Chapter One

Sasuke remembers the old Konoha like this. Four Hokage faces shaped out of the golden bluff on the northern edge of the village. Wisdom and courage and history given form out of stone. White-washed stores with roofs red, blue, yellow, orange. A lone swing where a lonely boy once sat. Graffiti painted across unwatched walls. The green of leaves, grass, and flak-jackets, worn so proudly by chunin and jounin.

What he can recall has always been tied to what he can see. Taste and touch and smell linger on the periphery of his awareness, senses bland and faded. Weak next to the brightness of color.

He inherited this as much as his kekkei genkai and his elemental affinity. Uchiha Fugaku taught his sons the importance of watching long before they could hope to awaken the Sharingan. Because while their blood might promise exceptional clarity of perception, this gift was wasted on a shinobi who could not tell the difference in seven kinds of snowflakes, or appreciate the hidden subtleties of human expression.

This is the red of fresh blood, this is the red of a dying fire, this is the red of a maple tree in autumn. That is the smile Okaasan wears when she is truly happy, and that is the smile she wears when she is sad and doesn't want her children to know it.

But the old Konoha is as dead as his father, mother, and brother. All except the Hokage faces, now six where once there were four. Young men and women from old clans kiss, marry, and give birth to sons and daughters. A new generation of children run through the halls of the rebuilt Academy. Sakura presides over the hospital while Naruto presides over the village.

The old Konoha is dead, but the new Konoha is alive, and what Sasuke remembers doesn't much matter anymore.

She watches her genin practice chakra control. Saito masters it almost as quickly as Sakura herself had at that same age, walking up the tree like he's walking on the ground, but the other two struggle.

Hyuuga Hachiro falls, again. He picks himself up, dusts off his clothes, and straightens his hitai-ate, making sure the cursed seal on his forehead remains covered. "I can't do it, Sakura-sensei."

Izumi kicks a nearby rock and pushes her short brown hair out of her face. "This is impossible."

"I don't want to hear that talk." She takes Hachiro aside and says, "Your chakra is too weak. That's why you keep losing your footing. Focus harder and try to summon a little more force, all right?"

Hachiro looks down. "Yes, sensei."

"And don't worry too much. Did you know this is the same thing the Hokage struggled with when we were learning chakra control?"

"Really?" Hachiro, insecure by nature, brightens up for the first time since they started training today.

"Really." She claps her student on the shoulder and tells him to get back to work.

Sakura doesn't bother instructing Izumi until she bounces off the tree trunk a few more times. As stubborn as Naruto, it takes a good dose of failure before the girl will willingly accept help. "Do you want to know what you're doing wrong?"

Izumi bends over, hands braced on her knees, breathing hard. "Yeah," she says.

"You've got the opposite problem of Hachiro. You're chakra's too strong, and it's pushing you away from the tree. Relax and try to-"

"Haruno Sakura!"

She turns to see a Hyuuga shinobi, Byakugan activated, wide white eyes set on her. "Hokage-sama demands your presence at the hospital!"

"Demands?" She'll give Naruto a piece of her mind when she sees him.

"His wife is in labor, and they want no one but you to deliver the baby."

Oh, no. Hinata's due date is four weeks away. She tells her genin, "Keep practicing until you reach the top of your tree or I get back. Whichever comes first." Then she says, "Come on!" to the Hyuuga messenger and runs from the training grounds.

There is still a too-new look to the village. No peeling paint, no splintered wood. The little tell-tale signs of age and decay, missing. It bothers Sakura, this sense of the freshly built in a place as old as Konoha. As she runs through the streets, past apartments and restaurant stands and businesses, it reminds her of all that has been lost, all that cannot be returned or replaced.

This isn't the time to think on that. Naruto's child will be born soon, and it's Sakura's responsibility to make sure both mother and baby remain safe.

Even without the Byakugan to show the clearest path to the center of Konoha, she reaches the hospital before her Hyuuga escort. Sakura pushes through the glass double doors, and immediately she takes in the bright lights and pale walls and sharp smell of disinfectant. "Which room?" she asks the nearest nurse, and the woman hurries to lead her down a blue-tiled hallway.

She finds Hinata and Naruto behind the fourth door on the right. It's a large room, meant to hold three people, but any other patients have been cleared away to give the Hokage's wife privacy. Hinata sits up in bed, sweat beading her skin, taking quick, shallow breaths and squeezing her husband's hand.

"Sakura-chan!" Naruto looks at her, big blue eyes nervous and wild.

Sakura washes her hands, cleaning away the grit and dirt from training ground five. The spray of hot water calms her, reminds her that a simple hospital delivery, even if pre-term, is nothing compared to the injuries she's dealt with in the field.

Sakura checks the baby's position and uses a simple jutsu to feel the child's chakra flow and heartbeat. A little fast, but not abnormal or indicative of distress. Sakura examines Hinata and finds her almost fully dilated already. "The baby's coming quickly, but I think she's going to be fine."

Hinata makes a soft noise of relief and leans back against the pillows, tears sliding down her cheeks.

"That's great! See, Hinata, nothing to worry-wait, did you say 'she?'"

Sakura smiles and says, "Sorry. I forgot you wanted to wait to know. It's a girl."

An hour later, Hinata holds her daughter to her breast, and Naruto wraps his arms around his wife and child. He's crying and grinning at the same time, and he strokes his callused thumb across the baby's smooth little forehead. He kisses Hinata's cheek and says, "Look at her. Look what we made together. She's beautiful, huh?"

Sakura can only agree. The baby has a tuft of soft, dark hair like her mother and Naruto's bright eyes.

She hears creaking hinges but no footsteps and turns to see Sasuke. He's dressed in street clothes. Plain black pants and some high-collared shirt that Sakura would bet her life has the Uchiha crest printed on the back. He stands in the doorway, as if unsure about whether or not he wants to come in.

Naruto looks up and smiles even wider. "Sasuke! Get over here and meet my daughter."

Sasuke walks to the bed and glances down at the baby. "You got lucky, dobe. She looks like Hinata."

Naruto just laughs, clearly too happy to be bothered by his friend's cheek. But Sakura thumps Sasuke on the back and he stares at her, fine eyebrows raised over his mismatched eyes. Like she's surprised him for the first time in years (and maybe she has). "Be nice," she says, because it's what she would say to anyone else, and today of all days she's not going to let him get under her skin.

"Hn." If her admonishment bothers him, Sasuke doesn't show it. But then, his calm demeanor rarely betrays the feelings underneath.

If I knew how to read him it would have saved me a lot of heartbreak.

Naruto whispers something to Hinata, she nods, and he lifts their daughter. "Here," says Naruto, and he puts the baby in Sasuke's arms. Sakura expects him to shy away, but he doesn't. Sasuke just accepts the blanket-wrapped bundle, if awkwardly.

"Make sure you support her head," Sakura says.

"I know how to hold a baby," he says quietly.

Because she's only ever known him alone, sometimes Sakura forgets how large a family Sasuke once had. A clan full of aunts and uncles and cousins. All gone now, of course, and the Uchiha compound with them, but once they were alive and breathing and Sasuke would have had many opportunities to hold babies. Far more than Sakura, whose parents are first-generation shinobi with no brothers or sisters themselves.

For some reason it's difficult to watch him this way. Expression as cool as ever, but hands careful as he cradles the newborn girl. Sasuke even gives her a gentle bounce, and the newest Uzumaki gurgles happily.

"Do you know what you want to name her?" Sakura asks.

Hinata says, "I was thinking, maybe, if you want to, Naruto-kun, we could call her Kushina."

Naruto takes his wife's hand, and when he speaks his voice is gruffer than usual. "Thank you, Hinata."

"Congratulations," Sakura says. "You two did good."

Naruto smiles, looks at Hinata, and says, "Yeah, we did, didn't we?"

Sasuke returns little Kushina to her parents. "I should go."

"Me too," Sakura says. "I left my genin running up trees."

Naruto laughs and waves them away, too busy kissing his wife and counting his daughter's toes to much care about his teammates. Sakura walks with Sasuke to the front entrance and out into the summer sunshine. It's a beautiful June day, all green grass and blue sky and fluffy white clouds. Warm and peaceful.

"Their daughter doesn't have the Byakugan."

"So what?" Sakura asks.

Sasuke shrugs, as if his observation didn't carry any sort of judgment, when she knows damn well it did. "She doesn't need dojutsu to be a great kunoichi," Sakura says. She walks faster, walks ahead of him.

"I didn't say she did." Sasuke puts a hand on her shoulder, and she nearly jumps. It's the first time he has touched her outside of sparring since they were teenagers, and the warmth of him is startling. "You're angry with me today."

She turns to face him, and they're so close that she can breathe in the scent of smoke that lingers about him, that clings to his clothes. He always smells like he's been standing next to an open fire. "I'm not," Sakura lies, but her words come out weak, almost breathless.

"Right." Sasuke lets go, steps around her, and continues on into the village.

She watches the back of him, strong shoulders and tapered waist, and sees that she was right; the Uchiha fan decorates the high collar of his shirt, red and white against the light grey fabric.

Taro fucks her from behind, strong hands gripping her hips. The pressure of his fingers digging into her skin and the fullness of him between her legs almost hurts, but it's a sweet pain. An ache laced with pleasure. He's already made her come, and Sakura feels tender, hard-used, overwhelmed with feeling. It's too much, almost. But then he loses his rhythm and his breaths grow faster, louder, and she knows he's close. Taro pulls her against him once, twice, holds her there. He makes a strangled noise and spends himself inside her.

Their bodies part almost as soon as they're done. Taro moves out of her, away from her, and falls on the bed. Sakura just lets her knees slide down and lies on her stomach, the side of her face pressed against her pillow. She's sweaty and sticky and too well-fucked to care.

"This mattress is soft. Softer than anything a self-respecting shinobi should sleep on," Taro says, in that light way he has that might or might not be a joke.

"You're welcome to sleep elsewhere."

Taro just laughs and sits up. "I'm not sleeping here."

Of course he isn't. He never does.

They've been meeting up like this since last winter, and in six months of fucking they've yet to share a meal or spend the night together. She's sure he sees other women, but Sakura can't quite find it in herself to care. Taro visits when she asks and he gives her what she wants, at least for a little while. If, afterward, the loneliness settles in, and Sakura feels empty and thrown-away in the company of a man she doesn't particularly like, then so be it.

"I'm gonna take a shower," Taro says, like this is his apartment instead of Sakura's, and he has a right to her things. But she lets him bathe first, because he can be a bastard after sex and she'd rather not see him just now anyway.

Sakura strips the rumpled sheets from the mattress. This is the third time she's called Taro to come visit her in the past week, and her bedding could use a wash. She picks up her blanket too-they must have kicked it to the floor at some point between the first time and the second-and deposits her dirty laundry in a waiting basket. By the time she's done stuffing it all in the washer, Taro steps out of her bathroom, skin damp and nearly naked.

"All yours," he says, and he looks so good with his short hair wet and messy, a towel wrapped around his narrow hips, that Sakura is tempted to drag him to her bare bed and have him again. But she's tired and tired of his company and in need of a shower more than a fuck.

"You can see yourself out," she says.

She finds the bathroom empty of steam, the mirror clear. Taro likes his showers almost cold and Sakura doesn't, one of several reasons why they always bathe separately. She steps inside the stall, careful not to slip on the slick tile, and turns on the water. Hot, as hot as it will go. Her skin blushes under the heat and pressure, and Sakura feels fresh and new beneath the scalding spray, washed clean. She shampoos her hair slowly, soaps away sweat and come. Sakura takes her time, and she expects Taro to be gone when she finishes.

Sakura's apartment is located near the middle of the village, a stone's throw from the hospital. Sasuke has been here a handful of times over the last six years, and he knows the way from the Hokage's tower. Her building sits tucked between businesses in the market district, and it's smaller and more modern than his own. When he reaches her door a neighbor's cat winds itself around Sasuke's ankle, mewling, and he bends to scratch it between the ears. Then he straightens, knocks, and waits for Sakura to answer.

Except when the door opens it isn't his teammate. A shirtless man stands there, running a towel over his wet hair. He's tall and strongly built. A shinobi, Sasuke can tell from the way the he holds himself, wary and alert. "What do you want?" he asks.

"I need to speak to Sakura."

"She's in the shower," the man says. But he steps back, and Sasuke walks inside.

Sakura's flat is messier than he's seen it in the past. Empty cups litter the kitchen counter, her shoes are thrown haphazardly by the door, and there's a pile of laundry on her couch, waiting to be folded. A green dress, a man's shirt, and a pair of lacy underwear lie in the hallway. For some reason Sasuke can't take his eyes off them.

The man picks up his shirt from the floor and pulls it over his head. "I'm done here," he says, smirking. "Just on my way out."

The shinobi leaves, and Sasuke isn't sorry to see the back of him. He takes a seat on the lone armchair in the den and wonders how much longer Sakura will be.

He also wonders when she started letting men into her bed who clearly care nothing for her.

Sasuke doesn't have to wait long. Sakura soon walks out of her bedroom wearing a short robe. Her cheeks are pink, cherry blossom hair damp and disheveled, slender legs bare. When she sees him she jumps and grabs the belt around her waist, tightens it. Her pale eyes widen and she says, "Sasuke-kun." She bites her lip as soon as the familiar honorific leaves her mouth. Sakura looks down at the discarded dress and panties and surreptitiously kicks the little heap of clothes into the bedroom behind her, like he hasn't already seen them. Like it isn't obvious why they were there.

"How long have you been here?"

"Not very." Long enough to see a man leave her apartment, which is what she's really asking. Sasuke stands and says, "Naruto is sending us to Suna in his stead."

Sakura crosses her arms over her chest and walks closer to him. "Suna? For the alliance negotiations?"

"Yes." She's near enough now that he can smell the soap she used. Something herbal. "He'd go himself, but he doesn't want to leave Hinata and the baby alone."

"Gaara would wait. He'd reschedule so he can meet with Naruto."

Sasuke shrugs. "Maybe." But this is a mission from the Hokage, not a suggestion from their friend.

Sakura must know as much. She sighs and asks, "When do we leave?"


"Right." She runs a hand over her face, through her short hair. Sakura looks tired, and it's not hard to guess why. "Do you want something to drink?" she asks.

"No, I should go." He has nothing to do but training, but Sasuke is finding it difficult to look at her right now. Maybe it's the way her shape shows through the thin material of her robe, or the swollen fullness of her well-kissed mouth. These are personal things. Things that are no more his business than the lacy underwear she tried to hide.

"Meet me at the gate at dawn," Sasuke says, and then he leaves.