Study of the Heart
"I'm really happy." Ino smiled, rubbing her stomach, which had swollen slightly to the point where it was clear that she was either mid-pregnancy or gaining weight in a very uniform and localized fashion. Her face was glowing, and she really did seem content and happy. "Oh, thanks!" she beamed at Shikamaru, who resignedly set a bowl of ramen in front of her that seemed to have at least six different things in it that most people would never want in their ramen, and that was just at first glance. Shikamaru pursed his lips slightly, but when he sat down next to her, he surreptitiously enveloped Ino's hand in his own. She used her free hand to shovel the weird meal into her mouth.
"Is that…are there orange slices in there?" Sakura could not help her face scrunching up in horror and disgust as she watched Ino feed her baby's cravings. "And…what is that weird…goopy stuff?"
"Peanut butter. There's a lot more than that in there, too." Shikamaru's voice was that of a man who had been driven beyond the edges of what he thought he could endure, and was vaguely amazed to find that he was still surviving, even with no end in sight. "You missed breakfast. She wanted scrambled eggs with raspberry jam, chicken strips, and fish eggs all in them, put on toast with a big splash of ranch dressing."
"Shikamaru makes me anything I ask for!" Ino flushed happily between mouthfuls, and Sakura tried not to gag. "It's great!"
"When…were you due again?" Sakura did not watch Ino eat, she didn't want to think about what was in that bowl.
"Three and a half more months." Shikamaru answered, while Ino, her mouth full of something that was no doubt horrendous, gesticulated in reply. "Sometimes I think it will never end."
"Shikamaru can't wait to be a father!" Ino giggled after she had swallowed, and she fished out what appeared to be a whole hard-boiled egg from her bowl, sucking it down with relish.
"Yes." Shikamaru sounded strained to the breaking point. "I can't wait."
"Oh." Sakura nodded, standing up. "Well…thanks, it was good to see you two. You've been very…um, helpful."
"Wait, didn't you have to ask us something?" Ino frowned, a noodle hanging out of her mouth. Sakura very badly wanted that to be a noodle.
"I think you answered it." Sakura had to leave or she might be sick. She fled the house, leaving her friends to their unique lunch. She had been sure that if anyone would make her want to be married, it would be those two. They were still really newlyweds, they had been married less than a year, after all, so they were not as…comfortable as a couple like her own mother and father who seemed content, but also seemed to be kept together, more than anything, by a strange sort of inertia. But she wasn't sure she really envied them at the moment. If she would eat things like that when she was pregnant…Sakura pushed the thought away, because she still wasn't sure it wouldn't make her vomit.
She had waited a few weeks to start asking her friends about how they felt about marriage, and her first couple had made her doubt that it was really something she wanted.
But then again…the way that Shikamaru was looking out for Ino, and giving her anything she wanted, though he so clearly found her appetite to be as disturbing as Sakura did. To be able to depend on someone like that to always do anything for you…Shikamaru would never be a romantic guy, Sakura was sure, but what he was doing now seemed very thoughtful and sweet. If marriage meant that you could always depend on each other, and on the power of your love seeing you through any trial…that could only be good, right?
She was near to his house anyway, and she was already thinking about it, so Sakura soon found herself at Kakashi-sensei's door. She knocked, wondering if he would be there, or if he was over at Iruka's place, but just as she was about to turn, the door opened, and her masked teacher appeared, looking like he had only woken up a few moments ago, except for the fact that he was fully dressed.
"Sakura?" he sounded a bit surprised, and she realized with a small modicum of guilt that she had not been to his apartment in ages, and had not even spoken to her old teacher in months.
"Hello, Kakashi-sensei. May I come in?" she asked him, and he blinked at her before shrugging, clearly past the point of surprise or confusion, and letting her in. She had forgotten how very unlived-in his apartment felt. There were no clothes on the floor, no dishes out of place. Barely any decorations. She realized now that this was because he was almost always at Iruka's, and that this apartment was really only for appearances, and for him to store his things. "Can I ask you something?"
"I always have time for my cute students, as long as they aren't going to waste my time with temper tantrums." Kakashi was smiling, and Sakura pursed her lips, fighting back embarrassment as she remembered how she had attacked him and gotten him in trouble with Iruka so long ago.
"If that was true, you wouldn't have spent so much time with Sasuke." She teased, and Kakashi laughed, sounding vaguely surprised at her quick, sharp retort.
"What can I help you with?" Kakashi gestured to the couch, and she took a seat. He had always been a bit more polite with her than he had with Naruto and Sasuke, and though she felt close to him, there was a certain distance there, and she wondered if he would be frank with her, even now.
"How long have Iruka-sensei and you been together?" she asked, and she could tell, though he hid it well, that he was not expecting that question, and was sitting down slowly to cover his surprise.
"Oh, a while now." He shrugged as though he couldn't be troubled to keep track of these things, and she frowned slightly.
"How many years?" she insisted, and he sighed slightly.
"Five years." He answered, seeming a bit out of place without his book there to look at so that he could distance himself from the conversation. Sakura blinked. They had been together that long? They had never given her a hint, and she might have never known, but for Sai telling her.
"If you could," Sakura went on, regaining her train of thought. "Would you marry him?"
"To be honest, I'd be happy to just live in the same place as him." He smiled, as though this was a joke, but Sakura thought it was almost the saddest thing she'd ever heard.
"Kakashi-sensei," her brow furrowed. She didn't like seeing people she cared about in pain. "Have you told him how important it is to you?"
"Sakura, you came to ask me for something, didn't you?" he sounded weary, and sad, and she wanted to hug him, but she couldn't think of how to do it without the scene being awkward. "Let's forget my troubles. I'm guessing this has something to do with Sai, am I right?"
"Well, if you're asking me if I think you should marry him, then I'd tell you no." Kakashi told her with a finality that surprised her. "If you have to ask other people about it, then you aren't really ready."
"Oh." She supposed that made sense in its own way. "But…how will I know when I am ready?"
"You'll just know." Kakashi shrugged slightly. "You're smart, but you think about things more than you need to. If he asks you something like that, don't analyze all the choices like you're on a mission, just answer what you first think of, and then you'll know. Don't ask me, though. I can't get my own life to work, so my advice can't be great."
"No, what you say makes a lot of sense." She smiled and stood, and he rose to show her to the door. "Thanks for everything, Kakashi-sensei."
"Yeah, yeah, I know." He yawned, as though bored with their meeting, and she smiled, turning and beaming at him.
"Tell him how you feel, sensei." She told him. "Love doesn't always have to be a sacrifice, you know." She left him speechless, feeling pleased with herself, but also feeling like she was done with advice for the day and wanted only to go home to Sai.
When Sakura opened the apartment door, she wanted nothing more than to curl up with Sai, relax, and try to calm down the flurry of thoughts that were troubling her just then. However, they appeared to have a houseguest.
"Hi Sakura!" Naruto came out of the kitchen, and she could just see Sai behind him. The blonde was wearing her own apron, which was rather frilly for a boy, and she had to bite back laughter at the sight. "I'm teaching Sai how to cook!"
"He is not teaching me how to cook." Sai responded with a twinge of indignant pride. "He is teaching me how to make a cake."
"Cake, that sounds good." Sakura smiled wearily at both men. "What's the occasion?"
"Uh, Sakura." Naruto scratched the back of his head. "Yeah, remember your birthday? It's tomorrow."
"Oh!" Sakura flushed brilliantly, feeling completely foolish at having forgotten something so obvious. "I can't believe I didn't think…wait, was I supposed to be surprised?" Sai shrugged, and she entered the kitchen, smiling when she reached up to brush a smudge of flour off his cheek.
"No, no surprise. Now I realize that I could have surprised you, since you seem to be surprised by the date of your birthday, but I was not expecting that." Sai told her, dropping a kiss on her forehead, and she flushed with pleasure. "I am glad that you like cake, though. Naruto assured me that nothing is better than a cake on one's birthday."
"Sorry to invade!" Naruto laughed sheepishly, and Sakura suddenly realized how private the moment must have appeared to embarrass him like that. "I tried to convince Sasuke we could do this at our place…but yeah, he doesn't want us making a cake over there. Jealous, I think. He doesn't like when I cook with other men, and he especially hates sharing sweets." Sakura couldn't help herself bursting into laughter at that, and Sai smiled brightly, turning back to the oven.
"Well, it smells great, you two." Sakura beamed, feeling more refreshed than she had thought possible from Naruto's visit already. "Do we have to wait until tomorrow to sample it?"
"Sakura, of course!" Naruto managed to look mortally offended. "It's your birthday cake, you can't just eat it before your birthday. Oh! We should have a party!"
"No!" Both Sai and Sakura opposed the idea at once and Naruto looked a bit surprised.
"I mean, I'd rather it be low key." Sakura smiled, trying to seem less terrifying to the blonde. He shrugged and shook his head.
"I don't understand you two." Naruto grumbled slightly. "Everyone likes parties. Except Sasuke, I guess."
"And Neji, he hates them." Sakura pointed out. "Mostly because he always ends up carrying a passed out Lee home."
"Gaara always hides when he is invited to parties, so I would guess that he does not care for them very much either." Sai speculated.
"I liked them a bit more before I had to practically carry him home from one." Sakura shrugged apologetically, jerking a thumb at Sai, who tilted his head slightly.
"I am sorry, I did not mean to ruin the fun of parties for you." Sai told her.
"I'd rather just be alone with you anyway, don't worry about it." Sakura smiled shyly at him, as if they were a new couple, not at all like they'd been intimate for months, and if you counted the interlude, years.
"You guys are sweet!" Naruto told them happily. "When are you getting married?"
"Ah, I asked Sakura already, but she said it is too soon, even if she has to risk bastard children since we keep having sex together, which I warned her could have consequences. I've read all about it, you see." Sai explained. Sakura felt her face flame, and even Naruto seemed embarrassed by Sai's forthright nature.
"Oh…yeah, that can…um." Naruto was clearly struggling to ignore his discomfort and make light of the situation, but he was having a hard time. "Yeah."
"It is a good thing that Sasuke and you are both men." Sai told Naruto stolidly. "With all the sex you have been having, you would have been pregnant for sure by now, otherwise."
"Sai!" Sakura threw up her hands, not even knowing what to say to that.
"Well, statistically speaking, if you are having intercourse at least once or twice a week, and you are together for as long as they have been, is what I mean. If one of them was a woman, you would expect them to have two or three children by now." Sai explained. Naruto looked like his face was about to catch fire, and Sakura thought quickly.
"Does the cake have much longer?" she changed the subject swiftly, and they both blinked at her. "I mean, I'd like to catch up with Naruto, if I could. If you don't mind, Sai." She smiled brilliantly at him, and the pale man shook his head, looking a bit dumbfounded, for once.
"That…that'd be great!" Naruto grabbed Sakura's hand and tossed his apron aside. "Let's go for a walk! Some fresh air…just the thing!"
"I will watch the cake, then, shall I?" Sai volunteered, but there was no answer as his two teammates hurriedly left.
"Sorry about that." Sakura apologized, and Naruto shook his head, shrugging slightly as though it didn't matter at all to him. "You know how Sai can be."
"You don't have to apologize for him, he didn't mean anything by it." Naruto sighed heavily. "The truth is…sometimes I wish I could do that for him. Give him a child, I mean. I know he says he doesn't care about his clan, but when we first joined Team Seven, he said he had two dreams. I'll never forget that, and even if he says…I don't want him to give up his dreams for my sake." His voice cracked slightly and Sakura looked over at him in alarm. Of all her friends, she had thought that Naruto and Sasuke were in the most secure relationship she knew. She had never seen them have any sort of serious fight in the time she had known of their relationship, and they both seemed so content and happy with each other, and to make Sasuke seem happy meant a lot. She had never thought that there might be insecurities still between them, even though Naruto had told her of his old doubts and concerns.
"Well…you risked your dream for him." Sakura offered, recovering herself. "If it really came down to a choice between being Hokage and being with him, what would you choose?"
"That's different." Naruto flushed deeply. "It isn't like it would ever come down to that decision, and even if it did, obviously I'd pick him. What kind of Hokage would just throw away their relationship for power? I wouldn't deserve to have the position if I'd really choose being Hokage over him."
"Naruto…" Sakura sighed and stopped, sitting down on a bench they had reached and indicating that he should join her. "You devalue yourself too much. I don't think you see how lucky Sasuke is to have you. I know you think you're the lucky one, but think of it from his point of view. He pushed you away, he was a total ass to you, and after everything, after he almost killed you, after he told you that he didn't care about you at all, and he tried so hard to burn every bridge between you…after all that, he came back, and you forgave him everything, and you trusted him with this," she reached forward, rapping her knuckles softly against his chest. "That's a lot more than just giving him a second chance as your friend. You gave him everything, and you had no way of knowing he wouldn't turn away from you again, and in the end, it worked out. That's what's so amazing about you two. You made me see what love really was like, and if I hadn't…I might have never taken a chance with Sai, much less a second chance."
"You make it sound like…" Naruto flushed, shaking his head. "Thanks, Sakura…I know you're right, it's just hard to let someone you love give up on something they want for your sake. But…yeah, I do trust him, and I should trust him in this, too." He sighed and leaned back, staring up at the skies, and they lapsed into a comfortable silence before he spoke again. "So, did he really ask you to marry him?"
"Yes." Sakura flushed slightly, not really knowing how to feel or what to say in this instance. "But…I mean, I wonder if it's too soon. What do you think? I mean, Sasuke and you aren't married, and unless things change, you won't really…I'm sorry."
"No, it's okay." Naruto smiled at her, but she could see it bothered him a little bit, at least. "I knew what I was getting in to. Part of me always wanted to get married and have a family, but things turn out how they turn out, you know? He is my family, and I don't need to be married to him to know that. Neither do you. Marriage isn't about needing, it's about wanting. Do you want to marry him?"
"Yeah," Sakura felt her heartbeat speed up at the admission. "I do."
"Well, then why wait?" Naruto asked. "Do you think you'll change your mind?"
"No…no I won't." Sakura took a deep breath. "You're right, Naruto. I should just do it, if I want to, and he wants to! What's holding me back, except worrying what other people might think?"
"And it's none of their business, anyway!" Naruto told her, punching the air with his fist and jumping to his feet. "You can do what you want! It's your life, and if you guys want to get married, you should be able to do it today if you like!"
"Well…I'll probably have a wedding." She flushed slightly. "It would be nice to go to one I'm enjoying."
"Yeah, Sasuke hates weddings…actually, he pretty much seems to hate everything involving other people…" Naruto considered, and Sakura laughed, standing to join him as they walked back to her house. She had made everything much harder than it needed to be. Why couldn't she have just looked on the situation with clear eyes from the start? Once again, she felt grateful to Naruto.
Sakura stretched and smiled sleepily as she felt Sai pull her closer as they both put off the inevitability of getting out of bed. "Happy birthday," he whispered groggily as he kissed the top of her head and squeezed her just as she nuzzled closer to him.
"Mm, another year." She kissed his bare throat sleepily. "Still love me?"
"Always." He assured her, his hand sliding through her hair as she continued to plant lazy kisses on his throat and chest. "Every wrinkle makes you more beautiful, every gray hair makes you wiser."
"Shut up, I don't have any," she halfheartedly shoved at him. "What do you want to do today?"
"It is your birthday, we should do what you like." He told her, kissing her forehead as she looked up at him.
"I want to stay in bed all day." She smiled and kissed his chin, and he took his time to capture her mouth in a long, slow kiss. No matter how often they did this, no matter how long they were together, she never tired of him, it seemed. She never regretted her decisions.
"We cannot stay in bed all day, you know this." He told her, but before he could elaborate, three children burst into the room with no warning, causing Sakura to gasp and cover herself with a sheet.
"How many times do I have to tell you to knock!" she berated the three children. The eldest, Tadashi, who looked exactly like an eight-year-old Sai, was balancing a tray carefully, having almost dropped it during their sneak attack entry.
"Ninja don't knock, they attack." He explained. "This is good practice. If we can surprise two jounin, we will be very powerful ninja."
"This is true." Sai nodded, smiling as he cast about for his wife's robe, and pulled a pair of pants on to cover himself. "Sakura, our children are very stealthy, are they not?"
"Mommy, don't be mad!" the youngest, Umeko, a five-year-old girl who also looked almost entirely like Sai, except for her green eyes, climbed onto the bed and tearfully held out her arms to demand a hug. Sakura could not resist her children, and she complied. "Ta-chan said we should, and I said you'd be angry if we didn't knock, but he said we should anyway."
"I'm not mad, it's alright." Sakura smiled so her children wouldn't be afraid, and they all climbed up on the bed. The middle child, Haruka, was seven, and was the only one that really resembled her mother, but her paper white complexion was clearly from her father.
"We made you breakfast in bed," she indicated the tray as she helped Tadashi heft it up onto the bed. A glass of juice still came close to falling over, but Sai reached over and caught it deftly, smiling warmly at his children.
"Mommy, are you really a hundred years old?" Umeko asked, and Sakura couldn't help laughing as everyone started helping themselves to the simple breakfast fare.
"Almost." She giggled. "Who told you that?"
"Ta-chan." Umeko answered, and Tadashi laughed sheepishly, rubbing the back of his head.
"I was just joking." He explained.
"You know, daddy's even older than I am." Sakura smiled at her children's varied reactions and she relaxed, enjoying this time with them. She had been with Sai so long now. They had been married almost ten years, and he seemed to be the one thing that would always be there. The children had brought their family even closer, and Sakura felt like it was worth doing all over again just for their sakes. But Sai…in Sai, she had truly found someone who would love her unconditionally, to the end of her days. She felt the same way about him, and she couldn't feel better about everything they'd gone through, even with the suffering and uncertainty, because in the end, it had ended perfectly. She couldn't imagine being happier than she was now.