"Huh. There's a lot of foxes on this island."
The pungent scent was unmistakable. Naruto wrinkled his nose -- and then dodged hurriedly as a blade-tipped staff whizzed over his head, taking off an inch of blond hair.
Sasuke frowned and glanced at Naruto's stomach, both hands closed over his own adversary's fists. The girl spat some kind of poison at his face; he dropped low to the ground and kicked up, catching her under the chin. "What kind of foxes?"
"How should I know? They all smell the same to me." Rolling to the side, Naruto crouched and plucked a tuft of orange-red fur from a bush. "Low to the ground, so... Normal kind? Normal-sized at least."
"Hey, you mind paying attention to the fight?" his opponent complained, a hand on his hip. "What are you, an amateur zoologist?"
"I'll make you sorry!" The boy stood back, staff ready. "Beehive storm!"
"What kind of name is -- whoa!" Naruto stepped back hurriedly as the pointy end of the spear came at him, ten, twenty times, so fast it looked like a barrage of stingers to the eye.
"Why d'you care about foxes anyway?" his adversary asked as he stabbed away.
Naruto snorted. "Eh, no reason. I know it's --" he dodged hurriedly; "--not the kind of place you find elephants -- but I woulda expected -- whoa! -- weirder stuff -- I dunno, killer wasps -- cat-sized fire-lizards? Things."
"We saw a giant meat-eating armadillo, that count?" the boy with the spear asked as he tried to skewer Naruto again, though a little more slowly.
Twisting aside, Naruto deflected the blade with his kunai and grinned at his adversary. "Nice! Normal armadillos look weird already. Did it have fangs? Horns?"
They grunted in effort as they attacked each other again. This time Naruto knew how to stop the flow. He kicked the blade down to the ground -- it nicked his shin, and a few drops of blood flew -- and stepped on it. Then, whirling on his toes, he brought his foot down on the shaft, heel first. Wood splintered.
His opponent pulled the broken shaft free, unbalancing Naruto, who wobbled just enough that the first counterattack scythed over his head by pure blind luck. Naruto flailed and rolled to dodge the follow-up.
"Naruto, I know you're having fun but could you hurry up?" Sakura complained from where she stood, by a low, twisted tree just sturdy enough to tie her own opponent to the trunk. The boy sulked for all he was worth, his cheek a bright, swollen red where she'd backhanded him. From the corner of his eye, Naruto saw Sasuke dump the KOed girl across her teammate's legs.
"Aw geeze, okay, okay!" He shaped a hand seal, eyes narrowed. "Behold! My most terrible technique!"
The boy braced himself, expression fierce and a little alarmed.
"Sexy no jutsu!"
It was cruel, cruel, cruel, to throw a naked babe at a thirteen-year-old.
It was even more cruel on the part of the thirteen-year-old not to even have working hormones yet. Well, not enough. "D-don't joke with me! Beehive storm!"
He stabbed at Naruto, still woman-shaped. Naruto eeped cutely and fell on his tush.
"Got you! URAA!"
The broken spear plunged.
Naruko's long, shapely, bare leg flew up. Her delicate little foot planted itself right between her opponent's wide, shocked eyes and sent him flying head over heels.
Naruto dissipated the jutsu and jumped back on his feet. The boy was sprawled on his back, and didn't try to get up again. Feeling his shoulder where the broken tip of the spear had torn his shirt and left behind a bloody furrow, Naruto turned around to check on his teammates.
Sasuke and Sakura were staring at him like they were thinking of finishing the job. Naruto rubbed his neck and grinned. "What? My legs have more reach like that."
"... True blonde..." the boy mumbled dazedly from the ground.
His friend who was currently tied up glared at Naruto, all the contempt in the world in his pointy little face. "That's your ultimate technique?"
Naruto huffed and leaned over his dizzy opponent to tie him up and search his pockets. "Hey! I beat a Hokage with that, I'll have you know. ... Aw, no token."
"Me neither," Sakura said, as she finished searching Sasuke's adversary. The girl was still unconscious; Sakura tested her heartbeat and pupils as Naruto dragged the third guy to sit with his teammates.
In the end, nothing could be gleaned from any of them, all three of their tokens having been stolen by some other group a little while ago. Frustrating, since Team Seven had wasted about half the day on those kids, but hey, what could they do. The ropes weren't that tight; the kids would get free soon enough. Naruto sniffed the wind, reformed two Kage Bunshins to guard their flanks and watch out for trouble, Sasuke picked a direction, and they walked away from the trio, in search of a team to steal those elusive last tokens from.
"Hey, I got a name idea! What about Ramenko?"
"Damn it, you ate two hours ago. You're not naming our potential daughter after food because you couldn't be bothered to buy snacks when you still could."
"I think we have to set down ground rules about baby names," Sasuke said.
Sakura blinked. "Hm? Like what?"
"What's acceptable or not, mostly." He threw Naruto a faintly mocking smirk; Naruto scowled in wary confusion. "No ramen-based names."
"In favor," Sakura replied without missing a beat.
The corner of Sasuke's mouth quirked up. "Motion passed."
Naruto stared at them both in turn, cheeks puffed up in annoyance. Sasuke gave him a look he probably thought was deadpan, but was in fact still bastardly amused; Sakura was trying to smother a laugh behind her hand. "Hey! Come on, guys, that's not fair. Ramenmaru would be a totally bitchin' name!"
Sakura's eyes narrowed. "I believe we've already had this conversation."
Naruto grumbled and gave them a half-serious glare-pout. "Fine, but then I get to set rules too. No flower names, hah!"
Sakura put both hands on her hips and made a face at him. "What do you have against flower names? It's a family tradition, I'll have you know."
"Is it?" Sasuke asked, arching an eyebrow.
Sakura briefly looked sheepish. "Well, it's only been two generations. But it could be."
"Well yeah, but your mom is 'flower' in general and you're 'one kind of flower'; if you keep getting more specific, what's the kid gonna be called next? Stem? Pistil?"
Sakura pouted. "Kahen -- petal -- it could work. Besides there are many very pretty flower names."
"I don't know for you, but if I'd been named after some sissy flower I'd have become a hermit at age five," Naruto drawled, crossing his arms behind his head casually.
Sakura bristled. "Oh, because being named for a ramen ingredient is any better?"
Sasuke rolled his eyes, though Naruto could see he was laughing at them inside. "Compromise. If it's a girl, flower-based names are acceptable; if it's a boy, they aren't. Easy."
Sakura was still frowning a bit. "Fine. But I get veto rights on everything."
"Oi! How come?"
"Because I'm pregnant and you're not. But I'm sure I could come up with some kind of medical jutsu to fix that."
Ghhk. Naruto pressed his thighs together and shuffled a few steps back. Sakura crossed her arms sulkily.
Sasuke was absolutely no help, of course. He was doing his 'my-face-is-made-of-stone-but-I-might-be-laughing-at-you-behind-it-but-you-will-never-know' thing again.
"How about tree names for a boy?" Naruto said, as a peace offering.
Sakura blinked at him with some surprise, and seemed to be considering.
"...It better not be a sissy tree, is all I'm saying."
"Oh, shut up."
Sakura shoved him halfheartedly, and Naruto pretended to stumble, laughing. He bumped into Sasuke, expecting a sarcastic comment or a shove in the other direction, but Sasuke only pushed him enough to get him back properly upright. Naruto blinked and then squinted at him.
"Okay, what's got you depressed now."
"I'm not depressed." Sasuke glared a little; Naruto didn't believe it. "... I'm thinking, that's all -- wait, you wouldn't know what that's like."
"Oh hah hah. That was old when we were twelve, man. What are you brooding about?"
"I'm not brooding. Drop it already."
Naruto's face scrunched up in fake horrified sadness and he threw an arm around Sasuke's neck. "Don't tell me you really had your heart set on naming our unborn son Marigold."
Sasuke rolled his eyes, but some of the inward-looking vagueness in his eyes faded, reassuring Naruto. He never liked it when Sasuke thought too much about depressing things. Then he'd get pissy because he couldn't find anything else to do about his worries and push his lovers away and sulk like a bitch.
Sakura slowed down and moved to Sasuke's other side, peering at him. Sasuke looked away, as if he were considering ignoring her and running away from all their well-meaning worrywartiness. Naruto secured his hold, just in case.
Sakura's voice was soft, a little sad. "Would you want to name him or her after... someone?"
Sasuke's put-upon expression melted away, and he met Sakura's eyes with a solemn look of his own.
"... Maybe your parents?" she said.
Naruto blinked when he finally understood. "Huh? People do that? That's a bit weird, isn't it?"
Sasuke tensed under his arm and leaned away from him slightly. Naruto winced, and didn't let go. If Sasuke got away now he'd never stop sulking.
"Lots of people are named for someone -- or something -- meaningful," Sakura intervened, scowling at him for being insensitive. "Naming a child isn't just about what sounds pretty."
Naruto grimaced at her a little. He hadn't meant it like that. "Maybe it should be," he said back, and then realized it sounded kind of like he was looking for a fight. He softened his tone, his eyes never looking away from Sasuke's angry ones. "No -- listen, I just mean, it's not a bad idea in general, but... Wouldn't the kid wonder if they're supposed to be a replacement?"
From the flinch and the way Sasuke's fists clenched, Naruto could see that Sasuke didn't like hearing that much -- but also that he could see his point, however reluctantly. Naruto nudged him a bit, trying to find the words to make it better.
He didn't, so he just nudged Sasuke again.
"... You're right," Sasuke admitted, choking a little on the words. He looked away then, not quite at Sakura either. "It would be too much baggage to saddle the child with."
Naruto smiled then. "Yeah. A brand-new person. No baggage allowed."
Sakura smiled a little wetly and slipped her arm around Sasuke's waist, hugging him. Sasuke sighed. "You two are so clingy."
Naruto noticed Sasuke wrapped an arm around Sakura's waist right back nonetheless, and let Naruto lean on him, allowing himself a few seconds of sappiness before he shrugged them both into giving him back his personal space. Naruto obliged, allowing his arm to slip away from Sasuke's shoulders, but really just because it would be stupid to be too entangled to fight back if they were attacked now.
"Hey, we can always badger our children into choosing who our grandchildren get to be named after."
"... Naruto, don't talk about grandchildren now."
If it had been anyone else, Naruto would have said they sounded a little faint, but of course Sasuke did not. Yeah right. Now Sasuke didn't look vaguely depressed anymore, he looked overwhelmed; but Naruto thought worrying about the future was still better than brooding about the past.
"Traditional clan names are probably okay, though, right? As long as they sound nice. We don't want the kid to be laughed out of the schoolyard."
Sakura grimaced at him behind Sasuke's head and mouthed silently 'Leave it alone already.' Naruto blinked, and realized Sasuke had gone straight through overwhelmed into seasick.
It was just too tempting to pass up.
Naruto allowed himself a grin of amusement about the fact that 'bastard' was now so much of Sasuke's official nickname that he didn't even blink twice anymore. Granted, it would also depend a lot on the tone of Naruto's voice when he said it. "You get to be the get-off-my-lawn grandpa. I'll be better at the candy-giving one."
Sasuke's reaction was a mix of annoyance -- expected -- and cringing frustration -- definitely unexpected. "Don't --" He breathed out, and glared, but it didn't make his first word sound any less pleading. "You're a real pain in the ass."
...Now he felt a little bad, for teasing Sasuke when he was feeling vulnerable. He should probably have encouraged Sasuke to open up more by being attentive and supportive and stuff, but he didn't have a clue how to do that without looking stupid or making Sasuke clam up. At least, if he teased Sasuke, having him clam up as a result would be deliberate.
"Don't what?" Sakura asked softly.
Sasuke glanced at her, and then glared at his shoes. "... Nothing. Look, there's animal tracks, let's find some food."
He went up ahead, bouncing over a rock and quickly out of sight; Naruto slumped guiltily. Sakura gave him a little glare but it soon melted away; she stepped up to him and bumped him with her shoulder.
"I don't think he's angry, just..." She paused to find the right word. "Unnerved."
"But having a family is great!"
Sakura nodded. "Yes. He thinks so too, you know that. I think that's the problem. Maybe he's just afraid to jinx it."
Naruto wrapped an arm around Sakura's back and hugged her to his side briefly, sighing in her hair. It made sense, now that he thought of it. It was more scary to have the potential of something good than to have nothing at all. Then you got to be scared of everything that could make it not happen. When you had nothing and expected nothing, there was nothing to lose, not even hope.
"...Our boyfriend is a freak."
Sakura gave him a crooked smirk and prodded him in the chest with a hard finger. "Like you can talk, ramen-boy."
"Hey, my liking of ramen is perfectly normal and healthy. Ramen is great, AND it's nutritious and filling."
Sakura gave him a dubiously cocked eyebrow. "I don't think you want to argue nutritional values with me. You'll lose." She flipped her hair and started jogging after Sasuke.
"It's not my fault they don't make fruit ramen!"
Since they were going hunting and not passively waiting for someone to attack them, Naruto dissipated the bunshins. They'd seen nothing but rocks and thorny bushes and more rocks. He could have spared himself the expense of chakra -- but then again they wouldn't have had that conversation.
The area smelled like rabbits and that weird miniature island deer, a few small predators, and a lot of lizards, so when they followed Sasuke down a hollow and found a little stream at the bottom, half-hidden by tall ferns, he wasn't too surprised. Sakura tested the water and then she and Sasuke refilled the flasks. Naruto watched the area. The hollow was greener than the rest of the island so far, the plants higher; a few of the trees even managed to reach about Jiraiya's height. Which was kind of ridiculously stunted for a tree, but on that island it was still damn high.
Good hunting here, he thought. Well... Rabbits, mostly. But much better than elsewhere.
"It's getting late," Sakura commented. "Should we camp here?"
Sasuke grimaced. "We can, but tomorrow we'll have to go straight to the tower."
By this point the surrounding area would be full of enemies lying in wait... "It's not as if we've had any luck finding our last two tokens out here," Naruto grumbled. "I say we just run at them and smash right through."
Sakura huffed. "You would."
"We'll have to go through them to get to the watchtower regardless," Sasuke said. "Might as well get some other use out of them."
"And if we don't fall into a trap?"
"Then we make one. Or look for a Jounin to steal from."
Judging by Sasuke's decisive tone, he'd managed to find his footing again. That or repress like crazy. Business as usual. Naruto was almost sad.
Naruto took in the place and considered. The slopes weren't steep enough to keep game boxed in if he tried to flush them at his teammates, so...
"What are you grinning about?" Sakura asked, looking faintly worried.
Naruto realized he was doing a happy shark impression and immediately looked sheepish. "Haha, nothing, I just realized I'm gonna have to crawl around in the bushes to hunt. It's kind of fun. You know, stalk your prey and chase and..."
Sakura's worry didn't seem to be getting much better. Naruto sighed, shoulders slumping.
"Or I could just put up some snares."
"I'll come with you," she said. "Your traps are horrible."
Well, it was funnier to catch them with his own teeth. ... Hands. With his hands. Naruto shivered. 'Hey Kyuubi, you here?'
"Uh -- sorry, distracted. Alright, if you insist..."
"And you, Sasuke-kun?"
He shrugged. "I'll set the camp. Just go."
"We'll climb around the outside and come back toward you, maybe something will run your way," Sakura said. Sasuke just waved them off and crouched to start digging a fire pit.
They went in silence, uphill and around, Naruto with his eyes half-closed and the wings of his nose fluttering as he caught the fresh scent of prey. Rabbits, yes, lots of them. Smaller rodents, too, but those didn't feed much unless you caught a lot, and that was a waste of time and looked rather pitiful to boot.
The bushes and plants weren't very tall, but they were densely entangled. Naruto saw a couple of what he suspected to be deer paths, but the rest seemed at first sight to be a solid block of bramble-bound greenery. Grinning, he fell into a crouch and looked for a crack to crawl in.
He was bigger than quite a few predators around the island, but there were the huge lizards to take into account, and the deer made openings too. He forgot Sakura at first, delighted by the grass and leaves surrounding him, hiding him from view. It was tempting to just find a burrow and lie in wait for the next rabbit. But he was too impatient to wait long, and there were too many scents to explore. And he had to bring food back to his mates anyway.
Naruto jumped a little, and grinned at Sakura over his shoulder for reassurance. It didn't seem to work very much; he saw her swallow and wince.
"Don't go all foxlike on me... Please?"
It was the please that did him in. Naruto sighed, anticipation simmering down. "Sorry. Look, there's a burrow here."
She looked down at her hands, at the string coiled there, not making a move to set up a snare. "No, I'm sorry, I mean -- it's totally harmless, right? I know that. But it's just that it feels a little weird when you ... stop talking."
Naruto quirked up the corner of his mouth in a rueful half-smile and plucked a leaf out of her hair gently. Hunting meant he should stay quiet -- and strangely enough, when he was tracking something it really wasn't hard. But they weren't really hunting, they were just setting traps. Granted, if something was flushed out under his nose he'd go for it, but... Yeah. "You really sure you want me to just babble whatever goes through my head?"
Sakura threw him an exaggeratedly wary look, and then sighed, sobering up. "... Alright, do whatever you want."
But he was pretty sure that doing that would weird her out again. It should have weirded him out too, how at home he felt in the thicket, but it was hard to fret when there were so many fascinating scents just asking to be untangled and paths needing explored. So he watched her slim fingers as they flew through a series of complicated knots, balancing a rock here, bending a branch just barely off the edge of snapping there, and tried not to wonder too hard whether he would catch something if he threw himself on his stomach and stuffed his arm as deep down the burrow as it could go.
"Do you want to try? It's not hard, you just hold the string like this and... Naruto?"
Naruto blinked and looked up at Sakura's face. "Ah, it's okay. I don't have your tiny fingers."
"My fingers are not tiny. And yours aren't that big anyway. And -- Naruto..."
She was chewing on her lip again. "... I'm sorry."
Naruto ruffled the hair at the back of his head and grinned. "About what? It's okay, I mean, you're right it's freaky--"
Her stricken expression stopped him cold, left him confused.
"Did... Did Sasuke-kun tell--"
-- Oh. "No, no, he didn't tell me, he -- I just remembered later. I mean usually I'm pretty gone when I'm sleepwalking, but that time I wasn't as much, and it was kind of a weird state, kinda floaty, you know, but -- yeah, so. I remembered on my own."
She seemed at a loss for words, mortified and guilty, and he cursed himself for being so stupid as to tell her he'd overheard. She'd been confiding in Sasuke, and -- well, he was the one they'd been talking about in the first place, but there was a reason Sakura didn't want to tell Naruto himself.
"Sakura-chan..." He leaned closer, raised a hand to caress her hair softly, unsure that this was the right kind of approach. "It's alright. I'm not angry. I mean -- I get so used to the whole Kyuubi mess that sometimes I don't even know what I'd be like if he wasn't there. But --"
She shook her head no, teeth worrying at her lower lip. "If you don't have a problem with it, then why should I? It's so -- selfish -- narrow-minded..."
"What?" he blurted out, confused. Where on Earth did that come from?
"He's a part of you now, right? I should just accept that. Sasuke-kun doesn't even blink, and yet I..."
"I thought we decided Sasuke is a total freak," Naruto countered, trying to inject some humor in his voice. "Don't beat yourself up because you don't react like him, okay? I mean, he's from a clan of weirdoes who can grow more pupils, what does he care if mine get kinda cat-shaped, right?"
Sakura seemed even more miserable. "... But he accepts that part of you."
And she didn't; she didn't say it, but it was on the tip of her tongue and they both knew it. Naruto's shoulders sagged, and he swallowed a bitter aftertaste in his mouth. Yeah. There was that.
"I still don't think it's fair to compare the two of you like that. I mean, he's -- he's Sasuke, you know? And you're you. You aren't the same people, so of course you're not gonna react the same way. I'm not angry at you, I promise, so--"
Sakura placed a hand on his mouth to cover his strained smile. She looked up at him then, but to him it still seemed like it wouldn't take a lot more to make her cry. "Maybe, but you're hurt. I didn't want to hurt you."
He kissed her palm, his hand covering hers, and gently guided it off his face. "You know, Sakura-chan, you fret way too much. Why does it freak you out so much anyway? I mean okay, it looks weird, but why does it get to you that bad? Are you, uh, worried Kyuubi's gonna take over or something?"
She frowned, shook her head no slowly. "...I... Maybe a little. Not very."
"Hm. So... Are you scared for the baby, what it means for him or her?"
Seeing Sakura's startled face, he'd just managed to give her another worry.
"No, that's not it. It's -- it's about you. It's not about the baby or me." Her fingers clenched around his own and Naruto watched the realization bloom on her face. "... I'm afraid it will get worse and you'll stay stuck like that."
"Sakura-chan, I'm not gonna--"
"And you won't notice," she interrupted him; "but --little by little -- you'll be gone. Naruto'll be gone."
She shuddered; the rest of her words came out as a rush.
"And there will be that fox thing in Naruto's body, who just sniffs things and hunts and goes into heat, and oh, it will still hang around and cuddle up at night, but -- it will be like living with someone who has brain damage. It's still the same face, but it's empty behind their eyes because some part of them is lost!" She looked up at him, eyes huge and scared. "And you-Naruto can never chat or plan out a mission or prank Kakashi-sensei again -- or tell me you l-- You l--"
"I love you," he blurted out. He didn't even think; he pulled Sakura on his lap, crushed her against his chest, hugging hard and tight, and her hands shook a little when she clenched them in his shirt.
"I love you, love you, love you. And it's never gonna happen because I don't want it to. Man, I need my brain to raise our kid or she'll go around sniffing her buddies' diapers in preschool. And then when she grows up she'll hate our guts because the boy of her dreams calls her the butt-sniffer and it will be horrible, worse than war or cholera."
Sakura choked, or maybe that was a laugh. She hugged him a little harder, pressing her cheek against his neck, head bowed. "... I'm sorry, I know I'm being stupid..."
"You're not stupid at all," Naruto said softly, a hand cupping the back of her head. "It was really scary when I started waking up in weird places and having strange dreams. I -- kinda thought about that kind of stuff, too. Not being myself anymore." He smiled a little; his pride hurt from admitting to thinking so much he'd scared himself. "But it's been years and I haven't gotten that much more brain-dead or anything... Right?"
Sakura sighed and nodded, straightening up, and he missed her warmth against his upper body a little bit. She didn't move off his lap, though, allowing him to keep his arms around her.
"But it keeps happening and no one really knows why. I asked."
"So find that out," he suggested, the solution so evident he didn't understand why neither of them had thought of it before. "I mean, Jiraiya is all about the seal does this and the seal doesn't do that, but hey, it's not his seal. And he knows more about the chakra side and the possession side than what it's doing to my brain. Besides he's a writer, not a shrink, that's not the same way to know people. Maybe there's some kind of influence he missed that would explain the foxiness. Maybe you'd feel better knowing all the gritty details. Then you wouldn't have to worry about what it could do."
Sakura closed her eyes as she considered it; Naruto watched her. She seemed less tense already, provided with an outlet for her worries. "... It would be a lot of work."
"Well, yeah." Naruto wasn't sure she minded, though. He knew Sakura liked keeping busy and her brain stimulated.
"And I can't get started before we're done with the Chuunin tests anyway." She frowned then, brisk and professional once again. Naruto grinned.
"Hey, I'm not gonna blow up in one lousy little month. The sleepwalking's been tapering off for a while now. And it started when I was, what, thirteen? Fourteen? You've got lots of time." He gave her a suspicious look. "It's not like you have to throw yourself at it, right? Just take it slow. The way it's going, we've got years."
"You think we've got years," she rectified, but it was stern more than worried.
Also, she was still on his lap. So he kissed her nose. Sakura's cheeks reddened slightly and she pouted a little, which only prompted him to kiss her on the lips. Seeing her mollified, he leaned in for another, slower kiss...
For a second, she met him, lips parting under his own; and then she tensed up and looked around quickly. "Oh crap! I can't believe myself. What if someone came and attacked us?"
Naruto grimaced at the reminder. Damn it! "Aw, we're in the middle of a thicket, we'd have heard them..."
"And maybe not!" She squirmed out of his lap. "Damn it, how stupid--"
Naruto wanted to feel guilty, but he couldn't get past his feeling that he would have known. His senses were still running high, tracking the faint sounds and smells all around; the idea that someone might have gotten the drop on him seemed ludicrous. But for all he knew that deep-rooted sense of self-confidence was totally wrong.
"And it's getting late and we still haven't caught anything, and the traps might take hours or days to bring anything in..."
Naruto perked up. "Or we could rush through and herd something Sasuke's way." A chance to give chase to something! His skin tingled. Ohh, yes. Yes yes yes. ...Oh. Right. "...I might go a little foxy again. Is that okay?"
Sakura hesitated. Naruto waited, stomach clenching.
"... Yes. Alright. Yes." She managed a brave smile, squaring her shoulders. "Okay. Let's hunt."
They burst out of the bushes at a dead run, chest angled low, on the edge of balance. The small tusked deer veered hard to the left when it ended up out of cover, but Sakura veered with it and a kunai flashed out of her hand. The deer tumbled, back leg spraying blood on the grass; Naruto was on it the next second. They rolled down the riverbank, once, twice -- then his claws found purchase in its jaws and he twisted until its neck broke.
He sat straddling his kill, grinning toothily, as Sakura let her momentum take her down the slope to join him.
When Naruto looked up through the reeds, Sasuke was watching them, knee-deep in the stream, his hand still resting on the shuriken holster strapped to his thigh. Naruto snorted; he kept grinning, with fangs and all. "Poor widdle Sasuke-chan, did we startle you?"
Sasuke snorted and turned his back on them. "Idiots. Both of you."
Naruto expected Sakura to sober up and remember she'd been uneasy, still was a little; but instead she grinned, cheeks still flushed from their wild run. He kind of wanted to kiss her again, and give her windblown hair another reason to look that mussed.
"Sorry, Sasuke-kun." She nudged Naruto, who moved off the deer willingly enough, and crouched to start butchering the animal. "You should have come, it was fun!" she commented with determined good cheer. "We should run together more often."
Sasuke grunted in apparent disinterest, as he cupped water in his hands and poured it down his back. That was when Naruto really noticed he was shirtless, and his pants were so soaked through they looked painted on.
"Washing," Sasuke replied caustically, as he picked up a handful of sand. "You should try it sometime."
He still had his back turned. That was asking for it, really. Grinning, Naruto got rid of his jacket and crawled through the grass and the reeds, body low to the ground.
Sasuke kept looking unaware. From the corner of his eye Naruto saw Sakura open her mouth as if to berate him; he flashed her a pleading look, and she hesitated.
'Come on, fun,' he let her read on his lips.
Sakura sighed, and a smile grew on her face, reluctant at first and then amused. "... Say, Sasuke-kun, do you remember that Rock genin?"
... And now she was distracting Sasuke for him! Score. Hah, he'd always known Sakura secretly enjoyed it when he pranked the hell out of people. But she'd never cooperated when it was against Sasuke before. Naruto wiggled in happiness and sank in the water with barely a ripple.
"Which one?" Sasuke replied absently as he washed his shoulders. Wet hair clung to the back of his neck.
"Not the one with the sword, the one who did the water jutsu."
Naruto allowed the current to angle his body, and slowly pushed upstream with his hands and feet.
"Yeah? What about it?"
Sakura paused, and Naruto glanced at her, worried that she was running out of inspiration. But instead she was concentrating on skinning the deer; she had blood up to her elbows but it didn't seem to bother her much. Naruto purred. He liked a woman who was so matter of fact about blood on her paws. -- Hands. Blah.
"I was just wondering if you saw the seals he was using?" she asked casually, glancing at Naruto in a very 'hurry up already' way. "Because if you still remember them, I wouldn't mind trying it out."
Sasuke was still washing. Naruto crept closer. "Hm. Seems like a taxing jutsu. I'll teach you the hand seals, but you might want to wait until after the test to practice. Naruto, I'll kick you in the face."
--Aw shit! The surprise lost, his only advantage left was speed; Naruto lurched out of the water, going for a tackle. Sasuke would have, no doubt, whirled out of the way flawlessly, but the footing was treacherous, with all those loose mossy rocks. Naruto caught him in mid-turn. They landed with a loud splash, Sasuke on his hip and elbow, Naruto over him, limbs tangled together as they flailed to come out on top; the noise didn't cover Sakura's giggles.
Naruto got water up his nose and sneezed; hearing Sasuke cough, he decided to be generous and not dunk him again. The Uchiha glared somberly at him; the front of his hair was glued down over his face in a gelled curtain, and the back a forest of spikes that pointed in about every direction known to man and then some. Naruto snickered.
"You two are so childish," Sakura commented primly from the riverbank where she washed her hands.
Her tone must have been too serious, or otherwise transparent, because then she was the one Sasuke was throwing sulky glares at. "Just wait a minute and you'll see how childish I really am."
Sakura blinked, startled; Naruto didn't remember Sasuke play-threatening her before either, and he rather enjoyed her conflicting looks of alarm and amusement. But right now he was the one playing with Sasuke, so when the black-haired teen moved to get up, Naruto threw his arms around his neck from behind and pulled him back down.
"I've got him! Run, Sakura-chan!" he called as Sasuke fell back across his lap with another loud splash.
Sasuke squirmed, and his legs thrashed for purchase, but once again the moss denied him. Naruto laughed in his neck, feeling wet black hair against his face.
Sakura was very much not running, Naruto noticed, managing to spare a glance between two attempts to pin down Sasuke's arms. Frozen on her knees in the process of rising, she stared at the two of them with her lips parted. She still had deer blood up her arms like wet red sleeves, and a couple of flecks on her cheek. Naruto groaned and bit Sasuke's neck.
Naruto bit him again, over the dead mark of the curse seal. Sasuke's breath hitched, and his struggles slowed down, more of a token protest than a serious attempt to counterattack. Naruto growled softly, worrying the skin with his fangs. As pretty as it was, sometimes he hated that mark. The only marks Sasuke should carry were Naruto's.
His hands slid over Sasuke's wet skin, palms flat over his chest, fingers stretched, claws barely brushing; on the bank, Sakura started biting her lower lip, transfixed. She looked -- a little jealous, perhaps, but aroused. Naruto kissed the reddened skin around the dark tattoo, nosed through damp locks of hair. "She likes watching," he murmured.
Sasuke tensed in his arms and let out a soft groan. "Now is not the time."
"For what?" Naruto's hands ran over Sasuke's chest, his shoulders, palming his nipples almost by accident. "I'm just helping wash you."
Sasuke growled -- groaned? hard to tell -- and pulled away from him. "Not now, I said. I'm not having sex with anyone during the test and that's final." He frowned at Naruto over his shoulder. "I'm serious."
He looked like it, too. Naruto gave a short sigh and glanced over at Sakura. Blushing, she hurriedly climbed to her feet, rubbing her hands dry on her skirt and not noticing she left blood-pink tracks behind.
"Ah -- yes, he's right, and we don't even have perimeter alarms set anyway --"
"I set them up," Sasuke commented laconically as he stepped away. "But it's still not a reason."
... Augh! Unfair. And now Sakura was busying herself with the deer and the fire pit, taking good care not to look their way. Naruto huffed, glaring at his back from his seat in the stream. Sasuke picked up a handful of sand and started scrubbing like he couldn't care less. Damn him, no matter that he was right. Especially since he was right!
Naruto sighed and got up, wobbling a little on the wet rocks. His pants were drenched, sticking to his skin. What a downer.
"Hey... How about I wash your back and you wash mine?" Sasuke looked suspicious, but Naruto sighed. "No, I won't feel you up, promise." He just wanted to touch skin right now; it was too brutal a crash otherwise, from the tingling high of anticipation to this distance.
"... Fine. But if your hands wander..." Sasuke didn't complete his sentence; it was clear enough.
Naruto gave him a wounded, irritated look. "Told you I wouldn't. Where's the sand?" He moved closer to Sasuke, looking between the rocks for the patch of sand he was using.
His skin still prickled with the hunt, and the mock-fight, and the desire. He raised his hands, rested them on Sasuke's back, feeling muscles under the skin, and hairline-fine scars and a couple of tiny pinpricks. Sasuke healed well. Naruto wanted to scar him. He just closed his eyes briefly, breathed in and out, and started rubbing, fingers digging into tense muscles, palms rubbing sand to scour the skin.
"Why'd you keep your pants?" he asked; he didn't really care apart from the fact that it blocked his view, but if he didn't find something to talk about he might end up doing something stupid and have to deal with Sasuke's contempt.
It didn't matter how much he wanted sex, this was just no time and place, the end. He knew that, he really did, but his body was still buzzing.
"... Like I wanted to be naked and weaponless if someone attacked the camp."
"Could have strapped the kunai sheath on anyway," Naruto suggested, and then groaned a little at the thought of a band of dark cloth wrapped around a bare thigh. Damn it.
"I don't fight naked."
"Heh, yeah, freeballin' ain't really..." Argh, argh, argh. What was wrong with him, was Kyuubi making him all horny again? He'd thought that would stop once he started getting booty regularly.
Naruto looked away from the bared nape and the wet dark strands, casting around for a safer topic. Sakura was done spitting the deer; she stood in the tall grass, hands knotted together over her chest, watching them with a kind of naked hunger in her eyes that was less sexual desire than need to belong, though it probably was both.
He was opening his mouth to suggest she help, but then a red-orange flash in the corner of his eye made him twitch around -- and there it was, in the middle of their encampment, a lanky old beast with Naruto's own prey in its jaw -- a thigh-high fox, the miniature deer's hooves trailing on the ground -- and three tails, a dirty three-tails was stealing Naruto's prey!
He'd hunted that deer for his mates! It was their dinner! Outraged, Naruto snarled and threw himself out of the stream. The fox jumped for the bushes, eyes wide and ears flattened back in obvious panic. Yeah, let it panic! Hot on its tracks, he yelled an outraged challenge, words melding together and losing all meaning. A three-tails! Barely three! How could it even dare --
None of them had noticed where the stream ran to, a couple hundred meters down. The hollow twisted sharply to the left, cutting all view, and deepened into a startlingly green canyon. Under the dense tangle of plants, a couple of crumbled, caved-in manmade structures that must have been fortified hideouts some fifty years ago kept watch on the canyon.
When he ran between them in hot pursuit of the fox, Naruto hadn't really been expecting a wolf his height at the shoulder to burst out of the crumbled building and leap at him from behind.
The fangs missed him, but the beast's shoulder checked him, sending him rolling down the sharp slope. He clawed at the earth to slow his momentum; a rock caught him in the hip and he gritted his teeth.
Then something whistled through the air and he backflipped just in time to dodge a descending sharp length. A claw?
The wolf wore an oversized village headband as a collar.
"Ambush!" he screamed, to warn his teammates, but they'd already burst over the edge of the canyon after him; he caught a glimpse of movement, many furred bodies rushing at the two of them, and then he couldn't worry about them anymore. The air whistled again, and what was -- sword! Black, painted sword, leaving a burning trail across his chest.
Naruto snarled and clawed low, but he could only give himself enough space to retreat downhill, and then he was attacked again.
Girl, long black hair, dressed in dark and tan, and moving fast -- maybe even as fast as Sasuke. She blurred from sight, but he couldn't worry much because then the wolf jumped him again, maw gaping wide enough to swallow him in one bite. He had to get himself out of there, but there was no time to even shape one seal. He dodged the sword, rolled under the wolf's chest to put its mass between them, but it instantly whirled around as its mistress vaulted over its back, plunged sword first at Naruto, leaving him no way out.
A flurry of kunai tore through the air. The girl knocked a couple out of the air, but her wolf yelped in pain, jumping aside; Naruto dived through the opening and retreated hurriedly.
"Naruto!" Sakura yelled.
He looked for her where the kunai had come from; she'd moved on already, but her pink hair caught his eye not too far from there as she took cover behind a rock. The trees were pitiful; trunks no wider than his thigh and all twisted and stunted, shallow roots changing the ground into a series of snares and ankle-breaking hollows. Climbing on the trees themselves would get them nowhere; they were too small to put anyone out of reach of anything. The slope was awkward to boot, full of slippery dead leaves.
"Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!"
He sent his clones all over the place, slipping unnoticed amongst them. Where were the other enemies? He couldn't see Sasuke. A clone burst behind him, then two, torn to shreds by wolf fangs.
There -- dark-skinned boy, Iruka-in-the-sun-all-summer shade contrasting sharply with his pale teal-green hair. He was staring in Sakura's general direction, hands clasped in a seal. Naruto pounced.
The world went weird in mid-leap, full of psychedelic colors, and he was losing his balance and his sense of directions, and shit, shit -- "Kai!" The forest snapped back into place, only to start crawling with a rush of mice. Amongst the mice ran cats and dogs and -- there! The three-tailed fox. Ignoring the carpet of squirming mice, he threw a kunai its way. The fox dodged behind a rock crawling with huge black rats. The mice were climbing Naruto's pant legs inside and out, and then something tackled him to the ground.
"Kai!" yelled Sakura, sitting on top of him.
The mice were gone; he wasn't surprised. They hadn't smelled like anything anyway. He was two steps away from a nasty drop. At the other side of the canyon, the three-tails watched them. Naruto snarled, fangs bared. He was going to teach that mangy rat...!
"-- Where's Sasuke?" he remembered to ask, blinking to clear his sight. A few motes of light still danced in the corner of his vision.
Sakura moved off him, and they rolled to crouch back to back. "With the last one. Big guy, quarterstaff. You?"
A few of his clones rushed past, storming the rock behind which the green-haired guy was hiding. Wolf-girl was nowhere in sight. "Girl with a katana. Big wolf. Hella fast. This guy does genjutsu then?"
"He summons foxes too," Sakura commented somberly. "Seeing the wolf... Maybe they all summon."
"Shit, shit, they do," Naruto said in a rush. "He's that guy with the cat Kyuubi wanted to eat!"
Sakura muttered something unhappy between her clenched teeth and cracked her knuckles. "The girl is fast, Sasuke would do better. The big guy with the staff, brute force, for you. ...I'll manage the genjutsu type. Just find Sasuke and trade."
"I'm not leaving you," he protested. "Don't count on it."
But then there was a masculine voice, and muffled words calling out a technique, and it tugged inside him. He fell to a knee in the grass; for a second the sun seemed to wink out.
"Naruto?!" Sakura attempted to snap the genjutsu, but nothing really happened.
Naruto shook his head and climbed back on his feet. "S'okay, I'm fine -- shit!" Something was making short work of his remaining clones, two, three, seven -- and all gone. "They're coming. Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!"
Some of the clones surrounded Sakura so she could counter the genjutsu without being attacked; Naruto and the rest rushed up the slope.
Foxes ran down to meet them. Two three-tails, one much younger than the first thief, one dark-furred five-tails even, standing at the green-haired boy's side with blue foxfire dancing around its head, and a dozen normal foxes, knee-high little missiles, fast as cats and full of pointed teeth. They attached themselves to his clones' wrists, their legs, weighing them down; then the girl with the sword moved in, slashing through the clones with grim efficiency. Naruto moved to meet her, but she chose the other way, mowing down the crowd to get to Sakura.
Angry now, Naruto let loose a burst of chakra that sizzled fur, made most of the one-tail yelp and cower. Suddenly he had space to move -- but the wolf moved too, hackles raised, the white of its eyes showing in fear.
Now it was afraid for its mistress, and scared dogs were the most dangerous ones. Naruto snarled at it, trying to make it back off, but it refused to step away from the path to its mistress. And Sakura --
Heart in his throat, Naruto watched her tumble off the edge and disappear in the canyon.
He took a step forward; the wolf tried to eat his head. He punched it in the muzzle, sending its head snapping back, backhanded it again and raced past as it swayed dizzily. The black-haired girl had stopped at the edge and was peering down, checking for Sakura's body, and he was going to kill her.
Then the ground shook, and the ledge broke off the slope and slipped down, bringing the swordswoman with it. Naruto hoped she'd get crushed to death, though he doubted that would happen. He found the closest stable rock and leaned over -- "Sakura-chan!?"
He found his teammate dangling by a rappelling wire from the side of the cliff, still swinging from the impact, hair and skin gray with dust. "I'm fine!" she called out between two coughs. "Careful about green guy!"
Naruto cast a wary look at the small trees and bushes, but he could see nothing. The smaller foxes had fled; the bigger ones were probably in hiding. The wolf growled at him but wouldn't move closer, still swaying dizzily on its huge paws. That was good, because at the moment Naruto wanted very much to bite its throat out, and he didn't care that his jaw was way too small to manage to get through its thick fur. The wolf seemed to believe he could. At the moment, so did Naruto.
Keeping an eye on the area, he found the end of the wire and pulled Sakura up. When he helped her over the edge, he saw her hand bleed in fat drops on the ground. She must have injured herself when she punched the cliff; her fingers were stiff and already swelling. "Sakura-chan?"
"She'll come back. I saw her jump to the other side. The canyon's not that wide."
Naruto growled in frustration. The summons he could deal with, but the genjutsu he couldn't; and Sakura could deal with the genjutsu, but the summons or the swordswoman would kill her. For that matter... Hn. The slices on his chest and shoulders were already closing, but they weren't exactly shallow, and they stung. "I'll get rid of her sword, then I can beat her." He wasn't sure how, but that was the only way. He hadn't seen another sword on her; kunai were easier to deal with, he would have more reach than she did.
Someone crested the top of the hill then, and for a moment Naruto's stomach constricted painfully; the newcomer was huge, seven feet tall and powerfully built, and wielded a thick metal-tipped staff. The worst thing was still that he wasn't Sasuke. But a second later, Sasuke followed, and Naruto relaxed a little. Bastard was doing fine, pressing the big guy back step by step.
The green-haired guy swore, racing to his friend's aid. Naruto took off after him, but he was downhill. He tried to throw a kunai to slow him down, but the five-tailed fox dogging his heels stared down at Naruto with strange silver eyes -- and then white fire raced through the woods like arrows, and then Naruto was burning.
It hurt, and yet it didn't. Fox illusion, the kind he could die from, if only he believed it enough. How dare they -- such a blatant insult. He called a clone to him, curled chakra into their hands. Wind, he thought, and changed it like Kakashi-sensei had started teaching him, except perhaps too much, and too fast, and not quite stable enough.
The Rasengan exploded up the slope, uprooting and shredding trees, making dust, cut-up grass and leaves fly.
His arm was covered in a multitude of little razor-cuts curled around the limb, but they healed over before he could fully feel them, skin sizzling with orange chakra. The five-tails was slumped up on the ground in a puddle of blood. Naruto raced past its still body without checking how alive it still was. Its master mattered more. Naruto wasn't going to let him get to Sasuke.
At the top of the hill, the big guy had thrown a powder at Sasuke's face, but Sasuke breathed a gust of fire on it and kept advancing, faster now. The teal-haired guy yelled, "Kuchiyose!", voice almost panicked. (Something called Naruto, tugged at him again, but it wasn't Sakura or Sasuke's voice so he didn't listen.) Foxes jumped at Sasuke, trying to trip him up. How many of those could he call?!
Naruto lashed out -- no jutsu, nothing but raw chakra. The top of the slope exploded under the enemies and Sasuke's feet, making them stumble and skid down in a shower of loose earth. And there, close enough now. Their bastard looked none the worse for wear, as he measured Naruto up and then glanced behind him.
"I'm fine," she replied grimly, a couple of steps behind Naruto. He hadn't even been aware she was on his heels.
Naruto grinned, watching the two outnumbered enemies, caught between the three of them. Now, now they were going to win.
The tall one looked faintly worried; the teal-haired one mostly looked coldly angry.
"Genjutsu won't work on mine," the tall one informed his companion quietly. They were so close, though, it was hard not to hear. Naruto snorted. Sometimes Sasuke's built-in abilities got on his nerves, but in cases like these he didn't find the Sharingan's omnipotence too bad. "Which one?"
The teal-haired one narrowed his eyes and stared straight into Naruto's. "Blond one. Zenko, NOW!"
She burst from the ground in a geyser of leaves, sword slashing at Sasuke's back. He saw her movement of course, whirled around to block her sword with a kunai. He'd manage, at least for a while. Naruto pulled out one of his own kunai and rushed the two male enemies.
The big guy had proven to be slow, and it was the fox guy Naruto was angry at. He dodged a swing of the quarterstaff, still tracking the green-haired guy, who shaped the same summoning seals again. Goddamnit he'd eat the next fox who dared to pop up.
And then there was a big hand touching his bare shoulder, and things ground to a halt.
"Sleep," the tall teenager said softly.
The world whirled around Naruto, around and around, twirled and danced and then jarred to a sudden stop. Oh. So dizzy. He'd lost the kunai somewhere and barely noticed. That was wrong, he knew, but his fingers seemed so far away.
The sky was so immense, purple and pink and beautiful, colors blurring together into dusk, and his eyelids weighed tons.
(The call came again, and again, and again.)
/If you insist.../ Kyuubi purred; and the last thing Naruto felt before
the creeping darkness swallowed him was his own lips stretching into a wide,
[Chapter 4] [Chapter 6]