Warnings: dialogue, language, bit of NaruSasu smut

Part 10: Direct

The Academy was a large collection of buildings set near what Naruto identified as the Hokage Mountain. There were heads carved on the mountain to represent each of the previous Hokages. In Sasuke's opinion the one for the Fourth was a poor representation at best. The academy itself didn't look like much from the outside. Naruto showed him the entrance students used, and the small training area set behind the building. There were separate training areas the academy used for what Naruto referred to as 'away' classes. Otherwise pregenin spent most of their time inside or right beside the building. The mission room was off to the side in a separate area. It was a very spacious room, though Naruto was quick to tell him it filled up fast by mid-afternoon and could get downright crowded in the evenings. Several chunin were setting things up, and Naruto pointed out the seats in the center of the semi-circular tables that he and his father would be taking. Then he led him through a back door and into a small break room. The man waiting for them had dark hair pulled into a thick tail on the back of his head, a chunin uniform, and a distinct scar across the bridge of his nose. The scar caught Sasuke's attention so he remained rooted in place as Naruto hurried forward.

"What's all of that?" Naruto asked, looking at the stack of scrolls on the table in front of the man. "Are you going to assign him homework?"

"It's just some reading material," the man said in a lightly teasing tone. "Some people like useful things to read and I know what your library consists of." He stood and gave Naruto a pointed look. "Are you going to introduce us?"

"Sure," Naruto grinned. "Sasuke, this is Umino Iruka. Iruka-sensei to just about everyone who's graduated from the academy since he started teaching there."

Sasuke stepped forward with a pronounced frown. The man's voice was as familiar as the scar. "Were you in Grass eight and a half years ago? In June? Accompanied by a female shinobi with short dark hair?"

Iruka's eyes widened and his mouth dropped open. "The gopher hole? You mean someone was actually in there?"

"No," Sasuke smirked. "If you had dug it up all you would have found was a hare. But I was close enough to hear every word you said."

"Then you know what I told her?" Iruka asked, looking both suspicious and embarrassed.

"You're being paranoid," Sasuke quoted, mimicking the man's patient tone. "You're more likely to dig up an owl than an enemy." He quirked an eyebrow as he recalled how confused he had been by that. At the time he hadn't been familiar with the way some teams spoke in code. "What did you mean by that?"

"It was an inside joke," Iruka admitted with a wry grin.

"So is this," Naruto said loudly, scowling at the two of them. "What the hell? You know each other?"

"Not exactly," said Sasuke. "Just a chance encounter. They passed within a few feet of where I was hiding."

"We were that close?" Iruka grimaced. "Anko was sure she sensed someone, but all we could find was that hole. You followed us, didn't you." It wasn't a question. "She was paranoid for nearly two hours after I finally convinced her not to dig that hole up."

"I only trailed you for one hour. Did she hear me?" He'd been very careful. He had only followed to be sure they were really leaving the area and not lying in wait for him to break cover.

"She didn't hear or see anything. That's the only reason we didn't stop or go back." Iruka sighed, shaking his head with a weak smile. "I was sure she was just imagining things. I should have known her instincts were sharper than mine."

Sasuke noticed the way Naruto was grumbling under his breath. He raised an eyebrow at him. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing," Naruto muttered sarcastically. "It's nice that you two get along so well. If Anko was involved in your little 'chance encounter' then I guess you'll be making friends with her next. I can just see the two of you bonding over dango."

Was he jealous? Sasuke suspected he was, especially when Iruka smiled in amusement.

"We'll make it Ichiraku's," Iruka assured Naruto. "That way you can come along."'

"Yeah, because me and Anko get along so well. Did Kakashi tell you he summons snakes? And Ibiki 'impressed' him." He nodded when Iruka's eyebrow rose. "I know, right? So you can see why I'm not exactly eager for those two to meet." He turned his frown on Sasuke. "It's only fair that you at least meet my friends before you decide to hang out with people twice our age."

"I am not twice your age," Iruka muttered, his eyebrow twitching visibly.

"Ibiki has got to be," Naruto insisted. He went back to frowning at Sasuke. "Just give my friends a chance first, okay? Anko doesn't like me, so it's not right for you to meet her before you meet the people who do like me."

"You can introduce me to people in whatever order you like, or not at all for that matter," Sasuke said calmly. Naruto wasn't just jealous and feeling left out, he was worried. And he had a good reason to be. If Sasuke were honest he was far more interested in meeting shinobi old enough for him to have encountered them during his own missions. With Naruto's friends he would have to be civil and feign interest whether he had any or not. There were only two that he was looking forward to meeting, Hyuuga Neji and the boy Naruto claimed had made chunin on taijutsu alone. He would be lucky if he got along with those two, let alone all of the others Naruto had rambled on about last night.

Naruto relaxed enough to smile. "Okay, then. You heard him," he said to Iruka. "Don't you go setting him up with Anko behind my back."

"I won't," Iruka promised in a droll voice.

"Good. I'll see you later, Sasuke."

Iruka sat down, offering a smile when Sasuke sat across the table from him. "What he's really worried about is that you'll find out how many of the older shinobi refer to him as 'the brat'. Anko likes to call him that to his face just to annoy him. I've tried to explain to him that she teases him as a sign of affection, but he doesn't believe me."

"I've already heard a number of people refer to him that way." To him it showed a pronounced lack of respect. "Is it common here for people to 'show affection' with insults?"

"Yes. Yes, it is." Iruka's expression was utterly serious for a long moment before he smiled. "Kakashi says you hate him. I'm sorry if he got off on the wrong foot with you. He should have known better than to treat you the way he did Naruto and Sakura. He really is a very skilled shinobi, he just has a unique sense of humor that takes some getting used to."

Sasuke would rather not have to get used to it. "Naruto said you would answer any questions I have. Is there a limit to that?"

"Well, I'm limited to what I know the answers to. But if you mean taboo subjects, then no, nothing is off limits as far as I know."

"Why were you in Grass?" asked Sasuke. "Was it a coincidence that you passed so close to me or did I leave some sign behind that caught your eye?"

Iruka's eyebrows rose, as if he were surprised by the question. "I was wrong," he admitted, with a wince. "There are some taboo subjects I can't discuss. The details of our mission are classified, so I can't tell you why we were in Grass. I can tell you that we didn't see anything that led us to that hole. We were just passing by it when Anko noticed that the dirt had been disturbed. You said it was a rabbit?"

"Inside the hole. It was chased into it by a canine. That's what did the digging." If he had known more about summons back then he might have connected the mangy dog with the two shinobi who showed up soon after. As it was, he had simply driven it away. "What did you do to your forehead protectors? A henge?" He had encountered plenty of shinobi who didn't wear them at all during missions. Theirs had been blank.

"No, we have blank ones to wear when we don't want to be identified. Doesn't Sand do the same?"

"I wouldn't know," Sasuke admitted. None of the hidden villages he had worked for had supplied him with a blank, so it was probably either a Konoha tradition or something villages only gave to their own shinobi. "Why is Konoha considered strong?" He realized he should have segued into that. Iruka looked startled.

"By whom?" Iruka asked carefully. "I'm not sure what you mean."

"When my Sand instructor mentioned Konoha, he said it as if everyone knows of the village and either fears or respects it. If that's true, then why do they?"

Iruka offered him an apologetic smile. "I hope you won't take this the wrong way, but that's a very loaded question. Some people would suspect your motives in asking that. I don't, but others might. It's best not to be too straight-forward."

"You said I could ask anything."

"I know. The simple answer is that Konoha has more kages than the other villages. We have the fourth Hokage, Naruto's father, who built a name for himself long before taking up the position. Then we have two of the Sannin, Tsunade and Jiraiya. They're kage-level ninja and could take over in an instant should anything happen to the fourth. It's rare for both of them to be in the village at the same time, but they maintain contact and can be called in quickly. Then there's Naruto, who has been trained by both Jiraiya and the fourth, and who is also host to the nine-tails. Taken collectively, it means very few countries would risk an open war with Fire. A single hidden village wouldn't have a chance against us, and we have strong alliances to call upon should two or more join forces against us."

"Then you're not worried about Mist and Sound joining forces?"

Iruka winced. "It's different when Sound is involved. They never make open alliances. The hidden Mist village is nearly as bad if not worse. The moment one of their shinobi is caught attacking an ally they simply dub him a missin nin to absolve themselves of blame. It's impossible to know how many of their missing-nin were merely following orders. You should talk to Ibiki about that. He works in the Intelligence division, so he knows a lot more about it than I do. All I can tell you is what we consider common knowledge for shinobi here. You'll need clearance if you want specific details on the information we've gathered."

"I'll stick with being let in on the 'common knowledge' that I'm currently lacking." He tried to keep resentment from creeping into his tone. He had been trained not to ask questions, but it was his own fault he had been too obedient to seek out answers for himself. Part of him had been perfectly content to simply follow orders without understanding anything about the people or villages he interacted with. It was no wonder he'd been left out of so much. "Why did the clan leave Konoha? Is that considered common knowledge as well?"

"Everyone over a certain age knows something about it, but no one really talks about it anymore. Few people your age know the full story, just the rumors. The Uchiha clan left because of rumors." Iruka folded his arms over his chest. He didn't drop his eyes, but it was clear from his uncomfortable expression that he wanted to. "Naruto said he hadn't told you anything. That's because his mother was the last host for the ninetails. She was an Uzumaki, the clan that traditionally hosted Kyuubi. Naruto took her name rather than his father's because he is continuing that tradition. She died shortly after giving birth to Naruto because someone set the ninetails free. The last thing she did was help to seal it in Naruto. By then it had already killed many shinobi, including both of my parents. Rumor had it that only someone with the sharingan could have released Kyuubi and controlled it well enough to set it on the village."

"An Uchiha."

"Kakashi has a sharingan and he isn't an Uchiha," Iruka said firmly. "I was there during the attack. Members of the Uchiha clan died trying to defend the village just the same as everyone else. The man who claimed responsibility masked his face so it's impossible to say if he was an Uchiha or not. The third hokage sacrificed his life in order to kill him, so we know he paid for his crime. But the body disappeared during the confusion. Someone in Konoha took it before it could be identified. Suspicions started immediately. The clan suspected someone had done it to incriminate them, while others suspected the clan had done it to avoid being incriminated."

"Which do you believe?" Sasuke asked curiously.

Iruka dropped his eyes. "I honestly didn't care. My parents were dead and the demon that killed them was still alive. It took a long time before I fully understood what it meant that the ninetails was controlled. Its first instinct was to escape. It would never have voluntarily attacked the village and risked being imprisoned again. At the time, I blamed Kyuubi rather than the man who had controlled him. I couldn't understand why people were so concerned with who that man had been. He died. Even if he was an Uchiha, he obviously wasn't acting on behalf of the clan. I didn't have much sympathy for the clan, either," he admitted. "The Hokage supported them completely. All of the Uchiha were accounted for during the attack and the Hokage himself said they weren't to blame. And even if someone had taken the body in order to incriminate the clan, that doesn't necessarily mean it was a member of the village. It could have been a missing-nin for all we know. There is no way in which Konoha stood to gain from losing the Uchiha clan. If a member of the village was responsible for that he certainly wasn't acting on behalf of the village as a whole."

"In retrospect, which do you think is more likely?"

"Honestly?" Iruka sighed. "I think we may have had a traitor in our midst. Whether he was working with one of our enemies or not, he did as much damage to Konoha as Kyuubi's attack. The Hokage did his best to squash the rumors and reassure the clan, but with so many dead, including his own wife, and Naruto just a newborn, it was nearly a year before he could tackle the growing discord. By then the clan was completely isolated and any trust they had that the Hokage could guarantee their safety was long gone. The rumors had gotten completely out of control. There was even talk that the Hyuuga clan might join the Uchiha clan in a revolt against the village. I know you aren't familiar enough with the Hyuuga clan to understand how ridiculous that theory was, but a lot of people were worried enough to believe it. There was a strong feeling that the clan was a threat to the village which should be removed. But the Hokage was the clan's most vocal supporter right up until the end."

"Did he suggest the clan leave?"

"Absolutely not. The clan demanded the right to leave. He convinced them to stay for another year, and when they still wanted to leave he finally let them go. The rumors had died down by then, but he wasn't able to rebuild the trust lost on both sides. I don't know if the clan still didn't feel safe or if they simply refused to live alongside shinobi so quick to turn against them. The rumors exploded when they left. It was unheard of for an entire clan to simply break away from their village that way. That it happened to us was horrible. Everyone worried about what they might do in retaliation. A lot of people worried they would join forces with one of our enemies or start their own village in competition with ours. I was a pregenin in the Academy by then, so I didn't pay as much attention as I should have. I was just relieved to see it all end without any bloodshed. When the clan finally settled on the outskirts of Sand everyone stopped talking about them. It was as if they no longer existed. We didn't bother them and they didn't bother us. By the time I started teaching at the academy the instructors had even stopped using the sharingan when discussing doujutsu. It was an intentional omission."

Assuming he was close to Naruto's age he would have been at least two by the time the clan left, too young to remember anything. But Itachi must have been old enough to have experienced all of it. He might even know whether the clan had been involved in the demon's attack or not. Sasuke doubted they'd had anything to do with it, if only because they hadn't stood to gain anything by turning their own village against them. He wondered if Itachi harbored the same resentments toward Konoha that the rest of the clan must have when they left. That might explain why he had openly infiltrated this village. Or maybe it had nothing to do with it at all. He was no closer to assigning Itachi a likely motive than he had been yesterday.

"What is the feeling in this village now, after what Itachi did and the resulting truce?"

"Confusion and relief," Iruka smiled. "As far as most people know, Itachi didn't cause any damage while he was here. A few of us know he put Kakashi into a coma, but Tsunade-sama brought him out of it within the hour. The other two shinobi who engaged him directly weren't injured at all. Most people are concerned about the fact that he had a missing-nin from Mist with him, but Kakashi says he stood down the entire time. No one knows what they were doing here or why, so there's more confusion about it than fear. As for the truce, the general consensus is 'better late than never.' Those old enough to have held suspicions against the clan have seen what happens when the clan is dealing with everyone except us. We're the ones who've lost out and even they have to admit it. There are some who will still view the clan with mistrust, and you by association, but you can be sure the Hokage will be watching them as closely as they're watching you. This truce is important to Konoha."

"Why? If Konoha has as many replacement kages as you say, then what need do you have for a truce with my clan?" The clan was no threat. The mangekyou sharingan might enable Itachi to fight a kage-level shinobi, but he was just one person. Even if he teamed up with the leader of Sound that would still put Konoha ahead by a Sannin and Naruto. "What does Konoha have to fear from my clan?"

"The sharingan," Iruka said soberly. "Only a sharingan can control the ninetails. That rumor happened to be true. That's the fear that caused the clan to leave, and that fear will continue to exist so long as the sharingan and Kyuubi do."

"Any sharingan?" Why had he told him that? More importantly, why hadn't Naruto? He'd been activating the sharingan around him since the first day they'd met. Surely he would have warned him against using it around him if there was a chance it might set off his demon.

"No, not just any sharingan." Iruka must have seen how disturbed he was because his tone was reassuring. "I didn't tell you that to put you on notice. I told you because it's common knowledge and you deserve to know why some people will be nervous at having you so close to Naruto. Kakashi has been using the sharingan with Naruto for years without it affecting his seal, but you're an Uchiha so people will assume you're as capable of it as whoever did it last time. They don't understand enough about the seal or the sharingan. Naruto's mother was weakened from giving birth and the sharingan used on her was not a normal one. We aren't afraid you'll release Kyuubi, so you shouldn't be either. Kakashi says you don't have the eyes for it."

But Itachi did. Was that why he had come to Konoha, simply to reveal the mangekyou sharingan? He didn't know why Itachi would want them to know he had those eyes. All he'd done was make himself a target. Maybe that was the point, though. If he did join up with Sound, Mist, or both, then Konoha would know their enemies had the potential to set Kyuubi against them. A truce with the rest of the clan wouldn't help them in that case. If the mangekyou sharingan was required to control Kyuubi then only someone with the same eyes would be able to counter whatever commands Itachi gave. If Konoha was counting on someone else in the clan having those eyes they were going to be very disappointed. Just finding shinobi with the normal sharingan was getting more difficult by the year.

"Kakashi told me not to use genjutsu on Naruto," said Sasuke. "If there's no chance of my sharingan affecting Kyuubi, why did he tell me that?"

"There's no chance of your sharingan releasing Kyuubi, but there's a very good chance you could affect him." Iruka didn't seem at all hesitant about revealing that. "A strong enough genjutsu could put you in direct contact with him. Naruto might welcome that eventually, but right now it would only cause trouble. The Hokage doesn't want either of you experimenting with that. I doubt Naruto would suggest it any time soon, but if he does it will be up to you to refuse. That's why Kakashi warned you." Iruka gave a slight smile. "He thinks you might be better at following the Hokage's orders than Naruto is."

They weren't even considering the possibility of the clan breaking the truce, leaving him free to cause whatever damage he could on their behalf. The clan wasn't strong enough to risk becoming enemies with Konoha now, but there was no telling what sort of sharingan-holders they might have five, ten, even twenty years from now. There was even a chance, however unlikely, that Itachi would return to the clan, giving them the very eyes this village feared most. He wondered why they weren't worried about that possibility. Perhaps they really were hoping to form an actual alliance with the clan. Now was the best time to do that, before the clan had regained enough strength to pose a real threat.

"Tell me what pregenin are required to know in order to graduate from the Academy," said Sasuke. "Naruto said you could explain the ranks to me."

Iruka was happy to oblige him. Sasuke listened intently and with growing surprise. Pregenin started the academy as young as six, which was the same age he'd been when he began learning to use his chakra. But they weren't required to know anything when they arrived. If they had the desire to enter they were accepted whether they had potential or not. They were then allowed to remain no matter how badly they performed until they passed the final test or dropped out on their own. Sasuke couldn't help imagining classes spotted with grown men too incompetent to be shinobi but too stubborn to simply give up. There was a lot of theory taught, according to Iruka, that Sasuke was frankly skeptical about. His aim was as close to perfect as he could get it, but even he couldn't work out a theoretical problem with angles and forces such as the ones Iruka described. He doubted even Itachi could use numbers to explain what he did through sight and practice.

"Are you telling me every pregenin who graduates from your Academy is capable of solving problems like that? Including Naruto?"

Iruka laughed. "No, not even close. Naruto never did well on the written tests. Those are some of the things we teach, but few students have the skills to plan out and explain their actions in a theoretical setting. The graduation exam relies mostly on practical skills, taijutsu and weapon usage, trap building, and the basic jutsu like transformation, clones, and replacement."

"Not teleportation?"

"No, that isn't learned until you pass the chunin exam. Some do pick it up early, but it isn't taught to genin as a rule because we don't want them abusing the privilege. It's considered a chunin level technique here, not so much because of the difficulty as because that prevents genin from popping in and out of places they have no business being."

"And the kage bunshin jutsu?"

"Is forbidden." Iruka's voice was firm, but his eyes shone with amusement. "Don't let Naruto convince you otherwise. He had no business learning it so young. He was lucky he had the chakra to pull it off." A small smile made it to his lips as he admitted, "Kakashi mentioned that you used it to duplicate weapons. He was very surprised. I hope you know better than to make too many duplicates of yourself. If you make fifty clones each one will have one fiftieth of your chakra, and so will you. If that isn't enough to keep you alive you'll die the moment you perform the jutsu. That's why it's considered a forbidden technique. For ranking purposes, that makes it a jounin level technique by default. Even then only those who know to limit the number of clones to a safe level are allowed to learn it. Who taught it to you?"

"A Sound shinobi." Who he now knew had been a Konoha shinobi in disguise. Or the other way around. He might have known. Maybe the jutsu really was limited to Konoha, with traitors being the exceptions that carried it to other villages. "What about summoning? Naruto implied few people do it here."

"That's a tough one," Iruka sighed. "Technically anyone can make a pact if they have the chakra to do so. It isn't taught at any specific rank. Few people start experimenting with summons until they make chunin, though, and only special and full jounin rely on them regularly. I'm guessing Naruto told you that Anko summons snakes. She learned that as a genin. And Naruto was six when he summoned his first tadpole. By the time he graduated from the Academy he was already summoning Gamabunta. There really are no set rules about summoning."

"What are genin required to know in order to make chunin? Naruto told me about the second stage of his chunin exam, but I don't understand the point of it."

"The survival test," Iruka nodded. "It's just what it sounds like. The point is to survive by relying on teamwork, evading other teams and targeting those who carry the scroll needed. Technically Naruto and Sakura failed that test because their third member didn't finish with them. Not every chunin exam includes that test, though, so the Hokage made an exception for them and Gaara. All three of them slept through the final test, which involved battle strategy in one-on-one fights. The first test focused on information gathering and subterfuge. As a whole, the chunin exam tests how ready genin are to accomplish missions without having a jounin around to help them when they run into trouble. Ideally a chunin should be able to lead a team or accomplish solo missions, depending on the need. There is no set list of techniques that must be learned in order to make chunin. Tree climbing and walking on water are the only things that all genin are taught. Anything beyond that depends on the individual's talents and what their jounin instructor is willing to teach."

Since he knew nothing about teamwork it was just as well he wouldn't be taking their test. "What do chunin learn aside from teleportation that genin aren't expected to know?"

"Seals, advanced ninjutsu, and anything that builds upon their strengths. Those who excell in one or more areas well enough to compete on a jounin level, but who are lacking in other areas may make special jounin. That lets them work in their own specialties. As for those hoping to make jounin, there are certain things that must be learned which I'll leave to Naruto and Kakashi to explain." Iruka shrugged with a smile. "I'm not a jounin, after all. I can tell you that genjutsu is not a requirement for advancement even to jounin level. Naruto told me you were unsure how you compare in that area. It's one of the least appreciated arts. We teach the basics at the academy, but it's up to the individual whether or not they build on that as they advance. Usually it's only those who are good at casting illusions who are also good at dispelling them. If you want to try your weakest level on me, I'd be happy to give you my appraisal."

Sasuke immediately took him up on that offer. He tried it twice, without the sharingan and again with it. He was a little disappointed by how easily Iruka shrugged them both off. After the snake the other night he had started to wonder if all of his genjutsu levels were higher than he had thought now that his sharingan was more advanced. Apparently that wasn't the case. Instead, he'd simply used too much chakra, as usual.

"If that's your lowest level then it's standard genin level genjutsu. I expect everyone graduating from the Academy to be able to dispel that. Those jounin you used it on should be ashamed of themselves." His smile belied the criticism. "Unfortunately it isn't unusual for some shinobi to skip genjutsu altogether. It just isn't considered essential next to taijutsu and ninjutsu. Tell me, do you use more or less chakra when performing that level of genjutsu with the sharingan? The difference in strength was negligible as far as I could tell."

"Neither," Sasuke admitted. "With the sharingan I don't have to use handsigns to focus my chakra, but the amount of chakra I use is the same. With higher levels of genjutsu I do use handsigns, but only to limit the amount of chakra." His natural inclination was to use too much chakra. He had developed that bad habit when he had first started practicing with the sharingan and he had yet to get rid of it when it came to genjutsu. "I rarely used genjutsu before acquiring the sharingan. I was taught to dispel illusions early, though." He had taken that to be as basic as knowing how to dodge. Even with Iruka confirming everything Naruto had said, he still had trouble with the idea of jounin who couldn't even recognize a genin level genjutsu.

"That isn't surprising considering your clan. The Hyuuga clan also uses doujutsu, and every student of theirs that I've taught came to the academy having already learned something about seeing through genjutsu. But they also arrive with naturally better chakra control than their peers. It's just a matter of appealing to your inherent strengths. You take genjutsu for granted because you're an Uchiha. Being good at genjutsu is as natural for a member of your clan as having excellent chakra control."

"I don't have excellent chakra control," Sasuke said darkly. As he had told Naruto, that was part of the clan tradition that had skipped him entirely.

"Really?" Iruka frowned, looking at him closely. Then he raised an eyebrow. "Compared to whom?"

"What?"

"Who are you comparing yourself to? Kakashi said you appeared self-taught for the most part, so I'm curious who you've met with such perfect chakra control that you consider yours inferior. Hyuuga Neji has the best chakra control among the shinobi your age, with Sakura as a close second. I seriously doubt you're far behind them." His lips twitched and he gave in to a wry smile. "You might be far beyond them considering your experience. So who are you comparing yourself to? Jounin?"

"No." He had compared himself to the Uchiha who had come before him. That was when he had first realized he was behind. Sand had confirmed it a few years later. "When I passed Sand's genin test they labeled my chakra usage as wasteful." His eyes narrowed. "Considering the jounin they later assigned to me, the fact that I didn't compare to their own genin tells me everything I need to know."

"Yes," Iruka sighed, "I've heard all about your jounin instructor. I can't say anything about Sand's genin test, but I can suggest a quick way for you to determine if your chakra usage is really wasteful or not. Use the sharingan to see exactly how much chakra you use in a basic jutsu, then have someone else with efficient chakra usage perform the same and compare the two. Just don't use Naruto for your comparison." He flashed a grin. "His chakra usage really is wasteful, especially with basic techniques. As with most everything, he tries a little too hard."

Sasuke didn't accept the suggestion outright, but he knew he would consider it. He had learned to use as little chakra as necessary, but as far as he could tell he hadn't improved much over the years. He was still curious to see where he came out in comparison to the shinobi here. The ones his age had been in the academy until they were between ten and twelve. He wanted to see what being trained in such a controlled environment did for them. That seemed horribly restrictive to him, but it meant they had thoroughly covered the basics before becoming active shinobi. And the moment they left the academy they were taken in by a jounin instructor. Compared to them, he had done everything backwards. It would be interesting to see what sort of difference that made. He decided to ask what sort of missions each rank performed. There were other things he wanted to ask, but if he were going to meet Naruto's friends he wanted to know in advance what sort of work they had been doing.

Iruka was telling him what he knew about the formation of Sound village when Naruto slipped into the room. At first Sasuke hoped he was just checking on them, but Iruka rose, looking startled and apologetic.

"Is it that time already?" he winced. "Sorry, Sasuke. I have an afternoon shift in the mission room, so we'll have to pick up where we left off another time. You can take these." He pushed the scrolls across the table to him. "If you have any questions be sure to pose them to Naruto first. As someone aiming to be the Hokage it's shameful how little he knows. I may need him to sit in with us next time just so he'll learn something."

"You just think I'll pay more attention with Sasuke watching," Naruto grumbled, proving that he would.

Iruka smirked at him, and then nodded to Sasuke. "I look forward to speaking with you again. It's refreshing to teach someone so interested in learning."

Sasuke raised an eyebrow as he watched him hurry from the room. He supposed the man had been teaching him. He hadn't thought of it that way, mostly because Iruka had let him choose the topics. His attention was drawn back to Naruto, who had his arms folded over his chest and was smirking at him. "What?" Sasuke demanded.

"I told you so," Naruto said smugly. "You like him, right? Everyone likes Iruka-sensei."

"He was informative," Sasuke allowed. "I won't claim to like him, though. There's no point getting you jealous again."

Naruto glowered at that, but he didn't deny it. "I just don't want to lose you to older shinobi. I'm really glad you were comfortable with Iruka-sensei. He's great. But if you start hanging out with Anko because of the snake thing, then it's only a step away from you going to Genma because he uses senbon, or Kurenai-sensei because she uses genjutsu. I know you have more in common with the older shinobi than you do with my friends and that bothers me. I'll have to share you eventually, I know that. And I do want you to have people you're comfortable dealing with. I'm just hoping some of my friends can fit that role, at least for now. If you don't like any of them then I promise I'll back off and stop being so possessive."

"Whether I like them or not, I look forward to meeting them. It will be interesting to see what sort of shinobi you surround yourself with." He wondered how many of them would be as emotional as Naruto and Sakura, and if any were as grating as Kakashi. "Iruka answered a lot of my questions about the ranks, but I'm still no closer to determining where I fall. I'll learn more from seeing the chunin you graduated with."

"Neji is a jounin," Naruto said quickly. "Not all of my friends are still chunin, so if it's higher ranking shinobi you're interested in we have that covered. Like I said, Lee is on the fast track to making special jounin with his taijutsu, and Shikamaru's already there. I don't know if you'd like him, though. He doesn't have your drive and sometimes he acts like he doesn't even want to be a shinobi. But he can devise strategies like you wouldn't believe. It's a shame he isn't more ambitious."

"You don't have to convince me to meet them." He didn't want to listen to Naruto ramble on about each one of them when they were only names to him. He gathered up the scrolls Iruka had left and let Naruto transport them back to the apartment. He set them on the table before commenting on one of the things Iruka had told him. "When I first arrived here you had no way of knowing whether I had mangekyou sharingan or not. Knowing what those eyes are capable of, why weren't you afraid of me?"

Naruto was taken by surprise so much that it took him a minute to respond. When he did it was with a small smile. "You're loyal to your clan. Even if you'd had those eyes and knew what they could do, you wouldn't have used them. You were willing to suicide in order to avoid doing anything that would break the truce. There was no reason for me to be afraid of you." His smile widened suddenly so that his eyes glittered deviously. "My dad, on the other hand, wasn't taking any chances. I told you he's been strengthening my seal since he found out I was obsessing over you. Between him and Jiriaya, Kyuubi is as safe as we could hope for. It will take a lot more than a special sharingan to get through their work."

"Then you're not afraid of Itachi attacking you directly?" He was both surprised and disgruntled to hear that. Did this village have no weaknesses at all? That meant Konoha had no reason to fear the clan. He should have been relieved to hear that since it meant the clan was in no danger from them. Maybe he would be relieved later, once his annoyance at Konoha's disproportionate strength wore off. Assuming it did.

"I wouldn't say that," Naruto frowned. "He has a lot more at his disposal than just his eyes. They're labeling him an S-rank missing-nin. If you consider the company he's likely to keep he is a major threat whether he can tamper with my seal or not. There are much simpler ways to hurt this village than trying to release Kyuubi. Until we know what he's up to, we'll have to strengthen our alliances and keep a close eye on our enemies. Even our key allies might be tempted to try something with him on their side. We might not be worried about the mangekyou sharingan itself, but we're definitely worried about Itachi."

That was gratifying to know. Sasuke had to wonder at himself for feeling that way. As an ally of Sand he should want Konoha to be as strong as possible, because that would benefit the clan. But he couldn't help resenting that a single village had such an advantage over the rest. It wasn't fair. He was amused to find himself thinking something so naive. Being a shinobi was all about subjugating or protecting the weak and overpowering or manipulating the strong. Fairness was something for civilians to complain about, people who knew nothing about the sacrifices and effort shinobi put in to give them the peaceful lives they took for granted.

"Do you have anything else planned for today?" asked Sasuke.

Naruto gave him a wary look. "Sort of. Are you up for another shopping trip? We need to get some clothes for you. And we could stock up on equipment while we're out."

"Do you know what happened to the equipment I had on me when I was taken?"

"No, but I can find out. Did you have anything suspicious? It might have been turned over to the T&I department. In that case, we can probably get it back from Ibiki."

"There were a few poisons Konoha might be interested in," Sasuke admitted. "I'm more interested in the packs and the scrolls. If they weren't returned to the clan, I'd like them back."

Naruto quickly offered to find out. It wasn't until they left the apartment that Sasuke realized Naruto had expected him to be reluctant to go shopping with him again. He considered explaining to him that he was far more eager to get clothes and equipment than he had been to buy groceries. Instead he let his interest speak for itself. Where he had been content to let Naruto buy whatever food he liked, he was very particular about the sort of clothing he preferred to wear. Konoha had an assortment of small shops geared to the apparently eclectic tastes of their shinobi. Sasuke had never really been in a position to choose his own outfits, so he was pleased to find most of the things he liked were, according to Naruto, reasonably priced. They were also practical, bland, and subdued. Naruto's protests started the moment they had looked over everything and Sasuke began choosing.

"Mesh is flexible and gives added protection," Naruto insisted. "Lots of shinobi wear it here."

As if the fact that the undershirt Naruto had picked out would be skin tight on him had nothing to do with his preference. "I've worn mesh before," Sasuke informed him. "It was restrictive and uncomfortable. I'm looking for something to train in. Being able to move freely is as important as durability."

"In that case the color shouldn't matter. You don't have to get muddy brown and gray just because you're training in Konoha. A little color won't hurt anything."

"I am not wearing orange."

"It's not orange, it's red!"

"You wear it if you like it so much," Sasuke sniffed dismissively. He did bypass the shades that most closely matched Konoha's standard uniforms, though. Practical as they were, he had enough vanity to admit they wouldn't suit him very well. He settled on dark blue, black, and a pale gray-blue that Naruto practically begged him to take. He considered it a trade-off for refusing to buy white shorts even to sleep in.

Naruto had no issues with his choice in footwear, but they once again butted heads when it came to accessories. Sasuke wasn't surprised that Naruto wanted him to get cuffs like the ones he had worn during their first encounter. He was more interested in the thick wristbands and tight arm-supports himself. He had seen a number of shinobi use those to store things and to cover seals written on their arms. The cuffs Naruto liked so much might look better to him, but their true purpose had been to conceal poisoned senbon. He wouldn't be using those during his training here. He calmly pointed that out and was forced to listen while Naruto tried and failed to convince him otherwise. It was only when the shopkeeper edged closer to better overhear their argument that Sasuke conceded. They quickly left the shop with both. It was Naruto's money, after all, and even Sasuke had to agree that the white cuffs would go well with the pale shirt. At least Naruto hadn't pushed for the matching ankle cuffs. Sasuke had been firm about only buying pants to train in.

They stopped at the T&I building before buying any equipment. The chunin at the front desk was less than happy to see Naruto. He made a valiant effort to dissuade him from barging straight through to Ibiki's office. Sasuke was impressed by how long the man stood his ground before reluctantly offering to go and see if Ibiki was available. Naruto smirked once the man was out of sight.

"He was here when I forced my way in the other day. He just passed the chunin exam last year, so it really bugs him that my entire genin group passed it so quickly. He's also really nervous around Ibiki so this is the worst post he could ask for. I can't resist giving him a hard time. Iruka-sensei tried to get him in at the mission room, but he didn't have the patience for that, either. He's the sort I was telling you about, though. He has a natural talent for seals, which will make him a great special jounin even if he never excels at anything else. He just has to get used to working with the T&I division because they're the ones who need seal experts the most."

Sasuke wondered if Naruto knew as much about all of the shinobi in this village or if this particular man was an exception. That was probably one of the things the Hokage was teaching him, to know his people in order to get the most out of them. He could only imagine how long that would take with a village this size. Naruto might not have the head to remember all of the information Iruka had wanted to impart on him, but that was what advisers were for. Being able to interact with his fellow shinobi was far more valuable for someone in his position. Sasuke didn't see how intentionally irritating that chunin would help anything, but Iruka had admitted Konoha shinobi had a strange way of treating each other. Perhaps by giving the man a 'hard time' Naruto was preparing him to cope with shinobi who were even worse. Whatever worked for them. As long as Naruto didn't expect that sort of harassment to have a similar effect on him it was none of his business.

The chunin did look a little more confident when he returned and informed them that Ibiki was willing to see them. Naruto grinned and clapped him on the shoulder. The man's resulting glower was less than genuine. Sasuke sighed as he followed Naruto down the hall. These Konoha shinobi were a very peculiar bunch. He couldn't fathom how so many members of his clan had grown up here without being infected by their ways. They must have kept their distance even before the incident with Kyuubi forced them into isolation.

"You can have most of it back," Ibiki shrugged, once he understood what they were after. "There are a few poisons we're still studying. We won't be releasing those. We're particularly interested in the one you had in your sandal. Would you care to explain?"

"No."

Ibiki smiled, an expression that was quite eerie on him. "Sand?" He eyed Sasuke closely as if he could see past his blank expression. "That's what I thought. In that case we won't bother consulting with them." He opened a blank scroll and scrawled a quick note on it before sealing it closed. He handed it to Naruto. "What we're done with is in the lower storage room. Have Iwaki fetch it for you. It will give him something to do. As for you," his attention shifted to Sasuke. "Don't go replicating that poison. We don't want you suiciding on our watch. That's a tradition you can leave behind along with the Sand hitaiate."

As soon as the chunin out front had grudgingly left on his errand, Naruto rounded on Sasuke. "What was he talking about?"

"Sand shinobi suicide when captured," Sasuke reminded him. "The poison they use is a strictly guarded secret."

"But you know it?"

He refused to confirm or deny that. Sand wasn't aware that he could duplicate it. "I had a sample on me when I was taken. It was given to me along with their forehead protector. Obviously I never had cause to use it."

"Now you never will," Naruto said determinedly. "I'm glad it's staying here with their forehead protector. I knew they used something, but I had no idea they supplied it to brand new genin. I'll have to talk to Gaara about that. Don't worry, they won't blame you for our getting our hands on a sample. It's their own fault for not taking it back before we picked you up. They shouldn't have given it to you in the first place. Sand shinobi might suicide when captured but Uchihas never have. They might as well have ordered you to hand over the sharingan to anyone lucky enough to capture you. That's insane."

"I didn't have the sharingan when they gave it to me," Sasuke reminded him. He couldn't argue with Naruto's main point, though. His jounin instructor had shown him how to secrete the senbon in a place that allowed him to fight and train without being pricked. That meant he had expected him to carry it in the event he was captured. He should have considered what that would mean as a sharingan-holder. He honestly hadn't given it much thought. Now he wondered if his father had known about that part of his training. He hadn't done any missions after gaining the sharingan, so he supposed it didn't really matter. "It makes no difference now. I certainly won't be using any poisons during our training. Any I do arm myself with will be non-deadly ones or ones I can produce a quick antidote for."

Naruto was too worked up to let it go that easily. He was especially outraged at the thought of genin, which he equated with children, being armed with something so deadly. He seemed to be envisioning large numbers of kids dying due to accidental nicks and scrapes. Sasuke took it as a testament to both his soft spot for children and his unfamiliarity with poisons. He had never heard of a shinobi being accidentally poisoned by his own weapon. Sand might place their preferred suicide methods in dangerous spots but even then it would take a fall or blow in just the wrong way for someone to be pricked by mistake. The odds of that weren't even worth mentioning. He was relieved when the chunin returned with a firm reminder that this was the T&I building and people were trying to work. Naruto immediately switched from ranting about Sand to teasing the man for being such a stickler for the rules. Sasuke took the bag the man had collected and moved closer to the door so he could look through it while Naruto was preoccupied.

"Well?" Naruto asked once he had joined him. He didn't offer to teleport them, so Sasuke stepped outside for the walk back to the apartment.

"I got back more than I expected," said Sasuke. "I won't have to borrow your spare weapons pouch any longer. I'll still need more senbon, but I have plenty of chakra wire. They did keep my summoning scroll, though. What would they want with that?" He wasn't particularly bothered by the loss since most of the contracts on it had expired anyway. He could always start a new scroll if he decided to renew those or make new ones.

"They might be looking at it to see if there's any crossover between you and other snake summoners." Naruto didn't look entirely convinced of that. "Or Ibiki could be hoping to have Anko summon some of your snakes to get a better idea of where you've been..."

That was more likely. Sasuke wasn't concerned about it, though. Few of his past summons had expressed interest in the details of the missions he used them on. Terra could have given them an earful but their contract was still valid. Sasuke couldn't see him coming to heel for a strange shinobi no matter how compelling the summoning ritual was. If summons could be compromised that easily there would be no point in contracting them at all. Besides, if Ibiki wanted to know more about where he had been all he had to do was ask. He had already offered to share information.

Naruto passed the turn that would have taken them to the apartment. Sasuke followed him for another block before asking the obvious. "Where are we going?"

"Ichiraku's?" Naruto asked, with a hopeful grin. "I guarantee they'll have the best ramen you've ever tasted."

Considering how rarely he'd eaten ramen that wasn't saying much. He decided not to point out that they had a refrigerator full of perishables waiting for them back at the apartment. Naruto had mentioned this ramen stand of his enough times that he might as well try it. "That's fine with me."

"Really? Great! Come on, we can get there just in time for the lunch special."

Naruto was every bit the regular customer that he had claimed to be. The older man running the stand was as happy to see him as Naruto was to be there. He was also a civilian and made no attempt to hide his surprise and curiosity when Naruto introduced Sasuke to him. He served Sasuke a bowl on the house and then proceeded to question him. He might have included Naruto if the blonde hadn't been busy gulping down ramen as if his life depended upon it.

"It's true about the truce, then?" the man asked Sasuke. "I've heard the talk that's going around, but it's hard to credit anything you hear when it comes to the Uchiha clan. There was a guy in here yesterday who insisted they'd sent Itachi. I admit there's a family resemblance but that's a pretty sad mistake to make."

"Sasuke's the younger son," Naruto mumbled around a mouthful of ramen. "He looks nothing like Itachi."

"Is that right?" The man grinned easily. "I stand corrected, then."

Sasuke raised an eyebrow at Naruto. "Have you ever seen Itachi?"

"Nope. But Kakashi has and he says you look nothing alike. That's good enough for me."

The ramen seller nodded in agreement. "I head about his run-in with him. Is it true he had to be rescued by Guy-san?"

Naruto choked and almost spit out his ramen. He swallowed with difficulty and then grinned. "Did Lee tell you that?"

"He told me and everyone else within shouting distance." He leaned closer and dropped his voice. "Just between us, I think someone spiked his drink again. He was acting a little loopy by the time Tenten showed up to drag him out of here. There were a couple of genin hanging around who didn't order anything. I'd put my money on them."

Naruto winced. "Girls?"

"Cute ones," the man nodded soberly. "Never seen them around before either."

"They were probably using a henge, then," Naruto sighed. "The last batch of genin have been hounding him ever since they found out he used drunken fist. If they don't cut it out they'll get to see just what they want, and then they'll spend the next year paying for the damage. I'm glad Tenten caught him in time. I definitely don't want him going wild around here."

"Me, either," the man laughed.

Sasuke watched the two of them while he ate. The ramen was as good as Naruto had promised, but he was much more interested in observing the civilian. The man was old enough to have met members of his clan, explaining the resemblance he had noted. He was surprised by how easily the man accepted his presence. The fact that he had shown up with Naruto obviously helped. He wondered if Naruto had intentionally drawn the man's attention away from him. He appreciated it whether it was deliberate or not. He had enough difficulty with Konoha's shinobi without having to deal with their civilians as well. The way they were sitting with their backs exposed to the street did nothing to put him at ease. He finished his bowl and split his attention between the ongoing conversation and the people passing behind them. The flap of the stall hid their faces, so perhaps he had less reason to be nervous than he had thought. Then again, Naruto was wearing orange. No one would need to see his face to know exactly who he was.

"Would you like some more...?"

Sasuke looked around to find the girl who'd been working in the back staring at him with a wide-eyed blush. "No, thank you."

"I'll have some more," Naruto spoke up. There was something devious about his grin. As soon as she and the man went to get him another serving he elbowed Sasuke in the arm. "That's the same blush she gets when Kakashi eats here. She's one of the few who has seen his face. If she starts crushing on you, you could be getting free meals all the time."

"I'll be sure to take advantage of that, then," Sasuke muttered sarcastically. He didn't know what to make of Naruto's teasing smirk. After the possessive jealousy Naruto had displayed earlier he was surprised to find him so amused now. Maybe it was because the girl was a civilian and Sasuke had no interest whatsoever in civilians. Still, if Naruto didn't like the thought of him talking to other people when he wasn't around he shouldn't joke about it. He ignored the girl when she returned with another bowl for Naruto. He was appalled by the way Naruto inhaled the food with only a token amount of chewing. "How much of that are you going to eat?"

"As much as I can get down before you threaten to leave without me," Naruto answered guilelessly. "I'm hoping for five bowls, but I'll make do with four if you're already getting impatient."

"I can always make you some to go," the man called cheerfully.

"I wasn't even counting the to-go pack," Naruto tossed back. He grinned at Sasuke and then lifted his bowl to drink the broth.

Sasuke fought back a grimace as another bowl was immediately placed in front of Naruto. "You're going to be bulging as badly as my summon if you eat five bowls of that."

"His record is fourteen," the girl informed him. She smiled and blushed when Sasuke glanced at her. "He was almost sick that time."

"I was not," Naruto said stoutly. "Don't believe a word she says, Sasuke. My goal is twenty bowls and it's only a matter of time before I get there. Trust me, I could eat six bowls right now and it wouldn't even keep me till dinner time. I always have more room for ramen."

Which probably made him their best customer. Sasuke tore his eyes away from the gorging blonde. "Do you have any green tea here?" he asked the girl, who was still hovering across from them.

"Yes! I'll get you some right away!"

Naruto snorted a laugh, inhaled some ramen, and promptly started coughing. Sasuke ignored him. He would sip at his drink until Naruto had the five bowls he was hoping for. Then if Naruto had the bulging gut he expected he would taunt him into sparring just for a chance to punch him in it. If nothing else that would help him make room for any 'to-go pack' he left here with.

A short time later they had dropped their purchases off at the apartment and were once more walking through the village. Much to Sasuke's disappointment Naruto had wisely refused to spar with him until he had digested his excessive lunch. His stomach wasn't quite as rounded as Sasuke had expected it to be, but his baggy jacket was noticeably tighter around the front. That didn't stop him from being enthusiastic as he pointed things out.

"Sakura-chan lives there," Naruto said of a narrow building crammed into a row of similar ones. "She doesn't have time to take care of her own place, so she's still staying with her parents. They're civilians so they like that she spends more time in the hospital than she does on missions." He pointed out the library, boasting that he hadn't set foot in there once in his entire life. He was a bit put out at how readily Sasuke believed that. "That's Iruka-sensei's apartment there on the third floor." This building was a larger one, but from the outside it didn't look much different from the one Naruto lived in. "It's nice. Tenten wants to get a place there. She moved into Lee's spare room last year and it's not working out at all. He interrogates anyone she brings home. They were on the same genin team which makes Lee her protector as far as he's concerned. He's not ready for the idea of her dating. It's funny watching them argue about it, especially if Neji is around. He'll call them both pathetic and they team up on him because he hasn't even considered dating. He's still waiting for his clan to decide what they want from him."

Which Sasuke completely sympathized with. He frowned at Naruto. "Do you gossip this much with everyone or just me?"

"It's not gossip. This is just stuff that comes up when we get together, so I figure if you know you won't feel left out. And I want you to know the truth, not what you might hear from other people. Gossip has it that Lee and Tenten are a couple and Neji is jealous. There isn't a shred of truth to that rumor, but it's been going around so long you're bound to hear about it. Until you get to know enough people around here to realize which ones have their facts straight and which ones don't, I want you to get your information directly from me."

"You're already my primary source of information. That isn't likely to change."

"You say that now, but it's only a matter of time before people get brave enough to approach you. Then you'll be hearing all sorts of things." He sighed and sent a quick look around to make sure no one was close enough to overhear them. "Iruka-sensei told you about Kyuubi, right? So you know why some people won't like us being so close. Once they realize they can't influence me they'll try to bias you against me. I don't want you to believe anything you hear unless I confirm it. I promise to own up to the truth no matter how embarrassing it is."

"What am I likely to hear?" He doubted Naruto would be so worried if there weren't already specific ones floating around. "That older shinobi refer to you as 'the brat'?"

Naruto glowered at him. "Iruka-sensei? That figures. I can deal with that one. It doesn't mean they don't respect me, just that they don't take me seriously yet." He said it as if the two weren't synonymous. "I put up with it because it shows they aren't afraid to tease me. If all I wanted was respect I could have used the fact that I'm host to Kyuubi to scare it out of everyone. But then I'd be in the same position Gaara is. It's easier to earn respect from people who are so familiar with me that they don't take me seriously than it would be to earn trust from people who feel threatened by me. So as annoying as it is that some of them still call me a brat, I'll take it as a plus."

"Why aren't they afraid of you?" asked Sasuke. Since Naruto was the one who had brought up Gaara, he didn't see any harm in prying a little. "Is it because your father is the Hokage, or is there an inherent difference between your seals that makes yours safer than his?"

"My father is the main difference. Not just because he's Hokage, but because he raised me like a son. Gaara's father is the Kazekage, but he raised him as a pariah. He didn't even try to treat him like a real person."

"I had no idea he was related to the Kazekage." That certainly explained how the man had managed to stay in power for so long.

"See?" Naruto scowled, obviously angry at the way his friend had been treated. "Everyone knows who I am, but they know me as my father's son, not Konoha's demon-holder. I was only isolated from the rest of the village until I was old enough to cope with the danger I brought with me. Not because I was dangerous," he said quickly. "Most people stopped worrying about that a long time ago. The closest I've come to hurting anyone was during the chunin exam. The real danger was that our enemies targeted me, putting anyone near me at risk. When I joined the academy some parents wanted to pull their kids out because they were afraid they might be caught in an attack. That was the only time I was ever treated like a pariah. My dad took care of it by assigning Anbu to guard the entire pregenin class. Instead of my attendance putting their kids at risk, it guaranteed they were safer than ever. Gaara never had that. He didn't have anyone to stand up for his needs. Just the opposite. They encouraged their own people to be afraid of him."

Sasuke wondered if Naruto would be upset if he asked about the alleged attacks Gaara had made on children his own age. That had more to do with the fear he had seen than the simple fact that Gaara had a demon sealed inside of him. Had Sand encouraged him to attack their own people in order to keep him isolated? The real question was why Gaara would remain loyal to a village that had treated him that way. "Is he trying to change that now? To earn the trust of the people who fear him?"

"He'll have to if he wants to be the next Kazekage," Naruto sighed. His eyes widened when he caught Sasuke's expression. "You didn't know? He's in line for it. His supporters are pushing for him to do it now, while there's still enough fear to keep anyone from protesting. The current kazekage is resisting on the basis that he hasn't been trained well enough to lead the village. Gaara is defaulting to him for now. Sand is in no position to handle a civil war and that's what it would come to if he pushed too early. Besides, he wants more than just the support of the shinobi. He has a lot of bad history to make up for in order to prove himself to the village as a whole. I really respect his determination. He could have made kage a year or two ago if he were willing to use force and intimidation. He wants his village to want him as their kage."

"That would make the alliance between Konoha and Sand stronger than ever," Sasuke noted. It also explained why Konoha was so willing to deny or overlook any transgressions Sand had made during the last few years. With his personal ties to Naruto, Gaara wasn't likely to partake in the sort of double-dealing his predecessor was known for. Sasuke's thoughts naturally turned to what that would mean for the clan. They were left alone because they weren't restricted by Sand's open alliances. A new Kazekage with strong ties to Konoha would end any dealings they had with Sound and limit the missions they took for Mist. That was a good thing as far as Sasuke was concerned since those were the missions that cost the most lives. The drawback was that it would make the clan a target for any enemies Sand and Konoha had. They would be opening themselves to the dangers of an alliance with Konoha without getting any of the benefits. Until they gave in and accepted an alliance themselves?

Sasuke sighed with frustration. "I don't know enough about politics. As a future kage you couldn't have picked a worse person to have on your side."

"I have plenty of people ready to help me dance around political situations. There are so many steps involved that it makes my head spin. I'm glad you haven't been taught to play that game. Yet." Naruto shot him a knowing smile. "I can see you being a natural at it as suspicious as you are. I get the feeling you can spot an ulterior motive from a mile away, whether it's actually there or not. It makes me nervous. That's why I want to get as much out in the open as possible before you start drawing your own conclusions. Half the time I have no idea what you're thinking, so I can only assume it's bad. You don't give anything away without making me work for it."

"Unlike you, who gives away everything even when I haven't asked for it," Sasuke returned evenly. "I really don't need to know so much about your friends' private lives, or the background of that chunin we met earlier. If you want to tell me about yourself so I won't pick up misinformation about you, that's fine. For everyone else, I prefer to form my own opinions. Those won't be based on anything you or others have said about them. They'll be based on my own observations after interacting with them."

"Which means you could be biased against them after a single bad first encounter," Naruto winced. "That makes me want to tell you even more about my friends so you won't be set against them just because they rubbed you the wrong way the first time you met."

"You can't control everything. Expecting me to like your friends just because you do is ridiculous. I'm nothing like you. At best you should expect me to tolerate them for your sake. I'll do that whether they 'rub me the wrong way' or not. Anything beyond that is between me and them."

Naruto couldn't argue with his logic so he sulked instead. "I really want you to like them..."

"Then for your sake I hope I do," Sasuke drawled. He wasn't bothered by the reproachful look Naruto shot him. Although he accepted that it meant a lot to Naruto he also considered it ridiculous to have such unrealistic expectations. He wouldn't pretend otherwise. If Naruto was stubbornly determined to set himself up for disappointment that was his problem. Sasuke didn't need to like any of the people Naruto surrounded himself with. As far as he was concerned Naruto should be more worried about how his friends would react to him. They were the ones with good reason to be biased against him from the start.

"Do all of your friends know about your obsession with me?" asked Sasuke. "You said Sakura guessed about my neck. Does that mean they aren't aware of the exact nature of our relationship?"

"They don't know about how I propositioned you if that's what you mean. They know you're the one I've been fixated on, though. They won't be surprised to find out we're living together because it would be weird for me to let you out of my sight now that you're finally here. But, yeah, they'll probably guess the rest. It's no secret that I'm very open-minded when it comes to sex. Between my sexy jutsu and my first editions of Icha Icha most people expected me to start dating years ago. My friends are the only ones who know why I haven't. They'll assume we're lovers whether we admit it or not."

"You don't have to lie to them or keep it a secret for my sake. I'd rather they not have all of the details, though."

"I know." Naruto gave him a teasing grin. "No bragging about hickies. I got it. Most of my friends wouldn't want to hear the details even if I did try to share. Kiba is the only one comfortable talking about that sort of thing and that's mostly just positions and techniques. We never talk about specific people or anything. Honestly, I can't see myself talking about anything where you're concerned. I don't want other people thinking about you that way, not even my friends. That's a side of you only I get to see and it's going to stay that way."

"Will they be disturbed that I'm an Uchiha?" He wondered if that would bother them more than the fact that he was male.

"They won't be disturbed by that," Naruto frowned. "Are you worried about that? My friends are all my age, so they don't have the biases against your clan that some of the older people are still clinging to. They're all chunin and up, well aware of how important the truce is for us. They might worry that I'll take advantage of your sharingan to try things I'm not ready for, but I can reassure them on that account. My dad will probably forbid you from using genjutsu on me anyway, if he hasn't already."

"He has."

"Thought so." Naruto sighed in annoyance. "He should know I'm not that reckless. I wouldn't even consider asking you to help me with my training until I'm done helping you with yours. My friends are going to like that," he smiled suddenly. "Iruka-sensei isn't the only one who is going to enjoy the fact that training you means I'll be learning new things myself. You're just what I needed to get me out of the rut I've been in."

"How are you in a rut?" Between Naruto's chakra level and the jutsus Kakashi had copied there should be no end to the things he could learn. That didn't even count his father, the two sannin, and any other qualified shinobi Konoha had eager to teach their future kage.

"Bunshin and rasengan," Naruto admitted with a wry smile. "That's all I really do because usually it's all I need. Rasengan is my strongest technique. I've improved on it to the point where it's on par with any of the kage-level jutsus. I won't say it's finished, but it's as strong as I can make it right now. And that's all I've got. One original technique and lots of bunshin. Compared to you or Kakashi I'm as unversatile as they get. I can already tell I'll have to try new things if I want to work with you. I'm looking forward to it. I haven't felt this motivated in a long time."

"Then why are we walking around instead of training?" This tour of the village wasn't very useful. He didn't need to know where Naruto's friends lived when they were nothing but names to him. It might have been different if Naruto had been showing him some of the other training grounds the village had. He honestly wasn't the slightest bit interested in the residential parts of the village because he couldn't see himself coming through here on his own.

"I wanted to give you a chance to see more of the village," Naruto explained. "Do you want to see where the Uchiha clan used to live? We could check out the house while we're out there."

"Alright." He was curious to see where in this seemingly packed village the clan had manged to isolate itself before leaving altogether.

Naruto eagerly led the way. As Sasuke followed along he turned his attention away from the buildings and back to the people. The further they moved from the heart of the village the fewer civilians he spotted. Most of the people they crossed paths with were shinobi, and they were moving with a purpose. A few of them nodded to Naruto, but they didn't linger. Sasuke wondered how much of that was due to him. Naruto should have given the village time to get used to his presence before parading him around in front of them. They were walking along the crest of a hill when Sasuke caught sight of the lake. He was so shocked he stopped in his tracks. He didn't know how long he stood there staring down at it before Naruto noticed and came back to him.

"What's wrong?"

"I know this," Sasuke said blankly. It was an exact replica of the lake within the clan compound. Except the clan had obviously replicated theirs from this one. Why? Of all the things for them to have taken from Konoha. Even the narrow dock was the same. He tried to tear his eyes away, to take in the surroundings instead, the little row of trees circling the far side of the water which was nothing like the hard packed training areas that circled the lake in his own home. His hands curled into fists as he marveled at the irony of it. This lake was the one thing he wouldn't have minded never seeing again. He wasn't aware that he had started down the hill until Naruto caught his arm.

"Sasuke?"

"We have a lake like this," he muttered. He shook Naruto off his arm and caught his hand instead, drawing him along until they were standing at the edge of the dock. Even the way the sun struck the surface of the water was the same. He might as well have been back in Sand. He had no doubts that the clan had used this lake the same way they had their own. They wouldn't have duplicated it so precisely if it hadn't been an important part of their tradition. He wanted to destroy it. A strange smile pulled at his lips as he released Naruto's hand and turned to look at him. "What does your village use this lake for?"

"Nothing as far as I know." Naruto sent an uncertain look from him to the water. "There aren't any fish in this lake. It's just part of the scenery, I guess." His expression pulled into a worried frown. "Why? What does your clan use your lake for?"

A rite of passage which he had failed miserably. His smile widened into a dark smirk. "Would you like to see my strongest technique, Naruto? I'd like to see yours. Since your village doesn't use this lake for anything in particular it shouldn't matter if we disturb the water a little. Right?"

"You don't have to convince me," Naruto grinned. "I wouldn't have mentioned rasengan if I weren't looking forward to showing it to you. This is as good a place as any. We'll get wet if I throw it in the water, though."

"I won't mind," Sasuke promised.

Rather than be suspicious of his tone, Naruto laughed, his eyes glittering deviously. "I don't know if you're taunting me or being playful, but whatever it is I like it. Prepare to be impressed." He created two shadow clones and held out his right hand. Chakra coalesced into a swirling ball of pale blue in his palm, fed and stabilized by Naruto and one of the clones. Sasuke activated the sharingan so he could follow and fully appreciate the technique. Judging by Naruto's expression he liked that, too. "This is the rasengan," Naruto explained. "By itself it can blow a hole in just about anything. My dad can do this. What I've done is take it a step further by adding wind to the mix."

Naruto used both clones for that, and even with the sharingan Sasuke didn't know how he managed to manipulate the element the way he did. Blades erupted out of the ball until it looked like a large windmill shuriken made entirely of chakra. He couldn't imagine the sort of damage an attack like that would do to a human. He vaguely heard Naruto explain that he could make it much bigger by using more chakra. As far as he was concerned it was already large enough to be overkill. He caught Naruto's eye and brought his hands together. "Throw it high over the lake." He was very gratified when Naruto did just that without a moment's hesitation. He took a deep breath and performed the quickest and most intense fire jutsu he could.

He only had a split second to watch the two elements collide before they exploded in an enraged whoosh. He grabbed Naruto and flashed him to the top of the hill, pushing him face down in the grass and covering him just as the swirling mass of heat swept over them. Naruto immediately twisted to look back at the water and Sasuke did the same. The wind had whipped the fireball into a vortex of dark red that appeared to burrow into the rapidly evaporating water. He slowly sank back on his heels so Naruto could sit up. The immediate danger was over. Now it was just a matter of enjoying the carnage. The dock was torn away and the grass at the base of the hill had been singed badly. But the water was every bit as deep as he had known it would be. It whirled along the shore as the fiery tunnel bit into the center of it, only slowing once the fire finally burned itself out. The air was hazy and dark clouds began to form, eager to dump some of the moisture back where it had come from. Sasuke rose, absentmindedly brushing grass off his pants. In retrospect a sustained katon performed from a distance would have done far more damage. It was only when Naruto jumped to his feet and grabbed him by the arms that he acknowledged there would be repercussions for this. At the moment he didn't particularly care.

"Sasuke! Holy shit, Sasuke!" Naruto's voice was high and frantic and apparently ecstatic. Sasuke blinked at him in dumb surprise. "That was fucking awesome!" Naruto crowed. "I can't believe you!" He grabbed him in a painfully tight embrace only to push him back to arms' length again. "My dad is going to kill us," he grinned. "Just so you know. But as soon as he's done punishing us he's going to want to see us do that again. We'll have to work on making it even bigger before we name it. I can't wait!"

Sasuke winced when he was promptly hugged again. Naruto didn't squeeze as tightly this time, but he held on for a lot longer. Someone was bound to come and investigate and he didn't want to be caught like this. He tugged awkwardly on the back of Naruto's jacket. "I'm ready to accept whatever punishment the Hokage assigns. Let's go find out what it is before the rain starts." And before the curious onlookers began to gather.

"That's the spirit," Naruto beamed, letting him go. "Don't let him make you regret this, either. Everyone is entitled to have a little fun now and then and that was awesome. I didn't know you had it in you and I'm so glad you do. Come on. We can celebrate after we get the confessing out of the way."

Sasuke seriously doubted he would be in the mood to celebrate anything once he had to face the consequences of this. Right now, as he took one last look at the pathetically depleted lake with the bits of shattered and singed wood floating on its surface, he appreciated Naruto's attitude. He'd done it more for revenge than 'fun' and the satisfaction he felt was definitely worth it. Having an enthusiastic partner in crime didn't hurt, either. He was to find himself even more pleased and impressed by Naruto once they were standing before the Hokage. Somehow Naruto managed to twist things around so that he was boasting of the damage they had caused rather than apologizing for it.

"It could have gotten completely out of control," the Hokage pointed out, sounding more exasperated than angry.

"No one was around, and I was never in any danger. Sasuke covered me." If Naruto's grin got any wider it would split his face. "He rushed me to a safe distance and threw himself over me."

Tired blue eyes flicked to him, and Sasuke struggled to meet them evenly. Inside he cringed at the way Naruto was heaping implications onto what had merely been a reflex action on his part. He wondered if Naruto was really reading that much into it, or if he was just hoping his father would. "He didn't know what I was going to do, just that I promised to show him my strongest technique."

"And was it your strongest?" the Hokage asked skeptically.

"Given the range and speed necessary, yes."

"The fire was a lot hotter than what he used in the forest," Naruto put in eagerly. "Much more concentrated. It seared right into the heart of my rasengan before flaring out. You won't believe the funnel it made. If I had used a bigger rasengan-shuriken it would have burned up the whole lake."

"Then it's a good thing you didn't." That clipped tone managed to curb some of Naruto's enthusiasm, though it didn't put so much as a dent in the smug pride shining off his face. "This sort of experimentation is precisely what I warned you against attempting without supervision. It's very nice that Sasuke was considerate enough to protect you, but his safety is also important. Did you forget that?"

"Of course not!"

"I wasn't in any danger," Sasuke stated. The Hokage's attention snapped back to him. He was surprised at himself. He hadn't intended to argue with anything the man said. What he had done was reckless and pointless and he had no justification to offer in his defense. His only consolation was that no one had been injured. There were no stipulations in the terms this man had set for him that prohibited attacking a lake. He was bemused to find himself seriously tempted to point that out. Something was clearly wrong with him.

"You don't know that. You had no idea what would happen, so don't claim otherwise. I expect this sort of thing from Naruto, but I'm very disappointed to find you're as rash and impulsive as he is. I expected better from an Uchiha."

He really wasn't rash or impulsive, but he couldn't blame the man for getting that impression. He dropped his eyes, accepting the criticism. He had never done anything like this and wouldn't have had he been at home. He wondered what had influenced him more, the fact that Konoha's lake was the original one or the fact that this man's disappointment meant nothing to him. As an Uchiha he should be ashamed of himself. Personally he didn't care.

"Stop it," Naruto scoffed. "I know better." Sasuke sent him a sharp look and he frowned back at him. "He doesn't mean that, Sasuke. He's just picking on you." He folded his arms over his chest and scowled at his father. "You can't tease Sasuke that way. He'll take you seriously. What we did was harmless fun and you know it."

"I know no such thing. That lake may no longer have a function in the village but it remains an important landmark that you had no right to deface. You have one week to restore it to its original condition. Consider yourself forbidden from attempting any combination attacks until further notice. You can shelve the rasengan until I'm confident you've learned your lesson. I won't restrict you from using katon," he said to Sasuke, "but only because it's an Uchiha tradition. I do, however, insist that you be more responsible with your jutsus. You will find that the terrain is far more flammable here in Konoha than it was in Sand." Naruto snorted at that, and he shot him a narrow-eyed look. "Would you like me to forbid you from using bunshin when you repair the lake? That would certainly even out the distribution of work between the two of you. I'm sure Sasuke won't mind."

Naruto winced, flashing a weak smile. "No, I'm sorry. We'll get it fixed up as good as new, I promise."

"And?" his father drawled, raising an eyebrow.

"And we're sorry for using advanced ninjutsu outside of a restricted training area," Naruto said promptly, with only a slightly cheeky smile. "It won't happen again."

"It had better not. Now get out of here."

Naruto caught Sasuke's hand and hurried him out of the room. He spotted a glimpse of a smile on the man's face out of the corner of his eye, then the guard stationed outside the office shut the door behind them. Naruto was laughing by the time they exited the tower. That drew enough curious attention from the people on the street that Sasuke held his silence until they were safely in the privacy of Naruto's apartment.

"Why wasn't he more angry?" asked Sasuke.

"Over what? Some boiled water and a dock? No one was hurt. No one was even around, and we can fix the mess we made. If anything he's probably relieved we didn't do that in a training ground or we might have caught the forest on fire. That lake is the deepest body of water in the village so if we were going to do it somewhere that was the best spot. Not that he can approve of it, of course. We'll have to leave the village in order to experiment with this for real. That's the real reason he forbid us from trying that again. He doesn't want us going anywhere just yet. I think he was more shocked than anything. What happened, Sasuke? Have I rubbed off on you already?"

"No." If anything he had been the one taking advantage of Naruto. He wouldn't press the point, though. Naruto seemed eager to take credit.

"Are you sure about that?" Naruto sidled up to him with a taunting smile. "It sure looks that way to me. Here I was convinced you were too repressed to have a wild streak. You really surprised me."

And pleased him, apparently. He watched as Naruto eased as close as he could get without touching him. He wasn't especially wary of his strange mood, just curious. "What?"

Naruto let out a slightly evil little laugh. "I want to play some more. Now that I know you can play."

"I wasn't playing back there."

"Sure you were. And you enjoyed it, too. I should have sparred with you instead of showing you around. That's what you wanted to do. I'll make it up to you. We can start on the cleanup tomorrow, and check out the house, too. Today we're going to have fun." With a mischievous grin, he ducked over to dig in the closet. He returned a moment later to dangle something familiar in front of Sasuke.

Sasuke's expression dropped into one of severe annoyance. If Naruto thought that was his idea of 'fun' he was insane. "Where did you get that?"

"You're not the only one to pass Kakashi's bell test," Naruto smirked. "The only difference is that I kept mine." He reached over and tied it to Sasuke's hip, smiling at his startled expression. "We'll take turns. Just remember that it's a game, not a test. We can start one-on-one with taijutsu only and then pick it up from there. What do you say?"

"Which training ground?" Wearing the bell himself changed everything. Now it was just a question of whether or not Naruto held back enough to annoy him. His own taijutsu was weaker, but he was confident Naruto would have to put forth a reasonable effort in order to get the bell back, especially in a one-on-one fight.

"The forest," Naruto conceded with a knowing smile. "You like it better there, and we're less likely to be interrupted. Just let me pack real quick. If we advance to weapons I'll need more than I usually carry."

If they included weapons in this they would have to find that open training ground Kakashi had taken him to. Sasuke hoped they would. Even if Naruto wasn't as skilled with weapons as he was in taijutsu his clones could provide a serious challenge for him. He quickly outfitted himself in his own gear, which fit far more comfortably than anything borrowed would have.

It wasn't until they were rushing along the rooftops that he wondered if he shouldn't have given in so quickly. Naruto had claimed he was difficult to read, yet when it came to training he was incredibly transparent. Naruto could easily take advantage of that in order to manipulate him. Perhaps that was fair, though. His desire to get stronger could easily be compared to Naruto's desire for sex and contact. If necessary they could satisfy those desires alone, but they both resented being forced to. The key difference was that Sasuke could learn from anyone whereas Naruto had only him to turn to. Growing stronger might prove beneficial to others aside from himself but Sasuke didn't consider his desire any less selfishly motivated than Naruto's. It was what he liked, what he craved, what he was never satisfied without. To him, that sounded a lot like lust. He wondered what Naruto would think about that. He'd probably be jealous. If his feelings when facing a challenging opponent could be equated to attraction then Naruto might even consider it being unfaithful. He smirked at the thought. There was definitely something wrong with him today.

An hour later found Sasuke still amused. Naruto really did have a problem controlling his temper. And his jealousy was not limited to humans. Considering the way he had joked about the girl at the ramen stand showing interest in him, it was ridiculous that he felt threatened by a snake. Sasuke had been just as surprised as Naruto by the creature's continuing loyalty, but he was smart enough to see the benefits of it. Nothing could enter the training ground with the enormous serpent circling the perimeter.

"Why are you so upset?" Sasuke drawled, not minding the glare Naruto shot him.

"Because you keep touching it!" Naruto growled, his face flushed and his hands curled into fists. "If you'd stop feeding it chakra maybe it would go away."

"I don't want it to go away," Sasuke pointed out. "And I am not feeding it chakra. It just likes the feel of it." He wasn't sure why. Each time he neared the edge of the training ground the snake tensed in anticipation. It only took a light brush of contact to satisfy it, which although curious was better than the alternative. He hadn't needed to reapply the genjustu or feed it. All the snake seemed to want was a bit of contact now and then. He had no problem delivering that, especially since it annoyed Naruto so badly. "If it bothers you that much, all you have to do is keep me away from the perimeter. It's not my fault you're reluctant to attack me seriously."

Naruto squinted at him for a long moment and then gaped. "You're doing it on purpose!"

"Obviously," Sasuke snorted. He casually stepped back to lean against the cool scales. "What are you going to do about it?"

"Exactly what you want," Naruto snapped. His hands finally flashed through the kage bunshin jutsu. He hadn't wanted to use it because it meant admitting he couldn't get the bell in a one-on-one taijutsu-only fight. He just wasn't fast enough when he was unwilling to cause the sort of damage that might have slowed Sasuke down. He was stubborn to a fault, though. He probably would have kept trying all day if it weren't for the snake.

Sasuke rushed back into the center of the training ground to keep the fight away from the snake. It hadn't made any move to attack Naruto and he wanted to keep it that way. Three clones didn't make a huge difference, but he appreciated the capitulation enough to stop evading and start countering the taijutsu Naruto threw at him. He was quite strong even when holding back, and he had moves Sasuke had never seen before. It didn't take Sasuke long to realize he also had a smooth system when it came to working in unison with his clones. Rather than attacking him directly they left that to Naruto. Their aim was the bell and since there were only three of them they were too strong for him to take them out with taijutsu alone. He would have to land a deadly blow to manage that and they weren't sticking close enough. His attention was split between warding off Naruto's attacks and evading the clones' sweeping grabs at him. The sharingan enabled him to remain a few steps ahead so long as he could see them. That didn't help much when they kept dashing in at his back. Naruto dropped in an attempt to kick his feet out from under him. He jumped back, twisting around as he did so to counter the clone that tried to catch him from behind. The other two clones flanked him, but instead of reaching for the bell they jammed his forehead protector over his eyes. He stumbled, lashing out blindly only to meet thin air as the clones were dispelled. He didn't need to hear the quiet jingling to know Naruto had gotten it away from him.

Sasuke wrenched the forehead protector off his head and turned to glower at Naruto's smug expression. "We both know I can't get that back from you using nothing but taijutsu. I wouldn't have gotten Kakashi's if I hadn't used that genjutsu on him."

"I wonder about that," Naruto smirked. "I bet you could have gotten it from him without that if it had been a mission and you didn't have to worry about killing your opponent. Since this is just for fun we won't get that serious about it." He clipped the bell to his hip and waved Sasuke over to him. "Here's the deal. You can use weapons, but no sharingan or body flicker. My clones will be armed, but only for defense. I'll be sticking to taijutsu. And," he raised a hand to tug on his own forehead protector. "I'll be blind this time."

"I don't need that much of an advantage," Sasuke muttered.

"In that case you better make this look really easy," Naruto taunted. "I'll set an extra clone to the side so I can see what happens if you take all of the others out."

If? That meant Naruto was probably going to make quite a few clones. He considered it for a moment and then raised an eyebrow. "Are you counting chakra wire as a weapon?"

"Not as long as you don't add any jutsus to it. If you're just going to use it to make sure you don't lose contact with your weapon, that's fine. You shouldn't have to worry about that, though. My clones will be using their weapons to block yours, not to disarm you."

Naruto was seriously underestimating him. He decided not to be insulted. It would be interesting to see how long it took him to realize his mistake. He tied the forehead protector back on and deactivated the sharingan as Naruto took up position opposite the training post. He created a small army of clones, each armed with a kunai and a grin, and sent a lone one to Sasuke. The clone winked as he sauntered past and hopped up to stand on the post where he'd have a clear view of the action. Naruto ducked into the center of the clones.

"Okay," the clone on the post said to Sasuke. "He's blindfolded. Ready when you are."

Sasuke shook his head at the clone's teasing tone. This was such a ridiculously unfair fight. He doubted it could even be considered training. He took out a long curl of chakra wire and affixed one end of it to his left wrist. Naruto had said he wasn't to add any jutsus to it, which he took to mean no reinforcing his chakra with fire or lightning. As if he needed either to dispatch clones. Unless they were self-replicating, that was. He shot a quick look at the clone behind him. "Will Naruto be replacing any clones I take out?"

"No. He won't be using anything but taijutsu from here out."

He might as well be binding his hands as well as his eyes, then. Sasuke took out one of the long senbon that had been part of his own equipment, and sniffed it carefully. As expected they had cleaned it before returning it. He wrapped the loose end of the wire around the center and tossed it lightly in his palm. Without the sharingan it was difficult to make out the thin needle, let alone the wire.

"That's what you're planning to use?" the perched clone asked with a wince. "They're armed with kunai, you know."

"You're here to watch," Sasuke reminded him coolly, "not provide commentary." He was fully aware of the skeptical looks on the clones facing him. A kunai would have made much more sense had he intended to match blades with them. But they were only armed for defense while Sasuke was now armed to kill.

He rushed directly at the cluster, curious to see if they would disperse or hold their ground. The ones facing him tensed, pressing tighter together. He threw his arms out to the sides, flicking the senbon away and yanking it back the moment he felt it make contact. He was rewarded with a quiet poof and a visible ripple of confusion from the clones directly in front of him.

"Oh, that's bullshit," the clone behind him groaned, having realized Sasuke's intentions. "Spread out, you guys. You're fish in a barrel!"

So much for it being a quiet observer. Sasuke didn't mind enough to complain. He much preferred having moving targets over stationary ones. The outer clones to his left ducked when he sent the senbon out again, leaving him to dispatch one of the clones directly behind them. One of them swiped at the wire and he caught the kunai with his chakra, wrenching it away.

"That's not fair!" the disarmed clone yelped.

Sasuke might have smirked if he hadn't been busy. Being limited to defense put the clones directly in his path at a severe disadvantage. They obviously considered ganging up on him offensive and there were too many of them for their taijutsu to hold up one-handed. Sasuke took advantage of their reluctance to risk cutting him with their weapons. He caught the wrist of a kunai-wielding clone and used him to slash two of his companions. The clone quickly dropped the weapon so he shoved him back into the others. Unarmed they were defenseless and they knew it. Naruto hadn't thought this through at all. If it weren't for the angry faces before him he might have thought Naruto had done this on purpose to help him get over the grudge he had admitted to having against his clones. As it was they looked far too frustrated for this to be a deliberate set-up. He would have felt sorry for them if they hadn't been so stubbornly determined not to attack him even in their own defense. He continued to target their outer ranks, using their own weapons against them and relying on the senbon to cut down the ones further away. By the time he caught his first glimpse of Naruto at the center of the thinning ranks, the clone behind him was yelling out frustrated suggestions and warnings. Some of the remaining guard finally took his advice to heart and began making swipes and grabs at him when he edged in too close. They were still reluctant to risk cutting him, though, so he had no trouble evading.

He jumped into the air and tossed the senbon at the blindfolded Naruto. More than one pair of startled blue eyes flashed up at him before the clones on the inside turned and dogpiled Naruto. He nearly laughed at the sight. Startled and confused, Naruto took four of them out before the others talked him down. Sasuke continued to target him, enjoying the way he flinched and squirmed as he struggled not to lash out at the over-eager protectors jostling him around. He waited until there were only three clones left before catching the senbon in his right hand and going in for a direct attack. One clone took up a defensive stance in front of Naruto, leaving the other two to meet him head on. Faced with the prospect of losing they were far more willing to risk injuring him. But, like Naruto, they didn't count the chakra wire as a weapon. They were expecting him to counter their attacks with the senbon, so they pulled up when he threw it between them. The third clone shoved Naruto to the ground and dodged the senbon easily. He didn't dodge the wire. With a twist of his wrist Sasuke had it around his neck, yanking him off his feet and dispatching him before he could hit the ground. He caught one of the remaining clones in the back of the neck when he retrieved the weapon. At that, the final clone abandoned his defense-only position and attacked him with what he suspected was serious intent. He drew the fight out, holding the senbon in his left hand to block the kunai and making glancing blows with his right.

The clone glared at him, but his lips were pulled into a tight smile. "What are you waiting for, Sasuke? I thought you were going to make this look easy. Are you afraid to attack my real body head on even when I'm blindfolded?"

"Is that what you think?" He gave a dark smile and fired the senbon over his shoulder. "It's a shame you aren't there to protect him."

The clone shot him a look filled with disbelief and whipped around to warn Naruto. It was already too late. Naruto flinched and lifted his arms. The senbon clipped the string to the bell, chakra holding it fast as Sasuke darted around the clone and yanked the prize to him. He halted a few feet from Naruto, who was still awaiting an attack. Sasuke sent the scowling clone an amused look and jingled the bell to clue Naruto in.

"I seriously thought you were going to kill me for a second there," the clone grumbled accusingly. "This is just a game, you know. You didn't have to scare me like that."

Sasuke turned his back on the clone to eye Naruto instead. "You should know better," he said to Naruto. "Killing you is the same as killing my clan. I would never risk that."

Naruto pushed the forehead protector off his eyes and sent him a confused look. "What are you talking about? And how did you get the bell? I didn't hear you anywhere near me."

"Dispel your clones," Sasuke suggested.

"Don't pay any attention to him," Naruto said, after he'd done so. "He was just upset after watching you take the others out, because he knew you could have finished him off quickly if you had wanted to. I know you weren't really trying to kill me."

"I should hope so." If Naruto wanted to deny that he had suffered a moment of doubt he wouldn't call him on it. He didn't blame him for it, either. He pocketed the bell and brushed by Naruto. "Come with me."

"Where?"

"To pet my snake." He sent an amused look over his shoulder. "Stop acting jealous and I might consider petting you as well." That did it. Naruto's mouth dropped open and a faint blush rose to his cheeks. Sasuke smirked. "If you ask me, sex on a giant snake would be far more interesting than sex in a tree."

"Holy shit," Naruto blurted, in a scandalized whisper. "You might be more kinky than I am..."

"Don't count on it. I was just making an observation." He jumped up to walk along the loosely coiled snake, with Naruto keeping pace from the ground. He could tell from the suspicious way he was watching him that he was trying to figure out if he'd been serious or not. Judging by his eventual frown he had probably reached a negative conclusion. That was just as well. Although the idea amused him he couldn't quite see himself going through with it. Even if the snake wasn't in a position to view what they were doing it would certainly feel it. The thought of anyone, even an animal, witnessing that turned his stomach. If he did something like that he might as well include 'certain food products' while he was at it.

"You're a tease," Naruto muttered accusingly. "You just said that to mess with my head."

"You don't even like seeing me touch this snake," Sasuke pointed out reasonably. "Would you really want to do sexual things while we're in contact with it?"

"Hell no!"

"Exactly. So stop sulking and come help me look."

Naruto blinked in surprise and leapt up beside him. "You're looking for something?"

"Marks, scars, sensitive spots, any evidence that it might have been controlled or trained in the past. The genjutsu I cast has completely worn off. There is no reason for it to have sought us out again."

"It sought you out, not us. It probably has a crush on you."

He ignored that bit of childishness. "You said the large cats resist training. Does anyone in this village interact with these snakes before they reach their full growth? It should take more than a single genjutsu to make one so interested in humans."

"They never leave the forest so no one bothers with them. Anko is the only snake summoner in Konoha and as far as I know she doesn't mess with the domestic ones. The only one I know who 'interacted' with these snakes is Orochimaru. I wish you'd stop acting like him."

Sasuke turned a cold stare on him until he shifted guiltily. "You'll have to explain that. From what little I've heard about the leader of Sound the only thing we have in common is our affinity to snakes. If you're going to compare me to your enemy there had better be more similarities than that."

"There aren't," Naruto said quietly. "Sorry. I didn't mean that. Honestly, your interest in snakes isn't any worse than the Aburame clan and their bugs. It just disturbs me because I don't get it. I want to share your interests and when it comes to snakes I really don't. I don't know if I ever will."

"You don't need to. I certainly don't share your interest in toads." Naruto actually looked hurt by that. He raised an eyebrow. "Domestic frogs and toads are slimy noisy creatures useful only in insect infested areas. They're thin-skinned and easily squashed. If you touch them they urinate on you. Some are toxic enough to kill but only those foolish enough to try eating them. Of all the species a shinobi could choose to summon a toad would have to be the one I understand the least. That doesn't mean I think any less of you for preferring them. I doubt you chose to have an affinity for toads any more than you chose to have an affinity for wind. I don't have either and I couldn't change that even if I wanted to. If seeing me interact with snakes disturbs you that badly, I'll stop doing it when you're around. I don't think I should have to, though. If you wanted to investigate the domestic toads in this forest I would be perfectly willing to join you even though I don't share your interest in them."

Naruto started to scuff his feet before remembering he was standing on a snake. He folded his arms over his chest instead. "I'm still coming to grips with how different we are," he said, with an apologetic smile. "Snakes and toads. It's like we have nothing in common. Your summon wants to bite me and mine wants to swallow you. Yeah," he nodded, "it's the hair. He says it's too neat and he'd like to gum it up. He has the same problem with Neji so it's nothing personal. Anyway, I can tell we're going to run into the same issue with all sorts of things. I'm ready to bend as much as possible, but I can't help worrying it won't be enough. Even if I do get used to your snakes it's still going to bother me that you're more affectionate with them than you are with me."

"Affectionate?" He let out an exasperated snort. "It's absurd for you to be jealous of an animal, Naruto. I wouldn't hesitate to kill this snake if it suited my purposes. I have no 'affection' for it. You might consider your summons 'friends' but mine are little more than tools to me. We use each other because it's beneficial for us to do so. Don't let Terra's attitude fool you. He would have killed me years ago if he hadn't decided I was more useful to him alive."

"I don't believe you," Naruto said flatly. "If I killed this snake right now you wouldn't forgive me."

"Because it would be a waste."

"Because you like it," Naruto insisted. "It's the same thing with your summon. You're as fond of him as you would be of a troublesome kid. And it's mutual. I could see that as plain as day."

"Then you're only seeing what you want to see." He was wasting his breath. He continued along the snake's body until he was close enough to the head for it to look back at him. There was no sign of the genjutsu he had cast or any other chakra affecting it. Its mind was simple and straight-forward, with nothing inherent in its nature to explain why it was interested in him. He lifted a hand and it pressed its snout against his palm right where he had healed it the other night. Maybe that had something to do with it. He passed some healing chakra into the spot and the snake's tongue flicked out, brushing a bit of his hair. That was a little too close. Removing his hand, he stepped back. The snake followed after him, proving it wasn't nearly as submissive as he had assumed. He was about to perform a genjutsu on it when Naruto suddenly grabbed him around the waist and jumped him into the trees. He tensed, as surprised by the sudden interference as he was by the fact that the snake dropped its head and made no attempt to follow them.

He twisted free when Naruto was slow to release him. "Why did you do that?"

"Because you won't forgive me if I kill your new pet," Naruto growled. "I brought you out here to spend time with me, not him."

"It," Sasuke corrected scathingly. "Unless you know more about that species of snake than I do, it could just as easily be female."

"Whatever. You told me not to be jealous and then you went right over and let it lick you. I know you did that on purpose. That's a dangerous game to play, Sasuke. I'm possessive enough without you making it worse."

It took him a moment to realize Naruto was trying to both warn and intimidate him. He stepped back to lean against the trunk of the tree, letting him know he had failed in the latter. "Explain. You found it amusing when that girl at the ramen stand showed interest in me. Why is it that didn't bother you yet you're jealous over an animal?"

"Of course Ayame-chan was attracted to you," Naruto said dismissively. "Lots of people are going to be. With your looks that's a given. I get some of that myself, especially with the civilians. I'm not going to be jealous because other people find you as good-looking as I do. That just makes me proud of the fact that you're mine. They can look all they want and they'll never get you. It's completely different when you're the one doing the touching. You were all over that snake, stroking and petting without it even having to ask you to. Yet you won't even come near me unless you have to."

The sheer absurdity of Naruto's complaint set him laughing. The laugh had a mocking ring to it, so he didn't blame Naruto for his angry flush. He grabbed the front of his jacket, jerking him over before he could get too worked up. "Think about what you're saying," he smirked. "Do you really want me to manipulate you like a small-minded animal? A meaningless pet now and then to keep you soothed and complacent? That's rather like what we already have. I was under the impression that you had higher hopes than that. Was I mistaken? If you want me to treat you like one of my snakes I can do that. I'll give you just enough 'affection' to keep you content and obedient. And then I'll dispose of you as soon as you've outlived your usefulness to me."

"You're not that cold."

"Yes, I am. Animals are nothing but tools to me."

Naruto didn't look entirely convinced. His expression was sober, though, his eyes probing. "And people?"

"Shinobi are tools. I've been used as one for most of my life. But I've never had one of my own." His eyes flicked from the hand he had curled in Naruto's jacket up to his wide eyes, and he snorted. "I wouldn't choose you for my first. You're not obedient enough."

"Well, you've got that right at least. I'm not a pet or a tool. And if you think I'm going to roll over any time you pet me, you can forget it."

Sasuke raised an eyebrow. "Really? You rolled over fast enough last night." Naruto erupted and he yanked him forward, slipping off the branch so his fist crashed into the trunk of the tree. He rebounded off a lower branch and caught himself on a trunk across from him. "I never expected you to be so submissive," he admitted in a taunting tone. "I thought you were the type to go after what you want. Instead you slink around me like a dog hoping for a pat rather than a kick."

"You total bastard," Naruto yelped, whipping around with a face as red as Sasuke's eyes. "Are you trying to make me hurt you?"

"Would you like to?"

Naruto bristled furiously, his eyes darkening. "Right now I'd like nothing better than to plant a fist in your face," he growled. "You can't talk to me that way."

"You're my lover," Sasuke reminded him calmly. "I can be as honest with you as I like. As a pet you're pathetically obedient. As a person you only pretend to be. I don't like it. When you're angry enough to hit me, go ahead and try. If I'm not good enough to dodge then I deserve it. Those were your words. Why does that apply to me but not to you?"

"Because I can do a lot more damage," Naruto spat, swiping a hand at the fist-sized hole he'd made in the trunk. "And I know I won't back out of this no matter what. I'm in this for keeps. I'm not like you. All I'd have to do is cross the line with you once and you could just walk away. You have no idea how hard it is knowing that. I'm being as careful with you as I can be and instead of being grateful you keep throwing it in my face. I hate it!"

Sasuke jumped to the limb Naruto was on, noting the way he recoiled away from him. He remained in a crouch. "I'm not made of glass, Naruto. I'm not surrounded by eggshells, either. When you cross the line I will tell you. So long as you don't do it again it won't be a problem. As for walking away, I gave up that right the first time I had sex with you. You're more likely to back out of this than I am. You could have a better future with anyone in this village. I have no future at all without you. If this arrangement between us doesn't work I'll be little better than a walking corpse. Don't talk to me about walking away. You should know by now that I'd rather die."

"That doesn't make it any better," Naruto grimaced. He dropped down to sit across from him. "None of this is fair or right. I'd give anything for it to be easier."

"So far it's been much easier than I expected," Sasuke admitted. "If you didn't insist on acting like a meek housewife just waiting to be back-handed I wouldn't have any serious issues with you." He ignored the way Naruto choked at that comparison. "I am concerned with how much your father could prevent you from fulfilling your promises to me, though. He could seriously limit any training I receive. I'm relying on you to stand up to him and I'm not sure you're capable of it."

"You have a horrible opinion of me," Naruto cringed, sending him a pained look. "All because I was trying my hardest to be considerate last night? I know you called me a push-over, but I figured that was just you being a difficult asshole because you are one. I sure as hell wasn't worried about being back-handed. I'd welcome that because at least then I'd get a fight out of you instead of a cold shoulder." Anger flushed over him, narrowing his eyes in a squinty scowl. "You're lucky I have such a soft spot for you, Sasuke. If anyone else called me pathetic, submissive, obedient, and meek I would beat the hell out of them. I'm as far from those things as you can get."

"I hope so because those are not qualities I would want in a companion, let alone a lover."

"Yeah? Well, you have plenty of qualities I'd just as soon live without and you don't hear me complaining."

"No," Sasuke agreed. "Instead of complaining you sulk and pout and send me resentful looks. Much like the one you're giving me right now."

"This is not me sulking," Naruto bit out. "This is me trying very hard not to knock you off this tree. I don't know what crawled up your ass and died but you need to get it out of there because it really stinks."

Sasuke snorted. "Very mature. Nothing I say gets through to you, does it? You pretend to listen and it looks like I'm making a dent, but then you go right on doing whatever it is you've set your mind on doing. Remember this the next time you get upset because I won't talk to you. It's obviously a waste of time."

"I've been listening to everything you've said, unfortunately. I just don't know what I'm supposed to do about it."

"You'll do exactly what you would have done anyway," Sasuke sighed. "Just forget it. We're both rigidly set in our ways and stubborn to a fault. There's no point discussing things on which neither of us will yield. I apologize for trying." He rose to his feet and beckoned Naruto to stand. "Spar with me. That's what we're here for, and it's a far more productive use of our time."

"If we stop talking about this now without resolving anything it's the same as giving up," Naruto frowned. "I don't give up on anything."

"Put it aside for later or talk it over by yourself, then. I'm done." He dropped from the tree and was disappointed when Naruto didn't follow.

He didn't know why he couldn't just leave it alone. He obviously wasn't skilled enough at manipulation to get the reaction he wanted out of Naruto. No matter how angry he made him, he just sat there looking at him with those reproachful eyes of his. It was infuriating that he should be made to feel guilty when all he wanted was a fair exchange. Naruto kept going on about how he wanted to be as honest as possible with him, yet the moment he offered honesty in return Naruto retreated. He was only making things worse. Instead of inciting Naruto to stand up for himself he was simply kicking him while he was down. It left a bad taste in his mouth. He should never have called Naruto his lover. If he hadn't started viewing him that way he wouldn't be driven to turn him into the sort of lover he would have chosen. He was equating lover with partner and looking for an equal who could challenge him. That was his mistake. They were both male. If Naruto did learn to push for what he wanted he might very well find himself in the role of the meek little housewife. He would sooner bite off his own tongue. He really needed to just count his blessings and leave things as they were.

He created two shadow clones, had them activate the sharingan, and darted into the trees with his own inactive. It wasn't much of a chase. Their goal was to ground him using ambush attacks and taijutsu. He kept himself attached to the canopy with shuriken and chakra wire, which was much more difficult than he had expected. His aim was as accurate as ever, but he couldn't correctly judge the amount of chakra he used without the sharingan. He sliced through more branches than he caught. His reaction time was also slower. They could predict his moves, while he wasn't even sure which direction the attack would be coming from until it was too late. Every time he had a secure position one or both darted in to knock him loose, leaving him scrambling to catch himself before he could hit the ground. He felt rather like a spider with faulty webbing and was very glad he had no fear of heights. Each fall heightened his nerves, forcing him to be more careful with the chakra wire. During one he came within a hand's breadth of the ground and nearly dispatched the clone responsible. They found his plight as amusing as he would later and didn't hesitate to let it show.

He had just caught himself after a near miss when someone slammed into him from behind. He knew it wasn't one of his clones because he didn't cut the chakra wire until after slamming him securely into the trunk of a nearby tree. He twisted around only to have Naruto slap a hand over his mouth. Assuming they were under attack he froze and activated the sharingan. He was corrected when one of the clones was dispatched and the feedback hit him. It had been taken out by a flash of orange. He immediately dispelled the other clone so Naruto wouldn't have the satisfaction of taking it out as well. With a cold glare, he grabbed Naruto's wrist and pulled the hand away from his mouth. Naruto kissed him before he could speak. He was startled enough that he almost responded. A tiny shift where his chakra was holding him in place brought him back to his senses. He shoved an arm up and forced Naruto back. "What are you doing?"

"Being pushy," Naruto muttered. "And inconsiderate. Just like you wanted."

Sasuke turned his face to the side and winced when Naruto's mouth moved to his neck instead. "Do you have to be such an extremist? I wasn't asking for you to-" He choked and flushed as Naruto ground his hips into him. How he could manage that sort of leverage in their precarious position was beyond him. "We can't do anything here," he blurted. They didn't even have a branch to rest their weight on.

"We could if I borrowed some of that chakra wire and lashed you to the tree. That's what an extremist would do. Me, I'm just being pushy." He levered himself back enough to catch Sasuke's eyes. "You confuse the hell out of me. If I'm about to cross a line with you, you'd better tell me. I want to make this better, not worse."

"Cutting me with my own chakra wire would be crossing the line. Sex in the forest is nothing more than a promise I haven't yet made good on. I expect you to make good on your promises. You shouldn't expect any less from me. Just find a strong enough branch first. I'd rather not fall partway through."

Naruto's eyes widened in surprise. "This is what you wanted, then?"

"Not this in particular," Sasuke admitted wryly. "I just want you to stop tiptoeing around me. With regards to everything. I shouldn't have to offer you what you want because you're too hesitant to push for it. To me, if you don't want it badly enough to fight for it then you don't need it. If you want anything beyond the bare minimum from me, you'll have to make it worth my time. Speaking of which..." He released the chakra holding him in place and slipped out from under him, catching himself a few feet down the trunk. "You refused to spar with me and then interrupted my training. You owe me. I want five bunshin in the trees armed with weapons for me to deflect. I'll stand there." He pointed to a small clearing to the side of them. "If you can so much as brush me or my clothing, I'll meet you on the branch of your choice."

Naruto scowled suspiciously at him. "You're going to wear yourself out so you don't have enough chakra to do it in a tree. Again."

"My chakra reserves aren't that low. You certainly didn't make me use much earlier." He'd used more at the lake than he had against Naruto. "If your aim is so bad that I'm worn out by the time you scratch me, I'll leave it to you to make sure I don't fall out of the tree. Just try to accomplish it before nightfall." He started to turn away and then paused to send a taunting look over his shoulder. "By the way, I'll be returning any weapons I catch. Have your bunshin prepared to dodge or you'll have to replace them." This time when Naruto's face flushed with anger he was confident he would act on it. For once, Naruto didn't disappoint him.

As expected, Naruto's bushin were nothing like his own. They wouldn't risk aiming at his back and they made no attempts to catch the weapons he returned. He dispatched three of them before they caught on to what he was doing. Naruto circled them at first, giving advice and retrieving the weapons they dodged or deflected. He got them coordinated so they were firing their weapons at him back to back but never simultaneously. That was just as well since they were aiming exclusively at his sides and legs, avoiding headshots entirely. He had to duck and crouch to catch any with his hands. Eventually he ducked too low and a kunai that had been aiming for his side ghosted through the back of his hair. Naruto immediately came down to guard his back, ignoring the fact that he had technically achieved his goal. Sasuke decided against pointing that out since his presence radically changed the clones' behavior. They targeted both of them, high and low, more than once with all five firing at the same time. Sasuke found it a struggle not to dodge in a way that would leave Naruto's back open. For his part, Naruto made it a point to deflect the weapons that came at him backward so Sasuke could redirect them. It wasn't long before all five bunshin had been dispatched.

"Now that was fun," Naruto grinned. "Gamakichi said something about you playing catch with yourself, but I had no idea this is what he meant. Next time you'll have to mix some of your own clones in with mine, that way they'll know where it's safe to aim."

"I want to learn to return them while traveling through the trees myself. That would work better with a few of your clones to supplement my own."

"And it'll get you more used to working in the trees. I was watching you with that chakra wire. It took me a while to figure out why you were having so much trouble. I would have jumped in a lot sooner if I had known you weren't using the sharingan."

"I shouldn't have needed it," Sasuke frowned. "My jounin instructor was better with chakra wire than I am and he didn't have any doujutsu to help him. I'll get better with practice."

Naruto laughed. "Then you'll be swinging from the trees instead of jumping from them like the rest of us. Why would you even want to do that?"

"Because he could." His eyes narrowed as he considered it. "At least he claimed he could. There weren't any forests within the clan compound so I suppose he might have been lying about that. Either way, now that I've tried it myself I know it can be done. I just need to work on my chakra control." Which, without the sharingan, remained as wasteful as ever. So much for the test Iruka had suggested. He didn't need to compare himself to someone else when all he had to do was deactivate the sharingan in order to see the difference.

"Is he the one who taught you to play catch with your chakra? Neji has a technique where he uses chakra to deflect weapons, but I don't know anyone who uses it to catch them."

"I do it to work on my reflexes and chakra control. I doubt it has any practical application in real combat. It's something I picked up to substitute for tree climbing. With the sharingan I can track the weapons even if I can't always concentrate my chakra quickly enough to hold them."

"It's definitely more fun than what I do to practice chakra control. I just make as many clones as I can and we all balance somewhere until we run out of chakra or fall. Talk about boring. You'll have to teach me how you do it. Then I can actually enjoy practicing."

"You'd have to start out slow," Sasuke warned. "I wouldn't recommend wasting chakra on bunshin until you can at least catch things you've thrown yourself. If you're determined to go all out then stick with rocks so the bunshin won't be expelled when they miss."

"Did you start with rocks?" Naruto asked suspiciously.

"No," Sasuke drawled in amusement. "I started with sand. Considering how easily you move in the trees you can skip a lot further ahead than where I started." As many bunshin as Naruto could make to practice with it probably wouldn't take him long to get the hang of it. "Just remember to save a few bunshin to work with me. I need training more than you do."

"I haven't noticed that you need training in anything other than taijutsu. I know you didn't like your jounin instructor, but he must have done right by you because you're pretty well-rounded."

"Based on what? The fact that I'm accurate and quick enough to dodge? I had that before I developed the sharingan. You can't give that man credit for that." Naruto seemed to have meant it as a compliment. To him it was no different from his instructor telling him he didn't need to learn the replacement jutsu because he was good enough without it. That wasn't a compliment, it was an excuse. "Are you saying you won't train me?"

"No," Naruto smiled, his tone just patient enough to be very annoying. "I'm saying you don't need me to train you. You'd be fine without any help from me. If you got where you are on your own then you probably don't need anyone. You don't need training, Sasuke. You want training. I'm going to train you because I promised I would, but I'm going to enjoy it a lot more knowing it's what you want, not what you need. See the difference?"

He saw another semantic debate in the making. He shrugged dismissively. "So long as I receive the training you promised you can view it however you like. Now pick your branch while I deal with our guest."

"You should put him to sleep like you did last time." Naruto raised an eyebrow when Sasuke sent him a curious look. "What?"

"I didn't think you had noticed it was so close." The snake had approached so slowly he had thought Naruto too busy to notice. He certainly hadn't let it distract him or his bunshin from what they were doing.

"It's really big," Naruto drawled sarcastically. "It's hard not to notice something that huge creeping up on you. I'm a shinobi, too, you know."

"Of course you are," Sasuke murmured, knowing his tone would annoy him. He wondered exactly how close the snake had gotten before Naruto had noticed it. He wouldn't be surprised if Naruto had only spotted it after coming down from the trees to where he was at eye level with it. The snake had stopped a good distance away from them. It lifted its head quickly when Sasuke approached, its tongue flicking out at him.

"He's trying to lick you again," Naruto scowled as he followed along behind him.

"You're right," Sasuke said simply. He didn't know what to make of it. The snake wasn't the slightest bit wary of him, but it wasn't viewing him as prey, either.

"Don't get too close, okay? If he tries to wrap his tongue around you I'll have to chop it off. Sorry." He didn't sound the least bit sorry. "I know, it's just an animal and I shouldn't be jealous, but that's just how it is. Mine is the only tongue allowed to touch you and that's final."

Sasuke stared at him, both impressed and disturbed by how proudly he said that. "I'll remind you that I'm not the one who has been inside a snake's mouth. I wouldn't let this one wrap its tongue around me whether you were okay with it or not. Unlike you, I wouldn't be able to bust my way out. I'd probably suffocate before I could do enough damage to make it regurgitate me."

"Wow," Naruto blurted, blinking in surprise. "That's even more disturbing than the thought of it molesting you with its tongue."

"Shut up, Naruto." He turned away with a disgruntled frown. Now he had the sudden notion that the snake's interest in him was sexual in nature. Leave it to a self-proclaimed pervert to put that thought into his head. He activated the sharingan and took a probing look at the creature's mind. It had a strong interest in him, its natural caution pushed aside by curiosity, and yes there was a possessive quality to it. There was nothing sexual, however. That was all in Naruto's twisted imagination. It wanted to taste him to see what he was. That brief command for loyalty had convinced it that he wasn't predator or prey. In the snake's narrow view of the world that didn't leave anything else. It accepted him as a part of its territory to be defended. But he moved. If snakes had been maternal creatures Sasuke would have said it viewed him as a perplexing and willful child. It wanted to snap him up and take him back to its territory where it thought he belonged.

He firmly redefined things for it. He couldn't have it seeking him out any time he entered the forest. That might lead it to trying to follow him out when he left. He didn't want to curb its interest in him entirely, but he had to establish that he was in control. The genjutsu he used was only slightly stronger than the one he had cast on Iruka earlier. He was going to place a summoning seal on it so he wanted it free to refuse if it chose to do so. He would never be able to feed a snake this large. Interrupting it during a hunt would be as bad as forcing it to extend its territory and drawing it into conflict with others of the same size. He waited to see if the snake would resist, not approaching until it obediently dropped its head. This might work out just fine.

"Come with me," he said to Naruto.

"It's still awake," Naruto pointed out, following him warily. He was very uncomfortable with climbing on the creature's head while its eyes were watching them. "What are we doing, Sasuke? Do you want to ride on it somewhere?"

"No. I'm placing a seal on it so it can come when I call. If it wants to. Otherwise I'm going to keep using genjutsu to drive it off until it stops seeking me out on its own." He cut his palm, drew out the seal, and then offered the kunai to Naruto. "A few drops of your blood should be enough to keep it from attacking you by mistake."

"This won't mean I have a contract with it or anything, right? Because Gamabunta would not like that."

"It's not a contract," Sasuke assured him. "You won't even be able to summon it yourself. This is just a way to make sure it never tries to eat you." Once the seal was complete he healed his cut and rose to offer Naruto a smirk. "Now this snake would no sooner eat you than one of my kunai."

Naruto bristled as he caught his meaning. "So it's going to identify me as your tool?"

"My property," Sasuke confirmed.

"That's not right," Naruto blurted. "Having you claim me as your lover to your summon was fine, but property? That's...demeaning. No, I don't like it. Change it so the snake views me as your ally or something."

"Snakes don't have allies. It wouldn't understand that. This isn't a summon used to working with people. It's enough that it views you as part of my territory." He rather liked how bothered Naruto was to be viewed as a possession. Now he knew how it felt. "Do you want me to send it away or have it guard the area?"

"I want you to change that seal," Naruto grouched. "If I can't have that then get it out of here." He jumped to the ground and stomped away, grumbling under his breath about tools and snakes and a bad taste in pets.

The snake resisted Sasuke's request to leave so stubbornly that he had to make it an order. That proved he hadn't overdone his genjutsu this time. Once it was gone he tracked down Naruto. He was sitting on a thick branch, muttering under his breath with his arms folded over his chest. He didn't look up when Sasuke came to stand beside him.

"How long are you going to sulk?" Sasuke asked, only mildly curious.

"About as long as it takes to get you panting. That's right," Naruto said rudely, "you're not the only one who can say things that get you where it hurts. I could say a few things that would embarrass the hell out of you. Then you can be the one with his fist in a tree while I taunt you from a safe distance."

Sasuke sighed in annoyance. "Do we have to go through this discussion again?" He had already apologized for bringing it up.

"No. Once was enough. I don't know what I'd do if I had to listen to that again. Probably introduce you to bondage just to prove I'm not submissive and meek. That would go over real well, I'm sure." He rose and eyed Sasuke soberly. "I just have one question. You think I'm submissive because I bottomed to you last night. Do you feel that way about yourself when I top you?"

"Of course." The difference was he did it reluctantly while Naruto had invited it.

"So what does that make us when we do both?"

Sasuke raised an eyebrow at his leading tone. "Strange?"

"Male," Naruto huffed in exasperation. "I should have seen this coming. You were so confused when I wanted you to top me that first time. Neither one of us is a woman, Sasuke. We don't have to be one or the other. In fact, we don't have to be either to have sex. We could just make out and stroke each other off if we wanted to. It's not about power, it's about pleasure. That's the same no matter who ends up where. It's just you and me feeling good together."

All of which sounded very romantic and unlikely. Sasuke wasn't buying it. "Homosexuality is a taboo in my clan. I didn't know it existed until I heard other shinobi speak of it. None of them ever admitted having bottomed."

Naruto grimaced in disgust. "That's because they were rapists bragging about their victims. You can't even count that as sex. It's sadism and torture and as far from sex as you can get. It kills me that you were anywhere near people like that. Any one of them could have tried something with you."

"They wouldn't have dared even if they had wanted to. Hiring me cost too much." His lips twitched when Naruto snorted at that. "Aside from a few of my targets, you're the only male I've ever met who was sexually attracted to me."

"Now that's impossible," Naruto said flatly. "I might be the first one bold enough to admit it to you, but even seriously straight guys lust after you. If you didn't notice it's just because you weren't looking for it." He tilted his head, giving him a long considering look. "I think I prefer you not noticing. So far every time we've walked through the village you've had at least one guy drooling over you. It's easier for me to ignore it when you don't even notice."

"You don't expect me to believe that, do you?"

"Yeah. You're too conceited to plead modesty. Don't bother fishing for compliments from me. It's not your ego I'm interested in stroking right now."

Sasuke scowled as he felt a blush heat his face. Evidently Naruto hadn't been bluffing about saying things that would embarrass him. He didn't like it one bit.

Naruto slipped past him and tilted his head back to eye the trunk of the tree. He ran a hand over the bark. Then he pulled two kunai and embedded them to the hilt as high as he could reach.

"Wind?" asked Sasuke. They'd gone in far too smoothly. He refused to believe Naruto was that strong.

"Yeah. I want them nice and sturdy."

"Why?" Sasuke asked suspiciously.

Naruto turned with a smirk. "So you'll know there's at least one way you can use kunai during sex without it involving torture or bondage."

"I'd just as soon not use weapons at all," Sasuke informed him. He raised an eyebrow when Naruto openly scoffed at that.

"I don't believe that coming from the guy who wanted to do it on a giant snake. You're a lot more kinky than you let on. That or you just have a twisted sense of humor. Either way, I'm on to you now. It's only a matter of time before I figure you out. You'll have to work a lot harder to surprise me then."

"I'm not interested in surprising you. Learning to tolerate you would be enough for me."

"You're just saying that to annoy me because you don't want to admit you have a wild streak. You don't have to repress it so much, you know. This is Fire country. We're all about passion."

"Then it's a wonder the country hasn't burned to the ground with all of the trees here. Give it up, Naruto. All you're doing is making me wonder if your entire village is full of overly emotional perverts. You're also reading far too much into one off-handed comment. Just tell me what it is you want to do here so we can get on with it." Ignoring Naruto's pouting frown, he slipped past him to yank on one of the kunai. "What are they for?"

"I was working up to that," Naruto muttered crossly. "You make it really hard to set the mood for this sort of thing. It wouldn't kill you to work with me a little."

Sasuke turned, folding his arms over his chest and giving him a skeptical look. "I'm about about to have sex with you in a tree. I'd say I'm working with you enough as it is."

"And you say talking to me is a waste of time," Naruto glowered. "I'll have you know we're not going to have sex right now. Not the way you're thinking. I told you I'd have to plan that out and I didn't even bring the lotion with me. All I want to do is have a little fun with you."

"And I'm preventing that?"

"You're sure not making it easy." He gave a long sigh. "That's okay, though. I'm up for the challenge." He smiled brightly, once again shifting moods so quickly it was hard to believe. "Would you mind changing your outfit? Just the outfit this time. I want to show you why I like those shorts so much."

With a sigh, Sasuke performed the requested henge. He would much rather have done a full transformation. He altered the clothing to fit his taller form, but it still felt awkward to have his legs bare. He'd stopped wearing shorts right after hitting his last growth spurt. Naruto didn't seem to notice how strange the outfit looked on him, though. He was too busy ogling the shorts. "Are you going to use bunshin to secure the area?"

"They're already in place," Naruto bragged. "You're not the only one good at hiding."

Sasuke quickly considered the area, wondering exactly where they were and how many he had passed on his way here. He was disturbed to think he might have passed close by one without spotting it. Had he been using the sharingan he would have seen their chakra, but he shouldn't need to rely on that in order to realize he wasn't alone. Either his other senses were dulling now that he had the sharingan or he was getting too used to Naruto's presence for it to register as a threat. Unfortunately he suspected it was the former. He wasn't sure what if anything he could do about that. "How close are they?"

"A few are close, the rest are spaced out. Don't worry. I'm not taking the chance of anyone seeing this. If they even suspect someone else is nearby I'll get us out of here."

"I'll do my part." He created a shadow clone. Although he didn't feel good about doing this with only half his chakra it was worth it to know he'd have his own eyes on the forest. The clone wouldn't waste any time locating each of Naruto's and figuring out how he had failed to notice them. He was surprised when Naruto reacted with enthusiasm at the sight of his clone. It wasn't until the clone darted off that he understood why.

Naruto let out a little sound of disappointment, his shoulders slumping as he watched the clone disappear into the canopy. "You meant you'd do your part to keep watch," he sighed. "I should have known."

"You thought I created it for sex?" Sasuke asked in disbelief. It was difficult enough participating in it himself without having a second perspective. He would just as soon never know what he looked and sounded like during sex. "I wouldn't even consider it."

"Yeah, I'm not surprised. It's probably just as well. It takes some practice to keep clones from poofing out and a tree is definitely not the best place for your first try. Still..." He sent a mischievous look from the spot where the clone had vanished back to Sasuke. "Don't be surprised if one of my clones puts the moves on yours. That's as close as they're going to get to the real thing."

"They had better not," Sasuke muttered. That would be a complete waste of his chakra and, besides, he didn't want to leave here with the memory of two leafy encounters. One was enough for him. He didn't appreciate the amusement Naruto clearly got out of the idea. "If they bother him you may find yourself short a few bunshin."

"Maybe." Naruto laughed easily. "That's between them now." He eased close and flattened his hands against Sasuke's chest. "You know, I'm glad you don't wear shirts like this anymore. It's so loose you give flashes of skin every time you move, and that wide collar is an open invitation."

"You're the one who asked for it." Sasuke let himself be pushed back against the tree, noting that Naruto's touch wasn't nearly as playful as his tone. The hands moved around him, palms pressing up beneath the back of his shirt. He had to admit that he felt very under-dressed compared to Naruto with his heavy pants and baggy jacket. He slid an arm over Naruto's shoulder to cup the back of his neck. That was the only bit of skin he had access to at the moment. "Are you going to undress?"

"No," Naruto said smugly, his eyes glittering with amusement as he leaned in for a kiss. He pressed a knee between Sasuke's and rubbed up against him. He didn't seem to be in any hurry.

Sasuke took that to mean he really wasn't planning to have sex out here. He was annoyed to find himself disappointed rather than relieved. He blamed that for his sudden urge to take over the kiss. The tree was hard against his back and the way Naruto was rubbing their hips together made those blasted shorts very uncomfortable. At least the kiss was satisfying. Naruto responded enthusiastically at first, then he suddenly pulled away. He couldn't stop himself from scowling in frustration.

"Don't be mad," Naruto pleaded, giving him a sweeping nuzzle along the base of his jaw. He rubbed a hand over Sasuke's crotch, massaging him through his shorts, and catching his mouth in a probing kiss when he grimaced. He kept it up until Sasuke was pulling painfully on his hair. Then he reached up to catch his arms. "I want you to hold onto the kunai," he explained heatedly. "I promise I'll make it worth it."

So that was what they were for. Sasuke grudgingly complied. The moment he curled his hands around the hilts he knew he wasn't going to like this. He might as well have been bound. He couldn't believe Naruto had the gall to ask this of him after insisting that bottoming didn't make one submissive. Naruto must have read reproach in his eyes because his kiss was sweet and apologetic.

"Don't get the wrong idea," Naruto insisted. "It's just so you'll have something other than chakra to hold you up when I do this." He ducked down to catch him behind the knees, bringing his legs up so he was pressed snugly between them. "Wrap your legs around me."

"I dislike this immensely," Sasuke informed him. It came out more flustered and embarrassed than scathing, so he wasn't surprised when Naruto flashed him a knowing smile before kissing the life out of him. He crossed his ankles behind Naruto's back, using a little chakra to secure them in place. Naruto's hands slid inside the loose legs of his shorts to press tightly against his ass and he was suddenly sure that was what Naruto liked so much about them. Fingers pushed into him and he drew in a sharp breath, turning his head away so he could clench his teeth. Between the position and Naruto's grinding hips his erection was already being tightly confined without him making it worse.

Naruto buried his face in the open collar of his shirt, his breath hot and humid as he rocked hard against him. "Just relax," he panted.

"You can't be serious," Sasuke bit out. He was gripping the kunai so tightly he was bound to have grooves in his hands. If Naruto made him cum in his pants he swore he would never give him this henge again no matter how much be begged. He held his breath, shuddering as Naruto's fingers stroked him in just the right spot. He wasn't aware of flexing his legs so they were grinding even harder against each other. He felt both humiliatingly close and horribly far from where he wanted to be. Naruto was kissing his neck, and he groaned when teeth scraped over his collarbone. "Naruto!"

"I can't help it," Naruto said plaintively. "I told you this shirt is an open invitation. I promise I won't mark you, just let me taste you a little." He tilted his head, licking and nipping at the base of his neck. He slowly made his way up to Sasuke's ear and nuzzled his hair. "I could do this for hours, Sasuke."

"Then you'd be doing it without me," he hissed furiously. His clothing felt sticky with sweat and he was suddenly convinced the crotch of his shorts were too tight for him to come even if he wanted to. Naruto tried to kiss him, and he buried his face against his left arm. He didn't even want to imagine how pained and flushed he looked right now.

"Don't you like it just a little?" Naruto asked coaxingly.

"Shut up." He refused to be pandered to when Naruto was grinding hard enough to feel just how aroused he was. This would have been so much easier if he didn't know there were bunshin out there, likely watching the entire thing. Naruto removed one of his hands so the crotch of the shorts weren't pulled quite so tightly against his straining erection. It wasn't much of a relief, though. The hand slid under his shirt to rub and then pluck one of his nipples, as if he really needed more stimulation.

"I want to kiss you," Naruto murmured against his cheek. "What do you want, Sasuke? I'll do anything."

Naruto knew damned well what he wanted. Sasuke turned his head just enough to glare at him through the hair sticking messily to his face. "What do you think I want?"

"Satisfaction," Naruto breathed smugly as he quickly caught his mouth in a heated kiss. He dropped his hand to tug at Sasuke's shorts, undoing the clasp and freeing his erection. He undid his own pants and then pressed them together.

Sasuke closed his eyes, letting Naruto's mouth muffle any sounds he made. Naruto wasn't stroking them nearly as quickly as he would have liked, but he was too relieved to complain. His erection felt very smooth compared to his lightly calloused hand, a contrast he was barely lucid enough to notice but which he appreciated all the same. Naruto shuddered, moaning his name against his lips. Then his grip tightened and he was stroking every bit as roughly as Sasuke would have had it been him.

It was quite a while before he realized Naruto's weight and his locked hold on the kunai were the only things holding him affixed to the tree. He carefully got his legs down and steady enough to hold his weight. Trusting his chakra enough to keep his back to the tree when he let go of the kunai was considerably harder. He couldn't focus at all. Naruto was happily dazed, leaning heavily against him, which was some consolation. That lasted until he released the henge and realized they had come on their clothes. Then he was tempted to shove him off the tree while he was too limp and content to catch himself. Instead he wrapped a resigned arm around Naruto's back and eyed the creases in his left palm. He could see each line from the narrow cloth wrapped around the kunai's hilt sketched neatly on his skin. Naruto spotted it and licked his palm before he could pull away. He wiped the saliva off on his shoulder with a grimace. Naruto gave him a pouting frown.

"Don't be like that, Sasuke. It was fun, right?"

Sasuke levered him back so he would see the mess they had made. "It's a good thing you bought me new clothing. That's all I have to say."

Naruto laughed and pulled him into a hug. "It'll wash right off. I'll clean it myself, don't worry. Let's get back to the apartment. I know you like to shower right after."

"What about your kunai?"

"I'll leave them here to mark the spot," Naruto said cheekily.

Sasuke sent a quick look around. "Did you lose any clones?"

"Nope. I look forward to finding out what they got up to. How about yours?"

"It's still out there."

Naruto smirked. "Let's leave them here. How much trouble could they get into?"

Sasuke snorted at that. "Mine wouldn't get into any. I'm not so sure about yours."

.-.
TBC