The incense burned.
He stuck the slim stick he had just lit before the altar and stared at its charred tip, at the red smoldering line slowly crawling down the shaft. The visible emission was confined to the serpentine coils of wispy gray smoke, but the spread of the rich fragrance throughout the room was a bit more insidious. As he was nearby, his nose was speedily invaded; he barely noticed it, though. In his head, he had already smelled the scent as soon as he had entered the room. It was part of the ritual.
He stood there for a period that was neither long nor short, stood there immersed in the aroma of incense, in his thoughts, in his memories, and in time.
In the old days, the time before that event, this room wasn't quite so empty. It was the common room; the family met there, talked there, sat there... Other clan members were entertained there during visits. All of the Hokages have sat there at least once, either in grave consultation or gay socialization.
On cool evenings, his mother would be kneeling at the side, and he would be sitting in front of her in grudging compliance, pouting, as she tried to establish order in his unruly hair. His father would be sitting beside them, sipping tea, regaling the family with stories about squabbling distant cousins, politics in the Fire country, the old sakura tree nearby that got uprooted by the storm, or the newly released line of hypoallergenic eye drops. And his brother...
His brother wasn't quite in the picture. Itachi would be off to one side, vaguely distant, like a half-materialized phantom randomly caught on film. Anyhow, when he came up in Sasuke's musings, the rest of his imaginings seemed to fade away, to waste away as if from a disease. His mother's soothing voice would die into whispers, eventually into silence, leaving him to finish a soliloquy on shuriken, angles, bugs, and the way the long, long, raven black hair of the teacher glinted like a still pond on a moonlit night . His father's would be cut off abruptly, like that time the kitchen help stumbled to his presence and spilled guts...(Oh yes, the mange sharingan showed him that much, details complete down to the last strings of adipose tissue clinging on those intestines hanging out.)
Thus left alone, the child in his head would grow tired of talking by himself. Eventually, that boy learned silence—just as his real-life counterpart eventually did.
Interestingly, his daydreams that day----if one can call them that----consisted of a new string of images. They weren't even memories derived from real happenings. They were... misperceptions, the effect of the young, drab moon's poor job of lighting up his house.
The new images were of her, naturally, the ones he thought he saw when he came home last night. She was lying there on the middle of the floor, much like the way his mother did long, long ago, her hair amassed to one side, glinting a dull bluish gray. There was fluid spilled around her-----formerly part of her cleaning implements, obviously. Her belly was the appropriate size, bulging out almost accusingly at him. He was there sitting beside her, and not toppled atop her, watching her sleep like a fool who had all the time in the world.
That image was one of the better ones, much better than the variants of wild nights of violence and gore, of rage and terror, and pain.... He focused on that image, in spite of himself, and the nausea, the urge to run screaming hysterically out into the streets was kept at bay. He even welcomed a stray memory or so from back in the days of Team Seven, from those times he thought she was finished, like that time she dueled with a foreign hunter-nin four years ago. That time, she stupidly tripped on her own foot and nearly slipped into the bowels of the fiery earth after snagging a very narrow win. At that time, while Kakashi and Naruto were scrambling to attend to her cracked skull, he was busy trying to bite the whole damn thing off. She lived, of course, but they had to pry him off her before proceeding with the five-hour surgery.
She hadn't forgiven her for her foolishness then and definitely not yesterday. He was still angry––no, the word was 'irritated'---- at his wife. In fact, he was getting just a little bit more pissed as he felt her nearing presence.
"I thought I told you not to come down here," he said in an impressively level voice.
"Hmmm..." was all he got in return so he didn't pursue the issue. She was as stubborn as a mule, anyway, and no amount of nagging would alter her mind.
He remembered something very important then and so turned to her abruptly with a suspicious little glare. "Have you drunk your milk this afternoon?" he demanded.
"Yes, daddy," she replied in a tiny voice.
"Good." He turned back to the shrine.
"I'm glad you approve, daddy."
He opened his mouth to tell her to stop, changed his mind, and said, "Aa." Last time, he demanded why she called him that, when their baby wasn't even born yet, vaguely perplexed. He berated himself for even asking because it was stupid—obviously, he already was a father as that burgeoning mass in front of her continually reminded— and because it was unnecessary since another second later he would have realized she was just teasing him after puzzling out that he was actually questioning her amusement, not the fact of her calling him "daddy" itself. Or maybe it had been his reaction he was confused with. The feeling was new and surprising... Strange. Unnamed. That was how the "why" just popped out of his mouth. Of course, he felt like a fool that day. (Days like those seemed to come often lately.)
He didn't really mind that much though. Age and experience added a bit more of an accepting edge to his nature.
Presently, he could feel her turquoise eyes on his back. He turned slightly and gazed at her from the corner of a half-closed eye. Her look was speculative; he could almost hear the gears clicking and snapping in the convolutions of her mind. She remained unperturbed even when she caught him watching her stare at him. Her hand came up briefly to caress her belly, a gesture she was wont to perform unconsciously, but her gaze remained on him, now half questioning.
He watched as her other hand came to rest at the small of her back, giving an impatient air to her pose. Even though he knew the gesture was to relieve pain from the weight pulling on her muscles there, a pressured little part of him rose up unbidden in defense.
"What?" he snapped.
She blinked at him without guile. "What what?"
What do you mean what what? he was tempted to retort but was able to resist. He shouldn't have had to ask (not aloud anyway). He knew that look. That quiet gaze meant something simple: an offering of self. Years ago, she would have asked, "is there anything wrong," or "do you want to talk?" Sakura was an intelligent woman, of course. She learned those questions amounted to nothing. When he wanted to talk, Sasuke would talk.
Despite her prodigious academic prowess, however, that learning spanned years. Years. Even now, she still lapsed occasionally and asked those questions. On his part, he still cruelly told her, in the words of his thirteen year old counterpart, "to go practice a jutsu or two" instead of bothering him. Today he had one of those lapses. After all, she didn't have to ask----verbally or otherwise----what was wrong with him. There was nothing wrong with him.
"You weren't really mad at me for going down here yesterday, were you?"
"Didn't I already answer that?"
"Sorry, wrong question." She sighed. "You weren't really mad at me a while ago, were you?"
He glared at her. "I already said I'm not angry."
She raised an eyebrow dubiously.
"Did you come down here just to ask me that?"
"Hmmm..." She yawned generously, then assumed a thoughtful look. "Yes, I think so. Aside from evasively prying into your private affairs, I think that's it."
"Are you practicing or something?"
"Or something. I'm not practicing anything right now."
"You come across amazingly condescending without sounding it."
"Well you managed to sound it, too, Sasuke-kun." Her eyes were hard as corundum. "We attended the same parenting class, you know."
Parenting class? He had no idea what she was talking about.
Instead of pursuing for a reply, she began looking around the room. Her eyes eventually settled at the bucket still lying on its side in the middle of the floor. Then, as if somebody or something told her to (her damned intuition probably), she looked at him. His face must have given away something, since it didn't take long for her to figure things out afterwards. The woman had excellent knowledge on human psychology; she was, after all, a special jounin on genjutsu.
Her green eyes were eloquent with pain. He had to look away.
"Yesterday," she began, painting a scenario in a hushed voice. "I visited Ino-chan in the morning. Then, I spent the afternoon scrubbing the floors upstairs. After I finished there, I started down here. I must have fallen asleep on the floor and knocked over the pail filled with soap. When you came home last night to a dark house after being away for some time you must have...you must have..." She choked.
He stood there and watched her as she surrendered to tears.. He stood there, as straight, tall, and impassive as the incense stick as she covered her mouth and cried
Minutes passed until he spoke amidst her sobs. "There's no need to dramatize it," he said gruffly, and he held out a hand to her tentatively.
She came to him then and held him for a while. He allowed her that and stood still and silent as she shook against him, still staring at the still burning incense through the soft cloud of her shoulder-length pink hair, still smelling the pervasive pungence of the past mingling with the fruity smell of her shampoo... Eventually, her crying subsided, and she settled into a serene quietness.
"You know, you'd have to have new memories about this room eventually," she murmured against his shoulder a little later.
He encircled his arms around her, settled her against him in such a way that she'd be able to breathe and not have her belly compressed.
"Not to replace the old ones, you know," she elaborated awkwardly. "I mean... to balance out the bad ones. To ease the hurt... You get what I'm saying?"
"And I'm sorry I scared you, but I won't be staying out of this room either."
"Aa." Absently, he rubbed her side, gradually progressing down the side of the roundness. She was aching there, he knew.
She lifted her face to peer at him suspiciously. "You're not planning to... do something excessive are you?"
"Like performing a sealing jutsu on this room."
"No." That was a silly idea, he thought, but he kept his peace and went on to more important matters. "Don't go down here to clean again."
"Wha–?" Her eyes widened in dismay. "Didn't I just say---"
"How soon will it be?" he mused aloud. Soon, probably, he thought. The baby was coming soon. All the signs pointed towards that.
"You're changing the–"
"You're nesting," he explained. He had thought she already knew this piece of information. "Don't waste these bursts of energy for some useless idiocy."
"Nesting?" Sakura blinked slowly. "Ne, those are two different---"
"I know that. The nesting is all that preparation you're doing. That bursts of energy I'm talking about could be a sign of impending labor. So don't do stupid stuff and end up exhausted."
"Free birthing classes for the Hokage-sama's elite ninjas? I'm glad you have to listen to her." She smiled slightly as a realization dawned on her. "So that's why you didn't want to attend the formal classes with me. Hokage-sama must have had you saturated with info since... since when?"
She stifled a grin at his thundercloud expression. Of course, there was not a crack on her face that hinted a change from her commiserating expression, but he knew she was vastly amused. Amused!
"I know, I know. The Godaime can be a tough teacher. And blunt. And really physical... She's fun, though." She grinned anyway. "I wonder why she gave you extra days in your paternity leave."
"It's almost scary, though, what you said about bursts of energy. Do you really think I'm going to go into labor soon?"
"Can't tell." For some reason, he suddenly felt very tired. With the prospect of the nearing birth looming in the very near future, he knew they'd both need as much rest as they could get. An afternoon nap seemed quite attractive to him. In fact, starting then and there shouldn't be such a bad idea.
"Ne, Sasuke-kun," she spoke again.
"Aa?" He was starting to drowse on his feet and just allowed one eye to creak open to look at her inquiringly.
"I remember now what I came down here for."
The room needed to be occupied more often, he decided, if only to open windows and doors to have it aired out. It was just a little too drafty---another reason for her to stay upstairs. She was warm, though, he noticed, and that was very nice. "What?" he answered.
"I wanted to ask how your mission went. And how Naruto is."
"You've had missions on tropical islands during typhoon season before; you can imagine. Naruto'll be over sooner or later----after he talks his woman half to death."
"Hinata-chan likes to listen. How about Lee-chan? And Kiba? And Akamaru?"
"Fine, fine, fine. They all had fun dodging those six-inch pincers."
She winced. "I am sorry you had to deal with those crabs on top of everything."
He glanced at the stick of incense and saw it was almost consumed halfway. He thought about lighting a new one but decided to do that later. The incense could wait. It would have to wait. "Anything else?" he asked her instead.
"Oh, and I forgot to say 'welcome home'."
Sasuke smiled, then, and gave his wife her customary kiss.
"I'm back, Sakura."
And wait the incense did.
End. May 2, 2004 (8:35pm)
AN: Thanks to all the readers, especially to those who took time to comment (I'm usually too lazy myself. --;; ). I'm glad the characterization worked out in the 2nd part; I had been worried about that at first. And as for the 1st part, I'd been worried about portraying Sasuke's feelings. ; So thanks for commenting on that, Visions and Kenhime, and for letting me know that the horror and fear came across. =)
On Sakura calling Sasuke "dear," I had originally written "anata" there, Seiyo. For some reason, that... didn't sound right to me at all. LOL. ; So I changed it to "dear." (Which is odd because "anata" is usually translated as "dear." eheh).
This fic reminds you of K/K, Midnightcrow? O.o Oro. That's... that's evil. ;; (jk)
Hmm... I'm happy, happy you found the SasuSaku in the 2nd part as subtle, Afrokane. (Yes!) Especially since I wasn't writing the fic as romance. Er... I guess this 3rd part came out fluff, though. --;
Hmm... The idea for this fic started when I was half asleep, trying to prod myself to start doing a major school project. (It was a psychiatry paper. He he he...XD) I "dreamed" the scenes, mostly the ones where Sasuke comes home, and his almost sulky attitude with Sakura. The original premise was, "paranoia: why Sasuke would never live a sane life." I started the fic as angst and wanted to end it with an ambivalent sort of hope. scratches head Obviously, I failed that. (Fangirlism. Ach.)
This was actually supposed to be a one-shot fic. Since I wrote this while procrastinating, I wrote it in fragments. Wrote the 1st part one night. Finished the 1st the next night and started on the 2nd part. Then I finished the 2nd part on the third night, and started on the 3rd part. The 3rd part took more time to finish though.
Anyway, I couldn't connect the 2nd and 3rd part with the 1st to form a single 1-shot fic because it would turn out... well, anti-climatic. I couldn't resolve the cohesiveness issue so I posted the story the way I wrote it: in pieces.
Again, thank you for your time, thank you for reading. Comments, complaints, questions, etcetera always welcome and much appreciated.