Teamwork 2


Chapter 6b: The Seal (Naruto)

Naruto arrived back home only to trip on a box, and barely managed to hang onto the door by the tips of his fingers.


He stared at the box, confused. It was full of his things : weapon cleaning kit, an old kunai pouch, a wad of explosive tag paper, his frog wallet, and other odds and ends which had progressively spilled from his bags onto the floor around the couch. For a moment, he thought...

"...Sasuke?" he called, staring at the box. It was brown, cardboard, and very unassuming.

"We're moving. Did you get the scrolls?"

We. Naruto relaxed. We. Whatever it was, it was alright -- waitasec. "Ah -- yeah, yeah, I got them. We're moving?"

Sasuke was in the kitchen, stacking up pots and pans. "Yes. Your scrolls and weapons are in there. I washed your pile of dirty clothes along with some of mine; they're drying."

"Oh. Okay," he replied amiably. "Uh, by the way, Sasuke, what the fuck?"

"Did you go deaf?" Sasuke retorted, rolling his eyes at Naruto before turning away again.

"Did you go crazy? I leave for a few hours and when I come back, we're in the middle of moving? I thought we agreed that there weren't any good places in the paper!"

Sasuke grunted, and wound a length of wire through the biggest pot's handles to keep the little pots inside. "We're going to the Uchiha compound."

Oh, alright, that made perfect sense. Not. Just the other day, Sasuke had had a massive breakdown about that stupid compound, and now he wanted to go back? Naruto admitted that living there -- in one of the houses that weren't burned to the ground, that is -- would be the easiest way, but after due thought... The last time they'd been inside the district's walls, Sasuke had lost it. Naruto wasn't willing to stay there if it put his teammate on edge. "... You hit your head, didn't you?"

"Naruto, shut up, and go get blankets. They're in the closet in my bedroom."

"What the hell! No, I'm not your lackey."

Sasuke hissed between his clenched teeth, as if forcing himself to breathe out because Naruto was Just. That. Annoying.

Like Sasuke wasn't the one willfully being an ass!

"Fine, stay here, I don't care. I've warned the landlord that I'm not renewing the lease, though, so you have ten days left before you have to find somewhere else to stay."

Naruto stood there and watched him, fists balled at his sides, unable to believe it. "You... You utter asshole."

Sasuke barely grunted in acknowledgment, and opened a closet in the corridor. Naruto stalked toward him and slammed the door closed under his nose, hand firmly set in the middle of the panel. "Don't you think maybe you should consult other people before you make that kind of decision?! You want to move, so we both have to move? What the hell, I live here, too!"

Sasuke closed his eyes and massaged the bridge of his nose; Naruto wanted to hit him, all the good humor from his date with Sakura evaporated. How dare Sasuke act like Naruto was the one behaving like an unreasonable, irrational ass?

"You're missing the point."

"Well, then, tell me the point, instead of assuming that I can read your twisted brain and immediately know what the hell you're on about! When I left, you were just fine staying here! You didn't seem to even want to leave the apartment unless there was a fire or something! And now you want something else and I should just have guessed--"

Sasuke hissed again, and finally turned to face him. "Shut up, Naruto! It's not about what I want. It's about what we need. And right now, we need more space." He gave a long, meaningful look at the pockets full of scrolls Naruto had stolen from the restricted section and the Hokage. "And fewer neighbors."

"... Oh." Naruto pushed away from the closet to free Sasuke, still pouting. "Would it have been it so hard to tell me first, instead of just -- argh. You're annoying."

He stomped into Sasuke's bedroom, throwing open the closet doors to dig out the blankets. He figured that they'd be camping out for a few days, or something. There was a sleeping bag, too, but it seemed a bit old, and anyway they had the ones they used on missions.

He wasn't sure he liked the idea of Sasuke going back to the Uchiha district so soon, but if Sasuke said he could, then the only thing calling him on it would bring would be broken bones. And the jerk had lived there from age eight to thirteen, after all, and he hadn't died or anything.

Wait, it had ended with the Orochimaru fiasco.

But if Sasuke said he could... Rrrrgh. Hn. Whatever. Naruto bet no one like the amazing Uzumaki Naruto had ever lived inside the Uchiha district's walls. He would totally make it non-gloomy enough for the three of them.

Four of them, maybe.

... Damn, it was hard to stay angry when he was reminded of that little detail. Hugest little detail in the world, that was. Still pouting a bit, on principle, he picked up a huge armful of blankets and stomped outside, giving Sasuke a resentful look as he capitulated. "... Fine, fine. Whatever. Still, we could have talked about it first."

"What for? It was the only viable decision."

Oh, he was so -- so -- ARGH! "There are days I really hate your guts, you know."

Naruto piled his blankets on the kitchen counter. By the table, Sasuke was surveying the stuff he'd packed critically. Naruto could see cleaning products in there, amongst the pans and food and toilet paper; he couldn't help but snicker a bit.

"It's a good thing you're such a perfect little housewife, or I might divorce you."

Sasuke glared at him, but didn't snap back with whatever insult he'd had in mind. Damn. It wasn't funny when Sasuke pulled the 'more mature than you' card.

"Housewife nothing; you're the one who's going to be cleaning out the house this evening. I have to read the scrolls you brought."

"Oi! That's not fair!"

Sasuke sighed. "Stop whining and get your traveling bag. We're just camping out for tonight; we'll make trips back and forth tomorrow for the rest."

Good to know that Naruto could still predict Sasuke some of the time. "Well, since you've got it all planned out, your Majesty. Got a house in mind?"

"...Yes, actually. The house seemed in good condition the last time I saw it; it should be livable."

They picked up everything -- the traveling backpacks, the additional blankets, the cooking utensils and food -- then Naruto went out and waited for Sasuke to lock the door. They were loaded down like pack mules; one of the neighbors stared at them as they trudged down the stairs. Naruto grinned back; the old man looked away with a huff.

"So, what made you decide to move so fast?" he asked Sasuke as they made their way through Konoha.

Sasuke shrugged, looking away. "Something I found in one of Kakashi's books. The phases of the moon matter, apparently, and I don't want to waste a month."

Naruto blinked. "That's weird -- wait, figures. 'He' did say Sakura only had three days to choose whether to keep the child or not because it was the full moon soon, or something." It was strange to think that it had only been two months since that night; it felt like forever, and those few days had been so frantic, so full of life-changing events. "Does it matter for real? I didn't think jutsus worked like that..."

Sasuke frowned, and gave the street around them a suspicious look. "I'm not giving you a lesson in elemental resonance now." Naruto heard the unspoken 'in the middle of the street'. "Just think of it as an extension of the rule that makes it easier to use Suiton jutsus in areas where there's water close by."

Naruto scratched his head, almost let the blankets drop, and caught them again with a sheepish wince. "But Moon isn't an element."

"Mmh. But it -- 'che." Now Sasuke looked bothered, as if he didn't know where to start.

"Yeah, maybe you should discuss that with Sakura-chan," Naruto commiserated, and gave Sasuke a 'what can you do' smile and a shrug. It was disappointing to want to understand something, for once, and to know that he didn't have the right level of knowledge for even the basics, but... Naruto didn't think himself stupid -- he got great ideas regularly, and no one had ever accused him of learning a hard jutsu too slowly... well, not recently -- but he wasn't an academic either, so maybe it really was a waste of time to explain it to him.

"Oh, yeah. Mind copying the stuff you need quickly? I'll replace the old hag's scroll tomorrow... Provided it's the right one."

"What do you mean, provided it's the right one? I thought you remembered what it looked like."

"Yeah, but there were two alike and then they all fell, so I grabbed the closest one, but I'm not sure it's the right one. Either way, she's gonna notice soon."

Sasuke's scowl deepened, but in the end he shrugged. "Fine, fine. I shouldn't need to keep it that long. Kakashi's book gave me a good lead, I just need details..."

Sasuke's voice trailed off as he thought; and then he gave Naruto a sidelong glance. Naruto wondered what he was plotting now.

"You'll put Kakashi's book back, too."

"Oi! What for?"

"I can't show up there two times in a row."

"Ah, and me showing up just after you doesn't look weird -- what does it matter anyway, no one saw you, right?"

Naruto stared in confusion at Sasuke's back as the black-haired boy stalked ahead.

"What? Someone saw you? Hah! Talk about a great ninja; you got caught by one of his neighbors--"

"He wasn't gone," Sasuke muttered through clenched teeth.

"He wasn't? What the heck, I thought he was doing something this afternoon! Something more important than training." Naruto stomped alongside Sasuke, annoyed. It figured that Kakashi would consider lazing around his apartment all afternoon to be more important than training his students.

Sasuke gave him a huff, and looked away, muttering under his breath. "Yeah, that's what I thought, too."

Naruto was tempted to laugh at Sasuke for being caught, but then Sakura and Tsunade had almost caught him, too. Anyway, what was bastard-sensei doing at home that was more important than training, seriously?

Similarly disgruntled, the boys trudged towards the Uchiha compound.


"Hey, is it the right scroll?"


"What? You can't be serious. Aw man, of all the days for my luck to run out."

"Eh. Doesn't matter. Turns out I didn't need it after all."

"Wait, what?"

"Mmh. Weren't you washing the windows?"

"... That's a big collar you've got there, you know. Say, on a scale of one to ten, how pissed would you be if I lost my grip on the soap just --"


"-- now? Hahaha."

"... I'm going to kill you."

"Oi, careful of the books there. Don't--"

"This better not end in a 'drop the soap' joke."

"... Hehe."


"If my father catches you here, he'll probably kill you dead first and interrogate your remains later, you know," Ino commented as she leaned lazily over Naruto. Naruto grinned up at her, and shifted his hold on her windowsill.

"Aw, come on, my intentions are honorable and all. Really."

The girl laughed, high and musical, and moved aside, letting Naruto pull the rest of his body up. Dumb anti-chakra sticking stuff on the walls, he'd fallen off once already before he'd managed to get a good grip. He straddled the windowsill and looked inside Ino's bedroom curiously. It was all done in greens and golds, with some pink here and there; and just as full of pretty, breakable things as Sakura's bedroom had been the only time he'd visited. Naruto briefly wondered if Sakura would want to litter their place with tons of glass butterflies and other frou-frous. The thought made him grin stupidly, even with the accompanying image of himself ruining her knickknacks and getting murdered.

"Where's Sakura-chan?" Naruto asked. There was a futon spread out beside Ino's bed, but apart from the blonde girl, the room was empty.

"She's in the bathroom. What did you say you... two," Ino added, as she noticed Sasuke standing on the roof facing hers; "...were doing here?"

"Kidnapping, of course!" Naruto retorted with a sly grin. "And if I'm lucky," he added, whispering, "perhaps even some good, old-fashioned molesting."

Ino burst into giggles, and covered her mouth with a hand, the perfect, well-bred lady. "Between you and me, she might need some of that. Come in, before someone notices you."

Naruto hopped inside just as the door opened. Naruto grinned disarmingly. Whether it was Ino's dad or Sakura, looking nice and harmless would help. It was Sakura; the grin became a bit more appreciative when he noticed that she was wearing a large t-shirt, and even bigger, fuzzy sweatpants, and still toweling off her hair. So cute!

"Evening, Sakura-chan!"

She stared at him, pausing in mid-rub. "Naruto? What are you doing here?"

"They're kidnapping you," Ino informed her dutifully, staring at her nails with rapt attention. She wasn't smirking, but from her tone she might as well have been.

"... 'They'?" Sakura repeated as she slowly lowered the towel. "What -- Naruto, it's almost ten in the evening, I'm exhausted..."

A little late on his cue, Sasuke appeared on the windowsill, balanced in a perfect crouch and looking as if he'd always been there. Show-off.

"Pack your things, Sakura."

Sakura goggled at Sasuke, then at Naruto. "But -- what?"

Naruto patted her shoulder consolingly. "Yeah, His Majesty has spoken."

"But I can't just--"

"Aw, come on! Where's your sense of adventure?"

"In bed, and I was hoping to join it soon," she replied acerbically.

"Wah! Sakura-chan has been cheating on us with an anthropomorphic personification of a concept!"

The all stared at him, as if he'd sprouted horns and wings. He grinned his best shit-eating grin right back.

"... You were actually listening to that nonsense on the radio?" Sasuke finally asked, shaking his head in disbelief.

"It sounded pretty neat," Naruto replied truthfully, and gave him the most innocent look he could manage.

"And how the hell did you remember it? I bet I can't even pronounce it," Ino retorted, disgusted.

"Um. I practiced."

Sakura started laughing along with Ino, and even Sasuke snorted, turning away to hide his amusement. Or maybe it was contempt, but Naruto wanted to be optimistic, and besides, Sasuke tended to mix the two liberally, anyway.

"Dork," Sakura uttered, shaking her head sadly even as she smiled at him.

"Hey!" Naruto protested, for the principle.

"Pack up your stuff, Sakura," Sasuke said again. Naruto couldn't help but notice that with her, the bastard could actually sound like he was making a suggestion and not giving orders. Hn.


From Sakura's desolate look, she was probably thinking that they were about to run away from Konoha again. Naruto winced, and chuckled ruefully. "Ah, at least enough for tonight and tomorrow. You can come back for the rest tomorrow."

"Alright," Sakura capitulated after a last questioning glance at Sasuke. Crouching, a knee on her futon, she started adding stuff to a little backpack. "I just don't want to leave without saying goodbye to Ino's parents."

"And to me?" Ino asked tartly, and frowned imperiously at the two boys before Sakura could answer. "Where are you taking her anyway? If it isn't a secret..."

"Oh, it's not really a secret," Naruto reassured her.

"Sakura can tell you tomorrow," Sasuke cut him.

Naruto blinked at Sasuke. What the heck; why not now? It wasn't like Ino was going to follow and spy on them, or babble to her parents and send the ANBU after them. The bastard was so damn paranoid.

"... Sasuke-kun?" Sakura looked up at the window.

Sasuke jumped off the windowsill, padded to her silently, not even glancing at Naruto as he brushed past him. Leaning over her, he rested a pale hand on Sakura's hand, the one that was holding up her backpack.

"Do you trust me?" Sasuke asked softly.

Naruto wondered why he was saying that now; it was evident that Sakura was going to trust them until they were safe and could explain, there was no need to ask again.

Sakura was sitting on the edge of the futon, neck arched to gaze up at Sasuke with a look of sudden understanding in her slightly-too-wide eyes. "That -- now?"

Sasuke nodded, straightened up, abandoning her hand as if he'd never been touching her of his own will at all. Naruto shuddered, blinking. That -- for a moment, he'd almost felt like he was part of their silent communication. But he hadn't been; and he hadn't been the one Sakura's whole body had been angled toward, in unconscious adoration.

Bah! The bastard hadn't gotten a date with her either. It probably hadn't even occurred to him at all.

Sakura was putting on her sandals quickly, a lot more businesslike now. "I'll see you later, Ino-pig," she assured as she jumped to her feet. "Come on, let's go now."

Then she was hurrying Sasuke to the window and tugging Naruto along by the sleeve.

Naruto was about to jump out after them when Ino's hand caught his other sleeve.

"Naruto?" The blonde girl looked worried. "You're not going to do anything stupid, are you? You and Sasuke really are more trouble than you're worth, sometimes."

Naruto's smile gentled a little. "Nah, relax. The only stupid thing that might happen is those two talking and talking until dawn, and I really want to get some molestation in." With that, he jumped onto the next roof, waving back at Ino, and put on a burst of speed to catch up to his teammates.

Naruto wasn't sure why Sakura was making that wary, pouty face; they'd scrubbed the abandoned Uchiha house clean, in the little time they had before picking her up.

Okay, they'd cleaned up the living room.

Well, the floor and the coffee table weren't too dirty, at any rate. The couch had reeked of mildew and its cushions had been full of mice nests, so they'd pulled it out in the backyard and left it there. Some of the smell lingered despite their best efforts.

Still! It wouldn't be any less comfortable than camping out, and at least they wouldn't get rained on.

... They'd even placed buckets under the leaks in the ceiling.

"Um... Any reason why we're... Here?"

"It has a dojo and no neighbors," Sasuke replied without turning around. He was kneeling by the coffee table, emptying the bag of scrolls and notes. "And the roof is still mostly sound, which isn't the case of many other houses around here," he added with a touch of sarcasm.

Naruto had a feeling that Sakura had been asking what the hell they were doing in the Uchiha district in the first place, even if this house stood almost on the other end of the district from where Sasuke's home had been. He also had a feeling that Sasuke had been fully aware of the nuance. Bah.

"He says we need space to do our thing," Naruto informed Sakura helpfully. "And besides this house could be pretty neat; it just needs a little work."

Sakura gave the moldy walls and the swelled-shut wooden blinds a doubtful look.

"No, seriously, it's got two bathrooms and an attic. And tons of space! We could live here -- or try to," he amended as he caught her expression. "At least until we either fix it or find something better. There would be no rent to pay, and ... We'd have more than enough space to be together," he added, his voice softening unintentionally, and tried not to look too much like he was pleading.

Mollified, she pulled her sleeping bag out of her pack. Naruto's and Sasuke's were folded in two by the coffee table, as seats; she dropped hers facing Sasuke's spot and then sat on it gingerly, watching Sasuke and his notes with trepidation.

"So, what is this grand scheme about?"

Sasuke pushed one of the sheets of paper at her. She picked it up as if it was about to explode. Morbidly curious, Naruto crept closer, taking place on his own sleeping bag at one end of the room.

"I haven't finished the research," Sasuke said quietly as she read.

She blinked, slowly, and looked up at Sasuke as if she had never seen him in her life and wasn't especially thrilled to see him now. "... You want to inject my potentially half-demon child with demon chakra."


"Excuse me, but are you crazy?"

Naruto winced at her incredulous tone. "Well, it was my idea -- and no, not into the kid, but into you."

"We need to get it from someone who wouldn't be bothered by the constant drain." Sasuke looked just as stubbornly expressionless; Naruto didn't like it.

"Oh, then I guess that makes it okay."

Naruto winced; Sasuke's eyelid twitched.

"I mean, after all, the Kyuubi will just possess me, and not the child! It isn't like everyone wasn't already worried that the child might be possessed when there was no physical link--"

"And Jiraiya told us that Kyuubi was bound to me now and forever and that he'd die with me!" Naruto cut her off, slamming his palm against the table. Sakura and Sasuke stared at him; he glared back at Sakura, refusing to look down. "Please, we've tried to figure ways to plug the loopholes. It looks doable. Won't you at least look, too? If you find a problem that Sasuke missed, well, then, we'll drop it. But -- come on." He reached out hesitantly, touched her hair, expecting her to bolt any second now. "...Please."

Tsunade's solutions all seemed so half-hearted to him, and he didn't want her to die. He didn't think he could take it.

She closed her eyes, took a deep breath. "Well, I guessed right at least. The Council and Hokage-sama will tear us apart."

"Not if it works. It isn't like we're trying to break his seal."

"... But what if we damage it? What if we damage Naruto's seal and his -- tenant starts taking control of him?" She paused, suddenly -- stared at Naruto. "Naruto... How did you get that idea?"

Naruto shrugged. "I just thought that I had so much chakra and you had so little, and there are so many jutsus that drain people's chakra."

"Are you sure," she said softly, "are you absolutely sure that it wasn't Kyuubi's idea?"

Naruto stared at her for a few seconds, and then he grinned insouciantly. "Yep." Reasonably so. He ignored a dark chuckle as the demon fox caught the gist of the conversation; the son of a bitch wasn't going to make him doubt now. Besides, even if it had been Kyuubi's idea first, he trusted his teammates to make sure there would be no nasty surprises. "...He agrees."

"He agrees -- Naruto! What's to say we're not playing right into his hands? How can you even trust him--"

"I don't. But I can tell when he lies," or at least he had never caught Kyuubi in the act, "and he can't leave me. Even if my seal was unraveled now, he'd lose huge chunks of himself and he'd probably die. Sakura-chan... I won't tell you he cares, 'cause he doesn't, but he doesn't really want the kid to die."

Sakura looked down at the scrolls, uneasy. "...In the stories I read, kitsune could possess people."

Sasuke crossed his arms, giving an annoyed sniff. "And that's why we're going to make damn sure that all you get is chakra, and nothing else." He pushed the scrolls at her again; cautiously, as if it might bite, she picked up the first one and reluctantly started reading.

"...A permanent drain?" Sakura frowned, visibly uneasy with the idea. "I'm not sure I like the idea."

"It's semi-permanent; from my calculations, it will last a year or two before all that chakra erodes it. You're free to counter-check."

"I will." Still frowning, she kept reading. Naruto started tapping his fingers on the table in a complicated little rhythm; Sasuke glared him into transferring the tapping to his thigh. Sakura didn't seem to notice.

"Why didn't you explore the possibility of regularly draining Naruto for chakra? There are short-action ninjutsus for that; Kakashi-sensei probably knows a ton, there has to be one that wouldn't hurt Naruto. You went directly with opening a long-lasting conduit between Naruto and I..."

Sasuke lifted his hand, and started counting on his fingers. "First, they would only tap his surface chakra, which would exhaust him as he tries to drag up more from the Kyuubi and convert it to replace the loss; which also means regularly opening himself up to the Kyuubi. Second, none of us has a bloodline or a specialty that would make such a drain doable with simple hand seals. We would either have to draw a circle with all the right patterns over and over again, with all the problems of necessary space and possibility for error that ensue. Or we would have to stop whatever we were doing and come back to the main circle every few days. And there would be a possibility of other people trying to tap into it and steal Naruto's chakra. Third, this way you can get chakra whenever you need it, not just whenever we can stop."

"Also, there would be fewer occasions for people to start getting all hissy and telling us to stop," Naruto added with a nonchalant shrug. "Or to think we're preparing a coup or something."

Sakura scowled. "As if they won't, when they realize that I have a direct pipeline into the hugest source of raw chakra our country has ever known."

"Well, yeah, but they won't be able to break it so easily, and we can convince them that it was for your health and nothing else."

She shook her head. "They'll just separate us. Without a grounded seal, it's harder to keep a connection between two people. There's a reason Tsunade-sama said she'd have to keep me in bed if they tried that with me; if I leave the circle, it weakens the link! It isn't possible to link two people directly without forcing them to regularly be in contact... No, a seal applied directly on someone wouldn't keep up a regular channel. It would weaken with distance and then break," she repeated, stubborn.

"The Heaven seal didn't," Sasuke replied quietly.

Naruto tensed; Sakura flinched. Sasuke's hands were ostensibly resting on the table, as if he wanted to prove that he didn't feel the urge to cover his neck.

"That's -- different," Sakura eventually replied. She wasn't looking at Sasuke, and she sounded a little choked up. "The Heaven seal would have been dormant unless you decided to use it, wasn't it? Whereas this one..."

"This one won't let your reserves get so low that you can't sustain the child. But the rest should be up to you. And of course, if you take more than you can handle, you'll probably die."

"But it will never be entirely closed."

Sasuke shrugged, and gave her a long unimpressed look. "It's a matter of strength of will."

Sakura's back stiffened, and she gave Sasuke a furious glare. Naruto had a feeling that the bastard was about to end up in the doghouse. "Is there something you want to say, Sasuke-kun?"

Sasuke shrugged and leaned back. "I just said it. It's a matter of strength of will. And you shouldn't need inhuman amounts of it. If you want to refuse anyway, alright, it's your choice. We'll just wait for you to find another way."

Sakura's fists slammed on the coffee table and she rose on her knees; Naruto started reaching up to hold her back, but she stopped herself, stiff and radiating barely contained rage.

"You -- son of a bitch. Do you think I haven't tried? Do you think it isn't all I think about, in between training and missions and more training? I can't even think properly, I'm exhausted all the time and -- you're blackmailing me with -- with -- you son of a bitch!"

Naruto winced, and crawled over to her side of the table. He didn't remember ever seeing her get this angry with Sasuke -- he didn't remember her getting quite this angry at him, for that matter. "Sakura-chan, he didn't mean --"

"I think that's exactly what he meant!" She speared Sasuke with another glare. "That if I can't do any better, I should shut up -- it's my body, I'll be the one at risk! I'm not at risk enough already?!"

Naruto flinched; he gave Sasuke a nervous look, but Sasuke seemed to be carved into a block of marble.

"I'm sick and tired of this situation! I'm sick and tired of having my whole career messed with, and my life and the child's put at risk -- and then you two go around and just pull a solution out of your asses and pretend it's just perfect, like the risks don't matter -- you're not the ones who'll risk going crazy or dying -- and I'm sick and tired of not even being able to save my own damn self!"

The echo of her final shriek died, swallowed by the old walls. Naruto couldn't think of a single thing to say to fill the silence.

"You -- you just ride into town like heroes and fix everything without asking, and -- it's all so perfect that we're not allowed to criticize anything, and -- 'here you are, nothing you did on your own worked, but so what, you're saved, now' -- and that gets on my nerves, alright? It really gets on my nerves."

Naruto opened his mouth, but he didn't know what he wanted to say, so he closed it again. Sakura was turned away from both of them, her shoulders tense, her knuckles white. He wanted to fix it, but she wouldn't want him to, even if he knew how.

"I apologize."

Sasuke's voice was quiet, measured. He was scowling; probably didn't like having to say it. He didn't have much practice, to be frank. Naruto looked back at Sakura; she was still turned away, but there was a curious stillness to her posture that made him hold his breath.

"... Yes, well." She got up, rather stiffly. "I'm going to check out the house. If we're going to live here--" She snapped her jaws closed, walked out without looking at either of them. Naruto slowly sat back down on his sleeping bag, giving Sasuke an alarmed look. Sasuke didn't look back; both elbows on the table, hands in front of his mouth again, he was staring at the scrolls.


"I'm going to make tea."

And then Naruto was alone in the living room and wondering how everything could have gone so wrong so fast.

Sakura had said she was thinking of living there, right? With them? And she hadn't left. She was just cooling down. And Sasuke -- well.

Well, fuck. He slumped back on his sleeping bag, sprawled, and stared at the ceiling. The proper christening of the house was going to be harder than expected.

Sasuke drifted back ten minutes later, with a kettle and mugs; Naruto lifted his head from the floor and watched him set them on the table in silence, and let his head fall again when Sasuke sat and started sipping quietly. Sakura was away for a half-hour at least; they could hear a few thumps and scrapes as she, presumably, moved furniture around and forced open a few windows upstairs. Naruto closed his eyes and listened, trying to guess what every sound meant; some were pretty indefinable. Eventually, the noises died down; and a few minutes after a large appliance had crashed into the couch, out in the garden, she was walking down the stairs and back to the living room.

"There's so much dust upstairs. The windows should be open when we clean it off, or we're going to suffocate."

Naruto grinned and sprang into a sitting position. "Yeah, you should have seen what the living room looked like. It was like walking in snow!"

"Oh, ew, gray fluffy snow."

Sakura's tone was still a little tense, but Naruto beamed back anyway.

Sasuke wasn't looking at her; he was pouring another mug of tea. Still silent, he picked it up and placed it in front of her, and then he looked up. They stared at each other for a while; finally, Sakura closed her eyes and her strained expression softened.

"...How do you plan on filtering out the Kyuubi's influence?"

Sasuke opened another scroll, showing her diagrams that looked like snowflakes, and lines and lines of calculations.

"Mmh. What's that variable?"

"Demonic chakra doesn't react entirely like human chakra. There's always a variable. I don't think it can be erased."

"It's not a perfect solution, Sakura-chan," Naruto intervened. "There's always going to be a risk where the furball is concerned. He could be lying to me, his chakra could be impossible to use for anyone who wasn't born with it -- perhaps we can't convert it and it will burn you like it burned Sasuke that time I tried to heal him. Perhaps it will affect the kid and then we'll end up with a kitsune child." He looked up at her, the poor little smile he had been holding onto dissipating. "Perhaps you'll die. And we can't tell you to risk it instead of continuing to trust in the old hag. Maybe she'll find something -- or your body will adapt, or the drain will slow down and then our idea will be useless. I don't have a clue."

Sakura stared down into her cup, and then delicately lifted it to take a sip, a distant look in her eyes. "So in the end, it's all left to chance."

"But there are still probabilities," Sasuke countered. "And if we work on this idea, get rid of as many variables as possible, perhaps we can reduce the probabilities to a more acceptable level."

Sakura didn't move for a long moment, staring down into her cup; and then she nodded. "Alright. Alright, I'll work on it. It still isn't a yes!" she warned them sternly. Naruto just beamed back. If she ended up saying no, it would be because there was a problem that just couldn't be worked out. But at least they were doing something.

Well. Sasuke and Sakura were doing something.

At first, Naruto contributed a few words here and there, and watched their diagrams with confused fascination. Eventually, though, they drifted into arcane calculations and secondary and tertiary meanings of the twelve hand seals and elemental resonance and whatnot, and he was reduced to crossing his arms on the table and letting their voices wash over him, since he didn't have a clue what they were on about.

He didn't even realize he had dozed off; he just noticed when he woke up, slumped uncomfortably against the table, and found them still debating quietly at the light of an old oil lamp. Sakura had a scroll of her own to write her notations, and it was already halfway full. Naruto didn't have a great sense of time, but it must have been after two AM at the very least.

"That's not possible -- oh, damn it, I lost the thread again. How far did you get?"

"... I got a different result this time." Sasuke glared at his paper and pencil, as if they had betrayed him. Sakura gave a tired giggle.

Naruto sat up, stretched his arms over his head, and then reached out quickly and stole both scrolls. "Time's up! You're going to bed now."

"Naruto! I was just -- you can't do that, I was writing!"

"No, you weren't, you were crossing out stuff. Just let it rest and try again tomorrow, you -- whoops! Missed," he exclaimed as he dodged Sasuke's sudden lunge.

"Naruto..." Sasuke growled.

Naruto hid the scrolls behind his back. "Nope. Iruka-sensei and Kakashi-sensei both say that when people are tired, they make stupid mistakes. You two are making stupid mistakes, and we've got to be up at seven AM on top of that. Kakashi's going to destroy you two if you come and train without having slept."

Sasuke and Sakura exchanged annoyed looks, but eventually, they capitulated.

"Fine, fine. Give me back my scroll, I want to jot down a few ideas," Sakura demanded. Naruto gave her a suspicious look. "Just a few tracks to explore later!"

Sasuke snatched the scrolls from Naruto's hand. "And in the meantime, you can make the bed."

Snorting, Naruto went to get the blankets they'd brought back from the apartment, and then unfolded them in a dry corner, piling them up to cushion the floor a little. At least they wouldn't get cold; it was wood, not stone.

... It was too bad that the sleeping bags were way too narrow for two people, much less three.

Then again, if he unzipped them all the way... Grinning, he spread his own over the blankets to make the bed less scratchy.

"What are you doing?"

"Making the bed," he replied, sticking out his tongue. "And gimme your sleeping bags; I'll zip 'em together to make a big blanket."

Sasuke was giving the blankets an unconvinced look. "The one who's going to be in the middle better not need to get up too fast during the night," he groused; he meant he wanted one of the sides for easy escape.

Naruto looked at Sakura. "You wanna be in the middle?"


Okay, what had he said that would make her blush?

"Sakura-chan? I figured..."

She rolled her scrolls and aligned them in a corner of the coffee table, and gave Sasuke a quick, disappointed look. "Um, I'd love to, but... Sometimes I do need to get up fast in the morning, and well, I don't want to pull the blanket out with me."

Sasuke frowned. "You still get morning sickness?"

"...Yes, that too."

"Aha! Need to pee?" Naruto dodged a flying pen and snickered at her. "Okay, okay -- oh hey, that means I get to be in the middle? Awesome!"

Sasuke gave him a long, suspicious look. He must have been even more tired than Naruto thought, because he didn't say anything. To be frank, Naruto was still a little groggy from waking up from his too-short nap himself. Not enough to keep the glee down. He went to put the pen back on the table, then dug through his pack to find his pajamas. The nightcap had suffered an irreparable tear during a joint mission with Kiba, that rat bastard. ...and if he slept between the two of them, he would probably be warm enough to forego the top. Hohoho.

He couldn't help but laugh as Sakura eep-ed and retreated to the corridor when he started to strip. "Aw, come on, you've seen me naked before."

"Oh, shut up!"

Still chuckling, Naruto yanked on his pajama pants. By the table, Sasuke was pulling off his collared shirt and shorts; he folded them before looking in his pack. So anal-retentive. Naruto was kind of disappointed when the boxers stayed on, and a tank top made its appearance. Well, at least it showed some shoulders.

"Do you even own one top that isn't blue?" he nagged, chuckling a little.

"Do you own anything that isn't orange?"

"Lemme think... I've got green briefs... Oh, Sakura-chan, you can come back." He turned to look toward the corridor -- and found her standing there, blushing just a little. "Sakura-chan! Don't tell me you were peeping!"

"I wasn't!"

"You're blushing!"

"I wasn't peeping," she repeated as she stomped in the living room. "It's just kind of ... hitting me. You know... Going to bed, with... um."

Sasuke sat down on the outer side of the bed, put the oil lamp down on the floor within arm's reach, and looked up at her. He didn't say anything; he just waited. She was frozen there in the middle of the room. Naruto gave her his hand, which she took without looking at him, and led her to their corner.

They sat in a circle, giving each other little looks.

"It's... Kind of weird, isn't it."

"But not a bad weird, right?"

"No, no. Just a -- a 'I've known them forever and now we're sharing a bed' weird. And I know we've done that before, but this time it's different. It's -- it's deliberate. Do you understand?"

Naruto scratched his head. He thought so, but he also thought that she was thinking too much once again.

"We'll get used to it, I guess," Sasuke commented prosaically, and lifted the improvised blanket.

Naruto grinned. Yeah, they would.

There was some awkwardness as they took their places; his ankle bumped into Sasuke's, Sakura kept shifting at his side, and the blanket was just large enough, provided none of them moved around too much. Not that he cared; he was in the middle. But the discreet tug of war over him was distracting. He looked at Sasuke -- who was turning his back on them, of course -- and then at Sakura. She gave him a guilty look.


"...No pillow."

Naruto offered his arm; and was surprised when she took it, curling up against his side shyly, her head on his shoulder. He hugged her tight, nuzzling her hair.

"...'night Sakura-chan."

"Goodnight, Naruto," she whispered back. "Goodnight, Sasuke-kun."

"Yeah, 'night, bastard."

Sasuke doused the light and lay back down, his back still to them. "Goodnight. Now sleep."

Naruto snorted quietly, and ran his fingers up Sasuke's spine. Sasuke jerked briefly and kicked back at Naruto's leg. "Don't even start."

"Aw, come on, I'd sleep better after a quickie."

Sakura gasped on a shocked giggle. "Naruto!"

"If it's too late to stay up, doesn't it follow that it's too late for sex?" Sasuke grumbled tiredly.

"Yes, you were the one who nagged us into getting some sleep," Sakura added as she poked Naruto in the side.

"No spontaneity," Naruto whined. "I'm gonna die of blue balls one of these days, mark my words. And then you'll cry and say 'Oh, if only we had known, we would have given him a handjob or two,' but it will be TOO LATE."

He would have continued his tirade, but Sakura's hand slid over his stomach, soft, light, and he gasped.

And then she pinched him.


"Sleep. Pervert."

He would have protested, but then she kissed his jaw, so he shut up.



"We aren't going to start again, are we? Just sleep already."

"Aye, aye, sir."

"Fuck you."

Sakura chuckled softly. "Love you, too."

"... Yeah," Naruto replied softly.

Sasuke didn't say anything, which was telling enough.

Naruto woke up to Sakura squirming out of his arms. Grumbling sleepily, he tried to hold her back. "Nuhh..."

"Naruto, I'm going to throw up on you."


Naruto freed her reluctantly, and turned onto his other side, hoping against all probabilities that Sasuke, at least, would still be there. Fat chance. Opening his eyes, he saw the Uchiha checking on them from the kitchen as Sakura hurried out, then he disappeared again. Sasuke was already dressed; once he got his tea, he would be ready to go. Well, damn. There went Naruto's plan to christen the house properly. It would be time to go soon; Naruto wouldn't have minded being late for such a worthy cause, especially since Kakashi was always late for a lot of non-reasons, but he was pretty sure they were going to disagree.

He sat up in the bed and watched as Sakura came back, buzzed around to organize her scrolls, disappeared in the kitchen for some tea, picked up clean clothes, and disappeared into the corridor again. He just had to wonder how she could look so efficient when her skin was still kind of pale greenish and her eyes were shadowed. Habit, maybe.

"Hurry up, Naruto, or we'll leave without you!" she called back.

He sighed, and changed right in the middle of the living room. And if he took a little more time than strictly necessary to look for his clean boxers when the old ones were already off, well then, they had asked for it.

Should have asked for it. Whatever.

At least Sasuke didn't throw stuff at his head again, but neither did he give Naruto and his bare butt more than a quick, exasperated look.

'I shacked up with two prudes,' Naruto admitted resignedly.

It was a little weird to be leaving the walls of the Uchiha compound, instead of Sasuke's old apartment. The streets were so quiet and creepy, and Sasuke was stomping onwards, with his head held high and staring right ahead, as if he was leading the way for a military parade and wasn't allowed to break proper decorum. Sakura and Naruto exchanged worried looks; but if they just up and said that maybe they should live elsewhere, Sasuke would get pissed and dig his heels in just to be contrary. At least once they were out of the district and back to more normal streets, he allowed Sakura and Naruto to catch up.

They arrived on time; Kakashi didn't, of course. Naruto wanted to make-out a bit in the meantime; they chose to discuss more seal stuff. Blah. He listened anyway -- even if he couldn't add anything, just in case -- but he only gained a few random fragments like "Akariku's Principle" or "mirrored equilateral formations" and a headache.

They went through more quick D-rank missions used as background for tedious drills. At least neither of his teammates could start talking about The Big Plan again, not with Kakashi-sensei around; still, the boredom just about killed him, especially compounded with the many tiny hints that Sakura wasn't as alright as she pretended to be. There wasn't much they could do to help her overcome exhaustion except carrying her or otherwise doing it for her -- and that was rather counterproductive. He'd gotten used to ignoring it, though. By now seeing her hands shake was business as usual and Sakura got mopey when they worried too much.

The only highlight of the day was when, on a whim, Kakashi decided to show them the hand seals for a basic Suiton jutsu. On their first try, Naruto produced a few drops of water, Sakura a squirt; Sasuke tried several times with mounting annoyance, but never got anything but steam. Kakashi shook his head and chuckled.

Sakura tried to comfort Sasuke by telling him that he was already a master of fire and that water was boring anyway, and she was only that good because she already knew another Suiton jutsu.

She offered no explanations on Naruto's result. Sasuke wouldn't have been listening even if Naruto hadn't been laughing at him loud enough to cover her voice.

They got a full-out brawl out of it, and when Sakura demanded that Kakashi do something, he started giving them pointers.

Still. Boring. Naruto couldn't wait to actually do something, but he was going to be useless until the time came to actually implement the plan. Maybe, once he was done putting back the stolen scrolls and book this afternoon, he should go and find Kiba, Neji, or Lee for a spar. Or hell, all three.

They broke up around three PM; Kakashi had, once again, better things to do with his time -- if the things were "stay home and freak out sneaky students", Naruto would... he didn't know what he would do, but he'd be annoyed.

They walked Sakura to the Hokage Tower, and then Sasuke left to settle more Uchiha business stuff with the bank and clan registry that Naruto didn't ask about. Naruto went back to the house in which they were camping, picked up the scrolls, and trekked back to the tower, muttering all the while about the stupid people who had chosen to build their district at the ass-end of Konoha.

He knew that Sakura and Tsunade would be at the hospital, so he just made his way upstairs, waving at the guards and whistling all the while. He didn't even bother knocking before he reached for the handle.

"If you're looking for Tsunade, she isn't here," a deep masculine voice bellowed cheerfully in his ear.

Naruto eeped and whirled around. Jiraiya was looming over him, with a genial smile on his face and an evil glint in his eyes.

"Pervert-sennin!" Ack! Caught in the act! Wait, no, he had no way of knowing what Naruto was doing. Yeah. "Get a kick out of startling people?"

"Oho, so I startled you? Maybe you need remedial stealth training."

"In your dreams, perhaps," Naruto grumbled, crossing his arms defensively. Jiraiya herded him toward the end of the corridor, and Naruto didn't have any choice but to follow reluctantly. "What do you want? ...You don't have another trip planned anytime soon, right?" he added suddenly, worried. Cool techniques or not, it really wasn't the right time to go on a field trip with the old man.

"Nah. Why?"

Naruto relaxed. "Oh, no reason, just got some stuff planned."

"Stuff, eh?"

Well, it was Jiraiya who had taught Naruto that hiding the truth was easier if you actually told the truth. Or part of it. And let them assume whatever they wanted. "Yeah. With my girlfriend," he added with a huge grin. The grin was sincere -- he always got a kick out of thinking of Sakura as his girlfriend, and this was the first time he said the term out loud in front of another person. It felt like a milestone, even if Jiraiya already knew.

"Ooh? Sounds like fun."

The old pervert waggled his eyebrows; Naruto made a face at him. "Don't you have anything better to perv about?"

"Perv! Perv, he says. I am doing something infinitely better than perving." Jiraiya drew himself up proudly. "I'm drafting up my next epic."

Naruto snorted. "The BOYfriend will be there, too."

Calling Sasuke his boyfriend definitely felt weirder than calling Sakura-chan his girlfriend. But it was all repaid when Jiraiya twitched.

"Boyfriend. Booyfrieend... Like a boy. To make out with. Still inspired?"

"...You just ruined a masterpiece, brat."

Naruto snickered, even as Jiraiya cuffed him.

"Kinda gross to be writing about your students anyway, isn't it."

"Bah! Who would want to read about YOU? The situation has potential, that's all. It would certainly be an original twist in a romance story."

Jiraiya had herded him to the empty meeting room at the end of the corridor as they talked; they leaned side by side against the windowsill.

"Romance, hah. You write smut, old man."

"Well, of course! What better way to celebrate the passion of two hearts -- or three -- finally coming together?"

Naruto grinned. "And now you sound like Gai-sensei."

He got another slap to the head for his troubles.

"So disrespectful."

They watched the plaza underneath, the streets of Konoha stretching and sprawling up to the forest.

"...You will be taking the proper precautions for your escapade, I hope," Jiraiya eventually commented, watching him from the corner of his eye.

"It's not like we could knock up Sakura-chan again, you know," Naruto retorted without thinking.

There was a flash of pained amusement in Jiraiya's eyes. What had Naruto gotten wrong now? ... Oh. OH. Those kinds of precautions. Well, damn, did the old pervert really know everything or what?

/Didn't think you could fool an old fox, did you,/ Kyuubi rumbled mockingly. Naruto grumbled his annoyance under his breath, at the old man and at the demon fox both. Since when did Kyuubi approve of anyone he knew anyway?

"... Yeah, we're taking all the precautions we know."

"Well, that's a step in the right direction." Jiraiya turned back to watch the city, appearing to lose interest in the conversation. Naruto knew better now.

Well then. If the old pervert had guessed what was truly going on...

"Hey, old man..."

"I told you already, don't call me that. What do you want, brat?"

"Well, I--"

/Leave false tracks./

Naruto closed his mouth, startled at the active interest the fox was taking in the situation. Kyuubi hadn't offered more than a few offhanded comments at random since the fire; it felt... weird to have him so close to the surface, so awake and aware. A little crowded in his head, as if they ran the risk of blurring at the edges if they didn't watch what belonged to who. Naruto didn't push him back down, even though he knew he would probably end up feeling the repercussions in the next few days.

'Why? He already knows.'

/Not all your watchdogs are as pitiful at stalking as you are./

'I'm not pitiful!' Naruto protested; and then he paused. He hadn't noticed spies any time today... '-- did you... notice anything?'

Kyuubi growled in annoyance. /With what? My nonexistent ears? The eyes you refuse to turn in the right direction? Stupid brat./

Naruto pouted. Like he could just guess what Kyuubi could or couldn't see, when half the time he barely noticed the furball existed. 'Why do you care anyway?'

/Do you WANT to be stopped now?/

... Well, no, he didn't. So fine! Fine. Stupid fox could stay, and too bad if Naruto ended up sleepwalking again. Now how to make Jiraiya understand what Naruto was on about, while still making potential spies understand something else entirely...

"Naruto?" Jiraiya was peering at him.

"Ah -- uh, sorry. We still don't know what they want with guys like me, do we? Those guys with the weird cloaks."

"We have a couple of guesses," Jiraiya replied, arching an eyebrow at him.

Okay. Okay, he could do it. Now if there were spies, they would assume he was asking because he was worried about Akatsuki. Which was classified info, but hey, he was the main person concerned there. He just had to keep it... what was the word again? Ambiguous. "Think they want... Well, you know how my chakra is?"

Jiraiya hummed, but seemed to take a perverse delight in waiting to see how Naruto was going to end the sentence if Jiraiya didn't finish it for him. Naruto gave him a disgruntled glare.

"You see what I mean, old man. Do you think they might want to... To tap into it or something?"

"It's a possibility," Jiraiya commented noncommittally. "At first glance, it looks likely."

Naruto fell silent, hoping that he looked thoughtful, and not like he was trying to pinpoint eventual spies. As far as he could tell, there was no one at the window next to or over them, and the corridor was empty. He couldn't detect anyone, and if there were bugs in the room, they were well-hidden, but surely Jiraiya would stop him if he said something incriminating.

Unless Jiraiya really didn't know anything and was pretending his ass off to trick Naruto into telling him, which was a strong possibility.

Bah. He had laid enough of a false trail with the Akatsuki thing. Hopefully they would think him too simple for a two-layered misdirection.

"Say, hypothetically, what would happen if someone set up a direct pipeline from my chakra to theirs?"

Jiraiya chuckled wryly and shook his head in open amusement. His eyes were wary. "Depends on if the link is direct or filtered."

Naruto frowned. "Well, if it wasn't filtered, they'd just burn their coils -- I mean, that's what happened with Sasuke, and it was just a little bit of chakra."

Jiraiya nodded in approval. "Indeed. But sadly, they're smarter than that."

"So what would happen with filters?"

"Depends on the type... Perhaps a power boost. Possibly a crater."

Naruto winced. "Eurgh. Craters are bad."

"It all depends on how smoothly the flow is drawn out; they would need to control the output and the power surges very carefully."

Jiraiya picked up a piece of chalk and idly started tracing lines on the blackboard.

"With a structure like this, you'd be more likely to survive it, and it also would give us more time to rescue you -- and if you add this here, it gives you -- the victim -- a little more control on the flow, so in case the... guys in the weird cloaks give you some slack, you can slow down the process yourself. It would still be a hell of a strain on both you and the receiver, but then they're not S-class for nothing."

Naruto winced. Sakura was very much not S-class. None of them were. "... But what if they, err. Wanted to be on the safe side? And looked for a way to echo the, you know, the healing thinger I do?"

Jiraiya added a few scribbles. "Then it should look somewhat like that; if you disrupt this, it will backfire rather spectacularly."

Naruto took note. No disrupting the kinda angular coiled ram-horn pattern inside that triangle. Absolutely not.

...What did it look like again?

"...But in this case," Jiraiya continued, "there would be problems with... personality contamination."

Personality what? ...Oh. Possession. Naruto remembered that objection from Sasuke and Sakura's conversation. "There's no filters for that?"

"Hm, depends on the type, of course. Filters in this --" quick sketch-- "structure seem counterintuitive, on account of--" Jiraiya pointed out little details "-- these, but they would regulate the wild fluctuations better, and keep only the -- let's say brainwaves -- that echo the target's waves. The two sets of brainwaves might echo off each other for a while, leading to mood swings, but then there wouldn't be anything new that wasn't there before in the target's personality."

Naruto cringed. "Err. Alright." He hadn't gotten any of that. And could the diagram be any more complicated? He would never remember it all.

/I will./

Naruto swallowed. '...Tell me why I should trust you to help Sakura not get possessed by you.' He knew that technically Kyuubi couldn't leave him, but apparently, kitsune didn't really need to move to their next victim to exercise an influence on their minds.

/Feh! She's weak. Why would I want her?/

Naruto growled a little. It sounded dismissive enough to be the truth, and that was reassuring, but still. 'Don't talk about her like that.'

Jiraiya was staring at him.

"Ah -- sorry, I got a bit... Distracted." Naruto tried smiling, and realized that his canines had grown.


"It's alright. I just -- I'm not gonna remember all that," he admitted, shrugging; he hoped Jiraiya wouldn't ask.

Jiraiya didn't; he just gave him a last narrow-eyed look, and then he sighed and leaned back against the windowsill. "Well then, you will just have to do what everyone does when they wish to educate themselves, and go to the library."

"But I already did! And there was nothing that helped enough on that stuff, even in the restri-- er. The specialized section."

Jiraiya sighed. Loudly.

"Hopeless. Subtle as a brick," Naruto heard him mutter under his breath. "Did you check this side of the library?"

Naruto looked out of the window toward where Jiraiya was pointing, and stared in confusion. The East side was for agriculture and carpentry and things like that. "Er, old man..."

"Who knows, maybe the Breeding and Pest Control section will have books pertaining to your... vermin problem."

Vermin, huh. Naruto didn't know if he was feeling amused respect, or offended annoyance more. Perhaps both. If he got the chance, he would kill Jiraiya cleanly; the old man deserved that much.

... Kyuubi. Kyuubi didn't know. Not Naruto. Fuck. Naruto closed his eyes, and shoved the startled, bristling demon fox away; it hurt, they were too entangled to separate that fast. But he didn't want Kyuubi's stray thoughts in his head. The fox's deliberate comments were unnerving enough.

... Library. Pest control section. Alright. "I'll go and check."

"Be sure to do that. We wouldn't want said pest to run free around Konoha, now would we."

... Ack. His blooming headache didn't help his thought process much; but the comment was blatant enough that Naruto couldn't miss that Jiraiya wasn't bothering to pretend they were still talking about Akatsuki anymore. Oops. His little 'restricted -- er, I mean specialized' quip was probably too obvious to allow for even a second of misinterpretation.

Well, um. At least it probably meant no one was listening, or else Jiraiya would have looked more than slightly annoyed. Right? Right.

God, his head hurt, and there was too much light. He squinted, grinned sheepishly at Jiraiya; this time he made sure to keep his lips sealed.

"Any other advice, old man?"

Jiraiya gave him a serious look. "The Uchiha district already has protective barriers ready to go all around its walls; they would take some time and determination to breach. From the inside, or from the outside. Use them."

Naruto nodded, subdued. Not being interrupted without warning was good. Making sure that the villagers were safe was better. Breaching the barrier would take some time, time enough for Tsunade and the ANBU to get there, perhaps time enough to evacuate. Better than doing it in the forest; distance wouldn't help much, Kyuubi was more than vindictive enough to trek through a few countries to get back to Konoha.

They stood there, by the window; and then Jiraiya reached out and ruffled Naruto's hair, hard enough to make Naruto's head move with it.

"Ow! Leave my hair alone, old man!"

"You should get going now, you cheeky brat. Oh -- don't forget: banzai!"

Naruto folded in two over Jiraiya's hand, breath knocked out of him. Wheezing, he glared up at the old man and stepped back, rubbing his stomach. "What the hell did you do that for?!"

Jiraiya laughed. "No reason, just for old times' sake. Everything works better if you're relaxed! Especially the mixing of chakra. And I hear Tsunade coming back..."

Naruto whirled around and listened. Oh, damn. Heels stomping in the corridor. He was going to have a hard time replacing the scroll without her noticing; he'd already been lucky the first time. He turned back to face Jiraiya, who was leaning against the windowsill once again. "I gotta go, the old hag wants me to clean her office--"

Jiraiya looked amused. "How convenient."

"-- and she's gonna bitch if I'm not even started... er. Yeah, I guess." Naruto squirmed guiltily.

"Perhaps you're not entirely hopeless," Jiraiya commented as he turned to face him.

Naruto started smiling awkwardly, flattered.

"... Or perhaps you just got lucky." Jiraiya was holding a blue and white book, one Naruto had been damn sure was safely tucked away in his jacket. Naruto felt his pocket; the green scroll was still there, but his zipper was open. Argh! Stupid banzai trick.

"Get going, and don't forget to go to the library when you're done here. I'll give this back to Kakashi."

Oh, damn it. Was there anything, anything at all the old pervert didn't know? ... Kakashi probably knew, too. Hell, he'd probably told the old pervert about the missing book in the first place. Bunch of sneaky, meddling bastards.

It was a good thing they were on Team Seven's side.

Naruto sighed, chuckled despite himself, and waved jauntily at Jiraiya as he walked out of the meeting room.


Setting up the seal, in Naruto's humble opinion, should have trumped cleaning the house a hundred times over.

Apparently the first was an excellent reason to get the second done.

"I don't understand why I've got to clean up both bedrooms upstairs!" Naruto groused as he stomped back down the staircase with a bucket full of dirty water in hand.

Sakura looked up from her scrolls and sighed at him. "Because there's a layer of dust we could use as a mattress in there."

"It's not that bad, really." Naruto opened a window, leaned out to check that Sasuke wasn't anywhere in sight this time, and dumped the contents of the bucket on the wilted flowerbeds underneath. "And beside we're not even using them. I mean, I wouldn't mind if it was going to be our bedroom, but they're barely big enough to fit two people and even then, the people will have to be real friendly, if you catch my drift."

"Since when do you mind that?" Sakura replied with a chuckle and a roll of her eyes.

"Well, I don't, but sometimes I like to sprawl all over the place. And what are we gonna do in summer? We'll roast alive."

"We could put futons on the gallery," she suggested, wistful. "I've heard that people with traditional houses do that."

"Bah. Sasuke won't. This gallery's turned toward the street. We'll be too exposed."

Sakura sighed. "Mmn."

"Yeah," Naruto commiserated, even though he didn't know what was so special about sleeping in the gallery.

"Yeah... Are you done cleaning yet?"

Naruto grimaced, and waved the empty bucket around in annoyance. "I thought we agreed that it was useless! And boring! But especially useless. We're not gonna sleep there, and we're going to do the seal thing in the dojo anyway."

Sakura glowered at him. "Well it needs to be done anyway, doesn't it? I'm not going to live in a house where there are doors you never open for fear of being eaten by a mutated dust bunny."

"Or buried alive under a landslide of broken things?" Naruto continued, chuckling.

"Or poisoned by a ramen packet that someone stacked in a damp corner."

Naruto stuck out his tongue at Sasuke, who was leaning against the door to the corridor and watching them. "It's not my fault it's damp everywhere in the kitchen."

"It's not like it's going to stay there long enough to get moldy anyway," Sakura commented with a little laugh. "Did you need something, Sasuke?"

"Hm. Know where I can find a stepladder?"

Naruto scoffed. He wasn't giving up his. "Hey, you're a ninja, be creative."

"I don't feel like being creative with a bucket of paint in hand and my feet stuck to a rotting ceiling."

"... Man. The ceiling's rotting too?"

Sasuke shrugged. "Probably. I'm not about to test it out." He pushed off from the wall and stepped onto the first step of the staircase.

Naruto yelped a protest. "Hey! You're not taking my ladder!"

"Ah! So you DO have one!" Sakura pointed at him, accusing.

"... Well... Yeah. But I'm using it, damn it."

Sasuke rolled his eyes and started walking up the stairs again. "You're a ninja, be creative."


"The bedroom ceilings are a lot lower than the dojo's. You don't need it. I do."

Naruto huffed and crossed his arms on his chest, glaring death at Sasuke's retreating back. Sakura giggled into her hand; he pouted at her. "Mean."

"Don't be a baby, Naruto." Sakura rolled her scroll, stashed it to the side, picked up a sheet of paper covered in scribbles, and got up.

"What's that?"

"Oh, just containment seals to apply on the walls. They're not really necessary, but better safe than sorry, right?"

Naruto's smile softened a bit. No chance was too insignificant to bother with, huh. "You just want an excuse to have a romantic moment with Sasuke again."

She startled, freezing in her tracks. "What? I didn't --"

Oh, hell, now she looked guilty. Stupid! "Uh huh. And all those study dates were platonic, eh?" he asked, leaning closer and nudging her in the ribs knowingly. "You, him... A shiny scroll full of weird techniques..."

Now she was pouting. Naruto's grin widened.

"Aha! So nothing's ever happened? Oh, man, he sucks. Poor Sakura-chan, your other boyfriend is a eunuch. Don't worry, I'll give you all the lovin' you need."

She caught sight of his waggling eyebrows, and burst out in scandalized laughter. "Oh, that's horrible! He's not."

Naruto stared at her dubiously.

"... I'm pretty sure he's not."

"Well, 's good that one of us is sure, then," Naruto grinned.

"That's cruel." She sobered up. "Nothing has ever happened with him -- well, I mean, it was so -- so nice to have an occasion to talk with him like this, you know? So stimulating -- intellectually stimulating," she rectified as she caught Naruto's leer, "and I really do feel like we became a little closer... and it's really nice to know that he has such a high opinion of my intelligence..."

"But no making out."

Sakura reddened, and her shoulders slumped. "... Well... No."

Naruto chuckled and wrapped an arm around her shoulders, pulling her against his side. "For such a smart girl, you're really silly sometimes."

"Hey! How come?"

"Well if you're waiting on HIM to make the first move, you're gonna die an old maid. No, seriously, I love the bastard to death, but he's frigid like somebody's great-grandmother. He's not just gonna wake up and say 'Oh hey, wanna go on a date'. So next time, you should MAKE it into a date!"

Sakura blinked at him. "Make it...?"

"No, seriously. Start it. Molest him! He secretly loves it -- OW."

Sasuke had just brained him with the stepladder. The Uchiha didn't stop for so little; he kept stomping down the stairs and past the two of them, scowling and refusing to look their way. Naruto rubbed his head and glared at his back.

"Really should get laid more often."

Sakura shook her head, chuckling tiredly. "I should get back to work now. Thank you," she added, with a little smile, and a quick kiss to the corner of his mouth that made him grin goofily and forget his bump.

He watched her follow Sasuke through the door, and then sighed heavily, shook his head, and made his way upstairs.


The bedroom, as it turned out, had a window. And that window, as it turned out, opened just over an air vent for the dojo.

He didn't notice until he had washed most of the ceiling -- clinging to the walls with his dirty shoes, oops, but that wallpaper was ugly anyway -- and leaned against the open window's edge, as he tried to figure out how to reach the center of the ceiling without leaving muddy footprints on the damp tiles. But there was really no way he could miss Sakura's faintly muffled, but yet perfectly audible, "So... about that date..."

From that moment on, all thoughts of the dirty ring in the middle of the ceiling where henceforth abandoned.

Sadly, for a disappointingly long time, he only heard silence.

"... What?"

'Sasuke, you fucktard,' Naruto thought charitably, 'mess it up and die.' Sakura had to be pretty embarrassed at being caught talking about Sasuke behind his back. So, that she would even bring it up again was something. A kinda big something.

"Well, you know... He was teasing, but -- maybe the idea has some merit, don't you think so?"

Sasuke grunted, or maybe he said something, but he was too far from the vent to hear the words. Naruto grumbled under his breath.

Sakura chuckled; her voice echoed a little, as if she were facing away from the wall now. "Somehow I don't see you enjoying an evening at the movies or at the karaoke bar all that much, anyway."

"... Heh. Depends on the movie, I guess." A moment of silence. "Research in tandem isn't much of a date, though," Sasuke added reluctantly.

There were a few scrapping sounds -- preparing the walls for paint, maybe? Sasuke dragging the stolen stepladder around? Naruto couldn't tell.

"You know, I used to think that real dates would be being taken out to outrageously expensive restaurants and showered with roses. And then we would go clubbing. And you would say 'You are the woman of my dreams' or 'I don't know how I lived so long without you by my side' every ten minutes, at least."

She chuckled softly; Naruto bit his lip, and imagined the expression that went with that gentle, amused tone. It made him smile, too; a little ruefully, but tender above all.

"But I don't even like to dance all that much, and I think if you ever say something so horribly sappy to me, I'll have to check for genjutsu. I mean -- it probably would make me... Feel nice, but I know better now -- it wouldn't be natural for you. You're not really the kind to say things like that, and it isn't fair to expect you to be."

Her voice softened, barely a whisper. Naruto had to strain to hear it.

"But whenever you say something, I know it's the truth. And when you know there's something beyond your ability to figure out and you just expect me to figure it out for you -- I wouldn't trade that feeling for anything."


"I mean it, you know. You're really smart, and you just -- you always need to do things on your own, and yet you ask me anyway, like you don't even need to wonder if perhaps I can't figure it out. I just wish you could trust me that much in battle. But I'll train, you'll see. And then -- and then..."

Ack! And then what? Naruto leaned a little more, trying to catch any sound that could clue him in as to what was going on, and ended up sticking to the outside wall desperately as he overbalanced. By the time he managed to scramble back inside the room, there was nothing else to listen to. He didn't have a clue whether they were kissing, or hugging, or ignoring each other in awkward silence. Perhaps they had simply moved away from the vent.

He probably shouldn't spy on them anyway, shouldn't begrudge their moments alone; but sometimes he got worried. The two of them always over-thought everything, and Sasuke could hurt Sakura-chan all too easily -- she always hoped for so much, and he didn't like emotional expectations.

Sometimes Naruto wondered what would happen if Sasuke started to feel for Sakura like Naruto himself did. He would be happy for them, he knew he would; and they would still love him, and need him there to be their friend. But he didn't know if he would still be necessary as anything but their friend. There was the child to think of, true, but Naruto didn't like the idea of using him or her as a guarantee. Naruto should be with Sakura and Sasuke because they loved him, not because it was better for the child. If the kid was his -- well. He could still be a dad and a friend without being shacked up with them.

He would miss them, though, now that he had an idea of what it was like to be with them.

Naruto knew that he was supposed to save as much chakra as he could, just in case, but surely one little Kage Bunshin wouldn't hurt, and they made okay temporary stepladders. He picked up his brush, climbed on his clone's back, and started scrubbing at the dirty ceiling again. If he got done soon enough, maybe he could check on how well they were doing.


Naruto's quick check revealed them standing side by side in front of the far wall and pointing stuff at each other. The tone of their low voices indicated more seal talk, which made him groan; but Sakura-chan's left hand was cupping Sasuke's right elbow, and when he reached up to fix the curve of the preliminary sketch, he did it with his left hand instead of pulling away. Good boy.

Must be nice to be ambidextrous, Naruto reflected as he returned upstairs. Sasuke didn't use his left hand often outside of battle, but with a little prompting, Naruto was sure there were plenty of uses they could get out of it.

Entertaining himself with dirty thoughts, he went back to work on the next room. He knew that Sakura was tired often, and Sasuke was a frigid bitch, but really, this time! The second they were in the clear, he would jump them both. It had been way too long, and wasn't it ridiculous to jerk off so often to fantasies of them both when he could have just reached out and touched? Yes. Yes it was. It was completely ridiculous, and he was done suffering from blue balls night after night. And he wouldn't let them wriggle out of it again!

"Are you trying to clean this table out of existence?"

Naruto blinked down at the table, and then up at Sasuke, who was standing in the doorway with an eyebrow arched. Naruto glared at him; Sasuke blinked slowly, as if he didn't know that he was a cock-teasing bastard-prude.

"So, how was the mini-date?"

Sasuke grimaced briefly. "It wasn't a date at all."

"What, no kisses?" Naruto demanded, aghast.

Sasuke looked briefly embarrassed, and then glared at Naruto. "If a kiss is enough for you to make anything into a date..."

Aha! So they had. "Nah, but it's a good start." Naruto grinned back, and let go of his cleaning rag so he could reach out and pat Sasuke's head in approval. "Good boy."

Sasuke dodged, of course, and slapped his hand away. "Don't start, I'm not in the mood. Come on."

He turned on his heels and stepped away. Naruto made a face, confused. "Going where? Doing what? I thought you didn't need me in the dojo just yet."

"No, outside. I'm going to put up the barrier."

"Oh. Alright." Naruto wiped his hands on the rag and followed him down the stairs. "What do you need me for?"

Sasuke shrugged. "Check the houses, look for intruders."

"... Why would there be intruders?"

Sasuke gave him a sidelong glance as he paused before the front door. "Apart from the two old meddlers? Yesterday you weren't under watch, as far as I know. We don't know if you are today."

Naruto huffed at the reminder. "I wish they'd stop tailing me all over the place at random." Well, really, he wished they would just stop tailing him completely, but if he couldn't have that, it would be nice to KNOW when they were tailing him at least. But then that probably defeated the purpose of putting him under watch.

"You're not going to get that for a while after tonight," Sasuke pointed out cynically, and opened the door.

"Yeah, but hiding a conspiracy's harder. When I sex you up, I'll only need to close the blinds for privacy."

Sasuke twitched and his head whipped around to glare at him. "What?"

Naruto grinned, hands joined behind his head as he started strolling down the street, keeping an eye out for intruders. "Well, I wouldn't want to shock little grandmas with eagle eyes who were innocently doing their laundry at the other end of Konoha, right? They could get a heart attack, or something. It would be a real massacre! All over the village, grandmas falling dead from the shock."

Sasuke growled, a muscle in his jaw jumping. "Sex, sex, and sex. Do you ever think about anything else?"

"Yep. Fighting. Betcha 'bout half of the grandmas would be found with smiles on their lips. That's the way I want to go, I think. Spying on good sex, if I can't kick the bucket by having good sex myself."


"Yeah, dying on the battlefield sounds good on paper, but really, death by sex is the way to go."

"Naruto. Don't make me kick you in the face."

Naruto laughed at his grouchy tone and faintly twitching eyebrow. "Spoilsport. You know, if I didn't know better, I'd think you were shy. Hell, you'd give Hinata-chan a run for her money. At least, even if she wasn't direct about it, she still asked for what she wanted." He was going to end his tirade with 'and you want sex, repression-boy, but you'd die before asking for it', but Sasuke interrupted him.

"Wait. She asked you out?"

Naruto made a face as the conversation was redirected. He hadn't meant for it to go down that way. "Kinda, yeah."

Sasuke's eyes narrowed. "Really."

Naruto turned away from the building he was surveying to give all his attention to Sasuke. He really hadn't expected that tone from him. "Not now! It was at least two years ago. She wasn't even dating Kiba yet."

Sasuke gave a dismissive grunt; Naruto rolled his eyes. Of course Sasuke wouldn't care about Hinata-chan's love life, not even because he knew Naruto did. Sasuke only cared that she didn't ... er. Wait. Sasuke, possessive?

"You were so obsessed with girls back then, it's strange you didn't jump on the occasion."

"Heh. Thought about it, but... no one likes being 'instead of', you know? Hinata-chan would have known I still liked Sakura-chan best." He grinned, suddenly, and nudged Sasuke's side with his elbow. "Besides, I just knew Sakura-chan would notice I'm supposed to be the man of her dreams, eventually. And I was right."

Sasuke arched an eyebrow and regarded him coolly. "Are you?"

Ow. Bastard. He knew Sakura still loved Sasuke best, there was no need to rub it in. "Well, sorta, yeah." A pause; a grin. "One of the men of her dreams, at least."

Sasuke turned away.

Naruto chuckled warmly, and nudged him again. "You know, I think I like it better this way." He didn't have to be 'instead of'; and he didn't have to lose Sasuke either. Infinitely better. "So, how was that kiss?"

Sasuke glared, again. "Exhibitionist, and now voyeur. Why am I not surprised."

"Hey! You make it sound like I'm perverted -- oh wait."

Sasuke rolled his eyes. "Stop clowning around."

Naruto stuck his tongue out at him, but did as suggested. They had a job to do.

They separated when they reached the wall; Naruto wandered through the compound, looking for intruders, as Sasuke stopped, and touched things, and frowned a lot. Naruto suspected him of not knowing exactly where the trigger tags were situated. Sasuke advanced slowly; Naruto searched in an S pattern so that he would come back to the outer wall regularly, and always ended up close enough that he could strike up another bout of conversation.

Mostly, it was naughty stuff, but Sasuke took to completely ignoring him, and since the only other living things Naruto had found so far were stray cats and rodents, it got a bit boring.

So when, on his next sweep, he noticed that Sasuke was now methodically smearing blood on an old tree, he just had to pause and stare. "What are you doing?"

"Activating," Sasuke replied absently as he shaped a hand seal. "Did you find anyone?"

"Just a mama cat and her kittens. I'm not chasing them off; she'd eat me."


Sasuke really didn't sound all that interested, in either the cats or the conversation. Naruto sighed heavily. Well, maybe if he wouldn't chat about random things, he would talk about the barrier. "So... Does this thing work with anyone's blood, or just an Uchiha's?"

"Just an Uchiha's," Sasuke replied distractedly. A kanji lit up on the bark, gleamed briefly and disappeared; Sasuke leaned back, regarding the spot in silence for a few seconds before he turned away, apparently satisfied.

Sasuke proceeded to the next segment of wall; Naruto went back to his patrol for another loop, dragging his feet a bit. If there really was someone else inside the compound, and they were good, Naruto wasn't about to find them that easily. If they were smart, they'd be following the two of them, or else staked out by the house. Still... perhaps he'd get lucky.

When he came across Sasuke again, Sasuke was smearing more blood onto yet another tree. Naruto tilted his head. "Er. Are they all stuck to trees? Why not the walls?"

Sasuke shrugged. "There are mirroring tags hidden on the walls, but the trees are the ones stocking chakra."

Naruto joined him and peered up at the tree. "Oh. Kinda cool that you don't have to power it yourself, but how the hell does that work? Trees aren't really alive -- or they can't produce chakra at least."

Sasuke rolled his eyes. "How do exploding tags explode? They're just paper and ink."

Naruto scratched his head. "... Wait, I knew this. I think."

Sasuke rolled his eyes, again; Naruto kicked at him, and was disgruntled when he dodged.

"As long as they work, why should I remember how they make them? It's not like I could make mine anyway, I'm a field ninja, not a... tag-supplier ninja or something."

Sasuke gave him a look that meant 'Why do I always get dragged into the stupidest conversations with you?' "They're infused with chakra, and then a simple spell is applied to them with special ink. It's the same chakra and ink for any type of tag -- fire, smoke, flash -- but the spell makes the effect different. The trees work on the same basic principle."

"... Duh. So then why doesn't everyone do this? Use trees?"

Sasuke hummed thoughtfully. "I suspect some do -- there must be a reason why Konoha has trees growing everywhere. But it's not as easy as that."

Naruto looked curiously at Sasuke and his sudden, suspicious lack of scowl. These days, it was rare when he didn't sound put-upon when he had to explain something to Naruto. The whole mess didn't improve anyone's mood or patience, and Sasuke already didn't have a lot to spare. Naruto found himself loath to waste this sudden mood shift.

They strolled down the street in companionable silence; Naruto watched Sasuke as he cut his fingertip open with a kunai and did his thing with the next tree. Naruto felt a little at a loss, though; it was just plain weird that Sasuke hadn't yet pointed out that Naruto wasn't doing his part of the job. "If there's anyone out here, I'm not gonna find them," he justified guiltily.

Sasuke nodded, and looked unsurprised. "Of course."

"...Of course?" Naruto made a face. "Hey, why did you ask me to come along if I was gonna be useless?"

Sasuke turned away and started walking again; for a few seconds he didn't answer, and Naruto frowned. What, no snipping back?

The silence didn't feel companionable, so much as ominous, suddenly.

"I put you down as my next of kin."

Naruto stopped dead in his tracks. "... What?"

His back still on Naruto, Sasuke snorted, and his voice turned insultingly slow and deliberate. "If I die, you get my stuff."

Snarling, Naruto jumped forward and grabbed Sasuke's shoulder, forcing him to turn around to face him. "What the fuck?! I thought we had the whole seal thing under control -- you and Sakura said it wasn't very dangerous after all!"

Sasuke's face seemed carved in stone. "If we're cautious, and if nothing unexpected happens, it's not dangerous. It's just in case, Naruto."

Naruto grabbed Sasuke's collar with both hands and gave him a shake. "No, not 'just in case'! You're not dying ever, so shut the fuck up! What the hell, we'll just find another way--"

Sasuke snaked an arm under Naruto's and mirrored his hold, tugging him even closer so he could snarl in his face. "It is NOT that dangerous, and I didn't tell you just so you could freak out on me! I don't plan on dying. I know we can make it work, and we're going to. Alright? Shut up."

Naruto tightened his grip, teeth bared. "So why are you telling me this now?"

"Because if I die at some point, and the child isn't mine, I want you to raze this compound to the ground. Don't allow anyone to take anything from it. Just raze it. And then sell it, or rebuild a little house for you and Sakura, or whatever. Hell, you can turn it into an amusement park if you want to, for all I care."

Naruto loosened his double hold on Sasuke's collar; he didn't let go, though, because this was probably as close to a bear hug as the bastard would ever let him get. "Damn it, Sasuke..."

The Uchiha looked away, leaned back. "I know some people stole furniture and random crap from people's houses before. It's disgusting, but it doesn't matter. I just don't want the compound to stand here like a ghost town, until the village decides that my corpse is cool enough for them to start looting it for clan secrets."

"Sasuke, you dumb fuck." Naruto reeled him right back in his personal space, leaned even closer, forehead to forehead. And then he smiled, even if the very thought hurt. "Sure. I'll make everything go up in flames. You goddamn pyro asshole."

He didn't let go for a few seconds; just looked into Sasuke's eyes and watched him stare back. He thought about saying something -- 'sure, you rat bastard, anything for you'. Perhaps 'I'll die before I let you check out on me.' Perhaps even 'you're so far under my skin you'll tear me up if you leave now. So don't. Just don't'. Maybe 'I love you', but then again, maybe not quite, he didn't know.

And then, reluctantly, he let go.

"With our luck the kid will be yours, just you wait and see. And I'm not teaching him or her Katon."

Sasuke's eyes narrowed; not seriously, though. "Really."

"Nah, Katon sucks," Naruto retorted as he crossed his hands behind his head and grinned. "I'll teach her Kage Bunshin and Rasengan -- that's way more than enough to get out of anything."

Sasuke rolled his eyes; he was smirking. "One trick-pony."

"Hey, pony yourself! I know way more than one trick."

"You're right. Two-tricks pony."

"You're just jealous, because you've got to remember tons of tiny things that don't even work half the time, but MY techniques are always enough to get out of everything!"

Sasuke's smirk widened slightly. "Except when they aren't."

"Oh, shut up!"

A moment of silence.


Naruto tried to snap back something, prove Sasuke wrong and win the stupid argument, he really did; but he was laughing too hard for it to come through.


/It's time./

Naruto cast a long look at the Uchiha compound, at the village sprawling behind its gates. The barrier shimmered there, just barely visible in the night sky.

Naruto raked his claws on the tiles idly. 'You in a hurry, furball?'

/It would be a waste to come so far for nothing, wouldn't it./

Naruto chuckled, watching the moon. It peeked over the forest in the distance, perfectly full. 'Still don't understand jack shit to that elemental resonance thing.'

/You humans and your science. Laws for everything that dares to exist, everything deconstructed into cold, smooth little blocks of meaning that end up not meaning anything at all./

Naruto stretched his arms and back, didn't bother straightening up from his crouch; skidded-slunk down the roof, like a cat down a toboggan. 'You don't know why it works either, do you.'

/I know it works. That's enough./

Naruto caught himself on the gutter before he plunged over the edge, gave the rising moon a last look. 'Better hope it does. Because if it doesn't...'

He didn't finish his thought; he didn't need to. If the backlash hurt -- killed -- Sasuke and Sakura, Naruto would turn himself in to the ANBU on his own. If Kyuubi was playing him, aiming for a hidden loophole, Naruto would kill himself before the fox went anywhere and then they'd both die.

/If your bitches haven't messed up, there won't be a backlash./

'You're not commenting on the loophole, I see.'

Naruto felt Kyuubi's muzzle stretch over fangs in a parody of smile -- or perhaps it was his own face; he couldn't tell, they were that close. There was no reply; he hadn't really expected one anyway. He snorted, and rolled over the edge of the roof, landing soundlessly on the gallery below.

The house was dark, the makeshift bed in the living room made with military precision. He wanted to ruffle it, but that could wait, just a little while longer.

The dojo was well-lit; enough so that when he opened the connecting door, he ended up squinting, pupils constricting painfully.

Sakura and Sasuke were standing face to face in a corner; him with ink on his hands and tension in his shoulders, her wrapped up in a light robe as if it was the only thing between her and a snowstorm. They were both doing that not-quite-looking-at-you thing; Naruto stalked closer, intrigued and vaguely frustrated. They better not be once again talking to death everything bad that could ever happen.

"Ah, Naruto." Sakura smiled at him, unconvincingly. And she was so beautiful and so worried and he'd kill to make sure she was alright, because she was his. He'd kill to have her smile at him for real, from the heart.

Naruto didn't really want to bother saying anything back; he forced himself anyway, grinning just as unconvincingly. "This wall dry?"

"Um, yes--"

He caught her shoulders when she was still asking 'why?', pushed her back against the inked lines and loops on the wooden wall, and kissed her, hard and hungry. It wasn't all him and he knew it -- they both did, him and the fox -- but it didn't matter. She was his, his to protect and to love, and if he couldn't make her smile true for him, he could make her respond much more truly.

Her startled little yelp made him purr, and her confused moan was all the surrender he needed.

When Sasuke sneered something about how unnecessary it had been to shoulder him out of the way like that, Naruto broke the kiss with Sakura just so he could slam Sasuke against the other wall of the corner and silence him properly. With tongue. And teeth.

This time he didn't expect a surrender, and didn't get it anyway. He liked it better like that.

Then he stepped back, one hand on each wall, corralling them in the corner, and grinned fangily. "No angst now. Forbidden. I'll bite you if you start the 'woe, what if' routine."

Sasuke sneered, unimpressed; Sakura pouted, and pretended that her lips and cheeks weren't still flushed from his kiss. "... You're a pest."

"You're too gloomy. We don't need two Sasukes in the team. So stop it, alright? Or I'll kiss you again."

Sakura laughed, a bit shakily. "Oh no, please, not the kisses, I'll do anything."

Sasuke snorted faintly; Naruto glanced at him, vaguely surprised by his willingness to allow Naruto to box him in. Sasuke didn't say anything, though; he just stared back. He seemed a little annoyed, but Naruto couldn't tell if it was at one or both of his teammates, or at himself, or all three. Naruto didn't smile for him, because Sasuke didn't need it; he needed to know that Naruto was determined to carry their plan through.

"Hey, Naruto... You're..." Sakura trailed off, but her meaning was clear enough, as clear as the way she was staring at his face -- fangs and slit pupils and widened whiskers marks, no doubt.

Naruto shrugged and smiled at her. "Foxy? Yep. It's alright." He stepped back, freeing them. "Okay, let's do it. ...Oh hey, Sakura-chan," he added, leering at her, and her hands, clenched on the edges of her robe, "I didn't realize you needed to get naked. Niiiice."

Sakura recovered enough to glare at him; he grinned back, approving.

"I'm not naked." Huffing, she stepped toward the middle of the dojo, muttering under her breath as her stiff fingers fought with her belt. "I couldn't take a naked ritual seriously, anyway. I would be too embarrassed to do anything but giggle."

Naruto followed, throwing his shirt in a corner and taking his place on the symbol that mirrored hers. "Whaaat? You'd look awesome. Like a priestess of arcane... stuff. Powers beyond man's understanding, and all that bull. What do they call it, skyclad? Yeah, you'd look all kinds of nice, naked under the stars."

She rolled her eyes as she took off the robe, revealing a plain sports bra and her usual black biker shorts. They looked a lot nicer with no skirt to obstruct the view.

"I'm a bit out of date as a virgin sacrifice, you know."

"It's alright," Naruto retorted as he stretched his legs and leaned back on his hands casually. "We can sacrifice Sasuke. He's not a virgin either, but the way he acts, I'm sure no one will be able to tell the difference."

Sasuke scowled at him over the edge of the ink bowl where he was mixing in more of his blood. "Oh, go to hell. You talk like you're a slut, but you don't have any more experience than I do."

Naruto snorted, teeth bared in a hard grin. He didn't remember whether Sasuke had Sakura before or after Naruto took him, but first lover or not, Naruto had been Sasuke's first guy; and knowing the misanthropic bastard like he did, Naruto was pretty sure he'd be Sasuke's last even if Naruto died tomorrow. "Sure I do."

"Porn magazines don't count as experience. If that were the case, every prepubescent brat raiding his parents' closet for a laugh would be a sex guru."

In that light, memories of Kyuubi's sex life probably didn't count either, even if he remembered way too many sounds, scents, and feelings to compare simple photographs to them. He grinned anyway, with even more teeth. "I got a blowjob once. Top that, bitch."

Sasuke just stared at him, the brush he was using to mix the ink coming to a stop. Naruto's fangy grin widened.

"You can't, eh? Ha! I win."

Sasuke started mixing his stuff again. "I'm trying to figure out who would get anywhere close to your dick of their own will, but it's not computing."

Naruto snuck a glance at Sakura. She was sitting in her spot and biting her lip, and didn't seem inclined to say anything. Damn. Naruto had hoped she would interrupt them. He grumbled under his breath, "It was a prostitute, during a trip with Jiraiya."

Sasuke smirked thinly, like he didn't need to add anything to that.

Naruto growled. "Shut up, I still win."

"Um, guys, can we--"

"Like hell you win, you had to pay someone."

"Hey! I didn't ask her, she was the one who started it!"

"Because she could tell you were an easy mark!"

"Neither of you wins."

Silence fell in the dojo.

For a little while, at least. "... Uh. What?"

Sakura's cheeks were red, but she didn't back down; if anything, she glared even harder. "Neither of you wins, because I do. There, are you happy? I know I am. I always wanted to win a game of 'Who has the biggest penis'." She didn't need to tack on an 'idiots' at the end; her tone came through clear enough.

Naruto was still trying to decide whether to be jealous, or ruefully amused, when Kyuubi purred out an appreciative laugh. /And now your pink slut only lacks a set of balls to be manlier than your bitch./

Sasuke wasn't so amused. "Wait a minute here. You had sex before -- and you never said anything?"

Sakura sighed wearily. "Listen, it isn't that I'm not happy you're jealous--"

Sasuke twitched. "I'm not--"

"...But this really isn't anything we have time to debate now. All you need to know is that it wasn't anyone from Konoha, and he really, really doesn't matter anymore, didn't even matter as much as I thought back then, and hasn't mattered at all for years. Now can we please get a move on -- preferably before the sun rises? The moon isn't going to wait for us."

Sasuke closed his eyes, and then sighed, deep and slow. Naruto relaxed; Sasuke still didn't look very happy, but apparently the touch of urgency in Sakura's voice had reached him.

"Alright. Later," Sasuke capitulated.

Still on edge, Sakura nodded quickly, hands flitting nervously all over the place. "Yes, yes, afterwards, anything you want to know--"

"The size of his wang?"


Naruto grinned. Panic successfully avoided. "Gotta reassure Sasuke that he's bigger, after all."

Sasuke sneered. "I don't have your insecurities, nor your reason to have them."


This time Sakura didn't need to say anything; her discouraged slump was obvious enough. Naruto sighed in irritation; but he would /fuck/ pummel Sasuke into the ground later.

"Okay, yeah, we're done. Let's get started."

Sasuke's eyebrow twitched at that, but only rolled his eyes briefly and didn't retort anything.

Sakura took a deep breath, and lay down on her back, squirming a little to make herself comfortable on the wooden floor, lifted up her hips to roll down the waistband of her shorts -- Naruto expected a flash of pink curls any second now, but she stopped just before that. Sasuke moved from his cross-legged position to a more formal one, kneeling at her side, back ramrod straight, knees slightly apart. Naruto thought of samurais, and vaguely regretted the T-shirt Sasuke was wearing; formal kimono would have suited him better right now.

Sakura folded her arms to keep them out of Sasuke's way and smiled up bravely. "I'm ready."

"Alright," he replied, brushing his fingers against her arm discreetly.

Naruto propped himself up on his elbow, and watched as Sasuke leaned over Sakura and lifted the brush out of its bowl. Thick black ink dripped on her bare stomach; Naruto purred quietly when the tip of the brush dipped into the ink, and started to glide around her navel with deliberate slowness.

Sasuke started with a spiral reminiscent of Naruto's own, following it with lines of symbols that crawled their way down her hips and sides, connecting her to the array on the floor. The wet, glistening trail highlighted the gentle curves of her body. Sasuke's hand was steady, strangely elegant, like the angle of his jaw and neck.

"Naruto." Sasuke's tone was absent; he didn't look at the blond. "You should try to meditate. Make sure your chakra flows properly."

Naruto frowned. It was hard to mix his chakra and watch the scenery. But if they thought it would be better... Grumbling, he gave the tableau a last look and lay down.

On the ceiling, just overhead, there was a quickly penciled doodle of a man, with little schematics of how far apart he should put his feet and where his elbows were allowed to be; it surprised a laugh out of Naruto.


"Oh, Sakura-chan, you should be an artist," he teased as he obligingly copied the indicated position.

"What -- oh, that..."

She sounded like she was blushing. Perhaps she would have said more, but Sasuke shushed her; talking made her body move, and he was still painting. Naruto relaxed, contemplating the little fellow. He had a zigzag for hair and actual whiskers that poked out of the sides of his round face.

"Pretty sure my eyes aren't that beady, though."

Sakura stifled a snicker; Sasuke huffed quietly, though he didn't look up. "Naruto... Meditate. You need to be able to control the surge of demonic chakra when we make the connection."

"Yeah, yeah."

He meditated, making himself aware, first of the room -- Sakura and Sasuke's breathing, the soft slide of the brush, the scents inside the dojo, of old sweat and incense and ink, faded presences worn away to a few wisps he might have been imagining -- and then of his body, the slow movement of his lungs and the beat of his heart and the subtle, permanent tension in his muscles -- the way each living cell produced chakra. Slowly, he started channeling that chakra toward his center.

The rasp of clothes and the bare feet padding toward him disturbed his concentration; he opened an eye to see Sasuke leaning over him. "My turn already?"

"Yeah. Shut up and don't move."

Naruto snorted, but the calm from the meditation hadn't entirely left him yet. He closed his eyes again, waiting for the first drop of paint.

It wasn't really cold; but it wasn't warm either. It was kind of thick and a little sticky. But then, what had he expected? It was ink and blood.

Sasuke had lost a little too much blood today, between the paint and the barrier around the district, and Naruto knew that Sakura couldn't use her chakra to fix him. But he would hold on until the end; he was too stubborn not to.

"Put your palms flat on the ground."

Naruto obliged, and felt the brush travel up his chest and then down his arm in quick little flicks. It felt weird, ticklish and wet, and too light a touch to do anything but tease. He grinned anyway, eyes still closed. "Nice view, huh?"

Sasuke snorted. "Delightful. Let me concentrate."

Sasuke was soon finished. Apart from connecting him to the array through his arms, there wasn't much to paint on Naruto; the bulk of it was going to be on Sakura. Naruto tracked Sasuke's progress away from him and to the corner reserved to the spellcaster through sound.

There was a pause, where even Sakura's breathing stopped.

Sasuke broke it first. "... Let's do this."

Naruto chuckled. "Heh. We're waiting on you, bastard."

"This is the stupidest idea we've ever had," Sakura commented from her own corner.

Naruto's smile widened. It hadn't been Sakura's idea at all; but here she was, ready to gamble everything she had on it anyway. It hadn't been Sasuke's idea either, though without him it would have stayed a silly flight of fancy.

He wasn't going to let them down.

He sank into himself, with the sound of their breathing and Sasuke's whispers stretching behind him like a lifeline.

"...Dragon, Snake, Hare, Rooster..."

Sasuke's low voice buzzed in his ears, or perhaps it was the beat of his heart. Slow, but strong; heavy. His chakra ebbed and flowed along with the ancient rhythm, pooling at his center to mix a little red with blue, and then letting it spread along his spine, his legs, his arms, up to the tips of his fingers -- and farther. It was easy, like the tides -- ebb and flow, ebb and flow...

The darkness under his eyelids slowly turned to green. He wasn't surprised. He took a step toward the cage, water sloshing around his ankles. Fiery red bubbled to the surface with each of his steps.

Their steps.

Mirror. Himself, standing behind the bars, at the edge of the endless dark. A blue glow highlighting a spread of deep grooves on his cheeks. Crimson eyes. A wild, reddish-gold mane. His face. His body, beyond which weaved and slithered nine shadows.

"-- Snake, Ram, Rat --"

They took a last step and paused, meeting their other's eyes, and for a few seconds weren't sure on which side of the bars they were, or even whether that mattered.

What mattered was the tail -- the power -- as it snaked through the bars, seeped into his skin, mixed with his own life-force. And then it was his to control. And a second tail; and a third. It was heady. It felt so right. A fourth, slower, more reluctant -- and then he reached into the cage and pulled a fifth away from his mirror image. They growled at each other, fangs bared.

"-- Ox, Dragon, Ox, Tiger --"

But there was the child.

When the fifth tail passed under his control, the red eyes' pupils turned round and the scarred cheeks smoothed out.

He -- they -- walked away from the cage, and his footfalls rang twice, and two shadows followed on the green walls. A mountain of burnished fur, evil intent and raw chakra lay still behind him, half-swallowed by the darkness.

"-- Dragon." Silence. "Naruto."

There was a door now, on the opposite wall from the cage, where there had been none before; a human-sized door covered in scribbles that hurt his eyes when he stared. He opened it, watched the ankle-deep, chakra-infused water of his own cage-room flow, spreading down the new corridor.

There was a gate along the way -- a thick metal grill like one might find in a castle, that wouldn't let a human arm pass, never mind a demon's paw.

Somewhere beyond was his child.

He was at the gate before he even wondered if he should, his double-steps echoing like a stampede in the narrow corridor. But the child -- it had been starved of chakra for so long. Was it still growing normally? Was it weakened -- stunted -- dying?

The gate was heavy in his hands; but not heavy enough, once he used one of his tails to brace himself. He pulled, fangs bared. His child. His, his, his. Like hell he would let them make it some sickly little cripple.

He gave a last grunt of effort, the thick, heavy metal bars digging into his hands.

And then triumph -- and tearing, searing pain.

Naruto stumbled alone in the water; and when he threw himself at the falling gate, wisps of red chakra died in his empty hands. The green corridors were ringing with the echoes of Kyuubi's run, and on the walls, his shadow danced, fox and then man and then fox.

"No!" Naruto raged, throwing himself on the barrier. It didn't bulge. He stumbled, fell on one knee; everything hurt and was off-kilter and he couldn't think right -- the baby, the baby -- his mate -- Sakura -- he could think enough. Lifting -- he needed to lift it. Enough, just enough -- he stayed on his knees, and when the gate was at chest-height he wriggled underneath and almost got a foot snapped off and he didn't care, he was hunting.

His baby. His mate. Couldn't let the demon hurt them -- how had he lied to Naruto? They'd been one -- how had he hidden his true intent? How had Naruto missed it?

Up ahead and all around, there was a woman's scream; and somewhere far beyond the green corridors, Sasuke yelled and fell silent.

He ran. He flew.

He arrived too late.

There was a slender figure crumpled in a faraway corner, curled up around a tiny, fluttering light. Pink hair in disarray, spread on the floor. Unmoving. Arrays of raw, white-blue chakra surrounded her -- on the floor, on the walls, in the air itself, like barriers. They felt like Sasuke, like thunder and fire. He knew they would hurt like it without touching them.

Kyuubi crossed them like they didn't exist for him, even though the burns and welts mirrored themselves on Naruto's skin.

"--Sakura! Breathe -- damn it, breathe!--"

Orange chakra started bubbling up from the spreading puddle on the floor; five tails of fire coiled all around the demon and her. Naruto roared in rage as he rushed forward. Too late, too slow, and Kyuubi was leaning down, and his claws --

"Who the HELL do you think you are?!"

Naruto froze in his tracks, his hand smarting where Sakura had slapped aside Kyuubi's paw. And stared. A lot.

Sakura -- his Sakura-chan, miss more-brains-than-brawns, the girl whose waist he could encircle with one arm -- was standing there, back hunched, ready to pounce, and suddenly she seemed ten feet tall. Raw chakra crackled around her like lightning. Behind her, on the floor, was the translucent, ghostly shape of another pink-haired girl, still curled up in a tight ball around a soft glow. What the hell was going on?

Kyuubi's low growl made Naruto forget his confusion. He had to save her first, he could wonder later. He rushed forward, splashing redder and redder water as he went; all around Kyuubi the water boiled over, demon chakra oozing over his body.

Naruto was in the middle of his last leap when a lashing tail caught him under the ribs, sending him flying. The breath was knocked out of him, and then his head rapped sharply against a wall. He fell, dazed, struggled back to his knees as the world danced around him. At the other end of the black void-room, two blurry shapes faced off against each other. The echoes of each hit made the floor shake. Whenever he blinked, the red-burning one seemed to have four paws, and a huge, gaping maw.

It didn't stop Sakura from slugging him right in the muzzle, a heavy punch whose momentum sent Naruto reeling and Kyuubi stumbling back. She seemed utterly furious. Kyuubi had offended her, and now she would make him pay.

Naruto would have been more impressed by her fearlessness if the beast hadn't chosen that moment to start laughing.

"Perhaps he didn't choose so badly."

Sakura sneered, charged, fists swinging.

Kyuubi was human again -- just in time to dodge under her blow, a low, animalistic crouch. Her foot scythed down -- Naruto's head exploded into pain again, and he stumbled. Kyuubi snarled, blocked her follow-up fist; his sudden backhand threw her to the floor, rolling like a puppet with cut strings. Naruto roared in outrage, slammed into his double -- felt the shock resonating up his back, and the echoing pain; he didn't care. How could Kyuubi even think about hurting her? How could he dare?

The world tilted, water splashed. He dug his claws into Kyuubi's flesh, his teeth in Kyuubi's shoulders -- or perhaps it was Kyuubi who was biting him -- it hurt the same, fur and then skin and then fur. Caught in the loop, he didn't know who was doing what anymore, but he knew that he wasn't going to let go.

"--kura! Come on, you can--"

Chakra was welling up around them, bubbling and spreading; it should have left blisters on their skins. It seeped through instead. All around, the walls of the soul-room started shaking. There was another male voice shouting somewhere far away, but they couldn't make out the words. It didn't matter, anyway.

"On three--"

What mattered was fangs in shoulders and claws digging grooves into muscles and vicious kicks and limbs snaking around each other, and tails winding and whipping and melding, and hate rage hate betrayal disgust hate.

And she said, "Three."

The floor exploded. Water rushed back at them, and red bubbles and fire and rage, like a wave -- a tsunami -- and they rolled together, snarling from the shock. How dare she interrupt them when they were trying to protect --

"Out! Out! Get the hell out before I kill you!"

Chakra surged again; a giant hand -- large as they were tall -- swept the floor, narrowly missed them as they rolled out of the way -- backhanded its way back. Slam. A hard surface broke behind them. They growled, offended and dazed, stumbled back up over the shattered door to pounce out of the corridor.

"Tiger, Tiger, Ram!"

The walls of the corridor came to life. Spears and kunai showered them, pits opened under their heels. And inside her soul room, a larger-than-life Sakura stood, water bubbling red around her legs, fists white-knuckled, between the door and the ghost-shape of the other Sakura. They caught a glimpse of the soft, flickering glow she was cradling, and then chains wrapped around their throat, their chest, their limbs, hurling them backwards. They dug their heels in, infuriated, wrapped a tail around the chain to melt it off.

"Naruto! What the hell are you doing?!"

He stumbled.

They wanted to return to their child. To make sure it was alright.

But Sakura was already doing that. Guarding it, nurturing it. And the spears kept springing from the walls; he was just a little too slow and one of them dug a furrow in his back. The pain enraged them again.

"Naruto, damn it, don't make me--"

('I put you down as my next of kin.')

-- Oh. Right.

If he made Sasuke kill him, the bastard would bitch.

They still wanted to go back to their child, to make sure that it would be safe, that it would be strong. But they'd all done their best and more than that was... bad. He wasn't really sure why it was bad, but She and He wouldn't -- didn't -- like it. That was reason enough.

He gave a last look at the two girls, and the little flame the smaller one was cradling, and then -- he didn't want to go, but he went anyway. He turned away and ran down the corridor, past the traps and the blades and the sloshing, frothing water. The gates slammed closed on his heels; the clanks of deadbolts sliding home echoing under the low ceiling. He was -- they were -- angry still -- his mates had gotten in their way -- but proud also. His way or theirs, the baby would be strong.

The last door closed behind him, leaving him standing inside the green room. He stumbled his way back to the cage, feeling, now, the exhaustion and the wounds. Most had healed over by now, but the soreness stayed. His head swam, and the double shadow looming overhead made him even more dizzy.

He closed his hand on a thick metal bar, and opened his eyes to a wooden ceiling, where the wobbly stick figure grinned at him from under a mess of glowing barrier sigils. His ears were whistling, and the acrid scent of singed hair tickled his nose.

He could hear them breathe -- fast, but not in the peculiar, high-pitched way that betrayed a painful wound. So he breathed with them, and tried to make the world stop spinning.

"... Everyone's alive?" Sakura eventually inquired from where she lay sprawled on the floor.

Sasuke grunted. Naruto carefully pulled his claws out of the gouges in the wooden planks, and added his own "Yeah."

He managed to lift his head off the floor. The glow of the barriers was dimming slowly, letting him see charred lines and loops on the walls where the sigils had been. Panels had splintered. Three of the four high-placed, narrow windows were broken. Sasuke's ink bowl had rolled away from him to crash against the wall; there were broken shards of pottery behind him, and red-black splashes all over the floor just outside the main array -- they'd been lucky none had splashed the patterns.

Sasuke was pale. Already, he was trying to scowl, but it only made his shaken look worse for those who knew how to look.

"What the hell was that?" he demanded as he climbed unsteadily on his feet.

Sakura gave an exhausted laugh, flat on her back, and spread her arms as if to stop the floor from swaying. "Don't know. Hurts. We did it!"

Naruto laughed with her. It was over. They were safe. She was going to be alright. He lifted his head just enough to meet her eyes, and they grinned at each other.

"We almost didn't," Sasuke retorted, glaring at the both of them as he made his way to Sakura. "And it wasn't even one of the weak points we were ready for... Where do you hurt?" He fell to one knee at her side, one of his hands by her head, tapped her cheek to get her to open her eyes.

She laughed, again, and brought back one of her arms to hold Sasuke's hand against her face. "Sasuke, calm down. I'm alright. It's over."

He gritted his teeth. "You said it hurt."

"It aches. Kind of burns. It's marvelous."

"It's what?"

"It's not a bad pain! It's like -- when you've been running for hours, and -- you know, you hit your stride, and then your legs feel like they might have fallen off and you just haven't noticed yet, but you could run for days and never have to stop. It's like that."

She was grinning, Naruto could hear it. He couldn't see anything but Sasuke's sudden stillness.

"What's up, guys?" Naruto asked cautiously, wondering if perhaps he should sit up or something.


Sakura didn't sound concerned. Sasuke spared Naruto a quick, sideway glance, and then reversed his hold, catching Sakura's wrist and lifting it over her head.

She had claws.

She had claws, and neither she, nor Naruto really seemed to be able to do much more than dumbly stare at her hand.

He wondered if, like him, she had trouble seeing the problem. She was alive. They weren't going to have to watch her waste away, bedridden. They weren't going to have to leave her behind.

... So she had claws. So what? Naruto did, too. It looked kinda hot on her, even.

"... Oh."

"'Oh'? That's all you have to say?" Sasuke shook his head. "Something's wrong with you."

"No, there isn't," Sakura replied sulkily.

"Yes, there is. You have claws. You should be..."

"--I should be freaking out?" Now she sounded irritated. "It's just temporary chakra-induced euphoria and some keratin growth. My hair is probably a little longer and more bristly as well. It's nothing, I'll trim my nails and it will be gone." She sat up, sighed, gave Sasuke a softer look. "I know I'm not much as far as medic-nins go, but I would have to be really horrible to miss such a gross imbalance. It feels weird, but it's not hurting me."

"Unless it's making you euphoric to make you miss the smaller details, like the fact that it's changing you."

"It. Can't. Do. That," she growled.

Naruto twitched his nose, and interrupted her before she could add something else. He liked her when she was assertive, and seeing her stand up to Sasuke was always a treat, but not when Sasuke was only riding her ass because he didn't know how else to show he was worried. "Ehh. Sakura-chan, just let him check the seal. If it's done properly it shouldn't allow Kyuubi to change you for good, right?"

Sasuke glared at him, then at her, and then back at him, with a touch of desperation. "She's growling!"

Naruto rolled to his side slowly. The room briefly tried waltzing around him, and then settled down; but everything stayed too bright and detailed. "Yeah, well. The old man told us there would be bleedover."

Sakura made a face. "That's not a word."

Naruto sat up, leaning heavily on his hand. "You understood it, right? That makes it a word. Stop whining and let Sasuke check you out." He grinned suddenly, and waggled his eyebrows. "I know he's had long enough to do it with his eyes, but it's the kind of thing you see better with a... hands-on approach."

Sakura snorted and giggled, and let herself fall back on the floor, arms curved elegantly over her head. Her back arched up from the floor, offering her flat stomach. The seal covering it was no longer ink. Part of her now. Naruto liked the effect.

Sasuke stared at her for a few seconds, and then shook his head and concentrated chakra into his fingers, brushing them along the dark loops and swirls that sprawled on her skin. He started with the point closer to her solar plexus, made his way down every single arch and coil. Black hair framing high cheekbones, dark, slanted eyes, deadly serious -- worried. Naruto liked that, too. Both the face, and the feelings trying to hide behind it.

When Sasuke's fingers reached the point just above Sakura's pubis, she sighed. Naruto smirked a bit, and smirked more when Sasuke paused for a second before forcing himself to continue his check-up.

"So?" Naruto asked, when he managed to tear his eyes away from Sasuke's strong, callused hand on Sakura's belly.

Sasuke gave him a forbidding scowl, as if he could guess what Naruto was thinking -- he probably could, Naruto acknowledged, and tried not to leer -- and lifted his hand away from Sakura's skin. Sakura sighed again, this time disappointedly.

"Lean back. Let me see yours."

Naruto forgot his question as Sasuke crawled over Sakura's legs to get to him and crouched, a foot on each side of his knee. The blond leaned back on his hands, digging his claws into the wood when Sasuke's chakra brushed his skin. His own seal was still black as ink, refusing to fade, but he wasn't going to worry about that yet.

"...The link between you two seems to be dormant. As it should be. And the filters and stopgaps are in place..." Sasuke shook his head, raked a hand through his hair, visibly frustrated. "It still shouldn't have done that," he added, nodding toward the damaged walls and broken windows. "How the hell did he slip through? I thought he couldn't leave you!"

... Oh. Naruto blinked, tore his attention away from Sasuke's legs on both sides of his knee, his warmth so close, and the delicious thoughts of pulling Sasuke closer and making him ride his thigh -- tore his attention away again. "He didn't," Naruto replied, when Sasuke rolled back onto the balls of his feet to move away. "I went with him."

Even as languid and relaxed as she was, Sakura's eyes still snapped up to his face in a second. Sasuke's narrowed, threatening, and Naruto wanted to frown back at them for being so serious -- until he remembered what that meant.

"... I really did. I went with him." Naruto covered his eyes with his hand and laughed humorlessly. "So stupid. God."

"... So you let him trick you into invading Sakura?"

Sasuke's voice was dangerously soft. Naruto twitched. "I know, okay! I was expecting him to lie to me. And he didn't, he never lied for one second."

Sakura sat up and tilted her head. "So he... asked to see what his kit-incubator could take before bursting into flames, and you thought it sounded nice?"

"No! Goddammit, no." Naruto looked away, disgruntled. Guilt soured pretty girls in bras like nothing else. "He wasn't trying to hurt you; I'd never have let him if he'd even thought about hurting you."

"Hah! If that's his caresses, I don't want to see what his punches are like!"

Naruto wilted. "... You were just in his way."

"So he was trying to get to the child," Sasuke retorted, vindicated.

"He didn't wanna hurt the baby." They were doubting his judgment, Naruto could tell. He bristled. "He wanted to do anything but hurt the baby."

"Because possessing it wouldn't hurt it, maybe?" Sasuke snapped back.

"He didn't wanna possess it! He wanted to make it stronger. So it would survive," Naruto added, and looked away, a hand pressed flat on his stomach. "He really wants the baby to survive."

"... Very badly?" Sasuke asked quietly, thoughtful and displeased.

"You have no idea how badly."

"Badly enough to change Sakura to make sure of that?"

Sakura's claws raked the floor as she gave Sasuke a harried glare. Her hair really was more bristly; it hung slightly past her shoulders, perhaps a little farther than it had yesterday, but the ends looked less like her usual smooth locks and more like she was attempting a pinker, slightly more gravity-prone version of Sasuke's duckbutt. "I told you I'm fine!"

"Eh, as long as Sakura-chan feeds the baby enough chakra, he doesn't care what she looks like. Human, not human, whatever. She could even be a cat or a horse -- hell, she could be an octopus; he doesn't give a shit. As long as the kid is kitsune."

He paused, gave his teammates a somber look.

"And... 's what he was trying to do. Make sure the baby would be one hundred percent kitsune."

There was a muscle twitching in Sasuke's jaw. "And you let him."

"It's not like I knew he would do that! He was just -- he was worried, okay? Like 'it's going to be weak and sickly' and 'what if it dies' and that's already stuff I was worrying about. So he didn't -- I didn't... think. We just wanted to make sure the kit would be alright." Naruto grimaced. "Just not the same way."

Sakura moved a little closer on hands and knees. "And so you decided to flood me with chakra and try to take over together. What happened exactly? One second I was trying to dam a river and the next I was trying to swim in an ocean."

Naruto blinked at her. Didn't she remember -- the green corridor, and her own featureless inner room, and the two Sakuras? "But you were there," he protested.

"That doesn't mean I had much time to really map out your progress in my coils when I was getting hammered with wave after wave of demonic chakra," she replied tartly.

"... Chakra?"

She tilted her head; Sasuke frowned and placed his palm on Naruto's forehead, fingers catching in his hair, and angled Naruto's face to stare into his eyes. "What's wrong with you, dead-last? Dizzy?"

... She didn't remember the fight in the soul-room? Kyuubi with Naruto's face? The second, see-through Sakura? That was... huh. He opened his mouth to explain, and then closed it again. He didn't want to sound crazy. "Nah, sorry, I was distracted. But hey, he didn't succeed, right? Blocked him before he reached his goal. So everything's alright."

Sasuke didn't seem convinced. Sakura either. Now he had to distract them, before they started questioning him. But then Sasuke was still kneeling over his thigh, a hand in Naruto's hair, and Sakura sitting with her legs folded together at her side and shirtless and still absently raking her claws on the floor, so it probably wouldn't be too difficult.

... And then Sasuke sighed, hand falling, and his shoulders slumped a little. "Fine, whatever." He shifted his weight back and to the side, as if wanting to sit on the floor; but it was either between Naruto's knees or against Sakura's side, and, apparently, he needed to think a bit on which would be the most unacceptable.

Naruto was about to make the choice for him; but then he noticed that Sasuke's hand, the one half-hidden behind his leg, wasn't really all that steady. "Hey... You alright?"

Sasuke frowned. "What are you talking about?"

"Dunno, you look... Not fine."

"You're looking wrong," he snapped, and turned away when Sakura peered at him.

Yeah, right. Sasuke was still kind of pale, Naruto wasn't sure how he'd missed it. "No, don't think so."

Sasuke growled and rolled his eyes. "Who do you think was holding the wards and trying to complete the seal while you were playing chakra flash-flood?" He still wouldn't look at Sakura, and only gave Naruto a quick glare before glancing away again. "...I'm a little tired, that's all."

-- which meant it wasn't just simple exhaustion, or else he wouldn't have admitted even that much. But if he was admitting it, it meant he was using it as misdirection for something more. Damn it. Naruto scowled, opened his mouth to prod him again.

Sakura moved fluidly up on her knees, and leaned against Sasuke's back. She rested a hand on his shoulder; the other crept around his chest. "I'm sorry we worried you," she whispered against his shoulder, and then she hugged him and Sasuke pretty much stopped breathing.

Naruto watched. The curve of Sakura's hip and the contour of her breast against Sasuke's shoulder, and her claws brushing against his collarbone. And Sasuke's clenched fists, tendons rolling under his skin, and the arch of his neck, and his eyes, unfocused and -- vulnerable. Almost.

"... I wasn't worried," Sasuke muttered under his breath, halfheartedly. And then he closed his eyes, and Naruto knew that it had been much worse than simple worry.

He reached out to stabilize Sasuke's unsteady crouch, a hand on his chest -- blue cloth, cool skin underneath. Sasuke opened his eyes to look at him, and Naruto slipped a hand around his neck and pulled him down for a short, insistent kiss.

"Hey, asshole."

Sasuke glared at him, but it didn't have any fire in it. "What, dead-last?"

We're fine, Naruto wanted to say. He even wanted to give an apology for scaring him, but then Sasuke would kill them both just so he could pretend it had never happened. So in the end Naruto just grinned. "It's not that late, is it? The seal didn't take that long. Not even -- what, eleven? Eleven thirty?"

"I think so..." Sakura gave him a curious look from over Sasuke's shoulder. Naruto beamed.

"Good! Then it means we've got the rest of the night to celebrate."

And before either of them could tell him no, he closed his fingers on Sasuke's t-shirt and pulled, bringing them both down on top of him. Their weight knocked the breath out of him; he wheezed out a laugh, his arms moving around to hold them both.

"Don't you think we have more important things to do?" Sasuke protested as he tried to find a support to push himself off Naruto.

"Oh, lay off about the seal, we've been working on it nonstop for the last month and a half, maybe longer. It's over now."

Sasuke sneered at him and tried to push himself up on his hands despite Sakura's weight on his back. "I was thinking more about checking that we're not about to be invaded by a platoon of ANBU."

"They can watch," Sakura offered magnanimously.

Sasuke craned his neck to stare at her, and he and Naruto blinked in unison.

"... Gee, don't laugh so hard at my jokes, guys, they're not that funny."

Naruto smirked. "And here I was happy you were finally getting kinky."

"You two--"

Naruto growled, cutting Sasuke off before he could get going. "Shut up. We're going to go to bed and fuck like bunnies. That's what we're going to do. And if the ANBU wants a look, they can cough up an entry fee and shut the hell up."

"You can't be serious," Sasuke growled back, though Naruto thought his voice lacked the proper resonance to make it vicious enough.

"I'm serious," Sakura replied instead, and then she bit Sasuke's shoulder.

By the way Sasuke jerked, Naruto thought he could safely assume she had also grown fangs.

By what he could feel now against his stomach, Sasuke wasn't as not-in-the-mood as he was trying to pretend. That or even his steely self-control wasn't absolute enough to fight teenage hormones.

"--Sakura -- Naruto, don't be stupid, we'll have all the time in the world later -- we should be erasing our tracks, reassuring -- nngh."

Naruto's hands were tight on Sasuke's hips; he tangled their legs together, rubbed the side of his foot against one of Sakura's calves and watched her nibble on Sasuke's ear.

"Like everyone involved in the whole surveillance business doesn't already think we're having sex!" she grumbled. She was blushing, but it didn't make her scowl any less determined. "So if they're going to think we're doing it regardless, I wouldn't mind it actually happening. It's been months!"

"Only two..."

Naruto grinned, eyes narrowed predatorily. "Sasuke... Don't make us tear off your clothes with our teeth. We'd do it."

"Oh, can the porn star lines," Sasuke snapped, and heaved himself up suddenly. Sakura squeaked, rolled to the side. Naruto started to dig his fingers into Sasuke's hips, but his claws caught skin and he hesitated. Sasuke tore himself free too fast, and then there were faint white lines in the middle of the red imprints left by Naruto's fingers.

They all sat on the floor, Sakura with her legs folded to the side, Naruto with his own stretched out, Sasuke ready to push himself up.

And then Sakura leaned toward Sasuke, slipped a finger in his collar, and pulled down.

"...I think I like the claws," she mused, staring at her hand in surprise and approval. Sasuke was gaping at her, sitting there dumbly with his t-shirt torn open down to his stomach.

Naruto started laughing, and reached for Sasuke to tear off the rest of his clothes. Startled out of his astonishment, Sasuke batted his hands away, pushing himself away from them with his heels.

... Hohoho.

Naruto rolled on his hands and knees, and grinned. He'd been meaning to jump Sakura's bones too, but in the mood she was in right now, it was a toss-up who would jump each other first... And getting Sasuke to accept that it was over already and that they were safe and together came first -- she already knew that.

He could always tackle and bite and happily fuck her afterwards.

They kept moving forward on hands and knees; Sasuke kept moving back on his ass. The scene would probably look quite ridiculous to an outsider, but Naruto didn't care, because there was an off-balance look in Sasuke's eyes, and he could catch glimpses of his nipples and flat stomach through the torn shirt, and Sakura's bra really wasn't hiding much, and Naruto really, really enjoyed seeing her like that.

"This isn't funny -- are you hunting me?"

Sakura huffed, blowing a pink lock away from her face. "Yes. And I'm sure I'll be very sorry tomorrow. I'll apologize, even."

Sasuke tried to move to the side, but Naruto crawled that way to flank him. The black-haired boy glared at him briefly -- and Sakura pounced.

Sasuke wheezed, the breath knocked from his lungs. "Sakura, damn it, what's gotten into you!?"

Naruto laughed, hard and loud and way too amused; "It's more about what hasn't." and Sasuke glared at him briefly --

-- Straddling Sasuke's hips, she took fistfuls of Sasuke's shirt to tear off, leaned down to get in his face. She was breathing hard -- annoyance, arousal, Naruto didn't know and didn't care.


"You're hard, Sasuke," she snapped back with surprising anger. Under her, Sasuke had stopped breathing. "You're hard and you want it, and like hell you're going to have 'I was drunk' as an excuse every single time this happens. So I'm giving you a choice."

Naruto stared, shocked. This... was a lot deeper than simple annoyance at Sasuke's frigid ways.

"Tell me it isn't for me, not even a little bit. Tell me I'm not hot enough for you, tell me you just don't like me like that; tell me whatever. But tell me now, and mean it. Because otherwise I'm going to have sex with you."

"... Sakura..." Sasuke hesitated, frowned -- and then Sakura was kissing him, hard, with teeth. It wasn't a gentle, lingering kiss, or a sexy, enticing kiss. There was despair in there; love, too, lots and lots, and desire and pain.

Naruto realized he wasn't breathing much either.

He wanted them both so much -- for so much more than just sex. He wanted to hold them and possess them and be possessed by them and know that they were never going to let go, and he wanted to feel their fingers between his as they came, and he wanted them to give themselves to him -- not even for the thrill of calling the shots, just for the trust and the love, and the belonging to him, belonging with them. And what Sakura wanted -- it was just that.

Teammates -- being teammates was everything. And yet in the long run it wasn't going to be enough.

When Sasuke's arms rose and wound themselves around her back, reluctant at first, and then tight enough to make his muscles shift under his skin, make the breath leave her in a startled little gasp, Naruto shuddered and threw himself at them. He wound an arm around Sakura's waist, dug his fingers into Sasuke's biceps, and bit and kissed her shoulder. Sasuke was kissing Sakura back now, eyes closed; when she whimpered breathlessly, Sasuke made a startled little grunt in echo.

Naruto whined softly, desperate. Because Sasuke... Because that was what Sakura wanted to know, if he'd ever, ever let her in -- and now there Naruto was, alone on the outside, and he was glad for them both -- and he couldn't take it.

"Love you," he whispered past the knot in his throat. He didn't even know which one he was saying it to. "Love you, love you."

Sakura's breath hitched and she broke the kiss, just long enough to nod jerkily. Naruto didn't know what it meant -- who she wanted to tell it to. Sasuke was panting under her, his fingers still digging into her back, his eyes still closed. Naruto growled, pushed her aside enough to get at his mouth -- he bit him, tasted blood, was bit back. Good. Sakura rubbed her cheek against his, and her lips; dropped kisses on Naruto's eyebrow and Sasuke's eyelid and the flat of his nose, and then her lips brushed his and Sasuke's somehow -- and he hadn't known they could do that, a three-way kiss. It was awkward, with little freedom of movement, but it calmed him down a little anyway. He laughed, more out of relief than amusement.

"Love you," Sakura choked out. Naruto kissed wetness away, and she closed her eyes.

Against his arm, he could feel Sasuke's hand undoing her bra strap, and he laughed again, shocked and a little thrilled, and really, not surprised at all that Sasuke was trying to get out of saying it back. "Asshole."

Sakura laughed with him, and kissed Sasuke again, hands cupping his face. The two of them paused, just -- looking into each other's eyes, and Naruto felt like a fifth or even seventh wheel again, but this time he made himself not interrupt. Sakura-chan getting Sasuke to want, not just tolerate her -- Sasuke learning not to be quite so wary and guarded... It was great for them both. It really was. She'd be good for him.

"... Asshole yourself, retard."

Sakura burst out into snickers, because Sasuke hadn't even looked away from her one second, but his hand was still under Naruto's nose, closed into a fist but for his middle finger.

What could Naruto do, but sneer at him and then bite it? Nothing else, really. Fucking angsty, antisocial bastard. He wrapped his lips around Sasuke's finger and sucked wetly, still glaring at him, daring him to make something of it.

"... Fuck."

Naruto smirked and curled his tongue around the base of Sasuke's finger a last time. "I'd think it's closer to a blowjob, myself."

Sakura was still laughing herself breathless, in between two kisses to Sasuke's jaw. "Boys. You're getting all worked up over going down on a finger."

Sasuke made an annoyed noise and slipped his Naruto-free hand under her to cup a breast, making her gasp and stop laughing very quickly. "Shut up, or you won't get any."

Sakura squeaked in outrage and sat up on him hurriedly. "Just try to stop me!"

Naruto couldn't help but laugh, and laugh. He'd never seen them so arousing -- both flushed in offended annoyance, Sasuke pinned down between Sakura's thighs and Sakura fighting to whip off her own bra. Visibly she intended to ride him like a pony. "Hold your -- heh -- hold your horses, Sakura-chan. Might be better in the bedroom, yeah?"

She glared at him for interrupting, claws digging into the floor on both sides of Sasuke's head.

"... Also, if you let him get up, it will be a lot easier to yank his pants down. 'Cause you know, right now it's gonna be a bit complicated."

A second later, Sasuke was alone on the floor, sprawled on his back between her feet, and she was pulling on his arm to get him to stand up.

"What the hell?!" Sasuke protested. He looked quite molestable, with reddened hickeys on his skin and hair all over the place, and Naruto was tempted to yank his pants off and jump him right there anyway.

"I want to be in our bed," Sakura retorted. Naruto blinked, because it wasn't much of a bed -- three layers of blankets, and ratty sleeping bags -- but the way she said it, it was a king-sized, artistically carved oak affair with down-filled pillows.

One that needed proper christening.

He could get behind that.

He leaned down, caught Sasuke's other arm to haul him up. Scowling, Sasuke tried to pull free, but neither he nor Sakura relaxed their grip; and then there were two sets of claws at his waistband anyway.

Naruto really appreciated working in tandem with Sakura-chan. Especially when it was about shredding Sasuke's clothes off him.

"My pants, you retards! You're both crazy!"

They probably were, at that. But it seemed 'crazy' got Sasuke going anyway. And seeing how much Sasuke really wanted them, no matter what he pretended, didn't make Naruto's own underwear feel any less constricting.

"... Okay! We're going now." Claw-tipped fingers circling Sasuke's wrist, Sakura forged ahead, bare feet stomping on the wooden planks, small, firm breasts bouncing freely in rhythm with her steps. Sasuke went along with it for a few steps, a little dazed, but when they passed through the door between the dojo and the house, he dug in his heels.


"No!" Naruto interrupted him. "No more wait. I'm tired of waiting." Naruto twisted Sasuke's arm behind his back -- Sasuke let him -- and pushed the black-haired boy forward with his body. If he stole a grope or two in the process of manhandling Sasuke there, it wasn't Sakura who was going to berate him.

It was dark in the living room, where they slept, but Sakura's skin was pale and her biker shorts black, and so it wasn't easy to miss it when she rolled them down her legs.

She went to the nest of blankets they called a bed and sat there, waiting.

This time Naruto didn't need to push Sasuke to join her. They went together, shoulder against shoulder.


<[Kakashi interlude] - [Lemon]> [Epilogue]>