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weeaboobs ([personal profile] weeaboobs) wrote in [community profile] narutobang_fic2010-11-22 05:42 pm

day two part two

"Oh, well, that's all right, then," Naruto deadpans. "So all we have to do is battle an army of clones that can disrupt our communications output and our nanites' functions. Piece of cake."

"Naruto," Sakura warns, pulling up the sleeve over her right arm threateningly.

"It's true," Sai says, and Naruto gapes at him for speaking up on his behalf. "Sakura-chan, don't beat up Naruto just because his brain is working."

Sakura huffs and rolls her eyes, but relents.

"So, what do we do now?" Yamato wonders sedately. The rest of the people in the infirmary look at each other in bemusement. No one has a clever idea, not even Jiraiya; it's disconcerting.

"Now you'd better listen up," comes through the speakers at the same time as Jiraiya's proximity alert starts shrieking.

Sasuke stiffens, eyes narrowed and teeth bared.

"Oh crap, not again," Naruto groans. "Lee, secure the shuttle bay. No one takes off without my express permission, especially not Sasuke!" he yells into his comms and gets an affirmative from Lee straight away. "Fuck, Itachi, do you have to do that every bloody time?!"

On the plasma screen across the room Itachi's image shimmers into focus, a smirk twisting his lips. "But it's so much fun winding all of you up. Space gets boring after a while with only Kisame for company. Hello there, little brother. Nice to see you in one piece."

Sasuke is frozen in his seat, his eyes swirling to a blood-red to match Itachi's. The Sharingan implants, Naruto thinks. They don't unlock the program within him this time, which is definitely for the better, but when Itachi focuses directly on him Naruto feels the tug of it, like standing knee-deep in swift water. He holds his ground.

"Itachi," Kakashi says, breaking the silence, "state your business with Soragakure." It's only standard procedure, but Kakashi manages to make it so formal as to seem almost a threat, which, Naruto supposes, is probably only a part of his duty as head of security.

"There has been a bit of an altercation regarding our next move, as Akatsuki," Itachi says. "My loyalties have been the subject of some discussion within the organization, which culminated in our leader deciding to move on his own. Word reached me that my younger brother may have been in some danger due to the leader's foolishness and Sasuke's ever-changing allegiances."

"Fuck you," Sasuke snarls, regaining his composure. "My 'ever-changing allegiances'?"

Itachi ignores him. "There has also been some concern that one of Akatsuki's leader's clones may have been discovered aboard your ship. I would like to inform you that interrogation will be useless--"

"We'll decide that ourselves," Naruto replies.

Kakashi nods. "Interrogation has already proven useless." Naruto spins to face him, glaring for everything he is worth. "Although, through other means which we prefer remain undisclosed, we have gathered a sizable amount of information about the whereabouts and abilities of Akatsuki."

Itachi's eyebrows rise, very slightly. "This is most unexpected. I will be unable to confirm or deny any information you have gathered, due to several failsafes set in my own body; however, I highly doubt Akatsuki could have predicted such a turn of events."

Kakashi pushes away from the doorway on which he had been leaning to move across the room, closer to the screen displaying Itachi, and the camera that would be capturing the room for Itachi to see. "And what had you been planning to do, had we not been able to obtain this information, ourselves?"

Itachi's expression does not falter. "Challenge the durability of our leader's failsafes in order to ensure that Soragakure and Hoshiigakure hold a sufficient chance of winning against the Akatuki."

Kakashi nods, glancing at Sasuke to see if he caught the implications there. "Your companion is quieter today," Kakashi observes. "How does he feel about such a decision?"

Itachi's lips twitch towards what might be intended as a sardonic smile. "My companion's allegiances were firmly aligned with Akatsuki. I advise against visiting the Pegasus galaxy for at least one month to ensure that he does not have a chance to stow away on your ship. I believe he did leave a certain weapon in which a member of your crew was interested...?"

"Samehada," Sasuke replies automatically. "Suigetsu wanted it."

"Is this weapon on board right now?" Kakashi snaps, turning to look at him.

Sasuke manages not to shuffle his feet, but only just. Uchiha do not show weakness in front of potential enemies, even though the only person to still qualify for that title is another Uchiha.

"Yes, it's on board. Suigetsu has it in his quarters."

"Sai, quarantine it immediately. Lock it in the biomechanical-proof vault, that should keep any nanites in it dormant, or at least unable to make contact with ours. Let's just hope it's not too late."

"Kisame has been unable to reach his weapon since Suigetsu took it over; he must have disabled Samehada's nanites' functions even before he had any idea where the interference came from," Itachi muses.

Naruto frowns impatiently. "Anyway, what do we do now? We have to move against Akatsuki sooner or later. I say we take advantage of their confusion from our last attack and go now!"

Kakashi and Gaara frown and Jiraiya makes annoyed noises; support for the Captain comes from the most unexpected corner.

"Much as it horrifies me to admit it, the blond menace is correct. You hold a bigger advantage than anyone else has had before. You must strike now, before Akatsuki regroups. If you really have the data you say you do, this is the best chance you're going to get."

"How do we know that the data is authentic? It could very well be a trap to lure us and the two jinchuuriki in," Iruka points out reasonably.

"You don't," Itachi states bluntly. "You have to take a leap of faith here. Something tells me your Captain is already on board with the idea, and I'll say it again--this is your best chance to stay alive; and, if you're very lucky indeed, to come out on top."

"Yo, man, that ain't no plan! We got loadsa people here, we can't have them disappear!"

Itachi looks at Killer Bee like he has just sprouted a second head. "What the bloody hell was that?" he asks, bemused.

"Oh, I guess you don't know Killer Bee. Bee--meet Sasuke's deranged and homicidal older brother. Itachi--meet the Hachibi jinchuuriki. What Bee is trying to say is, we can't just barge in there without a plan, because we have a lot of people to protect now. It's not just the Sora crew any more," Naruto clarifies.

Itachi twitches; it takes Naruto a moment to realise that he has just shrugged. "Take it or leave it, it's your choice. I'll cruise back later to check for survivors," Itachi drawls; the screen flickers and dies.

"Vessel leaving the immediate perimeter," Jiraiya announces.

Kakashi takes one look at Naruto's set expression and sighs. "I'm not going to win this one, am I?" he mutters to himself as Naruto throws off the sheet covering him and struggles to his feet.

"Give me twenty minutes to shower, then meet me on the flight deck. We're doing this thing," he says, jaw set.


When Naruto arrives on the flight deck, he sees that Sasuke and Kakashi are both wearing their lightning gloves and talking in hushed tones. There is no change in Kakashi's posture upon seeing Naruto, but Naruto can see confusion written in the way Sasuke tenses and tilts his head a bit, a frown crossing his features as his eyebrows knit together.

"...And then, at the end he wound up buying a panda, anyway, and the whole platypus/ravenous bugblatter beast of Traal argument was void," Kakashi finishes as Naruto nears.

Sasuke makes a good show of appearing to be interested by nodding and raising his eyebrows as if this is something that is very relevant to his interests, which is exactly how Naruto knows it's not.

"What were you talking about?" Naruto asks. He runs through a mental list of things that they would not want him to hear about. Did they run out of ramen? No, Sasuke would rub his nose in it if they did; not that they ever would. Naruto would never allow such a tragedy to befall his ship. Someone's injured? That's the last thing they should hide from the captain.

"The last trip to the Pegasus Galaxy," Kakashi replies, glancing at Naruto in a way that meant he knew exactly who had told Konohamaru that there was a dangerous beast from one of the colonies in Pegasus that had fathered the modern-day ravenous bugblatter beast of Traal.

"Platypodes," Sasuke says at the same time. He and Kakashi share a look; indecipherable from their usual blank expressions. Naruto thinks he might get where Sasuke learned that look now.

"Platypodes," Naruto deadpans.

"Given that 'platypus' is derived from Greek roots, the correct plural would be 'platypodes,'" Sasuke replies.

"...What," Naruto says.

"It's true," Kakashi insists. Naruto's face contorts to accommodate the full scale of his bafflement. Kakashi inwardly congratulates himself. Distraction complete.

Sasuke shifts his weight, mentally congratulating himself as Naruto focuses on the way his hand flexes, no doubt remembering the way Sasuke had had him sweat-slicked and trembling last night, unable to beg for fear of waking up Killer Bee's brother on the other side of the curtain that separated their beds. Distraction complete, he thinks.

Naruto shakes his head to clear it. He knows that these two are up to something; he also knows he doesn't have a snowball's chance in a supernova of working out what it is before it's too late. So, he isn't even going to try. There are more important things to be getting on with, anyway.

"Jiraiya, will you pull up the decoded data on the big screen, please? Thanks." He stares at the revealed locations, doing some fast calculations, then hums contemplatively. "Jiraiya, check the following figures. If we leave now, we can reach Tau Ceti in eighteen hours if we employ our top speed."

"It will take 18.2 hours if we leave immediately," Jiraiya confirms.

"Yeah, yeah," Naruto waves his hand. Close enough. "Okay then. So, if Akatsuki decides to strike right now, we have eighteen hours at best. Can you ask Bee to come on deck? It's time we had a little chat," he requests, and Sasuke is a little taken aback by how serious his expression is.

"Naruto, might I ask what you're planning to do?" Kakashi asks mildly.

"You'll figure it out soon enough," Naruto tells him. He's not being disrespectful -- he's simply stating a fact. "Jiraiya, call Sakura and Ino on deck as well, please, and send for Haku, too."

He leans back in his chair as he waits for the people he requested to make their way to him. His gaze is locked on the main screen, but Sasuke can't imagine what he's thinking. The fact is, Naruto being in control, calmly and confidently issuing orders with every expectation of them being carried out immediately, it's -- compelling. Enthralling. Really fucking sexy. He can see why his crew follow him so devotedly, though he hopes to fuck that none of them have had that last thought about their Captain -- Sasuke is not beyond staking his claim in a more violent manner.

He has no idea what Naruto has in mind, but in that moment he is assaulted by the knowledge, sudden and visceral, that there is nothing he wouldn't do for this man if he had to. Suddenly, Kakashi's talk of what they might have to do if it looks like Akatsuki is converging on the two jinchuuriki -- it's not as far-fetched as it had seemed even moments ago. He fingers his glove, checking on its charge, the levels of nanites, the stability of the electrical current -- everything is in order. Now he has nothing to do but wait. He catches Kakashi's eye and nods, just once, but he knows he's got the message through to him.


"Yo, my man! You called, I came."

"Sit down, Bee. I'll just be a moment," Naruto tells him distractedly. He's still staring at that damned screen; it's getting on Sasuke's nerves. They're still waiting on Ino and Sakura, and Haku will be a while -- the maintenance deck is the farthest one away.

"Is there something I can help with, Captain?" Jiraiya asks, and Sasuke can see he's not the only one discomfited by Naruto's staring at the screen.

"Have you managed to trace the clone's signal yet?" Naruto asks thoughtfully.

"Yes, I've traced it to a large vessel orbiting Tau Ceti at a distance of half a light year."

"If we assume that it's programmed to report straight to Nagato, he's at their base. That's what I thought," Naruto mumbles to himself. "Jiraiya, check another calculation. To reach Epsilon Indi, if we leave right now and travel there in stealth mode, it would take us seventeen hours."

"17.6 hours, to be precise."

"Hmm, I'm not too far off. Now, use that infrared telescope I know you've been working on for the past six months and check for regular warp signatures between Epsilon Indi and Tau Ceti."

There's a slight delay before Jiraiya replies, "There's nothing. No indication of any travel between them for at least two months."

"Good, excellent. Last one. Calculate: how long to reach Epsilon Indi from Tau Ceti at usual interstellar speed?"

"The distance is 0.63 light years; at that distance, they would be unable to utilise maximum warp drive. It would take just over fourteen hours."

Naruto grins like a shark. Everyone else scrunches their eyebrows in confusion, but Jiraiya lets out a soft gasp.

"What does Epsilon Indi have to do with anything?" Iruka asks, baffled.

"Wanna do the honors, Jiraiya?" Naruto asks, supremely satisfied.

"If we assume that the vessel orbiting Tau Ceti is Akatsuki's base, which according to the data it is, then there are periodic trails leading to Epsilon Indi every six months or so. According to the data provided by Itachi, the date the last jinchuuriki was captured coincides with the date for the last expedition to Epsilon Indi."

"So? Are you saying they take the jinchuurikis there? For what purpose? There is nothing there but space," Sai states, ever practical. It's Kakashi's turn to snort softly.

"You're saying that the viral mainframe orbits around Epsilon Indi?" Kakashi asks, twigging on.

"We have five versions of the coordinates of the mainframe, but no indication of where it will be at any one time," Jiraiya explains. "Knowing that it orbits the star, we can head straight for it and come out of warp practically on top of it, rather than floundering to find it once we're at one of the locations. And we'll have over fourteen hours before Akatsuki get to us, even if they do find out that we have discovered the mainframe the second we do, which is extremely unlikely."

"That's... impressive," Kakashi admits, eyeing Naruto with pride. "What clued you in?"

Naruto turns to him, triumphant satisfaction in his eyes. "It was how very insistent Itachi was that we go right now. Like he knew something we didn't, such as the fact that Akatsuki are nowhere near the mainframe at the moment, and it would take them a while to get there even if they had a reason to go, which they haven't at the moment since they haven't captured us yet."

"Well, why the hell didn't he just say so in the first place?" Iruka scoffs.

Sasuke looks at him with raised eyebrows.

"Oh. Right. It's Uchiha Itachi," Iruka rolls his eyes in exasperation. "Bizarre, the lot of you."

That is when Ino, Sakura and Haku finally troop in together, stammering apologies for taking so long.

"Sit down, everyone," Naruto invites graciously. "Now that we're all here, it's time to talk extraction. Bee? Feel like contributing to the topic?"


"So, it comes down to this, yo?" Killer Bee leans back in his chair, his sunglasses hiding his eyes. He's as calm as ever. Sasuke is not particularly reassured by this.

"It doesn't have to be dangerous," Ino insists. "I am positive I can get the information out and between Jiraiya and Haku--"

"You'll be safe the entire time," Sakura promises. "Just unconscious for a bit, and maybe a scar on your forehead, but we can fix that, too."

Killer Bee shakes his head.

"Not an option," Kakashi interrupts. "Assuming it's possible, we have no way to contain the virus," Sasuke attempts to step forward, but Kakashi cuts him off, "considering that the only reason Sasuke could contain the strain within Naruto is because of their bond. Taking the extra time to transfer the data from Ino's nanites to the ship would put her at risk, as well as drain far too much of our power supply. From a purely practical standpoint, having her waste that kind of power on a death trap, guaranteed to put the whole crew and universe at risk, is idiocy."

Naruto bites his lip. "But what if we could--"

"Nope, sorry kid, this ain't no joke, we gotta let me go." Killer Bee stands.

"Bee, you can't, we have another solution!" Ino shouts.

Sasuke shakes his head. "Kakashi is right. I can't guarantee that I'll be able to contain the virus, and we don't know that it can be transferred from Bee to the Soragakure without putting too much at risk. Our best bet is to remove it physically and count on Sakura's ability as a doctor."

Sakura rounds on Sasuke, face red. "That's barbaric! You're not even willing to try?" She turns back to Naruto.

Naruto takes a deep breath, meeting her eyes. Sakura has never thought of them as sapphires before--cold, crystallized minerals are not the first association she makes with Naruto's eyes. Sky, perhaps. The atmosphere of Konoha's base planet as seen from space. The color of sea. Something fluid and warm. She thinks of sapphires now, cold and hard. Unmoving. "Jiraiya, have Karin meet us at the med lab."


"Look, we don't even have a possible location for the virus, I mean, it could be anywhere. Gaara's was in his heart, yours is in your spine, Bee's could be in his lungs, his liver, even his brain. We can't do this blind, Naruto!" Sakura insists. She's not going to back down now, not when she knows she's in the right.

"I don't like this either, Sakura, you think I want Bee incapacitated? We don't seem to have a choice."

"There is always a choice," Sakura fumes.

Naruto sighs wearily. "Jiraiya, set course to intercept with Epsilon Indi. We might as well make our way there while we sort out this mess," he instructs.

"Very well, captain," Jiraiya confirms.

Bee, meanwhile, is methodically stripping. Off come the wifebeater, the head scarf, the loose pants. The heck of it is, Bee is incredibly fit and handsome, and he should have everyone swooning, if it hadn't been for that pesky 'getting ripped apart' business. Bee removes his sunglasses last, and everyone gasps in surprise -- his eyes are a vivid orange with ink-colored swirls swimming through.

"That's so weird," Naruto mutters under his breath, staring.

"It's so pretty," Karin sighs from beside him.

"Focus," Naruto snaps at her. "You'll have to use your nanites to find out where the program is located. Search for cybernetics, mechanics, anything not fully organic."

Karin spares him a disdainful glance. "I know more about this than you, blondie," she sniffs. "Let the professionals do their job."

Naruto sneers at her. He really doesn't like Karin. She's just... wrong.

"Just do it," he tells her shortly. "Then we can work out if it's even feasible to extract the virus physically."

Karin rolls her eyes but steps forward quickly enough, expression focused. Bee hoists himself on the gurney and lies down flat, massive arms and legs neatly tucked inside the edges. Karin stands over him and raises her hands, holding them over Bee's chest. The nailbeds on all ten fingers lift and open like miniature gates, spewing forth a swarm of black mist that falls over Bee's body, disappearing under his skin. Bee doesn't even twitch, just closes his eyes and goes limp. Karin closes her eyes, too; behind her lids they start to flicker in a good imitation of REM sleep. No one moves a muscle, focusing on Karin to the exclusion of all other, so when she staggers and her knees fold under her, all of them rush forward to catch her before she collapses to the floor.

Sai gets there first, holding her up gently and carrying her to the empty gurney to the side of Bee's. Karin is breathing fast, almost hyperventillating; Sakura swears and grabs a mild tranquiliser, jabbing it unceremoniously in her arm. Karin calms, settles against the sheet and her eyes flutter open.

"Fuck me," she rasps, lurches to her side and throws up all over the floor. Sakura jumps back, but she's not quick enough to spare her favorite pair of shoes from getting splattered with bile.

"What." Naruto says, looking from one to the other rapidly.

Karin wipes at her mouth with the back of her hand and flops back down on the gurney. "The virus is imbedded in both of his lungs. That's not the problem, though. I just lost a little over fifteen million nanites to the little bitch. It ate them. It ate my fucking bots!" She looks so pissed that everyone takes a nervous step back from the range of her wrath.

"What does that even mean?" Naruto asks peevishly. "Can we extract it or what?"

Karin scoffs weakly. "Considering that thing inside almost sucked me dry, I'm willing to hazard a guess that it doesn't want to be removed, and if your Yamanaka goes in trying to extract it, her mind will most likely get shredded."

"Can it be removed physically?" Kakashi cuts in, coming to peer at Bee's placid form.

Karin makes a face. "You'll have to cut out both his lungs, the cybernetic cage spreads throughout. That's probably the reason for his ridiculous stamina and endurance levels--his lung capacity is twice what it should be for his age and weight. He'll most certainly die. We can't bring him back from that, not withough replacement lung transplants, which we don't have, and it'll take over a week to grow them in the vats."

"We don't have that kind of time," Naruto barks out, clutching at his hair. "Now what?"

Sasuke steps closer to Bee, squinting down at him and willing his Sharingan into being--it doesn't work. There is a flicker of red-on-black, but that's all. Even looking at Naruto doesn't force it to snap open, which isn't all that surprising, really, since it only works on Naruto because Minato made sure of it. Sasuke huffs irrately.

Kakashi has been pacing all this time, staring into the distance and keeping his own Sharingan on the proceedings. He frowns at Sasuke's attempt, but doesn't stop him--they need to keep all their options open. Naruto shifts his weight, a little like a caged animal that wants out but can't find the way, and Kakashi's red eye flickers rapidly through several swiftly spinning rings of black. Naruto falls into unnatural stillness immediately, and his eyes bleed to red.

"Let me try it," that awful, growling voice murmurs, and Sasuke tries to suppress a chill running down his spine at the sound of Kyuubi waking up. Naruto looks calm and determined, none of that wild energy that usually accompanies the release of the virus.

Kakashi humms doubtfully. "How would you even connect to the program? All the previous times, you were both near physical collapse before the programs could talk to each other. And even if you do, what would that achieve?" he questions indelicately.

Kyuubi uses Naruto's face to project a displeased frown. "Do you want to extract both of us eventually or not? Because you already know that I'm not particularly happy about it, and I know Hachibi isn't, either; unless it's happy with getting pulled out of its meat prison, your plan is doomed to failure. I'll just talk to it, okay? Get Yamanaka on standby in case the Hachibi goes beserk, although I hope it won't come to that, we've already tentatively breached the subject a few times when we trained on Kumo."

Kyuubi walks forward until his thighs hit the gurney on which Bee is sprawled. He lifts his hands and pries open Bee's eyes, which roll forward from the back of his head. Kyuubi bends at the waist and stares directly into Bee's eyes from upside down.

The radio stutters to life in Sai's hand just as Ino lets out a startled yelp and folds in two, clutching at her head.

"This is Shino," a pained voice rasps. "Can you hear that? What is that damned noise? I feel like my head is splitting in two!"

"Fuuuuck," Ino moans, tugging at her hair painfully. "Make it stop," she pleads, digging her nails into her scalp.

"It must be the frequency they're communicating on," Sakura hazards. "They've never been able to do this on purpose before; maybe it's that signal blast that Akatsuki transmitted before they blew up Kumo, it must have knocked something loose in their connection that's screwing up all nanobot comm waves."

"Confirmed," Jiraya barks. "My subwave scans are going mental all over the ship. They wouldn't react like this to anything else but infowaves."

"What are you doing down there, Naruto?" Kakashi mutters to himself.


Naruto looks around dizzily. He has no idea where he is, only that he isn't alone. He appears to be sitting in a large chamber with excellent accoustics--he can hear water dripping in the distance, the sound echoing around the open space.

"It's okay. You're in my head," a familiar voice tells him, and he snaps his head around to look. Bee is sitting nearby, comfortably slouched against a pillar.

"Why are we in your head? We never did this before," Naruto asks, feeling stupid.

Bee points off in the distance to where two familiar-looking figures are talking. Naruto can see the inforods coming out of the spine of the one on the left, and he notices that there are what look like tentacles comming off the other's.

"Who's that over there, talking with Kyuubi?" he wonders.

Bee smiles faintly. "That's my Hachibi. Kyuubi's trying to convince him to allow you to download him into the mainframe without making a fuss."

"How's that going?" Naruto swears he doesn't mean to be sarcastic, but if there's one thing he's learned, it's that the viruses are damn stubborn bastards at the best of times.

Bee's smile widens. "Well enough. We're both of us still alive; that's promising."

"Uh-huh", Naruto supplies doubtfully. "How long have we been here?"

"No more than five minutes, Standard time. Of course, they have already been at it for several hours; our internal timeline deviates from Standard somewhat."

"What? I've been asleep for hours?! Why the hell didn't you wake me?" Naruto demands.

Bee sighs wearily. "You needed the rest. You've been running yourself ragged for days now."

There's something wrong with this picture; the unsettling feeling creeps up on Naruto until it threatens to choke him. He looks at Bee surreptitiously--he looks younger, more innocent in here. There's no beard, for starters, and he's wearing a fresh wifebeater and pants that actually fit. Naruto inches away from him carefully.

"Panicking now won't help anything," Bee advises sedately, and the realisation suddenly clicks.

"How come you're talking normally? What happened to the rhyming?" Naruto asks, but he stops shifting away.

"I don't have to pretend to be cool down here. I just am," Bee says, and for the first time Naruto realises that what he's been hearing in Bee's voice isn't weariness; it's resignation. "I'm going to miss him," Bee goes on. "It's been the two of us ever since I can remember. It's going to be awfully quiet in my head without him here to give me shit and bicker with me over the taste of tuna fish."

Naruto blinks in confusion for some time, until he realises Bee is talking about the Hachibi. "It's going to agree to be downloaded, then?" he asks eagerly, and he can't quite keep the hope from his voice.

"Of course he is. Look at him. He's twining around your Kyuubi like a lost kitten that's found its way home," Bee says wistfully.

Naruto turns around to look, and yep, Bee's completely right--several of the Hachibi's tentacles are winding around the rods growing from Kyuubi's back, and it's leaning forward, almost nuzzling into Kyuubi's neck as Kyuubi curls an arm around its shoulders.

"Huh," Naruto says, a little thrown but quite pleased with the developments.

Just as suddenly as he'd been sucked into the huge chamber, he's blinking in confusion at the row of worried faces around him. Kakashi hurries forward and checks his pulse, Sharingan whirling and cataloguing every possible minute change.

"I'm fine," Naruto says soothingly, looking around, eyes lingering on Ino slowly sitting up on the floor as Sai braces her. Sasuke is glaring at him, but even Naruto can see the worry lines etched into his forehead. He smiles at him tentatively; Sasuke's glare fades down a notch and his lips twitch a little.

"Good news," he tells them as Bee blinks his own eyes open and moves to sit up; Sakura rushes over to help him. "The Hachibi will cooperate. It is happy to be extracted, as long as the Kyuubi is there to help it come out."

"Oh, thank fuck," Jiraiya booms explosively, and the whole room bursts into laughter and cheers.

Bee smiles wryly at the people who move forward to clap him on the back in relief; Naruto knows he has a long and difficult road ahead of him, learning to live alone in his head after so many years of having company. He thinks that Kyuubi has at least done him a favor in leaving him alone for pretty much all his life.


It's funny to realise that all this drama with Bee's possible death-by-dismemberment and subsequent reprieve has only taken them just over two hours. Bee is still in sick bay, seeing as how the Raikage woke up just as he was getting re-dressed. Naruto had never seen a grown man cry so many tears of joy before; even Gai stopped after a few minutes most of the time. The rest of them had discreetly slipped out of the room to give the two brothers some privacy, as soon as Sakura had confirmed that the Raikage's condition was stable at last.

Naruto keeps his head down on his way to his quarters, not meeting anyone's eyes. He squeezes his eyes hard, trying not to think about what he'd been ready to do earlier today, at least until he can close the door behind him. His hands squeeze into fists as stray images flit through his mind -- Ino's desperate shouts that there's another way, Sakura's horrified, betrayed eyes when he'd practically ordered Bee's death. He rather thinks that Bee's calm and resigned face as he undressed to undertake what could very well be his last moments alive is going to haunt him for the rest of his life, however long that may be.

He ignores the voices calling his name with increasing irritation as he speeds up his pace and turns a corner. He just wants half an hour to himself, is that too much to ask? There's still over fifteen hours of warp flight until they reach their destination, they can leave him alone for five bloody minutes while he tries to come to terms with the fact that apparently he is capable of killing a member of his crew in pretty much cold blood, for the greater good. He has never hated himself more than he does in that moment. There had been a time; in fact, it's still an option that he himself may be disposed of for the greater good, as that utter bastard Danzou is fond of saying. For all intents and purposes, he's been no better than Danzou today; the thought makes bile rise in his throat and he breaks into a run for the last few meters to his door. He keys in the code quickly enough, and stumbles into the toilet, retching pathetically as he brings up mostly nothing at all--he hasn't really had anything to eat since he'd been brought back on board of Sora-chan, he's only been hooked up to intravenous liquids.

He slumps weakly against the wall when he's done, landing in a pile of limbs and thumping his elbow painfully on the edge of the shower cubicle. Never again, he promises himself. Never again if there's even the slightest chance of a different option. Death is never a solution when it comes to one of his own. He closes his eyes, lost in despising himself.

Which is why it takes him completely by surprise when the door to his quarters snicks open, and moments later Sakura is in his bathroom, holding him up by his lapels and knocking something in his head loose when she shakes him violently a few times.

"Stop it right now," Sakura growls at his limp body, trying to hide how worried she is when all he does is sigh and let his head roll back placidly. "I know what you're doing," she goes on in her most menacing tone, "and you're going to snap out of it right the fuck now, or you won't like the consequences."

Naruto sighs again. "It's okay, Sakura-chan, you can yell at me as much as you want. It's nothing I don't deserve," he says, and his voice is dead.

Sakura has never been this worried about him in her life. She shakes him a couple more times, at a loss as to what to do. How do you fix someone who's just found out just how much he's really capable of?

She shifts her hold on him and reaches for a face towel, wiping carefully at the spit left over at the corner of his chin; then she walks him back into the room and puts him on his bed, still perfectly made up from so many days ago when he and Sasuke had first worked it out. It feels more like a lifetime to Sakura as she sits on the corner beside him, trying to think of what to say. Naruto turns away to face the wall, curling in on himself miserably.

She's still wracking her brains when the door snicks open again and Kakashi walks in, visible eye taking in the situation in a fraction of a second.

"Out," he tells Sakura firmly; she bristles at him. "Out," he says again, a little softer, and tilts his head at the door. "Go on."

She gets off the bed reluctantly, lingering at the door as Kakashi sighs wearily, kicks off his shoes and sits on the bed, back flat to the wall and long legs stretched over the mattress. He makes no move to touch Naruto, just leans his head back on the wall and stares at her, lifting one eyebrow pointedly. She closes the door behind herself, feeling at least a little reassured.

Kakashi sits there for a long, long time before Naruto shifts on his back on the bed, blank eyes fixed on the ceiling above them.

"You did well today, Naruto," Kakashi speaks at last, once Naruto's breathing has evened out.

He can almost feel Naruto tensing right back up, teeth bared in a rictus of rage. "Fuck off," Naruto growls, and makes to jump off the bed. "Bee almost ended up dead; I did not do well," he spits out viciously, and shifts to glare at Kakashi when he grips his shoulder to keep him from getting up.

"Shut up," Kakashi tells him unceremoniously and spins him back to face him. "Shut up and think for a minute. You did what you had to do. How many souls on this ship?"

"That's not--" Naruto snarls, but Kakashi cuts him off immediately.

"How many?"

"Twenty-seven, but what does that--"

"That's twenty-seven people that depend on you with their lives. Twenty-seven people who trust you to make the right choices, take the difficult decisions to keep them alive."

Naruto is silent for a moment, the implications of what Kakashi is saying sinking in at last.

"It's not easy, is it?" Kakashi muses, much softer than before. He sighs. "Do you remember five years ago, when you were first made captain?"

Naruto nods hesitantly. He's not likely to ever forget that day.

"What you probably don't remember, because you weren't there when your appointment was discussed with Tsunade, is that Iruka was strongly opposed to your appointment."

Naruto looks baffled, and a little hurt. "Why are you telling me this?" he asks meekly.

Kakashi ignores him. "Iruka didn't oppose the decision because he thought you weren't capable, or to be trusted, or good enough. He opposed it because he knew that eventually you would have to make choices in lose-lose situations, that you'd have to make choices that will be impossibly hard, sometimes even unbearable. And it's you that has to make them. You are the Captain. You are the person everyone turns to when they're stuck between a black hole and a supernova, when they don't know if they're going to make it out alive, but they believe with everything in them that if there's anyone who can steer them right, it's you.

"And that means that sometimes, you have to let one person go so that the rest of them can survive. It's horrible. I know it is; I've been there. Most of the people out there will never know just how much they owe to you, for taking on the lose-lose situations and trying to make something of them, for sparing them the crippling confusion and doubt by taking away their choice. Because, let me tell you, not many people could have made the choice you made today. Bee understands that, you know he does. So do I, so does Iruka, and Yamato, and Sai. So does Sasuke. We're here for you. You don't have to feel like you're alone in this."

Naruto swallows reflexively, relieved beyond words that Kakashi really does understand. And now, so does he. He has to make these decisions, because there's no one else who can. And he has people to give him a heads-up when he gets overwhelmed, when he can't think clearly.

"You didn't think it was all going to be kidnapping snake princesses, rescuing handsome boys from burning wrecks, and looting solar crysts and ramen to your heart's content, did you?" Kakashi teases, and Naruto shakes his head ruefully, smiling for the first time in too many hours.

Kakashi squeezes his shoulder reassuringly--he hasn't let go since he stopped him from hauling ass out of his room in a fit. His eye is curving upwards, like it always does when Naruto does something particularly surprising. It's familiar, safe. Naruto can breathe again.


When Sasuke sees Kakashi coming out of Naruto's room with his shoes in one hand, he narrows his eyes furiously. What the bloody fuck has Kakashi been doing alone in a room with his boyfriend?! He feels his face contract into a snarl without consulting his brain.

Kakashi sees him, and his expression, and leers. Sasuke wants to punch his face in. "He's all yours," Kakashi winks at him. Sasuke thinks fondly and a little wistfully of his short sword, long lost in the explosion that started this whole thing rolling; it could slice through a skull like so much warm butter. He wishes he could introduce it to Kakashi's head.

He passes Kakashi, who is leaning on the wall and tugging his boots back on, sparing him a glare that could cause wood to spontaneously combust on the planet Pikon, where there was so much electricity in the atmosphere that strong psychokinetic waves would set things on fire. Kakashi just raises that stupid eyebrow, not even bothering to reply.

He pushes the half-open door in, walking into the room without waiting for an invitation. Naruto is sprawled over his bed, eyes closed, limbs askew and taking up as much space as they can.

"How long till we get there?" Naruto asks petulantly, sounding very much like an annoying small child to Sasuke.

"Long enough to kick your ass, eat, sleep, and fuck several times. Not in that order," Sasuke tells him, still pissed about how comfortable Kakashi had looked coming out of his room.

Naruto's eyes light up almost as soon as Sasuke mentions food, and he only looks happier the longer he goes on. "That sounds awesome!" he yells, sounding so happy that Sasuke hasn't the heart to make him suffer for Kakashi being an asshole.


Naruto wakes up slowly, so comfortable where he is that he just floats for a while, half-asleep and drowsy. Something tickles his nose; it smells like Sasuke, and he buries his face in it, rubbing his nose against the warm skin of Sasuke's neck that he finds underneath the hair. Sasuke makes a muffled protesting sound and burrows backwards and into Naruto's body. Naruto can't quite suppress the smile that teases his lips when Sasuke sighs contentedly. He never wants to move from this warm, safe, happy coccoon he has fashioned for the two of them, wrapped in several layers of blankets, sheets and each other. He can only hope that sometime in the next forty-eight hours, he'll get the chance to do this again, that they'll both be alive and able to curl together as tight as this, no matter where.

You can't be the captain of a space ship and not see some weird, weird things out there. Exploding supernovas, colliding black holes, beautiful green planets inhabited by bizarre creatures with too many limbs--it's all par for the course. If you manage to keep yourself sane (for a given value of 'sane', admittedly) it's impossible not to wonder about that higher power Hawking must have met when he'd come up with his universal theory of reality all those centuries ago. Naruto thinks of this strange, impossible-to-understand power that decrees that this atom will be part of an explosion so immense that it can create a whole galaxy from its debris; and yet this molecule right next to it will be a piece of dark matter that keeps the universe glued together and capable of life, so much life. For the first time in many, many years, he closes his eyes and prays for a modicum of luck to get all of them through this thing alive and kicking.

Sasuke stirs in his arms when he grips him a little too hard, carried away with the terror and uncertainty of his thoughts. How it is even possible that in less than a Galactic Standard month, this man has come to mean more to him than his own life, he's buggered if he knows. But he does know enough to be concerned that his objectivity as captain is compromised. Because if something should happen to Sasuke, if he has the temerity to get himself killed, Naruto is worried that he would lose it so spectacularly that he might no longer be able to distinguish friend from foe, and then Kakashi would have to kill him, too, before he turns his own crew into so much mince meat.

"Shut up," Sasuke murmurs, voice scratchy from more hours of sleep than either of them has managed in far too long a time.

"I didn't say anything," Naruto says, affronted, and kicks him a little.

"I can practically hear you think, a feat I was not aware could be achieved without having an actual brain, yet here you are."

Naruto scowls. Sasuke sounds like a fucking dictionary even when still half-asleep. How is that fair?! He kicks him again, much harder than before. Sasuke grunts, but Naruto can tell he's trying not to laugh by the way his body is vibrating ever so slightly against his chest. He hides his smile in Sasuke's neck and bites him for good measure. Sasuke jerks in surprise and makes a noise that has Naruto hard so fast he's almost dizzy from it.

"Fuck," he groans in Sasuke's neck, as Sasuke wriggles backwards and presses his ass into his groin. It's the last coherent thing he says for some time.


They are coming up on Epsilon Indi faster than Naruto has hoped for, even though he is perfectly aware just how long it takes them to get there. He wonders what Sasuke would do if he orders him not to take part in the upcoming fighting. Probably kill him with one of his trademark glares; it's unfeasible, anyway, since they need Sasuke to unlock the Kyuubi program for download. Oh, how Naruto wishes he could knock him out and ship him to Hoshii, though! He has no illusions that Sasuke would take his order to 'stay safe' under any sort of advisement.

He's sprawled in his Captain's chair in Sora's control room, idly playing with a block of carbon plastic that he's using his nanites to carve. It's a small figurine in the shape of a fox, nine whimsical tails winding away behind its back, up in the air as if floating in a strong current. It's kind of cute; his control over his nanites is getting better and better. It would be nice to think that it might help him gain control over the fully functioning virus. He's not holding his breath, though. He's squinting at the finished result, wondering whether to make the snout a little shorter, when Iruka finds him. He sits in the First Mate's chair, checking over a few dials just for something to do.

"About an hour until we get there," he muses. Naruto grunts distractedly in reply, running his finger over one black ear.

Iruka doesn't say anything else for a while. Ten minutes later Naruto finally registers the tense hum of nerves radiating from his friend. Iruka's lips are pursed, and his forehead is scrunched in worry; Naruto wonders how he's managed to miss the fact that his crew is scared out of their wits. Oh, right, he thinks wryly as Sasuke walks in and goes to fiddle with the infoscreen.

"It'll be okay," Naruto tells him, smiling reassuringly.

Iruka twitches a little, startled; then turns to Naruto, face completely open. "I know," he says, smiling back warmly. "I know it will. With the number one most surprising pirate at our helm, we can't possibly lose," he teases, and Naruto blushes with the pleasure of being acknowledged.


Kakashi rubs a weary hand over his face and sighs tiredly. "You're sure you're going to manage all this?" he asks Haku, who is engaged in some last-minute fiddling with a spare engine part.

"Stop fretting, Kakashi," Zabuza butts in, straightening from his sprawl under their ship and wiping his greasy hands on a filthy washcloth. "There's no indication that this is a trap of any sort, and even if it is, you've spent hours with Gaara going over contingency plans. Everyone knows what they're going to be doing already. Chill the fuck out, you're making my head spin. Go bother Uchiha, we've got to finish this up before we get there."

Kakashi makes a face but goes, making his way sedately to the bridge where he knows the main players have gathered. He sees Sakura walk through the door just when he turns the corner; he follows her in and keys the door shut. Iruka looks up from his screen and smiles softly at him, while the rest of them largely ignore him. Yamato lifts an eyebrow when he sees Kakashi enter his code in the keypad, but looks unruffled. Kakashi makes his way to the comms station and throws himself in the chair with a huff, turning to face the rest of the room.

"Some last-minute prep, people. Even though we have no reason to believe we're flying into a trap, that's the assumption we're going to operate under." He ignores the overall grumbling and Naruto's shouts of irritation, and talks over them. "I've already discussed this with Gaara; it's non-negotiable. As the Security Officer on board, I'll never hear the end of it from Tsunade if we get ourselves killed. So. Gaara's right behind us, less than ten minutes out at this point. As soon as we reach our destination, Naruto, Sasuke, Killer Bee, Sakura, and I are setting out for the mainframe on board the Fruitbasket. She is small enough that she will fly mostly under the radar, and she has stealth cloaking which will be on at all times. The rest will stay here and hold the fort in case of an emergency that requires immediate response; I've promoted Sai to temporary commanding officer on board, he'll be in charge of the Soragakure until we return. Shikamaru will be coordinating the attack; any intel from him, you take as Hawking's word, alright?"

No one says a word, but there is a lot of nodding in the room. Kakashi sighs, tired, and worried, and antsy. "We're going to get down there, get the programs downloaded, and try to get a handle on what that thing actually does. Jiraiya is coming with us, or at least a part of him is, so that we'll have access to his databanks. Sasuke, you're going to stick to Naruto like a limpet, understand? He is not to get farther away from you than three meters at any one time. Sakura, we're going to need you to supervise the download. Do you think we can trust Karin to remain here and act as the medic in your absense?"

Sakura looks very unhappy with this, but she'd rather be down there with them than spend the time panicking and worrying herself to death. "Karin is still very low on nanites; she's barely managed to replace half of what she lost because of Bee, and she's been at it for over twelve hours now. Still, she has excellent medical knowledge, and there's no one else who can do it. I'd like to have Konohamaru and Ino assist her for the duration of the crisis. Ino has been shadowing me for over a year now; she knows what to do and she can handle herself in a crisis."

"You can have Ino, but I need Konohamaru in with Lee and Gai in case of any crap going down. The two of them should be fine. In that case, prepare your on-hand supplies to take down with you. I've divided the crew into battle stations; we have considerably more people on board than we're used to, and they're all trained fighters. Gaara will provide us with cover when we go in, and we'll have the Power of Youth up and running to help with the diversion."

He looks around for a moment, at the ring of serious faces focused on him. He feels his confidence surge; they are smart, capable and well-trained. They can do this thing. "Okay, we have twenty minutes until we come out of warp speed. Get yourselves ready; I want all of you out at the dock in fifteen."

Two minutes later, he's alone on the bridge, the team scattering to their respective quarters. "You think they'll be able to handle it?" he asks Jiraiya, allowing himself to shed his in-charge front for a few precious moments.

Jiraiya humms, sounding troubled. "I'm really worried about the download process," he confides. "Naruto will be helpless once the Kyuubi gets taken out of him; and then he has the task of hacking into the entire ten parts of the virus, which will be back together for the first time in who knows how long. I don't know if the kid can handle that raw power and not be burned to a crisp. You'd better keep your Sharingan on him, Kakashi. I don't know what's going to happen once the virus is integral again, and I don't like it one bit. I really hope you're wrong about us flying into a trap," he frets.

Kakashi sighs wearily and leans back into the chair, letting his head roll against the headrest and closing his eyes. "So am I."


Naruto flies through the door of his quarters and heads straight for his weapons safe, embedded into the wall of his room. He withdraws his two phasers, one laser-edged knife and a set of laser-edged shuriken that he secrets away in his weapons pouch. He changes into a black-and-orange lightweight training suit and makes sure that the legs are bound to the tops of his zero-grav boots so that there's no chance he'd trip on them. He ties a long piece of black fabric around his head to keep his hair from falling into his eyes, since he hasn't had a chance to cut it in far too long. He puts away all the weapons in places designed for easy draw--the phasers go in two holders clipped to the sides of his thighs, the knife goes in a sheath behind his right shoulder, and the weapons pouch he straps to his hips. He goes to tug on his long orange coat, but comes up short when he sees the singed spot on the fabric over his ribs--goddamn it, he'd forgotten that Sasuke had burned straight through it when he'd electrocuted him. What is he supposed to wear over the top of his gear now?

"Ah. I thought it might come to this," Jiraiya says from the plasma screen on the wall opposite the weapons safe. Naruto looks at him helplessly. Jiraiya, unbelievably, smiles. "Come over here," he directs, sighing impatiently when Naruto hesitates. "Come on, come on, we don't have time for this. Stand right in front of me. Now, look to the right of the screen."

Naruto looks, to find that the previously unremarkable wall pannel now sports a palm scan.

"Go ahead, put your hand on it," Jiraiya urges.

Naruto shrugs and slaps his palm over it, allowing it to be scanned.

"Identification confirmed," Jiraiya says, and the pannel slides away. "I wanted you to have this," Jiraiya explains when Naruto reaches inside and removes a soft parcel from inside the space. He waits patiently while Naruto cuts the string and unwraps it to reveal a folded-up white coat; when he shakes it open, he sees that it isn't all white--there is a border of orange flames dancing along the bottom of it. It looks like it's tailor-made for someone who is exactly Naruto's size, if a little taller and a touch broader across the shoulders.

"It was your father's," Jiraiya explains--unnecessarily, since Naruto is holding it up and staring along the back of it, where there are orange characters spelling out, 'Fourth Hokage'.

Jiraiya waits patiently while Naruto tries to pull himself together. Eventually, his hands stop shaking where they're gripping and scrunching up the coat's shoulders, and he manages to tug it on. The sleeves are short, and fall just right over his arms, fitted but not so they restrict movement. There are small ties over the front to hold it closed, but it fits so well that they are mostly just for decoration. Naruto reaches up to fix the collar, and his hand shakes a little again to see that there is a perfect space for his knife's handle. It must have been the way that his father had worn his knife, too. Naruto feels a little overwhelmed, and not in a good way. Panic settles in his chest at the thought that he might disgrace the memory of his parents, that he might fail, that he might get all of them killed today.

Jiraiya is speaking, but Naruto can't hear anything beyond the roar of agitation in his ears and he's breathing too rapidly, yet he doesn't seem to be able to get enough air. Then someone slaps the back of his head and he can focus again, on Sasuke's worried face right in front of him.

"You'll kill me, right? If things get out of hand, if I lose it, if Kyuubi gets out, you'll kill me before I kill everyone else, yeah? Promise me," he babbles, and watches Sasuke's eyes narrow in anger with every word that falls out of his mouth.

"Shut the fuck up," Sasuke snaps. "It won't happen, okay? If it does, we'll take care of it together." The words are angry, but his tone reassures Naruto more than anything else could at that moment. He takes a deep, calm breath at last. "Now come on. We've five minutes to get on board Fruitbasket before Kakashi murders us both."

Sasuke takes his hand and drags him out of the door; Naruto throws a last glance at Jiraiya's apprehensive face and mouths a last-minute 'thank you'. Then he turns around and hurries down the corridor, tightening his grip on Sasuke's hand until it's just short of painful. Sasuke doesn't seem to mind.


Proximity alarms start shrieking from every corner of the ship as soon as they drop out of warp speed. Naruto swallows convulsively as Kakashi starts barking orders immediately, and Zabuza takes off like Martian bats are on their tail. It's evident straight away that Haku's work is paying off, as they zoom out of Soragakure's hangar and head for the mainframe, a large vessel orbiting the nearby star sedately and getting bigger and bigger with every minute. There are ships all around them, Akatsuki's red-on-black clearly distinguishable from the Alliance's insignia, a yellow lightning on a shield of royal blue. There are already explosions in the distance; Narito watches, horrified, as one of them hits the side of Akatsuki's ship right as they pass it. There are many smaller Akatsuki vessels, flying in formation as they head for the Alliance fleet. They can only watch as several fighters break out of the formation to head straight for the Soragakure.

The Power of Youth veers sharply off-course to intercept them just as the Puppeteer jumps out of warp practically on top of Akatsuki. Then the view is left behind as they race towards the mainframe, full speed ahead.

"I don't think the fighting's been going on for very long; maybe half an hour, tops," Haku says, staring at the radar screen.

"How the hell did they know?" Naruto wails in frustration.

"The memories inside the clone were probably a plant, like we suspected, placed there just in case we did manage to capture it. Probably had its life signs monitored, so they knew when it killed itself. I should imagine the Akatsuki leader extrapolated our possible arrival from the time of death. I'm more worried about how the Alliance knew where to find us," Kakashi says, forehead scrunched. "If we've had a tracer on board Sora all this time... Danzou must have decided to let us go, so that we'd bring him to the viral mainframe when we found it."

Naruto's eyes narrow at the mention of Danzou's name, but he doesn't have time to say anything before Haku speaks again, sounding worried. "There's another ship headed to the mainframe; it's following us. It's just set off, so we have maybe twenty minutes headway, assuming it's an old model and they don't have anyone as good a mechanic as me on board."

They are almost at the mainframe by now, a couple minutes from landing. Kakashi stares at the radar screen, trying to calculate the enemy's speed. "I'm happy with that estimate," he says at last, just as they fly in to dock. They push through another forcefield membrane, the same as the one on the Akatsuki ship Itachi had blown up what seemed like months ago. As soon as the ship touches down they're up, Sakura standing behind Sasuke where he's getting ready to push his way out. The walkway falls open and they run out quickly, Zabuza bringing up the rear with that enormous sword of his still strapped to his back. Haku stays behind to keep the ship ready to go in case they had to make a run for it.

They navigate the vessel quickly -- there is just one long corridor leading away from the docking area and further inside the belly of the ship. It only takes four minutes to run the length of it and emerge into a huge open area, barely lit by small lights from a massive console. The center of the room is empty, save for a large cube, about a man's height tall. Beside it there are two chairs woven with so many cables that it looks like they are made from them. Naruto and Bee look at each other and approach cautiously, even if there's no threat in this room at present. Sasuke follows a couple steps behind them, lightning glove at the ready.

The two of them sit in the chairs once Kakashi has examined them with his Sharingan implant and pronounced them harmless enough. As soon as their bodies touch the backs of the chairs, the cabels come alive, slighering around them and under their clothes. Sakura yelps in surprise, but Sasuke holds her back--the cables seem to have clear destinations in mind, burrowing straight to Naruto's spine and Bee's chest.

Both men jerk when the cables attach, and slump into the chairs. Naruto's eyes snap open--they are the color of fresh blood, and Kyuubi's voice bursts out of his open mouth.

"Home," Kyuubi roars; the sound waves batter them uncomfortably, and the rest of them smack their hands over their ears in pain. Sasuke's eyes shift into Sharingan form so fast that vicious pain spikes through head. Kyuubi's eyes fasten to his like a livewire; Sasuke feels the Sharingan whirling as Naruto's body jerks over and over again, the red drains from his eyes and they regain their usual blue color. His pupils are tiny pinpricks of black as his eyes open impossibly wide and a whine starts coming out of his mouth.

Killer Bee, meanwhile, stays almost motionless. The only movement is the shaking that starts in his arms and moves up his body until his entire torso is shaking with tremors. Behind the two chairs the cube lights up in stages, first a little glow, then brighter and brighter until the whole of it is fairly blazing. The two shaking forms are outlined in the light, and the rest of them can see the moment when both bodies collapse, and the cables slither back out of their clothes and away from their bodies.

Naruto is the first to come to, sitting up with a groan. Sasuke is there to brace him immediately, as Sakura runs over to Killer Bee and checks him over. Bee is slower to react, but he, too, sits up slowly and slumps with his elbows on his knees.

"You okay?" Sasuke asks as Naruto tries to stand. Naruto opens his mouth to answer him, but doesn't get the chance to before he collapses in Sasuke's arms and throws up all over the floor. "The fuck?" Sasuke yelps and almost drops him in surprise before shifting him in his arms to get a better grip.

"My head feels all woozy," Naruto manages, voice hoarse. "Can you make that noise go away?" he murmurs plaintively.

"What noise?" Sasuke asks shakily. There's no noise in the room.

"It's so loud," Naruto whimpers, trying to clutch as his ears. Sasuke drags him away from the cube and lets him slide along the side of the console and sit. Naruto lists to the side, lying down on his side and curling himself into a tight ball.

"Sakura!" Sasuke yells, frantic with worry. Sakura runs over and checks Naruto's vitals as Kakashi and Zabuza drag Killer Bee's prone body over to where Naruto's breathing shallowly into his chest.

"Incoming," Haku warns over their comms as a vibration shakes the body of the ship. Kakashi and Zabuza run over to the entrance to the room and cover it, taking defensive positions away from the opening.

"There's nothing wrong with him," Sakura says, relieved. "His pulse is frantic, and his blood pressure has spiked, but that's the adrenaline talking. He should be fine in a moment when he calms down."

"What about that noise he says he's hearing?" Sasuke asks.

"We'll have to wait until he calms to ask him about it. I've got to check on Bee-san," she tells him and turns to where Bee has yet to move from his sprawl.

"I'm taking off," Haku yells in their comms. "There's eight of them, six clones, a woman with blue hair, and a skeletal-looking guy in a wheelchair the woman is pushing along. The clones are trying to storm the ship; call me when you want extraction. Over and out."

The vessel rocks again when Haku flies out, and Sasuke stumbles a little where he's crouching over Naruto's unmoving body.

"Kakashi to Power of Youth. Gai, do you read?"

A short burst of static is followed by Gai's welcome voice. "We read you. Go ahead, Kakashi."

"Requesting reinforcements. Eight hostiles, six clones and two members of Akatsuki have just landed on board the mainframe. Get your asses down here, stat! Kakashi out."

"Roger that, Kakashi, on our way. ETA twelve minutes. Hang in there! Power of Youth over and out."

Kakashi allows himself a sigh of relief.

"Naruto, now would be a really good time to wake the fuck up," Sasuke says, shaking Naruto's shoulder insistently. "Come on, come on, idiot, you have a job to do! Now is not the time for sleeping! Soragakure is being attacked! You have to help your men!"

"Oh shit, fuck, you're right," Naruto mumbles, sitting back up and clutching at his head. "Help me up, I feel dizzy."

Sasuke tucks his shoulder under Naruto's arm and heaves. Naruto gets up, staggers to the side until he manages to brace himself on the console.

"Okay. Fuck, okay. What do we have here?" he slurs, picking up Jiraiya's remote-controlled pannel and hooking him up to the data stream. "Help me out here, Ero-ship. How do I get in there?"

Jiraiya remains silent, humming every now and again. After a few minutes there's a burst of gunfire out in the corridor, and Naruto jumps like a startled cat. "Now would be a good time," he snarls at the screen. Jiraiya doesn't even roll his eyes, which is how Naruto knows that there's a very good chance they're all going to die.


"Sora to Shikamaru! Report!"

"Shikamaru to Sora: there are nine ships in orbit around us, two S-class carriers, one F-class support vessel, and six fighters. Two of the S-class bear the Alliance's insignia, as well as four of the fighters. The other three bear Akatsuki's colors. The Power of Youth is disengaging, heading off to the mainframe to offer assistance. The Puppeteer is taking heavy fire, and what is starting to look like structural damage. We have to engage now--holy fuck!" The sound of an explosion muffles the rest of what Shikamaru is saying.

Sai doesn't take his eyes off the radar. There is an Akatsuki fighter practically on top of Shikamaru--

"Shikamaru to Sora. I've shot down one of Akatsuki's fighters. Two bodies on board. Five fighters remaining. Heading over to assist Bunraku, they're being attacked by two Alliance fighters. Shikamaru out."


"Ah," Jiraiya says; Sasuke really does not like his tone, it makes him extremely apprehensive.

"What? What?" Naruto asks, sounding a lot more like himself--it's reassuring.

"Well," Jiraiya hedges; the sound of gunfire comes from just outside the door, making Naruto jump.

"Tell me already! We haven't the time to stall!"

"I don't like it," Jiraiya maintains stubbornly, but relents under Naruto's glare. "Fine. You'll need to reattach the leads to your cybernetic spine. It looks like there might be some leftover programming there that will help with the containment of the recombined virus. I still don't like it, though."

"We don't have a choice," Naruto says as Kakashi jumps away from the wall where he'd been taking cover and throws a stun grenade into the corridor, throwing himself flat against the floor and covering his head with his arms.

The blast rocks the ship and fills the corridor with smoke. Naruto braces himself against the console, reaching for the leads. "Help me, Sasuke," he asks, still sounding weaker than he should.

Sasuke is in full agreement with Jiraiya on this--he does not like it. Naruto looks at him pleadingly, though, and he's helpless to refuse; they'll have to face this thing head-on if there's any chance of handling it. So he takes the leads, pushes Naruto's new coat off to one side, raises the back of his top and inserts the leads into the jacks that have suddenly appeared in the smooth skin of his back. As soon as the leads are in, Naruto stills again, just like he'd done that first time on the Kumogakure when he had integrated with the Kyuubi.

Sasuke's Sharingan is still whirling -- he can't seem to turn the damn thing off. When he looks aroung to check their status, the room is bathed in red and he's aware of every tiny little movement. When he looks at Naruto again, he sees laser-thin waves snag over his form, almost engulfing him. He feels a cold shiver travel down his spine without his permission. What the hell is happening in Naruto's mind?


"O-kay," Naruto says, a little freaked out.

He's standing in a clearing, in a huge, densely grown forest. The clearing is not large, but it's peaceful, lit in swatches by sunlight filtering through the green leaves. Right in the middle of it there's a small campfire, currently unlit; behind it sits a small man dressed in dark, serviceable clothes, wild black spiky hair held away from his face by a neatly tied length of black fabric, much like the one Naruto himself is sporting. There are six red elongated circles handing on a leather cord around his neck.

The man doesn't look surprised by Naruto's appearance, merely expectant. He's turning what can only be described as a ball of light in his unprotected hands.

"Ah, young Naruto. I have been expecting you," the man says, smiling mildly in welcome, but does not look up from the ball.

"Uh," Naruto tries, and then pulls himself together. "Hello?"

The man does not seem disturbed by his hesitation. He carries on peering into the ball in his hands, poking it here and there, seemingly at random. After a few minutes of staring, Naruto notices that a fraction of a second before the man pokes at the ball, the light within it changes--now orange, then blue, then grey, then red. The colors change so swiftly that Naruto isn't even sure what he's seeing. He blinks a few times, trying to work out where he is.

"Sit, sit," the man invites after a moment, looking up at last. Naruto almost falls over in shock; he jumps a few steps back and crowches into an attack stance. The man's eyes are made of light purple concentric circles, just like the clones' that have been attacking them.

The man doesn't even blink. He just sits there, molding the light with his fingers, expression open and unthreatening.

"Who are you?" Naruto asks, voice rough.

The man looks pensive. "I don't really have a name," he says musingly. "People call me the Sage. I suppose you could, too."

Naruto relaxes a little when no violence is forthcoming. He walks a little closer and kneels on the other side of the fire from the Sage.

"How do you know my name?" he asks tentatively.

"Oh, Kyuubi told me," the Sage replies easily enough.

"K-Kyuubi?!" Naruto can't quite contain his shock.

"Yes, Kyuubi, the biggest part of the Juubi that spent sixteen years living inside you. Surely you know it? It spoke very highly of you. Well, okay, it cursed you to the deepest pits of Jupiter, but that's high praise coming from it." the Sage smiles; Naruto gets the distinct impression he's pleased. This is confirmed when the man speaks next: "You did very well, indeed."

Naruto remains silent. He doesn't know what to say, or do, or if he should do anything at all. "Who are you?" he asks again at last, quiet and wary. "How do you have those eyes?"

The Sage looks at him again at that, a look so penetrating that Naruto feels like he's been stripped to his core. "I am the Sage," the man says again, but this time his voice rings with command and power, and he seems to grow in size even when he stays the same shape. "I am the master of the Rinnegan, which I was born with, and I control the Juubi, what you call the virus.

"Well, I used to control it," the Sage sighs, and just like that he's back to a unthreatening little man of indestinguishable age. "Back when I could still write coding like a pro. I used my eyes to look right into the heart of the program; I could literally see it grow as I wrote. God, it was beautiful, it was perfect, balanced so sweetly that the user could log into it and use it to control every nanite in the city, on the planet. I'd tell it to build, and oh, did it build, whole cities in one go, synthetising the raw materials from protons and electrons up. Steel, chrome, carbon, glass, concrete--give it access to the lab and the molecules in storage, and it would build you a skyscraper by dinnertime. So perfect," the sage sighs whistfully.

"And then, of course, I got ambitious. I started growing whole trees in the lab, whole ecosystems, clones grown so fast that in a year I had replaced the ancient virgin forests of Europe, and recovered the size of the Amazon rainforest from 150,000 years ago. Earth was thriving. I could give life with a wave of my hand, and take it away just as easily. The nanites obeyed me, obeyed the Juubi at all times."

Naruto gapes at him. This is unheard of; there haven't been trees on Konoha for millenia, he only knew what he was seeing here from two-thousand-year-old recordings of the last of the Konoha forests that Jiraiya had shown him when he was eleven--and this man says he can create them? "That's impossible," he whispers.

The Sage sighs. "It is now. Even back then, the Juubi started getting out of hand; it was developing a mind of its own. God knew what it would do had it managed to evolve completely. So I divided it. I ripped apart the programming until only chunks of it remained, one of which was Kyuubi. A lot of the code was lost as a result; the Juubi could never again build at the scale that it once did. Now, you'll be lucky if you can control enough nanites to produce a tree a day. Still, it is not a power I feel comfortable with--can you imagine what would happen if it turned everyone's nanites against them?"

"Yeah," Naruto says quietly. "I can. That's what must have happened in Kohona, I'd bet my life on it. Kyuubi must have hacked into their mainframe, taken control of the nanites and sent them out to rip through the outer village casing and mess with the oxygen support."

"Is that right?" the Sage asks faintly. "How the hell did it manage to do that itself? No, no, someone must have been controlling it; it couldn't have done it by itself. Nevertheless, this means that the Kyuubi is much more powerful now than it was then I split up the Juubi in the first place. Damn, that means that the Juubi is more dangerous than I imagined. You're going to have to split it up again, once you've made use of it, Naruto."

"Wh-what?!" Naruto splutters. "Me? I can't control that thing!"

The Sage smiles sadly. "Yes, you can. You're going to have to, unless you want your enemies to get ahold of it. Look," he says firmly when Naruto balks; "take it. Use it wisely, use it to help people, and when it's no longer useful, store it somewhere where no one will ever find it. Send it into the heart of a supernova if you want. You're the one destined to do this, Naruto. And if you still doubt me, remember whose coat you are wearing. Your father took on the Kyuubi with no training, no help from anyone besides your mother, and still he managed to harness it. You, on the other hand, have help. If for no other reason, do it for your people. They need you. And you need to do it now, unless you want that guy who's been lurking behind the tree over there taking it instead and using it to rape and burn and pillage until there's nothing left," the Sage says, nodding at the tree in question and standing up fluidly.

Naruto jumps, startled, and whirls around. There is indeed a man there, stepping away from the tree's cover and moving towards him with a predator's gait.

"Ah, Uzumaki Naruto," the man says; his voice is so deep that Naruto feels like it resonates through his ribcage. "I have long desired to meet you. The circumstances could not be more convenient."

Naruto looks at him and feels his blood turn to ice. The man is tall, gaunt, with sunken cheeks and skeletal-looking hands. That's not what makes him want to scream, though. It's a toss-up between his Akatsuki coat, which means that his people have been overwhelmed up there or are locked into fighting so vicious that they can't cover the console anymore; and his eyes. The man has the same Rinnegan implant--this must be the Akatsuki leader, the master of the clones.

The leader does not look perturbed when Naruto doesn't respond. He turns to the Sage instead. "Old man, surely you're not giving the Juubi to that silly boy? We are kin; I would be very disappointed if you try to deprive me of what is rightfully mine."

The Sage shakes his head ruefully. "Just because my older son managed to develop Rinnegan eyes on his own, and proceeded to write them into a certain genetic code, does not make us 'kin'. Also, you may be surprised to learn that our young friend here actually is a descendent of mine. He is my younger son's great-great-great-great-great-grandson. My older son was always so damn impatient. Why he couldn't just listen to his brother for once... Never mind; I see that little has changed in your views of the world--you are just like your predecessors, both of you. And if that's true, then it's also true that my choice remains the same. Naruto, take the Juubi. Do the right thing. I believe in you," the Sage says, and in a blink of an eye he's gone.

The ball of light levitates in the air for a few moments, before gently floating to where Naruto stands with his mouth gaping open and, circling to his back, flows into his spine. He stumbles a little.

The Akatsuki leader lets out a howl of rage and attacks.


Sasuke can only stand there and watch helplessly as Naruto starts glowing, a pale yellow that that looks like distilled sunlight. It's beautiful, but it's also scaring the crap out of him. There are markings visible in the light, six strange elongated circles that look like the black commas in his Sharingan eyes spread over Naruto's collarbone, and the seal on his stomach is outlined in darkness even over his clothes.

"Interesting," Danzou says from where he stands staring at the two motionless forms behind the console.

The Alliance soldier prods Sasuke in the back, and he walks over to where the rest of the captured crewmembers are standing. Lee and Gai look absolutely battered--they're bleeding all over their clothes. Kakashi lies where he'd fallen, just to the side of the door, curled up into a ball and coughing pathetically from the stunner they'd hit him with. Sakura is kneeling by his side, looking furious and terrified in equal measures. Zabuza is sprawled off to the side, clutching at his chest with both hands to slow down the bleeding from a vicious gash across his body.

Sasuke tries not to look over to the other side of the room. The clones that had come with the two Akatsuki members lay dead or dying, all piled up against the wall. Sasuke feels a little sick just seeing how much blood and various body parts litter the floor. Closer to the door, the woman that had come in with the man currently hooked into the console next to Naruto sits, looking dignified and completely unruffled. A soldier is standing guard over her, just as there are seven soldiers covering their side of the room.

It's so quiet that Sasuke can hear the humm of the console in the center, hear the soldiers shift their weight to his other side, hear the slide of their guns against the fabric of their combat jackets. He can't do anything but wait; hopefully reinforcements would arrive soon--he'd bet his right arm that Gaara is going spare out there, trying to fight his way over to the mainframe. He doesn't like the chances of their attackers all that much, he thinks with a smirk.

A sharp hiss of breath jerks his attention back to the center of the room. The Akatsuki leader's hair has turned completely white in the blink of an eye, a stark contrast to his black and red robes. He staggers where he stands and falls against the console, the leads snapping away from where they'd been plugged into his arms.

"Very interesting," Danzou says again, expression thoughtful. "It looks like the whelp has won. Who'd have thought it? Not so strong now, is he, your boss?" he sneers at the blue-haired woman, who is staring at her leader in shock. "Well, he's no longer useful," Danzou sighs. "Shoot him."

The soldier covering the two men at the console lifts his gun and fires with no hesitation, straight into the man's head. It jerks against the metal and red mist blooms in the air. The body slides to the floor as the blue-haired woman starts screaming and leaps at Danzou, nails extending rapidly. She's almost on him when another soldier raises his weapon and takes her out with a single shot. She crumbles to the floor in a heap of black and red.

"Useless," Danzou shakes his head. "What a disappointment. I had high hopes for Pain and his associates. Let's hope the ones remaining alive will be more amenable to a deal. I could use the extra solar crysts."

He turns his attention back to Naruto, and Sasuke freezes in horror. Surely, surely he won't kill him, too? He's so focused on Naruto's every movement as he starts to come back to himself that he almost misses the sound of a stealth fighter coming in to land. He furrows his brows--they don't have stealth fighters in either the Soragakure or the Puppeteer. Who could that possibly be? More Alliance? More Akatsuki?

"Ah, Uzumaki," Danzou smirks smugly. "Excellent, well done. You are to come with us immediately. You will be taken back to Konoha, where you will turn over the Juubi virus for the Konoha government to use as we see fit."

Naruto blinks at him a little, clearly confused. Danzou waits expectantly, giving the two soldiers who have Naruto in their weapons' sights the signal to wait.

Naruto looks around, taking in his surroundings. His eyes fasten on Kakashi and Zabuza, then on Lee and Gai's bleeding bodies, and finally find Sasuke's. Sasuke knows he looks a mess--his left eye is almost swallen shut, and he thinks he might have fractured his jaw in the fight. He has at least two broken ribs, by his own estimate. Naruto's eyes narrow and he glares at Danzou. The glow around him intensifies.

"Now, now, don't get any ideas," Danzou drawls, waving a hand at the soldiers. Seconds later every person not wearing an Alliance insignia has a weapon pointed at their heads. "You have two minutes to agree before we start shooting. I assure you, no one is coming to your aid in that time.

Naruto looks furious. The air around him starts to vibrate slightly. Danzou presses his lips together and holds his position. He is confident -- Naruto has no weapon on him, the Alliance had removed them as soon as they had secured the perimeter. He is defenseless, and Danzou holds all the cards. Danzou allows himself a triumphant smirk.

And then Naruto stills. He gets so calm that Sasuke can practically see his heartbeat slowing down and his blood pressure dropping. He looks--peaceful, as if he's about to suggest they all sit down and have some tea. He smiles, and the hairs on the back of Sasuke's head stand up in warning.

"I don't think so," Naruto says, and his eyes glow orange in the darkness as every single weapon in the hands of an Alliance soldier simply evaporates.

Shocked exclamations and shouts shatter the tension-fraud silence and soldiers jump back in panic. Danzou is shouting himself, ordering his men to shoot at the hostages, but he gets drowned in the overall noise. Sasuke staggers to his feet and runs over to Naruto, who looks vompletely unruffled by the commotion he's caused.

"How the fucking hell did you do that?" Sasuke yells happily, and resists the urge to grab hold of the idiot and squeeze. "Never mind, don't tell me. We have to get Kakashi and Zabuza to the Soragakure, they're in a bad way."

Naruto's self-satisfied expression falls at that, and he advances omniously on the Alliance soldiers. The closer he gets to them, the farther away they retreat, until as one man they turn and run out of the door, back towards whatever ship brought them here. Only Danzou stands his ground, eyes not a little mad and mouth twisted in a snarl.

It happens so fast that even Sasuke's Sharingan can't capture it all. One moment he and Naruto are walking forward, triumphant, and Naruto is smiling happily at him; the next Danzou has whipped a phaser out of his pocket and fires straight at Naruto's heart.

Sasuke doesn't even have to think about it; his feet move without his knowledge and he's throwing himself across Naruto's body, shielding him with his own. He looks up into Naruto's horrified eyes, and thinks that this is as good a way to die as any and much better than some, and waits for the burning pain of impact.

It never materialises.

The two of them fall to the floor in a tangle of limbs, and Sasuke twists up immediately, knowing that Danzou must have missed, and is aiming at them again at this very moment. He looks back at the spot where Danzou stood just moments ago, and his breath stutters and dies in his chest. Danzou is down, screaming as he's being secured by Gai and Lee, whose fingers slip a little from all the blood they've lost but are as sure as can be hoped for. That's not what makes him feel like he's dying inside.

Itachi's crumpled body lies sprawled over the floor, the smoke of vaporised body liquids snaking in the air above him. Sasuke's mouth opens soundlessly, and he doesn't realise he's moved until he's kneeling over the body and turning him on his back for a better look. Itachi's eyes are blinking hazily, and there is a hole burned a little to the right of his heart. Sasuke's Sharingan focuses without him telling it to, x-raying Itachi's chest in a fraction of a second. The heart is whole, but half of his left lung is charred beyond repair.

Itachi hacks out a vicious cough, and blood starts trickling from his mouth. His eyes focus slowly on Sasuke, and he tries to smile.

"You bloody fucking idiot, what the hell did you do," Sasuke yells helplessly, so furious that Itachi's face is blurring under him.

"Foolish... little... brother," Itachi manages; he smiles and bares his teeth, painted dark red where arterial and venous blood mix in his mouth. "You... care... for that boy... far too much. It was... obvious... what you would... do." Itachi coughs painfully again as Naruto finally gets there and sinks to his knees next to Sasuke.

"Oh fuck, Itachi, Hawking, what were you thinking? Quick, Sasuke, does he have nanites inside him?"

"I don't know! He should, all members of Akatsuki do," Sasuke babbles desperately.

"Sakura!" Naruto yells over his shoulder. "Get over here now!" He glares down at the body and his eyes glow orange again. Itachi jerks and relaxes again into the floor, but Sasuke can see dark mist collecting in the charred tissue, which quickly disappears from the wound. Naruto sways alarmingly when the nanites start rebuilding the lung, working so fast that in under a minute almost half of the lung is repaired.

Sakura skids to a stop next to them, looking down at the bleeding man with huge, worried eyes. "Get your nanites in there," Naruto commands, and Sakura doesn't hesitate before placing her hands over the wound and releasing her own machines in the wound. She's pale, Sasuke notices--she must have already treated Kakashi and Zabuza, and there had been a lot of damage there, too. He can't think about them right now, though, not with his brother trying not to bleed to death before them.

Naruto lists to the side suddenly, and Sasuke grabs him, supporting him against his chest. The glow is back; it feels like a gentle caress against Sasuke's bruised skin. Naruto's eyes roll into his head and he collapses, completely drained; the pleasant glow disperses in the blink of an eye. Sasuke panicks for a moment, before Sakura speaks out of the corner of her mouth, barely wasting any breath. "He's okay, just drained. Call Haku back in to fly us out. Get Karin and Ino to prepare for the casualties. Hurry, I'm almost done here, but he's lost a hell of a lot of blood; he's going to need two banks just to sustain the healing."

Sasuke doesn't need to be told twice. He lowers the sleeping Naruto gently to the floor, before he legs it.


Naruto comes to slowly, comfortable and floating near wakefulness. He's lying in something very soft and warm, so he can't be dead or in the brig. He hears quiet voices murmuring nearby; they sound familiar, so he cracks an eye open to see who it is. The room is very bright; the light makes his pupils contract painfully. That's odd--how long has he been out for?

"I see you're up," Sakura says from somewhere on his right. He cranes his head to see her rising from the typing console she's obviously been working at and come closer to his bed, a brilliant smile on her tired face. Naruto smiles back, basking in the chance to take his first break in what feels like forever.

"How long--" he starts, and croaks pathetically. Sakura reaches for a glass of water with a straw in it and helps him drink. He tries to sit up, affronted; he's a little freaked out when it takes far more effort than it should. "How long have I been out?" he manages to ask at last.

"Thirty-three hours," Sakura reports off-handedly, but when he looks, he can see the relief written all over her face. "You're physically fine," she goes on when he doesn't respond. "You have about three billion more nanites than the last time we checked, but other than that, things have actually been calm since we got back on Sora."

Naruto sighs in relief and lets his head fall back on his pillow.

"...no, it isn't," comes from his left--that's definitely Sasuke's voice, he thinks as he starts to turn. The derisive "Hn" stops him in his tracks.

"Eh?" he asks, looking at Sakura for clues.

She sighs in exasperation. "Oh, ignore them. They've been bickering all morning. Who'd have thought I'd miss the taciturn, silent Sasuke?"

She can pretend all she likes; Naruto can see the amusement lurking in her eyes plain as day. When he does manage to turn and look at the bed on his left, he's faced with a scowling Sasuke, hands crossed defensively over his chest. Sasuke is looking at the other bed's occupant--a paler than usual, but no worse for wear Itachi, who's smirking smugly up at him. Itachi turns his head on the pillow, looks at Naruto contemplatively.

"Little brother, suppose you remember you have those little things called manners and introduce us properly? After all, one should know his future brother-in-law before the wedding, it's only proper."

Sasuke blushes and growls "Fuck off" under his breath; Naruto finds the brothers' interraction hilarious already, and it's only been ten minutes. He has a feeling he and Itachi are going to get on just fine, for all he's an Uchiha and therefore automatically classified as a pain in his ass--albeit in a different manner than his brother. He wonders what Tsunade is going to say when Itachi finally comes back to Hoshii, the prodigal son returning victorious. He bets there's going to be pardons and medals and a very quick and efficient communications of Danzou's doings to Kohona, where by all accounts he hasn't been too popular recently.

All this can wait, though, at least until after they get home. "Where's Kakashi? Are we on our way back to Hoshii yet?" he asks.

Sakura's face looks strained. "The infirmery's a bit fuller than usual at the moment," she hedges.

Naruto frowns. Damn it, he should have asked this the second he'd come to; he'd let his relief at the whole debacle being done with override his training. "How's the crew? What's our status? Will someone report already?"

"Five casualties in sick bay, none of their injuries are life-threatening. Mostly, they're recovering, and that includes Kakashi and Zabuza. Zabuza regained conscience six hours ago; Kakashi came to just a half hour before you did."

Naruto nods, Sakura's familiar cadence soothing as nothing else. "Where are we?" he wonders.

"On our way home," Jiraiya says, sounding smug and pleased.

"All right!" Naruto grins tiredly. "I'm going to take another nap, okay?" he says as Sasuke walks to his bed and peers worriedly down at him. Naruto reaches for his hand and strokes his fingers gently over the back of it, trying for reassusing but mostly coming off as knackered.

"Sleep, idiot," Sasuke says, far more gently than his words suggest; the last thing Naruto feels before he surrenders to the exhaustion tugging insistently at his awareness is a hand threading through his hair soothingly, over and over again.



"Fucking hurry up, bastard, it's starting already!" Naruto yelps over the comm, frantically rushing between the front door, the scooter and Her Highness, the heavily pregnant and about to give birth Snake Princess Hinata.

"Calm down, idiot, we're on our way. We'll meet you at the hospital, Sakura's already waiting for you there," Sasuke says calmly. Naruto hates him a lot.

"It's your sodding nephew being born, you could make the effort to at least sound excited!" he grumbles, helping his friend into the passenger seat as carefully as possible. It figures that he'd be the one stuck on emergency duty when the happy event started. Tsunade doesn't know he knows that half of Konoha has been betting on him getting the short end of the stick, again.

"Be grateful you don't have Itachi half-strangling you from the back seat when you're trying to fly a fucking fighter; you've got the better end of the deal, believe me. Besides, you should be used to this by now--it's your third time"

"Yeah, thanks ever so for reminding me," Naruto grouses as he starts the scooter and takes off as slowly as he can force himself.

They travel down the tree-lined streets quickly enough. It's the first time since the newly-engineered trees had been grown and planted that Naruto doesn't stop to bask in the glorious sight--for well over four years, then. Today, though, he has better things to do than feel smug and pleased with himself; the beautiful, eden-like planet Konoha has become thanks to the Juubi program will still be here tomorrow.

When they reach the hospital, Tsunade is there waiting for them, wearing her Fifth Hokage robes for once. It's a respect she'll only pay to the Heads of the reinstated Uchiha clan, and even then, only on special occasions--like the birth of their third child. Sakura appears in the midst of a whirlwind of activity and whisks the ever-patient Hinata away to the delivery room. Naruto is left panting slightly, standing next to the Hokage and peering up the street, expecting to see the expectant father and his long-suffering brother appearing around the corner any minute now.

"Where are the other two brats today, then?" Tsunade asks mildly.

"They're staying with their Uncle Neji and Uncle Gaara, terrorising them to within an inch of their lives no doubt."

Tsunade tries and fails to hide her amusement at the thought of Gaara babysitting. Strange what loving someone more than your life can do for your moody disposition. "I'll bet they are engaging in their favorite pasttime, havinga staring contest with someone who actually stands a chance of winning," she muses.

Naruto snorts; he can afford to, Sasuke still hasn't arrived. Besides, the little Hyuuga-Uchiha brats were a holy terror at the best of times; removing their parents' authority from the vicinity is just asking for trouble.

"Have you set a date for the Juubi removal yet?" Tsunade asks, brushing an imaginary wrinkle off her coat and not looking at him.

"We thought sometime next week, after things settle down again." Naruto sighs, looking down at Tsunade sheepishly. "Is it weird if I say I'm kind of going to miss the little bastartd?"

She huffs a laugh. "It is, though that's not a particularly major change from business as usual."

Naruto scowls and opens his mouth to yell at her when a fighter skids around the corner of the building and comes to a stop just a couple feet from where they're standing. A harassed-looking Itachi falls out of it, spares them a brief nod and rushes inside the hospital, on his way to terrorise the medical team to a nervous breakdown--at least until his wife caught wind of this and put a swift stop to his temper tantrum.

Sasuke jumps out of the cockpit, hair ruffled and expression stony. Naruto tries not to laugh at him; if he knows Itachi at all, Sasuke would be feeling a little fragile right about now. It reminds him of the first time the Hoshii had made land on Konoha, all those years ago, about a month after what had come to be known as the "Danzou fiasco". Negotiations had not come easily to the Alliance fleet, but faced with the facts they could do nothing but capitulate and agree to the Hoshii's re-acceptance into the fleet, together with the Puppeteer and the crew of the now-lost Kumogakure. There are still a few ships out there wary of coming home, but Naruto is nothing if not stubborn, as Sasuke should know first-hand by now.

"Kakashi called just before you did," Sasuke says pre-emptively. "Itachi's been unbearable about their Sharingan-exploring project being interrupted. Honestly, how that man can think about shit like that when his son is being born..."

Naruto throws a reasuring arm over Sasuke's shoulder. "Don't pretend you're not all about the brotherly love today, you couldn't fool a three-year-old. Just enjoy the birth of another mini-Itachi to fuss over and spoil to death." His grin could melt the polar ice caps if it wanted to. On anyone else's face, it would be equal parts insane and terrifying, considering the mind-boggling amount of power he held over creation itself. This is Naruto, though, and while he could be a pain in the ass without even trying, he is also the least frightening man on Konoha, if you weren't scared to death of dorks.

Sasuke glares at him; then he leans over and kisses the silly grin off the idiot's face. The suns are shining, the spring sky is pale golden, the trees rustle their turquoise leaves in the wind, and the scent of the lilac bushes fills the air. Naruto is warm and pliant under his arms, surrendering happily to his advances while Tsunade slips tactfully away. Life is good.


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