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sne_mod ([personal profile] sne_mod) wrote in [community profile] sn_exchange2010-03-09 08:14 pm

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For: [personal profile] pervert_bitch
Title: Tabula Rasa
Rating: R
Summary: “That's my favourite memory. Even when I tried to forget it, I couldn't. But I'd give it up, if I could keep you.”
Warnings: language, violence, and sexual situations. Ending open to interpretation.
A/N: to my prompter. I slaved over this story, and I love it. I hope you love it too. Heavily inspired by [personal profile] gatty's words without thoughts never to heaven go which is a masterpiece of a story and truly inspiring.
Mod note: Reminder for the author/artist of this submission, please do not reply to comments signed in, if you want to reply anon commenting is enabled.


Tabula Rasa


"Sasuke, what's your favourite memory?” The damp walls of the cave, along with the persistent rain outside made Naruto's voice echo into the darkness. It had been three months since Sasuke killed Danzou. Three months of chasing Sasuke anew. But what was three little months added to three years? (What was three months, when added to a lifetime?)

"When you started eating and I thought I would get fifteen minutes free of your incessant chatter while you were preoccupied with food.” Sasuke's head was tipped back, leaning against the rock wall of the cave they had settled in for the night. His eyes were out of the wavering area illuminated by their fire, but Naruto thought they were closed, which made a marked change from the way Naruto had felt Sasuke's gaze on him of late.

"I didn't talk while I was eating,” Naruto said, playing along with their familiar banter while reaching towards the worn tin pot resting by the little fire and looking inside hopefully.

"True, but you managed to swallow the dinner it took me two hours to prepare in about thirty seconds.”

Having managed to find an extra mouthful of rice by scraping the bottom of the pan and thus ensuring he was probably eating metal, Naruto spoke with his mouth full. “'S'not my fault you suck at hunting.”

"I don't suck at hunting. I just had to get five times the usual amount of food because of your infinite appetite.” Sasuke tipped his head forward to glare. “Stop scraping that, you're eating tin filings.”

"Tastes good though, kinda zingy,” Nevertheless, he put the pot down. Sasuke leaned his head back. Naruto rested back on his hands, stretched his legs out, digging his heels into the cool sand of the cave floor, and stared. “So?”

Sasuke shifted slightly, pulling one leg up and resting his arm on it. The air was cool, but he didn't seem cold. “So what?”

"So what's you favourite memory?” Naruto kicked his heels against the ground impatiently, lifting a hand to scratch below his ear. “Mine is when I got my forehead protector. No, no, wait, not then. When I managed to climb to the top of that tree. No- when I beat Kiba! Or maybe when I beat Neji- Actually,” Naruto paused, grinning at Sasuke. “It's probably when you promised to come back to Konoha with me.”

Sasuke snorted. “I didn't promise.”

Within a second, Naruto scrambled next to Sasuke, grabed his collar and made the other boy growl with irritation as he was pulled to the side. “What the hell?”

"Get off,” Sasuke grumbled, prising Naruto's fingers away from the cloth of his shirt. “I'm not going anywhere.” Naruto's grip loosened minutely, so that Sasuke could pull his hands away, but Naruto didn't move out of his space.

"You'd better not,” Naruto said lowly, his voice scratching slightly.

"You'll only drag me back again anyway,” Sasuke said, leaning away slightly in an attempt to put some space between them.

"Damn right I will,” Naruto agreed. “So just stay.”

"It's not like I have anywhere else to go,” Sasuke said, turning his head away. Naruto stared for a second before swallowing and turning away so his back was pressed against the wall next to Sasuke.

"You still have me,” Naruto reminded him, pulling his knees up to his chest and leaning on them. The wall of the cave was cold against his back so he moved forward slightly, wondering how Sasuke could stand it. “So what is your favourite memory?”

"I don't have one,” Sasuke said after a few seconds, his eyes fixed on the opposite wall of the cave they had stopped in for the night.

"How can you not have a favourite memory?” Naruto asked, scrunching up his nose, eyeing the curve of Sasuke's neck as it was bared to him. “Not even from when you were younger?”

"When exactly would I have had a favourite memory,” Sasuke snapped, giving Naruto a dark look. “Before or after Itachi massacred my family? Or before or after I killed him, only to find out he'd lived his life trying to protect me?”

Cringing a little at the intensity of Sasuke's glare and the pain in his voice, Naruto leaned forward and grabbed the hand that was resting on Sasuke's knee, trying to convey some of his warmth into the cold skin. “Sasuke, I-” He was roughly shook off as Sasuke stood, presenting Naruto with a view of his back.

"Don't ask me stupid questions,” Sasuke said coldly. “We're not friends, you don't understand anything about me.”

Naruto stood slowly, not saying anything for a few moments and staring at the back of Sasuke's shirt. “You don't have to push me away all the time, Sasuke,” he said after a little while, during which Sasuke refused to look at him.. Sasuke's back stiffened slightly and he turned his head to glare, but Naruto went on. “Maybe I don't understand everything about you. Maybe that's because you never let me in.”

"Maybe that's because I don't want to,” Sasuke snarled, throwing off the hand that Naruto had placed on his shoulder, only to find himself shoved against the uneven wall of the cave with Naruto infringing dangerously on his personal space.

"Quit it,” Naruto snapped, shaking Sasuke's arm roughly, oozing dangerous, addictive warmth into every part of Sasuke's body he touched. “Stop pretending you don't care about me when it's obvious that you do.” Sasuke looked as though he was about to interrupt, but Naruto ignored him. “Do you think I'm blind? That I can't see the way you've been looking at me ever since we started travelling?”

"Don't flatter yourself, I'm not that desperate,” Sasuke said, making a derisive noise. Naruto raised his eyebrows, unconvinced.

"I don't think you're desperate,” he corrected. “I think you like me.” His grip on Sasuke's arm shifted, curling possessively around a pale wrist. Naruto leaned closer, eyes calculating, testing, testing...

"And that's just another testament to your stupidity,” Sasuke said, although there was a hint of unease in his tone, probably caused by the close proximity of Naruto, and the intensity of his gaze.

Brushing off the insult, Naruto looked intently at Sasuke. “I'm sorry you don't have any favourite memories,” he said quietly, almost a whisper. “But things'll be different now. Starting from now.”

"I wish you'd leave me alone,” Sasuke mumbled into the space between them.

It was a lie, and they both knew it, so Naruto didn't say anything, and Sasuke let out a small sigh before closing the space between them, and in doing so, starting something that he'd known for a long time was inevitable.

Even after Naruto's eyes closed, Sasuke kept his open, absorbing everything. This, he though hazily, moving his mouth down Naruto's neck, feeling the pulse flutter rapidly against his lips, filling him with a sense of power. This, he wanted to remember.

*

The journey to Konoha lasted for two weeks, twice as long as it should have. Naruto kept creating reasons that they should stop for the night earlier than they needed to. He insisted they go at a slower pace than they could, just in case. He made sure they took a longer route, because he said it was safer.

Each time Naruto made a new claim, Sasuke gave him a look that plainly voiced his scepticism, but said nothing.

"I just want to keep you to myself for a little bit longer,” Naruto whispered once, curled up to sleep with his head resting on Sasuke's shoulder.

"I'm not a thing,” Sasuke said, but didn't move. “I know that's not all.”

Naruto said nothing, just rubbed his nose against Sasuke's skin and tried to memorise the scent. He knew he was returning to his home. To his friends, to his life, to his dream, and that he should be happy.

But for the first time in a long time, Naruto wasn't looking forward to returning to Konoha.

"It'll be okay when we get there. Everything'll be like it was before. Remember?”

*

Sasuke's cell was pleasant enough. Grey walls, stone floor, one high, barred window. A bed in one corner with a thin mattress supported by a rickety bedframe. The other corner held a sink and toilet. It was clean, and he didn't have to share.

It was still prison.

His cell was isolated with one wall replaced with bars and reinforced with an invisible barrier, allowing visitors to stand on the other side. There was only ever one visitor.

The heavy door on the other side of the bars of Sasuke's cell swung open with a screech, causing him to glance up from the bed he was sitting on.

"Good morning, Sasuke,” Naruto said, stepping into view and closing the door behind him. Wearing his usual bright outfit, he looked far too colourful for the drab greys of Sasuke's cell. The only thing that gave away that this was not a typical day was the nervous way his eyes kept darting around the room.

Naruto was holding a white cardboard box in one hand and grinning. “Good news! I brought you onigiri!” Sasuke said nothing, not even looking it Naruto's direction, making his grin falter slightly, but he ploughed on. “I was going to get you ramen, but then I ate it on the way over, so then I was going to get to dango, but I remembered you don't like sweet things! So I saw a little restaurant and got you some onigiri and brought it straight here. I'm not sure what the filling is. What is your favourite filling?” Naruto paused for a few seconds, facing the bars that marked the front of Sasuke's cell.”I heard that you might be getting moved to a different cell. Might have a bigger window. That'd be cool, right?”

When Sasuke still didn't answer, Naruto started to fidget a little. There was nowhere to sit, so he shifted his weight from one foot to the other, still clutching the white box. “I...I know this is crap for you, but it's only temporary. Just until The Council is sure you're not a threat.”

"Only temporary,” Sasuke said softly, his voice scratchy from lack of use. Naruto looked up at the sound, watching warily as Sasuke turned his head a little to meet his gaze. “That's what you said when we got here, and The Council and your Hokage threw me in here. That's what you said when they put the chakra collar on me. That's what you said when The Council decided I would be imprisoned indefinitely.” Sasuke paused, his eyes narrowing. “It's funny, none of these things seem temporary at all.”

When he realised that Sasuke was done, Naruto sighed, leaning against the wall and letting his smile droop a little. “I know it's hard, Sasuke. But it's not going to be like this forever.” He got no reply, just Sasuke turning his head back to the window, effectively ignoring him.

This had been the routine for weeks now. Naruto would talk. Sasuke would ignore him. And the one-sided conversation was like walking on ice, because one slip up could trigger Sasuke's constantly brewing anger. And he didn't shout, which was somehow worse. The quiet voice, the soft, cutting edge of his tone.

Sasuke was furious, and it was Naruto's fault. He was the one that had brought him back, he might as well have locked the cell door himself.

Naruto only saw Sasuke for one hour every day, that was as much as he was allowed. He didn't know what Sasuke did in the rest of the time; how much was interrogations or humiliation, and how much was just being left, abandoned to the cold stone of his cell and the thoughts, memories and regrets that rotted his heart.

Swallowing, Naruto took a few steps closer, relaxing marginally now that Sasuke's attention wasn't on him. It was a little easier once he'd gotten Sasuke to speak. He didn't have to pretend anymore that things were okay. He didn't have to talk to fill the silence.

Naruto approached the bars slowly and crouched to push the onigiri between the bars, the object unaffected by the chakra barrier. He gave a little sigh, reaching out and curling a hand around a bar, feeling the metal cold and gritty under his touch. It buzzed a warning against his skin, like a static shock, but stayed for the most part dormant. Naruto knew from experience that although the barrier was weaker on visitors than the prisoner, trying to reach properly into the cell would cause a severe backlash.

And that meant he couldn't touch Sasuke.

And he really wanted to.

It was so unfair. The rest of their journey back to Konoha had been...incredible. Amongst other things, Naruto had discovered that sleeping rough was a lot more enjoyable when you had another person to wind yourself around, and even if Sasuke grumbled about it, he didn't push him away. Much. And although increasingly distracted, they had explored...a little. Naruto didn't think Sasuke would have minded but he hadn't wanted to rush, and tried to set them a slow pace- they'd only just managed a tentative companionship, he didn't want to run the risk of destroying their already shaky relationship.

But it was like being given a taste and having it all snatched away at the last minute, letting you enjoy it just long enough to ensure you'd long for it in every breath you took thereafter.

Watching Sasuke now, even from the back, the light from the window blurring the side of his silhouette, seeing the way his shoulders were curled in, ever so slightly and the way his muscles shifted as he moved, was enough to make Naruto's mouth dry with want.

Seeing the way his bones had begun to poke out a little, and the slump to his once proud stance, made Naruto want to cry.

For the first time in years, Sasuke was back in Konoha. And he was still out of Naruto's reach.

When after fifteen minutes of silence, Naruto said a short goodbye and left. Sasuke didn't reply, but once Naruto had left, he turned around and spent a long moment with his eyes on the closed door.

*

The afternoon was usually a beautiful time of day for Tsunade. It was to be spent enjoying the drunkness she'd achieved before lunch. However today was an exception.

"Please? Please? Pleeeeeeeeeeeease?” Naruto took a deep breath, apparently preparing for another record-breakingly long 'please', before Tsunade cut him off.

"I don't know what it is you expect me to do,” she said, adding a somewhat affectionate “brat.”

Sighing, Naruto stopped rolling on the balls of his feet and placed his hands on the desk, leaning so that he was more on Tsunade's level. When he spoke, his voice was quiet and serious. “It's killing him, Baa-chan.” He didn't have to mention who was being spoken about. It had been obvious this was about Sasuke as soon as Naruto had stepped into her office. Everything had been about Sasuke since the two of them had returned to the visit. Most things for Naruto had been about Sasuke for a long time before that.

"The Council refuse to release him until he proves himself, as I've told you before.” Tsunade tried and failed to be stern, and landed on consolatory.

"But it's stupid, he can't get out until he proves himself, whatever that means, and he can't prove himself while he's stuck in jail!” Naruto straightened, frustrated, and paced in front of the desk, glaring at the untidy bookcase on one of the walls. “It's never going to end. He's gonna be stuck in there forever!” Tsunade was silent, watching his tense frame move agitatedly about the room.

"Sasuke, Sasuke, Sasuke. Does your world ever revolve around anything else?” she asked quietly, resting her chin on her steepled fingers.

Naruto scuffed his sandal against the tightly woven carpet. “There's gotta be another way.”

Tilting her head, Tsunade regarded him for a second, trying to understand his answer. When he shoved his hands in his pockets and squared his jaw, she realised he hadn't heard her question.

"I'll see what I can do.”

*

Outside, Konoha was experiencing a perfect summer day. The sun was shining brightly on the village and its inhabitants, swallows circled lazily, and the warm breeze through the trees was a familiar and comforting tune.

Inside Sasuke's cell, Naruto felt chilled to his bones. Somehow, when it was warm outside, prisons always felt colder, and colder still when they contained someone you cared about.

"So I was talking to Tsunade Baa-chan, and she says she'll have a word with the council and 'see what she can do',” Naruto said, using his fingers to produce air quotes. “Or something.” He glanced around the visiting area outside Sasuke's cell, wishing there was a chair to sit on. “So you should be out any day now! And things'll go back to normal, like they were before.” Better than normal, because normal didn't include Naruto licking down Sasuke's spine, which was one of the top things he planned to do as soon as Sasuke got out. After kissing him, long and hard.

"That's great, isn't it, Sasuke?” Naruto said more than asked, fidgeting for lack of something to do. “Aren't you going to say something?”

"What would you like me to say?” Sasuke's voice was gravelly. He was sitting on his thin bed, leaning against the wall, dark eyes watching Naruto who started slightly, having not expected co-operation in the conversation.

"Umm, anything,” Naruto said, hating how unfinished his words seemed. He didn't want to say the wrong thing, incase it triggered the simmering anger that resided in Sasuke. “What's on your mind?”

There was silence for a while, only a quiet dripping coming from the tap above Sasuke's washbasin, the faucet of which wouldn't close properly. Naruto thought Sasuke wasn't going to answer, and was surprised when he spoke. “What's on my mind?”

The question was asked innocently, but Naruto knew he had somehow misstepped, and braced himself, replying anyway. “Yeah, what are you thinking about?”

Sasuke raised his head slightly to fix Naruto with a thick, black stare. “Right now, I'm thinking about outside. I'm thinking that I can't remember what grass smells like. I'm thinking that when my pitiful excuse for dinner gets here, I wont be able to eat it, because the chakra collar was adjusted yesterday and even though I spent most of the night throwing up, I still feel so nauseous I can hardly breathe and everytime I try to stand up I nearly pass out. I'm thinking that your Hokage has spoken with The Council four times already and not managed to do anything. And I'm thinking that the only thing more annoying than listening to the tap dripping incessantly every fucking second is listening to your pathetic, moronic voice.”

Swallowing hard, Naruto tried to reason with himself, in a way that would take away the hurt he had anticipated, but it didn't help. “Sasu-”

"The worst part,” Sasuke interrupted in a low voice, so quiet that if Naruto hadn't been concentrating, he would have missed it, “is that I actually look forward to your visits, no matter how utterly pointless they are, because without them, trapped in here with no contact with any one, I'd go mad.” Sasuke let out a little bitter laugh. “Maybe then they'd deem me a danger to myself and kill me. I wish they would.”

Somehow, Naruto's throat was still so dry. He opened his mouth, not knowing what he was going to say. As twisted as it was, hearing that he was needed like that made a tiny, selfish part of him, feel appreciated. “You-”

Pulling his knees up and resting his head on them, Sasuke held up a hand. “Leave now, Naruto.” His voice was slightly muffled. He didn't sound angry, just tired.

Naruto left.

*

"Hey, hey, Naruto!”

The call jolted Naruto out of the reverie he was in, as he walked back towards his apartment. It was just after sunset, and he had spent the day helping Iruka-sensei teach the students at the academy. Truthfully, Naruto wasn't always the best teacher, as he got a little competitive- despite the kids being six years his junior -but he always left with a smile.

He turned in the direction of the voice and saw Sakura jogging towards him. She grinned as soon as he stopped and quickly caught up. “Hey Sakura-chan, what's up?”

"Nothing, nothing,” Sakura said with a smile, brushing her hair back and guiding him to walk with her. “I saw you, and I haven't spoken to you in a while.”

Naruto's forehead wrinkled, his eyebrows pulling together. “Eh? What do you mean? I saw you the other day! Outside Ino's flower shop.”

Blinking at him, Sakura patted his shoulder gently, a look of pity passing through her eyes before it cleared. “Idiot,” she said fondly. “That was two weeks ago.”

"Huh?” Naruto looked upwards in thought, counting on his fingers. “No way...You're right.”

"Of course I am,” Sakura said, a little too heatedly. “But it's okay. I know you've been busy.” She hesitated a moment. “With Sasuke.”

"Yeah,” Naruto said, somewhat relieved that Sakura had mentioned him first. He knew that Sakura wasn't visiting Sasuke, but aside from that, didn't know how the girl felt.

"How is he?” Sakura asked gently, as they walked past a row of restaurants and cafes, brightly lit.

"...He's okay,” Naruto said. “He''ll be okay.”

Smiling a little, just the corners of her mouth curling up, Sakura tilted her face towards the sky, watching the clouds move as they walked. “You know, I used to daydream about Sasuke returning the village.”

"Really?” Naruto said, having not expected such a confession.

Sakura gave him an impish grin. “Oh yes, all the time. I'd imagine that he got all his vengeance, did everything he wanted to do, and then came back to live a normal life. The village would welcome him, he'd be stronger than ever, Team Seven would be whole again.” She tilted her head slightly, considering. “And of course, he'd marry me, not Ino.” The triumphant smile that had graced her features faded. “But...it wasn't quite right. All the time I've ever known Sasuke, his goal was to kill Itachi. That was his drive for everything. I couldn't imagine what he would be like without that. When a man moulds himself around a goal, what happens when that goal is completed?”

"Sasuke's going to be fine,” Naruto reiterated, fists clenched. “He's stronger than that.”

Sakura looked at him for a second, then nodded to herself, before changing the topic slightly. “You know, The Council isn't keeping Sasuke a prisoner because they think he's a danger.”

"I know,” Naruto said grimly, glaring at the ground. “It's not like he could do anything with the chakra collar anyway. They're doing it to punish him.”

"Yeah,” Sakura agreed softly, reaching out to brush her hand against Naruto's comfortingly. “But they still appreciate that he could be a strong asset to Konoha, if his loyalty could be guaranteed.”

"But there's no way to do that- at least no way The Council would accept.” Naruto's fingers hurt from the constant clenching and unclenching. “So he's stuck in there.”

They had reached the corner of the street where Sakura's house was, and the point that they would usually split up when walking together, so stopped under a street lamp. “Tsunade-sama spoke to them again today, like you asked her to.”

"Really?” Naruto tried to suppress the bubble of hope rising in him, like it had all the other times. “What happened?”

Gnawing her lip, Sakura spoke slowly. “They said that they would consider freeing Sasuke, and reinstating him as a shinobi.”

"What?!” Naruto practically shouted, making Sakura shush him. His eyes brightened and he let out a tiny, disbelieving laugh. “No way?!”

"But there was a condition, Naruto,” Sakura said. Sensing her lack of elation, the nervous way her eyes were scanning his reaction, Naruto felt a cold fear grip him.

"What was the condition?” he asked. Sakura frowned, pursing her lips. “Sakura, tell me.”

"You're not going to like it,” she said.

She was right.

*


"You can't,” was the first thing Naruto said, still gasping for breath, bent in half with his hands grasping his knees, but his head pulled up to meet Sasuke's gaze. When he got no reply he went on. “The Council's agreement, you can't accept it. You won't. Right?”

Having caught his breath back, Naruto straightened, watching as Sasuke stood from the bed and walked the few steps to the bars. Still not talking, not giving the reassurance that Naruto desperately needed. “You wont,” Naruto continued to press. “Right?”

"Your Hokage told you,” Sasuke said softly, hands in his pockets, eyes unreadable. Naruto shook his head briskly.

"No, Sakura did.”

"They came to me this afternoon and gave me their offer.” There was no hesitation in his speech, just smooth and soft. The kind of tone that made the worry Naruto felt multiply again and again with every word.

"Sasuke. What did you tell them?” Naruto whispered. The way his breath was catching in his throat now had nothing to do with the run to get here.

"I said I'd think about it,” Sasuke said finally, eyes narrowed as he watched Naruto's reaction.

Hearing that Sasuke had considered the offer felt like being punched in a gut. If his breathing had been strained before, it was nothing compared to the burn he felt now.

"You're actually considering accepting it?” Naruto shouted weakly, ignoring the way his voice echoed off the concrete walls. “How can you?”

"They said if I accepted, I'd be released immediately. They'd take off the chakra collar as the treatment progressed. I'd be a ninja again.”

Naruto gaped, Sasuke couldn't disguise the faint trace of longing in his voice. He really wanted this. “But you'll lose everything that makes you you.”

His lip curled, a thread of control snapping at the claim. “And what exactly is that? The selfish, power hungry clan? The brother that I killed? Every bond that I've broken? All the sacrifices I made for a revenge that ultimately means nothing?”

Hearing that made Naruto close his eyes in pain. At various points in his live, he would have wished for Sasuke to see his goal, his revenge, his vendettas, in such a light, but not now, not after he'd thrown so much away to accomplish them.

When a man moulds himself around a goal, what happens when that goal is completed?

"Sasuke,” Naruto started, intent on being the voice of reason. “If you agree, then it'll be like those things, that you worked hard for, never happened.”

"No, it won't,” Sasuke said, quietly. “I just won't remember them.”

"How can you want that?” Naruto said, disbelievingly. Sasuke's eyebrows pulled together.

"How can I not?” He retorted, his voice harsh. “Do you think it's nice to look back on my life and see everything I've done?” He laughed cruelly. “You have no idea.”

"Sasuke. Look, I get it, but listen to me-”

"You? You're the reason I'm here in the first place.”

Thinking Sasuke was talking about being dragged back to Konoha, Naruto tried to explain. “I'm sorry but-”

"Not that,” Sasuke shook his head, knowing what Naruto was thinking. “You wouldn't have convinced me if I didn't want to come. At the gates, when we arrived.”

Blinking, Naruto processed what Sasuke had said, not understanding. At the gates? “I don't know what you mean...”

"As soon as we sensed the ANBU, I should have run. I could have outrun them, could have been far, far away from here. But I looked at you, and I could see you were afraid of that exact thing. You had this stupid look on your face. And I hesitated. Just for a second.” Sasuke's eyes met Naruto's. “And now I'm here. Stuck in these four walls, with nothing to do but think about how fucked up my entire life has been.”

"They'll release you eventually,” Naruto said weakly. “They'll have to. You don't have to accept this...”

"Will they? I don't think so. And if they do, how long am I supposed to wait? Years? Decades? Do you think when I'm an old man, they'll deem me safe and let me live out the last few years of my life in freedom?”

"At least you'll still be Sasuke when you get out!” Naruto insisted. He glared at the bars, wishing so much that they weren't there. He felt, if he could just touch Sasuke, physically, he would be able to convince him. “If you agree then...then what about us?”

It was dark now, but both of their eyes had adjusted to the dimness, so that Naruto could clearly see the look on Sasuke's face, and keenly feel the hurt, before any words were spoken. “Us?” Sasuke echoed, incredulously. “What genjustsu are you living in? How can there be any kind of 'us' while my life is restricted to this cell? You should be happy, this way, you could get the relationship you want.”

"But I want that relationship with you.” Naruto wondered if he imagined that Sasuke's eyes softened slightly, before hardening again.

"Stop deluding yourself,” he demanded harshly. “There can't be any relationship between us with the way things stand.”

"Taking their deal is the coward's way out,” Naruto said, gritting his teeth, tension lining his face. “I never knew you to run away from your problems.”

"Why shouldn't I?” Sasuke hissed, turning and slamming a hand against the wall. “Why can't I get a chance at a new life? Haven't I suffered enough?”

Naruto frowned, scrunching up his whole face. “I know you've been through some crap, Sasuke, and I want to be supportive, but I'm not going to give you any sympathy. Everything you've done, you chose it, despite what everyone around you said.”

If possible, Sasuke's glare darkened. “And if I killed everyone you cared about, wouldn't you want revenge? Wouldn't you do whatever it takes to get that? Don't talk about shit you don't understand.”

"I can't say what I would have done in your position,” Naruto said slowly, his worry cooling as he started to become angry with Sasuke. “But you have to take responsibility for your own actions.”

"Says who?” Sasuke asked darkly. He was standing in front of the bars, staring through at Naruto. “You? You think I give a damn?”

Naruto curled his lip in disgust. His previous fear about the agreement had all but disappeared, as he listened to Sasuke speak. Naruto had never heard him speak like this, Sasuke was rarely vocal about his feelings, and hearing him talk in this way made Naruto's blood boil. After everything they had been through together, Sasuke was willing to throw it all away for a chance to run away from the mistakes he had chosen.

"No, I know you don't,” Naruto said, a little surprised at the venom in his voice. For the past few months, he'd bottled up his anger at Sasuke, fixated on keeping him in Konoha, but now they were coming out. “You only seem to care about people who are dead, ignoring the fact that it's your fault they died in the first place.”

Sasuke looked surprised for a second, his lips parted slightly, but then his face clouded, mouth tightening into a stern line. Sensing the change in mood, that he had gone a step too far, Naruto tried to back peddle. “Sasuke-”

"How dare you,” he hissed, teeth clenched.

"Y-you know I didn't mean that,” Naruto said, panicking at the abrupt turn of events. “I just-”

"You did mean it,” Sasuke snapped, reaching up as though to clasp a bar, but stopping in time. “It's the truth, we both know it.” He stared at Naruto. “How can you not see that's what I want to escape?”

"But you can't...” Naruto started again weakly. Sasuke gave a brusque shake of his head.

"Get out,” he said quietly. “I want to be alone.” He threw himself onto the bed, effectively ignoring Naruto who left with a heavy heart, wondering exactly what he had done.

*

The Council had given Sasuke a week to decide what he wished to do. Naruto spent the seven days locked up in his apartment, Sasuke refusing to see him, with nothing to do but stew over what had been said.

On the eighth day, while laying on his bed, he spied a bird circling slowly outside his window. And so knowing what awaited him, Naruto headed to the Hokage Tower.

Tsunade didn't smile when he came in, just looked at him, taking in his appearance; tired eyes, dishevelled clothes, and slumped, defeated shoulders.

"He gave the elders his decision yesterday,” Tsunade started gravely. Naruto nodded numbly. “Well? Aren't you going to ask what he said?”

The side of Naruto's mouth twitched up in a pale, ghostly imitation of his usual grin. “I don't need to.”

"Naruto...” Tsunade sighed, exhausted just from seeing someone she cared about looking so worn. “Maybe it's better this way,” she suggested. “It could be like a fresh start for the two of you...”

Naruto shook his head briskly. “I don't-” he sighed, jaw clenched. “Just tell me where he is.”

*

When Naruto burst into the apartment- without knocking -Sasuke was sitting at the kitchen table, with Sakura on the other side. Around them were a few cardboard boxes that held Sasuke's few possessions, yet to be unpacked.

The chakra collar was still there, the hateful piece of metal strapped tightly around his neck, but Sasuke looked a million times better. There was an ease to his features that Naruto hadn't seen in a long time. The haunted look that had started to stay in his eyes, night and day, had dissipated a little. The small kitchen was flooded with sunshine and sitting there, Sasuke looked...calm.

On the other hand, Sakura was clearly agitated. Tapping her foot beneath the table, eyes wide as she recognised Naruto. On the table in front of her, was a large grey box with clasps on the side, and a Konoha mark stamped on the front.

Naruto swallowed and took a step forward, then another, and another, until he was standing next to the table. While Sakura's eyes followed his movements, Sasuke only looked up when Naruto was close enough to touch him.

Taking a deep breath, Naruto bumped his hand gently against the one Sasuke had laid on the table, before walking around and sliding into the chair next to him.

"Sakura-chan," he said softly, although she winced nonetheless. "You're here for the treatment."

"The first one," she replied, just as quietly, relaxing minutely as she realised he wasn't angry. "I volunteered."

Naruto nodded thoughtfully, slipping one hand under the table to clasp at Sasuke's. "Okay. So how does this work?" Though Sasuke's hand tensed for a moment, he didn't pull away.

Glancing at Sasuke for reassurance, Sakura spoke. "The jutsu is new, it was developed very recently, so its full effects haven't been tested, but it's completely safe." She grew a little in confidence as she spoke, clearly knowledgeable on the subject.

"It's a two part treatment. First healing jutsu is used, requiring direct contact. That's what I'll be administering."

Under the table, Naruto squeezed Sasuke's hand gently.

"Due to the complexity of the brain, it's not possible to simply wipe out whole memories. Instead it will just close doors. After each session, there's a special chakra treated potion that you'll need to drink. That will ensure the longevity of the treatment after he completes. It will also encourage your mind to fill in the gaps in your history itself. This is the most organic and safe way." Sakura paused for breath, eyeing the two of them across from her. "Your subconscious will create the alternative memories, so in a way, it's like you get to choose your past."

And Sasuke squeezed back.

*

By the evening of the second day after Sasuke's release, everything was unpacked. They had cleaned up the apartment which was of a fair size, and gone shopping to stock up on necessities. By tacit, Naruto had brought a spare futon and set it up next to Sasuke's in the bedroom, as well as moving a few of his things in.

Sakura had left the previous day after giving Sasuke the first of his treatments. Naruto had watched as she placed her hands on Sasuke's temples and let her green medical chakra flow out. It had only lasted a few seconds, before she finished had Sasuke drink the mixture she had prepared, promising to return the next week.

Since then, Naruto had been keeping a careful eye on Sasuke, but had noticed nothing abnormal in his actions. Although Sakura had warned that it was a progressive treatment, with the effects accumulating towards the end of the term, Naruto couldn't help but hope that there was something wrong with it, and Sasuke would remain unaffected.

Shutting the fridge, Naruto eyed the now empty paper bag that had been used to carry the groceries back. “I think I'm done here,” he called, raising his voice slightly. There was an answering grunt from the bedroom. Crushing the bag into a ball and tossing it in the bin, Naruto followed the sound and found Sasuke sitting on the floor, folding some sheets. “Need help?”

"No,” Sasuke said, not looking up. Naruto ignored the slight, focusing on the oddly hypnotic motion of Sasuke's hands, as he folded the sheets, straightening the edges and brushing the creases out. It was strange to see hands as lethal as Sasuke's doing something so domestic. Naruto was surprised that Sasuke would care about creases.

"Alright,” Naruto said amiably, not willing to cause a fight. “Do you want to cook, or should I? Sakura made me buy loads of vegetables, even though they'll just go rotten, so we might as well use them up before they do.”

"I don't want to eat yet,” Sasuke said, putting away the sheets and standing up. “There's somewhere I need to go.”

Naruto watched Sasuke's movements carefully. “Alone?”

Sasuke shook his head. “No.”

Swallowing, Naruto nodded. “Okay.”

When they left the apartment, Sasuke locked the door, making Naruto smile a little at the normality. How long had he wanted to see Sasuke outside the confines of his cell? Now, he could. Even if there would be consequences, for now it was hard not to feel happy.

They walked in silence. Naruto saw a few of his friends and waved at them, returning a few greetings, but declined their invitations to hang out or have a drink, reluctant to leave Sasuke's side. Even when he paused to have a rushed conversation with Chouji, he couldn't formulate responses more eloquent than 'mm's and 'yeah's because his eyes kept drifting to the periphery of his vision, where Sasuke waited patiently, or as patiently as he did anything.

As they walked past a row of houses, Naruto heard Sasuke sigh. “What?”

"You don't have to keep doing that,” Sasuke said, frowning slightly, but facing ahead.

"Doing what?” Naruto asked, puzzled.

"Watching me,” Sasuke clarified. “I'm fine. You don't need to keep checking up on me.”

"Sorry,” Naruto mumbled, scratching the back of his head, embarrassed. Sasuke made an irritated noise.

"I don't mind,” he said. “It's just stupid. You don't need to.” He huffed again, looking away, and missing the surprised smile on Naruto's face.

"Sorry,” Naruto said again, not sounding particularly sorry. “You're not having any side-effects then?”

Sasuke gave him a flat look. “It's only been a day.” When Naruto persisted, he relented. “I have a slight headache.”

Immediately, Naruto panicked. “You do? Why didn't you tell me? Is it bad? Rate it, on a scale of one to ten. Do you want me to get Sakura-chan?” Sasuke punched him, but not hard. Despite this, Naruto looked affronted, holding his jaw and glaring. “Well excuse me for caring.”

"I said a slight headache,” Sasuke said, unperturbed as they continued walking. “It could be caused by something entirely different. Like your continuous whining.”

"Hey-”

"Regardless of the cause,” Sasuke continued, “it's a thousand times better than being in prison.”

"Oh,” Naruto said lamely, his face falling a bit. “I guess.”

Snorting, Sasuke gave him a sceptical look. “You guess? You were there, you saw.” His face momentarily darkened. “Being free, even with the conditions...it feels so...” Sasuke took a deep breath, a slight smile tugging his mouth as he closed his eyes briefly. When he opened them again, to find Naruto staring he scowled. “What did I just say?”

"Sorry,” Naruto said, utterly unrepentant. “Couldn't help it.”

The smile that briefly crossed Sasuke's features disappeared a few minutes later, as they reached their destination, stopping in front of the gate. Sasuke was the one that stepped forward, pushing it open and walking inside. His eyes were red. Naruto followed silently.

They walked through the empty streets, past the shops and through the rows of houses. Occasionally Sasuke would stop and look at something for long moments, or veer off track to run his fingers down a wall, or along a window ledge, eyes narrowed as he took in little details. Naruto followed diligently, keeping a fair distance behind him, giving Sasuke his space.

Eventually, by the time the moon was high in the sky, covering everything in a cool glow, Sasuke stopped in front of a large, traditional style house.

"Do you want to go in?” Naruto whispered. “I'll wait.”

Sasuke shook his head. He stared at the house, long and hard, focus never wavering for a second. After some time, when the cool of the night started to curl around them, Sasuke let out a long breath.

"Come on,” he said, walking away.

Naruto didn't speak until they were far away from the Uchiha Compound, afraid to break the silence between them, leaving Sasuke to do so when he was ready.

"I'm selling it,” Sasuke said abruptly, as they turned the corner towards the apartment. “The Council offered to buy it. I could use the money, and soon enough it's not going to mean anything to me.”

"You don't need to explain that to me,” Naruto said quietly.

Sasuke looked momentarily surprised, then nodded. “I hope they burn it,” he whispered, so quietly that Naruto nearly missed it.

As they neared the apartment, Naruto started to fidget slightly, rubbing the back of his neck and running his hands through his hair so that it stood up on end, until Sasuke glared at him.

Collecting himself, Naruto waited until they were through the door to speak. “Sasuke, about last week. That day...” Sasuke looked at him sharply as he slipped off his sandals, closing the door. “I said some things.”

"Forget it,” Sasuke said briskly, moving to the kitchen, hearing Naruto follow him. “I said things too.”

"Yeah but, you were stuck in jail, and you were right it-”

Sasuke cut him off with a quick but firm kiss. “Forget it,” he said seriously, leaning his head against Naruto's for a second, so his dark eyes dominated his vision. “I don't want to spend any more time on the past.”

*

"Aahn, Sasuke,” Naruto panted, head back against the wall as Sasuke moved his mouth along the warm, soft skin of his neck. There was something about the position, the vulnerability and the trust, that made Naruto shiver. Blindly, he reached out, weaving his fingers into Sasuke's hair and shuddering as Sasuke made a pleased noise, the sound vibrating against his damp skin.

They hadn't been close like this for months -not since the journey back to Konoha- and to do so now, in their apartment, was so far removed from anything Naruto associated with Sasuke that it felt surreal. Naruto hadn't wanted to rush, but today, they had eaten lunch, been halfway through washing up, when Naruto had looked up and caught Sasuke's eyes looking right back at him.

Seconds later, he found himself pushed against a wall, kissing Sasuke like it was all he knew how to do, like if he stopped, if they lost contact for a second, something terrible would happen.

Suddenly seized with an urge to see his partner's face, Naruto pulled gently at Sasuke's hair, bringing him away from where he was licking Naruto's collarbone, the hand that wasn't curled around his neck having head down to palm Naruto's erection to life. Sasuke gave a little squeeze, making Naruto groan, before raising his head slightly, his breaths coming fast.

Naruto slid his hands down to either side of Sasuke's face, holding him there, feeling puffs of air against his lips. Naruto sucked it in greedily, making Sasuke squint at him. “What the hell are you doing?” he asked, his words soft as he dipped his head slightly to lick along Naruto's parted lips.

"Don't know,” Naruto breathed, closing his eyes momentarily. “We should go to the bedroom.”

In answer, Sasuke wound his hands into Naruto's hair, guiding his head so that they could continue kissing, even while walking. They managed two steps, before Sasuke tripped and nearly fell, catching himself on the door frame just in time. Naruto, able to brace himself against Sasuke, remained upright and laughing. Sasuke scowled and snaked a hand between them and giving him a few hard pumps that effectively knocked all traces of amusement off Naruto's face and made his final chuckle turn into a yelp.

With a dark look, Sasuke untangled himself and stalked towards the bedroom, reaching in time for Naruto to tackle him, making them fall once again, thankfully landing on the futon.

"That hurt, idiot,” Sasuke said into Naruto's hair, arms wrapped around him as he rubbed the small of his back before pushing his top up and moving against skin.

"Eheheh, sorry,” Naruto mumbled into Sasuke's neck, watching with wonder as the skin formed goosebumps. Somehow, it seemed strange that Sasuke got goosebumps, that his skin was so warm, that when Naruto moved his hand to the front of his chest, he could feel Sasuke's heartbeat, strong against his palm. “Sasuke...I...”

"Hmm?” Sasuke muttered, shifting down and manoeuvring Naruto up a little, so they were face to face. “What?”

Naruto looked surprised, having forgotten what he had said. “I don't know,” he said stupidly, grinning widely at the expression on Sasuke's face.

"Moron,” Sasuke sighed as Naruto leaned down, forearms braced on either side of Sasuke's head, holding his weight.

Gently, he brushed his lips against Sasuke's once, twice, then moved back, studying them carefully, mapping their appearance to what they felt like when pressed against his. “Sasuke?”

"What?” Sasuke grunted, bringing his knees up a little so Naruto could rest comfortably between his legs.

"What does my mouth taste like?” Naruto asked, eyes fixed on Sasuke's lips.

"Nothing,” Sasuke said, “you just taste like you.”

"That doesn't,” Naruto paused to latch onto Sasuke's neck, now free of the chakra collar, intent on leaving a mark, “make any sense.” He lifted himself briefly, trying to get some air between them as he felt his skin start to stick to his clothes, but fell back down quickly, unwilling to let there be any distance between him and Sasuke.

"Then what do I taste like?” Sasuke asked, between gasps. “Hey, what are you trying to do? Draw blood?”

"Maybe,” Naruto said, giving the bite a firm lick and smiling at it. “I dunno what you taste like. Sort of... warm.”

"That's not a taste, moron,” Sasuke said. When he saw that Naruto was about to speak again, he quickly thrust his hips up, signally the time for conversation was over. Naruto seemed to whole-heartedly agree, letting a gasp fall from his lips, followed by a low whine as he ground down, trying to create the same sensation.

Their kisses became a little sloppy, Naruto pushed Sasuke's shirt up to lick and tease at his nipples, pausing and shuddering when the feeling between their hips became too overwhelming. Sasuke kept pushing and pushing, and at some point Naruto found himself panting into his shoulder, too out of it, completely focused on the pleasurable throbbing that was engulfing him, to notice anything that wasn't the frenzied slide of Sasuke's arousal against his.

"Sasuke,” Naruto found himself gasping. “Sasuke, Sasuke, Sasuke...” He had no idea why he was saying it, only that it was the only thing that his lust-ridden mind could comprehend right now; the body moving insistently against his, and the person that was his closest friend.

With that thought, Naruto tensed, his eyes squeezing shut as he gave one last shuddering thrust and gasped at the intensity of his release. His body went boneless, his vision grey and spotty as he came down, each of Sasuke's upward grinds creating pleasurable aftershocks until he too finished, shivering and panting against Naruto's ear.

After a few blissful seconds, spent floating on sensation, Sasuke pressed weakly on his hip, signally that he wanted Naruto to move, making him roll back, so they laid side by side. Ignoring his exhaustion, and the sticky wetness they had created, before falling asleep, Naruto forced his eyes open. He watched as Sasuke's breathing evened out, his face perfectly relaxed, and memorised it.

*

The first time it happened, Naruto's blood froze in his veins.

It was a typical day. Sasuke was happy- not that it was obvious to anyone but Naruto –because it had been four weeks since his release, and The Council had declared that he could restart his training. They had spent the majority of the day alternatively sparring and lying flat on the ground, exhausted, until their easy banter turned to insults, and a fight resulted. Towards the end, their fighting had taken a different twist, leading to an extremely satisfying make out session.

They were walking back to the apartment, Naruto still grinning because Sasuke hadn’t noticed the hickey he’d left, and chattering about how he kicked Sasuke’s ass, when he spotted Shikamaru, walking down the road in their direction, hands in his pockets.

"Hey, hey, Shikamaruuuuuuu,” Naruto crowed, making Sasuke wince at the volume. “What’s up?” Shikamaru seemed similarly put out by the interruption, but indulged Naruto with a short conversation, before leaving, claiming he had to do some “troublesome” errands.

Grinning more than ever, Naruto resumed walking, with Sasuke at his side. Sasuke had actually shrugged when Shikamaru directed a question at him, which was definitely a move forward.

"I bet he wont get any errands done,” Naruto babbled. “I’m sure he doesn’t even have errands. He probably just wants to go lie on the grass and stare at the clouds. I don’t know how anyone gets so lazy.” Naruto gave Sasuke a sly glance. “What’s more incredible is that someone so lazy could be dating Temari.”

Sasuke said nothing. Naruto elbowed him conspiratorially. “Did you know that? I mean, Temari!! Unbelievable, right?”

Giving him a blank stare, Sasuke shoved weakly at the elbow. “Who?”

"Temari?” Naruto frowned. “Blonde, stacked, carries a huge fan around? Gaara's sister? Ringing any bells?”

To Naruto's surprise, Sasuke's eyebrows pulled together. “Gaara of the Sand?”

"You know any other Gaaras?” Naruto asked, puzzled now. “I know you missed her fights at the Chuunin exams, but still.”

"She was at the Chuunin exams?” Sasuke asked, the question seemingly addressed more to himself than to Naruto.

"Of course she was,” Naruto cried, exasperated. “How could you forget something like tha-” He stopped as soon as he realised what he was saying; stopped talking, stopped walking, just stopped and stared without seeing anything except the little mound of hope he had been quietly building in the past four weeks be swept away into dust on the wind.

Suddenly on the same page, Sasuke stopped too. “No,” he said forcefully. “No. I never even spoke to her. Why would I remember?” Naruto said nothing, too strung out to process the denials, so Sasuke punched him in the shoulder, demanding attention in a way that was as desperate as the lost expression on his face. “Hey, it's not that.”

Though he was scowling, Naruto knew better than to think he was angry, this was fear. “Sure,” Naruto managed to rasp out, agreeing because there was nothing else to do. “Sure. People forget stuff all the time. It doesn't mean anything.” He laughed, trying to be reassuring, and carried on walking.

By the time they get home, Naruto started talking again chattering about nothing in particular. He talked so much that Sasuke didn't manage a word, which was the idea, because everytime Sasuke opened his mouth, Naruto feared what he might say.

*

"Walking by yourself?” was the first thing Kakashi said, when Naruto found him leaning against a spread out oak tree, his favourite orange book in his hands.

"Sasuke's at home. Sakura-chan's giving him this week's treatment,” Naruto said without enthusiasm. He wasn't sure when their apartment became a home, but he was all too aware of its lacking permanence and so used the term as much as possible, while he still could.

"I see. She asked me to meet her for taijutsu training here an hour ago,” Kakashi said pensively.

Naruto managed to crack a smile. “She probably expected you to be later. You wont have to wait much longer though. It doesn't take a long time.”

"You don't want to be there?” Kakashi enquired politely, his eyes back on his book, but Naruto could see they weren't moving.

"I don't like thinking about it,” Naruto said with a shrug. When Kakashi didn't say anything, he added: “It's been six weeks, Kakashi-sensei.”

"Aaa,” Kakashi acknowledged. “And how are you doing?”

Naruto frowned, puzzled. “Shouldn't you be asking how Sasuke is?” he wondered out loud.

Kakashi gave him a smile, or as much as could be discerned under the mask, his visible eye curving upwards. “For Sasuke, right now, there is no present. Soon enough he wont remember me, so it's pointless to waste time on something that doesn't exist.”

Trying to muddle through the words just confused Naruto more, although he felt that he should be upset on Sasuke's behalf. “I don't understand.”

Sighing, Kakashi lowered the book, looking at Naruto with something akin to pity. He reached out one hand and ruffled the top of Naruto's hair, the gesture seeming out of place.

"No,” he said. “I wouldn't expect you to.”

*

"It's just a headache,” Sasuke said, when Naruto found him sitting on the edge of the sofa, head cradled between his hands. But Naruto knew Sasuke, and knew that for him to have admitted there was a problem meant he was in a lot of pain. Usually, Sasuke would grunt and insist he was fine, through broken bones and bruised organs and even when lying in a hospital bed, he infuriated Sakura by refusing to admit when something hurt. Naruto knew this, not because he bandaged Sasuke's wounds, sat by his bedside and traced the scars with the tip of one finger, but because he did the exact same thing.

So he locked the door, took the phone off the hook, closed all the curtains in the apartment and then brought a pillow to the couch. In the comforting darkness, he set it in his lap and bade Sasuke lie back, Sasuke's compliance giving testament to the severity of his condition.

"This is stupid,” Sasuke said, when Naruto laid tentative fingers on his temples. “You're going to make it worse.”

"Shhh,” Naruto said, ignoring him. His head was tipped forward, so that he could see Sasuke properly, his hair falling downwards as he moved his hands curiously, with far more gentleness than Sasuke would have thought possible. “Let me,” he said, and Sasuke let him, willing to take any distraction over the pain throbbing in his head, and lulled by the womb-like darkness of the apartment, and the surprising coolness of Naruto's fingertips.

"Did you take the medication Sakura-chan left,” Naruto asked quietly, his fingers moving, probing skin, rubbing slow little circles. He didn't want to ask; talking about the treatment had become taboo, except when it was unavoidable. Words like 'forget' and 'memory' had been scratched out of Naruto's vocabulary, and whenever he accidentally faltered and said one, he felt like he was wavering at the top of a steep cliff.

"It doesn't help,” Sasuke said after a few seconds. Naruto's touch was surprisingly light and relaxing, in comparison to his usual all consuming, fiery touches. Occasionally he paused to brush the fingers of one hand through Sasuke's hair in gentle, firm strokes.

Slowly, the warm, comforting waves that emanated from Naruto's contact lessened the pain, Sasuke's breathing became more relaxed and his eyelids stopped fluttering. “Better?” Naruto asked.

"Mmm,” Sasuke said, unwilling to move too much, to disturb the mood. Naruto hummed a little, pleased and changing his motions, going from rubbing to tracing the lines of Sasuke' face with his fingers.

After a time, Sasuke opened his eyes to see Naruto staring at him strangely, as though just looking long and hard would do something. One of his hands was in Sasuke's hair the thumb rubbing up and down gently, while the other rested on his stomach, radiating heat. Sasuke's headache was gone.“What?”

"Sasuke,” Naruto started, tipping his head slightly and stilling the movement of his hand momentarily. “Have you ever had sex?”

Sasuke's eyes widened at the question, especially given their current position, but there was nothing sexual in the touches, no tension in the air or hunger in Naruto's eyes, just gentle, gentle curiousity. He considered for a second before answering. “No.”

There was no surprise in Naruto's expression, just acceptance, and some sort of thought going on just under the surface. “Me either. There was a pause in which Naruto went back to gently rubbing his thumb against Sasuke's scalp, and Sasuke let his eyes drift shut. “Do you want to?”

Naruto asked the question like it was nothing, the most casual thing in the world, but when Sasuke opened his eyes, he could see the nervousness in Naruto's features. “Sex?” Sasuke echoed, although it would be false to say he hadn't had suspicions when Naruto brought the subject up.

Naruto coughed, stumbling over his words. “Yeah. I mean, us. We don't have to, if you don't want to, but I thought-”

"Of course I want to,” Sasuke said, frowning as he sat up and turned himself around to face Naruto better.

"Right.” Naruto coughed again. “Well. We could. Then. Heh.” The hand that had fallen out of Sasuke's hair when he sat up was clenched in his lap. Naruto stared at the coffee table.

"Why?” Sasuke asked, watching Naruto's expression carefully.

"Just, because. We might not have that much time.” The last few words came out in a rush, and Naruto brought his face up to look Sasuke in the eye, desperation lacing his features.

"Naruto,” Sasuke said slowly. “I'm not going anywhere.”

"I know that,” Naruto said, his words practically a whisper, “but I am.”

*

Late that night, as the owls hooted and crickets chirruped outside their window, Naruto and Sasuke had sex. It took a while to get started, they kept getting stalled at awkward points; the mood that was usually so desperate seemed stilted, with the usual passion absent. But slowly, carefully, they fell into a rhythm they both enjoyed, and then it was suddenly over far too soon.

Afterwards, they lay panting, side by side, letting their bodies cool and listening to the way their breathing fell into syncronisation, and then back out. Absorbing what they had done, and what it meant, and trying to work out if things were different now, and if they weren't, why not.

"Sakura-chan says you won't remember me,” Naruto said finally, releasing the words into the cool night air. “She says that your memory of me is too tied into Itachi and your past. She says that in the best case scenario, I wont get wiped out, you'll remember me as your teammate, but you wont remember any of the things we've done together.” Naruto let out a wet noise that might have been a sob. “I don't know how that's the best case scenario.”

Rolling sluggishly onto his side, Sasuke saw Naruto looking at him pleadingly, his eyes shiny in the light from the window. Sasuke reached out a hand between them, landing on Naruto's wrist and moving down to lace their fingers together in a gesture that would have made him cringe, but it was Naruto -it was just Naruto- and somehow that made it alright.

"Naruto,” Sasuke said very slowly and clearly, “I won't forget you. I promise.” Naruto produced a watery smile and pulled on their joined hands, tugging Sasuke towards him. He came willingly, obligingly letting Naruto wind around him, his warm, somewhat clammy skin press against his, and Naruto's scent engulf him.

Minutes trickled by. Gradually, Naruto's grip on him grew slightly more relaxed, the breaths into his hair evened, deepened. The air cooled, the noises outside grew fewer, and Sasuke's eyes stayed open, staring unseeing at the ceiling.

Eventually he untangled himself carefully from Naruto and stood, managing to pull the sheets out from underneath him and lay back down, draping them over the two of them. As Sasuke settled back down, lying on his back, feeling the soreness of his muscles, thinking that they should have showered, and now he couldn't find it in himself to do so, Naruto shifted slightly.

"I lied,” Sasuke said in a low voice. He didn't look at Naruto, just carried on staring at the ceiling. “When you asked me what my favourite memory was, and I said I didn't have one. I lied.” He glanced at Naruto, lying peacefully on his side, no worry in his expression, and couldn't resist reaching out a hand to run down his arm, feeling the soft hairs and warm, solid muscle. “Our first B rank mission, to Wave Country, when we were fighting that boy with the mask.” Sasuke faltered for a second, wetting his lips and continuing. “I think you would find it strange, to know this, but when I jumped in front of you and took those needles, when you thought I died. For one moment, I gave it up. All the hate and anger and revenge. For one moment, your life was more important than anything else. I was going to die, and it was okay.” Sasuke let out a low, shuddering breath. “That's my favourite memory. Even when I tried to forget it, I couldn't.” He paused. “But I'd give it up, if I could keep you.” He turned slightly, slinking closer to Naruto, trying to forget himself in the warmth, the soft rise and fall of his chest. “So I'm giving it to you,” Sasuke whispered, “ as sentimental and stupid as that is. Keep it safe.”

Satisfied, Sasuke closed his eyes, pressing his face into the crook of Naruto's neck and sighing, feeling a hundred years old as he surrendered to sleep.

In his dreams, the tears that fell on his skin turned to rain at the foot of a waterfall.

*

One sunny afternoon, as Sakura was leaving the apartment that Naruto and Sasuke shared, she was surprised to see Naruto sitting on the banister that ran around the apartment block, one leg pulled up and the other hanging down. What surprised her was not his presence, but that he was masking his chakra which he rarely did unless they were on a mission, and that when he saw her, he raised a finger to his lips, prompting her to stay quiet.

She closed the door, watching as he jumped lightly down from the banister and beckoned her, walking briskly to the end of the hallway and taking the stairs down. Obediently, she followed, waiting until they got out of the complex before talking.

"Naruto, what's going on?” she asked, falling into step with him, noting the frown on his face.

"How was Sasuke?” Naruto asked, mouth twisted to the side. Sakura blinked.

"His treatment was fine, there don't seem to be any complications,” she said slowly. “Why?”

"He didn't say anything?” Naruto asked, clearly irritated, “I knew it. I told him to ask for something for the headaches.”

"He's still having headaches?” Sakura frowned, fingers itching to take out the file she kept on Sasuke to write down this new development. “But I gave him some medicine.”

"I make him take it, but he says it doesn't work,” Naruto said with a shrug, staring off into the distance. The sides of his mouth pulled down. “He says it's nothing though, you know how he is.”

"I see,” Sakura said evenly as they walked down the main street. “Have you noticed anything else? The treatment's in its fifteenth week,” she hesitated, glancing at Naruto's face before continuing. “He should be completing soon, but I haven't noticed anything, and when I ask...”

"He denies it,” Naruto finished for her, fists clenched, his knuckles white. “Typical Sasuke.” He let out a sigh. “He has the headaches, sometimes it's nothing more than an irritation, and sometimes he can't even stand. And I heard him throwing up the other night, but he brushed it off.”

"Nausea,” Sakura said thoughtfully, nodding to herself. “I can see why that could happen. I can give him something.” She looking up at Naruto, “anything else?”

Sighing, Naruto kicked at the ground, keeping his eyes down. “He forgets,” he said softly. “Small things, tiny details. It's hard to tell, because he hides it so damn well, but sometimes,” Naruto ran a hand over his face, tired. “Sometimes I'll be talking and I see something pass behind his eyes.”

"Naruto...” Sakura looked at him with pity. It was an emotion he was getting sick of seeing on the faces of his friends.

"Whatever,” he shrugged, shoving his hands in his pockets in a show of bravado. “It's not important. Can you get something for the headaches?”

"I put him on a high dosage already,” Sakura said, biting her lip. “I know he lies about how much pain he's in, so I went straight ahead. The thing is, the headaches are just going to get worse and worse until he completes.”

Naruto stared at her in dismay. “You mean you can't do anything?” His raised voice caused a few stares in their direction, and noticing, Sakura grabbed his wrist, pulling him into a quieter side street and sitting down on a low wall. Naruto stood, but she didn't complain.

"The reason Sasuke is getting the headaches,” she started slowly, keeping her head down so that her pink hair fell straight. “It's because his brain is trying to shut down his memories of the past, and you keep reminding him of them. Everytime he sees you, he's faced with a truth his mind is trying to deny. It stops him from completing, and the resultant tension gives the headaches.”

"So you're saying, the reason Sasuke's in pain, is me?” Naruto looked shocked, and somehow hurt. Sakura didn't answer immediately, turning her watery eyes down, but when she spoke her voice was firm.

"Naruto, you're going to have to make a choice about what you want to do.” She stood, one hand brushing down his shoulder to briefly squeeze his hand. Naruto squeezed back, his strong fingers curled around her delicate ones, then released her, taking a few steps away.

"Sakura-chan,” he said, giving her a smile as brittle as shards of glass, “the choices made have nothing to do with what I want.”

*

The lights were off when Naruto came home one evening, having spent the day doing some training with Lee. Considering that Sasuke might have a headache, Naruto closed the door carefully, so it made no noise when it shut. Slipping off his sandals, he checked the bedroom, finding it empty.

The kitchen looked like it had been attacked, and put up a damn good fight. Most of the cupboards were open, one pulled off its hinge. The counters were covered in food, half made meals, and pots. A bag of rice with a rip in it sagged in one corner, a landslide of shiny grains seeping out. Sitting next to it, with his knees pulled up to his chin and his left hand embracing a bottle, was Sasuke.

"Hey,” Naruto said, for lack of anything else to say. He took a step forward, and upon hearing the crack and looking down, realised he had stepped onto half of a plate. “What's-” he took another step forward and stopped as the scent of alcohol, pungent and edgy hit him full face.

"I can't remember,” Sasuke whispered. Naruto flinched, actually flinched, at the word, feeling feel grip him, pull at his gut and send ice through his veins.

"What-”

"I can't remember,” Sasuke said again, but this time harsher, louder, and with a slur that made Naruto reassess how strong the contents of that bottle must be. “I can't fucking remember.”

One, two, three steps and Naruto reached Sasuke, kneeling next to him, ignoring the crumbs of something that dug into his skin. The fridge was open, its humming filled the whole room. A bottle of something was dripping in there, hitting the white shelf with a splat. Naruto swallowed. “Remember what?”

There was silence as Sasuke took a long drink, slamming the bottle back down like a punishment. “The recipe. For yakisoba. I can't remember it.”

"Did you write it down?” Naruto ventured, eyeing Sasuke as if he was a cobra that might lash out at any second.

"No,” Sasuke said. “I've been making it for years. I had it memorised.” There was that word again. Naruto felt his stomach take another swoop. “And now I can't remember.”

On the floor adjacent to Sasuke's left foot, was a head of lettuce with a kunai sticking out of it. Naruto sat down. “I'm sure we could get another recipe.”

Sasuke made an abortive noise in his throat, his grip on the bottle tightening to the extent that Naruto was worried he'd snap its neck and cut himself. He reached forward to take the bottle but stopped at Sasuke's words. “No I can't. It was my mother's recipe. It tasted just like the one she made.”

"Oh.” Naruto sat back heavily.

"Yeah,” Sasuke said. “But you know, that doesn't matter.” His cavalier attitude was enforced by the purposeful swig of alcohol he took. “You know why?”

Naruto didn't know, and he didn't want to. “Why?”

"Because,” Sasuke leaned in conspiratorially, his hair scratching against Naruto's cheek, and the alcohol on his breath sharp and tangible, “pretty soon I won't remember what it tasted like anyway.” Sasuke sat back, his laughter acting as a poor veil for his desperation. Utterly unable to tear his gaze away, Naruto watched as the torn, harsh laughs subsided and Sasuke took another deep drink, staring moodily at the bottle.

"Sasuke...”

"Don't.” The white of Sasuke's teeth glimmered in the dim light. “Just don't.”

"You don't know what I'm going to say,” Naruto replied watching at Sasuke's fingers flexed and relaxed around the bottle.

"I do,” Sasuke said. “I know you. I know what you're going to say, so just don't. It's too late. I made my choice. The Council wouldn't let me back out now anyway.” The last part was just added on, just a little wistful strand of nothing, but it caused tiny whirlpools to twist inside of Naruto, as emotions and thoughts from the far reaches of his mind and spirit came to play.

"You-Sasuke, you don't have to,” he said, seizing onto that little bit of hope. “Listen, I can talk to Tsunade, it might take a while, but you don't have to-”

Laughter again hit his ears, utterly devoid of amusement. “Yeah, right. The Council would throw me back in jail and there'd be nothing you or your Hokage could do about it. And this time there'd be no way out.” Sasuke shivered at the thought, shoulders curling in on themselves.

"Then,” Naruto paused, tasting the words, rolling them around his tongue to gauge whether or not he could say them. “Then we can leave.” He lowered his voice, brought his face close to Sasuke's. “We can just go. The chakra collar's off. Your strength is coming back and I'd be there too. We could just go.”

Sasuke didn't turn his head to look at Naruto, just moved his eyes to lock gazes. “This is your home, Naruto. Konoha is your past, present and future. You wont leave it.”

"I would for you.”

The corner of Sasuke's mouth lifted in a weak facsimile of a smile. “And when they send your friends after us? Will you hold back on the rasengans and run the risk of us being caught, or go all out and live with their blood on your hands?” The smile dropped away. “You wouldn't do that. And I wouldn't let you.” He frowned, reaching up to rub at his temple. Automatically, Naruto batted his hand away and replaced it with his own, rubbing small, soothing circles. Sasuke looked irritated, but it fell away into resignation quickly, and he didn't attempt to stop him.

"Things keep getting messy,” Sasuke muttered at length. “In my head. It's like I've got two images and they keep flickering in and out. I keep losing the details, and it's getting harder and harder to know which one's right, and which one's made up.”

His breath hitching slightly, Naruto struggled to keep his fingers from trembling. “Did you tell Sakura-chan?”

"Why would I?” Sasuke asked, eyes closed. “That's what's supposed to happen. I just didn't think it would be like this.”

Hearing those words made Naruto want to shout. Made him want to ask what exactly Sasuke had thought it would be like. Wanted punish Sasuke for doing this to both of them. Most of all he wanted a Sasuke that he could do those things to. A Sasuke that was strong and fierce and burned so much brighter than the tired, resigned being in front of him.

"What memories- which ones?” Naruto asked, instead.

Sasuke lifted his shoulder in a half hearted little shrug. “Too many. Growing up with my family. My time at the academy. Team Seven. The Chuunin exams. It's all blurry.”

"So much...” Naruto didn't mean to say it, but the words came out, and then hung accusingly in the air.

"Yeah.”

At some point, they had shifted so that Sasuke was leaning on Naruto, his bottle abandoned for now on the floor, while Naruto's fingers had moved to run lightly up and down his arm, blazing a trail of barely-there sensation from his elbow to his hands.

The something dripping out of the fridge made another splat sound. Naruto breathed in. “The test to graduate from the academy was to perform a bunshin. I was so worried, 'cause I couldn't make anything decent.” He laughed slightly, at that, at the way that the fear which had marked the end of his world then was nothing compared to the fear that he faced now. “You were fine, of course. You just walked into the room when they called for you, were in there for two seconds, and came straight back out, cool as you like. The girls all asked you what happened, and how it was, and congratulated you on passing, but you ignored them.” He took another breath and continued. “And then, on our first day as ninja, you were acting like a jerk, so I tried to pick a fight with you, but you ignored me, and that chewed me out more than anything. So I got up on the desk and tried to stare you down, and somehow someone bumped me, and I fell forward.” Naruto laughed again, almost lighter this time. “That was our first kiss. If you can call it that.”

A grip that Naruto hadn't previously noted around his bicep tightened. A small eternity passed. Finally Sasuke spoke, gravelly and low. “I remember that.”

'How could you forget?' Naruto wanted to say. Except he already knew the answer.

"Go on,” Sasuke said, quietly, not begging, not demanding. Just pressing himself that little bit closer to Naruto and closing his eyes again.

And Naruto did. He talked about their days at the academy, of their first missions together. He complained about how irritating Sasuke always was, how Sakura always ignored him, how Kakashi was always late. A couple of times, Sasuke laughed. A couple of times he grinned, agreed, even added a detail Naruto hadn't remembered.

But that didn't make up for the times that Sasuke went quiet, tucked his head down and said in a small, wavering, furious voice: “I don't remember.”

*

During the twentieth week of his treatment, Sasuke awoke to soft fingers trailing up his arm. His mind felt cloudy, and as he opened his eyes, he struggled to get a grip on his thoughts, feeling them pull away from him, escaping like a fluid dream.

Blinking sleepily, the image of Naruto came into focus, looking at him seriously. From the light, Sasuke surmised that it wasn't quite morning, or at least, quite a bit earlier than he usually woke up. He didn't recall waking up the previous night, so assumed it had passed nausea free, and was grateful. Even his ever present headache that now refused to be calmed by anything was hardly pronounced, just a quite throbbing that was easily ignored.

"Hey,” he said to Naruto, propping himself up a little and rubbing his face. Naruto waited until he settled, before resuming his motion, brushing his fingers along the soft skin of his forearm, a brief swirl at his elbow and then upwards, drawing waves over his bicep. His blue eyes watched the motions, eyebrows slightly pulled together, as though deep in thought.

"Hey,” Naruto returned. Sasuke waited for him to say something else, but he didn't. Just continued the slow movement of his fingers, drawing an invisible line down Sasuke's collarbone, brushing a thumb over his sternum.

"Naruto?” Sasuke rubbed his eyes again, trying to gather himself. Normally when he woke, he was more alert. He shifted again, feeling the sheet slip on him. That he wasn't wearing anything occurred to him, and he felt his heart rate increase just a little. He felt suddenly self-conscious, which was ludicrous, because the situation was hardly a novel experience by now, and yet he couldn't mistake the fluttering in his stomach for anything else. It had something to do with the way Naruto was looking at him. The way he was looking, not talking, as though the dips and swells of Sasuke's body were a secret language and Naruto was reading it. And at the same time, as if Naruto was contemplating something far removed from their bed and the warm sheets, and the grey watery light filtering through the gap in the curtains; something that Sasuke had no part in.

Naruto's fingertips were rough and yet gentle as they brushed over Sasuke's throat, making him swallow reflexively. When the touches reached his eyes, he closed them obligingly, letting Naruto feel the soft skin of his eyelids and the skittish movement of his eyes underneath as he tried to keep them still. “Sasuke,” he heard Naruto sigh just before he opened his eyes, feeling Naruto stroke down the side of his face. Sasuke had heard Naruto say his name before, shouts and screams and desperate cries and even softly, late at night when Naruto thought he was asleep, but never quite like that before. Like just seeing Sasuke was tearing Naruto apart, and like he never wanted to stop looking.

"What?” Sasuke found his throat was dry and swallowed again, trying to moisten it. He felt like Naruto had gotten closer, but when he looked down, the strip of sheets lay between them, the same as it had before.

He was about to ask again, although he didn't have a clue what the hell he was asking, when Naruto spoke.

"Got a mission today.” His eyes didn't leave Sasuke's but his frown was replaced with an untouchable kind of sadness.

"For long?” He asked the question, already knowing the answer.

"Yeah.” Naruto's breath fanned his cheek. “Two, maybe three weeks.”

"Oh.” Sasuke felt like the time span was very significant, like there was an event taking place, like something would have changed by the time Naruto got back, but he couldn't quite put his finger on it. He did know, that he didn't want Naruto to go. That if Naruto walked out of their bedroom, out of the apartment, and out of the village today, something very bad would happen. “Can't you get out of it?”

"Nope, it was specifically appointment to me. Nothing I can do.”

Sasuke considered this. “I'll miss you.” The words sounded awkward, unused, on his tongue.

Blue eyes clouded, became shiny as Naruto's features fought against collapse. “No you won't.”

Before Sasuke could adequately process this, Naruto reached out and guided their faces together, capturing him in a short, sweet kiss, like he was closing a deal. Sasuke thought he tasted salt, but Naruto's eyes were dry when he saw them for a second, before their positions changed and Naruto was much closer, pressing his nose into the patch of skin behind Sasuke's ear, close to his hairline and inhaling deeply. “Not enough,” he said, his breath damp against Sasuke's neck, causing goosebumps. “It's not.”

Sasuke found himself pulled onto his back, Naruto draped over him, kissing the side of his mouth, fingers dragging along his neck, cupping his shoulders and eliminating all distance between them. For once, Sasuke felt overwhelmed, trying to respond to all the stimuli, to the soft drag of Naruto's tongue against his skin, the calloused pads of his fingers, the nails digging in and then releasing, and he almost didn't notice the tears until Naruto pulled back and looked at him, his expression twisted up.

"Wha-?” Naruto reached down and swept his finger under Sasuke's eyes, and then following it up, as if automatically, with his tongue. "Why're you crying?”

Sasuke blinked. "I don't know,” he said truthfully. He hated crying. He would never cry in front of Naruto. And yet he couldn't stop the tears- couldn't even identify why he felt like his heart was being ripped in two.

Naruto kissed the edge of Sasuke's eye, his lips slipping a little on the moisture there, tongue lapping it up. “I hate this.” His voice seemed to rumble right through Sasuke. “I hate this so much.”

When their mouths met again, there was a desperation leading them, making them twist and bite and writhe, trying to find escape in each other. Sasuke arched up against Naruto, holding his shoulders, his back, trying to stay steady against the onslaught of emotion and sensation he was feeling.

"Sasuke, Sasuke, look at me,” Naruto panted, licking and biting against Sasuke neck before moving up to meet his eye, his forearm propping himself up while his other hand rubbed gently at the skin on his hipbone. “Sasuke.”

Opening his eyes felt like the hardest thing to do, but Sasuke managed, breath catching at the intensity of Naruto's gaze. He stretched up, wanting more contact, but Naruto pressed him back down the hand on his hip squeezing in warning, so he fell back down, breathing heavily.

"Remember our first mission as Team Seven?” Naruto asked suddenly, his grip on Sasuke tightening to the point of pain. “We had to capture that demon of a cat and afterwards I was covered in scratches, but you were fine.” He paused swallowing. “Remember when we were tree climbing? I was so happy, because it felt like we were friends. Because you acknowledged me, even if it was just to make fun of me. You cared enough to compete with me. Remember when we fought Gaara together? You said I was one of your precious people.” Naruto leaned back down, kissing Sasuke like he couldn't help himself, and the hand on his hip moved downwards, making Sasuke arch into him. “I trained for so long to get strong enough to bring you back. I chased you again and again. I could never replace you,” he mumbled against Sasuke's jaw. “You remember that, don't you? Right now, right here, you remember that. You remember us.”

"I remember,” Sasuke murmured, bucking and pressing up into Naruto's hand, his head thrown back as he twisted this way and that. “I remember.”

*

"How are you feeling, Sasuke?” Sakura asked carefully, sitting across from him, clipboard in hand.

"Fine.” Sasuke looked out of the window, it was sunny today. The treatment hadn't taken long. His mind felt clear.

"No headaches?” Sakura ventured, the tapping of her pen against the table the only noise in the kitchen.

"No, they've gone,” Sasuke said. Sakura nodded to herself, eyes downcast.

"Yes, that makes sense.” She scribbled something on her paper. In front of her was a large grey box, stamped onto which Sasuke recognised the Konoha symbol. He tiled his head, something niggling at the back of his mind. “I'll make up your drink.”

Frowning, Sasuke nodded, watching as Sakura opened the box, pulling out a familiar flask which she put on the table.

"Why do you keep doing that?” she asked, mixing the contents of the flask.

"Doing what?”

"Looking at the door, you're doing it now.”

Turning back to her, Sasuke realised she was right. He tried to concentrate on her, but like he was being pulled in that direction, he kept wanting to turn to look at the door. “I don't know why I'm doing it.”

Sakura's eyes were slightly narrowed. “Are you sure?”

Something tugged on his memory, and Sasuke felt the beginnings of a headache start at the back of his skull. There was something about sitting with Sakura, like this, and the door-

"It seems like you're waiting for someone,” Sakura said. The pain in his head intensified.

"Who would I be waiting for?” Sasuke asked, irritation growing out of his confusion. He rubbed a hand against his right temple.

"Who indeed.” Sakura stared at the table a moment. “This is going to be your last treatment Sasuke. After you drink that, you'll have completed.”

"Right,” said Sasuke, trying very hard not to look at the door. There was something...

"It's been twenty two weeks,” Sakura continued. “You'll be happy to be finished.”

"Yeah.” Sasuke was finding it difficult to pay attention, but looked up in surprise when she stood to leave. “You're going?”

"Yes,” Sakura said firmly, closing the box and lifting it, leaving the drink on the table. “I have an appointment at the hospital.

"But,” Sasuke frowned, feeling disjointed, “you always stay and make sure I have the drink.”

"Yes, I do, don't I?” said Sakura vaguely, walking to the door. “But I've got to go, and I'm sure you'll do the right thing.”

There was something wrong with what Sakura was saying, something about what she was saying, that he should pay attention to, Sasuke thought as Sakura said her goodbye and left.

On the table, the drink was waiting. He was supposed to have it, Sasuke knew. That was part of his treatment. (What was the treatment for again? He knew, but he couldn't quite-)

Sasuke lifted the flask and walked over to the window. It was sunny outside, and the sky was a clear, bright blue. It was Konoha, his village, his home. And yet, and yet-

The pounding in his head was making spots dance in his vision. Had he been waiting for someone? (Why had no one come?) Who...?

Sasuke leaned on the counter, squeezing his eyes shut. Why did he feel like this? He hadn't had a headache since-

Since-

”I trust you to do the right thing”

He poured the contents of the flask down the drain and watched them swirl away

Maybe. Maybe he had been waiting for someone. But who?

He couldn't remember.

*

The mission took just under six weeks, in the end. Thirty nine days between when he walked out of the village, to when he stepped back through its gates into a place that had never seemed further from home.

Like at the end of so many other missions, Sakura was waiting for him. The shade of her hair was recognisable from far away, and by the time he reached her, he had managed to summon a passable smile.

"Hey, Sakura-chan,” he greeted her, adjusting his pack and letting her fall into step with him.

"Hey,” Sakura returned, a sad smile twisting her lips. “How was the mission.”

Naruto shrugged. “Long.” He sighed, head downcast. “How's Sasuke?”

Despite knowing that the question would come, Sakura steeled herself before speaking. “He...completed. Just a few weeks ago.”

"I see.” Naruto let out a long breath, feeling no surprise as something heavy settled in his chest.

"I know how you felt about it, how you feel about it,” Sakura said, twining her fingers together as she spoke. “But maybe it's better like this.” She refused to look at him, to face the betrayed expression she knew she would find, but continued. “The Council interviewed him and he's been reinstated as a shinobi. He's even taking missions. You two could have a fresh start.”

"I'm tired, Sakura-chan,” Naruto stopped at a crossroad. “I'll see you tomorrow, okay?” When he turned to walk away, he felt something clutching at his pack. “What?”

Sakura's head was down. “You're going the wrong way,” she whispered. Naruto blinked, realising she was right.

*

His apartment was covered in dust. Not as much as when he had returned after three years, but still enough that he had to yank the window open to let some fresh air in. It was almost a deja vu. The apartment seemed like a stranger's, even though he had never specifically moved out. His things were all still there, the bed was still not made, and yet it felt like he was standing in the shell of an old life. Perhaps he was.

He shook the sheets out as best he could, before climbing in and closing his eyes, wishing, wishing to wake up to the past.

*

Naruto didn't really know what he was doing anymore.

He woke up in the morning. He trained. He ate. He trained some more. Sometimes his friends found him and invited him out. Sometimes he took missions. Occasionally he taught at The Academy.

He didn't look for Sasuke.

Naruto wanted to see him. Wanted to talk to him and be with him. Wanted it so much.

He didn't look for Sasuke because he knew that Sasuke no longer existed. And Naruto wanted nothing to do with the fake-Sasuke that had taken his place.

*

Going to train one morning, Naruto spied Kakashi standing in one of the training areas. He waved- was about to call out, when there was a flurry of motion and Naruto realised three things.

Kakashi was not just standing, he was training.
His training partner was as familiar to Naruto as the sound of his heart beating.
Naruto had to leave. Fast.

Throat dry, head pounding, Naruto spun on heel, ready go to -anywhere- that wasn't here-

And walked straight into Sakura who clamped a steel grip around his forearm that he knew wasn't just to steady him.

"You could talk to him,” was the first thing that came out of Sakura's mouth. Out of all the insults over the years, that was the most poisonous thing that she had ever said. “Just go up to them and say hi.” She drew breathe. “He's so much better now Naruto, so much more stable. He goes out, he takes missions, he even smiles-”

Wrenching his arm out of her grip, Naruto took a few protective steps back. “Stop it, Sakura,” he snapped. Not least, because her words were tempting, so tempting. “I don't want to hear about it.”

Green eyes teared and her expression crumpled. “Don't you care? Don't you want to know how Sasuke's doing?”

"That,” he forced himself to turn around and gesture to the dark-haired figure standing across from Kakashi, “is not Sasuke.”

*

Some invisible forces were at work during the first few weeks, to make sure that Naruto and Sasuke almost never crossed paths, and when they did, it wasn't for very long. Naruto wasn't sure if it was his friends, his teachers or The Council, and he didn't much care, it worked in his favour.

Sometimes when he was out, picking up something from the market, getting a new kunai from the weapon shop, he'd see Sasuke across the street. Sometimes he would blink and Sasuke would be gone. Sometimes he would blink and Sasuke would stay. Sasuke would talk to someone, Sasuke would smile and laugh. And Naruto would turn away in disgust.

Suddenly, Sasuke had a life. Aside from training with Kakashi, Naruto spotted him talking to Shikamaru, sparring with Neji, taking walks with Sakura. He took on missions and handed in reports. Occasionally, Naruto spotted him at the ramen stand.

Once, while walking up the stairs of the Hokage Tower to hand in a mission report, Naruto saw Sasuke coming in the opposite direction. His first instinct was to turn and bolt, but he steadied himself, keeping his pace regular, and pretended he wasn't holding his breath as the distance between them got smaller and smaller until-

Nothing. Sasuke walked straight past him. Naruto waited for something. For a sign of the old Sasuke, for some buzz of recognition, for him to falter in his steps, but he carried straight on. Past Naruto, down the stairs and out of view, without so much as a glance.

Suddenly Sasuke had a life, and Naruto had no part in it.

*

Through luck or malice, Naruto and Sasuke were kept apart aside from the few glances Naruto managed of him. So it came as a surprise when three months after The Council's mission, Naruto was summoned to the Hokage Tower.

The guards let him straight through, and Tsunade put down the folders she was sorting through when she saw him.

"What's up Granny?” Naruto asked cheerfully. “Run out of alcohol?” Tsunade quelled the urge to throw something heavy at him. Instead, she got straight to the point.

"It's about tomorrow's mission,” she said, watching as Naruto turned serious, nodding at her.

"What about it?” He seemed more preocuppied with gazing around her office, at the messy desk, the sake bottle on the floor, and the view outside the window. “It's just a delivery mission, right?”

"That's correct,” Tsunade leaned back in her chair, watching. “I was wondering if you were aware you had a partner for the mission?”

"Sure, it was in the briefing. What's that got to do with anything, can't find anyone?” Naruto asked, eyebrows snapping together in confusion.

Tsunade considered him for a second. “Your partner will be Uchiha Sasuke.”

"What?!” Naruto's shout was the loudest she had heard from him in months. “No.”

"Yes,” Tsunade said firmly. “He signed up for it as well. You two will work well together, and you have to get used to him sooner or later.”

"No, I don't,” Naruto said bluntly, striding forward to lay his hands on her desk. “I can do the mission alone.”

"It's a two-man mission,” she reminded him. “You can't do it alone even if you wanted to.”

"Then I'm refusing it,” Naruto said, crossing his arms over his chest in a show of defiance.

"You can't, because it's tomorrow.” Tsunade sighed, considering the angry young man facing her. “You can't keep avoiding him like this. You're both shinobi of Konoha, and you're going to have to work together eventually. This mission is simple enough, and it will just be the two of you.”

"But-” Naruto cut himself off, shaking his head in frustration. “It's not fair.”

"It will be good for you,” Tsunade insisted gently, sensing a break through. When Naruto met her eyes, he looked stubborn, but resigned.

"Fine,” he said. “But I don't know what you expect to happen, Sasuke's gone.”

When the door slammed shut, leaving her alone in her office, Tsunade picked the sake bottle off the floor and poured herself a drink, ignoring the paperwork she had to look at.

"And where,” she asked the sake cup, “is Naruto?”

*

Sasuke was waiting at the gates by the time Naruto got there, suggesting that his impeccable sense of timing had not been compromised by recent developments.

"Uzumaki-san,” Sasuke said politely once Naruto was standing in front of him, putting out a hand. Naruto stared at the hand with a look of disgust, until it was lowered.

"Listen,” he said, starting on the speech he had memorised the night before. “I don't like you, and I don't want to work with you. Nothing you do or say is gonna change that. But I can't get out of this mission, so this is how it's going to work.” He took a deep breath, pleased that Sasuke said nothing, just watched. “Unless it's directly related to the mission, don't talk to me. You stay out of my way, and I'll stay out of yours. In a fight, I can handle myself, so leave me to it. You got that?”

Blinking, Sasuke nodded. “Fine.”

They travelled in silence and Naruto tried very, very hard, not to scream.

*

Halfway across Fire Country and Naruto was going slowly insane.

How many times had he thought about how it would feel doing missions with Sasuke again? How many times had he wondered what it would be like to fight alongside him again.

And now Sasuke was with him, on a mission, for Konoha. And Naruto couldn't stand it.

The scroll they carried had to get to Lightening Country within three days. Honestly, Naruto didn't understand why it was a two person mission, since it was only C-rank, and if Naruto hadn't been trying to fill up all his time with missions, he wouldn't have taken it.

He spent most of his time scouting ahead, happy to avoid Sasuke.

They travelled through the canopy, only stopping every couple of hours for breaks, and making camp late at night, since neither of them were willing to voice their exhaustion. Ironically, it was almost like the old days both trying to outlast the other, and never admitting weakness. Except Naruto didn't want Sasuke's acknowledgement anymore, and Sasuke, well, despite retaining most of Sasuke's characteristics, he still wasn't the same person.

On the night before they reached the border, they camped out near a stream. Naruto's mood worsened as the trip went on, and he was forced to endure hours alone with a man he didn't know anymore. They set up camp, cooked and ate in silence. Naruto found himself keeping his head down as much as possible. He didn't want to look at something he couldn't have.

"I'll take first watch,” Naruto said, a little more rudely than he intended, but he bit back any apology that might come to mind.

"Fine,” Sasuke said blankly, turning away. Naruto blinked. He found talking to Sasuke extremely confusing. His mind kept slipping back to the many conversations he'd had to Sasuke, to the missions they'd done as Team Seven.

Sasuke settled in his sleeping bag, leaving Naruto to look out, and think. Truthfully, they were still in Fire Country, and it was unlikely they would see any action until the border, but Naruto tried to stay alert regardless

If only Tsunade hadn't given him this mission. He didn't want to be so close to Sasuke. He didn't want anything to do with him. Ignoring him felt childish and immature, but Naruto couldn't help it. Talking to him, forming any kind of relationship; he couldn't deal with that. Not now, not ever. Maybe everyone else had forgotten Sasuke, the real Sasuke, but Naruto hadn't. And he wasn't going to.

When Naruto's watch ended, he waited for Sasuke to wake up and switch. When Sasuke didn't show, Naruto realised that his Sasuke was able to sleep for exactly four hours and wake up, but this Sasuke might not be able to. Walking over to where Sasuke slept, he found he was right.

Sasuke lay on the ground, his hair spread out a bit, and his expression peaceful. In the darkness, the moonlight barely illuminating enough to see by, Sasuke looked exactly like...well, Sasuke. He looked like he might open his eyes, call Naruto and moron and go back to sleep.

Naruto was overwhelmed by an urge to lie down next to Sasuke, close his eyes and pretend this whole thing was a bad dream. But he couldn't. This wasn't his Sasuke. He told himself that again and again, and didn't notice Sasuke waking up.

"My shift?” Sasuke muttered, still half-asleep. Naruto nodded.

"Yeah. Next four hours.” He watched, mouth dry, as Sasuke rubbed his face, stretching a little and sitting up.

"Right.” Naruto waited while he stood up. “All normal?”

"Yeah. Completely quiet. I don't think there'll be any trouble.”

"Are you okay?” Sasuke asked suddenly, looking intently at Naruto, making him feel oddly exposed.

"Yeah, I'm fine, why?”

Sasuke shrugged and grabbed a few extra kunai out of his pack. “You just seem different to normal.”

Naruto wanted to laugh, but through he might be sick if he did. “How would you know?”

A little startled by the abrupt turn, Sasuke just shrugged again. “I suppose I wouldn't.”


*

"There's something I don't understand.” Naruto pretended he wasn't startled at hearing Sasuke's voice come out of nowhere and instead kept his eyes on their surroundings, watching for anything suspicious in the trees.

"I'm sure there are lots of things you don't understand,” Naruto muttered back, refusing to watch as Sasuke sat down next to him on the damp log he was using as a seat. “It's not your watch yet.”

"I know,” Sasuke said lightly, peering out at the darkness. Naruto hated this part of the journey the most. During the day, he could go on ahead, but at night he was forced to stay and put up with this imposter Sasuke. It didn't help that during the night, when the sun had retreated, it was a lot harder to remember that this Sasuke was an imposter.

Giving him a dark look, Naruto shuffled over a little, keeping a distance between them. “You should sleep,” he suggested bluntly.

"There's something that has been bothering me,” Sasuke said, ignoring him. “I've seen you in the village. You have plenty of friends, and you seem popular. Yet you seem to hate me.”

"You're just hateable,” Naruto muttered, keeping his eyes ahead.

"Still, it seems extreme for you to dislike me so much when we've never had any contact with each other before this mission.” Sasuke paused, and Naruto tried to hold back hysterical laughter which was quickly quelled by what Sasuke said next. “And that in itself is strange. You're about the same age as me, and yet you weren't in my academy class. You seem to know everyone in my social circle, even my jounin sensei, and I don't think we've ever had a conversation.”

Feeling slightly sick Naruto considered what would happen if he just told Sasuke. If he explained the whole thing.

'The reason you don't remember me is because your brother massacred your clan when you were six, and you defected from the village to exact revenge on him and then ended up killing one of the elders and as a punishment you had your memory altered.

And before you forgot me, you were my entire world.'

And if Sasuke figured it out? Then what? The memories were still gone, and knowing it might destabilise him. There was no way to be certain, Sasuke was the first to have undergone that treatment, there was no precedent.

Too little, too late.

"Just let it go,” Naruto said finally.

Sasuke turned to him, a frown set in his face, his mouth open about to speak-

And then they both sprang apart, into the forest, as a kunai pierced the log they were sitting on seconds before.

Crouched on a tree branch, Naruto scanned the foliage, masking his own chakra while seeking out foreign. He caught the faint sounds of metal clashing against metal, and swore under his breath, summoning two kage bunshin. A quick check verified that the scroll was still tucked safely inside his pouch.

Sending the bunshin to circle round, honing in on the sounds of fighting, interspersed with bouts of silence that suggested Sasuke was trying to remain hidden, rather than facing the enemy straight on, Naruto made to follow but was cut off by a flurry of shuriken. A quick flip backwards and he found himself facing a masked ninja, holding two more shuriken in one hand, and a short sword in the other.

As he weaved and dodged with ease, he felt uneasy, worried about Sasuke. His opponent was weak, likely to be a bandit rather than after the scroll they carried, and it wasn't difficult to avoid injury. Fighting against someone with a sword, however, was not his strength, and it took him longer than expected before he managed to dispatch him with a kunai to the skull.

Naruto felt one of the bunshin release as he moved towards where he could sense chakra flowing, and occasionally hear the sounds of a fight, trying to quell the hammering in his chest. His Sasuke could handle himself, but Naruto had no idea about this Sasuke, and despite everything, couldn't stand the idea of him getting hurt.

Stopping behind a tree, Naruto glanced around, eyes narrowed as he tried to pick out Sasuke in the undergrowth. To his right, somewhere behind the trees, there was the thunk of a kunai hitting its target, and Naruto felt a little more chakra return to him, suggesting his last bunshin had been destroyed.

He jumped into a tree to get a better look, feeling a rush of relief as he saw Sasuke crouched in the clearing below, next to the body of his opponent. Grasping the tree weakly, Naruto watched as stood and threw a shuriken into a tree opposite Naruto, his eyes widening as another ninja fell forward, face first, into the clearing.

When Naruto returned his eyes to Sasuke, the other ninja was looking up at him. “Is that all of them?” Naruto asked, preparing to jump down.

Sasuke looked alarmed. “Yeah, but don't-”

Too late. Naruto hit the ground and heard the sharp twang of a trap being released. He threw his arms up, ready to take the hit, knowing that it might hurt, but he'd heal-

And instead felt something heavy throw itself against his side, hurtling him to the solid ground, knocking the breath out of him. There was a collection of thuds as blades embedded themselves in the trees behind them, and one quiet groan revealing that one had met its mark.

"Sasuke!” Naruto sat up fast, eyes wide at the body lying on top of him. “Shit, Sasuke, why did you do that? It was only a hit, why did you protect me?” Naruto spotted the kunai embedded in Sasuke's shoulder, the area around it rapidly turning red. Relieved that it wasn't fatal, Naruto moved to pull it out only to be confused as Sasuke raised a hand to his head.

"Urg,” Sasuke rubbed his temple, eyes screwed shut in pain. “Why does my head..?”

"Sasuke, Sasuke, what's wrong?” Naruto asked frantically, trying to see if there was some other source of injury. “You shouldn't have done that. Why did you do that? You don't even like me.”

"I don't know,” Sasuke mumbled, opening his eyes suddenly to reveal a gaze so alive with conflicting emotions that it stopped Naruto in his tracks. “My body just moved on its own.”

Naruto felt his heart still in his chest.

“That's my favourite memory. Even when I tried to forget it, I couldn't. But I'd give it up, if I could keep you.”

"The jutsu is new, it was developed very recently, so its full effects haven't been tested.”

"His brain is trying to shut down his memories of the past, and you keep reminding him of them.”

"Things keep getting messy. In my head. It's like I've got two images and they keep flickering in and out.”

"Due to the complexity of the brain, it's not possible to simply wipe out whole memories. Instead it will just close doors.”

"Sasuke, what's your favourite memory?”


the end.

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