This is the final chapter of a story that has gone on for such a strangely long time. This started off as an experiment in character development and I honestly didn't expect for it to be received so warmly. Thank you to everyone for reading and reviewing through all this time. The ending is a little ambiguous and there definitely won't be a sequel, but I think that's what works for these two.


Chapter 17: Gladiolus

Around the time spring really began to warm the earth, Sakura always took off a day to tend to her garden. Normally the dormant roots to the previous year's plants merely lay sleeping in the cooled soil. But last spring there had been no time to tend to them. The year before that, she had been up north on her rotation. Most of the plants had died without proper care and weeds had swallowed up the remaining ones. The shriveled remains of the garden had decomposed underneath the melting snow until their nutrients seeped back into the soil.

Pulling on some old clothes she didn't mind getting dirty, she tamed her hair into a quick fishtail braid and headed out to her front yard. Sakura yanked out the weeds and broke up the clods of soil. She poked holes in the dirt to plant the little seedlings. As each little plant was placed in the soft bed, Sakura mentally made note of each variety. Sweet marjoram was good for its antifungal properties while sage was used for cooking and for its anti-inflammatory effects. Brightly colored poppies were also included for their ability to tranquilize. In the stretch of soil edging the fence, she planted plenty of jasmine tobacco. The sweet-smelling clusters of white flowers would sprout out in long stalks that swayed in the winds that came at the tail end of spring. She liked their star-shaped blooms but, more importantly, the leaves could be mashed up to relieve skin inflammations and even draw out the poison from bug bites. There were other varieties of flora scattered around- each with its own set of unique medicinal properties. Sakura had memorized all of these things and could sometimes identify the flower by its smell alone.

For lunch she heated up some leftovers in the microwave, washing her hands and face in warm water as she waited. And later, when she grew tired of spreading out fertilizer, she curled up with a beer on a warm spot in the sun to enjoy the gentle breeze. It was still a little too cool to really enjoy the weather fully, but she pushed her shoes off to dig her toes into the soft blades of grass. The whisper of the wind against the leaves was calming enough to lull her into an unexpected nap.

Sakura woke up to a sudden chill. Her eyes lazily peeled open to find Sasuke standing over her, blocking the sun.

"What an easy life you have, napping like a cat. You didn't go to the hospital today?" he said. The rays of light slanted off the sides of his head. They turned the edges of his hair dark blue. And the shadows darkened his expression until all she could see were his eyes with the edges turning slightly downwards to accompany his smirk.

"Today was gardening day," she responded. As she sat up, she shook loose tendrils of her hair out of her face. Sasuke crouched down in front of her. He reached out to rub at a smudge of dirt next to her eye. Then his fingers travelled down to grasp a lock of her hair that had come loose from the twist.

"I need a haircut," Sakura remarked as she watched his movements. Sasuke made a noncommittal noise.

"It's gotten pretty long. You used to keep it short. It was about your resolve to be real kunoichi, right?" answered Sasuke. It wasn't really a question. They both knew that. A mischievous smile curled up the edges of Sakura's mouth. She could see the wariness in his gaze in response.

"You know, when we were little, someone started a rumor that you liked girls with long hair. Truth?" she queried. With a sigh, Sasuke sat on the grass across from her. When he didn't immediately answer, Sakura nudged his leg with her toe.

"I had no interest in girls back then- long hair or short hair," Sasuke told her. Sakura let out a short laugh.

"Yeah. Something about all-consuming desire for vengeance does that to you," she retorted. Sasuke flicked her knee with his pointer finger and thumb. A scowl crossed Sakura's face. She leaned back on her hands and slung her calves across his thighs. Letting her feet dangle idly by his back, she fixed him with a pointed look.

"So really? No preference? Even Sai has one," Sakura grilled. Sasuke's eyebrows rose with clear curiosity.

"Long. He think it looks elegant," clarified Sakura. Sasuke pondered this before he gave a sort of shrug.

"I… honestly don't care. You look fine with short or long so it doesn't matter," Sasuke finally admitted. She could see that the open honesty was still difficult for him. And she felt a little guilty for teasing him so much over tiny things like this all the time. Ino always assured her that it was the right thing to do. But then again, Ino, in their youth, had once strongly advised Sakura to always snoop through her boyfriend's things. Perhaps Ino wasn't a well of absolute truths.

Satisfied, Sakura nodded before she let her arms relax and she lay back down again. The sweet fragrance of the grass filled her nose each time she inhaled.

"Gardening?" she heard Sasuke ask. Nodding, she lifted an arm to point vaguely in the direction of the house.

"Sage, blackberries, sweet marjoram," listed Sakura. Then she gestured more in the direction of the front gate, "Jasmine tobacco, poppies." As her pointing finger moved, she rattled off the names. Even though her eyes were focused on the light-blue sky overhead, she knew that Sasuke was staring at the little mounds of dirt that sometimes had tiny green leaves poking up from them. Other piles cradled seeds in their damp soil. Those little pods would eventually crack open as a tiny shoot crawled its way to the surface. Life would burst up from the dark brown beds of plain dirt. In a few weeks, the fragrance of flowers would begin to filter up. By the beginning of summer, the front yard was always a pleasant mélange of sweet smells.

"What about that spot on the side?" Sasuke pressed. She rose on her elbows to see that he was looking at the raised humps of dirt edging the walkway.

"Gladioli. They represent infatuation and strength," she sighed as she sank back down. Her eyes fluttered shut as the sun emerged from a swath of clouds and shone into her face. Soaking in the warmth, she took a deep breath.

"Ino told me that your garden always smells nice. What do those smell like?"

His voice was gentle, matching with the rhythm of the swaying branches and rippling grasses. Her hands rose as she traced the imaginary shapes of the blooming gladioli. They had long stems, with the flowers cascading down the length and all pointing up toward the sun. The delicate petals wrinkled and folded together like bunches of coral-colored fabric.

"They don't smell like anything," she admitted.

"Hm," Sasuke replied. She listened to his back hit the grass too.

"Doesn't that make them pointless?" he asked after a while.

"I just like them. That's all. That's good enough," she told him. Turning her cheek to press to the ground, she aimed a little kick toward his middle. There was a faint "oof" that told her that her heel had connected with his stomach.

"Don't insult my flowers, jerk," she added.

Her eyes flew open when Sasuke sat up and tossed her legs aside. He grabbed her around the middle before falling backward, pulling her down with him. A gasping laugh burst from her mouth as he rolled over, pinning her beneath him. The grass tickled her neck and arms. His fingers splayed across her back, warm against her cool skin. Sakura pressed a kiss to the side of Sasuke's neck, just to see him bristle at the unexpected sensation. And even though he could see that she was laughing at his reaction, he let it go with a little shake of his head.

The new batch of interns had gone through their full year of training. There had been many new faces this year- a common occurrence after eager children saw the horrors of war and resolved to develop a noble heart to heal others. But the truth was that many of them had given up in the middle. And when it was time for Sakura and Takumi to select the medics from their ranks, they chose less than the normal 10. When the desperate ones asked why there were four spots left unfilled, Sakura shook her head.

"You aren't ready," she simply said.

The six new members of the staff were welcomed warmly. Two she recommended immediately to the ANBU division of medics where they would be trained both in medicine and in physical skills needed like stealth and speed. One went to pediatrics; one went to endocrinology. The remaining two she handed over to a colleague where they would be brought up as physicians.

"You didn't pick a favorite this year, Sensei," Takumi noted over lunch.

"I know," she responded. But no one had caught her eye from this batch. She couldn't help but notice how happy Takumi looked. She reached out to pinch his cheek.

"I guess you'll have to endure being my favorite again this year, Takumi," she added.

A week later, they held the written examinations to begin selecting their new interns. As Kei had suggested, they only chose the 25 best scores from this pool instead of the normal 50. Sakura noticed that many of the interns rejected from the previous year did not show up to take the test again. Then again, she hadn't expected them to. She let Takumi, Kei, and Nozomi handle the grading and selection while she caught up on administrative work for the hospital.

When the report landed on her desk containing the names and profiles of all the new interns, Sakura leafed through it with a sigh. She marked a couple profiles with a red pen before handing it back to Takumi.

"Keep an eye on these ones. They look promising," she told him. And then she stood, hands slipping into the pockets of her white coat, to go speak to the lucky ones who had passed the initial selection for the first time. Her three students trailed after the sounds of her heels on the polished hospital tiles. Sakura passed the nurse's station and cut past the OR, heading downstairs to the lecture hall. She opened both the doors at once, walking in without saying a word. Nozomi and Kei let the doors slam loudly behind them. They did this every year- claiming that the dramatic sound was a nice touch to the scary Chief of Medicine image. There were panicked shushing noises as she stopped in the exact center of the floor and turned to face the bewildered faces.

"Congratulations. Out of the many applicants we've had this year, you're the 25 that have made it past the initial testing," Sakura announced. She cast a sweeping glance around the room to gauge the faces she saw looking back at her.

"My name is Doctor Haruno Sakura. I am your Chief of Medicine," added Sakura. There were no shocked faces in response to that fact. She delved into her usual speech that highlighted the importance of medics and how they were the elite of the elite. But she kept her words brief and dismissed the students after a few minutes. Kei shepherded them out of the room for a tour of the building while Nozomi tagged along just for the fun of it. When Takumi glanced unsurely from his friends and then back to his teacher, Sakura laughed a little.

"Come on. I'm removing a tumor today. You've always said you wanted to assist on one of those," said Sakura. Excitement lit up Takumi's entire face at those words. Sakura never grew tired of seeing that pure joy brightening his expressions. She silently hoped that he would never lose that wonder. That was sometimes the only thing that dragged her to work when she grew tired of seeing the pain and death that pooled in the hospital like dirty water in a dead leaf.

The hospital wasn't any less busy for Sakura. Though the aftershocks of war had largely dispersed and all the staff was now home, the administrative work did tend to bog Sakura down. Sometimes she sat for several minutes at her desk, glaring at the stacks of forms in her inbox, as if she could combust them through vengeful looks alone. But the faster she finished those, the faster she could go treat patients, which was how she forced herself to finish that hated part of her job each day.

The sick and injured continued to flow into the hospital while the healed streamed out. The only difference was that the anxiety of conflict was gone. Sakura had almost forgotten what peace and ease looked like. On the odd occasion that she made up some excuse to go snoop through the Hokage's archives, Sakura saw that the atmosphere of the Hokage's Tower had also changed. The brisk strides of messenger's delivering updates from the battlefield had softened into the leisurely gait of employees off to fetch coffee or scrolls. Even the guards were more relaxed. And though Naruto always joked that he would have to punish the slackers, they both knew he was relieved that people were beginning to smile once more.

Sakura didn't bring up Tsunade in front of Naruto again. Sometimes she would turn her head just in time to catch his unguarded looks. And she would know that Naruto was thinking about the old woman too, probably along with Jiraiya. Naruto was her brother. He was her best friend. And yet that was a topic they couldn't broach. Neither of them fully understood why so they couldn't put a name to those reasons.

Naruto feared hurting Sakura with the reminder of that loss while Sakura feared distracting Naruto from his job with feelings of grief. And in a way, not talking about the pain softened it more quickly. Tsunade's death faded into an ache that was always there but not so debilitating. And after years had passed, after time had healed that wound, only then could Sakura think back to the wonderful woman without a stab of fresh pain.

Because the Hokage generally didn't sit around twiddling his thumbs, Sakura was more comfortable dropping in on Intelligence to bother people there whenever she wasn't at work or not researching at home. They were equally occupied but their work came in waves. There were days that weren't as busy and then there were days where new information came in and everyone scrambled to work through field reports and sources. On the quiet days, Sakura swung by and no one ever complained. Her main target: Uchiha Sasuke- without a doubt. But Shikamaru and Ino were there too. They were also glad to see Sakura visit.

"You look completely different when you get a decent amount of sleep," Shikamaru commented one day. Sakura shook her head.

"Suave," she snorted.

"What're you doing here? Shouldn't you be giving sponge baths to the old or something?" teased Ino as she walked up to join them.

"It's my day off, rude lady. And sponge baths I leave to the interns," retorted Sakura while folding her arms across her chest. They lingered to exchange a few more joking barbs before Sakura pointed toward the hallway.

"Is he busy?" she inquired.

"Probably not. He might be in a bad mood though," Shikamaru sighed. He stretched his arms over his head as his words tapered off in a yawn. Ino nodded solemnly. Sakura raised an eyebrow.

"He and Ino went out during lunch to go pick up food for us. On the way some old lady slapped him," drawled Shikamaru.

"She was all, 'How dare you set foot in our village? You're a traitor! An animal! My son died fighting for this village and how dare you wear that headband mehmehmehmeh'," Ino mocked in a high-pitched voice. Her upper lip curled. Sakura's gut clenched so hard that she began to feel sick. Her head turned back in the direction of the hallway.

"Luckily Ino told her to shut up. I'm glad he wasn't out on his own. He doesn't deserve to hear that crap after all he's done for Konoha…" added Shikamaru. When Sakura turned back to him, she saw the sympathy flickering in his dark eyes. Laying her hand on his arm, Sakura gave him a wan smile.

And then she was walking down that narrow hall, her heels clicking in a lonely echo against the click-clack of typewriters from some of the rooms. Her fingertips rested on Sasuke's door for a moment. She peered in through the narrow rectangle of the window and saw his dark head of hair bent over a book on his desk. She knew that he felt her presence there already so she entered without knocking. The door swung shut behind her as she took slow steps up to the desk.

"It's too early for you to come demanding dinner," Sasuke remarked without looking up. Sakura leaned against the wall beside her, her hands folded behind her back. She waited patiently for him to finish his page and to place a bookmark in it before he shut the dusty tone. A cloud of dust rose up that he waved away in a careless sweep of his hand. When he finally looked up at her, she could feel the angry tears pricking at her eyes.

"You let an old lady hit you," she said with a calmness she didn't feel. The corner of Sasuke's mouth quirked upward.

"She had a strong arm," he answered.

She took a step toward him. When she reached for his face, he softly pushed her hand away.

"I'm fine," he insisted.

"Look me in the eyes and say that," Sakura demanded. Her hands were fisted at her sides as she stared at his cheek. It was red and she could see a little scratch near the corner of his mouth from a nail. It was only when Sasuke grasped her forearm that she realized that she was physically shaking with anger.

"I'm fine," he repeated, staring up at her with a completely unconvincing smile. But she smiled too, tears welling over as her mouth stretched. She stood stiffly, hands still clenched as angry tears rolled down her cheeks.

"I'll find that old bitch and I'll punch her in the mouth," she sniffed. Taking a big breath, she hiccupped without meaning to. Sasuke let out a short snort of laughter.

"With that face? Terrifying," he answered.

"Shut up!" she snapped back.

"You would kill her. It wouldn't look good for the Chief of Medicine to go around murdering old ladies," he added.

"How could you let someone do this to your face?" Sakura suddenly raged. This time she grabbed his chin, roughly tilting his head so she could get a better look at his cheek. She placed her hand on his face, trying to imagine what angle the slap would have hit him at. The skin was a little warm and maybe his face was a little swollen. Blowing out a deep breath, she channeled chakra to her palm to quickly erase the pain.

"Are you alright?" she quietly asked once her chakra dissipated.

"Yes," he said.

There was a lengthy pause. Sakura carefully examined his expression before she spoke again.

"Do you need a hug?" she queried.

"No," he said in the same calm voice.

But when Sakura wound her arms around his shoulders anyway, he didn't protest. With his cheek pressed to her stomach, Sasuke tilted his head to peer up at her with a strangely placid expression. His arms hung loosely at his sides.

"I didn't know her son. I didn't kill him," Sasuke remarked in a muted voice after a long time. Sakura's arms tightened.

"I know," she answered, "But sometimes it's easier to have someone to blame for all the hurt. Anger is a lot easier to handle than pain."

Ino, staring in at them through the window, felt shame flood her cheeks in a hot blush. She had snuck over with the intention of catching the two of them being naughty. Bursting in, she would make obnoxious comments until Sasuke was glaring holes into the floor and Sakura was laughing despite her irritation. But upon peeking in through that narrow rectangle of glass in the door, Ino immediately felt that she was intruding on something that went beyond intimate.

Sakura's hand was on Sasuke's cheek. The door was thick enough that sound didn't travel through it. Ino watched Sakura's lips move before Sasuke seemed to grunt something in response. A smile pulled at Sakura's mouth before she leaned in to press her forehead to Sasuke's while her eyes fluttered shut. Her mouth moved in slow, deliberate words. And for some reason, Sasuke's closed too as he listened. Ino had the sense that she was intruding upon some sort of ritual- a sacred thing that the two of them shared. That was why when she felt a tap on her shoulder, she instinctively whirled around and angled her body to block the window.

"Hey, Ino, you mind moving? I need to give Uchiha these files," one of her coworkers said.

"I'll take them. He's busy right now and I'm waiting to talk to him anyway," Ino quickly insisted, snatching the folder from him. There was an awkward moment where her eyes shifted uneasily back and forth. But then he shrugged.

"Sure. Thanks, I guess," he easily responded before walking off.

"What the hell am I so embarrassed for?" Ino muttered to herself as she stared down at the file in her arms. She laughed at herself a little.

Sakura owed her one.

Though in that moment, Ino fully intended to hold this over her friend's head, something changed her mind. Instead she found a way to quickly hand Sasuke the file without pausing to jab teasingly at Sakura.

Ino's actions were unnecessary, though. It became an unspoken truth around the Intelligence Division that Haruno Sakura was no longer to be flirted with. A building filled with exceptionally observant people was bound to notice the changes that overcame Sakura. Most noticeable was the fact that she no longer palled around with the single men. They had always flirted harmlessly; she let them talk but always rejected them. It was a long-standing tradition that when it faded, was easily noted. This was coupled with the definite change in her aura.

"What're you even talking about?" Sakura laughed it off when it was mentioned to her.

"I haven't changed at all," she chuckled. But everyone rolled their eyes at each other and decided to let the subject drop. There was no use in trying to say something to a person who just wasn't listening.

When Ino recounted all of these observations to Sakura's apprentice one day as she went to return some borrowed files, Takumi let out an exasperated noise.

"Not to mention their mirroring," he sighed. Then he turned his attention to thumbing through the folder to make sure that nothing was missing. But Ino's gaze sharpened as she tried to understand the comment.

"Mirroring?" Ino repeated.

"Mirroring. The behavior when people that are interacting copy one another. You and Sensei do it too," said Takumi without looking up. Only when Ino didn't move did Takumi realize just how interested she was in what he had to say. He lifted his head to meet Ino's questioning gaze.

"Like when you and Sensei are talking, you'll cross your arms if hers are crossed. Or when you're walking together, you start walking at the same pace. It's very common among close friends," he explained. Ino's eyes narrowed. She had never studied psychology during her time in medicine. Since she could just dive straight into someone's brain, using science to try to understand the human mind had never seemed so important to her. But clearly Sakura's apprentice had been hitting the psychology textbooks.

"And in the case of Sensei and Uchiha-san, it's even more severe," sighed Takumi. As he spoke, he gestured for Ino to turn around. They both turned in time to see a familiar figure entering the lobby. Sakura, standing at the reception desk with a cup of coffee, continued writing something on a clipboard while a nurse spoke to her. Sasuke strode across the lobby with even steps, coming to a stop several feet away from Sakura. He observed her for a long moment until she finally finished writing with a grand scribble of her signature on the bottom right of the form.

"Here you go. Send this up to cardiology and they'll take care of it," Sakura said while handing the clipboard to the nurse. Only then did she turn around to face her visitor. She stared at him for a couple seconds before holding her cup out to him.

"You look like you could use it. Long day?" she uttered. Sasuke stepped forward and accepted the beverage. Sakura turned to her side, leaning on the reception desk with one elbow as she watched him drink. Sasuke finished off the bitter coffee without complaint. The beans the hospital used always tasted faintly burnt but it was the kind of taste that assured the drinker that the caffeine would kick in soon. He set the mug on the counter and then nodded.

"We've been processing scout reports since yesterday. You'd think that once we cut off Danzo's head, we'd have less enemies to worry about," remarked Sasuke with a dry chuckle. A wry smile pulled at Sakura's mouth. She crossed her arms over her chest.

"Having a common enemy creates a lot of temporary truces. Once that enemy is gone, the truces end too," Sakura agreed.

When Sasuke moved to cross his arms over his chest too, Takumi nudged Ino's arm to point it out.

"I ran into your mother in the market today," Sasuke told her. Surprise widened Sakura's eyes. Her arms fell to her sides.

"Did she ask if you were eating?" she guessed with a sympathetic grimace.

"And if my new house was alright. My health, my job- it's like she was going down a checklist," he admitted. His arms lowered.

"Don't worry. She's like that with Sai and Naruto too," laughed Sakura.

From a distance, Ino and Takumi stood observing them as if they were two scientists observing wild animals.

"Huh, you're right," Ino said after a while. She watched Sakura shift her weight to her left leg. It didn't take long for Sasuke to do the same. And when Sasuke leaned his head in closer to say something, Sakura copied him. She laughed loudly, eyes sparkling as she stared up at him.

"So are they official yet?" queried Takumi. Ino shook her head.

"I don't know what the hell they are. All I know is that I haven't seen her laugh like that in a really long time," answered Ino, followed by a fond smile.

"Hey, listen to this," Sakura said one night as she lay on her stomach on her sofa. She nudged Sasuke's shoulder with her elbow until he let out a long sigh and then leaned back to look at her. He was sitting on the floor in front of the sofa. A roll of thick cloth was spread across the coffee table. His kunai and shuriken were laid on top of the fabric, waiting their turn to be sharpened and polished. A thick science book lay open on the sofa in front of Sakura. Her ankles crossed in the air, keeping freshly-painted toenails from smudging. The bright teal stood out against her pale skin.

"I found this old physics textbook in the library yesterday. Listen to this," she said. Her pointer finger trailed down the page until she found the spot she had marked with a dot of her green pen.

"Entropy is a measure of the disorder of any system. The world that we perceive to be stable and unchanging is actually made up of tiny parts that are constantly in motion," Sakura read out loud. She then skimmed further down the lines to add, "Simply put, entropy is the measure of chaos."

When she looked up at Sasuke, he didn't say anything.

"Isn't that a little poetic? There's the idea that nothing is really unchanging. Everything is moving. That kind of blows my mind," she said. Medicine had always been her passion but the intricacies of the physics and chemistry she had learned early in her career had always been fascinating too. There was an invisible world that was either too big for her to perceive or too small for her to notice.

"It's a little frightening, actually," replied Sasuke after a long pause.

"That means that nothing is stable. The world that you just described thrives on disorder, not logic," he went on to explain himself. Sakura's eyes glittered as she suddenly sat up.

"I know! So that means that in this random, scary, weird world, all of us just happened to come together. The universe kind of smashed us together and we became the way we are," she insisted. It took Sasuke a while to understand what she was saying. Leave it to Sakura to be able to put a positive twist on anything. Sasuke shook his head.

"Your optimism is frightening," he remarked.

Sakura gave him a smug look.

"That's right. Tremble before my awesome optimism," she said with a snooty air. Sasuke rolled his eyes.

"I think it's your fists- not your optimism- that makes people tremble," he pointed out. Sakura looked torn between laughing and scowling. In the end, she scoffed. Picking up her heavy book, she flopped onto her back and placed it on top of her face.

"Fine. You're clearly an uneducated barbarian incapable of appreciating science," concluded Sakura. She laid back down on the sofa to resume her reading.

But the next night, when Sai came over to return a set of her shuriken that had somehow gotten mixed up with his during the move, he saw her book left open to that same passage.

"Entropy?" he read out loud, eyebrows rising, "The measure of chaos?"

"You can borrow that if you like- maybe for some light reading?" Sakura teased as she entered the living room with tea. She handed him a mug before sitting down on the sofa beside him. The sweet fragrance of orange wafted up from the warm beverage. Cupping her hands around her drink, Sakura inhaled deeply. She stopped before taking a sip when she felt Sai's stare on the side of her face.

"What?" she asked.

"You're happy," Sai stated. Sakura waited for the rest of the sentence to follow but there was none. Blowing out a deep breath, Sakura set her mug down. Tucking her legs underneath her, she turned to the side to look at him.

"Yeah, I am. Why are you saying that like it's a bad thing?" she questioned. Sai didn't say anything but his eyes pointedly trailed to the two empty wine glasses she hadn't cleaned up from the night before. And even without that, there were so many hints around her house to testify to the fact that someone else frequented it. There was an extra pair of men's sandals in her shoe rack that Sasuke left there in case he ever needed them. A few of his clothes had migrated into her closet and some of hers had found a home in his closet too. There was a second toothbrush in the cup on the sink. There were two towels hanging on the rack in the bathroom instead of one.

"I don't want him to hurt you, Sakura. I care about you," Sai bluntly stated. Despite the absurd lack of tact, Sakura found herself smiling fondly at him.

"Despite you being an absolute freak, I care about you too, Sai," Sakura replied. And then her expression sobered.

"But it isn't your job to protect me. I'm a big girl. I don't need you to fight my battles for me," she added in a softer voice. Sai's brow furrowed.

"He might hurt you. My opinion of him has improved significantly but I cannot guarantee with confidence that things will go well for you," admitted Sai. Sakura rolled her eyes. She put her hand on his shoulder to give him a little shove.

"Here's the thing, genius. That's true about all relationships- romantic or not," Sakura laughed. There was a long pause before Sai spoke again. Something soft lingered in his gaze as he looked at her.

"Everything is changing. Naruto is married. You're… involved or whatever you'll call it," Sai trailed off, leaving an implicit statement about himself. Sakura felt a small part of her heart break as she finally realized what this was all about. Because yes, there was a part of Sai set against Sasuke because he believed he might hurt her again. But there was another more vulnerable part of him.

Sai had no family. And unlike Naruto, he didn't have a big group of friends to make a surrogate family growing up. And now that Naruto was married, he had a wife- he finally had a real family of his own. As Sakura processed these things, she finally realized that it wasn't really distrust or jealousy that plagued Sai.

She then leaned forward to press her forehead to his.

"Sai, I promise, no matter what happens, I will never leave you behind. You will always be precious to me. You will never be forgotten," she said.

A tentative smile slowly curled Sai's mouth.

When Sakura told her parents that she was bringing her boyfriend for dinner one night, they didn't even have the decency to pretend to be surprised. Hisako calmly asked if Sasuke had a favorite food he wanted to eat while Yuusuke asked them to bring a bottle of wine. The meal was a pleasant affair. Sakura's parents watched Sasuke with perhaps a touch more curiosity but they didn't pry. And when it was time for them to leave that night, Hisako graced Sasuke with a hug.

"You're always welcome here, Sasuke-kun," Hisako promised. Sakura didn't think her mother understood just how much those words meant to him.

But once Sakura's parents knew, it didn't take long for the rest of the village gossips to figure out what was going on.

Sakura very quickly realized that people always assumed things about her relationship with Sasuke. They assumed Sakura was a martyr or a selfless angel. Those who didn't see Sasuke as a traitor saw him as wounded. And in a way, they were all wrong.

Some nights Sasuke woke in a cold sweat, teeth chattering. Flashes of his smiling brother with those black sclera and cracking skin haunted him. He saw his parents splayed across the tatami with sticky blood gathering in a puddle. Madara grinned at him with eyeballs swiveling around in his mouth instead of teeth. Clenching his jaw to quiet his gasping breaths, he curled into himself, trying to block out the ugliness of his own memories. And his panting and shivering eventually woke Sakura.

Bone-weary from a day at the hospital, she roused in a slurred voice to stroke his shoulders- to call his name until he remembered where he was. She rose on her elbow to look at him. The startling red of his bloodline trait flared wildly until his eyes could finally focus in on her face in the darkened room. Her hair fell around him in loose curls. It lay like a curtain that smelled like flowers across his arms and face, shielding him from whatever ugly horrors lurked in his mind. She pressed her cheek to his arm, watching silently as his breathing began to even out.

His shaking slowly subsided and then the red faded from his stare, melding back into the warm brown she remembered. Wrapping her arms around his middle, she wormed her way under his arm to lie on his chest. And Sakura pressed herself close to him and held him while they slowly drifted back to sleep.

But other nights, it was Sakura that jolted awake. Shapeless faces and disjointed names floated around. She dreamt of the morgue and of fading backs that became smoke under her reaching fingers. Dead people screamed for her and blamed her for letting them fall. And if she happened to jolt awake when Sasuke had risen to go to the bathroom or get a drink of water, a cold fear seized her heart. A sudden terror that she had been abandoned again consumed her until her breathing came in shallow gasps. Her fingers clenched tightly into the sheets as she stared around as bewildered as a lost child.

Only when Sasuke stumbled in with his hair sticking up in all directions could she catch her breath again. The guilt he felt shone brightly in his eyes because he knew exactly what she was feeling. He knew it was his fault. And Sakura didn't lie to spare his feelings. The terror that he would one day disappear was something she wouldn't lie about. Hands gently cradling her head and trailing through her hair, Sasuke would hold her that way long after his arm had fallen asleep.

Sakura couldn't cut apples for them after meals. Sasuke would watch her carefully stripping the red peel away with a knife before sectioning off the fruit into crescent-shaped slices. And they both knew he would remember that afternoon in the hospital after Chunin exams. Him, bitter with rage and ingratitude, had coldly flung aside the apples she had cut for him. And Sakura, with her tender heart and softer eyes, had felt part of her innocent love wither a little.

"You stared at me like I had cut you," he admitted one night as they lay side by side on the floor with a glass bowl filled with wasabi peas.

"It was painful. You should have cut me. It would have hurt less," she answered.

Her honesty wounded him but she knew that a lie would hurt him worse. He pressed kisses to her palms, her wrists, and her shoulders. He touched his lips to her cheek and buried his face in the crook of her neck with his arms wound tight around her.

Who was being comforted and who was doing the comforting wasn't exactly clear.

Out of the blue, he sometimes said, "I'm sorry."

If anyone else happened to be around, it would be confusing. It was a drifting apology that floated without purpose. But it only mattered that Sakura understood.

"I know," she answered. And she took that small sentence, swallowed it whole, and let it patch up a small piece of her heart.

It wasn't just the words that she felt the apology in. Whenever he visited her at the hospital to watch her work without saying anything, she could feel the unvoiced words. Or after making love, he laid his chin on her stomach to stare up at her with wondering eyes and she would hear his "I'm sorry" when he hadn't said a word. His hands found hers in the dark when they walked through the village streets and she would feel the cracks in her heart begin to fill in.

"Are things alright between you two… after all of that?" Ino tentatively asked one night over coffee and tiramisu. Her spoon hit the side of the cup as she stirred the sugar in. The surface of the drink slowly changed from black to a color closer to gold. Whenever the light hit it right, the diamond on Ino's finger glittered brightly.

"Definitely not," Sakura promptly said. Ino raised an eyebrow.

"We'll be alright eventually," Sakura clarified when she noticed the quizzical look. A smile curled Ino's lips as she lifted the coffee to drink.

"You know, Chouji's convinced that you're the normal one. I'm pretty sure you make me look sane, Forehead," remarked Ino. Sakura didn't bother to look offended.

"Oh, obviously," she agreed.

Sakura slapped Ino's hand away when it began inching toward her slice of cake.

Sasuke resigned from his job at Intelligence. The news came so suddenly that Naruto nearly choked on the piece of pork he had been enjoying so vigorously just seconds before. Sasuke slid a glass of water across the table to him as Sakura patted him on the back. Sasuke patiently watched Naruto drink and clear his throat.

"You what?" Sakura demanded as Naruto set down his chopsticks.

"I handed in my resignation today," Sasuke repeated with the same blasé expression.

"Why? Was something wrong? Did something happen?" she questioned. But a careful look at Sasuke revealed no turmoil in his expression. Then a thought occurred to her- spurred on by a faint memory of something he had said months before.

"Are you thinking of becoming ANBU?" Sakura ventured.

"I want to be a Jounin," said Sasuke.

"You are a Jounin, Sasuke-kun," she answered, pretending not to understand what he meant. Sasuke saw right through her.

Naruto sat across from him with an intense expression crinkling his face. Beside him, Sai was also watching carefully without saying anything. He turned toward Naruto with an expectant expression. But the Hokage simply raised his hands in a gesture of innocence.

"I had nothing to do with this," Naruto insisted with a furtive look at Sakura. But his worries were for nothing. Sakura barely glanced his way.

"I'm sure Uchih- Sasuke-san has his reasons. From what I've heard, your coworkers didn't despise you," Sai spoke up. Sakura and Naruto exchanged exasperated looks at this.

"Thank you, Sai. Silver-tongued as always," Naruto sighed.

"I think what Sai means is that you got along really well with your coworkers. And you said that you liked the work you were doing. So what is it?" Sakura translated with a pointed look at Sai.

There was a loaded pause. Sasuke looked around the table, gaze lingering particularly long on Sakura. But the moment his eyes connected with Naruto, a sort of unspoken understanding passed between them. Leaning back in his chair, Naruto let out a heavy sigh.

"Sai, take Sakura-chan home. I have to talk to Sasuke," Naruto suddenly announced. And the authority in his voice choked Sakura's angry protest in her throat. Eyes shining with unvoiced concerns, Sakura stared at Naruto. She was comforted by what she saw in his face. Pursing her lips, Sakura rose to her feet. The wooden legs of the chair scraped across the floor with her movement. She placed money on the table and then ducked under the plastic flaps to leave the restaurant. Sai tossed money out too and then followed her with one worried glance thrown back at the two still sitting at the table.

Naruto waited for several minutes before he said anything. And before he did, he poured some sake for the both of them. They clinked glasses together before they drank. With the warm burn of the sake running into his stomach, Naruto scrutinized Sasuke.

"So… spill. What's this really about?" demanded Naruto.

"I feel restless. I'm always in the village. I need to get out," Sasuke slowly said. Naruto frowned.

"Is it Sakura-chan? Does she have anything to do with this?" Naruto asked. Sasuke shook his head.

"But she'll think it's her fault and you don't want her to feel bad," Naruto concluded. The Hokage's sigh was heavy with sympathy. He reached out and patted Sasuke on the shoulder one.

"Alright, man. Do what makes you happy. But tell Sakura-chan the truth. You'll hurt her if you keep this from her," Naruto said as he got to his feet.

Later that night, much later, when even the late-night bars had closed their doors and gone to bed, Sakura heard a tap on her window. She sat up, sleepily rubbing her eyes. She had fallen asleep while reading up on autoimmune disorders. Part of her had been waiting for Sasuke to show up- though she would never admit it out loud. Before she could react, the window opened up and Sasuke slipped inside. He smelled like cool night air as he wrapped her up in his arms. The sudden affection startled Sakura. But still in a daze from her accidental nap, she didn't do anything more than call his name.

"I want to be a Jounin again. I need the missions. I'm going to choke to death if I'm in this village all the time," he whispered against her ear.

It was Sasuke's turn to feel surprised as Sakura let out a deep sigh.

"I get it," she whispered back.

The paperwork for Sasuke's transfer was processed in a couple days. Right after, Sasuke took an A-rank mission that took him up to a frozen town in the north.

So with Sasuke gone, Sakura found herself feeling a little lost for the first time in a while. She had gotten spoiled, she realized. Every night, having someone waiting for her had become such an obvious thing that she had forgotten that things hadn't always been this way. It became clear to her that she had to relearn how to be on her own again.

At first, the emptiness of her house had scared Sakura a little. But gradually she began to enjoy the occasional absences- not because he wasn't there- but because of the immense relief she felt whenever he did come home. The first time Sasuke came home from a mission, he found her curled up in his bed with one of his shirts under her cheek as a pillow. She woke with a sleepy smile and a kiss and that was the moment Sasuke realized what it meant to say "I'm home" with sincerity for the first time since he had been a child running into his mother's arms.

On a warm April night, Sakura leaned back in her chair and spun around to look out at the sleeping city. She had opened the windows to let in the fresh air during the day. The vertical blinds were pulled off to the side and occasionally clattered against each other whenever the wind blew hard enough. The brittle snap of the plastic hitting itself was almost like the hospital's version of wind chimes. She spun around again to listen to the small creak of her chair.

Leaning forward, she placed her weight on her forearms. The surface of the desk was cool against her skin. For once, her inbox wasn't full. There weren't patient files stacked on her desk that needed to be checked on. No desperate interns were clawing at her door, begging for help. Nozomi and Kei were sleeping safely at home. Takumi was in charge of the night shift today in the ER so Sakura knew she could relax.

5 pm was when she should have clocked out. She had arrived at the hospital at 8 am, gone through the usual rounds, and then gone into surgery a couple times. None of those things was out of the ordinary. She had finished her paperwork on time too. But when the time to clock out came, Sakura let it pass and instead took a nap in the on-call room.

With a sigh, Sakura slipped her feet into the shoes she had abandoned under her desk. As she eased her white coat off her shoulders, she picked up the scrap of paper on her desk. It had arrived several hours ago, carried by a hawk that flew up straight to her office window and pecked at the glass to be let in. Sakura hadn't recognized it from the rookery. It took her a second to notice the collar around its neck with the Uchiha fan hanging from it in a simple charm. Sometimes she forgot that Sasuke could summon hawks too.

It was a simple note, comprised of just a few sentences. Sasuke told her that he was home from his mission. That he was safe. And that he was going to take a long nap.

Nothing else was written on the paper, but Sakura knew an invitation to come over when she saw it. Setting the message aside, Sakura had sent the bird out the window, watching it curve sharply to the right in the direction of the Uchiha district.

That had been around 2 in the afternoon. It was near midnight now. Sakura wondered if Sasuke was still sleeping. He probably wouldn't have bothered to eat dinner if he still was. She didn't always know what his missions entailed, but they took a lot out of him. Whenever Sasuke came back from one, he slept for close to a solid 12 hours before functioning normally again.

"Is everything alright?" Sakura asked as she stopped at the nurse's station on her way out.

"Nice and quiet tonight, Sensei. You should go home and get some rest," one of the nurses replied. For once, Sakura nodded her assent. She raised a hand in greeting before she was headed down the stairs and out the door.

Arms bare, Sakura crossed them behind her back as she walked. The streets were empty. Lights set up on the sides of the roads cast fat pools of warm orange on the ground. Each time Sakura stepped through one, she watched her skin turn orange. For those few seconds, she listened to the buzz of the electricity inside the lights humming like a hundred bees.

Normally Sakura stuck to the rooftops to travel. It was faster and she liked looking at the village from higher up. She could watch the odd lights in the windows of buildings she passed. Sometimes she watched silhouettes dance across the panes and she was granted a brief glimpse into the life of a completely different person. But tonight she stuck to the ground. All she could see were the locked doors and darkened windows. The only signs of life were from the ramen stand as old man sat slurping noodles between sips of sake.

By the time she reached the Uchiha district, Sakura felt a slight chill. The weather had been nice enough all week, but it was cool at night and she hadn't thought to wear a sweater to work that morning. Rubbing her hands up and down her arms, she unlocked the front door to the only clean house on the street and let herself in. She pushed her shoes in a neat line right next to Sasuke's before she stepped up onto the raised platform of the house.

She stopped in the kitchen to peek into the refrigerator. It was dismally empty save for a plastic container of miso paste and a bottle of ketchup. Then again, she hadn't expected Sasuke to go grocery shopping the moment he stepped foot in the village after almost a month.

Practically tip-toeing, Sakura stepped onto the wooden walkway that wrapped around the house. She had always liked that about Sasuke's home. In the typical traditional fashion, there was no hallway in the inside- just this outdoor path. In the center of the house was a square courtyard decorated with a small pond. Sakura could see the empty patches in the grass where there had once been various plants and decorations that had died off. She and Sasuke had spent a day pulling weeds and gathering up dead leaves but they had never gotten around to doing anything else about the garden. The pond was mostly filled with rainwater. The carp that had once swum around in the waters were long gone but that was something Sasuke didn't seem particularly interested in fixing either. One of the only things really left intact was the big gingko tree. The fan-shaped leaves swayed majestically in even the smallest of breezes.

Taking just an extra moment to appreciate the modest remains of the garden, Sakura moved on to enter Sasuke's room. She didn't bother to slide the door shut behind her. Sasuke didn't stir from his bed at all. All she could see was the top of his dark hair peeking out from under the covers. His backpack was set next to his dresser and his shirt was tossed carelessly on the floor next to the bed. The gingko leaves whispered together outside as they swooned in the wind.

Sakura watched Sasuke sleeping peacefully for a minute until she decided against waking him. She sat on the floor next to the bed, pressing her back against the side of the mattress. The soft sounds of his breaths were in her ear. From here, she could see the little garden with its motionless pond. The shadow of the gingko leaves danced across the dark surface of the water. Sakura drew her knee up to her chest as she began to think.

Someday, Sakura decided as she stared out onto the wood deck, there would be little footsteps chasing each other around. Ino had brought up a crazy idea one day over lunch.

"Hey, so I was thinking, when you give any patient an organ transplant, you feed them medication to keep them from rejecting the organ. Why not do the same for you?" Ino babbled, hardly able to pronounce her words properly in all her excitement. At first the idea had sounded so simple that it sounded impossible. But the longer she thought, the more Sakura realized that she could hope again.

She could take an immunosuppressant and it would be possible to become a mother. Wrestling with her body wasn't that difficult. It was strong, but she was smarter. That much she was certain of.

When she pulled the clip from her hair, the smell of her shampoo filled her nose. Running her fingers through the locks, she tilted her head to look back at Sasuke's sleeping form. The steady rise and fall of his bare back was a rhythm of its own. She had never guessed Sasuke would be someone who usually slept on his stomach. But then again, she never would have pegged him as someone with such a fierce insistence for cuddling in the morning.

"Sasuke," she called in a quiet voice. When he didn't stir, she reached up to poke his cheek. He grunted before his one eye slowly cracked open.

"Ah, when did you get here?" he mumbled in his scratchiest voice.

"Good to see you too. I thought you'd be a little happier to see me," Sakura said as she rose to her feet. Sasuke's hand moved over her arm and then grasped her elbow to pull her in closer. A smile softened her expression as she leaned in to kiss his cheek. But as her lips made contact with his face, she caught sight of something red. Yanking the comforter away from him, she exposed two long red lines that cut through his back diagonally.

"What did you do? Have sex with a girl with knives for hands?" Sakura scoffed as she sat on the edge of the bed.

"Ha ha," Sasuke flatly said into his pillow. Chakra flooded her hands when she placed them on his warm back. Her fingers slowly traced from his right shoulder all the way down. She erased the hurt thoroughly. Eyes closed, she couldn't see the ugly red lines shrink and vanish under her touch.

"What would you do if I said yes to that?" queried Sasuke. His voice was so calm that she almost didn't realize what he was talking about.

She then calmly reached over and pinched the sensitive skin under his arm.

"Sleep-talk when you're asleep," she retorted. Sasuke's face scrunched up from the pain but he remained a motionless lump as her hands began to massage the smoothed expanse of his back. The heels of her palms pressed firmly against the muscles. Whenever she found a knot of tension, she pressed into the flesh, kneading and rubbing until the muscles unwound themselves.

"Sasuke-kun," she called in a soft voice.

"Hm?" he grunted.

She paused her work for a moment as she stared at his back. Using her left thumb, she traced the curve of his shoulder blade. His muscles rippled as he lifted himself slightly to look back at her.

"Nothing," she replied after a long moment. At this, Sasuke sat up, eyes scrutinizing her.

"Nothing!" Sakura insisted as she felt her cheeks begin to warm. But she soon buckled under the intensity of Sasuke's stare.

"I just missed you, okay? You idiot," she relented. Then she picked up a pillow and smacked him with it to distract him from the furious blush flooding her cheeks. He deflected the blow with his forearm, eyes never leaving her. The pillow flopped harmlessly to the floor while Sakura turned her back to him. With a loud sniff, she slid off the edge of the bed and onto the floor beside the discarded pillow. She crossed her arms over her chest in possibly the most childish thing she had done all day.

Sasuke watched her in silence for a while. He traced her back with his gaze, watching the way her shadow spilled across the floor beside her. Reaching out, he lightly touched her arm with the back of his hand.

"I'm home," he said in a soft voice.

"Welcome home," Sakura answered with a smile forming on her lips.