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For the first time in a hundred years there is a chance for peace between the Senju and the Uchiha. This is what Okaasan tells her, when Sakura asks why she has to leave home.

“Your marriage will end a century of fighting,” Okaasan says, and she runs her fingers through Sakura’s hair fondly, a measure of motherly comfort communicated through touch.

At twelve, Sakura is old enough to understand that the needs of the clan come before her own, and that as the daughter of Tsunade, Head of the Senju, this is doubly true for her. Still, she is afraid of leaving, afraid of the young man who will one day be her husband. Uchiha Itachi has killed dozens of shinobi from her clan, and he is both renowned and reviled as the deadliest Sharingan wielder since Madara himself.

“What if he’s cruel?” Sakura asks. After all, how could a man such as that be kind?

“Even if he is, he won’t dare to be cruel to you,” Okaasan says. “This peace hinges on your union. If he mistreats you, he mistreats the Senju.”

A week later, Sakura is dressed in her best, blue silk kimono, her long hair piled atop her head, wooden geta on her feet. She sits alone inside the wheelhouse, protected from the sudden spring storm, surrounded by furs and plush pillows. She listens to the howling wind and driving rain, the sky’s beating heart thumping against the roof of the wheelhouse, punctuated by crashes of thunder that grow closer together the nearer they draw to her destination. Her family is carrying her into the middle of a storm, and there’s nothing she can do to stop it. She wishes she was outside with the other ninja, traveling on foot instead of being carted along like an invalid, but it wouldn’t do for her to meet her intended in mud-splattered clothes.

Today, she is not a shinobi. Today, she is just an offering.

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Itachi is handsome, if still a stranger six years her senior, with dark hair he wears pulled back and long-lashed eyes that flash with the Sharingan. They’re as red as maple leaves in autumn, as red as blood, but frighteningly beautiful. Really, he looks little like his lovely mother or his stern father, but Sakura soon learns that in this, as in all ways, Itachi is a man entirely his own.

“Hello,” he says, and there is something about his voice—deep, smooth, calming—that makes her feel a bit less nervous.

“Hello, Itachi-san.” She bows to him, the way her mother told her to do. When Sakura straightens, he bows in return, an honor she hadn’t been expecting (and one which displeases his father, if she’s reading Fugaku-sama’s face right). Then Itachi smiles, an expression that makes him, if possible, even more handsome, and she feels herself blush.

The Uchiha’s village, Nanmoku, is no larger or grander than her own, but the people look on Sakura and her escorts with mistrust. She notices that, like at home, there are few children. This is because the Uchiha have been driven to sending their youngest shinobi off to war, same as her clan has, and many of them do not come back.

Sakura saw her first battle two years ago, but she was lucky enough to fight alongside her mother, and she’s certain there is no safer place in the world than with Okaasan. Even so, she remembers the stomach-churning fear she felt that day when an enemy ninja’s katana nearly took her arm off. And the way her comrades bled out over her hands as she and Okaasan hurried from this injury to the next, one woman and a young girl trying to heal fifty of their clansmen. Sometimes she wakes in the middle of the night, certain she can smell the stink of infection, or hear the sound of boys and girls no older than herself, crying out in agony, begging to be healed.

But if this peace holds, then the children of the Senju and the Uchiha can grow into men and women, and perhaps Sakura will sleep easier.

At dinner, she is placed next to Itachi’s younger brother, Sasuke, who looks to be around her own age. They sit quietly, eating one sumptuous dish after another, while the adults discuss war and politics. With this alliance, the only clan that remains any threat to their combined power is the Hyuuga, but even they will bend before the might of the Senju and the Uchiha together. The smaller clans that have not already offered up their fealty will flock to them for protection, and resistance from any corner will be easily stamped out.

Okaasan raises her sake in toast, saying, “To Itachi and Sakura.”

Fugaku-sama follows suit, and then every other shinobi at the table follows him. Twenty-odd voices raise in unison, saying, “To Itachi and Sakura!”

It’s undoubtedly the first time in five generations that these two clans have agreed upon anything. Itachi catches her eye, and when he nods at her, she considers for the first time that perhaps there are worse things in the world than marrying an Uchiha.

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Fugaku-sama looks at her like she is a pawn on a shogi board, a piece of little worth, meant only to be captured. But Mikoto-san is a kind woman, and she welcomes Sakura into her household warmly. At first she teaches her simple things, but as the weeks pass she begins to share more important lessons with her daughter-to-be.

“Someday Itachi will be Head of this clan, same as his father is now. Do you understand what that means for you?”

They’re sitting on the floor, and Mikoto-san is showing Sakura how to mend Itachi’s clothes. Which tears need stitching and which have ruined the garment entirely.

“Not really. I was going to be the Head of Senju,” she says. “My mother raised me to be a great woman; not a great man’s wife.” No doubt this is why she can’t seem to darn a shirt.  

“Then you’ll understand the burden Itachi will shoulder. The responsibility that comes with his position.” Mikoto-san gives her a sad smile. “It won’t be easy, watching the man you love lead. But no matter what, you must always support him. And when the time comes, you’ll be the mother of his children.”

Sakura thinks of what it means to make a child. She can’t imagine ever doing that with Itachi, letting him inside her body, then carrying his baby, and she doesn’t know how to answer. So she merely nods and returns to stitching up Itachi’s shirt, carefully sewing back together the rent halves of the Uchiha crest.

Life in Nanmoku is different from home, but Sakura does her best to fit in. It’s difficult, though, because her pink hair and name, her elemental affinity and fighting style, set her immediately apart from the rest of the village. The Uchiha all share the same dark good looks, and they are a people of fire and lightning, not earth and water. Obito-sensei tells her flatly on her first day of training that her skills as a medic nin, while useful, will make her seem soft to the shinobi here.

She tries to teach herself the Uchiha’s fireball jutsu, but she has no natural aptitude for the technique, and after three hours at the dock her cheeks are burnt and her lungs feel as if they’re filled with smoke. Sakura heals the blisters beside her mouth and hopes no one will guess where she’s been. But when she returns to the house, Sasuke smirks at her and asks, “How did it go?”

“How did what go?”

“Don’t try to lie. You smell like a bonfire,” he says. “Did you master the jutsu?”

“No,” Sakura admits. “It was more complicated than I expected.”

Sasuke looks her up and down. “That technique takes a lot of force and stamina. It tends to be harder for girls,” he says. Then, “Besides, you’re not one of us.”

Later, Sakura lies in her soft bed, listening to night sounds. The song of crickets and owls, the creak of upstairs floorboards. Itachi’s room sits directly above hers, and she can often hear him pacing while the rest of the house sleeps. She wonders what keeps him awake: his worries or his sins. Fear or remorse.

You’re not one of us. Sasuke’s words echo in her mind like an inverse lullaby, pushing rest further and further away. Sakura misses her mother and her home, but she refuses to cry anymore, and the next day she finds Itachi and says, “I’m not an Uchiha yet, but one day I will be. So I need to learn your clan’s signature jutsu. Will you teach me?”

Itachi smiles and says, “I would love to, Sakura.”

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Sasuke is much more difficult to get to know than his older brother. Where Itachi is gentle, patient, polite, Sasuke is rough, brusque, and often rude. Even so, there is an undercurrent of kindness to him. Sakura once sees him pet a scrawny, stray cat and feed it part of his own lunch. When his cousins visit, he holds little Daichi with practiced ease, and if the baby cries, no one can calm him more easily than Sasuke. He carries groceries for his old aunts without being asked to and always helps his mother with chores around the house.

As time passes and they get to know one another better, he begins to extend that kindness to Sakura as well. For his twelfth birthday she gifts him with a new case of ninja tools—three kinds of kunai, wire, shuriken large and small—and he says, “Thank you.” Later, on a muggy morning in August, he invites her to practice taijutsu with him. “I used to train with Itachi,” he says, “but he’s always too busy now.” And so it becomes a routine: every day before breakfast they practice their hand-to-hand combat together. Sasuke is faster than Sakura, but she’s inventive, a quick thinker, and she wins these matches as often as he does.

She has been living with the Uchiha family for four months and seven days when Sakura notices that Sasuke has the most beautiful hands. Wide palms and long, elegant fingers that look more suited to playing shamisen than wielding a kunai. He rarely makes gestures, as stingy with this kind of communication as he is with his speech, so at home she has little opportunity to see his hands in motion. But during their morning spars and trainings with Obito-sensei, she finds herself mesmerized by the way Sasuke ties ropes and throws shuriken and moves through his kata.

And then she begins to notice other things. Like how he approaches every task meticulously, whether it’s tidying his room or strategizing for a mission. That Sasuke shows more obvious affection to animals than to people, and if Fugaku-sama would allow it, she’s certain he’d have a pet of some kind. He loves tomatoes but won’t touch anything sweet. He takes walks for no reason except that he enjoys it. And even though he’s trained himself to be ambidextrous, Sasuke favors his left hand.

It’s in Sakura’s nature to search out the answers to difficult questions, and so she collects this information about her future husband’s enigmatic brother. As if compiling enough data will help her solve the mystery that is Uchiha Sasuke.

Itachi moves out of his family home later that summer. Fugaku-sama and Mikoto own two other houses in Nanmoku, and he chooses the smaller and simpler of them to make his own. The day he leaves, Itachi says goodbye and ruffles Sakura’s hair. (She doesn’t like that, being treated like a little sister by the man who will one day be her husband.)

“Do you have to go?” she asks. He’s been nothing but kind to her since her arrival, and Sakura will miss his warm presence in the cold Uchiha household.

Itachi smiles in that gentle way he reserves for her and Sasuke alone. “I do,” he says. “Don’t worry, you’ll be fine.”

She idly touches a box and wonders what’s inside. All of his things have been neatly packed, closed and private as the man who owns them. “Your father hates me,” Sakura says.

“He doesn’t. But this alliance is new, and Otousan is taking his mistrust of your clan out on you.”

She frowns and sits on the naked bed, stripped of all its linens. “The Senju need this peace as badly as the Uchiha. My mother isn’t going to do anything to sabotage it. ”

“Of course she won’t. Why do you think my father insisted that you foster with us until the wedding?”

Sakura thinks about it, and the truth is so obvious that she can’t believe she never realized it before. “I’m insurance for Okaasan’s good behavior,” she says. “She can’t betray the Uchiha because you have me.”

“Exactly,” Itachi says.

So she’s a hostage as much as a guest. Sakura supposes this should frighten her, but she has faith in her mother’s honor. As long as Okaasan is the Head of Senju, she’ll never cross her allies.

Sasuke opens the door without knocking, walks toward Sakura, and sits beside her on the bed. He smells like he’s been training, like boy sweat and fire. She tries not to pay this any attention, but it’s hard. Sasuke scowls at his brother and says, “You better visit.”

“Only you could make a goodbye sound like a threat,” Itachi says. “I’ll miss you too.”

Sasuke has a hard time expressing his feelings, and he only says, “It’s not a goodbye. You aren’t going far.”

This may be true, but Itachi’s absence in the house seems to prove difficult for his brother. In the weeks after he leaves, Sasuke talks little and smiles less. Itachi stays busy with the village’s most dangerous and difficult missions, and his visits home are rare enough to be special. Usually, when Sasuke asks to do something with Itachi, he’s treated to a two-fingered tap to the forehead and the dubious promise of, “Another time.”

Without his older brother around, Sasuke begins to seek out Sakura’s company more and more. They train together and play together and talk. On a clear autumn night, they lay side by side in the grass, and she teaches him the constellations. Here is the Tiger and there is the Bachi and there is the Snake.

“I don’t see it,” Sasuke says.

Sakura moves closer to him and points heavenward, right at the formation of stars that looks like a slithering serpent. “It’s there.”

She waits for him to say something, but when Sakura turns to him she sees that Sasuke isn’t looking at the sky at all; he’s looking at her.

“What?” she asks.

He glances away, then back. “You, um, you have dirt on your face.” Sasuke reaches up and brushes the apple of her cheek with his thumb. It’s the first time he’s ever touched her outside of sparring, and Sakura feels heat flush her face. His hand lingers on her skin for just a moment longer than necessary, and she has the wild thought that they’re close enough to kiss, that maybe he’ll lean in and—

Sasuke pulls away, sits up, and tells her he’s tired and he’ll see her in the morning.

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It starts on the night Sakura teaches Sasuke how to find a snake in the stars: the slow and unintentional theft of her heart. This is only the first of a thousand small moments that pass between them over the years, and with each one, she grows to care more and more for the friend who is her someday-husband’s brother. Without meaning to, without trying, Sasuke becomes her most precious person.

Sakura is fifteen, betrothed to a man and hopelessly in love with a boy, when Sasuke asks, “Are you scared of getting married?”

They’re beneath the blooming cherry blossom tree, playing shogi. “Why do you ask?” She sits in the shade of her namesake, beating him for the third time in a row.

“You never talk about it,” he says. Sasuke touches a tile (a king), but he doesn’t move the piece.

Sakura fiddles with her silver general, even though it isn’t her turn, just to have something to do with her hands. “What’s there to say?”

He leans back against the tree trunk and crosses his arms over his chest. “I don’t know. Nothing, if you don’t want to, I guess.”

Sasuke is too private a person to pry, too guarded with his own secrets to demand someone else’s, but she can tell he cares about her answer. So Sakura says, “I know Itachi is a good man and that he’d never treat me badly, but I’m still nervous. Everything depends upon our marriage, and—”

I don’t want him. I want you.

But her wants are immaterial.

Sasuke looks at her, beautiful dark eyes curious, waiting for her to finish her thought.

Sakura makes herself smile, forces a light laugh, and says, “Nevermind.”

She’s distracted for the rest of the day, though. She loses that third game of shogi, and when Fugaku-sama asks her a question at dinner, she misses it entirely. “I’m sorry. What did you say?” she asks.

Fugaku-sama might be frowning at her, but it’s difficult to tell, because he looks so dour all the time. “I asked if you’re ready for your mission.”

She nods. “I am.”

The Uchiha still don’t fully trust her, so she’s never given solo assignments, but in the last six months they’ve begun sending her on increasingly important missions. It may have taken three years, but they’re finally giving her something useful to do besides heal at the hospital. Tomorrow, she and Sasuke will begin the long trek to Snow Country, where they will find Ashikaga Morihiro, a shinobi who took the eyes from a dead Uchiha and has been wreaking havoc with the Sharingan ever since. New intel places him in a town in Snow, and so Fugaku-sama is sending them to capture him and bring him to Nanmoku to face justice.

Sakura expects that justice will take the form of execution; the Uchiha have little tolerance for those who steal their kekkei genkai.

It’s hardly the first mission she and Sasuke have shared—even Fugaku-sama must admit they work well together, and she suspects that, as the best medic in the village, he wants her teamed with his second son whenever possible—but this will be the farthest they’ve ever traveled together.

It takes almost a week to reach Snow. On the last night of their journey, Sasuke lies turned away from her, his head pillowed on his right arm. The grass glitters white with frost under the full moon, and Sakura can see her own breath misting in the darkness as she exhales. The ground is cold and hard beneath her, despite the thick cloak she’s wearing, but she’s tolerating the weather better than Sasuke. She can’t stand to watch him shivering, and after a few minutes of this, she moves close to him, until her front is pressed against his back. Wraps her arm around his waist and fights the urge to kiss the nape of his neck.

“What are you doing?” he whispers, voice wary, stiff, hoarse with sleep.  

She didn’t realize he was still awake. “Just trying to keep warm,” Sakura says softly. “Do you mind?”

Sasuke remains quiet for a long moment, but then he says, “No.”

“I guess fire types don’t do well in the cold,” she says, smiling against his shoulder.

“Hn.” Sasuke puts his left hand over hers and threads their fingers together. He’s freezing, but Sakura doesn’t care. She savors his touch, the way his body slowly relaxes and stops shaking the longer they lay this way, pressed together, flush against one another. Nothing separating them except the layers of their clothes and the promise that binds her to Itachi.

When Sakura wakes in the morning, she finds that they changed positions sometime in the night. Now she’s the one held in Sasuke’s embrace, and even though the sun is beginning to rise, a golden herald in the east, she doesn’t move, doesn’t wake him. She cherishes this feeling and allows herself to pretend, if only for a moment, that Sasuke is hers, and she is his.

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There are many things Sakura misses about Rokagita: the smell of Okaasan’s perfume (jasmine scentwater), Ino’s laugh, the taste of suimono soup the way Shizune makes it. But it’s been so long since her family gave her to the Uchiha Clan, a peace offering wrapped in blue silk. With each passing day she remembers less and less of the place she came from, and by her sixteenth summer, Nanmoku feels more like home than the village she grew up in.

Okaasan visits four times a year, steady and faithful as clockwork. She appears as a new season is born and always stays for a week, no more and no less. She divides her time between seeing her daughter and renegotiating the Uchiha-Senju alliance with Fugaku-sama.

It’s on the third day of her latest visit that Okaasan tells Sakura, “We’ve set a date for your wedding.”

They’re outside, sitting on a bench between the cherry blossom tree where she and Sasuke play shogi and the field where they train each morning. Every inch of these grounds is infused with some memory of the boy she has grown up alongside, the boy she loves who is now nearly a man.

“When?” Sakura asks, calmly.

“September of next year.”

Suddenly her someday-husband is her soon-to-be husband, and she realizes too late that there is all the difference in the world between these two things. She imagines an hourglass turned over, the sands trickling from one crystal bulb to the other. Moments turning into minutes, minutes into days, days into months, until the sand runs out.

“How do you feel?” Okaasan asks.

“I’ll do my duty,” Sakura says. “You don’t have to worry about that.”

Her mother frowns, blonde brows drawn closer together over her keen brown eyes. She puts her hand on Sakura’s shoulder and rubs soothing circles on her back. “I didn’t ask if you’ll go through with it. What I want to know is if you’re going to be all right.”

Sakura can’t tell Okaasan the truth, that she’s been irresponsible enough to fall for the brother of the man she’s going to marry. So all she says is, “I’m fine, really.”

“Good.” Sakura can hear the relief laced through her mother’s voice, and she reminds herself that Okaasan loves her. If not quite as much as she loves their clan.

Fugaku-sama makes the wedding announcement two nights later. Uchiha elders and the daimyo’s highest officials attend—or, as Itachi whispers to her, they’re gawked at by old liver-spotted crones and up-jumped lickspittles. (Sakura snorts, a very unladylike sound, and earns herself a glare from her future father-in-law.) It almost shocks her, this display of disrespect. Then again, Itachi never has been much impressed by titles or bloodlines, an oddity for a shinobi of his clan.

After dinner, Sasuke approaches them, and without even sparing a glance in Sakura’s direction, he says, “Congratulations, Nisan.” He looks neither happy nor sad, but he can be so laconic and difficult to read that she’ll never know what Sasuke thinks if he doesn’t want her to. Still, his well wishes make her feel so sick that she has to excuse herself.

Sakura walks through the garden behind the house, breathing in the twilight scents of vespertine blossoms. Moonflowers on their frost-tender vines, evening jasmine, and sweet four o’clocks. She picks a short-lived catchfly and sits on a stone bench, plucking the white petals one by one, until the heart of the flower is naked. Then she pulls her legs up to her chest and watches the setting sun sink below the western horizon, watches the sky darken from pink-streaked blue to star-speckled black as dusk gives way to night.

She hears someone approach, a light shinobi’s tread. Catlike, graceful. She doesn’t need to look to know it’s Sasuke. She would recognize his footfalls anywhere, anytime.

“You need to go back inside,” he says. “The guests are starting to ask after you.”  

She stands, smooths the silk of her formal red kimono. “How did you know where to find me?”

He draws closer, until he’s near enough to touch. “You always come here when you’re sad.”

“What makes you think I’m upset?” Sakura musters a smile, but she knows it must be a pitiful thing.

Sasuke reaches for her, hesitates, then cups her cheek. “I know you,” he says simply.

Moonlight casts his beautiful face in silver shades of light and shadow, and his wide eyes are luminous in the darkness. She knows him too, has learned every line of him. Cherished every dip and hollow of his body, with her heart if not her hands.

Sakura can’t help it; she winds her arms around his neck, stands up on the tips of her toes, and brushes her lips against his. A featherlight kiss, soft and chaste. At first, he does nothing, but then Sasuke wraps an arm around the small of her back and pulls her closer, so that she’s crushed against his chest. He buries a hand in her long hair and holds her still while he kisses her back. His mouth moves over hers roughly, and there’s nothing soft or chaste about this anymore. He tastes like the fine sake they snuck out of his parents’ private stores before the party (rice wine that was all the sweeter for being forbidden) and when Sakura bites his bottom lip he makes a low sound in the back of his throat that undoes her.

They break apart for breath, and Sasuke lets her go, pulls away.

She touches her mouth, feels the tenderness of her kiss-swollen lips. “I-I’m sorry,” she says. “I didn’t mean to do that.”

Sasuke scowls. “I don’t believe that for a second.”

Sakura blushes, because he’s right. “Fine. I kissed you on purpose and I don’t regret it.”

“Well, you should,” he says. Sasuke runs a hand through his hair, a restless, nervous gesture that is incongruous with the cool, collected boy she knows. “This was stupid, and it can’t happen again. You’re going to be my brother’s wife.”

He’s not wrong, she knows that. Still, Sakura finds herself asking, “What if I don’t want to marry him?”

She leaves the rest unsaid, but Sasuke must hear it just the same: What if I want to marry you?  

He shakes his head. “It doesn’t matter.”

Sakura puts her hand on his chest, grasps the front of his high-collared shirt. “You want me,” she says. “Don’t you?”

There’s such heat behind the look Sasuke gives her that she isn’t sure whether it’s desire or anger. Maybe both. “I want you,” he admits. “But I don’t love you.”

Sakura recoils, as if the blow he’d struck were physical. And really, she’d almost rather it had been. She’s a kunoichi, and she’s used to the pain of the body, but this—this is something else altogether.

She doesn’t beg and she doesn’t cry. Instead, Sakura gives him a gentle, poised smile, the way her mother taught her to do when she’s suffering and it’s no one’s business besides her own.

She leaves Sasuke alone in the garden. Returns to the party and spends the rest of the evening by Itachi’s side. Sakura speaks only when spoken to and laughs at jokes she doesn’t find funny, like a walking, talking ornament. A pretty thing with only one function, to complement the man she accompanies. Usually, this sort of treatment makes her furious, because she deserves better and she knows it. Tonight, though, it takes every bit of Sakura’s willpower just to go through the motions. And all the while, she’s thinking of Sasuke. The forbidden wine taste of his tongue, his scent, the sound of his deepening voice. She lingers on a new-made memory, allows herself to treasure this kiss: their first, and their last.

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Chapter Text

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Sakura is bound in virginal white, her mother’s pendant around her neck, a touch of red staining her lips. She’s reminded of the day she arrived in Nanmoku: trussed up in silk, long hair pinned atop her head, impractical geta on her feet (the kind of shoes a bride can’t easily run in).

“You look lovely,” Mikoto says.

“Thank you.” She tries to smile, but it feels forced, unnatural.

Okaasan cups Sakura’s cheek, and her touch is warm and comforting in the way only a mother’s can be. “Are you ready?”

Do I have a choice? Sakura doesn’t bother asking, because she knows the answer already. Her betrothal brought peace in the wake of a hundred-year war, and this marriage will cement it. One girl’s freedom is a small price to pay for the lives of thousands.

It’s a beautiful autumn evening, and as Sakura walks to the shrine beside Itachi, handsome all in black, she sees the sun bleeding across the horizon. Red and orange and gold spilling against the canvas of dark sky. Colors of fire drowning in blue. She smells night-blooming flowers and newly turned earth, redolent of decaying leaves and this morning’s rain.

There are twenty-four people in this procession: Fugaku-sama and Mikoto, Okaasan, her uncle Nawaki, Itachi’s dearest friends and close cousins and distant cousins. And Sasuke, of course. She can’t see him—he’s somewhere behind them, trailing in his older brother’s wake (as always), and she doesn’t dare to look back and find him. If I look back, I won’t be able to go forward.

The shrine is not beautiful. It’s an old place, a relic of the Uchiha ancestors, made of cold, unyielding stone. Candlelight warms the altar, casting her betrothed’s face in sharp relief. The lines beneath his eyes appear deeper, his mouth less forgiving. At least he has, for once, allowed his Sharingan to rest, and she sees his eyes as they are without his kekkei genkai awakened. Dark and beautiful and so like Sasuke’s that Sakura lowers her gaze.

The ceremony itself is brief. The priest announces their union to the gods and beseeches their blessing and protection. Then the bride and groom take three sips each from the three cups of sake. The rice wine is rich and heady, but to Sakura it tastes of nothing so much as obligation. Itachi recites the vows for both of them, promising that they will love and respect one another forever and strive to bring prosperity to their family. Sakura is thankful that she doesn’t have to speak, because she couldn’t voice her assent if she had to. Last of all, they make offerings of tamagushi to the gods, and it is done. She walked into the shrine as Senju Sakura, but she leaves an Uchiha.

You’re not one of us, she remembers Sasuke telling her, what seems a lifetime ago. And she can’t help but think that, no matter what name she bears, this is still true.

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It’s almost midnight by the time the reception ends. Half of the ryokan’s top floor has been rented out to the new husband and wife, and so Sakura and Itachi retire to the upstairs just as the party winds down. She asks for a few moments alone, ostensibly to change out of her cumbersome kimono. But once Sakura has escaped her bridal silks and donned a spare, ivory nightdress, she sits on the edge of the bed and tries not to think of Sasuke. How he could barely look at her throughout the reception. How he said nothing to her at all outside of the obligatory congratulations.

Itachi knocks. “Sakura? Can I come in?”

“Yes,” she says, but her voice sounds thin and reedy. Like a scared girl’s, not a woman’s.

Itachi steps inside, slides the door closed behind him. He walks over to her, puts his finger under her chin, and tilts her face up so that she has to look at him. “I know that I’m not the one you would have chosen, if the choice had been yours,” he says softly.

Sakura doesn’t respond to this statement, although he is more right than he can possibly realize.

“But I promise I’ll be a good husband.”

She smiles, if weakly. “I know that already.”

“How do you know?” he asks.

Sakura shrugs; the answer is simple enough. “Because you’re a good man.”

He sits beside her and plays with a lock of her hair. “You’re so beautiful,” he says, and there’s something—the subtlest catch in the smooth cadence of his deep voice—that makes her heart beat faster.

Itachi’s hand drops from her hair to her bare shoulder. Like Sasuke, his touch is impossibly warm, and he carries the scent of an open fire on his skin. Sakura thinks, for just a moment, that he looks enough like his brother that she could pretend. After all, this is the closest she’ll ever come to making love with Sasuke.

No. I can’t do that. She might not want this marriage, but Sakura won’t disrespect her new husband by imagining he’s another man on their wedding night.

“Can I kiss you?” Itachi asks.

He waits for her answer, and she appreciates that it’s truly a request and not an order in disguise. Sakura nods.

Itachi leans close, then closer, cups her cheek, and presses his lips to her own. She wills herself to forget another kiss, and as his mouth moves against hers, the memory of Sasuke’s rejection fades. He tastes of ceremonial sake and something else, some element she can’t identify.

They stay like this for a long time. Ten minutes, or twenty, or perhaps several sweet hours, until he pulls away. When Sakura opens her eyes, she finds herself looking into the startling crimson of the Sharingan. Before she can ask, Itachi says, “I don’t want to miss anything.”

He is careful, patient, while he undresses her. As he slides the shift off her shoulders, baring her to the waist, he presses soft kisses to her cheek, her neck. She fights the urge to cover her chest, forces herself to remain still when he cups the small weight of her breast with his large hand. His breath is warm against her ear when he asks, “Is this all right?”

Itachi is her husband; he could take her without any regard for her feelings, if he wanted. It speaks to the kind of man he is that he doesn’t.

“Yes,” Sakura says, and when he brushes his thumb across one pink nipple, she takes a sharp breath. Slowly, gently, he presses her down to the mattress. Pulls the nightdress over her hips, down her legs, and discards it. Now she’s naked except for her panties, but Itachi makes no move to take them off of her. Instead, he begins kissing her: the hollow of her throat, the valley between her breasts, her stomach. Lower and lower, until his mouth teases the lace fabric of her underwear. He looks up at her with eyes that catch everything, and she wants to know what it is he sees.

Then Itachi sits up and undresses. He removes his dark clothes, piece by piece, and as his body is bared, Sakura blushes. She’s more embarrassed by his nakedness than her own, because seeing him this way—the corded muscles of his arms, the taut plane of his abdomen, the sharpness of his hipbones—is making her wet. She tries not to look between his legs, but curiosity and want get the better of her, and when she sees him, hard already, Sakura feels a surge of fear and desire.

By the time he finally removes her panties she’s trembling as much from anticipation as anxiety. Itachi opens her legs, kneels between them, and stares, his hungry gaze roving over every inch of her.

“If I do anything you don’t want, just tell me, and I’ll stop,” he promises.

“Okay,” Sakura says.

He touches her sex, at first lightly, exploring. Then he caresses her, expert fingers moving in tight circles, and Sakura whimpers. It feels good, so good, and she wonders what it means that she can love Sasuke and still enjoy what Itachi is doing to her.

She can’t help but raise her hips, can’t keep from gasping when he slips two fingers inside her. It hurts, a little, but that small pain only amplifies the pleasure.

In the dark privacy of her bedroom, Sakura has sometimes touched herself and pretended Sasuke was making love to her. But those imaginings pale in comparison to the reality of a man’s hands on her body, making her shake and moan and ache to be filled.

“Please,” she says, not knowing quite what she’s begging for, only that Itachi can give it to her.

He picks up the pace, changes his strokes from slow and soft to fast and firm, and soon she’s on the edge. So close to coming she can barely stand it. Sakura bucks against him, shameless, too desperate to be shy anymore. She throws back her head, eyes closed and mouth open on a staggered cry, riding out the sensations until they peak, until bliss overwhelms her.

Itachi doesn’t allow her a moment to collect herself. Still breathless and quivering, Sakura has no energy or will to protest when he climbs on top of her and settles himself between her spread legs. She can feel the blunt tip of his cock against her, and then he’s pushing inside, stretching and tearing her, and it hurts. She remembers his promise to stop, if only she tells him to, and she’s on the verge of testing his sincerity when he stills above her.

“Sakura,” he says. Itachi sounds hoarse, strained, as if it’s taking every bit of his self-control to keep from fucking her.

And it’s this, the loss of his fine composure, that makes her say, “Keep going.”

Maybe he wants to spare her unnecessary pain, or perhaps he’s been holding himself back all night and can’t afford to do it any longer, because Itachi takes her quickly, if gently. It isn’t long before he stiffens above her and gasps, and Sakura feels a rush of warm wetness where they’re joined.

Afterward, Itachi lies beside her on the bed, breathing hard. He takes her hand, tangles their fingers together, and asks, “How do you feel?”

Her body is sore and sated, but she’s sure that isn’t what he means. Unbidden, she thinks of Sasuke. Sakura always knew, of course, that he wouldn’t be her first, but that didn’t stop some part of her from hoping anyway. This is just one more dream lost, nothing new, but before she can prevent it, a quiet sob escapes her and hot tears are rolling down her cheeks. Itachi reaches out, ready to take her in his arms, but Sakura says, “No. Please, don’t.” If he touches her now, she won’t be able to stand it.

She can’t tell whether or not this rebuff hurts him, because Itachi’s face goes perfectly blank, devoid of expression. He nods, stands up, and steals a pillow from the bed. “I’ll sleep on the couch,” he says.

After Itachi leaves, she crawls beneath the covers and lies awake, thinking about Sasuke. The measured way in which he speaks. How he frowns far more than he laughs, but that this only makes his rare smile all the more precious. The smell of his hair and sound of his voice. The warmth of his mouth beneath hers for those sweet, brief moments before he pulled away and broke her heart. Sakura counts the reasons why she still loves a man who will never love her back, and when she sleeps, she dreams of him.

In the morning, she wakes with Sasuke’s name on her lips. Sakura opens her eyes only to see her husband, and in her half-asleep state she isn’t sure whether she just spoke aloud. If she did, Itachi says nothing about it.

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She and Okaasan eat in silence for the first half-hour of breakfast. Sakura picks at her food, sips her tea, and looks everywhere besides her mother’s brown eyes. Last night is much on her mind still, and it feels strange to sit here, sharing a meal with Okaasan, as if they were in their dining room in Rokagita instead of a restaurant in Nanmoku.

Her mother frowns and asks, “Did he treat you gently?”

Sakura blushes, nods. Her wedding night is not something she cares to discuss with anyone, let alone her mother, but she understands why Okaasan is asking. She needs to ensure that her daughter was not mistreated, that this peace didn’t come at the expense of Sakura’s welfare.

After breakfast, she and Itachi move her things from Fugaku-sama and Mikoto’s house to the smaller estate that Sakura will now share with her husband. Sasuke makes himself scarce, and they don’t see him at all. That’s good, because she doesn’t know what she might possibly say to him, this morning of all mornings.

The early months of her marriage pass pleasantly enough. Itachi is often absent, always saddled with the clan’s most important missions, and Sakura stays busy too, throwing herself into work at the hospital. But when they’re both home at the same time, she finds that they get along well and have much in common. Like his brother, Itachi is a man of few words, but he is less guarded than Sasuke, and before long, she sees exactly how thoughtful, compassionate, and intelligent he is. She can’t help but like Itachi, admire him even. He proves to a be kind and dedicated husband, just as Sakura always suspected he would be, and she does her best to be a good wife in return.

She sees little of Sasuke these days. He’s avoiding her, and when chance brings them together, he has nothing to say. It hurts, but Sakura knows this can only be for the best.

Slowly, she tries to lock away the part of her heart that belongs to Sasuke. To hold her husband without thinking of his brother, to stop comparing them at every turn. And on a cool winter morning four months into their marriage, she wakes Itachi with a kiss, then initiates making love to him for the first time.

There is no lack of passion between them, and she and Itachi spend most nights learning how to best please each other. Her husband is generous and gentle in bed, always mindful of her wants, and it doesn’t take him long to find out exactly which caresses unravel her self-control.

Sakura never allows herself to imagine any other man when she’s being intimate with Itachi, but there are times, when her husband is gone on his long missions and she’s alone in their big, empty house, that Sakura still touches herself and pretends it’s Sasuke hands on her body, making her tremble, making her come. He would be rougher than Itachi, she thinks, less patient, greedier in the way he takes her. He might not love me, but he wants me, she tells herself, again and again. Sasuke wants me.

.

.

Itachi tickles her, attacking her most sensitive spots, ribs and thighs and under her arms. Sakura laughs hysterically, begging him to stop, but he keeps going until she’s on the verge of tears. Then he lets her go and says, “You have the most beautiful smile, Sakura.”

She’s still breathing hard, trying to steady herself. “I’ll get you back,” she promises. “Sometime when you least expect it.”

Itachi says, “I look forward to it.”

It surprises her, how playful her serious husband can be when the mood strikes him.

By spring, she and Itachi are comfortable around each other, affectionate within the privacy of their home. Sakura finds that she has grown to love her husband (if not quite in the same way she loves Sasuke).

Life with Itachi is simple, easy, and she comes to appreciate him more and more. But Sakura also worries about her husband, because there are nights when she wakes to the sound of his coughing, and once she even sees him trying to hide a bloody handkerchief. She asks to examine him, to make sure everything is all right, but Itachi only waves away her concerns and says he’s in near perfect health. It’s just the changing of the seasons, he says, that irritates his lungs.

His smile is convincing enough, but Sakura doesn’t quite believe him.

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.

She spends all day at the hospital, and by the time Sakura goes home, the sun has long since set on Nanmoku. She expects the house to be empty (once again, Itachi is gone, carrying out some secret assignment for his clan), but when she goes to the kitchen to make a cup of tea, she finds that Sasuke has let himself in. He sits with his elbows on the table, fingers interlaced, waiting.

“Hello,” Sakura says, and the word comes out weak, breathless. This is the first moment they’ve had utterly alone since before her wedding, six months ago, and it makes her blood run hot in her veins.

Sasuke nods at her, returns the greeting, as collected as ever.

“Itachi isn’t here,” Sakura says, “but he’ll be back next week.”

“I know.” He frowns, and there’s some emotion in his dark eyes she can’t place. “I came to see you.”

Sakura sits across from him and asks, “Why?”

“I want to say I’m sorry.” She can guess how much this costs him. Sasuke’s apologies are few and far between, if always heartfelt. “For not talking to you since you married Itachi. We’re friends, I like to think anyway, and I shouldn’t have done that.”

“Why did you?” Sakura asks. She tries not to hope for anything, because this man has made it clear enough that her futile feelings are unreciprocated.

Sasuke swallows and glances away from her. “Because I was jealous,” he says, voice low. “Still am.”

Sakura’s breath catches, and her heart beats heavily in her chest. “You’re jealous?” she asks, nearly choking on the question.

“So much I can barely breathe for it,” Sasuke says, and the way he looks at her is hot, fervent. Furious and hungry at once. His gaze roams over her face, her chest, and Sakura blushes under the hard stare.

She can imagine what will happen if she responds to his confession honestly. She’ll end up on this table, legs spread, with Sasuke between them, betraying her husband.

Sakura stands, crosses her arms over her breasts, and says, “You should leave.”

Sasuke approaches her, steps close enough that she can smell him, and cups her face. “You don’t want me to go,” he says. “I can tell.”

Sakura closes her eyes, leans into his hand. It feels so good to be touched by Sasuke, better even than she remembered. He kisses her temple, the curve of her cheek, the corner of her lips, and his breath is so warm against her skin that she can barely stand it. “Don’t,” she whimpers. “Please.”

Sasuke takes her mouth with his, aggressive and needy, while his arms wrap around her waist, holding her against him. She can’t help it, she kisses back, presses her body to his. Then he pulls away, breaking the sweet contact, and says, “I lied to you, in the garden that night. I love you, Sakura. I’ve loved you for years.”

She could cry from the unfairness of it, but what’s done is done, and there’s no going back. Sakura steps away from him, touches her tender mouth with the back of her trembling hand. “I don’t care,” she says, and her voice breaks on the lie. “Get out.”

Sakura—”

“I said to get out!” she shouts. “Go, right now, or I swear I’ll tell Itachi everything you said and did tonight.”

Sasuke’s face becomes perfectly expressionless, empty as a clean slate. “If that’s how you want it,” he says coolly.

After she hears the front door close, Sakura falls to her knees and cries, weeps for what might have been, what should have been.

.

.

“Is something wrong?” Itachi asks.

They’ve just made love, but her mind was far away, wrapped up in Sasuke, and Sakura barely felt his touch.

“I’m fine,” she says. “Just tired.”

“I worry about you,” he says, and there’s such genuine concern in Itachi’s deep voice that she shifts guiltily. “You work too hard.”

Sakura makes herself smile. “But I like my work.”

He touches her face, gentle fingers caressing her cheek, then sweeping down to tilt her chin in his direction. Itachi says, “You seem unhappy, Sakura. I wish I knew how to help.”

“You’re wonderful. I couldn’t ask for a better husband,” she says, meaning every word.

There’s a party the next night, a formal gathering at Fugaku-sama and Mikoto’s house. Sasuke moved out a few months ago, but he will be there as a guest, of course. Sakura dabs perfume on her pulse points and changes kimonos three times before finally settling on a dark red silk. She hasn’t seen him since the night he said he loved her, and a waking hour hasn’t passed that she didn’t think on that confession.

The party is a less staid affair than usual, and people mill about the bottom floor of the house, drinking sake, chatting, laughing. Sakura tries to keep up with conversation and respond at the right times, but Sasuke is looking at her—staring, really—and that’s all she can think about. She refuses to meet his gaze, keeps her arm hooked through Itachi’s as he speaks to the elders and comrades and his father, smiling politely while the men discuss clan politics. She doesn’t turn to see if Sasuke is still watching her; she doesn’t need to, because she can feel his eyes on her back.

Sakura slips away from her husband with the excuse of a headache and goes upstairs, desperate to put some distance between herself and Sasuke. She takes refuge in the little reading room on the second floor, but she hasn’t had more than a minute to herself before the door slides open.

Sasuke steps inside and shuts the door behind him. He doesn’t say anything, just looks at her with those vigilant eyes. He must see how vulnerable she is, how weak her love has made her, because he strides across the room, pushes her against the wall, and kisses her. The last time he did this, she had the strength to protest, to rebuff him, but now Sakura opens her mouth to his, winds her arms around his neck.

He grabs at her carefully chosen kimono, pulling it up around her hips, and she turns her face away, breaking the kiss. “We can’t. Itachi’s downstairs—”

“I don’t care,” he says. He puts a hand down her underwear and slips two fingers inside her, more roughly than she’s used to, but this is Sasuke and that’s all it takes to make her moan. He clamps his free hand over her mouth, and says, “Make all the noise you want.” The feeling is overwhelming, almost too good, the way he’s touching her. It takes a shamefully short amount of time before she’s coming, arching into one of his hands and crying out against the other. But somehow she doesn’t feel sated, just tender, tense, and aching.

Sasuke uncovers her mouth, kisses her, and presses himself between her legs. She can feel his hardness as he rocks against her sex, sending a thrill through her with each blissful moment of friction. Sakura pulls at his pants, unbuttoning, unzipping, pushing the fabric down until his cock is free. She’s beyond thinking of consequences now, doing as she wants instead of as she’s told (for once in her life).

Sasuke picks Sakura up, pins her against the wall, and fucks her with all the pent up need of a man who has been waiting for years. His thrusts are deep and hard, but she’s as wet as she’s ever like to be in her life, and it feels so good she could cry. Sakura watches her lover’s face, the sweat beading on his brow, the way his lips are parted on soft sounds, the hunger in his dark eyes. He drives into her like a man possessed, until she’s so close that it nearly hurts, but in the sweetest way. Then she’s over the edge, shaking, biting back a shout, and Sasuke lets himself fall with her.

He sets her to the ground, but Sakura’s legs are almost too weak and coltish to support her. With trembling hands, she pulls up her underwear, straightens her kimono, smooths her long hair.

Sasuke fixes his clothing, his movements as shaky as her own. He won’t look her in the eyes, doesn’t say a word.

“Was that your first time?” Sakura asks.

He glances over at her and says, “Of course.”

It relieves her more than it should that he hasn’t been with some other woman. That he wanted her too much to slake his lust with anyone else.

Everything feels hazy, and her body sings with pleasure, but now Sakura’s mind is racing, and all she can think of is Itachi, still downstairs, socializing. Her husband, just one floor away while she fucked his brother.

.

.

Sakura tells herself it won’t happen again, that she only had a moment of weakness in the reading room. So many years of loving Sasuke left her foolish and reckless, but she learns from her mistakes and won’t make the same one again. She feels sick with herself, so guilty she can barely stand it, and Sakura doesn’t know how her husband fails to see in her eyes that she was unfaithful.

Her resolve holds until Itachi leaves for a two-week mission to the Lightning Country, and she’s left alone in the house. She doesn’t seek out Sasuke, but Itachi has barely been gone a day before he’s shadowing her doorstep. Sakura lets him inside against her better judgment.

“What are you doing here?” she asks.

“I had to see you,” he says. “To talk about what happened.”

“There’s nothing to talk about,” Sakura says. She walks into the living room and closes the blinds, so nosy neighbors won’t see that she’s hosting Itachi’s brother at ten o’clock at night.

Nothing to—” Sasuke cuts himself off, angry, and walks toward her. So close that Sakura takes a few steps away, until she finds her back against the wall. He puts his arms on either side of her face, caging her in. “We can’t just pretend it didn’t happen,” he says.

“What is it you want exactly?” Sakura asks.

“You,” he says, and she has never heard Sasuke sound so desperate. “I want you, Sakura.”

“Well maybe you should have told me that two years ago,” she says, “before I married Itachi.”

“What could we have done?” he asks. “Run away together? Thrown our clans back into war with our selfishness?”

“I don’t know,” Sakura says. “It doesn’t matter anyway, because the choice is gone.”

“No, it’s not,” he whispers, and now he’s leaning down, kissing her neck. His breath is so warm against her skin, and his proximity makes Sakura tense all over. “You think I don’t hate this?” he asks. “That I don’t hate myself? Itachi is my brother, my only brother, and you’re his wife. I know what the right thing is, but I just can’t do it.”

They barely make it to the couch before they’re pulling at each other’s clothes. She wants to see Sasuke naked, to touch every inch of his skin. There was so little time in the reading room that day, no privacy except what they stole.

Afterward, Sakura cries, and Sasuke holds her, strokes her back and makes soothing noises. “I love you,” he says.

She wipes at her tears. “I love you too.”

They’re only brave enough to carry on their affair while Itachi is away on missions. Sakura goes to Sasuke’s house, or he comes to her home. They close the curtains against neighborly curiosity and make love wherever they please: the living room, kitchen, study, guest room. Only the door to the master bedroom stays closed, because she refuses to take her infidelity into the bed she shares with Itachi. She can tell this bothers Sasuke, that there is a place she reserves for making love to her husband alone, but Sakura pretends not to notice his jealousy.

She lets him mark her however he likes, bruising and nipping her sensitive skin. Once he leaves, she heals herself, careful to erase each blemish; takes a hot shower, scrubbing herself clean under scalding water; and buries her attention in a good book to distract herself from the guilt.

It becomes a nightly ritual during the weeks her husband is away.

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Chapter Text

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Itachi knows something is wrong. He looks at her oddly and asks leading questions, trying to get her to open up to him. Sakura smiles and pretends innocence until she can’t stand herself. Part of her wants to come clean and confess everything, but she doesn’t have the courage to do it.

Three months into her affair, Fugaku-sama sends Itachi and Sasuke south to make an alliance with Hyuuga Hiashi. Itachi insists that his wife come, that Sakura’s bright, diplomatic nature will help them when it comes time to negotiate. Fugaku-sama agrees, and so Sakura spends two hellish days traveling with her husband and her lover. On the second night, inside the flimsy privacy of their tent, Itachi kisses his way down her stomach, to between her legs, and Sakura does her best to stay quiet.

The next morning, Sasuke can barely look at her and hardly speaks to anyone. He keeps his face carefully blank, but she sees the fury just underneath that cold expression.

At the Hyuuga village, Hiashi greets them respectfully, if not warmly. Negotiations prove difficult. The man is stubborn, and he wants to keep his clan independent from the Senju and Uchiha. Only with the promise of open trade, access to allied resources, and shared intelligence does Hiashi finally agree to perhaps bind his clan to theirs. As a token of his faith, he offers his elder daughter as a wife for Sasuke.

No, Sakura thinks, but she keeps her expression as tranquil as still waters.

Sasuke says, “With all due respect, Hiashi-sama, I have no intentions of taking any wife.”

For a moment, Sakura breathes easier—until Itachi says, “Excuse my younger brother. We’ll give this matter the proper consideration it deserves.”

Later, alone with the two brothers in her borrowed quarters, Sasuke says, “I’m not marrying her.”

“This alliance is fragile,” Itachi says patiently, “and if you refuse Hinata, it may crumble altogether.”

“I don’t care,” Sasuke says.

“Stop being so selfish, for once in your life,” Itachi snaps. “If we don’t bring the Hyuuga to our side, it could mean war a few years down the line.”

Sasuke glances at Sakura, and Itachi asks, “Why are you looking to her?”

She hopes he can think of a good lie, and quickly.

“If anyone in this room knows what it’s like to be sold, she does. And how happy has that made you, Sakura?” Sasuke’s look is challenging, heated.

Sakura lowers her gaze, angry that he would ask her such a thing. No matter how she answers, she’ll hurt one of the men she loves, so she doesn’t answer at all.

“Get out,” Itachi says, and Sasuke leaves, slamming the door behind him.

A heavy silence echoes in the room, oppressively quiet.

Itachi sits next to her on the edge of the bed and asks, “Is he right? Do you feel like you were sold to me?”

When Sakura can’t find the words to respond, her husband sighs, sounding impossibly weary for such a young man.

Itachi argues with Sasuke again in the morning, but his younger brother will not bend. He flatly refuses to marry the Hyuuga girl. Hiashi is displeased, tells the Uchihas they have worn out their welcome, and sends them back to Nanmoku with no alliance.

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.

Okaasan’s latest letter is lively and entertaining as always, but at the end, almost as an afterthought, her mother mentions that there has been some unrest in the clan. A man named Danzo has half the Senju wanting to break the peace with the Uchiha, but she promises he’ll be dealt with soon.

“What have you heard about it?” Sakura asks Itachi. “Is this Danzo dangerous?”

“He’s a formidable ninja,” Itachi says, and from him, that certainly means something. “His politics are brutal, as are his methods. He’s not the sort of man you want in a position of power.”

Sakura frowns and sits by the window. “How serious is this? Is my clan looking at civil war?”

“I won’t lie to you,” Itachi says. He approaches her, takes her hands. “It could come to that. But if it does, we’ll support your mother and the Senju who have remained loyal.”

She nods, then rests her head against his chest. “I wish things were different,” she whispers. “I wish this wasn’t the world we lived in.”

News travels slowly from Rokagita, but at least Okaasan sends her more straightforward letters. She reports that Danzo has been imprisoned for trying to start an insurgency, his closest comrades as well. This was an unpopular move, apparently, but the Senju accept their matriarch’s will all the same.

Life in Nanmoku continues on. Fugaku-sama is most upset with his younger son for refusing the match with Hinata and commands him to relent and accept the Hyuuga girl, but Sasuke holds his ground. He won’t be married; not to Hinata, not to anyone.

A few weeks after the fruitless trip to the Hyuugas’ village, she, Itachi, Sasuke, and Mikoto attend a party at the daimyo’s palace. Most of the guests are wealthy civilians, but there’s a handful of other high-ranking shinobi present. Rice wine flows as if it is endless, and Sakura indulges in a cup or two.

After dancing with her husband, she sits beside Mikoto, drinking her sake. The older woman has always been kind to her, but tonight she keeps her distance, cool and taciturn. It’s uncanny, really, her resemblance to her younger son when she decides not to show any emotion.

“Is something wrong, Mikoto-san?” Sakura asks.

Her mother-in-law fixes her with a flat stare. “My husband has never liked you, Sakura. He says you’re too much like Tsunade, too self-centered and temperamental to be trustworthy.”

Sakura feels her cheeks grow warm. “I’m sorry he feels that way.”

“I’ve always defended you,” Mikoto says, “because you seem like such a kind girl. But now I don’t think there’s much kindness in you, after all.”

“Why do you say that?” Sakura asks, but her stomach is twisting, because she understands that somehow Mikoto knows.

Her mother-in-law looks around, then whispers, “My niece Saiyuri says she saw Sasuke sneaking out of your house after midnight, the last time Itachi was gone.”

Sakura takes a drink of her sake, makes a puzzled face. “I’m sure she was mistaken. Sasuke and I rarely even see each other these days.”

“Oh, don’t playact with me,” Mikoto says, and now she sounds downright disgusted (same as Sakura feels with herself). “We both know you’ve pined after Sasuke for years. Fortunately for you, Saiyuri is a discreet girl, and she told no one but me. And I won’t be sharing this information with my husband or Itachi, because I have no desire to see the alliance between our clans collapse.”

Sakura has never felt more embarrassed, more ashamed, in her life. She will not cry in front of Mikoto. She won’t.

Just then, Sasuke returns to their table and asks Sakura if she would like to dance.

Mikoto turns her hard look on her younger son and says, too quiet for anyone else to hear, “Have some decency.”

It’s the only sharp thing Sakura has ever heard Sasuke’s mother say to him. He frowns, starts to talk back, but Mikoto holds up her hand. “You disappoint me, Sasuke. I thought you would grow into a better man than this.”

Mikoto stands, leaves the table, and goes to socialize with some diplomat’s wife or another, now smiling pleasantly.

.

.

After the confrontation with Mikoto, Sakura and Sasuke stop seeing one another. This resolve, borne from shame and fear of discovery, lasts all of two months, and then they’re sneaking around again (albeit more carefully).

At the end of September, Itachi takes a short mission to the Wind Country, four days away at most. He hasn’t been gone an hour when Sasuke shows up. He kisses her fiercely, like half a lifetime has passed since they last made love. Then he picks her up, bridal style, and strides toward the master bedroom.

“Sasuke,” Sakura says, and she means to protest, she does, but then he has already kicked open the door and dropped her on the bed without ceremony. She watches him undress, takes in his broad shoulders, flat stomach, strong arms. There’s even a certain beauty to his scars, those marks that show how close to death he’s been.

Then Sasuke takes off her clothes, kissing soft skin wherever he bares her, until she’s naked and he has his mouth between her legs, working her sensitive flesh with his tongue. Sakura thrashes, grips the sheets in tight fists. He teases her until she can’t stand it anymore, until she begs him to take her. Then Sasuke gets on his knees, fucks her hard and fast. The mattress creaks beneath them and the headboard hits the wall, making an awful racket and reminding Sakura of exactly where she is (the bed that was supposed to be hers and Itachi’s alone). Sasuke whispers words of love between endearments, and she can’t help it, she comes, crying out his name.

“I’m not nearly done with you,” Sasuke says, and he must mean that, because he keeps her up all night, using her in every way they both want (and after so many weeks apart, they want a great deal).

Sakura finally closes her eyes as dawn breaks. She sleeps until the early afternoon, and when she wakes, she finds that Sasuke is still there beside her, hair mussed, breathing evenly. She feels sore all over, tender after the evening they shared. Sasuke is always passionate, but last night was something else. He took her, over and over again, like he was trying to prove she belonged to him.

When Sasuke stirs and sits up, Sakura asks, “Are you happy now?” He doesn’t answer, so she presses. “Well, are you proud? Did you get what you wanted?”

“No,” Sasuke says. He leaves the bed, starts dressing. “I’m sick of this,” he says. “The lying, the subterfuge. Having to pretend like I don’t love you when I do.”

“Well what do you want me to do about it?” Sakura asks. She understands—even feels the same way herself—but they have no good choices.

He shakes his head, pulls his shirt on. “I don’t know.”

“Neither do I.” Sakura gets out of bed, strips the sheets off it; they’ll need to be washed before Itachi comes home.

.

.

“What is this?” her husband asks.

Sakura is lying on her stomach, naked, and Itachi has his fingers pressed lightly to her shoulder. Her heart beats faster, and an excuse catches in her throat. Could she have missed a bruise when she healed herself, some mark from her long night with Sasuke?

“I don’t know,” Sakura says, trying to sound disinterested. “I probably bumped into something.”

Itachi doesn’t say a word, just gives her cold silence. When she chances a look at him, she sees that his Sharingan is awakened, his mouth a flat line.

“Do you think I’m a fool?” he asks.

Sakura sits up, holding the freshly laundered sheet to her breasts.

“I know a love-bite when I see one,” Itachi says, voice steady but hard. “And I haven’t been home to give you one in days.”

No, no, this can’t be happening. Her lies are catching up with her, and she doesn’t know what to do.

“Well?” her husband asks. “What do you have to say?”

Sakura finds that she can’t look at him, can barely even speak her apology. “I’m so sorry, Itachi.” She closes her eyes, feels hot tears sliding down her cheeks. She hears him stand, and then the sound of a chair being thrown across the room. Sakura startles at the noise, hugs the sheet closer to her nakedness, and looks to see Itachi pacing. He moves like a wild creature thrust into captivity, something dangerous that has been confined against its will.

Her husband glares at her. “It’s Sasuke, isn’t it?”

Sakura can’t find the voice to answer, so she just nods.

“How long?” Itachi asks.

“I don’t think we should—”

How long?” he asks again, this time more forcefully.

Sakura takes a deep breath and says, “Six months.”

Half of their short marriage.

The expression that crosses Itachi’s face is one of pure hurt, and Sakura has never hated herself as much as she does in this moment. But then the pain is gone, and he simply looks angry, furious. Itachi pulls on his clothes, quickly and purposefully.

“Where are you going?” Sakura asks.

“To visit my little brother,” Itachi says.

Sakura stands, the sheet trailing after her. “What are you going to do?”

He throws a dress at her, which she catches by instinct alone, and says, “Put that on. You’re coming with me.”

Sakura follows him across Nanmoku, trying not to cry any more, terrified that Itachi will hurt his younger brother.

She need not have worried, however, because when Sasuke opens his front door, Itachi simply takes Sakura by the arm and pushes her forward. “You want her so badly?” he asks. “Then take her, keep her. I have no use for an unfaithful wife.”

Sasuke steps toward him, anguished, and says, “Nisan, I’m sorry—”

“Don’t call me that.” The look Itachi gives them both is cold, unforgiving.

.

.

Word quickly travels around Nanmoku that Sakura is not living with her husband, although the reason why remains unknown. She uses her savings to rent a hotel room, far from both Itachi and Sasuke, and considers the consequences of her own poor choices. She has nobody to blame for this predicament besides herself.

Sakura waits one week, then two, half hoping that Itachi would change his mind and allow her back home, half relieved that she is free for the first time since she was twelve years old.

It’s only a matter of time before Fugaku-sama and Mikoto hear about the separation, and on the fifteenth day after Itachi kicked her out of the house, she and her husband are summoned to their estate for dinner. To her surprise, Itachi actually shows up.

“I don’t know what’s come between you,” Fugaku-sama says, “but whatever it is cannot be more important than the alliance between our clans.”

At first, Itachi argues, but she can see right away that he’ll give in. Her husband has always understood the importance of peace, valued it more than anything else. By the end of dinner, he has grudgingly invited her to return home, for the sake of his village if nothing else.

“I’ll come back,” Sakura says, “but first I want to visit Rokagita.”

“No,” Fugaku-sama says. “Your clan is on the brink of a civil war, and you’re far too valuable to be risked.”

Sakura frowns. “I need to see my mother.”

He shakes his head. “The answer is no.”

It turns out that Fugaku-sama’s verdict doesn’t much matter, because Sakura receives a letter from Nawaki the next day. She can see the grief in every pen stroke, the way her uncle’s hand shook as he wrote to her.

I’m so sorry, Sakura, but your mother is dead.

She reads enough of the long letter to understand that Danzo and his comrades were broken out of prison. Shortly thereafter Rokagita erupted into battle, and her mother faced Danzo and a half-dozen of his lackeys. She died fighting to protect her village.

Now Danzo rules Rokagita, and he plans to dissolve the alliance with the Uchiha Clan.

Sakura goes straight to Fugaku-sama, Nawaki’s letter still clutched in her fist, and finds him already in a council with his sons and advisors. “What are you going to do about this?” she asks.

“That man’s rule will not be tolerated,” Fugaku-sama assures her. “He must be removed from power before he plunges our clans back into war with one another.” Then he looks around the room, at the shinobi, young and old, gathered there. “I want this Danzo assassinated. Who volunteers to eliminate him?”

“I want to do it,” Sakura says. “He killed my mother. I deserve the chance to face him.”

Fugaku-sama frowns, but says, “I’ll allow it, Sakura, on the condition that three of my clansmen support you on your mission.”

“I’ll help,” Sasuke says, and she doesn’t meet his eyes, can’t, not right now, with the letter spelling out her mother’s fate still held in her hand.

“Count me in,” says Obito-sensei.

Sakura looks to her husband. “Itachi?” she asks. If he joins them, she knows that Danzo’s death warrant is all but signed.

Itachi nods and says, “I’ll help you, too, Sakura.”

.

.

Danzo has taken up residence in her mother’s estate, the home where Sakura spent her early years. Her team infiltrates the grounds in the dead of night, quietly incapacitating the masked men guarding the perimeter. There are more bodyguards inside the grand old house, and it grieves Sakura, but she’s forced to destroy some of her childhood home in her pursuit of Danzo.

Itachi, Obito-sensei, and Sasuke are outnumbered three to one, but these men are the finest shinobi of the Uchiha Clan, and Danzo’s subordinates are no match for them.

She finds her target escaping out the back of the house with two guards, but he makes it no further than ten feet before Sakura shatters the earth around him. One of the masked shinobi hits his head on a rock and lies still, either dead or unconscious, and Sakura doesn’t quite care which right now.

“You must be Tsunade’s brat,” Danzo says.

She burns the second bodyguard with the fireball jutsu Itachi taught her so many years ago, and the man falls to the ground, screaming.

Sakura looks to Danzo and says nothing; after all, what is there to say to a dead man?

.

.

Sasuke, Itachi, and Obito-sensei find her kneeling over the thing that used to be Danzo (before Sakura caved in his skull with a chakra-enhanced punch). He’s been dead for a good ten minutes, but she wields a kunai, her careful medic’s hands easily pinpointing the most vital spots. Once she hits all of those, she continues to stab his chest and stomach indiscriminately. She’s red all over, covered in her enemy’s blood. Distantly, she feels a man’s strong hands pull her away from Danzo’s corpse, help her stand. The slick kunai slips from between her graceless fingers and falls to the ground.

“It’s over, Sakura,” Sasuke says, and he hugs her, anchoring her to the earth. “You killed him.”

She nods numbly, and in an instant her shock gives way to grief, and Sakura allows herself to cry. Only in Sasuke’s arms can she let herself fall apart like this.

They stay in Rokagita long enough to ensure that her uncle is safely instated as the new Head of the Senju (a title that, in a different life, would have belonged to Sakura). Her team leaves the village as morning sunlight appears just over the horizon, makes the long journey back to Nanmoku. She thanks these three men—her husband, her teacher, and her love—for helping her save Rokagita and avenge her mother.

It isn’t until her feet have carried her back to the house she shares with Itachi that Sakura realizes her presumption. “I know you only agreed to let me come back for the sake our villages,” she says. “Are you sure you want me here?”

He nods. “You’re my wife,” Itachi says, as if that answers everything simply.

Both of them are bone-tired from the journey back to Nanmoku, but neither can sleep. They sit up at the kitchen table, drinking tea and making small talk. Until Itachi sets his cup down and asks, “Have you always loved Sasuke? You said his name when you were half-asleep, the morning after our wedding, and I’ve wondered ever since.”

So he had heard that. Sakura lowers her gaze. “I’ve loved him for years,” she says, “but that doesn’t excuse what I’ve done. I’m sorry that we hurt you, Itachi.”

“I’m sorry I couldn’t make you happy,” he says.

“You’re a good husband,” Sakura says, and she reaches across the table to take his hand. “There’s nothing you’ve done wrong, nothing you should apologize for.”

Itachi sighs. “There’s something I need to tell you, Sakura. I hate to do it now, so soon after you lost your mother, but it needs to be said.”

“What is it?” she asks, too puzzled to be nervous.

He looks at her steadily and says, “I’m sick. Dying. The medics say I have a few months left, as many as four or five if I stop going on missions and rest more.”

Sakura takes a shaky breath, closes her eyes, trying to comprehend the magnitude of what he has just told her. “Who all knows?”

“Only the medic-ninjas on my case, and now you,” Itachi says. “I’m planning to tell my parents and Sasuke together, tomorrow.”

Sakura can’t help but cry. Whatever mistakes she’s made, Itachi is still her husband, and she loves him. Five months is nothing. It will be gone in the blink of an eye, and she can’t abide that. “Maybe the medics missed something. You should let me look at you, see if I can formulate a treatment—”

Itachi shakes his head. “I’ll let you look me over, if it will set you at ease, but I don’t want you to get your hopes up. I’ve been assured that my illness is fatal.”

Sakura refuses to believe it until she sees the damage herself. The next day, Itachi allows her to examine him, and what she finds makes her want to scream. There’s something in his blood that does not belong, a million microscopic cells that are out of place in the human body, so small that even with the finest precision of her chakra, Sakura can barely sense them. Except for the fact that this disease is already spreading into his major organs, he is relatively healthy—strong heart and lungs and liver—and it grieves her, because if not for this, he could have lived to be ninety or more.

(They could have grown old together, but Sakura forces herself not to think on that.)

She tries to explain her findings, but for some reason her voice doesn’t seem to work.

“It’s all right,” Itachi says. “I already know. Will you come with me to tell my family? I don’t think I can do it by myself.”

Mikoto cries and Fugaku holds her, his stern face twisted by grief, but Sasuke’s reaction is the worst part by far. He screams, rages, sobbing all the while, and then when all the fury seems to have abandoned him, he hugs Itachi. Only Sakura is close enough to hear Sasuke whisper, “I’m so sorry, Nisan.”

Whether he’s referring to the illness or their transgressions, she isn’t sure.

.

.

Sakura watches her husband die by inches, all of her medical knowledge useless in the face of this disease. Itachi no longer takes missions, but he refuses to stop training, and every day she sees him slow a little more, tire a little faster, until the morning comes when he says, “I think I’ll just rest today.” There is no training again after that.

He takes medicine to manage the pain, and although she knows he must be weary and hurting, Itachi never complains.

“You know, you don’t have to stay by my side for this,” he says.

“There’s nowhere else I want to be,” she says. “I don’t want to miss any time with you.”

She and Itachi go to a festival together, enjoying the lights and laughter and sharing sweet dango. They hold hands wherever they go, like lovestruck newlyweds, and kiss under the shade of an old oak tree.

Sakura doesn’t know it yet, but this is the last good day Itachi will have.

They play shogi all the time now, because it’s one of the few things he can do while sitting that doesn’t bore him. He’s a much better opponent than his brother (as Sasuke has little patience for strategy), and Sakura loses as often as she wins.

It’s a Sunday morning, and they’re playing their third game when Itachi says, “After I’m dead, my father and your uncle will want to keep the alliance tied together by marriage. You know what means, don’t you?”

Sakura understands precisely what he’s getting at, but she can’t think how to answer. That’s just as well, though, because Itachi hasn’t finished speaking. “They’ll want you and Sasuke to marry,” he says bluntly. “Not right away, of course, that would be unseemly. But after a few months have passed—”

Sakura shakes her head. “Stop it. I don’t want to talk about this.”

“Too bad,” Itachi says, in a tone that tolerates no argument, “because I do.”

“Why?” she asks. “Why would you possibly want to discuss this?”

“You need to accept that I’m going to die, and you should be prepared for the consequences you’ll face once I’m gone,” Itachi says. He reaches across the board and touches her cheek. “I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I’m jealous, because he’ll get to spend the rest of a long life with you. But, Sakura, I love you, and I love Sasuke, and I don’t want you to feel guilty for the rest of your lives.”

We deserve it, Sakura thinks, for betraying a man as good as her husband.

.

.

Itachi’s last words are to Sasuke. He pokes his little brother in the middle of the forehead, the way he used to do when they were younger, and says, “We’ll talk later.” Then he falls into a deep sleep which he never wakes from.

Sakura is just barely nineteen, far too young to be a widow, but here she is just the same.

The funeral passes in a haze of grief, and then Sakura is left alone in the home she shared with her husband. She finds that she can’t sleep in the master bedroom, where she once let Sasuke use her so roughly, and tries to steal what rest she can in the guest room. This whole house is a reminder of her betrayal, and if it wasn’t also full of memories of Itachi, she would happily burn it to the ground.

She sees little of Sasuke. Perhaps, like her, he feels too sick with guilt to take comfort in each other. Sakura still loves him—wouldn’t know to quit even if she tried—but the hurt they caused Itachi, that is a burden they’ll have to carry for the rest of their lives.

Itachi’s prediction soon proves correct. Four months after his death, Fugaku summons her and Sasuke and explains the importance of keeping their clans bound together. If they both consent, he hopes to see them wed this winter.

Sasuke nods, but he won’t even look at her.

Sakura’s second wedding takes place on a cool morning in December. Frost coats the leaves and grass, and the winter sun is high and white overhead. She and Sasuke go through a ceremony nearly identical to the one Sakura shared with Itachi not so long ago. After the reception, they retire to the fine quarters they’ve rented for the evening and help each other undress. She half expects to spend a sleepless night back to back with her new husband, but once she’s naked, Sasuke can’t seem to keep his hands off of her. They kiss and make love, slow and gentle, and it feels so good to be touched by him.

The next morning, she wakes to Sasuke watching her, playing with her long hair. “You’re so beautiful,” he says. “I can’t believe you’re my wife.”

She feels much the same. After so many years spent yearning for Sasuke and loving him despite the futility of it, Sakura can’t quite accept that he’s hers.

.

.

Every month or two, Sakura visits the polished stone that bears her first husband’s name. She brings fresh flowers, lilies or roses, usually, and takes a moment to remember him. He was the first person in Nanmoku to show her kindness, the first man she made love with. She misses Itachi, his soft smile and careful hands, and there is a part of her that will forever wish he was here. Whatever grief and guilt she carries is nothing next to Sasuke’s, though, so she keeps these thoughts to herself.

Slowly, the seasons turn, one after another, and life goes on.

(They do not discuss the empty room on the second floor, a nursery-in-waiting, but Sasuke and Sakura both know they’ll be expected to fill it soon all the same. That every time they make love there is a chance a child will come of it.)

Sasuke takes on new responsibilities, preparing to lead his clan someday. He brings Sakura to every council meeting, and when faced with difficult decisions he always seeks her advice.

“You should have been Head of the Senju,” Sasuke says. “You have the right mind for it.”

They’re in bed together, naked but not touching, enjoying their nearness to each other.

“Maybe,” Sakura says, “but I accepted my place here a long time ago.”

She’s given up so much to be a dutiful wife. Except, of course, when she and Sasuke risked everything to sate their own selfish desires.

“I visit Itachi’s grave,” Sakura admits. “Not all the time, but often enough.”

Sasuke moves closer to her, runs his fingers through her hair (which he seems to have a particular fondness for). “I wondered who was leaving those flowers,” he says. “I knew it wasn’t Otousan and Okaasan.”

She hugs Sasuke, holds him close. “It’s stupid, isn’t it? It’s not like going there will bring him back to us.”

He kisses the top of her head. “I miss him too,” Sasuke says, and she doesn’t remark upon the catch in his voice.

If she could turn back the hands of a clock, Sakura would do many things differently, but this is not the way the world works. She has to live with her mistakes, same as everyone else.

“What are you thinking?” Sasuke asks, as he runs his fingers up and down the smooth plane of her back, tracing nonsense words on her skin.

“I regret so much,” Sakura says. “But not you, Sasuke. Never you.”

She takes comfort in the warmth of his body, the strength and beauty of this man she has loved since childhood. He’s hers, for the rest of their lives, and Sakura knows she can only treasure this gift all the more, because it came at such a high price.

.

.