Guys, I apologize for the sluggish speed of this update. I must confess to spending valuable writing time starting a new Naruto fanfic, The Lost Namikaze. I had one of those lightning bolt moments when the idea for a plot sprang to mind, and I felt compelled to write a chapter. Then I loved it, so I wrote four more. If you're interested in reading it, you can find it on my profile.

That said, my attention is back on Sealmaster and will remain on Sealmaster, until its conclusion. This is the prelude to the climax!


"What?" Uchiha Sasuke heard himself say. He stared at the television screen, but he no longer saw the image of Naruto walking shoulder to shoulder with some red-haired Kumo nin. For a short time, he saw nothing at all. A shock-induced fog had clouded his vision while his ears rang with the careless words of a few injured shinobi.

He vaguely realized those same shinobi had turned to look at him, but Sasuke could not note them and their words without simultaneously categorizing their existence as some supreme aberration of space and time. Distortions of reality.

He'd nearly killed his hawk summon in his haste to fly to Naruto's side. All the while his imagination kept impaling him with images of the Kyuubi's red chakra being ripped out of her. She was bleeding from her mouth and had a gaping hole in her chest but still crawled through the ashes of what had once been Kumo to reach the thick of the fighting. Sometimes her arm was ripped off. Again. Sometimes a snake had latched its fangs into her flesh as it constricted around her chest and suffocated her. But always, always she was dying. Lips turning blue, tan skin growing ashen. The light in her eyes fading. Always, always, she was leaving him behind.

To arrive here and see her striding freely across a grassy field - no missing limbs, no blood, no pain - such a powerful wave of relief had washed over him that he almost sank to his knees. He did tremble.



What was this?

His emotions, his senses, and rational thought could not align with each other long enough to come to a logical conclusion. Someone was shouting out names over a loudspeaker. Shinobi were jumping from stands to the ground. He had expected to hear screaming, but it was laughter. The ringing of his strung nerves, the pumping of adrenaline, his eyes flashing from Sharingan to Mangekyo to Rinnegan and back again haphazardly - and now, such incomprehensible words battered him to rawness.


He didn't tear his gaze from the television. He couldn't. Because she was there. She was not lying on the forest floor, gushing blood from her severed limbs. She was not strapped to a table, undergoing vivisection. She was not crying or in pain. She was here, she was beautiful, she was alive.



"Sasuke-kun," said Sakura, half groaning, "it's a tournament, just a stupid - oh Sage farts, I'm going to kill her. Just a tournament. A freaking -" Some indecipherable noise spewed from her lips.

Sasuke appreciated that he was not the only one experiencing strong emotion, but where Sakura seemed to find an equilibrium and regain steady breathing, he remained at sea, shallow breaths rattling in his throat.


One of the aberrations of space and time dared to speak.

"We were being -" cough "- a little enthusiastic, you know? Like, sure, Amano-kun proposed to Naruto-san and all, but -" The injured man trailed off. He sensed his hope for a long lifespan rapidly fading.

"Excuse me?" said Sakura, a dangerous note in her voice. Sasuke - or rather, his growing bloodlust - approved. There was a muted ringing in his ears, pulsing in time with his heartbeat.

"...said she marry the one who beat her."

"No, you idiot..said she'd consider…"

"And was she only talking about Amano-kun or about anyone who managed to beat her? Dunno."

"...hardly a rock-solid agreement…"

"But it's Uzumaki Naruto's word."

"Don't be daft, you idiot."

"Sasuke-kun," began Sakura uneasily.

Then Naruto disappeared from the screen, and a jolt of panic set his feet into motion. He had to see her with his own eyes, or else he could not put to rest these fears of her demise. Sasuke moved swiftly across the short distance from the back of the recovery area to the barrier around the arena. Dozens of shinobi stood at attention, awaiting some signal. His eyes discarded the rabble as they fixed on a spot of orange.


There she was, standing tall on the far side of the arena, her stance alert. An image on a television did not do her justice. It could not transmit her poise and confidence or the warmth of her eyes or the spun gold of her hair. It could not capture - Sasuke's cheeks heated, but he forged onwards - it could not capture her radiance. His eyes, powerful as they were, saw everything, even from afar. They drank her in until she was all he could see.

Then it wasn't only her. At the sound of a whistle, the shinobi shot across the field. Naruto did not move as three shinobi teamed up to surround her, not until the first combination attack. He waited expectantly for Naruto to demolish them.

"It's a melee," said Sakura, coming to stand beside him. "They collect the white ribbons and advance to the next round. And - and - holy bijuu. Look, there's the Kyuubi - he's - are they letting him - it - whatever - compete?"

He couldn't spare the fox a glance. He watched Naruto slip like water through the taijutsu of her opponents, all young men, all hot-blooded and competitive. Did they think they had a chance? Did they think they could actually win her hand in some archaic contest of arms? Was...was she just crazy enough to go along with it?

"And speaking of ridiculous things, Sasuke-kun, you know it's just insane that Naruto would - I know she's unpredictable, but she'd never get engaged to someone she didn't love. You know that, right? Even if she made some unthinking promise, we would never let her just - we'd talk sense into her or beat it into her if that failed." Sakura cracked her knuckles for emphasis. "So you can take that frown off your face, and turn off your creepy eyes. You're scaring people."

The real question was why Naruto was slipping glibly in and out of the fray, dealing only minimal damage when she could rip them all to shreds in an instant. Though the ease of her movements must be the envy of the shinobi world, the strength of her punches were worthy of a snot-nosed genin. Her kicks weren't sloppy, but they lacked force. A constant grin had fixated on her face. Shinobi came at her with jutsus, and she batted them away like a kitten, coyly snagging a ribbon here and there. As Naruto played around with them, golden and elusive, she looked all the more like the ultimate prize.

What the fuck did she think she was doing?

A bolt of lightning rent the air as it streaked towards Naruto. It crashed into the ground at her feet and left a blackened patch of grass that wafted smoke. A red-haired shinobi landed on his feet a few yards away from her, and other nin cleared the way for the coming battle.

What was happening?

Naruto's face lit up with anticipation.

Sasuke went cold.

What the fuck was happening?

"Ooooh," said Sakura, caught up in the intrigue of it all despite herself, "that's the guy. Amano something."

It was an impromptu one-on-one match in the middle of a melee. And every other competitor just moved to the side in some universal understanding. Naruto and her opponent spoke to one another. Sasuke's ears were not as sharp as his eyes, but the sight of Naruto's battle-ready stance meant only one thing: She had acknowledged Amano.

She hadn't intentionally taken a sledgehammer to Sasuke's heart, but she'd done it all the same. To miss her with bone-deep aching. To long for reunion. To fear she was dead. Rushing to be by her side -

Finding another there in his place.

A young woman with a clipboard approached Sakura and twittered about one thing or another. Sasuke ignored them, all his attention fixed on the unfolding disaster before him.

Some unspoken signal passed between Naruto and Amano, and black lightning erupted from Amano's hand seals. The jutsu was slow, so very slow to Sasuke's eyes. He sneered. Not since he was a genin had he performed so pathetic a Raiton. Could lightning even be sluggish? Heh, Amano had done the impossible. Meanwhile Naruto looked at the damage the jutsu had wreaked and nodded appreciatively when - by Sasuke's estimation - the jutsu deserved nothing but scorn. She had taken leave of her senses. That much was clear.

Sasuke turned his eyes to the kunoichi with the clipboard.

"Late entry," he said in a tone that brooked no argument. He ignored Sakura's squawking.

The kunoichi paled. "Uchiha-san - ah, yes, Ino-san put your name in. But please sign this -" She stopped speaking. There was no point. Uchiha was gone.

Sakura pulled the clipboard from the young kunoichi's grasp - not quickly, but with the all the implacable, rock-solid force of an ox. She skimmed over the waiver. It was meant to deny one's own village any rights to complain on a shinobi's behalf should an injury occur. To a large degree, the reverse was also true.

"Oh, very nice," Sakura murmured. Her eyes, full of weighty intent, never left the young woman's gaze as she forged Sasuke's signature. "This will do just as well, neh?"

"Of - of course," she replied faintly.

Sakura's smile was blinding.

Sasuke's gaze did not leave Naruto and Amano as he moved forward. They exchanged a few blows, and for the life of him, Sasuke could not fathom why Naruto tolerated so unworthy an opponent.

Deeper onto the field, a kunai, blurred by the speed at which it was thrown, shot towards Sasuke's face. He caught it between two fingers and flicked it towards the shuriken that had followed. The force of the simple flick redirected the arc of the shuriken, whose spinning blades shaved the spiky hair of an unsuspecting jounin. The original attacker sprang from the ground beneath Sasuke's feet even as Sasuke performed a replacement jutsu without hand seals - swapping himself for the jounin with the new haircut.

Sasuke walked on, intent upon another battle.

Seven swords suddenly danced in his field of vision. It was necessary to dodge.

"Oi, Uchiha," said the wielder. Sasuke spared the man a glance and recognized the jinchuriki he had once fought and almost captured. That was a very long time ago.

"You know you can't kill anyone, right, ya fool? I won't allow -"

Without sight, without sound, in the space between two heartbeats, an elbow thrust to the base of his skull sent the jinchuriki flying. He hit the ground and rolled.

Sasuke moved on.

No one else was foolish enough to approach him. His eyes found Naruto again. Had she even noticed his arrival? It seemed not. She had leaped high into the air, seeming to fly. A Rasengan formed in her upturned palm, and Sasuke's heart almost stopped. For there was Amano springing upwards from the ground to meet her halfway, black lightning sparking and crackling in his hand. They raced for one another, on a collision course. Sasuke knew how this went. After all, it was always his Chidori poised to intercept the Rasengan in the past.

Always him. Now another. Arms outstretched. Rasengan and lightning, spanning the divide to find one another.


His mouth went dry. His eyes burned.

Just - no.

He wouldn't allow it.

… … …

One moment, Amano Ichirou hummed with eagerness as he readied his most powerful jutsu for the world to see. The next, he hit the ground with enough impact to break more than a few bones. A dark purple haze had colored the sky with a nightmarish aura. His innards shook with the inundation of foreign chakra. It burned. So hot. It set fire to his nerves. His sight flashed in and out.


Raven-black hair. Red eyes. Ichirou looked down the shaft of a massive arrow aimed at his throat. Couldn't move. Couldn't breathe. An overwhelming pressure paralyzed his body and froze his mind.


Golden jaws snatched the arrow from the sky, shattered it, and swallowed the ominous chakra. Voices shouting.


Golden chakra, so warm, enveloping him.


Blue sky. Birds flying overhead. So pretty. Calming.


Blood red fur wrapped around him, carrying him…elsewhere. He swayed with the motion of the tails. Tails?


"What - happened?" he croaked.

"Too hard to explain," the giant fox tossed over its shoulder as it trotted onwards. It seemed to reconsider. "Then again. Not really. Fact is, boy, you came into contact with two powers beyond the scope of your feeble understanding. Hopefully you got a little humility knocked into you in the process."

Ichirou could barely move his neck, but he managed to catch a glimpse of two immense manifestations of chakra radiating outwards from their sources, who could not be shinobi, could not be human. Not with chakra like that. One a bright gold, the other so dark a purple it was almost black. Both so incredibly dense and heavy and strangling and - he shuddered.

"And that's just a portion of my chakra, boy," said the Kyuubi knowingly.


Pink hair. The girl was running her chakra over him. It felt nice. She spoke, "He'll be fine. Just a few broken bones and a terrible shock to his coils."

"And the Uchiha?" said an angry voice he recognized as his teammate's. "He can't get away with messing up Ichirou like this!"

"Eh? You can take it up with Sasuke later."


"You're the one with the bone to pick. I have a feeling he'll be more compliant after Naruto's through with him."

The pink-haired kunoichi saw that Ichirou was watching her. She patted his shoulder and said, "Do yourself a favor and find a nice, normal girl to settle down with."

Ichirou couldn't think so far ahead. The only thing he had the wherewithal to do was faint.

… … …

Almost paralyzed by disbelief, Naruto saw an arrow capable of widespread destruction form in the bow of Sasuke's Susanoo. He leveled it at the felled Amano. He wouldn't release it. Of course he wouldn't. If he wanted to show off, he'd already done so. Sasuke was an ass, a total bastard, not an idiot, and not -

Naruto moved.

Because Sasuke had lost his mind.


The specter of the Kyuubi's chakra lunged for the arrow and crushed it in its jaws. An echo of the arrow's destructive power pulsed outward and cracked the barrier surrounding the arena and protecting the civilians. From the corner of her eye, she saw shinobi scramble forward to fix it. Beyond them, civilians recoiled and looked around with anxiety, wondering if this was normal, if this was supposed to happen. Naruto clenched her jaw. Of course it wasn't.

The tangible Kurama collected Amano from the crater that had formed when Sasuke grabbed him from behind and hurled him to the earth.

"Heh, guess you haven't completely lost your touch. I wondered."

Slowly, Naruto turned to face him. She quivered with anger that increased tenfold as she studied the last Uchiha. How dare he speak so calmly, as though he hadn't just interrupted an international event and threatened the life of a shinobi so far beneath him in power that it was like a Kage kicking around an academy student. She stared past the dreadful aura of Susanoo into Sasuke's red eyes. He was suspended inside the warrior-like manifestation of his chakra, well above her. He looked like an avenger again. He looked like Uchiha Madara.

"What the fuck are you doing, Sasuke?" she asked, her voice a low growl. "This is a friendly competition."

"Hn. Too friendly for my tastes. You're clearly not beneath lowering yourself to their standards."

He spoke with contempt. Naruto clenched her fist against a growing despair that threatened to swamp her. Did he not get it? Did he not understand? Or did he simply not care?

"Damn you, Sasuke," she whispered.

Something in her voice or in her gaze must have caught his attention, for his eyes widened.

"I wasn't going to kill him," he said quickly.

"Could have fooled me."

"No - no, really. The arrow would have split to form a cage, but you broke it."

"Save it, Sasuke," she said, disgusted. Her mind raced. She at least knew full well than thousands upon thousands of eyes had viewed Sasuke's disproportionate aggression. She had to act quickly...but how? She wouldn't mind planting a fist in his face, but surely outright hostility wasn't the way to go. Naruto didn't know, but Kumo ANBU flashed in and out of sight, clearly responding to an internal alarm. The Raikage and Darui stood at attention, fully prepared to defend their village. The sight made her sick. Desperate and nauseous. She recalled Kurama's chakra, and his physical form dissipated as it joined with the portion that resided in her seal. Then she rose within the golden cloak to Sasuke's level.

Blue eyes met red and black Mangekyos. Each looked at the other as though they'd been betrayed.

"Does he mean so much to you?"

"What?" she asked, taken aback.

"Does Amano," he almost spat, "who can barely manage a Raiton, matter so much that you would fly into a fury on his behalf?"

Naruto stared at him, at a loss. What did Amano have to do with anything, other than being the sacrificial lamb for Sasuke's renewed insanity? She could see it in him, in the way his eyes bored into hers, in the way he shook with the force of the chakra pumping through his coils. He'd changed his appearance, grown his hair longer, but at the core, he was the same, ready to fly off the rails when the mood took him. He was the same.

And so was she, Naruto admitted to herself. There was no denying the magnetic effect of a combative Sasuke. Whether that magnetism repulsed her or drew her to him and compelled to match him was always a little unclear. Their entire rivalry was formed of continuous flipping between the two poles, the two extremes, with fraught moments of experiencing them both simultaneously. This should not have been one of those moments, not when his selfish indulgence riled Naruto to such a fervor she was surprised she could still speak clearly. But the truth was that her chakra woke from a slumber and thrummed with anticipation in a way it did not, it could not, standing across from anyone else.

She tried to tamp it down and be reasonable.

"That's not the point," she said finally, earning an incredulous look from Sasuke.

Naruto had never been the best with words - with understanding their hidden meanings, at least. More than Sasuke's words, it was the flickering in his left eye that she interpreted. Whether he was doing it intentionally or not, the Rinnegan was awakening. In response, Kurama's chakra began to coil around itself, condensing to a more potent form.

"The Rinnegan is off-limits," she continued, still hoping she could talk sense into him. "The Mangekyo is off-limits. My jinchuriki transformation is off-limits. You just made me forfeit."

"What in Kami's name is the purpose of a tournament that doesn't let you fight?"

Despite her anger, Naruto let an exasperated smile touch her lips. "I told Ino not to sign you up. Would she listen to me? No."

His face whitened. "You'd rather fight imbeciles than me? Or were you really shopping around for a husband? Gods, are you stupid."

The unfairness of his snarl wiped away every shred of her grudging amusement. She answered in kind, "I don't see what business it is of yours."

And with that, the Rinnegan appeared. Naruto wanted to howl in frustration, but more than anything, she wanted to beat the madness from him, if madness it was. Or it was just that he was maddening. Three months apart, three months of separation from the one who knew her best in the world, and this was what she got? Sometimes she thought she understood him. Then he pulled shit like this. And this - what he'd just done - this was a step too far.

When she spoke again, her voice was cold and carefully modulated. "We're friends, Sasuke, or have you forgotten? I don't know what the fuck is wrong with you right now, but as your friend, I suggest you release your chakra and try to act like a decent human being for a little while."

His eyes glittered. "As your friend, I suggest you stop whoring yourself out to the highest bidder."

A crippling silence engulfed the two shinobi. In no way calm, the silence exacerbated Naruto's frayed patience and snapped her lingering control. To his credit, Sasuke looked stunned by what he'd said, but it was far, far too late to take it back.

… … …

An icy shock of clarity washed over Sasuke. He finally saw the anger in Naruto's eyes - and the hurt. Before that, he'd seen her disgust, her disappointment, her hesitance. The person speaking coldly to him was not the Naruto he knew. She had dismissed him. She had distrusted his intentions. She had allied herself with the quivering lump that was Amano and looked at him with eyes that did not know him.

Three months apart should not have caused such a change, yet from the moment their gazes locked, he saw such anger in her expression and something like fear. Fear, of all things. Where the hell did that come from? No happiness, no relief, no acknowledgement that two souls bonded throughout history had found each other once again. She was not struck with awe at the sight of him, as he was by her. She had not missed him with every waking moment, as he had. While reuniting with Naruto had become the reason behind his every breath, she had simply learned to live without him.

But as his unthinking words echoed between them in the silence, their meaning jarred him from the brutal heat of his own jealousy. His surroundings sharpened in his peripheral vision in a way they had not while his focus was intent upon Naruto. He didn't know which of them had put the webbed cracks in the barrier, but judging by Naruto's expression, it was his fault. In Sasuke's heart of hearts, he trusted Naruto more than he trusted himself. If she could look at him with eyes like that, it meant he'd done something foolish. Unforgivably foolish.

"Just when I think I know you…" she said, but there was no gentleness in the muted response. No, it was a deathly sort of quiet.

A distant corner of his mind noted a blurred projectile shooting towards him at a speed such that it was almost lost to sight, but his conscious was too rooted in dismay to realize he needed to dodge or suffer considerable pain.

So the pain came. Such pain. His whole body burned with it. His surroundings whited out for a good while before color finally began to return in patches. He hunched over his stomach where the black ball had struck.

"Straighten up, Sasuke. I've got a lot to say to you, but I know good and well you won't listen to me until I kick your ass."

His vision righted itself, and he took in Naruto's appearance. The fox's chakra shimmered around her, casting golden hues across her skin, but it was not so expansive as in her usual bijuu form. Nine black balls, one for each of the bijuu whose chakra resided within her, whirled around her. There it was. Her true power. Scorching in its intensity. The match for his own. How could she not see that? He was the only one who could stand with her as an equal. With anyone else, she would have to hold part of herself back. No one could know her like did.

"Open a portal," she ordered him.

"No," he said.

This time he dodged, releasing Susanoo as he did. There was no point in maintaining it when those black balls of death could punch right through.

"Naruto..." he said, fighting his nature to try for a conciliatory tone.

She answered with a barrage of bijuu-enhanced taijutsu that he met with eagerness bordering on stupidity. The shockwaves from those collisions shattered the remnants of the barrier.

"The portal, bastard," she said.

"No. I don't want to fight." Oh yes, he did. But there was one thing he wanted more, far more. He had the terrifying suspicion he was in danger of losing her forever.

"That's too damn bad," she said.

The Kyuubi's chakra blossomed from her once again and flooded the arena, running over the stands and wrapping each and every spectator in a cloak, safeguarding all those she held dear and many more besides. Everyone but Sasuke.

"If you don't come at me with intent to kill," she said, "you won't stand a chance."

Half in disbelief, he lurched to absorb a Rasenshuriken. It was a simple distraction, for five clones appeared around him, each bearing overpowered Rasengans that swirled with curious markings, like those of the cursed seal. The Truth-Seeking Balls fanned out, filling the spaces between clones, well and truly caging him.

Then a sixth clone appeared below him. The maw of the Kyuubi opened wide as a black and red mass of chakra bubbled and swelled into a Bijuudama.

Sasuke had one moment to hiss a startled "fuck" before Naruto herself hurtled at him from the side, Rasengan blazing in her hand. He shot backwards. The clones converged behind him, waiting. The Bijuudama roiled below, waiting. The black balls, so dense with chakra, circled like hawks, waiting.

There was no avoiding this, come what may.

A black rip in the air coiled around itself and expanded into a dark hole between Sasuke and the clones. As he flew backwards into it, his gaze latched onto the real Naruto, whose eyes blazoned like blue flames.

At least, thought Sasuke dazedly, she was looking at him now.

Together, they plunged through the portal.

… … …

Haruno Sakura unclenched her fists as her teammates disappeared. She wondered if they understood what a terrifying spectacle they made to all the little peons like herself. The air still trembled with the echo of their chakra. Naruto at least had taken measures to protect the populace. No one could mistake the gentle warmth of her chakra as anything malevolent. Sakura hoped. Really, though, the Bijuudama had been excessive, even if the clone wielding it had vanished through the portal, too. There would be fallout from this.

And someone had to pick up the pieces.

Sakura mosied over to the nearest news crew, three men who were all staring at the spot where Naruto and Sasuke had vanished with jaws agape. The other competitors - bless their unflappable hearts and high tolerance for exhibitionism - had resumed the melee once Sasuke and Naruto cleared off. Barrier teams had a new defense up, too.

"This thing still rolling?" She rapped her fist on the camera. "Oi, anyone here capable of speech?"

One man managed a hesitant nod, which turned into a shake. Pointed questioning uncovered the simple fact that the camera was broken - read: melted from the inside out - but a backup was dug out of a storage scroll, set up, and made operational, all under Sakura's rather forceful direction. One man worked up the nerve to suggest they contact their boss or Emi-san for further instructions. The snapping, crackling sound of the defunct camera being crushed to the size of cup ramen quickly changed his mind.

Satisfied, Sakura inserted herself between the camera and the arena, where the tournament continued with minimal fuss. The spectators seemed to take their cue from the jounin, and they chattered loudly, albeit in high-pitched tones that suggested lingering alarm. Sakura couldn't be sure what was going through the Raikage's mind, but she would try to allay what concerns she could.

"Eyes on me, boys. Let's roll."

A green light blinked on. Sakura transformed from a temperamental kunoichi with a penchant for wanton destruction to a light-hearted young woman wearing a sheepish smile.

"Gomen, gomen," she said into the camera. "Third member of Konoha's Team Seven here. Sorry for the uproar, everyone. Naruto and Sasuke have been separated for three months, and you know what they say about absence and fond hearts and all that."

One cameraman, looking rather gobsmacked, worked up the nerve call out, "Weren't they trying to kill each other?"

"Eh?" She let her eyes widen in feigned surprise. "Kill each other? Pshaw, that's so two years ago." She brightened. "Think of it more like flirting. Honestly, I hoped it would happen when they were both boys, but meh, who can account for taste?"

Yes, Sasuke would attempt to murder her when he learned of this, but she was sure Naruto would come to her rescue. Pretty sure, at least.

"O-okay, but - where did they go?"

"Oh gosh, it's just a little dimension hopping. No big deal."

"Mah," said a familiar droll, "Sasuke-kun promised to take me on his next trip. For research purposes, of course. Icha Icha: Between Two Worlds. An interdimensional and, in fact, inter-special -"

"Kakashi-sensei! When did you get here?"

Kakashi leaned against the new barrier, book in hand and thumbing the pages, as though he'd happened upon Sakura and the cameramen entirely by chance.

His eyes smiled. "I couldn't miss my cute little students compete, now could I?"

"They are Eternal Rivals!" cried Lee, who suddenly appeared next to Sakura in a blur of green. His eyes shone. "Neji is mine! And Sakura-san is the Flower That Blooms Eternal -"

A fist to his gut shut him up and sent him flying.

Sakura cleared her throat. "Pardon the idiot. Both of them. Now where was I? Right. Sasuke's been planning to confess for ages but couldn't buck up the courage, then we were all in a panic thinking there was a war going on when it was just the tournament. Then we arrived here and heard about the whole marriage thing. It was a little jarring, no matter how ridiculous."

Better the world think Sasuke was worried, jealous, and lovesick as opposed to demented.

"Which idiot started the rumor anyways?"

"Hyuuga Neji," someone called from behind.

Sakura's grin tightened to something decidedly unfriendly. A tick formed above her eyebrow. "I think I'll pay him a visit. If you'll excuse me."

Sakura bowed briefly to the camera and made her exit, cracking her knuckles as she went. Kakashi strolled along casually beside her, as though he just happened to be walking in the same direction.

However, the facade broke when he asked, "What was Sasuke's state going into the fight?"

"Seething with jealousy," she said. "And...hurt." Of that she had no doubt.

He mulled that over. "Should I be worried about them? More than usual, I mean."

"Not that they'll kill each other or even, you know, tear off each other's arms, but...Sasuke's dug himself into a hole with this one. I should have stopped him." But she hadn't anticipated his recklessness. His intensity, though she hated to admit it, was a little frightening. She wouldn't have known how to stop him.

Naruto had.

More quietly, she added, "Naruto was really angry."

They walked in silence, each lost in their own thoughts, until they came to the edge of the stands where they saw her face on a television, her humiliating interview on replay, apparently. Joy.

In the stands, several familiar figures began hopping down the rows towards them. Sakura was mildly surprised to see Neji among them. Maybe he assumed she'd been fibbing about beating the crap out of him.

She was not.

Sakura flexed her fingers.

She absolutely was not.

"Mah, they'll be all right," said Kakashi. "They've got you to look out for them."

A familiar forlorn sensation stirred within her chest, but there was no bitterness. For two people she loved so dearly, she could forget herself. She had to. Especially now.

Kakashi-sensei ruffled her hair and vanished.

Breathing deeply, Sakura glanced once more at the place in the sky where her closest friends had disappeared. "Gambatte, Sasuke-kun, Naruto."

Unless I hit a major block, you can expect an update within two weeks. Hold me to it!

Edit 8/20/17: It's the two week mark, and I've got most of the next chapter written. But also, Real Life has intruded on my writing time. Whenever I get a few hours to myself, I'll do my best to update!