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A Return to Normalcy

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"Oh my god," Ino said, euphoric as she pawed through her clutch. "I have to call, like, everyone I know."

Ninja Pete's Ninja Bar and Grill wasn't known for quality but consistency and kitsch, two traits that generally appealed to ninjas, especially when they've been drinking. It wasn't built for acoustics either, which meant nobody should have heard Ino except Shikamaru and Temari, who were wedged into the same booth and rolling their eyes at each other over her head.

But Sakura had developed some weird almost sonar-like detection for this sort of situation, and tried to pry Lee's arms off of her waist and snapped, "Ino-pig, don't you even think about it!" over the commotion at her own booth, which was in fact what Ino was talking about.

Lee refused to be moved from where he was kneeling on the floor, clutching his wife as his tears ran into her lap. "Please don't leave me, my cherry blossom dove! Or before you do - because if an angel like yourself needs to fly free no mortal man should attempt to hold you against you will - please first tell me what I did to drive you into the arms of another man so that I may improve myself in order to win your favor back in the future!"

"Oh for the love of crap," Sakura said.

"Well," Sasuke said ponderously from over his sake cup. "You do talk a lot."

For the first time in fifteen minutes, Lee disengaged himself from Sakura, standing up and pounding the table so hard Sakura's chuhai nearly spilled all over intelligence reports Sakura and Sasuke had been discussing sixteen minutes ago. "How dare you speak to me this way, Sasuke-kun! For years I have considered you among my most precious and energetic companions, but now I find you flagrantly attempting to take my best beloved from me!"

"Lee!" Sakura moaned, cradling her face in her hands. "For the last time, this is a business meeting."

"I don't want to sleep with your wife, Lee," Sasuke added.

"Impossible!" Lee thundered, pointing a finger at Sasuke who blinked at it slowly and rather cross-eyed. His empties made a pretty little pile at the edge of the table and slowed his reaction time. "An impossible lie! How could anyone gaze upon the pure perfection of my Sakura-san and not try to win her?!"

"Lee," Sakura said again, still annoyed but a little flushed. You couldn't blame her, but it was widely agreed that she married Lee partly for the attention.

"I have my own wife," Sasuke pointed out. Sakura made choking noise and coughed to cover it.

"Perhaps you deserve my precious flower more than me!" Lee said, plowing on stalwart in the face of logic. "Being in Anbu and having a more classic 'movie star' appearance! But I will still fight for my dearest heart! I challenge you!"

Sasuke and Sakura shared looks - one incredulous, one resigned - while the ambient noise quieted enough that the sound of Ino saying "No, seriously, Lee thinks she's having an affair! Like she could ever pull Sasuke," wafted over. Sakura's eyes narrowed as she stomped away from the table, bellowing, "Ino-pig, I am in no mood!!"

Sasuke watched his partner in good sense run off, his expression bordering on strained or possibly nauseas. "Lee. I'm not fighting you,"

"You must fight me for the sake of Sakura-san's honor, Sasuke-kun!"

"Sakura doesn't really care about her honor. Besides, she would kill me," Sasuke pointed out, which was the exact wrong thing to say as measured in terms of the amount of smoke coming out of Lee's ears.

"Stop maligning my wife while you're wooing her! You can't malign and woo at the same time! That's very confusing! And rude!"

"Stop shouting." Sasuke slumped forward a little, elbows on the table. "You're being all... passionate. It's giving me a headache."

"Of course I'm impassioned! Which is why I deserve Sakura-san, you lazy cur!" Lee smirked, crossing his arms and cocking his hip out in a classic Gai pose. "Are you afraid of being defeated like before the chuunin exam?"

For all his highly publicized reform and his many (debatable) good qualities, Sasuke's pride would always get the better of him if given half a chance. His eyes glittering a little, Sasuke swayed to his feet, leaning over the table. "You want a rematch? Fine, it's on." The whole restaurant gave up the pretense of disinterest; there was the mass sense of an inhaled breath.

"Ten on Sasuke," Temari said to Shikamaru.

"Betting's a waste of time," Shikamaru said dismissively, but Kiba had overheard the exchange and was faux-casually making his way over.

"All right!" Lee said, too delighted by the prospect of a challenge to remember to be angry. "Let's go outside then!"

"No one is going anywhere!" Sakura declared, brushing the twisted remains of Ino's cellphone out of her hands as she strode back. She grabbed Lee by his ear. "Except you are going home with me and we are going to talk about not being stupid."

"Bye, dear," Sasuke said nastily. Sakura cuffed him on the back of the head and gave him a clipped, "Don't you even start."

"Sakura-san," Lee pleaded as Sakura, implacable, marched him out the door in a wake of whispers and hastily scribbled betting slips.

***

Sasuke woke up in bed the next morning, which was the only good start the day had for him. He burrowed his head in the direction of the pillow as the bedroom door, which might as well have been a gong, slammed shut.

"Morning, honey!" Naruto caroled, throwing something at him.

Sasuke reached up sluggishly, catching it. It felt like a newspaper. "If you don't stop being so loud I swear I'm going to kill you."

Naruto sat on the edge of the bed, bending over to do something with his shoe and snickering. Sasuke, sitting up a little, could see the indentation of his lower vertebrae through the gap between his shirt and his pants, which always put a damper in his murdering plans. "That's what you get for drinking on a work night," said Naruto, a man who had never had a hangover in his life. "Besides, you should save all your anger for your match with Lee."

Sasuke sank back down on the mattress. "That actually happened, didn't it?"

"It made the society page," Naruto said, nodding at the paper.

Sasuke squinted. "You read the society page?"

Naruto bounced to his feet, hands on his hips, wreathed in smiles. Honestly, it hurt to look at him. "Nah, I met up with Sakura-chan for breakfast this morning. You should know better than to bait Lee by now. He doesn't have any sense of humor when it comes to her. She said she's trying to make him see reason, and I said yeah right and then she bent my fingers way back."

Coffee, Sasuke thought. Or a strong cup of tea. He closed his eyes. "Whatever. I'll just tell him I'm not going through with it."

"Ehhhh," Naruto said, scratching the back of his head. "I don't know if he'll go for that. You know how Gai was with Kakashi-sensei. You don't want to start something like that. Might as well accept the challenge and get it over with."

"Can't you do something?" Sasuke asked. "As Hokage? Ban drunken bets?"

"Aw, honey," Naruto said, patting his leg. "But you don't want your wife getting you out of every scrap you get yourself into, right?"

Sasuke sighed. "She told you about that."

"Yup," Naruto said, and Sasuke noticed for the first time that his grin was curling evilly at the edges. "Well, I'm going to the office! I'd better see you there in fifteen minutes or I'm docking your pay."

"I hate you sometimes."

"If it makes you feel any better," Naruto said on his way out the door. "Last night Sakura-chan made Lee sleep on their lawn."

***

"You'd think they'll get over it," Kakashi said, his voice hollowed out by memory. "But they don't. Ever."

Sasuke made a sour face, a leftover adolescent habit that tempted Kakashi to pinch his cheeks both then and now. "Thanks," he said scathingly.

Kakashi shook off his old demons and smiled. "You shouldn't be upset though, Sasuke. This is a sign that Lee-kun has deep respect for you."

Sasuke always spoke the most eloquently with his silences and this one expressed the sentiment that Lee's esteem was poor compensation at best. It was one of the smaller signs he was content with Naruto, that he was no longer thrashing around wildly for anyone's attention. "I'm not upset," he finally said. "This is just annoying."

"It would be a shame," Kakashi said quietly. "To lose your friendship with Sakura again over something like this so soon after you've reconciled."

Sasuke just said, "Hmph," and toyed with the sword resting in his lap. It took Kakashi every ounce of control not to comment; his students never expressed any interest in Come Come Paradise and therefore missed the subtler nuances of nearly everything they did.

Kakashi stretched his arms over his head for a moment. "Well, the three of you have survived a lot worse than this. Some of the gennin are calling you 'the new legendary trio', you know."

Sasuke snorted. "That's just stupid."

"I think so too," said Kakashi. "But oh well. Youth." They sat in silence for a moment before Kakashi bowed his head briefly to the monument before him and turned to go.

"Hey," said Sasuke, getting to his feet. "Wait."

Kakashi looked at him with amusement. "You can't possibly want training for the match, Mr. Anbu."

"No," Sasuke groused, looking down. His cheeks were turning faintly pink. "I just don't want Lee following me around for the rest of my life."

"If you win, he'll demand a rematch," Kakashi agreed. "But if you lose, he'll think you threw the match to make him happy and demand a rematch. If he's anything like Gai, anyway."

Sasuke just fidgeted again. It was odd, and oddly charming, to see him quite this taciturn again and doubly so knowing it was because he was genuinely concerned. Watching Sakura and him meet over drinks and sushi was adorable. Being around someone practical and level-headed was obviously a surprise and a relief for them both. But Kakashi had never seen Naruto look as happy as when he bullied his former teammates to go bowling with him, and as much as Sasuke must be glad to have Sakura as an easy presence in his life, that was surely what was preying on his mind.

Kakashi took some pity on him. "But then again, he's not Gai. Every generation is different. It's hard to say what changes and what stays the same, but we're not all doomed to walk around in circles."

Sasuke, his arms dripping black tattoos and scars, knew that better than anybody, but he just snorted again.

"I could teach you how to walk on your hands," Kakashi offered.

Sasuke glared at him.

***

Throwing Lee out on the lawn had the pleasant side effect of Sakura not being woken up at 5:07 every morning to the cries of "SAKURA-SAAAAAAN! I HAVE COOKED A HEALTHY AND DELICIOUS BREAKFAST FOR YOOOOUUUU!" So she was particularly disgruntled when she woke up at 5:13 to someone pounding on the door. She yawned and threw on her robe; one of the nice things about being a senior officer and married, even after semi-exiling your husband, was not having to primp every time you set your foot outside.

When she swung the door open, however, her hand automatically went to her hair. She had never really found Neji that interesting, but he had that effect on people. Mostly because he was an imposing presence, especially when he was as irritated as he seemed now. "Oh! Neji-san! What can I do for you?"

Neji pulled a rumpled pile of what Sakura identified as her husband up the last few stairs. "He trained for so long this morning now he claims he can no longer stand up," he said flatly.

"... Oh," Sakura said.

"And you're a mednin," Neji said. He added as an after-thought. "And his wife."

"Thank you for bringing him home," Sakura said. "Would you... like some breakfast?"

"I'm fine." Neji lugged Rock Lee forward a few inches. He stared down at his teammate. "I had to carry him," he said, incredulous at himself. "I wouldn't have done it if he hadn't started clinging to my leg."

"You're very kind, Neji-san," Sakura said gravely. "Thank you." She grabbed Lee by the collar, dragged him inside and shut the door. "Honestly, Lee!"

"I'm sorry, Sakura-san," Lee said. His face was bright red and he probably couldn't move his legs. That was the problem with Lee; he was always sincere. Sakura sighed and went to go get her medkit.

"You're being really silly, you know," she said while recirculating the chakra flow to his lower body. "And carrying this way too far! You know I'm not interested in Sasuke-kun."

"Yes," Lee said sadly. "I could never doubt your fidelity, Sakura-san! But swains will be after you every day if I'm not careful."

"I could take care of them myself," Sakura said, not nearly as tartly as she intended. "And meanwhile you're hurting yourself over Sasuke, who's just our friend. You don't need to be so jealous, Lee."

"Sakura-san!" Lee's eyes were watering. "It's hard to believe that such a paragon of womanhood could still care about me after three blissful years!"

"Fighting Sasuke isn't going to help! Just call off the match. No one will mind."

Lee blinked wide eyes. "Oh, I can't do that! I've given my word! Even if the reason for the challenge doesn't matter, the challenge itself will be a glorious reminder of our skill and vigor!"

"Ugh," Sakura said, but Lee limped his way after her to the kitchen, whole now, and they made breakfast.

***

The members of team eight had been selected to work as a tracking unit and trained with this skill primarily in mind. Often, Hinata thought this bred in their personalities a pugnacious quality, a certain doggedness, and she would feel ashamed of the jokes if Kiba hadn't made them first.

But Kiba was a connoisseur of dog puns, at least if he and his friends were making them first; and prided himself on sticking with an assignment until its completion, even if it were self-imposed and an increasingly bad idea. This didn't seem like it would end as disastrously as when he tried to coax Shino into that silkworm pyramid scheme, but it struck Hinata as, at the very least, tactless. So when Akamaru starting begging her to take a shoebox full of fight predictions from his mouth, she did her best to sidestep the landslide.

"Kiba-kun," she tried, bunching up the hem of her shirt. "I don't think this is a very good idea."

"It's a great idea!" Kiba insisted. "There are a ton of little hiding places in the Hyuuga compound. No one will even notice it!"

Hinata's mind stuttered at the thought of her father's reaction to finding out his house had turned into a betting parlor, and the inevitability of this happening. "Lee-san and Sasuke-san are our friends."

"Yeah," Kiba said. "So what do they care if we make some money because of them? This is all in fun anyway - it's not a serious fight. Not like either of them is going to get hurt."

She had always suspected that she was only invited to the group outings the kunoichi arranged out of pity or some fuzzy sense of solidarity. They were nice enough to her in a diffuse sort of way, but Hinata was painfully aware she was someone to whom it was difficult to get close. Still, she had been at the last girl's night out, nursing a white wine spritzer and listening to Sakura moan, "They're going to kill each other and I'm not using Chiyo-baasama's jutsu on people that dumb!" Even Ino had stopped laughing long enough to tell her at most Lee might lose a leg.

"I'm... I'm not sure. Sakura-san's worried," she told Kiba.

Kiba made a dismissive noise and waved his hand. "Eh, doctors, right? Always freaking out about scraped elbows."

Hinata found herself growing slightly cross, but before she could say anything Shino came back with their lunches. He handed Hinata her takeout container with a nod and snorted disdainfully when he saw the shoebox that comprised Kiba's dreams of being Konoha's most notorious bookie. "You're still at it?"

"Hey!" Kiba barked, idly scratching Akamaru's head when he started to bristle. "You made a bet yourself, Mr. High and Mighty!"

"Shino-kun!" Hinata said, surprised.

Shino shrugged. "It was a sure thing. The Hokage's lover is second only to Naruto-sama himself. He's not going to lose to a jounin specialist, even for fun."

"Shino," Kiba said cautiously, casting a rather blatant glance at Hinata.

Hinata's cheeks started to burn. "N-no, it's fine." It had been long enough that she was more flustered by their clumsy concern than anything else. "But I just, I don't think this is a good idea! It's mean and, and disrespectful. These are people's lives!"

Shino's expression was always various shades of blank, but all the expression had been wiped off Akamaru's face, let alone Kiba's.

Hinata sighed a little. "The maids at the compound... they're trained to see through walls."

Kiba's face fell. "Damn. Hey, Shino, can you-"

"Termites," said Shino.

"Damn."

Hinata opened her lunch. Shino had remembered to get her extra ginger.

***

"-and finally the assailant from Rain still refuses to reveal her identity. One of my assistants is healing her punctured kidney and interrogating her, so we expect a statement by tomorrow morning." Sakura looked up from her clipboard, shifting a bit on undoubtedly sore feet. Naruto thought she looked cutest like this, competent and a little tired, makeup smudged and hair done up with a pencil. "Anything else?"

Naruto swiveled back and forth in his chair, wedging his feet more comfortably against the blotter of his desk. "Yeah. The fight's two days from now, right?"

Sakura rubbed her forehead and said, with a sing-song recitation cadence. "At noon when the sun as at its highest, to shine its light most proudly on the victor, in the village square, so the eyes of the Hokage can gaze upon the magnificence of youth."

"...Wow," Naruto observed. He could smell Sai leaning forward about a millimeter from where he stood by the window, as much as he could without breaking his self-imposed freakishly still Anbu stance. Apparently he was interested in the conversation.

Sakura bit her lip. "I couldn't convince Lee to back down. You?"

Naruto shrugged. "Eh. It's Sasuke. You know how he gets. Anyway, it's not like they're really mad or nothing - they'll just do some property damage, blow off some steam. No real harm."

"It's not about them getting hurt." Sakura tapped her pen against her clipboard, biting her lip. "It's.... it's just complicated."

When Sasuke and Sakura had come home from Water, both pale and musty but smiling at each other with all the shakiness of a newborn chick, Naruto had waited ten seconds after finally being alone with Sasuke to ask 'what happened, what happened, WHAT HAPPENED??' Sasuke had fed him the story one word at a time, a sullen little eyedropper of a narrator. In response, Naruto said the most appropriate thing he could think of: namely that there was enough of the Hokage going around to satisfy all the bitches.

Judging by Naruto's sore throat was the next morning, Sasuke did not find this as hugely apropos.

He had known about Sakura - or at least it made so much sense in retrospect he felt like he'd always known. But he could only think about it clinically; it was fascinating in a historical way. Sakura was happy with Lee, he could tell every time she turned pinker when Lee gushed over her. And Sasuke - literally, he could also see through a lens filtered and sterilized by years of battles and paperwork and a village's worth of concerns that gradually grew to be more pressing than his own - was all Naruto had ever striven for, ever wanted. He had been mellowed by the smooth course of his happy ending. He figured he knew why both Sasuke and Sakura were so antsy about this stupid match; they wanted to be fully settled into theirs too.

Behind him, Sai was practically vibrating with potential energy. Naruto leaned his head back and said. "What?"

Sai continued to stand stone still.

"Uh, sorry. You're released from your... thing. What?"

Sai took off his mask. He was the only member of Naruto's guard who was never even the slightest bit red-faced after an eight hour shift with it on. Maybe since Sakura was already here he'd ask her to run some tests, although that sounded like it would lead to her lecturing him about the abuse of power again. "Hokage-sama-"

"Man, you do not have to call me that."

"Hokage-sama, may I ask a question?"

"Shoot."

"Kakashi-san recently lent me his copies of the Come Come Paradise series, and there is a scene in the third book that reminds me of this situation. The characters resolved the conflict by-"

"You are not allowed to continue asking that question," Sakura said sharply.

"It'll be fine, Sakura-chan," said Naruto. "It'll clear the air, you'll see."

"If it's done right," Sakura said. She bowed absently from the shoulders. "If I'm excused," she said, as always when she hadn't been excused at all, and padded out the door.

"Hokage-sama," Sai said after a moment. "When Kakashi-san lent me the books, he said-"

"You are so not allowed to talk for the rest of the night," said Naruto. But he was thinking.

***

It would be a stretch to say Konoha was waiting with baited breath for the day of the challenge. Kiba's betting pool, as Kakashi understood it, had never really gotten off the ground. But there was already a crowd milling around the marketplace with the preoccupied air of a group of people looking out of the corner of their eyes. Even in a relatively stable hidden village like Konoha , hardly a week went by without some sort of challenge, but there seemed to be the consensus that this one would make a good drinking story.

Kakashi hadn't gone seeking him out, but he wasn't half surprised to see Lee by the monument shortly after dawn had faded to the clear, backlit blue of early morning. The cicadas were already singing their heat-song, but Lee, kneeling, lit his fire and prepared his offering with unhurried movements.

After fifteen minutes Lee, his eyes closed and his hands resting on his thighs called out, "Would you like to pay your respects too, Kakashi-san?"

Kakashi figured that meant he should give up on trying to wait Lee out and disengaged from the forest canopy, puttering his way into view. "I already did."

Lee nodded. He had a ready state that was focused, almost quiet, but there was a happiness in that intensity. Gai had taught him how to take joy in fighting, which very few students had the capacity to learn. Kakashi certainly had never tried. Lee got to his feet, brushing off his knees, and said without any particular inflection. "You must think I'm being ridiculous, Kakashi-san."

"I think you take after your sensei. He was as fine a ninja and as good a man as I've met." Kakashi tucked his hands in his pockets, thinking it over. "But he was usually pretty ridiculous."

Lee nodded again, collecting his tools. "Yes, Kakashi-san."

"Come on," said Kakashi. "You don't want to be late. I'll walk you back."

***

As its notoriety increased the Ichiraku had expanded, building a little back room with a stable roof. It had become the unofficial stage for informal events like this. The crowd below it, beginning to get anxious, parted like a wave when Sasuke ambled his way through. He was in civvies, his hands in his pockets, but had at least had the good grace to have brought his forehead protector. He wore it rarely since getting it back from Naruto and always tied it around his upper arm, hiding half the scratch from view. He leaned his elbow on one of the barstools, looked up and said, "Yo."

"You're late!" Lee said, pointing at him.

"Yeah. Sorry."

"Thirty-five minutes late!"

Sasuke shrugged with a little smirk. "I overslept."

Sakura, on the edge of the crowd, smacked the heel of her palm against her forehead and said, "Oh just quit it," to one of her assistants, who was standing by her side and gazing in Sasuke's direction with intensely besotted gooiness.

Lee trembled with rage. "Unconscionable! Unforgivable!"

"Right, right," Sasuke sighed. He jumped onto the roof, landing in a supple, spring-loaded crouch. "Let's just get this over with already."

"Yes," Lee said stiffly. He pointed at Sasuke again, who stared at the finger levelly. "But first we must decide the parameters of our glorious battle!"

"Mm," said Sasuke, doing his best to make it look like he was still thinking about breakfast.

"I propose!" Lee's finger went straight up into the air. "That we test our stamina, our courage and our strength! We shall each drink cup upon cup of hot black tea! Whoever must excuse themselves to go to the bathroom first loses the challenge!"

Sasuke blinked once, slowly. "... No."

"Aha!" Lee gave Sasuke a thumbs-up. "I had prepared for the possibility that you would refuse! So I have prepared an extra-special-bonus 'lightning round special' in order to entice you!"

"Yeah?"

"While we drink our tea, we rest the empty teacups on our heads!"

"There is no way I'm doing that," Sasuke informed him. There was a little murmur from the crowd.

"Did I mention we will have to be battling tongue blisters from the boiling tea water?" Lee said, clearly a little confused that this was not a quick sell.

"Look, can't we just fight?" Sasuke said irritably. "I don't know about you, but I've got a busy day after this, so..."

Kakashi cleared his throat. His reputation was imposing even if his posture generally wasn't, and most of the throng quieted when he stepped forward. "If I may, I might be able to offer a suggestion."

"I TOTALLY ENDORSE THIS SUGGESTION!" The crowd, partly from respect but mostly out of surprise, sprang to nearly opposite sides of the market as Naruto bustled through, wearing his ceremonial robes and shouting. He looked a little askew, especially in contrast to Sai, impeccable as always, by his shoulder. "Everybody, sorry I'm late-"

"Forty-seven minutes late!" Lee told him.

"Yeah, like I said, sorry," Naruto said, giving him a dirty look. "Anyway, what Kakashi-sensei just said, I agree with it. Totally."

"Hokage-sama," Kakashi, sweet like arsenic. "I had not actually gotten around to making the suggestion yet."

"Oh." Naruto scratched his head. "Well, whatever you suggest, I'm sure it's a really good idea and Sasuke and Lee should go along with it!" He beamed.

Kakashi's shoulders slumped momentarily before he rallied again, speaking in his brightest voice. "Anyway, I've thought of a contest that tests your strength, stamina and intelligence like nothing either of you has ever faced. Plus it also minimizes the chance you two will destroy the main square. Doesn't that sound good?"

Sasuke said, "Hnph."

"All... All right," Lee said. He tilted his head. "What is it?"

Kakashi smiled. "It's-"

***

"-genius, isn't it?" Naruto elbowed Sakura, not distracting her in the slightest from staring at the two competitors with wooden horror. "Eh, eh? Isn't it? I thought of it when Sai said he read them! This way no one gets hurt or mad! Right, Sakura-chan? Right? Right? Sakura-chan?"

"Perverts," Sakura said. "You are all insane perverts."

Two stools had been tossed to the roof in order to make Sasuke and Lee comfortable enough to concentrate fully on the texts in their hands. Sasuke had never been a great reader, but he was plowing along steadily with his usual calm. Lee had made more progress in his copy of Come Come Paradise but he was sweating bullets and twisting increasingly disgusted faces.

"Go Lee-kun!" Tenten cheered. "Read that pornography like nobody's business!"

"Sasuke-kun!" Sai called out. "If it helps you focus, you can mentally substitute in adequate penis sizes!" He completely failed to notice when Ino started sidling up to him.

"I, I don't think I understand." Hinata had been red ever since Kakashi had brought out the materials in question. "How does this test their strength or stamina?"

"Trust me," Kiba said grimly. "It does."

"Lee-kun!" Tenten said. "You're cracking! Stay strong! Focus! Don't-" but it was too late. Lee shrieked, turning an interesting shade of mauve, and dropped the book like it had started to eat away at his fingers. He kicked it for good measure, sending it pinwheeling far into the forest of death. He jumped off the roof of the Ichiraku, making a beeline for Sakura, and crushed his wife to his chest, sobbing

"Sakura-san!" he cried, while Sakura feebly tried to free her arms. "Sakura-san, I can't do it! I forfeit the challenge! Forgive me! I tried to be strong and read that filth for your sake, but I couldn't do it! I could only think of your pure moonlike loveliness! I'm not worthy of you after all!"

"Lee... Lee. Lee!" Sakura managed to get enough room between them to look Lee in the eye. "Don't you get it? This is why I love you. You're sweet and loyal and a kind person. I mean, look at that perv Sasuke-kun! He's still reading that trash! How could I possibly prefer anyone to you when you're the best man I know?"

Lee stared at her in wonder for a few seconds, his eyes wet and luminous. Finally he clutched her again, shouting, "I love you, Sakura-san!"

"Let's... let's go home," Sakura gasped. Eventually, Lee let go of her and, taking her hand, followed her out of the crowd.

"Philistines," Kakashi sniffed, watching them go. "No taste in literature."

All in all, it was considered a quality morning and the gathered throng had all but dissipated by the time Naruto climbed up to join Sasuke who was, as Sakura had said, making his way through the book undaunted. "Man, you're good. Those things are so boring!"

"Eh," Sasuke said, turning a page. "The scene with the goat went on too long. Other than that, it's pretty okay." He looked up long enough to smirk. "You and Kakashi planned this, huh?"

"Sai helped," Naruto said unrepentantly. "Although I think he also kind of scarred my brain."

Sasuke snaked out a hand and pulled Naruto closer by the hip. "There's not enough there to scar."

"Real funny," said Naruto, peeking over Sasuke's shoulder. He scrunched up his face. "Man, that's lame."

For half a beat, Sasuke pressed his nose to Naruto's chest, breathing him in. "Not if you do it right." Then he rose off the stool, impersonal as granite and leapt off the roof.

"Eh? Eh?! You know how to do that? Sasuke! Get back here!" But Sasuke didn't say a word, even though Naruto harangued him all the way back to the office.