Disclaimer: Naruto belongs to Masashi Kishimoto. The Vurt book series belongs to Jeff Noon.

I felt like I should include a thanks in this part, seeing as I never would have known about the Vurt series if Skai hadn't introduced me to the first book, and most likely never would have written this if it hadn't been for Sam, the only other Naruto fan I knew of at the start who'd also read it. Despite all the mess this fic has been, both writing- and rewriting-wise and with half the source material being hard to find, I've had fun and gotten a few people into an obscure book series they never would have heard of otherwise.

And that's pretty cool.

Vurt Ninjas 17: The end.
——————

-

Yellows are knowledge feathers, with knowledge's consequences.

-

It took a lot of polite begging and some outright demands to get both Sakura and Naruto time off for the next two days; Sasuke bought the groceries while Naruto got into a yelling match with Jiraiya over the phone and Sakura sweet-talked Shizune during her Friday rounds.
-

After the first battle of the final stretch, Sakura jerked them out of the game.

"Hey!" Naruto yelled before he could think. "Sakura, why--?"

And then he saw Sasuke, who was lying on the floor beside the couch, facing away from him. Naruto stared at his back silently.

Sakura stumbled off the couch, still in lag from the game and nearly tripping over Sasuke as she did.

". . . Hey," Naruto said roughly, as Sakura made her way down the hall, bracing herself with a hand on the wall. "Sasuke--"

"Don't," he replied, and his voice was thin and taut. "I can't take it right now."

Naruto ignored that and started to push himself up, to crawl over. The baggy sweater Sasuke was wearing didn't conceal how violently he tensed up.

"Ino?" they heard Sakura say from the bedroom. "Hi, yeah. Um. I wanted to see if Chouji was okay."

Naruto shifted and looked over his shoulder at that; but a second later he looked back to Sasuke, unwilling to take his attention off him for too long. Sasuke had tilted his head slightly, but was still facing the couch.

"No, I didn't really think anything had happened . . ." Sakura replied, starting to sound more awkward as she slid out of the Vurt and into reality. "No, no, I didn't hear anything like that. I'm sure he's still clean, yeah. Yeah. No--really, never mind, Ino-chan, it's a lon--. . . . Did I?"

Sasuke shifted slightly, pulling one of his legs up slightly and settling further onto his side. Naruto was still in the same half crouch he had been for the last minute.

"It was just a--no, Ino, I'm fi--."

Sasuke gripped the side of the couch with his good hand and started to pull himself up, still facing away. Naruto was still caught in the lag as well, and was torn between being grateful that Sasuke still trusted him enough to let him have his back and angry that he refused to look at him after what he--

--no, not him. The Vurt Sasuke. The thirteen-year-old Sasuke who was completely (not really, but he'd already lied to them, why stop at himself?) different from the man in front of him.

"Ino, I don't want to fight with you about this, okay?" Sakura's voice was higher pitched now, though she was struggling to bring it back down. Naruto finally made himself look away from Sasuke and over at the hallway. "Please."

". . . Okay," Sakura said quietly, a few moments later. "Yeah. Me too." Another pause, and then, "I will, I promise. Bye."

The phone clicked when she shut it.

Sasuke was leaning against the front of the couch now, half facing him, which was a small battle won, Naruto supposed. He kept the man in his peripheral vision when Sakura wandered back into the living room, still holding her cell phone in one hand.

None of them spoke for a little while.

When Naruto noticed that Sasuke and Sakura were refusing to look at each other, he shifted uncomfortably, and then shifted again before rolling his shoulders exaggeratedly.

"Uh," he said, after another moment of silence. ". . . Guess we should eat, while we're out."

"Yeah," Sakura replied. "That--sounds good."

Sasuke grunted.

They played the rest of the final stretch straight through. Sakura didn't have a reason to jerk back out again and check on Shikamaru since he'd survived (and since she didn't think she could handle another conversation with Ino just then), and Naruto had only known Kiba from when he'd been a child--they hadn't seen each other since before they were teenagers, and he didn't know how to get a hold of him at this point, anyway . . . and he cared more about Sasuke.

Sasuke almost jerked them out at the start of his character's flashback, half-sickened at the thought of seeing his parents resurrected like that and half-terrified from the realization that this was what he had been playing for and he had no idea what it was going to be but he knew it was going to be bad.

It was close enough that Naruto and Sakura (who had been stuck in the usual omnipresent mode almost as long as Sasuke had) could almost feel the tendrils of a haunting curling around their consciousnesses; but then Sasuke choked himself with the masochism that Itachi had carefully cultivated in him, told himself that if he didn't finish it now he'd be driven back to the game anyway another day, and threw himself into it.

Naruto almost jerked them out when he realized he was going to lose the fight, but he knew that if he knew it Sasuke would too, and that would defeat the purpose of playing to the end of the first part. He'd probably be willing to keep it from Sakura, but then he might eventually try to play it himself to get to the end, and . . . Naruto couldn't take the thought of that. If Orochimaru wanted to take Sasuke through the Vurt, that would be the perfect opportunity.

That thought drove Naruto into a haunting. But it hadn't affected Sasuke or Sakura, so he went through the last scenes of Konoha with them, watching everything from a nauseous, detached state.

In the very last moments, while he watched though his character's eyes as it clenched its hand into a fist, he thought he heard:

I should thank you for taking him far enough to have a taste of how I could change him.

Naruto wrenched out of Konoha then, so harshly that he was left coughing and immediately developed a crushing headache; but the first part was over, anyway. Sasuke had left him and he'd walked away from Sakura.

Naruto forced himself to open his eyes through the sharp throbbing in his temples, and saw the two of them in front of him.

Sakura was lying on her back on the couch, one arm dangling over the edge. She'd squeezed her eyes shut from the residual pain of Naruto's crash. She'd bitten through her lip, too; but the blood on it was dried. A few inches from where her hand hung, Sasuke was sitting against the edge of the couch. He was hunched in on himself, his head tucked between his knees and his arms braced over them, protecting the back of his neck.

Sakura seemed to come fully back into reality a few seconds later, while Naruto was still convincing himself that they were there and he wasn't dreaming it. Her arm jerked up suddenly, reaching out for Sasuke; but she caught herself at the last moment, and it hovered an inch from his right shoulder.

Naruto watched her bite her lip again, then grimace and let it go, before saying hesitantly: ". . . Sasuke-kun?"

Sasuke shuddered.

Then he mumbled something under his breath about knowledge feathers that neither of them could overhear; and then he laughed--a high, desperate noise that made Naruto's hackles rise.

Sasuke broke the sound off with a choked sob a second later, and curled in tighter on himself.

"Sasuke?" Sakura hesitated another moment, reaching out that last inch; but at the same moment as her fingertips brushed his shoulder, Sasuke pushed himself forward. He wound up collapsing on his forearms more than anything, making a pained noise as he did; Naruto vaguely wondered if the damage to his arm had carried over. He didn't feel any lingering pain in his chest or arms (or maybe they were there, he just couldn't feel them over the headache), but Sakura was holding her neck awkwardly.

Sasuke almost immediately pushed himself off of his forearms with another choked noise, though (which meant nothing--why hadn't he paid more attention to that self-harming streak before?), shoving himself up onto his hands and knees and crawling over to Naruto.

Underneath the sharp throbbing of the headache, Naruto suddenly remembered the even sharper pain of Sasuke ripping through his chest and lungs and breaking five ribs with the jutsu their own teacher taught him, and he couldn't help tensing up when Sasuke pressed his head against his chest, right over where the hole had been.

Sasuke's breath was strained, coming through his teeth in short bursts, and two seconds passed before he pressed the side of his face harder against Naruto's chest; like he'd been too afraid of what he might feel to really touch it before.

Naruto looked over the other man's head at Sakura, who'd rolled over on the couch so that she was on her side now, and saw that she'd started crying silently at some point.

Sakura slid off the couch after he'd stared at her for a little longer, landing awkwardly on the carpet, and crawled over to the two of them as well. She pressed up against his arm, on the side that Sasuke was facing but still hesitating to touch him.

Sasuke had tensed up when Sakura came into view, enough so that Naruto wished she'd leaned against his back instead so that he could keep an arm between the two of them. But before he could try to maneuver his arm enough to work it free without displacing her, Sasuke reached out and grabbed the collar of her shirt.

Sakura made a startled noise, which turned higher and more confused when Sasuke pressed his mouth against hers.

He let go a moment later, and then turned and kissed Naruto as well, hard enough that he could feel Sasuke's teeth behind his lips; and that was the point where there was too much weight against his chest and his head hurt too damn much to keep trying to stay upright. So Naruto let himself fall backwards even as he realized that he was just going to crack his head against the floor and hurt it even further.

He kept a tight hold on Sasuke and Sakura as he did so, though. They landed in a heap with little involuntary, displeased noises, Sasuke mostly on top of him and Sakura pinning his arm at an awkward angle; but Naruto refused to let go of his hip and her shoulder.

He tightened his grip slightly when Sasuke squirmed, but the other man just reached out and cupped a hand around the back of Sakura's head, pulling her closer and tucking her head underneath his chin. He was still pressing the side of his face against Naruto's chest.

Far in the back of his mind, Naruto wryly regretted that such a great fantasy moment was being wrecked by the overriding fear that if he stopped touching either of them for too long, they would disappear--Sakura to the friends and life she'd had before, the one that she'd been balancing easily before he came into it, and Sasuke. . . .

. . . Sasuke to the man who could maybe do the one thing Naruto never could: get him out of the body he hated and into one that would let him live like a normal person.

But it was still trading one master for another--Itachi for Orochimaru, an abusive brother for god-knows-what the Game Cat was.

Naruto prayed to anyone he thought might listen, including Sakura and Sasuke himself, that Sasuke knew that too.

A moment later, Sakura made a small whimpering noise, and Sasuke hissed under his breath. Naruto forced himself to loosen his grip slightly, even though the fear was still there and so cloying that he was sure they must have smelled it too, even with their weaker noses.

The weight of Sasuke's head was still bringing up the lingering memory of charred meat and broken bones, and his elbow was starting to tingle weirdly where it was caught underneath Sakura's waist, and the headache felt like it was settling in for the long haul; but Naruto didn't want to move from his spot, not ever for the rest of his life.

What eventually drove Sakura to get up was the fact that, over Sasuke's shoulder, she could see the creamed feather with its traces of yellow along the edge. There were other things, to be sure--she was hungry, her arm had fallen asleep, she needed to use the restroom, and the feel of Sasuke's hand on the back of her head still made her think of a whisper and the way a concrete bridge had scraped her knees as she fell, even if that was receding with the minutes . . . but mostly it was the feather. Even when she closed her eyes, she knew it was there.

Sasuke rolled away, to the side, as soon as she pushed herself up onto her feet, leaving Naruto to mumble something about the cold. He fell quiet again soon, though, massaging his shoulder and arm where she had been lying on them. Sasuke didn't say anything.
-

They ate sandwiches while sitting on the kitchen floor. It had been Sakura's idea to make and refrigerate them before returning back to Konoha the last time, which was the only reason they managed to eat at all; and they stayed on the floor because no one wanted to take the seat Itachi had been in. The fourth chair was still pulled up against the wall, tilting back to the right slightly where its leg was broken.

Naruto hadn't stopped touching either of them since the game had ended (had it ended? was that really . . . but Naruto had said . . . unless Kabuto had lied to him . . .), even it if was only his foot pressed against their shins as they ate; and his expression when he looked at Sasuke had slowly been shifting as the minutes passed.

Sasuke was pretending not to notice. Sakura knew their habits well enough by now, and the odd injection of normality into the incredibly fucked up situation they'd been living in for the last couple of weeks was made it hard to keep eating.

Sakura told herself that at least half of the reason was probably because the sandwich was chewy in that gross way that only refrigerated bread was capable of. She managed to get down one last bite, and then dropped the remainder onto the paper towel she'd been holding under her chin to keep the crumbs off the floor and her skirt.

"I'm going to take a shower," she said, pulling her shin away from Naruto's foot and standing up. His gaze shifted to her. "I feel disgusting."

She could see Naruto's mind working as he opened his mouth to say they'd come with her, then realized that there wasn't enough room for three people in there, then (probably) remembered that Sasuke and Sakura hadn't--still didn't, still, fuck the game she wasn't gonna . . .--been prone to get naked together before, then ran through a couple ideas to try and get around all those tiny details and finally gave up. He reached over and ran his knuckles along her calf slightly, instead. ". . . Don't take too long."

"Mm," she replied in an agreeing tone, because she wasn't sure what else to say anymore.

She left the sandwich on the table as she passed, picking her way over their outstretched legs rather than circling around and crossing by the chair Itachi had been in.
-

Sakura realized that she should probably call Jiraiya only after she'd folded her clothes on the counter. She had another day off (give or take; it was dark now, she should find out just what the time was), but Naruto was supposed to show up for work either tomorrow or in a few hours, and he wouldn't think to call.

Sasuke and Naruto were gone when she left the bathroom, though the bedroom door wasn't closed all the way. Sakura heard a crash from inside while she was fishing her cell phone out of her purse; she blew her bangs away from her face when it was followed by a second one and the creak of the mattress, but that was more from reflex than anything else.

She couldn't bring herself to call Jiraiya's office while naked, so she pulled her towel off the rack and tucked it around herself quickly as she dialed.

She'd expected the answering machine, so she was startled when the phone was picked up instead. "What?"

"Um." The speech that she'd been planning to give the machine failed her. "Hello?"

"Sakura?"

She noted in the back of her mind that he'd dropped the 'Ms.', but that was probably fair trade for telling him to go to hell and making such a scene in Shizune's office. "Yes. Um. Naruto--won't be coming in tomorrow."

"Is he dead?"

Sakura sucked in a breath before she could help herself; on the other end of the phone, she heard the faint noise of Jiraiya shifting, as if he was taking note of something. "No!"

Another shift. "--I mean," Sakura lapsed, trying to salvage the situation before . . . she wasn't sure. It wasn't like he was still friends with Orochimaru, ri--

--He'd told Naruto to forget about Sasuke. Fuck him. "It would be a bad idea," she continued, and was glad to hear that her voice had fallen back into the polite but unarguable tone she usually used on difficult patients. "I'm sorry if it'll have a negative impact on the day's work, but I really think it'll be better if he doesn't see you for another day."

"You're a psychiatrist now, miss?" Jiraiya asked, but before she could associate any deeper meanings with the comment or get offended, he continued. "Fine--but it's coming out of his pay."

". . . I'll tell him," Sakura replied. "Thank you."

"Evening," he said by way of conclusion, before hanging up.

Sakura looked at her phone's time as she was returning it to her purse, and saw that it was indeed only eight twenty-seven at night--strange that he had still been in the workshop that late, but Naruto had pulled later hours at times. It wasn't that suspicious.

She hoped it wasn't that suspicious. She really didn't like the idea of living in a world where she started viewing everyone with suspicion, and probably only trusted Ino and her teammat--lovers--God, them, whatever.

I hope I never meet Kakashi-sensei somewhere, Sakura thought as she hung the towel back on the rack and turned on the shower. I'd probably throw myself on him, crying because I'd finally found another adult I could trust. Geh.

Jiraiya kept his hand on the receiver of the phone for a few moments after he'd hung up, and then slowly let it drift back onto his desk as he made a few notes on the back of an envelope--the only paper that had been in reach when Sakura had called.

He capped the pen when he was done, and tapped it against the desk as he stared at the shorthand that would hopefully be legible to no one but himself; and then he dropped it as well.

Jiraiya cradled his head in his hands and wondered if he should get Tsunade involved, or just take it on his own. Naruto was his employee, his stray, and she wouldn't get mixed up in problems that she thought were his without kicking and screaming the whole way at this point; but Yashagoro had always respected her marginally more than him. The few blacks that Tsunade had bothered to design were still highly prized among connoisseurs, even decades later. Jiraiya was well aware that even his best work in pinks were treated as little more than mass consumption trash.

But at least his pinks had never killed anyone.

He pushed away from the desk with an explosive exhalation of breath, then stood up and ripped the section of the envelope with writing on it free before folding it up and tucking it into the inner pocket of his vest.

The warehouse had already been closed down for a couple hours; all he had to do was shut off the main lighting and check that the dreamsnakes were safely caged and fed before leaving.

Sakura had just finished rinsing the shampoo out of her hair when she heard the bedroom door bang into the wall.

We just cleaned the carpet, she thought irritably, pushing her hair away from her face and tilting her head back into the water's spray.

A moment later, though, the bathroom door was shoved open as well.

Sakura looked over in surprise, then jumped and half-choked on the water when Naruto yanked the curtain back. "What--?"

Naruto rather impressively--considering that she was soaking wet--managed to lift her up and sling her halfway over his shoulder. Sakura shrieked, and then yelped when her foot banged into the side of the wall as he turned back towards the door.

Naruto didn't apologize for that. He didn't say anything at all; and Sakura started to feel nervous in a way that made her throat close up and her tongue feel numb.

"Put me down!" she snapped, hitting him in the shoulder; and when that didn't work, Sakura attempted to push away, scrabbling to get a good enough foothold to break free. "I mean it!"

Naruto hissed when her foot slid along his inner thigh, and gripped her waist harder. "Don't do that," he said tightly. "I can't--"

Sakura's lips pulled back from her teeth slightly as they passed through the bedroom doorway, and then she deliberately did it again.

Naruto growled low in his chest, and suddenly let her drop. She landed unsteadily on her feet, and had just a moment to notice Sasuke sprawled across the bed before Naruto grabbed her arms and shoved her against the wall.

Sakura shrieked again, much higher this time, and then made a noise that she didn't even recognize when he bit the skin between her shoulder and throat.

"I'm not leaving again," he snarled, before letting go of her arms and gripping her thighs instead. "I'm not!"

Sakura made a pained noise when he pushed her up--her back scraped against the cheap whitewashed plaster of the wall, and for a second she couldn't get her footing. She managed to find a balance on the balls of her feet, but then Naruto jerked her right thigh up higher and out, and she lost it again.

Sakura shoved him hard in the chest, and then sucked in a breath when the heel of her right foot slammed into the edge of the door frame. Naruto's grip on her thighs tightened until it hurt.

"Stop it!" Sakura shoved him again, squeezing her eyes shut and not caring that she'd just clipped her heel again. "Naruto!!"

Naruto growled again, a noise that turned into a higher snarl when he suddenly wrenched back.

Sakura was dragged partly away from the wall before he let go of her; when she landed hard on the floor, her shoulders banged against it and her head didn't fare much better. She automatically pulled her legs up against her chest before she opened her eyes.

That was when she saw that Naruto hadn't pushed himself away--Sasuke had pulled him. He managed to drag the other man back until he stumbled up against the bed, and then he crashed to the floor as well, still keeping a tight grip on Naruto.

Sasuke clenched his jaw hard when he hit the carpet, trying to smother a pained noise.

"The knot'll hurt her in that position," he said tensely after a moment, and then, "Get your teeth out of my arm, dead last."

Naruto shuddered at that, and Sakura didn't want to know which sentence had brought him back. He yanked away from Sasuke's arm, leaving blood behind. Sakura crossed her ankles and pressed a little farther up against the wall when he spat more blood out.

"Shit, Sasuke, I--Sakura!" He wrenched around to stare at her, making Sakura freeze up.

From the look on his face, that small motion had hurt as much as if she'd kicked him right in the chest. Naruto suddenly tried to scramble backwards; but since there was nowhere back to go, he only wound up smashing Sasuke against the bed frame.

Sasuke's entire body had tensed up at this point. If Sakura hadn't been afraid to look away from Naruto, she would have tried to figure out how bad the damage was.

"I'm sorry, Sakura, Sakura-chan, I'm so sorry, shit, I didn't--I'm sorry, Sakura, don't hate me, please." Naruto tried to pull back again, shaking his head; Sasuke shifted to the side. "I'm so sorry, Sakura-chan, I'm sorry."

She made herself glance at Sasuke, finally; and he was looking straight at her.

Both, Sasuke mouthed when he saw he finally had her attention.

Like even the weakest shadowgirl, Sasuke could sense emotions--the real Naruto was tangled up with the Vurt, and both of them were completely flipping out.

Sakura thought to herself that it wasn't fair that she'd almost been--been--and now she had to comfort him?--but then she shoved that thought down hard.

I know the real Naruto, she said back to that voice. We've all--we've all been through shit. He would never hurt me in reality.

Reality's changed, the other part of her replied before she could stop it, and Sakura swallowed. Reality's never going to be the same aga--

Shut up!

Sakura rocked forward, nearly falling to the side as she did.

"You're bleeding," Naruto said, still in that freaked-out tone, "oh shit, Sakura, I'm really, really sorry."

When she looked down, she saw that he was right--her heel was bleeding from where she'd busted it against the door frame.

"It's--okay," Sakura replied, crawling over slowly. Sasuke wrapped an arm around Naruto's chest, half in an effort to keep the other man from trying to futilely back away any more and half to reassure her. "It's not that bad."

"I'm sorry," Naruto said.

Sakura stopped in front of him. "Okay." She bit her lip, then caught herself and stopped, and leaned her head against his shoulder. "Okay."

Naruto lifted a hand, and Sakura managed not to flinch or even tense up much; but even so it hovered several inches away, afraid to touch her.

He let it drop a moment later.

"Sorry, Sakura," Naruto whispered almost inaudibly.

"Okay," she said again, keeping her forehead resting on his shoulder, but not closing her eyes. At the edge of her vision, she could see Sasuke shift again.

She wasn't sure how much time passed after that, with the three of them not speaking and just breathing, but Sasuke must have eventually decided that they'd calmed down, because he finally pulled his arm away from Naruto's chest.

"I need to bandage this," he said, voice at its normal tone but still startlingly loud after the quiet. "Sakura, come help me. You need to dry off."

". . . Yeah," she mumbled.
-

Sasuke cut off the shower while Sakura dried off quickly and wrenched on her nightgown. She'd been naked in front of Sasuke once before, but this time . . . it was even weirder now.

She heard him running the tap and cleaning up while she was turned away, so Sakura tried to tug her panties on without rucking her gown up too much, and then--since the water was still going--went to wash her foot off awkwardly at the shower. By the time she'd finished bandaging it, Sasuke was done as well and was rinsing the washcloth out at the sink.

He'd noticed her discomfort. "Do you want me to get dressed first?" he asked seriously, squeezing the cloth out with his good hand.

"No," she replied, a doctor first, and knowing that she'd calm down faster with work to do, "that has to be disinfected. Let me get the kit. . . ."

Sasuke let her wash off the bite (not as deep as she'd first thought, but still bad), apply a liberal amount of antibiotics and wrap it up with minimal hissing or swearing. Sakura knew that was a bad sign--the more pain he tended to be in, the less he griped about it.

She checked the bruising on his hand as well when she was done. "I think your arm's cursed," she commented lamely, even though the swelling had gone down a lot.

Sasuke made a noise in the back of his throat. Sakura let go of his hand, and he let it drop at his side, eying the bandage that was already starting to turn red.

"Are you . . . okay?" she asked, not really sure how to broach the question. He wasn't a normal patient, after all. And he was still naked, too, which just added to the awkwardness.

"Yeah," he replied shortly, before looking over at her. "What about you?"

Sakura nodded and tried to tuck a piece of hair behind her ear, but stopped when she realized how tangled it was. She hadn't gotten to conditioner when . . . it wasn't worth trying to comb it tonight. "Yeah."

Sasuke gave her a long look, and then glanced down at the floor. "He wasn't angry," he told her, quietly so that it wouldn't be heard in the other room. "He was scared--really scared, of losing you. He just . . . showed it wrong."

Sakura bit the inside of her lip, looking at her foot.

". . . Losing us," she corrected, tucking her arms into her elbows. ". . . But . . . that's not like he's ever been before. I told you, that . . . you know, that time, he's always been careful. . . ."

Sasuke closed his eyes, and then rubbed his temple with a thumb; and Sakura realized suddenly that there was something he hadn't told her.

"What?" she asked.

". . . He's affected by both of his vurt characters." Sasuke's voice was low, almost inaudible. "The Naruto and the fox one."

Sakura sucked her bottom lip into her teeth, and then pressed her back against the wall and wrapped her arms around herself.

"It's never been a problem for him before," Sasuke continued. "Tonight was just weird." He paused, and then added, "I'll warn you if it happens again."

". . . Thank you," Sakura whispered.

Sasuke didn't reply; and after several seconds, she turned away. "You can get dressed now."

He snorted humorlessly under his breath, but turned towards the door.
-

When they got back to the bedroom, they found that Naruto was curled up on the very edge of the bed, where Sasuke normally slept, with his face buried in the pillow. The muscles in his back tensed when they came in, but he didn't look up.

Sasuke slept in the middle of the bed for the first time since they'd begun sharing it, partly to give Sakura some extra space between her and Naruto and partly because both of them wanted to be sure they would know it if he went anywhere.

Sakura was kind of surprised that he wasn't starting to rebel against this smothering; it wasn't like him at all. She wasn't sure if she wanted to acknowledge the other reason he was sleeping in the middle enough to thank him, though.

What neither of them had taken into account was the fact that Sasuke had spent almost fifteen years living in a house with a man who, when it really got down to it, terrified him. Therefore, he was much closer to being a ninja than either of them.

Sakura only woke up several minutes after Sasuke had left the bed, when the edge of the blanket had been pulled lower long enough that her shoulder had grown cold.

Her first instinct was to sit up abruptly and shake Naruto awake; but after her eyes adjusted, she could see light through the cracks along the door.

Sakura pressed her fingertips to her mouth, staring at the door, and then finally began the slow task of shifting off the bed without waking Naruto.
-

Sasuke was on the couch, half-lying in a zigzag on his side and doing something with the feather translator device. He pulled his legs in closer when she moved to sit on it as well, but grimaced at the movement. Sakura wedged herself into as small a space as possible at the other end; and Sasuke almost immediately stretched his legs out again.

He'd redressed the bandage on his arm; there was only a faint pinkish stain along it.

". . . How's your heel?" he asked, after they'd been sitting in silence for a while.

"Oh," Sakura said, looking down and lifting it slightly out of reflex. "It's fine. It wasn't that bad a cut."

"Sorry," Sasuke said, voice even quieter now. He was still staring at the FTD, but he wasn't typing or moving through the screens. "I didn't move fast enough."

"It's--" Despite what she wanted, she had to swallow before continuing. "It's okay."

Sasuke looked over at her.

Sakura smiled wanly at him, and then shook her head and looked at the hallway. ". . . I'm still a little . . . but. I'll deal with it. I don't want to leave."

Sasuke looked at her for a little longer, then glanced back down at the FTD, and then closed his eyes and nodded once. ". . . Yeah."

Sakura looked around the room idly, before her purse caught her attention. "--Hey, what time is it?"

Sasuke frowned slightly. ". . . Probably around one, by the traffic," he replied, tilting his head slightly towards the window without moving his body much. Sakura hoped he really was okay and not just putting on a show. "Why?"

"Ino should be done with her sets. . . ." Sakura pushed away from the couch, padding over to the coat rack and her cell phone.

She took the phone into the bathroom to talk, to avoid disturbing Sasuke--she'd caught sight of the FTD's screen while sitting, and it had seemed to be the feather than had contained all the files on Orochimaru. Sasuke had been adding what his brother must have told him about Gaara when he was had come over.

Ino was apparently working late, because the phone rang several times before she picked up (and she was, unfortunately, one of those people who had no problem with talking on the phone while driving); and when she did, the noise of the strip club's upstairs room was audible in the background. "Yes?"

"Hi," Sakura said.

"Do you need me to come over?" was Ino's immediate reaction. "I can skip this last set."

"--Wow, it's really been bad, hasn't it?" Sakura said, reflecting.

"Yeah," Ino replied, managing to drawl and lift the end of the word sarcastically at the same time. She shifted the phone. "So?"

Sakura heard the bedroom door open, and looked over even though she'd closed the bathroom one. The floor creaked slightly as Naruto headed into the living room.

". . . No," she said, softly. She started to run a hand through her bangs, but then winced when she was reminded about the tangles. "I'm okay."

"Sakura, it's one in the morning," Ino replied. "'Okay' people don't need to call now. Are you sure you don't want me to come over or get you or anything?"

"No," she answered a little more firmly, shaking her head. "I--I don't think I could stand to see you yet. I just . . . wanted to hear your voice."

The background noise died down some; Ino must have moved to a quieter corner. When she spoke, her voice was lower. "What happened?"

". . . We played the rest of Konoha," Sakura answered, making a wry face when she heard Ino suck in a breath. "Pretty much straight through, to get it over with. I'm still kind of. . . ."

"How'd it end?" Ino asked, sounding worried.

Sakura chewed on her lip. "It. . . ."

She thought of Sasuke on the bridge, and the pain in her neck, and the desperation in his voice when he'd screamed at Naruto, and the way he'd walked away from them and from Itachi and straight to Orochimaru and then thought of that burning, choking red chakra and Naruto's hands on her thighs.

When Ino said her name again, Sakura realized that her breathing had sped up.

"I can't," she said, leaning forward and resting her forehead on her knees. "I can't right now, Ino. It was bad. I'll tell you later, okay?"

"Okay," Ino replied, soothingly. "Sure, whenever you're ready, Sakura. Just call me."

Sakura closed her eyes, and then pressed a fist against her mouth for several seconds.

When she pulled it away again, she said, "Make sure Shikamaru passes bar soon, okay?"

"I'm trying, believe me," Ino drawled. "Why?"

". . . You may need it," was all Sakura could bring herself to say. The three of them hadn't even figured out what they were going to do yet, aside from Naruto's not entirely joking suggestion that they bribe a Vaz trucker and run away to another city; she didn't know what she could tell Ino. "Sasuke's brother--he's real."

"What?"

Sakura pressed the fist against her knee. "He's just some corporate businessman, but there is a gang called the Akatsuki. Sasuke said he's trying to get away from them, so he probably can't do much on his own . . . you've never told anyone about Sasuke, right?"

". . . No," Ino said, and her voice was sliding towards a nervous tone. "Nobody."

"Then you should be okay," Sakura said firmly. "Like I said, I don't think--I don't think he can reach that far."

". . . You're not telling me something," Ino replied, after a moment.

Sakura smiled thinly, and wished she could have pulled something past Ino just once. ". . . Yeah. I'll--tell you about it with all the rest. Will tomorrow afternoon be okay?"

"Yeah," Ino said.

". . . I'm sorry," Sakura added, quietly, looking down at the bathmat. "I didn't mean to get you caught up in this."

"Why are you apologizing?" Ino retorted. "Naruto's the one who bought that damn game in the first place! When I see him again I'm gonna kick his ass."

Sakura laughed slightly.

In the background, someone called Ino's name. She yelled something back, covering the mouthpiece, and then lifted her hand away again. "Are you sure you're okay?"

"Yeah," Sakura replied. "I will be."

She could picture the face Ino was making at that, so she went on before the other woman could say anything. "Be careful on your way home, okay?"

"Sakura," Ino replied, in that mock haughty tone she knew well, along with its accompanying smirk, "I'm a stripper. I carry an arsenal in my purse any old day."

Sakura's smile was finally genuine. "Okay."

"I'll call you tomorrow."

"Okay."

Ino lingered on the line for a few more moments, despite that; but she finally hung up first. Sakura closed her phone and looked over at the door again.
-

When she finally brought herself to open it, she heard Sasuke say "--brother's a kabuki actor in Kyoto."

"Seriously?" Naruto replied. "Why were he and Temari here, then?"

"Same reason as everything else," Sasuke replied with admittedly well-justified cynicism.

Naruto bit his lip when Sakura came into sight, and shifted awkwardly. She noticed that Sasuke was sitting up straight now, the lines of his face tense.

Naruto started to push away from the couch as she got closer, but Sakura shook her head at him. She sat down in the free space a moment later, pulling her legs up onto the couch and leaning back against his side. She was still clutching the phone in her hand, and she carefully placed one foot so that her toes were just touching Sasuke's thigh.

"Was there proof of that?" she asked, referring to his last statement before she walked into room.

Sasuke shook his head slightly. He'd noticed her foot, but didn't say anything about it. "Conjecture," he replied. "If there's proof, it's above his level."

Sakura let out a relieved breath. Behind her, she heard Naruto mumble, "Good to know something is," but his tone made it clear that he was thinking about the game, not earlier.

". . . What should we do?" she asked a moment later, when Naruto had shifted slightly behind her.

"What did Ino say?" Sasuke asked.

Sakura pulled her other leg up closer to her chest, and then wrapped her arms around her knee. "I . . . don't think she really gets it yet, but. That's my fault. I asked her to see me tomorrow, that I'd tell her about it all then. . . ."

She pulled the leg a little closer. Sasuke looked back down at the feather translator, and then moved to save the file.

"Maybe we should move to the edge of the city," Naruto suggested.

Sasuke looked over at him; Sakura tilted her head back slightly, but then became uncomfortably aware of how it bared her throat and tilted it to the side instead.

"The farther from the center, the farther from control, right?" he said. "He'd have a harder time getting us there."

"But . . . the edges. . . ." Sakura bit her lip.

"It's not that far from the workshop," Naruto continued, shifting again. Sakura scooted forward slightly so that he could arrange his arm more comfortably. "And Shizune's place isn't that far from there! So it's not, you know, really that much of a change. . . ."

"Uh-huh."

Sakura glanced at Sasuke, who was still staring down at the FTD and hadn't spoken yet.

It took a lot of effort to say her next words. ". . . Maybe if we split up for a little while. . . ."

Naruto jerked around, half-pulling himself up off the couch; Sakura jumped. "What?!"

"Not--no, Naruto, not like--I don't want to leave either," she replied abruptly, finally saying what she'd tried to avoid while talking to Ino. "I don't. I don't. But. Just for a little while, until things are better."

"Things don't just get better," Naruto said, and she could feel how he'd tensed even though he was keeping his voice gentle. "You have to make them."

"Sometimes you make them by pulling away for a little while when they're too dangerous," she replied softly.

She heard the noise of nails scraping across cloth as Naruto clenched a fist around the arm of the couch.

"I've been saving part of my pay," Sasuke finally said. "It's not much; I had to put most of it into the account to avoid suspicion. But it should be enough to pay for food and electricity for a while."

Naruto's chin brushed her hair as he turned to look at the other man.

"It won't cover rent for long, even on the edge," Sasuke added, just in case they hadn't got it.

Sakura could feel the corners of her lips quirking, into a little, odd smile. She glanced down at the couch rather than risking letting Sasuke see her like that. ". . . I've got a lot saved up," she added. "I'll set up a new account, but it should hold us for a few months."

"You need that money for med school," he replied.

"That's--"

"I can get work anywhere in the pornovurt industry," Naruto interrupted. "Even if the old bastard fires me without a reference, I know more than enough to get a better paying job somewhere else." He leaned back into the couch. "We can cover money."

Sakura looked over at the window, over the back of the couch. ". . . Ms. Shizune probably won't keep me much longer, she's really nervous . . . but I can get a different job. Clerk work or something. Or a better scholarship this time."

Naruto glanced over her head at Sasuke, who was still saving files on the FTD. "We'll be okay."

His tone allowed reality to brook no argument. Sakura smiled faintly.

"I think . . . they'll be okay," she said, very quietly. "If they're even a little like us, I think--"

"I hope he fails," Sasuke said flatly.

Both Naruto and Sakura looked at him.

"Hey," Naruto said, after a few moments, "he was just a kid. After all that Itachi--"

"I--" Sasuke interrupted again. "I woke up because I had a--I dreamed--. . . ."

He rested his hands flat on the keyboard of the feather translator, but then suddenly clenched his left one into a fist.

"I could feel my hand through your chest," Sasuke said through his teeth, spitting the words out. "I hope he fails and dies."

Sakura pressed the sole of her foot against his thigh.

"I don't," she replied. "The three of them will be okay in the end, even if it's hard."

"Yeah, because that--" Sasuke caught himself on the sarcasm fairly soon this time, however, and exhaled before unclenching his jaw slightly. "They don't have a great track record so far."

"That's how I think the story ends, and that's what I'm sticking with," she retorted.

Several more minutes passed, as they sat on the couch; and it was Sasuke who at last broached the subject.

"That wasn't the end, was it?" he said, finally looking up and over her shoulder at Naruto.

Naruto let his head fall back against the top of the couch, staring up at the ceiling.

He closed his eyes before confessing. "Kabuto said it was the end of the first part."

"Bastard," Sakura muttered, thinking of the look on Kabuto's face when he'd kicked Naruto in the ribs during the sannins' fight. "I hope his life at the Sound sucks."

Sasuke actually snerked once, under his breath; and Sakura thought of way he'd made Kabuto get a nervous look in the last moments they'd seen him.

Kick his ass, she thought to his Vurt version.

She jumped when Sasuke snapped the FTD shut, and heard Naruto swallow.

"The hell with this," Sasuke said, standing up gingerly and dropping the FTD onto the couch where he'd been. "I'm going back to sleep."

Naruto lifted his head; Sasuke glanced at him, and then looked down the hall toward the bedroom.

". . . Yeah," Sakura agreed, swinging her legs over the edge of the couch. "It's too late to try and deal with this. We'll think better in the morning."

Naruto started to push himself off the couch once she was standing. Sakura hesitated for a moment, and then turned around and offered him a hand.

Naruto glanced at it before looking up at her face, expression sliding from confusion to worry. She raised an eyebrow.

When Naruto took her hand and stood up, Sakura looked over at Sasuke, who was still waiting on the two of them. "Do you want me to re-bandage your arm?"

He shook his head briefly. "It'll last to morning."

She nodded once. "Okay."

Sasuke turned and headed back to the bedroom. Naruto was moving slower, so they wound up lingering a few steps behind him.

". . . I'm sorry," Naruto said to her, after they'd passed the bathroom.

Sakura squeezed his hand and didn't reply.
-

They were all too wired to fall asleep quickly, even though they were all tired. Several minutes passed before Naruto said, "Hey."

"Mph?" was Sakura's reply as she pulled the blanket down slightly. Sasuke, still sleeping in the middle, just grunted.

"I heard about this one guy, Hobart's Law gave him some Vurt creature that became his girlfriend or something," Naruto continued. "And he didn't want to risk her being taken back without him, so they braided their hair together until there was no way to separate it, so that it'd have to take them both."

"Oh, that's just an urban myth," Sakura murmured, curling up a little more under the blanket.

"Not a chance in hell," Sasuke replied.

Kabuto's apartment was a one-bedroom one, but his futon was set up in the living room, along with all the other necessities of life. He'd converted the bedroom proper into a feather workshop, the equipment of which would have made Naruto jealous--and Jiraiya's workshop was fairly cutting edge, since he had the money from the original Konohas and several other blacks to fund it in addition to the pinks' revenue. He'd set the workshop up in the bedroom half because it would give him an extra room's worth of warning if anyone ever entered, and half because the bathroom connected to the bedroom and Kabuto had considered it pragmatic to have it be by the area he spent the majority of his time in.

He was carefully hanging a black feather with yellow tints to the drying rack when Orochimaru appeared behind him.

Kabuto jumped--still not used to knowing someone who could move through the Vurt and thus not be constrained by reality--and then was glad that he'd gotten the feather attached so that it hadn't dropped while still wet with the phantasm liquid.

"Sir," he said, turning around.

"Do you have it?" Orochimaru replied, as usual eschewing even the most basic of greetings and speaking with that odd, inhuman voice that Kabuto had uncomfortably realized he was getting used to.

"Yes," he replied, moving over to a feather translator device that was sitting beside a packet of silvers on a second table. Orochimaru followed his movements with his eyes and turned his head when necessary, but his body remained still.

Kabuto saved the file he'd been working on earlier one last time from habit, then closed it and ejected the silver feather from the FTD. He turned around and brought it over to Orochimaru.

"They finished the first part in one rush just a few hours ago," he said, as the Game Cat lifted the feather from his hand with an odd motion that Kabuto could only think of as 'like calling to like.'

"I know," Orochimaru replied.

Of course. "I've received a buying request for the game from Itachi Uchiha," he added. "What do you want me to do?"

Orochimaru ran a fingertip up the fringe of the silver, considering for a few moments.

"Let him have it," he finally said. "If he gets that involved, Sasuke-kun will only become more desperate."

"Understood."

Orochimaru disappeared then, leaving Kabuto with the same head rush of reality and Vurt combining unnaturally that always prevented him from actually seeing how the Game Cat managed it.

Once he was gone, Kabuto breathed out evenly. Then he went to shut down the FTD before returning to work on the next feather.