A/N: This fic was written as a birthday gift for my very good friend Scarlett71177. HAPPY BIRTHDAY!
I admit the beginning is a bit narrative-intense, but I hope you will read it to the end anyway. All recognizable characters, locations, and concepts are the property of Masashi Kishimoto. No copyright infringement is intended.
It was a few minutes before two in the morning, and Sakura was lying in bed staring at the ceiling fan. The bamboo blades spun in a tireless blur overhead, hopelessly outmatched. The Land of Fire had really been living up to its name lately. It was the height of summer, that time of year when the sun seemed to burn exponentially hotter each day, baking the earth so completely that there was no chance of it cooling down at night.
It had been so hot, in fact, that the hospital had seen a steady stream of summer casualties. Sunburns, the usual cuts and broken bones acquired by adventure-seeking children, but also more heat stroke, heat rashes, and dehydration than Sakura wanted to see among their older population. It had been a very busy week and she was grateful to have the next few days off, even if the weather was going to stay positively scorching.
Living at the top of a multi-story building only made it worse on nights like this when there was no breeze, and stripping off the bed sheet and most of their clothes didn't seem to help. But if the Hokage wasn't complaining about the temperature in his living quarters, then she wasn't going to complain either. Besides, the sticky, relentless heat wasn't the reason she couldn't sleep anyway.
The whirring sound of the fan was faint enough that Sakura could hear the soft, rhythmic breathing next to her, but that was all. Konoha, the community that had steadily rebuilt itself into a vibrant center of trade, was totally quiet at this hour. She and Naruto had often walked the length of the village in the late evenings – at least the distance between his old apartment and her parents' house – so it was easy for her to imagine what it looked like at that moment. The empty streets, the shops and markets buttoned down for the night, the food stalls clean and ready for the next day's business. All the villagers would have retired to their homes some time ago, at ease in the knowledge that their Hokage would keep them safe no matter the cost.
Sakura shifted to her side, tucking her pillow between her head and forearm. Naruto was lying on his side as well. His expression relaxed in sleep, the lashes of his closed eyes reminded her of tiny gold fans. His left hand was at an awkward angle, two of his fingers in the loose grasp of their one-year-old son. Like his father, Kintaro was a distinctly physical little creature, and although he was sprawled out so he could be touching both of them at once, he was definitely deep in a 'daddy's boy' stage. Not that she found the slightest bit of fault in it.
She smiled and reached out to gently smooth a stray lock of fine, honey-blond hair from the baby's sweat-dampened forehead, and he stirred for a moment. Kintaro's small body quivered with a big yawn and stretch before he settled back down, pressing one foot against her and squeezing his father's fingers at the same time to make sure they were both still there. It would have been a perfectly beautiful family scene if not for the moonlight that flooded in from the windows.
An uncontrollable, anxious shudder ran down Sakura's spine.
There was a time when she used to like the moon. When she was very young her father had told her it shined at night because it was covered in pearls, and she grew up wishing on it for love and good fortune. But since those naïve days the moon had come to symbolize very different things to her. It had nearly become a twisted weapon of unimaginable evil, and even now, four years after the end of the war, each time it showed its bright face to the world it spawned a dark and frightening shadow. A shadow that crept in and touched the lives of those most precious to her.
It all started when the war had come to a bitter and shattering end, and Naruto spent two months confined to the hospital. He had suffered profound physical trauma during the last battle; multiple internal injuries from intense fighting, torture, and exhaustion to the point of death. Sakura would never forget how he'd looked when his body was finally carried off the field that night, almost unrecognizable beneath all the bruising, swelling, and pints of lost blood. Tsunade-sama had been confident in his treatment as well as a swift and complete recovery. Yet despite the advantages of youth and genetic resilience Naruto's survival had been dangerously touch and go, and Sakura had known the reason why only too well.
To save the village – to save the world from the Eye of the Moon – Naruto had been forced to make a terrible choice. In doing what had to be done – what only he could do – he had chosen to forfeit his own life, believing it was the price of brotherhood. He had been willing to die. Part of him had wanted to die. But Sakura had been entirely unwilling to let him go. She had assisted in his treatment for the first ten days, working with almost no meals or sleep. She had stayed at his bedside every night to plead, argue, threaten, and cry over his unconscious and battered body until his condition – and attitude – stabilized.
Once Naruto's body had started to heal it became obvious that psychic trauma had done far greater damage to him than the physical beating. He slowly began making more of an effort to seem positive, and his cheerfulness had managed to fool most of his friends and well-wishing visitors. But Sakura knew that Naruto's heart had been broken in a way that even time could never completely repair, and he wasn't rebounding from the loss of the one he had fought so hard to save.
That's when the night terrors started. On two occasions the hospital's night staff had heard a tormented scream and rushed to Naruto's room. Each time they had found him sitting up in his bed in a state of confusion, his heart racing and the IV needles torn from his arms. At first Sakura had been convinced that the random episodes were a sort of post-traumatic stress, his natural emotional anxiety bubbling up to the surface. Tsunade-sama and Shizune had agreed. It was the only logical diagnosis considering everything Naruto had endured and his condition at the time. Sakura had assumed, as they all had, that when he fully recovered the night terrors would end, and after he was released from the hospital he never reported that he was still having them.
It wasn't until about a year later, when she and Naruto had got married and moved in together, that Sakura discovered the episodes had never stopped. And it wasn't until she witnessed one of them for herself that she realized they weren't technically night terrors at all. That the realm of medical science – the logic and reason that guided the living world – had nothing to do with their cause.
Naturally she had heard the legend before. It was one of many stories that families had been passing down since the beginning of time, woven into their culture and folklore. It was the sort of myth that everyone knew but no one would ever admit to believing in, and Sakura would never have believed in it either if she hadn't experienced it with her own senses dozens of times now.
The full moon brought it. Always during the same early morning hour, when the supernatural veil that separated the living and the dead was briefly lifted and restless spirits that had not moved on to join their ancestors could freely wander the earth. Intense, unresolved conflict compelled the soul to return, again and again, to the time or place where its physical life had been taken. Or to the person who had taken it. There would never be any peace until the conflict was resolved, and the emotional connection that bound the dead to the living was finally severed.
Naruto had never seen it, and he could never remember what happened. He'd known he sometimes woke suddenly in the middle of the night; he had been told he had night terrors before he left the hospital. But he'd never realized the link between them and the full moon.
When she first told him the truth he had been shocked. Creeped out were his exact words. Sakura had hoped he would come to terms with it, and find some way to end the cycle. But as time went on and the episodes kept happening, she began to suspect that deep in his heart he didn't really want them to stop. It was all he had left and he still wasn't ready to let go.
Naruto couldn't give up.
Sakura's gaze roamed over the features of his kind and handsome face, a slight smile curving her lips as she whispered, "But then, I knew what you were like when I married you."
Yes, she hated these nights, but she was prepared to endure them for as long as it took. It was a small price to pay. In all other ways they were so happy. The crazy, couldn't-get-enough-of-each-other kind of happy. They were best friends, lovers, and partners in everything. They had a beautiful, healthy little boy and adored him so much they could barely contain it. Naruto had brought peace to the shinobi world and become Hokage, and she had her medical career. The village was thriving. They had no material wants. Their life together was truly an embarrassment of riches, but for Naruto something – someone – would always be missing.
Sakura sighed just as a violent shiver shook her body, and her exhaled breath streamed out in a visible plume. The telltale freezing chill was stealing into the space around them now, easily overpowering the sweltering heat.
Within a matter of seconds the deathly cold had welled up like a dense, invisible fog and filled the room from floor to ceiling, bringing with it an almost suffocating sensation of emptiness and dread. A prickling electric pulse crackled in the air and crawled through her flesh.
It was coming.
Sakura quickly slid out of bed and leaned over to pick up her sleeping son. Kintaro's soft hair was standing on end and he was trembling, his sensitive physical nature already reacting to the strange static electricity and sudden drop in temperature. She held him tightly against her warm body with both arms and swiftly backed up toward the wall, as far away from the bed as she could possibly get and still remain in the room.
These were the moments she hated most – being forced from Naruto's side to shield their defenseless child. Sakura's heart felt painfully divided, and she could only watch helplessly as she waited for the specter to appear.
The upper torso of the familiar apparition gradually faded into view. He hovered near the bed, attended by two flickering blue flames that floated in the air on either side of his head. Waxy and grey in the moonlight, his bony hands dangled uselessly beyond the sleeves of the white funeral kimono his broken body had been buried in, and his jet black hair, straight and disheveled, hung like a shredded curtain around his pale face. There was no mistaking him even in death.
"Sasuke," Sakura said, barely breathing his name.
There was no point in speaking to him. No point in asking what he wanted or why he haunted Naruto, or in begging him to leave them alone and never come back; Sakura had tried that and more many times before. But at the sound of her voice his dark eyes slowly shifted in her direction, their lifeless gaze lingering for a moment on her and the restless, whimpering baby she held before his attention returned to Naruto.
These mysterious and unnatural exchanges never lasted more than a few minutes, and whatever message their souls communicated to each other was silent. Nevertheless, no matter how many times she went through it, and no matter how sure she was that nothing terrible could really happen, Sakura was unable to relax. Her heart raced wildly and she struggled against the irrational urge to scream as Sasuke drew closer to Naruto's sleeping form.
The contrast that had always existed between them was now grotesquely complete. Yin and yang. One walked in the warm sunlight of life while the other was lost and adrift in the cold darkness of death, and yet they remained bound to each other, across time and different planes of existence, through the unshakeable strength of Naruto's will.
The floating blue flames blazed brighter, casting their spectral light upon the bed. Naruto rolled onto his back, mumbling incoherently as his bare chest rose and fell, his rapid breaths like puffs of smoke in the icy air. From where she stood Sakura could see the sudden definition of muscle as his whole body tensed. His arms and legs began to thrash frantically, as if he were falling or running to catch something irreplaceable before it was smashed to pieces on the ground.
Naruto's mumbling gave way to low, anguished sobs then, and the sound of his pain – the pain he did his best to hide from her – brought tears to Sakura's eyes. But there wasn't anything she could do. This struggle was between the two of them. It always had been.
Drifting to the very edge of the bed, the apparition leaned nearer. Sakura felt sick and shuddered involuntarily when the sleeves of the funeral kimono brushed against Naruto's arm and his wild thrashing stopped. The blue flames flashed and sparked, Sasuke's vacant expression unchanged as he stared intently at Naruto's face.
"No, Sasuke… don't do it. Don't make me stop you… No—" Naruto whispered. Then, as if a tightly coiled spring was suddenly released, Naruto sat bolt upright. His tearful blue eyes were wide open and yet unseeing as he cried out, "Sasuke!"
In the time it took Naruto to fully wake from his terror, the spirit of his dead friend and the eerie blue lights had vanished.
Kintaro was jolted awake by the loud outburst and began to cry. Sakura held him close and kissed his temple, and he buried his face against her neck. She bounced him gently in her arms in the hope of lulling him right back to sleep. It might have worked if Naruto hadn't spoken so soon.
"Is he okay?" Naruto said groggily, ruffling his hair before leaning back on his hands. He was disoriented and his breathing was still labored.
Kintaro lifted his wobbly head again and pushed back, awkwardly twisting away from her and toward the sound of his father's voice, his chubby arms outstretched. The warmth of the summer night was already returning to the room.
"Yes, he's okay. Are you?" said Sakura.
Naruto used his forearm to wipe the tears from his face, obviously mistaking them for sweat. When he looked at her again his brow was furrowed as if he couldn't understand why she would ask or be standing so far away. Then his expression changed and he turned his head toward the moonlight shining in the window.
"Damn it," he said. His shoulders slumped. "Why didn't you remind me?"
"What good would it have done?" None, she knew. He knew it too. He had tried staying awake during other full moons – thinking maybe the haunting could be avoided if he didn't fall asleep – but he always blacked out anyway just before the room went cold. "It was better for you to get some rest."
Naruto sat up straight, raking his fingers through his messy hair. He sighed heavily. "Are you sure he's okay?"
Kintaro cried and squirmed in her arms, leaning farther out and waving his arms impatiently. "He's fine," Sakura said with a smile she didn't quite feel. She walked around to Naruto's side of the bed. The floor there was still abnormally cool beneath her bare feet. "He just wants his daddy, as usual."
When she leaned down to put the baby in his arms Naruto glanced at her face and noticed the leftover tears beneath her eyes.
"Sakura-chan—" There was so much guilt in his voice.
"I'll get him some juice," she said, squeezing his shoulder.
Sakura made her way down the hallway to the kitchen. Retrieving the pitcher of fruit juice from the refrigerator, just those few seconds the door was open let in too much heat and the appliance groaned as its cooling motor came on. She poured a small amount of juice into Kintaro's favorite bottle and returned the pitcher. Turning on the tap at the sink, she let the water run until it turned slightly cool and then filled the bottle. She had gone only a few steps in the direction of the bedroom before deciding to double back and splash a few handfuls of water on her face.
After toweling off she leaned against the counter for a moment to compose herself and collect her thoughts. It wasn't going to be easy to have the same conversation again, but she was determined to show strength, understanding, and dry eyes to her husband.
When Sakura returned to their bedroom it was obvious that Kintaro's mood, at least, had improved. He was standing up, precariously balanced on top of Naruto's thighs, his tiny hands tethered in his father's. It was impossible not to smile at his happy face and giggling laughter. As she approached Kintaro spied the bottle in her hand. He squealed and yanked one hand free to reach for her.
"Sure, Juice Boy. Now you want me," Sakura said with a smirk. She crawled onto the bed and sat cross-legged next to them. Naruto shifted his hands to the baby's diapered hips and Sakura handed her son the bottle. "Go easy, Kintaro. That's all you're going to get tonight."
Naruto leaned over for a kiss. She gave him one but he didn't pull away. He needed something more reassuring so she kissed him again, this time more slowly. When he finally drew back he was looking for the tears again.
"I'm all right," she said, rubbing his back absently. "I just—" She sighed. It was important to be honest without making it sound as if it was all about her. "It's not easy for me to watch you go through it. I hate knowing this pain is in your heart, and that I can't do anything… I can't fix it."
"I'm sorry, Sakura-chan," he said softly.
She leaned her head against his arm for a moment as a way of accepting his apology. Mimicking her, Kintaro tipped his head to the side and lost his balance, one of his feet slipping down onto the bed. Naruto easily caught him and stood him up again.
"You saw him?"
Naruto asked that same question every time. Sakura understood it was like rubbing salt in his emotional wound to know that she could see Sasuke when he couldn't. It seemed unfair to him, and from a different angle it was. If Naruto could see him – could see that this returning spirit was nothing more than a hollow and decaying shadow of the defiant Sasuke who died beneath the full moon four years ago – he might be able to accept the truth and get some kind of closure.
She nodded and he took a slow, deep breath.
After a short silence he said, "I wish I could see him… just talk to him again."
Kintaro dropped his juice bottle and it tumbled into her lap. He clapped for it immediately. Sakura handed it back to him and was rewarded with a sweet, baby-toothed smile.
"You spent years chasing after him, trying to talk to him. And I was there that night, remember? I saw what happened." Naruto looked her in the eye. "You gave him every possible chance, Naruto. Sasuke didn't want to hear you."
"You know it here," she said, touching a fingertip to his forehead before laying her hand flat on his chest, "but you don't accept it here. And even after all this time, and everything you've done, you still don't realize how much strength and power you have."
Naruto half-shrugged. "I don't know what that means, Sakura-chan."
"It means… your heart is so big and so strong," she said, giving him a warm smile, "it's trying to beat for Sasuke too. In a way, it's been trying to since the day he left the village all those years ago." Naruto looked away toward Kintaro, who had tipped his head too far backwards this time trying to get the last few drops out of his bottle. "But you couldn't bring Sasuke home then, and you can't bring him home now."
"I can't now because he's dead," said Naruto.
So much guilt.
"Even if he wasn't dead, Naruto. Don't you see?" Sakura paused to swallow past a sudden lump in her throat but pushed on. "Whatever his reasons were – whether it makes any sense to you or not – Sasuke turned his back on everything you believe in. He turned his back on you."
They trusted each other completely, with everything, and she was the only one who would ever know Naruto still wrestled with these feelings. But it broke her heart to see the bright blue of his eyes darken, the way it always did when he was emotional enough to cry but was too proud. Sakura had to remind herself that pain was a part of healing.
After a while Naruto said, "Then I don't get it. Why does he keep coming here?"
She had been waiting several years for him to work up to that question. It was a good sign he was thinking about it in his own time, and trying to find his own answers.
"Sasuke can't move on… he can't be at peace with his decision because you won't let him." He shook his head stubbornly and she pressed her advantage before he could retreat into denial. "And I understand, Naruto."
He seemed genuinely surprised. "You do?"
"Yes." Sakura rubbed his back again, needing the soothing contact as much as he did. "You loved Sasuke, and you begged him to choose life, didn't you?" Naruto nodded. "He made his own choice and yet you feel guilty about his decision."
"Yeah," he said.
"Well, I did the same thing." His brow furrowed in confusion but he didn't interrupt. "I loved you, Naruto, and I begged you to choose life, didn't I?" He nodded again. "You made your own choice. Does that mean I should feel guilty about your decision?"
Kintaro dropped his empty bottle on purpose this time and clapped his hands again to get their attention. Then they watched together as he pointed to his forehead before putting his tiny hand over his heart, exactly the way she had done to Naruto. It was almost scary what he seemed to understand, and the timing of Kintaro's innocent gesture was too much for his father and Naruto lost control of his emotions.
"But I am guilty, Sakura-chan. I told Sasuke I would take on all of his hate and die with him," he said, his voice low and uneven. "And I didn't do it – I let him down."
Sakura reached for Kintaro and pulled him into her lap so Naruto was free to dry his eyes. He roughly wiped the tears away with the heel of his hand. Kintaro reached out and patted his father's leg. Naruto gave him a finger to hold and that brought fresh tears.
"When Sasuke started out he had everything, Sakura-chan. He had people who loved him… he belonged. I never had those things." He impatiently wiped at his eyes again. "Now he's dead and I have everything. It's not fair."
She took his hand and laced her fingers with his. Kintaro worked his chubby hand in between theirs. "Sasuke's spirit doesn't come back to this world because his death was unjust, Naruto. It comes back because your will to make things right with him – for him – is stronger even than death. It's amazing, really."
"It doesn't feel amazing," said Naruto.
"That's because deep, deep down you can't completely forgive yourself because you loved me that much more, and chose to live." He gripped her hand tighter and Kintaro giggled as his own was squeezed tighter too. Naruto's eyes were darkened by emotion again. "And I'm not going to lie to you, Naruto. I don't regret any of the decisions you made. Living your choices now and letting go of the past is the only way to set Sasuke free."
Naruto nodded in understanding but he didn't say anything more about it. Only time would tell if his heart was truly healed enough to move on, and Sakura would look forward to the day when she might be able to like the moon again.
For the time being they let the subject go and focused on their son. Naruto tickled him and exercised his tiny muscles, and then they spread out and let him practice keeping his balance on the squishy surface of the bed as he toddled back and forth between them. After a while Kintaro plopped down and rubbed at his eyes, too tired for any more fun.
"I guess we should let him sleep, huh?" said Naruto.
Sakura nodded. It was past three in the morning, after all. "He needs a change first. With all the juice he's had that diaper probably weighs two kilos."
"I'll do it," said Naruto.
He got to his feet and Kintaro tiredly raised his arms to be picked up. Naruto took him over to the crib and laid him down. With the whole bed free, Sakura stretched out and relayed the latest gossip about their friends – which of them were dating and who was serious about it – while Naruto got the baby changed. Mission accomplished, Naruto picked him up again and settled him comfortably, although Kintaro was trying very hard to keep his eyes open. The struggle didn't last long once his father gave him a finger to hold and slowly began to pace.
Sakura tucked one hand behind her head and watched them, absently fanning the bottom edge of her skimpy bed shirt with the other.
"Trying to get my attention, Sakura-chan?" said Naruto, the gold brow over one eye raised.
"No," she said flatly, but even she could hear the smile in her tone. "I'm just hot."
"Yeah, I noticed that a long time ago," he said, flashing a perverted grin.
She rolled her eyes and waved away his compliment, as well as the direction he was obviously hoping to take things. She had to. It was their pattern – a very old game where he chased and she feigned disinterest. But her body had started gearing up to play the instant he'd mentioned it.
"We're parents now, Naruto," she said, making an effort to sound exceptionally tired. Her eyes were half-closed, making it easier to admire his mostly bare physique without him catching her. "We need sleep."
"We have the next couple of days off," he countered. "Some of it's going to be just you and me."
She loved it when he said things like that. So simple, so certain. "I suppose," she said listlessly, continuing to fan her shirt. "But in case you haven't noticed, your son doesn't let you out of his sight if he can help it."
"Learning to share is a part of life, Sakura-chan," Naruto said, trying to sound wise like he did when talking to the kids at the academy. At that point Kintaro was completely asleep. "And if he ever wants a little brother or sister to play with—"
"Pfft." Sakura shook her head dramatically. "We're not ready for that yet. With everything we have going on we can barely manage that one."
He laid Kintaro back down in the crib, and waited patiently to make sure he would not wake. Then slowly, gently, Naruto withdrew his finger from his son's grasp and backed away. He was a natural father if there ever was one.
But he quickly exchanged one instinct for another when he flopped onto the bed and leaned over her, picking up the conversation where she'd left off. "Well, if you can't keep up with one little boy then you need physical exercise a lot more than you need sleep."
"Are you saying I'm soft?" She narrowed her eyes at him, pretending to be insulted.
He nodded as his hand boldly glided over her body. "But in all the right places." Naruto kissed her playfully at first, but then his mood changed into something serious. She quietly studied his face and waited for him to work out what he wanted to say.
"I'm not sorry I loved you more, Sakura-chan, you know that, right?" His voice was hushed and rough with passion. "You… Kintaro… I mean, I'm not the smartest guy in the world, but I do know I'm the luckiest. I know what I have."
Naruto was a man of actions, not words, and he had never said anything quite like that to her before. As much love, understanding, and trust as there had already been between them, somehow the appearance of Sasuke's ghost had brought them closer this time, and for that she would be grateful. Sakura didn't trust herself to speak a reply, sliding her hand behind his neck and drawing him down for a kiss instead.
As parents of a one-year-old, their time together had become something they rushed through before the next feeding or diaper change, but they weren't in any hurry now. They hadn't spent this much time kissing since their dating days, after Naruto had been home from the hospital for a while. They used to lie on the narrow bed in his old apartment, talking and kissing for hours until they were both frustrated and desperate. It was still just as exciting as it was then, maybe more.
Naruto slid the hem of her shirt up and then broke the kiss and leaned back, giving her room to pull it off over her head. He liked it better when she did it herself. He liked knowing she couldn't resist him.
His blue eyes were darkened by very different feelings now, and the way he looked at her was dizzying. She would never get enough of him and he knew it. He was impossible.
But then, she'd known what he was like when she married him.