|chibirisuchan (chibirisuchan) wrote,|
@ 2005-11-29 23:16:00
Chouji lifted a hand to knock at the Rokudaime's door;
before he could connect, though, it slammed open and a laughing Naruto
barrelled through it... just in time to avoid being nailed by the flung sandals
that soared through where his shaggy blonde head and the door had been a couple
seconds earlier. Sakura and Mikoto tumbled out after him, squealing with glee;
it was clearly a long-familiar game to them.
"And STAY out!" came an all too familiar
howl from the direction of Sasuke's book-and-pillow-strewn futon in the living
Baffled, Chouji got as far as "Rokudaime-sama,
what...?" before he was assaulted at the knees. Both knees at once,
actually; he clutched at the railing to keep from toppling over. Two of the
three Uzumaki-Uchiha kits had attached themselves to him, squealing at
"Uncle Cho," Naruto corrected, still laughing as
he put Sasuke's sandal inside the door again -- and dodged its mate, because
Sasuke had clearly been waiting for his head to make itself a target again.
"Nuh-uh! He's Grand-cho 'cause he's grand!" one of
the tiny girls announced from the vicinity of Chouji's knee. "Pick me up,
"Kii-tan, Gran'unka-to's here!" the other one
called to their quieter brother around a finger in her mouth, as Chouji
carefully bent over and lifted the little girls, one in the crook of each
"I'm Papa-sitting," Kiyoshi called back.
"Papa-sitting....?" Chouji echoed faintly. The
Uzumaki-Uchiha clan never failed to find new and fascinating ways to boggle
normal people's minds.
"Sitting on Papa," the chatty one -- Mikoto-chan,
was it? -- informed him wisely. "'Cause he needs sitting on sometimes when
Dad makes him too upset, 'cause it's not good for the kits when Papa starts
throwing furniture, so we bring him sandals to throw instead, an' Kii-chan sits
on him to make sure..."
Naruto dissolved into howls of mirth again at Chouji's
"I'm out of sandals and holding a kunai," came a
growl from inside. "Stop laughing, moron."
Chouji looked through the door very, very cautiously. Sasuke
was bundled up in blankets and ties that were pinned to the floor with kunai
with an Uzumaki spiral etched into the blades, and Kiyoshi was sprawled in his
lap like a kitten trying to take up as much space as possible, but Sasuke had
managed to work an elbow and hand free of the mess and levered out one of the
kunai. His eyes were glinting crimson, and Kiyoshi was making anxious little
soothing sounds as he patted his papa's roundly swollen tummy.
"Shhh -- it's okay, Papa, Dad's just being a dead-last
Chouji didn't even have to ask where a preschooler had
learned that phrase, really. Still wiping tears of glee from his eyes, the
Rokudaime Hokage of Konohagakure no Sato wheezed, "Listen to your son! Lie
still and take your nap, and I'll send Konohamaru with some onigiri later; you don't
need to do anything but rest and keep getting fatter--"
The kunai sailed through where Naruto's hair would have been
if he hadn't ducked hastily. "Okay, plan B. Come on, Kiyoshi-chan, let's
head to the tower and have Uncle Cho do the papa-sitting for a while!"
Kiyoshi's eyes went wide. "Um... Dad...? Grand-cho is,
er, kind of bigger than Papa is..."
"So when he sits on him, there's no way he's going to
wriggle free, is there!" Naruto crossed his arms and nodded emphatically
to himself. "Sounds perfect to me--"
"Will you all stop talking around me like I'm an
inanimate object?" Sasuke was stretching his fingertips toward another
kunai; Kiyoshi caught his hand hastily.
Sasuke struggled with himself and with the kunai-pinned
blanket for a moment, then sighed a bit as he gathered his son into the crook
of his free arm and rested his cheek against the boy's soft, dark, Uchiha-rumpled
"Kiyoshi, I love you, and I understand that you're
worried about me and about our new kits. I'm proud of you for caring. --Now, if
you'll just hand me a few more of those kunai, I can do a great deal of
damage without having to exert myself, I promise."
"Um... Papa...? Dad needs to not have bloodstains and
holes in him today, he's got a meeting with deler- del- ...people from Cloud."
Naruto nodded sagely. "There's no way I'd push this
many of your buttons on a day when you could get away with something! Tsunade-baachan
says that's called strategic thinking!" He sounded terribly proud of
Sasuke's eyes narrowed. "Kiyoshi, go play with your
"Now, Kiyoshi." He smoothed the boy's dark
hair with a gentle hand, but his eyes had more than a glint of crimson in them
now, and they were fixed on Naruto's smug grin. "Go climb Uncle-Cho
Mountain. Go on."
"Actually, I'm getting a little tired," Chouji
said quickly, handing the girls to Naruto. "I think I should sit down and
rest with your papa, kits. You take your dad to Hokage Tower and make sure he
gets there on time so Aunt Sakura doesn't put lumps on his head just before he
has to make a big public appearance, okay? Hurry now -- we don't want to let
him take after Uncle Kaka and be late!"
Sakura and Mikoto were already tugging on Naruto's hands;
Kiyoshi hesitated in the doorway for a moment, and tugged on the hem of
Chouji's shirt. "Grand-cho? Please don't sit too hard on Papa."
"I won't, I promise," Chouji said, hand over his
heart. Reassured, the little boy trotted after his sisters, and took up a post
tugging on Naruto's robes as the tall, grinning blonde made a great show of
being overpowered and 'unwillingly' dragged along by three preschoolers.
Just to be safe, Chouji closed the door before he waddled
across the room and awkwardly settled his bulk to the floor by Sasuke's side
and began prying loose the kunai. He didn't quite know what to say, so he took
refuge in chatter about nothing at all.
"I know it's frustrating being on bedrest -- but really, this is the best time of year to
be curled up with warm blankets and people taking care of you. It's so cold and
icy and slippery in the evenings when the snowmelt refreezes in the streets,
even Shikamaru tells me I'm under orders to have the shop closed before sunset
and to have one of the chuunin or jounin walk me home. And you know it's got to
be serious if Shikamaru bothers himself to make a proclamation about it;
Rokudaime-sama loves the sound of his own voice, of course, but Shika--"
"Shut up," Sasuke whispered, his voice breaking.
"Just shut up."
Chouji looked at him again, startled, and realized that the
spill of dark hair shadowing his face wasn't quite hiding the tear-tracks on
"I hate this," he hissed through his teeth,
fighting to control his breathing, fighting not to sob. "Being so damned
clumsy, pathetic, useless -- my own children try to protect me --
and I hate that Naruto loves it, that he loves every damn minute
of stifling me, of treating me like an eggshell about to shatter-- I hate
it when I'm this damn helpless! I'm not some fucking useless broodmare to be
locked in a stall and let the real men do all the work while I'm too heavy to
fight them over it--" He streaked a fist across his face to try to smudge
away the tears, shaking.
Oh, that's right, Chouji thought, dismayed. He likes
being on the battlefield...
"It's not that Roku--... that Naruto wants to stifle
you just to stifle you," Chouji said carefully. "It's that he truly loves
being able to take care of you. He knows how badly you've been hurt by a loved
one before, and he wants to be sure you never hurt like that again. He wants so
desperately to show you how much he loves you, and -- being Naruto -- he goes a
"A little?" Sasuke scoffed, struggling to
keep his voice from cracking again. "Naruto has never gone just a little
overboard in his life, not when 'five or six miles beyond overboard' is
available as an alternative! --Including when it comes to getting me pregnant!"
"It's only twins this time, right?"
"That's still overkill!" Sasuke looked more like
Kiyoshi in that moment than he'd ever have wanted to admit, with his arms
crossed and childishly round cheeks smudged with tear tracks and just a hint of
a bottom lip pouting out. "My body could have handled just one, I think,
and Sakura wouldn't have given him the excuse to literally nail me in bed for
You would still have been pushing your limits, telling
yourself it was just one, and they would still have had to restrict you for
your own good, because you're still so desperate to prove yourself to the world
-- but I can't tell you that; you wouldn't listen, you're so much like Ino like
that. Instead, Chouji just sighed,
and put an arm around Sasuke's shoulders. In response to Sasuke's startled
glance, he said gently, "Sakura loves you too, you know, in her own
"...I never asked her to."
"I know," Chouji said. "We all know. You've
been so careful not to let anyone touch, not until Naruto finally wore you down
enough to accept it. But that doesn't keep any of us from loving you and caring
about you regardless."
Staring down at nothing, Sasuke murmured, "I don't know
why you bother."
"We know that too," Chouji said, patting his
friend gently, running his hand over shoulderblades that always seemed too fine
and fragile, too easily broken next to an Akimichi's solid reassuring bulk.
"That's one of the reasons we bother."
Sasuke breathed a deep soft sigh, one hand moving to press
against the full mound of his belly, where kicks from within made the blanket
flutter. After an awkward moment, he let himself barely rest his head against
Chouji's shoulder, tentative and cautious, as though not entirely certain he shouldn't
be pushed away. Chouji kept up the lulling, soothing strokes, moving his hand
from Sasuke's shoulder to his belly and rubbing a soft lazy circle beneath the
Looks like he's susceptible to Shikamaru's
drowsing-cat-no-jutsu after all; I'll have to tell Naruto.
The trouble with drowsing-cat-no-jutsu was that it tended to
make the caster just as sleepy as the target, but today that wasn't a problem;
Chouji yawned and settled himself more comfortably into the pile of pillows on
the floor, and Sasuke turned toward him a bit and nestled his cheek against
Around an enormous yawn and snuggle, Sasuke mumbled,
"You're doin' this on purpose somehow, aren't you..."
"Yep," Chouji agreed without hesitation, still
rubbing his grouchy friend's snug round belly with his fingertips and
concentrating on thoughts of sleepy kittens. "Works great, doesn't it?
Shikamaru invented it."
"'Course he did," Sasuke muttered, and then had to
yawn again. "What's he call it, lazy-ass-no-jutsu?
Chouji laughed, and turned his free hand to kneading the
back of Sasuke's neck and those bird-fragile little shoulderblades.
"Something like that. You've got a cat, don't you? Does it come when
"It's a cat," Sasuke murmured drowsily.
"Of course it doesn't."
"Right," Chouji said, and reached into his pouch
for a snack bag of dried fish. He tore it open with his teeth and waved it
about the room for a moment, then returned to rubbing Sasuke's grudgingly
Struggling to keep his eyes open out of pure stubbornness,
Sasuke asked, "What's...?"
The sudden plaintive mew of a striped gray cat with her
forepaws on Chouji's stomach snuffling her way toward the open packet answered
his question before he even managed to finish the sentence.
"Cat magnet," Chouji said conspiratorially, and
gave the cat a bit of dried fish as he picked her up and settled her in
Sasuke's lap and scratched behind her ears to make sure she'd stay put.
She didn't even finish gnawing on her fish before the purrs
slipped over into snores as she snuggled against the warm curve of Sasuke's
"That... that's not fair," Sasuke managed
around a jaw-cracking yawn, his eyes drifting to half-mast despite his
impressive force of stubborn willpower.
"Love and war," Chouji reminded him around a yawn
of his own, one hand resting on the cat's fur and the other curved about
"Love, of course, silly," Chouji said, feeling his
own eyes drifting shut. "Hush... 'n take your nap..."
Sasuke tried for a retort, he really did, but all he managed
to do with that breath was mumble something incoherent and snuggle closer to
the warm, comforting pillow of Chouji's big round belly.
* * *
Chouji woke first at the sound of little feet trying to be
sneaky and tiptoe; he blinked, and there was a squeak and a stifled giggle and
a mad scamper towards the doorway. Chouji caught a glimpse of little pigtails
flying behind the last one to tumble out into the yard and dissolve into
squeals of glee at having not been 'caught' at their 'mission.'
Sitting on his heels beside Chouji, Konohamaru whispered,
"The kits wanted to bring onigiri for their papa, and I'm here to be the
pack animal." He patted a layered lunchbox that was stacked almost as tall
as one of the children.
"Sasuke isn't going to eat that many
"They insisted we had to make a bunch for Grand-cho
too," Konohamaru replied, with a grin. "Since Papa needs to be coaxed
to eat more for the new kits' sake, clearly Grand-cho needs extra feeding for
his kit too. Apparently there are lots of yakiniku-onigiri in there. A little
lopsided, the kits' hands are too little to shape them very well, but they'll
still taste fine."
Chouji reached over and pulled the top four layers off the
lunchbox immediately. "Tell Rokudaime-sama his children are angels,"
he mumbled around a mouthful of onigiri.
Konohamaru rolled his eyes. "You obviously haven't had
to babysit all three by yourself yet! Have one of the ANBU send a bird if you
need anything this afternoon; Rokudaime-sama says he should be home around
sunset, and he'll keep the kits with him to keep them from pestering Sasuke
into breaking his bedrest rules. Can you keep an eye on him until then?"
"Sure," Chouji mumbled around his seventh onigiri,
looking down at the dark-haired head snuggled against his belly, as relaxed and
trusting in his sleep as one of the children. "No prob'm."
Konohamaru looked like there was something he wanted to say
to the notion of Sasuke being 'no problem' for anybody, but he bit it back
hard; instead, he let himself out with a quiet wave, sliding the door softly
closed to keep from disturbing Sasuke's rest before he started barking orders
to the kits. From the sound of things, the little imps must have taken the
moment of freedom to get themselves into either snow or mud... or both.
The cat's nose and whiskers were twitching, and she yawned
and stretched to at least three times her original length before blinking her
way half-awake enough to ooze toward the onigiri. Somehow, one minute she'd
been stretching in Sasuke's lap, and the next she was sprawled on his belly
with her forepaws on his head, snuffling at Chouji's handful of
yakiniku-onigiri; he made a frustrated little grump and scooped the cat up, but
not before the poky little feet on his face had started Sasuke stirring.
"You sit over there," Chouji told her, pulling
apart the onigiri and setting it in the lid of the lunchbox so she could get at
the meat. Then he turned his attention to trying to soothe Sasuke back to sleep
with gentle rocking and a strong hand rubbing his back. For a moment, he
thought it might work; Sasuke yawned and snuggled close again, one sleepy hand
rubbing at the pawprints on his cheek. But then Sasuke tried to slip both arms
about him for more teddybear-like snuggling, and his fingertips didn't reach,
and that part made it through the fog of his half-asleep-ness.
A moment later he was wide awake and his reflexive jerk back
almost unbalanced him enough to topple backwards off the mattress and the pillow-pile;
Chouji caught him by the shoulders hastily, steadying them both.
"...You're not Naruto," Sasuke managed, around a
huge yawn. "I-- uh-- didn't mean to..."
"It's all right," Chouji said, smiling as he
patted his belly proudly. "Shikamaru says I make the best pillow ever, and
he knows about laying around! Do you want to sleep some more, or do you
Sasuke looked so very much like his son, sleepy dark eyes
barely managing to stay open despite his instinctive struggles against a 'nap';
he scrubbed a fist across his eyes, and Chouji patted his belly again,
"World's best pillow," he reminded him. "Big
and round and warm, and perfect for drowsing on..."
"I know, but--" he stopped to fight back another
yawn, and crinkled his nose-- "bathroom, now. Nearly eight months pregnant
"Almost nine here," Chouji reminded him with a
sigh. "Arm wrestle you for it?"
"Not if I can run faster," Sasuke said with a dark
grin, panting as he struggled his way toward his feet. "Or waddle faster.
The other's all the way upstairs."
The 'race' was a bit of a farce, but Chouji let Sasuke win
because it was easier to haul himself upstairs than to figure out what to do
with touchy, wounded Uchiha pride. When he came downstairs again, though,
Sasuke hadn't settled himself back into the nest; instead he was standing in
the kitchen, both hands braced in the hollow of his back as he waited for the
teapot to boil.
"Um..." Chouji thought about it for a long moment,
and realized there really wasn't any non-dangerous way to say the word.
"I was already standing."
"Yes, but you can lie down and let me--"
"Not an invalid," Sasuke said shortly, staring at
the teapot. "You're the guest. You're further along. You go rest."
I'm also not under strict orders from half the medic-nins
of Konoha... Chouji hesitated for another moment, then pushed one of the
kitchen chairs over to nudge the back of Sasuke's knees lightly. "We can
both sit," he offered. "If your chairs will hold me right now, that
Sasuke didn't reply, but lowered himself into the chair with
a soft huff; Chouji wasn't quite sure whether it came from exasperation or
exertion. So Chouji followed his lead, rather gingerly; his chair creaked a
little, but held together, and Chouji let himself relax. In one direction,
anyway; the other was a little more difficult. An awake and grumpy Uchiha was
much trickier to keep calm and still than a three-quarters-asleep one.
It took some coaxing with the finished tea and the onigiri
and blankets to get Sasuke to lie down and rest again, and he brought a sizable
pile of scrolls and books with him when he did. Chouji made himself a quiet
pillow, rubbing Sasuke's back for him with an arm about what remained of his
waist, and he tried to ask not-stupid questions about the titles of the things Sasuke
After the fourth time Sasuke abruptly jerked his head up
from where he'd let it rest against Chouji's shoulder, Chouji told him, "I
don't mind, really."
"..." Sasuke scowled fiercely at his
blanket-covered toes, at the window, and at the room in general, then admitted,
"...okay." And he let himself relax just a little.
Chouji bit his bottom lip to keep from grinning too much,
and offered another of the umeboshi-flavored onigiri because he knew Sasuke
liked the sourness of umeboshi more than usual during his pregnancies. That
earned him the sulky-preschooler glare-pout, as Sasuke plucked it out of his
hand and bit into the seaweed-wrapped rice a little more avidly than he wanted
to admit to anyone, particularly himself.
Around a mouthful of rice, Sasuke mumbled, "Don' you
get cravings too? 'S not fair 'f I'm th' only one..."
Chouji chuckled, embarrassed, and said, "I always had
cravings. I can't really tell the difference, other than that I eat more of
everything." He looked through the remaining onigiri, but the rest of them
were umeboshi or fish-flavored; apparently he'd eaten all the yakiniku ones
without even noticing. It must have been more visible on his face than he
thought, because Sasuke smirked and handed him a double-handful of the
Chouji wobbled for a moment. "You don't eat enough to
keep a little bird running."
"Considering little birds eat something like twice
their weight a day, I'm fine with that. And you don't have to worry about
losing the weight again afterwards. Go on." With a wry quirk at the corner
of his lips, Sasuke patted Chouji's belly and said, "You don't want to
lose your best-pillow-ever designation, do you?"
Chouji's willpower crumbled, and he took a bite out of two
of the onigiri at once. Mid-munching, he paused for a moment to wag a finger
under Sasuke's nose. "You're eating the rest of them."
Sasuke stared down at the two full trays of the
lunchbox with real dismay on his face. "Chouji..."
"You need to eat more," he said,
"Chouji -- for people who aren't Akimichis, three
onigiri is usually a meal. Four or five if you're really hungry, and--" he
poked his own snugly swollen stomach with a jaundiced fingertip-- "not
already overcrowded to the verge of bursting."
Chouji blinked down at his armful of onigiri, and then over
at Sasuke. "...Seriously? That's all you eat?"
Sasuke nodded, with a grin tugging at both corners of his
"How do you not starve?"
Sasuke clamped a hand over his mouth, but the laughter escaped
"I mean it!" Chouji protested. "Ino's always
trying to be skinny, and Shikamaru never uses up enough energy to need to eat as
much as a normal person should, but you -- you train and everything, and when
you're not training it's because of your kits, so..."
Still shaking with laughter, Sasuke caught Chouji's free
hand and brought it to his side, holding the large hand against his ribcage
with both of his smaller ones. "See? No ribs poking out any more -- I'm
fine, I'm at a healthy weight this time, I promise."
"But I can still tell you have ribs. I'll bet you can't
tell where mine are."
The glint of sheer mischief in Sasuke's dark eyes was
startling. "How much? --Will you bet me an afternoon of freedom to go to
the training grounds?" His fingertips were arched already, in what looked
like preparation for a near lethal tickle assault, and Chouji gulped.
"No no no-- nothing that gets either of us in
trouble with Sakura; she hits hard--"
He gave a sigh that was far out of proportion to his size,
and dug both hands through his hair, and said, "I'm so damn bored!"
Chouji chewed on his bottom lip, and then offered
sheepishly, "Shikamaru's a schoolteacher. I could ask him if he could
teach you how to be lazy, how to enjoy being bored..."
Sasuke made a little humph of not-quite-laughter. "If I
thought it was something that could be taught, I'd take you up on it.
Shikamaru's level of slacker-dom takes some kind of inborn laziness-genius,
though, and I clearly don't have the Nara bloodline."
"Do you know how to play Go? That's something Shikamaru
could teach, and you don't have to stretch or bend very far--"
Chouji stopped short, because something had just flickered across Sasuke's face
that spoke of the kind of pain that would never truly heal. "I'm sorry.
I'm sorry, was that bad to say? I didn't know, I didn't mean to-- I'm
Sasuke reached up and put a fingertip against Chouji's
mouth; his eyes were much darker than they had been a moment ago, but he
summoned up something that could have been mistaken for almost a smile.
"It's not your fault. It's just... been a while."
"You played with -- with your family, didn't you,"
Chouji said, miserable. "I'm sorry..."
Sasuke sighed a little, and said, "My brother taught me
to play, because my father never had time. I... haven't played since, really.
--It's not like strategy and foresight are anywhere near Naruto's strong
points, after all."
Sasuke put his hand back over Chouji's mouth, and said,
"Stop that. You couldn't have known."
This time, when Sasuke let him go, Chouji thought about it
for a long minute, then asked, "Do you know how to play food poker?"
Sasuke blinked, twice. "...Food poker?"
"It's an Akimichi game," Chouji said eagerly, glad
that this one didn't bring up old and painful Uchiha-family memories. "And
when you win a hand, you get to eat whatever's in the pot! Unfortunately the
games never lasted long, we ran out of chips pretty quickly..."
"And by 'chips' you mean..."
"Potato chips, yeah," Chouji agreed happily.
"We could play a couple rounds with the onigiri. --I bet you've got a
great poker face. And you'd win anyway because I keep eating my chips before I
even play 'em half the time."
"So if we both think there'd be no contest, what's the
point?" Sasuke asked, hands folded behind his head.
"Well, I always know I'm going to lose when I play Shikamaru
in G-... in anything, but I don't mind," Chouji said. "I just like
watching him think about things, because he likes thinking so much."
Sasuke was just looking at him, steadily. Chouji ran a hand
over his mouth by reflex.
"Have I got rice on my face?"
A little embarrassed, Chouji ducked his head. "I guess
it does sound stupid," he admitted, "watching somebody else think. It
sounds like saying I'm not thinking about stuff myself."
"That's not it," Sasuke said quietly, looking up
at the ceiling. "It's just that... I can't imagine Naruto and I ever
stopping arguing long enough to do that type of thing for each other."
"But Naruto does a lot of not thinking,"
Chouji said, and then clamped a hand over his mouth as Sasuke burst into
laughter again. "I'm sorry, that wasn't what I meant to say--"
"He does, doesn't he?" Sasuke managed, all
but wheezing with the effort of breathing deeply enough to laugh around an
overfull belly. "Don't apologize -- not when you're right--!" He
scrubbed the back of his hand across his face, still breathless and trembling
with laughter, the other hand pressed hard against a stitch in his side.
"That's-- still not what I meant, though..."
"What did you mean?" Chouji asked in a small
"We're so damn competitive," Sasuke said, still
chuckling a little. "He can't stop rubbing it in that I can't fight him
right now; I can't stand that I've been beaten before I even start -- I can't
imagine one of us playing a game he'd always lose, just to watch the other one
win. --Because the other one would never stop rubbing it in. You're so
"Shikamaru hasn't got enough ambition to rub anything
in, though. He'd say it was too troublesome."
"That doesn't change how kind you are," Sasuke
said, looking up at him wryly. "Or that you're a better person than I've
"That's not true," Chouji said, embarrassed.
"I don't think I'd be too good at losing to someone who wins the way
Naruto does either. He laughs and points, and he scrunches up his nose, and...
Shikamaru just yawns and sets up another game... and... it's not so bad."
He shrugged a little.
Sasuke was still looking at him, with that tiny quirk at the
corner of his lips that was just a little too gentle for a smirk.
"...Is there something else I can lose at to you?"
Chouji asked. "Because it's no wonder you're bored; not everybody can be
as lazy as Shikamaru, and you need something you can win at, since when you're
pregnant everyone makes you lose the arguments about resting and coffee and
everything else you have to do for the children's sake instead of your own, and
even I've wanted to scream a couple times, and I've had years of Shikamaru's
lessons in how to be lazy and not let things get to me, so I can imagine how
much more frustrated you've got to be, because you're not used to losing, and
it hurts you. And I'm good at losing, I've got a lot of
Sasuke reached over awkwardly, picked up the last trays of
onigiri, and set them in Chouji's hands. "Let's play a couple rounds of food
poker," he said, and divided the pile in two.
Chouji looked around for a moment, then sighed. "I'll
go get the cards..."
"Don't bother. Just imagine some. Shikamaru plays Go in
his head, doesn't he? Imagine yourself a hand of cards..."
Chouji looked a little bewildered by the proposition, but
nodded, his brow furrowed in concentration. "Okay..."
"I'm putting two cards back and drawing two more. What
do you want to do?"
"All right -- here's three onigiri. Raise or
call?" He put three of his onigiri back into the box.
"I'll, er, raise you two?"
"Done, and two more..."
"Call," Chouji said, looking down at a pile of
fourteen onigiri in the box. "I've got -- er, I'm imagining I've got a
"Your pot, then," Sasuke said.
"...What did you, er, have?"
"Two fives, and I drew one of them."
"Just eat your onigiri," Sasuke said, smiling.
"My deal this time. Here's five cards for you, and five for me..."
The first time, Chouji had simply been baffled by the
thought of imaginary food poker; the second time around, he realized what
Sasuke was doing. The devious little schemer just raised until Chouji was the
one to call, and then 'revealed' a hand that was 'lower' than Chouji's in order
to hand over the onigiri.
"You're cheating," Chouji said indignantly.
"I am not," Sasuke said, with just a tiny hint of
that smirk. "You said yourself I had a natural poker face."
"But -- you -- but--"
"If I was cheating, wouldn't I cheat to win?"
"But you don't want the onigiri anyway--"
"So it's a good thing I don't have a chance against an
Akimichi at food poker. You've been playing for years, and this is my first
"But -- you -- you-- auuuggh!" Flinging
both hands in the air, Chouji said, "You spent entirely too many
years around that lying pervert of a jounin; he's contaminated your brain or
"Oh, Kakashi-sensei's certainly not the only one who's
contaminated my mind," Sasuke said, far too quietly. "...Your deal,
"I'm going to get some real cards," Chouji
grumped, and hauled himself out of the pillow-pile to go looking.
Chouji redivided the onigiri pile before he dealt, much to
Sasuke's grouchy displeasure; he shuffled the cards thoroughly and made two
piles in one of the empty lunchbox sections, then picked up his cards with a
glint in his eyes. "Playing for money, I wouldn't care if you cheated,"
he said reproachfully, "but playing for food is serious. Draw or
Sasuke tossed two cards into the discard pile and held out a
hand for two more.
From the silent intensity in Sasuke's dark eyes, Chouji
thought he finally had a real match going; there wasn't anything even an Uchiha
could do about cheating with real cards, not when Chouji was the one dealing.
There were close to two dozen onigiri in the 'pot' by the time Sasuke called.
"Drew to an inside straight," Chouji said
gleefully, spreading his cards out on the quilt they shared. "Just try and
"Pair of nines," Sasuke said, with a disturbing
amount of satisfaction in his voice, and held them up for display.
"...What? But-- you raised the stakes-- but --
Five seconds too late, Chouji realized that even though an
Uchiha couldn't cheat with real cards that he never touched, there was
also no actual way to prevent him from deliberately discarding anything
half-decent in his hand, and relying on that damnable poker face to take care
of the rest.
"Your pot, my deal," Sasuke said, gathering up the
cards and shuffling with lethally swift and deft hands. "And I'll bet
we'll finish the 'chips' in the next hand."
"You're on," Chouji grumbled. Even though it went
against every instinct in an Akimichi's body, he was determined to lose at
least one hand of onigiri poker and get some kind of extra
nourishment into his entirely too stubborn friend.
It took longer to sort out the results of the next few hands
than it did to bid them, because Chouji refused to let Sasuke up the ante
enough to empty his pile of onigiri, which meant that he called quickly, and
then they had to haggle over who actually had the most useless cards.
"A two, a five, a six, a nine, and a jack. It doesn't
get much more pathetic than that."
"Three of 'em are diamonds. I don't have more than two
"But you've got a queen."
"But I've got more below nine than you do."
"...Fine." Sasuke took the six onigiri out of the
pot and scooped up the cards again, shuffling and dealing with quick sharp
motions. "Hold or draw?"
Chouji handed four of them back; Sasuke tossed in three of
his own, and bid three onigiri without even looking at his draw, and Chouji matched
and called, and then they looked at their cards.
"...Damn. Pair of queens."
"Yours," Chouji said contentedly, nudging half a
dozen onigiri toward Sasuke before gathering up the cards to reshuffle. "I
told you I was good at losing."
"I've still got a better poker face."
"Doesn't matter if you always bid more when your hand's
bad. Hold or draw?"
"Three," Sasuke said, scanning his cards and the
discard pile intently. Chouji smiled to himself, happy to have drawn out the Uchiha's
fiercely competitive side again as he handed over three new cards.
After all, there's not much he likes better than dueling
and winning, even if he's redefined 'winning' at the moment...
By the time Naruto and the kits came crunching back up the
path through the half-frozen snowdrifts, Sasuke had given up on emptying his
cache of onigiri and had settled in to try to collect just the
umeboshi-flavored ones. Without ever admitting it, of course; but he was less
unwilling to accept a pot with more umeboshi than fish, and he always bid the
fish first. So Chouji held on to a double handful of umeboshi to coax better
bids out of him, even as he munched on the fish onigiri that had gone back and
forth half a dozen times; he watched in amusement as Sasuke's eyes held dead
steady as he looked at his cards this time, not even the slightest hint of a
I'll bet he's debating over whether to throw the pot or
not -- lots of umeboshi out there, but the 'lots' would be his sticking point.
Let's see which of us he wants to win this round...
And then half a dozen little feet came thumping in the door,
as well as a couple pairs of bigger ones, accompanied by high-volume chatter.
"An' then I went an' jumped on the snowman and it went
pfoosh an' exploded all over everywhere! An' Saa-chan an' Kii-chan were
like white all over except for their eyes, until Saa-chan jumped on me,
but then I rolled her over an' we--"
"--I dumped a snowball down her neck twice, Unka Ru,
I'm almost ready to go to the Academy an' be in your class, right? I wanna be
in your class, except I wanna be in Unka Shika's class; can I be in both your
classes at the same time?"
"--So then the Cloud delegate said 'We'll take that
under advisement' and I remembered Tsunade-baachan telling me that was
fancy-speak for 'they're trying to weasel out of answering' so I said--"
That last was Naruto, of course; the baritone register was a
bit of a giveaway, though the tone of mad-eyed overexcitement was identical to
the girls'. Despite Sasuke's best attempt at keeping his face poker-straight,
he couldn't help a twitch of a grin. Sakura-chan was the first to stick her
nose in the door to the living room, and she gasped.
"Gran'-unka-cho! You're not Papa-sitting
Chouji blinked in startlement. "I'm not?"
"You have to sit on his knees and make sure all the She'd clearly inherited Naruto's lungs.
kunai are somewhere else and you need to rub his tummy when the kits kick too
hard and you have to make sure he can't get up when you go get him some ice
cream 'cause otherwise he'll try to get up and Aunt Sakura says that'd be Bad
and Papa's not to walk around and tire himself out so we have to make sure he
can't move too much because Aunt Sakura says he doesn't have the sense to take
care of himself and we have to do it for him so you have to keep sitting on his
knees!" Somehow, the tiny girl got it all out in one breath.
She'd clearly inherited Naruto's lungs.
Sasuke's poker face was definitely cracking at the edges;
there was a faint irritated tic at the corner of one eye.
"I'm too heavy to sit on your Papa's knees,
Sakura-chan," Chouji said ruefully. "I'd squish him if I tried. But
it's okay; Papa's been resting all afternoon long, I promise."
Mikoto-chan squinted up her eyes and nose in a tiny
imitation of Naruto. "You sure about that, Grand-cho? Papa doesn't
like being good unless we all pile up an' make him. He could've like made
himself a kage-bunshin and gone out and been training or something!
Papa's really sneaky. He's a ninja too, you know."
She crossed her arms and nodded as though this were some
kind of earth-shattering revelation. Iruka made a little half-strangled noise
at the sudden wash of déjà vu; Naruto just beamed with pride.
Sasuke threw his cards into the pile and ran both hands down
his face, shaking between silent exasperation and unwilling half-laughter.
"I'm sitting right here, Mikoto-chan. Talk to me, instead of
"Yeah, but that's if it's really you, an' not a
kage-bunshin so you can go wear yourself out and make Aunt Sakura an'
Great-granny Tsunade put bumps on your head!"
"Try me," Sasuke growled, arms crossed over his
Kiyoshi was peering out from behind Iruka's knee, trembling;
Naruto was standing in the doorway with an ear to ear grin, waiting to see who
was going to win the miniature standoff.
Mikoto-chan stalked over, tilted her head right and left as
she peered at him, squatted on her heels beside the quilt, and poked a
fingertip into his belly. Nothing went 'poof,' so she tugged the quilt down so
that she could press both little hands against his loose shirt and feel for
kits wriggling around inside, then plunked herself into his lap and pressed an ear
to his bulge to listen intently.
Sasuke's face was a study: half exasperated by his
daughter's overprotective attitude and half melting from her sheer
adorableness. Stroking a few stray locks of hair back from her face, he asked
almost soberly, "Do the kits and I pass inspection, then?"
"I s'pose so," Mikoto said, sounding disappointed
that she wasn't going to get to go on a miniature ninja mission to track down
and rescue her wayward Papa from the perils of the training playground.
"You can be ninja-sneaky, but Grand-cho isn't. He sells flowers."
"And Gran'-unka-cho has kits in his tummy too!"
Sakura piped up enthusiatically, as though that were somehow a determining
factor in sneakiness levels.
"We all know that, forehead-sister," Mikoto
announced, and was promptly tackled by two and a half feet of screeching
Sakura. Kiyoshi flinched again; Iruka scooped him up with one hand and reached
down to pluck one of the girls out of the flailing tumble with the ease of long
practice, standing with Kiyoshi in the crook of an arm and a wriggling Mikoto
at arm's length, just above Sakura's jump range, as though this type of
arrangement were perfectly normal. Maybe for schoolteachers it was; Chouji made
a mental note to ask Shikamaru someday.
"I was going to make some curry or Korean barbecue if
the two of you are hungry yet, though it looks like you're still working on
lunch," Iruka said.
"Korean barbecue?" Chouji asked hopefully.
"Sure we're hungry -- we're more playing with lunch than eating it by
now!" He didn't mention the dozen or so onigiri he'd eaten over the course
of the game, since they were disposed of and therefore no longer relevant to
the situation. And Mikoto thought flower-sellers couldn't be ninja-sneaky.
"What'cha playing?" Sakura asked, distracted from
her futile mini-feud by having the attention span of a kitten. "Can I play
"It's called food po-"
"Go Fish," Sasuke interrupted quickly, nudging
Chouji with an elbow. "It's called Go Fish."
Naruto wasn't even trying to hide the snickers anymore. Just
for that, Sasuke turned an excruciatingly bright smile on him. "Come over
here, Rokudaime-sama, and help Grand-cho and I teach the kits how to
play Go Fish. There's six of us, so if we each take a kit for a
Mikoto was her daddy's little girl, and the two of them were
already proclaiming their future tag-team championship of the Go Fish
tournament world; Sakura-chan liked the much bigger and softer pillow of
Grand-cho's belly, and so Kiyoshi crept over to sit in his papa's lap, taking
the duty of Papa-sitting dreadfully seriously indeed. Sasuke stroked the boy's
hair as Kiyoshi chewed on a finger and squinted fiercely at the cards.
"Do you know what the numbers say?"
"Um... nine... and ten...? An' that's not a
"Those are odd cards," Sasuke said, putting down a
jack, a queen, and a king. "Let's not worry about those. Naruto, pull the
face cards out of the discard pile, will you?"
Chouji, meanwhile, was spluttering incoherently. "You
-- you little--!"
Sakura blinked up at him, because her pillow was going all
wobbly when he sputtered like that. "Gran'-unka-cho?"
"...Never mind," Chouji said with a huge sigh.
"But your papa either just won a whole pile of umeboshi or just got out of
winning 'em, and I don't know which."
Sasuke's smirk had more than its usual quotient of contented
self-satisfaction in it. Chouji sighed and shook his head, and said to the
still-snickering Naruto, "Do you want to deal, Hokage-sama?"
"'Course I want to deal! Okay, kits, watch this!"
...And as the cards sprayed all over the room, Naruto posed
with a foot on the top of the pillow-pile and proclaimed, "Uzumaki
Whirlwind style: Fifty-two-card pickup no jutsu!"
Mikoto was already squealing with delight and dancing around
in the fluttering card-snow. From the other direction, Sasuke had clamped a hand
over his face, shaking. Sakura looked back and forth between
her parents, shrugged, and went to join Naruto and her sister in scooping up
handfuls of cards and flinging them into the air.
Kiyoshi patted Sasuke's shoulder with careful little hands.
"Don't worry, Papa," he said. "We still love you even if you
don't do cool ninja card tricks like Dad."
Sasuke was still shaking all over. Kiyoshi tried harder.
"And after the kits come, I bet Dad can teach you his
card tricks when it's okay for you to run around and stuff again, so it's gonna
be okay, I promise! --Grand-cho, it's going to be okay, right?"
"It's going to be fine," Chouji reassured the
little boy quickly, because Sasuke was clearly overwhelmed beyond the capacity
for rational (and non-shouting) speech. "Let's let your dad and the girls
go crazy with the cards for a while, and you and Papa and I can think of
something--" normal? sane? er-- let's say-- "not tiring, for
Papa's sake and mine."
Kiyoshi nodded with all the gravity of someone a couple
dozen times his age, chewing his finger. "Do you know how to play
"I'm not sure," Chouji said; his poker face wasn't
anywhere near as good as Sasuke's, of course, but surely it was good enough to
fool a preschooler. "Let's see if you can teach me."
Kiyoshi nodded shyly, still chewing that finger.
"Sometimes when the kits are bouncy, Papa lets me play patty-cake with
them too; it's real easy..."
Taking care not to push too hard against the boy's tiny
little hands, Chouji only paid half attention to the pattern Kiyoshi was trying
to teach him; the rest of his attention was taken by the way Sasuke was smiling
at his son, gently, tenderly, completely unaware of his own smile, and the way
his own baby seemed to take the mention of patty-cake as an excuse to start
rolling around too.
...I love being Grand-cho to them. But I think I'll love
being daddy even more.