A/N: I am very sorry that this chapter took so long. I have been going through exam hell and finishing up my semester at school, then moving home. I should have a touch more time to write now that I am out of school, though.

I've been halfway considering discontinuing this story since it seems as though no one is reading it. I've gotten very few reviews on this piece, which is frustrating to say the least (and no, that is not a cry for more reviews, it's just the honest truth). If I did stop, this would be the last chapter. For those who enjoy reading, though, I wouldn't worry too much. I'm sure I will finish eventually. This story is, after all, my baby.

Anyway, please read and enjoy. And again, reviews are loved, hoped for and welcomed.

Disclaimer: As I'm sure you could have all guessed, Naruto's not mine, nor are any of the characters found therein.


Unsurprisingly, the room that must have once been the living room was a mess. The floor and was littered with unsheathed and rusting weapons, empty cups of ramen, tattered pieces of fabric and a healthy scattering of other unidentifiable debris. Tsunade noted several places where large shards of glass were sprinkled amidst the rest of the chaos. The place was like a war- zone, reeking of blood and old ramen and stale sex. The stench was almost overpowering. There was nowhere to sit, and to stand during the conversation that they were about to have would be awkward at best.

To her chagrin, Tsunade was going to have to ask Sasuke and Naruto for a more appropriate place to have this conversation. She didn't want to ask them for anything.

Ino in particular was showing signs of distress, darting nervous glances around the room and alternately edging towards Shikamaru and Sakura, as if she could not quite figure out which one of them was safer. Perhaps the girl did not bear physical scars from the events of the prior night, but the emotional wounds were obviously fresh and raw. That much was obvious with the way she kept quivering every time she realized that she was inching closer to Shikamaru.

Tsunade's boys, at least, were calm on the outside. Rock Lee was hovering just behind Naruto, body loose and ready for anything. He was determined not to be caught again.

As for Shikamaru... Tsunade could not help but raise an eyebrow. Shikamaru had his hands together in that "thinking" pose that she had come to know so well. He was unaware of Ino's odd behavior towards him. He was oblivious to the world.

Sasuke was watching Shikamaru carefully, nonchalantly standing beside his mate. Beneath that calm exterior she could see how tense he was, how ready and willing he was to commit to battle at a heartbeat's notice.

For his part, Naruto was looking around almost as wildly as Ino, shifting uncomfortably from one foot to the other. His eyes were red, wild, as they flickered from one point to another, never resting for more than a heartbeat on anything. They were the eyes of a caged animal. He did not like being surrounded like this.

Sakura, anticipating her hokage's need, came to the rescue, asking the question before Tsunade could bring herself to open her mouth. "Is there anywhere we could... Sit down to talk?" She asked, eyeing the contents of the room with obvious distaste.

The hokage refrained from shooting her subordinate a grateful look. She would have to remember to thank the pink-haired girl profusely later, at a more suitable time. Anything to get herself and her charges out of this room as soon as possible.

For the first time since they had entered the Uchiha manor, Tsunade felt that she might just have the upper hand. When Shikamaru rejoined them mentally, it would likely be checkmate for Sasuke and Naruto. The two young men were outnumbered, and although they could more than hold their own in power, Shikamaru's brain might just make the difference.

Surprisingly, Sasuke was the one who volunteered the information that Sakura requested. As it turned out, the boys did have a place that was more conducive to conversation. The dining room had remained relatively untouched during their descent into madness. There were even enough chairs for all seven of them to sit comfortably around the ridiculously long table. In an unspoken agreement, they all studiously ignored the molding remains of dinners long forgotten that cluttered the scratched wooden surface.

For a few moments, they simply sat around the table watching one another, each collecting his or her thoughts. Tsunade sat directly across from Sasuke and Naruto, flanked by Sakura and Ino. Shikamaru, hands still locked in his "thinking" pose, sat across from Ino, next to Naruto. Lee sat next to Sasuke, staring raptly at the two almost-prisoners.

It still wasn't perfect, not by a long shot, but it was better than the living room. Wistfully, Tsunade shot Shikamaru one last glance, hoping against hope that he would look back, acknowledge that he was done thinking things through and that he had developed an intricate method of escape. He was still thinking. She started talking.

"We have reason to believe that you two paid Ino an uninvited visit last night," she began noncommittally. No anger, no fear, no real accusation. Voice bland. A conversation topic and nothing more. Nothing they could use against her. Good.

The two of them sat there, hands clasped under the table, Naruto staring at her with those red, red eyes while Sasuke's glare managed to encompass all three of the women facing him. There was a shocking amount of consciousness, of awareness in those eyes. The last time she had seen him, his eyes had been bland, vacant. Oh, shit.

She had thought, naturally, that most of this little escapade was Naruto's doing. That he, no, the demon fox was the mastermind and that Sasuke was simply muscle to make the plan work. Sasuke was the better, more dangerous fighter by far, but that threat was multiplied exponentially if he had not yet slipped over the edge of true insanity as she had so blithely assumed. Shit. Shit shit shit shit shit! She should know better than to underestimate the enemy, especially when the enemy had been born and raised within her own damn village. Especially when the enemy was the prodigy of the Uchiha clan.

There was a stretch of silence while she waited on their answer. They weren't going to cooperate, that much was obvious. Shit! When the quiet became unbearable, when it had stretched beyond the point of comfort, she volunteered a bit more information. Maybe something a bit more damning would get them talking.

"She claims that you two attacked her. That you were both transformed as Shikamaru." Another pause. More silence. She kept talking. "We're here to find out what really happened. To get your side of the story and, if necessary, to remedy the situation if at all possible."

That final statement got a reaction, although it was not quite the one that she had been looking for. Ideally, she had hoped that one or the other of them would implicate them both, would give her a more solid reason than a shift of the eyes or a feral grin to come back here with an entire fucking ANBU squad of reinforcements and take them into custody so that they couldn't hurt anyone else. Including themselves.

No, she didn't get the reaction she had half-hoped for. Instead, Naruto burst out laughing, laughing even harder when Sasuke's lips turned up in the heartbreakingly familiar smirk that served as his chuckle. There would be no easy confession from these two. Nothing was ever that easy.

When the blonde finally calmed himself and resumed his unsettling red stare, made no less unsettling by the tears that laughter had left in his eyes, Tsunade was at a small loss. What else could she say? They had effectively negated her entire damned reason for being there by not being affected by any of her accusations. For all of the times that she had been in the center of tense negotiations and political situations, the unpredictable behavior of these two young men left her completely bewildered. It was therefore a decidedly happy surprise when Shikamaru's eyes abruptly focused on her, giving her a moment's notice before he began speaking in his hokage's place.

"What do you two do during the day?" The question caught all of them by surprise. Characteristically, Shikamaru yawned under the weight of six confused stares, hmpfing softly. "Explaining this is so troublesome... You two aren't shinobi any longer. You have no trade, no commitments on your time. You are living off of the inheritance from Sasuke's family which should be more than enough to keep you alive for the rest of your lives. What do you do with all of that free time?"

To their credit, they did not look at one another although Tsunade was aware of their mutual tension. Unexpectedly, it was Sasuke who answered the question. It still caught her off-guard every time the supposedly crazy man opened his mouth and volunteered perfectly sane answers.

"We don't do anything of interest. We spend much of our time... Training." The hesitation had been minute, but noticeable. So many other words could have been substituted. Training, fighting, fucking, to them it was all the same: violent, messy, necessary. Tsunade was, however, curious to see where Shikamaru was going with this line of questioning. She let him continue.

"What do you do when you train?"

Sasuke shrugged. "The normal. We train, just as you do."

"Train how?" Shikamaru was rarely this direct, nor was he normally this persistent.

"Sparring, mostly," Naruto cut in, eyes literally glowing red. He was obviously NOT pleased with this intrusion, with these questions, with this conversation.

"Our daily activities are of no concern to anyone besides ourselves and perhaps our hokage," Sasuke added quietly. Calm, cool and collected, he could almost have been the boy from ten years ago. From the corner of her eye, Tsunade could see the way that Sakura was staring, mouth slightly open. Old feelings die hard indeed. If they ever die at all.

Shikamaru yawned again, glancing at Tsunade before posing his next question. "Do you two ever draw blood when you train?"

"Of course. It's training," Naruto growled in that low voice that colud not possibly be his. "Do you have a point to any of this? Because if you don't, get out." He was getting upset, agitated. His arm was trembling from the sheer force of his grip on Sasuke's hand. If nothing else, he was getting worked up to the point where he might just make a mistake.

"Every day?"

That gave the angry blonde pause, finally prompted the pair to exchange uneasy glances.

Finally, Sasuke answered. "Pretty much."

The gleam in Shikamaru's eyes was triumphant. "Naruto heals right away, right?"

Naruto nodded curtly, his red-eyed glare fixed on Shika.

"Does he scar easily?" Shikamaru's eyes were watching Naruto very carefully as he spoke.

The dark-haired young man glanced at his partner again. "Never," he replied softly. "He's perfect after a good sleep." His eyes were shining, proud, as they flickered from Naruto to Shikamaru and back. No, it was something less noble than pride. Noting the way that Sasuke's entire face was rapidly glazing over, Tsunade realized that the young man was beginning to sink into himself again. In the span of a few seconds he had slipped from alert and perceptive to lost and dull. He really WAS crazy. That was obvious if he was able to slide in and out of reality so fluidly.

One hard squeeze of his hand courtesy of Naruto brought him back, kind of. His eyes were aware, but his face was still slack. Tsunade suppressed a shudder. To live such a life must be horrible.

"Naruto doesn't scar, but Sasuke does." Shikamaru pushed on ruthlessly, phrasing his question as a statement.

"That's true," Naruto grated out softly, but Shikamaru and the rest of them might as well have not existed for all the attention he was really giving them. He released his grip on Sasuke's hand to snake his arm around the young man's too-thin shoulders, hugging him awkwardly. He had eyes only for the man huddled at his side, his gaze flickering blue as his eyes devoured his partner.

The whole group fell silent again, stunned into speechlessness at the display. The two of them really did care for one another, even in their insanity. That moment of pure tenderness startled them all, and when Sasuke craned his neck to look up at Naruto with pure adoration etched in his otherwise blank face, Tsunade could not help but swallow against the sudden small lump in her throat.

They were human, too, in their own way. Members of her village. Or, they had been. Naruto was an unsung hero in his own right, and this was what he had become. What they both had become. Crazy or not, they had both been horribly mistreated. Yes, their isolation had been largely self-imposed, but until now they had done nothing to deserve the treatment they had received. Not really.

Tsunade didn't want to pity them. She couldn't afford to compromise the interests of her village, her fear of them through pity. They would sense her weakness. They would eat her alive as they had been TRAINED to do. Why, then, did she feel her stomach twisting in sympathy?

Again, it was Shikamaru who broke the silence. "Why are all of Sasuke's injuries more than a day old, Naruto?" he asked softly. It wasn't much, but it was damning evidence that could be used against them later. The lazy genius was right: the two of them hadn't trained in the last day. They had been terrorizing Ino instead. Shika had done his job. Checkmate.

Ino had acknowledged that she had never injured her attacker. She had seen red in his eyes. Sharingan eyes. He had copied carefully guarded shadow techniques. They were well and truly caught in their lie, but damnitalltohell, she still felt SORRY for them!

Naruto's eyes, red once more, flickered to hers, and in that moment she knew beyond a doubt that not even Shikamaru could outsmart the timeless cunning that the demon fox possessed. They were outclassed in the worst possible way right now. No matter whose fault it had been, no matter what chain of events had led up to this present, she COULD NOT feel compassion, pity. She could not be soft. Not when Naruto looked at her with that look that said he could kill her if he wished and feel no remorse.

"We did not train yesterday," Sasuke mumbled, his face pressed into Naruto's shoulder. Just like a child seeking protection. He turned his head and his eyes, still glazed, were practically glowing Sharingan red and the curse seal was enveloping his body, caressing untouched skin even as they watched. The fiery and midnight flickers were a startling contrast to his pale, pale skin. How anyone could function like that was beyond anything Tsunade could understand. "Get out of our house. We've had enough." His voice was rough, angry, caressed them all with a thinly veiled promise of violence. He wanted that violence.

They had what they had come here for, and Tsunade needed no second invitation. She stood immediately, the four jounin following her example. They could come back when they knew what the hell they were going to do with this information. As she turned to go, she had once last glimpse of the curse seal as it inched forward to encircle Sasuke's left eye. She had seen countless heartbreaking, disgusting, revolting and terrifying sights during her career as a ninja, but none of them seemed quite as poignant as that horrifically beautiful image.

It was going to come to blows. The two of them had made that painfully obvious with their repeated displays of strength. Her village could match that. Beat it. Destroy it if need be. They were setting themselves apart from Konoha. Apart from her protection. She would shed no tears at the loss.

They reached the foyer undisturbed, moving at a stately pace even though Tsunade itched with the urge to walk faster, to run. A clone met them just outside the door, innocent and blue-eyed and smiling in the morning light. A blast from the past if one ever existed. "When you come back, make sure you bring the other three with you," it said, grinning ferally the whole time. "If you forget, we will retrieve them at the appropriate time."

Tsunade drove a kunai through the clone's heart then, and it disappeared in a satisfying puff of smoke. No more games. Not now. She was livid. She knew who the other three were. The last of the rookie nine. Hinata, Kiba and Shino.

As they turned to walk away, no one spoke. No one would meet her eyes. She wondered if they were afraid. She knew that she was, and rightfully so.

She could hear strangled shouts coming from the house behind her as they strode away, gaining speed with every step. She preferred to assume that they were fighting. The words were lost, although the tone of their voices gave them away. Despite the constant increase in speed and distance, the sounds of their arguing behind them faded away much too slowly for comfort.