From the Memoirs of Haruno Sakura IV
After I hid the book of letters the rogue nin my daughter had loved in her youth in the attic, I had imagined their discovery would occur in a time where I had already passed. Maybe it was a bit cowardly of me. I knew I had no right to keep those letters a secret from her. They were his final messages to her, the answers to all of the possible questions that might still be plaguing her, and I was selfishly keeping them hidden because I did not want him to hurt her anymore. I was being a good mother, I argued with my conscience. I was protecting her from him as I had been powerless to do when he'd been alive. This was right.
Then one morning, two weeks before the birth of my second child, I was sitting in the living room, trying to make sense of a blanket I was having a horrible job creating (whoever claimed crocheting was easy was a liar who needed their ass kicked). My daughter arrived home. Immediately the second she entered the room, I knew something was off. She seemed distant, her green eyes glassy, and her movements absent of thought or purpose. Her coat missed the hook on the wall and fell in a heap on the floor, ignored, forgotten. The shoes were slipped off and stowed to the side by their distracted owner's foot, with no care for their proper placement in the shoe rack.
I put down my arts and crafts disaster and watched her, unsure of what to make of her odd behavior. Finally she wandered off to her room only to emerge fifteen minutes later in civilian clothes, still acting distracted. Just when my curiosity was reaching its bursting point, she detoured from her aimlessness and approached me directly. She perched on the coffee table across from me. In her hand was a single piece of folded paper. Several heartbeats elapsed. Neither of us spoke.
I glanced down at it and then up at her. "What is it, sweetheart?"
Sniffing lightly she opened the paper and held it out to me wordlessly. I frowned, took it, unfolded it, and after a time, I looked up at her again. "I don't understand," I admitted. "It's just a pressed daisy."
My daughter palmed at the corner of her eye, which I was shocked to see, were filled with unshed tears. "I found that in my teacher's mailbox," she explained thickly, pausing to swallow. "Mom, I need you to tell me something. I need you to tell me again about how he was killed."
I stared at her, at first unable to grasp her meaning. "How who was killed?"
She gave me a hard Look. "Mom," she managed with deliberate calm. "Please."
It was useless to play dumb, and I bit back a sigh for understanding this too well. "He was badly burned by two Akatsuki members. He was only identifiable by his belongings and the family members who were able to recognize him." Falling silent, I held out the daisy, waiting.
My daughter took a few moments to pull it together before responding, inhaling deeply and exhaling slowly. "When… Before he defected," she began quietly, "when everything was still perfect, we used to train together in this field. It was just on the border of Fire Country, a little area nobody knew about. He found it once during a mission and he thought it was a great place for us to be alone, and to… to do what we wanted." She blushed, whilst smirking; privately reliving a memory I prayed I would never be made privy to. Thankfully she only went on to say: "Only one kind of flower grew in that field." She pointed to the daisy in my hand. "I remember I used to do stupid girly stuff with them, like making chains, and then these little head bands… I made him wear one once and he looked so ridiculous. He was such a stiff back then… You can imagine how embarrassed he was." She wiped away a stray tear. "I called him King of the Daisies once, and I've never seen anyone turn so red. For all that happened after, it's what I cherish the most about my memories of him: When he was with me, he didn't have to be the cool bad ass nightmares were made of, he could just be himself." Her eyes drifted to the flower again. "Some days I still can't believe how things went so wrong. I feel like I'm the only person in the world who knew he didn't have an evil bone in his body. But I'm biased, I think. I loved him… I just didn't want to believe it, maybe."
I absorbed the impact of her words, saying nothing for a long time. "You think there was a mistake," I finally concluded softly.
My daughter bit her lip, sniffed again, and shook her head, and then shrugged her shoulders. "I don't know," she said brokenly. "Maybe it's nothing."
"Maybe it is. Does your boyfriend know about your mailbox?"
"No. If he wants to give me something, he just gives it directly to me." My daughter stood and began to pace, a habit she did whenever she got nervous. "I asked everyone who would have a reason to visit the mail room at the Academy if they saw anyone they didn't recognize or looked suspicious but nobody's seen anything." Pained, she faced me again. "Nobody knew about our secret spot until I told you about it just now. If someone is trying to play a prank on me, it's a cruel one." The poor dear carded a hand through her hair, gently tugging on the light pink locks, and sighed heavily. "I'm so freaked out right now. I don't know what to feel, or what to think." She reached out to me and took my hands in hers. "Mom, are you positive it was his body? Did you see it for yourself?"
I hated to be honest, but I wasn't going to lie to her. "No, I didn't see it," I answered reluctantly, unwilling to pursue this further. I squeezed her fingers comfortingly. "Baby, even if it was him, why would he have waited all this time to try to contact you? Does that make sense to you?" She released my hands and lowered her chin, inspiring me to press on. "Yes, this is mysterious." I gestured to the flower now lying on the coffee table. "For all that we know you just might have an admirer who wishes to remain anonymous and the flower he chose to express this to you is just a coincidence. It doesn't mean what you think it means." It doesn't mean what you want it to mean, I added silently.
"You're probably right," she murmured, the disappointment on her face, and in her voice, caused me to ache to my core. "Of course you're right. I'm sorry," she smiled, silly-like, "I'm sorry, it was stupid." I watched her leave the room. I watched her go with a mixture of concern and sadness.
I hated to see my child in pain yet again over a man who would never completely leave her soul. If there was an after life, he would be the one she would choose to spend it with, no matter who she loved now. Sometimes I felt guilty about my good fortune: Sasuke had come back to me even after everything that had happened between us. Yes, we'd lost so many years we could have had, but if it needed to take him that long to become the man he was now, it was worth it that it did.
Yet I wanted that boy to stay dead. I knew his heart better than my daughter would ever fathom. No one who loved like he loved her stayed away, not forever. You don't forget… you can't forget.
And that was why even though I vigorously denied it to my daughter's face, uneasiness took root in my stomach, a feeling that had nothing to do with the life growing within. It was the dread of fearing this was what I feared it was and nothing terrified me more.
If this is real then I hope he's smart enough – and cares enough - to stay away, I thought then, praying with all of my might. If what I remembered about that boy was still true, when it came to loving my daughter, as true as he was to her, he was misguided about it. If someone could personify both salvation and downfall at the same time, that was what my daughter had been to that boy.
I let my gaze drift out the window into the cloudless skies beyond and worried.
Two weeks later, I was taking my daily walk, when I felt a stabbing pain in my abdomen. The baby wasn't expected to arrive for another three weeks, and I hadn't experienced the usual signs the day was near yet, so this sudden, swift onset of labor symptoms shocked me.
False labor, I told myself, waddling off the beaten path to lean on a tree, my face screwing up in agony. This happened with my first. It doesn't mean anything yet only that my sneaking out to be alone is going to have to stop now.
Oh, I needed to sit.
I sank down to rest on the uncomfortable ground, teeth clenched tight. I fought off the urge to moan and tried to relax, stretching my legs out, leaning my head back to rest against the bark of the tree. "Dammit…" I breathed out. "Now I know why I hated doing this the first time."
As if in answer, the pain returned again, worse, and I cried out in surprise, my hands scrambling to find purchase, carding the grass and tearing it. I desperately searched the tree tops for a ninja passer by but I didn't detect any of the tell tale signs of one, chakra or otherwise. Shit, I remembered thinking, stupid stupid stupid!
Another spasm seized me and I couldn't prevent a keening cry from escaping my lips, loud and unrestrained. I wanted to weep, it was so bad. A few tears welled and stung the corners of my eyes. They snapped open wide when I gazed down at my lap and saw a dark stain on my dress. In disbelief, I reached up and felt it, and gasped when my fingers encountered warm wetness.
My water had broken. The baby was coming now. The greatest medic nin in all of Konoha was heavily pregnant and where was she? Sensibly alone… out in the middle of the woods.
Time enough for self-recriminations later. What I needed was a freaking sedative. I struggled to control my breathing, gave up, and concentrated on using it to alleviate the pain. The contractions were coming pretty regularly and in a fairly short period of time I got used to them. Thank god women have a high threshold for pain, I thought. Cursing helped too, and I used a few choice phrases Tsunade, bless her resting soul, loved to use to chase off the rage of disappointment and frustration. Being in the office of Hokage was a stressful job and if she couldn't find anything to punch or a bottle of sake to consume, a colorful string of coarse analogies was the way to go.
And I knew every one of them.
"There's a reason why you brats are so stinking cute," I told the infant in my womb through gritted teeth. "It's so your mother doesn't kill you after you're born. Well, you better just hold your horses!" I reached behind me and used the tree to climb and braced the ground with my feet and literally dragged and walked myself to my feet. "You've had your way with me long enough it's time I had mine for once."
"Do you always talk to the baby like this when I'm not around?"
I looked up and grinned tightly. "Just on special occasions. Took you long enough to notice I was gone."
Sasuke shrugged and arrived at my side to help me stand. "The house was too quiet and I knew you wouldn't go far. You shouldn't have left at all." He glared at me. "We need to talk about that, but not right now." He glanced down at my legs. "Shit," he cursed, a like mind to mine, "is that what I think it is?"
I was glum. "Yes. Your son's decided he wants to be born today, so if you can get me back to the house that would be… ARGH!" My knees gave and I fell on them, Sasuke catching me, and cushioning the journey to the ground. I breathed a few more times and cried out again. I looked up desperately at my husband and shook my head. "No good. The contractions are getting closer together and I can't… I… can't…" I keened again and let him help me to my feet just enough to get me back to the tree so I could sit against it again.
Sasuke was trying hard not to panic; I could see it in his usually impassive face he didn't know what he was expected to do for me at this point. Nothing I'd briefed him on included my going into labor with him as the sole witness and only able party around.
I gave in to the reality of the situation. "Okay." I sucked in a deep breath. "Give me a kunai."
The kunai materialized on command. He watched with wide eyes as I used it to cut my dress off at the knees. "This should be enough. We might need your jacket later, so take it off now." I closed my eyes for a second. "All right, slip off my panties for me."
It dawned on him, finally. "Sakura, are you sure we can't…?"
It took all I had just to get out: "Dammit, Sasuke-kun, do it!"
He did it.
"Now just… just do what I tell you to do. No more questions unless they're necessary."
Sasuke shook his head in disbelief, fear in his expression, yet there was resolution and commitment to the situation in his every movement and the obeying of my every order. He'd always trusted my expertise and knowledge. On that day in the woods as he assisted me in the delivery of our child, I was never more proud of him.
"I don't have to tell you to push, right?" He said as he positioned himself between my spread thighs. "Should go without saying."
"Sasuke-kun, no jokes," I grunted, shifting my body into the most comfortable position possible. There was no such thing, of course, but credit me for trying. "Am I dilated enough?"
"Sorry." He scrutinized the area between my legs. You wouldn't have imagined from the expression on his face he was looking at anything out of the ordinary. I envied his detachment. At last, he spoke. "It's what you said. I think. I would need a ruler to be sure."
This man… I sucked in my lips, fighting back a giggle in spite of the fact I felt I was being pulled apart in every direction at once. "I'm going to push now. I want you to… to tell me what you see."
He nodded, his gaze unwavering, and he kept one hand on my knee, squeezing it every now and again for silent encouragement. I pushed and pushed, letting out a groan of effort every now and then, concentrating on getting the child to pass through the birth canal smoothly. The more I pushed, the more relief I felt, and every in between only urged me to keep pushing. I watched Sasuke's face the whole time and he watched what was going on between my thighs intensely. When he told me he saw a head, I exhaled in relief. I was so afraid it would be my worst nightmare of a breached birth – that is, with the feet coming first. If that had happened, the baby, and myself, would have been in danger of dying, the baby definitely. Today I still can't imagine what I might have had to have asked my husband to do… My heart of hearts told me he'd have picked my life over the baby's in a second. I knew him too well.
Sasuke wasn't the kind of man who coached and coaxed a person to the conclusion of any act. He helped me along using touch, grasping my hand when I needed it, rubbed a leg, and when our gazes connected, he would nod to show me it was okay. Finally he reached down quickly and one long, hard, push later, I felt the baby slip from my body completely. I groaned in relief and relaxed, panting, sweating, and gross, covered with birthing fluid, blood, and grass stains. I was in a euphoric state and feeling more than a little bit giddy. I was going to regret it later, because I wound up spending two weeks in the hospital after ward for a few post-natal issues, but I would never forget how very clean, and free, my mind felt in that moment.
Eyes closed, without moving an inch, I murmured the next set of instructions, which Sasuke again followed flawlessly. (I think disposing the afterbirth was the most embarrassed I've ever seen him). I smiled and opened my eyes when a shrill cry erupted from the newcomer's mouth, his tiny, sticky body enrobed in the makeshift blanket of his mother's skirt remnants and his father's jacket. With what little energy I still possessed, I sat up completely, eagerly held my hands out, and Sasuke willingly handed him over.
He was perfect, as I knew he'd be, tiny and wet as he was. As I'd secretly hoped, the little screamer had a soft, down, wispy cap of black hair. When he felt my embrace, my touch to his soft cheek, and heard my voice he calmed down almost immediately. He opened his eyes, two perfect ebony orbs, and gazed directly at my face before looking around. Our son was only a few seconds into the world and already he was getting down to business of orienting himself. Sasuke watched him over my shoulder, just staring at the baby like he couldn't believe what he was looking at. I never wanted for a camera more.
"He looks like my brother," Sasuke said unexpectedly, wonder in his voice.
"I was going to say, he looks like you," I said, smirking sideways at him. "If you want to be fair, he's also me. My daughter has the same look around the eyes."
"I was wondering where I'd seen that before. He better not have your temper too."
"Oh, that's going without saying." I pressed my lips gently against the infant's damp forehead. "You're going to want to head for the hills."
Sasuke slipped his arm around my shoulders. "Speaking of which, we need to get the both of you to the hospital. Are you up for the journey?"
Tucking the baby against my body with one arm and wrapping the other around my husband's neck, I shifted into his arms. "With you carrying me, I always am."
Sasuke rolled his eyes at my sentiment, and took off into the trees, unable to hide the pink in his cheeks. I smiled.
I turned my head and looked over to where my adopted son stood tip-toe over his new little brother's bassinet. "Yes?"
"Why's he so squishy looking? I thought babies were supposed to be cute. Ow!" He grabbed the back of his head where Sasuke had poked him hard with his index finger. "What, I was only asking a question!"
"You've asked her ten of them within the last fifteen minutes. She's tired and needs to sleep." Sasuke regarded the boy severely. "Unless you don't want that ice cream cone I promised you, you'll be a good boy and be quiet right now."
The boy stuck his lower lip out in a pout and came over to my bed side and laid his head down on it close to my hand. "Sakura, Sasuke's mean." I moved it just enough to touch his nose and cheek, giving him a little smile. "And you're precocious," I teased, and had to hold back a giggle when he made a face, and turned it into the white hospital sheets, before popping back up immediately to announce, "Where's Big Sis?"
"She's assaulting a vending machine one hall down," Sasuke replied. "Better hurry."
I watched the boy bolt for the door, and peel off down the corridor beyond. "Sasuke-kun, was that really…"
"Necessary, yes, it was." Sasuke tempered his stern response by perching beside the bassinet, gazing down at the newest addition to my decidedly strange family. "If you saw you right now," he said without looking at me, "you'd have refused to let half the morons who came to visit you today see you."
My eyes dropped to my hands. I looked that worn out? I wanted to cry, though I wasn't sure if it was because of what he'd said, or how I was feeling in general. "I look that bad?"
He sighed through his nose. "You can't ask me that question."
"I'm your husband." He finally looked at me. "And I like my balls right where they are, thank you."
I brought my hand up to my lips and pressed them hard against my teeth. Sasuke kissed my cheek and that's when I lost it, laughing so loudly, it disturbed the sleeping infant. He fussed until Sasuke draped one arm over the edge of the bassinet and soothed the boy back to sleep.
I watched him, quietly admiring his profile. The man was a born parent, I thought, which is likely the most unlikely conclusion I could have come to about the man I loved, considering the drawn sword he'd been in his younger years. Perhaps it was like he had said to me once about feeling like half a parent around Naruto for so long when we were kids. I remembered the way he'd seize Naruto's jacket collar to stop him from stepping in traps, "Watch it dobe." How he'd watch Naruto do something wrong, then just go over to him, dish out a scathing insult, and then impatiently show him the right way to do it. His almost palpable exasperation during spars and tolerant, "Hns" sometimes accompanied with a slap to the head. Naruto would always grin cheekily after, even if Sasuke snapped at him, and walked away with his hands shoved in his pockets. I later knew this was because he adored Sasuke, wanted his attention, and didn't care how he got it as long as he did. Then too, I'd once wanted that attention, and I had had it, I just hadn't understood the form it had taken, and had I, I would have known I had been pegged as the one long before both us were old enough to come to terms with it.
Sasuke caught me watching him from the corner of his eye, and gave me a smirk that was more smile than silent gloating. I know you watch me, his eyes said, because I'm watching you too. His also said he was thinking I was beautiful and I understood why he said what he did before. I might have called him a liar and I would have been wrong. Sasuke never lied about the important things. Not to me.
A rising commotion coming from the doorway had us turn to see my daughter walking in with a complaining little brother in tow. Sasuke's black look had the girl wrapping both arms around the small boy and effectively silencing him. His protests died under her hand and when his struggles ceased, she released him. Mouthing "Sorry!" she moseyed over to the unoccupied side of the bassinet, gazing down at her new little half brother. "Oh," she murmured, surprised, "he's awake." She looked at Sasuke for permission, and he nodded, leaning away. My daughter reached in and carefully lifted my son until he was properly cradled in her arms. She made the usual cutesy noises at the infant. "Think he'll let me talk him into one?" she asked, meaning her boyfriend.
"Get married, and I'll think about it," I replied, earning me an eye roll. My daughter's generation wasn't big on marriage. "Or not, I don't care. Co-habit at least so I don't have to wonder about him being around."
"You didn't have anyone around when I was a baby."
The question could have been taken the wrong way if my daughter and I had been anybody else. It wasn't a cruel slip of the tongue; she was honestly just bringing up the truth. Well, half the truth. "Technically, no, not all the time, but I had plenty of outside support. Naruto half lived with me the first couple of weeks after your father passed away and it was a good thing. I was so exhausted most days I needed his stamina to help me keep up with you."
"I thought Naruto was married with a kid already," she interjected.
"He was. His wife gave him the okay to stay with me some days, because she knew there was no other way to keep him from worrying himself sick unless he was right there. She used to joke that I was his second wife." I winked at Sasuke to show him how not seriously to take that. "By the time I got a handle on it, he had to focus his full attention on his own family."
While I was talking, Sasuke had gotten a thoughtful look on his face, the same one when he was deeply considering some sort of action. Later it came back to me from Naruto that Sasuke went to see him afterward, alone in his home, and thanked him for watching out for me. He finally managed to ask Naruto why he never seriously tried to get with me even for as long as he'd been out of the picture.
"You have had Sakura to call yours since childhood, even when you hadn't wanted her. After all the shit that's happened with your family and your brother, I wasn't going to be the one that took your woman. That goes against my personal man code you know."
"You could have," Sasuke informed him stoically. "I wouldn't have blamed you."
"No," Naruto told him, seriously, his expression hard. "You let me get away with a lot of shit, bastard, but I know, on some level, you would have hated me if I managed to turn her from you, if I had even wanted to do that. That would have been real hate, the kind I could not have ever hoped to chase from you. Any other man you'd forgive, concede to, but not me – because it was Sakura and it was me. No, you would not have stood before me that day in my office and asked to be helped, not if you'd known Sakura was mine – and we both know that."
Sasuke's eyes had darkened then, and he'd lowered his head, silently conceding to Naruto's dissection of his character. It was a conversation I shouldn't have discovered was had, but Naruto did not believe in hiding anything between the three of us. That was his unspoken rule concerning Sasuke and myself. There was nothing he would keep a secret, not from me, and not from him. It was okay if we kept stuff from him, he just wasn't going to do it with us. Not unless we got in his face and told him point blank: "This is a secret."
Sasuke never did. So I always knew. I would always know.
"Can I hold him? Please?" the new big brother pleaded with his adult sister. "I can hold him right! I can!" To me, he beseeched first, then Sasuke. "I want to hold him."
Sasuke did a wonderful imitation of granite. I sat myself up further with the aid of the recliner, and gestured to my daughter. "Bring him here," and to my other son, "sit by me." He obeyed and so did she, without question. As she handled the infant over to me, I instructed the boy to sit like I was sitting, and then carefully, gently, I passed the baby to the cradle of his eager arms. Sasuke watched the whole procedure like the hawk – not out of distrust, but out of unexpressed concern for the baby's well-being.
"Support his neck," I told him, "it's very important. You got it?"
"I got it."
"All right." I took my arms away and gazed upon my two sons affectionately. The older one beamed back at me happily, softly kicking his feet back and forth, looking down at the baby who looked back up with him with fascinated curiosity, a tiny fist jammed in the corner of his equally bit mouth. My older boy – and yes, I thought, he was mine as much as the baby and the younger woman in the room were mine – cuddled the baby.
"He's still squishy," he opined, "and he's so small now, but we're going to kick butt, him and me. One day."
After my release from the hospital, a stay which in my opinion had made me miss so much time and life, I found myself once again at the whim and will of an infant. I mourned the agency I had lost in the wake of becoming a full-time mother again. However once more my dread was unfounded, for this time was nothing like the first. Sasuke switched off with me for midnight feedings. When both of our maternity leaves were up, my daughter took couch duty and helped out in caring for her baby brother on the days my husband and I simply could not. Touchingly, she even got her boyfriend and other former teammate on the action. The guys loved babies and joked often about the all practice they'd had babysitting on D rank missions as Genin.
"You both will make great fathers someday," I praised, and was heartily amused by the blanching and stark expresses of fear in their faces. No S class ninja could scare them but when you put the fear of responsibility for a tiny human life in them, the hills never looked more appealing. I advised my girl to continue using that birth control jutsu and she snickered, saying it never crossed her mind to stop.
"With this little brat," she told me, holding the boy to her shoulder, "I'm getting more than enough practice." Promptly the baby chose that moment to spit up on her and she cried out in dismay. "Oh come on! That's the third time he's done this today!"
I laughed and took the squirming baby from my very drenched and fuming daughter who stormed off to change her clothes. She passed Sasuke on the way and muttered, "That damn kid is the devil." He looked at me, caught my repressed amusement and merely grinned.
"Wear a blanket on your shoulder," he advised after her retreating back. "It saves you a load of laundry." Turned back to me, he looked down at the wide eyed infant who couldn't seem to get enough of his surroundings – or me, who he babbled and cooed at endlessly because Mommy = Entire Reason to Smile For No Reason. He froze in his vocal libations when he saw his father's face hovering over him and watched him with a quiet intensity, a stillness and attention he didn't exhibit around anyone else. Sasuke merely brushed his son's soft cheek with an index finger, causing the baby to immediately smile and wave a hand around until his father let him seize his finger.
I jumped on this chance. "Mind keeping him for a bit? I promised the boy I'd pick him up from the Academy today." My husband merely accepted the passage of the tot to his keep without complaint, which was a huge relief because I really wanted to get away for a little while. "Thanks."
Freed temporarily from one mommy duty, I was free to perform my other one. While I loved my new baby dearly, I starved for the company of my older boy, simply because he could carry on a conversation and didn't need his every need met by me. I loved to hear about his school day and all about the many adventures only a child his age could have. Lately I noticed he'd grown pouty since his displacement as youngest, and while he showed no open resentment for his little brother, his jealousy at losing our main regard was evident every time the baby opened his mouth and wailed. While he was mostly able to keep Sasuke's attention, losing mine had been of an especial blow, and one that wasn't forgiven as easily. Normally I wouldn't have felt guilty; however, I hadn't given the boy my full attention for the last three weeks. Besides I needed to make up for last night. He and I had been playing a board game when the baby had interrupted and I hadn't been able to get back to it. When I abandoned him after only fifteen minutes to once again give the rest of my night to the infant, instead of asking the able and willing Sasuke to do it, it pissed him off.
Sasuke privately confided to me the boy waited until I'd left the room and when I didn't come back, he'd slammed both hands on the board, causing the pieces to scatter, shoved to his feet and left the house to stew on the back porch.
When Sasuke went out to sit with the boy, the kid voluntarily exploded at him.
"Why can't you take care of the baby?!" he shouted. "I'm her kid too, why can't I have her for a little while to myself, it's not fair! My real mother never did that to me, she never-!" And there he realized what he was saying and snapped his mouth shut, and turned around again, glaring into the night with a stubborn set to his lower jaw.
Entering the playground area, I exchanged brief greetings with other mothers and fathers waiting to escort their children home. A few asked about the baby and I answered their questions while I waited for the gates to open. It amazed some people that a ninja as renowned and admired as me still played mommy just like the rest of them and did normal things like pick her kids up from school and put in my nine-to-five shifts like a regular civilian doctor. I was edging toward that last one with more and more regularity. With the baby in our lives now, I could no longer fulfill the duties of a part time hunter nin. I admitted I would miss the chase yet I conceded the passing of my last vestige of my active kunoichi career. I'd lasted much longer than some of my other constituents from my graduation year, and that was nothing to sneeze at.
At last, the gates opened, and a flood of excited children came streaming out into the yard. Some tackled their family members with ferocity, as if they'd been separated for years, and others merely grinned and followed after their guardians. I easily picked out the boy from the crowd; his dark little head of hair and quiet demeanor made him stand out from the rest. His eyes were on the ground, seeming rather lost in thought, his thumbs tucked under the straps of his back pack. He didn't notice me, walking past me, until I called out, "Hey kiddo, want some company?"
His head snapped up in surprise and it was so adorably comical the way he stared at me, I had to bite my bottom lip to keep from laughing. I went over to him and peered down at his astonished face with a smirk.
"What are you doing here?" he asked, confused.
I frowned. "I said I'd come get you."
"Well, yeah, but… you know." He shrugged. "You say a lot of things."
I realized he had fully expected me to break my promise. Somewhere I'd lost his regard and internally I swore I would do everything I could do to restore his faith in my word. "You didn't believe me."
The boy just looked up at me silently, his expression unreadable, expectant. He was too dear of a boy to outright call me a liar, and simply just shrugged his small shoulders.
I dropped to one knee and drew the child to me and held him fiercely, kissing his little neck once, and was relieved when his arms lifted to encircle my neck. There were times I couldn't believe I hadn't given birth to this child, I loved him just as completely as if he'd been mine from the start. It hurt that the new baby had caused a rift between us, and having expected it to happen didn't lessen its impact or the intense sense of unwant it caused within me.
"Listen squirt." I drew back and held his head between my hands so our eyes were level. "I'm sorry about last night. I know you're mad at me and you should be. Can you forgive me?"
He nodded and I released him, only to get half-tackled by another hug. I picked him up and swung him around, much to his delight and hefted him onto my back. He laughed and made himself comfortable and that was how we walked home together. Somewhere along the way a lollipop was purchased and by the time we reached sight of the house, it had turned into a race. The boy clambered onto the porch and punched the air with both fists, one of which clutched the lollipop.
"I win!" he brayed, and he spun and pointed triumphantly at me as I plopped on the last step, panting. "Ha!"
"Of course you won," I told him, winking. "How can an old lady like me even hope to keep up with a young sprout like you?"
He sat next to me and shook his head. "You're not old. Old people sit in rocking chairs all day and knit scarves and complain about the weather."
"I knit scarves. I complain about the weather."
"You're not old," he insisted. "Your hair isn't white."
He stuck out his tongue at me.
"Stow it or lose it."
He stowed it, grinned, and charged into the house, yelling to any and all within that he was home. I gave myself an internal pat on the back. Any time I could pull that kid out of a rut was a victory better than slaying a thousand enemy ninja. I would know.
I exhaled and rocked back until I was lying on the porch floorboards, closing my eyes. The hard surface felt really good against my back and I resolved to stay there for a little bit until life required my presence again. I drifted into a light half doze, although it wasn't deep enough to prevent me from hearing the screen door open and shut. I didn't open my eyes or move, even when a set of foot steps made their way over to me and stood over me. They just stayed there for a bit before I felt the person sit beside me. I fought with supreme effort to keep a smile from stretching across my mouth. I had a feeling I wasn't fooling anyone, least of all the man sitting beside me.
Gradually I opened my eyes and shifted my head, smiling up at my husband. Sasuke smiled back in that way of his that both told of the years that were behind him and all the years ahead of him. He was a man who lived in his present and loved every second of it. I often wondered where he had found some of his peace in those lost years, part of me sad not to have been there to watch the anger and hatred leave his soul. Sometimes I grieved for that time gap, mourned it in ways I never dreamt I could over what-ifs and could haves. More often I was simply grateful to have known him cherishing each and every small moment and day like the sacred gems they were, irreplaceable and immortal as time itself.
Sasuke settled next to me, lying in an identical position, his hand over my own, our fingers lightly entwining. For a long silent time we stared above us at nothing, enjoying each other's company.
"Baby's asleep," he stated.
"Your daughter is home."
"The boy is preoccupied."
I turned my head and propped it up with my elbow. I pulled my hand out of his and drew circles on his chest. "Sasuke-kun…" I teased, causing him to glance at me, and he smirked at what he saw in the twinkle in my eye. I eagerly leaned in and nipped at his ear lobe. I scrambled away as he sat up quickly and grabbed my hand, lightly pulling me to my feet, surprising me with his spontaneity.
"What the hell," he growled, "it's not like we ever get to do this anymore."
"We've never done it at all."
"Yeah, well you were never a pubescent boy pinning a pretty girl to the ground during training."
I burst into bright laughter. "Oh god, is that why you refused to spar with me?"
Sasuke reddened and looked away, even as he hauled me along. I stopped him just long enough to catch up to walk beside him. "Loser makes dinner."
He paused. "Sakura, I really wish you would stop setting terms."
"Fine, loser gets to tell my daughter she's cooking tonight."
"I don't want to die."
I looped my arm through his. "Neither do I." I sighed. "Okay, no terms… this time."
"Hn." He smirked.
"I heard that."
He glanced sideways at me. "You're going to have to get used to the fact I don't care what you see or hear me do, Sakura."
And that, I wanted to reply, is exactly why I love you as much as I do.