They'd made love to him all night. Sakura kissing him long and slow, her hands keeping his shoulders pinned to the mattress as Sasuke rocked patiently between his thighs. Sasuke playing backrest, pressed against him from shoulder blades to hips, his teeth worrying at Naruto's neck almost too lightly to count as bites, as Sakura straddled his lap and sank down on him with her eyes staring straight into his.
He'd cried a couple times. They hadn't laughed.
Sakura had said "I love you." Sasuke had said "Naruto" like perhaps he meant the same. He'd believed them both.
He loved them too. He loved them.
It was nothing so simple as the easy warmth Iruka offered. Nothing like Jiraiya's pride disguised as bullying. It wasn't even anything like the happy bubbles of his old crush on Sakura herself, or the more confusing antagonistic, mildly obsessive glee in reaction to Sasuke's rare acknowledgement, or that melancholy hope for the two of them to find each other somehow, even if...
It was "mine" and "kill to keep you (alive-safe-with me)" and "anything you ask for, it's yours", and he just wished very hard neither of them would ask him to let them go, because it would tear him in two right down the middle.
Even now it still had him in a strange mood, not negative, but not exactly good or nice. Not quite what he would have called happy. Something he wasn't used to...
The earth felt more solid under his feet. The world was calmer. He didn't need to fight it all so that it would see him; they saw, it was all he needed.
Sakura caught him looking, smiled. He smiled back a bit, stretched his leg under the coffee table to nudge hers.
They had been relocated to a more secure hotel, with two rooms with twin beds (real beds, not too-narrow bunk-torture implements) and a kitchenette, surrounding a tiny living room of sorts. In the living room there was a low table surrounded by cushions. Naruto didn't think any of the three of them had even glanced at the inside of the second bedroom Sakura should have used for the sake of decency. Kakashi hadn't said anything.
(Naruto had the feeling Kakashi had spent the night exiled on the hotel roof pretending not to hear a thing. He was sure later he would laugh. For now he just smiled.)
"Hey. Start your guest list."
Naruto took the sheet of paper from Sasuke, who pretended not to be looking at him. He wrote 'all my friends' and said, "Done!" Sasuke grumbled half-heartedly.
"I need a hard number, idiot. And one that isn't the total population of Konoha."
Sakura chuckled. She was writing her own thing -- not a list, but a letter to her parents. 'Hey mom and dad, we need to get married, oh, yesterday, please help. Location, catering, decorations and such? You've got a whole month and a half.' Except, Naruto supposed, better written. (They were gonna owe Sakura's parents until the next century but Naruto hoped quality time with their grandchild would pay some of that back.)
Most efficient use of their month's lag before the third stage, the tournament: training, training, and when Kakashi put his foot down (and he would) take care of anything the Harunos absolutely couldn't. It counted as rest, surely.
Sasuke had started bitching about his political guests under his breath a half-hour ago. It was hilarious. Sakura was still trying to decide what to foist off on her mom and what on Ino, and hoping neither of them would feel slighted.
"May I have your inkpot? Mine's empty."
Sasuke stretched his arm to hand it to Sakura and winced, just a little. Naruto moved behind him on hands and knees, peering down the back of his shirt.
"Huh. Nice sunburn."
Sasuke only threw him a quick glance before he went back to scribbling. "I hate the beach," he muttered. Sakura briefly looked up from her much-struck out letter to chuckle at him.
Naruto lifted the back of Sasuke's shirt to take a look at the rest of his back. The sunburn was confined to his shoulders and a little down his shoulder blades. "Take it off," he asked, reaching for their first-aid kit.
"It's not that bad," Sasuke said, frowning at his list. "... Okita or Sugiaru..."
Naruto sat behind him and tugged, and Sasuke allowed the shirt to come off with barely a token 'you're worrying too much, I'm manlier than that' sigh. Under Naruto's fingers the skin radiated fever-warmth.
"Why the hell do they need to be feuding now. Which one?"
Sakura flipped a well-used coin. "Sugiaru."
Chuckling, Naruto got some burn cream and started massaging it in, even though he agreed, Sasuke's back wasn't that bad off. Sasuke probably knew but he let him get away with it. Naruto wondered how long it was going to last, all that 'No, I'm just being nice to Naruto because he needs it and I guess I can grit my teeth and bear the horribleness of -- oh, shut up, I wasn't cuddling. I don't need it at all, personally.' Probably not too much longer. Oh well.
"-No, wait, Ino will want to take care of the flower arrangements, but what if it clashes with Mom's decorations..."
Naruto sneaked Sasuke a glance and they both pretended to be very absorbed in whatever they were doing -- Sasuke, his list; Naruto, Sasuke's neck.
"How I wish we could just elope."
Neither Naruto nor Sasuke replied, save with groans of mutual dismayed agreement. It wasn't the first time the suggestion had been brought up -- by any of them.
But Sasuke couldn't afford to have the validity of his marriage contested. Not when he was about to officially restart the Uchiha. End of discussion.
Sighing, Sakura went to pour herself more tea, but only a few drops dribbled out.
"Don't move, I'm going," Naruto said, pushing himself up off the table before she could. He picked up the pot and went to the sink. Wash, wash. Fill, fill. Place on cooker. Watch as the water heats up, bubbles everywhere. Behind him the room was quiet, silence underlined by the scratches of pencil on paper.
He prepared the tea and turned around. Sakura flicked him a quick smile, Sasuke a 'keeping track of you' glance.
It reminded him of that time they were working on the seal, where he could do nothing but watch and be quiet as they figured things out, but this time around he didn't feel so much like a useless spectator. They had spent the night wrapped around him. If he asked, if he even looked like he was trying not to ask, they'd drop everything right away.
He smiled a little and put the pot down by her hand. He didn't sit back down.
He still had this one thing to take care of.
"I'm going for a walk. Yeah?"
Sakura started to push off the table, a worried look on her face. "Wait, I'll come-"
"Sakura." Resting a hand on Sakura's forearm to stop her, Sasuke watched him. Naruto smiled down at them both, a little apologetic.
"I'll be back soon. Write your letter, okay? Tell your parents I said hi."
He gave them a little wave and left. He walked, out of the building, and down the street, and right to the hospital.
Kakashi-sensei had fallen into step with him at some point, probably following from right when he left the building and drifting closer so that he hadn't even tripped Naruto's awareness. Hands in his pockets, Naruto paused on the hospital steps, waiting for advice, a rebuttal, another order. Kakashi just pushed the door and held it open for him.
"Room 209," he said.
Naruto opened his mouth, sneaked him a glance. Stared straight ahead, squaring his shoulders.
He walked in. Kakashi didn't follow. One flight of stairs, two. He didn't let himself slow down. His fists were clenched; he made a conscious effort to relax them, pretending they weren't shaking a little.
He was still a dozen feet away from his goal when the door to room 209 opened, startling him into stopping. A girl walked out of the hospital room -- twelve or thirteen year old, sleek black hair in a jaw-length cut.
The second she saw him she went from serious and a little stern to battle-ready, flicking kunai from her sleeves to her hands in a move that looked entirely instinctive.
"Back off!" she shouted at him, all bristled and angry.
She was terrified. Naruto wanted to throw up.
"W-what are you waiting for? Just go already!"
Naruto winced. "Listen, I..."
They both froze. The voice coming from the room was a boy's, young and high, wheezy and weak. Curious anyway.
"No one," the girl snapped back through the half-open door. "Go back to sleep."
"No really, who is it?"
She glared stonily at Naruto, planting herself firmly in front of the door so he'd have no way to go in but through her. "No one you want to see."
There was a long pause.
Naruto waited. If the kid told her not to let him in, he'd... well. There was nothing he could do. He told himself at least he would have tried, and that would make a difference, right?
The brunette stiffened.
"Let him in, please."
She opened her mouth to protest, but she already looked like she knew it would be useless. She closed her mouth without talking, glaring murder at Naruto, and then she turned on her heel and stalked in the room first. Naruto hung his head, took a deep, bracing breath, and walked to the door, counting every step. The kid's voice had been shaking.
He came in to see the little redhead attempting to push himself up his pillows on trembling arms; his other teammate had a hand on his shoulder and was attempting to keep him still, though when he saw Naruto he froze, the blood draining from his face.
The redhead looked even smaller in that adult-sized bed, the bandages swallowing his whole body from chest to hips. He looked like he should have been bronzed by the sun but his skin was sallow from massive blood loss. Naruto stayed by the door, hand gripping the doorjamb.
The kid's voice was weak, there were dark circles under his eyes. He probably shouldn't have been awake. He looked nervous, too, as he stared back at Naruto. The girl -- Mikuri? -- was standing guard by the bed, eyes dark with threats; the other boy was frozen on the spot.
"I'm so sorry." It just blurted out, past the knot in his throat. Seeing him like that, Naruto wanted to cry. He'd done that to him, hurt him and scared him and broke that unconscious trust, that innocence. "I'm so sorry. It's alright -- if you never forgive me, it's alright. I don't deserve-"
Shit. Shit, shit, shit. He bit his lip, closed his eyes. Still no response. That was pretty clear. He hadn't expected any better, had he? It was the kid's right anyway.
"...I just wanted to say that. I'll leave you alone now. I promise. I'll keep away from-"
"I want a can of soda."
Naruto popped an eye open and stared at him, incredulous. "... Whuh?"
The redhead was still pale and shaky, but there was a smile now on his pointy little face. "Get me a can of soda. The green and blue ones. Yeah? 'cause we don't have them at home and they're really great."
Naruto stared some more, and stared, and -- "Heh. Heheh." He wiped his eyes with his forearm and laughed, relief bubbling up unstoppable. The kid's teammates were staring at him and boggling but he couldn't possibly have cared any less. "Alright. Anything you want. In the distributors?" The girl nodded, bemused, almost against her will. "I'll be right back!"
A nurse yelled at him not to run in the corridor as he zipped past. He just burst out laughing.
"Sorry!" he called back, not sorry at all, and skidded to a halt in front of the first distributor he found. There he discovered a little problem. Namely that in leaving the hotel so suddenly on his quest he'd forgotten his wallet.
"Here," said a Konoha ANBU, holding out a hand full of change. The rest of him was still melted into the wall. Any other day Naruto would have gasped or yelled 'show-off!' and been very annoyed he'd been stalked by even more guys than just Kakashi-sensei. He beamed at the masked face and snatched up the change to feed the machine instead.
"Thanks, you're awesome. I'll pay you back!"
The ANBU chuckled, the sound muffled by the porcelain, and melted away again. Naruto snatched the three cans he'd gotten and raced back with his armful, waving. On the way back he almost knocked down the same nurse. She threw a bedpan at him.
Life was beautiful.
They'd obviously been discussing him; the girl and the glasses-wearing boy were huddled together and scowling. The redhead blew a messy lock of hair away from his nose and his lips twitched in uncontrollable amusement.
"Hey." Naruto stepped forward slowly and paused out of arm's reach of the bed, aware of his teammates' nervousness. "Delivery for you."
"It's gonna be hard to get it from here," the kid commented, scratching his chin as he eyed him askance.
"Yeah, I wasn't gonna throw it," Naruto said, voice growing quieter, gentler.
He was such a brave boy. Naruto wanted to throw an arm around his shoulders and ruffle his hair and teach him all his techniques. He pictured Sasuke and Sakura's faces. 'Hey, he followed me home, can I keep him?' But the kid was still nervous despite his bravado, and it hurt every time Naruto noticed a moment of hesitation, a flicker of wariness.
But they could fix it, he knew that now.
He stepped up to the bed, handed him a can, looked at the other two. "Want some?"
The glasses-wearing boy looked purely appalled. The girl glared.
"Mmmmmmh, so good!" the redhead said, cradling his can in both hands, and sneaked them a little look to see if his display had helped. The girl grumbled and snatched a can from Naruto's hands.
"Sure you don't want it?"
Glasses-boy seemed to be attempting the ANBU's wall-melting trick. "N-no, t-t-thank you."
"Well." He turned back to the redhead. "Guess that means you get to keep it for later."
"He's already pushing it by having one," Mikuri said. "The doctor won't be happy."
"He's never happy unless he's making me unhappy anyway," the redhead protested, looking clearly miserable. The girl grumbled under her breath again, surrendering to his puppy eyes. Naruto tried not to laugh.
"Um... You can sit down?"
Naruto grabbed a stool and sat, feet tangling immediately in the wooden legs, nervously. "Er. My name's Naruto. Uzumaki Naruto. Yours?"
"Oh right. Um. Yamagi Yakitaro. But you can call me Taro. Or Yaki. Or whatever. It's kind of a mouthful."
Naruto gave a tentative grin. "Yeah? One of my buddies is named Sarutobi Konohamaru, I don't think you can complain."
"Whoa, that is a mouthful."
They stared at each other, awkward conversation halted. Yakitaro's lips twitched, and then he smiled at Naruto, hesitant and nervous and utterly sincere.
Naruto grinned back, and pretended his eyes weren't shining with tears.
"So," the girl said, breaking a long silence with her acidic question. "You're classified? How's that working out for you?"
Naruto blinked. "I am? -- oh right, I guess I'd be." He scratched his head as he thought about how to explain it. "Hey, ANBU-guy? Can I tell them?"
The kids stared at him as if he was crazy -- up until the wall blurred and a masked head popped out. "Naruto-kun..." the masked man said with a long-suffering sigh.
Naruto grinned. "Can I tell them or not?" He turned to the kids. "It's okay, he's just here to keep an eye on me so I don't get kidnapped or something, I think. He's a good guy."
"You know him?" Yakitaro asked, eyes a little wide.
"Uh. Well. Actually we just met. But he's cool, guaranteed."
The ANBU shook his head and sighed again before nodding to Naruto. "The law back home was set up to protect you, and their superiors have already been informed of your identity. What you tell them is your decision." His masked face turned back to the bed and he nodded to the little redhead. "Best wishes."
He melted away again.
"Alright then." The trio were still blinking at the wall. Such cute kids. Naruto smiled at them, and then sobered up. "The story starts about eighteen years ago, when a huge monster was attacking the Fire Country..."
When he walked out of the hospital room, he found Sasuke and Sakura sitting on a bench at the end of the corridor. Sakura's head shot up, and Sasuke's back stiffened, both scanning his face, his body language, ready to jump in on his behalf.
It hadn't been a hour since he left the hotel. They'd tracked him down anyway.
He grinned at them extra-wide and hugged Sakura when she got up to meet him, tight and fierce; and he held out his hand to pull Sasuke to his feet, and pulled him right into the hug instead. Sasuke growled and vaguely tried to shrug him off.
"Ahem," said Kakashi, standing against the wall right past the corner with his little book out. "We are in public, you realize."
Naruto grinned an evil grin that made Sakura open her eyes wide and Sasuke stop his half-hearted attempts at leaning away, and he dragged the two of them right up to their teacher to pounce on him.
He bet today they could guilt him into paying for lunch, for once.
Long story short; they couldn't.
Naruto had expected a lot of things when he went to see Gaara next. That Gaara's guards wouldn't let him in, or make him wait -- but they had immediately waved him through on sight. That Gaara would greet him with a 'nice to see you' smile (not very likely), or with a 'why are you here' frown (much more likely), or that total absence of expression that even Sasuke didn't match (yeah, betting on that one.)
"Uh, Gaara? You're a bit close."
Gaara released his chin and leaned back, so that they weren't nose to nose anymore. Naruto gave a brief, nervous laugh, but his smile fell almost immediately. He couldn't even pretend Gaara had been looking at anything but his pupils.
Naruto shrugged, like he didn't care. "Looks like. Listen, I wanted to..."
He'd wanted lots of things, some of them excuses and some not, but Gaara had thrown him off his stride and now he wasn't sure where to start. He stood there in Gaara's office, trying to sort it out.
"You seem to feel better. I'm glad."
"Ah -- yeah. Me too. I mean -- I'm not glad I'm feeling better -- wait, I am glad, but I meant, I'm glad you are. Uh. Are you?" Naruto frowned, suddenly suspicious.
Gaara blinked, and then gave him a faint smile. "It was mostly chakra drain. I'm fine."
"You sure? No..." He fell silent, not sure that asking about nightmares would be polite. Actually it might get pretty damn rude. Even though he... "Consequences?"
"We just doubled my usual security detail. Naruto?"
"Did you want something?"
Naruto harrumphed and crossed his arms defensively. "What, I can't drop by because we're buddies and I was-" okay, no, worried was a bit embarrassing, even if it was true- "er, wondering how you were doing?"
Gaara crossed his arms in turn and leaned back against his desk, and kept staring wordlessly at him.
He was pretty good at it, Naruto had to admit.
He sighed and sat beside Gaara on the edge of his desk. That placed his butt in much-too-close proximity to a crap-ton of top-secret documents, but Gaara didn't say anything about it, or even frown a bit.
"They're going to come back," Naruto said quietly. "Aren't they?"
Gaara nodded slowly, eyes weirdly subdued. "Not here, we don't think. There's a small risk at the tournament. A slightly bigger one on the way back. After that..." He shook his head, straightened up slightly, looked at Naruto straight-on. "You were mostly a target of opportunity. The risk isn't as high for you."
"You think that's reassuring?" Naruto retorted by reflex, and swallowed bile at the thought that it was. Not for himself but -- Sakura-chan, Sasuke. Kakashi-sensei. They'd be in the blast radius too. "I'm not gonna be happier if it lands on you!"
Gaara blinked, and gave him a small, slow-blooming smile. Naruto reddened and looked away, grumbling under his breath.
"... Do you know any of the others?" he asked, voice quiet. "Did you ever meet...?"
Gaara shook his head no. "Not in person, no. I have files, reports."
"Can I," Naruto started to say, and thought it was probably a little treasonous, but Gaara was the freaking Kazekage, so whatever, "Can I see them?"
Gaara was frowning again. He didn't ask why Naruto would want to, though. He probably got it. That need to know, hey, you're like me. They were such a small group, those who could say that.
Hey, you got hunted down and killed because you were like me.
"I haven't had news for a while," Gaara warned as he pushed off his desk and went to a file cabinet behind it. "Most of the survivors are in hiding."
Survivors, meaning there were dead ones. Naruto flinched, though he'd expected as much.
"The ones who died first," he asked. "Please."
Gaara stared at him for a second, likely measuring how serious he was about it, and opened a folder. "Yagura and the Three-Tails. His death unbalanced the Daimyo and the Village Hidden in the Mist both, which is the reason they asked to join in on our alliance and we are having the Chuunin Exam here today." A second folder. "Han, Five-Tails; Roushi, Four-Tails, both from Rock Village."
Yagura looked like a sickly pretty-boy, thin like a stick and sad-eyed. Han only showed his eyes, the rest of him armored all over. Roushi was an old man; Naruto had never really imagined himself getting that old. Roushi wasn't going to get any older, now.
"The ones we aren't sure about are the Six and Seven tails. They didn't belong to any village and no one really knows if they were found. No pictures."
So for all they knew, they were dead as well -- or no, no, they must have been used to living without a village (how lonely that must have been) and they were both just fine.
"And both from the Village Hidden in the Clouds, Yugito Nii and Killerbee, Two-Tails and Eight-Tails respectively." Gaara's voice gentled imperceptibly. "Who are officially in hiding. Killerbee is the little brother of the Raikage, and he and Yugito grew up as comrades, so the Raikage takes their protection very seriously."
Naruto blinked, a bit fast. "... That's -- that's good. Must have been nice. I mean, to grow up there." Family that cared. And someone like him. Must have been nice. Almost normal.
He wouldn't have had Konoha or his team if he'd been born elsewhere, though, so hey, it balanced out.
"And then there's me, who cannot hide and who is easily found, and you."
"I don't want to!" Naruto protested at Gaara's expectant look.
"And the Hokage knows that, but some people still think she should make you."
Naruto growled. "Well, I'm glad she knows better."
"Does she? There are rumors that she refused to act on the intel because it came from her old teammate."
Naruto gave him a baffled look, a little insulted on the old hag's behalf. "Uh, what?"
"Orochimaru," Gaara explained patiently. "My analysts believe he knew where to find us all. He must have had a failsafe set up, that sent warnings out to the Jinchuuriki in case he was killed, and was using it as insurance to dissuade the Akatsuki from doing just that. But apparently they killed him anyway, and here we are." He tilted his head. "Do you think she would have ignored a warning from him?"
"I don't think she'd have trusted him to say the sky was blue," Naruto replied slowly, mind reeling just a bit. It almost sounded like the old snake bastard had done a good deed. Hah. Very much accidentally, there. What the hell. "But -- she'd have checked anyway. In case it was true. Because it was about me, and the village."
Gaara stepped around the desk, leaned against the desk in his previous spot next to Naruto. Neither one said a thing for a minute. Naruto was thinking about the other Jinchuuriki.
He wanted to go and save them, but he was too weak for that. It wouldn't have stopped him from trying before. It hurt, that it was stopping him now. But he was too weak to protect his teammates. He'd be nothing but a burden, and then in quick order someone in need of rescue as well.
"I hate that," he whispered. Gaara inclined his head toward him a little. "Being too weak to stop them. To save-"
"Mmh." Another pause. "I don't suppose it would help to tell you that you can't take responsibility for the world."
"It's not the world!" Naruto protested. "It's -- but it doesn't matter anyway because I can't because I suck." He kicked at the floor, frustrated.
Gaara fixed him with an unimpressed stare. "So fix it."
"I'm trying!" Naruto retorted with a frustrated whine. "Kakashi-sensei won't let us train more than a couple hours a day!"
"So make those hours more efficient." He stared at Naruto, eyes narrowing. "You haven't been working on your demon chakra Rasengan."
Naruto gaped at him. "How do you know that? Are you -- are you spying on me?"
"Of course," Gaara said, and frowned disapprovingly. Naruto spluttered. "Enough to know you haven't touched your demon chakra once since the attack."
With a single push Naruto was off the desk and pacing across the office, furious all over again. "Are you kidding me? Are you -- I'm never using that -- I don't want to! Didn't your spies tell you what he did?"
He wished he could say he was never using Kyuubi's chakra ever again, but he knew that wasn't possible, that he would have to. But it made him feel dirty.
"I just saw the hospital reports. What did he do?"
The laugh that came out of Naruto's throat didn't sound like his own, sounded angry and a little deranged. Like Kyuubi's laughter mixed with his own. "Oh, nothing -- beat up and tried to rape Sakura-chan, broke her arm with his -- my -- fucking teeth, savaged a couple guys -- one of them died later -- stabbed a -- a kid, he wasn't a threat, Kyuubi fucking knew he wasn't a threat and he still went and -"
Coming to a stop in the middle of the room, he fell silent, took in a shuddering breath, and another. Gaara watched expressionless from the desk, absently arranging a pile of papers that Naruto's abrupt departure from his seat had shaken loose.
"So basically he acted like a demon beast."
"And you were surprised." Gaara's voice was so dispassionate by then that Naruto could barely believe it came from a living being.
"I thought we were starting to get along! We had compromises -- we talked sometimes -- but he, he would rather take advantage and go ravaging the countryside the second my back is turned-"
"You trusted him, and now you feel betrayed."
"... Yeah, that was kinda stupid, okay, I know." Naruto turned away, arms crossed tight across his belly. It really was. He knew what Kyuubi was, he'd always known. He'd just... what, forgotten? Started thinking he was like, like Sasuke, that his 'I want to eat this person's face!' was just special Kyuubi-talk that you could translate into civilized speech, because he didn't really mean it? "Anyway he won't make a fool of me twice. I don't need to talk to him to take his chakra, so I hope he has fun alone in his cage because he's never coming out or seeing me ever again."
Behind him, Gaara sighed. "Voice of experience... That never works." He sounded a little sad; Naruto turned around, his anger forgotten.
"Uh, Gaara? Are you-"
"Granted, my seal and yours are vastly different."
Yeah, Naruto's was better, if by better it meant Kyuubi wasn't leaking in all over the place and making him psychotic.
He just leaked in in more subtle ways, ways that Naruto didn't always catch. Like the growling and the dreams and how he liked red meat more and more these days. Like the sense of smell. Or his eyes, which were hardly subtle at all anymore.
"... How did you, with Shuukaku... I mean, back when we first met, he was kinda..."
"Not looking for a compromise?" Gaara shrugged it off. "We've come to an agreement. He doesn't desire to be yanked out and harvested by Akatsuki any more than I do. It's not a peace treaty so much as armed truce."
Naruto growled under his breath, and then stopped himself; it made a strangled, weird little noise. He never used to growl, damn it. "Yeah, well, Kyuubi's an arrogant bastard. He'd be all 'what do I care, let them yank me out so I can eat them. Bwahaha'."
"I seem to remember," Gaara mused, the bastard, "someone who once told me that he would never give up, it was his ninja way. "
It wasn't really a slap in the face, more like one of Sakura's slaps to the back of his head, Naruto you idiot. It still stung. He threw his hands up in the air in frustration. "... Argh! You -- No fair quoting me at me!" Aw hell, and now he was whining. He was totally whining. Argh, and another argh! "He's been evil for centuries! I've been alive for eighteen years!"
"So, you think you can't break him of it."
Naruto sputtered. "Well, you don't think you can break Shuukaku of it either!"
"No, I don't," Gaara replied, patient, almost gentle, "but I'm not you."
Naruto's cheeks started heating up. "...Oh."
"Am I wrong?"
Still flustered, Naruto was saved from having to answer by a knock on the door. "Kazekage-sama?"
Gaara's brow furrowed.
"I have to take care of this," he said, with obvious reluctance. Naruto realized that he'd no doubt asked not to be disturbed while Naruto was there unless it was necessary, and felt even more embarrassed. Touched, too, and glad, and like he was being a bit childish. Gaara had gotten so mature, and half the time Naruto himself felt like he was still a teenager, not really an adult yet. Not yet old enough to become Hokage.
"Alright, I'll go. See you later." With his hand on the door handle he turned and gave Gaara a slightly rueful grin. "I'll try," he promised, and then he walked out of the room.
Behind him he could hear Gaara make a "Hm" -- acknowledgement, amusement or both -- and greet his visitor, the words muffled by the closing door. Alright, time to go back to the hotel.
He gave it a try later that night, staring at the ceiling as Sasuke and Sakura slept beside him. He timed himself on their breath, an anchor to meditate by.
The rush of burning hate that greeted him would have singed his eyebrows if it had been anywhere but outside his head. Even by Kyuubi standards it was violent, swallowed everything else. The only meaning he could get apart from that sheer, torturing need to destroy him down to the marrow of his bones was 'out, out, out'.
"... Okay, whatever," Naruto muttered, "fuck you right back." He turned onto his side and cuddled up to Sasuke, who muttered in his sleep and pushed a pointy elbow in Naruto's stomach.
He wasn't giving up. He'd try another day. A day when he started to forget how much he hated the fox right back.
"Who the hell washedthis top? It doesn't fit anymore!"
Naruto sat up, bleary-eyed and not quite awake yet. "Ngh. Sakura-chan, 's early," he complained. The bedroom was gray with muted dawn light; he could have slept another hour or three. (He could have forced himself up too, but being on light duty and training restrictions was just that boring.)
A pillow landed on his face. He let himself fall back with the light impact, listened to her pace around the small bedroom, tossing the content of her bag all over the foot of the bed.
"Damn it, it's my last clean top-"
"Sakura," said Sasuke from the doorway, in such a peculiar tone that Naruto immediately pushed the pillow off his face to squint at her.
She was still wearing the top, zipper half-done. Naruto would have been happy to see the upper half open -- a plunging neckline was a nice sight to wake up to.
It was the other way around -- the cloth covered her chest like usual, started straining toward her waist, and then fell open from bellybutton to panties.
"... What?" she asked, frowning in confusion.
Naruto somehow teleported from under the blankets to the edge of the bed. His hands pushed up the bottom halves of her top.
He stared for a few seconds. Then he made an embarrassingly high-pitched noise and wrapped his arms around her waist and hugged, but not too tight, even though he really wanted to.
"Naruto! What the hell-"
Naruto rubbed his cheek against her belly and made a strangled little noise of happiness. Behind him Sasuke sighed like he was trying not to laugh.
"Your other shirts are baggier, aren't they?" Sasuke asked dryly.
"Well -- yes, but -"
"And you always get dressed in the dark."
"It's that or getting dressed in the common room! Where Kakashi-sensei can walk in on -- Naruto, why are you fondling me?"
Naruto tilted his head back and beamed at her. She stared down, utterly baffled.
"Baby bulge, baby bulge, baby in your tummy~"
"... Are you kidding me?"
Sakura put her hand on his forehead and pushed him back; Naruto obligingly loosened his hold, though he left a hand on her hip. She unzipped the rest of the top, letting it fall open, and looked down. Blinked. Stared.
"Are you kidding me? That's, I was -- last week it didn't even -- what? Last week I needed to lay down if I wanted to see anything -- how, five days ago -- it can't just appear like that!"
"Apparently it can," Sasuke replied just as dryly, and took a cautious step toward them.
Naruto leaned and almost fell out of bed to catch his wrist, and dragged him the rest of the way there. "Feel, feel, isn't it awesome!"
Sakura seemed torn, incredulous and flustered; but in the end she heaved a loud sigh and gave up. She dropped her shirt on the bed, and her hand slipped under Sasuke's hand, to feel the lower curve of her belly. It wasn't huge -- would have looked like a bit of flab if she'd been the flabby type, but she really wasn't.
Naruto had known for so long that there was a baby in there, he could smell the way her scent had changed, all full and spicy and promising, he'd touched her belly and felt the tautness that wasn't merely strong abdominal muscles, but seeing it, that was different.
There was barely enough space for all three of their hands on it. He couldn't stop grinning.
"You really didn't notice?" Sasuke asked with a touch of disbelief, as his thumb rubbed a sneaky little circle against her bellybutton. "Didn't... feel anything?"
"Not really," Sakura muttered, embarrassed. "If I had to get a measuring tape every time I feel bloated..."
Naruto rested his cheek against the curve of her breast. Usually he'd be trying to stare right through her bra but right now he couldn't get his eyes away from her belly.
"Hey, you three! Are you ready to... go yeeet... I'll be right back."
Kakashi turned on his heel and started for the open door. Naruto leapt out of bed after him and grabbed the back of his shirt. "Sensei! Touch, touch!"
Kakashi stubbornly refused to turn around, a hand raised to pinch the bridge of his nose, his eye closed. Behind them Sakura was yelping something and Sasuke sighing loudly, again. Naruto turned his head to blink his confusion at them, and...
... Oops. Almost-naked students sorta-groping each other. Aheh. Okay, maybe that explained Kakashi's 'to any god listening, I'd appreciate if you would smite me down right now' face.
"Sorry," he said, laughing nervously, and let go.
Sasuke pulled off his shirt and handed it to Sakura, who hurriedly put it on. Naruto felt a little pinch of jealousy. He should have thought of that first -- then again, since he slept shirtless the only shirt of his in their immediate vicinity was his old dirty one from yesterday and, uh, the day before, which he'd dropped on the floor, and she wasn't gonna want to wear that.
She yanked the sleeveless, baggy shirt down to her thighs and laughed a little, nervously. "You can turn around, Sensei."
Kakashi didn't, though he did incline his head toward them in acknowledgement. "I think I'll wait outside. And Naruto, get dressed."
Grumbling, Naruto went to put on pants and a t-shirt over his boxers. Sasuke put another shirt on and waited by the door, watching them. Sakura put on biker shorts, grimacing a little when she had to tug on the waistband to get it where it should be. "Okay, if it keeps digging in like that it's going to get distracting," she muttered. Naruto tried not to grin; he could tell she found it frustrating, but baby bulge.
He burst out of the bedroom first, and bounced his way to Kakashi, who was leaning against the edge of the window and looking long-suffering and kinda headachy.
"Sensei, sensei, baby bulge!"
"Ah." Kakashi looked at Sakura, who had just emerged. In the lit room it was impossible to miss how hard she was blushing. Adorableness. "...Congratulations?"
Sakura mumbled something that might have been a thank you, and burrowed the lower half of her face in the high collar of Sasuke's shirt.
"Will you be able to train in that?" Kakashi asked after a slightly too-long, awkward second.
"Um. For today, I guess -- and my other tops are a bit looser..."
"That'll only delay the issue by a few days."
Naruto grinned, even though Sakura glared at him for it. More real estate for his hands! He couldn't wait.
Kakashi let out a little sigh. "Well. Since I doubt you planned for that, I suppose we can allot some money from the month's budget to new clothes."
Sakura squealed. "Yes! Water Country fashion!" She bounced on her toes, as if about to pounce on their teacher and hug him. Naruto was sure he was really thankful when she stopped herself and made do with a blinding grin.
"We'll have to make it up somewhere else," he warned, eyeing Sakura warily. "No more fast food. Home cooked stuff only."
Sasuke only shrugged; he liked home-cooked stuff better anyway, and Sakura didn't seem to care, too busy muttering something that sounded like 'hah, take that, Ino'. Naruto laughed at her a bit, and then -- oh. "That doesn't mean ramen ... does it?"
"It's ramen or Sakura going shirtless."
"I don't mind that!" Naruto retorted, and drew himself up.
"I do," Sasuke replied, throwing him a sidelong glare. And, well, okay, their Sakura naked for other people to ogle... but still!
Sakura huffed and glared at them both, though at Naruto more. She burrowed in Sasuke's collar some more, as if she had the vague thought that Naruto might attempt to take it off her. "Hey. It's not up for debate."
"Okay... Not in public, but in the bedroom?"
"Will you stop being a pervert for two seconds?"
"I'm not being a pervert! It's -- dude, baby bulge! It's not perverted! It's just -- Sasuke, you get it, right?" He turned a pleading look on his teammate. Sasuke sniffed and looked away, the traitor. "Oi, bastard--"
"You know, I've noticed your arm strength could be better," Kakashi mused. "All three of you."
He rubbed his chin through his mask, smiled genially. "I think we'll go to the training grounds walking on our hands today."
Naruto and Sakura spluttered; and if Uchihas spluttered Sasuke would have too.
"And by 'we' of course I mean you guys. Hop to it, hop to it!"
"But that's -- down the street?" Sakura protested, blushing.
"You're right, it'll be a better workout across rooftops." He waved them toward the door. Team Seven shared a loud sigh and collectively gave in.
This being a ninja outpost, rooftops were pretty much just as busy as the streets, on top of being, well, rooftops. As in, not often flat, and full of story-high, street-wide gaps. When he thought about it, Naruto didn't actually mind. It would be kinda funny. Of course, also potentially very embarrassing.
... then again, that would mean an easily provoked Sasuke for that extra bit of spice in their spars, and two flushed lovers with their hair in disarray. Hmm.
"Gai will be delighted to know you like his training methods so much," Sasuke said like a threat as he stalked by their teacher and out of the suite into the hotel corridor.
Kakashi smiled back a 'nice bit of blackmail, kid'. "He will, won't he. We might as well apply ourselves and start right now to make him truly proud. Go ahead, Sasuke."
Naruto was feeling charitable, so he swung onto his hands a half-second behind him, so Sasuke wouldn't have to be upside down in public all alone. It was kinda funny, the way Sasuke's bangs were swept up, when the back of his hair barely budged. With a long sigh Sakura joined them, frowning a little as she shifted from hand to hand, testing the arm that had been broken. Naruto could only see the back of her head; her back was turned toward Sasuke and him, but she didn't say anything about it, so he concluded that it worked well enough. The bone was supposed to be healed by now, anyway, and, after the cast, a bout of arm strength exercise couldn't hurt.
Kakashi locked the door and turned to face them. "Don't make such faces, children. This is more than just an exercise, it's also good for team-building!"
"Through shared public embarrassment?" Sasuke retorted.
"Yeah, yeah! You're just being a sadist for your own personal amusement, sensei."
"Don't be silly, Naruto. A good ninja knows how to strike several targets with one throw."
Naruto thought about pointing out that they handled the bonding part just fine on their own. Then again, seeing them bonding a bit too much was what had prompted Kakashi's current bout of sadism. ... then again, Kakashi might make another funny face. He opened his mouth.
"Hm, I wonder how far you'd get walking on only two fingers."
Naruto closed his mouth.
"Onward, children. Oh, and Sakura?"
Sakura growled halfheartedly under her breath and craned her neck to look at him. "Yes?"
"Tuck your shirt in."
Naruto spent the rest of the trip to the trying to lag behind enough to catch a glimpse of her stomach. Sasuke wouldn't admit afterwards that he'd only won their spar because of the crick in Naruto's neck.
[Interlude] [Chapter 11]