally! In fact, let's go on a date right now! There's a cinema down the street from here, I'll buy the popcorn if you choose the movie." Ino wrapped her arms around him, smiling right in his face.

Sai made a strangled noise of relief and his head lightly hit Ino's shoulder, hugging her back silently.

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They went for cake. Tenten insisted she had something had to do and rushed off, her cheeks flushed. Sakura suspected it was something to do with Neji.

"You look very smug." Sakura commented, sipping her black coffee.

Itachi ate his cherry cake with an unholy amount of relish, licking the cream off his fork with a happy hum, "I bought the same cake last time," He said between mouthfuls, "Because it reminded me of you."

Sakura blushed stupidly and stared at the contents of her mug.

"I was pining," Itachi continued mournfully, "Because you were so lovely and sarcastic and sassy and I couldn't even be friends with you because everyone kept assuming I was taking advantage –"

"What, like Tenten?"

"Uh huh. And Sasori and Konan… and your father gave me the filthiest of looks. You have no idea how freeing it is, not to have to distance myself. I feel like a weight's lifted. I don't feel guilty anymore whenever I think about how pretty you are." Itachi smiled at her across the table, as sweet as his cake surely tasted.

Sakura felt her face grow even hotter and clamped her mouth shut, afraid of saying something embarrassing.

"Uh, any news on Sachiko and Sasuke?" She asked instead, hoping he wouldn't notice her desperate attempts to change the subject.

"He left her alone after the engagement broke up, to make sure she wasn't just looking for a rebound and then visited her to make his intentions known, in a very blunt and Sasuke-like way."

"What, like, 'Sachiko. I've noticed you are attracted to me. I am also attracted to you. Not only that, but I believe we would have attractive children together. Let us increase our chances of favourable offspring'?" Sakura tried to picture it any other way and failed.

"And then he grabbed her in front of her mother and planted a big one on her," Itachi winked, "He said she nearly fainted in shock."

"They make…" Sakura shook her head, "the single most weirdest couple in the history of everything."

"I dunno, I was not expecting your little Ino friend to wrap herself around that pale boy like she did."

"Ino and Sai go together surprisingly well actually. I think you and me aren't that bad either," She joked, drinking her coffee and giving a little sigh of pleasure, "I think we fit quite nicely."

Itachi took her hand and rested his forehead against it, sighing, "I agree. And we have a great story of how we got together to tell the grandkids."

Sakura sputtered, dripping coffee down her chin.

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Three years later:

"I brought homemade mince pies!" Sachiko declared after Sakura opened the door, Sasuke standing beside her, barely recognisable in the thick, woollen jumper Sachiko had clearly made for him. It was a little ragged and threadbare, as though it was worn often and well-loved.

"Uh, did you make them…?"

"Oh, no. But they are homemade!" Sachiko's smile was brilliant, "And delicious!"

"Come in, come in," Sakura remembered her manners, waving them all in, stepping out of the way, "Itachi actually cleaned the apartment specially, so take your shoes off."

Sachiko nearly tripped, trying to hook a finger underneath her shoe's straps to take it off, her other arm laden with heavy bags full of mince pies and Christmas presents. Sasuke held her elbow steady to keep her upright. She smiled at him in thanks, finally yanking her heels off, wiggling her toes with a relieved sigh.

"Who got here before us?" Sasuke asked, pointing at the neat pile of shoes by the living room door.

"Tenten and Neji arrived first, then Ino and Sai. Mikoto's been here since morning, she's been prepping dinner for hours. She kicked us out of the kitchen because we kept trying to taste her ingredients." Sakura replied, helping Sasuke out of his coat, smirking at the Christmas tree jumper.

"Do I hear visitors?" Itachi called over the sound of the radio, a woman singing about what she wanted for Christmas (you).

"You do indeed!" Sakura yelled back, opening the door to let everyone in.

Ino was sitting in Sai's lap, a glass of sherry lolling in her careless grip, tinsel in her hair. Sai was showing her a video on his phone.

Tenten and Neji shared a sofa, her legs tucked against his side, his hand on her waist. She was smiling at him, playfully kicking him lightly. He gave her a stern look, captured her foot and started kneading it between his hands.

Itachi greeted his little brother with an energetic headlock, rubbing his knuckles against his skull, "Sasuke! Nice to see you out of the house for a change. Glad you could make it."

He released his scowling brother and enfolded Sachiko into a friendly hug, "And Sachiko! Every party is brighter with you in it."

She rolled her eyes and laughed, her manicured nails against his back as returned the hug. Her wedding ring sparkled in the light.

"Everyone's here." Itachi entered the kitchen, speaking to his mother. Sakura heard her reply softly over the sound of bubbling gravy and music.

"Don't you look all done up!" Sachiko beamed at Sakura, gesturing to her outfit.

Sakura flushed, smoothing her dress down shyly. It wasn't her normal tastes, a bit fancy and frilly, but Itachi had bought it for her and she couldn't help but feel special when she wore it.

Sasuke knelt on the rug next to the fireplace and started piling the presents he and Sachiko had brought with them under the tree. Each gift was carefully and lovingly wrapped in black and gold paper, a filmy ribbon tying each one neatly.

Ino and Sai had brought presents in fancy giftbags, Tenten and Neji had come by with the gifts in their arms and Sakura had already placed hers and Itachi's under the tree for everyone to open after dinner.

The tree itself was perfect because Sakura had chosen it. It had character. It was squat and fat and it leaned perpetually to the right. A glittery star crowned the top and white and gold Christmas lights decorated the middle. Itachi had draped it with ten different kinds of tinsel. Sakura had brought a box of her old decorations and hung them up, smiling nostalgically at most of them, including the ones her mother had made by hand, faded little angels and red bows.

"Just in time, everyone," Itachi stuck his head out of the kitchen and grinned, "Dinner's ready."

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There was general clamour of chairs being scraped back, plates clinking together and voices talking all at once. The kitchen door opened completely as Mikoto carefully carried the first few bowls of food in. The smell of parsnips and steamed carrots filled the air. She lowered the bowls onto the middle of the massive dining table, spoons resting in place next to them.

Every place at the table had a gold napkin and a Christmas cracker. Itachi came into the room with a bottle of chilled champagne and a wicked grin. He poured a glass for everyone except himself and Sakura, who had cherry soda and apple juice, respectively.

They had a comfortable, relaxed conversation as they waited for Mikoto and Itachi to finish laying the table with dinner. Neji and Sasuke spoke infrequently, usually with a sarcastic comment that made the whole table laugh. Tenten chatted with Ino about everything and nothing. Sakura sipped her drink and managed to carry a conversation with Sai in which she said lots and he said very little.

When the food was finally laid out before them, the turkey glistening in the middle of the table, roast potatoes crisp next to the creamy mash, assorted vegetables and sage and onion stuffing all around the table and gravy and bread sauce in boats ready to pour.

They tucked in. Sai claimed the cabbage quickly without realising they were all quite happy to surrender it to him. Ino spooned more mashed potato than anyone and sent Mikoto off to get mint sauce out of the cupboard, insisting it made everything taste even better. Tenten, predictably, piled her plate with turkey, stuffing and sausages wrapped in bacon. Her hatred of vegetables was legendary. Neji ate slowly after cutting all of his food up, occasionally smiling at the taste. Sachiko spent most of the dinner with her head on Sasuke's shoulder, her eyes drooping with tiredness like a child. He nudged her every so often to tell her to taste something. After a while, she nibbled a roast potato and made a noise of complete pleasure, then beamed at Sasuke as though he was the source of her happiness. He just smiled. Sakura sat next to Itachi, passing him the cranberry sauce when he needed it and laughing at all of his jokes. She just watched him, mostly, as he radiated happiness and contentment. She felt glad that he no longer looked stressed or exhausted.

When everyone had finished their dinner, Mikoto cleared the plates and brought back pudding. The Christmas pudding smelt strongly of brandy and wine, so Sakura and Itachi passed. Mikoto, being the incredibly resourceful woman she was, returned from the kitchen with two slices of key lime pie for the two of them and cream to share. They thanked her with matching grins and tucked in once again.

Stomachs full to bursting after the meal was over, they pulled crackers and laughed at the awful jokes that came out.

Despite eating enough to fell a horse, Itachi leapt up as his favourite Christmas song came on the radio, pulling Sakura with him despite her protests.

"It's the best!" He insisted, twirling her around the room as the others laughed at them. The music swelled and then – "FEEEEED THE WOOOOOORLD!" Itachi bellowed, swinging Sakura wildly, "LET THEM KNOW IT'S CHRISTMAS TIME!"

Sakura laughed until she cried and only realised they'd stopped dancing when Itachi pointed out the mistletoe above her head with a sneaky grin. They obliged the tradition delightedly.

When they were all warm and satisfied by the good food, they sat back down in the living room and opened their presents.

Sakura ended up covered in all of the presents she'd received, her lap spilling over. She reached for a smallish one and pulled the wrapping paper off.

Before she could see what it was, Itachi took it from her gently and knelt down in front of her.

She gazed at him breathlessly. Mikoto made a thin, excited squealing noise and slapped Ino on the arm randomly when she noticed what was happening. Sasuke was clearly already in the know, his expression smug. Sachiko breathed out, "ohmygoshohmygosh!" and Tenten clapped.

"Haruno Sakura," Itachi began, his eyes very soft and fond, opening the box to reveal a ring, simple and classy, a silver band with one diamond, "You changed my life when I met you. I am forever thankful for what you have done for me. I have already asked your father for permission and he gave us his blessing, but told me it was up to you in the end. I already knew that, of course. I've never quite been so conscious of a question I need to ask before, nor so anxious to hear the answer. I love you an enormous amount, more than I can even express in words, so I can only ask plainly – will you marry me?"

Sakura squealed, "Yes, of course!" and leapt on him.

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They trudged through the snow to get to the right grave, Sakura bending down to scrape the ice away from her mother's name and place the artificial flowers in the vase.

"Hi Mum," Sakura smiled at the grave, placing her hand on top of its smooth, marble surface, ice-cold in the Winter as usual, "I brought Itachi again. We've got some big news. We're getting married! It's the best thing, I honestly had no idea I could feel this happy but I really, really do. Sachiko's even going to make my wedding dress for me! Dad got pretty choked up when I told him and he said I could wear your veil and tiara. I hope that's okay with you. The wedding's going to be in April because we wanted a Spring wedding. I bet it'll rain. Oh, I almost forgot to say! I've got an audition for a TV show! They really liked my audition tape and they want to see me in person! Can you believe it? I've done so many plays the past few years, I've gotten used to it. I'm looking forward to trying something different! So yeah… that's my life so far. Merry Christmas, Mum."

Itachi knelt down next to her and addressed her mother, "Hello, Sakurako-san. I just wanted to say that you did a beautiful job raising your daughter, and I am eternally blessed to have met her."

Sakura gave him a light, fleeting kiss and said laughingly, "Same here."

They stayed at the grave, talking to her mother about everything that came to mind until the temperature dropped and it began to snow softly.

Itachi helped Sakura walk across the icy road and she caught sight of her reflection in a puddle that had frozen like a mirror. In that instant, she looked just like her mother.

You're my smart, beautiful little princess and I just know you'll grow into that wonderful woman one day. I can't wait to meet her, sweetheart.

Sakura smiled up at the clouds, snowflakes kissing her face, and crossed the road holding Itachi's hand tightly, with no inclination to ever let go.