Disclaimer: Naruto © Masashi Kishimoto
五、Thank you for sticking with this story despite my sporadic updates. Enjoy this chapter!
Whispers ran down the spine of the town, traveled through the veins, and reached the ears of every single person. Did you hear about the Uchiha household? The younger son – married barely two months, taking a second wife! I'm more interested in the first. Who would have thought? The wretch had four other husbands!
Ten Ten slammed the coins on the table, breaking the discussions. The Uchiha fan on her back caught the other customers' eyes and shut their mouths. Collecting the steamed red bean buns from the fearful owner, Ten Ten left the snack stall. In this halcyon town with little scandal or thrill, it was no wonder the younger Uchiha's sudden second engagement became the focus. To fuel the rare commotion, someone then leaked the first wife's background.
Two weeks ago, after the Cu Ju match, Mikoto had called Sakura to Sasuke's chamber. For privacy, Ten Ten had remained outside. The young mistress had come out, shaken. The handmaiden followed her back to their shabby residence without a word. Back in bed, Sakura would not talk until hours later, her quilt muffling her.
"Mikoto is allowing me to move back to Sasuke's chamber for a while," she had said.
"Only for a bit?"
"Well, I won't have much time to spend with him once he marries his second wife."
Be anything in the world, just not wife number one. Indeed, Sakura had multiple husbands, but never at once. She never had to share a man with another woman – a lucky fate that would cease come the wedding day.
Sakura had gathered some clothes and Hinata's letters and returned to Sasuke's. While his bed accommodated two people well, it was for two people who were at least fond of each other. She lay next to him, dreading that the bed was not larger. His back to her, Sasuke slept on his side. Sakura fell asleep somehow. When she woke, the doors had closed upon Sasuke's exit.
Every morning since, she would watch Sasuke leave. She pretended to be asleep on the days she woke up as he got ready. Then she would peek. Suppressed smiles threatened her moments of stealth. With Sasuke gone, she relaxed. She had found a comforting difference between Sai and her fifth husband: Sasuke always came back.
Just as Sakura finished combing her hair, Ten Ten arrived with the steamed buns. They ate on the way to Sakura's other residence, where Ten Ten still stayed.
"How was town?" Sakura asked.
"The way it's always been…"
"You're hiding something," Sakura eyed her, playful. She held the bun close to her face, feeling the rising heat before taking another bite. "It's fine. At least tell me about your training."
"I try to do what I can without a master," Ten Ten said.
"When I go home," Sakura said, "you will have to come with me. Master Hiashi can teach you."
They stopped as Ten Ten clutched at Sakura's arm. Her mouth still chewing and unable to answer, Sakura nodded.
"I have to go now," Ten Ten declared, backing away.
Sakura lifted her sleeve to cover her face. "Is my eating so unsightly that I've scared you away?"
Now running, Ten Ten looked back at the young mistress and said, "No, but I have to train more if I want to apprentice with Master Hiashi."
A light-hearted Sakura stayed where she was. She saw no point in going back to her old residence if Ten Ten would not be there. Her smile faded as she took the last bite of the steamed bun. She strolled in the direction of Sasuke's, but took the path that lead to the main building. By the welcome gate, a pair of servants argued over the arrangement of the decorative red silk. One wanted to put Uchiha fans at the nodes of the draping. The other thought that the presence of the fans was enough, as they were on the lanterns already. Surrounding the entrance were the couplets, gold characters written on red wooden tablets. Faced with all the festive red of wedding preparations, she wondered what a ceremony filled with blue would be like. Sakura realized that she had never seen any of this – the decorations. All she had seen was the red veil covering her head. Then she saw his blue.
Mikoto entered and paused to hear and dispel the dispute. She settled on the side of the one who emphasized less on the Clan – there would be other opportunities to honor the crest. While the victor praised her insight, Mikoto noticed Sakura standing quite a bit away. The mistress had no clear expression. What face does one put on when met with a woman whose husband is about to marry another? She barely knew how to address this daughter-in-law in the first place.
Sakura curtsied before taking the route to the side entrance. Only one boy was sweeping the place she had met the Cloud Watcher. She shook her head in amusement, thinking of that misnomer for the lazy scholar as she strolled on the path to the river. She was in no mood to ascend the hill and lay her eyes upon all the wedding preparations around the household. Instead, she crossed the bridge and headed to the pavilion at the foot of the hill.
Green, lithe branches of the willows by the water swayed. Sakura sat at the perfect spot for a tea stall, a place by the water for refuge or resting when people came their way. Distant commotion alerted Sakura. A group of young men on horses, one of whom Sakura recognized as a star Cu Ju player from the match, passed by. Out of their uniforms, they had on soldier attire.
"They've been drafted."
Sakura looked around. Blue eyes under yellow hair trailed the crowd heading for town; the rest of his face remained hidden under the pavilion.
"Naruto, what are you doing here?" Sakura asked, watching him jump up and take a seat on another marble stool. "Wasn't that your Cu Ju team? Why aren't you with them?
He let out a heave with crossed arms. "I know I made you promise to go to more of my games, but a few days ago the army selected many the players for the war, so there won't be any more games."
"That still doesn't explain –"
"The army didn't pick me." He did not look discouraged. In fact, confidence flickered across his face. "That's why I'm following them."
"Shouldn't you keep tailing them?" Sakura laughed.
"I could always catch up. Who knew I'd see you here!"
She pointed to the manor. "I live there."
"With that guy?" he squinted in that direction.
"It comes with the marriage," Sakura said, face resting on a hand.
Looking down, he said, "I can't believe you're married."
Next to this strange boy she had met only once, Sakura wanted to tell him that she'd been married four other times. She did not think that Naruto would judge her; moreover, she simply wanted to see his reaction – a gaping mouth just as she had expected. About to laugh again, she halted when she saw some disappointment from him.
"I'm sorry," she whispered. "Some things should be kept to myself."
"What does the jerk think of that?"
"He hasn't addressed it explicitly," Sakura said. At the rage and sincerity on this stranger's face, Sakura motioned around the pavilion. "I met my fourth husband at a tea stall. This place reminds me of it, even though it was in Yan and snow was all around."
Eyebrows that rose in curiosity beckoned her to go on. She explained studying under the fourth husband, who was a doctor. Though she never took part in diagnosing, she became responsible for collecting precious medicinal plants. Climbing up hills, descending into valleys, Sakura continued to explore when settled down. She thought – searching cliff edges for certain grasses – that would be the rest of her life.
"But," Sakura sighed. "He died, just like the others."
Naruto stayed in silence. Legs now also crossed, he narrowed his eyes in concentration. "That one," he looked to the Uchiha's, "is a step backwards."
Sakura could not smile. Was Sasuke a level below the doctor or Sai? Was he below anyone? She lifted her gaze, returning to Naruto, whose face reflected a tint of orange. "It's late," she said. "The sun is starting to set. Shouldn't you catch up to your Cu Ju team?"
Jumping up, Naruto grinned. "I'll come back to visit you – as a general! I'll hold a higher position than whatever that jerk is," he proclaimed.
"I guess I'll be waiting," Sakura laughed. "But probably not here."
He leaped down from the pavilion to the ground and sprinted down the trail. "Your husbands' deaths! No matter what anyone may say," shouted Naruto, jogging in one spot by the bridge after he whipped around, cupped hands in front of his mouth, "it's not your fault!"
A sharp inhale shook her. His shrinking form blended with the road and trees and grass in Sakura's blurring vision. For the first time in a while, her tears fell in the echo of caring words.
Several scurrying servants crashed into her and stumbled on without the usual courtesy. The arrival of the wedding day gave permission to desert the first wife. Ten Ten urged Sakura to take her mind off of it all, volunteering to move her belongings back to the isolated residence. At night, after the ceremony and dinner, gifts and blessings, Sasuke and the second wife would stay in a different chamber. That was the sole reason no one had rushed Sakura into vacating Sasuke's immediately.
She walked out the side gate, where no sweeping boy stood to greet her. Although usually seldom occupied, the main road, which Sakura had to pass on the way to the bridge, had too much traffic. People eyed her strange hair color, whispering. Carts hauled offerings. Those not of a certain status had struggling servants carry the gifts while congratulating Sasuke, who stood at the entrance. Modest nods of acknowledgements paired with his arm raised toward the manor became the groom's welcome. Sakura halted.
Unconcerned eyes trailing the flow of guests focused; his dark blue pierced her. Sakura stared back at the husband she would soon have to share. Mikoto came out and lightly tugged her son's sleeve with the intention of leading him back for the start of the feast. Turning to leave, his eyes did not part until the wall by the entrance obstructed the view.
Sakura then departed from the mansion, the wedding and its crowd. Without a backward glance, she headed to the bridge. She stopped at the bank, watching the splattering creek, reflected in it the sky and watery clouds. If only she had gone up to Sasuke and made some snarky remark. She could think of none, though, and she doubted that she could have produced anything earlier. Naruto would, she thought. On the other side of the creek was the pavilion, empty. Unlike the hilltop, she noticed. She began to climb towards the reclining man.
"Don't tell me you didn't receive an invite, scholar," Sakura said as she reached the top. The Cloud Watcher's eyes stayed with the sky, his arms cushioning his head.
"I did," Shikamaru replied. "Although I forgot the gift at my hostel, so I came here to think about my next move."
"So the climb proved to the less challenging than walking back to retrieve your friend's wedding gift?"
"Shouldn't you be down there greeting guests?"
"You," Sakura said, sitting down, "are a guest. I am here to warmly welcome you."
Shikamaru shut his eyes with a big sigh. "I live for such sincerity."
Firecrackers went off at the mansion. As she watched smoke rise between festive red debris, Sakura nudged the scholar. "Is it by choice," she asked, "that men have multiple wives at once?"
"How should I know," he stated.
"Would you do it?"
He turned his head and looked at her. "One woman causes enough complications," said Shikamaru. "But why ask these questions? A man having multiple wives is as normal as having rice for dinner in our society."
"Sometimes a mere bowl of soup is enough."
"Usually Uchiha men are fine with just a bowl of soup. Sasuke may be the first to have more than one wife."
Her hands clutched at the grass by her side. "I guess I can't expect him to be happy with something others have already ordered," Sakura whispered.
"Think of it as variety," Shikamaru said. "If not for their changing shapes, I wouldn't stare at clouds. I grew up with Sasuke, watched him go about in solitude, so I think it's fine for me to say that living with him would be like watching the same cloud all the time. That is a burden you probably should share."
"You have a strange way of giving advice."
Another sigh came from the scholar. "Anything to bring an end to this conversation..."
Frowning, Sakura clicked her tongue and shifted a little bit away to provide the man and his clouds with silence. She heard, interlaced with the rustling of leaves and swaying of grass, the clinking from wine glasses and laughter from salutations. Her eyes shut in an attempt to stop hearing that only amplified all the sounds. Red garment brushed against the floor of the hall; trinkets on the veil jingled as the other woman began to kneel with Sasuke before her in-laws. Like Sakura, the girl had only the cushion beneath her knees as support against the elders. Sakura took note that she could treat this second wife as a sister, a comrade even. Still, she wondered what went through Sasuke's mind as he wed one more companion he had no say in choosing.
Giving into the weight of such thoughts, Sakura laid down. She looked up – another cloud had entered Sasuke's sky.
They were looking for him. Sasuke leaned against the wall, listening to the search party yelling his name. She finally showed up, twirling a cat's tail as she approached her room.
"Sasuke…" she said, stopping as she saw him. "You're here? Shouldn't you be in the nuptial chamber? They're all trying to find you."
"You weren't at the wedding."
She walked into the room. Sasuke turned and stepped one foot over the ledge, remaining at the entrance.
"I want an answer," he demanded.
"To what question?"
Across from him, out in the courtyard, lanterns hung above the Uchiha fans on the wall, the wall that fenced this part of the manor. "Why didn't you attend the ceremony?"
"I'm not the one getting married," Sakura replied. "Go be with your bride."
Sasuke folded his arms, eyes on the lanterns. "You want that?"
"I think I understand now," he heard her say. "Maybe one person isn't enough."
He narrowed his eyes, turning to face her. Sakura walked up and placed her hand on his shoulder. "Please go," she said. "I have to rest."
After his exit, the doors shut. He began to leave but paused to listen, watching her silhouetted hands grab her hair.
" 'I have to rest?' " Sakura quoted herself with frustration. "After spending a whole afternoon lying on a hill? And 'one person isn't enough?' Did I really mean that?"
Although it lasted only for a moment, although it faded bit by bit as he walked toward the frantic servants, because she wanted to retract what she had said, Sasuke smiled.
五、Please tell me what you thought of it :) It's almost 2011, so happy new year!