-I'm very grateful you lot seem to appreciate my Sakura. Sure she's not amazing like Naruto and Sasuke and all the other great kids are -- but then that's the point. She's an ordinary girl, who happens to hang out with pretty extraordinary people.
-I work under the premise that Naruto did manage to stop Sasuke (now that the manga's gone past that, the fic has gone AU, but then it already kind of was) and that Sasuke had the snot beaten out of him rather spectacularly. So yeah, he's a bit less stuck up and more mature and responsible than before. Only with the people he actually likes, though -- the rest of the world can fuck off. XD

Chapter 6: The Day That Never Ends

Sakura woke up with a muscular arm thrown over her chest again. The air was damp and a bit cold, and a few birds were trilling -- some directly over her head. Maybe she could sic Naruto on them; that would take care of breakfast.

Grunting in annoyance, the girl squirmed and buried herself in the embrace of her closest boy. Mmm, warm. She fell right asleep.

Only to be awakened a few seconds later by shrill bird’s whistle in her ear.


"Rrrrrgh, shaddap, stupid son of a hen and a pigeon..." Naruto snarled as he unwrapped the arm around Sakura's waist to throw something toward the source of the noise. There was the sound of wings beating frantically and then a thud as a little body hit a branch. Sakura smiled beatifically.

It was a bit weird, when she thought about it, to be in Naruto's arms, because it was still weird to see him as anything else than a (sometimes rather annoying) friend, but in her fuzzily sleepy brain, it was easier to admit that at least he had nice arms. The situation was bizarre, really, and she felt like she should have freaked out, and would freak out if only she was given the option later in the day, when she was more awake, but he was so very warm -- really, he would be just fine to cuddle with during winter. Sasuke's skin was a lot cooler; she could --she blushed as she imagined daring to do that, and even more, having the permission to-- cuddle him during summer...

... Now that she thought of it, maybe he was a bit too cold. As usual, he'd pulled away a little; he couldn't huddle close if his life depended on it; he was /such an infuriating standoffish prick/ so aloof. She didn't want him to get sick.

"Sasuke?" she whispered as she nudged him gently.

He didn't react.

"Sasuke?" she asked again, frowning in confusion. Was he ignoring her?

And then she noticed. His forehead was damp, his cheeks pale -- a lot paler than his usual shade, which would have seemed impossible to her only yesterday.

"Sasuke?" she repeated a third time, sitting up. Naruto grunted a protest as she pulled away from him, and she resolutely ignored the blush wanting to creep on her cheeks. She would feel embarrassed later. For now, Sasuke worried her. At a glance, she could see the vein at his throat fluttering from way too rapid a heartbeat, and when she reached out and took his wrist, it flopped just as if he didn't have a bone in his body -- and he was cold. His pulse was weak, too quick.

She crouched at his side, falling back on her training and ruthlessly smothering the part of her that wanted to cry out and sob and plead Sasuke to be okay -- she'd learned better in the last years.

"Naruto, check the perimeter," she snapped without looking back at the blond, who immediately stopped rubbing his head sleepily. A second later he'd disappeared from the branch, and she could feel his chakra building, gathering as he weaved his way through the trees.

She didn't like the way Sasuke was breathing. It was as if every breath he took pained him, and the little hissing noise it made... No, she didn't like it at all. She lifted one of his eyelids /damn these Uchiha for having such dark eyes, how the hell am I supposed to see his pupils?!/ checked his limbs and neck for signs of needles or scratches -- he could have been poisoned -- then not finding any, lifted Sasuke's shirt gently to glance at his body.

No need to look anywhere else. His torso was one big, ugly bruise. When had that happened? How? Why hadn't he -- no, scratch that, she knew why he hadn't said anything before. Probably thought he could be strong and manly and wait the pain out instead of disturbing her -- them -- when there was such an important decision to make. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

She brushed her fingers against his ribs tenderly, maybe a bit too fast -- she saw him shudder weakly, but she couldn't guess at a glance whether his ribs were in one piece or not. But the flesh was swollen in a way that implied more than surface damage.

His stomach and abdomen were ... Hard. As if he'd clenched his muscles -- but he was still perfectly limp.

"Perimeter secure," Naruto informed her. His chakra was actually radiating warmth, and Sasuke started to shiver anew when a gust of hot wind caressed his skin, to be replaced a second later with the damp, cold atmosphere of the forest.

"The fire. Poke it. Then sit on his other side." Sakura ordered as she pulled the orange sweater she was wearing over her head and threw it over Sasuke's chest.

"What's wrong with him?" Naruto asked; there was a hint of a whine in his tone, and she almost snapped at him to shut up and let her think, but she knew that he was worried too.

"I don't know," she replied instead, and if it sounded like a snarl, it was much more from her powerlessness than any resentment toward Naruto.

"Yesterday he said his ribs were cracked," the blond offered, his usually assured voice just a tiny bit wavering. "And Kyuubi leaned on his chest..."

"He did?!" she screeched back, though quietly. Why the hell did they never tell her these things?! And why the hell hadn't she NOTICED?!

/That might be the part with the self-pity and the cuddling up to strong males because you weren't able to deal on your own/ Inner Sakura offered, a lot less crude and a lot more grim than she usually was. ...Shit. Shit.

"But Sasuke said he was okay, that his ribs weren't broken, and he should know, we've broken enough ribs between the three of us!" Naruto replied, flinching at the rage in her voice. He looked guilty. Good, she thought with resentment. Maybe next time they'd think to communicate their status to their teammate!

"They're not broken," she replied tersely when watching Naruto cower stopped making her feel vindicated. "I think he has internal bleeding."

And it had been going on long enough that anyone else would probably be dead already, she thought, but it didn't help. Even on one of Naruto's frogs, and not counting the jounin no doubt posted between them and the village, Konoha was too far away and he needed urgent medical treatment, treatment that she wasn't qualified to give. She'd done a few stints at the hospital, under Shizune, but not enough to learn what she needed right now. The best she could do was to make him take a little longer to die.

She looked up. She didn't need to say anything. Naruto's face was starting to mirror her own horror.

"Oh-- oh fuck..."

He started to reach out, stopped himself.

"Can we move him? I mean it won't make things worse, will it?"

She shrugged; she felt like crying. /He'll die here just as well as in your arms, idiot/ she wanted to snarl back, but it would have been like kicking a puppy.

Naruto reached for Sasuke again to lift him -- and froze, eyes narrowing and nostrils flaring.

Without warning, she felt the scorching caress of the nine-tails' chakra, and then he disappeared with a snarl, only leaving the imprint of his feet in the bark.

A second later, she heard the twang of one of her tripwires and the faint sound of someone jumping aside to avoid her trap. It was not Naruto. Naruto would have crashed through the bushes, uncaring. She crouched protectively over Sasuke, kunai in hand. She didn't care that he was dying; she wouldn't let anyone hurt him!

"Yo, Haruno."

She had thrown her weapons before even recognizing the intruder.

Shikamaru was hanging upside-down from another tree, just a little above her level. His hands were in his pockets and he was scowling at her in that bored way of his. She was not about to trust that look on him. He was a special jounin; he was probably here on Konoha's business.

"You're so jumpy, I swear... I come in peace, so relax," he drawled, rolling his eyes, then glanced at Sasuke and finally appeared to take the situation seriously. "What happened to Uchiha?"

"I don't know," she admitted. She straightened up; her hands were perfectly steady, but of course the second she noticed how well she'd held her composure, she started to shake. "He has internal bleeding though. He needs medical attention," she added. She wondered why she was volunteering the info; maybe hoping he'd help. They were sort of friends, weren't they? Or if he still resented Sasuke for the whole Orochimaru mess, he was friends with Naruto, at least... Even if he was there to arrest them all, he wouldn't let Sasuke die, would he? "What are you doing here?"

He leaped onto their large branch, taking his backpack off as he advanced. "Hokage-sama sent us as negotiators. There are blankets and a thermos of soup in here," he added as he gave the pack away, not even watching her as he sat on his heels and stared at Sasuke's pale, sweaty face.

"To negotiate what?" she asked, as she pulled a blanket out and covered Sasuke. She couldn't help caressing his forehead tenderly, pushing back his long dark bangs. They were sticking to his face; he had to find that uncomfortable.

"Word back at the village amongst the ninja is that you were taken hostage by... Naruto," he replied, his voice and his whole body language indicating that he couldn't care less. But he was watching her closely, and she felt it, even as she smoothed the blanket and wetted Sasuke's lips with her water.

She was about to snap back that they'd come of their own will, thankyouverymuch, but the godawful howl that tore through the forest just then kind of made her lose track of the conversation.

"That wasn't Naruto," she mumbled, eyes wide. The voice was different -- and she didn't think anything could make him scream in pain so easily.

"It was Kiba," Shikamaru replied in a tense voice as he scanned the forest.

"What's Kiba --" doing here? She didn't ask, because she shouldn't talk before thinking. She bit her lip. He'd probably come with Shikamaru. As one of Naruto's friends he was probably supposed to be the best choice of tracker; he could find them quickly and hope not to get killed too much in case Naruto had snapped. It made sense really. They probably hoped a team composed of his friends would prevent him from attacking.

There was a crash and the sound of more fighting, but it only lasted a few seconds.

Then Naruto phased back on the branch.

At least... she thought it was Naruto. Because not only were his eyes red and his claws out, but he was on all fours and was dragging a struggling, suffocating Hyuuga Neji by the neck. A bruise was already blooming on the Hyuuga's jaw.

He saw Shikamaru and his upper lip curled up, baring thick fangs. "Back off, Shika," he growled as he advanced toward them. Sakura briefly hoped that Neji's shorts were thick, because it had to hurt to be dragged over the rough bark. /Hope he doesn't get splinters on his ass, he's stuck up enough./

Slowly, very slowly, as if calming a feral animal, Shikamaru pulled his hands out of his pockets and showed them to him. "Naruto..."

"Get away from them!" the blond snarled, and she didn't know if that was truly Naruto any longer.

"Naruto, shut up!" she retorted, with more authority than she felt courage for. "Why are you dragging Neji-san like that? You're going to strangle him!"

Shikamaru finally jumped to the trunk behind them to get out of Naruto's way, using chakra to cling to the vertical surface. Not even deigning to notice the white-knuckled grip Neji had on his wrist, the blond plopped the Hyuuga down on his ass facing Sasuke, a hand closed on his nape warningly, and crouched behind him as he leaned over his shoulder.

"Show me his Tenketsu."

Neji actually blinked, and while he still faced her and Sasuke, Sakura had the unpleasant feeling that he was staring at Naruto through his own skull. "... what?"

"The points where his chakra leave his body. Find them for me. There," Naruto added as he tore the blanket and the sweater off Sasuke and threw them behind him without even looking where they landed. Sakura swallowed a cry of protest.

"... There's blood filling up his thoracic cage and abdomen," Neji stated, jaws clenched.

The blond snarled low, threateningly, baring his fangs. A drop of blood trickled down Neji's neck where his claws had pierced the skin.

"I asked you," he purred softly, threateningly, "to show me his chakra exits. So do it."

Slowly, reluctantly, Neji activated his byakugan, then reached out and brushed his fingertips over the pinpoints Naruto had asked him to find.

Sakura watched with her heart in her throat. She didn't know what Naruto was doing, or why, but she was clinging to her trust in him and her hope that somehow, he would make it alright through the sheer force of his conviction.

"And they lead to the damaged organs?"

"Yes," Neji replied. He didn't sound as resentful, now; he just sounded cold and watchful, probably waiting for the occasion to free himself.

Without replying, the blond shoved Neji out of the way to kneel at Sasuke's side. Neji just barely managed to catch himself on the next branch underneath and quickly sprang higher in the trees, out of reach. Sakura saw him move into a fighting stance, and she tensed, but behind her Shikamaru made a quick 'back off' motion. The Hyuuga reluctantly stilled, and, mildly relieved, Sakura went back to observing Naruto.

His face was bathed in red light as his chakra crawled over his body, danced on his arms. She wanted to ask what he was doing, but there was a look of such concentration on his face that she didn't dare disturb him.

He put his fingers on the designated points, and slowly, the red chakra flowed down his hands and danced briefly on Sasuke's skin... and seeped inside him. She watched, not understanding what he was doing, only able to wait and hope.

Finally, he lost his hold on the chakra and it flickered out, leaving him to slump and sigh loudly.

She liked him better when he wasn't bathed in flames, she decided, and when his eyes were as blue as they should be.

"Neji," Shikamaru called in a low voice as he stared at Sasuke and Naruto. The blond was panting, visibly tired, but she thought Sasuke looked a bit less pale. Or maybe it was wishful thinking, Sakura told herself as she tried not to hope, and looked up at Neji for confirmation.

"... Blood loss has slowed down," he admitted grudgingly. "But your chakra scalded his pathways. You won't be able to do it again."

"Don't care, so long as it buys enough time to get him to a hospital," Naruto shot back as he straightened up and looked for the blanket. It had fallen to a lower branch and was threatening to slide off. He jumped, snatched it, and bounced back. "Oi, Kiba, you can crawl out now," he called over his shoulder as he spread the blanket over Sasuke again. Sakura took over, making sure that it was snug around Sasuke-kun's body, smoothing the folds tenderly.

"How are we going to move him?" she asked Shikamaru. She had a few ideas but none that really pleased her; maybe he would have better suggestions.

Hands back in his pocket, Shikamaru walked down the trunk to stand on the branch again, by Sasuke's head.

"I'm afraid we have to clear up a few things before that."

Naruto threw him a disgusted, pouty look. "C'mon, Shika, there's no time for chitchat!"

"If we go in now, you'll be killed on the spot," Neji replied, still staring holes through Naruto's head -- not that Naruto seemed to notice.

"At least they will try," muttered Shikamaru as he eyed the blond speculatively.

Naruto finally seemed to notice the weird looks he was getting. "Eh? What --"

"Naruto, sit down," Sakura intervened, tone weary but authoritative. "Sasuke won't get any worse for now, and Kiba won't come out as long as you stand ready to attack."

Grumbling, he complied. She narrowed her eyes at Shikamaru.

"Now what's going on?"

Shikamaru sat cross-legged against the trunk, casually. "The Council is screaming for Naruto's blood. Hokage-sama wants to learn what really happened, so she can veto any decisions they'll try to push through."

"But we don't have the time--"

"Naruto, shut the hell up or I'll shut you up," she hissed without stopping her staring contest with Shikamaru.

The blond wilted. "Yes, Sakura-chan."

"Good. What do you know of the situation?"

Ha! She'd surprised Shikamaru. He was used to seeing her boss the blond around, though. She wondered what had changed. They'd probably been told who Naruto was housing.

"We -- that is, Kiba, Neji and I -- know that Naruto felt threatened, took you two and bolted. We also know that it has something to do with the Kyuubi sealed inside him."

Naruto flinched.

"We were sent to determine if the seal had broken or been altered, permitting the demon to possess or influence Naruto's actions, and in case he was still sane, to convince him to come back so he could be re-sealed, judged for actions already committed, and not be considered a missing-nin. We were also sent to determine the part Uchiha Sasuke took in these events and to a lesser extent, yours. They seem to assume you're a kidnap victim, Sakura," he added. The way he was looking at her, he had his doubts. Sakura blushed. Well, it was an easy assumption to make, seeing as she'd left Konoha carried off by the blond.

Naruto mumbled something, head low. Shikamaru arched an eyebrow at him. "What?"

"I said, the seal is fine."

"That's not what I'd say," Kiba growled from a safe distance away. He looked like Naruto had planted him face first in the ground; there were still leaves and clumps of soil in his hair. His dog was nowhere in sight.

Naruto's fists clenched, but he didn't move. She saw him search for a comeback, and not find any. Finally he looked down again, as if scared to stare his friends in the eye.

"Why did you attack us?" Neji asked.

Naruto flinched again. "I didn't attack you. You attacked first! I was just trying to get you to come here, Neji."

"You came at him as if you were gonna tear him apart!" Kiba retorted from his hiding place.

"Well, sorry if I was in a hurry!" Naruto finally shouted back, annoyed.

Sakura slammed her fist into the bark. There was a very satisfying crack.

"SIT. It was a misunderstanding, okay? Please, everyone calm down." /before I fucking calm you down/ Inner Sakura thought, cracking her figurative knuckles.

Shikamaru and Naruto stared at each other over Sasuke's prone body.

"How are we to know that the Kyuubi isn't about to take control of you?"

Sakura stopped breathing. She trusted Naruto, because Sasuke did and because he just... was Naruto. But that was no material proof...

"Huh. If he could, why am I still here? Why would I bother saving Sasuke's ass?"

/Because you like doing X-rated stuff to it/ Inner Sakura commented irreverently, but Sakura didn't say anything. It would be a bad idea to inform Shikamaru's team that they were sort of lovers /or at least that they'd played hide-the-sausage once before/ -- ack. If they didn't already know what exactly had happened the previous day, then it would only muddy up the atmosphere.

"Could he be influencing you?"

"He's not."

Neji snorted. "I'm sure if it did, it wouldn't bother advertising it."

"He's not," Naruto repeated with calm conviction. "When he tries, I can feel it. He... promise you won't tell?"

Shikamaru sighed. "We're on a mission, Naruto. We have to report what we find."

"... okay... Promise to tell only the old lady Tsunade then?"

Neiji scowled, but nodded sharply, and Kiba shrugged. Shikamaru nodded, agreeing for his team. "We'll report to her only."

"Sometimes he talks to me. I can tell when he's trying to push me into things or not. I know how that feels. But it's just words. He can't make me."

Kiba actually flinched. "Wait, he talks to you?"

Even Shikamaru looked a little out of balance, and maybe slightly queasy.

"W-what..." Kiba licked his lips nervously. "What ... does he say?"

Naruto blinked and looked embarrassed at the weariness, and even fear, he could feel in his friends. "Uh, right now or in general?"

Kiba flinched.

"He's not saying anything right now, and even if he was, I'm not listening. In general it's mostly just 'kill, destroy, how dare blahblahblah,' but I have to be pretty pissed off to hear him without actively trying to. And even then, it's just him running a commentary, I can ignore that easy. Most of the time I forget about him and it's just as if I was alone."

Even Neji looked unsettled. Sakura had to admit that she wasn't especially okay with the news, but then it wasn't precisely a surprise for her.

"But he--"

"Why the fuck does it matter now?! I've been hearing on and off him since I was twelve, and it's never been a problem before! I haven't snapped, and -- Sasuke is dying! The interrogation can wait!"

Kiba looked ready to roll over to show his belly, but on a branch it probably wasn't a bright idea. Sakura swallowed her fit of very misplaced laughter.

"He's right. We don't have that much time to waste. We can sort things out back home."

Shikamaru sighed, but nodded. "Fine. Kiba, you go on ahead, try to make sure they're ready to let us through without bloodshed. Neji, come here, we have to figure out a way to move him."

Kiba disappeared immediately, apparently relieved.

Sakura frowned, trying to think up a way. "Transport -- Naruto's frogs?"

Neji shook his head. "Too bouncy. Shikamaru, you're working on summoning jutsus, right?"

"... I'm still not getting anything better than fawns."

"I can carry him," offered Naruto.

Shikamaru and Sakura shook their heads at the same time. "No way. We can't put pressure on his stomach."

"Stretcher," Shikamaru added.

"We'll have to move him anyway--"

"Not if we cut the bark from under him," Neji retorted. "It's thick enough, but not that well attached to the tree."

He made quick incisions to the bark, and with a quick burst of carefully controlled chakra, had it unstuck from the tree. Naruto lifted one end and Shikamaru the other, Sakura tied a rope around Sasuke just in case they lost their balance, and they jumped off the branch.

They couldn't avoid jostling him on their trek back to the fence, but he didn't wake up. Sakura couldn't tell if that was good or bad.

She'd been so focused on making sure Sasuke arrived back at Konoha quickly that she only realized how utterly terrorized she was when they reached the gate. It was open, and they were herded into it by jounin -- not that they hadn't been going there of their own will anyway, but, as she noticed when she glanced quickly all around before jogging through the gate after the stretcher, there was no way to go anywhere else without considerable bloodshed.

They were guided up the streets the same way. The absence of passersby or even curious people watching out of their windows was nerve-wracking. It gave her the eerie feeling of being hunted through an abandoned city with a weird resemblance to her hometown. Naruto didn't appear to notice, utterly focused on Sasuke. She wondered what Neji saw, and whether seeing what he could see would make her feel better or worse. She was pretty sure there were a lot more ninja keeping an eye on them than she could catch glimpses of.

When they arrived at the hospital and saw a small group of medic-nin waiting for them, and Kakashi-sensei leaning against the wall just beside them, she could have cried. Sasuke's pulse was still beating feebly, stubbornly under her fingers. He would be okay. And Kakashi-sensei would make everything else better.

She let go of Sasuke's wrist and stood there, watching as the medic-nin lifted his prone body and dashed off, and then she turned toward Kakashi and slumped forward, bowing her head, forehead pressed against his chest.

"There, there," Kakashi muttered, patting her back with a long-suffering sigh. She didn't mind that he sounded mildly put out by her emotional reaction. He wasn't trying to push her off him; it was enough.

The bark stretcher clattered on the ground and she heard the sound of Naruto's sandals dragging on the ground as he approached.

"You okay, Sakura-chan?" he asked. He sounded unsure; it was weird coming from Naruto.

She nodded, and rubbed her eyes discreetly before pushing away from Kakashi's chest.

"Sakura?" Naruto whispered again as he saw her eyes.

"I'm okay, really," she whispered back.

Naruto frowned, then nodded with determination. "Good. Come on. Thanks, Shika," he added as an afterthought as he pulled Sakura through the door.

"Hey!" she yelped, barely catching a last glimpse of Shikamaru and Neji. "What are you doing?"

"We're going to Sasuke," he replied, still holding her hand.

Sakura thought of resisting by pure principle, and then she thought of what it would mean to the ANBU to see her struggle to free herself. It would cause less grief all around if she came along on her own. She didn't want to give the slightest hint that he was forcing her to do anything.

Kakashi ambled casually after them, watching Naruto with one eyebrow raised. "What do you think you're doing?" he asked, appearing unconcerned. "They won't let you in the operation room, you know."

Naruto seemed to falter, and finally looked up at Kakashi.

It was scary, Sakura thought, that one as strong, resilient and sure of himself as Naruto could look so afraid and so in need of comfort. Gently, taking pity on him, she tugged her wrist free, and when he reluctantly let go, she squeezed his hand comfortingly. He almost broke her fingers when he squeezed back, with a desperation that equaled her own.

"He's going to be okay," Kakashi said softly as he gazed at their interlaced fingers thoughtfully. "He's too stubborn to let himself die now."

"... Yeah... Where's Tsunade?" Naruto asked, finally stopping in his tracks. "I need her to check on my seal so she can shut up the Council idiots."

A few of the ninja who had followed them inside started, surprised by his tone, and she heard one of them choke on a shocked laugh.

Kakashi looked over his shoulder and waved one of them closer. "Yamada, find Hokage-sama and ask her where and when she can see Naruto and Sakura."

The ninja hesitated a second, then nodded and disappeared in a puff of smoke. The others stepped a little closer, eyeing their little group warily.

Sakura sighed, most of her concentration on rubbing and caressing the tension out of Naruto's hand. If he exploded now...

Naruto wanted to pace, she could feel it, but in the mood he was in, he would end up pacing like a caged tiger, and letting people see how impatient, nervous and angry he was right now was a bad idea. He looked threatening enough already, with the way his blue eyes gleamed almost manically and his chakra gathered and rolled around him. Before yesterday morning, she hadn't really noticed how much he had grown up. He wasn't a runt of a kid any longer; he had wide shoulders and strong muscles, and when he was tense, he moved with the fluidity and purpose of a wild beast. And his chakra -- there was only the barest of control there. If it flared up even minutely, or even if Naruto looked too threatening, the watchers would take it as a reason to attack. She didn't want them all to start slaughtering each other because Naruto wanted to beat the hell out of a wall and they took it as a sign that he was about to massacre people.

She dragged him to an open waiting room, where one whole side was paneled in glass so that the watchers didn't think they were trying to hide, and pushed him on a chair. He blinked up at her, momentarily startled out of his worry. He was still on the edge of his seat, though, and he wasn't going to stay seated, so she sat beside him and leaned against his side so he would have to shove her off to get up.

Kakashi leaned against the wall by the door, still watching them thoughtfully. Sakura blushed a little, wondering what he was thinking about, but couldn't manage to worry enough to feel honestly embarrassed. She put her head on Naruto's shoulder and closed her eyes, waiting for Tsunade-sama's convocation.

When, finally, the woman strode in, she still hadn't let go of Naruto's hand.

Naruto jumped on his feet so fast, Sakura almost fell over. She clung to his hand, for a second thinking that he'd gone mad and was going to pounce on the Hokage. Kakashi-sensei tensed, his eye narrowing, and she suddenly realized how much of his casual attitude was pretend.

"About time, you old hag! Were you joints too achy to move faster or what?"

"Shut up, you idiot! Do you think I have nothing better to do than be at your beck and call?" Tsunade frowned down at Naruto, hands on her hips.

"You should!" Naruto shot back, stepping forward. Every ninja in sight stiffened, and a few took hold of their weapons. One of the two Council members who had come in behind Tsunade spluttered angrily.

"Oh, really?"

Sakura winced, wondering if she had to intervene. She wanted to calm them, but at the same time she really didn't want to get in the middle. The Hokage was a fearsome woman.

"When it's so important, yes!"

Tsunade lifted her hand, clenched it in a fist over Naruto's head, and Sakura cringed; but Tsunade didn't hit Naruto in the end, because then he let his angry expression slip, and underneath, he looked scared.

"You're a medic-nin. How is Sasuke?"

"How should I know? I came here directly from a meeting, I'm not the one operating -- I don't even know what happened to him," she added, frowning suspiciously.

"An ANBU tried to kill him is what happened!" he snarled. Sakura threw all her weight into keeping him in place, but even though he paused, it didn't stop his ranting. "Now he's got internal bleeding, he didn't wake up this morning and he was all cold and sweaty and-- and-- fuck."

Touched by Naruto's suddenly wavering voice, Sakura sniffled, remembering the horror she'd felt this morning when they woke up and he didn't, and leaned against Naruto's side. He sighed -- shuddered -- and briefly turned toward her, his lips brushing her brow, before glaring at the Hokage again.

Tsunade watched them in silence for a few seconds and then reached out to punch Naruto lightly in the forehead. "He was breathing when he got here, right? Still had a pulse?"

"... Yeah -- but you didn't see him--"

"Naruto. We've had to face more dire medical emergencies than simple internal hemorrhaging. If he was still alive when he got here, he'll stay this way."

She sounded so certain, so matter-of-fact, that Sakura didn't think to question her. Naruto didn't either. He sagged against Sakura, then when she stumbled, surprised, he stepped back and let himself fall in a chair, suddenly boneless, all his nervous energy dissipated.

"Thank fuck," he whispered, squeezing Sakura's hand gently.

The first Council member spluttered again. Sakura eyed him worriedly. He was turning purple.

"How utterly -- rude!"

Naruto didn't even appear to notice that the man was talking to him, or even about him. His eyes were closed and he was making a weird relieved grimace that would have made Sakura laugh at any other time.

"Hey, brat, you do know it's not the only problem right now, don't you?" Tsunade asked with a touch of sarcasm.

"What do I care 'bout anything else?" he whined, glaring sullenly at her.

Sakura elbowed him, unable to keep to the sideline any longer. "What does THAT mean?" she hissed.

Naruto winced. "Sorry... I didn't mean it like that, Sakura-chan. So, what're the other problems, old hag?"

The first Council member -- he was wearing the Kagami emblem, even though he didn't look anything like he was one of the graceful, ethereal clan of the Mirror -- hissed in anger, though he didn't step forward, staying behind Tsunade.

"You little monster, don't you know how to be polite?!"

Naruto opened his eyes, just a slit, and gave him a coldly assessing glance, then snorted.

"Comes with not having parents, or anyone who gave enough of a flying fuck to raise me, I'm afraid."

Tsunade raised her hand before anyone could add anything.

"This is not a time for disputes. We have several problems concerning you, Naruto, and all of them would be enough to justify locking you up and awaiting a fair trial."

Suddenly, he was on his feet again, too fast to let Sakura grab him again.

"Fair, like locking Sakura up and forcing her to abort Sasuke's child, without even telling her what the hell was going on?"

Tsunade and the two Council members -- the other one, she'd just noticed, was Shino's father, the Aburame clan head -- blinked. "... Sasuke...?"

"Well, duh! He was there, too, you have to know that since you knew so damn much! What do you think he was doing, knitting socks?"

Sakura's cheeks were burning, but when Tsunade looked at her in askance, she didn't look away, and managed to meet her eyes even as she nodded a confirmation.

"You mean to say the child is Uchiha Sasuke's...?"

"We don't know that he is," Sakura intervened softly, demurely, "but we don't know that he isn't either. I am sure Uchiha-sama will be very displeased if his first heir is disposed of summarily. It isn't as if waiting a little to confirm it will cause problems. What kind of threat can an embryo be?"

They looked out of balance for a few seconds, and then Aburame-sama shook his head and stepped forward.

"You ran away from the village."

"You were gonna murder Sakura's baby!"

Sakura rested her hand on Naruto's arm in a calming gesture, while her heel discretely crushed his toes. She admired his unwavering support and blatant disregard for nobility, but the way to get the Council to treat them fairly wasn't by insulting them.

"We were worried. We knew that people were afraid and weren't taking the time to think. We only planned to wait a little while for things to calm down and then come back when they would be disposed to judge the situation rationally."

"That's what you say," Kagami-san snapped back. "But nothing says you'd have come back at all if Uchiha-kun hadn't gotten hurt."

Tsunade threw a quick glance his way, and Sakura wished she knew the Hokage better. She couldn't guess her reaction to that. There was really nothing they could say to prove their good intentions.

"This is a matter of their word against our opinion, which cannot be judged here and now," Aburame intervened before changing the subject. "You attacked the ninjas sent to stop you."

Sakura stepped on Naruto's foot before he could snarl back that they'd attacked first. "We tried as hard as possible to avoid this, Aburame-sama, but they didn't let us. Were there any severe injuries?"

"As a matter of fact," Kagami shot back, "one of the ANBU sent your way is still in observation."

Naruto's lip curled over his teeth in a very bestial expression.

/Oh shit./

"That wouldn't happen to be the guy with the tiger mask?" he asked in a voice whose softness was so alien that it could only sound utterly contemptuous.

"It is," Aburame replied soberly, frowning.

"Then the fucker deserves it! He was the one who injured Sasuke so bad! He and his pals ganged up on a genin, bet they were proud of themselves--"

Naruto was going to launch into a tirade as to why the son of a bitch could consider himself happy to be alive and in one piece, she could feel it, but it really was a bad idea to let him threaten people out loud, so she pinched his ass.

It was the quickest way she'd found, honest.

If Kakashi-sensei kept laughing quietly in his corner one second longer, she would murder him.

"He's going to heal, though?" she asked hopefully, elbowing Naruto to make him stop looking pole axed.

Aburame-sama nodded.

"And he's going to heal long before Sasuke," she added.

Another nod.

"Then I'm with Naruto; the retaliation was less than it could have been. We were trying to leave, not to hurt anyone. I'm sure he was only doing his job, but an injury like Sasuke's doesn't come from someone trying to capture you safely. I don't recall any of them even trying to talk us down," she added quietly, and Naruto nodded.

Tsunade actually looked mildly approving as she looked at Sakura, which made her blush, and Aburame-sama, while still as expressionless as ever, didn't look angry or like he rejected her opinion entirely. It made her feel better, a little more hopeful.

"Listen to them. The way they're telling it, we had no reason to try to prevent Kyuubi no Youko from slaughtering us all!"

Naruto hissed quietly, glaring at the man as if he was wondering in how many parts he should chop him.

"Kyuubi's not any risk to anyone, dammit!"

"Do you honestly think we would take YOUR word for this?" Kagami replied, straightening up to glower at Naruto.

She was very, very glad that the snarled reply had been too strangled to be understandable. Naruto was reddening in anger, fists clenching.

"Don't," she whispered in his ear. "He'd be too happy that you proved him right."

Kagami was now eyeing her, frowning as he looked her up and down as if trying to determine what to make of her. She met his eyes, expressionless.

"I do hope you will take Hokage-sama's word, then. We are quite willing to ask her to prove that Naruto's seal is working perfectly and isn't about to let the Kyuubi go free."

Kagami choked. "Willing to--"

"And then," she added with a little more strength, "then we will expect the matter to be settled. Unless the Council can bring in a seal specialist who can prove without a doubt that Naruto's seal -- the work of the Fourth himself," she reminded him sternly, "is indeed unraveling."

"Actually," Tsunade intervened, her voice carefully expressionless, "I have already called on an expert. I know enough about most usual seals to offer good judgment, but the knowledge of this specialist is a lot deeper than mine ever will be. He will be there tomorrow morning. Until then, Naruto, Sakura, I expect you two to stay put. Then we will expose his findings to the Council and make the appropriate decision."

"That sounds fair," Aburame-sama replied thoughtfully, nodding his agreement. "If you two run off, we will take it as an admission of guilt," he added with a hint of steel in his low voice.

Naruto nodded soberly. "We're not gonna run."

"Good; you're already facing disciplinary action as it is, mitigating circumstances or not. Kagami-san, the rest of the Council awaits our report."

The noble seemed furious, but faced with his peer's calm determination, he couldn't make a scene. He walked out with a huff and a last glare sent Naruto's way, glare that the blond teenager utterly ignored.

Of course, the second he looked away, Naruto was glowering at his back and sticking his tongue out, using his middle finger to pull his eyelid down in a very childish but undeniably expressive grimace.

Sakura gasped in horror -- Tsunade-sama was still watching them, and Kakashi-sensei, and all the ninja guarding them -- but finally, she couldn't manage to care. Letting the tension of the meeting flow out of her, she slumped back into her chair and started to laugh.

And laugh. And laugh, until she couldn't breathe, and her ribs ached.

"Oi, Sakura-chan, it wasn't that funny, you know," Naruto commented, chuckling despite himself.

Finally, she brought herself under control and wiped her tears of laughter and unnamed emotion away. "I know... I just -- it just -- I was so scared--"

Naruto blinked, baffled. "Scared of what? That idiot Kagami guy? Shino's dad? Okay, Shino's dad is kinda scary, all expressionless and frowning and you know he's crawling with hidden bugs and all --"

That brought on another laugh attack. "Sorry!" she gasped, as Kakashi-sensei and Tsunade-sama watched her with mild expressions of concern on their faces. "It's the nerves, that's all-- oh god -- Oh god, Naruto, I --" /love you/ she thought, but she was so startled that she didn't complete her sentence out loud.


"I... really wonder what I'm going to do with you."

Naruto blushed. Sakura decided that she didn't want to try guessing his thoughts.

"So... Hokage-sama... What's going to happen now?"

"Now, I'm going to give Sakura a check-up, and then you will be given rooms and stay there until tomorrow morning." She sounded stern, but there was an undeniably amused smile on her lips.

"Wait a second… rooms? Like one for me and one for her?"

"That was the idea, yes."

"No way in hell. I'm staying with Sakura-chan."


"What if someone decides not to wait for the decision of the Council and goes and attacks her to kill her demon spawn?"

"Then I should hope that the people guarding you will stop them!"

"Yeah, well, unless you can find guys who like me and don't mind who I'm housing, there's no way I'll trust your men with Sakura-chan's security!"

Tsunade sighed deeply. "Naruto, do you have any idea what the reaction will be if I post friends of yours to keep an eye on you? They're here as much to protect you as to prevent you from running away. I have to find neutral people."

"Then I'm staying with Sakura-chan."

"You want to spend the night in a young lady's room? How improper!" Tsunade replied, laughing.

Naruto grinned. Apparently that meant yes.

"Naruto?" Sakura asked softly.

When he turned to look at her, she hit him over the head.


"That's for not even asking me if I wanted you in my room."

He gave her a kicked puppy look, rubbing his head. "You don't want me to stay with you?"

"I never said that."

He smiled, relieved.

"You can sleep on the floor."


Tossing her hair over her shoulder -- something that would have been more impressive if it had been longer, but it was the attitude that counted -- Sakura got on her feet and turned toward Tsunade.

"I'm ready for the examination, Hokage-sama. And NO, Naruto, you can't stay with me during that! Keep Kakashi-sensei company or something."

Squaring her shoulders, she walked out after Tsunade.


The examination had taken a lot longer than she'd thought it would. It was night when she was finally escorted to a room. It was still in the hospital, but in the high-security ward, which wasn't reassuring but didn't surprise her.

Kakashi-sensei was waiting there, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed in that pose he seemed to like so much.

"I'll take her the rest of the way, thank you," he commented distractedly at the two men escorting her. "Come along, Sakura. Maybe you can beat some sense into this idiot. He's been restless all afternoon."

Before either of them thought of protesting, he had strolled away, Sakura following quickly. Kakashi-sensei looked casual, but she knew him well enough to see that he wasn't that relaxed.

"A problem, Sensei?"

"No... Just wondering about Sasuke," he replied unconcernedly.

Sakura rolled her eyes. Men. How far they'd go to avoid admitting to being worried or scared.

"I'm worried too, but Tsunade-sama promised to warn us right away if he got worse."

She was too tired to be frantic any longer. The examination had been very thorough; she was exhausted. Also, Tsunade-sama had expressed some concern at the speed at which the embryo was binding itself to her chakra pathways, but that was nothing that Naruto hadn't warned her about -- assuming that it was due to the demon fox genes, because it could also be a Uchiha peculiarity; seeing as all their records were hidden away, there was no way to tell. In any case, from what she'd said, it would be a difficult pregnancy.

But somehow, knowing that her team would be with her helped alleviate some of her worry. It was just nine months after all. She could do it.

Naruto almost pounced on her when she came in the room. He wanted to know if she was okay, if she'd been hurt at any time, if anyone had said anything mean to her and whether she'd undressed entirely for Tsunade's examination, at which point she had to punch him into a wall for being a pervert. She allowed him to sit close to her while they ate, though, because it was visible that he'd been very worried, even if the way he masked it was particularly irritating.

There were two beds; thank god. Sleeping close to each other in the field was one thing; but she didn't feel comfortable enough to share a real bed with Naruto, especially not when Kakashi-sensei was in the room. She was already uncomfortably aware that he'd noticed their new closeness, and she didn't know what he thought, but she knew that she was scared as hell of his disapproval. She'd rather avoid the issue a while longer, really.

So it was time for bed, and she hid behind a screen and took off the pants she'd been given to replace her torn dress, only keeping her shorts and the large t-shirt like a nightdress, and then the lights turned off, and she lay down, closed her eyes...

... and couldn't fall asleep.

She was tired, so tired, limbs heavy and muddled thoughts, but it didn't seem to make a difference. One hour, two hours went that way, in the room that was just lit enough to let her see Naruto's eyes glinting in the darkness as he stared up at the ceiling, and Kakashi's shape leaning against the wall as he guarded them.

She could guess what kept Naruto awake. Probably close to her reasons, with less emphasis on future difficulties to build a normal life and more on immediate danger to his teammates, particularly Sasuke. No one had deigned to send them a report on his condition after all. If he'd gotten worse, she was sure they'd have known, but it didn't mean that they didn't want details.

Finally, the silence and forced stillness were broken when Kakashi, responding to a signal only he was aware of, pushed away from the wall and casually went to the door.

Sakura sat up, holding the blankets over her chest, and Naruto pushed himself up on his arms, surprised. Kakashi was supposed to stay with them!

"Kakashi-sensei, where are you going?" she asked softly, unsure.

"I have other business to take care of."

"Now? But-- you have to guard us..." Naruto replied, scratching his head.

"It's pressing business."

"Don't you want to warn anyone?" she asked, more and more puzzled. He couldn't leave without even finding a replacement!

"No. No time."

"Why!?" she whined, not understanding.

Kakashi gave her a blank look, a hand on the door handle. "Explosive diarrhea. Do you want more details?"

"ACK! Sensei, that's disgusting!" Naruto protested as she gasped in surprise and embarrassment.

"You asked."

And with that, he opened the door silently and slid out of the bedroom.

Naruto and Sakura stayed unmoving, flabbergasted.

"... D'you think he was telling the truth...?"

"Somehow, I don't really want to know."

Naruto started to chuckle. "Yeah, better to assume that he was lying again, though-- why -- oh."

"Oh?" she asked, puzzled.

"Oh. OH. Kakashi-sensei, I love you. Get up, Sakura-chan!"

Naruto jumped out of his bed, bare feet landing silently on the tiles, and tugged at her wrist until she stumbled out of bed after him, almost falling over when her legs tangled in the sheets.

"Come on, quick -- shhh, be quiet!"

"But Naruto--"

"Cast a genjutsu, so people don't see us," he demanded, his voice low and urgent. "Come on, before someone notices--"

She obeyed, pushed by the raw intensity in his eyes, dissimulating them behind the best I'm-not-important-enough-to-notice genjutsu she'd ever created.

They padded silently through the corridors, using all of their training to go unnoticed. They didn't have to hide from lots of people, though they had to dodge ninjas a few times, but she realized quickly enough that it was only because most of the high-level guards were at the exits and they weren't attempting to leave the hospital; they were going to another ward. Recovery, she saw as Naruto pulled her through another set of doors.

She didn't know how Naruto pinpointed the room they were looking for so quickly. Sense of smell maybe? But not even fifteen minutes after leaving their own room, they were coming into another bedroom, and there was Sasuke.

He was lying on his back, asleep. She walked closer silently, her eyes tearing up in relief. His skin was still as pale, but not so unhealthy-looking anymore, and there were just the IV tube and a machine to record his heartbeat. She'd been scared they would find him surrounded by dozens of machines fighting to keep him alive, but he wasn't even wearing an oxygen mask or anything -- nor was he wearing a shirt, from what she could see of his bare upper body. But that didn't matter right now. He seemed to be breathing just fine on his own, even though it was visible that he wouldn't be walking out of there anytime soon -- maybe the reason why he wasn't more heavily guarded.

"Sasuke-kun," she whispered as she stepped close to the bed, almost close enough to touch. He looked so frail... She reached out, wanting to push away that lock of dark hair that was laying across his cheek.

Her hand was batted aside and the black eyes opened, looking toward her warily.

He seemed out of it, as if everything was foggy, and the slap on her hand had been weak, his movement sluggish by Sasuke standards. She wasn't even sure he'd recognized her. But seeing him even half-aware... it was marvelous.

"Hey, Sasuke," whispered Naruto, leaning over her shoulder to peer down at him.

"... 'ruto...? Sak'ra?"

Sakura grinned, rubbing her eyes quickly. She was very tired, that was all, it was the only reason they were itching so much. "Yes, we're here."

"... Where?"

"Hospital," she replied softly as she dared to sit on the edge of his bed.


"Yes, safe."

"... 'kay."

Finally, unable to resist, she reached to gently push that rebellious lock of hair away. He blinked fuzzily at her, confused.

"Sleep, Sasuke-kun," she advised, smiling softly, smoothing his hair again. "Sleep. Everything's okay."

She yawned, quickly hiding it behind her hand. Now that the stress was letting up, she felt her tiredness much more keenly. But there was only one bed in the room, and beside, she didn't want to stop caressing his hair. She knew that it was probably just his state that prevented him from protesting against the petting, but nevertheless, she was determined to enjoy that rare occasion.

"Sleep too," he muttered, eyes closing slowly.

"I'll sleep later, Sasuke-kun."

His brow furrowed. "Liar."

"I don't--"

"... 'ruto... m'ke her sleep... stupid girl..."

She was startled by the reminder that Naruto was there with them, but more so by the hands closing on her waist and lifting her. If it hadn't been so vital that they keep quiet, she would have shrieked.

Naruto carried her around the bed, so that Sasuke was between her and the door, and lay her down at Sasuke's side without asking for her opinion.

"Naruto! He's hurt, I can't sleep with him-- the IV!"

Naruto grinned, amused. "He's not made of sugar. Just put your arm over his collarbone, and don't squirm around too much."

Sasuke seemed asleep again, eyes closed, breathing softly. He didn't protest, or show any discomfort, when she followed the suggestion shyly.

Naruto pulled the blankets over them, tucking them in, then circled the bed again to be between them and the door, and sat on the edge of the mattress, one foot up and his back slumping against the headboard.

"Sleep. I'm keeping watch."

His quiet promise was the only guarantee she needed to slide into sleep.


The wake-up call the next morning came in the form of a loud knock at the door that made the doorknob rattle, then said door slapping against the wall as it was negligently kicked out of the way. Sakura sat up in a leap, startled out of her pleasant dream.

At first she didn't recognize the tall, white-haired man who was standing there, hands on his hips and watching them with a weird expression on his face.

"Knew you'd be here, brat."

"What are you doing here?!" Naruto exclaimed as he too straightened up.

The man -- Jiraiya-sama, one of the three legendary Sennin, she recognized him now that she was waking up -- straightened up and arched an eyebrow.

"Why, I'm the seal expert, brat. Were you expecting someone else?"

"What, YOU are the seal expert old Tsunade talked about? Can't be!"

"And why is that, you little pest?" the old man asked as he stepped closer to the bed.

"Maybe because it sounded like she actually respected you!"

There were people crowding behind Jiraiya, and she leaned over Sasuke protectively, eyeing them worriedly, wondering what they wanted.

Her movement drew Jiraiya's attention and he stared at her and Sasuke with amused interest. Sakura wondered what he wanted at first, and then she recognized his expression as a repressed leer. It was then that she realized -- she was leaning forward, wearing a too-large shirt, her bare leg peeking out from under the sheet, and as for what people could see of Sasuke, he could as well have been naked under the blankets. Naruto had been curled around both of them, between their heads and the headboard. The situation was unmistakably intimate.

"Congratulations are in order from what I see, son. Mind if I use that in my next book?"

Naruto gaped. "Use what -- Oh! You're crazy, they'll never say yes. You sure your usual readers would appreciate, anyway?"

Blushing, Sakura drew the sheets higher, hiding Sasuke's chest and her own cleavage. "W-what book?"

Naruto looked sheepish and mildly embarrassed. "Oh, I never told you? He writes the books Kakashi-sensei likes so much..."

Jiraiya almost preened, drawing himself up proudly. "Yes, my books are widely known indeed!"

Sakura's eyebrow twitched.

"I could make a very original scene with this -- the pure, innocent maiden, unable to choose between her two handsome suitors, giving away the flower of her womanhood to --"

The bedside table hit Jiraiya's face with a satisfying thud.


"... I see the wild, untamed wench would fit the theme better..."

Under her, Sasuke was painstakingly shaping the seals for a katon. She didn't stop to say good morning; instead, she jumped off the bed and stalked toward the old man, who was straightening up, blinking dazedly at the broken table on the floor, and grabbed his collar to bring his face closer.

"Jiraiya-sama. With all the respect due to an elder and a genius ninja, if I have ONE reason to suspect that you alluded to our team in your perverted books, I will KILL YOU."

He blinked and then started to laugh. Sakura came down from her towering fury to realize how ridiculous the whole thing was. She wasn't even a Chuunin yet, and she was threatening one of the three legendary ninjas of Konoha as if there was a chance in hell she could manage to hurt him!

/Hey, he did get the table in his face/ Inner Sakura commented smugly.

'Shut up, you! It's the last time I'm listening to you,' she replied, flushing darkly. If Inner Sakura hadn't echoed her anger, she would never have behaved in such a way. She let go and stepped back, mortally embarrassed.

Then Naruto started to laugh too. "Guess that's your reply, pervert-sennin."

"Serves you right," Tsunade commented as she stepped inside. "Enough playing around -- Naruto, Jiraiya will check on your seal now, take your shirt off. Sasuke, lie down and rest, don't make me tie you up. Sakura, get Sasuke some water. Everyone else," and then she turned to face the men still watching through the door, "leave. Now."

Picking up the water jug she'd knocked over when she threw the table, Sakura left the room, head low. She was blushing -- she couldn't believe they'd been caught sleeping in the same bed by that perverted man, and Hokage-sama had been there too! And then she'd behaved like a fury with no respect for her betters... They were used to it from Naruto, true... Except, of course, that Naruto was a very special person indeed, if only because of all that raw power, and that she... was pretty much as banal as you could get.

She took her time in the bathroom, regaining as much of her composure as she could gather, then went back, ignoring the Jounin shadowing her. Kakashi-sensei was leaning against the wall. He smiled at her in that "ahh, why the hell are you worrying" way of his, and she managed a sheepish smile in return.

Naruto was sitting in the middle of the room, inside a series of concentric circles, slumped forward as if he'd fallen asleep. Jiraiya was facing him. There were runes and patterns all over the floor, and Sakura wondered how they'd drawn them so quickly. It looked complicated. Sasuke's bed had been pushed toward the far corner, and he was propped up against the headboard, watching the scene through sleep-heavy eyelids. A few Council members were there -- Kagami-san wasn't there, though Aburame-sama was, standing with Akimichi-san and two old people, a man and a woman, that she didn't recognize.

As she circled the design carefully, trying not to step on any of the patterns, she heard Jiraiya and Tsunade talking softly as Jiraiya examined the seal.

"...about the harmonization of the chakra signatures?" the Hokage was asking, a small frown marring her features.

"The resonance is even more advanced than last time I checked," Jiraiya replied.

Sakura stumbled, fighting not to let her eyes open wide -- from where he was, Sasuke couldn't hear, but he was watching her, now, and she wasn't sure she wanted to explain what she'd heard and why she found it so ominous. She'd heard some of it before, and Naruto's confusing explanations had hinted at something like that, but hearing it being described so clinically made her shiver.

Jiraiya snorted and scowled at Naruto. "Told you to avoid strong emotions, didn't I, brat? You're going to speed up the process." His only response was a snore. Even asleep, Naruto managed to lack respect.

One of the Council members -- one that she didn't know, the old man with a narrow, serious face -- frowned. "What process?"

Jiraiya gave him a long, considering look, then shrugged.

"The seal's process. Naruto's absorbing the Kyuubi. Power first -- then instincts, then personality. By the time the brat's thirty-five, there won't be a Kyuubi left."

Sakura shuddered, and hurried to the bed. Sasuke was looking as impassive as usual -- she could have believed that he hadn't heard, except that he actually let her hold his hand. Naruto's head was lowered and he seemed deeply asleep, so there was no checking with him to reassure herself.

"What does that mean?" the old woman asked, alarmed. "That the boy is becoming Kyuubi?"

Jiraiya snorted. "Certainly not. It means that piece by piece, the Kyuubi is dissolving. Naruto will absorb some aspects of him -- the chakra reserve, some instincts, maybe some memories -- and change them to make them his."

The two unknown Council members exchanged an alarmed look, and Akimichi-san straightened up slightly, his eyes fixed on Naruto's lax body. Jiraiya continued, appearing not to notice the reaction.

"As he is the fundamental personality and was left alone to mature until he hit puberty, he will keep his moral sense -- what makes him the person that he is -- but he'll gain no more will to destroy Konoha or randomly devour passersby than he already has."

"Do you mean to tell us that there will be no side-effect at all?" the old woman asked, clearly doubtful.

"Oh, there will be some. He'll have nightmares, bad memories, maybe a few fits of temper -- nothing worse. True, he'll gain some insight into a monster's mind, but if any, that will probably disgust him even more. And he will need to learn to control or anticipate some of the instincts."

"Some time with the Inuzuka family might help with that," Tsunade commented thoughtfully.

Jiraiya nodded. "The dog family? Yes, it could work... Anyway, the core personality cannot be twisted or damaged by an outside force. The seal prevents it."

"And what if he's already corrupted? Who will vouch for the core personality?" the old nobleman asked, glaring at the dozing young man.

Tsunade and Jiraiya answered back at the same time, with the same final, cutting tone. "I do."

Taken aback, the man blinked, and seemed to need a few seconds to regain his composure.

"... And this is the opinion you wish to present to the Council?"

"Yes," Jiraiya replied.

Sakura stopped wondering how someone so perverted could have such a flattering reputation. When he felt like it, Jiraiya was indeed the very essence of noblesse and moral fortitude.

The council members turned toward each other and started deliberating in low voices. Sakura bit her lip, wondering what they were talking about.

"... Sakura... Can you read their lips?" Sasuke breathed with some reluctance. Surprised, she looked at him. His pupils looked a bit weird, as if he had trouble focusing right. She wondered if that was a side effect of internal bleeding, and regretfully shook her head. They were too experienced to let that happen. Akimichi-san's body was blocking the view.

She watched with frustration as Tsunade-sama herded the Council members out of the room, leaving with them. She wanted to know what they'd been saying, but now they would have to wait until the decision was made. /Godfuckingdamnit./

Jiraiya stretched, hands on the small of his back as if it was aching, then strolled through the sigils on the floor and kicked Naruto's knee. "Hey, brat, wake up."

Spluttering, Naruto woke up in a leap and lashed at his assailant, but Jiraiya evaded the clumsy attack easily, punching the back of Naruto's head as retaliation. Inner Sakura rolled her eyes at the casual bullying that ensued. /If that's how much Naruto will ever mature in his whole fucking life, I should dump his puerile ass right now./

Sasuke was frowning, looking put out by the display. He was tense; that couldn't be good for the wounds. She cleared her throat, trying to attract Naruto and Jiraiya's attention, and then when that failed, threw the water jug at them.

"We're in a hospital; please control yourselves," she demanded sternly. Naruto, his wet bangs hanging in his face, looked suitably sheepish. Jiraiya chuckled. The old bastard was entirely dry.

"The old pervert started it," Naruto whined, giving her a pitiful look. "It was his fault."

"Honestly," she sighed. "Do I have to make you both sit in opposite corners of the room?"

"No need. I'm leaving. You can discipline Naruto, though, he needs it."

Naruto spluttered, and Sakura blushed. "I didn't mean -- you're not unwelcome or anything --"

Jiraiya smiled, amused, and she felt stupid for assuming that she could push such a man to leave with a few mildly derogatory words. "I have to go and see how the meeting's going. I want to make sure there's no wild interpretation of my diagnosis going on. Kakashi," he added, turning toward the man Sakura had forgotten was even there, "this time try to use the bathroom attached to this room, not the one at the other end of the hospital."

Kakashi's visible eye curved up in a smile. "Yes, Jiraiya-sama," he replied in a falsely chastened tone. Chuckling, the old man walked out, leaving Team Seven and its teacher alone.

Kakashi shrugged as he closed the door behind him and then gave the three of them a long, considering, surprisingly serious look. "I apologize for the lack of privacy," he commented quietly.

"We understand," Sasuke replied.

You did enough, Sensei, Sakura mouthed silently. She nudged Naruto before he could say that he didn't understand; he only needed to think about it for two more seconds before he got it. Kakashi had risked too much by letting them run away on him, twice now. True, two of his pupils were elite rookies, but after all, he was elite himself. He could pretend that they'd gotten the better of him the day before, when they were running away from Konoha, and he could even give convincing arguments -- he could even find 'proof' -- but he could give as much proof that he'd been outmaneuvered by his team as he wanted, no one would actually believe him. Sakura gave him a grateful, respectful bow, aware of what he'd risked to help them.

Kakashi waved it off, and gave the three of them a long, weighing look. Sakura started feeling uncomfortably aware of her hand in Sasuke's.


"... So?" Sasuke replied coldly. He didn't let go. Even despite her nervousness, Sakura was thrilled.

"I am not going to ask what happened. It's private and your own business. But what I'm not going to do either is to let my team break up over it. So tell me that you -- the three of you -- can deal with whatever happened without compromising the balance of the team, and I won't pry any further." He gave Naruto another serious, measuring look, and then his eye flicked back to Sakura and Sasuke's hands.

Sakura's cheeks were burning. She tried to find her words, but ended up stammering. And she couldn't hope that Sasuke would even try to explain.

"I'm gonna be best man at Sakura-chan and Sasuke's wedding!" Naruto blurted out.

Sakura spluttered. Kakashi-sensei was blinking at them, now!

Sasuke's knuckles rapped sharply on Naruto's head. "Idiot! I only asked her yesterday--"

"She said yes!"

"But it was yesterday! Give her at least a week to change her mind, you moron."

Kakashi seemed amused; Sakura wanted to die.


"You can come, Kakashi-sensei," Naruto added, stepping away from the bed to put him out of reach. "Maybe you can give Sasuke away or something."

"It's the woman who's given away, stupid!"

She attempted to get Sasuke to lie down again, with little success.

Naruto laughed his ass off. "I know, but I wanted to see your face! I'm sure you'd look so adorable in a cute little kimono, Sasuke-chan..."

"Naruto, I don't really want to learn anything of your kinks, you do realize," Kakashi commented lazily.

Sasuke was attempting to beat Naruto to death with his pillow. Naruto was laughing too hard to dodge. Sakura took a deep breath to calm herself down and checked the jug to see if there was any water left. No such luck. Maybe she could grab Naruto's butt again. But that wouldn't calm Sasuke down and in his position she couldn't grab him too and she was such a horrible pervert. Kakashi-sensei was looking and she was thinking about fondling her boys! She was turning into a slut.

"Sakura? You okay? You're all red." Naruto was peering at her, nose to nose.

"I'm fine, you idiot, and I think Kakashi-sensei learned a great deal more than he asked about! Learn to hold your tongue, for god's sake," she growled, eyeing him threateningly.

"Sakura's right," Kakashi commented. "And now, I'm going to take a nap on that chair. It looks very comfortable, and I'm getting too old for such long nights. Try to keep it down." And with that totally unbelievable comment, Kakashi sat down, slouched, closed his eyes, and in less than ten seconds had started producing amazingly realistic snores. Sakura didn't know if she should keep on feeling grateful, or beat him over the head for his total lack of subtlety.

Rolling his eyes, Naruto sat on the edge of the bed, ignoring the unfriendly way Sasuke was eyeing him.

"So, how you feeling, bastard?"

"Like my insides were turned to mush. How do you think I'm feeling, moron?"

/My, what cute little pet names. Not./ But then, expecting Sasuke and Naruto to be romantic with each other was maybe a bit... delusional. /Totally hallucinating, you mean./

"Oh, and thank you so much for burning my chakra pathways, you utter imbecile. Now I can't even mold enough chakra for a simple kawarimi no jutsu."

Naruto looked guilty for a few seconds, then scowled. "Hey, it was that or letting you die. It worked!"

"It shouldn't have. What did you do anyway? The doctors weren't sure."

"Uh, poured some of Kyuubi's chakra inside you. It heals me; I thought maybe it had a chance of healing you. It worked enough to stop the damage at least."

"Yeah, by cauterizing it. Idiot."

"Well, how was I to know?"

"My chakra pathways are configured for optimal Sharingan use. Not for weird healing powers. Your body's used to demon chakra; not mine."

"Right, got it, next time I'll let you die. Bastard."


If it was their way to say "Sorry I worried you", or even, God forbid, "I love you, don't scare me again," she hoped they remembered that she was a girl and not a macho jerk, because if ever one of them attempted to assure her of his tender feelings by insulting her, she'd castrate them.

"You're going to wake up Kakashi-sensei," she interrupted, giving them a stern look. Naruto mumbled something about him not being asleep for real, but she glared him into submission.

Naruto fell silent, and some awkwardness fell with it. Sakura played with the edge of the sheet nervously, not looking up. Naruto was swinging his legs restlessly, and Sasuke wasn't even beating him into keeping still or getting off his bed.


"What did the Hokage say, about..." Sasuke suddenly asked, nodding toward her belly. Sakura flushed, and pulled nervously on the large t-shirt she was wearing.

"Umm. More or less what Naruto said. The embryo is going to leech away most of my chakra. I'm going to need to train and meditate a lot in the next nine months to compensate. I have to make my reserves rise." She managed an awkward smile for him; he was watching her closely, his black eyes as expressionless as ever. She didn't want to talk about the possible effects of chronic chakra exhaustion on her body right now.

Sasuke didn't move an inch, but it felt like he was slumping anyway. "So it's Naruto's."

Sakura froze. She hadn't even thought of what that could mean for Sasuke. Would he take back his offer to marry her now? Would he pull away from them--? Oh no. Oh god, please no.

Naruto shrugged and put one of his feet under his other knee with fake nonchalance. "Why, 'cause it's draining her? Nah, just means it's Kyuubi's."

They both started.

"You know what he said. It's gonna be his, regardless. I don't know what the fuck he did to the baby, but... yeah, it was his influence in the end. It's normal that he affected the baby. The old hag couldn't tell what he meant?"

Sakura shook her head, mind still reeling from her unexpected panic attack. "N-no, she... just confirmed what you said. The embryo is too small to see anything else right now. We -- a few months longer."

"No problem. After all -- whoever's the father, it doesn't matter, right Sakura-chan, Sasuke-bastard? We're in this together. You said so."

Sakura waited, her heart in her throat, as she stared at Sasuke's bowed neck, at the dark bangs hiding his face. Finally, after a small eternity, he looked up again. His expression was still as distant as ever, but his words erased all tension inside them.

"... right."

Naruto leaned toward them, his large, callused hands playing with the fold of bed-sheet Sakura was twisting.

"And if the Council decides to get rid of the child...?" she asked, her voice barely a whisper despite her best efforts.

Naruto's hand was on hers now.

"We'll abduct you and move to another village," Sasuke replied, as unconcerned as if they'd been talking of the politics of the Grass Country a century ago.

Naruto's tongue flicked quickly at his dry lips. "And if they decide... that I'm dangerous and must be put down?"

Sasuke's foot nudged Naruto's hip.

"We'll spring you out, burn the Council house down, and move to another village."

Naruto snickered and grinned at Sakura. "We actually like that crazy pyromaniac bastard. We must be insane."

"Yes, but--" she almost stopped talking there, it was so awkward and heavy and sappy -- "but at least ... we'll be warm at night. Right?"

Naruto's teasing smirk turned into a soft smile, and the corner of Sasuke's mouth lifted, just barely. She leaned against Sasuke's side, carefully; she didn't want to hurt him.


She felt Sasuke's lips against her temple, his breath in her hair, making her shiver, and then Naruto's lips were caressing hers. She closed her eyes, briefly, enjoying his tenderness. And just before Naruto kissed Sasuke, she heard him whisper, "Burn, baby, burn." She was laughing as Sasuke bit him.

[Revelations] [Epilogue]