Naruto is not mine and I make no money from these works. Alternate reality fic, post-time jump spoilers, rated high for safety & how it periodically edges towards horror. I'm experimenting with limited omniscient POV, minimalism, and controlled (ie, no more of these 20+pages) chapter sizes.

For some reason, I can write original fic if I get this out of the way as well. I don't ask, I just make stuff. Here's to me getting everything finished soon.

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It was supposed to be a quiet thing, done before too many people could ask questions. Leaf's council of elders decided the Uchiha bloodline must continue. The last Uchiha—the deserter, Sasuke, with his Sharingan sealed away and his ego masked with formal humility—agreed, but on the condition that he pick his mate.

The hitch came with her.

Sakura sat in her room, her hands clasped tightly in her lap, Sasuke kneeling before her but still feet away. "It always would have been you," he said.

"No one else will stand me," she heard.

"You have no bloodline abilities, so nothing will clash with the Sharingan's development. You'd pass nothing unexpected on to the children."

"You're not special," she heard.

"And this will be good for you too," he told her. "You won't have to go out on missions; you'll be kept safe."

"You shall be kept in a pretty little cage," she heard. "You are incapable of running and fighting and deciding on your own."

"Leaf wants to keep my bloodline alive. They think that maybe"—and here he sneered, just a little—"if I go with someone completely outside of the family line, our children will gain some stability."

"Everything you are is meaningless. Put everything you may have hoped for and wanted for yourself aside," she heard. "The village needs your body."

She told him she'd have to think about it, knowing he'd take that as assent.

Tsunade found her half an hour later, walking stiffly, mindlessly, her eyes open and unseeing.

The Fifth knew her student as well as she knew the expressions of the walking wounded. Tsunade couldn't so easily put words to her own unease; and so, when Sakura turned to her, hurt and bewildered and utterly unsure of what to do, the Fifth Hokage gave her another option. She had the mission papers in her hand then; she realized she'd been hoping for this reaction even before she offered them. She'd tell Sasuke that Sakura was needed specifically as one of Leaf's elite . . . and even if he doubted her, he'd long ago forfeited his rights to complain.

The Fifth tried to conceal her own worry; Sakura tried to conceal how much the chance to leave the country meant to her. With time and distance as a buffer, perhaps she could more easily see her best course of action.

She was packed, had met her team, and was out of Leaf's gates and on the road to Sand within an hour.

ooo

Temari knew something was wrong within seconds of seeing her. Time and distance hadn't helped; Sakura had eaten because she knew she had to, had tried to sleep but barely succeeded. The smile put on for her friends at Sand was wan and worn. For the pink-haired kunoichi, years of loyalty to Leaf and of wanting what she'd been offered pressed her forward; years of hard-gained self-respect made her want to spit in the faces of everyone who'd even suggest it to her. Three days' run had only served to make her more frustrated.

Temari made note of Sakura's state, asked just enough questions to be sure no one was dying or worse, and finally invited her to dinner with her brothers. Sakura balked—in part because her appetite was still gone and in part because she sensed the closing jaws of yet another trap—but Temari was persistent, and in the end she acquiesced.

Sakura's instincts, of course, had been dead on.

The three Sand siblings had worked as a team for years. Their favorite system was a simple one, a deadly three-man relay played so many times that it'd almost become second nature. The technique's setup was executed by the older siblings: Temari would bait a subject, either flushing them out from cover, drawing them into conversation, or dragging them to dinner.

It's been so long, she told the Leaf medic, and they hadn't seen anyone they knew from Leaf for ages, and Gaara only got to talk to Tsunade every so often via messenger bird and never about anything good

Gaara sat at the end of their little rectangular table, his hands in his lap and face fixed in a bland expression of polite interest.

Everyone was still doing all right, Sakura told them, and Temari and Kankurou exchanged glances from across the table's center. "Except . . ." And she hesitated, and the trap torqued back into motion.

From there, Kankurou would lead the subject along, with coaxing or taunting or joking; whatever was necessary. He and Temari could weave a web of words or weapons so skillfully that people would walk into their trap, practically maneuvering themselves to wherever the Sand siblings wanted.

He sat down across from her and openly postulated about suicide missions, about her being sent to secretly take over Sand, about ridiculous and deadly reasons alike for Sakura to be so downtrodden. She smiled and shook her head and said it was nothing so dramatic, just that . . .

Temari and Kankurou went quiet and watched her intently, leaning on her fragile mental state and willing her to talk with the sheer force of their personalities. Sakura knew that on another day she'd face them both down . . . but here was an opportunity, an opening, a place to let out her worries and see if these three—three of the hardest shinobi she'd ever met—would find them laughable.

And so, of her own volition, she walked to the heart of the trap. It wasn't so bad a thing, after all. She supposed. Maybe. She'd be married, work within Leaf when she could, would have access to pretty much whatever she wanted . . .

As Sakura's words kept coming and the plan she was talking about became clear, Temari and Kankurou paled. But by this point she was looking down at the lacquered tabletop in front of her, speaking almost to convince herself.

It was for the good of Leaf, she said. They couldn't let one of Leaf's oldest bloodlines die, after all. Not after everything they'd gone through and everyone who'd been lost to get it back. And . . . well, no, she didn't know how Sasuke would treat her. But she'd get some sort of affection, right? And if her duty meant she should be with him, be the one to bear the new line of—

"No," snapped Gaara. Sakura jerked upright and to awareness, realizing far too late that she'd made it to the trap's heart—where Gaara waited, white-lipped and shaking. She stared, open-mouthed—every impression she'd ever gotten that his calm was merely a mask came back to her, as the mask's corner lifted just a little and a feral beast snarled back.

Kankurou found words first. "They want you to be a broodmare."

"It's not like that," Sakura protested, her voice coming far too shrill. "It's that—"

She couldn't look away from Gaara, who stared at her as though he'd just seen a nightmare come to life—and as though he intended to kill it with his bare hands.

Temari waited until sure Sakura wouldn't finish her sentence, then came in from another angle. "Sakura . . . when's my birthday?"

Sakura blinked at her, confused, so Temari filled in the blank. "August twenty-third. When's Kankurou's?"

Her mouth moved but nothing came out. Kankurou supplied the date for her: "May fifteenth."

They watched Sakura do the math, then started to shake her head. "But that shouldn't . . . there's supposed to be time for recovery between pregnancies, for the health of . . ."

Temari came in for the terrible finale. "And Gaara's?"

"Just before mine," Sakura finally said. "In the middle of . . . January . . ." She jolted, horrified. "But that can't—"

Gaara continued to stare, wild-eyed, sand creeping agitatedly around him and his hands clenched to white-knuckled fists.

Temari nodded solemnly. "Eight and a half months between my birth and Kankurou's. And Gaara was two months premature." Her upper lip curled. "Our father was on a tight schedule."

"But—" Sakura came to her feet, her hands to her chest in a gesture that could be defensive or pleading. "But Leaf's not like that. But they'd never—"

"Do you want to bet your life on it?" Kankurou asked.

"Tell us how caring the Uchiha is," Temari followed.

"I . . ." Sakura started—then cracked, and began to cry. "I . . . I can't. I— I don't know what to do, I just . . ." She sank to her knees, shaking her head and covering her face with her hands.

"Gaara," Kankurou said softly. "Do we officially need to request political asylum for her? Or will this do?"

Gaara closed his eyes and took a deep breath, forcing his hands to relax, willing the sand to calmness, pushing his rage aside and cutting his response down to three harsh words. "This will do."