)Warning/Disclaimer(
These guys aren't mine, but the plot and the story is! There will be lots of sex, swearing and abuse
Rated R for a reason, people! Read accordingly!
Anyway, Sasuke's not a happy camper, and Naruto's...well, we all know Naruto's not normal, right? I've thrown them together, added a dump-truck of angst and wrote this up.
They've got all currant attacks and issues, except for Sasuke being his usual angsty self. He never left, he just broods. A lot.
So, on the grounds of yaoi, I give you this dark, unhappy (kindasorta) lovestory.
(As if there's anything else.)

-.-

~Chapter 7, part two~

the air around me still feels like a cage
and love is just a camoflauge
for what resembles rage again

~'Snuff' by Slipknot

(day 194)

doesn't matter have to hate you doesn't matter have to have to—doesn't matter-Itachi said so-doesn't matter

Naruto is still so angry walking out of the complex he's clenching almost every muscle in his body trying not to scream, trying not to turn around and walk right back and pound the shit out of Sasuke. Has to be anger. Anything else will break him. His hands and jaw won't stop spasming with the thought that fucking bastard

The blond stalks through the gates without realizing he'd arrived and halfway past the quiet, stunned group of his peers, ignoring and silent to their stares. He isn't aware of the way his jacket is ripped and shredded in spots, smeared with blood and dust and sweat, or the injured, anguished expression on his face.

supposed to kill you— Naruto thinks of the sound of Sasuke's grating voice, rubbed raw and painful to hear, the vague resonance of that phrase— have to kill you—of knowing he's heard it before, hasn't he?

"Hey, wait! What the hell happened in there?" Kiba is striding beside him for a moment, despite Naruto's reflexive snarling sound. "Dude, that was the freakiest thing I've ever seen—how did you get him to turn it off?"

stupid dobe doesn't matter stupid dobe you don't know anything—

"Did you find out what's wrong with Uchiha?" Neji calls as they pass.

"—stay the fuck out of it!" Naruto snarls without breaking the intensity of his stride, hurting and furious eyes lashing at the Hyuuga, who merely raises a brow in surprise. Kiba blinks and slows to a stop, out-paced by Naruto and his consuming anger.

"What the hell is your problem?" Kiba calls after him, bewildered. "What the hell is going on?"

"Forget it, Kiba," Shikamaru exhales and slumps, rubbing at his face. He shrugs when Kiba tosses him a scowling glance, when Neji sniffs and uncrosses his arms. For a moment, the entire group shifts their eyes to follow Naruto—still ignoring the lot of them as he's stomping down the street—and no one calls out after him.

"But—what about Sasuke?" Ino tosses long blond hair back over her shoulder and stares down the street as if she could drag Sasuke out in front of her by willpower alone.

"Forget it," Shikamaru mutters a touch more sharply. "Just…forget it, Ino."

Fuck that stubborn asshole! Naruto wants to shout back over his shoulder, scream it until his chest ruptures—but he won't give himself the satisfaction of shrieking, of clawing out at everything and anything until all of this just stops and stops hurting

But he isn't surprised when Kakashi has him by the arm twenty paces down the road, almost before the blond realizes it, gently refraining him even as Naruto tries to yank away with a strangled, furious noise. "Ah, sorry, Naruto, just a moment," the man murmurs, but the blond doesn't turn to face his teacher.

"I take it the two of you fought?" Kakashi asks him anyway, hesitating only a moment.

Itachi said so—

"Yes," he hisses, spitting blood and yanking at the weight on his arm. Naruto is only glad he's far enough away that his words can't be heard by the others, that Kakashi can't force him to turn and show the grief flashing over his face. "Of course we fought. We always fight. He's so fucking stupid, Kakashi-sensei—he's just so—"

"You left him alive, right?"

"I left him passed out on the floor because he's a goddamned coward!"

"…alright." Sighing inaudibly, Kakashi loosens his fingers enough for Naruto to rip free and fling himself back towards the Tower with lashing, fury-edged power.

"…what's his problem?" Ino mutters sullenly, as Naruto's stomping out of sight. "Tch. It's probably all his fault anyway."

"Shut up, pig!" Sakura murmurs half-heated, sniffling and glaring back over her shoulder at the blond girl as the group drifts apart. "I didn't see you try to go in there! You didn't s-see all the b-bodies—Naruto was just trying to help!"

"You call that helping? We all know Naruto's some sort of crazy freak. He probably just knocked him out!" Ino tosses back scornfully, despite the way Shikamaru tugs at her arm in the effort to lead her away. "Attacking Sasuke when he's—it's hardly—that's the last thing Sasuke needs!"

"Fuck, Ino, give it a rest!" Kiba half-sneers, well out of range.

"You don't even know what you're talking about!" Sakura cries back. "Shut your ugly fat mouth!"

"The hell I don't! That punk put me in the hospital—"

"Ino! Let's go, already!"

"Easy, now, Sakura," Kakashi soothes at her side, casting one last glance at orange-clad shoulders tight with jagged pain moving away from them, casually watching the group straggle apart and into their own separate ways. "Don't worry about Sasuke. I'm sure he'll be fine."

"Kakashi-sensei—" she almost wails and scuffs the tears from her face. The others are far enough away they won't hear the rest of their conversation, and Naruto's long out of sight. She sniffs, half-aware of her subdued confusion leaking through her voice. "What's going on? Nobody will tell me and everything's been so weird lately…"

"Oh, you know how those two are," Kakashi tells her vaguely.

"That's not even an answer!"

"Well…" Kakashi shrugs and manages a smile for her sake, even as his next words make her scowl fiercely through the tears on her face. "It's as much an answer as I can give you."

"But—"

"Nope," he says. "No freebies. Go home and rest, Sakura. We won't have any practice for a while."

And with a fake, cheerful gesture, he pofs out of sight. Sakura stands on the edge of the street, hands clutching her sides and swiping at the wetness streaking her face, staring at the gates. Her thoughts are full of blood in dusk-lit shadows, and strangely enough, the horrible images end up making her decision for her.

-:-

Naruto slows to a stop half-a-street away from the tower, momentum spent. His heart won't stop clenching with painful too-quick intensity; his jaw aches and Naruto tries to focus on that pain to distract himself, to unlock his jaw enough to breath one, two shallow breaths through his mouth.

Why? echoes in his head, the spaces filled with dark and lonely need, unanswerable.

Nearly seventeen and he's nearly broken to his knees in the street, in front of all the people he'd sworn over and over never show how much it hurt—

Why can't you just—why won't you—

His stomach churns, brushing nausea and something worse, something unfettered and angry. His hands won't stop trembling, even after forcing them open and flat across his middle and—

"—sorry—" is what slips from between his teeth. "I'm sorry I'm sorry—" and he stops himself with a gasp, horrified to hear it, wanting to scream it back at Sasuke as much as he wants to knock him down and strangle him for being such a bastard.

I'm sorry—over and over as quick as his heart—don't hate me I'm sorry—and gritting teeth—don't please just don't leave me behind—until red-white spots of pain flash across his eyesight—I'm sorry awgod just look at me see me please I'm sorry—!

"Damn it," Naruto curses, choking and hands twisting into fists again. It's been years, so long since he stopped thinking a litany of 'sorry' would fix things, make people see him, make up for whatever it was he'd done wrong—

Stop it—sorry won't fix this, he tells himself. Sorry won't fix Sasuke.

It's hard to make himself take the first step towards the tower, towards going back up to where Tsunade-hag's probing questions wait like salt and papercuts, where the child—

mychildhischildourchild

where the tadpole waits for him with no one else in the world.

It's the only thought, this unknown, fought-and-bled-and-cried-for thing, this being needed, that keeps his feet moving.

-:-

It's nearly afternoon when Tsunade looks up from the endless stack of papers, a mind-numbing and tedious duty that doubles as a welcome distraction—and realizes she hasn't heard a sound out of the small, nameless Uchiha child sleeping within the adjoining room.

Duty a welcome distraction from all the stress lately or not, the woman rubs at her face and rises to check on the infant, mind swimming from worried concern over Naruto's situation.

Foolish, all of it foolish, stubborn male stupidity—

But she's surprised when she opens the door and sees Naruto kneeling on the floor next to the bed, arms outstretched and head against the mattress. The child kicks and squirms in the way infants always seem amused by its own movement, just within outstretched hands.

Surprise suddenly cringes into piercing worry, grief at the sight of Naruto who'd slipped back under her senses, like some wounded animal.

"Naruto?" she calls softly.

"…go away," comes the muffled, quiet reply.

"Are you alright? How'd things go with Sasuke?" the Hokage asks anyway, regrets it before she does because there seems to be only one way things ever go with them.

Naruto's breath hitches and she watches his fingers twitch and pluck at the bedspread. "Just fine. Just business as usual."

Oh, child, she wants to say and knows it would be the wrong thing, if not the worst. "You're not a very good liar."

"Fuck you," Naruto swears without moving, without anger. Quietly, so she knows he's saying it mostly because she hasn't left him to his wounds. "Go away."

"Did he give the baby a name?"

"…no," Naruto softly exhales his denial. "Please. Go away."

"And do what?" she replies in exasperation. "Wait for you to tell me what happened? I'd be better off finding out from Kakashi, if he'd tell me straight. "

"I don't really care—I just—I just need to think, Tsunade-hag. Go away, just go away—"

After a moment, she does, without another word or question, without letting him know that she's seen the tears on his face.

-:-
(late evening of day 194)

Sasuke is aware of a cold numb ache before anything else. Cracks open a swollen, gunk-crusted eye and examines dirt-seamed wood and drying blood-splatter without recognizing it. After a moment, he realizes he must be flat on the floor, throat dry and scraping through every breath. Wetting lips that sting, Sasuke pushes up with a rasp of pain until he's more or less slumped on his knees.

And everything hurts. Everything that doesn't must be numb; there isn't anything within his awareness that isn't twisting, dull pain.

came to me beats restlessly sharp in his chest, nestled into panic. Came and I told him but he came he came so angry—

Thinks of blinding pain and rage and despair under the blue of those eyes, so blue in the washed-out daylight breaking in—Sasuke uses one hand to grip the other he didn't know was clutching at his chest, teeth bared in voiceless agony, shuddering even as he hears an echo isn't this—isn't this what you want?

isn't it?—

Sasuke doesn't know and can't even try, even as the thought what is it tell me what it was—he came because—because he—just tell me what I want from him— is corroding through his head—because I don't want this anymore—

If it wasn't pain—never wanted this not this—this agonizing vicious ache like nothing else and worse than everything—pain didn't seem to work because even Naruto, above all else, Naruto knew pain like that and Sasuke can trace his path just as clearly, now—for all that he is and everything he wasn't supposed to be—

can't run away can't can't because he can't because I've—

Naruto had done something unforgivable—this is all your fault—something worth the risk of irreparable anguish that Sasuke could not withstand, if it happened. When it happened—it's your fault if he comes—oh god when when when

because he will he will you know he will—should've killed him kept him safe but I can't do both—can't stand you can't kill you can't stand to see you dead but it's not supposed to be like this—

Then whatever had woken him a few minutes before knocks again and Sasuke lifts his head without the breath he wants to take, eyes sharp and thin-red slits, thoughts sliced cleanly away in the freezing panic clawing through his chest.

came he came—

It takes him minutes to roll onto his front and push himself up, and another three or four to make it to a standing posture. None of it changes how much everything aches, none of the sharp adrenaline rushing through him changes the acid eating through everything else.

But he makes it down the hall with slow, step-after-step determination.

he still came to me—

When the Uchiha grasps the handle with half-numb fingers, creaking it open, Sakura stands beyond the doorway and Sasuke is both bewildered and tired at the sight of her pale face and bloodshot eyes. He doesn't do more than peer at her through the five-inch gap, uncomfortable with the bright worry and hesitation in her face, uncomfortable because she doesn't know the size of the threat, yet, and he refuses to think of telling her.

It doesn't matter how upset she looks.

Sasuke keeps his mind as blank as his face, wonders why she's here and hates her presence so quickly behind everything else—too many strings too many so many—and Sasuke shoves it all back where it won't force him to fracture in front of her.

He can guess why she's here, anyway.

"Sasuke…" she falters briefly when he doesn't reply. "I—I would've come earlier but…are you okay? Are you sick?"

"…no." Sasuke replies tonelessly, vaguely wondering why she hadn't shown up sooner. She's so pale in the shadows of his porch, as pale as spilled milk. "I'm fine."

"Can I come inside?" Teal-shaded eyes search his face and he knows to some extent that if he refuses now, she'll be back tomorrow. "Just to talk for a bit…"

Wordlessly sighing, he steps back from the door and wanders a few steps—glancing down the hallway, flinching through a stagger at the memory of Naruto's angry, ripping shriek echoing through his skull—

Behind him, Sakura shuts the door with a quiet clikt, waiting on nervous legs and watching with too-wide eyes in a pale face.

With a startling lack of caring, looking back over his shoulder, Sasuke realizes how he must look without the partial blockade of the door to hide his state of torn, bloodstained clothing, bruises, and unkempt hair. He wonders why he doesn't care, that he just feels tired, that he feels like he's vibrating at a pitch too high to feel…

Just doesn't and applies it everything.

Sakura follows him into the kitchen, unconsciously mimicking his slow, heavy steps. For the next few moments, as her worry and concern settle in, she watches Sasuke make preparations for tea.

The soft light of the kitchen doesn't hide the brutal, yellow-black bruises on his arms and face, the blood still dripping from an elbow when he reaches up for the teapot. She doesn't know what happened between Naruto and Sasuke—what's happening, even as she accepts it without surprise. It was always violence in their regard, violence without room for anything else—

She firms in determination as Sasuke sets the pot to boil, not once having looked in her direction. "Sit down," she states quietly. "You're still bleeding. I'll wrap up your arms."

Sasuke sets the heat to the lowest point before he speaks, his tone reflecting an eerie stillness. "You don't need to."

"Well, I'm going to! At this rate, you'll be bleeding right into my teacup." Sakura replies, hand on her hip. She reminds him of Tsunade in the brief glance he gives her, as she scowls at him and repeats "Sit."

For long, silent minutes after that, Sasuke waits shirtless and ashen while Sakura applies careful bandages and chakra to the more serious injuries.

She doesn't ask him about how things end up with something this painful—she doesn't know, yet, Sasuke doesn't dare think he should let her to know—but he doesn't pull away from her hands, too numb to resist the fleeting thoughts of his mother, so long ago.

His mother's face, just as pale.

-:-

I don't know what to do—I don't know what to say, I don't know the words or how to say it—

Thoughts were elusive behind his eyes, as stinging as acid, and Naruto presses his forehead against the mattress and almost prays for someone to tell him what to do—it's so hard to think—and Naruto doesn't know how it could be so hard. He knows it's necessary, beyond necessary—but it hurts to think of how he needs to do this alone.

—not alone but forced back into it—

But at the same time he can't unlock his fingers from their stubborn grip on fabric, can't release himself and slip away—part of him doesn't want help and bristles indignantly at the thought, and he had tried to push away Tsunade as gently because he did need to think and her presence wasn't helping.

—but his pride is as stubborn as his denial that he even needs that fucking bastard.

He's angry; it feels like thin skein of oil wrapping up his thoughts and burnt red on the edges, because he doesn't know what to do, and if his thoughts would stop slipping in circles and skid sideways—

I don't know how I'm going to do this, he thinks over and under and between all the indignant hurt gnawing at tadpole is his top priority. He has to be—figuring out how to keep him safe will come in time.

—just stop, just for a moment—stop, just long enough to figure out how he'll manage, how to do this—and Naruto, on the deepest level, will not admit that unbalance comes with Sasuke's absence.

I need to train, Naruto decides, hoping it will be enough. Train, get stronger, so I can try—try to survive—

But the fact that he'll need help in some form is clear and sharp as glass. He can't do it alone.

Six hours of motionless, storming thought, Naruto starts to list out everyone he thinks will be necessary, essential or helpful in any way.

Sasuke's name is left off the top of the list—but then, this list won't name someone that Naruto won't admit to needing.

This list isn't about that.

-:-

"Have you gone to see Sasuke, then?"

Kakashi shifts with fractional hesitance, crouching on the sill of the wide window in Tsunade's tower. The moon is limning the edge of the forest in gray-light silver and Kakashi is nothing but dark shadow against the night.

"Sakura was there when I returned," the former anbu answers softly.

"I see. " Tsunade smooths her fingers over the side of a bottle, thoughts skimming lightly over worries. Too lightly to delve further into just what Uchiha's unbidden genjutsu portends, too briefly on the subject of such a twisted, thorn-wrought relationship.

If it's even a relationship, the woman thinks, sighing softly. She wonders if Uchiha would consent to several mind-healing sessions, if it would even help him and worries it would break him, somehow. "I doubt if he'll come in for treatments…" she comments more to herself than Kakashi still waiting silently in the window.

But the mention of Sakura beside Sasuke so quickly after witnessing a massacre-genjutsu...

Tsunade rubs firmly at pressure points along her jaw and skims up over a temple in the effort to rid herself of frustration and a lingering headache. "Poor girl. She doesn't know anything, does she?"

"It's unlikely."

"How long will it last?" she murmurs, pausing only to sip at the sake. "This quiet. This waiting. How long will Naruto wait?"

"Wait...?"

"For Sasuke. Before he tells someone. Before he...well, before he's more like Naruto, like himself."

But he won't ever be the child he should've been. Not after this.

Kakashi doesn't answer, but that's okay. She isn't sure if she wants to know the possibilities of the future.

-:-

True to her word, Tsunade gives him space for three or four days after that; Naruto isn't sure just how long it's been. All of his thoughts and worries and pinprick What if—what if—what if? consume most of his time.

When she calls his name from her office one late afternoon, he wanders out in two-day-old clothes and sits where she points.

"I need to check up on your chakra," she tells him, brushing aside papers and smearing ink on her robes. She looks distracted and older than before and Naruto wonders if she's slipping up on her special youth-jutsu.

"Will it take long?" Naruto automatically slides his shirt up over his head, and drops it beside him.

"No, it's just the usual. How have you felt in the last week?" Tsunade presses two fingers to the right of his heart, and a palm against his forehead. "Normal?"

Naruto snorts, without scowling like he wants to. "I guess. Like I did right before I got sick."

"Hmm."

Minutes pass, and Naruto listens to the footsteps outside the door, counting how many pass, how rapid or heavy they sound. As long as no one entered, he doesn't need to get up and check on the tadpole like his mind ticks away at him. Even though its the Tower, the seat of the Hokage's power and guarded like it's the last ounce of gold in the world, it gnaws restlessly at him.

He doesn't want to be here, even if it's safe—it's somehow not safe.

"Tsunade-hag?"

"Almost done," the Hokage murmurs absently.

"I'm moving back to my apartment," Naruto tells her, without thinking twice about it.

Blinking at him, drawn out of the examination haze, Tsunade pulls her hands away. Naruto meets with unwavering stare with his own, before she finally says "Are you sure that's what you want to do?"

"Yeah. I can't stay up here forever, and I think it's better if I do it sooner."

"Sooner? I don't think you're ready for that, brat."

"I just don't—"

"You're barely self-sufficient with my help—and we don't know how soon this 'illness' will return—I'm not comfortable with you halfway across the village like this."

"I know that," Naruto replies, frowning. "I do. It's not like I don't need your help, but people—I mean, you're the Godaime. People look at you, they see you all the time—it's part of your job—"

"What does that have to do with pushing paperwork," Tsunade pokes him on the forehead.

"Because—people notice things—and if you're hauling around a baby all the time, they'll start asking questions! Gossip!" Naruto flails his arms, trying to clarify his instincts. "It's...better. It's better if I'm not around and people don't know. Not yet."

And he has a point. He knows he's right on it, and he can see it on her face, see how much she doesn't want to admit he's right.

But I can't stay here, Naruto thinks, waiting for her response, unable to explain the depths of the urge to find some place that's secret.

"...so what happens when you need help?" Tsunade concedes his victory with a sigh.

"...I was hoping you'd teach me how to make those summon bracelets," Naruto offers a sheepish grin. "That's okay, right? That way we're an instance away from help!"

"One condition," Tsunade replies with the mask of a gambler, too quickly aware that tricky little Naruto has some sort of plan.

"What kind of condition?"

"You tell me what you're up to, when you figure it out."

"...do I have to?"

"Or you can stay here till you're thirty, chained up in that room. Your choice."

"Fine. Fine. I'll let you know," Naruto's grin slips more to the sly side she remembers. "Or I'll just improvise."

-:-
(...two hundrend and one...)

The sky is twilight-purple when Sasuke rises to the surface of his mind, finding himself flat on his back in the yard behind his house. The air is cold, and grass digs and tickles at exposed skin, but all he does is stare blindly into clouds a few shades darker than the darkening sky.

He wonders briefly how he came to be out in the grass, but after a few days of wandering room to room on bare feet, after hours of shoving everything consisting of thought away from his consciousness, he shies from the reason like a startled bird.

—won't think won't think of it—of anything—not worth it don't think and it won't hurt—

His hands and legs ache fiercely, and there's a sour dirt-taste in the back of his mouth. Sasuke lifts one heavy hand to push back stray hair and notes the bruises spreading up his wrists and arms.

Training,Sasuke decides, and drops the arm to his side. It couldn't have been anything else; he dimly remembers how his chest struggled to bring in air that didn't seem to help, knuckles bleeding from uncounted hours of automatic hit-block-hit. How he had leaned on the wooden dummy fighting back some hysterical thought and screamed behind his teeth and struck, trying to smash it away with the splinters of the wood cracking under his hands.

Breathing hurts and there's a hint of blood on his tongue, but breathing—the simple act of life—hurts worse than all the scrapes and bruises and aches.

-:-

In the quietest moments, Naruto sits as still as possible and just watches, simply stunned at small, delicate fingers and such fine, dark hair so different than his. Wonders how much of Sasuke this child will have, how the tadpole will grow and learn and speak, somehow.

Naruto smirks more to himself, amused just enough through the bitterness to appreciate the irony—because if this is some sort of cosmic prank, it's the best one he's ever come up with.

-:-
(213 days)

Weeks before Naruto has any sort of concrete plan formed and ready, he opens his door to see Shikamaru leaning against the doorjamb with the same bored look on his face. He's surprised to see him and knows his expression must give it away.

"…hey, Shikamaru," Naruto finally says slowly.

Shikamaru straightens and rubs the back of his neck, yawning briefly before he replies. "Hey, Naruto. How've you been? Are you still sick?"

"Um, not really. What're you doing here? I'm...kinda in the middle of something."

"I wanted to make sure you're okay. You were pretty angry the other day."

"Tsunade didn't send you, did she?" Naruto's words are more suspicious than he intends, he opens his mouth to say something else and bites it back.

Shikamaru raises a careful brow. "What? The Hokage? No, she didn't send me. We haven't seen you or Sasuke since you freaked out on us. We all decided to check up on you. I got volunteered." At the end of his decidedly long speech, the lean Nara boy sighs. "Were you going to let me in?"

"Volunteered, huh? And no; I'm trying to clean."

"…are you sure you're okay? Since when do you clean?" Shikamaru seems to accept the plain 'no' and settles back with his shoulder against the jamb.

"Since now. And I'm fine. Who volunteered you, then?"

"Sakura did. She thinks you two had a major fight and aren't talking to each other."

"What are we, girls?" Naruto mutters, scowling to hide the first reaction of relief. Just a fight, my ass.

"Oh, and she wanted to know if it'd be okay to stop by with food, later. I guess Kakashi asked her or something."

"Food? I guess so." Naruto fidgets and drops his gaze, his forehead pinching into a frown. It takes him a moment to ask, "Was she checking in on that bastard, too?"

"Probably. I gotta get going; anything you want me to pass on?"

"No." A pause, as Naruto studies his friend's face, managing a semblance of a smile. "Thanks. For stopping by, I mean."

"Yeah, sure. When you're done cleaning…or whatever you're working on, come hang out. It hasn't been the same."

"…I'll do that," the blond lies, grinning slightly. Then he shuts the door as Shikamaru turns to leave, pausing long enough to rest his forehead against the wood.

I'm sorry. It can't be the same anymore. Not ever.

-:-

Harder and harder to ignore it, as a day, then weeks, pass and Sakura stops by again and again, carrying bags of things or food that he won't admit to needing. Hard to ignore her stubborn cheer, the forceful shove into a social ritual he never learned properly. So hard, because she doesn't know.

Harder to ignore it when it's still sitting there, right there and needling into him with thoughts of how?

How did he—why did he—? As days click by and blur into his obstinate refusal. How could he? so Sasuke fills the spaces with training and useless practice even if he doesn't quite enjoy it; even if it feels wrong and empty but—

How could he, if Naruto knew what a risk it was—how, if he knew he couldn't possibly fight or protect himself? Why would he try?

'How' rattling through the gnat-bites and pain and panic until Sakura's recurring visits are an almost welcome distraction, almost better than wearing down his body with training like a rat in a trap. He'd rather deal with her than Tsunade—and he lets her enter even as he wonders why the Hokage hasn't shown up with her intimidating, disapproving presence.

As it is, Sakura sounds enough like the older woman when she starts to nag him about changing his clothes and cleaning up or actually taking a bath before he starts growing mold.

-:-
(215 days)

In the space of several weeks, Sakura found herself face-to-mask with Kakashi in a small, local grocery one afternoon, surprised to see him with a bag of produce swinging from his hand.

"Oh, hello, Sakura-chan," the former anbu greets her cheerfully. "Shopping for Sasuke?"

"Actually, yes—" she starts to shrug. "His cupboards were getting pretty spare, so I figured...Anyway, what about you?"

"Oh, this is for Naruto. I'm glad you're helping out Sasuke—he needs quite a bit of it for the moment, I'd say."

She peers at him, expression neutral. "He's not really asking me for help—but he's not really saying more than one word to me, anyway."

"That's good, it's very good." Kakashi beams—as far as she can tell. "Say, Sakura-chan, would you do me a favor? Just for today?"

"I'd be glad to help; what did you need done?" she asks, selecting fruit and a small container of pre-sliced mushrooms.

"Well, I've got a meeting soon—very important one that I shouldn't be late for—could you drop this off at Naruto's apartment? It doesn't matter when, just as long as he gets it by tonight."

"Why—that's it?"

"That's right!"

"I'm not gonna get a bitchy earful of whining, am I?"

"Oh, he's already past that phase."

"Oh, alright—but just this once, you hear?"

-:-

Sakura isn't really expecting the shock she gets when she gets to Naruto's apartment, casually slinging open the door and calling out a greeting that ends in strangled surprise. The minor annoyance of having to go out of her way is forgotten, because the place is clean, unexpectedly clean and for a moment, she thinks she's walked into the wrong apartment.

But most of her initial shock comes from catching sight of Naruto standing motionless in the doorway down the narrow hallway, the door gripped in his hand as if he'd ripped it open.

For the brief split-second it takes him to recognize her, his expression is wild and raging and deadly pale—

He's going to kill me, the analytical part of Sakura things behind the surprise.

Then it changes, twists away from the surface of Naruto's face and his voice is hesitant, almost wary. "S-Sakura-chan?"

"Well, who else would it be?" she replies, the shock sliding away to sit like a cold little stone in her growing concern—no, suspicion over this weird little event going on behind her back. She shuts the door behind her, rolling her eyes as Naruto frowns and rubs breifly at his face. "I ran into Kakashi earlier; he asked me to drop off your food. Did I wake you up? You look like I'm some crazy missing-nin raiding your house."

"No—well, I was resting. I...guess I wasn't expecting you. Figures Kakashi found someone else to do his work for him."

"So you're feeling better, then?" Sakura calls over her shoulder. She sets the two small bags of groceries on the counter. "Did you want me to put these away?"

"No," Naruto murmurs from right behind her and she realizes she hadn't heard him move. "I'll do it later."

"So," she turns enough to peer at him. "You're not feeling better?"

Naruto blinks his blue-eyes at her, before grinning sheepishly. "No—I mean, yes, I'm doing better."

"Hmm," she taps a finger against her chin and mock-frowns at him. "You must still be sick, though. I've never seen you clean anything, much less your apartment."

"Hey! I can clean if I want to!" he protests indignantly. "I just never wanted to, before."

-:-

It's not a surprise, though, that Kakashi stops by her house a day or so later, asking for a favor that involves Sakura delivering groceries to both her teammates. She almost expected it, already accepted the possiblity, but she still screeches at her teacher and scolds him for shirking his duties.

But two days after that initial shock/fear of Naruto staring at her with such deep, unstable killing intent, she still agrees to drop by both places.

-:-

Two hundred and nineteen days—roughly thirty one weeks—seven months and three-fourths of another—over half a year spinning away—

Two hundred and nineteen days after waking up in the backyard, the thoughts plague him like tiny, stinging gnats, circling around and behind him no matter what effort he tries to drive them away. No matter what he doesn't to acknowledge it—

—it's there, always, like the constant panic slicing through him, it's there

—and he can't just deny it and he wants to because it's not something he wants—shouldn't be there at all—but it's there, incessant and blood-driven and there isn't any other way—nothing left for Sasuke to try because Naruto's outwitted all of it by sheer stupid luck.

Sheer stupidity, Sasuke things with all of his anger. It's all just so stupid.

It's there, but Sasuke doesn't want it. He can't afford to want it, and tries and tries to push it back.

-:-
(224)

Late afternoon almost a month after Sakura had started dropping off his food, Naruto perched out on the narrow balcony attached to his apartment. He's is too busy flicking a gaze over rooftops and the deepening color of the sky as the sun sets, but he's acutely aware of the exact moment a familiar chakra flickers close.

"Naruto-kun!" Iruka calls, dropping down beside him. "I've been looking for you! I knocked, but you didn't answer the door."

Naruto raises his face in Iruka's direction, blank and not really surpirsed to see him, just unnerved. "Hey, Iruka-sensei," he greets, shrugging with a half-smile.

The older man smiles, sheepish and familiar and missed, Naruto realizes, as he settles down beside Naruto.

"Are you alright?" comes Iruka's unexpected question. "I was getting worried about you. I haven't seen you for months, and Kakashi-san mentioned you've been ill—Well, with what was going on a few weeks ago, I figured I'd stop in."

"I guess so," Naruto answers, looking away and to the velvet-red edge of the skyline. "I'm not a kid anymore."

"I know that," Iruka reaches out to ruffle his hair and Naruto lets him, folding back the flinch so Iruka doesn't notice.

"No, I mean..." Naruto hesitates, glancing over at the face he associates with brother/father/friend and sighs. "Iruka-sensei...what do you know about babies?"

"Babies? Why are you asking about babies? You, uh, know where they come from, right?" Iruka pauses while Naruto snorts lightly, nearly smirking. "You've got some time before you need to worry about things like that."

"Yeah, right. I just...what if I...what if—"

"Naruto? Is there something wrong? You know, something you need to talk about?" There is a careful pause to Iruka's words, and Naruto doesn't even have to look to know the expression on his face is shifting to anxious worry. "You haven't, uh, gotten anyone pregnant, have you?"

Naruto doesn't reply at first, instead of the expected "What?" that Iruka expects.

"Have you?" Iruka murmurs in a strangled little voice.

"No, not—not like that. I just—I don't know what to do, Iruka-sensei—"

"Well, tell me what the problem is, and I'll see if I can help."

"It's not that easy."

"You can try; I'll still listen."

Naruto's breath is deep and slow, hands tight-knuckled over the railing bars. "What if I told you—I mean, you know about the fox, I know you do—but what if I—what if I told you something important, something big—"

"...like what?" Iruka coaxes.

"What would you do, if you were me and you found out there were side effects because of the fox?"

"Side effects? What kind of side effect are we talking about?"

"...like..." Naruto takes a breath, his hands gripping the railing and supporting his head like the thoughts were too heavy to bear. When the blond continues speaking, his voice is unusally quiet. Calm, Iruka thinks before the words come. I've never seen him so calm.

"...like I made a baby kind. By myself. Sorta."

Iruka blinks at this statement, unable to quite process the actual meaning. He reaches out to brush fingers over Naruto's forehead. "...you aren't running a fever, are you? Some fevers can make you delirious—"

Naruto shudders and something seems to unravel through his calm; his knuckles whiten over the railing as he lifts his head and nearly shouts "I'm not delirious! I'm not making this up, Iruka-sensei! Because of—because of stupid-bastard Sasuke and these stupid fox-instinct I wnt and made a baby and I'm not a kid anymore—I need to be strong enough to keep him safe but I—but I don't know where to start because Sasuke's freaking out and I don't know what to do, Iruka-sensei—I don't—I don't want to do it by myself I don't know how—" Naruto gasps for a breath, still shaking, frustrating gleaming in his eyes. There's more, he wants to tell him more and can't bring himself to finish, yet.

"...maybe," Iruka hesitates, bewilderment seeping through his tone and posture. "Maybe you should start from the beginning."

So Naruto does, tells him almost everything but the finer details of Sasuke's involvement and subsequent breakdown. He manages to get more than halfway down the tale before his voice cracks around words "—and then when I woke up, there was a baby and Sasuke—I didn't know what was going on with him and he doesn't—I don't know how to fix it Iruka-sensei I don't know if I can—"

But after a moment, clenching fist and teeth and heart, he gives a succinct almost-report sentence about Sasuke's mental breakdown, and how confusing it all was.

Then he waits for the scorn and maybe disgust that he's so sure Iruka would have.

"...well," Iruka murmurs after Naruto falls into silence. "I never expected that. You're certaintly living up to the boast of the 'most unpredictable ninja,' aren't you?"

"...you're not—you're not freaked out that I—" Naruto hesitates, looking everywhere but at his teacher. "That I...you know...with Sasuke?"

Iruka sighs and gently reaches out to ruffle Naruto's hair. "You found someone important, right? How could I be upset?"

The world blurs around Naruto for a brief, chest-squeezing second; he hears a laugh, weak and nearly sobbing, but a laugh floating beyond the tears on his face. "But what should I do?"

"I think," Iruka starts carefully, slowly. "I think you're already doing what you need to do. The rest will fall into place."

"But—"

Iruka tweaks his nose and shakes a finger at Naruto's nose. "Don't start second-guessing yourself, Uzumaki Naruto. It'll work out, you'll see. Now, are you going to show me your new little secret, or should I raid your apartment?"

-:-
(two hundred twenty six days...)

"Well?" Tsunade's words are sharp and absent. There's a stack of paperwork five inches high on her desk that needs signatures authorizing the sale of small-goods and merchandaise for the neighboring villages and she had two hours to complete. She barely pays attention to Kakashi slipping over her windowsill.

"Ah, so far, so good!" he exclaims in an overly-cheerful voice. "It looks like Naruto's preparing for the worst, as you well know—and I've got Sakura tending to both of them—"

"And Sasuke? Has he shown any improvement, yet?"

"Well, I haven't actually talked to him yet, but he seems to be—"

"What?" she slams a fist onto her desk, shaking the mini-tower of paper. "Hatake Kakashi! Are you seriously saying you haven't spoken to that brat, yet? I can't believe you! I told you two weeks ago to make sure that little bastard is stable and you—you've just been—"

"Well, he need time to adjust and I didn't want to interfere, so I've—"

"Get over there and assess the damage, you incompetent brainless—Now, before I break all the bones in your spine, Hatake!"

Kakashi pohfs away before she has a chance to start throwing her pen and other dull objects in his direction, unable to tell her how difficult it would be to confront Sasuke on the current situtation.

Looks like I don't have a choice, Kakashi sighs to himself on the edge of Uchiha property. I've put it off long enough.

-:-

Late one evening, as Sasuke sprawls flat on the ground panting—gasping—for air, and wincing at the throbbing aches in the joints of his arms. Time slips away and Sasuke isn't sure how long he's been on the ground before he notices the dry-prickle sense of Kakashi.

His teacher waits on the edge of Sasuke's vision, silent and speculative. Sasuke has the dull, almost-shame pierce the numbness in his middle, so he pulls himself up, propping an arm over one bent knee.

"What do you want?" Sasuke asks quietly, menancingly polite when Kakashi hasn't spoken.

"I see you're still moping around," Kakashi finally says.

Moping? Sasuke's mind echoes in sudden unexpected fury, sliding eyes unstable with the red of it.

"You heard me."

Sasuke spits out a sound like breaking iron, scowling. "You think I'm moping? Are you fucking serious?" The words come like slow razor-edged stones. Insanity edges them with a snarl.

Kakashi's expression—even behind the mask—turns contemptuous. He gestures, voice disdainful. "Well, it's not like you're actually accomplishing anything by hiding."

Then, as Sasuke's face is white and wide-eyed with sheer hate—hate for everything—Kakashi is attacking him with the clinical detachment of correcting a problem and Sasuke forces his stiff bruised limbs in defense of Kakashi's lunging kunai-edged fist.

He doesn't have the strength or endurance to match against Kakashi. Sasuke knows it isn't possible to even try to beat him in a fight, but Sasuke still moves, furious and desparate he's still moving despite the odds. Despite the muscle-tearing ache in his body. Dodging Kakashi's weapon with a twist of his torso, ducking to avoid the high leg-snap meant for his face. Reaction and his awareness of it has been reduced to flashes of impressions; Kakashi's face that looks so bored. Dirt gritting under his still-bare feet and the taste of blood in his mouth like breathing copper into his simple, easy avoidance of any offensive move that Sasuke can think of.

Kakashi isn't pulling any punches but Sasuke doesn't really notice; overwhelming tar-sticky rage seeps through every crevice of his mind, fueled by a single striking thought Don't look at me like that—not like that, not like all I've done just doesn't matter—!

"What would your mother say, Sasuke kun?" Kakashi murmurs and Sasuke hears himself—feels it, really—shrieking "Shut up!" so hard his throat feels like it's bleeding, failing to land a fist or a kick because Kakashi's too quick, too fresh, Sasuke's voice a grating screech—too slow, Sasuke's too slow—thinks or snarls "Don't you dare talk about my mother—!"

Kakashi kicks out the supporting leg, face unchanged and still distant, a split-second shift in his stance and a heavy slap—

—piercing pain and shame and the unending anger with the force of it—

—and Sasuke's knocked breathless, skidding on his his back with a high-octane shriek still ripping from his body.

"What would she tell you?" his teacher asks. "Have you asked yourself that?"

Sasuke's arms whip across and apart, kunai and shuriken sh-zing-ing past a dodging Kakashi and it's so hard to breathe—

White noise in his head and he doesn't understand the look on his teacher's face, why Kakashi watches him like that, avoiding his weapons and stepping in closer to where Sasuke's half-crouched, half-sprawled in torn-up grass and dirt.

"—leave me alone!" Sasuke's voice feels broken, flailing at his teacher when Kakashi's too close too close, fighting to pull away from the grip he has on Sasuke's wrist. Sasuke sobs for breath and can barely catch it, fighting with numb limbs, a wailing sound echoes around him; Kakashi has his other arm and Sauske can't get free—

—hears himself gasp through the thudding panic "-please!" without knowing what he's asking for—grits his teeth against the sound that follows, some thing beyond a scream or cry, something worse—

Kakashi sighs, effortlessly restraining Sasuke until the boy is reduced to pushing at him, pressing forehead to chest.

"You're not strong enough like this," Kakashi tells him, gently.

"—I tried I tried—" Sasuke is sobbing out the words before he knows, unable to stop the sound from choking him. "But I can't—I just can't—"

"I know. It's okay," one of Kakashi's hands is passing over his hair—when he'd moved them to Sasuke's head, holding him, Sasuke isn't sure—but Kakashi's still murmuring "But—don't try so hard to get rid of your new family, Sasuke. Naruto needs your strength."

The thought of it is hysterical and terrifying; Ragged, unused laughter breaks off the walls of the training yard and Sasuke doesn't know why it's so funny—he's sure it's not supposed to be funny—he's gasping for breath so hard he's clutching Kakashi.

new family—and oh it hurts to breath—my strength

"—I can't protect him, I'm not strong enough for that—" is the final sound from Sasuke's mouth, harsh and breathless between the shaking in his arms.

"You will be soon enough," Kakashi tells him.

Sasuke doesn't believe him. Can't believe him. Won't, because that means so much more—so much more than he's willing to allow.

-:-
(37 days since...)

It starts to rain two hours before Naruto expects any visitors; he curses and goes to shut the windows, checking one last time to make sure he had snacks for Chouji and everyone else, only ten minutes closer to something that's too much like swallowing razors.

It would be both worse and not if Sasuke were here. If he showed. If he even knew.

'My place, asshole. 4' carved on the front door isn't exactly an invitation. He doesn't even know if Sasuke's bothered to leave his house.

Doesn't matter! Naruto tells himself fiercely, standing over the couch to peer at the tadpole tucked into a nest of blankets. Doesn't fucking matter. I will do it alone if I have to—

no other choice, you bastard, you didn't give me the chance—

-:-

"Can you believe it? I had to drop off five bags of food for Naruto. I don't see why he can't do it himself if he's 'so much better now.' Do you want the apples in a bowl, Sasuke?" Sakura is head and shoulders deep into his fridge, as Sasuke waits with crossed arms in the doorway. He isn't paying any attention to what she's doing in there, presenting most of his back to her.

It's the third time she's shown up in the last two weeks—

—five weeks and two days since Naruto—since the sound of—only a mere three or four days since Kakashi had spoken something far, far worse than all of it—

"—and he's baby-sitting now, did I tell you that, Sasuke? I guess it's a mission or something. Sasuke? Where'd you want the fruit?"

Babysitting? Sasuke can feel his heart thud and falter—so he's trying to—the thought snaps across his mind like ice—and then Sasuke is peering over his shoulder at her, staring at her and unfocused with the thought Naruto hasn't told her, hasn't told her anything—even as she frowns at him, waiting for a response. He's not supposed to—he can't just—

"You've seen it?"

"Seen what? Oh, you mean the kid Naruto's watching? No, I think it was sleeping. He practically shoves me out the door every time I'm dropping off his food, anyway."

Sleeping? Sasuke thinks and bites his tongue to keep from asking anything else. He refuses to be interested.

Sakura relents and sets the bag of fruit aside and grabs another. "Wait a minute—oops, this isn't yours. Damn, now I'll have to go back. Stupid Naruto and his stupid little mission-party. I don't want to go all the way back; it's raining already!"

"…mission party?" Sasuke echoes.

"Yeah, didn't he tell you? I thought he left you, um, a note on your door. Didn't you see it? I know you two are mad at each other right now, but—" she shrugs, seemingly unaware of Sasuke's shifting focus. "Naruto said he was inviting a 'hand-picked team' for some sort of party. Who knows, it's Naruto. I thought he mentioned talking to you already, though."

Sasuke stops listening to the sound of her voice, consumed in a wash of oily, cold-sweat denial—Naruto wasn't going to wait, he'd just rush ahead like always—just like he's keeping it—he was already fighting back, the stupid useless fool and Sasuke knows better than anyone how stupid that is, how deadly and life-wasting all of it will be—

not ready I'm not ready yet—

And the blond was serious about doing it, as serious as he always is and Sasuke couldn't just—stop—feeling bitter and angry and furious that nothing seemed to work out according to plans—stop stop stop—all of his plans are useless around the blond, nothing ever works with Naruto and Sasuke has to—just has to stop because he can't make sense of everything cracking, has to see if it was true that the dobe would choose others

"Sasuke?"

Others, instead of him

Slipping into his footgear is an automatic gesture; so is ignoring Sakura's puzzled questions from behind him even as he unconsciously swipes the bag from her fingers, but outside, the rain is cold behind the wind and Sasuke…

Sasuke, standing on the front steps of his home, is still furious and aching and trying not to scream, halfway to being soaked and wondering when he had started waiting—miserable and hating and Naruto—

I won't—I can't let you just—

—the thought Naruto didn't need him has already broken open, broken him the rest of the way through and Sasuke realizes with a sick sort of acceptance that his decision over all of this was already made, long before he wanted to ask himself anything about it.

I just won't let you.

-:-

Shikamaru is the first face he sees, Chouji at his side, and for a moment Naruto can only stare at them from across the line of the open door. Naruto has only a few murky fragments of the last time they visited and no idea if they were still angry about the incident with Ino.

"Hey," Shikamaru somehow drawls irritation and sighs at the same time, when Naruto takes too long to greet them. "Are we late?"

"No, uh, not yet. You guys are the first to get here…" Naruto exhales and shifts aside. "Come on. What snacks do you want, Chouji?"

"Oooh, what kind?"

"Um, lots of chips and soda. Hey, don't sit on the couch!" Naruto calls from behind the cupboard doors, piling up whatever he thinks would qualify as snack-material. There's a knock at the door as he shudders through the sensation of his chakra twitching in awareness. "Someone get the door."

"But there aren't any chairs!"

"Why do we have to sit on the floor? What a pain in the ass." Shikamaru's asking plaintively, opening the door to reveal Kiba with Akamaru peeking from his jacket, a plastic bag of assorted candy swinging from his hand. "Kiba's here."

"Yo, Shikamaru, Chouji. Brought some candy, in case you want some. Who else is coming, and why the hell are we here?"

"Damn right I'll take some!" Chouji calls.

"Hey, Kiba. Akamaru." Naruto nods to them and drops his armload of snacks onto the floor in front of Chouiji, who's nearly out of sight behind the couch. Kiba takes the spot next to him and dumps the contents of his bag onto the pile.

"Hey, what kind of party doesn't have chairs? I saw Neji and Lee on my way here; they should be pretty close. Oiy, Akamaru, what are you…hey, Aka—" Kiba hunches over his jacket and whispers to his whining pup. "Uh, really? That's crazy. We're not trespassing—"

"It's not a party, dogbreath." Naruto points Shikamaru in the direction of an open spot, eyes landing back to the door a moment before it opens; Neji and green-clad Lee peer inside in bemusement. Shino is half-seen behind them, inscrutable.

"Are we late?"

"No, no, you made it!" Naruto waves them in with the same sheepish, nervous grin he'd given everyone, visibly nervous as he waits until everyone finds a location before he scoots onto the couch and pulls a blanket into his lap.

"Not a party?"

"You've got party-food, though—"

"You certainly have strange hospitality."

"So, why are we here?" Neji asks.

"Maybe it's a gathering to express the youthful strength of all of us together!"

"Uh, what?"

"…isn't that for chicks or something?"

"Hey, keep it down, will you? It's not a party—it's something bigger than that, and I was gonna…I wanted to tell you guys about something first, but—"

"Why can't we sit on the couch?"

"Does this have something to do with Uchiha?" Neji asks, placidly, cupping a mug between his fingers and just like that, Naruto is the sudden focal-point of the room. "The way you two were fighting?"

"Y-Yeah, kinda," Naruto isn't smiling anymore, pale and strangely determined. He scratches his head, eyes darting under complete, expectant attention. Six pairs of eyes watch the way his shoulders twitch, the way he suddenly twists his hands together and just tries to breathe

"You've been fighting with everyone, haven't you!" Kiba leans forward to peer at him. "Shikamaru said you tried to put Ino's head through a wall—is that true? I just thought you were sick or something."

"Did he really?"

"Hey, she stole my crystal and stabbed me with a hairpin!" Naruto protests, snapped from his panic and scowling.

"Yeah, well—how are we to know if you've gone crazy since no one's seen you in the last few months. There's been some weird shit going on—you know, that creepy chakra and Sasuke's psycho ghost-fest—Shino, you saw that chakra, too, right? Wasn't it messed up?"

"Uh—creepy chakra? What chakra? When…" Naruto trails off, shifting under the blanket, pale eyes tracking back and forth while his face shifts into neutral. "Oh. That chakra."

"Yeah, my grandma was freaking out," Kiba exclaims, grinning. "You should've seen it!"

"So is this some sort of mission?" Chouji asks Naruto.

"It was most odd," Shino answers. "But I am more curious to hear Naruto's answers."

With all of them seated and re-focused on him, again, Naruto clasps his hands together and twists them, clearing his throat. "Uh…I…I can't tell you how, uh—I don't, um…I'm not sure how to, uh tell you—fuck…This is really, really hard to say..."

"Uzumaki," Neji sips patiently from the glued-crack mug in his hands. "Get to the point. What does this meeting have to do with your illness, Uchiha's mental state and the…object you're hiding from us?"

Trust a Hyuuga to cut to the chase, Naruto thinks, barely able to swallow. Everyone waits, stares at him until he inhales sharply. "Well, I'm sorta…" he falters, unbelievably falters in front of all of them with eyes sliding anywhere else but his guests, aching misery sliding across his expression. His head lowers, blond hair briefly hiding his face.

None of them can remember the last time he's looked like this; it shocks them into stillness, even though Naruto's silent for a long, uninterrupted minute until his shoulders firm, despite Kiba opening his mouth to complain and Neji's dead-white stare preventing a single syllable.

"First of all…d-did you know…" Naruto starts quietly, softly, in a voice somewhat sad and awed and hurting, eyes sliding away and out of focus. "…that Sasuke's…a father?"

-:-

A bottle of sake hits her desk, landing on paperwook. Tsunade lifts her head enough to see it, scowl, and rub at aching eyes. A moment later, she offers a muttered greeting to the white-haired Jiraiya grinning back down at her.

"Tsunade-hime," he says, sitting in front of her desk. He rummages through his kimone for two chipped sake-cups and sets them with a clinkt next to the bottle.

"What time is it?"

"Late afternoon. Haven't you slept?"

"Not really."

Jiraiya solemnly serves her alcohol, and after she knocks it back, another. "Still haven't heard from the brat, have you?"

The Hokage snorts. "He wants to get a team together to train. As if—as if it could change the outcome."

"And you said no? What, you think we could protect him any better than himself?"

"I just—"

"You can't be his mother," Jiraiya tells her gently. "One day, you won't be able to keep him safe. Or in one place. He's strong, Tsunade-hime. He'll pull it off, somehow. You shouldn't worry."

"He's so young," she whispers, finally. "Sasuke tried to kill him—Itachi will manage to kill him, old man. It's not a question of if."

"Uchiha's swallowing some bitter medicine. If Naruto can't bring him around, he'll break. I'm not worried about that."

"Oh sure. If the risk to our village and anyone between Itachi and those children doesn't worry you, what does?"

Jiraiya belches and serves up another round. "That damn brat asked me to train him. I'm gonna break a goddamned hip."

-:-

"What…did you just say?"

And before their disbelieving silence ends, Naruto laughs, a shuddery, numb and paper-light sound. "He's got a kid. A little baby. But I'm—I'm sorta—I'm taking care of him but I can't—I can't protect him by myself so that's why you're all here, and that stupid bastard—" Naruto pauses, searching for words lodged too deep in his middle to wrench free, face hidden and hands clenched knuckle-white over his knees.

It only takes three seconds of silence for it to register.

"You're what?" Kiba cries. "Uchiha has a kid?"

"You're—" Neji starts, eyes wide—

"—fucking serious? That ice-cold bastard got laid somehow?"

"Y-Yeah," Naruto mutters and picks at the blanket, flushing into a scowl. "Something like that."

Shikamaru draws in a slow, thoughtful breath, eyes alert and narrow in his usual bored expression. "Let me get this straight. Despite the fact that you've been sick and Sasuke's been your nursemaid—somehow, he finds time to secretly have a child. A child that you're taking care of…an infant. Hidden, or whatever. Sasuke's child. Where's the mother? Why isn't Sasuke here?"

"That's…harder to explain."

"…is she dead?" Kiba clutches Akamaru to his chest; the animal whines softly.

"It's one possibility," Neji murmurs, finally moving his penetrating stare onto a silent Naruto.

"Oh man," Chouji mourns. "How's Sasuke taking it? Is that why he's been hiding out in his house? Hey, you think that's why—"

"But why are you taking care of it?" Shikamaru has his arms crossed, looking tired and annoyed despite the soft, surprised tone of his voice. "You must've known it was happening if Sasuke asked you to raise it."

"I thought you were ill," Neji asks.

"Was it all some sort of cover-up?"

"I was—he didn't—you're not—"

"But it doesn't make sense why you're raising it," Shikamaru replies. "Or asking us to help protect it. Why does it need all of us to protect it, anyway?"

"Naruto faked being sick? Wait, Uchiha asked you to take care of his baby?"

I have to tell them, I have to, I have no choice—they can't help me unless they know everything—

"And what are we supposed to do?"

"Yeah, why do you need us as backup?"

"Because—"

"Yeah, but it's Uchiha's kid, right?" Kiba replies. "You shouldn't be taking care of it."

"Yes, I do! I have to! But Sasuke won't—" Naruto cries out, furious, hands ripping at his hair as he shouts. "I'm not strong enough to protect it, not yet, not against his psycho-freak of a brother—I don't stand a chance against him by myself!"

"Wait, who?"

"All of us won't be strong enough, but I don't have much to work with and Sasuke's a fuckin' coward—" Naruto continues without pause, snarling high-pitched and pained and snaps back whatever else choking in his throat, swallowing bitterly. Only Neji catches the tension spiking through Naruto's shoulders. "…he wouldn't—goddamn spineless bastard doesn't care—"

"Uchiha Itachi? The elder brother?"

"What's his brother got to do with it?"

"I thought the entirety of Uchiha's esteemed clan was dead?"

"They are dead. Itachi killed them. All of them." Naruto whispers, his face sunk and half-hidden behind his fingers. The sound they all hear is strained exhaustion as Naruto laughs, brief and harsh. "That bastard's really fucked-up about it. That ghost-shit everyone was talking about? That's what Sasuke scattered all over his district. Memories of what his brother did. Genjutsu memories. Because I—"

"…holy shit."

"That…actually happened?"

"What else haven't you told us, Naruto?" Neji asks in the silence that follows.

Naruto draws a breath and hesitates, hands dropping, uncertain and still so strangely nervous. He rubs his hands across his thighs and grazes the lump balanced in his lap; Neji is watching him sharply so the blond forces his hands all the way to the edge of the blanket, brushes it with trembling fingers and fighting the thick swell of anxious tears—what if they think I'm a freak?

"There's more?" Kiba mutters, rubbing his head. "Fuck, I'm confused enough already."

He doesn't know how to tell them. I've got Sasuke's kid—my child—sleeping in my lap, right here. My child, mine, and I made him because I've got a demon sealed into my body, echoes through his thoughts, slapping across the static. I need your help to protect it.

One breath doesn't help the sense of panic. Say it.

—I can't do it by myself and Sasuke doesn't want to help me.

-:-

"Hey, forehead—Oiy! You're getting your hair all wet running around without an umbrella. Why are you in such a hurry, huh?"

Breathless, Sakura pauses to flick wet hair from her eyes, looking at Ino on the streetcorner under a pale-blue unbrella. "I just—forgot something."

"Oh? You're still doing delivery-work for the team retard, huh?"

"Shut up, Ino-pig, he's not a retard!"

"Uh huh, well, I'm off to find Sasuke-kun. I just saw him, and if you hadn't distracted me, I'd be helping him shop."

"I distracted you? You called out first, you nosy—" Sakura stomps a puddle. "And stop chasing after Sasuke-kun—he's not interested!"

-:-

"…it's so hard to tell you," the blond tells them softly. "You'll probably think it's a joke or something, but—"

—and just like that, invitation forgotten, Sasuke's chakra flickering somewhere in the building is like jagged-lightning up his spine, cutting off his breath in the moment he pauses to seek out the right words to explain.

he won't—
—stupid bastard Sasuke
he won't even try—

To his credit, Naruto only stiffens in distress, hand creaking tight on the blanket before exposing anything, eyes up and vacant as his expressions flares into reactive fury—the others must sense him, too, he knows it—and avoids their startled looks for the most part.

buthereherehere he's here—

But as Naruto's focus whips towards the door, the others quietly aware that Naruto's unexpected tension is for a reason—the blond is torn because something inside him is still screaming for Sasuke to stop and look—but the same desire is razor-keen with the knowledge of something very wrong with Sasuke.

"Naruto?"

Naruto sure as hell doesn't want anyone else to be involved in this, but there's a knock on the door, a single scraping thud. Chouji's saying something, and all Naruto can think of is Sasuke's there—he showed up he actually came—right there he's never knocked before and now what do I do?

"Naruto? I think someone's at the door."

I didn't think he'd come—

"Who else was coming?"

"Aren't you going to answer it?" Neji asks, but Naruto's too busy staring over the edge of the couch, waiting for the door to open. None of them will realize until much later that his hunched, feral expression is something as instinctive as breathing in regards to Sasuke.

"Naruto…?"

Scowling, deciding without the thoughts to back it up, without turning to face the conglomeration waiting for the rest of his explanations, Naruto shouts towards the door "It's open, you prick!"

The door opens with a protesting creak; Naruto denies himself the jump of anticipation with Sasuke waiting beyond it, soaked with rain, head lowered enough for his dripping, ink-dark hair to cover more than half of his face. There's a plastic bag hanging from his half-curled fingers.

"It's only Uchiha," Shino murmurs to Chouji, who's been protesting the lack of a good view.

"Really?"

"I thought you said he wasn't coming," Shikamaru drawled lazily, eyes glancing across the doorway.

"So maybe Uchiha can tell us what's going on?"

"Are we going to combine his youth with ours?"

"Is it even safe to have him here?" Kiba whispers.

"What do you want, asshole?" Naruto finally frees a soft, quiet voice, laced with a jagged-dark threat. With the way he's turned to face the bastard, most of his left side is hidden behind the couch, draped in the ratty gray blanket. They can't see his face, not really, but Naruto doesn't want them to see the raw pain he knows is there to see, doesn't even want Sasuke to raise his eyes and notice, either—but he doesn't think it matters because Sasuke's eyes are dark and strained and flicker-red on the edges.

Yeah, something very, very wrong.

"Sakura…forgot this," is what Sasuke finally murmurs, flat and dull, twitching the bag in his fingers. "...she said you had…something planned."

Naruto watches the mouth twist, the angle of his head as the weight of the bag pulls at his arm—thinks briefly that Sasuke looks like he wants something, something that Naruto senses could be deadly but Naruto doesn't know if he cares.

Sasuke is here, after all his empty, hateful threats—he'd still shown up. So Naruto answers the waiting threat with his own. "Yeah, so? What do you care if I am?"

"I don't care!" is Sasuke's immediate, uncontrolled hiss, teeth bared. Naruto watches the way his shoulders twitch with tension, the clenching of both hands and questions the sanity of pushing Sasuke's buttons when he's already past the point of normal.

The rest of him is too numb with his own pain to care. "Don't care?" Naruto growls. "Don't care about this, or don't care that I don't need your help?"

Sasuke falls still, so still that Naruto wonders if he's even conscious—barely aware himself of an audience to everything—just the fact that Sasuke looks so very pale and stricken with his head slowly tilting to the side like that. The way he draws in a short, laughing sound and mouths something to himself that Naruto doesn't hear.

"I can't—" is what Neji will remember seeing the dark-haired Uchiha say. Simple words that contain so much unspeakable emotions, words with so much behind them that Neji had never thought possible to contain. Nothing happens. No one speaks. Sasuke doesn't step inside, and Naruto can't breathe can't move

After a moment, soot-ember eyes flickering into red, Sasuke tosses the bag inside the apartment in challenge. "You're not worth it," are his words, breathless and empty.

Came all the way over and he's just going to—the blond thinks, shocked and furiously white-faced. The stuck-up asshole bastard's going to just—

One hissing breath drawn through bared teeth, and Naruto's couch shreds under his nails. "…what?" he says, voice flat and low and unspeakably dangerous.

"You heard me," Sasuke shifts his head until the dark hair slides across his face, eyes flickering into full red-shot sharingan, an unstable grin stretching at the corners of his mouth. The hate struggles to devour every rusted scrap of control he has left, a stare fixed unwaveringly on Naruto's face; there's nothing left in his head but desperate, shrieking hate—it always had to be hate because Sasuke doesn't have anything left for anything else.

And he knows, in the brief flare of triumph over Naruto's expression of blank, white-faced fury, that maybe he'll manage to win this, somehow, even if he's not sure what he's trying to win.

hateme-damn you-hatemehateme—why won't you just hate me?

Sasuke narrows his eyes, fingers twitching, fixated on everything that was Naruto—everything that boils red-black behind his eyes and quivers through the body he's touched and claimed and tried to breakforgets everything else, everyone else there to witness the unsnapping thing between them.

Naruto's eyes flicker and bleed into inhuman red, and Sasuke dimly senses the same, red-tinged chakra whip up around them with unexpected, ice-needle sharpness—neither of them hear the rest of the group shudder and stifle cries of shock and unheard questions—

Neither of them have room in this moment for anyone else, and somehow, the rest are distinctly, unavoidably aware of it.

"Prove it," Naruto snarls with sharp, white teeth. "—you fucking coward."

The rest of the moment happens very, very fast.

Sasuke flings a half-dozen shuriken with a deadly speed that Naruto didn't know the bastard was capable of, forcing him to duck as he slips with equal speed over the back of the couch—someone cursing behind him and briefly hopes no one else was in the way—but Naruto doesn't have the time to be distracted by whoever missed impalement by inches.

In the rush of exertion towards Sasuke, wild and terrible to see with coal-red eyes burning through his face—Sasuke looks so detached and afraid and desperate even as Naruto is too close for the second swipe of weapons. Not even a second after he closes in, the blond registers two punches and a sweeping kick after he deflects them.

—thinks I won't be worthless to you, not to you— and grips the out-flung wrist, turning his head to avoid and elbow and ducking the backswing of a fist edged with kunai-steel.

It won't matter anyway, but Sasuke doesn't see the razor-cut wound on Naruto's forearm heal instantly, almost before the smear of blood—all he sees—all he knows thinks and rages against is Naruto—

Naruto, in his blue-sky glory, somehow slipping through and avoiding his offense, piercing his defense with a striking palm with too much strength behind it.

Naruto, teeth bared and face too-open in his hurt—

Naruto, when Sasuke can think of nothing else.

The wall hits Sasuke flat, knocking breath from his lungs—he grabs the arm across his body and Naruto doesn't try to avoid the knee aimed for his gut, the twist-and-squeeze he applies to an arm in the effort to push him back—

But Naruto isn't moving as easily as Sasuke thinks he will, hears himself snarl hate me or what could've been hate you—but Sasuke isn't sure he remembers.

The idiot neatly trips him with a foot hooked at his ankle and Sasuke hits the floor with the leverage of Naruto's unbending movement, giving him a brief moment for a single thought, despairing of its presence—how can he be so strong? How, after everything I've done—

After everything—why won't you hate me?—

Sasuke tastes blood in his mouth without remembering how or when Naruto had struck him across the face; all physical pain bleeds away into the aching numbness that hasn't left him for weeks. He's got a grip on one wrist to keep Naruto's fist away from his ribs and shakes away stars when he gets the back of his head slammed against the floor.

The low, bitter cry of resentment is his, Sasuke realizes, torn from his throat because Naruto has him pinned—pinned—against the floor with no room left for any retaliation but jagged breathing.

"That's it? That's all you got?" Naruto snaps harshly, eyes electric-blue in his face, even as Sasuke jerks in his grip, bleeding from the mouth, and Naruto's unable to keep from hissing out "You're just gonnacall me worthless and leave? Just run away again? You bastard—you fucking bastard—"

"Shut up!"

"Coward! Asshole! Who said you could hide in a hole and pretend it didn't happen?" Naruto nearly roars, shaking him. "You said it was impossible, but you won't even try!"

"I tried!" Sasuke's voice is high and broken and his rebuttal, his stubborn denial flows out through the gapin, ripped-to-shreds hollow in his middle. "I tried to hate you and tried to kill you but he'll kill you first, it is impossible and you'll die you idiot I won't watch you die because you wouldn't just hate me—" and in a sudden lurch of terror—too much it's too much—Sasuke gets enough space between their bodies to kick him back, heart thudding and unraveling in his chest, making it hard to breath, hard to think. Naruto skids back-first into the couch, eyes wide in his angry face.

The others, as their too-quick conflict unsnapped, watching from around the couch and from nearly-safe positions, no one there attempts to breathe, aware of something undefined and unmistakably big waiting before them—Naruto in unsmiling fury, and Sasuke in unhinged anguish—aware that it'd be too easy for Naruto or Sasuke to turn that unexpected violence their way.

They've forgotten about the audience; Naruto watches the way Sasuke curls up at the base of his wall, near the still-open door, watches keenly how the bruised arms—so many bruises—slink up to cover his head. Restless hands that clutch at his dark, rain-matted hair, the struggle to control too-quick breathing.

Naruto shoves back the stab of hurt he gets from hearing Sasuke sound like that, he doesn't understand it, doesn't know why and what's gnawing at Sasuke so badly—if his lack of family and fucked-up brother did this to him, if Sasuke was doing most of it himself—

"—should've but I can't—"

...and in less than a breath, Naruto starts to get it—the angry raw words Sasuke had shrieked, all of those things—Sasuke had tried so hard to make himself alone, to make Naruto hate him—easier to kill him, to forget him—

But Naruto won't let it slide, won't let it go, not that easy.

"Don't," Naruto rasps, eyes already blue again as Sasuke jerks halfway upright with the wall to help him. "You don't get that excuse 'cause I don't fucking care, and I already told you why, asshole, and you sure as hell don't get to tell me what's impossible, you bastard."

—and Sasuke can't pull his eyes away no matter how much his head is screaming to run, to leave before he's locked and chained into place—can't even move when he's the only one to witness the lashing despair storming his face, Naruto's voice cracks right down the middle—

"Don't tell me what's impossible when I've got your baby, asshole and you haven't even seen him—you haven't even named him yet!"

No one there, not even Naruto, has ever seen such a miserable, stunned expression spreading over Sasuke's face. It cracks through the room like lightning. Sasuke, breaking apart in front of all of them, and if Sasuke could stop the display of weakness, his hands shake too much to cover his face properly. His fingers clutch as he hunches against something, pain or something worse.

"—I didn't want—" is all Sasuke can manage.

Naruto rasps, scowling and flushed. "Looks like you, too—not that you'd fuckin' know, asshole."

Sasuke's eyes are hauntingly empty and somehow raging with some unspeakable thing when he finally lifts his head enough to show them, moving too slow to be considered 'okay' by anyone's standards. His gaze flickers about Naruto's face, disbelieving and furious, seemingly heedless to the rest with Naruto's regard out-shining all of his thoughts. Heedless to his body's faltering slide back to the floor.

Naruto gingerly settles back against the couch, just a bit, despite the way no one misses the way he's poised to react even now. None of them even know what to expect anymore, much less Sasuke's ragged, stricken face.

you stupid fool, just look what you've done you've broken everything ruined all of it! cracking through Sasuke's head, warping and stringing itself into pain, a thin, warbling cry echoing behind the blackness in his head—but I have to kill you I have to it's not fair I have to—and Sasuke knows some expression of it much be twisting his face, because Naruto's eyes are watching him—so wide and waiting and Sasuke doesn't know why—doesn't know if he's ever going to know—shuddering down whatever keeps wringing up through his middle, choking it back down.

"…wow, this is seriously intense—what the fuck is happening?" someone whispers in the background, for the most part unheard.

"…you don't…" the dark-haired boy slides down the wall bit by bit, broken words dropping from his blood-stained mouth. "You just don't—you can't just—you don't understand anything!"

"Then make me," Naruto mutters or hisses in response, still scowling. Sasuke watches him twist, stretching an arm over the back of the couch, fingers reach over and pluck at the stupid gray blanket draped across the back, the same stupid blanket with Sasuke's blood splashed on a corner, with all sorts of unmentionable stains and memories to associate with—

Then the blond settles back into his partial crouch against the back of the couch, flame-blue eyes piercing and Sasuke can't avoid the way the blond looks so uncomfortably honest in the moment before he opens his mouth.

"I didn't know this would happen. I just…" Naruto is speaking so quietly that Uchiha strains to hear it. "I didn't know it was even happening…that it'd…I just wanted to…" He bites off the rest in hesitation, thinking I wanted to get better and you were—

you were helping, didn't you know? Naruto wants to cry out, keenly aware of how this looks to the others behind him, worried they could take it the wrong way before he can explain it—as if they could take it any other way afterward, but Sasuke—

This isn't the time to try and fix him, Naruto tells himself fiercely, tugging at hair and pulling his hands over his face to press away some of the tension still waiting for him.I don't even know if I can—

—because Sasuke looks so broken waiting there across from him, so dependent on the hate he needed to keep it together, to keep the stability—

"Sasuke," Naruto hears himself murmur, almost pleading, wanting those eyes to look at him—red or black or hateful, it didn't matter. "Don't you want to see him?" as he watches the hand clutching hair and the way he flinches back, curling, hiding.

"Naruto—" Shikamaur says slowly, carefully. "What's going on with you two?"

"Yeah, 'cause this is really high on the fucked-up list," Kiba mutters.

"Shut up, Inuzuka," Neji snaps.

Naruto gasps into breif, sobbing laugh. "Fuck. You got no idea how fucked-up," Naruto swipes a hand across his face, squeezing his eyes shut and trying to think against the freefall sensation of What the fuck do I do? How do I do this? and clears his throat. "Fuck. It's not going exactly how I planned it."

"Uh—Naruto?" Chouji has already exchanged one bag of chips for another. "How many people did you invite?"

"Huh?" Naruto blinks his eyes open to see Sakura—oh fuck and Ino—fuck—in the still-open doorway.

Damn. This isn't going well at all.

Sakura's staring at them, back and forth in surprise and disapproval. She's dripping wet and flushed, and Naruto gives her the barest glance, even as she asks "Are you guys still fighting? You better notbe picking fights with Sasuke-kun—"

"Hello, Sakura-chan!" Lee waves happily from the back of the room.

Sasuke, when the blond looks, doesn't seem to react. If he's even aware in his head enough to care. He certainly doesn't seem to mind Sakura crouching beside him and murmuring questions in his ear.

But Ino—at her words—is leaning in with a derisive sniff, sizing up the entire room. "What, you having some sort of gay little slumber party, freak?'

"Ino, what the hell are you doing here?"

"Sasuke-kun!" Ino exclaims, catching sight of him. "Did they gang up on you?"

"She followed me here," Sakura slides wet hair out of her face, leaning over Sasuke. "You're in no condition to be fighting, Sasuke-kun," she scolds lightly.

"Wait, did Naruto invite you too, Sakura-chan?"

"No, I was worried about Sasuke."

"Move, Sakura—like you even know what you should be doing," the blond shoves at Sakura's shoulder and reaches out to graze fingers over Sasuke's shoulder.

Naruto is glad—so insanely happy to see the reflexive slap Sasuke gives her outstretched hands, even if takes all of his strength to stay at the couch, hands refusing to unclench, with both girls kneeling next to Sasuke.

"They weren't," Naruto mutters flatly. "They can leave any second."

"Naruto," Sakura frowns at him and he shudders through a terrible urge to bare his teeth when she gingerly touches Sasuke's forearms. Ino sniffs and hides her disdain and rejecting by huffing to her feet.

"Get out," Naruto hisses before he can stop himself.

"Now we're never gonna find out what's going on."

There's a restless tiny mewl from behind him. Damn, Naruto wants to howl, scrubbing hands through his hair. "He's fine," he snaps for Sakura's sake. "He's fine, just—"

Just go, go before—go, because everything is spiralling out of control—Sakura's asking him "Just what?"as he stands.

"Nothing. Forget it," Naruto replies with too-obvious dishonesty.

Sakura snifss and chalks it up to a 'boy thing' and ignores it. There's a good chance that she'll drag it out of him later—but she's not stupid enough to fogret about it—or miss the way the air crackles with tension. She's sure it has to do with Sasuke—still unresponsive to her murmured concern.

Naruto's eyes are sharp and narrowand threatending, darting back and forth from her to Ino. A scuffling sound from Kiba and Shino—and a hissed "Ow, fucker—" because whatgever they were all doing here, they're keeping it to themselves.

Naruto fights with mental tooth and nail to keep his teeth from showing, to keep from attacking—claws it back into a semblance of control with the stronger urge to hide the child hidehidehide—because it's more important than anything else.

Sasuke can wait. Or get it together enough to participate—whichever comes first.

Focus, Naruto thinks. Focus on not killing them.

Ino, at least—hasn't moved more than two steps from Sasuke and Sakura. Her rivalry with Sakura is something Naruto's grateful for, even if the sight of her trying to touch Sausuke—or Sakura's careful touches that are allowed and oh how that digs unnaturally at him—it makes his skin prickle and twitch.

"—wasn't this—" he hears on the edge of reason, unsure if it's the group behind him or Sakura's terse reply to something Ino has asked. "Wasn't like this—"

Naruto is aware of the others behind him, waiting as patiently as they can, silently—almost silently anyway—so thankful for that—since they already know most of it—

If that bitch hears a murmur of Sasuke's baby I'll have to kill her—

But it's suddenly easy to repress the killing intent because things never go as planned and Naruto's focus is more concerned to the slight, waking mew of distress as the tadpole stirs—

Shit, the blond thinks, trying desperately to gather enough will to decide the best course of action. This isn't going to help at all.

"—Well, he wasn't like this an hour ago," Saukra is snapping at Ino. "I don't know what's wrong! I dropped off his food, mentioned Naruto's party, and he left."

"Well, maybe I should have a look at him instead of you—"

The tadpole's fussing slip into a hitching cry, demanding attention. Sakura—still glaring at Ino—turns her startled face to Naruto and misses Sasuke's silent, shuddering flinch.

Naruto doesn't. He forces himself to move towards the kitchen, bone-weary and nevous and angry, unable to prevent the way he still watches over the edge of his shoulder. I can't do this with them here, I can't stand it—but the tadpole, if he doesn't feed him soon he'll start to cry and cry and that's something he won't let happen because they're girls and Naruto doubts they'll keep their hands off.

as long as I've got him, he thinks, plucking an empty bottle from a bag near the couch. They won't be able to touch him.

"Man, this apartment has shitty walls," Ino mutters.

At least everyone else—aside from Ino and Sakura, anyway—has picked up the cues that Naruto wasn't going to finish telling them his motives as long as the girls were there—and even if they mouthed silent questions like "Do you follow what's going on?" or "Is there more soda?" or "Pass the chips, Chouji, come on!"

"I didn't know you still had that babysitting mission," Sakura calls as Naruto runs warm water into a bottle, then walks out of his kitchen and shaking up the formula. They watch him ignore the question as he hops over the back of the couch and settles gently into the cushins. "I thought that was already completed."

"Is that what you—ow, what the fuck Shikamaru?"

Naruto gathers up blanket and child, eyes flickering over the guys watching him right back, their faces too-obvious. It's finally real for them, the blond can see it in their faces and the way they lean in to catch a glimpse, the way they don't speak and exchange glances and nudges.

"Babysitting?" Ino scoffs. "Who in their right mind would let Naruto near a kid?"

"Can I see him this time?" Sakura asks hopefully, too-close behind him and Naruto feels the muscles in his back, his face—all over—shudder into a snarl he swallows around. "Or, hold him, maybe?"

"No," Naruto looks up from the bundle of blanket and child in his lap, the greedy sucking squeaks of his son. "Not yet."

"Aw," Ino sneers, appearing right beside Sakura and Naruto fights back a throaty growl. "Like you know the first thing about babies. I'm surprised he's not crying because you're holding him. Who's baby is that, anyway?"

"Well, he'd drop dead if you held him," Sakura mutters back, scowling.

"It's none of your business, you nosy bitch."

"Fuck you, freak. You probably stole that baby to torture it, anyway!" Ino's face slips into a determined, superior sneer as she stretched out a hand to pull back the blanket and reveal the child to her eyes.

"Ino!" Sakura snaps. "You don't need to be so rude!"

"Don't," Naruto says softly, hissing malice, catching and squeezing the outstretched wrist just before the blond girl touched the blanket enough to move it aside. "Or I'll kill you."

It's as much warning and threat as anything else he dares to show; Ino pulls her hand away and makes a face with a disgusted sound. "Don't touch mke, you retarded freak."

"That's a little excessive, Naruto," Sakura frowns, even as the others gathered there have apprehensive looks on their faces, especially after witnessing the blowout between Naruto and Sasuke.

"You'd better go, Ino," Shikamaru comments placidly. "I don't want to haul you to the hospital again." He sniffs. "You're too heavy."

N aruto is still staring dead-serious at the only other blond, blank face vaguely threatening. Ino huffs, her mind keen on how quickly Naruto had attacked her the last time she had visited, and finally crosses her arms. "Fine. Maybe I'll just walk Sasuke home. You guys can go screw yourselves with your stupid little party."

"He's not going anywhere," Naruto snaps. "Get out of my apartment!"

"Naruto!" Sakura scowls at him, "Don't be so rude!"

"Just go, Ino," Chouji murmurs. "He nearly cracked your skull last time, and like Shikamaru said, I don't want to see you in the hospital again."

"Did he really—?" Kiba whispers, almost laughing.

Ino mutters insults under her breath that get louder as she whirls towards the door; it slams shut with a violence that makes everyone flinch. Naruto twists his gaze to Sakura the moment the sound echoes through the space, and takes two, three breaths to calm his voice. "Sakura," he asks, tense and almost shaking with the need to move, the urge to push her back. "Sorry. You need to go."

"But—" her eyes are hurt as she meets his eyes and part of Naruto flails and winces at how upset she seems. Her expression shifts from disbelief and shock and hurt, her mouth opening to ask "Why?"

"I'm sorry," he repeats, fighting the want to kill. "Please."

She straightens, frowning at him, unsure, glancing at the others behind Naruto and finally to Sasuke still curled up at the base of the wall. "Oh, fine!" she shakes a fist at Naruto. "But you owe me one, Uzumaki! Don't think I'll forget this—and you better not keep fighting with Sasuke, you got that?"

And then, with a final murmured question, a brief touch to Sasuke's shoulder, Naruto's back to where he was ten minutes ago. Sasuke, silent and unresponsive and a million questions waiting behind him, and he hadn't even gotten to the good part yet.

Naruto glances at the tadpole, lifts him to the shoulder without unwrapping him from the blanket and pats at his back. He's shaking, white-pale and horrified to feel this close to tears in front of the rest.

"What the hell was that?" Shikamaru's face is set and almost cold. "That chakra—"

"I knew I wasn't seeing things!" Kiba mutters.

"Wait—am I to believe that the source of that unnatural chakra is you?"

"Yes," Naruto's reply is simple, hearing a wet sticky-sound burp against his shoulder, cutting off the rest of the discussion. Naruto doesn't feel the itching rejection that Ino and Sakura had invoked. "But...can you guys wait a little longer?"

Just long enough to calm down, to maybe figure out how to tell you the rest—and, as Naruto wipes the excess formula from a tiny face, clueless to the way he's avoiding their eyes now, the way his eyes flicker and stray back to Sasuke.

Sasuke, who's been silent or drop-kicked into shock maybe, waiting by the door and hiding behind bruised arms.

There's a quiet discussion going on around him, but Naruto doesn't listen. The bruises bother him more than anything, and with the child fed and quiet and kicking blankets, Naruto is swallowed by the urge to reclaim the dark boy.

Leaving the tadpole on the couch with a terse "Don't touch!" to the rest, Naruto goes to the only cupboard that still has a door and digs through the contents until he finds the small jar marked with neat kanji.

Then, with a glance to make sure no one's gotten too close, hearing and dismissing the smalltalk, ignoring the watchful eyes, he plops down in front of Sasuke.

"Stupid bastard," Naruto mutters, snagging a wrist and pulling it close.

Sasuke's immediate reaction is to jerk and pull against Naruto's hand with a hiss, not that it gets him very far; Naruto refuses to let go.

"Don't," Sasuke growls, yanking uselessly, uncurling enough to start pushing at his hands and arms when Naruto slathers salve from fingers to elbow.

"Oh shut up," Naruto shakes the wrist in his hand. "How are we going to kick your brother's ass if you can't even train without dying?"

Even behind the damp shield of his hair, Naruto can see Sasuke's flinch, his expression of bewildered fury, but he stops pulling away. Naruto takes it for the victory it might be, even if Sasuke's still wound up tighter than steel while Naruto spreads the healing salve onto each bruise or scrape he finds.

"...why?" Sasuke asks, finally speaks in a voice too soft and broken for Naruto to know it's Sasuke, if he wasn't looking.

Naruto knows, too, that it's not a question about the salve, but everything else. Everything. Their stupid thing. His brother. The child and how that even happened—why and how but mostly why—

Flushed, snagging the other arm and its waiting bruises, Naruto offers up the only answer he can think of that will cover nearly everything.

"Because," he whispers, trying not to look Sasuke in the eye and failing, trying to shrug. There's a red-purple bruise high on Sasuke's pale-skin cheek and Naruto smears salve on that too, without even thinking about the fact that he's touching Sasuke's face. His mouth is too busy leaking secrets for Naruto to realize the implications.

"Because you're the strongest person I know," Naruto tells him. "...and I need you."

Sasuke's eyes flicker shut and Naruto fears that he's overstepped, somehow, that those words were the wrong ones even if they were true; but Naruto can't look away from Sasuke—he doesn't think he'll ever win at that game—and he watches the face pale and twist in Sasuke's internal struggle.

Naruto, in the back of his mind, wonders when he's stopped breathing in the wait for Sasuke's response.

And waits a little longer.

"…are you staying or not, Sasuke?" Naruto's exasperated, irritated mutter with blue eyes edged with something too foreign in his face for anyone to read—and Sasuke absurdly thinks he's serious—he's said my name—something just as odd and strange and meaningful—because Naruto had—they'd—

"...you moron," a shard of Sasuke's voice slips out, hands creeping across his face. Sasuke lowers his head and rips away his thoughts to keep panic at bay, one unstable suck of air before, suddenly, holding absolutely still because Naruto—

"Moron means yes!" Naruto exclaims, poking him on the shoulder with eyes too blue too bright and creasing, just-as-quick and unavoidably smiling at him—truly smile—such crystalline and unexpected shock for the way it makes him feel to see it—

never smiled like that before—never ever seen it on his face, not for me, no one's ever—he's never looked at me like that—

Sasuke shudders, a sound caught in his middle as he tries to look away, unable to forget the sight of it, unable to—unable to think anymore when it came to Naruto.

Don't give me hope, he wants to scream. Don't break me like that.

But he can't, not with that smile burning through his thoughts like sunlight.

A.N. -

OMGlikeWTF? Yeah. It's been years. But I haven't given up! I had about 70% of this written for the last year, but the most important part was the last part, the transition part where it was...very very delicate. You have no idea how delicate.

And I did it! yay! (omgyearswtf?) This is largely unbetaed, btw, so I appreciate any issues/holes/grammatical errors that you'll find. Also...i know I cut it off there, at the end, but i'm pushing forty-pages, and the resolution of Sasuke and the baby, the name, etc will be in the next chapter. as well as the rest of it. so far...one(two?) more chapters, and then an epilogue.

What, you didn't think I was going to call it tadpole forever, did you? XD