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The Second Time Around

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“What…is with you…and this damn…tree?” Naruto’s clone demands, huffing and puffing as he drags himself up on the giant, moss-covered branch.

“Convenience,” Sasuke says, though if he’s being honest, he’s taking a peevish bit of joy seeing Naruto staggering about like he used to when they were kids. It serves him right for demanding this meeting so soon, and so out of the blue.

“Bastard,” the blond grumbles and straightens. He shoves a finger in Sasuke’s face. “I’ll have you know I’m risking certain death to be here, so there’s no need for you to be so smug!”

“You’re a clone,” Sasuke reminds him in a flat tone.

“Not me-me. The real me. I’ll just disappear when this is done. He’s the one she’s going to murder.”

Sasuke raises an eyebrow, trying to decide if that’s hyperbole or an actual worry. The clone looks spooked enough for it to be the latter, but if it was something serious, he wouldn’t have made such a big show of meeting here.

“Murder?” he prompts.

“Well, maybe not murder. But beat bloody at the very least,” the clone goes on, and crosses his arms. “I’m counting on you to be a decent friend for once in your life and not tell her I was the one who told you.”

“Told me what?” Sasuke asks, narrowing his eyes as a suspicion forms.

“Just make it seem like you were on your way back. And that you, you know, happened to notice something about her and asked about it,” the clone continues to ramble. “I’m not saying tell her she looks fat or anything, not unless you want to die, but… Well, it’s not like she’ll lie to you once you’re there. Not like she’s lying now, or anything! She’s just doing that whole, dutiful-wife-suffering-in-silence thing she’s so good at because she doesn’t want to bug you while you’re working. Which is also your fault, by the way.”

At this, Sasuke tenses, because there’s only one person to whom Naruto can be referring.

“You Uchiha and your damn martyr complex,” the clone ignores the dangerous gleam in Sasuke’s eye, and adopts an irritating falsetto. “Oooh, look at me, I have to suffer all alone so the people I love don’t!” He straightens up, speaking in his normal pitch now, but still with the hint of a sulk in his words. “Right, because that worked so well in the past—”

“Naruto,” Sasuke interrupts. “Shut. Up.”

The clone’s mouth closes with an audible snap, and when he sees the clench of Sasuke’s jaw, he sobers.

“Whoa, hold on now, Sasuke, don’t give me that face!” the clone of his best friend yelps, reaching out his bandaged hand in a placating gesture; the other reaches into his pockets. “There’s nothing wrong with Sakura or Sarada!”

Sasuke’s eyes narrow further, a reprimand at Naruto burying the lead. “Explain.”

“I will, just as soon as—ah! Got it!—here. Look at this.”

The clone hands him an envelope.

Sasuke is confused because under normal circumstance, whatever Naruto’s clone brings him is sealed into a scroll or at least encrypted in a way to disguise the information. Clearly whatever prompted this meeting has nothing to do with the village, or any of the top secret work he’s been assigned.

So why the hell did he insist on me making the trip here?

And what does it have to do with his family?

Deciding not to waste time on Naruto’s predisposition to melodrama, Sasuke rips open the top of the envelope with his teeth and shuffles out a single paper. It’s on a generic white sheet, a little waxy, from an office printer, and not even warded with seals.

The first thing to jump out at him is Sakura’s name, of course, and a series of numbers and abbreviations which mean nothing to him. The next is the image beneath this, coalescing out of the dark and too grainy for him to make out without activating the Sharingan. Once he does, though, he is struck by the familiarity of the image. He’s seen something like this, once before, in a nameless small town over a decade ago—

Sasuke stops breathing for at least thirty seconds.

Naruto is thankfully silent during that time, and it’s not even a smug silence. Waves of happiness radiate off his friend while Sasuke runs his fingers over the image in disbelief.

How…when…?

But he knows the answer to both, of course, because there are only a handful of times it could have been. Even though he is home more often these days, with Sarada in the next room there are few opportunities for intimacy with his wife. He can remember in vivid detail each instance where Sarada happened to be on an overnight mission or staying over at her friend’s house. Based on the size of the little figure in the sonogram and the date on it—

It shouldn’t be possible though. We’ve always been careful.

Then again, that’s what they thought about Sarada.

Sasuke feels as if somehow, this has to do with the Uchiha. He’s not sure exactly how it could be. Given how the entire world was thrown into disarray from his ancestor’s beyond-the-grave meddling, though, he wouldn’t be surprised.

In fact, it seems like something his brother would concoct; possibly even his mother.

“Congratulations,” Naruto tells him at last, warmth and pride suffusing the word.

Sasuke blinks, still stunned, and can only mumble, “Thanks.”

He never believed there would be more children, never thought he deserved it, never thought they would have the chance, given the nature of his mission.

And yet…

Something warm brews within him, like a Katon only infinitely more familiar. A growing swell of emotion he first experienced the day Sakura put his hand across her belly and told him he would be a father.  

It’s followed by the same, sharp twist of terror.

I screwed up the first time. What’s stopping me from doing it again?

He tries to fight down the thought, chase it away with something practical, something on which he can focus.

Still keeping his tone level, businesslike, he asks, “Sakura told you?”

“Well…no, not exactly,” the clone looks sheepish. “I had to ask her something and bumped into her as she was coming out of her office. She had a bunch of files and folders in her hands, and they went flying, so I helped her pick them up and then I saw this.” He scratches his ear. “She told me not to tell you ‘til you got back, because she didn’t want to interfere with your mission. But then I got that message from your hawk, you know, the one about extending your current mission another two months? And I decided, ‘fuck that’.”

“This doesn’t change things,” Sasuke points out absently, almost too punch-drunk to even pay attention to what he’s saying. “I still need to—”

“Go home and be with your family,” Naruto interrupts. “Hokage’s orders. And this time, I’m not taking no for an answer. So help me, I’ll take the other arm if you fight me on this.”

“I—”

“From now on, you’re on home missions,” the blond man tells him bluntly. “No, don’t even argue! The last time you had a reason to be away. You don’t anymore. Nothing you’re doing out here is more important than getting to watch your kid grow up.”

Sasuke glares at that, because his friend knows the exact spot to twist the knife, doesn’t he?

“You missed a lot with Sarada, and I’ve been kicking myself for years because I let your stubborn ass talk me into it,” the clone continues, merciless. “And in the end, there was no point to it. Someone else will do recon for the village for a while. And if there is anything out there…well, at least you’ll be home to protect the village yourself instead of who knows where in the world or beyond it.”

He juts his chin out at Sasuke as if daring him to argue or throw a punch at him in protest.

As if he would, knowing what he does now.

Sasuke exhales through his nose, glances down at the sonogram in his hand once more. The warm, sweeping sensation is back.

He gazes at the facsimile of his friend, then he nods. “Naruto…thank you.”

And there’s the grin again. “Anytime.”

It seems the future will be a little different than what he expected.

I should be used to that happening by now.

“So…” Naruto begins then. “This means you’ll cover me, right? With Sakura?”

“No,” Sasuke replies, turning away.

His best friend sputters, and Sasuke smirks.

While he appreciates Naruto’s gesture and wish for him to get a second chance with his family, Naruto ignored Sakura’s wishes. That deserves whatever retribution she chooses to mete out; Sasuke intends to be there to see it.

This time, he intends to be there for everything,

終わり