Uchiha Rei was six years old when she first began to notice that something was out of place.
Like every youth with a happy childhood, she had always believed her family to be the most perfect in the village where they made their home, if not the world. Two parents who loved and cared for her, a pair of protective older brothers who adored her, and a younger sister who looked up to her as friend and playmate.
Her father was one of the elite shinobi, a jounin, a genius and worthy successor of his bloodline's master techniques. Her mother was an accomplished medic-nin, whose advances in chakra healing techniques had made her nearly as talked about as her husband. Rei could not have been prouder to be their daughter. Her young age did not make her blind to the mixed levels of awe, fear, and respect her parents generated among the lesser ninja and the residents of Konoha.
Uchiha Sasuke was a quiet man, aloof by nature and not the most tactile of fathers. Rei had noticed on more than one occasion the way that he tensed, his face expressionless and his dark eyes alert and watchful, at times when she crept up behind him and threw her arms around his waist in a spontaneous embrace. Her brother, Takao-nii, had once tried to explain to her that it was a side affect of the intense training their father had undergone for more than half his life.
Rei could not understand the extent of his explanation, but she was more than capable of forgiving her Chichi-ue's awkwardness with physical affection in the light of that rare and precious smile he cast on them on those exceptional occasions. Sasuke provided for, protected, and loved his children above all else. That was, as Takao had told her, what made a real father.
While balancing her duties as a shinobi and healer, Uchiha Sakura was a model housewife and mother to her four children, her equally kind-hearted and strong-willed temperament bringing balance to the Uchiha household. Stubborn and spirited, with a heart of gold and a will of iron, she was more than capable of taking on her stoic and standoffish husband.
Her family was the most perfect she could ever imagine. She saw nothing wrong with including Uzumaki Naruto as one of them.
At her age of universal affection and naiveté, Rei never found reason to question her attachment to her Uncle Naruto. Her Naruto-jiisan was an old teammate of her Kaasan and Chichi-ue, and he was an essential part of her life from the moment she emerged into the world a squirming bundle of rage and beauty. At least, that was how Naruto-jiisan described her birth, and no one else's words could make her prouder.
Naruto was kind, loving, and carefree, a golden-haired angel with a smile as bright as the sun. He was the greatest of heroes in her young eyes next to her father, and nothing in the world could work to dissuade that fact in her mind. This was the man who never hesitated to play games other adults thought childish, never thought twice about spending his pension on gifts and trinkets for his godchildren.
He would lift her onto his broad and massive shoulders, holding her tightly and securely, swearing he would never let her go. He would sing songs and tell stories, play silly games that held no higher meaning than the breathless excitement it caused in its participants. He was an eternally patient man, whether dealing with her brothers' endless escapades or tolerating little Megumi, the baby of the family.
So why, why did they whisper and point when he strolled with them through the village on a warm spring day? Why did they stare with such expressions of disdain, regarding him with such sneer and disapproval when he brought Takao-nii and Keiichi-nii into the village square, honing their future skills with mock-fights and games of chase? Why?
She could not understand.
When Rei was nine years old, her brothers, Takao and Keiichi, graduated from the ninja academy. As they displayed their new hitai-ates with beaming pride, the adults stood by with varying reactions. Kaasan was nearly weeping with joy, embracing the boys who squirmed with embarrassment in her embrace, Chichi-ue regarded them with a silent smile of approval, a simple nod of acknowledgement to each all that was needed to convey his pleasure, and Naruto-jiisan grinned and whooped in celebration, already making plans for their congratulatory party.
Rei watched the happenings with amusement of her own, catching her Chichi-ue's gaze, as he rolled his eyes at his old friend's display and regarded his daughter with a smile only evident in his eyes. Through her childhood, Rei had learned to interpret her father's subtle moods and expressions, and while his face and stature rarely changed, it was his eyes that spoke volumes of his inside workings.
She wondered idly if her ability to read her father stemmed from their similarities in personality. Of her four siblings, Rei was the most like her father, quiet, focused, and serious, if far more easygoing. She was her father's daughter, from her lustrous black hair to her almond-dark eyes, down to a strange flawlessness of features that was quickly fading into a feminine beauty even with her young age.
Strangely enough, she felt no vanity from it. There were times instead when it made her feel awkwardly out of place, to be set above the rest, which seemed to be the fate of any Uchiha living among the Konoha. She took the quality of her looks in stride, concentrating on other matters. She threw herself into her shinobi training, and already she was advancing much farther than her brothers could have ever hoped for at her age.
Sakura would comment on this from time to time, regarding her daughter with an odd sort of smile hinting of nostalgia. She would tell Rei of how much she really was like her father. It seemed that in other's opinion, she and Sasuke were eerily similar.
Her mind turned to the cause of the celebration and uproar, the two boys on the verge of manhood as they took the first step toward their hopeful future as shinobi.
Takao, the firstborn of the Uchiha children, had only recently turned thirteen. His eyes were intense obsidian black, the dark hair that served as a stamp of his Uchiha heritage worn long enough to reach his shoulders and tied back at the nape of his neck, stray bangs falling over his forehead in a roguish manner that fit him all too well. Tall and slender, but already generously muscled from his years of training, he was not lost on his attractiveness, and he took such smug satisfaction in his following of fan girls that Rei felt inclined from time to time to deliver a swift knock to his head to remind him of the concept of humility.
Standing beside their eldest brother, Keiichi could have easily passed for Takao's double if not from the startling contrast of their eyes and hair. Where Takao was dark, Keiichi was fair, his hair vibrantly golden, his eyes their mother's soft, serene green. The blondish locks of his hair were shaggy and untamable, falling precariously into his eyes and brushing back against his neck in a ragged cut that irritated their mother to no end.
At first glance, Keiichi appeared to be a blurred, more muted version of their more charismatic brother, but there was a reason why Rei placed no value in first impressions. Keiichi was amiable and easygoing, but hard to understand to those who did not take the time to adjust to his quiet, subtle nature. When focused, he was an intense and passionate individual, diligently devoted to his training and his family.
Despite their differences, he and Takao had been close throughout their entire lives, nearly as close and inseparable as twins if not for the ten months separating them. Once when she was younger, a puzzled Rei had asked her mother why she had chosen to have her children so close together, unusual enough for normal circumstances and unheard of among the shinobi. Sakura's expression had grown distant, and she had turned away, telling her daughter to never ask again. It was the first and last time she had ever been so coldly dismissed by her mother.
Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted her Naruto-jiisan standing to the side, unusually quiet. His stance was casual, leaning against a nearby tree, arms folded across his chest, but it was his expression that drew Rei's attention, contemplative, full of melancholy and a dozen other things she could never hope to understand.
His gaze lingered on her brothers, his vividly blue eyes shadowed with a thick emotion akin to loss. His eyes shifted, coming to rest on her mother. The dark emotions in his eyes became even stronger, something far more palpable, screaming of a longing so intense it was tormenting to look at him.
Rei tore her eyes away, unable to hold it any longer. Later, she would push the incident into the back of her mind, to be forgotten for years at her loss of understanding for the torment hidden between Naruto's carefree smiles.
Turning away at that moment, she did not see Sakura take notice of her old teammate's attention, did not see her lock gazes with him with the same sadness, the same sense of longing and loss. She did not see Sasuke follow his wife's gaze, nor the shock of raw pain etch itself into the Uchiha's stoic features. She did not see the moment end, as the adults pushed away the memories of yesterday to assume once more the masks of the present, turning away.
She was twelve, bordering on thirteen, when her mother discovered she was pregnant one last time. She would always remember it most vividly as the year Konoha celebrated the tenth anniversary of the day her Naruto-jiisan had become the Rokudaime, the sixth Hokage of the Konohagakure.
The entire family had been so busy it took longer than one would expect for any of them to notice anything out of the ordinary. Sasuke was swamped in his duties as both jounin and leader of a genin squad, leaving little time for him to be with his wife or children. Keiichi and Takao, chuunin for less that a year and both sixteen respectively, were already training incessantly for the upcoming jounin examination.
Even little Megumi, just recently turned nine, had new obligations to tend to. Though too gentle-tempered and soft-natured for what Sasuke thought she would need for a future as a shinobi, it was already decided she would enter the academy with the future aspect of training as a medic-nin, for she had always been their Kaasan's daughter through and through, from cherry-pink hair and soft green eyes to the incredible chakra abilities that came naturally to the child as breathing.
Rei immersed herself in the new and exciting world of being a genin, a protégé among her classmates back at the academy, the very pride of the Uchiha family next to her competitive brothers. Sakura ran herself ragged at the hospital, so much that the day she collapsed from sheer exhaustion and deprived chakra, she had not even realized the child she carried.
Tsunade, the former Fifth Hokage, still alive and quite full of vitality, headed the hospital and oversaw all training of the medic-nin. Though she reassured the gathered Uchihas and sole Uzumaki that the pink-haired kunoichi would be alright and all she needed was rest, Rei could not help but worry. As she thought about it later, she was sure her mother must have been overwhelmed, the Hokage and her jounin husband along with the two teenage chuunin reduced to fluttering mother hens by her collapse.
At the news of her pregnancy, Sakura had leaned back in her bed, closing her eyes as she smiled. The children were supposed to have left the room, but Rei could not resist the urge to eavesdrop. With her brothers stuck in an argument over the merits of another boy or girl in addition to their family and Megumi still at academy, there was little standing in her way.
On either side of the bed, both of Sakura's hands reached out, searching for the touch of the two men who had so greatly shaped her life. Sasuke tightly gripped her hand, holding it in a reassuring fashion, his calloused fingers stroking the back. Naruto hesitantly held her hand between both of his own, cradling it close as if it was some fragile treasure, against his chest, just above his heart. "Congratulations…Sakura."
Rei's head had shot up in surprise at his statement, for the one time she had ever heard the blond-haired shinobi leave the endearment of -chan off of her mother's name. Somehow, the simple pronunciation of her name, passing from her uncle's lips in the odd, husky whisper he has spoken with, felt all the more intimate.
And there was something, a whisper of something powerful, so profoundly full of pain Rei felt her breath catch. Sakura opened her eyes, green orbs so full of an ageless wisdom not belonging to a woman in her early thirties, and she had whispered his name, a single tear glistening in her eye.
He smiled then, the gesture so paradoxically full of genuine feeling and still made with forced emotion. He leaned down and pressed a soft kiss to her palm, placing her hand ever so gently against her stomach. "Another addition to the Uchiha. You must be proud, Sasuke."
Sasuke had nodded in his ever-maintained silence, slipping an arm around Sakura to pull her closer to him, protectively cradling her slight body against his chest. She nestled her head against his shoulder, and the Uchiha regarded his old teammate over her head. "Naruto...if…if this baby is male, we would want you to-"
"Don't, Sasuke. Please."
Naruto's eyes closed, his face twisting with an unspoken pain. Sasuke's mask of indifference dropped for the first time in Rei's sight, and the naked expression tore at her heart: hurt, outrage, desperation…longing, longing so intense it filled his eyes with the unbearable desiring. Desiring for what, she had no idea.
"I know, Naruto, that it's not much, but I…gods, I don't know anymore. If we could have known things differently…"
"Don't say it, Uchiha. It was my choice in the end. Let leave it at that."
Sakura stirred against his husband, her hand clutching tightly at the fabric of his gi. "He's right…Sasuke. Now's not the time to open new wounds."
Sasuke nodded once more, seeming unable to form any further words. Naruto turned away and made his way toward the door. Rei quickly leaped back, her landing flawless and soundless as she stood against the wall beside her still bickering brothers, their attention too preoccupied to have noticed. Her uncle emerged from the hospital room a scant second later, his face falling into something forcefully cheerful at the sight of them.
Rei was not sure why, but watching his countenance twist into the unnatural light-hearted expression made her want to tear her eyes away, making her wonder how long he had been putting on his façade. Had the golden-haired angel she thought him as a child, so full of carefree laughter and light-hearted amity, all just been an act?
The thought caused her heart to painfully contract, as she watched him playfully greet her brothers, an arm thrown companionably around each of their shoulders, dogging them to join him on the training fields.
He grinned and shouted over his shoulder to Rei as he spotted her, asking her to relay the same invitation to her father when he was free to come. She did as he asked.
When her father came home that night, the right side of his face bruised with a wicked discoloration and his lips split and bleeding, the shirt split open by the blade of a kunai over his abdomen, her mother treated his wounds in silence, Sasuke's gaze distant and unreadable as he retreated into himself, staring out the window without any outward reaction to the healing.
The next morning, not a single individual chose to comment on the Hokage's rough appearance, not on the half-healed slice down his jaw, nor the way both eyes swelled with the bruised imprint of fists, nor the slight limp to his left leg.
Not a single soul would have dared to comment.
The reconciliation between the three members of the long dissolved Team seven came later that year at the Tanabata festival.
The entire village was abuzz with activity that night as Rei walked with her family. At the head of the entourage was her parents, her father tall and proudly handsome in his black kimono with the silver obi, complimenting well with his alabaster skin and dark, impenetrable eyes; her mother beautiful on his arm in her soft violet, embroidered with falling sakura blossoms.
Rei followed behind them, Megumi at her side, their older brothers flanking behind. Rei felt uncomfortable under the scrutiny she received from some of the boys she passed, and realized this was what her mother had warned a year ago as she came into womanhood, the reasons why her brothers were bristling protectively behind the two girls, moving closer in a hovering presence.
She took a moment to wonder what they found so appealing. Was it because she had inherited so much from her father? She supposed there had to be something for them to look at, her being an Uchiha.
Her skin was pale in a ghost-like sheen. Her brothers insisted that instead it aided to an ethereal affect.
Her body was still so thin, her breasts not very developed. There were times when she felt more like a half-starved waif. Her teammate, Hiro, told her otherwise, calling her attractive with her slender figure and softly forming curves. Recalling the incident now, perhaps she had been hasty in yelling at him for being ecchi.
Her hair, still long enough to sweep down her back in a fall of raven-black, was something she had still found herself unable to part with, despite all the times it proved itself a hindrance or an irritation. As she helped her at night to brush the long tresses, her mother confided in her daughter with a rueful air that she envied her having such long, dark hair, when she had made the decision to cut hers years before.
Rei shook her head at the foolishness of the people in her life, and uncomfortably adjusted the collar of her fuchsia kimono. She glanced over at Megumi, reluctantly admitting that her sister was remarkably pretty already in her kimono complimentary to their mother's, done instead in a pattern of red on pink.
She felt strong hands clamp down on her shoulders, and turned her head to find two pairs of eyes staring down at her, Takao in sky blue that complimented the obsidian shade of his eyes with his aesthetic features and shoulder-length sable hair, Keiichi in darker navy that brought out the brazen gold of his hair, comfortingly familiar with his ruggedly boyish face and soft, clever green eyes.
Takao grinned in his roguish way, reaching down to tweak her nose in a fashion certain to irritate her since childhood. "Well, well, what's got you so down, Rei-chan?"
Rei scowled and batted his hand away. Keiichi rolled his eyes and reached out to lightly thump the elder's head. "Weren't you supposed to meet Mai-chan already, Nii-san?"
Gone pale before he could retaliate, Takao nodded, his expression falling into one of dread. "Oi, you're right. Rei-chan, Keiichi, will you two cover for me with Chichi-ue and Kaasan? Sayonara."
And with that, he disappeared into the crowd with a flurry of dark hair and flailing kimono fabric.
Keiichi shook his head, unable to help his lips curling into a small smile of amusement. He turned back to Rei and offered his arm to her, and together they began walking at a more leisurely pace in a half-hearted attempt to catch up to the rest of their family.
Rei studies him out of the corner of her eye, looks at the profile of the boy turned man, sees the changes that time has etched on him, sees everything she has ever seen that makes him her Keiichi-nii.
She sees the changes first. He's much taller now, both her brothers are, but unlike Takao's more slender build, an echo of their father, Keiichi was more trim than lithe, rapidly growing into broad shoulders and heavy hands. His countenance is strong, ruggedly so, something profoundly more masculine that the usual androgyny common among the Uchiha.
She swallowed hard, shaking her head to dispel a familiar whisper in the back of her mind… the same whisper she often saw in Keiichi's eyes when he looked at his own face in the mirror. Let it be, let it be.
Unable to resist a sudden urge, she reached up and brushed away a stray lock of hair from his eyes, smoothing it back against his forehead. She sighed and crinkled her nose with exasperation as said lock of hair fell right back to where it had been.
He looked down at her, his expression warm, his eyes smiling as much as his mouth. "A bit exasperating, ne?"
She returned the smile and nodded. "Ano, he's becoming completely girl-crazy, Keiichi-nii."
"Takao, you mean? Hai, you're probably right, but it might be different this time. Mai-san had him completely wrapped around her finger."
"It's hard to imagine him settling for one girl."
"Hmm. Some things change, Rei-chan. I think he's sincerely caught this time. His eyes are seeing nothing but her." His smile became softer, as they suddenly came to a stop and veered off to the side of the main square, taking a seat to watch some of the performers at work. He leaned closer, keeping his tone low as he spoke to her. "Someday, Rei-chan, you'll meet someone that will have eyes for you and only you, and he'll see how beautiful you truly are."
The warm pressure of a kiss against her forehead, and then he straightened, gave her a small wave and disappeared into the crowd.
Feeling her face warm, she remembered then why Keiichi had always been her favorite. He always knew the right thing to say.
She found her family a scarce hour later, saying her goodbyes to her teammates. Shin gave her a silent nod in response, for that was just his way, but Hiro seemed oddly reluctantly to leave. His face burned crimson as he reached for her hand and leaned closer. His lips were dry and warm against her cheek, she noted that he smelled faintly of almonds of all things, and by the time he pulled back, they were both blushing.
She stood along the side with her siblings, watched Takao snuggle up with Mai, watched Keiichi teach Megumi how to fold paper cranes, watched her mother trying to goad her father into dancing. The musicians were playing in the background, the soft sound of the strings and pipes lulling in a gentle melody.
Sakura finally succeeded and her parents made their way out onto the dance floor. It is in those moments that Rei can see why both her mother and father are the envy of the village, Sasuke strong and noble as he moves elegantly with his wife in his arms, holding her gently around the swell that was his child, Sakura beautiful and graceful as she matches his movements even in her advancing pregnancy, the two of them almost regal as they glide across the dance floor.
She sees the softness in her father's eyes, and the pure joy a-glow in her mother's smile, and she cannot help herself as she remembers Hiro's kiss, her mouth curling into an odd sort of shy smile.
The people part respectfully as Naruto makes his way toward her, tall and magnificent in his Hokage robes, golden hair waved back to brush against his collar and his smile warming his handsome face in a way that melts many a woman's heart in the village, the same smile that makes her wonder why he never married. With his youthful features, it was hard to tell that in just a few years he would be pushing forty.
He bows with a flourish, bending down to kiss her hand, and as her face warms she finds it hard to remember this was the same man who was like a second father, who played games and gave piggy-back rides as easily as he wrestled and mock-fought with the boys, who helped care for her when she was sick and soothed away tears when she fell and skinned a knee. He was all that, and somehow so much more in that moment as she accepted his offer to dance.
He was as graceful a dancer as he was a fighter, his step sure and nimble and his arm strong around her waist. Just a few inches shorter than her Chichi-ue; he towered over her, his smiling face hovering above reassuringly as they moved together through the intricate moves of the ritualistic dance.
"They look good together, don't they?" he commented softly, his eyes no longer on her but instead lost somewhere in the crowd.
He answers her quizzical expression with a low chuckle and a reassuring grin. "Your parents I mean, chibi."
She smiles slightly at the familiar nickname and nods to his previous statement. "Hai…they do."
He hums softly and looks down at her once more, the distance in his eyes fading as azure orbs focus on her. "Then again, you're not so little anymore, are you, chibi? Perhaps I should just call you Rei-san from now on."
She shakes her head, pointedly poking her finger into his chest. "Uh-huh, Naruto-jiisan. You've always called me chibi."
"Yes, perhaps I have. But you aren't so much a chibi anymore." His hand reached up, fingers curling around her chin, turning her face gently to study her more closely. "You really are your father's daughter, aren't you? But…" His tone dropped to a low near-whisper, a strange lilt to her voice that sounded tender, almost awed. "But…so much like your mother as well. Very beautiful."
He lays his hand against her cheek, and his thumb brushes against her skin as he slowly smiled. "Hai, you've become quite the beauty, haven't you, Rei-chan? I'll have to be right there with Sasuke and your brothers to fend off all those boys."
With that, he bowed to her once more as the music died down, straightening with a grin as he suddenly whirled her to her parents, coming to stand before Sakura with a cheeky smile.
To say Rei was shocked was an understatement, for nearly six months had passed since she had seen Naruto and her parents exchange even cordial greetings in passing, not since that day at the hospital. She could see wary surprise in her mother's expression, and at the blonde man's whispered words, her slowly blossoming smile, a strange paradox of melancholy acceptance and hesitant delight. And so, with a curt nod in Sasuke's direction, he took her hand in his and led her to the dance floor.
Sasuke watched them with an indecipherable expression as Sakura hesitantly moved into the Hokage's embrace, as his arms slowly slid around her, and suddenly their awkwardness faded and they were at ease as seamlessly as they had twenty years before. The two of them moved together with a fluid rhythm, not quite like that between Sasuke and Sakura, but just as flawless and smooth in their own way.
With a small smile, the dark-haired jounin held out his hand to his eldest daughter, perfecting an bow as elegant as Naruto's had been, not exuding the same flourish and charismatic charm but instead holding a quiet mystery that left Rei with no doubts about what had once drawn to him so many of the village females.
He still struck the same surreal and elegant figure she had idealed him as when she was a child, and she found that dancing with Sasuke Uchiha was more like gliding that anything else, for his natural feline grace was infectious to even the most inexperienced of partners. Over his shoulder, she observed her mother dancing with Naruto, and she wondered at the strange expression crossing both their countenances, simultaneously nostalgic and pained.
Sakura slowly relaxed in the embrace of her former teammate and old friend, felt the warmth of him and the strength of his arms around her in a way she had not felt in a long time, and she nestled closer to him, resting her head against his shoulder as she let the nostalgia stir her senses.
"Naruto," she said softly, opening her eyes to find blue eyes gazing down at her, their expression unreadable, "I thought you-"
"Shh," he said softly, leaning his head against hers, "It's in the past, Sakura." He said her name so softly, with all the warmth of a physical caress, "I just want the chance to hold you again."
And he did hold her, through that dance and several more, and this time as the Rokudaime's eyes met those of the Uchiha, there was little pain or anger, only memory and affection. Love and longing that flowed between the three of them in a web entangling past and present, merging them together as they danced until their feet were numb and pained, until the dawn and the dark horizon of the night met and announced the new day, stealing away the illusion of yesterday.
That night, they had little idea of how dramatically their lives would change within little more than a month.
The attack came before dawn, the sheer force and stealth of the enemy forces overwhelming the sentries posted around the sleepy village before they could sound the alarm, ravaging through the front gates before the shinobi could mobilize their forces.
But mobilize they did, in the chaos and confusion of the attack, the greatest and the best roused from their homes and beds to defend to the very last breath of life, down to the very last man or woman, the peaceful little village Konoha.
Manifesting in enmity was one of the most powerful forces the shinobi of Konohagakure had ever come across, a group of rogue missing-nin who had had years as hunted outlaws to do nothing but hone their skills of death and destruction. Hell-bent on these two, it was the ANBU and the top jounin that were left standing as the village's last line of defense.
Hyuuga. Nara. Inuzuka. Aburame. Akimichi. Lee. Uchiha. Uzumaki. The members of the Rookie Nine, teammates, rivals, friends, family. No matter the relation, all of them gathered together and fought valiantly, but one by one they fell, injured or killed, and in the end, it was the most skilled among them, the Hokage that would make the greatest sacrifice to save them. By releasing the power of the demon inside, the vulpine Kyuubi, he defeated the enemy shinobi without a single survivor but the cost to Naruto himself and the kitsune-youkai was more than his physical body could handle.
Wrenching himself back to reality by the sight of the Rokudaime collapsing in spent chakra exhaustion, Sasuke ignored the critical condition of his own wounds and rushed forward to catch the limp figure before he impacted to the ground, the momentum of his fall weighing down on Sasuke's fatigued state, and the Uchiha collapsed to his knees, the body of the Uzumaki cradled protectively in his arms.
"Naruto, Naruto, answer me, please, Naruto!" Sasuke repeated the other man's name in a hoarse mantra, pressing his forehead against the blood-stained chest, finding solace in the fluttering heartbeat as he repeated the whisper again and again.
This was the first sight Rei saw as she and her family gathered with the rest of the village around their fallen Hokage, watching in horror as her father clutched his limp form close, as her mother shoved her face forcefully through the pressing crowd to rush to their side. Her face haggard and white, she fell to her knees beside them, gently prying her husband's hand away to feel for a heartbeat against his chest, checking the rhythm of his pulse. Her mouth setting into a familiar line of grim determination, she met Sasuke's eyes and firmly kept the gaze as she pressed her hand to Naruto's torso, fingers swiftly forming the signs of a familiar healing jutsu. With the faint glow of chakra, the entire area grew silent with only the sound of ragged breathing and thick anticipation. A moment later, the blonde shinobi's body shuddered with a harsh intake of breath, and then wracked with a rough coughing fit as his eyes slowly fluttered open.
Sasuke supported his head as he slowly calmed and gulped for air, pressing a hand against his abdomen with a grimace of pain, lying back against the support of strong arms. "Sasuke…"
Sasuke managed a small smile, though the gesture came out weak and wan. "Take it easy, Naruto. Don't try to speak. We need to get you to the hospital right away."
Naruto's face grew unreadable, twisting with another spasm of pain that caused him to tremble violently and Sasuke to tighten his arms around him. "N-no, Sasuke. I can't go to the hospital."
"Why not? You're mortally wounded, dobe. We need to get you treated now!"
Sakura watched with sad eyes, tears pooling in their soft green orbs. "It won't do him any good, Sasuke. There's nothing we can do for him."
Sasuke whipped his head around, his eyes blazing as they locked on her. "What are you talking about? Can't you heal him, Sakura? Tell me you can heal him…"
Sakura bit back a cry as she reached for the hand desperately clinging to Naruto, entwining her fingers tightly with his. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I could heal his outward wounds, but he exhausted all his life force. The Kyuubi has already faded away. He only has a matter of time." She could not stifle her next sob, as she reached out, Naruto feebly raising one hand to lock with her. Sakura raised his palm against his cheek, cradling his hand between both her own. "Naruto no baka. How could you do something so stupid?"
Naruto smiled softly, however weakly, and he disentangled his hand to brush away the stray hair clinging to her tear-stained cheeks. "Sakura…I did what I had to do. Just like always. I don't want to see you cry for me. Not for me."
"Baka." She leaned down, brushing her lips against his cheek in a fleeting kiss, her tears falling in warm droplets against his weathered skin.
With a harsh intake of breath, Naruto freed his opposite hand from Sasuke, and he cupped her face, bringing her mouth to his in a soft, lingering kiss. Sakura trembled slightly at the contact, parting her lips obligingly as he kissed her slowly, languorously, tangling her fingers gently through her hair.
As they parted, he leaned his forehead against hers, stroking her face with tender touches of hand. "Never forget, Sakura, that I love you. I always have."
Repeating the same words back, Sakura parted from him then, reluctantly so, moving back just enough for Sasuke to lock eyes with his dying former teammate, his once time everything as hands tightly entwined and Sasuke turned his face away, unable to face it any longer.
Naruto chucked softly. "It's been a long time since you've called me that, teme. A very long time."
"It's things like that, that are meant to stay in the past."
"What then…?" Naruto asked softly, tilting the Uchiha's chin until obsidian black eyes met his squarely, as he brushed back wild dark hair, noticing for the first time the way it was beginning to gray at the temples. They were older now, the three of them, and much less naïve, but none wiser. "What is it you would leave in the past, Sasuke? Our rivalry…our friendship? Everything we were as a team?"
"Our games of pretend." Sasuke turned his head, brushing his lips over the nearest exposed skin, the slender wrist attached to the hand cradled against the side of his face. His eyes darkened. "You can't do this to me…Naruto. What will I be…what will I do without you, dobe? What will I be without you?"
"You'll be husband to the most wonderful of woman, and you'll take care of her just like you promised me thirteen years ago. You'll be father to each and every one of those children, each one of them bearing the Uchiha name. You'll carry on, just like you always have, and I'll be just another memory in your mind."
"No," Sasuke gasped out, hands clutching desperately at his arms, shaking him roughly, "You can't leave me like this, Naruto! Don't leave me, dammit. You promised me once, that you never would. It's time to keep your fucking promise."
"It's one I'll have to break. Sasuke…calm down, and promise me something. Please."
Not near enough to hear his whispered words, still Rei could see her father's eyes widen and his body stiffen with resistance, jaw tightening with stubborn refusal. He shook his head, once, harshly to punctuate his point. Something flashed in Naruto's eyes, and he grabbed the other man by the collar, pulling him downward into the roughest kiss she had ever seen, a clash of lips and teeth, savage, primal with bites and bleeding lips as they pulled back, facing each other with flushed complexions and glaring eyes. "Promise me," Naruto hissed, his voice gruff and rough with an unidentifiable emotion.
Sasuke nodded once more, dropping his head downward to kiss the other man again, this time the contact tender and close-lipped, gentle compared to their previous, vicious assault. He pulled back after a moment, and smiled slightly, wiping away a trail of blood from his chin. "I promise, dobe."
"Dobe, still? Is that the closest I'll ever get to a love confession?"
"Hn. Don't push your luck, Uzumaki." There was no mistaking the way the Uchiha's eyes softened as they gazed down at teammate, friend, and lover.
"I love you too, teme."
Rei became partially aware of Megumi's small hands clutching at the folds of her gi, her tears soaking the fabric of her pants. She wrapped her arms around the smaller girl, bringer her closer as she stared uncomprehending at the spectacle before her. "Naruto-jiisan…"
Naruto turned his head toward her; managing a deceptive smile thwarted by the way his eyes began to cloud, making Rei all too aware of how quickly his life force was fading. She wanted so badly for it not to be true, for the foreboding, surreal feeling twisting her stomach to go away and never return, for this all to be a bad dream she would soon wake up from.
"Rei-chan…chibi, don't think I'd forgotten about you. Any of you." His eyes strayed from her to Megumi, to the pale and stricken Takao, lingering on Keiichi behind him, gone unusually silent with an unreadable expression.
"Megu-chan, Rei-chan, Takao-kun, Keiichi-kun, will you come here?"
One by one, they slowly filed forward, kneeling beside him. Megumi was the first to reach for him, throwing herself against his chest as her thin body wracked with sobs. Naruto's face softened as he raised his hand to her head, soothingly stroking her hair. "Shh, Megu-chan, it's alright. I want you to be a good girl for your parents, okay? Watch after everyone for me."
Megumi looked up with tear-streaked green eyes, and she nodded soundlessly, only releasing him at her mother's gentle insistence, and then she rushed into Sakura's arms, crying silently against her bosom.
Rei knelt silently beside him, held his hand in hers and tried to relate the pale, shaking figure before her with the image of the laughing golden man in her memory. She found herself failing, as she closed her eyes against the image and bowed her head.
Naruto tenderly wiped away the single tear that streamed from her eye, tilting her head to look at him. "Come now, Rei-chan. No tears from you, my strong one. You're the next genius of the Uchiha, chibi, so be strong for me."
His face gone haggard and pale, Takao bowed his head, his hands grasping at that of his uncle. The words exchanged between them were too soft to be audible to anyone but the two of them, but Takao stepped back a moment later, allowing for his brother to have his time.
Rei felt strong arms lock around her waist and pull her against a violently trembling body. Looking up, she was met with Takao's haggard and pallid face. The sight of his fear only made her return his embrace all the more tightly.
Keiichi stood before the fallen Hokage, his face twisted into an apprehensive expression, his brow furrowing as he met the gaze of the other man, azure blue meeting soft green. "Hokage-sama."
Naruto smiled wryly. "Come now, Keiichi, no need for that type of formality. What happened to Naruto-jiisan?"
"Should it be Jii-san, or perhaps Otousan?"
Naruto froze, the smile fading from his expression, and Keiichi lowered himself to kneel beside him, his face placid and expressionless. There was a soft choke from behind them, and Rei was sure it originated from Sakura. Sasuke showed no outward reaction as he remained mute, staring ahead at the two blondes.
"Will you answer me then, Hokage-sama? Naruto…are you my father?"
Naruto chuckled softly, the sound weak and breathless, little humor to be found in it. "How is it you came to that conclusion, Keiichi?"
"It's more than obvious…to say my hair came from my mother's family is such a blatant lie…to see the way you look at my mother, my father…will you tell me the truth, Naruto? I'm so tired of all the lies…"
Naruto raised a hand to touch his face, brushing his fingers gently against his cheek. "How long have you known?"
"The answer you want…it isn't simple, Keiichi. I sired you, yes, helped your mother bring you into this world. But Sasuke is no less your father that I. Your brother and you, we raised you together, the three of us, from the start. You are as much an Uchiha as you are an Uzumaki, and even a Haruno. Blood doesn't say everything, my boy."
Trembling fingers traced along the curve of Keiichi's lips and the young man kissed them, throat burning as he held back a response.
"I love you, Keiichi, all of you, as a father should. Don't forget that."
Keiichi could only watch numbly as the blonde shinobi's hand slipped from his face and fell to the ground, his body growing still as Uzumaki Naruto breathed his last breath.
The next afternoon, the Rokudaime's eulogy was delivered by his chosen successor, a skilled young jounin by the name of Konohamaru.
Sasuke and Sakura's last child was born within the next month, and as the couple made the trip to the newly appointed Hokage to register the newborn boy, they were accompanied by Keiichi.
Two changes were made that day to the Uchiha family registry. One, to add one Uchiha Naruto as the newest family member. The other, to officially change Keiichi's surname to Uzumaki.
Rei would never bring herself to forget the changes brought on by that day, the dizzying revelation of her parent's secrets, the truths that should have been so obvious but they had been so blind to, Takao and herself, even little Megumi, who was, perhaps, not so little anymore.
"The three of us…we were a team in everything we did. We couldn't help it when it happened…when we started to feel differently for each other."
Her father's words continued to echo through her mind the morning after the jounin examinations were held in Konoha, as she traveled with Hiro at her side, their hands entangled. It was hard to be at home, especially with baby Naruto there, with his ocher-colored hair and incredibly blue eyes. It didn't take a genius to figure out the truth behind that mystery. It was a story all in its own she didn't want to understand yet, but at least this time, her parents weren't making a secret of it.
She walked the village in search of Uzumaki Keiichi, the one she thought best would understand. As she found him, standing on the grounds where Naruto had fallen only weeks before, she sent Hiro on his way.
"We were a unit, a team, together in everything. In love, it didn't feel complete without all three."
She studied her brother's profile, and forced herself to see everything she had been blind to before, the way his golden hair fell against his brow in the same roguish way as Naruto's once had, the way his face stood sharply defined with a strong and masculine air, his back broad and taut as it faced her, towering over her in height. He was so much his father's son, it made her want to weep.
"When your mother…when Sakura became pregnant with Takao, all three of us knew it didn't matter who the father was, because we would all love and raise the child equally. When he was born a Uchiha, Sakura thought it fitting to have Naruto's child, no second thought about it. We were a family, lovers, friends, parents. That was all that mattered."
"I loved him…your mother loved him…and Naruto loved us both, but we found that Sakura carried you, Rei, there was no denying who the father was. Naruto's latest mission had kept him out of Konoha for months…"
"Takao and Keiichi were getting older, the villagers were starting to treat them differently. Naruto…Naruto was the one who thought it all out, who made the final decision to have Sakura marry me honorably and raise our children as Uchiha heirs, letting him duck out into the background."
At the sound of her voice, Keiichi turned toward her, his rugged face damp with tears, and he managed a weak smile. "Rei."
She stepped closer, hesitantly holding out her hand. "Keiichi…will we be okay?"
He smiled despite himself, and took her hand, pulling her close enough to embrace her. "Hai, little sister. We'll be alright. I'll be alright."
"Never a day passed when I didn't regret letting him make that decision."