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Post Traumatic

Chapter Text

            “I’ve lost to you,” Sasuke said to me as we lay dying.

            “I’m sorry for everything up until now,” he said to Sakura as she healed us.

            “Thank you, Sensei,” he said to Kakashi as he carried him to the village on his back.

            I thought that meant that everything was okay.

            Sasuke didn’t say much after that.

            “He’s very sick, Naruto,” Tsunade murmured to me gently as we stood in the doorway of his hospital room together.

            “But he was fine,” I whispered.  “After our fight, he was completely normal, just like old times…”

            “Nothing about his behavior that day was normal.”

            “You weren’t there, you didn’t hear all the things he said to me…”

            Tsunade patted me on the shoulder.

            “I hate this,” I muttered.  “He’s only got one arm, why d’ya hafta chain him up like that?”

            “He’s a missing nin, Naruto.”

            “He came back, he-”

            “Go sit with him,” she said, pushing me gently into the room.  “You can have ten minutes.”

            I didn’t need to be told twice.  No visitors had been allowed in the two weeks since we’d arrived back in Konoha, but Tsunade had finally made the executive decision to let me into the prison ward to see him.  I’d probably worn her down with my constant whining, but hey, whatever worked.

            She’d tried to warn me, but I still wasn’t prepared.

            Sasuke was asleep, his right arm bound to the rail of the bed.  His left arm ended in a stump, bandaged like my own.  His skin was paler than ever, almost translucent in the horrible hospital lighting.  Thin chains crisscrossed his chest, infused with chakra to hold him down.  The worst sight, though, were the elemental seals around his eyes, suppressing his use of the sharingan and rinnegan.

            He looked broken.

            I pulled up a chair next to his bed and sat down.  It didn’t seem fair that I only got ten minutes, especially since he was freaking asleep.  I wanted to wake him up and talk, but it seemed counterintuitive to the healing process.

            Of course, after about thirty seconds of silence, I couldn’t take it anymore.  “Sasuke.”

            His breathing stayed steady.

            “Sasuke,” I said a little louder.

            No reaction.

            “Sasuke, wake up already!” I said, grabbing his shoulder and shaking it.

            Sasuke’s eyes flew open and his body jerked against the chains.  His breath came out in furious pants.

            “Naruto!” Tsunade roared, charging into the room.

            A horrible sound suddenly filled the air, like something dying.

            My wide eyes locked on Sasuke, who was completely lost in his terror.

            “I told you not to startle him!” Tsunade snapped at me, taking out a syringe.

            “What the hell is that?!” I cried, standing up and getting between her and Sasuke.

            “A sedative, you stupid brat,” Tsunade said, shoving me out of the way like I was air.

            Sasuke continued to scream, struggling against the chains.

            Tsunade stuck the syringe into his good arm and pushed in the needle.

            I watched it all happen from the floor.

            Sasuke’s screams slowly died down, then his entire body slumped into the bed.

            “Out!” Tsunade ordered.

            “But it hasn’t been ten minutes!” I protested.

            “Out!” she snarled, taking a menacing step towards me.

            I scampered out of the room, feeling confused and a bit scared.

            “I knew I shouldn’t have trusted you,” Tsunade muttered as she came out of the room, closing the door behind her.  Two ANBU guards moved in to stand in front of the closed door.

            “I didn’t do anything!” I protested.  “He just started freaking out!”

            “I told you not to startle him.  I told you that he is very sick.  I told you that he’s not the Sasuke you remember.  Did you listen to any of that?”

            “If you just let me talk to him!  He’s… I don’t know, but if we just talk!  I know he’ll be fine!”

            “Talking doesn’t cure mental illness!”

            “Sasuke’s not…” I tried to protest.  The memory of that horrible sound he’d made suddenly filled my ears again.

            “I knew you weren’t listening,” Tsunade said, grabbing me by the ear and dragging me towards the stairs.

            Two ANBU stood aside to let us through.

            I found myself being dragged all the way back to the Academy.

            “Ow ow ow…” I protested as we finally bumped to a stop in front of Tsunade’s desk.

            “I hope this little excursion has impressed on you how serious Sasuke’s condition is,” Tsunade said, pulling out her chair and sitting down.

            “Huh?” I said, rubbing my ear.

            “The elders are moving to have Sasuke committed.”

            “Committed to what?  Konoha?”

            “The mental hospital, Naruto.  They are moving to have him sent to the mental hospital.”

            “They can’t do that!”

            “Why not?”

            “Because he’s not mental.”

            Tsunade let out a long sigh.

            Shizune suddenly bustled in with some tea.  “I take it the plan didn’t work?” she asked as she handed Tsunade a cup.

            Tsunade gave her a very tired look.

            “What plan?” I complained.

            “The plan to get you to understand that Sasuke is out of his mind,” Shizune said, setting another cup of tea in front of me.

            “Sasuke’s not…  I mean…  He just lost his arm…  The war…”

            “He is having a psychotic break,” Tsunade finally cut in.  “Dr. Shizuta from Konoha Psychiatric Clinic has been working with him, and she’s willing to testify at his trial that his actions since the Uchiha massacre have all been motivated by PTSD and mental illness.”

            “That’s stupid.”

            “How is it stupid?”

            “Sasuke’s fine, he just needs to… rest.  And talk to me.”

            “You sent him into a full-blown episode,” Tsunade countered.

            “Well, I didn’t know that he would get so upset just by me waking him up…”

            “I told you that his startle response was heightened, and that you shouldn’t do anything sudden or loud!”

            “Yeah, okay, but like I even know what a startle response is.  Or half of the other fancy words you’ve been using.”

            “Enough, I’m done,” Tsunade breathed out.  “Go talk to Sakura, maybe she can explain it in words that your Sasuke-obsessed mind can comprehend.”

            “I’m not obsessed with Sasuke.”

            Shizune snorted and Tsunade dropped her head on her desk.

            “I’m not…” I protested.

            “Out!”

            I left Tsunade’s office feeling dejected.  She was the one who was crazy, not Sasuke.

            And yet suddenly all I could think about was that horrible, terrified noise he’d made, his eyes unfocused in fear, completely oblivious to my presence.

            It didn’t make any sense.  Why would Sasuke act like that?  What was he even afraid of?  Uchiha Sasuke wasn’t afraid of anything.

            I tried plying Sakura for information over ramen.  She was half-dead from all her back-to-back shifts at the hospital, and she didn’t seem very keen on talking about Sasuke.

            “He’s sick, Naruto.”

            “That’s what Baa-chan said,” I complained.  “Can’t you… don’t you know anything?”

            “I’m not allowed to see him either,” Sakura said.  Her eyes were tired and sad.

            “They’re all saying that Sasuke’s crazy.”

            “He’s… he’s having delusions.  He’s completely broken from reality.  He thinks he’s a child again, watching his brother massacre their clan.”

            “Oh,” I said.  “Is it some kind of genjutsu?”

            “No.”

            “Are you sure?  Or is something related to the infinite tsukuyomi?”

            Sakura’s green eyes met mine as she set her chopsticks down.  “Sasuke is mentally ill.  He’s been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and they suspect he may be schizophrenic or bipolar.  That kind of thing takes time to diagnose, and the methods aren’t precise, so we may never know.  But it’s not genjutsu, it’s not anything ninja-related.  Sasuke… it’s Sasuke.  Sasuke is… broken,” she said, the last word coming out strangled-sounding.

            “That’s not… come on, Sakura-chan, this is Sasuke we’re talking about.  He’s not… that’s stupid.  Why are you saying this?  He’s finally here, and everyone wants to lock him up and throw away the damn key.  He saved the world!  He’s a hero, but everyone’s… he’s… he’s…”

            “We’ll go see him together,” Sakura said, resting her hand over mine.  “But Naruto, you need to stop being in denial.”

            “I’m not in denial,” I snarled, snatching my hand away.  I tossed some money on the counter and stomped out of Ichiraku’s, leaving a brokenhearted Sakura behind.

            Maybe I shouldn’t have been taking things out on her, but Sakura of all people knew who Sasuke was.  Knew that he was our best friend.  Knew that he was a hero.  Knew that he wasn’t crazy.

            I felt like I was the only person left who was on Sasuke’s side.  His trial was being arranged for when he was ready to be discharged from the hospital, but with the entire ninja world being in total chaos at the moment, it wasn’t exactly being given a priority.

            Most of my days were being spent spreading my clones across Konoha, helping with the different reconstruction projects or volunteering at the orphanage that was currently full to capacity.  Everyone was overworked and exhausted.

            But we had done it.  We had survived.  And that meant something.

            I just wished that everyone understood what an integral part Sasuke had played in their salvation.  If he hadn’t shown up, I would never have been able to defeat Kaguya on my own.  I wasn’t about to say it to Sasuke’s face, but he was just as important to the ending of the war as I had been.

            Yet here I was being worshipped as the great hero of the war, while Sasuke was chained up to a hospital bed, being treated like a criminal.

            It wasn’t right.

            I was finally allowed to see Sasuke again almost a month later.

            Why was I so nervous about it?

            Sakura and I were to see him together.  We weren’t to be excited, loud, or sudden in our movements.

            “What, are we visiting a wild animal in the zoo?” I muttered.

            Sakura elbowed me in the side.

            “Oof.”

            “Do you understand the rules?” Tsunade asked, ignoring my comment.

            “Yeah, yeah, we got it, Baa-chan,” I said.

            Tsunade frowned at me.  Then she turned to Sakura.  “I expect you to keep him in line.”

            “Of course,” Sakura said with a solemn nod.

            “Now I’m the wild animal?” I muttered.

            “Go before I change my mind,” Tsunade said, gesturing for the guards to move.

            My heart started thundering in my chest.

            Sakura reached out to take my hand, squeezing it.

            I squeezed back, and we stepped through the door together.

            Sasuke’s mattress had been raised so he could sit up, but he was still chained.  He was looking out the window, and didn’t even acknowledge our entrance.

            “Sasuke-kun,” Sakura said quietly.

            I opened my mouth to speak, and Sakura’s hand was suddenly covering my mouth.  I glared at her.

            Sakura glared back.  “Indoor voice.”

            I felt very offended, and did not appreciate being treated like a child.

            “Naruto?” Sasuke said, still looking out the window.

            “Sasuke?” I said.  I felt like a puppy, wagging its tail like an idiot, as I moved quickly to his side.

            Sakura kept a heavy hand on my shoulder, slowing down my progress.

            “Hey, bastard,” I said, resisting the urge to climb all over him to make sure he was real.

            “Stupid,” Sasuke breathed out, then turned to look at me.  His hair was covering his left eye, so only one black eye stared at me.

            “I’m not stupid,” I said, rubbing at my eyes with the back of my sleeve.  “You’re stupid.”

            Sakura let out a very annoyed-sounding noise and covered my mouth again.  “It’s good to see you.”

            Sasuke was quiet, studying her face.

            Sakura shifted uncomfortably.

            I thought about biting her hand, but I was taking Tsunade’s warning very seriously.  If I broke one of the rules this time, my visiting privileges to see Sasuke would be revoked for a year.  I’m sure I could complain my way to a reduced sentence, but being told that I couldn’t see Sasuke for any period of time was torture.  I’d spent more than three years trying to bring him back, and I didn’t want to waste any more of the time we had together.

            “How are you feeling?” Sakura ventured, breaking the silence.

            Sasuke gave her a look.

            I pried her hand off of my mouth.  “How d’ya think he is?”

            Sakura flushed.  “I was only…”

            “I’m fine,” Sasuke put in, and we both looked at him in surprise.

            “Yeah?” I asked.

            “It doesn’t matter,” Sasuke said, turning to look out the window again.  The windows were barred, and it was hard to see much of anything beyond slatted glimpses of the sky.

            “It matters to us,” Sakura said quietly.

            Sasuke didn’t answer.

            “Everyone keeps telling me you’re crazy,” I said, making my attempt to break up the silence.

            Sasuke snorted at that.

            I grinned.

            “I am,” Sasuke said.

            “Huh?”

            “I am crazy.”

            Sakura caught me by both shoulders.  I’d been about to lunge across the bed and grab Sasuke by the shirt.

            Old habits die hard.

            “What do you mean?” I said instead.  “You’re admitting you’re a total fruit loop?”

            “‘Fruit loop’?” Sasuke repeated.

            “Yeah, ya know, completely loony.”

            Sakura’s grip was getting uncomfortable.

            Sasuke went quiet again.

            “Hey, I’m talking to you here.”

            “Maybe you should pick a lighter topic,” Sakura suggested through gritted teeth.

            “Well, you all are mad at me for not believing that Sasuke’s a nutcase, so I want to set the record straight.”

            Sakura sighed.  “I’m sorry, Sasuke-kun.”

            “You can’t control the idiot, despite your best efforts,” Sasuke commented off-handedly.

            “Boy, is that ever true,” Sakura muttered.

            “I don’t need to be controlled,” I protested.

            “Ha,” said Sakura.

            “Ha,” echoed Sasuke.

            “Don’t gang up on me,” I complained, even though I was secretly loving it.  Was I some kind of masochist?  But Sakura and Sasuke agreeing and sharing a joke just filled me with elation, even if it was at my expense.

            There was a knock on the door.  After a pause, it creaked open and Tsunade came in.  “Your time’s up,” she said, eyes flicking around the room, taking everything in.

            Sasuke continued to stare out the window.

            “Can’t we have a little more time?” I asked, and I couldn’t keep the tremor out of my voice.

            “You can come back again soon,” Tsunade said, much more gentle and friendly than the last time I’d visited Sasuke.

            I nodded, sucking my lips into my mouth.

            “Bye, Sasuke-kun,” Sakura said quietly.  She looked just about as miserable about leaving as I did.

            “Yeah, see ya around, asshole,” I said, straightening up and trying to act cool.

            “Bye,” Sasuke said.

            The three of us shuffled out of the room.

            I didn’t feel like anything had changed from when I went in.

Chapter Text

            The ninja world was a mess, and it was up to the great Uzumaki Naruto to fix it.

            Or so I thought.

            I sent my clones out every day to help with what needed helping.  Things were slowly starting to go back to normal, but the reconstruction would take years.

            I wanted to do everything that I possibly could.  Of course, with one arm, a lot of what I could do was limited.

            Konoha had sent a request to Suna to build me a prosthetic.  Kankuro would be coming to Konoha when things had settled down and he could get away.

            Until then, I was the great, one-armed ninja wonder, everywhere and anywhere at once, doing what I could for the people of Konoha.

            I exhausted myself every day, then went to the Academy to whine to Tsunade about seeing Sasuke.

            “You just saw him, brat,” Tsunade said, drowning in a sea of paperwork and not even bothering to climb out of it to look at me.

            “That was a week ago, and it was only for like five seconds.”

            Tsunade didn’t respond, scribbling furiously on document after document.

            “Baaaaa-chaaaaaan.”

            “The council is trying to arrange a hearing for Sasuke next week.”

            “WHAT?!”

            “I don’t know why you’re surprised.  Dr. Shizuta will request that he be released into her care and stay at Konoha Clinic.”

            “That’s not fair!” I ground out.  “Why does he need to be locked up?”

            “He’s being charged with desertion and murder,” Tsunade said, eyeing me over the mountain of papers.  “It’s either plead insanity or go to prison.”

            “But he came back, he freaking saved everyone-”

            “That doesn’t negate what he did in the past.”

            “He’s not bad.  You know he’s not bad.”

            “Actions have consequences, Naruto.  Sasuke is willing to accept that, so maybe you should try and follow his example.”

            “But-”

            “Shut up already and go bother Dr. Shizuta.  I’m busy.”

            “You’re such a bitch!” I snapped, furious.

            Tsunade’s eyes darkened.

            I looked at her, surrounded by mountains of paper, with huge bags under her eyes and crow’s feet starting to show at the corners.  There was a bloodstain on her clothes, probably from her work at the hospital.  When did she ever even get a break?  I suddenly felt like the worst person in the world.

            “I didn’t mean that,” I said quietly.  “I… I appreciate everything you’ve done.  For me and the village.”

            “You better,” she said, frowning but looking less hurt.

            “I do,” I whispered, raising up my arm and scrubbing at my eyes.  “I do…” I repeated with a loud sniffle.

            Tsunade sighed, and the last of the tension seemed to seep out of the room.  She stood up and walked over to me, putting both her hands on my shoulders.  “We’ve all been through a lot, kid.”

            “I shouldn’t have been taking it out on you,” I sniffled.  “I shouldn’t have been coming in here every day, driving you crazy when you already have so much work to do.”

            “You can always come to me, Naruto,” Tsunade said, leaning in and kissing me on the forehead.

            I burst into tears at that, throwing my arm around her.

            Tsunade hugged me back tightly.

            “Is everything o…kay…?” Shizune trailed off as she popped her head in the door.

            “Everything’s fine,” Tsunade said, patting me on the head as I cried into her shoulder.

            Shizune retreated, the door clicking behind her.

            “Naruto, come sit,” Tsunade said after I’d calmed down.

            I pulled away, feeling embarrassed.  “I should go…”

            “Sit down, brat,” Tsunade said, taking one of the chairs across from her desk and sitting.  She patted the one next to it.

            I sat down, rubbing at the back of my neck.  “Sorry about that, I kinda… I dunno…”

            “Have you talked to anyone lately?” Tsunade asked, eyes looking intently into mine.

            “Uh, I talk to people all the time.  I’m talking to you right now.”

            “About what happened?” Tsunade asked.  “About the war?  About meeting your father?  About losing Neji?  About losing your arm?”

            “Huh?” I said, rubbing more furiously at the back of my neck.  “Why would I talk about that kinda stuff?”

            “Because you need to,” Tsunade said quietly.  “Because bottling it up only makes you an alcoholic gambling addict…”

            “Huh?”

            “Never mind,” Tsunade said, patting me on the head.  “Clear your schedule.  I’m making an appointment for you with Dr. Shizuta tomorrow.”

            “I have work-”

            “You can take a day off.”

            “But-”

            “No buts.  This is an order from the hokage.”

            “But I’m fine now…”

            “No buts.  Take tomorrow off and talk to Dr. Shizuta.”

            “Can we talk about Sasuke?”

            “If you want.”

            “Okay, but I still want to send some clones to the town square construction-”

            “No.”

            “Whaddya mean, no?”

            “You need to spend a day not expending all your chakra.”

            “Okay, but only if you take a day off, too.”

            “…brat…”

            I grinned at her.

            “I’ll take next… Monday off,” Tsunade said.  “You take tomorrow off.”

            “Deal,” I said, and we shook hands.

            And that’s how I found myself standing outside of Konoha Psychiatric Clinic the next morning.  I hadn’t even known that it existed before.  It was a nondescript building on the outskirts of Konoha, its only distinguishing feature the large, chakra-filled gate.

            I rang the buzzer, identified myself, and found the gate being opened.  I walked up to the building feeling nervous and out of place.

            “You must be Naruto,” said the woman standing in the doorway.  She had brown hair pulled into a bun on the top of her head, and thick glasses sitting on the end of her nose.  “I’m Dr. Shizuta.”

            “Oh, uh, hi,” I said.

            “Come in, come in,” she said warmly.

            I stepped uncertainly into the building.  I found myself in a waiting room, with a front desk and lots of chairs and magazines.  There was another woman sitting behind the desk.

            “This is Maiko, our receptionist,” Dr. Shizuta explained.

            “Hey,” Maiko said in a bland tone.

            “She’ll sign you in and have you fill out some paperwork, then you can meet me in my office.”

            “O…kay…” I said.

            Dr. Shizuta disappeared through a door, and Maiko held out a clipboard in my direction.

            “Thanks,” I said, taking the clipboard.

            Maiko stared at me with a raised eyebrow.

            “I’ll just go over there now,” I said, taking a seat as far away from her as possible in the small waiting room.  I felt awkward enough just being there without the creepy receptionist added to the mix.  Her black hair, eyes, and superior attitude kind of reminded of Sasuke, though.

            “Everything reminds you of Sasuke,” Sakura had said to me once, rolling her eyes after I’d commented that the burned spots on my toast looked like Sasuke.

            She might have had a point.

            I started scribbling down information on the chart.  Name?  Easy.  Birthday?  I’ve got this.  Then it started getting a little more difficult.  Why are you here today?

            I scratched my ear with the pencil.  That was a good question.

            ‘Because the hokage made me,’ I wrote.  ‘And I want people to stop saying Sasuke is crazy.’

            I finished filling out the clipboard, then cast a wary eye towards Maiko.

            She was reading a book with a skull on the cover, eyes lazily flicking over the words.

            I stood up and made my way back to the desk.

            Maiko continued reading.

            I cleared my throat.

            Maiko glanced at me, then looked back down at her book.

            “I’m done,” I said, thrusting the clipboard at her.

            “Congrats, you want a medal?”

            “Uh…”

            “You can go in,” Maiko said, gesturing vaguely towards the door.

            “I’ll do that then,” I said, putting the clipboard down on the desk.  I walked over to the door and pushed it open.

            The hallway was clean, carpeted, and quiet.  The building had five stories, so I guessed they kept the crazies on a different floor.  The first floor felt like a normal office building.

            I wasn’t exactly sure where I was supposed to go, but one of the doors was open, so I peeked in there.

            “All finished?” Dr. Shizuta asked, smiling at me from her desk.

            “Uh, I guess so,” I said, stepping uncertainly into the room.

            “Great, have a seat,” she said, standing up and gesturing to some comfortable-looking chairs in front of the desk.  She came around the desk and sat down in one, too.  “It’s really nice to meet you, Naruto.  I’ve heard a lot about you.”

            “Oh, have you?” I asked, rubbing at the back of my neck as I sat down across from her.

          “Well you’ve become kind of famous,” she said, adjusting her glasses.  “The savior of the world, and all that.”

            “Oh, well, yeah, that,” I said, ducking my head bashfully.  It wasn’t to say that I didn’t love the attention, but it was still weird.  “Everyone helped.  Especially Sasuke.”

            “So I’ve heard,” Dr. Shizuta said, slouching back into her chair.  “Man, I slept funny or something last night.  My neck is killing me.”

            That wasn’t what I’d been expecting from a medical professional.

            “So, what brings you here?” she asked, rolling her neck around.  “You want to talk about Sasuke?”

            I nodded.

            “Have at it.”

            “Oh, uh…”

            “Don’t know where to start?”

            “Well… why are you telling everyone he’s crazy?”

            “Who ever said he was crazy?” Dr. Shizuta asked, brown eyes focusing on me.  “He has a mental disorder or two, but I wouldn’t say that he’s crazy.”

            “What’s the difference?” I asked sourly.

            “Well, we’re not strapping him into a strait jacket and putting him in a rubber room.  I guess it’s hard to explain the difference if you look at a mental disorder as something to be ashamed of.”

            “I didn’t say that…”

            “Then why are you so against the idea of Sasuke being mentally ill?”

            “Because he’s not.”

            “Naruto, do you know what PTSD is?”

            “…no…”

            “It stands for post-traumatic stress disorder.”

            I stared at her blankly.

            “After someone witnesses something traumatic, something terrible, sometimes their brains change.”

            “Brains can change?”

            “Yep,” she said, pushing her glasses up her nose.  “The memory doesn’t get stored correctly, and reality and the memory start to blur together.  You might start to have flashbacks and nightmares about what happened.  You avoid thinking about it, but it’s always with you in your subconscious.”

            “I don’t really get it, but what’s that got to do with Sasuke?”

            “Naruto, you know about his family, don’t you?”

            I was quiet for a moment.  “Yeah…”

            “Sasuke changed that day.  It’s not his fault, and it doesn’t make him less of a person, or less of a ninja.  What happened that day is a part of him, has always been a part of him, but he hasn’t been given the proper tools to deal with that part of him.”

            “What does he need tools for?  Is he gonna build something?”

            “Metaphorical tools,” Dr. Shizuta said, gesturing her hand around in the air.

            “You’re really hard to understand.”

            “I think you don’t want to understand.”

            I started at that.  She wasn’t wrong.  I was purposely misunderstanding her.

            “Ah-HA,” she said with a grin.

            “You use too many big words,” I said sullenly, crossing my one arm over my chest as I finally relaxed and slumped into the easy chair.

            “Why don’t you like people to think you’re smart?” Dr. Shizuta asked, looking interested.

            “’Cause I’m not,” I said.  “Sakura’s the brains, Sasuke’s the beauty, and I’m the brawn.”

            Dr. Shizuta stared at me for a long moment, then burst out laughing.

            “Shit, did I say that out loud?” I muttered.

            “You three are very interesting,” she said, still smiling brightly.

            “Thanks?”

            “Sasuke is very pretty, though.”

            “Should you be saying that if you’re his doctor?”

            “He is, though.”

            “Yeah, I used to be mad about it, but now I guess I just accept it,” I said.  “You’re not a pedophile or anything, right?”

            “Nope, not a pedophile.”

            “Good.”

            I didn’t know what to say after that, and Dr. Shizuta just sat there like she was perfectly content to be silent.

            “Can I visit him if he’s here?” I finally asked.

            “Yes, of course, we have visiting hours every Monday.”

            “And when he gets better, does he get to leave?”

            “Naruto, he’s not ever going to get better-”

            “So you’re just gonna lock him up in here forever?!”

            “No, I’m just saying that we won’t suddenly be like ‘he’s cured!’ and let him out one day.  If he does well with his therapy and finds a good balance of medications, then we’ll revisit if it’s in his best interest to leave here.”

            “So you might let him out.”

            “We might let him out.”

            “Okay.”

            “You don’t look like it’s okay.”

            “It’s not, but… I’ll try to trust all you weirdo doctors to do what’s best for him.”

            “That’s all I can ask of you.”

            I stood up.

            “Did you want to talk about anything else?” Dr. Shizuta asked.

            “Nope.”

            “Okay, then, thanks for stopping by,” she said.  “Come again any time.”

            I was relieved that she didn’t want me to talk about my feelings or whatever it was that you talked to shrinks about.  I made my escape, happy to be out of there.

            I didn’t really think about how I would be spending once a week there for the foreseeable future.

Chapter Text

            I was called in to talk to the council about the war.  What that actually meant was that I was being called in to testify against Sasuke.

            They weren’t going to trick me so easily.

            “Uchiha Sasuke was the hero of the war,” I informed them all solemnly.

            “The question was, ‘did Uchiha Sasuke put Haruno Sakura into a genjutsu and then try to kill you?’” Homura said tiredly.

            “I’m just saying that after assisting me in defeating Kaguya, we did some brotherly brawling, lost our arms, almost died, yada yada yada, he helped me release the infinite tsukuyomi.”

            “Naruto,” Tsunade said, giving me an irritated look.

            “What?” I asked, blinking at her.

            “We’re just trying to get an honest assessment of Sasuke’s condition,” she said, tucking a lock of blonde hair behind her ear.  “You don’t need to be so defensive.”

            “I’m not being defensive, just honest.”

            “Naruto.”

            “Yeah, yeah, I got it.”

            “Tell us about Uchiha Sasuke’s ‘revolution’,” Koharu said, eyes meeting mine evenly.

            I swallowed.  I knew I had to be honest.  So I took a deep breath and told them everything that had happened after the defeat of Kaguya.  About how he took control of all the tailed beasts and imprisoned them.  About Sasuke wanting to be the hokage to unite all the villages by destroying them.  About how Sasuke thought that if he was alone, if he severed all his bonds, that he could build a better world.

            They all took a lot of notes at that part.

            “But in the end, he said it was his loss,” I said.  “And that he wouldn’t oppose me anymore.  Well, that’s basically what he said, I mean he didn’t actually say it, but that’s what he meant.  That we were on the same side.”

            “Thank you, Naruto, you’ve been very helpful,” Tsunade said.

            “That’s it?”

            “That’s it.”

            “But I still had a lot more to say about-”

            “Thank you for coming, goodbye,” Koharu interrupted.

            I cast a look at Tsunade, but she nodded towards the door.  I dragged myself out, wondering if I’d done more harm than good.

            I got a summons to the hokage’s office later that day.

            “He’s been found not guilty by reason of insanity.”

            “Uhhh,” I said, because being insane didn’t seem like a positive thing for Sasuke.

            “He’s been sent to Konoha Clinic.”

            “For how long?”

            “They’ll revisit his case when he turns twenty.”

            “What?!  That’s three years from now!”

            “Yes, and he may or may not be released at that time.”

            “No.  Unacceptable.”

            “Three years for murder?  Most shinobi get executed.”

            That shut me up.  I really hadn’t put any proper thought into it.  I just thought that everyone should see Sasuke how I saw him.  He made some mistakes, but he was all right now, so we should all move on.

            Apparently we weren’t just going to move on.

            “When can I see him?” I asked, giving Tsunade my best puppy eyes.

            “Next visiting day, if Dr. Shizuta approves him for visitors.”

            “What’s that mean?”

            “It means she will evaluate his condition and deem whether or not he is capable of having visitors.”

            “Of course he can have visitors, he wants to have visitors.”

            “Are we talking about the same Sasuke?”

            “He wants to see me.  And Sakura-chan.”

            “Well that’s up to Dr. Shizuta.”

            I groaned and whined, then pulled myself together.  “Thank you.”

            Tsunade just nodded at me.

            I was all excited for next Monday and finally being able to see Sasuke.

            Except visitors weren’t allowed.

            So I waited for the next week, but they weren’t allowed again.

            “What is the deal?!” I demanded of Dr. Shizuta, once again sitting in the plush armchairs of her office.

            “Sasuke hasn’t been adjusting well to living in the clinic,” she explained.

            “That’s why he needs to spend time with his friends.”

            She studied my face thoughtfully.  “You really care about him, don’t you?”

            “Obviously,” I said.  “He’s my best friend.”

            “Sakura, too, you know,” she said.  “She’s been calling here every week.”

            “Good ol’ Sakura-chan,” I said, pleased with her continued commitment to Sasuke.  She’d given up on him once, but she was back on track.  Despite that genjutsu he cast on her.  But seeing as how he’d tried to kill me, I think I got the worst of Sasuke’s little misstep, and I’d still forgiven him.  Now everything was fine and dandy.

            Dr. Shizuta took a sip of her coffee, then put it back on the desk.  “Do you see Sakura much?”

            “Huh?” I said.  “Oh, uh, well not so much since we got back.  She works double shifts a lot, so our schedules don’t really match up.”

            “Oh, I see,” she mused.  “Well if the two of you could come together next Monday, I think we could work something out.”

            “Really?” I asked, bouncing to my feet.  “I can see Sasuke?”

            Dr. Shizuta smiled, a little taken aback by my sudden advance.  “Yes.”

            “I’ll go talk to Sakura-chan now!” I declared.

            “Excellent,” she said.  “There wasn’t anything else you wanted to talk about?”

            “Nope, thanks, Doc!” I said, bounding out of the building in search of Sakura.

            She was, of course, in one of only two possible places she could be: at the hospital, or asleep at her house.

            “Sakura’s not on until the night shift,” a nurse informed me at the hospital.

            I bounded off to Sakura’s house.  Jumping up to her bedroom window, I attached myself to the wall and knocked vigorously.  The curtains were drawn, but I could feel her inside.

            “Sa-ku-ra-chaaaaan!” I called, knocking louder.  A brief surge of chakra was the only warning I got before the window flew open, almost knocking me to the ground.

            “What the hell do you want?!” Sakura raged.

            “We can see Sasuke!” I said.

            Sakura paused mid-rage, pushing her sleep-mussed hair out of her eyes.  “Huh?”

            “We can see Sasuke!” I repeated.  “Dr. Shizuta said we should go to the clinic together on Monday, and then we can see Sasuke!”

            Sakura smiled, but it didn’t quite reach her eyes.  “That’s great.”

            “Isn’t it, though?” I cheered.  “Let’s go there at dawn.”

            “Visiting hours don’t start until nine…”

            “Yeah, but we don’t want to waste any time!”

            “I’ll see you there at nine,” Sakura said.  “And if you wake me up again, I’m throwing you through the wall.”

            “It’s a date!” I said happily.

            Sakura shook her head, her eyes crinkling with her smile.  “Goodbye, Naruto.”

            “Bye!” I said, the window slamming shut in my face.

            My clones were already spread across the city, hard at work, so I bounded off to join them.

           The next week seemed to drag on.  I was starting to realize that every day was the same.  Get up, get dressed, eat breakfast, make a bunch of clones, and go out into Konoha.  Work all day, come home late, watch TV, eat instant ramen, go to bed.  I was itching to get out of the village, but Tsunade said I needed to practice one-handed seals more.  While I’d argued with her at the time, she wasn’t wrong.

            I had all this power, and almost no skill in which to use it. 

            It was frustrating, so I devoted a few clones to training every day.

            I wondered if Sasuke was training.  Was he allowed to train?  Was he locked in a room?  Dr. Shizuta had said that he wasn’t in a strait jacket or anything, but how did they keep him confined?

            The black tattoos swirling around his eyes came to mind, making my stomach churn.  The way those seals sucked chakra out of his eyes was tangible, it was something that even a genin could feel.

            That was also a part of my everyday routine.  Thinking about Sasuke instead of sleeping.  It was kind of getting to be a problem, what with how many hours I lay awake staring at the ceiling.  I was sure it would stop after I saw him.

            Of course, Sunday night was the worst.  I probably slept an hour total, anxious to finally go to the clinic.

            I got up before the sun had even risen, then didn’t know what to do with myself after I’d gotten dressed and eaten.  Sakura would probably be pissed if I went to her place three hours early.  She was so sensitive about that kind of thing, like showing up at someone’s window uninvited was a big deal.  She should have been happy to see me like I was happy to see her.  I missed her.

            I decided to take a page from Lee’s book and go for a run.  So I ran all around Konoha, trying to clear my mind.

            It didn’t really work.

            Finally it was time to meet Sakura at the clinic.  I was kind of sweaty, but I figured no one would care.

            “You stink,” Sakura informed me as I ran up to her at the gate.

            “Is it really that bad?” I asked, raising an armpit and sniffing.  “Seems fine to me.”

            Sakura just shook her head.  “Ready?”

            I nodded, reaching around her and pressing the buzzer.

            Maiko was sitting at her desk, twirling a pencil through her hair.

            Sakura didn’t seem bothered by this at all, and went straight up to the desk.  “Excuse me.”

            “Yeah?”

            “We’re here to visit Uchiha Sasuke.”

            Maiko stared at her.

            “Should we sign in?” Sakura asked with a forced smile.

            I worried for that poor receptionist, even if she was rude and bad at her job.

            Maiko just shrugged, eyes glancing briefly at a clipboard on the desk before returning to twirling her pencil.

            “You’ve been so helpful,” Sakura said, picking up a pen and scribbling on the clipboard.  “Do we wait here…?”

            Maiko ignored her.

            Sakura was probably about two seconds from jumping over the desk and throttling the girl, when the door opened and Dr. Shizuta appeared.

            “You’re both here, good morning,” she greeted us.

            “Good morning,” Sakura said, all friendliness and smiles.

            “Could we have a quick chat before I take you upstairs?” she asked, gesturing down the hall.

            “Of course,” said Sakura.

            “How long’s this gonna take…?” I questioned her suspiciously.  This was my precious time with Sasuke that she was taking up.

            “Just a couple of minutes,” she said, already moving towards her office with Sakura following.

            Maiko snorted.

            I turned and glared at her, then went to Dr. Shizuta’s office.

            “Your receptionist is weird,” I informed the doctor as I walked in.

            “Yeah, she needed a job, so we kept her.”

            “Er, okay…”

            “Have a seat.”

            I sank into the easy chair next to Sakura.

            “Is he that bad?” Sakura asked as she was handed a cup of tea.

            “What makes you say that?” Dr. Shizuta chirped, passing me a cup.

            “Yeah, whaddya mean?” I asked.

            “Because we haven’t been allowed to see him at all,” Sakura said.  “Now, Naruto, I can understand, because he doesn’t think-”

            “Excuse me?!”

            “But I understand Sasuke-kun’s condition and-”

            “He didn’t want to see you.”

            Sakura and I both fell silent.

            “I got him to agree to this visit by having both of you come together and limiting the time you stay,” the doctor explained.

            There was a pause, and then Sakura muttered something.

            “What was that?” Dr. Shizuta asked, smiling pleasantly.

            Sakura lifted her head, her eyes blazing.  “That freaking JERK!” she exploded.

            I nodded empathetically.

            “After everything we’ve done for him-”

            “Yeah!” I agreed.

            “Sacrificed for him-”

            “Tell it like it is!”

            “And he can’t even be freaking bothered to see us?”

            “Self-centered bastard!”

            Sakura and I stood up and faced each other.

            “Let’s go give that asshole a piece of our minds!” Sakura said.

            “With you all the way,” I said, giving her a fist bump.

            “Uhhh, could you maybe not do that?” Dr. Shizuta interrupted.  “Yeah… I… yeah, just don’t.”

            We both glared at her.

            “He’s not in the best head space right now, so…”

            “Can we see him already?” Sakura asked, unfazed.

            “Are you going to yell at him?”

            “No,” Sakura said.

            “Well, okay, I guess…” Dr. Shizuta said, rising hesitantly to her feet.  She led us back into the hallway, then up the staircase.

            I was ready to kick that stupid bastard in the face, I just wouldn’t yell at him.

Chapter Text

            We went up to the fourth floor in silence.

            The door was guarded by ANBU and locked.

            Sakura and I exchanged looks at that.

            We were let into what was labelled the ‘visitor’s room’.  There were some plastic chairs and tables.  Sakura and I took a seat at one of the tables, looking around at the white walls.

            “There’re no windows,” Sakura murmured.

            “I’ll go get Sasuke,” Dr. Shizuta said, disappearing from our sight.

            “I hope the clinic is less depressing than the visitor’s room,” Sakura muttered.

            “Could anywhere be more depressing than one of Orochimaru’s hideouts?” I countered.

            Sakura snorted.  “You raise a valid point.”

            “Do you think Orochimaru and Kabuto were doing it?” I mused.

            “What are you even talking about?”

            “I’m really nervous, so I’m just babbling.”

            “At least you can admit it for once.”

            “But seriously, didn’t they just seem like too close?”

            Sakura looked thoughtful for a moment, then shuddered.  “No, Naruto, just no.”

            “Hey, you know exactly what I mean, so don’t try and act like I’m crazy-” I started to say, then paused.  “Am I allowed to use that word in the mental hospital?  Is it bad?”

            “I think it’s fine,” Sakura said, shifting in her seat.  “Where is he already?  If I have to listen to you babble anymore about Orochimaru and Kabuto doing it…”

            “So you admit there’s a possibility.”

            “Why are you even thinking about it?”

            “Well, to be honest, I was gonna lead off with, ‘do you think Orochimaru diddled Sasuke?’, but that didn’t seem appropri-”

            Sakura smashed her fist down on my head.

            “Holy shit, ow!” I cried, rubbing my head.

            “You deserved that,” Sakura said, crossing her arms over her chest.

            Dr. Shizuta and Sasuke were standing in the doorway, looking at us like we were the crazy ones.

            “Sasuke-kun!” Sakura cried in surprise, jumping to her feet.

            “Took ya long enough, jerkface,” I said, slouching more in my chair.

            Sasuke hesitated.

            Sakura and I both exchanged nervous looks.

            An ANBU suddenly appeared in the corner of the room.

            “Is that really necessary?” I asked, gesturing towards the ANBU.

            “Council’s orders,” Dr. Shizuta said.  “I’ll leave you three to it.”

            She closed the door behind her as she left.

            Sakura and I stared at Sasuke, who was just standing by the door, looking lost.

            “Come sit down,” Sakura finally said, smiling at him warmly.  Trust her to forget her anger the second Sasuke’s pretty face was in her sights.

            “Or just stand there like an asshole since you don’t even want to see us anyway,” I put in.

            “Naruto!” Sakura growled, smacking me on my stump.

            “Owww, what are you beating a cripple for?”

            “You’re not a cripple!”

            We both realized that Sasuke was smiling.

            Dammit if I didn’t forget my own anger.  I got up and walked over to him, slowly even though I wanted to run.

            Sakura followed.

            Sasuke’s smiled dropped, and he eyed us both warily.

            “Don’t look at me like that,” I growled, trying very hard to resist the urge to pounce on him.  “I’m going to hug you now, and you’re gonna let me.”

            Sasuke gave me a disdainful look.  “And why would I do that?”

            “’Cause you owe me.”

            Sasuke didn’t have a snappy answer for that.

            I stopped in front of him, Sakura at my side.  I gave him my best puppy eyes and waited.

            “Stupid,” Sasuke said, rolling his eyes.  “Don’t touch me.”

            “Dammit, where is my hug of friendship?!” I demanded.

            “Sit down, dummy,” Sasuke said, flicking me in the forehead.  “You, too,” he added, flicking Sakura in the forehead as he walked by, moving towards the chairs.

            “You’re gonna hug me next time,” I complained, sitting next to him.  “And cry.  You’re gonna cry and be like, ‘Naruto, you are my best friend in the whole wide world.’”

            “And I’m the delusional one?” Sasuke muttered, leaning on his good arm.

            “Yeah, about that,” I said, studying him.  “So how’s your head?  Everyone keeps telling me how crazy you are, but you seem like the same old bastard to me.”

            “Naruto, you’re so crass,” Sakura muttered, pinching me.

            “And you’re so violent!” I yelped.

            “Really, I seem exactly the same to you?” Sasuke asked, flicking a black eye to me, his rinnegan covered by his hair.

            “Unfeeling jerk who doesn’t want to hug me, check.”

            Sasuke smiled again.

            I melted a little.  Seeing Sasuke smile just made me feel warm inside.  It was really uncool, I know, but it was Sasuke, and he was smiling for me.

            “Are they treating you well here?” Sakura asked.

            Sasuke shrugged.

            “Are they not treating you well?” I asked, poking him.

            Sasuke pulled away from the touch sharply.  “Why are you two so nosy?”

            “Sorry for being interested in your welfare,” I muttered.

            “We just want to talk to you,” Sakura said quietly.  “We haven’t really talked in a long time, so sorry if we’re being awkward about it.”

            “I don’t know how to make it not awkward,” Sasuke said, looking down at the table.

            “If it’s not awkward, then it’s not Team Seven!” I said cheerfully.

            Sakura snorted and Sasuke smiled.

            We were all quiet for a moment, but it seemed okay.  Sasuke was smiling, after all.  Which was weird, but it made me happy.

            “I thought you were gonna be all depressed the way everyone’s been talking,” I commented.

            “Sorry to disappoint.”

            “I’m not disappointed at all,” I said, poking him.

            He swatted my hand away, looking annoyed.

            “Sasuuuuuke,” I said, poking him some more.

            “Don’t touch me, idiot, god!” Sasuke snapped, shifting his chair away from me.

            I pouted.

            Sakura was watching us warily.

            “Sakura-chaaaan,” I said, poking her.

            Sakura shrieked and grabbed my wrist, twisting it painfully.

            “I only have one arm!” I protested.  “You can’t break my only one!”

            “Watch me.”

            “Sakura-chaaaan, why can’t you be nice to me like you’re nice to Sasuke?!”

            “Because you’re so annoying,” Sakura said, letting go.

            I breathed a sigh of relief, reclaiming my hand.  “I’m not annoying, I’m the mood-maker.  If you two were alone you’d just be sitting here all sullenly, staring into space.  Right, Sasuke?”

            Sasuke was looking down, not responding.

            “Hey, earth to Sasuke, I need you to agree with me about how irreplaceable I am to our group dynamic,” I complained.

            Sasuke didn’t move.

            I followed his line of sight and realized that he was staring at my empty sleeve.

            Sakura seemed to catch it, too, giving me a worried look.

            I tried to think of something to say to change the subject.  Something that didn’t involve the arm that Sasuke blew off.  ‘Heard any good arms- I mean jokes, lately?’  ‘The weather’s been really arm-y er sunny lately.’  If I opened my mouth, probably the only word that would come out would be ‘arm’.  I’d just scream it repeatedly, all the while trying not to say it.  Dammit, this was no good.  ARRRRRRM.

            “The hospital’s been really busy lately,” Sakura put in.

            I gave her an adoring look, letting her know with my eyes that she was my hero.  My hero who didn’t end every sentence with the word ‘arm’.

            Sasuke didn’t respond.

            “Oh, really?!” I asked loudly.

            Sasuke’s eyes flicked up to my face.  He looked lost.

            I froze.

            “Yeah, so we’ve all been working a lot of double shifts,” Sakura said, resting her hand on my shoulder.

            I glanced at her, away from that horrible look on Sasuke’s face.

           “We’ve all been really tired,” Sakura continued.  “So the other day I was reading a patient’s chart, and it said, ‘patient is scheduled for emergency ramen at noon’, and I thought, ‘Naruto?!’”

            “What?!  I didn’t get any emergency ramen when I was at the hospital!”

            Sakura smiled at me.  “The nurse who wrote it meant to write ‘respiratory function test’, but she said that she had spent so much time talking to Naruto, that she had ramen on the brain.”

            “Ahahaha,” I cracked up.  “Was it the new nurse?  The really tall one?”

            “That’s the one.”

            I turned to Sasuke, still grinning.

            He didn’t smile, but he didn’t look like he regretted his own existence anymore, so that was good.

            “Oh, man, so yesterday I was harvesting crops with Konohamaru’s team,” I started.

            “Harvesting?  Like doing farm work?” Sakura questioned me with a raised eyebrow.

            “Yes, because in case you didn’t know, I am an excellent farmer,” I said.  “So anyway…”

            Sakura and I spent the next hour talking about weird, harmless things that had been going on in Konoha since the war.

            Sasuke seemed to think that we were childish, but he sat quietly, listening to our stories.  I think he liked having the attention off of himself.

            When Dr. Shizuta came in to tell us our time was up, I had the irrational urge to grab onto Sasuke and refuse to let him go.  I fought it, but just barely.  Sakura’s hand on my knee kind of helped.

            “Can’t we have a little more time?” I whined.  I wasn’t too proud to beg.

            “Don’t you have work to do?” Sasuke asked dismissively.  “Pigs to wrestle?”

            “Ha, you were listening to my stories,” I said, grinning smugly.

            “Only by accident,” Sasuke said, standing up.  He looked awkward for a moment, then said, “Bye,” and walked towards Dr. Shizuta.

            “Bye,” Sakura said, waving to him even though he wasn’t looking.

            “Later, jerk,” I said, waiting until he had disappeared and the door had closed firmly behind him.

            “Well,” Sakura said.

            “Well,” I agreed.

            We started planning our next visit as we walked down the stairs together.

Chapter Text

            Sakura and I had been visiting Sasuke for about a month, and everything seemed peachy keen.  Sure, Sasuke barely said anything that wasn’t an insult to me, but what else was new?  Sasuke was an asshole, and apparently Konoha Clinic did not have a medication for that.

            Sure, there were times when he would space out and get this horribly tortured look on his face, but he was probably just constipated.  All I needed to do was say something stupid, and he was sure to come to.

            Except the time that he didn’t.

            “Sasuke, you’re not listening,” I complained, shaking his arm.

            “I’m sure he’s listening,” Sakura chided me.  “Right, Sasuke-kun?”

            Sasuke’s entire body seemed to go rigid.

            “Sasukeeee, pay attention to me,” I whined, shaking him harder.

            “No,” he whispered, his voice fragile.

            “What the hell, man?”

            Sasuke started screaming hysterically.

            I gripped his arm more tightly, startled.  “Sasuke?”

            He started shaking and struggling, so much that he flew off of his chair.

            I followed him to the ground, trying to pull him into my arm.

            The ANBU suddenly appeared next to us, pushing me aside.

            Rage flared through me, the kyuubi baring its fangs at the ANBU.

            “You’re making him worse,” she snapped, and just like that Kurama’s chakra dissipated.

            A man dressed in scrubs who I didn’t recognize appeared in the doorway, holding a syringe.

            Sakura pulled me back against her chest, and we both sat on the floor watching as the man injected the syringe into Sasuke’s arm.

            “Did you have to drug him?” Sakura whispered.  Now that Sasuke’s screams had died down, we could hear each other again.

            “He tries to activate the sharingan when he goes into these fits,” the nurse explained.

            I flinched.  With those huge seals on his eyes, that would be incredibly painful.

            The ANBU picked Sasuke up princess-style, which I would have normally found hilarious, but right now found insulting.  I glowered at her, and Sakura held me tight with her shaking arms.

            “Is he going to be okay?” Sakura asked.

            The nurse gave her a reassuring smile.  “He always is.”

            I didn’t find that reassuring at all.  “How often does this happen?!”

            “We’ll take care of him from here,” the nurse said, standing up and leading the ANBU into the clinic.

            I couldn’t move.  “What just happened…?”

            “I don’t know,” Sakura murmured into the back of my neck, squeezing me tighter.

            Dr. Shizuta appeared in the doorway a little while later.  “Would you like to go talk in my office?”

            “I have work…” Sakura said hesitantly.

            “Yes, of course,” she said, walking by us towards the exit.  “I’ll just be in my office if either of you want to stop by.”

            We watched her disappear.

            “Do you want to…?” Sakura asked.

            “I’m fine,” I said, shrugging out of her hold.

            Sakura chewed on her bottom lip, staring up at me as I offered her a hand up.  “What just happened-”

            “Sasuke’s crazy, right?  It’s what you’ve all been telling me.  So it’s really not a big deal.”

            “I’m kind of freaked out right now, to be honest,” Sakura said, eyes looking into mine imploringly.  “I’ve never seen Sasuke… like that…”

            “Go talk to the shrink, then,” I said, moving to the door.

            “Naruto…”

            “What?”

            “Are you really okay?”

            “Peachy fucking keen, Sakura-chan.  Look, I’ve got work to do, too, so I’m gonna head out.”

            “Oh.  Okay…”

            “I’m going first,” I said, leaving her behind.

            I had brought Sasuke back.  We could see him every week.  That was all that mattered.  I just needed to block that horrible screaming out of my memory.  It was fine.  It was time to work.

            I found myself being called into Tsunade’s office a few hours later.

            “You can’t kick holes into walls just because you feel like it!”

            I hung my head, trying to weather out the tirade.

            “Do you have anything to say for yourself?!”

            “It was an accident?”

            “How does one accidentally kick through solid cement?!”

            “I’m sure Lee’s done it a few times,” I suggested.

            “Do you really want to compare yourself to Lee?”

            “…yes…?”

            “Take tomorrow off.”

            “Whaaaat?  Baa-chan, I’m broke.”

            “How the hell are you broke, you’ve been doing thirty missions a damn day.”

            “Yeah, but most of them are volunteer work and the rest are D-rank…”

            “Learn to control your temper, then,” Tsunade said, crossing her arms over her enormous breasts.  “I can’t have you out there working if you’re going to be destroying newly rebuilt libraries.”

            “I didn’t destroy it, it was only the one wall.”

            “Uzumaki Naruto!”

            I eyed her sullenly.

            “Is this about Sasuke?” she asked irritably.

            “No…”

            “Of course it is, it’s always about that damn Uchiha brat.”

            “My world does not revolve around Sasuke.”

            “Oh, really?  What else does your world revolve around?”

            “Ramen,” I answered instantly.

            “So the most important things to you in the world are some noodles and a psychopath?”

            “I don’t like the way you are talking about either of the things that are precious to me.”

            “Oh, god help me, he said, ‘precious’,” Tsunade groaned.

            I felt my cheeks turning red, but I continued to stare at her defiantly.

            “Okay, I have the perfect job for you,” Tsunade said, leaning forward and resting her chin on her bridged hands.  “You can collect a regular salary, and not destroy my village when you’re having hissy fits over your boyfriend.”

            I thought my entire head was just going to explode.  “I’m not… you can’t… don’t… WHAT?!”

            “Kakashi needs an assistant,” Tsunade said.  “And since no one could possibly want the job, I’ll give it to you.”

            I calmed down minutely.  “What’s he need an assistant for?  To hold his pervert books while he’s in the bath or something?”

            Tsunade looked at me like I was crazy, which I did not appreciate.  “Why would… you know what, no, I’m just not even going to address what you said.  He needs an assistant to help him prepare for his inauguration.”

            “Inauga-what?” I said.

            “I’ve named Kakashi as the sixth hokage.”

            I stared at her.  Then I stared some more.  Finally, it just had to be said.  “Are you out of your mind?!”

            “He was briefly the sixth hokage when I… well, you know.”

            “Yeah, but that was like an emergency.  No one had any time to think it through.”

            Tsunade smiled at me.  “Did you think I’d name you as my successor?”

            “Well, I am the hero of the entire ninja world,” I pointed out.

            “That is true.”

            “But mostly I didn’t expect you to retire?” I said.  “I mean, yeah, you’re super old, but I think you’re still a perfectly competent hokage.”

            “How kind of you to say,” Tsunade said, giving me a grimace of a smile before reaching across the desk and throttling me.

            “Nooo, I’m sorry, I give up!” I cried, and she finally let me go.

            “Rotten brat,” Tsunade muttered, sitting back in her chair like she hadn’t almost just killed me.

            “Rotten old lady,” I shot back.

            Tsunade gave me a look and I shut up.

            “So… what exactly would I be doing for Kakashi-sensei?” I finally asked.

            “Helping with his schedule, getting him to places on time, going through paperwork for him, holding his porn while he’s in the bath…”

            “That sounds like a terrible job!” I cried.  “If I try and make him go somewhere on time, he’ll go out of his way to be late, and then make a terrible excuse.  And I hate paperwork!”

            “Naruto, this is a job for a hokage-in-training-”

            “I’ll take it.”

            Tsunade grinned.  “Great.  Your first job is to make sure Kakashi is in my office tomorrow morning at eight.”

            “You can’t be serious.”

            “Consider it a test.”

            I groaned.

            “After you get him here successfully, I want you to go talk to Dr. Shizuta.”

            “Why…?”

            “Because I said so, brat.”

            That’s why I found myself staring in horror at a naked Kakashi the next morning.

            “Good morning, Naruto!” he greeted me cheerfully.

            I backed away towards the window that I had come in through, ready to make my escape.  And why the hell was he only wearing his damn mask?  Did he sleep with the thing on?  I’d thought if I surprised him in the morning, I’d catch him without it, but nooo.  He remembered to put his mask on, he just forgot everything else.

            I was in hell.

            “You need to be at the hokage’s by eight,” I blurted out.

            “Oh, was that today?” Kakashi asked, cupping his chin like he was deep in thought.

            “Put on some clothes, already!” I wailed.  It was fine to be naked together in places where it was appropriate to be naked, like say the bath house, but not in his bedroom this early in the morning.

            “I didn’t know you were such a prude, Naruto.”

            “Of course I’m a prude, I’m surrounded by perverts!”

            Kakashi chuckled at that, reaching for a shirt in his closet and pulling it over his head.

            “That’s not the part that needs covering!”

            “You’re really wound up tight, are you sexually frustrated?” Kakashi asked, looking concerned.  “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but you’re actually very popular with the girls now.  I’m sure any number of them would be willing to help you out in that department.”

            “I’m fine, thanks,” I ground out.  “Are you actually going to show up at Tsunade’s office on time?”

            “I’ll try,” he said, gesturing vaguely before pulling on pants.

            “You didn’t put on underwear,” I protested.

            “Oh, you noticed,” Kakashi said with a shrug.

            “Gah, why did Tsunade choose you to be hokage?!” I cried, throwing my hands in the air in frustration.

            “Hell if I know,” Kakashi said, grinning at me.  “How do you feel about omelets?”

            “I don’t mind them,” I said, eyeing him suspiciously.

            “Join me in the kitchen, then, and I’ll make you one.”

            I knew I needed to keep an eye on him to make sure he didn’t sneak away, and if I got a free breakfast out of the deal, who was I to complain?

            “You’ve been keeping busy,” Kakashi commented as he started pulling things out of his refrigerator.  “Everywhere I go, I see you.”

            “I like to have about thirty clones out a day,” I said.

            “Hmm,” Kakashi mused.  His hands moved rapidly, chopping up vegetables.

            “I haven’t seen you around much,” I commented.

            “That’s because I’m stealthier than you.”

            “I’m not trying to be stealthy, I’m trying to rebuild Konoha!” I said, flailing around.

            “Ah.”

            “What’re you being so stealthy for, anyway?  I’ve barely seen you since we got back to Konoha.  No, really, the only time I remember seeing you was at Neji’s funeral.  You’re not a very good teacher.”

            “I don’t think you need a teacher, anymore,” Kakashi mused, pouring the eggs into a frying pan.

            “Whaaaat?” I said, watching his back as he cooked.  “Just ’cause I defeated the most powerful being in the world, doesn’t mean I don’t need… wait, what exactly did you do for me besides read porn all the time?”

            Kakashi turned to me, grinning.  “See, now you’re all grown up and you can read your own porn.”

            “I don’t want to read porn!”

            “It’s part of Jiraiya’s legacy, though…”

            “Senseeeei.”

            Kakashi chuckled.  “Did you want to go training?  We could go right now.”

            “You’re not going to trick me,” I said, crossing my arm over my chest.  “I’m a lot smarter than the old days.  You are going to meet Baa-chan at eight o’clock.”

            “Can’t get anything by you.”

            “That’s right,” I said, looking up as Kakashi put two omelets on the table.

            “Eat up,” he said, sitting across from me.

            “Thanks,” I said, suddenly feeling all warm and fuzzy inside.  It was rare that anyone ever cooked for me.

            “So, how’s Sakura?” Kakashi asked, surreptitiously stealing bites of his omelet when I wasn’t looking.

            “She seems… good,” I said.  “Busy.”

            “Hm.”

            “We really only see each other once a week.”

            “Oh?”

            “Yeah, we go to see Sasuke together every Monday morning.”

            “That’s nice.”

            “Yeah…”

            “How’s Sasuke?”

            “Fine,” I said.

            “Oh?”

            “Well… no, not really.”

            “Hm?”

            I put my fork down.  “He just… uh… no, it’s not a big deal.  I’m sure he’s fine.”

            “Mm.”

            “It’s just… I’ve never seen him like that.”

            “Like what?”

            “Like… totally broken,” I whispered, staring at the omelet.  If I looked at Kakashi, I wouldn’t be able to keep talking.

            “Hm.”

            “He was… I don’t even know.  It was like he wasn’t there, and there was just this empty, screaming shell in his place.  I’ve never… I’ve never felt farther away from him.”

            Kakashi chewed and swallowed before he spoke.  “I’ve been visiting him, too.”

            “What?” I said, looking up at him.

            “Doesn’t say much, but then our Sasuke has never been a talker,” Kakashi commented.  “We drink tea together, and then I leave.  Lukewarm tea because Sasuke isn’t allowed to have hot beverages, but that’s fine.  I think he’s happy for the company, even if it’s mine.”

            I studied his face.  “Have you… have you seen him freak out?”

            “Only once, when he was still in the hospital.  They called me in to try and help him.”

            “Oh… did you?”

            “They had to drug him.”

            “Is there really nothing we can do?”

            “This is something that Sasuke has to battle with himself,” Kakashi said.  “But I think just by being there for him, you’re doing something.”

            “Doesn’t seem like enough.”

            “You can’t fix him, Naruto.”

            “Why not?”

            Kakashi gave me a sad smile.

            “What…?”

            Kakashi reached over and patted my shoulder.  “Keep visiting to him.  Keep talking to him.  That’s what you can do right now.”

            “Okay…” I said, even though that wasn’t the advice I was looking for.  Of course I was going to keep doing all those things, but what could I do to make Sasuke better?

            “I have to pee,” Kakashi said, standing up and taking his plate to the sink.  “Finish eating and we can go.”

            “Yeah, we can get to Baa-chan’s office early and completely freak her out,” I said, shoveling some omelet in my mouth.  “Wouldn’t that be great?  Getting there early?”

            Kakashi just smiled at me.

            I finished up the omelet, which was surprisingly good, and took the plate over to the sink.  Being the gentleman that I was, I washed up all the dishes and set them to drain.

            It sure was taking Kakashi a long time to pee.

            I ran to the bathroom, pounding on the door.

            No answer.

            I threw the door open, prepared for anything.

            The bathroom was empty, but the window was open.

            “Noooooo!” I cried, then jumped out the window, ready to pursue him.  I quickly meditated my way into sage mode, searching for Kakashi.

            I couldn’t find him.

            “Tricky bastard,” I muttered, deciding to dash around the town madly with as many clones as possible.  It seemed like the most systematic approach to finding him.

            Eight o’clock arrived, and Kakashi was nowhere to be found.  I dragged myself to Tsunade’s office, a feeling of dread in my stomach.

            “Oh, good morning, Naruto,” Shizune greeted me.  “Tsunade-sama’s waiting for you in her office.”

            “Great,” I said, dragging myself to the door and knocking.

            “Come in!”

            I pushed the door open.  “Look, I tried my best-”

            “You’re late, brat,” Tsunade scolded me.  “I gave you a simple task that I thought you could accomplish.”

            “I know, but-” I started to say, only to realize that Kakashi was grinning at me from the corner of the room.  “YOU!  I searched every inch of the village for you!”

            “That’s why I hid in the one place you’d never look,” Kakashi said, looking smug.  “The place I was actually supposed to be.”

            “Why are you so cruel to me?” I wailed, wondering what I’d done in life to get such a sadistic teacher.

            “It was a lesson in assumptions,” Kakashi said, smiling.  “You said you wanted me to train you again.”

            “I see,” I said, finally tired of complaining.  “Thank you for the lesson.”

            “Can we get to business, then?” Tsunade asked, producing a huge pile of papers.  “Go through all of these and make sure they’re in order.”

            “Huh?” I said, staring at the tower of paper.

            “You can work in the conference room.”

            “Uh…”

            “Naruto, carry those for me, yeah?” Kakashi said, sauntering out of the room.

            “I’m not your errand boy!” I protested.

            “But actually you are,” Tsunade said, picking up the papers again and dumping them in my arms.  “Have fun, hokage-in-training.”

            “Baaaa-chaaaaan…”

            Tsunade pushed me out the door and closed it behind me.

            I groaned, leaning against the door for a moment and trying to get a better hold on the papers so they didn’t fly all over the place.  I took a deep breath, and followed Kakashi to the conference room.

            This was what I wanted, wasn’t it?

Chapter Text

            “Thanks for coming,” Dr. Shizuta said, smiling warmly as she welcomed me into her office.  “I know you’ve been working all day, please have a seat.”

            I sank into one of the chairs and thought I could fall asleep.  Being Kakashi’s assistant was exhausting.

            “I’m sure you’re wondering why I asked you here…” she said, sitting down next to me.

            “Sasuke doesn’t want to see us tomorrow.”

            “Oh, uh, well, yes, that’s exactly right.  I’m glad you’re so calm about it.”

            “Wait, I was right?  That bastard doesn’t want to see me?!”

            “Ah, well, yes…”

            “What a stupid jerkface!” I raged.

            “Naruto, I hope you can understand this from Sasuke’s point of view…”

            “The point of view of a stupid jerkface?  And anyway, can’t you make him see me?  I should be part of his therapy ’cause I keep his big ego in check.  He needs that.”

            “Deciding who he sees and doesn’t see is one of the few decisions Sasuke is allowed to make for himself.  I think taking that away from him would be counterintuitive.”

            “But it’s not fair!”

            “No, it isn’t,” Dr. Shizuta agreed gently.

            “Oh, uh… yeah, it isn’t,” I said, thrown off of my rhythm.

            “I think you’re very good for him, Naruto,” she continued.  “He cares about you, and he wants to be better for you.”

            I felt myself turning roughly the color of a tomato.

            “But that’s also why he doesn’t want to see you tomorrow.  He’s embarrassed about what happened last week, and he doesn’t want you to see him like that.”

            “Him and his stupid pride,” I muttered, feeling glum.  “I just want to see him.”

            “He wants to see you, too, he just can’t.”

            “Is that supposed to make me feel better?”

            “Doesn’t it?”

            “…yeah…”

            “It’s sweet,” Dr. Shizuta said, mostly to herself.

            “What is?” I asked, flicking my eyes towards her.

            “The way you look out for him.”

            “Oh…” I said, sinking further into the chair.  “It’s just what best friends do…”

            “I guess so,” she agreed, but she didn’t sound convinced.

            “It’s not like-” I started to say, and stopped.  What had I been about to say?

            “Oh, I heard that we’ll be having a new hokage soon,” Dr. Shizuta said, changing the subject.

            “Yeah, unfortunately,” I said.  “Hey, are you a ninja…?  You have some chakra, but it’s kinda… all over the place?”

            “No, I’m not a ninja,” she said, smiling easily.  “My parents were ninjas, but they wanted me to have a more normal life.”

            “So you decided to work at a mental institution?”

            “Yep, that’s what I decided to do.”

            “Your parents were happy with that decision?” I asked, sitting up and studying her face.

            “They were,” she said.  “Mental health awareness is something lacking in Konoha.”

            “Is it?” I asked.  “Everyone seems all right to me.”

            “Everyone needs someone to talk to about their problems.”

            “Yeah, that’s what friends are for.”

            “Sometimes they need an outside opinion.”

            “You think so?” I asked, scratching at the back of my neck.

            “I do.”

            “You tryin’ to drum up business?”

            “Well, this place is pretty dead…”

            “Yeah, I never see anyone else here.”

            “We have seventeen patients staying in the hospital, and I have about five to ten outpatient appointments during the week.”

            “Oh, that’s kind of a lot.”

            “In a village this size?  Especially one so… full of personality?”

            “Are you implying that the people of Konoha are crazy?”

            “A little bit, yeah.”

            I laughed.  “You’re a weird doctor.  But yeah, most of my friends are pretty crazy.  They all have weird obsessions.  Shino and his bugs are especially creepy…”

            “Yuck, I don’t do bugs.”

            I laughed again.

            There was a knock on the door and Maiko appeared.  “I’m going home now,” she said, abruptly shutting the door again.

            “Oh, it’s already time to close up?” Dr. Shizuta mused, looking at the clock.

            “It’s not 24 hours?”

            “Not for down here,” she said.  “Though obviously there’s a nursing staff upstairs with the patients.”

            “Oh,” I said, and I suddenly realized that Sasuke was above me somewhere, so close and yet so far.  I felt the tingle of his chakra run up my arm.  “I thought you lived here.  I guess I’ll let you go home,” I said, standing up.

            “I pretty much do live here,” she said, rising up with me.

            “So there’s really no chance of seeing Sasuke tomorrow?”

            “Nope.”

            “Even if I just sit in the visitor’s room for the entire day?”

            “Definitely no chance.”

            “Really?”

            “Afraid so.”

            I felt dejected.

            “Why don’t you spend the day with Sakura?” Dr. Shizuta suggested, patting me on the back as we walked to the gate.

            “She’s too busy with work.”

            “But she always comes on Mondays.”

            “Yeah, ’cause she makes time for Sasuke.”

            “Why can’t she make time for you?”

            “She’s busy.  I’m busy, too, babysitting Kakashi-sensei until his inauguration.”

            “So it’s okay to take a couple hours off to spend with Sasuke, but not with each other?”

            “I don’t know…”

            “I think it’d be nice.  You can distract each other from your obsessive thoughts about Sasuke.”

            “Obsessive…?”

            “Bye, see you again soon!” Dr. Shizuta said, shutting the gate between us and waving.

            “Bye…” I said.

            I wasn’t obsessive.

            “I’m not obsessive,” I told Kakashi the next morning.

            “Then why are you still talking about it?” Kakashi asked, not looking up from his book.

            “Because I don’t want people thinking weird things about me.”

            “Oh, so you don’t want people thinking that you trained for three years, then spent the next year chasing Sasuke down until you could drag him back to Konoha?”

            “I didn’t drag him, you carried him on your back.”

            “Guilty as charged.”

            “Ha.”

            “So you’re not denying the part about the four year plan to get Sasuke back?”

            “There was no plan,” I said, trying to sneak a document in front of his book.

            Kakashi turned his back on me.

            “You need to read this, it’s important,” I whined.

            “Later, I’m busy.”

            “Kakashi-senseeeeei.”

            “Oh my god, just give it to me,” he said, holding his hand out.

            “Heh heh,” I said, passing it to him.

            Kakashi took a quick glance at it, then tossed it to the floor.

            “That’s the peace agreement with Suna,” I said, scrambling to pick it up.

            “Yeah, I got it,” Kakashi said.  “We’re allies, blah blah blah.  Next.”

            “Kakashi-sensei, you need to take this seriously!”

            “I am being lectured by Naruto, what is my life?”

            “Senseeeeeei.”

            “You need to stop doing that.”

            “But it’s effective.”

            Kakashi disappeared in a poof of smoke.

            “Kakashi-senseeeeeei!”

            I spent the next hour looking everywhere for the errant hokage-to-be.  I found him coming out of Konoha Clinic.

            “What were you doing there?!” I demanded, latching onto his arm and dragging him back to the Academy.

            “Visiting Sasuke.”

            I froze.

            “He’s fine, by the way.  Silent as always.”

            I let go of Kakashi and just kept walking.

            “Naruto…”

            “Leave me alone!” I snapped, suddenly cloaked in Kurama’s chakra.

            Kakashi met my gaze evenly.

            I snarled and stomped away from him.

            He was suddenly in front of me again.

            “I thought you had your little temper problem under control.”

            “I don’t have a temper problem!” I yelled, causing the ground to shake.

            Kakashi gave me a look.

            ‘Naruto, chill out,’ Kurama murmured, stirring sleepily.

            “I’m… calm…” I said through clenched teeth.

            “Oh, yeah, sure, I believe you,” Kakashi said.

            I felt stupid, letting the anger drain away.  “Why would he see you and not me?”

            “Because he doesn’t have to put on a performance for me.”

            “What is that supposed to mean?”

            Kakashi looked at me.

            “I don’t want him to be anything but himself,” I said.

            “I wonder if that’s true.”

            “Of course it’s true, I just said it!”

            “Sure, anyway, I think we should take our lunch break,” Kakashi said, disappearing again.

            “It’s ten o’clock in the morning!” I yelled after him.

            Working for Kakashi had to be just about the worst job in the world.  Most of the time, I felt like the adult in our relationship.  Then came those rare moments where Kakashi was the adult again, and he made me feel like an idiot child who didn’t know anything.  There was no happy medium.  I wanted a happy medium.

            “Can’t I quit?” I whined to Tsunade.

            “No,” she said flatly.

            “But don’t you have a lot of missions for me?”

            “Nope.”

            “But I thought we were really backlogged?”

            “We’ve finally started to catch up, especially after Kakashi took care of that group of rogue ninjas.”

            “Wait, he actually did something?”

            “Surprising, I know, but yes, he did.”

            “Why didn’t you ask me to do it?”

            “You’re not leaving the village until you get your new arm.”

            “I’m perfectly functional with just one.”

            “I don’t want anything happening to you.”

            “Are you… worried about me?”

            “Stupid brat.”

            “I love you, too, Baa-chan.  So can I quit working for Kakashi?”

            “No.”

            I felt like I could be doing much more productive things with my time than babysitting Kakashi.  Yet as I looked around me, I slowly started to realize that Konoha had picked itself up and started putting itself back together.

            Maybe I wasn’t as indispensable as I thought.

            I redoubled my efforts to see Sasuke, which were rebuffed for several weeks.

            Finally, like an angel from heaven, Dr. Shizuta said, “Sasuke is willing to see you today.”

            “Really?” I asked, feeling all nervous but giddy.

            “Yes, but he’s very wary about it.”

            “Stupid jerk, I can’t wait to see him,” I said, bouncing around her office.

            Sakura just grinned happily, and we went up to the fourth floor together.  She had to hold me in my chair when Sasuke appeared in the doorway.

            “Sasuke!” I said, waving enthusiastically.  “You asshole!”

            “Hi,” Sakura said, smiling shyly.

            Sasuke came over to us and sat down without a word.

            “How dare you refuse to see us!” I said, flailing around at him.

            Sasuke didn’t so much as blink.

            “Jerk,” I added for good measure.

            “You look well,” Sakura said, smiling pleasantly.  “I’m sorry we haven’t been able to come by for a while.”

            “We haven’t been able to come because this jerk said we weren’t allowed!” I snapped.

            “Shut up, Naruto,” Sakura hissed, punching me in the shoulder.

            We both looked to Sasuke, who was staring through us like we weren’t there.

            He barely said a word the entire time, and I left feeling completely uncomfortable.

            “We’ve been adjusting his meds,” Dr. Shizuta explained.

            “He’s like a zombie!” I cried.

            “It happens,” she said with a shrug.  “We’ll keep trying, but finding a balance that keeps him calm but not a zombie is pretty difficult.”

            “You’re a doctor, figure it out,” I said brattily.

            “I’m trying,” she said, not losing her good-naturedness.

            “Thanks,” I said quietly.  “I know you’re trying to help him, I’m sorry.”

            “No worries.”

            I could see Sasuke again, but somehow, in some dark recess of my mind, I was thinking, ‘being with Zombie Sasuke is the same as not seeing him at all.’

            I forced a grin on my face and told every stupid story I could think of.  I even was purposely clumsy, but nothing got a reaction from him.

            I hated this.

Chapter Text

            Sasuke slowly started to perk up a bit.  And by ‘perk up’, I mean he occasionally said sentences that consisted of more than one word, and he sometimes even gave me half smiles, but that was super rare.

            Another Monday arrived, but I was in the odd position of being without Sakura.  She was out of the village on a mission.  I felt naked.  I hadn’t seen Sasuke alone since that first botched visit in the hospital.

            The main problem was that I hated silence.  I always had to fill it.  With Sakura by my side, it was easy.  We could play off each other and keep a chat going.  With Sasuke the Zombie, that seemed just about impossible, and I was kind of freaking out.

            “Heeeey!” I greeted Sasuke as he was let into the visitor’s room.  I watched the ANBU take his place in the corner of the room, then focused on Sasuke who was silently making his way over to me.

            I idly wondered if making conversation with the ANBU was acceptable.

            Sasuke sat down next to me and immediately started staring off in to space.

            “No ‘hello’?”

            Sasuke’s eyes flicked to mine.  “Hello,” he said, then looked away again.

            It hurt, and it made me miserable, and I wasn’t supposed to show it.  And yet, Sakura wasn’t here to keep me in line.

            “Look at me when I’m talking to you,” I growled, putting my hand on his shoulder.

            Sasuke’s eyes flicked to mine, then flicked away again.

            “You’re such an asshole,” I said, shaking him a little.

            “I’m sorry,” he said quietly.

            I stopped shaking him.  “For what?”

            “I’m trying to be better.”

            “Oh…”

            We’d barely spent five minutes alone and I already felt like a complete asshole.

            “I just wish you’d talk to me,” I invited gently.

            “Nothing to say.”

            “Anything’s fine,” I prodded.  “You can call me stupid as many times as you want.”

            Sasuke was quiet.

            “Sasuke, please talk to me,” I begged quietly, letting my hand slide down his arm and cover his hand.  “Please just talk to me.”

            “I don’t know what you want,” Sasuke said, a note of frustration entering his voice.

            “This is good,” I said, squeezing his hand.  “This.  I want this.  Us.  Talking.  Together.”

            “I don’t have anything to say,” Sasuke said, sinking back into his monotone.

            “Well, what do you do here all day?” I asked.  “You never talk about yourself.”

            “Read.  Sleep.”

            “That’s all?”

            Sasuke shrugged.

            “Can you train?”

            Sasuke levelled me with a look that made me tingle a little with all the thinly-veiled disdain.

            “So is that a… no…?” I asked.

            “Stupid,” Sasuke said, and I grinned.  He did that small little half-smile he’d been doing since he became a zombie, and my grin widened.

            “You should train,” I said, really looking at his body now and seeing how skinny he was in his hospital-issue scrubs.

            “Naruto…” Sasuke said, sounding tired.

            “What?”

            “I can’t train,” he said, taking his hand away from me and touching it to his eyes.

            I stared at all the nasty-looking seals around his eyes.  “I mean train your body.  You don’t have to use chakra.”

            Sasuke let his hand drop from his eyes.

            “It’s gonna look really bad for you when I completely kick your ass the next time we fight.”

            “Why would we be fighting?” Sasuke asked tiredly.

            “Uh, ’cause we’re rivals?”

            “We’re not rivals anymore.”

            “Then what are we?”

            Sasuke didn’t answer.

            “Sasuke?” I said, seeking his hand out again.

            Sasuke looked at the floor.

            I laced our fingers together, trying to find a connection.  “What’re you reading?”

            “Books,” Sasuke answered, sounding exhausted.

            “Yeah, but what books?”

            “Please…”

            “Please what?”

            Sasuke looked at me with his tired eyes.

            “You want me to stop asking you questions?”

            Sasuke nodded.

            “Do you want me to go?”

            Sasuke paused, then shook his head ‘no’.

            “Do I have to be quiet?”

            Sasuke did his half-smile and nodded.

            “Whhhhhy?” I whined.

            Sasuke didn’t answer.

            I tried to be quiet, running my thumb over the back of his hand.  His skin was a bit dry.  I wondered if I could bring him some hand cream.  I opened my mouth to ask, then shut it.

            Sasuke weirdly seemed to relax in the quiet.

            It was driving me crazy, but since I wasn’t the one in a mental institution, I tried to bear it.  It felt like an eternity, but it was probably only a few minutes before I cracked.

            “Sasuke?”

            No reaction.

            “Hey, Sasuke?”

            Still no reaction.

            “Come on, I want to ask you something important.”

            “No.”

            “Whaddya mean, no?!”

            Sasuke pulled away from me, a slight crease between his eyes.  “Why can’t you ever just be quiet?”

            “I was quiet for like twenty minutes!”

            “More like four.”

            “Well, it felt like twenty in Naruto time!”

            Sasuke paused.  Then he pinched my arm really hard.

            “OW, oh my god, what is wrong with you?!”

            The ANBU was suddenly next to us.

            “Uh, we’re fine,” I told him.

            He tilted his head to the side, then retreated back to his corner.

            Sasuke was stoic next to me.

            I sighed, leaning on my hand and studying him.

            He didn’t move or blink.

            I shifted, studying him from a different angle.  He had definitely lost weight, and since he was skinny to begin with, it really didn’t work in his favor.  There were huge dark circles under his eyes, reminiscent of Gaaara.  His whole face was looking kind of skeleton-ish, sunken-in and tired.

            “You look terrible,” I said after a long silence.

            Sasuke didn’t answer.

            “Are you eating?”

            Sasuke gave me a look.

            “What?  What does that mean?  That obviously you are eating?”

            “I eat,” Sasuke said, looking away.

            “Well, eat more.”

            Sasuke didn’t answer, staring into space.

            I sighed, continuing my contemplation of his scrawny figure, capped off with the loose sleeve hanging on his left.

            I did that.

            I could say that Sasuke had started it, and that he was the one who took the fight to that level, but the thing of it was, I let him.  I followed him.  I did it.  I took Sasuke’s arm away.

            “All this being quiet crap is annoying,” I complained.

            “Then leave.”

            “Asshole, you’re not getting rid of me that easily.”

            Sasuke paused, then said, “I’m tired.”

            “Oh.”

            “Thanks for coming.”

            “Yeah, uh… yeah,” I said, standing up with him.  “Hey, can I have my damn hug now?”

            “No.”

            “Why the hell not?!”

            Sasuke smiled.

            “Does torturing me actually make you happy?” I asked, feeling a little embarrassed.  That was the biggest smile I’d seen from him in… months…

            “You just figured that out?”

            “Bastard!”

            “See you next week.”

            “Oh, uh, yeah, of course.  See you next week!”

            I went back down the stairs, thinking about Sasuke’s smile and still feeling really embarrassed.  What was this warm, tingly feeling in my belly?

            “Did something good happen?” Dr. Shizuta asked, popping up in front of me.

            “Agh!” I said, jumping away from her.

            “I thought you were supposed to be a good ninja,” she said, looking very unimpressed.

            “I’m freaking amazing!” I protested.  “I beat Kaguya!”

            “Who’s that…?”

            “The most powerful ninjutsu user who ever lived!”

            “Uh-huh…”

            “Believe meeeee.”

            “No.  Anyway, was Sasuke in a good mood or something?  He seemed like the same prickly bastard when I saw him earlier.”

            “Should you be calling a patient a ‘prickly bastard’…?”

            “Well, he is, isn’t he?”

            “Yes.  Yes, he is.”

            “So how was he today?”

            “A prickly bastard.”

            “Why are you smiling so much, then?”

            “I’m not smiling!”

            “You are, and you’re also really red.”

            “I’m not!”

            “Sakura couldn’t come today?”

            “She’s in the Land of Water on a mission.”

            “Oh, I see.  So you and Sasuke were alone.”

            “The ANBU was there!” I said defensively, though I didn’t really know what I was defending.

            “It’s nice to see you smile,” Dr. Shizuta said, waving as she passed me to go up the stairs.

            “I smile all the time…” I muttered.  “I’m a very smiley person.  It has nothing to do with that jerk.”

            “Talking to yourself is really creepy!” Dr. Shizuta called from above me.

            I scampered out of there as fast as I could.

            Kakashi’s inauguration was coming up quickly.  A little too quickly.  It seemed like Tsunade couldn’t wait to quit.  Why anyone would ever want to quit being hokage, I just couldn’t understand.

            She looked exhausted, though.  Old, too.  She still hadn’t hidden away the crow’s feet around her eyes, and her mouth was starting to sink into her face.  Even her breasts were sagging a little.  She clearly needed a break.

            “The hokage doesn’t get a break,” she informed me when I told her so.

            “Just take a day off,” I said.  “I could watch the office for you.”

            “Ha.”

            “Is it really so hard?” I asked.  “To be hokage?”

            “It burns you out, Naruto,” she said, looking at me seriously.  “It takes everything you have, and it burns you out.”

            “You’ve been doing it for years and you’re all right.  The Third was hokage for like a hundred years, and he was fine.”

            “Was he?”

            “Uh, yeah.”

            “I think you need to look a little deeper.”

            “You’re being weird, Baa-chan.”

            “Who are you to be calling people weird?”

            I stared at her.  Then I stared some more.

            “The reason I called you in here was to tell you that Gaara is coming to the inauguration, so Kankuro will be coming with him.”

            “Oh, wow, awesome,” I said.  “I haven’t seen Gaara since the war.”

            “Do you understand what I’m telling you?”

            “Uh… yes?”

            Tsunade leveled me with a tired stare.  “Kankuro is going to start working on your prosthetic arm.”

            “Oh,” I said.  “Cool.”

            “I thought you would be a little more enthusiastic.”

            “No, I’m happy, I guess I just haven’t really thought about it.”

            “You’ve been doing okay?”

            “Whaddya mean?”

          “I mean with only one arm.  You’ve seemed fine, so I haven’t pressed you on it, but is it bothering you at all?”

            “Nah, it’s fine.  No pain at all, really.  The most annoying thing is I can’t eat with chopsticks.”

            “You complain about everything except real problems,” Tsunade said, shaking her head.

            “Huh?  You sayin’ I complain too much?”

            “Yes.”

            “Oh.  Sorry.”

            “I don’t mind.  Well, no, I do, because you’re so annoying about it.  But if there’s something really bothering you, just tell me, okay?  I’ll listen.”

            “Thanks…?”

            “Brat.”

            “You can talk to me, too,” I offered.  “About your geriatric problems.”

            “Get out before I throw you out.”

            “Baa-chaaaan.”

            She threw me out, right into Shikamaru.

            “Hey, Shika,” I said, getting off of his crushed pancreas.

            “Hey, Naruto,” he replied, sitting up.

            “Haven’t seen you around much.”

            “Busy.  Missions.”

            “Ah.”

            “Is Tsunade-sama in a bad mood or…?”

            “Nah, she just throws me through walls sometimes, nothing for you to worry about.”

            “All right then,” Shikamaru said, standing up.  “I still don’t feel like I want to go into that office right now.”

            “As long as you’re not me, you’ll be okay.”

            “Well, I am definitely not you.”

            “You’re good, then.”

            Shikamaru paused, studying me.  “Naruto?”

            “Mm?”

            “Let’s catch up soon.”

            “Hm?  Yeah, definitely.”

            Shikamaru nodded at me and went over to the office.

            I dragged myself down the hall, back to work babysitting Kakashi.

            Of course when I went into the conference room, he wasn’t there.  It seemed like it was going to be another fun-filled day of combing over Konoha for the hokage-to-be.

Chapter Text

            “This is fun, isn’t this fun?” I said to Sakura, swinging my legs from the clinic checkup table as we watched Kankuro with Sasuke.

            “Uh… sure?” Sakura said.

            Sasuke had been allowed to come down to the medical station on the third floor in order to get fitted for his prosthetic.  I had gotten me and Sakura in with him, because I needed a prosthetic, too, and Sakura’s medical expertise might be needed.

            No one actually believed us, but Dr. Shizuta had said we could come anyway.

            Now, Kankuro was holding up random puppet arms to Sasuke’s stub and seeing what kind of puppet he had an affinity with.  He’d already done it with me, and I still didn’t understand what was going on.

            “Okay,” Kankuro said, setting his graveyard of puppet parts aside.  “I need to take some measurements, and then we’ll be done.”

            “Oh,” I said. “That was fast.”

            Kankuro pulled out a measuring tape.  He measured our arms and stubs, recording the information in a small notebook.  “Finished,” he said.

            I cast a glance at Sasuke.  He had barely said anything the entire time, and now he was just staring off into space.  “Are you sure you don’t need to do anything else?”

            “Well, seeing as how I’ve never made a prosthetic limb before, no,” Kankuro said.  “But this seems like a good enough start.”

            “Thanks for doing this,” Sakura said.  “If you need any kind of medical input, I’d be happy to help.”

            “Thanks,” Kankuro said, gathering up his puppet parts.

            “Are you excited about your new arm?” I asked, moving to sit next to Sasuke and poke his good arm.

            Sasuke shrugged.

            “Think of all the cool stuff you can do with two arms!” I said, poking him more furiously.

            “Balance a book in two hands?”

            “Uh… I guess, if that’s what you wanna do.”

            “I could button my pants, too, if we were allowed to have buttons.”

            “Sasuke, are you making jokes?”

            “Uchihas don’t make jokes,” he deadpanned, but the way he leaned slightly into me told me otherwise.

            “Obito made jokes,” I murmured, leaning back into him so the light touch between our arms became solid.

            “Shut your face.”

            “I’m just saying-”

            “Shut it.”

            “Do they always flirt like that?” Kankuro asked, a furrow forming between his brows.

            “We’re not flirting!” I cried, pulling away from Sasuke and flailing around.

            “Thank you for coming,” Dr. Shizuta said, getting up from where she’d been silently observing on the other side of the room.  “I’ll take you all back to the gate.”

            “Are you sure you don’t need to check our blood pressure or take an x-ray or something?” I suggested.

            “What I need to do is go back to my job of guarding the kazekage,” Kankuro said, hefting his bag of puppet parts over his shoulder.

            I pouted, turning to Sasuke.  “Guess we gotta go.”

            Sasuke shrugged.

            “Don’t act like you’re not terribly disappointed.”

            “I’m not.”

            “Jerk,” I said, bumping him with my elbow as I hopped down from the table.  “See you Monday.”

            “Bye,” he said, letting himself be escorted off by two ANBU.

            I sighed.

            Sakura gave me a funny look.

            “Right this way,” Dr. Shizuta said, directing us back to the stairs.

            It wasn’t like I actually had time to be dawdling around at the mental hospital.  Tomorrow was the big day, and I was in charge of getting Kakashi to the ceremony.  It was all so awkward and weird, and I couldn’t wait for it to be over so I could go back to D-rank missions.

            I was in charge of getting Kakashi’s haori in the morning, which was not done, so while I sat around waiting for the old lady to finish embroidering it, all I could do was worry about what Kakashi was doing.  Had he run away?  Was he reading porn somewhere?

            Truth be told, I respected my teacher.  I thought he was amazing.  He was one of the most powerful ninjas I had ever seen.

            He was just so damn Kakashi that I couldn’t picture him as Hokage in a million years.

            I finally gave up and picked up the old lady, carrying her to the venue while she continued to embroider.  I was prepared to make some clones to look for Kakashi, but he was already there, waiting for me.

            “Is this the new Kakashi-sensei?” I asked, eyeing him suspiciously.

            “Can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” he said, smiling at me.

            “What does that have to do with anything?”

            “Almost finished!” the old lady declared.

            “Let’s put it on him, and you can sew it while he walks,” Tsunade said, removing the old lady from my arms.  “Come on, people, let’s do this.”

            And just like that, we had a new hokage.

            It was weird.

            “This is fucking awesome,” Tsunade declared that evening, already about ten drinks in.  “Let’s make this party krunk.”

            “Did she just say… ‘krunk’?” I whispered to Shizune.

            “Yeah, I’ve kind of lost control of the situation,” Shizune murmured.

            “Um, you need to get control back,” I said.  “Tsunade is an old woman, she can’t be drinking like that.  Think about her geriatric liver.”

            “Why don’t you go tell her that?” Shizune suggested.

            “I will,” I said, getting up.

            Shikamaru put a hand on my shoulder, shaking his head.

            “What?”

            “Just leave it, she’s fine.”

            “Old people shouldn’t act like that…”

            “C’mere,” he said, leading me away from the banquet.  We went to the next room, where a much calmer party was going on.

            “Naruto!” Sakura said, patting a seat next to her.

            I went over and took a seat between her and Hinata.

            Everyone was just eating and chatting, unlike the drunken mess in the next room, and it was nice.  It felt good to catch up with my old friends, who I barely saw anymore.

            “How are you doing, Naruto-kun?” Hinata asked me after about an hour.  We’d been sitting next to each other the whole time, but talking to other people.

            “I’m good,” I said, grinning at her.  “How about you?”

            “I’m really good,” she said, smiling.

            There was something different about Hinata.  She seemed more… confident?  Neji’s death had been hard on her, but she seemed okay now.  “I’m glad to hear that,” I said genuinely.

            “Naruto-kun,” she said, reaching out and touching my hand.  As soon as she did it, she turned bright red.  Yep, there was the Hinata we all knew.  I never understood why she got so embarrassed all of the time, but it was kind of endearing.

            “Hm?” I said, smiling and waiting for her to calm down.

            “I just wanted to tell you how much I admire you,” she said.  “You changed me as a person, made me stronger, made me better, and for that I want to thank you.”

            “Huh?” I said, longing for a second hand so I could scratch at the back of my head.  “Me?”

            Hinata nodded, and the blush started to fade as a confident light came into her eyes.  “I know you’re going through a tough time now, but we’re all here for you.”

            “Thanks?” I said, not really sure what ‘tough time’ she was referring to.

            Hinata squeezed my hand.

            I felt very confused as she got up and went to talk to Kiba.

            “What was that about?” I asked, elbowing Sakura in the side.

            Sakura, of course, had been listening to the entire conversation while pretending not to.  She and Ino leaned in close to me.

            “I think she’s finally moving on from her crush on you,” Sakura said.

            “Crush?  On me?!”

            “God, he’s so oblivious,” Ino murmured.

            “Like a bag of rocks,” Sakura said affectionately.

            “I don’t know what’s going on, but I don’t think I like it,” I said, looking at the two girls suspiciously.

            “Just seems like a lot of girls have had to give up on their misbegotten crushes on Uzumaki Naruto,” Ino said, sliding an arm around Sakura and resting her chin on her shoulder.

            “Shaddup,” Sakura said, shifting her shoulder to get Ino to move.

            “Girls have crushes on me?” I asked.  I was completely flummoxed now.

            “Yeah, but they’re starting to realize they have no chance.”

            “What?!  No, no, they have a chance, they have many chances, there are so many chances that they won’t believe it!”

            Ino and Sakura both snorted disbelievingly.

            “What?” I asked.

            “Naruto, what would you do if I said I had a crush on you?” Sakura asked.

            My brow furrowed.  “Whaddya mean, you don’t have a crush on me, you like Sasuke.”

            “No, Naruto, I don’t.”

            “She doesn’t,” Ino agreed.

            “But you do, you love Sasuke!”

            “As a friend, yeah.  Well, no.  Family.  As family.”

            I smiled at that.  “Yeah, we are a family.”

            “Oh my god, he really doesn’t listen to anything you say,” Ino said with a laugh.

            “It’s amazing, isn’t it?” Sakura agreed.

            I frowned at both of them.

           “I used to like you Naruto,” Sakura said.  “I told you this once, and you rejected me, but I kept on liking you.  But now that I see how things are, I’m trying to look at you like how I look at Sasuke.”

            “But you… liked… Sasuke?” I said.  I was so confused.

            “I think the one who likes Sasuke is someone else in this conversation,” Ino said with a cackle.

            “You?” I asked.

            Sakura and Ino both lost it, laughing hysterically.

            “I don’t… get the joke…”

            “And you never will,” Ino said, wiping tears from her eyes.  “Speaking of Sasuke, how is he?”

            “He’s okay,” I said, brightening up a little.  “We’re getting new arms!”

            “I heard,” Ino said, still looking amused.  “That’s great, Naruto.  Do you think you’ll start going on missions again, soon?”

            “I hope so,” I said.

            The conversation turned normal again, and the evening passed along pleasantly enough.  Well, until Shizune came to get me, demanding that I carry a drunk Kakashi home.

            “This is not how I wanted to end my evening,” I complained, carrying Kakashi on my back.

            “Walk quieter,” Kakashi complained in return, and that was the inauguration of the sixth hokage.

            “More or less as expected,” Sasuke mused when I finished telling him.

            “Yeah…” Sakura agreed.  “Yeah…”

            “But so far Konoha hasn’t blown up or anything,” I said.  “So I guess it’s going all right.”

            “Always a good watermark,” Sasuke murmured.  “Not blowing up the village you’re running.”

            I grinned, poking him.  “You’re chatty today.”

            “Fuck off,” he said, swatting my hand away.

            “And still a jerk,” I added.

            “Maybe you should stop touching me all the time.”

            “You like when I touch you.”

            Sakura snorted.

            We both turned to her.

            “Don’t mind me, carry on,” she said.

            I looked to Sasuke, who was frowning deeply.  I poked him, earning a growl, and turned to Sakura.  “Why are you messing with a good thing?  I haven’t heard Sasuke say this many words in a row since… since like the Academy.”

            Sasuke turned his frown on me.  “That is an exaggeration.”

            “Nuh uh,” I said, unleashing a poke attack on his belly.

            “Quit it, loser!” Sasuke snapped, trying to get me to stop.

            “Shoulda worked out more,” I laughed, easily continuing my assault.

            “You two are so childish,” Sakura said, but I could tell she was happy.

            “I will kill you, Uzumaki,” Sasuke growled, trying to twist my arm around.

            The ANBU was suddenly there, pinning Sasuke to the ground.

            “No!” I snapped, going into a rage.

            “Naruto!” Sakura said, putting her hand on my shoulder.

            I shrugged her away, peeling the ANBU off of Sasuke and preparing to throw him across the room.

            “Naruto, stop,” Sasuke said calmly.

            “He’s going to hurt you,” I growled.

            ‘Seriously, Naruto, calm down,’ Kurama murmured.

            “He’s just doing his job,” Sasuke replied.

            “He’s… oh…” I said, slowly coming to.  “Shit, sorry,” I said, letting go of the ANBU.

            A lot of things seemed to happen at once, and somehow I ended up in Dr. Shizuta’s office with the ANBU, another ANBU, and Sakura.

            “I’ll have to take away your visiting privileges,” Dr. Shizuta said with a sad shake of her head.

            “No!” I cried, feeling desperate.  “You can’t do that!”

            “Naruto, the ward needs to be a safe place.”

            “Then maybe you should talk to your crazy ass ANBU guards who assault patients for no reason!”

            “He threatened to kill you,” the ANBU interjected, sounding annoyed.

            “He’s Uchiha Sasuke, he threatens to kill me all the time!” I snapped.  “He doesn’t mean it!  I am quite literally the only person in this whole damn world that he cannot kill.”

            “Drama queen,” Tsunade muttered as she came into the room.

            “What are you doing here?” I asked.  “Shouldn’t you be… retired?”

            “Dr. Shizuta called me,” Tsunade said, grabbing me by my ear and dragging me away.

            “Hey!” I protested.

            No one came to help me.

            Tsunade stopped in the waiting room, shoving me down in a plastic chair.

            “Oof.”

            “Is this the kyuubi?  Is that what’s this is about?!” she demanded.

            “Huh?”

            “Your temper has been out of control,” she said.  “I thought you and the kyuubi had worked it out, but you’re acting like when you were trying to get Sasuke back from Orochimaru, completely out of your damn mind.”

            “It’s not Kurama…” I said.

            ‘Hmph,’ Kurama muttered in my head.

            “Then what is it?!” Tsunade cried.  “I can’t send you on missions anymore.”

            “Uh, yeah, ’cause you’re not the hokage.”

            Tsunade looked at me menacingly, and I cowered away from her.  “This is serious, kid.”

            “It’s not a big deal…”

            “It’s a very big deal when you, a jinchuuriki, cannot control your damn temper.  It is dangerous.”

            “I’m not dangerous…”

            “You put a hole in the damn library.”

            “It was an accident…”

           “That’s exactly the point, Naruto.  You need to go meditate with Jiraiya’s nasty toads or something, anything, just get it together!”

            I sat there quietly, not knowing what to say.

            “You’re coming to see Dr. Shizuta every week.”

            “Uh, why?”

            “You’re going to talk to her about your problems.”

            “Huh?”

            “Maybe twice a week is better?  Every day?”

            “I don’t get it.”

            “Look, kid, I tried not to force this on you, but you have serious issues and you need to deal with them.  Nobody likes a mentally unstable ninja.”

            “I’m not…”

            “You are.  Deal with your shit, Naruto.  Until then, you’re not taking any missions.”

            “What?!  No, no, no, wait a second, no way.  Baa-chan, I have to work!  And besides, Konoha needs me!”

            “Konoha is fine.  You, on the other hand, are not.”

            “This is bullshit!” I snapped, rising to my feet angrily.  “I am the most powerful ninja in the entire world.  You can’t tell me what to do.”

            “You are a child,” Tsunade said, shoving me back into the chair and leaning in close, her face right in front of mine.  “You’ve grown up a lot, but you are still a child, so don’t you dare raise your voice at me, little boy.  I will in fact tell you what to do, and you will listen to me.  Now go apologize to that ANBU!”

            I stared up at her defiantly, until her superior glowering technique had me at her mercy.  “Fine!” I snapped.

            “Good!” she snapped back, turning around and leaving.

            “Wow, that was the most interesting thing to happen in this waiting room for months,” Maiko commented in her dry, unimpressed voice.

            I glared at her before stomping back to Dr. Shizuta’s office to apologize to the ANBU.

Chapter Text

            I wasn’t crazy.

            “Naruto, you’ve been kind of… off since the war…” Sakura hedged.

            “You’re supposed to be on my side!” I said accusingly.

            “Naruto, we support you, even if you should be locked up with Sasuke,” Sai said, smiling at me.

            “Who invited him?” I muttered, pushing my bowl of ramen away from me in disgust.  Even Ichiraku’s couldn’t make me feel better.

            “Sai, we talked about this,” Sakura said.

            “Oh, yes, we’re not supposed to mention how crazy Naruto’s been acting.  Oh, or use the word crazy.”

            Sakura just buried her face in her hands, shaking her head.

            I sighed.  Who could ever get mad at Sai?  Well, I could, but it was like getting mad at an inanimate object.  It served no purpose, and I was a calm, anger-free Naruto.  “I don’t get it, what have I been doing that’s so crazy?”

            “The library comes to mind,” Sakura suggested.

            “That was one incident, which I have been more than sufficiently punished for.”

            “There was that time you flew into a rage when the ANBU guard tried to help Sasuke.”

            “What time was this?”

            “When Sasuke was having a fit, and she got between you to help him.”

            “She didn’t do anything for him anyway, and she didn’t need to shove me away.”

            “She clearly knew more about his condition than you.”

            “And I clearly know Sasuke better than anyone, and I know what’s best for him.”

            “Are you a trained psychologist?” Sai asked, looking interested.  “I didn’t think that was a popular field of study in Konoha.”

            “No, I’m not a damn psychologist.”

            “Oh,” Sai said, “so this is one of your best friend things?  You know what’s best for Sasuke because of your bond?”

            “Yes, exactly.”

            “That seems a bit delusional,” Sai mused.  “But you always do seem to be right when it comes to Sasuke.”

            “Yes, I do, thank you, Sai.”

            “Naruto, you’re not listening to what we’re saying.”

            “I listened to every mean word you said.”

            Sakura blew out an aggravated sigh.  “Clearly not, because if you were listening, you would know that I worry about you because I care about you.”

            “Oh, so it’s okay to say I’m crazy because you care?”

            “No one said that you were crazy!”

            “Sai did!”

            “Like I said, no one said that you were crazy!”

            “Sakura, are you discounting me as a person?” Sai asked with a grin.

            “Naruto, what you have gone through in the last year, it would be too much for anyone!  Yet you’ve just kept pushing forward without pausing to look back,” Sakura continued, ignoring Sai.

            “Why look back?” I asked, still feeling irritated.  “People get so caught up in the past that they let it cloud their judgement.”

            “Oh, like Sasuke?” Sakura asked, like she had just landed some big blow.

            “Yeah, like Sasuke,” I agreed.  “He was so caught up in his clan and revenge that he couldn’t see straight.”

            “Yes, he did,” Sakura said, nodding significantly.

            “Okay…”

            Sakura gave me a look.

            “What?”

            Sakura sighed loudly.

            “Sakura thinks that you haven’t actually forgiven Sasuke, because you haven’t thought about or acknowledged what he did,” Sai interjected.

            “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” I said.

            “Actually, you might be interested in hearing what she thinks about how you’re blaming yourself for Sasuke being in the mental hospital,” Sai said.  “That was a truly convoluted bit of cognitive contemplation.”

            “Huh?”

            “Sai, who invited you?” Sakura asked.

            “Oh, I just happened to be here when you arrived,” Sai explained.

            “Don’t you have somewhere else to be?”

            “No, not at all,” Sai said cheerfully.  “Naruto-kun, are you going to eat that?”

            “Take it,” I muttered, pushing the bowl of ramen towards him.

            Everyone in Ichiraku’s fell silent, all eyes on me.

            “It’s worse than I thought,” Sakura whispered.

            “You all just ruined my appetite, stop making a big deal out of it,” I said with a frown.

            “Is there something wrong with your ramen?” Teuchi interjected, looking concerned.

            “No, of course not,” I said.  “It’s as delicious as always.”

            “You’re sure?”

            “Yeah…”

            Sai started slurping up my ramen.

            “I’m gonna go,” I said, standing up and tossing some coins on the counter.

            “Naruto, wait,” Sakura protested.

            “I just wanna be alone.”

            Sakura didn’t chase after me, which I was glad of.  She was such a busybody, having all those stupid thoughts about me and Sasuke.  Of course I’d forgiven him.  Who went to visit him every week?  Who put up with all his moody bullshit?  Who supported him and talked to him and cared about him more than anyone else?

            Me.  Me, me, me.  Sasuke was my best friend, and Sakura was being dumb.  Everyone was being dumb.  There was nothing wrong with me.

            I showed up for my first official ‘counseling session’ with a chip on my shoulder.  I was suspicious of Dr. Shizuta, who, upon reflection, seemed to have been trying to counsel me the entire time I’d known her.  I’d been set up, and now I was trapped in her evil clutches.

            “Naruto, thanks for coming!” she greeted me enthusiastically as I shuffled into her office.

            I glared at her.

            “Have a seat, take a load off,” she said, sitting down in one of the chairs.  “Oh, did you want something to drink?  Tea?  Coffee?”

            I glared harder and continued to stand.

            “I know Tsunade is making you come, so you can just do whatever for the next hour,” she said.  “If you wanna talk, we can talk, or I can read my book.  Have you read these ninja mysteries, they’re super hilarious.  The main character is such a dunce, but he’s always stumbling onto the answers, haha, so funny.”

            My glare turned confused.

            “Well, I’m just gonna read, so you do whatever.”

            I felt like I was being tricked somehow.  And she was really just sitting there, reading a dumb book.  The worst part was when she started laughing out loud as she was reading.

            “You’re just gonna ignore me?!” I finally interjected.

            “Oh, I thought you didn’t want to talk.”

            “I don’t!”

            “Oh, well, then I’m gonna go back to my book…”

            “Are you even a real doctor?!”

            “Well, it’s in my name, right?  Doctor Shizuta.”

            “That was the most suspicious-sounding answer I’ve ever heard.”

            Dr. Shizuta shrugged and looked down at the book in her lap.

            “Can I just leave then?!” I finally asked.

            “Nah, Tsunade said you need to come here two hours a week.”

            “But we’re not doing anything!”

            “Doesn’t matter, you just have to be here and we’re in the clear.”

            “Is this some kind of scam?!”

            “Nah, it’s therapy.”

            “I don’t need therapy.”

            “If you say so.”

            “I don’t!”

            “Okay, then be quiet and let me read.”

            “You’re supposed to be listening to me!”

            “Yeah, of course, if there’s something you’d like to say to me.”

            “Oh, well, there isn’t.”

            “All righty then.”

            I tried to think of something to do besides talk to the crazy lady.  I couldn’t think of anything.  “You should let me see Sasuke!”

            Dr. Shizuta didn’t even look up from her book.  “I can’t do that until I’m sure you’re not a danger to him.”

            “How am I a danger to Sasuke?!” I cried incredulously.  “I protected him from that stupid ANBU!”

            “Does Sasuke need protecting?”

            “He uh… well, yeah, he’s all fragile now.”

            “I don’t think he’d like it if he heard you saying that.”

            “Like you even know him,” I growled.  “But yeah, he’d get so pissed.  Oh, well, he’s Zombie Sasuke now, so I guess not.  He’d definitely call me an idiot, though.”

            “He does love to call you names,” Dr. Shizuta agreed, still looking down.  “It’s cute the way he kind of smiles when he’s all, ‘grrr, that stupid usuratonkachi.’”

            “Heh, yeah,” I said, grinning.  Then I wondered why I’d agreed with her.  “Stop trying to trick me.”

            “I’m just reading this book…”

            “No, you’re trying to look into my head, and I ain’t gonna let you.”

            “That’s fine.”

            “No, it’s not!  It’s your job to look in my head!”

            “That’s a weird job description, ‘look into people’s heads’.”

            “Yeah, you have a weird job.  Why would anyone want to work in this crummy place?”

            “My mom was a patient here for a while, and the staff was so awful that I vowed to change it.”

            “…really…?”

            “Yep.”

            “Oh.”

            “Mm.”

            “What was your mom in here for?”

            “Her genin team was killed by a missing nin during a routine mission, and she blamed herself for not protecting them.”

            “…oh…”

            “It was pretty rough for a while, and this place didn’t really help.  Psychology wasn’t very big twenty years ago, and Konoha lacked people who were properly trained to deal with mental trauma.  I had to leave Konoha to get my degree.

            “…oh…”

            “So that’s my story,” she said, adjusting her glasses.  “I just want to help people who need help.”

            “That’s not so bad, I guess.”

            “Oh ho, a ‘not so bad’ rating from the future hokage, I should write that in my diary.”

            “You think I’m the future hokage?”

            “Doesn’t everybody?”

            “Heh heh,” I said.  I was tired of standing, so I sat down.

            “Can I ask you something?”

            “I guess,” I said, going back to being wary.

            “What are you so angry about?”

            “I’m not angry, god!” I snapped.

            Dr. Shizuta gave me a look.

            “I’m not!”

            “Okay, no need to yell…”

            I crossed my arm over my chest, feeling irritated.  I wished I had another damn arm to complete the crossed-arms irritated look I was going for.  “I’ll have you know that my life is really great right now.  Kurama and I became friends, and we’re an awesome team and wicked strong.  I saved the world, so everyone in the village acknowledges me, and apparently all the girls like me.  I kept my promise to Sakura, and I brought Sasuke back, and he’s actually here, in Konoha.  And I get free ramen all the freaking time from people who want to treat the hero of the village.  So yeah, my life is awesome, and I don’t see what everyone’s making such a big deal about.”

            “Your teacher Jiraiya died fighting that Akatsuki member pretty recently, right?”

            “Excuse me?”

            “Your friend Hyuuga Neji died in the war, too, didn’t he?  Then your best friend, who helped you end the war, betrayed you and tried to kill you?  And the only way to stop him was to blow each other’s arms off?  On your birthday?!  That’s some pretty heavy shit for a seventeen-year-old.”

            “Stop.”

            “Oh, but I’m just getting warmed up.  I haven’t even touched on how your parents died, or how the village has gone from despising you to worshipping you almost overnight.  Must be hard to trust people like that, who would neglect a child for something out of his control, then decide to love him because that thing turned out to be useful to them.”

            “You don’t know anything about Konoha!” I yelled.  “You don’t know anything, so stop talking!”

            “Fine, I wanna finish this chapter, it was just getting interesting,” she said, looking back at her book.

            “Fuck you and your stupid book!” I screamed, sending the book flying across the room.

            Then I stomped out.

Chapter Text

            “You’re such a dumbass,” was Sasuke’s comment when he saw me for the first time in a month.

            “You’ve barely even come through the door, and that’s what you have to say to me?!” I cried.

            “Yes,” he said, sitting down next to me and giving me a long stare.

            Sasuke hadn’t been very good with eye contact since he got all doped up on psych meds, so the look was weird and made me feel all tingly.

            “I missed you, too, asshole.”

            Sasuke gave me a little twitch of a smile, then looked away.

            I suddenly felt nervous, and I wished Sakura was here.  Of course I’d been begging Dr. Shizuta constantly to let me have my visiting privileges back, but now that I was actually here I didn’t know what to say.

            “You really are a dumbass, though,” Sasuke said.

            “Why now?”

            “There’s just so many reasons, you pick one.”

            “Uh, for coming to see this ungrateful jerk who doesn’t even want to see me?”

            Sasuke did his half-smile again, maintaining eye contact.

            I looked away, feeling embarrassed and not really knowing why.  “You seem… I don’t know, less zombie-like?”

            “Stupid,” Sasuke said in his usual disinterested tone.

            “Hey, be nice to me,” I said, elbowing him.

            Sasuke elbowed me back.  “Why should I?”

            “’Cause we’re best friends.”

            “I’m shitty to my friends.”

            “Ha, at least you admit- shit, stop smiling already.”

            “Why?” Sasuke asked, eyes narrowing.

            “It makes me feel weird.”

            “Hn.”

            “Sorry, you’re just… you’re very different today.”

            “Different from what?”

            “Zombie Sasuke.”

            “Shall I ignore you so you can feel more comfortable?”

            “Noooo,” I whined, settling my hand on his bicep.  “Oh, hey, you are getting scrawny.”

            “I think you’re just getting fat.”

            “How am I fat?!”

            “You live off of junk food.”

            “Instant ramen is not junk food!”

            “Idiot.”

            “Say nice things to me, jerk!”

            “Make me.”

            The door from the hospital side opened, and Dr. Shizuta peeked out at us.  “Making any progress, Naruto?”

            “I’m restraining myself from getting into a fist fight, if you consider that progress?” I said.

            “Hey, yeah, that’s pretty good,” she said agreeably.  “But maybe you could remember why you’re here today?”

            “Yeah…” I said glumly.

            “Good boy,” she said, closing the door again.

            Sasuke was looking at me expectantly.

            “Okay, so as you may know, I’ve been seeing Dr. Shizuta for counseling,” I said.

            “I heard you threw her book and cursed at her.”

            “Yeah, the first session didn’t go very well…”

            “But now you’ve become her prized patient,” Sasuke said, rolling his eyes.

            “I’m not… well, yeah, I am a pretty good patient.”

            “Because you don’t know how to shut up.  Psychologists love that.”

            “As long as we’re all acknowledging that I’m the best at this, and you’re the worst.”

            “Yes, Naruto, I admit that you’re a better mental patient than me,” Sasuke deadpanned.

            “Boo-YAH, in yo face!” I said, feeling pleased.

            Sasuke shook his head.  “Get to the point.  She gave you back your visiting privileges for what?  Is it part of your therapy?”

            “Dr. Shizuta thought we should talk,” I said.

            “About?”

            “You know.”

            “…yes…?”

            I took a deep breath.  This was scary, it was really scary.  But this is what I needed to do.

            Counseling with Dr. Shizuta had started out pretty terribly, but my inability to sit in silence had me spilling my guts to her by our second session.  She had me actually liking talking to her by the third.

            Sometimes it was nice to be able to say whatever, without being criticized or mocked or yelled at.  To just be listened to.  It was nice.  It made talking easier.  It made looking deeper easier.

            “You… hurt me,” I finally said, staring at the table.

            Sasuke was quiet.

            “I forgive you!” I rushed on.  “Of course I forgive you.  I… you’re my best friend.  But… but Dr. Shizuta said that I just forgive people without really thinking about it.  Like I don’t acknowledge what went wrong.  So it just sits inside of me and builds and whatever.  So I have to say it.  I have to tell you that you hurt me.  I have to actually say it.  But now that I’m saying it, I dunno, it feels pretty weird and I don’t want to look at you.”

            “I want you to say it,” Sasuke said quietly.

            “Huh?”

            “You make me feel worse.  When you don’t say anything.”

            “Whaddya mean?”

            “I mean what I said.”

            “Yeah, but I don’t get it…”

            Sasuke made a frustrated-sounding noise, and I stole a glance at him.  He was very turned in on himself, staring at the table intensely.

            I wanted to touch him.  Sasuke and I were pretty awful when it came to communicating with words.  Our fists, on the other hand…  Nonverbal communication was what worked for us.  I just wasn’t sure what I was communicating to him when I kept touching him all the time.  I only wanted to be near him.

            Slowly, I reached out my hand, settling it on his shoulder.

            Sasuke jumped away from the touch like it burned.

            I snatched my hand away.

            The silence seemed to stretch, making my skin itch.

            “Is that all?” Sasuke finally said.

            “I… guess…” I said.  “No.  Wait, no.  You.”

            Sasuke leaned on his arm and stared at me impassively.

            I tried to order my jumbled thoughts.  Of course, I’d been practicing in my head all night, but everything sounded better then, free from Sasuke’s judgmental stare.

            “You tried to kill me at the Valley of the End.  Twice.”

            “Yes,” Sasuke agreed.

            “That was really shitty of you.”

            “I know.”

            “I have nightmares about it, especially the first one.”

            There was a little crack in Sasuke’s mask.

            “I feel your hand going through my chest, and I look up into your eyes, and you’re always smiling all peacefully.  I know you didn’t smile that day.  I know it’s a nightmare.  But I wake up, and it just hurts.”

            “I’m sorry,” Sasuke said quietly.  He swallowed loudly.  “I’m sorry.”

            I chewed on my bottom lip, not sure how to respond to an apology from Uchiha Sasuke.  “You’re the person who means the most to me.  But right now all we have are painful memories, you know?  I want to make good memories again, but you’re in here, and it’s… it’s like we’re still a million miles apart.  I wake up every morning and I see this stump, and it’s supposed to remind me that you’re here, that you’re home.  But it just makes me think that I almost lost you completely to your… disease… and… that’s scary.  Okay?  I’m scared.  Make fun of me all you want.  I don’t care.  I feel like everything’s supposed to be perfect right now, but it’s all wrong, it’s not what I wanted, I don’t know, I don’t even know what I’m saying anymore-”

            Sasuke yanked me forward by my shirt, startling me into silence.  He slid his arm around me and dropped his forehead to my shoulder.  “I’m sorry, okay?  I’m really sorry.  I’m so fucked up, Naruto.  I’m so…  I don’t know.  I’m sorry.”

            I was shaking as I threw my arm around him, pressing my forehead to the top of his head.  I was probably getting snot in his hair, but Sasuke didn’t even comment on it.  “I’m sorry I didn’t notice… how much you were hurting…” I sniffled into his hair.

            “Loser,” Sasuke muttered, squeezing me tighter.

            “I am,” I blubbered.  “What kind of best friend doesn’t notice…?”

            “We were friends because you did notice,” Sasuke said, his voice tight.

            Somehow this was all starting to dissolve into teary apologies about I don’t even know what.  I just knew that I was sorry, and Sasuke was sorry, and we both needed to say it over and over.

            Then Sasuke said, “I’m sorry I took your arm,” and started hyperventilating, his body struggling to breathe.

            “It’s okay, it’s okay, I forgive you,” I whispered into his hair, rocking him back and forth, but he just couldn’t breathe.  I sat up and tilted his chin up, pressing my forehead to his.  “Breathe, Sasuke,” I said, breathing slowly and deeply.

            Sasuke tried to mimic me, still lost in a panic.

            I breathed in slowly, looking straight into his mismatched eyes.  Then I let out a slow breath.

            Sasuke did the same, albeit shakily.

            I kept taking deep breaths, and Sasuke began to calm down.

            He took one more deep breath, letting it out slowly.

            “Okay?” I asked, keeping my hand on the back of his neck.

            “Okay,” Sasuke whispered.

            “Okay,” I agreed, thumbing his skin gently.

            “What the fuck just happened?” Sasuke said, laughing shakily.

            “I have no fucking idea,” I said, letting my fingers slide into the hair at the base of his neck, stroking in what I hoped to be a soothing manner.

            “Me, either, but I feel like I have to put it into some kind of report for the hokage.”

            Sasuke and I skittered apart, turning our eyes to the ANBU in the corner.

            “Hey, by all means, don’t stop on account of me,” she said.

            I felt like I’d been caught doing something bad.  “I should go…”

            “Yeah,” Sasuke said, not looking at me.

            I punched him in the shoulder.

            Sasuke turned his narrowed gaze on me.

            “I won’t go if you don’t want me to,” I said.

            “Oh, I want you to,” Sasuke said, standing up abruptly.  “Bye.”

            “Bye,” I said, watching as the ANBU escorted him back to the hospital.  I walked myself downstairs and went to sit in Dr. Shizuta’s office.

            “Well, that was a mess, huh?” she said, grinning when she came in.

            I just groaned.

            “You did it, it’s done,” she said, patting me on the shoulder briefly before sitting across from me.

            “I can’t face him ever again.”

            “What dramatic nonsense are you going on about?”

           “I completely embarrassed myself.  I just rambled about all this dumb stuff, and I… I dunno, it was all dumb.  I don’t even know what I was saying.”

            “The words didn’t matter,” Dr. Shizuta said.  “You both just needed a catharsis.”

            “You and your big words.”

            “You needed a release,” she said.  “You both needed to get it out.  And clearly you both just needed a hug.”

          “What, no!” I said.  “Well.  Yeah.  I’ve been asking Sasuke for a hug since the end of the war.  Is that weird?”

            “No, I don’t think so,” she said.  “You communicate better with actions than words.”

            “Hey, I was thinking that same thing,” I said, feeling pleased.  “So the hug was like symbolic of us reconciling and forgiving each other and being best friends forever.”

            “Uh, I guess, if you want to get weird about it.”

            “I’m not being weird!”

            “Sure, you’re not,” Dr. Shizuta said, settling more comfortably into her chair.  “So, do you feel any better?”

            “Not if you tell me I’m being weird!”

            “What’s wrong with being weird?”

            “You’re making it sound wrong!”

            “That’s just in your head, I think you and Sasuke had a very positive interaction today,” she said, looking satisfied.

            “It ended kind of awkwardly, though.”

            “That’s fine, it’s hard for two socially handicapped boys to have such an emotional outpouring together and then not feel awkward.”

            “Uh…”

            “Anyway, Sasuke seemed all right.  A little shy, actually, which was super adorable.  He didn’t want to talk about it at all, but that’s nothing new.”

            “So why do you know so much about what happened…?”

            “Oh, that nice ANBU woman told me everything.”

            “Ughhhh.”

            “It’s fine, Naruto.  You did it, you talked to Sasuke properly.  You got your feelings out.  That’s a really big step for you.”

            “So will you say I’m fit for duty again?” I asked hopefully.

            “Mm, I still think you need some time.”

            “It’s not that I mind just volunteering at the orphanage every day, but I feel like my talents could be used in other places, too…”

            “You’re good with kids.  I think that’s the best place for you to be right now.  Children are the future, and all that.”

            “I guess…” I said, flopping my head back against the soft cushion of the chair.  “I’m exhausted.”

            “Go home, Naruto, get some rest.”

            “I thought I’d stop by the orphanage first.”

            “Or don’t listen to me and stop by the orphanage first.”

            I mustered up a smile for Dr. Shizuta, then set off for the orphanage.

            Konoha Orphanage was actually where I’d grown up for the first few years of my life.  I’d never thought about it much.  I didn’t have any kind of attachment to the place.  As soon as I’d been old enough to enter the Academy, I’d started living on my own.

            There’d been a lot of death in Konoha over the last year.  That meant there were a lot of orphans.  Something about it all just didn’t seem right.

            But I never thought too deeply about it.

            “Naruto-niiiiichaaaan!” came a chorus of yells as I walked up to the old building.  I could barely walk forward with so many kids crowding around me.

            “What are we playing today?” I asked, smiling.

            “Tag, you’re it!” one of the kids yelled, slapping me on the butt.

            All the kids laughed and scampered away.

            “I’m gonna get you!” I called, running after them with a laugh.  I popped out some clones, and chased the kids around until we all collapsed in a happy, laughing pile.

            I guess Kakashi and Tsunade weren’t so bad for making me come here.  It didn’t feel like work at all.

Chapter Text

            “We should arm wrestle,” I commented to Sasuke, watching as he lifted the small weight with his prosthetic arm.

            “No,” Sasuke and Tsunade said together.

            “What?  I think it’d be great physical therapy!”

            Sasuke frowned at me.  Ever since we had gotten our arms and started doing physical therapy together, he’d been all touchy about his puny, weak body.

            It seemed obvious that he’d never get his old body back if he didn’t start pushing himself.  What better way than to fight with the strongest, best-looking ninja in Konoha?

            He always laughed at that last part.  It wasn’t a nice laugh.

            “Why don’t you be quiet and focus on yourself?” Tsunade said, handing me a heavier weight.

            I took it from her and almost dropped it.

            Sasuke smiled and continued to do his bicep curls.

            We were in the recreation room of Konoha Clinic.  I’d finally been allowed to see behind the curtain of where Sasuke lived.

            It just looked like a normal hospital.  I’d seen a few of the patients.  They all looked normal, too.  No one was screaming or pulling out their hair or trying to murder everyone.  They were just people.

            “After you both do fifty reps, we’ll do some stretching,” Tsunade said, lounging in one of the chairs.

            “This weight is heavy…” I complained, struggling to lift it.

            “It shouldn’t be heavy for the strongest ninja in Konoha,” Tsunade said, waving off my complaint.

            I gritted my teeth and struggled through the exercises.

            Tsunade leafed through a book.  She seemed to be enjoying her retirement.  She was consulting at the hospital, and she was in charge of Sasuke’s and my rehabilitation, but she didn’t have to sit at the Academy all day and do paperwork.

            “Hurry up,” Sasuke said, staring at me pointedly as I sweated my way through the last few reps.

            “Hurry your face up,” I muttered, putting the weight down.

            “Done?” Tsunade asked, glancing at us over the top of her book.  It was the same stupid ninja mystery that Dr. Shizuta had been reading.

            “Done,” I exhaled.

            “Okay, let’s do some stretches,” she said, standing up and demonstrating the first one.

            Sasuke carefully moved his prosthetic into position.

            The thing was, moving our prosthetics required puppet jutsu.  That meant Sasuke had to be allowed to use chakra.  Some of the chakra seals on his body had been removed, but the ones around his eyes stayed.  There were also seals on the bottoms of his feet.  The chakra flow through his body was messed up enough by the seals, without even taking into account his missing arm.

            Basically, using puppet jutsu was hard for him.

            It frustrated him, and at first he’d said he didn’t even want the prosthetic.  That’s why Tsunade got permission for me to do physical therapy with him.  She thought if he saw me doing it, he’d get annoyed and want to do better than me.

            It kind of worked.

            “Ha, you’re so slow,” I said, as we switched to the next stretch.

            “Shut up and die,” Sasuke gritted out.

            The ANBU guard cast a glance at Tsunade, but she just waved him off.  The revolving cast of ANBU were starting to learn that death threats from Sasuke to me didn’t really mean anything.

            “If I died, you’d be so sad,” I said.  “I bet you’d cry and everything.”

            “In your dreams, loser.”

            “Who’d wanna dream about you?”

            “Would you two both shut up and concentrate?” Tsunade grumbled.  “This is the last stretch, and then we’re done.  Thank god.”

            “Baa-chan, it seems like you don’t enjoy doing this,” I said.

            “Oh, what gave you that hint?”

            “Sasuke and I are really fun to hang out with,” I said.  “You’re lucky to have this opportunity.”

            Tsunade guffawed at that, straightening up and rolling her neck.  “Lucky me.  Now I’m going to leave and get drunk.”

            “I think you need a new hobby, Baa-chan.”

            “You are quite mistaken,” Tsunade said, holding out her empty box to me.  “Get all the equipment and let’s go.”

            “Whaaat, can’t we have a little break first?”

            “What do you need a break for?”

            “That weight was heavy!  I’m tired!”

            “You just want to bother Sasuke.”

            Sasuke rolled his eyes.

            “I’m resting,” I said, sitting next to him on the floor.

            “Do you need a rest, Uchiha?” Tsunade asked.

            Sasuke shrugged.

            “Fine, five minutes,” she said, flipping her book open again.

            “Are these ninja mysteries like the Icha Icha series for girls or something?” I asked.

            Tsunade ignored me.

            “They’re pretty interesting,” Sasuke said.

            “Oh?  You read them?” I asked, raising my eyebrow.

            “Nothing better to do.”

            “I thought only girls read them.”

            “Do you even know how to read, dobe?”

            “Yes, I know how to read,” I said indignantly.

            “Just checking,” Sasuke said, leaning back against the wall.  He rubbed his left shoulder tiredly.

            “Sore?” I asked.

            “A little.”

            “I get the worst pains when it’s gonna rain,” I said rubbing my stump.

            “Yeah.”

            “You get them, too?”

            Sasuke nodded.

            I smiled a small smile, bumping my good shoulder with his.

            “Loser,” Sasuke murmured.

            “Takes one to know one,” I murmured back.

            “Are you done?” Tsunade asked.

            I pouted at her.

            “Get the stuff and let’s go.  Sasuke is tired of your flirting.”

            “Who the hell is flirting?!”

            Tsunade shrugged and stood up, moving towards the door.

            I sighed loudly and scrambled to get all our crap in the box before following her.  “Later, Sasuke.”

            “Later,” he echoed, watching me go.

            I walked with Tsunade back to the hospital.

            “So I’m getting pretty good with my arm,” I said.

            “Mm.”

            “So I think I should be able to start taking missions again.”

            “Did you now?”

            “Yep.”

            “Well, as you are so fond of constantly reminding me, I’m no longer the hokage, so it’s not my decision.”

            “Yeah, but if you put in a good word to Kakashi-sensei…”

            “I could, but I don’t see why he would start sending a genin on A-rank missions.”

            “Oh my god, I’m still I genin,” I said, the sudden realization washing over me.

            Tsunade laughed.

            “B-but… that’s… I mean, I’m not…”

            “Things are starting to calm down a bit, so maybe we can contact the other hidden villages to organize this year’s chunnin exam.”

            “Chuunin…?”

            Tsunade grinned at me.

            “Who would I even take the chuunin exam with…?”

            “I’ll recommend you for jounin,” Tsunade said, patting me on the head.

            “Wait, really?”

            “Yeah, soon,” she said.

            “How soon?!”

            “When I feel like it.”

            “Thaaaank yooooou!” I said, wanting to hug her, but I was carrying the stupid box.

            “No reason to thank me, brat,” she said, waving me off.

            I felt like things were starting to come together.  I even had a shiny new arm.  What more could I possibly want from life?

            I went home to my empty apartment and made some instant ramen.

            I had spent so long on a mission, to save Sasuke, to stop Akatsuki, to save the world, and now it was all over and there was no new mission for me.

            I played with the kids at the orphanage.  I helped fix roofs and rebuilt houses.  It all seemed important, like small pieces of a puzzle, but it was like some of the pieces were missing.  I didn’t know why I was doing what I was doing.

            Was I trying to become hokage?  But what did being a hokage mean?  Paperwork and porn addiction?

            I’d wanted to be hokage for so long.  I’d wanted to be acknowledged as the strongest ninja in the village.  But I had that now.  I was already at the top.  Where was there left to go?

            “You don’t have anyone pushing you to make you better,” Dr. Shizuta said when I paused for air in one of our sessions.

            “That’s… really true…” I said.  “Ero-senin’s… gone.  Kakashi-sensei’s Hokage, so he’s trapped in the Academy.  And Sasuke’s trapped in the mental institution.”

            “Naruto, I have to ask.  You’re really the strongest ninja in the world?”

            “Heh,” I said, scratching my nose.  “Seems that way, yeah.”

            “You have no peers?”

            “The only person who could stand with me against Kaguya was Sasuke.”

            “There’s no one that you can learn anything from?”

            “No, I wouldn’t say that,” I said, shaking my head.  “Like I said, I would train under Kakashi-sensei if he had freaking time for me.”

            “Have you thought about seeking out a new master?”

            I thought about it.  “I mean, yeah, I’d like to.  But I don’t know who?”

            “Maybe that’s the next step for you?”

            “Yeah…” I said.  “But I’d probably have to leave Konoha…”

            “You’re not ready to do that, are you?”

            “I dunno…” I said.

            The thing was, now that she’d said it, it made sense.

            A lot of things started happening.  I had my eighteenth birthday.  Tsunade recommended me to be a jounin.  I finished the course of my physical therapy.  Kakashi approved the nomination.  I got put on a three-man cell with Shikamaru and Sakura.  The three of us started taking on high-level missions.

            Everything was going the way it was supposed to.

            I’d pretty much already made my decision, though.

            Sasuke was still doing intensive therapy for his arm, especially because of all the muscle loss his body had gone through.  I went along and did the therapy, too, even though I didn’t need to.  Tsunade let me come because she knew it helped Sasuke.

            “Baa-chan, I need to talk to Sasuke alone,” I told her as we walked up the stairs to the fourth floor.

            “That’s not gonna happen.”

            “The ANBU’s fine, but if you could just… I dunno, excuse yourself to powder your nose or something?”

            “Are you going to do something questionable?”

            “What could I possibly do?”

            Tsunade gave me a funny look, and it made me uncomfortable.

            “I just need to talk to him alone.  I’ll tell you about it afterwards.”

            “We’ll see,” Tsunade said, but I found myself pleasantly surprised at the end of our physical therapy session when she suddenly needed to talk to Dr. Shizuta and left the room.

            Sasuke’s eyes went wary.

            “Hey,” I said.

            “Why did you want to be alone?” he asked.

            “No reason,” I said, holding my hands up defensively.

            “What is this?” Sasuke asked.

            “Nothing, nothing,” I tried to assure him.

            He continued to look at me suspiciously.

            “Hey, so spending time with you is really important to me,” I said.

            Sasuke stopped dabbing his forehead with a towel and narrowed his eyes at me.

            “Is it important to you, too?” I ventured.

            “What are you getting at, idiot?”

            “I just want you to know how important you are to me.  And how important it is to me that we spend time together.  But even if we weren’t spending time together, you would still be important to me.”

            “Where are you going, Naruto?”

            “What, who said I was going anywhere?!”

            “You.  Just now.”

            “No, no, no,” I said.  “Well, maybe.  But no!”

            “I don’t care,” Sasuke said, patting his face with his towel again.

            I couldn’t see his expression.  “I won’t go if you don’t want me to.”

            “Like I said, I don’t care.”

            “Your opinion matters to me.”

            “Okay.”

            I scowled, poking him in the side.

            Sasuke smacked my hand away, the towel dropping from his face.  He looked blank like always.

            “I want to travel,” I said.  “Study with different masters around the world.  Get some perspective and whatever.”

            “Do whatever you want.”

            “I’m trying to talk to you man-to-man.”

            “Man-to-man…” Sasuke repeated, shaking his head.

            “What?”

            “Turning eighteen does not qualify you as a man.”

            “Uhhh, then how about saving the world?”

            “Nope.”

            “Don’t pick a fight over stupid things.”

            “Why not?  It’s how we interact.”

            “…true…”

            Sasuke looked down at the floor.

            “Are you gonna be okay?” I asked.  “I know I made you come back, so if I just up and leave it’s kinda… yeah…”

            “It doesn’t matter,” Sasuke said.

            “It matters to me.”

            “It doesn’t matter.”

            “Don’t be like that.”

            “I’m not being like anything.”

            “You are so goddamn frustrating.”

            Sasuke turned to face me.  His bangs were slicked back with sweat, both eyes clearly visible.  The rinnegan was unnerving to look at at first, but I’d gotten used to it somehow.  Now it was just a part of Sasuke.  I reached out, resting my hand on his shoulder.  I wanted to connect with him.  I wanted him to understand everything inside of my head.

            Sasuke frowned at my hand, like the touch was offending him.

            “If you tell me not to go, then I won’t.”

            “Don’t go then.”

            “Hey!”

            Sasuke shrugged.

            “I mean if you have a reason…”

            “The reason is you’re annoying me right now, so I want to annoy you back.”

            “A real reason!”

            “You’re putting a lot of conditions on this.”

            “Forget I even mentioned it,” I said, kicking him in the shin.

            Sasuke grabbed me by the collar of my jacket, yanking me forward.

            The ANBU was suddenly alert, but didn’t come any closer.

            “You wanna go, bastard?” I growled, grabbing a handful of his t-shirt.

            “Try me,” he said, glaring down at me.

            “Oh, I will!” I said, unable to come up with anything better.  The intensity of Sasuke’s eyes had me feeling kind of dizzy.

            “Yeah?  You’re going to fight me?”

            “Bring it, asswipe.”

            “I’m not going to fight you, Naruto,” Sasuke said, letting go of me.

            I stumbled a little, surprised.

            “I’m not your rival anymore.  I’m just a disturbed freak in the loony bin.  Stop bothering with me, and go live your life already.”

            “What’s that supposed to mean?”

            “It means what I said.  Just go.”

            “Don’t be stupid, bastard,” I said, tugging on his sleeve.  “I’m serious, I’ll stay in Konoha if that’s what you want.”

            “Of course that’s what I want!” Sasuke snapped.

            “Oh…”

            “It doesn’t mean that’s what you should do!”

            “But…”

            “Don’t fuck up your life because of me,” Sasuke said, giving me a shove.

            I stumbled backwards, feeling confused.

            “We’re done here,” Sasuke said, and suddenly I realized that Tsunade was standing in the doorway, watching everything with a complex look on her face.

            “But…” I started feebly.

            “Time’s up, brat, let’s go,” Tsunade said, turning to leave.

            “Sasuke…”

            He ignored me.

            “Don’t be a jerk,” I said, tugging on his sleeve.

            He stayed with his back to me.

            “Whatever you’re thinking is dumb,” I said irritably.  I reached my arms around him and hugged him from behind.

            “Don’t touch me,” Sasuke muttered, but didn’t move.

            He let me hug him for a good minute before he finally shrugged me off.

            I poked him in the side, he almost broke my wrist, and then I left.

Chapter Text

            The gates of Konoha loomed up ahead of me.  It was a strangely nostalgic sight, but I continued walking at my leisurely pace.

            “Oh, Naruto!”

            Lee came up behind me.

            “Hey, Lee,” I said.  “What’s… up…?” I trailed off, watching as he somersaulted over my head and landed in front of me.

            “Just out for my morning jog,” he said cheerfully.  “Welcome back!  It’s so amazing to see you!  I feel invigorated at the mere sight of you!”

            “Uh, it’s great to see you, too.”

            I was suddenly engulfed in a hug.

            “Everyone was so excited to hear you were coming back!” Lee said, pulling back.  “But no one was sure on the exact day.  What serendipity!  It warms my heart!”

            “Yeah, very heart-warming,” I agreed.

            “Would you like to join me in my fifty laps around Konoha?”

            “I’d love to, but… you know… I need to hurry and check in with Kakashi-sensei.”

            “Yes, I see,” Lee said, nodding.  “Tomorrow, then!” he called, suddenly breaking away in a sprint.

            “Tomorrow?” I repeated, waving at his retreating form.  I resumed my walk, getting lapped by Lee once before making it to the gates.

            “Naruto!” Kotetsu called to me as I approached.

            “Hey,” I said, pausing at the checkpoint.

            “You’re back?” Izumo asked.

            “I’m back,” I said.

            “It’s been a while,” Izumo mused.

            “About a year and half,” I said.

            “It’s good to have you back,” Kotetsu said, and I shook hands with both of them.

            Konoha hadn’t changed much.  Some of the reconstruction sites had finished up, and some new ones had started, but beyond the cosmetics, the village felt the same.  These were the same people as always, living their same lives.

            It was weirdly comforting.

            Next stop was the Academy.

            “Kakashi-senseeeeei!” I said, throwing the door open cheerfully.

            Kakashi was sitting behind his desk, holding a book in one hand and the hokage seal in the other, aimlessly stamping papers.  “So you’re finally here.”

            “Yes, try and contain your excitement.”

            “Oh, we all jumped up and down when we heard you crossed through the gate, but then we had to get back to work,” Kakashi said, turning the page.

            “Hey, are you reading those girly ninja mystery books?!” I asked, aghast.

            “They’re not girly,” Kakashi protested.  “Most of the time.”

            “What happened to all your pornography?!”

            “I read them all so many times that I can recite them from memory,” he said, glancing up at me.  “Should I recite one for you?  Icha Icha Violence is good.”

            “No, thank you.”

            “Oh, well then what did you come here for?”

            I felt a twitch in my eye.  “I thought I would report to the hokage that I’d returned from my travels.”

            “It’d be more interesting if you let me recite for you.”

            “Nobody wants to hear you recite porn!”

            “I think a lot of lovely ladies would be happy to hear me recite such tantalizing erotica.”

            “Then go recite it to them!  Why the hell do you want to read it to me!?”

            “Because you make funny faces when I suggest it.”

            “You are a terrible teacher and hokage.”

            “And you’re a terrible student.  Welcome home.”

            “Thanks.”

            Kakashi returned to his book.

            “So…” I said.

            “So?”

            “You wrote me in your last letter that they were reviewing Sasuke’s case.”

            “Oh, yeah, that.”

            “So…?”

            “So?”

            “How’d it go…?” I asked, shifting nervously.  The review was set for his twentieth birthday, which had come and passed before I’d made it back.

            “Oh, well the elders were completely against it.”

            “Oh…” I said, trying not to feel too disappointed, even though I’d expected it.

            “But Tsunade and I supported that he be released.  He’s been nothing but compliant, after all.”

            “What…?” I said, feeling a confused spark of hope.

            “The jounin commander gave the tie-breaking vote, so now Sasuke’s out of Konoha Clinic.”

            “WHAT?!”

            “Yeah, he’s got an apartment not too far from here.”

            “He didn’t say anything… you didn’t… WHAT?!”

            “Yeah, he was released about a week after his birthday, so a month ago?”

            “Sasuke wrote me a damn letter two weeks ago…” I muttered.  All it had said was, ‘Don’t hurry back, no one cares if you’re here.’  “That freaking jerk.”

            “Yes, well.  That’s our Sasuke.”

            “I can’t believe he’s really out…” I said.  “Is he like, out out?  Completely free?”

            “Like the elders would ever allow that,” Kakashi said with an easygoing grin.

            “So… what then?”

            “He still has the chakra seals on his eyes, he has an ANBU guard on him at all times, he can’t leave the village, and he has to attend two counseling sessions a week at the clinic, no exceptions.”

            “That’s not so bad,” I said.  “Besides the chakra seals.”

            “We got them to remove the ones from his feet,” Kakashi said, looking a little more serious.  “He was having trouble using his prosthetic, so we had Hinata examine his chakra pathways.  They were extremely damaged.”

            “He didn’t mention any of this…”

            “Are you really surprised?” Kakashi asked.  “In fact, I’m surprised that he wrote to you at all.”

            “Don’t be,” I said.  “His letters usually said things like, ‘Why the hell are you writing to me, idiot?  Go do something useful.’”

            “Ah, that makes sense then.”

            “Why can’t he ever be nice to me?”

            “We always hurt the ones we love.”

            “What kind of crap is that?”

            “It’s from Icha Icha Tactics.”

            “Kakashi-sensei!  No more jokes about porn!  Become a respectable hokage!”

            “But I don’t wanna…”

            I sighed.  “Give me Sasuke’s address.”

            “I can’t just give out personal information about Konoha citizens.”

            “Kakashi-senseeeeei.”

            “I’m being a respectable hokage.”

            “You picked a fine time to start doing that.”

            “Go talk to Sakura, she’s probably at home today.”

            “Hmph.”

            My next stop was Sakura’s house.

            “Naruto!” she cried, enveloping me in a hug.  Then she cast a suspicious glance upwards.  “Did you get taller?”

            “Heh,” I said, rubbing at the back of my neck.  “Did your boobs get bigger?”

            She punched me in the face.

            “I meant it as a compliment,” I groaned as Sakura held a frozen bag of peas to my swollen eye.

            “Do you not know when to quit?” she growled at me.

            “You look really pretty?”

            “Dummy,” Sakura said affectionately.

            “Are you getting your terms of endearment from Sasuke?” I muttered as I took the peas from her.

            “Maybe you should start acting smarter,” Sakura said.  “I thought all the travelling would… I don’t know, make you more worldly.  Cooler.”

            “Hey, I’m very cool and worldly.”

            “Ha.”

            “Sakura-chan, be nice to me.  I haven’t seen you since the Land of Lightning.  Seriously, why is everyone so mean to me?”

            “Because you’re a masochist and you like it.”

            “What?!”

            “It’s true.”

            “It’s isn’t!”

            “Hoo boy.”

            “I am not a masochist!”

            “Look at who you surround yourself with.  You’re just like Kamaboko-kun from Midnight Ninja Mysteries.”

            “Are you still reading those awful books?”

            “Have you even read one?”

            “No, because I know better than to read books with ninjas and flowers on the cover.”

            “What’s wrong with flowers?!”

            “They mean that the following story will be full of girly stuff and feelings.”

            “I’m going to make you read them,” Sakura said.  “You really are just like Kamaboko, right down to your masochistic obsession with your horrible best friend.”

            “Sakura, you shouldn’t be so down on yourself.  You’re not horrible.”

            “I was talking about Sasuke!”

            “Oh…  Hey, he’s not horri…ble…”

            “I had to read his letters before they were sent to you,” Sakura said.  “To make sure he wasn’t plotting his escape or whatever.  I had to screen your replies, as well.  I know everything.”

            “You never told me you were doing that!” I yelped, my brain frantically trying to remember everything I’d ever written to Sasuke.  I’d probably said some unflattering things about Sakura when we’d all been travelling in the Land of Lightning with Tsunade and Shizune.  But she had been with me then, so she couldn’t have been screening our letters, right?!  “When did you start doing that…?”

            “Right after we got back,” Sakura said with a shrug.  “So, a year ago?”

            “Oh,” I said.  “Good.”

            “Good?” Sakura asked, her eyes narrowing.  “Did you say something about me before then?”

            “No, of course not,” I lied.  “So where does Sasuke live?”

            “Oh my god, did you just come here so you could find Sasuke?”

            “No,” I said.  “I wanted to see my best friend Sakura-chan.”

            She eyed me warily.  “It’s always Sasuke, Sasuke, Sasuke with you.”

            “Well, he is my other best friend.”

            Sakura sighed.  “Look, I try and check in on him as much as I can, but he’s not very welcoming, and I don’t think he’s doing well.”

            “Oh…” I said, and for the first time I actually thought about what it meant for him to be out.  He was all alone in the village he hated, away from the safety net of the clinic.  His best friend in the whole world, the very good-looking Uzumaki Naruto, was away.  He could no longer work as a ninja.  He suddenly had to take care of himself in completely foreign circumstances.

            “I’ll take you,” Sakura said.

            “Now?” I asked excitedly.

            “If you want…”

            I nodded enthusiastically.

            Sasuke’s apartment was in an old building that probably would have benefited from Pain’s attack.  We walked up a dark staircase covered in spider webs, then moved down a musky hallway that seemed to be made out of dust.

            Sakura stopped in front of apartment 460 and rang the bell.  “Sasuke, it’s me.”

            There was a pause, then some shuffling.  The sound of several locks being turned filled the silence before the door swung open, the security chain still in place.

            “Hi, Sasuke!” Sakura said cheerfully.  “Look who’s with me.”

            Sasuke’s eyes flicked to me.  “Hn.”

            “Are you gonna let us in?” Sakura asked, still smiling.

            Sasuke shrugged, closing the door.

            I was about to get angry, but then I heard the security chain sliding, and the door opened again, this time all the way.

            “Sasuke!” I said, ready to tackle him with all the affection I’d been holding in for a year and a half.

            Sakura put a hand on my shoulder.  “We’re coming in now,” she said.

            Sasuke nodded and stepped aside.

            This wasn’t what I’d expected.

Chapter Text

            Sasuke’s apartment was… messy.  He was usually so damn fussy and fastidious, yet there were dirty clothes on the floor, dirty pots piled high in the sink, and everything, including Sasuke, seemed to be covered in a layer of dust.

            Then there was Sasuke himself.  He was way too thin, which was obvious since he was only wearing a t-shirt and boxers.  Sure, it was hot as hell in the apartment, which had neither an air conditioner nor a fan, and the windows offered no breeze.  But this was Uchiha Sasuke.  Uchiha Sasuke did not walk around in his boxers.  That was something Uzumaki Naruto did.

            Sakura elbowed me, probably to tell me to stop staring.

            Sasuke carefully bolted all of the locks back into place before turning to face us.

            “Hey, Sasuke,” I said.  “You look terrible,” I continued before I could get my mouth to stop.

            Sasuke ignored me and sat down on his couch.

            He looked so tired, the bags under his eyes stretching halfway down his face.  Actually, he kind of looked like Itachi.

            I decided to keep that observation to myself.

            “Did you eat breakfast?” Sakura asked, opening the refrigerator and nosing through it.

            Sasuke shot her a look.

            “Of course you didn’t,” she muttered, pulling some things out.

            “I only had an old rice ball for breakfast,” I commented.

            “I will make you two invalids some lunch, today only,” Sakura said, staring us both down.

            Sasuke shrugged, disinterested.

            “Thanks, Sakura-chan!” I said.  “Sasuke, are you eating at all?  I feel like I could snap you over my knee.”

            “Fuck off.”

            “Can I try?”

            “Fuck off.”

            “Can I have a hug instead?”

            “Fuck off.”

            “I missed you, even though you’re a complete meanie head.”

            Sasuke gave me a sullen look.

            Seeing him in front of my face was weird.  I wanted to cherish all his nasty looks and disdain.

            “Creep,” Sasuke muttered after a few minutes of my intense staring.

            I grinned at him.

            There was a little crack in his armor, and I knew right away how much he’d missed me.

            “Hey,” I said, scooching closer to him.

            Sasuke shifted away from me until he bumped against the arm of the couch.

            “No escape,” I said, my grin widening.

            Sasuke stood up, walked across the room, and sat down on an old-looking rocking chair.

            “Why do you hafta be like that?” I complained.

            “Because I don’t like people invading my personal space.”

            “You like me invading your personal space.”

            “That’s not for you to decide.”

            “No, it’s for you to, and you already did.  You love it.”

            “And they say I’m delusional.”

            “Sasukeeeeeee.”

            “Naruto.”

            “Sasukeeeeeee.”

            “Shut the hell up, Naruto!” Sakura called from by the stove.

            “Why are you only yelling at me?!” I demanded.

            “Because Sasuke is quiet and not shrill.”

            “I’m not shrill!”

            “Come get the plates for our lunch.”

            I gave Sasuke a last glance before getting up and going over to Sakura.  “Where?” I asked.

            “In the cupboard,” she said, pointing to the only cupboard, which was over the sink.  The apartment really was a shoebox.

            I reached up and pulled down the only two plates.  “Uh…” I said.

            “Get a bowl,” Sakura suggested.

            There were two bowls, two cups, two sets of chopsticks, and two spoons.

            I ended up drinking juice from a bowl, while Sakura ate her omelet from a bowl with a spoon.

            Sasuke sat across from us, mechanically eating.  Sometimes he would stop, and Sakura would prod him until he started eating again.

            “You need to go shopping for more food,” Sakura reminded him.  “And how can you cook if all your pots and pans are dirty?”

            Sasuke shrugged.

            Sakura sighed.  “You need to start taking care of yourself.”

            “I’m not dead,” Sasuke muttered.

            “Oh, well then by all means continue what you’re doing!” Sakura snapped at him irritably.

            I felt my jaw drop open.  Sakura being mean to Sasuke?  I needed to mark this date in my calendar.  I would have, too, if I wasn’t overwhelmed with sudden guilt.  Sakura had been filling in for me all this time, taking care of Sasuke.  She hadn’t complained or even actually said anything about it in her letters, yet here it was, clear as day in front of me.  I’d put a heavy burden on her.

            Sakura caught my look and gave me a reassuring smile.

            “Sakura-chan-” I started, but she cast a glance at Sasuke and shook her head.

            “You can’t talk about what a burden I am in front of me,” Sasuke said, poking at his omelet.  “I might get upset.  I’m just so sensitive.”

            “You are fucking sensitive,” Sakura said, smacking his wrist.  “Eat properly.”

            Sasuke gave her a sullen look, then picked up a piece of his omelet and ate it.

            “Damn, Sakura…” I murmured.

            “She thinks she’s my mom,” Sasuke said darkly.

            I snorted.

            The whole visit to Sasuke’s was a kind of surreal affair.

            Sakura gathered up all the dishes when we were done eating, put them in the sink, and told Sasuke to wash them himself.

            Sasuke just shrugged.

            “Okay, we’re going now,” Sakura said brusquely.

            “What?!  Not yet,” I protested.

            “I have things to do,” Sakura said.  “And maybe Sasuke is tired of having uninvited guests.”

            Sasuke shrugged.

            “Oh my god, stop doing that, bastard!” I growled, reaching across the table and shaking him.  He was so thin and fragile in my hands that I let go immediately.

            Sasuke glared at me.

            “Sasuke needs to eat more,” I said.  “Is there any cake in this apartment?  Or how about some nutritious ramen?  Some nutritious ramen-topped cake?  Oh my god, has someone invented cake-flavored ramen?  That sounds like the best idea ever…”

            “Naruto!” Sakura said, snapping her finger in front of my face.  “Enough.  There is no food in this apartment except for butter, milk, and a questionably old-looking onion.”

            “Oh,” I said.  “Let’s go shopping.”

            Sakura gave me a wary look, like she wanted to say something but couldn’t.

            “Sakura doesn’t want to baby me anymore,” Sasuke said.  “Dr. Shizuta told her that I need to be more independent, so now Sakura is trying not to be my maid anymore.”

            “You were his maid…?”

            “I wasn’t a damn maid!” Sakura yelled.  “Except that I cleaned his apartment, did the laundry, and did the dishes for the first two weeks after he got out.”

            “You were his maid,” I said with a nod.

            “Fine, I was, but you’re not going to take over the job.”

            “Who would want to be Sasuke’s maid anyway?”

            “Lots of girls,” Sasuke said.  “But I don’t let strangers into my apartment, so it’s a pretty exclusive job.”

            I snorted and Sakura hid a smile behind her hand.  Sasuke occasionally said very weird things.

            “Just clean up after yourself, already,” Sakura said.  “You know that if Dr. Shizuta says you’re not doing well, they’ll send you back to the clinic.”

            Sasuke shrugged.

            “No more shrugging!” I said, lunging across the table at him.

            Sasuke slid out of his chair in time, escaping my attack.

            “Not bad,” I said, eyeing him from where my face had smashed into the back of his chair.  “I thought all your ninja skills had atrophied.  I underestimated you.”

            “Idiot.”

            “Come on, Naruto,” Sakura said, picking me up from the chair.

            “No, I wanna stay with Sasukeeeee,” I complained.

            “Shouldn’t you go check on your apartment?” Sakura said.  “Or go see Tsunade-sama?”

            “Oh, shit, I haven’t seen Baa-chan yet,” I said.  Tsunade would probably be pretty annoyed that I hadn’t gone to see her right away.

            “Sasuke, we’ll see you later,” Sakura said.  “Wash the dishes.”

            Sasuke rolled his eyes.

            “Bye, Sasuke, I’m gonna come back soon!” I said, finding myself being dragged out the door by Sakura.

            Sakura seemed to relax once we were clear of the apartment building.  “Where are you going?  I’ll walk with you.”

            “I guess to see Tsunade,” I said.

            “She’s probably drinking,” Sakura said, rolling her eyes.

            “It’s barely noon…”

            “I don’t think she’s taking retirement very well.”

            “She seemed to be having a great time when we all traveled together.”

            “Oh, yes, she did have a great time drinking, gambling, and going in the hot springs.”

            “Ah…”

            Sakura walked me to Tsunade’s favorite bar, where Tsunade was easily recognizable.  Sakura and I got roped into having a drink, albeit a non-alcoholic one for both of us.

            After that, I just kept running into more and more people.  It seemed like everyone in Konoha was thrilled that I was back.

            It was a weird feeling.

            I finally made it to my apartment at almost midnight after an impromptu party with my classmates from the Academy.  It was the first time I’d been ‘home’ in a long time, but I couldn’t even appreciate it.  I walked straight to my bedroom and passed out on the bed.

            The next day was the first day I didn’t have anything to do in a long time.  I’d walked all around the world, training with the great masters of all the hidden villages.  It had been pretty rigorous.

            I stayed in bed for a long while.  Then I lounged around the apartment.  I went as long as I could, before I finally had to leave the apartment for food.  I was freaking starving.

            I went to the grocery store, inundated by well-wishers and star-struck kohai from the Academy.

            It was weird.

            Next stop was apartment 460.  I knocked on the door.

            “Who is it?” came Sasuke’s suspicious voice.

            “Your best friend and the best-looking ninja in Konoha.”

            “Myself?”

            “Stop being a jerk and open the door.”

            I heard the locks clicking, then the door peeked open, the security chain still in place.

            “Boo!” I said.

            Sasuke stared at me impassively.

            “I come bearing gifts,” I said, holding up the bags of groceries.

            Sasuke looked unimpressed.

            “Come on, I’ll cook for you.”

            “Are you trying to get me to let you in?”

            “Fine, you can cook for me.”

            “…”

            “Sasukeeee.”

            “Shut up, you’re bothering the neighbors,” Sasuke said, closing the door.

            “Sasukeeeee!”

            Sasuke undid the security chain and opened the door again.

            I came in and bustled over to the kitchen.  “I see you didn’t wash the dishes.  And did you eat anything since yesterday?”

            “I drank the milk,” Sasuke said as he put all the locks back in place.

            “What the hell, Sasuke?!”

            “It doesn’t matter,” he said dully.

            “Of course it matters,” I said.  “I’m embarrassed to call you my rival.”

            “Good, because I’m embarrassed to be called your rival.”

            “I’m awesome!  You wish you could be my rival!”

            Sasuke ignored me and curled up on the couch.

            “Do you ever get dressed?” I asked.  “Wait, is that the same thing you were wearing yesterday?”

            Sasuke didn’t answer and started reading a book.

            “It is,” I said.  “It’s the same dumb Uchiha t-shirt and scandalous boxer shorts.”

            “Scandalous?” Sasuke repeated, not looking up.

            “What kind of man wears such form-fitting boxers?”

            “One who cares about support?”

            “My junk prefers to be free.”

            “Too much information.”

            “Said the guy in the scandalous boxers!”

            Sasuke didn’t answer.

            I scowled as I put the groceries away.  “Seriously, what the hell, Sas’?” I said, looking at the dirty dishes still sitting in the sink.  “What do you do all day?”

            “Stare into space,” he said.  “Nap.  Read.”

            “Well, maybe you could fit some cleaning into that busy schedule of yours.”

            “Your place is a pigsty.”

            “Yeah, but at least I shower and change my clothes.”

            “Too much effort,” Sasuke muttered.

            This was getting to be a bit much for me.  From his terse, bitchy letters, I’d assumed Sasuke was fine.  When Kakahsi-sensei told me yesterday that he’d actually been released from the clinic, that had assured me that he was better.

            He wasn’t better at all.

            In fact, he seemed worse.

            “I’m making you a steak,” I said.  “Go take a shower.”

            “No.”

            “What the hell do you mean, no?!”

            “I don’t want to.”

            “Look at your limp hair!  The Sasuke I know would never be seen in such a state!”

            “I guess you don’t know me so well, after all.”

            “Sasukeeeee.”

            “Shut up.”

            “Asshole!” I said, and I started banging around the kitchen.  I realized that there were absolutely no clean pots and pans.  I knew I was probably enabling him by doing it, but I started washing all the dishes.  We just needed to take things step by step.  First was getting him to gain some weight, because this fragile little Sasuke was freaking me out.

            Sasuke sat and read his book.

            I started sweating up a storm.  “Don’t you have a fan?”

            “Nope.”

            “Why not?!”

            “I don’t move around much.”

            “Even if you don’t move, it’s a freaking sauna in here!”

            “Free sauna,” Sasuke said dully.

            This wasn’t going very well.

            I made some clones and had them do some wind techniques to get the air flowing.

            “See, isn’t this better?” I said.

            “You’re blowing my pages,” Sasuke complained, holding his book firmly with both hands.

            “I can’t stand you!” I yelled.  I started cooking, all the while thinking about what an ungrateful bitch Sasuke was.

            Sasuke came to the table when I called him, and started eating mechanically.

            “Have some more steak sauce,” I said, pouring some on his plate.  I’d made sure to buy the fattiest, most calorie-filled items in the grocery store.  “And we’re gonna have cake for dessert,” I said, pointing to the oven.

            Sasuke didn’t seem to have a reaction to that.

            When he stopped eating, I poked and harassed him until he started again.  I gave him a huge piece of cake, and watched him until he ate every last bite.

            “I thought that would taste worse,” he said when he finished.

            “Really?” I asked, beaming.  I’d spent a lot of time with an old granny in the Land of Wind.  She loved to bake, and somehow it had rubbed off on me.

            Sasuke didn’t say anything else.

            “How about you wash the dishes?” I suggested, taking a page from Sakura.

            “Too hot.”

            “You…”

            Sasuke went to lay down on the couch.

            I watched him go, a feeling of determination blooming inside of me.  I’d gotten him to eat.  That was the first step.  If I took everything one step at a time, Sasuke would be as good as new in no time.

            I was going to fix him.

Chapter Text

            My plans to fix Sasuke didn’t go as well as planned.

            “You’re just enabling him!” Sakura yelled at me as I pulled his laundry out of the dryer at the laundromat.

            “He doesn’t have any clean clothes,” I said.  “If he has clean clothes, he changes them once in a while.”

            “The point is that if he doesn’t have any, eventually he’s going to realize that he needs to do it himself.”

            “But he has counseling today,” I protested.  “He can’t go to Konoha Clinic in boxers and a week-old dirty t-shirt.”

            “Why not?”

            “Stop perving on Sasuke!” I said, flailing around for a moment before returning to folding his clothes.

            “Who the hell is perving on him?!” Sakura growled, punching the table where I was folding.

            The table shuddered.

            “You want him parading around Konoha in those tiny shorts?!”

            “If it will get him to do his damn laundry.”

            “You don’t understand,” I said.

            “Naruto, I did the same exact thing that you’re doing!” Sakura snapped.  “It didn’t work.”

            “You only did it for a couple of weeks,” I said.  “Besides, he responds better to me.”

          “Oh, yes, of course, because you two have such a deep and sacred bond, that I cannot fathom the depths of.”

            “Exactly.”

            “Dr. Shizuta said-”

            “She doesn’t know him like I do.”

            “Do you really know him as well as you think you do?”

            “Obviously.”

            Sakura shook her head.  “Just because he’s wearing clean clothes doesn’t mean he’s any better.”

            “What do you know, anyway?” I muttered, gathering up his clothes back in the basket.

            “A lot,” Sakura said, leaving ahead of me.

            I walked back to Sasuke’s alone, feeling annoyed with Sakura.  I knocked on the door, waiting for Sasuke to check me with the security chain before I could finally go inside.

            “Nice clean clothes,” I said, putting the basket on the couch.

            “Hn.”

            “Is that how you express your gratitude?”

            Sasuke didn’t answer.

            “Why don’t you take a bath before your appointment?” I suggested.  “Or a shower at least.  I’m sure Dr. Shizuta would appreciate it.”

            Sasuke didn’t move.

            I decided that today’s mission would be to get Sasuke to shower.  If he kept taking baby steps, eventually he would get better.  “Come on,” I said, taking his hand and pulling him towards the shower room.

            Sasuke passively let me drag him along.

            I both hated and was greatly appreciative of his passivity.

            “Okay, bastard,” I said, stopping in the shower room.  “Strip.”

            Sasuke stood unmoving on the tile, looking at me like I was the dumbest person in the world.

            “Come on, we’re already here,” I said, pointing to the shower head.  “Do I have to do everything for you?”

            Sasuke took a step back when I moved towards him, ready to strip him if necessary.

            “Then do it yourself!” I said, pulling my t-shirt off and tossing it out the door, onto the floor.  I peeled my mesh shirt off next and tossed it in the general direction of my other shirt.

            Sasuke was staring at me, his eyes squinted in concentration.

            “Like what you see?” I asked, flexing.  I wasn’t huge or anything, but I’d definitely gotten more muscular while I was travelling.

            “You got bigger,” Sasuke commented, small arms wrapped around himself.

            “Yeah, and you got tiny.”

            “I meant that you got fat.”

            “Where the hell am I fat?!” I demanded, gesturing down my body.  “I’m not fat!”

            “Here,” Sasuke said poking me in the side.  It had to be just about the only point on my body that wasn’t one hundred percent solid muscle.

            “That’s not fat!” I cried.

            “Fatty,” Sasuke said, smiling his little secret smile.

            “Shut up and take your clothes off!” I shouted, crossing my arms over my chest and trying to hide behind them.  I suddenly felt very self-conscious.

            Sasuke shrugged and pulled his dirty t-shirt over his head.  He stepped out of the bath and carefully placed it on the counter outside before stepping back in.

            It was my turn to stare.  He really was too damn skinny.  He had almost no muscle left, and his ribs protruded against his skin.  The only place where his body still held any kind of strength were his arms, which must have been from the continuous physical therapy.

            “Don’t look at me like that,” Sasuke said.  He didn’t sound self-conscious, but he seemed unhappy.

            “Then eat something,” I replied irritably, pulling off my pants and boxers, and throwing them outside.

            “So says the fatty,” Sasuke murmured, eyes running up and down my body.

            I followed the line of his eyes.  “Did you just give my dick a onceover?!”

            Sasuke shrugged.

            “What is that about?!”

            “It got bigger, too,” Sasuke muttered, carefully removing his boxers and taking them out to the counter.

            I thought back to the last time we’d been around each other naked.  “Since I was twelve?  Yeah, it’s gotten bigger since then.”

            “Hn,” Sasuke said, looking down at himself.

            “Did you not get bigger?” I asked, suddenly amused.  Then I actually looked at his.  “That’s not fair,” I complained.

            “Still bigger,” Sasuke said with a smirk.

            “No way,” I said, gesturing towards my own dick.  “I’m definitely bigger.”

            “We’re talking length here,” Sasuke said.

            “No, we’re talking bigger,” I said.  “Girth.”

            “Length.”

            “Girth.”

            “Length.”

            “Shut up already and take a shower.”

            “So you admit mine’s bigger?”

            “Never.”

            “Hn.”

            “Sit down and I’ll wash your hair, you big-dicked princess.”

            Sasuke looked so genuinely pleased with my comment that I didn’t regret giving into him a little.  He sat on the little stool and let me wash his hair.  He seemed content, his eyes closed, and he occasionally let out an appreciative hum.

            I handed him a bar of soap to wash up with, which he did very lazily.  I finally took it from him, scrubbing his skin with more vigor than was probably necessary.  I rinsed the conditioner out of his hair, and put the shower head back in its place.

            “All clean,” I announced.  I stepped out of the shower room and grabbed a towel from the little cabinet, dropping it on Sasuke’s head.  I grabbed one for myself and patted down my legs and chest.  “At least all your towels are nice and clean since you never shower.”

            “What’s the point?” Sasuke murmured.

            “The point is that you don’t smell!” I said.  “Come on, let’s get changed.”

            Sasuke stood up, wrapping the towel around his waist.

            I leaned over to pick up my clothes, when I felt a foot firmly implant itself in my ass.  I fell over on my face.

            “What the hell, bastard?!” I cried, twisting around to flail at him.

            “Big target,” Sasuke said with his little smile.

            “Jerk!” I growled.  “Pick up your dirty clothes and put them in the hamper.”

            Sasuke followed me back to the living room.  I handed him some clean clothes, and he obediently put them on.  He almost looked like himself again.

            “See, isn’t that better?” I said.

            Sasuke stared at me.

            “Well, I think you look better,” I said.  “And smell better.”

            “I’m still the same horrible person,” Sasuke said, curling up on the couch.

            “Why would you say that?” I asked, aghast.

            “Because it’s true.”

            “No, it’s not,” I complained, pushing his legs aside so I could sit down next to him.

            “I wish you wouldn’t waste so much time on me.”

            “You love when I come to visit you.”

            Sasuke didn’t say anything.

            “I love when I come to visit you,” I said.  “Well, most of the time.  Sometimes.”

            “Why?”

            “Because I like being with you,” I said, poking him in the side.

            Sasuke pushed my hand away with his foot.  “I just sit here and do nothing, so I don’t see how you find being around me enjoyable.”

            “I dunno,” I said, trying to dodge his foot so I could poke him more.  “I like you.”

            “Gay.”

            “I am not!”

            “Hn.”

            I got in a good poke, only to get a foot in the face.  “Bleghhhh.”

            Sasuke slid his foot down from my face, giving me a little kick in the chest before stretching his leg over my lap and leaving it there.

            “Why are you so sad, Sas’?” I murmured.  My good hand started petting his leg restlessly.

            “It’s not sadness, it’s called depression.”

            “Same thing.”

            Sasuke shrugged.

            “Fine, why are you so depressed, then?” I asked.

            Sasuke shrugged, stretching his other leg over my lap and laying down.  His eyes stared up at the ceiling.

            I stayed quiet, continuing to rub up and down his leg.  It was soothing, like petting a cat.

            “I was supposed to die,” he said quietly.

            I froze.

            “At the Valley of the End.  Everything was finished.  I was supposed to die.”

            “Why would you say that?” I whispered.

            “What is the point of me being here?”

            “Uh, does being alive need a point?”

            “Yeah, it does.”

            “So people with no purpose should just die?”

            “It would make things easier.”

            “Why do you think like that?  What is wrong with you?”

            “Everything,” Sasuke said with a little laugh.  “Did you know that mental illness runs in my family?  Well, ran, since they’re all dead.  All the Uchihas, fucking out of their minds.  It makes so much sense when you think about it.  No wonder they massacred us.”

            “Don’t say shit like that,” I said, pulling on his arms to get him to sit up.  “You’re not… disposable.  If you weren’t here…”

            “What, Naruto?  If I wasn’t here, then what?”

            I tried to consider my words carefully, but nothing good came to mind.  “I can’t imagine it.  I can’t imagine you gone or dead or whatever.”

            “Well, how lucky for you, I didn’t die.  You can keep me like your fucking pet in this shitty apartment, and come stare at me whenever you want.  And then when you’re tired of me you can go home and forget.”

            “I don’t know where this is coming from,” I said, framing his face in my hands.  “What… do you mean…?”

            “Nothing,” Sasuke said, looking down at his lap.

            “Did I do something wrong?” I asked quietly.

            “No,” Sasuke said.  “Just forget it.”

            “Can’t.”

            “I have to go to therapy now.”

            “Oh.”

            Sasuke pulled away from me and stood up.  “Walk with me?”

            I would have taken that as some kind of ‘don’t worry, Naruto, we’re cool’, but I knew that Sasuke just hated going out alone.

            “Of course,” I said, even though I felt rejected and miserable.

            We walked to Konoha Clinic in silence.

            “Want me to pick you up?” I asked as he buzzed in at the gate.

            “Don’t you have better things to do?”

            “Nope.”

            “Do whatever you want.”

            I watched him disappear behind the gate.

            I was waiting for him when he came out an hour later.

            “Loser,” he muttered, but I could tell he was glad I was there.

            “Come on,” I said, slinging my arm around his shoulder and protecting him from all the stares.

            Everything was fine.

Chapter Text

            The first time Sasuke fell asleep on me, I didn’t think too much of it.  Maybe I even thought it was a little funny.

            Okay, I definitely thought it was funny.

            We were having lunch, and he had stopped eating, his head lilting to the side.  His breathing evened out, and I watched in amusement as he slept for almost twenty minutes.

            He woke up with a start, his eyes wide.  “W-what…?”

            “Is having lunch with me that boring?” I asked dryly.

            “Yes,” he said, wiping a bit of drool from the corner of his mouth.  He picked up his chopsticks and began eating again like nothing had happened.

            It started happening more and more frequently.

            I was at Sasuke’s apartment as often as I could be.  Sometimes I had to leave the village for higher ranked missions, but in general I stopped by Sasuke’s every day before and after work.  How else would I know that he was taking care of himself?  Most of the time he wasn’t, and it was up to me to feed him, get him showered, and get him dressed.

            He always seemed tired, and suddenly he was falling asleep all the time.

            This time he was reading when he fell asleep, the book still open.

           I reached over and took the book, sticking his bookmark in place.  I was starting to get used to his narcolepsy, but it was still weird.

            Fall had come and cooled things off significantly, so I grabbed a throw blanket and put it over him.  I sat next to him, turning on the old TV set in the corner and watching its grainy picture mindlessly.

            After a while, I had to pee, so I got up and went.

            When I came back, Sasuke was making little noises in his sleep.

            “Sas’?” I said, smoothing his hair.

            He let out a little whimper, then settled back down.

            I yawned and turned my attention back to the TV.  It was getting late, and I probably would have headed home if he had been awake.  I didn’t want to just disappear.  Also, Sasuke would be very displeased if all his locks weren’t safely secured.

            Sasuke started whining in his sleep again after a while.

            I settled a hand on his head, petting him until he quieted down.  It felt natural and I didn’t give it much thought.

            My stomach started growling, so I got up to make myself an instant ramen snack.

            I came back to the living room, sitting on the rocking chair and slurping up my noodles.

            Sasuke let out a blood-curdling scream.

            I spilled the hot ramen all over me, letting out a screech of my own.

            “Stop!” Sasuke screamed.  “Stop, stop, stop stop stopstopstopstopstop!”

            I ignored my scalded flesh and went to him, shaking him awake.  “Sasuke!”

            “NOOO!” he screamed, lashing out at me.

            I caught his wrist, watching how his prosthetic flopped around uselessly.  “Hey, it’s okay.”

            Recognition slowly came into his eyes.  “Itachi…?”

            Or not.  “I don’t even know how to respond to that,” I said.

            “Naruto,” he said, taking his hand back from me.

            “Yeah,” I said.  “Nightmare?”

            “It’s not a big deal,” Sasuke said, pulling the blanket back up around him.

            “Are you having trouble sleeping because of them?” I asked.

            “I don’t sleep.”

            “Uh, everybody sleeps.”

            Sasuke didn’t say anything.

            “What time do you go to bed?” I asked.

            “I don’t.”

            “What do you do all night…?”

            “Read books, watch TV, try to stay awake…”

            “Is that why you’re always so tired?!”

            Sasuke rolled his eyes at me.

            “Sasuke, that’s fucking insane,” I said.

            “Yeah, well.”

            “Did you stop to think that maybe not sleeping was contributing to your crazy?”

            “Don’t talk about things you know nothing about.”

            “Well then stop acting so dumb.”

            “I’m not going to be called dumb by you.”

            “Then come on, off to bed with you.”

            “What part of ‘I don’t sleep’ did you not understand?”

            “You were asleep just now…”

            “And you saw how well that went for me.”

            I studied him.  He was sheened in sweat, but shivering, and he looked paler than ever.  “I’ll sleep over tonight.”

            “No thanks.”

            “I wasn’t asking.  You got a futon?” I asked, getting up.

            “You’re not staying here.  You have a mission tomorrow.”

            “I appreciate the concern, but I’m not going to change my mind.”

            “This is my apartment, and I say who stays here.”

            I found an old, questionably smelling futon in the closet.  I put it on the floor next to Sasuke’s bed and found a cover for it.

            Sasuke looked very unhappy.

            “Do you really not want me to stay?” I asked.

            Sasuke looked down at the floor.

            “Let’s get ready for bed,” I said.  It was kind of early for sleeping, but I was tired anyway.

            Sasuke just stood there.

            I dragged him to the bathroom and got him to brush his teeth and wash his face.  Next I got him to change into pajamas, and I borrowed some sweatpants and a t-shirt for myself.

            “You really don’t have to stay,” Sasuke said, looking at our reflections together in the mirror as I flossed while he stood there just holding the floss in his hand.

            “I want to,” I said.  “We’ve never had a slumber party before.”

            “Are you a twelve-year-old girl?”

           “No…” I trailed off.  “Why didn’t you tell me you weren’t sleeping?” I asked, tugging him towards his room.

            “Why does it matter?”

            I sat on the bed next to him.  “Sleep’s kinda important, you know.”

            “I don’t like sleeping alone,” he said in a very quiet voice.

            “What do you mean?” I asked, squinting my eyes in concentration.

            “There were always people in the hospital,” he said.  “I liked it there.”

            “Are you saying you want to check back into the clinic?”

            “No.”

            “But you liked it there?”

            “It was easier.”

            “Sometimes I don’t know who you are anymore,” I said, shaking my head.

            “I’m nothing,” Sasuke said.  “I don’t exist.”

            I frowned at him.

            Sasuke reached over and poked me in the side.  “Fatty.”

            “I’m not fat!” I yelled.

            “Get off my bed before you break it,” Sasuke said, crossing his arms over his chest.

            “Rude,” I huffed out.  I knew he didn’t want to talk anymore, but I still wanted to.  If we kept talking, we could figure it out and help him to sleep.

            Sasuke kicked me until I got off of his bed, then pulled the blankets over his head and vanished.

            I settled onto the uncomfortable futon that smelled questionably, and rested my eyes for a while.

            “You’re not even trying to sleep…” I finally said.

            “Neither are you,” came Sasuke’s muffled voice from under his covers.

            “I’m waiting for you to sleep first.”

            “Go to sleep, Naruto.”

            “Fine,” I said, figuring I could set a good example.  I wanted to stay up and make sure he was okay, but maybe my sleeping would rub off on him.  I evened out my breathing and started drifting off to sleep.

            I woke up when Sasuke got out of bed.  I watched him move in the dark, closing the door behind him.  A shaft of light appeared under the door.

            I got up and plodded out to the living room, where Sasuke was sitting on the couch with a book.  “What are you doing?” I murmured sleepily.

            His eyes paused on me before flicking back to his book.  “I got bored.”

            “Then why not go to sleep?”

            “Idiot.”

            I made a face at him.  “Come back to bed.”

            Again, his eyes lingered on me for a moment before returning to his book.

            “Do I have to make you sleep by force?” I asked.

            The corner of Sasuke’s mouth quirked.  “And how would you accomplish that?”

            “I dunno, wrestle you ’til you passed out.”

            “You are going to make a terrible hokage.”

            “What the hell, bastard?”

            “Your ideas are awful and you’re an idiot.”

            “I disagree.”

            Sasuke put his book aside, giving me a look.

            I sighed, flopping down next to him.  “This is really what you do every night?”

            “Yeah.”

            “Sorry.”

            “For what?”

            “I didn’t notice.”

            “I’m glad to know you aren’t stalking me like I previously suspected.”

            “Shut up.”

            Sasuke bumped his arm into mine lightly.

            I pressed back, maintaining the contact.

            “You don’t have to stay up,” he said, rubbing his eyes with his prosthetic.

            “Neither do you,” I said.

            “I’m afraid to sleep,” Sasuke said flatly.

            “Dreams can’t hurt you.”

            “Mine can.”

            “A dream can’t physically hurt you.”

            “Like I said, mine can,” Sasuke said, tapping the seals tattooed around his eyes.

            My stomach twisted into knots.  “Your dreams make you activate your sharingan?”

            Sasuke gave me a look that said, ‘obviously, you idiot.’

            “No,” I said.  “This isn’t fucking right.”  I touched the seals, probing into them.  They were well done, definitely something I couldn’t mess around with if I wanted to avoid hurting him.  “There’s no reason for these.  I’m talking to Kakashi-sensei tomorrow.”

            “It doesn’t matter,” Sasuke said, pushing my hand away.

            “Of course it matters!” I said.  “You shouldn’t be living like this, in this shit box apartment, with these stupid seals.  You’re a ninja of Konoha, not its prisoner.”

            “God, you’re such a naive idealist,” Sasuke said, shaking his head.

            “What?!”

            “I am a missing nin.  I am a bad person.  I tried to kill you.  Several times.  I’m fucking out of my mind, and you want to keep acting like it’s all okay.”

            “But it is okay.”

            “Nothing is okay!”

            “You’re here,” I said, holding his good hand.

            “That’s all you need, huh?  Another fucking notch in your belt, Sasuke’s home.”

            “What does that mean?  I don’t get you.”

            “Of course you don’t.  You won, you got everything you wanted.”

            I was starting to feel frustrated.  I was being accused of something, but I had no idea what it was.

            “Go home,” Sasuke said, yanking his hand away from me and going back to his room.

            I sat there for a moment, trying to figure things out, then gave up.  I stood and turned off the lights, following Sasuke into his room.

            Sasuke didn’t say anything when I lay back down on the futon.

            I was annoyed, but I tried to keep myself calm.  I was here to help Sasuke sleep, and while I wasn’t really sure how to go about doing that, being mad at him certainly wasn’t going to help him.

            Sasuke actually fell asleep after a while.  He was a restless sleeper, something very different from the Sasuke I used to know.  He tossed and turned often.  He also made a lot of noises, usually whimpers.

            I woke him up when he started to scream, shaking him gently.

            He attacked me like he had earlier, but was easy enough to subdue.

            I pulled him into a hug, rocking him back and forth while murmuring soothing nonsense.

            Sasuke slid his good arm around my back, his prosthetic lying uselessly at his side.

            “You’re okay,” I said, pulling away.  I didn’t know why, but I was starting to feel awkward.

            Sasuke shook his head, still holding onto me with his right arm.  His forehead was bowed against my chest, so I couldn’t see his face.

            “Try and get some more sleep,” I suggested.

            “Can’t.”

            “I’ll be right here.”

            “What’s that supposed to do?”

            “I’ll wake you up when you need it.”

            “No.”

            “Whaddya mean, no?”

            “You should go home.”

            “It’s the middle of the night…”

            “You’re a big boy, you can walk home in the dark.”

            “I can, but why would I?”

            “Just because I’m an insomniac doesn’t mean you have to be.”

            “Do you really not sleep at all?”

            “I take a lot of naps.”

            I sighed, patting him on the back.  “Do you ever just sleep without nightmares?”

            “Rarely.”

            I found myself wrapping him into a hug again.  Part of me found it weird, and part of me found it comfortable.

            Sasuke raised his prosthetic, wrapping it around me and completing the hug.

            I closed my eyes and just held him.

            “Are you falling asleep…?” Sasuke said after a while.

            “Heh, kinda.”

            “Go sleep,” Sasuke said pulling away.

            “Okay,” I said, climbing down from the bed.  I pulled the blanket up and settled in for sleep, still keeping an ear trained in Sasuke’s direction.

            Neither of us slept much.  Sasuke was quiet when he was awake, and restless when he was asleep.  He seemed to do an okay job of waking himself up when he needed to, but I still kept my body tuned into his.  That meant I was waking up constantly, too.

            Morning came, and it was awful.

            “Fuck you, sun,” I muttered.

            “I told you to go home,” Sasuke said.  He was sitting up in his bed, staring at the wall.

            “And miss out on our first ever slumber party?!” I said, leaping from the floor and tackling him.

            Sasuke gave me an irritated look.

            “If you actually worked out you could have avoided this,” I reprimanded him.

            “You’re heavy,” Sasuke complained.

            “Then make me get off.”

            Sasuke gave me a funny look, then jammed his hand into the pressure point in my shoulder.

            “Holy crap, bastard!” I cried, leaping away from him.

            “I’m not completely helpless,” Sasuke said, sitting up again.

            “Owwww…”

            Sasuke smirked.

            “You like causing me pain?!”

            “Kind of.”

            “I didn’t expect you to admit that…”

            “You better hurry up if you’re going to meet your team in time.”

            “Why, we’re not meeting until ei- oh my god, it’s almost eight!” I said, jumping up and searching for my clothes.  I changed, tossing Sasuke’s clothes at him.

            Sasuke frowned at me.

            “I’m gonna grab a banana, you have one, too, okay?” I said.  “Eat it with your pills.”

            Sasuke continued to give me an unfriendly look.  I wanted to go over there and… what?  I had the strangest urge to pet him on the head, to tell him I’d be back tomorrow.

            “Bye,” I said instead, dashing to the kitchen and grabbing two bananas, leaving one on the table with Sasuke’s pills.

            Then I was off, racing towards the gates.

Chapter Text

            “I want Sasuke to move in with me,” I informed Kakashi.

            “Oh, I didn’t know that you were dating.”

            “We’re not… you… WHAT?!” I cried.

            “I just assumed…”

            “WHY WOULD YOU ASSUME THAT?!”

            “Anyway, you’d have to talk to Dr. Shizuta about it.  I don’t know anything about Sasuke’s precarious mental state or whatever.”

            “You’re the hokage.”

            Kakashi shrugged.

            “Well she’s dumb and she doesn’t know anything about Sasuke, either,” I said sullenly.

            Kakashi raised an eyebrow at me.

            “She said that I’m not helping him!” I cried.  “Me!”

            “And why did she say that?”

            “She said that me doing everything for him isn’t making him better,” I said, crossing my arms over my chest.  “But I think everyone who has to spend time with Sasuke appreciates it when he’s showered and not wearing week-old clothes.  And he’s gained almost fifteen pounds since I got back!”

            “The women of Konoha thank you,” Kakashi said.

            “I’m helping him a lot!”

            “And this is why you want him to move in with you?”

            “Well, yeah, it’d just be a lot easier if he lived with me,” I said.  “I’ve been sleeping at his all week, but my apartment is so much nicer and has a better selection of ramen, ya know?”

            “Oh, so you are dating.”

            “NO!  WE ARE NOT DATING!”

            “No reason to yell about it.”

            “Then stop saying ridiculous things!”

            “Yeah, sure.  Hey, Naruto, did you actually come here to pick up a mission, or were you just going to talk about your boyfriend all day?”

            “KAKASHI-SENSEEEEEI!”

            “Look, I’m trying to run a village here,” Kakashi said, and for once he didn’t have a trashy novel in his hands to undermine what he was saying.

            “And I’m trying to save Sasuke, your student who you have completely failed!” I growled.

            “Ouch,” Kakashi said.  “So can I send you on this mission to the Land Of Snow?”

            “Have you even been listening to me?!” I said.  “I need to take care of Sasuke.  I can’t be going off to the Land of Snow.”

            “Oh, and here I thought you were a ninja of this village who was aiming to be hokage,” Kakashi said.  “Did you know that I get to choose my successor?  I bet it would be a really good idea for someone who wanted to be hokage to suck up to me a real lot.  And buy me some erotic magazines.”

            “Who thought it would be a good idea for you to be hokage?!”

            “Everyone in the village,” Kakashi said with a shrug.  “So you don’t want to take missions anymore because you need to babysit your boyfriend, even though his therapist has told you to stop enabling him and doing everything for him?”

            “I’m helping him!” I cried.

            Why did no one understand this?

            “I think Sasuke should come back to the clinic,” Dr. Shizuta said when I went in to see her.

            “I think that is a terrible idea,” I said.

            “You just told me he isn’t sleeping,” she said.  “He’s not eating properly, he’s not-”

            “But he is eating now,” I said.  “He eats when he’s with me.  You’ve seen how much weight he’s gained.”

            “Naruto, are you willing to be a fulltime caregiver?” she asked, pushing her glasses up her nose.

            “I uh… what do you mean?”

            “I mean stop taking missions, and just take care of Sasuke all day,” she said.  “Because I don’t see how else he could possibly not check back into the clinic.”

            “But I need money…” I said.

            “Then why don’t you let the professionals take care of him?”

            “I won’t let you lock him up again!”

            “He won’t be locked up, it’ll be a voluntary check-in,” she explained.  “He’d be free to leave any time he wants to.”

            “No,” I said.

            “It’s not your decision to make,” she said gently.

            “It’s not yours either!”

            “No, it’s Sasuke’s,” Dr. Shizuta said.

            “And there’s no way he’d want to come back here.”

            “Do you think he wants to move in with you?”

            “Why wouldn’t he?!” I replied.

            “Why would I want to live with you?” was Sasuke’s reply when I asked him.

            We argued for a while, and then went in to see Dr. Shizuta together.

            “What do you want to do, Sasuke?” she asked.

            “Live with Naruto,” he said quietly.

            I’d never properly seen him and Dr. Shizuta interact, and it was weird.  I often wondered what they talked about in their sessions, since Sasuke hated all authority figures, especially ones from Konoha.

            He was that weird, docile person he’d become after the Valley of the End.

            “You’d be comfortable with that kind of arrangement?” she asked him.

            Sasuke just nodded.  He wasn’t assertive at all, and I wondered what he would do if she challenged him on it.

            But she didn’t.  “Okay,” she said.  “I’ll make some arrangements, if this is what you two want to do.”

            Sasuke shrugged.
            “It is!” I said, asserting for the both of us.

            Sasuke’s gross apartment was owned by Konoha Clinic, and was supposed to be a kind of transitional housing for released patients.  I could see how living there could be motivating for getting the hell out of there.  It just felt dirty and old, and I was not someone who usually cared about those kinds of things.

            We gathered up Sasuke’s things, which all happened to fit in one bag, stopped at the clinic to drop off the key, then went to my place.

            “We’re roommates, how fun!” I said as I closed the door behind us.

            “Kill me now,” Sasuke replied, shuffling into the living room and dropping his bag on the floor.

            “Jerk,” I said.  “Anyway, the first rule of living at Naruto’s is don’t be a slob,” I continued, picking up his bag and shoving it back in his arms.

            Sasuke looked around, then raised an eyebrow at me.

            Okay, so there were scrolls and ninja tools all over the place.  And were those my boxer shorts on the back of the couch?  Then there were all the empty ramen containers rolling around the floor.

            “Well, we can’t both be slobs!” I said.

            “Why not?” Sasuke asked, dropping his bag again and sitting on the couch.

            “Because Sakura-chan will be angry!” I said.

            “Who cares?”

            “Me and my body!”

            “Uh…”

            “She’s very violent!”

            “Stop being weird,” Sasuke said, closing his eyes.

            “I’m not being weird!”

            “Come sit.”

            “Oh,” I said, sitting next to him.

            His eyes were still closed, black lashes brushing against white cheeks, and I suddenly had the strangest urge to touch them.

            “What are you doing?” Sasuke asked, eyes opening as my hand hovered indecisively in front of his face.

            “Being weird,” I said, smiling at him nervously.

            “This was probably a bad decision,” Sasuke said, knocking my hand away from him.

            “Don’t say that!  I’m really happy that you’re living here!”

            “Why, though…?”

            “Because now I don’t have to be going over to your place all the time to make sure you’re alive or whatever.  And I don’t have to sleep on your floor anymore!”

            Sasuke frowned at me.

            “What?”

            “I’m going back to my place.”

            “No take-backs!” I yelled.  “You already gave Dr. Shizuta the key!”

            “But I’ve just realized what a terrible mistake I’ve made…”

            I tackled him in a hug, burying my face in his neck.  “No way, I won’t let you!”

            “What are you doing…?”

            “You’re mine,” I growled, holding on tight.

            “Creep.”

            I realized how weird what I had just said was, but decided not to think too deeply about it.

            Sasuke’s arms slid around me tentatively, squeezing back.

            I was feeling very positive about this new situation.

            Of course, it was weird having Sasuke in my space.  But I’d get over it eventually.  Probably.  I liked having him there, at any rate.

            Sasuke ate his dinner obediently and took a bath without having to be asked.  I wondered if he was just on his best behavior because he was in a new situation, or if he had finally turned over a new leaf.  Had the Uzumaki charisma finally brought Sasuke back to life?!

            I set up a futon for Sasuke next to my bed.  He didn’t even complain about going to bed, just lying down and pulling the blankets up.

            Was he really all better?  All he’d needed was a change of scenery.

            I was feeling pretty pleased with myself.

            I’d been staying at Sasuke’s for about a week straight, fighting him into bed and trying to get him to sleep more.  He’d finally admitted that he did sleep better when I was there.  I wanted to be there for him every night, but going back and forth between our apartments was a pain in the ass.  I was always realizing that I didn’t have clean underwear when I had a mission early the next morning, or I’d be at home and realize I’d left my toothbrush at Sasuke’s, and then I’d have to go about my day with unbrushed teeth.

            That’s when I’d had the brilliant idea to just have Sasuke live with me.

            Now here we were, everyone in agreement that this was the best solution.

            Sasuke started whimpering in his sleep.

            I mumbled some sleepy, soothing nonsense, and he quieted down.

            Yep, this was just about perfect.  I drifted off to sleep feeling beyond pleased with myself.

            I woke up feeling like something wasn’t right.  I sat up, blinking blearily at the moonlit room.

            Sasuke wasn’t there.

            I got up, plodding into the living room, where all the lights were ablaze.

            “What are you doing?” I murmured, scratching my stomach.

            Sasuke was sitting in the corner, holding one of my kunai.  He looked a bit crazy, to be honest.

            “It’s not safe here,” he said, eyes darting around.

            “Um, it’s really safe here,” I said, moving towards him.

            “STOP!”

            “Uh, okay,” I said, holding my hands up.

            “Are you really Naruto?” he asked, eyes narrowed.

            “…yes…?”

            “They sent you, didn’t they?”

            “Who?”

            “They sent you!”

            “Sasuke, it’s way too early in the morning for this.  Let’s go back to bed.”

            “SHUT UP!”

            “Uh…”

            “I won’t do what they say, and you can’t make me!”

            “Sasuke…” I said, starting to feel freaked out.  I didn’t know what to do.

            “Don’t say my name,” he said venomously, waving the kunai at me.

            “What do you want me to do, then?”

            “Get out of here.”

            “It’s my apartment…”

            “GET OUT!”

            I started backing away from him, not sure if it was better to humor him or try and snap him out of it.

            “Itachi will set things straight,” Sasuke murmured to himself.  “He’ll make things right.”

            I sat down on the floor, watching him.

           Sasuke cast a suspicious eye towards me, then returned to surveying the room.  His eyes lingered on the door, then moved to the windows.  “Not safe, not safe at all,” he muttered.

            We sat there for about an hour until his head started to droop, and he finally dropped off to sleep.

            I thought about carrying him to his bed, then thought better of it.  I didn’t want him stabbing me with a kunai or anything.  I let him sleep on the floor.  I moved around the apartment, straightening things up since I didn’t have anything better to do.

            I had a simple mission for the day, and would be back in time for dinner, but I was suddenly nervous about leaving Sasuke alone in my apartment.

            My apartment filled with dangerous weapons.

            Sasuke slept soundly.  I’d gotten used to his constant tossing and turning, so it was weird to see him so still.  I had to go and check his breathing once to assure myself he was still alive.

            The sun finally came up.

            I made breakfast, clunking around the kitchen, but Sasuke stayed asleep.  I started to feel anxious, because I didn’t want Sasuke to wake up to an empty apartment, so I started clunking more loudly.  I dropped a metal pan on the floor, and he finally woke up with a start.

            “Morning,” I said, picking up the pan and grinning at him.

            Sasuke just stared me down.

            “Did you sleep okay?” I asked.

            “Fine.”

            “Good…”

            Sasuke stood up and disappeared into my room.

            I finished cooking breakfast and dished it out onto two plates, setting them on the table.  I peeked into the room.  “Sas’, you want breakfast now?”

            “No,” he said from his cocoon of blankets.

            “Okay, I’ll leave it on the table with your pills,” I said.  “I should be back not too late tonight.”

            Sasuke didn’t answer, but I decided that that news pleased him.

            “Bye…” I said, making my escape.

            Why did I feel such a weird sense of dread about going home that night?

            Sasuke was watching TV when I opened the door.

            “Hey,” I said, locking the door behind me because Sasuke liked it to be locked.

            “Hey,” he said, not looking up.

            “How was your day?” I asked, trying to make conversation.

            Sasuke made a disparaging sound.

            “Jerk.”

            He ignored me.

            “Whaddya want for dinner?”

            “Anything.”

            “Okay, roasted ants and dead fish it is.”

            “Would you rather eat a living fish?” Sasuke mused.

            “It sounded grosser in my head!”

            “Stop trying to be clever.”

            “I can’t stop what happens naturally!”

            “You trying to be clever and failing?”

            “Yes.”

            I could see Sasuke smiling from across the room.  I smiled, too.

            “I don’t really feel like cooking, so sandwiches are okay?” I asked.

            “Do they fall into the realm of ‘anything’?”

            “Sometimes I just want a simple yes or no answer from you.”

            “I thought you wanted me to talk more.”

            “Damn you.”

            Sasuke’s eyes caught mine, and I felt a strange pull.

            “I uh… I’ll make sandwiches,” I said, turning away and pulling the necessary ingredients out of the refrigerator.

            We were clearly going to pretend like last night didn’t happen, and that was just fine with me.

            I made the sandwiches, and took them into the living room.  “Here,” I said, giving one to Sasuke.

            He took it and started eating mechanically.

            “Did you eat lunch?” I asked.

            “Probably not,” Sasuke said.

            “Ugh, you are so high maintenance.”

            Sasuke watched TV and ate.

            When he finished, I took his dish and deposited it in the sink with my own.  I pulled all my tools out and set them up on the table to start cleaning.

            After a while, Sasuke drifted into the kitchen, sitting across from me.  He didn’t look at me or say anything.

            “What?” I finally said.

            He gave me a funny look.

            “Whaddya want?” I asked.

            “Nothing,” he replied, staring off into space.

            I was still suspicious of why he was there, but I decided to just continue on cleaning my tools.  It was nice in a weird way, having him near.

            I hummed to myself, feeling relaxed.

Chapter Text

            I was starting to feel pretty exhausted.

            I spent my nights in a light sleep, waking up at the slightest noise.  If Sasuke was having a nightmare, I had to climb out of my nice warm bed and shake him gently.  If he was being a weirdo, wandering around the house, I had to once again leave my nice warm bed to go find him and drag him back to bed.  If he was making noises in his sleep, I could stay in my nice warm bed, but I had to stay awake and alert to make sure it didn’t progress into nightmare territory.

            I needed a good night’s sleep.

            Of course, it wasn’t to be.

            That night, I woke up after only an hour of sleep.

            Sasuke was whimpering in that way that usually led to screaming.

            I was barely conscious, climbing out of bed and patting his head gently.

            Seeming to be soothed, Sasuke quieted down.

            I climbed back up onto my bed, and was just about asleep when he started whimpering again.  With a sigh, I pushed the covers aside and went back down to Sasuke, touching his arm.  When that wasn’t enough, I started rubbing up and down, making soothing noises.

            Sasuke went quiet, and I went back to bed.

            The third time it happened, I just wanted to cry.  I was tired and I wanted to sleep.

            I rolled down onto Sasuke’s futon, pulled up the blanket, and shimmied my way towards him until our backs just touched.

            Sasuke didn’t get quiet, but his sounds became less pained and more general sleep talk.

            I passed out.

            The sun had already risen when I woke up.  I felt very warm and nice, and rather unhappy with the sun filtering into the room.

            “Why are you in my bed?” Sasuke muttered, elbowing me.

            “To get you to shut up,” I replied, elbowing him back.  We were still back-to-back, so the angle was pretty awkward and I mostly missed him.

            “Hn,” Sasuke said, in way that told me he was annoyed by my answer.

            “I didn’t mean it like that,” I protested.  “I’m glad you’re here, night terrors and all, it’s fine.  I just wanted you to be able to sleep.  Which you did.  I mean what time is it even?  It’s morning.  You slept all night.  I’m such a good friend.  I’m willing to do anything to help you sleep.  You’re really lucky to have me.”

            “Weren’t you supposed to go to the Academy at seven?” Sasuke asked, not even acknowledging anything I’d said.

            “Yeah,” I said, nuzzling into Sasuke’s pillow.  I was really comfortable, and I just wanted to keep sleeping.

            “You’re late.”

            “Shit,” I said, still not moving.

            Sasuke got up abruptly, letting all the cold air into the blankets.

            “Nooo!” I whined, grabbing at the blankets and trying to cocoon myself into them.

            Sasuke disappeared into the living room.

            I was drifting back to sleep, only to be jarred awake by a loud pounding sound.

            “Sakura’s here!” Sasuke called.

            I may have let out a very embarrassing screech as I jumped out of bed.

            I was halfway dressed when Sakura threw the door open and came stomping in.  “Where have you been?!” she demanded.

            “Sleeping…” I said, sticking my hand through the sleeve of my jacket.

            “And when were you going to tell me that you were cohabitating with Sasuke?!”

            “Oh, didn’t I…?” I said, feeling a knot of dread start to form in my stomach.  I thought I’d mentioned it.

            “Imagine my surprise when I came here to pick you up, thirty minutes late, I might add, and who should open the door but Sasuke!”

            “Uh, well I talked to Kakashi-sensei, and you know… so, he’s living here now.”

            “Well, I guess I don’t need to go visit him tonight like I was planning on,” Sakura said, glaring at me like it was my fault.  “That would have been pretty terrible, if I’d knocked on his door and no one answered.  I would have been worried to death.”

            “You can’t get mad at me for something that didn’t happen,” I protested.

            “Watch me!”

            Sasuke snorted from where he was standing in the doorway, munching on an apple.

            I was momentarily distracted from my fear for my physical safety.  “Do you want me to cook something for you, or you’re good?”

            Sasuke held up his apple, like it would answer my question.

            “Okay, there’s some leftovers in the fridge that you can heat up for lunch,” I said, tying on my forehead protector as I moved towards the door.

            Sasuke stepped aside to let me by.

            Sakura paused, saying something to him before following me out the door.

            I slid into my sandals and started off towards the Academy.

            “I can’t believe you didn’t tell me!” Sakura fumed.

            “Yeah, my bad,” I said.  “But, hey, he’s been here for two weeks and you only just noticed?!”

            “I’ve been busy!” Sakura snapped, but I could hear the guilt in her voice.

            “I’ve been busy, too,” I said.  “Sasuke’s a fulltime job.”

            “So you just decided to take complete responsibility for him?”

            “No one else would.”

            “Naruto…”

            “What?”

            “I’m worried about you.”

            “Why?”

            “This is too much for you.”

            “Nothing’s too much for me.”

            Sakura reached out and touched my shoulder.  “Stop for a sec.”

            We both stopped on a rooftop, turning to face each other.

            “We never see you anymore,” Sakura said, looking up into my eyes.

            “You’re seeing me right now…?”

            “Your twentieth birthday is next week.  Are you even going to have a party?”

            “Oh, wow, is it?”

            Sakura gave me a sad look.  “I know you had your reasons for traveling, but you’ve been really withdrawn since you came back.  The only person you make time for is Sasuke, who is apparently living with you now…”

            “I…” I started, but nothing came to me.

            “I mean, you’re barely even working as a ninja,” Sakura continued.  “And being late for a meeting with the hokage?  It’s like you don’t care anymore.”

            “Of course I care!”

            “Do you?  Do you even still want to be hokage?”

            I was quiet.

            “Naruto, I feel like I’m losing you,” Sakura said, squeezing my arm gently.

            “I’m right here, Sakura-chan,” I said, reaching up a hand and cupping her cheek.

            Sakura leaned into the touch briefly, smiling.  Then she pulled away.  “We need to talk more.”

            “You’re busy, I’m busy…”

            “I’m never too busy for you.”

            I smiled then, too.  “Come over tonight.”

            We started back on our way to the Academy.

            Kakashi didn’t even acknowledge that I was late.  He sent us straight off to work preparing for the chuunin exam that was going to be held in Amegakure next month.

            It was all mindless work, but I found myself spending the day with all my former classmates, which wasn’t so bad.  We were all stuck doing the grunt work for the exam together.

            After we had finished, Sakura headed home first, agreeing to come over in an hour.  I headed off to the market to buy something edible, then went home.

            Sasuke was reading my scrolls at the kitchen table.

            “Brushing up on your jutsu?” I asked, patting him on the head as I passed by.  I decided it was weird while I was in the middle of doing it, and quickly retracted my hand.  I busied myself with putting the groceries away and getting ready to cook.

            “You have a lot of rare scrolls,” Sasuke murmured, not looking up.

            “Hm?” I said.  “Oh, yeah, they’re my dad’s.  Tsunade got his stuff out of storage for me.”

            “Oh.”

            “Sakura’s gonna come over tonight, okay?”

            Sasuke hummed his assent.

            I watched him read, a quick glance over his shoulder telling me that the scroll was about the Third Shinobi World War.  I had the urge to touch his head again, and decided it was time to get cooking.

            Everything was prepared and cooking when Sakura knocked on the door.

            “Come in, come in,” I said, gesturing grandly.

            “Hey,” Sakura said, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear and looking around nervously.

            “What?”

            “It’s still clean,” she commented.  “I thought this morning was a fluke.”

            “I’m very clean,” I informed her, leading her to the kitchen.

            Sasuke rolled his eyes.

            Sakura eyed the mess I’d made cooking.

            “Hey, you gotta break a few eggs to make an omelet,” I said.  “But look, no dishes in the sink!  No slime, either!”

            “There’s progress,” Sakura said agreeably.

            “And look at Sasuke, all clean and wearing nice clo- is that my t-shirt?” I asked, fingering the black material.

            “I ran out,” Sasuke said.

            Sakura gave him a funny look, and he very obviously ignored her.

            I sat Sakura down, and started regaling her with a story about Konohamaru using his Boy on Boy jutsu on Ino.

            It was nice having someone around who was an active participant in conversations, and occasionally said nice things to me.  It was also nice that Sasuke didn’t seem to mind having her around.  He was nicer to her than he was to me, anyway.

            Sakura helped me wash the dishes, and Sasuke wandered away to my room.

            “He seems… better,” Sakura said cautiously.

            “Mm, he slept really well last night,” I said, taking the dish she held out to me and drying it.

            “You’re both doing okay?”

            “Yeah, of course.”

            “You seem really tired.”

            “Well, yeah, I mean I’m like a single working mom.”

            Sakura snorted, elbowing me in the side.  “It’s… it’s nice the way you stand by him.  Sweet even.”

            “What?!  Yuck, no it’s not.”

            “It is,” she said, pulling the drain in the sink.  “I just want you to take care of yourself, too.”

            “I am…”

            Sakura patted me on the arm.  “I’m sorry I haven’t been making much time for you, lately.  Let’s do this more often.”

            “Yeah, definitely,” I said, beaming at her.  I guess I had been so busy dealing with Sasuke that I hadn’t noticed that I’d neglected all my other friendships.

            “And I’m throwing you a birthday party, whether you like it or not.”

            “Aw, Sakura-chan, you don’t have to-”

            “Whether you like it or not.”

            I nodded, grinning. 

            Sakura peeked into the bedroom to say goodbye to Sasuke, who was sitting on my bed and staring out the window.

            He gave her a quiet, “Bye,” without looking.

            Sakura gave me a quick hug before leaving.

            I went into the shower room to start filling the tub.

            “Sas’, you wanna take a bath first?” I called.

            He, like the jerk he was, didn’t answer.

            “Hey, you!” I said, stomping into the room.

            “You take one,” he said, still looking out the window.

            I flipped the light on, wondering why he was sitting in the dark.

            He shifted uncomfortably.

            “So you’re going to take a bath after me?”

            Sasuke didn’t answer.

            I sighed loudly.  I hadn’t had to fight him about bathing lately, so I’d thought he’d gotten over his terrible hygiene.  Apparently not.  “You want me to wash your back and stuff?”

            “No,” he said irritably.

            “You take a bath first.”

            “Don’t want to.”

            “Sasuke…”

            “Leave me alone.”

            “No,” I said sourly.

            “What does it matter if I don’t take a bath one day?”

            “Because then you won’t take one again tomorrow, and again the next day, and then you’ll smell bad and your hair will be all greasy and point at weird angles.  What will the girls of Konoha think?!”

            “Why would I care what they think?”

            “Well, if you’re gonna revive your clan…”

            “I’m sure Orochimaru could work something out with a test tube.”

            “Why… what… how… no!  Just no, okay?  NO!”

            Sasuke shrugged.

            “Please go take a bath,” I said after the silence stretched out.

            Sasuke turned to give me an annoyed look.

            “Do I have to force you?”

            “I’ll kill you,” Sasuke muttered, getting up and shoving past me.

            “Bastard,” I growled, watching him walk in the direction of the bath.

            The shower started to run, and I could revel in my small victory.  I seriously didn’t understand why he had to make such a big deal out of everything.  It was a bath.  Why did he have to act like it was such a chore?  The old Sasuke…

            I stopped that train of thought, and flopped onto the couch to watch some mindless TV.

            Sasuke went straight to bed after his bath, though I knew he wasn’t sleeping.

            I washed up and took a long bath, almost falling asleep several times.  Apparently one decent night of sleep didn’t make up for several weeks of insomnia.

            “You sleeping?” I asked, toweling off my hair as I came into the room.

            “Yes,” Sasuke said from his little cave of blankets.

            “Mmkay, move over,” I said, tossing my towel in the general direction of the hamper and nudging Sasuke with my foot.

            “Why?”

            “Because your scrawny ass actually takes up a lot of room,” I said, nudging him more significantly.

            “You’re just fat,” Sasuke replied.

            “You know that’s not true!”

            “Hn.”

            “Just move over already.”

            “No.”

            “Whaddya mean, no?!”

            “You’re not sleeping here.”

            “Why not?!”

            “Because I don’t want you to.”

            “But you slept through the damn night last night!” I cried incredulously.

            “Nothing to do with you, now shut up, I’m sleeping.”

            “Bastard!”

            Sasuke ignored me.

            I let him be in his little huddle, climbing into my own bed.  I listened to him for over an hour, waiting for the steady rhythm that told me he was sleeping.  When it came, I slid down, nudging Sasuke over a bit.  I lifted the blankets and scooched back into him until our backs just touched.

            Sasuke’s breathing hitched, then evened out.

            He hadn’t been asleep, after all.

            But we both pretended that he was.

Chapter Text

            The smell of food woke me up.  I stared blearily into the room, feeling disoriented.  I kicked off the blankets and padded into the kitchen.

            “Morning,” I said, poking Sasuke in the side.

            Sasuke smacked my hand away and returned to tending to the food on the stove.

            “What’s all this?” I asked, peering over his shoulder.

            “Breakfast, idiot.”

            “Yeah, but you’re cooking it.”

            “I’m a better cook than you.”

            “When’s the last time you actually cooked something…?”

            Sasuke turned the stove off.  “Sit down.”

            “Bossy,” I said, going over to the table and sitting.

            Sasuke passed me a glass of juice, then put down a plate filled with rice, a giant omelet, and ham.

            “Yum,” I said, clapping my hands together for a quick, “Itadakimasu!”

            Sasuke put down a plate for himself and started moving the food around with his chopsticks before finally starting to eat.

            I already had my food half-finished.  “This is so good!” I raved with a mouthful of egg.

            Sasuke gave me a sour look.

            “What the hell, bastard, I’m complimenting you.”

            Sasuke shrugged and continued to pick at his food.

            “What’s the occasion, anyway?” I asked.

            “Nothing,” Sasuke muttered.

            I finished eating, wanting to smother Sasuke in hugs, but he glared death at me before I could even make a move to do so.

            “Thanks, Sas’, it was really good,” I said instead.

            Sasuke shrugged.

            I went off to the Academy with a spring in my step.

            “Happy birthday!” voices chorused from all around me as soon as I stepped into the hokage’s office.  Streamers shot out at me, and noise crackers popped everywhere.

            “Oh, yeah,” I said, scratching the back of my neck.

            “Silly,” Sakura said, elbowing me.  “Happy twentieth birthday.  You’re an adult.”

            “Am I?” I asked with a laugh.

            “I’m not convinced,” Tsunade mused, studying my face.

            “That’s just ’cause you’re so much old-” I started to say.

            Sakura and Tsunade both gave me menacing looks.

            “What a beautiful day to be alive!” Lee declared, oblivious to my impending death.  “Boyhood springing into manhood, like the changing of the leaves!”

            Gai nodded his agreement to the sentiment, rolling his wheelchair closer to me so he could slap me on the back.

            There were way too many people in the cramped little office, but it was kind of nice.

            Kakashi was at the back of the office at his desk, reading the latest Midnight Ninja Mystery.  At some point he realized that he was supposed to actually be doing work and giving people their assignments for the day.

            He sent me to the orphanage.

            “Don’t you need me to do something… else?” I asked.

            “Nope,” he said, returning to his book.

            I didn’t really mind, but lately it seemed like my assignments were pretty lightweight.  I hadn’t left the village in weeks.

            I spent the day playing with kids.  It was kind of perfect, and I headed home with a smile on my face.

            I was greeted by a sparkling clean apartment.  “What the hell?” I muttered.

            Sasuke didn’t say anything, sitting on the couch and watching TV.

            I hugged him from behind, his consent be damned.  “Thank you,” I said, nuzzling my cheek against his.

            “Get off of me,” Sasuke muttered.

            “No way,” I said, hugging him tighter.  “I’m getting my money’s worth.”

            “You didn’t pay me…”

            “Sasuke, just be quiet and let me adore you for a moment.”

            “Hn.”

            I thought I was going to have to let go, but then Sasuke pressed his cheek back against mine.

            I almost melted.

            “Happy birthday, usuratonkachi.”

            I sniffed, ducking my face into his neck.

            “Don’t cry on me.”

            “I’m not crying,” I protested.

            “Enough,” Sasuke finally said, pushing me away.

            “Eh heh heh, you liiiike me,” I said, dancing off towards my room.

            “I most certainly do not,” Sasuke said, sounding offended.

            “You do, you like me, and we’re best friends and brothers and soulmates, and ha.  You’re glad I was born.”

            “That’s really stretching it.”

            “Jerk,” I said into my mesh shirt as I pulled it over my head.  I quickly changed and gave my hair a onceover with a comb.  “You sure you don’t want to come tonight?”

            “Yes, I’m sure.”

            I came back into the living room, poking him in his unimpressive pectorals.  “I’d really like it if you did.”

            “And I would hate it, so…”

            “Okay,” I said dejectedly.

            “I would just ruin the party anyway,” Sasuke murmured.

            “Nuh-uh.”

            “Yuh-huh.”

            I flicked him in the forehead.

            Sasuke growled at me.

            “I’ll miss you.”

            “We live in the same apartment…”

            “Yeah, but I like having you around.”

            “Weirdo.”

            I headed off for the restaurant that Sakura had booked for my party.  I had thought it was just going to be a small get-together, but it seemed like everyone I knew was there.

            Kakashi bought me my first legal drink, which we shared, filling each other’s sake cups when they started to get empty.

            “This tastes like shit,” I informed Kakashi.  “I don’t see what the big fuss is about.”

            “Give it time,” Tsunade interrupted, holding out her own cup and waiting for it to be filled.

            Kakashi tipped the sake upside down, a single drop sliding into her cup.  They exchanged a look, then both called for another round.

            I left the two of them to their old people drinking party and moved over to the guys.

            Kiba had decided that I need to experience all of the vices of an adult, so he’d arranged an impromptu poker game and a cigar.

            I choked on the cigar, and lost all the money I bet due to what everyone termed a ‘terrible poker face’, but it was weirdly fun.  I hadn’t been doing many ‘fun’ things lately, and it was nice to just do things to laugh and enjoy other people’s company.

            I also started to realize that alcohol, despite its terrible taste, made everything seem all fuzzy and nice.  Kiba suddenly seemed a lot smarter, Sakura a lot nicer, and Lee a lot funnier.  Tsunade and Kakashi even seemed downright respectable as we shared a drink or twelve.

            I felt like I’d been thoroughly celebrated as we closed down the restaurant and stumbled out into the night.  For some reason I was giving Ino a piggyback, but it wasn’t working out very well.  It didn’t matter because it was fun, and life was grand.  I stopped to look up at the stars, twinkling away in the sky.

            “Naruto!” Ino yelped as she dropped to the ground.

            “Hm?” I said.

            Ino just shook her head and laughed as Sakura helped her back to her feet.

            I was feeling pretty damn good when I got home.

            Sasuke had left the TV on in the living room, so I paused to turn it off.

            I could see his outline in the dark, sitting in his little huddle of blankets while staring off into space like his usual creepy-ass self.

            “I’m home!” I declared, tossing my shirt on the floor and flopping at his feet.

            “Did you enjoy your party?” Sasuke asked.

            It was very rare of him to actually ask me a personal question.  “Yeah, I did,” I said, happily scrambling up his body, smothering him in a hug.

            “Get off of me, stupid,” Sasuke muttered.

            I grinned, working my way into the blankets so I could get some nice skin-to-skin contact.  “Sasukeeee, I missed you.”

            “Weirdo,” Sasuke said, making a halfhearted attempt to push me away.

            “I did, though,” I said, wrapping my legs around him for good measure.  There was no escape now.

            “Are you… drunk?” Sasuke asked, turning his face away from mine.

            “I think so, yeah,” I said, nuzzling his neck.  “Hey, you smell good.”

            “You don’t.”

            “Whaaaat?”

            “You reek of alcohol.”

            “But alcohol smells nice!”

            “Yeah, sure it does.”

            “Mm,” I said, kissing his neck.

            “The fuck are you doing?!” Sasuke said, clearly startled.

            “I dunno,” I said, nosing the spot where I’d kissed.  “I feel really good right now.”

            “Okay, but why the fuck are you… whatever you’re doing…” he trailed off uncertainly.

            “I wish you came,” I said, sliding my hand down his arm, along the smooth surface of his prosthetic.

            “Why would I go to your stupid birthday party?” Sasuke growled.

            “Because,” I said, tracing my hand down his side.  I just wanted to touch him.

            “You’re being weird,” Sasuke said, and he sounded uncertain again.

            “Am I?” I asked, giving in and sliding my hand under his shirt.  Sasuke’s skin was nice and warm from all the layers he was buried under, but I felt goosebumps rise up on his flesh.  I slid my hand up and down his spine, thinking it felt really nice.

            “Yes,” Sasuke said, wrapping his arms around me.

            “Let’s go to sleep,” I said, kissing his neck again.  It felt nice.  I wanted to do it again, so I did.  “You cold?”

            “No…”

            “Oh, you’ve got goosebumps everywhere…”

            “You are so fucking stupid sometimes,” Sasuke muttered into my hair.

            “You can’t be mean to the birthday boy,” I protested, pulling him down onto the futon.  “I love you anyway, though.”

            Sasuke bumped his forehead against mine, closing his eyes.

            I pressed back, nudging the tip of his nose with mine.

            “Happy birthday,” Sasuke said quietly, his breath warming my lips.

            “Thanks, bastard,” I said, feeling my cheeks heat up.  I ducked my face into his shoulder and continued rubbing his back.

            I woke up feeling very thirsty.  I opened my eyes, finding Sasuke’s mismatched ones staring back into mine.

            “Ho, shit!” I said, jumping.  I didn’t get far because I was all tangled up with Sasuke.

            “Idiot,” he said, rolling onto his back and staring up at the ceiling.

            “Hey, S-s-sasukeeee…” I said, sitting up and rubbing the back of my neck.  “Wow, I was really drunk last night, huh?”

            “Hn.”

            “Are you mad?”

            “No.”

            “Oh, okay…”

            Sasuke didn’t say anything, so I got up and went to pee.  When I got back, he was changing into his street clothes.

            “You want me to walk with you to Dr. S’s?” I asked, pawing through a drawer for clean clothes.

            “If you want,” Sasuke said.  He sounded colder than usual.

            “Yeah, if you want me to,” I said.  “I’m off today.”

            “Whatever.”

            “Why can’t you ever just be straightforward?” I muttered.

            “Why can’t you?” Sasuke countered, anger creeping into his voice.

            “I think I usually am?” I said, scratching my nose.

            Sasuke made a disgusted sound and walked by me.

            I could see we were in for a fun-filled day.  Breakfast was silent, followed by a silent walk.  Well, Sasuke was silent.  Obviously I wasn’t.  I kept up a steady stream of chatter, peppered with more and more insults towards Sasuke the longer he refused to answer.

            We got to the clinic, and I told Sasuke I’d wait in the waiting room for his bitch ass self to finish.

            “Go away,” was Sasuke’s response as he disappeared through the doors.

            “Lover’s tiff?” Maiko asked, grinning her evil, spooky grin from behind her desk.

            “Gross, no,” I said irritably.

            “Whatever, Kamaboko-kun,” she said, picking up her Midnight Ninja Mystery book.

            “My name is Naruto…”

            “No one cares,” she said.

            “You are a terrible receptionist,” I said, but she ignored me, engrossed in her stupid book.

            I sighed and entertained myself for the next hour by drawing pictures in the magazines.

            Sasuke came out right on time, as he always did, and I fell into step with him on the way out.

            “Did you have a good… time…?” I trailed off.  No matter how many times I walked Sasuke to therapy, I still didn’t know how to address it.

            “Oh, yeah, we had great fucking time,” Sasuke sneered at me.

            I poked him in the side irritably.

            “And Dr. Shizuta said you should learn to keep your damn hands to yourself,” he added, slapping me away.

            “Oh…” I said swallowing.  “What exactly did you tell her…?”

            “Wouldn’t you like to know?”

            “Yes, hence I asked.”

           Sasuke didn’t say anything, still striding back towards the apartment.  He always wanted to get back quickly.  I could tell he was uncomfortable, especially when there were other people around.  It didn’t help that the other people would without fail start staring at us as we walked by.

            “Let’s go to the training ground,” I said, tugging on his arm.

            “What the hell is wrong with you?” Sasuke asked, shaking me off of him.

            “You look less like a skeleton, but you’re still scrawny and pathetic.”

            “Fuck you.”

            “I don’t see what you have against working out a little.”

            “No.”

            “Come on, I can’t stand your stringy little body.”

            “You seemed to like it just fine last night.”

            I tripped and fell on face, sputtering all the while.

            Sasuke just kept walking.

Chapter Text

            I finally got Sasuke convinced to do a small workout with me in the morning.  We did pushups and sit-ups and jumping jacks, and it was really pathetic and sad to watch Sasuke struggle through it.

            “I’m never doing this again,” he was always threatening me.  “Stop looking at me like that.”

           I couldn’t help it.  He was one of the most powerful ninjas in the world, and yet he could barely do a pushup.  Then there were those ugly seals around his eyes, sucking away all his power.

            No matter how many times I fought with Kakashi about getting them removed, I always got the same answer.

            “Council’s orders.”

            I didn’t see what the point of being hokage was if you were chained down by the council at every turn.

            Or maybe it was that Kakashi didn’t trust Sasuke, either.

            But I didn’t like that train of thought.

            Kakashi still came to visit Sasuke every week, at times when I wasn’t around, so I had no idea what they actually talked about.  But he came.  He was still connected to Sasuke, still looking out for him.

            I wanted to think that at least Kakashi was on Sasuke’s side.

            “What are you brooding about?” Sasuke asked, wiping the sweat from his forehead with a towel.

            “Nothin’,” I said, taking a drink of water.  “My arm’s kinda sore.”

            “It’s probably going to rain,” Sasuke said, rubbing his left bicep.

            “Yeah,” I agreed, mirroring his movement.  Most of the time I forgot that I was missing an arm, but sometimes I got pains that I couldn’t ignore.

            “Be careful,” Sasuke said quietly, not looking at me.

            “Yeah,” I said, feeling myself smile.  I was off on my first overnight trip since we’d started living together, and apparently Sasuke needed to express concern about it.

            “Idiot,” he added for good measure.

            “You can come if you want,” I said.  “The chuunin exam’s open to the public.”

            “No thanks.”

            I sat down next to him on the couch, nudging his knee with mine.  “You sure you’re gonna be okay on your own?”

            “Yes, Naruto,” Sasuke said, giving me a wary look.

            “I know it’s hard for you to sleep even when I’m here-”

            “I’ll be fine.  I won’t have to deal with your stupidity every day.”

            “You love my stupidity.”

            “Tch.”

            I leaned my head on his shoulder as I laced our fingers together.  “I’ll miss you.”

            “You’re really clingy.”

            “I am not.”

            “Yes, you are.”

            “I’m not.”

            “You’re holding my hand.”

            “Your skin’s really soft.”

            “What the hell does that have to do with anything?”

            “I dunno, have you been moisturizing?  They were really dry when you were in the hospital.”

            Sasuke just stared at me like I was an idiot and didn’t say anything.

            I thumbed over the back of his hand, enjoying the feeling of his skin against mine.

            “Don’t you need to be going?” Sasuke finally said.

            “It’s fine,” I said.  “Probably.”

            Sasuke traced his thumb over mine, then over the back of my hand.

            Something in my belly twisted up into knots.

            I ran my thumb over his thumb, and we started wrestling.  I let Sasuke pin my finger, feeling warm as he traced the slope between my thumb and pointer finger.  I caught his thumb, gripping it lightly.  I suddenly brought it up to my lips, pressing a light kiss to the tip.

            It took me a moment to realize that Sasuke was frozen, looking at me with wide eyes.

            “What?” I said, letting go of him and sitting up abruptly.

            “You’re so fucking weird,” Sasuke said, standing up.  “You better get to the Academy, or they’ll leave without you.”

            “Like they would,” I scoffed.

            “They might.”

            “Really?”

            “Really.”

            “Okay, maybe I should get going…”

            Sasuke was quiet.

            I punched him in the arm in a way I intended to be playful.

            He gave me a dirty look.

            “Tsunade’ll be around if you need anything,” I said.

            “Because she and I are on such good terms.”

            “No, but she’s like a grandmother to me.  Or a great-grandmother.  I don’t know.”

            “Please say that to her face.”

            “You think it’ll make her happy?”

            “Yes, Naruto, I think it will make her very happy,” Sasuke said in a very unconvincing way.

            “Well, I’m serious, if you need something, go to her.”

            “What could I possibly need?”

            “I dunno,” I said, starting to feel anxious.  I was going to be gone for over a week.  Who would buy groceries and make Sasuke eat?  Who would make sure the apartment was clean?  Who would make sure he didn’t sit in the dark all night, staring at the wall?  “Should I stay?”

            “Go away, Naruto, god,” Sasuke said, crossing his arms over his chest.

            “Whyyyyy?” I whined.

            “You’re so codependent, it’s annoying.”

            “I’m codependent?!” I cried, offended.  “You won’t even take a damn bath unless I make you!  You won’t even leave the damn apartment unless I make you!”

            Sasuke gave me a withering look.  “Do you even know what codependent means?”

            “Yes!” I said.  “Sort of!”

            “And I’m the one seeing a shrink,” Sasuke muttered, running a hand through his hair.

            “I don’t understand what this attack on my character is!” I cried, flailing around.

            “Naruto,” Sasuke said, drawing my attention to his serious eyes.  “I will be fine.  I will… try… okay?”

            I nodded, chewing on my bottom lip.  “I get scared,” I confessed quietly.

            “Of what?” Sasuke asked, not seeming judgmental for once.

            I took a breath.  “Of… of what I saw.  At the hospital.  And at the clinic.”

            Sasuke met my gaze evenly.  He knew what I meant.

            I looked at him.

            He looked back.

            I shifted.  “You… I don’t want to lose you,” I finally said.

            “Go to the stupid chuunin exam, already,” Sasuke said dismissively.  “I’ll be here when you get back.”

            I hesitated, then nodded.  “Yeah.  Okay.”  I went to the bedroom to get my bag.

            Sasuke was waiting near the front door.

            “You really don’t want to come?”

            Sasuke looked at me like I was the stupidest person on earth.

            “Okay, I’ll see you when I get back,” I said, hesitating with my hand on the doorknob.  I felt like I was supposed to do or say something else.

            “I’ll be here,” Sasuke said, and it made me feel better.

            “Okay,” I said.

            “Okay.”

            We stared at each other.

            “Stop being weird,” Sasuke said, hitting me in the arm.  His hand slid down to my forearm and lingered, fingers digging into my skin.

            “You’re the weird one,” I replied, unmoving.

            “Bye,” Sasuke said.

            “Bye,” I echoed.  Why did I feel so hot?  It wasn’t hot in here at all.  A bit of sweat trickled down my temple.

            Sasuke pulled away abruptly.

            I found myself struggling to open the door and failing.

            “Idiot,” Sasuke said in his most affectionate voice as he reached over me and undid all the locks he’d installed on my door.

            “If you weren’t such a paranoid freak…”

            Sasuke pushed me out the open door and slammed it behind me.  I heard the familiar sound of the locks clicking into place.

            I stood there for a moment, feeling like I wasn’t ready to go.  I finally got my feet moving and started off towards the Academy.

            “Naruto!” Sakura called to me from where she was standing out front with the chuunin candidates and their teachers.

            “Good morning!” I said cheerfully, landing beside her.

            “Good morning!” the chuunin chorused back at me.

            “We’re just about ready to go,” Sakura said.  “Was Sasuke… okay?”

            “Yeah,” I said.  “Well, so he said anyway.”

            Sakura nodded.  “Kakashi-sensei’s waiting for you in his office.  I’m going to go ahead first with the kids.”

            “I’m not a kid,” one of the potential chuunin whined.

            Sakura gave him one of her scary faces, and he shut up right away.

            Smart kid.

            I was part of the hokage’s guard, so I travelled with Kakashi.  It was weirdly nostalgic.  It was also nice to be out of the confines of Konoha.

            I didn’t think too much about that.

            The chuunin exam progressed smoothly enough.  It was actually pretty boring from the other side, since my job was just to follow Kakashi around.  I at least got to hang out with Gaara and B.  Gaara, who hated talking, just wanted to hear about my travels over the last couple of years.  I was happy to blab his ears off.  B, on the other hand, was more interested in getting me to make a guest appearance on his latest rap masterpiece.

            We started rehearsing, planning to unveil our collaboration at the ending ceremony party.

            In the end, two of our kids passed the test.  I stood behind Kakashi as he awarded them their flak vests, and I realized I’d never had that experience.  Even when I’d become a jounin, there hadn’t been much fanfare.  It hadn’t been a big deal.

            It’s weird how when I was a kid, all of this seemed so important.  The rank and the prestige were what I’d wanted.  Now I had it and more, but I didn’t see how it mattered.

            I got a sudden pang of homesickness, which was especially weird, because the whole while I’d been travelling, I’d never once felt homesick.  Sure, I’d missed everyone.  But I’d never felt like I needed to go home.  I didn’t really know what home was.

            I didn’t understand what was going on in my head, but I wanted to go home.

            Go home… to Sasuke.

            That was an awkward realization to have in a stadium in front of hundreds of people.

            I chewed on my bottom lip, wishing that Kakashi would hurry the hell up.

            “You have all worked hard to achieve something great, and I wish to commend you from the bottom of my heart, and wish you continued success,” he finally concluded, and stepped back.

            “Finally,” I muttered.

            Kakashi cast me an amused look.  “This is what a hokage does.”

            “It’s really boring,” I commented as we sat back down, watching Gaara present the flak vests to the kids from Suna.

            “Isn’t it, though?” Kakashi agreed.

            “Congratulations,” Gaara said, then returned to sit down.

            “Did you see that?!” I cried.  “One word!  Why did your speech have to be ten minutes long?!”

            “I thought it would add some gravity to the situation,” he said.  “And also, the mizukage and I have a bet going.”

            “What kind of bet?!”

            “It’s better that you don’t know.”

            The chuunin exam was finally over, and we’d be heading back home the next day.  All that was left was my rap debut, a good night’s sleep, and then I would be on my way.

            Back to Sasuke.

            I definitely did not want to give that a lot of thought.

            I focused on my rap debut instead, which happened to be a great success, even if B complained that my lack of rhythm was messing with his flow.

            “It’s nice to see you looking happy,” Ino commented as she poured me a drink.

            “I always look happy?” I said.

            “Yeah, sure,” she said, pouring a drink for herself.  “Cheers.”

            “Cheers,” I said, clinking my glass with hers.  I hadn’t drunk alcohol since my birthday, but now seemed like a good, safe time to drink with Sasuke miles away.

Chapter Text

            Ino and I hadn’t spent much time together in the past, but she was actually pretty good company.  She’d had to do a lot of growing up since the war, stepping in to help lead her clan after the death of her father.  She was still bossy as hell, though.  But I if I was being honest, I had to admit that I was attracted to people who were bossy, especially if they were mean to me.

            I really was a masochist.

            “God, I can’t believe how friggin’ popular you are,” she commented after two of the Amegakure jounin had come over to say hello.

            “I’m not really,” I said, rubbing the back of my neck.

            “Did you not notice how badly they were flirting with you?!” Ino asked incredulously.

            “They were?” I asked, feeling confused.

            “Obviously!”

            “I think they just wanted to say hello.”

            “What girl comes over to a guy she barely knows just to say hello?” Ino asked, rolling her eyes.  “And what was with all the eye batting and giggling?  Get a clue, Naruto.”

            “How should I know about that kinda stuff?”

            “You’re friggin’ twenty years old!”

            “Yeah, but I spent most of my life as an outcast, and the rest training and fighting.  It’s not like there were girls around throwing themselves at me all that time.”

            “You are dumb, you know that?”

            “I’ve been told…”

            “You are so oblivious, I can’t even,” she said, shaking her head.  “Have another damn drink.”

            “Why are you getting mad…?” I asked, holding out my cup to her and letting her fill it.

            “Oh, well, there’s the fact that you broke my best friend’s heart.”

            “How did I break Sakura’s heart?!” I cried, aghast.  “She broke mine!”

            “The girl told you that she loved you, and you told her to love Sasuke instead,” Ino said.  “Who, to add insult to injury, you stole for yourself.”

            “Uh…”

            “Get a clue, Uzumaki!”

            “I think you’ve had too much to drink…”

            Ino slapped her forehead.  “Sakura’s moved on now, but she actually loved you, and you didn’t take her seriously at all.  All you could think about was your beloved Sasuke.”

            “I liked Sakura forever!” I protested.  “But she always loved Sasuke!”

            “Sakura got over Sasuke as soon as he went all psycho,” Ino said.  “She realized that it was a childish crush.  She realized that real love was about… ya know, shared experiences and shared interests and all that good stuff.  It was about the person who was always there for you.”

            “…me…?”

            “You’re catching on.”

            “But she didn’t really get over Sasuke…”

            “Sakura loves Sasuke, but not in the unconditional way you do.”

            “What’s that mean…?”

            “You should really read these books,” she said, suddenly producing the first Midnight Ninja Mystery book.  “I think they could help you a lot.”

            “No thanks.”

            “What, are you illiterate?” she asked, shoving the book into my hand.  “Read the damn book.  Kamaboko and Terusuke’s unresolved sexual tension…  Yeah, you need to read it.”

            “…what…?”

            “I’m helping you out,” she said, leaning back in her seat and rolling her neck around.

            “…thanks…?”

            “You’re hopeless.”

            I sighed, tucking the book in a pocket and planning to forget about it.

            The long walk home started at more of a trudge, with a large number of the Konoha contingent hungover, including the illustrious hokage.

            I was perfectly fine, and more than ready to get back.  When we finally spotted the gates in the distance, I had to hold myself back from sprinting the rest of the way.  I was working, after all.

            I escorted Kakashi back to his office, waited for him to read some porn, fall asleep once, then finally dismiss me.

            I dashed back to my apartment, but before I could even open the door, I stopped.  Sasuke wasn’t there.

            I flicked into sage mode and found him immediately.  I made a beeline for Konoha Clinic.

            “Did you know that you’re glowing?” Maiko asked as I burst in.

            “Where’s Sasuke?!”

            “No, but seriously, you’re glowing,” she said.  “Did you fall in some nuclear waste or something?”

            I ignored her and pushed my way into the hallway.  I followed the faint tingling sensation that Sasuke’s chakra left on my skin.  Taking a deep breath, I threw the door to Dr. Shizuta’s office open.

            Sasuke looked up at me like I was an idiot from where he was curled up in one of Dr. Shizuta’s comfy chairs.

            “Hello, Naruto, did we have an appointment?” Dr. Shizuta asked, mustering up a pleasantly befuddled expression.

            “You’re okay,” I breathed out, letting my eyes shift back to blue.

            “I’m fine,” Sasuke said, giving me an irritated look.

            “That’s not exactly true,” Dr. Shizuta commented.

            Sasuke turned his glare on her.

            Dr. Shizuta shrugged.

            “What’s going on?” I asked, feeling the panic rising again.

            Sasuke turned his gaze to the window.

            “Sasuke is thinking about coming back to the hospital,” Dr. Shizuta said after it became obvious that Sasuke wasn’t going to talk, and that I was about to have a heart attack.

            “What?!  Why?!”

            Dr. Shizuta stared at Sasuke, but he continued to ignore us both.

            I started chewing on my bottom lip, feeling panicked.  “What’s going on?”

            “Sasuke,” Dr. Shizuta prodded gently.

            Sasuke didn’t say anything.

            I was starting to get overwhelmed.  “Sasuke?” I said, taking a step towards him.

            “Go away, Naruto,” Sasuke muttered.

            “What the hell is wrong with you, bastard?!” I snapped.  “I care about you and I’m worried, so stop being a dick!”

            “I’m not worth caring about, so fuck off already!” he snarled at me, suddenly angry.

            I didn’t really know what was going on, but when Sasuke got angry, I got angrier.  “I’ll decide who I fucking care about, so shut up!”

            “Go fucking drown in a puddle, dumbass.”

            “Go… not be a bastard, turd!”

            “Wow…” Dr. Shizuta murmured, looking between us with interest.

            We both turned our angry gazes on her, and she laughed nervously.

            “You two have a really unhealthy relationship…”

            “It’s not your business,” Sasuke snarled.

            “There’s nothing wrong with our relationship,” I growled.

            “And then you suddenly unite to battle a common enemy,” she said, her grin becoming more relaxed.  “If it hadn’t already been done, I’d write a book about you.”

            “Huh?” I said.

            “Shut up,” Sasuke muttered, pulling his knees closer to his chest.

            He looked vulnerable, even with his nasty, angry expression.  I moved over to him without thinking, scooching him over with my hip and squeezing into the chair next to him.

            “Get your own damn chair,” he growled at me.

            “No,” I said, leaning my head against his shoulder.

            “I’m mad at you,” he muttered.

            “Why?”

            “…you left…” he said in a barely audible voice.

            “Oh,” I said, feeling guilty.  Then I felt angry about feeling guilty.  “You said it was fine.”

            “I lied.”

            “You should have said something.”

            “You would have gone anyway.”

            “I…” I started to say, then stopped.  I honestly didn’t know if I would have gone or not.

            “I don’t want you to mess up your life because of me,” he said quietly, leaning his head against mine.

          “How am I messing up my life if I don’t go to a really boring event that I didn’t even want to go to anyway?”

            “They’re grooming you to be the next hokage.”

            “Is that what they’re doing?”

            “Yeah.”

            “Oh.”

            “You don’t sound that happy about it.”

            I shrugged, the movement awkward in the confinement of the chair.

            “Stupid,” Sasuke murmured.

            “You’re the stupid one,” I replied.

            “Holy shit,” Dr. Shizuta said.

            We both turned to her in surprise.  To be honest, I’d kinda forgotten she was there.

            “I’ve never heard you talk so much… ever,” she marveled at Sasuke.

            “Tch.”

          “And you two really are just so… I don’t know, your codependency is equal parts frightening and endearing.”

            “Huh?” I said.

            “Voyeur,” Sasuke muttered.

            “Hey, now…” Dr. Shizuta protested.

            “Can we go home?” I asked.  I tugged on Sasuke’s sleeve, feeling tired.

            “I don’t have a home,” he said sullenly.

            “Dummy,” I said, giving him a light shove.

            Sasuke glowered at me.

            “What would you like to do, Sasuke?” Dr. Shizuta asked.

            I kept forgetting she was there.  I’d been travelling the last couple of days, and I just wanted to be in my own apartment with my Sasuke and chill.  I wanted to forget all the negative feelings that were still threatening to swell out of me.

            But Sasuke wasn’t saying anything, and I was scared that he was going to disappear again.

            “Sas’?” I said, poking him in the side.

            “Don’t touch me,” Sasuke muttered, even though we were both squished in the same chair, pressed up against one another.

            “Make me,” I replied, poking him harder.

            Sasuke caught my wrist with surprising strength.  “Let’s go already, idiot.”

            I nodded happily, jumping to my feet.

            Sasuke followed, still holding my wrist.  “I’m… not staying,” he told Dr. Shizuta.

            She nodded, pushing her glasses up her nose.  “Whatever you think is best.”

            Sasuke started towards the door, and I gave Dr. Shizuta wave as he dragged me along with him.

            Maiko peered at us curiously from behind her desk.  She never looked interested in anything.  I wondered if she had a crush on Sasuke.

            “Why were you going to check into the clinic?” I finally asked as we walked along.

            “It doesn’t matter,” Sasuke said.

            “It matters to me.”

            He didn’t answer.

            We got back to the apartment and I unlocked the door.  “Home sweet home!”

            Sasuke came and sat in the bedroom while I unpacked my bag.  He took the seat next to me when I went into the living room to take a load off and watch a little TV.  He hovered by me in the kitchen while I boiled water for our instant ramen dinner.  When I came out of the bathroom after taking a very quick piss, he was waiting outside the door.

            “Sasuke, are you okay…?” I asked, giving him a funny look.

            “Why wouldn’t I be?”

            I shook my head.  “I’m gonna start the bath now.  You want to go first?”

            “Wash my back?” he requested.

            “Oh, uh, sure,” I said, stepping into the shower room and putting the plug in the tub.  I turned on the hot water and left it to run.

            Sasuke pulled his shirt over his head, folding it neatly and placing it on the counter.

            I stripped quickly, tossing my clothes on the floor and stepping into the bath.  It was cold out there.

            Sasuke was still taking his time, neatly folding his underwear like the freak he was.

            “Come on,” I complained.

            Sasuke looked at me and deliberately moved as slowly as possible.

            “Asshole.”

            Sasuke stepped into the shower room and closed the door behind him.

            “Finally,” I said, switching the shower on.  “Mm.”

            Sasuke sat on the little stool, lathering up the soap while I stood under the spray.

            I washed my hair quickly, then passed the showerhead to Sasuke.  He took it and rinsed off the soap.

            I sat on the edge of the tub, taking the soap from him and washing his back.

            “You seem less scrawny,” I commented, sliding the soap over the planes of his back.

            “Hn.”

            “We should go running or something.”

            “Hn.”

            “You’re a terrible conversationalist.”

            “Then stop talking.”

            “I feel like that’s a trick.”

            Sasuke handed me the showerhead, and I rinsed off his back.  Then we switched places, Sasuke washing his hair while I soaped up.

            After we were both clean, I offered Sasuke the bath first.

            “We can both fit,” Sasuke said, stepping over the edge and sinking into the water.

            “Okay, your clinginess is reaching a whole new level,” I said, giving him a funny look.

            “Who the fuck are you calling clingy?”

            “The guy who follows me to the bathroom, and then wants me to take a bath with him,” I said.  “What are we, little kids?”

            “Get in the tub,” Sasuke said irritably, drawing his knees up to his chest.

            “Ugh,” I said, stepping over the edge and plopping into the tub.

            Sasuke was still sulking.

            “This tub wasn’t made for two people,” I complained, stretching out my legs on either side of him.  I suddenly imagined pulling Sasuke back against my chest, our legs stretched out together.  It made me feel very weird, and I sank into the water up to my chin.

            “If you stayed in your own space, it would be fine,” Sasuke said, nudging my leg with his foot.

            “I take baths to relax,” I said.  “How’m I s’posed ta relax all scrunched up like that?”

            “Dumbass,” Sasuke muttered, looking away.

            I blew bubbles in the water, feeling restless.

            “I’m glad you’re home,” Sasuke said quietly.

            I flushed.

            We settled into a comfortable silence, and I let the tension of the day drain out of me.

            Sasuke stood up after a while, and stepped out.  I would have stayed in a little longer, but he cast me a look over his shoulder, and I quickly followed him.

            We both got ready for bed.  Sasuke read for a bit while I wrote up a quick report that I needed to hand in the next day.

            Sasuke got into his futon, and when I went to join him, he said, “No.”

            “Uh…” I said.

            “No,” he repeated, tucking the sheets firmly around himself so I couldn’t sneak in.

            I crawled into my bed, tuning into Sasuke.  When his breathing deepened, I let myself drift off into a light sleep.

            I woke up to Sasuke climbing into bed with me, his back just touching mine.

            I went back to sleep.

Chapter Text

“Why is everyone always reading those dumb books?” I complained to Sasuke.

            Sasuke glanced up from where he was reading a Midnight Ninja Mystery on the couch.

            “Ino even gave me one and told me to read it,” I said, digging through a pile of junk that had accumulated on the kitchen table and producing the offending book.

            “I really think you should read it,” Sasuke said, a hint of amusement in his eyes.

            “Why?!  What is it with these books?!”

            “The main character is clearly based on you.”

            “WHAT?!”

            Sasuke shrugged.

            “That’s ridiculous.  Who would write a book about me?!”

            “Shira Yuki,” Sasuke said.

            “Huh?” I said.  “What’s that?”

            “The author,” Sasuke said.  “Their nom de plume, anyway.”

            “Huh?”

            “Pen name,” Sasuke said irritably.

            “Then why didn’t you just say that?”

            “Sometimes I forget that you’re illiterate.”

            “I’m not illiterate!”

            “Then read the damn book.”

            “Don’t wanna.”

            “Okay, then don’t know what everyone in the village is thinking about you.”        

            “How would reading this stupid book tell me that?”

            “Read it and find out, moron.”

            “You’re not very nice to me.”

            “Why should I be?”

            “Because we’re best friends.”

            “Hn.”

            “And also I feed and clothe you and take care of you and basically do everything for you.”

            “No one asked you to do that.”

            We both fell quiet.

            “I’ll read the stupid book,” I said, going over to sit next to Sasuke on the couch.  “Okay, here goes.”

            Sasuke didn’t say anything, but he also didn’t complain about me sitting next to him.

            I started reading, and I wasn’t very impressed.  Kamaboko, the hero of the books, was an orphan who grew up as an outcast for some unknown reason.  He wasn’t a very good ninja, but he was really enthusiastic.

            All in all, I found him annoying.

            Then there was his best friend and rival, Terusuke, who happened to be his teammate in their three-man ninja squad.  He was a jerk, and I couldn’t stand him.  He was mean and pompous and a general turd.

            During a mission gone awry in the Land of Snow, Kamaboko solved the mystery of the innkeeper’s murder through persistence and dumb luck.

            The book wasn’t very long and was written in a readable way that had me finishing within a couple hours, including a break every few minutes to rant to Sasuke.  It wasn’t that it was a bad book, it was just that the characters rubbed me the wrong way.

            “Why does everyone say he’s like me, he’s nothing like me!” I complained after I finished the book.

            “He’s exactly like you.”

            “He is not!  And how would this Shira Yuki know enough about me to write a character based on me?!”

            “Maybe the author is someone who’s been watching you for a long time.”

            “Like a stalker?”

            Sasuke looked amused.  “Yeah, something like that.”

            “Someone’s stalking me?!”

            Sasuke just shook his head.

            “And what’s up with this stupid Terusuke?!” I said, leaping to the next topic.  I’d been telling Sasuke how much I hated the character that was supposed to be him since he was first introduced in the book.  “Why did he have to act all nice in the end, saving Kamaboko from the Eleven-Fingered Ninja?!”

            “You should read the next book,” Sasuke said.

            “I don’t want to read these stupid books ever again!”

            I finished the series of five books within the week.

            It was all very mortifying.

            At the end of book five, Kamaboko and Terusuke… kissed…

            No, I didn’t want to think about it.  About how the two of them had fought and argued, all the while watching each other’s backs.  About how friendship slowly started to seem not quite right, about how they were always exchanging long glances and lingering touches, about how…

            No, I wasn’t going to think about it.

            “Did you finish the book?” Sasuke asked me that night at dinner.

            “I uh… n-no…”

            Sasuke gave me a strange look.

            “Okay, yes!”

            “And?”

          I knew my face was bright red.  “And I’m gonna find this Shira Yuki and make her stop defaming my name!”

            “Who says it’s a girl?”

            “What kind of guy would write that trash?!” I cried, flailing around.

            “Put your chopsticks down,” Sasuke said, holding up a hand as I almost stabbed him by accident.

            I put them down.

            “Didn’t Konohamaru invent the Boy on Boy jutsu?” Sasuke asked casually.

            “You think it’s Konohamaru?!” I cried.

            “No, but I’m just saying.”

            I eyed him.  “You know who Shira Yuki is.”

            “I have my suspicions.”

            “Who?!”

            “I’m not telling the great Ninja Detective Kamaboko,” Sasuke said.  “Surely he can use his superior intellect to solve the mystery.”

            “Jerk,” I said.  “I’m gonna.”

            We didn’t talk about the kiss, and it was better that way.  It was all just too weird when your literary selves did confusing things that you would never do in real life.

            I became determined to find out what kind of sicko would write books about me and Sasuke making out.

            Just because I felt a little thrill when they finally got together didn’t mean anything.  Shira Yuki was a good writer, was all.  A terrible person, but a good writer.

            I didn’t really have any time to search for the author, though, because between missions and Sasuke, I had just about no free time.

            Sasuke was commuting to the clinic every day.  I walked him there in the morning, went to work, and picked him up in the evening.

            He hadn’t done well while I was away.

            “He needs to start building a life,” Dr. Shizuta told me.  “He needs structure.  He needs routine.”

            She also told me he had abandonment issues, which I just thought was weird.  Me leaving was apparently very stressful for him.

            “I left for a year and a half, and he was fine,” I protested.

            “He wasn’t fine at all.”

            Sometimes I felt like I didn’t know Sasuke as well as I thought I did.  There was this whole side to him that I just couldn’t understand.

            “He doesn’t want you to see him like that,” Dr. Shizuta explained.

            “I want all of him.”

            Dr. Shizuta’s lips quirked up.

            “Stop reading those damn pervy books!” I said.  “And stop thinking that Sasuke and I are Kamaboko and Terusuke!”

            Dr. Shizuta didn’t stop grinning.

            I was starting to realize that all of the girls in town were giving me dopey smiles, even more so when Sasuke and I were walking together.

            “They think we’re a couple!” I hissed incredulously to Sasuke one day as a group of girls pointed and squealed at us.

            “So?” Sasuke said, frowning at me.

            “Oh, uh… I thought you’d be more offended.”

            “Why?”

            “I dunno, ’cause you’re Uchiha Sasuke, and you wouldn’t deign to lower yourself to dating the dead last of Konoha.”

            “You’re an idiot.”

            “Yeah, see.”

            Sasuke didn’t say anything else, but he seemed annoyed.

            He was so moody sometimes that I couldn’t keep up with when he was mad at me and when he wasn’t, and I certainly couldn’t tell you why he was feeling that way.

            There were days where he would just follow me around the apartment, sticking close to me wherever I went.  He’d touch his knee to mine, or he’d start petting my hair.  It seemed like it should be weird, but it always felt comfortable.  I liked those days.

            Then there were the days where something had clearly crawled up his butt.  He’d lock himself in my bedroom for hours.  When he’d finally come out, he would be a surly asshole.  He’d belittle me about every little thing.  He acted like he hated me.

            Today was one of those days.

            I’d woken up alone, tripped over Sasuke’s bedding on my way out of the room, and headed into the kitchen.

            “Morning,” I murmured, ruffling Sasuke’s hair as I walked by.

            Sasuke muttered something at me and continued to stare at the TV.

            I made breakfast and put it on the table next to Sasuke’s pills.

            Sasuke came over without me having to ask and started eating.

            “Can we get rid of your stupid futon already?” I asked, poking his foot with mine under the table.  “It’s in the way.”

            “It’s my bed,” Sasuke replied irritably.

            “Yeah, but you sleep in it for like ten seconds before you crawl into bed with me.”

            “Fuck off.”

            “What, I’m just saying that you don’t really sleep there anymore.”

            “And I’m just saying that you should fuck off.”

            “You could try being nicer to me.”

            “No, I really couldn’t.”

            “What crawled up your butt?”

            Sasuke stopped eating and stood up abruptly.

            “What?” I complained.

            He ignored me and went back to the living room.

            “You need to take your pills,” I said, picking up the bottles and carrying them over to him.

            Sasuke pointedly ignored me.

           “Uh, hello, you need to take these,” I said, dumping them on his lap and going to get him something to drink.

            When I came back, all of the pills were on the floor.  And by on the floor, I mean that the pill bottles had been opened, and the pills had been poured out.

            “Are you kidding me?” I said, staring at all the pills.  It was a whole rainbow of drugs on the wood floor.

            Sasuke ignored me.

            “What’re you being such a baby for?” I muttered, leaning down to start picking up all the pills.  After everything was sorted back into place, I handed them to him again.

            Sasuke took them, still not looking at me.

            I went back to the kitchen to wash the dishes.

            This time I heard the distinct sound of the pills hitting the floor.

            “What the hell, bastard?!” I cried, stomping back over to him.

            Sasuke just stared at the TV.

            “What is your problem?” I growled, grabbing him by the front of his shirt.

            Sasuke leaned to the side to look around me at the TV.

            I hauled him up off of the couch, feeling pretty damn pissed.

            His eyes finally flicked to mine, a challenging glint in them.

            “Speak up!” I snapped, shaking him a little.

            “I didn’t say anything,” Sasuke responded in a perfectly calm voice.

            “Bastard.”

            Sasuke sneered.

            I reaaaaaally wanted to hit him.  In fact, I had cocked my fist back in preparation for such an outcome.

            “Do it,” he said, raising an eyebrow at me.

            “Well I’m not gonna if you tell me to,” I said, feeling a little bit of my anger deflate.  Dr. Shizuta was always warning me about Sasuke purposefully instigating fights.  I was supposed to be the bigger person and not rise to the bait.

            “Of course you won’t,” Sasuke said.  “Because you’re a pussy.”

            “Bastard…” I growled threateningly.

            “It’s funny how you’re so afraid of me,” Sasuke said, smiling.

            “Who’s afraid of you?” I scoffed.

            “What are you so afraid of, scaredy-cat?”

            “I said I’m not.”

            “Then why don’t you hit me?”

            “I don’t feel like it anymore.”

            Sasuke reached over to the end table and knocked over the glass of water I’d set there for him.  The glass smashed onto the floor like an explosion.

            I saw red.  “YOU FUCKING CHILD!” I raged, throwing him back on the couch like a ragdoll.  I pinned him there with my knee, glowering at him.

            Sasuke looked very unimpressed.

            “Why are you doing this?!” I demanded, shaking him.

            “Because I can.”

           Sasuke had slowly started to get his personality back during the last three years.  I usually was happy about it, but times like this were just frustrating.

            “Stay here, while I clean up your stupid mess!” I yelled.  I avoided the glass and went to get the broom and dustpan.  It was going to be a complete pain in the ass to clean up the pills with the glass.  I wondered if I could just ask Dr. Shizuta for new pills and throw the old ones out.

            When I came back, Sasuke was just watching TV.

            I tried separating the pills from the glass, but it just didn’t seem safe.  “Call Dr. Shizuta and ask her for new prescriptions,” I said, throwing the cordless phone at him.

            Sasuke ignored the phone that bounced on the couch next to him.

            I got the vacuum out and finished cleaning up.  I also ended up calling Dr. Shizuta.  She said that she’d give Sasuke the new prescriptions when he came in that day, but that it was a one-time deal.

            Sasuke was silent when I walked him to the clinic, and he was silent when I picked him up.  He was also silent when we got home, going straight to the toilet and dumping all of his pills in it.

            “What the hell?!” I screeched, trying to stop him.  We ended up wrestling, with most of the pills flying over the bathroom floor.  It was harder than I thought it would be to pin Sasuke down, but I think part of that was me being afraid to hurt him.

            “Scaredy-cat,” Sasuke said, looking completely at ease even though I was holding him down on the floor, my body weight making it impossible for him to move.

            “You’re the one throwing all your fucking pills away!” I snapped.  “You afraid of getting better?”

            “I’m never getting better, or haven’t you figured that out yet?”

            “You’ve gotten a lot better!  You sleep more, you eat more, you talk more…  You’re completely different from three years ago!”

            “I’m just pretending.”

            He was breaking my heart.  “Don’t say that.”

            “Is it so hard to hear the truth?”

            “You’re getting better,” I insisted.

            “Does that make it easier for you?  If you think that everything you’re doing right now is making me better?”

            “What’s that supposed to mean?”

            “It means you should try and face reality, moron.”

            “I’m very realistic!”

            “You’re an idiot,” Sasuke said, suddenly spewing venom.  “You’re a useless idiot who doesn’t know his head from his ass.”

            “And you’re mean,” I said, tightening my grip on his wrists.

            “Wow, what a great comeback.”

            “Sasuke, stop being a jerk,” I said, pulling him into a sitting position.  “Just tell me what’s wrong.”

            “What’s wrong is being here with you.”

            “Uh… you live here.”

            Sasuke gave me that ‘you’re an idiot’ look that he did so well.  “Maybe I shouldn’t.”

            “Where else would you go?”

            “Anywhere you’re not.”

            “You’re not a very good best friend.”

            “We’re not friends, Naruto.”

            “Uhhh, no, I specifically remember you saying that I’m your best friend on multiple occasions.”

            “We’re not friends!” Sasuke yelled, angry again.

            “Yes, we are!” I yelled back.

            “We’re not!” Sasuke snapped, wrenching one of his wrists free and shoving me in the chest.

            I hadn’t expected it, and I toppled backwards, pulling Sasuke with me by his other wrist.  We were in the hallway next to the bathroom now, and there were tons of different-shaped pills digging into my back.

            “You’re not my friend,” Sasuke said, cocking his right hand back and punching me in the face.

            I was kind of shocked.  “Asshole!” I snapped, throwing him across the hall without meaning to.

            He hit the wall with a loud thud.

            “Oh, shit,” I said, quickly changing to worried.  “Sas’, you okay-”

            As soon as I crouched over him, he sprang at me, knocking me back to the ground.  He hit me again, and cocked back for another hit.

            “Enough,” I said, flipping him on his back.

            “Fuck you!” Sasuke snarled, struggling to get free.

            This had been an emotional roller coaster of a fight, but apparently Sasuke wasn’t done being an asshole.  It hurt me, so I got angry.  “No, fuck you!”

            “Fuck you!”

            “Bastard!”

            “Idiot!”

            “Asshole!”

            “Fucktard!”

            “Is that all you’ve got?”

            “Is that all you’ve got?”

            “I asked first.”

            “Because your tiny little brain ran out of things to say.”

            “And your tiny little body ran out of strength to fight.”

            “Loser!” Sasuke raged, struggling against me.  I was sitting on his stomach, but I’d left his arms free, and he was trying to beat me off of him.

            “Ha,” I said, catching both of his wrists.  “At least I’m not as much of a loser as you.  You can’t even fight me.”

            “I’ll kill you,” he hissed, and I felt a small crackle of his chakra slide along my skin.

            “We all know that you can’t,” I said, leaning in close and bumping his nose with mine.  “Loser.”

            “You’re the fucking loser!” Sasuke yelled, trying to headbutt me.

            I retreated a little,   “What is this, Sasuke?  What do you want?”

            “I want to kill you!” he screamed.

            “What do you want?” I repeated, staring into his eyes.

            “I hate you,” he breathed out.  “I hate you.”

            “No, you don’t,” I growled, but a little part of me wasn’t so sure.  “Tell me what you want.”

            “You can’t give me what I want!”

            “Try me.”

            “Let go of me,” Sasuke said, amping up his struggles.

            “I want you to tell me what you want.  Tell me how to make this right.”

            “Fine!” Sasuke snarled.

            I let go of him.

            “You want to know what I want?”

            “Yeah, I do,” I said, maintaining eye contact.  “Tell me.”

            Sasuke’s breathing was ragged.  He’d pushed his body to the limit, and he was clearly exhausted.  But there was still a fire burning in his eyes, a passion that I hadn’t seen in a long time.

            “Sasuke, just tell me what you want!” I yelled, because I needed to hear it.

            He didn’t answer me.  Instead, he grabbed me by my neck, yanking me down to him and slamming our lips together.

Chapter Text

            I felt like a drowning man, thirsting for air.

            That air was Sasuke.

            What started out as a clumsy first kiss quickly turned into something… else.

            I had my fingers buried in Sasuke’s hair, tugging, keeping him close.  Sasuke’s fingers dug into the back of my neck, squeezing, clinging, not letting me escape.  Our mouths met in a frenzy, hot and wet and confusing.

            Sasuke was panting into my mouth, making these sounds, and I just wanted every last breath of it.

            Somehow I’d ended up with my back against the wall, Sasuke straddling one of my thighs.  Sometimes he would kiss me with so much force that my head would bang against the wall.  Sometimes his knee would slide forward with the slightest pressure, and it left me gasping.

            At one point, things started to slow down.  Then Sasuke tentatively traced my lips with his tongue, and before I really knew what was happening, our tongues were in each other’s mouths.

            This was all very new and strange, but I couldn’t come up with any rational thoughts beyond ‘want Sasuke’.

            I found my hand sliding under his shirt and tracing up his spine.

            Sasuke shivered, tightening his grip on my bicep.

            Our kissing was pretty sloppy, but I felt like the longer that we did it, the better we were getting.  I just wanted to keep getting better and better, with no end in sight.

            “You suck at this,” Sasuke murmured at one point, crushing all my hopes and dreams.

            “Like you’re any better!” I yelled, only to get shut up by his knee pressing very firmly into my crotch.  I may or may not have moaned very loudly at that.

            Sasuke pulled away, and I whined in protest.  Then he started kissing along my jaw and down my neck, and that felt pretty nice, too.

            I kept my hand sliding along the skin of his back.  The skin-to-skin contact felt good.        Sasuke seemed to think so, too, pushing up my shirt and pressing kisses along my abs.

            Then my stomach growled really loudly.

            Sasuke looked so affronted that I had to laugh.

            “We didn’t eat dinner…” I said.

            “Who cares about dinner?” Sasuke muttered, his lower lip sticking out in a pout.

            I kissed the adorable protruding lip, which did not pacify Sasuke at all, as he bit my lip with far more force than necessary.

            “Bastard,” I murmured, unfortunately completely turned on by it.

            “You were saying something about dinner?” Sasuke asked, swiping the bite mark with his tongue.

            “N-no…”

            We started kissing again, my stomach rumbling away.

            Sasuke finally pulled away with an irritated grumble.  His lips were shiny with my saliva, which I thought was just about the most attractive thing I’d ever seen in my life.

            What were these gross thoughts I was having?

            “Shut up,” Sasuke murmured, hitting my stomach a little more roughly than necessary.

            “Let’s eat something,” I said, kissing his cheek.

            There was a little upturn of his lips.

            It made me smile, too, a sudden giddy feeling overtaking me.  I rubbed my nose against his cheek with a happy laugh.

            “Dummy.”

            “Hey, Sasuke?”

            “What?”

            “Is this what you wanted?” I asked, casting my eyes to his.

            Sasuke looked away and nodded.

            I planted the sloppiest kiss I could muster up on his mouth.

            “Gross,” Sasuke said, pushing me away.

            We stood up, and I suddenly saw the pills all over the floor.

            Sasuke caught my expression. 

            We were both silent.

            “I’ll make dinner,” I finally said, walking over to the kitchen.  Remembering the day we’d had was kind of sobering, and took away from the pleasant make out buzz I’d had going.

            Sasuke came into the kitchen after a while, setting the pill bottles at his place at the table.

            I glanced at him, then turned my attention back to the vegetables I was chopping.

            It suddenly felt really awkward.

            What had we just been doing?  I mean, this was Sasuke.  I’d been kissing Sasuke.  How weird was that?  What was wrong with me?  What was wrong with him?

            And Sasuke was clearly reading every thought I‘d just had on my face.

            It hurt to see that vulnerable look in his eyes.

            “Sas’…” I said.

            “Just forget it,” Sasuke said, trying to summon up his anger.  “Just forget everything.”

            “I don’t want to just forget it,” I said, yanking him back by his arm before he could storm off.  “Com’ere,” I said, pulling him into a hug.

            “Don’t touch me,” Sasuke muttered, but he stood stiffly in my arms without trying to get away.

            “We can figure it all out later,” I said.

            “No.”

            “Yes.”

            “No.”

            “Yes, you stupid bastard.”

            “No, you moron.”

            I bumped my forehead into Sasuke’s, glaring into his black and purple eyes.

            Sasuke glared back.

            We kissed again, an ugly mashing of teeth and faces.

            The smell of burning meat brought that to sudden stop.

            “Shit!” I said, quickly turning the burner off on the stove.

            “Idiot.”

            “You’re the one who distracted me!”

            Dinner was awkward again.  I had all these confusing feelings, where I just wanted to make out with Sasuke, and yet was simultaneously horrified by the thought.

            Sasuke was quiet, and I hoped he was properly reflecting on what a rotten brat he’d been all day.

            I thought about all the pills that had gone down the toilet, and wondered if he was going to be able to get more to replace them.  Dr. Shizuta had said she was only replacing them the one time.

            I wondered what Sasuke would be like without his meds.

            Then I wondered why he’d thrown them away in the first place.

            “Sasuke?” I said as I washed the dishes.

            “What?” he grumbled from the living room.

            “Do you not want to take your medications anymore?”

            He didn’t answer.  He spent most of the night sticking close to me, but not saying anything.

            When it was time for bed, awkwardness reached an all-time high.

            “You… can sleep… in the bed…” I said.  “With me,” I added for good measure.

            “No,” Sasuke said, curling up in his futon.

            His continued refusal to just sleep together with me was frustrating, yet at the same time a relief.  I didn’t know what it meant for us to share a bed after we’d kissed.

            Of course, like usual, I woke up to Sasuke sliding into bed with me sometime in the middle of the night.  He pressed his back to mine, and I could feel his labored breathing.

            I wanted to ask if he was okay, but that would only send him skittering back down to the futon.

            I wondered for the first time if his refusal to sleep with me had been because he had… feelings… for me.

            It was a confusing thought.

            Sasuke started having a nightmare at some point, which wasn’t rare, but had definitely decreased in number since he’d started living with me.

            “Sasuke,” I said, flopping my arm around behind me until I found his arm, patting it firmly.  “It’s okay.”

            Sasuke gasped loudly, then went quiet.

            He didn’t go back to sleep, and I found it hard to sleep, too.

            We both just lay there, back to back, until the sun came up.

            “Ugh,” I groaned, dragging myself through my morning routine.

            Sasuke wasn’t doing much better.

            Our little morning workout was pretty much a joke, neither of us putting in any effort.

            Also, Sasuke was very distracting.  He kept making eyes at me.

            I wondered if I was supposed to kiss him again.  Was I allowed to kiss him again?

            “Stop making eyes at me,” Sasuke said, finishing his sit-ups.  He reached for a towel to wipe his brow.

            “You’re the one making eyes at me!” I protested.

            Sasuke shrugged.

            I scampered over to him, sit-ups be damned, and prepared to lay one on him.

            Sasuke kept me at a distance with a hand to my chest.  “Why?”

            “I want to,” I said.

            Sasuke looked conflicted, but he yanked me forward for a kiss.

            We were late to the clinic that morning, which made me late for work.

            Kakashi gave me a very strange grin before sending me off to the orphanage for the day.

            When I came to pick Sasuke up, Dr. Shizuta peeked her head out into the waiting room.

            “Could you come to my office for a bit?”

            She often asked me to come talk, but today the question made my heart beat a little faster.  I felt guilty.  Why did I feel guilty?!

            “Hey, have a seat,” she said, standing in the corner of the room and fussing with a pot of tea.

            I sat down, my posture rigid as I waited for her to start talking.

            “Nice weather we’ve been having,” she commented as she poured the tea into two cups.

            “Uh… sure…” I said, fidgeting.

            “Here you are,” she said, smiling as she handed me the tea.

            “Thanks.”

            Dr. Shizuta sat across from me and took a long drink of tea.  “Did something happen?”

            “Whaddya mean?” I asked, trying to look innocent.

            “With Sasuke,” she extrapolated.  “Did something happen?”

            “No!” I said quickly.

            She gave me a funny look.

            “Wait, he told you?!” I asked, shifting uncomfortably under her scrutiny.

            She shrugged.

            “It was a just a kiss!”

            Dr. Shizuta’s face transformed into total shock.  “You kissed Sasuke?!”

            “No, he kissed me!” I said.  “Well, the first time, anyway…  Wait, you didn’t know?!”

            “The first time?!” she repeated.

            “I thought he told you!”

            “Sasuke doesn’t tell me shit!”

            “Then how did you know that something happened?!”

            “I just thought Sasuke was acting strangely, so I wanted to ask you if you’d noticed anything,” she said.  “I never imagined…”

            I put the tea down so I could drop my head in my hands.

            “Oh, wow,” she murmured.  “We need to talk.”

            So we talked.

Chapter Text

            “Where do you see this relationship going?” Dr. Shizuta asked, pushing her glasses up her nose.

            “R-r-relationship?” I repeated.  “Hold up, we’re not in a relationship or anything!”

            She stared at me long and hard.  “Please don’t say things like that to Sasuke.”

            “Huh?  Why?”

            “Naruto, why did you kiss Sasuke?”

            “I told you, he kissed me!”

            “And you kissed him back, I’m assuming.”

            “Well, I mean yeah, it was kind of mutual I guess,” I said.  “But it was just like… I dunno, tension relief?  We’d been fighting all day, and then we just… ya know.”

            “Naruto, Sasuke has Borderline Personality Disorder.”

            “Uh, yeah, you’ve told me.”                                          

            “But I feel like you still don’t understand what that means.”

            “It means he has crazy mood swings,” I said.  “And he’s apparently real depressed, with low self-esteem, or so you keep telling me.”

            “Yes, I keep telling you because it’s true.  Sasuke feels like he has no self-worth.”

            “That’s not Sasuke at all.  He’s super arrogant and full of himself.”

            Dr. Shizuta let out a long exhale.  “I am telling you facts about Sasuke’s condition, so could you just shut up and listen?”    

            “Hmph,” I muttered.  I knew Sasuke best, no matter how fancy a school Dr. Shizuta had studied at.

            “Naruto, if you don’t want a relationship with Sasuke, and by relationship I mean a romantic one, you need to tell him clearly right now.”

            “No one said anything about a… we’re not…”

            Dr. Shizuta shook her head in amazement.  “You are so clueless sometimes.”

            “What?!”

            “If you’re not interested, then stop leading Sasuke on.”

            “Leading… him on…?”

            “Stop touching him unnecessarily, stop sleeping next to him, stop flirting with him, and definitely do not kiss him again.

            “Wait, I have to stop all that?”

            “Do you honestly think that the way you treat Sasuke is normal?”

            “Yes?  And we don’t flirt.”

            “Oh my god, you are like the complete opposite of Sasuke,” Dr. Shizuta groaned, dropping her head in her hands.

            “What’s that supposed to mean?”

            “Getting Sasuke to say anything during therapy is like pulling teeth, but when he actually speaks, he’s incredibly self-aware.  He knows what he’s doing and why he’s doing it.  You, on the other hand....  You are just in a constant state of denial.  It’s kind of fascinating.”

            “What am I in denial about?” I asked, starting to feel a bit cranky.

            “Do you love Sasuke?”

            I blinked.  “Well, yeah.”

            “More than anyone else?”

            “Well, I wouldn’t say that, I mean I love Sakura-chan and Kakashi-sensei, too.  And Iruka-sensei and Baa-chan…”

            “Do you love them in the same way you love Sasuke?”

            I hesitated.  “I… think so…?”

            “Would you do the things that you do for Sasuke for anyone else?”

            “Yeah, of course!” I said.

            “You would invade Sakura’s personal space the way you do to Sasuke?”

            “Well no, but she’s a girl.”

            “You would invade the Sixth’s personal space that way?”

            “Uh, no, ’cause Kakashi-sensei is Kakashi-sensei.”

            Dr. Shizuta raised an eyebrow at me.

            “You’re not giving good examples,” I protested.  “Would I help them if they couldn’t take care of themselves?  Yes, obviously.”

            “You would move in with them?  Give up all your free time for them?”

            “Yeah, I would.”

            “Hold them when they have nightmares?”

            “I don’t hold him!  I just kinda pat him on the arm and say, ‘there, there’ or whatever until he goes back to sleep.”

            “Mm hm.  So you would sleep next to Sakura?”

            “She’d kill me…”

            “Next to Iruka?”

            “Well… maybe…”

            “Would you kiss the Fifth?”

            “Now you’re just being gross.”

            “And you’re being ridiculous.  You gave up everything for Sasuke.  You wouldn’t do what you’ve done for just a friend.  I know that you’re you, and you’re willing to make sacrifices for people you’ve never even met, but you’ve literally given up everything for Sasuke.”

            “I haven’t given up anything for him…”

            “You gave up three years of your life to train to get him back.”

            “There were other reasons, too…”

            “Naruto, you gave up your right arm to bring him back.”

            “Well, yeah, but…”

            “But what?”

            “I dunno…”

            “Then you gave up on traveling to come back and take care of him.”

            “It wasn’t like that!  I wanted to come home!”

            “No, you didn’t.”

            “Uh, I just said I did, didn’t I?”

            “Yes, but you were clearly lying.”

            “I’m not a liar!”

            “Do you honestly enjoy your life right now?  Is this what you wanted?”

            “Yes!” I said, but even as the word came out of my mouth, I knew it wasn’t true.

            Dr. Shizuta didn’t say anything, but I could tell she knew, too.

            I looked down at the ground.  “I just…  I mean, this is my home.  I love Konoha.  But… I’m not… I’m just staying the same.  When I was traveling with Ero-Senin, I realized how big the world was, how small Konoha was.  I realized how little I knew.  Maybe I’ve learned everything that I can from here?  It’s not just ninja stuff, but life stuff, too.  The people I’ve met when traveling, they just opened my mind to so much.  It’s like… Konoha will always be the place I come back to.  I just… I don’t know.  I don’t know.”

            “Maybe it’s time to get back on the road?”

            “Nah, being here is fine.  Sasuke needs me.”

            Dr. Shizuta gave me a look.

            “He does.”

            She kept giving me that look.

            “It’s not romantic or anything, it’s just what best friends do for each other.”

            “Sakura isn’t doing what you’re doing.”

            “But Sasuke doesn’t…  He’s more comfortable with me.”

            “I wonder why that is.”

            “’Cause we’re both guys?”

            “Hm.”

            “What?  What are you trying to get at?!”

            “I thought I made my point pretty clear.  If you don’t want a romantic relationship with Sasuke, then tell him now and stop leading him on.”

            “You just want us to get together because of those stupid books!” I accused her.

            “I think a romantic relationship is a horrible idea for Sasuke right now,” she said, shaking her head.  “A pretty bad one for you, too.  Your codependency really isn’t healthy.”

            “I don’t understand what you want from me!”

            “I don’t want anything from you, Naruto,” she said gently.  “I just hope that for Sasuke’s sake, you can confront your true feelings and be honest with him.”

            “I guess I can do that.”

            “That’s all I ask.”

            “You said a lotta other stuff, too.”

            “I’ll leave it up to you.”

            “I feel very confused right now.”

            “That’s fine,” Dr. Shizuta said, rising to her feet.  “It’s good for people your age to be confused every once in a while.”

            “It is?”

            “I don’t know, I was just trying to make you feel better.”

            “You’re a weird doctor,” I said, standing up and following her to the door.

            “Mm, yeah, kinda,” she agreed.

            Sasuke was in the waiting room, talking about something with Maiko.

            I found that really weird.

            As soon as we came in, though, they stopped talking, and he stared at me really intensely.

            “Let’s go,” I said, nodding my head to the door.

            “Later,” Maiko said, waving to Sasuke in what would probably be perceived as friendly coming from her but not from anyone else.

            I eyed the two of them oddly.

            “Yeah,” Sasuke said, falling into stride with me.

            “How was your day?” I asked.

            “Fine.”

            “You and Maiko are friends?”

            “No.”

            “Then what were you talking about?”

            “None of your business.”

            “Jerk.”

            Sasuke shrugged, seeming pleased with being an evasive bastard.

            We got home, and as I locked the door behind us, I suddenly felt trapped.

            Sasuke lay on the couch, turning his eyes to me.

            I stared back, feeling uncertain.

            Sasuke looked like he could wait all day.

            “So how about all that kissing yesterday, huh?” I said.

            “And this morning,” Sasuke added unhelpfully.

            “Yeah, this morning, too.”

            “Did you want to talk about it, Naruto?” Sasuke asked, raising an eyebrow at me.  Like he was so damn cool.  Like this wasn’t freaking him out.  He was the mental one, not me.

            “Did you?” I countered, trying to gain some footing.

            Sasuke shrugged.

            I shifted uncomfortably.  This was all new to me.  I’d never kissed anyone before.  Besides that time at the Academy, which was also Sasuke, but was an accident, and therefore didn’t count for anything.

            Then again, had Sasuke ever kissed anyone?  I found myself voicing the question aloud.

            Sasuke shrugged again.

            “What the hell, bastard, that isn’t an answer!” I yelled.

            “Why should I tell you?” Sasuke asked, leaning his cheek on his hand.

            “Why do you have to be so damn casual about this?!”

            “Is it a big deal?”

            I bit my lip, feeling at a loss.  From what Dr. Shizuta had been saying, I thought I was supposed to get married to Sasuke or something.  Apparently I’d been overthinking it.  “I guess not,” I said quietly.

            Something changed in Sasuke’s eyes, and he sat up properly.  He looked at me expectantly.

            I came over and sat next to him.

            “It’s easier to mess with you than to be honest,” Sasuke said, touching my hand hesitantly.

            “So you admit it!”

            “Yeah,” Sasuke said with a small smile.

            I turned my hand over and laced our fingers together.  “Is it weird that I like touching you?  That I like… kissing you?”

            “Yeah.”

            “What the hell, jerk?!”

            “I like it, too, though.”

            It made my heart all fluttery.

            “What’s it mean?” I asked him.

            “Idiot.”

            “What?  I’m seriously asking.”

            “I’m not saying it,” Sasuke said flatly.

            “Saying what?”

            He glared at me.

            I reached over with my free hand, pushing his hair from his eyes.  The rinnegan stared back at me.

            “Oh,” I said.  I’d probably known all along, my brain just didn’t want to accept it.  “Do I have to say it?”

            Sasuke nodded, a crease in his brow and a pout on his lips.

            I took a breath.  Was I really going to say it?  Did I really mean it?!

            Sasuke looked like he was caught in stasis, unable to move forward until the words came tumbling from my mouth.

            “I love you,” I said, letting my hand slide from his hair to his cheek.  I cupped it, feeling the small rise of his cheek as he smiled.  “Romantically,” I add for good measure.  “I guess,” I added for better measure.

            “I know,” Sasuke said, his smile widening to a smirk.

            I stared at him expectantly.

            He just continued to smirk.

            “Hey, jerk!  You’re supposed to say it, too!”

            “I’m not saying that,” Sasuke scoffed.

            “Bastard!” I yelled, wrenching my hand from his and grasping the other side of his face firmly.  “Tell me how much you love me!”

            “No,” Sasuke said, tilting his head to the side and looking unimpressed.

            “Jerrrrrk!” I cried, squishing his cheeks together.  Then I realized how ridiculous Sasuke’s face looked like that and burst out laughing.

            “Naruto,” Sasuke growled, squishing my face back.

            “Hey, thwat hrts!” I protested, squishing his cheeks harder.

            Sasuke got mad and knocked me off of the couch.

            “Owwww!” I complained, sitting up and rubbing the back of my head.

            “Deal with it,” Sasuke said snidely.

            I tackled him to the couch, staring down at him.  I got the feeling this was probably what he’d wanted.

            That idea was reinforced when Sasuke reached up, cupping behind my ear and pulling me closer.

            I was breathing heavy now, despite a lack of physical exertion.

            Sasuke smiled softly, an expression that was completely foreign on his face.

            I sniffed a little.

            “Dummy,” he said.  “I do, too.”

            “You what?” I asked, blinking in confusion.

            His smile turned to a glare.

            “Ohhhhh,” I said.  “Oh!  You lo-”

            He cut me off with a kiss.

            I decided that things were going to be okay.

Chapter Text

            I don’t know why I possibly thought that things were going to be okay.  Things were a mess.  A big, giant mess.

            Why did people decide to live together with the person they were dating?  What a horrible idea.  You could never escape them.

            Factor in that my boyfriend was a lunatic, and yeah.  Big fun in the Uzumaki-Uchiha household.

            “How fucking stupid can you get, moron?!” Sasuke raged at me on what seemed like a daily basis.

            Today it was because I’d accidentally started a small fire.  It was completely Sasuke’s fault, though, so it really wasn’t right of him to blame me.  But I’d tried to put it out with water, which had only made it worse.

            “How was I supposed to know that water didn’t put out grease fires?!” I yelled back.  “Water puts out fire!  It makes sense!”

            “Because any idiot knows that water and oil don’t mix!”

            “Anyway, you shouldn’t have been seducing me while I was cooking!”

            “How the hell was I seducing you?!  I was fucking reading a book!”

            “You were doing it all suggestively!”

            “HOW DOES SOMEONE READ A BOOK SUGGESTIVELY?!”

            Sasuke had reached maximum anger.  A smart person would have backed off, but I was no smart person.

            “You kept licking your fingers with your tongue all sexy-like!”

            “THE FUCKING PAGES WERE STICKING TOGETHER!”

            “Well, you’re a whore, and I can’t be held accountable for accidentally pouring all that oil onto the burner.”

            “WHO THE FUCK IS THE WHORE, HERE?!” Sasuke yelled, tossing the fire extinguisher that he had used to put out the fire at my head.

            I caught it, but it was a harder throw than I’d expected.  “Oof.”

            “I will murder you in your sleep,” Sasuke whispered, his voice suddenly deathly calm.

            “How many times have I heard that one?” I said, but the look in his eyes was making me kind of nervous.

            Sasuke turned around abruptly and disappeared into the bedroom.

            I cleaned up the kitchen and made a replacement dinner for the one I’d sent up in smoke.  Sasuke didn’t come out when I called him, so I left his food on the table.  I started to feel restless, watching TV, then moving on to clean my weapons, then trying to study Konoha’s history, which was Tsunade’s recommended reading in preparation for becoming hokage.  I couldn’t concentrate.

            In the apartment, Sasuke was my only company, and whenever he was mad at me, that left me with no one.  Even I could see how unhealthy that aspect of our relationship was.  I just didn’t know what to do about it.

            At least when it was bedtime, we seemed to have a silent agreement.  We both got into bed together, facing opposite directions, and went to sleep.  There was no talking, no kissing, and definitely no fighting.  It was one of the most relaxing parts of the day for me.

            I usually woke up alone.  Sasuke wasn’t a morning person by any stretch of the imagination, he just couldn’t sleep for that long.  He didn’t like lingering in bed like me, which was just fine because he was a cover hog, and now that it was December it was friggin’ cold.

            This morning, though, I woke up with his steady breath on my neck.

            I yawned, rolling over to look at him.

            Sasuke stared back at me, his expression unreadable.

            “What’s up, Sas’?” I asked, poking him in the belly.

            Sasuke glared at me.

            “You gonna get up?” I asked, nestling deeper into the covers.

            “I…” Sasuke started and hesitated.

            That was interesting.  I woke up a little.

            Sasuke was staring at the space slightly above my right ear.  “I get angry at you because I don’t want your stupidity to get you hurt.”

            I raised an eyebrow.  This was definitely Sasuke’s therapy at work.  “It’s okay,” I said, poking him in the belly again.

            “I don’t need your approval,” Sasuke said, getting up abruptly.

            At least he was trying.

            I went back to sleep.

            “You’re going to be late!” Sasuke yelled, jerking me back awake.

            I was pleasantly surprised to find breakfast on the table when I got up.  Sasuke was supposed to take on more household responsibilities, as ordered by Dr. Shizuta.  I’d asked him to make breakfast and to fold the laundry.  He’d told me to go fuck myself.

            Why was I in love with this jerk, again?

            “Thank you,” I said, ruffling his hair as I walked by.  I sat across from him and started eating.

            Sasuke just mechanically ate his food, looking out the window.  It had started to snow, and things outside were slowly turning white.

            I nudged his foot with mine, playing footsie under the table.

            Sasuke turned to give me an exasperated look, but there was a hint of a smile.

            “Whaddya want for Christmas?” I asked, sliding my toes up and down his leg.

            “Do we exchange Christmas presents?” Sasuke asked in a tone that implied we didn’t.

            “Yeah, we do,” I said.  “We’re a couple, right?”

            “Are we?” Sasuke asked.

            I frowned at him.  “Uh, duh.  We’ve been dating for like two weeks.”

            “Wow, two whole weeks,” Sasuke said.  “Why don’t we just get married?”

            “Really?” I asked, swallowing loudly.

            “No, you idiot, not really.”

            “Oh…”

            “I’m not getting you anything.”

            “You don’t have to,” I said.  “You don’t have any money, anyway.”

            Sasuke didn’t like that.

            “If you got a job…” I needled him.

            He liked that even less.  “Shut up.”

            “I’m just saying…”

            “Don’t,” Sasuke replied, stabbing the fish on his plate.

            I wondered if he was pretending it was me.

            “What kind of job could I get, anyway?” he muttered.

            “You could work at Ino’s flower shop,” I suggested.  “She’s always complaining that they’re understaffed.”

            “You want me… to sell flowers…”

            “Work is work.”

            “No.”

            “Aren’t you bored?” I asked.

            “I’m not that bored.”

            “But you’ve literally done nothing for the last three years.”

            Sasuke definitely didn’t like that.

            I intensified our game of footsie, trying to distract him.

            Sasuke gave me a wary look.

            “I just want you to be happy, okay?” I said.

            “That’s a lofty goal.”

            I frowned at him.

            Sasuke ran his foot all the way up to my knee, nudging my legs open.

            I watched his passive face as he started rubbing my thigh.  “That’s nice…” I murmured.

            Sasuke seemed pleased, creeping his foot higher and higher.

            “Mmm, we need to work out.”

            “Oh,” Sasuke said, pulling his foot away.

            “Noooo,” I whined.

            Sasuke shrugged, getting his dishes and putting them in the sink.

            When I picked him up later from the clinic, it was still snowing.  I stuck my tongue out as we walked, trying catch the wet flakes.

            “You’re so childish,” Sasuke complained from somewhere inside the scarf wrapped around his face.

            “Well, you’re not childish enough,” I countered, kicking some snow into the air.  “Hey, let’s go on a date!” I said, grabbing his hand.

            “A date?” Sasuke repeated, wrinkling his nose.  “With you?” he added, like that somehow made it even more distasteful.

            “Yeah, what’s better on a cold, snowy day than some Ichiraku ramen?!”

            “A lot of things…”

            “Pleaaaaaase.”

            “Where does the ‘date’ part come in?”

            “Well, I’m paying aren’t I?”

            “How romantic.”

            “Did you want romance?!” I asked, squinting at him.  “I feel like if I tried to romance you, you would either make fun of me or punch me in the face.”

            “True enough,” Sasuke said with a shrug.

            “Can we?” I asked, squeezing his hand.

            Sasuke looked pained.

            I didn’t want him to look like that, but he needed to get out of the house and start acting like a normal person.  “Please, please, please, please, please?”

            “Whatever,” Sasuke muttered, looking away.

            “Yay!” I said, dragging him in the direction of Ichiraku’s.

            “Naruto, long time no see!” Teuchi greeted me cheerfully.

            “Too long!” I said, sitting down at the counter and making Sasuke sit next to me.

            “Good to see you, Sasuke,” Teuchi said.

            Sasuke shrugged.  His face was impassive, but I could tell he was uncomfortable.

            I rested a hand on his knee, glancing around the place.  “I’m getting miso, Sas’, whaddyu want?”

            “Anything,” he said quietly.

            I squeezed his knee.  “Two miso, please.”

            “Coming right up.”

            Sasuke shifted in his seat, eyes darting around.  There were a couple of civilians at the other end of the counter, but no one waiting for a seat.

            “No one wanted to brave the snow for ramen?” I asked incredulously.

            Sasuke didn’t respond.

            I squeezed his knee until he looked at me.  “What’d you do today?”

            “Nothing.”

            “Oh, I was at the orphanage again.  We had a snowball fight, it was really fun.”

            “Is that why you’re wearing a different jacket?” Sasuke asked, giving me a brief up and down.

            “Yeah, mine got totally soaked,” I said with a grin.

            “You’re such a child,” Sasuke murmured.

            “Heh heh.”

            “Here ya go, two bowls of miso,” Ayame said, putting the bowls in front of us.

            “Thanks!” I said, grabbing some chopsticks.  “Itadakimasu!”

            Sasuke was less enthusiastic about it, but he ate quietly.

            I’d finished two bowls before he’d finished his one.

            “That hit the spot,” I said patting my stomach.

            Sasuke finished eating with a quiet little slurp.

            “The best as always,” I told Teuchi as I paid.

            “Good to hear from our favorite customer,” he replied with a smile.

            Sasuke was right at my side as we left.  He nudged against me insistently until I opened my arm and slid it around him.

            I would have found it unbearably adorable if he didn’t have such a spooked look on his face.

            “What’s wrong?” I asked.

            “I want to go home,” he said in small voice, his arm sliding around my waist.

            “Okay,” I said, pulling him protectively closer.  “Thanks for coming with me.”

            Sasuke didn’t answer, eyes shifting around nervously.

            The wind had started to pick up, blowing snow at our backs and down our necks as we walked.  Most of Konoha had chosen to stay inside, but there were a couple of people walking towards us from the distance.

            Sasuke’s breathing got heavier the closer they came.

            “What is it?” I asked, trying to keep my arm around him reassuring.

            “I don’t feel safe,” he finally answered.

            “Safe from what?” I asked, scratching my nose with my free hand.

            “They hate us.”

            “Who hates us?”

            “Konoha.”

            “Uh…”

            “Konoha hates Uchihas,” he said, his voice getting a little stronger.

            “I don’t hate Uchihas,” I said, smoothing his wet bangs out of his eyes.

            “Naruto,” Sasuke said with a scowl.

            The two men passed us.  One of them looked at us funny, but they kept on walking.

            “Nothing to worry about,” I said.

            Sasuke still looked on edge.

            When we got home, he very meticulously locked all of the locks.  “I’m next,” he murmured.

            “Why do you have to be so insane sometimes?” I asked, shaking the snow off of my jacket before hanging it in the closet.  “I for one had a very nice date tonight.”

            Sasuke glowered at me.

            “I was hoping my date had a good time, too,” I said, coming over to poke him.  “I thought maybe he’d give me a goodnight kiss to show his appreciation.”

            “Appreciation for what?”

            “Appreciation for being blessed with the greatest food sent down from the heavens.”

            “I really hate you sometimes.”

            “Why d’ya hafta be so mean to me?”

            “Why do you have to belittle the way I feel?!” Sasuke snapped back at me.

            “I didn’t mean to…”

            “You don’t know what it’s like!  I feel so fucking out of control!”

            I watched him crumple into the corner, dropping his forehead to his knees.  He looked small and helpless.  I’d thought we could just kind of dance around it, but we were clearly in crisis mode today.  I tried to remember what Dr. Shizuta had told me to do.

            “I’m sorry,” I said quietly, crouching down but keeping my distance.

            “You’re not sorry!” Sasuke yelled from his little crumpled-up heap.  “You’re part of the system!  You’re one of them!”

            I waited.  I was supposed to listen, not argue with him.  It was like torture, but I stayed quiet for the five hours it took him to speak again.  Well, it was probably only five minutes, but however long it was, it was forever.

            “Why hasn’t the council killed me yet?”

            “What?” I said, taken aback.

            “That’s what they want,” he said.  “To get rid of all the Uchihas.”

            I reaaaaally wanted to argue with him.

            Sasuke looked up from his huddle and stared at me pointedly.

            I swallowed and stayed quiet.

            Apparently Dr. Shizuta’s mumbo jumbo could on occasion be effective, because Sasuke looked pacified.  He held out an arm to me, and I quickly came over, wrapping him in a hug.

            “I don’t know how to not think that everyone’s trying to kill me,” he said quietly.

            I started to protest, but stopped myself.  “I love you,” I said instead.  I kissed the top of his head.  I hadn’t said it since we’d gotten together.

            “Are you another trap?” he whispered in this horribly broken voice.

            “What?  No!” I said sharply.  That was something I couldn’t stay quiet about.  “Don’t ever… no!”

            “I didn’t mean it,” he said, but he didn’t sound very convincing.

            “Sasukeeee,” I whined, feeling hurt.

            “It’s cold,” he said, sliding his arms around me.

            “Oh,” I said.  “You want some tea or something?”

            “Let’s take a bath.”

            “Oh, uh, okay,” I said, trying to follow his sudden change in mood.  He seemed perfectly calm now, mismatched eyes looking at me evenly.  “Wait, together?”

            “Yeah.”

            “Oh…” I said.  We hadn’t really gotten naked in front of each other since we started dating.  It seemed kind of… different.

            We walked over to the bathing area.  I turned on the bath, then started peeling off my layers.  “It’s freezing,” I complained when my undershirt came off.

            “I can see that,” Sasuke said, carefully folding his own shirt.

            “What’s that supposed to- oh…” I said, looking down at my very perky nipples.  “Man, I could cut diamonds with these things.”

            Sasuke snorted derisively and pulled his thermal shirt over his head.

            I was staring.

            “What?” Sasuke said, but he smirked at me.

            “Nothin’,” I said.  “You’ve gotten kinda toned…”

            Sasuke ran a hand down the smooth plane of his stomach.  There was the faintest definition in his abs.  “You think so?”

            “Well, you’re still a scrawny bitch, but yeah,” I said.  “We should work out more.”

            Sasuke frowned at me.

            I looked away.  I was really interested in his body all of the sudden.  I yanked off my pants and boxers and tossed them behind me, stepping into the steamy shower room.  “Hurry up,” I said, wanting to close the door and trap all the warmth inside.

            Sasuke just stared me in the eye as he very slowly slid his pants over his hips.

            I was going to tell him to hurry up again, but I suddenly found the slow revelation of his bare skin kind of… enticing?

            “Are you really perving on me right now?” Sasuke asked, raising an eyebrow as he stepped out of his pants.

            “No!” I said.

            Sasuke gave my dick a meaningful stare.

            It wasn’t exactly standing at attention, but it wasn’t particularly being passive.

            “I… it’s not… don’t look at me!” I said, turning around abruptly.

            Sasuke laughed, and it was a nice sound.

            I glanced over my shoulder, watching as he put his boxers on top of his pants and stepped into the shower, closing the door.

            “Finally,” I said.  “Took forever.”

            “I think it was worth the wait,” Sasuke commented, sitting down on the stool.

            “What are you saying?” I muttered, turning off the bath and turning on the shower.

            He seemed to be in a good mood now.

            I was relieved because usually if he was stressing like that, it took hours for him to calm down.  Apparently the therapy really was working.  At least I hoped so.

            “Take a bath with me,” he said after we’d finished washing up.

            “O-okay…”

            He looked at me pointedly, so I got into the tub first, sinking into the water.

            I watched as he stepped over the edge, his back to me, then eased down into the water and leaned against my chest.

            I might have made some kind of undignified squeaking sound, but this was kind of a secret fantasy of mine, fulfilled at Sasuke’s whim.  I felt nervous at first, but Sasuke elbowed me in the side, leaning his head back against my shoulder and looking up at me expectantly.  I slid my arms around his waist and snuggled my cheek against his hair.

            Bliss.

            I didn’t really know why or how, but touching Sasuke just made me feel better.  At first I thought it was just a physical way to confirm he was really here, but now…

            “Hey, dumbass,” Sasuke said, ruining a perfectly good moment.

            “What?” I asked sourly, then nuzzled my cheek against him.

            “Could you not jam your dick into my lower back, thanks.”

            I squawked out a protest, but there was really nothing I could do about Little Naruto being so… interested.

            “Fine, let’s switch,” Sasuke said, pulling away.

            “Nooooo!” I complained, grasping after him.

            Sasuke settled on the other side of the tub and looked at me.

            “Oh,” I said.  “Oh!” I added happily, splashing across the tub and leaning into Sasuke.

            Sasuke held me from behind, nestling his cheek into the curve of my neck.  His eyelids fluttered shut, and he seemed to relax.

            This was pretty good, too.

            I cuddled with Sasuke until we were both pruney.

            Maybe we weren’t as much of a mess as I thought.

Chapter Text

            Sasuke and I were definitely a horrible, horrible mess.  We were having some kind of yelling fight at least once a day.  It was just the way that we had we always interacted with each other, but living together kind of intensified things.

            “You both need more boundaries,” Dr. Shizuta suggested.

            We were sitting in her office together for the third time that week.  I’d come to get Sasuke, we’d start sniping at each other, and she’d suggested we have a little chat.

            “What kind of boundaries?” I asked.

            “Personal space boundaries, for example,” she said.  “Do you both have your own place where you can go in the apartment?”

            Sasuke let out a sniff of disdain.  “Anywhere I go, that dumbass is going to follow five minutes later whining, ‘Sasukeee, I’m boooored.’”

            “Hey now, wait just a second,” I said.  “This from the guy who made me pee with the door fucking open the other day because he was afraid I was gonna disappear.”

            The pure rage on Sasuke’s face and the very startled look on Dr. Shizuta’s told me that I probably shouldn’t have said that.

            “Sasuke, I thought you weren’t-”

            “It’s nothing!” he snapped, then punched me in the shoulder.

            “Ow, what the hell, jerk!” I yelled, giving him a shove.

            “Okay, why don’t we go back to what I was saying?” Dr. Shizuta suggested, but she was giving Sasuke a wary look.  “You both need your own space.”

            “Well, there isn’t any space,” I said, reaching for Sasuke’s hand only to be slapped away.  “The only rooms separate from the common area are the toilet, the bath, and the bedroom.  Which are all used by both of us.”

            “So, would you consider moving to a bigger place?” she suggested.

            “Can’t afford it,” I said with a shake of my head.  I left my hand dangling between our chairs, and I felt Sasuke’s fingers brush against the back of it.  His pinky slowly wrapped around mine, holding tight.

            “Sasuke, would you consider getting your own place?”

            “No,” he said, lacing the rest of our fingers together.

            “How would he afford that?” I scoffed.  “Get a job?”

            Sasuke gave me a warning growl.

            “Well, he could live in the clinic’s temporary housing for free-”

            “No,” we both said.

            “Or he could get a subsidy for an apartment,” Dr. Shizuta said.

            “Whazzat mean?” I asked, running my thumb over the back of Sasuke’s hand.

            “Well, it’s like when you were a child and you didn’t have to pay rent on your apartment,” she explained.  “As a recently released patient from the psychiatric clinic, Sasuke would be eligible to receive some money towards his housing.”

            “Whaaaaat, why didn’t you say so sooner?” I complained.  “Put that money towards my rent, yo.”

            “So you two want to continue living together?”

            “Yes,” we both said.

            “But living together is driving you both crazy?”

            “Yes,” we agreed.

            I pulled Sasuke’s hand to my mouth and kissed the knuckles.  “Right, Sasuke?”

            He gave me an exasperated look and tried to take his hand back.  “You just don’t want us living together anymore,” he said to Dr. Shizuta.

            “You’re both adults and you can make your own life choices,” she answered with a shrug.

            “Then why’re you trying to get Sasuke to move out?” I asked suspiciously.

            “I’m not, I’m merely suggesting that you both having your own private space in your home could help you with a lot of the problems you’ve been having.”

            “But I don’t really need privacy,” I said.  “I get lonely, and Sasuke just wants to read his stupid books or stare at the wall or whatever.”

            “Why don’t you go out?  Spend time with your other friends?”

            “Yeah, but I don’t wanna leave Sas’ home alone.”

            “I’m not a child,” Sasuke muttered.

            “You two are together every day and night,” Dr. Shizuta said.  “Your relationship is already explosive enough without that constant interaction.  I think some time apart could go a long way in defusing some of your fights.”

            “Will time apart make Naruto not pour a bottle of oil on an open flame?” Sasuke asked.

            “That was one time, and I already told you it was your fault!”

            “Wow, you two are a roller coaster of fun,” Dr. Shizuta murmured, massaging her temple.  “Naruto, if Sasuke wants to be alone, and you want to be with people, go out and see your friends.  That’s my suggestion, take it or leave it.”

            Sasuke and I looked at each other.    Sasuke thumbed the back of my hand, then looked away.

            “I dunno,” I said.  “Maybe.”

            “We need to get going,” Sasuke said.  He squeezed my hand.

            “Yeah, thanks for the talk as always,” I said, standing up.

            “Well, you two certainly keep things interesting,” she said.  “Sasuke, you’re not coming tomorrow?”

            “Nope, we’re spending all day together for Christmas!” I answered happily.

            “I see,” Dr. Shizuta said, giving me a funny look.

            “What?” I complained.  “It’s Christmas.  We’re not gonna fight on Christmas.”

            Sasuke snorted.

            “We’re not,” I said, swinging his hand.

            “We’re going to have a fight before we finish breakfast,” Sasuke predicted.

            He wasn’t wrong.

            I attacked Sasuke with my affections while he was cooking, causing him to accidentally burn himself on the stove.  A lot of yelling ensued.

            I sat Sasuke on the couch and put salve on the burn, trying to kiss it better only to get kicked in the face.  I sulked for a while with an icepack on my nose.

            Sasuke finished cooking, and brought the food into the living room.  He was wearing the Santa hat that he had straight up refused to wear the night before, and had actually threatened to choke me with it if I tried to make him wear it again.

            “That looks really alluring on you,” I commented, forgetting about my broken nose and happily accepting the food he handed to me.

            “I don’t want to know about your weirdo fetishes,” Sasuke muttered.

            “Let’s take a picture!” I said, feeling very pleased about our matching hats and our nice Christmas memories.

            “Yes, what a wonderful picture,” Sasuke said, touching my swollen nose carefully.

            “It wouldn’t be an Uzumaki-Uchiha Christmas without a little blood,” I said.

            Sasuke rolled his eyes, but let me take the picture.

            “I hope it comes out good,” I said, setting the camera aside.

            We ate breakfast companionably.  I had the feeling that Sasuke actually felt pretty guilty about my nose.  Why else would he have put on a Santa hat?

            “It’s starting to heal,” Sasuke said, poking it as I sprawled out on the couch in tummy-bloated bliss.

            “Is it?” I asked, wiggling my nose around a little.  Sasuke had put it back into place so it would heal right, but it still felt weird.  “I’ll be my beautiful self again in a few hours, I think.”

            Sasuke crawled forward and settled between my legs, laying his head on my chest.

            I stroked his hair, feeling relaxed.

            Then Sasuke started kissing my neck, and things escalated from there.

            I think if there was anything we were on the same page about, it was making out.  I also happened to think that we were pretty good at it after a month’s worth of continuous practice.

            “I didn’t give you your present yet,” I murmured as Sasuke worked his lips along my jawline, hips rolling slowly into mine.

            Sasuke paused, black eye staring at me suspiciously.  “What present?  I said no presents.”

            “When do I ever listen to you?”

            “Fair point,” Sasuke said, digging his teeth into the soft skin right under my jaw.

            “Fuck,” I hissed, pulling on his hair roughly.

            Sasuke growled at me, biting even harder before letting go.

            I yanked him up to me and ravaged his mouth with my tongue.

            Sasuke grabbed my shirt with both hands, trying to keep up.

            I slid my leg around his waist, giving us a better angle for the suddenly vigorous movement of our hips.  Then I went for the grand finale of grabbing his ass.

            I really loved Sasuke’s butt.  I don’t know where the interest came from, but I had quickly come to realize that I like touching it, I especially loved grabbing it, and on one memorable occasion which would probably never be repeated due to the physical injury it brought on me, I had enjoyed spanking it.

            I might have felt weird or embarrassed about my sudden very intense interest in Sasuke’s posterior, but he seemed to like my butt just as well.  Unfortunately for him, he always wanted to be on top of me when we were making out, which caused him to miss out on a lot of very valuable butt grabbing time.

            I had two lovely handfuls of his butt now, using them to guide his movements as we rubbed against each other.  I was starting to feel a tightening in my balls.  I hadn’t gotten this close with Sasuke before, and I wondered if this was his Christmas present to me.  I happened to think it was a very nice present.

            “Hey, I’m gonna…” I panted into his mouth.

            “Me, too,” Sasuke whispered, kisses getting sloppy.

            “Sasuke…” I groaned.

            “Naruto…”

            There was a loud knock on the door.

            We both froze, looking at each other in wide-eyed confusion.

            There was another knock.

            “Shit, Sakura-chan!” I said, sitting up and taking Sasuke with me.

            “Oh,” Sasuke said, looking very displeased.

            “Whatta we do?” I asked frantically.

            “Naruto?  Sasuke?” came Sakura’s voice from outside the door.

            “Uh, coming!” I called back.

            Sasuke frowned at me.

            “What do we do?!” I hissed.

            “Answer the door?” he suggested.

            “Oh, yeah, right,” I said, depositing him on the couch and standing up.  “But what about this?!” I said, gesturing wildly at my tented flannel pants.

            “Wear a longer shirt?”

            “Yes, yes, okay, yes,” I said, dashing off to the bedroom to change.

            “Is everything okay?” Sakura called.

            “Yes, Naruto’s changing,” Sasuke said, and I heard him undoing the locks.

            I dashed back with a long t-shirt over my flannels that was hopefully covering things up.  I was standing ready with a pasted-on smile when Sasuke finally opened the door.

            “Hey, Merry Christmas,” Sakura said, bustling in with a couple of big bags in her hands.

            “Merry Christmas!” I said.  “Thanks for coming!”

            “What were you two doing, making out?” she asked, looking between us with a raised eyebrow.

            “W-what, no…!” I said.

            “Yeah,” Sasuke said with a shrug.

            Sakura looked at us both funny.

            I suddenly realized that we hadn’t told her we were dating.  I also realized how completely debauched Sasuke looked, with swollen lips, his crazy duck-butt hair clearly yanked in all different directions, and the obvious hickeys covering his pale neck.

            He looked really good and I wanted him.

            “Should I say congratulations?” Sakura asked, looking between us.

            “I don’t think it’s something worth congratulating,” Sasuke said, taking the bags from her and carrying them to the kitchen table.

            “Jerk, of course it’s worth congratulating!” I yelled after him.

            Sakura had a sad smile on her face.

            “I uh… I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, but you’ve been so busy…”

            “I know, it’s fine,” Sakura said, shaking her head.  “I’m glad you finally figured it out.”

            “Huh?”

            Sakura hugged me, and I relaxed into her hold, hugging her back.

            “So, tell me all the details!” she said cheerfully as she pulled away.

            “O-oh…” I said, pushing my pointer fingers together.  “Well, we got into a big fight-”

            “You don’t need to start there,” Sasuke said irritably, putting some of the vegetables Sakura had brought on the cutting board.

            “I feel like it’s an important part of the story.”

            “Me, too,” Sakura agreed.  “What were you fighting about this time?”

            “This bastard over here decided to dump all his pills on the floor,” I said, reaching around Sasuke’s waist and stealing a cut piece of carrot from the cutting board.

            Sasuke slapped my hand.

            “Owie,” I whined, holding tight to my prize.  “And then he smashed a glass into all the pills, so I couldn’t salvage them.”

            “Well, that’s our Sasuke,” Sakura said.  “Always a drama queen.”

            Sasuke looked very affronted at that, while Sakura and I just laughed.

            It was nice having her over.  We spent the afternoon talking and eating and laughing.  I was sad to see her head off to work, even if I’d been less than enthused when she’d arrived.

            “That was fun,” I said, leaning over Sasuke on the couch and draping my arms around him.  I pressed a few quick kisses to his temple.

            “It wasn’t bad,” Sasuke said agreeably.

            “Hey, I’m gonna give you your present now,” I said, pulling away.

            “Why did you get me a present?” Sasuke asked sourly.

            “To make you angry,” I replied, going into the bedroom and digging through the bottom of my wardrobe.  I came back with a messily wrapped package, holding it out to Sasuke with a grin.  “Merry Christmas, babe.”

            “Don’t ever call me that.”

            “Why not?  It’s cute.”

            “I’m not cute.”

            “You’re freaking adorable.”

            Sasuke looked completely mystified.

            I laughed.  “Just open it.”

            “I’m not cute,” Sasuke muttered, taking the package.  He looked at it like it was something distasteful, and very slowly unwrapped it.

            “Well?” I said, grinning.

            Sasuke held up the kimono-style shirt and pants I’d gotten for him.

            “They’re like your old clothes, but less slutty,” I said.  “See, the top closes properly over your chest.”

            Sasuke gave me a look.

            “And I got the Uchiha symbol embroidered on the back, just the way you like it,” I said, pointing it out.

            Sasuke ran his fingers over the red thread.

            “Do you like?”

            Sasuke hesitated, then nodded.

            “Good, I was nervous,” I said, letting out a breath.  “But you’re always just wearing my junky clothes like a bum, so I thought you might want something… nicer.”

            “‘Bum’?” Sasuke repeated.

            “Try ‘em on!”

            “Now?”

            “Yeah, I bet you’ll look really hot.”

            “‘Hot’?”

            I flushed.

            “Is this some kind of fetish?” Sasuke asked, raising an eyebrow at me.

            “No…”

            Sasuke tried the clothes on, and I just about drowned in a puddle of drool.

            Maybe it was some kind of weird fetish.

            But mostly I was happy because Sasuke looked like Sasuke again.

Chapter Text

            “Happy New Year, boys!” Dr. Shizuta said cheerfully, welcoming us into her office.

            “Happy New Year!” I replied, unwrapping my scarf and tossing it onto one of the chairs.

            Sasuke didn’t say anything and just sat down, still wrapped up in his coat.

            “I’m glad you’re both here,” she said, taking a seat across from us.

            “You basically forced us,” Sasuke muttered.

            “No one forced you to do anything, Sasuke,” she responded easily.  “I merely suggested that the both of you coming to therapy together was an important part of your treatment.”

            “I for one am perfectly happy to be here,” I put in.  “Anything for Sasuke.”

            “Loser.”

            “Love you, too, babe.”

            “How many times do I have to tell you not to call me that?”

            “I’ll stop calling you that when you stop calling me loser.  And stupid.  And moron.”

            “What about idiot?”

            “No, no more idiot.”

            “Dummy?”

            “Mm… okay, if I have to give you one, I’ll give you that one.”

            “Dummy.”

            “No, I changed my mind.  No dummy.”

            “I’m feeling really limited in my expression.”

            “Why can’t you say something nice?!  How about baby or something?  Macho man?  Gorgeous sexy boyfriend?”

            “Too long,” Sasuke said.  “Not to mention questionably accurate.”

            “Jerk,” I huffed.  “How about sweetie?”

            “Sweetie,” Sasuke deadpanned.

            I felt my ears turning red.

            Sasuke looked amused.  “Yeah, you like that?”

            “Bastard.”

            “Naruto, the way you address Sasuke isn’t very kind, either,” Dr. Shizuta pointed out.

            “Oh…”

            “Yeah, sweetie,” Sasuke agreed.

            I thought my entire face was going to burst into flames.

            Sasuke smiled his real smile, and I just about melted.

            “Anyway, what’s wrong with babe?” I said, trying to get back to the point.

            “I’m not a small child and do not wish to be addressed as such.”

            “Yeah, but that’s not what it means,” I said.  “It’s like you’re my darling and shit.  My bae.  My boo.”

            “No thanks,” Sasuke said dismissively.

            “Why don’t you want to be his boo, Sasuke?” Dr. Shizuta asked with a completely serious face.

            Sasuke stared her down.

            “Yeah, Sas’, why don’t you wanna be my boo?” I complained.

            He slowly turned to me.

            I reached over and poked him.  “I think you like it.”

            “Who would possibly like having ‘Property of Uzumazi Naruto’ stamped all over them?”

            “You,” I responded automatically.

            Sasuke frowned.

            “Not that that’s what I’m doing…” I said, looking him up and down.

            He was wearing a pair of my sweatpants with the Uzumaki symbol stitched on the pockets on the back.  He was wearing my coat, which was covering up a long-sleeve black t-shirt that had an Uzumaki symbol on the front.  Even though I’d gotten him one set of clothes, he still needed clothes for the rest of the week.  It wasn’t my fault if he happened to choose clothes with my clan’s symbol all over them.

            Then there were all the hickeys.

            Our youthful experimentation and ignorance had led to Sasuke looking completely debauched.  Fortunately it was winter, so he almost always had a scarf on, but people had still noticed.

            Kakashi and Gai had come over for tea the other day, and Gai had commented on how wonderful it was that we were enjoying the springtime of our youth through the healthy exploration of one another’s bodies.  Kakashi had nodded his complicit agreement.  I just about had a heart attack.

            We hadn’t really told anyone that we were together, but it seemed like most everyone had figured it out by now.

            I didn’t mind.  I loved Sasuke, and I didn’t care who knew it.  Apparently everyone had known all along anyway.  It was just kind of embarrassing.  I was twenty years old, and I’d never dated anyone before or really thought about being in a relationship.  I’d certainly never thought about being in a relationship with another man.  It was all new and confusing, and I didn’t know what I was supposed to say to other people about it.

            I guess I made it obvious in other ways without having to talk about it.

            “Am I too possessive?” I finally asked.

            Sasuke paused, then shook his head.

            “Do I really have to stop calling you names?”

            Sasuke shook his head again.

            “Even bastard and jerk?”

            Sasuke continued shaking his head.

            “Babe?”

            He made a face but shook his head.

            “Love?” I suggested.

            His face contorted even more, but he shook his head.

            “My beautiful Uchiha prince?”

            Sasuke stopped and glared at me.

            “What?”

            “No.”

            “Okay, so that’s the line.  Babe, love, darling, precious, gorgeous, sweetheart… all fine.”

            “Uh…”

            “But beautiful Uchiha prince is a no go.”

            “Could you please never say that again?” Sasuke said, kicking me in the leg.

            “The no touching rule is in effect,” Dr. Shizuta said mildly.

            Sasuke retracted his leg sullenly.

            “Do we really need that rule?” I asked.  She’d said that during our sessions together we shouldn’t touch each other, but I was finding it kind of stressful not to be able to reach over and put my hand on Sasuke’s shoulder.  If it meant I had to get kicked and beaten on a little, so be it.

            “For now,” Dr. Shizuta said, pushing her glasses up her nose.  “Does it make you uncomfortable?”

            “Yes.”

            “How about you, Sasuke?”

            Sasuke shrugged.

            “Hmm,” Dr. Shizuta mused.

            I shifted in my seat.

            Sasuke was silent, staring off into space.

            I looked to Dr. Shizuta, but she just seemed to be waiting.

            “Aren’t you gonna tell us what to talk about?” I finally said.  All the quiet was driving me crazy.

            “I’d rather leave it up to you two.”

            “Well, if you leave it up to Sasuke over there, we’re not gonna talk about anything.”

            “Do you see why I wanted to have you join our sessions?”

            “Ahhhh,” I said, nodding agreeably.

            “Was there anything that you wanted to talk about, Naruto?”

            “Nope.”

            “Everything’s good?”

            “Pretty great, yeah.”

            “Have you been getting out of the apartment more?”

            “Well, no, but a bunch of us are having a party on Friday night,” I said.  “A kind of New Year party for our Academy class.”

            “Oh, that sounds nice.”

            “Yeah, it should be fun,” I said.  “Right, Sasuke?”

            “I told you I’m not going.”

            “Yeah, but you should come anyway.”

            “No.”

            “Sasukeeeee.”

            Sasuke folded his arms over his chest and pointedly didn’t look at me.

            “It sounds like a good time to catch up with your classmates,” Dr. Shizuta commented.

            Sasuke gave her an incredulous look.

            “No, but really, it seems like a safe atmosphere for you to try leaving the house for a while,” she tried.

            “I’m not in the house right now,” Sasuke said.  “I leave every day.”

            “Uh, you come to the clinic every day,” I put in.  “That’s not going out.  It’s like your other home.  What do you even do here all day?”

            This was a question I’d asked many times, and the most I’d been able to piece together was that he didn’t talk to anyone, he read books, he for some reason had taken up painting, and he performed karaoke hits for the other residents, but I’m pretty sure that last bit was him being sarcastic.

            Today, like usual, I got a shrug.

            “Whyyyyy?” I groaned.

            “Can I tell him what we do here?” Dr. Shizuta asked.

            “No,” Sasuke said.

            “Sorry,” Dr. Shizuta said to me, with an apologetic shrug.

            “It’s fine, Sasuke just likes annoying me.”

            “That’s true,” he agreed.

            I wanted to poke him until he stopped being a jerk, but there was the no touching rule.  I settled for sighing loudly instead.

            “So, Sasuke, how are you doing?” Dr. Shizuta asked.

            “Fine.”

            “No headaches or anything?”

            “No.”

            “Sleeping okay?”

            “Well enough.”

            “He sleeps about five hours a night,” I put in.

            “That’s pretty good,” Dr. Shizuta said, looking sufficiently impressed.

            “Well, that’s a good night,” I said.  “On a bad night he might wake up five or more times.”

            “That’s still good, though,” Dr. Shizuta said.  “He’s developing a regular sleeping pattern.”

            “He’s sitting right here,” Sasuke muttered.

            “Oh, did you want to be a part of the conversation?” Dr. Shizuta asked, shooting him a quick glance.

            Sasuke glared at her.

            “It’s much easier to just ask Naruto, isn’t it?” she continued.

            Sasuke got a sullen look on his face.

            “He’s eating well?” she asked me.

            “Yeah, I don’t even have to tell him to lately.  And he’s been cooking breakfast, too!”

            “That’s interesting,” Dr. Shizuta said.  “He doesn’t eat much at lunch time.  The nurses have to keep reminding him to eat.”

            “Whaaaaat?” I said.  This was news to me.

            “Who said that you could tell him that?” Sasuke put in, sounding annoyed.

            “Why aren’t you eating properly?” I asked, frowning at him.

            “Hospital food tastes like shit.”

            “Well, okay, I can agree with that.”

            “There you go then.”

            “Sasukeeeee.”

            “Look what you did,” Sasuke said irritably, turning to Dr. Shizuta.

            “Isn’t couples therapy fun?” she asked, smiling at him.

            “You’re a horrible therapist,” Sasuke muttered.

            I felt unhappy as we walked back home.  “I thought you were doing better.”

            “I’m fine.”

            “I worry about you.”

            “Don’t.”

            “Can’t help it.”

            “Naruto, there’s nothing to worry about.”

            I wanted to believe him.

Chapter Text

            I thought I’d wear Sasuke down into coming to the New Year party, but he dug in his heels and refused.  I was asking even as I was going out the door, and he simply slammed it in my face and turned all the locks.

            I was disappointed, but I was going to try and have fun anyway.  I saw everyone pretty regularly for missions, but this was different.  This was a party.

            It was weird now that most of us were twenty.  Everything felt a lot more grown up.  Shikamaru was the head of his clan now, and Ino was being groomed to head hers soon.  Shino was assisting Iruka at the Academy.  Sakura was a big deal at the hospital.  It seemed like everyone was moving forward.

            Everyone except me.

            And Kiba.  Kiba wasn’t doing shit, either.

            About three beers in, though, Kiba admitted that he and Hinata were dating.

            “WHAT?!” I said, spewing my drink out.

            “Calm your tits, it’s not half as surprising as you and I’m-Too-Good-For-Everything Uchiha.”

            “No, it’s definitely surprising,” I said.  “I mean, Hinata’s so… nice.  What’s she see in you?”

            “All my charming, amazing qualities,” Kiba said, waving his mug of beer at me.

            “Hinataaaaa!” I yelled down the table.

            Hinata looked up in surprise.

            “Are you really dating this idiot?!”

            Hinata blushed but smiled as she nodded her head affirmatively.

            “You could do better!” I called to her.  “But thanks for dating him anyway!”

            Hinata covered a laugh with her hand.

            “Told ya,” Kiba said, slapping my arm irritably.

            “I thought you and Akamaru were gonna get married,” I said.

            “You can’t marry a dog, Naruto,” Kiba said irritably.  “I checked.”

            I let out a bark of laughter.

            “Narutooo, you are totally sloshed,” Ino said, coming to sit next to me.

            “So are you,” I pointed out.

            “High five,” Ino said agreeably, and we high fived each other.

            “Ino, are you dating someone weird?” I asked suspiciously.

            “Uh, no.”

            “Well, Hinata’s dating Kiba, and that’s pretty weird, so…”

            “It’s not weird!” Kiba protested, stealing my drink and downing it.

            “It’s weird,” I complained, taking his drink and drinking it.  I turned back to Ino.  “You’re not dating Chouji?”

            “Uh, no.”

            “Shikamaru?”

            “Shika’s dating Temari.”

            “WHAAAAAT?!”

            “Um, I know you can be oblivious, but they’ve been going out for a while.”

            “I HAD NO IDEA!”

            “Yeah, well, you’re an idiot,” Ino said.  She looked kind of unhappy about it.

            “Did you have a crush on Shikamaru?” I whispered to her.

            “Uh, no.”

            “Hmmm…”

            “Naruto, you really need to get into the loop,” Ino said, handing me a new drink.  “Also, you need to tell me every detail about your relationship with Sasuke.”

            “No way,” I said, taking a long drink.  “Sasuke doesn’t like when I talk about him.”

            “I won’t tell anyone.”

            “You’ll tell everyone, Ino,” Sakura interjected.

            “Shush up, you.”

            Sakura stuck her tongue out at Ino, and Ino stuck hers out right back.

            “You two should kiss, it’ll relieve the tension,” I said.

            Both girls looked at me aghast.

            “Hell yeah!” Kiba agreed, giving me a high five.  It was more of a meeting between my fingers and his palm, but it was close enough.

            “You guys are such pervs,” Sakura complained.

            “You’re the ones perving on Naruto and his homorelations with Sasuke!” Kiba shot back.  “And you all love those pervtastic Midnight Ninja Mysteries,” he added, giving Hinata a meaningful look.

            Hinata grinned, her cheeks rosy.

            “Hey, the next one’s coming out in February, isn’t it?” Ino said suddenly.

            Hinata nodded.  “That’s what I heard.”

            “Yeah!” Ino and Sakura cried, exchanging a much better executed high five than me and Kiba.  It helped that Sakura wasn’t drunk.

            I felt myself flushing.  “You really like them that much…?”

            Ino, Sakura, and Chouji all nodded enthusiastically.

            “Et tu, Chouji?!” I cried.

            “They’re really well-written,” Chouji said.

            “Yeah, they’re easy to read when I’m out cloud watching,” Shikamaru agreed.

            “Is everyone reading them?!” I cried.

            Everyone nodded.

            “I need another drink…” I said.

            “Another beer for the tipsy blond!” Ino called out to the restaurant staff.

            It was a nice atmosphere, even if everyone was a drunk pervert.  I felt relaxed and good.  The only thing missing was the familiar feel of Sasuke’s body next to mine.

            I walked Ino and Sakura home, which somehow turned into Sakura walking me home.

            “You drank a lot,” she said, holding my arm tightly so I didn’t fall on my face.

            “Yeah,” I said.  “It was fun…”
            “I’m glad,” she said, bumping my hip with hers.

            “Sakura-chan, would you ever leave Konoha?”

            “Hm?”

            “You, me, and Sasuke, travelling the world,” I said.  “The new sannin.”

            “That doesn’t sound so bad,” Sakura mused.

            “But does it sound good?”

            “It’d be nice,” Sakura said.  “If we could.”

            “Yeah,” I agreed.  “If we could.”

            She helped me up the stairs and took my keys, trying to undo all the locks.

            “Just pound on the door and yell until Sasuke opens it,” I said.  “That’s what I always do.”

            “Wow, your neighbors must love you.”

            “They’re asleep, they can’t hear anything…”

            “Uh…”

            I heard the locks turning from the inside, and then the door opened.

            Sasuke stood there, huddled in my ‘I love ramen!’ sweatshirt, looking all tired and moody.  It made my heart flutter.

            “Sasukeeeee!” I said, letting go of Sakura and wrapping all of my weight around him.

            “Dummy,” Sasuke muttered, struggling to hold me up.  “Sakura, this is not the condition that I sent him out in.”

            “Yeah, he’s super drunk, have fun with that,” Sakura said, taking a step back.  “Bye!” she called, taking off into the air.

            “Bye!” I called after her, then turned my attention to my cranky boyfriend.  “Did you wait up for me?”

            “No.”

            “Liarrrr.”

            “Get inside, dummy,” Sasuke muttered, hauling me over the threshold so he could close the door.  He started putting all the locks in place while I hung on him.

            “Did you miss me?” I murmured, nuzzling his neck.

            “Yes.”

            I smiled, huggling him.

            Sasuke slid the last chain in place and turned to me.  “What do you want to do?”

            “You tired?” I asked, smooching his chin because it was there.

            He nodded.

            “Let’s go to bed?” I suggested.

            “Okay,” Sasuke said, walking me backwards towards our bedroom.  He sat me on the bed and went over to the bureau to get some pajamas for me.

            I was stuck in my shirt when he came back over.

            “Arms up,” he said, and I held them up obediently.

            I could suddenly see again as the shirt came off.  Then everything went black as a new shirt was pulled over my head.

            “Put your head through the hole, dobe,” Sasuke said.

            “Oh,” I said, and did so.

            “Pants.”

            I looked up at Sasuke, and attempted to be seductive as I unzipped.

            It didn’t appear to be working.

            “Hurry it up.”

            I tried to kick them off, but they got stuck at my ankles.

            Sasuke leaned down and pulled them off, carefully taking them over to the hamper before returning with my pajama pants.  “Go wash up,” he said after he had successfully gotten me into them.  He gave my butt a little squeeze.

            “Yessir,” I said, feeling very motivated to do whatever Sasuke told me to.  I stumbled off to the sink to wash my face and brush my teeth.

            Sasuke was already in bed.

            I crawled over him to get to my side.  I started with my back to his like usual, decided we were much too far apart, and rolled over so I could spoon him.

            Sasuke let me, putting his arm over mine when I curled it around his stomach.

            “You had a good time?” he asked.

            “Mm,” I said, kissing the back of his neck.  “It was really good.  Ino’s fun to drink with.  And Kiba’s so dumb.  Did you know he’s dating Hinata?!  I can’t get over it.”

            “A dumb guy dating a better-looking ninja with one of the most power bloodline limits?  Yes, how strange.”

            “Oh my god, did you just make a joke at my expense?” I asked, biting his shoulder.

            Sasuke made a nice little noise and shivered.  “Didn’t think you’d catch on.”

            “I’m drunk, but I’m still think good.”

            “Yes, you are still think good.”

            “Mm,” I said, nuzzling him.  I just wanted to crawl inside of him and fall asleep.

            “I’m… sorry…” Sasuke said slowly.

            “Hm?  For what, babe?”

            “I couldn’t go with you.”

            “Mm, I missed you.  And everyone was talking about you.”

            Sasuke stiffened at that.  “What were they saying?” he asked in a low voice.

            “Hm?  The girls were all fantasizing about us making out and shit.”

            “…what…?”

            “Man, they all love those stupid books,” I said.  “Even freaking Shikamaru reads them!  I thought he couldn’t be bothered!”

            “The Midnight Ninja Mysteries?”

            “Mm.”

            “Oh.”

            “They’d all be glad to see you.”

            “They hate me.”

            “They don’t hate you.”

            “Everyone hates me, Naruto, you’re just too blind to see it.”

            “I think you’re too in love with yourself to realize that people don’t care about you as much as you think.”

            “Excuse you?”

            “They don’t give a shit about all your drama and whatever.  You left, you came back, whatever, it’s over.  You’re here now.”

            “You’re the only one who’s that fucking blasé about it.  How can you just forgive me for what I did to you?  No one else can.”

            “You’re silly,” I said, sliding my hand up under his shirt and resting it on his tummy.  It was nice and warm.

            “I thought we were having a serious conversation,” Sasuke growled at me.

            “I’m drunk,” I informed him, trying to wiggle my left arm under him.

            Sasuke obligingly shifted so I could slide it under him.  “Your arm’s gonna fall asleep.”

            “Yeah, but I just wanna be all over you,” I said, sliding my left hand under his shirt and wrapping my right leg around him.

            “You’re a needy drunk.”

            “Mm, yeah,” I said, snuggling him.  “All I wanna do is feel you.”

            “So annoying,” Sasuke muttered.  I could feel how fast his heart was beating when I slid my hand up his chest.

            “Sorry,” I said, swirling my thumb over his nipple and feeling it harden.  “God, you’re really fuckin’ sexy.”

            “Hn,” Sasuke said, trying to sound disdainful.  He was shaking a little.

            “I never thought I’d be into dudes,” I mused, kissing his ear.  When that wasn’t enough, I traced it with my tongue.

            Sasuke shuddered against me.

            “Wow,” I murmured, licking it again.  “Yeah, you’re really, really attractive.”

            “Out of your fucking league,” Sasuke muttered, squirming around like he wanted to get away.

            “Yeah,” I said, suddenly feeling a little depressed.  “You should date Hinata.  I’ll be stuck with Kiba…”

            “You…”

            “I wonder if your babies would have the sharingan or the byakugan?”

            “Naruto, shut up already.”

            “What?” I complained, then yawned loudly in his ear.

            Sasuke muttered something.

            “Sorry,” I said.  “I’m tired.”

            “I said, ‘I only want you, dumbass.’”

            “Oh.  Ohhhh.  Heh heh, you like me.”

            “Yeah, I do.”

            “Oh, you admitted it!” I said, suddenly excited.  I pressed a sloppy kiss to his cheek.  “Mwah.”

            “Dummy,” Sasuke muttered.

            I brushed my thumb over his ribs.  I could feel the place where they’d broken and hadn’t healed completely straight.  I thumbed that spot again, memorizing it.  Then I yawned again.

            “Go to sleep.”

            “Mm,” I agreed, kissing his bared neck.  “Sleepy,” I murmured into his shoulder.

            Sasuke’s hand came to rest over mine on his stomach.  He felt warm and nice.  I started to drift.

            “You’re the one who’s too good for me,” he said quietly.

            “Hm?”

            “Nothing.”

            “Sas’, you’re beautiful and perfect,” I mumbled.  “And a jerk.”

            “Only the last one.”

            I was already asleep.

Chapter Text

            A couple of weeks after the New Year’s party, Kakashi asked me to take an A-rank.  There was trouble in an outlying civilian village with some missing nin, and he wanted the old new Team 7 to handle it.  Between travel, information gathering, and the actual fighting, Kakashi estimated it would take about five days.

            “I don’t know…” I said.

            Kakashi didn’t say anything, just sat behind his desk and waited.

            “It would be hard on Sasuke…”

            “I can send a different team.”

            “But I really need the money…”

            “Then take the mission.”

            “But he needs me.”

            “Team Kurenai’s standing at the ready.”

            “But I haven’t left the village in forever…”

            “Maybe it’s time you did.”

            “But…”

            Kakashi waited.

            “I want to do it,” I said slowly.

            “Great.”

            “I just can’t.”

            “That’s too bad.”

            “You’re not helping my decision-making process.”

            “Was I supposed to?”

            “Yes!  That’s your job!”

            “Is it?”

            I breathed out a frustrated sigh.

            “Did you want to talk to Sasuke about it?” Kakashi asked, pulling out a book.  It was the new Midnight Ninja Mystery book.

            “Where’d you get that?!” I cried.  “It’s not even out yet.”

            “I’ve got connections,” Kakashi said, thumbing through it.

            “Hnnn,” I said.  “Anyway, talking to Sasuke wouldn’t do anything.  He’d tell me to go, then freak out while I’m away, and be mad at me when I came back.

            “What a rough domestic arrangement,” Kakashi mused.

            “You’re not helping.”

            “Yeah, that’s fine.”

            “Ugh.”

            There was a knock at the door.

            “Come in,” Kakashi said, not looking up from his book when Gai rolled in.

            “Hokage-sama!  I hope I’m not interrupting!” he announced loudly.

            “Of course not,” Kakashi said.

            “These papers are very important and require your signature right away!”

            “Yeah, just put them on the desk somewhere,” Kakashi said, gesturing around vaguely.

            “This is of the utmost importance!” Gai persisted, rolling up to Kakashi’s desk.

            “Got it,” Kakashi said, still not looking up.

            Gai thrust the papers in front of his face.

            Kakashi cast a glance towards him.

            “For the education of the children!” Gai cried, waving the papers around.

            “Uh…”

            “If you don’t sign these right away, the children of Konoha will while away with no ambition and become nothing more than leeches, sucking the life from their elders until nothing is left!”

            “Yes, okay, I got it,” Kakashi said, taking the papers and reading them over.  “New textbooks…?” he muttered.

            “Yes, new textbooks!  For the children!” Gai declared, grasping his hands over his heart.

            “Fine,” Kakashi muttered, signing the papers and handing them back to Gai.

            “Thank you, Hokage-sama!” Gai yelled, wheeling his way back out of the room.  “Great to see you, Naruto!”

            “Uh, you, too,” I said.

            The door closed with gusto.

            Kakashi exhaled.

            “Wow, Gai is like the perfect assistant for you,” I commented.

            “If by ‘perfect’, you meant ‘the worst’, then yes, you are correct.”

            “But he can actually get you to do stuff.”

            “If by ‘get you to do stuff’ you mean ‘yell enthusiastically at you until you give into him’, then yes, you are correct.”

            “Man, remember when I was your assistant?  That was awful.”

            “No, no, you were a great assistant.”

            “Because I didn’t yell enthusiastically at you?”

            “Yep.  Best assistant ever.”

            “Do you think I should go?”

            “On the mission?”

            “Mm.”

            “Do you want to go on the mission?”

            “I’m asking you if you think I should.”

            “And I’m asking if you want to.”

            “Why can’t you just give me the answer?!”

            “I wouldn’t be a very good teacher if I did, now would I?”

            “No, you would be a great teacher!”

            “Oh, then I guess I’m a terrible teacher.”

            “Yes, you are.”

            Kakashi shrugged and read his book.

            There was another knock on the door, and Iruka came in.

            “Iruka-senseeeeei!”

            “Hey, Naruto,” he said, smiling at me warmly.  He turned to Kakashi, delivering him some paperwork.  “Please get to this when you can.”

            “Of course,” Kakashi said, offering him a pleasant smile.

            As soon as Iruka turned to leave, Kakashi returned to his book.

            I stuck my tongue out at him and followed Iruka.  “Iruka-sensei, can I talk to you?”

            “Of course.”

            We found ourselves in an empty classroom at the Academy.  I told him about Sasuke, and about Kakashi wanting me to go on the out-of-town mission.  Iruka listened, making all the appropriate sounds and gestures to show that he was paying attention.

            “Whaddya think?” I finally asked.

            Iruka studied my face thoughtfully.  “You know, I always wanted you and Sasuke to be friends.”

            “Huh?”

            “I saw a connection between you that you both kept fighting against.”

            “Oh,” I said scratching my nose.

            “I guess I’m just saying that I’m happy you finally found each other.”

            “Heh.”

            “But I think you’re putting Sasuke first in everything, and not thinking about yourself at all.”

            “Oh.”

            “What is it that you want, Naruto?” Iruka asked.  “What do want to do with your life?  Where do you want to go?”

            I swung my legs aimlessly over the desk I was sitting on.  “I… dunno.”

            Iruka looked at me for a long moment.

            I realized that this was where I was supposed to say that I wanted to be the hokage.  For some reason, though, I didn’t say anything.

            “I know that bonds are important to you,” Iruka mused.  “But if you’re making yourself unhappy at another person’s expense, then you’re straining that bond, not building it up.”

            I rubbed the back of my neck.

            “Think about what you want.”

            I nodded.  “Yeah.  I just wish someone would tell me what it is I want.”

            Iruka smiled at me.

            “I hafta go pick up His Majesty now, but thanks, Sensei.”

            “Anytime, Naruto.”

            Sasuke was crabby when I went to get him, so I didn’t want to bring up the mission, but time was ticking.

            “What?” Sasuke finally asked in irritation while we were eating dinner.

            “What do you mean what?”

            “You’ve been acting suspicious all night.”

            “I have not!”

            “Naruto.”

            I sighed.  “How would you feel about having the apartment to yourself for a few days?”

            The first expression on Sasuke’s face was sheer panic, which he quickly masked with a disinterested look.  “Sounds great.”

            “Sas’,” I said, putting down my chopsticks and reaching for him.

            Sasuke leaned away from me.

            “Kakashi wants me to go on an out-of-towner,” I said.  “We kind of need the money.”

            “Then go.”

            “I don’t want to leave you.”

            “And I don’t know how many times I have to tell you that I’m not a child.”

            “Yes, you are.”

            Sasuke glared at me.

            “You don’t take care of yourself,” I said flatly.  “If I wasn’t here, I can’t even imagine what a mess you’d be.”

            “Don’t you think you’re being a little full of yourself?” Sasuke said, sneering at me.

            “No, I don’t.”

            “Tch.”

            “Sasuke, please just be honest with me now and tell me what you’re really thinking.”

            Sasuke looked away.

            I let him sit there while I finished my dinner.  I took my bowls to the sink and started washing.

            Sasuke finally padded up behind me, wrapping his arms around my waist.  His chin rested on my shoulder, his breath tickling my neck.  “I don’t know if I can do it alone.”

            “Do what alone, babe?” I asked, turning to him and kissing his nose.

            “Live.”

            “That’s pretty fuckin’ morbid, bastard,” I said, changing the kiss to a bite.

            Sasuke’s arms tightened around me.

            “You have to start being a human again eventually,” I told him.

            “I’m nothing,” Sasuke muttered.

            “No being emo, please.”

            “You told me to be honest.”

            “Okay, fair enough.  But it’s just… I dunno.  You’re very important to me.”

            “Thank you.”

            “Of course,” I said, rinsing off the last dish and setting it in the drainer.  I dried my hands on the towel and bumped my butt back into Sasuke.

            Sasuke took a step back.

            I turned around, draping my arms over his shoulders.  “You don’t want me to go?”

            Sasuke hesitated before shaking his head no.

            “And if I go anyway?”

            “I’d… try…” he said quietly.

            “You’re not helping me,” I informed him, starting to lead us towards the living room.  “Why won’t anyone make all my decisions for me?”

            “Naruto, do you still want to be a ninja?”

            “Yeah, obviously,” I said, sitting on the couch and pulling Sasuke with me.

            “Then you should be one,” Sasuke said, sitting on my lap and resting his forehead against mine.

            “And what about you?”

            “Don’t worry about me.”

            “I’m pretty fucking worried.”

            “Why?”

            “Because you say really creepy things like you don’t know if you can live without me.”

            “Girls are into that kind of thing.”

            “I’m not a girl!”

            Sasuke shrugged.

            “Jerk,” I said, threading my fingers through the hair at the back of his neck.  “You need a haircut.”

            “Get a kunai then.”

            “At like a proper haircutting place.”

            Sasuke stared at me.

            “Yeah, yeah, Baby Sasuke can’t leave the apartment.”

            He frowned.

            I kissed the wrinkle in his brow.  “I can’t leave you, can I?”

            Sasuke’s face took on a completely pained expression.

            “Hey,” I said, cupping his face in my hands.  “What?”

            “You’re…” Sasuke started, “…unhappy,” he finished.

            “I’m not,” I said.  “Actually I’m quite happy.”

            “No, you’re not.”

            “Uh, I think I know how I’m feeling.”

            “Feeling good when we’re fooling around isn’t the same thing as being happy.”

            “I… feel happy… other times…”

            Sasuke sighed, a long exhale of warm breath in my face.

            “Do you think going on this dangerous mission, with Sai spending the whole time asking me if you’re satisfied with my small penis, will make me happy?”

            Sasuke cracked a small smile.  “He’s still on about that?”

          “I don’t understand what life is like in Sai world,” I muttered.  “I mean, yes, he’s very well-endowed, but…”

            Sasuke poked me in the junk.

            “What the hell are you doing?!”

            “I just wanted to check on it.”

            “You’re really weird!”

            “Am I?”

            “Yes!”

            “You’re the one who’s been fondling my butt this whole time.”

            “Oh, have I?” I said, suddenly realizing that at some point my hands had naturally gravitated down there.

            Sasuke dragged his finger along the outline in my pants.

            “Hey!” I said, regretfully letting go of that bountiful ass and swatting his hand away.  “What do you think you’re doing?!”

            “Distracting you.”

            “Nice try.”

            Sasuke spread out his hand and applied pressure.

            I pushed into his hand without meaning to.  “No, hey, knock it off!  I have to decide about the mission by tomorrow!”

            “I don’t want to talk about it anymore,” Sasuke said.

            “I think we need to.”

            “I don’t,” Sasuke said, curling his fingers around hardening flesh and stroking.
            “Shit, shit, hey!” I said, throwing my head back.  “You’re being really aggressive!”

            “That’s what you like.”

            “Mmmm ahh, yes, but...”

            “But…?”

            “But I…” I gasped, “want to…” pant, “talk mooooore…”

            “I don’t want to,” Sasuke said, letting go to unbutton my pants.

            I felt more oxygen flowing to my brain, giving me the strength to lift my head back up and look at him.  “Sasuke, you’re-”

            And then he just stuck his hand into my pants like it was no big deal.

            Seeing as how I’d never in my life ever felt another person’s hand making direct skin-to-skin contact with my dick before, I happened to think it was a very big deal.

            “Oh, fuck,” I breathed out, tangling my fingers in his hair.  “Sasuke…”

            Sasuke didn’t look at me, his face creased in concentration.

            It was adorable, and I completely forgot what we’d been talking about.

            “That’s a good boy,” Sasuke murmured, moving his hand up and down.

            My hazy eyes snapped open.  “Hey,” I said, trying to sound firm.  “Stop.”

            “You don’t want me to stop.”

            “No…  I mean yes…”

            “Which is it?”

            “No…” I groaned, digging my fingers into his hip.

            Sasuke grinned, that cocky look he got when he bested me a fight.

            “Oh, hell no!” I said, pulling him back by his hair.

            Sasuke let out a low moan.  Sasuke’s turn-ons included dominating me and being dominated by me.  It got a little confusing sometimes.

            “Off my dick, foul temptress!” I snapped.

            Sasuke raised an eyebrow at me.

            “Off!”

            “You didn’t want to… finish up?”

            “No!”

            “Really?” he asked, letting go.

            I whined.

            “I want to use my mouth.”

            I almost died.

            “No?” Sasuke asked, tilting his head to side like he was asking me if I wanted the chicken or the fish, or some other mundane shit.

            “Yes, I want your mouth on my dick!” I said.

            Sasuke started to move.

            “But not now!”

            “I don’t think I’ll be in the mood later.”

            “You’re a horrible person!” I yelled.

            “I thought I was being really nice,” Sasuke said with a fluid shrug.

            “Sit on the damn couch,” I said, removing him from my lap and depositing him next to me.  “I need to go to the bathroom now.”

            “Did you want me to come with you?”

            “Oh my god, when did you become such a whore?!” I cried, gesturing around wildly as I stood up.  I felt really uncomfortable.

            Sasuke just smirked up at me, looking completely at ease draped over the couch.

            I evacuated the room.

            Once I was feeling a bit more in control, I stomped back out there, only to find Sasuke in a huddle of blankets, looking small.

            “Don’t go,” he said quietly.

            “Okay, I won’t,” I agreed.

            We sat together quietly and didn’t talk.

Chapter Text

            “Hoo boy.”

            I sat across from Dr. Shizuta, wondering why she was rolling her eyes like that.  I glanced over at Sasuke, and he just shrugged, looking bored.

            “Shouldn’t you be proud of me?” I asked.  “I got a proper paying job.”

            “Okay, first of all,” Dr. Shizuta started, looking like she was about to lay down the smackdown, “you hate working for Kakashi-sama.”

            “I don’t exactly hate it-”

            “Second of all, you hate being cooped up in the village.”

            “Hate is a strong word…”

            “You hate both of those things!  Am I right, Sasuke?”

            “It’s got nothing to do with me,” Sasuke muttered.

            “It’s got everything to do with you!” Dr. Shizuta cried, throwing her hands in the air.

            “Nah,” I said.  “It’s basically an apprenticeship to becoming Hokage, so what’s better than that?  It’s the best job ever, next to actually being the hokage.”

            “So you’re going to run errands and try to get Kakashi-sama to do paperwork?”

            “No, that’s Gai-sensei’s job,” I said.  “I’m gonna help him with tactical stuff and shit.  Forming teams for missions.  Assisting at the Academy.”

            Dr. Shizuta looked skeptical.

            “It’s good,” I said.  “And I won’t be taking any missions.  My work is in Konoha now.  I think this is going to work out really well.”

            “Sasuke, say something to him,” Dr. Shizuta said, seeming exasperated.

            Sasuke shrugged.

            Dr. Shizuta shook her head.  “So you’re both happy with this arrangement.”

            Sasuke shrugged while I nodded.

            “I hope it works out well for you, then,” she said.  “But I think you two really need to talk some things out.”

            “We’re actually really good right now,” I said, grinning a grin that I hoped wasn’t too dopey but probably was.

            Sasuke shot me a brief smirk before going back to his blank expression.

            Dr. Shizuta was quiet, looking between us.

            I scratched the back of my neck.

            “So you did it, huh.”

            “D-d-did what?!” I sputtered, sitting up straight.

            Dr. Shizuta made a very lewd gesture.

            “No!  You’ve got it all wrong!” I cried, waving my hands around desperately.

            Sasuke yawned.

            “You’re two consenting adults… more or less…” she said.  “Nothing to be ashamed of.”

            “But we didn’t,” I said, trying to make her understand with my eyes.  “Well, I mean we didn’t do that,” I said, imitating her sex gesture.  “Unless this hand is a mouth?” I mused, staring at the circle I’d made with my thumb and pointer that I was currently jamming the fingers of my other hand into.  I had a flashback to Sasuke on his knees, giving me a heated look.

            I suddenly felt all tingly.

            “Shut up, Naruto,” Sasuke muttered, giving me an irritated look.

            “You know I babble when I’m nervous!”

            Sasuke rolled his eyes.

            I stretched for his hand, but I couldn’t quite reach.  “Why’d you move our chairs so far apart?” I complained.

            “I thought a little space might give you a different perspective,” Dr. Shizuta said.

            “Yeah, well it’s not working,” I complained, staring at Sasuke pitifully.

            He ignored me.

            “Are you practicing safe sex?”

            “Whaaaat?!” I cried.  “But we’re not… I mean we just… and then…”

            “It’s none of your business,” Sasuke interrupted.  “Talk about something else.”

            “I’ll talk about whatever you want to talk about, Sasuke.  Maybe we should talk to Naruto about why you don’t want him to leave the village.”

            If looks could kill, Sasuke would have just murdered Dr. Shizuta.

            “Huh?” I said.

            “Nothing,” Sasuke muttered, drawing his knees up to his chest.  “Stop making issues out of things that aren’t issues.”

            “Just trying to have a conversation,” Dr. Shizuta said with a shrug.

            “Fuck off.”

            “Sasuke,” I said, giving him a wary look.

            Sasuke just dropped his forehead to his knees and ignored both of us.

            “Sorry,” I said to Dr. Shizuta.

            “There’s nothing for you to apologize for,” she said, smiling at me like Sasuke wasn’t being completely rude to her.  “So when do you start your new job?”

            “Next week,” I said, trying to put some cheer in my voice.  I glanced over at Sasuke, wanting to pull him into my arms.  He’d feel better if I did that.

            “That’s really great, Naruto.”

            “I thought you thought it was a bad idea…”

            “If this is what you want, then I want to support you completely.”

            “Thanks,” I said, scratching my nose.

            Sasuke was still being quiet.

            “Babe, you ready to go?” I asked.  It wasn’t quite time for our session to end, but I couldn’t stand looking at him all crumbly and unhappy anymore.

            “Yeah,” came Sasuke’s voice from somewhere hidden in his limbs.

            I jumped up.  “Well, it’s been real as always, Doc.”

            “Yes, it has,” she agreed, standing as well.

            I collected Sasuke, poking him in the belly as many times as I could before he hit me.  “See ya next week.”

            Sasuke didn’t say anything, even during the walk home.

            As soon as I had locked the door, I found myself being tackled to the ground.  Apparently it was sex time.

            Sasuke and I had been getting along great lately.  That was probably because we barely talked, spending most of our time exploring each other’s bodies.

            I decided to just enjoy it and not think too much about it.  That was working very well for me.

            Of course, there was still something bothering me.

            “Sasuke?”

            Sasuke glanced up at me from where he was ravaging my neck.  He had the most annoyed expression on his face.

            “About what Dr. Shizuta said…”

            He looked at me like I was an idiot, then pushed my shirt up my chest.

            “Um, but really, is something going on?  She’s always giving you these meaningful looks, and you’re always getting ma- mm, yeah…”

            Sasuke stared up at me, nipple in mouth, and raised his eyebrow.

            I pet his head, trying to stay focused on my train of thought.  “I don’t like you having secrets.”

            “I don’t have any secrets,” Sasuke said, biting me.

            I gasped.

            “Now shut up and enjoy this.”

            So I did.

            Fine, sure, if I really thought about it, I knew what Sasuke was doing.  But it felt good, so who cared?  We didn’t have to talk about every little thing.

            Except Sasuke was starting to fall asleep later and wake up earlier.  He was leaving more and more food on his plate.  He was getting quieter and quieter.  Any time I tried to talk to him seriously, we’d just end up making out.

            “Hey, the new Midnight Ninja Mysteries book is out,” I commented one day as we walked home from the clinic.  “We should stop by the bookstore.”

            “I thought you hated those books,” Sasuke said, eyeing me warily.  It was still like pulling teeth to get him to go anywhere besides the clinic.

            “Yes, but I need to know what all the women in Konoha are perving about when they look at us.”

            Sasuke rolled his eyes.

            “Come on,” I said, offering him my hand.

            He took it, holding it almost too tight.

            We went into the bookstore, and I swear all the patrons started staring at us.

            I could feel Sasuke’s always cool palm sweating like crazy.

            “Here it is!” I said, walking up to the giant display and taking one of the books.  “To the cashier!”

            Sasuke didn’t even tell me that I was embarrassing or annoying.  He was definitely uncomfortable.

            I smiled pleasantly at the woman behind the counter, handing her the book.

            She got this very sly smile on her face as she took the book, which told me she knew who we were.  “It’s a good one,” she said.

            “I’m skeptical,” I replied, opening my wallet and handing her the money.

            “Well, you’ll just have to read it and see,” she said, handing me my change.

            “Yeah…” I said, taking the book in one hand and taking Sasuke’s hand in the other.

            He led the way out of the shop.

            “That wasn’t so bad,” I said.

            Sasuke ignored me, striding straight for home.

            When we were safely inside, he started pacing.

            “You okay?” I ventured.

            “Fine,” he growled at me, continuing to pace.

            “Okay, well, I’m gonna read this book now.”

            “Uh, no.”

            “Huh?”

            “If you read it first, you’re going to spoil it.”

            “How’m I gonna spoil it?!”

            “Because you can’t just sit and read quietly, you have to comment to me about everything.”

            “Isn’t that the best way to read a book?”

            “No.”

            “Oh.”

            “Give it to me,” Sasuke said, taking the book and disappearing into the bedroom.

            “Jerk,” I muttered.

            Sasuke returned an hour and a half later and deposited the book on the table.

            I tried to read his reaction, but he wasn’t giving anything away.

            “Can I read it now?” I finally ventured.

            “Be my guest.”

            “Okay, sit down and eat, and then I’ma read it.”

            “Not hungry.”

            “Fuck your hunger and sit down.”

            “How does one fuck their hunger?”

            “I’m sure you could find a way.”

            Sasuke gave me a strange look.

            “Do you think you’re going to be hungry anytime tonight?”

            “No.”

            “Then you’re going to eat now.”

            “I told you I’m not hungry.”

            “And I’m telling you I don’t care.”

            Sasuke sat down, looking like the very act of it was irritating and beneath him.

            “Why are you being so pissy?  Did something awful happen in the book?  Did Kamaboko and Terusuke break up?!”

            “How could they break up if they’re not even together?”

            “But they kissed!”

            “Yeah, and then Terusuke went back to Professor Kimoi.”

            “But I thought that Terusuke would totally come back in the new book.”

            Sasuke shrugged.

            “Damn you, Professor Kimoi…” I muttered.  Terusuke had left the team back in book four to join up with Professor Kimoi, who had promised to help him kill the Eleven Fingered Ninja, because as it turns out, it was the Eleven Fingered Ninja who killed Terusuke’s family ten years ago.  Now Terusuke was consumed by revenge, while Professor Kimoi was using that to his advantage to distract Kamaboko from foiling his evil plots.

            At the end of book five, after catching up to Terusuke due to Professor Kimoi’s involvement in the Mystery of the Missing Children, Kamaboko had given him an impassioned speech to return to the team.  Terusuke had refused, they had fought until their bodies could barely move, then they had collapsed together and shared an intimate kiss before passing out.

            Professor Kimoi had shown up, taking Terusuke’s unconscious body away.

            I had assumed that Terusuke would realize the error of his ways and return to the team.

            “I think you’re starting to take these books a little too seriously,” Sasuke commented, pushing food around his plate.

            “Don’t play with your food, bastard,” I said, smacking his hand.

            Sasuke gave me a sour look.

            “And I’m not.  I just think that Terusuke should get his shit together and go back to his team.”

            “Of course you would think that,” Sasuke said, rolling his eyes.

            “Would you eat something, already?” I said with a scowl.

            Sasuke took a perfunctory bite and chewed.

            It looked like he was eating something distasteful.

            I sighed.  “If my cooking’s so bad, then you cook.”

            “Your cooking is fine.”

            I blinked.  That was a surprisingly nice thing of him to say.

            “Naruto, it just feels like lead in my mouth.”

            I felt like I’d been punched in the gut.  “Is something wrong?” I asked, reaching over and touching his hand.

            “No.”

            “Sasuke.  Come on.”

            “You’re being annoying.”

            “How am I being annoying?!”

            Sasuke shrugged.

            I sighed, reaching over and taking his rice bowl, putting half of the food in mine.  I did the same with his salad and meat.  “Can you eat all this for me, please?”

            “Do I have to?”

            “Please?” I repeated.

            Sasuke nodded and picked up his bowl, putting some food into his mouth.

            I watched him eat with a growing pit in my stomach.

            When I tried to talk to him about it, he just pinned me on the couch and started kissing me.

            I let him.

Chapter Text

            “Women,” Shikamaru muttered, picking up his mug from the bar.

            “Men,” I agreed, holding up my mug and clinking it with his.

            “Cheers to that,” Shikamaru said, taking a long drink.

            “You two are depressing,” Chouji commented, and Ino nodded her agreement.

            “At least you have someone,” she said, jabbing us both in the nose with her finger.

            Shikamaru and I exchanged a look.  The look said clearly, ‘single people.’

            “Is anyone else coming?” Chouji asked, sensing the need for a change in subject.

            “We’re coming!” Kiba declared, coming up behind us with Hinata.

            “Let’s get a table,” Ino suggested, moving us away from the bar and off to an isolated booth.

            It had become a standing weekly tradition that those who were free met up on Friday night at Konoha Bar.  I was trying to follow Dr. Shizuta’s advice and get out of the apartment more, so I was quickly becoming a weekly regular.

            Also, I realized I really liked getting drunk.

            Kakashi and Tsunade felt all smug about it, and also seemed to find me to be a hilarious drinking partner, so sometimes I caught a quick after-work drink with them, too.

            “Hey, so Sakura’s birthday is coming up,” Ino said, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear.  “I think we should do something special.”

            “Finally, the last of the Konoha Nine to become an adult,” Kiba said.  “Cheers to that,” he declared, holding up his mug.

            Shikamaru and I clinked with him and downed our beers.

            “I kinda already invited her over that day,” I said, putting my empty mug down.

            Hinata ordered me another drink, and I smiled at her.  Hinata smiled back easily, an expression I was slowly starting to get used to from her.

            “That’s fine, I know you guys gotta do your Team Seven thing,” Ino said.  “It doesn’t even have to be the day of, but I think it’d be nice if we all got together.  I’ll even let you ruffians in my new place if you promise to be on your best behavior.”

            “Party at Ino’s, woooo!” Kiba said, clinking his glass with mine.

            “Kiba’s not invited,” Ino added.

            Kiba looked distraught.

            Akamaru let out a sharp bark from the floor.

            “Oh, no, Akamaru, of course you’re invited,” Ino said, leaning down to pet him.

            Akamaru wagged his tail happily.

            “Traitor,” Kiba muttered.

            Hinata smiled and touched his arm.

            “So, Naruto, do you think you could get Sasuke to come?” Ino asked, straightening back up.

            “Uhhh no,” I said.

            “Really?  I think Sakura’d be super happy if he came.”

            “You don’t think that would be majorly awkward?” Kiba commented.

            “Whaddya mean, awkward?” I asked, though I probably didn’t disagree.

            “I mean, none of us have seen or talked to Sasuke since the war,” Kiba said.  “And he’s all crazy and whatever.”

            I frowned at him.

            “I don’t mean any offense,” Kiba said, holding up his hands.

            Hinata elbowed him.

            “What?” he whined in protest.

            “If he could just make an appearance, I think it would make Sakura really happy,” Ino said, deciding to ignore Kiba.

           “I’ll ask, but he’s basically allergic to leaving the apartment,” I said glumly.  I took a long drink from my beer.

            Ino reached across the table, touching my hand.

            I looked up at her in surprise.

            She gave me a tight smile.  “What you do for Sasuke is amazing, you know.  I wish I had someone who loved me half as much as you love him.”

            “Aw, hey, no I’m not… I don’t…” I trailed off, scratching my nose with my free hand.

            Ino squeezed my hand and let go.  “So party at my place.  Who wants to bring what?”

            The night proceeded smoothly from there, and I got sufficiently intoxicated.

            I got into the apartment a little after twelve, whining at Sasuke to undo the security chain.

            “Did you have a good time?” he asked, looking at me tiredly.

            “Mm-hm,” I said, nodding enthusiastically.

            “You want to sober up a little or are you ready to sleep?”

            “Let’s sleep, I wanna cuddle you.”

            “That’s not sleep…”

            “Heh heh.”

            We went to our room, and I tried changing into my pajamas.  I somehow managed to do it without Sasuke’s assistance, though he looked like he wanted to step in a couple of times.

            He did get up and put my dirty clothes in the hamper.

            I liked that he was getting to be such a neatnik, because it meant he cared about something.

            “Come on,” I said, jumping onto the bed and bouncing a little.

            Sasuke walked over to me, giving me a disdainful look.

            “What’s that look for, gorgeous?” I asked, shoving the covers out of the way so I could get into bed.

            Sasuke rolled his eyes and got into bed with his back to me.

            I happily spooned up behind him, rubbing my cheek against his shoulder affectionately.  “Hey, it’s Sakura-chan’s birthday soon.”

            “I am aware,” Sasuke said.  “We’re having her over on the twenty-eighth, along with Kakashi-sensei.”

            “Good, you remembered,” I said, rewarding him with an intense snuggle.

            “Of course I remembered,” he muttered.

            “Oh, but so Ino’s gonna have a party the next night,” I said.  “It’ll be the guys from our genin class, Lee’s team, Sai…  It’d mean a lot to Sakura-chan if you came.”

            Sasuke sighed.

            “You don’t even hafta stay the whole time,” I said, insistently nuzzling his neck like a puppy.

            “I’ll… think about it.”

            “Really?!” I asked excitedly.

            “I said I’d think about it, not that I’d go.”

            “Thanks, Sasukeeeee!” I said, kissing his cheek.  “Mwah mwah mwah.”

            “Dummy.”

            “I’m not dumb,” I said, playing with the hem of his shirt for a moment before sliding my hand under it.

            “You are quite dumb,” Sasuke assured me, squirming a little.

            “Nuh uh.”

            “Yuh huh.”

            I pinched his nipple to get him to shut up.

            Sasuke hissed.

            “How come you’re never nice ta me?” I complained, rolling the nub between my fingers.  “I’m nice to you.  I’m very nice to you.”

            “How come you always molest me when you’re drunk?” Sasuke shot back.

            “Do I?” I asked, pulling him closer so I could squirm my other arm under him.  “I’m not molesting you.  I just like touching you.”

            “Uh, that’s pretty much the definition of molestation.”

            “What, touching you?”

            “Unwanted touch.”

            “You don’t want me to touch you?” I asked, aghast.

            Sasuke didn’t answer.

            “Do you not want me to?” I asked, feeling a little more sober.  My hands started to retreat from under his shirt.

            “Do whatever you want,” Sasuke muttered.

            “Okay, but do you want me to?”

            Sasuke didn’t answer.

            I sadly pulled my hands out of the warmth of his shirt.  I tried to pull my arm out from under Sasuke, but his weight kept me pinned there.

            “Do what you want,” he repeated.

            “I want to do all kinds of things, but you’re over here saying that I’m molesting you…”

            “I like when you touch me.”

            Sproing went Little Naruto.

            “O-oh…” I said.

            “I just don’t like that you have to get drunk to do it.”

            “What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked, shifting Sasuke closer so my left arm was more maneuverable.

            “Nothing,” he said, pressing his bottom firmly into my pelvis.

            I couldn’t help the growl that came out of my throat.  I forced his face towards me and gave him a rough kiss.  My tongue was all over his mouth, possessive and ferocious.

            Sasuke took it, reaching one hand back to grip my shirt and hold me there.

            When I was done, I let go of him.

            Sasuke’s head rolled back onto the pillow, his grip releasing from my shirt.

            I growled again, sinking my teeth into the soft flesh of his neck.  It was smooth, one of the few places on his body that wasn’t scarred.

            Sasuke moaned.

            I quickly returned my hands back to their favorite place under Sasuke’s shirt, tracing along every inch of skin they found there.

            Sasuke seemed to relax the more I touched him, his entire body going boneless into the mattress.

            “Do you feel good?” I murmured into his ear, then sucked the lobe into my mouth.

            “Yeah,” he said, his voice all husky.

            I rolled my hips into his, feeling pretty damn good myself.  “Love you,” I said, suddenly feeling sappy.  I kissed the back of his neck, hand tracing along the cuts in his abs.  His body felt so much… healthier.  It made me happy to feel firm muscle under my touch.  “You’re so sexy and gorgeous and yummy.”

            “…yummy…?”

            “Yummy,” I reiterated, nipping at his ear.

            Sasuke made a noise that kind of sounded like a kitten.

            I thought I’d die, sucking away on his ear to see if he would do it again.

            He let out a very low moan instead, but I liked that, too.  Then he took one of my hands, guiding it down his stomach and into the waistband of his pajamas.

            So much for him passively letting me do what I wanted.  Sasuke always had to take control of the situation.

            I didn’t mind.  I wormed my way into his boxers, finding his dick already alert and ready, and wrapped my fingers around it.  I stroked him in time with the movement of my hips, feeling relaxed and comfortable.  I thumbed over Sasuke’s ribs lazily, enjoying the skin-to-skin contact.  I suddenly wanted more.  “Take off your clothes,” I murmured.

            “Hm?” Sasuke said.

            I stopped stroking him and shifted so I could shimmy his pants and boxers down a little.  “Off,” I said, when it became apparent that this wasn’t going to happen without Sasuke’s cooperation.

            He turned around and eyed my suspiciously.

            His movement freed my arm, so I took the opportunity to peel off my shirt and shuck off my bottoms.

            Sasuke looked at me for a long moment, eyes running up and down my body.

            “Come on,” I said, wanting him naked already.

            Sasuke pulled his shirt over his head and folded it neatly before setting it next to the pillow.  He was already hanging out of his pants from my rush stripping, but he took them off the rest of the way, folding them and putting them with his shirt.

            I grinned.

            Sasuke smiled, too, and I thought I detected a faint reddish tinge to his cheeks in the dark.

            “C’mere,” I said, and Sasuke came.

            We shared a kiss that was surprisingly chaste, then I shifted Sasuke back around, letting him rest his neck on my arm.

            He pressed back against me, and we were suddenly experiencing full-body skin contact.

            I groaned, sliding my hand down his stomach and wrapping around him again.

            Sasuke groaned, too, pushing his butt back into me.

            “Mm,” I panted, starting a slow rhythm with my hips.  I curled my arm around him, grasping his jaw while my thumb traced his lips.

            Sasuke opened his mouth, sucking it inside.

            “Fuck,” I groaned, thrusting it into his mouth in time with his sucks.

            Sasuke was getting shivery.

            I wished I had more hands to touch him with.

            His hips were starting to move erratically, back into me and up into my hand.  He was close.

            “Wait for me,” I murmured, kissing his shoulder.

            Sasuke moaned around my thumb, and it did strange things to me.

            I pulled my thumb from his mouth, and it came out with a pop as Sasuke tried to hold onto it.  Then I pushed my pointer and middle finger inside, thrusting them rapidly.

            Sasuke sucked them in as deep as he could, trapping them as I tried to pull back.

            I put more force into it, thrusting them in and out of his mouth.

            Sasuke was making helpless-sounding noises as he sucked, his dick painfully hard in my hand.

            “Okay,” I murmured, feeling myself on the brink.  “Okay,” I repeated.

            Sasuke just let go, his entire body shuddering against me.

            I kept moving against him, fingers thrusting into him, until I felt my own body still, then erupt into shudders.

            “Jesus Christ,” Sasuke finally said after what had seemed like a very long period of silence.

            “Mm,” I agreed, kissing his shoulder.

            “Are you falling asleep?” he asked accusingly.

            “Mm.”

            “Clean yourself the fuck up first.”

            “Noooo,” I whined, holding him tight against me as he tried to get up.

           Sasuke growled, slapping his arm around on the nightstand until he found a box of tissues.  He grabbed some, then shoved the box back towards me.

            I sighed loudly as I took it, not wanting to separate, but Sasuke pulled away forcefully.  I took some tissues and wiped myself off, then let my eyes drift to the mess that was Sasuke’s back.  It seemed a pity to clean up something so lovely.

            Sasuke was glaring at me, though, so I wiped it all up.  He took the tissues from me, dumping them in the wastebasket.  Then he reached for his pajamas.

            “Noooo,” I complained, pulling him snug against me.

            “It’s cold,” he said.

            “I’ll keep you warm!”

            “Ugh.”

            It felt so good as I drifted off to sleep, Sasuke’s skin warm against mine.

Chapter Text

            “Hey, Sas’, you ready to go?”

            Sasuke glanced up at me from where he was sitting on Maiko’s desk.  They seemed to be… talking?

            “What’re you two doing, plotting my death or something?”

            They both smiled at me.

            It was creepy.

            “Later,” Sasuke said to Maiko, dropping his feet onto the ground.  “Naruto, you reek.”

            Maiko snerked.

            “Do I?” I asked, holding up my armpit and sniffing.  “Oh, I do.  Lee and I went all out today with our training.”

            “Just stay five feet in front of me,” Sasuke said, kicking me in the butt so I’d stumble ahead of him.

            “Bye, boys,” Maiko said, giving us a finger wave and a creepy smile.

            “Gah,” I said, making a quick exit.

            Despite his words, Sasuke fell into step next to me.

            “Did you have a good day?” I asked.

            Sasuke made a noncommittal sound.

            I told him about my training as we walked.  I could see how tense he was, so I kept up my steady stream of babble all the way to the front door.

            “I’m gonna take a shower,” I said when we got inside.  “Why don’t you change, and we’ll go in about a half an hour?”

            “Whatever.”

           It was the big day.  Sasuke’s debut.  I was freaking out a little, so I couldn’t imagine how Sasuke was feeling.

            We were going to Sakura’s birthday party.

            To be honest, I wasn’t feeling very confident.  We’d done a few test runs, meeting up with people outside of the apartment.  We’d gone to Sakura’s, which had been okay, and we’d gone to Shikamaru’s, which had been… okay.  But the time we met up with Chouji and Ino at Yakiniku Q had been pretty terrible, with Sasuke clearly a nervous wreck, refusing to eat or talk.

            Chouji and Ino had been surprisingly nice about it, not commenting on the wide-eyed creep who held my hand in a vice grip the entire time, looking around like he thought everyone was trying to kill him, including them.

            After that, Ino had told me quietly, “It’s okay if he doesn’t come.  I understand.”  I think she was a bit freaked out, mostly because she hadn’t realized how bad it was.

            No one really understood until they saw it firsthand.  This wasn’t the Sasuke they used to know.  He could put up a pretty convincing front, but left exposed for too long, it started to crumble.

            He was also incredibly stubborn, though, and when I’d told him he didn’t have to go to Sakura’s party, he’d gotten all determined.

            I was glad.  I was really glad.  I was just worried.  I didn’t want him to push himself too far.

            I came out of the shower to see Sasuke sitting on our bed, looking anxious.

            “Hi,” I said, brushing his bangs aside and kissing his forehead.

            “You’re wet,” he complained, pushing me away.

            “You all ready?” I asked, looking him up and down.

            “Yeah,” Sasuke said.  He’d changed into his own clothes, which was a much better look for him than my bummy clothes.

            “Why is it open so damn much?” I complained, reaching for the kimono top.

            Sasuke swatted me away again.  “Go get dressed.”

            “I don’t want you going to the party looking like a harlot,” I said, pulling my own clothes out of the wardrobe.  I stepped into my boxers, then my pants.

            “It doesn’t matter what I look like,” Sasuke muttered.

            “It matters to me,” I said, pulling my shirt over my head.  I walked over to him and traced the v of his open top.  “It practically goes to your bellybutton.”

            “It’s not anywhere near my bellybutton…”

            “Slut.”

            “Yours is the only dick I’m sucking.”

            I flushed.  Then I flushed some more.  “How can you just say things like that?” I finally asked.

            “Because I can, and because it embarrasses you,” Sasuke said with a shrug.

            “Meanie.”

            “You’re not shy when you’re drunk,” he commented, locking his fingers in my belt loops and pulling me closer.

            “I’m not shy at all!” I shot back, still red in the face.

            “I don’t mind it,” Sasuke said, ignoring my outburst.  “It’s sweet.  Naive.”

            I glared at him.

            Sasuke smiled easily, his eyes getting dark and bedroomy.

            “None of that,” I scolded, swatting him on the nose.

            “None of what?” Sasuke asked, like he wasn’t staring at me like he wanted to eat me.

            “Are you ready?” I asked, cupping his face in my hands.

            “I already told you I am.”

            “Okay,” I said.  “Let’s go?”

            Sasuke stayed sitting.

            “You don’t have to go,” I said, knowing it was his trigger.

            “Shut up,” he said, letting go of my belt loops and standing up abruptly.

            I tried to do my usual babble thing as we walked to Ino’s, but Sasuke was too tense.  I finally just shut my mouth.  When we got the door, I rang the bell.

            It was almost immediately thrown open by Ino.  “You guys made it!” she said, grinning happily.  “Come in.”

            We stepped inside.  There was some soft music playing in the background, so I was happy that Ino had listened to me about no loud noises.  Everyone was sitting around the living room, seeming very mellow.  I’d also told Ino what time we were arriving and what time we were leaving.  In fact, I was pretty sure this entire party was being arranged around Sasuke’s PTSD.

            “Sakura should be here any minute,” Ino said.  “Sit down, make yourselves at home.”

            “Yo, Naruto,” Shikamaru said, glancing up from a game of shogi with Sai.  “Sasuke.”

            Sasuke nodded to him.  I could tell he was straining to act normally.

            Sai was staring at the game very calculatingly, which was all for the better, because I didn’t need him commenting on my relationship in front of Sasuke.  If Sasuke weren’t so tense, he’d probably laugh, but I didn’t want Sai’s rudeness setting him off.

            Hinata was sitting with Shino on the couch.  They were both quiet and non-offensive, so I parked myself next to Hinata.

            Sasuke followed like I expected him to, sitting next to me.

            “It’s great to see you, Sasuke,” Hinata said, smiling genuinely.

            “What about me?” I complained.

            “Well, I just saw you the other day…” Hinata said.

            I stared at her aghast.

          Hinata laughed.  “It’s good to see you, too, Naruto.  How was your birthday gathering for Sakura yesterday?”

            “It was really good,” I said.  “Sas’ and I made her a fancy lunch, and Kakashi-sensei was embarrassing, and we all threw his Icha Icha books out the window.”

            “Er, sounds nice?”

            “That’s how Team Seven rolls,” I tried to explain.

            “Hey, guys, Sakura’s here!” Ino announced, putting the window curtain back in place.

            There was a sudden flurry of movement, and Sasuke tensed next to me.

            Okay, maybe we should have planned to arrive after Sakura’s big entrance.  I hadn’t really thought through the practicalities of Sasuke at a surprise party.

            I watched Sasuke’s suspicious eyes flick around at everyone ducking down behind furniture.  I took his hand in mine and smiled.  “Let’s surprise Sakura-chan.”

            Sasuke nodded tightly.

            And maybe just maybe there were some suspicious eyes fixed on Sasuke as I pulled him behind the couch with me.

            Ino opened the door.  “Hey, you’re here!”

            “Yeah, are you ready to go?” Sakura asked from outside.

            “Almost, I just want to finish up my makeup.  Do you wanna come inside?”

            “More makeup?” Sakura asked with a snort, stepping inside.

            “Surprise!” Kiba yelled, jumping up abruptly.

            “Huh?” said Sakura.

            “You guys!” Kiba said, gesturing frantically.

            “Kiba, what the hell?!” Ino yelled.

            “Surprise?” I said, standing up and pulling Sasuke with me.

            “Surprise…” came a half-hearted chorus as everyone else stood up.

            “I can’t freaking believe you!” Ino yelled, grabbing Kiba and shaking him.

            “Oh…” Sakura said, covering her mouth with her hand.  “Oh… this is so nice…”

            “You like?” Ino asked, stopping mid-throttle.

            Sakura nodded her head, looking a little misty.

            Ino dropped Kiba, and the two girls hugged.

            “Happy birthday, Sakura,” Ino said.

            “Thank you,” Sakura said, squeezing her tightly.

            “Is it wrong that I’m hoping that they’ll just kiss?” Kiba murmured, rubbing his throat.

            “Totally thinking the same thing,” I agreed.

            Hinata elbowed Kiba in the side, frowning at him.

            “Judge not lest ye be judged,” Kiba muttered to her petulantly.

            “Thanks, guys,” Sakura said, wandering around the room and greeting everyone.  “I can’t believe you came,” she said when she got to us.

            “Of course we came, it’s your birthday!” I said.

            Sasuke just nodded.  He seemed pretty all right, but he still wasn’t exactly talking.

            Sakura hugged me, then turned to Sasuke, clearly wanting to hug him, too, but stopping.  That was probably a big part of why Sakura was one of the few people allowed in Sasuke’s personal space.

            I was surprised by how not bad the party was.

            Sasuke didn’t eat or talk, but then, when did he ever do either of those things anyway?

            The tensest moment was when Sai came over.  “Sasuke-kun, I thought you’d be crazier.”

            Sasuke just stared at him like he was an idiot, while I sat next to him, frozen in horror.

            “So I was wondering, do you have Stockholm Syndrome?” Sai mused, sitting next to him.

            Sasuke snorted.

            “What’s that?!” I cried.  “Hey, what’s he saying?”

            “Stockholm Syndrome is when someone is kidnapped and falls in love with their captor,” Sai explained.  “It’s the only logical reason I can see for someone as physically attractive and well-endowed as Sasuke-kun to settle for someone like… you.”

            I sputtered senselessly for a while.

            “Why is everyone so mean to poor Naruto?” Ino asked, linking her arm with mine as she slid onto the couch.

            “Yeah!” I agreed.

            “Easy target?” Shikamaru suggested languidly.

            “Even you, Shikamaru?!” I cried.

            “I think you’re very attractive,” Ino informed me.

            “Really?” I asked, overflowing with gratitude.

            “Yeah, your eyes are gorgeous.”

            I was starting to feel embarrassed with Ino staring at me so intently close-up.  Then I felt a sharp tug on my sleeve.

            Sasuke gave me a look.

            “What, you’re jealous?” I asked with a grin.

            His look turned unhappy.

            “What…?” I complained.  I threaded my fingers with his.

            Sasuke shook my hand off, looking uncomfortable.

            Everyone was watching us.

            I leaned in closer.  “You want to go?” I asked softly in his ear.

            Sasuke hesitated, then shook his head.

            “No?” I asked.

            “I want to… spend some time with Sakura,” he said quietly.  This time he let me hold his hand.

            “Okay, babe,” I said, squeezing it.  I rubbed the back with my thumb.

            Sakura was across the room, talking to Lee.

            Sasuke got up, fingers dragging along my palm until just our fingertips touched, then pulled away and went over to them.

            “He seems okay today,” Ino murmured to me.

            “Yeah,” I agreed.  “I thought I could never take him anywhere again after Yakiniku Q.”

            “I have to admit I was surprised…”

            “Yeah, well,” I said with a shrug.

            “So how are you?” Ino asked, picking up on my desire to change the subject.

            “Fine?” I said.

            “You like working for Kakashi-sensei?”

            “‘Like’ is a strong word…”

            “You can come work at the flower shop, if you want.”

            “You keep offering…”

            “Well we really need someone.  Ino-Shika-Cho’s been going on a lot of missions, and I just don’t have the time to be working at the flower shop on top of that.”

            “I guess I could make a clone if you were desperate.”

            “Really?!”

            “Yeah, sure, why not?”

            “You’re a lifesaver!” Ino declared, throwing her arms around me.

            “Ino, you better watch those hands,” Tenten said with a snort.

            “Huh?” Ino said, pulling away from me.  Her eyes followed Tenten’s.

            Sasuke was death glaring her from across the room.

            Ino waved to him nervously.

            Sasuke turned back to Sakura.

            “You’re so in demand now,” Tenten commented.

            “Heh heh,” I said, rubbing the back of my neck.

            About ten minutes later, I found myself in a very important throw-these-chips-in-the-air-and-catch-them-in-your-mouth competition with Kiba and Chouji, when Sasuke came over.

            One look in his eyes and I knew what he wanted.

            “Time to go?” I asked, putting down the bowl of chips that I’d had in my lap.

            Sasuke just scowled at me.

            “So you’re admitting defeat?” Kiba asked.

            “No,” I said, giving him a sour look.  “I would have caught up to you eventually.”

            “I’m five chips ahead of you!”

            “I had a strategy!”

            “A strategy for losing?”

            “No!”

            “Ha.”

            I turned to Sasuke, fully intending to demand we stay five more minutes so I could wipe the floor with Kiba.

            Sasuke was about to have a meltdown.

            No one else could see it, but I could, clear as day.

            “Whatever, cheater,” I said.  “We’re leaving, so have fun getting trounced by Chouji.”

            Chouji threw up ten chips at once, arcing them perfectly and catching each one.

            I said goodbye to everyone quickly, lingering with Sakura to give her the briefest of hugs, before striding hurriedly out the door.

            “We did it!” I said cheerfully as we walked along.

            Sasuke didn’t say anything.

            I knew that I should be quiet, but it just wasn’t in my nature.  “So that wasn’t so bad.”

            “Fuck off.”

            I sighed, putting my arms behind my head.

            When we got home, Sasuke went straight to our room.  That usually meant he wanted to be alone.

            “Naruto!”

            “What?” I asked, coming into the room.

            “No one asked you to come in here,” he said snidely.

            “Uh, you just called my name.”

            “Go away.”

            I started to walk away.

            “Where are you going?”

            “Away, like you told me to.”

            “Good.”

            “O…kay…?”

            “Naruto.”

            “What?”

            “I can’t see you.”

            “Yeah, I thought that was the point,” I called to him from the living room.

            “I can’t see you,” he repeated.

            I went back into the room.

            “I didn’t say for you to come in here.”

            “Oh.  My.  God.  What is your problem?”

            “Leave me alone.”

            I started to walk away.

            “I can’t see you!” he said, his voice tinged with hysteria.

            “What do you want me to do, just stand in front of the doorway for the rest of the damn night?”

            “Yes.”

            “I cannot fucking stand you,” I growled, crossing my arms over my chest and glaring at him from the doorway.

            “I can’t fucking stand you either,” he said.

            I stayed there for a good ten minutes, watching him read a book.  “I’m going,” I finally said.

            He looked up at me.  He was starting to get that crazy look in his eyes again that I’d noticed at the end of the party.

            “Baby, I’m not going to stand here all night,” I tried to reason with him.

            “Asshole.”

            “What the hell?!”

            I ended up getting one of the kitchen chairs and sitting there the rest of the night.

Chapter Text

            I woke up with a start, realizing that Sasuke was sitting up in bed, panting heavily.

            “You ‘kay, babe?” I mumbled, my eyes still closed.  This was night four of Sasuke’s endless nightmares, and I had long since forgotten what a good night’s sleep was.

            Sasuke didn’t answer.

            I heard him get up and go to the kitchen.  He poured himself a glass of water.  I followed the molecules sliding down his throat.  Then he was back, sitting on the edge of the bed.

            “Get some sleep,” he said, reaching over and petting my head.  “I’m going to get up.”

            “Sasuke, it’s mm four in the morning,” I said, squinting at the bedside clock.  “Come to bed.”

            “One of us should get some rest,” he said, moving to stand up.

            I caught him by the wrist.  “I appreciate that, but I’m not gonna be able to sleep if you’re not here.”  I really did appreciate it, seeing as how for three of the last four days Sasuke had been nothing but bitchy to me.  It was nice to be back on his good side, even if I wasn’t sure how or why it had happened.

            “How are you going to sleep if I am here?” Sasuke countered.

            “Come cuddle me.”

            “No.”

            “Why not?”

            “Because I don’t want to.”

            “Pleeeeeeeease.”

            “Shut up, no.”

            “Pleeeeeeeeeeeeeease.”

            Sasuke eventually gave in after my twentieth please.

            I snuggled into his chest and went back to sleep with Sasuke stroking my hair.  I slept straight through morning.

            Waking up was surprisingly pleasant, despite my lack of sleep.  I nuzzled Sasuke’s neck sleepily.

            “You awake?” Sasuke asked quietly.

            “Mm,” I said.  I peeked up at him.

            Sasuke leaned down and gave me a small peck.

            I smiled, hugging him tighter.  “You like me again?”

            “…I like you.”

            “Heh heh.”

            “I’m sorry I kept you up all night.”

            “Stop apologizing, it’s weird.”

            “I’ll apologize if I want to.”

            “Please don’t…”

            “I’m so sorry, Naruto.”

            “Stooooop.”

            Sasuke smacked me in the head and pushed me off of him.

            I tried to cling to him, but he wasn’t having it.  “I want waffles!” I called after his retreating form.

            He just flipped me off.

            I sighed, flopping onto my back and sprawling across the bed.  Today was going to be a busy day, so I should really get up, but nah.  I waited until I could smell the delicious scent of waffles wafting into the room before I dragged myself out of bed.

            Sasuke was in the kitchen, watching the waffle maker.

            “Good morning, best boyfriend ever,” I said, hugging him from behind.

            “You’ve never had another boyfriend.”

            “See how special you are!” I said, kissing his temple.

            “Maybe you should try dating someone sane,” Sasuke muttered.

            “Would someone sane make me waffles?!”

            “Probably.”

            “Oh…”

            Sasuke elbowed me to let go, and opened the waffle iron.  The waffles were all perfectly golden brown.

            We ate breakfast and worked out, then I rushed around getting ready.  I was supposed to be at the Academy early to start preparing for the entrance ceremony.

            “Hurry up,” Sasuke said, standing with one foot out the door.

            “Coming,” I whined, trying to tie my forehead protector one-handed.

            “What do you want…?” Sasuke said.

            I jogged up behind him at the door.  “Whaddya mean?” I asked, confused.

            “You’re really pretty,” the small girl standing outside our door said.  I’d seen her a couple of times going into the apartment next door.

            “Yeah, he’s not bad,” I agreed, slinging an arm around his shoulder.

            Sasuke gave me an annoyed look.

            “Oh… are you two… together?” she asked, looking between us warily.

            “Yeah!” I said enthusiastically.

            Sasuke’s look got even more irritated.

            “How’d that happen?” she asked, looking me up and down.

            “What the heck, why do even children think I’m hideous?!”

            “I don’t think you’re hideous, I just don’t think you match Big Brother’s classic beauty and stoicism,” the girl said.

            Sasuke snorted at that, and he seemed to relax.  Even harmless little children made him nervous, but apparently all they had to do was insult me to prove that they were a non-threat.

            “I’ll have you know that I am the most sought-after, best-looking ninja hero in all of Konoha,” I protested.

            The girl looked skeptical.

            “I saved the world,” I tried.

            Her eyes narrowed.

            “I-” I started, determined to make this small child like me.

            “Naruto, we’re going to be late,” Sasuke said, pulling me out the door and closing it behind us.

            “Oh, right…” I said, locking the door.

            “Wait, you’re Uzumaki Naruto?!” the girl cried.

            “Heh, yeah, that’s me,” I said, scratching my nose.

            “Oh…” she said, looking conflicted.  “I thought you’d be taller.”

            Sasuke let out a short bark of laughter that surprised us both.

            “Shut up, jerk!” I said, trying to glare at him.

            The girl looked at me suspiciously.  “I thought you were together.”

            “We are,” I said, once again confused by the conversation.

            “You shouldn’t talk to him like that, then,” she said.  “You should say nice things.”

            Sasuke’s amusement had just about reached maximum capacity.

            “Anyway, I guess if you’re Uzumaki Naruto, then maybe I can acknowledge you as a worthy match for Big Brother here.  Maybe.”

            “Thanks?” I said.

            The girl nodded curtly.  “I need to get to the Academy now.  Goodbye.”

            “What’s your name?” Sasuke said, and I gave him a strange look.  When did he ever willingly interact with other people?

            “Koneko,” she said, grinning broadly.  “Matsudaira Koneko.  I live next door!”

            Sasuke nodded.

            Koneko waved and bounced off.

            “You know, usually when you ask someone for their name, you give yours first,” I said as we started walking towards the clinic.

            Sasuke ignored me.

            I dropped him off and headed straight for the Academy.

            “You look exhausted…” Sakura commented as I came up beside her.

            “Nah, I’m fine,” I said.  “What needs to be done?”

            Sakura got me alphabetizing the certificates we were going to pass to each of the new entrants.  I got to be the certificate holder, passing each one to Kakashi as the names were announced.

            “Matsudaira Koneko.”

            Koneko came up and took her certificate.  She bowed to Kakashi, then turned to me and stuck her tongue out.

            I gaped at her.

            Koneko sauntered back to her spot in line.

            Sasuke cracked up when I told him about it.

            “Why are you laughing?!” I cried.  “You should be defending me!”

            “From a little girl?”

            “Yes!  A very vicious little girl!  After the ceremony, Sakura asked her if she knew me, and she said we were rivals!”

            Sasuke started laughing harder.

            I loved seeing him laugh.  My heart got all gooey, even if it was at my expense.

            The next morning, as we were setting out for the clinic, the next door down opened.  Out came Koneko, heading for the Academy.

            “Good morning!” she greeted Sasuke cheerfully.

            Sasuke gave her a nod.  It was a pretty big gesture coming from him.

            “Good morning!” I said, forcing some cheer into my voice.  I wasn’t going to lose to a six-year-old.

            “Oh, it’s you,” she said, looking me up and down distastefully.

            Sasuke smiled.

            “Why do you have to get so much amusement at my expense?!” I demanded.

            “Because you’re an idiot,” he said, tossing his hair over his shoulder with a flick of his head.

            “Oh my god, cut your hair already,” I said, even as I was entranced by the beauty of it.  It was just too freaky to see him looking so much like Itachi.

            “Your hair is beautiful,” Koneko interrupted.  “If this dunce can’t see it, then dump him.”

            “Dunce?!” I cried.  “Dunce?!  I am your senpai, you know!  Treat me with some respect!”

            “Then earn it,” Koneko said.  “See you later, Big Brother!”  With that, she raced off.

            “I don’t get her,” I complained as we walked.  “Kids love me.  And they hate you ’cause you’re so horrible.”

            Sasuke gave me a look.

            “You are.  You’re so rotten to innocent little kids.  Why are you so nice to her, anyway?”

            “She’s funny.”

            “I’m funny, but you’re not nice to me!”

            “You’re not actually that funny.”

            “Whaaaaat?!”

            Sasuke smiled, pulling me forward by my t-shirt as we stood in front of the clinic’s gate.

            I basked in the glow of it, all previous frustrations drained away.

            “Dummy,” he said, closing the gap and giving me a smooch.

            “Heh,” I said as he pulled away.  Sasuke wasn’t one for PDA, unless we counted him clinging to me in terror when he was having an episode in public, so it was really nice and made me feel all overflowy and happy.

            He walked through the gate, and I realized he had once again gotten the upper hand on me.

            How could he just drain all of my will to fight?

            ‘You don’t see him as a worthy fighting partner,’ Kurama murmured, letting out a loud yawn that echoed through my ears.

            “Uh, yes I do,” I said.  “We fight all the time.”

            ‘You let him win all the time.  You feel sorry for him.’

            “I do not!”

            ‘Ha.’

            “Don’t ha at me.  What are you butting in for, anyway?”

            ‘I was bored.’

            “Go back to sleep then.”

            ‘I’ve been sleeping for too long.  I’m restless now.’

            “And whaddya want me to do about it?”

            ‘Let me out.  We haven’t trained since Amegakure.’

            “Wow, that was like a year ago…”

            ‘Yeah.  Exactly.’

            “But you’ve just been sleeping all the time, I thought you were hibernating or something.”

            ‘I was.  Now I want to fight.’

            “There’s not really anyone around here who can fight us…”

            ‘Well.’

            I sighed, coming to a stop at the Academy.  “I’ll see what I can do.”

           Kurama let out a contented hum as he curled back around himself, disappearing into the recesses of my mind.

Chapter Text

            I shifted in my seat in Dr. Shizuta’s office, staring at the wall.

            Sasuke was in the next chair over, eyeing me suspiciously.

            “Was there something you needed to talk about, Naruto?” Dr. Shizuta prodded me.

            “Uhhh, nope,” I said.

            “Do you believe him, Sasuke?”

            “No,” Sasuke said, sounding annoyed.

            “It’s not…” I started to say, but I didn’t know how to continue.

            “You know, when you don’t just come out and say it, you make things worse for yourself,” Dr. Shizuta commented.

            “Huh?” I said.

            “Now Sasuke’s already mad at you before you’ve even said anything to make him mad.”

            “I’m not mad,” Sasuke said in a way that clearly said that he was mad.

            I sighed, slouching down into the easy chair.  “It’s not important.”

            They were both staring me down.

            “It’s just… Kurama… and… I dunno… feeling kinda… trapped?”

            “What do you mean?” Dr. Shizuta asked, taking a sip of her tea.

            “Yeah, Naruto, what do you mean?” Sasuke asked, giving me a nasty look.

            “It’s nothing!” I said, flailing around.

            Sasuke looked away, and I could tell that I was going to get kicked out of my own damn bed that night.

            ‘Pussy,’ Kurama said with a snort.

            ‘Shut up, you,’ I growled at him in my head.  ‘It’s your fault anyway!  You’ve been bitching nonstop the last month!’

            “Are you okay?” Dr. Shizuta asked, giving me a concerned look.

            “He’s talking to his pet fox,” Sasuke said disdainfully.

            “Hey, how do you know that?!” I asked in surprise.

            “I still have some chakra,” Sasuke said, flipping me off with his prosthetic.

            “Can you… hear us…?” I trailed off nervously.

            “What if I can?”

            I felt my eyes widening in horror.

            Sasuke’s eyes focused on me, narrowing.  “What exactly have you two been saying about me?”

            “Nothing, nothing, nothing!” I cried, my flailing reaching new athletic heights.  “Wait, so you can’t hear us?”

            “I can’t use my sharingan, fucktard!”

            I flinched.

            “The kyuubi talks to you?” Dr. Shizuta asked, seeming unbothered by Sasuke’s rage.  “In your head?”

            “Well, yeah, I mean we share the same body,” I said, keeping a nervous eye on Sasuke.  “Babe, seriously, we’re not… he just wants to train, that’s all.”

            “Don’t call me that.”

            “Sasuke.”

            “Naruto.”

            I sighed.  “I didn’t want to talk about it because it’s not a big deal.  You,” I said, turning to Dr. Shizuta, “had to go and make it a big deal.”

            “Sorry,” she said with a shrug.  It was a really lousy apology.

            “Go and train, who gives a fuck?” Sasuke said, giving me a very nasty look.

            “Yeah, but he wants to… you know, train with ninjas like Gaara and B.”

            “I get it Naruto, you’re leaving, no one cares.”

            “I’m not leaving!” I protested.

            “No one cares,” Sasuke repeated.  “No one’s trapping you here.”

            The venom in his voice gave me chills.  “Sasuke,” I whined.

            “I don’t think this is a very productive discussion,” Dr. Shizuta interjected.  “You both could stand to be a little more honest.”

            We glared at her.

            “Don’t shoot the messenger,” she said, holding up her hands.

            Sasuke pulled his knees up to his chest, pointedly staring away from both of us.

            “Naruto, maybe your choice of words earlier wasn’t the best,” Dr. Shizuta said.  “Why don’t you try explaining everything more clearly?”

            “What’s wrong with my choice of words?” I started out sourly, but looking at Sasuke being so standoffish made me quickly change my tune.  “Kurama’s gotten restless because I haven’t gone all out using his chakra in a really long time.  He needs me to do some training, ya know?  With someone strong.  But there’s not really anyone here I can go all out on.  So it seems like we’d have to leave the vill-”

            “Then just fucking go!” Sasuke snapped.

            “Sasuke, I think you should try listening to what Naruto is saying right now.”

            “Fuck what you think, I don’t care!”

            “But you obviously do.”

            “I don’t!” he shouted, then crumbled into himself.

            I was moving towards him when Dr. Shizuta said, “Don’t.”

            “But…” I tried to protest.

            She shook her head.  “Wait it out.”

            “I can’t,” I said, still reaching for him.

            “Naruto!”

            I sighed, sinking into my chair.

            Sasuke looked broken, his shoulders shaking.

            This was exactly why I hadn’t wanted to talk about it.  I wasn’t planning on leaving, anyway, so why stress Sasuke out like that?  He was so… fra…gile…

            ‘You treat him like glass,’ Kurama said irritably.  ‘Maybe he needs to get smashed up a bit to toughen up.’

            ‘What the hell, Kurama?  I’m not gonna smash him up!’

            ‘Well, stop babying him at least.  Do you think he likes being treated like that?  He’s an Uchiha.  They’re proud motherfuckers.’

            ‘I don’t baby him!’

            ‘Oh my god…’

            “Sasuke, are you calm?” Dr. Shizuta asked.

            “Fuck off,” Sasuke muttered into his knees.

            There was a lot of tension in the room, and it was making my stomach churn.

            Kurama sensed it and backed off.  ‘I’ll leave it to you, kid.’

            “Why don’t you tell Naruto why you don’t want him to leave?”

            “No.”

            Dr. Shizuta let out a loud, drawn-out sigh.  “I think it would be really helpful.”

            “Fuck what you think.”

            “Sasuke,” I said, tired of him being so rude.  “You don’t hafta be so vulgar in front of the doc.”

            “And fuck what you think, too.”

            I turned to Dr. Shizuta, who was rolling her eyes.  “I’m sorry.”

            “No need,” she replied.  “Though he’s much less rude when you’re not here.  Mostly because he doesn’t say anything at all.”

            “Don’t talk about me like I’m not here,” Sasuke said sullenly.

            “Then quit being a jerk,” I said, kicking his chair over and over.

            “Naruto, that’s not helping,” Dr. Shizuta scolded me.

            I looked away guiltily.

            “I’ve tried not to push this, but Sasuke, you need to tell Naruto,” Dr. Shizuta said, sounding more authoritative than usual.

            “Tell me what?” I asked, scratching my nose.

            “Tell you what happened when you left.”

            “Uhh… something happened?” I asked.

            “Shut up,” Sasuke hissed.  “Shut up, shut up, shut up!”

            Dr. Shizuta was watching him carefully.

            I didn’t know what I was supposed to do.  If we were at home, I would have hugged him.  Then we probably would have fooled around.  All would be forgotten by the next morning.

            According to Dr. Shizuta, though, we were just supposed to sit here and watch him unravel.  I hated seeing him like that, it made my stomach twist into knots into knots into knots.

            “We’ve come this far, might as well go all the way,” Dr. Shizuta said.

            “SHUT UP!” Sasuke screamed, covering his ears.

            “Dr. Shizuta…” I said, staring at her pleadingly.

            “Sasuke,” she said.  “If you don’t want to tell him yourself, I can do it for you.”

            He turned to her with panicked eyes.  “No!  Don’t you dare!”

            “Sasuke, if I think that you’re a danger to yourself…”

            “No!” Sasuke said sharply.

            “Wait, what?” I interjected.

            “Are you going to tell him?” she asked.

            Sasuke hesitated.  He nodded slowly.  “But not here.”

            “You want to go home and talk?”

            Sasuke nodded again.

            “Okay, I’m sorry I pushed you.”

            Sasuke looked away.

            “What’s… going on…?” I ventured.

            “Why don’t you two head home early?” Dr. Shizuta suggested.

            I felt nervous as we walked home.

            Sasuke walked a little behind me, which wasn’t unusual.  He was quiet, too, which was also not unusual.

            As we went up the stairs, a voice called out to us.  “Big Brother!”

            Sasuke stiffened, then relaxed.  He waved to Koneko as she came bounding up behind us.

            “I just finished kunai practice with Tenten-sensei,” she said, smiling proudly.  “Gotta hurry up and make dinner for Grandpa!” she added, bounding over to her apartment and unlocking the door.

            “I guess she’s a little cute,” I said.  “Even if she’s my rival.”

            Sasuke waited for me to unlock the door.  He shifted uncomfortably.

            “Babe, don’t…” I said, pulling him through the door, “don’t… feel like you have to do anything you don’t want to, okay?”

            Sasuke just pushed me aside and went to the bedroom, shutting the door.

            I cleaned up and started cooking.  While I was chopping up the vegetables, the clone I’d sent to Ino’s flower shop released.  I snorted at the sudden memory of Lee buying a dozen roses.  I’d thought they’d be for Sakura or someone, but he’d passionately declared that they were for Gai.  He didn’t seem to think there was anything strange about giving his teacher a bunch of flowers symbolic of romantic love.

            “Sasuke, come eat,” I called.

            I was ignored.

            I went over and knocked on the door.

            “Not hungry,” he said.

            “Uh, yeah, too bad, come eat,” I said.

            The door opened, and Sasuke peered out at me with a glare.  “I thought I didn’t have to do anything I didn’t want to.”

            “Hey,” I protested.  “You know that doesn’t include eating.  Eating is nonnegotiable!”

            “But it’s a waste of time.”

            “How is eating a waste of time?!”

            Sasuke just glared at me.

            “Come on,” I said, tugging on his sleeve.  “Don’t be mad at me.”

            “I’m not mad at you.”

            I sighed.

            Sasuke nudged me aside and went to the table.  He mostly just pushed the food around his plate.

            “It goes in your mouth.”

            I was ignored.

            It made me feel lonely.

            “Stop looking at me like that,” Sasuke muttered.

            “Like what?”

            “Like I’m punching a hole in your chest.”

            We both went quiet.

            Sasuke ate enough to pacify me, then passed me his plate to eat the rest.  He waited until I finished, and dried the plates as I washed them.

            “Thank you,” I said, handing him the last cup to dry.

            Sasuke just took it and wiped it, placing it back in the cupboard.

            “So…” I said.

            Sasuke raised his eyebrows at me.

            “Are we gonna… talk?” I asked.

            “Go sit down,” Sasuke said, gesturing to the couch.

            “O…kay…” I said, going to sit down.

            Sasuke stayed standing.  He started to pace.

            I didn’t want to push him, but the curiosity was getting to me.  I was really nervous, too.  What was this deep, dark secret that Sasuke didn’t want to share with me?  I’d seen him at his worst.  There was no reason to hide anything from me.

            So I thought.

            “I… gave up,” Sasuke said.  “At the Valley of the End.”

            “Whaddya mean?”

            “Don’t say anything.”

            “Why can’t I?”

            “Because I said so.”

            “But-”

            “Just shut up, god.  I’m trying to talk to you.”

            I was pouting, but I stayed quiet.

            “Until that moment, I… I was living for revenge.  That’s all.  There was nothing else.  But at the Valley of the End, I gave that up.  I lost to you, and I gave that up.  I gave up my reason for living.”

            “But that-”

            “I told you not to talk!”

            “But-”

            “This isn’t about you!  It’s about me!”

            I quieted down.  This didn’t sound like Sasuke.

            “Even if Sakura kept my body alive, I died there.  I died at the Valley of the End.  After that, every day was fucking hell.  I just saw all of it over and over, whether I was awake or sleeping, every horrible fucking thing just played on an endless loop behind my eyelids.  The murder of my entire family at the hands of my brother, over and over.  The way his sword cut through my mother… the way her body flopped over lifelessly…  Every day!  Every fucking day!  And then they drugged me into a zombie, and I couldn’t feel anything, and I liked it that way.  You can’t feel anything when you’re dead.  That’s how it’s supposed to be.”

            “Sasuke…” I said quietly, reaching for him.

            “This isn’t about you!” he snapped, slapping my arms away.  “I’m already dead, Naruto, but you’re the only one who can’t see it!”

            “You sound crazy,” I informed him.  “How can you be dead when you’re standing right here?”

            “You’re not listening!”

            “I’m not s’posed ta feed into your delusions.”

            “I will kill you,” Sasuke hissed, his hand suddenly closing around my throat.

            I looked up at him, waiting for his homicidal urge to pass.

            He only seemed to get more homicidal, though, as his hand tightened uncomfortably around my throat.  “I started hiding my pills under my tongue.  At the clinic.  After you left.  I hid them in the bathroom.  The ANBU didn’t follow me in there.  I just kept hiding them until I had enough, and then I swallowed them all.”

            I wrenched his hand from my throat.  “Sasuke…” I said, standing so we could be eye-level.

            “It wasn’t a proper Uchiha death.  I was supposed to die on the battlefield.  But they took that away from me.  I know that you won’t kill me now, so I can only die by my own hands.  It was humiliating, waking up on that dirty bathroom floor when the ANBU made me vomit.  He wanted me to die, so he could have just left me there.  Fucking Konoha and your selective honor.  It was my choice.  He had no right to interfere.”

            I was at a loss.  Uchiha Sasuke would never try to kill himself.  The idea was almost laughable.  I looked at the man in front of me, and I had no idea who he was.

            “Do you hate me now?” he sneered at me, catching the look in my eyes.  “Are you ashamed of me?  What?  What is it, idiot?”

            “Why would you…” I started, but all I could do was swallow the lump in my throat.

            “I told you, I’m already dead!”

            Then something else occurred to me.  Sasuke dumping all of his pills on the floor.  Sasuke trying to flush his pills down the toilet.  Pills everywhere.  Me, leaving him to clean them up.  Dr. Shizuta saying that she would only refill the pills this once.

            I looked at him, and suddenly I was furious.  “Where are they?!” I yelled, yanking him off of his feet by his shirt.

            Sasuke looked startled.

            “Where are you hiding them?” I growled, getting in his face.

            He started to panic.

            “You tell me right now,” I hissed.

            “No,” he said, starting to struggle from my grip.

            “WHERE ARE THEY?!” I raged.

            Sasuke shrank away from me.

            I could only see red.  I grabbed him by his hair at the back of his neck and dragged him to our room, dumping him on the floor.  “Where.  Are.  They?”  I started tearing the room apart.

            They were in the toilet tank in a plastic bag.  I’d smashed the top of the tank in my anger, and now the shattered ceramic was all over the floor.

            “Don’t!” Sasuke said, trying to get the pills back from me.

           I backhanded him at full strength without really thinking, and dumped all the pills in the toilet, flushing them.  The anger started to fade away.  I turned to Sasuke.

            He was a small heap on the ground.

            “Sasuke!” I cried, kneeling down beside him.

            Sasuke sat up suddenly, pounding me with his fists.  “Why?!” he screamed.

            “You think I’m gonna let you just kill yourself?!” I snapped, still not completely calm myself.

            “It’s not your choice!”

            “It’s not yours either!”

            “It’s my fucking body!  It’s my fucking life!”

            I didn’t mean to burst into tears.

Chapter Text

            “We’re a mess,” I murmured into Sasuke’s hair, holding him tightly.

            “I’m sorry…”

            “You should be, you asshole,” I said, squeezing him even tighter.  I’d finally stopped crying, but I still felt a little hysterical.

            “Fuck you,” he muttered, hugging me back.

            “What are we going to do?” I asked, my voice cracking.

            “Why do we have to do anything?”

            “You tried to kill yourself!”

            “That was almost three years ago.”

            “You were hoarding pills in our toilet!”

            “Just in case.”

            “What the hell is that supposed to mean?!”

            “You know what it means.”

            “That as soon as I turn my back, you’re going to swallow all those… oh my god…”

            “I wouldn’t do that to you,” Sasuke said quietly.

            “Then why did you have them?” I asked.  I was in agony.  Everything inside of me hurt.

            “For when the time is right.”

            “Stop!” I half-screamed, half-sobbed, squeezing him as tight as I could.

            “I’m sorry,” Sasuke said, patting my head awkwardly.

            “I don’t understand,” I whimpered.

            “I can’t explain it to you.  You don’t listen.”

            “Sasuke…” I sniffed, burying my face in his neck.  “I love you.  I really actually love you.  If you…”  I swallowed.

            “I know.”

            “Then why did you… how could you… why…?”

            “It has nothing to do with you.”

            “Sasuke…”

            He reached down, cupping my chin and forcing me to look at him.

            I flinched, not wanting to look at the angry-looking handprint bruising his cheek.

            Sasuke pressed his lips to mine.

            It was cold and distant.

            I pulled away.

            Sasuke looked at me questioningly.

            I felt like I was looking at a stranger.

            “I knew I shouldn’t have told you,” Sasuke muttered.

            The pain in my chest was getting overwhelming.  “I can’t do this…”

            “Do what?” he asked, eyes narrowing.

            “I don’t know… I don’t know…”  The tears were already threatening to come out again.

            “Enough already,” Sasuke said.  “Crybaby,” he added.

            “Shut up,” I muttered, giving him a shove with one hand as I scrubbed my eyes with the other.

            Sasuke tried to kiss me again, and I shoved him away more forcefully.

            “What the hell, Naruto?!” he said, starting to get angry.

            “I’m not in the mood,” I said, giving him a strange look.

            “When are you ever ‘not in the mood’?” Sasuke asked, crossing his arms over his chest.

            “Uh, right now, obviously.”

            “I will suck your dick and let you come in my mouth.”

            I felt zero interest.  “No, thank you.”

            “What is wrong with you?” Sasuke growled, stretching out his leg and kicking me.  The distance between us had been steadily growing.

            “What is wrong with you?!” I shot back.  “I just found your secret suicide stash, and you’re acting like nothing happened!”

            “Nothing did happen,” he said.  “You’re dumb,” he added, getting up and leaving me alone in the hallway.

            I felt at a loss.

            After a while of staring into space, I got up and found Sasuke.

            He was on the couch, watching the turned-off television.

            “You’re out of your mind,” I informed him.

            “Okay.”

            “No, like you are seriously fucking crazy.”

            “Yeah, hence I was institutionalized.”

            “Sasuke!”

            “What?”

            “I don’t know!  I need some kind of resolution!”

            “What, do you want me to promise to never kill myself or something?”

            “That would be a good start!”

            “Well, I promise I won’t let you find the body.”

            “What the hell?!  What the fuck is wrong with you?!  Don’t say shit like that!”

            “Can we just leave it for now?  I’m tired.”

            “How am I supposed to just leave this?!”

            “Just fucking leave it already!” Sasuke snapped.

            “Sasuke,” I sniffled.

            “Are you broken, you stupid usuratonkachi?” Sasuke asked, yanking me onto the couch with him.

            “I think I am,” I whispered, letting him tuck me into his arms.

            “I’m sorry, okay?  I’m sorry that this is upsetting you.  I’m sorry I ruined your life.  I’m sorry.”

            “You didn’t ruin my life,” I mumbled into his chest.

            “Yes, I did.”

            “You made me stronger and better.”

            “I mean now.”

            I sighed, burying myself in him.  “Do you love me, S’ke?”

            “I don’t mind you,” Sasuke said, patting me on the head.

            “Bastard,” I muttered.

            We didn’t talk for a while.

            “You’re heavy,” Sasuke finally complained, pushing me away.

            “I’m gonna shower,” I said, going back to the hallway.  There was still smashed ceramic all over the floor.  I avoided it and got into the shower, attempting to wash up quickly.  Instead, I found myself just standing under the spray, unmoving.

            Sasuke finally came and got me.  I let him wrap a towel around me and push me to the bathroom sink to brush my teeth.

            I was probably in bed about five seconds before rolling over and pulling Sasuke to me.

            “Too tight, idiot,” he muttered.

            “Sorry,” I said, unmoving.

            Sasuke actually fell asleep before me, and seemed to sleep soundly through the night.

            It was weird waking up next to him.  It was a nice weird, but it was also a weird weird.

            “Hey,” I said with a sleep-choked voice.

            “Hey,” he replied in his usual disinterested monotone.

            “You slept okay?" I asked, pulling my hand out from the sheets to touch his cheek.

            “Fine.”

            “Good,” I said.  The intimacy of being so close suddenly felt awkward, and I pulled my hand away, ready to get up.

            “Naruto.”

            I paused, my hand still hovering near his face.

            “Stay for a while?”

            “Oh,” I said, letting my hand slide back under the covers.

            “‘Oh’?” Sasuke repeated, giving me an irritated look.

            “I dunno, we don’t usually do this.”

            “Do what?”

            “Lay in bed together.”

            “We lay in bed together every night.”

            “You know what I mean.”

            “How can anyone fathom the depths of your idiot mind?”

            “That’s just mean.”

            “Sorry.”

            “Why do you keep apologizing?!  It’s weird!”

            Sasuke got a sullen look on his face.

            “Look, yesterday was a lot.  Like too much.  I slept on it, and it’s still… there.  Weighing on me.”

            “It would be easier for you,” Sasuke finally said.

            “What would be?”

            “If I wasn’t here.”

            “Oh my god, bastard, shut up already.”

            Sasuke gave me an unreadable look before threading his fingers through the hair at the back of my neck and forcing his lips against mine.

            “Hey,” I said, pushing him away.  “I thought I wasn’t allowed to kiss you until I brushed my teeth and gargled five hundred times because my morning breath is just so offensive to you.”

            “Naruto,” he growled, and I knew it was a command.

            “Hey,” I said, cupping his face but keeping him at a distance.

            “Naruto.”

            “I have to get to the Academy,” I said, pulling away.

            “Naruto.”

            I got up and started getting dressed.  “I’m teaching today, so I want to get there early.”

            “Naruto,” he said, and I knew it was the last time.

            “I’ll make us some breakfast today, okay?” I said, moving out to the kitchen.  I started cooking up toast and sausage, and ended up eating by myself.

            Sasuke finally came out, still wearing sweatpants and one of my oversized t-shirts.  His hair was all mussed, and he looked like a bum.

            “You look like a bum.”

            “Fuck off,” Sasuke muttered, sitting next to me.

            “Eat,” I said, forking a sausage and sticking it in his face.

            Sasuke gave me a look of death.

            “Come on, hurry up,” I said, waving it around.

            “I can feed myself,” Sasuke said, picking up his toast and taking the smallest bite possible.

            “Oh my god, this is going to take hours,” I complained, taking a bite of the sausage.

            “Tch.”

            I got up and washed the pans and my dishes.

            Sasuke had given up halfway through the toast.

            “You ready?” I asked, looking him up and down.

            Sasuke shrugged.

            “Did you take your,” I started and paused, “…pills?”

            “No.”

            “Well take them already.”

            Sasuke picked up the juice I’d poured for him and took his pills.

            “Are you really going like that?” I asked.

            Sasuke shrugged.

            “Let’s go then,” I said, moving towards the door.

            Sasuke followed, leaving his barely eaten food behind on the table.

            I was locking the door when Koneko came storming out of her apartment.

            “You!” she roared, sticking her finger in my face.

            “Huh?” I said.

            Her fierce eyes flicked to Sasuke.  Her jaw dropped.

            “We’re gonna practice some simple taijutsu today,” I said, oblivious to her complete rage.

            Koneko suddenly leapt into the air and dropkicked me.

            She was surprisingly strong for a six-year-old, and as I hadn’t been expecting it, I found myself flat on my back.

            “Uh, I meant at the Academy,” I said.

            “We heard everything!” she hissed at me.

            “Huh?”

            “Are you okay?” she asked, flicking her eyes to Sasuke again.

            Sasuke shrugged.

            “You don’t have to stay with him!” she said.  “Just because he’s s’posed ta be the hero of the village and whatever, it doesn’t matter!  I’ll support you!”

            “Thanks,” Sasuke said with a completely serious face.

            “What is going on…?” I asked, and got punched in the face for asking.  “Ow, what the hell?!”

            Koneko glowered death at me, and it was kind of intimidating.  “You hit him.”

            “We hit each other all the time…”

            She hit me in the face again.

            “Owww, stop already!”

            “Is that what Big Brother said while you were beating him?!” Koneko demanded, and let loose a torrent of her fists.

            “Sasuke, help me!” I said, feebly trying to defend myself.  She had the advantage, what with sitting on my chest, and being six.  How was I supposed to fight back?

            “You’re the ninja messiah,” he said with a shrug.

            “What the hell is that supposed to mean, bastard?!”

            “Don’t call him that!” Koneko cried, continuing to pummel me.

            “He calls me worse!” I cried.  I used my arms to defend myself, but they were starting to feel bruised under her vicious onslaught, even the artificial one, and that was certainly a feat.

            “So it’s okay to hit him?!”

            “You’re the one hitting me!” I wailed.

            “We heard you screaming at him!  We heard all the crashes!  I wanted to report you to the authorities, but Grandpa wouldn’t let me!”

            “Thank you, Grandpa…” I murmured, huddling behind my aching arms.

            “Well, he’s not here to save you now!”

            Sasuke let out a loud guffaw, and we both turned to him.  While I could tell that he was clearly laughing behind his hand, Koneko seemed to think that Sasuke ‘I only cry when my family gets murdered or when I blow off my best friend’s arm’ Uchiha was getting teary.

            “You’re a monster!” Koneko cried, turning her full fury back on me.

            “Sasuke!” I whined.

            “Don’t you dare pull him into this!”

            “But he started the whole fight!”

            “Victim blamer!”

            “Sasuke is not a victim!  He’s a manipulative bastard who happens to be very pretty, so everyone lets him get away with it!”

            “So you resent him for his beauty?  You beat him for it?!”

            “I only hit him once!  By accident!  Do you know about the time he put his hand through my chest?!”

            “He’s not a ninja!  How is he supposed to defend himself against you?!”

            Sasuke’s chakra crackled to life, then quickly faded.

            We both looked at him.

            Sasuke wasn’t amused anymore.

            “Sasuke is one of the greatest ninjas who ever lived,” I said solemnly.

            “But… he doesn’t…” Koneko trailed off uncertainly.  Her fists both rested against my arms, unmoving.

            Sasuke turned away, but not before I saw that familiar gleam in his eye.  It was something I hadn’t seen since the Valley of the End.

Chapter Text

            Sasuke wasn’t talking to me.

            He also wasn’t talking to his therapist.

            “So you two talked about it?” Dr. Shizuta prodded.

            “About Sasuke trying to kill himself?” I specified for her.

            “Yes.”

            “What is the point of asking such a stupid fucking question that you already know the answer to?!”

            Dr. Shizuta’s eyes shifted smoothly from me and my screaming rage to Sasuke and his silent anger.  “So it didn’t go well.”

            “I’m sorry,” I said quickly, rubbing the back of my neck.  “Can we… not talk about it?”

            “Sure,” Dr. Shizuta said, leaning back in her chair.  “What do you want to talk about?”

            We were both silent.

            “Your temper’s been pretty out of control lately,” she said off-handedly.

            “No it hasn’t!”

            Dr. Shizuta raised an eyebrow, and I could see Sasuke rolling his eyes, even with his back to me.

            “It hasn’t,” I said, crossing my arms over my chest.

            “Naruto, Sasuke is under my care,” Dr. Shizuta said.  “If his home environment is not safe…”

            “How is it not safe?!” I demanded, flailing around.

            “Because you beat me, Naruto,” Sasuke said, turning and putting his nasty purple cheek on full display.

            “I don’t beat you, bastard!”

            Sasuke touched his cheek gingerly, maintaining eye contact with me.

            “I don’t,” I said, pouting.

            “Well, that’s not what people around town are saying…” Dr. Shizuta commented.

            I was mortified.

            “Your reputation’s really going downhill, huh?” Sasuke said, flopping back into his chair.

            “And whose fault is that?!”

            “Mine, obviously,” Sasuke muttered.

            “And since when did you start talking to me again?!  You haven’t talked to me for two days!”

            “Nothing to talk about,” Sasuke said with a shrug.

            Dr. Shizuta was looking at him with concern.

            “I don’t beat him!” I told her.

            “I know,” she said.  “But you two can’t fight the way you used to.”

            Sasuke twitched.

            I rubbed the back of my neck.

            “I’m… uneasy about your relationship,” Dr. Shizuta said slowly.

            “Why?” I asked, shifting in my seat.

            “Because you beat me.”

            “Stop saying that!” I yelled at Sasuke.

            He smiled.

            “Enough, Sasuke,” Dr. Shizuta said.  “We’ve talked about this.  You are angry with Naruto.  That’s not free license to keep antagonizing him.”

            “Tch.”

            “Why don’t you tell him why you’re angry?”

            “I’m not angry.”

            “Yeah, have you ever seen him when he’s angry?” I put in.  I rubbed my chest absently.

            “Has anyone ever told you two that you have serious denial issues?” Dr. Shizuta asked.

            “No?” I said.

            “You just don’t listen,” Sasuke muttered.

            “Maybe he doesn’t have anything to listen to,” Dr. Shizuta suggested.  “Ya know, since you don’t talk to him.”

            “Stop with the doctor talk,” Sasuke said irritably.  “If you want to say something, then just say it already.”

            “I don’t want to say anything,” she said calmly.  “I want you to say it.”

            “Say what?” Sasuke asked, getting up out of his chair and pacing.

            “Tell him that he disappointed you.”

            “Well, you just spoiled the surprise,” Sasuke muttered, continuing to pace.

            “I… what…?” I said.  “I… disappointed you…?”

            “I’m not disappointed,” Sasuke growled.

            “I think that’s a pretty accurate description,” Dr. Shizuta said.  “He disappointed you, so you’ve written him off.”

            “Isn’t this session done yet?” Sasuke muttered, staring pointedly at the clock.

            “You wrote me off?” I asked quietly.

            “Why do you have to say things like that?” Sasuke snapped at Dr. Shizuta, giving her a condescending look.  “You know he’s going to go full crybaby and guilt me with his stupid eyes, and it’s just going to be annoying.”

            I was embarrassed that my eyes were already getting teary.  “I will not,” I said, wiping them defiantly.  “And my eyes aren’t stupid!”

            “Oh, they’re very stupid, loser.”

            “Shut up!”

            “You shut up!”

            “Wow, this is a productive discussion,” Dr. Shizuta interjected.  “You two need to talk.  Properly.”

            “Last time you told us that-” I started.

            “You mean two days ago?” Sasuke interjected.

            “Yes, bastard, two days ago,” I said.  I scratched my nose.  “What was I saying?”

            “It wasn’t important,” Sasuke said.

            “Shut up,” I said, trying to kick him.

            Sasuke shifted away from me.

            “Jerk.”

            He flipped me off in response.

            “If this is the only kind of interaction that you two are having, then I think it’s time for a different living situation for Sasuke.”

            “What?!  No!” I protested.

            Sasuke just shrugged.

            “You don’t want to live with me anymore?” I asked, chewing on my bottom lip.

            Sasuke shrugged again.

            “Oh…” I trailed off, not knowing if I wanted to be depressed or angry.

            Dr. Shizuta didn’t seem to have any of her obnoxious questions or insights for us.

            “Let’s go home, idiot,” Sasuke finally said after what had to be an hour of silence.  Or five minutes.  Five minutes that felt like an hour.

            I stared at him, uncomprehending.

            Sasuke grabbed me by the shirt and dragged me behind him.

            “Bye,” Dr. Shizuta said, frowning.

            “Bye…” I said.

            Sasuke went straight to the couch when we got home and pulled a blanket over himself, staring at the turned-off TV.

            “Watch something,” I muttered, turning the television on.  The news was on, and I left it.  I wanted to talk, but I didn’t know what to say.

            I felt uncomfortable.

            I felt guilty.

            “Tell him that he disappointed you.”

            I wanted to claim that that wasn’t true.  I always put Sasuke first.  Before my own wants and needs.  I gave him everything there was to give, so what could he possibly be disappointed in?

            Guiiiiilt.

            We didn’t talk.

            Koneko dragged me aside a couple of weeks later after I’d paired all the kids up to practice taijutsu together.

            “Uhhh, Daikon’s waiting for you,” I said, pointing to the little boy without a partner.

            “We need to talk,” she insisted.

            “About what…?” I asked, taking a step back.

            “About Big Brother,” she said sadly.

            “I already explained to you that I’m not beating him!”

            “Yeah, I got it already,” she said, rolling her eyes.

            “Oh.”

            “So…?”

            “Huh?”

            “Can we talk?”

            “We are talking.”

            “Privately.”

            “Oh, uh, we’re kinda in the middle of class.”

            “Naruto-senseeeei.”

            I was a sucker for bossy brats who always had to get their own way.  “Fine!” I said, crossing my arms over my chest.  “Daikon, make a group of three!” I called, before stepping into the tree line with Koneko.  “What’s so important?”

            Koneko shifted nervously.  “Is… is Big Brother okay?”

            I didn’t really know how to answer that question.  “Errr uhhh um...”

            “He doesn’t say anything in the morning anymore.”

            “Well uhhhh um hurr….”

            “He looks so sad.  Did you do something again?”

            “Wait, why are you blaming me?!”

            “Well this all started after you beat him-”

            “How many times do I have to tell you-”

            “Yeah, I got it.  Anyway.  He looks terrible.  And he smells not good.  And he needs a haircut.”

            “Yes, can you please tell him all that?  Because he just ignores everything I say.”

            Koneko looked sad.  “I’m just a kid.  You’re his boyfriend, fix him.”

            I swallowed.  “I…”

            “NARUTO-SENSEI!”

            One of the kids was nursing a bloody nose.

            “Crap…” I said, pulling myself together and running over to him.

            Koneko kept staring at me accusingly for the rest of the class.

            I went to pick Sasuke up feeling weighted down.

            Sasuke didn’t seem to notice or care.  He ignored me like usual.

            I watched as he lounged on the couch, reading a book.  It was hot, and he had started wearing those scandalous boxers of his again.  To be honest, he looked sexy as hell, but I didn’t feel attracted to him at all.

            “Sasuke?”

            “What?”

            “Oh…” I said, surprised that he answered.  “I dunno.”

            “Then don’t say anything, idiot.”

            “You don’t hafta be a jerk.”

            Sasuke turned the page of his book.

            “Hey,” I said.

            “What.”

            “I’m talking to you.”

            “Then say something.”

            I floundered.

            Sasuke stood up with a sigh and moved towards the bedroom.

            “Hey,” I repeated, catching his arm as he walked past.

            He flicked his eyes to me, looking irritated.

            “I want…” I stumbled.

            “Yes?  What do you want?” Sasuke asked nastily.

            “Let’s sit.  Talk.”

            “About what?”

            “Just come sit with me?”

            “Whatever,” Sasuke muttered, and trudged along beside me to the couch.

            I stared down at my lap, twiddling my thumbs.

            “I never thought I would have to say this, but are you going to talk?” Sasuke asked after a long silence.

            “I don’t know where to start,” I finally admitted.

            I could feel Sasuke’s mood darken.  “Just come out and say it.”

            “Sasuke…”

            Sasuke stared straight ahead like he didn’t hear me.

            I touched his hand and he pulled it away.
            “Do you want to break up?” I asked in a quiet voice.  It was hard to get out.

            “Yeah.”

            I scrubbed my eyes with my palms.

            “What are you crying for?” Sasuke growled.

            I couldn’t see his expression clearly through my blurry eyes.  “I’m not,” I croaked.  Then I sniffed loudly for emphasis.

            “If you’re going to act like this, then why ask the question?” he muttered.

            “You said yes!” I cried.

            “Might as well.”
            “What the hell is that supposed to mean, ‘might as well’?!”

            “You can’t even stand to be near me!”

            “I’m near you right now!  I’m right freaking next to you!”

            Sasuke let out an exasperated sigh.

            “What?!” I cried.  “What?!”

            Sasuke muttered something.

            “Speak up!”

            He turned his head away from me.

            “You don’t get to say that we should break up and then run away!” I snapped, forcing him to look at me.

            “You’re the one who wants to break up,” Sasuke said, trying to look defiant and failing.  He was too fragile.

            “I don’t want to break up!” I yelled.

            “Yes, you do.”

            “I don’t!”

            “Yes.  You do.”

            “No I fucking don’t!  God!”

            “Then kiss me,” Sasuke said with that fragile glare of his.

            “I…” I stumbled, feeling trapped.

            “Pathetic.”

            I didn’t know what to do.

            “We’re over,” Sasuke said, standing up and walking out the door.

Chapter Text

            I caught Sasuke in the stairwell and dragged him back to the apartment.  “You’re such a drama queen!” I complained, sitting him back on the couch.

            Sasuke gave one of his aristocratic shrugs.  I didn’t know how he pulled it off, dressed in my ratty t-shirt and the tiniest boxer shorts that ever lived, but he did.

            “We need to talk,” I said.  “Properly.”

            “Okay, Dr. Shizuta.”

            “Well, she’s usually right about stuff,” I said, crossing my arms over my chest as I slumped back into the cushions.

            “You and I don’t talk,” Sasuke said.

            “No,” I agreed.  “We don’t.  And now look at us.”

            “So you think if we talked we wouldn’t have ended up like this?”

            “Maybe,” I said, attaching myself to the bottom of his t-shirt and tugging.

            Sasuke turned to me, and I could feel the weight of his gaze on my face.

            I kept starting at my hand on his shirt.  I ran the material between my fingers, trying to stay calm when all I wanted to do was cry and yell.  Not to mention punch Sasuke in the face.  I didn’t think any of that would help.

            “Do I disgust you that much?”

            Startled, I met his gaze.  I felt like he was reading my mind, and I wanted to frantically explain that I didn’t want to punch him in the face because he disgusted me, I wanted to do it because he was a jerk, saying he wanted to break up with me and then marching out of the apartment like that.  I thought he was angry with me.

            He just looked sad, though.  He had his usual indifferent mask on, but I could see it in the tilt of his face and the wrinkle between his eyebrows.

            “You don’t disgust me,” I reassured him.

            He didn’t look assured.

            “You don’t,” I repeated insistently.

            “Then why won’t you touch me?”

            “I’m touching you right now, bastard!” I complained, tugging sharply on his shirt.

            “That’s not me,” Sasuke said, suddenly covering my hand with his.

            “What, you want me to hold your hand?” I asked, letting go of the shirt and forcing his fingers between mine.  “I thought I was too ‘clingy’ or whatever,” I said, throwing out the word he’d used during one of our therapy sessions a couple weeks back.

            Sasuke didn’t say anything.

          I studied his face.  He was definitely upset, and trying to hide it.  “Babe, come on.  Tell me what’s going on.”

            “Do you need a written report?” Sasuke spat out.  “You’re the one who needs to just come out and say it.”

            “Say what?” I asked, starting to feel annoyed again.

            “You don’t want me anymore!” Sasuke snapped, trying to take his hand back.

            I locked my fingers around his, holding his hand painfully to mine.  “What the hell is that supposed to mean?!”

            “Let go.”

            “No!”

            “Let go!” Sasuke snapped, sending a pulse of lightning into my hand.

            I yelped, letting go.

            Outside, the ANBU who was always watching over Sasuke seemed to become alert, tuning into us and our chakra.

            Sasuke sensed it, too, and quickly quieted his chakra.

            A beat passed, and the ANBU seemed to relax.

            “You can stop showing off,” Sasuke muttered.

            “Huh?” I said, then realized I’d gone into Sage Mode.  “Oh,” I said, letting the natural energy dissipate.

            We were both quiet for a moment.

            “I didn’t know you could build up that much chakra,” I finally said.

            “I didn’t either,” Sasuke admitted.

            I probably should have been mad about him electrocuting my hand, but I was actually kind of excited by it.  What was wrong with me?

            Sasuke took my hand and examined the burns along the back of it.  They were already healing.

            “I want to fight you,” I said quietly.

            Sasuke swallowed.  “I want to fight you, too.”

            “I don’t understand why they won’t take these stupid things off,” I muttered, brushing my prosthetic against the seals around his eyes.

            Sasuke let go of my hand, throwing his arms around my waist.

            I tensed up.

            He buried his face in my chest, his shoulders rising and falling unevenly.

            “Hey,” I said, hugging him back.  Sasuke didn’t initiate hugs.  Sasuke rarely touched me without me touching him first.

            I suddenly realized how long it had been since we’d last hugged.  I felt my body relaxing, like some weight had been lifted.

           We just held each other for a while, and I couldn’t remember what all the fuss had been about.  We were fine.

            Of course, an hour later we were fighting again.

            “If my cooking is so bad, then cook your damn self!” I yelled.

            “When will you get it into your thick skull that it doesn’t matter who makes the damn food, I don’t want to eat it!”

            “Then what do you want to eat, Sasuke, rocks?”

            “I don’t want to eat anything!”

            “Well you have to eat, so shut up and do it!”

            Sasuke looked down at his plate.

            “Sasuke…” I trailed off, feeling frustrated.

            “What, Naruto, what is the matter now?”

            “I just…” I started.  “I want to… I…”

            “Okay.”

            “Sasuke.”

            “Naruto.”

            “I can’t fix you, can I?” I said, feeling the words leave my tongue like poison.

            “No one asked you to.”

            “Well, Koneko did…”

            Sasuke gave me a funny look.

            “I can’t fix you,” I repeated, and it was like having an epiphany.  A very painful, heartbreaking epiphany.

            “Idiot,” Sasuke muttered, scraping most of his food onto my plate and eating the rest.

            I was surprised when he spooned into bed with me that night.

            “What’s up, Sas’?” I murmured sleepily.

            Sasuke didn’t answer

            “You’re being weird,” I said, but I liked feeling his warm skin against my bare back.

            He had a lot of nightmares that night.

            I slept in late since it was my day off.  When I finally dragged myself out of bed, Sasuke was in the kitchen making breakfast.

            “Good timing,” I said, hugging him from behind while my stomach rumbled away.

            Sasuke ignored me and continued stirring something on the stove, but I could tell he was pleased.

            I don’t know why I’d put up such a big wall between us the last couple of weeks, but it felt good to take it down.  Sure, our relationship was terrible, but I felt all warm and happy just touching Sasuke.  I didn’t know why I’d been denying myself the pleasure.

            We spent what was left of the morning cuddling and reading the newest Midnight Ninja Mystery book.  I could tell I was driving Sasuke crazy with my constant interjections and slow reading, but he stayed reading with me.

            Then somehow Kamaboko and Terusuke started getting it on.

            Feeling vindicated, I yelled, “So it is porn!”

            “This is the first sex scene in seven books…” Sasuke muttered.  A quick turn of my head ascertained that he was blushing.

            I wanted to tease him about it, but I was roughly the shade of a tomato.  “Well, that’s enough reading for today!” I said, scrambling up into a sitting position.

            Sasuke raised an eyebrow up at me from where he still lay on the couch, trying to look judgmental.  The look was undermined by his flushed cheeks.  He looked really cute.

            I leaned in to kiss him, hesitated, and patted him on the head instead.

            Sasuke frowned.

            “Let’s go for a walk!” I said, standing up and stretching.

            “No.”

            “C’mon, some fresh air would be good and stuff.”

            “No.”

            I sighed.  “How about going for a haircut?”

            “No.”

            “A trip to the public baths?”

            Sasuke didn’t even bother to give me an answer.

            “Let’s go to the training grounds.”

            That pissed him off.

            We fought for a while, then I went to the training grounds alone to work off some steam.  I wasn’t there more than ten minutes when I suddenly got a knot in my gut.  I couldn’t leave Sasuke home alone, and I rushed back.

            I threw the door open, expecting to find Sasuke constructing a noose, or about to disembowel himself with one of my kunai, but instead he was reading that damn book.

            “Are you… jerking off?!” I cried, aghast.  “To yourself?!”

            Sasuke gave me the most withering look in his arsenal as he slowly removed his hand from his boxers.

            “God, of course you would get off on a terrible sex scene starring a character based on you,” I muttered.  That was just so something that Sasuke would do.

            “It’s not like you’re getting me off,” he said snidely.

            I tried to come up with a snappy comeback and failed.  I flopped onto the couch, sitting on Sasuke’s stretched out legs.

            “You’re heavy,” he muttered.

            I could tell he was a little embarrassed, but that seemed like the least of our marital problems.  “Whatever, go back to what you were doing.”

            He got even more embarrassed at that, which meant that he got angry.

            I found myself on the floor.

            “You’re not cute at all!” I yelled.

            “Who wants to be cute?!”

            “No, I lied, you’re really cute,” I said.  I sat up with a sigh.  “Come take a bath.”

            “Why?” Sasuke asked, looking away.  “It’s too early.”

            “Yeah, well you smell.”

            Sasuke frowned, his lips moving into what suspiciously looked like a pout.

            I got him washed up, then we soaked in the tub together, knees drawn up to our chests as we faced each other.

            “Isn’t this nice?” I asked, sinking into the water and blowing bubbles.

            Sasuke didn’t answer.

            “You smell a lot better now.”

            “You’re one to talk.”

            “Hey!  I only smell ‘cause I work out and stuff!”

            Sasuke did his judgmental shrug.

            “Jerk,” I said, splashing him.

            Sasuke kicked me in response.

            “Bastard!” I yelled, kicking him back even though I was smiling.

            Sasuke was giving me eyes.

            I looked away.

            He stood up abruptly and got out of the tub.

            “You’re losing weight,” I muttered, watching him as he grabbed a towel from the hall and started drying himself off.

            “You should try it.”

            “I’m not fat!”

            “Fatty.”

            I attempted to tackle him, but tripped on my way out of the tub and found the door slammed in my face.

            “You’re so mean to me,” I complained, coming into our room while I toweled my hair.

            Sasuke glanced up at me from where he had flopped face first on the bed.

            “Babe, you gotta comb your hair,” I said, tossing a comb at him.

            He ignored me like usual.

            I got dressed and went about my day.  Tsunade had given me a bunch of stuff to read about Uzushiogakure, my mother’s village.  It was boring, with little interesting bits interspersed in.

            I was in the middle of a really interesting bit, some correspondence between Konoha and Iwagakure arguing about the future of Uzushiogakure, when the clone I’d sent to the flower shop in the morning dispersed.

            “Oh, shit,” I said.

            Sasuke glanced up at me from where he was sitting at my feet.  He’d gotten into one of his attached-to-Naruto’s-hip phases now that we were talking again.

            “I forgot Sakura and Ino were coming over tonight.”

            “I didn’t.”

            “Well you coulda reminded me!” I said.  “They’re gonna be here soon.”

            Sasuke shrugged.

            “Get dressed,” I told him irritably.

            “They don’t care,” Sasuke said, looking down at his t-shirt and boxers.

            “They are ladies.”

            Sasuke snorted.

            “Well, okay, maybe not, but they have female genitalia!”

            “Why are you thinking about their genitalia…?”

            “I’m just trying to say that they’re girls, and they don’t need to be seeing all that ass of yours.”

            Sasuke looked like he was trying not to laugh.

            “What?!” I cried.

            “‘All that ass’?” Sasuke repeated, his smile reaching his eyes.

            “Yes, it’s just right out there on display!  We can’t have our female guests being… enticed by all that.”

            “Enticed?”

            “Enticed.”

            “I’ll try not to be enticing,” Sasuke said, laying his cheek on my knee as he stared up at me.

            “Well, not combing your hair was a good start,” I said, running my fingers through the tangles.

            We were both quiet for a moment.

            “Ow,” Sasuke finally said.

            “Sorry,” I murmured, trying to work the knot out of his long hair without pulling his scalp again.

            Sasuke eventually agreed to put some pants on, and I did a slapdash job of cleaning up the place.  I was just hiding the three bags of trash that I’d forgotten to take out on garbage day under my bed when the doorbell rang.

Chapter Text

            Sasuke undid all the locks and cautiously answered the door.

            “Hey, Sasuke, where’s Naruto at?” Ino asked, breezing into the apartment.  “Narutooo, I brought booze!”

            “The words I wanted to hear the most,” I said, coming out of the bedroom.

            “Refrigerate them,” she said, pushing the bag of alcohol into my arms.

            “Yes, m’am,” I said, moving to the kitchen.

            “You look terrible,” Sakura was scolding Sasuke in the foyer.  “I’m cutting your hair.”

            “Now?” I asked, peeking out at them.

            “You got scissors?”

            “I have kunai,” I said.

            “Fine,” Sakura said, holding out her hand.

            “Were you going to ask my opinion about this?” Sasuke interjected.

            “No,” Sakura said, taking the kunai from me.  “Let’s go sit in the kitchen.”

            I watched Sakura boss Sasuke around, and I couldn’t help but smile.  She was basically treating him like she treated me, and though it was weird and new, I liked it.  I think it meant that things were okay between them.

            Ino flopped on the couch, popping open a beer.

           “Ino, we haven’t even had dinner…” Sakura scolded her as she sat Sasuke down on one of the kitchen chairs.

            “Whatever, mom,” Ino said, rolling her eyes.

            “Who are you callin’ mom?!” Sakura yelled.  She was running her fingers roughly through Sasuke’s hair, and he was grimacing.

            “Told ya to brush your hair,” I said, poking Sasuke in the arm.

            “Shut it.”  He looped his finger with mine and held it.

            “You’re talking again?” Sakura asked, flicking us both in the foreheads.

            “Yeah,” Sasuke said quietly.

            “Good for you,” Sakura said, ruffling his hair.

            Sasuke scowled.

            “I’ll get your comb,” I said.  I started to walk away, but Sasuke tugged me back.  “Or not.”

            Sasuke didn’t look at me, and just kept holding my hand.

            “Gross,” Ino said, laughing at us from the couch.

            Sasuke looked annoyed.  Sakura was fine, but he didn’t really like having Ino around.

            Sakura reappeared from the bedroom, brandishing a comb.  She started running it through Sasuke’s hair, making him flinch.

            “Are you really going to cut my hair?” Sasuke asked.

            “Yes,” Sakura said.

            “Why does everyone want to cut my hair?” he muttered.

            “Because you look like your brother and it’s creepy,” Sakura said.

            “Thank you,” I said, slapping Sakura on the back.  “He never listens to me when I say it.”

            “And what the hell’s wrong with looking like my brother?” Sasuke interjected.

            Sakura gave me a look and sighed loudly.  “Gee, I dunno, you kind of had a complicated relationship with him, and seeing him every morning in the mirror probably isn’t helping your mental illness.”

            “Fuck off.”

            “Quit being a baby.  You look way hotter with short hair,” Sakura said, holding up the kunai.

            Sasuke sniffed in his bitchy, prissy way.

            Sakura hacked off the hair she was holding in her hand.

            “Holy shit, you just cut it off!” I exclaimed.

            “Uh, yeah,” Sakura said, continuing to cut.

            Sasuke looked unhappy, so I held his hand tighter.

            “You look so much better,” Sakura said, admiring her handiwork.  She started shaping the hair, which was beginning to spring up into a familiar duckbutt shape.

            “You’re pretty good with a kunai,” I commented.

            Sakura grinned at me.

            “You’re making a mess,” Sasuke muttered.

            The kitchen was now covered in tufts of black hair.

            “You have a vacuum cleaner,” Sakura said.

            Somehow we got the kitchen cleaned up and Sasuke looking slightly less murderous so that we could all relax and have a nice dinner.

            Of course, Sasuke didn’t talk or eat, but what else was new?  Ino and I weren’t really eating all that much either, since we were mostly intent on who could get the drunkest the fastest.

            “Hey, did you read that sex scene in the new Kamaboko book?!” Ino demanded suddenly, because that seemed like a good icebreaker of a topic.

            “I knew you were all just reading those books for the porn,” I said, pointing my finger at her.

            “That was the first sex scene in seven books…” Sakura said.

            “It’s what you were all waiting for!  For me and Sasuke to get it on!”

            “You mean Kamaboko and Terusuke?” Ino asked with a snort.

            “Noooo yesssss…” I said.

            “So how accurate was it?” Ino asked.

            “I didn’t read it!” I shrieked.

            “Not accurate but an interesting fantasy,” Sasuke put in.  “Naruto’s not that… aggressive.”

            “Oh?” Ino asked, cocking her head in interest.

            “Oh my,” Sakura murmured, getting a little red in the face.

            “What the hell are you saying, bastard?!” I yelled.  “I’m very aggressive!  And virile!  And manly!  And… what the hell happened in that scene, anyway?”

            “Kamaboko pinned Terusuke against the wall of the cave and told him he was dragging him home whether he liked it or not,” Ino explained.

            “I read that part,” I said.

            “Oh, so you did read it,” Ino said with a smirk.

            “I stopped when they were… you know, with the fingers…”

            “When Kamaboko started stretching Terusuke’s-”

            “Oh my god, Ino, stooooop,” I said, closing my eyes and flailing around so I couldn’t hear her anymore.

            “And then he put his-”

            “No, no, no, no, no!” I repeated, plugging my ears with my fingers.

            “Sasuke, you poor boy,” Ino said.

            “Hey, what’s poor about him?” I asked, pulling my fingers from my ears and eyeing her suspiciously.

            “His boyfriend is an idiot,” all three of them said at the same time, like they’d rehearsed it.

            I stared at them in shock, feeling betrayed.

            “Anyway, that sex scene was totally hot, nine out of ten,” Ino concluded.

            “Only a nine?!” I cried.

            “Have another drink, Naruto,” Ino said, pushing one towards me.

            “Thanks, I need it,” I said, opening the can and downing as much as I could in one go.

            “Why are you two such drunks now?” Sakura asked.

            “Why aren’t you?” Ino countered.  “You’re the only one from our genin class without an embarrassing drunken antics story.  Live a little.”

            “I’m all set,” Sakura said, taking a sip from her water.

            Sasuke was staring off into space, so I poked him, earning myself a glare.

            “Eat a little more,” I requested, stealing a piece of meat from his plate.

            Sasuke took a perfunctory bite.

            Sakura and Ino were chatting away.

            I nursed my drink, watching the three of them.  The alcohol was probably doing its work, because I suddenly realized that I had my hand on Sasuke’s thigh and that it was massaging vigorously.  I thought I should probably stop, but I liked touching him, so I left my hand where it was.

            Sasuke didn’t seem to mind.  In fact, he put his hand over mine, thumbing my skin.

            I smiled dopily at him.

            “Gross,” Ino said, passing me a new drink.

            “What?” I said with a pout.

            Sasuke glared at her.

            “Stop being so disgustingly in love,” she said, leaning the chair back.

            Sakura smacked Ino in the arm with the back of her hand.

            “Why are you always so damn violent?!” Ino demanded, smacking Sakura back.

            “To keep you all in line,” Sakura said, smacking her again.

            “One more bite,” I scolded Sasuke, picking up a piece of food with my chopsticks and holding it out to him.

            He ignored me and got up.

            “Sasukeeeeee.”

            He muttered something and went to our room.

            I had the feeling that he was still at a one guest maximum, so having Ino over, too, was too much for him.

            “Bastard!” I yelled after him anyway.

            “You two have such horrible communication skills,” Sakura commented, gathering up the dishes.  “It’s a wonder you’re still together.”

            I grimaced.

            “I thought things were better?” Ino said, peering at me curiously.  “You both seemed to be enjoying that fondling under the table.”

            “Wh-what?!  How did you know?”

            “Honey, I am a ninja and a fujoshi.  Please.”

            “Come dry the dishes, Ino,” Sakura said, rolling her eyes.

            “I’ll do it,” I said, moving to get up.

            “Just sit and relax,” Sakura said.

            “Oh…” I said, not really sure what to do with myself.  I decided to continue drinking.

            Ino started telling Sakura about the weird customer who had come into the flower shop earlier.

            “He kept flirting with both of us, it was really confusing,” she said with a laugh.

            “And why was he wearing a cape?” I chimed in.

            “And why did he keep asking for six dandelions…?” Ino asked, cracking up.

            “But the thing… with the balloon… and the monkey…” I gasped out.

            “What are you two even talking about?” Sakura asked irritably, shoving a wet plate at Ino.

            “Sorry, you had to be there,” Ino said, trying to choke back her laughter.

            “Guess so.”

            “Sakura, you sure you don’t want a drink?” I asked.  I opened the refrigerator, studying its contents.

            “I’m good,” she said.  “Who do you think has to walk drunkie safely home?”

            “I’m not even drunk,” Ino complained.  “Look at me, drying all these dangerous glass objects.”

            “Please, the two of you are going to start slamming back drinks as soon as you’re done.”

            I scratched my nose.  It did seem like Ino and I were always getting really drunk together lately.

            “I’m going to see if Sasuke wants some company,” Sakura said, draining the sink.

            “Good luck with that,” I said with a snort.

            Sakura waved me off and headed for the bedroom.

            “So, shall we prove her right?” Ino asked.  She put the last plate back in the cupboard, and then grabbed as many beers as she could hold from the fridge.

            I loved being drunk.  I felt so relaxed and free and like life was great.

            Ino loved being drunk, too, which made her the perfect drinking partner.

            We tried playing poker, but quickly found that our mental faculties were degenerating, so we settled on Old Maid.  It was a surprisingly difficult game to play.

            “Fuck me, we didn’t put a joker in the deck,” Ino finally said, throwing down her cards.

            “Oh, I thought I was winning,” I said, scratching my nose.  I showed her my cards, none of which matched with hers.

            “You also seem to be missing some cards from your deck…”

            “Heh, yeah, don’t do much card playing.”

            Sakura and Sasuke appeared in the doorway, looking at us like we were the dumbest ninjas to ever live.

            “We’re not!” I said.  “We’re very smart.”

            “Huh?” Sakura said.

            “We are very smart,” Ino agreed with a vigorous nod.

            “You are intoxicated is what you are,” Sakura said.  “Come on, let’s go home.”

            “But we still have more booze to drink,” Ino protested, holding up an empty bottle.

            “Yeah,” I agreed, giving her my half-full one.

           “No way, I have to work tomorrow,” Sakura said, intercepting the bottle.  “And so do both of you,” she said, eyeing us.

            “That’s just my clone,” I said, waving it off.

            “Yeah, and I make the clone open the shop while I sleep in late,” Ino said.

            “Great business model,” Sakura said.  “We’re going.”

            Ino sighed and let herself be dragged to the door by Sakura.  “Later.”

            “Bye,” I said, waving cheerfully.

            Sasuke locked the door behind them.

            “I wish you could drink,” I said.

            “Why?” Sasuke asked, coming over to me like a panther stalking its prey.

            “It just seems like it’d be fun,” I said.  “You all smashed, bein’ cute.”

            “Why would I be cute?” Sasuke asked with a frown.

            “Iono, you’d be all shy and cute and you’d hold my hand and blush.”

            “Um, none of that sounds like me at all.”

            “Oh, I think I’m just kinda fantasizing.”

            “You fantasize about me being shy?” Sasuke asked, and I realized that he was straddling my lap.

            “Mm, sometimes,” I said.  I patted his butt.  It had gotten slightly less voluptuous, but was still quite nice.

            “How boring.”

            “It’s not boring!  I like when you’re shy.  It makes me feel less nervous.”

            “Nervous about what?”

            “Iono,” I said, leaning my head against the back of the couch.

            “Well, if I was shy, nothing would ever get done.”

            I gasped.

            Apparently Sasuke had unzipped my pants without me noticing and was now going to town on my dick.

            “Hey…” I tried to protest.

            Sasuke kissed my neck.  It felt nice.

            “S’uke, I dunt really wanna…” I started, and he bit me.  “Aye!”

            His lips were on mine, his tongue slipping into my mouth.

            When was the last time we’d even kissed?  It felt so good, like coming home.  I found myself touching him everywhere, wanting every last piece of him.

            “Naruto,” he said quietly.

            “Yeah?” I murmured, wrapping my hand around his as he stroked us together.

            “More.”

            “More what?” I asked, nuzzling his neck.

            “More,” he begged.

            I wrestled him onto his back, sliding his sweatpants down and off of one leg.  I kissed his thigh and he gasped.

            Sasuke’s fingers buried themselves in my hair, tugging as he rolled his hips.

            I gripped the base and opened wide.

            Sasuke started making his helpless noises, gripping my hair too hard.

            I backed off, giving the head a little kiss.

            “Naruto…”

            I thought I was going to lose it.  We hadn’t fooled around in so long, and suddenly that fact was very apparent to me.  I don’t know what I’d been thinking.

            “Naruto…” he begged.

            I stroked him and I sucked him, but he kept begging.

            A skinny thigh hooked itself on my shoulder, the other leg spreading wide.

            I watched his hand come down his belly, leaning back to watch its progress.

            Sasuke caressed over his balls, stroked along his taint, and then pushed his fingers into…

            “Oh, fuck,” I breathed out, mesmerized.

            “Naruto…” he panted, and before I even knew what I was doing, I was leaning in there and licking it.  Sasuke’s entire body bucked.

            I gripped his ass, lifting it for better access as I pushed my tongue in with his fingers.

            Sasuke was crying my name as he arched off of the couch.

            I kept going until he came, watching him completely unravel.

            His body wouldn’t stop shaking.

            I cleaned him up, dumped my own dirtied pants, and then carried him to bed.

            “Naruto?” he whispered into my shoulder as I cuddled him under the sheets.

            “Mm?”

            “You won’t leave me, right?”

            “Course not,” I mumbled, kissing the side of his head.

            “Okay,” he said, gripping my shirt.  “That wasn’t weird, right?”

            “Not at all,” I said.  “I loved it.”

            Sasuke laughed quietly.

            “Go sleep, baby, I’ma pass out,” I murmured.

            “Yeah.”

            And that was that.

Chapter Text

            It was so weird.  I couldn’t even look at Sasuke without turning completely red.

            “Stop,” Sasuke said, kicking me under the table.

            “I’m not doing anything.”

            “You’re being awkward.”

            “Well, you… and I… and we…”

            “It’s not a big deal.”

            “I licked your anus!”

            Sasuke at least had the decency to turn red, too.

            I stared at my breakfast without really seeing it.

            “You seemed fine with it last night,” Sasuke finally said.

            “I was drunk!”

            I knew it was the wrong thing to say before it had even left my mouth.

            Sasuke got up and walked away.

            “Babe, I didn’t…” I protested, pulling him back to the table.  “I’m just kinda confused.”

            “Confused about what?” Sasuke snarled, sitting back in his seat but not looking happy about it.

            “I mean, did you want me to… ya know?”

            “Fuck me in the ass?”

            “How do you just say things like that?!” I cried, scandalized.

            “You were just talking about licking my anus…”

            “Those are two completely different things!” I yelled.

            Sasuke glared at me.  “So what if I did?”

            “So what if you did what?”

            “Want you to.”

            I absently adjusted myself in my pants.  “I… don’t know.”

            “Does it disgust you?” Sasuke asked, and I could see him shifting into his ‘I hate Naruto’ personality.

            “No!” I said quickly.  “No, no, no, very no.”

            Sasuke still didn’t look happy.  In fact, he looked like he wanted to stab me with the butter knife in his hand.
            “Sasukeeeee.”

            His grip tightened on the knife.

            “I guess I feel like I’m losing to you or something,” I sputtered out.

            “And why would that be?” he asked, deadly calm.

            “You just always seem to know what you want… with ya know, sex and stuff.  And I don’t know anything.  And I dunno.  You’re really good at it.”

            He stared at me through narrowed eyes, but he put the knife down.

            “These pancakes are so good,” I said, turning my attention to eating.  If we could just move in a different direction, maybe I would be safe.

            “Hn.”

            I nudged his knee with mine.

            There was a knock at the door.

            “Wonder who it is,” I said, getting up.  I already knew that it was Sai.

            “Yeah, wonder who,” Sasuke said, rolling his eyes.  He knew I knew.

            It was weird being so effortlessly powerful, while Sasuke could barely use his chakra to move his arm.  I had chased after his shadow for so long, and when we finally were equals, it all got taken away.  I was so far beyond Sasuke in power now, and I hated it.  It felt cheap, like something had been taken away from me.  In reality, though, it had been taken away from Sasuke.

            “Hey, Sai,” I said as I opened the door.

            “Good morning, Naruto-kun,” he replied, sliding his ANBU mask to the side of his face.  “The hokage wishes to see you.”

            “Did he say what he wanted?” I asked.  “It’s my day off, ya know…”

            “He didn’t say.”

            “Hmph.  Right now?”

            “Whenever you are ready.”

            “All right, thanks, man.”

            Sai nodded and took off.

            “Baby, I gotta go to the Academy,” I announced to Sasuke.

            “I know, I’m not deaf.”

            “Yeah, yeah,” I said, sitting down and shoveling the rest of my pancakes into my mouth.  “You wanna come with?”

            “No.”

            “You want to go to the clinic?”

            “The outpatient floor isn’t open on Sundays.”

            “You’re gonna… stay here?” I asked.  “Alone?”

            “Yes.”

            “I’ll leave a clone with you.”

            “No.”

            I shifted uncomfortably.

            “You think I’m going to off myself the second you leave?”

            “No…” I said.  “Well, I dunno.”

            Sasuke rolled his eyes.  “Go see Kakashi-sensei.”

            “You’ll be okay?”

            “For fuck’s sake, Naruto.”

            “What?”

            “I’m fine.  Go away.”

            I stared at him helplessly.

            “I should have never told you,” he muttered.

            “What?!” I cried.  “No!  You should tell me everything!”

            Sasuke rested his elbow on the table and leaned on his hand.  “Do you tell me everything?”

            “Yes!”

            “Do you?”

            “Of course!”

            He kept looking at me like I didn’t.

            I floundered.  “Sasukeeee, I’ll tell you anything, just tell me what to tell you!”

            Sasuke studied my face for a moment.  “Do you feel obligated to stay with me?”

            “Huh?” I said.

            “So you do.”

            “I don’t even understand the question!”

            “Don’t play dumb.”

            “I’m not!”

            “Idiot,” Sasuke muttered, getting up and walking away.

            “Hey!” I complained to his disappearing back.

            When I got to Kakashi’s office, he ignored me, looking like he was very involved in reading his book.  I finally went to read over his shoulder and realized that he was reading the sex scene from the new Kamaboko book, which I had still not managed to get through.

            “Why are you reading this?!” I cried, trying to grab the book away from him but somehow continuously missing it.

            “Quiet, this is the best part.”

            “Senseeeeeeei!”

            “You’ve completely ruined the mood,” Kakashi complained, putting the book down.

            “…sorry…”

            “Anyway, I spoke to the raikage, and B will be arriving in about a week.”

            “Huh?” I said.

            Kakashi smiled at me.

            “Wait, Uncle B is coming to Konoha?!”

            “Yep.  You wanted to train, right?”

            “That’s awesooooome!” I declared.

            “Yeah, it’s super awesome,” Kakashi agreed, picking up his book again.

            “Was that all?” I asked, eyeing the book warily.

            “Mm hm.”

            I headed towards the door.

            “Oh, and the council wants to speak to you tomorrow.”

            “What about?” I asked, wondering if they were ready to fire Kakashi and name me the new hokage.

            “Sasuke’s evaluation is coming up,” he said.  “Out one year already, how time flies.”

            “What kind of evaluation?” I asked.  I was suddenly nervous.

            “Just general whatever,” Kakashi said, waving his hand around vaguely.

            “Um, okay, but what does that mean?”

            He ignored me until I gave up and went home.

            I didn’t like leaving Sasuke alone.

            When I got home, though, he was officially in his ‘I hate Naruto’ phase.  I was treated with hostility or completely ignored, unsure of what I’d done this time.

            As we were leaving for the clinic the next morning, Koneko came bustling out of her apartment.

            “Hey,” I said.

            “Good morning, Naruto-sensei,” she said, giving me a passing glance.  “Good morning, Big Brother!”

            Sasuke made a grunt that he thought passed for a greeting.

            “You cut your hair!” she exclaimed, dashing towards him for a closer look.

            Sasuke tensed up.

            Koneko, oblivious, walked around him, admiring Sakura’s handiwork.  “It’s really sexy.”

            My worry for Sasuke’s uncomfortableness evaporated suddenly.  “Hey, back off my man, Koneko!”

            “Your man?” Koneko repeated, looking at me incredulously.

            Sasuke was giving me the same look.

            “Yeah,” I said, completely red.  “He’s mine, so stop lusting after him.”

            “I’m six,” Koneko stated flatly.

            “He’s mine!” I repeated.

            “I’m not anyone’s,” Sasuke interjected.

            “O-oh…” I said.

            “Then I’ll win your heart and make you mine!” Koneko declared, blowing him a kiss and dashing away.

            I stared after her in shock.

            “Wow, dobe, you lost to a six-year-old,” Sasuke said.  He walked towards the stairs.

            “Whaaaaat?!” I said, coming back to life.  I chased after him.  “Sasukeeeee!  Are you going to leave me for her?!”

            “Possibly,” he deadpanned.

            “Sasukeeeee!”

            I caught his smile from his profile.

            “Are you teasing me?!” I demanded.

            “I would never.”

            “Jerk,” I said, poking him fiercely.

            “Don’t,” he said.

            I took his hand instead.

            Sasuke curled his fingers with mine.

            “Your mood swings are driving me crazy,” I informed him.

            “Interesting choice of words.”

            “I have to meet with the Council today.”

            “Okay?”

            “About you.”

            “Okay.”

            We walked to the clinic and I pressed the buzzer, waiting for Sasuke to be let in.  Next stop was the Academy.

            I was surprised to find Dr. Shizuta in the meeting with the Council.

            “We’re here to assess Uchiha’s threat level,” Koharu informed me.

            “Sasuke’s not a threat-” I started to protest.

            “You have made several petitions-” Koharu began.

            “Several hundred,” Kakashi interrupted.

            She gave him an annoyed look and continued, “Several petitions to have his chakra seals removed.”

            “Oh, yeah, you should definitely do that,” I said, nodding.

           They asked me a lot of questions that had me begrudgingly admitting that he was sleeping better but not well, that he still wasn’t eating properly, and that he barely left the apartment.

            There were two lies I had to tell, though, and I did so without hesitation.

            “Is Sasuke a danger to himself?”

            “No.”

            “Is he a danger to others?”

            “No.”

            I sold the lies in a way I didn’t know that I was capable.  I’d always been such a terrible liar.

            “All right, that’s all the questions we have for you,” Koharu said as a way of dismissing me.

            I got up and left.  There were ANBU guards outside of the door, so I couldn’t just run back and stick my ear to the door.  I wanted very badly to know what was being said in that room, but I couldn’t find a good way to eavesdrop.  I started feeling along the wall once I was out of sight of the ANBU, but other ninjas kept walking by and looking at me funny.

            I gave up and went to work.

Chapter Text

            “Naruto, I want to talk to you about the meeting today,” Dr. Shizuta said when I came to pick up Sasuke.

            “Really?” I asked, getting excited.  She could tell me all the details about what happened after I left.

            “Yes, can you come to my office?”

            I happily followed her and took a seat.

            Dr. Shizuta poured some tea and passed it to me.

            “Thanks,” I said, taking a sip.  “Hot,” I hissed, my tongue burning.

            “Naruto,” Dr. Shizuta began, sitting down and taking a sip of her tea.  “Why did you lie to the Council?”

            I almost spilled my tea all over me.  I placed it down carefully on the side table.  “I… didn’t…?”

            Dr. Shizuta gave me her best ‘bitch, please’ look.

            I rubbed the back of my neck.  “I didn’t,” I said more confidently.

            “Did Sasuke do something to make you think that he would hurt himself?”

            “Of course not!” I said, rubbing harder.

            She did not look convinced.  “Well, if he does… you can talk to me, okay?”

            “Yeah, of course.”

            I was happy to get out of there.  Sasuke and I were about halfway home when I realized I hadn’t asked her anything about what happened in the meeting.

            “What are you depressed about now?”

            “Your future.”

            Sasuke bumped his elbow into me.

            “Ow,” I complained.

            He bumped it again.

            When I looked at him, he was giving me Eyes, so I took his hand.

            Sasuke leaned into me a little.

            We were walking up the steps to the apartment, when an old man started to descend them.

            Sasuke and I stepped aside to let him pass, but he stopped in front of us.

            “Are you the queer my granddaughter is infatuated with?” he asked, staring down Sasuke.

            “Excuse me?” I said, sure I’d misheard.

            Sasuke didn’t say anything, keeping his usual disinterested expression plastered across his face.  His palm had started to sweat in mine.

            The old man’s eyes narrowed.  “You’re that Uchiha traitor, aren’t you?”

            “Look, mister, could you back off?” I said, trying to angle myself between them.  Sasuke seemed to be handling the confrontation all right, but you never knew when he was going to crack and start going through an episode.

            “I wasn’t addressing you,” the man said coolly.  “I’m not looking for any trouble, but I would prefer it if you didn’t speak to my granddaughter anymore.”

            “Well who is she even?” I asked, annoyed and confused at the same time.

            Sasuke exhaled loudly.

            “What?” I asked, glancing back at him.

            “Koneko, you idiot.”

            “Oh,” I said.  “Ohhhh.”  I turned back to the man.  “Sasuke barely talks to her anyway.  But I’m her teacher at the Academy, so I kinda hafta talk to her, ya know?”

            “My issue is not with you,” the man said to me, “though your choice of companion and lifestyle is repulsive.  Keep that Uchiha away from my granddaughter.”

            With that, he walked away.

            I was furious.  And offended.  And… hurt?

            Sasuke was quiet.

            “How dare he say that to you?!” I ranted and raved, pacing around the bedroom.  “What gives him the right?  And why is he judging you like that?!”

            “Naruto, calm down,” Sasuke said, getting me to sit on the bed with him.

            “Why would he…?  And then…  But!  But!”

            “You’re not even making sense,” Sasuke murmured, rubbing his thumb soothingly over the back of my good hand.

            “I’m just so mad!”

            “We could have really loud sex.”

            “What’s that supposed to do?!”

            “Well, he’d probably hear us, and it would piss him off.”

            “He’s not even home right now!”

            “Oh,” Sasuke said with a shrug.

            “Bastard, you just want to have really loud sex!”

            “Damn, how did you catch on to my ingenious plan?”

            “I’m smarter than you think I am!”

            “That’s not saying much…”

            “How can you be so mean to me right after propositioning me?!”

            “Because you like it when I insult you.”

            “I do not!”

            Sasuke studied my face for a moment, then reached over hesitantly and cupped my cheek.

            I leaned into it.

            “Relax,” he said, letting his thumb brush against my bottom lip.

            “I just don’t like when people say shit about you,” I said.

            “You say shit about me every day.”

            “It’s different ’cause I love you,” I explained.  “And what was all that about my lifestyle?!”

            “Naruto, has no one come at you for being gay yet?”

            “Gay?  I’m not gay.”

            “Then why the hell is your hand on my ass?”

            “Oh, is it?” I asked, surprised.  I gave the cheek a little squeeze.

            Sasuke, who had at some point pinned me down to the mattress, glared at me.

            “Sas’, I’m… I dunno.  I only like you.  I mean I don’t even really like girls.  Well, no, I like girls.  I like looking at them.  But I don’t want to date them.  And the only guy I like looking at is you.  I really like looking at you, too, so you know.”

            “Gee, how nice.”

            “Stop being a sarcastic bitch,” I complained, spanking him.

            I got bit for my efforts.

            “Ow,” I said, rubbing my neck.

            “It’s not like it’ll leave a mark,” Sasuke said, sounding bitter.

            “It still hurts,” I complained.  “Hey, Sas’, are you gay?”

            “No, I just put my hand on your dick by accident.”

            “Mm,” I said, squirming as he palmed the front of my pants.  “No, I’m serious.  You used to have all those girls throwing themselves at you, but you never paid any attention to them.  It really pissed me off back then, but I guess it’s alright if you were gay.”

            “Naruto, just end this conversation now before you make yourself sound any stupider.”

            “Tell me!”

            “Tell you what?”

            “Were you gay?”

            “No.”

            “Oh.”

            Sasuke pulled his hand away and lay next to me.  “I wasn’t interested in anyone.”

            “Hm?”

            “Only you,” he said quietly.

            “Only me what?!”

            “I was only interested in you, stupid.”

            My heart went all fluttery.  “Really?  Even when we were younger?!”

            “Yeah.”

            I turned on my side, leaning on my elbow so I could look at him.  “You liked me?!”

            “I said I was interested in you.  That’s not the same as like.”

            “But when someone says interested in-”

            “Just shut up about it already.  I didn’t like you at first.  But I always felt… connected to you.”

            “Me, too!” I said enthusiastically.  “I felt really connected to you!”

            “Gay.”

            “You’re the one who said it!”

            “I take it back.”

            “You can’t.”

            Sasuke smiled up at the ceiling.

            “What’s that cute smile for?” I asked, poking him in the side.

            He smacked my hand and turned his face away from me.  “It’s always been you, Naruto.  You were the one who never gave up on me.”

            “Of course I didn’t,” I said, nudging him a bit so we could spoon.  “I always knew you’d come back.”

            Sasuke let out a bitter-sounding laugh.  “Yeah, here I am.  I’m back.”

            “Yeah, you are.”

            “It tells me what a pathetic waste of space I’ve become when even you’re giving up on me.”

            “…huh…?”

            “Don’t worry about it.”

            “Of course I’m gonna worry about it!  What the hell is that?!  I’m not giving up on you!”

            “I wish I could die.”

            “Sasuke!” I cried, sitting up.  I didn’t know if I should be angry or sad.

            He looked at me, expression completely bland, like he hadn’t just shared his really disturbing suicidal desire with me.

            I wanted to beat the shit out of him.

            Unfortunately, the fact that Sasuke couldn’t fight back made that idea unappealing.  But I didn’t know how else to get through to him.

            Sasuke seemed to be reading my every thought on my face.  “I don’t have anything left to offer you.”

            “Why do you have to talk like that?”

            “I’m just stating facts.”

            “They’re not facts!”

            “Everything is a fucking mess, Naruto, and it’s only going to get worse from here.”

            “How is it going to get worse?!”

            “Try studying the history of this village, dipshit.”

            “I have been!”

            “Well you still haven’t figured it out yet.”

            “Is this more of your paranoid bullshit?!”

            “Fuck off.”

            Sasuke got off of the bed.

            “I… Sas’, wait, come on.  I just don’t understand what you’re trying to say.”

            Sasuke looked at me for a long moment.  “Maybe you never will.”

            “Gaaaah!” I yelled, tackling him before he could leave.  “Stop being so dumb!”

            “I’m sorry,” he said quietly.

            “Don’t apologize!  I hate when you apologize!  You sound like some alien in Sasuke’s body!”

            Sasuke looked sadder.

            “I just want you to be you again!”

            Sasuke reached up and yanked me down to him by the hair.

            “Ow!” I complained, but I actually felt less angry then.

            “You can… give up on me…” Sasuke whispered into my ear.

            “No, I can’t!”

            Sasuke slid his arms around my neck, holding me close to him.  “It would be better for you.  You could have a life.”

            “I have a life with you!”

            “This isn’t a fucking life.”

            “It is, so shut up.”

            Sasuke hugged me tighter.

            I felt helpless.  I didn’t know what to do anymore with a fragile Sasuke.  “This is enough,” I said.  “Don’t go anywhere.  Don’t do anything stupid.  This is enough.”

            Sasuke buried his face in my neck.

            I shifted back into a sitting position, pulling Sasuke with me.  I let him stay hidden in my neck, cradling his too-thin frame to my chest.

            We stayed like that for a while, until Sasuke was calm.

            I knew he was probably okay when he started kissing my neck.

            “What are you doing?” I asked, a smile in my voice.

            “Nothing,” Sasuke said, peering up at me with red-rimmed eyes.

            I leaned in, bumping my forehead to his.

            “I want to feel good,” he said, latching onto the bottom of my t-shirt and tugging lightly.  “All I ever feel is bad, and I want to feel good.”

            I gave him the tiniest kiss, just a brushing of lips.

            Sasuke latched on and started drinking me up like I was water.

            “Hey,” I said, after a few minutes of being molested.  “You just wanted to have sex all along.”

            “So?”

            “You’re not even going to deny it?!”

            Sasuke turned his head to the side and shrugged.

            “Bastard,” I said, biting his bared neck.

            Sasuke made a nice sound, and somehow I ended up between his legs while he sat on the bed and looked down at me.

            “Better now?” I asked, wiping my mouth with the back of my hand.

            Sasuke pet my head, the nod of his head languid.

            I crawled up onto his lap and hugged him.

            Sasuke hugged me back, nuzzling his cheek to my chest.  He was always very nice to me after an orgasm.  Maybe I should give him more.

            “I love you,” I said, because I felt like it needed to be said.

            “Me, too,” Sasuke murmured.

            “Good,” I said, holding onto him fiercely.

Chapter Text

            Apparently Sasuke wasn’t just a paranoid crazy person.

            It had come as a surprise to me.  The village really was out to get him.  After the confrontation with Koneko’s grandfather, they kept coming.

            “Fag,” a passing citizen spat out as we were walking to the clinic.

            I hauled to a stop and whirled around.  “What did you just say?” I growled, the kyuubi’s chakra glowing around me like an aura.

            The guy looked caught.

            I was fully intent on fighting him, non-ninja citizen though he might be, but Sasuke touched my arm.  “Don’t,” he whispered, fingers digging in.

            He looked spooked, which quickly had my focus switching to him.  I gave gay-basher guy a final, threatening growl, then turned all my attentions to Sasuke.  “Hey,” I said.  “What’s wrong?”

            “Let’s just go to the clinic,” Sasuke said, pulling me forward.

            After I picked him up to go home, we got vague threats and glares from three separate groups of people.  One group called Sasuke a traitor, one called him a murderer, and the last started ranting about how all Uchihas were mentally ill lunatics.  Only they used much less nice words.

            I wanted to fight every last one of them, but instead I just pulled Sasuke closer and kept walking.

            ‘Uchihas can’t be trusted’ seemed to be the slogan ringing around town.  Of course, that damn Midnight Ninja Mysteries porn was still selling like hotcakes.  But Sasuke was now public enemy number one.

            When we got home, it was like he wanted to crawl under my skin.

            Then he wanted to be alone.

            Then he wanted to crawl under my skin again.

            I had a headache the next morning.

            This continued for the full week, and by Friday I was half-dead.

            We started towards the clinic, and that day like the rest of the week, Koneko didn’t suddenly burst out of her apartment to greet us (or rather, Sasuke).

            After some more harassment on the streets, I was in a mood.  I went into the clinic with Sasuke, going to talk to Maiko while he went upstairs.  “Can I talk to Dr. Shizuta?”

            “I don’t know, can you?” she asked.  I was relieved to see that she was reading a book of poetry instead of reading porn about me and Sasuke.

            “Yeah, that’s what I’m asking.”

            “I think that’s a question you should answer for yourself.”

            “Maikooo, is she in her office or what?”

            Maiko shrugged and pulled down a partition between her desk and the waiting room.

            “Why does everyone in the world hate me?” I muttered, stomping back to Dr. Shizuta’s office.

            She was there, writing something furiously in her notebook.

            “Can I come in?”

            “Sure,” she said, not looking up.

            “Sasuke and I are getting gay-bashed,” I informed her.

            “Is that how you’re classifying it?”

            “Well, I dunno.  I thought that it was okay.  You know, that we’re together?  Nobody seemed to mind.  But now random people on the street are hurling really offensive slurs at Sasuke…”

            “Naruto, do you read the newspaper?”

            “Uh, no.”

            “A future hokage should keep up on current events,” she said, tossing a newspaper at me.

            So I learned how the truth about the Uchiha massacre had come to light.

            It had probably started with one person.  Somehow word that the Council was considering removing Sasuke’s chakra seals had gotten around town.  Someone had disagreed with it, and started spreading shit about Sasuke and the Uchihas all over town.

            At least Itachi was finally exonerated.  The story had come out that he had been a victim of Danzo, another child ninja manipulated into an atrocity.  Of course, that meant that the Uchihas’ rebellion was also brought to light.

            “Uh, I thought everyone already knew this,” I said, scratching the back of my neck.

            “The average Konoha citizen knows very little about the inner politics of the ninja world,” Dr. Shizuta said, rolling her chair from behind her desk and over to me.

            “Okay, but what does all this have to do with gay-bashing Sasuke?”

            Dr. Shizuta just stared at me.

            “What?”

            “I think you can put it together yourself.”

            “I’m not the one with a fancy degree.”

            “Naruto.”

            I sighed, leaning back in my chair and staring up at the ceiling.  “People think all the Uchihas are bad.  And crazy.  Well they all kind of were crazy.  I mean Itachi was a good guy, and he helped me out a lot, but… his own mother… and father…”  My voice cracked as I spoke.  “Anyway, so now everyone’s thinking that Sasuke is crazy, too.  Which he is.  But he’s not bad crazy.  He’s not dangerous.”

            “You don’t think so?”

            “…no…”

            Dr. Shizuta shrugged off my sketchy answer and thankfully moved on.  “Naruto, growing up, you saw the ugliness of human nature.  You saw people ignore you, disregard you, abandon you, hurl slurs at you, hate you, and you were nothing but a helpless child.”

            “I wasn’t helpless…”

            She sighed, wheeling her chair in front of mine.  She reached out and took my hand.  “What this village did to you was wrong.  And it keeps happening, over and over.  Your father was the hokage, one of the most loved people in the village.  Then, just because the kyuubi was sealed inside of you, your clan went out of favor.  You saved the world, and they accepted you again.”

            I looked down at her hand, holding mine.

            “The Uchihas were one of the most important and respected clans in the village.  Now, because of their rebellion from so many years ago, Sasuke is the new pariah.  There always has to be an outsider, someone for the villagers to pin all of their hatred onto.  An us and a them.”

            “It’s not like that,” I protested half-heartedly.  “The people here aren’t like that.”

            “You know that I’m right.”

            “Do not,” I said, pushing out my lip in a pout.

            “Look at how many clans have been wiped out from the world,” she said, pushing her glasses up her nose with her free hand.  “This endless cycle of petty hatred…”

            “Look, I just came here to talk about Sasuke.”

            “Then talk about Sasuke.”

            “I don’t know what to do anymore.”

            Dr. Shizuta took my other hand as well and squeezed them both gently.

            That made it worse.  I sniffed loudly.  “He’s losing it… and I can’t help him…”

            She waited.

            “I don’t think… I can do this anymore…”

            “Do you think Sasuke would be better off in the clinic?”

            “No…”

            “He’s not responsive to therapy, so I don’t completely disagree,” Dr. Shizuta mused.  “But his current living situation… he’s clearly regressing and not progressing.”

            “Is it my fault?” I asked, scrubbing at my eyes.

            “No, of course not.”

            “I feel like it’s my fault… I mean I dragged him back here, and I… I don’t know, I was supposed to make things better, but it seems like all I ever do is make things worse and worse, and I think he hates me sometimes, and definitely resents me all the time, and maybe if I hadn’t made him come back, maybe if I let him... win…”

            Dr. Shizuta pulled me into a hug.

            I tried to breathe.

            Dr. Shizuta had Sasuke come down, and asked him if he wanted to temporarily check back into the hospital.

            Sasuke just shrugged.

            “No,” I said.  “I don’t like it, no way.”

            Sasuke looked at me for a long moment.

            “What?” I asked, scratching at my cheek.  “Is there something on my face?”

            “I’ll do it,” he said resolutely.

            “Whaaaat?”

            “This is a voluntary check-in, so you can check out whenever you like,” Dr. Shizuta explained.

            “No, no, no, this is a terrible idea,” I said.

            “It’s happening, so just shut up,” Sasuke growled at me.

            I sank into my seat like a chastised child.

            Sasuke and Dr. Shizuta discussed the details.

            I went home alone.  I grabbed some of Sasuke’s books, a pair of pajamas, his slippers, and a towel, and put them in a bag.  I would bring them over the next day.  I wouldn’t be able to see Sasuke, and I would have to leave everything with Maiko.

            The rest of the day stretched out in front of me.

            I’d asked Kakashi if I could have the day off, but suddenly work seemed like the only thing I had going on in my life.

            I was surprised to find B sitting in Kakashi’s office.

            “Beeeeeeeeeeeeeee!” I cried, accosting him.

            “Hey, Little U,” B said, fist bumping with me.

            Kakashi went back to his magazine, letting us have our reunion.

            My day ended up pretty good, with training with B, ramen on B, and then some drinks on Kakashi.

            I unlocked the door, surprised that the security chain wasn’t latched.  “Hey, Sas’?” I called, stumbling into the living room.

            Everything was dark.

            I suddenly remembered that he wasn’t here anymore.

            I couldn’t see Sasuke until visiting hours on Monday, so I tried to fill my weekend with training and drinking.

            That probably explained the awful headache I had when I went to visit him.  It also probably explained my slow reaction time as Sasuke came into the visiting room, climbed straight onto my lap, and started jamming his tongue in my mouth.

            “Slow down,” I said after several minutes of tongue gymnastics.

            Sasuke frowned at me.

            “Hi,” I said, grinning and touching his face.

            “Hello,” Sasuke said shortly.

            “How are you?”

            “Fine.”

            “Did you miss me?”

            “Not particularly.”

            “Liar.”

            “Why are you wasting this visit with all your idle chitchat?” Sasuke asked, looking very annoyed.

            “Oh,” I said.  “I don’t know.”

            Sasuke leaned in again, but this time it was slow and longing.

            He left me gasping for breath.  I yanked him back in, trying to kiss him as damn beautifully as he was kissing me.

            “I feel like this is probably against visiting protocol.”

            Sasuke and I both just continued to move our lips slowly together, ignoring the ANBU.

            “I missed you,” he finally confessed, panting into my mouth.

            I groaned, trying to get him closer.

            “Seriously, this is starting to turn into softcore porn.”

            I turned to look at the ANBU, and Sasuke took that as an invitation to kiss down my neck.

            “I’m really going to have to insist that you stop,” she said.  She didn’t sound very convincing.

            “You read those damn books, don’t you?” I muttered, wanting to feel angry but mostly just feeling languid and nice.

            “Shit, when Kamaboko pinned Terusuke to that cave wall…”

            “Ughhh…” I said.

            Sasuke redirected my mouth back to his.

            The ANBU let us make out until lunch time, then loudly announced that our visit was over.

            “I don’t need to eat,” Sasuke said, combing his fingers through my hair possessively.

            If anything could break me out of a Sasuke-induced make out coma, it was a reminder that he wasn’t taking care of himself.  “Yes, you most certainly do need to eat,” I scolded him.

            “I’m not the one who showed up here hungover…”

            “What’s that got to do with anything?!” I cried.  “And how did you know, anyway…?”

            “Loser.”

            “Jerk!”

            “Moron!”

            “Asshole.”

            “Enough, god,” the ANBU muttered.  “Uchiha, go eat your damn lunch.  Uzumaki, get out of here.”

            “Hmph,” I said.

            “Hn,” Sasuke muttered.

            “You can come home any time,” I informed him, cradling his face in my hands.

            “I know that, stupid.”

            “I’m just saying.”

            “No one wants to hear what you’re saying.”

            “You’re so rude to me!”

            “Yeah.”

            “Ha!  You admit it!”

            “I do.”

            “Jerk.”

            “Enough!  Enough!  Let’s go!” the ANBU yelled.

            Sasuke and I pulled apart reluctantly.

            “And don’t tell anyone I let you make out like that,” she added, casting a nervous glance towards Sasuke.  He definitely looked like he’d been making out for a couple of hours.

            “We didn’t talk,” I said poutily.

            “Who the hell’s fault is that?!” the ANBU snapped.

            “Sasuke’s,” I said with a shrug.

            Sasuke flipped me off.

            “Join the ANBU, my mother told me,” she muttered.  “You can go on secret missions and do important work for the village…  Ha.”

            Sasuke reached out, thumbing my jaw.

            I caught his wrist, holding it to my heart.  “Are you sure this is what you want?”

            Sasuke pulled away, giving me a very unpleasant smile.  “Bye.”

            “Whaddya mean, ‘bye’?”

            And then he was gone.

            I went to Kakashi’s office, feeling unsatisfied.  It took me a minute to realize that I’d just walked into some kind of top secret meeting.

            “Uh…” I said.

            “Close the door,” Kakashi said.

            Before I could, an ANBU closed it.

            “Am I allowed to be here?” I asked, glancing around at the Council and B.

            “Sit down, brat,” Tsunade said, gesturing to the seat next to her.

            I did so.

            “And you’re sure it’s Orochimaru?” Homura asked, adjusting his glasses.

            “Yep, it’s that snaky-looking fool all right,” B said with a nod.

            “Orochimaru?!” I cried, all kinds of old, confusing feelings getting stirred up inside of me.  Orochimaru had been the embodiment of evil to me for so long, then Sasuke had killed him and it just didn’t seem to matter anymore.  Then he resurrected himself, but seemed to be on our side during the war, and while I never liked the idea that he was still out there, I’d never thought about finding him.

            “Quiet, Naruto, the adults are talking,” Kakashi scolded me.

            I looked to Tsunade pathetically.

            “Just listen,” she said, patting me on the shoulder.

            “Kabuto is with him.”

            “Kabuto?!” I cried.

            I received several withering looks.

          “They’ve been moving through Lightning for the past two weeks, seems like they have a destination in mind.”

            “Do you think they’re meeting up with the other missing nin?” Kakashi mused.

            “The other missing nin?” I asked.

            “Did you not tell him anything?” B asked, looking between me and Kakashi.

            “He’s been… distracted,” Kakashi said with a shrug.

            “What am I not being told?!”

            “Some missing nin have been banding together and taking over small civilian villages,” Tsunade explained.  “We’re not sure what their purpose is.  Now be quiet, already.”

            I had been under the very misguided impression that all was well in the ninja world.  I had also thought that B had come all this way just to train with me.

            Kakashi had me and Tsunade over later that night.  The three of us toasted over some sake and then drank a real lot of it.  I felt like they were trying to cheer me up or something.

            “The world’s so messed up,” I said gloomily.

            Kakashi and Tsunade exchanged worried looks.

            “It’s just the same thing over and over,” I said.  I started waving my cup around.  “War and fighting and orphans and hatred and all that shit.”

            “We’re trying to change it,” Kakashi said, surprisingly serious.

            “You can’t change anything.”

            Tsunade rested her hand on top of my head.  “We’ve got to try.”

            I just shook my head.

            “Naruto, it’s not-” Kakashi started to say.

            “Why did my parents have to die?” I asked, letting out a long sniff.  “Why do people hate jinchuuriki?  Why did… Obito…?  If just one thing didn’t happen, then they would still be here.”

            Tsunade held me while I babbled away.

            I calmed down a little, sitting back up and scrubbing at my eyes.  “Sorry,” I said, feeling stupid.

            “You remind me so much of Minato sometimes,” Kakashi said.

            “Huh?”

            Kakashi’s expression was gentle.

            “Sensei?” I said, shifting closer to him.  “Can you… can you tell me about my dad?”

            “Of course,” he said.  I knew it made him sad to think about his old team, but there was a smile in his eyes as he talked about my dad.  I found myself resting my chin on his knee, listening intently to every word he said.

            The three of us stayed up all night talking.

            We all called in sick to work.

            Gai came in, and despite his wheelchair, somehow manhandled us all to the hokage’s office anyway.

Chapter Text

            I watched B from the gate until he was completely out of sight, waving my arm even though he couldn’t see me.  I was sure he knew.

            Then I ran like crazy to the Academy because I was late.

            All the kids let me know it.

            “I was… uh, you know, rescuing a cat.  From a burning house,” I said.  They didn’t look convinced.  “And there were dragons,” I added for good measure.

            “You’re a terrible liar,” one of the kids informed me, arms crossed over her chest.

            I grinned, rubbing the back of my neck.  “Wait until your cat gets caught in a burning building by dragons.”

            They all gave me very annoyed looks.

            “Hey, who wants to learn how to make a clone?” I asked, because children had short attention spans and were easily distracted.

            Most of the kids raised their hands enthusiastically.

            “I already know how,” one of the know-it-alls declared, crossing his arms over his chest.

            Just to be an asshole, I filled the room with a hundred clones.  Shut that kid right up.

            He wasn’t a bad kid, though, and once he got over thinking that he already knew everything, he picked up making multiple clones ahead of everyone else in the class.

            I left the Academy feeling good, and rushed over to the hospital for a physical.  Sakura wasn’t there, so I was kind of disappointed that I had to get felt up by a dude instead.  It was a weird thing to think, since I had a boyfriend and Sakura was just a friend, but I just really enjoyed Sakura’s medical exams.  When she wasn’t angry, anyway.  She always warmed her hands up before she touched me, and she smelled nice.

            This guy smelled like medicine, and had the iciest hands I had ever felt.

            In the middle of my cough and bend over, my clone at the flower shop popped out of existence.

            “Hey, Ino, you’re back early,” I said, looking up at the sound of the front door jingling.

            “Yeah, Shikamaru got called away from training to go meet with the hokage,” she said, coming in and dumping her bag behind the counter.  “Was it busy today?”

            “The usual.”

            Ino hummed in response as she pulled her wet hair back into a ponytail.  She must have stopped to take a shower before she came to the shop.

            “Did you talk to Sakura about going out tomorrow night?” I asked.

            “Yeah, she’s down.”

            “Good,” I said with a grin.

            “All work and no play makes Sakura a dull girl.”

            “That goes for all of us,” I said, slumping down so I could lay my cheek on the counter.

            “You seem to be having fun enough since Sasuke went back to the loony bin,” Ino commented, poking me in the side.

            I frowned at her.

            “I’m just saying that you’ve been out almost every night in the last month,” she said with a shrug.

            “Are you judging me?” I asked, giving her a narrow-eyed look.

            “Yep.”

            “Hmph.”

            Ino rested her hand on my head, then started petting me like a dog.  “You’ve got therapy with him today?”

            “Yeah, after work.”

            “How’s that going?”

            “It’s not.”

            “Think he’s gonna come home soon?”

            “No clue.”

            “Do you want him to come home?”

            “…yeah…”

            “That was really convincing.”

            “I do,” I said.  “I miss him.  Like crazy.  Like my skin starts to itch when he’s not next to me.”

            “Ah, so that explains your psycho stalking after he left the village.”

            “Ha.  Ha.”

            “You know I’m just teasing,” Ino said, scratching me behind the ear.

            It felt really nice, and I started to wonder if I’d been spending too much time with Kiba and Akamaru lately.

            “I’m jealous, you know,” Ino said, going back to petting me.

            “Why, ’cause I got the best-looking guy in all of Konoha?”

            “No, dummy, because he got you.”

            “Huh?”

            Ino laughed, a short puff of air.  “You’re so clueless.  All of the girls like you now, not Sasuke.  In fact, most of them decidedly do not like Sasuke at all.”

            “Sasuke is awesome,” I protested.  “And really pretty.”

            “Not to mention out of his mind.”

            “Nobody’s perfect…”

            Ino rested her cheek on the counter, too, looking into my eyes.  “Sasuke’s really lucky to have someone like you love him so unconditionally.”

            “I’m not that great…”

            “Take a damn compliment, would ya?” Ino said, grinding my cheek into the counter.

            “Ow…”

            “I wish someone loved me like that.”

            I glanced up as Ino stood.  She looked sad.  “Shikamaru?”

            “I’m over that lazy bag of bones.”

            “Then who?”

            “I was just speaking in general.”

            “No, you were definitely talking about someone specific.”

            “Why did you have to choose this moment in time to be perceptive?!” Ino yelled, getting huffy.

            “You don’t have to tell me,” I said.

            “Ha, yeah, sure,” Ino said.  “Like you won’t ask every day for the rest of our lives until I tell you.”

            I stood up, scratching my nose.  “Nah, I wouldn’t.”

            “Naruto, I know you.”

            “Okay, I might, but you don’t have to answer!”

            “Go clean up the back room!”

            “But-”

            Ino made one of her scary faces that reminded me of Sakura, so I went.

            I was putting some new supplies away when Ino came in.

            “I like Sakura,” she said, and left.

            I dropped the boxes I was holding and blinked out of existence.

            “Holy crap!” I yelled.

            The nurse startled.

            I realized that I was in the hospital, having my balls poked, and that I had the very beginnings of a hard on.

            “It wasn’t you!” I protested.  “My clone just popped back in, and LESBIANS!”

            He looked at me like I was crazy.

            “No, you don’t understand!” I said.  “Actual girl on girl!”

            “I’d like to continue with the examination, if that’s all right with you.”

            “Uh, yeah, of course…”

            So that was the most awkward medical checkup of my life.

            I dashed off to Kakashi’s office to do some paperwork, have a meeting, and then I was off to the orphanage for a quick game of hide-and-seek.

            I really wanted to stop by Ino’s, but I had to get to the clinic for therapy.  I stopped by anyway.

            Ino was just getting ready to close up.

            “Were you serious before?” I demanded.

            “Hello to you, too,” Ino said, rolling her eyes.

            “No, I need to know if you were serious,” I said.  “Because this is Sakura we’re talking about, and she’s like a sister to me.”

            Ino smiled at that.  “I didn’t know that you could get that protective about anyone besides Sasuke.”

            I don’t know why I started blushing.

            “Yeah, I was serious,” she said, flipping her ponytail over her shoulder and daring me to say anything about that.

            “Then you better take good care of her.”

            “She doesn’t like me.”

            “Well she should,” I said.  “You two would look really great together.  Like, really, really great.”

            Ino’s eyes got dangerous.

            “No, wait, hey!” I said.  “I just… I get it!  Falling in love with your best friend!  I’m a great supporter of it!”

            Ino laughed.  “Go see your best friend, then.  Aren’t you late?”

            “Crap, yeah.  Bye!”

            “Bye, Naruto.”

            I ran to the clinic.

            Sasuke looked very annoyed with me when I rushed into Dr. Shizuta’s office.

            “Hi,” I said, kissing him on the forehead anyway before I sat down.

            “You’re late.”

            “I was busy!” I protested.

            That certainly wasn’t the right thing to say.  Sasuke looked away from me, his back rigid.

            “What did you do today?” Dr. Shizuta asked conversationally.

            I detailed my day to her.

            Sasuke didn’t seem very interested.

            “I had a long day,” I said, reaching over to touch Sasuke’s knee.

            Dr. Shizuta had given up on the no touching rule after Sasuke checked back into the clinic fulltime.  It just wasn’t possible.

            “Whatever,” Sasuke muttered, but he seemed to shift almost imperceptibly towards me.

            “How was your day, baby?”

            “I’m not a small child,” Sasuke corrected me like usual.  His hand settled on mine, tracing along my fingers.

            “How was your day, grown-up?” I asked.  “Yeah, see, that’s not cute and affectionate at all.”

            “Just call me by my damn name.”

            “Fine, Sasuke.”

            “It was uneventful.”

            I thumbed his thigh, feeling the cotton material of his pajama pants.  “Nothing else to say?”

            “No.”

            I sighed.

            “I think Naruto would be happy if you shared more with him,” Dr. Shizuta prodded.

            Sasuke glared at her.

            “I haven’t been seeing much productive communication between you two lately.”

            Sasuke glared harder.

            “It’s fine,” I said.  “Did he eat well this week?”

            “He’s sitting right here,” Sasuke muttered.

            “So-so,” Dr. Shizuta answered.  “He’d eat without prompting, but he wouldn’t finish half of the food.”

            I sighed again.  I could feel how small his thigh was under my hand.  “You need to gain weight, Sas’.  And build some muscle.”

            “I don’t need to do anything.”

            I rolled my eyes.  He always had to be contrary for being contrary’s sake.

            “Sasuke and I have been talking about him getting a job,” Dr. Shizuta finally said after the silence stretched on forever.

            “A job?” I repeated.  I could not see Sasuke doing any kind of work.  That would require going out in public.

            “Yes, something for him to do during the day.  A structured way to get out of the house.”

            “And what kind of job was he looking at?” I asked, trying not to sound amused.

            Sasuke pinched me, so I knew I failed.

            “I suggested volunteering at the orphanage.”

            “That’s not a job, it doesn’t pay,” I said.

            “Sasuke said the same thing…”

            “Great minds think-”

            “Never put my mind and your mind in the same sentence,” Sasuke interrupted me.

            “Jerk.”

            “I suggested working with Sakura at the hospital.”

            I snorted.  “You mean with actual human beings?  Helpless, injured ones who can’t run away?”

            Sasuke was trying not to grin.

            I’d figured he’d get mad at me, but apparently we were on the same wavelength about this whole job thing.

            “I suggested he work at the Yamanaka flower shop with your clone.”

            I tried to picture it and just laughed instead.  “Us?  Work together?”

            “You two are so codependent,” Dr. Shizuta muttered.

            “How are we being codependent right now?!” I objected.

            “Because you both make up the same damn excuses for why Sasuke can’t get a job!”

            “I wasn’t making up excuses,” I complained.  “He needs a job that gives him money, right?  So he can start being independent?  So that’s the opposite of codependency!  And Sasuke hates people, so that pretty much eliminates ninety nine percent of all jobs.  And then you said he should work with me, which is just…”

            “Impossible?” Sasuke suggested.

            “I was thinking ‘hilarious’, but ‘impossible’ works, too.”

            “And why is it hilariously impossible for you two to work together?” Dr. Shizuta asked.  “Even I’ve heard about how well you two fought together in the war, completely in synch with one another.”

            “This and that are completely different things,” I said, and Sasuke nodded his agreement.  “I don’t mean to completely ruin your vision of us as the power couple of Konoha, but actually we fight a lot.  About everything.”

            “Constantly,” Sasuke added.

            “I’m perfectly aware of that,” Dr. Shizuta said, rolling her eyes.  “But I think you two work well together when it’s for a purpose.”

            “The purpose of selling flowers?” Sasuke interjected.

            I snorted.

            “You seem to be working together well right now for the purpose of pissing me off.”

            We both grinned wider at that.

            Dr. Shizuta got a strange smile on her face.  “I haven’t really seen you two… get along in a while.”

            “We always get along!” I yelled.

            “No, we don’t.”

            “We do!”

            “We’re fighting right now about whether or not we get along…”

            “What does getting along have to do with fighting?”

            Sasuke rolled his eyes.

            “Bastard.”

            He shrugged.

            “If we could return to the point?” Dr. Shizuta suggested.

            “Which was…?” Sasuke asked.

            “You need to get a life.”

            “Ha,” I said.

            “So do you, to be honest,” she added, looking at me.

            I was aghast.

            “Ha,” Sasuke said.

            “I have a great life!” I protested.

            “Loser.”

            “Shut up!”

            Sasuke curled his pinkie around mine, smiling with sad eyes.

            “Hey,” I complained.

            Sasuke flicked his eyes to me.

            I climbed over the arm of his chair, sliding my arms around his neck and resting my cheek against his shoulder.

            “You’re heavy,” was all Sasuke said, absently stroking my hair.

            Dr. Shizuta gave us a look that seemed to imply that we were driving her crazy.

            I ignored her and snuggled with Sasuke until it was time to go.

            Then I went to the bar and did shots with Kiba until we could barely stand, and stumbled home drunk.

Chapter Text

            “I’m here!” I announced loudly to Maiko, rushing through the door.

            “I can smell that,” she said, making a face at me.

            “Do I smell?” I asked, pulling my t-shirt away from my chest and flapping it around, trying to get a whiff.  “Aw, yeah, I do…”

            “Shouldn’t you shower before your make out session?”

            “Nah, Sasuke likes my stank,” I said, already moving on.  Visiting hours were almost over.  I took a seat in the visitor’s room, hoping that Sasuke would instantly burst through the door and rush into my waiting arms.  I was exhausted from my mission, and I’d basically run back to Konoha just to see Sasuke.

            Sasuke sauntered through the door ten minutes later, ten minutes before the end of visiting hours, with an annoyed look on his face.

            I stood up, ready to tackle him across the room.

            “No,” Sasuke said, holding a hand up.  “I can smell you from here.”

            “Well I kinda got thrown into a swamp,” I said.  “But it’s water, so it should have cleaned me, right?”

            Sasuke came over and sat next to me.  After a moment’s hesitation, he kissed me hello.

            “I’m sorry I was late.”

            “I thought you weren’t supposed to be back until tomorrow anyway.”

            “Yeah, but I wanted to see you.”

            I could tell that my words pleased him, even if he made a dismissive click with his tongue.

            “You were okay this week?”

            “Fine.”

            He didn’t say anything else.

            “My mission was fine, too.”

            “I could tell.”

            I reached for his hand, but he pulled it away with a wrinkled nose.

            “I don’t smell that bad,” I complained.

            “Oh, you do,” he assured me.

            “Yeah, you smell terrible,” the ANBU guard agreed.

            I sulked.

            “Go home and shower,” Sasuke said.

            “I still have five minutes!”

            “Well I’m not coming near you, so there’s not really a point of staying.”

            “We could talk, you know!”

            Sasuke gave me a dubious look.

            “Stop using me for my body!” I complained.

            Sasuke rolled his eyes.

            “Anyway,” I said, leaning in closer, which caused Sasuke to lean away.  “It looks like that shit with the Yuuyake group was a lot more serious than Kakashi was letting on.”

            “Okay,” Sasuke said, looking disinterested.

            “No, but they’re like a group of supervillains set to some nevarious plot-”

            “Nefarious?”

            “Yeah, real nevarious and shady.  We don’t know what their objective is yet, but they’re pretty strong.”

            Sasuke had been looking amused, but his face got serious.  He reached out, touching my good arm.  “You were fighting.”

            “Yeah, I told you-”

            “You were seriously, all-out fighting,” he said, and since I knew him so well, I knew that there was a note of concern in his voice.

            “Yeah, there was this guy, Z…” I started, casting a glance towards the ANBU.

            “What?” Sasuke said, looking at the guy, too.

            “I don’t know if I should be talking about all this classified stuff in front of him.”

            Sasuke snorted.

            “Hey, wait a second!” the ANBU said, clearly offended.  “You’re going to blab classified secrets to a traitor, but you don’t want to say anything in front of one of the most trusted and elite ninjas in Konoha?!”

            “Sasuke’s not a traitor,” I said sourly.

            “Former traitor,” Sasuke put in.

            “And I don’t know you, buddy,” I said, eyeing the ANBU suspiciously.  “I mean, you must not be all that important if you got put on babysitting duty…”

            The ANBU seemed really offended by that.  “I’ll have you know, the hokage only puts his most trusted ANBU on babysitting duty!”

            “Uh, why would he do that?”

            “In case there is still a Danzo faction within the ANBU who want to kill me?” Sasuke suggested.

            I was mortified.  I’d never thought of that before.  “No more ANBU!” I yelled.  “I will guard you 24/7!”

            “No thanks.”

            “You don’t really get a say in it,” the ANBU said, crossing his arms over his chest.

            “I get all the says!”

            Sasuke rolled his eyes.

            “Wait, is this just your paranoia, or is this really a thing?” I asked, scratching my nose.

            “You decide,” Sasuke said.

            “Sasuke, I can’t leave you in danger!”

            “I’ve been guarded by ANBU for the last four years…”

            “They might be biding their time!”

            “Wow, Naruto, this conversation is really great for my mental health.”

            I wanted to protest and yell some more, but he had a point.

            “Visiting hours are over,” a nurse announced, peeking through the door.

            “What?!” I cried, aghast.  “But we barely go to talk!”

            “I’m sorry,” she said, bowing apologetically.

            “We have counseling in a couple of days,” Sasuke offered.  “And then… my birthday…”

            I got a little gleeful.  Sasuke refused to leave the hospital, but I’d gotten him to agree to check out for just one day.  It was going to be the best day ever.  “Yeah, okay,” I said, cupping his face and giving him a smooch.

            “Gross,” Sasuke said, bumping his forehead to mine.

            I hummed to myself as I walked to the Academy.

            Kakashi was repelled by my swamp odor, so I made my mission report about my team’s battle with Z short and sweet.  It had been an intense battle lasting almost a full day.  Z was now in custody, being interrogated by Suna.  Lee’s arm would heal.  Mission completed.

            My next stop was home to wash up, then off to Konoha Bar for a well-deserved post-mission drink.

            “So Lee’s all right?” Ino asked, passing me a drink.

            “Mm, I left him with Sakura.”

            “Shika said that you had to go full kyuubi to beat that guy.”

            I shrugged.  I just wanted to drink.

            Ino clinked her glass with mine, then went to drag Hinata and Kiba over.  “If you two wanted to be alone, then you wouldn’t come to this bar for your dates,” she was saying as she sat them down at the table with me.

            Hinata smiled while Kiba sputtered.

            Somehow, Kiba ended up playing pool with Ino, while Hinata and I sat together.

            “You seem different,” I informed her after several more drinks.  “Are you and Kiba…?”

            Hinata turned that familiar shade of red.

            I relaxed a little.  That was more like it.

            “I’m just… more confident now,” she said, and she didn’t stutter at all.

            I smiled.  I guess not all changes were bad.  “I like it,” I said.

            Hinata continued to blush, but she smiled happily.

            “You’re really pretty,” I informed her.  “You’re like, Sasuke-pretty.”

            Hinata laughed at that.

            “I miss him,” I said glumly.

            Hinata hesitated, then reached over and rested her hand over mine.  “At least he’s here, in the village.”

            I gave her puppy dog eyes.

            “Do you want to head home?  Kiba can walk with you.”

            “No,” I said.  “Definitely don’t wanna go home.”

            “You’re quite drunk…”

            “I could be drunker.”

            Hinata’s expression gentled, all traces of embarrassment gone.  “Naruto, are you okay?  Are you lonely living by yourself?”

            “Of course I’m lonely.”

            Hinata squeezed my hand.

            “What’s all this?!” Kiba cried, flailing around.

            “I think you should walk Naruto home,” Hinata said, not moving her hand.  “Maybe you could stay the night with him?”

            “Are you pimping me out?  ’Cause I definitely don’t swing Naruto’s way,” Kiba said, making a face.  “No offense, man,” he added, turning to me.

            “I’m good-looking,” I protested.  “I’m the damn hero of Konoha!  Who wouldn’t swing my way?!”

            “That was like five years ago,” Kiba said with a snort.

            I was shocked to realize that I was no longer the hero of Konoha.  God, my life had gone completely down the toilet.

            “You made it worse,” Hinata said, sounding weirdly angry.

            “I’ll take him home,” Ino put in, sliding into the seat next to me and draping herself over my shoulders.

            “I’m not a child, I don’t need help walking home,” I complained.

            “Shaddup,” Ino said, and Hinata nodded her agreement.

            I wanted to pout, but the warmth of Ino’s body was nice.  Lately the only human contact I got was Sakura punching me or Sasuke shoving his tongue down my throat during visiting hours.

            I found myself between Ino and Hinata, being dragged off to my apartment with Kiba trailing behind us.

            “Okay, I’m going this way,” Hinata said at an intersection.

            I watched Kiba follow behind her.  “They’re totally getting it on,” I muttered.

            “Are they?” Ino asked, moving me forward.

            “Why else is she all confident and mature and whatever?!”

            “Uh, I definitely don’t think that’s Kiba’s influence,” Ino said.  “Besides, she has her…”

            “Her what?” I asked when she didn’t finish her sentence.

            “Never mind.”

            “I mind!”

            “Here’s your apartment.”

            “Wanna have a drink with me?”

            “Another one?”

            “Mm, I’ve got some beer in the fridge.”

            We struggled up the stairs, and finally stumbled into my apartment.

            “Do you think we’re becoming alcoholics?” Ino asked, cracking open her beer as she sat down on the couch.

            “Becoming?” I repeated.  “Nah, we already are.”

            “Man, and I said I would never be a lame, drunken adult like my dad.”  She looked sad.

            I cuddled into her, cradling my beer to my chest.

            Ino patted me on the head.  “You doing okay?”

            “Why do people keep asking me that?”

            “Because you clearly aren’t.”

            “Well, if you already know the answer, then don’t ask…”

            Ino put down her drink on the floor and pulled me into a hug.

            I clung to her, craving the contact.

            We stayed that way for a while.

            “Can I fondle your boobs?” I finally asked.

            “No, you may not,” Ino said, crushing my head with a technique very reminiscent of Sakura.

            I accidentally spilled my beer on her lap.

            After further head crushing, I got Ino a pair of my sweatpants to change into since they were the only pants I had that weren’t orange.

            “You can stay over if you want,” I said.  “I mean, it’s really late…”

            “You just don’t want to be alone.”

            “No!”

            “Yes.”

            I pouted.

            We somehow ended up in my bed, back-to-back.

            “If you try and grope me, I’ll kill you,” Ino said, but there was no threat in her voice.

            “You don’t even have a dick for me to grope.”

            Ino snorted.  “So you really are gay?”

            “I don’t know, that’s why I wanted to fondle your boobs before.  Ya know, as like a test.”

            “Oh, so it was for science?”

            “Yeah, exactly.”

            “You think it’s that simple?”

            “Whaddya mean?”

            “Nothing.”

            We were both quiet.  I was drowsy from the alcohol, and was starting to drift.

            “How did you know that you liked Sasuke?” Ino asked softly.

            “Huh?” I said, waking up.  “Oh, uh, well, I dunno.  I didn’t.  Not until we kissed.  Maybe I was in denial or something, but I thought we were just friends.”

            “Sasuke was the one who kissed you, right??”

            “Yeah.”

            “Interesting,” Ino mused.

            “Why is that interesting?!” I demanded, feeling more awake.

            “I wouldn’t have expected that from him.”

            “Why, you don’t think he likes me?!”

            “How did you make that leap?” Ino asked.  “It just seems like Sasuke is kind of passive in your relationship.”

            “Passive?” I repeated.  “Sasuke is not passive.  Sasuke is the opposite of passive.  He is very unpassive.  He is basically all up on me all of the time.  Except when he hates me.”

            “I don’t think you see what you two look from the outside.  Sasuke kind of… hides behind you, lets you take the lead.”

            “Uh, Sasuke controls my every move.  If you think he’s behind me, he’s probably there to jam his hand into my back and make me dance.”

            “…what…?”

            “Ya know, like a puppet?”

            “Uh…”

            “I’m saying he’s my puppet master!”

            “O…kay…”

            “This conversation is too deep for you,” I said sullenly.

            “I’m surprised that you would willingly admit that you let Sasuke control you.”

            “I don’t let him!  He forces me into it!  He tricks me!”

            By now we had both rolled over and were staring at each other.

            “And how does he do that?” Ino asked.

            “He makes those eyes at me,” I said with a groan.  “Or he goes down on me.  Depends on his mood.”

            Ino covered up a laugh with her hand.

            “What?!”

            “No, no, please tell me more,” she said, grinning.

            “You’re one of those sickos who likes fantasizing about me and Sasuke’s sex life!” I accused.

            “Uh, duh.”

            “Go to sleep, Ino,” I said, rolling back onto my other side.

            “But this conversation was just getting interesting…”

            “Good night.”

Chapter Text

            Sasuke looked wary when I picked him up at the clinic.  He had to sign himself out, and make arrangements to check back in the next day.

            “You could stay longer,” I needled him, but was ignored like usual.

            “Have a great time,” Maiko said in what sounded like the most sarcastic voice ever.

            “We won’t,” Sasuke said.

            “Speak for yourself!” I protested.

            Sasuke was pale as we stepped out onto the street, even paler than usual.

            “We should go somewhere fun,” I said.

            “No.”

            “Come on,” I said.  “Are you sure you don’t want a party?  Sakura said-”

            “No.”

            “But-”

            “No.”

            I could feel the fear threading through him like a tangible thing.  “We’re just walking,” I said quietly.  “It’s just Konoha.”

            “Fuck off.”

            I held his hand even though he was being mean to me.

            Sasuke clung to me, his palm clammy.

            We hit the main road, and everyone stared and whispered.

            “At least no one’s harassing you,” I said cheerfully.

            “Shut up,” Sasuke whispered, his voice tight.

            “Babe…”

            Sasuke didn’t say anything, just moved forward with his blank face.

            “I thought you were supposed to be getting better at the clinic, not worse,” I complained, my hand aching from him holding it so tightly.

            “This is the worst fucking birthday ever,” Sasuke muttered.

            “What the hell, bastard?!” I cried.  “We haven’t even started the festivities yet…  And you spent your last birthday in a mental institution!”

            “Sticking to my previous statement.”

            “No!  Unacceptable!”

            “Hn.”

            I ranted and raved the rest of the way home.

            Sasuke breathed a sigh of relief when I locked the door behind us.

            “Sasuke, seriously, it was just a walk.”

            “Stop talking,” he replied, shoving me against the door and kissing me.

            “Hey,” I protested, coming up for air.  “I gotta go get your cak-”

            Sasuke slid to his knees and unzipped my pants.

            “Oh…” I said.

            We ended up migrating from the door to the floor to the couch, leaving a trail of clothing and knocked-over lamps behind us.

            “I really have to get the cake before the bakery closes,” I finally said between pants.

            “I don’t need a damn cake,” Sasuke growled, biting my shoulder.

            “Ahn… yes, you do…” I said, running my hands up his ribcage.  “You are going to gain twenty pounds in this one day.”

            Sasuke stopped mutilating me with his teeth and shifted up my body so he could nudge my nose with his.

            I couldn’t stop my dopey smile.

            “Go get my cake, loser.”

            “Mm,” I said, fondling his bum.

            “I’m taking a shower,” he said, getting up.

            “But I wanna take a shower with you…”

            “Shower or cake, your choice.”

            “Why would anyone have to make such an impossible choice?!” I cried, aghast.

            Sasuke ignored me and went to start up the shower.

            I glumly dressed myself and went out to the bakery.  I would have made the cake myself, but I’d wanted to get Sasuke something special.  My cakes tasted fine but usually looked like blobs of poop.

            I came back to the apartment, waiting for Sasuke to undo the chain.  “Who’s here?” I asked as I stepped inside.

            “Hi!” Koneko said cheerfully.  She was sitting at the kitchen table with a teacup.

            “Should you be here?” I asked nervously.

            “Grandpa’s out drinking with the other old fart ninjas,” she said, waving my concern away.  “Won’t be back until late.”

            “Oh,” I said, not entirely convinced.  “Want to have cake with us?”

            “Can I?” she asked, eyes bright.

            I looked to Sasuke, and he nodded.

            “Help me with the candles,” I said.

            Koneko bounced over to me, and she stuck the twenty-one candles into the cake while I lit them.

            Sasuke sat at the kitchen table, drinking his tea.

            “Okay, okay,” I said, holding up the cake on its tray.  “Happy birthday to you,” I sang.

            “Happy birthday to you,” Koneko joined in.

            “Happy birthday dear Sasuke, happy birthday to you!”

            Sasuke stared at the cake that I’d shoved in front of his face.

            “Make a wish!” I said, grinning.

            Sasuke gave me a look, then blew out the candles.  It took him more than one try to get them all.  He looked very annoyed.

            Koneko just grinned and clapped.

            I put the cake down and got a knife, cutting three big pieces and putting them on plates.

            Koneko and I talked about her genin class with mouths full of cake, while Sasuke ate his quietly.  He seemed disinterested in us, but I knew that he must be happy enough to have Koneko over if he’d actually unlocked the door and let her into the apartment in the first place.

            “Sas’, you want another piece?” I asked, shocked and amazed when he cleared his plate.

            “Are we going to eat dinner…?”

            “Only if you want to,” I said.  “It’s your birthday.”

            “So we’re just going to eat cake?”

            “Yeah, if you’re actually gonna eat it,” I said, cutting another three pieces, even though Koneko hadn’t even eaten half of hers.  “You like it?”

            “It’s not bad,” Sasuke said, which was high praise from him.  “It’s not too sweet.”

            “Heh, I knew you’d like it,” I said, leaning in to kiss him as I deposited the cake on his plate.

            Koneko stared at us.

            “What?” I said, rubbing the back of my neck.

            “You two are so… in love,” she said, wrinkling her nose.

            “Really?” I asked, pleased that she thought Sasuke was in love with me.

            “Dummy,” Sasuke murmured.

            “You’re in love with me,” I taunted him.

            “And?” he asked, arching an eyebrow at me.

            I got embarrassed and turned my attention to my cake.

            “You should fall in love with me instead,” Koneko said.  “I don’t fart on genin.  Or trip on top of swords.  Or go around tellin’ people about their lord and savior, Miso Ramen.”

            “You raise several valid points,” Sasuke said.

            “Sasukeeee,” I whined.

            Sasuke nudged my knee with his.

            I started feeling a little dopey again.  Just being near Sasuke felt good.  There was something about his presence that relaxed me, the simplest touch making me warm and gooey inside.  Despite all our fighting and his occasional insanity, I missed him.

            “Yuck,” Koneko said, staring at me.

            “Yuck yourself,” I shot back.

            Koneko looked to Sasuke and rolled her eyes.

            He smiled at her.

            This all carried on for a while, until Koneko finally announced that she had to get home because it was almost her bedtime.

            “And the walls are thin, so… you know, keep that in my mind,” she said, waggling her finger as she skipped out the door.

            “What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked, watching Sasuke lock the door.

            “It means we should fuck more quietly,” Sasuke said, peeling off his shirt.

            “What?!” I cried.

            “Get on the bed, idiot.”

            “Wait, but you mean our neighbors can hear us?!” I asked, aghast.

            “Don’t make me repeat myself,” Sasuke called from the bedroom.

            I scrambled after him.  “Ha, if Ino could only hear you now.  Passive, my ass.”

            “What are you babbling about?” Sasuke asked, giving me an annoyed look from the bed.  He was only wearing those teeny tiny boxers of his.

            “Ino said that you’re passive,” I said, struggling to get my shirt over my head.

            Sasuke gave me a salty look.  “What the hell does she know about anything?”

            “That’s what I told her,” I said.  “You’re the bossiest person I know.”

            Sasuke stared at me.

            “And I know a lot of bossy people,” I added.  “Sakura.  Baa-chan.  Ino.”

            “So you’re categorizing me with all the females in your life.”

            “No!  Well, in terms of bossiness, yes…”

            “Come here.”

            I came, tripping a little over my pants as I kicked them off.

            Sasuke pulled me down next to him, pressing his forehead to mine.

            “Hi,” I said, snuggling into him.

           “Hi,” he answered.  Black and purple eyes stared into mine, soft somehow.  “It’s hot,” he complained quietly.

            Neither of us moved.

            “So, wait, they can really hear us doing it?” I asked, breaking the comfortable silence.

            “Probably.”

            “Oh my god.”

            Sasuke smiled, tracing his thumb along my jawline.

            “Why are you so calm about it?!  You hate people being up in your business!”

            Sasuke tilted his head slightly and kissed the corner of my mouth.

            “What are you doing?” I breathed.

            “Kissing you,” he whispered against my mouth, then kissed the other corner.

            “Kisses are supposed to be on the lips,” I informed him.  He was being strangely sweet, and it made my heart thunder in my chest.

            “Kisses can be lots of places,” he murmured back, ducking in and kissing my neck.

            I was getting really embarrassed.  “Um, I guess so, but… uh… neighbors…”

            “Since when do you care what people think?” Sasuke asked, and I could feel his smile against my skin.

            “I care when I’m traumatizing little girls!”

            “She probably likes listening.”

            “You spent too much time with Orochimaru!”

            “Hn.”

            “Sasuke, stop,” I said, trying to push him away as he placed the lightest kiss on my collarbone.

            “Stop what?” he asked, looking up at me like I was stupid.

            I was completely flustered.  “I dunno.”

            “Then how am I supposed to stop?”

            “Sasukeeeee.”

            “What?”

            “Don’t what me,” I said, shivering as he kissed over my heart, his lips a whisper against my skin.  “You’re being weird.”

            “It’s my birthday.”

            “What’s that got to do with anything?”

            “I get to do whatever I want.”

            “And this is what you want to do?” I asked incredulously.

            “Torture you?  Yes.”

            “You’re not torturing me,” I protested, squirming as he trailed kisses along the divide between my pecs.

            “No?”

            “No,” I said, my voice squeaking.  “You’re weirding me out, though.”

            “You do this kind of thing to me all the time.”

            “I wouldn’t say all the time…”

            “You like doing this kind of thing to me.”

            “Well, yeah,” I said.  My face probably couldn’t get any redder.  “I like to make you feel good.”

            “So why can’t I make you feel good?” he asked, caressing along my ribcage.

            “B-b-because.”

            “Because?”

            “I dunno, you don’t usually care how I feel.”

            “Ouch,” Sasuke said, kissing a line down to my bellybutton.  “Is that any way to talk to the birthday boy?”

            “Well you don’t,” I complained, trying to keep my body from quivering.  Every time he touched me I got goosebumps.  “You suck my dick ’cause you either want me to suck yours, or you want me to shut up.”

            “True,” he agreed, nuzzling my stomach with his cheek.

            “Ah-HA.  You admit it.”

            “Yeah.”

            “Oh.  So you want me to shut up?”

            “No.”  Another caress.

            “You want me to blow you?”

            “Maybe later.” Soft kisses.

            “What do you want?” I asked shakily.

            Sasuke laid his cheek on my thigh, gazing up at me.

            “W-what?”

            “No ulterior motives, okay?” he said quietly.

            Now I was really suspicious.  “What are you up to?”

            “Nothing,” he huffed out, finally starting to get irritated.

            “Did you want to do me in the butt?”

            Sasuke jaw actually dropped and he stared at me incredulously.

            “What?  You’re being really suspicious, so I figured you must want something weird.”

            “I can’t stand you.”

            I pouted.  “So you didn’t want to do me in the butt?”

            “No, did you want to get done in the butt?”

            “I don’t know.”

            Sasuke looked completely flabbergasted at this point.  It made me relax a little.

            “You seemed really into it that time I licked you and whatever, so I dunno… I was just wondering what felt so good about it.”

            “So…” Sasuke started to say, then shook his head, lost.

            “I definitely do not want you to do me in the butt,” I clarified.  “Right now, anyway.”

            “Okay…”

            “I’m just… I dunno… curious?”

            “Stop talking, Naruto.”

            “Why?”

            “Because you completely ruined the mood.”

            “Well, you were freaking me out with your tenderness and your romanticness!”

            “Oh, so sorry for being too tender and romantic,” he said, punctuating his words with a sharp bite to my thigh.

            I yelped, trying to get away from his teeth.

            Sasuke looked up at me sullenly.

            “Don’t do that,” I said, touching his face.  “What?  What’s going on?”

            “I just wanted…” he breathed out.  “I just…”

            I ran my fingers through his hair, trying to encourage him to talk.

            “You said we don’t have any good memories,” Sasuke said quietly.  “I want tonight to be… special.  I want it to be a good memory.”

            I almost spontaneously combusted.

            “Nar’?”

            “Yeah, yeah, I got you,” I said, tugging at Sasuke until he was back in hugging range.  I clung to him, trying to keep my watery eyes in check.

            “Are you crying?” he asked disdainfully.

            “No!”

            “You are…”

            “Shut up!”

            Sasuke pulled back enough so he could kiss my eyelids.

            I felt the soft press of his lips, then the warm spill of a tear tracing down my cheek.

            “Dummy.”

            “Jerk,” I said.  “Let’s make tonight special.”

            Sasuke smiled his real smile, and I felt like I was drowning.

Chapter Text

            Sasuke lay with his legs thrown open, looking inviting as hell.

            “So much for being all about me,” I murmured, kissing along his thigh.

            “You said it was weird, so shut it,” Sasuke hissed.

            “I didn’t say it was bad weird…”

            “You said I was freaking you out, and told me to stop.”

            “Yeah, yeah,” I said, touching him everywhere.  It had been kind of nice to have Sasuke’s attention like that.  But this was good, too.  Touching a naked Sasuke was definitely in my top five favorite things to do.

            “At least you’re not crying anymore…” he muttered.

            “Shut up!”

            Sasuke grinned.

            “You like making fun of me,” I complained.

            “Yeah.”

            I scowled at him.

            Sasuke hit me in the head with a pillow.

            “What the hell!” I shrieked, lunging up at him.

            We wrestled, with me having the intention of going easy on him.  Somehow I ended up in a headlock.

            “You cheated!”

            “So?”

            I ranted and raved and flailed around until Sasuke let me go.  Then I tried to tackle him again, only to find myself on the floor.

            Sasuke glanced down at me, looking unimpressed.  “Naruto…”

            “I feel like this night isn’t going as planned,” I said, climbing up and sitting next to him.

            “No, it’s fine,” Sasuke said, resting his hand over mine.  “I’m happy.”

            I grinned.  “Yeah?”

            “Yeah.”

            “Me, too,” I said, nuzzling his neck.  “I’m so happy you’re here.”

            “Good, now get on with it.”

            I flushed.  Sasuke hadn’t actually said what he wanted, but I was pretty sure I got it.  I wasn’t completely oblivious.

            He was lying back down now, tucking a pillow under his lower back.

            That pillow was making me even more nervous.

            “Naruto.”

            I chewed on my bottom lip, but obediently settled between his legs.

            Sasuke dug his fingers into my hair, tugging lightly.

            I sucked and licked him until he was a quivery mess, then finally steeled myself up to use my fingers, pushing and stretching.

            The way Sasuke arched his back and panted my name was everything.

            “You feel good, baby?” I murmured.

            “Not a… f-fucking infant!” Sasuke gasped out.

            “It’s a term of endearment,” I said, mildly frustrated.

            Sasuke made a sexy noise, distracting me from my discontent.

            “Here?” I asked, rubbing the firm mound I felt under my finger.

            Sasuke’s hips bucked upwards.

            I chewed harder on my bottom lip.  That was nice.  I really liked that.  I rubbed it again, getting the same reaction.  “Sasuke,” I panted, feeling hot and bothered.

            His eyes slid open, meeting mine.  “That’s enough,” he said, even as he was rocking into my fingers.

            “A-are you sure?”

            “Yeah,” he gasped as I slid them out.

            I looked up at him uncertainly.  I didn’t know what I was supposed to do.

            Sasuke threw a towel at me.

            I stared at it, hanging off of my shoulder.

            “Clean your hand,” he said, spreading his legs wider.

            I watched him, mesmerized.

            “Now.”

            I quickly cleaned up my fingers.

            “Good.  Come here.”

            I settled on top of him.

            Sasuke wrapped his legs around my waist, pulling me closer.  He kissed me, a sloppy, hungry kiss, and flexed his hips into me.

            I caught one leg, pushing it towards his chest as I delved my tongue into his mouth.  I rocked against him, needing and wanting.

            “Idiot,” Sasuke mumbled, reaching between us and directing me where to go.

            “I’m not,” I tried to complain, but he was so tight and my eyes started rolling into the back of my head.

            Sasuke dug the nails of his right hand into my back, bringing me back to reality.  I noticed his left arm was lying uselessly beside him.

            I wanted to ask him if he was okay, but thought better of it.  “Tell me what to do.”

            “Go slow.”

            I nodded, watching how his body shuddered underneath mine.  I was gripping both of his thighs now, supporting him as I eased in.

            Sasuke closed his eyes, his body straining.

            “Hey, love,” I murmured, rubbing his thigh.  “This feels really, really, really good.”

            Sasuke smiled, a baring of teeth, with his eyes still closed.

            “How’s that?”

            “Not terrible.”

            “Thank you, sweetie.”

            “No more stupid nicknames,” Sasuke groaned.

            “Sorry, I just love you so much,” I said, trying not to be an emotional wreck about it.  “I don’t know how else to tell you.”

            “Just saying it like that is… fine…”

            “There?”

            “Yeah.”

            “Tell me what to do.”

            “There, right there.”

            “Like this?”

            “Yeah,” he gasped out, eyes finally sliding open.

            Our eyes locked.

            “Sasuke,” I whispered, feeling overcome.  “Sasuke…”

            “Naruto!” he cried, his good arm locking around my neck and pulling me closer.  I could feel his warm breath against my lips, feel every pant and gasp as I stared into his eyes.  “Slower.”

            I groaned, trying to slow down even though my hips just wanted to piston forward.  This wasn’t like Sasuke at all, and I wanted to savor every second of it.  He never wanted things slower, he never wanted them romantic, and he certainly didn’t want me on top of him.

            “Naruto,” he whispered, eyes intense.

            “Sasuke,” I answered, pushing his thighs down as far as they could go so I could kiss him.

            Sasuke kissed back, slow and deep.

            I stopped moving for a moment, distracted.  I let my hands fall to the mattress above his shoulders, focused on those lingering kisses as I slowly started to move again.

            We kissed and panted into each other’s mouths, hips moving together.

            “Please,” Sasuke said.

            I increased the pace, watching his neck strain back into the mattress.

            His hand moved between us, eyelids lowering.

            Things started to go blurry, movements erratic, and then we were a sweaty, messy pile of limbs on the bed.

            Sasuke let me stay on top of him for longer than I would have thought, before finally mumbling, “You’re heavy…”

            I eased off of him, flopping onto my back.  “Holy shit, that was awesome.”

            “You really know how to capture the moment in words,” Sasuke said with a snort.

            I turned my head to him, kissing his neck.  “Seriously, shit.  I love you so much, Sasuke.  Like really, really love you.  And anal.  Anal is awesome.”

            “Stop saying awesome, you’re already making me regret this.”

            “Noooo, no regretting,” I said, huggling his chest.  I kissed the kunai scar on his right pectoral.  “That was… perfect.”

            “Loser,” Sasuke murmured, patting me on the head with his right hand.

            “You should say something nice.”

            “Sorry, that was so awesome man.”

            I almost choked.

            “Go shower,” Sasuke said, nudging me with his knee.

            “Ugh.”

            We both got up slowly.

            I stretched my arms over my head, rolling my shoulders.  I stopped at the toilet while Sasuke turned on the shower.  The water was warm when I stepped in.

            Sasuke disappeared into the toilet, so I washed up by myself.  He reappeared after a few minutes, nudging me aside and standing under the spray.

            I took one look at him and turned red.

            Sasuke flicked his eyes to me, his own cheeks taking on a dusting of red.  “What are you staring at?”

            I shook my head vigorously.

            Sasuke pulled me in with his right arm.

            I rested my cheek on his shoulder, sliding my arms around him.  “Is your arm okay?” I finally asked.

            “It’s fine.”

            “You haven’t been using it.”

            Sasuke raised up his left arm with an awkward, jerky movement, and patted me on the back.

            “I’m sorry I couldn’t get them to take off the seals,” I murmured, kissing his collarbone.

            “It’s fine, it doesn’t matter.”

            “It does matter.”

            “Not today, Naruto, okay?”

            I nodded, giving him a lingering squeeze.

            “Let’s go back to bed,” he said, reaching over and turning off the water.

            “It’s like ten o’clock, not even…”

            “I didn’t say we were sleeping.”

            “I dunno, Sas’, we did it a lot already…”

            “Let’s just talk, idiot.”

            “What?  Really?”

            “Yeah.”

            I followed Sasuke back to our room, wrapping a towel around my waist.

            Sasuke dried his hair, which went a lot faster now that it was short again.

            I put on a pair of clean boxers, which I decided was sufficient clothing for the night.

            Sasuke examined the sheets, then tossed them off the bed and pulled out the only spare set, remaking the bed.

            I watched him, feeling the color creep up my neck.  I was probably smiling like a complete idiot.

            “Turn off the light, stupid,” Sasuke said, getting back into bed.

            “Not ’til you call me something nice.”

            “Turn off the light, baby.”

            I almost spontaneously combusted.

            “So…” Sasuke said as I curled into his side.  It was too hot to be so close, but somehow the stickiness felt good.

            “So…” I echoed.

            Sasuke kissed the top of my head.

            I melted into a pile of goo.

            Sasuke stroked my hair and told me about the other residents at Konoha Clinic.  Meron was a quiet girl who sat in the corner all day and wrote poetry.  She also liked to draw portraits, which always came out as dead bodies.  She had drawn several of Sasuke and given them to him.

            “Uh…” I said.

            “The note said, ‘you look perfect,’” Sasuke said.

            “Is she threatening you?”

            “I can take her.”

            “What kind of place are you living?!”

            “The residents are harmless,” Sasuke soothed.  “Except on fish day.  Doria hates fish.”

            “Uh…”

            “She stabbed a nurse with a chopstick for trying to make her eat it once,” Sasuke said, sounding amused.

            “Was the nurse okay…?”

            “He bled a lot, but he came back to work after a couple of weeks.”

            “Is this why you never talk about the clinic?  Because you realize I’m never letting you set foot in there again?”

            “I don’t talk about it because it’s not interesting.”

            “Oh, no, I think it sounds quite interesting,” I said, trying to stay calm.

            “Usually I just read by myself.  Or paint.”

            “I have yet to see one of these alleged paintings.”

            “You wouldn’t like them.”

            “You don’t know what kind of art I like!”

            “You like pictures of ramen.”

            My eyes strayed to the poster of ramen on my wall, hard to make out in the dark, but its presence resonating clearly.  “I have… other interests.”

            “Mm hm.”

            “I… do…”

            “I’ll show you one next time you come to the clinic.”

            “Really?!”

            “Yeah.”

            “Okay,” I said snuggling him happily.  Then I remembered.  “Oh, I can’t come next week.”

            “Mission?”

            “Yeah,” I said, tracing a scar that ran down his sternum.  “Sorry, I’ll come back as soon as I can.”

            “I know.”

            I gave his chest a little press of my lips.  “I wouldn’t go if it wasn’t serious.”

            “I know.”

            “I don’t want you to feel abandoned.”

            “I don’t,” Sasuke said, pinching my cheek.

            “Hey,” I complained.

            Sasuke gave me a reassuring smile that was actually reassuring.

            I smiled back.  He really was doing better.  I’d already been on a couple of week-long missions since he’d checked back into the clinic, and he hadn’t done anything dramatic.

            “Where are you going this time?” he asked, letting go of my cheek.

            “Surveillance of a little village near the border of Suna,” I said.  “We’re almost positive it’s really a Yuuyake base, but we have to make sure.”

            “Did you find anything else about them?”

           “Not really,” I said.  “Still no idea what they’re after.  Seems like they’ve got bases in all of the five countries, though.  They seem interested in the tailed beasts, so we don’t know if they want to resurrect the Ten Tails, or what.”

            “Be careful.”

            “Yeah, of course.”

            “I’m not there to watch your back.”

            I smiled sadly at him.

            Sasuke flicked me in the forehead.

            I rubbed the spot absently.  “Hey, we did find out that most of the members we’ve run down so far are survivors of clan massacres.  Like Haku and Kimimaro…”

            “Like us?” Sasuke said.

            “I’m not-” I started to protest.

            He gave me a knowing look.

            “Like us,” I agreed softly.

            Sasuke was quiet for a moment.  “You’re the only one, Naruto.”

            “What, the last Uzumaki?  ’Cause there’s still Karin and stuff…”

            “No,” Sasuke said, brushing my sweaty bangs from my forehead.  “You’re the only one who can deal with this Yuuyake thing.  You’re the only person in this whole damn village that I believe in to not fuck it up.”

            “Oh…”

            “Even if you don’t want to be Hokage anymore, you… you’re the person who can protect the village.  The world.”

            “Sasuke…”

            “Fix this fucked up world for me,” he said, turning his face away.

            I climbed over him, gripping his face in both hands.  “Sasuke…”

            He looked fragile.

            “I don’t know what I can do,” I said.  “But I’ll… do something!”

            He smiled a little.

            I thumbed over the seals on his eyes.  I felt a stirring inside of me, something I hadn’t felt in a long time.  “I’m not gonna let the same stupid story keep playing out.”

            Sasuke moved forward, kissing me suddenly.  “Thank you,” he said, tucking me back under his chin.

            I kissed and nuzzled his neck.  I felt more content than I had in a long time.  It was like everything was suddenly coming together.  I gazed up at Sasuke, watching his eyelids flutter as he drifted off to sleep.  I felt like we were finally on the same page.  I hadn’t felt this intimate with him since the second Valley of the End fight.  We understood each other perfectly, and we were moving forward.

            When I woke up the next morning, Sasuke was gone.

Chapter Text

            I tore through the village, following the very faint trace of Sasuke’s chakra to the Academy.

            “Stop,” Chouji said, trying to stop me from going in.

            I pushed him aside like a ragdoll.

            He got up and chased after me, but he wasn’t fast enough.

            I found myself trapped in a tree that suddenly sprouted from the Academy floor.

            “Naruto, calm down,” Yamato said.  “Sasuke is okay.”

            “He’s not okay, something’s wrong, something’s definitely wrong!” I yelled, the opposite of calm.

            “Something happened, but he is okay,” Yamato said, sounding reasonable.  “If you can calm down, I’ll take you to the hokage.”

            “No, I have to see Sasuke.”

            “I want you to talk to the hokage first.”

            “Where is Sasuke?!”

            Yamato sighed, shaking his head.  “I’ll let you cool off then.”  He walked away with Chouji trailing uncertainly behind him.

            I was going crazy.  I screamed and struggled, but I couldn’t get out.

            Other ninjas came into the building, walking by me and giving me funny looks.

            I finally realized that I needed to get it together.  I took a deep breath and tried meditating myself into Sage Mode.  I grew quiet.

            Then I realized that Sasuke was with Ibiki, and I started freaking out again.

            “Naruto, you’re never going to be Hokage if you keep acting like a child,” Sakura said, coming into the hallway.

            “What’s going on?!” I demanded, not caring.

            “I don’t know all of the details,” she said, shifting uncomfortably.

            “Sakura…”

            “Sasuke tried to leave Konoha, and Yamato stopped him.  He’s being questioned now.”

            “That’s ridiculous!” I cried.  “Why would Sasuke try and leave?!  He wouldn’t, that’s why!”

            “That’s what happened, Naruto.”

            “They’re lying!  They’re setting him up!”

            “Naruto.”

            “He wouldn’t do that!  He wouldn’t!  Not after…  He wouldn’t!”

            “This isn’t easy for me, either!” Sakura cried.  “So can you stop acting so childish already?!”

            I went silent.

            “I just got off of an eighteen hour shift, and I all I wanted to do was sleep, you know?  I passed out the second I hit the pillow, only to wake up an hour later to a dog jumping on my bed, yelling about Sasuke running away.  He didn’t know anything, just said that I had to come here and babysit you while you threw a tantrum.  So now I’m worrying about Sasuke, worrying about you, and I just want to go to bed and get some goddamn sleep!”

            I could see how exhausted she looked now that I was taking the time to study her face.  “I’m sorry, Sakura,” I said quietly.  “I’m just really scared.”

            “I know,” she said, reaching through the wood to hold my hand.  “Me, too.”

            I wanted to fall apart, but looking at Sakura, I knew that I couldn’t.  “Can we go talk to Kakashi-sensei now?”

            “I’ll go check.”

            It took Sakura a while to come back.  In the meantime, people were coming and going in the hallway, still giving me funny looks.

            I ignored them.

            Sakura finally appeared with Yamato, and he released my prison.  We walked up to Kakashi’s office together, everyone silent.

            Shikamaru was at the door, sending people away.  He let us through, and we came into a meeting already in progress.

            The council was all there, and Gai was serving everyone coffee.  Dr. Shizuta and one of the nurses I recognized from the clinic were also there.

            “Close the door,” Kakashi said abruptly.  There was no twinkle in his eye, no upturn to his mask.  He was all business.

            Shikamaru closed the door.

            “What is the meaning of this?” Koharu demanded, eyes drilling into me.  “Uchiha was under your watch!”

            “I knew he should have been locked away for good,” Homura said, shaking his head.  “No good ever comes from being lenient.”

            “Yes, it’s time to stop listening to the opinions of a child and start following the practical, time-tested wisdom of our village,” Koharu said with a nod.

           “So kill off the clans of anyone you consider a traitor?” I asked.  I felt like I was floating outside of my body, completely uncaring.

            “No one in this room was involved with Danzo’s scheme-” Homura started to protest.

            “You knew,” I said.  I wasn’t angry.  I wasn’t anything.  I just felt like my eyes were finally open.  “You knew, and you let it happen.”

            The two of them both wanted to speak.

            “Then you let Sasuke grow up thinking all kinds of wrong things.  You just left him there, by himself, drowning in his family’s blood and guilt and revenge, and then you acted all surprised when he lost his mind,” I said, shaking my head.  “You made him.  You made Uchiha Sasuke.  He’s this way because of you.  So stop trying to throw him away and start trying to help him.”

            Everyone stared at me.

            “Assholes,” I added for good measure.

            “Naruto,” Tsunade growled, giving me a whap on the head.

            “Ow!” I yelped, clutching my aching head.

            “Well, now that that’s been dealt with, let’s discuss the timeline of this current incident,” Kakashi said.  “Dr. Shizuta?”

            “Sasuke checked himself out of the hospital at four thirty-three yesterday evening,” Dr. Shizuta said.  “He’d wanted to spend his birthday at home with Naruto.  I didn’t observe any changes in behavior.  He seemed a bit uncomfortable about leaving the hospital, but that was as to be expected due to his increasing agoraphobia.”

            “What’s agorawhatsit?” I mumbled.

            “Fear of… going places, basically,” Tsunade explained to me quietly.

            “Oh,” I said.

            “How has Sasuke been since he checked back into the clinic?” Kakashi asked.  “Has his condition been improving?”

            “He has his days,” Dr. Shizuta said.  “As I mentioned before, his agoraphobia has gotten worse.  But he’s made some real breakthroughs with his splitting.”

            “What is splitting?” Homura interrupted.

            “Maybe you should try cracking a book,” I muttered, but was ignored.  Even I knew what it was.  More or less.  Well, I had a cursory understanding of it, anyway, since I actually talked to Sasuke’s psychiatrist on a regular basis about his condition, unlike those stupid Elders who just wanted to shoot first and ask questions later.

            “Oh, well splitting is a kind of… an all or nothing way of thinking.  For Sasuke, he looks at people as all good or all bad.  This has been especially problematic with his lingering guilt over the death of Uchiha Itachi, and of course with his current relationship with Naruto.”

            “Ain’t that the truth,” I muttered.

            “But you’ve seen an improvement in that area?” Kakashi prodded.

            “Well, yes,” Dr. Shizuta said.  “Sasuke was finally able to admit that Itachi wasn’t a hero or a villain.  He was able to see him as he was, as a child being manipulated into something evil, as a man doing what he thought was best for the good of others.  He was able to see how he’d followed the same path as his brother, and to think about where that path led.  I felt like he was making a lot of progress and really starting to think about the future.  Well, I guess I was right on the latter bit, but just not in the way that I thought.”

            “What do you mean by that?” Kakashi prodded.

            Dr. Shizuta looked over at me warily.

            “What?” I said, confused.

            “Naruto, do you know why Sasuke ran away?”

            “No,” I said shaking my head vigorously.

            “Could you tell us what happened from when you left the clinic until Sasuke’s disappearance?” Kakashi asked.

            I didn’t mean to turn completely red.  “Like… everything?”

            “We don’t need the sordid details, we have the Midnight Ninja Mysteries for that,” Kakashi said.  It was the first joke he’d cracked all day, and it helped me relax a little.  I was still a ball of tension, but there was nothing to be done about that.

            “We uh… I dunno.  You know.  And then I went to the bakery to get his cake.  Koneko came over while I was gone, and we all ate cake together.”

            “Matsudaira Koneko?” Tsunade interrupted.

          I nodded.  “Yeah, she’s our neighbor.  Anyway, we all ate cake, and then Koneko went home, and…  Stuff.”  I couldn’t not think about Sasuke underneath me, saying my name so sweetly while he stared into my eyes.

            “We get it, you had sex, move on,” Koharu interrupted snidely.

            I chewed on my bottom lip, feeling exposed.

            “Was there anything different about Sasuke?” Dr. Shizuta prodded gently.

            “…yeah…”

            “Care to elaborate?” Homura asked.

            “No,” I said.  “It’s private.”

            “Naruto, we’re trying to understand what happened,” Kakashi said.  “Tell us what you can.”

            I stared at my shoes.

            Sakura squeezed my arm gently.

            “He was… really sweet.  And open.  Not like Sasuke at all, I guess,” I admitted.  “He talked a lot more than usual.  And he…  I don’t know.  He said he’d show me one of his paintings.”

            “He paints?” Koharu muttered.

            “So when did you last see him?” Kakashi asked.

            “We went to bed early, but we talked for a long time,” I said.  “I guess I fell asleep around midnight?”

            “And he was with you then?”

            “Yeah,” I said.  I swallowed.  “But when I woke up this morning, he was gone.”

            “Okay, thank you, Naruto,” Kakashi said.  “Yamato, what happened next?”

            “I was on Sasuke duty this morning,” Yamato started.  “I was outside the apartment like usual, when I noticed Sasuke leaving the apartment.  I followed him to the wall.  He knew that I was following him, and when he reached the gate, he started gathering his chakra.”

            “How much chakra are we talking about?” Homura asked.  “I thought the seals made it difficult for him to accumulate anything significant.”

            “It would be impressive for a genin, perhaps,” Yamato said.  “He launched a very weak fire jutsu at me.  I assessed that he was not a danger, and I trapped and transported him to the hokage.”

            “You had orders,” Homura said with a frown.  “If Uchiha Sasuke used chakra in any kind of attack, he was to be neutralized immediately.”

            “What?!” I yelled, suddenly on my feet.

            Tsunade pulled me back to my seat.

            “As I said, I assessed that he was not a threat,” Yamato said.  “He was clearly using the attack to provoke me, not to hurt me.”

            “To provoke you into what?” Koharu demanded.

            I didn’t want to know the answer to that.

            “Sasuke was aware of the terms of his freedom,” Yamato said.  I realized he was looking at me cautiously.

            Dr. Shizuta was also watching me.  Sakura, Tsunade, and Kakashi seemed to catch on, turning to me, as well.

            “No,” was all I said.

            “So you’re asserting that Uchiha wasn’t trying to escape, but was trying to commit suicide?” Homura asked, adjusting his glasses.

            I got up and walked out of the room.

Chapter Text

            Shikamaru didn’t ask any questions, just took me straight to where Sasuke was being held.

            Ibiki got up when I came in.

            Sasuke was sitting in a chair across from him, blindfolded and chained to it.  He looked like he had some minor cuts and bruises, but was otherwise okay.

            “The hokage said to give them ten minutes,” Shikamaru said, and Ibiki nodded.

            They both left.

            “Are you okay?” I asked shakily.

            Sasuke didn’t answer.

            I took a deep breath.  I was trying to be calm.  “You could at least answer the damn question.”

            “Of course I’m not okay!” Sasuke snapped.

            I sighed.  “I just want to know that they’re not torturing you.”

            Sasuke didn’t answer for a long time.  “No.”

            “Okay,” I said.  “Okay.”

            Sasuke was silent.

            “How could you?” I finally asked, my voice cracking.

            He didn’t answer.

            I stomped across the room, snatching the blindfold from his eyes.  “Look at me when I’m talk…ing… to… you…” I trailed off, looking at the burned flesh around his eyes.  The seals had been reapplied on top of the raw burns.  “What did you do?” I whispered, wanting to touch and comfort him, but completely repulsed by the idea.

            “I used the sharingan.”

            “What… how…?”

            “There was a price, obviously.”

            “You should be in the hospital.”

            “It’s fine.”

            “No, it’s not.”

            “Naruto, I can’t do this.  Please just go.”

            “Oh, you can’t face the consequences of your actions?” I asked, crossing my arms over my chest.  “Well, too bad.  I’m not going anywhere.”

            “It was supposed to be over,” Sasuke said, looking away from me.  “If only it hadn’t been Yamato…”

            “Let’s be very clear here,” I said.  “You’re admitting that you wanted the ANBU to kill you.”

            Sasuke didn’t answer.

            “How could you?!” I cried, grabbing onto his shoulders and shaking him.  “After last night, after we…  How could you?!”

            Sasuke waited until I was calm again.  “I wanted to finish everything, no regrets.”

            “What does that even mean?”

            “I can’t do this right now.”

            “Well now is all we have.”

            Sasuke seemed to shrink into himself.

            “Why didn’t you just tell me?” I pleaded.

            He shook his head.

            I ran out of things to say.  “I’ll get you a doctor,” I muttered, and left.

            Shikamaru followed me back to Kakashi’s office.

            The room was tense when I walked in.

            “Nice of you to join us again, brat,” Tsunade said, looking me up and down.

            “Sasuke needs a doctor,” I said flatly, sitting down.

            “He needs to make a statement,” Homura said.

            “No, he needs a doctor,” I said.

            “Sakura?” Kakashi said.

            Sakura chewed on her bottom lip and nodded, standing up.

            “Okay, Naruto?” Kakashi asked.

            I nodded.  I trusted Sakura.

            “We’re discussing whether or not Konoha Clinic is the appropriate place for Sasuke,” Kakashi explained.

            “The other option being…?”

            “Prison, house arrest, exile…” Kakashi said, counting the words off on his fingers.

            “Sasuke can’t go to prison,” I said flatly.  He had too big of a target on his back to survive prison.  Too many prisoners with axes to grind.

            “He broke the terms of his release,” Tsunade said.

            “He tried to escape and he used jutsu,” Koharu put in.  “I don’t see what there’s left to discuss.”

            We were in that damn office all day.

            Sasuke was sent to prison to wait for his trial, kept in solitary confinement at Kakashi’s insistence.

            I twisted my stomach into knots worrying about it.  I didn’t go to see him, though, after he moved to the prison.  I left him to Sakura and Kakashi, and I focused on the crisis that was Yuuyake instead.  There was too much to do, so I didn’t really have any free time anymore.

            I had to testify at the trial, though.  It all reminded me of four years ago, and more or less played out the same.  The trial dragged on, but Sasuke was finally sentenced to the clinic, with a reevaluation for possible release in two years.

            “We’re going to see Sasuke,” Sakura announced to me the first Monday after he was brought back to the clinic.

            “Are you kidding me, I have so much to do,” I said, waving a folder at her.

            “Kakashi-sensei,” Sakura said, giving our teacher a meaningful look.

            “Naruto, go see Sasuke so I don’t get beat on by Sakura.”

            “Subtle,” Sakura said with a sigh.

            “But I haven’t finished compiling all this data that we need for the Five Kage Summit,” I said.

            “Like I’m ever prepared for meetings,” Kakashi said.  “Just go.”

            I felt uncomfortable, but I went.  I knew I had to see him eventually, it was just easier not to.

            Sakura and I sat in the familiar waiting room.

            Another patient was actually having a visitor, which was rare.  She sat on the other side of the room, talking excitedly to a man who looked like he was probably her father.

            Sasuke came into the room looking uncertain.

            “Sasuke!” Sakura said, jumping to her feet.

            He let her hug him, making it look awkward and uncomfortable.

            “Hey,” I said.

            “Hey,” he replied.  He looked awful.  He’d been in solitary confinement for months.  He’d gotten skinnier and paler, and there was a cagey look in his eyes.  Even hidden away from the other inmates, there’d still been attempts on his life.

            “You look like shit,” I decided to say.  “And did you start smoking?” I added, wrinkling my nose.

            “Did you want one?” Sasuke asked, pulling out a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket.

            “No, they stink,” I complained.  “And so do you.”

            “Naruto, stop picking fights,” Sakura said irritably.

            I scowled at her.  Picking fights was the only comfortable ground I had left to stand on.

            “Can’t teach an idiot new tricks,” Sasuke said, because he felt exactly the same way as I did.

            “Jerk.”

            “Moron.”

            “Shut up, both of you,” Sakura said with a long sigh.

            We all went quiet.

            The girl with the visitor laughed loudly.

            “You really do look like shit, though,” I finally said.

            “Naruto!”

            “I don’t need you to tell me that,” Sasuke muttered.

            “You know I’m just worried about you.”

            “Yeah.”

            I wanted to gather up his sad little frame in a hug, but that just seemed like a bad idea.  We hadn’t actually broken up, but I was sure we could both agree that we weren’t together.  My whole body itched to touch him, while my brain was telling me to run away while I still could.

            Just looking at him made me hurt.

            Sakura prattled on about something that I wasn’t even listening to, Sasuke and I sniped at each other a bit more, and then it was over.

            “Thanks for coming,” Sakura said as we left.

            “Whatever, I have to get back to work.”

            “It won’t always be like this.”

            I looked into Sakura’s worried eyes, and I nodded.  “I know.  I’m sorry.”

            “You don’t have to be sorry.”

            “Well I am.”

            I focused on work.  I focused on Yuuyake, and their mysterious leader, J.  She was the sole survivor of the Wakaba Clan, renowned for their flesh-eating jutsu.  The jutsu was what ate the flesh, not the ninjas.  It was still creepy, it just wasn’t cannibalism creepy.

            That was all we knew about her.  Not even a physical description.

            “I want to go undercover,” I informed Kakashi.

            “Everyone in the world knows your face, so I don’t think that’ll work,” he said, shooting me down.

            “I would go as myself, but as myself who wanted to join their organization.”

            “No.”

            “Senseeeeei.”

            Kakashi was not moved by my whining.

            “I think I should go to Suna to work with Gaara on our coordinated defense,” I tried next.

            “Why?” Kakashi asked.

            “Well, you know, to coordinate.  We can’t coordinate if we’re not together.”

            “Naruto, I’m getting the impression that you just want to leave Konoha.”

            “No…”

            “Yes…”

            “Maybe…”

            “You know, you basically refused to leave the village under any circumstances for almost a year.”

            “Yeah, well.  Things change.”

            “Like realizing that you can’t live your life to please Sasuke?”

            “I wasn’t-”

            “I’m sure there’s work for you to do outside of the village, but I think you should give some consideration to what it would mean to cut off ties with Sasuke completely.”

            “I’m not cutting our ties!”

            “How many times have you seen him in the last few months?”

            “I’ve seen him…”

            “I’m not telling you not to leave the village.  I’m just telling you that going from one extreme to the other isn’t necessarily the best path.”

            “Okay…”

            I went to see Sasuke alone the next visiting day.

            “Sakura didn’t drag you here by force today?” Sasuke asked drily.

            “Amazing, right?  I came of my own free volition.”

            “That is pretty amazing.”  Sasuke turned and looked away from me.  “If I’d known when we were kids that all I had to do to get rid of you was try to off myself, severing our bond would have been a lot easier.”

            “I didn’t come here to fight,” I said.  I felt like there was a weight on me, crushing my chest.

            “Then why come at all?”

            “Kakashi-sensei said something, and it made me think.”

            Sasuke rolled his eyes.

            “Look, turd face, I’m worried about you.  I love you.”

            “How sweet of you to care.”

            “Sasuke.  You really fucked with my head, and you know it.  Quit acting like a victim.”

            “What I did had nothing to do with you.”

            “Don’t play dumb with me, it’s what you fucking did before that.  We made love, Sasuke.  We were completely intimate, we were completely open with each other.  Or so I thought.  And then you…”

            “You’re so over-fucking-dramatic.  Made love, Christ.”

            “Fuck you.”

            “Fuck you back.”

            I didn’t really know what I’d come there to say in the first place, but at this point I was done.

            Sasuke tugged on my sleeve as I stood to leave.  He wasn’t looking at me, but I could tell he was upset.

            I sat down again, because that was how our relationship worked.  I was Sasuke’s bitch, no matter how hard I tried not to be.

            “You didn’t come to see me,” he said quietly.  “In prison.”

            “No,” I agreed.  “I didn’t.”

            Sasuke breathed something out that sounded like, “I wish you had.”

            “I’m sorry, baby,” I said, pulling him back against my chest, because old habits died hard.  “I just couldn’t.”

            “I get it,” Sasuke said, turning around in my arms and hiding his face in my chest.

            Fragile Sasuke was my Achilles’ heel, and the bastard knew it.  I held him and spoiled him for a while, the whole time thinking that I definitely should not be doing it.  And yet I felt oddly relaxed and content.

            Sasuke, for his part, had snuggled into my lap, escaping the hard plastic of the cheap waiting room chairs, basking in back rubs and little forehead kisses.

            The lack of an ANBU watching our every move probably assisted in this descent into madness.  The strangest outcome of Sasuke’s trial was that he had finally stopped being branded as a threat and instead been labelled as a mentally unstable (but harmless) loony.  Yamato had testified that even when Sasuke had been able to activate the sharingan, the pain from his chakra-blocking seals, literally burning flesh from his face, had resulted in any attack he used being useless.

            Sasuke was like a neutered dog.

            It was depressing.

            “I gotta get back to work,” I murmured into his hair.  I cast a wary eye towards the mirror on the wall.  I was about ninety-five percent sure it was a two-way mirror where the doctors monitored the visiting room.  I could just imagine Dr. Shizuta standing behind it, shaking her head disapprovingly at me.

            “Go, then,” Sasuke said, unmoving.

            “Yeah,” I said, pressing my lips to his hair.  I hated the smoky smell.

            Sasuke eventually moved.

            We didn’t look at each other, and I left.

Chapter Text

            “Sasuke needs a place to live,” Sakura said, trying to make it sound casual as she looked through the books in my room in Suna.

            “Okay…?” I said.

            “Well, he doesn’t have any money, and it’d be nice if he could stay somewhere familiar.”

            “You’re making it sound like it’s a guarantee that he’s getting out.”

            “He has the votes.  Even Homura and Koharu don’t see him as a threat anymore, though they’ll probably just vote no out of spite.”

            “Konoha politics at its finest,” I said, rolling my eyes.  I sealed the letter I had been writing and got up to hand it to Sakura.  “How is he?” I asked, softening.

            “He’s… okay,” Sakura ventured.  “Not great, but not bad.”

            “He hasn’t been answering my letters lately.”

            “He’s just in one of his funks.”

            I sighed, backing up into my desk and sitting on it.

            “So… a place to live…” Sakura hedged.

            “You want him to live in my place?”

            “Well, it’s empty...  And it was his home, too, for a while…”

            “It’s fine,” I said, waving off her hesitations.  “He can stay there if he wants to.”

            Sakura looked relieved.

            “What, you thought I’d say no?” I asked.

            “I don’t know, you two have just been so weird about each other…”

            “How are we weird?” I asked, trying to sound offended.

            “Well, I thought all you two were doing was fighting, then I walked into the visiting room that time-”

            “Don’t remind me,” I complained, covering my ears.

            “I had to see it, so you have to remember it!” Sakura snapped irritably.

            I was embarrassed.  It had been a moment of weakness for both of us, started by a fight, continuing with me kissing Sasuke in apology, and ending with Sakura walking in on a mutual hand job.

            The staff at the clinic had gotten a lot stricter after that.  Apparently Sasuke had been getting a bit of special treatment for his visiting hours.  Patients weren’t supposed to be cuddled by visitors, and were especially not supposed to be sitting on their laps, giving hand jobs.  Who knew?

            Dr. Shizuta had pointed out that Sasuke was a very tactile person, but the only person he let touch and be touched by him was me.  He needed physical reassurance, even if it was only once a week.  The rest of the staff had agreed that depriving Sasuke of that would be detrimental to his continuing recovery.

            Also, they were all great fans of the Midnight Ninja Mysteries.

            Anyway, we had to sit across the table from one another after that.  Which was fine by me, because how embarrassing was it to get caught wanking your ex off in a mental hospital?  That needed to never happen again.

            “I just don’t understand your relationship,” Sakura said, eyes downcast.

            “Neither do we, so don’t worry.”

            Sakura shook her head.  “You two… need each other.  It’s like neither of you is right until you’re together.”

            “Stop reading those damn books,” I muttered.

            “I’m not talking about a romantic need or a sexual need or whatever,” Sakura said, smacking me in the arm.  “And it’s not necessarily a good thing.  It’s just what is.”

            I shrugged.  “It’s complicated.”

            “I am aware.”

            “So how’s Ino?” I asked, deciding it was time for a change in subject.

            “She’s good,” Sakura said with a shrug.  “Why?”

            “No special reason.”

            “Then why do you look so damn suspicious?”

            “Do I?” I asked, scratching the back of my neck.  I couldn’t believe Ino still hadn’t put the moves on Sakura.  I needed something new to fantasize about that wasn’t my infuriating ex-boyfriend.

            “She misses you helping out at the flower shop,” Sakura commented.

            “I bet she does,” I said.  “Cheap labor.”

            We talked for a while, then Sakura left to head back to Konoha.

            I reported in to Temari about continuing our plans for the infiltration of a small village under Yuuyake’s control.

            I’d been working in Suna for almost a year now, chipping away at Yuuyake’s powerbase.  Yet whenever we took one place down, it always seemed like another suddenly popped up.  Yuuyake was powerful and pervasive.

            It was… fulfilling.  I woke up in the morning with a purpose.  That was something I had lacked for years.  I felt like I was waking up from a dream.

            “I think we’ve found K,” Temari said in her usual clipped tone.

            “The K?” I asked, sitting down at the table with Kankuro and Gaara.

            “J’s second-in-command, yes.”

            “Awesome,” I said.

            Temari gave me a withering look.  “We’re moving tonight.”

            “All right, give me the intel,” I said, taking the folder that Temari passed to me.

            “How’s your arm doing?” Kankuro asked as I flipped through it.

            “Good as new,” I said, flexing the prosthetic.

            “No trouble with the upgrade?”

            “Nah.”

            Kankuro nodded.

            “We’ll go at twenty-two hundred hours,” Temari said.

            “I’ll make arrangements,” Gaara said, standing up.

            The attack came an hour before we were supposed to leave.

            “The hell was that?” Kankuro said, head shooting up from the map he was reading.

            “Sounded like an explosion,” Temari said, pulling the fan off of her back.

            “There’s at least ten of them,” I said.  I could feel the tingle of chakra along my skin.

            “Gaara,” Kankuro said, already moving to the door.

            I popped out some clones, and we were all on the move.

            It was a long night of fighting that culminated in a battle on the walls of the village between Gaara and K.

            I’d had my shoulder dislocated by a guy who kind of looked like a werewolf.  Kurama was slowly healing it.  I clutched my shoulder, dragging myself over to the wall.

            Werewolf Guy was being chained up behind me by two Suna ninjas, a rasengan-shaped hole in his side.

            “How are we looking?” Temari asked, coming up beside me.  She had a huge gash above her eye that was dripping blood.

            “He’s the only one left,” I said, trying to point up at the wall.  I groaned in pain.

            Temari reached over and forced the shoulder back into place.

            I gasped, the pain whiting out my vision.

            “Let’s go help Gaara,” she said, taking my arm and leading me up the wall.

            The higher we got, the clearer the damage below us became.  There were fires and bodies everywhere, reminding me of so many tragedies I’d seen before.  The same story, playing out again and again.

            “You think you’ve won, but you’re just perpetuating the system!” K was screaming at Gaara.  He was trapped in a prison of sand.

            “I protect this village with my life,” Gaara said solemnly.  “That’s my ninja way.”

            “What use is it to protect this archaic way of life?!” K demanded.

            “All life is precious,” Gaara said.  “When you’ve forgotten that, then you’ve already become no better than those you’re trying to fight.”

            “What we are doing is right!  It’s just!  It’s-!”

            Gaara closed the prison.  He turned to us.

            “Hey, man, I didn’t know you could talk so much!” I said, grinning.

            “You’re all right?” Temari asked, letting go of me so she could rush to her brother’s side.

            “I’m fine,” Gaara said, the uneven rise and fall of his chest betraying his words.

            “Let’s start interrogating these prisoners,” Temari said, eyes glinting darkly.

            Gaara and I went to the hospital.

            “What did they want?” I asked as we sat there, getting intravenous drips together.

            “To reform the ninja world,” Gaara said.

            “Huh?”

            Gaara closed his eyes.

            After everything had been settled in Suna, I headed north to the Land of Earth.  One of the prisoners had let it slip that Iwagakure was next on their list of targets.

            The tsuchikage wasn’t exactly the warmest guy, but he accepted me into the village.  Temari and B joined me soon after, followed by Choujuurou from Kirigakure.  This was the first major assembly of the Allied Shinobi Forces since the war, albeit in miniature.

            With the tsuchikage’s granddaughter, Kurotsuchi, the five of us became the Allied Task Force against Yuuyake.  We gathered intel, we communicated with our villages, and we put everything we knew together.

            Yuuyake knew that we knew about the planned attack on Iwa.  There was a lot of subterfuge going on where it seemed like they were going to attack Ishigakure instead, but when we started to reroute the task force, they attacked Iwa as planned.

            I ended up in the hospital for a week with a hole in my stomach.

            The task force kept moving around, trying to stay ahead of Yuuyake and find their leader, J.

            A clearer picture was starting to form every time we clashed.

            Yuuyake wanted to dismantle the hidden villages and the clan system.  They wanted to end the imprisonment of tailed beasts within jinchuuriki.  They wanted all ninjas to be equal.

            I didn’t really get it.  I mean, I’d set most of the tailed beasts free, and B and I were the only jinchuuriki left.  And the Allied Shinobi Forces was still in effect, showing the unity of all ninjas across the lands.  Sure, there were still occasional fights between Suna and Iwa, but when a common enemy confronted us, we all stood together.

            But there was another part of me that did get it.  I knew things were changing, but I’d been ostracized by the village for the first twelve years of my life, just because I was a jinchuuriki.  My mother’s village was destroyed, my best friend’s family annihilated, all in the name of peace and safety.

            Clans fighting clans since the dawn of time, since Asura and Indra, and what was it all for?

            But destroying the hidden villages wasn’t going to fix things.  Yuuyake was just perpetuating the cycle of hatred.

            After almost a year since our formation, the Task Force finally headed for Konoha.

            I sent Sasuke a letter, asking him if it was all right if I stayed with him.

            ‘It’s your apartment, idiot,’ was his reply.

            Sasuke had been released a few months earlier, as Sakura had predicted, and had been living at my place.  He worked part-time at Ino’s, which I was dying to witness firsthand.  He occasionally sent me terse, one sentence letters, so I knew he was doing okay.

            “Happy to be home?” Temari asked as we passed through the gates.

            “Yeah,” I said, and I was, but it was also really complicated.

            We checked in with Kakashi, then set up our headquarters at the Academy.

            “So you really think J is here in Fire?” Shikamaru asked me.  He was in charge of the Konoha branch of the Task Force.

            “According to our sources,” I said.

            “We haven’t found anything,” Shikamaru said.

            “Leave it to us,” Kurotsuchi said, patting him on the back.

            Temari eyed her with disdain.

            Kurotsuchi flashed her a grin.  “Hey, let’s all go out tonight.  Together.”

            “I need to go home first,” I said.

            “Ohhh, gonna go and tap that ass, huh?” she said, grinning.

            “How many times do I have to tell you that we broke up?!” I cried, flailing around.

            “Yeah, but he’s living in your apartment…” she pointed out.

            “That’s because I didn’t want him to be homeless!”

            “And you told me there’s only one bed…”

            “You should disregard anything I tell you when I’m drunk!”

            Kurotsuchi was grinning, only to suddenly notice that Shikamaru and Temari had disappeared.  “Where did they go…?”

            “Meeting,” Choujuurou said.

            “A meeting, a meeting, is that what they call it?” B rapped.

            “Well, Konoha’s already seeming a lot more fun than Kirigakure,” Kurotsuchi said cheerfully.  “Naruto, take me to your apartment!  I wanna see your boytoy.”

            “We broke up!” I yelled.

            Somehow I got her off my back and was able to go home alone.

            I knocked on the door, then took my key out.  My heart was starting to thunder in my chest, and it was hard to get the key in the lock.

            I heard Sasuke on the other side of the door, undoing the locks, sliding the chain.

            The door flew open.

            We both stared at each other.

            I wanted to throw myself at him, hug him, touch him, cling to him, smell his hair, touch his face…

            “Welcome back, loser,” Sasuke said, stepping aside so I could come in.

            “Thanks, asshole,” I replied.

            Sasuke locked the door behind me.

            So he was still completely paranoid.  But as I looked around, I could see that the apartment was clean.  The sink was empty, the trash was neat, and I couldn’t see a speck of dust anywhere.  That was a big improvement over the last time he’d been living alone.

            “Place looks good,” I said.

            “Of course it does,” Sasuke said, a snide tone in his voice.  “You’re not here.”

            “Jerk,” I said, finally looking him in the eye for the first time.

            He looked… amazing.  Really, really amazing.  Sasuke at twenty-three-going-on-twenty-four was something.  Something very good-looking.

            “You’re drooling,” he said, reaching over to close my mouth for me.  He seemed pleased.

            “Why would I be drooling?!” I cried, turning bright red.

            “Because I look good,” Sasuke said, turning away and moving towards the kitchen.

            I smiled through my embarrassment, because Sasuke was cute and funny and god I’d missed him.  “Yeah, you do,” I agreed, following him to the fridge.  I caught the tinge of red on his own cheeks.

            “I was just going to make dinner, if you…?” Sasuke trailed off, inkling his head towards me.

            “That’d be nice, if you don’t mind,” I said.

            “I wouldn’t offer if I minded.”

            “Okay.  Can I help?”

            Sasuke put me to work chopping vegetables.

            I tried to focus at the task at hand, and not stare at Sasuke.

            He’d had his hair properly cut, though he kept his bangs long and brushed over his rinnegan.

            I wanted to tuck the hair behind his ear for some reason.

            His shoulders were broad, and I could see the definition in his arms through his t-shirt.  He’d clearly been eating properly and working out, and it looked good on him.

            I wondered what he’d look like without a shirt on.

            I decided to direct my eyes back to his face.  He looked relaxed while he cooked, and even smiled occasionally as he sent some nasty barb in my direction.

            It felt so good to be near him.  The only thing throwing me off, besides my acute awkwardness and embarrassment, was the strange feel of his chakra along my skin.  It felt… wrong… and I could see how his left arm mostly just hung at his side, moving jerkily when needed.

            “Sasuke, your arm-”

            “Shut up,” he said irritably.

            “But-”

            “It’s none of your damn business.”

            I flinched at that.

            We finished cooking in silence.

            Sasuke went outside to smoke a cigarette.

            “Those things are nasty,” I informed him when he came back in.

            “Seriously, shut up.”

            I was starting to think that dinner wasn’t such a good idea.

            In fact, it wasn’t.

            We both sniped at each other over every little thing.  Sasuke thought I ate like a pig, was too loud, and too stupid.  I thought he was a jackass who needed to quit smoking.

            The argument really started revving up while we were washing the dishes, and finally reached yelling decibels.

            We didn’t talk the rest of the night.  I got a change of clothes and some bedding out of the bedroom and set up on the couch.

            Sasuke didn’t comment and went to sleep in my bed like it was his.

            I didn’t care though.  Really, I was the guest, even if I paid for the damn apartment.

            I settled into the couch, which despite its lumps was my couch, and everything suddenly felt comfortable and nostalgic.  I was drifting off to sleep when a familiar weight settled on top of me.

            “Hey…” I protested tiredly.

            He grasped my face in both hands, kissing me with desperation and need.

            I knew I wasn’t supposed to, but I kissed him back.

            When he reached into my boxers, I knew I was supposed to push him away.

            When he started stroking us together, I knew I was definitely supposed to stop him.

            I moaned and cried and came instead.

            Sasuke stayed for a moment, trying to catch his breath.  “I needed that,” he murmured against my mouth, giving me one last kiss before disappearing back into the bedroom.

Chapter Text

            The next morning, Sasuke acted like nothing had happened.

            I followed suit.

            Of course, as soon as I arrived at the office, I was accosted by Kurotsuchi.

            “That is the face of a man who got some,” she said, grinning.

            “It is not,” I said, blushing.

            “Can we focus?” Shikamaru asked.

            I looked at him gratefully.

            Shikamaru kept our operation sailing smoothly, with no unnecessary delving into my love life.

            He also sent me on a mission halfway across the country.  I headed out with Sakura and Sai that morning.  I popped out a clone to tell Sasuke that I wasn’t coming back that night, which he dispensed with a kunai to the face.

            Apparently, he wasn’t very happy with me.

            I focused on my mission.  It felt good to be out with Sai and Sakura, even if it was a boring old message delivery mission.  Of course, the message itself was of the utmost importance and secrecy, but it was still a boring mission.

            Everything went smoothly, and we got the reply to carry back into Konoha the next day.  We had a race back to the village, which Sakura won by cheating, and delivered the message to the hokage.

            “I don’t want this, take it to Shikamaru,” Kakashi said irritably, pushing the message away.

            “It’s addressed to you!” Sakura scolded him.

            “Yes, yes, but everyone knows Shikamaru does all my work for me.”

            “Sensei, you’re awful!”

            Sai and Sakura came with me to the Task Force headquarters.  Having them there made me feel like two parts of my life were coming together.

            I realized how much I’d been thinking of not coming back to Konoha.  Of living on the road.

            But then I looked at Sakura and Sai, and I thought that there was no way I could leave them behind.  I couldn’t leave home.

            That night was the welcome reception for the Task Force team.  I popped out a clone to tell Sasuke that I was coming back to the apartment, albeit it late, that night.

            He dispensed with the clone by kicking it in the balls.

            I let out a yelp as the clone came back.

            Everyone looked at me funny.

            “Clone accident,” I said, my voice higher than usual.

            “Did you get weirder while you were away?” Ino asked, squinting her eyes at me.

            “I’m not weird,” I protested.

            Ino widened her eyes at that.

            “Enough about me, how about you?” I said, deciding a change in subject was in order.  It had been nice catching up with everyone at the reception, but now it was time to talk about the real issues.  “Do you make Sasuke wear the apron?”

            “Honey, he volunteers to wear the apron,” Ino said breezily.

            “Lies,” I said, but I was dreamily picturing Sasuke in the lacy apron that Ino used to make my clone wear at the flower shop.

            “Wow, even after you break up, all you talk about is Sasuke,” Ino commented.

            I gave her a mortified look.

            Ino grinned.  “Shit, did you read the newest Midnight Ninjas?  Hot tub sex!”

            I covered my ears.  Those damn books just kept plowing forward, and for some reason I couldn’t help but read each one, protesting about how wrong it was the whole time.

            Shira Yuki knew her way around a gay sex scene, I’d give her that.

            “Speaking of gay sex,” I said, staring at Ino pointedly.

            “Yes?  I love speaking about it.”

            “But how about doing it?”

            Ino looked aghast.  “How dare you fetishize women like that?!”

            “You were just fetishering me and Sasuke two seconds ago!”

            “Yeah, but you’re guys.”

            “How does that make it different?!”

            “You’re such a perv, Naruto,” Ino said, shaking her head.

            “I’m not… you said… and then… you!”

            “Uh huh.”

            I pouted.

            Ino laughed and mussed my hair.  Then she leaned in and whispered directly into my ear, “I pulled off her panties, I spread her legs, and I went all in.”

            “WHAT?!” I cried, jerking away from her.

            Ino grinned smugly.

            “You’re not… you didn’t… WHAT?!”

            “Naruto, you’re so loud,” Sakura complained, coming to sit next to me.  “We have guests, you know.”

            “Kurotsuchi’s like the loudest person here,” I complained.  “Didn’t she used to be… quieter?”

            “Hey, did you notice that Mr. I’m-in-Charge-of-the-Task-Force and Miss I’m-So-Damn-Serious-About-Being-a-Ninja have disappeared before the festivities have concluded?” Ino asked, directing the question to Sakura.

            “Huh?” I said.

            “I hear she’s shacking up with him, refused the housing that Kakashi-sensei offered her,” Sakura said, grinning deviously.

            “Oh, Shika and Temari?” I asked.

            “Obviously,” Ino said, shaking her head.

            “Sorry, I’m not a gossip like you two.”

            “Yeah, whatever,” Sakura said, pushing my head aside so she could talk to Ino.

            I got bored quickly and started fantasizing about what Ino had said before.

            “What are you making that gross face for?” Sakura asked, and I realized that both girls were looking at me disgustedly.

            “What gross face?” I asked, but I knew I probably looked like Jiraiya at his most lecherous.

            Sakura turned to Ino, frowning.  “You didn’t…”

            Ino looked away, blushing.

            “Ino!  I told you not to tell him!”

            “Wait, so it’s true?!” I cried, feeling a weird tightness in my belly that was usually reserved for Sasuke.

            “What the hell did you tell him?!” Sakura cried.

            “Sakura, now you’re the one being loud,” Ino said, blushing and grinning.

            “I can’t believe you didn’t tell me,” I said to Sakura, trying to sound accusing, but probably sounding lecherous.

            “Perv!” she growled, smashing me in the head.

            I saw stars.

            After she was done beating me, Sakura pulled me outside to the balcony where we were alone.

            “It’s new, you know?” she said.  “It’s new, and it’s confusing, and I don’t really know what ‘it’ is yet.”

            “I get it,” I said, poking her in the side.  “But you should still tell me about stuff.”

            “So you can fantasize?”

            “No,” I said.  “Yes.”

            “I’ll tell you about it when I figure it out.”

            I hugged her and she let me.  I’d gotten a lot more used to physical affection in the last few years, and I’d found it to be a pretty good communication tool instead of me sticking my foot in my mouth.  I communicated through the touch that I completely got being in a complicated relationship, that I was very happy for her, and would she please make out with Ino in front of me.

            I got pinched for that last bit.

            “How did you know?” I whimpered, rubbing my arm.

            “You just have a really pervy aura,” Sakura said, flicking me in the forehead.

            “I learned from the best,” I said, shaking my head.

            “You’re surprisingly not perverted with Sasuke,” Sakura commented, leaning against the railing.

            “I’m not actually perverted at all,” I complained.

            “Then stop fantasizing about me and Ino!”

            “Then stop fantasizing about me and Sasuke!”

            Sakura sighed.  “Point taken.  But damn.  That hot tub scene…”

            “I am not Kamaboko!”

            “But you really are.”

            “I’ve never had sex with Sasuke in a hot tub!  Or a cave!  Or in a public restroom!”

            “You know, I thought that toilet scene was going to be gross, but it was really hot.”

            “Sakuraaaaa.”

            She grinned at me.  “So how are things with Sasuke?”

            “Terrible.”

            “As to be expected.”

            “Yeah, but he keeps like mutilating my clones.”

            “He missed you.”

            “So he mutilates my clones?!”

            Sakura shrugged.

            “I don’t know if staying with him is the best idea,” I confided in her quietly.

            “You can come stay with me,” she said, her expression softening.  “But I think Sasuke would be… I don’t know, disappointed I guess?  He’s really glad that you’re home.”

            “Is that what he told you, did he say, ‘Gosh golly gee, Sakura-chan, I’m so glad that stupid dumbface Naruto is home’?”

            “Yes, that’s exactly what he said.”

            I snorted.

            “It’s been hard for him,” she said, getting serious.  “He’s been doing so well, but he’s still lonely, depressed.  He lights up whenever he gets a letter from you.”

            “He does not.”

            “He does,” she said, elbowing me.  “You two… complete each other.  In your own messed up way.  So it’s like you’ve both been going along with only half of yourself.”

            “How much did you have to drink?”

            “Shut up, I didn’t drink anything,” Sakura said irritably.  “Go home and talk to him.  And if things still aren’t right, you can come stay with me whenever.”

            “Thanks,” I said, hugging her again.

            Sakura hugged me back tightly.

            I decided not to tell her about the mutual hand job.  That had been a one-time thing, so there was no reason to make her judgmental and scary.

            I took a last walk around the reception, greeting everyone I needed to greet, and pouring drinks for everyone I needed to pour drinks for, before heading back to Sasuke’s.

            It took him forever to come to the door and undo the chain.

            “Oi, I’ve been waiting out here,” I complained as I came in.

            “Sorry,” Sasuke muttered, rubbing the back of his neck.  He was all mussed and sleepy-looking.  And not wearing a shirt.  Hot damn.

            “Were you sleeping?” I asked, starting to feel a little bad.

            Sasuke shrugged.  His pecs flexed with the movement.

            I chewed on my bottom lip.

            “You want tea or something?”

            “Huh?” I said.  “Nah, go back to bed, Sas’.”

            “I’m up now.”

            “Oh, uh…” I said, trying not to stare at his very nice body and failing.  “No, I’m gonna… go…”

            “Go where?”

            I shrugged, peeling my eyes away from him and looking every and anywhere else.  I heard his feet padding back to the bedroom.

            Sasuke reemerged wearing a shirt.

            We exchanged a very long look that ended with me completely red.

            “Sit,” he said.  He went into the kitchen and started a kettle.

            “It’s kinda late…” I said.

            Sasuke ignored me and pulled down two mugs from the cupboard.

            “Okay, then…” I said, joining him in the kitchen.

            His left hand shook as he put the cup on the counter.

            I touched the arm instinctively, feeling for the chakra flow.

            “Do you mind?” Sasuke said, giving me an annoyed look.

            “Your chakra’s all messed up,” I said, tracing along his skin.

            “Perfectly aware.”

            I pulled away, eyes drifting to the familiar seals around his eyes that had somehow become a part of his face.  “I’m getting them off.”

            “You’ve been saying that for years,” Sasuke said, moving away to the fridge and pulling out the milk.

            “And I still mean it.”

            Sasuke shrugged.

            “Hey, uh…” I said, watching him bustle around the kitchen.  “Look, if you want me to go…  Sakura said I could stay at hers, and…”

            “Don’t,” he said.

            “Don’t what?”

            “Don’t.”

            I sat down at the table.

            Sasuke visibly relaxed.

            “I just thought… because the clones… you know, maybe you were mad at me?”

            “I’m not mad at you, Naruto,” Sasuke said, passing me a mug.

            “Okay, but usually you don’t kick people there unless you’re mad at them.”

            “It wasn’t you.”

            “I don’t want to get into some deep conversation, but a clone is most definitely still a part of me.”

            “I didn’t mean anything in particular by it.”

            I eyed him suspiciously over my mug.

            Sasuke drank his own tea.  “I thought you’d be drunker.”

            “Huh?  Oh, the reception?  I didn’t really drink.”

            He looked at me for a long moment, then went back to his tea.

            “Sasuke?  You’re really okay with me being here?”

            “It’s your apartment, idiot.”

            “Yeah, but-”

            “I said it’s fine, so drop it.”

            “Jerk.”

            Sasuke stared into his mug.

            “Thanks for the tea,” I said, getting up and putting my mug in the sink.

            Sasuke stayed at the table.

            “I feel awkward,” I finally said.

            “Yeah, well.”

            “Can we make this not awkward?”

            “After what I did the other night?”

            “That wasn’t awkward,” I said.  “That was… nice.”

            Sasuke gave me a withering look.

            “What?!” I protested.

            His glare intensified.

            “I… know… I said some… things…” I trailed off.

            “What things did you say, Naruto?” Sasuke asked coldly.

            “You know, before I left… about you… and me…”

            “Remind me exactly what you said?”

            “You know, that we shouldn’t… you know… be in a… sexual… relationship…”

            “Oh, that’s right,” Sasuke said.  “And you told me I was… what was it again…?  ‘Bat-shit crazy’?”

            “Yes, well… you were…”

            Sasuke’s glare got pouty.

            I tried not to show on my face that I thought it was cute.

            Apparently, I failed, because I was suddenly dodging a blow to the head.  “Okay, maybe I said some things that weren’t very sensitive at the time…”

            “You didn’t visit me while I was in prison.”

            “Yessss, but-”

            “You told me I was crazy and that you hated me.”

            “You know I didn’t mean it.”

            “And you said you were going to leave the village for as long as you could to get away from me.”

            “Okay, but remember-”

            “Remember when I broke, and you started acting sweet to me again, like a classic abuser.”

            “I DON’T ABUSE YOU!”

            “Not all domestic violence is physical.”

            “You are such a bastard.”

            “Your words can hurt, Naruto.”

            I was about to flip my top when I caught the faintest trace of a smile in his eyes.  “Don’t joke about that,” I said tiredly.

            “But it makes you so angry.”

            “It hurts me,” I said abruptly, getting up and going to the couch.  I pretended to fall asleep.

            After a while, Sasuke turned off the light in the kitchen.  “You still have your shoes on, idiot,” he commented as he passed by the couch and went to his room.

Chapter Text

            The only reason I didn’t move into Sakura’s the next day was because I was pretty sure it would upset Sasuke, and somehow even after being gone for so long, Sasuke’s moods controlled my every action.

            “What are you so depressed about?” Ino asked, dumping a heavy file in front of me.

            “I thought that I grew up,” I said.  “I thought that I matured and became my own man.”

            “And you were wrong?”

            “So very wrong.”

            “Well, keep trying,” Ino said, messing up my hair.

            I flipped through the file she’d left for me, realized it was important, and passed it over to Choujuurou.  We made a plan to move out that night.

            “I’ll probably be gone for a while,” I told Sasuke in person.  He didn’t try to stab me in the face, which I was grateful for.  “We have a lead on J, so…”

            “Okay,” he said, looking like he was wondering why I was telling him all that.

            “Yeah,” I said, moving to go through some of my weapons that I’d left behind in the apartment.  I needed some replacements.

            Sasuke hovered at a distance, acting disinterested.

            I sat down at the coffee table and started taking inventory.

            Sasuke continued to act like he wasn’t staring at me from behind his book.

            “Come sit,” I said after an excruciatingly long time.

            “I am sitting.”

            “Come sit with me,” I said, trying not to sound irritated.  I had grown up a lot.  I was not a child.  Really.

            “Why?” Sasuke growled, because he had apparently followed the same maturity path as I had the couple of years we were apart.

            “I’m leaving in an hour,” I said.  “We don’t have time to do all this.”

            “Do all what?” he muttered, but he put down his book and came to sit next to me on the floor.

            I stretched up and reflexively planted a kiss on his temple.

            “Don’t,” he said, leaning into it.

            “Habit,” I said quietly, turning my attention back to my weapons.

            Sasuke picked up a kunai and started sharpening it.  “I never know how I’m supposed to feel about you.”

            “I think how you feel is how you feel.”

            “You said a lot of shit before you left, Naruto.”

            “I know.  I was… upset.”

            “And I was in fucking pieces.”

            “I know.”

            Sasuke’s hands were shaking, and I pretended not to notice.  “You gave up on me.”

            “I did not,” I said, the knife I was sharpening clattering to the table.  I picked it back up and started sharpening it again.

            “It’s okay,” Sasuke said.  “It’s what I wanted.”

            “It was not,” I said tiredly.

            “It’s what I wanted to want.  Well, I wanted to die, but-”

            “Stop, god.”

            “No, you stop.  Let me say it instead of you acting like a baby and trying not to hear it.  I wanted to die.”

            “I heard enough of it before they moved you to the prison,” I said, putting the knife down on purpose this time.  I felt like if I didn’t, something would happen.  “You said… that to me.  You said that you were doing me a favor.  You said I’d be better off if you were… gone…”

            “And then you gave up on me.”

            “I didn’t give up on you!”

            “I didn’t see you for months!”

            I didn’t have anything to say to that.

            “Then you just showed up with Sakura on visiting day,” he continued, more subdued.  “And you kept showing up.  You were… gentle… comforting.  Like nothing had happened.”

            “It wasn’t like nothing had happened, it was really awkward and uncomfortable,” I muttered.  “Kind of like right now.”

            Sasuke looked at me for the first time in the conversation.  I could feel the weight of his stare.

            “What?”

            “You acted like you hadn’t given up on me.”

            “Because I hadn’t.”

            “Then you called me a whore.”

            “I… well… you kind of are.”

            “A whore is someone who has sex with people for money, moron.”

            “Well, darling, who pays all your living expenses?”

            Sasuke’s face went white with rage.

            I yanked the kunai out of his hand and pushed all the other weapons away from him.

            “No one asked you to do that!” Sasuke snapped.

            “Well, I want to do it!” I snapped back.

            “I don’t need to be taken care of!”

            I didn’t even need a comeback for that, I just stared at him incredulously.

            Sasuke seemed to shrink, eyes going downcast.  “I don’t want to need to be taken care of…” he said, so softly I could barely hear him.

            “Then get your shit together,” I said.  “Seems like you’re doing pretty good now, don’t ya think?”

            “I’m a fucking mess.”

            “Compared to before.”

            “I’m not any better.”

            “But… you look so good!  Like you’ve been eating.  And exercising.  And you have a job!”

            “I just didn’t want to disappoint you…”

            I pulled him into a hug.

            Sasuke put a hand to my chest to stop me, then just sank into my arms.

            “I’m sorry I called you a whore,” I murmured, because it was suddenly weighing on me.  “Maybe sex addict is more accurate?”

            I had barely gotten the sentence out before I was socked in the gut and the hug was over.

            Sasuke looked mad again.

            “What are you so mad for?” I asked irritably.  “I’m the one being used for my body.”

            “No one is using you for your body,” Sasuke said, giving me a disgusted look that made me feel very ugly.

            “Well, what do you call it when your… whatever… only wants to have sex all the time?”

            “I don’t even know where to start with that.”

            “Anywhere would be fine.”

            “Okay, well first of all, ‘your whatever’?  What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

            “I just don’t know what to call you.  I mean best friend seems insufficient.  Boyfriend isn’t quite right.  It’s more than all that, you know?”

            Sasuke frowned, but I knew for once I’d said something right.  He didn’t beat me for my answer, anyway.  “Fine, well, I didn’t want to have sex all the time.”

            “Um, yes you did.  If we weren’t doing it, you were off jerking it.”

            “What deranged sex world were you living in?”

            “Yeah, that’s what I’m saying.”

            “I’m saying you are not recalling things correctly, and maybe you should stop reading so much porn.”

            “I’m not the one who jerked off to Kamaboko and Terusuke doing it!”

            “Naruto and Sasuke weren’t doing it, so I don’t know how else I was supposed to get off?”

            “We were doing it!  We were getting done!”

            “You acted repulsed by me half of the time!”

            “Maybe I was!”

            Sasuke looked away.

            “I… didn’t mean…  I mean, I meant it, but I didn’t mean…”

            “Is it because I’m a guy?” Sasuke asked, his voice tight.

            “No, of course not!  I wasn’t repulsed by you!  I didn’t mean that!”

            “Yes, you did.”

            “It’s not…  Sasuke, you’re the most gorgeous, attractive man in the world.  Like the whole damn world.  And I’ve seen a lot of men, but it’s not even a competition, you are undisputedly number one.”

            “You’re just not attracted to me.”

            “Oh my god, nooooo.  Sasuke, I’m very attracted to you.  Quit being a girl.”

            “How am I being a girl?” he asked sharply.  I heard a threat of violence coming into his voice.

            “Your insecurity about your looks?”

            “I’m not insecure about my looks!  And fuck you.  When your… whatever… tells you that he’s repulsed by you, of course you’re going to be insecure.  Seriously, fuck you.”

            “That wasn’t what I meant to say.  Repulsed is not the right word.  You know how dumb I am.”

            “Did you need some synonyms for repulsed?  How about disgusted?  Nauseated?”

            “I didn’t mean it!  Please can we just start again?”

            “No.”

            “Sasuke.”

            He was faced completely away from me now.

            “If you want to know the truth,” I said, pushing forward, “then yeah, sometimes I wasn’t attracted to you.  You were this little, broken thing that barely resembled Sasuke, and it scared the shit out of me.”

            “Asshole.”

            “I’m telling you how I felt!”

            “And it’s such a surprise that I wanted to die.”

            I made a frustrated noise.

            “Don’t you need to go?”

            A quick glance out the window at the setting sun told me that yes, I did need to go.  “We’re not finished talking.”

            “We’re never going to be finished.”

            I sighed loudly.  “Sasuke, you are not easy to love.  But I do anyway.  A lot.  So don’t get mad at me over stupid things.”

            “You’re stupid.”

            “Ugh.”

            “Go on your little mission,” he said dismissively.  He still had his back to me.

            I bit him on the neck.

            Sasuke yelled and punched me in the face.

            I looked into his sad eyes, feeling guilty.  All I ever did was say the wrong thing.  I didn’t know how to make it better.

            “Don’t look at me like that,” he said.

            “Like what?”

            “All self-loathing and martyr-like.”

            “Huh?”

            “We can talk when you come back.”

            “I want to talk now.”

            “You have to go.”

            “But I don’t like how we’re leaving things.”

            “How are we leaving them?”

            “I dunno.  Badly.”

            “Things are fine.”

            I hesitated.

            “What?” Sasuke asked.

            “Do you still want to…?”

            “Do I still want to what?”

            I muttered the word under my breath.

            “Speak up, dumbass.”

            I shook my head, getting up.  “We’ll talk later.”

            “Are you asking if I still want to die?’

            I cringed.

            “Of course I do.”

            “What the hell, bastard?!” I cried, mortified.

            “Have a nice trip,” he said, smiling like he wasn’t the most morbid, horrible person in the world.

            “I can’t go now!”

            “Yes, you can.”

            “You’re suicidal!”

            “I’m not suicidal.”

            “But you just said…”

            “Wanting to die and wanting to kill yourself are two different things.”

            “I don’t see any difference!”

            “Well there is one,” Sasuke said.  “I’ll be here when you get back,” he added.

            “Promise?” I said, feeling pathetic.

            “Yeah.”

            “Okay,” I said, packing my weapons.  “Okay.”

            I didn’t feel like anything was resolved when I left.

Chapter Text

            “You did kind of kick a man when he was down,” Ino commented as we leapt through the trees.

            “Don’t remind me,” I said gloomily.

            “Did you really call him a whore?” Kurotsuchi asked.  She’d been eavesdropping the entire way to the rendezvous point.  I’d started to accept her as yet one more of the nosy people in my life.  Apparently, the Land of Earth was really boring, and my romantic failures were far more interesting.

            “He is one, though,” I complained.  “When we lived together he was ready to get it on, 24/7.”

            “And you didn’t want to?” Kurotsuchi butted in incredulously.

            “Well, I mean, yeah, sometimes.”

            “Sometimes?” the two girls chorused, laughing.

            “Why is everyone so obsessed with sex?!” I demanded.

            “This from the boy who invented Harem no Jutsu,” Ino said.

            “Harem no Jutsu is a valid fighting technique!”

            “Uh-huh.”

            “Anyway, this and that are completely different things,” I complained.  “I mean, yeah, Sasuke is really hot.  Very doable.  I enjoy our… doing times.”

            “Doing times?” Ino repeated, cracking up.

            “Shut up,” I said.  “But, there’s so much more to our relationship, you know?  Sometimes I just wanna talk.  Or fight.  Or relax together.  Or whatever.  If we’re just having sex all the time, it starts to not mean anything.  It’s… boring.”

            “Poor Sasuke, Naruto thinks sex with him is boring.”

            “That’s not what I’m saying!”

            “No wonder Sasuke gets so bent out of shape every time you talk to him,” Ino said, shaking her head.  “He’s been so tense since you got back.  Not that he isn’t always tense, it’s just gotten more noticeable.”

            “What do I do?” I groaned.  “How do I make things right?”

            “Well, it seems like you freely admit that you were a complete asshole when you left,” Kurotsuchi said.  “Why don’t you stop trying to rationalize what you did and just tell Sasuke that you made a mistake?”

            “But I don’t know that I made a mistake,” I said.  “I mean, I shouldn’t have said the things I said to him.  But I was right to leave.”

            “For such a simpleton, why do you have to be so complex?” Ino groaned.  “Just bang each other and be happy.”

            “There’s more to it than that!” I said exasperatedly.

            “I’m with Ino, here, I think you’re overcomplicating things,” Kurotsuchi said.  “Don’t you think so, Chouji?”

            “You may have a point,” Chouji agreed.

            “Don’t drag Chouji into this!” I yelled.

            “Naruto!” Shikamaru called to me from the front of the pack.

            I sighed and sprinted forward to catch up with him.  “Yeah?”

            “I thought you could use a break.”

            “Shika, you are the man.”

            “We’re getting close to the rendezvous point with Suna, are you sensing anything out of the ordinary?”

            “No,” I said, mediating myself into sage mode.  I reached out, trying to sense everything around us.  “Just seems like a normal village that we’re heading to.”

            “It’s supposed to be J’s base of operations.”

            “Well, where better to hide than someplace that seems normal?” I said.

            Shikamaru’s brow creased in concentration.

            “Shika?”

            He didn’t say anything, and I could practically see his brain working, faint traces of steam escaping his ears.

            Shikamaru was the leader on the mission, so I left him to think, drifting my way to the left flank where B was.  B was always a good travelling companion.  He didn’t ever ask me invasive questions about Sasuke, beyond, ‘So how’s that nutcase who tried to kill me?’

            We reached the rendezvous point ahead of the Suna team, so Yamato and Sai went to do some scouting of the village while the rest of us hung back.

            “So you don’t just want to bend Sasuke over, tell him he’s been a naughty boy, and screw the hell out of him?” Ino was asking me.

            “…no…” I said.  “Well, would there be spanking?”

            Ino almost choked to death on her laughter.

            I turned red and dropped my face to my knees.

            “So you are a kinky bastard,” Ino said when she got her breath back.

            “I’m not!” I protested.  “You just put some strong… images in my mind.”

            “Stop with your ridiculous prattling and focus,” Temari reprimanded us.

            Ino narrowed her eyes.

            “Naruto, are you getting any kind of strong chakra signature from the village?” Shikamaru asked, smoothly interrupting the very scary fight that had been about to erupt.

            “No?” I said.

            “Still nothing?” Shikamaru murmured to himself, shaking his head.

            “Shikamaru?” Temari and Ino both said in unison, then turned to frown at each other.

            “Something doesn’t feel right,” Shikamaru said.

            “Do you think it’s a trap?” Choujuurou asked, looking around the forest we were standing in as though he could suddenly discern eyes watching us.

            We all got serious.

            Sai and Yamato came back, reporting nothing amiss.

            “Where’s the Suna Team?” Temari murmured, biting savagely at her thumbnail.

            Shikamaru shifted closer to her, but didn’t say anything.

            The sun was just starting to rise.

            “Our inside man said it would be today,” Ino said, shifting from foot to foot.  “He said the meeting with J would be now.”

            “I’m not sensing anything,” I said, shaking my head.

            “Maybe they made him as a Konoha operative and fed him bad information,” Choujuurou suggested.

            “Or he switched sides,” Kurotsuchi murmured.

            “But if that was true, why would he tell us to come here?  Where’s the trap?” Shikamaru muttered, cracking his knuckles.

            That’s when the messenger bird found us, landing on Temari’s shoulder.

            She pulled the message from its ankle and read it.  “It’s from Kankuro.  Shit.  Back to Konoha!”

            “What does it say?!” I cried, watching as everyone quickly gathered up their things and started racing back to the village.

            “Their group was attacked,” Temari explained as she jumped up into the trees.  “It wasn’t J, just some expendable Yuuyake peons.  Seems like they were there to distract them.”

            “Distract them from what?!”

            “Not clear on the details, but it seems like major fighting forces from all the hidden villages went on some wild goose chases today, leaving the villages vulnerable.”

            “Dammit!” Ino yelled, blasting a tree apart with a kick before continuing on her way.

            “J made damn fools of us all,” B muttered, pushing forward.  I could feel Gyuuki’s chakra swelling up within him.

            “They don’t have the manpower for attacks on all five of the major villages,” Shikamaru was muttering to himself.  “Our research, all the facts, they couldn’t possibly…”

            We were a couple hours out from the village when we saw the smoke.

            I popped two clones out at the gates, sending one to Sasuke and one to Sakura.  Sakura probably didn’t need it, but I needed to confirm she was okay.

            Sasuke, on the other hand…

            I tried not to think about how helpless he was.

            I went to Kakashi instead.  I went to J.

            She wasn’t what I expected.  First off, she was incredibly short.  I felt like I could just step on her and be done with it.  Then she turned around to face me.  She had pretty brown eyes, a petite nose, and suddenly there was her mouth.  She looked like she’d been attacked with a fishhook.  The Glasgow smile stretched along her cheeks in white scars, warping her face and making her look more sinister than one would have expected.

            “Uzumaki Naruto,” she said, smiling at me.  “I thought you’d get here sooner.”

            Gai lay in a crumpled heap next to his over-turned wheelchair.  There was a guy in an ANBU mask next to him, surrounded by a pool of blood.  The sleeves of his uniform hung strangely, like his arms were stick-thin.

            Kakashi had discarded his robe, and stood there panting, as though the fight was taking its toll on him.

            “Why are you doing this?!” I cried.  “Why would you attack these innocent people?!” I demanded, gesturing towards the burning village.

            “Innocent?” J said with a laugh.  “No one out there is innocent.  I’m doing this for us.  For those that these damn villages threw away.”

            She kept going on about how the villages had mistreated us, I kept telling her she was wrong, and finally there was nothing left to do but fight.

            The clone I’d sent to Sakura popped back into me, assuring me that she was protecting the hospital, all in one piece, with Ino at her side.

            The clone I’d sent to Sasuke took longer.

            When he did come back, I immediately lost concentration, and J blasted me off the mountain.

            Kurama caught me and we climbed back up to the top.

            I took some deep breaths and refocused.

            The clone had reached my old apartment building, only to find that it was no longer there.  In its place was a huge cloud, which upon a closer approach, revealed itself to be Susanoo.

            The inhuman shrieking that filled my clone’s ears turned out to be Sasuke.

            His eyes bled, the flesh around them burnt black, and he just lay on his back with his hands clutched in his hair, making animal-like sounds of pain.

            Surrounded by his protective cloak was Matsudaira, Koneko’s grandfather.

            Koneko lay outside of the protection, crushed by a slab of concrete.  Her brown eyes stared vacantly into the sky, lips slightly parted as though she was about to speak.

            Hinata’s team was fighting one of the members of Yuuyake nearby, presumably the one who had brought down the apartment.

            The clone tried to pass through Susanoo, only to pop out of existence.

            “You don’t seem like you’re paying attention to me,” J said, clucking her tongue.

            I stood taller, gathering natural energy into me.  “You say that you’re doing this to stop the villages from hurting more innocent kids.  But how do you stop violence with more violence?  How do you stop hatred with more hatred?  You’re wrong, J.  It’s as simple as that.”

            “You’re the one who’s wrong, Uzumaki,” she said, rolling her neck around as she geared up for an attack.  “You can’t solve things with pretty words.”

            “And you can’t make a revolution over the dead bodies of children!” I screamed, throwing everything I had at her.

            When it was all over, I couldn’t help but think that maybe J had a point.  What kind of world were we living in where children were sent to war?  Where children had to make life and death decisions?  Where they grew up as orphans… or they grew up hated just because of the way they were born?  Where they grew up with so much hatred in their hearts?

            ‘Kid, hold on,’ Kurama pleaded with me.

            “Déjà vu,” I muttered, looking at the pool of blood under my right shoulder.  J’s jutsu had eaten the flesh of my arm almost all the way to the shoulder.  The prosthetic was long gone.

            ‘Kid, come on.’

            I looked up at the starry sky.  The universe stretched out in front of me, and somehow I felt like I wanted to see it all.  That I could have seen it all, but I was born in the wrong time, in the wrong place.

            ‘Why d’ya have to get so damn philosophical when you’re dying?’ Kurama complained.

            I tried to laugh and just coughed out blood.

            ‘Hey, kid, come on now.  Is this really how you want to go out?’

            Don’t think I have a choice, I thought, because it was too hard to speak now.  The stars were starting to blur, turning into an endless glow in the sky.

            ‘Naruto.  Naruto.  Naruto!’

            “NARUTO!”

            I jolted awake, my heart racing.  I fell back into the bed, feeling exhausted.

            “About time,” Sakura muttered.  She was trying to sound tough, but I could see the pain in her eyes.

            “I’m not dead,” I marveled.

            “You’re pretty much indestructible,” Sakura agreed.  “Hi.  Welcome back.”

            “Nice to be back,” I said, then changed my mind.  “No, no it isn’t.  Why does being back hurt so much?”

            “Because you drained your chakra and Kurama couldn’t heal you?”

            “Damn.  Sorry about that, Kurama.”

            He gave me a sleepy growl in response.

            “Where’s… S’uke…?” I murmured, suddenly realizing that Sakura had injected something into my IV.

            “He’s in the hospital,” she said, stroking my hair gently.  “Don’t worry, okay?  I just needed you to wake up to make sure you were all right.  You can sleep again.”

            “No, but…” I tried to protest, and promptly passed out.

            The next time I woke up, I realized that Sakura was holding herself funny.

            “Broke two ribs,” she explained, lightly touching her side.

            “Why are you standing up?!” I demanded, wishing my body wasn’t so feeble so I could force her to relax and take care of herself.

            “Somebody has to watch over all these patients,” she said, shaking her head.

            I tried to protest and just made some kind of groaning sound.  “Go back to sleep, Naruto,” she said gently.

            “But… Kakashi-sensei…?”

            “Is fine, and thrilled that you finally thought to ask about the man who saved your life,” came his voice from behind the curtain pulled around my bed.

            Sakura shuffled over and pulled away the curtain, revealing that Kakashi was in the bed next to mine.

            “Wow, the hokage doesn’t even rate a private room?” I commented.  My illusions about the office were suddenly dashed.

            “Not when the hospital is filled to capacity,” Kakashi said, flipping through the latest Midnight Ninjas book.  “Also, I find your snoring very soothing.”

            “I don’t snore!”

            Sakura and Kakashi both looked at me funny.

            “You’re okay, Sensei?” I asked, trying to look him up and down, but my head didn’t really want to move.

            “Better than you.”

            Before I’d blacked out on the mountain, J had said to me, “If only every ninja thought like you, Uzumaki.  Then I think I could finally be at peace.”  Then she’d used the last of her power to throw one more flesh-eating jutsu at me where I lay crumpled on the ground.

            Kakashi, who I’d thought was out of the fight, had pushed a chidori through her back and ripped out her heart.

            Her jutsu died with her.

            “I knew you wouldn’t be able to,” Kakashi had said to me, collapsing over J’s body.

            Now here we were, all safe and sound.

            “Iwa fell,” Sakura explained quietly.

            I stared at her, not quite sure that I’d heard right.

            “Kurotsuchi went home right away, even though I advised her not to travel…”

            “Oh…” I said, feeling stunned.  I’d figured that since we’d beaten J, we’d won the war.

            “It’ll resolve itself,” Kakashi said.

           “B went straight back to the raikage, as well, but he was probably one of the least injured,” Sakura continued.  “Choujuurou and Temari are here in the hospital, though Temari’s proving to be a difficult patient…”

            “The girl is feisty,” Kakashi commented, curving his eye into a crescent moon.

            I made Sakura list off all the wounded and dead.  I also made her sit in a chair while doing so by yelling at her until she did.

            It was hard to hear.  It seemed like no one had gotten out of the battle unscathed.

            “How’s Sasuke?” I finally dared to ask.

            “Alive,” Sakura said with forced cheer.

            “Koneko…”

            “I’m sorry.”

            I tried not to cry and failed.

            Sakura pulled the curtain closed, then patted my head until I fell asleep.

Chapter Text

            The first time I tried to see Sasuke, he screamed at me to get out.

            He looked a mess.  His eyes were covered with bandages, his skin inked in red and purple.

            “Don’t worry,” Sakura soothed me.  “He’s alive.”

            I went to see Kiba.  He was a drugged up, babbling lunatic, so I went to see Hinata instead.

            “He didn’t react well to the pain medications,” she tried to explain.

            “He said he wanted to eat my hair, and made a grab for it…”

            “Yes,” she said grimly.  “Yes.”

            “You seem okay, though,” I offered cheerfully.

            “You… as well…” she said slowly, eyes lingering on my newly shortened stub of an arm.  “Will you be able to get a new prosthetic?”

            “When Kankuro’s infection heals and he can travel again,” I said.  “Or I might go to him.”

            Hinata nodded.

            “Sakura said you got hurt pretty bad,” I said, studying her face, “protecting Sasuke.”

            “Just a few punctured internal organs,” she said, smiling gently.

            “Thank you,” I said.  “I… thank you.”

            Hinata reached out and took my hand.  “I don’t know what you know, but that Yuuyake member?  Y?  He came to take Sasuke.”

            I shook my head.  This was the first I was hearing about it.

            “I trailed him through the village to your apartment.  He blew down the door and demanded that Sasuke join Yuuyake.  Sasuke refused.  Then your neighbors,” she started and stopped.  The pain in her eyes was clear.  “The little girl and the old man, they came out of their apartment to see what was happening.  Kiba and Shino were evacuating the lower floors while I watched Y and Sasuke.  I knew something was happening,” she said swallowing.

            I squeezed her hand gently.

            “I saw the chakra building up inside of him.  I knew…  So I tried to go for the little girl, but… it was already too late…”

            “If it was too late, it was too late,” I said, wanting to take that heartbreaking expression off of her face.

            “If only I’d been faster,” she said, shaking her head.  “If only… but the building just blew up, and the blast sent me flying back.  By the time I got up, it was already over.  Sasuke had somehow managed to activate Susanoo, and pull the old man into it, but the girl…”

            I remembered the blank expression in Koneko’s eyes that my clone had seen.

            “It was all non-stop after that, fighting Y and trying to keep him from destroying the village,” she said.  A bit of sweat was starting to roll down her temple.  She reached up and wiped it away.

            “The village is still standing,” I said, trying to sound light-hearted.

            “Just barely,” Hinata said, giving me a wry smile.

            I shook my head.  “You’re amazing.”

            “Why?” she asked with a laugh.

            “Compared to our genin days,” I said.  “You’ve gotten so strong.”

            “I was just following in your footsteps.”

            “Huh?”

            Hinata squeezed my hand.  “I think I would have given up being a ninja if it wasn’t for you.”

            “Oh…”

            “And if I had, I wouldn’t have been able to save Kiba,” she said, touching a hand to her stomach.

            “Man, are you two really getting married?” I asked, deciding it was time to lighten the mood.

            “If he stops tripping on pain medication.”

            I laughed.

            “Hinata, I think you should get some rest,” one of the nurses said, coming into the room.

            “Oh, sorry,” I said, giving her hand a last squeeze before letting go.

            “I’m glad you came,” Hinata said.  “I’m sorry I-”

            I shook my head, standing up from the creaky hospital chair.  “Thank you.  For everything.”

            My next couple of attempts to see Sasuke were met with more hostility, but the fourth time seemed to be the charm.

            “Hi,” I said, stepping into the room when I determined that he wasn’t going to yell at me.

            In fact, he wasn’t going to say anything at all.

            “Do you want me to leave?” I asked, shifting from foot to foot.  The silence was getting unbearable.

            Sasuke didn’t answer.

            I sat in the chair next to his bed.  I wanted to hold his hand, but felt like that wouldn’t be well-received.

            Sasuke just sat there with his bandaged eyes, unmoving.

            I found myself sitting with him quietly, feeling reassured just having him close, but also feeling scared and nervous and uncomfortable.

            “I didn’t think you could be quiet for so long,” he finally said.

            “Hey, I can be quiet!  I’m super mature and grown-up now.”

            Sasuke smiled.  “Sure you are.”

            “Jerk!”

            “Naruto,” he said, and his voice was completely serious, all traces of his smile gone.

            “What?”

            “Get me out of here.”

            “You gotta be patient,” I said.  “Your body’s still healing.  Just a little more-”

            “I can’t wait anymore.”

            “We don’t even have a place to live,” I said.  “The apartment-”

            Sasuke was shaking his head.  “Not out of the hospital.  Out of here.  Out of Konoha.”

            “Wha-?”

            “I can’t do this anymore.  I tried.  I thought I didn’t care what happened to me, but I…  No more.  I can’t stay here, in this place.”

            “You’re still restricted from leaving,” I said, trying to calm my racing thoughts.  “And now that they know that you can use your rinnegan…”

            “Koharu’s dead, I have the votes,” Sasuke said flatly.  “But fuck the council, and fuck Konoha.  Let’s just go.  Right now.”

            “You’re not well enough.  I’m not well enough,” I said, gesturing to my missing arm, which Sasuke couldn’t see anyway.

            “I don’t care!” Sasuke blurted out, clearly frustrated.  His fists were white from clutching them so hard.

            “Come on, Sasuke, think about this,” I said.  “You’re not going to become a missing nin again.”

            “Fuck you, then, I’ll go by myself.”

            “And get caught, and get stuck under lock and key for the rest of your life?”

            Sasuke let out a frustrated yell and kicked me out of the room.

            I went back to my own room, yanking the curtain aside.  “Can Sasuke leave?”

            “Huh?” said Kakashi.

            “Can he leave the village?”

            “Well, according to Sakura, he’s still severely anemic, so probably not.”

            “I don’t mean does he have the ability to physically walk out of the village, I mean does he have permission to leave?”

            “Ooooh,” Kakashi said, like he hadn’t purposely misunderstood me.  “Then no.”

            “How can he get permission?”

            “Council meeting?” Kakashi suggested.

            “All of the council members are in the hospital.”

            “Well, that’s pretty convenient for setting up a meeting, then.”

            “Really?”

            “It won’t pass, though.”

            “Why the hell not?!”

            “No one wants to be responsible for setting a mentally unstable Uchiha out into the world.”

            “But!”

            “Anyway, it’s naptime.”

            “Senseeeei!”

            Kakashi rolled onto his side and ignored me.

            I went to visit Sasuke the next few days and was rejected.  When he finally let me stay, he clearly had an agenda.

            “Help me leave.”

            I sighed.  “Sasuke…”

            “I won’t stay here.  So if you don’t help me-”

            “Sakura said your right eye is blind.”

            “And?”

            “Your prosthetic is useless.”

            “You lost your prosthetic.”

            “This isn’t a competition about who has the most useless body parts.”

            “And yet I’m winning.”

            “Sasuke,” I said, amused and frustrated and devastated.

            “You get to leave, so why don’t I?”

            I didn’t have an answer for him.

            Dr. Shizuta came to visit the next day.

            “How are you?” she asked, handing me a cup of instant ramen.

            “A lot better now, thanks!” I said, caressing the cup gently.

            She raised an eyebrow at me.

            I grinned.

            “It’s good to see you,” she said.

            “You, too!” I said, setting the ramen aside so it wouldn’t continue to distract me.  “God, it’s been forever.”

            We chit-chatted for a while.

            Eventually Tsunade came into the room, saying, “Dr. Shizuta?  We’re ready for you.”

            I got suspicious.

            “I have to do an evaluation of Sasuke,” Dr. Shizuta explained, patting me on the hand.  “I heard you’re getting released soon?  Come by the office any time.”

            “Yeah…” I said, watching her go.  Then I ripped the curtain aside.  “Oi, Kakashi.  What’s Sasuke getting evaluated for?”

            “He’s a recovering mental patient?” he suggested, continuing to scribble something on a notepad.

            “They’re not gonna try and lock him up again, are they?”

            “Who is this mysterious ‘they’?”

            “The Council.”

            “Oh, the one that I’m a part of?  Hm, probably not.”

            “Then are they gonna let him free?”

            “Free from what?”

            “The village.”

            “I told you, that’s not very likely.”

            “Well what right do you have to keep him here?!” I snapped, getting angry.

            “We’re responsible for him,” Kakashi said, suddenly serious.  “I’m responsible for him.”

            “I’ll take the responsibility.”

            “You haven’t exactly proven yourself trustworthy in that respect.”

            “What’s that supposed to mean?!”

            “You’re overindulgent.  You’re easily manipulated.  You run away when it’s too hard.”

            I swallowed.  I was fuming.

            “Naruto.”

            I walked away.

            After lights out, I snuck into the locked ward.  It was easier than it should have been, but then again, I’d stolen one of the nurse’s keys during shift change.  It was no trouble unlocking Sasuke’s door, though I hoped he wasn’t still in a rotten mood, because that would get me caught quick.

            “Sasuke,” I whispered.  “Can I come in?”

            “Idiot.”

            I stepped in and locked the door behind me.

            “What are you doing here?” Sasuke asked warily.

            “Visiting you.”

            “Why?”

            “Whaddya mean, why?  ’Cause I wanted to see you.”

            “You didn’t want to see me for two years, why the sudden interest?”

            “Oh, so we’re going there.”

            Sasuke, who was lying in his bed like he’d been sleeping, turned his face away from me.

            “Are you ever going to get over me leaving?” I asked, taking the seat next to his bed.

            “Are you ever going to get over all the shit I did?”

            “Yeah,” I said, touching his back tentatively.  “You’re already forgiven.”

            “You say that, but you don’t mean it.”

            “Why do you always have to be so damn contrary?  I mean what I say.”

            “You don’t look at me the same.”

            “You’re fucking blindfolded, how do you know how I look at you?” I growled, finally past the point of controlling my temper.

            Sasuke stiffened, pulling away from my touch.

            I slumped back into the chair, crossing my arm over my chest.  I tried to cross the other arm, only to realize it wasn’t there.

            “You look… afraid,” Sasuke finally said.

            “Well, yeah, of course I’m afraid,” I said.  “I’m scared as shit that you’re going to do something… permanent, you know?  I can’t… I can’t imagine there just being no chance of ever seeing you again.  That’s about the worst thing I can imagine.”

            “So you left.”

            “So I pulled myself out of the Uchiha 24/7 Drama Hour and tried to do something that didn’t revolve around you.”

            “You resent me.”

            “I don’t resent you!”

            “You’re going to get caught…”

            “Then stop saying stupid things that you know will make me angry!”

            “Maybe I want you to get caught.”

            “Yooooou,” I breathed out.  “If you want me to leave, then tell me to leave.”

            He didn’t tell me to leave.

            “I’ll take you out of here,” I said quietly.  “If that’s what you want.”

            “Out of Konoha?”

            “Out of Konoha.”

            “Now?”

            “When you’re stronger.”

            “Stronger than what?” he asked irritably.

            “Strong enough to stand up and walk out of here yourself.”

            “I can walk.”

            “Sakura said you can’t even make it to the bathroom.”

            “Sakura needs to learn about doctor-patient confidentiality.”

            “We both just want what’s best for you.”

            “Can’t I decide what’s best for myself?”

            “I dunno, can you?”

            The room fell silent again.

            “I’m tired,” Sasuke said.

            “Okay,” I said, reaching out to touch him and then quickly retracting my hand.  “Night.”

            “Good night.”

            I walked back to my room, getting caught by one of the night nurses on the way and yelled at for not being in bed.

Chapter Text

            I paced around Sasuke’s hospital room while Sakura unwound the bandages from his eyes.

            It was dark, with only a small lamp on in the corner, but Sasuke still flinched and squinted when his left eye was exposed to the light.

            “Right eye’s still unresponsive,” Sakura murmured.  “Your infection’s looking better.”

            “Better?” I asked, wrinkling my nose.

            Sasuke flicked his rinnegan towards me, his other eye unmoving.

            “You look like some kind of alien invaded your face,” I informed him.  The puss and the burned flesh were not a good look.

            “How helpful of you to say,” Sakura growled, kicking me in the shin.

            “Ow!”

            “I’m going to put the salve on now, okay?” she said, gentling as she turned back to Sasuke.

            “Don’t be so nice to that jerk,” I muttered.

            “You’re the one being a jerk!” Sakura snapped.

            “Sorry,” I said, chastened.  I didn’t mean to behave like my 12-year-old self, but dealing with Sasuke and his insistence on running away from Konoha for the last month was bringing it out of me.

            It wasn’t exactly doing wonders for Sakura’s temperament, either.

            “It’s healing, so why can’t I leave?” Sasuke complained.

            Sakura refrained herself from pounding him, but just barely.  “Burn infections are serious,” she said through clenched teeth.  She finished applying the salve and pressed her hands to both of the wounds, pushing her chakra in.

            “I’m sure Orochimaru can fix it,” Sasuke said with a shrug.

            “For the one hundredth time, you are not going to Orochimaru!” I growled.

            “Try and stop me.”

            “It wouldn’t be that difficult!”

            Sasuke got a sullen look on his face.  “I need a new sharingan.”

            “What do you need it for?  So you can read the newest Midnight Ninjas book more clearly?!”

            Sasuke gave me a look of death.

            “I’m sorry,” I said, going to stand in the corner of the room.  “I just don’t want you anywhere near that snaky bastard.”

            “I’m with Naruto on this one,” Sakura said, taking her hands away.

            “He’s not that bad.”

            “Then why did you kill him the first time around?!” I cried.

            “Power,” Sasuke said with a shrug.

            “And look where that’s gotten you,” I said.

            Sasuke was getting mad again.

            “How do your burns feel?” Sakura asked, keeping a hand on Sasuke’s shoulder.

            “Fine.”

            “So they’re still horribly painful but you’re not going to say so?”

            Sasuke shrugged.

            “When the infection clears, I’ll approve you for discharge,” Sakura said.

            “And when will that be?”

            “Another week, I think.”

            Sasuke looked displeased.

            “You’re not gonna get far half-blind with an infection,” I pointed out.

            “I don’t need your opinion.”

            I scowled at him.

           “Naruto loves you and is worried about you,” Sakura said, smacking Sasuke in the arm.  “We’re both worried.  God.  How did I get talked into this?”

            “It’s fine, I don’t need your help,” Sasuke muttered.  He clearly felt ganged up on.

            “You need medicine,” Sakura said, smacking him again.  “I already know, so it’s not like I can act like I don’t.”

            “I’m working on the Council,” I said.  “There’s still a chance they’ll let you go without you having to do anything stupid.”

            Sasuke made a derisive sound.

            “No, really,” I said.  “I’ve been laying it on thick.  I told Baa-chan that you need some time out of Konoha to get over Kone- uh, you know, the battle and stuff.  That we both do.  And Dr. Shizuta’s agreeing with me for once, so you’ve got that on your side.”

            “They’ll never let me go, Naruto, or have you not figured that out yet?”

            “But for what reason?” I shot back.  “What does Konoha need with a one-eyed, one-armed, slightly insane Uchiha?”

            “Only slightly insane?” he asked, giving me a dangerous look.

            “You’re both insane,” Sakura muttered.  “How’s your left eye?”

            “Fine.”

            “Light sensitive?”

            He gave her a look that said, ‘Obviously.’

          “I’m going to do some tests, but I think that eye is going to be okay,” she said.  “We won’t cover it anymore.”

            “I thought it was being covered so I couldn’t use it,” Sasuke said snidely.

            “Do you ever stop bitching?” I muttered.

            “Naruto, if you’re just going to be a jerk, then leave!” Sakura snapped.

            “Fine,” I said, leaving.  I went into the hallway, and had to wait for a nurse to let me out of the ward.

            I decided to go talk to Kakashi, even if we weren’t roommates anymore.

            “Are they ever gonna let you out of here, Sensei?” I asked, barging into the room.  There were several ANBU guarding Kakashi, but they all ignored me.

            “Who would want to leave?” Kakashi asked.  “I can nap and read all day.  And check out the nurses.  What’s not to love?”

            “How are you the hokage?” I complained.

            “So, what about Sasuke?”

            “Huh?” I said.

            “Well I assume that you need to say something about Sasuke, so what is it?”

            “Maybe I just came to visit you!”

            “Yeah, maybe.  So what about Sasuke?”

            I sat down on the chair next to his bed.  “You have to let him leave Konoha.”

            “Because he’s just going to leave anyway?”

            I glanced around nervously at the ANBU.  It was fine if Kakashi had his suspicions about Sasuke, because I knew he wouldn’t hold it against him.  I couldn’t say the same for other people in the village.

            “I’m kidding,” Kakashi said.  “Anyway, I know you really want to have a naked onsen date with him, so I’ll consider it.”

            “Who said anything about a naked onsen date?!”

            “Well, you keep talking about how you two need to relax and get away from it all.”

            “We’re not together!” I protested.  “We’re not going on a date.”

            “Tsunade said she caught you two making out in Sasuke’s room…”

            “She told you?!” I cried.  “That was a mistake, a very big mistake, which has not been repeated!”

            “That’s true, I’ve heard you two have been completely hostile to each other lately.”

            “Yes, we’re very hostile!  No more amorous feelings!  At all!”

            “So if I locked you two up alone in a room, you wouldn’t make out?”

            I paused.  “That’s why we’re not going to be alone in rooms anymore!  And we’re definitely not going on a naked onsen date!”

            “Then what are you two going to do, out in the big wide world?”

            “Relax,” I said.  “Separately.”

            “I’d need you to watch over him 24/7,” Kakashi said, shaking his head.

            “Sakura can do that.”

            “Sakura has work to do at the hospital.”

            “It’s not as bad as it was,” I protested.  “The hospital’s barely even full anymore.  I’m sure they could spare one medic nin.”

            “So you and Sakura and Sasuke would leave Konoha, and Sakura would babysit Sasuke while you relax?”

            “Yes,” I said, nodding.

            “Did you suggest this to Sakura?”

            “I’m sure she’ll be fine with it.”

            “I’ll bring it up to the Council,” Kakashi said.  “Now go away.”

            “Thank you!” I said, sparkling as I left.

            I went back to Sasuke’s room, where Sakura was just finishing up her exam.

            “Nice eye patch,” I said, sitting on the edge of the bed.  It was safe to get close since Sakura was there.

            Sasuke squinted his rinnegan at me.

            “You’re in the way,” Sakura said, pushing me aside.  She returned to carefully applying bandages to the burns.

            I got up and went to lean against the wall.  “You look like a pirate.  A really gay pirate.”

            “Go die somewhere,” Sasuke said, not particularly mad.

            “You need a haircut,” I complained.  “And a less trampy outfit,” I added, eyeing the low cut of his hospital clothes.

            “And you need a shower,” Sasuke said with a shrug.  “And a less ugly face.”

            “That’s just mean,” I complained.

            Sakura finished applying the last bandage with a little more force than necessary, and Sasuke grimaced.

            “I think we can leave if it’s the three of us,” I said.  “We could all take a short vacation.”

            “I’m not coming back,” Sasuke put in.

            “But if we went once, and built up some trust, then maybe the council would let you leave more permanently.”

            “You two don’t have to be involved.”

            “We’re involved,” Sakura said tiredly.

            “I’m saying you don’t have to be.”

            “And I’m saying we are!” Sakura snapped.

            We all seemed to be staring each other down.

            Sasuke’s eye dropped to his lap.  “I don’t want you two to be angry at me anymore.”

            Sakura softened immediately.  She was as weak to Sasuke’s vulnerability as I was.  “We’re just a little stressed out, okay?  We still love you,” she said, pressing a kiss to his forehead.  “And we’ll do anything for you.  But I don’t think leaving the village is going to make you any happier.”

            “I can’t stay here.  You don’t understand.”

            “Explain it,” Sakura said, sitting down next to him.  “I’ll listen.”

            Sasuke glanced at me.

            I tried not to turn into putty in his hands.  I glared at him, instead.

            “There’s nothing to explain.  I won’t stay here, and that’s that.”

            “And you’re gonna go to Orochimaru?” I asked bitterly.  “Again?”

            “I’ll do what I have to.”

            Sakura glanced between us.

            Sasuke dropped his head to her shoulder.

            “Hey,” Sakura said, sliding an arm around him.

            Maybe I felt a little annoyed and jealous at that.  When had the two of them gotten so touchy feely?  Sasuke was only touchy feely with me.

            Sakura read all that on my face and rolled her eyes.  She gestured with her free arm for me to come over to them.

            I shook my head and stayed planted against the wall.  I didn’t like being reminded of everything I’d missed out on while I was away.

            Sometimes I wondered if I had stayed, would Sasuke and I be all right now?

            But nah, how could we be?

            I was just tired of fighting all the time.

            That didn’t stop me from being snide.  “I’ll just leave you two alone since I’m clearly the third wheel here.”

            “Naruto,” Sakura said, exasperated.

            Sasuke ignored me and let me leave again.

            I just couldn’t stand it.  Sasuke was going back to Orochimaru.  Of all the possibilities in the universe, that was one I’d never expected to be helping make a reality.  It turned my stomach just to think about it.

            But I’d promised to get Sasuke out of the village.  No matter what.

            I knew it was guilt that was driving me.

            Everyone kept saying that I’d run away.  I tried to protest and say that I’d been fighting for the village, chasing down Yuuyake.  It had been important work.  But they all knew how it was.  I wasn’t the same after Sasuke made his suicidal escape attempt.  I didn’t like being around him.  I didn’t like being in Konoha.  I felt trapped.

            So I left.

            “I’m going to Suna,” I’d told Sasuke flatly during visiting hours at the clinic.  “They need me to help coordinate the ninja alliance against Yuuyake.”

            “Okay then,” Sasuke said, not looking at me from across the table.

            “It’ll probably just be a couple of months.”  It had turned into a couple of years.

            “Okay.”

            “I’ll write to you like last time.”

            “Don’t bother.”

            “I am gonna bother,” I growled at him.

            “I’ll just throw the letters away.”

            “I’ll send them to Sakura-chan, then, and make her read them to you out loud!”

            “Like she doesn’t have better things to do with her time.”

            “Bastard,” I ground out.

            Sasuke didn’t respond.

            “So you’re not gonna beg me not to go?” I asked.

            “What do I care?” Sasuke muttered.  “You’ve barely been here for months.”

            “I come here every week now!” I complained.

            “Okay, but you’re not here.

            I knew what he meant, so I couldn’t really protest any further.

            “So fucking go already and be done with it,” Sasuke said, gesturing towards the door.  “Be done with me.”

            “Why do you always have to be such an asshole?!”

            “Because I’m a terrible person, as you’re fond of reminding me.”

            “Well, yeah, can’t argue with that.”

            “Fuck you.”

            “You’re the one who said it!”

            “Look, I don’t care what you do.  I don’t care where you go.  So just disappear already.”

            I grabbed his hand from across the table, holding it roughly.  “Why do you have to be like that?  Obviously I didn’t want to just leave without talking to you.”

            “Why not?  Leave away.”

            “Because I don’t want you trying to kill yourself or whatever because I’m gone.”

            “Wow, Naruto, really?  Is that what’s going to happen?”

            “You’ve tried it before.”

            “Seriously, fuck you,” Sasuke said, trying to take his hand back.  He looked angry and uncomfortable.

            “Quit being an asshole.”

            “How am I being an asshole?!” Sasuke demanded, finally wrenching his hand free.  “You’re the asshole, you self-important prick!  Let me tell you something, I don’t give a fuck where you go.  You are nothing to me.  Just leave me alone already.”

            I should have realized that he was upset because I was leaving, and trying to act like he wasn’t.  Instead, I got pissed.  I was around the other side of the table, pulling him up by his shirt collar before I really knew what I was doing.

            Sasuke glowered at me.

            “Quit the fucking bravado.  We all know that you’re batshit crazy, and that you can barely take a piss without me helping you.  Well, guess what, I’m tired of it.  I’m tired of holding your hand through everything.  I’m tired of making you eat and take showers.  I’m done.  You made my life shit, and I’m done with it.  I’m done with you.  I can’t stand you.  In fact, I think I might hate you, I might actually hate you.  I am going to get as far away from you as I possibly can, and I hope to god that I never have to come back.”

            Sasuke had stayed stone-faced until the very last bit, and then his mouth tightened and I knew he was trying not to cry.

            I let go of him and walked away.  I was halfway down the stairs when I started regretting it.  What had possessed me to say those things?  I hadn’t meant any of it.

            Had I?

            I felt like I’d betrayed everything I stood for, and I felt shittier than shit.

            I went to Suna anyway.

            I gave up on him.

Chapter Text

            “See, good things come to those who wait,” I informed Sasuke.

            He huffed out a long breath.

            “What?” I said, shutting the door to Sakura’s apartment and locking it.  “You’re out of the hospital, and we’re leaving Konoha in a week.”

            “Let’s just go now.”

            “We can’t just go now, we don’t have permission.”

            “I don’t need fucking permission.”

            “Chill out, dude.”

            “Did you really just call me ‘dude’?” Sasuke asked, giving me a withering look.

            “Anyway, this is your futon,” I said, gesturing to the futon on the floor of Sakura’s room.

            “And where are you sleeping?” Sasuke asked, a suspicious look in his eyes.

            “With Sakura in her bed.”

            The look got deadly.

            I laughed.  “I’m sleeping on the couch.”

            Sasuke looked away in a tiff.

            It suddenly dawned on me that we were alone.

            I shifted uncomfortably.

            “I’m tired,” Sasuke said, his back to me.

            “Sakura said to make yourself at home, so…”

            Sasuke went into the bedroom and closed the door.

            It was going to be a long wait until Sakura was off of her shift.  The weight of the responsibility I had taken on was suddenly apparent to me.  I had to stay with Sasuke at all times.  It hadn’t seemed like a big deal at the Council meeting.  I’d said it wasn’t a problem.  But now that I thought about it, it was a pretty big problem.

            Of course, if he was just going to stay locked up in Sakura’s room, it wasn’t going to be so bad.  It was all those times he left the room to go outside and smoke that were the problem.

            “Those things are awful for you,” I complained, watching him unlock the balcony and step outside.

            He ignored me and started chain-smoking.

            I tried to look away.  Then I worried that he might jump off the balcony or something, so I had to go outside with him.  I coughed as smoke blew in my face.

            “Why are you out here?” he asked, giving me an irritable look.

            “Uh, you know,” I said.  “Spending time with you.”

            “You hate spending time with me.”

            “I… don’t…”

            He stared at me.

            “I don’t,” I said more confidently.

            “Remember the time you left the village for almost two years to get away from me?” he asked, blowing smoke in my face.

            I waved it away, coughing.  “I did not!” I yelled.  “I left to fight Yuuyake!”

            “What was it you said?  Something about getting as far away from me as possible?”

            “How many times do I have to apologize to you?!” I cried.  “I told you I didn’t mean any of that stuff!”

            “But you did mean it,” Sasuke said, leaning on the railing with his good arm while his cigarette dangled from his mouth.

            I didn’t want to admit that he made smoking look sexy, but god he did.  If only it didn’t make him smell terrible and rot his body from the inside out.  “I…”

            “I think we could move past it if you were just honest,” Sasuke said.

            “I am being honest…”

            “Naruto.”

            “Sasuke.”

            Sasuke tapped his ashes off the balcony.

            I looked down, wondering if they were going to land someone’s head or something.

            “Things were okay between us, weren’t they?” Sasuke said.  “At the Valley of the End?”

            “Yeah,” I said softly, leaning on the railing next to him.  “I felt like everything was finally right there.”

            “I’m sorry I’m… like this,” Sasuke said, staring out over Konoha.  “I ruined everything.”

            “No,” I said, nudging him with my elbow.  “You can’t help how your brain is.  You can’t help all those shitty things that happened to you.  All of that is part of you, and I… I just had trouble accepting it, but I get it now, okay?”

            “Do you?”

            “I think so.”

            Sasuke took a long drag from his cigarette, then stubbed it out on the railing.  He tossed the butt in a coffee mug that he’d brought out with him, already filled with used-up cigarettes.  “What exactly is it that you get now?”

            I studied his profile.  “I guess I thought I was supposed to save you.  Fix you.  But you don’t need to be saved or fixed or whatever.”

            “I don’t?” he asked, turning to me and meeting my gaze evenly with his rinnegan.

            I reached out and touched his eyepatch for a moment, then quickly pulled my hand away.  I hadn’t meant to do that.

            Sasuke didn’t seem to care as I blushed.

            “Y-yeah…” I stuttered, trying to recollect my train of thought.  “I dunno, it all makes sense in my head.”

            “Great,” Sasuke said, rolling his eye and turning away from me again.

            I sighed.  “I can’t explain things good.  But I felt responsible for you.  I still feel responsible for you.  Like everything you do and everything that happens to you is my fault.  And I think that makes me just a crazy as you.”

            Sasuke snorted.  “You’re such a charmer.”

            “Huh?”

            “I don’t need you to remind me that I’m crazy all the time.”

            “I know…”

            Sasuke picked up his mug and moved to the door.  “Are we getting anywhere in this conversation?”

            “Um, I dunno, are we?” I asked hopefully.

            “I don’t want to die because of you, and you’re not responsible if I kill myself,” Sasuke said matter-of-factly as he stepped back into the apartment.  “You’re absolved, do you feel better now?”

           “I’m not trying to make myself feel better,” I said, catching the bottom of his t-shirt and tugging on it.  “Well, okay, maybe I am.  But I just want you to get that me leaving wasn’t about you in the same way you… leaving… wasn’t about me.  And I might be kinda uncomfortable around you right now, but you get that, don’t you?  It doesn’t mean I don’t want to be around you.  It’s just complicated.”

            “Okay,” Sasuke said, and didn’t sound sarcastic for once.

            “Okay,” I agreed.

            Things were still awkward.

            I was really happy when Sakura came home, takeout ramen in hand.

            My clones popped back into me about the same time, reminding me how damaged Konoha was and how much work was still left to be done.

            Sakura and I chatted during dinner while Sasuke was silent next to us.  He ate all his food, though, so I couldn’t really complain.

            I wasn’t crazy about the idea of him leaving Konoha, but the one thing I could say is that ever since he made that decision, he’d seemed healthier.  He ate and he exercised, moving with a purpose that I hadn’t seen since he was screaming at me about revolution all those years ago.

            With the dishes done and put away, Sakura assembled us in the living room.

            “I talked to Kakashi-sensei, and this is the plan,” she said, leaning forward and putting an official-looking piece of paper on the coffee table.  “We’ll go to Suna with an ANBU escort, the official reason being for you both to get your prosthetics fixed.”

            “Mine isn’t broken,” Sasuke muttered.

            Sakura ignored him.  “While we’re in Suna, you will give this,” she said, indicating the paper, “to the kazekage.”

            Sasuke picked up the paper, studying it.  “Application for political asylum?” he read.

            “Genius, isn’t it?” I said, preening.  It had been my idea, and I was feeling quite pleased with myself.  “I talked to Gaara, and he said Suna would take you in.”

            Sasuke looked confused.

            “I thought you’d be… I dunno, happier?” I said.

            “I was just going to use the rinnegan and run away from the ANBU after we got out of the walls,” Sasuke said slowly.

            “Yes, and that was an idiotic plan, so we made a better one,” Sakura said with a sigh.

            “Did you just call my plan… idiotic?” Sasuke asked, raising an eyebrow at her.

            “Yeah, I did, so deal with it,” Sakura said.  “Anyway, Naruto’s right, this is a good idea.”

            “Heh heh,” I said, beaming.

            “There have been a lot of new laws made about clan persecution in the last couple of the years, and you qualify as being discriminated against.”

            “The kazekage will really take me in?” Sasuke asked, looking uncertain.

            “Yeah, he doesn’t care about all those times you tried to kill him,” I said.  “Gaara’s a pretty mellow guy.  Now he is, anyway.”

            “It wasn’t that many times…” Sasuke murmured.

            “A ‘thank you, Naruto,’ would suffice,” I said.

            Sasuke didn’t say anything.

            I studied his face.  “This is really happening, Sas’.  You’re leaving Konoha.”

            “I’ll believe it when I’m out of these walls.”

            I went to bed that night feeling conflicted.

            I was dragged out of confusing dreams about clowns by Sakura, shaking me gently.  “Whassit?” I slurred at her.

            “I don’t know what to do about Sasuke.”

            “Huh?”

            Sakura tugged on my arm, and I followed her to her room.

            Sasuke was huddled in the corner, his knees drawn up to his chest as he looked around the room shakily.

            “Sasuke?” I said carefully.  “Did you have a nightmare?”

            He nodded.

            “Sakura, do you have another futon?” I asked, turning to her.

            “Yeah, in the closet,” she said.

            “Get it down and put it with the other one?”

            Sakura moved towards the closet.

            I knelt down in front of Sasuke.  “You okay?”

            He shrugged, not looking at me.

            “You think you can sleep?”

            He shook his head.

            “How about if Sakura and I stay with you?”

            “I’m not a child,” he said quietly.

            “It takes an adult to admit he needs help.”

            “Oh my god, are you quoting Dr. Shizuta at me?”

            I grinned at him.

            “Dummy,” he said with a hint of a smile.

            “Come on, we’re gonna make a Sasuke sandwich!” I said, tugging on his good arm.

            “We are?” Sakura asked.

            Sasuke gave me a funny look.

            “Yeah, yeah, this’ll be fun,” I said.  “Old school Team 7 bonding.  Sakura and I will sleep with our backs to each other, and Sasuke will go in the middle!”

            “I didn’t agree to this,” Sakura said.

            “No one agreed to this,” Sasuke muttered.

            “I did,” I said, sticking out my bottom lip.  “Team 7 threesome?”

            “And you made it worse,” Sakura said, shaking her head.  She got onto the futon anyway, pulling the blanket up over her as she settled on her side.

            “See, Sakura’s a team player,” I informed the doubtful Sasuke, crawling onto the other futon and shimmying to the edge so Sasuke had a nice big space between me and Sakura.

            Sasuke hesitated.

            I closed my eyes and fake snored.

            Sasuke kicked me.

            “Bastard!”

            He yanked the blanket off of me and settled in to go to sleep.

            “There were three blankets!” I yelled.

            “Naruto, we’re trying to sleep,” Sakura said irritably.

            “But!”

            Sasuke threw the third blanket over my head.

            I struggled out of it, got scolded some more by Sakura for being loud, then finally passed out, exhausted from all the work my clones had done all day.

            I woke up when Sasuke got up, a quick glance towards the window telling me that it was about five in the morning.  That was pretty typical Sasuke getting up time, so I decided to go back to sleep.  I sprawled out across the futon, only to find myself smacking into Sakura.

            “Naruto…” she growled.

            “Sakura,” I tried to growl back, but I was too sleepy.  I conceded her the arm room, since I didn’t have an arm anyway, but I kept the area I’d claimed with my legs.

            We both went back to sleep.

            Sasuke made us breakfast, trying to act normally.  By normal, I mean he was surly and untalkative.

            I think he was embarrassed about breaking down the night before.  It was just me and Sakura, though, so I don’t know who he was trying to impress.  It had barely even been a breakdown, anyway.

            I told him so, and he dropkicked me.

            “Are you two going to be okay here alone?” Sakura asked, but it didn’t seem like she was actually worried.  She was used to us.

            “No,” I said, nursing my aching gut.

            “Good luck, then,” Sakura said, getting ready to go to work.

            I straightened up and filled the apartment with clones.

            “Couldn’t you do that outside?” Sakura asked, trying to shuffle around the clones to get to the door.

            “Ohhh, good idea,” I said.  I waved goodbye to Sakura and the clones, standing outside the door and watching them until they all disappeared.  Then I was alone with Sasuke.  Again.

            Sasuke looked at me unhappily from the couch.

            “What?” I said.  “What does that face mean?”

            “Nothing.”

            I groaned and went to the kitchen to wash the dishes.

            Sasuke went outside to smoke.

            I felt more mellow about leaving him outside by himself, but I still couldn’t help but peek out at him a few times, just to make sure he was still there.

            “Stop being a creep,” he said about the fifth time I’d done it, stepping back inside with his mug full of cigarette butts.

            “I’m supposed to watch you,” I mumbled, rubbing the back of my neck.

            “Uh-huh,” Sasuke said, looking unimpressed as he dumped his cigarettes in the trash.  “Let’s get drunk.”

            “Huh?”

            “Let’s.  Get.  Drunk.”

            “It’s like ten o’clock in the morning.”

            “Did you have somewhere to be?”

            “No…” I said.  “Hey, no, wait, you can’t drink!  Your meds!”

            Sasuke gave me an irritated look.

            “You cannot mix alcohol with your meds,” I said, trying to sound stern.

            “Then I’ll stop taking them.”

            “Sasukeeeee.”

            “Forget it, then,” he said, skulking off to pout.

            I tried to occupy myself with different things, but just knowing that Sasuke was in the next room was too distracting.

            “S’ke?” I said, knocking on the door.

            He opened it, looking disheveled.

            “Were you sleeping?”

            He shrugged.

            “Sorry,” I said.

            “What do you want?” he asked, looking me up and down.  “Are you still incapable of sitting by yourself for five seconds?”

            “No…” I said, giving him a sour look.

            “Then…?”

            “Never mind,” I said, stomping back to the living room.  I immediately regretted it.  Why did I always act so childish with him?

            It was going to be a long week until we left Konoha, and an even longer journey to Suna.  I wondered if we could just cancel the whole thing, but I was pretty sure Sasuke might actually try to murder me if I did.

Chapter Text

            I sighed loudly, hanging from the living room doorframe and doing one armed pull ups.  “Don’t you want to do anything?” I complained.  It was day three of my imprisonment with Sasuke, and I was just about going out of my mind.

            “No,” he said.  He was literally doing nothing, just sitting on the floor with his eyes closed.

            “I will do anything,” I said desperately.  “Anything you want.  Just as long as it’s something.”

            Sasuke cracked his good eye open, his amusement evident.  “Really?  Anything?”

            “Yes,” I breathed out.

            “There are so many things I could suggest right now that you would say no to.”

            “It’s fine, suggest away,” I said.  I dropped down to the floor.  “I’m going stir crazy.  I can’t take it anymore.”

            “You wouldn’t like anything I suggested,” Sasuke said, closing his eye again.

            “Do you want to get drunk?” I asked, plopping down in front of him.  “We can get drunk!  You wanna have sex?  Let’s sex away!”

            Sasuke couldn’t stop his smile.  “You don’t mean any of that.”

            “Well I wanna do soooomething, and you just ignore me all day.”

            “You’re such a child.”

            “Yeah.”

            He went quiet again.

            “What’re you doin’, anyway?” I asked, waving my hands in front of his closed eyes.

            “Meditating.”

            “Oh, uh.  Huh.  Didn’t know you were into that.”

            “It helps with the p…ain…” he concluded, stuttering over the last word.  He hadn’t meant to tell me that.

            “Oh,” I said.  I wanted to ask him where it hurt, if it was his arm, his eyes, the healing burns on his face.  I didn’t think he’d like that question, though.  “Do you think it would help with my arm?” I asked instead.

            “I would say no, but contrary to my expectations you can actually sit still and meditate to get into Sage Mode, so maybe.”

            “Teach me your mediation secrets, jerk,” I said, poking him in the tummy.

            “Well, the first step is to make sure that Naruto isn’t anywhere near you, preferably not even in the same village.”

            I poked him more insistently.

            A purple eye slid open to glare at me.

            I grinned at him.

            “I don’t really have any technique,” he said, glancing into my eyes before quickly flitting his gaze away.  “I just go blank for a while, and then when I open my eyes, it… hurts a little less.”

            I felt an ache in my chest.

            “Your arm hurts?” he asked after a pause.

            “Yeah, like hell,” I said, rubbing at the stump.  “It’s kind of worse than the first time.”

            “How so?”

            “I dunno,” I said with a shrug.  “It’s like… I guess with us, we just kind of blew each other’s’ arms off and then it was over, yeah?  But that jutsu…  It took a long time.  It was slow, and I could feel every bite into my flesh.  It was… anyway, it really hurt, and the phantom pains I get from it just feel like it’s happening all over again,” I said, rubbing absently at my shoulder.  I stopped and rested my hand on my knee, trying not to think about it.

            Sasuke reached out his hand tentatively, taking my hand in his.  He curled his fingers around mine, not looking at me.  “Let’s try meditating, then.”

            “Yeah,” I said, trying to keep the little tremor out of my voice.  “But what do you think about?”

            “Nothing.”

            “You can’t just think about nothing.”

            “I thought you were good at meditating…”

            “Well, yeah, but I dunno.  There’s usually a purpose to it.  I’m gathering natural energy.  I don’t really know what I’m supposed to be doing here.”

            “You’re letting your mind and body rest.”

            “Why not just sleep?”

            Sasuke sighed loudly.

            “You’re not a very good teacher,” I complained.

            “Then go bother someone else.”

            “No,” I said, gripping his hand more tightly.

            “Then be a better student.”

            “I’m trying.”

            “Close your eyes and shut up.”

            I did so.  I found that I was completely focused on the warmth of Sasuke’s hand holding mine.  I liked that.  His hand was stronger than I remembered, though the skin was soft.  There were some hardened lines intersecting the softness, scars old and new, and I liked tracing over them.

            “You’re not doing it right,” Sasuke complained.  I didn’t have to open my eyes to hear the smile in his voice.

            “Sorry.”

            “Dummy.”

            I stilled my hand, but I didn’t let go of his.  Slowly, I found myself emptying, going into nothingness.  I don’t know how long it lasted, but when I opened my eyes, I felt calm and relaxed.

            Sasuke was staring at me with a very complicated look on his face.  “You’re back,” he said looking away.

            “Mm,” I said, rolling my neck.

            Sasuke didn’t comment on how we were still holding hands, so I didn’t either and continued to do so.

            We sat in a comfortable silence until my stomach started growling.

            I pulled away from Sasuke sheepishly.  “How late is it, anyway?”

            “Past lunch time,” he said, and he had a funny little smile.

            “Can we go get ramen?” I asked hopefully.

            Sasuke gave me an annoyed look, but said, “Yeah.”

            “Wait, really?!”

            “You’re paying.”

            “Obviously I’m paying,” I said, then thought about.  “Hey, don’t you have a job now?”

            “Pay for me, bitch.”

            “Did you just call me a bitch?!”

            Sasuke smiled genuinely.

            “I’m not your bitch!” I yelled, following him out the door.

            “I thought you were supposed to be zen after meditating,” he muttered.

            “I’m very zen!”

            I marched down to Ichiraku’s in a huff, while Sasuke strolled behind me.  I didn’t think about it until we were almost there, but Sasuke was actually being pretty normal.  I caught myself looking back at him with some kind of doofy smile on my face, and quickly reverted back to ranting and raving at him.

            Ichiraku’s itself had not been damaged in the battle, but unfortunately the gas line had been damaged, so Teuchi was running his business from his house.  There were tables set up outside, while Teuchi cooked in his kitchen.

            Sasuke and I took a seat, and Ayame came to take our order.

            “Lookit my little Sasuke, all grown up and ordering his own ramen,” I marveled after she left.

            “Shut up.”

            “Don’t get mad, I’m just really surprised.”

            “Why?” Sasuke muttered, his cheeks going red.

            “Not surprised, happy,” I corrected myself.  “It’s good to… see you like this.”

            “Half blind and hideously scarred?”

            “You could never be hideous,” I said, glaring at him with envy.  “And Sakura said they’re not gonna scar, anyway.  You’re lucky to have her for a doctor, she knows what she’s doing.”

            “Yeah,” Sasuke said, looking away from me.

            I caught a pair of men staring at us from across the street, hesitating, then walking by.  I frowned after them.

            “We should stop by Ino’s,” Sasuke said.

            “Huh?  Are you actually proposing to go somewhere?  Where there are people?” I asked.

            “Never mind, then.”

            “Nooooo,” I protested.  “Let’s go, let’s go.”

            “I should help her with the cleanup.”

            “Who are you and what have you done with Sasuke?!”

            “Stop being ridiculous.  I just… don’t want to leave here feeling like I owe anybody anything.”

            “And you owe Ino?” I marveled.  “I thought you couldn’t stand her.”

            “She gave me a job,” Sasuke said with a shrug.  “It doesn’t mean I started to stand her.”  He hesitated, then added, “She makes Sakura happy, though.”

            “Stop being cute,” I complained.

            “I’m not cute!” he growled at me, making it sound like the worst kind of insult.

            “I think you are,” I said with a shrug.  “I’m glad you care about Sakura.”

            Sasuke just glared at me.

            Ayame came and put our ramen in front of us.

            “Thanks!  Might as well order the second bowl now,” I said, before diving in.

            Sasuke made a face at me.

            I ignored him and blissfully slurped up all my ramen.

            Ayame delivered the second bowl just as I was finishing up.

            “Ichiraku’s has the best ramen and the best service,” I marveled.

            Sasuke shook his head and continued to eat his first bowl.

            I was finishing up my fifth bowl when a few of my clones wandered over, angry that I was eating ramen without them.  We bickered for a bit, then they went back to work.

            “That hit the spot,” I said, leaning back in my chair.

            “No wonder you’re so fat,” Sasuke murmured.

            “I’m not fat,” I complained mildly.  “You ate two,” I added, poking him in the belly.

            Sasuke shrugged.  He didn’t push my hand away, and I realized that I’d started caressing instead of poking.

            I quickly pulled away, looking anywhere but at Sasuke.  “We should pay.”

            “You should pay.”

            “Yeah, yeah.”

            After I paid, we walked over to the remains of the Yamanaka flower shop.  Ino and her mom were both there, sorting through the rubble.

            “Hey,” Ino said, smiling at us.

            “Can we help?” I asked.

            “Really?  That would be great.”

            We spent the rest of the afternoon salvaging and tossing things.

            Sasuke worked silently and diligently while Ino and I were loud and obnoxious.

            “I thought this would take weeks, but you’ve really helped us,” Mrs. Yamanaka said, looking over the significantly cleaner lot.

            “That was a good idea,” I told Sasuke as we walked home.

            He shrugged.

            I caught a group of girls glowering at us.  I glowered back.

            Sasuke nudged me.

            “What?” I complained.

            “Don’t antagonize.”

            “But-”

            “Please.”

            Sakura was already home when we got there.

            I was kind of disappointed.  I didn’t think too deeply about why.  I also didn’t think too deeply about why I suddenly wanted to glue myself to Sasuke.

            “Why are you sitting so close to me?” he asked, side-eying me when I sat at his feet while he and Sakura watched the news.

            “I’m not!” I protested.

            He put his foot on me.

            “Hey,” I said, pushing it off.  “I’m not your foot rest.”

            “You’re the one sitting there.”

            “Naruto, sit on the damn couch and shut up,” Sakura said crossly.  She’d been really on edge lately.

            “Why can’t I sit here?” I complained.

            Sasuke put his foot on me again.

            We got into a fight, and made Sakura even angrier.

            I begrudgingly left the room.

            “You’re both toddlers!” Sakura ranted as I went.

            Sasuke grumbled, but stayed sitting next to her.

            I felt lonely.

            I lay awake for a while that night.

            I could hear Sakura’s steady breathing from above me on the bed, and Sasuke’s from the futon next to mine.  Sasuke started whining, and I knew he was having a nightmare.

            “Sasuke,” I said softly.

            He whimpered, a shaking huddle in his blanket.

            “Sasuke, wake up,” I said more firmly.  I reached out to touch his back, and he jumped.  “Sorry…”

            Sasuke was quiet, so I curled back up, ready to go to sleep.

            Then he stood up.  “Sakura?” he said softly.

            She gave him a sleepy mumble.

            He continued standing in front of her.

            “Come here,” she finally said, opening her blanket to him.

            Sasuke crawled into bed with her.

            What was this?!  Since when did he go to Sakura for comfort?!

            I was really offended, and more awake than before.

            Meanwhile, the two them drifted right back to sleep.

Chapter Text

            “What?” Sasuke asked, looking at me over his book with his glasses.

            I got distracted by how dorky yet still beautiful and perfect he looked.

            “Idiot, I’m talking to you.”

            “Huh?” I said.  “Oh, yeah.  Uh, nothing.”

            “Are you…” he started, squinting at me.  He got a self-conscious look on his face, turning his head away and taking off his glasses.  “They’re just temporary.”

            “Huh?”

            “You think they look stupid.”

            “Your glasses?  No, I think they look really cute.”

            “How many times do I have to tell you that that word isn’t a compliment?!”

            “Well, I mean it as one, so doesn’t that make it one?!”

            “No.  That is not how it works at all.”

            “Oh.  Should I have said they look attractive?”

            “No one wants to look attractive to you.”

            “No one?”

            “No one.”

            “You’re lying.  You want to look attractive to me.”

            “I don’t!” he snapped, throwing his book at my head.

            I ducked.

            Sasuke muttered something.

            “Hey,” I complained, straightening up.  “What’re you so mad for?”

            “I’m not mad.”

            “You just tried to kill me!”

            “Really, Naruto?  You’re going to die from a book?”

            “It was a hardcover!”

            “Can you just go somewhere?” he asked heaving out a frustrated breath.

            “Like where?” I asked.  “’Cause I’m supposed to be watching you…”

            Sasuke made a very angry-sounding noise.

            “What can I do?” I asked, trying to sound as pacifying as I could.  “I really didn’t mean to piss you off.”

            “Then quit staring at me!”

            “Okay,” I said, looking at the floor.  “Look, we’re only stuck here a couple of more days-”

            “And then we get to go on a cross-country trip with a team of ANBU watching me 24/7, in addition to you.”

            “And then you’ll be in Suna, and you’ll be free.”

            “Really?  I’m just going to be free to go wherever I want without anyone watching over me?”

            “I think so, yeah.”

            “Sure I will.  And you?  You’re just going to leave me there?”

            “Well I have to stay a while for my arm,” I said.  “But I won’t… ya know, stalk you.”

            “And if I go to Orochimaru?”

            “Yeah, okay, then I would follow your ass there and drag you back.”

            Sasuke breathed out in a way that sounded suspiciously like a laugh.

            I chanced a glance over at him, and he was smiling.  “You’re so gorgeous when you smile,” I said without thinking.

            His expression immediately soured.  “What the fuck are you on about?”

            “Nothing,” I muttered.

            “No, it’s not nothing, and you need to stop,” he said irritably.

            “Huh?”

            Sasuke pulled his blanket more securely around his shoulders.  It had been an oddly cold June.

            “What is it you think I’m doing?” I asked when I didn’t get the clarification I was looking for.

            “Flirting,” he said, like it was a dirty word.

            “But we always flirt?” I said, scratching my nose.

            He looked hurt.

            “I’m kinda lost,” I admitted.

            “Of course you are,” he said snidely.  “Just go away, please.”

            “No,” I said, trying to cross my arms over my chest and almost tripping when I realized I only had one arm.

            “Idiot.”

            “You don’t need to be such a bastard.”

            “And you don’t have to be so damn… you.”

            “Um, yes I do.  Who else would be if I wasn’t?”

            Sasuke dropped his head into his hands and yelled.

            I sat down on one of Sakura’s armchairs and waited quietly until he was done.

            Sasuke stayed with his head in his hands for a while.  He finally leaned back against the couch, fixing his eye on me.

            “What’s… up…?” I asked.

            “Why do you have to act so damn ignorant all the time?  You’re not as stupid as you look.”

            “I uh…” I said, not really sure what I was supposed to do with that statement.

            He kept glaring at me like I was supposed to get it.

            So I tried to use my brain a little.  “You don’t want me to… flirt with you… anymore…?”

            His glare intensified.

            I wasn’t sure if that meant that I was on the right track, so he was mad, or if I was completely wrong, so he was mad.  I tried thinking a little harder.  “Is this about our… complicated relationship… status…?”

            His eyes darkened in a way that told me he was pissed off because I was right.

            Now we were getting somewhere.  “I know I kind of just came back like nothing happened,” I said, studying the slightest twitches in Sasuke’s expressions for signs of danger.  “But, well, uh,” I started floundering.

            Sasuke finally took pity on me.  “You act like we’re in a relationship.  We’re not.”

            “But we are in a relationship,” I said.  “Just not a romantic one.  A friendshippy one.  A slightly more than friendshippy one.”

            “I want to have sex with you.”

            “Yes, well… yes…”

            “It’s not a good idea.”

            “Um, yeah, no, it’s not…”

            “So stop making it so obvious how incredibly attracted to me you are.”

            I wanted to tell him that he was crazy and had an overinflated ego, but I didn’t want to get caught in a lie.  “Oh… you…” I said instead.

            “I’m being serious here, are you listening to me?”

            “You’re always serious,” I said.

            Sasuke glowered.

            “Yes, yes, I’m listening,” I said.  “I get it.  My brain gets it, anyway.  It’s just when I’m near you… I get confused?  I don’t know.  I like being near you.  And you like being near me, too.”

            “Do I?”

            “Yes, even though you’ve been running off to Sakura lately,” I said, trying to keep the blatant jealousy out of my voice.

            Sasuke smirked at that.

            “You were fine without me, weren’t you?” I said, looking away.  “I come back and you’re doing better than you ever were with me.  You have a job.  You eat without being told to.  You have other people in your life.  It’s… good.  It was the right decision for us to… not be together.”

            Sasuke didn’t say anything.

            “It was the right decision,” I reaffirmed.

            “Sure,” he said dismissively.  “Anyway, if you don’t want to fuck, then stop acting like you do.”

            I sputtered for a while, unable to form a coherent sentence.

            “Or did you want to?” he asked, somehow pulling off a disinterested yet suggestive look.

            “Goddammit, of course I want to!”

            A look of surprise flitted across his face.  He quickly recovered with a smirk.

           “I really, really want to,” I said, looking him up and down.  He was dressed like a hobo, huddled in a blanket, one eye blind, face scarred, and I thought he was the most perfect person I’d ever seen in my life.

            “But…?” Sasuke prodded.

            “No buts, I really, really want to.”

            “When Tsunade caught us in the hospital-”

            “I said it was a horrible mistake and would never happen again.”

            “But now…?”

            “I still think it would be a horrible mistake.  I just really want to.”

            “How romantic.”

            “Shut up, you,” I said with a snort.  “You’re the most unromantic person I’ve ever met.”

            “Am I?” Sasuke asked, and he seemed pleased.

            Looking at him, I was overwhelmed with how in love I was with the jerk.  It made me sad.  “Can we hug?” I asked.

            “You want to hug?”

            I nodded.

            “I don’t understand what goes on in your head.”

            I held my arm open to him.

            Sasuke, giving me a wary look, got up from the couch and approached me slowly.

            It was too slow for me, so I tackled him in a one-armed hug.

            “What are you doing, stupid?” Sasuke muttered, tottering a little before maintaining his balance.

            “I need another arm,” I complained, feeling very unsatisfied with the degree of hugging I was able to achieve with only one.

            “I think one is plenty,” Sasuke muttered.  He stood stiffly in my hold.

            “Hug me back,” I complained.

            “Gross.”

            “Sasukeeee.”

            “Are we finished yet?”

            “Not until you hug me back!”

            “Ugh,” he said, patting my back awkwardly.

            “Sasukeeee,” I whined, nuzzling his cheek with mine.

            “This is exactly what I’m talking about.”

            “Huh?”

            “You just said how much you want to have sex with me and now you’re humping my leg.”

            “I’m not humping your leg!” I protested, then realized that with the way are legs were interlocked, I basically was.  “It wasn’t intentional!”

            “We need some-” he started, and trailed off as our eyes met.

            I looked at him expectantly.

            “Boundaries,” he finally said.

            “Boundaries,” I agreed, mesmerized by the swirliness of his eye.

            “Yeah?”

            “Yeah.”

            He drifted that extra few inches forward and kissed me.

            It wasn’t like our frenzied make out in the hospital, or the fumble to the finish on my couch.  It was slow and longing, and just so much worse.

            “Sasuke,” I murmured into his lips, wanting to cry or scream or something.

            “Sh,” he said, kissing me again.

            I could feel the tingle of Sakura’s chakra before I heard the sound of the lock clicking.

            For once we didn’t jump apart like guilty teenagers caught in the act.

            “I’m back,” she said, bustling in before pausing to stare at us.  “Do I need to hire a babysitter for the babysitter?”

            “We’re working on our boundaries,” I informed her.

            “So the boundary is no touching below the ankle?” she asked, arching her brow.

            “Wait, does that mean I can’t tickle his feet?” I asked, worried.  Sasuke was so funny when I tickled his feet.  Then he tried to murder me, but for those few seconds where he couldn’t reach any lethal objects, it was always so adorable to watch him squirm and laugh.

            “That’s what a boundary is,” Sasuke said.  “Denying you something you can no longer have.”

            “I want your feet,” I said determinedly.

            “Too bad,” he said, flicking me in the chest.

            We weren’t touching anymore.

            Sakura eyed us, then moved discreetly to her room, shutting the door.

            “We need boundaries,” Sasuke said, sitting back on the couch.

           “What kinda boundaries?” I asked.  “Because your feet are not negotiable.”  I found myself leaning over him, my knee on the couch between his legs.

            “Get off my damn feet already,” Sasuke muttered, looking away from me.

            “You know I get stuck on stupid stuff when I’m nervous.”

            He smiled at that.

            I caught his face in my hand, even though it made my balance questionable.  I rubbed my thumb along his cheek, feeling anxious.  I kind of knew where we were going with this conversation.  I just didn’t want to.

            And that made me the shittiest person, didn’t it?

            “I love you so much, I don’t get why we can’t be together,” I said glumly.

            “We can be.”

            I studied his face.  He obviously didn’t mean it, but I kissed him anyway.

            Sasuke breathed in sharply, and I felt like he was stealing my breath.

            “Do you love me?” I asked against his lips, suddenly feeling needy.

            Of course the bastard didn’t answer.  Instead, he parted his lips, and I could feel the wet touch of his tongue to mine.

            “Hey,” I tried to protest, and almost lost my balance.

            Sasuke made a face and pulled me down so I was sitting on his lap.

            “I feel like we’re not really establishing any boundaries…” I said.

            “Boundary number one is no kissing,” Sasuke said, pressing little kisses to the corner of my mouth.

            “Oh,” I said.  My chest felt all tight.

            “Last one,” he murmured, nudging my forehead with his.  He leaned in and touched his lips to mine briefly.

            I didn’t like that at all.

            “Why are you crying?” he murmured with a teasing smile.

            “I’m not,” I whined at him.

            He kissed my tears away, then squeezed my butt.

            I squawked at that.

            “No more butt touching,” he said morosely.

            “What!” I exclaimed, and wrestled him to the couch.  I quickly realized the error of my ways, as with Sasuke on his back, I lost access to his butt completely.

            “Idiot,” Sasuke said, laughing.

            “Nooo,” I said, rolling us off the couch and landing hard on my back, just barely missing the coffee table.

            “You’re so stupid,” he said, still laughing.

            I groped his butt happily.

            “This isn’t working,” Sasuke said.  He was still smiling, but there was something off in his eyes.

            “Hey,” I said, sitting up.

            We were suddenly chest-to-chest, eye-to-eye.

            “Whatever you say, Sas’,” I said, ducking my face into his shoulder because I didn’t want to feel his stare anymore.  “Whatever you want.  I’ll do it, okay?”

            “What do you want?” he asked, resting his chin on top of my head.

            “I don’t know,” I said.

            “I don’t know either.”

            Sasuke not knowing was uncharted territory.

            “I like this right now,” I said.

            “Yeah.”

            “No kissing?”

            “No kissing.”

            “Hugging?”

            “Only with written permission.”

            “What…?”

            “Mutual hand jobs require a consent form from the hokage.”

            “Sasuke, you’re being weird,” I said, smiling into his shirt.

            “Sit up,” he said quietly.

            I did.

            “I would rather you didn’t touch me whenever you feel like it,” he said.  “And at least try to stop and think before you flirt?  I really don’t like it.”

            “Oh…”

            Sasuke looked away.  “We’re just friends, Naruto, okay?”

            “Yeah,” I squeezed out from my tight throat.  “Yeah, of course.  Yeah.”

            “Best friends?” he said, making it sound like a question.

            “Of course!” I said, already crying.

            “Hug?”

            I threw my arm around him and squeezed.

            Sasuke squeezed back.

Chapter Text

            It was hot.  Summer had finally arrived, and it was really freaking hot.

            Sakura came up beside me, offering me some water.  I drank it, and she moved on the next person.

            “It’s hoooot,” I announced.

            “Obviously, moron.”

            I glared at Sasuke, but he wasn’t looking at me.

            “I know, right?” Ino said, coming up beside me.  “My sweat has sweat.”