Teamwork 3

I swear this is the last emo chapter. DX

Chapter 9: Aftermath

None of them would hand him a mirror, and strangely enough the one in the bathroom attached to his and Sasuke's hospital room had recently had a little accident; but he had slept all night and most of the next day, and by next evening, with darkness as a backdrop, the windowpane reflected enough for his purposes.

The seal was faded out again. He was alone in his mind. (He'd made sure. Triple-sure.) He hadn't been using chakra today. He wasn't angry. (Just exhausted.)

His eyes were blue again -- their normal shade as far as he could tell, not that he could be sure without a real mirror.

His pupils stayed cat-slices.

Wordlessly, Sasuke stalked his way around Naruto's bed, closed the blinds with a loud snap. Naruto looked down at his hands instead.

At least Sasuke didn't... well. There was a reason Naruto had waited until Sakura left the room before he dragged himself to the edge of his bed to check. Every time she met his eyes, she ... twitched. Sasuke at least didn't seem to notice. Or care, either or.

Sasuke was limping, his back mended but still stiff; all muscle and ligament tears were healed, though the scar tissue was still frail, but they hadn't bothered with the soreness and bruises. Likely Sasuke hadn't asked. 'A real ninja needs to know how to function through discomfort and pain', or something.

"We can turn off the ceiling light," Sasuke said. His voice was completely neutral. That was strange.

Naruto realized he'd been rubbing his eyes again and dropped his hand. He swung his legs back on his mattress, pushed himself up to press his back to the headboard. "I'm fine. It doesn't hurt."

It didn't. Just felt a little tight for a couple of seconds when lights switched on or off, which was pretty normal. The doctor had said his eyes were working fine.

He hadn't said anything about how likely the pupils were to go back to their normal shape. Whatever. Naruto wasn't blind, so it didn't matter.

Naruto was a murderer.

Naruto was a murderer who couldn't even manage to murder the right person, the evil one. He killed children.

He stared down at his hands again. Got the nail clipper. He'd already trimmed them earlier -- the claws had retracted, but his nails had still been a bit too pointy.

They still were. Clip, clip. Ow. Bit too short there; it stung. He kept going on to the other nails, painstakingly.

"You've got debriefing in twenty-five minutes," Sasuke said, not really looking at him.

Naruto grunted an acknowledgement. It was something they both knew.

Seemed like Sasuke wanted him to talk. Naruto didn't want to. He'd kind of assumed Sasuke didn't want to talk either; he hadn't said a word since Naruto woke up, probably longer than that.

Itachi. Of course. Naruto remembered the man being there, and he should have reacted more because he hated Itachi on principle, but none of his reasons why were as immediate as Gaara's limp body thrown over a big blue shoulder all casually.

Naruto wanted... he didn't know. To ask Sasuke if he was okay. (Sasuke wasn't.) Ask what had happened (while Naruto was busy going crazy, trying to cancel his innocent-murder with an evil-person-murder, as if two wrongs had ever made a right), ask if there was anything Naruto could do, maybe. (Sasuke would say no, and then Naruto would sit on him and make him... and say... and say...)

Naruto was a murderer of children.

"Fucking stop it with that nail clipper!"

Naruto blinked as Sasuke backhanded it out of his hand. He was standing by Naruto's bed now, looming. Naruto wasn't sure where the anger was coming from.

Sasuke probably expected a 'what did you do that for' but it was pretty obvious why. Naruto looked away. "I don't want to fight."

"I don't give a shit what you want! You're getting on my nerves."

He felt a twinge of -- anger? Offense? It reminded him a little of forbidding Sasuke to challenge him because if Sasuke tried, Naruto would hurt him for real. No play-fighting, no equal grounds. Just 'how dare you, bitch.' He squeezed his eyes closed and turned his head away, stuffing the feeling down.

There was silence for a little while, Sasuke's stare heavy.

"Just -- be normal already. I--"

He turned his back then, shoulders just a little hunched. Naruto could almost hear the words he'd wanted to say. 'I need you to be normal.'

"...Sorry." He rubbed his eyes again. They burned. The light maybe. Yeah.



"Shut up," Sasuke replied, back still turned. Now he sounded exhausted.

Naruto made a little noise of acknowledgement, because Sasuke didn't really want him to shut up, there were just things he didn't want to hear.

Just seemed like anything he could have said fell into that category, so never mind.

"Man, you look like somebody just died!"

Naruto's head jerked up. There was a guy in the doorway, sitting in a wheelchair. Dark skin, moss-green hair. Naruto stared at him for a couple of seconds before he remembered where he knew him from. Right -- one of the members of the Grass Country summoner team. The guy was grinning wide, staring straight at Naruto with his weird yellow eyes.

He didn't have fangs, but it still felt like his grin was full of them. Naruto couldn't even pretend it was a friendly expression if he tried.

"Kon. What the hell are you doing here?" Sasuke asked, puzzled, kind of wary.

"Oh, I was just wheeling by. Lots of time to do that now, between visits. What with, you know, only having one teammate left to visit me anyway."

Rage thrummed under each flippant word. It took Naruto a moment to really understand the meaning.

"... One of your teammates...?"

"The other guy didn't make it," Sasuke said, tone clipped. Naruto stared at his profile, but Sasuke refused to turn and look at him. If he knew that, why hadn't he told Naruto so?

... Then again, when? Naruto hadn't really had a discussion with anyone since the moment he awoke, apart from the doctor coming to check on him.

So the big guy was dead. The one who'd brushed against him mid-battle, and Naruto had woken up to Sakura's blood in his mouth and a kid pinned to the ground like a butterfly. "Ah. I'm sorry," he said dutifully, by rote. He didn't know what to feel. It... kind of sucked? But if the guy hadn't done that to Naruto in the first place then nothing would have --

"You killed him, you know."

Naruto stared at him blankly. His "I...What?" was drowned by Sasuke's "What the fuck? No he didn't."

"He kind of did, too."

Sasuke moved closer to the wheelchair, eyes narrow and jaw clenched. "Are you sure you should be out of your room? You're confused. Take any drugs today?"

"Not at all." The green-haired boy grinned again, though it was all in the teeth, nothing in the eyes. He looked at Naruto again. "No, see, you aimed for me."

He tugged open his shirt. His whole chest was encased in bandages, but the edges of raw, ugly scars stretched up to his collarbone and down over his hip, and that was a pretty clear preview of what else was hidden under there, how deep it must have gone.

"Tried to kill me -- slash, show me your guts. Damn near succeeded. Maneki drained himself to save me, and then he didn't have enough juice left to save himself."

Naruto realized he could remember it, with that face in front of him and those words in his ear. Blood, exposed ribs shining ivory in the middle of flayed flesh. So fun, and just what the stupid monkey deserved, for daring to attempt to bind him. Bile rose in his throat.

"He was unlucky," Sasuke retorted in a clipped tone. "That can happen to anyone."

Kon's golden eyes flashed, his handsome face going ugly with raw hate. "Not to Maneki it can't."

Suddenly Sasuke's back was blocking Naruto's whole field of vision. "You attacked us first," he said. "None of you can bitch about the consequences."

Kon moved his wheelchair inside the room and to the side so he could meet Naruto's eyes again, and let out a short, barking laugh. "Yeah? Ask me if I give a fuck."

"Your teammate died on you because we were ambushed while we were out of chakra, injured and outnumbered. Why don't you go after the guys who ambushed us when we were escaping -- the ones who actually killed him?"

"We shouldn't have lost to them, we shouldn't have been running away in the first place! And now Maneki is dead," he snarled to Naruto, not even bothering to acknowledge Sasuke anymore. "He was mine and he's dead. Trying to protect us from a monster. I'm not going to let that go."

Sasuke's hands landed on the arms of the wheelchair with jarring force, and he jerked it around to force the boy to face him.

"You think going after Naruto for revenge will change anything? You think -- what, that he'll be less dead then?"

... Sounded almost like he was trying to warn Kon that revenge wouldn't bring him anything good. It was almost funny how ironic that was, coming out of Sasuke's mouth. Naruto chuckled, he couldn't help it.

"You're laughing, you fucking monster," said Kon in disbelief, and his voice came out mingled with hate and something that was almost like admiration.

"You're really messed up, you know," Naruto said, before he could hold the words back. He should have explained he hadn't been laughing at Kon's pain or his desire for revenge, but it had slipped out before the automatic 'sorry'.

"Funny, I never used to be messed up before my teammate died on me."

His teammate. The brief moment of off-beat, twisted amusement died right there. What would it be like to lose one of his teammates? He couldn't get angry at that guy for lashing out, he couldn't say either 'I didn't do it' or 'I'm sorry'.

It was okay if that guy accused him of murder. One more, one less...

"If you start anything now," Sasuke said, "you'll drag your last teammate into it as well. You okay with getting her killed too?"

Kon chuckled again, though the sneer on his lips made it come out weird. "Careful now, that sounds almost like you're threatening her or something."

"You go for my teammate and I'll go for yours," Sasuke hissed back, all uncaring concealment gone. Fine tremors were running up his arms, tendons jutting out, fingers clenched white-knuckled.

Naruto swallowed. It hurt to hear the anger bare in Sasuke's voice for all to notice. Something that shouldn't have been shown, something that he wouldn't have shown if Itachi wasn't... wasn't so close and making everything so blown-open and raw. Any other time Sasuke would have shown an enemy nothing but that smooth mask of cold contempt, and Naruto hated it.

He snatched Sasuke's sleeve. Opened his mouth, to tell him to stand back, to stop shielding Naruto when he was hurting too. It was okay. He didn't care if Kon threw insults and threats at his face. He should have cared but he couldn't even really feel it, it was too much.

"Yeah, that's not something that will ever happen," Kon said, before he could speak. He was looking at Sasuke now, and he was smiling, satisfied. Playful. Cruel. A Kyuubi-face. "Lie about it as much as you want, but you? You're honorable." He said it like an insult, a fatal flaw. "Cold blood? You couldn't."

"Maybe he couldn't," Sakura said in something that was almost a conversational tone. She stopped in the doorway, feet set apart solid and ready. "But I could. And I wouldn't come from the front."

Sakura's left arm was in a cast. They'd had to break and set it again. The cast didn't make her total absence of expression and the coldness of her eyes less convincing.

It made Naruto sick to see her like that. It was all wrong. She was supposed to rage and huff for silly things and then go right back to laughing, and to be a bit smug and to tease, and -- and to just be Sakura-chan. She wasn't supposed to act cold-blooded.

"You gave your message. Now leave."

She stepped back to free the way. Kon gave her a long weighing look, and then snorted. "Whatever, I'm done here." He slowly went, pushing himself back in the corridor. Sakura stepped in the room with her face still frozen, and closed the door with carefully controlled precision.

Naruto wished she would have slammed it.

He leaned back against the headboard, gazing down as Sasuke turned on his heel and stalked to the window. The blinds were still down; Naruto didn't know what he was looking at. He didn't say anything about it. He didn't want to look at anyone else either.

The thing was, he couldn't even manage to mind that Kon considered him a murderer. After what Naruto had allowed to be done to that kid, that was only what he deserved.

Sakura put down a package she'd been carrying in the crook of her cast on the table, spent a few seconds fussing with it. "Ino left food for us at the nurse station."

"Ino?" Sasuke asked reluctantly. "I didn't know she was around."

Sakura shrugged, like she hadn't known either, like she didn't really care. Her face was still disturbingly blank. Naruto's eyes slid away.

Sakura had been called out earlier to pick up the care package, but that wasn't the reason she had gone at all; she'd have asked Kakashi to get it if that was all. But now Naruto couldn't make himself ask. The fact that she hadn't told him what she'd found out on her own, straight away... It said everything.

"I don't get it," he commented. "Sasuke tried to save them, but..."

Sasuke snorted quietly, arms crossed, face still turned toward the blank window. "Yeah. They'll never forgive me for that."

The conversation died again. He'd hoped Sakura would pick it up and go with it, but she kept fiddling with the little boxes inside Ino's package, lining them up by length and then by width or some other criteria he didn't get.

"He's still in the critical ward," she said, staring down at the boxes. "Status unchanged. That's all I could find out."

Status unchanged meant still dying, just apparently taking his time about it.

Naruto wanted to think it meant the little redhead was going to beat the odds and survive, but the doctor's face when he asked how likely that was...

He hadn't asked again after that.

"...Thanks, Sakura-chan."

Kakashi was going to be there any minute to escort him to the debriefing, so he slipped off his bed and went to splash some water on his face.


The medic-nin had tried to chase Sasuke out of the room at first, but Sakura shrugged and said she didn't mind, so Sasuke spent a half-hour watching an old guy lift his teammate's shirt and feel up her stomach and belly. At some point he even pressed a palm down her shorts, against her pubis.

The guy was from Konoha, cleared by Tsunade, so he had some idea of the state of Sakura's health, the whole situation. About the fetus.

The baby.

'The rumors were wrong. It isn't Naruto-kun's. It's yours.'

He knew why his brother believed it. Because he assumed Sasuke had reason to believe it, from the way he'd thrown himself on Sakura to shield her.

Sasuke didn't believe. He didn't have enough luck to dare.

He just... hoped.

But hope was too nice a word, too soft. Yearning, maybe. Craving. It was the kind of wanting that hurt.

He shook his head, closed his eyes for a few long seconds, opened them to stare at Sakura so his mind wouldn't drift again. She was getting dressed with quick, short gestures, jaw twitching every time the cast on her arm got in her way. Her eyes were still flat, still walled off.

'Charge', he'd told her, and she'd attacked Kisame, outclassed as she was.

"So?" she said, not looking at the old medic-nin.

The man was frowning, looking at his chart. Not a deep frown, but not an optimal expression either. Sasuke fisted his hands deep in his pockets.

"The fetus is alive and healthy enough for now, but there is no telling whether it was altered and how." A short, irritated sigh. "Just the sort of problems we were trying to prevent in the first place... At any rate, whatever happened, it's too late to fix it. Just mind you don't make it worse. No more of that chakra. You can control the input until the seal is fixed, right?"

She gave a terse nod, rolling the waistband of her shorts back up one-handed. Sasuke stepped up to her and tugged her tangled t-shirt down, so it would cover her hip under the cracked arm where she couldn't reach easy.

(Sakura could stop herself from taking in more Kyuubi chakra, as long as Naruto didn't use any around her -- he'd flood her no matter what she tried -- but somehow Sasuke didn't think that was going to be a problem.)

"The bone?" she asked.

"It's not good for your calcium levels if I speed it up any more. Double your daily supplements and come back in a week."

"Alright." A nod. A perfunctory "Thank you." She turned to leave. Sasuke followed.

Down the corridor, and to the staircase. This floor had been blocked for the second test's casualties, preventing anyone but teammates and teachers to come in, but nothing stopped them from leaving. Naruto would be in debriefing for another forty-five minutes at the very least.

She went. Kakashi was with Naruto, so he followed. Out in the street, and up the hill, and up that cliff path they'd raced down, back from the first test, a few centuries ago. White and purple flowers dancing in the wind, spilling all over the rocks, the sea unfurling blue-green as far as the eye could see.

He could see rage in every line of her body, the set of her shoulders, how straight and proud her spine was. He'd never seen it from the outside, but it was familiar anyway.

She stopped at a little bend in the path, the jutting rocks hiding them from view. She turned to face the sea.

Picked up a loose rock, and hurled it as far as it would go. Sasuke didn't track its fall. She was already bending down to pick up another.

He stood on the path and watched her throw rock after rock. At some point she started to grunt with the effort, a quiet little noise with each throw that grew progressively louder; after that, it was her lip, curling up from a pressed-down line into a snarl.


Throw. She was a little unbalanced by the cast, movements too wide and not efficient enough, but it wasn't like she was bothering to aim anyway.

She was so angry. He had nothing against that fact, didn't begrudge her it; it was just strange, that rage, the depth of it.

Sasuke wasn't angry. He'd tried to be, at Naruto for being so listless, at Sakura for leaving them alone together, at Kakashi because he was there and then because he wasn't, at Kon.

He wasn't angry. He wished he was.

It would have been easier to handle than the nameless thing churning in his guts, the terrifying thing he'd been trying to ignore ever since the jounin-sensei arrived on the battlefield and carried them back out.

Sakura's anger took up all the space, and he couldn't hold onto his own anymore. Couldn't fan it huge and roaring until he could pretend anger was the only thing he felt, until he was deaf to the things it covered up.

"Did you see him?" asked Sakura. She stared at the horizon. Her face was still hard, but there was a pinched, brittle look at the corner of her eyes which told him that she didn't want to cry, that she might anyway.

She meant Naruto, of course, and of course Sasuke had seen him, and it made him sick with frustration and denial, he couldn't stand it. Naruto wasn't allowed to be broken.

"He'll be better when he has things to do," he said, parroting Kakashi and not believing it any more now that he was the one saying it. "He's had nothing to do but brood. He needs to move around."

Sakura didn't even look like she was paying attention. It was a little strange not to have her hanging on his every word.

"If I'd been stronger," she said.

He fell silent. He knew where this one went.

"If I'd been faster -- known more jutsu..."

She lifted her chin, eyes glittering with rage and tears.

"If I wasn't so weak, wasn't a toy, wasn't someone you can ignore!"

She was screaming now, until her voice went raw.

"I will never freeze up again. I will never be too slow or weak again. I will never be ignored again! Never, never, NEVER!"

Sasuke watched her, and... He didn't know. He didn't know what he felt there. Something soft, that ached a little. He stepped closer, shoulder to shoulder. Standing with her. He thought he could do that from now on. He thought it would be fine by him.

She trembled with a swallowed sob, chin still up, eyes glittering with more than anger now. He was the one who touched her first, his hand on her back. She turned in his arms and burrowed there. He held on.

He could understand that feeling, that need to make oneself into someone who could never be dismissed.

He caught the word emerging, floating there, in a corner of his mind. 'My wife.' He weighed the word, the notion.

Alright. Yes.

Despite the still-unnamed thing curling in the pit of his stomach he didn't think he had ever thought so clearly. He tilted his head, rested his cheek against her hair as she fought not to cry, as a few hot tears slipped through anyway. He could see hardy little flowers, and torn rocks, and the sea.

The thing was, when he stopped lying, stopped hiding...

He already knew how it would all untangle, once he grabbed the end of the string and started following it. When he'd faced his brother, when Itachi had moved to destroy the pipeline -- to kill Sakura -- he'd already chosen. He'd chosen again when he thought he wouldn't mind if Naruto hated him forever for trading him for Gaara. It was just a matter of allowing it all to unravel, now, to make himself push away the last of the fear and admit it.

He already knew.

His brother. His revenge. His family, waiting, betrayed and ended, waiting for him to even the score, to make sure their murderer didn't get away with it. All that he owed his parents.

All that he owed his brother.

His... maybe-child. Maybe Naruto's child.

His wife. His future children -- the ones that might come after this first one. The ones he'd have with her, and the one they'd have with Naruto, and.

Their future children.

He closed his eyes, turned his face into Sakura's neck.

His brother.

'You and I will always be brothers. I will always be there for you, even if only as an obstacle for you to overcome.'

'Even if you hate me. That's what big brothers are for.'

"We will always be brothers..."


She pulled back a little bit, blinked at him with eyes reddened but stubbornly not crying. His whisper had been too quiet; she hadn't caught the words. Sasuke shook his head slowly, unwound his arms until only their fingers were touching.

"Come on. Something I've got to tell the two of you."

He led her down the path, fingers interlaced with hers in a white-knuckled tangle.


On the way to Naruto's hospital room they saw the kunoichi, the one who summoned wolves, and Sakura thought, 'she's faster than me but she'll be expecting posturing and glaring first,' and started calculating angles to box her in. She could see it unfolding in her head, keep walking like she didn't care and at the last second when they passed each other she would slip her hand free from Sasuke's and lash out, just one strike. She could break boulders. A ribcage should be fine.

Zenko didn't say a thing, barely looked at them, just one quick glance and then nothing. They crossed paths and kept going, ignoring each other.

Sakura still wanted to double back and strike. From the front, from behind -- whatever.

Kon blamed Naruto for his teammate, but she blamed them for Naruto, and when it came down to it she didn't care about how unfair that blaming game was, how unbalanced the losses were, it was sad and it sucked that Maneki had died and she would kill them if they came near Naruto again, if they tried to make it one inch worse for him.

She couldn't stand -- Naruto, broken, she couldn't stand that.

Sasuke's fingers were clenched tight in between hers. She wondered if he could tell what she'd just planned -- if maybe he'd been about to hold her back. The flash of resentment surprised her a little bit, and then on second thought didn't.

She was furious at the world for hurting Naruto, but underneath that she was also furious at Sasuke. When she let herself, she could still feel his body shuddering on hers as a blade stabbed through.

But she couldn't be angry at Sasuke for protecting (the baby) her, so she was trying to push it out of her mind. Otherwise she would punch him in the face and yell, 'what were you thinking, how could you do that to me'. She knew she'd have nightmares where he died right on top of her, trapping her powerless, suffocating her under the weight of his corpse.

Sasuke's hand in hers, not letting go. It would have made her giddy just two days ago.

She loved Sasuke same as always -- she wouldn't have gone half-crazy with hate for Itachi and fear for him if she didn't -- but now he was injury-free and if there hadn't been Naruto to worry about she wouldn't have wanted to see his face very much right at the moment.

She gave his hand a last squeeze and slipped her fingers free. They were coming up to their bedroom, and she could see Kakashi-sensei in the corridor, leaning against the wall that faced the door. A Konoha ANBU with short dark hair and a dog-like mask stood beside him, discussing she didn't know what. She'd be curious about it later, now all she cared about was that Kakashi wouldn't have been here if the debriefing wasn't over.

"He's inside?" Sasuke asked. He glanced at her. "I'll be along in a minute."

She nodded an acknowledgement and pushed the door open, a little puzzled. Whatever it was Sasuke wanted to tell them, maybe he wanted to tell Kakashi first...

She forgot in the next second. Naruto was sitting on the edge of his bed, staring down at a change of clothes he'd probably been in the middle of packing. On second look it wasn't really a change of clothes, because he'd been shirtless during the whole battle; it was just underwear, a thigh holster, and freshly washed, knee-torn pants. She could still see scorch marks and faint bloodstains here and there.

She didn't know what to say to him. She knew what she wanted to say, but 'I'll kill anyone who puts that look on your face' would be the opposite of helpful, especially with how much she meant it right now.

"Hey, Sakura-chan."

He met her eyes, gave her a tired half-smile, and just like that, her anger flagged.

"Hey," she replied quietly.

She walked around the bed, took the pants from him. "I don't think they can still be rescued, you know. Did you empty the pockets?" She draped them over her cast and checked quickly, feeling through the cloth. Nothing to fish out. And there was the wastebasket.

Now the bed had a free spot for her to sit on.

"You okay?"

She stared at him, and laughed a little, and it hurt in her throat. Why was he the one asking her that? How silly was it?

"... Sakura-chan?"

"I'm fine. How --" It was hard to ask that directly. Maybe because Naruto didn't like worrying her, or looking weak, and he didn't react well to her showing she had noticed. "How are you?"

He dredged up a smile. She could tell he was about to wave off her concern and try to pretend he was just fine, and she couldn't keep her expression from shifting to offended. Naruto stared at her for a second longer and broke eye contact, the smile turning even more awkward.

"Eh. Been better. ... Sorry."

She attempted to smile back. "Sorry for what, you big dummy?"

Naruto gave a self-deprecating shrug. "Making you worry."

"I'd rather be worried than lied to."

She froze with the words barely out of her mouth. She hadn't meant to say that, hadn't meant to snap it almost, and now he stared at her with shocked blue eyes, and the wrong fox-pupils didn't divert from the hurt in them.

"No, I'm sorry, I didn't mean it like that. I just... Naruto, I notice when you're not alright. Okay? And -- and I always want to help, but I can't help if you won't let me." Quietly, she added, "And that hurts a bit."

"Aw, shit." Naruto rubbed a hand over his face, his eyes.

Sakura bit her lip and looked down at her hands, tangled together on her lap. Like Naruto didn't feel bad enough, she had to bring that up.

"To be fair, Sakura, you do the same thing," Sasuke said as he pushed the door closed behind him.

Startled, she jumped, stared at him. She hadn't noticed him come in.

"I guess we don't talk much," Sasuke concluded in a quiet, thoughtful voice.

Sakura didn't expect Naruto to snort out a laugh, though it wasn't a happy one, more like ironic.

"S' funny coming from you. You don't talk at all."

"I don't smile and pretend it's all peachy either."

Naruto paused. "Yeah, that you really don't."

It didn't have much of the bite it should have had; it didn't end in a long tirade on how Sasuke was always pissy even when he was fine, and if they had to pretend, it was better to pretend to be happy than pretend to hate the world because he was scared a smile would split his face in two. Still, Sakura felt the grip over her guts unclench slightly. He'd tried to banter. He was getting better. (Or better at putting up a front. But it was good that he was starting to care enough to try to hide. Wasn't it?)

The half-smile on Naruto's face fell as he looked back at Sakura. She tried not to flinch as she noticed his pupils again.

"I'm sorry, Sakura-chan. It's not like -- I just -- I hate it when you're worried, and if you can't do anything then I don't want to bring it up anyway. I'd rather you were happy."

She stared at him for a second, and then she extended her arm, bumped her fist against his chin like a very slow-motion sucker punch. She wanted to be angry at him. At any other time she might have been, because he just didn't get it. She might have tried to explain, 'I'd rather be sad with you than happy on my own,' but she was sure Naruto would stare at her in utter bafflement, because in his stupidly self-sacrificial brain it likely wouldn't make sense. But when she saw him exhausted and hurt, trying to stuff it all down for their sake, she couldn't even really feel her own frustration.

"I really don't want to talk right now," Naruto said quietly.

A pause, as they all looked down at the floor. Sakura sneaked a glance at Sasuke. She was all out of ideas.

He took a step toward the twin beds, but before that he breathed in, deep, bracingly. She blinked. Sasuke's body language was usually subtle, but as she watched him from the corner of her eye, it was almost blatant, and not just because she'd gotten used to read him. The tense shoulders, the slightly bowed head -- anyone could have seen it. He stepped between the beds and instead of joining them on Naruto's he sat on his own, with the aisle between them, and that was pretty usual for him but...

She slipped Naruto a quick glance. He was frowning at Sasuke, puzzled.


Sasuke paused there, as if he couldn't find his words. Sakura turned in her seat so she would face him more, though the aisle was big enough that he was out of arm's reach.


"You don't have to talk," he said abruptly to Naruto. His hands were gripping the edge of the mattress. "It's more of an announcement. Not a discussion." A pause. A rasp, sudden, shockingly raw, "It's not up for discussion."

Naruto straightened up, dead serious.

"It's about Itachi, isn't it," he said, not even like a question.

Sasuke didn't answer, but then again he didn't need to.

She'd seen Itachi for longer than Sasuke had -- oh, almost a whole minute longer! -- and he and his brother hadn't even talked -- or had they? She thought she remembered Itachi's voice, as Sasuke's body trapped her on the ground, but she'd heard it all garbled, deafened by terror. She'd expected Sasuke to hurt for a good long while afterwards, of course, the wound that the massacre of his family had left opened again, but she hadn't really... it had barely been thirty seconds at most, that couldn't be enough for more than a reminder, a refresher course on why Itachi was evil and a monster and needed to die. Not enough for a brand-new trauma.

This, she could tell, this would be huge.

"You remember the day I told you he was my kill?"

Naruto flinched, a horrible grimace twisting his face with pain. "The day I ate that guy?" he said, voice shaking. Sakura flinched. "Yeah, weird enough I remember, fuck you!"

Sasuke shook his head no, cut him off with a hard gesture of his hand. "Shut up! It's not -- let me finish."

Bile rose in her throat at the memory of that day, maybe two, three years ago -- a genjutsu-type missing-nin, the mission supposedly B-rank on paper but so very much not in real life. He'd made Naruto believe they were all dead, and it had... done things to -- Naruto was exaggerating, he hadn't eaten the man -- just. Bitten. (A lot.) She tried to stuff the memory away, scowled at Sasuke for bringing it up when the thing with Kyuubi was still so recent.

She could probably blame that day on Kyuubi as well. Back then, when she still didn't know, her only choice had been to push it all on the genjutsu user and weird aftereffects and try to forget it, because she'd known it wasn't Naruto, just couldn't be. Turned out she was right, but that didn't make it any less horrifying. At least the genjutsu user was long dead. Kyuubi wasn't.

Sasuke raked his hand through his hair, and then looked up, and Sakura's gut tightened painfully, her protective anger forgotten. Oh god, those eyes. Oh, hell.

"I changed my mind."

Naruto seemed struck as dumb as she was.


Sasuke's eyes. All that pain.

All that grief.

"I change my mind. He's -- I still want to kill him. It's still my duty. It's still my --"


"Shut up and listen, it's not a discussion. He's still my brother, but if you get the chance -- don't stop on my account."

She was off the bed now, standing before him with her hand clenched on his forearm. "Sasuke!"

He didn't even seem to notice her leaning in his space, or her tight hold on his arm. "I want to kill him, but we need him dead more. Do you get it? We need him dead, he needs to be dead, right now, he'll kill the baby, he'll kill you both and I can't -- I can't."


"I don't care who kills him anymore, he just needs to be dead!"

Naruto slid off his bed, caught Sasuke's shoulder and yanked him up on his feet, shaking and growling as he pressed a hand to Sasuke's mouth. "Enough, that's enough, I get it. I will. Promise."

"He needs to be dead," Sasuke repeated, dislodging Naruto's hand with a quick shake of his head. "He needs to be dead more than I need to kill him."

Sakura hadn't cried earlier but she felt tears rise again and this time she didn't stop them.

"Oh," she whispered. "I'm sorry."

Sasuke let out a bark of crazy-edged laughter and she winced. "What the fuck for, isn't that what you wanted, isn't that what everyone wanted--"

"You still love him," she said.

Sasuke was silent for so long that she thought he wouldn't answer, that he couldn't answer -- that he would just pretend she hadn't said it. She wished she hadn't, but it was so horribly true.

"I don't know how to stop," he said, very quietly.

Naruto choked on something that couldn't decide between a growl and a wounded whimper and yanked him into a tight, almost brutal hug.

Tears rolled hot and wet down her face, soaking into the back of Sasuke's shirt. God but she was so tired of it all. Being attacked and hurt, and watching over children she wasn't good enough to heal, and fighting people she wasn't good enough to fight, and failing to protect, and having her life saved almost at the cost of someone else's, and Naruto breaking, and Sasuke breaking --

She couldn't break as well, she needed to be strong for them. She had to take up the slack for once and be the rock for them to lean on.

She failed. She cried and cried, and the guilt from setting them off only made it all worse. She could feel them both trembling, entangled as the three of them were. She could hear them gasping for air in between not-silent-enough sobs. It was horrible.

People would probably have wise things to say about crying it out -- that it was good for them, that they couldn't let it all fester, that they needed to air it out at some point, but those people didn't know a thing. It just felt like another failure, it wasn't a relief at all. It was just exhausting.

At some point they stopped, gradually, mostly because their bodies didn't want to keep going. They broke apart, almost by accident, as they sank to the floor and sat, Sasuke slumped against the side of his bed and Naruto in the corner. Sakura leaned her shoulder against the side of the other bed. From the corner of her eye she saw them gazing away, anywhere but toward each other. It looked like defeat.

"... Shit." Sasuke rubbed his palm across his face. "I didn't plan to make this into such a circus. A quick announcement..."

Naruto snorted halfheartedly. "Yeah, not happening."

The hospital beds were so high it made like a little hiding place between them. Standing she couldn't have reached from one mattress to the next with her arm, but three pairs of legs in there, that should have been another story. But both of her teammates had their legs drawn up, almost to their chest, so that no one accidentally touched.

"So." Sakura bowed her head for a second, looking for inspiration. All she saw was her cast, resting across her stomach. "We need a plan."


She had no idea. She bit her lip. "... Things."

"Training," Sasuke said.

"Yeah. We need to be able to defend ourselves. That -- the way they just..." Naruto gave a disgusted growl. "We could be stronger. We should have been."

Sakura nodded slowly. He was right. For so long they had cruised along, because the Council didn't want a team with a traitor and a demon to progress too fast, because if they wanted to build good will they couldn't complain that they didn't get the most dangerous missions possible anymore, because Kakashi wasn't allowed to teach Sasuke, because, because -- it all seemed like silly excuses now. What the hell had they been doing for so long, stuck in that holding pattern, that limbo?

"Training has to become a priority. We'll have to limit the number of missions we take, just go for the ones that offer better fights and drop the rest."

"Money?" Sakura pointed out.

"We've got savings. There's banks. At worst we'll borrow from them. Make it up later."

Naruto nodded vaguely; Sakura waited for him to go 'hah' because that was a reversal of their old argument, Sasuke now espousing Naruto's view on money that he had rejected back then, but he didn't.

Silence again.

"It's because of the baby, right?"

Sakura and Sasuke blinked at Naruto.

"You and Itachi. You and -- you and the baby."

Sakura opened her mouth to protest Naruto's words, but then she realized she couldn't. The baby made them stop being just a team, something Sasuke could dismiss. It made them a family. She clenched her fingers into a fist, out of Sasuke's line of sight.

He didn't say anything, for a second, two, ten.

"...I guess."

"Get married," Naruto said, staring ahead with grim stubbornness. "Soon. Before shit happens. 'Cause afterwards..."

Sakura bit her lip. The marriage -- oh, they'd planned it, had even mentioned it to her parents. But it had always seemed to belong to 'later', a nebulous and faraway time. Later, we'll marry, and there will be the baby, and it was like something a little out of time, out of danger. It wasn't. They weren't.

"What if," she whispered. "What if you're her father, Naruto?"

She saw them both flinch. "We've talked about that before!" Naruto retorted, meeting her eyes this time around. "It doesn't matter, okay? It's -- he or she -- she'll be ours anyway. We've talked about that."

"Not a lot."

"It was enough! We understood each other, right? Right, Sasuke?"

Sasuke was watching her, utterly unreadable. "Have you changed your mind?" he asked. His voice was as blank as his face.

"No," Sakura whispered. "I want to be your wife. But I want to be Naruto's wife too."

She really did.

Uchiha Sakura... Uzumaki Sakura. It didn't sound half-bad either.

"... And it's not fair to make you marry me when I could be having his child -- when you could -- when you could have your children with someone else."

She saw them both stiffen. Naruto's hand reached for hers, squeezed. She squeezed back, even though he was this close to giving her a second cast to balance out the first. He'd be a great husband -- in a totally different way from Sasuke, but a great husband, fun and loving and caring...

"You want family, Sasuke. You want lots of them, and this one might not even be yours, and I want to train and fight with the both of you, this child might be an orphan by next year because I won't let the two of you fight alone -- who knows when there will be time to have more, and there's so many clans who would be glad to --"

"Shut up."

"--I don't want that, I don't want to see you marry anyone else but--"

"I don't want anyone else to be the mother of my children!"


She bit her lip to keep it from trembling. Naruto's thumb was rubbing her knuckles back and forth, back and forth.

"We'll -- I don't know." Sasuke raked his hand through his hair, waved it in a meaningless gesture, let it flop back down. "Teach you kagebunshin so you can have several pairs of twins at the same time. Clone them in a lab. I don't know. I don't care. Until Naruto somehow turns himself into a real, functional woman and lets me knock him up, you're the only one. Shut up."


Naruto kicked out, his leg crossing the empty space between the two of them like they hadn't spent the last, oh, ten minutes, pretending it was the Great Suna Canyon. Sasuke kicked back. Kick, kick, push and kick, legs tangling together as they squabbled like children, like always, and she couldn't help but laugh, even though she still wanted to cry.

God help her but she wanted them both. Just like that, being competitive and ridiculous and completely absorbed in each other.

She turned her cracked arm outward, fingers uncurling toward Sasuke's side. He paused, looked at her. She waited, apologies in her eyes, hand offered.

Naruto wriggled his foot free from where Sasuke's knee pinned it and sneaked in a stealth kick, digging his toes in Sasuke's thigh. Sasuke turned back to him like a striking snake, eyes narrowed in challenge, and slipped his legs past Naruto's guard to pin both of Naruto's legs back down.

But even as he proved his mastery of techniques and holds on Naruto, he still reached back for her hand.

She didn't think she would ever be able to explain to any outsider how and why the sight of the both of them so absorbed in trying to outdo each other in utter stupid managed to put such a fond smile on her face.

They weren't right yet, playing it up for an audience of two, attempting to convince themselves along with each other and her, attempting not to notice all those things that still waited nearby, crowding them. Their mock-competition stopped too soon, not enough insults and offense. But at the same time...

At the same time, when they stopped fighting their legs were so entangled it would be a miracle if they could get up in time to defend from an attack. Sakura shifted her weight on her folded legs, set her feet against the linoleum, so that she could.

Next time she'd protect them. She really would.

[Chapter 8] [Interlude]