Disclaimer: Naruto and all canon characters referenced here don't belong to me, but Tsumo, Ringo, Yurin and any other OCs that show up here do, unless otherwise disclaimed.

Last Edited: Sep 7, 2012

Where the Heart Is

Prologue: The Baby and the Beast

She never compromises

Loves babies and surprises…

-"Meet Virginia" by Train

Sakura stared at the baby.

The baby stared back.

Sakura turned to the man sitting with her. "You're certain—absolutely, positively certain—that Momo-nii wants me to take care of—" she paused, trying to remember the little boy's name.

"Ringo," Harada Tsumo supplied helpfully.

"—of Ringo-chan? Not Yurin, or you?" Sakura tentatively prodded the two-year-old's stomach. His bored expression didn't so much as flicker, but his bright green eyes slid to the offensive finger before zeroing in on her own once more. If not for those eyes, she wouldn't have believed the boy to be her older brother's child. For one, his hair was a bright, bloody red in the place of the odd pink hair the two Haruno children sported. And, more importantly, Haruno Momotaro was flamboyantly, flamingly gay. Sakura really had to wonder what on earth happened abroad that could make her older brother touch a woman.

"I'm afraid so," Tsumo was saying. "He was very clear on that in his letter."

Sakura couldn't blame Momo, really. Their aunt, Yuriko, was busy enough with keeping the central Fire Shrine in the village up and running. It wouldn't be fair to shove a child onto her…again. "I'll be graduating from the Academy in a few years," she said. "I'll have to go on missions and leave the village sometimes."

"Momo-kun wouldn't dream of tying your hands like that, Sacchan. I'll be happy to help you with him whenever you need it." Sakura loved Tsumo—he had been Momo's best friend for going on seven years, and had helped raise her. Tilting his head to the side, Tsumo slanted a curious look at the bizarrely stoic child. "According to Momo-kun, he's very well behaved."

"I can sense that," Sakura agreed, as she tried and failed to tickle Ringo under the chin. He simply blinked sedately up at her before turning his head away. His eyes still hadn't moved away from her. The ten-year-old sighed and ran a hand over his messy red hair, smiling faintly as he rubbed back against her palm. "…I think I might be able to do this." She'd give Momo hell for dropping this on her with only a letter and some money, but there was no way she would or could refuse to take in the little boy.

Tsumo smiled and tousled her hair playfully. "Personally, I can't wait to hear the massive favor Momo-kun is pre-paying you for."

Sakura looked at him, puzzled.

"Well, he did just give you his first born son, after all."

It was times like this, she thought as she began to laugh, that Sakura remembered why she loved Tsumo.

Sakura realized quickly enough that it wouldn't be right to just let Yurin and Tsumo pay for everything forever. Ringo was her responsibility, and in a few short years she'd be an adult in the eyes of the law; she should be able to offer support too. She'd need a greater pay than an administrative position, as Mizuki-sensei (or, as she liked to call him, The Bastard) had mockingly pegged her for one day, not realizing that she had been passing by the teacher's lounge at the time.

As much as it stung to admit it, he was right. In most physical tests and exercises, she was just barely average, and that just didn't cut it if you wanted to rise through the ranks and get the really lucrative missions. So, firmly setting her resolution in place, she eased herself onto the road of self-improvement, spending a little more time training every day. She focused most on her weakest points, picking up as many muscle-building and agility exercises as she could.

Sakura had asked The Bastard how to increase her chakra reserves as well, but he had merely laughed her off, saying that somebody like her shouldn't be worrying about things like that. Correctly interpreting that as "I have absolutely no idea, I'll just patronize you to make you feel inferior and stupid", she turned instead to Iruka-sensei (or, as she liked to call him The Intelligent, Remarkably Understanding, Kind Adult. The IRUKA, for short), who was much more helpful and should have been her first choice. He had explained that chakra, much like muscles, had to be gradually increased by pushing ones limit again and again. Because of her advanced chakra control and maturity, he had enough faith in her to lend her a scroll of chakra manipulation exercises. The IRUKA was amazing like that.

The first and most basic, tree-climbing, she had mastered on the first try. It didn't tire her out for very long, and it did stretch her levels very much, but it took some time. It couldn't casually fit in to her new routine, but it had been worth it to see Tsumo's face when he walked in after a long, tedious day at the office and she welcomed him back from the ceiling. Ringo had even laughed, which had swept away any hesitation she felt about her new resolve. He was really a sweet child, and thankfully not a mute as Momo had assumed. Sakura had bonded with the little guy, to the point where she had begun taking him with her on her early morning runs.

Those daily work-out sessions were made much more enjoyable when she added the second technique from the scroll to her slowly growing arsenal. Water-walking used up more of her chakra than tree climbing had, since it had to be constantly maintained, and was combined with the relentless pace she had set for herself. The combination of vigorous early morning training, classwork and sparring, and after-school-before-dinner training left her fairly drained at the end of the day. It was a good sort of exhaustion, though; the kind that came only after a day of good, honest work where one had done their best, and Sakura had acquired a taste for it.

Then one day, a few weeks into her new regime, her life was changed forever more.

On that day, she met Maito Gai, Konoha's Beautiful Green Beast.

It started out much like any other day—the sun was getting ready to rise, the birds were beginning to tweet, Ringo's little face held all the emotion of a rock—in a word, ordinary to the extreme. She double-checked that Ringo was firmly strapped into his harness, as she always did, before beginning her run. Her route around the village strayed closer to the training grounds and parks than the commercial and residential districts, so there was minimal chance of disturbing the civilians. And she studiously avoided the Fire Shrine; Yurin was an early riser, and there was no need to worry her over the harsh training her niece was putting herself through, after all.

Just as she touched down upon the large, steady stream that wound through over a third of the village, a booming voice nearly caused her to stumble.

"How inspiring!"

It was only her superb control over her chakra and sheer terror at the idea of Ringo drowning that kept her from tumbling into the water. Heart racing, she whirled around to confront the man behind her—

—and her mind stalled. The blistering words she had been summoning died on her tongue as she stared at, quite possibly, the oddest-looking man she had ever met.

Her eyes slowly drank in the shiny bowl cut, the think eyebrows, and when they hit the green jumpsuit and orange leg-warmers, they leapt back to his face in self defense, and even that was dangerous business. His grin was honest-to-Godsparkling. She was so shell-shocked that she didn't even flinch when he bounded down from the red bridge he had been posing on to clap her on the shoulders firmly.

My God, Sakura thought faintly. He actually has tears in his eyes. Things only got worse once he opened his mouth once more. "Such passion—such dedication—such an overwhelming aura of TRUE LOVE and AFFECTION in one so young!" Ah, she realized as a tiny hand gripped her hair. It's Ringo he's so worked up about. The man continued on, his deep voice ringing clear in the early morning air. "Young miss, you are a veritable paragon of YOUTH!The Will of Fire burns brightly in you—to combine training with familial bonding…truly, I must commend you!"

"….thank you." Sakura said weakly. "Um….can I go? If I stay too long, I'll have to rush to get to class." The man began weeping at that—actually sobbing, like a man discovering religion for the first time—before looking up with a burning determination in his eyes. "Please!" he began passionately. "Allow me to join you in this Shining Tribute to the Springtime of Youth!"

There really wasn't much Sakura could say to that.

Ringo found the man funny enough, though, and with such a heavy endorsement on his side, the strange jounin became a semi-permanent fixture in their daily runs.

A week before the end of Sakura's second-to-last year at the Academy, Gai halted their routine early, a serious look on his face. "Sakura-chan," he said, holding her by the shoulders as he always did when imparting something of great importance, emotion, or pride. "I am both saddened and elated; in but seven days, I shall be joining the hallowed ranks of the jounin-sensei of Konohagakure!"

"That's great!" Sakura grinned. The strange man had grown on her in their time together, and she knew how much being assigned students of his own meant to him. "Whoever you get will be really lucky." Her smile wilted a bit at the thought of not seeing him around all the time.

Gai and his flair for the dramatic had, of course, preempted her disappointment. "Forgive me, my dear comrade, for I have an utterly selfish request to make of you today."

Even Ringo looked a little surprised at the grave tone of the normally exuberant man, though Sakura couldn't see it. "Okay…" She said slowly, dragging out the last syllable. "Shoot."

"Please Sakura-chan…allow my pupils to join us each morning! Being exposed to one so youthful as you can only do them good!" Gai clenched a fist and waves suddenly appeared in the forested area they had paused in to crash majestically behind him.

Sakura reflexively cancelled the genjutsu he had unknowingly erected by sheer force of emotion and pretended to consider it for a moment. Then she giggled, unable to contain herself at the anxious look he wore. "Of course! I'm really happy, actually; I was afraid I wouldn't get to train with you at all anymore." Ringo made a small grunt of agreement and nodded, his soft cheek rubbing against her hair.

Gai lasted an impressive four seconds before shouting out and dragging them into a tight hug, sincerely touched to the point of tears once again. Sakura just laughed again, and decided to let the sunset that had popped up stay, for the moment.

"Good morning, Team Nine!" boomed Gai in the pale, predawn light. Tenten winced at the volume and vaguely wondered if she would make it to jounin—or chuunin, really—without going half-deaf. As one of her new teammates returned the greeting with just as much enthusiasm, she resigned herself to the fact that there probably wouldn't be anything "half" about it at all. The final member of their squad simply sighed in annoyance and Tenten had to force herself not to stare at him.

Hyuuga Neji was gorgeous, yes, but he was also icy, unsociable and looked down on any and all that he perceived as 'weaker'. Tenten had the slightest crush on him—really, what red-blooded girl with eyes wouldn't—but she made sure never to let it show around him and his all-seeing eyes. The top rookie of their year wouldn't hesitate to scorn her for it, and she didn't want their team dynamics any more screwed over than they were already.

"Now, my young pupils," said Gai at a more socially acceptable level, indicating that he meant business. Three spines snapped to attention reflexively as he continued. "Today, you shall meet an incredible person. Do not fixate on rank. Do not fixate on appearance. She is a truly strong person, and the Springtime of Youth blooms vibrantly in her. Treat her with respect, and remember to always look underneath the underneath, like true shinobi."

Tenten felt her heart speed up. A person that their sensei, a jounin, respected…they had to be special. And he had said "she"—a kunoichi, for sure!

As soft footfalls slowly became audible, Tenten watched the road expectantly. She couldn't find any sign of movement whatsoever, and her admiration kicked up another notch. Suddenly, Neji, who had subtly activated his Byakugan, inhaled sharply and turned to the side of the bridge, staring out across the water.

She and Lee quickly followed suit. Her mind reeled in disbelief as she caught sight of the figure sprinting across the surface of the river. Though she was fast, one thing stood out immediately: her hair was pink. Tenten's astonishment only grew from there. When the other girl landed on the railing in front of them, she realized that not only was the newcomer younger than them—Tenten remembered seeing her around the Academy—but there was, inexplicably, a small child perched in her arms.

The little boy's face was a study in blankness. Where other children, presented with such a ride, would show excitement, glee, or fear, there was nothing. Only the barest flicker of interest stirred in his light green eyes when Gai bounded over to them.

"Good morning, Sakura-chan!" He boomed. "And you as well, young Ringo-kun!" The russet-haired toddler just yawned in the face of such a Youthful! Greeting and nestled his face into the crook of his sister's (or so Tenten assumed) neck. The girl smiled lightly, amazingly unfazed by their odd teacher.

"Good morning, Gai-sempai. Sorry we're a bit late; Ringo isn't used to getting up so early." Her voice was soft with amusement and affection. It was only years of training that allowed Tenten to catch Ringo's sulky little huff.

Now that she was stationary, Tenten took a moment to assess the girl their sensei was so interested in. She was pretty, with glaringly exotic coloring and a forehead that looked a little on the wide side, but it suited her. She noted with interest the bandaged fingers and whipcord-thin frame beneath the long-sleeved shirt the Academy student was wearing.

The child in her arms had a mess of red hair and green eyes nearly identical to hers. He was in civilian clothes, indicating that he wouldn't be going to the Academy in the future, or that Sakura was a first generation ninja. His soft, rounded face seemed to be stuck on its default expression of boredom.

Sakura hopped off the railing and shifted Ringo so he rested more comfortably in her arms as she bowed. "It's nice to meet you all. I'm Haruno Sakura, and this is my nephew, Haruno Ringo."

Tenten, middle child of five siblings, winced in sympathy.

"Your brother shafted you with babysitting duty today?" she asked. It had happened to her more times than she could count.

"Babysitting duty…?" Sakura mused. Then she laughed. "Kind of. Momo-nii went off travelling a few years back and somewhere along the way, Ringo was born. He sent him back here to me about a year or so ago. He didn't mention anything about the mother."

Tenten stared. "…oh." And she had thought her siblings could be inconsiderate.

"Fate is rarely kind to second children." Neji remarked. "Why did he choose you, when you're but a child yourself?"

Sakura coughed. "Well, I can't really fault him on that. Our aunt basically runs the Fire Shrine here. She checks in on me, from time to time, now that I'm old enough to take care of myself, and she spots me if I need money or something, but she doesn't really have the proper amount of time or space for a child. After our parents took off travelling, I was mostly raised by Momo-nii and his friend Tsumo, who lives with me now."

"HOW INSPIRING!" exclaimed Lee, unable to contain himself any longer. Tenten saw Sakura stifle another laugh for some reason, though her mirth didn't last. The bushy-browed boy was suddenly in front of Sakura, one of her hands clasped firmly in his own. Her other supported Ringo, who looked even surlier than he had before. Lee's round eyes were sparkling. Tenten had a bad feeling.

"Sakura-san! You are as selfless as you are beautiful! Please, be my girlfriend!" The kunoichi-in-training blinked, obviously not expecting that. There was a short pause in which she seemed to be wracking her brain for a way to politely decline. Gai-sensei's chortles about the "Springtime of Youth" and "young love" probably weren't helping much. Luckily for Sakura, help came from an entirely unexpected quarter.

"No!" snapped Ringo, smacking Lee's hands with his own tinier, pudgier ones. "No! Bad!" Lee quickly let go, while Sakura stared down at her agitated nephew, shocked. Tenten surmised that the boy was normally just as quiet as he had been during his introduction. The boy in question grumbled and twisted back around to hug his aunt's neck. Sakura carded through his hair with her fingers, soothing him while giving Lee a helpless smile.

He bowed. "I was foolish to believe that another man could steal ground within your heart with such ease. Ringo-san, I swear that I will someday become a man worthy of your angelic aunt!" How he could say all this so earnestly to a three-year-old, Tenten really had no idea.

"Big words from the deadlast." Scoffed Neji as Ringo glared at his boisterous teammate.

Tenten attempted to ease the tension before things had a chance to escalate. "So, Sakura-san, why did Gai-sensei ask you to meet us here today?"

The pink-haired girl shifted her nephew up once more, this time to glance at her watch. "I usually take a run around the village before class. Gai-sempai usually joins us, and he figured it would be good for you three as well. Actually, we're a minute or two late…"

"Alright!" Gai-sensei cut in. "We must not mar Sakura-chan's pristine attendance record! Make haste, my young pupils; if we cannot finish this run before her class begins, we shall circle the village ten more times!" Sakura laughed, short and sheepish, before taking off once more. The three genin of Team Nine followed quickly on her heels, working hard to find a common pace.

Gai-sensei seemed just crazy enough to follow through on that threat, after all.

Gai's team slipped into the daily beat almost seamlessly, save for Ringo's enduring distrust of Lee. Sakura certainly liked them well enough. Tenten was funny, in a dry, witty sort of way, and gave her some of the best advice on weaponry and aim that she had ever received. Lee reminded her of a puppy; sweet and over-eager to please. His chakra handicap twisted her heart, though. She supported him however she could, as a friend. She still had to stress this last part several times a week. His admiration for her only seemed to grow and her resolution to use weights like he and his sensei didn't help the situation at all.

Neji was a much needed shot of tranquility, albeit one with the oily aftertaste of arrogance and fatalism. His pearly, all-seeing eyes always seemed to be following her, assessing her, studying her. Apparently, he had truly taken Gai's words to heart that first day. Sakura had no idea if he really found the lessons he looked for in her, but he was always respectful and seemingly approving, so she must have been doing something right.

As the months passed, the team bonded and grew together. Sakura couldn't help but feel proud of them, though she knew she hadn't really done much to assist them. Lee was truly shaping up to be a genius of hard work, even without chakra. Through intense training, he became faster than Sakura could ever hope to be. Most of her time was devoted to taking care of Ringo, spending time with him, Tsumo and Yurin, and the Academy and its assorted assignments. The remaining portion belonged almost completely to training and sleep, and wasn't nearly enough for her to devote herself to the same brutal regime.

His sudden taste for green spandex wasn't a wholly unexpected change, given his hero-worship of Gai. Sakura, Tenten, and Neji, however, had all flat out refused The Jumpsuit. When he showed up with a glossy bowl-cut, she had to rub her temples to keep herself from losing it, but by then Sakura had learned not to take his fashion faux-pas as a personal failing.

Neji, for all his speeches of inevitability and futility, had slowly come out of his shell and built a connection with his teammates. Somewhere along that same line, he and Sakura had stumbled into their own little routine, spawned from a series of bumping into each other at a shared favorite haunt. Every few weeks or so, when familial duties permitted it, they visited a tea shop after Team Nine's evening practice to unwind and chat. It was purely platonic; Lee still dogged after Sakura, and every now and again an old fangirl had to be driven away from Neji. Ringo never seemed to object either way, so the other members of Team Nine never saw the need to speculate on a possible deeper meaning to their meetings.

Tenten's accuracy was uncannily precise. She had also recently been introduced by her proud father to the wonderful world of storage seals, and generally carried more metal around on her person than found in the average forge. Tenten was usually the one elected to go and fetch Sakura for evening training, once the pink-haired girl had joined Team Nine in that as well. On these trips, she got to know more about Sakura's family and life.

She also met Tsumo.

The up and coming weapons specialist's slight crush on Neji was outright eclipsed by her "pure love" for the young lawyer. Tsumo, ever the diplomat and charming as always, never directly accepted or refused her blatant affections, opening her up to a deluge of ribbing and good-natured teasing from Sakura. It was well worth the stream of sharp, deadly things, just to see the flustered look on her face.

When Team Nine was deployed on long-term or long-distance missions, she had to admit to feeling a little lonesome, but only a bit. Sakura still had her family to keep her in high spirits, after all. Over the course of the past two years, however, Sakura had broken off the shallow affiliation she had been building up with the other girls in her class who had followed Uchiha Sasuke around. She was still polite to everybody in the class (even The Bastard), but rarely stayed there a moment more than she had to. She ate lunch at home with Ringo, Tsumo, Yurin and on special occasions, Team Nine. She entered and exited the class with the bell. Field trips and group projects, something she had once adored, were now little more than nuisances.

As far as Sakura was concerned, the people she considered to be her friends were all one or more years her senior.

Sakura didn't realize it, but her steady withdrawal from the class had been noticed by many people. Ino often gave her odd, speculative looks when her back was turned, which became bitter glares when Tenten inevitably met the pink haired kunoichi-in-training at the gate to walk back to her house and prepare for evening training.

Sasuke, beneath thick layers of indifference, was rather relieved at the blessing of having one less annoyance following him around. Naruto, whose crush had never wavered, simply sulked at her sudden, constant lack of spare time. Other reactions varied; Haruno Sakura had always been pegged as a weak, brainy type of girl, so it came as quite the shock when she began winning her spars during practice time. She had climbed up the physical rankings and was currently the uncontested best of the girls in class, both on paper and in action.

Many of the boys had taken careful note of her athletic figure—and not just because of emerging hormones. There was no doubt that she would be an asset to her team, and final exams, graduation and assignment were less than a month away.

Sakura began to wonder if she shouldn't have cut her hair after all; she liked the short pigtails and Tenten had said she looked cute, but the stares boring into her back were beginning to make her doubt the other girl's sincerity.

Team Nine's first anniversary loomed ever closer and for some reason, the genin seemed to get edgier with each day. Neji snapped at Lee with even more venom than he'd used before they were first thrown together. Lee's blows veered off course and demolished nearly a dozen training posts. Tenten's weapons were frequently buried so deep into her targets that in took Gai to yank them out.

It was Ringo who clued Sakura in on what was weighing so heavily on them.

"They're sad." He told his aunt sagely as she dandled him on her knee after one particularly exhausting spar. At his blunt words, all three shinobi stiffened. Sakura just laughed.

"Oh? And why's that?" They didn't seem the least bit sad to her. They were a little tense, sure, but nowhere near anything she would call depressed.

"Sacchan's going away. The Big Guy's sad too." Her amusement died almost instantaneously. She looked around, but her three sempai were suddenly utterly absorbed in their individual training. A shadow fell over the two of them and Sakura glanced up at her previous opponent instead. Ringo followed suit, nodding his head in satisfaction. "See? Big Guy's really sad."

Gai was crying again, she noticed before she was dragged into one of the flamboyant jounin's signature embraces.

"Oh!" he choked out. "Oh, you have grown so much since that fateful day we first met, Sakura-chan! To think, I shall have to step aside and allow another to guide you upon your journey to become an even greater shinobi…" He began to sob then—actually sob, like the truly bereaved—and Ringo patted the man's cheek consolingly from where he was squashed between them. Gai slowly reigned in the veritable flood he was creating, and began again. "There is no doubt in my mind that your sensei will be proud to have you as their student, and I know that there is a large chance that their training schedule will conflict with our current arrangement. But you must know that if you ever have reason or the time, you shall always have a place open for you here. With us."

Sakura blinked hard. Her eyes felt oddly hot for some reason and her voice seemed to be lodged rather painfully in her throat, so she just nodded. "You'll have to tell us all about it," Tenten spoke up. "Any drama, all about your teammates—" Her voice cut out just as abruptly and she turned back to the straw dummy she had been so intent on mangling. Neji and Lee murmured their agreement, actually sharing the same decibel level for once.

It was all Sakura could do not to cry—she loved these people, really she did—and for the first time in their long, odd relationship, her arms rose and she returned the nearly suffocating hug.

Alright! I'm officially back into fanfiction, for better or for worse. It's been a few years, but I think that the past few years have seriously improved my writing technique. I'm ready to start a multi-chaptered story.

...for reals this time.

Anyways! Drop me a review if you like it so far; I have quite a few things planned out, and feedback is always welcomed.

Thanks for reading!