“Say, nii-san,” Sasuke says, leaning on Itachi’s back. His little arms are wrapped around Itachi’s neck, head propped on Itachi’s shoulder. “Why are girls so weird?”
That… well, that is unexpected. Itachi blinks, bemused. “What do you mean?”
“Well…” out of the corner of his eye, Itachi can see Sasuke frown thoughtfully. “I dunno, they’re just… so loud and they’re always following me around…”
Itachi purses his lips, hiding his smile as he finally pieces together what Sasuke’s talking about. “I think they’re just admiring, Sasuke,” he says kindly, recalling his own academy experience. “You’re very skilled for your age. I’m not surprised the girls in your class have taken an interest in you.”
“I wish they wouldn’t,” Sasuke complains glumly, pouting. “It’s annoying and distracting.”
Itachi’s features smooth from amusement to neutrality at his brother’s words. He sounds strikingly like their father, and Itachi feels a twinge of unease in his gut. “Distractions can be good sometimes,” he counters. At his age, Sasuke should have friends aplenty. Other kids to laugh and play with. “...Is there anyone in your class you like? Any of the girls or boys?”
Sasuke takes a moment to think about it. “W-well… I don’t know. There is this one girl…”
He seems to struggle with his words, almost hesitant to continue, but Itachi is patient.
“...She’s really smart, and she’s not nearly as loud as everyone else. And… She has pink hair.”
The way he says it makes it sound like it’s a definitively good quality. “That so? What’s her name?”
“Sakura,” Sasuke answers immediately. “But I don’t… think she has a clan.”
Itachi hums. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing,” he says. In fact, quite the opposite, he thinks grimly. “There are plenty of skilled shinobi and kunoichi that don’t come from a clan.”
“Eh? Like who?”
Captain Kakashi and Tenzo-senpai, Itachi wants to say. But as per the rules of ANBU… “Like your friend Sakura,” he answers instead.
“You don’t make any sense, nii-san,” Sasuke huffs, and then the subject is dropped as quickly as it had been brought up.
Missions come and go, as do the months; before Itachi knows it, he’s been in ANBU for almost a year. Things are both different and completely the same.
It’s different because tensions are rising every single day. It’s different because each meeting with the Uchiha ends with more unrest between the clan members and leaves a nasty taste in his mouth. It’s different because the desire for this coup, though still far off in the future, is growing steadily. It’s different because he’s made a name for himself, though that did happen rather quickly, within his peers. It’s different because the feelings of hatred within the Uchiha towards the village, though always present, have been festering greatly.
It’s the same because his father and the rest of the Uchiha continue to exploit his position in ANBU to siphon intel. It’s the same because through it all, he still has Shisui to lean on when he feels like his efforts are for naught. It’s the same because the rice crackers from old man Yuuto’s shop never fail to make a hard day just a little bit better. It’s the same because his mother continues to prepare dango for him every time he comes back home from a mission. It’s the same because Sasuke still asks Itachi to train him, and Itachi still finds excuses not to.
Itachi takes a deep breath, centering himself and adjusting the exact amount of chakra to his legs in preparation. His arms are relaxed, holding kunai expertly between each of his fingers and one in his mouth.
With his Sharingan activated, he can sense Sasuke’s chakra standing a thankfully safe distance away from all the targets; Itachi has faith in his aim—his brother just tends to be… well, excitable.
He propels himself into the air, gracefully using the momentum of his leap to twist his body midair. He launches all the kunai with practiced ease, his body spinning freely as he begins to plummet, before he sends the second volley flying, redirecting the trajectory of the others to where they need to go.
When he lands, he knows he’s hit every single one of his marks again—even the one behind the boulder behind him.
“What is it, Sasuke?” he asks, deactivating his Sharingan and turning to face his brother.
“Nii-san…” Sasuke murmurs. After so many times of being caught watching Itachi train, Sasuke’s expecting his brother to know he’s here. “...Can you… can you please help me train shurikenjutsu today?”
Itachi sighs inwardly; of course he’d known the question was coming—lately Sasuke asks this of him nearly every single day.
He turns to his brother, barely peeking out behind from the thick trunk of a tree, and motions him forward with a wave of his hand. Sasuke should expect it by now, Itachi thinks; even so, there’s hope in his big, dark eyes and an excited smile plays on his lips as he pushes his way past the tree, nearly tripping over his own feet and the thick roots. Itachi feels terrible, knowing he’s about to burst Sasuke’s small bubble of hope again. But… it can’t be helped.
He taps two fingers on Sasuke’s forehead, stopping him in place. “Sorry, Sasuke,” he amends softly, feeling regret grip him. “Next time.”
As always, Sasuke pouts, rubbing at his forehead. Still, Itachi can see the hurt in the set of his eyebrows; swimming in his eyes. “You always say that, Itachi nii-san…” he mumbles dejectedly. “If you don’t want to, you can just say so.”
Something deep inside Itachi aches at the words. Guilt wraps its thick tendrils around his ribcage, reaching his heart and squeezing hard. It’s not healthy for Sasuke to be so attached to him alone. To not have bonds and friendships with other kids his age.
It’s not that, he wants to tell him. It’s never that. Of course I want to. Of course I want to spend time with you.
He remains silent even as Sasuke dejectedly turns on his heel and walks back home.
But I can’t.
As a principle, Itachi doesn’t spend too much time with Sasuke. Distancing himself, however painful, is necessary. Essential.
Still, there are days he wants nothing more than to be a regular older brother.
He waits outside the academy doors by the old tree, leaning against the bark, arms folded. His ANBU mask is hidden snuggly in his bag, though his armor remains. He really should’ve changed before coming, but the briefing with the Hokage had taken longer than expected.
The bell rings suddenly and children come pouring out, laughing and chatting amongst themselves.
“Quit acting smug!” A particularly loud voice calls out. “I bet you’re just all talk!”
Itachi raises an eyebrow and sees a blond, blue-eyed kid pointing an angry finger directly as his brother. Sasuke has a neutral look on his face, bordering on annoyance. “Shut up, loser,” he says, shoving his hands in his pockets as he turns around. “It’s not my fault Sakura doesn’t like you and that you suck at shurikenjutsu. Leave me alone.”
Sasuke doesn’t seem to have noticed him yet, and Itachi takes the time to study him. He acts a lot more aloof and arrogant here, though Itachi supposes that’s to be expected. He’s never truly interacted with people aside from the rest of the Uchiha.
“H-have a good evening, Sasuke-kun!” A timid voice says, and Itachi sees a shock of pink amongst the children. He blinks bemusedly before he remembers Sasuke mentioning a pink-haired girl in his class over a year ago. Sakura, he’d said.
His little brother spares her a glance and nods. To everyone else, it’d seem almost… dismissive. But Itachi knows Sasuke like the back of his hand. He can see the way he turns away quickly to hide the incredibly faint blush on the apples of his cheeks and the tips of his ears.
It’s only when he turns around that Sasuke notices Itachi. Faint embarrassment transforms into surprise and shock. “N-nii-san?” Sasuke questions, louder than he’d probably intended. He doesn’t notice the way the blond kid and Sakura stare after him in wonder as he quickens his pace to him. “W-what are you doing here, nii-san?”
“I just came back from a mission. I figured we could walk home together.” he says, smiling slightly. Sasuke’s eyes light up happily at his words. Itachi looks up and locks eyes with blue and green. “Say, would you happen to be Sakura?” he asks the timid-looking girl.
The girl in question blinks, her cheeks reddening at an impressive speed. “U-um…” she stutters before nodding shyly. She seems confused and unsure of herself. Itachi summons yet another soft smile.
“I see. Thank you for looking after my brother,” he says, placing a hand on Sasuke’s head affectionately and ruffling his dark hair. “I hope you can continue to do so.”
“Nii-san!” Sasuke complains quietly, clearly embarrassed. Sakura’s little hands are cupped together, held to her chest. She suddenly smiles and nods once, as if accepting a precious gift.
Itachi glances back at his brother. He’s probably embarrassed Sasuke enough for one day, he surmises in satisfaction. “Let’s go home, Sasuke.”
“Ahh, Itachi!” Granny Chika, as the Uchiha youth have come to know her, calls out to him from inside her little shop. “My, it’s been quite some time.”
“Good morning,” Itachi responds politely, walking inside. The shop is famous amongst the Uchiha for carrying custom-made weaponry with the Uchiha crest carved onto the hilts.
“Looking for something in particular?” the aged woman asks, using her cane to stand up from behind the counter.
Itachi looks around, deep in thought. Last time he’d been here, there’d been a special chrome kunai set on display that’d caught his eye. He describes the set to Granny Chika, and the woman smiles knowingly before she reaches under the desk counter, pulling out a polished wood case. “Is this it?”
She opens the case carefully, and Itachi nods. These are the exact kunai he’d had in mind.
“Special occasion?” Chika asks as she giftwraps the box in blue paper with the Uchiha crest patterned on it.
Itachi purses his lips and nods again. “It’s my brother’s birthday today.”
“Little Sasuke? My, how old is he, now?”
“Seven,” Itachi responds, taking the carefully wrapped box before depositing it in his bag. “Thank you, Granny Chika.” he says, bowing respectfully. She sends him off with a friendly smile and wave as he makes his way out of the store, back onto the street that will lead him back home.
When he turns the corner onto his street, he sees a familiar pink figure struggling with something in her shaking arms. Itachi raises an eyebrow, observing in interest. Sakura seems to be carrying a small potted plant. It’s a bit too big for her arms to fully wrap around the pot; long stalks of bright green leaves adorned with big, ripe-looking tomatoes, and he can see a blue ribbon tied to one of them.
Itachi finds himself smiling at the sight. It’s clearly a present for his brother, and a thoughtful one at that. He widens his strides, easily catching up with her. “Sakura,” he greets amiably. “Would you like some help with that?”
The girl is caught off guard, her little hands fumbling to keep their hold on the pot, but thankfully, his reflexes are sharp as ever. He reaches a quick, steady hand to help stabilize her hold. “O-oh,” she stutters, blushing in embarrassment. “Thank you…”
He nods. “I could carry it if you’d like. I have a feeling I know where you’re headed.”
Sakura glances up at him, green eyes shy and hesitant. She seems to think it over before she nods slowly. “Okay.”
Itachi takes the pot, noticing the heavy weight. It’s a wonder she was able to carry it for this long. “This is very generous,” he states as they both keep on walking. “He’ll like it.”
Sakura purses her lips, looking down at her sandaled feet. “...do you think so?” she asks timidly. There’s a flicker of hope in her voice, and it doesn’t escape Itachi’s notice.
“Mhmm,” he confirms. “He’s very fond of tomatoes, and these look especially delicious.”
“Thank you. I… I grew this myself,” she admits, avoiding his gaze. “My friend Ino helped. Her family owns a flower shop and they know how to grow and care for plants.”
Her generosity warms him, and he finds himself grateful that his brother has such a good friend in his life. “I see,” he murmurs as they come to a stop in front of his home. “We’re here.”
Sakura looks at the door nervously, wrenching her hands together. Itachi maneuvers the pot onto one arm and opens the door with the other, stepping inside. Sakura hesitates outside, unsure. Itachi turns to her, motioning her to follow him with a jerk of his head.
She gulps and complies, slipping her sandals off and setting them neatly beside Sasuke’s.
“Here,” he says, setting the pot down at her feet. “I’ll go get him. Make yourself at home,”
She nods but stays where she’s standing, gripping at the hem of her shirt tightly with both hands.
Itachi can already guess how Sasuke will react to Sakura and her present, but still, it’s important for him to have friends that aren’t just Itachi. “Sasuke?” he asks, standing outside his brother’s bedroom as he knocks softly twice.
The door opens, and Sasuke looks excited to see him, eyes bright. “Nii-san!” he says, smiling. “You’re home! I thought you’d be on your mission longer!”
Itachi smiles, poking him on the forehead. “I managed to get away. Come on, there’s someone here to see you.”
“To see me?” Sasuke asks, confused as he follows his brother out onto the parlor.
“S-Sasuke-kun…” Sakura squeaks when they reenter. She hasn’t moved a single inch
“Sakura?” Sasuke asks, almost put off by surprise. “What… are you doing here?”
“U-um…” her nervousness is back, and she looks almost fearful, as if she’s regretting coming at all. “I… I know it’s your birthday today…” she explains, her voice still pitched slightly higher. “And I… I wanted to congratulate you and… give you a p-present…” she glances at the tomato plant, uncertainty in her eyes.
Itachi watches Sasuke intently, gauging his reaction.
“Oh,” his brother responds blinking, but Itachi can see the tips of his ears reddening. He hesitates before walking towards his classmate, like he’s uncertain, too.
“There’s a card attached with instructions on how to care for it…” Sakura continues. “But—”
“Thank you,” Sasuke interrupts her, eyes intent on the tomato plant.
Sakura’s blush deepens before a smile graces her features, reaching her eyes. Itachi can see how deeply she cares for her brother, and it’s comforting.
“Happy birthday, Sasuke-kun!” she says more confidently.
“Nii-san…” Sasuke exhales, eyes wide as he stares at his new set of chrome Uchiha kunai.
They’re out at the training ground, sitting on the grass near the bounder in the middle of the clearing having a light lunch. Sasuke’s digging into his tomato slices eagerly. They’re from his present, Itachi knows.
“I think today’s as good a day as any to help you with shurikenjutsu. Don’t you think?” he asks softly, and it might be the light of midday, but Sasuke’s eyes seem to glisten a bit as he smiles brightly, eyes crinkling.
They spend the rest of the afternoon going over the basics: from chakra and how to center it to his legs for a stronger leap, to how to properly hold multiple kunai, to aiming. By the end of the day, Sasuke’s hands are scratched and there are several now-bandaged cuts on his fingertips, but he looks happier than Itachi has seen him in a long time.
“Did you enjoy your birthday, Sasuke?” he asks as they walk back home side by side.
“Yeah!” Sasuke exclaims happily, nearly skipping. “This was the best birthday ever , nii-san!”
“What did you think about your presents?”
Sasuke nods happily. “The kunai are so cool! And training with you was awesome!”
“What about your new plant?”
His reaction is amusing, to say the least; his cheeks flame up and he puffs his cheeks, looking away. “...yeah. That was really nice, too.”
Itachi smiles gently. “It was really generous. Make sure you take good care of it.”
“I know,” he mumbles. “I will.”
The set of Sasuke’s mouth, the way his eyes set into a little determined frown, it all tells Itachi he truly intends to.
“Good,” he says.
Keep her close, Sasuke, he thinks to himself as they continue on their way home. I have a feeling she’ll be a very special person to you, come the right time.