Title:By Any Other Name

Summary: In a universe where Kushina's labor wasn't interrupted by a lunatic, Minato remained Hokage, and the Uchiha Clan held it together, Kakashi and Itachi unwittingly take on the roles of Tybalt and Benvolio. Sasuke/FemNaru , with apologies to William Shakespeare.

Author: CrownsofLaurels

Rating: M

A/N: This will be five to six chapters (if there is a sixth chapter, it will be an epilogue). It is very much a humorous take on meshing Naruto with Romeo & Juliet, apologies to Shakespeare. If you think this is out of character for anyone, imagine how a female Naruto would have developed growing up with both of her parents alive and her father as the Hokage. Imagine how Sasuke would have developed growing up with his entire family alive, but at near-constant political odds with the Hokage. (And if you're still struggling, think about Sasuke from Naruto: Road to Ninja). Set the stage in your mind, and read on from there.

I know I should be writing Making Arrangements, go yell at Kunoichi of the Moonlit Night, this is the result of a random conversation with her. This is meant to be a fun read, and somewhat of a parody of both Naruto and Romeo & Juliet. Don't take any of it too seriously, just enjoy it if you can.

And…ummm, this really earns its' 'M' rating at the end. Not quite MA, I think, but definitely M. If someone disagrees and thinks I've violated the posting guidelines, let me know, I'll remove the questionable content and post it only on Ao3.

Act I. Prologue.

Two households, both alike in dignity,

In fair Konoha, where we lay our scene,

From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,

Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.

From forth the fatal loins of these two foes

A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life,

Whose misadventured piteous overthrows

Doth with their death bury their parents' strife.

The fearful passage of their death marked love

And the continuance of their parents' rage—

Which but their children's end naught could remove—

Is now the two-hours traffic of our stage;

The which if you with patient ears attend,

What here shall miss, my toil shall strive to mend.

-Prologue, Romeo & Juliet, William Shakespeare

(With minor alterations)

Act I. Scene I.

It starts, like every great epic love story sung about in lore, with a fight in the playground sandbox.

The bards will quibble over who was truly at fault, but it is indisputable that Naruto had, on that occasion, built the most beautiful sandcastle in the known ninja-world. It had delicately designed windows and scaffolding, carefully sculpted with a senbon she'd found in the backyard bushes and squirreled away from her parents' inevitable 'no-s' for two whole days. She'd spent hours on the castle, trying so hard to make it just like the one in the picture books that her Mamma read to her at night before bed.

Cat, her current babysitter, had left her to her play for several hours, too relieved that the small bundle of energy was sitting still for once, and too conditioned to the sight of weaponry, to consider that it might not have been the smartest decision of his career to allow such a young child something so sharp.

Naruto stuck her tongue out the side of her mouth in concentration, gently putting the final touch on the tallest tower, a toothpick with a leaf speared on it for a flag.

This is, of course, when Uchiha Sasuke tripped in the sandbox (he swears it was all Inuzuka Kiba's fault) and fell on her masterpiece.

A moment of shock froze the scene, and then the little girl with her golden hair bound in pigtails scrunched up her face in an unpleasant expression and wailed.

The pale boy scrambled to his knees, trying simultaneously to re-shape the sand and soothe the girl with the pretty blue eyes, apologizing profusely for the accident and begging forgiveness and secretly thinking about the quiet disappointed look his mother's face would get when she inevitably heard how he'd made another little girl cry.

Cat shifted in the trees, his manual didn't have instructions on what to do should the child start crying. He subtly moved his hands through a familiar sequence, sending out a bunshin for backup.

"I'm really sorry, I'll help put it back, see—" The young Uchiha's pleas for forgiveness fell on death ears as the grains of sand slipped through his fingers, refusing to return to the shapes the pretty girl had spent all afternoon coaxing them to hold. Panicked, the boy said the first thing to come to his mind, unknowingly sealing his fate. "My nii-san will fix it," the boy blurted out, face pale and dark eyes wide, "he's good at everything, he's the best in the world!"

The sobs cut off as quickly as they started and blue eyes opened wide. "Nuh-uh!" Hiccoughed the girl, rubbing grubby hands at her eyes, "No he's not!"

Sasuke pursed his lips in an adorable, childish pout, "Yes he is!"

"No he's not," blonde pig-tails flew as the girl vehemently shook her head from side to side. "Mine is!"

"Well," formerly warm black eyes grew cold and haughty. "Nii-san and I are Uchiha, which means we're the best." The boy paused and then added as an afterthought, in case this strange girl didn't already know, "At everything."

"That's a lie," said the girl boldly, considering the other child with narrowed eyes. "Take it back."

"No, it's not." Sasuke put his hands on his hips, frowning. What a stupid girl. It wasn't a lie, the Uchiha are the best. "My father said so," he crossed his arms, tone indicating that this was the end of the conversation.

"Then he's a liar too," shouted the blonde, scowl marring her pretty face as she stamped her foot in the sand. "You can't be good at everything, 'cuz my Daddy says my nii-san is the best nii-san, and Daddy's Hokage, so he is better than the best and what he says is the most-est important-est of all."

Sasuke bristled like an angry cat, black eyes sharp, back tense, ready to spit spite in any direction.

"And," Naruto plowed forward, not knowing her own comment would inspire hatred so instant and deep in the other child that it would fuel a decade long feud, "If your nii-san said he was the best, then he's a liar too."

"My nii-san is not a liar," hissed the boy, face pale. "But your Dad is a Loser," Sasuke added, recalling all the rants his own father gave about some mysterious 'Hokage' and his bad decisions, and the bitter mutterings about 'political clout' and a new era and some red-headed 'banshee' bent on bringing The Clan to its' knees. "And that makes you a Stupid Loser too."

This of course, meant war.

Which was what was happening moments later when two ninjs came upon the tumultuous scene to observe two children barely passed toddler-hood rolling in the mud, kicking, punching, and, in Naruto's case biting, as her mother hadn't quite instilled the same code of manners in the little girl that Uchiha mothers instilled in their own.

The newcomers hastily pulled the combatants apart, cradling their respective wards in their arms and sizing up the other child's savior warily.

Cat fidgeted nervously behind the taller male's shoulder, wondering if he should have intervened to stop the tantrum earlier.

"Hatake-senpai," acknowledged the younger arrival, silky black hair gathered at the nape of his neck with a hair tie.

"Itachi-san," greeted the silver-haired jōnin, head tilting in recognition.

"I apologize for my little brother's behavior," said the Uchiha heir formally.

"But, nii-san-"

"Hush, Sasuke."

"Maa," drawled the copy-ninja, "It's fine. It looks like Sasuke-chan came off a little worse anyway. Sorry for that, we're not really sure where she keeps finding the senbon."

Itachi's arms tightened around his sibling. "It was a childish fight." He looked disapprovingly down at the boy in his arms, "and they are childish injuries."

Sasuke wilted a bit. Not fair, he thought. The Loser didn't look the least bit sorry, and the man—her nii-san?—hadn't scolded her at all.

Naruto eyed the other child somewhat smugly, one of her hands curled around Kakashi's neck and clamped tightly onto the back of the collar of his jōnin vest. And the mean boy's nii-san had called her nii-san 'senpai,' which obviously meant that she was right, and her nii-san was better.

With Naruto perched safely in his arms, Kakashi spared a glance over his shoulder at Cat. "What were they fighting about anyway?" He asked, mildly curious.

Cat's mask bobbed slowly, "If I understand correctly," said Cat hesitantly, "I believe that their dispute revolved around who had the better nii-san."

The awkward silence that settled over the group was broken only when Kakashi sheepishly raised his free hand to scratch at the back of his head. "Oh," he said, at a loss for other words, fighting back a flush of embarrassment and a strange, warm-fuzzy feeling constricting his chest.

Itachi simply sighed before fixing his brother with stern, uncompromising familiar eyes. "You will apologize to Naruto-hime for fighting, Sasuke."

Sasuke's jaw dropped a bit, his shocked wide eyes clearly conveying how betrayed he felt.

"Sasuke," Itachi's tone was edged with the smallest amount of impatience, leaving the impression that the order was non-negotiable.

Sasuke's jaw closed with a scowl, and his face hardened into a look reminiscent of his mother's when she was determined to have her way. He twisted a bit to better look at the self-satisfied girl—How could he have ever thought she was pretty?— cuddled confidently in the arms of the stranger with the silver-white hair. A single dark eye the only part of the man's face that was visible, the rest remained obscured behind a mask and a hitiate. Sasuke appraised the pair from within the safety of his own relative's arms and then set his shoulders defiantly. "I'm sorry your nii-san is old, Loser."

The blonde gasped dramatically, instantly rising to the bait, little fingers clenching tightly in Kakashi's vest. "Well I'm not sorry your nii-san is a liar, you-you Ass-Turd!"

Both guardians moved to contain the children as they squirmed to be set free and to resume their rudely interrupted prior activities.

"I have no idea where she learns those words," said Kakashi weakly, shrinking back at Cat's body language, which suggested that the ANBU wouldn't be taking shouldering the blame for this incident by himself.

Itachi fought back a surprising desire to laugh, catching the twitch of his lips just in time. This boy will be the death of me, he thought, somewhat fondly. "For the sake of the peace," he said calmly, "perhaps we should call it a day."

"What?" Kakashi raised his visible eyebrow in mock-surprise, slinging his own ward over his shoulder and holding onto her by the ankle as she angrily pounded his back with pint-sized fists. "No fight to the death to defend the family honor?"

"Not today," Itachi allowed himself the luxury of a small smile, tightly gripping the back of Sasuke's neck in a hold that would keep the boy immobile but looked more respectful and dignified. "Maybe next time."

"Coward," Kakashi gibed good-naturedly, taking a step back before shunshin-ing away, Cat following in his wake.

"Sasuke, Sasuke, Sasuke," murmured Itachi, tsking affectionately at his darling brother now that they were alone on the edge of the playground. "Would you please not fight with the children of Father's political opponents, it's unbecoming and probably bad for my heart."

Sasuke relaxed as Itachi let go of his neck and the younger child shifted his weight to better hold on to the other as he was carried home. He hugged his arms around Itachi's neck and buried his face in his brother's uniform. He wasn't entirely certain what Itachi was talking about or what had just happened, but he sensed that he'd been forgiven.

Not that I did anything wrong in the first place, the child thought darkly.

The walk home was quiet. Sasuke was certainly old enough to whine to be let down or to be asked to get himself home on his own two legs, but his knees were scraped and bloody and there was a nasty scratch on his thigh from where that stupid girl had raked her senbon over it, so he was fully content to let his –amazing, wonderful, unmatched— nii-san do most of the work to get him home. "Did you bring me a present," he asked curiously, just now remembering that this was the first time in days that he'd seen his sibling and that usually meant a surprise.

"I didn't actually leave the Village, Sasuke," drawled Itachi, not unkindly, chuckling at the sudden return of his brother's usual good humor.

"But you've not been home in days," whined a sad face, big dark eyes looking imploringly into their older mirror.

"I've been getting ready for the chūnin exams."

Sasuke considered the answer, letting a few moments of silence and a gentle breeze pass.

Sasuke's face turned away from his brother's, "is Loser's nii-san a chūnin?"

"No," Itachi bit his lip to hide just how entertaining he found the day's events to be; hitching Sasuke up so he was resting a bit easier on his hip. "Naruto-hime's," Itachi stressed the name in a vain attempt at correction, "nii-san is a jōnin, and a very good one."

Sasuke paled and turned tearful eyes on his brother, "So he is better than you?"

Itachi threw back his head and laughed, an unusual, pleasant sound coming from the typically taciturn nine-year old, surprising Sasuke. Itachi grinned and freed a hand to ruffle the morose-looking child's hair, "Indubitably."

Sasuke didn't know what that meant either, but he wasn't going to ask and look dumb in front of his nii-san, so he simply settled into his sulk and buried his face into his nii-san's shirt. "One day you'll be better," he mumbled, words muffled by cotton.

"Perhaps," was all that Itachi would say in response.

Itachi set his brother down when they could see the gates to the district in the distance. He bent over to dust some dirt off of Sasuke's back and his younger brother twisted impatiently away from his inspection.

"Sasuke," Itachi reached forward and caught his sibling's wrist, catching the boy's eyes with his own, the slight frown imparting the severity of his upcoming words and causing the younger of the two to still wearily. "In all seriousness, you need to show Naruto-hime respect in public, you can't go starting fights with her again."

"Why?" Sasuke snapped irritably. "She's a Loser. I hate her."

"Sasuke-kun," the older brother chided the younger, "You can hate her all you want behind the walls of the district. It's no secret that our families don't get along that well, but you cannot talk badly about her, or pick fights with her outside your own home. Promise me?"

Sasuke scowled adorably, scuffing his shoes in the dirt. "Fine," he reluctantly conceded, crossing his arms and looking up at his brother, "but she's still a Loser."

Itachi knelt and beckoned his sibling closer. "Are we inside the district gates?"


"Then is 'Loser,' her name, Sasuke-kun?"

"No," Sasuke admitted, "but it should be."

Itachi poked his younger brother in the forehead, "Foolish little brother," he said fondly, hiding his smile behind his hand as Sasuke rubbed the attacked spot vigorously.

Act I. Scene II.

Twelve (XII) Years Later

"Excuse me?" Minato asked, almost certain that he'd misheard the woman, except that Kakashi suddenly straightened from his customary slouch in the back corner of the room and an aggravated spike of chakra came from Kushina, who was tensely sitting in the chair next to his own.

Sunagakure's head diplomat, the Yondaime Kazekage's oldest child, a bushy-haired, sturdy female named Temari, calmly reclined across from the Yondaime Hokage, sipping pleasantly at her cup of tea. Her brothers sat stoically at her sides, the puppeteer on her left, and the youngest, a red-head close to his own daughter's age, sat on her right.

This was an 'unofficial' meeting, a precursor to a series of talks where Suna and Konoha would re-negotiate their shaky alliance. Both sides hoped to emerge from the talks more confident about trusting the other village, which, correspondingly, meant each side would emerge more indebted to the other.

However, the current meeting was only supposed to be a light chat—friendly, mindless banter between the Hokage and his pretty wife and the children of an allied foreign leader. Apparently, Temari didn't believe in wasting time. Either that or she felt that she was more likely to successfully accomplish her goal by directly discussing the situation first with Minato and Kushina, before the Council got involved.

Temari lowered her cup and cradled it in her hands. "My father wants, more than anything, to be firmly allied with your village." Navy eyes regarded him carefully, taking note of every twitch made by either Hokage or wife. "But that is, understandably, difficult when we're being continually harassed by one of your own whom you've failed to either control or apprehend."

A muscle in Minato's jaw tightened at the reminder of Orochimaru, the missing ninja whom his Sensei had begged to be allowed to handle, but who'd gone on and off their radar and been allowed to roam unapprehended for far too long. He was finally facing the consequences of indulging his teacher's whims and allowing Jiraiya to play the cat-and-mouse game that had existed between the two Sannin since before Minato was born.

"As you know," continued the blonde, carefully presenting her obviously well-rehearsed words, "We have proof that the man has been abducting and experimenting on the children of our village. We demand that you find a way to compensate us for the harm we've suffered, and to reassure us of your commitment to our alliance."

Minato longed to run a hand through his hair in irritation, but restrained the impulse. He couldn't afford to show the reaction to the young woman before him, who was ready to pounce on any sign of guilt or weakness. He was truly disturbed by the accusations, mind flashing back to his own memories of discovering the Snake's labs, and subsequently the remains of the experiments' victims. Goddammit, Sensei, you promised you'd handled this. Obviously, Jiraiya hadn't been as thorough as he'd asserted when investigating and 'handling' the Orochimaru matter. He'd give Sensei a piece of his mind later. First, he needed to figure out the best way to deal with Suna, they wouldn't have come on this strong in their requests if they didn't have concrete evidence of the traitorous Sannin's involvement.

"Our Village believes that the best way to accomplish this," Temari's studious gaze flickered over to Kushina, "is to create a physical, literal alliance between our people in addition to the abstract agreement to provide support, encourage trade, and come to the other party's aide that has always existed. This could be accomplished with the marriage of our next Hokage," Temari tipped her head, acknowledging the brother seated on her right, "to your own child, Yondaime-sama."

Her tone was respectful and formal, incredibly polite, but the grip Kushina had on his knee underneath the table was strong enough to shatter a lesser man's kneecap. Minato focused on not clenching his teeth and maintaining a distant, neutral expression.

His problem was that the suggestion wasn't absurd, it was very logical, and would clearly benefit all parties and create an unprecedented alliance between the two villages. Minato had been wondering at the reasons underlying the Yondaime Kazekage's seemingly abrupt, recent announcement of his successor. Gaara was a formidable ninja, especially after the Kazekage had agreed to let Jiraiya modify the boy's containment seal, allowing Gaara to develop an inimitable control of his home environment, but he was still quite young. Now Minato could see that the Kazekage had been making a move to improve his son's position as a suitor for marriage to Naruto.

Even considering the personalities of the two children, it wasn't an ill-conceived match. He was well aware that his daughter and the Kazekage's children were on friendly terms. The group had bonded over the years, being ineluctably dragged from one village to the other at their fathers' behest, doomed as they were from birth to a career in which their conduct would forever have inescapable political consequences.

And Naruto-chan was especially sensitive to the trio's unique family dynamic, her own mother being a jinchūriki and she herself conditioned from childhood to accept the possibility that Naruto herself, in an emergency, or more likely, her own eventual offspring, would become Konoha's next jinchūriki. Minato had heard her speak fondly of the teal eyed boy, in a tone she generally reserved for teasing Kakashi, someone she had been raised to consider a sibling. And he knew, from his own observations, that when Gaara was in Konoha, he was most relaxed in Naruto's presence and always thoroughly appreciative of his daughter's gift of friendship.

Furthermore, while Minato had made it clear that he wasn't planning on retiring from his position anytime soon, it was no small secret that if his reign came to an unexpectedly early end, the Council currently favored bullying either of the remaining loyal Sannin, or the equally reluctant copy-ninja into assuming the role. None of these individuals would hesitate to come to Naruto's aide if she requested it.

Admittedly, both Naruto and Gaara were young, but an engagement of a year or two wouldn't be an unreasonable or unanticipated request. And it was likely that Sunagakure would acquiesce to an agreement where some of Naruto's children would retain their mother's clan name and, once of age, permanently become part of Konoha's forces and take up the Uzumaki's duties to Konoha.

It was generous of Suna too, in a certain fashion. Stolen, tortured children were a grievous injury, and in return, they weren't asking for a pound of flesh, but for a union between two already acquainted, friendly ninja who would produce children of their own. An eye for an eye, in a sense, children for children. In return for surrendering a kunoichi for marriage to the Kazekage, the offspring of that union, children of the most powerful military leader of Sunagakure and grandchildren of the most powerful military leader of Konohagakure, would assuredly be raised with a fondness for Konoha, a predisposition to treat with their mother's Village on the most favorable terms, for decades to come.

It was an excellent solution.

The Council would love it.


The Council was going to eat this shit up, and his darling, passionate wife would castrate him in his sleep with a wooden spoon for seriously considering sending their sixteen-year-old, beloved, only child off to a foreign village to take part in a marriage orchestrated for political leverage.

Meanwhile, across the Village, deep within the solid, intimidating walls of the Uchiha compound, Uchiha Itachi was contemplating fratricide.

Gone was the worshipful younger brother with the adorable pout, and in his place was a sullen, impulsive, hormonal teenager of the most spoiled and indulged variety, who was currently swinging through moods so swiftly that their mother had thrown her apron in the air and stormed off, muttering under her breath about how a daughter would have been easier to deal with, and delegating the task of breaking the boy from his current slump to her oldest child.

"I thought you said that the Sakura girl was in love with you," Itachi said, striving to be patient and understanding.

"That was before she saw Karin," Sasuke said flatly from his bed, where he lay sprawled on his back across the top of the covers, arms crossed behind his head. He studiously examined the ceiling.

Itachi paused, not sure if Sasuke meant that his latest girlfriend had seen Sasuke flirting with the Karin girl and dumped Sasuke in a jealous tantrum, or if Sakura had decided that it was simpler just to be with another woman rather than put up with his brother.

It would explain several questions he had about some of the girl's behaviors, but perhaps he should not inquire too deeply into the circumstances surrounding his little brother's latest breakup.

"If she cannot recognize your value, then she is not worthy of being the recipient of your affections," stated Itachi calmly, repeating their mother's wise words with a practiced air. He wasn't quite sure why. It wasn't like Sasuke had heeded the advice the first dozen times it had been imparted.

"But I love her nii-san," said Sasuke plaintively, turning his head to gaze at his sibling with sincere black eyes.

"You just thought you loved her, Sasuke," Itachi replied, impatience edging into his voice. He'd have more sympathy for his younger sibling if Sasuke hadn't said the same thing about every girl he'd brought home to meet their mother since reaching the age of thirteen. "If your life experiences have taught you anything, you should know that there will be other girls."

"Not like this one," Sasuke said belligerently. "No one can have eyes as bright as hers, or hair as soft, or be as smart—"

"Sasuke," Itachi cut his brother off quickly. He was painfully, intimately familiar with just how long his brother could wax poetic about a female love interest. He struggled to maintain his composure and not give into the rapidly increasing temptation to simply drag the boy from his room and give him a good dunk in the lake. This…self-indulgent sappiness, for lack of a better term, was a new behavior for his younger sibling. His mother kept repeating, in a buoyant tone with a forced smile, that this was a 'phase' which his little brother would outgrow soon. Itachi clung to the knowledge that his mother had never before been wrong about such things, but this particular phase was sorely testing Itachi's ability to tolerate his younger sibling's 'normal' teenage mental growth and development.

"What?" Sighed the younger boy, leveling his sad eyes at his brother once more.

Itachi reconsidered the previously discarded strategy of washing his hands of the matter and leaving Sasuke to their father's discipline, but that had proved largely ineffective in the past. Fugaku's method of dealing with his youngest's flair for the dramatic was to pretend that nothing was happening and to ignore the boy. This would only leave them all exactly where they had started. "You must leave this room," Itachi settled for stating, hoping his voice sounded like it was giving an order which must be heeded. "You have been moping in here for three days. It is unbecoming of someone of your station, and detrimental to your progress as a ninja." Which after all, was Itachi's responsibility to oversee, it would reflect badly on Itachi if Sasuke's training suffered, and ultimately endanger Sasuke's own safety. Which Itachi would not allow to happen.

Sasuke just scowled and rolled over, turning his back to his brother. "Leaving this room won't make Sakura love me again."

Itachi took a moment to make out the words, muffled as they were by his brother's face being firmly pressed into the bed sheets. Upon comprehension, he expelled an exasperated huff and advanced upon the bed, Sasuke rolling back over to regard his approaching sibling with a churlish expression.

Itachi narrowed his eyes and refused to feel guilty when he poked his brother harshly in the forehead, Sasuke's indignant squawk and delayed reflex failing to bat away his sibling's hand and stop the familiar, unwelcome maneuver.

"Foolish little brother," Itachi bit out, "Tomorrow evening, there is a festival in the Village to welcome the ambassadors from Sunagakure. You will be out of bed, bathed, dressed, and in all other means presentable when I arrive to accompany you and our parents to the event."

"If you are not," Itachi leaned close to emphasize the threat, "I will tell cousin Shisui exactly who has been raiding his mother's prized rose garden for bouquets for their 'sweetheart' of the week, am I understood?"

Sasuke's eyes went wide and he gave a barely audible 'meep,' recalling the last time he'd angered that particular cousin. He's spent a week wooing a girl he thought was Ino, only to discover he'd been making moon-eyes at Ino's sixty-year old grandmother. The woman was thoroughly flattered, and to the day gave Sasuke an outrageous discount whenever he gathered enough courage and pride to venture back. Still, it was one of the more humiliating lessons Sasuke had learned at the hands of his cousin, and Ino had yet to stop bursting into hysterical giggles whenever he entered the store. It was much more convenient to sneak his Aunt's flowers, although he'd admit to having been a little greedy lately in his desperate attempts to win back Sakura's affections.

He meekly agreed to his brother's demands and began to mentally prepare himself for spending a painful evening dealing with women inferior to his beautiful ex-girlfriend in every way.

Act I. Scene III.

Kushina's nervous search for her daughter inevitably led her to Konoha's sanctioned experimental medical labs, where her boisterous child could generally be found in between training sessions harassing her favorite 'grandmother,' her rather volatile best friend, and her somewhat tetchy cousin.

Naruto liked to live dangerously.

"Tsunade-sama," Kushina greeted, her odd tone immediately garnering the older woman's attention.

"What's wrong with you?" The medical expert carefully scrutinized the visibly discomfited red head, as she stood anxiously in the doorway of the Senju's personal office, worrying strands of her long red hair between her fingers.

"I need to talk with Naru-chan, have you seen her?"

"Eh," Tsunade tried to think back to the last time she'd seen the young blonde, but her thoughts were interrupted by a mild explosion, loud enough to clearly be heard through the sterile hallways, but not strong enough to rattle the walls or to raise a concern about structural damage.

Tsunade pursed her lips and waved her hand in the general direction of the sound.

Kushina looked a bit exasperated and had an embarrassed flush to her cheeks, non-verbally acknowledging that of course it would be her child responsible for the chaos.

"After you," Tsunade said magnanimously, following the jinchūriki down the hallway toward a doorway filled with billowing steam.

Kushina cautiously poked her head into the lab, then proceeded to enter the room when the bickering and coughing coming from within made it clear that whatever had happened, the fumes weren't hazardous and the situation was as controlled as could be expected.

"I told you, you have to watch your potassium nitrate!"

"Well, excuse me for focusing my education on how to heal people instead of how to blow them up!"

"That was freaking aweso—"

"Naruto-chan," interrupted Kushina, crossing the room to open the window, "Would you please?" She made a shooing motion with her hands, the meaning of which her daughter caught onto quickly.

"Oh, yeah!" A few hand motions later and a hastily applied wind jutsu blew the worst of the smoke outside, revealing three teenage girls. A blonde with pigtails was bouncing excitedly on the balls of her feet, while a red-head with glasses was scowling at a pretty girl with long pink hair who was rubbing watery green eyes.

"Karin," Tsunade scolded, hands on her hips and tapping her foot impatiently, "How many times have you been told that the hospital labs aren't the place to test your personal explosive projects?"

Karin stood nonplussed, merely pausing to take off her glasses and rubbing them clean on her stained lab coat.

"Karin," repeated Tsunade, tone lowering to a growl.

"Oh, come on Granny," Naruto bounded over to the older woman's side, using both hands to latch onto one of the woman's arms and employing pleading blue eyes to her full advantage, "Sakura-chan was being all gloomy because she broke up with Ass-turd again, and we were just trying to cheer her up! We didn't mean any harm, promise! And look," Naruto gestured to the lab as a whole, "we didn't even break anything!"

"I'm not your grandmother," snapped Tsunade, habitually, "and calm down, just, stop that—" she pushed the younger girl off and gripped her by both shoulders, "can't you stay still for one minute?"

"No," chirped the girl, still bouncing a bit as the older blonde attempted to hold her still.

"Kushina-chan, your offspring's defective."

Kushina sighed, but was interrupted by a sheepish admission from Sakura.

"We may have each consumed a container of ice cream earlier today."

Tsunade blinked and released her giddy sixteen-year-old quarry, recognizing the futility of her endeavor.

"Girls," the red-headed jōnin reprimanded, without much venom.

"Mom!" Naruto threw her arms up in the air, gesturing wildly, "It was a rare occasion, a celebration! We've been telling her to dump Pretty-Boy's butt for a year, and she finally found the balls to do it."

"Girls don't have balls," interjected Karin practically.

"Yeah well," mild irritation flickered across Naruto's blue eyes, "she found where Ass-turd hid his then and borrowed 'em for a bit. It's not like he uses them anyway."

"Girls," repeated Kushina, a little more forcefully, "What have I said about discussing the genitalia of the Uchiha men?"

Karin and Naruto shared a look and then obediently intoned in unison, "They may have the nicest asses in the Village, but at the end of the day, that's all they are, just a pretty ass."

"That's right," Kushina said with a firm nod and a tilt of the head to a subtly wilting Sakura, "And I'm sorry Sakura dear, but you are better off without him, you know my opinion on the subject."

"Yes, Auntie Kushina," murmured Sakura softly, chastened.

"See," beamed Naruto, "I told you, you're totally better off sans Ass-turd."

"Can't you find a more intelligent insulting descriptive for the boy," drawled Tsunade, "continuing to call him that just advertises the fact that we never managed to educate you properly."

Naruto threw a dark glare toward the older woman, "Well, I tried calling him Bastard, but Mom says that's more insulting to his mother than to him, and that his mom is mostly a victim of unfortunate circumstance who suffers enough for her bad life choices by simply having to stay married to her husband." Naruto sniffed, "But I realize that you're so old that you're starting to forget things like that, so you're forgiven."

"Watch it brat," Tsunade snarled, cracking her knuckles, "I brought you into this world, I can take you out."

Kushina frowned, "Technically, I brought her into this world."

Tsunade waved off the complaint, "You just sat there and yelled, I did the hard work and made sure you both made it through the ordeal alive."

"Mom," Naruto quickly decided to intervene before the age-old argument reached higher decibel levels, "why are you here anyway, is anything wrong?" Naruto maneuvered herself into her mother's personal bubble, so as to draw her mother's full attention away from the oldest woman in the room.

"Oh!" Kushina's eyes brightened in remembrance and then fell a little in dismay.

"Mom?" Naruto asked again, suddenly worried as her mother bit her lip, a nervous habit she indulged in when she didn't want to say something that was on her mind.

"Naru-chan," intoned her mother, "You remember Gaara-san, right?" Kushina laid a heavy hand on her child's shoulder, gently pushing the girl down into sitting on a stool by a counter.

"Yes," the blonde readily admitted, brow furrowing in confusion, "Is he alright? He wasn't attacked was he? For being—" she trailed off, eyes darting toward Karin and Sakura.

Karin, as a sensor familiar with both her aunt's chakra and a having a brief acquaintance with the Kazekage's son, quickly caught on to the unspoken dialogue.

Sakura, however, simply blinked, never having been brought in on Kushina's secret despite her best-friend status with Naruto.

Naruto cleared her throat and looked quickly back to her mother.

"For being the son of the Kazekage?" Her mother supplied. "No, he's fine. But he's here with his siblings, to re-negotiate our alliance with Suna, and they had an interesting proposition that your father," she paused, closed her eyes and took a deep breath before grudgingly continuing, "and I would like you to consider." Kushina opened her eyes and patted her daughter's cheek nervously, "but only consider, mind you! You don't have to agree to it if you don't want to, it's just," Kushina fumbled for words, "it's a good idea for the Village and your father thinks that it merits consideration," she finished weakly.

Naruto regarded her mother blankly, not comprehending what her mother was dancing around in any form or fashion.

Tsunade, however, slapped the counter next to her so hard a beaker rattled off and crashed to the floor, the sound of it shattering overwhelmed by the sound of the older woman's laughter. "Oh no," wheezed Tsunade, "no they didn't—"

"Tsunade-sama," Kushina bit out between clenched teeth, "You are not helping."

Tsunade ignored the jōnin's rebuke. "Hahaha," continued Tsunade jovially, "this calls for saké." She started browsing through the cabinets, eventually pulling out a handful of small cups and a bottle of liquor carefully hidden behind a plastic model of the inside of a human ear.

"I suppose the rest of us will be called to discuss this tomorrow?" Tsunade intoned, as she poured the drink into the cups, passing them out to everyone (except Sakura, who politely declined).

"Yes," confessed Kushina, shoulders slumping a bit, "They informed us of their intentions today, and I've spent the last three hours having a one-sided screaming match with Minato about it, but he's absolutely adamant that we at least consider the idea."

"I can see the benefits," Tsunade admitted, sipping from her cup.

Kushina made a strange face and finished her glass in one gulp. She turned to her daughter, "You're going to want to drink that."

Naruto's eyes widened, her mother wasn't exactly strict when it came to monitoring her daughter's intake of alcohol, but she usually wasn't one to encourage drinking either. She tended to be a bit protective of her only child, but generally acknowledged that, according to ninja customs, Naruto was an adult. After letting Naruto experience an absolutely miserable hang-over after her first drinking experience (which was all Kakashi-nii-san's fault, by the way), she took a step back and trusted her daughter to be responsible enough to handle the consequences of over-indulgence on her own. Nonetheless, Naruto followed her mother's orders, grimacing as the cheap warm alcohol rushed down her throat.

She turned expectant eyes upon her mother, ignoring the curious looks from her cousin and best-friend as they blended into the background.

"Naru-chan," Kushina said with a sigh, deciding to just cut to the chase, "How would you feel about marrying Gaara-san?"

Naruto was very glad that she'd already swallowed her drink, otherwise she probably would have spewed it out in her mother's face.

Kushina considered herself to be quite close to her daughter. She'd perhaps hovered a bit too much over her only child, especially when she insisted that the girl be apprenticed to her rather than placed on a traditional three man team upon graduating from the Academy, but she'd had a lot of clan-specific techniques to teach the girl. And she rationalized that she'd fully compensated for the sheltered upbringing that she had insisted upon providing, and to which Minato had indulgently agreed, by letting Jiraiya cart her child across the known world for a year and a half. She and Minato were still discovering and dealing with all the consequences of that fiasco. However, all this meant that Kushina didn't need her flustered, spluttering child to actually articulate a verbal response to the question she'd posed in order to understand the teenager's feelings on the matter.

"Yeah," Kushina gave a twisted smile, awkwardly patting her daughter on the head, "I thought so. Just," she stopped patting her child, belatedly remembering that this was a person, not one of Kakashi's ninken. "Just make sure to give him a chance at the festival tomorrow night. Ok?"

Act I. Scene IV.

"What is that?" Sasuke raised an eyebrow as he gingerly took the feathered monstrosity that Itachi handed to him.

"It's a mask," Itachi replied, working to hide the impatience bleeding into his voice. He examined Sasuke critically. At least his brother was bathed and appropriately dressed. Sasuke looked respectable enough in the navy yukata. The gloomy cast to his face made him resemble their father more for once and Itachi felt his shoulders relax a bit, assured his brother had snapped out his sulk enough to behave appropriately in public.

Their mother floated into the room, years of kunoichi training and socked feet ensuring she didn't emit a sound. She beamed upon seeing them, "My two handsome boys," she reached up to affectionately brush a hand across each of their cheeks in turn.

"Mother," Sasuke nodded, before returning his dark gaze to the mass of feathers in his hands.

Mikoto gave Itachi's arm an appreciative squeeze, gaze conveying her gratitude for dealing with his sibling.

"I'm not wearing this."

Itachi felt his mother stiffen and he placed a reassuring hand on her shoulders. "Then you will look very foolish and draw unwanted attention to yourself, as everyone will be wearing one tonight."

"Why?" Sasuke raised an eyebrow, tone incredulous.

"Because Kushina-sama thought it would be fun, it's apparently a type of Western game to play at a party, something called a masque," Mikoto said placidly.

Sasuke pursed his lips and took a better look at the mask in his hands. "Who chose these?"

"I did," said Mikoto quickly, holding her own up for Sasuke's inspection, the evening lantern light flickering off the fake red and blue gemstones.

"Yours doesn't have feathers," Sasuke protested.

"No," agreed his mother, "they're all different, darling. That one reminded me of you."

And with that, Sasuke ceased whining, because Mikoto had raised both of her boys well enough to know better than to complain about something their mother had personally picked out for them.

Fugaku blew into the room with the force of a storm, a familiar scowl plastered across his naturally stern features, the particular tension in his eyes letting Itachi know the man had just come from an unexpectedly unpleasant Village Council session.

"Anything wrong?" Itachi inquired, worrying that he might need to know what had happened if he was to 'hold court' tonight and rub shoulders with the other clan heads and heirs.

"No," said their father in a brusque manner, but his eyes gave away the lie, and the tiny shake of his head let his oldest son know that the issue could wait to be discussed until they were out of hearing range of the rest of the household.

Itachi merely inclined his head as his father quickly took stock of the state of his family. "We're ready then?"

It was a rhetorical question, and as no one dared contradict his expectations, he moved forward to lead the small family to the evening's festivities.

"Wait dear, you forgot your mask."


Mikoto handed him a gaudy mask of a similar design to her own, Fugaku's being a more masculine fashion.

The older man's brows furrowed in confusion for a moment, and he looked up, protest on his lips dying at the look in his wife's. He smoothly aborted the move to hand the mask back to her and simply turned on his heel without a word and continued walking out the door.

Itachi checked his grin, knowing his father was a firm believer in the phrase, 'pick your battles wisely.'

A quick look at his foolish little brother confirmed that Sasuke was disgruntled that their father hadn't put a stop to the 'nonsense,' thwarting Sasuke's last hope that he wouldn't be made to don the mask.

Itachi stepped forward to follow their parents and Sasuke fell in line behind him. Itachi pulled his own mask out of the crook of his arm, from where he'd stashed it. It was constructed of cloth and plastic, not the smooth, cold ceramic to which he was accustomed. However, the strange copper lines on the creation made it look like a weasel, in a very abstract way.


He'd never told his mother that.

Itachi's long fingers carefully applied the mask to his face with practiced ease.

"This is stupid," Sasuke grumbled, reaching up to attach his own feathered mask to his face, not quite as comfortable as his older brother was with keeping something in place with only the thin application of chakra. He walked in Itachi's shadow, purposefully matching his stride to his brother's as the two trailed after their parents toward the center of the Village.

"Half of the people there are going to have some chakra sensing or tracking abilities that let them know who is who," muttered Sasuke, eyes trained forward.

Itachi was pleased to see that at the very least, Sasuke was alert enough to fall back into the well-conditioned habits of being conscious of his surroundings. He was glad that he'd trained him well enough to resist giving into the easy temptation to feel completely at ease within the Village walls, especially when one was in a sour mood to start with and distracted by unpleasant personal thoughts.

"Stop whining, little brother." Itachi marveled at his own ability to maintain a moderate tone. "If you weren't so determined to drown yourself in your imagined sorrows, you might actually find tonight to be quite enjoyable."

"I doubt it," said Sasuke, being obtusely pessimistic, kicking a pebble in his path with slightly too much force and barely catching himself from tripping over his own sandals.

Itachi stifled the urge to physically grab the back of his brother's neck and shake some sense into him, as he had done on an occasion or two when they were younger. Instead, as the lights grew brighter and the sound of merriment and joy began to fill the increasingly crowded streets, he clapped a strong hand to Sasuke's back, gripped the boy's collar, and leaned down to whisper the following advice: "You know, Sasuke, you are young and single and as mother has told you, looking perfectly handsome tonight. If you just opened your eyes for one minute, I'm sure you could find sufficient entertainment to distract you for a week or two and make you forget all about your former flame."

The words were a bit cruel and slightly mocking, but Itachi's ability to humor his younger brother for the evening had started out the evening weak and rapidly dwindled. Certainly, he loved his foolish little brother, but he couldn't wait for a year or two to pass and for Sasuke to grow out of this hormonal induced fascination with and dependence upon affection from those of the opposite gender. It would only get him in trouble down the road. Hopefully he'd learn his lesson quickly, and mature accordingly, or Itachi would have to start giving serious consideration to alternative plans to force his darling baby brother to 'grow the fuck up,' as Shisui had so eloquently put during their last meeting. Speaking of Shisui, it was high time for Itachi to go find company more suited to his own age and interests. He pushed his slightly stunned younger sibling forward into the crowd and stepped back, fading into the shadows as only a ninja could.

Act I. Scene V.

Sasuke blinked, and stood uncertainly in the middle of the road, a bit shocked at his older brother's abrupt abandonment. It was rather rude—

"Watch where you're standing," said the bulky stranger who'd rammed roughly into Sasuke's shoulder in the crowd, jostling the boy from his thoughts.

Sasuke scowled at the man, but quickly straightened and moved to the edge of the street so he could gather his thoughts, knowing that his identity wasn't readily ascertainable to civilians while he was wearing a mask and not willing to cause a scene over such a simple issue.

His brother's atypical departure and cold parting words had Sasuke reflecting on their recent interactions to try and identify the cause. Sasuke grimaced as he thought over the events of the past few days and ran a hand through his spiky hair. He supposed he had been a bit, well, selfish, ever since his recent argument with Sakura.

Sasuke nimbly dodged some children running past him with a shout, giggling wildly as they chased a brightly colored ball down the street. Now that he thought about it, he had to admit that he'd been preoccupied and distracted for weeks, trying to salvage his most recent relationship. He pressed his back into the solid wood of a closed door store front, and tried to recall when the last time was that he'd asked Itachi how the man felt, or even what he had done that day.

The children kicked the ball back the way they came, and then down a side road and back again before being caught and scolded by a harried looking teenager. Someone's older sister from the looks of it, stuck babysitting for the evening and having a hard time keeping track of her charges when everyone was wearing a mask. Apparently some of the children had been swapping their own to confuse her, and she un-masked them all, confiscating the accessories amidst a chorus of tearful protests and herding the children back to an area of the Village that Sasuke knew from personal experience who host a variety of children's booths and games.

Sasuke still couldn't recall the last time he'd done so much as ask Itachi 'How was work today?'

His head slumped to his chest.

He was a horrible brother, and he needed a drink.

Sasuke made his way to the saké vendors, all out in force tonight advertising expensive or adventurous mixes depending on ones' taste. As he wasn't in the mood for something sweet, he purchased an entire chilled bottle of Honjozo, which a full-bellied bald tōji assured him he would enjoy. The saké brewer was proud of his product, which was selling quickly, and Sasuke took his purchase and slipped away through the crowd, heading toward the outer edges of the festivities, turning down a back road whenever he sensed or saw a clansmen approaching. He wasn't in the mood for company, he wanted to be alone with his thoughts. He would take one last night to grieve for the death of his relationship with Sakura, and then tomorrow morning he would wake up and re-focus on his studies and his family, and be a better brother. He picked up some riceballs filled with dried tuna and tomatoes, his go-to comfort food, and took his dinner and his liquor out to a street where the store fronts merged seamlessly with the beginnings of a residential district.

He found a row of abandoned booths lining both sides of a dimly lit street. Some of the tables had abandoned plates and wrappers, they were probably used by someone who had already sold out of their wares, or they had been tables that were decided to be unnecessary at the last minute. A few people walked through the street to get to other places, but the only activity nearby was a goldfish-scooping game a dozen or so yards away. Sasuke sat on top of the empty table farthest from the children's game. He was glad his mask only covered the top half of his face, unlike the masks he'd seen the ANBU wear. It made it easier to blend in as someone not worthy of attention and consume his purchases in peace. He found himself enjoying the anonymity the mask provided. He watched as one little boy gleefully caught a fish/ He prompty turned to give it to his little sister, a girl of similar features who was wearing a pink, floral-patterned yukata painfully reminiscent of the one Sakura had worn the last time he'd gone to—


Sasuke started and jumped a bit, nearly knocking over the bottle of saké as a head full of silver hair suddenly popped into his vision, a foot away from his face.

Sasuke scowled, noting the fact that Hatake Kakashi had to have purposefully bent in an awkward manner to make sure that Sasuke hadn't seen him approach and startle the younger boy with the sudden appearance of just his face.

The jōnin straightened as Sasuke recollected himself and turned to address the new arrival.

"What?" Sasuke snapped, having long learned to throw formalities out the window when it came to the eccentric man. It just wasn't worth the effort to be nice to Hatake Kakashi. The man would read porn in front of your mother without batting an eye. Shameless pervert, thought Sasuke darkly.

Even Hatake was wearing a mask tonight, a garish thing of glitter and gold and brown glass stones, which looked vaguely like a dog if one squinted in the dim light. Sasuke glowered further, actually, Hatake was technically wearing a mask over a mask, and now that the jōnin's entire face was covered, Sasuke was finding it very disconcerting to be facing the man.

"I was wondering if you'd seen our favorite blonde," the man drawled, "I've been looking for her."

Sasuke stiffened, "She's not my favorite anything." Despite the vaguely worded question, Sasuke had no doubt about the identity of the person to whom Hatake referred. The man's mask was entirely appropriate, he'd been a tame, obedient guard dog to the girl for as far back as Sasuke's memory stretched. Sasuke wrinkled his nose. He really disliked dealing with the copy ninja, a man who made his fame off of Sasuke's Clan's bloodline. Unfortunately, Sasuke had the horrid luck to be born into the same age group as Hatake's main charge, which put them into contact more often than anyone was comfortable.

"Mah," drawled the older ninja, stuffing his hands into his pockets and letting his shoulders droop in an exaggerated slouch of disappointment. "Are you telling me that someone else is at the top of your list of favorite people to call 'Loser'? She'll be so disappointed to hear it, why, it might just break her heart."

Sasuke scowled and took a drink of his sake, "She doesn't care about me, we share a justifiable mutual hatred."

The man's silently shaking shoulders implied that the older ninja was laughing at him.

Sasuke hated him too.

"Well," the older man said teasingly, "We all know that there is a fine line between love and hate."

Sasuke blinked, startled.

"You should tread it carefully, Sasuke-chan." Kakashi hummed absently, "Just think of how much drama you'd cause if you fell too far over the edge either way."

Sasuke simmered, understanding Kakashi's veiled threat as a caution against acting out against the girl, Does he think I'm as impulsive as she is? She starts everything. Ultimately, Sasuke decided to ignore the asinine comments and shoo the other ninja off, but his eyes were drawn to some movement under the tablecloth of an abandoned table pushed up against the wall across the street. He looked blankly at the copy ninja, "I haven't seen her, is there anything else you wanted?"

Kakashi seemed to be considering his answer, "Are you sure?" The copy ninja took a step back to survey the rest of the street. "Because I tracked her down to here, and while I don't see her, it certainly smells like she's close by—"

The jōnin's musings were interrupted by the arrival of an ANBU, clad all in black with unfamiliar markings on his traditional mask.

"Moose." Kakashi dipped his head in acknowledgment.

Moose? Sasuke kept the bewilderment from showing on his face. What's a 'moose'?

"Kushina-sama requests your attendance," the ANBU intoned.

Kakashi seemed to hesitate. "I haven't found her yet," he eventually said.

"Kushina-sama requests your attendance," repeated Moose.

Kakashi slumped, more earnestly this time. "Fine." He walked down the street, accompanied by Moose. "I suppose you're to make sure I get there in a timely fashion?"

Moose said nothing.

"Later, Sasuke-chan!" Hatake tossed loudly over his shoulder before taking to the roof tops.

Sasuke waited until he felt the chakra signature fade from the edge of his awareness, closing his eyes and enjoying the sip of the bottle he had half-way finished. Sasuke wasn't a natural born sensor, and it was harder for him to 'learn' the signature of a person and to feel when they were approaching. It was a weakness he tried to compensate for by being overly alert to his surroundings on most days, lest he get taken advantage of by people like Hatake Kakashi, who seemed to take perverse pleasure from giving their supposed comrades heart attacks. But once he knew someone was there, it was hard to hide from him due to his bloodline. Hatake still relied on his nose far too much, when properly using that eye of his would often resolve his dilemma much quicker.

Sasuke opened Sharingan-red eyes to confirm his earlier suspicions. He just as quickly deactivated his bloodline, smoothly slipping off the table and getting to his feet, gathering the rest of his drink and his yet to be eaten riceballs before approaching his prey. He set his food down on top of the table across the way and knelt, pulling up the tablecloth and putting his head under it, eyes dilating to better see in the dimmer light.

Baleful blue eyes glared at him, everything tinted red under the table from the light filtering in through the crimson tablecloth.

"Get in or get out," the familiar face hissed.

Sasuke smirked, briefly retreated to retrieve his food, and crawled in under the table, seating himself next to the girl, back braced against the wall that the table had been pushed against. It was an uncomfortable fit, and he was almost too tall for the position. His companion had several inches between her head and the underside of the tabletop, but Sasuke had to duck his chin a bit to avoid knocking the 'ceiling.' When he finally settled comfortably, he was in disturbingly close proximity to someone who'd gleefully stabbed him with a senbon at the age of four, but her clear discomfort with the situation was worth it.

"You know, Loser," he drawled pleasantly, "I find that people are generally more successful at hiding when they make sure that their feet are completely pulled in under the tablecloth.

"Shut up, Ass-turd," came the expected response.

But something felt off about it, it lacked the passion that her vitriol normally carried.

He blinked and craned forward to better study her. She was wearing an expensive looking deep red yukata with gold and white embroidery. Her fingers clenched tightly on the mask in her lap, and her hair, normally pulled back into pigtails, had been twisted into an elaborate up do. Sasuke considered himself a connoisseur of female beauty, having had a few of them coveting his own masculine equivalent in the course of his life, and would confess that one thing he could never honestly accuse the Loser of being was ugly. On nights like tonight, when she put some effort into her appearance, she could be quite physically stunning. A strange scent tickled his nose. Sasuke's sense of smell was nowhere near as good as Hatake's, but he suddenly realized just how powerful the smell of alcohol was in the small hidey-hole. A quick glance to the other side of the girl revealed six drained bottles of saké and an empty cardboard carton.

His eyes widened, "Did you drink all that?"

"Shh!" Naruto reached over and pressed a finger firmly to his lips.

"The object of the game is not to be found, Ass-turd." Dark blue eyes were hard in the dim light. "Out me and I will end you," said the girl, with a severity that would have been scary if the statement wasn't followed by a hiccough.

Suddenly the girl groaned and leaned forward, resting her forehead against Sasuke's chest, hand falling from his face to his shoulder.

"Are you going to throw up?" Sasuke whispered harshly, pushing the girl away in alarm.

"No," snorted Naruto, straightening. "I'm an Uzumaki," she sniffed, "we have amazing toler—holler—we hold our liquor good."

Sasuke stared at the girl and then looked down at his riceballs. He picked one up and held it out, "You should probably eat one of these."

"Nah," Naruto waved her hand, "I'm fine, I had some ramen."

"Loser." Sasuke barked softly, pinning the girl with a glare. "Eat. The. God. Damn. Riceball."

Naruto blinked. "Ok, geesh," she reached forward and took the riceball. She leaned back against the wall and slowly ate. Sasuke took up the other one and finished it off himself, feeling slightly bizarre at the companionable silence that existed while they each finished their meals. As Sasuke licked the last of the rice from his fingers, (His mother would be horrified at his manners, but there was no way in hell that Sasuke at his sloppiest could lose in the manners department when compared with the Loser) he noticed the girl subtly coveting his sake. He finished the last of it one gulp, putting an end to that issue.

"Greedy," muttered Naruto, no real venom behind the word.

"You had enough already," snorted Sasuke, waving his hand toward the mess of bottles on her other side. He didn't know how the girl was still sitting up and mostly coherent. He'd never seen anyone have that much alcohol in one sitting.

"Probably," admitted the blonde, letting her head fall back against the wall with a sad sigh.

Sasuke didn't know what to do with the somber camaraderie they'd somehow developed, much more used to an exchange of increasingly personal insults which usually resulted in the rest of their peers intervening and pulling the two back from the precipice of slitting the other's throat. Half of Sasuke's black-eyes in childhood had been directly attributable to his current companion's right hook, and Sasuke knew that he'd sent the girl home with a broken arm at least three times during Academy spars, despite the fact that the injury always healed up within two or three days.

"What's that supposed to be anyway," he asked, gesturing to the mask in her hands for lack of anything else to say.

Naruto looked at him blankly, then held the mask up to her face. A familiar garish pattern appeared, only orange instead of brown, quite similar to Hatake's except—

"Meow," went Naruto dryly.

"A cat?" Sasuke asked dubiously, "hardly fitting."

"Kashi-nii's idea of a joke, I think," said Naruto, taking it down from her face and setting it back in her lap, tracing the details idly with one finger. "Better than an owl."

"A hawk," said Sasuke stiffly, "My mother picked it out for me."

"Oh," said Naruto, tone wavering oddly between apathy and apology. They sat quietly for a few more minutes. "Are you going to leave," the blonde asked finally, slitted blue eyes turning to watch him curiously.

Sasuke considered her, "Tired of my company already, Loser?"

"You look miserable," was all Naruto said, and Sasuke chose not to respond to that, instead closing his eyes and leaning his own head back against the wall.

"We can be miserable together then," Naruto stated calmly. He felt her weight shift next to him, getting more comfortable in the small, cramped space under the table, pulling her knees up to her chest. This gave Sasuke the room to relax his own legs a bit, and he subsequently settled into a cross legged position.

"Let's make a deal," Naruto said softly. "I tell you why I'm miserable, you tell me why you're miserable, and we'll be miserable together here, but when we leave we promise to stop being miserable and go back to hating each other's guts the next time we see one another."

Sasuke considered the offer for a moment, the alcohol kicking in, making him feel relaxed and unusually at peace with the idea. "Ok."

"But we can't ever," Naruto fidgeted a bit, "we can't ever tell anyone else about what we say, right?"

Sasuke blinked behind his mask, "Alright?"

Naruto leaned over him, "Pinky swear?" She said seriously holding up her smallest finger.

Sasuke laughed softly, "You're such a Loser, I'm not going to pink—Ow!"

Sasuke hissed as the nails of Naruto's free hand dug into his hip.

"Pinky swear," repeated the blond again, smiling sweetly.

"Alright, alright!" Sasuke grudgingly held out his own smallest finger and hooked it with hers. "No talking about what we talk about tonight. Promise," he muttered.

"Ever." Naruto said, nodding.

"Ever." Sasuke agreed, nodding back.

"Good," Naruto dropped back against the wall again.

She was silent for a few minutes, Sasuke was beginning to think that she'd fallen asleep and was starting to ponder if it would be better to leave her there or become known as that one sorry idiot who dragged the Hokage's daughter, passed out in an alcohol-induced stupor, to Hatake Kakashi.

"My parents want me to marry Gaara."

Sasuke blinked, slowly coming out of the nice semi-sleepy state of mind that he'd been enjoying. "What?"

"For the treaty," Naruto elaborated, sounding stressed, "To reaffirm our alliance with Suna, make it stronger, they want me to marry Gaara."

"Oh," Sasuke said, not knowing what else to say. He thought about the issue for a minute. That was certainly one way to strengthen ties with the foreign village. He wondered what his father thought about it. Sasuke was aware of politics to a certain extent, but as it was unlikely that he'd ever lead the Clan, it wasn't a topic that his father spent a lot of time discussing with Sasuke. Not like he does with Itachi, Sasuke thought with a pang of hastily stifled resentment. He pushed his hand under his mask and rubbed at his eyes. He wished he knew what Itachi thought about the suggestion. But in the meantime, "What do you think about it?"

"Gaara is my friend," recited Naruto, sounding like she'd said the phrase a hundred times that day. It felt like she was going to end it there, leave it at that, but then she laid her head against his shoulder and admitted in a very small voice. "But he's like my brother. I don't want to marry him. It'd be like marrying Kakashi nii-san."

Oh God, Sasuke blanched, That would be a nightmare.

Sasuke knew that if he wasn't tired, and missing Sakura, and maybe a little drunk, he would have shrugged the girl off of him in an instant. But as matters stood, he was tired. It had been a long day and he had just realized that he'd disappointed his brother, which he hated doing. And he did miss the physical affection of his girlfriend, because his family really wasn't into hugs and reassuring touches, not the kinds he found he enjoyed when he started dating (and not that he wanted all those affections from his family, but it would be nice if he could count on his family for a little more than a hug once a week from his mother), and he could practically feel the confusion and misery radiating off the other girl.

And he might have been a very little bit drunk. Not that this was ever a good excuse for anything.

"I don't want to disappoint my parents," said Naruto, in the smallest voice yet.

He let her head stay on his shoulder.

"I'm a bad brother," he blurted out, and then stiffened, surprised he'd actually said the words out loud.

Naruto was limp against his shoulder, offering him the same courtesy he'd given her upon hearing her own admission. "Why do you say that?"

Sasuke clasped his hands together in his lap, examining his fingernails. "I've been so caught up in my relationship with Sakura that I haven't been paying any attention to him, or to how he's doing, or to what he's trying to teach me." Sasuke bowed his head, "I think he thinks that I'm foolish."

Naruto snorted against his arm. "He's been telling you that since the first time I met you, I think."

"It's more like now he thinks I'm stupid, or hopeless." It felt painful to say that out loud.

"No," murmured Naruto eventually, "He just doesn't understand you. I bet he's like my nii-san, not too into the social stuff and not able to really understand why we need it."

Sasuke gave a non-committal grunt.

"No, really," Naruto protested, "My Mom explained it to me once, she said that nii-san was an introvert and being around people tired him out, but she and I are extroverts and being around people just gives us more energy." She peered up at Sasuke, head still against his arm, trying to determine his expression through the mask, "I bet your nii-san is an introvert, like mine, and you're not as much an extrovert as I am, but you're somewhere in the middle."

She tilted her head down again, "He just doesn't understand that you need to be with people to be happy, because he doesn't, not in the same way. You'll both figure out how to deal with it eventually. He'll figure out how much time you need to spend with others, and you'll find a better balance at giving others attention and working with him."

Sasuke's throat closed up, he hadn't thought of it that way before, Since when did Loser actually start saying almost-smart things.

"But," continued Naruto, "since you brought up Sakura—"

Sasuke tensed, he didn't want to discuss his ex with her best-friend (the subject of half of their fights).

"No, no, no, no," soothed Naruto clinging to his bicep as he tried to pull away, dragging him back down. "Just sit for a minute, and listen, and I'll never bring it up again and we'll never mention we talked about it to anyone ever."

Sasuke settled back down mutinously, wondering briefly if this had all been a trap leading up to this moment, before discarding that idea and deciding it wasn't possible for Loser to think up something that complex.

Naruto twisted her body so that she was facing him. It brought them even closer, but Sasuke checked the desire to push her away.

"It's just," blue eyes peered up at him earnestly, "You've gotta let her go, you were so bad for each other, you were only hurting yourselves and driving everybody else crazy."

"What do you know about it?" Sasuke snarled, "Don't talk to me about my relationships."

Naruto pressed a firm palm to his chest, frowning, "I know a lot about it, Ass-turd. You may not talk about your relationships to other guys, but girls share everything."

Sasuke really didn't like the knowing emphasis she placed on that last word.

"Listen," Naruto insisted, "I know you think you were in love with her, but you weren't. And she didn't love you either."

She held a finger up to his lips to silence him, sensing the protests that Sasuke wanted to spew forth. "What you each loved was this," Naruto waved her hand to the side in a vague manner, "this idealized version of each other."

"No," Naruto rolled her eyes and actually pinched Sasuke's lips shut.

He glared darkly at the rude gesture.

"Trust me," intoned Naruto, "I had to hear all about it, every day, for years. It was always her complaining about you expecting her to be perfect, to be the smartest, to think about what you needed and have it ready before you ever mentioned it to her, to wait on you, to always look put together, to never be angry, to be an exceptional cook, to know how to darn socks, etcetera, etcetera," drawled Naruto.

"But Sakura is all those things," protested Sasuke, finally able to get in a word edgewise.

"No, no she's not," laughed the blonde, falling forward a bit, having to catch her balance by laying a steadying hand against Sasuke's chest. "Sakura is smart, but she's not a genius. She just works harder than anyone else to be at the top. And Sakura's nice in public, but for every sweet thing she says she's keeping up a cynical inner commentary of criticism about someone. And she's late all the time 'cuz she works too hard and gets exhausted and oversleeps. And she is always, always angry about something, 'cuz that's what makes her work hard. And she wants whoever she winds up with to think she's just as beautiful in sweats as a summer yukata. And she doesn't want to be a stay at home mom and retire from being a kunoichi young just to have babies, she just couldn't find a way to tell you." Naruto gave him a steady look, "And I love Sakura because she's all these things, but you don't, because you never really got to know the real her, you just wanted the potential, ideal version of what she could be."

Sasuke was silent, struggling to merge his perception of Sakura with everything that the Loser had told him. Things he really hadn't known, but the Loser seemed so sincere and confident in her opinion that he was finding it hard to doubt the veracity of her overall assessment.

"And she did the same thing with you, Ass-turd," Naruto said, eyes softening just a bit, realizing how abrupt and unwelcome this epiphany was to the boy. "She likes the idea of being with a polished clan heir, but really she wants someone she can punch to death in public and boss around who'll run and do her bidding and take care of her because she's too busy to take care of herself half the time. She wants to be with someone who makes her the center of their universe, but you can't ever do that because of your Clan and she can't understand that because she doesn't have a Clan. She loved the idea that you were some misunderstood prince, but you're not misunderstood, your family understands you just fine, they're just giving you some room to grow up, same as mine."

"So see," Naruto said with a sigh, apparently winding down and patting his shoulder gently. "You were both just driving each other, and in turn all your friends and family, all kinds of shitty-crazy because you didn't really want to be with the other person. Next time, figure out what a girl is really like and what she wants for herself, and if that can work with what you want, before you decide that you're in love with her. Ok?" She settled back down against his side as Sasuke struggled for words. Naruto felt like she'd done the world a great humanitarian service for the day. She let Sasuke come to terms with her words in his own time.

Eventually, he broke the silence. "I'm never going to be able to find a girl as wonderful as Sakura."

"Oh for the love of -!" Naruto pushed herself up, suddenly feeling a spike of anger at the mule-headed insistence of the boy beside her. She crossed her arms under her chest, "Just tell me," she said testily, eyes flashing, "what's so great about Sakura? Huh?"

Sasuke morosely glared at the floor. "She's amazing."

"Yes." Naruto agreed, "She is, but she's not the only fish in the sea, and she's not the one for you. So tell me, what is it you think that's so irreplaceable about my best friend? Because I know her inside and out, and while she's absolutely irreplaceable for what she means to me, I bet I can find someone else who is better at the things she meant for you."

Sasuke pursed his lips in a pout and Naruto saw red. Suddenly, she was straddling his lap, the added height putting them eye level with one another. Startled, Sasuke's hands reflexively went to the small of her back, to hold her steady, while she yanked the feathery mask off with one jerk of her arm, bringing her hands up to cup Sasuke's face and force him to look her in the eyes.

"Tell me Sasuke-kun, just what is so special about Sakura?"

There was a beautiful teenage girl in his lap with the most firey blue eyes he'd ever seen, and Sasuke hoped no sane person would hold it against him if he admitted he was finding it hard to string coherent thoughts together. Nii-san would. And wasn't that thought like a bucket of cold water? He forced his hands down to the ground, digging them into the dirt floor and bit his lip hard enough to draw blood, the pain distracting him so he could tear his eyes away from Naruto's and focus on the red tablecloth he could see over her shoulder.

He tried hard to come up with an answer. He had loved Sakura, it shouldn't be that hard. What did he like about the girl? "She was a ninja." Oh, brilliant answer, Sasuke. He mentally kicked himself for the brilliance of his answer.

"I'm a ninja," responded Naruto briskly, hands falling to his shoulders.

"She was smart."

"I'm smart, not book-smart," admitted the blonde honestly, "but I'm fight-smart. I even surprise nii-san in battle some times." Her grip on his shoulders tightened.

Sasuke took a deep breath and stretched his palms flat on the floor, anchoring himself by feeling the earth.

"She had passion—"

Naruto flat out laughed, loud and mocking, not seeming to care that they had been trying to be quiet before this moment. "Oh, Sasuke—

Was she purring? Oh God, she was purring, that was cheating, Sasuke knew that his heartbeat was picking up and he could feel the flush that was creeping up his collarbone.

The fingertips of her right hand slipped under his yukata, where the cloth met the pulse point of his neck, and that was enough of a distraction for his eyes to flick away from the tablecloth to see what she was doing, and looking up again he got caught in her gaze—her beautiful, incomparably blue eyes, all sparkling mischievously, apparently delighted with the reactions she was eliciting.

She raised her left hand, placing the back of her palm against his cheek and dragging it down as she spoke, "There is no one more passionate than an Uzumaki, you ass." Her eye-lids lowered halfway, full lashes partially obscuring the pretty orbs, and Sasuke wanted more than anything to see them bright and open and wide.

He wouldn't. He wouldn't. He bit his lip once more, using every ounce of self-control he had not to push his head forward the inch it would take for their lips to collide, for her eyes to startle back open in delight again. This was the Loser, he reminded himself. He'd spent half his life in close contact with her, kicking and biting and punching and snarling and that should not be turning me on even more!

Naruto leaned her forehead against his own and he closed his eyes tight. "Tell me more about Sakura," he felt her whisper against his ear.

"Who?" He asked, dazed, belatedly realizing that his hands were traitors, as they'd returned to their position around her waist. He mentally cursed the fact that she wasn't wearing her usual uniform, because if she had, he'd be feeling skin right now. Wait, it's a good thing I can't feel skin right now. Everyone should keep their clothes on in this scenario, he valiantly tried to remind himself.

His breath hitched as he felt Naruto fall onto him, laughing, resting most of her weight against him. He could feel the curves of her chest against his own, feel the physical rise and fall of each breath taken by her body—

"Sakura," Naruto repeated, the warmth of the air as she spoke tickling his cheek.

Sasuke blinked, eyes focusing back on the tablecloth, "She had pretty hair," was all he managed to get out from his dry throat. She had pretty hair? What was wrong with him? He licked his lips and bit back a groan as Naruto pulled away from him ever so slightly, turning sad blue-puppy eyes on him. "You don't like my hair," she murmured, and he couldn't look away again, could feel her left hand come up to card fingers gently through his own hair, nails lightly, lightly scraping against his scalp. She removed her other hand from where it had been tracing the line of his collar bone under his yukata, reaching up to her touch the golden crown on her head. In a few, swift movements the carefully gathered golden tresses were falling gracefully down her back. Down, down, down, like something seen in a movie—

This is an illusion, it's a genjutsu. Sasuke opened eyes that swirled blood red, but it only made everything more real, more solid. No. This is her. I've just lost my mind, his thoughts were becoming a bit hysterical, but he thought that was permissible when Naruto was pushing her hand back under his yukata, only more boldly, reaching further until she could firmly grip his bare shoulder. She bent down to nuzzle her head into the junction of his neck, pressing a chaste kiss to his skin with a soft, "this could be fun."

"No," Sasuke groaned, not quite sure where the protest was coming from, but refusing to look down at the girl. Which is maybe what he should have been doing, because it would have prevented her from continuing to press chaste kisses up and down his jaw. Certainly he shouldn't have raised his head to give her better access, which is what was actually happening.

"Why not?" Naruto's voice was light and airy, and it took several moments for Sasuke to remember himself enough to answer, especially when Naruto's left hand curled around his neck, giving her the leverage she needed to press herself flat against him.

"Our parents," he managed to mumble. And maybe he should just go ahead and chop off his hands, because he just noticed that his right was cradling the back of Naruto's head, fingers threading through the beautiful mass that he'd always wanted to touch, but had never been quite brave enough to do so knowing how well Hatake could aim a kunai. He was pleasantly surprised to find it was just as soft, smelled just as nice, as he had imagined. Meanwhile, his other hand- Stop that! Sasuke forced the hand to halt, centimeters away from being able to look Hatake in the eye and honestly swear that he'd never felt up the Hokage's daughter.

As if she could read his thoughts, she laughed into his neck. And he liked that, he realized, the laughter, not mocking, but playful. Fun. Alive. And then he hissed, because that kiss against his neck wasn't so chaste anymore, and how is her heart not racing? Sasuke's felt like it was about to burst through his throat.

"You want this," soft lips kissed the words into his skin, and he realized that she had loosened his yukata to the point where it was falling off his shoulders, "I want this, I promise," fingers traced the nape of his neck in a gentle caress, the pressure slowly increasing over time in a pleasant build. "Even if you're still an ass," she kissed the corner of his mouth, and the words brought him back to reality in a rush.

He swallowed, and brought the hand below her rib cage to her chest to push her back a bit, and give him air to breathe, room to think. Only that plan backfired a bit when he realized that he couldn't stop staring at his own hand, couldn't stop feeling its location, firmly planted between two breasts. And he couldn't bring himself to let go of the back of her head either, which wasn't helping, and was probably sending the girl mixed messages. Unavoidable, since not even Sasuke was certain what message he was trying to send at the moment.

So he closed his eyes, fell back on the oldest argument in the book, "My father—"

She cut him off by pressing a finger to his lips. It burned and he opened his dark eyes, gazing into her heavily lidded ones. Sleepy blue, deep, searching, wanting. "Do you always do what your daddy tells you?" She covered the large hand pressed against her chest with a smaller one of her own.

Well, when you put it like that, he mentally laughed at her appeal to his inner rebellious teenager. "No," he murmured. And he didn't. Itachi had made sure he learned that lesson many years ago. The finger pressing against his lips let up. He kissed it, nipped the tip of it before she pulled it back, and he gave the girl the first real smile he'd ever given her.

Naruto smiled back, and it was beautiful. And then she moved the hand pressing against her chest over. Not away. And Sasuke's mind went blank for a minute with the knowledge that he was right where he was trying so hard not to be just a minute ago. But then she was nibbling his ear gently, and he was back. "Do you trust me?"

"No," he snorted, the response automatic.

He was rewarded with a pleasant laugh, rather than the offended swat he expected.

A bite on the ear, harder. "Good."

-A strange pull and he was falling backward, the wall was gone, but he fell into sheets, pillows, a mattress.

"Where?" He managed to get out, not able to finish the thought completely because Naruto had fallen too, stretched out on top of him, and his mind was busy cataloguing all the physical sensations this new position brought. But that wasn't a regular shunshin and he wanted to know—

"My room," came the breathy response, and he could finally tell that her heart was beating as fast as his own, because he'd gotten a hand underneath her own yukata and pressed it there flat against her rib cage, just under the soft curve of her breast, further progress thwarted by yet another layer of clothing.

"Not telling," she finally managed to get out in response to the second part of his question, grinning brightly, face flushed, looking feverish. He moved his hand with purpose and she let out a delighted squeal, another laugh. But he decided that figuring out what she'd done could wait when he caught sight of the pale tangerine of her bra strap, striking against the smooth tan skin of her shoulder.

"Just a sec'," she pulled away from him with a gasp, and he didn't quite manage to contain the whine that left him when she leaned across the bed, further from him, to press her fingers against an ornate design on her nightstand. His noise turned into one of confusion when she activated what he belatedly recognized as a seal, a pulse of chakra flowing through the room.

His Sharingan whirled on reflexively, and he looked around, amazed at the complex web of chakra seal-work cocooning the room, fascinating. It was hard to tell where one seal ended and another begin, but he supposed that was what passed for normal in the household of seal masters. That train of thought faded two seconds after he found his lap full of eager, semi-dressed, beautiful girl. He closed his eyes, pressing his lips against her own properly for the first time. He savored the sweet taste, pulling back when he was out of breath and pressing his lips to the corner of her mouth. He turned off the Sharingan before opening his eyes back up, knowing that it unnerved some partners and not wanting to use it without asking permission, until the other person fully understood what a lasting memory they would be giving. This wasn't the time for that.

Naruto arched her back as Sasuke took his turn pressing kisses down her jaw, not stopping when he got to the junction of her neck, continuing lower, his hands pressed against her shoulder blades keeping her from pulling away. "The seal," she waved her arm, trying to stutter out an explanation for her actions, wanting him to understand, "it messes with my cousin-she's chakra sensitive, and it'll keep nii-san's nose..."

Oh, Sasuke groaned against the top of her breast, understanding enough from the disjointed stammering. He was grateful that she'd thought of that but really—"New rule:," he panted, "no one can say the word 'nii-san' in bed." He'd rather not think about how his head was going to most likely wind up on a pike in the morning, thank you very much.

Naruto's laugh was loud and lovely, her hands running playfully through his hair, her longlong legs tightening around his waist, "But Sasuke, if that's the rule, what are you ever going to be able to say?"

Sasuke looked at her in a strange sort-of fond, exasperated bewilderment, "Why are you still talking?" And he bent his head again, determined to find a way to stop that, and when she finally gasped inarticulately, he grinned in victory.