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sne_mod ([personal profile] sne_mod) wrote in [community profile] sn_exchange2010-03-10 08:49 pm

for: [personal profile] fearlessfirefly

For: [personal profile] fearlessfirefly
Title: Missing Pieces
Rating: PG-15
Summary: When Konoha’s walls are breached and the embodiment of its heart and soul is taken, the only person who can help is the one believed to be long past redemption.
Warnings: Slight violence, language, smexing, and fluctuating POVs.
A/N: I was very inspired by the prompts (redemptive!Sasuke, dark!Naruto, Team 7 adventures, Hokage!Naruto being saved by Sasuke, etc) and ended up creating a ‘mixing pot’ of a fic, if you will. I really took this and ran with it a bit – I hope you like it, as it’s been great fun to write! Also, this fic was beta’d by xxx. She is brilliant and amazing. 8D
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.


The air was aflame.


This wasn’t the first time Konoha had burned in the history of Kakashi’s life – the worst wars had seen fighting up against the very gates, fire scorching the outlying buildings but never reaching the heart of the village - not while the man who embodied all of Konoha’s power and heart and hope and soul still led them –


And then, of course, there was the day that man died. The sky itself had seemed to boil, destruction all around and screaming, as a creature full of rage and madness and joy roared into the night -


And then sixteen years later, chaos. Unnatural beasts ripping nin to shreds as panic spread and order deteriorated, and then his vision swirled and there was just blackness -


So yes, Kakashi was no stranger to watching his village burn.


But he had never seen it like this.


The flames were alive. They had all the chakra signatures of fire jutsu, but behaved like a summons – animal form, obeying its master’s command. They had burned through the walls in a matter of minutes and fallen on Konoha’s ninja like a ravenous horde, unharmed by physical weapons and spreading the conflagration to nearly a third of the village. The Hokage had scouts trying to find who was controlling the attack – the easiest way to destroy a puppet was to cut off the head of the puppeteer – but they hadn’t been heard from since.


“I’m useless here.”


Kakashi glanced to his left as Sai landed lightly, last bits of an ink bird smoldering out beneath him.


“The fire consumes paper and ink instantly,” he continued, brow furrowed only slightly. His clothes were charred, and he was drenched in sweat and covered in soot like all of them, but it seemed he’d managed to keep himself out of harm’s way. “I’m leaving the battlefield.”


It wasn’t a request for permission – there was only one person the ANBU took orders from – but Kakashi nodded anyway. “Use your birds. Help Gai get people out.”


The boy just blinked at him slowly. “You misunderstand. I believe I can create flame retardant ink, if I have the time.” He paused a fraction of a second, scanning the battlefield. “Have you –“


“He’s fine. Go.”


Sai turned and disappeared.


~~


The Hokage tower was in chaos. Screams echoed from the rooms as medics worked feverishly to heal excruciating burns; ninja ran in and out with reports, staying barely a moment before returning to the battlefield, leaving behind the lingering smell of smoke.


Tsunade worked quietly and furiously, mixing poultices that could heal wounds and send ninja back onto the field, where they were sorely needed. She looked up only to holler irritably at someone to bring her extra ingredients, or to correct a novice’s mistakes. They were stretched very thin; genin were being given work, as were civilians.


Sakura surveyed all this from behind a very thin mask of professional calm. Mix herbs, spread balm, wrap injury, perform jutsu, don’t worry about Naruto, don’t worry about Kakashi, don’t worry about Sai, don’t worry about – do not worry about –


“Sakura-san!”


She turned. Lee had appeared at her side, eyes dark and serious. “They need medicine for the field, and flame retardants –“


She snatched a jar off a shelf, pressed it into his hands, and told him about the civilians on the third floor who had been put to work dousing cloth in fire repellant.


“-And Shikamaru needs you in the Hokage’s office,” Lee finished. Then he was gone.


Any and all ninja whose techniques were useless against flames had been brought to help with the evacuation efforts. Shino, whose kikaichu would only burn to a crisp; the Inuzuka, and their dogs; Lee, limited to taijutsu. Shikamaru, incapable of attaching a shadow to something that produced its own light, had taken over strategic leadership.


Sakura found him bent over a table, map spread out over one half, the Hokage’s crystal ball standing on the other. He looked up as she came in. His face was strained, and there was no trace of laziness in his posture. “We’re making escape plans,” he said without prompting. “I need you to help spread the word.”


Nod, run, explain; stop to help a screaming man; heal, run, help a crying family evacuate. Stay calm. Don’t worry, don’t worry, don’t worry.


~~


Some of the ninja were having no trouble in the battle at all, Kakashi reflected - namely the Akimichi, who with their baika no jutsu were proving the heroes of the battle, able to stomp and smother the flames into nonexistence. ANBU were using techniques never meant to be seen by living eyes, and Yamato had effectively saved them all, shielding the crumbling walls with a waterfall. Neji Hyuuga, frustrated with his useless taijutsu and being borne down on by flames, had invented something new and unnamed on the spot: a kind of chakra blast that the entire Hyuuga clan was now using to considerable effect.


But everyone was slowly and surely draining of energy – and, Kakashi thought grimly as he brought his fingers together for yet another suiton, draining the lake as well. The only jutsu that were working were water, earth, and –


“EVERYBODY DOWN!”


Kakashi dropped instantly as a cyclone of wind roared down the streets, ripping up charred timbers and extinguishing a huge swathe of malevolent flames.


“Ah,” Kakashi coughed happily, raising himself off of the ground. His throat stung from the smoke and his voice was sore. “Hokage-sama. The left flank?”


“Gone,” Naruto growled. There was something of a reddish flickering in his eyes. “News from Gaara?”


“No.” Konoha’s remaining messenger birds had been sent with all speed towards Suna By the time they arrived, it would more than likely be too late, but the presence of Temari or Gaara could be invaluable – or, if nothing else, Suna would be prepared in the eventuality of an attack against themselves.


“Damn,” Naruto swore quietly, eyes intent as he scanned the field. The ground shook as a giant foot ground another patch of flames into nothingness. Elsewhere, the creatures were flickering as they revived themselves. “Did we find the puppeteer?”


“The Yamanaka were scouting with birds; Inoichi – Suiton Suiryuudan no Jutsu! ” Twin dragons twisted up out of the lake, coiling around each other before crashing down on flame-enveloped houses. There was an explosive hissing sound as the fire went out and steam rose into the air. “Inoichi said,” Kakashi continued, “the smoke was too blinding – but Kon Hyuuga says the Byakugan is picking up a human chakra signature just outside the gates, hidden in the fire.”


“I’m going to stop it,” Naruto said. He turned and looked at Kakashi, who nearly smiled, remembering that look from another time, on the face of a man so similar –


“Go. We’ll hold them until then.”


Naruto spun on his heel and ran towards the flames, orange coat a swirl of light behind him. Instantly the beasts around them veered towards him – he blasted a path for himself, but the fire was coming in like a tidal wave, and then –


A white lion roared past Kakashi’s shoulder, landing on the wave of fire and soaking it into the ground in an explosion of black liquid. Kakashi turned and looked over his shoulder, unsurprised at who he found there.


“The fireproof ink works,” Sai said.


He’d gathered. Turning back, he saw Naruto had already disappeared behind the walls of flame; walls that were diminishing now, as Sai’s creatures rained down on them. Still, he thought with a slight frown. It seemed to be working almost too well –


“Kakashi!” Neji was running toward him, Byakugan activated. Veins strained around eyes red from smoke and overuse; his hair was singed, and normally pristine white clothes turned nearly black. “His signature is gone! They’ve taken him down!”


“The puppeteer?” Kakashi asked, feeling dread start to creep up on him –


“Naruto! Naruto and the puppeteer, they’re both gone!”


They ran, arriving at what had been the great gates within seconds - the flames were now dying away of their own accord - but there was nothing left to find.


Neji’s jaw was clenched, eyes staring into nothingness as he searched and searched – Kakashi’s Sharingan was straining –


“There’s nothing,” Kakashi said finally. His companion didn’t respond. “Neji.” The boy pressed his lips together briefly either in resignation or fury before deactivating his Byakugan. They turned silently back towards the village. Over a third was a smoking hulk. The flames had all but disappeared.


It seemed the enemy had gotten what they came for.


Kakashi had seen Konoha burn before. He remembered Minato Namikaze’s smile amid wreaths of flames, reassuring him - “I’m going to stop it” – remembered seeing that man die. Remembered swearing to protect his son.


“I’m going to stop it,” Naruto had said.


Kakashi spun once more, Sharingan searching the landscape and finding nothing, nothing at all.


~*~*~


The first time they had really seen each other – finally spoken face-to-face at long last – it had been in a great roar of powers meeting; lightning and fire arched across the sky, buffeted by water and wind, one full of anger and determination and longing, the other slipping, desperate, raging and icy cold and so, so wanting an excuse to die. Two sets of hands held the elements like gods; two pairs of eyes met – “I’m here for you and you’re not getting away,” said one, while the other was emotionless and frenzied all at once, caught between madness and crippling, mind-breaking sorrow as his brother’s words echoed over and over in his head.


That fight was ended with the arrival of a common enemy; the skies turned black and the storm clouds red as two young boys fought against a man who would not die.


With the battle’s end came exhaustion and unconsciousness, one bloodied hand groping for another, desperate to hold on and never ever let go again as darkness closed in.


As the boys floated in oblivion, a masked man and a pink-haired girl stood against the Kage and all their entourage. They defied law and alliance and all that justice demanded; defied the most powerful figures in their world, because they would not give up their comrades.


They were joined by a boy; young, blank-faced, confused at the world because his master was dead and he was free and he did not know what this meant; and a handful of chuunin, ready to begin a battle they could never win because the Raikage was crying for justice and they were







so weak –


“Step forward!” The Raikage roared. “Step forward any of you who would challenge me for their lives!”


And a white-eyed jounin stepped forward, calmly falling into the stance that was his family’s trademark; because at long last he



understood now, understood why someone would be willing to throw their life away so another could live. “My name is Neji Hyuuga,” he said. “And ten years ago, your Kage murdered my father. Try me.”


The stalemate was broken by the arrival of the Kazekage and his promise that anyone who harmed the Konoha nin would face all the fury of a desert storm.


The countries’ alliance stood, if only in name, but action was demanded against Uchiha Sasuke, the traitor against everyone.






~*~*~


Strange things happened to one’s perception of time during a crisis. It seemed to pass both too quickly and too slowly; each agonizing second stretched into minutes lasting years and you sat useless, until you received orders and sprung into action. You ran and searched until before you knew it, days had passed and you were no closer to your goal, and all that time was just wasted, wasted, wasted.


As time moved on, the hospitals slowly emptied; charred hulks of buildings were replaced with strong young wood, businesses re-opened, and people returned home. Konoha healed. Life went on.


And yet the village remained quiet. The normal cheerful bustle of the markets was dampened, and people walked quickly, heads down, returning home as soon as possible. Work was done in excruciating silence.


The life of the village, the sunshine and laughter that had symbolized hope through all its darkest times, was gone.


The Hokage tower was in a constant flurry of activity; teams of ninja came and left in relay. Kakashi, as the temporary Hokage, kept up a façade of strength in front of their shakier allies. Konoha was careful never to portray itself as being in a time of weakness, even if the treaties had held strong for the last few years. The village was kept on high alert, run with barely a skeleton crew. Surveillance on the surrounding area had been doubled, and ninja with firefighting abilities were always kept on standby. Envoys and travelers came and went every day. Ninja went on missions as usual.


The news had not leaked, and it would not.


The only village trusted with the truth was Suna, a team of whose ninja, lead by the Kazekage’s own sister, arrived with aid only days after the attack.


“Thought you could use some help,” Temari told them with a smirk. “We weren’t needed. Gaara’s building up Suna’s defenses. If they attack us, we’ll annihilate them.”


Further explanations weren’t necessary. In the desert, Gaara was like a God, and any enemies would attack at their own peril.


They stayed for a week as Sunagakure stretched its own information network to the limit, and the two villages sent out coordinated search parties. These were headed by the ANBU, and often accompanied by families like the Hyuuga and the Yamanaka. They all reported to Kakashi.


Sai didn’t like it.


It wasn’t the reporting itself; the idea of living a life where no one ordered his every move was… unusual. Naruto often told him he was changing in that regard, and said it like it was a good thing. Sai wasn’t quite sure. Following orders was like eating and sleeping and painting; he just did it. Did it really matter who the commander was? No, he’d think. Then he’d remember blue eyes and sunlit hair, and revise that to, Well, maybe. The world seemed brighter than it used to, unblemished by any of those missions – the kind that left him wondering detachedly what the tactical value had been in taking out an entire family.


He knew he would still do it, if told to. He had never told Naruto this. He felt like it would disappoint him, and he never wanted to disappoint Naruto.


So taking orders wasn’t the problem. Neither did he find anything wrong with Kakashi, per se. The man came on good, if grudging, recommendation from his students.


It was reporting to Kakashi in the Hokage’s office, sitting behind the Hokage’s desk in the Hokage’s chair, that he found… annoying.


Naruto was supposed to sit there.


He’d tried painting something to express the thoughts in his head, and ended up naming it. It was Kakashi sitting in the chair, and he’d titled it ‘Hokage 7.5.’


~*~*~


“Where are you taking him?” Naruto was bloody and he had just woken up from unconsciousness. He stumbled where he stood, but he didn’t care.


“Interrogation,” said a quiet voice, and a long arm looped under his shoulders to help him stand. Out of the corner of his eye, Naruto could see a fuzzy grey blob. Kakashi.


Kakashi was in interrogation. No, wait. That was wrong. Kakashi had just told him that someone else was in interrogation.


He couldn’t think. His mind kept clouding.


Sasuke. Sasuke! Sasuke was back in Konoha.


That was good. Really good, like ramen was good. Sakura would smile, and then… and then….


He swayed.


“He’s hurt,” he announced suddenly as he remembered. He’d beaten Sasuke. Well, everyone had kind of beaten Sasuke. But he’d been beaten! “They don’t need to interr- interr. Interro- they don’t need to ask him anything, because he’s here already.”


“Yes, Naruto.” Kakashi’s voice sounded oddly heavy.


“So Sakura’s smiling,” he continued, as if stating the obvious. “And now….” He blinked. “Now what?”


“It’s up to the council now, Naruto. The other villages have signed a peace treaty with promises of reparations from Konoha, and they have the authority to kill on sight if Sasuke is ever seen inside their borders.”


“Well, he won’t be,” Naruto said, and tried to roll his eyes before realizing that his head hurt too much. “He’s





















here now.”


“Yes.” Kakashi’s voice sounded grim. Naruto couldn’t imagine why. “And it’s put the entire country in a position of huge political debt. We owe a great deal of favors to the other Hidden Villages now.”


“Yeah. ‘S Sasuke’s fault,” Naruto slurred out. His tongue was feeling heavy. “Stupid…



jerk. But he’s home. And we can have ramen.”


“Naruto.” He felt himself being carried, and laid down at last on a bed. He could hear the beeping of machines in the background. He could see the blur that was Kakashi’s face hovering over him, and through the haze of pain he had the oddest feeling that his sensei was trying to impress a point upon him. “You may not see Sasuke for a very, very long time. There are some questions he needs to answer first.”


“Duh,” Naruto said, and then felt a grin spreading over his face. “M’gonna pummel him again, an’ tell him he was being stupid. An’ then… then he’ll tell me why, an’ then he'll get what’s under my pillow.”


Kakashi blinked. Naruto had the feeling he’d thrown his teacher off guard, and felt proud. It wasn’t very often he could do that. “Oh?” Kakashi said carefully. “And what might that be?”


“That’s where the headband is. He needs t’wear it again, th’ jerk, or… people’ll get mad, an’….” Darkness was closing in. He felt oddly disconnected to the people rushing around him, and his limbs were growing numb. “’S’okay though,” he whispered finally. “’S’all okay, ‘cause he’s home.”










~*~*~


“I think Gaara’s worried,” Temari said quietly on one of many late nights in the Hokage tower, dawn on the horizon in just a few hours, eyes aching from all the constant reading and planning. She was visibly tired, bracing herself in her chair to avoid slumping, hair frazzled. “You helped us years ago, and now when our places are reversed, we can do nothing.”


“With Akatsuki gone, it’s unlikely anyone else would have the knowledge or power to extract a bijuu,” Kakashi offered. “He should be safe from that, at least.”


Temari just shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. I haven’t seen him like this in… years. I’m trusting Kankuro to keep him calm.”


“I thought he’d been doing a fairly good job of that himself these days,” Kakashi said lightly.


“He’s very, very angry.”


“Well, he’ll have to get in line,” Kakashi murmured. His voice was bland, but something in his eyes –


“Not at whoever attacked you,” Temari clarified. “Them too, but mostly at old Chiyo.”


“Oh?”


“She gave her life to save Gaara. He'll never forgive her if it means there’s no one to save Naruto.”


Kakashi took a moment to digest that.


Temari huffed, and red lips twitched in a teeth-baring grin. “So. How’s the search?”


“Ask our intelligence officer.”


She found him on the roof, sprawled on a folding chair with his head dropped back, a cigarette – almost gone – hanging out of the corner of his mouth. There was a chessboard set up in front of him, but his eyes were on the sky.


“I thought you quit,” Temari said by way of greeting, sounding thoroughly unamused.


Shikamaru's brows drew together, a sign of disinterested annoyance. “Helps me think,” he groused lightly, the motion of his lips knocking some ash free. Then just quick enough to remind anyone watching he was a ninja, he hauled himself to his feet and stood looking at her, slightly slouched, hands in pockets, Jounin vest hanging loose. “You need something?”


“The search. How’s it going?”


Shikamaru shrugged. “Wherever they came from, whatever they want, they teleported,” he said. “They’re not anywhere close, and there’s no trail to find.”


“That hasn’t stopped you from looking.”


“Would it have stopped you?”


Temari just snorted.


“When the King gets taken,” Shikamaru said slowly, “the game is over. If the king gets taken and his pawns refuse to give up, what happens?”


“The pieces move into the enemy’s territory and rescue the king. They bring him back into the fight.”


“So we find where the enemy is hiding. And we give them hell.”


~*~*~


“YOU’RE THE HOKAGE,” Naruto was roaring. “OF COURSE YOU CAN DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT!!”


Kakashi was regarding him with a rare expression. It was flat, and very much unmoved. “Konoha has essentially been brought to its knees before the other Villages, Naruto. It took

begging and a great deal of influence from Suna on our behalf for the other Kage to pardon the man who attempted to kill them all. Their one condition was a complete report on his motives.”


“I don’t CARE!”






“Naruto,” Kakashi snapped. Shock made the snarl fall off of Naruto’s face. “He is a traitor to the village and an S-Class Missing-Nin who took offensive action against every important ninja leader. By all rights, he should have been executed already. That is why we have the Bingo Book, and why there are Hunter Nin; rogue ninja are put down, and sometimes it is a mercy killing.”


“But –“ Naruto’s voice was choked. “It’s

Sasuke. “ His throat clogged on the name and he could feel tears, hot and angry, pricking his eyelids.


“I know. And that is why they’re interrogating him now, instead of dispatching him. It’s why Konoha is in the deepest debt it’s ever been, and the interrogation officers are –“


“They – are – torturing – your – student!” Naruto fairly snarled at him. “If you won’t stop them –“


“If you went to him now,” Kakashi said, “would he welcome you with open arms like the brother you think he is? Or would he try to kill you?” He paused to let that sink in. “He was on a suicide mission. The council thinks that the death of his brother drove him mad and filled him with bloodlust. And he is





refusing to deny it. They are interrogating him, Naruto, because we need to know if any part of the Sasuke we once knew is left.”


“He’s in there,” Naruto said hoarsely. “He’s always been really strong – he always wanted to l-live –“


“His goal was to kill Itachi. It was what drove the Sasuke we knew. With that gone, we might not know him at all.”


“It didn’t drive





everything he did,” Naruto ground out. His eyes were blurring and his face felt wet, but his teeth were still bared in a snarl. “Not – not when he told us to run and said he’d die for us, not when he jumped in front of an attack that should have killed me, that would have killed him for all he knew –“


“And that’s the reason we do this,” Kakashi said quietly. “Because of the person he once was. But if all that’s left is a stranger wearing your best friend’s face, the Sasuke we knew would have felt nothing but horror at seeing himself become someone so like the brother he hated.”


Naruto said nothing. He was staring at the ground, and it was with surprise that he suddenly felt a large palm rest gently on his head.


“You were always stronger than him, Naruto. You’ve always seen enough worth in yourself to not need anyone else. You've never cared about the odds – you’ve never even





seen them. Sasuke is not like that. Neither of us ever really knew him. We never met the child he was before his brother filled him with all that hate, and we probably never will. You both had the need for recognition, but whereas the lack of it made you stronger, it made him crumble.”


Naruto swallowed, but when he finally looked up, he met Kakashi’s eyes with renewed determination. “I already told Itachi, and I’m gonna tell you. I don’t care if he hates the whole world, and I don’t care if all of Konoha hates him back. I’ll never give up on either of them. I’ll find a third way.”




~*~*~


Time stretched on, and they reached the one-month anniversary of the attack.


The event was marked by Kakashi disappearing for the entire day - during which everyone avoided the memorial ground - and Tsunade breaking her desk.


Iruka was seen at Ichiraku’s, sitting on a stool by himself and looking extremely lost.


“Tsunade-sama,” Sakura said, approaching her mentor with a teacup. “Has anyone thought of asking – I mean, he’s traveled a lot, and probably read a lot of forbidden things that aren’t allowed here –“


“No,” Tsunade snapped, brows arched as she purposefully avoided her student’s gaze. “The last thing that brat needs to be told is that this village has a weakness.”


Sakura bit her lip before moving determinedly on. “He hasn’t been told?”


Tsunade answered by snatching the cup out of Sakura’s hand and slamming it down. That was when her desk broke.


Sakura spent the day working, waiting until everyone was gone for the night before quietly re-entering the Hokage’s office.


The room still felt very much like Naruto, with cup ramen stacked in the corner on top of old finance reports, pictures of the Rookie 9 on the walls, and a plant by the window.


It was a bonsai tree, Sakura realized for the first time – at least it was meant to be, but it couldn't have been more obvious that Naruto hadn’t clipped it once in its life. It grew awkwardly and all over the place, unapologetically encroaching upon the personal space of everything near it. Sakura wondered why no one had ever told Naruto the proper way to care for it – or if perhaps he’d known, but decided to let it grow free. That sounded like him.


A quiet knock on the door interrupted her thoughts, and she was surprised to be greeted by the silent form of Hinata Hyuuga, bearing an armful of scrolls. The girl gave tentative smile. “I couldn’t sleep,” she offered. “And I knew everyone else had gone home, so…”


“Thanks Hinata," Sakura said gratefully.


That Hinata was here meant her cousin wasn't; the two of them in unspoken agreement had been taking constant shifts in the search. Hiashi had let them, his easy compliance perhaps having had something to do with the frequency with which Neji’s training sessions were leaving large holes in the walls of the compound.


Hinata entered quietly, like she did everything else, easing herself into one of the corner chairs. They worked without speaking. At around two in the morning, Pakkun ambled in, with nothing to report as usual. He then settled himself on Sakura's lap like he belonged there and curled up, whining faintly.


“It’s been hard on them,” Hinata said suddenly. She was gazing down at the last scroll, but her eyes were unfocused. “Kakashi-sensei and Tsunade sama. When someone is in danger, it’s as if all you can see is the list of everyone you've lost, and there’s a blank spot just waiting -“


“Don’t you dare act like you’re giving up on him!” Sakura said tightly, furious because she had been thinking exactly the same thing.


“I think,” Hinata said gently, “that Naruto once spent four years chasing after someone, and… he’d have spent longer, if that’s what it took. He never gave up, even when everyone in the world was telling him it wouldn’t work, because that’s just who he is. I think everyone here knows that, and – and would do the same for him a thousand times over.”


Sakura looked at her, and wondered when she’d missed Hinata growing into a mature young woman. “You’ll be a good leader of your clan some day,” she said instead.


Hinata stared at her briefly before pressing her lips together and nodding once. “And Naruto-kun will be there to see it,” she said.


~*~*~


Trial was an odd business against a man who had no intention of defending himself; who sat there, rage beaten out of him in interrogation but not so his defiance, because defiance was all he had left. He showed apathy toward everything including his own death, but still dripped contempt from every look and word, as if it had been part of him too long to stop now.


The ninja villages did not expect the Hokage to stand so firmly in demanding acquittal; they expected even less for Konoha to stand behind him and Suna to follow their lead. The Tsuchikage was moved by their utter loyalty, while the Mizukage was unsympathetic but at least unbiased. The Raikage arrived late to the assembly; Kumo had been seen in talks with the Hyuuga. No one had been told why. Everyone could guess.


When it ended in a life sentence of confinement to the village, no one was more shocked than Sasuke Uchiha himself.


A young ex-Root member carefully painted chakra seals on his skin. It rendered him virtually powerless along with weakened eyes, bloodshot from strain. He was robbed of being a ninja, the only thing he ever strove towards, the only thing he ever took pride in.


The Uchiha was sealed into his childhood home, guards at the doors. An entire complex to himself, though he could not use it; some called it generous. He called it a life-long torture sentence, trapped in a graveyard, the house of his nightmares, the reminder of every bit of guilt and anguish and fear he had ever felt.


He was talked about in shamed whispers; they preferred not to think about him.


Alone but for the weight of memories smothering him, he tried not to think about anything at all.














~*~*~


Sakura wasn’t sure what had awoken her at first. Her head jerked up sharply from its pillow of books as she fell out of a dream, eyes scanning the darkened room. She was in the Hokage tower, as she usually was these days. Last night she had fallen asleep as she often did,; sitting at the desk, head flopped down on arms crossed over ancient scrolls and undecipherable texts.


The commotion was coming from the grounds below.


By the time she arrived, she could see a body lying prone on the floor before a circle of people. She froze before she realized the figure had brown hair, not blond; then she felt guilty for her relief and crouched down to touch the ninja’s neck, knowing it was hopeless but still needing to try.


“He’s dead,” one of the nin said shortly. “He arrived three minutes ago and died at our feet without saying anything; he’s been hit by a poison shuriken in the back.”


“No other injuries?”


“No. He’s one of our perimeter scouts; he probably saw something and was trying to report it.”


“ANBU have been alerted,” a younger ninja added. “The sc-“


He was cut off with the sound of a boom. As one, the little group threw themselves to the ground, but the sound had not originated nearby; it had simply been big enough to make the ground shake. As Sakura stood, eyes trained on where sky met rooftops, she could see dust billowing up as stone and plaster were blown into the air. It’s at the edge of the village, her brain told her; minimal casualties. She had one second for personal thoughts – fire again, please no and that’s where Sasuke’s house is before she was out of time and they were moving.


~~


The first thing Sasuke saw was the sunshine. Not muted by opaque windows, but real and warm, streaming in through the clouds of dust in the air. Dust thrown up by shattered wooden walls, he realized as he uncoiled from where he’d thrown himself; far to the back, curled protectively in on himself. It had saved his life; he was covered in sawdust and tiny cuts, but he barely felt them. The entire south side of the house had been ripped open. As he stood, shoving wooden beams off of himself and stepping lightly around an overturned table, he realized detachedly that wreckage was all that was left of his family home. His childhood. His legacy.


He felt nothing, and kept walking towards the sunshine, bare feet neatly avoiding splintered glass and nails. There was a body to his right, bloodied hand all that was visible of the one guard who had stood by his door day and night.


He didn’t bother checking on the man’s status; he’d seen enough of the dead in his lifetime to be able to recognize them now, even from a distance.


He kept moving, and in three steps he was outside. The sun was on his face and the wind in his hair for the first time in far too long. The trees were within reach; he could practically feel their rough bark beneath his feet.


He was standing on grass; between blackened patches and strewn wood and shingles. It tickled between his toes.


There was a battle surrounding him. That much had been obvious from the start, but he could see it now: nin pouring out of the trees to be met by a tiny, thin wall of Konoha chuunin. He watched as they first broke against that wall, then drove it back.


There must have been fighting going on elsewhere in the village, because Naruto would never have otherwise left his ninja so vulnerable.


But they were fighting, despite the odds, and they were fighting together. As a team.


He watched dispassionately as one chuunin was cut down, and his comrades broke off where they were engaged to protect him. The enemy was closing in like the tide rushing toward a footprint on the beach, and yet the two chuunin were refusing to leave their teammate. “-going down together,” he heard one of them scream. There was a cry; one of them had been hit, but was refusing to fall. Their last companion was yelling at them both - “never going to leave you.”


Naruto would be proud.


Naruto would protect them, if he was there. They were stupid, and foolish; they should cut their losses and run. All they were accomplishing here was that they would all die together, and then be of no use to anyone. The female nin was telling her two comrades to run for it, saying she would hold off the rest. Likely she would be dead within seconds. Likely she knew it. Stupid.


Sasuke remembered being that stupid once.


~~


As all the most powerful ninja poured onto the battlefield, a few solitary chuunin and one recovering ANBU were left in the Hokage tower, coordinating attacks from afar.


Reports were coming in via summons, and everyone seemed to be shouting.


“Our forces are moving to defense – we’ve suffered explosions in three areas, we’re spread thin –“


“Get the civilians away – and where the hell is Hatake?”


“In the fight. These are regular nin, no sign of the fire chakra from before -”


“Then let our ninja on the front lines know that reinforcements are on their way.”


Crouched on the roof, watching the dust clouds in the distance and the silver of weapons flashing in the sun, Rat ANBU could see that the tide was turning. On their own turf, facing down regular enemy ninja, the forces of Konoha were winning, even against a much larger force. Under Kakashi and Naruto, they had flourished in skill and in teamwork; they fought in tighter units now, to greater effect.


From somewhere in the melee, there was a scream of “RASENGAN!” and he knew it would give people hope to see the Hokage’s pupil in the fray.


There was a light scratching sound behind him, and he turned to see Pakkun scrambling towards him across the roof.


“Report,” he said.


“The enemy is being expelled, but the south is almost completely defenseless.”


“There were two ANBU guarding Uchiha -”


“Communication went down in the first explosion; looks like the house was blasted wide open.”


This was a battle. There was no time for indecision. They were two men down, and their prisoner may have been completely innocent of their deaths, or he might not. “Spread the information,” he said. “Uchiha may be loose. If he appears to be taking offensive action against Konoha, ANBU have license to kill.”


Pakkun stared at him, doggy eyes wide. “You think they could beat him?”


“He’s likely injured. Not only is he sealed, he’s years out of practice and fighting without the Sharingan for the first time since he was twelve. If he’s fighting on either side, it’s only bad news for him.”


~~


Sasuke had only a moment to see a lightning jutsu heading his way before he was up in the air, stretching muscles that had not been used in years, eyes blurring where the world would normally be red and sharp, before he was back on the ground in a crouch, one hand gripping the grass before him.


There was going to be an additional handicap in this battle, he realized. Bound chakra he could work around, and without the Sharingan he would simply have to move more quickly.


But he had never before practiced fighting with glasses, and the slim wire frames were the only things keeping his vision from sliding from “normal” to a confusing mess. With one finger he slowly slid them up from where they had slipped to the tip of his nose, and spared a brief moment to be annoyed.


Then he was moving.


Dodge left; the wind was in his face and the world blurred as he ran, actually ran for the first time in years. The enemy ninja brought his hands together to form another seal and he knew he couldn’t give him the chance. Two steps, and he was in the ninja’s face, registering the look of surprise before his fist was planted firmly against the other’s nose. He flew back and landed against a tree; Sasuke didn’t notice, moving again. There were waves of ninja coming out of the trees, but this was not new. He remembered training with Orochimaru against fields of chuunin and jounin. This was nothing. Nothing.


He spun, heel connecting with two different bodies. The side of his hand stung as he chopped it against a third, then his fingertips were touching the ground as he flipped over a volley of poison darts. Landing with glasses askew, he moved on memory, snatching the last dart out of the air and flinging it back the way he had come.


As he straightened, the ninja were disappearing into the trees to analyze the appearance of this new threat from afar.


“Get out of here,” he said, turning to the three chuunin. Two were on the ground, one covered in blood, eyes closed. The third stared at him, kunai held in shaking fist, eyes wide. “You’ll be in my way,” he clarified, and didn’t know why she hadn’t left yet.


“But you’re –“ She didn’t appear able to finish. The shock was affecting her; the whole team looked young, maybe young enough to not have seen real battle before. “What are you wearing?”


The inanity of the question made Sasuke glance down, realizing the incongruity of the blood-spattered sweats and t-shirt – pajamas, really. He’d been dozing.


“Go,” he told them one more time, before turning his back. If they were too dumb to follow orders, they wouldn’t survive much longer anyway.


And then ninja were pouring out of the trees again, and he was busy.


Side-step and spin, and two ninja fell with a loud crack before he landed, punched another in the stomach and headed for –


A sword whistled toward his face – no room to duck, nowhere to go – he caught it between his palms an inch from his face, the edge biting into his skin before he kicked out and the woman was sent flying. She landed in a crumpled heap, and his eyes locked on to the sword where it now speared the ground.


He was completely encircled; bodies closed in on every side, opponents smelling victory. He pulled the sword out of the ground, and smiled.


~~


Sakura was finishing a surgery when she heard the clamor in the hallway. As she stepped out of the room, a novice ran up to her, grabbing her by the arm and pulling her down the hallway.


“The battle?” she asked instantly.


“We’re winning –“


Sakura nearly sagged with relief. “Kakashi-sensei?”


“He’s fine, but listen - I’ve got a chuunin with a shattered ribcage and another with a compound fracture –“


“Bring them to Tsunade-se-“


“No, listen - their teammate keeps babbling on, raving something mad about Uchiha Sasuke protecting them –“


Sakura spent two seconds trying to stop the feeling of warmth and the hope that was spreading from her heart, and then she was off, shaking herself loose from the confused novice and racing towards the Hokage’s tower where a few nin were mapping out the last strategies of the dwindling battle.


“-Just sent two ANBU down, they should help hold it until – Haruno, what the hell do you think you’re doing?”


Sakura realized dimly that she’d burst into the room with such force that one of the double doors was now sagging half off its hinges.


“You’ve abandoned your post, Haruno,” the door guard said harshly. “We’re going to have to remove –“


Sakura paid no attention, walking up to the nearest jounin and putting a dent in his desk with her fist. “Three chuunin were just brought in, saying they were saved by Sasuke Uchiha.”


“Haruno,” the guard warned a second time, stepping closer. “The information in this room is classified. Leave now or we will make you.”


“Excuse me,” Sakura said with a tight smile. There was a vein twitching above her eyebrow. “My teammate has possibly just shown his first sign of humanity in approximately a decade. I think it would be a good idea to answer. Me.”


She was cut off by the crackle of the speaker on the desk. “This is Badger,” the ANBU’s voice came through the comm. “The battle is over.”


The jounin whirled on the comm angrily. “Over, what do you mean over?”


“It’s won,” another ANBU chimed in; his companion appeared to be speechless. “The entire flank of the enemy has been taken down.”


“How?! Did we get reinforcements?”


“No, it was Sasuke Uchiha in his fucking pajamas.”


~*~*~


The Sixth Hokage was stricken from the records as soon as he was replaced, and Kakashi was officially the Rokudaime. Meanwhile, a much younger man began training to take over the post. Every day, when he was done, he made his way to the south side of the village to speak to his best friend, who hated him and spit hurtful words at him and wallowed in self-pity and barely even saw him at all.


Oftentimes, Naruto yelled at Sasuke; sometimes he cried, but not once did it cross his mind to give up.


On the two hundred and thirteenth day, he pushed far enough and hard enough to break through the shell of apathy; the resulting fight blew a hole in the side of the house, and got him banned from visiting.


On the two hundred and fourteenth day, they fought again. It was vicious and angry, both fully aware that one of them could use chakra and the other could not. It made their squabbles brutal, and Naruto came away with bruises from hits aimed straight for vitals.


But he felt victory, because apathy had turned to anger, and anger was







emotion.


Kakashi noticed the bruises on Naruto and remarked sagely that the mending had obviously begun.


Exactly one year after his incarceration, the prisoner was visited by the Hokage, who even after all these years could, with a couple quiet words, make him feel foolish, inadequate, and so, so young. It was the quiet look of disappointment in that one visible eye; the nonchalant



‘ho-hum’ and the blithe observation that ‘He would never have taught certain people certain jutsu if he’d known they would use them in the worst way possible.’


Or, the Hokage suggested brightly after a brief silence, perhaps he just wasn’t that boy any longer. “I can barely see it now,” he said in a voice that should have been casual but hit so, so hard. “That person with goodness in his heart and determination in his eyes who made me actually give a damn.”


But he also paused at the door on his way out, and said “Welcome back,” in a tone that suggested nothing but that he completely and totally meant it.


Sasuke didn’t cry. And if he did, neither of them said anything about it.


Time passed. He wore glasses now. He read sometimes. He seemed entirely uninterested in ever training again.


Certain friends continued to visit, as always. They made nuisances of themselves, and he snapped back, with less cruelty and more general irritability.


They still sometimes blew holes in the walls, though.














~*~*~
Sasuke looked calm when the group of Konoha ninja rounded the corner, Sakura in the lead. He was sitting on the stomach of one of the larger ninja, relaxed as if it had been a lounge chair. It would have been disturbing, this level of comfort around death, if Sakura hadn’t been quite sure that most of the bodies covering the ground were only unconscious.


His long limbs were in a controlled sprawl, legs stretched out in front of him, bare toes buried in the grass, arms propped on his knees, and bloodied fingers hanging loosely.


It was the first time she had seen him in a very long time, yet somehow he looked more like the Sasuke-kun she remembered than ever.


His hair was longer; it kept falling into his eyes, bangs gone uncut for what looked like months. He was wearing curved rectangular glasses with a thin wire frame, and loose gray pants. At his feet was a bloody sword.


She stopped a few yards in front of him, and found that she had no idea what to say. “Thank you?” “Are you hurt?” “Why did you help us?” She couldn’t very well say, “I hadn’t thought you were really in there any more.”


Their eyes met, bright green and hard black. At some point, an enemy weapon had gotten close enough to his face to leave a tiny chink in the top of his glasses, a cut that extended up to slice through his right eyebrow. He must have gone through much of the fight blinking blood out of his eye. But then, he’d done that before.


He was still ridiculously handsome, which didn’t really seem fair.


And above all else, she was still a healer.


“Are you hurt?” she asked simply.


“No.” His voice was deeper than she remembered it. He was also an easier liar; from the look of it, he’d had two broken fingers and shoved them back into place himself.


She nodded once. “Then the Hokage wants to see you.”


~~


They were met with stares as they entered the Hokage tower. Patients not deemed an emergency lined the walls outside the hospital. The halls were buzzing with conversation and argument, and the crowds were fairly straining. The amount of people who had suddenly found something to do within the vicinity of the tower was unsurprisingly large. Word had spread in less than five minutes that Sasuke Uchiha had saved three chuunin by taking on an entire army by himself.


Sasuke hardly noticed; he walked steadily, eyes focused, back straight, as if the prying eyes were nothing to him.


If there was one thing he was used to, it was people staring.


They entered a small room, empty of people and barely furnished, and Sakura turned to him. “We’ll wait here.” She was looking near the vicinity of his cheekbone, as if finding it hard to look him in the eye. “They’ll call us when they’re ready.”


The aftermath of a battle was never dealt with quickly.


They sat.


Outside, there was the muted hum of activity, but there were no guards outside the door. Sasuke wondered if they were fooling themselves, thinking Sakura could possibly stop him if he wanted to leave.


He had the uncomfortable feeling she was just keeping him company.


Vaguely, he wondered where Naruto was.


When they were finally summoned, it must have been hours. They blinked in the brighter hall light as they were lead down the corridor – empty now, except for the ANBU they were following.


Sasuke’s bare feet felt cool on the smooth tiles.


But when the double doors opened – one of them hanging oddly, as if it had been ripped off its hinges – it was not Naruto he saw seated at the Hokage’s desk, but Kakashi, alone but for one other. He bore all the signs of a recent battle – his clothes were torn and scorched – but Sasuke knew he would not be sitting there if the battle had not been over and won.


“Sasuke,” Kakashi said as soon as he saw him. His voice was throwaway as ever, but his eyes, just visible over steepled fingers, quickly scanned Sasuke before relaxing imperceptibly. “I understand you were involved in a bit of a tussle.”


Sasuke said nothing.


“That’s all well and good,” his old teacher went on, forced cheer in his voice. He sounded tired. “But the esteemed elders of our village council want to ask you a few questions. This is Ogawa-san,” Kakashi continued, indicating the Jounin standing over his left shoulder. “He is our interrogation officer.”


“We’ve met.”


“He has a couple of questions for you.”


“I will be brief,” the man said without preamble. “I’m sure you’re eager to return to your house.”


Sasuke’s house was currently a teetering wall surrounded by a pile of rubble.


“The two ANBU guarding your house were killed,” the officer went on. “Do you have any idea why the enemy chose to attack you?”


“I assume,” Sasuke said, blinking slowly, “to kill the ANBU.”


Ogawa was stone-faced. “Yet the explosion conveniently set you free from your house.”


“My house,” Sasuke said in a voice dripping with condescension, “is a single wall.”


“Surrounded by rubble,” Kakashi added helpfully.


Sakura nodded. “It’s teetering.”


“Did any of the enemy try to communicate with you?” Ogawa pressed on.


“You think they came to free him?” Sakura snapped.


Ogawa made no sign he had heard her. “Did any of them attempt to communicate with you?”


“They attempted to kill me.”


“Did you recognize any of the attackers?”


“They were all missing nin. Mercenaries.”


“There’s this handy little thing that helps you recognize missing nin,” Kakashi piped in. “A slash, across their forehead protector. Perhaps you’ve seen it before.”


“Did you recognize –“


“No.” He would have added that if he was planning to escape, he would have done it long ago and without anyone’s help, but that would imply something stupid, like that he wanted to stay. Sakura was already looking at him with a steadily warming expression, as if he was a troublemaking child suddenly worthy of praise, and that was bad enough.


“I think we’re done here,” Kakashi said smoothly. “We’ll learn nothing more than what we already suspected. Missing nin often do mercenary work. The fire ninja likely still need something from us and haven’t the will or the power to get it themselves.” He paused. “Now both of you, scat. There are some things I need to say to Sasuke alone.”


Sakura left, hesitating to glance back once before disappearing. The interrogation officer shot them a severely disapproving look and then swept out the window, in what he likely thought was an impressive exit.


Sasuke said nothing. Seeing Kakashi sitting there, in the Hokage’s chair, rankled. Just being here in the Hokage’s tower, surrounded by the same walls that housed members of the bureaucracy, the old council, the decision makers –self-satisfied, so secure in their positions and accepting of the constant grind of the machine – made him itch.


He had never had the urge to kill when younger. Orochimaru had told him he was too soft. But he knew what it was like, having your world ripped to shreds by death, and he never wanted to bring that upon someone. He would not be Itachi.


But when Itachi had died, all his burning rage had transferred to this village, to anyone with power, to anyone who stood in his way. Heart-warping guilt had inflamed it, and for the first time, he hadn’t cared if the world burned. He wanted to rip it all to shreds and go down with it.


Time and change had dulled that; Itachi, with as much power over him in death as in life, had changed his mind through Naruto. Yet sitting here, he still felt detached, like an infiltrator in a foreign camp that no one suspected. And the idea of working for them – and it was still them, even if it was people he knew – stirred something he wasn’t sure he wanted unburied.


And so the room was silent, Kakashi quietly observing, likely unsure what to do with him. He wasn’t entirely sure what to do with himself, either.


“Your fingers were broken,” Kakashi finally said. “Can you move them?”


“Yes.” It would hurt, but Kakashi hadn’t asked about that.


“Good. We have a lot of injured ninja, and houses need rebuilding.”


~*~*~


A year passed, then two. One night, the two ANBU standing guard outside Sasuke’s house happened to be a painter and a wood-user. One night, a figure in orange snuck into the house with suspicious ease, and where one went in, two came out.


They stood atop the Hokage monument together; Sasuke pretended he didn’t close his eyes and breathe deep as the wind blew across his face. Naruto pretended he didn’t see him open them again and stare up at the stars.


Sasuke didn’t say thank you; he still didn’t talk much. But then, he never had, so maybe things weren’t so different after all.


“Next time,” Naruto said with a bright grin, “we’ll invite Sakura.”


On his twentieth birthday, a new Hokage was inaugurated. The Nanadaime lounged back at Sasuke’s kitchen table, kicked his feet up, and grinned from beneath his new broad hat.


He was told he looked ridiculous.


The elders still wanted Sasuke controlled, the Hokage said. He told them it was bullshit, but he was already facing trouble from a lot of other changes he was making.


He was not scared.


Two days later, the Nanadaime ate ramen with Sasuke for the first time in years without it ending up hurled against the wall.


Healing was painfully, painfully slow. But it came.




















~*~*~


One month and thirteen days after Naruto disappeared, Sakura was woken, yet again, by a ruckus outside.


This time, the origin was the gates. It took her a total of three minutes to follow Kakashi and Neji to the growing crowd, positive now that the cries sounded more shocked than afraid.


Two steps to round the corner, and -


The figure was wavering where he stood, propped against a young genin’s shoulder; his clothes were dark and plain, characteristic of a prisoner maybe, but not of him. He had cuts on his skin, scrapes and bruises; one eye was puffed and clenched shut.


But the golden hair was unmistakable, as was the exhausted grin.


“Hey, Sakura-chan,” Naruto whispered, before slipping from the genin’s shoulder and crashing toward the ground. She caught him, gathering him towards her. Her mind was blank, except for a happy fog. He was far too thin, but Naruto was home. Naruto was alive.


“Get away from him,” a voice said sharply, yanking her away by the arm.


She turned, shooting a glare over her shoulder at – “Neji? What – it’s Naruto, he’s home –“


“That’s not him.” Veins stood out around the sides of his temples; he had his Byakugan activated and was staring straight at Naruto, brows drawn together. For anyone else, it would have been a mild expression; for Neji, it was a sign of extreme disturbance. “Whoever that is has normal chakra. There isn’t a trace of the Nine Tails.”


Sakura let the unconscious figure drop to the ground and leapt back. “A henge?” she asked sharply.


“No. It’s –“ He faltered for the first time, sounding uncertain. “I don’t know what it is.”


Kakashi came up beside her, hitai-ate pushed off of his left eye. “Neji’s right,” he said after a moment. “It’s no genjutsu or illusionary technique at all; whoever this is, they’re an actual physical replica of Naruto. You – pipsqueaks,” he said to the few genin still surrounding them. “Scatter. Sakura, grab him and come with me. Neji, fetch your uncle.”


“Interrogation? Ibiki-san –“


“-Can wait. We’re going to the hospital.”


~*~


“He looks small.” Shizune’s voice broke the silence that had fallen over the hallway outside the little hospital room. The only noise was coming through the closed door from the beeping monitors stationed around the bed, which held a sleeping, bruised, exhausted-looking golden-haired boy.


It was night now; he had woken up, just once, several hours before.


“Hey granny,” Naruto had said hoarsely, tired, happy gaze fixed on Tsunade. “You miss me?”


He spoke like Naruto, looked like Naruto, reacted like him – Ibiki had hovered in the background, probing about Naruto’s past under the guise of debriefing him.


There was nothing wrong with him. And as he sat there, smiling up at them with his too-sharp cheekbones and too-large eyes, bandages everywhere because he just wasn’t healing like normal, Sakura saw in his eyes all the usual evidence of his heart of gold.


He’d been tortured. “They didn’t do it for the fun of it,” he’d said with a throwaway shrug and eyes that did anything but meet hers. “They were bad guys, but they were just sort of after what they were after, you know?”


Which was kyuubi. And it seemed that they’d gotten it.


“I remember it starting,” Naruto had said to the wall, arms wrapped probably unconsciously across his stomach. “But not anything after that. There was a lot of chanting and seals on the floor and stuff I didn’t recognize, and then, I dunno, I guess I blacked out.” His brow furrowed suddenly, as if with renewed determination. “I want to find out what the hell they did. We’ve got tons of scrolls on ancient rituals, yeah, Granny? I want to read them all.”


“In good time,” Tsunade had reprimanded with a light slap against the back of his head. “You need to tell us how you got all those injuries.”


“I wasn’t a very good prisoner,” Naruto said then, and it was his suddenly steely eyes that made Sakura realize he was not broken or anything near it. “I had to get out before they could take it. Tried dozens of times. It worked twice, before they learned to keep me drugged so they wouldn’t have to keep rebuilding their stupid base.”


“How did you escape?” Ibiki had asked him.


“There were these seal things, all set up on the floor – they were gonna kill me and dump me back here. I’d seen them work it by then, so I kicked their asses and sent myself home.”










Even now, Sakura still felt that surge of pride.


“There is nothing physically different from the last time I gave him an exam,” Tsunade said quietly, eyes on the door that separated them from Naruto’s room. “And we’ve seen jinchuuriki without their bijuu before, but those were unusual circumstances. I’ve never heard of an extraction method that leaves the bearer alive.”


“He’s passed every test we gave him, barring those that can only be done posthumously,” Neji said.


“Which isn’t and never will be an option,” Tsunade said coolly.


“No,” Kakashi said, “but I’d been under the impression that Naruto had a… fail-safe of sorts on his seal, and I’m very curious as to why it didn’t trigger.”


“But – that’s Naruto,” Sakura said desperately.


Kakashi gave the hospital room door one last look. “Probably.”


“It may be Naruto, Sakura,” Tsunade said, though her voice was not entirely unkind. “I want it to be him as much as you do, but this is no time to make assumptions. He was gone for over a month; that alone warrants a thorough investigation. The presence of kyuubi was the most definitive signature he had; without it, proving who he is will be a hundred times harder.”


“Do none of us know him well enough,” Hinata said softly, “to tell if it’s really him or not?”


There was silence as her words sank in.


“We’ve got another option.” Sakura’s voice was quiet, but determined. She raised her eyes very deliberately, and looked at each of them in turn.


“Ah,” Kakashi said, as if he’d been expecting this.


Sakura took a deep breath. “Sasuke.”


Neji said nothing, but the way his lips pursed briefly showed that he was displeased, if unsurprised.


Shikamaru shifted in his position against the wall. “If you’re suggesting we unseal his eyes, the answer is no. Unsealing his eyes would mean unsealing his chakra, and we don’t know what he would do. Besides, his Sharingan may not be able to see through illusions any more than Kakashi’s.”


“I think,” Kakashi interrupted, “that’s not exactly what Sakura meant.”


Sakura nodded. “During the chuunin exam, we were confronted twice by people using henge to look like Naruto. I had no idea anything was wrong, but Sasuke – he could tell instantly.”


“We reviewed those tapes, Sakura,” Tsunade interrupted. Her voice was dismissive. “That was because of the passwords he’d set. It was very clever, especially for a genin, but something like that couldn’t help us now.”


“Except it wasn’t the passwords,” Sakura insisted. “He could just tell. The passwords worked because he knew Naruto, knew what he’d remember and what he wouldn’t. It was like instinct. They used to be like that - just… compatible….”


She trailed off, looking slightly confused. Shikamaru raised an eyebrow.


“That was a very long time ago, Sakura.” Tsunade’s tone brooked no arguments. “I don’t need to tell you that things have changed since then. I honestly can’t imagine two people that misunderstand each other more now - likely Sasuke wouldn’t even agree to try.”


“And that’s not the only problem,” Shikamaru added. “We have no way of knowing if he would even tell us the truth. Then the infiltrator would have an accomplice and the village could collapse from underneath.”


There was a tense silence.


“Of course,” Kakashi cheerily broke the silence, “you’re quite right in suggesting that Sasuke has no loyalty to this village. However, I believe you would be wrong in assuming that means he has no loyalty to Naruto. And as we find ourselves otherwise completely and utterly out of options, I think we would be wise to take Sakura’s idea into consideration.”


~*~*~


Things had been different recently.


The air was charged around them. It always had been, in a way, but this was different. Arguments disguised other things; glares were awkward, and silences fell uncomfortably where they hadn’t before.


One day, the Hokage came in, threw himself in a chair, and announced that he and Hinata were no longer together. As if this meant something. For



them.


Sasuke kicked him out.


It was the calm before the storm. That night, typhoon winds ripped through the village, and people rushed home and battened down their windows as warm rain lashed down. Flashes lit up the sky, and thunder drowned out the drumming of rain on the roof.


Inside the house, the windows were open. The curtains were already soaked as warm winds and water sprayed in, wetting the floor.


The Hokage arrived that night, slamming open the door and standing there, soaked and dripping, expression defiant, fists clenched.







I’m here, he seemed to say. And, as always, you’re not getting away.


His hair was soaked and matted; the fringes of his coat and his shoes were slick with mud.


And he tasted of ramen.


It was salty. They stood in the dark, battered by wind and rain in from the open window and hardly noticing.


It was never supposed to be sweet, between the two of them. It was never supposed to be slow and lingering.


It was. Tongues traced lips, mouths parted, fingers buried themselves in hair and swept up pale expanses of back –


The Hokage’s coat lay in a sodden heap on the floor, and they lowered themselves to the slick wet wood, clutching each other as they shoved off their clothing. Lightning flashed, and Naruto saw the pale form above him, twisting and moving in steady rhythm, eyes closed and mouth open, soft panting barely audible above the storm –


He was mesmerized by the droplets of water that trickled down that flawless white torso – his fingers clutched at it, groaning unashamedly and mumbling Sasuke’s name into that shoulder, over and over and over –


A muscular back arched, spine curving with head thrown back against the floor, arms scrabbling overhead, hands trying to find some purchase –


It was awkward when they woke. Sasuke stared in disbelief, though whether it was at Naruto or at himself, he wasn’t sure.


Naruto left. It was a long time before either of them felt ready to speak again.


And before they could, the village was attacked by creatures of fire.
























~*~*~


Exactly one week later, Sakura stood before the door, and found that she could not bring herself to knock. She had seen Sasuke, since his return; she’d helped heal him after (during, before, in between) his interrogations, and visited him periodically over the years. Head down, she had worked quickly and professionally on his wounds, mind in turmoil about the boy she’d loved, chased after, given up on and once been entirely ready to kill.


Even now, she tried not to think about the kind of person it made her, to be able to come to that decision. At the time, she’d told herself she was doing it all for Naruto – and perhaps a bit for Sasuke as well, the old Sasuke, the Sasuke she’d known. Secretly, she was afraid she just wanted it all to stop, for all the uncertainty to disappear, before it took her remaining best friend along with the first.


As time passed, she had talked to him a little. Mostly to tell him to be careful, or chide him against blowing any more holes in his house. She hadn’t expected a response, and she never got any.


He wasn’t exactly ‘Sasuke-kun’ any longer.


He was a stranger, and one she wasn’t sure she wanted to get to know.


Still, there had been times – once or twice – when they’d had small discussions. And one night, a year back, when she and Naruto had taken a ridiculous risk and snuck him out of the house, like delinquent teenagers or giggling schoolchildren. Like best friends. Like nothing they were.


It had worked. Somehow, insanely, nothing had gone wrong, and they had just stood on the cliff tops together for hours, watching Sasuke breathing in the fresh air, his expression making it all worth it.


Though she’d had an odd feeling it wasn’t the first time he and Naruto had done it.


That was the last time she had seen him. She hoped that those memories would be fresh enough in his mind to help her now.


She knocked, and waited. She could have gone right in – the ANBU guards regulated who went in and out, not Sasuke – but that didn’t stop her from wanting to make the gesture.


There were no footsteps, but after a moment, the door swung open slightly, and there he was. Sasuke was leaning against the doorframe, looking at her with the slightest frown from behind his new glasses, left hand on the inside doorknob as a book dangled loosely from the fingers of the right. He was wearing the same type of loose t-shirt she’d last seen him in, but beneath it, she could see the white of bandages winding down his arm.


She glanced back at where Naruto stood with Kakashi. Even injured, he was bouncing anxiously on his heels, blue eyes wide and anticipatory. He passed her, approaching Sasuke slowly, almost awkwardly, the latter’s gaze unmoving as he stood with arms crossed over his chest like protection.


“So,” Naruto said with a quick grin. “I’m back. Going to let me in, bastard?”


Sasuke said nothing.


“Aww, c’mon,” Naruto groused, rubbing the back of his head with something like annoyed sheepishness. “I go away for a month, go through loads of shit before escaping – very heroically – and you can’t even say hello?”


“Away?” Sasuke said blankly.


Naruto blinked at him. “They didn’t tell you, huh,” he mumbled.


“Perhaps we’d better talk inside,” Kakashi interrupted, sweeping them all through the door and ushering them into the living room as if he owned the place. “So,” he said brightly, leaning back against a wall. “Naruto was gone for a bit, Sasuke. His captors were taking tips from Akatsuki, apparently, at least in terms of certain collectables.”


Sasuke turned to Naruto and quirked an eyebrow. “The kyuubi?”


“Gone,” Naruto confirmed, meeting his eyes.


“And they did what with it?”


“I dunno,” Naruto said, cheerfulness dampening slightly. “Tsunade-bachan says they might need all that fire chakra for something. But that doesn’t matter. We’re gonna take ‘em down.”


“’We’?” A smirk was playing around Sasuke’s lips. “When was the last time you fought without the fox’s chakra?”


“When I escaped,” Naruto said slowly, as if stating the obvious.


The smirk widened. “And it took you two entire months?”


“Hey, I see that bandage on your arm, bastard, so don’t go calling the pot black, or whatever –“


“With taijutsu skills that pitiful, you’ll be lucky if they let you remain Hokage for even another day –“


“Oi! I’ve already talked to the council, they say they’ll let me back as soon as –“


“The council?” Sasuke interrupted, looking at him carefully.


“Yeah! You know, the big group of old fogeys? Kakashi-sensei is taking care of it until I’ve –“


“You listen to the council?” Sasuke interrupted yet again. His dark eyes were narrowed, and he appeared not to have heard a single other thing Naruto had said.


Naruto set his jaw. “You know, it’s a little hard to know what topics not to bring up around you –“


“Get out.”


“-If you never fucking tell us anything –“


“Get. Out.”


There was silence as the two of them glared at each other, black eyes staring into blue. “I’ll come back when your damn hissy fit is over,” Naruto grumbled, before turning on his heel and stomping out the door. Sakura followed him immediately, a worried expression on her face.


Kakashi stayed exactly where he was, watching Sasuke, whose eyes were still on the closed door.


Finally, he turned to Kakashi and spoke. “So,” he said evenly. “Who was that?”


Kakashi wiped a hand over his face before pushing himself to his feet. “What clued you in?”


“It was pitifully obvious,” Sasuke said, contempt lacing his voice. “Naruto would never get the council’s permission. He wouldn’t even think of them. So what was this,” he added, throwing a glance over his shoulder as he disappeared into his tiny kitchen. “A test?”


“Of sorts,” Kakashi admitted after a moment.


“For me?” Sasuke appeared again, now holding a glass of water. “Or for him?”


“For him. The Byakugan and Sharingan both see nothing wrong with him; as far as we can tell, it’s no illusion. His mannerisms are the same, as is his character.”


“His reactions are different.”


“One’s reactions,” Kakashi said, “often tend to change when someone takes away everything that once defined you.”


Sasuke’s fingers tightened imperceptibly around the glass. “Naruto never thought being a jinchuuriki defined him. Who he was had nothing to do with that.”


“Is, Sasuke,” Kakashi said quietly. “Whether that’s him or not, Naruto is still alive.”


“You think so?” It was most likely supposed to sound scathing. “Or do you actually think that’s him?”


“I think,” Kakashi said, “that you’re the only person so far to be so sure.”


Sasuke scoffed.


“As the acting Hokage, I have a proposal. Spend time with him.”


“You want me to be your spy.”


“If that is Naruto, he will need a great deal of training in his new condition,” Kakashi said. “And I think you’ve spent more than enough time stuck in this house.” Kakashi smiled suddenly. Sasuke wasn’t sure why, but if he’d still been a genin, it would have been vaguely frightening. “We can work something out to fix that.”


~*~


”This,” Shikamaru said for approximately the fifth time, “is a bad idea.”


They were at the training grounds. It could have been a momentous occasion; Sasuke’s first authorized trip out of his house and across the village. But that was eclipsed by the fact that this was a very bad idea.


“I don’t see why,” Kakashi said pleasantly from where he stood by the trees, face hidden by an orange book. “Sasuke’s chakra is still bound; he’s limited to taijutsu. Naruto needs to get used to working with only his own chakra again, and won’t likely be able to perform very many jutsu at all. They need to get used to their new abilities – or compensate for the lack of them. It’s a good testing ground for both of them. Besides,” he added, “you’re here to bind them if things get out of hand, and Sakura is here to patch them up.”


“Did you miss the part,” Shikamaru interrupted, “where Uchiha took out a bunch of A-class nin in his pajamas?”


“A bunch of A-class nin were in his pajamas?” Kakashi asked, turning a page. “Whatever were they doing there?”


Sakura giggled.


“I think he missed the part,” Shikamaru said to the air, “where Uchiha took out a bunch of A-class nin in his pajamas.”


Across the field, Sasuke heard the murmurings behind him and ignored them. More important was Naruto. Naruto without Kyuubi; himself without the curse seal. Perhaps even more importantly, Naruto without Kage Bunshin and himself without the Sharingan for the first time in many, many years. There was a… thrill racing through his veins, the likes of which he had not felt in a long, long time. It irked him, how emotional Naruto had always been able to make him.


Naruto was standing across from him, constantly shifting, fiddling with the side of his robe, restless. Finally he scuffed a patch in the grass, planted his feet, dropped into a crouch and waited, still at last.


Their eyes locked.


And Sasuke moved. A blur across the field then a feint punch - Naruto saw it and threw up his arms to block - followed by an easy kick that snapped Naruto’s head to the side and sent him flying across the yard to land in a sprawled pile.


Sasuke wondered idly if he’d broken something. Without Kyuubi he was a thousand times more fragile.


Naruto punched the earth with one fist, blue eyes afire now with determination, teeth bared. “Okay,” he panted, rising to his feet and wiping the back of one hand across his mouth. “You’re so gonna get it.”


And he charged.


The attack was head-on; no finesse, no tricks, just a running punch in the face. Sasuke could deal with that. He ducked the first hit with ease, flowing like water - lean back, step out, skip back - until he could block Naruto’s leg casually with his left arm and backhand him across the face. Naruto came up practically growling, and Sasuke allowed himself a smirk, knowing it would infuriate the other all the more. “Having trouble?”


“Stop acting like this is such a game to you, you bastard.”


“Isn’t it?” Sasuke looked down at Naruto crouched on the ground; there was dirt on his face, red marks on his arms and his lip was split. “It only stops being a game when you can actually pose a challenge to me.”


Naruto flipped in the air, bringing his heel down to land hard in the dirt where Sasuke had been standing just a moment before – their motions followed each others’ without pause, spin-kick, duck, swipe, parry, punch, block – Naruto threw a roundhouse kick at Sasuke, who ducked it easily and then decided enough was enough – and Naruto was on the defensive.


All was a blur of motion, grey against orange. He felt the wind in his hair, the earth beneath his feet – there was no thinking now. He was lost in sensation, instinct, calculation and absolutely no hesitation. Naruto was all plain and simple moves, straightforward techniques that relied on raw power. Sasuke was precision, minimal movement, and deadliness. He strode forward, arms moving – Naruto grunted as every hit made contact –


Naruto shot up suddenly, snapping a kick at Sasuke’s stomach with his left leg – Sasuke avoided it, and Naruto threw another one higher, aimed for Sasuke’s face – he twisted down, spinning a kick at Naruto’s head that just grazed him – Naruto swung a leg across the dirt, trying to sweep his feet out from under him and Sasuke jumped, twisting in the air and coming down with a foot firmly planted against Naruto’s stomach.


“You’re nothing.” There was venom in Sasuke’s voice that surprised even himself, but this was unfinished business. They’d talked, over the last few years. But they’d never had another chance to fight. “Without that cheat tool, you’re no one who could ever measure up to me.”


“Okay,” Naruto snarled. “Now I’m pissed.”


His movement was faster this time. A foot was flying at Sasuke’s ribs - he stepped back out of range and turned, and then there was weight on his back, arms and legs wrapped around him like a fucking octopus – he snapped his head back and heard it make contact with the face behind him. Then there was a palm on his face, and his first thought was that Naruto was trying to scratch his eyes out before nimble fingers snatched the glasses off his face and flung them away, to break against a tree.


He flung Naruto off of him and turned. The other boy had blood flowing from his nose, but he was grinning wildly – as far as Sasuke could see, at least. His vision was blurred.


His eyes. As always, the focal point of his weakness or his strength.


Well, Naruto had attacked his weak spot. He could attack Naruto’s.


He let a smirk spread across his face, slanting and mean. “Can’t beat me, so you resort to juvenile tricks?”


“Hey, it worked,” Naruto grinned at him, but some of the spark was fading from his eyes.


“But then, that’s always what you’ve done, isn’t it?” Sasuke pressed on. “You fail and fail so you do something overblown and ridiculous to distract from the fact that you can’t measure up. Your own special technique proves it – it takes hundreds of you to even equal one of your opponents.”


“Hey, I worked my ASS off to be able to do what I can do –“


“Could do, Naruto. You’re nothing without that fox – it was the bane of your life, and without it no one trusts you, no one thinks you can fight, no one cares –“


“That’s not true and you know it,” Naruto growled at him.


“The Kazekage is as powerful as he ever was without Shuukaku, and yet here you are, bleeding and kicked in the dust.”


“I can find other ways to be useful!” Naruto started earnestly. “I’ll learn everything in the libraries –“


“You expect Konoha to depend on you to be its brain?” Sasuke asked, voice cruel. “Now you’re just deluding yourself.”


“I’m serious! So I’m not Shikamaru – who cares! I’ll learn everything there is to know!”


“Your brain doesn't have the holding capacity.”


“Oi –“


“Don’t worry, I’m sure they’ll let you keep your face on the monument – testament to the shortest reign of a Hokage Konoha has ever seen –“


“And that’s enough,” Kakashi said gently. He was standing between them, palms placed evenly on both their shoulders, book nowhere to be seen. The pressure was gentle, but Sasuke had no doubt that his muscles were coiled and ready in case they leapt at each other. He was reminded forcibly of another time – a fight on a hospital roof between two kids, so angry and humiliated and furious and that new incessant burning on his neck that would not go away –


“We’re fine,” Naruto said lightly, wiping blood from his nose. “Right Sasuke?”


“Whatever.” He even sounded twelve again. What was wrong with him, that this idiot had managed to do this to him?


“I think it’s time we stopped.” Kakashi lowered his hands, but was looking at them unamusedly.


Naruto shook his head. “Got an idea. One last match, first strike wins. Loser has to do the other a favor,” he added with a bloody grin.


“What makes you think I’d want anything you could give me?”


“That’s fine, ‘cause I’m not gonna lose.”


“Idiot.”


“Fine! If I win, you take me to Ichiraku’s. You can buy me ramen. If I lose, I’ll take you to Ichiraku’s, and you can still buy me ramen.”


“Tch.” Without warning, Sasuke moved, and Naruto only had time to widen his eyes briefly before he was being thrown to the side, twisting in the air and just managing to land crouched on hands and feet. Then everything was a blur of motion – orange filled Sasuke’s vision, and the entire world narrowed down to simple instinct.


It took only three minutes for Kakashi to declare Sasuke the winner.


“You owe me lunch,” was all Naruto said.


~*~


Ichiraku’s likely had not changed much over the years, but Sasuke couldn’t have said for sure. He just barely remembered the place from a couple of lunches with Team 7 that he’d pretended to begrudge them. He remembered sitting uncomfortably on the little stool and being painfully aware that those were his first group meals since –


Well, anyway. It was one of the many memories that had faded during his time in Sound; he’d shoved them to the back of his mind, marked them irrelevant, and left them there. He’d been ready to be reborn as a new person; one with different memories, different skills, different allies. What bits of his old self hadn’t disappeared entirely had been warped as his rage wiped everything else away.


Sitting here now was like something out of someone else’s memory.


The others were filing in and seating themselves around them. The girl behind the counter went starry-eyed upon sight of Kakashi, reminding him of that day they spent desperately trying to get a look beneath Kakashi’s mask. He remembered actually caring, actually being curious enough to put in the effort. What a foolish, silly boy he’d been, and how very young.


“- Three miso ramen – ah, no, better make that four – and Sasuke?”


Sasuke snapped out of his musing, realizing that Sakura was addressing him. Her voice was friendly and casual; expression fixed and eyes guarded. It was, he realized, the first time the two of them had spoken casually in a very long time. Their relationship as adults hadn’t been much given to colloquial chatting over food.


“Nothing, I’m not hungry.” He was starving, but he’d gone longer in worse condition. He wasn’t even going to be able to pay for Naruto, as Naruto seemed to expect him to. It would create less of a fuss if someone else didn’t have to pay for him besides.


“Hey, hey, he likes tomatoes,” Naruto interjected, not listening to Sasuke in the slightest. “Get him a tomato ramen!”


Sasuke thought about explaining that liking tomatoes didn’t mean he harbored a secret love for all things thus flavored, but didn’t see the point. The girl set the bowl down in front of him, and he glowered at it. She gave a slight squeak and backed away.


“You may not have noticed, Sasuke-kun,” Kakashi said, “but at times, you can look quite threatening.”


He’d been told before – by Suigetsu, likely – that when his eyes got very wide he looked like an absolute psychopath, the likes of which might do anything from murder helpless civilians to strangle himself with his own intestines. Sasuke ignored this, busy with the realization that Kakashi had called him ‘Sasuke-kun’ for the first time in a very, very long time.


It either meant Kakashi was trying to include him in the group, or he was being subtly mocked.


Perhaps both.


The others fell into easy conversation, ignoring Sasuke as though he were a stranger.


Maybe he was. He could feel the heat of the public gaze on his back as it faced the street – curious and gossipy, hostile and frightened. He looked to his right, taking in Naruto’s beaming face as he slurped noodles like there was no tomorrow. It was like déjà-vu, except that now his feet actually reached the ground when he sat on the stools.


He felt like a hawk in a flock of pigeons. He shouldn’t have been trusted, should have been torn to shreds by now, and yet there he was.


~*~


The days flew by, then the weeks. Kakashi still ran Konoha; Naruto, Sasuke was told, was still recovering, and trying to find ways to compensate for his sudden loss of power.


“Since when do you spend time in the library?” Sasuke snorted, walking by the rows of shelves as if he came here every day.


“Since I don’t have kyuubi anymore,” Naruto retorted, voice echoing out from behind a particularly large stack of books. “Before I always knew I could protect Konoha no matter what, but now…”


“What happened to that promise to beat me, chakra or no?” Sasuke asked, pausing at one of the stacks and flipping the top book open.


“And I will, but I’ve gotta wait.” There was a scuffling sound and a messy blond head popped out from behind the shelves, blue eyes regarding him seriously. “And until then, I gotta find another way to protect everyone.”


Sasuke scoffed lightly. “Leave the brainwork to Nara. Try to think on level with him and you’ll only get in his way.”


Light-colored eyebrows furrowed. “You saying I’m stupid?”


“Yes. Especially if you think this –“ – here Sasuke waved the book in his hand for emphasis – “- is going to help you become Hokage again.”


“Oi! It’s important –“


“To read about your seal?” Sasuke snapped the book shut and tossed it back down on the pile. “I wasn’t aware you were a masochist.”


“They broke it somehow,” Naruto snapped, standing and upsetting a pile of scrolls. They went cascading off the table behind him and scattered across the floor. He ignored them. “They broke the seal, and they shouldn’t have been able to do that – I need to know how they did it, and what they’re gonna do with it, and-“ He bit off the end of the sentence, throwing his arms up in frustration.


“You need to understand what they did to you,” Sasuke finished for him.


“…They don’t believe I’m really me.” The words were quietly spoken; Naruto was glaring out the window with an expression just the stubborn side of melancholy. “Konoha, I mean. I guess the ol’ fox was the only thing that would have been able to prove it, and that’s gone now, isn’t it.” In an almost unconscious gesture, Naruto’s hand brushed across his stomach.


“And? You think if you find how the seal was broken, they’ll believe you?” Sasuke crossed the room soundlessly to lean against one of the tall shelves. “I assume you have a better plan than that.”


“Damn right I do,” Naruto mumbled into his palm. “And as soon as I figure out what it is, I’ll let you know, too.”


“And until then?”


“Kakashi will be the acting Hokage, and I’m gonna study.” There was a glint of determination in Naruto’s eyes now. “I’m gonna be the best damn Hokage there ever was, kyuubi or no kyuubi. Besides,” and here a big grin began to spread across his face, “I get the feeling you’re my consolation prize.”


“I’m,” Sasuke’s voice was low and dangerous, “your what?”


“My prize,” Naruto said, leering at him. “I mean, you might not have noticed, but they’ve actually let you out to come see me whenever you want.”


As if they were pets, occasionally let out to visit each others’ cages but never set free because their owners were afraid they would run.


“They don’t trust either of us. We’re easier to keep an eye on if we’re together.”


Naruto huffed, unable to deny it. “This whole thing, it’s all – wrong,” he ground out. “It wasn’t supposed to happen like this – it was all set, it was perfect, and then there was this stupid – complication!”


“Oh?” Sasuke said, face showing nothing.


“And now I’m here,” Naruto continued, not hearing him, “like this and everything is going too damn slowly!”


“Are you talking about being Hokage,” Sasuke asked him, “or something else?”


Naruto whirled on him. “Don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”


Sasuke felt the smirk spread on his face, and when he spoke, his voice came out in the slicker tones he’d developed under Orochimaru’s influence. “You always were far too obsessed with me, moron.”


“Oh yeah?” Naruto groused. “You’re the one always keeping secrets and refusing to tell people anything and being all I’m so tragic, no one understands me, I’m going to treat every single person on the planet like shit – if I hadn’t gone after you, you’d never have come back at all!”


Obviously. “That wasn’t what I meant,” Sasuke said.


“Then whatever you mean, just come out and say it!” Naruto yelled at him. His voice echoed around the large room. Sasuke didn’t flinch. “I’m sick of you being so secretive all the time, and - and I can’t get you out of my head – like you’ve been implanted there, or something – you don’t even think I’m really ME!” Naruto ended in a yell. The accusation hung between them in the silence, ringing far too loud.


“Don’t presume to know what I think,” Sasuke said, forcing as much distain as possible into his voice. It wasn’t hard.


“You don’t! And Sakura-chan and Kakashi-sensei, they’re always looking at me like I’m this time bomb that’s about to blow, and I hate it!”


“Naruto,” Sasuke interrupted harshly. “It’s no wonder people doubt you – since when do you sit around waiting for things to work out for you, since when do you complain instead of showing people something real –“


Sasuke was cut off as he found himself slammed back into the bookcase. Large, warm hands were wrapped around his upper arms, and blue eyes were suddenly far too close as hot breath spread over his cheek.


“….You’re fogging up my glasses,” he said. This wasn’t anything new – Karin had been more than forward at times, draping herself over him shamelessly –


“You want something real,” Naruto said hoarsely. “How ‘bout this.”


The kiss was hot and wet and warm and clumsy. Sasuke stood perfectly frozen, eyes wide and Naruto – oh God, Naruto was kissing him. It was overenthusiastic and sloppy, like everything else the idiot did. His lips were so soft and inviting, just like last time. Last time, which they were not supposed to think about ever again because, clearly, it had ended nothing short of disastrously.


So Sasuke bit Naruto on the lip, hard, and shoved him back. They were both breathing far too hard. Adrenaline he told himself sternly. It had always been frighteningly easy to lie to himself.


“That,” he spat, “is not normal for us, no matter what you might think.”


“Yeah?” Naruto asked, prodding his bleeding lip with his tongue. “Not new though, is it. I trust you,” he said. His voice was hoarse. “And I want you to trust me. ‘Cause if I lose Konoha, I can fight to get it back. But I never, ever want to lose you again unless I know you’ll be fighting to get me back too.”


And with that he turned and walked away.


~*~


“So,” Kakashi began. They were sitting in the Hokage’s office, alone except for lunch on the desk. Kakashi had ordered it for the both of them. “Is it Naruto?”


“I… don’t know.” Sasuke knew he sounded awkward, and hated it. He never sounded awkward.


Kakashi’s eyebrows fairly flew up in surprise. “That’s a far cry from what you said at first.”


“Things changed,” Sasuke said flatly, avoiding his gaze.


“Did they,” Kakashi said. “Sasuke, are you aware that one of the major schools of ninja training is seduction?”


Sasuke looked at him warningly. “Kunoichi.”


“No. There are times when even male ninja use seduction skills, especially for assassinations.”


Sasuke thought of Sai and said nothing.


“It’s also often used for infiltration, Sasuke. It’s a time-honored tradition, and that is, funnily enough, because it works.” He put down the cup he had been pretending to drink from and looked at Sasuke closely. “Not only against civilians, but against enemy ninja, even those who really ought to know better.”


“I don’t,” Sasuke said coolly, “have any idea what you’re talking about.”


“No?” Kakashi’s tone held a warning in it. Sasuke chose to ignore it. Like always. “It doesn’t strike you as the least bit suspicious? He needs to gain your trust so he reverts to basic human instincts, and suddenly for the first time -“


“It wasn’t,” Sasuke interrupted, the words snapping out involuntarily.


“What wasn’t?”


Sasuke looked studiously at his food. “The first time.”


There was a short silence. “Ah,” Kakashi said. For one of the first times since Sasuke had met him, he sounded honestly unsure. “That… changes things. Potentially. You do realize that if he isn’t Naruto, whoever sent him would still know –“


“We both know that I’m not the type to give into someone’s games.”


“No? Because for all the indifference you show people, I notice that you are extraordinarily bad at resisting temptation what it is something that you actually want. You always were kinder than you wanted people to know, Sasuke. And you always clung to anything that gave you a reason to fight. Some people call that loyalty. I wonder if you just need someone else to believe in, because you’re so terrified of standing on your own.”


“Just… stop it.”


“I need to know what to tell the council.”


“Tell them whatever you want.”


“They’re expecting me to update them. What am I supposed to tell them when they ask why you’ve suddenly changed your mind?”


Sasuke didn’t have an answer for him.


~*~


“Do you think,” Naruto asked, “they’ll ever unseal your chakra again?”


They were at the training grounds, as they often were these days. The sun had just gone behind the clouds, and to the two of them covered in sweat, the cool breeze seemed very chill. Naruto was sprawled out on the ground, shirt stripped off, limbs loose and askew. Sasuke was standing stiffly by one of the posts, arms crossed, looking away. He was most certainly not looking at Naruto’s chest, which was tan and toned again and covered in salty droplets of –


“Did you say something?”


Naruto turned his head towards him, bottom lip pressed up in a pout. “I said, do you think they’ll ever unlock that chakra seal they put on you?”


“How should I know?”


“Not fair,” Naruto mumbled, eyes turning back to the sky. “Them doing that to you.”


“You’re the one that dragged me back here.”


“Yeah, but…” Naruto gestured aimlessly with one arm. “Like, you’re a ninja. I mean, you’re an Uchiha. Chakra and all… it’s in your blood. And now… I’m here, and you’re here, and after everything, after all the stuff that… that…”


“That they’ve done to us?” Sasuke asked neutrally. “After all the ways they’ve ruined our lives? Used us when we were convenient, then thrown us away again when we’re not?”


“It’s just… it’s changing,” Naruto whispered. “The way I see this place. I mean, when I was a kid, they used to make me furious… but I never hated them for it…”


“No?”


“Well,” Naruto shifted uncomfortably. “Not exactly, anyway. But the point is… I became their Hokage. I did it. And now…”


“It doesn’t matter.”


“Yeah. So, I was thinking… we should rebel a bit.”


“I’m not going anywhere the Hokage monument with a bucket and paint,” Sasuke said, trying to keep the mortification out of his voice.


“Naw,” Naruto mumbled. “I mean… when I was looking through that library, I saw stuff about chakra seals.” His eyes were sparkling. “A lot of stuff.”


“You… think you could unlock mine?”


“Well… not all of it. I mean, they’d notice; the Hyuuga would for sure. But I bet I could get your eyes working again.”


Sasuke clamped down hard on the thrill that raced trough him at those words. His eyes. The Uchiha eyes. Everything he had left of his family. The symbol of everything he had worked for. Everything he had… loved, once. Everything he no longer knew if he should hate or idolize. “And you trust me?”


“Sure,” Naruto said instantly. Too quickly.


Sasuke’s eyes narrowed.


“I mean,” Naruto amended quickly, “No. But –“ confusion flashed across blue eyes. “I don’t know. Just… I’ll help you, okay?”


“Why?” Sasuke asked.


Naruto turned away. “Because what Konoha’s doing is wrong.”


~*~


They started that night in the back field, as far away from other ninja as they could get without arousing the suspicion of the patrols.


Naruto began with a pot of paint, a frown, and an order for Sasuke to strip his shirt off. And Sasuke sat there, every muscle tensed and frozen as Naruto leaned over his stomach seal, brow furrowed, tongue poking out between his teeth. He threaded his fingers through the grass and kept them clamped there.


He wasn’t used to people touching him. His mother, when he was very small; and Itachi… well. Occasionally. Then nothing, for years, not a single person until Naruto, everywhere, sparring and tussling in the dirt. And then Orochimaru. The memory of those cold, paper-dry hands on his shoulder, as if caressing a pet –


Naruto brushed against him and he flinched. Violently.


There was a pause. “You okay?”


“Fine.”


The hands were back again, warmer this time. He managed to stay still. Self control. He usually had it in spades.


“Okay,” Naruto whispered, behind him now. His breath was warm and moist on the back of Sasuke’s shoulder blade. “I think…” He placed both hands, fingers light, on the marks on Sasuke’s stomach and trailed them up. Slowly, slowly, pads of his thumbs drifted over pale skin and light nipples. “Here,” he tapped one middle finger in between Sasuke’s collarbones. “And… here, and here.” Two thumbs pressed against points on the front of his shoulders. “And then…” Fingers neared Sasuke’s eyes, and he let his eyelids flutter shut under the pressure, “Here.” That mouth drifted over the back of Sasuke’s neck, murmuring into his skin now. Then he sat back on his heels and clapped his hands together in a teacher-like fashion. “Right, so. Chakra is everywhere in your body – they can’t just seal it off for the long term without a lot of damage, because it’s connected to each of your major organs –“


“I did,” Sasuke interrupted, “pay attention at the Academy. More that you.”


“Let me finish! Chakra’s all focused in your stomach, the physical and spiritual energy – so what they did was place a seal to stop the two from being able to mix. But! They also put specific seals at key cross points of your tenketsu. So!”


The grin on his face turned more lecherous. “Lay down.” Warily, Sasuke did so, ignoring the look that crossed Naruto’s face. Muscles shifted under pale skin and dark hair fell over his eyes. “Right.” Naruto licked is lips, as if his mouth had gone dry. “Right. So.” He raised his hands and performed a sequence of seals before placing his palm over the center of Sasuke’s stomach, fingers curved, nails digging in. There was a brief feeling of pulling, then pain and then – warmth. In rapid succession, Naruto hit the next five points hard with his fingertips.


“There. It’s not everything – it’s unlocked your chakra, but only to let it be channeled between these particular points, see? Not your hands, or anything else. But… you’ve got your eyes back.”


Sasuke lay there for a moment further before speaking. “And now I suppose you want me to be grateful.”


“W-huh?”


Sasuke sat up, closed his eyes, and – They snapped open, and everything was hyper real: sharper colors, slower, so easy to track – he could see everything moving, plot its trajectory, see his own chakra shining out. Sharingan.


He shut his eyes the moment he felt them start to burn.


“I said,” he said slowly, “now I suppose you want me to return the favor?”


“You’re talking stupid again,” Naruto said. “Just stop it, okay?” He leaned forward, a lecherous grin spreading across his face. “Although you could lemme –“ Sasuke planted one palm on is chest and shoved him backward, hard. “Oi! You weren’t protesting before, you know!”


“I react to your body,” Sasuke said flatly, standing. “Not to you.” He stared at the other until he knew his point had been made, and then turned and walked away.


He saw Kakashi on his way home. He avoided his gaze and walked faster, hands shoved into pockets.


~*~


Even with the Sharingan turned off, he felt different now. More powerful. He was once again the keeper of the most powerful technique in the village, and with it, he saw the little things he had been starting to forget. The things he hated. He despised hypocrisy, and this place – this place –


He could feel it coming back. The old rage, the old restlessness. The old emotions that had been stewing - and, he thought, fading – for years.


Itachi. Love hate betrayal guilt oh God –


His family. Love duty loyalty lies destruction –


Konoha. Confinement anger hypocrisy kill. Naruto.


Home.




He could feel the scales in his mind tilting wildly. Once upon a time, Itachi had outweighed everything, in every way. Then… destruction. Hate for Konoha, for what they did to his family, what they forced his family to do to his brother to do to him –


Once upon a time, he had been so, so ready to watch this place burn.


Once upon a time.


He was entirely unsurprised at the visitor he received that night, entering quietly on padded feet, golden hair shining in the moonlight that spilled in through the window.


“What do you want?”


There was a sliding sound and the rustling of sheets as he was joined in the bed.


A tanned, shirtless body crawled up to be even with his; blue eyes stared into his own. “I dunno. What do you want?” That golden head dipped, and lips met Sasuke’s, warm and soft. The kiss was languid, and far more comfortable than it should have been.


“I want to know what you’re thinking.” Sasuke said when they broke for air. One of his hands had found its way up to twist into blond hair. He wanted Naruto so badly it ached.


“I’m thinking… that with your eyes, you can do whatever you want now. I’m thinking that you’re angry, and I’m angry. And…”


“And you want to destroy the village?” Sasuke scoffed. “You really are an amateur. Naruto would never say a thing like that.”


“No.” The one word was tiny, but Sasuke felt as though his guts were being squeezed by an icy hand.


“Why are you telling me this now?”


“Because you already know,” the imposter breathed, blue eyes wide as they looked down into Sasuke’s own, lips hovering just above his. “You know that I’m not Naruto. You’ve known for a while, and you haven’t told anyone. Why?”


Sasuke said nothing, staring up at him through narrowed eyes.


“Why?” the imposter said again, eyes hooded as he lowered himself again to lay on top of Sasuke, bodies stretched out, skin touching skin. “Why would you let me do this –“ pulling his knees under him, he shifted his hips and languidly ground down “- when I’m not who I say I am?”


“Because,” Sasuke said breathlessly, head tilted back now and eyes squeezed shut as the growing heat between them made it hard for him to connect his thoughts properly, “because you helped me get my eyes back.”


“And when I said I wanted to destroy the village,” the fake Naruto continued, glee mounting in his voice as he dipped his head to lick a wet path up the side of Sasuke’s neck, “why didn’t you report me?”


“Because – ah,” Sasuke panted as the mouth on his neck bit down. “Because I hate this fucking village,” he said, forcing his head up and looking the imposter straight in the eyes. “And I want to destroy it too.”


Then he kissed him.


~*~


It was raining, and past midnight. Good-byes often seemed to happen at these times, Sasuke thought as he stood outside Kakashi’s apartment. In his mind, he was running through every interaction they had ever had. Everything Sasuke owed him. Everything Kakashi had failed him at.


He wondered if he walked right in and announced that he wanted to leave, Kakashi would tie him to a tree again. Talk him down, with that same sad look in his eye.


Somehow, he doubted it.


“Sasuke?” He hadn’t even heard the door open, but there was Kakashi, mask up, black sleepwear on, looking out at him through a sliver of open door. “Anything in particular prompt this visit?”


“Not… really.”


Kakashi studied him a moment, then opened the door wider. “Come in.”


Sasuke was soaked straight through, and inside looked warm and inviting. “No. I just thought… dinner tomorrow night. Are you free?”


Kakashi stared at him like he had spontaneously sprouted five heads.


“Dinner.”


“Yeah. Same place.” And with that, he turned on his heel and walked away. With luck, that would keep them out of his way until he was finished. It was the most he could do.


~*~


They waited a day. Sasuke avoided everyone and kept to his home. They would start with the Hokage’s tower; it would be guarded at night, but empty. Kakashi, as far as he knew, did not use the Hokage’s official quarters. Even if he did, he would hopefully be waiting where Sasuke had told him, and not be an obstacle.


By the time night fell and the imposter arrived, Sasuke had already taken care of the guards surrounding the tower and cloaked the whole area in a genjutsu.


“Dead?” Not-Naruto asked of the guards as he appeared.


“They won’t be getting up again.”


They didn’t bother with doors, leaping the side of the wall and landing light as birds on the window sill of the highest room.


“We have an hour,” the figure beside Sasuke whispered. “They send ANBU to check up on me now and then – let’s get in and out before they raise the alarm.”


“After you,” Sasuke said, and followed the other into the dark room. “What exactly are we looking for?”


“Scrolls,” the other said vaguely, walking on silent feet to the opposite side of the room. Along the wall, behind the portrait of the first Hokage, was a safe. “Bastards didn’t let me anywhere near this – paranoid and groupist, all of them. Let me paw through the libraries to my heart’s content, but they never even let me in this damn room alone.”


Sasuke refrained from pointing out that they’d been right in doing so. “What are you looking for?”


N- the imposter shot a look at him over his shoulder, blue eyes reflecting oddly in the dark room as he worked on the lock combination. “Mr. High-And-Mighty-Uchiha didn't figure it out yet?” He snorted. “The bosses back home haven’t been able to unlock the demon’s stupid seal. The mercenaries they hired were absolutely useless, so they had to take more desperate measures. Damn, this thing is complicated –“


“Bust it open,” Sasuke suggested, surprised he hadn’t tried already.


“With what, a kunai? You could try melting it with those fancy eyes of yours, if you want.”


Sasuke refrained from snorting. “So all those hours of self-searching in the library…”


“The bastard who sealed the thing in the first place must have gotten his information from somewhere,” not-Naruto said impatiently. “And we don’t have near enough power to try Akatsuki’s method. The bosses thought they could handle it, but there’s this fail-safe that keeps popping up – even he doesn’t know how to undo it –“


“So the men who kidnapped Naruto sent you here to infiltrate.”


“I’m the best of the best.” A cheery grin flashed in the darkness, and he looked entirely too much like Naruto. There was a click in the darkness. “Ahah! Got it!”


“And the place you come from, the place we’re going after this. Where is it?”


“Huh? It’s in – in…” He trailed off, grin fading as he turned back around. “Why… do you suddenly want to know?”


“Just answer me.”


The door to the safe swung open. Inside was empty, but for a messily scribbled henohenomoheji on the inside of the door. The hiragana face had been slightly modified – it was sticking its tongue out. And it was, quite obviously to anyone who had seen it before, in Kakashi’s handwriting. Blue eyes stared at it incredulously. It was practically possible to see the cogs turning furiously in his mind as he turned around, eyes suddenly wide and unsure. “…Sasuke?”


Sasuke looked at him straight on. “Sorry,” he said, undoing the genjutsu that had been cloaking the room in utter darkness and hiding the group of ninja standing quietly in the corner. “But I made my choice a long time ago.”


“Sasuke,” Kakashi said, stepping out of the shadows. “Fancy meeting you here.”


The imposter swung around to stare at him. “But –“


“Your words earlier were your confession,” Kakashi said, nodding at Sasuke. “Thank you, Sasuke, for holding up your end of the bargain. A bit cryptic, your message, but I figured it out in the end.”


The man wearing Naruto’s face was still blinking in shock. “Wh- you – you,” he yelled, suddenly angry, “were loyal to me –“


“I told you,” Sasuke said, low so just the two of them could hear, allowing a smirk now to spread across his face. “It’s not you. It’s your body.”


There was stillness. Then, “I should have known betrayal would come easy to you.” It was whispered viciously, quietly, and then he was dashing for the window.


“Don’t,” Sasuke said to the ninja rushing after him. “Let me.”


And then he turned, and was gone.


~*~


It was still raining. The ground had turned to mud and it made his quarry easy to track. In the end, the fight only took several minutes. The man with Naruto’s face had all of his reactions, but none of the burning determination behind it. Nothing Sasuke was able to respect in a fight.


That should have been the first sign, really.


N- he was panting harshly, blood bubbling up between white teeth and speckling his lips. There was mud in his hair, in Sasuke’s shoes, everywhere; there was rain, making his grip slippery, washing the filth away. This was so reminiscent of a similar night long ago that it hurt; N- that body helpless and limp on the soggy earth, because of what he’d done to it–


Nothing ever changed. No matter what he did, he only mired himself further, shamed his family, hurt people, made mistake after mistake, destroying everything he might have had. Except for Naruto. Naruto was always there. Annoying as fuck and refusing to go away, settling himself into Sasuke’s life like he belonged there.


Maybe this wasn’t another mistake. Maybe this was coming full circle. Maybe this was a beginning.


He felt light, heady. He’d made a decision now. And he was known for sticking to those. But for once, it was a choice entirely his own. Free of outside influence. And that was new; very new. He liked it.


“I have questions,” he said. “Three of them.”


“Go to hell,” the imposter spat.


“One,” Sasuke continued, ignoring him, “your people. Who are they?”


“Fuck you.”


Sasuke said nothing, just expressionlessly moved one hand down to an injury in the other’s leg and dug his fingers in. The person below him let out a cry and bucked; he kept him pinned, leaned over, and looked into his eyes.


Then he let the Sharingan loose, for the first time in years.


Three seconds – an eternity – later, he was blinking blood out of his own eyes and the man below him was gasping and begging him to stop. “I-it’s a bloodline limit,” he choked out. “That’s all I know – they use fire like a summons, it just bends to their will – but they want more, they wanted the greatest source of fire chakra in the world and that was Naruto Uzumaki –“


“Two,” Sasuke said tonelessly, eyes still spinning lazily, “what is this technique?”


“What technique?!”


“This. You’re not under a henge, and you are far too similar to Naruto in personality to simply be copying him.”


“I thought,” not-Naruto spat, “you said I was pathetic.”


“At being Naruto? You were. Among other things. Your reactions were all wrong. But your knowledge was perfect, your mannerisms were exact. How?”


The man beneath him stared at him for a moment before letting out a wild laugh. “Fine. FINE! You want to know, I’ll just tell you – I can’t stand it anymore, all this noise inside my head –“


“What are you talking about?”


“They create us,” not-Naruto yelled at him. “We’re grown, brought up in vats for them to use and shape to their specifications. We’re their replicable, dispensable test subjects who fight for them next to their fire, because they don’t care if we get burned up!”


Sasuke thought of all the deformed experiments hanging out of cages in Orochimaru’s lair; thought of the dead ones, the failed ones, the ones barely recognizable as human; thought of himself, coveted for his… body. And how despite this, all of them had stayed, and some even stayed loyal.


“Continue.”


“We’re blank slates,” he coughed out. “They can replicate their consciousness into us in battle. They’re physically safe from their fire, but we fight alongside it, take risks they wouldn’t take for fear of getting burned, act as their mouthpiece, and follow their actions to the letter. Because we have their personality, their knowledge, their mannerisms, and their orders.”


Sasuke thought he saw, dimly, where this was going. “So you have everything of Naruto’s but his beliefs. Your orders override those.”


“It is driving me insane,” the man hissed, eyes wild. “All this – everything, inside his head, emotions running wild. Every time I see Konoha, there’s this – this loyalty, this unwavering – I don’t know what it is, and it’s making my job impossible – and you, don’t get me started on you! Anger and obsession and joy and lust and hate and love, all clanging off of each other –“


Sasuke knew his eyes were wide. He couldn’t help himself. These were Naruto’s emotions pouring out of this man’s mouth with a candidness Naruto himself would never own to.


“- These emotions, none of them are mine but I can’t – can’t concentrate, you distract me every time I see you, you goddamn bastard –“


“Don’t do that,” Sasuke interrupted. “Don’t you dare talk like him.”


“I am him – I’ve never felt a personality as forceful as his, it’s taking over everything I –“ He cut himself off, hacking sharply, more blood bubbling over his lips. They curved into a tiny, morose smile. “And now I’m dying.”


“Your wounds aren’t that bad,” Sasuke said without sympathy. “You’ll live.”


The other laughed humorlessly. “And do what? Become your prisoner? I’ve seen the gilded cages they put you in. I don’t want to see what a bare one looks like.”


Sasuke really, really should have been watching his hands. He should have, but he hadn’t been.


He had seen suicide jutsu before – seen Orochimaru teach them to his loyal soldiers, seen them carried out before him for their failures like a twisted evolution of the samurai’s seppuku.


By the time he had ripped the other’s hands away from his chest, it was too late. Tiny tremors had started, that would soon turn to convulsions.


There was no reverse jutsu.


“He tried to escape to you,” the other man choked out. “I wasn’t lying, see. He wasn’t a very good prisoner – he got out again and again, blowing everything all to shit – never gave them a moment’s peace until his voice gave out from yelling all the time, kept saying he couldn’t let them take Kyuubi, had to get back to protect Konoha –“


“Third question,” Sasuke said calmly. “Where is Naruto?”


~*~


They didn't carve his name on the cenotaph. It wouldn’t have been right. They didn’t know his name, or if he even had one.


Besides, there was already one funeral happening in Konoha, and that was his fault. He had encountered a patrol guard before Sasuke had found him. Possibly the imposter hadn’t meant to actually kill him. They would never know.


Sasuke stood at the back of the crowd that had gathered to watch the procession, knowing that even if he stood in the middle, it would quietly, subtly shift to seclude him.


Sakura stood with him. She kept shooting him worried looks.


“Alright?” Kakashi asked him quietly.


“Yes.”


“You killed him. How did that feel?” Once upon a time, Sasuke would have thought that Kakashi was trying to drive a kunai into an open wound. Now he knew better.


“I didn’t. He killed himself.” Kakashi looked unimpressed with this explanation, and Sasuke found himself willing to elaborate. “That wasn’t Naruto.”


“You slept with him,” Kakashi said neutrally, quietly enough that Sakura couldn’t hear.


Now Sasuke smirked, sure of the honesty of his answer this time. “He thought so,” he said, and let his eyes briefly pinwheel dark red.


“Ah,” Kakashi said, expression clearing somewhat.


Naruto had never been skilled at throwing off genjutsu.


“So now, we go find Naruto.”


“I’m coming.” Sasuke did not phrase it like a question.


Kakashi just nodded. “Yes, you are.”


~*~


It was all a blur, leaving Konoha. The last time he had walked out of those gates, he had been young and alone, ready to face the beginning of the end.


Now, like then, it felt like the opening of a new chapter; but this time, he could see beyond it. He could see years ahead of him, when before, all he’d been able to see was the end, and nothing in between.


The council had suggested bringing others with them, those not only loyal but strong. Neji, whose eyes could help them in locating Naruto. Sai, who often ran missions with them. Even Gaara had sent a message from Suna suggesting it was only right that he and his family do for Naruto what he had done for them years ago.


But not this time, Kakashi had said. This was Team Seven, and they were going to take back one of their own.


Standing at the gates of Konoha in regulation blacks, his own Kusanagi belted against his lower back, it felt like the meeting of two worlds. Or the ending of one and the start of another.


He still wasn’t wearing his old headband. He had it packed in his bag, though. It had been under Naruto’s pillow, of all places.


And then they were off, and the world blurred around them. They ran until daylight ran out, slept and ate and rose early to do the same the next day. The days meshed together. When they came out of the trees to open, golden fields, they didn’t pause; farmland and streams and hills faded in the distance. The air changed around them and the clouds looked different in the new sky. They drove themselves on, running from sun up to sunset, nothing to stop them, only their goal to reach.


~*~


Blackness and pain. Naruto’s world was wrapped in these, passing the days in a disoriented haze. All he could ever see was the stone ceiling, or men with masks who periodically hovered over him. All he could feel was chafing at his wrists where the cuffs bit into skin, and occasionally a soul-sucking pain from his stomach.


They kept him sedated all the time now. They hadn’t been so smart at first, had actually been stupid enough to think that three layers of solid rock wall would slow him down or something.


It was really dumb of them. After all, he couldn’t afford to stay here. He trusted his people. He knew they were strong, and he knew Gaara would help them if they needed it. But he needed to be there for them.


He’d lost track of the days that had gone by, but it couldn’t have been that many. They’d tortured him once, in the very beginning. They’d thought he knew how to unlock his own seal. As if he had drawn it on himself when he was a baby, or something equally dumb.


He had told them to go to hell. They’d told him that by now, most nin were begging to die.


Which was stupid. If he was dead, he couldn’t get back to Konoha.


Then they’d tried all sorts of fancy jutsu on him, drawing things all over his body and chanting. He’d been scared, a little. He remembered Gaara on the floor of that cave, empty and dead. He didn’t want to end up like that.


But every time they tried – every time that tugging got so bad he felt like his stomach was about to rip open and he whited out – he saw a flash of his father in his head. Not the real man, not any more, but a reminder that no one would ever be able to pull the entirety of Kyuubi out of him.


He hoped, during the rare times when they let him become conscious, that Sakura wasn’t crying over him.


Which was why he had to get back, even if it took him months. Or years. Or until he was old and grey and everyone in this enemy village had dropped dead of old age.


He could wait. His determination was another thing they’d never pull out of him.


Today, they were working on him again. Some lady with a bunch of dusty scrolls was muttering over his stomach, hands held in a complicated mudra. It was very impressive, in an I-really-hope-this-doesn’t-work-sorry kind of way.


Although in his hazy, nauseous state, her tight expression of concentration could have passed for constipation.


They must have had him on new sedatives, too, because for the last few minutes, he’d been hearing odd noises. There was usually nothing but silence – they kept him away from their main dwellings, and behind a lot of locked doors.


So he had to be hearing things. Things that were getting louder. He should probably be worried. If Sakura-chan were here, she could list a million reasons why that was a bad sign.


She was a really, really good medic-nin, Sakura-chan.


The yelling in his head – though it sounded like it was coming through the walls - was growing. The woman over him started chanting louder. It was obvious that her technique was building to a climax. He squeezed his eyes shut, and –


There was an explosion. His eyes flew open, but all he could see was dust and bright light – a hole had been blown in the wall up to the ceiling - he coughed ferociously, eyes watering and looked down his body –


The lady was gone. In her place stood a familiar, dark-eyed ninja.


Holy shit.


The lady’s technique had gone all wrong.


She had turned herself into Sasuke.


He started to laugh. A tiny bit at first, and then hysterically. It was wild and oh God his stomach hurt, but he couldn’t stop.


The lady-Sasuke was staring at him with an expression he would have called “bewildered” if it wasn’t so emotionless.


“Have they done something,” lady-Sasuke said, “to your brain?”


“ME?” he managed to choke out. “YOU used to be a GIRL.”


“They’ve done something,” lady-Sasuke muttered to herself, “to your brain.”


Naruto’s shakes died down, leaving him gasping for air. “My brain’s fine,” he coughed out. “I’m not the one who had a sex change.”


The lady-Sasuke just reached over to unbuckle the reinforced straps holding his wrists and ankles down.


Naruto stared. They’d never done this before. They knew better by now.


Maybe he was hallucinating. Or maybe they thought he wouldn’t attack someone wearing Sasuke’s face. Which was dumb, because he and Sasuke attacked each other all the time.


Gingerly, warily, Naruto hoisted himself up on one shaky elbow – and something flashed in the corner of his eye.


He blinked, and glanced down.


There was the lady. Unconscious on the floor, still holding the unraveled scroll in her right hand.


But if the lady was down there, that meant –


Slowly, he looked up. The… person (Sasuke?) was staring at him still. Blank-faced. Well, almost. There was a tiny crease between his eyebrows.


Naruto sort of wanted to lick it.


What?


He coughed one last time. His head was spinning. “Look, I don’t know who the hell you think you are, but obviously, you don’t know me at all. Imposter tricks like that never work, okay?”


Hell, did the person’s lips just… well, they hadn’t twitched exactly, but they’d sort of flattened as if to stop themselves from doing so. That settled it. There was no way in hell this person was Sasuke.


“Look, dumbass, I’ll explain it to you,” Naruto said, flexing his ankles. He was weak and drugged and malnourished, but if they let their guard down just for a second, he could make a dash for it. “Sasuke, the guy whose face you’re wearing? He’d never come rescue me. Okay? Even if Sasuke gave a shit, they’d never let him out of the village, so just quit before you embarrass yourself too much.”


The person across from him was silent. His expression was definitely displeased now, though. Well, good.


“See, the thing about Sasuke,” Naruto continued, “is that he’s great, yeah? I mean, he’s… my best friend, in the whole wide world, best out of everybody. But the problem is he’s an assface. Really. Or not really. But almost.”


His head was still kind of fuzzy.


“Right,” the person (not Sasuke, couldn’t be) said after a moment. “They’ve obviously done something to make you even more of an imbecile than before. Someone should award them for accomplishing the impossible.”


“Shut up, not-Sasuke,” Naruto said mulishly. “Sasuke wouldn’t be here, yeah, so you’ve got to be a real amateur. I bet you couldn’t find your ass with your – your ass.”


“That’s it,” not-Sasuke snapped, and then he was reaching for Naruto. Naruto tried to scramble away, but he was too quick, and after a second of dizziness, Naruto found himself hanging upside-down off of the person’s shoulder.


“Kakashi and Sakura are outside,” he was saying. “I don’t know what these people did to what small amount of brain they were able to find in your head, but she’ll fix it.”


“Kakashi… and Sakura?” That wasn’t right. That couldn’t be right. “Wh-“


Then he had to clamp his mouth shut, because they were moving and Naruto was sure this person (Sasuke?) wouldn’t appreciate vomit all down his back.


They broke into the sunlight, and he could see that the ground was strewn with bodies. Unconscious, most of them, but certainly down for the count.


And standing above them –


Kakashi-sensei, forehead protector pushed up to bare his Sharingan, grey-faced with chakra exhaustion but standing strong. Sakura-chan, gloves on, a sharp frown on her beautiful face. Both of them with charred clothing, and minor burns.


They were bloody and dusty and hard-faced and tired and they looked like angels.


Naruto tried to call out, but his voice was fading.


Sasuke beat him to it, either way. “Oi.”


The two of them turned sharply, eyes widening –


“NARUTO!” The scream came from Sakura and then she was running towards them, skidding to a stop and running her hands over him urgently, professionally, feeling for hurts and broken bones.


“M’fine, Sakura-chan,” he managed to whisper.


“You can let him down now, Sasuke,” a voice said from above them, and Naruto caught a glimpse of Kakashi nearing them before Sasuke lowered him to the ground.


He laid there, feeling annoyed at his own weakness and looking up at them all. “Think I’m dreaming,” he said.


“Nope,” Sakura whispered, and then she was hugging him, fiercely but gently. He felt wetness seeping into his shoulder from where she’d laid her head.


“You’re real,” he mumbled in wonder. And then slowly, tentatively, turned his head to the third member of their group, the one who’d carried him, the impossible one - “…Sasuke?” he whispered.


“Took you long enough.”


“You… came after me?”


“No need to sound so surprised,” Kakashi said. Naruto felt his hand, warm and comforting, on his head.


“C’mon,” Sasuke said quietly, looking away. “We have to move.”


~*~


They ran until they couldn’t see the village, Naruto keeping his ¬complaints to a minimum as he bounced along first on Kakashi’s then Sasuke’s back like a bag of potatoes.


By nightfall they had made camp by a small stream, providing shelter and water for Sakura to heal Naruto by the campfire.


The superficial wounds were nothing permanent, and as soon as the drugs were out of his system (Sakura mixed him a poultice to purge them from his system that had him sipping mildly on hot tea one minute, and squawking and running for a private spot in the woods the next), he woke up.


Kakashi had taken a quick look at his stomach seal and pronounced it still holding strong.


“So what happened?” Naruto asked him. “I mean, Sasuke.”


“Ah. Well, yes. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, Sasuke has never particularly cared much about the rules.”


Naruto grinned briefly. “So, what happened? Did you blackmail him into coming, or something?” The question was throwaway and Naruto’s grin was casual. His eyes looked huge, like he would be hanging onto Kakashi’s every word.


Kakashi thought about explaining. About the subsequent attacks, and the fake Naruto, and Sasuke’s spying skills and the… everything. In the end, he just said, “He wouldn’t be left behind.”


~*~


They kept running. Ran on for days, until Naruto finally had the strength to go some of the way on his own. Until, one night, they set up camp by running water just inside Konoha’s forests.


Naruto found Sasuke by the stream.


He was alone, his back to the campsite. The forest was thinner here, and from the sky above, the hot afternoon sun was beating down on the leafy canopy, filtering in through holes between the branches and streaming down through the air to make cheery gold patches on the mossy carpet.


The brook was bubbling merrily, and Sasuke was standing on one of the larger stones poking up from the earth. Back to the sun, he was a silhouette in a halo of golden light, the breeze tossing his dark hair and kicking up leaves around his feet. His stance was confident, and secure: feet apart, the palm of one hand resting lightly on the pommel of his sword. For the first time Naruto could remember, he exuded calm.


Naruto scuffed one foot into the earth to announce his presence, although he was sure Sasuke had noticed him a long time ago.


“Tell me,” Sasuke said suddenly. “If they had managed to take the demon from you, what would you have done? Afterwards?”


Naruto frowned. “They wouldn’t have been able to.”


“I said if,” Sasuke repeated in a tone suggesting he was ranking Naruto’s intelligence around the level of a gerbil.


“Yeah, I heard you,” Naruto said. “And I wouldn’t a’ let them. Not ever. I’d beat them. I’ll always beat them. Cause I swore I would protect Konoha forever and ever, and what kind of Hokage lets his own weaknesses be used against his people?”


“You think you couldn’t govern Konoha without kyuubi?”


“Course I could. First I’d kick the asses of the guys who took it, and then I’d train until I was just as strong as I had been before.”


“No matter how long it took?”


“Gaara did it in three years. I’d do it in a half,” Naruto declared.


“So you wouldn’t try to replace your skills with… research?”


Naruto stared at him uncomprehendingly.


“The library, moron.” The library, gerbil.


“….What would I want with a library?”


“Hn.” Sasuke said nothing for a moment, then, “There was an imposter of you. A clone, almost.”


“…Did he hurt anyone?” Naruto asked, trying to wrap his mind around the idea.


“A ninja died.”


“…Godammit,” Naruto whispered to himself. “I knew I had to try harder… dammit, I should have tried harder…”


A snort. “As if you could have gotten out of there on your own.”


It wasn’t your fault.


“I could too!”


Thanks, jerk.


“So, um, anyway,” Naruto said awkwardly. “Sakura told me to come wash all this stuff off.” He gestured at himself with one hand, at the black painted marks still peeking out from beneath his clothes. “I haven’t exactly had a bath in a while, so. Um.” And he walked to the river, shameless as ever, stripping his stained shirt over his head as he went. He was dirty, from months of confinement; plus, the day had been hot, and there were beads of sweat making his skin damp and trickling down his stomach.


He was paler, from time in captivity, and less muscled from lack of exercise. He was also too thin.


But not by much.


Sasuke glanced at a clear bead of sweat trickling down tanned skin – fairly golden in the dusty forest light – and looked away again.


“Anyway,” Naruto added, not even bothering to turn away as his hands went to his waist and he pushed the thin pants off his hips, “can’t wait to get back and see everybody. They’re having to spare the four of us –“


“They would have come,” Sasuke said, still looking away. “The entire village turned out to volunteer to come get you. Hyuuga Hiashi volunteered half his family. Neji and Hinata weren’t included in the offer, because he knew they would go even if he forbade them to. Nara came up with a list of completely logical bullshit reasons why we’d need him. Lee was raving about promises and the things he’d make himself do if he failed to bring you back. Sai didn’t say anything at all, he just showed up. Iruka was looking for replacements to teach his classes while he was gone –“


There was a choked sound, and Sasuke glanced at Naruto before huffing and looking away again. He wasn’t used to seeing so much wide-eyed emotion on one face. As if Naruto was actually surprised, or something.


There was a sniff, and then Naruto mumbled, “Oh.” His voice sounded clogged. “So,” he said after a minute, more under control. “How come it’s just you guys, then?”


Sasuke shifted on his feet. He could turn around now and look Naruto in the face, he thought, or he could not. It was his own choice. Option A, or Option B.


He turned. “Because this was a job for Team Seven, idiot.”


Naruto choked. He was staring at Sasuke’s forehead.


He’d only put it on moments before Naruto had approached him. He had been trying to figure out how it felt.


There was still a slash through it, of course. But then, the Hokage had put it there himself. So that was okay.


Naruto stood. Eyes wide, staring, just staring at Uchiha Sasuke, standing at his ease within Konoha’s borders, wearing his old hitai-ate for the first time in near on ten years.


He made another choking sound, and his face crumpled.


Sasuke just stared at him curiously. He didn’t think he’d ever seen happy tears before.


“Bout time,” Naruto mumbled, hands wiping at his face roughly. “….Fuck. I need that bath.”


There was a giant splash, and Naruto had disappeared from view. The stream was more a bubbling brook than a river, but it afforded enough depth in the running pools for it to reach his chest if he crouched. He stayed that way for a minute, shivering as the cold water ran around him and cupping it in his hands to wash away the last dried smears of ink and blood from his limbs. Then he knelt on the pebbly, muddy bottom and dunked his head, fingernails raking his scalp vigorously.


Sasuke looked away, focusing on what little of the sky he could see. The light filtering in had changed – suddenly, as it does in deep woods – from golden to a tint of amber. Sunset was not for hours yet, but these woods would darken much sooner than that.


There was a great splashing, and a shivering Naruto – newly clean, skin scrubbed pink and goosebumping from the icy water – was standing beside him.


Stupid idiot hadn’t brought any extra clothes with him, and the ones he’s been wearing before weren’t fit for much more than being burnt.


His skin was cold, beneath Sasuke’s lips. He pressed them to Naruto’s shoulder, warming the skin there with his breath before scraping his teeth across it. A droplet of water had gotten on his nose.


When he lifted his head, Naruto was staring at him, blue eyes enormous.


Sasuke just smirked at him before dipping down again, licking a short, rough stripe across Naruto’s collar bone, before trailing up again and stopping just short of Naruto’s lips. He stared at them, eyes heavy and lidded, and waited, head tilted just to the side. He’d made his move. It was time for Naruto to make his.


Naruto stared at him for just one more second before pushing him away roughly and stepping back, one hand clasped bruisingly on each of Sasuke’s shoulders.


He stared at him for a moment, looking into his eyes, as if needing the confirmation that this was what he thought it was, that Sasuke was sure – and then shoved him hard, sending him flat on his back against the earth.


Then Naruto pounced on him like a fucking wildcat, and there were tan fingers ripping Sasuke’s shirt open, legs clenching around his waist. They were – Sasuke was – lying against the forest floor. There were sticks poking into his legs, his sword was a hard strip of metal against his lower back and sharp rocks under his shoulder blade. Naruto’s toes were digging into the loose dirt. It was messy and painful and should never have worked, but it did.


Kind of like them, Sasuke thought vaguely, unable to see through the cloud of blond hair blocking his vision, and the feeling of teeth moving down his jaw and throat with a lot of enthusiasm and somewhat less skill.


Naruto – wet, naked, grinning devilishly – yanked up his torn shirt and straddled his bare stomach, and it got very hard to think at all.


Then the two of them were kicking and pulling his pants off and his black sandals were still on and there were leaves getting stuck in his hair, and Naruto had suddenly yanked them both into a sitting position, and leaned over to whisper dirtily in his ear, “I want you to ride me.”


Sasuke punched him, just on principle.


But nigh on an hour later, as the shadows were lengthening and the hot sweat had begun to dry on both of them as they lay twisted together in a sticky, panting heap, Naruto mumbled quietly, “So now what?”


Sasuke expended a ridiculous amount of effort, and managed to raise his eyebrows. “That wasn’t enough for you?”


“Naw, I mean – like, in general. Now. Now what?”


Sasuke was quiet. “Now, we go home.”













































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































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