The Uchiha Restoration

                Oftentimes, he would awake from slumber with a slight fever and phantom pains where his neck met his shoulder.  If his mind was particularly clear, he would get a tall glass of cool water and return to bed with an extra blanket once he'd finished it.  When he awoke again, hours later, he felt more or less normal and was apt to not think of the pain and fever until it happened again.  If his mind was troubled, he would lay awake, sweating and convulsing until dawn, and spend the rest of the day brooding over his fate.

                A chuunin at nineteen years of age, he was, unfortunately, more than a little transparent to his closest companions.  Though missions together were sparse these days, non-existent, really, Uchiha Sasuke, Uzumaki Naruto—a jounin, and Haruno Sakura—a chuunin teacher at the village's ninja academy, formed a close-nit group when their respective schedules allowed it.  Though it was just a close friendship that the three of them still shared to Naruto and Sakura, Sasuke depended on what they represented to him to not fall once again into the total despair that had consumed him when they were children.  They'd pulled him away from his personal hell, condemnation and the murderous rage in his own soul.  He still brushed them off as annoyances in their enthusiasms and rituals, but they were his important comrades and he would rather die than lose them.

                And they knew him and he knew them very well, so when Sasuke arrived at the Ichiraku counter at 6:45 on a Thursday evening, as was the trio's custom, unconsciously rubbing his neck, Naruto and Sakura hardly had to cast a glance at him to know something was troubling him.  Such a thing was only an occurrence the day after the echoes of Orochimaru's curse seal kept him awake at night.  And it only kept him awake when something else was bothering him.

                Outwardly, Naruto paid no heed as Sasuke dropped onto the stool at his left, and dropped the usual number on coins on the table.  He always ordered Oriental Ramen, no one who worked at the stand asked him what he wanted anymore.  Nearly as soon as he sat down and paid, a steaming bowl of noodles was in front of him.  He snapped his chopsticks, muttered a low thanks, and began to eat.  Beside him, Naruto slurped Miso Ramen, half listening to Sakura's story about the day's class, half wondering what was wrong with Sasuke this time.  He knew the reason Sakura kept talking was to make sure there was no break in conversation for him to ask.  Sasuke, was, essentially, the most screwed-up person Naruto had ever met—which says a lot coming from a young man with a demon sealed in his belly button.  Over the years, the trio and their former mentor Kakashi, should he be around, had dealt with what would seem every possible issue a person could have, from turning evil, to being betrayed, to a downright disturbing hatred of fermented beans.

                Sure, Sasuke was a private person, but even he would crack under the constant onslaught of 'What's wrong?' from un-private people.  So, Naruto knew that eventually, it would all come out and couldn't see why Sakura refused to let it come out now.  Sakura had her own reasons, stemming from something she'd developed working with children: a little virtue generally known as 'tact.'  She, like Naruto, was not about to let Sasuke continue be haunted by whatever was going on today, but she was also not going to torture him with it in public.  The three could talk later, elsewhere.

                The meal passed without anyone but Sakura saying a word.

                This trend continued after they were finished as well.  "Ino-chan gave me a flower arrangement she made today.  It's really something; you guys should come over and see it."  Sakura could see plainly that neither guy cared, but since that wasn't really why she was inviting them over, she didn't really care.  She seized one of each boy's hands, griped it tightly, and guided them to her apartment.

                It was a small, sparse suite of rooms that Sakura had only moved into a few months ago, after she and her parents and come to the conclusion she was old enough to have her own place, responsible enough to take care of it, and had done enough since becoming a true shinobi to merit it.  Sakura hadn't lived there long enough to make it her own yet, so Ino, her once and current best female friend, and in Sakura's opinion, Konoha village's most talented spy, was often giving her little hand-made knickknacks, like flowers, to make it more inviting.

                "There it is, see?"  Sakura said, gesturing to the newest bouquet after ushering her guests inside.  Naruto, whose knowledge of plants wasn't modest, was all the same rather unimpressed.  Sasuke just plain didn't care and rubbed his neck. 

                That was all it took before the two verbally pounced on the Uchiha survivor, sending him a barrage of questions he couldn't hope to defend against, and was forced to submit, somewhat like a trapped animal.   He just listened, taking in the questions, counting how many times they repeated themselves, and the stares, alternately concerned and accusing.  So, they'd noticed him rubbing his neck, and the curse seal.  The behavior was such a second nature to him now that he didn't notice anymore, though now that it had been brought to his attention, he imagined he must have been doing it all day.  Mentally, he scolded himself for the lack of self-awareness.   This was his first day back in the village after a three-day mission, where it could have been a danger to himself and his teammates.

                Naruto and Sakura had stopped talking and were now staring at him, expectantly.  Oh, he had to say something now.

                He decided to answer their questions with a question of his own.  "How many times do we have to go through this before you two realize Orochimaru's curse-seal is never going to go away?"

                All that accomplished was the two of them to start going at it again, which was fine with Sasuke because that way, he would have more time before he needed to answer them again.  If he told them he didn't know what was going on, they wouldn't have believed him.  Unfortunately, it was true.  He couldn't quite put his finger on it, which, while annoying, was a refreshing change.  In the past, when something was bothering him, Sasuke knew far too acutely what it was.  This current problem was going to require some mediation and reflection on his part to figure out exactly what it was, which would be difficult to find the time for once he was assigned another mission.

                Naruto would not accept that answer.  He kept everything on the surface and expected others to do so as well.  The idea that a person could be troubled, yet not know what was troubling them would be ridiculous to Naruto.  Underneath it all, his subconscious was probably rather maladjusted, which wouldn't be remotely surprising considering he had two beings living in his body and sharing his brain.

                Sakura would not accept that answer.  She would look at him with great big puppy eyes and say that she was just worried about him, and couldn't he see that they cared about him and why did he insist on keeping things from them?  If she thought he was lying, which she would, Sakura would be hurt.  Aside from being a close friend, Sasuke was the first boy she ever loved and those two put together counted for quite a lot.

                When the time came that Sasuke was expected to speak again, he said, "I don't have any answers for you, or for myself.  It's not important.  It hasn't affected my performance on missions," anticipating what would follow, he added, looking at Sakura, "so don't worry."

                It backfired, naturally.

                "Don't tell me not to worry!" Sakura fumed.  "If that curse-seal starts affecting you during a mission, you could die!  What if it takes control of you?  Or does something to your charka during a battle?  Or—"

                "Stop it, Sakura," he said harshly.  "It has no more reason to do any of those things.  It's just a phantom pain, a memory."

                "You stop it, Sasuke," Naruto interjected.  "Quit pretending the stupid curse doesn't bother you.  It's not like you have to push yourself anymore.  You got your revenge.  Act like a normal person."  Scowling, Sasuke left, the door frame trembling from the force he used to slam it.  Naruto shrugged at Sakura's bewildered expression.  "We're all thinkin' it.  Someone had to say it."

                Inwardly, Sakura had to admit Naruto was right.  Outwardly, she told him to leave.

~*~*~

                The worst part of the whole episode, Sasuke reflected later, from the confines of his own home, was that Naruto was right.  Since the day he found his parents murdered, Sasuke devoted his life to being an Avenger.  Nothing else mattered.  He lived for it, would go to any lengths for it, did go to the worst of lengths.  But Itachi had been dead for a long time, and Sasuke still thought of himself as an Avenger.  Kill the man who killed his clan.  Restore his clan. 

                He had plenty of strength to obtain jounin status, but he didn't care to try, just like he didn't care when he was made a chuunin.  Names and ranks didn't mean a thing to him, only strength.  But he'd been strong enough for years.  His vendetta was accomplished.  He should start caring.  He should want to be a jounin.  Naruto was a jounin and Naruto was his rival.  Shouldn't he at least want to best him?

                The man who killed his clan was dead.  Burned to ashes.  Scattered to the wind.

                Kill the man who killed his clan.  Restore his clan.

                Becoming a jounin would begin to restore the reputation of the Uchiha clan.  He should, at least, want that.  But, he asked himself, wouldn't that serve only me, and not the entire clan?  And he would be forced to answer himself: I am the entire clan. 

                The only Uchiha.

                The reason he couldn't move on came to him then, and he wondered why it took him so long to realize.  Ever since he had been a child, his ambition was to restore his clan.  He had yet to fulfill that goal.  Orochimaru's curse-seal was nothing that was unimportant.  It was just the easiest way to tell himself that he still had work to do.  He had been young when Itachi died, too young to think about how he could go about creating clan members.

                He realized with some embarrassment, this was no longer the case.  To restore the clan fully would take several generations.  He probably wouldn't even live to see half of portion of town that belonged to his family line occupied.  But did have to start with him, him and someone else.

                The idea that he would have to ask a woman to marry him and bear his children was not one that Sasuke relished.  He'd never paid much attention to the opposite sex, though they had always paid a lot of attention to him.  They were all insufferable around him, except Sakura, and that was only because she only saw him as a friend now. 

                The odd thing was, Sasuke couldn't see himself approaching a girl other than Sakura.  She chased him for years, asking him out, trying to take care of him when he was injured, and always, always tried to help him.  Her feelings grew steadily from the time they were assigned to Team 7, through the missions and the exam and his abandonment of the leaf-ninjas.  She pulled him back from Orochimaru.  And yet, somewhere, something plateaued.  And then, her romantic feelings slowly ebbed away..just friends.  He was happy with that.  It made him more comfortable around her.

                Regardless, he imagined what he was had to do would be uncomfortable no matter what happened.

~*~*~

                Friday afternoon, the twenty-seven ninja cadets of class 1-C were instructed to leave their papers face-down at their places before they left for the day.  Sakura walked up and down the isles, retrieving the assignments.  The kids hated graphing kunai throwing-projections and in battle there was no time to do the calculations, but Sakura wasn't about to let the kids go without math.  It was a simple life skill, even ninjas, after all, had to balance the budget.  Aside from that, it served many other purposes—the kids knew which way the wind blew and how much the throwing blade weighed made a difference when you aimed and threw.  It showed which kids were the book-smart ones like she had been, which in turn was important when she split the children into three-man cells.  It showed which kids were able to do what was required and do it well, an important ninja skill.

                When the papers were collected, Sakura filed them to grade them on Sunday.  That done, she gathered her bag and grade book and exited the school.  It was a nice day and a few of her students were clustered around the tree-swing, chatting and taking turns to see who could pump the highest.  It'd been a school legend for as long as she could remember that anyone who could swing all the way around the tree branch would graduate their first year.  Kids who actually did rarely graduated at all, as they hit the other branches, broke a few bones, fell back to the ground and usually dropped out of school at the behest of their parents.  Kids that stupid would get killed on their first mission, even if it was just finding a lost pet.  They couldn't even look far enough to see the rest of the tree.

                Still, seeing the kids clustered around the swing on such a nice day was not rare by any means.  What was rare was seeing Uchiha Sasuke a few feet away, watching the playing children.  Sakura smiled.  When they had been in school, he never joined any games, never just hung out.

                "Hi, Sasuke-kun!" she called, waving to him.  She jogged over to him and started laying in the guilt trip.  "I'm really sorry about yesterday and I'm sure Naruto is, too.  We know how hard things are for you and we really just want to help.  Whatever it is, you can tell us.  And if you don't want to tell us, well, that's okay, too.  Just remember, we're here for you."  She gave him a misty smile.  Take that, she thought.

                Sakura watched Sasuke's expression carefully.  If Round One didn't make an impact, there was always Round Two, and so on and so forth.  However, he seemed satisfied with what she said and Sakura was doubly caught off-guard.  She hadn't thought so much of it when she first saw him, but he sought her out and now seemed as though he anticipated what she was going to say, even wanted her to say it.  So, he was being crafty.  Well, Sakura thought, I can out maneuver him any day. 

                "You've always just wanted to help me," Sasuke replied in a low voice.  "But my goals were my own.  I didn't want to involve anyone else."  He walked as he spoke, hands in his pockets, head facing straight in front of him.  Sakura walked by his side, keeping up with his pace and trying to analyze his words.  There was a point to this, that much was clear.  Sakura wasn't sure any longer that she could out-fox Sasuke, but she at least wanted to figure out where taking this.  Maybe, she realized with a jolt, he was looking for a favor.  She never would have seen that coming.

                "What would you say if I asked for your help now?"

                Then again, maybe she did.

                "Of course I'd help you, Sasuke-kun.  I've always been there for you, whether you wanted me to be or not.  If you asked for my help, I could never say no."

                Again, Sasuke seemed satisfied with what she said.  Now, he nodded and said, "Thank you."

                Alarms were going off in Sakura's head.  Sasuke didn't say thank you much, but when he did, she was always about to be kicked in the gut, emotionally.  She braced herself, after all, what was the worst he could do?  It wouldn't be like the time he left them for Orochimaru, would it?

                "Sasuke-kun, what's going on?"  She was nervous and couldn't hide it.  "Sasuke-kun?"

                "You've been an important comrade to me, Sakura.  You've helped me in a lot of ways.  I need that help again, now."

                "What, what can I do?  Anything, I swear!"  I'm no good in a fight, I'd just get in your way, I'm too out of practice.  What could you need me to do?

                "…It won't be easy," Sasuke warned.

                "I don't care!  Whatever it is, Naruto and I—"

                "Not Naruto," Sasuke cut her off.  "Just you.  It's too much for me to ask of you, but there's no one else."

                It's so important to him…  "Sasuke-kun, I know when we were kids I tried to stop you from doing things that were important to you.  I just didn't want to see you get hurt.  But I'm not a spoiled kid anymore and nothing is too much that I can't do it for my friends.  Don't let me stand in your way; I swear I'll help you, Sasuke-kun.  I won't hold you back."

                He nodded, stopped walking and pivoted on one foot, so that soon, he was standing in front of Sakura.  She was shorter than he was, but not by much.  He smiled at her, but not in a happy way.  In a triumphant way, as though he'd just won a battle.  Sakura suddenly felt very intimidated.  Again, she braced herself, she met his eyes with her gaze and held them.  It wasn't like she was scared of him, or anything.  He was her friend.  Sometimes, the two of them and Naruto would rent a movie…Sasuke never wanted to, but they would and later they'd punish him by throwing popcorn at him.  He liked salt on popcorn, not butter.  She used to think that was so weird, but now she was used to it.

                "I have your word?"

                "Yes."

                He looked so serious, but not unkind.  If he'd looked at her like this when she was thirteen, she would have melted.  She probably would have tried to kiss him.  No wonder he rarely glanced her way when she had so wanted him to.

                "I've decided to begin the process of restoring my clan," Sasuke said.  Sakura nodded, clearly unaware of where she factored in.  "As the last living Uchiha, the only way for me to do that is to sire children.  Any prospective progeny require a mother to bare them.

                "Marry me, Sakura." 

                Sakura's mouth was suddenly very dry.  She couldn't answer, but that didn't matter.

                She'd already given her word she would.