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Samsara

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As a medic, Sakura is probably more prepared for the various symptoms of pregnancy than the average woman. She’s studied the theory, administered pre- and postnatal care, and has delivered more than a few babies; at first it was only under the watchful eye of her mentor, but since she and Sasuke have been travelling to more remote villages, it’s an occupational hazard.

So, her own first trimester is about what she expects – it’s actually easier.

Morning sickness isn’t as bad as she worried it would be – in fact, it’s not so much morning sickness as random-moments-in-the-day sickness. Even then, it’s more gentle queasiness than anything else. There are only two mornings she spends with her face buried in a nearby bush, while Sasuke holds back her hair.

There are a few of her favorite foods that she can’t even think about without feeling nauseous. Still others cause her bizarre, desperate cravings she’s never experienced before (tomatoes! She can’t get enough tomatoes!). She also has to pee a lot more often which Sasuke is equal parts amused and irritated by depending on how much it delays their travel plans. And, good gods, she thought she was done getting pimples!

But what she wasn’t expecting were the dreams.

From her studies and conversations with other expectant mothers, she anticipated the nonsensical, the silly, or even the highly sexual. What she ends up experiencing within days of confirming her condition is bleak, eerie, and a little depressing.

In the beginning, her dreams have a reoccurring theme. Whenever she closes her eyes, she finds herself walking along a beach. The tide is always out, leaving a vast, barren expanse of sand with shallow pools of water. The sky is always grey and foreboding, bracketed by cliffs in the distance. The detail in this place is staggering, despite the fact she’s never spent much time on this seashore. Or any seashore, really.

Konoha is landlocked, and even her experiences during the war didn’t give her much time to enjoy the coastline. Travelling with Sasuke, they’ve occasionally been to places like Kumo where beaches are more common, but never with express recreational purpose.

Despite this, the barren shore of her dreams feels as familiar and beloved to her as the forests and valleys of the Leaf Village. For whatever reason, she experiences a sense of utter safety during her dreamlike wanderings, which leaves her disconcerted and confused upon waking.

The pattern continues over several nights without change, until their return journey from Tsuki. That night, they have no choice but to bed down in a forest cave to avoid an incoming storm.

Since she told Sasuke of her pregnancy, he isn’t as keen on sleeping outside. Sakura’s assured him that, at this point, it really doesn’t matter where they stop to rest, but he’s been adamant. It’s only when there’s absolutely no other option that they sleep outside.

(She’s trying not to find his overprotectiveness endearing, but she’d be lying if she didn’t say she’s been waiting her entire life for this.)

Despite the security of their defensive wards, Sasuke insists on taking the first watch – which they both know means he doesn’t actually intend to close his eyes that night – and Sakura is too tired to argue. She expects this to lead to utterly dreamless sleep, and yet with almost no transition, she is back on the dream beach.

Only there is something different this time.

眠り

A dark form appears on the sand dunes of the horizon. She can’t make out exactly what the shape is, but as she gets closer, she realises it’s a human being.

“Hey!” she calls. “Are you all right?”

She begins to run, struggling through the unstable, damp sand, automatically reaching for her medical kit – only to discover it’s not there. She doesn’t let this deter her, however, and after what seems like forever, she skids to a stop in front of the person.

It’s a man, she realises, based on the dimensions of the body, and he’s badly injured.

He is face-down and, judging from the lack of movement, not breathing. When she reaches out to touch clammy, swollen skin and checks his pulse, she doesn’t find it. The parts of his epidermis not covered by a waterlogged white robe are a mass of second- and third-degree burns, crisscrossing themselves like red, snaking roots of a tree. She’s seen this before in electrocution victims except, from what she can perceive, there are no exit or entrance wounds on his body. It’s as if lightning just passed across the surface of his skin.  

Or…or channelled through his chakra points.

She reaches out to feel for the pulse in his neck, but finds, instead that her hand instead gently slap the man’s cheeks, trying to wake him. A pit forms in her stomach at this, and she intends to channel her own chakra into the poor man, hoping to boost his heart and lungs back to working order.

But that doesn’t happen.

Her hands keep probing the man for signs of life, and when she concentrates, reaching inward she can’t feel any of her chakra. As a last resort she thinks to revert to novice healing, tries to fit her fingers together into the Ox seal, but they don’t cooperate.

What the…

She considers her hands in confusion, and belatedly realises that they don’t look like hers. These are paler and more delicate, with none of her scars from training.

And, most importantly, no telltale glow of healing energy.

No!

The horror at being stripped of the ability to save this man hits her like a punch to the gut, but rather than dwell on it, she shoves it out of her mind. She might still have a chance to save him, even if she can’t do it the faster way!

Her body seems to be cooperating with this, at least, but it’s almost as though struggling through quicksand. Her limbs are heavy and everything feels like it’s happening on a delay.

Firmly but gently, she turns him around, intending to start compressions to his heart –

Only to recoil in shock.

Beneath the swollen, vein-scarred skin is Sasuke.

Sakura wakes suddenly, her entire body jerking into consciousness. Sweat drips from her forehead, and she feels as if she’s been running.

“Sakura?”

Her husband is a featureless shadow in the dark.

“You were on a beach,” she whispers without preamble, her voice shaking. “You were unconscious, and I couldn’t…I wanted to heal you, but I couldn’t do it. And then I turned you around and I think you were dead, but there was no…I couldn’t…”

“It was a dream,” Sasuke assures her. When her body remains stiff and agitated, he reaches out and cups her face in his hand, brushing his thumb across her cheekbone.

Sakura sighs, leaning into his touch, and the rigidity of her spine eases somewhat. “I know it was. It was just…very real.”

“Your senses are heightened right now,” he informs her quietly. “Your mind is likely drawing much more on sense-memory.”

“I know that,” she protests, smirking slightly at the fact Sasuke is quoting information he’s read from a pregnancy book she picked up in the last village. She never saw him read it, but she remembers that exact sentence.

Not interested in baby books my ass, you big goofball!

“And you also know that I’m fine,” Sasuke continues. From the frown she hears in his voice, she suspects he’s noticed her smirk. “As are you.”

“Other than being married to a know-it-all, I’m wonderful,” she mumbles, curling up in front of him.

“Hm.”

She feels his fingers in her hair, moving back and forth in a comforting rhythm. Sleep creeps up on her, ushered in by the calming sensation of fingertips brushing against her skull –

Sakura jerks back to full consciousness.

“Wait!”

He freezes. “What?”

“I have to pee,” she announces, navigating away from him.

“Of course you do,” he sighs, letting go of her.

When she finally gets back, Sasuke has fallen asleep. She suspects he just meant to close his eyes for a second, but then he’s been going without sleep more often these days. She worries he intends to keep up the trend until they are safely back in Konoha – which could be months from now.

For this reason alone, she chooses not to wake him.

The wards will be enough.

She reclaims her spot beside him, burrowing in close and shifting so that her back is fitted against his chest. In his sleep, he drapes his arm across her waist, holding her close, and Sakura smiles into the darkness. He used to hold her like that when they were kids, too…though back then, he would rather swallow kunai than admit to it.

Sometimes on away-missions, their genin squad would have to sleep outside. Kakashi would take first watch – like Sasuke does now, having no intention of waking any of them to take the second – and the three of them would end up huddled together like puppies. They were usually so exhausted that no one had the energy to complain about sleeping arrangements. Sakura would end up sandwiched between the two boys to minimize any bloodshed – Naruto muttering in his sleep on one side, and Sasuke curled protectively into himself on the other.

But sometimes, very rarely, he would end up lying against her, arm slung over her hips, breathing against the back of her neck.

She never slept well those nights, too shocked and pleased to do anything but marvel at being so close to him. He’d wake before everyone else, and she’d feel him recoil as if burned, and then his warmth would be gone.

Sakura never mentioned it in waking hours because she expected him to be embarrassed. He never said anything either, even though he would’ve known she was awake. Kakashi looked knowing beneath his mask, but acted like he hadn’t noticed any of it at all.  

Now, though, she has no trouble falling back to sleep within Sasuke’s embrace, and thankfully, there are no more dreams that night. When the first rays of morning sunshine peek into their shelter, instead of pretending he hasn’t spent the night wrapped around her, Sasuke hides his face in her shoulder and determinedly ignores her attempts to coax him awake…until she cheats a little, ducking under their covers and using lips and tongue in her most convincing argument. The sound of his strangled cries and panted curses echoing off the damp walls of the cave are completely worth the attempt at a reproachful look he gives her afterward.

“We’re not supposed to be drawing attention to ourselves,” he reminds her.

“Then you should learn to be quieter,” she retorts, wiping her mouth. When he growls and snatches at her, trying to pull her down beneath him, she dances out of his way and singsongs, “Come on! We’re going to be late.”

The rest of the morning progresses in the usual fashion with them trekking through the forest to their next destination. It’s quiet, which is the norm – she and Sasuke don’t always talk while they travel, existing in a silence that’s more a perfect dynamic of companionship than a need to avoid possible threats. It’s a time for reflection, or just being together.

Although today, her usually peaceful thoughts are clouded by analysing her dream. It’s bothering her, hanging on where most dreams would retreat to her subconscious immediately. She supposes it’s because she was reminded of her helplessness, a state she’s actively avoided since she was a teenager.

If Sasuke notices her preoccupation, he says nothing. Until she volunteers the information, he won’t pry. So, she decides not to say anything because it sounds ridiculous in her head, let alone out loud.

They just make it to the overnight ferry which, it turns out, is not helpful to her queasy stomach. She spends most of the voyage heaving over the side of the boat, or curled in a foetal position in their cabin. Only as they’re nearing their destination does her exhaustion finally allow her to give in to sleep.

眠り

She finds herself back on the beach, kneeling in front of an unconscious Sasuke.

Only it’s not Sasuke, she realises in relief. His features are more delicate, and his hair is lighter – despite being so thoroughly soaked – and much longer.

Her healer’s instincts have already prompted her hands to check for signs of life. He isn’t breathing and she can’t detect a heartbeat. Judging from the burns and bruises, she’d say he’s suffered both electrocution and massive trauma, as if thousands of fists careened into him.

For a split second, she goes to heal him before remembering that here – wherever here is – she has no such ability. Swearing, she rearranges his body so that he is supine on his back, and prepares to restart his heart manually.

At least…she thinks she’s the one who decides to do that. The body she inhabits in this dream world seems to have a mind of its own.

Pressing the heel of her hand on the centre of his chest, she begins to count out loud, watching his chest with each compression. After a minute or so, she leans down to check his airway, tilting his head back and lifting his chin.

There is still no indication of breathing, and she pinches his nose closed, covering his mouth with hers and breathing in to him. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees his chest rise and feels her hopes rise with it.

That’s good, at least, no punctures or obstructions.

But when she pulls away, he doesn’t continue on his own.

Swearing, she restarts the compressions.

“Don’t…you…die…” she orders him with each downward press.

You’re…not…him…but…I…won’t…let… you! Sha…na…ro!

The cycle of compressions and breaths continues almost without end. It goes far past the point where she would’ve stopped for anyone else, but she can’t take the chance. If this person is anything like Sasuke, he will live. He has to live.

Again the overwhelming sense of slogging through quicksand is back, this dream body of hers already pulling away in defeat, but she wills her borrowed hands back into place, growling and cursing as she fights her way forward again, forcing herself against the barrier of her dream and his chest.

As she pulls away from his lips once more, preparing to push down on his chest, the stranger’s body seizes and his mouth opens in a gasp.

“Oh, thank goodness!” she cries, sitting back on her thighs to give him room. “You’re all right. Just lie still, and try to breathe, okay? You had me scared for a –”

Sakura’s words die in her throat when the man’s eyes shoot open, and the coldest, red irises she has ever seen meet hers. She’s hit by a wave of terrifying certainty about two things just then –she knows these eyes better than any other and, if he wanted to, this man could stop her heart with just a look.

She jolts awake with a cry of surprise.

“What? What’s wrong?!”

Sasuke is kneeling beside her, his hand on her arm, staring at her with an expression of thunderous concern.

“It was you,” she gasps, thoughts colliding too quickly in her brain to make sense. Her words come out jumbled. “It was you, but it wasn’t you, but it was your eyes. And you were unconscious, but I saved you, I think, but it was…it was like that day, and I though you…I thought he was going to…”

“Slow down,” Sasuke instructs her. “Start from the beginning.”

She takes a deep, shuddering breath, coaching herself to remain calm while she carefully relays everything. She tells him about the strange dreams she’s been having, how they were recurring at first, but now somehow seem…

“Continuous?” he supplies.

She nods because there’s no other way to put it. “I don’t know what this means.”

Sasuke frowns.

“I want you to tell me if this happens again,” he tells her finally.

“How would that help?” she asks.

“I don’t know,” he replies. “But I’d feel better knowing what you know.”

She knows her husband doesn’t like the idea of an obstacle or opponent that he can’t fight. Perhaps he thinks that the more information he can get from her dreams, the more likely he’ll be able to help her. She also knows that he is compulsive about these things, and will fixate over it until there is some kind of resolution – which there may not be.

She offers him a bright smile. “I’m sure it’s nothing. I’m getting ahead of myself. Making something out of nothing, the way I sometimes do. I’ll be fine.”

Sasuke frowns like he doesn’t completely believe her, but nods stiffly.

And it seems that she’s right, anyhow. The next few nights, her dreams are once again no more than fleeting impressions. She experiences imprints of faces, moments in time, but no startling interactions with the man whose Sharingan is an exact copy of her husband’s.  

It seems her subconscious has backed off a little, and she’s set to shrug it off as strange pregnancy related dreams after all.

But then it starts again.

眠り

The man with Sasuke’s face – But different. It’s different! – is unable to move or speak. His horrible eyes fade into a dull black almost at the exact moment she is conscious of being back in her dream, suggesting he is far too weakened to do anything. Still, he watches her distrustfully, as if expecting her to reach out and smother him or something.

“I am here to help you,” she tells him quietly, hating the warble in her voice – and the fact her voice is somehow softer than it should be. “There’s no need to worry. I’m here for you.”

If possible, he eyes her with more distrust.

If you think glaring at me is going to scare me off, you’ve got another thing coming. I’ve seen much worse.

Oddly enough, the picture that immediately comes to mind is not her husband’s chilling stare, but a stranger’s face twisted into a snarl. The man is utterly nondescript, but the ugly rage there makes her body shiver reflexively. But there’s no time to contemplate who it is or what it means with a patient to help.

Her eyes rove over his body, taking in the strange – but familiar! – high-collared white robe, checking symptoms, and making a diagnosis in her head.

Chakra depletion and acute over-exhaustion. Whatever happened to him, he completely weakened himself to the point of handicap.

Either he has had the chakra drained from him, or actually managed to use it all up. It’s something she has never heard of – chakra is so tied to a person’s life-force that even when severely weakened they can’t really use all of it.

It looks like her mystery patient has come pretty damn close.

Sakura has no idea how she’s supposed to help him without her healing abilities, and with hands that don’t necessarily do as she wants. She seems to have the power to influence rudimentary life-saving measures – skills anyone might have – but not her own hard-won knowledge. Glancing around the beach, she doesn’t see anything that could be used as an elixir or healing balm. She’s going to have to venture beyond the shoreline, to see if there’s a forest or field nearby.  

A tiny, nagging thought at the back of her mind tells her to run away. Without her abilities, she would not be able to stand against him if her assessment of his condition is wrong. Whoever this man is, he’s dangerous.

But he is also important, she knows that deep in her gut, and she has to concentrate on fighting back that impulse to run away.

That doesn’t matter. I’m a medic, I have to help my patient…somehow.

Doing so on the shore is going to be difficult. She briefly entertains the idea of carrying him to somewhere safer, but as she quickly discovers, she doesn’t have the strength to do so. The man is tall and, under normal circumstances, probably heavy – as waterlogged deadweight, he’s even worse.

Besides, carrying him anywhere might attract attention, and that could be dangerous for both of them. Wherever they are now, this place is foreign to her – possibly to him as well. She needs to think of something, and soon.

Something at the back of her mind tells her it would be very bad indeed if either of them were found here.

Sakura awakens the next morning, frowning at the ceiling of their temporary quarters, mind running through the calculations needed for a woman of average strength to move an injured man the size and weight of her husband.

And possibly to look into lucid dreaming techniques because the idea of being a paralysed watcher in her own mind is getting annoying.

Once she figures out the first problem, she lingers quietly, puzzling out where she’s seen the man’s garments before. She and Sasuke have travelled so widely and in such a short time that they’ve seen any number of strange clothing styles. Perhaps her memories supplied it?

She’s on the verge of an answer when she notices a hand snaking under the waistband of her pants.

“Oh, you think you’re being sneaky, do you?” she challenges playfully, and then giggles when long fingers ease between her legs.  

All thoughts of her subconscious patient disappear as she finds something much nicer to focus on.

眠り

More dreams follow, night after night, but by now, she expects them.

Sometimes, she’s not by her mystery patient’s side, instead crawling through a wooded area on hands and knees, gathering herbs and berries in her apron. Sometimes, she’s at a river, filling water skins and trying – unsuccessfully – to catch fish with nothing but her hands.

Other times, she’s with him, leaning devotedly beside him, pressing freshwater between his lips and crushing food into manageable portions. He accepts her help, all the while glaring at her resentfully. Often, when she does something he doesn’t like, he makes a noise like a growl low in his throat.

He is still unable to speak, so she can’t ask for his name.

During waking hours, Sakura finds herself researching procedures, poring through the few medical scrolls she’s brought with her, or asking local healers about their traditional remedies. It takes every inch of her concentration in her dreams to affect even the slightest change, such as picking a certain herb or grinding roots into powder.

Sasuke remains ignorant of her nightly vigil and, although she isn’t exactly keeping things from him, she’s glad for it. He would worry needlessly, and though he hides it well, he’s already anxious. So when he asks her about her dreams, she tells him nothing new has happened.

It’s not really a lie, it’s just…not completely true.

But she doesn’t think he’d take kindly to her worrying so much about a figment of her imagination, especially as the sour-faced man in her beach dreamscape has started to grow on her.

“I hope you’re not attached to your hair,” she tells her invalid one day – night? – as she finally disparages of the snarled, wet hanks splayed beside him. “It’s beginning to attract bugs. You don’t want that – I know from experience how hard it is to get rid of them once you have them.”

Wait, what?

She is startled. She has never had head lice – her mother saw to that – and yet, despite her rambling, the utter authority in her voice is undoubtable. It’s as if the words were supplied from somewhere else.

Her patient’s eyes narrow slightly, but she takes his lack of growls as permission and carefully hacks off the hair at shoulder length.

“There. It doesn’t look so bad, I don’t think – of course, I have had some practise. I have to see to my own often enough.”

She’s referring to her fastidious tendency to keep her hair cut while they travel, but that’s not the image that comes to mind. Instead, she has visions of a cool, dark room, trembling fingers and a mirror balanced in front of her while she tries to even out the layers.

There’s something indistinct and odd about the face in that mirror, however.

This happens sometimes. Images and ideas coming to her as she works on him. She can never make sense of them and passes them off as quirks of her psyche.

Or going batty from the stillness.

Her patient’s constant quiet reminds her starkly of how Sasuke was when they were children. While she’s now close enough to her husband that she finds their silences companionable, this person before her is a different story. The prolonged hush is driving her crazy, and she finds herself falling back on her childhood habit of rambling.

Not just rambling, actually. The things that come out of her mouth make her head spin. They are the utterly confusing, nonsensical words that characterise dreams – things that make perfect sense to her now, but which she knows will mean nothing to her upon waking.

“I suppose you must think I don’t have a much else to do but be here,” she tells the man once, adjusting the small brush fire she’s started beside them. The wood she chose doesn’t give off much smoke, but the heat is comforting – and it keeps his body heat constant. “I guess you would be right. Where I’m from, my existence is not much more than an afterthought. My father – well, he’s important. He rules over this land. But my mother, she was a lesser wife who told everyone I was going to be a boy –”

She frowns at this, because that’s not right at all, and yet the story falls from her tongue with the utter conviction of truth.

“ – When I wasn’t, my father wasn’t happy. He had her put to death, and it’s only because the priests said he’d be cursed if he spilled his own blood that I wasn’t, too.”

The story makes her stomach clench, her first-hand anger mingling with second-hand sadness.

“Everyone says I look just like my mother, and that’s why my father doesn’t care for me very much,” she goes on matter-of-factly. “My older sister, though, he loves her. I…I would love her, too, I think, if she’d let me.” She ducks her head, feeling embarrassed about admitting this. It feels like she’s never said this out loud before. “But she’s so busy, she doesn’t have time. Father has sent for so many tutors and instructors for her that she’s never around. See, she’s the one who’s going to make an advantageous marriage one day and make our country strong again. So, she has to be accomplished. She says it’s a waste of time because she’s so beautiful, and I think she’s right. Men take one look at her and fall in love right away.”

She sighs wistfully and the tiniest bit of jealousy seeps into her words.

“She has everything. I wish…I wish I could just have…” She trails off and shakes her head. “Never mind. It’s not important. And all of this must be boring you, right?”

She smiles gently at her patient and is surprised to find that he’s been listening to her the whole time with an intent expression. In fact, unless she’s much mistaken, there’s something else buried in the lines of his face.

It takes her a moment to realise that it’s empathy.

“Have you ever dreamed about being another person?” Sakura asks, glancing up from the trashy romance novel she’s already read three times. It’s utterly failed in its job of keeping her mind off her dreams, especially given this latest development where she’s apparently made up an entire other life for herself. She decides to give up on the book.

They’re enjoying a rare moment of downtime, a day not spent travelling or scouring villages for information about local disturbances. Across the clearing, Sasuke is carefully oiling and cleaning his katana, mouth set and brows drawn together in concentration.

“Sasuke?”

“Hm?”

“I asked if you’ve ever dreamed of being someone else? I mean, from the perspective of someone who wasn’t you,” she clarifies.

“No.”

“Oh.” She pauses. “Never?”

“Most of my dreams are memories. And I am always myself,” he responds absently.

“Oh.”

She spares a brief second to reflect on the sad truth in that – with a life like Sasuke’s, she doubts his subconscious has ever been a retreat from reality – and tries to go back to her book, but the text is blurring together. Her already vague interest is gone, so she puts it down.

“I’m bored. Can we go for a walk or something?”

“We walk every day.”

“I know that, but it’s usually to get from Point A to Point B. I meant, let’s just go for a stroll. Enjoy nature. Autumn’s so pretty, and we won’t get to enjoy ourselves so much once winter comes. And we won’t have a lot of time alone, just the two of us, come spring.”

“Hm. Fine. Let me finish this.”

“I was also thinking of maybe stopping in the capital after all. They’ve got a library there, and I want to look a few things up. I know you hate big towns, but it’ll only take a few days.”

“Mm-hm.”

Sakura frowns at him, trying to discern whether he’s seriously paying attention to her or not. When he continues to wipe invisible detritus from the blade of his sword, she knows none of what they’ve just discussed has penetrated the thoughtful funk he’s trapped himself in.

Time for a distraction then.

With quick movements, she stands and stretches. When he doesn’t seem to notice, she goes on to unbutton the clasps of her tunic, then her bra, and pulls them both over her head.

“I think my breasts have gotten bigger since I’ve been pregnant,” she says, pitching her voice a little louder than before. “What do you think?”

He doesn’t so much as glance up. “Maybe.”

“Excuse me if I don’t trust your assessment – you’re not even looking at me.”

Sasuke lets out an annoyed sigh, shoots her a brief glance, and goes back to work. “Yes, you’re bigger.”

Sakura raises an eyebrow at this, mentally counting down the seconds, and is rewarded when the rag in his hand suddenly drops and he slowly looks up again, utterly bemused.

There we go.

Still, she pretends not to notice and cranes around to examine her backside as well. “I think I’m bigger down here, too. We have a measuring tape in our kit somewhere, right? I’m going to find out, since there’s nothing else to do and you’re so busy.”

She turns away, reaching toward their bags.

There’s a clatter of metal and the rustle of a cloak, and then an arm seizes her around the waist from behind.

“You don’t have to resort to obvious tricks to get my attention,” he murmurs quietly in her ear, and she shivers at the feel of his breath on the skin beneath her ear.

“Apparently, I do,” she teases. “Besides, my tricks didn’t ever work when we were younger.  I consider this back pay.”

“So you traffic in sexual favours now?”

“Who said anything about sexual favours?” she says innocently. “I’m just finding ways to occupy myself while you’re clearly uninterest –”

“You’ve always been a horrible liar,” he tells her, and proceeds to divest her of the rest of her clothing.

眠り

Her dreams return to the murky, fleeting glimpses in the next few nights, and for a long time, she barely interacts with her mysterious patient. Sometimes, she still dreams of scouring the woods for things to help him, but more and more often, she begins to see darker, more troubling things.

Sometimes, her slumber is assaulted by the downright upsetting.

On occasion, she’ll find herself cold, shivering convulsively in a drafty room. She is exhausted, but doesn’t sleep, eyes focussed on the moon as she waits for morning to come. Other times – and this is even more troubling – she feels the familiar impact of fists against her face, a man’s voice demanding where she wanders off to every day. She cowers, tears and blood streaming down her face, insisting she doesn’t go anywhere, and hoping the lie isn’t detectable.

These brief glimpses always leave Sakura annoyed upon waking, the sense of helplessness like an acrid taste at the back of her mouth. Since Sasuke refuses to spar with her since she’s become pregnant, she spends those mornings doggedly running through her taijutsu forms or crushing boulders to dust. These are her only outlets because, in her dreams, she is maddeningly placid.

The next time she finds herself back with her mysterious patient, she smiles through the bruises on her face even if it’s the last thing she wants to do. She’s angry and wants to find the bastard who did this, show them exactly what she’s capable of, but this dream body of hers doesn’t let her. Instead, she smiles, pretending like she isn’t in pain every time she moves.

The act isn’t convincing – this man is as observant as Sasuke – but Sakura doubts he’ll remark on it, given his reticence (real or enforced by his handicap).

Which is why she nearly has a heart attack when a dry, rasping voice breaks the usual silence.

“Where did you get those bruises?”

She actually physically jolts, looking around to see if someone’s watching them. It takes an absurdly long time to realise that her mystery patient was the one who spoke.

“Did you just…” she stares at him in awe.

He is glaring at her again, ostensibly furious; if she knows that look as well she does, she gets the sense he’s angrier at himself for speaking than over the state of her face.

“Are you able to talk?” she asks him, heart rising, hoping that now some questions can be answered. The question is tentative, though, afraid.

But he simply turns his head to one side. “Tch.”

Sakura can’t help but smile at that. She definitely knows this type of behaviour well. Her dream body seems to recognise it too, because she feels herself relax.

“I guess you used up all your strength to ask me that?” she muses lightly. “I appreciate that, but don’t worry about me when your wounds were much worse. I’m really clumsy, always walking into things. I fell down the stairs this morning.” She feels herself chuckling nervously, while she inwardly seethes at the lie. “There’s a reason no one wants to teach me the shamisen. I would most likely put someone’s eye out!”

But he exudes an aura of disinterest now and she sighs.

She should’ve asked for his name.

Their silent dynamic continues through montages that dance across her sleeping mind – of her gently rubbing healing ointments into his skin, bringing him clothing to replace his maddeningly familiar robes.

She continues to experience the puzzling, violence-fueled scenes as well.  

Someone pulling her hair, a high, mocking laugh from a beautiful, ivory-skinned woman. Older sister, her mind supplies. Huddling on the floor, clutching her ribs as someone kicks her, displeased once more by something she’s done or failed to do. The non-descript, sharp-eyed face again. Father.

She screams at herself to stand up and defend herself, but her body never listens. By the time she manages to raise a hand up to block a blow, it is too late, and she feels her ribs break.

Time passes and more often, she finds herself lying in a barren room, people tending to her and speaking in low whispers. She gets the sense that she is recovering from something – injury, most likely – but that knowledge fails to overtake the fervent sense of restlessness she feels.

If she’s injured and bedridden, who is caring for her patient?

It feels like an eternity before she dreams of the beach again, and a stark relief hits her the day she finds herself wandering on that damp sandbar again…until she makes it to the spot on the shore where she’s been tending to her mystery invalid, only to find he is not there.

Shock and disbelief fill her, competing with guilt that her injury kept her from checking on him. What if some wild animal found its way here and dragged him off? What if someone found him here, thought he was a foreign spy, and took him away?

Or worse.

I have to find him!

She makes a catalogue of possible places he can be, turns around to head toward the forest where she often sought medicinal herbs, and freezes.

Black eyes glare down at her, a sinister, six-pointed, red star at their centre, paralysing in their intensity. Her jaw drops in shock, but before she can say anything, he grabs her by the throat.

Nn-gh!”

She clutches feebly at his hand, nails scrabbling in desperation against his skin as he lifts her off the ground. Her feet dangle uselessly in the air and her lungs constrict in their need for air. Confusion and dismay fill her.

“W-w-why?” she chokes out, tears streaming down her cheeks.

“I am not weak,” he tells her coldly, his voice no longer a rasp, but still low enough to make her shiver. “I did not ask for your help, and I owe you nothing.”

She whimpers.

“Know that your death would mean very little to me,” he goes on, tightening his grasp on her. Those horrible eyes gleam, and she knows that she’s about to die.

Two emotions – utterly contradictory – war for supremacy.

The first – relief – does not belong to her, and Sakura knows it. She has finally realised that she is experienced someone else’s life. Someone who faces this imminent death with a sense of relief, because it will be a swifter end than the one her abusive family is slowly driving her towards.

The second – a raw, instinctual fear – is hers, even as it is reduced to afterthought and powerlessness by her dream consciousness. She knows she’s dreaming, she knows this isn’t real, but what if something happens. They say if you die in a dream, your body dies too, and she can’t let that happen!

The baby!

And so she fights.

She wills herself to struggle, ignores the mental and physical quagmire, the spots against her eyes and the burning in her lungs. She sinks her nails into the flesh of his hands, kicks her feet uselessly at him and glowers because how dare he?

Maybe some of her rage is visible, because something sparks in his gaze. His hand tightens again and she prepares for the end, knowing it’s coming despite her desperation to survive –

Only to suddenly find herself in a heap on the floor, her airway miraculously free again.

Shaking off the dizziness that comes from breathing again, she looks up to see that he is now walking away from her. It takes a little longer for her to understand that she has been spared. She doesn’t know if she is more relieved or disappointed.

“W-wait…” she whispers, her vocal chords aching from nearly being crushed. “Why…what…who are you?”

He pauses, but does not turn around, and she thinks he might kill her after all. But then…

“I am called Indra,” he tells her quietly, his voice barely audible over the din of distant waves.

A flash of blue lightning envelopes him, and he is gone.

“Indra.”

Sasuke repeats the name slowly, sounding out the syllables as if the word is completely foreign to him. There is a deceptive calm in his voice, as if he is putting every shred of his considerable concentration into not reacting to Sakura’s tale.

“It’s…it’s not exactly a common name, is it?” she murmurs tentatively, hanging on to that tiny shred of hope that’s taken root since she awoke in a terrified sweat.

“No.”

They regard each other in heavy silence. Neither knows quite what to make of this development.

“Do you…” she begins, then pauses, because the question is utterly ridiculous and there’s no possible way… And yet. “Do you remember any of it?”

She doesn’t know what exactly Sasuke saw or experienced when he interacted with the Sage of Six Paths, whether the transfer of his chakra also meant a transfer of memories. It’s not a time they speak of very often.

“No. Whatever I knew that day disappeared quickly,” Sasuke tells her quietly.

“Oh.” She wraps her arms around herself. “So why am I dreaming this then? If anyone should be dreaming about you – past-you – it should be you. Or Naruto even. Unless –” She peeks up at him. “Maybe it’s my past life?”

“Then why are you only experiencing it now, after everything we’ve seen?” he counters, the calm from earlier giving way to something sharp.

“I don’t know,” she admits. “It does kind of seem like something the Sage of Six Paths should have mentioned when we all met. But what else could it be? It’s like I’m her, Sasuke.”

Sasuke’s eyes narrow in contemplation, jaw clenched and she swears she can hear him grinding his teeth. She reaches out – it’s instinctive to want to comfort him, even though she’s the one who woke upset – and places a soothing hand on his shoulder. The other automatically covers her still flat stomach.

Sasuke’s eyes follow the movement, and then snap back to her face.

“The dreams didn’t start until you found out you were pregnant,” he says in a low tone.

“It’s possible,” she allows.

“That’s the connection,” he muses, almost to himself, staring into the distance like he is seeing something she can’t. “He is the ancestor of the Uchiha…you’re carrying the next generation…it has to have something to do with that.”

“You really think so?” Sakura asks. The idea is unsettling.

“Do you have any other explanation?” he replies, almost harsh. The calm from earlier has begun to erode.

“Well, no, but we can’t just jump to conclusions,” she reasons. “Maybe it’s just…maybe every woman in your clan has dreams like this. Or…or maybe only women who are about to give birth to someone of Indra’s bloodline. Or –”

“Or maybe it’s because I’m Indra’s reincarnation that it’s happening,” Sasuke interrupts, running a hand across his face in agitation. His right eye flickers briefly between red and black. “Of course, we’ll never know for sure and there’s no one to ask because –”

“Sasuke, stop,” she cuts him off, taking hold of his hand. She squeezes it, trying to transmit some sense of calm, despite the fact that his obvious panic is frightening her. She has never seen him lose composure like this, and her immediate instinct is to put a stop to it. “It’s not something worth getting worked up about. These are dreams. Dreams that might not even be real, and are probably just my mind shoving together a bunch of information. You know, odd facts I know about you and me and maybe some of the plot from that horrible romance novel I was reading. If it helps, I’ll stop reading it.”

“Sakura –”

“Let’s not worry too much about unwanted commentary from dead people, okay?” She makes a face. “And that is a sentence I never though I would say.

The look Sasuke gives her now is equal parts awed and disbelieving.

“You are taking this remarkably well,” he says, sounding almost accusing.

Sakura tosses her hair. “I told you, didn’t I? The day we met the Sage of Six Paths? Nothing will ever surprise me again.”

“Not if I have anything to say about it,” he says stonily. “Are you sure you don’t know any sleeping draughts you could take? Just to stop the dreams until we know more.”

“Nothing that wouldn’t harm the baby,” she confides. “Relax, darling. I’m sure this is all just a big coincidence. We’re reading too much into it.”

“I’ll have to watch out for you better. Until there’s a way to protect you from this, I need to know everything you see.”

Sakura snorts at this. “Right, and what exactly are you going to do, pry my eyes open when you think I’m having a nightmare and use the…Sharingan…to…Ehhh!” She sees the subtle shift in his expression. “You’re actually th– no! No, no, no! You can’t do that!”

“I wasn’t going to. I was just…considering.”

“Well, consider me breaking your nose!”

“…Using the Sharingan that way wouldn’t be possible anyhow.”

“Possible or impossible, that’s never going to happen! You promise me right now, or I’ll put you down so hard, losing an arm will look like a bee sting!”

Sasuke’s skin turns a shade paler, and he nods.

つづく

 

Chapter Text

Sakura might have quelled at least some of Sasuke’s fears, but she isn’t as confident as she pretends. The idea that the fetus inside her is connected to as dark and tragic a past as Indra Ōtsutsuki is worrisome, but at the same time…

She has to admit she’s curious.

That doesn’t stop her being relieved when the dreams inexplicably stop bringing her to the strange beach. Her nightly visions become vague again, bursts of colour and emotion, occasionally faces that are familiar to her but inconsequential. She still experiences the frustrating moments of abuse, attacks from a faceless father and sister; these encounters paralyse her as she sleeps, and leave her irritated upon waking. But overall, there is such a vague and hurried quality to these that she suspects she is experiencing time passing.

This pattern continues long enough that it’s almost a shock when she falls asleep one night and finds herself once more in a completely lucid, detailed dream.

She is sitting uncomfortably at a table in a richly decorated room, and the dim memories Sakura can access suggest that her attendance here is rare, perhaps even only occasionally required. Sitting across from her are two people whose presence not only disheartens her – the small, curious part of her had been hoping to meet Indra again – but also fills her with overwhelming wariness.

“There’s talk among the court of a newcomer,” Father says as the servants place their meals before them. “A man of great talent, said to be the son of a wise sage from the East. They say he can call lightning from the sky and breathe fire like the dragons of old.”

“It would be useful to have such a man beholden to you,” Older Sister remarks, sounding bored as she picks at her food.

“Yes, it is better to be on the side of a demon than in his path. Should the stories of this man be true, I intend to offer him alliance. I am told he is young and ambitious. Command of my armies should sway his loyalty. Or, perhaps, marriage.”

Older Sister scowls. “Marriage to a foreigner won’t grow the coffers of this land.”

“Maybe not, but talents he is said to be able to teach could,” Father says. “I am confident you’ll do your duty, daughter.” He then suddenly turns and barks, “What’s that look for, Shachi? Have you something to say?”

They are both looking at her now and she realises that she is Shachi.

Her lips part. “If…if…”

If…if…if…”  Older Sister mocks. Sakura inwardly snarls, knowing if she had control of her body right now, she would wipe the floor with the painted doll before her.

 “I-If Older Sister doesn’t wish to marry h-him, I w-would take on th-that duty, F-Father. If it would p-please you.”

He snorts. “Dishonour an important man with a concubine’s spawn instead of the heiress to the land? I intend to court an ally, not lend insult. Keep your ridiculous opinions to yourself. Don’t make me regret my generosity in allowing you to sit at my table.”

“As you wish, Father.” She bows.

“May the gods soon find me a man who can look past your whore of a mother’s legacy and take you off my hands,” he grumbles to himself.

Sakura – Shachi – looks down at her knees, shoulders sinking.

Older Sister sniggers. “Oh, don’t look so downcast. Besides, if the stories of this stranger are true, he attracts many followers. Maybe someone among the riffraff will take an interest in you.”

The two of them laugh, leaving Sakura – Shachi – clenching her fists.

They are at the back of an izakaya, scouring dishes from a busy dinner rush; they don’t have any money tonight, and in exchange for a room they’re helping with hostess out. Sasuke washes, Sakura dries. There has been nothing but companionable silence until she breaks it.

“Can I…can I ask you something?”

“Hm.”

 “It’s about your brother,” she goes on, hesitant, because the topic is a difficult one, and usually provides some cue for him to make an escape. She’s hoping soapy hands make that a little harder this time.

From the tense set of his shoulders, she knows he’s already planning bolt, and she hurriedly continues.

“It’s about your relationship before – before all of it. You never talk about it, and you don’t have to now, I just…I never had an older brother or sister, so I don’t know myself. I was wondering…is it normal for an older sibling to hate the younger one?”

She winces, because it still came out awkwardly, and she bets he’s going to ignore it, because it’s not exactly what she was asking but –

“For a long time, I thought so,” Sasuke answers in a low voice. “But over time, I learned it’s the exception, not the rule.”

She exhales at this. “Oh.”

“Why do you ask?”

“No reason. Just thinking.”

“Sakura.”

She scowls, because he’s getting a lot better at reading her voice. Or maybe he always could, now he just chooses to react to it.

“It’s something I noticed in my dream –”

“You had another one?” he interrupts sharply, nearly dropping one of the bowls in his hand.

“Yes – and no, I haven’t seen him again, if that’s what you want to know. Don’t you think I’d tell you right away?”

“Hn.”

“Well, I would. I just…haven’t had to say anything lately because nothing happened. I don’t think he’s in the picture right now. But this – the person I am in my dreams – her name is Shachi, I think.” She peeks at him. “Does that sound familiar to you?”

Since their conversation about a possible past life or odd Uchiha-specific pregnancy quirk, she has found it easier to ask him these questions. After all, between the two of them, he’s the only one who has a definite link to whatever it is she’s dreaming.

He closes his eyes, frowning in concentration, then shakes his head. “I feel as if I’ve heard the name before, but it could be from anywhere.”

He’s right, they meet enough new people every day, perhaps it’s a name they’ve encountered in their travels.

“It’s just, her family – or, I guess the people who raised her – they treat her so badly. It’s as if she’s beneath them, and I don’t…I don’t understand how family can do that,” she exclaims, frustrated. “How can someone not protect their younger sibling? How can a parent not love their child? I can’t imagine a world where you look at our baby like he – or she – means nothing.”

“It would never happen.”

He says it so instantly and certainly that she feels a wave of pure joy wash over her, and she offers him a loving smile. “I know that. But in my dream –”

“You said yourself your mind might just be processing things,” Sasuke continues. “You’ve mentioned feeling weak, held back. It’s possible that you’re drawing on experiences you’ve actually lived and your brain is interpreting them in the simplest way.”

Sakura shoots him a suspicious look. “You’ve been reading my medical scrolls, haven’t you? The psychology ones?”

“They offer the most logical explanation to all this.”

She sighs. “Darling, you can’t search for clues based on the answer you want.”

“It’s not what I want. It’s what it could be. And all of this could simply be a quirk of your dreams.”

They work in silence for a spell.

“You don’t really think it is, do you?” she asks eventually.

A pause.

“No.”

“So, if it is something that happened, why do you think she’s treated so badly?”

“Back then, people saw children differently. A means to an end, a legacy.”

“And what’s our child?”

Sasuke holds her gaze, no trace of doubt there, and simply says, “Hope.”

眠り

For some reason, after this conversation, the tone of her dreams changes. Her awareness of being in a dream fades faster. Memories of an entire life crowd out her identity during waking hours, and so when the stranger arrives in their land, her first reaction – Shachi’s first reaction – is of surprise.

Even though she shouldn’t be. Because there aren’t many men who can control lightning, after all, and there is such a commanding air about him that the idea of him as the leader her father spoke of is not impossible.

The day he steps foot in her father’s court is grey and overcast, inauspicious in it’s normalcy, and yet her body – both in her dream and her present self – feels taut with awareness. He arrives quietly, with little pomp, into Father’s audience chamber. If he notices her sitting on the dais by her sister’s feet, he gives no indication, his every attention focussed on the lord of the land.

He says very little, and yet before the audience is over, everyone knows who he is: Lord Indra of the Eastern Lands, a master in the secret arts. He is well-spoken and a warrior by bearing and – based on Older Sister’s expression upon seeing him for the first time – an desirable possible match.

He seeks followers, those he will impart with teachings, and who he intends to make stronger, asks only for the freedom to recruit whoever he wants.

“My methods are difficult,” he warns quietly, “and only those willing to lay down their lives in dedication will succeed. In exchange, I will instruct the soldiers in your armies as well.”

Father is beside himself – this is exactly what he wanted, after all – and the accord is soon settled. He celebrates by throwing a lavish banquet in Lord Indra’s honour, despite the obvious fact that the young man has no use for the gesture. He appears restless and impatient, as if he wishes to get started on his mission as soon as possible.

Sakura – Shachi? – watches him with wide eyes, thinking on the helpless man she nursed back to health, the one who could have killed her but didn’t. As frightened as she is by him, she can’t fight down her interest.

He notices her watching him and looks up, holding her gaze. Her entire body tenses, and she feels as if she’s looking into the eyes of a snake moments before it strikes. She can’t look away until he does, and once free, her entire body shivers. Her breath comes in sharp bursts and she wonders if, perhaps, he hasn’t used some of his strange power on her.

“It sounds like genjutsu,” Sasuke as he sets up a wire-trap.

“I don’t think so,” Sakura muses, leaning against a nearby tree. “He wouldn’t need to use that on her. She’s too afraid. Too docile. You only use genjutsu on someone if you expect resistance.”

She and Sasuke exchange a tense look, both of them acknowledging a bitter shared memory.

He grunts and hops down from the tree. “When we’re done here, we’re heading to that temple we passed. Maybe there will be someone there who can explain why you’re seeing this.”

“We might as well stop at a hospital too and have me speak to a bunch of therapists,” she deadpans. “I don’t think anyone is going to have answers on this one.”

Sasuke scowls. “So, your strategy is to wait and see?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t accept that.”

“Well, tough. While I’m incubating the tiny human, I make the rules. And as of right now, I’m not in any actual medical danger, and other than being annoying and sometimes confusing, what I see when I’m asleep isn’t affecting my health in any way.”

“Yet.”

This time it’s Sakura who scowls. “Need I remind you of your history of overreacting?”

Which Sasuke can’t exactly argue with, and so he settles on beleaguered silence while they set up the remainder of the traps.

She sighs to herself and wonders if there’s a point to keeping him updating about her dreams if he’s just going to get so upset about them. And she definitely doesn’t want to admit to him that the longer these dreams continue, and the more often she has them, the more she feels as if she’s living a completely different life.

“Sasuke…I know there’s no way to be one-hundred percent sure about all of this, but…would it be so bad?” He stares at her, askance. “If this actually was my past life. It would just mean that I’ve care for you longer than be both thought.”

“You know it would mean more than that. You know that it’s a story that doesn’t end happily.”

“We don’t know if that’s completely true.”

“He broke everything he touched,” her husband says darkly. “He had everything, and just…” He cuts off, making a disgusted sound. “Because of him, my family… because of him I did the same. Might still do the same. What if this is a reminder, a warning, that I’m going to break this too?”

The question is so soft, so distressingly uncertain that for a moment Sakura doesn’t have an answer.

Sasuke very rarely shows any type of vulnerability, and to this day she is certain she is the only one alive who has ever seen that part of him. What makes this particular display so heartbreaking is that she knows he isn’t even asking it for his own sake, but for their child’s.

Tears fill her eyes, but she holds them back. Crying right now will do nothing to help him; she swore long ago that when he was struggling, she would support him. And if that means shrugging off her puzzling dreams, so be it.

“I never thought you were the superstitious type,” she says, trying to break the tensions with levity.

Sasuke scowls. “It’s hard not to be when your past life decides to haunt your wife’s dreams.”

She smiles. The fact that he sounds so waspish is a good sign.

“Come here,” she says, and without giving him opportunity to resist, she presses his hand above her womb. “Listen to me: you are not going to break this.” He opens his mouth, and she drowns him out. “No – listen. You are not going to break this. I don’t break easy, and you can summon a giant chakra monster to protect yourself. This child? Half you, half me. Definitely not breakable.”

He still doesn’t look entirely reassured, but the tense set to his shoulders fades somewhat.

眠り

Lord Indra becomes a guest in their kingdom, permitted to walk among the people and seek students. He accepts any who come to him, man or woman, and weeds out the weak. Many of them die – strangely enough, it’s usually the soldiers that Father sends who are unable to succeed – and yet still more continue to seek him out.

He is the only one who knows this strange, magical teaching. He calls it ninjutsu, and when he says it, there’s an almost fanatic gleam in his eyes.

She finds this odd, but Father doesn’t care. As he sees it, his kingdom will soon grow to rule over all the rest, if only he can convince Lord Indra to remain here instead of moving on. Older Sister preens and poses, trying to entice a smile from the sullen faced stranger, and taking it out on Shachi when he doesn’t.

Shachi? No…I’m…Sakura?

That name seems so distant to her when she is here, when she is the other woman. Though she knows this is but a dream, she feels tethered to it as much as if it were real.

She watches Lord Indra from the sidelines. Although drawn to him, longing for him to acknowledge her again, or at least thank her for saving his life, she feels safer in the shadows. Sometimes, he is apparently alone, training or meditating by himself, and yet when she makes a move to approach him, she imagines she hears someone speaking to him. Whenever this happens, she hurries away. After all, their last encounter up-close is fresh in her mind, and as compelled as she is to seek him out, she is also afraid of him.

And so she keeps away, watching his training sessions from the protection of the forest.

Sometimes she is caught, receiving a reprimand or a beating from her father, but these days both are more an afterthought; Father only cares about her whereabouts when someone reminds him, and Older Sister, only if she notices her lurking. For the most part, she is free to watch the stranger as she wishes.

Lord Indra teaches with brutal efficiency. He never raises his voice above a murmur, yet retains perfect control over his students. He can make a simple nod feel as if he has fallen to his knees in praise, and a derisive glare make a man want to fall on his sword to avoid dishonour.

Several do.

Only once he is satisfied with their ability to maintain discipline and control does he teach them the new abilities. Shachi watches as men learn to bend water in their hands, or call up mounds of earth like fangs from the ground. Some command the wind and others turn blades of grass into needles. With a flash of his red eyes he instructs them all, precise instructions, having them repeat them over and over, making motions with his hands as he does.

She mouths along his words, trying to capture the sound of his voice in her mind. When he speaks normally – not threatening her life as he did that day on the beach – his voice is pleasant, inviting. Despite the danger he represents, he makes her feel safe, and that is something she isn’t used to.

From her place in the shadows, she makes the hand gestures as well, arranging her fingers until she can do it perfectly. Soon she does it without noticing, can allow herself to just listen to the sound of his voice as he instructs. One day, his words seem closer to her than usual, even though he is so far away, and she closes her eyes, imagines that he is watching her, not his students, is telling her –

You build up chakra, stop it once it collects between the mouth and the chest area. Once you have enough, you release it all at once.

She inhales deeply, focussing on the warmth in her chest, and then breathes out.

To her absolute shock and horror, flames spew from between her lips and incinerate the tree in front of her.

She stumbles backward in shock and fear, unable to believe what just happened. She takes a split second to look around, to see if anyone saw her, and then takes off at a run, pulling her cumbersome skirts to her knees and stumbling back through the forest.

In the distance, she hears people calling out, confused shouting, demands for water. Commotion as students try to put out the flames with buckets, or with their new chakra wielding talents, she isn’t sure, because she keeps on running –

Only to find her way blocked by Lord Indra.

His eyes blaze at her and she recoils, dropping to her knees and bowing her forehead to the ground.

“I’m sorry! I’m sorry, I didn’t meant to – I didn’t even realise I was – please don’t tell my father, I – I’ll never do it again –”

“How long did it take you?” he interrupts.

She blinks at that, chancing a glance up at him. “M-my lord?”

“You have been watching for weeks but you have never attempted anything before,” he informs her, earnings a small squeak of surprise. “Today you tried. How long did it take you?”

“I-I… not long. I just… I listened to what you said, and I tried it.”

 “Hm.”

He gives her an inscrutable look, like he’s considering something he hadn’t before, and she bows her head again. “I didn’t meant to hurt anyone or cause trouble.”

She is aware of the sound of feet near her ear, and when she looks up he has begun to walk away, back to the training grounds. She isn’t sure if she imagines it or not when he mutter, “Next time don’t stand next to a tree.”

“You forgot again, didn’t you?”

Sakura scowls at the gash in Sasuke’s leg, the product of a stray flail and misguided intentions. The villagers in this part of the country are so wary of strangers, they attacked before letting Sakura explain herself. Sasuke, of course, instinctively pushed her out of the way, but ended up with another limb nearly being severed.

“Forgot what?” he grumbles, observing as her fingers glow green over the skin there.

“That you don’t have to protect me,” she chides him. “Even if I didn’t have a basic capacity to dodge, a flail isn’t going to hurt me.”

“Maybe not, but as far as I know, your regenerative abilities don’t apply to the baby,” he reminds her. “You’re not as invincible as you’re used to being.”

Sakura blinks at this, surprise waylaying the retort on her lips.

He’s right.

For a minute, she did forget.

It’s all so new – the changes in her body, the adjustments she’s had to make. No more chakra suppressors, she can’t drink coffee anymore, she’s tired more often – it sometimes feels so disconnected to her. Some days she is completely aware of the new life within her, unable to stop thinking about it, and other days, when everything gets so busy and confusing – like today – she forgets. Even looking in the mirror is deceptive – she doesn’t look pregnant at all, even with her clothes off.

There is movement to the left, and she glances up as two young girls carry in buckets of water; she smiles at them gratefully, earning half-awed, half-shy expressions in return, and then they hurry off.

The villagers backed off when she sent a crushing blow to the ground, forcing them to retreat if they didn’t want to fall into the broken earth. Upon watching her lean down to heal him before he bled out, they finally realised that she was a healer and spent the rest of the evening apologising profusely. They even insisted on putting her and Sasuke up for as long as they wanted to stay, hence the small hut which they are currently occupying.

They even carried Sasuke back here on a litter so she could preserve her healing abilities. He nearly threw a fit at that (he still hates appearing weak in any way) but the people felt so terribly about it, Sakura insisted they go along with it.

Somewhat out of deference to this, she decides to relent a bit.

“I’m sorry,” she tells him, checking the progression of closing skin. “I’ll try to be more careful in the future.”

“Hm.”

“I’m just not used to hanging back. It’s been a while since I had to stay out of the direct line of danger.”

“I know.”

He finally relaxes, however, allowing his eyes to close and breath to even out. As if he didn’t expect her to take it easy until she said the words.

Ridiculous man…

She shakes her head, considering the calm picture he provides. It reminds her of those first few dreams she had, of healing Indra on that beach.

Sasuke’s former incarnation is starkly different than he is, she realises that now. He watched her – watched Shachi – with the distrustful gaze of someone who expected her to be incompetent or treacherous. Sasuke’s attention is intent, but in a different sense – watchful and wary for the sake of her health, not his.

As if being pregnant made her breakable.

She’s forgotten what it’s like to need to be protected. It makes her nightly sojourns in the life and mind of Shachi all the more confusing.

The other woman is such a stark contrast from her. Docile, obedient, hesitant – all of these are qualities she either never possessed or grew out of in her early childhood. Their very nature is utterly opposite.

In fact, even their ability to use chakra is completely different, judging from the way they learned to use it. Shachi’s first act was so powerful, charged enough to destroy an entire tree. Sakura remembers the first time she used ninjutsu, she had to try her hardest just to manage a passable substitution.

And that’s another thing. It’s not just their different temperaments. Why does Sakura have an affinity for water, when Shachi is clearly more suited to fire? Isn’t that the type of thing that should carry over?

“Not necessarily.”

Sakura jumps, realising suddenly that she has been musing out loud the hold time. Sasuke is frowning at her thoughtfully.

“The goal of reincarnation is to be reborn as a better self. Perhaps it means stronger, as well. Water is superior to fire.”

“Oh.”

“I take it you’re dreaming of him again then?” he asks, voice entirely too casual.

Sakura looks away, caught out. She’s been trying to avoid bringing it up because she knows it upsets him. “Only recently. Only last night, really. It’s a little confusing, so I didn’t say anything until I could get my thoughts in order.”

“I’m not going anywhere for the next little while,” he reminds her, nodding to his leg. It’s completely healed by now, and she shoots him an amused look. He raises an eyebrow, as if challenging her to call him on it. “Tell me what you dreamed.”

“As long as you don’t get upset every time I talk about Indra.”

His jaw clenches but he nods. “Fine.”

眠り

Eventually Father grows tired of Lord Indra skirting the issue. He wants to ensure everlasting loyalty, wants someone who will train and preside over his army in perpetuity.

In front of the whole court, he offers a permanent, eternal bond between them.

“My daughter, Shibasuri,” he declares proudly, gesturing to Older Sister. “She will make a fine wife, and through her, your children will be the heirs of my land.”

Every other man in the court seethes at this, because Lord Indra may be strong, but he is a foreigner. And more than a few covet Older Sister for themselves.

But the solemn stranger shows no interest in either offering.

“I have no interest in possessing this land,” he says quietly, his words easily audible in the stunned silence. “And I have no need of a woman who revels in her looks and is ignorant to the world. A creature whose body is starved to uselessness in pursuit of fashion, who will never be fatted with child.”

Older Sister makes a noise born of incandescent fury, and Father turns scarlet in anger.

“You dare – !”

But Lord Indra has turned away from both, and instead his gaze falls upon the crowd. Upon her as she stands with her guardians.

“I will take this one instead,” he declares imperiously. “On that condition I will remain here.”

She gasps, because this makes no sense. He has never, ever given any indication of seeing her, let alone –

“Shachi?” Father inquires, confusion dampening his anger. “Why would you…? She is of lower status, not of any importance – ”

“I will hear her answer,” Indra interrupts. “And if she has no wish for wedlock, I will take my leave with any disciple that will follow.”

There’s a stunned silence then, a dangerous note of expectation in this, and then the whispering begins. Already the members of the court are wagging their tongues, expressing surprise and glee at this turn of events. They imagine blackmail, a play for power from a younger daughter, a secret love –

It is none of these things. From her weeks observing him, she knows that Lord Indra has his own mind, his own plans that he follows. If he prefers her over her beautiful older sister, there is a reason, and not one as basic and superfluous as caring for her.

Older Sister glowers at her, as if Shachi has indeed done something to organise all of this, and Father frowns at her with a look in his eye that promises a lifetime of broken bones if she doesn’t acquiesce.

He needn’t bother, because she knew the instant that Lord Indra spoke, what her answer was going to be.

Even so, it feels as if she is signing the death warrant of her fate when she whispers, “I accept.”

Sakura stretches a hand over her head, making a high-pitched, purring noise at the back of her throat, and then relaxes once more, head pillowed on Sasuke’s blanket-clad inner thigh. They lie head-to-foot, naked and sated, the smell of sex still lingering in the air.

Sasuke is on his side, his face pressed against one side of her abdomen, his hand curved around the other. His eyes are closed, and his mouth is pulled into a not-quite-smile of tranquility. It’s far too early for any kind of kicking to be felt – for anything to be heard – but it doesn’t seem to matter to Sasuke. Sakura’s own smile is gentle as she reaches forward, brushing his hair back from his face. He cracks his right eye open and there’s that brief look – soft, content and happy – and then he closes it again.

It’s a look that’s reserved only for her and, she knows, their future child, and which encompasses everything. Even though he rarely says it – only when she has him reduced to panting, overwhelmed gasps as she did minutes earlier – she feels the unquestionable love he has for her. It’s an experience that fills her with warmth from the inside, because it’s something she never truly believed she would experience.

It makes her feel guilty for asking him, once, if the only reason he wanted to be with her was to repopulate his clan. Sasuke was, by then, a changed man.

Such a difference from the man in her dreams.

She wonders about him. His temperament, his motives, his relationship with Shachi…

“Why do you think he chose her?”

“Hm?” Sasuke’s voice is low and rough from sleep.

“Indra,” Sakura clarifies dimly, gazing up at the wooden ceiling. “He washes up in this strange land, tries to kill her, disappears, then comes back. And her father offers him practically the world, anything a guy back then would want, and he throws it back in his face over Shachi. A girl he barely even spoke a hundred words to.” She shakes her head in confusion. “That’s something a person does for the one they love, but I don’t…do you think he was even capable of it at that point?”

“Capable of?”

“Love.”

Sasuke is silent for a long moment, leaving her wondering if he intends to answer the question. Then he says, “I don’t think it was possible in the way you understand it.”

“Meaning?”

“After being betrayed – or rather, after deciding he had been betrayed – by Hagoromo and Asura, he would have been more guarded than ever. He wouldn’t have been capable of feeling for her what…” He trails off here, his voice becoming more quiet, more furtive, “For what I feel for you.”

She doesn’t acknowledge the admission beyond a soft smile – he gets defensive and grumpy if she makes a big deal out of moments like this.

Instead, she returns to the topic. “So why choose her?”

“She did help him. He may have seen it as repaying a debt.”

“But he also said she reminded him of being weak. And she was weak. Wouldn’t the likelier choice have been the older sister? The one with status?”

“A man like him would choose a bride more suited to his purposes. You told me she had the ability to use chakra – which she learned just by observing his teachings,” Sasuke points out. “To members of my clan, Shachi would be the more sought-after candidate.”

Sakura considers this, and then nods. “That make sense.”

“I don’t believe it was the whole reason though.”

She shoots him a confused look.

“He might have seen her as a parallel of himself,” Sasuke continues, thoughtful. “A child mistreated by family. In his view, he was betrayed by his; this girl, she’s the scapegoat of her own kin – and for an utterly underserved reason, based on what you’ve told me.”

“But in that case, wouldn’t it make more sense to kill her family? Why agree to a marriage with her? An actual link to these people?”

“I have no doubt he had some kind of long-term motive. However…I suspect it may have been different than anything he actively planned.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s entirely possible, she provided him with something he didn’t even realise he was missing,” Sasuke tells her, staring off into the distance. “As far gone as he was, he needed something to ground him. When Indra first awakened his abilities, he was strong because he was protecting someone precious. His brother. And he remained strong, even as he became more drawn to the darkness, because he always thought he had the support of his father and brother. When that was gone – when Hagoromo named Ashura as his successor – for the first time in his life, he was truly alone. When you have as much power as he did, and as much hatred, you need something to justify your actions – some goal that makes everything else you do worthwhile.”

She knows now that he is speaking of himself, and not Indra. Of how his love for his brother drove him to commit horrible acts.

“Then he meets this girl, and she’s obviously drawn to him, and she helps him,” Sakura suggests. “And he keeps seeing her, and he knows she’s in a bad situation, so he starts to feel what it’s like to have someone trust in him again.”

It sounds far too plausible, and Sakura shivers. She doesn’t like the idea of Indra using Shachi’s misfortune for himself, but at the same time, she knows that the other woman – this shrinking violet – would see it as an opportunity to escape. In a way, the two are saving each other, even if they don’t know it.

“Hm.” Sasuke nods here. “She is someone who will be utterly loyal to him – both because of who she is as a person, and because as a wife, it is her duty to be subservient to his will.”

Sakura lifts her head and shoots him a sardonic smirk. “Oh, so I have to be subservient to you now?”

“…I refuse to answer that question on the grounds that I may incriminate myself.”

“Damn right,” she nods, falling back, and then squeaks indignantly when he tweaks her left nipple in retribution. She slaps his hand away and then jabs a finger in his general direction. “Don’t start something if you don’t intend to follow through.”

Sasuke snorts. “Who said I didn’t intend to follow through?”

眠り

The wedding approaches, and for the first time in her entire life, Shachi finds herself treated according to her station.

She is bathed in scented waters and anointed with rich oils, adorned in silks and jewels, and fed the finest foods that her servants tease will ensure she bears healthy children.

Older Sister lingers resentfully in the background, while father busies himself with the preparations. Whatever he felt for her in the past, whatever he feels for her now, his greed for the power Lord Indra can provide has increased tenfold since seeing what the young man can do. He pretends like he has never resented her, calls her his “beloved child” and introduces her to visiting dignitaries.

The wedding is meant to be lavish, a way of showcasing Father’s current wealth, and offer hint of what it might become. In this, he is able to stand up to Lord Indra’s more frugal nature. For his part, the prospective bridegroom is nowhere to be found and makes no effort to involve himself in the affair; he continues to train in the courtyards up until the day of the ceremony.

That morning, she is woken at dawn and bathed. Her handmaidens draw long black ribbons of henna across her forehead and face, crisscrossing around her neck and again above her breasts, winding down her arms and legs as if she has been encircled by a snake. Her hair is braided with freshly picked cherry blossoms, and golden rings are fitted around her wrists, neck, fingers and even one through her nose. It all feels heavy and cumbersome but she knows better than to complain. The bridal gown is of red silk, the only garment she has ever worn that was not one of her sister’s castoffs, and the final touch is a purple, rhombus-shaped jewel set in the centre of her forehead.

Father walks her down the aisle at a quick pace, as if worried that the longer he takes, the sooner his future son-in-law may change his mind. Older Sister holds her veil for her, and as she goes to sit at her place, sneers quietly, “Do not think your life will be without hardship.”

Lord Indra stands at the front of the assembled guests, bored and irritated, and he doesn’t even acknowledge her when she is beside him. The high priest begins the ceremony, raising the sacred marriage cup before them, his words washing over her.

Shachi’s mind is strangely blank at this, either from disbelief or fear for the future, and Sakura feels more present in the moment than she has in months. The marriage ritual is very different from any she has ever seen, from her own wedding to Sasuke, and while she is uneasy about the circumstances, she can’t help being fascinated.

The priest places a smooth, obsidian rock – taken from the sacred river of their land – and wishes them an enduring and lasting union. He pours wine and honey as well, wishing fertility and health, and then takes their hands, lightly pricking their palms over the rim of the cup, to signify the mingling of their blood now and in the future. Then, he passes it first to Lord Indra, who will be master of the union.

Her bridegroom takes a tip – barely wets his lips – and passes it back. His expression never changes, and he still doesn’t look at her.

Then the cup is in front of her face, the priest reminds her of her duties as wife now. She begins to lift the cup to her lips as well –

Lord Indra chokes suddenly, and doubles over.

There is stunned silence all around, the high priest stares in wide-eyed horror, and there are gasps from the other guest.

“My lord?” she whispers, reaching for him. “Are you…?”

His eyes snap toward her, flickering red and black and she gasps. But it isn’t the Sharingan that have her shocked. Instead, she rapidly takes in the sight of his features – pupils dilated, mouth slackening, a bluish tint around his lips.

“Poison!” she cries, because she can’t do anything else here. “He’s been poisoned!” Her head whips around, looking for someone who might help. “Fetch a healer!”

Father appears shell-shocked, slow to realise what is happening, and Older Sister –

She stands to one side, smirking and with a look in her eyes that is all-too-knowing.

“You…” Sakura – Shachi? – realises. “Why would you – ?”

Indra begins to convulse, and the answer never comes. Instead, she falls to her knees, trying to hold his flailing arms as he convulses. Shachi is terrified, that fear returning her to full control, pushing Sakura’s awareness down again, but she refuses to allow this.

You can stay out of this right now, or he’s going to die!

She focusses her attention – sees the cup dropped by the priest, liquid spilling out. The sacred rock has rolled a few inches away as well, leaving a clumpy, chalky residue.

So that’s what it was. Poison in the marriage cup.  Indra wasn’t the only intended victim.

Her mind flips through a mental catalogue of poisons, all while calculating the amount of time it will take before he dies. Given how fast he reacted, the chalky nature, the blue veins on the mouth

Ainu,” she determines. It’s a relative of aconite, albeit much more potent. There isn’t much out there that can save him, and in the limited time she has, she doubt’s she’ll be able to find –

Then she freezes, remembering herself.

No way. No way could it be that much of a coincidence.

Her hands fly to her hair, tugging out the delicate flowers there. Cherry blossoms have some healing properties, but aren’t used very often in antidotes –

Except in cases of ainu poisoning.

She doesn’t pause to dwell on the improbability of it all. Instead, she begins to crush up the petals – in her fingers at first, then an idea occurs to her and she puts them in her mouth, chewing them into a pulp and leaning forward to press her lips against his. As she pushes the petal paste into his mouth, she wills her chakra into him as well, calling up every bit of her concentration to do so. She visualises her energy moving into him, chasing the poison through his veins and overtaking it.

She doesn’t find out if she succeeds or not, because that’s when she suddenly loses her control. All of her concentration, all of her focus in helping him, recoils like an elastic band. She is once more, no more than a passenger, and Indra gives one last violent tremor, and then goes still.

Someone emits of a moan of grief.

It takes a stunned second for Sakura to realise the sound came from her. To understand that her dream self is weeping, throwing herself over Indra’s chest. This man, who she saved, who in demanding her hand offered her a future away from the abuses of her blood kin, and now he has left her before there was even a chance.

Tears streaming from her eyes, she looks up as Father demands of Older Sister, “What were you thinking? You’ve ruined it all!”

“I have done nothing but save you from a charlatan,” she replies airily. “He had no interest in becoming your right hand, Father, he would have taken his students and left you with ease. And if he truly intended to honour your wishes, he would have accepted the bride you offered, not that.” She tosses her hair. “Now, we have men who have sworn oaths of loyalty to you, who know of his teachings, and they won’t tempted to disappear with their wandering master.”

Father’s expression becomes thoughtful at this, and he nods slowly.

“Besides,” Older Sister goes on, a cruel set to her mouth. “He gave me insult, in public, and that is something that cannot be abided. How dare –”

But her words are quickly and brutally cut short.

A bolt of lightning rips through the ceremonial hall, through her shoulder and out her heart, leaving a bloodied and black hole in its place. Shachi screams in horror, staring at the shocked expression on Older Sisters face as her body crumples to the ground. Father’s bellow of surprise turns to terror, and she understands why, because Indra is alive.

He shrugs her off and stands, moving like the lightening that just passed through her sister’s body, and grabs Father by the throat.

“Those who break oaths are scum. Those who betray their own blood are worse than scum,” he growls. “And that cup was meant for her as much as it was for me.” It’s the only warning he gives before twisting his fingers, snapping the man’s neck. “A man who makes a move against me makes a proclamation that he is my enemy. And I will not allow my enemies to live and take a second opportunity to weaken me.”

Eyes still blazing red fire, he turns to the stunned guests.

“Your lord is dead. Either rise up and avenge him, or flee. One of those choices will lead to a swift death, so choice wisely.”

As he takes a few steps down the procession toward the door, there is a flurry of movement. Guests and members of the court scatter, tripping over each other in their finery. She is left on her knees, gaping at his back, unsure what just happened.

Then, as he did before, he turns to face her once more.

“You have saved my life twice,” he tells her coolly. “And so, I will offer you a choice. An opportunity. Save yourself. Forget this farce of a ceremony and ties you agreed to for their sake. Leave this place and seek a happier future, with a man who will offer you the respect and fondness you desire. Or –” his eyes darken back to black here, “come with.”

Her mouth parts in surprise at this.

“If you do, know that from this moment, you will be completely mine. And I am not a patient man. I am neither gentle nor kind, and your life will be one of duty. You will bring forth children to whom I can pass on my legacy. So long as you are loyal and obedient, I can make you a goddess by my side, but if you falter I will make their deaths look enviable.”

Terror and confusion make it hard to understand what he is saying to her. For several seconds, she can only stare from his intent face down to the corpses of her father and sister, turning over his words in her head.

And then it makes sense.

He is giving her a choice.

She has never, in her entire life, known what it is to make a decision that is not based on the will or needs of another. For the first time, she is free. She gets to decide what her destiny will be.

The gesture brings tears to her eyes, because she knows he is not a man who operates in choice. There is his will and death, but here he is, offering her the chance to leave that behind. And with the same certainty that he could stand against any of her father’s vassals who would challenge him, she knows he would let her walk away to a better life if she chose.

She wonders, as she takes his hand, if he realises how terrifyingly easy it is to make her decision.

つづく

Chapter Text

“You’re cheating.”

“I am not.”

Sakura scowls at the shogi board and then at her husband. “Yes, you are. You’re winning.”

“That’s not unusual.”

“It is since I stopped letting you win.”

“Taking advantage of your distraction isn’t cheating; it’s strategy,” Sasuke replies sagely, moving a tile that puts her king in check.

She scrambles to find a way to avoid it. “It’s totally taking advantage when my pregnancy hormones – which are your fault by the way – have turned my brain to mush.”

“That’s a weak argument, given that you’re equally responsible. And perhaps your hormones wouldn’t be troubling your brain so much if you were getting proper sleep.”

There’s no avoiding it this time when he moves in on her king, but she ignores it in favour of parsing his words. Apparently, it’s not just in shogi where her husband has been laying a trap.

She crosses her arms at him. “If you want to know, just ask.”

“Would you honestly answer?”

“When have I ever not answered you honestly?”

“Don’t play word games, Sakura. This is something that concerns us both. I shouldn’t have to ask.”

She sighs and puts her right hand over her piece, ceding defeat. “I know,” she tells him, getting up to stretch. The forest clearing where they’ve settled in for the night is lit by their campfire which casts shadows against the surrounding trees. “But it upsets you – you get worried for no reason whenever I bring it up, so…”

“Whatever I feel doesn’t justify holding back information,” Sasuke tells her, putting away the board. “Besides, right now, you’re the one who has more knowledge of my past life than I do.”

Their time together has taught Sakura a few new things about Sasuke, and right now, she knows he’s a lot more curious than he’s letting on.

“All right,” she says. “Make me okonomiyaki and I’ll tell you.”

Sasuke shakes his head, but wisely refrains from reminding her that they just finished dinner.

As she watches him work – and occasionally helps pull together required ingredients – she relates her latest dream to him in as much detail as she can remember. He makes noises of interest or incredulity as she describes the events leading up to the wedding, the attempted poisoning, and her breaking through to save Indra. When she comes to the part where his past life killed Shachi’s relatives, she hesitates, but forces herself to finish the tale.

“And then I woke up,” she finishes. “That’s the last thing I remember. She took his hand, and that was it.”

“Hm.”

She waits a moment, watching the way his facial muscles move as he considers all he’s heard. Then she asks, “Do you think she would’ve saved him if I hadn’t been there?”

“I don’t know. It would depend.”

“On?”

“Whether this really is just a dream of a memory…or if you’re somehow sharing the mind of this person across time.”

“But that’s impossible.”

“Visitors from the moon and physical manifestations of a goddess’ will are impossible, too. And yet…”

“I’ll give you that one,” she allows. “What about Indra, though?”

“I think he was a master manipulator,” Sasuke says, removing the frying pan from the fire and shifting the omelette onto Sakura’s waiting plate.

She is puzzled by his words. “How do you figure?”

“You said she felt as if he’d given her a choice, made a big gesture to her,” Sasuke says. “But he didn’t. It was calculated. The girl didn’t have any other options – he’d just killed the last of her relatives.” Sasuke’s fists tighten around the handle of the pan. “As the last blood link to the ruling family, if she stayed behind, any ambitious noble could’ve easily taken her as a wife. And he might not have been much better for her than Indra was. She would’ve known this.”

“So, you say it wasn’t a true choice at all…”

“It was manipulation,” he affirms.

Sakura frowns down at her food, although she isn’t really seeing it. A moment later, she finds herself saying, “I don’t think it was.”

Sasuke makes a frustrated noise. “Sakura, you can’t be that naïve –”

“No, listen,” she cuts him off. “Even if she didn’t go with Indra and that did happen, chances are they would’ve treated her a lot better than she’d been her entire life. And if someone tried to mistreat her…” She remembers the way that tree looked, turning to ashes in front of her. “Shachi knew how to use chakra now. She could defend herself.”

“Would she have though?”

“Yes,” Sakura says, inexplicably sure. “Indra showed her a different way. He gave her freedom – the only gift she’d ever gotten from anyone. She would’ve defended that to the death if she chose to stay behind. Even though it was never really an option for her.”

“Hm. An unwise choice.”

Sakura feels a tiny prick of defensiveness, wanting to stand up for the girl she is in her dreams. “But it was hers to make.”

“Hn.”

“I chose you. Was that an unwise choice?” When he doesn’t reply, she sighs sadly. “You still feel that way? Even now?”

“No,” he replies faster than she expected, meeting her gaze. “I should –” she opens her mouth to protest because this is an old disagreement between them, but he forestalls this by concluding, “–but I don’t.”

She feels a tightness behind her eyes and her heart flutters. “Good,” she tells him firmly.

“I suppose I’m the same selfish man I’ve always been,” Sasuke says, as he puts away their cooking utensils and banks the fire. “And…I can empathise.”

“With what?”

“With Indra.”

“Well, that makes sense,” Sakura muses. “You are him – were him.”

“No. That’s not what I mean.”

“Then what?”

“I understand the need for something – for someone – to be completely yours when you have nothing else left.”

She isn’t quite sure what to say to that.

眠り

They leave her father’s home behind, followed by Lord Indra’s loyal disciples. Those servants who hold any affection for Shachi accompany her, agreeing to abide by the wishes of her husband. Anyone from the court who protests her father’s death is dealt with easily and without remorse by Indra.

Any of his disciples who try to warn him from taking her along meet the same end. Within the first hour, Indra makes clear what being his wife means. Before her horrified eyes and the stoic faces of his supporters, he beheads a man who dares make a disparaging remark about her.

As the palace is consumed in flames, Shachi numbly follows her new husband to her fate.

There is no time to rest or acclimate to her new life as immediately the band of wanderers heads for the borders of the country. Her wedding night is spent alone in a crude tent while her husband strategizes with his disciples.

The distant part of her that is Sakura is grateful for this – dream or not, she doesn’t relish the idea of experiencing another woman’s relations with her husband. Beyond the sense that she would somehow be unfaithful to her own husband, it’s an intimate moment meant to be shared by two people; she would feel like a voyeur.  

As it turns out, the awkwardness doesn’t come from anything resembling intimacy.

Shachi’s husband hasn’t spoken to her for two days, occupied as he is with other matters, and when he enters their tent, it appears he intends to continue this trend. With the same economy of movement he uses to teach ninjutsu, Indra disrobes and shoots her a look that she supposes means he wants her to lie back.  

Embarrassment and panic settle over her, and it’s not uniquely hers.

Are you kidding?! Sakura demands from whatever disembodied place she occupies in her past-self’s head. I don’t want to be here for this!

But whatever force is behind these dreamlike sojourns into the past remains unmoved by her discomfort. Shachi is already moving herself to accommodate her husband, even as she trembles with nerves. She swallows, mouth dry, and tries to keep her eyes on Indra’s face, even though they keep nervously flitting to his body. She has never seen an unclothed man before, and while it’s strange, the broadness of his naked shoulders and the ridges of his chest instil within her the bizarre temptation to reach out and touch him.

And other parts of him, the portion of her that is Sakura thinks with a dizzy sense of disbelief.

She’s trying not to notice that Indra’s naked body is just as attractive to her as her own husband’s, and damn it all, her eyes keep roving downward to where he’s stroking himself to hardness. The thoughts don’t feel like hers, and she wonders if Shachi’s perceptions are clouding her own.

Shachi quietly panics, wondering how he’s supposed to fit inside her, but he doesn’t seem aware as he kneels before her, pushing her robe over her hips.

“You’ll need more practical clothing for travel,” he tells her, but before she can marvel at him breaking the silence, he pulls her legs apart. A flood of embarrassment at suddenly having that part of her bared to him hits her then – the emotion is strong enough that Sakura can feel it second-hand – but it’s soon replaced with discomfort as two long fingers push inside of her, scissoring to stretch her open.

I guess that’s the most consideration he’s going to give, Sakura thinks bitterly as Shachi shuts her eyes and tries to keep her breathing normal, hoping not to betray her discomfort.

As Indra adjusts himself over her – them? – Sakura tries to mentally inch herself away, to somehow make herself smaller, thinking she really, really shouldn’t be here for this!

When Indra pushes into her, Shachi clenches her teeth together, refusing to cry out at the hot, stinging pain of being filled too tightly. Sakura can’t help echoing the reaction, surprised by the pain – her first time didn’t hurt at all –  and the slight scent of blood in the air.

He either doesn’t notice, or doesn’t care because he settles into a rhythm – a frustrating one – of quick, shallow thrusts, his pace never changing. Pinpricks of tears form in the corner of Shachi’s eyes, but she remains mute.

Despite her desperate attempts to ignore what she’s dreaming about, Sakura can’t help but feel a sense of indignation. She wants nothing more than to lash out, to shove him away, to somehow capitalise on Shachi’s discomfort with the whole endeavour, but unlike the other times she’s somehow managed to break through, the other woman’s mind is set. It’s not like the beach or the altar when their desperation was in sync – when they were united in their need to save him.

Right now, Shachi is frightened, but Indra is the man who rescued her, who she has always been inexplicably drawn to. Unlike what Sakura is used to, Shachi sees this as a duty she is meant to endure uncomplainingly.

It seems like forever before Indra shudders, and Sachi feels something warm and wet fill her as he goes still. She expects him to sag forward and her arms twitch with some primitive instinct to embrace him now, but he catches himself on his hands. For several seconds, he holds himself there, eyes closed, slightly out of breath, and then he pulls out of her and rolls away.

In disbelief, she watches him re-dress himself and exit the tent, leaving her lying on her back, legs bare and open, with a feeling of shame growing inside her.

The man is a complete imbecile, Sakura thinks, and wonders if perhaps Sasuke was right about this relationship being doomed.

The rain hasn’t let up all week. If Sakura didn’t know any better, she’d swear they were in Ame, except that’s hundreds of miles away. Even in the tiny inn Sasuke managed to find, everything feels damp and chilly, and to be honest, it’s one of those days when Sakura misses her warm bed back home in Konoha.

Except, it’s not really my bed anymore, is it?

Although they haven’t discussed it, she expects that she and Sasuke will move into their own home upon returning to the village. The old Uchiha district is in ruins, of course, never rebuilt following Pein’s attack, but Konoha is growing quickly and there are many new developments. There’s no doubt that between Naruto and Kakashi, there will be a place for the Uchiha in the village that ignored them for so long.

And their child will never feel unwanted.

Sakura has never known neglect, but her dreams of Shachi’s life give her a stark portrait of what that feels like. Although the details always fade upon waking, she remembers images, knows that the other woman spent her early life left out in the cold.

Maybe even her later life…

She winces as she remembers the particularly unfeeling marriage consummation she was subjected to – both through Shachi’s experience and herself as witness. The memory makes her shift uncomfortably and pull Sasuke’s cloak closer around her. Across the room, he’s finishing up a mission report; usually, she’s the one to do that, but today, her fingers feel cold and stiff from the weather, so he took over.

Sasuke sits there, brow furrowed as he jots down the (no doubt) vaguest information he can think of.  He is utterly calm and businesslike.  

Just like Indra.

Again, Sakura experiences an overwhelming sense of awkwardness because she can’t stop thinking about her dream the night before…or fight down the guilt that’s been nagging at her since it happened.

I have to say something.

She just really, really doesn’t want to.

“That should keep Kakashi off our backs for a while,” Sasuke says suddenly, uncharacteristically the one to break the silence. There is a tiny hint of smugness in his voice as he rolls the scroll up to send back by hawk; his aversion to sending regular status updates hasn’t changed at all.

“You make it sound like he’s hounding us every day, instead of every week or so.”

“That’s what it feels like,” he grumbles.

“It could be worse. We could’ve told them about the baby already.”

He shoots her a comically alarmed look. “Don’t even think about it.”

Sakura’s mouth twitches.

They haven’t told anyone back home about her pregnancy. On the one hand, there’s a practical reason – mission reports are no place for birth announcements; it wouldn’t be safe or professional. On the other hand, Sakura suspects that the minute they reveal her condition, she and Sasuke will end up with an escort of a thousand Naruto clones in Sage mode from here back to Konoha. And possibly a parade, if Kakashi’s in a particularly demonstrative mood.

Sakura isn’t quite ready to give up her privacy with Sasuke just yet. Things are good. They’re just short of perfect…if it weren’t for –

Indra’s face flashes in her mind again, and then parts of him which are definitely, definitely not his face.

Sakura shuts her eyes tight and burrows further into Sasuke’s cloak.

She shouldn’t have that image in her mind; in fact, she shouldn’t even be able to imagine a scenario that would put that image in her mind. Yes, she’s seen naked men before – she’s a medic, so it’s in the job description – but seeing Indra Ōtsutsuki, the mythical progenitor of the Uchiha clan, utterly bare and preparing to take her – Shachi’s – virginity is not a scenario she ever would’ve imagined for herself.

Sasuke is the one she waited for, the one whose body she spent almost a year now learning and claiming as her own. He’s the one she saved herself for, and even if it’s all a dream and technically not her body, she feels dirty somehow. The whole experience was made even worse because she was there and couldn’t leave – couldn’t wake up. Shachi’s discomfort and pain became her own.

Why can I make myself intervene sometimes, but other times I don’t have any power at all?

The whole thing is upsetting and scary and –

“If it bothers you that much, do it.”

Her head shoots up with wide eyes and she stares at her husband uncomprehendingly. “What?”

“That look on your face,” he clarifies, coming to sit in front of her. “If not telling them bothers you so much, tell them. There’s still room in the report before I send it.”

“That’s not it,” she tells him quickly. “I’m fine with waiting. Really. It’s just… There’s something else.”

He raises an eyebrow, waiting for her to continue, and she takes a deep breath.

Shimmying out of the cloak – because it feels wrong somehow to confess this while wrapped in a garment that smells so strongly of her husband – she stiffens her spine.

“The last dream I had was a little more…intense than usual.”

“Intense,” he repeats neutrally, making her blush and look away.

Slowly, haltingly, she tells him about the surreal experience of her past life’s first time. She does her best to describe it all from Shachi’s point of view, trying to make clear to him (and herself) that she wasn’t involved beyond witnessing it.

Sasuke doesn’t outwardly react the whole time, and she wonders if it’s just something he’s having a hard time processing. But then he sighs and says, “I suppose that’s to be expected. You’ve experienced every other aspect of her life. It wouldn’t make sense not to live through that one as well.”

Of all the reactions in the world, she did not expect this one.

“You’re not angry?” she whispers.

“It would be irrational to get angry over something you can’t control. The fact that you witnessed such a scene with Indra doesn’t bother me. He is me – at least in a metaphysical sense – and long dead.”

Sakura’s brain takes a few seconds to process this, and she squints at Sasuke suspiciously. “Really? It doesn’t bother you at all?”

His right eye twitches and his jaw clenches. “All right,” he allows after a second. “It bothers me. But not as much as the fact that you’re trapped in this woman’s life.”

“I’m not trapped exactly. I just… I sometimes feel like I’m moving farther away from myself,” she corrects. “When I’m there, it feels like she’s real and I’m the dream. That this life is the dream. This morning, I woke up and, for a minute, I actually forgot who I was.”

Sasuke’s eyes snap to hers, a glint of alarm there. “We need to stop this then.”

“And if we can’t?”

“Then we need a way to ensure you don’t lose yourself in these dreams.”

“I’m open to suggestions.”

“Kakashi had some ideas…”

“You told Kakashi about this?” Sakura exclaims.

“He’s the only one with enough knowledge and experience with a Sharingan to offer feasible suggestions,” he replies, a hint of defensiveness in his voice. “In the event that I needed to –”

“To what? Sit in on my dreams?”

The thought of him doing that, especially given the recent subject matter, is mortifying. Awkward sexual encounters aside, she doesn’t want her husband to see her as this other woman – this docile, accommodating creature. Besides, they have a long-standing agreement that he will never use his Sharingan on her without express permission and as a last resort.

“Maybe I’ll see something there that I recognise that you don’t. Something that can help us end whatever’s happening.”

“And if you don’t, I’m giving you complete access to all my memories! There are things I don’t want you to see, Sasuke! Just like you wouldn’t want me to see a lot of what’s in your head.”

“I won’t look.”

“How? You expect me to just imagine a door to slam in your face?”

“You just need to focus on the memories you want me to see and I’ll see only them.”

She clenches her fists. “I don’t like this.”

“Sakura, please.”

He never asks her for anything. Even more rarely does he plead so earnestly, his face open and bordering on desperate. It’s the last thing she wants to do, but maybe the residual guilt about this entire situation is weighing more heavily on her heart because she slumps her shoulders and nods.

“Fine,” she exhales quietly. “Only this once.”

“All right.”

“I mean it. This is… This can’t… If you can’t figure something out from this, we don’t do this again. I don’t… I can’t have you in my head.”

He already has claim to every other part of her, she needs her mind to be her own.

“I understand.” He reaches tentatively forward, tilting her chin so that she is looks directly at him. “Concentrate on what you want me to see. I’ll ignore everything else.”

Want is a strong word for it,” she mutters, but then focusses on the experiences she’s had as Shachi.

Sasuke’s right eye glows red, tomoe spinning, and Sakura feels like an invisible, mind-numbing wave has passed over her. Time completely ceases for her. She’s frozen in the moment. And then –

“Nothing.”

She blinks as the world coalesces around her. Sasuke is looking at her in calculating confusion.

“What do you mean nothing?” she repeats.

“I mean, there’s nothing for me to see,” he says, grimacing in frustration. “Everything about you is there in place, but there’s no trace of these dreams you’ve been telling me about anywhere in your memory.”

“How…” Her mouth feels dry. “How is that possible?”

“It’s not.”

They both know this – Sasuke because his kekkei genkai offers him an almost absolute knowledge of these things and Sakura because of her medical studies. From a biological standpoint – and based on information that Ino has plied her with over the years concerning how the human mind works – her memories and dreams have to be stored somewhere within her.

So why aren’t they there?

“We need to know more,” he tells her firmly, voice straddling the line between a plea and an order.

She knows Sasuke is furious about this development, but even more to the point, he’s worried. There’s nothing he can do for her and that makes him feel useless – something he hasn’t felt since he was a child.

“We’ll figure it out,” she says, proud that she manages to keep her own uncertainty from leaking through.

眠り

Indra did not exaggerate when he painted the stark portrait of their life together.

Shachi is immediately recognised and hailed as his wife among the disciples. She’s spoken to with more deference than she’s ever experienced. She is queen in all but name, for Indra has no use for titles. Even so, her role, at first, is just as a tool – a means of lulling possible opponents into a false sense of security, or adding some form of legitimacy to her husband’s meetings with foreign warlords.  

Still, what little comforts there were in her previous life are gone, replaced with gruelling hours of toil. As the leader’s wife, she is not just responsible for Indra’s well-being, but that of every man and woman who follows him.

Her former servants are now her peers for there is no real rank here, and she learns useful tasks she never even considered before. Shachi cleans weapons and digs latrines when they set up camp. She manages accounts, ensures supplies reach everyone as needed, helps the women cook or clean, and learns how to better treat the sick. Twice, she finds herself helping to deliver babies to wives of her husband’s disciples. She works her hands to bleeding and, at night, goes to sleep exhausted.

It’s the happiest she’s ever been in her life.

Indra also did not lie about his demeanour. His is not a kind man, cold and abrupt even when they’re alone. Despite the painful awkwardness of their first time, he visits her every night, and as intercourse becomes more familiar to him, he makes efforts to be gentle. But the air of duty never truly leaves him. It’s something she resigns herself to unquestioningly. At least it doesn’t hurt the way it did the first time, and if this the extent of their spousal relationship, it’s still more than she would have expected.

Even in her own little corner of Shachi’s psyche, once the routine is established, Sakura is better able to distance herself from  

Until one night, when everything changes.

At first, everything seems normal – Indra enters their tent, doesn’t say a word, but disrobes and climbs on top of her. The act is detached and unemotional as usual, and Shachi simply sighs to herself and stares at the ceiling while Indra pushes into her, settling into his customary rhythm.  

As he is adjusting her legs around his hips, he moves suddenly, and on the downward stroke, his pubic bone hits up against her in just the right way. An unexpected jolt courses through her, and she gasps in surprise. Indra pauses, his entire body going still, eyes flitting to her face in something like curiosity. She has never made any sound before, believing that he would prefer her silence during a deed he obviously considers a burden. She bites her lip and looks away, embarrassed, and waits for him to continue, to ignore this minor interruption and get back to it.

He does – slowly pulling out of her almost completely, and then thrusting back in and –

Again, he hits up against that spot – a bundle of nerves she never gave any thought to – and she hisses, throwing her head back against her pillow as a tiny flicker, like electricity, surges through her. Warm heat coils within her, somewhere just behind her navel. Again, he goes still and she shoots a panicked look at him – is he annoyed by the noise she’s making or perhaps, less likely, does he think he’s hurting her?

But to her surprise, she sees the expression of a man who has just made a discovery – or perhaps confirmed a theory. It’s speculative, like she’s fascinating or doing something he finds fascinating.

He adjusts his hold on her once more, arranging with one hand so that her leg falls over his shoulder, and the other – she feels his fingers brush against her in that place, just above where they are joined. Her own fingers lash out, scraping fruitlessly for purchase against the tatami as she tries to adjust to the combined feel of him touching her and being inside her.

Indra rubs that sensitive spot again and again, his movements deliberate and unyielding. Soon, she is straining and writhing beneath him, trying to hold back her moans as her brain tries to interpret whether this is pain or pleasure. Her movements must be pleasing to him, too, because he makes tiny, growling noises at the back of his throat and his hold on her leg tightens to the point of bruising.

She doesn’t even care.

His eyes glint, flickering from black to red, and that’s all the warning she gets before he’s thrusting into her again. Only this time, it’s anything but leisurely, and he doesn’t stop touching her even as surprised gasps tear from her throat – in fact, he rubs his thumb more concertedly against that spot. Small, tight circles, somehow interspersing the rhythm of his thrusts, and she is bombarded by a fast-growing, simmering sensation across her entire body.

She can’t hold back the loud moan because this – this – she never would’ve expected. Not from him. Not from any man, but especially not from him.

He leans forward then, his fingers never stopping, his pace never faltering, but the angle of penetration changes, and the tip of him is reaching deeper inside her now. Unlike before, unlike every time before, she feels no discomfort from being filled; in fact, she likes the feeling, the strong force of him between her thighs. It’s still hard to breathe. She finds she can’t quite draw a full breath into her lungs, but that’s fine as long as he doesn’t stop because if he does, she’ll stop feeling like this and –

Shachi can’t think straight. She’s vaguely aware of reaching out, grabbing hold of his shoulders, her nails sinking in to the surprisingly soft flesh there, but he doesn’t recoil or rear back. In fact, his eyes narrow, and something primitive passes over his features.

It’s the closest he’s come to looking at her like a man is supposed to look at a woman – at his wife.

That laser focus, red eyes gleaming, black spirals spinning like he’s committing all of this to his memory is what makes her cry out then, her eyes rolling back, toes curling, and something within her shattering.

Sakura wakes on the tail end of an orgasm, gasping, stomach tight, and her muscles clenching. There’s a familiar wetness between her thighs and Sasuke is peering down at her. The dying embers of their fire cast shadows over his features, and when he murmurs her name, it’s tentative, like he’s unsure she can answer.

“I’m fine!” she squeaks, utterly embarrassed and ashamed. She whirls around, turning her back to him while she sorts herself out. She feels hot and flustered, the muscles in her womb still contracting, the memories of Indra’s unexpected touch still causing a slew of unwanted reactions.

While a part of her is happy that Shachi’s married life wasn’t completely devoid of pleasure after all, it leaves Sakura in a bit of an uncomfortable predicament. Lying next to her husband, fresh from an unexpected sex dream about another man –

Not another man. Same man. Different time!

But her frantic thoughts do nothing to make her feel any better about it all.

Sasuke moves closer, his chest against her back, leaning over so that the tips of his hair tickle the side of her face. She arches away from him.

“That wasn’t just the usual dream, was it?” he asks, voice maddeningly controlled, and she wonders if he’s trying to decide whether to yell at her or tease her. Neither option is particularly welcome, but he doesn’t wait for her to answer. “Do you want to know how I know that?” She groans and pushes her face into her blankets; the warmth in her cheeks could rekindle their dying fire. “I could see your face. And I know that expression very well.”

Sakura growls and shoves herself into a sitting position, almost smacking into his jaw with the back of her head.

“Fine!” she cries, glaring at him. “Okay! You caught me! It wasn’t the regular kind of weird dream. There was sex involved. And it was actually good sex for once. Which I thought was impossible because your past-self was a bit of a moron when it came to getting the job done!”

Sasuke blinks, looking as if he’s not sure whether to be offended or pleased by this.

“And I thought these dreams were supposed to have some kind of deeper meaning, something that my past-self was trying to tell me. But right now, I think she just has a really, really deeply-hidden sadism because why the hell would I need to know that much about her and him and it’s really, really frustrating!” Her voice breaks a little. “And I know it’s technically you – was you – but it still feels like I’m…like I’m being unfaithful somehow. And I hate it!”

And, damn it, she’s crying now! Why is she crying? She’s not sad; she’s angry and exasperated, and she just wants to punch something, but there’s nothing nearby.

Sasuke is possibly aware of this need, however, he doesn’t move away from her.

“You are not being unfaithful,” he informs her. “From what I’ve read, it’s perfectly natural to have fantasies about other people, especially during pregnancy.”

“They’re not fantasies! And it’s not –  I’ve never – ” she struggles. “I’ve never thought about anyone else in that way, and if I did…you were still always involved.” She remembers a long-forgotten incident involving an image of Sasuke and Sai, and as embarrassing as that was, this feels somehow more so.

“The dreams will run their course,” Sasuke assures her simply, like he’s trying to convince more than just her.

“Will they?” she challenges. “I don’t feel like they will.” She folds her arms over her chest, elbows drawn protectively into her body. “What if the rest of this pregnancy, I get to spend living her life and mine?”

“Then, like you said, we’ll figure it out,” he tells her.

“But what if it’s not just this pregnancy, but every pregnancy? Or my whole life? What if I never get a quiet night of sleep again?”

“From the parts you told me and how fast it all appears to be progressing, it might only last as long as her life runs its natural course.”

“But then what if I start living someone else’s life after hers?” she cries, beginning to panic like she hasn’t since this whole thing started. “What if…what if it wasn’t my only past-life? What if it was someone else’s, too? What if I start dreaming about Madara Uchiha?”

Oh gods! What if I start dreaming about having sex with Madara Uchiha?!

She remembers his dead eyes and cracked skin from their battle with his reanimated corpse.

“Oh, I’m going to be sick…”

Her shoulders slump and she tries to fight down the urge to burst into tears again.

She is startled by a sudden tap to her forehead, and when she glances up, Sasuke is gazing at her intently.

“You’re overthinking it,” he tells her. “Right now, worrying won’t do anything. In the morning, we’ll find a priest or someone who might know more. We’re on the border of the Land of Forests. There’s a library in Suganuma that’s one of the oldest libraries in the world. We can start looking there, see if there’s any mention of Shachi, or if this phenomenon has happened to anyone before.”

“And if that doesn’t work?”

“There’s another library in Key country. And in Claw. There are temples scattered across the world. And Orochimaru knows a lot about history and the arcane. I’ll write to him and see if he knows anything.”

Sakura’s eyes narrow in suspicion. “This is why you decided we should continue travelling along the east coast instead of heading towards home, isn’t it?”

“Hm.”

“And you couldn’t let me know about this? Instead, you let me quietly panic?”

“You are anything but quiet,” he reminds her with a yawn.

Sakura glares. “You’re taking this way too well.”

“It’s as you said,” he replies, lying back down on the ground and closing his eyes. “After this, nothing will surprise me. So, go back to sleep.”

Sakura gapes at her husband for a full half-minute and then lies down with a grumble. “You never react how I think you’re going to react,” she complains. “It’s on purpose, isn’t it?”

“Keeps the mystery alive,” he mumbles tiredly.

She smiles tightly at this. Sasuke has a dry sense of humour which she didn’t learn until he returned to Konoha. He only ever employs it when he’s in a particularly good mood or exhausted. She feels guilty, knowing it’s the latter. It’s easier to appreciate his jokes when she’s made him happy, rather than overtired.

And there are so many ways she likes to make him happy…

There’s a familiar heat creeping up her neck and the tightness in her belly is back, and really, it’s absolutely the worst timing, but…

“Sasuke?” she asks, plaintively, leaning in to him.

She hears him sigh. “Neither of us is ever going to sleep again at this rate.”

眠り

Although she’s never known the touch of any other man, Shachi knows that her husband is not a passionate lover by nature. However, in the ensuing weeks, he more than makes up for that with his unyielding focus.

Their nightly relations are no longer something she hopes to simply endure. When he comes to their tent at night, she eagerly helps him take off his clothing and surrenders easily to his touch. Over the course of weeks, he learns her body, learns the places that make her gasp and sigh, or the way a twist of the fingers can make her scream his name.

When she is feeling particularly bold, she tries to return the favour, wrapping her fingers around the length of him, wrenching surprised, pleased gasps from his mouth. Indra always stops her before he reaches his own release, however, always pulling her close so that he can finish inside of her. All the while, he watches her reactions, as if he is testing something, or learning something.

She wonders what will happen when he grows bored, but that eventuality never arrives.

Despite an enthusiasm for laying with his wife, he has never kissed her. Sakura has a hard time ignoring the ominous message implied in this.

When Shachi’s monthly bleeding doesn’t come, she visits the camp healer, Dewadasi. The older woman tells her what she already knows: she’s with child. For a long while, Shachi can’t think past stunned amazement. And then the other woman pushes that astonishment further.

“He listened then, I suppose?’

“What do you mean?”

“He came to me once, a month or so after your marriage. He was concerned that you weren’t pregnant yet,” Dewadasi tells her.

“What did you tell him?” Shachi asks, hesitant.

“The same thing I would tell any woman. If the gods decree you won’t bear children, there’s nothing that can be done. But if it’s simply a matter of coaxing it about, well. That’s another matter entirely.” Her smirk widens. “I told him some old wives’ tale of how to ensure a man’s seed takes root; if a woman experiences the same release as a man, the contractions in the womb help it grow. Of course, to be effective at all, it must happen frequently…”

Shachi’s cheeks flood with colour, thinking on her husband’s attentiveness in the past weeks. “Is that…is that true?”

“Well, you’re pregnant now, aren’t you?” the other woman says with a wink.

Shachi is mortified that the other woman took it upon herself to coach her husband about their intimate relations, and it must show because Dewadasi snorts.

“Being the wife of a great leader is difficult enough,” she tells her. “There’s no need to add an unfulfilling marriage. He owes you a lot, and if he can’t show it in other ways, he can show you in this one.”

The mortification begins to edge into something like gratitude, but Shachi is still eager to take her leave of the all-knowing woman. Dewadasi doesn’t let her go without a final word, however.

“It’s very strange,” she remarks lightly. “Most men in his position, they think something is wrong with their wife, and they take a concubine. He wanted to know what he could do.” She raises an eyebrow at Shachi. “Our leader does not operate in a world where he can’t manifest his will, I suppose.”

Some mornings, it’s hard to remember where she is or who she is.

Gazing over at the slumbering form of her husband, Sakura sometimes experiences a wave of disorientation or confusion when his features don’t appear how she remembers them. Moments later, when she comes back to herself, she always feels a cold jolt of fear that this is even a question.

It leads to many instances of burrowing back under the covers with him, trying her best to be as close as possible. He grumbles about her bothering him before he’s ready to wake, but his arm always finds its way securely around her back, holding her tight in his sleep as if he unconsciously knows how much she needs him to anchor her just then.

Their search for answers has yielded nothing so far.

The library in Suganuma holds nothing of use. The farthest back the records go concerning the Uchiha are a few centuries, and there are very few women referred to at all – names like Teisōko, Chiori and Naori, but not Shachi.

They are both discouraged, but keep looking. She eventually caves to Sasuke’s suggestion that they bring their problem to those more attuned to the supernatural.

It’s an uncertain move for both of them.

Sakura didn’t grow up in a particularly spiritual family – her family observed most festivals and celebrations out of respect for tradition rather than any particularly strong belief – and Sasuke’s views are even murkier. He may have followed his family’s religious traditions as a child, but after the massacre she doubts he recognised any kind of higher power. Learning that he is the reincarnation of an ancient demigod has obviously made him reconsider some things, however.

The first priest they visit thinks that the problem is the nightly visitations themselves. He offers to summon a baku to eat them, but Sakura balks at this. She’s not superstitious, but she has read enough mythology and lore to know that spirits are usually hard to control. If a baku is not satisfied with consuming her nightmares, it may go on to devour her hopes and dreams as well.

And she fought too hard, and too long to make those a reality.

Another – a priestess this time – seems more willing to believe that something is trying to speak through Sakura. She believes that in time, the message will be made apparent, but if Sakura is impatient, the woman volunteers to take the spirit in to herself for a face-to-face discussion. Both Sakura and Sasuke are skeptical about this, but they try it anyway.

When it doesn’t work, the woman accuses them of wasting her time. Sasuke mutters that she’s clearly a fake, and they leave.

It’s the last temple they visit.

The closest that Sakura gets to an answer is a week later, when she and Sasuke find themselves in a rural village where the people barely speak the language. The area is undergoing a severe drought, and Sasuke gets involved in the local community efforts to find and dig a new well while Sakura treats the villagers for dehydration and related maladies.

The whole day, she experiences the sensation of being watched, and at one point she looks up just in time to see an old woman – a wrinkled, grey and leathery creature – observing her work. It’s too busy for Sakura approach her during the day, but later that evening she asks around after her and is pointed to a hut at the far end of the village.

She and Sasuke are accompanied by one of the village elders, a man who can barely speak Japanese himself but assures them that “Grandmother is most wise”.

Upon their arrival, the woman takes one looks at Sasuke, makes a panicked sign with her hands that Sakura has come to recognise as a warding against evil, and then locks herself into her home. Sakura spends an hour cajoling Sasuke to wait for her back in the village proper, and then another trying to get the woman to come out and speak to her.

When she does, the staggered questions and responses given through their interpreter make no sense whatsoever. In the end, though, the woman tentatively shuffles forward and places a gnarled hand on Sakura’s belly. She murmurs incomprehensively, gazing up at Sakura with eyes that are knowing and sympathetic.

“What did she say?” Sakura whispers.

The interpreter shifts uncomfortably. “No matter.”

“Tell me.”

“Is…hard to say. Old word. Older different talk than here.”

“Older dialect?”

“Yes. Yes, is that. I could mishear.”

“What do you think she said?”

The man looks apologetic then, shoots a worried gaze at the old woman, who nods as though to encourage him to go a head. He sighs and says, “Either she says ‘cure’ or…”

“Or?”

“… or she say curse.”

Sakura marches back to Sasuke, pale and shaking, anger and fear competing for dominance.

“I’m not doing this anymore,” she tells him.

He is alarmed, but his tone remains measures. “What did she say?”

“I couldn’t understand her,” Sakura lies, the first time she has ever told him an outright falsehood since that horrible day at Samurai Bridge. “But all this asking people for answers about something they can’t understand – it’s upsetting. I get my hopes up, and then…” She trails off, clenching her fists. “No more gurus or priests or…or witch doctors. We find facts, or we stop looking.”

“Alright,” Sasuke says, even though she senses he isn’t completely happy with that decision.

つづく 

Chapter Text

Motherhood is everything and nothing like she imagined. Whatever feelings Shachi has for her husband utterly pale in comparison to the bewildering joy she experiences when her first child is placed in her arms.

Even Indra is unable to hide his amazement as he tentatively reaches out to place a hand on the infant’s downy hair. There is nothing of the godlike warrior about him when the infant is passed to him. Exhausted from a long labour, Shachi can only watch him with their daughter and marvel. It occurs to her that perhaps he’s never seen anything like this before.

For an intelligent man, he really did miss the basics, didn’t he?

Unlike Sakura’s usual commentary, there is a something bordering on amusement in her usual criticism as she watches the ancient demigod and his child. She has seen that soft expression before, after all, and quite recently. Sasuke may not have held their child yet, but the way he gazes at where it grows in her stomach is unquestionably reminiscent.

It’s a relief to know that Indra is capable of such emotion, however far down it’s buried.

The thought’s barely registered when Indra looks up, eyes gleaming in the dim room.

“While I live, no harm will ever come to our children,” he vows. But whereas that statement from anyone else would be the dutiful plea of a husband and new father, there is a sinister undertone in Indra’s pledge. Both Shachi and Sakura can read the subtle, menacing threat and know that he would tear down the world to protect them.

Sakura shudders at this because she’s seen firsthand what terrible things devotion like Indra’s can cause.

Her dreams begin to take on that repetitive quality again, and the sense that she is watching time pass faster than normal makes her wake most mornings with a headache. She feels as though an entire life is being crammed into her head during her sleeping hours, and she has no choice but to hold on for the ride.

And just like that, the years pass and Shachi gives birth to five more healthy children. Strong sons and daughters that are her joy and Indra’s pride, a sign to his followers that his teachings will continue across the generations. None of their children take after their father in looks, favouring her grey eyes and darker colouring – and none of them show signs of inheriting his Sharingan.

None of them can summon flames the way she can, either, which she knows her husband is disappointed about.

Shachi is initially anxious that their legitimacy might be questioned. However, from an early age, their ability to wield chakra without instruction, and their utter ease in learning their father’s craft suggests different. With every passing season, though they don’t spend much time with him, their temperaments all become similar to their father as well.

Her fears retreat to the back of her mind.

After so many years together, their relationship has settled into something that might be described as comfortable. The days of him fleeing their marriage bed after bringing them both to release are rare; either he allows himself to succumb to sleep by her side, or he will listen to her narrate the day’s events. In the early years, all her tales relate to keeping their outfit running smoothly. Once the children are born, she uses this time to report every detail of their upbringing that he misses when he is busy guiding his disciples. His expression never changes – whether to smile or frown at the stories – but there is a relaxed air about him that she never notices at any other time.

At the times when she is pregnant, he refuses to have relations with her, either for fear of harming the child in her womb or because he is still trying to maintain the fiction that his interest in her is only for procreation. She suspects it’s the latter because he only stops initiating intercourse when she informs him of her pregnancy or when her condition is so obvious that neither of them can deny it.

She never comments on this, and both hates and loves these long periods of time. While her body cries out to be touched (often so ardently that Sakura will wake breathless and trembling), Indra instead unknowingly offers a new kind of intimacy, the kind Shachi never realised that she craved: companionship.

He continues to join her in the evenings, asking questions about her health and the progression of her condition, or resting with his ear to her belly.  Although he does not offer her any other gestures that might be construed as affection, he does begin to confide in her. Slowly, at first: throwaway comments about upcoming plans, musings over which of his followers can be trusted to split off from the main outfit to spread his sect’s teachings further. He talks of their children, his pride in their growth and achievements, their natural ability to learn ninjutsu even from a young age. He expresses minor disappointment that none of them seem to have inherited the nascent healing talents she’s shown.

From the first moment that Indra guides her through the process of willing torn flesh and bone back together, she feels as if she’s found a calling. There will be no more need to scrounge through forests for herbs to soothe instead of fix – now she can be useful.

“You have a natural talent,” Indra tells her one night as she heals a jagged gash in his back. “I knew it the moment I met you.”

It’s the first compliment she’s ever received from him, and she has no idea how to react to it beyond beaming at him with utter joy. For some reason, he appears more surprised by her reaction than she was by his admission and, in one of his rare moments of exposed emotion, hastily leaves their quarters.

That’s because he’s probably never been faced with a thousand-watt smile like that, Sakura figures. I mean, I doubt he’s ever had anyone smile at him in any way, but definitely never like that.

And why would he? Indra remains a terrifying specimen of a man. His rage is still a horrible thing, and despite Shachi’s few companions attempting to shield her from it, she’s seen the results: bodies with bloody, charred holes through their chests, eyes burned out. It’s such a contrast to who he is when he’s alone with her that she spends days after these incidents upset.

On these days, he is remorseless in his methods, but by night, he will open up more about his past, as if offering her something in recompense. It’s the closest to an apology she will ever receive.

The stories he tells her are wonderful and awful, the stuff of legends and nightmares. He speaks of his formidable grandmother (once worshipped as the Rabbit Goddess among the people of his land) and his father (he usually becomes terse and stiff when mentioning him). He confides that he lost his mother when she gave birth to his younger brother (his expression darkens here and he doesn’t speak again on the subject for several nights), and describes what it was like to grow up among his father’s disciples.

He also tells her the story of being cheated out of his birthright by Asura, and of his father’s betrayal and repudiation when all he ever did was try to make him proud.

Sometimes, he says things, a particular phrase or word, that sounds out of place in his story. It’s as if he’s repeating something told to him by someone else, someone else’s words speaking through him. His eyes will glaze and he’ll look off into the distance, reminding Shachi of the times she would watch him in her father’s land, speaking to himself in the shadows. She wonders if there isn’t someone else missing from his stories.

She knows better than to bring it up though, preferring to keep their moments together peaceful; it’s a stark contrast to the life they lead during the day, and she suspects he appreciates it as much as she does.  

As much as his confidences to her are not born of love, there is something there. Some nameless connection exists between him and her, and she can be satisfied with that.  

In the next week, Sakura becomes more determined than ever not to let her dreams (or the ominous words of the old crone) take over her waking life. She and Sasuke are not just on an extended honeymoon (“Mission,” he always corrects sulkily when she uses that word.), but are supposed to be helping people. So, she continues to steer them toward towns without adequate medical resources, or where the infrastructure needs rebuilding. She helps build houses (it doesn’t count as heavy lifting when you can break mountains, after all) and volunteers Sasuke’s help when they end up in areas threatened by bandits or gang-warfare (she doesn’t argue anymore when he deals with these situations without her).

And she shrugs off his casual (and later, not so casual) suggestions they alter their plans and return to Konoha early.

“You just want to check your family’s tablet,” she replies airily.

“There might be something I missed.”

“You have it memorized,” she reminds him dismissively, and he can’t argue with that.

Sakura may have forced her husband to abandon chasing spurious leads about her dreams, if only for her peace of mind, but he manages to express his worry for her in other ways.  His anxiety over her nightly forays into the past begins to bleed into his concern over her pregnancy.

Where once he actively avoided populated areas lest he be forced to socialise, now he seeks them out. Villages and towns have markets, after all, and that means access to better quality food. He doesn’t want her eating the same rations they’ve relied on since they started their travels, and he’s become more meticulous about watching her diet than she is. She lets him get away with it only because he’s clearly acting out over his inability to help with the dreams, but sometimes it gets to the point where she’ll stuff her face with acceptable amounts of “contraband” when he’s not around. It’s completely worth the long-suffering expression he makes when he notices the remnants of whatever greasy or salty snack she didn’t manage to completely eradicate.

One day, as she is contemplating her next culinary indiscretion, her stomach suddenly spasms.

She must make a face or tense or something because Sasuke is instantly hovering over her when she was sure he was at a stall thirty feet away replenishing their dry food stocks. “Sakura?”

“It’s nothing,” she assures him. “I’m just hungry. We should stop somewhere after we finish our errands.”

“Here.” He offers her a bright red tomato from a sack she didn’t notice him sneakily buy earlier. She accepts it with a resigned sort of amusement, trying not to feel like a toddler being appeased before she can begin a tantrum.

“You’ve already got the dad-instinct figured out, haven’t you?” she teases, and the way his eyes gleam suggests he takes that as a compliment.

She bites into the fruit, distractedly wiping at the juice running down her chin, examining a set of shuriken that are on display (they’re not as well made as anything she could get from Tenten, but this far from home, beggars can’t be choosers!) and wondering if Indra had any similar reactions to his pregnant wife. Would he see their future children as the same new beginning that Sasuke does? Or was it just a means to an end for him? It bothers her that he might think that. Even though the child Shachi carries isn’t Sakura’s, she still feels protective of it. It’s odd, and probably transference of her feelings about her own pregnancy, but –

She sucks in her breath, feeling like something has just jabbed her. That was definitely not hunger pains.

“What is it?” Sasuke demands, back again, tense and prickly like a giant cat as he examines her for signs of injury, and then scans the crowd around them, as if expecting someone else to have done something.

“No, Sasuke, it’s not – nothing hurts. I just feel like there’s a muscle twitching or something…” she assures him.

The woman behind the weapon stall chuckles. “Your first, I take it?”

“What do you know of it?” Sasuke asks, tone abrupt and gaze sharp.

Thankfully, she doesn’t appear fazed by it. “Only the look of a woman who’s just been kicked from the inside for the first time,” she responds, amused.

Sakura blinks. “No, that’s not…it’s so early.”

She’s at most eighteen weeks along, she shouldn’t already be able to feel anything so obvious.

“Sometimes you notice earlier,” the woman shrugs and goes back to her wares.

“Notice?” Sasuke echoes, looking uncharacteristically confused.

The strange fluttering sensation happens again and Sakura smiles, shaking her head. Wordlessly, she reaches out to take his hand; he is still tense, but when she presses it against the spot over her abdomen, he relaxes.

The gentle poke happens again and now that she expects it, she doesn’t know how she could’ve thought it was something else.

She isn’t sure if Sasuke can feel it through the cloth, it’s barely there – but of course he can. He’s the most perceptive person she knows. He’s completely frozen before her, staring down at his hand on her belly like it’s not actually attached to him.

“Someone’s decided to say ‘hello’ to Papa,” she teases affectionately, revelling in the minute movement of his fingers splayed apart across the jumping, shifting stretch of skin and the utter awe in his eyes.

And then Sasuke – Mister I-don’t-do-public-displays-of-affection – is on his knees, pressing his face into her belly.  

The world falls away, and for an instant in time, the only people in the world that exist are her, her husband, and her child.

眠り

Over time, their roaming band becomes an army, a nation of people too large to continue wandering. They cross deserts and seas before Indra decides to settle them permanently on an island far removed from the mainland. The land is cold, given to mist and snow, but where others see desolation, Shachi is reminded of the shores where she often found refuge as a child.

Of the beach where she first set eyes upon Indra.

There is some comfort in this, and so she embraces her new home enthusiastically.  

The main settlement is situated on the largest island within the archipelago, and he and his followers waste no time bringing the surrounding islets under his control. It seems as if they are perpetually at war, and soon her duties as wife to the leader are not as focussed on managing supplies as they are on caring for the wounded.

As their battles with their enemies on the borders become more frequent, Indra becomes adamant that she learn to protect herself and their children if he is not around. Despite her reluctance, he coaches her in strengthening her ability to wield flames. He brings her to the lake nearest their settlement to teach her how to breathe fire easier and then how to mould those flames into whirlwinds and infernos. Soon, she can bend the blazes she creates into shapes – lions, elephants, and dragons that are almost solid in the destructive force they can cause.

It terrifies her, but when she sees the approval in his gaze, she can’t help the stirrings of pride.

You should feel proud! It’s impressive! Sakura thinks, surveying the damage; the sheer heat and force of Shachi’s jutsu has evaporated a significant portion of the lake. Sasuke probably couldn’t even do that until he was much more practiced.

Still, Shachi has no wish to go into battle with Indra, and he shows no sign of wanting her to. She much prefers her duties behind the lines – healing the wounded in the medical tents. This is the gift she is most comfortable with, an ability more suited to her nature. She doesn’t even know when she’ll need to use the other gift.

Until the day she discovers her seventh pregnancy.

Indra is away, gone to the last of the islands that have been opposing his forces. In an increasingly more common practice, he leaves her to govern their people in his absence. It’s a move that leaves no argument about the chain of command, for he is not a man who easily trusts. Where many of his followers would have once balked at the idea of a woman holding any form of power, since word of her abilities spread throughout the camp, there are no questions.

She is no longer the guardian who heals the sick and wounded, but a potential force of destruction. They call her Indrani – an idol of healing and wrath. If Indra is a god, his consort is clearly a goddess.

Such talk makes her uncomfortable, but it is no less than her husband promised would come to pass the day they married. It’s a legacy her children will inherit, and all of them at that; Indra is determined that every one of his children will be equally capable of succeeding him one day. Although he stuns his followers when he declares he will have no single successor. He never says why, but Shachi knows it’s to do with his own father’s handling of succession.

The morning her perfect world changes, she leaves Dewadasi’s hut after confirming that her lack of monthly bleeding means she is indeed expecting another child. She is more than pleased about the news – the youngest has just been weened, leaving Shachi with an empty, longing feeling. As for the oldest, she is just beginning to train among the other disciples and has no time for her mother. It seems to be a trend; as they get older, they become more determined to show their father how strong they are.

Another baby is more than welcome.

Shachi has no doubt that when her husband returns, it will be to tell everyone of yet another victory, and she contemplates telling him the good news in reward. It will no doubt please him, even if it means he holds himself back from relations with her.

She heads to the forest just beyond the compound, intending to seek out the usual herbs and roots that she knows from experience help ensure a healthy pregnancy. As has become usual, she is flanked by several of her husband’s disciples – she may be able to protect herself, but Indra is not one to take chances, even when he is away.

It turns out to be for nothing, however.

She is elbow deep in roots and loamy soil when she and her entourage are attacked. The earth appears to rise up around them, imprisoning her attendants, suffocating them before they can even cry out. Another wall begins to close in on her.  

The Shachi of old would simply let it happen, but for the first time in her life, she has something to fight for – her husband, her children, the child beneath her heart. She doesn’t know who’s attacking her, but they will not be allowed to succeed!

She calls up her strongest flames, kneading the chakra within her body and expelling it from her mouth in a massive fireball. It explodes around her, disintegrating the walls of earth that try to trap her, and radiating outward. There are screams of agony as the tidal wave of flame floods the forest, catching her attackers in its wake, decimating the surrounding trees as well.

When the flames subside, she is panting, surrounded by a radius of ash and charred remains. It seems as if her first battle has been a success.

However, when she tries to move, to hurry back to the settlement and raise the alarm, she finds herself frozen in place. She can’t move anything beyond her eyes, which search for the origin of her imprisonment.

It’s as she notices a shadow which appears to be keeping her prisoner that she feels a blunt blow to the back of the head and the world goes black.

“Jūgo had a friend,” Sasuke says one day, apropos of nothing. “Kimimaro.”

The name is distantly familiar and it takes a few seconds for Sakura to place it.

“The one Li faced,” she concludes slowly. “When they were…”

“When they all tried to stop me from leaving,” he agrees shortly. It’s a day neither of them like to talk about. “Kimimaro belonged to the Kaguya clan.”

“Kaguya?” she repeats, eyes wide. “As in…”

“Yes. I don’t know why I didn’t make the connection until now. Perhaps because I never met Kimimaro personally.”

He sounds angry at himself, and she reaches out a comforting hand. “You had other things on your mind.”

He shrugs. “Still. It’s a potential link to Indra. Tenuous, but it’s something we can look into.”

The way he says it, a statement and a question, suggests he won’t do anything without her say-so. Given the recent turn her dreams have taken, Sakura doesn’t protest.

She doesn’t know much about the Kaguya clan, other than the fact that they aren’t on any of the clan registers she’s ever seen – which only happens when a bloodline goes extinct. Sasuke fills her in on what he learned from Jūgo who, even today, remains devoted to the memory of his deceased friend.

They were a clan noted for their savagery and bloodlust, a people who brutalised their enemies and each other with their own skeletons (she shudders at this part, remembering Kaguya and how she could turn a body to ash with her own bones). They eventually killed themselves in a frenzy to showcase their brutality.

It turns out they are relatively close to the location Sasuke’s former associate has given them, and it’s a short trip from Kiri’s main island to the satellite islet where the Kaguya clan once resided. They find the place is abandoned now, overgrown and waterlogged, half-consumed by a swamp that the local residents say is cursed.   

As she and Sasuke explore, they find structures that were once houses, caved in and practically reclaimed by the forest. The foundations of the houses appear to have been hewn from a white stone meant to resemble bone, and decorated with reddish-black designs that Sakura recognizes as dried blood.   

She didn’t believe her husband at first, that an entire clan could’ve destroyed itself. Even if they battled to the last clansmen, what of the children or inactive women? Surely, they should’ve survived. As they clamber over grass-covered mounds and through ditches, she learns that he spoke the truth. There are still skeletal remain here, improperly buried in most cases, and picked clean by animals. Some have their bones twisted unnaturally, dead in the throes of using their clan jutsu; many of the remains show bones impaling other bodies, adult and child alike.

“Their extinction is not a tragedy,” Sasuke remarks coolly when he sees this, and she can’t help but agree with him.

After an hour of scoping the place out, it seems as if there’s nothing to find. Although there is evidence of belongings – kitchen utensils, agricultural equipment, weapons for hunting – it appears the Kaguya clan didn’t keep written records. There is no evidence of a single book in the ruins, or newspapers, or even signposts. Sakura feels as if it’s a dead end, and suggests they leave.

“There’s nothing here,” she says, “and this place is creepy.”

It’s as if the deaths of the inhabitants linger here. She has enough unwanted attention from the supernatural world at the moment; she doesn’t intend to invite more.

“I want to check one last place,” Sasuke replies, nodding to the last crumbling building at the edge of the settlement. It’s built beside –or leading into – a rock formation, and the decaying exterior resembles the arches of a shrine.

Although it feels vaguely ominous to think of these vicious people having any kind of spiritual beliefs, she agrees.

Inside, it’s barely large enough to accommodate herself and Sasuke; in fact, he has to stoop. It smells like rotting rood and mildewed cloth. The altar within has been crushed by foraging animals and time. Sakura finds a stave of wood that is dry enough and holds it out to Sasuke; a small fireball later, and they have a torch.

Although there aren’t any sacred objects or idols here, the walls are decorated – and startlingly well-preserved, considering the state of the rest of the village. The art is primitive, crude, and almost infantile from what she sees. Stylised figures dance along the edges of the walls, almost like a stop-motion story. None of the figures have features other than eyes – always grey or green – with two closely-placed scarlet dots above, like the eyebrows of ancient nobility.

The same way Indra’s eyebrows look…

Most of them wield bone-white swords or seem to spring spikes from their backs.

Shikotsumyaku,” Sasuke remarks, studying the depiction of one such figure.

“Hm,” Sakura agrees distantly, her eyes drawn to an etching across the chamber. It seems out of place, given the rest of the subject matter – a sidewise crescent moon and a rabbit. “That’s a bit tame for this particular clan, don’t you think?”

Sasuke follows her gaze and frowns. He steps forward, traces the shapes. “No one draws a moon this way. It’s almost as if it’s meant to be trapping the rabbit.”

Sakura blinks, realisation hitting her. “Wasn’t Kaguya called the “rabbit goddess” once? Didn’t I hear that somewhere?”

“Not from me,” Sasuke answers, distracted. He traces his finger downward, following a line that connects the rabbit to a scratched-out figure that appears to have been made intentionally grotesque. Instead of eyes, there is one red circle in its forehead, a familiar looking disc.

“That looks like the – when the Infinite Tsukuyomi was cast,” Sakura exclaims. “That’s what happened to the moon.”

“No. I think it’s the mandala of Hagoromo.”

Sakura’s eyes widen, and upon looking at it again, she realises he’s right. “The Sage of Six Paths? Right beneath Kaguya…so maybe that means this –” She’s the one to trace her way downward now, to the third-closest image, “ – has to be Indra.”

His representation doesn’t have eyes or a face either, although there are two round, scarlet markings that all the other figures in here have.

Her palm rests lightly against the image, something in her stomach tugging uncomfortably.

“Sakura.”

She glances up and notices her husband nod to the right; she follows his gaze and realises that the figure of Indra does not stand alone the way his father’s and grandmother’s do. Beside it, there is a figure – clearly female, given its proportion – and this one, unlike all the rest, only has eyes.

Sakura inhales deeply, drawn to that image because, right here, they’ve finally found it – some proof that the woman whose life she is dreaming truly did live. They’ve spoken of it, of course, as if it’s a fact, but this – knowing – is cathartic.

“Shachi,” she breathes as she studies the image. She shivers, feeling like deep within her, something shifts.

“They’ve shown lines of descent from her and Indra. Look,” Sasuke says, pointing out six other figures that spread below them in an arc. Two males and four females – the same amount of sons and daughters that Sakura knows from her dreams – all with Indra’s markings and Shachi’s grey eyes.

“It’s no wonder no one else knows about this,” Sasuke goes on, gazing at the other figures in the chamber. “Unless you know about the Ōtsutsuki – how they looked – this would just seem like a creation myth.”

“I guess that’s why Orochimaru didn’t know anything about all this,” she suggests, and off his surprised expression, she snorts. “Did you really expect me to believe you went to Jūgo about this first? Orochimaru knows almost everything there is to know. Of course, you contacted him first. There’s no need to hide that.”

“You don’t like him.”

“No, I don’t. But he was your teacher – and more importantly, he saved your life. He gets a pass.”

He raises an eyebrow. “But?”

“But if he ever comes near me with bad intent, I will crush him into dust,” she finishes seriously.

Sasuke makes a noise that’s halfway between a snort and a cough then turns his attention back to the mural before them. He frowns. “There are only six.”

“Huh?”

“Six lines of descent. Six children. Didn’t you say she was pregnant?” he asks.

Sakura blinks in surprise and looks at the depictions herself, remembering. “Yes…she just discovered her pregnancy before she was kidnapped.”

“There’s no indication of that here.”

Sakura swallows. “Why wouldn’t they include that?”

“Maybe they didn’t know or she miscarried?” he suggests. “Maybe she was never found? Her kidnapping could be where the story ends.”

“No, I’m still having dreams. Or I think I am. When I’m asleep, I feel like I’m travelling…but it definitely doesn’t feel over.” She muses. “I think I’m blindfolded in the dreams, lately. If I could just see –”

Sasuke’s eyes widen, and he abruptly moves a few steps back from the wall. “Move out of the way. I’m going to try something.”

“Huh?”

But she does as he says, watching just in time as his eye gleams red and the familiar six pointed star swirls into view.  For several minutes, he surveys the wall in silence, his expression drawing closed, his eyes riveted to the depiction of Indra.

“What do you see?” she asks tentatively; it doesn’t bode well that someone placed something on this wall that only someone with an evolved Sharingan can see.

“His face isn’t blank,” he says.

She can guess what he sees there. “The same eyes as yours?”

“Hm.”

“And her?”

His gaze shifts. “There’s nothing different about her. Except…”

“Except?”

“There’s a seventh line here,” he says, pointing to a space beside one of Shachi’s children. Sakura feels something like relief flow through her.

“But why would they hide this child from everyone else?”

“It’s not a child,” he says. “It’s a word.”

The sense of relief dissipates. “What does it say?”

Sasuke shakes his head.

“It’s very faded. Almost like whoever put it here had second thoughts and tried to scratch it away. With the wear, it could say…‘vow.’” He shifts, changing his position to offer himself another vantage point. “Maybe ‘oath,’ or ‘covenant’…or…” He stops here and shakes his head. “I’m sure I’m reading it wrong.”

But his tone is too controlled and his jaw is clenched.

“What else could it mean?” she whispers.

Sasuke slowly turns to her, looking apologetic and concerned at the same time. “Curse.”

眠り

When Shachi wakes up, she’s been bound, gagged, and blindfolded. Someone carries her, people speak in whispers. Whenever she begins to make any type of noise, she finds herself quickly returned to unconsciousness.

She learns to remain quiet, straining her ears to figure out who her captors are, but no one speaks around her. She tries sometimes to call up her chakra, but finds it inaccessible.

Seals, Sakura realises angrily. They’ve got something sealing our chakra. This was planned.

Several times over the next few days (weeks?) she awakens to a miserable rocking and heaving.

Ship, Sakura realises, remembering the sensation, and the associated nausea.

Someone has removed Shachi’s gag, which she is thankful for because her pregnancy and seasickness have her expelling the contents of her stomach for almost five days straight. Firm hands hold her steady as her shoulders wrack with spasms, and once she is in control of herself again, offer her water to keep her hydrated.

At first, she rejects this kindness, turning away and panting, trying to ignore the acrid taste in her mouth.

“Where am I?” she rasps desperately. “Who are you? Where are you taking me?”

Where is my husband? Where are my children?

The thought is immediate, visceral, and somehow it belongs to both Shachi and Sakura.

“Calm yourself, my lady,” someone says. A man, young, and with the rough diction of a rural commoner. “You will not be harmed. Your restraints are for your safety – and ours.”

He has not answered any of her questions.

“My husband will find you and slaughter you,” she tells him furiously, utterly out of character for her.

Sakura wonders if it’s her own emotional contribution, or if Indra’s temper has rubbed off on his wife. The formerly mousy woman is positively simmering with justified wrath.

Still, her grandiose statement is undermined by another bout of vomiting.

“I have never seen someone so ill at sea before,” the man says, sounding amused and a little nervous. “How did you get to that island, I wonder, if you were this sick?”

“It’s not…just…seasickness,” she retorts through gritted teeth. “I’m with child.”

It’s not the announcement Sakura would make, nor is it made to the person Shachi wanted to make it to, but perhaps her abductor will show mercy to a pregnant woman.

There’s a sharp intake of breath.

“Shit.”

There is a panic in the word, perhaps even dismay.

“If you return me to my home, I will simply tell my husband I got lost,” she bargains. “I will keep him from coming after you. Just let me return home.”

“I’m sorry, my lady,” the man says. “It’s very important that I bring you to my lord. It’s for the greater good.”

She doesn’t get a chance to ask what he means before she once more feels a touch to the back of her neck and an unnatural sleep overtakes her. She only wakes again when a new voice breaks the silence.

“What do you think you’re doing?!” she hears a loud voice demand, angry and female. The world is no longer rocking – she is off the ship, and something in the sharp, clear smell of the air tells her she is far from the sea. It makes the strange woman’s voice echo. “How dare you bring someone here in such a brutish fashion!”

“It’s imperative that the lord be fetched immediately,” the man from the ship replies wearily.

“I don’t care what imperative you think you have, you put her down right now! Release her!”

A different voice. “My lady, you don’t understand. She is dangerous –”

I am dangerous and yet I don’t see you tying me up! Taizō, this is ill-advised even for you!”

“You’d understand if you ever let us get a word out, Lady Kanna,” Taizō retorts. “This woman is the wife of Lord Indra. And she killed four men before we subdued her.”  

There is a heavy silence and Shachi feels as if she’s been punched in the stomach. She knew the men who attacked her couldn’t have survived, but somehow in the confusion of her abduction she hadn’t thought of them.  

The woman inhales sharply.

“You utter fool,” Kanna says, breathless and scared. “Do you understand what you’ve done?”

“It had to be done,” Taizō is stubborn. “If there’s a chance –”

“You may have destroyed that chance!” she snaps and if Shachi could see, she would bet the woman is wringing her hands. “Very well. I’ll fetch my husband. Have her bathed and any other needs seen to – from this moment, you will treat her with every respect that you would accord me, as you should have from the moment you so foolishly chose to abduct her.”

“Y-yes, my lady.”

“Bring her to the audience chamber when she’s ready. And by the gods, treat her gently!”

Then the woman is gone, and Shachi is carried somewhere else, passed into the care of several nervous-sounding women. Her blindfold is removed, and when she blinks herself back to awareness, she is surrounded by strangers who eye her warily. Looking down at her wrists, she sees strange black symbols have been painted up and down her arms. Whenever she tries to call up her chakra, they gleam and she suddenly feels drained.

“Where am I? Why was I brought here?” Shachi demands of the women around her – servants, from their demeanour and their inability to answer her questions.

Eventually, she allows them to bathe and clothe her – partially because she feels coarse and dirty, but also because she knows that the servants are only doing their duty. They can’t control the actions of their masters, and it’s wrong to take out her rage and frustration on them.

And so, she endures their attention – thankful they aren’t brave enough to ask her questions – and bides her time until there is a knock at the chamber door. Another servant appears and bids her to accompany him which she does, albeit stewing in silence.

She is brought into a dimly lit chamber. It is sparsely decorated, but instantly her eyes fly to the dais which has been draped with a white tapestry marked with the same six tomoe as her husband wears emblazoned on his robes.

Standing before the altar is a tall man with his back to her. When he turns to her, she feels as if her heart has leapt into her throat. He looks exactly like Indra only his hair is shorter and his eyes are surrounded by laugh lines.

And then he smiles at her.

“Hello, little sister,” he says, “I am Asura.”

“It just doesn’t make sense,” Sakura declares, frustrated. “Why on earth would Asura kidnap Shachi?”

Despite the uneasy heaviness that’s settled in her gut since her latest dream, she refrains from lashing out with fist against ground. It helps that she’s currently seated, back to Sasuke’s chest, his legs bracketing her on either side. After a rare day of inactivity, they are sitting together on the incline of a hill, watching the sun set over the forest. Sasuke’s hand lays protectively across her middle; though she isn’t showing much (it’s not even noticeable from the front), there’s no mistaking her condition anymore.

“From what you’ve told me Asura’s wife said, it seems like he was unaware,” Sasuke answers thoughtfully. “I’m inclined to think it was done without his knowledge.”

“Why?”

“Because it wasn’t his nature.”

Sakura blinks in surprise, shifting around to look at her husband. “You mean you remember?”

“No. But he was like Naruto – or rather, Naruto was like him. Kidnapping is not something either of them would resort to no matter what the reason,” Sasuke decides, certainty ringing clearly in his voice. “He would go directly to Indra, if he could find him. In fact, if he knew where Indra was, he would likely be trying to convince him to return – not kidnapping his wife. Especially not if he knew she was pregnant.”

Sasuke’s fingers absently rub across the curve of her belly and Sakura places her hand over his. He is freer when it comes to showing affection to the baby than he is with her, but she doesn’t mind. It’s bound to be a different relationship, a new one. Her connection to Sasuke is based on an entire past, one which has dictated the way they behave around one another, but this child –

It’s going to be so different.

She can’t wait to see it.

“This Taizō individual certainly acted rashly.”

“You’re telling me – what rational line of thinking has you kidnap the wife of a powerhouse like Indra?” Sakura wonders. “It’s right up there on a list of dumb moves.”

“Unless it was a tactical one.”

Sakura makes a face. “What do you mean?”

“He knew she was Indra’s wife. Perhaps his move was to force a kind of summit between the two brothers,” Sasuke suggests. “Although to what end… I’m not sure. He had to know the danger. And Indra was not one to tolerate insults or such a blatant move against him.”

Sakura nods.

She can’t imagine Indra allowing Shachi’s kidnapping to go unanswered, but at the same time, he wasn’t exactly the type to act based on feelings – however deeply within him he could feel. If anyone were to try to use Shachi as leverage, she has a bad feeling that Indra would ignore the ultimatum on principle.

“I don’t think so,” Sasuke says and Sakura realises, once again, her thoughts have jumped from her brain to her mouth without her notice. “He cared for her.”

This startles her. “How do you know?”

She may have suspected this sometimes in the course of her dreams, but to hear it voiced by her husband? He hasn’t seen Indra as she has, claims not to remember his previous life, and often speaks of his former incarnation with varying degrees of suspicion and criticism.

“He would have to,” Sasuke says. “Zetsu would have ensured it.”

“Zetsu?”

“It’s how he manipulated events and maintained his influenced over people. He crept into their hearts and exploited their fears,” Sasuke explains. “It’s the reason he gained influence over Indra in the first place. He used Asura against him, playing on his concerns about something happening to his brother. Indra wanted to become more powerful to protect him.”

“I never knew that,” Sakura says softly and feels Sasuke nod against her neck.

“His brother was the one he cared about most in the world which is why he reacted so viscerally to Asura’s supposed betrayal. Once Indra removed himself from his family, he was alone again, and Zetsu would quickly lose influence. He needed someone to use as a means of manipulating him further into his hatred. Indra had had no other family –”

“ – so Zetsu had him make one,” Sakura whispers, feeling abruptly sick at the idea.  

“Yes. Although, I doubt it could’ve happened unless Indra was drawn to her to begin with,” Sasuke goes on. “In his travels, he would’ve encountered many women. Any one of them would’ve served Zetsu’s purpose. But for his hold to be stronger, it had to be someone Indra felt something for already.”

“He thought she had potential,” Sakura remembers. “He told her so.”

“And Zetsu would have noticed it. After all, Indra spared her life. That was probably the moment Zetsu knew. And he manipulated Indra to return for her, to lay the foundation for his continued control.”

“The children,” Sakura realises.

“As closed off as he was, even he couldn’t be completely immune to his own offspring,” Sasuke agrees. “I can imagine it. If by some twist of fate, I had…if I had any interest in repopulating the clan during the war – if I had children and someone were to threaten then…it would’ve been worse.”

Sakura easily hears the I would’ve been worse and shivers.

“So, what do you think he did when he found out she disappeared?”

“I have no idea.”

眠り

Indra’s brother is both different from the stories Shachi was told and exactly as expected.

Her husband spoke of a boy – and then a man – who constantly needed to be protected and who, due to his lighthearted and carefree nature, was undeserving of their father’s legacy. This man was jealous of Indra’s natural talent and somehow poisoned their father against him.

What she finds instead is an earnest stranger who is as easily given to smiles as Indra is to frowns, and who seems desperate for Shachi to like him. When she refuses to speak to him for the first week, suspicious and distrustful of the man whose followers believed it necessary to steal her from her home, he prostrates himself before her in apology.

“The actions of those who gather around me may as well be my actions, however unintentional,” he insists. “It was only concern for my older brother that moved me to send my friends out to find news of him. It is my sincerest hope to reconcile with him one day, but approaching him is dangerous, as I have no doubt you understand. Taizō’s decision to bring you here was impulsive and unwise, even before he knew of your condition.”

“Exactly what was he hoping to achieve?” Shachi asks frostily.

Asura glances up, apparently surprised that she has answered, and offers a weak smile. “From his account of things, he had a rather naïve hope that my older brother could be convinced to retrieve you. In doing so, he would have to reunite with myself and my father.”

“Your friend has the logic of a child,” she tells him coolly. Despite what she threatened Taizō with on the ship, she doesn’t expect Indra will come for her. He has more important matters to see to, even if he has some soft spot for her. And given that he doesn’t even know she’s pregnant? “I assume by the fact that you all continue to live your man didn’t leave any indication of who took me?”

“Um…it would seem so,” Asura allows with a wince. “He, ah, seemed to think revealing who took you should wait until he was far from my brother.”

“At least he has a modicum of self-preservation.”

“I’ve said so,” Asura agrees, and then pauses. His expression turns serious. “I want to make peace with my brother, but not in this way. Not with something held over his head.”

“Then you will return me to my home?” Shachi asks.

“If that’s truly what you wish,” Asura says. “But consider your condition, little sister. Knowing that you carry my niece or nephew, I am hesitant to send you on another stressful journey so soon after you have arrived. Please consider staying and partaking of our hospitality a while longer.”

“Your hospitality doesn’t interest me,” she replies. “It’s not only my husband I was taken from, but my children as well. I need to return to them.”

Asura appears chagrined at this and sighs. “Very well. If you’re so certain. I will make arrangements for you.”

“Thank you,” she says stiffly.

“But before you go, will you not speak with my father? He is away at the moment, meeting with Lord Gamamaru, but I know he would like to meet the woman who has borne his grandchildren.”

Shachi’s eyes widen with thoughts of the old man’s betrayal of her husband, and look away. “I would prefer not to, my lord. It’s imperative I return home right away.”

Asura is clearly unhappy about this, but he nods as if he expected it.

“I will do my best to return you as quickly as possible then.”

As it turns out, it isn’t quite so easy to honour his pledge.

つづく

 

Chapter Text

 


The hospital in Kumo is as pristine and efficient as the one back home, yet Sakura can't help fidgeting while she lies back on the assigned bed. The doctor meant to be conducting her ultrasound is taking far too long to arrive, and though they're only here with the express purpose of checking the baby's health (and learning it's gender), she would rather be wandering around the hospital.

Apparently, there's a medic-nin visiting from Iwa that's experimenting with chakra tethering. Sakura's itching to see how that's done, mind already ablaze with potential life-saving procedures if it is successful.

Also, she really has to pee.

Her eyes flit toward Sasuke, who lurks by the door, wary and restless. He's even less comfortable right now than she is, although in his case it's a combination of not liking hospitals, or people I general, or Kumo. The latter two are more or less mutual – people here have long memories about his attack on the Raikage's brother, and then there's the fact that the Raikage himself has never completely forgiven him about the arm…

Time for a distraction…

"So, which are you hoping for?" she asks, making him adopt a somewhat confused frown. "A boy or a girl?"

They've never really talked about it. Her first trimester she didn't really bring it up – it felt a little like tempting fate to talk too much about the baby while the risk of miscarriage was still high. And then they were both so consumed with understanding and investigating her dreams, they never really got around to it.

Sasuke doesn't answer right away, and she wonders if he's actually thinking about it, weighing pros and cons…

"I don't care," he finally says, and shoulders relaxing. "I never thought I would be at the point in my life where I would have a child, let alone have a preference over whether it's a girl or a boy."

"You did when we were twelve," she reminds him innocently. "You wanted to repopulate. It was a life goal that you were going to make a reality."

Sasuke shoots her a half-hearted look of annoyance, but his mouth twitches. She often teases him that he was secretly as preoccupied with sex as any other pre-teen boy at that age. It at least downplays his other, more tragic life goals.

"If family history has anything to say about it, it will be a boy," Sasuke declares, not addressing her comment.

"Why do you say that?"

"Because in my family, there have only ever been boys," he shrugs. "In the main branch, anyhow. The Uchiha were never as strict about maintaining clan divisions and controls as the Hyūga, but my immediate family was recognised as the main branch. According to the genealogies I've studied, we only ever had men. My brother and I, my father, my grandfather and his brothers, great-grandfather and his brothers…"

"But there were female Uchiha," Sakura points out. She's seen their names on the rows of gravestones in Konoha's cemetery.

"In the branch families. Women like my mother marry into my our family either from one of the other clan branches, or from outside," Sasuke says. "Although the latter was uncommon."

"That's something to think about," Sakura remarks, thinking on it. Then she grins up at him. "So are you saying I'm uncommon?"

"You're as uncommon as they come," he replies with a smirk.

It disappears an instant later when the door slides open and a lab-coat clad woman steps inside, interrupting their private moment. She beams at them.

"Good afternoon! I'm Dr. Sagara – I'm so sorry to have kept you waiting, Ms Haruno –"

"Uchiha," Sakura corrects, at the same time as Sasuke does.

The woman jumps, having not seen him by the door.

"Oh – I'm…I apologise – I didn't see you there," she says, voice a little strained as she bows; then she summons up a smile. "Congratulations on your marriage, then. We had not received the news of your wedding here in Kumo – I'm surprised, considering how well-known you both are…"

"Well, not everyone wants as big a celebration as certain Uzumakis did," Sakura says lightly, noticing Sasuke tense in annoyance. He may be proud to call her his wife now, but he is also a very private person. She's pretty sure he threatened Naruto with losing another limb if he spready the news about their rather small ceremony.

"We're here for a reason," Sasuke reminds them both, testy; Dr Sagara jumps again and hurries over to the bed.

"Alright. Let me just get set up. If you would like to wait outside, Mr Uchiha –"

"I will stay."

"Oh. Um. Alright. Forgive me, I didn't mean to be rude, it's simply, I'm not used to husbands who stay in the room while –"

"I'm not most husbands."

Dr Sagara is flustered, and Sakura fights to keep the smile off her face. Sasuke gets rather moody when she accuses him of being over-protective, but it's inarguable at this point. She has visions of him becoming one of those parents that hurries after their children with an umbrella lest they get a sunburn.

The great Sasuke Uchiha…a helicopter parent.

She can't help the giggle that escapes her, which causes Sasuke to frown at her because he probably knows exactly what she's thinking. Still, it takes his attention off of Dr Sagara, begins to prep the machine.

Be nice, Sakura mouths to her husband as she pulls her tunic up over her belly; he rolls his eyes in annoyance. However, that doesn't stop him from being inordinately smug when Dr Sagara spreads the cold gel across her belly and Sakura can't help yelping.

"I apologise," Dr Sagara says with a quick smile, and then begins to run the handheld probe across the rounded area. "This shouldn't take too long…"

Sakura makes a face – the movement of the probe and the doctor's light downward pressure cause her bladder to protest – but remains silent. The machine makes a pulsing sound, and she cranes her neck to watch the grainy black and white image on the monitor. Sasuke hasn't moved, but then he has a Sharingan to help him make out the details.

A large, white figure coalesces into view on the screen, and Sakura's breath catches in her throat.

It's not the first time they've seen the baby – her first ultrasound was two months ago, but at the time it looked morel like bean than anything else. Now, however, what she and Sasuke are looking at is very clearly baby-shaped.

Nose and lips and tiny fingers and toes that Sakura finds herself counting.

"Sasuke…" she whispers. "Do you see…?"

But her husband is silent – probably didn't even hear her – eyes fixed to the screen.

"Let's find out if you're having a boy or a girl," Dr Sagara declares cheerfully, shifting the probe again. "The legs are closed - but maybe we can convince him or her to move."

She brings her other hand forward, placing it on Sakura's belly, and sends a gentle nudge of chakra into her womb. The baby doesn't notice at first, and then suddenly begins to shift around, like a child being tickled might try to avoid prying fingers. The image on the screen jumps and warbles. They all wait with baited breath to see how it will settle.

When the image settles again, the nurse looks surprised.

"Uh…it looks like he – or she – has just turned their back to us," she says, and offers Sakura an apologetic smile. "It seems your child doesn't like to be social."

Sasuke's flummoxed expression is what sets her off; within seconds, Sakura (already feeling an overwhelming flood of emotion) is laughing so hard that she starts to cry.

眠り

Shachi has always been deeply lucky with her previous pregnancies, never experiencing more than a token amount of nausea or discomfort. The same cannot be said for her latest.

In the days following her meeting with Asura, she often finds herself bedridden, unable to move for fear of becoming violently ill. She is unable to keep down solid food and certain aromas leave her severely dizzy and lightheaded. Her mind feels muddled from lack of sleep – an annoying symptom that Sakura starts to exhibit as well – and her throat and lips are so tender from vomiting that she can barely speak.

As she finds herself becoming thinner and weaker, any plans to leave Asura's home must be postponed.

The healers that Asura calls to her side maintain that the pregnancy is an unhealthy one, and offer her herb concoctions that would end it and bring her relief. She is furious at this, and in a brief burst of energy throws them from her chambers. It's the last time she hears such nonsense, and from that moment her sister-in-law, Kanna, takes it upon herself to care for her.

The diminutive woman sits by her bed, feeding her tea and water and soup, washing her feeble limbs and assuring her this sickness will pass. Several times Shachi begs to have her chakra restraints removed, hoping to heal herself from whatever is wrong with her, but when Asura finally agrees to it, she finds it doesn't matter.

It isn't a disease or an infection – simply a difficult pregnancy, and for that, there is no cure.

It's just as well. She can barely muster the strength to ensure the child within her is healthy without knocking herself unconscious. Her chakra feels stifled and weak from being repressed for so long.

Her weakened body makes her more susceptible to fever, and with that comes delirium. On the worst days, she spends her waking hours in restless confusion. She dreams of many things, none of which make sense. A girl with pink hair crying out tearfully to a boy as he walks away, a fan emblazoned on his back. A woman dressed in white, with a rhombus in the centre of her forehead faces a man with wild hair and hard eyes, pain written into both their features. A strange woman in white kneeling over a forest grave.

In the worst day, her imagination becomes more ruthless, more attuned to her fears.

She dreams fitfully of returning home to find nothing but charred ruins and bones. Or worse, returning to Indra to find that he has chosen a new bride to replace her. She is too weak to cry, and is instead forced to live through these dreams in silence.

The only comfort is the feel of the child beneath her heart – even as she becomes weaker, it grows stronger. She is determined to feel those first fluttering sensation of life, and to do that she has to live. This burning desire is perhaps what allows her to pull through.

Sakura finds herself just as invested.

No way are you going to live through everything you have and die of a fever or wasting sickness – we are better than this! We're stronger than this!

Once again she focusses all of her semi-conscious efforts into fusing her dream self – her past incarnation – with strength. Just as she did when she saved Indra's life, she now tries to save her own.

If that's even how it works…

After what seems like forever, Shachi's fever finally begins to go down.

The morning after Sakura attempts this, Sasuke comments on her sluggishness, but she brushes it off. All that matters are that her efforts pay off.

Slowly, Shachi's health improves. One day she wakes, inexplicably hungry and energetic. Kanna watches her warily as she eats, and both of them are surprised and pleased when she is able to keep the food down.

As she regains her strength, Shachi requests to see Asura.

"He promised me that he would bring me home," she tells Kanna. "My strength is returning now. He can make good on his promise."

Kanna shifts uncomfortably. "Now is not the best time, sister. Winter has arrived, and it would be a challenge to even the hardiest traveller, not least one who is in a delicate way."

"Winter?" Shachi repeats. "But the trees were still colourful when I came to be here."

"It has been two months since you have been ill," she is told.

Shachi feels as if she has turned to stone.

Two months of her life, gone. And in that time…no sign of Indra?

Is he even looking?

The thought belongs to both Shachi and Sakura, but Shachi is the one to dismiss it right out.

"The cold is not something I worry about," she tells her sister-in-law, going so far as to light the fire in her room with a single breath. It makes her dizzy, but it makes her point. The impressed look on Kanna's face is also worth it. "I must return to my husband and children."

Kanna sighs now.

"That is something easier said than done," she says quietly. "Lord Indra is missing."

Shachi freezes. "What?"

"Once you took ill, my husband grew very worried," Kanna explained. "He left right away to find his brother, to speak to him and explain your whereabouts. To bring him here to you."

"And…?"

"And he was not there," Asura says quietly, entering her chambers. His smile is gone now, making him look even more like Indra, although instead of hard anger in his eyes, she sees genuine regret. "I went to your village and asked to speak to him. The headman told me that Indra and his children have disappeared."

Shachi's hand grips the front of her robe in horror. "Dis…disappeared?"

"There is now unrest among the people as they try to find someone to lead them in his absence," Asura continues. "Some think he abandoned them, others think he saw your abduction as an attack on his clan. They say he wanted to ensure his children were protected."

"Yes…that has to be it," Shachi murmurs, distracted. She is torn between relief that her children are with their father, and an overwhelming worry. Where would he have gone? Is this why he hasn't come for her? He was busy bringing their family to somewhere that they would be safe? How will she find him if he is no longer where she expects him to be?

"Little sister, I will find him for you," Asura promises. "But know that until I do, you are safe here. Stay with us until you have borne the child, and when you are strong again, if I haven't found him, then I will bring you with me."

Shachi is quiet for a long time, Asura's words slowly sinking in, and yet not having any true meaning to her.

"I will wait until spring," she says quietly, but firmly. "And then you will help me find him."

"But you will still be–" Kanna protests.

"Then arrange a litter and an escort, because I am returning to my people," Shachi says coldly. "I will do it even without your help if I must. MY child will be born in the land that has become my home, not here."

"Sister, this could be your home."

"Not without my children. Without my husband. And it's far more likely that he will find me there than here," she replies. "Especially as he doesn't yet know it's your hospitality that I am benefitting from."

Her words clearly sadden Asura, but he nods. "Very well. I promise you. Once you are well enough, I will personally bring you home. And if my brother is there, I will accept whatever consequences he chooses to impart."

Shachi pauses here, impressed by his earnestness, and says quietly, "I will try to stay his hand. There should not be bloodshed between brothers."

Asura's eyes soften, and he looks like he intends to reach out for her, but she turns to stare out the window.

Her composure is an act.

Despite her confident and imperious words, the moment Asura and Kanna leave her alone, she weeps. Grief fills her at the loss, even if it might be temporary. She is trapped in this place, surrounded by kind people who are not her people. Cared for by a family that she would have wished for when she was a child, and yet they feel like pale shadows to her without Indra by her side.

I want to go home…

"I think it's dead."

Sasuke's quiet, amused voice breaks through her thoughts, and Sakura glances up at him in surprise. His eyes are on her hands, and when she looks down, she sees that the fish she was deboning has been reduced to a mushy pulp.

"Oh – sorry, darling," she apologises. "I guess I wasn't paying attention…"

Sasuke doesn't reply – he simply removes the cutting board and pulpy fish, then passes over his own – pristine rice balls and stir-fried vegetables that still look delicious even without the fish.

Sakura scowls. "There's something wrong with this picture."

"Why?"

"You spent the last five year of life as an international criminal and a vagabond, and somehow you cook better than I do. How is that fair?"

"It's a survival skill," Sasuke says with a shrug. "I didn't have a choice but to learn."

"Yeah, but how come you do it better than me?" she complains as she begins to nibble at the rice.

Sasuke seems to sense this isn't actually a question she wants answered and so instead, he changes the subject. "You seem very distracted the past few days."

"I just have a lot on my mind."

"Hm. More dreams?"

"I'm that obvious, huh?" she mumbles, trying not to feel guilty.

"We haven't been around another person for almost a week now," Sasuke answers. "Obviously, it's not something to do with our lives. Our present lives."

"I'm just feeling a little helplessness," she sighs, "because she feels helpless. And it's like watching someone else's life, but at the same time it's my life. Only the bad bits."

Sasuke raises an eyebrow, silently willing her to continue.

"She's been separated from Indra, and all she wants is to be reunited with him, but she's stuck in one place whether she likes it or not. And Asura promised to find him, and it's just…it's like what happened with us," she finishes, pushing away her food. "The promise of a lifetime. Except, it's more like 'lifetimes', isn't it?" Frustration fills her, overtaking her anxiety. "Why am I always waiting for Naruto to bring you back? Why do I have to sit behind and wait? I hate it! It makes me feel useless, and it's even worse than usual because it's her feeling it too, and…and…and why isn't he looking for her?!"

She glares at Sasuke, as if expecting him to answer, but he offers her only a confused look; instead of tempering her growing anger, it just makes it worse.

"You were halfway around the world and found out I was in trouble, and you came after me to make sure I was okay, and we weren't even involved yet! But she's his wife – the mother of his children – and he hasn't found her by now?! He's supposed to be this amazing warrior, why didn't he figure out where she was right away? And why the hell would he take the kids? They're all under ten, they're not old enough to be trekking all across the ass-end of nowhere just so that he can be all mysterious and broody! And while he's off doing that, she's making herself sick over him and trying to make sure their baby is healthy, and he's such a… he's a jerk!"

She jumps to her feet, cheeks flushed and fists clenched.

"What – did he just decide that she served her purpose? 'Oh, let's move on and forget that she ever existed?' There's supposed to be a connection between them! I felt it! Even if he has the emotional range of a rock, he should want to find her – Shannaro!"

She stamps her foot in emphasis.

Sasuke barely jumps out of the way in time to avoid the split in the earth, which consumes their sleeping rolls and backpacks.

Sakura's anger drains away as quickly as it arrived.

"Oh. Oh no – oh, gods, I didn't mean – !" Sakura stares at the cracked ground, then sends Sasuke a panicked look. "I didn't mean to, I was just –"

"Upset."

"Yes."

"Projecting."

"… A little."

"Because of hormones, or the dreams?"

"…Both?"

"Hm."

They regard each other silently a moment. Sakura begins to apologise again, but Sasuke is the one who speaks first for once.

"I wish I had answers for you," he tells her, and she knows that he regrets his inability to assuage her fears and worries. "If I thought it would help, we could investigate the matter more based on what we know of Indra –"

"No," she says immediately. "No, I don't…I don't want to accidentally wake up any more past lives."

Sasuke nods, but she can tell he's relieved. Indra's legacy has only recently been put to rest, there's every possibility that exploring his past life might accidentally reawaken him. In fact, she's kind of surprised it hasn't happened already.

"There had to have been a reason," Sasuke concludes quietly. "Neither of us has ever done anything without a reason."

"I know…she knows, too," Sakura mumbles, crossing her arms across above her growing bump. "But that doesn't make waiting any easier. And it doesn't help that her pregnancy's been horrible. Ugh, that was brutal. She was stuck in bed for two months." She shudders. "At least so far, my pregnancy has been easy."

"Other than inexplicable dreams about your past life."

"Other than that," she agrees.

"And the sudden bursts of hormonal rage that destroy our belongings."

Sakura winces, and peeks over at the mound of shattered dirt. "We'll be able to pick them out though, right?"

Sasuke sighs.

眠り

Throughout the winter, Shachi continues to grow stronger. As soon as she is able to leave her chambers more often, she walks around the estate and, if weather permits, beyond. She is no longer a prisoner here – the seals for her chakra were never replaced – but she still feels as if freedom eludes her, making her restless.

The servants and always-present disciples of Asura don't speak to her, a combination of intimidation and her own reluctance to make friends. However, Kanna usually accompanies her on her walks. Despite the circumstances, they have developed a rapport of sorts. Sometimes Shachi imagines that if their lives had been different, she and her sister-in-law would have been close friends.

Sometimes she takes tea with Asura, and he tells her tales of when he and Indra were younger. She tries not to show how desperate she is to hear these stories, or how delighted she is when Asura mentions a quirk of Indra's that her own children possess.

He talks with affection of his father, Hagoromo, which is a stark difference from the cold enmity her husband resorts to. It makes her curious about the man, who is still away in a place Asura calls Mount Myoboku.

"Time runs differently there," he explains, which makes no sense to her but she accepts nonetheless.

She's actually relieved, because she has no idea what she would say to her mysterious father-in-law anyhow.

The only problem with having Asura and Kanna as her only company is that she always feels very clearly like an outsider. This becomes especially clear over time as she observes their interactions.

In the presence of others, they are polite and show their affection in little ways. They smile, and tease each other lightly with words and jokes, more like comrades then like spouses. It's something Shachi watches with awe, hardly able to comprehended. When they are alone – or rather, when they don't realise she can see them – they hold each other close. Asura might run his fingers through Kanna's hair, or she will nudge his shoulder playfully.

Sometimes, he will lean down and capture his wife's lips, softly and not as a prelude to anything else, but in a way that Shachi can tell is an expression of his love and fondness.

She has to look away in these moments.

Not only is it a reminder of her own missing mate, but of how different her own marriage is. Even if – when – she is reunited with him, Indra will never be an affectionate man. He has never kissed her, and she has never dared to initiate such an intimate gesture.

She never realised before now that she craves that little scrap of affection. The realization adds another element of disappointment to an already frustrated body and spirit.

She misses Indra more than ever.

The safety she feels in his presence, and the quiet companionship of late night conversation. The lack of the latter is even more noticeable over time. Shachi is used to feeling somewhat unsatisfied during the later months of pregnancy, but she finds she wasn't prepared for just how much she does with this one. She craves Indra's touch, burning for him more than she can ever remember.

This time, he isn't there to soothe her with quiet words or the furtive, almost guilty resting of his hands upon her belly. As the winter months continue to stretch on, she falls asleep every night with her heart reaching for someone so far away he might as well not exist.

Lying alone on her narrow pallet in her guest chamber, she misses the solid warmth of him beside her. And the way he would lie still with her after they were both sated and spent, silently accepting as she curled into his side and twined their legs together. She liked to lie with her ear pressed against his chest, listening to his heartrate return to normal, arms wrapped around his torso. He would never hold her when they were awake, but at night, whilst they slept, somehow he always ended up spooned against her back, arm slung over her. Sometimes she would wake and feel his mouth brushing against her neck, and she would shift to place her hand over his, pretending she was still asleep as she pulled him closer. Even though she knew he would be aware at the slightest movement. Even though they were both awake, and they both knew it. Somehow, in the dark, they could pretend that this was unconscious movement, permissible; the product of sleeping bodies achieving what conscious minds could not allow.

These nights, there is none of that.

Sometimes, before Shachi succumbs to sleep, she wishes for the other kind of closeness. That of sweat-slicked bodies and lust-filled gasps and red eyes watching her in the darkness as she falls apart. These dreams are almost as painful as the other kind, because it's not just a yearning in her heart but in her body. On these nights, she lies awake for hours, tormented, her body crying out for him.

One night she finally gives in, unable to take the images dancing across the canvas of her mind.

Her memory is good and she can perfectly imagine Indra there beside her, his hand sliding down between her legs and his fingers feeling how ready she is for him. Ever since he first discovered that one sweet spot, he has been unyielding in his pursuit.

Her own fingers trace the path, timid and half-ashamed of what she is doing, but as the shivering bursts of pleasure crawl through her, those feelings recede. There is a familiar sensation of tension building, an expectant sense of impending relief as she imagines Indra, filling her completely, leaning over her –

No, beneath her. She learned in their first year together that he has a secret preference for her to sit astride him and ride him until they both reach completion.

She imagines it's his fingers, lingering at her entrance, his mouth nipping at her breast, so cleverly working in tandem while she tries not to cry out. It's usually her that is the loudest – she begs and cries and (occasionally) resorts to cursing. He is always so adamant about not showing his own enjoyment, trying to remain above the whole experience, but sometimes – on rare nights when their joinings draw into the third or fourth bout – when they are both on the precipice of the pain and pleasure being too much, he will give in.

A broken, wondering sound, ripped from lips and clenched teeth trying to bite down on it, but always – always – recognizable to her.

'Shachi.'

It's as if he's beside her right then, and she cries out against the darkness. The emptiness of her chamber echoes her voice back to her and she freezes, reality suddenly crumbling down around her as she remembers – he is not here.

Her release hits her right after.

There is no relief in it.

Sakura wakes, heart racing and lungs demanding air. Heat spreads across her entire body, trying to escape, but it's as if her skin is an impenetrable barrier. Sweat beads on her forehead, trailing down her neck, back and breasts and she struggles to free herself from twisting prison of her sheets.

"Sakura?"

A face looms in front of her – Indra? No, Sasuke – the shadows of early dawn making it hard to discern his expression.

"Are you alright?"

Sleep causes his voice to fall into a lower register, and she shivers in a way that has nothing to do with cold. She's still far too warm, the tight feeling in her stomachpulsating. She should answer him, she should get up and walk around, she should –

But it's been so long…!

His hand falls on the back of her neck, tentative and light, but it feels as if it's charged, like he's running a current across her skin and suddenly she can't think of anything beyond here, now and mine.

Without replying she shoves him backward, the force of her palm on his chest causing him to let out an oof! of surprise. With quick, frantic movements she crawls over him, wrestling him back against their shared pallet, ripping at the blankets between them.

He doesn't offer much resistance, and if he is bemused by her sudden aggression, he doesn't show it. Not that she could see it if he did, occupied as she is kissing his mouth, nipping at his jaw and licking a line down his throat. Her hands busy themselves with yanking at his shirt and her hips grind down against his.

He's only half-hard beneath her, but he grunts in surprise, reflexively jerking his hips up to meet hers, and she knows it won't take long to fix that. One hand fumbles between them, questing beneath loose drawstring pants until her fingers wrap around his cock. Hard, firm strokes – quick and harsh enough that there might be pain mixed in with the pleasure, but he doesn't even stop her – and he is completely erect.

Her other hand tears at her own clothes – T-shirt and drawstring pants belonging to him, loose and easily slipped out of – then drags his own down, just to the middle of his thigh. She's too impatient for more than that, clambering astride him and desperately trying to position herself over him.

"Sakura," he says, dazed, sluggish uncertainty in his voice.

"Shut up," she whispers, frantic and desperate; it's a plea and order. "Shut up shut up please just – oh!"

Let it never be said that Sasuke can't do as he's told.

She's barely sunk down onto him, the feeling of being full a staggering relief, but he's rocking upward, hand splayed between her shoulder blades, mouth pressed to her right breast. She cries out, gripping his shoulders as his teeth tug at the nipple, twisting her hips as she tries to get the right angle.

She's never like this, she never needs so badly, as if some nameless force is driving her forward. As if for a split second, the roles are reversed and she isn't completely in control of herself, but a vehicle for someone else's needs.

For her needs.

Rocking hard against him, Sakura sets a punishing pace, one that his Sasuke swearing against her skin, and she only just has the presence of mind to reign in her strength, because otherwise she knows she'll crush his pelvis, or the shoulder she is clutching, but she's reaching, reaching, and she just needs –

She lifts herself up, almost completely off of him, and then comes down hard enough to make him shout and her see stars when his cock brushes just there. Something within her trembles, demands more, and she repeats the movement twice, her inner walls clenching down harder on him each time, the heat of her body coiling tighter –

"Fuck, Sakura!"

And he sounds surprised, utterly caught off-guard by his orgasm, shuddering into her, hips still jerking upward reflexively. She feels the warm wetness inside her, but she can't stop, she's not there yet, she can't –

"No!" she whimpers, her rhythm becoming disjointed, the coil of warmth dissipating, threatening to crawl back across her nervous system. "Sasuke – please – !"

She is gasping, wild-eyed, trying to get him to understand.

He still seems a little dazed, but at her plea, he throws himself into movement. Pushing her down on her back, he slips free of her, replacing his cock with fingers; she lets out a garbled curse as he begins determinedly thrusting in and out, thumb rubbing against her clitoris with intent. Her fingers clutch at him, trying to find purchase in his hair or the curve of his shoulder, still reaching –

"Sakura –"

"I can't – !"

"Sakura, stop straining for it," he growls.

"I can't, I need –"

"Look at me." With supreme effort, she does so, meeting his intense, mismatched gaze. "Sakura, let go."

And is it her imagination, or did his right eye just flash red?

It doesn't matter, because that's when her entire body pull taut, spine going rigid and joints locking. It's as if a wave has broken over her, allowing the unbearable, tight heat to dissipate, and she finally falls back against the ground, trembling.

Sakura gasps for air, as if she wasn't breathing during the entire encounter, and is dimly aware of Sasuke tumbling forward as well. He catches himself on his arm, manoeuvering himself to his side rather than on top of her as he would have before her pregnancy. His face is buried just above the swell of her breast, and warm puffs of his breath tells her he's as out of sorts as she is.

For a long time the only sound is their breathing, slowly returning to normal.

"Not…not that I'm at all adverse," Sasuke eventually says, and then there's a pause like he's trying to remember correct sentence structure, "but what exactly was that?"

She wants to laugh and cry because she doesn't know herself.

"I think," she says after a while, "it was three months worth of hormones and frustration."

"Hm?"

She presses her palms against her eyes, distractedly murmuring, "I haven't seen him in months."

Sasuke tenses.

"'I'," he repeats flatly. He pushes himself up onto his arm to consider her, eyes narrowed.

Sakura realises that that look is for a second later as her lethargic words catch up with her.

"You know that I mean," she tells him tiredly. "'She'. 'I'. It's kind of hard to keep my pronouns straight after you just fried my synapses, alright?"

"You shouldn't have to worry about keeping your pronouns straight," he points out, sitting up. She scrambles to do the same, not wanting him to be looking down on her. "Sakura, how connected to her are you?"

"I don't know what you mean…"

"You just referred to yourself as if you were her. You told me the dreams were getting more real, that you felt more like her, but what if that's not it?" he asks. "What if it's more than that?"

"What are you getting at?"

He sighs, and then an uncharacteristically uncertain look overtakes his features. "I mean, how much of what we just did was you wanting me – and how much of it was her wanting him?"

She opens her mouth to reply, and then freezes. She finds she can only stare at him in wide-eyed dismay, because she doesn't know the answer.

眠り

One day, as the snow blankets the land, Asura asks her if she will take supper with him and his father. The old sage has been keeping his distance from her during her stay, and she has never seen him except across the courtyard or in the shadows.

Kanna says that he spends most of his days in seclusion, meditating, but the way she says it Shachi thinks it's not the whole story.

Buoyed by the curiosity born from both Indra and Asura's stories, she eventually agrees.

Lord Hagoromo is an odd figure of a man, pale and towering. Although he unquestionably radiates power, there is something about him that suggests frailty – whether it's the way he rests one arm in the fold of his cloak, or perhaps the heaviness in his tread, she isn't sure. At any rate, it isn't as noticeable once his eyes set upon her, and a pleased expression crosses his face.

"Well met, daughter," he greets, deep voice becoming reedy with age. "I am gladdened that your strength has returned, and that you were well enough to sup with us tonight."

Neither mentions that she has been healthy for weeks now.

"It is my honour to be here," she says politely, then glances around. "Is my sister Lady Kanna not to join us tonight?"

Something like pain crosses her brother-in-law's face, and Lord Hagoromo's shoulders slump a little.

"She informed me she did not feel well tonight," Asura says, offering an apologetic smile that is a little too forced. "She asked that I convey her apologies, and that she will join us next time."

"You assume there will be a next time?" Shachi asks quietly, trying to change the subject. "That is rather presumptuous of you, my lord Asura."

Her brother-in-law blinks, and then realises it's an attempt at humour, and beams at her. "Well, my lady Shachi, I suppose Father and I will just have to prove what wonderful conversationalists we are. The winter here is long and hard, and sometimes the only way to stave off boredom is through stories."

"I imagine you have your own tales to tell," Lord Hagoromo says quietly, tilting his head to one side. "That is…if you are willing to share them."

"There is not much to tell," she demurs, but she somehow finds herself relating to both men a brief version of her childhood. Over the course of the meal, the old sage asks her polite questions, carefully to steer clear of any mentions of her husband. She is unsure if that is more for her benefit or his.

He is also very interested in her children. He listens with suspiciously shining eyes as she speaks of her two sons and four daughters in turn, describing their growth from birth to the moment that she left them. It is simultaneously s joy to speak so freely and so enthusiastically, bit it also renews the pain she feels at having been separated from them.

Has the youngest learned to walk properly yet? Have the older ones also begun their training? Are they alright without her, with only their father to care for them? He has never shied away from helping them through illness of injury, but he is not the type to nurture. She hopes the older ones are looking out for the younger ones, that they care for one another to stave off the loneliness.

There is nothing worse than loneliness…

The old sage notices a lull in her storytelling, and suggests that perhaps she is growing weary.

"It is best for you and the child that you rest," he tells her, motioning for servants to come and clear the table. "While you are here, it would please me greatly if you visited with me. Since Asura has taken over my teachings, I am not so busy that I can't spare some hours to speak with the mother of my grandchildren. If you are to leave us again, I would like to know you as well a possible."

There is a note of entreaty there, a lonely old man's melancholy plea, that has Shachi agreeing.

"It hurts," she whispers dimly one evening, staring into their fire pit.

"Where?" Sasuke asks immediately, concerned.

"No," she tells him gently, offering a sad smile. "Not like that, not the baby. He's fine – using my bladder as a trampoline, but otherwise fine."

Her husband relaxes. "What hurts?"

Sakura sighs and looks back into the flames. "This – this feeling. Feeling what she feels, even with the filter of a dream."

Sasuke doesn't look placated by this.

"I thought I understood," she goes on. "When I – when she was first taken, I didn't give it much thought. I know what it's like to love someone from far away – to not know if you'll have your feelings returned or not. So I thought that's just something she was going to have to endure. I kind of…I felt annoyed with her, for pining." She offers him a sheepish look. "I did so much of that myself, I didn't want to relive that."

"You grew out of it," Sasuke reminds her, even though he has confessed to her before that the idea of her always thinking of him made his years of wandering a little more bearable.

"I know. But it turns out, it's more than that. Being away from him, and knowing – she knows he's not coming from her, I think. Even though she's hoping, she knows. And it's…it's like knives in my gut," Sakura shudders. "What she feels for him, it's so strong – I never realised. And the hope is the worst part. She's there, every day – or every night, I guess – planning for the moment when she gets to go back to him. Even if she knows he isn't there anymore. She's just going to wait for him."

"He doesn't deserve that," Sasuke says with a frown. "No one deserves that kind of devotion, but he definitely doesn't."

Sakura sighs. "You can forgive everyone in the world but yourself, can't you?"

He looks away from her, and that's enough answer.

"It's a good thing you have me, then," she says decisively. "I will always forgive you."

"Don't say that."

"Oh, I'm not saying I will ever let you get off with pulling any of the crap you did before," she amends, "And this time I have no compunction about knocking some sense into you – literally, if I have to." She offers him a brief smile, and though he doesn't return it, his eyes glint. "But I'm saying…after the literal sense-knocking, I would forgive you. I don't think I couldn't."

"Sakura…"

"And, if it ever happens again…that I have to wait, I mean…I will," she tells him. "I guess that kind of thing carried over. I think she'd wait an eternity for him…and I know I would. For you."

Sasuke's face does that thing, where he's tries not to look upset when she says something he thinks is unwise. "You're being ridiculous."

"I mean it," she repeats. "I would."

"Sakura…"

"If you hadn't – if Naruto hadn't helped you overcome the curse, I would have waited forever," she insists unabashedly. "I'm not saying I would sit there wasting away, like she does in my dreams. I would have lived my life to the fullest I possibly could – but I wouldn't be able to give my heart to anyone else. I would have died loving you and waiting to see you again in the next life." She allows a bitter laugh. "I knew that even before I knew about reincarnation or past lives or Shachi were even real. I knew it the day you left Konoha the first time."

Sasuke shakes his head at this, uncomprehending. "We were children."

"Why do you think it was so terrifying?" she asks. "I just…I could never say anything about it out loud. I mean, not beyond the things I did say. That I wanted to get you back. That I wanted to make sure you were happy. But if people knew the exact way I felt…"

She self-consciously rubs her stomach.

"People would think – people already thought I was insane for loving you," she whispers. "Especially after all that time. Sometimes I thought I was crazy myself, but I think I understand now. I wasn't crazy. I was just…falling into old habits. Really old habits."

Sasuke is silent, thoughtful.

A part of her is very curious about his thoughts on the subject; another, childish part of her wants him to declare a similar reciprocal devotion to her. The other part knows that he needs time. He has difficulty processing strong emotions on his best day, but added to his reticence since she started unintentionally channelling Shachi?

Better not to push him on it just yet…

Instead, decides to make light for now.

"In any case, I want to take my victories where I can. Especially since there's still so much that we don't know," she says, leaning into him. He moves his arm, allowing her to slip under it, and although the action is sluggish, as if he isn't really paying attention, it's devoid of any tension. "And, I mean, I think I'm working through my past life issues in a pretty healthy manner. Don't you?"

"Hm."

"Oh, come on, admit it. I could be doing a lot worse. I haven't even had to rip anyone's arm off."

"Yet."

"… Yet."

つづく

 

Chapter Text

 


True to her word, Shachi spends the coming weeks visiting with her father-in-law. The first few days it is because Kanna is still ill. When Shachi asks to see her, Asura lightly shrugs it off.

"It's simply the weather. This time of year puts her in a sad humour," he tells her, but from the way his eyes shift, Shachi suspects he isn't being completely honest. "Besides, you should not exert yourself in your condition."

Right, because pregnancy means we've suddenly become incapable of doing anything…

"I'm with child, not carrying the plague," Shachi mutters as she walks away, and Sakura can't help feeling a little pleases that somewhere within the quiet, respectful woman there's some indication of spunk.

Asura was right when he said how dull it is around the estate in the winter. Shachi can only watch his disciples train so often before she grows bored. Some of them even talk to her now, but she thinks most are still afraid. Taizo makes a beeline in the opposite direction whenever he sees her, which is only right. Asura is more merciful than his brother; Indra would have had the man flayed alive.

On her loneliest, most unsatisfying days she can't decide whose method of justice she prefers.

It's how she finds herself sitting across from Lord Hagoromo, sipping tea and listening to him talk about everything and nothing. He talks of the weather, his students, of Asura's work with them, explains the concept of ninshu and sometimes recites old poems. Every now and then he will pause, look at her as if he wants to ask her something, and then simply continue talking.

In an effort to distract her from her homesickness, he begins to tell her a story. Before she realises it, she finds herself enraptured in the same tale that Indra once told her, but much more detailed. Her husband is a man of concise words and has little use for flowery imagery; Lord Hagoromo is a wordsmith.

Before she is aware of it, she is drawn into the story, an eager listener

Because neither she nor the old man can sit for long periods of time, he doesn't tell it to her in all one sitting. He draws out the tale across the weeks, and she returns to see him every day, even long after Kanna is well again. Sometimes her sister-in-law joins them, other times Asura does as well; sometimes it is just Ashura and Hagoromo.

She begins to suspect about her sister-in-law's mystery ailment; she has seen that expression too often on the wives of Indra's disciples. Especially those who have miscarried or given birth to stillborn babies. She has never been so unlucky, but she can sympathise. And understanding the pain Kanna has undergone somehow makes her seem more relatable.

The longer she is with them, in fact, Shachi learns that her in-laws are not horrible people. She had always suspected that he exaggerated his tale some, but it's difficult to reconcile the two different views.

Perhaps they sense her wavering in her sensibilities, because as the days become longer, her in-laws' conversations turn to Indra. Together, Asura and Hagoromo tell her of the circumstances leading to his departure, and also mention their hopes that reconciliation can be found in the future.

"Unfortunately, the situation is a complex one. There's no right way to go about fixing it," Asura sighs.

"You might start by considering it from your brother's point of view, instead of treating him like the unreasonable party," Shachi suggests, ever loyal.

Asura stares at her. "He attacked us."

"He was upset," she replies. "Understandably so."

"Unders –" Asura cuts himself off. "No amount of emotion should lead a man to summon a beast made of chakra and try to ravage our home. His home."

Shachi sighs.

"My lord brother, you do not have children," she remarks softly, conscious of the flicker of pain across his features; it's a fact she has noticed in her time here, not least of all in the time following Kanna's supposed illness. "And you did not know the care of a mother."

Her father-in-law confirms this quietly. "A regrettable truth. My wife was taken by sickness too soon after Asura's birth."

"My lord father – forgive me for being indelicate…"

"I am too old to care much for delicacy, child."

"From the stories you and your son have told me, your esteemed mother was not overly concerned with your well-being as she was for her pursuit of power," she points out, somewhat hesitant.

"That is so."

"None of you three benefitted much from a woman's influence – whether it be a wife or a mother," she concludes sadly. "It is a burden that I, too, had to bear, though I believe I was perhaps luckier in a way. My mother's former servants raised me. They showed kindness to me when no others would, cared for me when I was sick and fed me when I was hungry. Perhaps they did it to fulfill their obligations to my father, but perhaps they were simply good people. In any case, their treatment of me gave me some idea of what a child needs. Having my own children has taught me the same. And I wonder, if their mother had lived, whether the situation with your sons would have ended differently."

"I fear it would not have made a difference."

"Are you so sure?" she challenges. "Would she not have questioned your decisions in choosing your younger son as your successor? Or, if she did not, would she perhaps have cautioned you to handle it more delicately than you did?"

"Sister –" Asura warns, a little perturbed at the idea of someone chiding his father.

"No, let her continue," the old sage interrupts, frowning.

"I do not claim to know the wishes of your esteemed lady wife," Shachi says, "but as a mother myself, I know that I would have suggested to the father of my children if there were a similar situation. Whether he listened or not. And being forthright would have solved more ills than it wouldn't."

Asura is utterly tense, looking between her and his father as if expecting an outburst of some kind. Shachi pauses, and when her father-in-law continues to listen, she goes on.

"Instead of telling Indra your decision right away when he returned from his journey – a decision you had already likely made in your heart long before you even asked them to go on that journey – you allowed him to wait almost two years," she points out, trying to keep her tone calm and non-accusatory. "In your fear that telling him news that would anger and hurt him, you allowed him to build up his expectations. To believe he had fulfilled the task you set before him adequately, when in fact he had failed. And instead of telling him so – instead of informing him of the hardships that fell on the village he had visited and having him return to correct his mistake – you let him idle here, and you allowed that village to fall to ruin."

"The village had already fallen to ruin by the time he returned," the old man says stiffly.

"Which you also knew, from your toad friend, and perhaps could have done something about with your far-reaching abilities," she says placidly. "In any case, it is something that should not have been kept from Indra. Whether he learned to lesson you wanted him to or not, he is not one to back down from completing a task. He may have found a way to prove himself once more if given the chance."

The old man looks thoughtful at this, but she continues.

"Then, when you did tell him that he had lost his status as your successor, you did so in front of all of your disciples. Not after years worth of reflection, but within an hour of my lord Asura returning home," she continues. "Can you perhaps understand how hurt Indra would have been in that moment?"

"At some point a man must learn to make the correct decisions on his own."

"And yet is your child not still your child even when have become grey with age?" she counters. "Are the failings of a student truly his failings? Or is it the teacher that has failed to impart the lesson in the best manner? I won't argue that some responsibility lies on the child to learn and grow…but if he is not given a torch to find the way, will he not wander in darkness?"

Lord Hagoromo's expression has softened now, and he is watching her in the same way she has sometimes seen Indra look at her – as if he has no idea what to make of her.

"You know that my husband is someone who does not understand the immaterial – comradery, trust…love," Shachi explains quietly. "He only knows the force of his hands and the power of his will. These are concrete to him. He does not…he is unable to recognise these things in the same way a bat cannot appreciate the colours of spring. And yet, a bat is not truly blind."

Both men are staring at her in surprise now, as if they didn't expect her to be capable of such argument. She is somewhat offended by this.

Yeah, you should be! What, did they think we just sat beside Indra looking pretty for the past couple of years?

"And my lord brother," Shachi goes on, turning to Asura. "You never wanted the succeed your father. Your entire life, you expected Indra to inherit his ways and you supported him. Even if you are better suited to the task, the ease with which you accepted it is what causes your brother to believe you betrayed him."

"But I didn't –"

"If you had truly honoured your brother's wishes, you would have fought for him," she tells him firmly. "Perhaps you would have tried to teach him the lessons you had learned, so that he might become a better person as well as a better leader. Or perhaps my lord father could have, instead of naming only one successor, left his craft to both. Two halves of a whole, dependant on each other and needing to work together for success." She cocks her head to one side and considers the wizened old man before her. "Which is the lesson you wanted them both to learn from the beginning, is it not?"

Lord Hagoromo stares at her for a full minute, and she suddenly shrinks.

"Forgive me," she says. "I may have overstepped –"

But the old sage chuckles, to both hers and Asura's surprise.

"For one whose eyes are not as sharp as ours, you see much, daughter," he tells her, his mouth quirking upwards. "I hope that perception serves you well when you need it most." His tone becomes serious once more. "And I hope it does not blind you to the truth of matters."

"My husband is not perfect," Shachi responds, aware of what he is referring to. "Nor is he blameless. He has made many mistakes – like you, perhaps he sees himself entirely as the victim of circumstance. If you truly want to reconcile with him, all three of you must acknowledge past insults but agree to move on in peace."

"Would you help us do that?" Asura asks.

"…me?"

"You have seen the part of him that only Father and I know or remember. And you're his wife. He will listen to you."

Shachi frowns at this.

"I didn't mean it like it sounded," Asura quickly says. "That is to say – this wasn't a plan, an attempt to sway you to our way of thinking. But now that you've heard both sides of the story, perhaps you can be the voice of reason if we were to all meet again."

She hesitates, torn.

"I will not go behind my husband's back in any way," she says finally, willing her voice to keep from trembling. "I will not return to him as your instrument, speaking words to change his mind to your way of thinking. I have never done so before, and I will not so now. But I will raise the issue once. If he is favorable, I will try, but if he is not – I will not pursue the matter. It has taken many years for him to place any trust in me – I would sooner die than break that."

Asura appears resigned, Hagoromo thoughtful. She isn't sure she likes the way he is looking at her, as if he knows something that she doesn't.

"That is all that we can ask," the old sage says, sighing heavily and sitting back. "All that remains now is to find Indra."

"Do you think your family would have liked me?"

Sasuke doesn't stop stirring the antibiotic paste they are making, but his movements become a little jerkier.

"We've had this conversation before."

"I know, but I need to hear it again," she prompts, and then pats her stomach. "He needs to hear it. You know that babies can hear sound in the womb by eighteen weeks, right? He needs to hear your voice, and face it darling, you aren't exactly talkative."

After a beat, Sasuke shrugs and says, "I don't see the point of revisiting questions that can never be answered."

"I…I guess you're right," she sighs in defeat; she has learned the importance in not pushing certain matters too hard. "It was just something on my mind, but that doesn't mean you want to talk about it. Sorry for bringing it up."

She doesn't want to mention that ever since her dreams have started to centre on Indra's family, Shachi's interactions with her in-laws have made her curious about what her own might have been. It's a completely different situation, of course – she can't think of any reality where Sasuke's parents would have kidnapped her – but she suspects there would have been some similar sense of alienation.

She tries to focus on what her husband is doing across the room; the local apothecary was kind enough to lend them his back room to work on a treatment for the area's pneumonia outbreak. Sasuke is carefully measuring and sorting through ingredients with a frown of concentration; it's understandable, considering some of them are toxic in large quantities.

Ever since she became pregnant, they try to avoid her working with anything too poisonous; some materials can be absorbed through the skin into the bloodstream, and neither she nor Sasuke want to take any risks when it comes to the baby. As such, her husband has become her unofficial assistant-slash-apprentice, learning how to put together passable antidotes and remedies under her watchful eye.

He's also learning that a lot more goes into it than just memorizing precise ingredients and solutions. Even having a Sharingan to help him doesn't help him here, and for once Sakura is the genius having to patiently explain the process to him.

"Be careful, you're adding too much sumac."

"I'm adding exactly what you told me to add."

"For a general dose – you're making an antidote, not a paralytic."

He shoots her an annoyed look, but remeasures the amounts. She beams at him in approval.

"My mother would have liked you immediately," Sasuke tells her as he carefully grinds the thick brown root down to powder. "She was a warm person, and she never said an unkind word to anyone."

Sakura blinks, surprised that he has chosen to answer her after all. Her cheeks warm with pleasure, and she smiles to herself.

"Sounds like Hinata," she muses softly.

"No. My mother had more mettle to her. And she could have a temper," Sasuke remembers. "There was no point to disagreeing with her. Perhaps it's why I don't remember my parents ever arguing."

"So your father just agreed with everything she said?"

"When it came to raising my brother and I, I have no doubt."

"But otherwise he was the boss."

"He was the head of the clan. He had responsibilities."

"Right."

"It…would have taken some time for him to warm up to you," Sasuke says after a pause.

Sakura doesn't allow herself to be upset by this. "He would have wanted you to marry another Uchiha."

"Yes. At first."

"But think I'd win him over in the end, then?"

"He would soon see how much you have to offer. No woman in my clan has ever achieved what you have."

Sakura blushes. It isn't often that Sasuke is complimentary, but when he is, he delivers his words with the utter conviction that what he is saying is true. It's better than any remark about her looks could be.

"And Itachi already liked you."

"Eh?" she squeaks. "But I…I only met him once! And he tried to kill me, and Naruto and –"

"He knew that you and Naruto were trying to save me," Sasuke tells her quietly. "That alone endeared you to him." He raises an eyebrow at her, a grim smile tugging at his mouth. "You may have noticed that my family can be single-minded in our pursuits."

"You think?" she replies dryly.

"Anything or anyone who supports those same pursuits is someone to be valued. Anyone who would face certain death to protect a mutually precious person…he would have respected that."

Sakura considers that, unsure what to say; it's not exactly a healthy way of looking at relationships, but it makes a bit of sense. In a mercenary kind of way…

"If anything else, he would have appreciated your chocolate making skills," Sasuke goes on, an ironic note in his voice that tells her he is teasing. She wasted years learning that particular skill for the benefit of someone who couldn't care less. "He had a sweet-tooth, though he tried to hide it."

"That's…" Sakura blinks, and then giggles. "I never would have considered that."

Somehow the knowledge that the legendary Itachi Uchiha had such a commonplace weakness like sugar makes her feel marginally more comfortable with the idea of him.

"Thank you for telling me this," she says quietly. "I get that you don't like to...you know."

"It's…easier than it was," Sasuke tells her, shifting uncomfortably. "And it's practise."

"Practise?"

"He will no doubt have questions," Sasuke says, nodding to her middle. "I suppose I need to become used to answering them."

"Yeah, staring broodily off into the distance and hoping he stops asking isn't really going to cut it with our child," Sakura agrees

"Not if he's half as tenacious as you."

"Or if he spends a lot of time with Naruto."

Sasuke scowls. "Let Naruto corrupt his own children."

Sakura burst out laughing at this, causing him to return to his grinding with the aggrieved air of someone who has been unfairly insulted. They both know he isn't truly angry; Naruto is the closest thing he has to family, and he will likely expect (or even demand) the loudmouth's presence in their child's life.

Her mirth dissipates as her thoughts return to another family, long ago.

She exhales in resignation.

"Indra's family liked Shachi," she tells him quietly. "They might not have known what to do about her when they first met, but afterwards…I think even though Asura promised to bring her back to Indra, he doesn't want to."

"He knows how dangerous Indra can be. He wants to protect her," Sasuke concludes, tone carefully level and trying to pretend like he is utterly absorbed in his task.

"Yes, I think so. And I think she senses it too, even if she's trying not to think too hard about it. She never had a family before, and it's tempting." Sakura shivers, folding her arms in front of her. "I never knew what it was to grow up alone, but when I'm her…I sort of get it. What you and Naruto experienced. After being alone, it's natural for her to want that."

"You sound as if you think she should stay."

Sakura can't help the guilty face she makes. "Is that wrong of me? I know she loves Indra – and he might even love her back – but their relationship isn't healthy. It's worse than ours was before…before the end of the war."

"It's not wrong of you," Sasuke says slowly. "But I think you know as well a I do that she won't come to that conclusion."

"No," Sakura sighs, clenching her fists; when she looks up at him, her eyes have filled with tears. "Oh, Sasuke, why do I think that her story isn't going to have a happy ending?"

He doesn't answer her, but she knows it's not because he can't.

眠り

For the rest of the winter, Asura is absent from the household. Shachi learns from Kanna that he has renewed his efforts to track his brother down.

"He is more determined than he was all these past years," her sister-in-law confides one evening. "Before you arrived, he sought Indra as a means of confronting his own guilt. Now, he has a hope for reconciliation. You are the reason he searches so ardently."

Shachi shifts, uncomfortable over the praise. "I don't believe I'm the only reason."

"You are an important one, though," Kanna says. "You are his family. He will do anything for family."

The woman is unable to completely keep the concern from her voice though, and Shachi can sympathise. They both know what Indra might do to Asura if the wrong impulse should take him.

Shachi chooses to change the subject.

"I have noticed that you and my lord brother do not have children," she mentions, tentative. "And yet…you both appear to be in fine health."

Kanna's cheeks turn red at this. "It…it is nothing. A childhood ailment, most likely. It makes it hard to carry a child. If the gods mean for me to…" She shakes her head. "We do not want for children. Not with those who look to Asura as their father."

But the evasion rings hollow.

"Have you spoken to my lord father?" Shachi asks. "With his power…"

Kanna shifts uncomfortably.

"As he grows older, his abilities begin to ebb as well. He has not been able to heal for many years now. It is why he could do very little for you while you were ill."

"And none of your healers have found the cause?"

"Our healers busy themselves with treating those who have been injured in combat, or besieged by plague," Kanna says, a little stiffly. "The…the trials of a woman are not of interest to them, and I would not wish to distract them from good works for my own ends."

Shachi makes a face.

"You are most unselfish, even if such reluctance is a waste," Shachi remarks. She steps forward, and reaches for her sister. "May I?"

Kanna hesitates, but then nods. Shachi places her hand above Kanna's womb and focusses.

She can sense something, but it doesn't make itself apparent right away. But Shachi has not birthed six children of her own, or helped ease the pregnancies of the women in her husband's sect for nothing. She adjusts her chakra, reaches out with her senses and concentrates on the places most healers (especially men) would not think to look.

"I see. There is scarring here," she says, frowning with closed eyes. She concentrates, sending a burst of healing energy flicking out through her fingers. Kanna startles at the sensation. "Please keep still."

Several minutes pass in complete silence before Shachi straightens up.

"I have removed the scar tissue," she announces. "You will bleed soon, and afterward there should be no more difficulty in conceiving." She smiles softly. "I have no doubt you will be a good mother."

Kanna stares at her in shock, and as Shachi's words set in, tears form in her eyes.

"My lord Indra does not understand how fortunate he is to have you as a wife," she tells her quietly. "If you can still be so kind despite being married to him…"

Her sister-in-law doesn't mean to give insult, and Shachi chooses to ignore it. It's a skill she has developed in her months here.

Still, she can't help a minor note of exasperation, directed not at Kanna, but at her husband.

If he understood how fortunate he was, he would be trying to find me.

It's become an accepted morning ritual, helping Sasuke get dressed.

They both know that he can do this by himself – he managed a lifetime without her, both before and after he lost his arm – but for some reason he indulges Sakura's coddling tendencies. Maybe because he is so independent that there aren't many thing she can help him with, maybe because he has learned to like having someone take care of him.

She privately thinks it might be the latter.

When they stay at guesthouses, as they've been doing almost every night lately (with the onset of winter she's surprised that Sasuke hasn't insisted they hole up in a cabin somewhere until the snow melts) they can take their time about it, enjoying the simple peace of the moment.

This morning, though, Sakura is distracted; her thoughts are firmly in the past, reflecting on her former self's recent experiences. The idea that Asura's wife might never have had children – that only Indra might have had descendants if she – if Shachi – hadn't interfered makes her very aware of the precariousness of the future.

She fumbles with his shirt sleeves and drops his fingerless gloves several times before finally slipping them onto his hands. He frowns, clearly impatient, but instead of making a contempt filled comment as he might have when they were children, he instead asks, "What's wrong?"

"What if I couldn't have children?" she blurts out instead of an answer.

Sasuke's blinks, the smallest downward turn of his lips the only indication he has heard the question. He doesn't answer, instead waiting for her to provide context or more detail. As if what she's asking him is incredibly complex or nonsensical.

"Would you still have married me if I couldn't have children?" she asks, quieter this time. She hates that she sounds so insecure, but Shachi's anxieties have been seeping into her waking moments more often lately. Combined with pregnancy hormones, Sakura doesn't know how she isn't a mess of tears every day.

Sasuke is frowning now, calculation happening behind those fathomless eyes. "It was never a reason to marry you to begin with."

"But it was a reason!" she insists. "You've wanted a family since we were kids, and if it turned out that I couldn't…"

"Wanting something and deserving it are two different things," Sasuke dismisses.

"But –"

"I would have been satisfied either way," Sasuke cuts her off. "If circumstance decreed I wasn't meant to have children, I would have accepted that."

"Even though you wanted them."

Irritation is clear on his features. "Is there a reason you're asking repetitive questions?"

"I just…" she gestures with the hand that isn't still wrapped around his. "Sometimes I'm not sure if this is real."

"Because of your dreams?" he questions, irritation giving way to speculation.

"No. No, even before the dream I wondered. Sometimes, I thought – sometimes I still think – I'm going to open my eyes and be staring at the ceiling in my bedroom. I'm fifteen years old and all of this has just been a dream. Or worse –" Sakura shivers here, " – maybe I was trapped in the Infinite Tsukuyomi after all. Maybe all of this is just a fantasy my brain cooked up."

"You fantasized about living a vagabond existence with a former international criminal?" he asks dryly.

"Not necessarily," she replies, rolling her eyes at his subtle teasing. "But I wanted to be with you, and now I am, and – especially with all these dreams messing with my head – I just worry it's not real."

"Wouldn't it be more likely to not be real if events proceeded exactly how you imagined them?"

"You mean, like, if I was still at home, playing the happy housewife and running the clinic and you were – I don't know – running the Konoha police?" she suggests.

"Hmph." There's the tiniest indication of a wistful smile there. "Perhaps."

"Actually…if I'm being honest, I can't imagine you having a regular nine-to-five job anymore," she confesses. "I guess that would sort of be a tip-off that something was wrong."

"Childhood dreams do change," he agrees.

"Some don't."

Their eyes meet and hold for several heartbeats, silently exchanging a sentiment that needs no words.

Sasuke reaches forward, slowly, eyes softened in just that way; index and middle finger tap her forehead and she blushes.

"Some are annoying," he agrees, beginning to pull away, but she snatches his wrist, not allowing him to move back just yet. He acquiesces, allowing his fingers to instead slide across her cheekbone, then slowly cup the side of her face. She smiles, shifting her hold on him to keep his hand pressed there, leaning into the warmth and the smell of leather.

"I'll need that back, eventually. It is the only one I have."

"Only because you're so stubborn," she retorts, guiding his fingers to her lips and pressing a brief kiss to the tips before letting them go.

She returns to the task of helping him dress.

"There are other ways to have children," he says after allowing this to continue; she pauses. "Other ways to have a family. We would find a new path."

Her eyes widen. "But…but then your family…it would end with you. And the Sharingan would die out."

"Some might argue that's for the best," he shrugs.

Seeing his utter nonchalance at that idea, her eyes widen with realisation.

"Do you think it will happen?" she asks. "I don't have a Sharingan – you're hoping he takes after me, aren't you?"

"If he does he will be saved a lot of trouble."

"But if he has it…if we had more than one child one day…would we…would he…?"

"It would be a topic that would need to be addressed," Sasuke allows. "A conversation would have to be had."

Sakura bites her lip.

"Should we…should we only have one? Maybe we should only have one. That way he can't be tricked into…or in case there's an accident, he won't have to –"

"Kill me or his siblings and take their eyes?"

Sakura winces. It sounds even worse once it's been said out loud than it did in her head. She tries to offer in a repentant look, but he shakes his head at her; he is not angry or insulted by her obvious train of thought.

"If we only ever have the one, who's to say he won't have many children when he grows up? It would be counterintuitive to base all of our decisions on an event which may or may not happen," he tells her. "If I truly thought it was an issue, I would never have had children. I know as well as you do that there are ways to prevent such a thing, permanently."

"Did you ever consider it?"

"Sometimes. But not with any great deal of sincerity," Sasuke admits, unapologetic. "I did tell you that I'm a selfish man."

"Shut up, no you're not," she insists, abandoning his shirt sleeves in favour of wrapping her arms around his middle, pressing her face into his chest. Mostly it's to hide the sudden onslaught of tears.

Sasuke's arm wrap around her, and she feels his chin on the crown of her head.

"I won't hide the truth from our child," he tells her quietly. "When the time comes, I'll explain the power and the price of the Sharingan. Even if he doesn't have it."

"Children," Sakura corrects with a sniff. "I do want more than one. So he won't be lonely. So you won't be lonely."

She hears a short, rumbling sound in his chest, close to laughter. "Let's have this one first."

眠り

The snow finally begins to melt, and the cherry blossoms begin to bloom. In her seventh month of pregnancy, Asura finally returns with good news.

"You've found him," she breathes one day when he enters the courtyard, tired and dirty from his journey. Although his first act is to embrace Kanna, there is a look on his face that Shachi knows is meant for her.

"Yes."

"And the children?"

"They are safe. All of them have relocated to one of the smaller islands. It was hard to find because of the warding – and because I had to mask my own chakra – but they are there," Asura says, "And they show no sign of leaving."

"Then we have to hurry!" she declares, not wanting to somehow miss the opportunity to be reunited with her husband.

"We will," Asura promises. "But we have to do so carefully. If he senses my presence – especially anywhere near you – it could lead to conflict. And that is something we don't want, especially considering your condition."

She wants to argue, but knows her husband well; he prefers to lead with force and ask questions later. "Fine."

It takes a week of planning and preparation before they are ready to leave. Asura gathers several of his most trusted followers, as well as the litter she had so jokingly mentioned months earlier. There's no choice now but to use it, as she can't walk for extended periods anymore.

At the gates as they prepare to leave, Asura bid goodbye to his wife, promising a safe return. Despite bidding each other farewell, they share secret smiles and hold each other's hands a little longer than normal. Shachi suspects that they will be welcoming a new member of the family soon enough, and leaves them to their moment.

Instead, she meets one last time with her father-in-law, who has left his chambers to see her off.

"I hope when we next meet it will be under better circumstances," he says quietly, before beginning to cough; when he wipes his mouth, it comes away bloody.

"My lord father, you are ill," she realises, wondering how she couldn't have noticed in the past months.

He motions for her to lower her voice, inclining his head toward Asura. "You are perceptive, daughter."

"Can I – ?"

"There is no healing anyone could perform that can help me now, but your kindness is appreciated," he tells her. Off her stricken look, he adds, "I have some years left. Enough that I live in hope that I shall see grandchildren. I am given to know that this might happen soon." His mouth quirks a little, and she smiles back, as if they, too, share a secret. "However, in the event I don't…may I?"

He indicates her stomach, growing much larger but well hidden in her voluminous white robes. She pauses only a minute, and then nods.

The old man places his hand upon her, just below her breast, and for a long time is quiet. Then, he says, "For all your faith and love for him, you have noticed that there is a darkness surrounding your husband."

She is quiet.

"I do not know how he came by it, for it was there long before I considered naming Asura as my successor," he continues. "I fear it will lead him to great loss and sadness. A constant black hole of despair." She swallows, because it's a fear she has secretly harboured for years. "But this child you carry – this child carries in it the potential to break free. The fan the flames of change in Indra, and all those of his bloodline."

She looks up at this, eyes wide. Is he making a prophecy?

Fathomless eyes focus on her, his expression grave.

"But flames burn for destruction more often than they do regrowth. There will be much heartache before it happens if there is no stalwart hand to guide it."

"…Father?"

"Remember this," he tells her, squeezing her hands with unexpected affection. "Farewell, Daughter."

And then he turns and walks back into the courtyard.

"If one more old biddy puts her hand on my stomach without my permission, I won't be responsible for my actions!" Sakura declares loudly, stomping down the snow-covered road from their latest village stopover. "Or – or! – tells me I shouldn't be walking around in my 'condition'!" She whirls around and glares at Sasuke, who is following several paces at a leisurely pace. "I mean, do I look physically incapable to you?"

"Hn."

"Exactly!" she crows. "Where is it written that a pregnant woman automatically loses all of her physical capabilities! If we ran into a band of mercenaries right now, I could take them with one hand behind my back – you know I could."

"Let's not, though," Sasuke suggests.

"Obviously," she rolls her eyes. "But I could. It's not going to hurt the baby. He's strong – healthiest baby ever, because I'm the healthiest person I know. Because I've got this!" She taps at the seal in her forehead. "Diseases and physical ailments and…and stuff! I can punch out goddesses, but they think I should be sitting on my ass doing nothing – shannaro!"

Sasuke sighs.

"Are you hungry?"

She shoots him a dark look. "What kind of question is that?"

"It's a question about whether you're hungry or not."

"No, it's not. It's you being patronizing. You think my mood is tied to my stomach and you're trying to placate me, and I don't appreciate it."

There are several beats of silence, and then,

"Am I wrong?"

"…No."

She lets him lead them off the road and unpack their rations, ignoring the amused smirk he wears the whole time.

"You think this is funny," she accuses.

"No," he replies. "I just find it…interesting. You usually have patience for even the most irritating individuals."

"Well that's because I never had to put up with stupid people while I was having hot flashes," she snaps. "It's winter and I'm dying here. I am actually sweating buckets right now, look! I'm drenched like I just walked out of the bath! How is that even possible?"

"Put your cloak back on," Sasuke chides as he opens a sealing scroll for their kettle. "You'll be cold again in a minute."

"I am not a child!" she snaps, though she does as he suggests because he happens to be right. She kicks at the ankle high snow. "Nice to see attitudes towards pregnant women haven't changed at all in the past thousand years… The only difference now is people think it's okay to invade personal space."

She looks up to see Sasuke quirk an eyebrow at her – she was never really one to respect personal space when they were younger, after all – and she rolls her eyes.

"You know what I mean," she tells him. "Before, no one – not even an old grandma – would put their hands on my stomach without permission. Except if they had mine or my husband's. And even if they did, they knew damn well better than to ask."

He snorts. "You have a friendly face. It puts people at ease enough to think they can take liberties."

She pouts.

"I don't know which is more annoying – you making fun of me, or you threatening to dislocate people's fingers for getting to handsy," she mutters, rubbing at her shoulders through her cloak. Her core temperature is returning to the way it was before and now she's freezing again.

Sasuke frowns at her in confusion. "I never threatened anyone."

"Right, because I just imagined all of those people with broken fingers, my mistake," she drawls. "Though, you'd think if you were that protective of me, you would have figured out where I am by now and come get me. Instead, I'm sitting here, freezing and boiling, promising everyone else that they're going to be happy, while I'm alone. Always alone…And Kanna and Asura are so happy, and it kills me every time I have to see them like that, because I miss –"

"Sakura."

The word is quiet, but sharp, almost like the crack of a whip.

A shiver runs up Sakura's back, and she feels a curious sensation of having been doused in water.

When she looks up at him, she sees that all traces of amusement are gone and Sasuke is eyeing her with concern and wariness.

"What?" she asks.

"Do you remember everything you just said?" he asks her neutrally.

She blinks, casting her mind back. The past few seconds are a little muddled, but some of the ideas come back to her.

"I did it again, didn't I?" she asks in a small voice.

He nods once, stiffly.

"I'm sorry. It's like…she gets closer to the surface whenever I'm angry or upset – which is weird, because she was the most…well adjusted, placid person ever."

"Don't apologise," Sasuke tells her, as he has been doing ever since these dreams started. It rings a little more hollowly than usual. "You have nothing to apologise for."

"I know that, but I also know it freaks you out."

He doesn't answer, but she reads the truth in his eyes.

She holds her elbows close to her body, looking away. "Sasuke?"

"Hm."

"If you…if you think it will help…do you think he would have answers?"

Mismatched eyes harden. "Sakura…we don't have to."

"It's the third time this week. We need to start considering this might not be over any time soon. And if anyone has answers about talking to the dead…"

"It's him," Sasuke concludes, grim. He studies her closely for several seconds, as if trying to gauge how serious she is, and then nods. "Alright. We'll find him."

"Find him?" she repeats. "I thought he was staying outside of Konoha?"

"Only when he feels like it. He was up to something in Tea Country the last time I communicated with him," Sasuke says, bringing out a summoning parchment; she notes that it's the one with the line to Ryūchi Cave, not the aeries of his usual hawk summons. "I suspect he enjoys making Captain Yamato go prematurely grey…"

眠り

The journey back home is much longer than Shachi expected, although she supposes that’s because this time she’s conscious. For two weeks she and Asura, along with the small contingent of his followers, trek through forest and field.

The closer they get to Indra, the more anxious Shachi becomes. She tugs at her sleeves, readjusts her voluminous robes over her belly – she’s smaller than she usually is at this point in her pregnancy, probably due to her illness – or fans herself with the shikai Kanna gave them at their parting. She walks as much as she dares, but her condition doesn’t always allow for her to move by her own power. She would much rather they stop for rest more often than accepting the necessity of being carried by litter.

The third time she begs for a stop, Asura obligingly calls for a halt and offers to escort her to a nearby stream for some water. This is pretense, she discovers, when they reach the water source and he flat-out asks her if she’s alright.

“You were so insistent on returning to your home, and yet now you appear satisfied to delay while you regain your strength,” he points out. “This journey is for your benefit, little sister, yet I feel perhaps you are having reservations.”

Of course, her brother-in-law would notice.

And, as she has become accustomed to in the passing months, she finds herself confessing her worries to him.

“He hasn’t been looking for me,” she murmurs, wringing her hands fretfully and turning a beseeching look on Asura. “What if he doesn’t want to see me? What if he doesn’t want…?”

Her unspoken ‘me’ hangs in the air.

“We don’t know he hasn’t been looking for you,” Asura says evenly. “And if he was…unless he knew to seek you out in our homeland, he would not have been able to find you.” At her confused look, he explains, “My chakra tends to overwhelm our entire region. There’s no need for me to hide it in my own home, and so even though you haven’t had your chakra suppressed since you first arrived, he wouldn’t be able to notice yours in the same vicinity as mine.”

“And he never would have thought to seek you out when I was taken, because it was one of your followers and not you that committed the deed,” she concludes dully.

Asura offers her his usual apologetic expression at this; she hates that look, because he reminds her of a sad puppy. It’s hard to remain angry at him, and so instead she glares over at the aforementioned man.

“Is that why Taizo is here?” she asks. “To acquit himself?”

“Somewhat,” Asura says. “But…I suspect Kanna wanted him along. No doubt he intends to knock me out and drag me back home in the event I put myself in true danger.”

“She would do it herself if she wasn’t worried for the baby,” Shachi agrees.

Asura nods, his expression softening. He looks into the distance, no doubt thinking of his wife at home and their future child. From what Kanna told Shachi, she has never been able to carry a child very long past her first month; upon their departure, Kanna was almost at three months.

I wonder if you and your brothers and sisters will ever meet your cousin, Shachi wonders, pressing her hand to her middle.

She hopes so.

Something occurs to her.

“Wait – if your chakra is so overwhelming, won’t my husband sense you coming?” Shachi asks. “He might expect an attack.”

The idea of the brothers coming to blows disturbs her.

“It may draw him out, yes, but that’s what we want,” Asura says. “Especially now that I have you with me. I wouldn’t have risked that when I was searching for him myself. I kept my presence masked.”

“Why?”

“I fear without your stabilising influence, one of us would surely die from that encounter.”

Shachi sighs. “You seem to think I have a stabilising influence.”

“You have been married for him for nearly a decade, and yet you live,” Asura tells her. “Not only that, you are still good and kind and generous. Even Indra cannot fail to be tempered by that.”

Shachi blushes at the compliment. “You think so?”

“I know so,” Asura says, confident. “And if my brother requires the truth to be beaten into him – I’d sacrifice life and limb to get the point across.”

つづく


 

Chapter Text

It takes two weeks before they are able to pick up Orochimaru’s trail, and when they find him, it’s in an underground base between the Land of Bears and the Land of Whirlpools.

Sakura is once again sweating through her winter clothes, practically gasping beneath an extra cloak. She doesn’t remove it, though. Even without Sasuke’s admonition that she should keep her pregnancy literally under wraps, she would have no intention letting Orochimaru see that she is expecting.  

“I doubt he’ll try anything,” Sasuke mutters as they head into the cold, echoing underground chambers. “But still…”

“It’s Orochimaru.”

“Exactly.”

“I’m hurt that you think so little of me,” a sly voice whispers in the dark, and even though she has long since gotten over her nightmares of this shinobi, Sakura shivers.

She turns around, having to squint in the dark to make out the figure of Sasuke’s former master. As he comes closer, she sees that he has once more stolen a body, this time of an unlucky teenager. His eyes are as cold as ever, however.

“My most heartfelt belated congratulations on your wedding, my dear Sasuke and Sakura,” he says warmly, as if they are old friends seeing each other only after a few days instead of years. “I’m afraid my invitation never did arrive, but I don’t hold it against you. Had I known you were in the area, I would have prepared a gift for you.”

“This isn’t a social call,” Sasuke says, not bothering with a preamble. “What do know about past lives?”

Orochimaru chuckles. “So serious, as usual, my dear boy. And what a question…is your past history causing you problems perhaps?” Sasuke and Sakura exchange tense looks. Orochimaru’s eyes narrow, catching the by-play, and his eyes light up. “Not my dear apprentice, but his lovely wife. That is something I would not have expected.”

The way he looks at Sakura now reminds her of a snake preparing to consume a bird. She refuses to be intimidated by it, and takes a step forward.

“Sasuke might trust you, but let me make this abundantly clear to you,” Sakura tells the Sannin, a hard smile on her face. Ten years of rage and resentment over what he did to her husband and to her in the Forest of Death build within her. “If you do one thing that strikes me as a threat, I will destroy you. You might not have a spine to rip out, but I will tear your nervous system out of you tissue by tissue if I have to.”

Far from being insulted, Orochimaru appears amused.

“You still have the same fire as Tsunade. Far be it from me to encourage your, er, rather gratuitous imagination,” he pretends to cough delicately, and then sighs. “Alas, there isn’t much I can help you with. Not unless you happen to know where the remains of your esteemed former incarnation are located. In which case, I could summon her – or him –  to you to ask directly.” Sakura makes a disgusted face. “Ah, it is as I thought.”

“Can a previous incarnation take over a current one?” Sasuke asks, finally voicing what has been worrying them both for weeks.

“Of the three of us, I imagine you would be in the best position to answer that, Sasuke my boy,” Orochimaru purrs. “As you’re the only one who has had concrete proof of living a previous life.”

Sasuke frowns.

“From a strictly scientific standpoint, however, it wouldn’t make sense,” the older man continues. He gestures vaguely. “There are endless treatises on the subject of the soul, and yet the one thing that almost every one of these scholars would agree with is that it is immortal. Unchanging and immutable – a force that exists in continuity no matter what incarnation you inhabit.”

“Then that means she could surface again after all,” Sakura says, dismayed.

“Don’t be foolish, my dear. Note that I said the soul is immortal. People are not. People are the sum of their experiences, their personalities, their hates and their loves. When a body dies, those things die with it. The woman you were, her existence ended when she perished. It’s only the traces of her that you are somehow tapping into.”

“Wait…what?”

Orochimaru sighs. “I’m disappointed. You were supposed to be the intelligent one.”

Sakura narrows her eyes, balling one hand into a fist beneath her cloak; there’s a soft touch against the back of her wrist, and she looks up to see Sasuke discreetly shaking his head.

Fine…he get’s one. Just one.

“Allow me to demonstrate,” Orochimaru says, either missing the by-play or not caring.

He reaches into his robe, causing both Sasuke and Sakura to tense; noting their posture, he smirks and, in a much slower fashion, draws out a scroll. From the girth and seals, it’s obviously a summoning scroll.

“This scroll represents a covenant between the serpents of Ryūchi Cave, and has for over a thousand years,” he explains, unrolling the paper and showing the names and the blood marks. “The covenant remains the same down through the generations, immutable – but the owners of these marks are not. They are human, after all.” He smirks down at his own mark, like he’s enjoying a private little joke. “The names and blood oaths never disappear, and are simply added to. I imagine the soul to be the same way – unchanging, immortal and utterly incapable of true death.”

“You’re saying our souls have an imprint of every life we have ever lived,” Sakura realises.

“I am saying no such thing. It’s merely a hypothesis, as there has never been anyone to test the theory on,” Orochimaru says, his cold eyes focussing on her with a disturbing intensity. “I would be more than happy to pursue the study further, if you’re interested.”

“No,” Sasuke interrupts. “We’re leaving now.”

He chuckles again, clearly not expecting anything different.

“By my reckoning, the average human is too dull, or too caught up in their own misery to take much notice of their soul, let alone remember a previous existence. And so I wonder, dear Sakura,” Orochimaru muses sweetly, “What could possibly have caused such a change in your disposition that you are suddenly more aware of your soul than normal?”

He stares at her intently, his eyes not even straying to her stomach, but somehow she knows that he knows.

“Will it end with the birth?” she asks, not bothering to beat around the bush. Sasuke startles, jerking his head toward her and considering the intense staring match between his wife and former master, as if trying to decide who he might have to protect in the case of the worst.

“Who can tell? If I were to hazard a guess, there seems to be something left unfinished in your previous life,” Orochimaru says airily. But his eyes become more intensely focussed on her. “A message is being given to you, my dear, and you are likely not meant to know what it is until the time is right.”

For some reason she is reminded of the far-seeing eyes of the Sage of Six Paths, and she can’t help the hollow feeling that grows in the pit of her stomach.

眠り

When it happens, it does without her understanding quite how.

In one instant, she is wandering along the sea shore, a rare moment on her own since the journey began. Asura and his men are bartering passage from some of the local fishermen, while she enjoys a rare peaceful spell by the lotus blossoms. Somewhere in the distance she knows Taizo is watching her, but he keeps his distance.

In the next moment, the cloudless day is darkening, a storm rolling in over the water.

Thunder rumbles in the distance, lightning slicing through the clouds, the tempest growing closer and closer with a speed that has her shivering. She is sure that it will engulf them soon.

“My lady, we should find shelter,” Taizo says, appearing beside her instantly. “Asura will not forgive me if I allow you to take ill.”

“I can manage myself, thank you,” she says, pulling away from his proffered hand.

There’s a violent, splitting crack several feet away from them, and she wonders if the lightning hasn’t perhaps hit a rock –

But when she turns to see for herself, there is Indra.

He stands before them, face bone white, eyes blazing and spinning with their sinister red and black patterns.

Taizo makes the mistake of looking at those whirling tomoe, and suddenly there is blood seeping from his eyes and nose. He crumples forward, and Shachi doesn’t have to see the emptiness in his gaze to know he is dead before he hits the ground.

“Indra,” she breathes, the whisper lost in the wailing wind that surrounds them.

She has never seen him so furious, where every hair on his head seems to ripple with kinetic energy. A part of her wants to shrink away, hide in the shadows until his terrible wrath has passed, but she has also seen much worse from him.

And she has missed him so much, longed for him too fiercely, to flee now.

Mustering her courage, she takes a tentative step forward.

He whirls around to glare at her, the reaction of a wary lion against an unknown predator, but she keeps her eyes on the ground, bowing low before him in supplication. He has never, in their entire history together, used his Sharingan to invade her mind, but she has still seen him wield it against those who displease him to devastating effect.

“My lord husband,” she greets humbly, relishing in the word on her tongue because she hasn’t been able to address him in so long. “I –”

She is cut of when she is hauled to a standing position by her shoulders, forced to gaze into his blazing eyes. His pupils dance back and forth, roving over her features, as if he is trying to confirm to himself that what he is seeing is true.

She holds her breath, half in trepidation, half in awe. She hasn’t seen him in so long, and he is just as beautiful to her as when she last saw him. A little more gaunt, his eyes harder perhaps, but undoubtedly hers.

“Shachi,” he says, a question and a confirmation, but more important than any of that it’s her name falling from his lips.

“Indra,” she sighs, dropping all formality in her relief.

To her surprise, his eyes fade to black and an emotion she doesn’t recognise flickers in his eyes. There’s an inexplicable pause – the future shifts like tumbling rocks, the balance of the moment crystalline in its intensity – and something within him seems to break.

Then he moves.

Before she can react, his hands are on both sides of her face, pulling her face towards his. Then his mouth is on hers, pressing against her own lips with a bruising, desperate force.

Shachi gasps in surprise, and he wastes no time deepening the shocking kiss; sensation splinters through her, so deep that even Sakura feels as if a bolt of electricity has passed through her.

It’s impossible to breathe, but Shachi doesn’t care. For the first time since he appeared in her life, her husband is kissing her and holding on to her as if there is nothing else in existence but her.

He pulls away only when her lungs begin to protest and tears form in her eyes, and when he looks down on her, for an instant she can see the young boy that her brother-in-law and father-in-law remember. And her heart aches, because she wants to know him to.

When Indra draws her close again, it’s not to kiss her, but to pick her up, cradling her in his arms.

“Don’t move,” he orders her, and then there is a sudden tugging sensation in her gut and the sense of moving quickly – far too quickly. The baby kicks at her ribs in protest, but by the time she feels it, they are no longer facing the open sea.

Instead, they are surrounded by a forest dale, a tiny wooden forest sanctuary behind them. She can’t even smell the sea air anywhere, or sense Asura’s presence.

“Where – ?” she begins to ask, but he is putting her back on her feet and capturing her lips again, and her questions die in her throat.

Sakura wakes with the memory of Indra’s lips on hers, and a horrible feeling in her gut.

She feels on edge, like she’s balancing over a precipice of something too dark for words. Sasuke asks her if she’s alright, but she waves him off.

The rest of the day she is distracted and moody, thinking of Indra and Shachi, her heart yearning for a happy and hopeful reunion, and her brain telling her it’s not meant to be.

For two nights, she is unable to sleep, and on the third, Sasuke finally breaks his habitual tendency to wait for her to share her thoughts with him.

“You can’t go on like this,” he tells her firmly, sitting up beside her; the tiny bed of the waystation is uncomfortable, but a warm alternative to silent winter storm outside, “You need to sleep.”

“I know,” she replies faintly. “But I…I’m afraid.”

“To sleep?”

“To find out what happens next,” she admits, tears filling her eyes. “I have a horrible feeling, Sasuke. I don’t even know why, it’s like…the moment I woke up from, it felt like a turning point. Like everything from that moment is going to go one way or another, and I don’t even know what I’m expecting.”

“It’s Indra,” Sasuke says darkly. “It would be prudent to expect the worst.” Sakura’s shoulders slump, and he adds, “However…Shachi is you. And if I have learned anything knowing you, it is that somehow, you bring out the best in people. Perhaps she will do the same in this instance.”

Sakura sniffs, and nods. She glances over at him. “I’m going to try to sleep. Will you…keep an eye out? Just…just in case.”

She doesn’t know what exactly he could do in the event that something – whatever that could be – happens, but the knowledge that he is there is a comfort.

Sasuke doesn’t answer but to pull her closer to him.

眠り

It happens in a whirlwind of movement.

Him backing her into the wooden structure, mouth relentlessly crushing against hers, fingers tugging her hair out of its fastenings. The desperation is something Shachi has never felt from him before. She is surprised and confused, but most of all pleased, and she doesn’t dare tell him any of that for fear he’ll stop.

Instead, she murmurs unintelligibly into his lips and against his jaw, down the side of his neck.

That she missed him, that she thought of him constantly, are the children alright, why did he disappear, does he understand how much she loves him…?

He brushes it all of with a terse, strangled, “Later,” while continuing to divest her of her clothing.

She chooses not to argue, busy doing the same, practically tearing his robes from his body. It’s been so long, and still the actions are so familiar. She wants to weep at the feel of his bare shoulders beneath her hands, the scent of his hair and the scrape of his nails against her arms as he unwraps her garments.

When he suddenly freezes, becoming like immovable stone beneath her touch, she can barely hold back the cry of dismay.

“Indra?” she breathes, offering him a querying look from beneath hooded eyelids.

His expression has inexplicably gone hard, and he pulls away from her, eyes drawn downward. She doesn’t understand what the problem is until she follows his gaze, staring down at the thin shift that can’t disguise the swell of her stomach. She is larger than normal after seven months, but her voluminous robes still kept it hidden until now.

“You’re with child,” he states quietly, as if he doesn’t quite believe it.

“Yes,” she answers, puzzled by his disquiet and already missing his touch. This shouldn’t be an unfamiliar sight to him, but then he has always refrained from being intimate with her during pregnancy. That’s probably it, and any other time she could take that, but not right now when they’ve just been reunited. Maybe she can convince him –

“Whose?”

The word is delivered silently, but its impact is like a blow to the chest. She is so stunned she has to repeat it several times in her head to ensure she heard correctly; when she realises she did, it’s almost as if she has been stabbed.

The shock of his query obliterates every trace of her ardour.

“Yours,” she replies faintly, because he can’t think…he couldn’t possibly…?

Oh, no.

“That’s impossible,” Indra says, voice deceptively calm. “You’ve been gone.”

“I…I discovered I was with child the day I was taken,” she explains, her voice going a shade higher in sudden panic. He has taken a step back, his expression drawn. “I had hoped to tell you when you returned, but…”

“Is that so,” he challenges, without really asking the question.

“Of course!” she cries, desperate. “Did Dewadasi not tell you? She was the last person I saw that day, surely you would have asked her?”

For a split-second he appears to be contemplating her words, hesitant, as if he truly wants to believe her. There is something – something in the darkness is whispering. It is sly and oily, and makes her skin crawl, but she can’t make out the words. 

His eyes harden again.

“The forest where you disappeared was destroyed,” he tells her stiffly, but something like uncertainty lurks in his eyes. “There were bodies everywhere. Too blackened to identify. It was clear you had been attacked and defended yourself.”

She knew she had caused some damage, but she hadn’t realised…

“You thought I was dead,” she realises then, horror and pain hitting her. “Oh, Indra…”

“If you were not dead, where have you been?” he asks coldly. “Our children have been mourning their mother all these months. I hope there’s a good reason for that.”

He very carefully doesn’t mention his own reaction to her perceived demise.

She opens her mouth to answer, but words fail her.

Be careful. The wrong word here could be disastrous, Sakura cautions.

“It was…it was a grievous misunderstanding,” Shachi tells him, but the words ring flat even to her hears.

“Misunderstanding,” he repeats, as if he has never heard the word.

“He never…it wasn’t his intentions for it to happen, just someone taking his wishes out of context and –”

“Where. Where. You.”

Shachi exhales in defeat. “I was taken to the house of your father and brother.”

Indra’s nostrils flare. “Asura.”

“I swear to you, he did not know about it until I arrived there, and he reprimanded those responsible,” she says quickly. “He wanted to return me as soon as possible, but then I became ill, and then winter set in and –”

“You defend him so ardently,” Indra sneers. “I should have known – the chakra of the man who was with you. It familiar. I’ve met him before, I think.” His fists clench. More to himself than to her, he mutters, “Was my brother not satisfied with my birthright? Is this one more thing he meant to take from me?”

“I – I am not a thing!” she cries, in spite of her mounting fear. “Why would he want me? He has his own wife!”

“A wife who is barren if the rumours are true,” he replies coldly. “While you have proven to be the opposite.”

Did he really just say that? Did he hear himself say that? It’s completely crazy!

He might as well have slapped her. With one sentence, he has reduced their relationship, every intimate moment to nothing but a burden of function. 

Pain and disbelief churn within her, but surprisingly, anger is what rises above both of those.

“Don’t,” she whispers, the sound harsh and punched from her lungs. “Don’t pretend. Not with me. All of this time, I’ve allowed you to feign indifference because you clearly needed to, but don’t…don’t reduce what my heart feels to no more than the duty of a brood mare.”

“It doesn’t matter to me what feel. I warned you the day you came with me that your purpose was to provide me with children,” he dismisses. “You have served that purpose. Although perhaps your make-believe world of love was so convincing that Asura’s spies thought your value to me was greater. I imagine he intended ransom, until he realised you lacked worth.” 

“Lord Asura would never do that,” she insists before she can stop herself, too wrong-footed by his cutting words to think of anything else to say.

Lord Asura, is it?”

“He’s your brother, In – my lord husband! I only meant – his wife was ill,” she attempts. “Her womb was closed, but once I helped her –”

“You healed the wife of my enemy?” he demands, low and dangerous.

“It w-was the right thing to do!” she protests. Although her inborn instinct is to fall to her feet, to beg him to forgive her, her time as a healer has made her instinctively protective of her patients – however short-term and however absent.

And Kanna is her friend.

“Was falling on your back for Asura the right thing as well?”

Her eyes widen then, and even Sakura feels blown away by the disbelief.

“Why would I ever do that?” she cries. “When have I ever been unfaithful to you?!”

His eyes rove once more over her stomach, as if that is answer enough, and they briefly gleam red.

Sakura suspects right then that he is going to kill her.

Shachi makes the same connection about a half-second later. This understanding comes with a strange, emotionless clarity, a detached sense of the inevitable. She has faced death by this man’s hands before, but this time she knows there will be no reprieve. His cold eyes are telling her just that.

Strangely, she feels no fear for herself; her only thought is of their child, sleeping beneath her heart.

A child that was meant to be a beacon for the future, but who will never get the chance. She thinks back on her father-in-law’s words, wonders if he wasn’t just speaking of hopes instead of seeing into the future.

And then it becomes clear to her exactly what she has to do.

Not just you, Sakura thinks in angry desperation. She forces herself to concentrate, trying to will her own strength through whatever veil of time and dreams keep her and Shachi from interacting. We’ll protect this child with everything we have!

She’s done it before, helping Shachi recover while ill, lending Indra chakra to survive. Shachi has fire nature, one of the stronger chakra natures, and from the degree of destruction she is capable of, she can likely survive a lot. Maybe even create a protective barrier around herself. Sakura has regenerative capabilities, and if she can just awaken those here, channel them into her, they can –

 What? Save ourselves? Even if I can miraculously transfer my chakra to you, it’s not a permanent fix if he wants to kill us.

“No…” Shachi whispers. “You can’t truly believe this…please, Indra – if any part of you has ever felt even a shred of warmth toward me, don’t let it be marred by this suspicion. Since the moment we met, I have lived only for you. And over the years, our children… I would never let anything jeopardise that.”

His jaw works at this, and she can see something like doubt there – reluctance. He doesn’t want to kill her, but every action he has ever taken demands it of him.

We have to give him a reason – something to make him pause again, like he did when we mentioned finding out about the baby before being kidnapped!

If there’s anything else in the world Indra wouldn’t deny caring for, it’s his children.

“At least stay your hand until our son is born,” Shachi whispers, cradling her belly. She doesn’t understand how she knows the child she is carrying is a boy, but it’s as certain to her as her own name. “He will be your greatest legacy – the mightiest of our offspring, the one who will inherit your strength and your resolve. He will fan the flames of your will, and beget a powerful clan – an unbroken line that will gain more power with every generation.”

Somehow, she sees all of this clearly in her mind, as if it is happening before her. She wonders if the old man passed his foresight to her when they said farewell.

Indra’s eyes gleam, and she knows that for all his anger, he is listening to her. He is considering it –

The whispering is back now, louder but still unintelligible; it sounds almost cajoling, like it’s trying to reign Indra’s rage back.

Zetsu, Sakura realises dimly. Of course – he wouldn’t want to lose this opportunity.

He wants to corrupt Indra’s line. And even if Shachi were lying, and this child were Asura’s, having access to it would mean Zetsu could more easily engineer a Rinnegan and figure out a way to bring Kaguya back.

Sakura knows how that story goes only well; it would be disgustingly ironic if that’s what saves Shachi in the end.

“You would use the child to buy yourself time?” Indra asks, contempt lacing his words.

“I don’t care about myself,” Shachi replies. “I only want him to live. Even if I die today, everything I told you will come true. Except…” She remembers Hagoromo’s warning. “Our son and all of his descendants may see with the same eyes as you possess, and yet be blinded by ambition. They will love with the same intensity that I have loved you, but will be doomed to lose that love in pursuit of power.”

“Do you mean to curse me now?” Indra asks her coolly. “If so, your words do not worry me. Love is a weakness that exists only in those doomed to expire and be forgotten.”

Tears run down her cheeks now.

“I love this child,” she whispers, “as I love you. Neither of these truths will ever be forgotten.”

“Your words are pretty, but they mean nothing if the child is not mine.”

Shachi clenches her fists at the insult.

The Sage was right. There is no hope of her husband escaping his hatred. Not in this lifetime.

And this time, it’s Shachi who glares up at her husband, furious and hurting and still desperately hopeful.

“If you were to call down lightning from the skies or set me alight with your strongest flames, I swear on my love and fidelity to you that they would not touch him,” she vows over the sensation of her heart breaking. “Only a child born of our union could survive such a thing.”

Wait – what? What are you doing! You’re practically throwing down the gauntlet!

“Do you think because you are with child that I will hold back?” Indra challenges.

“Of course not,” she responds softly. “I only hope it makes you take pause. Because if you do this, you cannot undo it. You are not so mighty that you can resurrect the dead, my love.”

And she knows right away she said the wrong thing, because Indra doesn’t take well to reminders of his fallibility.

He face looks like the shadow of death itself, and they both know that there is no more time.

Protect the baby – we have to protect the baby!

Shachi frantically sends every bit of chakra she possesses toward her womb, surrounding the infant there with a protective cushion of energy. Her panic radiates across the link to Sakura, who finds herself doing the same – just as she did when she breathed air into Indra’s mouth on the beach, or when she saved him from poison. It’s a supreme effort of will, but this child must live.

Especially if it’s in any way connected to her own.

“Husband, I hope that one day your heart can be cured,” Shachi tells him sadly. “Only then can new hope be born to your line…only then will you no longer need your sons to fight and die for your legacy. And when you realise I have spoken nothing but truth to you and how deeply your hatred has scarred you – know that I died still loving you despite the action you take tonight. If it takes the rest of your life, or many lives, I will wait for you. If I had an eternity, I would spend it waiting for you to return from the darkness that has you ensnared.”

“You don’t have an eternity,” he tells her, raising a hand to point at her. His eyes spin into the sinister six-pointed star.

“Don’t tell him my death came by your hands,” she begs, trying to stir some last flicker of emotion from him. “Don’t tell any of them – if you ignore anything else I have, said…please. Tell them I thought of them in my last moments.”

He pauses here, the muscles in his face working like he’s trying to hold back something.

“Irritating woman,” he calls her, offering the tiniest, least perceptible nod of acquiescence. For one brief second, she thinks he might relent.

Then his Sharingan glows.

Amaterasu.”

Black flames engulf her and she screams.

“Sakura! Sakura, wake up now, damn it!”

Someone is shaking her, lightly slapping her cheeks, and when she opens her eyes, the first thing she sees is a glowing red iris. Shrieking, she shoves her assailant away, the force of it causing him to land on his back several yards away.

It doesn’t seem to phase him, because he instantly beside her again, Sharingan and Rinnegan both gleaming, determined and panicked.

“Sakura, it’s me,” he tells her softly, hand raised as if caught between defending himself from her or reaching out to her. “You’re alright. You’re here with me, and you’re awake –”

She’s not listening.

Instead, she is sobbing, struggling free from the blankets, clutching at her abdomen and trying to see if there’s anything that shouldn’t be there. Blood, or amniotic fluid, something to explain the sharp ache in her uterus that woke her.

But there is nothing in the sheets, and the pain is phantom.

“Sakura…”

“You…” she gasps, breath staggering as she comes back to herself. Reality begins to coalesce.

Sasuke, not Indra; Sakura, not Shachi.

“H-he killed her!” she sobs, barely taking in Sasuke’s stunned expression. “He…she was trying to convince…she didn’t…she never…and she was pregnant! And he…the flames! Black flames!”

And she’s heaving and convulsing with pain and grief – emotions that aren’t just her own, even if she feels like she is very much alone in her head right now. This time when Sasuke reaches for her, bringing his arms around her back and pulling her close, she doesn’t push him away. She leans in, pressing her face into his chest to muffle to sobs.

Sakura doesn’t know how long they stay like this, but Sasuke’s grip never wavers. As the fear and disbelief finally leave her, she tries to speak again.

“She tried to save him, and she couldn’t,” she whispers dully.

“It was too late for him.”

She pulls away, shooting Sasuke a look of surprise and protest, but his expression remains adamant.

“Yes, Sakura, it was. He was a man grown when he met her, and he’d already given into his hatred, even long before it was a curse.”

“But…but you were saved…”

“I’m younger than he was,” Sasuke tells her in a gentler tone. “I had you. And I had Naruto, and even Kakashi. You were all trying to save me. Indra never had anyone like that until it was too late.”

“He still cared for her, though,” Sakura says, desperate. “If he cared for her, why did he kill her? He knew she would never be unfaithful, he had to know it, but he –” She trails off, the details of her dream jumping out at her again. “Zetsu. He was there. I think he was trying to stop him, but –!”

“Tell me what happened.”

She is still shaking, shock making her fidgety and nervous, and in contrast Sasuke is utterly still. She reaches for his hand, needing something to ground her while she tells him. And it’s as if she is reliving it again as she details Shachi’s reunion with her husband, the first kiss that she felt down to her own bone marrow, and then his irrational anger. The heat of the black fire.

By the end of it, she is weeping again, curled up on Sasuke’s lap with her head tucked beneath his throat.

“Why would he do that?” she can’t help repeating, over and over. “After everything…it makes no sense.”

“I think that was a rare moment when even Zetsu’s carefully controlled manipulations wouldn’t have been able to stop him.”

“I don’t understand…”

“It was too much for him to take,” Sasuke tells her quietly. “He was overwhelmed.” Sakura makes a strangled, questioning noise in her throat. “You said yourself – when he saw her, it was as if something within him snapped. He was pleased she was there, more relieved than he would have ever expected. He lost complete control of himself. Probably for the first time in his life.”

“Sasuke?” she shifts to get a better look at his face and sees that he is staring into the flames, brows furrowed in thought.

“It was likely the most vulnerable he had ever been,” he goes on. “And then, in the height of that vulnerability – at the moment when he finally allowed himself to give in, to entertain the thought of happiness and of trusting someone – he discovered she was pregnant.”

“But he didn’t even stop to think…”

“Even the average man would have some doubt after seven months of absence,” Sasuke tells her. “Indra was paranoid. And it wasn’t a simple absence, either, but his wife spending time in the company of the person he hated the most in the world.”

“His mind went to the darkest possible scenario,” Sakura realises faintly.

“And that would have escalated quickly, amplifying every other negative emotion or insecurity he had. Maybe she wasn’t kidnapped – maybe she fled. Maybe she betrayed him, in which case he felt he shouldn’t be welcoming her, but punishing her.”

“So, no matter how many times she told him the truth, he wasn’t ever going to listen,” Sakura concludes sadly.

“But he did listen,” Sasuke points out. “If he hadn’t, he would have killed her instantly. Even then, he was wrestling with his own doubts, and it gave her the chance she needed.”

“To curse him,” Sakura remembers with a shudder.

“To try to save him,” Sasuke replies. “If what you said about her last words are any indication, they weren’t meant to curse him – they were her hopes that he would be cured of his hatred. And not just him, but their child and all of those descendants. From where I’m standing, that happened.”

Sakura pulls away from Sasuke, kneeling under her own power now and frowning at him. “You think the baby lived.”

“I know it lived.”

Her heart beats hopefully, but her practical mind makes her shake her head.

“It’s unlikely. She was only seven or eight months along. Premature babies don’t have the highest survival rate now, back then, without the right medical care, and the fact that – ” She shudders here, the imagery making her stomach twist, “ – Indra would have had to cut it out of Shachi’s dead body –”

“The child survived,” Sasuke insists. “She – and perhaps you –  made sure of that. It wasn’t touched by the flames that killed its mother. A mother who, with her dying breaths, vowed their child was going to have a purpose and a destiny.”

“‘Fan the flames’,” Sakura remembers. “The Sage said it too. That there would be more destruction before things got better. That there would be heartache if she wasn’t – oh! He knew she was going to die!”

“And he knew that without her in the picture, the child would go on to father a bloodline that would become more and more powerful, and more and more cursed,” Sasuke confirms. “The Uchiha.”

“That’s why the child wasn’t included on that Kaguya clan mural. He was different from the others,” Sakura understands now. She suddenly has no doubt that the child, the baby Shachi sacrificed herself to save, would have inherited more of his mother than the others. The inherent talent for fire jutsu, the blind devotion to family –

She gasps.

“It wasn’t Indra’s fault,” she murmurs, staring at Sasuke in shock. “I thought it was – when I met him, when I saw how he acted around her and then later the children, I thought that’s where it comes from. That unwavering love that can make you…that can make you into a monster. But you were right – he wasn’t capable of that, not really. But Shachi – that came from her, didn’t it?”

“Back during the war, Tobirama Senju told me that the Uchiha feel more deeply and more passionately than any other bloodline,” Sasuke agrees. “They shatter much more completely than others as well, turning to hatred as if a switch has been flipped.”

“Shachi’s love – Indra’s hatred.”

They are quiet a long while.

“But that’s over now, isn’t it?” Sakura finally says. “Indra’s curse broke with you. When you and Naruto had your big, epic grudge match. That’s not the sort of thing that can just…start up again, right? That’s not something that our child will ever have to worry about?”

“I honestly have no idea,” Sasuke tells her. “I don’t think so. I believe it’s like a blade – once it’s broken, it has to be entirely re-forged to be of use again.” He frowns. “The only thing I don’t understand is why you’ve had these dreams to begin with. If she was trying to warn you or inform you about Indra’s curse, and the Uchiha…it’s a little late. The curse was broken.”

“Unless…” Sakura begins thoughtfully, an idea occurring to her that slowly causes bits and pieces of information to connect in her mind. “Unless it’s more than one.”

“More than one what?”

“Indra’s curse was broken,” Sakura reflects. “Shachi’s wasn’t.”

“I don’t follow.”

“She was waiting for you – him,” she says slowly. “Like I was waiting for you, so that I could tell you that I forgive you.”

Sasuke is silent a beat, and then meets her gaze with an intensity that was absent moments ago. “And do you?”

Sakura smiles softly. “You already know I do. I told you that a long time ago.”

“Not for what I did,” Sasuke says quietly, and the way he is watching her now chases the smile from her lips. “For what he did.”

“I…”

“For the things he didn’t do,” Sasuke goes on, a muscle in his jaw working. “For not being the man she deserved him to be. For never saying ‘thank you’ for everything she gave him, and not letting her save him. For killing her.”

And she wonders right then if it’s a trick of the firelight upon his face, of if she doesn’t see the shadow of Indra there, awaiting her answer.

“You stupid man,” she tells him with soft affection, and the words that tumble from her lips feel like there is a double timbre to them. “I forgave you the minute my spirit left my body. You just needed to be ready to accept it.”

The kiss that follows is startling in its intensity, setting her nerves and synapses ablaze as if she too had been set on fire. It is desperate at first, an insistent press of lips and threading of fingers into hair – and she’s not quite sure who initiated it. It’s not exactly forceful, but still driven by more than just hers or Sasuke’s need. The surrounding world goes silent – there is no gentle breeze or rustle of leaves, no warmth from the dying embers, no scratch of their blankets – and existence narrows to their shared breath and syncing heartbeats. Something within her breaks with relief, as if a piece of her that has been long broken has finally been fitted back together.

They only separate when neither can breathe, and Sakura rests her forehead against Sasuke’s.

“Sakura…?”

His voice is rough, strained from lack of oxygen and bewilderment.

“I’m me,” she whispers to him. “She’s gone now.” She doesn’t know how she knows that, but she’s positive. She brushes her lips against his once more and then draws back. “And she was right. Even with everything, with resolving your issues with Naruto, trying to find redemption, even this trip – you weren’t ready to forgive yourself. Not until this.” She tugs at his hand, moulding slackened fingers until they lay across her belly. “Not until this child became real. And that’s why I’ve been having these dreams. Because you didn’t believe you had been forgiven – either of you. And you needed me to tell me you were.”

Her husband looks as if he isn’t sure what to say to this, but Sakura won’t allow him to question this. She has never been more sure of anything.

“You said yourself our child is hope,” she reminds him. “Remember? And you were right. This is an end of the cycle, a promise that we won’t repeat those mistakes. The future of the Uchiha is going to be very different – and you know how I know that?”

Sasuke’s expression is expectant, but there is a softness in his eyes instead of apprehension. “How?”

“Because for the first time in centuries, I’m fairly certain the main Uchiha line is going to have a daughter,” Sakura informs him with smug certainty.

The stunned face he makes absolutely rivals the one he made when she first told him she was pregnant.

終わり

 

 

Chapter Text

 

結語

Indra comes back to himself too late.

The flames have marred his wife’s body beyond recognition, and even though he stops before the black tongues can reduce her to ashes, the damage is done.

It’s not the first time he has killed one who professed to love him – one who, against all odds, he found his heart reaching for in return – but this death shakes him. As he turns away, his stomach rebels and he finds himself on his knees, vomiting in reaction to the violence of it all.

This is the first death that he has instantly regretted.

And yet even she was a traitor in the end, the voice in the shadows reminds him; speaking the same horrible truths he has been plagued with his entire life. It’s a change from previous entreaties to wait, soothing and cajoling.

Indra glances back at the skeletal husk of the woman who stood by his side for so many years, bore his children and professed her love for him until her final moments. Blackened arms still wrap protectively around her middle, and Indra’s eyes narrow.

The child that was the cause of all of this, and for all her protestations, proof of her betrayal.

He pushes himself to his feet, prepared to walk away and leave all evidence of his only weakness to desiccate in ignominy. He has to return to his children – their children – and tell them what has happened. Not his own hand in it – her last request is one he will honour if only out of respect for the years they had together – but they will need to know.

He knows they will grieve all over again, having believed her dead for so long, but perhaps it will make them stronger. Perhaps it will cause one of them to awaken the Sharingan, and then they can all pay Asura back for the damage he has done to them –

Behind him, there is a flare of chakra. Indra freezes.

It’s not possible. She can’t…

He turns around, half-expecting to watch her pull herself to her feet despite all odds. A ridiculous fantasy of her stumbling forward to him, her eyes sad but determined, reaching out to him –

Instead, her charred form remains utterly still, reproaching him by its lack of movement.

His gut heaves again, and he clenches his fist. Sentiment is causing him to imagine things.

Until the chakra flares again.

Fleeting and flickering, like a candle fighting a downpour, and coming from her body.

No, not her body.

The child!

She told him, didn’t she? She promised him –

He crosses the distance within a blink, wasting no time in kneeling by the swollen stomach of the corpse. He can’t think of it as her anymore, because if he does he might hesitate in what he is about to do.

Kunai in hand, he makes careful incisions, the way he has seen the healer woman use for breech births. He can’t breathe – the scent of charred flesh and the dreadful anticipation constricts his lungs – as he moves skin and muscle out of the way, ignoring the blood on his hands as the chakra signature continues to flicker recedingly.

His fingers brush against something solid and thin – a leg, a foot – and he carefully twists about within the bloody tissue until he gets a safe hold on the tiny body. Gently, he removes the infant completely from it’s mothers’ womb, all the while in disbelief.  

It should be dead. There is no way that it should have survived. Indra knows the strength of Amaterasu. Its heat should have boiled Shachi from the inside out, and yet somehow…

Somehow, the child is alive.

He stares in awe down at the infant – a boy, he notes dimly – listening to feeble, mewling cries. Its little body is small, only a little larger than the hand that cradles it, with skin as thin as parchment. Indra can easily make out the veins beneath it, can see the little lungs that struggle to gasp air for the first time - can see how ardently the child clings to life.

“Only a child born of our union could survive such a thing.”

Shachi’s words ring in his ears, both a benediction and a reproof.

It’s not the only one, either; even in it’s barely developed state, the child resembles him in a way none of his others ever have.

With trembling hands, Indra carefully cuts the chord attaching the baby to his mother, then wraps him in the folds of his cloak. He is painfully aware of the utterly fragile being in his possession, and of the reason for its infirmity. He lays two fingers softly against the baby’s heart, allowing an infinitesimal flare of his own chakra to seep into his son’s body.

Instantly, the baby’s chakra signature becomes less distressed; his heartbeat becomes more regular and his lungs are no longer working quite so hard. Indra knows in that moment with absolute certainty that this child will live.

Just as he knows with that same certainty that he killed the only woman he has ever had it in him to love.

Tears fall then, as they haven’t since he was a child, and he grits his teeth, because he can’t clench his fists; not with the baby beneath his hands, utterly dependant on him for survival.

She was faithful.

She never betrayed him – the only person in his entire life who never did, and he killed her. She who had never given him any true reason not to trust her, who had stood beside him all these years even knowing exactly who he was and who even in her death, sought to please him, to protect what he held most dear – his child.

He is unsure how long he crouches there, sobbing in tandem with his infant son.

Long enough for his grief to turn to rage.

This is Asura’s fault, the voice in his head reminds him.

Shachi spent her final months with his brother and father, robbing Indra of her presence, forcing him to adjust to the idea that she had died in an attack by their enemies. Indra razed an entire island, killed every living creature there in retribution, and it only made the hollow inside him worse. The closest he came to filling it was today, when for the first time in months, he felt her presence.

When he had her in his arms again in a way that has haunted his dreams since he thought her dead.

And now she is gone. For good this time, and by his hand.

Forgive me, he wants to say, but the words won’t come to his trembling lips.

He doesn’t deserve it.

Indra accepts that he will live with that truth for the rest of his life – it’s a punishment he will endure silently, and alone. But one day, he will make Asura pay for what he has caused, for everything he has taken from him.

But not now.

He has to raise his son. And miraculous survival aside, the child is weak, born too early. Indra can’t leave the infant now to hunt down his accursed brother and kill him. This child will need him more than the others did, bereft as he is of his mother.

This child is the one she loved enough to die for, and in recompense Indra will protect him above all the others. He will ensure that their other children understand their younger brother’s importance as well, that they too intend to protect his future legacy.

The baby has quieted now, having sobbed himself to sleep. With a trembling finger, Indra traces the miniature fluttering eyelashes.

“‘Fan the flames’,” he murmurs softly, the slightest hope entering his heart as the infant presses into the warmth of his home. “Uchiwa.”

終わり