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sne_mod ([personal profile] sne_mod) wrote in [community profile] sn_exchange2010-03-14 01:41 pm

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For: [personal profile] sammywhatammy
Title: Vertigo
Rating: NC-17
Summary: See A/N
Warnings: Sasuke
A/N: Hey, Reader, This is a long story so it’s hard to summarize. At its most basic: ‘Sasuke comes back after everything and Naruto, Sakura, Sai have to live with him, take care of him, make him better and fuck it all up along the way.’
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.


Vertigo 1/2






one










One Day





Tsunade told them they would be living with Sasuke, just like that. Just like that and he was back.

Naruto was still in his pajamas. It looked like Sakura had dragged him out of bed without giving him an explanation or time to dress. They were standing in front of her in the Hokage tower and she knew they were hearing the most beautiful, sickening words they had never dared to let themselves imagine.

“Do you know what this means?”

She watched them in the silence of their thoughts, when Sakura couldn’t take the shock on her own and Naruto’s hand was safe and warm.

“Sasuke came back?”

“Yes. He did.”

Sakura was still staring at Naruto for guidance and Naruto had his gaze fixed somewhere at the base of her desk. He wasn’t jumping around the room as she had expected. He was—frozen. Or disbelieving. Or too guarded from past disappointments.

“He will be kept under house arrest and you will be his guards.”

“You mean he won’t be executed?”

“No, he’s not going to be executed—and I hope you realize you two are the only reason he can live. That boy has made some very bad choices in life which have caused him to do some very bad things. Do you understand what I’m doing for you?”

They nodded their heads but they didn’t understand at all. They had no idea what it meant when they didn’t have to fight or beg or bargain for Sasuke’s life, no idea what it meant just to breathe because Sasuke could breathe. A kindness that couldn’t be thanked or repaid.

“He’s an idiot and I won’t forgive him but—I know you forgive him, which makes you both even bigger idiots but—with so much to lose and so little for Konoha to gain from his death then—”

I know things you haven’t told anyone, even yourselves. I know exactly what’s going to happen if he can’t be saved.

“Sometimes the right thing to do isn’t the lawful thing to do.”

Sasuke was home.

“Please take care of him.”

Sasuke was home and it was effortless.


--


You came back.

Sai seemed to know what to do. Naruto tried to fake the expression on his face when the Jounin showed them around their new apartment. Sasuke would be living with them and they had to look after him. They had to make him better. They had to roster their departures and never leave him unguarded and sink a little further into boredom when sentry duty wasn’t a hallucination anymore.

Are you really here?

“—the location’s pretty good!” when Sakura didn’t want to believe they only knew how to stand in the living room together, time passing quick and awkward. “It doesn’t seem like a very good neighborhood but at least it’s closer to the hospital.”

“I like the view from my room. I might even get the morning sun.”

“We should go shopping for some food first. Let’s have a special dinner tonight!”

“While we’re out, I’d like to stop by my old place so I can start moving things over here.”

“Would you be okay staying here alone with Sasuke-kun?”

Sakura had her eyes on him now but Naruto didn’t want to gossip with them. He stared at the ceiling in the corner of the room and found patterns in the mildew, just content to wait until the dread and hope and sickness became too much for conversation to continue.

I don’t know what to do.

The Jounin had indicated to Sasuke’s room but none of them had actually seen him yet. Naruto knew he could have fled already. He could have been fleeing right at that moment while he stood there making lists of impossible promises in his head if only Sasuke stayed, just a little longer, until he figured out what they were supposed to do.

“Hey, you think we should have a housewarming party?” smiling excitedly at Sai who smiled back and Sakura who didn’t. “This place has nothing and people are supposed to give us stuff if we have one, right? It’d be awesome!”

Sai agreed wholeheartedly but Sakura kept staring.

“Is it—too soon—”

“No way! Let’s just have it this weekend!—”

“—to talk about it?”

“We don’t even have a rice cooker! I don’t think they’re cheap. Tsunade-baachan should’ve given us one. Has anyone checked for toilet paper?”





Two Days





Sakura was standing in his doorway babbling on about something that sounded like her concern for Sasuke. Apparently she hadn’t seen him leave his room even to eat or wash or use the bathroom and Naruto thought he wasn’t listening, thought he was too focused on the list of things he wanted from Tsunade to fill the empty spaces in the house. He looked down and Sakura’s words were written all over the paper.

Well they always did say I sucked at concentrating.

I still don’t know what to do.


“I’m busy right now. Serious ninja business. Can we talk about it later?”

He heard the shuffle of clothes when she crossed her arms and then her tired, fretted exhalation.

“Naruto—”

“Sakura-chan. Please.” and still writing nonsense scribbles to make it look like he was writing anything at all. She sighed again.

“Okay. I’ll come back this afternoon.”

She should have realized: telling him the time was a bad idea. That afternoon, he was nowhere in sight.


--


Naruto already knew she wouldn’t let him evade her as easily when he returned that night and the television in his arms made it harder than normal to run away. He heaved it through the kitchen and into the lounge room and the lunky appliance became exactly the digression he had hoped for.

“It’s a TV,” when she asked the obvious. “For Sasuke’s birthday.”

“What!—it’s Sasuke-kun’s birthday today?”

“I don’t know. It could be? I’m just using it as an excuse to get a TV.”

Sakura wasn’t happy but he didn’t have to acknowledge her while connecting the wires. He wasn’t going to tell her how much he hated the silence that screamed the questions he didn’t want to think about yet or that it wasn’t even a real present since it was his television anyway, just hauled over from his previous apartment. As long as she hassled him, he didn’t have to speak.

Calling it a present was safe: presents were what friends did for each other. Presents avoided a lot of guilt. He didn’t have to wonder why he preferred the mindlessness of television sound to the sound of his best friend’s voice or wonder why he hadn’t even bothered to buy a new one: if he wanted to sit on the couch and pretend to watch a canvas of blurred pictures, they could at least have been in color.

“Don’t have to worry about cabin fever now!”

“Oh my god, this thing is so old it doesn’t even have a remote. I think you should put this in a museum next the First Hokage’s relics.”

After that, Sakura began to notice other things appearing in the apartment. A stained ramen pot was hard to miss. Naruto made it explicitly clear he wasn’t giving them to Sasuke, just to the flat—and even then the flat was just borrowing them until his letter to Tsunade made its way out of her trash can.

The bullshit made her nauseous.





Three Days





Sakura wondered if it meant something when Naruto woke up before her for the second day in a row. The Naruto she imagined never woke up before midday. The Naruto she knew had still been in his pyjamas when speaking with the Hokage—but it’s only the third day—and not even a full three days either but—there was a feeling there she thought she could trust.

The shower water was rushing just loud enough she could hear it through the walls when she entered the kitchen. There wasn’t anything usual about the sound; it was an old apartment. She filled a kettle with water and sat it on the stove and had to open the cupboard door twice before she remembered to take out the teabags she had opened it for the first time.

Is it too soon to be worrying? You don’t seem to think there’s anything to worry about. Maybe I’m just paranoid.

I want Sasuke-kun back so bad.


Mug and spoon and milk and sugar. The mug had a picture of a yellow maple leaf on the side. There was a matching red-leafed mug still in the cupboard but no third one to complete the set. The shower water shut off just as slow wisps of steam were coming from the spout of the kettle. She listened when the door to the shower stall opened and turned when the door to the bathroom creaked. Naruto grinned.

“Morning!”

“You’re up early.”

“Yeah, I guess. I get the sun in the morning and it stabs me right in the eyes. We got any thumb tacks? Nail that curtain to the wall.”

“—Hey, Naruto,” before he could walk into the hall, before he could slip from her grasp. “Am I just overreacting?”

He stopped and stared at her. She didn’t know what to call that look on his face. It made her knot inside, in her stomach. He knew what she meant and he still seemed too unnaturally unconcerned about the reality of their new lives and the addition to it.

“Can I just put some clothes on first?”

If you leave now—

“I don’t think you want me talking to you in a towel.”

—I know you won’t come back.

Naruto laughed to himself all the way up until she jumped at him and caught an end of his towel between his fumbled stumbling to get out of reach, surprised and horrified and still awkward with laughter—

“Sakura-chan—what are you doing? God, I’m serious! I’m not wearing anything underneath!”

“I’m serious too. Make him come out here and have breakfast with us.”

Huh—?

“It’s not right. He’s not moving at all—”

“Let go of the towel—”

Please, Naruto—”

“You do it! You’re the one with clothes on—”

“I can’t do it—”

“And you think I can?—”

He admitted to it. The things he hid inside. He was thinking the same things she was thinking—you’re just as scared as I am—that Sasuke’s behavior wasn’t normal and neither of them were brave enough to do anything about it. Naruto wasn’t looking at her anymore, eyes to his hands where he was trying to wriggle the towel out from her fingers and not completely disrobe himself. It was the perfect task to occupy his attention, to stop him from seeing the awareness in her eyes when he realised she knew just how anxious and desperate he really felt.

“We don’t even know if he’s still there. I’d rather just pretend—”

“Why won’t you do anything for him?—”

“Punch him in the face is what I’ll do for him—”

“Naruto—!”

“Sakura-chan! What, what? What do you want me to do? I’m not going in there just to have my face ripped off. If that dickhead ever decides he wants to sit his ass down with us and eat, don’t you worry—I’ll put a nice, little pot of fucking flowers on the table—”

And bit his tongue too late. Sakura shut up in all the wrong ways and he couldn’t tell her it was just stress, just misdirected frustration that he wasn’t living up to everything everyone expected of him and he didn’t mean it like all the rest of the stupid things he said without thinking. She let go of the towel and Naruto brushed her off and stalked down the hall.

“Fine. I’ll make Sai do it.”


--


“Did Sasuke-kun say anything?” Even though Sakura knew the answer would be negative, she had to ask. Maybe he could hear her every time she did. Maybe he would say something next time.

At the very least, Sai confirmed he was still in his room. The knowledge trickled and tingled all the way down to Naruto’s toes.





Four Days





Naruto held his breathe, ear almost against Sasuke’s door listening for sounds on the other side. He wouldn’t touch it in case it creaked and in the silence when he wasn’t able to hear what Sasuke was doing in his room, he began to realise: this wasn’t working.

This is silly and stupid and weak and I’m probably going to give myself away when I start laughing at how fucking ridiculous this all is—

I don’t want to move.


He didn’t want to move away from the door. He didn’t want to jump. He didn’t want to dance or run or bounce or smile or scream or laugh or do anything that would have disrupted the unsteady calm and given Sasuke a reason to desert them again. Just one slip-up, just one disturbance and he’d have only himself to blame for the fall. Fear immobilized him.

But this isn’t going to work.

Naruto had an imagination. He entertained himself with all kinds of idealistic things Team 7 would do once reunited and peaceful and happy. They’d sit around and reminisce about the good days or plot cheeky ways to get under Kakashi’s mask or whinge at each other over something trivial that didn’t really matter. He’d talk to Sasuke and Sasuke would ignore him only for so long and everything fall back into place, into what he knew, back into something they once were.

In that moment, staring at the lines in the wood and the gloss of the lacquer, Naruto realised he had never thought to seriously plan what he was actually going to do when Sasuke came home.

If you just came back on your own then you should already know what to expect of me.

This isn’t going to work. Eventually—


Eventually one of them was going to have to do something. Either Sasuke was going to come out of his room or Naruto was going to have to go in there. It wasn’t fair to make Sai do everything. Sai wasn’t Sasuke’s best friend and Naruto hated that he was doing a better job than the real one.

Is it worth seeing you just once, even if you run away again?

Why won’t you do anything? What are you even here for?


It wasn’t resolve. It was chance. It was selfish. All he wanted was to see him again and going into his room and doing something for him was a perfect, legitimate excuse to get what he wanted. As long as he ignored the worst of the consequences—as long as he pretended everything would turn out okay, he had courage. He’d deal with the backlash later like he always did.

He started when Sakura opened her door. She stared at him and in one look she knew everything.

Fine. I’ll do something. If you don’t care then I don’t care.





Five Days





There were fifteen—fourteen—definitely fifteen sesame seeds floating on the surface of Sasuke’s soup. Naruto counted them, thought about how delicious the stew next to it looked and how fluffy the rice had turned out. He didn’t like tea but maybe Sasuke did and as long as he concentrated on the meal just long enough to distract him, he had the strength and the blindness to open the door.

Sasuke wasn’t facing him and that had to be a good thing.

“Hey. Food’s here.”

Don’t get up—

How can you just return so suddenly?

I will give you the kick in the face you deserve if you get up—


“Just so you know, we’re all in bed by midnight. Don’t hold that shit in. Not good for your bowels.”

And exited. He didn’t even hate that those were the first words he’d spoken to Sasuke in peaceful settings since their time as genin.


--


The realisation wasn’t nice, that Sasuke had changed and they were the ones who still had to adjust. After five years of broken promises and bitter detachment and all things unspoken, Sasuke just wasn’t the same. They wanted to remember Sasuke as he had been before he had run away, often broody, sometimes smiling, always there with them. What they got—was silence.

Arguments had once patch-filled the gaps well enough to hold them together. Somehow in the all too short a time their team had been complete they hadn’t learned how to be comfortable together in silence. Naruto would hit on Sakura, Sakura would fangirl over Sasuke, and Sasuke didn’t say much but when he did he was a bitch. Naruto would announce his dreams to become Hokage all the time, Sakura would squeal cheers for their successes, and Sasuke would grunt as he carved holes through enemies. Through friends.

In silence, they were lost. Sasuke was back and he wasn’t the same.





One Week





Sai handed in the first of the weekly reports. There had been no change in Sasuke’s condition.


--


When Naruto had first moved in—when he started living with other people for the first time—sometimes his predictions came true and sometimes good things just happened. He had predicted it would take just one person to turn the apartment messy: neither Sakura nor Sai had said anything to him yet but Naruto noticed the long stares given to the growing patches of dirtiness and he wasn’t going to be the first to suggest a cleaning roster.

On the first night and every night since, Naruto could surround himself in the company of people who had not been there to share a meal with him when he was young. Dinnertime was real. It felt the way coming home was supposed to feel: standing beside Sakura who gave him playful glares whenever he tried to tell her exactly the way to cook ramen; chopping vegetables and splashing hot liquid onto his hands when he didn’t add them to the broth carefully enough; sitting down with two other living, breathing human beings and burning his tongue on noodles he was too impatient to blow on.

Sakura took Sasuke’s food to him this time. She wasn’t going to be left behind.

“You know, I feel kind of weird saying this but Sasuke-kun’s gotten so hot!” Naruto coughed his noodles back up and then ate them again. Sakura laughed at the curious-then-disgusted face Sai made watching one of many unpleasant scenes she’d grown up with. “It’s probably not appropriate to say but whatever—I kind of can’t wait ‘til he’s better, you know? So I can go out with him and watch all the other girls gawk. Be so funny!”

After peeling off the paperback romance, Naruto noticed she talked about Sasuke getting better like it was a given. People got sick and then they got better. “These noodles taste really good.”

“Naruto, come on. Our situation’s not going to be changing any time soon, you know. I want—I need to talk about this. With you guys.”

Naruto didn’t like her unguarded affect and the small smile that didn’t reach her eyes. Her words were going to cut.

“You can still like Sasuke-kun even if you think he did the wrong thing.”

Naruto stared back at Sai when Sakura reached out and held his hand, daring him to remark on it. Sai said nothing, offered no digression, kept eating and Naruto sighed when he was forced to fill the silence. “I want to punch him in the mouth, just like back at the Valley of the End. And he still didn’t get it. You should have seen his eyes boggle—!”

“Don’t.” She warned and Naruto scoffed and said he was only joking. “If he wants to leave, he’ll leave whether we or a hundred other ANBU are here or not.”

“Yeah, I know…”

But he didn’t really and nor did Sakura, not completely. They didn’t really know what it would mean for them if Sasuke ran away again because neither of them wanted to think about it. So they didn’t, didn’t think about failing again where they should have succeeded. Sakura asked him too quietly—“are you sad?”—and Naruto said he would rather have had Sasuke with them and miserable than missing like before—that part he knew. Sakura still stared at him with those faraway eyes.

“I haven’t cried yet, either.” and Naruto’s jaw tensed hearing the words. “Let’s cut up a bag of onions tomorrow and bawl ourselves a flood, hey?”

“If you breathe in through your nose, it’s much more effective.” Sai offered helpfully and Sakura thanked him for the advice. Naruto might have cracked the start of a real smile.





Two Weeks





He couldn’t always heighten his senses to the broad space inside their apartment but it was true that some nights Naruto woke to footsteps that led to and from Sasuke’s room. He couldn’t sleep until he heard the feet return and the sweat crawled all over his neck when he thought the interval was too long.


--


Sakura was able to think once the initial rush of anxiety had settled. She didn’t ignore Sasuke’s refusal to move but she could clear her head just enough to let the sensible thoughts to rise—the ones that let her plan what they were supposed to do. Separated as they were, Sasuke would not heal. She pulled Naruto into her room unwillingly but—that he had allowed her to lead him at all was a good sign. She sat on the ground cross-legged and tried to look cute with pillows heaped into a cotton hug—and all Naruto saw her holding was an emotional guard.

“Sasuke-kun’s going to be okay, you know,” and tried a different tactic when Naruto looked at her sceptically. “I mean, don’t go hauling this around all by yourself—hey I’ve seen you these past couple of days and you look like a bunshin—”

“What are you saying about my bunshin—?”

“You’ve got to remember that Sasuke-kun’s back, oh my god, he’s back. Okay? We already did our mental torture thing when he left and we didn’t know where he was or what he was doing.”

“But we still don’t know what he did.” Naruto was sitting on her bed, using her small desk fan to blow his hair in all distracting directions around his face. “All he did was get more stamina and chakra and grow too tall and never cut his hair and change his clothes a hundred times—and each one of them sucked too.”

“Naruto.”

“What?”

“We do know some things.” Sakura sighed, tried to catch his evasive gaze. “We know that hurting and having him back is so much better than hurting and not having him back. No listen, Naruto.” holding his attention with her smile. “Sasuke-kun’s not missing anymore. We know where he is—he’s down the hall and in his bedroom. And that’s a really good thing.”

But Naruto still looked unsure. It was hard to convince him when she didn’t quite believe her own words.

I know. Really good was when we first found out he was back in Konoha.

Now it just kind of stings.


“Don’t ask for too much too soon. Give him some time to get over stuff and realize what an idiot he’s being when he’s got awesome friends like us waiting for him. How does that sound?”

“Hm. Okay I guess.” and he sighed, relenting. “How long you reckon that’s going to take?”

“Dunno. Probably about three or four months—”

“Four months—?”

“But it’s Sasuke-kun, you know, so give it around eight—”

What—you’ve got to be joking me.” Naruto slumped back on the bed and breathed out like a growl. “That’s like a whole ‘nother year!”

She said nothing of Naruto’s wayward calculations when it was more important he knew of her plan. While she didn’t know Sasuke’s exact ailments, didn’t know what it was in Sasuke’s mind that kept him in his bed behind closed doors when the Sasuke she remembered never stopped training and fighting and wanting to surpass everyone

“Do you think—maybe Sasuke-kun’s back because he’s tired? Does that sound silly?”

Naruto, busy picking his teeth with dirty fingernails and she decided he was making every effort not to listen again. Maybe, she hoped, maybe the reason Sasuke was still there in Konoha was because he had realized how little he had gained and how much he had lost by running away. But—the equation felt unbalanced: he was tired, therefore he returned to Konoha? Did it matter? He was back—and she so much wanted to know why.

If she just gave Sasuke time to sort out some of the things plaguing his mind and kept Naruto from doing more harm than good with his pestering, maybe he’d get up and get better and go out with them. To festivals, to the mountains, to the valleys for a swim—wherever. Then once he seemed okay, once he had settled into some kind of routine that made him feel normal, maybe then she’d start asking the harder questions. Maybe even Naruto could say just the right thing that would turn Sasuke’s eyes clear enough to see the real issues. Little at a time, for now. Until eight months was up and they could see how far they’d come.


--


When Sakura and Sai retired to their bedrooms for the night, Naruto stayed up with the television volume down low. No one believed him when he said he was interested in the show and he didn’t know for how long afterwards he remained there. The breeze through the window was still chilly and he sat with toes going quietly cold, a flickering TV and thoughts elsewhere.

Sakura-chan’s the only other one who’d understand. I feel kind of sorry for Sai.

Like Sakura and unlike Sai, when he thought about the time during which Sasuke had been away, the whole time they had looked for him and his eventual, surprising return, his heart beat unbearably tight. The memories were hard to keep. For five years they had chased Sasuke just out of reach, always a step ahead and sending back disappointments and false hope in his wake. For Naruto and Sakura who could only watch him from afar, it was a helpless, quiet feeling only the two of them could understand.

Naruto didn’t mean to fall asleep but when he opened his eyes to the sound of the television shutting off, Sasuke stared back at him.





Two Weeks, One Day





“I was watching that.” and wanted to suck those words back into that annoying orifice on his face.

Sasuke was dark. Not just because of the lack of light, not entirely due to anything psychological. Like tinted glass and staircase shadows. Natural darkness. Dark hair, dark eyes, dark robe, dark towel—Naruto focused on the latter and watched as Sasuke turned from him and went into the bathroom without a response.

He smells so bad right now. Wonder when he’ll change his sheets… wonder when I’ll change mine.

Wonder what I’m going to do when he comes back.


Naruto had to think of something to say. Not just something—the thing. The thing that would get Sasuke to give a damn or show some indication that he would stay or leave or live. Something witty, some smooth line that would make a joke of the time spent apart so Sasuke would stop ignoring him and punch him in the gut. Or then—something profound, because he was so skilled at being profound. Something that meant he wouldn’t have to stare out the window just in case Sasuke came back and all he could do was gape.

Anxiety was making his hands sweat, rubbed them along his trousers. He hated his body’s reaction: all he had done was seen Sasuke. He considered turning the television back on and letting it smoke over his awareness just enough to hear the water shut off and bolt out the door.

Naruto threw his hands into his hair long before the doors at the bottom of the stairwell opened to the outside still of the nighttime world.

Yes, brain. Yes, I know this is retarded so let’s just skip to the part where you make me up another fantastic excuse for being out here so late. Fresh air? I’ll take it.


--


When Sakura asked him to accompany her while she handed in her report to Tsunade, he followed her and smiled the whole time. Outside was nice. It was sunny. He liked the breeze. He liked that it wasn’t home, that he had a real excuse this time to avoid the problems and let them fix themselves.

Afterwards while she fussed around the jewellery stalls at the market, he had time to think. Naruto knew Sakura should know about Sasuke’s progress; he just didn’t know if then was the right time to tell her, when she looked to be enjoying herself so much, when he didn’t know if his pride could get it out knowing how fast he had run away to avoid confrontation. She turned around and smiled at him and the confession rushed out so quickly, it surprised them both.

“Last night, really? Well—what did he look like? Was he okay?”

“Yeah, I guess. Kind of… you know like bed-hair in the morning? I guess he forgot to put his pretty on.”

Sakura whined. She didn’t care what he literally looked like if Naruto wouldn’t speak of Sasuke’s appearance in terms she could appreciate. She wanted to know how those looks translated his emotional state and Naruto was even less equipped to handle that.

“What? How would I know? He just looked like he always did, ‘cept like, taller and scruffier and all that stuff.”

“You’re not getting it! Like… did he say anything? No? Then did he look at you?” and Naruto nodded. “Okay good, so how did he look at you?”

“God, I don’t know! With tender-loving care? He barely even looked at me in Sound remember so how do you think he’s always looked at me? If you want to know all this stuff, why don’t you just ask him yourself?”

Sakura couldn’t believe his emotional ignorance; for someone who was so sensitive in every other aspect of his life, Naruto was completely blind to the damage such words would have caused. She threatened him, told him explicitly and forcefully—do not ask Sasuke-kun how he feels—and maybe it was something she could call relief when Naruto assured her the thought had never even entered his mind.

“I’m hungry.”

“You’re always hungry.”

“Want to get something for Sasuke too?”

Sakura looked up at Naruto and knew that was exactly the reason she put up with the stupid lunk. While she wasn’t sure if he really did find it impossible to understand and discuss these particular feelings or if it was just his way of cleverly evading the topic by passing it off as a gender bias, she knew, in that one sentence—that tiny cluster of otherwise meaningless, ambiguous sounds in her ears—he said more about his concern for Sasuke than he might ever have had the guts to say aloud. And that was okay, because she could see it even if she couldn’t hear it.

“Can you buy it?”

Oh Naruto, I hate that I love you.





Two Weeks, Three Days





One thought stuck in Naruto’s mind, maybe not the most important one but one that meant they could have fun for once.

To solve it he had to dig deep into his prankster ways. He smiled, devious, told Sakura and Sai of his plan—his mission—in a way that made them excited and willing enough to participate. Whatever reserve Naruto had felt disappeared as soon as Sakura giggled, maybe the first time he had heard her really do so since they had moved in and that made it all worthwhile.

So when he screeched their nominated codeword into her room in the early hours of the morning, Sakura refrained from flicking a kunai between his eyes and instead gathered her tools for warfare.

“Okay men… and a lady.” Naruto winked at her in his stupid, flirty way.

“I don’t think this is going to work—”

“Shut up, Sai! No one asked you to be here.”

“But you asked me—”

“Shh!” Sakura clapped a hand over his mouth and reminded them of the precious little time they had. “Stop fighting and let’s get in there! Are we ready?”

They busted down Sasuke’s door while he was in the shower with Sai producing bedsheets, pillowcases and a new bedspread, Sakura brandishing a wastepaper basket and a damp cloth, and Naruto wielding the neck of a single vacuum cleaner. They dived on their respective tasks but like so many of Naruto’s plans, they only knew of the flaws in the project when they were in too deep to retreat and redesign.

“Naruto, you’re going to run over my feet!”

“Nyaaa~haha!”

Sakura was divided between concentrating on her own responsibilities and making sure Naruto didn’t forfeit their bond. Sai found it was easier if he climbed onto the bed and worked from there.

“Sai, how’s it going? Got the sheets off?”

“Yup, and new pillowcases are on.”

“Fantastic! Give me the old ones and I’ll chuck them outside. Sakura-chan, move Sasuke’s chair somewhere so I can vacuum underneath and then bundle up his clothes to wash!”

“Got it!”

They cleaned Sasuke’s room all over. That had been his one thought, knowing from experience that clothes were able to stand a few weeks without washing but the bedsheets that hadn’t been changed even once were well beyond expiry. Sakura and Sai collected everything to be washed while Naruto performed a final inspection, then yanked the cord to the vacuum cleaner out of the wall and bounded out the door and out of their minds, cackling the whole way down the stairs to the communal laundry. Nothing was sorted according to colour or constitution and they forgot the washing powder and Sai smiled warmly enough that it might have been real.

Sakura died against the appliance once the lid was shut and caught the last of her breath. Naruto slumped at her feet, still grinning.

“Is this something that friends do?” Sai asked, watching them wipe the tears from their eyes.

“You mean steal all their shit? I hope not!” Naruto laughed.

“Only for really special friends.” Sakura concluded.


--


Only it was a very flawed mission.

The giddiness left Naruto too drunk on adrenaline and good memories to sleep. It had been worth every second, not just to clean Sasuke’s room but to do something that wasn’t heavy and lacklustre—something that actually made all of them smile even if they never got a thank-you out of the receiver. Naruto stared at the ceiling with the calmness of replays in his head and maybe in hindsight he should have expected—

“—fuck!”—lungs ready to assassinate his heart when the door to his room snapped open with a crack so hard the windows rattled louder than his voice—and when he saw Sasuke after the blinding stars disappeared, suddenly it wasn’t a good idea to provoke a fight.

Sasuke’s mouth was a hard and bitter line but he didn’t speak. He stared and that was enough.

Naruto felt the panic closed around his throat. Sasuke was staring at him, more murder in his face than anger and Naruto didn’t know—why he would be so infuriated by cleaning—unless he was hiding something in his room they didn’t know about and didn’t want them to find—

“We didn’t touch nothing—”

Shut up!

Sasuke was seething through his teeth, controlled breaths that made the rest of him shake. Naruto noticed his hair and skin were still damp from the shower water and it made him glisten to match the fury in his eyes.

“Don’t tell me you didn’t touch shit because all my clothes are gone. Now what the fuck did you do with them?”

“They’re in the washing machine—”

“Is that some kind of joke?

“No! Wait—what?” Sasuke wasn’t any less furious and Naruto couldn’t be as angry as he wanted to be, hearing Sasuke’s voice after so long. “Hey, we were just trying to do you a favor—”

“A favour?” he spat with a laugh that chilled the room. “Don’t insult me. I’m an Uchiha and you’re nothing—you are the last person I would ever approach for a favor. I shouldn’t even have to say this but if I find out you’ve been in my room again—I’ll fucking kill you in your sleep.”

Sasuke’s superiority complex made Naruto want to scream. It wasn’t even about him or them or what they did—in Sasuke’s world it was all about himself and his pride. It had been the most enjoyment anyone had dared to make in the flat and Sasuke had to—why do you even care that much about clothes?—and if washing were going to drive Sasuke to desertion and it had been Naruto’s fault again

I hate you. I don’t hate you. I hate what I let you do to me.

Naruto knew deep down he still cared but at that moment it was hard to remember why. All he could do at that moment was keep his tongue behind the grid of his teeth, to keep the frustration from cracking and trickling out when Sasuke lowered his voice, demanding his clothes. They were still washing and he’d have to wait until morning when they hung them out to dry. Sasuke levelled his glare at him and Naruto—what, fucker, what? are you checking my sincerity?—heard the slam of Sasuke’s door when he wasn’t able to save him.

He still couldn’t sleep and it wasn’t a good feeling this time.





Three Weeks, One Day





Sakura came to him the morning and told him she had heard the argument. Every word. It was hard not to in a small space between thin walls. Naruto pretended the film on television was extremely engaging—shh, I can’t rewind this, you know—so he didn’t have to commit to a deep conversation and Sakura let him get out of it. Being attacked by one’s best friend must have been hard, to say so little. It wasn’t something one grew accustomed to or ever wanted to be. Naruto couldn’t say it wasn’t comforting to have Sakura lean against his shoulder for a while and his face crumbled when he knew he hadn’t seen the last of it by far.


--


Naruto was allowed to leave the house to hand his report in and he knew Tsunade was trying to read the lines on his face while she questioned him. Her scrutiny itched and prickled over his skin and evading her gaze wasn’t a perfect strategy but—he didn’t want to see her eyes shine if she saw something. Everything else he kept secret was likely to tumble out along with it and he wouldn’t show weakness in front of her. She was counting on them to make Sasuke better—counting on him most of all.

“Has Uchiha said anything yet?”

Naruto considered what would happen if he said yes. Tsunade would want to know what he had said, what Sasuke had said, how it had come about. Naruto didn’t want to relive it, so he said no. No. No, Sasuke hadn’t said anything yet.


--


The first time Naruto sought Sakura out, she welcomed him with wide open arms. He lay beside her on her bed and the few words he spoke painted a picture clear enough to see all the fears inside: “why does Sasuke stay here?” he kept asking and Sakura didn’t know how to respond. It was a good question. What was he staying for? The only difference between Konoha and elsewhere was the very tangible fact of their existence. Elsewhere there was no Sakura, there was no Naruto. But she couldn’t say that. That was hope waiting to be slaughtered.

“I think I was disillusioned.” Naruto breathed. “I think I thought he’d come back and we’d just pick up where we left off.”

Oh Sasuke-kun, if you could only see us now.

It didn’t matter what words she said exactly—what mattered was that she restored Naruto’s faith. Told him anything, told him he was stronger than Sasuke, physically and mentally, told him Sasuke needed them, needed him, that it would be okay in the end, he’d see. But he couldn’t give up—please don’t give up on him—they had defended Sasuke from too much to give up now. The villagers didn’t know Sasuke like they did; they never saw anything beyond a child prodigy with a polluted history. They weren’t there when he learned to walk up trees with chakra shoes, never saw the determination in his eyes when Naruto issued a trivial challenge—they never saw him take a hit with them. Bleed with them. Fear and cry and laugh with them. No one else knew shit and they never would.

No one else knew Sasuke before he went crooked. They were the only ones left.

Please don’t give up on him.

“He hates me, doesn’t he. Or maybe he doesn’t feel anything at all. I don’t mind if he hates me but what do I do if he feels nothing?

And all she could do was hold his hand.





One Month





“You think a dinner party’s a good idea?”

Naruto thought their one-month anniversary survived in the apartment was something worth celebrating. A trawl of the markets for inspiration rendered him sweet sunlight on his skin and Shikamaru’s good company.

“Hmm… maybe. Unless you’re cooking. And I don’t want to have to clean the dishes up afterwards if it’s one of those dinner parties.” Naruto slapped him on the back and thanked him for putting the idea in his head. “Anyway, I’m busy tonight—”

“Oh, bullshit!”

“Nah, I am. Playing shougi with my father. You should’ve told me about this earlier.”

“That’s it? Just cancel!”

“I can’t cancel just for your party.”

“Co~p ou~t.” in a sing-song voice that didn’t make Shikamaru anymore open to the idea. Naruto punched him in the arm and tolerated the glare in return with a smile. “Where you going?”

“Meeting up with Chouji and Ino.”

Naruto sniffed, feigned rejection. “Oh I get it. Team 10 only.”

“Yeah because unlike your team, mine stayed together.”

Coughing out a startled laugh—“Hey, I’ll have you know Team 7’s back together now!”

“Mm?” with an equally bland look. Naruto knew he wasn’t convinced at all. “I heard about Sasuke from the Hokage, maybe even before you found out. How’s that going?”

“Awesome! And by awesome, I mean it’s a disaster.” laughing it off. Shikamaru smiled a little imagining as much. “But whatever, he was always a dickhead so I don’t know why he would’ve changed now.”

“You think?”

“Yeah.”

“Well make sure you talk to Sakura-chan when you screw it all up—”

Huh—?

“You think I’m joking but I’m not.” Shikamaru stopped on the corner of a street where he had organized to meet with his other two teammates. He looked at Naruto seriously and tried to phrase his caution in a way that would make Naruto understand the severity of his situation. “He’s been gone a long time—no, I know you know that but what I mean is like—just be careful. We don’t even know why he’s back. I’m really surprised the Hokage didn’t lock him straight in jail. Either he knows exactly what to say to make a lie sound believable or he had a really good reason for returning. Which do you think is more likely?”

As Shikamaru expected, neither Naruto nor his optimism were willing to believe the latter.

“I’m just glad it’s you and not me. Hey, there’s Ino—Ino!”

Naruto caught sight of her shining blonde hair first, flicking like ribbons behind her. She looked surprised to see him there but as soon as she realised he was a direct source for gossip, she delighted in his presence. Naruto started awkwardly when she looked too pleased to see him intruding on their meeting.

“Hey Naruto. So you’re going to join us? Chouji’s already inside. Didn’t he tell you? He’s saving us a table.”

Shikamaru turned to look in through the window, seeing no one he recognized. “Oh really? I wonder why I didn’t see him in there then—”

“Naruto, you’re welcome to join us!”

“Who’s paying?”

“You are of course,” smiling playfully and tagging beside him as they walked inside. The barbeque house was busy with the lunchtime rush and the smell of freshly cooked meat pushed Naruto towards a table at the back, to Chouji who grinned broadly when he noticed the addition to their party. He sat down beside Shikamaru with Ino facing him, eyes too bright and curious and posture too forward in her booth to hide her true intentions. Naruto couldn’t argue with the dark and satisfied feeling inside, having the undivided attention of an attractive girl.

“Chouji, you heard that Sasuke-kun’s back, right?”

“Yeah—”

“Isn’t it great! He was gone for so long. Do you think I could come over and visit afterwards? Sakura’s too afraid to invite me over. I bet she wants to hog Sasuke-kun all to herself.”

Naruto laughed awkwardly. “I don’t know—”

“You don’t know? Oh, come o~n. I missed him too!”

If I can’t even see Sasuke, how are you supposed to?

“Besides, Sakura said he’s super hot now.”

‘Super’ hot, is he?” Shikamaru remarked dryly and Ino ignored the teasing in his tone.

“Please, Naruto? I’ll like—bake you cookies or something, I don’t know. Boys like it when girls bake cookies for them, don’t they? Oh I know! I’ll make you ramen—”

“Sasuke won’t come out of his room.” Naruto admitted, tinged with embarrassment. “Or he does but never when we’re awake. I don’t think it’s anything like you’re imagining. It’s pretty boring most of the time.”

Ino seemed surprised. Apparently Sakura hadn’t told her everything, which then surprised Naruto. Girls were supposed to share all their secrets and he wondered why Sakura would keep something like that from her closest girl friend—what other secrets she was hiding and what reason she had for not disclosing everything she thought and felt. Especially given how forcefully she hounded him when he didn’t want to talk.

“I was going to have a party actually but Shikamaru’s talked me out of it. I don’t know what I’m going to do with all this alcohol Kakashi-sensei bought me now.”

“Oh! A party? Just have it anyway. You never know, Sasuke-kun might loosen up with a can of beer or something—”

You know somehow I can’t see Sasuke drinking. I’m not sure he could stand the loss of control—

He has to control everything, even us—


“—or maybe not, and maybe that’s a good thing. I’m pretty sure at least half the appeal is because he’s so silent and mysterious. Girls secretly love that stuff, you know, even if they say they don’t. No wonder none of you three have girlfriends yet—”

“Can we order yet?”

“Chouji! God, I was talking, you know.”

“No one cares, Ino, and besides, I don’t think you’re one to give advice anyway since you don’t have a boyfriend either.”

“I’m just leaving my opinions open!”

“Rivals again.” Shikamaru muttered, directing the comment at Naruto. “Sakura and Ino.”

“I don’t think they ever stopped.” Naruto agreed, raised his hand and beckoned one of the staff to the table to fuss over the order they hadn’t started deciding on. Shikamaru and Chouji seemed to know the restaurant and were confident in their selection.

“Urgh, there goes my diet.”

“I don’t think you have to worry about dieting when you’re a ninja, you know.”

Ino glared at Shikamaru, always infuriatingly right when she didn’t want to hear it.

Shikamaru was usually right about a lot of things.


--


Naruto had Sai’s smiling face as the first thing he saw when he returned home, having kicked out a knock on the door when his hands were full of bottles. Sai held the door open for him and the first words out of his mouth after the greeting—

“I saw love today.”

Naruto stumbled, thought about laughing and stared right at Sai for some kind of explanation. “What?”

“It looked like in the pictures. The guy’s got the girl against a wall—”

“Whoa, what are you doing? I just got home! You can’t talk about porn in the doorway—”

“If porn is what Jiraiya-sama wrote then this isn’t porn.” Naruto’s eyes narrowed suspiciously then, waiting for him to continue while he heaved the alcohol onto a bench. “I meant the guy has his hands on the wall and the girl can’t get away. And they’re close. Maybe kissing, I couldn’t tell.”

“Where’s this love book? I need to see this.”

“It wasn’t in a book—”

“But I thought you just said—!”

“I mean I originally saw it in a book and the author called it love, and now I’ve seen it here but Sakura-chan was—”

What?” Twisting around to Sai’s unmovable smile that made it hard to gauge how horrified he should have been. “Sakura-chan? Then who was the guy—not Sasuke, was it?”

“Yeah, it was, but my point is—are they in love? Lots of girls in Jiraiya-sama’s books cry when they’re in love.”

Naruto laughed grimly. No, they were not in love. They couldn’t be. Sakura maybe, maybe even still, even now, if that were what she was hiding from Ino—but Sasuke?—Sasuke wasn’t capable of loving anyone as long as his heart was already filled with his own selfish self. It felt wrong all over—

Wait—she was crying?

Sakura’s door was closed. He couldn’t open it when he tried to twist the knob and that was strange because she never locked herself inside. Needle-pricks at his neck—she wasn’t answering when he called her name and Sai was certain she hadn’t left the apartment. Naruto’s suspicion was starting to look more like fear.

“Are you even in there? I’m a goddamn ninja, you know. I’ll just pick the lock if you don’t come out.”

The door opened. Sakura tucked a wisp of hair behind her ear and yawned and Naruto’s tentative worry burst apart on impact.

“Sorry, I was just having a nap. You’re so loud, Naruto.”

Naruto ducked his head when she kept hers telltalingly down and it was more than enough proof for him when she turned away from him that she had not been sleeping at all.

“If you want to lie to me, you should at least make sure your eyes aren’t still red.”

Sakura flinched but she couldn’t get anything past her choked-up throat and Naruto didn’t know what to say when typical soothing words weren’t working. He stood quietly and awkwardly in front of her and it wasn’t a good look when she fanned her face with her hands, smiling sillily and pretending it wasn’t as bad as it looked.

“It’s nothing, really, I was just shocked, you know? Because Sasuke-kun hasn’t talked to me since… well, since we were genin, at least not close like that.”

“So what happened?”

She hummed and fidgeted when she couldn’t will her face to remain unaffected.

“Sai said he had you cornered against a wall.”

“And he had a hand around her neck—”

Naruto barked out some obscenity lost over the crackle of his heart. Sasuke had always been open about his dislike of Naruto and Naruto usually shit-stirred Sasuke enough that one hit blended with the rest but—Sasuke had always been careful around Sakura. Naruto felt the heat creep into his face and the tangy taste of the fox’s chakra in his mouth, itchiness in his fingers. It was one thing to hurt him, because apart from Naruto being able to take it, he probably deserved it; it was a new low when Sakura—who’d never done anything wrong—was a target.

“Sai! I told you not to—”

“Fuck that bastard—”

“No! Naruto, please, don’t!” but she was weightless; if his shirt were not caught up it in he would never have known she was pulling at him to stay. “Please, please, Sai has it all wrong, please—it wasn’t to choke me, it was just to hold me there—just let me explain first—Naruto!”

Her voice sounded muddled, like he was hearing her underwater, and Naruto didn’t have the patience to listen closely enough to make out the words. There was only the door and the burnt smell of the fox’s chakra bleeding out his pores when he imagined the worst of the details he knew. Sasuke had tried to kill him once with a hole through his chest but Naruto was different, Naruto was special in a way that Sakura was not.

Sasuke, you are one fucking piece of work. Why’d you even come back if you’re just going to do this?

If you want to toy with someone, make it me but don’t get Sakura-chan involved in your stupid games.


Sasuke’s threat echoed in his mind and Naruto decided he didn’t give a shit if he stayed out of his room or not. Sasuke should have known it was another breath wasted.

The hand that slipped from the sheets and sparked with chidori cut in first. Naruto felt robbed of the first hit; he had so many things to scream but Sasuke was always like that, wanting to be first at everything. To have been any other way would have been traitorous to the Sasuke he remembered and he hated that he’d expected it—wanted it no other way.

I see you, Sasuke.

You’re still in there.


It might have been only a few seconds from start to finish. ANBU swarmed the room and killed the electricity but Naruto knew, somewhere in his real consciousness that was flickering in and out, that Sasuke had let them. Sasuke would have known they were there; he was just too cunning now. He just wanted Naruto to remember what he was capable of and Naruto didn’t need another reminder. Then the masked guards turned to him and he realised his breath was wild and deep to match the monster inside and it was an effort to force the invasive chakra back behind the bars of its inner prison. He breathed, then calmed, and it was over.

Sai only saw the exchange between Sasuke and Sakura in its final movements and Sakura would only tell him what was strictly non-committal and diplomatic. In other words, fuck all.

Naruto didn’t care how it happened anymore. He just wanted to know what Sasuke had said to scare her so bad.


--


With Sakura having shut herself in her room again and Sai reading in his own, Naruto thought it would be okay to push the boundaries just a little further. Sasuke’s door was open; he was still knocked out from whatever the ANBU had done to him and Naruto didn’t know when he was supposed to wake from it. It was a bad risk to take knowing so little but bad risks had always been Naruto’s unfortunate forte. He entered the room on silent footsteps and Sasuke was dead to the world.

Long time, no see.

Naruto already knew why he shouldn’t have been in there: Sasuke could have been faking it; Sasuke could have woken at any moment; he wouldn’t have been expecting it and Sasuke could have done some real damage this time; he shouldn’t have wanted to be so close. It was only that—I don’t really care—it had been a long, long time. A long time since they had been that close out of combat. And most of all, worst of all, this wanting to be near Sasuke where the world was natural amidst the chaos confirmed for Naruto that Sasuke was still different in a way no one else seemed to be. He had known it anyway but—now it would just be harder to lie about.

Naruto knew he shouldn’t have been sitting so close to Sasuke. Ordinarily he wouldn’t have. But in the calm of the room with one of the two participants incapacitated, he thought it’d be okay. If it was just this once—this once when he had no idea when or if he’d ever have another once again, he though it’d be okay. It was okay.

When Sasuke slept, he saw him at peace. Naruto knew what his hands had done, could do, because he knew Sasuke but—someone with a face like that, quiet for once and smoothed of its normal guard—someone with a face like that hadn’t witnessed the massacre of their family, hadn’t been corrupted by the pursuit of power, had never said a bad word nor touched a violent hand against another.

Naruto frowned. It had been a long time. Sasuke had lost his childish youth in place of the more mature angles and shadows. He waved his hand over Sasuke’s face and watched for blinks.

Maybe he really was knocked out cold. He poked his face once, drilled his forehead with his finger once, squeezed his cheeks together to give him a fish-face once. Sasuke was out but he wasn’t cold.

I’ll save you. I’ll bring you home.

On his way out, he stole or borrowed—I don’t want to know which one—a day-old shirt and hid it in his room, in a bag, deep in his wardrobe, for times when he wasn’t sure what he was doing, losing faith that Sakura’s lyrical words couldn’t fix, where only the nostalgia woven in the smell of Sasuke’s skin could remind him of the olden days when things weren’t perfect or peaceful—and how he’d have had it no other way—and reminded him there was more to Sasuke than he allowed his exterior to show.

Getting Kakashi-sensei to buy that alcohol was like a premonition. I need to get drunk.

This is going to make it really hard to fight you later.





One Month, One Day





The bathroom had bottles of bodywash in the shower stall, tubes of toothpaste on the countertop, the discarded cardboard cylinders from used toilet rolls on the floor. Sasuke stared at them all with distain and held his breath. Near the sink, the basin still rough with uncleaned scum, was someone’s bristled toothbrush and a wrench for the cold water tap when it didn’t turn off properly. On the shelf under the mirror were brushed packed with hair, a small tub of vaseline, hairties and hairpins and some kind of men’s deodorant, the cap long since lost.

Everything made his jaw hurt, his teeth clench hard. It wasn’t because of the mess. He’d seen it all before—

in the life he once had.

Sakura half-closed the window later in the day. The breeze must have been strong to have blown everything on the ground.





One Month, Four Days





Naruto’s initial excitement about moving in together with his patchwork family had worn off long ago. Sakura offered him books, scrolls, journals to read and Naruto reiterated that he wanted something fun to do. There was only so much sparring Kakashi and Yamato could handle and neither did Naruto’s elixir of stamina mix well with the distractions homelife bred. And Sasuke—wasn’t an option. He was running out of ideas and the last of those involved befriending Sai instead of just scarcely tolerating him.

When Naruto befriended other boys, his usual method was to issue a challenge, beat the shit—or a satisfactory amount of it—out of them, and then make sure to rub it in their faces at the end. That might have been the reason he and Sasuke never hit it off very well because Naruto hardly ever won against Sasuke and when he did, it wasn’t when it counted most.

Within the limited confines of the apartment, he determined that wheelie-chair races were suitable. It frustrated him for other reasons.

“What’s that look for? Just run with it and jump on when you get to the line like I said. Watch.”

Naruto dragged his chair to the end of the hallway and charged at the cream masking tape affixed to the wooden floorboards. He breached the line and jumped, cavaulted for a heartbeat, and smacked into the wall at the other side. Sai was looking at him, several practiced facial expressions less than impressed, as Naruto pulled himself out of the wreckage.

“I thought you said this was going to be a fun game.”

“It is—!”

“It looks painful.”

“You just have to try it once and then you’ll love it.”

Sai pulled his chair from his bedroom and stood at the far end opposite Naruto, unconvinced and just as unsure. What he did with the chair was less of a run and closer to an extended push, a halfhearted jump into the seat so he semi-rotated and bumped the wall, or the wall bumped him, because someone had to apologize for something so soft and polite.

Naruto didn’t hesitate to give his esteemed opinion of the result.

That—was the lamest piece of shit I’ve ever seen.”

“Should I fall on the ground now like you did?”

“This is stupid. You made it not fun.”

“I did, did I?” Sai stood from the chair and smiled in the face of Naruto scowl, saying in all innocence: “I guess that means Sasuke-kun did it better—”

What did you say?” Naruto choked on his swallow, felt raw and exposed by the swiftness with which he had taken the bait—Sai was definitely going to find the stolen shirt now—the whole world was going to know his irrational secrets now—“The fuck does that have to do with anything? You’re a loser, Sai.”

“Well if I remember correctly, this is usually about the time when you tell me how inferior I am compared with Sasuke-kun—”

“No it’s not—!”

“You do something, I do something, it’s not good enough, you tell me Sasuke-kun is better—which I suppose is to be expected. He is an Uchiha after all and I guess that makes him good at everything.”

Naruto had never felt so horrified by Sai’s painful accuracy—how would you even know that—you’re supposed to be a socially retarded loser

“This is stupid! Why do you even live here? You’re not even a part of Team 7!” Naruto cracked the shits and stomped off in a huff, slammed his door for childish emphasis.

Through walls too thin, Sasuke heard it all.





One Month, One Week





It took five weeks for Sasuke to end his self-imposed isolation.

In the few days prior, Naruto started seeing Sasuke a little more often, in patches of time between leaving and entering the apartment, departing for and returning from the bathroom, sometimes he wanted to watch television and Sasuke was already there sitting on the couch—Sasuke watches TV?—there was enough room for Naruto too if he wanted, if he could stand to be within shouting range of Sasuke without causing another scene or if he couldn’t do that he could always hug tight the armrest like a pussy. In the end, he did neither: he turned around and left the room completely.

Out of everything, the most unluckiest of moments was whenever he saw Sasuke walking towards him down the hall. That was bad. That was so bad because the hall wasn’t even as wide as the couch and Naruto wasn’t going to be the one to retreat or lean into the wall because that was weak—and because neither of their egos were willing to yield, they just—walked. They bumped shoulders and Naruto was the only one who turned around and he knew this because he got pissed off for having waited so long for Sasuke not to reciprocate.

When he started seeing Sasuke again, he started seeing a lot of Sasuke again.





One Month, One Week, Four Days





Naruto wondered if Sasuke’s presence was making Sakura more nervous to speak with him openly. She stopped trying to force the interactions, stopped talking about him altogether unless they were alone outside. Naruto didn’t usually notice these things but he noticed that—when his other best friend started fading, that was fucking scary; the first had just come back from a five-year estrangement that had dragged Naruto through mud and failure and sweat and sacrifices and he still wasn’t sure if it was entirely over—and whenever he tried to pull Sakura into his company, she shot his heart back down almost as many times. In his head, just a big black angry unsolved stormcloud.

It wasn’t a date; he didn’t call it that even if it could have been. It wasn’t what Sakura called it either because he asked her if that was the issue. When he realised she wasn’t worried about his long-recovered, childhood crush, he wondered if incessantly pestering her about what Sasuke had said was keeping her away and guilt suggested it was. She just didn’t like not wanting to tell him and Naruto didn’t like not knowing and being together just wouldn’t work like that. It—absolutely had to be just that simple.

”Is it my turn to hand the next report in?”

“Sai just handed it in. It’s my turn next.”

“Are you going to tell Tsunade-baachan that he’s been getting out more?”

Sakura lay back with a deep sigh, hands behind her head on the grass and staring at the clouds in the sky. “I have to, I guess… I mean, I have to, right?” another sigh. “It’s a good thing, you know, that Sasuke-kun’s getting out more. I told you he’d get better.”

Naruto hummed. He was hardly better. As far as he was concerned, Sasuke was worse for being too close on the other side of the same room. “Don’t you run away either, Sakura-chan.”

“What—where’d that come from? Why would you think that? ‘Sif I’d run away!”

“I know…”

“Naruto!” She sat up with her hand to his shoulder. “I swear I’ll never run away—I mean, where would I even go? And even if there were somewhere—hey, Naruto, I remember, you know.”

Naruto slid her a glance, waiting.

“I was there—I saw you, when you woke up in the hospital, after the fight. I haven’t forgotten—I couldn’t forget if I tried!”

I know.

Sakura didn’t understand the deeper meaning behind his words. He was warning her not to run away because he knew he couldn’t go after her. Not wouldn’t, because in another time and place he would and not hesitate a second.

He had her promise to fulfil before anything else. When Sakura had begged him to bring Sasuke back home, it wasn’t just back home that she meant, though of course that was a part of it too. She wanted him to bring Sasuke back home, Sasuke and his off-white smiles and gritty scowls that let them know he was human and emotional and just a touch vulnerable. Not like the Sasuke-shaped shell they kept at the flat.

“I know. I’m just saying. Come out with me more, even if we just do nothing. You’ve been kind of distant lately.”

She looked surprised to be caught out but she didn’t defend the observation. Naruto wondered why people always gloated over being right when it wasn’t actually such a hot feeling after all.

“It’s getting to you, right? I can tell.”

Say it: yeah. Yeah, you’re right. That must be it.

Because even if it isn’t, just agree. For me.


--

























two










One Month, Two Weeks





When Sasuke came into the kitchen one morning and shoved Naruto out of the way to get to the glasses—just shoved him, wordless—Naruto didn’t fight back. He stared at the countertop and he finally knew: Sasuke wasn’t the same. He just wasn’t the same.

Sasuke still ignored Naruto when he wasn’t treating him like less than a human being. He still had a glare like ice. He still said useless things and acted holier-than-thou and breezed past Naruto without any recognition of his existence. On the surface, looking at it like that, it wasn’t much different from how it used to be. That was how Naruto usually remembered Sasuke treating him when they were young and rough and inseparable.

Sasuke wasn’t the same because that was all he did. Anyone could do that, could turn a cold eye on someone they didn’t care about and say whatever hurtful thing came out first. Naruto was afraid he was no longer different to Sasuke in the way that Sasuke was different to him. Naruto wasn’t in that apartment, looking after him, doing his laundry, cooking the occasional meal for him because Sasuke was just anyone.

Where did I go wrong? Tell me and I’ll fix it.

Should I give up?


It wouldn’t have been the first time Naruto had had such thoughts. He wouldn’t be giving up on Sasuke. Naruto would always believe there was goodness in Sasuke because he’d seen it, all the time, on the rare occasions when it actually mattered, when Sasuke had knowingly, willingly given up his life to protect him against Haku. Naruto would always have the memories and Naruto would always believe in Sasuke.

But Naruto could give up to Sasuke. He could even if it mattered so much to him—let Sasuke kill him for the final time if that was what he wanted. Whatever he wanted. Naruto didn’t have to be Hokage if Sasuke didn’t want him to be, if Sasuke didn’t trust him or if he thought Naruto too unworthy or if the jealousy was just too great. It wasn’t the first time Naruto had seriously considered giving up his dreams to Sasuke—giving up everything to Sasuke because when thought about a life without him—without being with him as he had been fighting for since he was twelve and stupid—he didn’t see life at all. Maybe it was his own fault that his vision had narrowed so much, maybe it was and maybe he didn’t care.

Am I being too romantic? I don’t care how you’re with me as long as you’re there.

Come back. Just tell me what you want.


Sasuke wasn’t leaving, or hadn’t left yet if he was planning to leave in the future. Naruto didn’t know what he was staying for but all Sasuke had at his fingertips now were him and Sakura and if that was all Sasuke wanted, he already had them. If Sasuke wanted more, he only had to ask. Naruto hadn’t thrown away five years of his life to refuse anything that Sasuke could now want. If Sasuke wanted to tease him, toy with him, hurt him fight him beat him hate him

Anything. I’ll give you anything. Just come home where I am.

Naruto wondered how much Sasuke would demand, and just how much would be too much.

Just don’t hurt Sakura-chan.

All of this is my fault.





One Month, Two Weeks, Six Days





Naruto chewed his food with an open mouth and Sakura endured the noises and sights because—just breathe, Sakura, just block it out—Naruto didn’t grow up with an extensive command of general manners much less table manners. When she could stand to open her eyes again, Sasuke—Sasuke-kun? wait, what—had appeared in the hallway so unexpectedly and silently it made her jump to see him. In his hand, the food she had just—

“Why is it always ramen?”

But Sakura kept her head down. She couldn’t face him, not with that tone—

“Because I like ramen.” Naruto cut in, trying to put the burn of Sasuke’s glare on himself. “Wow. You’ve been gone for a long time but I didn’t think you’d forget that.”

God, Naruto—wanting to die and take his stupidity down with her—you did not just say that

“Kitchen’s there. Use it.”

Sasuke sighed, made it seem like it almost wasn’t worth the sheer effort it took to look at him. “I know you didn’t make shit so don’t you dare tell me what to do.”

“I did make it actually.”

Sakura glanced at Naruto without moving her head, facing the table and the food she’d lost the appetite to eat. Naruto was taking the hit for her and assuming responsibility for things that didn’t matter then but could have mattered later—without even asking in case the answer wasn’t the one he’d already decided was important.

“I know you’re lying to me.”

“Well who cares who made it anyway! It’s not like you do the grocery shopping because you can’t even leave the house—!”

Naruto—” quiet with the breath of controlled speech—you’re just making it worse—light and clear when she explained, “I’m sorry, Sasuke-kun. It’s been a long time so I don’t know what you like anymore or if you like the same things. If you just tell me what you’d like to eat, I’ll make sure to buy it next time we go shopping. We, um… don’t have much at the moment but I can make you some riceballs if you’d rather them—?”

“What are you even saying sorry to that bastard for—”

“Naruto, just shut up. Please. I make you ramen because that’s what you like. If there’s something Sasuke-kun likes then I’ll make that too because that’s fair. Right?”

“Riceballs will be tolerable.”

Tolerable? Naruto laughed his heart out on the inside. Prissy frigid cultured rich-boy.

“Okay sure, I can do that. We don’t have any rice made at the moment so I’ll have to do that first. It might take a little while…”

Everyone except Sai was surprised because Sai hadn’t yet worked out the intricacies of their three-sided anarchic relationship to know it was a huge step when, instead of returning to his room until the food was done, Sasuke sat down at the table to wait.

Naruto felt the surprise a little more keenly or he couldn’t hold it back as well as Sakura could because she was distracted in the kitchen or a combination of the two or something because he wasn’t finishing his meal off for all the glaring he was doing to Sasuke’s disinterested and averted face.

Naruto scrutinized the shit out of Sasuke because he was right there opposite him and hadn’t been, aware and moving, for a long time. Sasuke’s hair had grown a lot longer, falling in dark, stalactitical shapes around his face, onto his shoulders that were tense and tight and stretching the fresh shirt he wore. Some things Naruto still recognised, like his mouth frozen shut unless it was an insult or an order and his stare, unseeing and fixed on some point in the carpet and especially his hands—so contained and taut and completely overstrung—

I hope you know you’re going to explode if you keep doing that.

I guess it’s lucky we’re here for you then.


But Sasuke wasn’t reacting and Naruto was pissed off. He didn’t want to be caught staring but he wanted the attention of the one person he’d ever really craved it from. When just his exterior wasn’t enough to criticize and Naruto watched him eat the riceballs far too carefully, sticking fallen pieces of rice back on the way everything in Sasuke’s life had to be strict and structured

Sakura made a little cough and glared at Naruto sharply, indicating to his bowl with her pointed gaze and Naruto glared back at her through papercut eyes.

“Should we get the nice, little pot of flowers now?” Sai asked and two of the three stared back at him, confused. “Don’t you remember, Naruto-kun? You said you’d get a nice, little pot of flowers for the table if Sasuke-kun ate with us.”

When the hell did I ever—

We really need thicker walls.


“That was an inside joke, Sai.”

Sai didn’t get it. “Aren’t we inside?”

Sakura was more than thankful that Sasuke was perfectly ignoring Sai’s comments, oblivious as he was to the already tense and awkward atmosphere at their table in their flat. The only person who came close to outstripping him was—

“So. Better than the food at Orochi-fag’s?—”

Ow—what the fuck was that?

Sakura covered her mouth, eyes wide—

Even Sai jumped at the sudden, booming laughter—

Did—did you just kick Sasuke?” Naruto smacked his hand on the table when the words wouldn’t come. “Because you thought it was me?

It was impossible to hear her timid, profuse, shaken and broken apologies over the thunderous bellow of his laughter—laugher so hard he had tears in his eyes, hands around his stomach. It was too much, too darkly, dangerously good and Naruto had to drag his carcass to the couch where he could lie down and not die so painfully from hysterics.

When Sasuke threw his door shut with a crack, Sakura was sensible enough to beat Naruto for his immaturity.

“You—you kicked—oh my stomach—it hurts so good—kill me quickly, somebody, please—screw Hokage, my life is complete—”

“Shut up, it’s not funny! This is all your fault!”

But Naruto was in too much writhing, ecstasic pain to feel the separate blows of her fists.


--


Sasuke in fact didn’t mind ramen even if he had to eat it several superfluous times a week. The point of having gone out there and demanding different food wasn’t about a dislike of it or asserting his authority or anything obvious like that—it was about actually going out there and seeing them, being with them, assessing them and that replacement and more than anything—truly understanding that Naruto was still as brainless as the genin he had deserted. Sasuke smiled, stared out the window in his room, thinking.

He knew he could have hidden behind anything. Ramen just happened to be there.

It was unfortunate that Sakura had kicked him but even that couldn’t spurn his determination and desire to be in their space at every sweet, convenient moment.





One Month, Three Weeks, Five Days





Every sweet, convenient, premeditated moment.

Sasuke knew their footsteps now. He knew as soon as Sakura, Naruto or Sai walked in the door which one of them it was. He played on that, especially if it were Naruto because Naruto actually tried to bite him back. He’d time it, leave his room just to watch that whiskered face, sometimes surprised or analyzing or plain pissed off but it was most entertaining when he tried to look impassive. Without emotion. Naruto didn’t do emotionless. Never had, never could.

It was lucky the encounters were so brief; knowing he had only to contain his wide, destructive smile for a few seconds was all he could do to keep it hidden.

You haven’t changed at all, Naruto, I know you and you’re still the stupidest person I’ve ever met.

How much can you take—will you take before you break?

Just watch me, let me, I’ll break you, Naruto, and I’ll break you hard.





Two Months, Two Days





Naruto didn’t enjoy showering. It was bearable when it was just a matter of rinsing his hair and body of the daily dirt and grime, sometimes grass and leaves if he happened to spar earlier, but when he watched the dark water pool around his feet and drain in dirty streams he remembered all the times he’d had to clean himself of blood. The water made it smell like toxic copper again. He relived the fights again. The bad thing was it wasn’t always his and the worst thing was its source wasn’t always still alive.

He took up singing—he couldn’t sing very well but the spray of the shower and the echoing of his voice against the glass and tile blocked out the invasive images. It was something Sakura had had to get used to when she’d first started living with him and it wasn’t a pleasant, Naruto’s-quirks-make-him-cute-and-fluffy kind of adjustment. He was terribly off-key and every time she told him what she thought of his personal opera, he changed the lyrics and insulted her poetically. He didn’t tell her the reason he did it either; he preferred to force her to adapt. Such a method had proved successful with all his other less-than-charming habits.

The toilet and the shower were both in the bathroom, in separate stalls. Sakura didn’t like using the former if someone else were in the bathroom but sometimes she had no choice and if there were any advantages to Naruto’s wailing, it was that it seemed to drown out more than just his own thoughts.

When he stepped out of the shower that night, she was just locking the toilet door. Naruto paid no attention to whoever it was: he was quite enraptured by the handsome devil in the mirror.

Hey, sexy~

And did what all teenage boys with muscles liked to do: stared at himself in the mirror, flexing and poking and admiring his own physique and giving himself shameless, silent compliments—and interrupted it all when Sakura burst from the toilet with cross look on her face.

“What’s taking you so long? Get out already!”

“What, why? Can’t you see I’m busy looking at myself?”

“I can’t use the toilet when you’re just outside. You’ll hear.”

Naruto laughed at her ridiculousness—“What’s your problem then? You say that like we’ve never travelled halfway around the country together. Don’t you remember camping out all those times when Kakashi-sensei was too stingy to rent a hotel?”

“But we aren’t camping right now. Come on, hurry up! I really need to go!”

“I’m busy. Just go do your stuff. I promise I won’t think of you any less a lady than I already do.”

Sakura didn’t—and then she did realise just how useless and immature—“God, just get out! You have a mirror in your own room so use that!” and it was fun and silly for a while, trying to lug Naruto’s bulky, shirtless, still-damp figure out the door—until Naruto’s playful resistance became real resistance together with the imperative hollers a touch too high to be a game—

He almost ran her over in his effort to back-peddle. She had to grab his arm and torso just so she didn’t fall over—

Oh.

Naruto shrugged her off and pushed past Sasuke, stamped footsteps all the way to his room where the door closed with a punctuated bang.

Sasuke was staring impassively over his shoulder until he knew they were alone and Sakura flinched when he turned on her, darker and more alive than she ever remembered seeing him.

“What were you doing in here with him?”

“Nothing!—he was just showering and I came in to use the toilet—”

He examined her face for telltale signs of mistruth. Under any other circumstances it might have been gratifying—electrifying even.

“You two,” Sasuke mused in deep tones, “seem to be doing a lot of nothing lately”—and backed her into the wall through no conscious effort of her own. Sasuke didn’t need to balance himself with a hand above her shoulder; he had all the intimidation he needed just opening his eyes—“If you’re not dating, don’t act like it. You’re nothing but a liar if you do.”

Sakura wouldn’t look at him but on the edges of her vision she saw his mouth curl up into a smile. A terrible, devious smile.


--


Porn should have distracted him. It had ever other time and the girl on the page was exactly his type and hot as fuck and failing to take his mind off the whatever clumsy Team 7 not-quite-hug-thing he had found himself in the middle of. Whenever he thought he was getting into the pictures he found himself staring out the window, painfully aware of that mortifying squark that burst out of his mouth when they had first collided. He cringed until his eyes reopened—if there were ever a time Naruto most definitely did not want to appear unmanly—

The last time they had been that close, closer than he had been that one day when Sasuke was unconscious at the will of the ANBU, had been years ago in Sound when they’d finally tracked down Orochimaru’s hideout. Naruto made sure to emphasise that they had been close but not touching, or at least he precisely recalled willing himself to be resolutely stiff and straight-armed while Sasuke had touched him, hung all over him and whispered shit in his ear.

God, my nose. What the fuck is under that shirt—

So Naruto supposed the last time he’d actually touched Sasuke was during their fight at the Valley of the End when he’d slugged him in the mouth. Those were safe and satisfying thoughts.

Until he realized that during their remarkable fumble of bodies and limbs, Sasuke had not moved. That was curious. He had no plausible explanation for it. Did he imagine it? Sasuke would have moved. He must have moved and Naruto just hadn’t felt it.

Good work, brain. I love it when you make up excuses for me. Good work. Keep it up.





Two Months, One Week





Tsunade prohibited them from accepting even menial D-rank missions but they were still free to roam the village. Sasuke, on the other hand, had a very narrow area in which to entertain himself and pass his days. Naruto tried to understand what that might have been like for a person like Sasuke, who had traversed places he probably couldn’t fathom, to be locked up so suddenly and forbidden from using chakra. Now he understood why he watched a lot of television.

Naruto naïvely believed the rules dictated Sasuke’s behavior when in reality Sasuke still did whatever he pleased. When Sasuke combined the two, his search for amusement and his disrespect for authority, Naruto saw glimpses of the old Sasuke, still dry and dark-witted but just a lot more dangerous about showing it. The second time Naruto saw him using chakra—and not just any chakra—

Sasuke only turned his head enough to glance at Naruto when he screamed, bored and nothing more.

“What does it look like I’m doing? I’m heating up some food.”

“With chidori? Are you out of your fucking mind?” Naruto couldn’t believe the ANBU guards weren’t swarming the apartment—where were they? They supposed to prevent things like this—

Sasuke tried on some bullshit excuses: it was quicker with chidori; he knew what he was doing; if he’d wanted to burn down the apartment, he’d already had plenty of chances—that’s not the point and you know it. The electricity was sparking out from under the saucepan and dancing around a mass of combustible materials that could have had the entire place swallowed up in fire in less than—

“Put it out.”

Sasuke looked at him and the edges of his mouth just—“No.”

“I said put it out—”

“I’m not finished.”

Naruto didn’t like that Sasuke was goading him into a fight. He didn’t like that his impatience had to reach out and choke Sasuke’s arm and the very warm and real blood tapping lightly under his hold. Sparks from the shrieking electricity were stinging his skin and fading out when Sasuke stared down at the hand that wasn’t his own and in voice deliberate and smooth and there

“What are you doing, Naruto?”

I have no idea.

None of us have any idea.


It wasn’t so bad if Naruto didn’t really know what he was doing—what they were doing in the kitchen together as the white light receded until it was little more than a tiny glow, buzzing at the centre of Sasuke’s palm—and maybe Naruto should have been thankful there was anything still there at all that meant he didn’t have to let go.

“Better now? I won’t put it out entirely until the soup’s warm.”

With a tight kind of unsettled relief, he saw: Sasuke wanted to test the boundaries. It was only a small, marble-sized orb of light now but if he let go, Sasuke would just keep pressing and pushing until Naruto had to shove back at him. Sasuke didn’t want Naruto to let go at all, he realised; he wanted Naruto to fight him, wanted Naruto to fight him so that he didn’t have to start it himself.

Well aren’t you fucking clever.

Naruto wasn’t going to win. If he fought Sasuke, it could end badly but—if he let go and walked away and ignored it, ignored Sasuke, that could end worse. They had to fight and Naruto was going to lose: Sasuke never started shit he didn’t think he could win and neither would he get the blame for it because he had worked it so it was all Naruto’s fault.

You were always clever.

Sasuke wasn’t ignorant of the flash in Naruto’s face and—the second his other arm so much as flinched

“—I said I’m not finished.” With a voice as gently commanding as the hand that held Naruto’s throat to the fridge. “I dissipated some of the chakra to prevent this bitch fit, you know. I really don’t understand what your problem with it is.”

“My problem is that there’s a stove right there! You’re not going to starve to death if it takes five more minutes.”

Naruto still had his hand on the arm at his throat, tensed it just a little to remind Sasuke he didn’t appreciate the choke-hold but—he wasn’t going outright fight against the pressure just in case he could get out of it scratchless.

“Where’s Sakura and my replacement, Psycho or whatever?”

“Don’t ask me. They probably went shopping for food or some shit.”

“So we’re alone?”

Sasuke’s eyes were clear and ocean-black. Naruto had never before been able to stare through them so easily and unnervingly and he realized: Sasuke had learnt new tricks and Naruto wasn’t used to them—they were different, his eyes were different and they—Sasuke and Naruto—were now different in all the ways that everything was different and that—wasn’t the difference he remembered or wanted. Sasuke would think that the grim line of his mouth was about the attack and Naruto knew it wasn’t.

“Let go of me—”

Just tell me what you want so we can go back.

“I could kill you and they’d spend the rest of their lives just wishing one of them had stayed home to save you.”

Naruto had to laugh. “Is that really all you think about? And here I thought we could spend this time doing some long-overdue bonding—”

Sasuke’s hand dropped from directly over his throat to spread over his collarbone, the pressure still behind the muscle. Naruto didn’t fear for his life despite the threat: if he knew anything about Sasuke it was his reckless, unnecessary affinity for drama. Sasuke wouldn’t allow himself to kill him here, not in the quiet of the apartment without a single witness. The threat was hollow, just sound, just power play. And Naruto gravitated towards it.

Sasuke put the saucepan on the countertop and grabbed a fistful of Naruto’s hair.

Fuck—what’s your problem this time—?”

“You don’t even have a tan line from your hitai-ate. Neither do I. Not anymore anyway”—that stung, to dredge up the past and not colour over the ugliness—“Aren’t you just so glad we have something in common after all this time?”

Stop it, just stop it

I can’t stand to look at you—because in you, I see—


“And you’re still as annoying as I remember.”

Sasuke’s wasn’t staring through him anymore and Naruto’s glare became his confusion. Sasuke remembered? He had to shake it, ignore it, Naruto wouldn’t let it to get to him—Sasuke was so good at manipulating words.

But Sasuke remembered and the pain in his head didn’t feel so bad. Not if it meant Sasuke came back. Just a little pain, just a little more, just a little more on top of what he had already experienced. Was it too much, was a fight with him right there and then too much? It wasn’t too much. It all blurred together after a while into one big painful unforgettable lump in his stomach anyway.

If it’s a fight you want—whatever you want.

“Get off me—” Still too quick for Naruto’s feet when he kicked out at him, out of practice and Sasuke was still too quick. He was on the other side of the kitchen and it wasn’t nearly far enough away, watching him, face open and bright and expecting.

Naruto considered where they were, the centre of the village surrounded by families and children, mothers, fathers, siblings, someone’s grandparents maybe. Goddamn Tsunade, that was exactly why she had put them there instead of somewhere far away in the countryside. She didn’t want them doing shit like this.

Did Sasuke realize it too? Did he even know where they were?

Because he didn’t use any sort of ninjutsu in the scuffle. Not that he had needed to. Naruto came out of it the worse of the pair as he knew he would, soothed his equally bruised, cut and mussed ego by telling himself that Sasuke must have done shitloads of practice fighting in cramped spaces to have been so good at it.

But did he practice that look too, at the end of the fight when he knew he was still better, mashing Naruto’s head into the floor? Naruto turned his glare on the table leg next to him to avoid it. God he hated—no, he didn’t hate losing per se. He just hated not winning. He hated not winning against Sasuke because if Naruto was able to see that stupid look on Sasuke’s face, it meant he was coming back, slowly, one sneer at a time and it was going to hurt the whole way.

He made sure to clean up his face before Sakura saw it but his brain didn’t seem to be functioning at its usual premium standard. When she asked him what a certain betraying stain was on his shirt, he tried to pass it off as ketchup.

“But we don’t own any ketchup…”

Busted!

Fuck you, brain. I thought you were cool!


She pursed her lips to show her disapproval. Naruto had been expecting worse: a harsh and hard word or a spindly lecture. She disapproved but—there wasn’t much she could have done to prevent it. Maybe she was just thankful the stain on his shirt was the only sign of a fight; maybe she was just thankful she still had a home to return to.





Two Months, One Week, One Day





Was it enough of a comfort to tell himself that in order to fight him, Sasuke must have at least seen him?

Naruto’s jaw tightened when he realized it actually didn’t matter, spearing the air with forbidden chakra and no ANBU assistance and the difference didn’t matter. He didn’t care and whatever they weren’t supposed to have done wasn’t wrong when maybe it should have been. If chidori had to be the medium through which they actually said something to each other, Naruto would both fight it and encourage it.

Sasuke was—kind of not really—coming back and Naruto just had to keep chasing.





Two Months, One Week, Four Days





The apartment—was a mess.

Irritation beat in her heart whenever she woke up in the morning and walked into the kitchen for breakfast. There were bowls on the counter, glasses still half-full with juice resting beside the couch, dinnerplates under the couch and spoons caked with hardened rice she couldn’t remove without first soaking them in hot water.

“Naruto, we’re going to make a cleaning roster.” and just as she had expected, he groaned at the idea and started firing excuses after pleas she had no intention of honouring. “I found a broken saucer behind a pillow this morning. Now I don’t really mind that it’s broken but—god, at least put it in the bin.”

“Hey I didn’t put it there in the first place. I just sat on it and it broke itself—”

“I don’t care. This place is disgusting. I can’t believe I’m living in it.”

“Maybe you should clean it then.”

“I’m not your slave! Listen, we’re going to clean this place up and that includes you. I’ll make a list and you’re not getting out of it. You’ll do whatever I tell you to do.”

Sakura already knew Naruto wouldn’t move from the loungeroom so she brought a notepad and pen to him, holding a one-sided conversation and marking down all the things that made her nervous and stressed. “Two months—no, more than that! I can’t believe we’ve been living in this filth. How can you stand it?”

Naruto grunted, asked her who was going to clean his room and Sakura snapped and told him to do it himself.

“It’ll be fun. Remember how much fun we had cleaning Sasuke’s room?”

“Yeah, that was so much fun. My favourite part was when he threatened to kill me.”

Sakura sighed, kept scribbling notes and trying to work out what needed to be cleaned first. “Why do I have to be the most mature one in this house? Okay look, I’ll do the floors and vacuuming but we first need to clean the kitchen and the bathroom so I don’t have to do it twice. What do you want to do?”

“Watch TV—”

“You’re lucky I’m even giving you a choice. Hurry up and pick one.”

“I’ll do my bedroom then.”

“Are you even listening to me!” her voice jumping to a screech. She threw the notepad in his lap and stomped to the television to switch the distraction off, turning to face him with a frustrated look. “You’re doing the kitchen. Sai can do the bathroom. I’ll do the floors. Got it? Get up and start. I’ll go get Sai.”

“Hey wait—what about Sasuke?” Sakura kept her annoyance on her face but looked away, breathed in to calm and focus her mind. “That’s not fair! He lives here too.”

“Naruto, just—just go into the kitchen and start. The sooner we get this done, the sooner you can watch your TV.”

“But it’d be faster with four people, don’t you think? How come that bastard doesn’t have to do anything? I’m not doing it if he doesn’t do something.”

“He’s sick, remember. It’ll be okay—”

I bet if I were the one you loved, you wouldn’t be making me do any of this shit.

“I won’t do it unless he does. So fucking unfair…”

Sakura walked to him and took the notepad back, flicked the pages closed carefully and left to talk to Sai. Sai was far more compliant, or at least the smile on his face and his easy agreement when placed in stark contrast with Naruto’s childish behavior settled the angry feeling inside. Sai wasn’t concerned that Sasuke wouldn’t be helping—didn’t even ask—just accepted his job and started when she told him to. Naruto was still sulking in the lounge room when she came back out.

I know you’re still sore about the fight with Sasuke-kun. That’s all this is, just your immaturity.

I’m just trying to make him better, the only way I know how. What would you do in my position?


The television wasn’t on but Naruto was staring at the black screen in stubborn silence. Sakura didn’t say anything, just stood under the arch into the room until he had to drag his gaze away and fidget, knowing all the words she wanted to say but wouldn’t. This hadn’t been how he imagined living together would be. He thought it was supposed to be peaceful. Just sharing each other’s company and stirring with elation and hope when Sasuke got a little better every day.

“Is there something wrong?”

Sakura breathed, in and breathed out, just once. “Nothing’s wrong.”

Yeah, nothing’s wrong with me either.

Nothing’s what’s wrong.


Naruto huffed and stalked into the kitchen, a quiet thank you dropped in the space between them when he passed her.


--


Plates and bowls and saucepans were diving in and out of the water so fast, Naruto was making soapy bubbles froth all the way up his arms. Sakura was standing beside him, trying and failing to keep up with the speed and when the dishes to be dried were piling up to great—

“Hang on, hang on, just slow down and let me catch up. Hey, this one’s still dirty. You need to get into the grooves. See?”

Naruto took the plastic container back off her and dunked it in the water, swirled it around with the brush while she collected a mass of plates in her hands and wiped them over methodically, one after the other. The water was hot. It felt nice on his pruning skin. He collected the bubbles between his hands and tried to squash them.

“Hey look at me,” turning to face her while attaching bubbles to his chin. “Just like Santa’s beard.”

“You need more.” but with a smile for his antics. “Right now it just looks like stubble.”

Naruto scooped up more in his hands and puffed the suds around his face. The weight of the bubbles was too much in places and foam started falling onto the floor, slippery under his feet. He waited until Sakura had her hands full again, until she couldn’t protect herself, stuffed bubbles around her face with a squeal to complement her surprise. He laughed.

“You really need to start shaving.”

“I can feel them popping! It’s so weird. Wait, I need a mirror. I’ll be back.”

Naruto heard the exclamations of wonder from Sai after Sakura went into the bathroom, her giggling at the face she saw reflected in the mirror. Naruto smiled and continued washing, scrubbed the crockery and cutlery properly this time.

It wasn’t that hard.

There. I fixed it. I made you happy again.

It wasn’t that easy.





Two Months, Two Weeks





“Sakura-cha~n, I’m bored.” Naruto glanced into her room; empty. “Where are you?”

“Lounge.”

“Play with me.”

He heard the scoff. “No.”

“You don’t want to play with me? That’s not very sexy.”

He should have had more patience. It would have been worth seeing her laugh him off or blush or stammer out a forced segue. He should have had more patience. It would have been worth knowing Sasuke was in there too. With her.

“What are you doing?”

“We’re just watching TV.”

Oh she was embarrassed alright, a fine pink mist settling on her cheeks and neck. Had he interrupted something? Because we’re was a suspicious way of phrasing it. We in particular seemed unnecessary. We was Sakura and Sasuke. We was a bicycle with a spare tyre, a third wheel called Naruto. Sakura wasn’t leaving Naruto but she wasn’t with him either. Not anymore.

“What are you watching?”

“Documentary. You wouldn’t like it.”

Subtle like a bitchslap. Sakura wanted him to go away and Naruto didn’t want to leave her alone with him. He pinched his face together and got comfortable, boring-as-fuck documentary or not, with Sasuke at the other end of the couch and Sakura squashed awkwardly in the middle. Naruto didn’t know how he wanted them arranged; he just knew he didn’t like Sasuke still so close to her.

God, this is the most mind-numbing shit I’ve ever seen.

I know you don’t really want to be here, Sakura-chan. I know you’re just here for that stupid thing of a best friend next to you and if you can’t see the danger yourself then I’ll just have to protect you.


He watched Sasuke as best he could with his face mostly turned towards the television screen, rested his head in his palm, elbow propped up on the armrest and stole as many surreptitious glances as he could. He knew why it bothered him so much that they were together without him. Sasuke still had sway over Sakura and Sasuke didn’t like Naruto and Sasuke could turn them all against each other with the drop of a few words. He couldn’t afford to lose Sakura to him too, not Sakura who kept his faith afloat in the rough seas.

Sasuke’s posture gave away nothing about what they had been doing before. The hand that wasn’t holding his own head up lay across his lap far out of reach of Sakura, his legs crossed and torso angled towards the armrest. Naruto was pleased that this assessment seemed to indicate he was trying to stay away from her but—it wasn’t a victorious feeling or even a relieving one. They were still too close.

Naruto found when he brought his eyes back up that Sasuke was staring at him too. He wasn’t expecting that, flicked his eyes back to the television immediately and knew it was the stupidest thing he could have done, caught and proven entirely red-handed and wondered just how long Sasuke had been doing that.

Naruto slid his gaze back and Sasuke was still staring. Not glaring or challenging or dissecting his brain—just staring, which was probably worse. Naruto made sure to engaged in all three to cut the weird shit out, determined to turn it into a staring contest like everything between them had always been turned into a contest.

Ha, you blinked. I win.

Haha, blinked again. You really suck at this.

Err… win?

…alright, stop blinking and start playing by the rules.


“Anyone thirsty? I’m going to get a drink.”

He looked at Sakura and panicked. If she noticed and asked him about their silent thing, he had no excuses—

He watched her walk into the kitchen and heard the tap gush with water and wished she had gone to bed instead. He wanted their team back together but not like this—not while cramped together watching some show none of them cared about, sitting in frustrated unease and barely enduring the quietness of the room just so no one got hurt

Naruto clicked with the brilliance of an idea. He knew a way to fix it, to put his mind at ease even if Sakura didn’t want to go to sleep and he’d never before had a better reason to scoot across the lounge, overshoot the distance on purpose and thwack into Sasuke’s side.

“Are you going to sit there now?”

Sakura had returned with her glass of water. Naruto confirmed her observation with his arms crossed, eyes narrowed and daring her to object. She didn’t. She sat down in Naruto’s former seat and continued watching the documentary.

Naruto felt better about this assembly of the Team 7 puzzle. He was careful to admit he still didn’t feel good about it because every time Sasuke moved his head or hand or legs or fidgeted in some petty and irritating way he was paranoid it was all to get his attention—and it did, which was what made it so petty and irritating and he couldn’t glare the shit out of Sasuke this time—

But he felt better.

You can’t get to Sakura-chan now.

He felt better.

And some of that better feeling might just have had something to do with being by Sasuke’s side like he had always been by Sasuke’s side. Where the world was natural amidst the chaos.


--


“…can he sleep sitting up? Do you think we should wake him?”

He heard Sasuke’s reply come out as a grunted no. Naruto didn’t open his eyes but he did listen to the fading footsteps as Sakura retired to her room. Sasuke, he noticed, didn’t leave. He was still too warm at his side.

The music accompanying the credits was playing the background and Sasuke wasn’t leaving. Naruto reasoned that there could have been another show on afterwards that he might have wanted to watch but—Sasuke should have wanted to wake him up. Sasuke never liked touching people and the comfortable pressure against Naruto’s arm and leg was more than enough to have the old Sasuke’s skin crawling.

It shouldn’t have been a bad thing that Sasuke didn’t mind the proximity anymore. It should have been something Naruto put up with and welcomed and encouraged just because Sasuke was there and a little bit more friendly when he thought no one was watching. But Naruto had to admit that Sasuke wasn’t a completely useless ninja and that meant he should have been able to tell the difference between someone really sleeping and someone fake sleeping. And yet he wasn’t waking Naruto.

I knew it. This isn’t about being friendly. You’re just trying to psych me out.

Like the old Sasuke would have. Maybe. It was close enough, good enough for Naruto until he could feel Sasuke’s gaze on him. It rippled all along his neck and down his arm and back up again and Naruto willed himself to be unaffected, unprovoked, because if that were all Sasuke planned to do, just stare, just stare and let Naruto pretend to sleep, Naruto would let him. If that were the only way they could spend time together and not want to tear each other’s teeth out, Naruto would let him.

Naruto feared he had given the pretense away when he inhaled a little too quickly—something had to be mixed up in his daydreaming because he could feel breath on his face. It was warm, too warm to be the night-time breeze and his face was flushed enough that anything other than breath should have felt cool—wait—did I just admit that I was flushed?—tingles danced all along his cheeks when he could feel the graze of fingertips and now it was just a little too close to be comfortable. Naruto knew Sasuke had psyched him out too easily and he didn’t really care as long as he could forget everything and fight

“God, what’s your problem?” shoving Sasuke with both his hands. “Stop touching my face!”

—What?” Sasuke took another shove, surprised by Naruto’s sudden reanimation and retaliating on the third, a slap in the face that was just a little too—

“Don’t touch me while I’m sleeping!”

“—the fuck—who’s touching who?

It was blind and awkward and cramped and Naruto was twelve again and Sasuke was there, just there, and he couldn’t escape for the armrest on one side and Naruto’s muscle-hard body on the other. Naruto forgot the frozen glares and indifference and listened instead for Sasuke’s annoyed grunts when he got a hit through. He had missed this, this senseless, childish bickering over nothing, of winding each other up until one of them couldn’t take it—

Sasuke snapped first, seized a clump of his hair and threw him backwards, jumping him, and that should have been the first warning sign.

Sasuke didn’t jump people. Sasuke especially didn’t jump Naruto. Calling it that made it seem wrong, the extremely bad and suggestive kind of wrong that Sasuke should have been too frigid to do. If Naruto wanted to explain what Sasuke did in literal terms instead, he would say Sasuke got around between his legs and slid

Naruto had to ignore it. Everything was normal and he just had a dirty, teenage mind. This was how they had always fought, close and heavy and breathless—this was the kind of fighting Sasuke wanted because he was the one who’d started it, who’d pinned Naruto to the couch with one leg caught between the backrest and Sasuke’s waist, the other curved over Sasuke’s thigh—

Even that was normal. It was even normal to have his legs so part apart. He was used to that. Sakura was all the time telling him not to sit like a gangster with his legs spread so scandalously wide. He just didn’t usually have another man caught between them—and not just any other man but Sasuke

But this was normal once—

Naruto kept fighting even though he wasn’t getting the upper hand and knew he wouldn’t. He had to remember what they were doing was how it used to be when they were young, mind and body, careless and comfortable the closer they were, because if he didn’t get his mind out of the gutter and pretend Sasuke was pulling them back into the past then all he felt was the embarrassing and awkward and confusing and sensitive synch of their bodies together—

This is how we used to fight—

Except it never used to feel this good


“Stop it—”

It was getting good, getting good in a way that it had never got good before and Naruto was finding it harder and harder to stay trapped in the past. He would need Sasuke to get off soon. He would start having to wonder how or why that would ever happen if he didn’t—it was just Sasuke after all, under which he was wriggling and squirming and burning—Sasuke who he had fought with like this thousands of times when they were genin and it was normal, to struggle and move and grind against each other—

“Stop—”

If he looked down he could see through Sasuke’s collar, all the way down his shirt and chest, muscles tensing to the force of his exertions—and Naruto was starting to realise it was almost too little, too late—

“Fucking—I said stop—”

Naruto didn’t know if it was okay to be breathing as hard as he was—they had just wrestled the upholstery out of the couch—and it didn’t really matter because at least Sasuke wasn’t moving anymore. Just braced over him and his heartbeat and not looking and not letting go or getting up when he really should have

“Get off.”

Sasuke’s lungs weren’t so crash hot either and Naruto’s breath didn’t sound nearly as loud as Sasuke’s did so close to his ear—maybe if they were both—maybe it would be okay if Sasuke never moved and Naruto could wait for it to go away—Naruto could wait until he didn’t like having Sasuke so close and his hair and breath and face and mouth—

“I said get off—”

“I heard you.” Sasuke voice was liquid warm and deep. “But I don’t believe you. You’re not fighting me like you want me to.”

What the fuck

Sasuke still had a fist in his hair but the other one—Naruto wasn’t sure if he was guessing right because he didn’t want to move anything at all to check—it was possible because he could feel his shirt bunched halfway up around his torso and—a warm something that could have been Sasuke’s little finger touching his skin—

What are you—

“You’re still not fighting, Naruto.”

The warm something had spread. It could have been two fingers now. Naruto’s skin was stinging with a feeling that wasn’t entirely made of confusion or panic—

What—

Sasuke wasn’t even trying to hide it now it now. Naruto knew what he was feeling were Sasuke’s fingers—three, four, all of them—pressing into his side and thumbing the lowest of his ribs—

“What are you doing?”

Sasuke’s hair was tickling his chin—it was annoying enough on its own but it was even worse knowing that Sasuke’s head had to be close enough to his neck for it to even occur—

Does this mean you don’t hate me?

“Sasuke—?” and Naruto decided he would never say his name again if Sasuke’s breath was going to rush out like that

The hand that wasn’t in his hair dragged down to his hip, around his thigh and changed the incline just enough that Naruto wouldn’t be able to ignore the very same thing on Sasuke that Naruto hoped he never, ever found out about.

“Does that tell you what I’m doing?”

Sasuke wasn’t even trying to hide it and Naruto thought he might just—with Sasuke’s mouth that close to his skin and in that mouth were those teeth and when Sasuke rocked forward ever so slightly and dropped his head, Naruto stopped thinking altogether.

He didn’t realize he was holding on, pulling on Sasuke so tight until Sasuke ripped himself away—and Naruto wasn’t quite sure, even when he heard Sasuke’s door shut and knew he wasn’t coming back—the cold feeling all over that wasn’t just the loss of body heat—

Sai opened the door. He didn’t see Naruto at first, lying in the dark lounge room.

“Naruto-kun?”

Sai smiled at him and Naruto really wasn’t in the mood—

“Do you have an erection?”

—for Sai’s shit.





Two Months, Two Weeks, Five Days





For the first few days afterwards, Naruto wanted to concentrate on behaving like his usual, obnoxious self around Sasuke. He glared at him in the same way he always had and Sasuke still stared through them all, treated him no differently than dirt. No one noticed and not even Sai said anything. It should have been a comfort, to be ignored.

Naruto wasn’t troubled by what had occurred. If enough of a stimulus were provided then that was going to be the natural result. Basic human physiology told him that and Sasuke was a very good stimulus.

Under that cold and detached excuse, however, there was a big black spiky ball of inconsistency Naruto had avoided thinking about for as long as he had been carrying it around with him.

Whenever people had asked him how he had the strength and drive to continue searching for and chasing after Sasuke all that time, he believed the lies he told them: that Sasuke was his best friend; that was just what friends did for each other; that he would never become Hokage if he couldn’t save this one friend who needed it. The lies covered the real, tangled, scary reason Naruto had never been forced to think about before and still wouldn’t even now.

Naruto missed Sasuke. He missed the fighting and the rivalry and he missed neither of them really being able to best the other. He missed rolling around in the dirt and grubby palms smushed to his face and grinning when Sasuke hadn’t learned to block a move that allowed Naruto to get his hands on him. All of that had been okay and natural and normal and welcomed and expected when they were twelve. That was why he had stayed in the lounge room long after he should have left.

But they weren’t twelve anymore. He didn’t think like he was twelve anymore. His body didn’t react like it was twelve anymore. For five years he only had his memories of Sasuke to give him hope and faith and he never wanted to replay the bad ones. He had to dig deeper, down to the inconsistency that was growing less and less inconsistent every time he saw Sasuke.

Sasuke must have planned for the fight to go funny because it had happened to him too. Naruto couldn’t forget that feeling and he wasn’t going to deliberate Sasuke’s twisted mind for a reason he might have wanted Naruto to know about it. Like everything else, it probably had something to do with being first, being better, being a dickface, being Sasuke. If that was what Sasuke wanted and it made him better and Naruto didn’t mind it—there were worse things in life than getting off on a friend—then that was just what he had to do. And he did.

Come home soon.

Naruto told himself that shit happened and moved on.





Two Months, Three Weeks, Three Days





Naruto was annoying when he wouldn’t take no for an answer. He was even more annoying when he lacked tact and a sense of appropriate timing and the more he waved his report for Tsunade in her face, the stronger she felt the burn of Sasuke’s gaze on her back. She couldn’t see him but she knew his attention, if not his eyes, weren’t on the television anymore.

Naruto was still being pushy and loud and nattering away until Sakura gave in, told him she would check it even while eating just to get him to stop testing her kindness and to get the heat of the stare off her neck. She had barely waved her eyes over it before handing it back, telling him it was good, which didn’t matter anyway because Naruto already thought it was and was fishing for empty compliments.

“Wanna come with?”

“Can’t you see I’m eating?”

“That’s okay, I’ll wait. So you want to come?” but Sakura wished she had declined when Naruto announced his glee by—“Sweet! It’s a date! You’d better put out.”

Oh Naruto, why do you do this to me?

At least Naruto could laugh it off where she couldn’t respond for all the mortification she was feeling. His laughter should have shown he wasn’t serious, or she halfheartedly hoped it did when it was apparently too much.

“I think you should go with Sai.”

Sakura wasn’t as surprised as she thought she would be, staring down at her bowl and moving the spoon around distractingly. Naruto glanced over her head at Sasuke from whom the esteemed opinion had originated and she could hear his anger huff out his mouth when glaring wasn’t going to be enough.

“Did you want to go do some training afterwards? I’ve got this sudden urge to beat something up—”

“Go with Sai.”

Sasuke was evidently not going to tolerate being ignored.

“No. I want to go with Sakura-chan and Sakura-chan wants to go with me.”

They were gearing for another fight and Sakura didn’t want to be around for it, in the middle of it, the object they fought over. Two stupid, blind boys. They couldn’t see her equal affection for the both them over the force of their rivalry and jealousy and they just had to spit out their curses and threats until they tired of each other’s presence, until she tired of them being so immature and had to stop it before it escalated.

“Naruto.” He was still frowning when he turned back to her, reaching out to his attention with that calming tone of hers. “Maybe it would be better if you went with Sai.”

Naruto choked and he couldn’t wipe away the shock quick enough for her not to see it—oh Naruto, I’m so sorry—head filling with unspoken apologies and trying to convey them through her eyes but—he was so blind. There was just enough elapsing silence for her to know, because she knew Naruto and his behaviour, that his next words that made a joke out of what she said were the shield that protected the heart she was breaking. He tried again to make her come with him and it hurt her to be unaffected and turn him down more than once.

“Oi, what’s going on here? Are you two gonna like have sexytime while we’re away or something?”

“Oh god, do you have to be so crude? Of course that’s not… I am actually busy with other stuff for the hospital.”

“Like what?

It didn’t matter what she said. Naruto’s face told her he knew they were all lies he strangled himself to believe because admitting they were lies was admitting that she was lying to him. He stormed out the door, completely defeated, telling them he would rather go alone than with Sai and Sakura’s sadness peaked in the slam of the door.

--


It was out in the open now. Sasuke had showed him the power he had to change Sakura’s mind with all of a few words. A sick, queasy feeling in his heart that even teasing and stupid jokes couldn’t remove. She had ditched him in front of Sasuke this time and there had been nowhere to hide, nowhere he could go to pretend it wasn’t real.

It’s me against him and you’re choosing him.

Why would you not want us all to be together?





Three Months





The feeling was still there, days later.

Naruto didn’t understand. He thought things were supposed to be getting better. Sasuke was coming out of his room and spending tense time with them, eating with them in stark silence sometimes—wasn’t that a sign he was getting better? It had to be. If it wasn’t, it was all Naruto’s fault because he wasn’t trying hard enough, because he should have done more, because he was supposed to be Sasuke’s best friend and the one he took all his shit out on. Not Sakura.

Sakura wasn’t the one who had persisted to scour the country looking for Sasuke. Sasuke was Naruto’s responsibility, his promise to keep.

I don’t know what to do.

Just tell me what you want.


Sakura and Sasuke were still acting strange around him—acting worse. It was a thought that didn’t leave him and it wasn’t Sasuke who was making it so troubling. Sasuke had always acted strange or he hadn’t been back home long enough for Naruto to work out what was normal for him yet—but that Sakura, who he’d so far spent all of his teenage years with, matured with, and who he knew inside out or thought he did, had started acting differently in a way that was curious at first and then worrying—

He’d spoken to her about it that once. She’d been sheepish and ambiguous. She hadn’t argued against the charges he’d laid against her behavior when he thought she would have, or should have just for his sake. He didn’t have a family like normal people were born into. Naruto had to be born first and then construct his family and Sakura wasn’t his sister in that he could love her unconditionally because when she dropped him hot for Sasuke, the jealousy had stung. He didn’t want to have to fight against Sasuke for her feelings again—but he felt her absence when she wasn’t in the space Naruto had given her to occupy in his life. That was why he had—for just once in his life he had tried to talk about it before bigger problems started rising out of the smoke. It hadn’t gotten him anywhere and it was no wonder he found it easier just to wall himself up.

Naruto always seemed to lose to Sasuke no matter what the contest was but he didn’t want to fight over people.


--

























three










Three Months, Three Days





Sasuke could always tell when Naruto had cleaned the bathroom because he did such a shit-arse job of it.

He stared at the white marks on the bench beside the basin, brushing his teeth. Soapcake stains and toothpaste residue and scum all around the taps. There were empty bottles of shampoo and someone’s hair in the drain and a vaseline container without its lid, open to the air. He spat into the sink and dried his mouth with a towel, looking into the mirror around the fingerprints at the reflection of himself.

Nothing was clean. It was all messed up.





Three Months, Six Days





Naruto hated it when it was his turn to do Sasuke’s washing. He put it off by kicking the washing basket around the flat, watching television, fossicking for something that wasn’t rotten or expired in the fridge, looking at books but not having the patience to read them, wandering into Sai’s room to see what weird things he kept, lying on the carpet in his room and lamenting having to do anything for that bastard that wasn’t a good kick in the teeth.

But having to do Sasuke’s washing turned out to be the best excuse he’d ever had to break down the door and legitimately piss the shit out of him. He didn’t knock. He hoped he caught Sasuke in the act of something shameful and beneath him so he could tell Sakura about it later and get her off Sasuke’s side, onto his.

He swung the door open. Sasuke was still sleeping—at this hour?—it was less work for him if he couldn’t wash the bedsheets.

Naruto surveyed the area and grimaced at what he saw: everything, or what little of everything Sasuke owned, was dusted and ordered and infuriatingly perfect.

You’re the kind of person who can’t draw lines without a ruler—touching and turning and moving around everything on Sasuke’s desk—who only uses one side of an eraser—and not trying to be sneaky or quiet about it—has to have every pencil facing the same way—just to cause some disorganisation. But Sasuke wasn’t waking up and Naruto—was just—too curious and too blind and too stupid—

Sasuke was sleeping, maybe. Probably not after all the noise he’d caused but Sasuke wasn’t stirring at least. When he moved closer he thought—Sasuke still looked a little bit peaceful, on his side curled into the blankets. He wasn’t wearing a shirt but Naruto could see the outline of his boxers through the sheet. Outside was cold but his room was warm. Naruto stared until—

“—the hell are you looking at?”

Naruto could hate himself a little for starting, not jumping but for not being able to hide the instinctive jolt when Sasuke’s eyes snapped open at him. The once calm slumber on his face—deepened into something too pleased at having caught Naruto red-handed.

“Well?”

“Doing your washing.”

“So what’s that got to do with you touching all my stuff? Were you looking for something?”

Sasuke’s reaction to him just looking around his room made him so suspicious he threatened to do a more thorough job the next time—but that smile of Sasuke’s didn’t shift when he thought it should have. Sasuke was thinking, thinking and smiling.

I don’t like it when you smile—

“Washing, huh.”

“That’s what I said.”

“Why are you doing it?”

“’Cuz no one else is here—”

Sasuke’s mouth didn’t move. The smile remained, his eyes now turned onto something else in the room. Naruto knew something was up when all the cunning in the world flooded into his face, into his body, into his movements as he slid out of bed. He watched Sasuke on the other side, looked away when he was still shirtless and stretching and smiling and thinking.

Maybe I should leave—

“I guess you need these sheets then.”

—damn it!

Sasuke was helping him. He was helping him pull off the linen and Naruto couldn’t remember the last time they’d ever done anything cooperatively together. Just changing the sheets without speaking, without fighting like they always did and should have been doing. Naruto stared at him in his pajamas, still wary and watching him and keeping up his guard, waiting for the inevitable fight that meant they weren’t so far apart anymore. He didn’t want the distance and that was why he stayed.

Brain, you have an excuse for everything.

Sasuke pushed the sheets, blankets, bedspread covering, pillowcases into a pile and Naruto bent to scoop them up—

“Hey, that’s my arm you’ve got there.”

“I know.”

Snapping his head up to that stupid mouth when it drew into a smile again—

I’ve got you, Naruto!

—and the hard jerk Sasuke gave his arm had him stumbling for balance, the sheets catching in a between his feet and causing him to flail with gravity had its way—and when Sasuke had him pinned to the ground with a hand to his throat—god you don’t muck around, do you—when his legs were forced to part.

Fuck.

Naruto wasn’t going to move this time. He wasn’t going to let it get that far again. The first time might have been nostalgic, fighting the way he knew and was used to with Sasuke but there was never a time when Naruto remembered Sasuke ever being so brazen, so determined to turn it into something more. That wasn’t like the Sasuke he remembered. Sasuke was—different.

But you were always different so does that mean you’re still the same—

Just shut up, brain!


Naruto wasn’t going to look, wasn’t going to touch Sasuke, hands on the carpet at his sides and face angled at the bed base. Sasuke’s eyes never left him.

“Well?”

“Well fucking what?

“Aren’t you going to fight me?”

Naruto didn’t like what he was feeling between his legs. He really wanted to get the fuck out of the room now but Sasuke was just so warm and real and there with him and no stolen shirt was going to ever compare with the smell of the original.

I actually knew this was going to happen—probably—denial fixes everything—

It could still change—besides, you’d never—with me—so it’ll be okay—


The first time Sasuke shifted, he wasn’t quite sure it was on purpose. The second time could have been in his imagination. The third time Sasuke made sure Naruto knew—

“—what are you doing?

“What aren’t you doing?”

Stop it. Just stop it. You know I can’t fight you—

Naruto could be more stubborn than Sasuke. He already knew what it felt like to have Sasuke’s hair brush along his jaw when his face was too close. He had endured it once before and he would endure the heat of his breath again and clench his hands tight when Sasuke did something with his teeth he hadn’t done the last time.

I should kick you off.

I want you to come home so bad.


Naruto took the chance while Sasuke was distracted and unguarded to ram his fist into his gut. Twice. He knew he had only a heartbeat’s space of time to make a move and he did, rolled them over and inverted their positions so he could ready his fist for another blow, this time it would be Sasuke’s face with that clever mouth—but he only had fear to comfort him when painfully couldn’t and Sasuke was staring at him, half-lidded and seductive.

“Why are you doing this?” The question wasn’t loud or angry, just wholly confused.

Sometime during the changeover, Sasuke hadn’t been so unaware. He had his legs around him now, pulling Naruto to his hips. It was a poor, unfamiliar fight and Sasuke was still in control of it like he controlled everything else.

Why do you do this to me? What do you want?

His skin prickled when Sasuke’s hands slid under his shirt, when his fingers dug into his shoulderblades and pressed, only lightly, not enough to force him closer but enough that Naruto knew he wanted him to be.

“Because I’m bored—”

Bored?

Sasuke wasn’t smiling anymore. He was beautiful and beneath him.

Bored? Oh, you are fucked up—”

What—?

“What, you didn’t hear me? I said you’re fucked up.”—surprised he was able to say anything at all, not after hearing—“When you’re bored you—read a book or watch TV or fuck knows—you don’t—”

Naruto would blame Sasuke for not letting him finish, fist in his hair and yanking him down. It wasn’t because he didn’t know what to call this, whatever this was they were or weren’t doing. Giving it a name meant that was exactly what they were doing and Naruto wasn’t sure he wanted to know or limit whatever he expected or hoped would happen—

Wrong. It’s wrong, that’s what it is. We shouldn’t be—

“You’re here to take care of me, not tell me what’s in my head. Do your fucking job. You know what I want so give it to me.”

You want—

Sasuke was still every bit as arrogant and confident as Naruto remembered. He still found a way to get whatever he wanted like it was his right. And worst of all, he still looked like the best friend he remembered, just a little older, with the same dark eyes and pale skin and black, black hair and heart and he hated to see it, hated to see the old Sasuke in what they were doing.

I can’t fight you.

Sasuke was busy doing something between their legs and while Naruto squirmed and writhed and physically objected, as long as he didn’t say anything, there wasn’t much difference between discouraging and actually helping Sasuke achieve his goal.

It’s too late now—when he started feeling the air curl over places that weren’t usually exposed because if that was what Sasuke wanted—if that had to be what he wanted—if this is what Sakura-chan is giving you too—if that was what it took to make Sasuke come home—

This won’t hurt us. This isn’t real. If this is what you want then—

this isn’t denial at all.


It had to be about the outside, the physical. It couldn’t be about emotion. It didn’t matter that they had a history, a friendship and a rivalry in the hazy past. It didn’t matter what they’d seen together, shared together, suffered together. Whatever happened in the future didn’t matter either, not now anyway, not when they dissolved into nothing more than two bodies seeking a reprieve from monotony because that was what it was, that was what Sasuke—Sasuke who was holding him so tight—said it was, said he wanted.

It doesn’t matter. It’ll be okay.

We just won’t talk about it afterwards like all the rest of the things we refuse to talk about.


Sasuke’s hands clawed his back when Naruto thought he was getting it right—arching and sliding when it was almost—

“—the fuck are you doing—!”

Was that a joke?

“—get off!

Naruto hadn’t been holding onto anything; he landed hard and stunned and his ego was just starting to bruise in time with his skin.

I don’t—but you said you wanted

“You can’t just put it in! You’ve got to—do you even know what you’ve got to do?” Sasuke’s voice was distant, muddy, taunting and laughing. “Oh, you’re not—holy fucking shitare you? You mean—you and Sakura never—?”

Naruto had a lot of things he wanted to scream back at him, all of which included a hard, skull-shattering, mind-splattering blow to that fucker’s face but he knew Sasuke would catch it, even doubled over holding his sides like that. He had to be satisfied with smashing the door within an inch of its fibres on his way out.

Naruto punched his fist through the wall on the way to his room. He’d fix it later, along with everything else.


--


Naruto didn’t even.

Couldn’t even.


--


Merciful Sakura was wise enough not to ask too many questions about the hole. She could gather enough about Naruto’s black mood and the creative, profane way in which he described Sasuke that a particularly serious fight had prevented him from doing the washing she had asked him to do.

“You know, if you two just tried to spend some time together—”

“That bastard can go fuck himself for all I care.”

She rolled her eyes, forgave him because she knew it would all blow over after a few days, and did the washing for him. If Sakura were being honest with herself, it was an almost sinister comfort to see them fighting. As much as she hated it and as deadly as the atmosphere in the apartment became, at least they were interacting. It had worked out when they were genin. It would work out now. Maybe.





Three Months, One Week, One Day





Naruto fought with a little more vigour against Kakashi and Yamato. He didn’t win or lose any more often than normal but he felt like he put more into the fight when it was quicker for him to win and longer for him to lose. Kakashi was too knowledgeable or just plain too uninterested in the well-worn dynamics between Naruto and Sasuke to need to ask the reason for the particularly sudden burst of energy. He watched Naruto with that one lazy eye and if Naruto wouldn’t say anything first then he didn’t really care to start it.

“Kakashi-sensei!”

Sometimes he really hated his name.

“Can you get me some more alcohol?”

Kakashi watched Naruto’s face. He had asked without a smile, without joy. Naruto wasn’t planning a party like he had the last time he had asked for a favour—he had bounced around and described the gathering Kakashi wasn’t even invited to but this time—this request was made out of desperation.

“I need a lot. I think the fox has a really high tolerance.”

You’re not a very good liar, Naruto.

“No.”





Three Months, One Week, Three Days





There were fathers with their daughters, mothers with their sons, grandparents with their grandchildren and lifelong friends in the shops, chatting and drinking tea and passing the time not thinking about how much shit they had caused at home. Naruto kept his head down to the hateful stares of the people who remembered what he was and not who he was.

I’m the kid who can’t fix his best friend.

Browsing the markets wasn’t as much fun without Sakura. He never wanted to buy anything, never had any money because Tsunade wouldn’t give them an allowance. Everything looked the same because he wasn’t looking. He was seeing. Staring. Ignoring the world as it had ignored him.

Sakura-chan wants to be one of those people in the shops, drinking tea with a dipshit like you.

So do I.





Three Months, Two Weeks, One Day





Enough time had passed that Naruto was able to manage the angry feeling in his head as soon as he woke up. He had blanked the thoughts for long enough and the distance time put between what had almost happened then and what he felt now made everything feel more surreal. Like it hadn’t happened or it had happened to someone else, like it was one big, bad, blurry misunderstanding. He walked until he didn’t know how he got there, to a valley on the outskirts of the village where he could busy himself skimming pebbles along the surface of the stream. When the sun’s heat grew too much, he stripped off and sunk into the water.

I wonder how it got that far. You took off my clothes—

Naruto blew bubbles just under the surface, closed his eyes and ducked his head and hair into cool rushing around him.

How come you get to laugh when you’re the one who wanted—

Were you—were you lying?


That was it. That made sense. That was exactly something Sasuke would do: tease him and taunt him and mock him and hurt him. It didn’t make sense that the real Sasuke would ever relax enough to allow another person into his space, to let Naruto in so close they almost—

It was never going to happen, was it. It’s all just a game to you—I’m just a game to you.

Naruto drifted into a rock and let the water hold him against it, arms over the top and stinging with the absorbed heat of the sun in the stone. He could close his eyes and pretend it was a comfort, a rigid hug where there was no one left this time to tell him the stupid, soothing words he needed to hear.

Are you playing these games with Sakura-chan too?

Naruto prayed that Sasuke not hurt her. Sakura was so sweet and gentle and open and affectionate. He needed her to stay that way: Team 7 needed all of each other and if Sakura drowned, Naruto couldn’t save them both. He didn’t want to have to choose Sasuke over her.

Sakura was supposed to be good at reading people. She should have seen what Sasuke was doing—that Sasuke was still sick and had no idea what to do with peace when it was given to him. Sasuke could be bored and Sasuke could be cruel and when she realized his cold, detached intentions for what they were, she’d crack in a way that Naruto would not.

You’re still too much in love to see. I have to protect you.

Protecting her meant never leaving her at home alone with Sasuke. Naruto slid away from the rock, solid resolve and robust faith walling up the spaces in his mind.

Heh.

Denial is so much easier than dealing with the real shit.





Three Months, Two Weeks, Four Days





Sakura thought it was a bit silly that Naruto and Sasuke were still doing their very best to avoid having to interact in any way, trivial or otherwise; she’d seen more mature behaviour from children half their age. While it worried her that Naruto had taken to leaving the apartment for extended periods of time, as it wasn’t yet causing an inconvenience for either her or Sai and both boys were still eating and sleeping, she didn’t see a need to get involved. They’d do the cold shoulder thing for a while and like magic, without any particular catalyst, they’d be at each other’s throats again. She’d figured out soon after being placed in a team with them that that was just their unique way of not killing each other.

The only thing she asked of Naruto was that he fixed the hole in the wall before their inspection.





Three Months, Two Weeks





Naruto wasn’t expecting to see Tsunade on the other side of the door when he opened it. She stared at him less than impressed when he didn’t get out of the way quick enough, slurping noodles from a plastic container.

“Baachan?”

“Can I come in?”

“Oh—yeah,” and moving to let her in. Tsunade stared at the lid of the bin near the door when the garbage underneath was too high for it to close properly. “What are you doing here?”

“Can’t I come see you?”

“Not really. It’s always business.”

Tsunade passed him her jacket and Naruto stood there wondering what to do with it, threw it over a dining room chair and smoothed it out neatly when she glared at him. “I’m here first of all to check on you three, then Uchiha. I thought it was time I paid you a visit. The apartment looks—lived in.”

“It’s clean.”

“I’ve heard stories about your last place. I’m sure this is spotless in comparison. You know it only takes one person to make it messy.” Naruto either didn’t get that he was that one person she was referring to or purposefully chose to feign ignorance. “I thought Sakura or Sai might at least try to keep you in line.”

“We clean once a week. You just came on a bad day. You know, the polite thing to do would have been to warn us.”

“You know the polite thing to do would be to keep it clean all the time.” even if she knew her reproaches were never going to be acted on. “How has it been?”

“Good.”

“Mm?”

“Yeah.”

“You want to elaborate a little more? And give your guest some coffee? And where are Sakura and Sai?”

Naruto sighed and turned away, maybe a little thankful that the conversation seemed to be digressing on its own. “Probably in their rooms. Sakura-chan might be napping. She usually does. I don’t know what she gets tired from though.”

Tsunade could guess but she didn’t say anything. Naruto had his back to her in the kitchen, pretending to know what he was doing with a kettle and a coffee percolator.

“Put the coffee grounds in and the pour hot water on top, then let it sit for a while. How’ve you been?”

“Good.”

“I know you said good.” shifting into a chair after first brushing the crumps off the seat. “I was hoping for more than that or am I left to assume that you won’t talk about Sasuke because it’s not actually good at all?”

Am I just that see-through or are you just that smart? I guess there’s a reason why you’re the Hokage.

Still, a little too close to the truth—


“He gets up. Does stuff. Shits me off. The usual.”

Tsunade knew that was probably all she could expect to get out of him and—it worried her. She remembered her experiences as a genin, with Jiraiya and Orochimaru bickering like the children they were. But they were much younger then, like Naruto had been much younger when he found a team and a comfortable sense of himself. When they grew up and Sasuke came back and he countered the difficulties by being evasive instead of whinging to everyone—when he described Sasuke’s behaviour in literal instead of emotional terms—she worried.

And probably with good reason too. Urgh, teenagers. Why would I expect anything more?

Naruto only talked about menial things while preparing the coffee, about Sakura’s complaints when he left the bathroom light on overnight, about Sai’s inability to cook anything decent, about his room when no one wanted vacuum it when they were on floor duty. Tsunade wasn’t surprised when she asked where Sasuke’s room was after he handed her the mug and then afterwards disappeared straight into his own room.

Sasuke was sitting at his desk when she opened the door. He glanced at her and dipped his head to show the minimum about of respect he owed her, sitting straight and tall and wary. She closed the door behind her to keep the secrets inside.





Three Months, Three Weeks, Four Days





Naruto was a sucker, he knew that. That was why he couldn’t go too long without holding Sasuke’s shirt to his nose and inhaling. He figured he needed at least some kind of comfort while his brain kept tearing down his self-esteem.

He could ignore everything else but he couldn’t forget that laugh—the sound of it out of his best friend’s mouth. Sasuke didn’t have to—Sasuke didn’t have to do a lot of things that made Naruto’s teeth hurt, held together too tight and it wasn’t fair—that every time he heard Sasuke’s name, he still felt the same. He ached for the lost connection. He wished he didn’t want to be friends or wished they could have been better friends or friends who treated each other with at least the bare amount of human consideration, or something. Because it felt like he was losing his family the more he tried to hold onto them.

Of all things, why did you have to laugh? Just hate hit fight scream spit—

Naruto had perfect timing alone to thank when he closed the drawer in which he had stashed the shirt: Sasuke broke into his room and Naruto felt caught, exposed, made of less substance than steam. He couldn’t understand why Sasuke would just come see him without warning after a long period of stubborn avoidance—and in his room for that matter when he hadn’t set foot in it once since moving in—unless Sasuke had been spying on him from somewhere and he knew about the stolen—

“What the fuck do you want?”

“What are you doing?”

“Nothing!”

“Are you busy?”

“I’m not doing shit.”

Sasuke closed the door. And locked it. For a moment, the flick of the latch stole away Naruto’s anger in place of confusion. There was no way he had brought his coffee into his room just so they could chat about cute girls and fast cars.

“What do you want?” more skeptical than angry this time.

Sasuke truly believed he was doing nothing wrong: an arrogance so strong it was child-like in its innocence. Naruto had a hideous view of it on his face when Sasuke crouched down in front of him and rested the cup on the floor. There wasn’t any coffee; there was—cooking oil?

“We’re going to get it right this time.”

Who’s we—?

Naruto snapped his leg out aimed at Sasuke’s face but—how the fuck are you still so good when I’m the only one who does any training?—Sasuke threw it over his shoulder and Naruto couldn’t breathe when the very training he had lamented made him flexible enough to have his knee up around his ear

Naruto tried to fight back this time. He tried to fight and he tried to sadistically enjoy it when Sasuke wasn’t able to avoid all of his blows. Sasuke couldn’t block well with one hand keeping his leg from shifting and Naruto had a lot of unreleased frustration in his fists that Sasuke’s unguarded gut alone could relieve. A hit to his jaw, skimmed off when Sasuke turned his face just in time, turned his dark eyes greedy and Naruto grunted in surprise when Sasuke’s free hand mashed against his head, trapping him to the wardrobe behind.

“Settle down, Naruto—”

“Fucking let go of my face—”

“Listen. It’s not you. Don’t make this personal.”

Sasuke grabbed his cheeks and turned his head so Naruto could see—

“I don’t care about you. I’m not asking you to do anything. You just have to be alive.”

—just how intense and destructive and faithless he could be. Sasuke was scanning his face, looking for the anger and disgust that should have been there and Naruto saw the obsession in Sasuke’s eyes as it burned because where there wasn’t any of those things, there was only—

You know just how to hurt me.

“So can we not do the fighting thing this time and just skip to the part where you let me fuck you instead?”

—and you hurt me so much.

Sasuke was in his face, watching him with eyes wide and feral-black when his hand slid under his shirt. Naruto still struggled against him and he didn’t know—if he was struggled against the touch because he didn’t want it or because he wasn’t supposed to want it. Sasuke leaned forward into him and maybe he should have been thankful the choice was taken away: he couldn’t move.

Lies.

Naruto didn’t know if Sasuke were to blame for what was happening or it were his own fault for letting things spiral so out of hand. It had been one thing to roll around on the couch but when it got worse on the floor of Sasuke’s room and he still ignored it, still refused to think about it—

It’s too late now—and knew before the thought had finished that it was just another excuse, just a another transparent lie. There was no such thing as too late now. There was always time to escape, time to fight back like he meant it and he wasn’t

I should fight you. I know I should—as Sasuke hooked Naruto’s knee in the bend of his arm and pushed his teeth under his jaw, breathing and not quite biting—I know I should and I know why I’m not.

Naruto knew the reason. He knew what the inconsistency was and he wasn’t going to think about. Even now with Sasuke’s mouth at his neck and the scrape of his hand into his back—I know why I’m not fighting, even now, even while you’re—it was too much to say he was only there because that was what Sasuke wanted. The mantra, the pretence he had held onto—Naruto didn’t mind fighting Sasuke; he didn’t mind being the scapegoat that copped Sasuke’s ridicule and contempt but this—this was a little too selfless.

“Put your arms on my back,” soft and friendly in his ear, “and don’t move them until I’m finished.”

The words didn’t matter; that Naruto obeyed them was what mattered. It—didn’t make any sense.

Naruto couldn’t say what it was—lies—that made their friendship so unlike anyone else’s, so inconsistent. Naruto was sure normal friends never found themselves together on the floor, a warm and rough hand dragging over his chest this time. Sasuke was too close and his clothes weren’t letting the air in. The room was getting hot.

Naruto knew normal friends didn’t chase for five years. That was why the people he told had been so surprised when they found out how long Naruto had been running for. They weren’t surprised by his unbreakable commitment or his smile in the face of failure: what they were surprised by was his firm assertion that Sasuke was his best friend

Lies—

“Sit up more so I can take your trousers off.”

Naruto felt his fingers close tighter around Sasuke’s shirt when Sasuke’s free hand pulled at the waistband, the elastic yielding just enough that—why am I letting—he could feel the material bunched uncomfortably around his thighs and it was harder to ignore Sasuke’s erection through his own trousers now. He thought he couldn’t move, thought he didn’t know how to move—more lies—he thought he couldn’t breathe and thought this wasn’t happening to them and that Sasuke was supposed to be—the Sasuke I remember, the Sasuke who I’m letting—too cold and distant and cruel and never with Naruto

I wonder what happened to us.

When Sasuke turned away to seek out the mug, Naruto wondered just what they were if they weren’t best friends and whether everything would still be okay after the fall—after they’d finished hurting each other, using each other and hopefully if they stopped just shy of actual destruction of each other, maybe then they could—

I know what’s going to happen, it’s not too late and I’m not stopping you—and maybe that thought should have scared him into doing something if he really wanted to because Naruto knew—Naruto knew normal friends didn’t do this—normal friends never wanted—normal friends never wanted

Staring at a fixed place on the wall over Sasuke’s shoulder when he shifted enough that Naruto felt his hand slick between his legs and into—why am I—Sasuke’s breath puffed in his ear; he could have been laughing, the strain in Naruto’s jaw when he couldn’t speak or swallow and felt with humiliating clarity—not just Sasuke’s fingers in and—

I know why and all I do is lie about it

Naruto knew like he’d known for years—and ignoring it never made it go away—that Sasuke wasn’t his best friend and hadn’t been for a long time and the reason he—followed him and thought of him and believed in him and let him and couldn’t hate him and didn’t want to move was because—Sasuke wasn’t his fucking best friend at all because—

He was more.

I hate this.

Sasuke was different.

I hate that I can’t fight you.

Sasuke was special.

I hate how much you hurt me.

Sasuke was Naruto’s strength and his weakness.

I hate how I lie even to myself—your recognition and approval and all the rest of that bullshit

Sasuke pulled his hand free and Naruto winced, not with pain, not that kind of pain—Sasuke pulled his own trousers down and rubbed himself over with the remaining oil on his hand—

I don’t want any of that—recognition, approval, I don’t want it, it’s all lies—lies lies lies

What I want—


“You’d better hold me tight. I like it rough.”

What I want

Sasuke was pushing him into something hard on the wardrobe but it didn’t matter, that uncomfortable angle in his back didn’t matter. The bruises all over his dignity weren’t so bad and Naruto tensed and held his teeth together—

What I want is you.

—as Sasuke pressed into him and he wondered if this was too much to give up to Sasuke but not to give up on him, whether the unnatural, stretching pain when Sasuke grunted and pushed forward again would be worth it in the end just to be close to him.

Sasuke was breathing over him, paused to shift and pull at Naruto’s legs when he thought he wasn’t in deep enough. Naruto held his breath in and held his eyes closed and bowed his head into Sasuke’s shoulder, into the folds of his shirt and parted his mouth without a sound when Sasuke kept hurting, kept pushing, harder—

They’d find a way, somehow, to forgive each other for the things they were doing, for the things they had never said when they should have, things that could have prevented Sasuke from using Naruto and Naruto from looking to Sasuke for things that weren’t inside.

“God, you feel good. Turns out you’re useful after all.”

Fuck you, Sasuke, just—fuck you.

It hurt—everything hurt—it hurt so much he thought his heart couldn’t take it, not like this all at once, the awkward feeling of Sasuke inside him, moving in and out of him and how it meant nothing, that it wasn’t personal and Sasuke didn’t care and Naruto just had to be alive

Sasuke pinned him into the wardrobe, balanced the arm holding his leg on the furniture for support and Naruto couldn’t hide how quickly he had inhaled—panicked—he thought it was a fluke, flushed, thought—until Sasuke did it again and it wasn’t

Fuck you, Sasuke, just—

Fuck—you—

Fuck—

Fuck


Sasuke was moving in a way Naruto had never seen him do before, making sounds he didn’t think he was capable of making, not Sasuke—not cold, proud Sasuke, rocking his hips and holding him down and groaning and each time the heat shot through Naruto, he read into it things that didn’t exist between them—things that, maybe, if they’d been better friends and talked about shit every once in a while, things they could have fixed properly instead of covering up the gaping holes in their friendship for a few minutes in his room—

I want you to come home and maybe that’s too much for you to give up to me.

We’re both—completely


Because of being alive, Naruto knew he was going to—and worried that it wasn’t right, to grasp so tightly at Sasuke who was shaking and anxious and pouring into his ears a voice louder than his own, to give into his body because of something so hot and wrong and painfully unreciprocated—

Because of Sasuke—his former comrade and rival and fuckhead best friend who, in his haze and idealism, could almost make him believe it was personal, that it was more that just being alive if Sasuke could make him feel so good

At the pulse of his release, he knew. He knew like he’d know for a long time. Sasuke was different, special. He was warm. And whole. And real. And there. And that was enough. That was more than he probably had the right to ask for in return. He held Sasuke, breathed under him and waited out the unsteady jerking until the callous laughter in his head was smothered by a better sound when Sasuke—when Uchiha Sasuke

So did you get what you wanted?

Shit happens.


Sasuke’s hair stuck along Naruto’s face when he leaned his forehead to the wardrobe, heaving, dropped his arm and released Naruto’s leg. It fell to the floor at some awkward, numbing incline, the elastic pinching and still not quite right where their bodies joined. He thought it was over and then Sasuke did something weird. He grabbed his hair and Naruto grunted when he used it to pull his head away, turned away so that Sasuke could lick the saltiness from his cheek, up to his ear where in nothing above a whisper, he asked:

“Did you like that?”

and sometimes Naruto just couldn’t believe Sasuke’s fucking audacity.

Sasuke laughed softly in the winded silence, mouth and voice still close and hot and arrogant. “Don’t worry. They wouldn’t have heard you.”

“Naruto?”—killed himself against the knocking at his door—“Are you in there?”

“—ghuh?”

“Is Sasuke-kun in there with you too? Because his door is open and he’s not there or anywhere else in the flat…”

“I’m here. We’re just hanging out.”

Naruto only thought it because he was so distressed and angry—that Sakura must have been the stupidest person in the world to have ever believed such impossible fucking bullshit.

“Oh, no that’s cool. Well Naruto, when you have time, come to my room because I’ve got some really cool news to tell you!”

Sasuke couldn’t discard him quick enough. Naruto stared tight-lipped at the ground and when Sasuke told him to make sure to change his clothes, he answered with a finger where his mouth wouldn’t move.

Fuck everything.


--


Sasuke fell onto his bed, crawled into the pillows and held them into his chest, curled deeper into them and stared at the wall and out the window. He calculated the speed of the clouds across the sky, picked out random shapes and watched the birds flit between trees and distracted himself just enough that he didn’t burst apart laughing

I fucked you—I fucked you, you stupid dobe, I did and you let me—

He had walked from Naruto’s room with his trousers mostly decent, zipper still open and shirt sticky and soiled and knowing he had all the power in the world, that no one was going to catch him—not now not ever—not in the short space across the hall between his room and Naruto’s. Sasuke clutched more securely at the pillows, shaking with contained hysterics and grasping the blanket at his fingertips and panting through delirium so potent

How much, huh? How much can you take—where’s your limit—I’ll find it, Naruto, I will and then you’ll have to hate me

It fluttered in his stomach, the knowledge, bubbled in his chest along with a deeper, more frenzied, more manic feeling he had to suffocate and put aside for later—I can be patient, I can, I’ll wait—and it was enough for the moment just to grin and smile, wide and wild and bitter and broken—

Ignoring you didn’t work and threatening you didn’t work and teasing you and fighting you and beating you and hurting you didn’t work

Sasuke steadied himself, relaxed his grip just a little. It wouldn’t do to get too excited. He had to be careful and he couldn’t be careful when his mind was racing with one all-consuming idea about how to—

Break you—I’ll break you, Naruto, I’ll fucking break you—

I’ll fuck you again—you know I will, stupid dobe, and you know you can’t say no—I’m the only one who can—I’ll break you get you hurt you fight you crush you break you and I’m the only one who can because—

you’re mine


--


“Hey, you said you had some good news?”

Sakura swivelled around on her chair and beckoned Naruto into her room, giddy and happy and he was thankful when it permeated through his skin, through to his heart that needed it in excess. He wandered around her room, disturbing and fiddling with everything that crossed paths with his gaze so she wouldn’t have a chance to see the mask over his face.

“Oh yeah, you bet! It’s the best!” She giggled behind her hand when her glee was making her embarrassed. “I was talking to Shishou today and she said Sasuke-kun might be allowed to go outside sometime—but only if he keeps getting better and definitely not right now. But one day!”

Naruto flinched—Tsunade-baachan thinks Sasuke’s getting better?

“Can you imagine it though? I might get my wish to go with him to festivals after all!”

And turned to her when the shock had been swallowed whole—

You’re so happy right now. I’d do it again—

So who’s more messed up now: me or him?


“That’s great.”

Maybe he was doing something right. Maybe it wouldn’t be that bad, if he just gave into Sasuke sometimes. It wasn’t affecting Sakura like it was affecting him—am I making it out to be more than it is?—if Sakura could sometimes smile despite what Sasuke did with her, if she were telling herself Sasuke needed her like this so much she made herself believe it—if giving up to Sasuke meant he could see her smile again after so long—

“Hey, it’s good that you and Sasuke-kun aren’t fighting anymore. It’s kind of awkward for me too, you know? Because I want to hang out with the both of you but not if you’re just going to yell at each other.”

Naruto laughed, uneasily, at the floor.

“Yeah. Sorry about that. Sasuke’s a dick sometimes.”

It didn’t matter if Sakura told him words like that were exactly the reason they fought. Because it wasn’t.





Three Months, Three Weeks, Five Days





First on the couch, second on the floor of Sasuke’s room, third against Naruto’s wardrobe. No matter how Naruto tried to spin it, twist it, deny it, whether they’d gone all the way or not—three times wasn’t an accident anymore. He couldn’t keep blaming Sasuke’s forwardness and even if he refused to face up to the inconsistency properly, he couldn’t deny that he had liked some of it when the physical evidence was stained in his carpet.

Naruto decided to get the am I gay? conundrum out of the way nice and quickly. He even used his ignorance to his advantage since he was confident that if he were truly gay, he would’ve found out about proper conduct in detail by then. Then he started reviewing his feelings for his other friends and one look at Sai told him he’d rather inhale noxious gases. There was a slightly weaker aversion to Shikamaru, Gaara, Kiba, Shino, the whole group. But nothing jumped, his heart was stagnant. Thank god it was just Sasuke.

Wait—





Four Months, Two Days





Naruto was determined to be stronger the next time Sasuke came to him, house empty and alone against the black eyes that filled his vision. His fist tightened under his pillow, the line of his mouth flattening and thinning and if Sasuke didn’t back off, wouldn’t stop pushing him down, pinning him down and squashing his cheek into the bed—

“I said fuck off!

Sasuke’s hair was in his grip, pulled it as hard as he could and expected the blow of Sasuke’s fist to his chest when it was the only way to make him let go, black strands affixed to his sweaty palms and Sasuke was still expectant, still hovering all over him.

“What’s wrong with you today?”

“With me?” Naruto dared not try to kick him this time but he sat up and Sasuke moved back. “You are so fucked up.”

“Do you want me to leave?”

Naruto couldn’t tell how distant Sasuke meant by his deliberately ambiguous leave, the room or the flat or completely out of Naruto’s life—don’t you even tease me—and the expression on Sasuke’s face was oh so divine like it were the most natural thing in the world, to alleviate boredom with sex—

“I don’t care where you go!”

I don’t mean that.

“You don’t mean that.”

Naruto breathed and left his gaze on the ground. Five years apart and Sasuke still read him so easily, could see it in his face that he didn’t mean it and never would, never had, that Sasuke could do almost anything, including sex, and Naruto would still be content with the knowledge he was there when he woke up in the morning.

“You’re too tense. What’s your problem? It doesn’t mean anything.”

To you, maybe.

“You know what? I still believe in you but this… shell that just looks like you isn’t what I fought for.”

Naruto wouldn’t look at him anymore. He didn’t know how Sasuke was reacting when he wasn’t saying anything. Not even his hands were moving and Naruto couldn’t hear him laughing or growling or living—Sasuke was just standing at his bedside and all Naruto could do when he couldn’t fix the world was brace himself for the conceited, hurtful reply—

“I don’t need you to tell me what kind of horrible person I am.”

in a voice low and pure and incredibly faraway.

“You think I planned life to be this way?”

Sasuke—!

“You say it like you think I don’t already know.”

Naruto looked up and Sasuke grabbed his shirt, threw him into the wall and held him there with both hands. Sasuke wasn’t scowling. He was real again and twelve again and Naruto knew that face, that look—of being hesitant and affected and trapped by the silence the words inside wouldn’t break and Naruto saw—he saw Sasuke—the old one he thought had long ago died before he could save him. And then there it was:

“I hate myself for what I’ve done.”

But you don’t have to do this—

I can fix you, I know I can! Believe in me who believes in you!


“Is that what you want to hear?”

Sasuke’s eyes narrowed with an unholy smile the old Sasuke never had—watching in Naruto’s face for the sweet moment when he realized he had peaked his hope too soon, the nightmare that came with wanting to believe so hard that the simple sigh to complement the cracking inside was far more destructive than any physical pain he could inflict.

—you’re breaking, Naruto, you’re breaking and it’s all your fault

Naruto couldn’t breathe long after he had left.





Four Months, Four Days





Naruto slid into a seat at the table next to Sakura, looking over at the notepad and papers in front of her. All he could recognise before she looked up and shuffled them away were numbers and graphs.

“Just our electricity bill. I’ve already paid it ages ago so it’s okay. I’ll let you know how much you owe me.”

“How much were they?”

“Not much.”

It feels like—

Naruto looked up at her face when she caught her hair behind an ear, tilted her face to the side so she could see her calculations. She was concentrating hard on the figures, making sure everyone paid an equal amount and nothing was left unaccounted for in the end. Sakura was good at being organized.

—like you’re being evasive again.

“I don’t know how much is normal. There are four of us living here I suppose.”

“How’s Sasuke going to pay?”

“I think the council are going to pay his share. Shishou gave Sai this form when he handed in the last report.”

Naruto picked up and studied the paper she had tapped at. Sasuke was allowed a lot of allowances: food; rent; electricity; water; other. Naruto wanted to abuse the trust Tsunade was putting in them, to use the form to buy things he wanted personally and pass them off as Sasuke’s expenses. He took a pen out of her pencil case.

“I think Sasuke needs some more porn—”

“Don’t write that on there!” snatching the form away before the pen tip could touch it. “This is official government stuff—”

“Okay, okay, I won’t write porn. Tell me what to write.”

But Sakura wouldn’t give the form back to him, pulled it further out of reach and shuffled her pencil case and its contents closer to her, away from him. “It’s okay. I’ll do it myself.”

“But I want to do something—”

“It’s okay—”

“Just—”

“It’s okay—Naruto, I said it’s okay—”

Her voice was rougher the last time. Naruto nudged her playfully and hoped it was enough to make her settle, stole one of the past bills and asked if she needed it. She said no and he busied himself with scribbling while she continued with her work.

“You planning to grow your hair long again?”

Sakura looked up, over at the paper that he covered from her eyes. “Why?”

“No reason.”

“You’re suspicious.” pausing, thinking. “I’ll probably keep it short. What are you drawing?”

“Nothi~ng.”

He squinted at her until she gave up. Naruto turned his body away from her with the paper, reminiscent of the academy days when the students were proud and secretive of their bookwork. The silence, broken only by her fingernails ticking at the calculator and his long strokes with the pen to border his artwork, was nice. The silence was nice. Sitting there with her, not needing to speak when companionship was enough. The air was easier to breathe into his lungs.

For a while.

“Good morning, Sasuke-kun. You’re up pretty late today.”

Sasuke grunted an acknowledgement. Naruto wasn’t sure if that counterbalanced it: Sakura’s joy at just seeing Sasuke enter the room against Sasuke’s rude dismissal of her greeting. Sakura was still friendly and happy and Sasuke was still pushing everyone away. That normal but it sounded more like an excuse he told himself to cover the truth of their relationship.

“What are you doing?”

“Just working out bills. Hey, I don’t know if anyone’s told you yet but the council have decided to give you some allowances if there’s anything else you want.”

“Really?” and Sasuke’s musing voice behind him annoyed him even more when—“Maybe they’re starting to trust I’m not a threat to anyone. Sounds like a reward more than an allowance.”

You’re a real great liar, you are.

“I hope so!”

Naruto distracted himself with his drawing, colouring in white spaces that didn’t need to be filled just so he looked preoccupied when no one was speaking, shading and pretending he knew what he was doing with textures and patterns. There was a weird kind of out of place shuffling behind him then; he turned his head just in time to see Sasuke dropping into the seat Sakura had been sitting in.

“Have you had breakfast yet? I can make you something.”

“Toast would be good.”

Sakura sought out the bread, untwisted the tie and dropped two pieces into the toaster. When she asked Sasuke what he wanted on it and Sasuke replied naturally, indifferently, still without a please

What was all that about?

“What are you doing?”

Asked innocently enough. Naruto turned around from watching Sakura to see Sasuke’s gaze looking over his shoulder, the smile at his mouth wholly directed at him.

“Planning the future.” It piqued Sasuke’s attention as he knew it would, his black eyes flicking across to stare at him and the smile falling away. “See this picture?” skimming it between them. “This is my future. Here’s me. I’m Hokage and I’m awesome. Here’s Sakura-chan. All these figure-eight looking things are our babies”—really need to learn how to draw less ugly babies—“and this crappy squiggle here is you. Naww.”

But Sasuke was staring at the drawing more intensely than he probably should have been and oblivious to the mocked cooing. He didn’t even look up to catch the smug grin on Naruto’s face until a shadow fell across the paper, until Sakura pulled it away to look at it more closely herself.

“I didn’t write what number Hokage I’ll be. Don’t want to jinx it.”

“Yeah…” she laughed, just sound without the feeling. When she looked up from the paper, Naruto noticed she stared over his head to the person next to him.

I can’t believe it. I can’t believe I can draw a picture of me and Sakura-chan with babies and still no one’s going to say anything.

This’d be really funny if it wasn’t us.


She lowered the paper back to the table and sought out the toast when it popped. Naruto, now that it was out in the open, added features to the two-dimensional children, musing to himself under his breath just loud enough for Sasuke to overhear. Sasuke wasn’t taking the bait though, more poised and patient than Naruto believed him to be. He pulled a pen out of the pencil case beside him and fixed the cap onto the end.

“With this allowance thing, what kind of limits are there? Did they say?”

“I’m not sure. Shishou gave it to Sai but I don’t know where he’s gone. I guess as long as it’s reasonable? You know, nothing too big or expensive. Little stuff maybe.”

Sasuke tapped the pen on the table, resting his head in his other hand. Naruto felt the kick at his feet when Sasuke stretched out his legs and he had enough faith and denial to pass it off as an accident—until Sasuke did it again, harder this time when Naruto didn’t look like he was going to move.

“Naruto,” whispered sweetly across the space, “fuck off.”

Flinching—“You fuck off—I was here first—”

“Naruto!”

Naruto endured it alone with his teeth together, holding back the urge to turn around and tell Sakura exactly what Sasuke had said—because it doesn’t even matter, you’re not going to believe me anyway—and pulled his feet under the chair out of reach. If that were all Sasuke was going to do, just stir petty fights like they always did as soon as they were within shouting range of each other—if he just ignored it this time and didn’t give in then maybe they could return to the peace in the silence—

“When I said fuck off,” still staring at the paper, twisting the pen in his fingers, “I meant fuck off. I don’t think you don’t want to see what personal items I’m going to write down.”

Personal items? Like—like what?

Like what? Sakura-chan—


Naruto needed little more evidence than the twists at Sasuke’s mouth, his lips that pulled back into something sinister. He pulled the page out from under Sasuke’s hands and tore it in half, hearing Sakura’s reprimands echo all the way down the hall until he slammed his door closed.

Like what? Like what? I don’t even want to—what?

Sakura-chan—I know it’s Sakura-chan. I know it’d be a really big fat inconvenience for you if she got pregnant—


His mind running away with him where his legs would not follow.





Four Months, One Week





The paradox really was too bitter. Naruto had to fight between what he wanted and what he promised and what he feared.

How much is too much?

He didn’t know. Whether it was better to avoid all interaction with Sasuke or force it in order to protect Sakura, he didn’t know. Whether it was a comfort or a concern when Sasuke hadn’t sought him out again over a week later, he didn’t know. Whether there was something wrong, whether this was right, whether he should have thought about what it meant when he’d assumed it would—when he’d expected it would—he just didn’t know.

Knowing so little, he had to make a choice and he decided he had to stay at home and watch Sakura. Above everything else, that was most important. If Sakura woke up one morning and didn’t smile, he had only himself to blame because he hadn’t been there for her when she needed him, when Sasuke needed him. A second was all Sasuke needed and a second was all it took to break the world apart.

If I knowingly leave you here with him and you’re not the same when I get back—

Nothing was happening and that was probably worse. When nothing happened, something happened between Sakura and Sasuke, something Naruto had not prevented and more than Sasuke fucking him, Naruto worried when he didn’t.

I don’t know how often you need it. You’ve had plenty of chances and you’re not taking them, taking me—

Just please, please don’t hurt Sakura-chan—


The knowing feeling of what was going to happen as soon as the bathroom door opened then—was a sick kind of artificial relief.

“What are you doing in here?”

“Having a tea party. What does it look like?”

He bristled and prickled when Sasuke’s shadow blocked his light. Naruto was squatting on the shower ledge, scrubbing the floor to distraction long after the grime was gone.

Fuck, I hate this waiting.

“You missed a spot.”

I just want to make us whole again. Is that a good excuse?

Naruto knew Sasuke was trying to psych him out by staying in the stall, burning holes into his back until he turned around and caused an argument, maybe some fighting and then hopefully Sasuke would just get it over and done with. He kept scrubbing and reminding himself that ignoring Sasuke usually made it worse and he hated the relief when Sasuke worked his fingers under his shirt—

“Fuck off.” accompanying the elbow that shot back and elicited a grunt from Sasuke on impact. But the hands still remained and Naruto tried it again, a little harder, and wondered just how long he had to pretend to fight before it was enough.

“You’re weak, Naruto, as if that’s ever going to stop me. I want something to fuck and you’re easy.”

You just—you just called me a thing

and yet I still can’t—


Naruto closed his eyes as fingernails scratched down his chest, as teeth bit through the material of his shirt all the way up his spine. He tried to remember while Sasuke was pulling off his shirt why he was there and what he was protecting and all the lies inside he couldn’t kill—it doesn’t matter what I think, it all feels like shit anyway—and the part of him that didn’t really want to stop. Naruto knew that didn’t make it right but it could have been just okay, just okay when Sasuke dragged his trousers down and the only thing that got bruised in the end was his ego, maybe his heart too if it got in the way—god my knees on the tiles are going to kill me afterwards

Naruto tried to focus on the feathery sweep of Sasuke’s hair on his neck when he wouldn’t slow the fuck down—preparation had been hasty and insufficient and the pain only slightly blurred by the secondhand shudders along his back and Sasuke’s breath, hot and unrestrained and echoing. Naruto kept his eyes closed tight, his jaw closed tight for as long as he could and in the darker part of his delight, he thought he could take pride in knowing he was the cause of whatever Sasuke felt—

He realized when Sasuke started shoving and pushing him around, pushing him up and—a noise in Naruto’s throat to match Sasuke’s before his hand could crush it against his mouth when Sasuke was in too deep—he had to have been holding back the last time—this time when Sasuke knew he didn’t need as much convincing and could fuck him any way he liked—forceful and overwhelming and completely selfish—

That sounds exactly like you.

I should be ashamed of how good this feels. I should be but I’m not.


Naruto was starting to understand why Sasuke usually kept himself under such rigid control—underneath the ice there was all the passion and fire that, without the goal of revenge and power, manifested itself in his desperate and unstable rhythm that had Naruto’s fingers clenched knuckle-white to whatever he was holding—and he couldn’t—grind his teeth together hard enough to stop the noise when—he just—couldn’t—take it anymore

I hate that being an Uchiha makes you so good at everything you do.

“Looks like you’re going to have to clean the shower again.”

Fucker.


--


Sakura saw a lot of things Naruto and Sasuke probably didn’t realise she saw, too consumed by their rivalry to think of anyone but themselves. She had one on each side of her: Naruto was picking at his food and being loud about eating it and doing everything he could to avoid looking at Sasuke; Sasuke was eating his food slowly and methodically, vegetables first and then salad and then meat, always in that order and always watching Naruto.

“Thanks for cleaning the bathroom, Naruto.”

“Mm.”

It had been the opposite once upon a time and Sakura wasn’t sure when it had switched or why it had switched. She wondered if she should warn Naruto or say something, or ask him if he noticed or cared.

Sasuke always glared at her but he stared at Naruto.





Four Months, One Week, Six Days





Sometimes Naruto wondered just what Sasuke and Sakura were doing if that were the way Sasuke was treating him. It had to be different. He hoped it was different—hoped it just didn’t exist altogether.

The blood under his skin boiled whenever he found them alone together, slipping into silence as soon as they realized he was present. That wasn’t right. That wasn’t how it used to be. Naruto desperately needed to know he was doing something right, that letting Sasuke fuck him meant he left Sakura in peace and every time he found them like that—he wanted to throw himself between them like a martyr and there wasn’t much more he could do but get in their space, in their couple-time, and just be a general shithead.

He wasn’t going to ask Sasuke about it. They never talked about anything and Naruto wouldn’t start with that. Sasuke was just fucked up enough that he’d taunt him, call him jealous, disgrace and degrade Sakura in front of him or worse—just smile and say nothing.

He thought about asking Sakura about it but he doubted even he would be able to tell truth from fallacy if she were guarding the secret that close to her heart. He could see how much she still loved him. Maybe she even knew Sasuke was using her and was too ashamed to tell anyone she actually didn’t care as long as he was back. Naruto knew that feeling.

He could have asked Sai about it but—apart from already knowing Sai wouldn’t know anything at all, Naruto was just too proud and too ashamed to admit their Team 7 bond wasn’t as glorious as he had made it seem.

He could have asked Sakura’s closest girl friend, Ino, about it but if Ino didn’t know either and Sakura realised Naruto were the one she had found out from—





Four Months, Two Weeks, Three Days





Naruto was more resourceful a shinobi than that. He realized he didn’t need to ask anyone if he just paid a little more attention to Sakura’s behaviour. If Sakura were unaware of his suspicion and forgot to control all her delicate nuances around Sasuke, Naruto was sure she would let something slip eventually. He just had to watch her hard enough and with typical Naruto tact, looming over her while making sushi rolls was as discreet as he thought to be and luckily Sakura just passed it off as him being impatient and hungry.

“Which one is Sasuke’s?”

His eyes only left the rice-covered seaweed sheets to watch her prepare the fillings. He compared the width of the carrots and cucumber slices with the slices for other rolls, the selection of particular strips of radish, the amount of egg she chose to add, how well she chopped the spinach, right down to the small and insignificant differences between the sprinklings of beef and the gentler way she seemed to assemble the whole meal. Sasuke’s was definitely special.

Oh you are so busted, Sakura-chan.

“Here.”

Naruto was confused when she handed him Sasuke’s plate. She should have known him better than to expect him to give it to Sasuke who was sitting only steps away at the table.

“That one’s yours.”

“But I thought you said this was Sasuke’s.”

“I know. I thought you were going to spit on it or something so I lied.”





Four Months, Two Weeks, Six Days





There were ANBU guards in her office while Tsunade flicked through Naruto’s report. She did it slowly and Naruto took to staring at the guards, trying to work out what animal each of their masks represented to replace the boredom of the formality, wondering why they were there and not hidden around their apartment when Sasuke had lit up his chidori that time.

“This it?”

“What? Oh. Yeah.”

She pulled some more pages from somewhere on her desk. “Compared with the reports from the beginning and what I saw last month, Uchiha seems to be improving. Would you agree?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

So she does think Sasuke’s getting better.

Then why the—


She was staring and there was something not quite right about it. Too… informed. Maybe he should have said more: saying too little might have seemed like he was hiding information—but saying too much might have looked like covering up because her eyes were just a little too narrow, hands folded under her chin just a little too tight.

“Naruto…”

He hated his name in that tone and took to staring coolly out the window.

“Anything you want to tell me?”

She knew. Naruto knew she knew. How did she know? No one was supposed to know—she had to be digging. Naruto willed himself not to overreact because Tsunade saw through glass-coated lies and he had only one chance to get it right.

“No? I don’t think so?”

I’m so fucked, aren’t I.

Tsunade drew her lips into a thin line, picking up another report and to Naruto’s ears the pages flicked unbearably loud. “I don’t trust you three to give me all the details and luckily I have the ANBU reports. Tell me what you think this sounds like: day one hundred and fifteen. 1:38pm to 1:40pm. Naruto Uzumaki’s room. Groaning noises. Day one hundred and twenty-five. 4:11pm to 4:12pm. Bathroom. Moaning noises. Day one hundred and thirty. 10:10am to 10:11am. Lounge room. Groaning noises. Day one hundred and thirty-eight. 2:29pm to 2:31pm. Lounge room. Groaning noises. I’m sure I don’t have to go on.”

There it was. The story of their fucked up friendship in ten seconds flat.

There was no limit to how small and weak and hot and raw everyone wanted to make him feel. He couldn’t even do his normal routine like laugh it off because—of course there were ANBU, he’d seen them and now she knew, the ANBU knew—she was looking at him for answers now and Naruto didn’t know—standing at the centre of her office alone under the weight of the world and everyone knew.

“Still don’t want to tell me anything?”

Naruto wasn’t looking and breathed in slowly, in and out just once and thought about not saying anything at all—or maybe she didn’t get it because she had to ask—calm calm calm fuck I don’t know—she had to ask so maybe she didn’t realize—oh let’s just cut the bullshit—of course she realised—she’s the goddamn Hokage.

“Sasuke gets bored.”

“So give him a book.”

Naruto felt the sting of her verbal slap and silently thanked her for such great fucking insight.

Tsunade’s chair creaked rocking back and her sigh released all the unspoken reprimands she couldn’t bear to say.

“I won’t even begin to imagine what you two are thinking but I’m not stupid, Naruto. What, one, two minutes and it’s over? I don’t think you’re even once in a bed—and frankly it’s probably none of my business but this is a little different. Sasuke’s changed—he isn’t the same Sasuke you remember.”

Like I need anyone to tell me that—like I would ever need to hear that—I see a different Sasuke all fucking day long.

“I’m just so… annoyed,” words chosen for their exceptional delicacy, “that you didn’t report it—even if you didn’t report it, that you didn’t tell me. I think this is something I should know about—for your sake, Naruto, not his. You’re the only reason that stupid Uchiha brat isn’t locked up in jail indefinitely.”

“I don’t… I don’t mind.”

“What?”

“I don’t mind.” A little louder, clearer, equal amounts of false confidence. “It doesn’t bother me.”

He could feel Tsunade’s hard stare flush every part of his face and the window was still the most interesting thing in the room.

“And it annoys me when you lie but—god, I’m going to regret saying this—I’m still going to trust your judgment. You know Uchiha better than I do so who knows? Maybe it’ll work. The house is still standing and Uchiha’s doing something, even if it’s you. Unless his condition—or yours—deteriorates, do whatever you think is right. I won’t interfere until I have to and I’m sure you can hear the warning bells in your own head so listen to them. Can you do that?”

“I can do that.”

I can do that.

I can hide it, lie about it, keep it inside, keep it away from you, keep it away from everyone if it’s really so—so—if you don’t want to see it then I’ll never show it.

I can do that.


--


Naruto’s room complemented Sasuke’s in all the other ways they made half of each other’s lives a whole. It made Sasuke stressed just standing in the doorway, eying the used and unwashed dinner plates and cutlery on his desk next to the alarm clock thirty-eight minutes behind and still ticking. He pushed clothes and books and weaponry with his feet, dividing them to his target on the other side.

Sasuke lent over him where the familiar smell was strongest, mouth parting just enough for a smile when Naruto wouldn’t take his eyes off the cracks and chips in the wall.

You make me want to laugh, you stupid dobe—you think I’ll leave just because you won’t see me? You were always so stupid, Naruto.

“You were gone a while and then I thought Sakura and Sai were never going to leave.”

Naruto was in a perfect enough position this time, on his bed and on his side. If he could just turn him over with the press of his hand to his back—

“Sasuke, why do you do this?”

Sasuke danced in the exhilaration of his name, his eyes and smile growing wider and wilder. So they were going to do it like that, were they? Because Naruto’s fight was never one with Sasuke, only with himself, and the look on his face when he gave in and hated it was what Sasuke longed to see.

Always, always a stupid dobe. You were always weak and you can’t—don’t—won’t change it.

His knee was on the bed now, pressing a little harder but not enough to force the movement. It was always better if Naruto resisted so he had to fight.

Entertain me.

“I told you, I’m bored. Now roll over.”

“No.”

Sasuke stopped and ran his nose along the sleeve of Naruto’s shirt.

“Roll.”

“Fuck off.”

All anger and shock and amusement and thrill and Naruto was still counting the tiny impurities in the paintwork and—stupid words, always a stupid dobe and stupid, useless, worthless words—sweet as rain was Sasuke’s breath preceding his voice in Naruto’s ear when:

“I have to wonder what she said to you to make you grow some balls.”

Naruto’s face jumped, lips curled back and eyes flared through the slit of his lids and Sasuke’s grin was smug, so smug; he had shot him point blank with the right words—so that Hokage-hag knows, does she?—and that wasn’t nearly the best of it—she wasn’t doing anything and Sasuke wouldn’t care even if she did; that was Naruto’s issue to deal with and Sasuke never had to stare anyone down and beat an excuse out of his pride because that was Naruto’s issue to deal with and he’d just take the pleasure when she wasn’t doing anything and wouldn’t stop him

“Unbelievable.”

“Stop it!” Naruto threw the hand back out from under his shirt; it was coming, a fight, a heated scramble of bodies and clothes—Sasuke could feel his fingers itch with chakra he couldn’t and didn’t need to use—nose-to-nose when he wouldn’t back away from Naruto’s quiet seething and the twists in his head.

“Why do you do this? Go read a fucking book if you’re so bored!”

Go on, I dare you, give me something to do and start the fight you want me to finish—

“You’re not the only one in his house. Are you telling me to go to Sai next time, hmm? How about Sakura?

Sasuke looked down at Naruto’s mouth and he knew what it looked like—Naruto thought he might—stupid dobe, you only wish I’d—and Sasuke could just hear the lightness in Naruto’s heart over his own internal laughter, the confusion—the jealousy? oh now that’s just precious—in his face providing just enough time to throw him down—

Push you down and pin you down and it’s never easy—

How can I get away from you if you won’t let me go and if you really want me that much then I’ll scar you I’ll scar you so bad you’ll never forget me and then—

I’ll always be with you


--


“How about Sakura?”

Sasuke couldn’t have meant it. He was lying. Lying like he always lied, lied by accident and lied without knowing he was lying. He’d planned it that way, to throw Naruto off or to get him to move under him and nothing Sasuke said anymore was mistaken or honest.

You lied. I know you did because that’s all you’ve got to do, to screw with my head—it can’t—be true—

But Naruto couldn’t argue with the report Tsunade had read. There was no Sakura. There wasn’t enough time for Sakura. It was all Naruto, Naruto, Naruto and Sasuke and no Sakura because—

It doesn’t make sense, of course you and Sakura don’t make sense. Why would you? Why wouldn’t you?

Because he couldn’t tell himself it’s only me. All that time wasted awake and distracted and hurting and grieving and worrying and hoarding evidence—

What evidence? I don’t actually know anything!

Sleep was on the other side of the room dancing far out of reach and Sasuke was using only him.


--

























four










Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days





By solving one problem, he created more.

Sakura was packing her bag with a lunchbox and Naruto thought, since Sai wasn’t around and she had no company and since Sasuke wasn’t there for her to impress, for him to order her around and since Naruto was such a sucker for punishment, maybe she’d let him go with her this time. He held a smile on his face and forged as much cheer as possible into his question.

“Where are you going? Can I come too?”

“Hm? Oh just, you know, here and there. I think I’ll go out by myself this time.”

At least make it a decent lie if you’re going to lie at all.

Naruto didn’t like the unsettled feeling in his head. If Sasuke and Sakura weren’t sleeping with each other and if Sakura still wouldn’t accept his company when Sasuke was nowhere in the room—Naruto wondered just what was going on between them and why they were doing such a fucking good job about isolating him and in the most persuasive way he could manage at that moment, he snapped:

“You’re not even doing anything special. Let me come with you.”

It was too late to take the words back when she levelled a glare at him. Naruto thought he felt a twinge of remorse until she snapped right back: “No. I don’t want to. I want to go out by myself for once.”

But Naruto couldn’t let it go and the crankier he made her, the more he thought he had to push until she gave in to him. Sakura had always relented in the past and he didn’t know how else to word his plea, what else to say to make her give in, even just for half an hour it’d be enough, he promised—

“Didn’t you hear what I first said? I want to go out by myself. I’m always with you or Sai these days.”

Not your not, you’re never with me. I—can’t even remember the last time we went out together.

“You can go out if you want but not with me. I’ll be back later.”

Naruto didn’t follow, just watched her back as it gusted out the door, out of his control, out of sight and the sludge that was thickening in his head. He scuffed the ground and looked around and he was sure it had never felt this bad whenever she had gone out without him in the past.

You’re so sensitive to other people’s feelings. How come you can’t see mine?

You don’t want to see mine, do you. As long as Sasuke gets better—I don’t matter.





Four Months, Three Weeks, Five Days





Sasuke was a strange feeling, sliding around and over Naruto when he had the awareness to wake. Naruto was blind with the disorientation of sleep all the way until he realized his trousers weren’t—“hey, what are you do—” hand slapped over his mouth that muffled the groan to an intrusion every bit as dominating.

It might have been the first time Naruto ever resisted with any degree of vigor and anger. Sasuke had never been so bold, so suffocatingly arrogant, to seek him out while he had been sleeping and to assume Naruto was just that compliant, that it didn’t matter if he had halfhearted consent or not. Naruto groped between the flickering shadows in the backlight of the television and on the first thing that touched his hands—Sasuke’s ear—he yanked

Sasuke gasped out a ribbon of obscenities into his elbow and Naruto would take the bite to the sensitive skin if it meant Sasuke stopped—and at the first sign of stillness, Naruto didn’t hesitate to catch Sasuke’s chin with the heel of his palm and a vicious clack of his teeth—

“Fuck—you usura—” got in another hit to his nose before Sasuke could retaliate with a punch so hard Naruto thought he might just slice his fist through his chest a second time—“fucking let me—”

Sasuke could see more in the dim outlines and had Naruto’s wrists jammed to the lounge armrest above first. Naruto couldn’t move enough to bend his leg for a kick: Sasuke was pressed up too close and there was nothing left to do but suffer and blank the painful awkwardness of their arrangement. Naruto wouldn’t look, turned away to inhale air that didn’t smell like the best friend he still couldn’t hate.

“Give up. I’m already inside you.”

Yeah, but—

you don’t have to say it like that.


“I know you like it.”

“—but now? And here?” hissing when a drop of Sasuke’s blood dripped on his cheek and he didn’t have the hands to wipe it off. “You think I want someone to walk in on this? Do you want—”

Sasuke’s breath stuttered and there was another drop, under his nose and just as infuriating as the first. His face was hidden behind the blur of the night and the shadows of his hair. Naruto didn’t need to see him to know he was unhappy and glaring because that was all he ever did.

“It’s your fault for sleeping out here—”

My fault—!” a third drop and Naruto had to grit his teeth—“God, fine, do whatever you want, just—make it quick and stop bleeding on me.”

Sasuke stared. He could have been smiling at the knowledge of Naruto’s submission but Naruto couldn’t see, wasn’t looking, closed his eyes when Sasuke lowered his head and released his hold and dug a hand around his leg, the other above Naruto’s head on the armrest. Naruto hated that no amount of fighting had been dark and distracting enough that Sasuke wasn’t still eager, that Naruto wasn’t still hard, hated that the more he tried to hold it back, the more he failed to see a reason why he should.

Sasuke moved slowly. He didn’t lick him or bite him. He breathed until it was deep and rough and pushed Naruto away as soon as he finished. Naruto got up when he thought his legs were strong enough to hold together the space where his heart used to be.


--


Naruto might have remained bitter and frustrated had he not walked into the bathroom to clean up afterwards and caught a glimpse of his reflection. For a moment—that should have been impossible—Naruto kept searching until he couldn’t find anything.

I thought—but you were bleeding.

Naruto rubbed his hands over all the places the blood should have marked, inclined his neck to where Sasuke’s face had rested. Nowhere was there a stain of evidence and Naruto didn’t want to realise—then if it wasn’t blood—if the reason there wasn’t any evidence was because the evidence was clear

There were only a handful of substances that could have fallen from Sasuke’s face that were clear. Naruto stared back at the disbelieving eyes in the mirror and suddenly everything was getting dizzy.

Proud, stoic Sasuke—you’re still human and you still feel—wasn’t supposed to be able to—

Naruto felt sick when he wasn’t angry anymore, when the uncomfortable reminder and renewal of his promise to save his best friend stirred deep in his stomach. He knew what it was when it wasn’t blood and he knew it was more than wrong for Sasuke to fuck him while—you do a lot of bad things but this isn’t that kind of wrong—and somewhere within that marble-encased heart of his was the person he used to be, the person Naruto still had to save because he knew and if he didn’t, Sasuke had nothing and no one.

At least you came to me when you couldn’t take it anymore, I guess.

I don’t know.





Four Months, Three Weeks, Six Days





Naruto felt like eating his rasengan instead of fighting Kakashi. Aimless, poorly-calculated punches and the only reason he could dodge half of what he did was due to knowing his teacher’s fighting style and sheer instincts. When Kakashi bowled him over coughing with an easy jab to the gut, Naruto wasn’t sure if Kakashi had just been lucky or if he had let that one through so he could stop and feel a different, physical kind of pain for once instead of the pain caused by the white-noise clouds in his head.

“I think we should stop now.” Looking at the sky when Naruto feebly disagreed: typical Naruto to want to train until he died. “Your game’s off today. Let’s continue tomorrow.”

“It’s okay. I still want to fight—I have to keep fighting. I just… I don’t know! Didn’t get a very good night’s sleep or something.”

Kakashi stood back with his hands deep in his pockets and decided that Naruto knew very well he didn’t get a good night’s sleep. Naruto, who as a genin only woke up as their training was supposed to start and who could camp out under the stars on the hard earth and still wake up fresh in the morning, knew very well when he didn’t get a good night’s sleep. So was he lying or telling the truth? Because whatever it was seemed to be plaguing him enough that he couldn’t fight.

Kakashi had three ideas about what it could be and each corresponded with a separate person from the original Team 7.

“Anything you want to talk about?”

That was all he could give. If Naruto shook his head, he didn’t care. It wasn’t about being an unsympathetic and helpless teacher. It was about the issue being too great for Naruto to tell him because he already knew there was nothing Kakashi could do about it.

Kakashi turned his gaze upwards again. Teenage angst was going to have a death toll but god it was interesting to watch.





Five Months





“Sakura-chan, why? We never go out together anymore. Can’t we just ditch Sai here and just go somewhere, just once?”

Every time I reach out, I’m rejected. I thought this was what I was supposed to do.

Sakura was blushing and Naruto could see it in her, she so much wanted to say yes but her mouth wasn’t moving quick enough and if she didn’t agree to go with him—it only had to be once, just once when he desperately needed her and had the courage to approach her despite all the distance she had put between them—after that, if she never came out with him again—wasn’t he convincing enough? Was his face not distressed enough? He was already jumping cognitive hurdles for stupid reasons and—just please don’t make me tell the truth in this house—the walls heard everything and retained the riddles in the gaps.

“Sakura-cha~n”

She was so close to giving in, she had no words to excuse herself this time and Naruto didn’t need to feel the crush of speech when her eyes died alongside her real conviction.

“I can’t go out with you.”

“But why?

“Listen, Naruto. I can’t go out with you.”

That was it? Surely not, but—she knew he knew it wasn’t a date so why—and it had never been an issue before and she was still lying to him and Naruto might’ve felt slightly less frustrated by it had she just said the real reason, if she just told him the real reason she was doing this to him, to them. She wouldn’t open her mouth and Naruto felt his expression crumble when he had to speak the words he hated to say.

“Sakura-chan, just look at me,” and in her eyes as well painful secrets were held hostage, “I want to tell you something. But not here. It’s not fair; you always go out with Sai—!”

“It’s not all about you. Stay here for Sasuke-kun.”

“What—?”

You don’t even realize your solution is the problem!

“—but I’m here like all the time! I want to go out and I want to go out with you—”

“Sasuke-kun,” she twisted her fingers around some button on her shirt, a distraction and a comfort, “needs to know you’re here.”

The argument was over in Sakura’s mind because she didn’t know—if she had just given Naruto a chance to make her know—he didn’t care what Sasuke thought he needed because he was more than intimately aware of what was going through that sick head. But Sakura had already decided not to listen to his insistences and Naruto knew she wouldn’t relent unless she knew the very truth he wanted to tell her.

You’re killing me. Do you know that? I’m killing me.

Because he feared the only way they’d get some semblance of the old Sasuke back was if he continued to sleep with him—it’s wasn’t even sleeping since it was always over so, so fast—and he feared he would just have to suck it up and get used to it if he ever wanted to see the smile on Sakura’s face when Sasuke was back to normal, her one wish and plea and everything was slipping too far out of his control—

I need to know there’s another way.

“Why does that bastard have so much influence over you!”

“That’s not what it’s about—”

“That’s all this is about—him and you and it’s not my fault—you don’t even try to fight it and I hate that you’re letting him do this to you—”

He had to stop when Sakura almost started—almost—thank god, just in time, softening his face when he couldn’t say sorry, he didn’t mean what he said, not really, he just got carried away in his anger and said stupid shit like he always did.

I’m burning out.

And so are you.





Five Months, Three Days





Naruto considered dashing his dreams of becoming Hokage in favor of becoming the best goddamn farmer the history books had ever recorded. He’d grow the shit out of corn and pears and cabbages and live in sweet bliss from all the world’s problems with a nice wife and two and a half children.

“Do you know these people?” and Naruto shook his head at Sai’s question. “Then how come we’re walking around their rice paddies?”

Naruto ignored the second question and focused on his feet, heading towards a small resting pagoda at the far end of the field. He might not have known these people but they would have known the demon fox boy and he wasn’t in the mood to tell Sai the whole sob story of a childhood spent being blanked by the world.

“Just shut up and follow.”

Both their shoes were caked in mud and the hems of their trousers were dirty and the rain was just starting to drizzle by the time they made it to the structure. Naruto sat against a beam, watching the strikes of lightning and listening to the thunder boom. Sai sat with him in delightful silence and Naruto found no reason to start a conversation. Where Naruto and Sasuke had functioned better in argument, Naruto and Sai seemed better in silence.

I really wish you hadn’t pointed out how I compare you with him.

Sai unfolded a scroll and started painting the scenery. He was good at it and Naruto was content to alternate between watching him and closing his eyes against the deafening rain all around, blanking his mind like he had traipsed all the way out there and waited for it to do. He might have napped and it was the most peace he’d felt in a long time.

“You know, we used to get caught in storms a lot like this when we were genin, before we learned how to properly predict the weather.” stretching a hand out past the roof’s protection and collecting water in his palm, light laughter on his tongue. “Our clothes were soaked and we were cold but no one wanted to get undressed so we just sat and got sick.”

“I never saw rain until I left ROOT. We were kept inside.”

“Oh.”

Conversation? Fuck that idea.

Naruto carefully pulled his foot out of his mouth.





Five Months, One Week





The stolen shirt at the back of his cupboard was starting to smell more like Naruto and less like Sasuke so when his turn to do Sasuke’s washing came around again, he was quick to find a suitable replacement.

After everything that’s happened, I can’t believe I’m still doing this.

Naruto didn’t think too hard about it. He thought only enough that he admitted he wanted a new one but any deeper and he knew he’d find things he wanted to remain untouched. Nibbles like fish at bait, he could feel the questions sending out smoky wisps, luring him down, asking him why he was still doing this if he thought he hated Sasuke so much and it was just obvious enough that he didn’t, never had, and whatever mess of a friendship he and Sasuke had was just different and unhateable and if he had to direct his hatred at something it was that he brutally couldn’t hate him.

Naruto could point a few blaming, psychological fingers at particular aspects of his life: that most of it had been composed of so few meaningful relationships and even fewer friends. It meant he pursued the friends he did make to the extreme, held onto them beyond normal expectations, defined himself by them, raised them up and made them something ethereal that they shouldn’t have been—but sometimes people just connect that intensely with another person, right?—and he could make excuses for anything in existence but—his mind screamed at him, asking him just what he was supposed to do if that was just how he was—thinking about the future and worrying he’d either drown in his obsessions or never recover from the severance if Sasuke wouldn’t recognise him, if not accepted him.

So all things considered, a stolen shirt was manageable.





Five Months, One Week, Five Days





Three days since the ANBU made another note in their report.

“You’re a loser! What the fuck is wrong with you? God, if I knew it’d be this hard—”

It wasn’t Naruto’s fault if he thought it appropriate to yell all those things at Sai and more. He hadn’t thought it would be so hard to convince someone that skimming rocks was a suitable pastime between friends and no, it didn’t accomplish anything and no, it wouldn’t come in handy for their survival on the road and—just shut up, I’m only out here with you because I’m running from things at home—and all Sai had to redeem himself was his company and his silence and luckily Naruto was desperate enough to want it.

“How about this rock?”

“I said a small rock. Like a pebble. Do you know what a pebble is?”

“Yes, I do—”

“Good. Go fucking find one.”

Forty-seven days since we started fucking everything up.

“How about this one?”

“That’s still too big! Is there something wrong with your eyes? Fine, I can’t be bothered, just take this one.”

Naruto was so close to chugging the rocks down Sai’s neck—if he showed up without a flat pebble one more time, Naruto would start a fight. A big one. He’d make sure to punch Sai in the nose just to watch the blood pour out, to make it seem like he had done more damage than he actually had. Sai threw the rock in all the wrong way; Naruto grimaced when it fell into the water with a plop and Sai still turned to him with an over-abused smile stretched over his face.

“This is kind of fun.”

“This is the biggest fucking waste of time—well don’t just stand there, go find another pebble.”

One hundred and sixty-two days since you came back and we still don’t know why.

“You stay there and practice. I’m going to sit down before I kill something. Don’t talk to me because if I hear your voice, it’ll be you.”

Naruto fell against the trunk of a tree and slumped down to the ground. He watched Sai toss pebble after pebble into the water, his technique never improving and Naruto wasn’t going to chalk it up to his unsuccessful tutoring. There was nothing wrong with the way he had explained it. Sai was just a dumbass. Naruto rested his head back into the bark, closed his eyes and sought the peace in daydreams.

Seventy-eight days remaining until Sakura-chan said you’d be better.

“Let’s just go home. I’ve never seen someone suck so hard. Besides, I’m hungry.”

“I’m getting hungry too. What were you going to eat?”

“What the fuck do you think I’m going to eat? Ramen of course.”

“I think I’ll have some of the leftover sweet and sour chicken—”

“Listen, just stop talking. Your voice annoys me.”

“Okay.”

Even Naruto knew it was a bad day. The grief from his failures at home weren’t usually so hard to manage and he wasn’t going to apologise to Sai for not being able to contain it all himself. If Sai wanted to ignore the snapped words, the irritated tone, the unfriendly profanity and go out with him for the sake of friendship, that was his own fucking fault—

Sai was oblivious.

“I don’t want to talk to you for the rest of the day.”

“Okay.”

“I’ll fucking rip out your tongue and cook it up and make you eat it.”

“That sounds painful.”

Sai was ignorant. After all that time he still couldn’t understand the subtleties of social interactions. Naruto couldn’t believe how stupid he was—how manageable his company was—how liberating it could be to scream and curse and threaten someone who would still be his friend when they walked home in the afternoon.

But who’s counting?

“Sai?”

“Yeah?”

“Let’s practice some more tomorrow.”





Five Months, Two Weeks, Four Days





Naruto didn’t mind Sakura’s attempt to improve the morale of the flat with a game in principle. The difficulty began when that game required teams, meaning competition, meaning pointed glares between Naruto and Sasuke which she smiled at behind her hand, meaning choosing teams and knowing that Naruto and Sasuke would severely and callously maul anyone who even made a passing comment that they should do anything agreeably together, meaning Naruto and Sai were paired together and Sasuke’s haughty exterior was left to her to deal with and suffer through. Such was the morale of the flat.

“All you’ve got to do is describe a word to your teammate.”

If only it were that simple.

“When the timer runs out, count up how many cards you got right and move your piece forward that many spaces. First team to the end wins”—and the part that pricked the ears of the two most aggressive, both overt and covert, players—“If you land on these squares here, that team has to describe the word to everyone, meaning you can steal turns.”

Bring it on, bitch—with a calm smile at Naruto’s mouth.

“Who wants to st—”

“Me! I do! Or, we do, right, Sai? Sai wants to start first too.” Without the need for consultation because spending every day somewhere alone together had made them just that tight.

Sakura tried not to grin through her pursed lips and handed the deck of cards to Naruto. For that night she would feel nothing but gratitude for having been able to bring everyone together in this peaceful congregation. Thankful thankful thankful and not annoyed when they inevitably squabbled like children. She had trained her patience for this night.

Sakura flipped the timer over and Naruto drew the first card.

“Ohohohit’sthatthingoutsidewhereyousleepinitandit’slikemadeoutofclothorsomethingyouhangitfromtwotreesandlieinityouknowwhatimeanwhyaren’tyousayinganythingyet?”

“Slow down, Naruto-kun!”

“What do you mean slow down? Can’t you see the timer right there? Hurry up and answer!”

“But I couldn’t understand what you said. Could you repeat it?”

Naruto groaned loudly and passed on the card.

“It was a hammock, right?”

“Shut the fuck up, Sasuke—”

“Naruto, take another card! Your time’s running out!”

Naruto pulled out a handful of cards in his hasten to continue and Sakura reordered them with a sigh.

“Okay, super easy one. You put it on a horse when you ride them.”

“I’ve never ridden a horse.”

“Doesn’t matter; what do you put on them?”

“I don’t put anything on them.”

“Well what do people who ride horses put on them?”

“Your face is so scary.” Sakura giggled. “Poor Sai.”

“Yeah well that’s because he’s completely useless—”

“Time’s up.”

“Are you retarded or something? It’s a saddle!

“How about that.”

Sakura was biting her lip now trying to block out Naruto’s supreme frustration and Sai’s indifference. It felt like old times, including the part where Naruto always came dead last.

Sakura was nervous when offering guesses to Sasuke’s descriptions and the worry that it was coming through in her meek voice only served to compound her nerves. Sasuke’s voice was level and clear and devoid of emotion. She had no idea whether he was enjoying the game or if something so frivolous was beneath him after everything he’d experienced: all the battles he had fought and the death he had seen and the pain he had suffered and it all amounted to a silly board game.

When it was Sai’s turn as describer he passed on so many cards that Sakura wanted to accuse him of lying and cheating to find an easy one—yet she dared not mention it in case Naruto thought Sai were searching for an easy card for him, a purply-black bruise on his pride. But after having seen Sai’s struggle to answer the common knowledge words of the first round, she wasn’t so sure Naruto’s intelligence had anything to do with Sai’s apparent strategy.

“One space compared to their five.” Naruto mused. “Well there are two people on this team and it’s not my fucking fault.”

“Naruto, calm down; it’s just a game, remember—and it’s only just started!”

If any of the three boys weren’t shitty or ignorant or smug or vengeful or determined all at once—and as difficult as they may have been, if none of them were leaving or backing out then Sakura called that time well spent.


--


“I hate this game. Let’s play again.”

Sakura glanced at Sasuke and Sai to gauge their willingness to participate in a second round and there was nothing about their appearance that made them look open to the suggestion. She tried to explain to Naruto that his roundabout, ambiguous, idiosyncratic way of describing most of his words was what had contributed most to their loss—

“—I’ll be on that usuratonkachi’s team this time.”

Sakura tried not to show her surprise but whatever was on her face couldn’t compare with Naruto’s blatant expression, twisting his head around too fast and too stunned—

“Okay!” before Naruto could get over his shock in time to disrupt the brief and tranquil transition. “Me and Sai against you two. Sounds good. You still want to start?”

“I’ll read.” Sasuke announced, picking up the first card. “Don’t suck.”

“’Sif I’d—”

“Messenger bird.”

“Hawk.”

“Thing you eat when it isn’t ramen.”

“Riceballs.”

“Other one.”

“Dumplings?”

“A big rock.”

“Fuck, I don’t know… mountain?”

“Smaller.”

“Uh… hill?”

“Smaller. Okay, here’s part of the word. If you’re courageous, you’re…?”

“Bold? Boulder!”

Sasuke picked up the next card and with smile pure and serene—

“Sai interrupted us here.”

“What?”

“Thing you sit on when you watch TV.”

“Couch—hey wait—why would—!”

“Different word for couch.”

“What—lounge?”

“You just got that one in, Naruto. Time’s up.” Sakura announced.

What kind of a clue

And Sasuke was holding back the extent of his smile with all the willpower he could muster in a matter of seconds, just breathing and devious—“That’s how you play the game, Naruto. You’re supposed to give clues that only the other person would get. Only you wouldn’t have realised that by now.”

Sakura turned to Sai and asked him if he knew what instance they were talking about—Naruto could have murdered killed assassinated committed a brutal and bloody homicide—precious child, he shook his head and claimed he had no recollection of such a time.

“Fu~ck me, I hate this game!”

“Well, you’re pretty into it for someone who hates it so much, you know!” Sakura countered.

When Sakura took her turn with Sai, she proved to Naruto that it wasn’t always Sai’s fault—they had travelled around with Sai for long enough to relate their experiences with things he understood. While their duo still lagged behind Naruto and Sasuke, she showed that they could still be a formidable force with the right, strategic phrasing of descriptions.

But Naruto didn’t care as long as he was winning.


--


Naruto was aware that he had to be extremely and delicately tactical while describing the card in his hand. The danger in it being an easy word was that Sakura and Sai could steal the turn; he had to find a way to illustrate it without giving too much away. He stared at Sasuke and maybe it was the first time in a long time neither of them were looking like they wanted to whip each other’s faces through a grinder.

“Sakura-chan might get this so I’ll have to be a little vague… A long time ago when we were genin, we…” Naruto frowned at the card and sighed. “I think she’ll get it no matter what I say.”

“Then you’re not trying hard enough.”

Rage exploded all over his face but Sakura had reminded him of his temper enough times that he didn’t take the bite. “You got dango.”

“I did?”

“Don’t you remember? And you said you didn’t like sweet things and I didn’t have any money to buy anything so I… kind of like… you know!”

“No, I don’t.”

“Neither do I.” Sakura admitted. Sai watched a moth buzz around the light.

Naruto poured his efforts into his gaze, willing the word through telepathy. “Think about what would be a good excuse to have dango given to you. No one’s just going to… ah, you got it, right?” seeing an awareness clear up the confusion. “Don’t say it yet! I haven’t finished.”

“I’m totally lost.” Sakura laughed but still hung on in case it came to her in the end.

“This only happened to you once while we were a team so it shouldn’t be hard to guess. One person,” motioning with his eyes alone towards Sakura who wouldn’t have seen the gesture, “gave you dango. What did I give you?”

“A sunrise.”

“Fuck yeah, I’m good!”

“Huh—oh, I remember now! You made such a big fuss…” Sakura’s voice babbled in the background and Naruto danced a victory jive in his chair and Sasuke couldn’t—believe—it was so long ago and just the once, on the only birthday he had celebrated with Team 7, like Naruto had said, and—“Wow, I can’t believe you still know each other so well. You make a pretty good team after all, huh.”

In slow motion, Sasuke saw Naruto glance at him with a smile every bit as free and devastating as the feeling in his soul.





Five Months, Three Weeks





Naruto found it so ironic when Sakura asked him where he went out with Sai every day he had almost laughed in her face. Now she was the one being left at home, left behind and Naruto was calm and confident that Sasuke wasn’t going to hurt her in the same way when he came home to her smile every afternoon—so I’m the only one worth hurting, am I?—and as long as he kept finding convenient excuses like egg basket weaving to fill his time with Sai, Sasuke couldn’t get to him.

“Ever had a girlfriend?”

“I would consider Sakura-chan a girl friend.”

“No, I mean like a romantic girlfriend. Like, kissing and stuff.”

It secretly pleased Naruto when Sai shook his head and it was lucky Sai thought Naruto’s satisfied smile was a polite part of their conversation. Sai returned the question and Naruto suddenly found it hard not to be pissy and broody realising his own deficiency.

“How about a boyfriend, then?”

And laughed until: “You’re my boy friend, Naruto-kun—”

Romantic boyfriend, you loser! And do not go spreading that shit around either.” and when nothing intelligent was coming out of Sai’s mouth, Naruto plucked and folded and wove together long leaves of grass in stubborn silence.

“I like this. This is stuff that friends do together, right?” Sai didn’t need a response and Naruto pressed his lips together, still frustrated by the seriousness with which Sai had staked his claim on Sakura and himself. “I read it in a book. It described situations similar to this: just sitting around talking with one another. It’s nice to be one of the one another.”

“Good for you.”

“It is good for me, isn’t it.”

Sai was a loser and it made Naruto smile to be entertained so warmly and innocently.

“I was just curious about something. You know when I was with you and Sakura-chan searching for Sasuke-kun all those years—”

God Sasuke, I just can’t get away from you at all—

“—you made it seem like he was a really special friend, yet I never see you talking with him like this even though you put in a lot of effort to get him back. I thought you were happy when we moved in with him. Was I mistaken?”

Really don’t want to be having this conversation right now. Trust you, Sai, only you could step in shit and not smell it.

“He’s a different kind of special friend.”

“Oh? I haven’t read about those yet.”

Naruto flicked his eyes at Sai and hated seeing the predictable inquisitiveness, not for the gossip but for the knowledge—oh you do not want to hear how fucked up friendships can be—tried to find the most diplomatic way to express the sad state of their inability to coexist.

“He’s sick in the head. He wasn’t always like this—” and cutting it off when his heart tied itself up too tight. “We’ve just got to wait.”

“Okay.” Sai smiled and held up his completed egg basket. “I’d like to see Sasuke-kun when he’s not a dick.”

Looking up in honest shock and—holy shit—Sai—?

Didn’t know whether to laugh or give him a friendly slap on the back or punch him in the face—Sai wasn’t close enough to either of them go around saying stuff like that but—for the next five minutes he owned Naruto’s respect without realizing it or actively seeking it.

“Your basket looks like shit by the way.”





Five Months, Three Weeks, Six Days





Naruto was in the middle of singing and showering when he thought he heard a strange sound, almost like the sound of the lock being picked—the fuck—?

Sasuke relocked the door and Naruto couldn’t believe his arrogance—but—how are you here—we can’t—but everyone’s home—wanted to cover himself with the curtain from the dark and dangerous look on Sasuke’s face when he reefed it back, zipper down and he obviously wasn’t in the mood for deliberation or compromise—

Sasuke pushed him back against the wall and—“if you do anything that doesn’t contribute to a good fuck, I’m leaving this place and never coming back”—and Naruto thought that was a pretty harsh threat for something he would have done mostly willingly anyway, one leg already wrapped around Sasuke’s rough and clothed waist—are you out of your fucking mind—?

Learning that water was a god-awful lubricant and still having to smother and suffocate any little noise that crawled up his throat, pain and pleasure unbalanced and one harder to ignore and overpower than the other—how can you when everyone’s home?—closing his eyes on the pain and knowing there must have been blood running down his leg because he could smell it through the mist—you think I’m proud of this—do you want them to find out—why did you even come back—!

Sasuke stayed around only long enough to find his own satisfaction, tearing up Naruto’s skin and muffling his release into the wet and naked shoulder. He didn’t bother to lock the door on his way out and Naruto thanked the presence of the shower to disguise the liquid swimming in streams down his cheeks—water or tears, he was grateful he didn’t know—

You don’t want me hanging out with Sai anymore, huh? Jealous much, huh? And what was wrong with just shouting that in my face, huh? Why did—you have to—

Your negotiation skills really fucking suck, you know.


--


Should’ve hidden out in there a bit longer—when Sakura asked him why Sasuke had come out flushed and angry and soaking wet—at least you’re not saying I’ve got red eyes. Guess it was just water then—

“Water fight.” All crystallised lies to go with the smile he froze on his face. “But the bastard took off as soon as I whipped out the soap. What a coward, eh?”

Sakura flashed him something that didn’t look convinced as much as she wanted to believe him. Naruto breezed past her and her questions before he could dig a deeper grave for his big, fat, formless excuses.





Six Months





The memories were hard. Of fighting and losing when he most needed to win. Of roaring waterfalls and blood-red chakra and the snap of his neck when Sasuke rammed him face-first into the ground—open—staring down a shrieking ball of electricity and wondering if the rasengan would be enough and it wasn’t because it hadn’t been long enough, wasn’t fully developed—your eyes—Sasuke had more practice using chidori or he was just better and faster and stronger and wondering what it was that turned Sasuke against him—open your eyes—he wanted to believe it was just because he got in the way—open—tried to stop Sasuke and it could’ve been anyone—that it wasn’t because Sasuke couldn’t stand the sight of him and wanted him dead. Of eyes that were no longer those of a child and consumed by revenge and blinded by hate—your eyes—avoiding and blanking the only friend that went after him all the way; that was why—he had to make her cry when he couldn’t—open your eyes—in the water, in the mist, in the valley where it ended—Of all the things that couldn’t be undone or taken back and—you wanted to kill me—you did and you smiled

Naruto opened his eyes and kicked back the blankets. It was hot. His windows were closed and his hands were sweaty and numb around the only hitai-ate with a scar through the leaf.

I didn’t—I couldn’t—just—a dream—

—a dream—


But it wasn’t.

None of it was.





Six Months, Three Days





Sai was a brilliant artist. Naruto had no moral conflictions when it came to using Sai’s talent for his own profit, made the boy paint and trade pieces of art for a bowl of sake which he had downed in one sitting and made him go get more. Sai was just happy to be wanted, to be in the company of another person. Even when Naruto tried to reassure him that Hokage could still be brilliant and competent leaders while getting shit-faced on cheap alcohol—

“Just look at Tsunade-baachan. She’s my idol. Fuck, this stuff tastes bad.”

Naruto burped, or hiccupped, or was about to throw up and Sai was sitting beside him on the pagoda still drinking. He stared at Sai, in love with the fuzzy-buzzy feeling trembling just under the surface of his skin and the existence of sheer, blissful fuck all in his head.

“Can you go get me some more?”

But Sai had lost the ability to manipulate a paintbrush with any real talent. Naruto stole a drink out of his pot.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been drunk before.”

“I know. You were gone after the third mouthful. More for me.” Naruto hiccupped again and spilt some of the alcohol on the wooden boards. He thought about licking it and it made him wonder which one of them was really more inebriated. “Sakura-chan isn’t going to like us coming home drunk. She especially isn’t going to like us coming home drunk so early in the afternoon… but who cares?”

Naruto stared out at the rice paddies. There was a man up the far end using a sickle to pull something out of the ground. He’d probably chase them away when he found them and Naruto wasn’t sure he could step out of the pagoda without falling straight down into the ground.

“Can you keep a secret?”

“From who?”

“Everyone, you loser.” Naruto watched the man work his crops. “Do you think you could fix Sasuke?” and when Sai’s answer was negative, Naruto asked, “do you think Sakura-chan could? No, right. I’m the only one, aren’t I,” sighing, “so I can’t run away, can I?”

Sai was supposed to ask are you going to run away? or something to that effect but Naruto liked it more when he answered with a simple and straight no.





Six Months, Four Days





When Sakura came to see him instead of the other way around, Naruto thought his heart should have jumped backflips but his hangover had rendered him far too incapacitated to feel anything more than the unpredictability of the contents of his stomach.

“Telling me I shouldn’t’ve drunk so much isn’t going to make me better so how about we just save it for another time?”

“Are you sure you’re okay, though?” She sat beside him on the bed and dragged his wastepaper basket closer in case he threw up all over the carpet instead. “And aren’t you underage too? Where’d you manage to get so much alcohol from—and why?

Please can you interrogate me later? I feel like I’m still half-drunk and not in a good way.”

With his eyes closed, he missed her smile turn sad and then disappear altogether. She rubbed his shoulder and told him to call out to her if he needed anything. Sai was apparently fine, having consumed significantly less than his body weight in liquid units and was watching Naruto’s pallid face from the doorway.

Naruto stayed in bed all day with minimal interruptions, the way he liked it.





Six Months, One Week





Break.

He hated the noise, the voices, the three of them in the kitchen. Even in his bedroom with the door closed he could still hear them, talking, the grating sound of words being spoken, their laughter. Sasuke rolled over and faced the wall and grit his teeth into a snarl when the amusement in Sai’s voice echoed through the walls again, chasing Naruto’s frustration.

Fucking break.

They sounded like they were cooking, or trying to, or Naruto was trying to teach Sai who didn’t seem to know anything about using a kitchen. The smell of the broth was already seeping through the gap under his door. It was in his nose, in his lungs. It was everything he wasn’t—their fun and freedom and ability to live—hands to the cool wall and scratching into a fist.

Hurt you until you hate me.

Naruto’s fault. It was all that shithead’s fault, Naruto’s fault. Sasuke had no reason to blame himself when Naruto had started it, all those years ago—

It’s all your fault. I’m all your fault so take some fucking responsibility.

He was stronger than Sasuke had expected, if strength was what it was, if that was something to be proud of. All the pain and hurt and damage and after everything he’d done, Naruto was still standing, still talking—still laughing with that fucking fake replacement and that pink-haired—

Sasuke breathed, just tossed and turned and thought about waiting until he didn’t hate the whole goddamn world for turning his life to shit.

“You’re not very good at this.”

“I guess that’s to be expected. I never started cooking properly until I started living with you guys.”

Naruto frowned when he told Sai to beat the eggs he’d cracked into a cup and Sai picked up a spoon and stirred it too gently. Either Sai was an ignorant loser and Naruto already thought he was or he was trying to make friends with the yolk and eggwhite mixture by stroking it with the outerside of the spoon. Naruto let it slide, content just to watch and say nothing for once. There were worse things.

“Okay, that should be good. Pour it slowly into the pot. Slowly, remember. And stir it just to make sure it doesn’t all clump altogether.”

“You’re a pretty good teacher, Naruto.” Sakura complimented, sitting in a tight ball with her arms wrapped around her legs, sitting and waiting at the table. “Ever thought about taking on a team, maybe in a few years when you actually decided to become a Chuunin?”

Sakura laughed. Naruto didn’t feel it.

And fuck shit up with them? I don’t think so.

“Nah, I’m pretty good just—being here,” covering up the lie by snapping at Sai when emptied the last of the contents of the cup into the boiling liquid. Sai made no error but Naruto needed a diversion and anger never settled for very long where Sai was concerned anyway.

“I think it’s done?”

“I’ll say when it’s done and it’s not done. You’ve got to taste test it first. If it tastes like shit, you’ve got to at least warn the guests—”

“Naruto, what kind of advice is that?” with mirth in her reprimand. “If you know it tastes bad, you can’t serve it at all!”

“Don’t listen to her. Guests’ll say it’s good not matter how bad it is.”

Naruto snatched the spoon out of Sai’s fingers, dipping it into the broth and raising it to his lips to blow on it first, then slurped it into his mouth. He let it slide over and around his tongue, assessing the aftertaste, then nodding his head and passing the spoon to Sai.

“Tastes good. You try.”

Sai filled the spoon and Naruto had his attention too occupied barking out warnings and reproaches to notice—until a hand into his back—“Move.”

Naruto didn’t apologize to Sai when he unbalanced into him; he turned around to face Sasuke—“don’t tell me to fucking move”—words coming out quick and hot to justify the shove he gave right back. “What the fuck is your problem—”

“Naruto—”

“I want a knife. Get out of my way.”

You what—? You want—

Sasuke was staring at him. He looked relaxed, like he already knew every movement of the fight. Naruto could feel the pinch in his face, knew he was glaring back too harshly to ever let it go. Sasuke wanted something like he always did, a fight this time or—

Why the fuck would you want—what are you going to do with—

Looking up at Sasuke. There was anger and hate and ice in his eyes like there always was and had been for a long time. All the things Naruto had tried to remove had simply solidified in the end and for a second—for as long as it took for Sasuke to—

Move. Don’t make me say it again.”

—be as he had always been, to push as he had always pushed—for a second Naruto thought he felt sad. None of those things were supposed to be in his eyes. It wasn’t Sasuke’s fault they were there. It wasn’t Naruto’s fault either. And it was a shame when none of the wrong things went away despite his efforts.

“Naruto, I’ll fucking—”

“What?” with a sneer at his lips. “What do you think you’re going to do? Hit me? Fight me?”

—fuck me?—

The real shame was that the anger was just a cover. Anger was easy. When they were angry neither of them didn’t have to think too hard about their actions. They just had to do them, just had to be angry. It was when they might have had to think, might have had to realize, maybe they weren’t angry that the world was wrong but that they knew how to make it right and they were just too proud and too stubborn to ever give it a chance.

“Get some new threats. Your old ones are full of shit—”

“Naruto—!”

Sighing when Sakura had to keep getting herself involved—what do you want now?

Naruto wouldn’t take his stare away from Sasuke even when she kept yapping in his ear. They were all chastising words she had no right to say anyway, not when she didn’t know shit about what was really going on, about the rift too wide between them now for him to care to listen when she tried to solve the problems.

Just stay of this. I don’t know what I’m doing—

Sakura’s voice was still chafing the silence and with force and effort and patience he didn’t know he still had he turned and faced her. Whatever was on his face couldn’t have been—or the look she gave back quickly washed over with pain and apprehension when he couldn’t smooth into calm fast enough—

I know I’m hurting you so just stay the fuck out of this—

The pleas in her eyes were ignored without remorse. She didn’t understand what was going on, that this was more that a typical fight or maybe she did realize when the atmosphere blackened the moment Sasuke appeared—the worry in her face still painfully there when she didn’t know either—how to fix something long ago broken and swallowed up by rust—

I don’t know anything and I never did—

Until he couldn’t bear to see the hurt he caused and turned back to that sick, twisted excuse of a best friend—still staring and waiting and knowing all the ways to make him fall—

“Get the fuck out of my way, Naruto.”

“You still haven’t told me what you’ll do!” if that was excitement in his voice, if he were daring Sasuke to say the secrets—oh wouldn’t that be fun—to expose everything they never said, even to each other in only a few precious seconds—“You’re full of shit. You’re so full of shit—”

“I think the ramen’s done now—”

“Fucking shut up, Sai—”

“Naruto! What’s gotten into you—”

“Why won’t everyone just mind their own fucking business—!”

Sasuke used that fraction of time while his attention was unfocused, while his eyes were closed in frustration to push him again, harder than before. It made him take a step—two steps back—his shoulder bumping into Sai again and erasing any self-control he might have still harboured.

We fucked up somewhere along the line, didn’t we. We weren’t supposed to be like this.

What a shame.


“Don’t fucking push me. Don’t even touch me.”

What a shame.

I bet we could’ve been great.


The angry feeling inside wasn’t going to go away. Not just then. It would be there in an hour, in a day, after a week, however long it took for one of them to—break. Naruto laughed under his breath, dark and bitter and completely beyond care. It didn’t matter anymore. It just didn’t matter when Sasuke’s face was right there—when he could see it—when his fist could—

“Naruto—!”

Sakura was in his space, catching him just in time. Or far too late.

“Sakura-chan, just—”

“Stop it, Naruto.”

“Get out of the way, Sakura-chan.” exasperation staining his voice. He tried to shrug her off, wouldn’t look at anything else but Sasuke’s face and that taunting, hating mouth on the verge of cracking into the smile, just bubbling at the surface—“I said let go—”

“No, come on, Naruto, don’t start this—”

What—? Why’re you telling me not to start shit when that fucker right there—”

“Naruto—”

Let go of me—Why am I always the one who gets the blame? I didn’t do anything—”

struggling—

I didn’t do anything—

I didn’t do anything and that’s why we couldn’t—


The smile was there. Naruto could see it now. All it needed was a twist at the corners and it was all over his face. Sakura was still staring at him, between them, pleading with her eyes that he wasn’t going to let distract him, wouldn’t let hold him—

sinking—

while whispered in the gap: “I knew I’d get you—”

Finally pushing Sakura out of the way and surging into Sasuke—

“Naruto!”

pulling—

I don’t care—
I don’t care


punching—

“Sai—help me! Naruto, just please stop—”

It’s always Sasuke—that’s all you see—why aren’t we equal—why am I always always always second

biting—

I hate this—
I hate—
I hate you—
I still don’t hate you


bending to the crack—

One wrong jerk of his elbow back had Sakura covering her face.

Naruto faltered; it was all Sasuke needed.





Six Months, One Week, Two Days





Sakura forgave him, somehow. She said she knew it was an accident and Naruto promised he’d have more control of himself next time. She was standing at his door speaking awkward words at him and Naruto had no patience, no energy to listen. In his heart, just—dull, just nothing. He had her forgiveness without even trying and nothing was stirring inside, no feelings, no emotions written in the ceiling or the walls he kept staring at.

“Are you just going to lie around in bed again today?”

“Hmm. Dunno.”

He threw his bedsheet over his face, sighing into it when he felt the air float and sink around his legs.

“I thought you wore those clothes yesterday.”

“And the day before that.” still staring at the cotton ceiling.





Six Months, One Week, Six Days





Naruto couldn’t throw on fresh and uncreased clothes fast enough for Sakura’s patience. How many weeks it had been since she had asked him to go anywhere with him, he didn’t know, couldn’t even estimate. There was a tiny, scared feeling somewhere inside that he wasn’t needing or even wanting to be with her anymore but—thank god for whatever had changed her mind because he had been starved of her warmth and grace for far too long and maybe it was just what his empty insides needed.

“I don’t get why girls like these trinkets so much,” picking up a pink-beaded necklace. “Wouldn’t it get caught on stuff in fights?”

“Then you don’t wear it during a fight, silly.” Sakura took it from his hands and held it up to her neck. “Yes? No?”

“Everything looks good on you, Sakura-chan.”

Naruto enjoyed the markets. People still frowned at him, the older generations who were too stuck in their ways to change were content to limit their disapproval to a scowl. He knew Sakura’s physical presence at his side forced the contrast between what he normally endured. The younger generations who couldn’t remember the wars passed him by like any other civilian.

Naruto enjoyed the markets but it wasn’t a solid feeling. He knew past experience was telling him what he should be feeling, this sense of enjoyment. Self-talk and familiarity with the situation dictated his emotions until Sakura had said he looked tired enough times that he stopped kidding himself. He wasn’t having a good time.

“Seems like I just got too used to lying around at home or something.” He mused, stretching his mouth into a Sai-like smile. “There’s a tea shop over there. Wanna stop for a drink? I think I need something refreshing.”

Once inside, Sakura sipped some fruity concoction through a straw and Naruto ordered the most masculine-sounding herbal tea on the menu.

“Want a taste?” Sakura held out her beverage and Naruto warned her that sucking on her used straw would be just like a scandalous, indirect kiss. “Nothing wrong with your sense of humor after all.”

“I guess not. I guess I did just need to get out because you’re right, it does get stuffy in there. I mean, Sai’s okay but god he’s frustrating. That kid knows nothing.” Sakura smiled and said nothing to defend him. Naruto kind of liked that. “So what’s put you in such a good mood that you decided to embarrass yourself by being seen with me?” and laughed all too casually, too fatally.

“I handed in the report this morning, you know…”

“—huh?”

Naruto had laughed but Sakura had not. She hadn’t answered the question. She hadn’t even smiled and Naruto brought his glass up to his mouth for another distracting, apprehensive drink and believed in everything that was impossible.

Oh fuck.

“I’ve been worried about you lately, you know. I asked Shishou about you.”

Oh fuck

Please don’t don’t don’t—


She was looking at him. He was looking at her. They both knew and Naruto couldn’t run from it. The sickness and blood washed from his face to his feet and then nothing.

Oh fuck.

Sakura knew.

“She said…” looking down to avoid Naruto’s eyes when they weren’t confused, “something really strange, I don’t even know…”

I couldn’t fix it.

“Do you know what I’m talking about?”

She was taking the cowardly, fearful, hopeless route and shifting the responsibility to him. Naruto swallowed. She was asking him and it wasn’t too late. He had time to lie. Lies were easy—no Sakura-chan, ‘sif I’d ever do that!—so easy. Just one lie, one easy lie and he’d never have to hurt her.

But his time was up. His cheeks were sore and hot and prickling. He’d said nothing and saying nothing was enough.

Is this why you’re with me?

“It’s true, isn’t it.”

I couldn’t fix it.

She didn’t say anything for a long time, hand over her mouth in shock and thinking. It was real now. Naruto didn’t know what he should have said or felt but he wasn’t angry with Tsunade for exposing him. It was everything he deserved for causing even the smallest amount of pain. Sakura, his best friend and teammate from the old genin days—Sakura, who he had grown up with, fought with, run with, lost friends with and cried with was just sitting there and he couldn’t even say one lie.

I can’t do anything.

She was just sitting there opposite him and not speaking. There was nothing he could do. She knew everything and yet she had still given him the chance to deny it. She had tried to save him and therefore herself and he hadn’t done anything. His punishment for being too incompetent, for being too defective, was to watch the world break into smaller and smaller pieces and sit there and kill his two best friends.

Her hands were trembling now.

“I asked Shishou if it would be a good idea if you moved out and she said no.”

He understood at once: the safety of the whole village was her unfortunate priority and afterwards the individual people in it. But that wasn’t his fault—Sakura wasn’t blaming him but—it never even had to be Tsunade’s choice if Naruto had just—

I got it wrong.

“So I guess… I’m just so confused. When did it start?”

Naruto swallowed again. She wanted answers. Of course. She had told him at the beginning, that it was better to know and hurt than not know and hurt more. She wanted something concrete to hold onto when everything else seemed crazy and wrong.

“I guess… about two months ago, maybe more.”

She breathed out and played with the condensation on her glass. “And… how did it even start?”

But Naruto didn’t know either. One day Sasuke was sick in bed and the next he was pushing him up against the wardrobe in his room. All he could do was tell it the way he knew it, the way it had been: “I don’t know.”

She nodded to show her understanding, nodded her already bowed head. “And… do you think it’s good for him?”

I got it wrong and now I’m hurting you.

“I don’t know.”

“Then… how many times?”

I can’t—

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know a lot.” and there it was—the start of the fall—“You don’t know because you don’t want to tell me or you don’t know because you’ve lost count?

Naruto didn’t realise he’d made her cry—already, not again—because her hair had been covering her eyes. He only noticed when she wiped her angry face and—

I can’t do anything.

“I just don’t get it. I thought—because I’ve been patient and kind and understanding—and I’ve put up with everything and anything Sasuke-kun asked for and his mood swings and silences and—god, I thought we were trying to make him better—I thought we were making him better and then… I find out about this… so I’m trying to be calm and ask you about it but you’re not telling me anything.”

She was breathing unevenly and blinking away tears and willing herself to speak normally so that no one turned around to look at their little corner of the universe as it collapsed around them.

“I thought I knew you. I thought you wanted to live with him and make him better. I’ve seen you suffer and cry for him with my own eyes so a part of me wants to believe you honestly think this is good for him”—betrayed by a disgusted scoff—“I thought I really knew you and now you’re telling me you don’t know? You still aren’t saying anything—why aren’t you saying anything! Do you even know what you’ve done?

She didn’t want answers, excuses, reasons, explanations, because none of that mattered. What she wanted—

“You’re not even sorry, are you.”

I couldn’t fix it.

I can’t do anything.

I fucked up.

Completely.

And I couldn’t even say I’m sorry.


--

























five










Six Months, Two Weeks





Sakura’s room was cleaned out and emptied. She’d said she was moving back to her parent’s place for a while. When Sai had asked why, it wasn’t hard for Naruto to explain. Sakura just needed a break. She was tired. She needed to go away and come back refreshed and energized. Naruto told Sai he was sorry they wouldn’t be able to go out and get drunk together again because he’d kind of liked it, drinking and getting drunk, without purpose, outside, in the middle of the day, with a friend. But it’d be okay, and Sakura would be okay, and they just had to wait.

Naruto turned from Sai’s room and crept back into his own, hiding under the covers. He stared. The clock moved faster than he expected, slower than he wanted.

I’m still not fixing it. I just lied to Sai.

I’m making it worse.


He had all the right thoughts and yet he didn’t feel bad about it. Naruto was seventeen and raw and numb. He was numb. He felt nothing. He stared at the ceiling lying on his bed and wondered why he wasn’t feeling happy or sad and all he had in its place was a gaping emptiness. He couldn’t feel angry for what he had caused to happen, or at Sasuke for always wanting it, or at Sakura for not trying to understand him better and go out with him when he’d tried to open up to her. He couldn’t feel. He wandered, he floated, he existed. He passed the time just staring, just waiting for the feelings to come back.

I don’t know what to do.

Naruto spoke the bare minimum to be polite to Sai. Sai didn’t realise there was a problem: in ROOT, Naruto’s condition was the norm.

I couldn’t fix it. I can’t do anything.

Naruto stopped wanting to talk. Naruto didn’t talk. He shut up and shut down. Inside him, there was a—silence. Big and wide and ugly and empty. He didn’t talk about his feelings anyway but he had always known someone was





Six Months, Two Weeks, One Day





there if he wanted to. And then. There wasn’t. There was Naruto, staring, sitting and waiting and watching from where he had crawled and cried into himself, saying nothing. He couldn’t hurt or be hurt in there. He could pour himself into his obsessions in a secret, private place where he didn’t have to hurt.

Naruto cried a lot, quietly, so neither Sai nor Sasuke interrupted him. He cried at lot, at night before he fell asleep, closing his eyes on the exhaustion. He cried a lot, when he woke up in the morning and realized he had to live through the same day again. He cried in the shower to pretend he wasn’t. He cried before eating, while cooking, while watching television which was supposed to be distracting, while walking past Sasuke’s door. He dared not touch the shirt when just the thought of it—

You hurt me all the time and I can’t let go.

Sasuke was a good person who had made a lot of bad choices.

I can’t let go—I have to save you.

Naruto didn’t hate Sasuke for running away. There was no resentment. If there had been, it was just a cover. There were no bad feelings at all. Maybe there would have been if Sasuke had done something truly abhorrent, but not running away. Running away didn’t deserve hate. Running away when Naruto knew why didn’t deserve hate.

When Sasuke had walked away into the darkness, Naruto had started to chase. He ran with no other goal in mind than getting Sasuke back. He trained and fought and hid everything for three





Six Months, Two Weeks, Two Days





years and it didn’t matter—even if it hurt more. It didn’t matter even if it was worse when he couldn’t stop liking Sasuke who couldn’t stand the sight of him. Naruto just wanted to be near him even if he couldn’t be next to him. He just wanted to know Sasuke was safe and happy and there.

I believe in you.

Naruto genuinely believed the first time he saw Sasuke after his defection would be the day he brought him back. He didn’t think to doubt it. On that day all his promises and dreams would be fulfilled and the world would once again become natural amidst the chaos. He truly, arrogantly, selfishly believed his will was all that was needed.

It wasn’t. In the end he got nothing. Sasuke was there and nothing was fixed and everything between them was still the same—and Naruto had known. There. There was that special friend who didn’t want come home, who was just as hard to see as not to see. It wasn’t enough. There was that special friend he had looked for all over and then just seeing him wasn’t enough. Seeing him wasn’t enough and just knowing he was okay wasn’t enough and knowing that he was still worth fighting for and that every moment was still worth fighting for wasn’t enough. Sasuke was there and it wasn’t enough in a very different way.

I was wrong.

When Sasuke had stood at Orochimaru’s side and evaporated in a blaze of fire, Naruto realised the depth to which his hope had been ignited. He crumbled when he failed, when he couldn’t save





Six Months, Two Weeks, Three Days





Sasuke as he had thought he would. Head to the dirt, arms around his soul and Naruto had thought it so strange, this feeling. How powerful it must have been to crush him just by seeing. This one person could do that. Sasuke did that to him.

When all Naruto had thought was I want to see you, what was that feeling that brought him to his knees?

It’s not a choice.

They told him to stop. She told him lies to make him stop.

Naruto knew he didn’t need Sasuke to survive. He could breathe on his own, pump blood on his own, use his own hands to eat and wash and move and function. He could survive with the fading memories of Sasuke knowing they’d never completely disappear, that he’d never completely forget him. He could but he didn’t want to.

Naruto didn’t ask for a lot. If he wanted something, no one else was going to give it to him. He had to go after it himself and what he wanted—

I want you.

He didn’t need to see Sasuke again to confirm what he’d known all along. He’d known it when they were a team and he’d known it when he’d seen him at Sound and he’d known it when he finally came back. There were things Naruto wanted that he didn’t need in order to survive and Sasuke was one of them and—it didn’t bother him. That was just how he was. Naruto was just Naruto and maybe it didn’t bother him that he liked Sasuke more than he probably should have. Then Sasuke came back and they were further apart the closer they were.

Now I’m in darkness and you’re not chasing me.

I hate that I—

tell myself I hate.


Naruto knew he would do anything for Sasuke and it was okay if Sasuke didn’t do anything for him. He was okay with that. So it was unreciprocated. Big deal. Naruto knew what he wanted and it wasn’t so bad. If he lived his life and didn’t expect great things, he was okay with that. If he lived his





Six Months, Two Weeks, Four Days





life and expected nothing, he was okay with that. As long as Sasuke was there. When Sasuke had been put on his team and they kissed and screamed and fought and argued and paired up and tolerated and begrudged and didn’t always look at each other with a scowl, with a smile sometimes—

But that’s not enough for you. We’re not the same.

Sasuke had history in ways that Naruto did not and maybe if Naruto had had a brother who massacred his family then maybe he’d want to run away too and obtain strength by any means too and plough his hand through his best friend’s chest too. But Naruto was too different. He had the beast that killed his family inside him and that made him too different.

So tell me what to do. Tell me what you want, whatever you want.

What mattered to Sasuke mattered to Naruto and if Sasuke wanted revenge, if he wanted justice, if he wanted power, pride, retribution. If he wanted help. If killing Itachi was what he wanted then Naruto would have helped. He would have given up his dreams even if it meant dying. Even if it meant Sasuke had to kill him completely.

You didn’t have to run away.

You could have told me.

Even though I’d never have listened. Even though I’d never have understood.


Naruto didn’t understand why Sasuke would want to sleep with him but if Sasuke thought he needed it, Naruto would give it to him. There was nothing else to it. It was





Six Months, Two Weeks, Five Days





that simple. He didn’t have a choice, not when it was Sasuke. But sleeping with him had not made him better. It didn’t work because it wasn’t right, it wasn’t the same. Sasuke used sex to manipulate and Naruto did not.

You try denying you anything when you’re me.

You try fighting this feeling.


It wasn’t making him better. It hadn’t made him better. Naruto should have stopped it long ago. Naruto shouldn’t have started it and found another way. Sasuke was in an older body but he was still young inside. Sasuke hadn’t worked out that maybe just maybe talking about his problems with Naruto might have worked. But in time, he’d learn, because after talking, time always worked. Especially with Sasuke because he’d needed five years of time to work out he was back where he started, in the village he had deserted, with the best friend he still hated.

I’ll follow you.

I’ll do whatever you want me to do.


He saw Sasuke once, while he wasn’t crying. Sasuke thought he was still upset about Sakura leaving, teased him about it, got in his face about it and filled his head with insults that were





Six Months, Two Weeks, Six Days





already there. Naruto wouldn’t beg to be left alone. He couldn’t run away from Sasuke like Sasuke had been able to run away from him. All he could do was cry and be angry and ashamed and secretive about it.

I miss you. I miss us—me, you, Sakura-chan—the way we used to be.

It was the first time he kissed Sasuke on purpose. It was the first time Naruto really knew what he had to do when Sasuke rammed his fist into his face and threatened him with all kinds of rehashed things. It was the end. Sasuke still hated him.

Think logically this time.

Sasuke had killed him at the Valley of the End more than once. Sakura had her faith destroyed. He couldn’t keep his promises. Everyone was sick and as long as he blamed someone else he wouldn’t have to see: that at the heart of it there was always Naruto.

Logical hurt. Logical cut.

I still want to be with you.

Naruto thought he couldn’t let go. He thought he wanted to be with Sasuke even if it meant so much pain and imperfection because the alternative—of being without Sasuke—was more than he thought he could bear. He feared the separation, he feared the loss, and most of all he feared

the failure.

His first true friendship and he couldn’t hold it together.





Six Months, Three Weeks





It’s all my fault.
I couldn’t be anything you needed.

I couldn’t fix it
and this time I really fucked up.

You don’t want me.
I’m not enough and it’s okay
because I know what to do to make you better.

I know what to do.
I’ve known what to do all along.
I was just—
too scared to see.

I don’t have to give up on you,
or give up to you.
I just have to





give up.





Six Months, Three Weeks, Two Days





Sasuke was bored and irritable and frustrated with himself for having stayed awake so long waiting for Naruto to come back. He didn’t wait for anyone. He never waited for Naruto. Naruto was supposed to always be there for him because that was what he did.

Sasuke looked out the window from Naruto’s bedroom. He liked the view better from that side. He could see the front of the apartment, the road, the stalls of the street vendors packed away and waiting until morning to be reopened. The stars looked brighter through his screen. He would have liked the view better if Naruto had been in it, walking his sorry ass home.

Did I break you? Can we fight yet? Is it time for this to end?





Six Months, Three Weeks, Five Days





Sakura realised something wasn’t right as soon as she entered the apartment, when the quietness of the space settled uncomfortably in her stomach. The television wasn’t on, the kitchen was tidy, the lounge room was in order, the carpets were clean and Sai spoke chilling words that confirmed the imbalance.

“Naruto-kun? I don’t know. He’s been gone a while. Was he supposed to meet you here?”

“No, nothing like that—just—” with the guilt of her reprimands stirring eerie circles in her head. “How long has he been gone for?”

“A few days, I guess.”

“A few days, huh.”

“Yup.”

She tried to see through Sai’s unnerving smile, tried to discern whether it was there to empathize with her or to mock her. “Maybe he’ll come back in the next couple of days. He could be camping or something.”

“I guess.”

“Yeah. I guess.” and still unsure what was really going on. “I’ll come back later or something.”

“Okay.”





Seven Months, Three Days





Sai was too quiet. He was too studious. He didn’t make enough noise or commotion or interest. He just sat and painted or read or watched television. Sasuke wasn’t keeping tabs on him but he was bored and Sai was the only other thing in the house that moved.

I don’t know who you are. I don’t know anything about you except that you’re my replacement.

You don’t threaten me. You can’t take them away from me.


Sai didn’t cook for him like Sakura and Naruto had. Sasuke had to make his own meals from whatever he found in the fridge. He knew whose food he was stealing when he took it and there was no one around to yell at him for using chidori. He cooked ramen on the stovetop, salty and nostalgic.

Naruto’s room had nothing of interest to him in it. He had checked. Kunai and simple scrolls were on his desk next to the dirty dishes that still hadn’t been cleaned. Sasuke got fed up with the alarm clock and reset the time. There were pornographic magazines under his bed and more clothes on the ground than in his wardrobe.

What’s—so that’s where it got to. What’s it doing in here?

Sasuke pulled out a shirt he had noticed was missing—probably got mixed up in the wash—unravelled it and from somewhere in the folds a hitai-ate fell to the ground. The metal plate glinted up at him and he stood there, staring at it. In all his life, he had never picked up an object with such wonder and sorrow and regret.





Seven Months, One Week, Two Days





“I guess Naruto-kun really has run away.”

Sakura felt the disjointed breath through her mouth, wished that Sai wasn’t smiling so broadly so she could panic with him. “What do you mean he’s run away? How can he—he can’t just leave.”

“I’m not sure where he’s gone but he did mention to me that he wanted to ‘run away’. I do believe those were his exact words.”

“Oh my god—”

I couldn’t stop Sasuke-kun.

Naruto still wasn’t back after two weeks. Sakura stared at the floor, sitting on Sai’s bed staring, sick and petrified that—that maybe she had been too harsh and she couldn’t quite remember what she had said in her anger and simply not knowing and not remembering was torture in itself. She had said something to Naruto that made him stop believing or—said something that crushed his spirit or—said the thing that made him shatter completely and driven him to desertion.

And I couldn’t stop you.

Sai was smiling like he always smiled. Sakura couldn’t look at it. He didn’t realise the gravity of the situation—Naruto would never—Sai thought Naruto was going to walk through the door at any moment and Sakura knew better. The last time he had left, he hadn’t returned for almost three years while training with Jiraiya. Now he was gone and she didn’t know where to or who with and she had no way to find him and she couldn’t bear it if another of her best friends just—left.

I couldn’t stop Sasuke-kun and I couldn’t stop you.

I’m just this powerless.


“Sai—” stomach tight with fear and heart pounding to a sickening beat. “If you hear anything about Naruto, let me know straight away, okay?”

“Okay.”

I’m just this powerless.

Sakura stood and found her way out the door in a daze. This time was infinitely worse: Naruto had slipped away without saying a word and there was still Sasuke to look after and Sai couldn’t do it alone. She couldn’t do it alone. She needed Naruto and he wasn’t there for her—

But—I was never there for you either.

Is this how you felt, Naruto?


Naruto woke up feeling alone every morning and it was worse when he knew it wasn’t normal. Once upon a time he hadn’t cared: he used to wake up alone every morning and it didn’t bother him because he didn’t know any other way to live. But when he found friends and lived with them and she purposefully broke the emotional proximity—she got it wrong. Over and over. And realized all too late.

I can’t—we’re breaking.

All they had needed was talk. If they had only talked to each other once in a while.

Now it was too little, too late.

And all they had needed was talk. So simple. Without talk—by cutting Naruto off from talk—she had created the silence that broke them apart. Ignorance never worked. Waiting never worked. Pretending never worked. But talking worked. From the very beginning the only thing the four of them had needed to do was sit down together and speak of their expectations, their wants, their fears and dreams and promises and feelings. It would have been rough: for two boys who never said shit about the things inside—especially, stubbornly, painfully in front of each other—they would have fought it and she would have found a way to weaken their prides, to crumble their inhibitions. It would have worked for no other reason than they needed it to work because they needed each other.

It’s because we’re all too young to see what’s truly necessary.

Is there still time?


She couldn’t say she wasn’t angry with him—she was and she still disapproved of his choices and he was human too and he made mistakes. Maybe talking now wasn’t going to fix things but—it was better than the silence and the distance. Separated as they were, nothing could mend. It was her turn to save Naruto who had lost the will to fight.

I’ll think of something, I promise!

Just please, please don’t you leave me too.





Seven Months, Two Weeks





Sai was in the kitchen washing dishes when Naruto walked in through the door. It was a strange sight to see that annoying, smiling boy with anything in his hands but a scroll and a brush. He had pink rubber gloves on.

“Naruto-kun.”

“Yo~”

Sai didn’t register that Naruto wasn’t wearing the casual clothes he’d taken to wearing in the flat, that he had dressed himself in clothes more suitable for walking, hiking. Travelling far away.

“Oh, I was just reading about this the other day. What do they call it? Fate? I wanted to know what I should say to you when you came back. It’s been a long time!”

“Not that long, only a couple of days or… three weeks.” Naruto laughed and then urked. “Been bored? Has Sakura-chan come back?”

“A few times but she didn’t stay. I think she wanted to talk to you.”

“Oh.” Naruto tried to smile around it. “But she hasn’t moved back, huh. That’s a shame, since it means you can’t go out. Want me to ask Tsunade-baachan to get you out of here for a little while?”

Sai was quiet for a moment while he calculated. “Does that mean you won’t be staying?”

“Nah, I won’t. I just came back to grab some stuff and then I’ll be leaving again. I met these people who are heading west. No idea where in the west but I was going to go with them for a little while, maybe go see his Lordship the Kazekage.” Laughing again. It all sounded the same to Sai; he couldn’t tell that it had once been forced and now it was real. “I’ll make sure say goodbye this time when I leave.”

The hallway was dark. All except Sai’s door was closed and Naruto quickly walked the distance to his room, stuffy inside like it hadn’t been opened or aired out in a while. There were a lot of memories trapped in the small space, of fights and arguments and a whole lot of things that should not have been. He tried to organize a backpack as quickly as he could locate the items he needed. Now he knew why he never liked owning so much stuff; it all turned to clutter and it all took far too long.

“Naruto-kun,” and looking up at Sai in the doorway, “Sakura-chan is here to see you.”

That shocked him as much as it terrified him. Her words were still clear in his mind. Not enough time had past for him to forget the guilt and he didn’t want to see her, he hadn’t thought of what to say to her. The whole atmosphere of the apartment was strangling him faster than he had expected, the bad feelings—

“Hey Naruto!”

Whoa.

“Oh, Sakura-chan, hey…”

She giggled and Naruto felt off-balance. She was supposed to be angry with him—“What’s that face for?”

“You’re not wearing very much.” Tactless, but he was male and she was frolicking around in a sarong and a bikini. “What’s going on?”

“I just wondered… I thought you might like to come with me to one of the valleys near the village. I haven’t been there in ages!”

“Yeah, me neither…”

This is so weird.

Travelling with randoms or seeing Sakura-chan in few enough clothes that I can picture her naked…


“Okay. Just let me put on some swimmers.”

Naruto closed the door and held the knob. Something had just happened and he didn’t know what to do. Sakura had smiled and giggled and she wasn’t angry and as much as Naruto wanted to, he couldn’t mistake it for forgiveness. This time he didn’t want to pretend nothing had happened—but Sakura had been so happy

He knew he could either stand there in wonder or tag along with her. Maybe it was Sakura’s way of cleverly breaking the ice. Maybe she didn’t like the apartment either and maybe he couldn’t say no to her when she smiled like that.


--


Naruto couldn’t think of words to say. He was nervous watching Sakura as she walked a few paces ahead of him, staring at the sky and all the colourful, living scenery around them. She seemed okay. Not spiteful or begrudged. It was a nice day and warm enough for swimming. Maybe it was lucky Sakura had caught him when she did.

“Hey Naruto,” she turned and Naruto smiled at her smile. “I just want you to know, I’m still angry. But I’ve been thinking a lot since I’ve been away, about you and Sasuke-kun and me. I kind of just want to have some fun first and then have a better talk. Is that okay? Sorry if I’m being confusing. I just… didn’t know how to say it, and with Sai there…”

Sakura-chan, you know me too well.

Thank you.


Naruto understood. He finally felt free to grin the way his heart exploded.


--


“Wow! It’s bigger than I remember it.”

“That’s what she said.” Naruto bore her pouty face and the slap to his shoulder. Sakura was so free and happy and beautiful at that moment and it was too easy to forget there had ever been any heartache between them. He missed her. He could feel that he missed her.

She sat on a rock and dipped her toes in, marvelling at the cool water. Naruto watched her from the corner of his eye when she took off the sarong and it was like watching a step-sister undress: too familiar to get away with gawking but not related by blood.

God I feel dirty. Time to get laid.

Wait—


“Hey Naruto, did you want to play around in the water first?”

I’m sure you wouldn’t sound this suggestive if you had more clothes on.

Naruto averted his eyes before she finished turning towards him, removing his shirt to give the deeper part of his embarrassment time to wear off. She looked at him curiously all the way up until he threw her into the water. Then bomb-dived right beside her as she surfaced.

“Naruto! You’re so immature! Aren’t you ever going to grow up?”

“If you want to play around first, make it worthwhile!” he laughed and pushed a wave of water at her.

I missed this.

Even if the world still wasn’t right, even if Sakura had only been away for a few weeks and Naruto fewer still, he felt good. If he blocked it out, didn’t think too hard about the past months, if he went back further and further and further until they were a young Team 7 in one of a handful of instances when they’d had time off, when they weren’t fighting, when they could be children instead of warriors, maybe it had been something peaceful like this.

Sakura was still his best friend.

You’re stronger than me.

She wasn’t saying that he was wrong, that she was right. There was nothing to gain if he were, if she were. She was with him because she knew when a friendship was real enough, worth enough that she had to put aside her anger and confront the problems. Naruto had run from them. For that, she was stronger.

Thanks for making us a team, Iruka-sensei.

Sakura wanted to explore. Naruto followed her and the light she emitted.

Perhaps it was due to a childhood of few rules, of nonexistence curfews, of being free to run and jump and prank when he felt like it. Naruto knew a lot of things. He showed her, like Sai, how to skim rocks. He laughed at her when the rocks sunk into the water with a plop, taught her his special technique for choosing the best, flattest stones and the way he held them to throw. When she got the hang of it, which took far less time and effort and huffing than it had with Sai, they made a competition out of it: who could skim it the most times. Sometimes Naruto won, sometimes he pretended to let her win when she started getting too good.

Two-thirds of us are here.

Next time—even if I have to wait until I’m Hokage—


She wanted to climb to the top of a rocky hill. Naruto had a pleasant view of her backside all the way up and he was sure she couldn’t have been oblivious. She reached the top and spread her arms out as far as she could and smiled as wide and bright as the sun. Naruto watched her. Like she were the stars and the hopes and the dreams. She glowed, from the inside.

“Next time, let’s bring Sasuke.”

She turned and looked at him, withdrawing her arms.

“I don’t mean like—I don’t know what I don’t mean but just…”

She giggled and tried to hide it behind a hand, coy and cute. “It’s okay. You can say it. I don’t mind.”

“I want both of my best friends here,” staring at the water below and feeling sheepish, “so that we can all be happy again. We haven’t even been out here long enough to get sunburnt and I already know—this is a place to come back to. With all of us together.”

Sakura understood but she didn’t smile like Naruto did. They didn’t know when Sasuke would be allowed outside, if there would ever be such a time. If he wasn’t in the apartment, he would be in jail. Or dead. They could dream and Naruto dreamt the grandest of all.

“Hey look! Those clouds look like Rock Lee!”

Naruto looked up. Some of the clouds were overlapping each other. Two such clouds next to each other reminded him off his fuzzy eyebrows and he laughed. Sakura wasn’t so pure and sweet after all.

They climbed back down and walked all around, thoughts to themselves or pointing out places that reminded them of the olden days with Kakashi as Team 7. It was at once enjoyable and heartbreaking; those times were stuck in the past. While every other team from the Rookie 9 had held together through the years, theirs was the only one to break apart. They couldn’t reminisce about their genin years freely with anyone but themselves. Everyone else was too afraid, considered Sasuke a topic of taboo. Like they thought if they mentioned him, either or both of them would break down and realize their failures when in reality talking about him kept him alive.

When Sakura sat down on a warm rock and gazed at the glistening mirror of water in contemplative silence, Naruto knew he should start.

“I’ve been thinking since we’ve been walking. You and Sasuke are my best friends so ask me anything and I’ll tell you. One of my biggest fears is that I’ll lose you too. I can’t lose you.”

She sighed softly and in a voice just as quiet, “I shouldn’t have left you. I promise I’ll stay this time.”

Naruto smiled sadly, looking down. “That’s… not what I mean. What I’m saying is, if you leave, I can’t go after you.” and didn’t look at her to see how the admission had hurt. “In fact, I didn’t go after you, after you left. I know you want to know why I started sleeping with Sasuke and I want to try to tell you why so you don’t walk away not knowing this time but—”

Sakura looked up. Naruto was wiping his face with the back of his hand—“Naruto, what’s wrong?”

He made a little laugh when she passed him her sarong to dry his eyes. He looked like he was controlling it for a moment, and then some painful thought must have taken over his consciousness to have made the tears fall so far.

“It’s okay. I was pretty sure this was going to happen,” noticing the dark blots on the rock. “How unmanly this is.”

“Is it that bad? Does Sasuke-kun hurt you?”

Sakura knew just the right questions to spear his heart. He looked towards the sky but even that was a wasted venture; teeth held together and more tears washing down his face, down his neck.

“I hurt myself.”

Naruto tried to explain. He said he would. He said he wanted her to have answers and he’d been fighting for a chance for weeks, months to be alone with her to tell her exactly that. He was going to get it out and if this would be the only chance, he’d fight through anything.

“Of all people, why did it have to be him? I just don’t get it sometimes. Him, that stupid, stupid—I wish I knew what it was or when it started or what he did. I can’t go after you, Sakura-chan, because he’s in the way.”

“You sound like—do you hate Sasuke-kun?”

“Hate? Fuck, I wish—”

“Then…”

“I should hate him. I really should. He hates me.”

“You don’t know that.”

Naruto scoffed. “Nah, it’s okay, Sakura-chan. I’m pretty sure he does. I mean, why would anyone kill another person more than once if they didn’t hate them? And yet I’m still here, still living with that loser, still hurting myself. But I was always an idiot, right? I did say I’d rather live as a fool…”

When she didn’t speak, he glanced at her and the sadness was unmistakeable. Naruto choked up again, felt his throat close in. He was still doing more harm than good. He was saying too much and there was nothing she could do to heal the hurt, selfishly telling her of fears she was unable to cure.

“I’m sorry, Sakura-chan. I’m sorry for everything.”

Sakura breathed.

“Don’t be sorry.”

She had something important to say. She’d already decided she had to say it to him. That was why she had insisted that they enjoyed their time together first because Naruto didn’t know if either of them would be able to afterwards.

“While I was back at my parent’s place, I had a lot of time to think. You know, I’ve always watched you and Sasuke-kun from a distance. There are things I can see that you can’t. Maybe you’re blinded by the rivalry, I don’t know…”

Her explanation was simple in theory. Like so many others, they were too different, too alike, and their lives too bound to each other.

Sasuke grew up differently. Where Naruto was free, Sasuke was trapped by his clan. Sasuke wouldn’t have known it; what a child grows up with is what they consider normal. To Sasuke, it had been normal to seek the recognition of his brother and his father. It had been normal for the elders to expect great things of the children when they grew up. There were expectations and pressures and that was normal. That was aristocracy. That was lineage. That was privilege and heritage and social class. All of that was Sasuke’s birthright. That was the world one born into the Uchiha clan lived and breathed and it was normal and Sasuke had everything Naruto never did.

Naruto never had a family. Sakura conceded and included Iruka, but Iruka didn’t go home with Naruto every night. Naruto never knew Iruka was only a few rooms down the hall if he ever a scary dream. Iruka wasn’t in the kitchen where the bandaids were kept when Naruto grazed his knee. Naruto might have run crying to Iruka when the villagers said mean things but he never ran to Iruka with a report card to boast about. And most of all, Naruto never had a brother to admire, to aspire to, to look up to, to adore, to envy, to love.

Sasuke loved his brother. Naruto already knew this.

Naruto knew this but he couldn’t understand it. It was just knowledge in his head, just a fact, like one and one was two, Sasuke and Itachi was love. There was no thought, no meaning beyond it and Sakura shook her head. Maybe this was something Naruto wouldn’t ever be able to understand.

Sasuke’s childhood was full of bliss. It was effortless. He woke up to it every morning. He knew no other way to

Part 2