Sasuke lies across his wife’s chest, ear pressed against her sternum; he takes in the frenetic sound of her heartbeat. His own pulse races in counterpoint, his lungs burning for oxygen that he ignored while engaged in other pursuits.
Not that he is complaining.
The steady thrum of Sakura’s heartbeat echoes like a victory anthem to him. He never ceases to be amazed at the primitive pride he feels when he hears it. A part of that is basic male smugness, he supposes, but most of it is knowing it is Sakura’s heartbeat. She has such raw strength and endurance that for her to lose control of herself because of him still amazes him even after being married for years now.
It is almost as amazing as the fact that no one ever has or ever will listen to her heartbeat so intimately.
He nudges his nose against the flat expanse of her sternum, lips brushing against the skin between her breasts in a not-quite-kiss as he gazes up at her. Sakura’s face is relaxed, a satisfied smile beneath eyes half-lidded in the afterglow.
It is rare that he gets a chance to watch her so openly. He was raised to believe it was impolite to stare, and so even into adulthood would only allow himself to watch her out of the corners of his eyes. Marriage has not eradicated that habit.
She is unquestionably beautiful like this, tangled in their bedsheets and with the dawn sunlight streaming across her hair. He wonders if he would have realised this fact earlier if he had stayed to grow up in Konoha instead of seeking his fortunes elsewhere. As a child he was so filled with pain and anger, that the concept of beauty held no meaning to him. Even when he looked right at it—at her—he could not recognise it.
The memory hits him then, with the surprising clarity that repressed memories sometimes do; it is so present he wonders for a moment if he has activated his Sharingan.
Sasuke pushes off from a thick tree branch and twists his body around, flinging two kunai backward to block the incoming barrage of shuriken aimed at himself and Sakura. There is an annoyed curse from their pursuer, and Sasuke straightens, landing on the branch of the next tree before taking off again.
“They’re still gaining!” Sakura calls to him. Though her tone of voice is anxious, he notices her nod in determination. Their ruse is working: the nukanin have chosen to pursue them instead of concerning themselves with Kakashi and Naruto.
Sasuke dislikes playing the distraction, but occasionally it cannot be helped. This particular group of nukanin are smarter than the usual crop of deserters the team has brought in, so the plan of capture has to be executed just so. Since Kakashi is the strongest of Team 7 and Naruto is incapable of carrying out any successful subterfuge without screwing it up, the task has fallen to Sakura and Sasuke. They are to lead their pursuers to a specific grove where Kakashi and Naruto have looped around in preparation for an ambush.
Normally playing bait is an easy job, but one of the pursuing nukanin has a brutal command of Doton. Concussive blasts rock the air, uprooting trees before they can alight on them, and churning up the ground below.
We’ve managed to keep ahead so far, but if he keeps catching up, we won’t last for much longer.
Almost the instant Sasuke thinks this, there is a bone-shattering crash as the tree he and Sakura just landed upon explodes into a million splinters. The force throws them out of the canopy of trees and tumbling downward.
“Sasuke!” Sakura shouts, a warning.
He sees it the same time as she does: a body of water that was well-obscured in the shelter of leaves and branches. Three yards across, it feeds into a roaring, waterfall half a kilometer away. Still, it is a better option to fall on instead of the unforgiving ground that continues to roll under the nukanin’s jutsu.
Sasuke and Sakura both angle their descent towards it.
At first luck seems on their side. They both land on the buoyant surface of the river, their chakra keeping them upright.
Sakura laughs in triumph, and even Sasuke manages a smug almost-grin at her. Kakashi may have taught them to climb trees using chakra, but it is Sakura who took the next step and started learning to balance on water. Once she learned it, it was only a matter of time before Sasuke could as well.
Their self-satisfaction is short lived, though.
They have both only practiced on calm water surfaces, and this river is anything but. The current is faster than expected, sending them both rocking and scrambling for purchase. The additional vibrations from the rumbling earth on either side do not make it any easier. Before Sasuke can regain his stance, he tumbles into the water. By the sound of Sakura’s cut-off cry, she follows soon after.
Sasuke expects to hit up against the river bottom and use it as a means of propelling himself out of the water, but he soon discovers there is no bottom.
The rushing water has hidden unexpected depths, and it is all he can do to swim upwards, head breaking the surface. In the distance, he hears a commotion. Kakashi and Naruto have engaged the enemy, it seems. That at least takes off the pressure of preparing for attack. Now if only he could get out of the river to join them!
Easier said than done.
Several yards away, Sakura claws ineffectually against white-capped water, hands glowing with chakra as she tries to pull herself up. Sasuke does the same, muscles burning with the effort as he casts his eyes about for a rock or branch to make it easier. There are several large ones sprouted from the water, forcing the current on either side, but they are too slippery to get a hold of. The current is speeding up now, and keeping the upcoming falls in mind, he knows that is not a good sign.
Sakura finally manages to get halfway out of the water, but her arms tremble against the unstable surface, and she falls back beneath it. As she does, her head cracks against one of the nearby jutting rocks.
Though Sasuke cannot hear it above the rush of the waves, he feels the crack almost in his bones. Immediately, his teammate goes limp, and her body sinks out of view.
“Sakura!” Sasuke yells, choking on the spray. He gulps in a lungful of air, and dives beneath the surface of the river. The murky depths of the watercourse would blind a regular person, but his Sharingan allows him to catch sight of Sakura easily.
Her unconscious form is being carried by the undertow, limp like a ragdoll and a worrying dark cloud seeping from the side of her head.
Sasuke propels himself forward beneath the water, battling the current to reach out for her. Twice he must pull his head above the waterline to gasp for air, and it is at these moments that his quick eyes notice how the river has widened. The roar of the current is louder now, and he can more clearly see what the forest obscured before: the actual drop of the waterfall.
Sasuke has little talent for Suiton, but he forms the requisite seals in his hands, summoning the chakra he needs to force himself forward to Sakura. If he can just get to her before they drop over the waterfall—
The force of his jutsu falls short of reaching Sakura. His fingertips only just manage to brush against her fluid hair, and then the current pulls them apart and downward.
As Sasuke tumbles down with the force of the waterfall, a thundering pressure surrounds him, and his vision temporarily whites out from the shock.
When his senses return to him, it is with the brutality of a frontal assault. His skin burns from places where he scraped against rock, and his lungs ache around the mouthful of air he seized within him before his fall.
He cannot move.
Several feet away, he sees Sakura’s body being battered against the floor of the river, but he cannot reach her because he too is trapped in the turbulent, eddying waters of the plunge pool. Physical strength will not get them out of here, not before they are crushed beneath the pressure and drown.
If Sakura has not drowned already.
His gut clenches at this, and in response something hot rises within him.
Using the last of his chakra, Sasuke calls up the most powerful fireball that he can, inching his body in the direction that the unforgiving pressure is coming from. Fiery chakra explodes out of him, dimming almost immediately, but creating a burst of oxygen that bubbles around him and upward.
It is just enough to give Sasuke an opening, and he darts forward, snatching Sakura to him before kicking as hard as he can to escape the current. There is a pulling sensation as the plunge pool fills once more with the crushing weight of the falling water, but Sasuke manages to pull them out of its path.
They are not safe yet, though, still trapped far deeper beneath the surface than he expected.
It takes several desperate, teeth-gritting kicks against the water to bring him upward. His lungs burn with the cuts of a million kunai, and his vision blurs from lack of oxygen when—finally—his head breaks the surface.
The first breath he gulps down is both sweet and agonizing, but he ignores it, manoeuvring Sakura up above the water as well. Though exhaustion looms over him, he focusses his effort on towing her toward the nearby shore.
When they get to safety, he almost gives in to the temptation to close his eyes and go boneless. But Sakura’s unmoving form keeps him from this. Instead, he drags her farther up on the sand and lays her on her back.
She is not breathing, or showing any signs of life, and that worries him.
His movements are as sluggish as a sleepwalker’s, but Sasuke checks her airway and her breathing. When he cannot feel anything, he seeks her pulse as well; it is faint and slowing by the second.
“Come on, Sakura!”
Sasuke begins compressions, trying to keep Sakura’s blood circulating.
When there is no change in her condition, he leans forward without hesitation and pinches her nose shut, sealing his mouth around hers. Her chest expands from his two sharp breaths, and he pulls back, taking a moment to observe and hoping she will start breathing on her own. When nothing happens, he goes back to the chest compressions.
Every thirty or so, he stops and breathes into her; every time the cycle yields no result, his desperation mounts.
“Don’t do this, Sakura!” he snaps, pressing all his weight behind the heels of his hand as he makes her heart beat. Meanwhile, he scans the forest edge of the river, hoping for some sign of Kakashi or Naruto. He needs help—is tempted to call out for it, but his throat is raw from his struggles in the river and now breathing for Sakura. It is probably for the best he cannot call out; if any enemy stragglers notice them now, he is not in the position to protect Sakura to the best of his abilities.
He can feel his chakra drain as the Sharingan and the physical exertion of his body finally start to take their toll. He is weakening, and soon he won’t even be able to keep her going.
“Don’t…you…dare,” he snarls at the motionless girl, summoning up every last shred of energy he can muster. “Don’t you…fucking…die…on me!”
Sasuke’s mind races as he tries to think up some other solution—anything!—to save Sakura, while his desperation and sick terror rise higher and higher.
And then, against all odds, she convulses. Water spills up over her lips and she coughs, gasping for air.
Sasuke thinks he might cheer if his brain did not kick in then, carefully maneuvering Sakura into a recovery position on her side.
“Sakura!” he says, unable to hide his relief.
“Sa…suke…?” she responds, voice slurred.
“It’s me,” he confirms.
As soon as she stabilises, her shoulders heaving as she inhales and exhales without anything obstructing her airway, Sasuke collapses beside her. Sakura is breathing hard, eyes half-closed and only just aware of what is going on; she is more unconscious than not, but it is no longer the disturbing sleep of the drowned.
“What…?” she tries after a moment but can’t seem to form the question.
“You hit your head in the river and almost drowned,” he explains.
“Oh…” she tries to look at him, but is unable to concentrate; he worries that maybe she went without oxygen for too long.
“Sakura, listen to me,” he says, repeating her name until she focusses on him with great effort. “You hit your head. You could have a concussion, so you can’t fall asleep.”
But her eyelids are already drooping.
“No, don’t do that,” he snaps. “Stay awake!”
“I don’t care,” he tells her, and then utters words he never thought he would. “Talk to me.”
“’Bout what?” she mumbles.
“Anything,” he says, and then a moment later corrects himself, deciding she should talk about something that makes her think. It will keep her awake, and he can find out if she has sustained brain damage. “Explain the Shinobi Rules to me.”
He thinks she tries to nod, based on the pained frown, but she complies.
“A shinobi…must always…put the mission…first…”
“No, do it in order,” he corrects. “What’s the first rule?”
She frowns again but begins to recite the entire code from the beginning, pausing after each to explain the different interpretations of the rule. It is a relief, and even a little impressive, that her knowledge is so vast even in a semi-conscious state.
If only we could see more of that in the field…
It is a mark of how out of it she is that she does not seem to notice him reach out, two fingers on her neck to keep track of her pulse.
His eyes burn, begging him to sleep, and his chakra levels are dangerously low, but he has to make sure Sakura stays stable. There is a high percentage of her suffering dry drowning or some other complication if he does not watch her.
Still, his energy is all but expended. There will be no getting to Kakashi or Naruto now, not with Sakura in this state.
(He prefers not to dwell too much on his own weak condition.)
Sasuke concentrates instead on the rhythm of her blood, the pulse against his fingers a tangible tether to consciousness. Her voice is a light monotone, and she takes pauses to breathe between recitations; somehow, his own breathing syncs with hers.
Sakura is alive.
He saved her.
He was able to save her, and not just from a sword-wielding nukanin. He battled death from Nature itself and kept her alive.
And he is…thankful?
No. It’s more than that.
For the first time in a long time he feels an undoubtable sense of amiable connection. One not born of competitiveness or drive to become stronger.
It is so starling that he physically jolts and shoves himself into an upright position.
“Sasuke?” she asks, dimly aware of his agitation.
“It’s nothing,” he replies curtly. “Keep talking.”
But he no longer pays attention to what she is saying.
He cannot have any connection or bond if he is going to get his revenge. Especially not to someone who cares about him, because people who care about him get hurt. He cannot be concerned about her well-being beyond that of a teammate.
This is just more preparation, he tells himself.
Saving her was necessary for the continuation of the squad. If she died, Team 7 would probably get assigned someone else who they do not know. Then they would have to re-learn all the teamwork stuff from the beginning.
Once was enough, he decides.
Sasuke eases himself away from Sakura, putting her at literal arm’s length while he scowls at his knees. Every now and then he will check her pulse and her breathing, but he does not let his skin touch hers more than he needs to.
I won’t be weak.
He glares into the distance, hoping his anger and frustration will somehow reach beyond the forest to the man he intends to kill.
If I can conquer death, I can conquer you too, brother.
Sakura has nothing to do with that.
As if to taunt him, his eyes fall back on her face, which is beginning to puff up and bruise. There is a split in the left side of her lip, probably from hitting up against an underwater rock. Sasuke notices the metallic taste of blood in his own mouth, and wonders at it for a moment, since his own face was not injured.
A beat later, he feels his cheeks burn as he realises the reason for the taste.
With any luck, she won’t remember too much of this, he thinks. To cover this, he demands in a harsh tone, “What’s Rule 25?” and refuses to look at her until long after Kakashi and Naruto arrive.
The sensation of fingers combing through his hair bring Sasuke back to the present.
He blinks, registering green eyes watching him with amusement and curiosity.
“What are you thinking about so intently?” Sakura asks softly, tucking his bangs back behind his ear.
He is silent for a moment, and then replies, “The time I saved your life.”
She pretends to groan at this. “Which time?”
It is a long-running shared joke: both have saved each other’s lives more often than either can count. There have been any number of close shaves, clear dangers that neither of them should have walked away from and yet they did.
Privately, Sasuke believes Sakura has saved him more than he could ever save her. She sometimes tries to argue that, but Sasuke knows better. Some nights, his fingers brush against the stretched skin of her thighs and belly, and it is the most convincing argument he can ever make. She has never healed the markings of her pregnancy away, and though he doubts she ever would, he is still glad of that.
He thinks of that skinny girl with the too-big forehead, and the sullen boy who had lived far too much in his short life.
“Did you ever believe we would get here?” he asks, in a rare instance of speaking his thoughts aloud.
Sakura smiles, eyes soft and reassuring and unquestionably filled with love. “Most of the time.”
He nods at this, unsurprised. There was a time in his life when it was so dark that even the most hopeful heart would have doubted.
“What about you?” she wants to know.
He thinks about it, thoughts drawn back to the dark time and beyond. He thinks of that day in the river, when he thought Sakura was going to die, and what he believed to be irrational thoughts flitting through his panicked, relieved mind when she did not.
“I think so,” he says. “Even if I didn’t know it.”
“Maybe you hoped,” she suggests.
He does not argue that. Even in the depths of despair, it is human instinct to cling to even the smallest hope.
She strokes her fingers through his hair, and Sasuke’s eyes slide shut in satisfaction. He can still feel her heart beat against the spot where his chin rests, and he is content to lose himself in the sound.
Eventually, though, Sakura’s fingers start to trail across his neck and down his spine.
“You know,” she purrs, her nails skimming across his skin, “there’s at least another half-hour before the baby wakes up.”
Sasuke shivers, even as certain parts of his anatomy begin to flush with heat once more.
“She’s two,” he insists. “She’s hardly a baby.”
“She’ll always be our baby,” his wife retorts, tugging him insistently upward. He concedes with little argument, allowing her to pull him close and press her lips against his. Just as he is relaxing into the kiss, she pulls away and smirks up at him, “Unless you want to start making a second one?”
Sasuke freezes, mind going utterly blank for a moment, and even his downward-rushing blood seems to still.
Then he sees the joking glimmer in her eyes.
“Let’s see if we survive the terrible twos first,” he tells her dryly, silently vowing to pay her back for her attempt to rattle him.
“We survived a vengeance goddess and the end of the world,” she reminds him.
“We were younger.”
“I’m still young!” she protests, before he takes advantage of her indignation in his favourite way.
There is no more discussion after that, as he busies himself with setting Sakura’s heart racing once again.