Second Son

His bride-to-be is a pretty girl of twelve, slight and small, with fair skin and shell pink hair. Dressed in her red silk kimono, she looks more like a princess than a kunoichi, but Sasuke isn't fooled. He's seen Senju Sakura on the battlefield, glimpsed her from afar: splitting the earth with monstrous blows right alongside her mother and reviving bloodied shinobi from the brink of death. She may have the appearance of a delicate child, but this girl is the enemy.

Still, that isn't stopping Otousan from giving him to the Senju. Their clan has suffered too many losses, too much death and ruin, not to take this offer of peace. Even if he doesn't like it, Sasuke understands all of these things, that this union is as inevitable as the sunrise in the morning.

Sakura smiles at him with more nervousness than warmth; he can't quite bring himself to smile back.

No doubt, if Tsunade had demanded Itachi as a hostage, the Uchiha and the Senju would still be at war. But Otousan values his younger son rather less than his heir, and so an end comes to the fighting for the first time in over a hundred years.

Tsunade never did reveal the identity of Sakura's father, just raised the girl on her own. Otousan is furious that the Senju are offering a bastard, but he has to bow to Tsunade, as she bows to him, and hand over his child just the same.

At the betrothal celebration, he and Sakura are seated across from one another at the children's end of the table. She's smiling an empty smile he can see right through, long hair pinned atop her head, pretty as a porcelain doll. The meal is seven courses long, and she somehow manages to get through it without saying one word to him. Of course, he doesn't speak to her either.

He decides that although she does not look much like her mother, Sakura is every bit as lovely as the Senju matriarch. But beauty means little to Sasuke, and future wife or not, he can't find it in himself to trust a girl who would have happily killed him a week ago.

It isn't in Sasuke's nature to forgive. So when Okaasan kisses his cheek and promises to visit twice a year, he says nothing and refuses to look at her. He doesn't see it, but he hears her tears all the same, and part of him wants to relent. To tell his mother that he will miss her, to beg her to take him home. Sasuke doesn't plea any more than he forgives, and so he holds his silence.

His first night alone in Rokagita is terrible. He dreams about a battlefield, maybe one he pulled from memory, or perhaps the product of his imagination. Dead and dying men, women, children litter the ground. Some lifeless and still, others moaning, screaming, begging for mercy. Sasuke looks down into the eyes of a Senju child of nine or ten, and he uses his kunai to cut the boy's throat. Blood spills over his hand, warm with fleeting life, redder than anything Sasuke has ever seen.

He wakes sweating and shaking and holds out his hands before him. Clean, unbloodied.

It isn't real. Just a nightmare.

Except the Senju boy was once real enough; he was the first child Sasuke ever killed. That fresh-faced shinobi rots in a grave somewhere, because of him. He wonders how much of Sakura's kin has died by his hand, and how much of his own has been killed by her.

The Senju couldn't be any more different from the Uchiha if they had bred it into their family deliberately. Their customs are queer, their jutsu styles foreign, their clansmen strange, a people of earth and water, where he is a descendant of fire and lightning.

His first month in Rokagita is the loneliest of his life. Sasuke misses being able to walk down the street and see faces like his own, to fight with trusted comrades by his side. Tsunade won't let him leave the village at all, much less to take a mission. And so he spends his days wandering the grounds of the estate, playing shogi with himself, training, cleaning weapons it looks like he may never have the purpose to wield again in earnest.

What is he if not a shinobi? Otousan had never allowed he and Itachi to be much of anything else, and without battle to occupy his hours, Sasuke finds that there is little more to him than a killer. He has no patience for scholarly pursuits, no skill at the medical ninjutsu his someday-wife excels at.

As the weeks pass, he finds himself watching Sakura more and more. It isn't that he means to pay her any particular attention, but the girl is impossible not to notice. With that long hair falling down her back like a sheet of pink silk, she stands out even in a crowd, and once you've spotted her it's difficult to look away. Not because she is beautiful (although she is). No, it's her disposition that baffles him. She's caring with her clansmen, warm with little children and her patients especially, and this simply doesn't tally with the kunoichi he met on the battlefield. Is one side of her personality a facade, or is she somehow both the fierce, efficient killer and the kind healer?

Sakura barely speaks to Sasuke; clearly she distrusts him as much as he distrusts her. All the same, there's only so long they can ignore one another. She finally approaches him on the last day of spring and asks, "Can I play with you?"

He has been losing to himself at a shogi match for the last hour, and he has felt so desperately alone in the months since his family left him here that Sasuke will stoop to accept any kind of company. Even that of an enemy girl.

Sakura correctly interprets his, "Hn," as an affirmative statement and sits across from him.

Thirty minutes later, he's rueing this decision, because she has beat him in two of the most embarrassingly short shogi games of his life. "You're really good," he admits grudgingly.

Sakura shrugs, tucks a lock of that eye-catching hair behind her ear. "There's a Nara boy whose father allied with our clan last winter. He beat me four times in a row without breaking a sweat."

Sasuke may not be a master of shogi, but shinobi strategy he understands well enough, and he knows that, sacred betrothal promise or not, if his father crosses Senju Tsunade he'll be killed in retaliation. It isn't an understanding that makes him feel particularly at home in Rokagita.

So when Sakura asks, with a friendly smile, if he wants to spar, Sasuke says, "No," and retreats to his room. Locks himself inside and sits on the edge of his bed.

Whether it's Otousan, Senju Sakura, or himself that he hates most, Sasuke isn't sure.

He turns twelve under the care of the Senju, then thirteen, then fourteen. Sasuke remains a glorified captive, and life in Rokagita stays much the same for him, isolated and alien. One small mercy is that, after three years of witnessing his obedience, Tsunade finally allows him to take missions. Not that Sasuke is particularly eager to serve the Senju, but he'd rather fight for strained allies than not at all.

His relationship with Sakura, if it can even be called that, is tenuous. They barely see one another and hardly speak. She is not unkind to him, but where he is a hostage, misliked if not outright despised by the Senju, Tsunade's daughter is one of the most respected shinobi in her village, and she's very busy. Always taking dangerous and difficult missions, healing her clansmen, and leading new projects to improve her home.

Over the years, Sasuke has developed a quiet admiration for Sakura, for her skill and strength, but there isn't a torture technique in the world that could get him to admit it. A dozen seasons with the Senju have passed, and this has helped him to see her more as an ally than an enemy, but it would be a stretch to say he trusts her.

Still, on the night that the Senju host the Head family of the Hyuuga Clan, Sasuke can't help but notice that Sakura looks especially nice. She's wearing a dark blue kimono, and her cherry blossom hair falls loose well past her shoulders. At fourteen, she is still much more a girl than a woman, but it hasn't escaped his attention that her body is now subtly curved where once it was all but straight.

Hiashi has asked him a question, but he was too busy staring at Sakura to hear it. Sasuke says, "What?" and the Head of Hyuuga smirks.

"It looks like the boy finds your daughter to be a worthy bride," Hiashi says, and Sasuke feels his cheeks grow warm.

Tsunade laughs, takes a drink of sake. "My Sakura is the finest young kunoichi in the Fire Country. Of course he finds her worthy."

Hiashi says, "Hanabi here will give her a run for her money someday. Her prowess with the Byakugan is already remarkable."

Hanabi smiles proudly, but it's the elder Hyuuga daughter who Sasuke looks to. If Hinata is hurt by her father ignoring her just now, as he has been doing all night, she doesn't show it. He feels a strange, sudden kinship with this girl he barely knows, because Sasuke suspects that she, too, understands what it's like to be the less skilled, less valued child.

After dinner, he finds her in the gardens and says, "If your sister is anything like my brother, then you must love her almost as much as you're jealous of her."

Hinata doesn't answer for a long while, but finally she says, "It seems unfair, that she was given so much talent and me so little."

Sasuke nods. "Itachi is a prodigy, the best Sharingan wielder since Madara himself. Next to that—well, is it any wonder Otousan sold me to buy peace for our clan?"

He and Hinata talk well into the night, until Hyuuga Hiashi barks at his daughter to come back inside and say her goodbyes to their host. Before she hurries to comply with her father's command, Hinata gives him a small smile and says, "I'm glad I met you, Uchiha Sasuke."

Once the Hyuugas are gone, Sakura joins him in the garden. She sits on a stone bench, picks a night-blooming flower, and asks, "What is it exactly that you don't like about me?"

The name Senju, Sasuke thinks, but doesn't say.

Besides, Sakura doesn't wait for his answer. "You talked more to that Hyuuga girl in one night than you've spoken to me in three years," she says. "So what is it? Do you think you're too good for me, because I don't have a father? Do you find me ugly or rude or obnoxious—"

"No," Sasuke says, putting his hands in his pockets. "None of those things."

Sakura is now steadily plucking the petals from the blossom in her hand, a small destruction to keep her from wringing his neck, Sasuke suspects. "Then what is it?" she asks. "Why won't you speak to me?"

"I didn't know you wanted me to," Sasuke says honestly.

"Of course I want you talk to me. You've lived here for years, but I still don't know you at all, Sasuke." She throws the flower's bare stem to the ground, looking more vulnerable and nervous than he has ever seen her. "I don't want to marry a stranger on my wedding day."

That makes sense enough to Sasuke, but he imagines that bridging the gap between them is about as likely to happen as their neighbors learning to mind their own business.

Maybe she sees the reticence and doubt written on his face, because Sakura stands, walks close enough to him that there's barely a foot of space between their bodies, and asks, "Would it be so bad, getting to know me?"

This near to him, he can smell the vanilla scent of her perfume, and her green eyes are wide and pale under the moonlight. Her hair looks soft, and Sasuke has to quell an odd desire to touch it. She is, he thinks, for what must be the hundredth time, the prettiest girl he has ever seen. But her beauty doesn't make her any less a daughter of the Senju, and Sasuke will die before he accepts this place as his home.

He says, "Goodnight, Sakura," and leaves her alone in the garden.

Much as he wants his people to know peace, Sasuke has little faith in this alliance, and he expects it to crumble at the least provocation. There's too much bad blood between the Uchiha and the Senju for anything as fragile as trust to develop between their clans; he and Sakura are walking proof of that.

There's a part of Sasuke that hopes he'll be able to return to his own village someday, but even he isn't nearly selfish enough to wish for his own freedom if the lives of his clansmen are the price for it. Maybe Okaasan will convince Otousan that their second son is a boy worth loving, worth keeping, and his father will demand a renegotiation of the terms of the alliance. He knows it's a vain, childish dream, yet Sasuke can't help but harbor it.

His mother makes one of her promised visits to Rokagita the summer he turns fifteen. To his great surprise, Otousan comes too. It has been years since he last saw his father, and he wonders what sort of business he has with Tsunade to bring him all the way from Nanmoku.

Okaasan kisses him on the cheek and says, "You've grown so much. You're nearly as tall as Itachi now." She's smiling, but there's something sad about it that Sasuke doesn't care to examine.

Otousan looks him up and down, says, "You look well," and goes inside, no doubt to find Tsunade.

Sasuke lets Itachi give him the sort of barely-touching hug that brothers often employ to show affection without revealing too much of it.

At dinner, his father and Sakura's mother are all business, discussing the problem of the Hyuuga, who have side-stepped their way out of making a formal alliance with either of their clans. The power of the Byakugan offers a serious enough threat for this to be worrisome. Otousan suggests they try to force Hiashi's hand, but Tsunade says diplomacy would be the better route. If they're too aggressive, they could end up starting a war with the Hyuuga.

Sasuke tries to listen, but his attention is divided between the political talk on one end of the table and Okaasan's conversation with Sakura on the other.

"You're such a kind girl," his mother says. "You'll make a wonderful mother someday."

Sasuke knows that children are in his future, but it isn't something he's ready to think on now. It seems Sakura feels the same way, because she says, "Someday a few years down the road, I hope."

"Of course," Okaasan says gently. "The two of you are so young still. Now is the time to be courting, not worrying about children."

Sasuke carefully studies his plate, but he can still feel Sakura's gaze on him. The two of them are courting only if living in the same house and occasionally exchanging cool pleasantries could be considered such. Somehow, Sasuke rather doubts that this qualifies.

Sakura pushes him in the chest, hard. He stumbles backward, but ninja reflexes insure that he catches himself instead of falling. "I told you to go ahead and scout out those Sand shinobi, not kill them!" she shouts.

Sasuke shrugs. "The mission was to eliminate them. So that's what I did."

"My mission, not yours," Sakura says. "You were supposed to be here in a support capacity only."

"Auxiliary duties are a waste of my talents," Sasuke says, and he doesn't care how arrogant this makes him sound. "That was the first good fight I've had in months, and I don't regret it."

"You will when I'm through with you," Sakura says.

"What are you going to do? Tell your mother?" Sasuke asks.

"Not quite what I had in mind." She swings at him, and it's so unexpected that the punch nearly lands. Instinct pulls him backward, saves him from a blow that might have broken his nose. At least she hadn't been aiming for either of his eyes.

"I'm not going to fight you," Sasuke says, and when she throws her next punch, he catches her fist with his open hand.

"Why not?" she asks, and now she looks possibly even more furious than before.

Sasuke is aware that Sakura has quite the temper—he's witnessed her clobbering a few of her mouthy cousins in the past—but he has never seen it turned in his direction before. She's more justifiably terrifying on her own than a whole battlefield of enemy ninja, but despite knowing precisely what she's capable of, Sasuke isn't afraid of her. Maybe because he knows that Sakura would never truly hurt him, just as he would never hurt her.

All the anger seems to go out of her at once. She steps away from him, pulls her long hair out of its thick ponytail, and says, "Let's go home."

They travel for six hours, and it isn't until they're standing before the gates of Rokagita that Sasuke realizes he didn't even think to contradict Sakura when she called this village his home.

"It has been decided that you and Sakura will marry next August," Otousan tells him.

Sasuke isn't especially surprised. He and Sakura are both sixteen, and their parents are eager to cement this alliance with a wedding. So he simply nods and says, "I'll do my duty."

The celebration of their engagement is a more lively affair than Sasuke cares for. The Senju are much more open and affectionate than his own clan, and when they drink too much sake, Sakura's kinsmen become even more emotional. He steps outside onto the porch for a breath of fresh air and some space, only to find Sakura drinking rice wine straight from the porcelain bottle. Her cheeks are flushed, her hair is falling down from its bun, and when she walks toward him, Sasuke sees that her gait is a little unsteady.

"You're drunk," he says.

"So?" Sakura asks. "It's our party. I can get drunk if I want to."

"Hn. I suppose that's your business," he says.

Sakura steps closer, and she's at least sober enough that she's not stumbling. There's a strange look in her eyes now, and it makes Sasuke nervous. "I know you don't want to marry me," she says. "Well, I don't want to marry you either."

He suspected as much, but hearing this voiced stings more than Sasuke would have expected. "Glad we've established that," he says dryly.

She tilts her chin up, stares at him steadily. "You think I don't see the way you look at me, but I do," she says.

Sasuke finds that he can't meet her gaze any longer. How is it that he is brave enough to fight in a hundred bloody battles, but a sixteen-year-old girl's words can unravel his courage entirely?

Sakura moves nearer still, until they're almost touching, until he can feel the warmth radiating off of her skin, and she whispers, "I look at you too, Sasuke."

He doesn't mistake her meaning. Couldn't even if he wanted to, not with the way her lips remain parted on his name, like she half-expects him to kiss her.

And maybe he would have, if Tsunade didn't choose this moment to open the door and say, "The two of you get in here. You're missing your own party."

They step away from each other, a little too quickly not to look guilty. Far from chastising them, Tsunade only smiles.

The next day, Sasuke and Sakura do what they do best: avoid each other and refrain from talking. There is no need, Sasuke thinks, for a conversation about the strange moment they shared on the porch.

Life goes on in Rokagita, same as it did before their engagement, except now every day counts down to August 16th. Soon enough, he will be bound to the Senju through ties of marriage. Bound to Sakura.

The wedding itself is a quick affair, just a few words spoken before witnesses in an ancient Senju shrine. A priest calls upon the gods to bless their marriage, he and Sakura each take three drinks of ceremonial sake, and then Sasuke recites hollow vows about the kind of love he barely believes in. Why he even has to say this he isn't sure. Everyone in attendance must know what a lie it is, when half the Fire Country understands that his marriage to Sakura is borne from nothing more than the politics of their parents.

When it's over, they go to a fancy ryokan for the wedding banquet. Tsunade has clearly spared no expense, but Sasuke finds that he doesn't want to partake of the abundant food, nor the rice wine that is flowing quite liberally. Sakura picks at her own meal, a show of politeness more than out of any real hunger, he'd wager.

The festivities carry on well into the night. A dozen people approach the bride and groom's table, offering their congratulations. Sakura makes small talk with most of them, always summoning a smile with what seems to be ease. Of course, she's much better at acting than he is. Sasuke is fairly certain that Sakura could tell him a bold-faced lie and he'd never suspect it. Not a quality one especially desires in a spouse, but then, he's certain there's plenty about him which his new wife finds fault with.

Any chance he ever had of going back to Nanmoku is now gone. It has been years since Sasuke truly allowed himself to hope for returning to his village, but the death of his dream still hurts.

"I'll never go home," he says, without even meaning to speak.

Sakura takes his hand, interlaces her fingers with his. For some reason, this small gesture brings him comfort.

Finally, at half-past midnight, all of the guests are gone. Sasuke and his bride retreat to their rented quarters, and Sakura asks for a moment alone in the bedroom, to change out of her formal white kimono. Sasuke tries to think of anything besides his wife, stripping off her clothes on the other side of that door, but it's a vain effort. He wants Sakura—has wanted her for some time, if he's honest with himself.

He hears her call, "You can come in."

Sasuke finds her already beneath the covers. He takes off his own clothes, leaving on only his shorts. He notices the way her gaze lingers on his shoulders, how she blushes and takes a sharp breath, where just a moment before she looked pale and serene. Sasuke climbs into the bed beside her, and now he sees that she's wearing a short, silk nightdress of some kind, white and thin. It doesn't leave much to the imagination.

Sakura's hair is down now, falling all around her. Sasuke touches it, finds that it's every bit as soft as it looks. That's one point of curiosity taken care of, but when it comes to Sakura, there are more mysteries than he could possibly count. Everything about her is a contradiction: a healer who kills, a girl only as temperamental as she can be gentle, stubborn but open-minded, capable of both cruelty and great kindness. He imagines that he could be married to Sakura for a hundred years and never fully understand her.

"What are you thinking about?" she asks.

"How little I know you," he says. "We don't have to do this if you don't want to, Sakura."

She smiles shyly. "Surely you know by now that I want you," she says, sounding a little embarrassed.

He kisses her, soft and slow at first, but then Sakura opens her mouth, and he tastes her. They trade tentative touches, her hands roaming the breadth of his chest, then sliding around his back. Sasuke feels dazed, drunk, even though he hasn't had a drop of sake since the wedding—that empty ceremony tying the two of them together, anchoring him to Rokagita. He doesn't want to think on that, though. Not right now, when Sakura's small breasts are pressed against him. He's growing harder by the instant, and he slides a hand beneath her nightdress, grasps her thigh, opening her legs to him. Feverish, impatient, he rocks against her, and the contact is so sweet, even through the layers of their underwear, that he gasps.

"Sasuke, I—" Whatever Sakura means to say doesn't come out, and when he presses his cock against her sex again, she whimpers. Grasps at his hair, runs her nails down his back.

"You what?" he asks, and Sasuke can barely recognize his own voice. He sounds breathless and out of control.

"I love you," Sakura says, and as soon as he registers her words, he freezes. Stops pushing against her, even though he's almost painfully hard. Her confession has jolted him out of his lust-induced haze just enough for Sasuke to realize that what they're doing is a very bad idea, wedding night or not.

Something of these thoughts must show on his face, because Sakura tells him, voice high and unsteady, that she doesn't know why she said something so stupid, and he should forget it, pretend she never told him anything.

"How am I supposed to forget that?" Sasuke asks.

Sakura loves him, and he has been too blind to even notice. So preoccupied with his own desire to go home that he didn't see what was right in front of his face.

"I'm sorry," Sakura says, breaths coming quick and staggered. "I shouldn't have—and now I've ruined everything—"

"Shh," Sasuke says, and he kisses her quiet. "You didn't ruin anything, Sakura. You just… surprised me."

"Please make love to me still," she whispers. "I've wanted this, wanted you, for such a long time." She's a prideful girl, and Sasuke imagines that begging like this must cost her dearly. Sakura looks up at him with pale green eyes, her rosy lashes wet and spiked with tears that haven't yet fallen.

In answer, he takes off his shorts and rucks up her nightdress around her waist, then higher, until her breasts are bared, and he can lower his head to take a nipple into his mouth. He feels the little peak harden against his tongue, and the sound Sakura makes—half a cry and half his name—undoes him. Sasuke gives her other breast the same attention, and she threads her fingers through his hair, holding him to her. Then he pulls away, yanks her nightdress over her head, tugs her panties down her legs and off of her. Now she's naked, exposed to his gaze, but if his wife is shy or embarrassed, he can't tell.

"You're so damn beautiful, Sakura," he says.

That makes her blush. Not having his mouth on her breast, or feeling his cock pressed against her, just his simple statement of a plain truth. He says, "Beautiful," again, this time looking her in the eyes.

Sakura turns her face away, cheeks furiously pink. "Sasuke, you don't have to say that."

"I know I don't have to," he says. "I want to. Because it's true, and you should hear it."

He puts a hand between her legs, finds her warm and so wet for him already. Sasuke takes a steadying breath, aching with how badly he wants to fuck her right now, but he can't, not yet. Not if he wants to make her come. He thrusts his fingers into her, gently at first, trying to stretch her without tearing. Sakura tells him it feels good, that he can go faster, harder. He uses his fingers to mimic what he wants to do to her with his cock until she throws her head back, arches against his hand, and gasps. A moment later, she collapses against the bed, breathing hard and trembling.

Sasuke can't wait any longer. "Turn over," he says.

Sakura frowns at him, clearly somewhat affronted. "You don't want to see my face?" she asks.

He takes a deep breath, trying to be patient with her. "I want it to be good for you, and I've heard this will work better for that." Then, mostly to fluster her, he says, "Besides, I just watched your face when you came. I'll think about that while I'm fucking you."

Sakura is quick to do as he asked, gets flat on her belly and opens her legs. Sasuke lies flush against her back, presses his cock to her wet sex, and pushes inside of her. Sakura makes a pained noise, so he goes slowly, even though this feels almost too good, and every instinct he has is telling him to pick up the pace. After an impossibly long moment, she starts to push back against him, to make the kind of sweet sounds he hopes to hear every night for the rest of his life, and then Sasuke completely loses control. Comes inside of her while he bites back a moan, burying his face in her hair so he can smell the herbal scent of her shampoo.

They stay like that, bodies still connected, for a minute. Then he pulls away, lies on his side next her. Sasuke doesn't know what to say, so he says nothing. Sakura smiles at him, and the love in her expression is so obvious that he wonders how he ever missed it.

Marriage suits Sasuke better than he expected it to. He's glad to be out from under Tsunade's roof, living in a large house with only his bride. Except for their new living arrangements, life with Sakura as his wife isn't much different from life before their marriage. They're both busy, he with missions—because Tsunade seems to have finally realized just how valuable the Sharingan is—and she with assignments of her own, healing, and attending council meetings with her mother. Still, he and Sakura spend most evenings together. They take turns cooking and share whatever meal is prepared. These dinners are quiet, with little talk.

It baffles Sasuke, how Sakura has come to love him, when they're still nearly strangers.

Their marriage might be lacking in many ways, but at night, in bed, things are different. Slowly, they learn each other's bodies, kissing and touching with a kind of passion that leaves Sasuke exhausted and sated. He discovers all the ways to make Sakura moan, and say his name, even how to make her cry from frustrated pleasure (and maybe for other reasons, but he doesn't want to think on that). Although Sasuke is much quieter than she is, his wife figures out exactly how to break through that fine discipline he's so proud of and draw gasps and groans from him. Once, she even manages to make him beg.

They fuck in almost every room of the grand old house they call home: on the kitchen table, in the shower, on a desk in the study, against the guest bedroom wall, on the living room floor.

Sakura hasn't said she loves him again, not once since their wedding night, and for some reason he can't figure out, this bothers Sasuke.

They go on a mission together for the first time since she tried to hit him, and he discovers that, when he isn't disobeying orders and usurping her duties, he and his wife make a good team. Together, they easily take out a group of bandits who had been harassing Senju lands, stealing the villagers' money, killing the men, and raping the women.

It starts to storm on the way home, all lightning and thunder and a warm rain that soaks Sasuke to the bone.

"There's a village just north of here," Sakura says, and he can barely hear her over the wind. "We should be able to find a room at an inn there."

It takes another thirty minutes to reach the town and find a place to stay, and by then Sasuke feels like he may never be dry again. They rent a room on the topmost floor, and after stripping out of their wet clothes, he and his wife run a bath of hot water and soak in it together.

"This is the best feeling in the world," Sakura says.

"The very best?" Sasuke asks, and he gives her a look as heated as it is challenging.

She laughs and amends, "All right, the second best. Does that soothe your pride?"

"It does," he says, and he presses a fleeting kiss to her wrist, a casual, unthinking show of affection.

Later, in bed, they're both too exhausted to do anything but talk, and Sakura says, "I've only ever known the life of an heir, and I want to understand you better. What's it like being a younger child?"

"Expendable," Sasuke says, "but I guess you already know that, or we wouldn't be here right now."

He sees his cousins cut down, left and right—Yuka, Meisa, Shota—falling beneath the blades of the Senju. And then Sasuke feels it, the sharp edge of a katana cutting across his middle, opening his stomach and spilling his own guts into his hands, slimy entrails like pink snakes. He looks up to see who has killed him, and meets the green eyes of his wife.

Sasuke jerks awake, sits upright, his breath labored and uneven. The dream was like so many he has suffered over the years, but the ending, that was different. It disturbs him enough that when Sakura turns on the light and puts a comforting hand on his shoulder, he shrinks away from her touch. Not because he thinks she'll hurt him—waking, he knows better than that—but he feels sick with himself all the same.

"What's wrong?" Sakura asks, her voice concerned. "Were you having a nightmare?"

"Yeah. It was about the war. Nothing new," he says, and Sasuke doesn't feel too bad about telling her this, because it's half-true.

Really, after three months of fierce, almost nightly sex, it shouldn't surprise Sasuke at all when Sakura tells him she's pregnant.

She places his hand on her flat stomach, and nothing in his life has ever terrified him more. Not enemy ninja, or bloodied comrades, or the feel of a sword as it misses his neck by an inch. He and Sakura are only seventeen, so young to be bringing a baby into the world, and Sasuke doesn't have the first idea about how to be a good father. He wonders if, after all the killing he has done and the death and ruin he has witnessed, he is even capable of it.

When they tell Tsunade, she smiles, hugs her daughter, and says, "I can't wait to be a grandmother."

That night, they lie side by side, for once making no move to touch one another, and Sakura asks, "Do you care for me at all, Sasuke?"

Somehow, Sakura has become the most important person in his life. It's taken nearly six years, but he finally trusts her. And she makes him feel things he has never felt before, caught between adoration and desire. But Sasuke doesn't know how to put this into words, so instead of speaking, he kisses Sakura, pulls her on top of him, so that she's straddling his hips. She likes it this way, he has noticed.

She moves against his hardness and says, "It seems like this is all we are. The only way we can be together without you pulling away."

Sasuke can't argue against the truth of this, and besides, he's too caught up in the friction where her body is touching his to be able to articulate anything meaningful. When she tugs his underwear down to his knees and pulls her own panties out of the way, he grips the sheets in tightened fists. Then Sakura takes him inside of her, and they lose themselves in each other. She rides him, her small hands grasping his shoulders. He enjoys the sight of her on top of him, taking her pleasure, pink hair loose around her, delicate breasts bouncing.

It's not enough, though. He needs something more.

Sasuke flips Sakura onto her back, thrusts into her, over and over again, until he's on the edge and she's a trembling, begging mess beneath him.

"Tell me you love me," he says.

She looks up at him with beautiful eyes that have grown wide, and asks, "Why—why would you want that?"

He doesn't answer her question, just thrusts again, deep and hard. Sakura throws her head back, moans, and he kisses the sweet line of her throat. Sasuke orders, "Say it," but the words come out more like a plea than a command, and he hates how he sounds. Like the lonely, love-starved boy that he is.

"I love you," she whispers, almost too quiet to hear, and now Sakura reaches up to cup his cheek. "I love you so much, Sasuke."

He realizes he is lost on a cool winter night like any other.

Outside, frost laces the grass and leaves, but inside, Sasuke and his wife are tangled up together and warm. Without being able to go on missions, Sakura has been growing restless, so it doesn't truly surprise him when she says, "Let's get out of the village for a few weeks."

"If you want." Sasuke plays with her hair absently and asks, "Where would you wish to go?"

"Well, I was thinking, maybe it would be nice to visit Nanmoku," she says softly. "Your family hasn't even seen us since we found out about the baby, and… I know you want to go home."

"You think your mother would allow it?" he asks, barely daring to hope.

"You're my husband now, not a hostage. Besides, I won't give her any other choice," Sakura says, protective, and snuggles closer to him.

And that's the precise moment when he understands that it's only a matter of time before he falls in love with this woman, if he hasn't already.

They go to Nanmoku for three weeks. The village has barely changed in Sasuke's long absence, but he has, and he finds that it doesn't feel as much like home as it once did. Still, it's good to see his family, to visit the old haunts of his childhood, to share this piece of his life with Sakura.

The night before they return to Rokagita, he holds her close and says, "Thank you."

"For what?" she asks.

Sasuke kisses her forehead. "For everything."

As the months pass, he watches his wife's belly curve with their child, rounder and rounder each week. Sakura grows only more lovely, a feat he would have thought near impossible, but somehow she manages it.

They discuss names for the baby—a girl, they know now—and Sasuke places his hands on Sakura's stomach so he can feel their daughter kick. "She'll be a shinobi, for sure," he says.

"How could she be anything else, with us for parents?" Sakura asks, smiling. "Do you think she'll have the Sharingan?"

"Probably not," Sasuke says. "It rarely shows up in children born from mixed marriages like ours."

"Oh. I didn't realize that." Sakura's smile dwindles, then fades away entirely. "Does it bother you? That your kekkei genkai might not be passed on, because you're married to me and not some Uchiha girl?"

It irritates him that she could think this, that he would care so much about his bloodline limit that he might prefer a different wife.

"It doesn't," Sasuke says. "Sharingan or no Sharingan, she'll be my daughter."

His love for his children will not be conditional, hinged upon their value as shinobi. Of this much, Sasuke is certain.

"Besides," he says. "You're the only one I want."

Sakura blushes. "I still like Satomi," she says, turning talk back to their earlier conversation.

Sasuke shakes his head, caresses the curve of her belly. "It sounds too soft for a girl who kicks this fiercely already."

Sakura rolls her eyes. "Well, she'll be called nothing if we can't agree within the next three months, and wouldn't that be sad? A little girl running around Rokagita with no name."

"You're ridiculous," Sasuke says, but he can't help but smile.

The baby comes two weeks early, born on the last day of July, a quarter hour before midnight. Sarada is chubby and dark-haired, with ten tiny fingers and ten tiny toes. Perfect in every way. He watches Sakura, holding their daughter while she nurses, and for the first time since before he went to war, Sasuke feels at peace.

"Isn't she lovely?" Sakura asks.

Sasuke can only nod. He reaches over to touch the downy, black hair on Sarada's head.

Their baby looks impossibly small in Sakura's arms, a fragile thing in need of protection. Sasuke still isn't sure of what kind of father he'll be, but he no longer worries that he can't love his wife and daughter the way they deserve. He knows better now.

Sarada proves to be a joyful baby, quick to smile and laugh, and she sleeps well for an infant. Still, they spend her first few months in a haze of exhaustion, too busy taking care of their daughter to do much else. Even so, Sasuke has never been happier.

One night, after they've put Sarada in her crib to sleep, he says, "I don't ever want her to go through what we did."

"She won't," Sakura promises. "The war is over, and the alliance between our families only grows stronger every year."

Sasuke kisses his wife's cheek and says, "I finally understand. The peace we made, it isn't for you and me—it's for our children."

The village grows hot in August, muggy and humid. In Nanmoku, much further to the north, this would not be so, but it has been many years since a summer in Rokagita bothered Sasuke. It took him too long to accept, but this is his home.

Sometimes he looks at Sakura, her shell pink hair now turned snowy white, and remembers a young girl in a red silk kimono, as beautiful and stately as royalty. That was a lifetime ago now, but Sasuke finds his wife just as lovely today as he did when he was a mistrustful little boy of eleven, scared and abandoned.

Today is their sixtieth wedding anniversary, and Sarada has rounded up the whole family to celebrate it. Her own four children, all grown and married, and their children too. Little Takeru wanders around the yard on unsteady toddler legs, until one of his older cousins scoops him up and starts tickling him. Fireflies glow in the twilight, a blinking, vivid green.

"I love you," he says to Sakura, because he has only so many days left in which to keep saying it. Three months, maybe four, the medics told him. He isn't quite ready to leave his family, but Sasuke knows he has lived a much longer and fuller life than most shinobi. If not for the peace brokered between the Uchiha and Senju so many years before, he would have been lucky to see his twelfth birthday.

He understands now why he was given away. His parents gave him up, not because he was unwanted, but because they wished to secure a better life for their second son.

Sakura takes his hand in hers and squeezes. She doesn't have to say she loves him back for Sasuke to know it's true. "What are you thinking about?" she asks.

"The past." Sasuke remembers with sudden clarity the taste of her kiss on their wedding night, the smell of the vanilla perfume she favored when they were young. Then he waves a hand toward their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, playing in the grass before them, and says, "The future."