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Minutes to Midnight

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            “We should go on a vacation!”

            Sasuke looked at me like I was a small bug that he wished to step on.

            “Babe, it’s like the perfect time.”

            He continued to give me that look.

            “I mean, Juugo took the baby to Water, and Mari’s staying with Ao for the summer, so it’s just us and this big empty house…”  It felt safer to say ‘the baby’ rather than Erika, and to leave off the part about her going to a good family and never coming back.

            “I like this big empty house,” Sasuke said flatly.  “It’s quiet.”

            “Okay, sure you like the quiet now, but isn’t it weird?”

            “No, it’s fantastic.”

            “Sasukeeeeee.”

            “I have a great idea,” he said, his tone still flat.

            “Hm?”

            “Why don’t you go on vacation, Naruto?”

            “That’s what I’ve been say- oh, you mean by myself.”

            “There’s my clever boy,” he said with a mocking smile.

            “You would be lonely,” I said, sitting up and brushing the sand from my hair.  We’d been sparring all day, and we were both just about on empty.  “I’m starving.”

            “Lonely?” Sasuke muttered, sitting up as well.

            “Do we have any leftovers in the fridge, ’cause I don’t have the freakin’ energy to cook,” I said.  I tried to work my way up to a standing position.  It took a while.

            “Come on,” Sasuke said, helping me up.

            We walked back to the house.

            Sasuke cooked while I sat flopped over in my chair, pretending to help.

            “We could go on like a hot springs tour,” I said.  “You love a good onsen.”

            “Do I?”

            “Yes, my baby, you like working your body hard and then relaxing in a soothing bath,” I explained to him about himself.

            “Hn.”

            I decided to revisit the subject while we were brushing our teeth.  “Imagine us, brushing our teeth in exotic foreign locales.”

            He stared at me in the mirror like I was an idiot.

            “What?” I complained.

            “You are terrible at convincing me to do things.”

            “Hold on, that is so not true,” I said, waving my toothbrush at him.  “I have convinced you to do so many things!  I am like the king of making you do things that you don’t want to do!”

            “How rapey of you.”

            I shrieked my indignation while Sasuke casually spit in the sink and rinsed his toothbrush.  He was halfway through flossing when I finally wound down.

            “I wasn’t being serious,” he said when I was quiet.

            I huffed and took the piece of floss he held out to me.  I had great teeth thanks to Sasuke.

            “Your lips are getting sunburned,” he hummed, thumbing along my bottom lip, which was cracked and dry.  “Here,” he said, finding some lip balm and smoothing it over my lips.  “You need to use some chapstick with SPF before you go outside in the morning.”

            I stared at him blankly.

            Sasuke sighed loudly.  “Okay, another thing for me to do for you every day.”

            “You take such good care of me,” I said, grinning at him.

            “God forbid I leave you to your own devices,” he muttered, cradling my cheek.

            I turned and kissed his palm.

            Sasuke smiled, a small flick at the corners of his mouth, then went back to his nightly skincare routine.

            I crawled into bed and was already dozing when Sasuke joined me.

            He kissed my bare shoulder and murmured, “I love you,” before settling in on his side of the bed.

            I rolled over, grinning.  “I love you, too.  So, vacation?”

            Sasuke groaned, his back to me.  “Why?”

            “I dunno, I just wanna do something.  With you.  Something… normal.  And nice.”

            “No.”

            “Sasukeeee,” I whined, curling my arm around his waist and burying my face in the back of his neck.

            “It’s too hot,” he complained, shoving me off.  “Go to sleep.”

            “Don’t be mean.”

            “I’m sorry,” he said, even though he didn’t sound it.  That was just his attempt at appeasing me.

            “Jerk,” I muttered, giving him an unsolicited spank.

            Sasuke looked back at me over his shoulder.

            “Night, love,” I said.

            “Good night,” he answered, stretching his neck until our lips touched.

            We went to sleep without any blankets in the June heat, so of course Sasuke woke up cold in the middle of the night and felt the need to use me as a blanket.

            I growled some nothings at him for waking me up, then curled around him and went back to sleep.

            As we were getting ready to train the next morning, I tried to think of a clever way to entice Sasuke into our vacation.

            Nothing was forthcoming.

            “Come,” he said, holding up a tube at me.

            “I’m not your dog,” I protested, going right up to him.

            “Yes, you are,” he said, briefly patting my head and scratching behind my ear.

            It felt really good.  I licked his nose.

            Sasuke’s whole face split into a huge smile, and I knew I was witnessing a rare phenomenon.  He coated my lips with whatever came out of the tube, his eyes still crinkled and the faintest blush dusting his cheeks.

            I pulled him in for a very serious kiss.  I then promptly pulled away with a stark realization.  “Holy shit, there are no kids here.  We can have sex anywhere!”

            Sasuke’s lip curled in disgust.

            “Hey, hey, what is that look for?!” I protested.  “When we lived in the apartment, you used to want to christen every available surface with X-rated activities.”

            “It is unsanitary,” he stated flatly, giving the kitchen counter that I was currently pinning him to a displeased look.

            “You’re not any fun in your old age,” I teased, kissing his neck.

            “Who the hell is old?” he growled, burying his fingers in my hair and tugging.  “You’re the one who can’t get it up.”

            I gave him a horrified look.  “That happened once.”

            “Once is enough.”

            “What about the months and months that you couldn’t-”

            “I am shocked and appalled that you would bring that up,” he said, staring at me evenly.

            “You are not,” I growled, giving his bottom lip a good nip.

            “Shocked and appalled,” he repeated, kissing me thoroughly.

            I melted into him, letting my brain go fuzzy.

            “I tolerate you,” he said, kissing the corner of my mouth.

            “I love you, too,” I said, squeezing his waist and swinging him around.

            “Stop that,” he said, smiling.

            I grinned and dropped my hands to his butt.

            “Where do you want to go for our vacation?” he asked, hands mirroring mine.

            “Wait, really?” I asked.  “You wanna go?”

            “What choice do I have?” he asked with a sigh.

            “You have all the choices,” I said.  “If you really don’t want to go…”

            “Where are we going?” he repeated.

            I couldn’t smile any harder.

            Sasuke traced the lines of my smile with his thumb, his whole expression softening.  His favorite thing in the world was making me miserable, but his second favorite thing was making me happy.

            “I adore you,” I informed him, squeezing his butt.

            He pulled on my cheek.

            “I was thinking we could go to Lightning?” I strained to speak as Sasuke continued stretching out my cheek.

            “Ugh, could we not?” Sasuke said, letting go.

            “I wanna see the kids,” I whined, kneading the muscles of his very firm butt.

            “They’re not kids anymore,” he pointed out.  “Enough,” he added, giving me a spank.

            I made an embarrassing noise.

            Sasuke smirked.  “Let’s go workout.”

            So we went into the desert and blew things up for a while, then we came home and started planning our dream vacation.

            “Kill me now,” Sasuke muttered as we finished checking into our first inn.

            “Baby!” I cried, aghast.  “You’re not even trying!”

            “Keep your voice down,” he growled.

            “Everyone’s already staring at us, so who cares?” I pointed out.

            “I care,” he said, grabbing me by the collar and dragging me to our room.

            That certainly caused a stir among the patrons who were pretending to not be gawking.

            He seemed happier once he had us safely locked in.  “I forgot how fucking annoying it is to travel with you.”

            “I can’t help it if everyone in the world vaguely recognizes me.”

            “I just love being your homosexual criminal sidekick, Naruto, I just love it so much.”

            “Oof, your sarcasm is burning like a katon.”

            Sasuke gave me a strange look.

            I grinned at him.  “Hey.  We’re here.  In an exotic foreign land.  Let’s enjoy it!”

            He sighed loudly, and I could see the stress in his shoulders.

            “Hey,” I said, coming up behind him and rubbing at the knot in his neck.

            “God I love your hands,” Sasuke mumbled, starting to relax.

            “Heh.”  I grinned and kissed at the little juncture behind his ear.

            Sasuke made a very sexy noise and let me drag him over to the bed.

            “Take off your shirt and lay down on your stomach,” I said, going to dig through the amenities in the bathroom.

            “Excuse you?” he said, trying to sound like he wasn’t going to do exactly what I told him.

            “I’m gonna give you a massage,” I explained.  I reappeared by the bed with some body oil.

            He was shirtless and on his stomach, though looking sulky about it.

            I kissed his lower back and moved up his spine.  I felt his vertebrae relax under my mouth, one-by-one.  If there was anything Sasuke liked almost as much as a blow job, it was a massage.  “Let me take care of you.”

            “Gross,” Sasuke muttered.

            He let me, though.

            I was starting to feel guilty about dragging Sasuke on our cross-country adventure.  Sometimes I just didn’t think things through.  He thought everyone was trying to kill him on the best of days.  His paranoia got worse when he was stressed.  Travelling from Suna to Lightning with a former hokage was probably fairly high on the Sasuke stress-o-meter.

            It had gotten better since I retired, but I was easily recognizable, and people felt like they knew me.  They wanted to talk to me or take a picture with me in the best case scenario.  They wanted to berate me or possibly try to inflict bodily harm on me in the worst case scenario.

            Being a hero was so much easier than being a politician.

            “Feeling better?” I hummed, digging my thumbs into his back.

            “God yes,” Sasuke groaned.

            I grinned.  “See?  Vacation is fun!”

            “You could have just done this at home,” he said, but his tone was light.

            “There’s no peach-scented body oil at home,” I explained.

            Sasuke let out that puff of air that was his version of a laugh.  “Well, thank god we came all the way here then.”

            “Mm,” I agreed.  “Let’s get some dinner.”

            “Five more minutes.”

            “You’re so spoiled,” I said, hands still moving.  I loved when he made those satisfied growls of his.

            Sasuke was complete jelly when I rolled him over on his back.  He reached up a floppy arm and pulled me into a cuddle.

            I basked, feeling happy and loved.

            “I’m hungry,” he finally said, pushing me away.

            “Whaddya wanna eat?” I asked, bouncing up cheerfully.  I felt reenergized.

            “Ramen,” he said abruptly.

            I grinned, watching his back as he pulled his shirt on.  “Okay, I know a good place near here.”

            We held hands as we walked, Sasuke always on my left.

            Of course there were stares and there was chatter.  Was it because we were gay?  Was it because they recognized me?  Did they recognize Sasuke?

            I tried to tune it out.  “I hate when you do that with your hair,” I said, gazing at Sasuke over a mouth full of ramen.

            He glared at me with his one visible eye.

            “You draw attention, even without your swirly freaky eye,” I said, concluding my meal with a slurp.  “You’re too damn good-looking.”

            “To you,” he said with a shrug.

            “Are you gonna pretend that you’re humble now?” I asked incredulously.

            “Is it working?”

            “Uh, no.”

            I could see the tension coming back into his shoulders.  I tried to smile at him, only to realize that his eyes were locked on two kunoichi across the room, staring at us.

            I reached across the table, taking his left hand.

            His eyes came back to mine.

            “Let’s go use the onsen,” I said.  “And then we can go back to the room… and ya know… enjoy each other’s company.”

            “I need a cigarette,” Sasuke muttered, picking up the check and going over to the cashier.

            “Nooooo,” I complained, following him.  Even as I was protesting, I felt that nicotine craving creeping up my spine.  “We don’t smoke anymore,” I said firmly.

            “You were smoking all last week,” Sasuke said, rolling his eyes at me.

            “What?!  How can you…  Where did you hear that?!”

            He leaned in close, lips whispering against my ear.  “All the cheap cologne in the world isn’t going to hide that smell.”

            I stuck out my lower lip.

            The two women were grinning and pointing at us.  At least they were fans.

            Sasuke paid the check, and we headed back towards the inn.

            I got distracted as Sasuke changed into his robe.

            “You’re too sexy to be bathing in public,” I said.

            Sasuke looked back at me over his shoulder, and goddamn if it wasn’t the sexiest thing I’d ever seen in my life.  “I’m too sexy for most things.”

            I cracked up.

            He came over to me, tracing the line of my chest visible in the openness of my robe.  “Hussy,” he said, pulling it closed.

            “We’re just gonna take them off to get in the bath, so…”

            He kissed me, hands still lingering at my collar.  “You’re so old,” he muttered.

            “You’re older!” I shrieked in protest.

            “I’m not graying,” he pointed out.

            “You can barely tell,” I complained.  I ran a hand through my hair self-consciously.

            Sasuke smiled softly.

            “Hey,” I said, circling my arms around his waist.  “When you start graying, it’s gonna be way more noticeable.”

            “Uchihas don’t gray.”

            “That cannot possibly be true.”

            “And yet there you are already going gray, and here I am with my perfectly black hair.”

            “There’s gotta be some white in there,” I said, standing on my toes so I could examine his scalp.  “Or you dye it!  You’re vain enough to!”

            Sasuke scoffed at that.  “Let’s go already.”

            We went to the baths, we washed up, and we finally sank into the steaming, soothing waters.

            “You done?” I asked Sasuke five minutes later.

            He stared at me.

            “What?” I whined.

            “You are like a child,” he informed me.  “Go do whatever you want, I’m going to relax here.”

            “But I wanna be with you…”

            “Well, I’m going to be here, taking a quiet bath.”

            “Fine,” I said, kicking my feet absently, making little ripples in the water.

            “You’re completely ruining this,” Sasuke said, his eyes closed.

            It wasn’t like I didn’t like taking long baths with Sasuke, it was just that usually those baths were in our private bathroom, and if I was really lucky they involved Sasuke sitting on my lap doing sexy things.  “How much longer?” I asked, pawing at his arm.

            “Thirty minutes.”

            I sighed.

            “Go,” he said, opening his eyes.

            “Go where?”

            “What do you want to do on this exotic vacation of yours?”

            “Mm, that’s a good question,” I said.  “Thirty minutes?”

            “Yes.”

            “Can I get a drink?” I asked, giving him puppy eyes.

            “Are you going to be a good boy and not do anything stupid?”

            “Probably.”

            “Stirring words of confidence,” Sasuke said, standing up.  “I’m going to the outside bath.  You do whatever you want.”

            “So you won’t be mad if I have a drink?” I asked, following him towards the outside door.

            “I won’t be mad.”

            “Pinkie swear?”

            He looked at me like I was an idiot, linked his pinkie with mine, then abruptly opened the outside door and left.

            I went inside to change, ready for the bar.

            We didn’t keep alcohol in our house, and there was rarely a reason to go out for drinks.

            Also, Sasuke said I had a drinking problem, in that whenever I drank I always became even stupider than he had previously believed me to be.  Not to mention he didn’t like when I got him all riled up only to pass out dead asleep.

            Anyway, I rarely drank.

            Which is why two beers in I was already tipsy.

            “This is some Sasuke-level one beer queerness,” I muttered to myself.

            “Are you talking to yourself?” a woman asked, giving me a friendly smile as she sauntered up to me.

            “I’m a little drunk,” I said with a nod.

            “Drinking alone?”

            “Are you flirting with me?” I asked, squinting at her.

            “I don’t think we’ve gotten quite that far yet,” she said, smiling easily.

            “Sorry, my partner gets mad when I’m oblivious to flirting,” I explained.

            “The jealous type?” she asked.  She took the stool next to me.

            “Pretends not to be, but insanely so,” I agreed.

            She signaled the bartender for a drink, then tapped the ring on my finger.  “How long have you been married?”

            “Forever,” I said dreamily.

            Her smile widened.  “Have we met?  I feel like I’ve seen you somewhere before.”

            “Just one of those faces,” I said, waving her off with my beer glass before taking a long drink.

            “I could swear… anyway, I’m Nora.”

            “Mysterious Drunk Man,” I said, shaking her hand.  “MDM for short.”

            Nora was an excellent drinking partner, and we quickly became new best friends.

            “Why am I not surprised?”

            I almost fell off of my barstool.

            “Holy shit, is that your husband?” Nora breathed.

            Sasuke ignored her, staring at me.  “You know, it’s been an hour.”

            “Has it?” I asked, genuinely startled by the revelation.  “What took you so long?”

            “Nothing took me long, I just figured you’d come stalking after me the second thirty minutes was up.”

            “See, I woulda, but… mm, I forgot.”

            Sasuke stared.

            “I’m a little drunk,” I confided in him.

            “I can see that.”

            “But you pinkie swore, so you’re not mad, right?”

            “Of course I’m not mad.”

            “Oh my god, he’s so mad,” Nora stage-whispered to me.

            “Don’t worry about it,” I said, shaking my head.

            Sasuke stared some more, then turned to leave.

            “Hey, come have a drink with us,” I whined.

            He gave me the most withering look possible.

            “Uh, I meant you could have a… soda… or something…”

            “When have I ever drunk a soda?”

            “We’re on vacation.  You’re Vacation Sasuke.  I don’t know what you get up to.”

            “I am going back to the room.”

            “Wait, wait, we’re gonna play poker,” I said.

            My baby looked like he had a headache.

            I poked at the wrinkle in his brow.

            “You’re terrible at gambling,” he said.

            “Yeah, but it’s just gonna be a casual thing, so… hey, those are your hands!”

            Sasuke pulled my wallet out of my pocket it, opened it, removed several bills, then returned it.  “Idiot,” he said.  Then he turned to Nora.  “You scam him too much and you will pay for it.”

            Nora seemed to want to protest, but Sasuke was already gone.

            “You’re gonna scam me?” I asked, batting my eyes at her.

            “Well, you’re real sloshed, so I’m thinking it should be pretty easy to beat you at poker,” she said, nodding.

            “You’re drunk too,” I said, squinting at her.

            “Oh.  Damn.  This plan has gone horribly awry.”

            I dug through my wallet to pay off my tab.

            “You gonna come to the game, or do you need to go save your marriage?” she asked.  She stood up, ready to leave.

            “He’s not mad, he pinkie swore,” I said, stumbling after her.

            Nora’s ‘big’ poker game was in the bar next to the hotel.  There were four women sitting in a booth, and they eagerly welcomed us into the game.  They were not so drunk, and seemed to enjoy taking me and Nora’s money.

            Sasuke hadn’t left me with much to gamble with, and I found myself sitting in my boxer shorts with not much else to lose.

            I didn’t really mind, though.  It was nice, drinking and laughing with normal people who didn’t call me ‘hokage-sama’ and who didn’t have all kinds of preconceived ideas about me.

            “I cannot believe you.”

            I sat up with a jerk, having been just about to fall asleep in the middle of a game.

            Sasuke pulled a chair up next to me, taking my cards.

            “Hi,” I said.  I grinned and wrapped my arms around his waist.  It was getting cold in this bar.

            “What the hell are you even betting this round?” Sasuke groused at me.

            “My boxers.”

            “And you call me a stripper,” he muttered.  He handed two cards to the dealer and got two new ones.

            “So you’re MDM’s husband,” the dealer, Momo, said.

            “What the fuck is an MDM?” Sasuke asked.

            “The blond thing that’s clinging to you,” Nora said, cracking up.

            “My Dumb Meathead?” he asked, running his fingers through my hair.

            “I am yours,” I agreed dreamily.

            He shook his head and raised with real money instead of his clothes.

            “’S cold,” I mumbled.

            “That’s what you get,” he replied, tucking me more comfortably into his arm.  “Go back to sleep.”

            “Mmkay,” I hummed, closing my eyes.

            I woke up to my clothes and a pile of cash.

            “And that is how it’s done,” Sasuke said, smirking.

            The women were all looking at him in various states of a horror, admiration, and arousal.

            “Let’s go,” he said, hauling me to my feet.

            “Thanks for the nice game,” I said, waving to everyone.

            “Thanks for the peep show,” Nora said with a grin.

            Sasuke pulled me more forcefully along.

            “Sas’, I gotta ask,” I said as he locked our room door behind us.  “Did you use your cheating eyes to win all this?”

            “Obviously,” he said, throwing the cash in the air and making it rain.

            “You can’t just… do… that…” I tried, getting distracted by all the flying money.

            “I told that woman not to take advantage of you,” he said dismissively.  “That’s what she gets for picking up random strangers at bars.”

            “So you were jealous,” I said, grinning.

            “Jealous of what?” he asked, rolling his eyes.

            I flopped on the bed.  “You loooove me.”

            “God help me, I do,” he muttered, fussing my shoes off.

            “Come have sexy times,” I said.  I held my arms out to him.

            “Because you definitely won’t fall asleep in the middle of it,” he muttered.  He changed back into his robe before climbing on top of me and giving me a very chaste kiss.  Then he rolled us over and cuddled me to his chest.

            I snuggled into him, feeling very happy and floaty.  “That was really fun, though.”

            “Losing all your money and being sexually objectified?”

            “No…” I mumbled.  “Wait, sexually objugated?”

            “Did you miss the part where those women were having you strip naked for their visual enticement?”

            “I just ran out of money and had nothing else to wager.”

            Sasuke sighed loudly.

            “What?”

            “Do you still not realize how attractive you are?”

            “I’m attractive?!” I cried, sitting up suddenly.

            He rolled his eyes.  “Obviously.”

            “You think I’m attractive?!”

            “Shut up, idiot,” he said, pulling me back into his arms.  “You’re sexy as fuck,” he muttered into my hair.

            I chewed on my lip to keep from saying something dumb, and just reveled in my honey thinking I was sexy as fuck.

            “Are you sleeping?” Sasuke finally asked.

            “Kinda,” I mumbled.

            “Do you feel better?”

            “Hm?”

            “About Erika.”

            “Whaddya mean?”

            “That’s what all this has been about, right?  The spontaneous vacation?”

            I blinked up at him with bleary eyes.  “I thought you were sad.  So I wanted to distract you.”

            “Oh, yes, I’m so sad that I don’t have to wake up every two hours to feed a screaming baby while you sleep through it like a moron.”

            “Stop being mean,” I complained, pawing at his chest.

            Sasuke scowled.

            “You are upset,” I pointed out, and he scowled harder.  “And I am, too.  It was… it was really nice raising a kid with you.”

            “We’ve raised like thirty kids,” he muttered.

            “Yeah, but not a baby.”

            “You really want to have a baby, don’t you?” he asked with a sigh.

            “W-what?”

            “It’s not going to happen.”

            “I’m not asking.”

            “Okay then.”

            “…it’d be kinda cool, though.”

            “Yeah, dude, so cool.”

            “I hate when you do that, it’s creepy,” I complained.

            Sasuke ran his fingers through my hair.  “I’m sure we can find half a dozen kids to bring home before we’re done with this vacation.”

            “You think so?”

            “If you’re involved, I know so.”

            “Mmkay, it’s a promise,” I murmured, starting to feel the pull of alcohol and sleep.

            “I wasn’t…” Sasuke tried to protest, then just gave up.  “Yeah, okay.  We’ll find lots of new brats to fill up our house and eat our food.”

            “Okay, babycakes,” I hummed into his chest.

            Sasuke went off at that, but I was already asleep.

            We only ended up finding one orphan on the way home, which was just as well because it meant that most kids in the world were safe and happy and didn’t need us.

Chapter Text

            I woke up with a start, feeling out of place.

            “Hey,” came Naruto’s low voice, the familiar feeling of his fingers stroking my hair.

            “You’re still awake?” I murmured, voice still laced with sleep.  I felt the stickiness of his chest under my cheek, heard the soothing thump of his heartbeat.

            “Mm, just kinda savoring the moment.”

            “Gay,” I muttered.

            “Completely,” he agreed.

            I slithered up a little higher and pressed my lips to his.  “We’re disgusting.”

            “You always know how to turn me on,” he said, grinning as he traced a finger down my cheek.

            “Well, we are,” I said.  “Why did you let me go to sleep like this?”

            “You seemed tired,” he said, getting a cute little smirk.  He took so much pride in his meager sexual accomplishments.

            “Not too tired to take a damn shower,” I complained.  “There’s jizz everywhere.”

            Naruto snorted and hugged me closer.

            “You’re making it worse,” I growled.

            “Do you want to get up?”

            “…no.”

            He smiled into my cheek.

            I settled back in against his chest.

            Naruto kissed the top of my head and started stroking his fingers up and down my spine.  “Did you have a nice birthday?”

            I frowned and didn’t answer.

            He laughed.  “I didn’t even make a joke about you being old, so I don’t see what you’re being sour about.  It was a genuine question.”

            I bit him just to prove how not sour I was.

            “Jerk,” he said with a grin.  “Old jerk.”

            “You’re only three months younger,” I hissed.

            “Doesn’t change the fact that you’re in your forties and I’m not, ha!”

            I growled at him, but there wasn’t much bite to it.  I mostly just felt relaxed and sleepy.

            “I’m really happy,” he said quietly.

            I nosed at his skin, silently communicating my own contentment.

            “I love you so much.”

            “Do you have to get so emotional about it?”

            “Yes, I do!”

            I groaned, sitting up.

            “What?” he asked defensively.

            “Come here.”

            He blinked up at me slowly.

            “We’re already filthy.”

            His mouth cracked into a grin and he sat up quickly, catching my face in his hands.

            It was slow and lazy.  I pushed my fingers into his ash-colored hair, the silver lines more obvious in the moonlight.  His eyes were shut, his face squinched in concentration.  He looked ridiculous, like usual.  “Naruto,” I murmured, and his eyes slid open for me.  I looked at his stupid face, and I couldn’t help but whisper, “I want to grow old with you.”

            The look on his face got stupider.

            “Don’t,” I threatened.

            “I’m not,” he muttered, burying his wet eyes in my shoulder.  “I’m not,” he repeated more sternly, taking control.

            Nothing else needed to be said.

Chapter Text

            Sasuke was in a mood.

            After being yelled at for about the hundredth time that day, this time for folding the laundry ‘wrong’, I had had just about enough.

            “Why the hell does it matter if I fold the shirt in half first or if I fold in the sleeves first?!” I snapped.

            “Because it’s fucking wrong is fucking why!” Sasuke snarled, throwing a shirt at my head.

            It hurt more than I expected a flimsy piece of fabric to hurt.  “Then do it yourself!” I yelled, taking the shirt from my head and throwing it back at him.

            “I ask you to do one fucking thing…” he growled.  He took all the clothes that I’d already folded and threw them around the room.

            I stared at him.  Sure, Sasuke was a drama queen, but this was really an overreaction.

            “Why is our laundry all over the floor?” Mari asked, coming into the room.

            “Don’t ask,” I said, shooing her away.

            Mari gave me a wary look but went.

            “Sasuke, love, is everything okay?” I asked carefully.

            “Just wonderful, Naruto, thanks for asking,” he said.  “I’m married to a fucking moron who can’t even fold laundry.”

            “Okay…” I trailed off.  “Do you want me to-”

            “Just get out of here!” he yelled.

           I tried to read the situation.  Either I should leave and give him space, or I should stay because he needed me.  Get it wrong and things would be very unpleasant in the Uchimaki household.

            “This isn’t about laundry,” I finally said.

            “Oh, it’s not?” Sasuke said.  “Is it about one of the five hundred other simple tasks that I asked you to do that you failed at miserably?”

            “No, I don’t think it’s about that either,” I said thoughtfully.

            “Then what is it?” Sasuke growled.  “Please, enlighten me, since you seem to know everything.”

            “I think you need to get laid,” I said with a shrug.

            Sasuke stared at me incredulously for a moment, then suddenly moved up the staircase.  He paused at the top, looking at me expectantly.

            I scampered up after him, locking the bedroom door behind me.

            It quickly became apparent that I had taken the wrong course of action, because that look in Sasuke’s eyes could only mean one thing.

            “Undress,” he growled.

            “I’m not a piece of meat,” I informed him.

            “You are today.”

            “You make me feel so objectified,” I complained as I peeled my shirt over my head.

            Sasuke didn’t answer, just stared me down until I was completely naked.

            “You gonna join me?” I asked.  I smiled invitingly.

            “Get on your hands and knees.”

            “This is so romantic,” I said, rolling my eyes.  I still did what I was told, though.

            The sound of Sasuke’s zipper sliding down ripped through the air, and then he was pressing against me, suddenly ready to go.

            “Oh, heck no!” I said, skittering away.  “Lube, asshole.  LUBE.”

            He muttered something about pussy bitches, but he stopped and went to dig through the drawer.

            “I’m not even hard,” I complained.

            “That’s your problem,” Sasuke said, prodding me with a cold finger.

            “Ugh, you suck at this.”

            He prodded me more harshly.

            “Ow!”

            “Like this one little finger even hurts.”

            “It does when you just jam it in like that!”

            “You are such a loser.”

            I sighed, pulling a pillow from the top of the bed and burying my face in it.  It was best to just let Sasuke get his biennial topping desire out of his system.  There was that one time like ten years ago that it was actually good, so there was an off chance that I might enjoy myself.

           But this wasn’t about me, it was about Sasuke working through something, and I wanted to help him do that.

            “That’s good enough,” he said, moving to push into me.

            “No, it most certainly is not!” I snapped, turning to face him.  I wanted to help him, but I still had some self-respect and self-preservation in tact.

            He looked so annoyed, and it would have been precious if he wasn’t trying to stick his barely-lubed dick inside of me.

            “Give me the lube,” I said, fumbling for it.

            Sasuke looked even more annoyed.

            I pacified him with my mouth.

            Which seemed like a good idea until he got a good grip on my hair and started abusing my scalp.

            I came up for air.  “You are terrible at sex.”

            “I don’t want to hear that from you,” he growled, like it was an accusation.

            “Because I’m so great?” I said, grinning at him.  I had long since gotten over his constant barbs about my sexual performance.  I made Uchiha Sasuke come on a regular basis; therefore I was a Sex God.

            “Don’t get smart,” he muttered, gripping me by the chin.

            The grip turned bruising, and I found my mouth opening for him.

            I wasn’t a very good multi-tasker without my clones, but I got myself ready enough before my bossy partner decided that he’d had enough with the foreplay and was ready for the main course.

            I found myself tossed on my stomach with Sasuke’s body pressing up against me from behind.

            “You’re not going to use a condom?” I asked incredulously.  Sasuke did not like messes.

            “No,” was all he said before pushing in.

            My fussy priss of a partner had not so much as made sure that I was clean down there.  A little alarm bell started ringing in the back of my head, but I was distracted by how incredibly uncomfortable it was having something shoved in and out of your butt.  It always made me feel like I had to poop.  “This isn’t a good angle,” I informed him.

            Sasuke did not seem to care, already grunting his way to a climax.

            I sighed as he pulled out, flopping my arm around for a towel from the nightstand that I could roll onto.

            Sasuke lit a cigarette and passed it to me.

            I would have scolded him, but I was the one who bought the pack.  I took a puff and passed it back to him.

            “You didn’t come,” he observed.

            “Yes, well, you know, people need actual stimulation to come.”

            “Are you complaining about something?”

            “No, sir, of course not.”

            Sasuke frowned at me.

            “Feeling better?” I asked.

            Judging by the glare he sent in my direction, he was not.

            I shifted uncomfortably and rolled back onto my stomach.

            Sasuke finished his cigarette, eyes flicking up and down my body.

            “Please do not tell me that you think we’re going to do that again,” I said, making a face.

            “Why not?” he asked, a furrow in his brow.

            “Because my tushie can’t take anymore,” I informed him.

            “My tushie takes a lot more than that.”

            “Okay, but you’re big,” I said, holding my hands up for scale.

            Sasuke smirked at that.

            “And did I mention how I didn’t even come?”

            “What if I make you come this time?”

            “Like I’d fall for that.”

            “I can make you come,” Sasuke said with a frown.

            “You don’t have to make it sound like such a chore.”

            “It’s not a chore.”

            “Then why do I have to remind you to do it?”

            He gave me an annoyed look.

            “Can we just do it the normal way?” I requested.

            “And what the hell is the normal way?” he growled at me.

            I sat up and grinned, patting my lap.  “You right here, screaming my name?”

            “Oh, so we’re talking about delusions.”

            “Baby,” I whined.

            He gave me a long, assessing look before sliding onto my lap.

            I kissed his cheek and let my hands settle happily on his posterior.

            Sasuke stared at me.  He looked… unhappy.

            “Baby, what’s wrong?” I murmured, nudging his nose with mine.  “Talk to me.”

            “Nothing’s wrong,” he muttered, shoving me on my back.

           I looked up at him as he peeled off his shirt.  I ran my hands up his sides, enjoying the feel of his strong body.

            “Get on with it.”

            “What am I supposed to be getting on with?” I asked, thumbing over his ribs.

            “Assertions were made about name-screaming.”

            “I need a little time-”

            “Now.”

            “You’re so bossy,” I complained, but to be honest, I liked being bossed around.

            “You’re just passive,” he replied, lifting his hips and sliding off his pants.

            “I see you’ve chosen to go commando today,” I said, grinning.

            He kicked the pants in my face.

            I flailed at them until they were off me, then surged up to kiss him.

            Sasuke returned the kiss with savagery, biting into my lip until it bled.

            I tried to protest, but then he was lapping up the blood with his tongue, making me shiver.            He started grinding against me, his hands running senselessly through my hair.

            I tried to get things back under control, catching him by the back if his head and digging my fingers into his scalp.

            That only riled him up more.

            Things were starting to happen, sensations blurring together in a frenzy.

            Sasuke whimpered, begging into my mouth.  His hips rocked and pressed against me insistently.  “Please,” he panted.  “Please, please, Naruto, fuck me, god, please, fuck me…”  The words were foreign on his lips, things he never let himself say, but he was lost in desperation.

            “Baby, hey,” I said, catching his face in my hands.

            He tried to keep going.

            “Baby.  Sasuke.  Stop.  What’s going on?”

            “Please,” he whimpered, clawing at me.

            I had read this completely wrong.  I should have known, I should have seen it right from the ridiculous laundry incident.  But I hadn’t.  I’d made things worse, like usual.

            Sasuke was suddenly hysterical.

            I held him with my strongest grip, infusing my arms with chakra as I rocked him back and forth.  “Sasuke, come on.  Hey.  Come on.  I’ve got you.”

            His words didn’t sound like words anymore, just jumbled nonsense being screamed as he tried to escape my hold.

            “I’ve got you,” I murmured, struggling not to let him go.  “Shhhh.  I’m here.  I’m here, love, okay?  Shhhhh.”

            When he was no longer trying to break my arm, I laid us both down on the bed.  I brushed his sweaty bangs from his eyes, kissing his forehead.

            “Naruto, please,” he whispered, his voice scratchy.  “I need to feel something.”

            “Just feel loved,” I said, kissing his forehead again.  “Because you are.”

            I got a smack in the side of the head for that one.  “Don’t say stupid things.”

            “Are you saying that me loving you is stupid?” I complained.

            “Yes.  Of course I am.  Why the fuck do you love me, you moron?”

            He was getting upset again, so I didn’t say anything, just stroked his hair and kept my lips against his skin.

            “What is wrong with me?” he finally whispered.

            I was at a loss.  I pulled him closer and let him bury his face in my chest.

            “Fuck,” he hissed, clinging onto me.

            This was what I signed up for.  I knew that, but it didn’t make it easier.  It just came out of nowhere sometimes, and suddenly we were in crisis.  It was like no good moment could ever just be good, like…

            I felt the wet pinpricks against my skin and my heart broke.  “Sasuke, I love you,” I asserted into his hair.  “I love you so much.  I wish I could take all your pain and carry it for you.”

            “Stop,” he muttered, shaking his head.  “You can’t…  Just stop that.  You know it only makes things worse.”

            I felt a twist in my gut.  That was how things got like this.  Sasuke was selfish, and I let him be because I thought it would help.

            It never helped.

            Sasuke finally lifted his head to look at me.  His lips moved like he wanted to say something, but no sound came out.

            I cradled his cheek and shook my head.  “We’ll go see Maiko this week.”

            “I have an appointment in two weeks.”

            I looked at him.  “I’m sure she can fit you in sooner.”

            “Fine,” he muttered, looking down.

            We were both quiet again.

            Sasuke hid his face back in my chest, and I had the feeling he was embarrassed.

            “Sasuke.”

            He didn’t so much as twitch.

            I sighed and patted his back.  An amount of time passed that was probably an eternity, and I started to feel restless.  I’d had a lot of buildup and not a lot of release.  In fact, I hadn’t had any release.  I scratched idly behind Sasuke’s ear, and his cheek rubbed against me almost imperceptibly.  I started to smile.

            Sasuke liked to call me his dog in a way that was intended to be an insult, but he was definitely my cat.

            “Hey, pretty kitty,” I hummed, rubbing at the most sensitive spot behind his ear until he finally swatted at me to get me to stop.

            He looked up at me, eyes searching.  “How’s your… tushie?” he finally said.

            The amount of disdain that he could put into one word was exhilarating.  “A little sore, but healing,” I said, giving him a friendly spank to illustrate my pain.

            The glare he gave me told me that he was okay now.

            “I’m sorry,” I offered quietly.

            “Why are you apologizing?” he grumbled.

            “Because I shouldn’t just let you treat me like garbage.”

            Sasuke gave me a funny look, but the hurt was clear in his eyes.  “Then why are you apologizing?” he managed to bite out.

            “Because I’m supposed to be the sensible one in this relationship,” I teased, flicking his forehead.

            He was not appeased.

            “Stop thinking stupid things,” I said, sitting up and pulling him into a hug.

             “I don’t mean to hurt you,” he muttered, looking away.

            “You do a little bit.”

            “Well you like being hurt.”

            “Not in the tushie.”

            “Please stop using that word.”

            “You’re the one who keeps bringing it back up!”

            “I’m not…  Ugh,” he muttered, getting up.  “You should take a shower.”

            “Later,” I said.  “Can we talk?”

            “Isn’t that what we’re doing?”

            “Sasuke.”

            “What do you want to talk about, Naruto?”

            “I want you to tell me what’s wrong.”

            “I would tell you if I knew,” he said, clearly frustrated as he sat next to me again.

             “So it’s not something I did?” I asked quietly.

            “Why do you always think that?” Sasuke answered with a sigh.

            “Because you started hurling things at me and screaming about how I can’t perform simple tasks.”

            He swallowed.

            I waited.

            “I think I’m falling apart,” he finally confessed.

            “Okay,” I said.  “Okay.  Okay.  What can I do?”

            “I don’t know yet.”

            “Well, I’m here,” I said, putting my hand on his shoulder.  “You know I’m here.”

            “Aren’t you tired of being here?” he asked.  He sounded cold and hard, but there was something fragile about the question.

            “Yeah, I get tired,” I admitted.  “You frustrate me beyond belief.  You’re completely selfish and you never think about me at all.  Until you do.”

            “I’m trying,” he mumbled.

            “You’re always trying, Sas’, but you know…” I trailed off.  I realized that I was actually pretty pissed and just bottling it up.  “I’m feeling a little angry,” I finally said.

            Sasuke was quiet.

            “I’m gonna go clean up and work out,” I said, messing up his hair.  “Can I send Mari to you?”

            He scowled, fussing his hair back into place.  “I guess.”

            “Okay, don’t be an asshole to her,” I warned, getting up.

            “When am I an asshole to her?”

            “You’re an asshole to everyone.”

            His frown deepened.

            “Yeah, I’m definitely having anger issues,” I said, shaking my head.  “I’m gonna go before I say something stupid.”  I threw on some clothes and came back to the bed, cradling his cheek in my hand.

            Sasuke turned into it and kissed my palm.  “I’m sorry,” he conceded quietly.  “Let’s go see Maiko together tomorrow.”

            “Of course,” I said, tapping his cheek with my fingers before pulling away.  “Let me clear my head, okay?”

            He nodded.

            I heard a mumbled, “I love you,” as I was closing the door.

            “I love you, too,” I whispered to the hallway like a reflex.

            Mari was in the living room, surrounded by scrolls.  The laundry had all been picked up and refolded.

            “If you’re not busy, go bug Sasuke,” I said to her before heading into the bath.

            “How bad is he?” she called after me.

            “I dunno, a six!” I called back through the bathroom door.  We had developed a ten-point scale of Sasuke’s Health and Mental Well-Being.

            “Why are you taking a bath in the middle of the day?” she asked, suddenly suspicious.

            I finished shucking off, my clothes, pretending that I couldn’t hear her.

            “Were you having sex?!” she demanded.  “When he’s a six?!”

            “I didn’t know he was a six!” I protested.

            “You’re a beast!” was Mari’s parting shot.

            I sighed and started washing up.

            She wasn’t wrong.

            I brushed soap over the yellowing bruises on my hips.  The skin was still tender to the touch, but they would be gone by the end of the day.

            I wasn’t really angry with Sasuke.  That was the problem.  I never got angry with him, I was always angry with myself.  I felt the familiar rage bubbling in the pit of my stomach, and I tried to push it away, aim it at Sasuke, aim it Mari, aim it at anyone.  If I didn’t, it might burn me alive.

            It just felt like all I ever did was make things worse.

            “Naruto?”

            I realized my hands were shaking.  “Yeah?”

            “May I come in?” Juugo asked.

            “Uh, sure,” I said.

            The door to the changing area opened, and then Juugo pulled open the door to the shower.  “I wanted to wash up after training, if you don’t mind.”

            “The more, the merrier,” I said, gesturing around me.

            Juugo undressed before settling on the seat next to me, and I immediately felt calmer.  He was a like a giant human stress-reliever.

            We washed up quietly.

            “Is everything all right?” he finally asked.

            “Sas’ is having a bit of a day,” I said, trying to sound nonchalant.

            “But how are you?”

            “Stressed.  Worried.”

            He nodded.  “Stop trying to fix him.”

            “I know.”

            Juugo patted me on the shoulder.  “You know, but you just can’t help yourself.  Sasuke’s mental well-being is not dependent on you or anything that you do, so stop putting that pressure on yourself.”

            “I know,” I repeated with a sigh.

            “And letting him do whatever he thinks he wants to do…”

            I stared at the tile floor, my vision blurring.

            Juugo studied my face for a moment.  “There’s going to be a meteor shower tonight.  We should go for a walk.”

            “Oh, that sounds kinda cool,” I said, perking up a little despite my complete and utter depression.

            We set off after dinner.  I had a kid on each shoulder, which was probably going to be hell on my back when I woke up the next morning.  We walked through the sand, the moon the only light to guide us to our little oasis.

            Juugo started a fire and the kids huddled around it, roasting marshmallows.

            Sasuke had spent the walk by himself, but now he came over and sat next to me.  “Look,” he said quietly.

            I looked up, but it took a moment before I spotted a couple of lights streaking through the sky.  I smiled at him, opening up the blanket I had around my shoulders and letting him slide in.

            “I don’t see nothin’,” Kabo complained, plopping on my lap.

            “Give it time,” I said.  “Look, there’s one!”

            Kabo watched for a while, then jumped off of me to go play with the other kids.

            Sasuke rested his head against mine.  “I’m sorry.”

            “For stealing all my warmth?”

            “You’re a fucking furnace, you can afford to share.”

            “It’s cold in the desert.”

            “Naruto.”

            “Sasuke.”

            “I’m sorry,” he repeated, pausing.  He took a breath.  “I think things are going to get bad.”

            “Why do you think that?” I asked, rolling the words slowly over my tongue.  I wanted to rush to argue with him, to say he was just being negative, to protest that everything would be fine, but that never worked.

            “I feel like I’m drowning,” he said, speaking in my ear so only I could hear him.  “I need.  I fucking need.  I can’t get it out from under my skin.”

            I closed my eyes for a moment.  “I’m here, baby,” I said.

            “Yeah,” he said, moving his lips from my ear to my temple.  “But you need to deal with your own shit, love.  I’ll deal with mine.”

            “You are my shit,” I protested.

            Sasuke stared at me, then broke into an incredulous smile.

            “I meant it in a nice way, not that you’re my actual fecal matter.”

            “Stop talking.”

            “Biologically impossible.”

            “You are ridiculous,” he murmured, getting up.  “Rekka, get off of Kabo before I take you off of him.”

            Rekka skittered away from her brother whom she had been harassing, looking guilty.

            Kabo stuck his tongue out at her, but immediately retracted it at the look Sasuke gave him.

            “Look!” Mina cried, pointing to the sky.

            We all looked up.

            The sky was filled with meteors now, flashes of light streaking through the sky in endless succession.

            Rekka climbed up me like I was a tree and sat on my shoulders.  She grinned down at me before directing her eyes back to the sky.

            Juugo handed me a marshmallow on a stick.

            I took it, eyes lingering on his.  “Thanks, Juugo.  This is amazing.”

            “Nature is truly awe-inspiring,” he agreed, reaching out his arm and catching Kabo before he fell into the fire trying to rescue his fallen marshmallow.

            I ate my own marshmallow and decided that even when things were falling apart, there were still so many reasons to find joy in living.

            I looked at Sasuke, and I thought maybe he was thinking the same thing.

Chapter Text

            I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t think, I couldn’t be.  I screamed into the empty desert, but nothing changed.  I dropped to my knees, clutching my head in my hands.

            Nothing could take this pain away.

            Nothing could take this pain away.

            Something could take this pain away.

            I started to run.

            It all seemed so easy.  I went beyond Suna.  I kept going, now driven by a purpose.

            The shop was small, in a middle-of-nowhere town where no one knew me.

            The shopkeeper handed me the paper bag with a smile.

            She had no idea.

            I took it back into the desert and I stared at it.  It looked so ordinary, just a glass bottle with clear liquid.

            I couldn’t do this.

            I couldn’t do this.

            I had to do this.

            I opened the bottle.

            “I’m not an alcoholic,” I confided to the ghosts floating around me.  “I never hurt anyone when I’m drinking.”

            ‘Except yourself,’ my mother said, shaking her head solemnly.

            ‘Sasuke, what are you doing?!’ Naruto cried, catching me before I could fall off of the ledge.

            I just laughed until I cried.

            ‘When you drink so much you get sick, you’re doing it wrong,’ Karin said, rolling her eyes as she cleaned me up.

            Karin, screaming, crying, terrified.

            But that wasn’t because of the alcohol.

            Karin, backing into the wall.  ‘I just wanted you to get help.’

            “I don’t need help!” I screamed, fire burning through my hands as I reached for her throat.

            ‘I just wanted you to get help.’

            “I don’t need help!”

            ‘I just wanted you to get help.’

            “I don’t need help!”

            Her neck, burned and scarred.  Because of me.  Because I was a monster.

            ‘Why didn’t you save me?’ Koneko whispered, brown eyes staring up at me without blinking.

            “I tried.”

            ‘What good is your useless trying?’ she asked sweetly.  ‘I’m dead because of you.’

            “I know.”

            ‘They wouldn’t have attacked our apartment if you weren’t-”

            “I know.”

            ‘And Grandfather and I wouldn’t have gone outside if you hadn’t-’

            “I know!”

            ‘I just wanted you to get help,’ Karin whispered, clutching at her throat as the burn spread, creeping along her skin until there was nothing left.

            Koneko stared at me with her dead eyes.

            “I want things to be quiet again,” I begged them.

            They both laughed.

            Karin opened the bottle and tipped it to my lips.

            It was a relief.

            It was torture.

            I hated myself for doing it.

            I did it some more.

            I just needed everyone to be quiet for a little while.  If it was quiet, then I could straighten things out, get my head sorted.  That was all.

            I drank until everything was funny.

            My mommy held my head in her lap, stroking my hair while she hummed.

            I felt warm inside.

            But I kept drinking until it burned.

            I felt him coming then, a torrent of chakra whipping through the desert.

            I sent him a warning, a spike in my own chakra.

            He stopped, but I could feel him lingering on the periphery.

            I just didn’t have the energy to deal with him.  This wasn’t about him.

            It was nighttime now, and it was cold.  I made a fire, but the heat was shallow.

            I threw up again.

            The bottle was empty, so I slept.

            I woke up as the sun started to rise.  I was wrapped in a blanket, my back warmed by the strong chest it was pressed against.

            “You’re not dead,” Juugo said.  There was no humor to it.  It was an observation.

            “I’m not?” I groaned.  My head was pounding so loudly I could barely hear the words as I spoke them.

            “Not for a lack of trying,” he said.  “You could have frozen out here.”

            “It doesn’t matter.”

            “Of course it matters.”

            I didn’t bother arguing with him.

            “Come home,” he said softly.

            “No.”

            “Sasuke.”

            “I’m not right.  You know this.  I can’t put the kids at risk.  I’m not right.”

            “We will get you help.”

            “I don’t want help!”

            Juugo’s grip around me got crushing.

            “I’m such a fuckup,” I whispered, dissolving into tears.  It made my head hurt even more.  It made everything hurt more.  I hated crying, I hated being at a loss, I hated being out of control, I hated drinking, I hated myself.

            “Stop.”

            “I can’t,” I whimpered.

            “Sasuke,” Juugo whispered, turning me around and hugging me tightly.

            He wasn’t like Naruto.  He didn’t say things he knew I couldn’t handle hearing.  He didn’t say how I was all that was holding him together sometimes, how he didn’t know what he would do if I went insane again.

            He didn’t have to say it because I already knew.

            Juugo was struggling.  We all had our own demons to face.

            “I can’t be strong for you,” I whispered into his shoulder.

            “I’m not asking you to be.”

            “I can’t do this anymore.”

            “Do what, Sasuke, do what?”

            “It all hurts so much.  It doesn’t stop.  They don’t go away.”

            He was holding me so tightly it was getting hard to breathe.

            For a moment, it felt good.

            “Juugo, I’m drowning,” I choked out.

            “Let me be here for you,” he pleaded.

          “I don’t know how to fix this, I’m broken, my head is broken, I can’t… how can anyone fix me, I’m broken.”

            Juugo stayed with me until the sun was high in the sky.

            It was hot now, but I stayed wrapped in the blanket.

            Juugo just waited, ignoring the sun beating on his skin.

            I took a breath and stood up.

            His eyes followed me.

            “I have to talk to him.”

            Juugo nodded.

            I called him to me, and Juugo started to walk away, but I motioned him to stop.

            It didn’t take Naruto long to arrive, full of panic and anger and hurt.

            My chest felt like it was caving in.

            He started to panic more, then seemed to draw on some inner sense of calm, going still.  He stopped himself from touching me and just waited.

            I anchored myself in Naruto’s calm, in Juugo’s calm, in the quiet of the desert.  “I need help,” I said.  “I… I think I need some… medication…”

            Naruto just nodded his head rapidly, keeping his mouth shut.

            “Whatever you need,” Juugo said.  “We’ll support you.”

            Naruto’s nod got even more spastic.

            I felt like a failure.

Chapter Text

            I could not stop laughing.

            “What is so funny?” Temari asked, coming into the room.

            “We don’t remember!” Gaara and I chorused, both going back into hysterics.

            She rolled her eyes and sat down, cracking open a beer.  “It’s getting late, Naruto, shouldn’t you be home taking care of your brood?”

            “Nah, Juugo’s home,” I said, taking another sip.  Thinking about home had a sobering effect.

            “Boy, that better not be alcohol that you’re drinking,” she said, suddenly going hardass mom on her son.

            “Dad said I could,” Shikanori protested.

            Temari glanced at Shikamaru.

            He shrugged.

            “Fine, but don’t come crying to me if you end up puking,” she said, downing the rest of   her drink.  “I’ll leave you boys to your little party,” she concluded, snagging another can of beer and making her exit.

            “It is getting kind of late,” Sora hedged.  He was the responsible one in our teacher-student relationship.

            It was funny how that always seemed to end up being the way.

            “One more for the road?” Kankurou suggested.

            “One more for the road,” I agreed, clinking bottles with him.

            Sora seemed appeased, going back to his own beer.
            He’d been hyper focused on his training lately, but even he could kick back and relax on occasion.  Now that Gaara was training Shika Jr., we spent a lot of time in Suna training with them.  It was good for Sora to have a younger training partner who looked up to him.  It gave him a boost of confidence, which was why he’d come back to train with me in the first place.

            Also because he missed me and thought I was the coolest and best teacher ever, probably.

            “Hey, Sora, that rotten Uchiha still with your woman?” Kankurou asked.

            Well, there was that, too.

            “I don’t have a woman,” Sora muttered, drowning his sorrows.

            “You could kick his ass,” Shikanori encouraged him.

            “Of course I could,” Sora said, crushing the can in his hand.  “But I don’t care.”

            Shikamaru gave me a look.

            I shrugged.

            He shrugged, too, turning his attention back to our shogi match.  The only reason he wasn’t completely crushing me was because Gaara, Sora, and I were playing as a team.  “When is Izu coming back to train with Sasuke?”

            “Hopefully never,” I said cheerfully.

            Sora sniffed his disdain.

            There was no love lost in this room for Uchiha Izu.

            “You look like you could use something a little stronger,” Kankurou said, offering Sora an apology in the form of hard liquor.

            The party was really getting started now.

            I somehow managed to keep a tiny piece of me sober so I could Advanced Flying Thunder God our asses home.

            “Night,” I said, waving Sora off to the guest house.  I’d finished building it last summer for when Sakura and Ino and the girls came to stay, but Sora and Izu were getting the most use out of it.

            “Night,” he echoed, smiling peacefully.  Sometimes getting trashed was good for the soul.

            I crept up the stairs, quietly easing the bedroom door open.

            Sasuke’s back was to me, the curve of his shoulder illuminated in the moonlight streaming through the window.

            My heart tightened.

            His shoulder moved rhythmically in time with his breathing.

            All I wanted was to wrap him in my arms and squeeze him until we were one being.  That was probably a perfect normal urge.  I just missed him.  He’d done a month at the clinic, then he’d done a month with Karin and Suigetsu, which was apparently something he’d needed.  Now even though he was home, it felt like he was a million miles away.

            I needed to feel our bond.

            I tossed off my shirt, ignoring the chill of the winter air, and slid into bed behind him, hesitating only for a moment before putting my arm around his waist and pulling him closer.

            His whole body stiffened.  “Don’t.”

            Sasuke had two ‘don’t’s.  The first went along the lines of, ‘I am a fiercely proud Uchiha who is also vulnerable and shy, so I say ‘don’t’ in order to make it reasonably seem like I am protesting your love and affections which I in reality so deeply desire.’

            The other ‘don’t’ just simply meant ‘don’t’, with the added parenthetical that, ‘if you continue, I will annihilate you and everything you hold dear.’

            This was clearly the latter, so I pulled away.

            He didn’t turn around.

            “Sasuke.”

            He still didn’t turn around.

            I felt annoyed at being ignored.  “What’s your problem?”

            He turned slowly, eyes fixed in a glare.  “You are a fucking moron.”

            “Excuse me?” I growled, on my way to full-on anger.

            “I can smell it on your breath!” he snapped.

            “What, this is about me having a couple of drinks?!” I asked incredulously.

            “Oh my god, how are you so fucking clueless?” he muttered, turning away from me.

            I caught his shoulder, forcing him to look at me again.  “I can drink as much as I damn well want.  I’m not you.”

            Something shattered behind his eyes, but he was already pulling himself back together before I could figure out what was happening.  “Get away from me,” he snarled, shoving me.

            “It’s my damn house.”

            “That I pay for.”

            “After you made me quit my job.”

            “That you ha- no, you know what, no.  I’m tired.  Just get away from me, Naruto, for fuck’s sake.”

            “Why should I?” I demanded.

            “Because when I smell it, I want a fucking drink you moron!”

            It felt like a punch to the gut.

            “Fine,” I said, feeling startled and confused and guilty.  I grabbed my pillow and stumbled out of the room.  I found my way to the couch and pulled the afghan off of the back, wrapping myself up and passing out.

            I woke up to sunlight, a headache, and slobber on my cheek.  I groaned, scrubbing at it.  “Makkun, please.”

            “Why are you sleeping out here?” the pug asked, waving his tail.

            In the continued contentious relationship of Sasuke and Kakashi, our former teacher had somehow thought that a talking dog would be an appropriate olive branch.

            And yes, of course I loved our new pet, but he chewed all our furniture and licked all our faces and basically drove Sasuke crazy.

            “Coffee,” I said.

            “You’re sleeping out here because of… coffee?” Makkun asked, tilting his adorable pug head to the side.

            “I’m brewing some now,” Mari said from the kitchen.

            “You’re a goddess,” I marveled.  I scrubbed at the crust in my eyes and made a few attempts to get off of the couch before finally succeeding.

            “Rough night?” Mari asked, pulling some mugs down from the cupboard.  One for me, one for her, and one for… Sora?

            She caught me eyeing the third cup and hastily shoved it back in the cupboard.

            “It’s too early for the nonsense,” I groaned, flopping onto my chair.

            “I just miscounted,” she muttered.

            “Really?  Miss I Can Do Quantum Physics can’t count to two?” I grumbled.

            “Is this ever not going to be awkward?” she complained.

            “You dumped my disciple!  For Sasuke’s disciple!  And we all live together!” I cried.  “You’re the one who made things awkward!”

            “You kind of have me there,” she said, tossing her hair over her shoulder before pouring the coffee.

            “God, please tell me Izu isn’t coming back while Sora’s here,” I prayed to my coffee.

            “How long is Sora staying?” she asked, trying to sound nonchalant.

            “Probably until the awkwardness wins over his desire to get stronger.”

            Mari did that same frown that Sasuke did when he was worried.

            Then Sora came in, pausing when he saw Mari.  “Good morning,” he said, giving her the worst imitation of a smile that I’d ever seen.  “Is there coffee?”

            Mari nodded her head to the pot.

            Sora reached up to take the coffee mug from the cupboard that Mari had previously taken out and put back, poured his coffee, and downed the entire mug in one go.

            “Go a little too hard last night?” I teased.

            “I don’t look as rough as you,” he replied.

            Mari snickered.

            They smiled at each other briefly.

            Sora filled another cup and made an abrupt exit.

            Mari turned her frown on me.  “You’re the worst, you know that?”

            “What the hell?!” I protested.  “Where is this coming from?!”

            “It’s bad enough that you drink all the time, but why do you have to drag Sora into it?”

            I stared at her.  Then I rubbed my eyes before staring at her some more.  “I’m too hungover for this.”

            She made a disgusted face at me.

            “You’re acting like I’m doing something wrong, and I’m not!” I snapped defensively.  “And the main reason Sora was drinking so much was because of you, so….”

            “Because nothing is ever your fault,” Mari said, rolling her eyes.

            “According to you and Sasuke, everything is my goddamn fault.”

            “Pretty much.”

            “Mari, can we please not fight?” I groaned.

            “Whatever.”

            “Thank you.”

            We finished our coffee in silence.

            “You’re not being fair to him,” Mari finally said, putting her mug in the sink.

            “To who?”

            She sighed loudly.  “Sometimes I understand why everyone thinks you’re dumb.”  Then she smacked me in the side of my head.

            I gaped at her.

            “Sasuke literally just admitted that he’s an alcoholic, and you think it’s fine for you to go out drinking all the time?!” she cried, using excessive hand gestures.

            “What does that have to do with my drinking?!” I protested.

            “Ugh,” she said, stomping out of the room.

            I was feeling offended on top of the horrible headache I had.  I went outside and shuffled my hand around the gutter until I found the pack of smokes I’d hidden away.  Makkun came and rested his head on my knee while I sat and smoked.  I patted him absently, trying to find my center.

            Sasuke came outside, squinting into the light and looking like death warmed over.  He sat down on the ground next to me, reaching for the cigarette dangling from my mouth.

            “Babe, come on, you quit,” I said, holding the cigarette away from him.

            “So did you,” he graveled at me, still half-asleep.  He took the cigarette and took a drag.

            I watched him smoke the cigarette that I had bought, and the gears in my head started sluggishly moving.

            “I’m going back to bed,” he said abruptly, handing me the remaining stub that barely had a drag left in it.

            I watched him go back into the house.

            “Want to go for a run?” Sora asked, coming over to me.

            “God, no,” I groaned.

            “Come on,” he said.

            I dragged myself to my feet.  I was actually starting to feel better, the good old kyuubi healing kicking in, but I was still sluggish.

            Running on sand was the worst.

            We ran, and my head started to clear.

            “Sora, am I complete asshole?” I asked as we ran.

            He half-smiled.  “Sometimes.”

            “No, really.  Am I insensitive?”

            He looked at me, not breaking his stride, studying my face carefully.  “I’d say more obtuse than purposefully insensitive.”

            “Is that better?” I asked.

            He shrugged, directing his sight forward again.

            We kept running.

            “Thanks for last night,” he said, suddenly breaking the silence.  “It’s what I needed.  I’m too in my head sometimes, you know?”

            “I do know,” I agreed.  “It’s okay to relax sometimes, kid.”

            “Yeah.”

            We ran out to the training area and started sparring.  The rumbling of our stomachs told us when to take a break and go back to the house.

            I washed up quickly before heading to the kitchen, happy to see that Mari had made lunch.

            Sasuke hadn’t come back down.

            I shoveled some food into my mouth before going upstairs.  I knocked on the door and received a grunt of acquiescence, so I opened it and stepped inside.

            He was still in bed, wrapped up in blankets.

            “Mari made lunch,” I said.

            He sat up, rubbing his eyes.  “I’m not really hungry.”

            “I could just bring you some rice, you know, so you have something on your stomach,” I offered, eyeing the rows of pills lining our nightstand that remained unopened and untaken.

            “Okay,” he agreed.

            I smiled at him, and he half-smiled back.  I brightened even more, going back downstairs to get the rice.  I paused in my task and opened one of the cupboards, grabbing a couple of other things.

            “Here,” I said, dumping the other stuff on the bed before handing him the rice and chopsticks.

            He frowned at the smoking patches.  “Trying to tell me something?”
            I shook my head.  “They’re for me,” I said, opening the box and sticking one on my arm.

            “So the cigarettes are for me?” he asked, his mouth twisting in amusement.

            “They’re for the trash,” I said, throwing them in the wastebasket next to the bed.

            “Don’t waste them,” he said with a frown.

            “I shouldn’t have bought them in the first place.”

            “No, you shouldn’t have, but you’re just going to buy more, so don’t throw money away when things are tight.”

            I blinked.  “Money’s tight?”

            He sighed, looking away.

            “You didn’t tell me…” I said.  “I’ll pick up some ninja jobs.”

            “It’ll be fine,” he said, waving it off.

            “I’m happy to help,” I insisted.

            “Well I need you here,” he answered sharply.

            I looked at him.

            He wouldn’t look me in the eye.

            I waited.

            “Juugo’s going to Orochimaru’s,” he said suddenly.

            “WHAT?!”

            “Don’t react like that, you know that Orochimaru knows more about his abilities than anyone else.”

            “Which he used and manipulated to make the freaking curse seals!”

            “Naruto.”

            I took a breath.  “Yeah, okay.  I know Juugo’s been… losing it more often lately, but I dunno.  He belongs with us, not creepy ass Orochimaru.”

            “Orochimaru will help him, and then he will come back where he belongs.”  There was a little spark in his eyes as he spoke.

            “Do you really think he can help?” I asked, sitting next to him.  I thought about letting our shoulders brush, then thought better of it.

            “He’ll try,” Sasuke said.  He handed me the half-empty rice bowl.

            I put it on the nightstand.

            Sasuke wrinkled his nose.

            “So you need me here to take care of the kids or what?” I asked, ignoring his expression.  I could take the bowl with me when I went back downstairs, no reason to make two trips.

            Sasuke was quiet, still frowning at the rice bowl.  “I need you,” he finally said.

            “It doesn’t feel like you need me,” I said, trying to keep the hurt out of my voice and failing.  “It feels like quite the opposite.”

            “Naruto,” he said, voice strained.

            “It’s like there’s a hole inside of me, and I keep trying to find ways to fill it, but nothing helps,” I told him, clenching my fists to try and stay calm.  “So, yeah, I’ve been drinking a lot lately, and I’m starting to see why that’s not really fair to you, but I need something, some kind of escape.  I can’t do this day in and day out, have you stay up in your room all the time and barely talk to me, barely touch me, barely even look at me.  This is the most you’ve talked to me all month, Sasuke, and I just…  Sas’, baby, love, please, I need something.”

            “…I don’t have anything to give to you.”

            I started to cry out of frustration and quickly composed myself.  “Is this how you feel every day?” I whispered.  “Like something’s missing?”

            “You could say that.”

            I looked at his stoic face.  “I can’t imagine what you go through, you know?  I really can’t.  I wish I was more understanding.  I wish I didn’t do stupid things like come home drunk.  I’m trying to be better, but it hurts and-fuck I want a cigarette,” I growled, scratching at the patch on my arm.  I tried to think about things that weren’t painful and hopeless so I didn’t become an emotional mess again.

            “You don’t need to try, Naruto.”

            I looked at him with thankfully dry eyes.  “Why, you already gave up on me?”

            He smacked me in the arm, and it actually filled me with joy.  “No, dumbass.”

            “Then what?” I asked, trying not to get my hopes up.  No matter how much I wanted Sasuke to just shake off his depression, he had to work through it in his own way and in his own time.

            “You give me what I need,” he said.  “I don’t always want what you have to give, but you always give me what I need.”

            “I don’t really think I get it.”

            “That’s fine.  But if you come into my bed reeking of alcohol one more time I will decapitate you.”

            “Okay,” I agreed, because he wasn’t really going to decapitate me.  Probably.

            “Just stay at Gaara’s,” he said.

            “Yeah?”

            “Yeah.”

            “Even though all you want is an escape, and I’m off selfishly having one?”

            “Wow, moron, you actually understood the situation for once.”

            “I understand things.”

            “You’re an understander?”

            “How did you know I was going to say that?”

            “Because I love your dumb ass.”

            “I love your dumb ass, too.”

            “That wasn’t as cute as you think it was,” Sasuke muttered, looking a little happier.

            “I’m very cute,” I said, grinning at him.

            “You’re fucking old is what you are,” he said, but there was actual humor in his voice so I didn’t get mad.

            We sat quietly for a while.

            “We’re not good for each other right now,” Sasuke finally said.

            “You said you needed me.”

            “And that was shitty of me,” he said, shaking his head.  “I really just want you to sit at my beck and call while I continue to ignore you.”

            “So you admit it,” I said, but there was no ‘ah-ha’ to it.  We’d played this game long enough to know all of each other’s moves.

            “Go somewhere with Sora.  Go travel.”

            “I’m not going to just take off on you when Juugo’s gone, too.”

            “I don’t need a babysitter.”

            “The kids do.”

            Sasuke looked down at his lap.  “Mari will be here.”

            “Well, let’s talk to her,” I said.  “I’m not going to just assume that she’s willing to take on all that responsibility, and I don’t want her to feel obligated, either.”

            “…can you do it?”  The light was already starting to drain from his eyes.

            I swallowed.  “Yeah.  I’ll go talk to her now.”  I stood up to leave.

            Sasuke caught my wrist.

            I swallowed again, willing myself to be the strong, manly man that I always claimed to be.

            “I’m going to be better when you come back,” he said.  He pushed some chakra into me before letting go.

            “When I come back from talking with Mari?” I teased.  That little bit of chakra was sending tingles up and down my spine.

            “Dummy,” he said, rolling away from me and pulling the covers up.

            “That would make me really happy,” I said, watching as Sasuke and the bed slowly became the same inanimate object.

            He didn’t answer.

            I picked up the bowl from the nightstand and headed down the stairs.

Chapter Text

            Izu wrinkled his nose at me.  I didn’t need to be looking at him to know that he was doing it.

            I blew smoke in his face.

            He looked away with a sniff.

            Everyone said that we were just alike, which was honestly infuriating.  I was not that prissy.

            “Are you going to do anything other than sit out here in your boxer shorts for all the world to see?” he finally asked, that familiar Uchiha disdain dripping in his voice.

            “I’m sure everyone appreciates the free show,” I said, stubbing out my cigarette and tucking it behind my ear for later.  I was finally starting to feel the cold.  I stood up and went back inside.

            “The half-naked grandad show?” Izu muttered, following me.

            I didn’t dignify him with a response.  I looked good, and I didn’t need the validation of some upstart little clone.

            Mari was coming down the stairs as Izu closed the door behind us.  She squinted at me.  “You went outside like that in the middle of winter?”

            “It’s the end of winter.”

            “It’s still freezing!” she said, throwing her arms around me.

            The feel of her warm body reminded me of how cold I actually was.  My arms wrapped around her, seeking warmth.

            “You’re dumb, but it’s good to see you,” she mumbled into my shoulder.

            “I saw you this morning when you brought me breakfast.”

            “It’s good to see you out of your little cocoon,” she amended.

            Truth be told, I hadn’t ventured down the stairs since Naruto had left almost… was that a month ago?  I’d lost track of time.

            “I’m here,” I said quietly into her hair.

            She squeezed me more tightly, then abruptly pulled away.  “Get dressed, you look like a stripper.”

            “So?”

            “It’s distracting,” she muttered, disappearing into the kitchen.

            I tossed a look over my shoulder at Izu.

            “It’s distracting because of your saggy old man tits,” he said flatly.

            “Nothing on me sags,” I said.  “Go do fifty laps, and we’ll train when you’re done.”

            “Wait, really?” he asked, losing his cockiness.

            “Yeah,” I said, rolling my neck around.  My body felt stiff and unused.  I suddenly felt like a caged animal, and all I wanted to do was break free.  I was an Uchiha, though, so I went up to my room and got dressed instead.

            “You really have rejoined the world,” Mari said, blinking at me as I came down the stairs.  Her face lit up in a smile.

            “Izu and I are going to train,” I said.  I rested my hand on the doorknob, not looking back at her as I spoke.  “Thank you.  For taking care of everything.  The house, the kids, the business…”

            “Of course.”

            “Of course I should thank you?”

            “Yeah, yah selfish turd.”

            I half-smiled as I went outside.  I hadn’t smiled in a while.

            Izu was still running, and I found myself falling into step with him, the wind burning in my lungs.

            My breath came out in wheezing gasps.

            “Need a break, grandad?” Izu asked, his tone indifferent but it was obvious he was worried.

            “I’ll be fine,” I wheezed, pushing through it.

            We finished our run, then I launched into some very simple sharingan training.

            “What the fuck is wrong with you?!” Izu cried when he finally shook off the genjutsu.

           I rolled my eyes.  He only ever showed this childish side of himself to me.  I’d rather not have to deal with it.  “You have a mangekyou sharingan, you should have been able to see through it immediately.”

            “Who the hell whores out their own husband like that?!” he cried.

            “You’re the one who wants to fuck said husband,” I said with a shrug.

            “I do not!” he yelled.

            I pulled my cigarette from behind my ear and lit it with my finger.  “You were raised by Kuromoto Akio.  I thought you’d be used to your enemy playing dirty.”

            “So you admit it was a dirty trick!”

            “I admit you think it was,” I said.  “I don’t see what the big deal is, though.”

            “Oh my god, I understand why everyone hates the Uchiha clan,” Izu groaned.

            “And that’s why you should never father a child, and let our clan die out with you,” I said matter-of-factly.

            “Is that why you want me to go gay for Naruto so badly?”

            “You’re already gay for Naruto.”

            “I’m not gay!” he shrieked.

            “Then why were you caught so long in a gay genjutsu?”

            “Gay… genjutsu…?” he repeated incredulously.

            “I see the way you look at Naruto when he mistakes you for me.  It wasn’t hard to construct a convincing illusion out of that longing.  Take reality and bend it just enough to ensnare your target.  Like Naruto would ever mistake you for me long enough to actually suck-”

            “I’m not gay!” he reasserted.  “…probably.”

            “Are you afraid that Mari will dump you when she finds out that you’re bisexual?” I asked.  “She already knows.  Everyone knows.”

            “How does everyone know if I don’t even know?!”

            “I already told you.  The way you look at him.”  I incinerated the butt of my cigarette, letting the flame dissipate into nothing.

            “Well, who wouldn’t feel a certain kind of way when you have all that love directed at you?” he finally admitted, eyes downcast.  “Even if it’s only thirty seconds before he realizes it’s me, it’s just… I’ve never felt anything like it.”

            “So you’re more in love with my husband than your girlfriend.”

            Izu shrieked and protested some more.

            I did take a certain pleasure in riling him up.

            It was strange to see my own face looking back at me, so young and with so much potential.  It was like having a child, only this child was actually a clone of my great-great uncle, or whatever relationship it was that Madara’s brother, Uchiha Izuna, had with me.

            I’d pulled Izu out of one of the Kuromoto’s burning labs.  Of course, I had been the one to burn the lab down in the first place, but Kuromoto Akio had left him to die like just another failed science experiment after Izu had failed to kill me.

            He had come back with me easily enough.  An Uchiha always knew when the tides were turning and it was time to switch sides.  It was also the first time in his life he’d been able to meet someone else with the sharingan.  His power had flourished in the short time since we’d started training together.

            “Your sword fighting is still shoddy,” I said, sheathing my sword behind my back.

            “I cut you, though,” Izu muttered, collecting his fallen sword from the sand.

            I’d caught one of his sloppy slices with my hand, and now there was a steady trickle of blood coming from my palm.  “Bravo.”

            “Last time we fought I couldn’t even get close to you.”

            “So you want me to be impressed with your minimal improvement?”

            “Yes,” he said, eyes serious.

            I looked at him.  “I wouldn’t have taken you on as my disciple if I didn’t think you were exceptional.”

            Izu looked pleased.

            “I’m surprised you would want me as a teacher, though,” I said, immediately regretting it.  Even though I’d finally come out of my black hole, the depression was still eating away at me.

            “Who else could teach me about the sharingan?” Izu asked, studying my face.  The worry was starting to show again.

            “You figure it out by instinct.”

            “Well, since all Uchihas are geniuses…”

            “Mentally unstable geniuses,” I agreed.

            “Do you think I’m going to… go…. crazy?” he asked, picking his words slowly yet still missing the delicacy of the situation in typical Uchiha fashion.

            “Probably.”

            “I’m asking seriously.”

            “I’m answering seriously.”

            Izu breathed out in a huff.

            “You’re not going to be as fucked up as me, so don’t worry,” I said.  “You’re already what, twenty?  And you haven’t shown any signs of psychosis?  You’re doing better than most of our clan.”

            “Well, that’s reassuring.”

            I looked at him.  Izu had been raised as a weapon, another soldier in the Kuromoto Clan’s army of clones.  But he was so… normal.  A typical bratty kid.  Maybe a little sociopathic, but that was to be expected.  We’d known each other for a little more than a year and a half, but I looked into his eyes and I knew him.  He was what I could have been if Itachi-

            “Sasuke-sensei?”

            “Let’s go back to the house.”  I got up and started moving.

            He followed behind me.

            Mari was outside with Rekka, Kabo, and Mina, working in the garden around the house.  She straightened up when we approached her, brushing the sand from her clothes and looking anxious.

            “I’m going to wash up,” Izu said, heading inside.

            “Okay,” Mari said, buzzing with nervous energy.

            I stared at her.

            “What?” she growled, immediately turning back into herself when the door had closed behind him.

            I shrugged.

            “We’re very happy together,” she said.  “Quit butting in.”

            “I didn’t say anything,” I said, picking up Kabo as he attempted to scale my leg.  “What do you think you’re doing, brat?” I growled at him, tossing him in the air.

            He shrieked with delight, giving me a hug before I set him down again.

            “Me, next!” Rekka said, holding her arms out to me.

            I sighed and hefted her up, giving her a toss.

            She grinned and took off after her brother when I set her down, the two of them running circles around the house.

            “Sake!” Mina cried, finally noticing that I was there.  She dropped her gardening trowel, staring up at me with a confused but hopeful expression.  “You’re home?”

            “I’m home,” I agreed, patting her on the head.  I hadn’t really given any thought to what the kids felt about my absence.  I didn’t tend to think about others while I was drowning in my self-hatred.

            The world had gone on without me.

            Naruto and Sora came back almost a week later.

            I knew they’d come, but I didn’t expect Naruto to come running straight into the bathroom, fully clothed.

            I gave him a funny look and put the showerhead down.

            Izu took it from the floor and continued washing up like it was normal to have a fully clothed man standing in our bath.

            Since it was Naruto, it really wasn’t that strange.

            “Hi,” he breathed.

            “Hey,” I answered.

            “I… I just wanted to see you.”

            “Here I am.  In the middle of bathing.”

            “Yeah, uh.  I uh.  Yeah.”

            “Come here.”

            He threw himself at me, clothes and all.

            I returned the hug, pressing my forehead to his.

            “I missed you so much,” he said, catching my face in his hands.  “You look good.  And you smell good.”

            “Well, as I did mention before, I am in the middle of bathing.”

            “Yeah, yeah, I noticed,” he said, his grin cracking his face in crow’s feet and laugh lines.

            “You should think about doing the same,” I suggested tactfully.

            “Oh, uh, no, no, that’s not a good idea,” he said, closing his eyes for a moment and pressing in closer.

            We breathed together.

            “Why is it not a good idea?” I teased, feeling myself getting stupider by proximity to him.

            “I can’t handle two naked Uchihas right now,” he said, shaking his head and standing.  His clothes were dripping wet.

            Izu cringed next to me.

            Naruto of course took it as an insult, and the two of them started bickering over some nonsense.

            “Enough,” I said when I couldn’t take it anymore, which of course led to both of them protesting about how it was the others’ fault.  “Out,” I said, and Naruto turned to go with his head down and his shoulders drooping.

            “He’s so annoying, letting all that cold air in,” Izu complained, standing and yanking the door shut.

            I stared at him.

            “He is.”

            I shrugged and returned to washing up.

            “I’m not attracted to him.”

            I worked the soap down my legs.

            “I have a girlfriend.”

            I glanced at him.

            He met my gaze evenly.  “So if I was a little gay…”

            I tilted my head to the side.

            “I mean, you’re obviously completely gay…”

            I raised an eyebrow.

            “If I was a little gay, then… then what?”

            “Then stay the fuck away from my husband.”

            Izu smiled.

            God I hated fucking Uchihas.

            Izu stood up and put the showerhead back in its place.

            “It was hard for me to come out,” I told his back.

            He stood there, unmoving.

            Did he expect me to do everything for him?  To open up my old wounds and bleed them out for him so it would be easier for him?  I went past him to get a towel and start drying off.

            “If I knew for sure…” Izu started and faltered.

            I looked at him.

            He looked at me.

            We went on with our day.

            I went upstairs, pushing the door open only to find Naruto taking a nap.

            He blinked up at me sleepily.

            I turned to leave.

            “Stay?” he asked, sounding worried.

            Now that the initial greetings had been carried out, the awkwardness was settling in.

            “I thought you were sleeping.”

            “Well, I’m awake now.”

            I walked over to the bed slowly.

            Naruto sat up, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.

            “You look exhausted,” I observed.

            “Yeah, I think I’m coming down with a cold or something.”

            I looked him over.  Naruto did not get sick, the kyuubi saw to that.

            “I kinda exhausted my chakra training, and then jumping me and Sora back here…” he admitted sheepishly.

            “Stop using that stupid jutsu,” I muttered, even though I often took advantage of the convenience.  Naruto was my private transportation, and it had improved revenue for Taka significantly, despite our recent monetary troubles.

            “I wanted to see you as soon as possible,” he said with a shrug.  Then he got shy.

            I rolled my eyes, sitting next to him.  “Then by all means endanger your health to shave off a couple of days from your travel time.”

            “Good, I will,” he said, poking me.

            I shrugged away from the touch.

            He retracted his hand, looking like I’d hit him.

            I looked away.

            Naruto was quiet, running the fabric of our comforter through his fingers.

            “You haven’t been smoking?” I finally asked, the one to break the silence.  Maybe I needed to hear his voice.

            “Hm?  Oh, no,” he said, flashing me a grin.  “Forty-three days clean.”

            “You smell nice.”

            His grin widened.

            I had to look away again, his stupidity becoming catching.

            “Sas’?”

            “Yeah?”

            “I’m not drinking, either.”

            “…who asked you to do that?”

            “No one,” he said.  “But I thought a lot about it, and about us, and I decided-”

            “That’s unnecessary,” I cut him off.

            “Don’t get mad about it.”

            “I’m not mad.”

            “Uchiha.  This is a decision that I made about my own body.  And I might change my mind later on, but right now it’s what I think is best for myself and our family.  Okay?”

            “No one asked you to do that,” I muttered.

            “Yeah, fine, whatever, it’s what I’m doing.”

            “Fine, whatever.”

            “Good,” Naruto huffed.

            We lapsed back into silence.

            “Anyway, why is Izu here?” Naruto said, the one to break the silence this time.

            “He’s my student.”

            “Okay, but you were like in a blanket coma the whole time, so I don’t think much training was getting done.  There’s no way that he and Sora can both be here.”

            “They’re big boys, I’m sure they can handle it.”

            “Oh, yes, because they got along so well before Izu stole Mari-”

            “Mari’s not a possession.”

            “Uchiha Sasuke, are you trying to defend this farce of a relationship?!” he demanded incredulously.

            I sighed.  “No.”  We’d had this conversation a million times, but with Naruto, what was a million more times?

            “Good, because godddd.  That incest needs to stop.”

            “Mari isn’t actually my daughter.”

            “Okay, but dating a guy who literally looks and acts exactly like your father-figure is creepy, right?”

            “We don’t act alike,” I muttered petulantly.

            “Um, have you never been in a room with you together?  It’s uncomfortable for everyone to be receiving double the Uchiha disdain, double the Uchiha displeasure.”

            I frowned.

            “And what is Mari gonna do if they get married?!” he ranted.  I mouthed the words along with him as he continued.  “Is she going to change her last name from Uchiha to Uchiha?!  Sasuke, I’m being serious, don’t belittle me.”

            “Then say something new.”

            “Sasuke,” he said, pushing out his bottom lip in an adorable pout.

            I wanted to crawl inside of him and become one being.  “Idiot,” I said instead.

            “What a rude thing to say.”

            “It may be rude, but it’s-”

            Naruto slapped his hand over my mouth.  “Don’t you dare say it’s true!”

            I pushed his hand away irritably.  “Why bother when you already said it for me?”

            The look on his face was priceless enough to let me not be bothered by his unwanted touching.

            Maybe unwanted wasn’t the word.  Because I wanted nothing more than to be touched.  But the air hung heavy between us, the open chasm that always formed after we had a real fight.

            “I just… don’t want Mari to get hurt,” Naruto said, leaning back against the headboard.  “Even if she doesn’t want to be with Sora, I… I don’t want her to be with someone who doesn’t even care about her.”

            “Izu cares about her,” I put in.  “Vaguely.”

            Naruto looked at me funny.

            “I think he’s gay,” I finally said.  I didn’t like the idea of outing someone without their permission, but if we were going to progress the conversation and not rehash the same arguments over and over, it was time to get on the same page.

            Naruto didn’t overreact for once, and instead just nodded.

            I eyed him suspiciously.

            “It makes sense that all Uchihas are gay,” he said, nodding again.

            “How the fuck does that make sense?” I growled.

            “Have you seen your damn clan?  What does any heterosexual man need all that beauty for?”

            “Shut the hell up.”

            “I’m just sayin’….” he trailed off, catching my death glare.  “Anyway, so Izu’s gay, huh?”

            “Or possibly bisexual.”

            “And how did you come to this conclusion?”

            “Observation.”

            “Oh my god, does he like Sora?!  Because actually even if I can’t stand the kid, I always support the love of two rivals.”

            I tried not to laugh.

            Naruto’s expression softened.  “Hey, I uh… I care about Izu, you know?  Being raised to be a soldier, and then the way the Kuromotos just abandoned him when he wasn’t useful anymore…  He’s had it rough, and I’m happy to welcome him into our home.  I just wish he would stay away from Mari with his brooding good looks and his confused sexuality.  She just gets so… you know around him…”

            I did know.  She lost all her spice and her fire.  She was like… how Sakura used to be around me.  “You know she and Sora were too young to be that serious.”

            “We were serious at their age.”

            “And that went really well for us.  Hey, remember the time I tried to commit suicide by ANBU and then you left me for how many years?”

            Naruto never saw the humor in things.

            “Don’t make that face,” I growled.

            “I’m sorry I left you,” he said, getting all teary.

            “For fuck’s sake,” I muttered.  “I’m just saying that that kind of really intense relationship when you’re young and troubled isn’t always the best thing.  I think Mari finally realized how fucked up we are and stopped idealizing our terrible relationship.”

            “It’s not terrible,” Naruto growled, smacking me in the arm.

            “I’m terrible,” I said moodily.

            Being self-deprecating hurt Naruto more than anything I could ever say about him.

            “Naruto,” I said, grabbing his face in both my hands.  “Stop with the nonsense.”

            “Then stop saying awful things,” he said, his eyes still glistening.

            “That’s like asking me to stop being me.”

            The little cogs in his brain started turning, his brow scrunched as he mulled that over.  “I see your point.”

            I let go of him and stood up.  He was making me irritable, and would probably continue to do so until we properly made up.  “Finish your nap.  You look like shit.”

            “I look fantastic,” he grumbled.  “But we need to figure out this Sora and Izu thing.  I mean, I didn’t expect Izu to be here, or I would have left Sora in Iwa.”

            “Mari thought he could get me out of my room.”

            Naruto shook his head.  “And did he have any success in that?”

            “Of course not,” I said.  “Anyway, they’ll figure it out for themselves, we’re not going to spend the rest of our lives with our disciples on a rotating schedule.”

            “I guess.”

            “Go to sleep,” I said, leaving.

            Mari and Izu were in the living room with the kids, being awkward.

           It was almost as annoying as Naruto was to me at the moment, but I would let them make their own mistakes.

            “You need to guide him in the ways of his sexual awakening,” Naruto mumbled into his pillow that night.  He was half asleep.

            I shifted, wishing there was more space between us yet wishing there was less.  “I think he’s more interested in being sexually awakened by you,” I muttered.

            “Huh?” Naruto said, smacking his lips in that annoying endearing way of his right before he went to sleep.

            “Nothing.”

            “Mmkay.”

            I closed my eyes, trying to will myself to sleep.

            “You two dunt really talk, ya know?” Naruto murmured.

            “I thought you were asleep.”

            “Mm, I was,” he said, rolling onto his back.  “But you and Izu… you’re always rolling your eyes at each other or raising your eyebrows or smirking.  You know, typical annoying Uchiha superiority shit.  And you never properly talk things through.  You make self-deprecating jokes-”

            “Uchihas don’t joke.”

            “-whatever, you make snide comments about your family’s history of mental illness, but are you really talking to the kid?  Seems like he has a lot going on right now, and you know how important it is to have someone to talk to.”

            “Then why don’t you do it?”

            “Um, because he doesn’t respect me?”

            “He respects you.”

            “Oh, really, then why is he always picking stupid arguments with me like you- oh my god, is that what you were saying before?  Does he have a crush on me?!”

            “How the hell do you get more astute when you’re half awake?”

            “It makes sense, though, like we all know that an Uchiha cannot resist an Uzumaki.”

            “Who is ‘we’ and how did they come to such a conclusion?”

            “Well, so Itachi thought I was awesome-”

            “He most certainly did not,” I protested, turning on my side to face him as Naruto was rolling on his side to face me.

            “He did, he totally trusted me with all his secrets and shit.  He told me stuff he didn’t even tell you.”

            My eyes narrowed.

            “And I think Madara wanted my body…”

            “He wanted the kyuubi, you idiot!”

            “I mean, I haven’t even gotten to you and how thirsty you are for my di-”

            I smacked him upside his head.

            The piece of shit dared to laugh.

            I abruptly turned away from him.

            His laughter eventually died down, and I felt a little spark of chakra run up my spine, warm and apologetic.

            “You’re the one who’s thirsty for dick, always sucking mine like a drowning man,” I muttered.

            “Did I not mention how it works the other way around, too?  No Uzumaki can resist an Uchiha.”

            “So you’re saying you want to fuck all of my relatives.”

            “Uh… yes…?”

            I looked at him over my shoulder.

            He was grinning.

            “You’re lucky you’re cute,” I said, turning away again.

            “I’m cute?!” he asked, sounding delighted.

            I sighed.  “Sleep a little closer?”

            He was still for a moment, then I felt the warmth of his back, centimeters from mine.  “Good night, Sasuke.  I love you.”

            “Hn.”

            “Sasuke.”

            “Good night,” I said, trying to lose my churlishness.  But if I stopped being angry with Naruto, then I’d remember that everything was all my fault, and that never led to anything good.

            Instead of dwelling on my thoughts, I fell asleep.

            Naruto was still asleep when I woke up, a rarity.

           I watched the steady rise and fall of his back, wanting to curl myself around him, but I wasn’t quite there yet.

            Sora and Izu were in the kitchen, having breakfast with the three brats.

            I eyed them.

            Izu shrugged at me.

            “Good morning, Sake!” Mina declared, mouthful of food as she patted the chair next to her.

            I sat down.  I ate breakfast.  I observed the silent war of wills going on between my disciple and Naruto’s.

            They both stayed.

            At first, this was achieved by not saying a word to the other.  That didn’t last long, though, because Sora was sensitive and Izu was an asshole.  So Izu would make passive aggressive digs, Sora would become moody and withdrawn, and Mari tried playing the peacemaker.  That of course led to Mari screaming and yelling whenever Izu left the room, and other assorted chaos.

            I ignored most of it, while Naruto kept trying to insert himself into the situation.  I had to drag him out of a room more than once.

            “But I know better than they do,” he insisted one day.  “They should listen to me.”

            “When has a child ever listened to what an adult has to say and decided, oh that makes sense, I’ll do as they say?” I asked him.

            Naruto paused for much longer than necessary.  “Am I… the adult in that hypothetical?” he asked, scratching the back of his neck.

            I don’t know why I found that so funny, but I laughed and pressed a quick kiss to his lips.

            He blushed, grinning.

            It was the first time we’d kissed in the days since he’d come back.

            I patted his cheek, called him an idiot, and went to deal with my messenger birds.

            Mari came stomping out as well, scaring a few of the birds away.

            “Mari,” I said.

            “Why are boys so stupid?! she yelled.

            I looked at her.

            She looked back at me and sighed.  “Sometimes I forget that you’re one of them.”

            “I don’t know how to take that,” I said, holding out my arm and letting Seven and Fifteen land there.

            “It’s… a compliment?” she suggested.  She held out a treat to each of the birds.  “Hey, what if you and I went on a trip for a while?  Got away from this madhouse, just us girls.”

            I shook my head at her, the faintest hint of a smile creeping out.  “I can’t.”

            She hesitated, eyes scanning me up and down.  “Are you okay?” she asked softly.

            “No,” I answered just as softly.

            Her face screwed up tightly as she tried to lock the emotions away.  “Dad…”

            That word only came out on very special occasions.  It usually meant I’d done something else to break her heart.  “No, I’m fine.  I’m just… tired.”

            “Dad,” she repeated.

            “Don’t worry about it,” I said, resting my hand on her head.  I let it slide down to her cheek, then let go.

            “I’m worried,” she said.  “But clearly you’d rather listen to my teenage drama rather than talk about your own problems.”

            “Are those the two choices?”

            “Afraid so.”

            “So tell me about living together with the ex-boyfriend that you had a codependent, obsessive relationship with and your new gay boyfriend who doesn’t know how to express his feelings because he’s emotionally stunted,” I said, tying a message to Fifteen’s leg and sending her off.

            “He’s not gay,” she said irritably.

            I looked at her.

            “He’s bi,” she asserted.  “Probably.”

            “Let’s hope…”

            “Could you talk to him?”

            “Me?” I asked incredulously.  “Why does everyone want me to talk to him?”

            “Because the only person who can get through to a thick-headed selfish jerk is another thick-headed selfish jerk?”

            “I feel like that’s not actually correct.”

            “It is.”

            “And what am I supposed to say to him?”

            “I don’t know, get him to open up about all the stuff he’s keeping inside so he doesn’t explode like-”

            “Like me?”

            “Like a ticking time bomb.”

            I sighed loudly.  “I don’t… talk.”

            “We’re talking right now.”

            “Fine.  Great.  Fantastic.  I will talk to the little homo.”

            “Thank you.  That’s all I ask.”

            We finished taking care of the birds, decoding and encoding the messages received and to be sent.  We headed back into the house.

            “I wish Juugo was here,” Mari said out of the blue.

            “…me, too,” I agreed quietly.  Juugo was the glue that held our family together, and without him there was just something missing.

            “Anyway, go talk to Izu,” she said, shoving me out the door.

            “Now?”

            “No time like the present!”

            Izu and Sora were out in the desert, training near enough to one another to keep an eye on the other’s progress.

            “They look like we used to,” Naruto said, amused.  He was relaxing on a blanket, drinking a soda and pretending to read a book while actually observing his student’s training.

            I sat next to him, on his left side instead of my usual spot at his right.

            He noticed.

            “Were we really that ridiculous?” I asked, observing as Izu pretended to not be showing off with his chidori and Sora pretended not to be staring by pretending that there was something in his eye.

            “Yeah, I think so,” Naruto said with a chuckle.  He touched the back of my hand with his.

            I turned my hand over in invitation, and we curled our prosthetic fingers together.

            We started talking training techniques, and I found myself relaxing.  I liked the sound of my partner’s voice, the soothing thrum of his chakra buzzing along my skin.  I liked talking about something that we were both knowledgeable about, a level playing field where we were equals.

            Then our annoying disciples came over to whine at us about some nonsense or other.

            “Let’s take a walk,” I said to Izu, letting go of Naruto’s hand and standing up without looking back.

            Izu seemed confused but followed me.

            “Where are we going?” he asked after following me for a long, silent while.

            “The destination isn’t important,” I said.  Being vague when you had no idea what the fuck you were doing was the Uchiha way.

            “Okay…”

            There was a small oasis not too far from where we were, so I started heading there.

            Izu stayed silent the rest of the way, which is why I tolerated him as my disciple.

            I sat down on a rock when we arrived, Izu taking up across from me.

            We looked at one another.

            I pulled out a cigarette.  I thought about not lighting it.  Then I lit it, taking a drag.  “Why are you dating Mari?”

            “…why is that your business?”

            “Because I said it is.”

            He gave me a measuring look, then shrugged.  “It’s not unpleasant.”

            “Do you like how she acts around you?”

            “Yes.”

            “You like having power over her?  Controlling her?”

            “Yes.”

            I took a deeper drag, feeling the burn in my lungs.  “That’s fucked up.”

            “Is it?  It’s not so different from your relationship with Naruto,” he said evenly.

            “My relationship with Naruto is fucked up.  But I love him.  More than anything.  And he loves me,” I said.  “You don’t love Mari.”

            “I could.”

            “You could.  And she could love you,” I said.  “She could trade one unhealthy relationship for another.”

            “I thought you wanted her to get back with Sora.”

            “I want Mari to be happy and loved,” I said.  “I don’t think either you or Sora has figured out how to do both of those things.”

            Izu looked at me, waiting.

            “I’m not telling you what to do,” I said.  “But maybe I’m telling you what not to do.”

            He continued waiting.

            He could wait forever, as far as I was concerned.

            I looked away into the distance, ashes dropping from the tip of my cigarette.

            “I have gleaned nothing from this conversation,” he said.

            “Of course you haven’t,” I said, shaking my head.  “You already know everything, don’t you?”

            His eyes took on a more predatory look.

            “Do you still have more to learn from me?” I asked, meeting the look.  “Or are you done?”

            “I don’t have the rinnegan.”

            “So that’s what you’re after?”

            He shrugged.

            “Can I trust you?” I asked.

            “Probably,” he said, smiling.

            “I killed my teacher,” I said, watching his expression transform into a grimace.  “He didn’t have anything else for me, so I got rid of him.  It didn’t stick, though.”

            “Kakashi?” he asked, looking confused.

            “Orochimaru.”

            “You killed Orochimaru?” he asked, his surprise evident.  Orochimaru had reached folklore status, the immortal mad scientist.

            “Like I said, it didn’t stick.”

            “I wouldn’t try to kill you,” he said off-handedly.

            “What a relief.”

            “I do respect you.”

            I didn’t expect him to say that unbidden.  Maybe he wasn’t as sociopathic as I thought.

            “I came back here early because Mari said…  She just wanted me to try and get you out of that room, and it didn’t work, obviously, but I… I didn’t want to see you in there, wasting away…  “

            “So I do still have something to offer you?” I asked, amused.

            “Watching you fight is… art.”

            I looked at him.

            He looked back at me, completely serious.

            I tilted my head to the side.

            “W-what?” he stammered, looking away and trying to seem annoyed.

            “You have a soul?”

            “No,” he denied, shaking his head.

            “Izu, I’m scared for you.”

            “Why?”

            “Because this isn’t normal.”

            “What isn’t normal?”

            “The way we think, the way we talk, the way we act…”

            “You’re saying ‘we’, but you hate it when people say we’re alike.”

            “Because I don’t want you to be anything like me!” I said, my voice raising.  “I wouldn’t wish that on anyone!”

            Izu moved to sit next to me.

            I frowned at him.

            “I’m trying,” he said quietly.  “To be more human.  To have bonds.  But it’s… it’s more difficult than perfecting a jutsu.  No matter how many times I practice, it never turns out quite right.  I’m trying.  With Mari.  Even with Sora.  I don’t know why I enjoy watching them suffer sometimes.  I don’t want to hurt them.  I just…”

            “Then stop going out and trying to hunt down Kuromoto.”

            “…so you knew.”

            “Of course I fucking know, who do you think you’re talking to?” I said, pulling out another cigarette.  I fumbled with the flame before lighting it, my irritation seeping out.

            Izu tried to take one, and I simply burned the entire pack.

            He pulled away his scorched hand in surprise.

            “Stop living for revenge,” I said.  “Just stop.  He brought you into this world with nothing and he abandoned you into it with nothing, and it doesn’t matter anymore.  You have a family now.  You have us.  If you can’t see that, if you can’t move past that, then you will die like all the stupid fucking Uchihas before you, with nothing to show for your useless existence.”

            “You gave up your revenge and ended up in a mental institution,” he said, studying my face.

            “It was too late for me, do you understand?  It was too late for me the second that Itachi slaughtered our entire family and made me relive that moment over and over and-” I tried to pull in a breath and couldn’t.  I couldn’t breathe, and all I could see was blood and death.  I forced myself to breathe, hyperventilating as the world seemed to come caving in.  “A child cannot see something like that,” I gasped.  “They can’t see that and come out normal.  It’s not possible.  The brain changes, it warps, it becomes a weapon against the person, a weapon inside of you that is an inescapable part of you, and it twisted me and twisted me, and Itachi, fucking Itachi, he said he did it for me, but he did it for himself.  He wanted someone to kill him.  He made me the weapon that would kill him, so he could escape from it all.  He thought he was sparing me, giving me another chance at life, but he took away any chance I ever had when I was seven years old.”

            I’d forgotten that Izu was there.

            “And what choice did I have but to become what he made me?  They tried to stop me.  So many people tried to stop me, to show me that there was a better way, but all I existed for was revenge.  It was all that was holding my broken self together, it sharpened me, it gave me focus, but in the end…  What did it fucking mean, to stab my brother, to kill my only living kin, to watch the life drain out of his eyes?  What did it fucking mean?!  I didn’t feel relief.  I didn’t feel like I had avenged my clan.  I felt destroyed.  I killed my brother.  I killed him.  I… I can’t ever take that back.  So I found a new target, and I let my quest for revenge continue, because if I didn’t there was nothing left of me.  There was nothing.  Without that purpose, I… I… and he… and… I tried to… but…”  I dropped my head in my hands and just tried to breathe.

            Time passed, and then I felt myself being pulled into an embrace.

            “Sas’, come on,” Naruto said quietly, cradling me against his chest.  “It’s getting cold and Mari’s probably mad that no one helped her cook.”

            Sora and Izu both stood away from us, shifting uncomfortably.

            Naruto kept his arm around me as we walked back to the house.

            I felt… emptied.

            I went through the motions of the rest of the night, retreating to bed as soon as I could and passing out.

            I woke up with a start to the bright light in my eyes.  I dragged myself down the stairs, groggy from sleeping too long.

            Naruto was sitting at the kitchen table with Mina on his lap as they both colored pictures.

            I kissed the top of her head, then kissed Naruto’s cheek, stroking my thumb along his scruffy jawline.  “You need to shave,” I said, letting him keep my hand there.

            “I thought I’d grow a beard, get a more manly look going,” he said, grinning at me.

            “No.”

            “Whaddya mean, no?”

            “Lookit my picture, Sake,” Mina interrupted, pointing to the orange shapes that were probably supposed to be people.

            “I see it,” I said.

            She grinned at me.

            I patted her on the head one more time before getting my coffee.

            “You look good,” Naruto observed.

            “Don’t I always?”

            “Yes, my baby, you are the fairest one of all,” he said, shaking his head with a barely concealed smile.  “But you look… I dunno, lighter?  Happier?”

            “I am,” I said, and his grin broadened.  “Where are the rest of the kids?”

            “Mari went to town, and Sora and Izu took the fearsome twosome out for some training,” Naruto said, picking up a crayon and going back to his drawing.

            “They did?”

            “Yeah, the two of them voluntarily took out those hyperactive children together,” he said.  “That must have been some speech you gave to Izu.”

            I took at seat across from them at the table and sipped my coffee.

            I wondered if all of my pieces were coming back together again.