"Two roads diverged in a wood
and I – I took the one less traveled by
And that has made all the difference."
–"The Road Not Taken," Robert Frost

One Week Later
Anzen no Chi Mori Encampment

Ichigo woke to something pushing him in the side. Grunting, he shifted his weight on the bedroll and reached out sleepily to touch whatever it was. He cracked open one eye.

Sometime during the night Takashi had rolled over in his sleep and currently his foot was settled gently against his teammate's ribs. Ichigo winced - it still hurt to draw breath - and moved over some more. He wound up rolling over and pressing against the flimsy wall of the tent. The tents here at Anzen no Chi Mori were huge, big enough for three people. There was plenty of room to stretch out.

Unfortunately the laws of physics and personal space didn't apply to this team, Ichigo snorted irritably. All that room and the retard insisted on crowding him against a wall! Even sleeping he's an asshole, he thought despicably, struggling to sit up and making it. He scratched the roots of his hair, following this action with a yawn and a relaxed stretch. Notwithstanding the fact he ached all over terribly from the past week's adventure he was feeling good. Through the translucent tent, he could feel the warm rays of the sun chasing away the coolness of the previous night.

Done stretching (God it felt so good), he simply sat there, looking at his sleeping teammates. Despite the protested impropriety of it, Katana had joined the two boys in their tent. During the night she had kicked the covers off, stretched out on her stomach and let her limbs lie where they wanted. Ichigo let his gaze linger over her profile, taking in everything without shame and enjoying the sight immensely. No matter how messy and tangled that wild mane of hers got, it still looked beautiful. A few yellow-tinted bruises and light red scratches marred her delicate features. The cotton nightie she sported looked absolutely ridiculous on her (even her father had said so) but he decided it was okay because she was kinda girly even if she did act like a boy sometimes.

Letting his gaze drift over to the less relaxed form of Takashi he grinned evilly and reached for his backpack. Withdrawing a marker he stealthily crawled over the short space separating them and uncapped the utensil. He debated. Finally he lifted the marker and poised it for action. The tip of the marker brushed against Takashi's skin.

A hand swiftly grabbed Ichigo's wrist in a tight, fierce grip.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?"

The blonde boy twisted around in a feeble attempt to free himself. "Hey, I was just kidding!"

Takashi gave him a level look. "You were going to draw on my face."

"Uh, no, whatever gave you that idea?" He gave his friend a cheeky grin.

Eye roll. "I have an older brother, Ichigo." As if that explained everything - which it kind of did. "I know about ninety humiliating ways to get back at you."

"Like what? Flushing the toilet while I'm in the shower?" sneered Ichigo cuttingly. "I ain't scared of you, punkass!"

Takashi gave him a calm smile. "I can tie you down and have my little sister fix you up real nice. She may be only seven but she's good with lip liner and mascara."

Ichigo looked horrified. "You wouldn't…"

"I would." And from the stoic expression, he meant it.

Gradually Takashi let go of his wrist and Ichigo made a big show of reclaiming it, accompanying it with a slip of the tongue. Takashi merely sat back and unzipped his sleeping bag so he could roll it up. Taking his cue from his friend, Ichigo did the same.

For a long time neither boy spoke. It was awkward to keep pretending things were normal after what had happened. They'd learned things about one another neither was prepared to deal with. Ichigo knew he owed Takashi big time and he just couldn't muster up the courage to say two little words. Almost dying like that had scared the shit out of him. The coldness, being drawn deeper and deeper into darkness and not being able to breathe or feel… He couldn't deal with it - or at least he didn't know how to deal with it. So for the first few days on the way to the valley, he had crawled into his father's tent in the middle of the night. The first night he did it, his father had woken up. ("What is it?" "Nothing… um… I… Can I sleep here with you?" "Sure. Just don't kick me, okay?" "…Okay.") The next two nights following and he appeared in the tent again, his father didn't even turn over. Neither spoke of it. That was the great thing about Dad: he never chided him for his insecurities. It mitigated the burn to his ego somewhat.

Regardless of what had occurred Takashi didn't seem to care either way. Or so he let on. Since his shield had been shattered in one night, he wasn't sure of how to progress. This guy knew more about him than his entire family combined, which was embarrassing to say the least. At the same time, he found he didn't regret any of it. Ichigo could see him. Ichigo cared enough to take the hit for him. So I owe him. Takashi clenched his teeth behind his lips. Dammit, that baka! Though he couldn't damn him too much. The image of Ichigo coughing up blood was going to stay with him for a long time. He'd never seen anyone almost die before, not in this way, and that it was Ichigo of all people… It bothered the hell out of him. Someone so full of verve and life, who was everything and then being turned into an utter void lying limp in his mourning mother's arms... It wasn't real, it couldn't be real because there was just something so wrong with it. It fucking ate at his brain. Kakashi eventually picked up on Takashi's silent anguish, took him aside and they talked about it for a while. Afterwards the questions assaulting his mind were finally silenced if not the strange icy touch still lingering in his mind.

"Ichigo."

Ichigo paused in the middle of tying up his roll. "Yeah?"

Takashi thought for a moment. There was no beating around the bush tactic or subtle way to ask. He went for the direct approach. "Did you know about…" Pause. "Your eyes, they sometimes… change color, like orange? I think Katana's noticed too. Has she said anything about it to you?"

Profoundly disgruntled by the abruptness of the question, Ichigo blinked. Someone else knew? "No." He frowned, a slight furrowing of his forehead. "I mean, she hasn't said anything. I… don't know what it is. I think my mother might know."

"He would have died even if you hadn't shown up."

"Not necessarily…"

Dipping his head in a slight nod, Takashi smiled a little. She did know, though she had not yet explained anything to him. He had decided against bringing it up before her again until he talked to Ichigo first. He was glad he had -- the idiot didn't know anymore about what was going on with himself than he did! It didn't seem fair to Takashi that he knew before the other did so he decided to let it alone for now.

Unsure of what else to say or to explain, not that he had the first clue, Ichigo sighed. Oh well. It didn't seem like it was anything to really worry about at the present. A niggling little voice told him to talk to his father about it… He had a few suspicions. Maybe it wasn't the same thing, maybe it was. He'd find out soon enough. The last thing he wanted was for Takashi to start treating him differently. Don't see why he should, he thought. I mean hell he doesn't know what's going on either. I still can't believe he knew all this time.

"Why," he began, "didn't you say anything before?"

"I… well… It seemed sort of rude, I guess."

Ichigo sputtered and burst out laughing. "Aw man, can't you come up with better crap than that? That doesn't even sound like you."

"Hn."

Mutually they dropped the subject and finished putting their bedrolls away. Then they changed into their clothes before moving on to the next task at hand.

"It's your turn," Takashi muttered, absently rubbing his left arm in sour reminiscence.

Ichigo growled under his breath. "But I don't wanna…" he whined.

Takashi's mouth turned up in a satisfied smirk and he clapped Ichigo on the arm good-naturedly. "Go maire tu," he added in a language Ichigo had never heard of before grabbing his weapons and thigh holster and exiting the tent. Leaving him alone. With sleeping beauty.

Beauty, ha! All who dared to awaken Uchiha Katana lived to regret it. Briefly he entertained cowardice and thought about going to Kakashi. Immediately he rebuked himself, knowing Takashi would never let him live it down. Shit.

He sat there for several minutes by her, trying to think of the safest way to go about it. Here goes. Stretching out beside her, Ichigo propped his head up with one elbow and with the other hand, idly started playing with an ebony lock of his girlfriend's hair. He tickled her nose.

Katana sleepily brushed her hand across her face and turned her face into her arm. He kept doing it until she stretched out languidly in his direction. "Mrhmm, stop," she muttered wearily.

He tickled her ear. Her lips twitched and she started snickering. Ichigo grinned, let the lock of hair go and went for her sides, digging his fingers into her ribs. Before long he had her giggling hysterically and feebly trying to fend him off.

"You… baka… I'm… going… to…hehehe," she panted, flushed, caught part way between anger and mirth. She couldn't decide whether or not to kill him -- and this was as exactly as Ichigo intended. Get her laughing, get her in a merry mood, then she'd think less about killing and more about what a lovable doof he was. It was better than the alternative, right?

"You're going to what?" he teased, sticking his nose in the crook of her neck. (Wow, she smells good, what does she use? he thought).Squeaking, she slapped him on the shoulder. Pleased with her playful response, he sat up again, grinning like a cat having swallowed a canary. All right! It was okay. She was smiling so he was still in the safe zone. For now, anyway.

Katana sat up and immediately started searching for a brush. Ichigo found it first and handed it to her. "Sleep well?"

"No. Someone," she glared at him, licking the corner of her mouth, "who shall remain nameless, talked in his sleep the entire night." Ichigo jerked a thumb toward himself in a moi? gesture of innocence he knew she didn't believe for a minute. "You had an entire conversation with your pillow on the effectiveness of dietary supplements and the alcoholic content of eggnog."

"I did not!"

"You did so! Move your butt, you're sitting on my bra." She didn't even wait for him to move and pulled it out. It resisted momentarily and came loose with a loud snap. She held it up for his view and waved it back and forth teasingly. Ichigo flushed ten different shades of crimson and started to back rapidly out of the tent, babbling and stumbling. "I'll be, you know, waiting outside. You want breakfast, or are you not hungry because if you're not, you know, I could just get you some herbal tea, I know you still like tea, right, here let me grab my shoes first and I'll be right outside, sorry…"

Katana was still tittering by the time he let the tent flap fall shut behind him. Getting up awkwardly, he brushed off his pants. He happened to catch Kiba's eye sitting across from him in front of his own tent. He was in the middle of removing a snarled burr out of Akamaru's white coat. The man smiled and shook his head. Ichigo shoved his hands deep inside his pockets and slouched down.

But she wasn't done yet. "Hey Ichigo, have you seen my panties?" She poked her head out, eyes twinkling menacingly. "You know the pink silk ones?" He grumbled something unintelligible under his breath and hurried away quickly. "Let me know if you find them, okay?" she continued cheerfully in a voice that was a bit too loud.

I hate her, I hate her, I wish I were dead, I hate her, oh man she is so going to get it that little bitch! Ichigo clenched his teeth together and bunched the fabric of his pants up in his fists. It was about time he exacted revenge, what with her being such a pain in the ass all of the time. I'll show her pink panties all right…

"Ha. You're reaping now."

"Shut up, Takashi." Ichigo barely glanced up as Takashi fell into step with him.

That bastard was grinning way too smugly to suit him. Ichigo aimed a punch at him; he ducked. "Moron," he mumbled.

"Dickless."

"At least I have a girlfriend."

"Like I said, dickless."

"Fuck off."

"You first."

Ichigo aimed another punch, Takashi let it come at him, ducked, caught it and twisted his teammate's arm around and pinned it against his back. He did it so fast Ichigo's eyes bulged like two great big green light bulbs in his head.

"Oi."

Both boys stopped and glanced up, somewhat startled. Lounging in the tree above was their sensei with his book. Apparently he was getting in some early morning reading. He didn't need to say anything else. They grinned, parted, and in the ninja way darted off. Several moments later, Kakashi turned a page. He let his gaze drift over the top of the book.

Takashi and Ichigo raced each other to an elevated grassy knoll, cursing and shoving each other the entire way. After a time, Ichigo poked his friend in the side and pulled out his forehead protector, indicating the other do the same. They gave each other some distance and slid into combat positions. What followed was far from old-fashioned roughhousing though it was little more than simple taijutsu moves. Once or twice they argued about the application of one move or another.

"That's not fair, how 'm I supposed to get out of that?"

"You don't, retard, you're supposed to die."

"But this is a freakin' spar!"

"Did they drop you on your head when you were born?"

Kakashi made a soft amused noise under his breath. They were regular pains in the asses but they looked like they were going to make it. Takashi was overcoming his shyness and gaining a sense of worth and Ichigo was, well, Ichigo. A little more subdued since his brush with death, which was natural and common amongst Genin. He'd get used to it in time. Katana… he wasn't sure about her yet. Though I've no doubt those smiles I've been seeing have something to do with a certain someone…

Several curious children from the Anzen refugee camp started to gather, obeying when the boys chided they keep their distance. Minutes later Akira's sister, Karou, appeared chasing after a toddler, which she caught. She called to the children and they followed her back down. They waved at the boys who waved back before going back to their spar.

Hmm, looks like I have a visitor.

"If you're going to insist on reading over my shoulder," Kakashi began at length, too casually, "you might as well get your own copy."

The lurking figure leapt down and perched on a branch near Kakashi, facing the opposite direction. He settled into a crouch, stood up and let his back hit the trunk softly against it, arms folded.

Neither man had spoken alone with one another or said more than what was needed since their return to Anzen. The only reaction Kakashi had had to seeing his former student again had been an indecipherable stare before he simply walked past him. The incident disturbed Sasuke the entire week until he couldn't take it anymore. He had enough ghosts haunting him. He didn't need Kakashi giving him the evil eye every time they happened to run into each other. Deep down he'd always cared about what the man thought -- even if it took him years to finally appreciate the gentle echoes of his advice knocking around inside of him. He hoped one day, he would find the courage to tell him that.

"Hn."

"Ah, the usual ornery response." Kakashi turned another page.

This was a good sign. "So you're talking to me now."

"So it would seem."

Ichigo defended against Takashi's blows, letting his opponent drive him down to the edge of the knoll. When Takashi appeared to tire, Ichigo drove back at him with full strength, forcing him on the defensive. He scored a swift strike across Takashi's midsection, causing the other to fold. Pain flashed across his face briefly and he hunched down. Since this was only practice, Ichigo eased off and allowed him to recover, dancing lightly on his feet. His friend looked up, taking note of his friend's antics. Ichigo must have made a ridiculous face because Takashi's own expression fought against a big wide grin threatening to over take his face.

"Asshole."

"Bastard."

"Cow dung brain."

"…You can't use that. It has to be one word."

"Says who?"

"Says you who started this stupid insult alphabet game."

"Was it worth it?"

He knew what his former sensei was talking about. "…I don't know."

"Ah."

He felt the younger man's head snap in his direction and he could just imagine the fierce look he was giving him. Seconds later, the younger man appeared in front of him, looking like a storm cloud. Kakashi sighed and tucked the novel into his vest. He looked up and regarded his former student calmly. He realized what the problem was. "You want me to be angry."

Sasuke blinked, for a second so startled he looked just like that young kid he'd tied to a tree sixteen years ago. Kakashi shook his head slowly, patiently. Still that same stubborn little prick he's always been.

"I squared away my past disappointments concerning you long ago, Sasuke, it's time you did as well. Grow up." He sighed, appearing relieved. "Now that felt so good to finally say to you."

Slowly Sasuke's expression relaxed. He's a bigger dork now than he was when I left. His next 'hn' sounded amused. "So what happens now?" he said.

"That's up to you."

I want everything to work out, he wanted to say. Yes it's been too long but I want to try. Because I know its worth now, I won't ever leave anyone important behind again. Instead he said, "I'm not going to run away anymore."

"Ah. Good."

Sasuke looked up, eyes narrowed curiously. However Kakashi simply took out the book again and opened it. The dark haired younger man let a small smile quirk his lips and he moved to leave. Before leaping to the ground, he looked back over his shoulder at his former sensei once more. He still wasn't convinced yet.

Sigh. "Will you go away?"

Smiling for real now, Sasuke snorted in mock disdain and did. He heard his former sensei chuckle behind him.

Nothing that happened between former sensei and student arrived in a timely fashion nor predictably, as such things in life are prone. They would reconcile slowly, over time, between battles and missions gone awry, in those small moments each would find himself in familiar places at the same time. They would never be completely okay with each other… Kakashi kept the last distance firmly in place and Sasuke respected that distance by never breaching it. Kakashi had silently forgiven Sasuke years ago for breaking their team. However he would never allow him the bond that could have existed between them, the bond Sasuke threw away so vicariously to the four winds the night he left.

Every foolish ambition had its cost, whatever form it manifested itself in. Some things that could have been can never be later on. Sasuke had learned this harsh reality the day he left Naruto's unconscious body in the rain.

Ichigo and Takashi stopped fighting and plopped down on the grass, sweating, bruised but smiling and laughing. A short time later, they were engrossed in conversation that involved a lot of wild hand movements from Ichigo and eye rolling from Takashi.

I think I finally see where we went wrong, Obito, Kakashi thought. But I also see where we went right too. I see your stupid grin in every young kid I teach… and nothing else in life can ever compare to that.


"I'm not convinced."

"Oh c'mon, what's so hard to believe? You make this seal, then you make this seal…"

"Too complicated. Your opponent would have found an opening by the time you finished the jutsu. It's why it's classified as a forbidden jutsu. It's impractical."

"No, it's not!" Ichigo pouted and squared his shoulders together stubbornly. He attempted another impassioned approach. "You're bringing semantics into it, Hayabusa. The success ratio of this jutsu when it's been completed is near flawless and you can't deny the statistical facts!"

Takashi groaned and flopped open-armed onto the grass. Spare me. "Those same 'facts' also state the length of execution is what contributes to its impracticality." Ichigo glared at him. Exhaling, Takashi propped up on one elbow. "Okay, listen. Yes, it's got a near flawless success rate -- I won't counter that. But have you read up on how many known times it's been used successfully? Five! Five times in the entire documented record of its use. All of the other seventy-five attempts were gross miscalculations that ended in tragedy."

Ichigo folded his arms. "I still think I'm right," he muttered.

"Baka."

"Back at you." Ichigo noticed the expression on Takashi's face had changed and he frowned. He looked wary… fearful even. Then he saw where his eyes had fixated themselves and curious followed his line of sight to see what it was that was disturbing his friend.

Oh. Hell. Katana's father.

He scrambled to his feet, Takashi quickly following suit. They snatched quick uneasy glances at one another. Neither of them had ever been alone with the Uchiha and they weren't prepared to face him yet, each for his own personal reasons. From their time with Katana, both boys had unwittingly built Uchiha Sasuke in their minds as a man of great power they felt they paled in comparison to. Not that it had been Katana's fault of course they just naturally felt that way.

To his credit, Takashi felt nervous yet eager. He had wanted to talk this man for the longest time, criminal reputation notwithstanding, and he was glad he was getting the opportunity. Once they got back to Konoha, he suspected it would probably be difficult to even get near him.

Unlike his friend, Ichigo felt nothing but a consuming dread. He knew right down to the quick of his marrow that once Uchiha found out he was the one dating his daughter, his head would most likely end up on a pike. Surely Uzumaki Ichigo fell short of the quality of man Uchiha Sasuke thought was suitable for his daughter? He felt unkempt, unworthy and suddenly worried about all the stupid things he never worried about even in the presence of the Hokage. Shit this was worse than the Hokage! He could joke about using her bras as slingshots. He couldn't even imagine, say, joking about using Uchiha's shoestrings as spare fishing line. That would be like slitting his throat!

Nerves affray, Ichigo began to fidget uncontrollably. Maybe I'm really supposed to die horribly after all…

At a near loss for words, Takashi fell back on his manners. "Konnichiwa, Uchiha-san." He bowed. When Ichigo failed to follow suit, he jabbed him in the side. Ichigo gave a quick, awkward little dip of his head.

Uchiha nodded. Okay, that was probably still a good sign. Nods were the usual response of those stoic personality types.

"Uh, hi," Ichigo mumbled lamely, dearly wishing the ground would just open up wide beneath him and swallow him whole. "Wh-What's up?" Oh now that was cool! he chastised himself bitterly. Real slick, Uzumaki. Why not toss down a banana peel while you're at it?

The older ninja appraised the two boys for a moment before replying. "Hayabusa Takashi?" he addressed the redhead boy, who noticeably stiffened when his name was uttered. He sounded like he was making sure he was getting the boy's name right. He had to know it of course, they'd only traveled here together. In normal circumstances Ichigo would have been monumentally pissed off that Hayabusa was getting all the attention again. However in this case it was an enormous relief and the thudding behind his ribs slowed. So that's what breathing felt like!

"Yes. Did you want to speak to us about something?"

In answer, Uchiha merely rested his very dark onyx eyes on Ichigo, who turned several shades of white. "Would you mind?"

Takashi shook his head, amber eyes wide. His head moved before his mouth did. "No, not at all." He clapped Ichigo on the arm, squeezing briefly, casting him a sympathetic look before scurrying away. The blonde looked after him almost pleadingly but Takashi was already gone. There's true friendship for you. Save your ass, sure, perform CPR on your lifeless body, sure, but defending you against an S-class criminal with a powerful Bloodline Limit capable of rendering your brain and body into goo? Sayonara and thanks for all the rice!

Uchiha watched the other boy go and then gestured with his head the teenager follow him. Hesitating only briefly, Ichigo tagged along. He felt like every nerve and hair on his body was standing to attention. A bead of sweat appeared on his brow and he felt the corners of his mouth tug up instinctively. "What did you want to talk to me about… sir?" he added on the last afterthought quickly, frantically.

"Don't do that."

"Don't, uh, do what?" Did I squeak, oh God, I squeaked.

"Call me 'sir.' I'm not the kind of man that commends an honorific." He paused and looked down at the cringing boy interestedly. "You don't have to be afraid of me."

"I-I'm not!"

"Then why are you?"

Ichigo opened his mouth and closed it, lowering his head. How could he answer that without inviting death in by the front door? "I don't know," he replied lamely.

Uchiha, incredibly, gave the boy a little smile. "I had hoped you'd have found me somewhat less intimidating. We've met before."

"We have?"

"The Hokage's office."

The information slammed into him hard.

"How does it compare?"

"It doesn't."

Ichigo's jaw dropped near clear to his feet. Holy shit, that was HIM? He blinked hard and choked.

Seeing that the young man recognized him now, the older Uchiha stared at the sky, kind of searching it with his eyes. "I wanted you to know whatever it is you're afraid of… you don't have to be." He looked down at the boy who thought his narrow eyes resembled those of a hawk's. "Do you believe me?"

"Uh… I, uh, yeah. I mean, I do." Ichigo panicked and laughed, sweating running down the back of his neck. "I'm totally cool, me, I'm solid rock, you could break glass on me, I'm so cool…" Crap, crap, triple crap. "I mean… oh man…" he trailed off quietly, covering his face. Maybe he should just Katon me and be done with it. He didn't see how the older man just closed his eyes and smiled, shaking his head. Deciding that perhaps he had inflicted enough fear upon the unfortunate youth, he moved to leave, patting the kid once on the back of the head as he passed him.

At the brief contact, Ichigo stiffened as if someone had stuck a kunai into his back. When he dared to open his eyes and check behind him, the Uchiha patriarch was gone.

Overcome by the lifting of the death knell, Ichigo's mouth fell open and he exhaled heavily, falling onto his rear. Gradually his wrist came up and dragged across his damp forehead. "Holy shit," he breathed, hanging his head, palm to forehead.

"Damn. That was rough." Takashi popped up from the other side of the hill and plopped next to Ichigo. He smacked Ichigo on the shoulder. "You didn't piss your pants did you?"

Ichigo's head snapped up. "Oh shut up! Where the fuck did you go?"

"Just a little ways off. Why?"

"You left me!"

"The hell? He asked me to!"

"Oh don't even! You know exactly what I mean."

Takashi rolled his eyes. "Ichigo, does your mother still sit by your potty chair too? If you can't handle Katana's father, how the hell do you intend to keep any kind of honest relationship with her?"

"I can handle him! I just… wasn't ready." Ichigo sighed and hung his head close to his knees. "I think he likes you better. He didn't ask me about myself at all." His shoulders shook with a short and humorless laugh. "Wonder not, I'm just some pale imitation of my father with nothing more than a shitload of chakra to call to my name. At least you've got good breeding and a well-respected name to wave around," he added in a mumble. "Hell, you're better looking than I'll ever be."

Takashi sensed the direction Ichigo was going in with this conversation he didn't like. "Ichigo, what the heck are you getting at?"

Ichigo lifted his head. His eyes were hooded and impenetrably guarded. "I've seen the way you look at her. I'm not blind."

Blinking in surprise at first, Takashi stared at his teammate with unblinking eyes at first. Eventually he darkened and his narrowing amber eyes seemed to take on a duskier yellow tint. His cheeks pinkened a bit, though if it was with rage or embarrassment it was hard to discern. His knuckles whitened clutching the grass between his fingers.

He did not speak for a long time. "Are you accusing me again." It was a statement.

"No."

"Do you trust me."

"Yes." Ichigo's expression did not change. His face was like a steel wall.

Takashi clutched the grass even harder. He looked like he was ready to fight, in truth he was scared out of his mind. "Ichigo, I would never, I have never…"

"I know."

The other boy stopped speaking. Ichigo averted his eyes, his facade becoming almost pained. His face fell into his palm and he slowly exhaled.

"Ichigo."

"…Yeah?"

"Forget about me. I'm a non-issue." Takashi was ripping these words from deep within, each one harder than the other to speak but dammit this is what he had to say. "You know what matters more than anyone else in the world. Don't worry about how I feel."

His head came up. "But you…"

Takashi leveled with him. "Katana loves you, not me. You don't need to look any further beyond that. Besides," he smiled, "you did more than enough for me, you idiot."

Ichigo smiled back. He'd heard what his friend really said. "Heh, well, you needed it."

"Doesn't mean I like you better."

"No way. That'd be just wishful thinking."

"Wait, you want me to like you?"

"Hell no!" Ichigo made a disgusted face. "Where'd you get that from?"

"You just said…"

"Wishful thinking!"

Hayabusa decided right then and there if either one of them made it to the Chuunin Exams, he'd make absolutely sure to bury this pain in the ass up to his neck. Though it appeared in his mind at the moment as a pure fancy, that was exactly what happened.


Sasuke found his daughter where he thought he'd find the girl. Sitting alone by the same small river he and Naruto had spoken by. She was wearing a pale pink sundress, probably borrowed from one of the civilian refugees. Her normally bound hair was loose and neatly brushed. It fell clear past her hips now and touched the edges of the grass. One lock was pinned behind her ear by a simple white hair clip. Her head rested atop her knees, arms curled around her legs, a peaceful expression on her face. The fading white scars on the exposed portions of her skin and leg bindings betraying the edge of a thigh holster were like gentle echoes; each mark tell-taling a history fraught with daily battles. Often when he gazed upon her, he saw a creature already grown old before her time, worn down like the edge of a seaside cliff. He feared she would never regain her youth and become dead-hearted, lost to the merciless shinobi life the way he had let himself become until recent years.

For once, his fears were unfounded.


Feeling my father's approach, I opened my eyes and lifted my head, drawing out of my midday doze. "Hi Papa," I said cheerfully.

My tone made the corners of his mouth tug up of their own accord. He sat beside me casually as he could manage. I was one of the very few people he allowed himself to completely relax around. "I found this," he said carelessly. He stuck something behind my ear. I touched it and smiled when I felt the silky petals, eyes arching in disbelief. Well, this was a switch.

"Where did you find a crocus at this time of the year?" I asked, arranging the blossom more suitably in my hair.

He draped an arm over an upturned knee. "I have my ways."

I eyed him. "You stole this out of the Anzen clan's greenhouse didn't you, you lying thief."

He smirked. Naturally I had to expect he'd never give up those types of habits. Seriously though did this man have no couth? Was nothing sacred?

I pretended outrage. "Daddy!"

"If you don't want to know, don't ask." Unmoved, he let me swat his arm twice for his mirth. "Ow."

"Phst."

We fell silent for a while.

"So when were you going to tell me?" he began, staring at the way the sun shimmered on the water's surface.

"About what?" I neatly spread the edges of my skirt over my knees.

"About you and the Uzumaki boy."

Crap. I flushed a deep crimson, reasserted my hold on my knees and looked away. "I was," I mumbled under my breath.

"Was meaning never."

I shrugged noncommittally.

"I'm not asking for a lot here."

You think? I turned and looked at him, my face the very picture of challenge and suddenly I was ready to fight him to the death right there. It both shocked me and didn't at the same time. Otosan had no jurisdiction and nothing he could throw at me would dissuade me. "What?" I said quietly, glaring at him defiantly. You're not going to say no to this.

The man knew every nuance I imbued into that one little word. "You can stop that right now," he glared at me right back. "I won't pay attention to that."

"Pay attention to what?" I said too icily.

I got a Look.

Yeah, I was being unreasonably childish. There was an invisible chip the size of Fire Country and guess whose shoulder it was on? "I'm sorry."

This had to be like pulling out senbon needles for him. Otosan exhaled, clearly frustrated with me. "I'm not going to make you do anything you don't want to do," he spoke softly. "Please just tell me the truth."

"Yes."

Guessing and knowing the truth were two different things. It still threw him somewhat even after my candid reply. "How long?" he asked at length, carefully.

I was hesitant. "The week before school started. So for about a year now."

"Aa."

"He's a very nice boy. Kind of a dork and he gets mad over dumb stuff." I pinkened. Hmm, not the confident angle I was going for. "It's… kind of bewildering how crazy he is about me; I don't mind though. He means what he says and he's been there for me what I needed someone." I smiled and covered my face, laughing. "I can't believe this. I'm talking to my father about my love life."

"If you want to make it even I'll tell you about mine," he deadpanned.

His joke worked. I covered my ears, turning away, laughing even harder. "Ew no!"

Otosan smiled wickedly.

"Seriously that's really messed up."

Like he cared. He shrugged before he gave me a long, measured look. "How do you feel about him?"

I toyed with a lock of my hair. "I wouldn't trade him for anything." I covered my forehead, still shy about talking about the subject with my father. It didn't feel as weird as I thought it would be. Still, in principle, it was pretty embarrassing.

"If that's how it is, then I'm happy for you."

My hand dropped. Surprised, I whipped around, wide-eyed. "You are?" Was this for real? He wasn't going to give me the third degree and shove Ichigo into the Forbidden Zone? (I need to stop reading so much Western literature).

He nodded. Truthfully I could tell he wasn't crazy about the idea, I don't think any father is when it comes to his daughter dating. I knew he would always feel that protective urge to fend away anything that might hurt me -- especially people who might hurt me in ways I might never recover from. It was one of his worst fears, though one he never confided in me. I liked to think he didn't need to. For the moment, all I cared about was his approval, his acceptance of Ichigo's presence in my life. With an excited squeak, I leapt up and threw my arms around him. Tolerating the bad angle of it for a moment, he gently pried me off, as I was in the process of knocking him down. I apologized and scooted back to my spot.

"It's really okay?" I had to make sure.

"Aa."

I studied my father critically and suddenly a vaguely evil smile curled my mouth. I folded my arms and watched him expectantly. "Come on," I urged, a daring edge to my voice. "I know you're dying to lay it on me."

Otosan peered at me sidelong. "What?"

Eye roll. "Sasuke…"

"Oi." He exhaled and surrendered to the patient glare. "Are you two…"

"No."

Otosan visibly refrained from grabbing his own hair and tearing it out. Why did I insist on these things, force him to the point of them and then immediately save him from the humiliation after bullying him into them in the first place? He would never understand the twisted behavior of the female mind. It was my way of testing his boundaries, to see how much of his pride he could tear down to ask the questions that he wanted to ask. Plus it was just fun watching him freak out over such tiny little things.

"It's okay," I reassured him enthusiastically before he got into the murderous mind frame to hunt down my boyfriend. "Really. I'm not as stupid as you think."

"I don't think that," he replied curtly. "Not about that."

"Not like you, right?" I teased. No way was I letting him lock the barn door.

My father sighed, put both palms over his eyes and fell back against the grass. He was giving up. I kicked his leg. I win. A moment later, he did it back. Did not.

"Papa?" I asked after some time had passed.

He opened one eye and peered up at me from beneath of the shadow of an arm. When I didn't go on further, he dropped his arm and propped himself up on one elbow. I was looking down at my lap and picking at the fabric.

At length I spoke. "I didn't want to ask this before because I didn't want to know for sure. Now I just want to put it to bed for good. No doubts. I… think you understand where I'm going with this." Otosan's eyes lowered when I looked at him. "I deserve to know."

"It's finished," he finally said after so long a pause I began to think he had decided not to answer.

At his words, I closed my eyes and tucked down my chin. With all of my heart I had hoped for a different answer and secretly somewhere inside of himself I knew he realized he wished he could have given me one. Getting to his feet immediately, he moved off quickly. I did not follow.


Naruto felt the impact of the shuriken cut into the wood with a sense of satisfaction. From sunrise and through midmorning he had been shuriken practicing. With everything pretty much settled between the clan and Konoha, it was time for them to move out and let the residents of the valley start to pick up the pieces of their lives again. After much careful consultation and deliberation, Heishi Akira agreed on forging an alliance with Konoha -- on the condition they were allowed to continue to govern themselves as they saw fit. Much was made of their willingness to shelter wanted nin like Sasuke, for whereupon investigation a few nin were found among their ranks who had been in the bingo book for some time.

"None of these men and women are wanted for murder," Akira insisted fiercely when things were starting to get heated. "Some of them have been with us for more than ten years and they've shown us nothing but loyalty. If they choose to leave us, then we have no jurisdiction over them. But for as long as they are here and we are unanimous about it, they will not be harmed."

"What if they betray you?" Neji asked the younger man quietly.

Akira's face showed no expression. "Then they die the moment they set foot in Anzen. We don't forget a single betrayal."

"Wouldn't leaving be considered a betrayal?"

Akira had smiled then and chuckled. "We don't keep birds in cages here, Hyuuga-san."

Neji had backed off, Naruto recalled releasing several kunai, watching them bite into the bark. Naturally Akira had no way of knowing how his words would effect the other man and since Anko had been there as well, she understood and felt the younger man's words as well. No doubt that there were going to be a lot of kinks to work out with this alliance, Naruto mused. Whatever terms Tsunade would agree to, Naruto knew he would be expected to take them up upon his inauguration. Since he had hands on dealings with the clan, he knew things would progress favorably.

Besides, he thought feeling a wonderful warmth blossom inside of him; I already have everything I need to make me happy.

"Hey Dad."

Ichigo was standing there, smiling. It was an endless source of fascination to Naruto how much more the boy resembled his mother with each passing day. He smiled back at his son and abandoned his training. "Hey yourself. Done cutting down your friend?"

Ichigo waved away at the air non-chalantly. "He's off somewhere licking his wounds. I'll get mine later, I'm sure." He met his father's offer and brushed knuckles with him. "So what are you doing out here by yourself?"

Shrug. "Thinking, throwing knives."

"Thinking? Uh-oh, we're in trouble now." Ichigo laughed.

"Ne, very funny." He ruffled the kid's hair roughly, much to the boy's delight. "Where's the girlfriend?"

"By the river, talking with her dad. You know he came to see me this morning?"

Naruto's eyebrows went up. Well now. He perused the kid and supposed if he was still standing here alive, then that meant he was okay with what he guessed was the reason why Sasuke would even approach the boy. "And?" he prompted.

"He scares me."

Unconcerned Naruto made a sound and waved it away. "He's always been like that. Don't worry about it."

Thy boy looked uncertain. "You sure?"

"I am. Believe me if things change, we'll all know about it."

"Oh. Okay." Ichigo fidgeted, looking around distractedly. He reminded Naruto of a kitten he once saw observing its new surroundings for the first time.

Naruto took the pick of things. "Something else bothering you?"

"No, well, yes. Um." The boy bit his lower lip and chewed on it, a habit he'd picked up from his girlfriend. "I… shouldn't have survived that attack. The injury wasn't anything a normal human could have been able to survive. Takashi, he says he's seen me… do things." Fidget. "So I'm wondering if you've noticed it too. You must have." He peered at his father anxiously braced for the bad news bomb he was sure that was about to be dropped.

Stomach sinking, Naruto felt the air escape his lungs inaudibly. "What… kinds of things?" he asked weakly.

"Well, I've been told my eyes change color. I'm, uh, not getting tired out when I should be getting tired out. I do about the same amount of training my teammates do but when they're whipped, I can still keep going for another hour. When I was attacking that giant spider, my veins were, uh, glowing right through the skin on my arm." His father's silence unnerved him and he began talking faster. "Then…then I'm able to walk around right after getting bitten by a giant poisonous arachnid. I mean, that's just not possible." By this point, the boy looked near ready to panicking. "I'm not possessed am I?" He didn't even let the older shinobi attempt to formulate a reply. He started pulling on his hair, his green eyes dulled, faraway and glazed. "Oh no, I'm possessed, I'm a demon, I'm immortal, I've got something living inside me, I need an exorcist, my head's going to start turning backwards and I'm going to be…Mmrfh!"

Ichigo's nervous tirade was interrupted when his father put an arm across his collarbone and shoulders, pulled him against him and closed his hand over the boy's mouth firmly. He waited for the rigidity to drain from his son's body. After a time he let him go and turned him around, fingertips light on his shoulders so he could look him in the eye. I have to tell him now. Dread churned in his stomach at what he knew what he would have to reveal to his son. The only secret he had ever kept from him.

"There's nothing wrong with you," he began in the most serious tone the boy had ever heard him use. "Sakura-chan… your mother and I… we felt it was best not to tell you. We thought it wasn't something you needed to know. But it looks like we were wrong."

"What are you talking about?" Ichigo tilted his head to the side, confused.

Naruto closed his eyes for a moment, savoring the final shred of Ichigo's innocence, before opening them again. "How much do you know about Kyuubi no Youko?" he asked quietly.

"Not much. We learned about it in class. It was wicked stuff." Pause. "What's that got to do with this?"

"Everything." Ignoring the expected puzzled reaction, Naruto walked over to the tree he'd been spearing and plucked out the kunai one by one. Putting them away, he sat down at the foot of the tree and gestured with his head. Ichigo obliged and joined him, waiting and attentive.

The sun passed overhead and gradually began the top of its descent. Everything spilled from him, everything. From the time he was born, the Wave Country incident, the Valley of the End... Naruto did not want to miss a thing. He barely allowed for any pauses and steadily plowed on when the brief interims were greeted by silence. They made him nervous and the longer Ichigo went without asking a question, the more he averted his eyes and shrank inside himself defensively. As Naruto spoke, he watched the expressions that crossed his son's face. It ran the full gauntlet of human emotions, wide surprised eyes, his mouth falling open from its grim line, flashing between anger, shock and sadness. For all that he never moved from where he sat.

And he never spoke.

The weight of his stomach began to feel heavier and heavier. This was the final culmination of their uncertain father-son relationship. For years Naruto had watched it hover between all out adoration and drawn back resentment. Right now he was remembering the unsettling, chilling tones his son's voice took on when he was angry, when Ichigo would back out of a room and flash him the finger in defiance. Those times he stood there frozen, wanting to do or say the thing Ichigo was plainly expecting him to do or say and the actions and the words just not coming. Watching as Sakura exacted the discipline said the strict, firm words of warning Naruto just could not bring himself to say to the boy. Because he was never there… because he wasn't the parent Ichigo wanted the approval of. It cut him deeply.

Now everything was on the table. He had given up the power now and he waited to see what it would do with its new freedom. No adultism could save him now… not that they ever had.

Ichigo hemmed and hawed internally, rubbing small, thoughtful circles on his knees. His head tilted to the side. "So…" he started and stopped, thinking again. "Can I see it?"

Naruto stared at his son.

The boy prodded. "The seal. Can I see the seal?"

Hesitating only briefly, he moved to do as he was asked. Naruto flinched when the boy poked it with an index finger as he studied it, the thoughtful expression on his face growing with each passing moment. "Huh," he finally uttered, taking his hand back. He looked up, appearing curious, watching his father rebutton his vest. "Do you think some of his chakra transferred to me when I was conceived?" he inquired unexpectedly.

"It would seem so," Naruto replied cautiously. "It could be something else. It's not likely but it's possible."

Ichigo nodded; it was a logical conclusion. Sensing his father's anxiety, he felt confused. Then slowly it sank in what it was that might cause his father to look so grim. A lot of what his father was feeling, who he was, and how their relationship existed as it did now was riding on this new knowledge. He thinks I'm going to hate him. He hardened at this presumption and sought to prove the hatred his father had had to suffer false. If there were a way to figure out what was going on with him, only time would answer that. There was nothing to forgive.

So he grinned the dorkiest grin he could summon. "Well, I guess it explains a lot of things, huh?" Then Ichigo capped the lid on his father's uncertainty by picking up his arm and tugging it, standing up. "I'm hungry. Let's go find that lady you said makes good ramen and see if we can get her to make us a couple of bowls. Doubt we'll be dining any better until we start back home tomorrow."

His father smiled, so relieved it almost hurt. "Good idea. Heh, were you reading my mind?"

"Maybe."

"Think we might have to pay her off?"

"Nah. Just take off your shirt."

Naruto stared at the boy incredulously. "Have you been talking to Ero-Sannin?" The former Frog Master's protégé had been particularly careful to make sure his son was always accompanied when he was around the old shinobi. More than anyone Naruto knew of the man's penchant for perversion. He was determined his son bear no scars from any encounter with Jiraiya. One morally corrupted Uzumaki was enough.

"No." Wicked grin. "Mom."

Shocked, Naruto made a choked type of sound. His face bloomed red and then glowed a soft pink hue as the blood began to drain again. Ichigo burst out laughing and towed the bewildered man along.


Sasuke supposed he couldn't blame his daughter for bringing up the subject. After all, his path of revenge had been a constant for most of her young life, though one she had always eyed with distaste. He was quite sure she had long forgotten it by now, he could not shake the indelible print of the words she had spoken to him the night before he left her in Konoha.

Because she was right.

He let his thoughts drift with the sound of the rushing waterfall. He knew he would have to tell Katana the truth eventually. Someday when he would be brave enough to look her in the eye.

"There you are."

His eyes opened. Sakura was half-kneeling down and smiling that sweet smile of hers. The mist from the waterfall clung to her pink hair in beaded droplets. "I didn't think I'd find you hiding down here."

"It's quiet." He closed his eyes again.

Sakura straightened and gazed around them, her expression clearly impressed with the locale, though he could tell more so from the tone of her voice. "An underground waterfall. I've never seen such a thing. I guess you like waterfalls, ne?"

"Not especially. My daughter likes them."

"Ah. Has she seen this one?"

"Yes."

Neither spoke further for several long minutes. It was perfect, really. Sasuke had his eyes closed, his shirt was neatly folded beside him and Sakura had long grown out of being body shy. God knew in her long career if she'd seen one shirtless man, she'd seen them all. Except Sasuke. Catching this preludic thought, she almost slapped herself. There were more than several reasons why she shouldn't be entertaining such thoughts and she adamantly refused to give in to a single one of them. What ruled here, logic or hormones or… or…

"Sakura?"

Oh hell. He was looking at her and she was sure he'd caught her staring at him. Her face matched her hair as she gave herself a mental rebuke. "Eh?"

Her disgruntlement made him smile. Neither of them needed to say it.

Nerving herself, she settled in beside him, copying his sitting position. "What do you do down here by yourself?" she asked lightly, to get away from the awkwardness of the previous moment.

"I meditate. I think."

"Oh." Sakura stared down at her spread fingers on the cool surface of the rock. They had not finished their last conversation… and there was still that thing hanging in the air between them.

"It wouldn't be right," he spoke suddenly.

Sakura closed her eyes. So he knew.

"You don't have to act so morbid about it."

What? Sakura blinked and turned to stare at him. He was smiling that little smile of his. Feeling he was teasing her, her mouth dropped open and before she could think it through, she cuffed him. He went with it, on a tolerable sigh, shaking his head. Women had been hitting him all day. Karma, he supposed.

Feeling Sakura change her position, he watched as she moved to face him nervously. "I need to talk to you about something. I… I had thought about talking to Ino but," sigh, "I can't. And obviously I can't talk to Naruto about it."

"Because it's about him."

Sakura nodded. "I need your opinion."

Genuinely concerned, he stared at her. This was something that was going to affect all three of them.

Taking his silence as assent, she brought her hands together and to her mouth for a moment. Then she lowered them again into her lap, looking a lot more together than she had a moment ago. "I'm going to ask Naruto to marry me."

For a breathless moment, Sasuke forgot to blink. Finally he looked down and away, an unreadable expression on his face.

"I know you probably think a woman shouldn't propose," she continued quickly, "but I know I'm going to have to be the one to do it. He doesn't think I love him… and I guess I've given him every reason to think so." Sakura bit her lower lip, her bright eyes misting over. He still wouldn't look at her. Pained by his assiduous silence, she let her face fall into her hands. She was crying.

"Sakura…"

She interrupted. "I do love Naruto, Sasuke." Sakura's shoulders drew together as she tried to control her sobs. "But I don't… I mean you…" She was cut off mid sentence because of her teammate's embrace and just let her face fall into his bare shoulder. "You're as important to me as Naruto, you've always been, even when you were gone for all those years. I know I've never meant the same to you but I-I just wanted you to know that. I've always wanted you to know that."

Sasuke stared at her desperate face for a few moments. Then, just lightly, he let his lips ghost over hers before gently tugging them both to their feet. He stooped to retrieve his shirt and pulled it back on. With his back to her, he checked his knife.

"Sasuke-kun…" he heard her murmur faintly behind him.

Because she could not see, he smiled when she said his name like that. Perhaps it was only a childish indulgence; not that he cared what it was anymore. She would love him forever because she could never fathom not loving him. He had known it all those years ago and he knew it now. He also knew that taking it now when it was no longer something he could hope to keep was not possible. Sakura was asking for one simple thing, something he could give her, something he could give both of them.

Sasuke turned and looked into her eyes. "If I'm the reason you're stopping yourself, you shouldn't; and you're wrong about what you think you mean to me."

Sakura's face lit up, a secret delight dancing in her eyes and her mouth. She heard him say what he had not said. Murmuring his name, she enfolded him tightly. He would remember the happiness in her eyes for the rest of his life.


One of the most pain in the ass things about coming home to Konoha was the compulsory stop at Konoha Hospital. After each mission, every shinobi and kunoichi needed to check in at the attached clinic and have a nurse have a little look-see, even if he or she was completely healthy and uninjured. Due to several health scares over recent years and one dangerous outbreak, Godaime put the Hokage stamp of approval on a new list of health codes every full time ninja and globe trotting civilian needed to follow. No one wanted to risk out of country epidemics. The last one had nearly exhausted the medical budget for the entire year.

Yeah, so the village was a safer place health-wise because of these rules. Didn't mean anyone liked them. Even Rock Lee looked sour as he trailed after a squeaky shoed nurse with a pasted on smile across her perky face. And he was the lucky one, he got to go first; the rest of us unfortunates had to sit in the waiting room and stare at babies paying with beads on wires in the middle of the floor. There were a lot of us too so it was going to take a long time to get through everyone.

Except Otosan. He was placed inside a locked room the minute he stepped into the building. I saw a nurse come out of the room looking absolutely dazed. Her cheeks were rose-petal-pink like she'd just met a famous celebrity. I discreetly rolled my eyes heavenward. I was beginning to suspect that despite the reputation his return would probably garner, women were still going to be checking out his ass every time he walked by them. I wonder if Papa would take offense if I refused I go out in public with him anymore?

"Katana."

Takashi was talking to me. Dead tired and just wanting to sleep forever, I lifted my head and looked at him sitting across from me. "Yeah?"

"You ever read any plays?"

I frowned. What? "Yeah?" I replied vaguely, hinting he make his point. Part of me couldn't believe he was actually initiating conversation for the sake of conversation. Whatever happened to the quiet prick I knew and hated?

"Familiar with 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'?"

" 'If we shadows have offended, think but this, and all is mended.' " I yawned, covering my mouth with my hand. "What about it?"

"Apparently sometime in our recent past, a certain someone who shall re-… Mrf!" Takashi was grabbed from behind and a hand was slapped over his mouth. Ichigo leaned over his friend's shoulder and grinned one of those really wide grins that told you he was clenching his teeth together extra hard. His eyes were angry, belying the false cheer he was forcing his face to exude. Takashi waved one arm around, grabbed Ichigo by the ear and twisted it hard. With a yowl, Ichigo wrested free and clapped one hand over his now angry red ear. Kakashi, sitting beside him, caught the youth by the arm and forced him to sit down. I exhaled slowly and hung my head. Why me.

"Don't tell her!" growled Ichigo, refusing to sit still and sitting up in his chair. His fists were clenched.

"You never said I couldn't," Takashi replied calmly. "I think it might make for some amusing future blackmail."

"BASTARD!"

Naruto, who was sitting to Ichigo's right, simply turned and cuffed the side of his son's head. "Sit down and shut up," he told him in a low, threatening manner.

"But Dad…"

"I won't repeat myself. Front and center. NOW."

"FINE," my boyfriend ground out, turned back around and slouched down in his seat, pouting.

"Kakashi, how do you handle this kid?" Naruto asked his former sensei lightly, relaxing against the waiting room chairs, propping his feet up on the magazine table, ignoring the displeased glares passing nurses shot him.

"The same way I handled you," our sensei replied, not looking up from his novel.

"Oh really? By the way does he still…?"

"Sometimes." Kakashi stopped him from finishing the sentence due to the mounting horror on Ichigo's face. "I think sharing a tent with a teammate is breaking him of the habit though."

"Good. Sakura-chan and I were getting worried."

"Dad, I'm sitting right here," grumbled Ichigo crossly.

"I know."

My boyfriend snorted and mumbled something foul and obscene under his breath. Blissfully the adults ignored it. Takashi and I were smiling at each other.

"He was Puck," he mouthed.

My eyebrows rose and I let my expression speak for itself. Takashi nodded and jerked his chin over his shoulder behind him. I started giggling causing a narrowed eyed Ichigo to peer over his own shoulder at me suspiciously. Then he glared murderously at Takashi. "When we get out of here, meet me where we usually spar."

Nonplused, Takashi shrugged. Whatever.

Kakashi sighed. It didn't need to be said: it looked like he was going to be playing referee again today. I suppose any time he wanted to save for his book reading was going to have to wait. I caught the eye of Mitarashi Anko who was reading a magazine beside me and we exchanged brief smiles.

"Well, well, look who managed to drag her limp carcass back to Konoha."

I looked up and grinned. "I recognize that sarcastic inflection."

Hyuuga Tomoe entered the waiting room area with her two teammates, Okami and Akito, in tow. They both appeared bored until Ichigo jumped to his feet - "Hey, Okami, Akito!" - then grins tugged at their faces. They stood together off to the side, immediately becoming engrossed in Ichigo's encore oral presentation of Operation Arachnid. Okami and Akito were old Academy playmates of his, going back to the sandbox and jungle gym days so basically this was the old boys' club having a reunion. They did pause to greet Takashi who just raised his hand in acknowledgement before going back to his edition of Konoha Digest.

Tomoe couldn't contain herself and threw her arms about me enthusiastically. "You have to tell me everything!" she blurted. "Even if we're up all night and have to order in food. I don't want you to leave out a single detail."

My stomach plunged. "Everything? Can't you just read the mission report?"

"Who says I'd be allowed to read that? No, this is not negotiable. You're telling me everything, lazy ass, and that's final."

Talk about a brick wall. I whimpered and folded my arms. Tomoe snorted and folded her arms. Yeah, the cute act didn't work with her, not like it did on my boyfriend. It didn't work on my father either.

Speak of the Devil. He emerged from the room flanked by two ANBU guards, both of which he gave a brief narrowed eye regard of distaste before ignoring them. He indicated me and they nodded. Remaining where they were, he approached us.

Tomoe's mouth half fell open and she stared and stared until you'd think she was going to burn a hole through the wall.

"Where are they taking you now?" I asked him, immediately worried.

"To the Hokage. She'll be deciding what to do with me." He emphasized 'do' as if he thought she thought he was a problem to be solved and he thought she was nuts.

Getting a whiff of something I didn't like, I grew fearful and grabbed his arm. He removed it. Sensing the tension in the air, Tomoe made herself immediately discreet. I waited until she was out of earshot before speaking in a harsh whisper. "They won't put you in jail will they?"

"I don't know."

"They can't kill you." But even though I said it out loud to reassure myself, I couldn't convince myself.

"I doubt it will get that far." In a lower voice he added, "And I don't think Naruto would stand for that."

My fear ebbed, somewhat. I still wasn't feeling very good about all of this. I had just gotten him back, like hell was I going to let anyone take him away from me again. I nodded mutely. When Otosan touched my cheek to get my attention, I looked up.

"I promise I'll come find you when I can get away. Where do you live?"

"Where you did."

There was dead silence. I could see a conflict go on in him and his dark eyes and he merely nodded.

"I had no money and I couldn't access the clan accounts," I desperately explained, fearing he was about to yell at me. It sometimes happened when he got really quiet like this. "I didn't know where to go at the time. I'm sorry, if you don't want me living there, I'll…"

"No." He interjected softly. "It's all right." Otosan glanced at the ANBU. One of them touched his wrist and pointed over his shoulder. He nodded and turned back to me. "I'll be okay." Quirk of a grin.

I had to laugh. "Don't let those ANBU guys push you around. See you later?"

"Aa."

Since we weren't the kind of people that hugged in public, I slapped his arm lightly once and he gave a lock of my hair a tug, before he was escorted out. I watched them until they had exited the clinic. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched Naruto watch them leave. He looked conflicted, the desire to chase after them clearly written on his face. Sakura bit her lip and touched Naruto's leg, giving his knee a quick squeeze.

Seeing them gaze upon my father with the same loyalty I felt caused the ice in my stomach to melt. Otosan had two other people who loved him even though he was gone for all those years. They would not turn from him now. I wasn't alone in defending my father and knowing that there were other people who loved him like I did warmed me inside. It made me wish I had known both of them from the beginning.

"Katana." Tomoe spoke from my right. "Who was that? Your brother?"

"No." Here we go. "My father."

"No way. He's too cute to be your dad."

"Yeah, I know."

She heard my tone. "Heh, get that a lot, don't you? Well, he is hot, Katana." Thoughtful pause. "Hey, how old is he?"

I knew exactly where this was going. "Tomoe, if you plan to say what I think you're about to say, I will kill you in your sleep."

Huffing at my exaggerated posturing, Tomoe held her hands up and backed away. "Well, excuse me, Miss I-had-a-crush-on-my- boyfriend's-dad!"

"WHAT?"

I closed my eyes. Of all of the parts of the conversation he picked to hear, Ichigo picked that. Opening them, I hissed savagely at my friend, "Thanks a lot!"

Serene superior grin. "You are so welcome." Then she left me there the bitch left me there! That's it, I have no friends.

Luckily a nurse chose that moment to call out Ichigo's name and he promptly forgot about it. Exhaling with relief, I wandered over to Ichigo's abandoned chair and plopped into it, rubbing at my forehead with my fingertips.

"Best friends are the worst, huh?"

I smirked and glanced at him amusedly. "I'm learning that the hard way. Grossed out?"

Naruto stretched his arms behind his head and folded them. "Nah. I knew about it." Wink.

I blushed. He laughed. I decided to change the subject. "So when's the big day?"

"This weekend, hopefully. Sooner if the old lady had her way." I started giggling. "What?"

"You are going to look so stupid in that hat."

He snorted. "Sakura-chan's been telling me that all day."


"Cut to the chase and give me the bottom line."

Tsunade tched and tapped her scarlet colored nails on the surface of her desk, her hazel eyes narrowed in displeasure. Young thing like him coming in here and telling me what to do! He hasn't changed much has he? She dared not seat herself in his presence so long as he was unwilling to take the guest's chair in hers.

"Right." Tsunade turned her back and gazed out of the window behind her desk, ruminating on a number of thoughts and idle notions before facing back again. "Well, let's take a look at the broader picture." She made an open handed gesture to the chair, her eyebrows telling him the rest. Reluctantly Uchiha seated himself but added an endearing slouch to his sitting position. A quick smile tugged at her mouth yet it was gone by the time she was sitting behind her desk again.

"You left the village for an enemy of Konoha sixteen years ago." Tsunade traced a finger over a small pile of paperwork. "Then you disappeared from Sound quite suddenly one day. Rumors began to spread. You were alive but no one ever knew where you were. Then a year ago you dumped your daughter here." Grin. "You're lucky Naruto was willing to look on her, I don't think anyone else would have helped her touch the Academy with a ten-foot pole." Sasuke frowned. "Providentially I made it possible that she be given the same citizen status as any other Konoha resident. Be thankful I'm a gambler, Uchiha. I doubt anyone else would have been so willing to risk the entire village on a whim." Pause. "I've been given full authority and jurisdiction over your fate so you better start liking the sight and sound of me now."

"…Until Saturday."

Long measured glare. "Do you want me to throw you out of my office?"

"Please."

Tsunade laughed. The bastard actually smiled, looking adorably pleased with himself if in a rather annoyingly smug manner. She curbed the desire to smack him, figuring he'd catch her hand before it could touch his face anyway.

"All right, Uchiha Sasuke, here's your fate…Wait, hold on a minute." She raised her voice. "Shizune! Get in here!"

The door opened and a middle-aged woman poked her head in. "Yes?"

"I need a witness. Do you have time to stand around for a few minutes and sign a piece of paper?"

"Of course." Shizune closed the door behind her. "Hello," she politely greeted the dark haired man sitting before the Hokage.

"Hi."

"All right." Tsunade held her hands before her in a triangular teepee under her nose. Her eyes closed and then opened. "Uchiha Sasuke, despite your recent acts of heroism I cannot ignore the fact you've been an S-ranked missing nin for the past sixteen years. You could have come home but chose not to."

"I had my reasons."

Nod. "You're fortunate despite the fact your portfolio is stuffed full of sightings of you, there's not much evidence to support your involvement in anything that could be called a crime - other than your defection." His expression was still and unmoving. "But because I'm a spiteful, unforgiving bitch, I'm going to make you contemplate four stone gray walls for the next eight months. There is no bail. Be thankful. I could have had you executed. There's nothing in our laws to stop me from doing it."

He nodded with his eyes turned down ever so slightly. Good, she was getting to him.

"There's more."

Oh yeah, she had his attention now.

"You're a hell of a talented shinobi, Sasuke. You have abilities that surpass what most ninja could complete in a lifetime. Given your heritage, it's not surprising." Tsunade paused, exhaling silently through her parted lips. This next part of the verdict he would have the hardest accepting – one the entire village would regret passing down. However the law was the law. "Unfortunately you can no longer be allowed the privilege and status of a Konoha shinobi." She bit her lower lip faintly and blurted it out. "Since Katana is still learning how to use her Bloodline Limit, your chakra reserves will not be reduced as they normally would be under these circumstances. You are to use your techniques only when training your daughter in addition to Kakashi's instruction. Furthermore you may not leave the village unless the residing Hokage specifically orders it. If you violate any of these conditions pending your release from prison, the consequences will be severe. Do you understand?"

Totally, damnably expressionless, Sasuke nodded. It disconcerted her. Despite the heavy-handedness of her dictum, a fate most ninja would consider worse than death, this man seemed amazingly fine with it. Perhaps even a bit perplexed if she was reading his face correctly.

She elaborated, just to drive the point home. "This is the most lenient punishment I could hand out without killing you. I was barely able to get the elders to agree to it. None of them wanted to give you a chance. They're not a forgiving bunch no matter how old the crime is."

Sasuke sat back in his chair, shrugging vaguely, still infuriating blase.

Eyeing him closely, Tsunade frowned. "You're taking this well." She motioned to Shizune with her eyes to approach her desk and offered her a pen and pointed to the document open between her arms. "Most shinobi would balk at the idea of being reduced to a mere civilian."

The young man offered her a quirk of a smile. "I'm not most people," he told her, a barest edge of warmth in his usually toneless voice.

The Godaime blinked and slowly she smiled back. His daughter rubbed off on him. I wonder who was really the teacher and who was really the student? With a wave of her hand, she dismissed him and watched the young man leave her office. Shizune watched him go too, with obviously more interest.

"Che," the Hokage clucked, slightly annoyed.

Shizune lifted her chin defiantly. Her subservience had faded with her youth ages ago. "I don't care. He's got a nice ass."

Tsunade knew how to douse this fiery back talk. "I know. If you hadn't been here I would have way-laid him across my desk." She said the entire thing with a straight face. It got the desired reaction.

"Tsunade-sama!"

"What?"


Stepping out into the bright Konoha sunshine, Uchiha Sasuke was surprised to find someone waiting for him. He was sitting on the steps outside of the Godaime's office and when Sasuke appeared, he turned to look up at him. Strange how of all the people he wasn't in the mood for at this moment, he always seemed to know when to pop in to make a nuisance of himself. You're a bothersome inconvenience, he thought at him with a well-honed glare. Intruding where I never want you because you know it's exactly where I need you, you clumsy stamina junkie. Naturallyhe'd never tell the idiot that. Why should he when Naruto already knew it so well?

"So?" he queried promptly, his grin still but tense, on edge.

"They're not killing me."

Naruto's face went to a healthier shade of tan. "And what you're not saying?"

"In summary, I'm doing eight months hard time, I can never leave the village again and I can only use my ninjutsu for training my daughter."

Pale. "For… how long?"

Sasuke didn't mince words. "Forever."

The information hit his friend harder than he imagined. Naruto actually looked sick. "B-But that means you're… and-and you're okay with that?!" he uttered in a near yell. You'd have thought it was him they'd sentenced.

"Yes."

Sasuke started down the steps, Naruto stood up and dismissed the ANBU guards with a wave. They fell into step together.

He explained his tone matter-of-fact, terse. "I don't want to be a twenty-eight year old Genin, Naruto."

Naruto's hands were in his pockets. "I can't believe you let her do that to you," he muttered under his breath. "You not a ninja anymore? The old hag might as well cut your…"

Sasuke interrupted him. "I said I'm all right with it," he spoke softly though the words were hard-edged.

It still wasn't a good enough answer, not for Naruto. "How?" he nearly howled. "How can not being a ninja be all right with you?! You've only been one your entire life!" Naruto stopped in front of Sasuke, looking up just slightly because Sasuke was taller than him (a fact that continually irked him to no end). "This is because you got your revenge isn't it? You got your revenge so you stopped caring! You're just going to throw it all away? That's all what being a ninja was about to you?! HUH? ANSWER ME!"

Sasuke remained unruffled. "No."

"No, what?"

He did not reply. He attempted to move past Naruto but his friend sidestepped quickly, blocking him, the determination in his expression telling the Uchiha he wasn't getting out of this one. He attempted a stare down but it proved to be an exercise in futility. The Kyuubi container could outstare him and both of them knew it.

Naruto repeated himself, more quietly. "No, what?"

Sasuke averted his eyes for a moment before meeting the other man again. "It wasn't about that."

"Then what was it about?"

Sasuke took his time, letting his gaze linger somewhere into the distance for a moment. "I have… some dreams," he finally said, so simply it almost made Naruto tear out his hair. "You never asked me," he added.

Naruto stared at him lengthily, understanding the vague meaning behind the words, hearing the question behind the question he never asked. He waited until they were on the old bridge where their team used to wait for Kakashi before he answered.

"He let me kill him."

Naruto blinked, opened his mouth once and closed it. Sasuke stopped him without moving. He'd made his peace with it a year ago, after sleepless days and nights where thoughts crawled into his brain to sting him senseless until sunlight dared to break over the darkness. There were moments, seconds, bits that still crawled out and stung him again when he least expected it, metamorphosing his entire existence into an empty microcosm. Naruto could not understand – would never understand. Yes, he had tasted something of it – he'd known the fever that could take hold of a man, he could always see it in those blue depths. Two objects could not occupy the same space. But wouldn't they try.

"Dobe."

"What?"

"I've got until Monday."

Naruto's eyebrows jumped and then he grinned evilly, seeing the opening and going for it. "I don't know what Sakura-chan told you about me but, hey, hey OW DAMMIT FUCK THAT WAS A JOKE YOU ASSHOLE WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?!" Naruto gimped along, shaking his fist at Sasuke careless retreating back. "That's it, you're not invited tomorrow! I'm washing my hands of you, rot in jail for all I care, I'm DONE with you!"

Unbeknownst to his future Rukodaime, Sasuke was smiling. In the middle of his litany, he plunged directly through. "Are you coming or not?"

Naruto shut up and stopped his fake limping. "I'll always hate you," he grumbled. "You're an attention whore, a stuck-up masochistic asshole and I'll never ever forgive you for what you did for as long as I live. But…" he gentled and shot Sasuke a quiet challenge, "it doesn't mean I'm not going to make you spend the rest of your life making it up to me."

Sasuke shrugged. There were worse fates than being at the beck and call of Naruto. He'd known a few of them and he decided that next to them, Naruto was little more than a fly buzzing around his head.

But he would be damned if he ever told the idiot that.


When Takashi was released from the clinic with a clean bill of health, he went straight home. The sparring match was canceled due to some grudging doctor's orders about Ichigo, orders Ichigo heeded at the urging of everyone around him. Inwardly Takashi was relieved – fighting with his teammate over something so stupid was enough to make him bone weary, more so than he already was. He just wanted to sleep.

Takashi paused at the entrance to his clan's grounds, staring at the house for a few moments. Then taking a short breath, he began walking up the path to the front door. Along the way, he heard some commotion. Curious he followed the noises. They led him to the far end of the compound to the training area. He went around a building and stopped.

In the center of a small grassy area stood Shinji and his cousin, Arisa. They were both sweating and out of breath. After a few breaths, Arisa began to speak. "Not bad. Think you can do that when it counts?" She was a tall woman in her early twenties with long red-gold hair and pale features. Every man in Konoha wanted her – but she scoffed at the attention. She had a fiancé back in Eire she was trying to bring over and she was fiercely loyal to him.

"I think so."

"Not the answer I was goin' fer, lad. You either can or you can't. Now whi' o' them is it?"

"Yes. Yes, I can do it," Shinji spoke quickly and decisively. "Geez, you're such a hard ass. Can't you teach me that jutsu already? I've done enough preparation for it."

"No. Your chakra levels ain't near at where they ought'ta be."

"Oh come on! They are so!"

"Aye, they are not. I don' want'ta hear about it no more." She straightened up and flipped her hair over her shoulder. "You be the worse brat I've ever trained, you know that? Midori does a better job listenin'ta me."

"I don't care. You're still the worst teacher ever," grumbled his brother. "I can't believe I agreed to train with you."

"That's your mistake, lad, not mine."

"My mistake or not, you still suck. Don't preach it if you can't practice it."

Arisa narrowed her yellow eyes dangerously. "You want'ta die? You best watch your mouth 'round me."

"I'm sooo scared," Shinji drawled dramatically. He noticed Takashi out of the corner of his eye and his expression completely switched to surprise. "Twerp?"

Arisa turned and a big smile stretched across her face. "Well, look who it is! You be a sight, Takashi. You better get your butt in the shower 'fore you start ta put down roots." Looking around over her shoulder she shouted, "Midori, get out here! Guess whose come home!"

A little redheaded girl came around from the direction of the house, carrying a baby girl, both arms wrapped around her. She saw her brother, squealed, put down the toddler quickly and ran to him. "TakashiTakashiTakashi!" Midori threw her arms around the older boy's waist and spoke the rest into his stomach. "I missed you so much!" she enthused rapidly. "Did you have fun on your mission? Ew you're dirty you need a bath. You know Mommy hates dirt, you better go around the back." She started to tug him in that direction.

Takashi didn't move. He was in shock. He couldn't believe the barrage of welcome he was getting. Midori missed him? Since when in her 'I hate your guts!' life was there room for her missing him? There had to be some kind of reason, he thought, looking down at where Saki was tugging on his pants. She opened her hands to him and waved, wanting to be picked up. Takashi complied and quietly reveled in her cuddling up against him, her sweet baby smell making him smile. He couldn't believe they'd noticed he was gone. Was he truly wrong about his family? Was his invisibility only in his head? Or… did it take his not actually being there for them to notice he was gone? Takashi decided he didn't care. Even if things went back to the way they'd been before he left, he would have this day to remember that for one moment in time, his family noticed his existence. It made everything he'd gone through worthwhile.

Arisa was at his side a second later giving his ear an affectionate twist. "Welcome back, brat. See you at dinner. Here, give me the baby." Takashi handed Saki over and watched Arisa and Midori head back to the house.

It was only then he noticed Shinji standing beside him and just as he comprehended his growing proximity, he was suddenly being swept up into a fierce bear hug.

"Little shit," he heard his brother mutter. "Where the hell have you been? Mom's been a wreck since you've been gone. She heard about that giant spider and almost passed out." He let him go. "Oh yeah, I've been worried too," he added offhandedly. "I really missed you throwing your slippers at me. Guess I'll be kissing those peaceful nights good bye again."

Takashi grinned. "You will." Quietly he spoke. "I've, uh, I missed you too." Shinji looked skeptical but vaguely hopeful. "And about the night before I left, when you…" His brother waved at him and shook his head, indicating nothing needed to be said. "Well, I heard you."

"Forget it." Shinji pushed the back of his head to get him going. "Now get inside and clean up so Mom can properly smother you to death. I'll guard the bathroom so no one bothers you but I won't promise anything."

"All right but you have to stay outside." Takashi glared at him, fists clenched. "If you sneak in and switch on the faucet…"

"I won't! I swear on the blarney stone. You have my word."

Takashi stared at him for a long time before he pointed at his brother. "Is minic a gheibhean beal ocailt diog dunta!"

Shinji rolled his eyes. "Geez, if you're threatening me in Gaellic, you must be exhausted. Get your ass inside before I kick it there."

"Yes, Niisan." Takashi went and gladly, giving his brother the one finger salute as he went.

It was good to be home.


The night before his big day, Naruto found himself awake and staring at the ceiling. Sleepless nights weren't new to him, hell he could go three days without sleep effortlessly. Most of those A-class solo missions were enough to keep even the most hardened soldier awake at night. This particular bout of insomnia he suspected was going to be particularly difficult. Tomorrow was the day he would fulfill his dream. Tomorrow Tsunade would be stepping down. Tomorrow…

Is taking too long to arrive. He turned over and shoved his head under his pillow and groaned. He had never been good at the waiting thing. Tonight was proving to be absolute torture. How many hours until sunrise anyway? Naruto peeked at the clock on his nightstand and exhaled loudly. Eight hours. He was certain he wasn't going to last that long. To take his mind off it, he forced himself to think about other things. It was better than getting worked up like this.

Far as he could tell, things had sure improved in the last few weeks for the better. Now with Sasuke back, he felt he could truly take on the mantle of Hokage without the invisible weight of his friend not being there weighing him down. He wasn't happy about the eight-month jail sentence but he figured things could be worse.

He could have been executed.

A grim smile tugged at Naruto's mouth. Yeah right, let them try. He wondered idly if the Council was just playing it safe on account of the upcoming Hokage change. It would explain the odd leniency of their actions regarding the one-time missing nin; why create resentment in a newly nominated leader toward the inner ruling power from the start? It only made sense. Better that they got used to it now after all. There were going to be some very definite changes around here.

Not that change was anything new to him. His eyes fluttered shut. A knock to his door brought them open again. Who the hell would be pounding at his door at this time of the night? Please not the kid, he prayed fervently. Ichigo had about ninety thousand dependency issues, some, if not all that were quite annoying. One of the hardest to break was the habitual midnight wandering. Sometimes Naruto swore the kid was part owl.

More insistent knocking. Naruto flung the pillow off and swing his legs over the side of the bed. "Shit," he cursed under his breath. This better be good because I am killing whoever that is if it's not, he avowed, trudging toward the door reluctantly, kicking aside a few stray scrolls. He opened the door, all set to ream out flat the perpetuating disturbance to his peace. Instead his anger faded immediately and the rigidity within bled to nothing.

"Sakura-chan?" he murmured softly, his eyes automatically taking her in. She was dressed in civilian clothes, a pretty green dress that matched her eyes, and a shiny clip in her hair. God, she looked hot. "What are you doing here?" Why do you have to torture me by dressing like that? he added silently. The dress was on the conservative side, never meant to be a seductive piece but you'd have sworn it was.

She smiled, somewhat nervously. "Did I wake you up?"

"No."

Her lips twitched again in a familiar smirk. "I figured you wouldn't be able to sleep either. Um, can you… will you come with me?" The last sounded anxious, almost trembling.

"Uh sure. Where?"

"Nowhere in particular. Just for a walk. The moon is out."

He nodded once and pointed over his shoulder with his thumb. She nodded and waited outside for a few minutes while he threw some decent clothes on. Then he joined her.

They walked around for an hour, stopping by various landmarks. Neither spoke much. Both discreetly kept snatching glances at one another from the corners of their eyes when one thought the other wasn't looking. Eventually they made it to the old Team 7 bridge, unconsciously assuming the places they normally had occupied all those years ago. This place was their comfort zone, their source of solace when memories of their comrade tormented them too much.

But that was all over now.

For a long time, they remained there, quietly, as if in a church before prayers. Naruto watched Sakura, the way the wind gently played with the strands of her rosy pink hair, made gray in the moonlight. Pretty, he thought absently. She smiled and closed her eyes.

"I like this," she murmured. "It's different from before."

He smiled too, knowing exactly what she was talking about – like he always did. "Yeah." He rested his hands in his pockets. Waited.

She gradually looked at him, that strange nervousness back again. She began to move toward him. "Naruto," she spoke softly. "I need you to tell me something." Deep breath. "I need you to tell me how you feel about me."

His heart started beating faster. "Sakura-chan, what is this?"

Her face twisted a little, it looked like she was about to cry. "Please, this is really important. I need you to tell me, I need to know."

"Why?" Naruto then knew what this was about and reasserted a foot space between them, his eyes hard and cold. "Sakura-chan, I'm not stupid. I know you've been carrying a torch for him all these years and I've accepted that. I never had a chance and you've done enough to show me that – even when I thought I did have one. I don't know what you're trying to do but I'm done with it."

Sakura drew back sharply fresh tears in her eyes, looking absolutely shocked. "Naruto, I… I…" She swallowed. "That's not true." Her eyes closed and she lowered her chin. "All right," she whispered. "Yes. I love him. I'll always love him, I always have and I always will. There's nothing I wouldn't do for him."

Naruto wasn't looking at her.

"But it's the same with you. Except I… Naruto, please look at me." He did so, grudgingly. He didn't want to hear anymore but he stayed. "Naruto, this is the hardest thing I ever had to do," she finally blurted.

"Then why the hell are you telling me?" he growled. "Are you looking for permission? To make sure I'm okay before you go running off to him?"

"NO!" She was getting pissed, her hands closing and clenching at her sides. "Dammit, will you let me talk?" Oh God her voice was breaking. He was making her cry. He closed his lips over his teeth and fought against biting them.

"I've been messed up for a really long time," she continued, trying hard to hold back her tears. It was killing him. "I've kept a lot from you over the years, a lot of things that I should have said and did and I regret every single one of them. I didn't hold out on you because I was waiting for Sasuke, though I won't lie to you, somewhere in that I was deluded enough to think that's what I was doing. I was never waiting for anyone, Naruto. I just didn't believe in loving someone like that again. I gave all my love to our son because I thought it was safe. But now," the tears ran freely now, "I'm standing here because now I know what I'm doing and… and I really love you, Naruto. I love you so much and it's so wrong because…because I should have told you this years ago."

Naruto started to move toward her and stopped, his eyes opening up wide when he saw what she was doing. It was strange to see a woman doing it but what it meant all but caused his heart to stop.

She was kneeling, curtsying. Oh God, she wasn't, was she…

"I know girls aren't supposed to be the ones to do this but I…" She bit off the rest of what she had to say and gazed up at him, her eyes begging for help. Moving as if he were in a dream, Naruto went to her and gently tugged her to her feet. He couldn't hide his shaking because she was doing nothing to hide hers.

"Yes," he told her, touching his forehead to hers. She let out a whimper, half-choked between a cry and a laugh. "Ne, you get so worked up over stupid things, Sakura-chan," he teased, making her slap him in the arm a little, the half-choke sounding more like a real laugh this time. "So ASAP or you want to set a date?"

"Naruto…" Sakura was still getting herself under control. "Why do you have to be like that?"

"Be like what?"

"Be you. Why would you carry a torch for a lousy person like me?"

"Why would I chase after a lousy person like Sasuke? Who the hell knows, Sakura-chan, make a choice before I'm tempted to skip past all of that and make it real right here and now."

… Well, okay, a tongue in his mouth wasn't the answer he was going for, but it was a pretty good one. "Know what," he breathed when they parted momentarily for air, "we'll talk about it later." She started tugging on his pants and he seized her wrists. "Sakura-chan, whoa, I'm not doing this here. I'm having you in my bed or on the floor next to the bed or the door… maybe the living room... but not in front of the entire village!"

"I can't help it," she breathed against his neck, causing a shiver to run through him.

"And I thought I had self-control issues." Pinch. "OW!" Oh well, no matter. He'd get her back for that soon enough.

He scooped her up in his arms and took off.


No way could life be this great, Ichigo decided on that Saturday afternoon just after his father's inauguration. With his father and mother finally together, his father where he always wanted to be and his mother smiling all of the time, he figured nothing could top today.

Oh wait, that's right, one thing still does…

"Tsk, you're thinking again," his girlfriend demurred from her perch sitting behind him, her chin over his shoulder. Her arms slipped around his waist. "Deadly tickle attack warning if you don't kiss me."

Ichigo laughed, turned and did. Katana let him go, hopped around lithely and plopped next to him. He smiled. She definitely seemed so much better than he'd seen her for a long time; he could see practically every sunny twinkle in her eye. "So, Squirrel King, what's the mission for today?"

"I was thinking of making you beg for mercy… or we could just make out."

"Tempting," intoned a deeper voice from Ichigo's left, "but I'm not quite ready to take our relationship that far so if you don't mind, I'd rather just stay friends."

Ichigo turned beet red, Katana giggled and Takashi just grinned, pleased with himself. "Hi Katana. Am I intruding on some serious pre-necking?"

"Not really. We did that about an hour ago."

"Behind Ichiraku's, I know."

Ichigo grinned, proud of being caught, because of his fellow Genin he was the only one who had a girlfriend. "What made it even better was the Kazekage caught us. Did you see the way that guy stared at us? I thought he was going to start laughing right there in public."

Katana tapped her chin with her finger. "Gaara-sama can laugh? Is he capable of even doing that?"

Ichigo nodded. "My dad once brought me to the Sand on a short trip and I kept making faces at the guy over the top of his desk. Trust me, if he can chuckle, he can laugh."

Katana got an evil twinkle in her eye and shared the expression with Takashi who nodded in agreement. "You know who else can laugh?"

"No, whoHAHAHAHA!"

The Genin lost their balance on the short wall they'd been sitting on and wound up falling backward onto the ground in a heap. It wasn't long before they decided to have a three way sparring match that didn't really end with any of them winning but they were all smiling through the cuts and the bruises too much to care.


At this point, I suppose there wasn't much more to tell. Otosan went to his best friend's ceremony for his ascension to power and soon after he began his eight-month prison term. I wasn't happy with it, nobody was, but everyone agreed it was better than what could have happened. From that day forward, I always treated Tsunade with the greatest respect, regardless of how snarky she tended to get with me. She had given him a second chance and me she went with on faith – there weren't many people like her.

The day after Naruto became Hokage Otosan spent his last day of freedom with me. We walked through the village, I showed him my favorite places and then I made him dinner. I got him to tell me a few stories about his time with Team 7. He seemed kind of tense in his subtle you-have-to-know-him-to-be-able-to-tell way about what I'd done with the estate. I watched him make himself go through those forbidden doors into that room. I stayed behind. This was his closure and only he could give it to himself. No one else had the right to be in that room.

He stayed in there for a long time.

I was knitting in the living room when he finally emerged. I glanced up and watched him. He moved by me, his eyes fastened on the mantle above the fireplace. Like Takashi before him, he took issue with the one on the end and picked it up to look at it more closely. Then silently he held it up to me, eyebrow raised.

"You don't think it's cute?" I asked innocently yet obviously.

"No. I want to know why you think it's cute."

"Oh come on. You giving your brother bunny ears is the most terminally adorable thing ever." I shrank back slightly, realizing what was going on and suddenly I was starting to feel so ashamed of myself. Oh shit, I really fucked up this time, I thought, panicking. Did you ever stop to think what that means to him to see that displayed? I clutched my knitting tensely, suddenly so scared I couldn't think. Nonononono.

He looked at it again and put it back down after another moment. "My mother took this picture," he commented almost too lightly. "It was her favorite." He turned his head and looked at me, a small smile on his face. Tentatively I returned it.

Later after we'd eaten, we sat in front of the fireplace him sitting up and me stretched out on my stomach. "Are you okay?" I asked him suddenly, pausing in my oral recitation of poetry. Yes, Otosan liked it when I read poetry out loud. Living our lives on the road the way we had, often the only way to pass some of those grueling times when there was nothing to do was when I would read aloud from some of the books I carried with me. At first Otosan hadn't cared about what I read so long as it filled the silence. Gradually the more often I did it, the more preferential he got about what he wanted to hear. He never read anything himself, at least not while I was looking, but he liked to be read to. Shinobi are entitled to their secret eccentricities – my father was no different.

"I don't know," he replied simply, staring into the flames from his place on the floor.

I debated between stanzas one and two. "I don't want you to go to prison," I spoke to the open pages. It was childish and a stupid thing to say but this was what I was feeling right now. "It's not fair. If they really knew you, none of them would do that to you."

"Katana."

"You're a good person!" I was scared, unreasonably, irrationally so. My feelings of outrage were immature, I knew that, but I was still pissed about it. "You defected to Sound but you didn't stay there, you left. Why is that all they see in the end?"

His answer was blunt and direct. "Because I knew better and they knew I knew that and I did it anyway. You know this too. It's perfectly fair."

I lowered my chin.

"I chose this path and I'll see it through. I've spent too many years chasing the phantoms of my past to look back and say it was all for nothing." I giggled. "Aa, that was corny, wasn't it?"

"Just a little."

A comfortable silence passed. I turned a few pages, idly wondering which piece to read next.

"I'm sorry."

Puzzled, I looked up. "For what?"

"For not… sending you word, for not letting you know." His eyes had this faraway darkness in them. "I wanted to, I should have. That wasn't the life I wanted for you…"

Sensing he was edging on something that had been tearing at his psyche for the past thirteen years, I sat up and closed the book, intending on dishing out some serious daughtering. "Shut up. If you're trying to tell me – me! - of all people – you were a lousy father, that is so crap. You're no Father of the Year but I daresay that not many sixteen-year-old boys would have stepped up to the task the way you did. So don't even… because I don't care how awesome shinobi you are, I will kick your ass, Papa."

"Katana."

I froze.

But whatever reprimand he intended to give me, it faded with barely a half breath. Instead Otosan closed his eyes, shaking his head. "You say the stupidest things," he finally told me, a tiny smile twitching at the corner of his mouth.

I beamed. "I'll take that as a compliment." I picked up another book from the small pile beside me. "So what's next? Something in iambic pentameter? The Narrow Road of the Interior? Wait, no, you told me that one bored you. Wakayama Bokusai? Or how about Midaregami? I've never read it before but it's supposed to be good, according to the lady at the bookstore."

"Battle Royale."

"Again?"

"I like it."

I felt defeated. I had several perfectly good works right here next to me and he wanted me to read about a bunch of kids trapped on an island with exploding collars around their necks, running around trying to kill each other. Then again, that's Papa. What else could he relate to?

It was his last day as a free man. He owed me for missing my birthday anyway.


Somewhere out in the night a fox watched the windows of the old Uchiha estate glow in the darkness. He ran his tongue once over his lips, smiling devilishly before quickly slipping away into the darkness once again.


end