Jiraiya had been in the Lightning country, investigating a rumor about an Akatsuki member who had originally come from there, when Tsunade's message reached him. He summoned Gama Bunta and bribed him with the promise of sake and the news that his underling had gotten himself into some mess and it would probably look bad on the family if they didn't get back to the Leaf fast so Jiraiya could beat some sense into his thick head--but he still couldn't make it back in less than two days.
The village was still standing when he got there, so Jiraiya stopped worrying that Akatsuki had come and started worrying that something had gone wrong enough that Tsunade had finally had to kill Naruto.
He'd been almost right on the second account, he found out. Almost. Naruto had had terrible nightmares the evening after the surgery, and Tsunade and Shizune had stayed awake the whole night, watching the shifts in the coloring of his seal.
Jiraiya sat on the couch and opened the scroll Tsunade had tossed at him when he walked in the door, while she glared out the window at the sunset and ranted about children and stupidity and making her life a living hell trying to subvert the clan heads and the police and she was sure that when Sarutobi-sensei said he hoped they would all have a team that put them through as much trouble as they had him, he hadn't meant like this.
Jiraiya immediately recognized his student's work and his teammate's handwriting, and let his breath out in a hiss. Tsunade turned around and sat down at the desk.
"Did you see him when you came in?" she asked.
Jiraiya shook his head. "I came straight here. I assumed. . . ."
Tsunade pursed her lips and looked at the window again. "He's back to normal. Exactly. You'd think the last two years never happened . . . and they fucked with the fox demon's seal in the village. They went behind everyone's back and did it in here, and the Hyuuga are breathing down my neck to have the three of them disciplined. . . ."
Jiraiya glanced up without moving his head. "Was it Sakura's idea?"
Tsunade rested her chin on her hand and stared out the window.
Jiraiya looked back at the scroll. "You shouldn't have taught her torture," he said after a silence. "It affects everyone differently. And these kids didn't grow up in a war . . . she was too young."
"She went through three years' medical training in little more than a year," Tsunade replied. "It was either teach her that, or jutsus that are better left forgotten, or turn her out. And she had Lee by then, he was a stabilizing influence for. . . . No, you're right." She folded her hands, still staring out the window.
"It's understandable," Jiraiya said when she didn't continue. "She was the first student you ever really took on."
He unrolled the scroll a little further. "I wanted to teach Arashi everything I knew, too."
Tsunade shifted to face the desk at that, finally turning her back on the mountain.
When Sasuke went to the hospital the next morning to talk to Sakura, he was surprised to find access to her room restricted to family only. The nurse on duty wouldn't tell him why that had happened, and offered to take down a message.
There was no chance of Sasuke telling a stranger what Naruto had said to him and Hinata. He turned down her offer and went to visit his foster parents instead.
The Tojoin family had been related to the Uchiha clan several generations ago, through a shared cousin twice removed or such--but the sharingan had been completely bred out of their genes by current time, and Itachi hadn't wasted effort on them. They had taken Sasuke in when he was released from the hospital, and he lived there until he moved out the day after graduation.
His younger foster sister had opened the door when he knocked, recognized him, and for a moment looked torn between slamming the door and saying hello. After a few seconds she just held it open without a word.
Sasuke nodded briefly to her, slipped out of his sandals, and called a greeting. From down the hall, he heard the sound of dishes clattering into the sink.
Three minutes later, Sasuke was sitting at the low table in the dining room while Tojoin Chinatsu set a cup of tea in front of him. She settled across from him, and after they exchanged pleasantries, Sasuke picked up his tea and asked about her garden.
Chinatsu paused for a moment, then said it was doing fine. Sasuke asked about the peach trees.
Chinatsu picked up her own tea.
The conversation involved a lot of formal language and lasted for nearly half an hour, during which Shin came home and was warned about everything by his daughter. Eventually Chinatsu realized that Sasuke refused to leave until she agreed to let him pay for the tree that had been destroyed over three months ago. She argued that Shin had already replaced it with a new sapling, and Sasuke said that she could use the money to buy the specific type of soil the trees needed.
When the details of the transfer were settled, Chinatsu invited Sasuke to stay for lunch. Sasuke pretended he didn't hear the rattle of Shin's newspaper when he declined.
"You ought to dress warmer, Sasuke-san," Chinatsu said hesitantly as she stood by the entryway. "It's almost winter."
Sasuke didn't look up from tugging on his sandals. "I haven't had the time to go shopping yet. Thank you for your concern, Chinatsu-san."
The tone of his voice had ended the conversation. She closed the door once he stepped off the porch, and Sasuke left to work things out with the bank.
After that was done, he went over the amount of money he had left in his account, compared it to his rent, rewrote his budget, and then broke into the Forest of Death and caught dinner.
Naruto came over while he was awkwardly skinning the rabbit in the kitchen sink.
The other teenager made a disgusted noise. "Is that one of those . . . whatever hares?" he asked, leaning one elbow on the counter and using his free hand to hold the rabbit so Sasuke could work easier.
"Hispid hares," Sasuke said, shifting his grip on the knife, and, "It's not for the snake."
". . . Oh," Naruto said half a minute later.
Once, just once, five months after Naruto had been kicked out of the last foster home that would take him in out of respect for his father and had started living on his own, the check that he received monthly hadn't come. Sarutobi hadn't known about the problem, since he had been busy struggling to repair the ties between the Hidden Mist and the Hidden Stone without creating any alliances beyond the Hidden Leaf's sphere of influence. He did move the man who had been in charge of the situation to a lower-ranked, lower-paying job immediately after it was brought to his attention, though the man had argued that it had been an honest mistake.
Naruto had run out of money a week into the new month, and quickly learned that no one was willing to sell him things on credit. The rent to his apartment was taken care of separately, so he didn't have to worry about that; but he had no way to buy food or necessities. He stole toilet paper out of public bathrooms and tried scrounging for food at first, but it was early spring and most of the crops were just being planted, and he couldn't get into the Forest of Death or out of the village walls to hunt. When he hadn't had breakfast for three days and had been yelled at for half an hour by Iruka for being caught stealing food from one of his classmates, Naruto broke into the classroom that was a lab for genjutsu and took five mice.
Iruka saw him trying to sneak out of the school with the mice under his jacket, and dragged him back to the room. As the man was trying to set the mice back into the cage while preventing them from running up his arm, he demanded to know what kind prank Naruto had been planning.
Sullen and ashamed, Naruto had finally admitted, "I was going to eat them."
(It would take him a couple more years to understand why Iruka froze when he said that.)
Through several careful questions, Iruka finally figured out what had happened. He took Naruto out to dinner at Ichiraku that night, and bought him enough food to make breakfast and lunch for tomorrow; and the next day, when Naruto came back from the academy, he found the check sitting on his table with a note of apology from Sarutobi.
Naruto had been so grateful to Iruka that he didn't pull any pranks on the man for four whole days.
The situation had left a permanent mark on him, though--if anyone ever examined Naruto's cupboards, they would notice that he always kept three days' advance worth of food. He didn't really think he would be left to starve again, and he was a lot better at hunting and was capable of leaving the village now, but it was a habit.
Naruto leaned his other elbow on the counter and propped his chin up with his free fist. "That thing's too skinny to be worth all this trouble," he said. "You should eat cup ramen. It's easier to store--I've got plenty."
"I wouldn't eat that crap you call food if I were starving," he said without looking over, and jerked the knife up to tear off a long strip of fur and skin.
Naruto shrugged a shoulder. "Yeah, well, you're an idiot. Did you try to see Sakura-chan today too?" he added.
"Yes. They didn't let me in."
"Me neither." Naruto shifted so that he was leaning his back against the counter, but kept holding the rabbit down. "Lee managed to get in, though, since he's her fiancÚ and stuff, and he said her parents did it yesterday. She's trying to force the doctor to transfer the billing to her instead of them so she can take it off."
Sasuke frowned. "She can't just ask them to do it?"
Naruto scratched his temple. "Sakura-chan fights with her parents a lot," he said. "Especially since she started training with Tsunade and going on missions with the jounin and anbu." He scraped the heel of his shoe on the floor and leaned more heavily against the counter. "I don't know much about it because she won't talk about them. Not even to Lee. He thinks the only person she really talks about them with is Ino."
". . . That makes sense," Sasuke said, putting down the knife and moving the bloody strips of fur to the counter.
"I guess," Naruto said.
He lingered for a few more minutes, and tried to convince Sasuke to eat dinner at his apartment until the other teenager kicked him out.
After Sasuke cooked the meat and made an attempt at salting some of it so it would last longer, he washed off the fur and measured whether there was enough to sew a pair of gloves. There wasn't, so he decided to let it dry and use it to line the pockets of his pants.
The next morning, Kakashi dropped by at an obscenely early hour in the morning (for him) and suggested that they go out for breakfast. Sasuke made a note to slug Naruto the next time he saw him, and agreed.
While they were eating, Kakashi said that the restriction on Sakura's room had been lifted, if Sasuke wanted to go see her.
He nodded. A moment later, though, he asked whether Naruto knew yet. Kakashi shook his head.
"Would you not tell him for an hour?" Sasuke asked, not looking up from his miso soup.
Kakashi paused, but when Sasuke didn't explain his request, he finally agreed. The teenager just nodded again and left when he was done.
Ino was already in the room when Sasuke arrived at the hospital. He could hear Sakura complaining to her when he was half a meter from the closed door.
"--work for the Hokage, I've gone on missions that make more money in a week than they do in two months . . . I've killed people. I've nearly been killed! I'm an adult by the village's standards, but they just won't accept it! It makes me want to scream!"
"Sucks to have non-shinobi parents," came the cheerful reply.
"You're not helping, Ino-pig-chan."
Sasuke knocked on the door.
Ino pulled it open a moment later, and her expression shifted when she saw it was him. Sakura sat up a little further.
"Hey, Sasuke!" she said in a tone that made Ino step away and let him in. "Sorry about yesterday--the nurse on duty said you came by?"
"Yeah," he said, sliding his good hand into his pocket. "I need to talk to you about something."
And then he waited.
Ino caught on after a few seconds of silence. She looked over at Sakura, and then turned away, tossing her bangs back. "I've got to get to work," she said haughtily, moving toward the door. "Some of us can't just lounge around all day."
Sakura rolled her eyes, but didn't retort; and Ino left.
When the door had been pulled shut, Sakura looked over at him. "Naruto?"
Sakura pushed the blankets back. "Can you tell me in the garden? I can't stay in bed any longer--I need to move."
"Is anyone usually there around now?"
"No . . . and you can see anybody who's coming from the tree to the right, the one that's by the blank wall."
"Yes, then," Sasuke said, and Sakura stood up.
Sakura used a crutch to walk out to the garden, but she told him it was only to keep the medical staff happy. "I was pretty unbalanced the first day, since I hadn't built back much chakra yet."
"Hn," he replied.
When they'd settled in against the blank wall and made sure that no one would be able to hear them before they saw them first, Sasuke told Sakura everything that Naruto had said to him and Hinata four days ago.
Sakura propped the crutch in front of her while he talked, folding her hands over the top; and when he was done she sighed quietly and rested her chin on them.
"I was afraid of that," she whispered. "It was bad enough with Neji, but when Hinata. . . ." She leaned forward slightly, and the bottom of the crutch dug into the grass. "It wasn't really any of the people in our class," she explained. "Not the ones that got to know him, at least. But the kids . . . they were easier to brainwash since he looked the way he did, and the adults. . . ." She sneered the last word slightly. "I don't think they're ever going to forget 'what' he is. I'm not sure he'll ever be able to make them forget."
She shoved backwards, digging up more grass. "And he's stupid, he only thinks about power in terms of strength, he didn't think about the consequences of making enemies of the most powerful clan in the village. . . ." She started to bite her lip, and then stopped. ". . . We were going to lose him one way or another."
Sasuke leaned further against the wall, and didn't reply.
"Even this isn't enough," she muttered. "I heard the doctors talking about 'aftereffects' in the hallway last night."
"Aftereffects?" Sasuke repeated. "What are they waiting for, him to start drinking sake? Or eating rice instead of ramen?"
It took Sakura a moment to catch the joke, but then she laughed.
"Or fried bean curd," she added with a giggle. "If he starts eating that, we're doomed."
"Bean curd could be explained," Sasuke said. "It's when he wants roast mice that I'll worry."
Sakura laughed again and leaned back against the wall, shaking her head.
They were back in the room by the time Naruto arrived.
For the first week or so, nobody knew what the hell to do about Naruto. After he'd decided that Sakura would be okay, he seemed determined to get rid of over a year's worth of pent-up energy in a few days. Not even Iruka could convince him to walk places if there was enough room to run.
When Tsunade came to check on Sakura two days later, for the last time, she said that the teenager must have burned away several dozen of Naruto's brain cells during the surgery. Jiraiya said it was more likely a baker's dozen. At the least.
Sakura said they wouldn't have noticed anything different if it was that few, and Tsunade snickered and left to arrange for her to be released from the hospital. She told Sakura to come by her office tomorrow so they could test how much chakra she was able to use so far, and how precisely.
That night, Sasuke woke up abruptly when he realized someone else was in his room. He already had his sword half-drawn before he saw the snake lying at the foot of his futon.
Sasuke sheathed the katana. "Don't surprise me like that, please."
"Why not? Your reflexes are entertaining," Kyomamushi replied. When Sasuke just stared at it, the viper shifted enough to show it was lying on fabric that wasn't part of the quilt. It used its head to push it closer to Sasuke.
When the teenager picked the fabric up, he realized that it was a dark long-sleeved shirt. There was also a pair of long pants, and when he looked past the snake, he noticed a pair of boots sitting by the bed.
". . . Who did you get these from?"
"Just wear the clothes, Sasuke," Kyomamushi replied, curling around once. "It was no one in Fire country."
When Sasuke remained silent, it said, "If you die of exposure, I won't have anything to do until someone else signs the contract. And that will be boring."
". . . Fine," Sasuke said, examining the shirt by the faint light from the window. "Thank you."
The viper didn't reply and just disappeared.
The next day, Jiraiya was staring out the window in Tsunade's office with an amused expression, as he watched Naruto running pell-mell over the rooftops while Sasuke tried to keep up with him. "It’s good to see he's back to normal."
Tsunade raised an eyebrow. She was sitting at the desk, so he couldn't see it, but he knew she did.
Jiraiya leaned back against the window and looked up at the mountain. "Did you notice?"
"That he's a hyperactive brat?" she replied. "How was I supposed to miss it?"
"How much they're starting to look alike," Jiraiya clarified, and Tsunade didn't answer.
He folded his arms. "It wasn't obvious before, when he was like that, but now. . . ."
"Everyone who was there knows whose son was used," Tsunade said, not looking back. "And I doubt anyone younger will think of associating them. It's not like there's a way to hide it," she added.
Jiraiya continued to stare out the window.
Several moments later, there was a knock on the door. When Tsunade called out, Sakura pushed it open.
"Um, you didn't give me a specific time to show up, so Shizune-san said that now would probably be good. . . ."
Tsunade waved her forward. "Yeah, come in. Have you tried doing any jutsus on your own?"
"Not yet," Sakura said. "I figured it would be better to wait, just in case."
Tsunade nodded and put her paperwork aside.
That evening, Sakura stopped by and told Sasuke to come shopping, since he was eating dinner with her and Lee and Naruto that night. Sasuke started to argue, but Sakura added "I need to talk to you about something" in the exact same tone he had used two days before.
"When did you get new clothes?" she asked as they were walking down to the street.
"Yesterday," he replied.
Sakura went to the Asahari grocery out of habit rather than any predilection, but to her surprise they smiled and treated her like a human being and rang up her order immediately. Saori even added two apples, and when Sakura tried to turn them down, her father said they were a gift and waved off her offer to pay.
After she and Sasuke left, Sakura gave the bag an amused look. She offered one of the apples to Sasuke, but when he shook his head she hooked the strap over her wrist and started polishing it on her outer skirt. "Free food, even--I could get used to this!"
Sasuke snorted. "It's hypocritical."
"Well, duh," Sakura said, a word and habit that she'd picked up from Ino. "But I've never had people do stuff for me just because of my abilities, so let me enjoy it. Besides," she added, "it's nice to get the shopping done in under two hours again."
Sasuke shook his head faintly, but didn't say anything else. Sakura bit into the apple.
When they rounded the second block, though, and the view widened enough that they could see the mountain, her pace changed. Sasuke matched it.
Sakura took another bite of the apple, wiped away the juice with her thumb, and then said, "You know, Naruto looks a lot like the fourth Hokage."
Sasuke slowed, but when Sakura kept walking he returned to her pace. "I noticed."
"I mean, he looks a lot like the Fourth."
"I read the scroll too," Sasuke said impassively, sliding his right hand into his pocket.
Sakura's lips curled back. "He didn't have to seal the demon inside him--it wasn't that draining of a jutsu, not for him."
"You said that already."
Sakura tore off a bite of the apple viciously.
"Naruto's looked in a mirror before," Sasuke said. "He's not blind. Either he's already dealt with it, or he doesn't want to acknowledge him."
". . . I can't stand it," she whispered harshly. "I can't stand the thought of. . . . If it wasn't necessary, then why . . . what kind of father--"
"Would it have been better if he used someone else's son?" Sasuke asked.
When Sakura didn't reply, Sasuke continued. "Don't judge based on what other people have done. W--. . . we don't know what really happened," he said, flexing his bandaged hand absently and remembering that second chakra inside Naruto.
"He should have guessed," she replied. "How would anyone react if they thinking they're housing a murderer? It wasn't necessary!"
". . . Do you know if the sannin had left the village by then?" Sasuke asked.
Sakura looked at him. "What?"
"When it happened, had the sannin already left?" Sasuke repeated.
". . . I'm not sure," Sakura said.
"If they hadn't, then I'll agree with you," he said. "But if they had, and he used that death god jutsu, he was going to die no matter what. And all that would have been left to protect the village was the aging third Hokage. And the war was still going on then, wasn't it?"
". . . That's still too long of a time lapse. While they were waiting for Naruto to grow up enough to be trained--"
"Maybe it couldn't be sealed into an adult," Sasuke interrupted with a shrug. "A delay is better than nothing, especially if he was kept hidden from our enemies. There's worse legacies."
Sakura took another bite of her apple. "Why are you defending him?"
Sasuke flexed his palm again, and this time Sakura noticed and frowned slightly. "We don't know what happened," was all he finally said.
Sakura didn't argue any further.
They walked along quietly for several blocks, until Sasuke started to frown and then abruptly turned down the first available street. Sakura followed, glancing behind her as she did, and saw Anko striding down the sidewalk several meters away.
She made a tsking noise. "You know, maybe if you two hadn't tried to tear each other's jugulars out back then, it would be easier to pass on the street."
"That's not it," Sasuke said.
Sakura gave him a curious look, but he didn't say anything more. She continued to walk next to him in a silence that was blatantly expectant.
"You know that song Naruto picked up from some gambling parlor?" she finally said as they began looping their way back to Lee's apartment. "The one that has four notes and repeats all the time and gets stuck in your head the second you hear it? Don't make me start humming it."
"It's already in my head, now," Sasuke said dryly. "Thanks."
"I'll hum it all the time."
"Jackets restrict movement," Sasuke said, and Sakura had to switch rapidly back to the previous subject. "She didn't wear it much while we were sparring."
". . . What does . . . oh." She pressed her lips together slightly. "I . . . what, you like older women?"
"No," Sasuke replied. "I don't like her, either. . . . She acts too much like the idiot. But I haven't had sex for a few months, and Anko would be the easiest person to ask. And she refuses to wear shirts like a decent woman, even in winter," he added in irritation.
Sakura was silent for exactly five seconds before bursting into giggles. Sasuke gave her a half-annoyed look.
"You . . . I can't believe you just . . . out loud. . . ." She managed to get control of herself, but then said "You, of all--" and had another gigglefit.
She was still laughing when they met up with Naruto on the street before
Lee's apartment building. When the other teenager asked what was so funny,
Sasuke shrugged a shoulder to show that Sakura hadn't put together a coherent
enough sentence for him to understand it, either.
After dinner, while Naruto was cajoling Lee into playing a card game that involved slamming their hands on the table a lot, Sasuke asked Sakura to lend him her sewing kit. He needed to hem his shirt--the sleeves were too long.
"He did this on purpose," Tsunade muttered, tossing Sasuke's bank statement onto her desk. "The little bastard's testing me."
Jiraiya lounged back in the chair he'd pulled up to the desk. "Are you sure? I think he would have waited until the trouble with the Hyuugas settled down first. He's not stupid."
She pushed the statement towards him. "He now has enough money for one more month's rent. Maybe two, if he has other people buy his meals. Even if he didn't know about this--" she waved a hand at the letter Chinatsu had sent "--I give him enough credit to have assumed we're watching his accounts. I told the bank they can authorize transferring the property to him, but he hasn't done that yet."
Jiraiya studied the bank statement with a carefully bemused expression.
Tsunade folded her hands and glared at the letter. "Either I have to start letting him go on missions again, or at the end of the month he'll be starving and homeless. And he's too damned proud to live with any of his teammates, so he'll probably wind up living in his family's compound while selling some of it off."
"That won't look good," Jiraiya agreed.
"I don't like the thought of that child living there," Tsunade replied. "He makes enough of his ghosts already."
"You could just order him to move in with one of them," Jiraiya suggested, setting down the statement and picking up a folder. "Naruto's still being supplemented by taxes until he gets missions again. You might as well keep him there--he'll make the brat eat healthier."
"Until I have to deal with the landlord because one of them put the other through a wall," Tsunade said wryly.
"I don't think so," Jiraiya replied. "Now that they've gotten comfortable with who they've become over the last few years, they aren't fighting like they're still twelve as often."
Tsunade was quiet for a few moments, reflecting.
Jiraiya pulled one of the sheets of paper out of the folder and brought it closer in order to read the small, precise handwriting of Itachi's last anbu team report.
Tsunade snorted. "That just happened to show up in my file cabinet yesterday, after I left Shizune a note to schedule a meeting with several of the people left from his team."
"Sakura figured it out just from that?"
"Figured it out and broke into the vaults. I asked the guards down there when she last visited, and they said she never showed up at all." Tsunade sounded mildly impressed despite herself.
Chinatsu's letter had been short, beyond the necessary formalities. She wrote to Tsunade that Sasuke was essentially a good child--Itachi had just killed him mentally, rather than physically like the rest of his kin. She said that she recognized the gravity of what he had done, and that no extenuating circumstances were an excuse; but she asked that they be considered anyway.
It wasn't the first time Tsunade had been asked to consider Sasuke in light of Itachi. This time, she started looking into it.
The members of the anbu team that Itachi had been captain of gave similar accounts of the young man: he had been excellent at everything he did, but there had always been something about him that unsettled people. That seemed to fit in with the information in the folder, which told Tsunade that a month before the massacre of the Uchiha clan, Itachi had been given only solitary work as an anbu.
One man who was also a police officer, and thus had had more contact with the Uchiha family than the others, said he had gotten the impression from other officers that the only two people who had been close enough to Itachi to think favorably of him were Shisui and Sasuke.
When she mentioned this to Kakashi, all he said was "That sounds about right."
Tsunade waited for an explanation, but Kakashi was engrossed in the file he'd been handed.
"Do you happen to know why he suddenly got a disproportionate amount of assassination work?" she asked.
"Well, it wasn't really discussed," Kakashi said. "Most people assumed it was because he was making his team so nervous."
"He hid it well," Kakashi said, turning a page, "but there were times when we could tell that he planned strategies by thinking of them as go pieces rather than human beings." He shrugged a shoulder. "But that's not the sort of thing you can petition about--several people just complained to the Third on their own. . . . I suppose the assassin work was the best solution he could come up with to appease both the team and the Uchiha clan."
Tsunade folded her hands and propped her elbows on her desk, covering a majority of her expression.
"How," she asked measuredly, "if the majority of his anbu team, and even Sarutobi-sensei and his own family didn't trust him, did he manage to remain in such high positions? Why didn't anyone think of the danger before that event happened?"
"Because he was a genius," Kakashi said, closing the file. "And at that time, we needed him."
Tsunade was silent for a long time.
"Thank you," she said finally. She held out a hand, and Kakashi brought the file back to her desk. "You can go now."
As it turned out, the sudden detachment from the fox demon's chakra did have two aftereffects.
The first one was that Naruto lost the precise chakra control that he'd worked so hard to regain over the last two years. He had grown used to expending an extra amount of chakra every time he did a jutsu or the like to push back the demon, and going back to using a normal amount was harder than he'd expected.
Sasuke eventually caught on, though, and after that Sakura and he started helping Naruto work on regaining better control.
In theory, at least.
"Damn it!" Naruto snapped, when his leg sunk into the river up to the knee. "I've been doing this for a fucking week now, what's not working? This sucks!"
"You suck," Sasuke replied, standing a meter away with his arms folded. "Why don't you just go back to the Academy and start all over? I'm sure Iruka would be glad to see you in his class again."
"Shut up, asshole," Naruto replied, pushing up with enough chakra that the water was only slopping into his shoe.
On the bank, Sakura was sitting with her chin propped on her fist and watching them with her best why-won't-you-listen-to-the-medicnin-you-freaking-morons look. "Can't you practice this at the baths or something?" she said. "You're going to catch hypothermia."
"The cold is an incentive to learn faster, dammit!" he replied, glaring at his feet.
". . . How much have you been letting him train with Lee?" Sasuke asked her.
"Too much," Sakura replied with a raised eyebrow.
"You guys aren't helping," Naruto growled under his breath.
"It's not our fault you're beyond help," Sasuke replied.
Sakura's eyes widened when Naruto abruptly turned around and tackled Sasuke. The two of them crashed beneath the water.
She shoved herself onto her feet, but a moment later Naruto burst backwards out of the dark water. The way his body was curved told her he'd been kicked.
He landed thigh deep in the water, and was already slogging towards Sasuke before the other teenager had fully pushed himself onto the surface again.
Sakura knew better than to interfere. She had learned that a long time ago. She could fight alongside them, and she could spar against them, and she could break them apart when they got vicious, but there was no room for her in their fights. And this wasn't any different from the thousand other impromptu sparring matches that had started because Sasuke was being an ass or Naruto had something else to prove.
Except it was too soon. It was too soon after the operation, it was too soon after Naruto had never apologized for slashing her with his claws, it was too soon after she'd made the mistake of saying Sasuke wouldn't leave until after he did her the favor, it was too soon after Naruto was still growling with that guttural sound that strained human vocal cords.
And it was way too soon after Naruto had overheard her teasing Sasuke the other evening for his comment about Anko.
Sakura labeled the bad feeling she had as women's intuition and strode up to the river, hands on her hips.
"Idiots!" she yelled when Naruto resurfaced from another kick. "It's winter! Get out of the water or I'm not helping when you get sick, dammit!"
"Fine," Naruto said, crouching ankle-deep in the water and glaring at Sasuke.
Sakura let her breath out between her teeth. "Sasuke, act your age already," she called. When he gave her a quick glare, she jerked her head imperceptibly back, towards the ground.
He was still for a moment, and then snorted. "Whatever." He moved towards the bank.
Naruto started to chase him. "Hey, coward!"
Sasuke jumped onto the bank. Naruto skidded awkwardly in the water, turned, and leapt at him.
When he landed on the edge of the bank, however, Sakura grabbed his arm and yanked back hard. Naruto slipped on the mud, and she was dragged into the river with him.
That better have worked, she thought, as she tried very hard not to get a mouthful of river water and kicked up toward the surface.
The first thing she heard when she reached it was "Shit! Sakura-chan! I'm sorry!"
Sakura climbed onto the water and stomped her way towards the bank, wringing out her bangs. It looked like Sasuke hadn't realized her action had been deliberate and had tried to catch one of them, because there were more skid marks on the mud and he was knee-deep at the edge of the water. Naruto was still apologizing, making his way through the silt and over the rocks toward her.
Sakura finished wringing out her hair, turned around, and shoved his head underwater. She then held him there, ignoring the flailing.
". . . It's a waste of the last month if you kill him," Sasuke commented from the bank.
Naruto stopped pressing up against her hands and suddenly dropped deeper, taking the most effective escape route of swimming along the current. Sakura let him go and trudged onto dry land.
"I can't tell if it's colder in or out," she muttered, mostly to herself, as she rubbed her arms futilely. Sasuke was busy unwrapping the sodden bandages around his hand.
Naruto had emerged from the water at what he deemed a safe distance of three meters away, and was shaking his head rapidly. "I said I was sorry!" he called.
"I'm freezing!" she yelled back.
"Well, you let yourself fall in," he retorted, and Sakura's hands stilled briefly. Naruto gave her a wide grin. "We were just sparring, geez. Enjoying the springtime of our youth!"
Sasuke made a noise somewhere between a laugh and a 'you dumbass' sound as he wrung out the bandages.
"Keep your 'springtime of youth' from involving me, I get enough of it already!" Sakura yelled back, rubbing her arms more vigorously.
Naruto snickered and shook his hair out one last time before striding up to them. He seemed to willing to agree that it was too cold to keep fighting, though, so Sakura refrained from saying anything more.
When Sasuke started rewrapping his hand with the sodden bandages, she looked over. "Hey, that's not good for your burn. I have dry ones at Lee's. . . . Wait, it hasn't healed yet? It was just a chakra burn, right?"
"Yes," he said. "It's mostly healed. It doesn't really hurt anymore--the skin's just tight."
Naruto frowned. "Then why are you still wrapping it? Trying to get sympathy?"
Sasuke ignored the second question. "It hasn't faded enough yet. Sakura, you have marks, right?"
"Yeah," she said, holding out her hand palm up so he and Naruto could see the lingering traces of chakra burns that almost all medicnins had.
Sasuke held his hand beside hers, and she and Naruto could see how the pattern of the burn on his palm was much different from the ones on her fingertips. It had swirls.
"Huh," Naruto said, bending down a little to get a better look.
Sasuke pulled his hand away and went back to wrapping it. "Since the story is that I never touched your seal, I'm keeping it wrapped until it isn't as obvious."
"That's still pretty suspicious, though," Sakura mentioned as they started walking back to the village proper.
Sasuke shrugged. "If anyone asks, I'll say it got hurt while I was running to get the Hokage. You're not doing medical jutsus again yet, and I don't like having anyone else treat me. People will believe it."
. . . Yeah, that could work, she had to agree.
The walk back to their respective homes went about as well as could be expected. Naruto didn't seem to notice the people staring at them, Sasuke had some kind of genetic cool gene--which Sakura really wanted--that let him stroll down the sidewalk as if it was perfectly normal to be sopping wet in early November, and she was too busy trying to control her shivering to care if everyone thought they'd all gone insane.
They broke apart at the intersection that split off into the two streets that led to Lee's and to Sasuke's, and Naruto turned around in order to backtrack to the street his apartment was on.
Once Sakura was inside, she kicked off her boots with an irritated squelch. Lee finished his set of pushups and looked over, and then raised both eyebrows.
"Sakura! What happened?"
"Boys are idiots," she replied as she stormed towards the bathroom.
She slammed the door behind her, graciously absolving Lee from trying to find a reply to that.
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