Epilogue.

She was late. They were supposed to be back three hours ago, dammit! If that idiot Naruto had messed up all the mission schedules again he was going to murder him tomorrow, Rokudaime or no.

Never having been one to pace when agitated, Sasuke sat perfectly still, silent and upright, glaring at the garden shrubbery to vent his frustration. It was several moments before he came to terms with the futility of this exertion and let his shoulders slump with a sigh, staring up at the pale, beautiful moon.

A small whine sounded from next to the children's futons. Saya, the family pet dog padded over to her master's side, sensing his unease. Sasuke absently scratched behind her ears, petting the dark fur on her head.

"It's alright, Saya. Go back to rest."

Saya let out another tiny whine before turning around and resuming her post by the sleeping children. Natsume and Mikoto had insisted on dragging their futons out into the living room to wait for their mother to get home. Sasuke had only relented because he'd thought she wouldn't be back too late. They'd put up quite an impressive fight against their drowsiness before succumbing to the bliss of sleep two hours ago. But that left him here, alone, waiting and worrying.

He closed his eyes and let himself sink in the quiet sounds of the night. Somehow, Natsume and Mikoto's even breathing calmed him down a littleand Sasuke relaxed, his fingers brushing past the furisode folded neatly on the veranda next to him. He'd brought it out for Sakura during the empty hours of his wait, just in case she was cold from all her travelling. It was autumn, and the weather was getting rather chilly.

Sasuke reached out for the garment and lifted it to examine the pattern of bamboo leaves, for lack of occupation. Sakura had bought it for him sometime after their engagement, and it had become an unspoken favourite -

His instincts tingled as her familiar chakra signature registered within his senses. In a moment he was on his feet, flinging the furisode over his shoulder, his eyes trained intently on the front gate, willing her to appear. His feet automatically carried him in search of her, striding quickly and quietly out of the house. He did not worry for the children's safety, Saya was an excellent guard dog. Sasuke was on the main road in five seconds flat, treading swiftly, urgently, in the direction of her presence.

He met her when she was just crossing the bridge, her shadow drawing long behind her from the gentle moonlight, while her steps were slowed down by lethargy and exhaustion. Her eyes were dull and tired, but her smile upon seeing him gave her a beautiful glow that he loved immensely. They said nothing, only drawing closer to each other - Sasuke draping the furisode over Sakura's shoulders and taking her pack, silencing her feeble protests with a kiss.

"I missed you," Sakura whispered gratefully, leaning against her husband as he drew her to his side with an arm around her waist. "Are Natsume and Mikoto alright?"

"Save for the fact that they're sleeping in the living room waiting for you, they're just fine," Sasuke replied, unable to conceal the small smile creeping onto his face. As always, she worried about everyone else before herself. "I missed you too. So much."

Sakura smiled contentedly up at him as they crossed the threshold of the gate, but the smile was swiftly replaced with a grimace of pain when she tripped, gasped and crumpled against Sasuke.

"What's wrong?" Sasuke asked sharply, supporting her with an anchoring arm around her waist. Almost all of her weight had been transferred to him, which indicated that she was somewhat injured.

"Nothing," Sakura said, a little too quickly for her lie to be believable. "I just tripped." She straightened and pushed away from him. "Let's just put the kids to bed, Sasuke."

Already well-acquainted with his wife's stubborn streak, Sasuke said nothing, only reaching out to slide open the front door. He let her step into the house first, watching her quietly. The kunoichi knelt slowly next to Mikoto's tiny sleeping form, smoothing her daughter's jet-black hair that fanned out across the pillow. Sakura slipped her hands around Mikoto and gently picked her up, a tender smile on her face as Mikoto mumbled something that sounded suspiciously like "okaa-san..." and snuggled to her mother's chest.

But as she tried to get up, Sakura's face contorted into another grimace of pain and she quickly set Mikoto back down, afraid of hurting her daughter. Sasuke was next to her in a flash, his expression dark, daring her to lie to him again.

"Tell me what's wrong," he demanded hoarsely, scooping her up in his arms. "Sakura. Tell me."

She didn't have to. A large patch of crimson was blossoming across her right thigh, seeping through the bandages at the hem of her shorts that Sasuke had previously thought nothing of. His face turned pale as he lifted her easily, heading straight for the bathroom. It could only mean one thing when Sakura failed to effectively heal her own wounds.

"You spent all your chakra healing every damn person but yourself again," his voice was taut as onyx eyes bore into her emerald ones.

"Sasuke, you're overreacting," Sakura pushed against his chest feebly in an attempt to get him to put her down. He merely tightened his grip and glared daggers at her. Sakura abandoned the attempt and leaned into him, sighing against his shoulder, secretly enjoying his familiar scent. "We got attacked on the way back... And when I got back, there was an emergency at the hospital."

So that was why she had been so late. He wouldn't blame her for that though, but he couldn't let the other issue slip. "And you couldn't have gotten any other medic to heal you?" the Uchiha growled, setting Sakura down on the edge of the bathtub, piercing onyx eyes daring her to move even an inch from that spot as he reached into the medicine cupboard to grab the medical supplies he required with practiced ease. Two children could collect an impressive amount of scrapes and bruises from a day's playing.

"You know that tomorrow's a holiday, Sasuke. A lot of hospital staff are on leave, and there aren't many on night shift in the first place. All hands available had to pitch in for the emergency," Sakura explained patiently as Sasuke gently unwound the stained bandages despite being annoyed with her. He hissed at the sight of the deep kunai gash spanning the length of his hand marring her smooth skin.

"I'm going to have to stitch this up," Sasuke looked up at her, still trying to keep an angry expression on. She was always so damn reckless!

Sakura winced noticeably. "Really? But - I hate stitches..." Sakura's voice acquired the tinge of a whine. She despised stitches, and Sasuke knew it. He was doing this on purpose.

"Really now," Sasuke said drily, feigning ignorance. "Well then, you should have thought about that before you used up all your healing chakra on everyone else, shouldn't you?" He cast her a sidelong glance as he ran hot water and scrubbed his hands thoroughly before reaching for the alcohol swabs, sterilized needle and surgical thread.

"Can't I just leave it in bandages until tomorrow, and heal it then?" Sakura made a last-ditch attempt, drawing backwards. Not that she had anywhere to escape to - if she slid back any further she'd be plunging bottom-first into the bathtub, and that would hurt quite a bit.

"No, Sakura," Sasuke remained adamant, using a clean cloth and hot water to gently clean the wound of blood before swabbing the area with alcohol. "Just close your eyes. It'll be over in a moment." This time, he had to smile at her torn expression. "Trust me."

Damn him and his stupid half-smile that melted her every single time. Sakura swore under her breath threateningly. "If it hurts, Sasuke..."

"I would appreciate it if you didn't make any loud noises that would wake the children, in that case," Sasuke retorted smilingly. Sakura gaped at his heartlessness, and Sasuke very nearly laughed. "Just shut up and close your eyes," he smoothed a warm hand over her eyes and started work, feeling a little guilty as Sakura bit back the hisses of pain each time the needle pierced her skin, or the thread was pulled taut.

Twenty stitches. Sasuke finished his final knot and cut the thread with a satisfying snap. "Done, love," he kissed her on the forehead as Sakura tentatively opened one eye. "Good girl."

"Somehow that statement just pats you on the head and dismisses you," Sakura's tone was disgruntled as she ginglerly flexed her leg while Sasuke re-bandaged the wound. He laughed, and drew her towards him for a long, satisfying hug. She was home, with him, and safe. "It's because you're so damn reckless," he whispered huskily into the pink locks that he'd missed. "You make me worry all the time."

Sakura snuggled into the embrace, lavishing the feeling of being loved while deeply inhaling Sasuke's comfortable scent. "It's because you're here to worry that I can be reckless," she tease lightly. "Besides, I've had my fair share of worrying about you, so that pretty much puts us on even ground, does it not?" Sakura added coyly.

"You're so unfair," Sasuke grumbled, but did not push her away to tease her and make his point. She could win this bout as long as he knew she was here with him.

Sakura laughed girlishly, letting the child within her take over for a few moments. She was home safe, after all, away from demanding missions and grisly hospital scenes. There was nothing to worry about, not when she had Sasuke, Natsume and Mikoto with her.

"I'm so sleepy..." Her content thoughts were interrupted by a huge yawn, and she nestled her head in the crook of Sasuke's neck, already half-asleep.

The Uchiha smiled, slipping an arm under her knees and another around her shoulders, hoisting her up easily. "Go to sleep, love."

"But I want to talk to you..." Sakura mumbled, almost inaudibly, into his shoulder.

"We have all day tomorrow. Sleep."

Sakura turned her head to protest, though her half-closed eyes were doing little to help her case. "But - "

Sasuke kissed the top of her forehead swiftly, his warning gaze silencing her. "Sleep."

"Mmm... kay..."

N

The morning had been comfortable for Sakura, tucked securely into the space between the circle of Sasuke's arms and his torso with her head under his chin - very comfortable, actually - until a warm bundle launched itself upon the bed, landing squarely upon the snuggled couple.

"Kaa-san! You're home! Welcome back!" Natsume's enthusiastic greeting was only slightly muffled by the comforter he had his face buried in, searching for his mother.

"Oof." Sasuke and Sakura rolled apart, still groggy with sleep. The onyx-haired Uchiha refused to relinquish his grip on his wife, keeping one arm securely around her waist as they sat up to face their six-year-old son.

"What did I say about knocking before entering, Uchiha Natsume?" Sasuke tried to muster his sternest voice despite being only a little more than half-awake.

"But- kaa-san-" Natsume, knowing his father to be immovable at this point, pleaded for mercy from the pink-haired kunoichi.

Sakura laughed. "Nu-uh Natsu, tou-san's right. You ought to knock. Now go out of the room, close the door and try again."

The raven-haired boy was off the bed and out of the room with the door shut in a flash that would have made Namikaze Minato proud. With a knock that was barely a tap, the door swung open again and Natsume was back on the bed in three seconds flat, hugging the life out of his mother.

"Don't want kaa-san on three-month missions again," Natsume mumbled into her shoulder.

"I'll try, Natsu-chan, okay?" Sakura hugged her eldest son tight, before spotting her four-year-old daughter in the doorway and smiling widely. "Mikoto, come here."

"I misshed kaa-san too..." Mikoto appeared to be sleepier than her lively brother as she pattered over to the bed and Sasuke lifted her up to sit on the bed next to Sakura. Sakura promptly drew her into the embrace, only to hear her youngest complain: "Kaa-san, otou-san can't cook."

Sakura had to stifle her full-blown laughter at the statement and the highly... Interesting effect it had on Sasuke's expression. She hugged her children to her, hard. "I missed you both too!"

She could almost cry, being at home, surrounded by those she so dearly loved. This was the family she could come home to, every day. The children and husband who made her life complete. The ones who made her happy. The family she would die to protect.

"What? I'm not included?" Sasuke pretended to be hurt, doing his best impression of Naruto denied ramen.

The children giggled, and Sakura grinned, giving him a mischievous glance while deliberately ignoring his question. "Now… who's hungry?"

N

After breakfast and an hour of yelling at Sakura through the bathroom door to hurry up with her dressing ("OKAA-SAN! It's just a yukata, what's taking you so long? We're late for the taiko performance!", "Son, you'll understand when you find yourself a girlfriend, but for now you'd best leave your mother alone. Sakura, will you please hurry up!", "Will you both just ENTERTAIN YOURSELVES and let a girl do what a girl's gotta do!"), the little family trooped out of the house, dressed up in yukatas to join Konoha's annual cherry-blossom viewing festival.

Natsume skipped along enthusiastically, pointing and exclaiming at everything with the hand that wasn't latched onto his mother's. Mikoto, the calmer of the two, was perched atop her father's shoulders, surveying the world around her with quiet grace in her pale pink, daisy-patterned yukata. Meanwhile, Sasuke and Sakura had their hands entwined, the former nodding politely at the people they passed while the latter greeted everyone cheerfully, having missed all the townspeople after three long months.

The Uchiha district was a changed place. Once a ghost town, deserted and avoided due to the terrible, unspeakable history connected to it, with no one to claim it after Sasuke's departure, it was now a bustling place full of life and vigour. Sasuke himself had cleared out the main house where he used to live, personally scrubbed off the traces of his own family's massacre, and repaired everything that was broken with a little help from the friends who had turned up without being asked. He wanted a new life, and rebuilding his broken home had been a step towards that desired recovery.

Sasuke had hired professional builders and cleaners to spruce up the rest of the district, then sold the properties to Konoha's government and other willing buyers for a fair price. He only retained his old home, as well as several places that held personal memories - like the corner shop that used to sell his favourite sweets. He wanted to ensure that good people occupied those important places.

"Sasuke," Sakura called gently, knowing exactly what her husband was thinking about, "smile, and look forward."

He graced her with a small uplift of the corners of his mouth, releasing her hand to grasp her waist securely while the other anchored Mikoto firmly upon his shoulders.

"Otou-san?" Mikoto asked tentatively, grasping fistfuls of his onyx hair. Sasuke tilted his head back to look at her and smiled.

"Shall we go faster? We'll miss the taiko performance if we keep crawling along like this."

"Faster, faster!" Natsume cheered, already tugging Sakura along so that she had to stumble after him.

"Faster? In this nice yukata?" Sakura exclaimed, gesturing towards her gorgeous pale yellow garment embroidered with sunflowers. "And my new geta-"

"Oh, just come along for the ride," Sasuke said laughingly, lifting his wife off her feet with that one arm latched around her waist as she let out a tiny squeal. "Mikoto, hold tight; Natsume, race to the Hokage Tower, three, two, one!"

Natsume whooped, and they were off.

N

"No fair, no fair, otou-san got a head start!" Natsume howled indignantly as he (obviously) lost the race.

Sakura was trying very hard not to laugh at her son's little misfortune, but Sasuke was unashamed. "You, son, were not carrying two people. It was only fair that I got a head start." The Uchiha lectured with a rare twinkle in his eyes.

"I could've carried okaa-san but tou-san didn't let me!"

"I don't know if I should be flattered that my son thinks that I'm light enough for him to carry, or if I should be insulted that he thinks I need to be carried by my own child." Sakura said dryly to Tenten, who had arrived with Neji, ten-year-old Sayuri and little four-year-old Kenji just in time to catch the exchange between Sasuke and Natsume. "Stop it, you two, and greet everyone properly."

Tenten laughed, Neji smiled. Natsume hurriedly made the proper greeting to the Lord and Lady Hyuuga - his mischievously charming smile ensuring that he stayed in everyone's good graces, while Mikoto's greeting was quieter, and more polite.

"Why you cheeky brat, is that any way to smile at your godmother?" Tenten reprimanded the young boy. "You better behave, Natsume, or I'll leave you out of my weaponry lessons next time!" Tenten's weaponry lessons were clamoured after by every aspiring genin and even chuunin in the village, her reputation as the weapons' mistress was legendary.

Natsume sobered immediately, his expression befitting a funeral.

Sasuke and Neji were already deep in conversation about clan, missions and village business - the relationship between the Uchiha and Hyuuga clans had greatly improved by their acceptance of each other. Sakura and Tenten, meanwhile, exchanged knowing looks as Mikoto and Kenji inevitably latched on to each other (there was a secret pact between the two mothers that those two were definitely meant for each other - of course Neji and Sasuke knew nothing about it) and greeted the rest of their acquaintances – Naruto and Hinata made their way over with baby Kushina, who had just turned one; Ino was nagging Shikamaru, once again, about one trivial thing or another as their nine-year-old son Riku rolled his eyes behind his parents and muttered "troublesome", an infuriating habit he'd picked up from his father. Sai was deep in conversation with Haku and Shino; Lee and Gai, soaking in the celebratory mood, were putting on another fanciful display of youthfulness complete with tears, sunrises and a dramatic orchestra; Genma had his arm slung around Shizune while she laughed at something he said; Asuma was busy keeping tabs on his very pretty sixteen-year-old daughter Chiyuki who was surrounded by adoring boys while Kurenai laughed and told him to lighten up. Everyone was catching up as missions and life itself had left little time for bonding.

"Well I'll catch you guys in a bit – I have to go officiate this event," Naruto took his leave, dragging Hinata with him. "Wait up for us for lunch, alright!"

"It's your treat!" Sakura called after him brightly, a devious smirk gracing her features as she waved off his terrified protests while Hinata laughingly pulled him towards the podium. "I'll invite everyone!"

"That's really rather cruel of you, Sakura-chan, no?" a familiar, deep voice sounded from behind them. Kakashi made his appearance just as the taiko drum performance began, capturing the attention of all the children. Once again, the orange book was in hand, and the mask in place, but his eyes were full of laughter.

Sakura played along. "Oh really now, Kakashi? Is that an offer for you to take Naruto's place and treat us all to lunch?" Sasuke and Neji were trying very hard not to laugh at Kakashi's expression.

The Copy-nin was saved from his predicament by an excited shout as a bundle of pink came pummeling towards him. "Kakashi-jii-chan!" Mikoto was ecstatic to see her godfather, and immediately reached out towards him in a plea to be carried.

Kakashi hurriedly stuffed his orange book away securely as both Sasuke and Sakura glared pointedly at him, before picking up his favourite goddaughter. "Mikoto-chan, haven't you grown since I last saw you!"

"Mmhmm!" Mikoto nodded seriously. "Otou-san taught me how to throw shuriken, and I'm tall enough to open doors by myself now!" she reported proudly. "Saya-chan says she misses Pakkun and your ninken…" If there was one singular reason why Kakashi loved his goddaughter so much it would be due to her affinity for dogs, and he listened to her prattle patiently, a smile visible through the outlines of his mask. Mikoto remained the only person who was allowed to tug down the blue mask whenever she wanted to (it was thanks to her that all of Konoha got their first glimpse of the elusive Copy-nin's very handsome face).

Sakura smiled, only half watching the drum performance as she leaned against Sasuke's shoulder contentedly, watching Mikoto giggle at Kakashi's scrunched-up face as he said something; watching Natsume cheer boisterously along with all the boys as he declared that he wanted to learn to play the taiko and began bugging his father about it. Sakura shuddered and hoped that that would be a passing fancy – Natsume was loud enough at home without a taiko to accentuate his noise.

It wasn't long before Natsume's attention was captured by the next performance. Sasuke immediately turned to his wife, knowing her penchant to be indulgent when it came to their children. "We are not having a taiko in the house," he hissed adamantly.

Sakura laughed at his stricken expression, and agreed wholeheartedly. "No, we aren't." She grasped the arm encircling her waist, smiling as Naruto all but skipped onto the stage to officiate the event in his hyperactive state.

"Sasuke?"

"Hmm?"

"It's a lovely day."

"Aa."

N

The families separated to visit the booths set up for the festival. Gai and Lee were resolutely trying out every game stall there was, while Kakashi and Neji avoided the whirlwind duo like the plague before they could be presented with some silly rivalry challenge comprising throwing games and stuffed toys.

Naruto had had to issue a directive that no shinobi was allowed to have more than one go at each game stall – or the stall keepers would have found themselves without any prizes within the first half hour. Regardless, they had a good time – Mikoto definitely impressed her godfather when she set her aim on a stuffed dog at a ring-throwing game – and promptly won it on her first try. Kakashi would later claim, smilingly, that he had nothing to do with the win despite having grasped her hand to 'guide' her throw. Natsume, meanwhile, was a pro at goldfish-catching – the bulging plastic bag he carried boasting five fat goldfish was proof of that. Sasuke had to maneuver his son away from the stall before Natsume could beg for another try – the stall owner was already visibly twitching: damned shinobi kids.

Sasuke surprised Sakura while she was engrossed in a new medical handbook at the bookstore, Mikoto next to her. Her daughter seemed to have inherited her affinity for the healing arts, clutching the Beginner's Medical Textbook (nostalgically, authored by Tsunade herself) in one hand while the other dragged her newly-acquired stuffed dog along. Kakashi had left Mikoto with her mother while he visited the more… adult part of the bookstore, muttering something about a new Icha-Icha compilation published in Jiraya's memory. Sakura would much rather not know.

"Sakura…"

"Mmph?" Sakura didn't look away from the book. Sasuke sighed - no one could ever distract the pink-haired kunoichi from a new medical text.

"Sakura," Sasuke spoke with a little more persuasion in his tone.

"Give me a minute, this is really interesting- oh!" she gasped as Sasuke enclosed her in an embrace from behind, slipping a beautiful, intricately-wrought silver book-marker into place on her page. It was candy-cane shaped, the edge hooking over the book spine while a red silk tassle dangled from the tip. He had commissioned it several months back, specifically requested for a cherry blossom etched upon the Uchiwa fan to be engraved on the marker.

"Happy anniversary."

Sakura was speechless for a long moment. "Sasuke - it's beatiful," she spoke, breathlessly. "Thank you." She bit her lip then, as if troubled. Sasuke made her turn around to face him. "What's wrong?"

Kakashi reappeared at this moment. Comprehending the situation quickly, he drew Mikoto away, leaving the couple alone.

Sakura glanced up at her husband sheepishly. "Well... you see... with the mission and all... I... forgot," she ended lamely.

"About our anniversary?" Sasuke had to laugh. "I thought forgetting important events was a trait reserved for men," he teased.

Sakura's cheeks flamed. "I'm sorry... I'll get you something, I promise!"

"I don't want anything. I already have you," Sasuke smiled, gently closing the book in her hands with the bookmark in between its pages. "Let's pay for the book, shall we? We'll be late for lunch."

Sakura smiled all the way to the cashier's, clutching the precious book and bookmark to her chest.

N

Naruto, inevitably, payed for lunch at Ichiraku's, grumbling all the way. Sakura had not been kidding when she said she would invite everyone.

"Freeloaders, all of you!" The Rokudaime Hokage muttered as his wallet was cleared out when the tab came.

"Just a little payback for all those times we've had to fund your ramen addiction, do-" Sakura cuffed her husband before he could finish the derogatory word.

Hinata, too, was pinching Naruto under the table, if his pained squirm was anything to go by, before the blonde loudmouth could return the name-calling favour in kind. Sakura was very proud of her friend, she definitely managed Naruto well.

"Well, you ungrateful bast-OW!" Naruto winced again halfway through his loud speech. Hinata smiled sweetly at him, and Naruto quickly straightened. "Well everyone, we've got a little surprise waiting for us at the third training ground... So if you would all gather there in abit."

Sakura looked at Tenten quizically. What surprise? Tenten's mysterious smile only piqued her curiosity. She looked to Sasuke for an answer, but the slight frown creasing his brow told her that he was just as clueless as she was.

"Come on, hurry up," Tenten was still smiling as she nudged Sakura towards the restaurant door, Ino and Hinata flanking her with the same mysterious smiles on their faces.

Sakura gave up the questions and obediently went along, carrying Mikoto.

Sasuke made to follow with Natsume in tow, but promptly froze at the restaurant door when his son piped up with a question.

"Otou-san, what does 'bast-ow' mean?"

He was going to kill Naruto later.

N

"So what's all the fuss…?" Sakura questioned with her eyes narrowed and her arms crossed as she and Sasuke stood in the middle of the third training ground, surrounded by their closest friends, all wearing huge grins on their faces. This didn't quite bode well…

Naruto snapped his fingers, clearing his throat. Sakura rolled her eyes. He'd grabbed every opportunity to do that ever since he'd first learnt to snap his fingers a few months back.

The Rokudaime, however, was grinning widely. "Bring them out!" he called.

The crowd parted to allow Sai and Haku through, carrying a long wooden chest of dark mahogany. They set it down before the Uchiha couple, smiling and opening the lid.

The chest was lined with blood-red satin, and two weapons lay within it. Sasuke and Sakura stared at its contents, too startled to speak.

Naruto approached them, grinning widely. "It's your anniversary gift, from all of us." He picked up the long katana from the box – a weapon modeled exactly after Sasuke's lightning-enhanced sword – black hilt and sheath, with no guard. Sasuke thanked his friend quietly, and unsheathed the gift in a smooth, languid move, examining the blade. The Uchiha crest was engraved into the silvery metal near the hilt, and painted red and white. The weight and grip was exactly as he was comfortable with, and as he let his chakra collect in his sword arm, sparks of electricity danced on the surface of the blade. It had been painstakingly crafted with the wielder in mind.

Knowing that the gift was very much appreciated even without Sasuke saying anything, Naruto turned to face Sakura, grasping and lifting the second weapon from the box. It was a naginata – a long-handled weapon with a large, curved, single-edged blade. The solid wooden handle was black and polished, with gold trimmings. Cherry blossoms were carved into the handle and engraved into the blade, each blossom painstakingly painted a light hue of pink.

"Tenten said that you were getting good at using this," Naruto passed the weapon to Sakura with a satisfied smile. "So we had one made for you."

"Thank you, so much," Sakura smiled brightly at all her friends, lovingly examining the naginata, kneeling to show Mikoto and Natsume her new gift. "It's a wonderful anniversary gift."

"Oh, don't thank us," Tenten grinned mischievously, and Neji laughed behind her. "We expect something in return, of course."

Sasuke looked up sharply. "What?"

"Well, we want to see the present put to good use," Ino said coyly.

"So you two," Kakashi gestured to the couple, the orange book for once nowhere in sight, "are to be the closing performance for today's festival. Natsume, Mikoto, get over here."

Sasuke glared at Naruto. "This was unplanned," he hissed.

"Oh, it was planned. Just without your knowledge, that's all," Naruto said cheerfully, carefully edging away out of reach of Sasuke's new blade.

"I am not going to spar against Sakura for your entertainment!"

"Oh, man up, Sasuke," Sakura said lightly, a tinge of laughter in her voice as she untied her obi.

"Sakura what are you doing-" Sasuke almost panicked, envisioning all the… inappropriate thoughts running through the minds of the male populace currently present as his wife disrobed – in public!

"Getting ready to spar," Sakura replied innocently, slipping off her yukata to reveal her uniform just below it. A muted sigh of disappointment passed through the gathered crowd and Sasuke turned his glare on them. Sakura smirked and passed the garment to Tenten, who was almost dying of laughter.

Sasuke's emotions were in conflict as Sakura strode up to him and started tugging on his sleeve to lead him to the center of the training grounds, her weapon in hand. "Come on, Sasuke, I want to try my naginata out." She was going to get it from him when they got home later, he decided. She'd nearly given him a heart attack.

But for now, he gave in to her and let himself be dragged along.

"She's got you whipped, Uchiha!" Genma called, laughing. Sakura sent a glare in his direction, and Shizune clubbed him on the head. The two women smiled at each other in good understanding.

"You guys better back away!" Sakura called out as she took her stance opposite Sasuke, who unsheathed his sword calmly. The crowd of onlookers hurriedly shuffled back, giving them a wide berth – Sakura's reputation for destroying training grounds was, after all, legendary. Gai, Lee, Natsume and Mikoto had formed an impromptu cheer team at the sidelines, yelling their lungs out.

"Well, Sakura," Sasuke's stance was relaxed. "You asked for this, you realize."

Sakura smirked, adjusting her grip on her weapon and leveling the naginata at Sasuke, in a crouching stance. "Just shut up and spar with me, Sasuke."

N

Half an hour later, they were still going strong. Sakura planted the tip of her naginata into the ground and used it as a lever, vaulting over Sasuke just as his sword slashed towards her. Channeling her earth-based chakra through her weapon, Sakura let it travel through the blade into the small crack in the ground, in a thin line towards where Sasuke stood – and let it explode beneath his feet, crumbling the ground within a five-foot radius and sending debris flying. Sasuke had barely evaded it and came charging towards her, his katana pulsing with electricity.

Sakura yanked her weapon back up, gripping it with two hands and thrusting it before her to block Sasuke's blade with the handle. The force of the blow caused Sakura to stumble backward, and she tripped over the patch of uneven ground she'd created during the sparring session. Surprised, Sakura's right hand let go of her weapon and reached out towards Sasuke, who instinctively grabbed her hand and pulled her back towards him – only to find himself falling with her.

The couple let go of their weapons and Sasuke held Sakura closely so that she wouldn't suffer the brunt of the fall as they tumbled to a halt and lay there in each other's arms, breathing heavily from the exertion, unmoving.

"Oh gosh," Sakura gasped, "I tripped."

Sasuke looked at her gravely, nodding. "You tripped."

They both burst out laughing as loud wolf-whistles echoed from the crowd – they were still curled up together on the ground. Someone was yelling at them to get a room, but they heard none of it, suspended in their personal moment.

Natsume and Mikoto, not quite understanding the significance of wolf-whistles and 'getting a room', tumbled over to join their parents, Natsume diving in with a loud whoop proclaiming "GROUP HUG!"

Much to Sakura and Sasuke's horror, their spectator friends seemed to decide that Natsume's yell was an invitation to take part in the pile-on. Sakura instantly sat up, waving a threatening fist. "Come any closer and I swear you'll regret it!"

"Aw, Sakura-chan, you're no fun!" Naruto whined.

"Being crushed by all of you isn't my idea of fun," Sakura retorted as Natsume clambered into her lap, fighting for her attention.

"Tou-san, Kaa-san, that was AWESOME!" the excited boy bounced in his mother's lap. Mikoto merely nodded her head solemnly in agreement. Sasuke and Sakura exchanged glances, smiling, and Sasuke drew his entire family into a comfortable embrace, content.

N

"… Mikoto bought that beginner's medical textbook that you wrote, shishou, remember that one? She's a really smart girl, even though she's only four and she's a lot like me… except without the temper. Kakashi and Sasuke really dote on her, you know. She's the only one allowed to pull down Kakashi's mask. And Natsume… he's a lot like Naruto. Sasuke complains all the time and wonders how we got a son that's like the Uchiha version of Naruto. Natsume's a great favourite with Kakashi too, I think Natsume reminds him of Obito. Natsume's really excited about going to the Academy next year, too. He's showing a lot of promise with jutsus, though his Sharingan hasn't manifested. He's really excited about that, too!"

Sakura knelt before the memorial, staring at Tsunade's name etched into the stone. It was evening now, she had come here while Sasuke brought the children home for a nap before dinnertime. She clutched a branch of cherry blossoms in her lap, speaking softly.

"I'm really happy, shishou. I just wish that you and tou-san and kaa-san and even Yuki-chan… could have been here to share this happiness with me. Sai is a really good man now, though he still remains painfully honest to a fault," Sakura laughed. "I hear he's seeing a girl… I'll tell you more when I wrangle the information out of him. Haku fits in perfectly now, he made it into ANBU. Naruto's a really good Hokage, like you knew he would be… even though he spends most of his time entertaining the village with his silly antics… but we still love him. He's a good leader. And Hinata's really good at him. You'd love seeing how she keeps him in line. Shizune's happy, too, with Genma. Though I don't think they plan on having any kids, so your only grandchildren are Natsume and Mikoto. Oh… and Asuma and Kurenai's daughter, Chiyuki, you remember her? Well, she's sixteen now, and a very pretty girl – Asuma's got his hands full scaring away all her potential suitors. Kurenai finds it incredibly funny, actually. Everyone is doing really well, too. Konoha's a beautiful place now, and it's really good to have our peace back. Gaara still keeps in touch with Naruto – oh, he's married, too, and his son is the cutest thing –" Sakura's voice broke, and she paused to compose herself.

"I miss you, shishou. Every single day. Sometimes I go into Naruto's office and expect to see you there, demanding for more sake, or sprawled across your desk asleep. When I'm in the hospital working on a difficult case, I almost feel as if you'd appear and give me some kind of advice, tell me about some new healing technique that'll help the patient. But I know you're somewhere else, and that pushes me to work harder. I hope that you're proud of me, somehow."

Her voice trailed into silence.

"I brought cherry blossoms for you… I remember decorating your office with these every year during this festival… and you'd yell at me and Shizune cause you were so sick of cherry blossoms. And then you'd get even more pissed when I reminded you that you saw me every day. We'd ignore you and continue filling your office with the flowers cause it was a festival, after all. Well, it's become an important day for me, so I hope that you won't mind that I brought you cherry blossoms after all," Sakura smiled, setting down her offering. "I did bring some sake, alright? So don't be angry." Sakura withdrew a bottle of expensive sake from her robes and placed it next to the flowers. "Share some with Jiraya-sama, won't you? And tell him that Kakashi just bought some Icha-Icha compilation that was published in his memory. He'd be happy about that. I bet Kakashi is holed up in his apartment, devouring the book now."

Sakura stood up and dusted herself off. "Well, I have to go… Sasuke's taking me out for dinner since Tenten agreed to babysit Natsume and Mikoto. I'd rather have a family dinner at home, but whatever suits his fancy, I suppose," she grinned. "I'll make sure Naruto stays in line, alright? And I'll see you sometime soon," she made a respectful bow towards the memorial, silently praying for everyone she had lost.

When she turned, Sasuke emerged from the cover of the trees, a small smile adorning his face. He held out an arm to her, and Sakura threaded her arm through his, enjoying his warmth.

Sasuke's onyx eyes stared into Sakura's emerald ones that shone brightly in the descending darkness, speaking of love, happiness, contentment. They were silent for a long moment.

"Shall we?" Sasuke tugged gently at her arm.

She smiled, and that was all he needed.

N

THE END.

Well… this is rather melancholic. I hate endings.

It took me five years to complete this story… and it's imperfect, but I'll change nothing, because this story is very close to my heart – it is something of a coming-of-age story for me, as a writer. The first few chapters, personally, are unsatisfying, but I believe that I have matured throughout the course of this story.

Five long years… I sincerely thank all my readers and reviewers who have faithfully made this journey with me as I wrote this story. I may have lost a few readers due to constant procrastination and late updates, and for that I truly apologize – but for those who have stood by this story, and supported me all throughout – you guys are amazing inspiration. Thank you for pointing out my mistakes and failings for they have helped me become a better writer.

I wanted to finish this story before midnight today, 31st December 2010. It's a close of a story and a start of another. Many have asked me for a sequel, but I make no promises because I'm really busy now. If I do write another Naruto fic, it will be a NejiTen fic, which adopts some elements of this story but will not be a sequel…

Once again, thank you all. I would really appreciate it if you leave me a final review, regardless of whether if this story made you laugh, cry, hate, love… or whether if you've ever left a review before. If you haven't, please do – I'd like to think what your overall impressions of this story are.

I love you guys for being there for me throughout – so here's to a Happy New Year to all and may you guys have a wonderful year ahead!

Cheers,

Rave-chan~~

** EDITED (14 April 2012) - I have posted the prologue to a new AU GaaSaku story, 'Protected'. I hope you'll read it and tell me what you think! . Thank you~

Rave-chan 3