Author's Note: IT LIVES. I deeply apologize for the wait - I really didn't mean for the hiatus to last even longer than the actual timeskip. /o\ If you haven't read the "Letters from an Occupant" side story in "(Nice Dream): The Gaps In Between," you should probably do that now, or some bits of this will be pretty confusing... Thank you for your patience, and I hope this chapter doesn't disappoint!

19. friends till we die

Sasuke woke up to piercing golden light well before his alarm clock could ring. He sat up and turned it off; he didn't get out of bed, however, but switched on the lamp beside the clock and reached under the bed so he could pull out a large box with a smooth metal plate in place of a lock. A little chakra focused into the plate, and the box opened to reveal an interior stuffed full of letters.

He had kept them all in the order they had arrived; after a quick glance at the clock, he began to browse through them, reading fragments of them as he went.

- was gonna be cool, but it's been kinda boring, I haven't learned any new techniques at all -

- have to memorize all the bones in the entire body and be able to identify them really fast, it's annoying but I'm working as hard as I -

- learn genjutsu, but the pervy sage keeps saying I won't be any good at it! He could at least try to teach me, yanno - anyway, you'd better get -

- started working with poisons, they're really fascinating! And scary, too. Shizune-san uses one that -

- Ino wrote that you went on a mission with an older team, did that go all right? I can't believe you'd tell her before you told us, that's -

- see Gaara, he's doing okay, his dad's still kind of a jerk though. Kankuro and Temari aren't so bad, they treated me to ramen! -

- Haku's WHAT? Well, he's always been as pretty as a girl, so I guess -

- Haku-san is WHAT? No, actually, I'm not too surprised - before I left, we had a few conversations about -

Sasuke paused, remembering his own reaction to Haku's decision with a little shame. He had suggested leaving the news as a homecoming surprise for Sakura and Naruto, but Haku had said no, which was probably for the best. He slid those letters back into place and kept reading.

- doing well? Maybe it's a little strange to say it now, but lately I've been missing you all more than ever... I'm tired of medical jutsu and studying all the time, I just want to come home and see you and -

- for sending that letter! It was really nice, even though I don't remember ever talking to Hinata that much - uh, don't tell her that, though. She sent me a card once too when -

- going to go up near the Land of Earth and maybe we could've stopped and visited those nice aunties in Kawano, but we heard that there's border trouble so we're gonna stay down here in Wave for -

- can't believe Ino's a chuunin now! Ugh, she's going to be so smug - Sasuke-kun, as soon as I get back we're taking those exams! -

- Hey, is Haku-chan okay? I haven't gotten any letters from her for a while, yanno, I'm kinda worried -

- trouble with Kirigakure is getting worse, you haven't been sent out that way yet, have you? Ino said she'd gone on one mission but she didn't give me any details. -

- got a message from Konoha, but she wouldn't tell me what it said. She just told me to start packing, so I think -

- pervy sage said it was time, but he didn't say WHAT time - pretty sure he meant -

That was the last full letter; after it were only a few plain postcards, the last of which had a date, a time, and DON'T BE LATE! scrawled across it in Naruto's messy handwriting, underlined twice by Sakura's blue pen.

Sasuke looked at it for a long moment, then glanced up at his alarm clock and stuffed the card back into the box, which he re-sealed and shoved under the bed again. He got dressed quickly and went out into the apartment's main room. Itachi was already up, of course, and had started making breakfast; Sasuke considered it for a moment, then grabbed a couple of pieces of bread out of the cupboard and stuck them in the toaster, attracting Itachi's attention. "There's no need for that," Itachi said, "I'll be done soon. You're not going to be late - the gate guards aren't likely to let them through until -"

"I'm not taking any chances," Sasuke said. He popped the toast out as soon as it looked a little brown, then smeared butter on both pieces and headed for the door. "See you later."

"At least have some miso, too," said Itachi, and when Sasuke only stopped long enough to put on sandals, he sighed. "Tell them hello for me, and that they're welcome to have dinner with us tonight."

"Yeah, sure." Sasuke shut the door, and then he bounded down the steps, jumped over Anko's outstretched foot, ignored her when she yelled "Where's the fire, brat?" after him, and took off down the street with toast in his mouth.

If he had really been in a hurry, he would have taken to the roofs, but Itachi was right; he did have plenty of time, he just didn't feel like waiting around in the apartment. It was still early enough that the streets were mostly empty, so he didn't have to slow down and dodge people.

As he ran past one particular apartment building, someone fell in beside him. "Good morning," Haku said. "Feeling impatient?"

Sasuke swallowed the last bite of toast and said, "Same to you."

"Are you going to meet them at the gates?"

Sasuke had considered it, but waiting at the gates for someone was childish, and he was almost fifteen; he shook his head. "No, the training field with the memorial stone."

"All right," said Haku, "then I'll go ahead to the gates." At the next intersection of streets she split off, leaving Sasuke to run alone again until he reached the training field. It was empty, of course; who knew when Kakashi would show up, but probably not for another couple of hours. The grass was still damp with dew, so he went up a tree and settled on a branch where he'd have a decent view of the field, automatically masking his chakra. Then, at last, he could relax a little. He'd see anyone coming before they noticed him, unless it was Kakashi, and he had plenty of time to get ready to face Naruto and Sakura. He could barely imagine it; they must have gotten taller, like he had - he was nearly as tall as Itachi now - and Sakura had written once about trying a new haircut, but he couldn't picture what they would actually look like. He could only see them as they had been, the day they had left...

A breeze rattled the branches above him, and a nut bounced off his head; he caught it before it fell to the ground and began to toy with it. Not because he was nervous or anything, that would be ridiculous. He was completely calm. There was no way he could be nervous simply because he was waiting for people he hadn't seen in three years; he was just keeping himself occupied while he waited.

And waited.

And waited.

He was about ready to abandon the tree and go to the gates, childishness be damned, when he heard the familiar rise and fall of a too-loud voice and smiled. Some things would never change. A moment later the source came into Sasuke's line of sight: Naruto chattering to Haku and waving his arms around, and Sakura joining in, for once almost as loud as Naruto. She had cut her hair short, so it hung barely past her chin; it suited her. And she'd gotten taller, and hell, so had Naruto, who was nearly Haku's height and had a thinner face and new clothes with almost as much black as orange - but his brilliant grin was still the same, and a tightness in Sasuke's shoulders he hadn't been aware of began to loosen.

"- get ramen, I'm super starving," Naruto was saying, "but we better wait for Sasuke - hey, where is he, anyway? I thought you said he was gonna be here - I knew we shouldn't have left him all alone with Kakashi-sensei, he'll be late all the time now!"

Sasuke rolled his eyes and threw the nut in his hand at Naruto's head, bouncing it off his forehead protector. "Who's late, dumbass?" he said, standing up and leaping to the ground. "I was here first."



Naruto and Sakura pounced on him, nearly squeezing him to death as they babbled in his ears; he tolerated it for a few moments, then said, "Get off" and slid out of their grip. "And quit shouting, I can hear you fine." But no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't stop a hint of a smile appearing on his face.

"Whatever, we know you're glad we're back, jerk," said Naruto, throwing an arm over Sasuke's shoulders as his grin widened. "Geez, when did you get so tall? That's so not fair, I thought I was finally gonna beat you..."

"Oh, honestly, that doesn't matter," Sakura said, but her smile was nearly as big as Naruto's. "It's so good to see you again at last - it feels like it's been forever!"

"Yeah." In hopes of heading off more sentiment, Sasuke said, "So, jan-ken-pon until Kakashi gets here?"

Sakura and Naruto laughed at the same time, then gave each other startled looks and laughed again. "Pfft, you're really just the same," Sakura said, "you'd rather play jan-ken-pon than talk!"

"C'mon, can't we at least spar or something? You have to see what I can do with the rasengan now, it's way cooler and I can -"

"You're really terrible at writing letters, you know," Sakura said over Naruto, "if Haku and Ino hadn't written I wouldn't have any idea of what's going on - I want to hear all about everything!"

"It's not that exciting," Sasuke said. "Just the same things, really."

"Oh, now I know that's not true. I did hear about that giant raid last year and there's no way you didn't get involved!"

"Uh, what about you-know-what?" Naruto glanced over at Haku. "Any, yanno, changes or -"

"It's okay, I told Haku a while ago," Sasuke said.

"I would have told you myself," Haku said, "but in case the letters were read - it didn't seem wise to reveal too much until you were home."

"Yeah, I get it," Naruto said, breaking into a grin yet again. "That's way cool, though! So, with both of you looking, did you find anything out? You have to have figured out something by now, right?"

Sasuke stared up at the sky.

"You gotta tell us before Kakashi-sensei gets here, yanno, so -"

"The situation has been - complicated," Haku said, which was probably the nicest way possible of saying they'd gotten nowhere, with missions keeping them busy and everyone who knew anything acting like there was nothing for them to find out.

"Oh, you've got to be joking," Sakura said. "It's been three years, what were you doing all that time?"

"What about you two? Did you do any better?" Sasuke demanded.

"Uh - well..."

"Um -"

"It's not important," Haku said as she gave Sasuke a sharp look. "Now that we can work together again, I'm sure we'll make more progress."

Sasuke glanced sideways and muttered, "Yeah." Damnit, he hadn't meant to snap at them when they'd just gotten back.

"Yeah, for sure!" Naruto said, brushing it off as if it were nothing. "Anyway, we have to do something until Kakashi-sensei shows up, and I don't wanna play jan-ken-pon - let's do something cool! Like - uh -"

Sasuke caught a hint of chakra, rolled his eyes, and stepped away just as Kakashi appeared among them in a puff of smoke. "Like what?" Kakashi said, and immediately vanished again under Naruto and Sakura as they jumped on him simultaneously with shouts of "Sensei!"

After he freed himself from their clutches, Kakashi said, "It's good to see you're both so enthusiastic about coming back."

"Well, of course we are," Sakura said, "but - you're early, too. For you, I mean!"

"Someone may have been a bad - a good influence," said Kakashi, managing not to look in Sasuke's direction at all. "Regardless, since we're all here now, I'd like to see how much you've all grown. So I thought I would give you a little - test..."

Lightning crackled. The rasengan buzzed. Leather creaked as Sakura snapped on a pair of gloves, smiling sweetly, and Kakashi remained frozen with two bells dangling from his hand as she said, "You guys are ready, right?"

"Or, ah, perhaps it's not necessary," Kakashi said, "and I can just treat you all to lunch?"

Naruto and his clone grinned double demonic grins. "Nah, it's a great idea - let's do it!"

"I'll see you later," Haku said, and she left the field in a single graceful leap before the carnage could begin.

The walk to Ichiraku should have been a triumphal march, with Sasuke and Sakura waving their captured bells in Kakashi's face while Naruto gloated over his newfound power of threatening spoilers for Kakashi's favorite books. Instead, Naruto and Sakura were silent, constantly looking around at the village, until Naruto finally said, "Man, this place - it really looks different."

Sasuke followed his gaze to an apartment building he'd helped repaint a few months ago, and Kakashi said, "We've had to do a lot of rebuilding, thanks to the raids. It'd be more surprising if things hadn't changed."

"Yeah - well..." Naruto scowled with his lower lip sticking out, the same way he always had, but the expression looked strange on his older face. "I don't think I like it, yanno. It makes me feel like maybe I shouldn't have left."

"I know, but we learned so much while we were gone," Sakura said, clasping her hands behind her back. "If we'd stayed, we would have missed out on a lot, and everything still would have changed - we'd just notice it less. We might not have learned everything we could have, but it's not like all that time was useless..."

Her eyes flickered over to Sasuke at useless, and an old shame burned in his throat. "No," he said, looking away from them. "Not useless."

At least Ichiraku hadn't changed at all, thanks to Haku's fierce defense of the place, and Naruto greeted the old man who ran it with even more than his usual enthusiasm. Haku and the other woman who worked there already had a few bowls of Naruto's favorite ramen ready, as well as one bowl for Sakura and a plate of the dumplings Sasuke had taken to ordering just so he wasn't a complete freeloader every time he came to see Haku.

Naruto inhaled deeply as Haku set the first two bowls in front of him, and his grin reappeared. "This is more like it, yeah! Now I really know I'm home!"

"Don't get too comfortable," Kakashi said. "The village is still pretty busy, and I expect we'll be sent out not long after - "

He stopped there, but he didn't have to finish the sentence to remind Sasuke why Jiraiya and Tsunade weren't having lunch with them, or why they'd come back in the first place, and Sasuke stuffed the first two dumplings into his mouth so he wouldn't have to answer any questions. Naruto and Sakura didn't seem eager to talk about it, either, by the way they dug hastily into their own food, and for a minute nothing but the sounds of eating and cooking filled Ichiraku. At least, until Ino popped up and tackled Sakura off her stool, followed a moment later by her two teammates who somehow found seats close to Naruto and started talking, and then the Inuzuka from their class showed up with the rest of his team, and after them their former teacher Iruka appeared to shout cheerfully at them all.

They all had too many questions for the newly returned pair to spare any attention for Sasuke, and he used the opportunity to observe Sakura and Naruto while they were distracted. They laughed the same way they had three years ago, chattered the same, ate the same; but sometimes, not at the same time, they would glance toward the Hokage's tower. They were both full of funny stories Sasuke had already read in their letters, but they dodged around certain questions with a grace that Naruto had never had before and that Sakura had improved. They had changed while they were gone, in ways that hadn't shown in the natural resumption of their teamwork.

He hated it.

More people began to show up or stop by just to say hello, and Sasuke sank deeper into silence the noisier Ichiraku became, until Sakura drank the last of her ramen in a giant gulp and said, "Sorry, everybody! But I really have to go now. I told my parents I wouldn't be home till after lunch since I had to meet my team, but they're probably getting anxious, and I don't want to make them wait too long."

Kakashi waved one hand in gracious dismissal, even as he eyed the total stack of dishes with despair in his eye. Sasuke said, "Fine," then belatedly remembered Itachi's invitation and added, "Itachi said that you can come over for dinner tonight if you want."

"Oh, I wish I could, but I'm sure my parents are going to make something special..." Sakura hesitated, then threw her arms around Sasuke for a quick hug and hissed in his ear, "Let's all meet later tonight at Naruto's - I did find out a few things from Tsunade." Just as quickly she let go of him to wave at Haku and make excuses to her other friends, and then she was gone.

Naruto barely noticed her departure; he had paused in his eating with noodles dripping from his chopsticks, and now said dreamily, "Wow, really? Is it gonna be one of those big special dinners with all the dumplings and fancy stuff and -"

Sasuke kicked Naruto's ankle. "I don't know. Maybe." It was just like Naruto to think about food before anything important.

"Guess I better not fill up too much, huh," Naruto said, and after finishing off his half-full bowl he added it to the stack and stood up. "Anyway, I have to go check on my place, yanno, in case Haku-chan made it smell all girly or something!"

"It smells clean, Naruto-kun."

"Yeah, you say that, but -"

Kakashi waved them off as well, saying, "I'll send a message with Pakkun if you're needed for anything - otherwise we'll meet at the Hokage tower tomorrow morning at the usual time for mission assignments."

"All right! See you tomorrow, Kakashi-sensei!"

Haku still had to work, so Sasuke and Naruto left Ichiraku alone before the crowd that had gathered could notice. Just the two of them again, the way it used to be, and Sasuke felt an even deeper knot of tension unwinding.

Until, of course, Naruto opened his big mouth and said, "So - you guys really didn't find out anything new?"

"Haku said it was complicated," Sasuke snapped, what little happiness he'd achieved already fading. "It's not as if - you were outside Konoha, you can't understand. You didn't have eyes on you all the time, people whispering about you, Danzo waiting for you to put one foot wrong so he can get rid of you -"

"Whoa, okay, geez!" Naruto held his hands up defensively. "I was just asking - I understand, okay? You don't have to bite my head off. Has it really been that bad?"

Sasuke breathed in deeply, then let it out. "At first," he said, looking away from Naruto's worried face. "It got better, after a while, but it's still - with the raids and everything, everyone's always watching everyone else. It's not like it was when you left." At that moment, in the midst of civilians and chuunin on lunch breaks, he could still sense eyes on them - too far away to overhear their conversation, but close enough to spot suspicious activity.

"I guess it's not," Naruto said, and when Sasuke looked back at him his face was glum. "Man, now I really wish I hadn't left... But it's not all that great outside Konoha either, yanno? Lots of places we stopped were having trouble, and some towns were even talking about war with Kiri. Can you imagine that? Us fighting against a whole village of Zabuzas?"

"They're not all like Zabuza, idiot. And Itachi says it's not going to reach that point."

Naruto scrunched his face up in skepticism at that, which was fair; Sasuke didn't believe it either. It was just something Itachi said in stubborn denial of the escalating hostilities, as if he had secret information or had gone politically blind.

They talked about the raids and Kiri the rest of the way to Naruto's place, which despite Naruto's fears had barely changed. After three years, the only signs of Haku's occupation were two pots of medicinal herbs on the windowsill and slightly less ramen smell. Naruto immediately flopped down on his bed and rolled around, but sat up frowning. "It feels kinda small," he said, then jumped up and paced around to inspect everything. When he finally settled down on the bed again he only wanted to talk about stupid village gossip and their old classmates like he hadn't seen enough of them at Ichiraku. "Well, it's not like you said all that much in your letters, yanno," he said. "Do you even pay attention to anybody besides Haku-chan and Itachi? You've got to make some more friends, seriously."

"I talked to plenty of people," Sasuke muttered. Anko counted, and so did Lee and his team, as grudgingly as that half-friendship had started.

Naruto sighed and bounced a little on his mattress. "I guess I can't really say anything, either," he said. "I didn't really get to meet a ton of people, except super quickly. It - kinda sucked, actually."

"I know." That much had come through in Naruto's letters, despite his attempts to paint the best light on everything that happened.

"Don't tell anyone I said that, okay?" Naruto looked oddly anxious and fidgety. "I mean, I mostly had a good time, too, and I really did learn a lot, but - yanno -"

"I know," Sasuke said again, sharply aware of Naruto's nerves and uncomfortable with it, and he started dredging up whatever bits of inane news he could remember for a distraction. It worked well enough, anyway. Naruto was more interested in trying to pry further information out of him than confessing to whatever had him on edge; they talked in bits and pieces about village life for the rest of the afternoon, avoiding the awkward places as much as possible, and gradually they fell back into their old easy patterns of conversation.

When the light through the window began to lengthen into the shades of evening, Sasuke reluctantly said, "So - are you coming to dinner? We should probably go if you are, or Anko's going to eat your share."

"Hell yeah!" Naruto leaped up from where he'd sprawled across his bed. "Man, it's been so long since I had a real Itachi-cooked meal - I can't wait!"

"Seriously? That's what you associate with Itachi, his cooking?"

"Um - well - of course it's not the only thing! But you're the one talking about dinner, yanno, so obviously that's what I was thinking about..."

"Forget it," Sasuke said, and surprised himself that he meant the words. He was too relieved to have Naruto back to get angry at him for thinking with his stomach instead of his head, no matter how irritating it was.

They were still pulling their sandals on when something scratched at the door, and Naruto opened it to find Kakashi's little wrinkly-faced dog sitting there with one paw raised. "Yo," Pakkun said. "Hate to interrupt, but you're both wanted at the Hokage's tower - I already told the girl."

"Aww, man - you think we ought to go tell Itachi first? So he knows why we're not at dinner?"

"Don't be stupid," Sasuke said. "He's ANBU, he'll already know." He'd probably beat them to the tower, if he wasn't fussing over his cooking.

Naruto didn't argue for once, and they ran to the tower together with Pakkun in silence.

The tower was full of shinobi, as usual, but there was something distracted and aimless in their rushing around; no one was getting any work done, only moving to be moving. Most of them looked past Sasuke without seeing him as he and Naruto followed Pakkun, but some recognized him, and he heard a muttered traitor's apprentice, a whispered if he hadn't, an indecipherable, hateful hiss.

He didn't respond, not even a flicker of sharingan. He'd learned better.

Pakkun took them as far as the door of the Hokage's office, where Tsunade, Sakura, and three masked ANBU were waiting, and then he vanished. None of the ANBU wore Itachi's mask, but before Sasuke could ask where he was, Naruto was saying, "Hey, where's the pervy sage?"

"Gone to talk to the council," Tsunade said, while Sakura stood silent and miserable beside her with her hands twisted in her shirt. "They'll be wanting to talk to me, too, eventually, but we agreed one of us was going to stay here with him until - well. As long as it takes."

"What about Kakashi-sensei, huh? I thought he was going to be here, for sure."

"He's talking with the clan heads and ANBU. And so is your brother, Uchi- Sasuke, before you ask." Tsunade smiled grimly, her eyes red-rimmed but dry. "Seems like someone's finally figured out it's better not to stick him in meetings with Danzo if they want to get anything done."

Naruto leaned against a wall, kicking the floor idly, and Sasuke took position next to him to watch the ANBU, who weren't openly paying attention to them. After a little silence Naruto said, "Are we gonna go in, or just - I dunno..."

"I thought he'd be in the hospital," Sakura said, deliberating untwisting her hands, but they were back in their knot a moment later. "It - it would be easier there, wouldn't it?"

"Sensei in the hospital? Perish the thought," Tsunade said. "He's always been as stubborn about going as a new genin or old jounin, and he wants to work to the last. So that no one can think that Konoha's grown weak along with its -" She stopped and took a deep, uneven breath. "Yes, well. His family's in there now; we'll go in once they leave."

"I wish Haku-chan was here," Naruto said. "I guess she has to work, but she's - yanno, she's better at saying stuff than I am, and I wish - how come we're here, anyway? It's not like we can do anything."

"Jiraiya and I decided that we wanted you two with us, and heavens know you weren't going to go anywhere without Sasuke." Tsunade reached out to put a hand on Sasuke's shoulder, and he managed not to flinch away from it; as steady as her voice was, he could hear the cracks in it. "And the three of you might not have realized it, but Sensei's always been very interested in your progress, your strength - he wanted a chance to see you together as a team."

None of them had anything to say to that, and they fell into silence again, until Naruto said, "Man, we ran so fast I couldn't even grab any souvenirs, just to get here in time, but now we're stuck out in the hall..."

"Hurry up and wait," Sasuke said, then clamped his mouth shut.

Naruto and Sakura were both giving him weird looks, and Sakura said, "What kind of saying is that?"

"Nothing," Sasuke muttered. "I just heard it somewhere." Kakashi had said it to him a couple of times on missions, but he'd heard it more often from Itachi, usually when Itachi was stuck between ANBU assignments and didn't have anything to do besides try out new recipes.

He was saved from further embarrassment by a crying genin-aged kid running out of the Hokage's office, chased by Asuma and a brown-haired woman. Asuma paused long enough to say, "Sorry, Princess - you can go in now," and vanished down the hall.

"Come on, kids," Tsunade said, and she herded Sasuke with the other two into the office.

The inside of the Hokage's office hadn't changed much since the last time Sasuke had been inside, a couple of years ago, but the old man sitting behind the desk was almost a stranger. The Hokage's gray hair had whitened and thinned out; his lean face had grown bony and faded from tanned to sickly pale, and his voice was weak and cracked as he said, "You'll have to forgive my grandson Konohamaru - he's taking all of this very personally." He gave a dry cough that was almost a laugh. "Don't let him follow you if you go looking for Orochimaru, all right?"

"I won't," said Tsunade. "Sensei, you really should be in the hospital..." She left the team standing together at the door to check the pair of IVs and softly beeping machine that had replaced one of the filing cabinets behind the desk.

"Nonsense. I still have work I can do," and Sasuke saw that the Hokage had paper files spread out on the desk. "I don't need to be coddled, particularly right now. Where's Jiraiya?"

Tsunade sighed as she fussed over the IVs, but didn't argue. "You know he's still with the council - he'll be here as soon as he can. I've brought the kids - our students, I mean. You wanted to see them, remember?"

"I'm dying, not forgetful," the Hokage said. "You don't have to stand all the way over there, you three - come closer so I can get a decent look at you."

Sasuke nudged Naruto forward - the Hokage had to be more interested in seeing him and Sakura than Sasuke, who had been stuck in the village and easy to check up on - but Sakura grabbed him by the sleeve and pulled him along so they could all line up in front of the desk like new genin. The Hokage squinted at them, then broke into a smile. "What a team you've grown into," he said. "Ah, it seems like yesterday you were just kids begging for an exciting mission - I know it's been a hard road for you all, but you've come a long way since those days. You remind me of the Sannin, when they were your age..."

If the old man tried to compare Sasuke to Orochimaru, Sasuke was going to - he cut the thought off there. What was the point in hating the Hokage now? He'd be dead soon enough, and in the end it was Sasuke's fault.

But the Hokage didn't mention Orochimaru at all; he sighed instead, saying, "I'm proud of you all. You're going to be fine strong shinobi for the village - maybe even stronger than the Sannin, in the end."

"Hey, don't go giving them big heads, now," Tsunade said, but she rubbed the top of Sakura's head affectionately. "They've got a way to go yet before they're going to beat us."

"Yeah, but we're going to!" Naruto said, perking up for the first time since they'd come to the tower. "You know it, because I'm gonna be Hokage someday, and that means - uh - I guess I don't mind waiting a while..." He was drooping again by the last word.

"I'm sure you'll get your chance eventually, if you don't give up." The Hokage gave another of those dry, coughing laughs. "Good to know you're still holding on to that ambition, despite..." His head nodded forward for an instant before he jerked upright, blinking. "Sorry. I'm a bit tired, I'm afraid."

Sasuke glanced at the door, wondering if they could go yet, and saw an ANBU slipping inside. Crow mask, ponytail - it was just Itachi, and he looked away again. "Please pardon the interruption, Hokage-sama," Itachi said, "but the clan heads are asking to speak to Tsunade."

"Well, they can wait till Jiraiya's done with the council," Tsunade said, "because I'm not moving until he's back."

"Ah, you just want to fuss me to death - the kids don't have to be here, at least." The Hokage gestured at Team Seven. "I'm sure they're getting bored and hungry, especially Naruto, and I want a private word with Itachi, if you don't mind."

"Whatever you say, Sensei."

"Why couldn't you have been that agreeable when you were my student?" the Hokage said, then raised his hands defensively against Tsunade's glare. "A joke, it was only a joke... Thank you for indulging an old man's whims, you three; you can go now."

Itachi pulled his mask off and Naruto started, like he hadn't recognized Itachi or something. "I'm afraid I didn't have time to make anything special," Itachi said, "but I left oyakodon and dumplings in the oven to keep them warm. Please eat as much as you like; I'll see you later, I hope." He paused, then added with a smile, "I'm glad you both made it back safely."

"Yeah, us too. And oh man, dumplings - I can't wait!" Naruto said, and Sasuke rolled his eyes again, letting him and Sakura go through the door first.

He took more time to leave, listening; whatever the Hokage said to Itachi was too quiet for him to catch, but Itachi's low answer was just audible. "Then I would have gone." Another pause where the Hokage had to be saying something. "I can't -"

"Hey, Sasuke," Naruto said, sticking his head back into the office at the worst possible moment, "hurry up or I'm gonna eat all your food!"

"I'm coming, idiot, don't even think about it!" Sasuke glanced back at the Hokage, but Itachi was already stepping away from the desk and replacing his mask. Nothing more to learn, then, and he went with Naruto.

Sakura had already eaten with her parents before she'd been summoned to the tower, but she came with Sasuke and Naruto anyway and helped finish off the dumplings while they ate. They talked a little over dinner, not about anything serious, and especially not about the Hokage; Naruto and Sakura most talked about their trip home, and they managed to get a few stories out of Sasuke that he hadn't mentioned in his letters.

Sakura kept looking at the door as Sasuke was putting away the leftovers, and when he sat down again she asked, "Do you think Itachi-san will be back tonight? Or Anko-san?"

"Itachi shouldn't be. I don't know about Anko." ANBU would all have to be on duty at the tower for the rest of the night, if they weren't out on missions, but he was surprised Anko hadn't shown up already to mooch some of the food. "Why?"

"Well, I was going to wait till later to tell you, but I guess if it's just going to be us - I don't know how useful any of what I learned is, though."

"At least it's something," Naruto said, resting his chin on the table. "I swear I couldn't get anything out of the pervy sage, I think he must have been onto me or something... It's like, he talked a lot, but he'd never get around to actually answering me, yanno? It was really frustrating, I had to -"

Sasuke stuffed the last dumpling in Naruto's mouth to keep him quiet and said, "Sakura. What did you find out?"

"Like I said, it's not much... But I did get Tsunade to talk a little about her grandfather and Uchiha Madara, so that has to be useful, right?" Sakura sat up straight, looking at her hands like she was counting off facts on her fingers. "She said - well, she was only a little girl when the First Hokage died, so she didn't remember much about either of them personally, but she told me that without Madara, there wouldn't even be a Konoha - that's how much her grandfather relied on him and the Uchiha clan to build the village, even though they'd been rivals before that. But they ended up fighting when Madara couldn't become Hokage or even an advisor for the village, because people preferred the Senju. Then Madara left when the rest of the Uchiha stayed, and - um - eventually the First had to kill Madara, in this huge fight, but he always regretted it because they'd been good friends when they were kids, somehow... I guess that's not anything you wouldn't already know, though, is it?"

"No, that's good," Sasuke said. It was exactly the kind of thing no one ever wanted to tell him or talk about. "Anything else?"

"Well..." She pushed her fingers together. "She did say, too, that the Second Hokage - he was her great-uncle - never got over being suspicious of the Uchiha, but she, um, had already been drinking a lot after she lost a bunch of money in a card game she didn't know the rules for very well and then she went to sleep right at the bar and I didn't really want to ask her about it when she woke up in case she got suspicious. So I don't know why, or if the Second did anything particularly awful."

"Wow. I think that's actually worse than Jiraiya," Naruto said.

"It's not as if she did it a lot! She was just upset thinking about the Third, and - anyway, she can't possibly be worse than a pervert who's always hitting on girls!"

"Yeah, yeah, whatever..." Naruto heaved a deep sigh. "I guess you still did better than me - all I ever got was that whoever's in charge of that Akatsuki group might be from Amegakure, and I kinda thought I dreamed that until just now..."

"You heard it in a dream?" Sasuke said.

"No, I mean, I thought I was dreaming when I heard it, but - uh, I just realized I probably didn't, so it might be true? But it was a rumor anyway, so it's still not all that useful, plus it's really hard to find out anything about Ame, yanno. They're super secretive and we never even got close to actually going there."

"We're - not very good detectives, are we?" Sakura wilted until her head was resting on the table next to Naruto's. "And we promised we were going to find out all kinds of things, too... I'm sorry, Sasuke-kun." Her eyes fell on the clock over the stove and she shot upright again. "Oh, how'd it get so late? I should be heading home."

"Me, too," Naruto said, "I didn't even get around to unpacking 'cause we were talking all afternoon, so I still have to do that..."

They couldn't leave already. He'd only had them back for a day, it was too soon to let them go again. "You can just stay here," Sasuke said.

"What, seriously?"

"Are you sure? If Itachi-san comes back after all -"

"I don't care," Sasuke said, giving in to recklessness. With all of them together, stronger than before, it didn't matter what Itachi thought or tried to do. "It's my apartment, too. You can spend the night if you want."

"Hell yeah!" Naruto punched the air. "This is gonna be great! You never let me stay over before - I mean, I know why and it's cool, but - yeah! Awesome!"

"Um," Sakura said, "maybe it's okay for Naruto, but we're not kids anymore - I don't know if it's really appropriate -"

"I'm gonna go call Haku-chan and she can bring over sleeping mats for me and her and Sakura, and maybe some ramen and stuff if we want snacks, and it's gonna be the best sleepover ever!"

"We're teammates," Sasuke said, puzzled. "What's inappropriate about it?"

Sakura stared at him, then covered her mouth with one hand and giggled. "Heh - you're still pretty innocent in some ways, Sasuke-kun... Well, I guess if Haku's here too, it's not so bad. Naruto, wait a moment and let me call my parents first so I can make sure it's okay before Haku has to carry too much."

Naruto and Sasuke rearranged the main room while she was on the phone; Naruto had started talking about movies they could watch, but Sasuke was concentrating on Sakura's half of the conversation.

"What? No, of course I missed you - I'm not just saying that, but it's kind of -" The phone cord twisted around her finger. "- No, not like that at all - Dad! How can you say that? - Well, I don't. I'm glad I'm on their team - Please, I don't want to fight. - I'll come home nice and early tomorrow morning, I promise. - I know, I know. - I really missed you a lot."

Sasuke yanked the table over to one side of the room. Of course Sakura's parents didn't want her to stay over; they'd been friendly and normal the first time he'd met them, but only polite to him and Naruto after that. Even civilians knew better than to get involved with the Kyuubi's host and the Uchiha.

Sakura hung up and came over to straighten out the table as Naruto grabbed the phone to call Haku. "I can stay over," she said, and her voice only wobbled a little bit. "Sorry - I hope you didn't hear anything too embarrassing, but my parents don't really understand about teams... I have to go home right after breakfast, though."

"It's fine." At least they hadn't made her leave. At least she still had parents to care - no, he didn't need to think that way anymore. It wasn't important.

By the time Haku arrived with the extra sleeping mats, Sasuke had almost forgotten about Sakura's parents. He'd had to convince Naruto that none of them wanted spend all night watching a stupid hero movie series from the Land of Lightning, but been forced to relent when it came to some TV show that Naruto and Sakura had both missed out on for the last three years. "It's not the same when we have to learn what's going on from Haku a week late!" Sakura insisted, and so he dragged his mattress into the main room and set out the mats by himself while the three of them crowded around the TV. Until he got sucked into watching the end of the episode with them, anyway; even if he had no idea what was going on, it was entertaining to watch them react.

Naruto started poking through the few channels the TV got when the show was over, looking for something else to watch, and Sasuke reached over his shoulder to turn it off.

"Aww, c'mon," Naruto said, "it's not even that late, there's gotta be something good on -"

"We have to work tomorrow! And you can't count on Kakashi to be more than half an hour late anymore, so no sleeping in."

"Hee, really?" Sakura said. "I don't know if that's a good change or a bad change..." She yawned and said, "I'm too tired to watch anything else, anyway - it's been a long day."

"Pfft, weak," said Naruto, but a second later he yawned, too, which made Haku yawn in turn, and it wasn't long before they had all settled into their beds with the lights out, relaxing into sleep with the reassuring sounds of each other's breathing.

Or trying to. They had barely settled in before Naruto was saying, "Hey, guys - you want to know something stupid?"

"Your face?" Sasuke and Sakura said at the same time, and Naruto's knee jabbed into Sasuke's shin.

"Jerks," Naruto said, without bitterness. "No, I was being serious - it's really stupid, but sometimes while I was away, if I didn't get any letters for a while, I'd start thinking - what if Sasuke didn't wait for us to get back? What if you decided to go and train with that creepy Orochimaru guy after all and you didn't need us?"

"Naruto, that's terrible! Why would you think that?" Sakura sat up, a shadow in the darkness on his left. "Of course Sasuke-kun wouldn't do that - right, Sasuke-kun?"

He'd thought about it. There had been days when anything had seemed better than spending even one more minute in Konoha under the double watch of Itachi and Danzo, seeing echoes of his friends everywhere and never able to catch them. If he had just left with Orochimaru, or let the Sound nin capture him - if he had snuck out one night while Itachi was working and run north to Sound... He'd never gone farther than thinking about it, but even that level of betrayal was more than he wanted to admit, and his hands clenched.

"I said it was stupid! I know that, I'd just, yanno, if I didn't hear anything I'd get worried..."

Sasuke waited for Haku to say something reassuring like You know I wouldn't let Sasuke-kun run away, but Haku was stubbornly quiet. Fine. "Well, I didn't," Sasuke said. He rolled over so his back was to Sakura, but that left him facing Naruto, and he burrowed into his pillow so he wasn't looking at either of them. "I stayed. Okay? Don't get worked up over nothing, dumbass."

"It's natural that you would worry, though," Haku said. "Hm - maybe I should have been better about making Sasuke write."

"Seriously! Like, one letter a month is pretty lazy, yanno, and I wrote every day like I said I would - er - okay, maybe it was more like every week, but that's still way more than you wrote."

"Just go to sleep already."

"Yeah, sure," Naruto said around another yawn. "It's pretty nice, though - being like this again..."

"It is," Sakura said quietly.

"Kinda like in Kawano when we were staying with those aunts, or when we all had to camp out at the wall that one time to look for those special plants... Except there's no bugs, so it's definitely better than camping! Remember how that giant beetle got into -"

Sasuke shoved his pillow over Naruto's face.

Something warm and heavy lay draped over Sasuke's legs, and his left shoulder was oddly damp. He blinked scratchy eyes, took in dim morning light from the wrong angle, and lifted his head enough to see Naruto sprawled out gracelessly, one leg stretched across Sasuke's, while Sakura had curled up next to Sasuke's shoulder and apparently been breathing on it for at least an hour.

It was definitely the best way he'd woken up in years. He relaxed back into his pillow and didn't try to move either of them, despite a slowly growing ache in his shins from Naruto's weight. Maybe they could let Kakashi wait on them, for a change. He'd just go back to sleep and they could all wake up properly later, make breakfast together and take their time eating it...

That one cabinet with the creaky hinge squeaked, and Sasuke opened his eyes again and turned his head. It couldn't be - no, it wasn't Itachi, it was just Haku, looking through the cupboards. She glanced over her shoulder and whispered, "Sorry - I didn't mean to wake you."

"'s fine," he mumbled, and he started pulling his legs out from under Naruto's so he could get up. Naruto twitched and rolled halfway over onto his side, but stayed asleep along with Sakura.

"I thought I would start breakfast for everyone," Haku said softly as Sasuke joined her in the kitchen, "but I don't know where you keep things... Or what you'd like for breakfast, actually."

"Just as long as it's not sweet," Sasuke said, remembering some of Itachi's cooking experiments, and Haku smiled.

They worked together in the kitchen for a few quiet minutes, as the grey light of dawn warmed into gold. No Anko making terrible jokes, no Itachi; nothing to break the morning peace that was somehow both new and familiar. Haku caught Sasuke sneaking looks at Sakura and Naruto, and said, "It's good to have them back, isn't it?"

"Yeah," Sasuke said, pouring water into the rice cooker's pot, and he looked at them again, just because he could. Naruto had flopped over and started drooling on his pillow, and Sakura had uncurled and stretched out with one hand tightened into a fist as if for a punch.

"It's good to be back, too."

"What? We didn't leave. We've been here."

"Not entirely," said Haku.

It was a strange way to put it, but after a moment Sasuke thought he understood. Part of him hadn't been in Konoha at all; it had been on the roads with Naruto and Sakura, restless and wandering until it could return with them.

Haku started to get bowls out of the cupboard, then hesitated. "Should we wake them up soon?" she asked. "So that we can clean the room and set the table..."

"It's fine," Sasuke said. "Besides, how often will you get to cook without Naruto yelling in your ear now?"

Haku covered another smile with her free hand and said, "I'm sure they didn't miss this side of you very much. I suppose it can't hurt to let them -"

The door opened and bounced off the wall with a softer bang than usual, startling them all. Naruto flailed upright, half-shouting something incomprehensible, and even Sakura stirred a little; Sasuke's sharingan flicked on instinctively, but it was only Anko, unsmiling and unusually still. "What's wrong?" he said.

Anko took a couple of deep breaths as Naruto rubbed at his eyes, and finally said, in a voice Sasuke barely recognized, "The Third Hokage is dead."