Chapter Eighteen

The Mark


Hanabi did not particularly understand why she was suddenly recruited to help around in the hospital, given she did not have the proper training to be anything near what a Medic nin could do. Well, she supposed she could be useful in moving around objects from one place to another – she was fairly strong, after all – but was starting to question the decision-maker for these sudden changes in the Leaf. Surely there were better capable people to assign in a place of healing.

Well, it wasn't as if they had any other choice; the effective shinobi were either on the run, or in jail. But that was not the reason why she was starting to doubt the Village's Hokage.

Hyuuga Hanabi's loyalty had always belonged with her clan, although her sister had always told her that the Village came first over family. She had tried to understand what her sister was trying to tell her, but she could not quite grasp how one could put Konoha over Hyuuga. Hanabi's world had been confined within Hyuuga teachings and Hyuuga secrets. She had never been taught what Hinata was taught, what Neji-nii was taught. Hyuuga had been her everything.

That was, until that day when she came home to a Village that was nothing more than a big, steaming hole in the ground, half her family scattered, and almost every single Konoha ninja wounded or dying.

"If you're not planning to help around, then can you at least get out of the way?" someone said from behind her.

Hanabi turned around to find a tall tower of boxes hovering over her, shinobi-sandaled feet poking from under it and a long green scarf trailing down on the floor beside it. She backed away hastily. Not him again. It always had to be him…

Konohamaru's face appeared from behind the tower of boxes. He was frowning at her. "Well?"

Hanabi side-stepped, scowling at the boy as he pushed past her with his heavy load. She was beginning to wonder how he was able to make her feel utterly useless by just being present in the room. "Where are you taking those? Can I help?"

Konohamaru paused for a second before dropping the boxes on the floor beside more boxes that seemed to contain important-looking papers. He turned to face her. "Take orders from Shizune-nee. She's the one who recruited you, right?"

Hanabi bit her lower lip dejectedly. "I did. She told me to wait a minute. I've been waiting for almost an hour."

"She's been running around for the past three days just to get things in the hospital going, you know. Why don't you wait by her office?"

Hanabi stared at the boy for a few seconds before she nodded, feeling slightly hurt. She was not used to being pushed to the side; as the Hyuuga heir, she was always at top priority in her clan. So this was what Hinata must have meant when she said the Village came first.

It was then did she realize that she had been living in a box created by Hyuuga hands. Somehow this realization did not bring a good feeling.

She turned on her heel, incredibly humbled by the things that were happening around her. She wished Hinata were home. She somehow felt that if her big sister were there, everything would be all right.

"Hey."

Hanabi turned around. Konohamaru was once again carrying his boxes, but he was smiling at her with that annoyingly huge smile of his. "What?"

"My friends and I are eating lunch together in the inner garden later. You wanna come along?"

Hanabi blinked in disbelief. The Honorable Grandson had just asked her, the Hyuuga Heir, if she wanted to have 'lunch with his friends'… She sniffed airily. "I'll think about it." And she hurried away from him, feeling hot on her cheeks. She could hear him calling out to her, but she ignored him, turning the corner towards Shizune's office, somewhere down the lobby.

And she ran smack into something hard and solid and very, very painful.

She staggered back a few paces, rubbing her forehead gingerly.

"Watch where you're going, little girl."

Hanabi looked up and found a dark-skinned woman she had never seen before in her life looking down at her as if she were a bug under a microscope. Hanabi recognized the Kumo flak jacket almost immediately. Kumo had always been part of Hyuuga's dark history, and she had never really been this close to a ninja from that village before, but it did not take all the history lessons in the world for her to decide that she did not like this woman.

"A Hyuuga," the woman said, examining Hanabi's eyes with interest. "Of all the places we'd bump into one."

Hanabi found herself with both hands in front of her in a fighting stance. Some of the people who passed them stopped to stare for a moment before moving along, thinking it wiser not to get involved.

"What do you want, outsider?" Hanabi asked warily.

A man with light, spiky hair and a bored expression on his face appeared beside the woman and blinked down at her, looking uninterested. "This isn't just a Hyuuga, Karui. This must be the heir."

The woman – Karui, was it? - cocked a thin eyebrow up as she leaned back, crossing her arms over her chest. "Hooo… So we have the Hyuuga heir running around in a hospital, as what, errand girl?"

Hanabi bristled instantly. She did not think that she deserved to be talked to that way. She turned to leave. "Excuse me. I have errand girl duties to attend to." She tried to back away quickly but the Karui woman was too fast. She was in front of her in an instant, blocking her escape.

"What's the hurry, little errand girl?"

The man she had with her did not look too happy with her. "Karui. I don't think it's a good idea to provoke the locals."

"I'm not provoking the locals. I'm merely checking out fair game that happened to be in our way, Omoi."

"We're here to find Nara Shikamaru and a woman called Shizune regarding the Sixth Hokage's schedule to meet with us," the man, Omoi, said blandly. He looked over his shoulder warily. "It's been three days. I should have known something was up when Kakashi-san left us in the inn and disappeared as soon as we were settled in. Where is the man, anyway?"

"He's in jail," Hanabi blurted out without thinking.

Karui's eyes were on her in a second, frowning. "He was the one who met us when we arrived. He can't be in jail, you silly little girl."

Hanabi snapped her mouth shut, her teeth clicking together painfully. What were these people doing in Konoha? Her father had mentioned it in passing, the arrival of foreigners some time in mid-March. Could this be what he was talking about? Her father had not been happy about it, though. Now she knew why; they were completely rude.

"I'm not lying. If you don't believe me, then suit yourself. Excuse me," Hanabi said, once again attempting to take her leave.

Karui would not move. She still had her eyes on Hanabi's face. "I don't even see the reason why we have to do this whole diplomatic nonsense. We should take the offer and leave. It's right in front of us."

Hanabi froze. Offer? What did they mean by that?

Omoi shook his head. "If we did that, we'd break the temporary truce between our villages. What if they attack us on the spot once we take her? And what if they send rabid nin-dogs to chase us out of Leaf walls? Then we'd have to – "

"Shut up, Omoi," Karui snapped. "Fine, let's just get this over with and find Nara Shikamaru. When we asked the Jounin at the Administration Building, he said that he could be with a medic-nin named Yamanaka Ino."

"That would be me."

Hanabi turned around when she felt a hand land on her shoulder protectively. She looked up to find Yamanaka Ino staring straight at the foreigners, looking very displeased. Much to her surprise, Nara Shikamaru and Akimichi Chouji were suddenly between Hanabi and the Kumo nin. Some of the passersby pointed and gawked, whispering, "Look, it's InoShikaCho!" in excitement. It had been a while, Hanabi knew, since the three had been seen together since the destruction of Konoha.

"We don't want any trouble here, and I'm almost certain that you think so, too," Shikamaru said in his usual drawl.

Chouji cleared his throat, leaning back and smiling. "Oh, come on, Shikamaru. We have no enemies here. These are representatives from the Cloud invited by our Hokage in the name of peace. Surely, they wouldn't be up to no good. Because, I mean, they know better than that, right?"

Karui was suddenly taken aback, and Omoi nodded almost in gratitude at the Akimichi.

"Of course," Shikamaru agreed immediately. "You were looking for me? I'm sorry that Kakashi had to abandon you so suddenly. He's a busy man, so I'll take it from here."

Karui eyed Shikamaru, then Hanabi. "He's not really… he's not really in jail, is he?"

Shikamaru paused, gave Hanabi a look.

Hanabi clung to Ino's side, swallowing hard and she shook her head.

Shikamaru returned his gaze back at Karui. "Don't be silly. That man couldn't be detained even if the Hokage wanted him behind bars. He's just… tied up at the moment with Village affairs."

Omoi nodded, satisfied. "See, Karui? There you have it. We have nothing to worry about."

Karui did not look too convinced, but she nodded anyway.

Ino's grip on Hanabi's shoulder tightened. "And while we're at it, please stay away from this girl. If you know what's good for you."

Karui nearly hissed, and she took a step forward as if to make a move at Ino.

Chouji was in front of her in a heartbeat. The smile on his pudgy face never left, but those tilted eyes were intent on the Kumo kunoichi. "I was right when I said there are no enemies here, wasn't I?"

Omoi pulled Karui back in her place. "Yeah. No enemies here."

Chouji nodded in satisfaction.

Shikamaru cocked his head to the right. "Shizune's office is right over there. Let me escort you personally." He gave Chouji a pat on the shoulder before walking off to the direction of the office. "Take care of things for me, buddy."

"Don't I always?" Chouji asked humorously, returning the pat.

Hanabi watched as the two Kumo nin followed Shikamaru down the hallway.

Ino looked down at Hanabi, a serious expression on her face. "While those two are lingering in the village, I want you to always be with someone. Never wander alone. Do you hear me? Stay with your friends."

Hanabi blinked, her face reddening. With friends? But… she didn't have –

"Well, you heard Ino-nee," said a voice from behind her.

Hanabi turned to find Konohamaru, face and hands dirty from all the carrying he had been doing earlier. "You need to be around friends. People you could trust. You can trust me." He smiled his cocky smile, wiping his nose with the back of his hand, smearing the dirt on his nose even more.

Hanabi's face reddened even more when Ino hurriedly ushered her towards the boy.

"Take care of her, Konohamaru," Ino said. "If you need me, I'll be in the third floor. Don't leave the hospital until I say so."

Konohamaru gave her a thumbs-up sign. "Got it, Ino-nee. She'll be safe with me."

Hanabi jumped when Konohamaru suddenly took her hand and pulled her towards the opposite direction where the Kumo nin disappeared to. His palm was clammy, and there was grime between his fingers.

She wondered why she did not pull away and hesitate when he guided her through the hospital's busy hallway.


There weren't many things that could make Rock Lee feel horrible. He was always the ever happy, ever cheerful Chuunin who always looked at the brighter side of everything. He knew that his friends thought of him and his personality as a bit eccentric, but he had never – not even once – minded. His sensei had taught him to make the most of what he had, and he knew that Gai-sensei could never be wrong when it came to those kinds of things.

But then again, Gai-sensei had never really shared stories of whatever possible love-life he could have had.

Now, Rock Lee was almost certain that it was his fault that Sakura chose Sai over him; the guy was, after all, very good-looking, pretty much like Uchiha Sasuke. And hadn't Uchiha Sasuke been the epitome of any Konoha girl's dream guy?

Gah… Just the thought of it, of him, made Lee shiver.

But at the same time, he could not help but feel horrible. Sai was not a bad guy, and he knew that whatever negative thing he could be thinking about him, it was out of jealousy. He had stolen Sakura's heart, and he did not even have enough courage to admit to himself that he had lost, fair and square, to Sai.

"You missed a spot."

Lee blinked, looked up. "Sorry, what?"

Neji had that grim look on his face, lowering the paint brush he had in one hand. They had been asked by Tomona to help with painting the newly built houses in the northern wall of the colony, a job first offered to Sai, which he had blandly declined for some reason. Come to think of it, Sai had been declining a lot of Tomona's requests as of late, which was strange, because when Team Gai had arrived in Gifu, the Root agent had been more than willing to shoulder majority of the hard jobs in the colony. Well, given that their plan of leaving Gifu was already finally decided, he supposed Sai thought it irrelevant to invest any further on human relations within the colony.

Which was why Lee was starting to wonder why he was stuck painting the walls of the houses with Neji when Sai had already abandoned whatever responsibility he might still have with the people living in them.

"Say it," Neji suddenly said, turning towards him.

It was Lee's turn to lower his paint brush. "What?"

"Whatever it is that's bothering you. You've been grumbling for the past hour about something that I have a vague idea about, and I think it would be a good idea if you get it out of your system."

Lee bit his lower lip. Neji had always been one of those who had little patience to anything that concerned Lee's nonsense. That was probably the only reason that made him want to tell the Hyuuga about what he was feeling, even though he had seldom complained about anything that concerned Haruno Sakura.

Well, not that his love life was Neji's business or anything…

He had been young when he first laid eyes on the pink-haired kunoichi. She had been immature then, and being a year his junior, he had always thought her to be quite adorable. It must be because he had always been exposed to Tenten, who had but an iota of femininity in her. Lee knew he had liked Sakura then. He had wondered to himself what it was exactly that made him like her to begin with. She was not exceptionally outstanding in her batch of females, like Yamanaka Ino, nor did she have a specific clan bloodline limit like Hyuuga Hinata, but there had been something – something – in her that had attracted him to her. Was it the hair? Well, maybe it had something to do with the hair… maybe… He wasn't exactly sure.

"It's nothing," Lee finally grumbled, raising his brush up against the wall of the house he was painting. He could feel Neji watching him as he clumsily splattered paint on his green suit.

"It seems like something to me." Neji paused, sighed, dropped his brush into the can of paint and turned to face him. "Forget about her. It's the only way for you to get your peace of mind back."

This suddenly stirred anger inside Lee. And Lee seldom got angry about anything. He gestured at Neji with his brush. "You can't tell me to turn my feelings on and off like a light switch."

Neji crossed his arms over his chest. "I'm not asking you to turn your feelings on and off 'like a light switch'. I don't think anyone can do that. I'm just… " He shrugged, and for some reason looked cool while doing so. "I'm just asking you to acknowledge – and accept – the fact that she belongs to someone else, and that she's happy. They're both happy. And we need more of those as of late."

Lee closed his mouth slowly. He knew that Neji was right about that. Since Rio's death, Sakura had finally taken to smiling more often and talking to the villagers more. He had been grateful that at least Tenten had been around to help her with the baby, which he knew would have been difficult for Sakura to do alone. Of course, he would have personally loved to help her out, if Sai hadn't been hovering over her like some crow protecting its young.

"It is not as if I am against them being happy together. But I think I still have the right to sulk about it. I do like her a lot, you know."

Neji sniffed, bending down to pick up his brush again. "Well, so long as you know your place. We'll be leaving the colony pretty soon. We don't know where we're going yet, and the last thing we need is a rift between two people in the squad."

Lee paused, gave Neji a long look, then lowered himself down to a squat, his face a few inches away from the wall he was painting. He did not have anything against Sai. If anything, for someone who claimed he loved Sakura, he knew exactly what the Root agent was feeling. And so he knew that whatever was bothering him could only be one thing: He was extremely, extremely jealous of him.

And that was the only problem in their equation right now.

But Neji was right. There were far graver matters they needed to face. Much more important than love triangles and broken hearts.

And he would have left it at that, had it not been for the freight train that had suddenly slammed against the back of his head. He felt his forehead smash against the wall in front of him. He could feel the still-wet paint sticking to his skin, eyebrows and thick bangs.

"Hello there," Sai suddenly said cheerfully as he removed his sandal-clad foot from the back of Lee's head. "I couldn't help but overhear you when you said you like Sakura."

Lee whirled around, more shocked than angry, really. He had not known Sai to get physical even when unprovoked. But then again, he had not known Sai for very long. But Lee was naturally a non-violent guy, and getting shoved into a wall of wet paint was not going to change that. "That hurt!"

Neji shook his head in disbelief, taking a step back as if making it a point that he did not want to get involved. "I can't believe this…"

Lee wiped at his forehead, smearing paint onto the sleeve of his suit. "What do you want?"

Sai was smiling that bland smile that had been decorating his face lately. "I want you to stop talking about Sakura like that."

Like that, he says. Lee had never talked about Sakura in whatever manner he might think lewd or disrespectful. He frowned when he just remembered that Sai was Sakura's… 'significant other' now. He turned away. "The least you can do is help us with these walls. You are the artist among our ranks, after all."

"You don't need an artist to paint walls," Sai pointed out, leaning back and examining their handiwork. After a while of silence, he sighed. "But neither of you is good with a brush."

Neji's eyebrow twitched in obvious annoyance. His crossed arms over his chest tightened considerably. "What is it, Sai? Is there anything you need?"

Sai looked over at the Hyuuga, then at Lee. "It's time."

Lee brushed back his paint-clad hair away from his face and stared at Sai. The leering grin on the Root agent's face had disappeared, replaced by a serious placidity that Lee had seldom seen on his face ever since they had left the Leaf.

Neji was also alert. "Sai. We were clear when we discussed this. Have you found a family that would take the baby in?"

Sai gave Neji a meaningful look, then said, "No one in this colony would take in that boy, Neji. Waiting for one to step forward and volunteer would be the same as waiting for their entire culture to change."

Lee wiped at his eyes with his sleeve, then pushed himself up to a standing position. He did not understand what Sai was trying to say. He was almost sure that no one could resist such a baby. Strangely, Neji simply nodded and then had to look away. As usual, he knew something Lee didn't. "Why wouldn't anyone volunteer to take in such a cute baby boy? Surely, someone will be kind enough to offer their assistance?"

The look Sai and Neji gave each other made Lee's hope falter, and he couldn't help but frown, especially when Neji shook his head and said to him, "It's so much like you, Lee. But I suppose that's not a bad thing, having to see the goodness in people regardless of the obvious."

Lee did not know if that was meant to be a compliment, but the conversation was over before he could even put another word in. Sai turned to leave.

"Where are you going?" Neji asked and he looked like he was going to follow the Root agent.

Sai looked over his shoulder. "I was thinking of gathering some supplies for our little 'excursion'."

Neji rubbed his hands together to get rid of whatever paint that had smeared on his fingers. "Shall I help?"

Sai paused, thinking. After a while, he said, "I'm fine. You should finish what you're doing before nightfall."

Neji nodded. "I'll talk to Tomona in case we don't finish tonight."

Sai returned his nod and held the Hyuuga's gaze for a fraction of a second too long.

Lee looked at Sai to Neji, aghast. They were leaving him out of the little conversation they were having with their eyes! "Wait, so are you saying we're leaving tonight?"

Sai gave him a bland look. "Unless you don't want to come?"

Lee looked down at the bucket of paint by his feet. They had volunteered to paint the houses, and when Lee volunteered for something, he always made it a point to finish it till the end. He frowned, looked back up to see Sai already halfway down the path that led back to the Healer's house. Neji was now busy with mixing the paint inside his bucket.

He found his feet moving, and with one final look back at the bucket of paint, he broke out into a run after Sai, Neji looking after him silently, but did not bother to stop him.

"Sai! Wait!" Lee called after the Root agent.

Sai had the decency to stop and wait for him right under the shade of a prickly cactus. "What is it?" he asked when Lee finally caught up.

Lee couldn't help but swallow and he skidded to a stop a few paces away from Sai himself. He consciously rubbed his sweaty palms at the side of his suit. At first, he had thought it was such a good idea to call out to him, to run after him. He had not expected Sai to actually stop and listen. And now that they were facing each other in the harsh light of the sun, he completely forgot what he wanted to say.

"Err… Well… "

Sai tilted his head to the side, his arms dangling loosely on either side of him.

Lee frowned, then finally said, "Don't ever make her cry, okay?"

The statement made Sai's eyebrows climb his forehead in obvious surprise. Perhaps he hadn't been expecting Lee to suddenly bring Sakura up out of the blue. He relaxed evidently when he saw Lee looking back at him with a too serious expression on his face. "I wouldn't even dream of it."

Lee felt his face flush slightly. "W-well you better take care of her!"

He nodded. "I know."

"And you would answer to me if you make her cry!"

For a few seconds, Sai stared at him. Then, he smiled, stuffing his hands into the sleeves of his robes. "Of course."

Lee opened his mouth, closed it. He didn't have anything more to say. "That's all, I guess." He wiped his hands again on his suit, unsure of what to do with them. He jerkily looked over his shoulder, searching for the perfect timing to make his exit.

"Lee," Sai suddenly said.

Lee turned to face him once more, jumping slightly in his place.

"I have a favor to ask of you."

This had Lee's frown returning to his face. Sai wasn't the type to ask for favors from love rivals or whoever. "A favor?"

Sai took a step towards him, then another, close enough for Lee to see the peeling skin on his nose and the tan line that had developed on his forehead because he had been tying a scarf around his head lately to hold back his hair which had grown over the months they had been in Gifu.

"If ever…" he started, "If ever I lose myself, take care of her for me. Okay?"

Lee did not understand him, because he was just slow when it came to these things in general. Sai was always so hard to understand ever since then, though at one point in time Lee had wished he could understand him better. He wished he could understand him now.

"Somehow, that brings me a very bad feeling, that request," Lee said. "You are not going to lose yourself. We do not have the luxury to lose ourselves when there is too much at stake."

Sai could only smile more, a smile that never quite reached his eyes. He was watching Lee intently, the shadows of the prickly cactus making the planes of his face appear softer against the light of the sun. "I know. But just in case, I wanted to ask you that. Can I count on you?"

Lee did not think he wanted to answer that, but he found himself nodding. At first it was a hesitant nod, but after thinking it over, he replaced the hesitation with something that came close to vigor. "You can count on me!" Then, as if realizing that he had just promised something to someone irresponsibly, he said, "Don't lose yourself!"

And surprisingly, Sai let out a hollow laugh. Laughing did not suit him. Especially when they were not talking about laughing matters.

"I'm serious!" Lee exclaimed, feeling worried all of a sudden. He did not like it when people talked this way. Things always go wrong when people start talking like this.

"So am I," Sai said back, and he ran a hand through his hair, pushing it away from his face only to have it limp back down his forehead, and for a moment, Lee thought the guy looked sad.

"She will not like it if anything happened to you," Lee pointed out grudgingly, not wanting to admit the fact that Sakura really would have a fit if something bad were to happen to Sai.

"I know that. I'm doing my best. Don't you think I'm doing my best?"

Now he was mocking him. Lee frowned. "I did not say that. I know you are doing your best. We all are. But… " What did he want to say anyway?

Sai had his hands back inside his robe's sleeves. "I didn't mean to worry you. I just wanted to make sure that if something were to happen to me, someone can take over."

"If something were to happen – ? Nothing is going to happen to you!" Lee said loudly, and he realized he was shouting and instantly felt embarrassed. He looked around to see if he had bothered anyone, sighed in relief when he found out they were still alone. He lowered his voice and hissed, "Why are you telling me this all of a sudden? I am your rival." Or maybe Sai had never seen him as a rival in the first place? That could be possible, though the thought did not sit well with Lee.

"Why you, you ask?" Sai paused for a moment as if he were thinking, then shrugged, pinning Lee a significant look. "Maybe it's because of all the people here, you're the only one smart enough not to trust me completely." And with that, he turned to walk away.

Lee's eyes widened, completely lost at the parting words Sai had given him. "Wait! That is not true. I do trust you."

Sai stopped on his tracks, slowly looked over his shoulder at him. He looked a bit surprised. "Really? But you hate me, right?"

Lee snapped his mouth shut. Did he hate him? He was jealous of him and what he and Sakura had. But hate? No, no he did not. "Just… do not lose yourself, Sai. Alright?"

The Root agent gave him one final smirk before wordlessly turning away again.

"I trust you!" Lee called after him, but he didn't really understand why he did. Sai ignored him and instead used a hand to throw him an uncaring wave.


There had been one time in Haruno Sakura's life when she thought that proving herself to her teammates – to Uchiha Sasuke? – was her top priority. At first she had tried to prove herself worthy of attention by growing out her hair because Sasuke supposedly liked girls with long hair. Come to think of it, that had been just a rumor and although she had been grouped with Sasuke back in her genin days, she had not heard, not even once, if Sasuke had any preference when it came to hair length.

When Sasuke chose to leave the village, she had been more than determined to prove that she could bring him back, having felt that she was partly to blame for letting him leave in the first place. She had trained – hard – to become stronger, because she knew that growing out her hair and hiding behind his teammates got old pretty quick. She cut off her hair eventually, and perhaps that had been the start of everything. Well, maybe not everything. But it had definitely been a start of something.

Sakura blinked when she felt something pulling at a lock of her hair, snapping her out of the sudden daydream she was having about her not-so-distant past. She looked down and found that baby Valu had managed to reach out with his tiny hands to grab at her hair between his fingers. The baby was making goo-goo noises as he pulled happily, making Sakura laugh.

It was getting cold as the sun started its descent behind the mountain borders. She had finished with the daily chores and was finished feeding Valu his bottle, right now rocking him back and forth to get him to go to sleep before helping Tenten, who was moving about in the kitchens below, with dinner. She danced Valu around towards the window, peeking outside to see Tenten stacking timber under the clay furnace to start a fire for some stew.

Springtime in the desert was a first for Sakura, and while nothing in the colony showed any signs of the changing of the seasons unlike Konoha, she had noticed that daylight was much, much longer than it had been a month ago. Because of this, the people of the colony spent more time outdoors, tending to the olive plantation, or the camels, or laundry and the like. Sakura loved watching them get on with their daily business, and she looked forward to having some of them visit her for the occasional herbs and medicine, making small-talk and asking how their day was.

She couldn't believe how attached she had become with the people of the colony. It was a shame they were planning to leave very soon.

Sakura paused, bit her lower lip. Lately, she had been thinking too much about her time in the colony, about the things she had experienced here, about the friends she had made, and the friends she had lost. She lowered her eyes back to the baby in her arms and sighed as thoughts of Riho wandered into her mind once more. It had been too short-lived. She had been such a nice person.

Sakura looked up when she heard someone giggling outside. She returned her gaze back out the window and saw Tenten in the kitchens talking to none other than Sai. She could not help but blush at the mere sight of him in the usual robes he always wore when leaving the colony for a brief period of time, gathering information about the wandering bandits that had attacked the colony back in the solstice. In normal circumstances, she knew that Sai would have very much preferred to stay out of colony business, but maybe it was because he knew she was quite fond of Gifu and the people in them that he was willing to overlook so many things just to make sure she was happy.

She felt her face grow warmer still. If anyone had told her that she and Sai would end up liking each other, she would have laughed in their faces. And now, they were… they were…

Lovers?

That sounded just about right. But the mere thought made butterflies the size of foxes flutter in her stomach. Right now, those butterfly-foxes were happily doing figure-eights in her belly as she watched Sai smile down at Tenten when the weapons mistress handed him something that looked like a paperback book. They exchanged a few words before Tenten realized Sakura was watching them from the window. Tenten waved at her, said something to Sai then returned to her firewood.

Sai gave her an acknowledging nod then started flipping through the pages of the book as he slowly made his way into the Healer's house. Sakura could hear him shuffling downstairs, probably lighting the hearth and some of their oil lamps to get ready for the night. Taking a deep breath to get rid of the funny feeling she had in her gut, she looked down at Valu who still had a clump of her hair in his tiny hands. The more Sakura stared at the baby, the more she remembered his mother. They had the same hair, nose, and the shape of their eyes. And he was looking up at him with that curious look that could do wonders to her mood.

"You like my hair, Valu? It's pink. Your mother loved my hair color, did you know?" she said in a hushed whisper to the child as she reached down to disentangle his fingers from her hair. He had such tiny hands!

And it was only when she gently pried his grip away from her locks did she notice it.

There, right on the back of Valu's small hand, was a conspicuous mark that she swore wasn't there before. It looked like a black crescent moon with the points turning towards his fingers. Sakura frowned as she rubbed her thumb over it. It didn't feel like anything unusual. It was as smooth as any part of Valu's body, but…

What is this?

She looked up when she heard footsteps coming up the stairs, and she smiled when Sai's head appeared on the landing. "Welcome home."

Sai nodded at her, the book he had been reading still in one hand as he made his way towards the table. He put his book down and began to fiddle with the oil lamp. "How was your day?" he asked. Lately, he would always ask her how her day went.

Sakura walked over towards him, shifting Valu from one arm to another, the mark on his hand temporarily forgotten. "Uneventful. Tomona was looking for you, though. He looked a bit worried."

Sai dismissed her statement about Tomona, because Sai had been dismissing a lot of things about Tomona as of late. "I had a very exciting day today. I flew several hundred kilometers to the north, and guess what?"

Sakura frowned. Did she really have to guess? "What?"

Sai successfully lit the lamp with a match and he turned to her. "I found them."

She was not too surprised with this. Sai could find anything once he put his mind into it. And he always did put his mind into it. She smiled. "I see. You'll be setting off soon, then?"

"Tonight. I'm taking Lee and Neji with me. Tenten is staying with you, in case anything happens."

Sakura couldn't help but roll her eyes as she turned away from him, twirling Valu around, making the baby giggle happily. "Aren't we done with that already?" She had been certain she had succeeded in convincing Sai that she was in top shape ever since she had retired with the Creation Rebirth scroll. Her chakra was back to its normal level, and she was certain that if anything ever happened, she would be able to take care of herself.

Well, maybe she really had convinced him, because lately Sai hadn't been calling Noa to stand guard around her. Though Sakura had seen the girl around, hauling water buckets and stealing herbs from Sakura's garden, Noa had stopped coming over to bother her with petty things. Come to think of it, Noa had stopped coming when Sakura and Sai had finally agreed that their feelings were mutual.

A coincidence?

Probably not. Sakura had always had the suspicion that Noa liked Sai.

Sakura nearly jumped when Sai suddenly appeared beside her and gently took Valu from her embrace. "You want to hold him?" she asked.

"No, not really," Sai said as he cradled Valu in one arm and pressed his two forefingers in front of him in a one-handed sign of the tiger. One second, Valu was giggling, the next he was fast asleep.

Sakura gasped in horror. "Don't tell me you just cast a genjutsu on this baby!"

Sai grinned at her as he made his way towards Valu's crib. "It was his bedtime, anyway." He bent down and tucked Valu gently between his pillows. After he took his time in making sure Valu was comfortable, he straightened up and gave Sakura one of those sensual smiles he had mastered lately. The light of the lamp was not helping, because it was casting strange shadows on his face and everything else, emphasizing the fact that it was dark and they were alone and it was getting very cold outside.

With three strides, Sai was in front of her, an arm snaking its way around her waist as he pulled her against him, nearly making her squeal. Her gloved hands landed on his chest to keep her from losing her balance, and she felt all the blood race to her ears when she finally managed to process what was happening. Sai was hugging her.

Sai. Was. Hugging. Her!

And dammit, his hands were bare!

It had been so out of the blue, and lately, although Sai had always initiated the usual good night kisses or the occasional peck on the cheek before he left the colony, he had never been this aggressive, always giving Sakura the room she needed if she thought he was going too far. But now… right now, he did not even leave an opening for her. And she could hear her heart beating against her ears!

Sai was looking down at her curiously, and he smiled at her. "Sorry I don't smell nice right now."

Sakura didn't know how to react to what he just said, and ended up wincing. Then, out of curiosity or out of temporary brain damage, she leaned forward, pressed her nose against the crook of his neck and sniffed. He had lied to her about not smelling nice. If anything, he smelled faintly of something very familiar. She pulled back and looked up at him. "Why do you smell like olives?"

Sai was a bit surprised and there was a faint blush rising on his cheeks. He had probably been as surprised as Sakura when she inhaled his scent. "I was hiding in an olive tree for about an hour or so for recon. Do you hate it?"

Sakura hurriedly shook her head, and her fingers unconsciously smoothed out the wrinkles on his robes. "No, I like it. You smell alright." It was funny how she had gotten used to being this intimate with him. It was even funnier when she didn't pull away when it was his turn to nuzzle her neck, his dry, chapped lips running along the skin right below her right ear.

She closed her eyes, hands twitching on his chest. "What are you doing?"

"Kissing your neck," he said simply as his free hand reached up to her shirt, moving the collar to expose her shoulder. "You taste salty."

Her eyes snapped open and she tried to push him away, but he laughed and made sure she didn't get away, this time his lips leaving butterfly kisses on her jaw line. "I like salty. You were lying when you said today was uneventful. You must have had a busy day at the clinic."

Sakura allowed herself to relax and she let him back her up against the table. "Not really. I was busier with taking care of the baby."

Sai placed both his hands on either side of her on the table, trapping her in place as he kissed her cheek, then her hairline. "You spend more time with Valu than you do with me," he said, sounding adorable without meaning to. After all, Sakura knew that Sai was not capable of sulking yet.

Sakura reached up and tangled her fingers into his shaggy dark hair when he leaned his forehead against hers. "Valu doesn't go away stalking desert renegades on ink falcons, Sai."

"I know. But I find myself getting really possessive of you and your attention," he said before pecking her lips once, twice.

"I didn't know you were that possessive. You've always given me enough space." Not as if they've been dating for that long, or whatever. She kissed him back.

"I would give you anything, you know that."

And Sakura blinked. Then, with that suspicious nagging at the back of her brain, she reached behind her and snatched the book Sai had brought with him earlier. She looked down at the title.

Pleasure Unbound.

She would have to kill Tenten later.

Sai was watching her intently as she lowered the book back down on the table. "I knew something was up."

"You mean aside from my – "

Sakura covered his mouth with her hand in annoyance. "Don't even say it." The last thing Sai needed was porn to feed his ever-thirsty curiosity when it came to dating.

Sai blinked at her, then, in a rare display of uniqueness, his fingers traced her arm up to the hand she had clamped against his mouth and started to pull at the string holding her fingerless gloves into place.

Sakura felt her face heating up all over again as he slowly – almost painfully so – tried to free her hand of her glove. That was one of the moments when she knew she had lived in Gifu for too long; having Sai touch her hands made her think that he was violating her in one way or another.

Sai kissed her palm, then her fingers, one at a time, lingering on her thumb and Sakura squeaked when his tongue ran a wet trail from the base of that finger to her nail. She let him pull the glove off her hand as his lips were back on her jaw. He dropped the glove uncaringly onto the floor as he twined his fingers with hers, making Sakura's head swim at the mere fact that they were practically fornicating by Gifu's law.

And so it had been wonderful timing when Noa suddenly decided to walk in at that precise moment, carrying a basket full of herbs and a jug of water. Sakura and Sai, both proclaimed ninja of the Leaf and proud Chuunin, could only freeze in their place, because Noa was standing at the staircase landing, and for the life of them, they couldn't figure out how she had gotten there without them hearing.

Noa cocked an eyebrow. "Ooooh. Gifu foreplay. Kinky," she said dryly as she deposited the jug and basket by her feet and, as if Sai still did not have Sakura trapped against the table with his bare hands on hers, went straight for the crib.

Once Sakura's brain finally recovered from the shock that Noa had sneaked up on the both of them while they were… well… while they were being intimate, she hurriedly pushed Sai away, straightened her shirt and picked up her glove, putting it on haphazardly.

Sai, on the other hand, did not look embarrassed but instead looked horribly disgruntled. In a rare show of emotion, he ran his hands through his hair and turned to Noa, who was now bent over the crib in interest. "What do you want?"

Noa straightened, and she faced Sai and Sakura, those green eyes of hers glowing eerily in the lamp light, her red hair the color of dried blood in the shadows.

"I wanted to tell you the secret behind Gifu. Unless you don't want to know because you want to make out instead?"


A/N: Yes, I'm alive. I've been preoccupied with a different fandom because of anime withdrawal, but I'm back now. This update is long overdue, but the plot's about to move on, finally, so bear with me. Prepare yourselves for the next chapters. It's probably going to make you hate me even more than you already do because I've been stingy with updates. You may throw rocks at me if you wish, but save that for the climax, alright?