Chapter 1: Prologue
Naruto gets stood up at his own wedding because—to be honest—that’s just how his luck runs. Orochimaru’s smile becomes increasingly calcified with each passing minute until in the end, he looks waxen, inhuman and grotesque with his pale skin.
The church is stifling. The windows are letting in all the sunlight but none of the breeze, and Naruto can hear his daughter making uneasy noises. His eyes drift over to Sakura, who is holding Kushina; he’d dressed Kushina in cotton for the day, knowing that the sun would be bright and the ceremony long, but he hadn’t anticipated the delay. She must be getting hungry. She will need a diaper change soon. He can see the bright red of her hair, and the occasional plump fist she raises or leg she kicks out before resettling again.
Kushina is a quiet child, but even she has limits to her patience. Any longer and she will start crying, and then what? It’s not like Naruto can abandon the altar and go to her. Sakura is more than capable of handling Kushina, but Lee is sitting to her right, holding Sarada in his lap, and Sarada looks like she might blow any minute now in this pressure cooker.
Naruto glances towards the heavy double doors, propped wide open now to let in the breeze—and maybe herald the groom’s arrival. If he chooses to show up.
Naruto makes sure that he does not fidget in the heavy drapings of his kimono for this occasion. He is wearing the Hatake tribal colors—ivory white with a slate gray sash—but the robes draped over his shoulders are Uzumaki orange. Kakashi adopted him when he was young, fulfilling a promise to Naruto’s absent father, but he is his mother’s son. On this day, his wedding day, he will not hide that about himself.
Iruka steps forward from to murmur, “You’re doing really well, Naruto.”
Naruto smiles at Iruka and tries to make it genuine. “Thanks, Iruka.”
He’d asked Iruka to officiate the ceremony, and here they are now, both stranded at the altar. But then again, what else was Naruto expecting? What was Kakashi expecting with this alliance? He is Konohagakure jinchuuruki, the demon vessel. He exists only to house the Nine-Tailed Demon; he was given the gift of a daughter to ensure that the Uzumaki bloodline would be continued—as his mother was given the gift of a child to raise and call her own—but that is the extent of his value.
Naruto will be the first to admit—he was the first to argue— that his value is not enough to buy the allegiance of Otogakure.
But Kakashi had persisted. They needed Otogakure’s allegiance because they share a vast northern border. Kakashi is weakened from a drawn-out war with Iwagakure, while Orochimaru is fighting battles of his own--the northern tribes within the borders of his country are fracturing, rising up against the warlord who claims to subjugate them under one banner. Orochimaru is a new warlord, still, just a decade into his reign, and he is beset by dissenters. He will need Kakashi’s aid when the time comes.
Orochimaru offered Kakashi men for the war against Iwagakure. Three hundred men. And in return? A show of good faith, a promise that Kakashi would one day return the favor when Orochimaru’s civil war eventually breaks out.
Marriage is the easiest way to demonstrate good faith. Kakashi has two adopted children of his own, but Sakura is already happily married to Lee. Their love blossomed when they were just teenagers, and Kakashi secured the marriage between their clans gladly. He knew Lee’s father, Gai; they were good friends growing up together. Now, Sakura and Lee have a three-year-old child together.
Naruto will not complain, and he will obey Kakashi because he will not give cause for Kakashi to be embarrassed in any way. Kakashi is Kage, and Naruto is a Kage’s son. That comes with responsibilities. All children have responsibilities to their clans; no marriage is agreed upon without approvals from clan elders, and Naruto happens to belong to the most important Clan in the Village.
But Naruto was hoping for a solitary life. He is fine alone, thank you very much, because he is the demon-vessel. His father apparently loved his mother— very, very much, Jiraiya will insist often—but he could not marry her (Naruto will wonder just how much his father loved his mother, if he couldn’t marry her; Namikaze Minato died in war when Naruto was born, so he never had the chance to ask).
Jinchuuruki’s do not get married. They are required by law to bear children so that the bloodline does not end, but in the history of the Uzumaki Clan, there has never been a marriage. Eleven generations, and not a single marriage. They die with no one but their child by their side (and just a single child, no more, because for the ritual that transfers the demon from one Uzumaki to another, there can never be more than one; the chakra of the demon will split and fracture if there is more than one option for a vessel).
This is the fate of a jinchuuruki. They are cursed. They are the harbingers of death and destruction.
Naruto accepted this fate when he was seven years old. It was an easy decision to accept because his mother promised him that one day, he, too, would have a child of his own to love and cherish. Like she loved and cherished him. You are the love of my life, she promised him, and one day, you will find the love of your life, when you have the next Uzumaki child.
He has found the love of his life. He has Kushina, a daughter birthed with a surrogate he never met, but will forever be grateful to. She is his, his alone, his blood and love. He named her after his own mother, because she has the same red hair as his mother, and sometimes, when she blinks up at him with her bright blue eyes and smiles, he thinks, That’s Mama’s smile.
He was ready to have a child because he had everything else he needed: a family, friends, inheritance, a guaranteed position as Sakura’s right-hand when she ascended the steps to become Kage herself. So Naruto waited, patient, until he was twenty-three before asking Kakashi for a surrogate to bear his child. What he didn’t anticipate was having to walk down the aisle so soon after Kushina’s arrival.
But of course, now that he is at the altar, he has no one at his side.
Naruto takes a deep breath. He’d warned Kakashi. He’d warned Jiraiya. He’d told anyone who would listen. No one, he said, will want to marry a jinchuuruki.
Times are changing, Hinata promised him, because she is one of his best friends and loves him unconditionally. Everyone else said the same thing, trying to cheer him up, because Naruto does not lack in nonsensically optimistic friends.
Even Kakashi and Sakua started to have faith. Jiraiya even said something inane about arranged marriages sometimes leading to love.
Naruto scoffs at the memory of Jiraiya’s optimism. “What a load of—”
“Naruto,” Iruka warns, and looks pointedly over Naruto’s shoulder. Naruto glances to see if the groom has finally arrived, but no, it’s Orochimaru getting to his feet to talk to Kakashi. They exchange some words, with Jiraiya huddled close by. A moment later, Tsunade joins them, and Naruto can’t help but smile at the look of fierce determination on her face. She is his Great Aunt; although she is Senju, she is related to the Uzumaki—her grandmother was an Uzumaki, but she was one of twins, and did not inherit the bloodline’s gift. After a few moments, Orochimaru turns to the crowd assembled—and what a crowd it is; the entire Village showed up for this event, a jinchuurki, marrying , has such a thing ever happened in Konohagakure’s storied history?
“Lords and ladies,” Orochimaru begins. His voice is smooth and even. It makes Naruto’s skin crawl. “I apologize for the delay of my captain. He is busy, as you can imagine, with the northern skirmishes.”
Kakashi takes over neatly. “Lord Orochimaru will stand in the groom’s place.”
Naruto takes another deep breath. He’d anticipated as much. It’s not an uncommon thing to do because at the end of the day, a marriage is about aligning two clans, not two people. The people getting married have nothing to do with it; it’s a treaty being signed by proxy. He’s surprised that Orochimaru didn’t propose this solution half an hour ago, when it became clear that the groom wasn’t just running ten minutes late, he wasn’t going to show up.
Orochimaru steps onto the dais fluidly, his cloak billowing behind him. He’s a tall man, lean, but there’s a danger about him. “Master Naruto,” he says with a smile, and holds out a hand.
Do not punch him, Naruto tells himself, and places a hand carefully in Orochimaru’s hand. The man’s hands are completely dry; Naruto can feel the scaly protuberance of his calluses from wielding a sword. He turns to Iruka and gives him the warmest smile he can even though he is fairly certain he’ll need a shower after this.
“Well, then,” Iruka says, returning Naruto’s smile. He doesn’t look at Orochimaru when he speaks. “We are gathered here today to celebrate the union between two Clans, two villages, and two nations.”
The usual words are that the gathering is to celebration the union between two people, but there’s no point in keeping up appearances for a marriage so blatantly political: a jinchuuruki—the biological son of a Kage, the adopted son of another Kage, godson of a Sannin, and heir to the Senju inheritances—marrying a widowed soldier with no land, no name, not a single thing to claim as his own. For all of Naruto’s pedigree, he isn’t worth much at all.
Iruka turns to Orochimaru. “Do you, Lord Orochimaru, on behalf of—”
“I do,” Lord Orochimaru interrupts neatly. It’s rude, but the man smiles to soften the insult. He pitches his a fraction lower, making it obvious he wants the crowd to overheard. “We’ve kept the crowd waiting long enough don’t you think, Master Iruka?”
Iruka doesn’t return Orochimaru’s smile. Instead, he turns to Naruto and holds his gaze steady. I may never see you again , Naruto thinks, and has to breathe deep against the thought. He will go north. He will leave behind all that he has known and loved for three hundred men in battle and the promise of more if the need arises.
“Do you, Uzumaki Naruto,” Iruka says, and pauses, making it clear that he’s giving Naruto one last chance. You do not have to say yes , he told Naruto just the night before. He’d said it over and over again the minute Kakashi announced his decision, but Naruto hadn’t responded. He is a Kage’s son—twice over. He knows what his duties are. Countless daughters and sons before him have walked down the aisle for far more trifling reasons. There are wounded soldiers returning from the front lines every day. There are men being carried home for their last rites. Kakashi needs more men to overwhelm the Tsuchikage’s immense manpower. There is a war to be won.
“Do you, Uzumaki Naruto,” Iruka repeats with gentle care, “take Uchiha Sasuke as your lawfully wedded husband?”
Naruto takes a breath and squares his shoulders. “I do.”
Chapter 2: Naruto
Kushina is delighted by the journey. She keeps falling asleep with the gentle sway of the horse, tucked close to Naruto’s chest in the sling he has made from a wide sash of cloth. Whenever she wakes up, there is an entire landscape of new sights for her to take in with bright, bright blue eyes.
Naruto talks to her constantly. She’s three months now, at the age where she recognizes his scent and the cadences of his voice. She’ll look where he points and smile when she sees something she likes. Her laughter is almost always sudden and unexpected, an eruption of bubbly cheer. She will reach up to touch Naruto’s face every now and then, as if to confirm that yes, he is still here.
Orochimaru is annoyed by her. Naruto can tell in the way he scowls every time Naruto calls for the day’s journey to stop or camp for the night. He will not subject Kushina to any more than a few hours ride at a time. At each stop, he will set her down on soft grass and let her roll over onto her stomach—her new favorite thing to do—and kick out her hands and feet, lift up her legs, as if she’s swimming. Sakura told him that it was important for babies to do this to build up strength to eventually crawl and walk, so Naruto makes sure that she has at least an hour of play at every stop. He will feed her, change her if she needs, and then and only then, will he mount his horse again with her tied close to his chest or on his back to resume the journey.
Orochimaru tries to protest. He tries to point out, obliquely, that they are wasting days at the rate they are going. Then, he mentions it outright around the campfire, pinning Naruto with an unrelenting stare and saying in front of his men and women. “I don’t think it’s necessary for us to stop so frequently and for so long.”
Naruto arches an eyebrow at him. “She’s my child, and I think we do,” he points out calmly. He’d offered to ride north in a year, when Kushina would be better suited to make the trek across hundreds and hundreds of miles. Orochimaru had refused. “Unless you have some deep knowledge of child-rearing or, even better, specific details about Kushina’s care?”
Orochimaru’s placid expression doesn’t change. They’ve been bickering subtly for the past hundred miles now, and Naruto is half-expecting his temper to finally snap. But instead, the man only smiles at him. “I meant no offense.”
“Good,” Naruto counters neatly, and gets to his feet. He’s only a few feet away from the fire when he hears Dosu Kinuta, a heavily bandaged man without tact or sense, say with a snigger, “Sasuke is going to have a handful with that one.”
Naruto pushes into the tent just as the laughter erupts at the man’s comment, grateful for the privacy. He might be just a jinchuuruki, but he grew up commanding the respect given to a Kage’s son. He will not dignify these comments by the northerners; he’s had worse in his life.
Kushina’s breaths are soft in the quiet cocoon of their tent. He’d bundled her up securely on all sides with rolled up cloaks before stepping out for some water and to clean out the used milk bottles, but he now regrets not layering a light blanket over her. It’s getting colder at night as they head north, and they’re not even halfway there.
He curls up around her carefully after taking off most of his clothes, putting her close against his chest so he can breathe in the scent of her. She could have grown up with Kakashi as a doting grandfather, Jiraiya as an insufferable great-grandfather. She would have learned how to gamble from Tsunade and how to stitch a wound from her aunt Sakura. Neji would have been godfather, and his wife, Tenten, godmother. She would have been born into a loving circle of friends, the certainty of protection as heir to a triumvirate of Konohagakure Clans: Hatake, Senju, and Uzumaki.
But now she is Uchiha—not on paper, but by law—because bartering amongst warlords always disadvantages the man asking for the favor. Kakashi wanted three hundred men; he had offered Naruto and Naruto’s heir, Kushina. They are both Uchiha now.
And what does that even mean?
Naruto closes his eyes and forces himself to sleep before his thoughts spiral completely out of control.
Otogakure is carved into a valley. It is surrounded on all sides by seven mountains—the Seven Sisters, Orochimaru tells him—and she overlooks a lake so still that it looks like a flat, blue mirror, reflecting the snow-capped peaks of the mountains around it.
It is so far below sea level that descending into the valley feels like climbing underground. It’s a dangerous journey, and nearly two months of traveling through rolling plains and bypassing rich, evergreen forests, it makes Naruto’s already weary horse slow down even more. The northerners, though, maneuver their horses deftly down the steep descent, and linger at flat landings in the pass for Naruto to catch up.
It’s a strategic goldmine. Otogakure might not have formidable walls like Konohgakure or the desert like Sungagakure, but it has the mountains. No one can enter or exit the valley without being surrounded on all sides by Orochimaru’s archers. It’s a slow, treacherous descent towards death.
Kushina coos in his ear. He’d tied her to his back for this leg of the journey and she’s fascinated by what she sees, her pudgy fingers resting against his cheek every now and then when she wants his attention. “I know, baby,” Naruto murmurs, distracted by the need to keep his eyes glued to the path ahead. “I know.”
Kakashi and Sakura had begged him to take his own servants. You will need allies , they told him, and Naruto had said no , stubborn for no reason at all. Now, he regrets that decision, because it has been two months of relative silence, with only Kushina to keep him company, and he misses home.
He misses Kakashi and his doting, lingering kiss to his forehead every morning. He misses Sakura, who has been at his side every moment from his earliest memories. He misses Jiraiya and Tsunade, their easy affection and guidance. He misses Iruka’s unconditional faith and optimism. He misses training with Neji and Hinata. He misses quiet evenings with Tenten. He misses drinking with Ino. He misses ramen. He misses the redwood forests.
He would like, at least, for someone to take Kushina from him every now and then. He loves his daughter, he does, but he hadn’t realized just how much he relied on those around him to give him a break every now and then. “First thing we’re going to do,” he promises Kushina, “is write your grandfather and have him send servants so you and I don’t get completely sick of each other.”
Kushina coos at him, delighted to hear his voice after so long a silence. “And some strong wine, maybe,” Naruto promises. The Kage tower had at least fifty working at all times, more when needed. He hadn’t realized just how much Kakashi pampered him, the privilege of his life despite his status as a jinchuuruki. He’d ordered one of Orochimaru’s men to fetch firewood two nights earlier, and had been met with a blank gaze.
The miles stretch on. There is never a safe stretch of the rocky mountain pass leading to the valley below. Naruto is so busy concentrating on guiding his horse down safely that he doesn’t even realize when he reaches the valley floor.
Tayuya, a red-headed man who is one of Orochimaru’s most loyal, smirks when Naruto finally joins the rest of the northerners. “Not bad, princeling.”
Princeling, that’s what they call him, because in the south they have old, ancient clans with hierarchies. The north only has tribes with lords who reign over soldiers and farmers. When a leader becomes old, he is challenged by a younger, more formidable warrior. The north will not accept dynasties. “The princess was taking in the sights,” Naruto says with a cheerful smile. “I slowed down to let her enjoy it. In fact, I’m considering climbing up the mountain again, just so she can enjoy it a second time.”
Tayuya’s smirk disappears instantly, and he tugs at the reins of his horse almost violently to move away. They have all lost their patience with each other over the course of the journey. There isn’t a single northerner in the thirty-man party that Orochimaru rides with who will smile at Naruto.
“As far as first impressions go, Kushina,” Naruto says in a low-pitched voice, “we could have done worse.”
Konohagakure is a sprawling, cluttered city hidden amongst the redwood forests. It is surrounded by formidable pallisades that Kakashi is fortifying into massive walls, several hundred feet tall. The city streets wind and curve and loop around the city, paved by cobblestones and lit by lamps all along. Naruto grew up in a sprawling house that needed two fireplaces just to keep the feasting hall warm. There was enough space for Kakashi to hold conference with the leaders of all the Clans in the village; when they were young, Kakashi would allow Naruto and Sakura to hide under the table and overhear the proceedings. They would always fall asleep curled by his feet, and Kakashi would then carry them in his arms to their bedding and tuck them in himself. They had a courtyard paved with stone, and a stable with a dozen steads. Naruto grew up with tutors to teach him the languages, art, music, and diplomacy. Kakashi himself taught Sakura and Naruto how to form chakra seals. Every day, for an hour, he taught them taijutsu and ninjutsu, along with weaponry. He hired tutors to spar against Naruto and Sakura so they could test their skills, and when they were ready, he sent them out on missions beyond the city walls if there were reports of outlaws and bandits, or complaints of water wells running dry. Naruto and Sakura never wanted for anything, and they both grew up secure in the knowledge of their father’s unconditional love.
Otogakure is so unlike Konohagakure that it startles Naruto into silence. The city is not a city. In the Land of Fire, it would be considered a village. It is just a collection of houses and tents nestled against the sloping hills. Most are set low to preserve heat in the winter, although a few are larger, with stables attached and large yards. Naruto knew that Otogakure was a relatively new city and Orochimaru a relatively new leader, but it’s only now that he’s realizing just how young this city is. Konohagakure is just over a hundred years old; Otogakure is barely ten.
The village center, at least, is bustling with activity. The town square is clustered with merchants selling their ware on open carts and under bright, draped cloths. They’re drawing attention as they move slowly towards the center of the village; when Naruto smiles at some of them, they return the gesture. So not all northerners, then , he thinks because apparently, at least some of them are willing to smile at him. A few of them wave their hands and call out to Naruto, but Naruto does not understand them. Everyone is speaking in a language that Naruto does not understand. Orochimaru and his men have been speaking broken southern dialect to Naruto for months now, and although Naruto had been curious to learn their native language, he didn’t trust them enough to ask. Now, he regrets the decision. He will have to piece together the language on his own without any tutors.
Orochimaru leads Naruto away from the largest cluster of houses and tents, until the village center is far behind them. As they travel, the tents and houses become more sparse, spaced apart by wide tracts of land with grazing cows and sheep.
“We’ll drop of you off at Sasuke’s residence,” Orochimaru says, moving his horse close to Naruto’s. “He has servants, so I’m sure you can manage on your own.”
“I can,” Naruto assures him. He doesn’t ask any of the questions he wants to ask because he doesn’t want to be beholden to Orochimaru in any way, even for the most basic information like, Will Uchiha Sasuke be there?
“Excellent,” Orochimaru announces with great relish, drawing up his horse sharply. “We’re here.”
Here is a moderately sized house set against a gentle sloping curve overlooking the river that threads through the village. Just beyond the house is the birchwood forests that climb all the way up the mountainside beyond. The view is stunning, but the house is relatively isolated on a vast tract of land. The stables set off to the side of the property are larger than the house.
Naruto holds Orochimaru’s gaze steady. He knows he should say thank you , but Kushina always looks close to tears when the man is near. “I can take it from here.”
Orochimaru’s face twists, slipping out of its usual serene smile into something ugly and malicious. He smooths over the expression a moment later. “Welcome to Otogakure.”
He spurs his horse away before Naruto can respond, rejoining his men waiting at the mouth of the long path leading to the house. None of them, Naruto is realizing now, had crossed the line of stones marking the edges of Uchiha Sasuke’s land.
“A sign of fear, or a sign of respect?” Naruto asks his daughter.
Kushina blinks up at him with a gummy smile, so Naruto dips his head and kisses her cheek loudly. “Let’s go in.”
The children are confused. There are five of them and they are all confused. Apparently, their father had failed to mention that he was getting married.
Thankfully, they all speak the southern tongue. They are not fluent in it, but Naruto will excuse their horrendous accent and even more atrocious syntax.
Mikoto, the only girl, is the first to recover from her shock. She’s delighted , nearly vibrating with joy. “Hello! Hello! Hi! You brought me sister!” She can be no older than four, but she’s tall for her age. She bounds over to Naruto and peers at Kushina with a wide grin. “Hello!”
Her twin, Yaese, joins Mikoto to inspect Kushina just as carefully. Naruto holds Kushina carefully in his lap so they can make their acquaintances. Yaese stands so close to Kushina that their noses nearly touch. Kushina holds out a hand and presses her small fingers against his cheek, smacking her lips idly as she does. Yaese smiles, gap-toothed. “She’s really small.”
“She’s a baby, that’s why,” Itachi explains. Now that the younger ones have warmed to Naruto, the older ones have no choice but to follow. Yaese steps aside for Itachi to say hello, and the boy holds out a finger to meet Kushina half-way. Kushina grips it immediately because she is a determined child if there ever was one, and once she understood that she has a prehensile thumb, she’s been unstoppable.
Itachi pulls away from Kushina’s death-grip on his finger. “Are you both going to live here? You can if you want. Kushina can play with us. That way, we’ll be an even split when we break up into two teams.”
Naruto can’t help the twitch of his lips. He’d clearly interrupted the children at play because they are all in some form of disarray—Shisui has mud all over the side of his face, and both Mikoto and Yaese have twigs and leaves in their wild, spiking nests of hair. Unthinking, Naruto reaches out to peel away some of the leaves from Mikoto’s hair, and she allows it, watching him carefully. “You’re very pretty,” she announces after a moment. “Is your hair really that color? Can I touch it?”
“You’re very pretty too,” Naruto promises her, because there’s no denying that she is. She beams at the compliment, and when Naruto ducks his head for her, she doesn’t hesitate in touching a hand gently to his hair. Her whispered, soft , is almost disbelieving. Her hand moves to his forehead, and then his cheek, lingering lightly on the scars there before she moves to his nose and then lips. It’s almost as if she’s feeling out the dimensions of his face with her fingers. “Is everyone pretty where you come from?”
Naruto tries his level best to keep a straight face. The thing with children is that they have no filter between their brains and their mouths. Words just come tumbling out of them, unvarnished and without even an iota of tact. “There’s all sorts of people in Konohagakure,” he answers, which is the truth. Theirs is a land of plenty; people emigrate to the Land of Fire from across the entire Continent.
“So you’re Uchiha now?” Shisui asks.
No, we’re the price for three hundred soldiers. “Yes, we are,” Naruto answers. “You have room for two more?”
Shisui wipes at his nose with the back of his hand. It leaves behind a streak of dirt, but he doesn’t seem to realize it. Wild children, Naruto thinks. Where is their father? “Not much,” Shisui answers. “But my brothers and I can share rooms.”
The offer is kind. He is a generous child, warm and welcoming. Naruto remembers Kushina’s promise that he would find the love of his life one day. He has Kushina, but now he sees these five wild children arrayed in front of him, and thinks, Maybe. “Thank you, sweetheart. I’m sure we can all figure something out.”
Shisui is clearly the more talkative of the older brothers because the eldest, who can’t be older than eight, hasn’t said a word to him. He hasn’t even introduced himself to Naruto yet.
Still, Naruto has to try. By law, these are his children now. No matter how much he wants to take a bath, lie down, and go to sleep, he has to make a good impression. “Would it be okay if Kushina said hello to you?”
The boy wrinkles his nose. A moment later, he stalks over towards Naruto and grinds out, “Hello, Kushina.”
Naruto takes Kushina’s wrist gently in his and approximates a wave. “Kushina, say hello to…” He looks up at the boy. “What’s your name?”
The boy takes a breath. For a moment, Naruto thinks he won’t even answer. But then, he does.
“Kakashi,” he says, squaring his shoulders and trying to draw himself up. “My name is Uchiha Kakashi.”
The window in Naruto’s bedroom is wide enough that he can lean out and see the kids at play. They’re tumbling around on the grass by the small stream that winds around the eastern side of the house. It’s a stunning view. The house is situated on a hill, so he can see evergreens in a lush line, marking the boundaries of the property. There are horses grazing lazily on the fields, and further still, cows and sheep, being tended to by a herder with a fast-moving dog. Just beyond, Naruto can see the elegant peaks of one of the mountains, capped with a pristine white. So far north, the air is cool even at the peak of summer.
Onga, the servant, is chattering away excitedly about how much everyone had waited for Naruto’s arrival, how it’ll be good for Commander Uchiha— Commander , then, not a lord—to have a young child in the house again, to have a partner to brighten the day. Naruto learns from Onga that Uchiha Sasuke has been widowed for four years now, and that he is rarely home these days due to the skirmishes further north.
But for all her chatter, Naruto can’t pay much attention to her words. Kakashi, the boy called himself. It’s a rare name, and Naruto doesn’t believe in coincidences.
“Would you like me to draw up a bath, Master Naruto?”
Naruto blinks away from the children below. He could ask Onga, but he doesn’t know yet if he can trust her with such a question. “Yes, please,” he says with a smile. “I’ll give Kushina a bath first, though.”
Onga’s eyes flit over briefly to Kushina. “You’ve been giving her powdered milk?”
He’d packed all the supplies for Kushina so obsessively that he has an excess of food, cloth diapers, and clothes for her. He barely bought anything for himself just to make room for her things. “Yes, I’ll need some boiled water and—”
“We can get you a wet nurse, if you’d like,” Onga interrupts politely. She gives Naruto a smile.
In Konohagakure, to preserve the dignity of the surrogate, Kushina’s birth had been anonymous. The surrogate had also been anonymous, because knowledge of her identity would have marked her as the mother to the next demon-vessel. There are some superstitions that even Kakashi’s love and protection will not erase because Naruto’s curse has been written into the scriptures. The priests read it aloud in mass.
The northerners, though, don’t follow the same traditions or religion. Maybe—“She won’t mind?”
Onga angles her head curiously. A frown appears between her brows. “Why would she?”
He hates saying the words aloud, but he will when he’s hard-pressed. “Kushina is a jinchuuruki. Like me.”
Onga’s expression doesn’t change. “Oh. I hadn’t—” She stops, abrupt, flushing a deep red now.
For all their differences in the north and the south, they apparently have this in common: hatred for demons. There is no way for her to withdraw her offer without seeming impolite, so Naruto spares her the effort. “Boiled water, please. I have some bottles in my things. If you could have them washed, also with boiling water. And for her bath, some lukewarm water and soap that will be gentle for her skin.”
“Of course,” Onga says. She dips her head politely and leaves the room, closing the wooden door behind her gently.
Naruto walks to Kushina’s crib—Yaese’s old crib—set against the far wall of the room. She’s kicking at the air idly and smiles when he comes into view. In Konohagakure, she would have grown up secure with the love of everyone around her. She may have been jinchuuruki, but Kakashi loves her dearly. So do Jiriaya and Tsunade. Sakura’s eyes were bright with tears when she handed her away to Naruto before he left for his journey. Here, she will have to be introduced into society as a jinchuuruki. He doesn’t want her to live through what he did those first few years of his life when it was just him and his mother, without Kakashi’s name and love to protect him: people crossing the street, mothers shielding their own children from Naruto.
Kakashi had forced his will on the clans, had told them, This is my son . Naruto didn’t have any friends until he was six years old, but after that, he was always with Sakura and his friends. Kushina would have grown up with Sarada for a cousin, a family. She would have had friends.
And now? What sway does Naruto have in this strange land to ensure that Kushina has a happy childhood?
The goddamn Uchiha bastard, Naruto think. And Orochimaru, too. The least they could do was prepare the village for their arrival.
“It’s all right, baby,” Naruto promises Kushina. “Us Uzumakis always stick together.”
It is all right—for the first seven months.
Uchiha Sasuke is missing in action, so Naruto has free reign of the house. He gets to know all five servants, who are a family that lives on Sasuke’s property—Onga, and her husband, Ichiro, the cook, manage the properties. Their niece, Nohine, helps Onga, while their daughter, Ichinohe, runs the stables. Their son, Misai, is the shepherd. They all live in a house fifty yards from the stables. Only Onga and Nohine can speak southern tongue, and they act as translators for Naruto as he becomes familiar with the household, the land, and the finances, and gets to work putting things in order because apparently, for all his battle prowess, Uchiha Sasuke is a goddamn idiot.
They’re hemorrhaging money for no reason, there are major repairs needed for the house and the stables, there is no single person designated in taking care of the children. No one was given any orders. Apparently, the man just saddled up for war in his armor, and thundered off to put down yet another uprising in the north without so much as a by your leave. None of the servants have even been paid yet; they are used to the Uchiha’s disappearing act so they have no issues continuing to live on the vast properties until Uchiha returns. He always pays, and in the meantime, Onga has somehow been managing with the profits from the sheep and cows they raise.
The day after he arrives, Naruto rolls up his sleeves and begins work. Kakashi was training him to be a Kage’s advisor—he knows how to balance a budget for a nation and make sure the troops are well supplied. He knows how to ride into battle and assess the field. He led platoons under Kakashi’s orders. The messy finances and disorder of a single household are easy by comparison.
He pays the staff first, and then has a long, detailed conversation with Misai—with her cousin Nohine acting as translator—about their herd. He barters off some of the sheep and cows at such a hard price that the herder’s eyes widen in disbelief at the final amount that Naruto negotiates. Then, Naruto buys pigs and chicken because they have the land and manpower to be self-sustaining, but they still are forced to negotiate at market prices because, apparently, Uchiha Sasuke never thought to flush out the animal holdings on his land. He spends far too much money on horses, and not enough on livestock, and now they have a stable with six steads, while a single herder is tasked with pulling in the only profits the land is making.
“Unacceptable,” Naruto says, and sells two of the mares in the stable—last-minute, vanity purchases by the Uchiha before he left for war; they’re not even warhorses, just pretty show mares—while the Ichinohe looks on in awe and disbelief. She is sad to see the mares go, but she is grateful for the lessened work.
The house itself is in worse disrepair than Naruto imagined. He does not have the funds to order construction, so he bundles Kushina up in her crib, and gets down on his hands and knees to help Onga and Nohine clean the place up. Kushina will be crawling soon; he will not tolerate a floor so dirty for his child. If his daughter is to live here—if all his children, six of them now are to live here—then he will try to make this place as close to the home he grew up in.
The houses in the north are nothing like the open, wide spaces of the mansions Naruto grew up in. The walls are lined with drapes to keep the warmth in. Even the beds are different, set close to hearths and surrounded by canopy to trap the heat in during the winter. The rooms have no furnishings besides beds and a small iron stove or hearth.
The children spend all their hours outside, as they should, but Naruto tries to imagine them trapped inside during the cold northern winters and hates it. So he sells off all the draperies because there is no rhyme or reason to how they were chosen; Onga tells him that Uchiha just barked at the merchant to give him enough, and didn’t bother to find out which. In a fit of pique, Naruto even sells off the furniture. He sells the dining table that once clearly belonged in the barracks (it did, Onga confirms; once, before he became commander, Uchiha Sasuke was too poor to afford his own furniture so he borrowed liberally from the barracks), and he sells most of the chairs and all the children’s beds. He even sells some of the kitchenware because the cook gets wind of his massive restructuring of the household and arrives with a list of his own grievances.
After he finishes selling out most of the house’s belongings, he sets off to the village center with Nohine and the children. After just two months of organization and selling, the household finances are robust enough that he can afford to splurge on their rooms and buy them beds large enough for them to grow into. The children have warmed enough to him that they are eager for the trip to the market. Kakashi took the longest to woo, but he came around eventually, and only because Itachi and Shisui dared him to climb an evergreen tree. He fell and dislocated his shoulder, and when Naruto called the doctor to have it reset, Kakashi had sobbed quietly into his chest while Naruto held him close. After that, he has started to listen to Naruto and even seeks out his presence when he’s bored.
Then again, he is just eight, a child, and although he carries himself as if trying to mimic an adult, Naruto learned early on that he only does so because his father is so often gone. He thinks of himself as the leader of the other children—Itachi an even younger seven, Shisui six, and the twins Mikoto and Yaese just four—and they follow him around everywhere he goes. He has even taken Kushina under his wing, because when Kushina finally learned how to sit up, Naruto had overheard Kakashi say, solemn, “You will call me, Brother.” Kushina chewed contentedly at her fingers in response.
Without a proper caretaker, they have grown a little wild (Onga can only do so much, and they’re used to ordering her around), so after haircuts and strict enforcement of rules that they must shower every day and not arrive for meals covered from head to toe in mud, they start to look more like children and less like wild bandits.
They cannot afford tutors, and there is no schooling in session for the summer. So Naruto teaches them himself. It’s easy enough to recall his lessons, and he teaches them the children the way he was taught. It is a bit difficult to juggle all six children at once, but Nohine steps in to help him, and they manage between the two of them to hold lessons for a few hours every day before setting the children wild on the lands.
Nohine is close to Naruto’s age, so he spends most of his time with her. She teaches him a little of their language, usually when they’re both elbow-deep in the gardens outside the house. They plant flowers and blossoming cherry trees to line the path leading up to the house because when he’d rode in with Orochimaru, he hadn’t even realized he was approaching someone’s residence. The entire front yard is just patchy grass and mud, nothing to suggest, Home, like the cobbled front yard lined with flowers and potted plants in Naruto’s childhood residence.
Nohine is as patient with Naruto as she is with the children during their lessons. When he asks questions—about their religion, their language, their culture, their ways—she answers them as patiently. The most important thing that Naruto learns is this:
“The whole village?” Naruto demands.
“The whole village,” Nohine answers. “Most of the people here are nomads still. Every few seasons, we will move to find better land. Otherwise, we would suck the earth dry.”
Naruto still cannot comprehend a village moving. Otogakure is not nearly as big as Konoha—with its thousands of inhabitants—but there at least a few hundred people here. Moving them all would require such effort and care. “When did you last move? When will you—when will we move again?”
“Soon,” Nohine answers, as if it’s not of great concern.
“Why would Orochimaru—” Naruto stops talking, abrupt. He trusts Nohine, but he is Kakashi’s son. He was raised amid politics with a healthy dose of paranoia and self-preservation. And besides, it doesn’t take a genius to understand why Orochimaru would move his village so frequently. He is besieged on all sides by enemies. He can trust no one. For all its defensive strengths, the valley is also susceptible to siege; he cannot watch all the passes, his defenses are stretched thin as it is, which leaves him open to attack from one of the unwatched passes.
Nohine glances up at Naruto from her task of digging trenches with her spade to plant a row of beans. Like all the northerners, she is pale and dark-haired. The smudge of dirt on her skin is stark, but she is still beautiful. She reminds Naruto of Tenten. “You seem most concerned with village politics and law instead of other things.”
“What else would concern me?” Naruto mutters under his breath. He rests back on his heels and considers the gardens. It looks peaceful now with the addition of flowers and trees. It looks like a home, not just a patch of grass in front of a forgotten, ramshackle building. Two days ago, Naruto, Nohine, and the children had bent bamboo shoots into arches and tied them together to line the path leading to the front door. It had been a fun activity for all of them, a chance for Naruto to teach the children about tying different knots, the strength of the bamboo wood and its many uses—as a splint for broken bones, as a weapon if hollow and loaded with a needle, and as a practice sword. They have spent hours on this garden, and one day, they will have to abandon it and leave.
“Other things,” Nohine answers with a sly smile.
Naruto flushes at her suggestion. This is the other thing about northerners. They have no sense of propriety. They talk openly about…things. All things. Less than a week after they had met, Nohine had asked him bluntly if he had lain with a woman to conceive Kushina, or if it had been done in the manner of breeding prized stallions—just the seed and a womb to carry the child to term. Naruto had stuttered out, I didn’t know the mother, and Nohine hadn’t batted an eyelash at his discomfort. Instead, she had asked him an even more personal question: Onga let slip you were a jinchuuruki. You’re untouched because of your curse?
Naruto didn’t know how to answer her question, so he’d kept his silence. Here she is, trying to bring up the topic again. Naruto has learned that she is exceedingly persistent, so he goes back to the task of planting their vegetable garden. He’s hoping Nohine will let the topic drop, but she doesn’t.
“Do you have any questions about your wedding night when Sasuke returns?” she asks.
They call him by his first name, because he is just a soldier, not Lord like Kakashi or Orochimaru. “There won’t be a wedding night,” Naruto points out mildly, “once he finds out that I’m jinchuuruki.”
“Once he sees you,” Nohine counters, “he’ll want to consummate the marriage.”
Naruto feels his neck get hot. “He won’t—”
“Oil,” Nohine interrupts neatly, and reaches into her pant pockets to withdraw a small vial. She places it between them on the ground. “Use your fingers so you can become familiar with it. Use as much oil as you need, and then use more. It will be uncomfortable at first, but for men, it is pleasurable. That’s what Sasuke will want, when he sees you.” She pauses a beat and tilts her head, considering Naruto carefully. “I imagine that’s what most men want when they see you. That, or your mouth. I can teach you that another day.”
Naruto’s mouth drops open. Sakura is a medic and she’s never said such explicit things to him. “Excuse me?”
“It should be pleasurable for you too,” Nohine says, smiling at him now. “It will be. I’ll teach you how.”
“I don’t need—”
“Yes, you do,” Nohine answers, getting to her feet. She dusts her hands and then her pants. “I’ll get lunch ready for the children. Do you want me to bring Kushina to you?”
“I’ll go to her myself,” Naruto bites out, and Nohine walks away with a smile, ignoring his anger entirely. For a moment, Naruto stares at the vial. It is made of blown glass, the deep brown-yellow of it glimmering in the overhead sun. He thinks about burying it in the ground so he doesn’t have to look at it anymore, but then he hears Shisui’s and Itachi’s combined yelling, Naruto! Naruto! Look at what we found! And he pockets it hurriedly, just in time for Shisui and Itachi to come bounding towards him, holding two monstrous toads in their hands. It’s easy to forget about Nohine and the vial in his pocket after that.
Throughout summer and early fall, dinner every night is at a table Naruto had set in the backyard so they can enjoy the cool summer nights by a fire, with lanterns strung up all around them while the children trip over each other and themselves to tell Naruto what, exactly, they learned that day. Naruto listens, patient. They now have enough money to hire tutors, and even though the tutors report back to him every week, he likes hearing the wonder in Shisui’s voice when he talks about how accurate his archery is getting or Kakashi’s serious recital of lessons to show Naruto how far he’s advanced.
He tucks Kushina into bed every night, so he does the same for the other children. Mikoto lets him bundle her into her arms and kiss her goodnight, and Yaese always murmurs back, “G’night” before nodding right off into sleep. Shisui is almost impossible to settle down because he is full of questions and energy, and one of more story? But he always listens when Naruto promises, Close your eyes, you’ll fall asleep before you know it, and does just that. Itachi frowns at being babied, but relents and even requests, I don’t like having the blankets tucked up to my shoulders. Eventually, Kakashi lets Naruto kiss him goodnight instead of covering his face with the blankets to signal his desire to be left alone. Naruto persists with Kakashi despite weeks of sullen silence because he reminds Naruto of his Kakashi, something about the way the boy slouches or pouts or holds his silences.
The children are easy to fall in love with, and Naruto realizes that for all the truths that Kushina spoke to him, she was wrong about one thing: he didn’t find just one love of his life, but six of them. He wakes up on rainy mornings to Mikoto and Yaese crawling into bed, Shisui joining a few moments later to complain, Do we have to have our lessons today with all this rain? Itachi and Kakashi eventually join them, and they doze together in a pile of limbs. Then, they have breakfasts together, and Kakashi will slump against his side and sulk at having to wake up at all while Shisui waits patiently for Naruto to peel a grapefruit and hand section after section for him.
On really beautiful days, when the weather is just perfect, Naruto will ride out with all the children and Nohine to survey the land and picnic out on the far hills of the property, so far that the house is just a distant speck. But summer quickly turns to fall, and then winter sets in, and with it the unrelenting storms.
It’s on the first of these winter storms, seven months after Naruto’s arrival in July, that Uchiha Sasuke returns.
Chapter 3: Sasuke
Orochimaru talks and talks and talks. He talks endlessly—praising the men for their victory, promising rewards in proportion to their sacrifices and bravery, offering them his faith and loyalty as they had offered it to him. It is a speech of empty gestures and meaningless grandstanding. Even Jugo, with his unshakeable patience, starts to look pinched around the eyes as the minutes tick by. By the time Orochimaru finishes talking, the sun has set, and Sasuke is so hungry he thinks he could hunt and eat an entire wild boar by himself. He’s about to slip out of the room when Orochimaru calls out his name.
Sasuke is expecting more inane praise—the ingratiating kind that Orochimaru deals in. He has a way with words, but Sasuke hates the sound of his voice. It makes his fingers witch for a sword. His disgust for Orochimaru’s voice is so deep that it features significantly in his reports back to Kakashi. In fact, Sasuke’s hatred for Orochimaru’s is so intense that Shikamaru hates it, because the man is tasked with transmitting Sasuke’s message to Kakashi. I ride all the way from Konohagakure to meet your troublesome ass, Uchiha, he always says, and all I hear is the sound of Orochimaru’s goddamn voice. Then, Shikamaru buys Sasuke a drink and they commiserate together about their lives as undercover agents. Gods-fucking-damned troublesome, is what it is.
But today, there is no praise. Instead, there is advice. Marital advice—galling, coming from the man who orchestrated Sasuke falling in love with an Otogakure spy, and then ordering the spy to kill Sasuke in his sleep while the twins were sleeping in their crib next to them. “You’ll go home tonight to find that your bed has been warmed for you,” Orochimaru says with a smile.
Sasuke grits his teeth. Uzumaki Naruto. Kakashi’s son. Sent here as part of an allegiance. When he had his rendezvous with Shikamaru three months ago, the man had arrived with letter from Kakashi, the contents of which were mostly threats to Sasuke’s person if Naruto were to experience even the slightest bit of inconvenience. The marriage was one of convenience and necessity; Kakashi made it extremely clear that Sasuke’s role would be as Naruto’s protective detail. Then, he would send Naruto back to Konohagakure when the situation with Orochimaru came to a head. An annulment of the marriage would shortly follow, easily acquired from the priests—left unsaid was why the priests would guarantee a divorce so easily. Because this isn’t a marriage. This is part of Sasuke’s mission, one that Naruto need not know. Kakashi wants to preserve the integrity of Sasuke’s undercover work and to spare Naruto the sadness of a sham marriage.
He will bear no fault in this, the letter read. Give him cause to leave you.
His children are the apples of his eye, Shikamaru had muttered when Sasuke finished reading it, honest like he always is with Sasuke. They’ve developed an unlikely friendship over the years. Sasuke’s previous contacts had been men and women without personality, but Shikamaru is so adamant in who he is that Sasuke has no choice but to admire the man.
What kind of father would lie to his son like this, Sasuke wants to ask, but he keeps his mouth shut. Kakashi was forced to trade his beloved child for a short-term war with Iwagakure and a longer-term war with Otogakure. The plan is to strike when Otogakure is down, depleted after the civil war that will no doubt boil over any day now. But the war with Iwagakure drags, and Kakashi needed men. Fighting men.
Two birds with one stone , Shikamaru had explained to him when this plan was laid out. Kakashi gains 300 men, every single one of whom will grumble for having to fight in a war that wasn’t their own, ordered by a warlord that none of them particularly liked. Meanwhile, Sasuke’s and Shikamaru’s jobs are to ease a path to a civil war: Sasuke from inside Orochimaru’s inner circle by delivering repeated and brutal victories in Orochimaru’s name, and Shikamaru by circling Otogakure like a hawk and rallying the murmured unhappiness of the defeated tribes into a unified resistance.
Sasuke’s job is bloody. He makes sure the victories he delivers to Orochimaru are disproportionate in their brutality on both sides. Orochimaru wins, but Sasuke makes minute errors in his field plans—errors that a warlord like Kakashi would spot right away, but invisible to someone as arrogant as Orochimaru. Shikamaru works from the outside armed with Sasuke’s information, organizing the countering tribes so they will never lose. The war drags on.
It has been an endless shitshow since Kakashi first sent him north ten years ago. Because his family originally hails from the north, because he speaks the language, because he prays to the same gods.
Because he wanted to prove himself to the man who taught him how to hold a sword after his father’s death, how to cook a meal in his mother’s absence. He wanted to win a war for Kakashi, complete the mission.
Apparently, the mission now included Kakashi’s son.
Sasuke has seen Uzumaki Naruto once, when he was twenty-four. He had just received his orders to march north and join Orochimaru’s growing ranks as an undercover agent. As he was leaving Kakashi’s offices, he ran into Naruto, who was trying to wrestle into control a massive beast of a dog that he called, Akamaru . The dog had advanced on Sasuke, tail wagging in its curiosity, and it dragged Naruto bodily with him as he went because Naruto was just a slip of a thing—all bones, high cheekbones, wide, blue eyes with thick lashes, and plump lips. A teenager. It was obvious in the high flush to his cheeks, the dewy glow to his skin.
Sasuke had noticed Naruto. It would be hard to find a man who wouldn’t notice Naruto. But Naruto hadn’t noticed him—barely even glanced at him—because Kakashi had called out, Naruto, what are you doing with Akamaru? And Naruto had dragged Akamaru inside, saying, Kiba needed me to watch him for a few days, Baba. I know Akamaru makes you sneeze, but I’ll make sure he stays outside and—
The door closed behind him, and that is all Sasuke knows of the man he married. Apparently, that boy is now warming his bed. He is now old enough to warm Sasuke’s bed.
There was a line in Kakashi’s letter that very expressly forbade Sasuke from taking advantage of the situation. If you lay a finger on my son, Kakashi had written in a looping scrawl, I will hunt you down and strip your bones of skin and meat. Shikamaru had assured him that he had been present when Kakashi wrote the letter; the man was not bluffing about the skinning. Sasuke’s job is to make himself unlikeable. Cheat, lie, make it clear from the start that there is no marriage to be had here. Kakashi even forbade him from showing up at the wedding.
“How was the wedding?” Sasuke asks.
Orochimaru smiles, but there is no warmth in his eyes. “Pity you weren’t there. He looked lovely in his wedding robes. Though you kept him waiting at the altar.”
Sasuke waves aside Orochimaru’s unsaid displeasure. “You got the allegiance you wanted. The men the Hokage wants are already marching south. It didn’t matter if I was there or not.”
“He’s a jinchuuruki,” Orochimaru continues, as if Sasuke hadn’t spoken at all. “But I am guessing that once you see him you will wish to...” He trails off, as if considering his words. “You will wish to ignore the superstitions surrounding demon vessels. He already has a child, a daughter, Kushina. So his bloodline is secured. And since there is no issue of accidentally conceiving any other children to compromise the transfer of the demon, I am guessing you will want to claim your rights as husband and—”
“Is there a point to this conversation?” Sasuke interrupts. It takes considerable effort for him to keep his voice steady.
“My sources inside the Village tell me that Kakashi is a doting father to his children,” Orochimaru counters neatly.
Sources inside the Village. Sasuke has spent the past three years trying to figure out these sources inside Konohagakure. He has nothing, and so he lingers in this goddamn city where he had to strangle his own wife to death while their children slept next to them—face wet, and chest heaving with quiet sobs as he did, because he had known Emica was a spy, had known in his heart and in his bones, but he loved her so. He thought Emica loved him too, loved their children enough to stay her hand, but the moment Sasuke gathered the courage to ask her to leave with him, to escape to Konohagakure, Emica had drawn a sword and pressed it to his throat, hissed, Traitor . He’d activated his Mangekyou that night.
Sasuke would burn this whole goddamn world down, if only to end the constant spying and wars. He just rode back from a seven-month campaign in the deep cold tundra of the north, and here he is, getting marriage advice from the man who ordered Sasuke’s wife to kill him. The same man who sat with Sasuke at the funeral and tutted sympathy about mental health and well-being. The official story was a mother lost in a haze after birth, trying to murder her own children. It had been known to happen before.
Sasuke killed Emica the same night he asked her to escape to Konohagakure, the same night she made him for a spy, and the very same night she tried to kill him. Emica was either ordered to seduce Sasuke into love and then marriage and children, or Orochimaru turned her against Sasuke after their wedded bliss. Sasuke can’t be sure. The man spies on all his men, even his closest advisors. He had been careful not to reveal his cover identity to Emica until that night he asked her to run away. He doesn’t know how much Emica suspected, how much she reported to Orochimaru. He doesn't know whether Orochimaru knows Kakashi’s endgame and he’s playing along by sending 300 men south. What does Orochimaru mean when he says, Kakashi is a doting father to his children? A flippant remark? A threat that he wants Sasuke to pass on to Kakashi? Does he mean to say, I have your most precious thing in the world, your son and granddaughter?
“Fathers are known to dote on their children,” Sasuke agrees with a shrug.
“He is Hatake Kakashi’s only son, the apple of his eye,” Orochimaru continues. “So I ask you to be considerate.”
Shikamaru had said the same words. Apple of his eye. Could be a coincidence, but unlikely. It’s a common turn of phrase in the southern tongue; northerners do not use the idiom. Sasuke spent the first year of his mission relearning to sound, speak, and act like a northerner who has never set foot in the south. He has spent so much time in the north that he is a northerner. It isn’t difficult for him to feign mild confusion. “He’s Hatake Kakashi’s apple?”
Orochimaru laughs. “It means Naruto is cherished by his father,” he explains, leading Sasuke towards the door with a hand around his shoulder. “It means that the boy was pampered and coddled. Even though he was a jinchuuruki, he was raised in extreme wealth, with all the privileges and authority of a Kage’s son. So mind your manners, Sasuke.”
Sasuke grits his teeth at the reprimand. He had climbed his way up the ranks of Orochimaru’s mercenary army at twenty-five, a fully grown man. But Orochimaru thinks that he is Sasuke’s teacher, a benefactor of some kind. He thinks he has the right to scold Sasuke on his manners and give him marital advice. “Why wouldn’t I mind my manners?”
Orochimaru holds the door open. Outside, the wind has whipped up a howling blanket of white snow and ice. “Most men would be hard-pressed to mind their manners around the jinchuuruki,” Orochimaru purrs. “The mouth on him, alone.”
Sasuke busies himself with pulling his cloak tighter around him. It’s either that, or slit the man’s throat for the disrespect. “Duly noted,” Sasuke mutters, nonchalant, and steps out into the cold.
He lives far from the town center for a reason. He wants his children as far from Orochimaru’s malicious orbit as possible. But on nights like these, he wonders what possessed him to live so far away from the warm huddle of tents and houses around the town square. It takes him the better part of an hour to cross a distance that would normally take twenty minutes, and by then, he’s chilled and soaked to the bone. It’s far too late to wake Ichinohe, so he puts his mare, Koban, into the stables himself. There are two empty stalls, so thoroughly cleaned out it’s as if they haven’t seen a horse in years, though he distinctly remembers two mares he bought filling the spaces. Were they taken to the healer’s stables? The detail is odd enough that he lingers in the stables, checking on all his other horses, making sure they are healthy and well cared for.
There’s other small changes. Trees in his front yard, draped heavily with snow. A pole with a lantern, muted under the haze of drifting snow but still blazing brightly. There’s even a path leading up to the front door, recently cleaned judging by the relatively low pile-up of now. He digs his boot into the snow and is stunned to find flat stones underneath. There are also bamboo shoots defining the path up to the house.
Maybe Onga hired someone new to fix-up the house? He’s been away for seven months. It’s not unlikely. He’s mulling over where Onga even get the money to fix-up the house—he can’t even remember if he paid them before he left—when he enters the house. It looks different. For one thing, the front door has been painted a cheerful—
Sasuke squints in the darkness. Impossible, he thinks. Who would paint a door orange? But then he steps inside, shuts the door behind him and finds that yes, the inside is that same atrocious orange.
Someone painted his front door orange.
When he steps into the feast hall—a room not even large enough to earn the name hall —he finds that there are more changes. The table is new, more proportionate to the size of the room. Before, they barely had enough space for all the chairs. The drapes on the walls around the feast hall are now wheat-cream with subdued stitching in blue and gold; he remembers they were brown or maybe dark blue. The room looks wider and brighter than he remembers it. The kitchen is gleaming. There are freshly scrubbed pots and pans by the large stone oven.
The pantry is stocked, so Sasuke helps himself to an apple, some cheese, and bread to munch on while he tours the house. The main living space is lined with rich, comfortable looking furs. There are new seating arrangements, arranged near the fireplace in a cozy semi-circle. There is a corner with toys. A smaller table piled high with children’s school books, drawings, clay figurines, hand paintings.
The children are asleep in their beds, and their rooms are also changed. Kakashi, Itachi, and Shisui have been moved to the larger room that once used to function as both Kakashi’s bedroom and a place to store things that did not have a place elsewhere in the house like spare armor, odds and ends that the children have accrued over the years, and old clothes that needed mending but were forgotten. Now, the room has been cleaned out of junk. In the center of the room is a plush, fur rug to protect the children’s feet from the cold hardwood. The children’s beds have been arranged against each wall, and with large colored drapings overhead to give them privacy. Sasuke notices that the drapes are in each of the children’s favorite colors: deep blue for Kakashi, moss green for Shisui, and goldenrod yellow for Itachi. It looks spacious despite having three boys, and they’re all tucked under fresh furs.
Kakashi has grown while he was away. So have Shisui and Itachi. Their faces are puffy and warm from sleep, and when Sasuke readjusts the fur over Shisui’s small frame, he shifts and huffs out his cheeks before going right back to sleep. His hair is shorter than how he usually keeps it, which makes his face seem somehow smaller and younger than when Sasuke last saw him seven months ago. He’d missed all three of their birthdays while he was away. Someday, Sasuke’s undercover mission will end and he can take his children back south. They will be safe and secure, and Sasuke will have no reason to miss their birthdays again.
Sasuke adds logs to the fire in their hearth, checks that the windows are properly secured, and then moves to room with the twins. They’re in their beds as well, much larger than Sasuke last saw them. Mikoto has a bandage wrapped around two of her fingers, but when Sasuke checks, it doesn’t seem to be broken. There are braided wreaths of evergreen over both their beds. He hasn’t seen an evergreen wreath since he left Konohagakure, and he freezes at the sight. The last time there had been wreaths in this house, Emica had been alive.
There are four rooms in the house. Sasuke lingers over the third, the smallest room in the house and the closest to the room where he usually sleeps. Naruto has a daughter.
He treads quietly in the room, and finds a crib set to a side. There is a chair in another corner, comfortable enough to sit and feed a baby. The child is in her crib, bundled under furs and sleeping the sleep of babies: hands clenched into small fists, mouth slightly open, breathing quietly and rhythmically. When Sasuke bends over her crib, he can smell the scent that all babies have—milky and sweet. She has a poorly but lovingly knit hat on her head. The hat has a pig snout stitched onto it, along with pig ears. It’s ludicrous, but Sasuke can’t help but smile and reach down to place a finger on the child’s lightly clasped fist. Her entire hand is the size of Sasuke’s thumb. She can’t even be a year old.
“Step away from her,” a voice says from behind him in southern tongue. Sasuke hears the telltale sound of a knife being drawn from its sheath. He puts up both hands and turns carefully to face the voice and sees—
Uzumaki Naruto, eyes so blue that even in the low firelight from the hearth in the room, they’re bright. He’s grown into his fey beauty. There’s a length to him now, a grace and elegance. Those lips, though, are still as plump and round as when Sasuke first saw him. His hair is tousled from sleep, but it still falls across his forehead elegantly as if he’d placed it there to accentuate the high cut of his cheekbones and the perfect, smooth angle of his jaw.
And apparently, talkative. He’s still whispering a low string of commands and threats at Sasuke in the southern tongue, telling him to step away from the crib, to identify himself, to get on his goddamn knees and put his hands behind his head—
“Oh my God,” Naruto breathes, interrupting the torrent of his own words. “Do you even understand a word that is coming out of my mouth?”
Sasuke is about to say, My name is Uchiha Sasuke and disabuse Naruto of the notion that he can’t understand his language, but Naruto is beating him to it.
“Oh, wait a minute, it’s you! They said you’d finished your campaign and were riding south,” He whispers, stabbing his knife at Sasuke. He’s holding a throwing dagger in each hand. He seems familiar with them. The best thing to do is for Sasuke to make no sudden movements. “You’re Uchiha Sasuke!”
Sasuke nods. Yes, and I mean no harm to your daughter, is what he opens his mouth to say, but Naruto is still talking .
“—paranoid. Stuck out here in unknown territory with a strange man tiptoeing around my children’s rooms,” he’s saying, twirling his throwing knives expertly between his fingers so they’re no longer pointing at Sasuke.
My children, as in, all six of them, including Sasuke’s children. Naruto spent seven months thinking that this was, in fact, a marriage and so he cared for Sasuke’s children like his own. Which, techncially, they are.
Sasuke is formulating something to say that is appropriately mean, dismissive, and quick to sever any connections that Naruto is even thinking about forming with his children, but Naruto is suddenly walking towards him. Naruto peers into his daughter’s crib to fuss unnecessarily with her hat, the furs thrown over her, even the corner of the bedding, all the while talking. “—lucky you got here now and not six months sooner. She got the colic, and Shisui didn’t get a wink of sleep, the poor baby. He was miserable, and then he came down with a cold, and—”
Naruto blinks up at Sasuke. “I’m talking to you and you’re not understanding any of it, are you?”
Now’s your chance, Sasuke tells himself, and opens his mouth—
“My name is Uzumaki Naruto,” Naruto says slowly, pointing to himself as he speaks his name. “We’re married. Welcome home.” He then points to the ground, at Sasuke’s boots. “Do you mind taking off your wet clothes? You’re dripping all over the rug, and I don’t want cold feet when I wake up to feed her in a few hours.”
Of course, Sasuke is about to say, but he’s not fast enough.
“Shoes,” Naruto enunciates, pointing at his boots. “Off, please. My house, my rules.”
And just like that, Sasuke’s good will evaporates.
His house? His fucking rules?
Sasuke built it, brick by goddamn brick. It took him a full summer, with Suigetsu’s and Jugo’s help. With each child, he added a new room. He built it for his wife and his children. When he had enough money, he built the stables. When he saved even more from his conquests for Orochimaru, he helped Ichiro and his family build a house for themselves on the property. He cut down the trees behind the house to expand the land, and he built this land, every inch of it. He’s not particularly wedded to this land, and he’s not sentimental about it. But it’s Sasuke’s goddamn house.
And this pampered, southern aristocrat who had his entire life handed to him on a silver goddamn platter throws on a few new drapes on the walls and considers it his own.
“Shoes,” Naruto repeats, looking annoyed now. He points again to Sasuke’s shoes, and then indicates his own feet, clad in soft-looking moccasin. “Language barriers aside, I don’t know how to make this any simpler.”
Sasuke could open his mouth and end this stupid misunderstanding once and for all. But that would be far too easy for this pampered brat. So he rounds on his heels, and leaves the room, Naruto following close at his heels.
When Sasuke pushes open the door to his own room, he comes to a dead halt. If the changes to the children’s room was drastic, the changes to his own room leave him speechless. His room was his sanctuary. His place. But none of it remains. His perfectly operational bed has been replaced with a wide, luxurious, expansive bed with rich furs thrown over it. There are white drapes hanging from the ceiling to enclose the bed in a cocoon. There are rugs on the floor here too, soft and clean.
The corner of the room closest to the windows where he keeps his weaponry has been cleared out to make space for a comfortable looking seating place. There is a children’s book on the couch, and the space is piled with cushions and throws.
A goddamn couch. With pillows. And throws.
Sasuke grits his teeth and heads to the adjoining washroom. He feels his Mangekyou whorl to life at what he sees. Even the goddamn bathtub has been replaced.
“—water’s in there for my bath tomorrow, but feel free to use it,” Naruto is saying, pointing to the bathtub. “Water and logs, over there. I will leave you to it. I’ll make up the couch for you.”
The couch? Sasuke turns to say something, but Naruto is already shutting the door to the washroom.
“The fuck,” Sasuke mutters, and stays standing in the middle of the room, unsure of what to do with himself, for a full minute. Then, because it’s late and he’s tired, he starts to strip out of his clothes. There’s a thin layer of ice over the water, but he breaks it easily and starts to pile logs underneath the tub. It’s a simple katon to start the fire and within minutes, the water begins to warm. Usually, Nohine or Onga are at hand to take care of this for him and have it ready before Sasuke even steps foot into the washroom, but it’s not an effort for him to take care of it himself. Having servants is a relatively new thing in Sasuke’s life; he’s more used to doing things by himself.
He takes a long bath, sinking into the warm water and going still to just be for a while. He’s been on the road for months. This is the first real wash he has had, and so he makes the best of it. He clips his hair and trims his beard, and scrubs himself clean with the washcloth and soaps that have been laid out on a tray next to the bath. There are also some oils that are fragrant to smell, but Sasuke doesn’t know what to do with them, so he doesn’t touch those.
By the time he emerges from the room, Naruto is already asleep. He’s so hidden under the furs, that all Sasuke sees is his gold hair—even brighter in the flickering light of the newly replenished fire in the hearth. The bed is so massive that even though Naruto is spread out, there is enough space for two full adults next to him.
The couch, as he promised, has been laid out for him with throws and pillows. Naruto has also left out a pair of Sasuke’s clothes, neatly folded, on top of the couch. Sasuke almost joins Naruto in bed just to spite him, but no matter how great his irritation, he’s not the kind of man to sneak into the bed of someone who so clearly has said, No.
And besides, Shikamaru had assured him—with great seriousness—every single word Kakashi wrote in his letter was with intent.
So Sasuke settles on the couch, which is just long enough for him to fit, but too short for him to move comfortably.
Apparently, it will be very easy indeed to give Naruto cause to walk away from this marriage in the end. They just have to maintain this level of dislike until things come to a head and Naruto heads back south. Easier still, if Naruto continues to condescend to him like he’s a thick-skulled northerner. Sasuke would file for a fucking annulment this very moment if he could; no doubt, Naruto feels the same.
When he closes his eyes, sleep comes immediately.
He’s woken up by Shisui and Itachi yelling into his face. “Father!”
Kakashi is trying to pull Sasuke off the couch bodily by tugging on his hand, but Sasuke isn’t sure the purpose of his efforts given the difference in their sizes. Mikoto and Yaese are watching him carefully from behind Itachi and Shisui, eyes wide.
Sasuke frowns, and makes a great show of looking confused. “Who are you?”
“It’s us!” Shisui yells, jumping up and down now. “You’re back! When did you get back? How did—”
“Did you win?” Itachi asks. “Did you fight many bandits? Did you rescue any villages?”
“I lost a tooth!” Yaese yells, stepping into the fray, and Mikoto follows shortly after saying, she lost one, too. “See?” She says, and opens her mouth wide.
Sasuke peers into her mouth. “I see a missing tooth,” he admits, “But honestly, ma’am, I don’t know who you children are.”
This brings them all to a quiet standstill. “Maybe,” Itachi whispers, “he hit his head. And forgot.”
Sasuke sits up in the couch and nods. “I did hit my head,” he says, and points to a spot on his skull. “Right here.”
Mikoto gasps. She clutches at Kakashi. “What do we do, Brother?”
Sasuke holds up a finger, drawing all their attention. “There is a cure,” he promises them earnestly. He pauses a heartbeat. “I will regain my memories, if I eat a few children.”
Yaese’s mouth drops open. “That’s not true.”
“Oh yes,” Sasuke promises him. “It is.”
Mikoto and Yaese scream and laugh so loudly when he grabs for them that it makes Sasuke laugh, and then, Kakashi and Itachi are piling onto him, saying, Father, let go of them! Shisui is laughing too hard to do much of anything but roll on the ground, and then laugh even harder when Sasuke pretends to chew at his arm.
Sasuke’s first son was born unexpectedly. Sasuke was not supposed to have children while undercover, but after he’d written a shaky letter to Kakashi, explaining everything—he’d fallen in love, Emica had gotten pregnant, he wanted to marry her—he’d gotten a simple letter back from Kakashi:
Congratulations, Kakashi had written. I am happy for you.
Kakashi had taken Sasuke under his wing when he was just twelve, an orphan from the north, fleeing a massacred Clan in the wake of Orochimaru’s destruction. He was Sasuke’s teacher and mentor for eight years, and so when Sasuke broke every rule and every order he had ever received by siring a child while on a mission, Kakashi had simply written to offer him sanctuary. If you would like safe passage for you and your family, just give me the word, Sasuke. I will ride myself. They have a home here in Konohagakure.
Sasuke carefully prodded his wife about leaving Otogakure and his war behind to raise their children, but she refused. He asked her again after their second son was born, and then after the twins. By then, his suspicions had been raised, and so had hers. In the aftermath of her death, he’d written Kakashi again, told him, I compromised the mission. Please advise.
Kakashi had written back, I’m sorry for your loss. You can come home. If you need safe passage for your children, give me the word.
It was too dangerous for them to leave Otogakure. Orochimaru would have been suspicious, so Sasuke stayed. He stayed, and for all the hate he holds in his heart for Otogakure, he feels nothing but gratitude for the gift of his children.
They are bright and joyful and full of wonder. They look up at Sasuke with trusting eyes and a love so unconditional, Sasuke isn’t sure what he ever did to deserve it. He feels years and years of mud and dirt and sorrow being wiped away when he is with his children, because with them, he can roll around pretending to be a monster with amnesia who is craving the flesh of children to restore his forgotten memories and be happy doing just that and nothing else.
In the end, Sasuke lets the children pile on top of him on the floor. He makes a great, showy display of dying, dropping to his knees first when Kakashi jumps onto his back, and then onto all fours, and then flouncing onto the rugs with great, heaving groans, clutching at his heart. And then, he shudders to stillness.
“We have defeated the beast!” Itachi declares. “Lord Kakashi! How shall we celebrate this victory?”
“Spread the word across the land that we shall have a great feast,” Kakashi intones. “Lord Shisui! For your bravery, I honor you with this invisible sword of magic and…and power!”
Mikoto flops over Sasuke’s face theatrically. “I wanted the invisible sword of magic and power!”
“You get the shield of indestructible chakra fields,” Kakashi declares benevolently, and round he goes, bestowing prizes for everyone but himself. Sasuke notices Kakashi’s generosity with a smile. His son will be a good leader one day. He knows not to hoard the glory for himself.
He even bestows a gift to Kushina, who is watching the whole proceedings from the bed, next to Naruto. She’s not wearing her hat anymore, so Sasuke can see the red of her tight ringlets. And now that her eyes are open, he sees that she they’re the same brilliant blue as her father’s. She is beautiful; clearly her father’s daughter. “And you, Kushina, Queen of Bandits,” Kakashi says, placing both his hands on her head. He switches to the southern dialect when speaking to Kushina, which makes Sasuke smile wider still. “I declare you a true ally of the Band of Four.”
Sasuke lifts his head from the floor. “What do I get?”
“You’re still playing dead, Father,” Mikoto whispers into his ear, and presses two chubby hands over his eyes. Sasuke grips her wrist lightly and kisses both her hands, and then lifts her overhead to kiss her belly, just to hear her laugh. Before it can dissolve into another game, Naruto speaks up. “The children need to eat,” he announces loudly. Then, he turns to Kakashi and says, voice quieter as he brushes aside the hair from Kakashi’s forehead, “Baby, tell your father in your language that you need to eat breakfast.”
Sasuke lifts his head and almost asks, Baby? But Kakashi doesn’t look angry at the endearment. He doesn’t even bat an eye at being babied in front of the younger ones.
Kakashi gives Naruto a confused look, but does just that. He turns to Sasuke and dutifully translates. Then, he asks, “Do we have to speak to you two in different languages? Is this part of our lessons?”
Sasuke has to fight a smile. He wants to drag this out, just to rub Naruto’s face in it when the ruse is inevitably ruined. If Naruto insists on talking down to him, Sasuke has no intention of correcting him. “Yes,” he says. “Yes, it is. All of you have to translate whatever Naruto says to me. It’s practice. We’re going to pretend that Naruto and I can’t understand each other.”
Itachi frowns. “Is this because Naruto says we have to be polylingual?”
Shisui squats by Sasuke and says, earnest, “It’s part of our rounded education. Because the schools here are sub-par. We have tutors, too.”
Sasuke makes absolutely sure he doesn’t grimace at the gall—the absolute fucking gall—of Naruto to walk into Sasuke’s home, look at his children, and criticize how they are being raised. Instead, he says, “Sure.”
He pushes himself up to sit, and immediately, Yaese clambers onto his back, and tries to climb up to sit on his shoulders. Naturally, Mikoto decides to do the same. “I’m the most lingual, Father! The tutor says I am advanced. I can translate for you and Naruto!”
“Father,” Shisui says urgently. “Let’s go get breakfast!”
Sasuke peels Mikoto and Yaese off his body and tucks one each under his arm. “All aboard.” Kakashi clambers onto his father’s back, and then, Sasuke heaves himself to his feet. Itachi and Shisui latch themselves onto each of his legs. “Ready?”
They answer in unison. “Ready!”
Home, Sasuke thinks, and starts to walk with all his children in his arms.
But just as he’s about to step out the door with his children in tow, Shisui calls out, “Naruto! Kushina! It’s breakfast time!”
Naruto’s laugh is filled with warmth. “Everyone hold on tight while your father walks.”
Sasuke pauses to look over his shoulder, Mangekyou whorling. He almost says, I can look after my children just fine, thank you, but Mikoto interrupts by saying, “Wrong way, Father! That way! That way!” So Sasuke turns away from Naruto and starts to walk.
The annulment, he thinks, can't come soon enough.
Chapter 4: Naruto
Nohine and Sasuke are intimate. There is no other explanation for the whispered conversations, the smiles, and the laughter they’re sharing. Naruto didn’t notice it at first, but he sees it now. Sasuke has been back for several weeks, and with each passing week, Nohine’s laughter whenever she sees Naruto becomes louder. Once, when Naruto was asking her to translate to Sasuke that Naruto would punch him in his stupid, smug face if he wasted another penny on another show horse, Nohine had burst out laughing for so long that she had to wipe tears from her eyes before she could deliver the message to Sasuke.
It’s not that Naruto cares if Sasuke is sleeping with Nohine. He doesn’t. What hurts more is Nohine’s actions. He thought they were friends, at least. Aside from the children, he doesn’t know anyone in the north except for Onga, Nohine, Ichiro, Ichinohe, and Misai. They’re Naruto’s neighbors, and they work for him. They share meals together. And out of all of them, Naruto spends the most time with Nohine. For her to laugh at him while she carries on with Sasuke is what hurts most, not that she is doing it in the first place.
Naruto doesn’t care what Sasuke does, or who he does it with. The man is a good father to the children; that’s all that Naruto cares about. Still, he has a disastrous grasp on basic household finances and is always on the verge of sinking them into bankruptcy over one reckless purchase or another. The man once returned from the market with a cart loaded with all the supplies to brew beer. Naruto had threatened him with a knife (and Nohine, laughing at his side) to return the supplies for a reasonable price because, goddamn it , I have six children to raise, and I intend to get them tutors for the entire year, so help me, I will kill you if you make me write my father for money.
It’s easy to overlook all of Sasuke’s faults—his sullenness, his silence, his stupid, smug, smirking bastard face—because he adores the children.
Naruto had noticed that Sasuke was avoiding Kushina at first. He had been angry, but then he realized that maybe Sasuke was waiting for permission of some kind. So he deposited Kushina in Sasuke’s lap one morning and refused to take Kushina back for the remainder of the day while he went about taking care of the children and the household matters. He even forbade Nohine from helping Sasuke with Kushina.
After two diaper changes, Sasuke stopped treating Kushina like an explosive device. After three hours of playtime and lunch convincing Kushina to eat her food, he was more than happy to take a nap with Kushina. Naruto had walked in on them both sprawled out on the couch: Kushina on her belly and held up against Sasuke’s chest. He had one hand on her back, holding her in place. They were both drooling.
Sasuke can play with all the children for hours. Naruto will leave the children with Sasuke to go into town and settle Sasuke’s various debts and negotiate with creditors, and he’ll return several hours later to find that Sasuke is still at play with them. He has watched Sasuke take the children sledding, and build snowmen with them. He lets Mikoto braid ribbons into his hair and walks around with the ribbons all day, just to see her smile. He makes faces at Kushina and blows raspberries into her tummy. Naruto doesn’t understand his language, but he identifies enough of his babbling with Kushina to understand that he has given her a nickname: Kuki . Before long, all the children are calling her Kuki, and one day, Naruto realizes that he’s calling her Kuki, too. She responds every time he does.
If he’s not playing with the children, he’s teaching them horse riding or taijutsu or ninjutsu. He is as firm and disciplined in these lessons as he is playful when they’re not training. He has Kakashi practicing with bows and arrows, and whisks him away to the village center to measure him for a practice sword. Sometimes, he’ll sit Kakashi or Itachi down and talk to them in low, serious voice. They listen to him intently and always walk away with somber faces. Once, Naruto had pulled Itachi into a hug and asked him, What’s wrong, Itachi?
And Itachi had answered, eyes bright with tears, eyelashes clumping with it, We found out about how to get the Sharingan today. He hadn’t cried until Naruto guided his face into his chest and murmured, It’s okay, baby , and then, Itachi had yielded into hiccupping sobs saying, I don’t want it. I don’t want the Sharingan .
Naruto knows nothing about his children’s bloodline, except that it has turned Sasuke’s eyes a disconcerting red with black markings. It spins when he’s angry, or sometimes, when he’s just looking at Naruto.
After settling Itachi into bed, and then checking on Kakashi—who was silent and unmoving while Naruto gently carded his fingers through the wild spiking mess of his hair and said, Kakashi, sweetheart, look at me, baby, it’s okay, I’m here ; he’d fallen asleep that way—Naruto rounded on Sasuke in the bedroom and yelled at him for subjecting the children to something that could upset them so much. Sasuke had listened to him yell, Sharingan whorling, and opened his mouth several times to interrupt him, but Naruto was so incoherent with rage that he kept talking over him. When he finally ran out of words, Sasuke left the room.
He hadn’t returned to their bedroom since. Instead, he’s been spending the nights in the house where Onga lives with her family. Their house is almost as large as the main house, but it’s a hundred yards away and takes a few minutes to walk to on a sunny day. Sasuke is making the trip out every night in the cold and snow. He returns in the morning and settles into the couch, pretending to sleep, just in time for the children to burst into their room and clamber onto the large bed with Naruto or onto the couch with Sasuke. The twins almost invariably choose to settle under the furs with Naruto, curling into his stomach while Naruto gentles away the hair from their faces and asks them how they slept, and if they had any dreams. Sometimes, Shisui will also vie for space next to Naruto. Itachi and Kakashi tend to focus their time on shaking Sasuke awake. He pretends to wake up with a yawn—as if he’d spent the whole night on the couch and nowhere else—and trudges down for breakfast with all the kids in tow.
Naruto doesn’t care who Sasuke is intimate with. He doesn’t. It just bothers him that it’s with Nohine. While he can usually push aside those thoughts and behave with Nohine as he always does, his temper snaps two weeks after Sasuke starts visiting her at night every night. She’s filling his bath with hot water while he watches from the bedroom, chattering away about Sasuke climbing the roof of their house—no matter that Onga and Ichiro were telling him, no —to fix a leaky shingle in the cold. He’s considerate like that, she’s saying. She always praises him endlessly to Naruto, and today is no different. “I know he can come off as sullen, but really, once you get to know him—”
“I’m sure you’ve gotten to know him very well,” Naruto says, and regrets it the moment he does. Nohine’s gaze snaps up from her task of preparing Naruto’s bath. The wash room and the bedroom share a door at such an angle that Nohine and Naruto can have a complete conversation from opposite ends.
Nohine’s hand goes still in the water. She had been mixing in the oils and herbs into the water while checking the temperature for Naruto, but now, she withdraws her hand and walks into the bedroom. Naruto takes a deep breath. “I’m sorry,” he says. She is his only real friend here, and he’d opened his big mouth for something as petty as where Sasuke spends his nights. Even though he doesn’t even care what Sasuke does with his free time. “I shouldn’t have said that. I didn’t mean—”
“You meant that Sasuke and I share a bed,” Nohine interrupts, blunt like she always is. “And you don’t like the thought.”
“I don’t mind, really,” he offers her. “I don’t mean to come in between anything. He did something to upset the children, and I got angry at him and started yelling at him. You know my big mouth, and he just left, so I took it out on you, when really, it’s my fault—”
“We do not share a bed,” Nohine says, enunciating each word carefully. Her expression is pinched. “Sasuke is like a brother to me.”
Naruto knows he’s blushing uncontrollably now. Your big mouth, Uzumaki . “My mistake. I apologize.” They stare at each for a moment longer. It’s unbearable for Naruto, so he gets to his feet hurriedly. “I’m going to take a bath,” he announces, and walks past Nohine into the washroom. He hears her moving around in the bedroom while he sinks into the water. He slides down until he’s submerged, and he stays that way, roiling in his own embarrassment and taking refuge in the water around him.
When he resurfaces, Nohine is waiting for him. She looks amused. “As I was saying,” she continues, and picks up where she left off with the story of Sasuke fixing the loose shingle. Naruto listens while she lathers in soap into his hair and begins to wash it gently. “I assumed he was feeling restless because he wasn’t with you at night, but then again, I change your sheets and there’s nothing to suggest that you’ve offered anything to him that he might miss.”
Naruto pulls away from her and immediately, soap starts to drip into his eyes. He wipes ineffectively at it. “ Excuse me ?”
“He’s a handsome man,” Nohine points out.
Naruto isn’t blind. He’s seen the man. “I don’t know why you think it’s appropriate to talk to me about—”
“Because you were upset that I might have been sharing a bed with Sasuke,” Nohine interrupts. She’s watching him with her unrelenting gaze as always.
“I thought he was with you , not because—” Naruto gathers a breath. “You’re my friend. I thought you were laughing at me.”
Nohine smiles. “And you’re my friend. I would never laugh at you,” she promises him. But she is like a dog with a bone; she does not let go. “So if he had a woman in the village, some other woman, you wouldn’t mind?”
Naruto tilts his chin up. “I wouldn’t care. It’s not my concern what he does with his time.”
Nohine reaches out to the collection of vials on the side of the tub. She taps her finger on each of the vials containing oil. “You can use these too, if you’d like. It’ll ease the coupling.” Naruto knows he’s cherry red at this point. He can’t even gather the words, but before he can even try, Nohine keeps talking. “Try it with yourself first. If you like it, ask Sasuke to your bed. You’re married. That’s your right to ask him to your bed. He would say yes. I’ve seen how he watches you. He would say yes in a heartbeat.”
“This is a highly inappropriate conversation—”
“I’ll go check on Kushina,” Nohine announces, and gets to her feet without giving Naruto to respond.
Naruto stews in the bath for a few long moments after she leaves. He’s determined to ignore her, so he does just that. He scrubs at his skin so vigorously that it leaves his skin pink. But as he’s reaching for more soap, his fingers hover over the glass vials in different colors. He’d tried once, when he was younger. He liked it then, but he hated the feeling afterwards, of knowing that he would never have—
He has trained his mind not to want this. The few times he does, he takes care of it with a hand. It is rote, a routine. There is no joy in it, no desire , really. He has taught himself not to look at anyone with interest for too long, so that his mind does not have a chance to wander or imagine something given how low the odds were that his interest in anyone would ever be returned in any meaningful way. His life has been set on a course since the moment he was born, and that was to be the demon vessel.
But here he is. Married, with the rights that come with it. The right to ask Sasuke to bed. Who, apparently, watches him.
The oil is slick between his fingers, fragrant. He lets his hand drop into the water, counts to three, and then presses a finger gently into himself. He’s done it before just the once, but it’s easy to fall into the rhythms again, to add a second finger, and then a third, spreading his legs into it and letting his head drop back onto the edge of the tub. He grips himself with his other hand, and loses himself to it, hearing the water move and slosh against the sides from it, hearing his own pants, loud in the quiet space of the washroom. He hasn’t touched himself in weeks, but it still takes him a while to reach the edge. He balances there, desperate for relief, and closes his eyes, imagines, for a moment, Sasuke pressing him into bed.
He finishes with a bitten off groan.
Immediately, he clambers out of the tub, knees almost giving way under his feet. He drains the tub hurriedly, wraps a robe around himself, and bursts out into the bedroom, breathing hard, and gets dressed faster than he ever has in his entire life. A moment later, he’s striding down the corridor, already making a list of all the tasks he can do to distract himself.
Within the hour, he has pushed all thoughts of Sasuke aside.
Sasuke eventually returns to their room, and only because Itachi starts to have nightmares. He comes in one night, crying, and curls against Naruto’s chest, clutching at him and sobbing, I killed Shisui in my dreams. I don’t want it. I don’t want it . Two nights later, it’s Kakashi in his dreams, dying. A third night, it’s both Mikoto and Yaese. Another night, it’s Kushina. And then, it’s Naruto, dying at his hands.
He falls asleep every night in Naruto’s bed. Sasuke arrives in the morning from Onga’s house, and notices Itachi, but he never says anything. The morning after Itachi dreams of killing Naruto, he wakes up in the morning with a second nightmare, shuddering to wakefulness in Naruto’s arms with a gasp.
He’s inconsolable. He’s crying so hard that he can barely breathe. His face is splotchy red and his eyes are puffy from all the crying, and no matter how hard Naruto clutches him to his chest and rocks him back and forth and tells him, It’s okay, I’ve got you, baby , he can do nothing to console Itachi. Sasuke sits up on the couch, Sharingan an angry red, but Naruto ignores him because if he has to look at Sasuke in the eyes while Itachi is crying in his arms, he might actually punch Sasuke in the throat.
Naruto holds Itachi’s face in both his hands and presses a kiss against each of Itachi’s wet cheeks. “I’m right here,” he promises. “I’m right here. I’m all right. Nothing’s happened to me.”
“I killed you,” Itachi sobs. “I killed you dead, and you were hurt and—”
“You would never,” Naruto promises him. Over the nights of Itachi’s terrors, he’s pieced together enough clues. The Sharingan is activated by the loss of someone dear. A guaranteed way to do this is to kill that person yourself. Their father had told them the story of his own Sharingan—the loss of every single person in his Clan at the hands of their own kin, a madman, Madara. The Sharingan is a curse, he’d told them. That is our bloodline. No doubt, Sasuke had intended it as a warning. To Itachi, it had sounded like a prophecy that he would be doomed to fulfill. “Even for the Sharingan, you would not ever hurt me. You know why?”
Itachi scrubs at his face. “Why?”
“Because you’re my baby boy,” Naruto answers. “And you’ll always protect me. You and your brothers and sisters will protect me, and you’ll protect each other.”
Itachi is nodding his head slowly. Finally, Naruto thinks. Something that Itachi finds convincing. So far, he hasn’t found the right words to say. But now, he tells Itachi that he will grow up strong one day, with or without the Sharingan, he’ll be strong. He’ll be tall and powerful and an excellent swordsman. He will protect those he loves, and he will make sure they come to no harm. He will make sure Naruto will never come to any harm. “Because you’re my baby boy,” Naruto insists. “And I love you to the moon and back, so I know this to be true.”
Itachi’s breathing has come back under control. He’s not crying, but his nose is still running. He’s listening so intently to Naruto that he’s forgotten to wipe at his nose, so Naruto does it for him, reaching up with the sleeves of his robes to pinch lightly at his nose and wipe away the snot. “I love you too,” Itachi says quietly. He watches Naruto with wide, intent eyes. “I’ll take care of you. I won’t let you get hurt.”
His mother promised him a single love for his life. He has found six.
Itachi allows Naruto to wipe away the tears, kiss his cheeks again, and draw him into his lap, tucking him close so he can rock him and soothe him back to his sleep, carding his fingers through Itachi’s hair and murmuring, I’m here, go to sleep, I’m here . Itachi clutches at his robes, and then becomes slowly lax as he drifts into sleep. Naruto tucks his chin over Itachi’s head and doesn’t move.
Sasuke is still watching them, but his Mangekyou has stopped spinning. Sasuke says, “I’m sorry,” which is one of the first words in northern tongue that Naruto learned.
He’s been practicing the language with Nohine, but he knows his accent is still deplorable. Still, he tries, “I’m sorry, too. For your family.” He pauses a beat, and struggles to find the right words. For yelling at you. For being so angry that I didn’t stop to think the grief you must be carrying . “And for loud speak.”
Sasuke says a word in his language, but Naruto doesn’t understand it. He watches as Sasuke gets to his feet and approaches the bed wearily. Carefully, he sits down on the bed and reaches out to press a hand to Itachi’s hair. He goes still for a few long moments.
And then, without saying another word, he leaves the room. Later that night, he settles into the couch and says in clear, precise southern tongue, “Good night.” Surprisingly, there is no accent.
Naruto repeats the word back to him in the northern tongue, taking care to pronounce the words as correctly as he can. “Good night.”
He starts noticing because Nohine told him, and then he can’t stop noticing. He turns to say something to Sasuke and will find that Sasuke is already watching him. He’ll notice the way Sasuke’s gaze drifts and lingers on his lips when he speaks carefully constructed sentences in the northern tongue. They have been spending more time together, now that Naruto is constantly practicing their language. Naruto only has to show a strip of skin at his wrist by rolling up his sleeves, and Sasuke’s eyes will move to it. Naruto doesn’t understand how he didn’t notice before; there is no denying the heat in Sasuke’s gaze.
And now that Naruto is noticing that, he’s noticing other things, too. It’s the details, the smallest of details, that drive him insane. The way Sasuke’s beard sounds when he rubs a hand over it, the way his shirt strains across his back when he’s showing the children how to string a bow, the thick width of his thighs, when he sits down on the couch to read to the children. He notices the hair on Sasuke’s chest, visible over his loosely cut collar when he’s wearing nothing but his undershirt before settling into bed. Naruto notices every minute detail about Sasuke’s hands whenever he grips a mug of ale or chisels a toy out of wood for the twins and Kushina: the blunt trim of his nails, the slight bend to his left ring finger from a poorly set break, the light dusting of hair on the back of his knuckles, and thick strength of each of his fingers—
He pushes three fingers into himself when he’s alone in the bath, tries to imagine the heft of Sasuke’s fingers inside him instead. He imagines Sasuke’s mouth on him, his weight, the scent of him. He finishes with the thought of him, always.
They’re in the dead of winter. They are confined in closed quarters; even a trip to the village center requires planning, so all they have is each other’s company. He’s losing his mind, slowly. His mouth goes dry when Sasuke dresses in a hurry one day, still wet from his shower, and his pants cling to him, obscene, and the next day, in the bath, Naruto imagines being on his hands and knees, Sasuke lining up behind him, and pushing in, the full width and girth of him, claiming that space. He finishes with such intensity that he’s left breathless for a few long moments, breathing in the steam.
All of this, he determines, is Nohine’s fault, and seeks her out to tell her, in no uncertain terms, that she would never, ever bring up this topic again to him. “Ever.”
Nohine arches an eyebrow at him. “I won’t,” she promises. She pauses just a beat. “Except to say this.”
“I don’t want to hear it, so don’t even—”
“It’s your right as husband,” Nohine interrupts. “It’s your right to take him to bed.”
Naruto grits his teeth so hard he can feel a muscle jump in his cheek. “And if he doesn’t want to?”
“He will want to,” Nohine promises him. “Just lead him to your bed. He’ll follow.”
Later that night, Naruto watches Sasuke get ready for bed surreptitiously. He’s spent nearly two months on the couch, and yet, the man hasn’t complained. He’s even developed a routine for himself. He always removes the cushions out of the way in the same order. He always piles them on the same spot on the rug by his feet. He snaps open the spare sheets over the couch with the same motion of his hands, and he never bothers to tuck the sheets under the couch cushions. He always settles in the middle seat of the couch, kicks off his shoes, and levers himself into bed. Then, he settles back in with a sigh, fidgets to get comfortable, and eventually settles on his side, facing out. He pulls the furs over his shoulder, sometimes over his head, and then goes to sleep.
Then, he will remember to say, eyes closed, still, “Good night.”
It’s your right as husband , Nohine had said. He was conscripted to a life of a vessel, but here he is, married. With rights. He’s tired of his own imaginations in the confines of the tub. He closes his eyes. “Good night.”
Chapter 5: Sasuke
Naruto is as subtle as a brick.
He stares, and he stares openly. It is driving Sasuke insane. Once, he’d stared so blatantly at Sasuke when he was rushing to get dressed and start his day, that Sasuke felt himself harden slightly. Naruto’s eyes had dipped to his waist, and he’d stared, lips parted slightly, pupils dilated.
It was bound to happen. Winter has truly settled and there is no escaping the stifling snows settling into the valley. There are no campaigns, nothing to do but ride out storm after storm. Even the village center is subdued when they finally fight their way through the snow drifts for supplies. There is nothing for them to do but to occupy each other’s space and get in each other’s way.
It’s not as if Sasuke hasn’t noticed Naruto. It’s hard not to. He noticed him the very first day he saw him. But now, they’re spending more time together. Naruto is learning the northern language—and at this point in the charade, Sasuke isn’t sure how he’ll ever break the truth to Naruto that he can speak the southern language just fine—so it’s becoming easier to communicate.
The worst thing is that Sasuke likes Naruto. He’s a pampered aristocrat in so many ways that Sasuke has begun to lose track. He is loud. He insists on getting his way. He carries himself like a lord, and he has recreated Sasuke’s humble home in the image of his own childhood mansion.
But the children love him. They turn to him like flowers to the sun, soaking in his easy affection. He calls them all baby, even Kakashi, and not a single one of them protests at the endearment. In fact, they respond to the nickname. Naruto says baby, and five sets of eyes turn towards him because they all think of themselves, for all intents and purposes, as Naruto’s babies.
They tolerate his constant, gentle touches to the forehead to brush away hair, to their cheeks, on their backs. They let him pull them into hugs, kiss them on the cheeks, on their foreheads, and on the crowns of their heads. He dotes and fusses over them the way he dotes and fusses over Kushina. He manages every aspect of their life, from what they eat—at a precise time, and always home cooked meals, none of the sweets or greasy stall foods from the village center—to what they wear—layers upon layers of clothes if it’s particularly cold out; Naruto will tie each of their cloaks on personally to make sure they don’t fall off during their play. He tucks them into bed each and every single night. He tells them, I love you, without hesitation and with the full force of his affection behind the words. They tell him, I love you, too.
And then there’s Kushina. Sasuke wakes up to Kushina’s bright smile every morning. She gurgles happily whenever she sees Sasuke, reaches chubby fingers for him, and says, Fa-fa and Da-da like his other children. She drools on his chest when they nap together, and her first steps were towards Sasuke. Sasuke’s heart felt too small for his chest at seeing Kuki walk on her own without fear of falling. She’d wobbled between Naruto and Sasuke a few times. Naruto sent Kuki towards Sasuke each time with, Go on, go on towards your Father, like it was as easy as that. And it is.
Naruto names Sasuke Kuki’s father, and he becomes it.
This means nothing, Sasuke wants to tell Naruto. Your father wants you returned the moment my mission is over.
But instead, Sasuke finds himself spending endless hours contemplating joint custody agreements for annulled marriages. He lies awake at night, terrified that he will lose Kuki, and that the children will lose Naruto. He worries he will not be able to teach Kuki how to ride a horse, wield a sword, draw a seal. He wants to take her to her first day of school, like he did with all his children. He wants to watch her grow old, safe and healthy and happy. He wants to walk her down the aisle, hold her children in his arms, and be a grandfather.
He sees the children with Naruto and he doesn’t know how to take away what they have. They are happy. They are happier than they have been in so many years, Sasuke didn’t even realize they were unhappy until he sees them with Naruto. He worries how Kakashi will be if Naruto isn’t in his life anymore, and if he will become silent and withdrawn again without Naruto to sit patiently with him and hold him close while the words get loosened from the secret places in Kakashi’s chest. He worries if Itachi will have nightmares again about the Sharingan if he doesn’t have Naruto’s unwavering faith to guide him through his worst fears.
He wonders how Shisui will know that just because he likes painting doesn’t make him any less an Uchiha than the others without Naruto to cherish each and every single squiggly line Shisui draws. He worries about Mikoto not learning how to calm that temper of hers, if she doesn’t have Naruto for whispered and private conversations that make her chakra settle. He worries that Yaese will feel left behind again, lost in the shuffle of his siblings without Naruto to make him feel loved and treasured at odd intervals—a dinner with all of Yaese’s favorite sweets, a picnic on Yaese’s favorite grassy knoll.
What kind of father would he be, to take Naruto away from the children? What kind of man would he be, to walk away from Kushina, when Naruto named Sasuke her father? He stays up every night, listening to Naruto’s breathing even out while Sasuke worries and frets. He needs to find a solution to this mess, sooner rather than later.
But he can’t bring himself to string a coherent sentence, though, let alone have an adult conversation with Naruto about the state of their marriage and what comes after. Not when Naruto is watching him with such intent that he can’t help but watch back.
But for all the staring they do, Sasuke doesn’t expect anything to come of it. He lets himself construct a few fantasies in his own private moments, but that’s the end of it. He doesn’t allow himself much freedom in his imagination. This is an allegiance, nothing more.
Sasuke is fine with leaving things how they stand, but then, Naruto starts to seduce him.
It’s subtle at first. Sasuke is used to Naruto’s open staring, so he’s startled when he realizes that Naruto has started to touch him gently on the elbow to get his attention. He stands close when they speak and holds Sasuke’s gaze. When Naruto talks to him in the southern language—and that is one thing Naruto has not stopped doing since they met; the man can hold a conversation with himself as long as Sasuke stays silent—he’ll pitch his voice in a low murmur, making it intimate, and Sasuke feels tethered and drawn. He finds himself moving closer, just to hear Naruto’s words more clearly. Now and then, he will look up at Sasuke from under the sweep of his lashes with a small, private smile, and Sasuke will find himself with sweaty palms and a dry mouth, mind stuttering to find something to do or say.
Sasuke grits his teeth, and stays unmoving, and keeps his distance. But Naruto only smiles, and becomes more brazen. Sasuke tolerates the lingering touches, the heavy looks, and everything in between, but then, one night, after he has checked on all the doors and windows, after the children have been tucked into bed, he walks into the bedroom to find that Naruto has decided to take a second bath that evening.
“Kushina threw up on me,” he announces from inside the washroom in broken southern tongue. The door is wide open, so Sasuke can see Naruto perched on the edge of the tub, hand dipping and circling in the water to test the temperature.
Sasuke frowns. “Is she alright?”
“She’s fine,” Naruto answers, and launches into an explanation in the southern language about his initial worry, how he’d asked Onga for help, but then it turned out to be nothing; Kushina just didn’t like the new solid foods Naruto was slowly introducing to her. It’s the lull of the conversation that makes Sasuke let his guard down, because as Naruto’s words trail off, he starts to undress and Sasuke doesn’t look away fast enough.
When Naruto’s robes fall to the ground, Sasuke exhales carefully. He hasn’t seen more than the skin on Naruto’s forearms, his feet, and the column of his neck. But now, he can see the sinuous line of his spine, the perfect, compact, round curve of his ass, the lean thighs tapering off into slim shins and elegant ankles. All of Naruto’s skin has that same lovely olive hue as his face and arms; Sasuke assumed it was a tan from all the sunshine in the south. He doesn’t know where to look, and he’s so busy staring that it takes him a moment to realize that Naruto is saying his name, murmuring, “—Sasuke?”
Sasuke drags his gaze up from Naruto’s ass and finds that Naruto is looking over his shoulder at Sasuke. There is no anger in Naruto’s face at Sasuke’s blatant staring. “What?”
Naruto angles his head. “Would you like to join me?”
It’s perfect grammar and northern accent, and even if it were, Sasuke isn’t sure he’d have the wherewithal to compliment Naruto on it. There is no mistaking it now, no way to ignore the push and pull between them. Sasuke takes a jerky step away from the door to the washroom. “I should sleep,” he announces stiffly, and turns away before he can become fully ensnared.
Naruto leaves the door open to the washroom. As Sasuke lies on the couch—furs drawn over his head—he hears the soft splash of water, the gurgle of water when Naruto drains the tub, the soft pad of feet as Naruto settles into his bed. There is the quiet sound of the bed dipping under Naruto’s weight, and then silence. “Good night.”
Sasuke takes a deep breath. Pretending that nothing has changed is the best strategy here. “Good night.”
Mercifully, he sleeps.