Teamwork 2

Beta: Thorough beta by the amazing Windshades.

Chapter 5: Up to Snuff(Sasuke)
(A.K.A.: Sasuke Broods Too Damn Much. Cheer Up, Emo Boy.)

Monday. Start of the new week. Return to normal life, waiting for Kakashi at the bridge. Hopefully, a mission, a chance to hone his skills even further...

Hah. Right. After that mess with Naruto's tenant, Team Seven would be lucky if they got anything but D-class for the next year.

Sasuke stared at the water running merrily under the red bridge in the same cheerful, unconcerned way it always did, and briefly, irrationally resented it for staying the same when his whole life was being fucked with once again.

Oh, sure, it wasn't really a bad change in itself; and ninjas adapted easily to new circumstances, it was in the job description.

It wasn't a bad change in the same way as his entire clan getting murdered was. But it fucked with his plans all the same.

He glanced at Naruto; the blond was goofing off on the handrail, trying to spot fish in the shadows of the bridge. Naruto didn't seem the worse for wear, for someone who had spent his night roaming the building -- and, incidentally, mildly freaking Sasuke out.

When Sasuke had been told about Naruto's sleepwalking problem, during their brief escape from the village, he'd assumed it meant that Kyuubi was somehow in control -- but he should have known better. If Kyuubi had really been able to take total control while Naruto was unaware, then they would have locked him up ages ago. Jiraiya, for all that he liked the blond pest, would have never covered that up.

Yet even though the eyes were indeed red, the nails way too long, and the behavior not quite human -- Naruto never sniffed things that openly; or hunted bats, and mice, and cats, and other animals who had the misfortune of coming out at night... Well, Sasuke kind of doubted that Kyuubi no Youko would ever lower himself to actually look twice at that sort of prey. It seemed so far beneath him. Besides, there was no real recognition in his -- their? -- eyes. Sasuke had been acknowledged as being there, sometimes he'd been sniffed too, or nudged and bumped into semi-affectionately; but they didn't talk to him and didn't answer beyond a twitch or a vague frown when he talked to them.

He'd only met Kyuubi face-to-face once, but it was enough to remember the demon-fox's expressions. They were wildly different from Naruto's, but there was no denying that they were there. They were not the expression -- or lack thereof -- that he'd showed last night.

Sasuke didn't have a clue what he was supposed to do about the incident, or if he was even supposed to do anything. He didn't know how much Naruto was aware of, or how dangerous the sleepwalking was to the seal; if Sasuke was supposed to report it, or hide it, or if it really wasn't important at all.

"Sakura-chan!" Naruto exclaimed suddenly, startling him. The blond leaped over Sasuke's head, and took a few more steps on the guardrail before dropping to the girl's level. Sasuke rolled his eyes and straightened up, leaning on his elbow as he watched them exchange embarrassed, pleased looks.

"Hello, Naruto... Sasuke-kun."

He could hear a smile in Sakura's voice, but there was still something subdued about it. It annoyed him that one of his new duties was to notice, and to try to find a way to fix it.

He shouldn't have minded caring. But he cared. And he minded a hell of a lot. Caring was only a burden for an avenger.

He'd allowed that burden to slow him down a little when it had become clear that his teammates wouldn't let him leave them behind -- and also when Itachi had more-or-less disappeared. He'd allowed them to slow down his quest for power, because they wouldn't let him go and he had been made aware that he needed more time to catch up to his brother. He had despised himself for needing them, for missing an opportunity -- but the opportunity was gone with Orochimaru's death and they -- his teammates, his teacher, the Hokage and the Council and fucking everyone -- had been careful to only allow him to glimpse occasions to get stronger which came from the Leaf. And after a few years, he'd grudgingly admitted that maybe Konoha didn't stifle his growth the way he'd thought at thirteen.

But there was a difference between having teammates dogging his heels on his path to power, and settling down to raise a family.

He didn't want to share his thoughts with the two of them, though; despite how well they knew him, they would still try to make it better by insisting on looking on the good sides of the situation. He was aware of the good sides. It didn't dull his first goal in life any, and it didn't make him feel any less hampered by the shitload of new responsibilities he'd acquired.

Naruto could laugh and be carefree, he thought with some resentment, as he watched Sakura hesitate a second before giving the blond a peck on the cheek, and Naruto beam and launch into a retelling of his grand adventures with the contents of Sasuke's cupboards. The blond was getting almost everything he'd ever wanted, and there was no good reason why it would prevent him from reaching for Hokage later on.

Sakura, at least, was more sensible; she wasn't walking on Cloud Nine all the time.

Sasuke didn't want to make it worse for everyone by being an ass, so when Sakura came to him and paused, unsure, he leaned toward her a little, a neutral expression firmly affixed to his face. She pecked his offered cheek quickly, and then beamed. It made him twitch inwardly. If only he could be stopped from obsessing over his own problems as easily -- argh. And now he was feeling sorry for himself.

"Still at the Yamanakas?" he asked, just to stop thinking.

Sakura looked relieved by his starting of the conversation. "Yes. They're so nice... But my father promised he'd talk to Mom, so maybe I'll be back home soon," she added, making a decent attempt at a hopeful grin.

"That's great, Sakura-chan!" Naruto exclaimed. "I mean -- you probably miss them and all, so..."

"I do, yes -- um, listen, both of you," she added quickly, lowering her voice. "I have to tell you a few things before Kakashi-sensei arrives."

There was an odd quality to her voice, as if she were forcing herself to keep on sounding detached. Sasuke braced himself for news that he probably didn't want to hear.

"What's that? You want to hide things from your favorite teacher?"

Sasuke twitched, and Naruto and Sakura whirled around. "AAH!"

One of these days, he would make Kakashi tell him how the hell he managed to totally cover up the gathering of chakra that signaled an incoming. He was also pretty sure that the swirl of leaves now littering the bridge was there as a sign of courtesy -- or laziness.

Kakashi smiled genially at his students, crouching on his pillar. "Sorry, sorry! I was waylaid by our most beloved Hokage..."

"Liar!" exclaimed Naruto predictably. "Why would old hag Tsunade -- wait a sec, you're not even late!"

Kakashi blinked. Sasuke rolled his eyes.

"... He's not?" Sakura asked, quickly checking the position of the sun.

Naruto boggled. "Well, maybe ten minutes. But that's NOTHING! Sensei, are you sick!"

Now Kakashi looked faintly embarrassed; Tsunade had probably tricked him. "... As a matter of fact, no. Hokage-sama insisted that I transmit this to you, Sakura."

She took the rolled up sheets of paper and undid the knot, glanced at it, and then bit her lip. Sasuke arched an eyebrow at her, and Naruto tried unsubtly to look over her shoulder. Sakura moved as if to hide it from him, and then sighed, and just let him read on.

"What's that? A timetable? Pushups, jogging..."

"This is my new training regimen," she replied casually, at odds with her previous attitude. Sasuke's eyes narrowed.

"What do you need a new training regimen for?" he asked.

"Well, Hokage-sama has decided that I'll be safer if I make sure to be in excellent health. You know that babies draw on the mother's chakra reserves..."

As a matter of fact, he knew, and he knew that she knew. Why on Earth would she try to misdirect him by pretending to share info? Even Naruto was aware of that little fact, even if his mildly surprised expression proved that it slipped his mind sometimes. Besides, there were a lot of sheets for one training regimen, unless the Hokage was detailing new and complicated exercises.

"Ah -- Kakashi-sensei, thank you, for bringing this," she continued, turning away from the boys, a smile firmly affixed to her face.

Naruto and Sasuke exchanged a suspicious look. Kakashi was still watching them all, expressionless and silent.

Naruto scratched his head and glanced at the papers again. "Uh, Sakura-chan... That's really all your training routine? There's a lot of papers... It's spread on one week, right? 'Cause that would be brutal."

Sakura quickly checked the sheets of paper. "... Um, no, it's daily, but there are other things too -- it's not just the training."

"What's the rest?" Sasuke asked, frowning.

"Nutrients I have to get per day, recommended foods and vitamin supplements, things like that..."

"Why d'you have to get all that?" Naruto asked, dumbfounded.

Sasuke snorted. "Every woman does when she's pregnant, dumbass. People sort of LIKE having both mother and baby healthy and surviving the pregnancy."

Had Sakura just flinched?

"Oh, so it's normal then?" Naruto asked with some relief; Sasuke wasn't listening anymore, because she'd flinched again. "But not every woman trains harder when they're pregnant... What about the civilians -- guys?"

Sakura winced, looking away from Sasuke, and glanced at Kakashi imploringly. Their teacher shook his head.

"Sakura, you have to tell them," Kakashi commented.

"Tell us what?" Naruto demanded, bewildered and worried.

Sakura twitched, and continued as if she hadn't heard the blond. "But -- I mean... How do you know anyway? Did Hokage-sama tell you?" she demanded, a note of outrage in her voice. "Did she?"

Kakashi gave her a long, bland, and faintly disapproving look. "I'm going to be training you personally, Sakura," he replied softly. "She didn't tell me much, but she did tell me what I needed to know. It wasn't hard to fill in the blanks."

Sakura visibly wilted. Sasuke was starting to really dislike that.

"Sakura-chan?" Naruto asked, touching her shoulder hesitantly.

She winced, hesitated.

"What's wrong with you?" Sasuke demanded, pushing away from the guardrail.

"Ah -- it's just... the pregnancy is siphoning off more chakra than it should. I mean..." she took a deep breath, "a lot more."

It wasn't so much the words, as the tone, the way she didn't look up at either of them. The way Kakashi gazed at their little group, careful not to get involved.

"How much danger are you in, exactly?"

She didn't answer right away. Behind her, Naruto had gone still.

"... A lot. I should have told you two yesterday," Sakura added, giving him a miserable look. "But, um... Ididn'twanttobreakthemood," she muttered, looking down at her feet with rapt attention.

Sasuke scowled, dissatisfied with himself. Usually, Sakura was relatively easy to see through. Not as obvious as Naruto, but it was easy enough to see when her smile was false. Yesterday, though, he hadn't noticed that she was hiding something in particular.

"And you didn't think that it was a little more important than 'the mood'?"

Naruto hissed between his teeth and glowered at him. "Don't be a dick, Sasuke, she told us today."

The moron dared to look disappointed in him. What the hell. Sasuke sneered at him. "Only because Kakashi made her."

"I was going to!" she protested, missing Naruto's aborted gesture to -- touch her, hold her.

And now she sounded hurt, and Naruto was still looking disappointed, in him and a little in her, and Sasuke was the bad guy again.

"Enough." Kakashi dropped from his perch, hands in his pockets. "I don't care to know what you do during downtime. You have three D-rank missions for today. Sasuke, Naruto, you'll share the tasks between the two of you. Sakura, with me. We'll get you started on that training regimen."

He paused, stared at the three of them.

"From the moment you arrive here, to the moment I send you home, you are my soldiers. Leave your personal life at home. Our team doesn't need the baggage."

Sasuke stared at the planks under his feet and pretended that he didn't feel chastised. Kakashi was right, of course. This was not the time to whine and bitch; it was the time to train, and possibly earn some money. D-ranks seemed very much beneath him -- them -- but he could be professional.

Probably better than Naruto, too.


Over the next two weeks, Sasuke's resolve to behave like a professional was sorely tested.

Along with the usual weeding and gardening ("... Splash me with mud again and DIE."), delivering messages, food and heavy items all over Konoha ("Betcha I'll be done first!"), carrying old women's purchases ("Such a handsome and well-behaved young man. Tell me, do you know my granddaughter Emi? She's about your age and..."), they also had the good luck of collecting kunai lost by academy students during a field trip ("How the HELL did that land there?"), assisting the teacher of the five-year-old kids ("It's like herding cats..." "I'd rather BE herding cats." "... Saasuke... Please tell me that ours will take after Shika and just stay put all day..."), and babysitting/bodyguarding the nephew of some noble or other during a trip to an amusement park ("Naruto, damn it, you don't spank your customer!" "Spoiled brat deserved worse! He was only pretending to cry anyway." "Yes, but his parents aren't pretending to dock our pay, you retard.").

Then Hokage-sama needed her library sorted out and the subjects of her scrolls noted down in alphabetical order ("Oh wow, that's really gross. Look, Sasuke!" "... Get that scroll out of my face if you don't want it stuffed up your ass." "Less flirting, more lifting, brats -- you still have these crates to do."), and then it was laundry at the hospital ("Oh, OWW, they've put electric fences around the water tower!" "...I wonder why, moron." "... Oh, right. Uh... Sasuke..." "Less whispering, more sheets hanging, boys! And I better not see you using these laundry baskets for anything untoward, alright?" "What! We weren't --" "Oh, you weren't inappropriate, but them foxes, they're all perverts, you can't trust 'em. Guard your rear, child." "...You want your rear guarded, Saaaasuke-kun?" "Ah, shut up -- and don't even think about it."), and then it was filling in for sick orderlies at the senile old ninjas ward. ("Well at least there's not a lot of them --" ZING "--but who the HELL thought they should get to keep shuriken!" "You don't want to deal with the paranoia they work themselves into when we try to take their weapons, kid. You don't. They haven't lived so long because they're -- watch out!" "... Shower. Where." "... Uh. At least the bedpan was changed a few hours ago?" "SHOWER. WHERE.")

Sasuke did his very best to stay focused, though he quite missed Sakura at times. Competing with Naruto could make the most tedious physical tasks entertaining, and Naruto never got hurt when Sasuke felt like not talking and tuned him out; but there were moments he wondered how they could do anything without her to play the diplomat between the two of them. They play-fought -- even when they knew perfectly well that often it wasn't appropriate -- about as often as they fought seriously, with cutting words and fists to the face -- and they were both too stubborn to apologize afterwards.

And she was the only one who actually knew anything about the hospital and its residents -- or, hell, the only one who had any nurturing instincts at all, not to mention actual patience -- and she was too busy kicking the shit out of things to keep the crazy old coots at bay. Did he look like a goddamn nurse to the sadist who gave these missions out?

When the missions didn't take all day, Naruto and Sasuke usually went to train with the rest of their team. Afterwards, they walked Sakura home to the Yamanakas -- they'd used to hang out from time to time, but that was before Sakura had started trying to convince her mother that she wasn't busy being a slut every minute she wasn't training ... not that there were a lot left of those minutes anymore. Besides he saw Naruto all evening, there was really no surprise if half the time the blond skipped away to go spy on bathhouses with Konohamaru, or whatever it was that they did together. Or maybe he went and bothered Iruka, whatever. And the few times Kakashi let them go early, and Naruto and Sakura could hang out, Sasuke was the one who needed to go to the bank to talk about his accounts, or had to write letters right and left to see about getting as many of his clan's old rights, privileges and status back as possible. The political and legal ramifications were giving him a headache.

Needless to say, he wasn't in a very receptive mood when Sakura interrupted the relative quiet of their lunch break -- which he was using to train a little more; his taijutsu was getting rusty -- and announced, "My father wants to invite you two to dinner."

"... Uh. Okay," Naruto stuttered out from his spot on the grass a few feet away.

Sakura looked very uncomfortable. "As my... um. Boyfriends, I guess. I told him a little while ago, and. Well. He knows."

Sasuke cringed inwardly. Meeting Sakura's parents? That was going to be excruciating. He had enough on his plate already with all the legal responsibilities, he was going to have to answer to enough people as it was. The idea of justifying, defending himself and their relationship again in front of someone who had no real authority over him or his was grating on his nerves.

"And he really wants to meet us?" Naruto seemed to be worried about getting dragged down to the basement and clobbered.

"Well... Yes. He, um, he's not perfectly okay with it, I don't think -- it was a shock, and I think he's still doing his best to wrap his mind around it, but... He'll try to keep an open mind. That's good, isn't it?"

Sasuke nodded absently while Naruto beamed at her. He supposed it was, for her; but he'd almost forgotten what it was like to have parents to answer to, people who had an emotional investment, and responsibility, in your life.

"And your mother?"

Sakura avoided their eyes. "She... Well, she knows you're coming."

Sasuke's eye twitched, but somehow he managed not to retort anything. "When?"

"Next Friday evening. Seven PM."

He narrowed his eyes, nodded, and went back to his kata. There wasn't much to add, really.

She kept watching him as he trained, with reproachful, disappointed eyes, and only stopped when Kakashi came back and guided her through more exercises. Naruto scowled at Sasuke, and then went his own way.

The last time Naruto had followed the patterns with Sakura, she had ended up screaming at him for getting it on the third try, when she was going through her tenth and still having trouble with it. Usually, Sasuke discreetly followed with the Sharingan, in case Kakashi showed her something that he could use later -- not that it happened often, but you never knew -- but today, he turned away.

It was still early, certainly. But he wasn't stupid; he could read her dissatisfaction with herself, and the way Kakashi frowned sometimes, and her body language the few times they'd seen her leaving the Hokage's office at the hospital. She was progressing some, but at her current rate of progress... She was working too hard, tiring herself out, and it wasn't enough. Maybe it was just that she hadn't found her rhythm yet, that her body was still trying to adapt, and she just needed more time. Maybe.

And then there was the way she would sick up at the most random smells, and the constant fatigue -- though that was probably mostly due to the training -- and the way she would wince and rub at her chest sometimes ... It had been surprising and... well, okay, interesting, the first time he'd caught her doing that, but by now it was clear that she wasn't comfortable.

But Kakashi was already training her, and as for the lack of comfort -- well, Sasuke wasn't a medic-nin either. There was nothing he could do about her health.

There wasn't much he could do about most of their problems, but he didn't want to think about it. He lost himself in his practice, again and again and again. No thoughts to bother him, nothing but his body and the way it answered to him.


It was past mid-afternoon when Kakashi called him. Sasuke wordlessly went to spar with Sakura while their teacher drilled Naruto on much-needed genjutsu.

As the hours crawled by, he could see her tiring out, losing her coordination. She tried too hard to compensate, becoming more and more erratic and reckless. Sasuke forbade himself from commenting on her efforts in anything but an utterly neutral tone. He tried to silence the growing certainty, but he couldn't; he saw it in her eyes too.

At her current rate of progress, she wasn't going to make it.

He called for a halt, finally. She was making mistake after mistake. If she had been Naruto, he would have been mocking her; he didn't comment, turning away to get something to drink. Sakura's taijutsu had always been inferior to his -- he couldn't really expect a challenge -- and they were trying to get her body to develop its chakra pathways, to get used to handling bigger quantities, first and foremost; teaching her more hand to hand was secondary. That she got exhausted too quickly, though -- that was frustrating, but it was useless to point it out to her; it was doubtless that she was aware of the fact.

She was pale and her jaws were clenched, eyes a little too wide and a little too wet; he would have hated to be seen like that. He avoided looking at her as he picked up her canteen and passed it to her.

It was slapped out of his hand, catching him by surprise, and went sailing into a tree.

It was just her frustration, he told himself as he looked at her, forbidding himself from feeling the same.

"You -- you..."

"... Yes?" he prompted her. She looked ready to blow up, or to break down; he didn't know which. Maybe the pregnancy hormones played a part in that, he considered absently.

"Asshole!" she screeched, fists clenched, trembling.

He was vaguely aware that Kakashi and Naruto couldn't have missed that. Most of his attention was on her, though.

"What did I do now?" he asked tiredly, and just a little defensively.

"You -- you're looking at me and not saying anything and you don't even fucking CARE, do you! You don't care, you just despise me because I'm not up to your standards--"

"Sakura," he interrupted her, frowning. "I'm not saying anything because you're already aware of the problems; I don't see what it would add for me to --"

"Maybe a feeling that you give a damn about me? Not the baby, me!"

For a second, she looked horrified at blurting that out, and then, as he only stared, shocked, her anger came roaring back.

"God, Sasuke, would it kill you to just -- just hold me or something -- or even look fucking sorry -- or angry, even, then I'd know that you give a damn!"

What? She didn't seriously think -- what did she want, an engraved poem about his feelings all over the Hokage monument? "How am I supposed to guess when you want me to hold you?" he snapped back, clenching his teeth.

She didn't listen, continuing her diatribe. "We've been together for three weeks now and you only kiss me when Naruto kisses me first! You never touch me when you don't have to and -- and..."

He unclenched his fists forcefully, reached for her shoulder. That was what she wanted, right? She dodged his hand, bending to pick up her bag with jerky movements.


"I'm going home."

Naruto burst through the bushes, looking alarmed. "Sakura-chan! What's going on?"

"Nothing," she snapped, her back on them. "I'm done. I'll see you tomorrow."

Kakashi's hand fell on Naruto's shoulder as he opened his mouth to call her back. The blond stared up at his teacher, and then at Sakura as she left the field, and finally at Sasuke, who was still rooted in the same spot.

"What did you DO to her?" Naruto exclaimed.

"How the hell should I know?" Sasuke hissed back.

Naruto shrugged off Kakashi's hand, getting in Sasuke's face. "She was crying!"

Sasuke really wanted to deck him. Somehow he refrained. "I don't KNOW, alright?"

"Well, what did you say to her?"

"Nothing, damn it! What was I supposed to say? 'Wow, you really suck today'?"

Two heavy, gloved hands landed on their shoulders, separating them. "Sasuke. Naruto." Kakashi sounded annoyed for once.

"Yeah, don't mix up your personal life and ninja stuff, we know," Naruto muttered, looking away.

"You've both done that today. You and Sakura. Remember, next time. As for you, Sasuke," he added wryly, "you didn't mix it up enough."

Sasuke looked up at him, incredulous. "I should have -- what, kissed her out here?"

"If I see any of you kissing during training," Kakashi replied dryly, "that will be twenty laps around the Forest of Death. Inside the fence." He let that sink in before continuing. "You don't have to kiss her to express your respect of her abilities as your teammate, though. No one likes feeling like dead weight."

"But she knew that she was doing badly," Sasuke opposed, scowling.

Kakashi sighed. "She doesn't have the same natural advantages as you, or Naruto, do. Her best isn't going to be anything like yours. It doesn't mean that you shouldn't encourage her to reach it and go past it."

"That wasn't her best," he muttered. Naruto was glaring at him as if Sasuke was being disloyal for admitting it. "It wasn't," he insisted. "She kept getting frustrated and wanting to go too fast."

"Then point that out," Kakashi drawled in a long-suffering tone. "So long as you point out what she does right, too."

Sasuke was starting to get really, really tired of feeling chastened.

"Yeah, she can't read your mind," Naruto intervened, lower lip jutting out in a stubborn pout. "Girls like it when you actually tell them stuff."

Sasuke glared at Naruto and wished that he would just stop butting in already. He didn't need them to gang up on him. "You don't need me to tell you when you mess up."

"That's because I don't need your lessons!" Naruto growled, bristling. "...Besides when I mess up I get a fist in the face; 's not as if I don't notice where I went wrong."

"Should I start punching her in the face, then?"

"What? No!"

"Maybe, yes."

Sasuke and Naruto stared at Kakashi, who now looked bored.

"Not yet, obviously. But if you want to take the Chuunin exam this year, she needs to be aware of the holes in her guard."

Sasuke gave him an incredulous look. "What, I should break her bones too? Naruto heals so fast it doesn't matter, but she--"

"She has some training as a medic-nin," Kakashi reminded them. "If you want her to be of any use on the field, she needs to start using these abilities in combat situations. Knowing the theory is fine, but if she can't use it outside of a calm, controlled environment, it's useless."

Pulling his book out of his pocket, he started looking for his page. Sasuke looked away. No more berating, finally.

"You two will keep on sparring with her whenever possible. Give her two more weeks, and then start taking the openings she leaves."

Naruto looked uncomfortable. "But, Kakashi-sensei..."

"... None of the teams you will encounter in the exam will have a problem punching her in the stomach, you know."

Sasuke tensed up; Naruto jerked.

"Seeing how hard the child is clinging to her, I doubt she'll lose it from a normal hit. But you don't know what kind of adversaries you will encounter, and even if she isn't showing by then, her scent will be different. People will notice, and will try to take advantage of it."

Sasuke sighed and rubbed at his face. Great, one more worry to add to his pile.

Kakashi turned the page, and started to walk away. "Tomorrow morning, same hour."

Naruto grumbled a goodbye as they picked up their stuff. Then they more-or-less fell into step, both sour and discontented.

When they reached the top of the stairs, and Sasuke unlocked his door, they still hadn't said a word to each other. Sasuke pretended that he was glad for the quiet, except that Naruto's thoughts were so loud he could almost hear them, and he hated that even more than a good yelling session.

Sasuke would have liked to sit heavily on his couch and glare at the far wall, but Naruto's sleeping bag was still spread on the seat. He would have liked to take a shower, but Naruto was already getting undressed. He paced in his bedroom, and then, wondering why he was locking himself away in his own apartment, stomped to the kitchen.

No fresh groceries. Well, of course not; he hadn't bothered to shop in a week, and Naruto only ever bought meat and fruit, as if he'd keel over if he touched vegetables. As for the cupboards... There was no way to find anything which didn't involve pulling the boxes out to see what was behind. None of it was that stable, either. He picked up one fallen package, two fallen packages, and kicked the third one across the kitchen when it waited for him to straighten up before falling.

"Damn it, Naruto, will you stop stuffing your instant ramen packages in every nook and cranny?"

"Ramen what?" Naruto emerged from the bathroom, a towel around his waist. Sasuke glared at him. Moron was dripping everywhere.

"Do you even know how to dry yourself properly?"

"It's tiles, it'll dry. What's that about ramen?"

"Stop stocking up as if they're going to stop selling it tomorrow, and stop invading my cupboards with it," Sasuke snapped back, turning away to stuff things back in. He still hadn't found anything to eat, and now Naruto was strutting around, wet and almost naked, as if he owned the place.

"What am I supposed to do with them, build a fort around the couch?" Naruto grouched back as he left the doorway to get dressed.

"That would be an idea."

A wet towel sailed from the living room past the kitchen, landing on the tiles at the bottom of the bathroom door.

"Hey, it's not like you can't eat some when you feel like it, you know. I don't mind sharing my ramen with you."

A ramen packet sailed from the kitchen to the back of Naruto's head.

"Maybe I don't want it."


The packet sailed right back; Sasuke caught it before it could break open on a wall and threw it in the wastebasket.

"Maybe you're an asshole. Seriously, what's up with you today? First you make Sakura yell at you and now you get all bent out of shape about ramen of all things! What's your -- oof."

Naruto hit the floor with a satisfying thud. Sasuke assured his grip on the back of his neck and forbade himself from thinking anything about the position, the bare back, or the way Naruto's damp hair was sticking to his hand. At least the moron was wearing pants.

"Sasuke!" Naruto had been trying to sound angry, but angry or not, wheezing was never that threatening.

"No. More. Ramen. In. My. Cupboards." Naruto bucked and twisted under him; Sasuke tightened the hold of his legs on his waist, and caught one of his wrists before the blond could join his hands to try a jutsu. "Oh no you don't, not inside."

"So don't ATTACK me inside!"

Sasuke slapped the back of his head; Naruto snarled in outrage. "If it was an attack, you'd be dead, cretin!"

"Well forgive me for thinking I'm safe inside your walls, asshole!" Naruto bucked again, jerking his hand closer to his head; still trying to control him, Sasuke didn't think to let go of his wrist until Naruto's teeth clamped down on his forearm.

"What the hell was that for, fucker!" Sasuke hissed, rolling off Naruto and kicking him in the side. He landed in a crouch, a knee on the floor, and spared a quick glance at his arm; Naruto hadn't broken the skin, but he was going to have a hell of a bruise.

"YOU are calling ME fucker? You're the one who tackled me from behind with no warning, you crazy son of a bitch!" Naruto was in a matching crouch at the other end of the room, teeth bared.

Maybe he would have pounced, if the neighbor hadn't knocked on the wall hard, making them both start guiltily. Naruto took a deep breath, and then straightened up slowly, giving Sasuke a dirty look. "No, seriously, what the hell's wrong with you today? And fuck, today, what am I saying -- all of last week! I'm used to you being a bastard, but -- damn it."

The blond stomped to the couch and started to pile up his clothes, folding them haphazardly. Sasuke hissed between his clenched teeth and got back up on his feet, picking up a sock and lobbing it, not at Naruto's head like he wanted to, but at the couch. By his head. Naruto didn't react; Sasuke sighed wearily.

"So now it's my fault Sakura yelled at me for her failure?"

Naruto whirled around, teeth bared, taking Sasuke aback. He had fangs now, and slits for pupils. "You better not have told her to her face that she was a failure."

"I didn't say anything," he replied frostily, pretending not to care about the feral growl lining Naruto's words. "She's the one who got all bent out of shape because I'm supposed to divine when she wants me to hold her or kiss her or whatever."

Naruto stared at him, then snorted and turned back to his clothes, folding them with jerky movements. "God, I know I'm retarded with all that social stuff, but you take the cake. She's a nice girl and she's in love with you; you should want to do that whenever you get a chance, because she does!"

Sasuke took in a deep breath, then released it slowly. "I am never going to be physically affectionate, and if she expects it of me, she better be ready to be disappointed."

Naruto twitched. "We know you're a frozen ice-bitch, you dick. It still wouldn't kill you to force yourself when she really needs you to."

"And how am I supposed to know exactly?"

Naruto turned to face him again, fists clenched. "Dunno, when she looks like she's about to cry, maybe?" Naruto stared at him a few seconds longer, then snorted dismissively, his back to him again. "You really are a jackass, Sasuke."

"... Fuck you."

"You wish, bottom boy."

Sasuke's eyes widened, then narrowed in anger. "What did you call me -- where the hell are you going?"

Naruto had picked up a shirt and was making his way toward the door as he pulled it over his head.

"To see Iruka-sensei."

"What for?" Sasuke asked, annoyed. "You saw him yesterday."

"Just to talk to someone who's not such a fucking asshole, alright? At least with him I always feel welcome!"

The door slammed, leaving Sasuke staring at it.

... Bastard. Sasuke snarled wordlessly, kicking one of Naruto's scrolls out of his way, and stomped back to his bedroom. He slammed the door too, but it was a lot less satisfying when there was no one to hear it.

When the neighbor protested a second time, he slammed it again, and regretted not owning a radio.


The week went on with the three of them pretending -- badly -- that nothing had happened. During training, Sakura was depressed, and Naruto sulked. After training, Ino usually picked up Sakura and left, pointedly avoiding looking at the boys, and Naruto murmured some excuse or other and went to find one of his friends. At least he still slept in Sasuke's apartment, but it wasn't as if they did much more than share the area.

Sasuke was bored, and trying to pretend that he wasn't starting to feel guilty; but he didn't have a clue how to fix the mess.

Tonight, as had become his habit this week, Naruto had disappeared again. Sasuke scowled angrily as he searched his closet for appropriate clothes. They were meeting Sakura's parents for dinner in half an hour.

Maybe she had dragged Naruto away again to inflict another lesson about manners on him... But wouldn't they have warned him? In any case, if the idiot made them late, he would -- no, he probably wouldn't do anything too permanent. He didn't want to go there anymore than Naruto did.

Eventually he chose a relatively nice, white button-up shirt which he had worn maybe twice before. He would have worn a yukata and hakama if it had been a meeting with his family -- but he didn't own any kind of kimono, ceremonial or not; besides, Sakura's parents were from a common family, not a noble clan. They probably weren't that traditional. He debated about the lack of clan symbol on that shirt, but all the tops he owned that bore the Uchiha fan were high-collared t-shirts or tanktops -- way too casual. Besides, he was going as himself -- or should he remind them about his heritage? Would that be a good thing, give him more weight? Argh. There wasn't much of a choice. It wasn't as if he could wear a tanktop, Uchiha fan or not, and even if he could somehow stitch or dye a fan on his white shirt, it would probably look weird and out of place. God, he hated having to choose clothes. There was a reason he usually bought everything in bulk; much easier to stick with the kind he already knew he looked okay in and which moved well.

"Wow, you're worse than a girl," Naruto commented from the doorway as he eyed the clothes littered all over the room, and barely dodged a kunai.

"Where the fuck were you?" Sasuke snarled at him, pretending that he hadn't actually been startled.

"Out. Listen..." Naruto seemed to search for words; then he grimaced and pushed something in Sasuke's hands. "Here."

Sasuke stared at the little black box, confused. "What the hell is that?"

"It's for Sakura. From you."

Sasuke looked up, even more confused. Naruto's jaw was set in a stubborn line, as if he expected a fight.

"From me? The hell?"

"I took most of the money from your stash, so technically it's yours. And it's for you to give her. 'Cause... Her parents -- well."

Sasuke was going to be angry at Naruto for looking through his apartment, but the mention of the Harunos confused him enough to pause. And then it snapped into place. He opened the box quickly --

"...A ring."

"Yeah. Think it will do for an engagement ring? Didn't have the money to get her a fancy one..."

It was a simple thing, three flat, interlaced metal bands. Pink, yellow, and silver. "It's gold?"

"Uh, dunno, it's supposed to be, but it might be alloys. Told you I didn't have much money. But I figure you can get more money from the bank and get her a proper one later. This one's mostly so her parents don't think... Well. You see. But it's also to make her happy. I figure you can do with some pointers," Naruto added with a strange grin.

Sasuke wondered why it was suddenly hitting him so hard that it was real, that in a few months, at the very most, he was going to marry Sakura; that she was going to be his wife and he'd live his life with her -- and that Naruto loved her. Loved her so much -- loved him, too -- that he would --

"Give it to her yourself."

Naruto gaped, and then glared at him in frustration. "What? No way! I'm not her fiance, YOU are! YOU give her the stupid ring."

"You bought it, you give it!"

"It was your money!"

"So take money out of your next pay and pay me back!"

"No fucking way in hell. You're her fiance, so you have to have a ring. I'm your -- I got it for you. You gotta give it to her."

"My boyfriend."


"My boyfriend. Our boyfriend. Our lover. Say it."

Naruto stared at him for a second; Sasuke refused to stop glaring at him. The blond hesitated, tongue flicking out to lick his lips nervously, then smiled.

"Alright. I'm your ... boyfriend -- man, that sounds gay," he laughed, and dodged a punch from Sasuke. "So I got it for you. For the two of you. Because you've been all hissy at each other recently, and I really don't like it. It's not natural! So please, just take it and smooth things out, alright?"

Sasuke considered it. "No."

"Oi! Don't make me make you sleep on the couch!"

"You're already sleeping on the couch."

"I'll take the sex away!"

"We're not even having sex!"

"Yeah, well, we should -- why aren't we again?"

"Sakura's never around."

The mention of her name sobered them up.

"Oh, right. You know, if you give her the ring, she'll be so happy, her dad and mom will shove her in our arms with their blessings, and then we can move in together and have tons and tons of sex."

Yeah, right. They'd give their blessings to Sasuke, maybe, but not to Naruto. Especially if Sakura was persuaded that the ring only came from Sasuke.

"Drop it," he commanded coldly, shoving the box back at Naruto. "Give it to her yourself."

The pleading puppy eyes flashed purplish-red and dangerous for a second; Sasuke braced himself, but the only thing that came was a long, frustrated wail.

"No, alright? No! We're trying to make her happy with you, and it's not gonna help if I thought of that stuff first and she thinks you didn't even remember. Alright? It's really not gonna help. So if you'll just pretend you bought it for her, she'll be happy, and you won't have to be grouchy all the time, and that will make me tons happier. Everyone wins."

Sasuke glared at him in disbelief. "It's going to make her happy because she'll think I magically turned into some thoughtful, sensitive, romantic guy, and then she'll expect it to continue! Yeah, she'll be happy, but about what? A lie! And what's that shit about happy 'with me'? Like you won't be there!"

Naruto flinched, then growled in irritation, and clenched his fists briefly before raking both hands through his hair. "Yeah, right, we're in this together. I remember. But -- listen. We're partners, right? We're helping each other out. You give her the ring, smooth things out for now, and later -- well, I'm sure I'll mess up, too! So whenever either of us sees the other acting like an ass, we tell each other! We spot for each other. Eventually we'll get better, and then it won't be -- she won't be expecting things that aren't here, because they'll be here. We'll be... kinda trained for it."

Sasuke stared at the box, which had somehow ended up in his hands again, then scoffed, muttering, "Trained. In being sensitive. Hah."

Naruto grimaced. "Well, it sure isn't coming naturally," he grumbled, then shrugged it off. "Besides, I'm not expecting miracles, and I'm sure she isn't, either. You wouldn't be Sasuke if you weren't an asshole. I'm pretty sure they put your face beside the word 'utter bastard' in the dictionary."

They stared at each other for a few seconds, and then Sasuke shrugged, making a face. "That's two words. Moron."

Naruto started snickering. "You prick."

"I thought you liked it."

No, he decided as he watched Naruto crack up, Sasuke was definitely not smirking. Even less smiling. Not even a little bit.

"Come on, dead last, we're going to be late."

The blond gaped at his clock, and surged forward without warning. "Oh crap! We're already late!" Naruto yelped as he grabbed Sasuke's wrist and dragged him outside.

"Wait -- let me lock the door!" Sasuke pulled free with annoyance, securing his apartment quickly, and then started running after Naruto, who was all but dancing in impatience on the railing. "What the hell do you mean, late?" Sasuke demanded as they jumped over to the nearest tree and skidded down the trunk to the footbridge. "We have fifteen minutes!"

"Yeah, and we have to --" Naruto leaped over a toddler, vaulting over the edge of the bridge -- "pick up Sakura-- " they raced each other up a wall, landing on a tiled roof --"and you have to give her the ring --" they broke their straight run to dodge around another ninja who had just emerged from a window-- "and it's not gonna be done in three seconds!" Cat, fuck! Another quick dodge, grabbing a pole to fling themselves further away-- "And we can't arrive at her parents' like we just ran through the village!"

"Since when are you Mister Ideal Boyfriend anyway?" Sasuke snapped back as he leaped over a street.

"I just asked IrukACK!"

A green and pink blur had just burst out of a nearby greenhouse and clothes-lined Naruto. Sasuke instinctively fell into a fighting stance --

"You're LATE!"

"... Sakura?"

She was holding Naruto up against her hip, with the boy hanging from her arm around his neck. "You're late! How could you be that late? I told you two to be here early so I could fix your clothes -- Sasuke-kun, your hair!"

Blinking, he touched his hair automatically. It felt like it always did. "What?"

"It looks like a bird's nest, didn't you even comb it?" she replied, half angry and half panicked, as she grabbed his wrist, Naruto's collar, and hauled them toward the opened window in the roof of the greenhouse. "IINOO! Get me a brush!"

The blonde girl put her basket of flowers and her pruning shears down on a bench, and hurried off, but not quickly enough to hide her snickers. "Yes, sir, Sakura, sir!" she mocked before disappearing behind a large hanging plant.

Sasuke landed awkwardly; she still hadn't let go of his wrist. At least she hadn't dragged Naruto through the window with them; he was still teetering precariously on the ledge, but it was better than diving into the potted plants head first.

"Naruto, get down here, and don't get dirty!" Sakura ordered, before starting to tug on Sasuke's shirt and smooth the wrinkles out.

Naruto grabbed the edge and rolled forward, swinging for a second before he landed between two racks bearing small potted flowers. He almost collided with Ino, who was emerging from her house at the same time.

"Huh, you need some help with your hair, too. Don't move."

Sasuke and Naruto exchanged a long-suffering look through the rack as Ino attacked Naruto's hair with gel, mirroring Sakura's fussing with Sasuke's clothes.

"Hurry up, Ino-pig, I need it too!" Sakura demanded as she finished a last, observational circle around Sasuke. Ino reached through the rack at his side, gave the pot to Sakura, then dropped her hand -- Sasuke jerked in shock, and turned to stare at Ino. Had she just groped him?



The girl burst out laughing. "Oh, come on, that's like the only time in my life when I'll ever have the occasion. Once you take him home and tag him 'fiance', I'll be forbidden."

"You're forbidden now!" Sakura growled. Sasuke blinked, dazed, and stared at her back. The fuck. When had Sakura grabbed him to pull him behind her protectively?

"Yeah, tagged or not, that ass is already owned," Naruto chorused, scowling. Or pouting. It was hard to say. Either way, Sasuke was surprised; Sakura had always been possessive of him, even when she hadn't had the right, but Naruto...

"Aw, don't be jealous," Ino replied in a devious tone as she turned to face Naruto again, and reached around him to give his butt a good squeeze.




"What's going on here?" demanded a male voice from the other side of the wall. Sasuke flushed a little and looked away, pretending that he hadn't been bristling at Ino.

"Nothing, Dad!" "Nothing, Yamanaka-san!" the two girls chorused in an utterly unbelievable, innocent tone.

Ino abandoned Naruto to rush to the connecting door and shoo her father away before he could step inside the glasshouse. Naruto took the occasion to hurry around the rack and join Sakura and Sasuke, spooked.

"Sakura-chan, I'm not pure for you anymore..." he whimpered, hands held over his ass protectively.

Sasuke rolled his eyes at the theatrics.

Sakura managed a strangled chuckle before her stressed out expression slammed back into place. "Let me see -- that's a nice shirt, Naruto," she commented quickly as she turned him here and there, giving him the same treatment Sasuke had received. Naruto looked like he didn't know whether to protest, or to enjoy the way her hands flitted all over him.

"There. Done. Your hair... Well, at least Ino-pig can do that much," she muttered ungratefully.

"You didn't check my pants," Naruto commented mournfully, eyes gleaming with impish delight.

"Wh -- your pants are fine..." Sakura trailed off and eyed him worriedly as he turned around, checking for a tear or a smear of dirt.

"No, see, they're tainted by her touch -- here!"

Sasuke watched her stare at Naruto's ass for a few seconds before she understood. "You -- NARUTO!"

"Aw, come on!"

"Pinch him," Sasuke advised grumpily, and turned away from them to go to the connecting door. Ino had managed to chase her father off and was coming back; he put a hand on her shoulder and nudged her back out.

"But -- hey," she protested, confused.

He scowled briefly at her, then reminded himself that they were in her house and he had to be polite. At least a little bit. "...Ino, we need five minutes in private. Alright?"

She pouted, then glanced over at Naruto and Sakura, who were still squabbling, and shrugged. "Alright, alright. But--"

"And don't listen at the door, either," he ordered before closing the door under her nose.

After a moment of thought, he herded Naruto and Sakura to the other end of the greenhouse, just in case. Sakura was staring at him, confused. "Sasuke-kun?"

Sasuke glanced at Naruto, but the idiot was no help, blinking at him innocently, as if he didn't have a clue what it was about.

"Uh. Here." He pressed the little box into her hands, and then crossed his arms, turning his face away so that he didn't have to look at her directly.

Naruto was watching her surprise, and her delight, with an open expression of -- Sasuke didn't know. It was a smile, but a little... Sad? Melancholy? But ... glad, too. Sasuke clenched his jaws, cursing the soft-hearted idiot. Sakura was still staring rapturously at the contents of the box; she didn't notice.

She looked up, staring at him with adoring eyes; Naruto was watching the both of them and smiling, and Sasuke wasn't too sure why he wanted to describe it as "from afar" when the blond standing even closer to Sakura than he was.

"From both of us."


He tensed, watching her closely for disappointment, but all he could see was surprise as she turned to look at Naruto. The blond looked mildly panicked, and glared at Sasuke quickly.

"Is that -- really?"

"Well, uh, yeah. Is it -- d'you like it?" Naruto asked hesitantly.

"Oh -- yes!" she beamed at Naruto, then at him, her eyes suspiciously shiny. "It's so symbolic -- like the three of us. I love it."

"... It's not very fancy," Naruto muttered, though he was looking pleased in spite of himself.

Sasuke allowed himself a little smirk. "Diamonds would have cost a bit more than what we can afford at the moment," he commented casually. Naruto was half-right -- it was better if she assumed that it was from the two of them. And it was -- or it would have been if Naruto had asked him first. But he was going to pay the moron back if it was the last thing he did.

"Oh, it's alright!" she babbled, beaming. "Diamonds are too shiny and bulky anyway; I would have to leave it behind on missions for fear of snagging it on things or blinding our targets, or something."

"This one is still shiny," Sasuke retorted.

"Yes, but only because it's so new. Besides, I can put it on a chain -- it's perfect, really!"

She was holding it tight against her chest, as if afraid that Sasuke was going to take it back.

"... So you don't wanna put it on?" Naruto asked, pretending -- badly -- that he wasn't nervous.

"Oh! Of course, I was just -- um. It's really pretty," she whispered as she pulled it out of the box.

Personally, Sasuke thought that it was a little too plain for her -- but perhaps he could get her a fancy chain to compensate, later.

She looked at him, then at Naruto, and then grinned shyly, bowed her head, and slipped it on; the way she was doing it -- slow and deliberate -- it was like a ceremony. Heavy with meaning. "I would have asked one of you -- but we don't have the time to discuss who gets to do it," she commented with a high-pitched giggle. "And the logistics for the two of you to do it together... Okay, we should get going."

Sasuke wondered briefly if she knew what he and Naruto had argued about earlier; or if she had just guessed that Naruto was probably a lot more responsible for it than he was, and just didn't want a confirmation that might only hurt most parties involved.

Just a little gesture. It would make her happy. It would make Naruto happy. Having them happy would make him -- less annoyed.

Just a little gesture. He could do that. He reached out casually and slipped his fingers in her hand, resting them against her palm in a loose hold. The ring was still cold. "Yeah, let's go."

She looked so stunned that it hurt; he looked away, and only looked back up when Naruto snickered and gave him a 'aww, soo cute' grin. He sneered at the blond, tugged Sakura toward the exit. She tightened her hold, finally, following him -- for about two steps. Then she held him back, and he finally looked back at her, confused.

She was still grinning, embarrassed, but not enough to hide the glowing. "Sasuke-kun, wait..."

"... yeah?"

She hesitated, then her smile became amused. "You didn't think you were going to escape with your hair like that, did you? Come here, let me smooth it down..."

He'd look like he had a ponytail. "No way."


"No. Way. Give me that." He snatched the hair gel from Naruto's hand -- open already; he didn't have to let go of her -- and quickly combed a few dollops through his locks, flattening rebellious spikes. There, that should be enough. Then he put the pot down on a rack, snagged Naruto's arm and pulled them both toward the exit. Stupid idiots had nothing better to do than watch him with those stupid eyes as he combed his stupid hair -- he would have felt less naked if he had actually been naked. What was next, watching him floss his teeth? No, seriously.

"Come on, let's go. How long do we have left?"

"We -- oh no! Two minutes! We'll never get here on time!" Naruto yelped, panicked.

Sakura winced, and then smiled and cutely stuck out her tongue. "Ah -- I lied about the time to make sure we'd have a margin. There's about fifteen minutes left."


Even with Ino stopping them to shove a bouquet of flowers in Naruto's arms, "For Sakura's mom", they arrived with five minutes to spare; a few of them were wasted with Sakura lecturing and fussing a little more at him and Naruto.

Sasuke would have been fine without the lecture, but Naruto had to be a nervous, bouncing ball of nerves, and that meant Sasuke got in trouble for hitting him over the head and "messing up his hair". Naruto's hair was about as safe from that as Sasuke's; he privately thought that even with the hair gel, they only looked like slightly more solid, shiny versions of their everyday looks. But if Sakura wanted to believe that made them more presentable... bah.

Of course the door opened when she was in the middle of a tirade with both hands tugging Sasuke's hair while Naruto snickered behind them.

"Hahaha -- um."


"Good evening, Haruno-san."

At first, Sasuke thought that the man at the door was Sakura's grandfather. Silvery white hair, thick glasses, leaning heavily on a walking stick...

"Daddy!" Sakura exclaimed as she pecked him quickly on the cheek.


"Hey, ol--"

Sasuke stepped on Naruto's foot before he could say anything intelligible, and bowed politely. "Good evening, Haruno-san."

"Uh -- good evening, sir," Naruto chorused quickly. Sasuke wondered how long he was going to remember to use "sir" and not "old man".

"Uchiha-san, Uzumaki-san." Sakura's father nodded a greeting at them both, and stepped away from the door to let them walk in.

Following Sakura's lead, they took off their shoes and stashed them in a corner before putting on slippers, and then stood in awkward silence for a few seconds. Naruto was fidgeting with the flowers, as if unsure what to do with them. Sasuke hoped that the manners Sakura had crammed into his head over the last week included what to do with flowers. If he gave them to her father...

"Where's mom?" Sakura asked, apparently following the same line of thought.

"In the kitchen. You should go call her, Sakura. Young men, if you will follow me..."

He turned away, and with a quick look at each other, they separated; Sakura disappeared through a side-door as the boys followed her father. Sasuke elbowed Naruto, who was looking around openly. No manners, seriously.

It was a nice house, all things considered. A little small, and with lots of highly polished furniture, which made navigating a bit of an obstacles course. The living room had knickknacks here and there, a few paintings, and many, many pictures of Sakura's family. Sasuke watched the man as he sat down cautiously, and moved to take a seat when he gestured toward the couch. Naruto didn't notice; he was busy peering at stuff.

"Hey, is that Sakura-chan?" he asked suddenly, grinning widely.

Sasuke's eyelid twitched. He was so nosy --

"Look, Sasuke. She looks so squishy. Is that a bunny jumper?"

Sasuke tensed, but to his immense relief, the old man chose to smile indulgently. "Yes, that's Sakura at two."

"Hah! Knew it. I'd recognize that hair anywhere." Naruto flashed another grin at Haruno-san, and then turned to look at the picture again, where a pink-haired toddler sprawled on her belly, playing with her toys. "She was so cute."

"Naruto!" Sakura gasped, mortified, as she stopped in the doorway.

"What? you were cute as a kid!"

Sakura gave Naruto a dark glare, and then looked at her father, who was sitting calmly in his armchair, both hands on his cane. "Dad, why did you leave my baby pictures out?"

Finally, Sasuke decided, Haruno-san was far, far from being as stern and unbending as he seemed at first glance, if one judged by his casual, innocent, "Hm?"

"Oh, honestly..." she grumped, hands on her hips.

Sasuke got up quickly, bowing in greeting to the woman -- forty-something, green eyes, graying blood-red hair -- who was standing behind Sakura.

"Hello, Haruno-san," he added, more for Naruto's benefit than his own. The blond turned around quickly, giving the woman a sheepish grin and an awkward bow modeled after Sasuke's. If one judged by her wary, unimpressed look, Naruto wasn't going to win her over that easily.

Her back to her mother, Sakura flashed a hand signal at Naruto, who blinked in confusion before connecting it with the situation. "Ah -- these are for you."

The woman stared at him, and then down at the flowers, as if she expected to see a muddy clump of insect-ridden wildflowers instead of the very professionally made bouquet. "... Sakura, go and fetch a vase, please."

Well, at least she ended up taking them, Sasuke thought with some desperation. And Sakura's father was looking quite amused.

"Dinner will be a few minutes," the woman added with some reluctance, giving Sasuke a long measuring look, too.

... She didn't look much happier with him than she did with Naruto. Damn it. From what Sakura said -- and didn't say -- he'd thought that she would approve of him a little more. Maybe she was just cranky.

Sakura came back, putting the vase on the table, and spent some time helping her mother to arrange it. Naruto drifted to the couch and sat down at Sasuke's side, looking uncomfortable once again.

"You were looking at these, I believe, Uzumaki-san?" the white-haired man asked softly, reaching to pick up a frame filled with family pictures.

"Oh, yeah!" Naruto leaned forward, glancing back at Sasuke. "Come on, take a look, it's kinda funny."

Sighing quietly, Sasuke obligingly leaned forward to look, too. There were a few baby pictures -- a picture of a three-year old Sakura with another tiny redhead who was probably family, a five-year old Sakura with a very serious frown as she read a book, and then a few more pictures of her receiving school awards, and a couple of shots from the ceremony of acceptance into the ninja academy.

He thought he saw himself in the background of one of them -- he'd been so happy to see that his father had actually decided to attend that he had been fighting a grin from the start of the ceremony to the end; maybe that was why Sakura hadn't recognized him. He didn't call attention to it.

"Wow, all those books."

"Yes, our daughter has always been smart," Sakura's mother interjected. "She learned to read at five, and she always was top of her class. If she had chosen a civilian school, she would probably be well on her way to a doctorate."

This, Sasuke thought, meant "my baby's way too smart for you", and was only confirmed when she asked, "where do you think you would be now, if you weren't ninjas?"

Naruto shrugged, apparently not even noticing her tone. "Eh, I don't know. Cooking ramen, maybe?" he suggested with a grin.

Sakura groaned, and then chuckled politely to cover it. "You and your ramen. Bah, this shouldn't surprise me; it would fit you well actually. And you, Sasuke-kun?"

"I never planned on being anything but a ninja."

"Hey, no fair," Naruto protested. "I never planned on that, either. If I have to think about it, you do, too."

"Fine," Sasuke grumbled. "A policeman, maybe."

"Bleh. All the Konoha cops go through the ninja academy first. You cheat."

Sakura giggled. "It's hard to imagine Sasuke-kun as anything else."

"You have never given any thought to whatever else you could have done with your life?" her mother asked them both, frowning sternly.

Naruto shrugged. "Uh. Not really, no. It's always been my dream. And Sasuke -- would they have let you become anything else?"

Sasuke's eyes narrowed. Why would he have wanted to go against the clan tradition when he was so well-suited to it and liked it so much? "I could have become a scholar, if I had been so inclined. I wasn't."

"So there is no life beyond being a ninja for either of you," the woman commented, frowning more heavily. Sakura cringed.


"Sakura, you didn't even know what their fall-back plans were? You, of all people, should know better--"

"Hana," the father interrupted her softly. "Hana, they are seventeen."

"You were seventeen!"

"And I still spent a few months looking for my way. And eventually found it. I am sure they would prove just as adaptable, if the need arose."

Naruto was busy staring at his feet. Sasuke knew this because it was more interesting to watch the blond from the corner of his eye than look straight at either of Sakura's parents; he didn't want to be forced to acknowledge the tension openly.

"...What's that smell?" Sakura commented, and moved to get up. Her mother waved her down, and hurried back to the kitchen without a word. Sakura sat back again with a quiet sigh, and when Sasuke looked up at her, she gave him one of the most unconvincing smiles he'd ever had aimed at him.

"... Hope the dinner doesn't burn," Naruto mumbled, and scratched his neck, grinning guiltily.

"My wife would never allow a dinner to burn," the man reassured him gently. "I must apologize. She worries."

"There's no need," Sasuke replied formally. "It is only natural for a parent to be concerned."

The man nodded in acknowledgement. "Indeed. And I wouldn't want to force either of you to think about unsavory possibilities, but it is better to be prepared. The life of a ninja is a dangerous one; as my wife has always been a civilian, she has trouble accepting how totally one could invest themselves into it."

Sasuke and Naruto nodded.

"You're not a civilian, ol -- sir?"

Sakura discreetly threatened Naruto with her fist for almost using "old man" again.

"Now I am," he replied easily, "but I went through the academy when I was younger."

Naruto grinned, presumably happy at finding common ground. "Oh, really? Were you strong?"

Haruno-san gave Naruto a dry, amused look. "I made Genin at fifteen. My crowning glory was getting flattened by a ten-year-old -- who, granted, would become the Fourth Hokage -- in under thirty seconds during my third attempt at Chuunin. A few months later, I lost the use of my leg and quit."


Sasuke had better sense than to voice his reaction, however similar it was to Naruto's. That was... really mediocre. Even Naruto had graduated at twelve. Though -- he had expected something like that. High-level ninjas were usually from clans -- and they also rarely lived past thirty-five, unless they retired first.

At least the man didn't look insulted. "I met Hana during my rehabilitation. This is why she worries so much about this issue. However ill-suited I was for it, being a ninja was my dream as a teenager. Finding another way to make a living was... rather problematic at first. She doesn't want something like that to happen to any of you," he added diplomatically.

Sasuke privately thought that it was unlikely that the three of them would just happen to get incapacitated at the same time. Moreover, it was a lot safer financially to have two working adults and an unemployed one, than a couple where only one of the two was able to bring food to the table. Besides, Sakura's father sucked at being a ninja. They didn't.

"You're right, we gotta think of stuff like that," Naruto replied, frowning very seriously. It was a rather comical effect, really. Sasuke snorted softly. Naruto stuck his tongue out at him. "You're just jealous 'cause I'd be a better civilian than you."

Sasuke only stopped himself from snarking back that it was nothing to be proud of because Sakura's mother chose this moment to walk in and announce that dinner was ready.

The seating arrangement was... Hmm. Each parent at one end, with Sakura on one side, and Naruto and himself safely away on the other side. Maybe the Harunos were afraid the young men would grope Sakura under the table or something.

As if the table was too wide to prevent playing footsie, if they had been so inclined.

They exchanged some small talk during the entree. Weather, food. Sakura's mother seemed to relax a little, even unbending so far as to reply civilly to Naruto a couple of times, and her father didn't make Sasuke feel as if every little twitch was taken in and analyzed.

Then the conversation somehow shifted onto the flowers Naruto had brought -- he didn't mention that they had been Ino's sole responsibility, but admitting that he didn't have a clue how to choose them without help made the Harunos chuckle softly; private joke? The mood was getting better at least -- and then onto the Yamanakas. A nice family, yes, and more grounded in the civilian life than many, and, oh, would Sakura still be found there if her parents happened to be in the neighborhood?

Well. At least she could have asked that more bluntly. Sasuke decided that she probably didn't want things to get ugly -- yet -- or else she would have asked point-blank if they would be shacking up soon.

"Yes, mom, I'm still there. And going to be there a while, I think. We don't have the kind of income needed to get our own place yet."

"Hmm. Where do you young men live?" her father asked, turning to look at Naruto and him.

Sasuke shrugged. "We're sharing my apartment for now. It isn't a place to raise a child, though; it's only a small bachelor pad."

Hana closed her eyes briefly; her husband gazed down at the table, expressionless. Sasuke wondered what he had said, and then realized that none of them had even mentioned the word "child" or "baby" before; the whole reason why they were entering this weird relationship in the first place.

"Yeah, it's so tiny, there isn't even place for a second futon! I have to sleep on his couch and it really bl--OW." Naruto paled briefly at Sakura's murderous glare, and then grinned sheepishly. "I mean, it's really not comfortable."

"But have you started looking around, at least, to get an idea of the prices?"

"Um, not really, Mom. We've been kind of busy..."

Hana stared at her daughter. "What do you mean you've been busy? Isn't it important enough?"

"We had more urgent things to worry about," Sasuke intervened in a tone that implied the things in question were classified. "There's still time."

Hana didn't take the hint, or if she did, it only aggravated her. "More urgent! Like what? You haven't left Konoha once last month. What could be more important than having a good roof over your heads?"

Naruto blinked, bewildered. "It's not as if Sasuke's roof is leaking--"

Sasuke and Sakura kicked him at the same time, and only narrowly missed each other.

"It is good," her father commented mildly, "that you aren't demanding. But you will have to raise your standards. Children, especially young children, deserve the best their parents can get them, not merely the least they want to bother with."

Naruto stammered, "Ah -- it wasn't -- I didn't mean..."

"He is right. The baby needs the best you can possibly give. So what, exactly, could be more urgent?"

Sasuke glanced at Naruto quickly, and wondered if he, too, had understood that Sakura still hadn't told her parents exactly how dangerous the pregnancy was. But with the bewildered way he was looking between Sakura and her mother...

"The Chuunin exam," Sasuke interrupted coolly.

"You are planning on taking it?" Hana asked, bewildered.

"Yes, of course. If we don't, we'll have to wait until the baby is at least a few years old."

"But it's dangerous!" she protested.

"We got through it safely last time," Naruto intervened. "And we're loads better this time around."

Hana gave him a look that said he was missing the point by about ten miles. "But she's pregnant."

Naruto blinked. "It's only three months away -- she won't be that fat just yet, right?"

Sakura groaned. "Call me fat again and you'll end up wearing your food."

"It's not like it's a bad fat -- ick."

"Stop. Talking. Now."

Sasuke would have rolled his eyes, but he was caught by surprise by her mother's expression. Half "ah, stupid boys" annoyance, a familiar sight on her daughter's face, and half... reluctant amusement? Was she defrosting at last?

"It's still not very safe... Couldn't you wait until afterwards?"

"Mom, we already talked about this... I'll take months to get back into shape, we'll waste even longer."

"Waste -- is this a race?" Hana frowned, sternly.

"Well, all our friends are already Chuunin and all," Naruto replied, grimacing.

Sasuke frowned. The reminder grated. Still Genin at seventeen, that was pitiful.

"It doesn't mean we suck as ninjas -- they still give us C and B rank missions, they just pay us on the Genin scale -- but there was never a good time to pass the exam. Everyone was 'oh, maybe next year' and everything. It wasn't so bad because, yeah, we weren't going anywhere and we didn't need the money so bad; there was no reason to insist, but now that we're -- I mean, with the baby..." Naruto stole a glance at Sakura, who nodded encouragingly. "Being Chuunin means that we get paid more for the same stuff. And we're gonna need the money, just like you said, old man. Not next year, when Sasuke's stash will be empty from paying for the marriage and Sakura will be all tired and getting back into shape and the baby will be there already, but now, soon. So that's why," he finished, nodding determinedly, "we gotta make Chuunin."

Sasuke observed the Harunos as they exchanged long, thoughtful looks. Sakura was watching Naruto with faint surprise; and when the blond glanced back at her, vaguely nervous, she smiled.

"Naruto-san?" her father said softly.

Sasuke blinked. He'd addressed them by their family names before.

"My name is Yukihiro, not 'old man'," he finished, face crinkling as he smiled at the blond.

Naruto stared at him for a few seconds, confused, and then slowly started grinning. "All right, sorry... Yukihiro-san?"

Sakura's mother huffed, but didn't comment. Naruto was beaming as if -- Sasuke looked away.

As if he'd been given... things that Sasuke didn't want to think about -- love and acceptance, things that shouldn't have been so novel to him; if Sasuke thought about it too much it would make him -- angry, yes, and he had his own share of problems to rage at.

As if he'd been given all that and didn't care who knew. How could he let his happiness spill on his face like that? He was leaving himself wide open; it would be so easy to hurt him with a few words, and what was worse, that hurt would show, too. How could he stand to leave his feelings unprotected?

Frowning, Sasuke gave Sakura's mother a look, ready to alienate her forever by giving her the death-glare from hell if she even looked like she was considering taking a jab -- and found her picking at her plate, trying to hide a mildly conscience-stricken look.

... Well, he thought. Well. So maybe she wasn't entirely evil. It left him rather at a loss, though; he couldn't heal, but he could protect... but it seemed that Naruto and his wide-open heart didn't need his protection. And if he didn't have anything else to think about, he was going to start mulling over the reason why such a simple thing could affect the idiot so much, and he really, really didn't want to.

"Are you done, Uchiha-san?" Hana asked briskly, startling him. "Sakura? Everyone? I'll bring the next course."

She disappeared in the kitchen. More small talk ensued; Sasuke participated here and there as they ate, though he would have been at a loss to repeat exactly what he said later on.

They were almost done with dessert when Hana asked, politely, about Sakura's ring. Sasuke stiffened; it sounded like a loaded question. At least Sakura seemed delighted to show it off...

"And who...?" Hana asked, trailing off when she apparently couldn't find a polite way to ask.


"It was from both of us," Sasuke replied quietly.

"But I thought you were the one marrying her? That's a done decision, right?"

"I am."

"So if you are the one marrying her, why weren't you the one buying her this ring?"

'Because I forgot.' Yeah, that would go well.

"She can't get engaged to both of you."

"That's exactly why," he replied; still making sure to keep his voice quiet, because he knew that otherwise it would sound haughty. It was almost painful how she just didn't get it.

Sakura closed her eyes briefly. Naruto's hand was clenched on his lap.

"Legally, it isn't possible to marry two people, however much one might want to. We had to choose, rationally, which one of us would be best received as a husband."

But in the end, he thought, so hard that he wasn't sure how they didn't hear, in the end it was just a piece of paper. The noble and ancient institution of marriage -- it didn't mean anything to him. What Sakura meant to him -- that wouldn't change because she would gain a new society-approved title. And what Naruto meant to him... there would never be enough words for it, and maybe that was fine. It was special; it was his own. He didn't want to fit them into a mold; compress some parts, cut off some others that had the misfortune of sticking out. He liked it the way it was, the three of them hopelessly tangled together in ways that totally defied common conventions.

"But you still plan on allowing... On -- afterwards..." She paused, waving at Naruto, visibly searching for words. Sakura was tense, eyes still closed in weariness; Sasuke wondered how many times they'd had this argument in private already.

It wasn't cheating if they were all in the same bed, he thought, and fought to find a way to formulate it diplomatically. In the end, "yes" was all he could reply. She looked at him as if he'd just admitted to planning weekly orgies with whichever neighbors felt like dropping in, and got up, starting to gather the dishes. Her expression shuttered, she disappeared, once again, into the kitchen.

Naruto and Sakura were hanging their heads like a pair of kicked puppies, and her husband's face was empty of expression again.

Sasuke got up too, bowing quickly at Yukihiro before following her.


He clenched his fists briefly as he stared at her tense shoulders; he wasn't sure what to say, he just knew that he had to say something to salvage the situation.

"We both ... have... strong feelings for her," he murmured, violently uncomfortable.

He hadn't even told them that to their faces; he didn't want to say anything to this woman. But -- if it shut her up. Maybe it would be worth it. Maybe. He couldn't care less about her feelings; but he couldn't stand the thought of making Sakura choose between her parents and her team. If his own mother -- stop. Stop. Don't think about that.

"But you'll get jealous," she whispered, frustrated, and too caught up in her own internal monologue to notice Sasuke's own distraction. "You'll get jealous and kick him out eventually -- he'll cause arguments between you and Sakura, it isn't possible to share someone you love like this..."


She stared at him as if he was speaking an alien language.

"Naruto... There was a point in my life where I could have... thrown it all away."

He felt sick; he didn't want to share that, didn't -- it was safe when it was locked away, out of his mind where he didn't have to deal with it anymore.

"My -- friends -- my team. The village. I could have -- you know about that. And he brought me back." He repeated, softly, "He brought me back. So I won't -- I will not be jealous of him. The idea is preposterous."

"You love him," she replied softly, peering at him, visibly confused.

Startled, he could only shrug, and only force of habit kept him from spluttering angrily; even under torture, he wouldn't answer that.

"... Like -- like you love Sakura?"

"No," he replied with a snort, "not at all."

She stared at him a while longer, and then relaxed. Sasuke hid away all traces of emotion; if she wanted to be relieved by her assumption that his feelings for Naruto were born out of pure, platonic gratitude, he wasn't going to say anything.

He stood in silence for a few seconds longer, and then, nodding a salute, he returned to the dining room. Three pairs of eyes stared up at him. Uncomfortable, he rolled his eyes briefly, and -- of course -- targeted Naruto. He was the most blatant anyway. "Do I have something on my face?"

Naruto glared at him, but before he could retort something loud and probably unfit for polite company -- not a wise move on Sasuke's part, to provoke him -- Sakura intervened. "Um, Sasuke-kun... did..."

"Everything's alright," he replied with a sigh, and sat down again, trying to ignore his teammates' curious looks.

Yukihiro chuckled. "So you are secretly a diplomat, I see."

Sasuke couldn't help it; he stared at the man incredulously. Half a second later, Sakura and Naruto choked on a burst of laughter. Sakura politely pretended to have been coughing, but Naruto had to press both hands to his mouth to stifle his laugher. Yukihiro had adopted a ponderous, benevolent expression that didn't entirely hide the mirth in his eyes.

"Oh yeah," Naruto snickered. "He's like... a special diplomat. An Interrogation Squad diplomat."

"Naruto, shut it before I make you."

Naruto rolled his eyes, but sobered up, lowering his voice as he glanced toward the door worriedly. "No, seriously, are you sure --"

"Yes. But maybe you'd like to go and make sure?" Sasuke growled, challenging the blond with a harsh glare.

"Does either of you young men drink tea?" Hana inquired briskly from the door. "Coffee?"

Naruto grinned guiltily. "Ah -- either is fine... Though--"

"Tea," Sakura intervened, giving Naruto a quick glare before he could ask for coffee, and then glanced quickly at Sasuke. "They'll both have tea."

Sasuke frowned -- he didn't want to drink anything -- but let it slide. He had a feeling anything he said at the moment would be too aggressive, and it wasn't the time or place to rip into either of his teammates. Crossing his arms, he attempted to smooth his expression. They wouldn't be expected to stay long after dinner; it was late after all. Then he'd go and lock himself in his bedroom, and if Naruto made noise he would kick him out and beat him up in the building's courtyard. They were about due for another row.

"Sakura, why don't you go and help your mother with tea?" Yukihiro suggested softly.

Sasuke tensed, looking up sharply.


"Sakura, please."

Naruto glanced at Sasuke quickly. Sasuke shrugged minutely; nothing they could do. The blond grinned at Sakura in reassurance that they would survive. She sighed, giving them a quick, worried look before departing. She probably had the same thought as them; "divide and conquer." It would be easier to sound them for cracks if they weren't covering for each other... argh. It wasn't a mission, and Sakura's father wasn't Intelligence, damn it; he was barely a Genin.

"Sir?" Sasuke asked, going on the offensive.

Yukihiro huffed and leaned back in his chair. "I have no real say; Sakura is of legal age to make her own decisions. Ultimately, my opinion on your arrangement isn't all that important either. But..." He placed his elbows on the table, lacing his fingers together. "There are still worries I would like to lay to rest, if you don't mind."

Sasuke considered him for a few seconds in silence, wondering why the man hadn't become a negotiator.

"Uh, sure, shoot. Wait, no! Don't shoot."

Yukihiro chuckled softly. "Don't worry. I wouldn't want to splash blood on the carpet."

Naruto gulped. Somehow that had failed to reassure him; not that it reassured Sasuke. Well, damn, the old washout wouldn't have been half-bad at Interrogation himself.

The man turned to face Naruto, expression suddenly turning grimmer. "You do realize the stress and danger Sakura, and presumably the child, will face by being with you, don't you?"

Sasuke's hand clenched spasmodically on his thigh; but he didn't have any kunai with him. At his side, Naruto had gone frozen, staring at Sakura's father in shocked betrayal. Slowly, Naruto's hand rose, hovering over his stomach.

"Because of the Kyuubi?"


"You think he's gonna burst out and eat them," Naruto replied, quietly. "I thought... No, nothing."

Sasuke suddenly wanted to kill the man a lot more than he'd ever wished to kill his wife.

"I find myself liking you, Naruto-san... And the Yondaime was a great man, a genius. Both Sandaime and Godaime trusted his handiwork. Who am I to doubt them?"

Naruto's head jerked up; Yukihiro looked pained.

"Fair or not, though, you are still an outcast in most circles. And if you live with Sakura, you will drag her down with you. How do you plan on taking care of that?"

Sasuke bristled. How dare he put it all on Naruto's shoulders -- Naruto goddamnit don't look like that -- don't...

"...They don't have to know," the blond finally replied with a smile that Sasuke wanted to punch off his face, never to see again. "I'd be all right with just passing as a roommate."

"You would hide it, then?"

Sasuke's blunt nails were leaving gouges into his palms. But he wasn't welcome to take part in the discussion.

Naruto scowled briefly, hands clenched in his lap. "No! I just... wouldn't mention it. Unless people ask for it and I think they have a right to know."

"People will gossip."

Naruto gave the man a stubborn glare. "The gossips can go hang for all I care."

Sasuke wondered when exactly his hand had landed on Naruto's wrist. He was probably leaving bruises by now. But the blond wasn't protesting.

"I'm not gonna be ashamed," Naruto added, glowering fiercely. "If it was just me I wouldn't care who knew. But... it's not just me, so I'll keep it quiet. People are always watching what Sasuke's doing, and Sakura-chan isn't used to being stared at like that -- like they watch him, and like they watch me... And then there's the baby... But I'm not gonna sneak in and out in the night either. I'm not."

"You better not," Sasuke managed to growl past the lump in his throat.

Yukihiro watched them in silence, then sighed and leaned back in his chair. "Well, at least you are a lot more aware of the issue than I thought you would be. And no doubt Sakura will grow more resilient with time. This does mean no public displays of affection, though..."

"Oh, come on," Sasuke snapped, at the end of his rope. "We're ninjas. If people want to spy on us looking for little signs, they'll find them. They'll probably find them more between them than with me."

"... and why is that? I thought you three were equally..."

"Because I hate being pawed at." He tossed his head impatiently, and pushed back a lock of hair that had been tickling his cheek for the past half-hour; damn Sakura's hair gel. "So they'll gossip. So what? I agree with Naruto; they can go hang, I don't give a damn. And if the baby has blond hair, it will be more than a few speculative whispers behind our backs. So? We'll deal."

"You two might be used to it," the man replied somberly, making Naruto wince guiltily.

Sasuke scoffed at them both. "You all treat Sakura as if she's made of china. She's sturdier than that; and if she was less sheltered, she might even notice. She'll mope a bit, and then she'll decide that the gossip-mongers are a bunch of brainless twits and get over it."

Yukihiro frowned faintly. "...Is that really what you think?"

Sasuke's eye twitched, but he worked on getting it under control. He shrugged, pushing the lock of hair away again. He didn't want to snap at the old man; he'd already been too blunt.

"She doesn't trust in herself; so long as we're taking front, she stands back, and lets us deal with the heavy violence. But when push comes to shove, I haven'tseen her run away yet. She won't run from that either."

Naruto stared at him, and then grinned widely. "Hee. I'm so telling her that you said that."

Sasuke didn't have the time to threaten Naruto with violence to make sure he kept quiet.

"Well, if you are sure that you can deal with this little matter appropriately, there are a few others, Uchiha-san. None of the other clans will object, or feel slighted?"

Sasuke was thrown off-track by the realization that the man was actually aware of clan politics. "...It's not like any of them can push for an alliance via arranged marriage. I can't marry anyone from a clan without endangering my bloodline."

"Mmh. I also assume that you do not wish to leave the village any longer."

That, Sasuke noted distractedly through the faint buzzing in his ears, was probably revenge for the accusation of coddling Sakura earlier. He swiftly dodged the hand that Naruto was lifting to rest on his shoulder, and realized belatedly that things were too clear and flowed together too neatly; he had slipped into the Sharingan.


He closed his eyes briefly, shoving his feelings down, deep down below where they couldn't touch him, and reopened his eyes. Black. Better.

"I am not," he hissed, "going to abandon my family. Ever."

Naruto looked like he was about to try a desperate tackle to save Yukihiro's life. Sasuke had better control than that.

"Not even if the child is blond?"

... Sasuke had better control than that. He did. He really did. He closed his eyes again, though; just in case.


Naruto snickered weakly. "Hey, you never know, he or she could be a nine-headed redhead with the hand-wings things you got from the cursed seal."

Sasuke glared at him, and had the satisfaction of seeing him wilt. "This isn't funny."

"Ah, lighten up, okay?"

If they had been alone, it would have been his cue for a "No, not okay" and a punch in the face. Sasuke glared at Naruto, silently promising to save it for later.

"You have no sense of humor."

"Not about my family, no," he growled back.

Sasuke stared hard at Naruto for a moment longer, until the idiot stopped muttering, and then turned to face Yukihiro. "Do you have any more... concerns?" If he had any, he could stuff them up his ass.

Yukihiro was still cutting him open with his eyes, still calm and poised and neutral enough to make Sasuke snarl. "Mmh. You seem to have decided to do your best as a husband and father. I wish you and your clan the best, Uchiha-sama."

The man even added a deliberate respectful nod.

Sasuke was suddenly past caring, though.

He was going to have a clan again.

He was going to have a clan again, and he had nowhere to house it, nothing to feed it with, and he was still too weak to protect it.

And Itachi was still out here.

Itachi was still out here, and if he didn't know yet about the child, he probably would soon.

... and then what? What would happen? What could Sasuke do? He'd grown stronger, yes; but so had his brother, more than probably. And Sasuke was still locked inside Konoha until further notice -- until they trusted him again.

He needed more fights, more experience -- badly. He needed more money -- the pay scale of a Genin wouldn't work anymore. He needed to corner Kakashi and force more techniques out of him. Kakashi and -- who else would teach him? Orochimaru was dead, and most other Jounin...

"Sasuke? Here's your tea," Sakura offered quietly. She didn't meet his eyes; he wondered what his expression looked like -- how long she and her mother had been listening in. The woman was serving Naruto, neutral -- but when Naruto offered a little smile and his thanks, Sasuke caught Hana's lips quirking up weakly in response.

He hadn't even heard them come back.

But Itachi...

No. Not now. Now was the time to listen to more small talk, and even -- sort of, cautiously -- to participate. A little. Now was the time to hum and nod, leaning over pictures of another family.

Now was not the time to think about his brother, leaning over a crib.


He walked alongside his teammates for two blocks, and then let them continue on. He said he didn't want to be groped by Ino again; they heard, "I want to be alone," and let him go.

He ignored the worry in their eyes. He couldn't take it now; he had a mission.

The solution was so evident now; and if he hadn't been trying to pretend that it didn't exist...

Well. One problem. One. But that was alright. One thing at a time.

One thing. Meaning, not the dinner. The dinner had gone fine.

... It had gone, at least. It had been... edible. Sakura's mother cooked well.

"How do you plan on supporting your family?"

She could have been in a better mood, though it hadn't ended too badly. Sakura's father --

Sasuke slipped into the shadows and put on a burst of speed. Faster than the eye could see -- he probably didn't have a tail, but you never knew.

Sakura's father had been polite, formal -- visibly trying to accept, for Sakura's sake, her desire to live with two men. Even if he didn't get it.

Her mother quite visibly resented Naruto for existing, and Sasuke for allowing Naruto to push himself into what would have been a perfect match and turning it into something her daughter was going to be scorned about -- something dirty, perverted.

Sakura might want Sasuke, but she would never be happy if she caught him for herself; he didn't have it in him to make anyone happy. No one understood how much they needed Naruto to be there, how essential he was; how without him Sasuke would just make Sakura miserable, and Sakura would just take it and keep hoping for something he couldn't give.

"Where are you planning on living?"

Together. They planned on living together; that was the most important thing. "Where" didn't matter so much.

Besides, Naruto was right; soon they'd be Chuunins. More money, better places.

"What if you don't all make Chuunin?"

They'd make do; they'd try again next time. It wouldn't be forever.

It hadn't convinced Yukihiro any more than it convinced Sasuke. The man hadn't needed to say anything for Sasuke to hear; "this is not good enough."

Sasuke vaulted over a fence, leaped to the closest tree -- ran up the trunk, kicking off when gravity started calling him back; landed in a crouch on moonlit tiles, and looked down at the wall sprawling along the next avenue.

On the surface, the dinner had gone ... not alright, but okay -- no huge, irreconcilable arguments, no yelled insults, no "It's them or us!" Even with Sakura being nervous and doing her best -- too much -- to smooth everything out, Naruto being way too friendly and grinning too often -- also nervous -- and Sasuke himself falling back on perfect manners that made it look, if he read Sakura's mother right, like he was looking down on them as being too low-class.

...Okay, so it had been something of a low-scale, stealth disaster.

That was in the past now. The present...

He dropped down the side of the house, walked down to the gate, reached up to tear off the yellow police tape. And walked inside, letting it flutter to the ground behind him.

The worst part was that nothing had changed at all. Everything was exactly as it had been that night -- except from the blinding absence of the corpses and the puddles of blood, but he could remember them so well that it didn't make much of a difference.

There was more dust, true, and grass was poking through the pavement, but ... But. No one had closed this half-open door, no one had righted that overturned display -- not even him, the one who could have. Should have.


But -- later. Not right now. Right now, he couldn't. If he allowed himself to get sidetracked now, he would never reach his goal.

The sound of his steps rang between the houses. He refused to hurry up; hearing the echo of his run down these empty streets was asking for a flashback.

He pushed away the aching familiarity, tried to see the district as critically as possible. Left without upkeep for so many years, the houses were in a sad state. He could see cracked plaster, broken windows, doors stuck in place as the wood swelled with humidity. But the basic construction was generally sound, and most of the buildings would only need a bit of work to be livable again.

There were more and more people moving into Konoha these days, attracted by the growing success and influence of the Village; if he looked around, maybe he could find people who wouldn't care about what had happened there ten years ago. And if he had regular tenants -- say, four, five families at least -- for houses of such quality, his children would never need to worry about going hungry.

Maybe the echo of new voices would banish the memories. Maybe with other vendors calling to passersby and other grandmas chattering in the square and other children playing in the streets ...

Maybe his own children...

He stopped in his tracks, looking up at the wall marked with his clan's fan -- with the kunai mark still right in the middle -- then turned and stared at the door of his home long and hard before his hand rose to push it open.

His children would play in this street, and run through this door -- dragging toys behind them as they walked out, swinging school bags around as they came back -- his children would...

His children would...

... he couldn't. He couldn't see them here. He could only see the door his father had held open for him when he'd been too small to do it on his own, and the kitchen window through which his mother had waved to him everyday, and the hall -- where he'd greeted his big brother -- the gallery where he'd stubbed his toes so many times -- the sliding doors that made that neat noise when snapping closed, and open, and closed, snap! woosh-snap! Sasuke! Will you stop that? And his father's office, forbidden, fascinating territory -- the corridor that led to his bedroom, and the other door -- his little hand raised to knock softly -- 'tachi, there's something in my closet ...

He couldn't. He couldn't. He could see nothing but his past in here. Nothing but his pain. As hard as he tried, he couldn't see Naruto napping, sprawled against the ancient, gnarled tree by the little pond, or Sakura walking barefoot under the shade of the galleries. He couldn't see any children but himself -- him and Itachi -- and he'd thought he'd decided not to let his past hold him back anymore, but it wasn't as easy as that.

Tolerating the Uchiha district again was one thing, so long as he did all he could to make it look different -- paint the houses, plant bushes and trees, knock down a few walls maybe -- but no amount of redecorating would change this place, where he'd lived since birth, enough to separate it from his memories. No amount of varnish would hide the outlines of two bodies in the dojo, and the dark stains in the wood planks.

He had to -- his teammates-- his family -- they needed a place to live, a place big enough for all of them, and why make it so complicated when it was so simple? He owned the house already, they didn't have to spend any money, they just had to move in, that was the perfect solution -- but he couldn't.

He had to, and he couldn't. He wasn't even able to suck it up and stop feeling sorry for himself, not even for his future wife, not even for his lover, for their unborn child, for his new family. He was so fucking selfish, and even his disgust at his own weakness didn't change a thing. There was just no way he could, and that was it.

It was dark; it didn't matter. Slowly, so slowly, he stepped inside -- unable to stop the ingrained habit to pause and take off his sandals -- started walking down the hall -- to the kitchen, he made himself go to the kitchen, not to go to his parents' bedroom first; of course there was nothing of importance there, nothing he wanted to keep. The laundry room was the same -- he'd hidden behind that big porcelain sink, had poked at the drying sheets, puzzled by their heaviness; his mother had smiled, sometimes even laughed, clear and high and so pure -- the corridor was empty but for the paintings on the walls. No sentimental value to these; he took down a few scrolls with beautiful calligraphies and rolled them up, stuck them under his arm -- even water-stained, maybe they would be worth something -- he was stalling again, of course.

He didn't want anything from his bedroom, and nothing in the world would make him step inside his brother's. His father's study looked less imposing -- Sasuke had grown up; the magic was gone. The magic, and that man so serious, so stern, so reserved -- he opened the drawers quickly, efficiently, going through the room in the precise search pattern they'd been taught in class. There were no papers he wanted, except for medical info and the Uchiha clan register -- a long, heavy scroll with gold tassels that joined the paintings under his arm. Inadvertently, he knocked a picture frame face-down on the desk, and didn't bother righting it up. A scroll on advanced Katon jutsus found its way in his belt pouch. Then that was it.

The dojo -- no. No way in hell. Not even if piles of gold and riches were inside.

What else could he want? Clothes? No. Furniture? Hell no. Knickknacks? Unnecessary. Weapons? He had enough of his own, and his parents had never bothered to put money into bejeweled swords or intricate blades when a plain, simple kunai did the work. As for their Konoha headbands, they'd been buried with them.

With measured steps -- he wasn't going to run out -- he walked toward the exit, calmly stepped back into his sandals, walked out in the garden -- Sakura had said she wanted a pond, but this one was full of green stuff and stank with dead fish and mud -- crossed through the dried beds of flowers, and dumped his findings by the far wall.

Then he turned back to face the house -- home -- and didn't let his sight blur as he shaped the seals for the first major jutsu he had ever performed.

As the fire roared through the house, he could hear his father -- As expected, you are my son... -- and his home burned, and the gallery in which he'd sat by Itachi's side -- Of course I'm sure that Father loves you, little brother -- blackened, and the windows -- Welcome home, Sasuke-chan! So, what did you learn today? -- exploded, and the roof -- Hey, how goes, bratling? Is your brother in? -- caved in -- Sasuke-chan? Where are you? --and he could see nothing -- Surprise! So, who's a big boy today? -- but fire and smoke and destruction -- Hurry up, little brother, or I'll go without you -- as he blew more and more power into the blaze, and the smoke was harsh and he had to close his eyes and pour even more chakra into the jutsu -- it wasn't enough, he could still see -- he could still remember -- and the smoke stung so much, stung his eyes and scratched at his throat -- he couldn't breathe ...

And there were arms around him, strong arms, and a large, solid chest against his back, and he could breathe again, in big, gulping gasps, and soft hands slid behind his nape and pressed his face against a tender neck. He clung to her, hiding in her arms, knowing that the man at his back would keep on clinging to him.

They didn't try to talk, and for that he was grateful. He didn't want to explode or to break down for a misinterpreted word. He just wanted them there. He didn't want to have either of them remark on the way the smoke choked him and stung his eyes, because he knew that then it would cease to be smoke and become something infinitely more shameful. If he let go of even an inch more, he'd break, and he wasn't sure he would be able to put himself back together again. So he stayed there, sitting in Naruto's lap and Sakura straddling his own, not caring about the way he'd ended in that position, and he held onto them and they held onto him and finally, finally the past let go.

"Well," Naruto said -- and in his voice there was nothing but his normal good cheer, a hint of stifled laughter, "if you tell us where we can find some water here, Sakura can test her new Suiton jutsu."

Sasuke blinked against her skin, feeling his damp eyelashes brush her neck, making her shiver, and they both turned to look at Naruto quizzically. He was grinning, just a touch softer than he usually did -- the light of the fire made his hair look like it was burning -- and Sasuke was grateful that the blond was going to pretend things were okay; maybe Sakura would follow Naruto's lead. He didn't want to talk about his feelings, now or ever.

"Why?" she asked, her fingers still playing absently with the strands of hair at Sasuke's nape.

"To stop it before it spreads to the whole district, of course."

And Naruto was grinning so widely, and seemed to find it such a grand joke, that Sasuke almost forgot to jump on his feet and hurry off to put out the blaze.

By the time they'd gotten it under control, they were dirty with soot from head to toe, and frazzled. When the firemen noticed the smoke and came to investigate, the three of them were sitting in the garden, on the edge of a great charred pile, and laughing themselves breathless for no reason at all.

For the record, Sakura's Suiton jutsu was only slightly more efficient than throwing water with an old, empty flowerpot. But seeing as she'd gotten the water for it from the half-dried pond, maybe that wasn't so surprising.

The firemen let them help a bit, but only because there were also cops around to keep an eye on them; and the second they were sure the fire was under control, the trio was briskly herded down the streets. Sasuke didn't really care what the cops did, nor did he listen to what was said; Naruto's arm was around his shoulders and Sakura's around his waist, holding him up, and if that made him look like he was drunk, well, whatever.

The harsh, white ceiling lights of the police station were blinding after the dying fire's. Sasuke realized absently that he would have to buy Naruto another shirt; his nice one was covered in burnt holes. And Sakura had sooty lines smeared over her face.

And he also realized that the cops hadn't recognized him before, in the dark; now that they were inside the station, the angry muttering that he'd been tuning out shone by its absence.

"Well, I'll be... Sasuke-kun?"

He looked up, blinking dazedly at the grizzled old man peering at him.

"... You won't remember me, it's been too long, but -- ah. Come on, the three of you. No, no, Matsuda, it's alright, I'll handle it."

Sasuke followed where Naruto guided, and sat down when the blond dragged him down on a bench at his side. Sakura took place on his other side, perched at the edge of the bench. She looked nervous; it was hard to care about anything, but he still nudged her with his knee. Naruto was a solid presence at his side, which was good because he was listing a little.

"...Alcohol? Drugs?"

"No, sir, just, uh, stress..."

Sasuke opened his eyes, straightened up -- he'd almost blacked out, he couldn't let himself slip -- and met the cop's eyes.

"I'm sober. It was just... time for some spring cleaning."

The police officer looked horribly understanding; pitying, even, but by then Sasuke had rebuilt enough of his control to smother any emotional reaction that tried to arise past his exhaustion.

"... I see."

The cop didn't ask him anything else, questioning Sakura and Naruto instead. The two idiots didn't want to inculpate him, and kept mumbling and glancing at each other.

"They weren't there," he grumbled, stopping them. "They came later." Idiots really should know that he'd get more leeway than either of them, just on account of this guy having worked with his clan before the... Before.

He didn't really listen to the rest of the explanation; he just listened to their voices, eyes closed.

He ended up getting what amounted to a slap on the wrist. A slightly expensive slap on the wrist, but all the same, nothing like what it could have been. He would get a fine for arson and reckless endangerment -- though the charges were nothing like what he could have faced if the house had been anywhere but in the middle of an empty, walled-off district -- and that was it. He didn't much care, really.

They weren't done with all the legalities before dawn, and by then the three of them were so exhausted that they didn't even try walking home just yet. By wordless agreement, Naruto and Sakura found a bench in a street off the main avenue and sat him down; his head ended up on Sakura's shoulder. Naruto disappeared; Sasuke didn't know how long. Sakura's hand was in his hair again. So much for the hair gel; but he didn't protest.

When Naruto came back, he held pastries. Sasuke hadn't known it was that late. Or early. The pastries were warm. Sakura, too, warm and soft, and Naruto, warmer and harder. He wanted to push them away, to extract himself and get up and tell them that he was all right and they didn't need to coddle him. But they were still not saying anything, so he decided that he could wait five minutes. And five minutes longer. And maybe a little more.

Then there were steps running down the avenue, light and swift -- blonde ponytail trailing behind a girl -- he pushed himself off the bench just as Sakura gasped, "Ino!" By the time the other girl had heard and backtracked to their street, he was standing a few feet away with his arms crossed; and when she joined them he had his expression under control again.

Naruto was sitting on the edge of the bench, as if he was contemplating reaching out and grabbing him, but thankfully he didn't; Ino distracted him by coming to a stop in front of the bench, hands on her hips. Still panting lightly, she gave Sakura a reproachful look.

"Geez, forehead-girl, I was waiting up for you! You weren't at your parents' being a good girl; you weren't at Sasuke's getting laid; you weren't anywhere!"

Huffing, Ino plopped down on the bench in the spot Sasuke had vacated. Naruto winced as he scooted aside to give her some space; Ino stared at him with suddenly round eyes. "Oops... Did I interrupt necking time?"

Sasuke heard Sakura groan behind him; he was turned away, though, and didn't see her expression.

"We were just... talking."

Ino snickered. "Oh, I see. 'We were just... um... TALKING.' Sure, real convincing there. I know I'm convinced."

Sasuke gritted his teeth.

Behind him, Naruto sighed. "Oi, Ino, mind not tap-dancing on the ruined moment?"

"... Oops."

There were a few shuffling sounds, presumably accompanied by sheepish looks, eye-rolls or shrugs, and then the interloper stood back up. "I think I'll go back home now... Sakura, what are you doing now?"

Sasuke turned back to look at his teammates. Sakura was giving him a questioning look.

"Well, it depends," she muttered, still looking at him askance.

Sasuke shrugged, working on not frowning at her. "I'm going back to the apartment to sleep." He just wanted to stop feeling empty and cold, and he had already abused their willingness to tolerate his weakness for too long.

"Yeah, I'll be going too," Naruto added with a yawn, as he picked a few crumbs of pastries from his clothes. He had changed them, Sasuke noticed now; he was wearing a too-large t-shirt that had probably belonged to some cop. So long as Ino didn't think to ask about it...

Sakura sighed softly, and then turned to Ino, who was waiting a few steps away, looking slightly uncomfortable. "Guess I'll go back with you, Ino-pig."

"Okay. Well, um... Goodnight, Naruto, Sasuke," Ino replied with a sheepish smile. "And sorry for interrupting..."

Sasuke's eyes slid over her. "See you tomorrow, Sakura," he commented as he passed his teammates and walked off. He heard a few more whispered exchanges behind him, and then Naruto caught up with him.

The blond didn't try to hold his hand or anything too familiar, but he bumped into Sasuke's shoulder a lot. Sasuke pretended not to notice.

He just wanted to go to bed. Sleep. Hopefully not dream. He climbed the stairs mechanically; stepped in the shower to get rid of the soot and mud -- it didn't get rid of the heaviness weighting his limbs down -- and then went to his bedroom, not even bothering to turn on the light as he dragged himself to his bed.

He sat on the edge, fell back, and stared at the ceiling.

Well... now he didn't even have a house for the three of them anymore. And he really didn't like the idea of moving into another apartment. But -- he might as well save as much money as possible. Which implied that they needed to start sharing the rent three ways instead of two as soon as they could. It implied...

... God, he just wanted to stop thinking for a minute. Where had the blankness of total emotional exhaustion gone?


He lifted his head and looked up; Naruto was standing just outside the door.

"What do you want?"

"Oi! Do I have to want something? Maybe I was just walking by and my feet got tired. And hey! Doorjamb to prop me up."

The tone didn't fit the words; it wasn't teasing or defensive. It was kind of amused, but neutral too; as neutral as Naruto ever got.

At least the blond wasn't stupid enough to try sounding soothing. The day Sasuke needed soothing from Naruto, of all people... He let that thought trail off before he had to remind himself of recent events. Posturing was too much work at the moment.

"... Naruto..." Sasuke sighed, giving the intruder a weary look.

"It was open," Naruto replied, more quietly.

Sasuke closed his eyes, and let his head fall back on the covers; he considered explaining to Naruto that forgetting to close his door didn't actually imply an invitation to invade his space, nor did it imply that he wanted Naruto in there. Because he didn't.

"It was open," he finally admitted softly.

The mattress dipped under Naruto's weight; his knee bumped into Sasuke's as he swung it lazily. Sasuke frowned faintly, opening his eyes again to glance up at his teammate. Naruto wasn't sitting too close, and he wasn't even looking toward Sasuke; leaning back on his hands, he was contemplating the ceiling.

"I got an idea."

"Did it hurt?"

Naruto flashed him a quick grin. "Oh yeah, honey, but it was the good kind of pain -- kidding, kidding."

Sasuke rolled his eyes; more because it was the minimal reaction Naruto expected from him than anything else. "What about?"

"Not about the money -- we'll just have to make Chuunin. And we so totally will."

Sasuke snorted, smirked faintly at his stubborn look. "Me, maybe. You..." He paused, shook his head. "What was your grand idea about? How to scam people out of their fortunes?"

"Nah, it's not about the money, or where we're gonna live, or all that shit -- we'll find a way, really. No, it's more important."

Naruto let himself fall back onto the mattress, laying down by Sasuke's side, and crossed his hands behind his head with false casualness. Sasuke frowned at him, and wondered why he wasn't just blurting it out.

"It's about the baby."

Sasuke pushed himself up on his elbows to stare down at the blond. Naruto was looking up at him, unnervingly serious.

He could, Sasuke realized dazedly; Naruto really could fix it -- save the child and Sakura. Or he thought he could, anyway. For a second, Sasuke hated Naruto blindingly for giving him hope when Sasuke had been so utterly trapped, and had already surrendered to the knowledge that everything was out of his hands.

But this was Naruto; hope against all odds was pretty much his trademark.

"... Talk," Sasuke rasped out; hope stirring under the apathy.

Naruto talked.

Naruto's ideas, Sasuke had learned over the course of the last five years, were sometimes very idiotic, for the very obvious reason that sane people didn't DO that. At any other time, Sasuke would have said "no" on principle after the first sentence; it sounded... quite demented. Besides, it would rest mostly on Naruto's shoulders, and Sasuke didn't really like thinking that his role would be minimal.

Then again -- Naruto's "idea" would need a serious amount of refining and smoothing down the rough edges, and he wasn't going to do it himself. Thoughtful, Sasuke grunted an acknowledgement when Naruto finally fell silent, already starting to think about the problems he could see.

"... So?"

It was crazy. It would be complicated, and dangerous, and if the Council caught them in the act, they would definitely be unhappy with the three of them.

But by God, he was tired of sitting on his ass and letting outside forces roll him around.

"Why not," he said. "I'll start the research."

He wasn't done pushing himself up when Naruto dragged him back down onto the mattress. The blond rolled onto his side, throwing an arm across Sasuke's chest and pinning him down. "Tomorrow, Sasuke."

Sasuke growled wearily. "Naruto--"

Naruto's arm wouldn't budge.

"Let's get some sleep first. I swear it will keep. Alright?"

The window was gilded with pink and gold. In the bedroom, it was still dark; dark enough that he could pretend that he couldn't see Naruto, if he wanted to; that he could pretend the anchoring weight across his chest was just a pillow.

Sasuke closed his eyes; listened to Naruto breathe. The blond was quiet and steady, warm and just so there.

"... Alright. Tomorrow."


[Long Day] [The Plan (a)]