Teamwork 2

Beta: Sarolynne. READ HER STUFF. Hungover!Tsunade courtesy of Cinaril Alaron.

Chapter 4: Long Day (Sakura)

Sakura started the day like she had started the previous one, and the one before that : kneeling on the bathroom floor as she emptied her stomach. The tiles were hard and cold under her bare knees, and the large t-shirt she was using as a nightdress was too thin to help much.

Behind her, Ino was wincing, as much in sympathy as in disgust. She stepped closer, combing her own messy locks sleepily. "Are you done?"

Sakura dry-heaved a last time and then sat back on the floor, blearily looking up. "Now, yes," she grunted as she accepted the glass of water Ino held out. She rinsed her mouth and spat inelegantly in the toilet, grimacing.

"How long has it been?"

"... One week."

"... Well. Crap. It's already that bad? You should go to a doctor, you're not going to ride this out."

Sakura winced. "Yes, well, it's kind of linked to that problem with Naruto having kids that I can't explain, so if I want anything for it, I'll have to go to the Hokage..."

Ino scowled. "I see. Well, you better get an appointment as fast as possible, the way it's going..."

"I know," Sakura sighed, and opened the faucet to wash her face. She sighed again, then, catching sight of Ino in the mirror, snickered weakly. "Your hair looks like a windblown straw pile."

"Yours looks like cotton candy that has exploded all over a bird's nest."

"Yeah, well, you have big ugly shadows under your eyes!" she shot back with a bit more strength, fighting Ino for the hairbrush.

"And you're still yucky and green ! Did anyone tell you it was a good idea to match with your eye color? Because they lied!"

"Better than being the color of a pig butt!"

Snarking at each other playfully, they went through their morning routine, until Ino's mother interrupted them by knocking at the bathroom door and yelling at them to keep it down.

The first time Ino's mom had yelled at them, years ago, Sakura had frozen, and then exploded in embarrassed apologies. Nowadays, she was familiar enough with the Yamanakas to throw in a quick "sorry!" before Ino started yelling back. She knew the difference between angry yelling and yelling just for the hell of it, which they did a lot of. So long as no weapons showed up, it was harmless. It still seemed weird to her, but it was part of who Ino was.

She almost never invited Ino home overnight, though, because while Ino never yelled like that with anyone else, and Sakura's own parents never said anything, she had a feeling they found her best friend somewhat badly raised.

"Yeah, yeah," Ino finally capitulated when she was done brushing her teeth, and shoved Sakura out of the bathroom with her hip. "Hold your horses, your majesty. Here's your bathroom."

Sakura gave the graying woman a sheepish wince/smile along with a little greeting wave as Ino pushed her down the corridor and into her bedroom.

"So," the blonde said as she disappeared in her walk-in closet. "I need to be at the shop at noon. Dad's leaving for a mission this afternoon, and mom just got back from hers, so she needs downtime. You want to go see the Hokage this morning?"

Sakura hesitated. She didn't feel that sick, really -- she could endure it... But what would it bring to be masochistic about it?

"Okay, fine." No need to wait too long. Tsunade-sama had told her to come back whenever she needed it, and while she could endure the morning sickness a little while longer, she wasn't going to spit on an occasion to get rid of it either, as much like whining as it seemed to her.

She found the last of her fresh clothes -- maybe Sasuke would let her wash her clothes at his place; she hadn't brought enough to last her much longer and she didn't feel right invading the Yamanakas so much -- then followed Ino to the kitchen.

Inoichi had left a few hours earlier, and his wife would be in the bathroom for an hour at least, so there was no chance to cross either of them. Sakura sat down heavily and slumped gracelessly on the tabletop. She always made an effort to appear extra-polite around the Yamanakas, because after all they were housing her and feeding her, against her parents' wishes, and that was very generous of them, but right now all she wanted was to be comatose a little while longer. She still felt queasy and off-kilter; from what had happened the days before, it would be at least a half-hour before that went away.

"Cocoa?" Ino asked brightly as she puttered around the kitchen.

"Urgh, no. I'd throw up again."

"Or maybe some nice greasy eggs and --"

"Finish that sentence and you'll be wearing them, Ino-pig," Sakura growled, resting her chin on her crossed arms.

The blonde laughed, and put a piece of toast on the table in front of her. "Here, eat that."

Sakura nibbled on the toast cautiously. It didn't make her want to throw up, so she ate more.

"Plans for the day?" Ino asked as she sat in front of Sakura.

"Well, Hokage-sama first, then... it depends how long it takes, but I was thinking, tomorrow we go back to missions, so I really should see my father today," she explained unenthusiastically.

Ino winced. "Guess so. Dangerous missions?"

"I don't know yet, but probably not. After the... incident, they're not going to give us anything exciting for a while." And while she didn't truly mind C-rank missions, with moderate danger and action, D-rank were boring and tedious most of the time. B and above... well, she didn't especially like them, but Naruto and Sasuke thrived on them. They'd probably be even more peeved than her. So long as she could convince herself that she was useful, she could endure almost anything, but they got bored when they didn't have anything to beat up, and when they got bored, they usually started to fight each other.

"Assuming you're in Konoha, you'll still be coming back here to sleep?"

"If we're in Konoha, then yes," she replied with a sheepish smile, "unless it bothers your parents..."

"Dad won't be here, and mom won't notice. She'll be locked in all afternoon. You have a key, right?"

Sakura nodded, feeling the key in her pocket. She could have disabled the locks on her own; as a friend of Ino's she had seen their anti-intruders traps more than once... but the key meant something a lot more special.

"Unless you prefer to spend the night with your men..." Ino added, leering.

Ino knew that she couldn't, she just wanted to tease her. Bah! Sakura wasn't about to blush and squirm. "Heck no," Sakura replied, grinning, and only blushing a little. "Naruto drools and Sasuke steals the blankets."

"I see. So they're only nice to ... sleep with," the blonde replied, nodding and only smirking a tiny bit. "Say, you still haven't told me how they are in bed..."

"And I'm not going to."

"Okay, then."

Sakura blinked. Ino was capitulating already? Huh.

"I'll ask Naruto. I'm sure he'll tell me everything I want to know."



Ino walked with her to the administrative building, but then had to return to the shop; her father's shift would be ending soon. Sakura assured her that she would be fine. It was just a check-up. The most horrifying news had been delivered already; she didn't see what else could happen.

She stepped inside, and looked around for someone to direct her. She was stepping toward a chuunin guard when she heard hurried steps behind her.

"Ahh! Get out of the way!"

Someone bumped into her. Surprised, Sakura turned just in time to grab a half-dozen of books as they fell from the pile in the Hokage's assistant's arms.

"Oh, I'm sorry, did I hurt you?"

"Hello, Shizune-sensei," Sakura smiled.

The brunette blinked, then gave her a faint sheepish smile and moved the pile of books to her hip to rest her arm. "Ah, Sakura-kun. Hello. Are you here to see the Hokage?"

"Well, yes. She said to come whenever I needed it, but --"

Shizune smiled reassuringly. "Trust me, if it's about you know what, she'll mind it a lot more if you don't come. I'm sorry again..."

"It's fine, really," Sakura assured her sincerely.

Sakura rather liked Shizune. The young woman seemed shy and unassertive at first glance, but it was offset by a fierce loyalty to the Hokage and more than a handful of vicious tricks that made Sakura wish she had started studying under her earlier ; Shizune had ways to use plants and senbon and all other sorts of apparently inoffensive things that would have made most of Sakura's chakra-laden enemies run in fear. It was her example that made Sakura hope that even if she never got to be overwhelmingly strong or powerful, one day, she would be tricky enough and savvy enough in the human body, healing techniques and poisons that she could finally do her fair share of the fighting in their team. After all, for a healer to heal well, they had to know exactly how and where the trauma was applied.

The apprenticeship under Shizune had taught her a lot, even though she wished she hadn't had to share her attention with three other students, and wished even more that Shizune hadn't had to stop a few months ago because it was interfering with her duties to the Hokage. Sakura was now on work placement at the hospital between missions, but it wasn't the same.

"Come along, then; I was going to her office anyway."

Sakura took a few more books off the pile and followed her.

The Hokage was crushing leaves and a few berries Sakura couldn't name in a thick paste when Shizune nudged the door open with her foot. Sakura was mildly surprised -- she'd assumed that the Hokage would be neck-deep into treatises and scrolls, not busy doing medical stuff. But then, she supposed, Tsunade-sama had been a med-nin long before getting her current responsibilities.

"Hokage-sama, hello..." she greeted politely, nodding as she followed Shizune in, closing the door behind her with her heel.

"Ah, it's you." Tsunade gave Sakura a sharp look, and Sakura refrained from wincing as she went to pile the books where Shizune had put her own stack. She hadn't done anything wrong, but the Hokage was still a formidable woman, and she didn't look very happy today, if one judged by her semi-permanent frown. "A problem?"

Were Hokage-sama's eyes bloodshot? And her voice definitely sounded rough, thick with fatigue. Maybe she had stayed up all night on important things. /So stop dithering and tell her why you're here, for fuck's sake! If you antagonize her with small talk, she'll probably bitchslap you into a wall or something./

Sakura didn't think she actually would, but earning her displeasure was still something she didn't wish to do. "It's the morning sickness. It's pretty bad."

"... Ah."

"I mean, it's only been a week since the conception," and it shouldn't have happened before the second week at the very least, more probably during the fourth -- she had studied the symptoms during her apprenticeship and reviewed them at Ino's, just to be sure she didn't forget anything, "but I've been sick three mornings in a row now."

Tsunade frowned as she finished crushing her concoction and gave the bowl to Shizune. "That's not normal," she commented as she got on her feet. Then, probably seeing Sakura's expression, she amended. "But then you probably won't see a lot of normal with this one."

Weirdly, it didn't really help. Sakura followed the older woman to a partitioned side of the office, trying not to grimace at the reminder. She told herself that her feeling of queasiness was coming from the smell of the herbs Shizune was crushing, but she didn't really believe herself.

"Step in the circle," Tsunade ordered as she pointed at a seal mark on the floor. Sakura recognized a few key symbols -- that was a diagnosis pattern, apparently, but more complex than the simple ones Shizune had taught her.

At first, she didn't say anything, just let the Hokage examine whatever it was she saw from the outside of the circle. But the gritting of teeth and the annoyed frowns ended up getting to her composure. She didn't say anything, but her stress must have been blindingly obvious through the jutsu. Tsunade looked up at her, meeting her eyes, and stared at her for the longest seconds of Sakura's life. It was as if she was trying to read her brain.

"You can take some brutal honesty, don't you?"

Sakura looked back at her, eyes widening faintly. Oh god. "... I can," she blurted out before she could think better of it.

"The way things are going, my best guess is that you're going to die of chakra exhaustion before the end of the fourth month."

Sakura just stared at her, not sure that she'd heard her right.

Tsunade sighed softly, eyes closed, then gave her a long, serious look. Sakura swallowed nervously.

"It's draining you just a little bit faster than you can reconstitute. It's not really a problem for now -- you'll just feel a little tired in the evening -- but unless one of two things happen, it's going to build up."

"Two things?" she asked, latching onto that. It wasn't hopeless -- the Hokage wouldn't let it become hopeless. She wouldn't be as brutal if there wasn't a way.

"One, we hope that the drain will slow down on its own after the first month."

Sakura grimaced. Tsunade-sama looked grim enough that she didn't need to ask how likely the Fifth thought it was, or how much they should count on that.

"Two, you train and train like crazy and hope this will be enough. I'm talking three hours of meditation a day, at least two hours of jogging, and two or three of physical fitness, hand-to-hand, water walking -- and practice your jutsus."

"Train?" That's all? she almost added. But this kind of training was going to be brutal on her. She just didn't progress all that fast.

"Train. Train a lot. Shizune told me that you have quality, but not quantity. Sadly," the older woman snapped in a stern voice, "quality won't help you here. All you need is to stuff chakra into the brat -- or better, let it stuff itself. I know you don't have a huge potential, but you're going to need to bring out every last drop of it."

Sakura looked down at her feet, at the medical pattern sprawling all around her. She'd thought that the symbols were kind of pretty. Now she could only see black lines sprawling like a net, swimming alarmingly. She blinked away the wetness. It wasn't hopeless. She couldn't start on the self-pity -- especially not here, not in front of the Hokage, the strongest person in the village.

"... I will." She lifted her chin, nodding, pretending that she didn't want to tremble. "I'll train."

Tsunade watched her, then her expression tinged with compassion. "... If that's not enough, we will still have a few recourses. I'm afraid they won't be pleasant -- being hospitalized for several months rarely is. We will need volunteers to drain chakra from, too, but this kind of transfer -- it can be done. I've done it. But it's going to require you stay flat on your back for the rest of your pregnancy, no exceptions."

Sakura winced, but relaxed a little. She'd give it her best, but it was a great relief to know that there would still be another solution to try out if it wasn't enough.

Tsunade sighed, rubbing the bridge of her nose, then waved her hand dismissively. "I'll have a training regimen written for you in the next few days. Kakashi will give it to you. And eat more red meat -- at least four times a week, everyday if you can. Come see me in two weeks -- unless there's a problem. Now shoo."

Still scared and confused, she stepped out of the seal quickly, bowed swiftly and hurried out, barely remembering to nod a goodbye at Shizune on her way.


Sakura gave herself a half-hour, sitting in a public garden, to freak out over the news, then tried to put Tsunade's warnings out of her mind for the moment. She wasn't going to keel over if she didn't try training right this moment, and besides there were other things to worry about more urgently.
She reached the building where her father worked as an accountant, and asked for him, hoping that, as always during stressing times, he was working overtime -- it was a Sunday, but that never stopped him -- and that he hadn't taken his lunch break yet. To her surprise the secretary had been warned to expect her and two minutes later she could hear her father limping down the stairs, the muffled thump of his cane echoing his steps. He still moved fairly quietly for a civilian, even with his old war injury stiffening his leg, but he hadn't been quiet enough to surprise Sakura for years now.

"Hi, dad," she greeted him with an uneasy smile. Haruno Yukihiro wasn't smiling. She thought that he looked stern, worried and reproving at once -- but then he was always hard to read. Maybe he was just worried. Or maybe just reproving.

"Sakura. I was about to get some breakfast. Come along."

His voice didn't tell her anything, nor did his attitude. She followed, composing her expression to appear appropriately serious yet confident. She didn't want to look like she could be influenced into dumping Naruto. She didn't have a clue how to approach her father, though. They didn't have the closeness that she shared with her mother.

They only exchanged a few polite words as they chose a restaurant, as he asked if she had eaten, as she asked when he needed to go back to work. Apparently he'd guessed that she would come find him today, because he'd already cleared his calendar. Well, it was convenient. And made her nervous as hell.

They sat face to face, waiting for the waiter to come back, hiding behind their menus. Sakura let the things she wanted to say build up as they tried to organize themselves into coherence, until she knew what she would say first. But she still waited, for their orders to be taken, for them to be alone again, until the silence was so heavy that they slipped out on their own.

"It was an accident, but it wasn't a mistake. I am not sorry, and I will only apologize for the way I handled the situation with you and mom."

She would have said more, but his lack of reaction was making her feel more confrontational and she didn't want a fight. She fell silent, waiting for his reply.

"... Tell me what happened first."

She couldn't help but shoot back, "I'm sure you heard everything already."

"I heard her side of the story. I want yours."

It was starting to get annoying to tell it again and again, especially since she had to tailor it to each of her audiences. But he seemed more open to dialogue now than he'd seemed when he'd sent back her unopened letter. Maybe the length of time she had gone without coming back had convinced him that it wasn't a simple tantrum.

"I was out with my team. We drank -- probably more than we should have. Kyuubi..." She paused. Her father had twitched. He recomposed himself quickly, but his jaws were slightly clenched. "Kyuubi was, apparently, in heat. Or something similar."

Yukihiro's eyebrow twitched again. She decided to attack the core of the problem directly.

"The ... pregnancy was confirmed in the following day, and is closely monitored by the Hokage. There is no way the Kyuubi can leave his host and possess the baby, and as Naruto himself is no less human than any of the advanced bloodlines, the child shouldn't have any genes that neither Naruto nor I possess."

"But you can't be sure."

"...No, I can't. But no expecting mother can be a hundred percent sure that her child will be born normal. There's always a risk."

There was still a forced lack of expression on his face as he replied. "There is a difference between having a deaf or malformed child, and having a demon."

"If I bear a demon, I will be the first to put it down. And if they notice when it's still in my womb, I will give myself over to the ANBU so they can terminate us both."

Finally, her father reacted openly, staring in horror. "Surely there is no need to go that far..."

"It's binding itself to my chakra pathways. If I abort, I'll die."

Even the waiter putting plates down in front of them couldn't manage to stop them staring bleakly at each other. Finally, he took off his glasses and looked down, starting to clean them insistently.

"... And when it's born?"

Sakura blinked. She hadn't thought that far yet. "We'll deal with it when it happens. I have faith that the Hokage will not let anything happen to me if she can help it."



There was another silence, during which Sakura politely started poking at her food so as not to stare at her father's face as he digested the information.

"That's... Rather. Serious. Rather..."

"It sounds awful, doesn't it," she replied to what he'd meant rather than what he'd said. "But it's not all horrible. There's a good chance that the baby will be as normal as they come, all cute and pink and bawling at ungodly hours of the morning. Maybe it will have mom's eyes and your nose and Naruto's smile, and then it will be the most perfect baby of the world," she added with a brave smile, blinking away the moisture in her eyes when her father conjured up a rather shaken smile.

And then she took a deep breath and continued. "... and maybe it will have your nose and mom's eyes and Sasuke's hair, and it will still be just as perfect. But probably prettier, all things considered."

She didn't look up. She couldn't. she was scared to death of what she would see.

"... Sasuke's...?" he finally asked, carefully, as if he wasn't sure he'd heard well.

"Uchiha Sasuke. My other teammate," she confirmed, as she finished tearing her napkin into shreds. "He -- they were both there. I don't know which one... Well. That's... something I didn't tell mom yet. I wanted her to accept that it's probably Naruto's child first, you see, or else she would pin all her hopes onto it being Sasuke's, and I don't want my child to be loved or hated because of its father. It's my child and I don't care to which of them it belongs, I just don't, and I don't care either --"

"Sakura. Don't shout."

The gentle admonition was enough to stop her babbling before she panicked totally and she downed her glass of water to calm her nerves, eyes closed.

"I wasn't involved with either of them. I haven't actively chased Sasuke in years and I'm sure Naruto never thought his flirting would ever lead him anywhere. I do have strong feelings for them both, but up until last week, they weren't..." She stopped there, unable to push the detachment far enough to actually use the word "sex" with her father.

"I... understand. It wasn't an easy situation, but -- Kyuubi no Youko, the alcohol -- you didn't choose to be placed in it. I won't judge you for... not knowing."

He still sounded shaken, but not doubtful at least. She was so relieved that she could have cried. She took a stuttering breath and nodded, relaxing marginally.

"But... will you judge me for choosing to stay in it?"


"We've decided -- the three of us, that -- we're a team. We'll deal with it as a team. We won't let it pull us apart. We got into it together, and they're not going to abandon me."

The silence seemed a lot heavier suddenly. Her father's glasses had never been cleaner.

"Ah. Honorable sentiment. Concretely, what does this mean?"

She fidgeted, twisting the shreds of her napkin together. "We're going to live together. The three of us. Sasuke offered to marry me, so I don't pass for a whore. And if it's his, I will be the matriarch of the reborn Uchiha clan. Not so bad, eh?" she added with a grin that she couldn't make look anything but pained.

"If it isn't?"

"Then my second child will be his," she declared as if it was obvious, as if she hadn't just decided that it would happen this way two seconds ago. "... We might wait a bit for that one, though."

"The abnormalities in your pregnancy point to... Naruto, though."

She smiled as he made himself use Naruto's first name instead of one of the numerous epithets he was known as.

"Well, yes, it looks like it at first glance, but it only indicates that... that his tenant is involved. Besides it might be an Uchiha thing, though that's not as likely."

"Perhaps," he replied diplomatically.

Yet another awkward silence passed. Sakura started poking at her food halfheartedly.

"Is there anything else?"

"... None that I can think of. I'm still at Ino's. I'll stay there until I can talk things out with mom. I don't want her to..." she shrugged, trusting her father to understand what she meant. "But eventually we plan on moving in together. We're still hammering out the details though."

He nodded, and started to move his food around, cutting it into little bite-sized chunks.

"You will bring home your... teammates for dinner one of these days," he said stiffly.

Sakura looked up, startled. "You want to meet them? For dinner?" She beamed at her father, blinking back tears quickly. Sasuke and Naruto at her parents' was a scary thought, but the mere fact that her father had offered made her breath catch in her throat. "Sure! I'll bring them," she agreed enthusiastically. /Even if I have to knock them out and tie them up first/ Inner Sakura added with feral determination.

Yukihiro smiled, just a tiny bit, just enough, and she had to blink quickly and look away for a second. "Mom will have to be talked into it, though. Otherwise..." She winced, imagining how excruciating it would be.

"I'll talk with her. if these boys are going to share your life, I want to know them. If only so I know which kind of drink to slip the poison in," he added, nodding wisely, perfectly deadpan.

"Dad!" she protested, and then laughed, though she wasn't sure he was entirely joking. "I'll bring them," she repeated firmly, nodding.

"Even if you have to drag them by their feet?" her father asked, still blankly polite.

"Dad! How --"

"I remember being their age. A dinner with any of my lady-friends' parents would have made me squirm rather badly."

Sakura grinned. Her father had been a heartbreaker before he settled down with her mom. "Heh. This is true. But they'll come, and I'll beat them into behaving if need be." She flinched as she heard herself; it sounded as if they were savages. "I mean, I'm sure that they will anyway, but ... well..."

Her father looked over his glasses, arching a white eyebrow. "Well?"

"Sasuke has been alone for a long time," she began cautiously.

He nodded. "That's right, but I'm sure his parents taught him excellent manners, when they were still amongst us."

/The problem isn't so much him knowing good manners from bad as it is him deliberately pissing people off by totally ignoring them./ Bah, she'd punch him into behaving if needed. She usually couldn't stand the very idea of hitting her Sasuke-kun, but giving her parents a bad impression was one thing he wouldn't do without receiving a swift beating for his trouble.

"Naruto... well. He never wants to be bad, but the fact is that he more or less raised himself. He always has the best of intentions, but he doesn't know a lot of social conventions. I'd trust him to execute a high-level jutsu, but not to know to put his napkin on his lap, or use the wrong fork or things like that." /Or piss in presence of a young lady/ Inner Sakura reminded her, flashing back to their first Chuunin exam and the few times it had happened afterwards.

Her father nodded seriously, though she could feel his amusement. "I... see. You will give him a crash course, I'm sure."

She nodded. She would give him several.

She was surprised to notice that she was done with her starter, and that the waiter was coming with the next course. She realized that the man must have waited, seeing that they were talking of unpleasant things, and gave him an embarrassed but grateful smile. Now, though, now she was ready to eat a horse.


Sasuke didn't have a problem with her using his washing machine. Nor, apparently, with her crumpling against his chest as her day finally caught up with her. Or not enough to pull away, at any rate, though she could feel how tense he was. It moved her, to know that he still allowed it, even though he hated it and probably thought that she should just suck it up.
She didn't tell him any of it for that very reason. She needed to be a little less raw before she started to talk about it.

"Where is Naruto?" she asked.

Sasuke shrugged. "Not a clue. He won't be back before seven thirty at least."

Which gave her more reason to push it back. She didn't want to tell it twice. She smiled, stepped back, knowing that Sasuke wouldn't question her because he hated to be questioned /and figures that we'd babble it at him if it was really serious/, then picked up the dirty clothes she'd gotten from Ino's place after walking her father back to his office.

Well, she decided as she stared at the washing machine. Might as well start now. She left the small laundry room and asked Sasuke if he minded her using his bedroom. He frowned, then shrugged, though with some reluctance.

"I won't look at your things," she promised. He shrugged again; she decided it was good enough.

She sat against the wall, by the head of the bed, and did her best not to stare too much at Sasuke's personal stuff. Not that there were lots of it -- and was that a pair of boxers peeking out from under that chair ? And the dust bunnies. Here she had thought that Sasuke would be a cleaning freak.

/Well, it IS a boy's room... urgh./ With a sigh, she closed her eyes, crossed her legs and relaxed against the wall. She wasn't here to gape but to meditate.

There were two steps to her way of meditating. The first step was obtaining calm into her mind, by looking at the issues of the day objectively, reflecting on their real gravity and possible ways to solve them, and then pushing them away to worry about later. This time it wasn't as easy as usual, but eventually, she managed.

The second step was envisioning, feeling, her entire body -- relaxing as completely as possible, then concentrating on the sensations she received from one finger after the other -- then her palm, her forearm, her elbow -- traveling from shoulder to shoulder, down one arm, then up again -- then down her spine, exploring her legs the same way -- then up, belly, stomach -- navel. Then sinking past the physical, past the little aches and the weight of her clothes and the way her collar ruffled the little hairs at the back of her neck and everything else, sinking until she could feel the ebb and flow of the vital energy in her body -- following it along, to where it hit a snag, to where it went too fast, too strong, tiring her out and damaging her body -- recalibrating, rebalancing her energies, and all along, gently blowing on the glow in her belly that was the source of her chakra.

There was a spark there, a tiny tiny one that she could almost swear she was imagining, so weak it was. She stroked it in passing, and kept going, smoothing out the wrinkles in her chakra system.

She was aware of the outside world, the voices and the noises out of the window, a clock ticking in a corner, Sasuke putting away the dishes with a faint clinking noise, Naruto walking in and dropping something on the couch.

Sakura let the sound of their voices rock her, providing a familiar background as she sank deeper into her trance. They were bantering as they moved around the small apartment, Naruto's voice boisterous and friendly, Sasuke's voice sarcastic and subtly amused. The exact words escaped her, but it didn't --

"--those panties?"

Well, almost.

"Oi, Sasuke, you didn't tell me you had that sorta kink," Naruto hollered from the laundry room, bemused and amused at once.

Sakura opened her eyes to see Sasuke stalk by to join Naruto. She jumped on her feet and hurried after him, her serenity totally dissipated under the knowledge of what she was going to see.

Naruto, as she saw over Sasuke's shoulder, was standing by the opened machine, half the laundry already hung up -- /what a fucking day for him to decide to be thoughtful/ -- holding her pale blue panties out for all to see.

"They're Sakura's, you idiot!" Sasuke yelped, tearing them out of Naruto's hands.

"Whoa, any reason why you needed to wash her panties?"

Snarling, Sasuke executed a high kick that sent Naruto flying through the open window, then turned around and froze as he noticed her standing behind him. Blushing both, they avoided each other's eyes as the panties changed hands.

Naruto was climbing back over the windowsill when he saw her, and immediately attempted to protect his head. Sakura had been all ready to hit him, but, seeing him lose his balance, grabbed his collar and pulled him up, helping him through the window inside.

Of course he managed to "accidentally" trip, and stumbled right into her, forcing her to lean back on her hands as her butt bumped into the open washing machine.

"Um. Hi, babe," he attempted, a sheepish grin on his face.

Sakura growled, and would have yelled at him by pure instinct, if he hadn't chosen that moment to lean in and kiss her, managing to make it bold and slightly clumsy at the same time.

He kissed, she reflected, like he did everything else. Enthusiastically, without reserve. She was left out of breath and flushed, staring at him still leaning in with his hands on the machine around her, her lips damp and still feeling the phantom caress of his tongue between them.

"Eh. Hehe. So, um. Am I forgiven?" he asked her, grinning again, a bit more cockily this time.

She whapped him over the head, just because she didn't want him to think that kissing her like that would make her forget to be annoyed -- even though it did. And then she felt bad; hitting him had been okay before, when they were just friends and teammates, but now, she didn't know why, it felt like it should be wrong. /Domestic abuse, anyone/ But she wasn't beating him for real, he could take it easily, he -- argh. Okay, maybe she should try to stop that, and now she felt too guilty to still be annoyed.

"... I guess you're forgiven," she sighed, "just don't--"

"Fondle your panties when you're not inside?"

"Naruto!" she growled. Oh, he hadn't just -- grr!

Well, that was a resolution that hadn't lasted long.

"Ow!" Naruto yelped, rubbing his head, and then grinned as he danced out of reach. "Hehe. Or did you just mean, don't wave them under Saaasuke-kun's nose?"

"Naruto, I'm going to kill you!" she yelled as she chased him down the corridor. He was too quick, though -- she always missed him by barely a few inches. "Sasuke-kun, stop him!"

Sasuke exited the kitchen, watched them run a few circles around the couch, expressionless, then casually stuck out his foot in Naruto's path. She smiled grimly, expressing her gratefulness, and stalked toward the blond, who was busy ranting at Sasuke.

Sasuke wasn't even listening to him. He was staring at her instead, still expressionless. She paused in her tracks, confused. The black-haired boy arched an eyebrow and gave her hand a pointed look.

She was still holding her panties. She blushed explosively and shoved them in her pocket hastily, mortified.

She saw his feet first, as he stepped toward her, and had to put all her strength of will into looking up at him. He reached for her pocket slowly, pushing a strap inside before zipping it closed, and her eyes still hadn't reached higher than his chin when he leaned in and brushed his lips against hers.

It was amazing how differently they kissed, she thought, and then wondered why she was still thinking a hundred miles a minute while Sasuke kissed her. The nerves probably. She hadn't thought so much when Naruto had kissed her earlier, but with Sasuke, she just couldn't stop. His lips weren't as full as Naruto's, and he wasn't as bold and invasive -- she had yet to feel his tongue, but there was something in that soft, cautious touch that was just -- just more... that made her heart jump and made her feel dizzy and fluttery and -- and why was she still comparing them instead of enjoying it anyway?

'... where is the idiot?' she wondered suddenly, and opened her eyes, guilt filling her as she realized how totally she'd stopped caring the second Sasuke had leaned in.

He was watching them, a soft, almost wistful smile on his face. She reached out over Sasuke's shoulder, feeling like she'd excluded him -- and then gave Sasuke an alarmed look as she wondered if he'd felt excluded earlier. He'd been gone when Naruto had ended their kiss, after all.

Naruto took her hand and let her reel him in. Sasuke glanced back at him, expression unreadable again. She leaned against Sasuke hesitantly, not wanting him to think that she considered the both of them interchangeable, and squeezed Naruto's hand; 'I don't want you to leave.' He smiled, a soft, unguarded expression that caught her by surprise, made her tighten her hold on the two of them. Sasuke could make her heart jump anytime just by being himself, but she'd just discovered that under certain circumstances, Naruto could, too.

She rested her head on Sasuke's shoulder hesitantly, not knowing how far she could push before he started feeling invaded. Naruto stepped around him and slipped an arm around her waist, leaning against her side, his cheek against her hair. She wondered if they were looking at each other over her head, or ignoring each other, and wondered with sudden fear if she would always be the focus in their relationship, if everything would always rest on her shoulders. The responsibility scared her.

"Hey..." she started softly, nervously. "Do you guys ever... you know, kiss or anything, when I'm not here?"

She straightened up a little to look at Sasuke -- blinking, caught off guard -- and Naruto, eyebrows up to his forehead protector.

"Uh. No." Naruto gave Sasuke a cautiously curious look. Sasuke scowled and looked away.

"Why?" she asked, more casually than she felt like.

"Well, no. Just hasn't happened. Why d'you ask, wanna watch?" he replied, snickering.

"No! it's not like that. I just ... I was wondering, if you wanted to, that's all. I mean..."

she didn't know how to explain her dilemma without sounding egoistical, or how to tell them that she was scared to end up the prize in another one of their eternal competitions, without insulting them.

"I thought, that is, I assumed, that you... didn't mind each other like that," she mumbled into Sasuke's shoulder.

"I don't," Naruto replied after a little pause. "Sex is sex. Besides Sasuke's pretty."

"I'm not pretty, moron," Sasuke grumbled back, but looked away before answering her. "I... don't mind either.

Sakura had the feeling that where Naruto had honestly meant "I don't mind", Sasuke meant something closer to "I really don't mind."

"Then, um..."

Sasuke squirmed, as if he wanted to pull away from them. Naruto shrugged.

"She wants to see us kiss."

"I don't--!" she protested, blushing.

"Hey, it's only fair. So, bastard?"

"It's not the same," Sasuke grumbled back.

"Ah... sorry," she whispered. "How exactly? I don't want to pry, but I'm -- wondering, and..."

"... It just is," he muttered.

"Oh, what's the matter?" Naruto intervened, but he looked like he knew exactly what Sasuke meant. When the blond leaned closer, he was looking more nervous and embarrassed than he'd ever looked with her.

"You don't have to..." Her voice trailed off into stunned silence as she watched them kiss. It was awkward and stiff, and they were avoiding each other's eyes -- a feat considering how close they were. She cringed, and was about to push them apart, but they separated before she could.

"That," sneered Sasuke," was pathetic."

Naruto gave a cry of protest, and grabbed his shirt to reel him in, trapping Sakura between them. Their lips mashed together with a force that made her wince. Naruto appeared to be trying to bite Sasuke's sneer off his face; Sasuke was kissing back just as aggressively, his hand closed in a white-knuckled grip on the back of Naruto's neck. She watched, stunned, feeling their bodies tense and push against her, their muscles bulge and stiffen as if they were about to fight again.

"H-hey," she protested weakly, astonished.

They broke apart, lips puffy and bruised, tongues retreating into their respective mouths, and stood there glaring at each other, her still caught between them.

"... I... wonder why I'm so surprised that you kiss like you want to beat each other up instead," she sighed, shaken. "That's the way you do everything else."

Naruto laughed, though it still sounded a bit edgy. "See, that's the difference. It's like -- I'd make love with you, but I'd fuck him."

She stared at him, then at Sasuke who didn't look like he disagreed with that assessment. So they didn't feel -- they didn't ... like each other like that? They were just ... just fuckbuddies then? She didn't know if she should feel relief or worry. In the one hand they weren't about to decide that they were gay and didn't need her, but in the other hand, if she loved them and they loved her but not each other -- but the team bond and the friendship were stronger than that; it didn't matter, did it? She was so confused.

"We're guys, Sakura," Sasuke finally said, frowning a little. "Just because you want cuddling and romance, don't assume we do."

She opened her mouth to reply, but she couldn't find her words.

"Hey, I like cuddling, and I'm manly enough to admit it," Naruto replied, pulling her close and petting her hair possessively as he stuck out his tongue at Sasuke.

Sasuke looked away. "I don't mind... with you, Sakura. With you it's okay. With Naruto, it would bother me. I can't do casual hand-holding or caresses or things like that with him."

Sakura was still confused, but Naruto was nodding in agreement, so she concluded, still befuddled, that it was a macho men thing, and resolved to talk it out with Ino. Maybe she would have a better insight.

"And, uhm, when I'm here? Does it bother you then? I didn't notice..."

"No, not when you're here," Sasuke sighed. "It's fine then. But --" he gave her a stern little frown -- not an angry one, but a 'you better not take it badly, because I'm being serious' one. "But you don't need to drag the second one into it every time." He hesitated, then finished quickly. "It's enough to know that I'd be welcome if I wanted to."

Naruto grinned. "Someone's getting fed up with all that talking about his feeling, I see!"

The blond boy hugged her a last time, kissed her hair, then let her go. Apparently Sasuke wasn't the only one who had humored her long enough.

She made a note to keep extending invitations to Naruto, though; she couldn't say that he was as sure of his welcome as Sasuke was and she was a little afraid that he would assume a lack of invitation meant a lack of welcome. Sometimes she would probably want alone time with Sasuke, but she couldn't let Naruto think that it happened more often than it did. It was going to be hard enough to keep things balanced.

[Sparring and Flirting] [Up to Snuff]