Authoress' Notes: Yay! Yay! New chapter that is not coming out seven months after the last one! I hope you guys enjoy it because this can't last. I have exams starting in a week. Still, at least you get this! It contains some nice get-to-know-you time for our two lovable protagonists. And maybe I'll be able to finish one more chapter before Christmas as a present, but seeing as how I have another story I need to update, I can't guarantee it.

Also, if you like my work, go read my one shot You Never Tell a Girl that You Like Her. I wrote it last year and found it a couple of weeks ago when my hard drive crashed and I was recovering documents. I edited it and posted it in all its fluffy glory. It's a fun little story and I'm sure you'll enjoy it if you like the Sakura and Sasuke pairing, and I would love to get more feedback on it, so check it out!

Shameless plug, I know.

Also, there is a poll up on my profile! I've been itching to write another one shot, and I want you guys to help me decide what it will be about. I'm thinking a fluffy Christmas one, but I'd really like to hear your opinions.

Chapter 8 - Scars

I tried to help you once, against my own advice.

I saw you going down, but you never realized

That you're drowning in the water, so I offered you my hand.

Compassions in my nature, tonight is our last stand.

I tear my heart open, I sew myself shut,

My weakness is that I care too much,

And my scars remind me that the past is real,

I tear my heart open just to feel.

- Scars, Papa Roach

"We really weren't needed there," Sakura commented as her and Sasuke made their way to the village gates to say goodbye to Naruto, who had run from the Hokage's office to pack before they'd had a chance to do it there. Tsunade had given both of them permission to see him off, as long as they both immediately returned to work after he was gone.

"Hn," Sasuke replied. He was too busy remembering how Tsunade had asked how he was liking the orange jumpsuit as they had left her office – with what was clearly the smile of a madwoman on her lips – to answer Sakura with more than one syllable. He was pretty sure though that he was asked to attend the meeting with Fukasaku purely for Tsunade's entertainment. Sakura's presence had probably been requested to keep her in the loop.

Now, both of them were walking side by side, Sakura guiding them through the less populated streets of Konoha so that they could make better time and avoid unwanted attention. Naruto was probably almost done with his frantic packing by now and soon would be sprinting over to the gates. Tsunade would also be there to see Naruto off, coming along with the aged Fukasaku.

Sasuke just wanted it all to take as long as it possibly could to delay when he would have to mop the hospital basement's floors and see that horrible orange...thing that awaited him there, and that he was sure would haunt him in his nightmares for years to come.

It was almost funny how clothes could bother him so much.

All too soon, the gates were in sight, but no one else was there except for the guards, perfectly inconspicuous as they watched the forested path that led into the village, occasionally sparing a glance behind them into the town itself.

Sasuke heard Sakura sigh next to him. He studied her and smirked. Her body language was crystal clear. Unlike him, she actually wanted to get back to the hospital where she undoubtedly had a lot of important work waiting for her, but she also couldn't leave because she was also the one who really wanted to be out here to see Naruto off. Not that Sasuke was completely opposed to the idea – he would just never have come to do something so...sentimental on his own.

"I guess we have to wait," Sakura spoke softly, leaning up against the wall next to the gate.

He took a place beside her, about half a foot of space between them. It was something that Sasuke couldn't help but notice. Yesterday, when Sakura had walked him to the hospital for the first time, there had been about two feet between them. When they had gone shopping that afternoon, the space had shrunk down to a foot. As of this morning, it had been about six inches. The shrinking wasn't through any conscious effort of his, of that he was sure. And he didn't think that Sakura had even noticed the diminishing gap. It was almost natural. What it meant though, Sasuke had no clue.

He looked down at Sakura – for what must have been the hundredth time since they had left the hospital earlier that afternoon, though he would never acknowledge it. Her eyes were closed, her face was turned up towards the sun, and her lips curled up at the corners. She looked positively serene and it was hard to believe that only moments earlier she had been tense because of her warring thoughts.

"Sakura-chan! Sasuke!"

Sakura's eyes opened, focussing on the source of the much too loud voice. Sasuke's eyes turned there as well, unsurprised to see Naruto. A Naruto who was running towards them, a smile plastered on his face, his little pack banging against his back with every step that he took.

When Naruto was right in front of them, he skidded to a stop and grabbed Sakura and whirled her around in the air. Initially, she was stunned by the action, but then she started laughing, ecstatic that Naruto was doing something so normal. When he put her down, she didn't let go of him, holding him tighter instead and squeezing until he started to complain that his ribs were about to break.

When they separated, Naruto turned to Sasuke, an odd contemplative look upon his face, almost as if he was unsure what to do. Then he stuck out his hand and Sakura smiled.

Sasuke stared at Naruto's outstretched hand for a beat before he extended his own. The two clasped hands firmly and looked into each other's eyes while their grips simultaneously tightened. Sasuke smirked and Naruto cracked a smile while they continued to squeeze each other's fingers. For Sasuke and Naruto, this was normal and reminiscent of a childhood rivalry.

For Sakura, they had been at it far too long, and it was starting to get annoying. As she watched the two boys squeeze each other's hands harder and harder, her left eye began to twitch in the same strange way that both Tsunade's and Shizune's did when they were irritated. Thirty seconds later, she'd had enough.

She grabbed both their arms and physically pulled them apart, their grips on each other's hands no match for her chakra powered strength.

"Enough," she told them both, crossing her arms over her chest, her left eye still twitching, "I'm going to have to repair your fingers if you guys keep this up and then I'll be pissed."

Naruto just laughed and threw an arm around Sakura's shoulders while Sasuke's smirk grew. Sakura had never been able to stand their fighting, even when it was just friendly rivalry... Though she had always only gotten irritated with Naruto for it in the past. It was yet another change in her behaviour that had taken place sometime over the last two and a half years. One that he was maybe not so fond of.

"We were just saying goodbye, Sakura-chan," Naruto insisted with a grin, "just like old times."

"Uh-huh," Sakura replied, her voice laden with disbelief and disapproval, "and you weren't trying to see who had the stronger grip at all."

"Exactly," Naruto told her with a wink.

Sakura pushed him off of her and blew her hair out of her face, grinning in spite of herself.

"Whatever," Sakura finally sighed, shaking her head and rolling her eyes. "I'm going to go buy a bottle of water. I'll be right back. Don't kill each other in the meantime."

And then she was gone before either guy could entirely process what she had said, leaving Sasuke alone with Naruto. A Naruto who was blatantly staring at him now that Sakura was no longer there to hold his attention.

"I can't believe I'm leaving again so soon after you've come back," Naruto mused, scratching the back of his head with one hand. "It sort of sucks how things happened. I was really looking forward to catching up more too, but I guess there'll be plenty of time for that later now that you're back."

"Yeah," Sasuke replied simply. And it kind of, sort of felt good to think that they really would have time later...that he had a future here. Not that he would express any of these feelings to Naruto.

Naruto just grinned at Sasuke's short response.

"I'll take that answer to mean that you want to catch up too," Naruto laughed. "I'm sorry that it's not to be. I know you'll miss me terribly. But at least I can leave with the knowledge that you'll still have Sakura-chan to help you through this difficult time."

Sasuke punched Naruto in the shoulder for his stupidity.

"I'm sure we'll both be better off with you gone," Sasuke told Naruto, a smirk coming to his lips.

"And now you're being defensive because you know I'm right," Naruto fake sobbed as he pretended to wipe tears from his eyes. He then patted Sasuke on the shoulder all while murmuring: "It's okay. It'll be alright. I promise I'll be home soon."

This time, Sasuke kicked Naruto in the shin, and Naruto stuck his tongue out as he hopped around on one foot, nursing the bruised appendage.

"You have no appreciation for humour," Naruto complained, gingerly putting his foot back on the ground.

"No. You just weren't particularly funny," Sasuke answered, smirking some more.

"Bah. You're just jealous that you're not funny, teme," Naruto grumbled, fully straightening up and letting go of his shin.

Sasuke actually snorted. Kami, Naruto was the only one who could bring such an undignified sound out of him so easily. "You're an idiot, dobe."

Though he was actually impressed by how Naruto could be acting so upbeat today after the depression he had descended into yesterday. Naruto was perhaps the most resilient and optimistic person he knew, able to bounce back from anything and everything. Sasuke wasn't the same. Actually, he was a little jealous of how happy Naruto could be despite everything in his past: growing up an orphan, having been hated by the villagers his whole childhood, being the Kyuubi's jinchuuriki, and having just lost one of the most important people in his life only yesterday.

Then again, Sasuke himself wasn't even thinking too much about the past anymore – which had thoroughly consumed his life and dictated all of his choices since his family had been murdered. Well...except for when he had been with team seven. During that time, he had actually been able to forget a lot, which was one of the reasons he had left. And now that he was back, he was too busy figuring out his old teammates and what he wanted to do to focus on the past – nearly like old times, except this time he was looking forward.

It was then that Sakura came back, a huge water bottle weighing down one of her hands. She completely ignored them as she took up her position leaning against the wall again, unscrewed the top of the water bottle and took a huge swig of the liquid inside, sighing in satisfaction as she swallowed. Sasuke watched the whole procedure with mild interest, given how it was a welcome change from Naruto, unable to help but notice how her slender throat constricted as she swallowed.

"Much better," she mumbled, taking yet another drink. Then she finally deigned to turn her attention to them: "Nice to see you're both still in one piece. So what did you guys talk about while I was gone?"

"How much Sasuke's going to miss me," Naruto replied, smart enough this time to keep out of range of Sasuke's limbs.

"I'm sure he will," Sakura laughed, spying the glare Sasuke was shooting Naruto's way.

"I'm sure we all will. I mean, no one will appreciate the peace it'll give us," Tsunade declared sarcastically as she approached, having seemingly appeared from nowhere with Shikamaru at her side.

Fukasaku also appeared then, poofing into existence in front of Naruto, still riding on that strange, bigger toad.

"Right on time," Fukasaku croaked, looking up at Naruto with a small smile.

Tsunade ordered for the guards to open the gates then, and when they did, Naruto and Fukasaku immediately crossed Konoha's threshold, turning to face the four who were seeing them off.

"We've got no time to waste, so we're headin' out. Say yer goodbyes, Naruto-chan," Fukasaku instructed.

"I'll see you guys later, I guess," Naruto began, a grin starting to take form on his face. "Figure out that code, Shikamaru."

"Don't worry about me," Shikamaru uttered confidently, "just focus on your training."

"I'll send word when the autopsy and interrogation have both concluded," Tsunade added.

Fukasaku nodded his head once. "I'll leave ya'll a transmission frog then. Anythin' happens you let him know," he decided.

"Of course."

This was finally starting to feel like goodbye, and Sakura was starting to feel emotional. She could still remember the last time Naruto had left the village for training. He hadn't come back for two and a half years and she still remembered the hole in her life that his absence had left. She had missed him, more than she thought she would have. She hadn't liked the feeling then, and she didn't like that it was struggling to make a reappearance now. Naruto would be home before she knew it. So she steeled her nerves and put on her biggest smile.

"Go get 'em, Naruto!" she exclaimed showing him her fist, a clear sign that she wanted him to fight hard.

"Right!" Naruto yelled just as loudly, his attitude immediately catching up to and matching her's. Then Naruto included Sasuke in his attentions as the blond concluded his loud farewells: "Ne Sakura-chan, Sasuke – don't have too much fun without me. Okay, now I'm ready. Let's roll!"

Naruto started walking forward and made it about five steps out of the village before he froze, twitched, turned around, and with a sheepish smile uttered words they all really should have expected: "So...which way is Myouboku Mountain?"

After Fukasaku explained that it was about a month's journey on foot and reminded Naruto that he had signed a contract with the toads, Naruto disappeared, leaving behind only a wisp of smoke and a gaping Sakura.

"He disappeared!" she finally exclaimed, not knowing what had happened.

"Reverse summoning," Tsunade explained simply, and Sakura nodded in understanding, cataloguing the information somewhere in her head for further study.

And with that, the old toad bid them goodbye and disappeared as well.

With both Naruto and Fukasaku gone, Tsunade sighed before straightening her shoulders. "Okay. Let's redouble our efforts and figure out what Jiraiya wanted to tell us," she announced with renewed vigour to Shikamaru.

"Roger that," Shikamaru stated clearly.

"And you two!" Tsunade declared loudly, turning her attention to Sasuke and Sakura. "Get back to work!" Then her posture softened and her voice dropped in volume. "And I'd appreciate it if both of you could think about the problem at hand in your spare time as well. I'll leave a copy of the information on your desk sometime before the end of the workday, Sakura. You're both smart and we need all the help we can get with this. Who knows, maybe something will jump out at one of you."

"Of course, shishou," Sakura assented. She knew she would be thinking about the words Jiraiya had left for them anyways. There was no way she could forget them even in spite of everything going on.

Sasuke meanwhile didn't know why he, of all people, was being asked this. He was essentially on probation. He had been a traitor to his village, a criminal, until Tsunade had agreed to let him back just two days ago. But he shook it off. It couldn't hurt to think about it. He would probably do that anyways while he sat in his apartment, bored and searching for something to occupy his mind.

And after that, the four parted, the gates shutting with an audible thud behind them as they walked away.

On their walk back to the hospital after seeing Naruto off, Sakura had told Sasuke to meet her outside her office at five o'clock, which was when she would finish work for the day. So, at five to five, Sasuke ditched the stupid orange jumpsuit in a basket in the laundry room, and then brought the mop and bucket back to the janitorial closet in the basement. There, he dumped the contents of the bucket into a sink for the final time that day, and then placed it and the mop back in their respective places.

Then he headed to the elevator and rode it to Sakura's floor, thankful that it didn't stop to admit anyone else before he got there. He strode off the elevator and walked down the hall to her office, already sensing that she wasn't in there. Still, when he reached the door with Haruno Sakura emblazoned upon it, he tried the handle anyways.

Surprisingly, the door opened, and he paused on the room's threshold, uncertain of whether or not he should enter without her permission. He decided she probably wouldn't mind if he just went in to lie down on the couch while he waited, and so he did. And then he waited, and waited, and waited some more.

At five thirty she still hadn't shown up, and Sasuke was starting to get a little bored so he went over to Sakura's desk where the file on Pain sat, just like Tsunade had said it would. The Godaime had asked for his help with this for whatever reason, so he figured it would be alright if he flipped through the pages of information they had accumulated to date via Fukasaku. It was as he was going over the info for the second time that he felt Sakura's presence on the floor. Seconds later, the door was opening and Sakura was rushing in, her clothes soaked in blood.

Sasuke jumped to his feet reflexively when he saw her, the file falling from his hands to the floor. He was confused. This didn't make any sense to him. Why was Sakura covered in blood? He couldn't see any injuries as his eyes quickly scanned over her. So where was it coming from? What had happened?

Sakura, on the other hand, didn't even notice him when she walked in. She stripped out of the blood soaked shirt, letting it fall to the ground. Then her hands fluttered down to the waistband of her pants. As she was about to pull them off she froze, finally realizing Sasuke was also in the room. She hadn't even noticed his presence until now because she was so tired from the surgery she had just performed. Slowly, she looked up and her green eyes locked on the Uchiha's dark ones. Then she promptly blushed furiously in embarrassment and turned around so that her back was to him, thankful that she had at least kept her bra on.

"Sorry, Sasuke-kun," she mumbled. She knew her whole face was flushing and could feel the heat even on the back of her neck.

"Hn," Sasuke answered her, his eyes transfixed on her back.

He hadn't been trying to look, but he had been far too shocked by first the blood (which he now realized was not her's and likely a patient's), and then her pulling her shirt off to turn away. That's when he had seen the ugly, nearly three inch long scar on her stomach. Now that she was turned around, he could see a matching mark on her lower back. It looked as if someone had run her through with a sword.

"Where's the scar from?" he had to ask a few seconds later, curious to its origin. He was sure she hadn't had it when they were genin, and after that she had trained under Tsunade where she would have learned to heal any wound cleanly.

Sakura coughed and looked at him over her shoulder.

"If you could turn around or close your eyes..." she suggested quietly.

Sasuke immediately turned to face the wall and Sakura walked over to her wardrobe where she quickly found a black v-neck shirt and pulled it over her head. Then she began telling him about her fight with Sasori while she rapidly slipped out of her pants and pulled on a pair of black sweatpants that she had left here on another occasion. She had tried to wash all the blood off her body earlier, and she was fairly sure that she had succeeded, but she wouldn't feel truly clean until she showered later – so she wasn't going to put on pretty clothes when comfy clothes worked just as well.

"You can turn around now," she murmured when she got to the part where Sasori was about to stab Chiyo.

Sasuke turned and took a seat on the couch. She sat down at the opposite end, her legs pulled up to her chin, her arms wrapped around them.

"So anyways," she continued with her story, "I jumped in front of her and took the blade that was meant for her. It was poisoned, just like Sasori's other weapons, and even though I was trying to heal the wound while the sword was still in me, the poison on it was spreading quickly through my body and rendering me unable to move. That's when Chiyo gave me the last dose of the antidote instead of taking it herself.

"Sasori tried to pull away then, so I grabbed hold of the sword and tried to hold him in place. But he just disconnected the limb it was attached to from the rest of his body, and charged at us again, intent on stabbing Chiyo with his other blade. She outsmarted him though, and trapped him, using the puppets of his parents to stab him through the core that represented his human body. That's about when I fell, my injuries just too much for me to take care of with the lingering poison in my system and my chakra exhaustion, so Chiyo finished healing me using some of her own life energy. The injury was serious though and we had to get moving, so Chiyo didn't have the time to waste to make sure the deep cuts healed cleanly. So now I'm left with the scars," Sakura finished, her hand unconsciously moving to cover her abdomen where Sasuke now knew the scar on her front was.

Sasuke listened intently the entire time, taking the story in, cataloguing it with the rest of his information about Sakura in the past and now. He had gotten a taste for her skills, but hearing about how she fought in such a gruelling battle against such a high level opponent, even if it was with that Chiyo woman's help, was sobering. Sakura had taken a sword for a woman she hardly knew without a thought for her own safety, and she had almost died. In fact, she would have died if Chiyo hadn't been there.

If he had been there, that never would have happened. He never would have let it.

"Anyways, I'm sorry I was late," Sakura finally spoke again, drawing herself back into the present. "Almost as soon as I was back to work this afternoon, a team came back from a mission with one of their members in critical condition. I only managed to get him stabilized about fifteen minutes before I got here."

"I figured as much," Sasuke replied, finally reaching down to grab the file on Pain from where it lay on the floor.

Sakura barely noticed as she was exhaling heavily, blowing her bangs out of her face.

"I'm exhausted," she mumbled and then yawned. "And I still have to get all the stupid paperwork done tonight so that we can babysit for Reika tomorrow."

"We?" Sasuke asked incredulously, raising an eyebrow.

Sakura's eyes snapped wide open and she looked at Sasuke, remembering that she hadn't actually told him yet that he was babysitting Reika's daughter, Mika, with her. It was the little plan that Reika had come up with earlier that afternoon. It was ingenious in its simplicity really. Reika had merely suggested that Sasuke babysit Mika along with Sakura. Then Reika could tell everyone how great Sasuke had been with her daughter, resulting in better rumours about Sasuke circulating throughout town and showing the village that Tsunade wasn't the only one who was welcoming him back. It wouldn't necessarily have the effect of changing anyone's opinion, but it would at least make them think, maybe make them question what they believed.

They had realized that there was one gaping flaw in their plan though. Sasuke had to actually come with Sakura to Reika's to babysit, something he wasn't likely to agree to. Which was why Sakura had simply decided that Sasuke would have no choice in the matter and that she would just take him over to Reika's place right after work given that he had to stick with her until she brought him home. It kind of wasn't fair to Sasuke, but Sakura had decided that it didn't matter as long as their plan had the potential to better his reputation even the littlest bit.

So she steeled her nerves.

"Yes, we," Sakura told him firmly. "Reika's the nice nurse who's been at the reception desk the last two mornings, and we're going over to her place after I'm done work tomorrow so that Reika and her husband can have a night off. I promise the experience will be harmless. Their kid Mika-chan's a real sweetheart."

Sasuke just stared at Sakura in a way that could almost be described as dumbly. She wanted him to help her watch a small child? Was she crazy? Why couldn't she just take him home first? So he asked her: "And you can't take me home first because?"

"Because I don't feel like running around Konoha," Sakura answered him, her eyes narrowing, "and because it's good for you to be out and about instead of stuck in that tragic little apartment of yours. You can try to ask Kakashi-sensei to take you home from the hospital if you really insist on being a child about this, but I don't think you'll have much luck with that."

Sadly, Sakura was right. Kakashi would find this situation amusing and would refuse to take him home on principal – that was if Sasuke could even get word to the other ninja between now and tomorrow evening, which was highly unlikely given Kakashi's elusiveness and the fact that Sasuke was on lock down. He thought about maybe just staying at the hospital tomorrow until the next morning or until Sakura took pity on him and came to fetch him after her babysitting gig, but practicality won out.

It's not like he would actually have to do anything if he went with her – he was sure Sakura would have the whole thing covered given her familiarity with the child and the family. All he would have to do was tag along, much like he had done when he had shadowed Sakura in the hospital, and then he would return to his apartment. It couldn't be any worse than returning there right after Sakura finished her shift and then sitting there for hours doing nothing until it was finally reasonable to go to sleep.

So Sasuke nodded, his sign of acquiescence.

That was how the next day found Sakura and Sasuke standing outside Reika's home at five fifteen, having just knocked on the door.

Sakura couldn't stop smiling. Last night when they had left her office after she had gathered all of her paperwork together, Sasuke had handed her the file on Pain that Tsunade had promised to leave for them. She was a little surprised to find it in his possession, but then she realized that he must have found it on her desk and started perusing it while he had waited for her. Completely acceptable since Tsunade had asked for his help too.

Sakura smiled a little more when she remembered that. Her shishou was a fantastic woman, trying to integrate Sasuke back into Konoha by including him in this business with Pain and getting him to work for the village again when he had spent so much time just working for himself. What was perhaps even more heartening to the pink haired kunoichi though than her teacher's efforts was that Sasuke appeared to actually be considering what Tsunade had asked of them, given that he had already made the effort to look at the file when he could have ignored the request.

The little fire of hope she constantly tended was now blazing in her heart.

She had really wanted to spend some more time with Sasuke after that realization, but she had really needed to settle in at home and finish all the paperwork she hadn't had the time for so that this evening's activities could go off without a hitch. She had managed to finish all of it only through sheer willpower, and now, here they were, waiting for Reika to open the door and let them into her home.

The door eventually opened to reveal a very nicely dressed Reika, who smiled brightly when her eyes landed on the teens.

"Sakura! And you brought Uchiha Sasuke with you! Mika's going to be so excited. She loves meeting new people," Reika greeted them, her eyes sparkling as she ushered them into the house.

Sasuke followed Sakura warily, taking in the simple foyer with shoes strewn about in a disorganized fashion. The foyer opened up onto a short hallway with a staircase up to a second floor. From his vantage point, he could also see a kitchen on one side of the main corridor and a living room on the other, the floor there covered in toys.

"My husband will be down in a minute," Reika continued when both Sasuke and Sakura had removed their shoes. "Would either of you like something to drink?" she asked, encouraging them to move into the kitchen.

"No thank you, Reika," Sakura replied following after the woman while Sasuke followed Sakura. And then: "Where's Mika-chan?"

A loud shriek was the reply to her question, and a tiny little child, with black hair pulled into a braid at the back of her head and eyes as green as Sakura's, ran into the kitchen and flung herself on the kunoichi who caught the little girl and lifted her into the air with ease.

"Sakura-chan! Sakura-chan!" the girl exclaimed, squeezing Sakura tightly.

Sasuke watched as a positively beatific smile lit up Sakura's face as she clutched the girl to herself, squeezing her lightly in return. His heart skipped a beat.

"Hello, Mika-chan. It's been a while, huh?" Sakura spoke softly.

"Yeah," Mika said wistfully as Sakura placed her back on the ground, "way too long. I missed you!" And then Mika seemed to notice that Sasuke was standing behind Sakura, because her eyes went wide, she pointed a finger at him, and she asked: "Who's that?"

Sakura looked behind her, more for show than anything else, and then turned back to Mika and crouched down to her level.

"That's my friend, Uchiha Sasuke. He's going to watch you with me tonight," Sakura told the little girl, speaking quietly as if she was revealing a secret. "Why don't you say hello?"

Sasuke watched as Mika looked first to her mother for approval, who nodded and smiled, before coming a little closer to him and bowing her head, almost enough that she toppled forward. She managed to right herself however, and when she did, she flashed him a huge grin.

"Konbanwa, Sasuke-kun!" the girl chirped.

Sasuke was at a loss. Normally, his plan would be to just ignore the child, but Sakura was there watching him expectantly, and so was the kid's mom. Plus, he would be spending his entire evening in this house with Mika and Sakura, even if it wasn't by his choice. Steeling his resolve, Sasuke gritted out: "Hello."

Mika's grin faltered for a moment before growing even bigger. Sakura was still crouched down low near the ground, and Mika backed up until she was standing right next to the kunoichi. The girl then tugged on Sakura's sleeve to get the pinkette's attention. When Mika was sure she had it, she whispered, loud enough that Sasuke and Reika could easily hear too: "Ne, Sakura-chan, your boyfriend doesn't say much. Is he shy?"

Sasuke watched as Sakura turned bright red and began to rapidly explain to the little girl that Sasuke was just a friend, not her boyfriend, while Reika smacked her hand over her mouth to muffle what was obviously a bout of laughter. He couldn't understand their reactions. So the child had made a mistake. Why was Sakura seemingly embarrassed about it? Why was Reika so amused? Why did his stomach clench in a strange way when Sakura continued to reassure the girl that Sasuke was: "A friend. Only a friend, honey."

He stored the moment in his thoughts for later analysis when he heard heavy footsteps on the stairs. Apparently Reika's husband was coming to join them. After a couple of seconds, Sasuke watched as a man, with dark hair and the bright green eyes of his child, rounded the corner into the kitchen and stopped as he took in the scene before him.

The man's wife was still stifling her laughter while a now pink cheeked Sakura was still crouched on her haunches telling a positively beaming Mika that just because Sasuke was a boy and Sakura was a girl and they were spending time together didn't mean that they were automatically boyfriend and girlfriend, all while Sasuke stood in the same position he had been in since he had entered the kitchen, hands crossed over his chest while he leaned against their kitchen table.

Sakura finally stopped babbling when she noticed the man too. She stood up and gave a curt bow of her head before smiling at the new addition.

"Hello, Atsushi," Sakura greeted him.

"Konbanwa, Sakura," Atsushi returned. "Thanks a lot for watching Mika-chan for us again. It's been a while since Reika and I have gone out alone."

Sakura smiled. "So I've been told. And it's never a problem, Atsushi. Mika-chan and I have so much fun during our play dates, right honey?"

"Yeah!" Mika yelled enthusiastically, pumping her little fist in the air.

Atsushi and Reika both laughed as the man left the doorway and came to stand at his wife's side, wrapping an arm around her waist, and finally turning his attention to Sasuke. All the laugh lines disappeared from his face as he studied Sasuke carefully, his expression almost curious. Sasuke didn't flinch under the scrutiny. He had endured much worse from much more intimidating people, and to be honest, he was kind of hoping that maybe this man would decide that he didn't trust Sasuke enough to leave Mika with him, even if Sakura was there too – because then Sasuke could just go home and this ridiculousness would be over.

Eventually, however, Atsushi smiled, and Sasuke's lips tilted down in a slight frown. It didn't look like he was going to get his wish.

"Uchiha Sasuke," the father acknowledged, "it's good to see you back in Konoha."

And that was all.

The next second, Reika and Atsushi were reminding Sakura that there was plenty of food in the fridge and the cupboards and that they could help themselves to whatever they wanted for dinner. They reminded her of Mika's bedtime and gave her their estimate for when they would be home. Sakura just nodded along with that cheerful smile of her's, clearly used to the routine.

Meanwhile, Sasuke just stood there in shock, even as Reika and Atsushi finally left the house, leaving little Mika, Sakura, and himself behind. Sasuke couldn't wrap his head around the fact that Atsushi and Reika, who didn't even know him and could only know the rumours about him, had just left him in their home with their child. They had both been calm and unsuspicious, and it was...oddly nice to be treated without the hostility and fear that he had already learned most other people reserved for him.

Sasuke wasn't given long to dwell on those thoughts however, as the second her parents were gone, Mika was tugging Sakura out of the kitchen and into the living room to play. Sasuke followed, not knowing what else to do, and settled onto a couch while Sakura took a seat on the floor and accepted the doll Mika thrust into her hands. Then all he could do was watch as Mika instructed Sakura in their game.

"Your doll is the mommy and mine is the daughter. Kay, Sakura-chan?" Mika told her.

"Is my doll a nurse like your kaa-chan?" Sakura asked, smiling widely again.

Mika seemed to seriously ponder the question while she scratched her head in what Sasuke thought was a very Naruto like fashion.

"Yup," she eventually answered, "and the daughter can be a kunoichi. Then the mommy can take care of her if she gets hurt."

And so they played, Sasuke apparently forgotten by the both of them. That was just fine with him though, it's not like he wanted to play with dolls. Still, as he watched Sakura play with Mika, their eerily similar green eyes both lit with obvious joy, his stomach started to feel all knotted again. Playing mother and daughter with those dolls, Sasuke could almost see the two of them as such and it made him feel...something unidentifiable.

And it also made Sasuke think of his future. If he planned to revive his clan, he would need to marry and he would need to have children – children who for some reason had black hair and green eyes like Mika when he envisioned them. He blamed his imaginations on the scene taking place before him, but somehow he couldn't stop watching the two happily playing as time ticked by.

After a while, Mika seemed to be getting bored of their game and her stomach audibly grumbled, making Sakura burst out in laughter.

"You should have told me that you were getting hungry, Mika-chan. It'll take me a while to put something together for dinner," said Sakura as she stood. Then she pursed her lips as she thought. "Unless you just want some ramen?" Sakura suggested.

"I love your ramen, Sakura-chan! It's my favourite," Mika exclaimed happily.

"Well that's that then. I guess I'm going to make some ramen," Sakura answered simply.

And then she turned to Sasuke and from her expression – her small smile, her eyes wide like Mika's – Sasuke knew that he wasn't going to like the next words that came out of her mouth.

"And since I'm going to be busy in the kitchen for the next fifteen minutes, Sasuke-kun will stay with you, Mika-chan," she told both Sasuke and the little girl.

Sasuke knew exactly what he wanted to say. No. The word was on the tip of his tongue. And yet somehow, before he could get it out, a small hand was grabbing his and his attention was directed to the little girl whose smile had grown to an impossible size.

"I get to play with Sasuke-kun?" Mika asked, staring at him with those wide, wide eyes. Eyes that, despite his better judgement, Sasuke found he couldn't say no to. His answer didn't matter much though he supposed. He wouldn't be able to escape being in the room with Mika anyways. So what if Sakura wasn't there? The girl would play with her dolls and he would sit on the couch, just like they had been doing for the last half hour.


Sakura clearly took his reply to be a yes, and left for the kitchen, where Sasuke soon heard the sounds of her rummaging through the fridge and cupboards. Meanwhile, Mika was still holding onto his hand and staring at him with those big, green eyes of hers. She eventually let go and sat back on the ground, where her dolls lay on the floor, and Sasuke settled deeper into the couch, prepared to wait out the next fifteen minutes until Sakura had dinner ready.

But then Mika looked up to him and held out a doll.

"You can be this one cause he's a boy," Mika said cheerfully extending the proffered toy even further.


There was no way Sasuke was going to touch that doll no matter how wide this little girl made her eyes.

Mika instantly pouted.

"Why not?" she asked, and Sasuke swore that she looked to be on the verge of tears.

This was not his problem though, he told himself. Sakura had dragged him here along with her for her babysitting job. He was only here because he needed to be escorted by her around town and thus couldn't go home yet.

Sasuke had to answer Mika though. She was not dissuaded in the slightest by his silence. She was still looking at him with those now tear filled green eyes – far too much like Sakura's.

He settled on: "Dolls are for girls."


Looking crestfallen, she turned back to the pile of dolls on the floor. Sasuke's memory immediately presented him with the image of Itachi telling him that he was too busy to play with him and how heartbroken he had felt upon hearing those words. Surprisingly, the memory of Itachi did not fill him with anger, but resulted in him suddenly finding himself maybe regretting his words to the little girl...just a little bit.

He knew he was going to indulge her as soon as that thought crossed his mind. But he was not going to play with dolls. He just couldn't do it.

"Do you have a ball?" he asked her as he heaved a sigh.

Mika immediately looked up, her expression revealing how positively delighted she was that he was paying attention to her.

"Yes," she answered without pause.

"Go get it," Sasuke told her.

And just like that she was gone, racing to fetch a ball, and Sasuke was left wondering what he had just signed himself up for and why he had done it.

In the kitchen, Sakura was cooking while she listened to the sounds of Sasuke playing with Mika. When she had left for the kitchen, she had figured Sasuke would just sit in the living room, doing nothing until dinner was ready, but she had been pleasantly surprised when she had heard him suggest that Mika fetch a ball. She had been even more astounded when upon the little girl's return, he had started playing with her, instructing her in how to throw and then catch the ball.

Obviously this was something she needed to see for herself, so she moved to the kitchen doorway and looked into the living room, where she saw with her own eyes Sasuke playing with Mika. Her heart began to beat uncomfortably fast in her chest as she watched them, so she ducked back into the kitchen and got back to work... but she couldn't rid her mind of the image of Sasuke playing with a child. And then she was thinking about Sasuke doing that in the future one day with a child of his own. A child that looked a lot like Mika in her imagination, with that same dark hair and pale complexion and green eyes... A furious blush rose to her cheeks as she tried desperately to knock the image out of her head. That was not a safe train of thought.

Soon enough, her signature ramen recipe was almost done cooking. She took a quick break from watching the pot to get bowls together for herself, Sasuke and Mika, and to set them out on the table with the proper utensils before she checked on the simmering ramen and called for the two to come into the kitchen.

Almost instantly, Mika ran in yelling excitedly about ramen.

"Take a seat, Mika-chan, and I'll come serve it," Sakura explained to the young girl, keeping one eye on the pot.

"Alright," Mika answered heading to the table as Sasuke came into the room as well.

"I'll just be a second," she told him as she moved the pot off the burner and bustled around the kitchen grabbing three glasses and filling them with juice she pulled out from the fridge. She brought them to the table and then immediately brought over the ramen, serving first Mika, and then Sasuke, and finally herself.

"Itadakimasu!" Mika sang, before digging into her meal. Sakura was quick to follow, eating the hot ramen rapidly. She had skipped lunch that day to visit Juugo and was actually sort of starving.

Not that she had minded skipping her lunch, especially given how happy her news had made Juugo. When she had arrived at the hospital that morning, she had taken a few minutes to check the results of her tests and just like she had thought, they had been very revealing. She had discovered a foreign protein in the blood and tissue samples that she had taken from Juugo that reacted intensely to chakra. She would need to do more research, but this was very indicative to her.

It meant the theory she had been working on was probably right.

Since the enzyme was always present in Juugo's cells and blood and he wasn't always in a murderous rage, it clearly needed to be activated by something, and that something was probably chakra – most of the time. Juugo had explained to her that he did have control over his transformations and that they involved the use of chakra, which meant to her that chakra was probably what activated the enzyme. But there was also something that caused him to go over the edge and lose control, probably due to a hyperactivity of the enzyme. From what Juugo had told her, her guess was that anger and other emotions could act as triggers for this hyperactivity, she just didn't know how yet, but she would figure it out.

Still, she was well onto the right path and with a little more time and some more experiments, she was sure she would be able to find a cure.

Now though, she needed to think about Mika and not her work with Juugo.

The little girl was sitting next to Sakura, eating her ramen slowly and clumsily, spilling drops of the broth on the table which Sakura would have to clean up later, which was more than fine in her books. A little mess was nothing compared to the happiness that being in Mika's presence brought her. Mika was such a bright and cheery girl and spending time with her could not leave Sakura in a better mood.

Especially tonight. Tonight had been absolutely perfect so far and she hoped it would continue in the same way until Mika went to bed. And it did.

After dinner, Sakura had Mika help her make strawberry daifuku for dessert. Knowing of Sasuke's aversion to sweets, Sakura hadn't pushed him to help and had instead gotten some cherry tomatoes from her bag, that she had appropriated from the hospital cafeteria earlier that day, and placed them on the table before him. The corners of his lips had tilted up and he had even said thanks. So while Sakura and Mika had worked, Mika telling her all about the rest of the kids in her preschool class, Sasuke had munched on his tomatoes and watched them.

All too quickly, the daifuku were done and Sakura and Mika were munching on one each, saving the rest for Reika and Atsushi given that it was their ingredients that Sakura had used. Somehow the evening had flown by, and it was already time for Mika to start preparing for bed, so Sakura followed her upstairs, telling Sasuke that she'd be down as soon as Mika was in bed and to make himself comfortable in the living room.

At first Sasuke listened to Sakura, but even though the living room was filled with plenty of books that could hold his attention and a television, he soon found himself drawn upstairs. As he reached the second floor, he heard Sakura's voice drifting out from one of the rooms. She was clearly telling Mika a story. His curiosity getting the better of him once again, Sasuke walked closer, Sakura's voice becoming clearer as he neared the open doorway. Soon he was standing within the room's entryway, listening as Sakura, who lay on Mika's bed on top of the covers, read to the little girl lying tucked under the blankets beside her.

"And then," Sakura whispered, pausing dramatically and flipping the page of the storybook in her hands, "the brave shinobi and the beautiful princess finally reached the castle. The king was so overjoyed to have his daughter back that he offered to grant the shinobi one wish as long as it was within his power."

The scene before him was so painfully adorable and heartwarming that even Sasuke felt himself being moved and was soon just as engrossed in the conclusion of the story as the two girls on the bed.

Sakura flipped the page again and continued: "There was only one thing the shinobi wanted. He had fallen in love with the princess and he wanted to be with her for the rest of his life. So he asked the king for the princess' hand in marriage."


"When the princess heard the shinobi's wish, she was so overjoyed that she flung herself into his arms. She had fallen in love with him as well and wanted nothing more than to be married to him for the rest of her life. The king, seeing that his daughter was happy with the shinobi's proposal, agreed and granted the shinobi his wish."


"A few months later, the princess and the brave shinobi were married, and they lived happily ever after," Sakura finished, closing the book and placing it on the night stand next to the girl's bed.

Mika yawned and settled herself deeper into her pillow.

"Thank you, Sakura-chan," Mika mumbled sleepily.

"You're welcome, honey. And now it's time to go to sleep," Sakura replied, standing up from the bed. "Goodnight, Mika-chan."

"Goodnight, Sakura-chan. Goodnight, Sasuke-kun," the little girl slurred, shooting him a happy look before her eyelids drifted shut.

Sasuke hadn't thought that the girl had noticed him, absorbed in the story as she was. Sakura clearly hadn't been paying attention to his presence he concluded, since she whirled around to face him, shock plainly written on her face. She glanced once more at Mika, and then walked over to the doorway where he stood. She flicked the light switch off, extinguishing the bulb overhead and leaving the bedroom dark.

"Did you need something, Sasuke-kun?" she asked quietly as she exited the room and closed the door behind her, leaving it open just a crack.

"No," he answered her just as softly. He had only moved as far out of the doorway as was needed to let Sakura pass and shut the door behind her. They were only inches apart.

"Oh," she whispered as he looked down at her.

And time stood still. Even in the dim lighting of the hallway, he could see the light dusting of freckles across her small nose, the pink bangs that fell into her bright green eyes rimmed by equally pink eyelashes, the moisture left behind when her tongue darted out to lick her full lips...

Sakura was beautiful.

It was something he hadn't really realized until now. In the three days he had been back in Konoha and their time on the road, he had obviously noticed that she had changed, but it seemed that only now was his brain putting all those changes together to paint a picture of the teen before him. Her face had obviously matured, and the childhood fat had melted from her cheeks. She was shorter than him, slim and fit. Yesterday when he had seen her in a bra, he had been too stunned to process the image, but looking back on it he had to admit that she had an impressive figure for sixteen.

Finally Sakura broke their eye contact, a blush coming to her face.

"I need to go clean up downstairs," she mumbled, turning away from him.

"I'll help," he offered.

She nodded and headed back downstairs, and he was right on her heels. When they reached the kitchen, he took up washing the dishes so Sakura could dry them and put them back in their rightful spaces. It was quiet while they worked until Sakura chose to break it.

"Thanks for being such a good sport about this, Sasuke-kun. I shouldn't have made you come. It wasn't fair of me," she murmured as she placed a bowl back into an open cupboard.

Her statement surprised him and for a moment he wasn't sure what to say. It was true he hadn't wanted to come but the evening had passed unexpectedly quickly and painlessly. Playing catch with Mika had irritated him much less than he had thought it would, and towards the end of their game, just before Sakura had called them for dinner, he had actually found himself unconsciously smirking at the little girl's antics. The meal Sakura had served them, though simple, was good, and afterwards, he had been pleasantly surprised when she had pulled out some tomatoes for him to snack on while the two girls occupied themselves making some sweet dessert.

No, this hadn't been something he had wanted to do, but it hadn't been so bad.

"It's alright," he answered her, scrubbing out the last dish in the sink. "It wasn't so bad."

Sakura's smile when he glanced at her was just as stunning as the one she had given Mika upon their arrival. When Sasuke turned away from her and back to his work, his lips were turned up into a small smile of his own, glad to be the one who had put such an expression on Sakura's face.

Authoress' Notes: This is the longest one yet and it was just so much fun to write given how sweet it is compared to the other chapters so far. Sadly this won't last. I will tell you that the attack on Konoha is coming soon, but before that I have a few more peaceful days that I can fill with some fun stuff.

Also, in light of new info from the manga...well I don't know if I'm going to need to change things in this story. Right now I'm just going to proceed as I had planned to when I started writing this, but I may change my plan in the future to reflect the manga.