She finds out a week after he leaves again.
Her first thought is to tell him—a notion quickly quelled. There are a number of others she considers telling instead. It can’t be Naruto, who would promptly relay the information to him. It can’t be Ino, who is no fan of his comings and goings and would offer only biased opinions. It can’t be Kakashi; it can’t be Tsunade; it can’t be Shizune.
In the end, she decides on Sai.
He blinks. “Congratulations.”
It may not be the best decision she has ever made.
The false cheer in her voice does not fool him for a second. It never has.
"Are you not happy?" he asks, head tilted. He raises his eyes from the canvas, on which he is painting the river in front of them. "I think you are well-suited to the task."
"I’m happy," she says. "Of course, I am."
Sai nods. “That’s good. Have you told him?”
She is aware of how ridiculous she will sound, how unlike herself. The words fall unnaturally from her lips. “I don’t know if I should.”
"Is it…" Sai begins, brow furrowing, "Not Sasuke-san’s?"
Sakura starts. “What, no! It’s his, why would you even doubt that?”
"It would be natural to tell him, if he is the father."
"I don’t want to force him," she admits. "To come home. To stay."
Sai’s brush rises to the the skyline, painting the silhouette of a migratory bird in two neat strokes. “You cannot force a bird to fly home, Sakura-san.”
"You can clip its wings," she argues. "Or weigh it down."
For a moment, neither of them speaks. The rush of the river fills the silence.
"I read something in a book, once," Sai says, after a minute.
She sighs. “Well?”
He tells her what he has read. When their conversation is finished, Sakura leaves with more resolve than she came with.
How are you? The flowers in the garden are starting to bloom. Everything is
I just wanted to tell y
You’re going to be a father.
Expect me soon.
Sasuke returns by the end of the week.
Her husband has been, if not always present, then always dutiful. This time, when he rejoins her side, he does not leave it. She can’t remember when she last spent so much time in his company. Sakura marvels at his presence, so foreign to her now compared to his absence. She assures him that he need not be so attentive, but he insists. His hand rests on the small of her back when they are out in public. His fingers find hers in sleep. And yet even this newfound serenity cannot abate her fears. Doubt festers under her skin like a disease.
But she can rest her head against the warmth of his shoulder, and he will not protest. It is enough, sometimes, in its own way.
"Can you make me a salad?" she asks one afternoon.
The request is odd enough that he gives pause. He draws the refrigerator open regardless. “What kind?”
Sakura licks her lips. “Mixed greens and tomatoes. Walnuts, too. There’s a bag of them in the cupboard. For the dressing, um… Chocolate syrup?”
His eyebrows reach for his hairline. This is an utter desecration of his favourite food. “You’re serious?”
She flushes, chagrined. “Cravings are natural in the first trimester!”
"So this is what the baby wants?"
"I don’t know," Sakura admits. "There are a number of theories about cravings." Her hands flutter to her stomach. "It’s possible my body knows what nutrients the baby needs, but asks for them in foods my taste buds already know."
Sasuke is silent as he wraps his mind around the information. “Aa,” he says eventually. “I’ll make your ridiculous salad.”
She laughs, stepping to join him at the counter. “There’s no need to be mean about it.”
"This is my part." He grabs the ingredients from the fridge. "For the baby."
She watches Sasuke put the meal together. It is disconcerting to see him being so domestic. There is a wildness in her husband that is glaringly at odds with the cozy trappings of their kitchen. She sees the raw power in him, the apex predator that thrums just under his skin.
It is perhaps this that she craves most.
He is pouring the chocolate syrup into the bowl, and his incredulous distaste remains on his face even as he turns to face her. Smiling, she reaches up on her toes, her lips seeking his. He obliges her, a hand rising to cradle her face as they kiss. And this, too, is disconcerting. Not for its tenderness, not even for the way it makes her heart race. Sakura is so used to kissing Sasuke like it is the last time, like she does not know when she will see him next. This kiss is more lasting than that, carries with it the promise of tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that…
The pleasure of an everyday kiss is something Sakura has craved as long as she has waited for him.
It is not an indulgence she can afford to get used to.
He takes long walks in the mornings and evenings. Sometimes, he will allow her to join him. Most times, however, he insists he does not need her company.
She often catches him staring out the window in the middle of the day, the blue of the sky reflected in the dark canvas of his eyes, his fingers drumming uneven rhythms on his knee. She wonders what goes on in his gypsy heart. If the strain of staying is too much on his wanderer’s feet.
Sakura is strong enough to level mountains, but it is on days like this she wishes she had the strength to tear down the sky.
For you, she would say. For you.
"Sasuke-kun," she begins as they are settling into bed. He has been home for three months now. "You don’t have to stay."
Sasuke shifts beside her, eyes meeting hers. His gaze is at once frank and obscure, belying nothing of his thoughts.
"What are you trying to say?"
"I don’t want you to stay because you feel obligated," Sakura explains. Tries to be strong, to be stoic. "You shouldn’t have to feel like your hands are tied. I can manage without your help."
He breathes in, out. The emotion in his voice is tightly controlled. “You don’t want me to be a part of this.”
Sakura starts at that, her hand finding the skin of his arm. She shakes her head. “That’s not it.”
"Isn't it?" He permits her touch, but his tense posture does not soften under her fingertips.
She should feel vulnerable at the naked truth of her words, but Sakura keeps herself strong. Her voice does not shake. Her hand tightens over his arm. "I always want you here."
"Enlighten me," he challenges.
"I always want you here. That’s the problem. Because…"
Years’ worth of words unsaid are made explosive, incendiary. It is her turn to light the fires. Sakura does not allow herself to consider how ugly this mask is, how it is borne of her most private insecurities. It is not like her to sabotage her own happiness, and yet it is not like her to let her voice go unheard. She is a rope frayed by the weight of waiting.
"Because I know you. You are a hawk, Sasuke-kun. I won’t keep you from flying."
The hand on his arm slips down to his wrist, drawing the palm of his hand to the plane of her stomach, where she has already begun to show.
"This is not a ball and chain," she says. (Why am I not enough? she does not ask. Why does it take two of us to make you stay?) “This is not a cage.”
His fingers brush her skin almost reverently, but a frown mars his face. She realises she has insulted him. Sakura grinds her teeth against the apology that leaps at once to her throat.
"You know what Konoha has done," Sasuke says. "And you know my sins. I’ve told you why I must go."
"I know all that," she says. "I know it all very well. That’s why—don’t you see what I’m trying to do? I don’t want to tie you to this place. When I married you, I promised I would understand."
Slowly, he withdraws his touch. She does not hold him down. She is afraid to.
"I don’t think you do."
Sasuke rises from the bed, dons his cloak, and leaves. She does not watch him go.
The sight of his back is familiar enough.
"I cannot be like Naruto," he tells her. "No heroic jaunts to the moon."
She leans forward, her fingers dancing across the bare skin of his back. She traces every scar with aching tenderness. Feels the rise and fall of his breathing.
"I would never have asked that of you," she whispers.
"I am not what you want."
"How can you say—"
"Sakura." His arm tightens around her waist. She feels his exhalations ruffle the short strands of her hair. "I have too many ghosts. Too many of them in Konoha."
She closes her eyes. “I’ll only take as much as you’re willing to give. I don’t mind waiting.”
"I will not be… a typical husband."
"I didn’t expect any differently, Sasuke-kun."
Sakura does not see him until the next day.
He finds her in the garden. For a moment, the world is silent but for the dull echo of his footfalls in the grass.
She knows she should apologise. She is not ungrateful that he stays. She is not unhappy that he will be a part of their child’s life. But Sakura is a prideful woman. The words are stymied in her throat like stones.
She does not turn to him. Sakura continues to work on the flowerbed, uprooting stray weeds with perhaps more force than necessary. Her eyes are red-rimmed from the sleepless night without him. From the tears that seeped into their sheets.
When he calls her name, she does not move.
Neither does she budge when she feels him crouch down beside her, so close that their shoulders brush.
"You were right," he says.
She turns to him then, surprise painted in bold strokes on her features. He raises the gift he has brought back for her. It is a nest, no larger than a foot in diameter. She can see the cuts on his fingers from the effort of weaving. Something twists painfully in her chest.
"You were right," he repeats. "This is not a cage. Do you understand?"
Garden forgetten, she takes the nest carefully from his hands. She sets it on her lap, holding his hands in hers. She heals his wounds in heartrending silence. She would have kissed every one, if he’d let her.
"I understand now, Sasuke-kun." Her voice is trembling. "I understand."
There is the sky above them, and the grass beneath them, and their hands entwined, and the nest in her lap. The wind carries the sounds of the river, and, beyond that, the melody of birdsongs. Sasuke reaches forward, his lips finding rest on her forehead.
“‘A man whose heart is set on returning home,’” Sai tells Sakura, “‘will fight to the death against any attempt to bar his way.’”