sne_mod: (Default)
sne_mod ([personal profile] sne_mod) wrote in [community profile] sn_exchange2010-08-22 03:52 pm

(no subject)

For: [profile] uchihakagura1
Title: Homecoming
Rating: PG-13
Summary: Naruto has finally brought Sasuke home, but there is a rift, and to fix it, he must leave Konoha to find himself.
Warnings: None I can think of.
A/N: Ugh. It’s done. I have to an extend a heartfelt thank you to the mods for putting up with me and my need for so many darn extensions. I took this on at a bad time, and I am not as satisfied with it as I wanted to be. I hope that my recipient enjoys it, I did my best with writer’s block working against me, among other real life things. Thanks again to the mods, and to all who read and review!
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.




Homecoming


He didn’t want to be back.

Naruto could tell by the way Sasuke glared at everyone and everything in his hospital room that if he could, he would take every one of them out and then run far away where no one could find him. Except, Naruto would always find him, because that was what he did. Sasuke could never stay hidden from Naruto, no matter how hard he tried. But it was clear that the black haired shinobi would like very much to leave. Or at the very least be left alone. Naruto privately agreed. There were ANBU guards outside the door and window, Kakashi had spent all of his time sitting in a chair across from Sasuke with his nose in a book, and Sakura was in and out constantly.

Naruto didn’t leave, either, but he was the one exception to Sasuke’s annoyance. He’d always annoyed his teammate, even before Sasuke had become a missing nin, but that didn’t mean he wanted Naruto gone. He just pretended because he was a bastard.

“Naruto,” Sakura mumbled as she opened the door, carrying a basin that smelled of medicinal herbs and some cloth in her hands. “Why are you still here? I thought I told you to go home.”

Naruto blinked, then laughed. “Sakura-chan, why would I leave?”

Sakura huffed. “Whatever.”

Naruto folded his arms over his chest. He didn’t understand why Sakura wanted him out of the way so badly—not that he was actually in the way. He was just sitting minding his own business. He had hardly even said five words to Sasuke, and he hadn’t bothered Sakura about what needed to be done to heal Sasuke’s injuries. He knew all too well that Sasuke was in a bad way. His eyes weren’t as bad as they should have been, and Naruto wondered why, but didn’t ask. However, the rest of Sasuke had taken one hell of a beating. Naruto would have liked to rub it in the bastards face, but thought better of it. Sasuke had left because he’d wanted to get stronger, and if Naruto pointed out that he’d gotten his ass kicked, then Sasuke would probably bolt the second he could use his legs again.

“Naruto,” Sakura said, “aren’t you hungry?”

“Nah, Fuzzy Brows brought me some food a couple hours ago. I’m good to go!”

Sakura shook her head. “Well, maybe you should stretch your legs.”

“Sakura-chaaaan,” he whined. “I’m fine.”

“Kakashi-sensei,” Sakura said, turning to the Jounin. “Naruto isn’t allowed to stay here all day and night. Sasuke-kun is—”

“It’s fine, Sakura. I’m sure the Hokage would rather he stay put.” Kakashi’s eye crinkled over the top of his book. “Naruto would just pester her if he weren’t allowed to stay.”

“Damn right!” Naruto agreed with a grin. “Come on, Sakura-chan, don’t you want me here?”

Sakura sighed. “Of course I do, Naruto. I just don’t want you getting in trouble.”

Naruto grinned at her, because that was what she expected him to do, but he thought she was lying. “Ne, Sakura-chan, when Sasuke gets better, let’s all go get ramen.”

Sakura glanced at Sasuke, who was glaring at Naruto. “I don’t know, Naruto. It will be a while before Sasuke-kun can leave, and when he does—”

“We’ll all go get ramen!” Naruto would not be swayed. He knew that Sasuke would be punished, but he didn’t want to think about that. He didn’t want to think about the future beyond Sasuke getting better, because the bastard was home, and that was all that mattered.

Sakura sighed. “Sure, Naruto.”

He grinned his goofy grin, turning to look at Sasuke. The Uchiha glared in return. Naruto thought if he could move his arms, he’d have them crossed in front of his chest. “It’ll be like old times,” Naruto said, softly, and a silence fell in the room. Sasuke dropped his glare, turning it on the unsuspecting floor. Naruto wasn’t stupid, he wasn’t naïve. He knew that nothing could ever be like the old times ever again. There was too much hurt between them all now, but Naruto liked to look on the bright side. He’d been through hell, he’d thought he would die trying to bring Sasuke home, he’d been prepared to give up being Hokage and end all the hate with his and Sasuke’s deaths. But they weren’t dead, and Sasuke was home. Whatever happened now, all Naruto could think was that, even if Sasuke never spoke to him again, and even if Sakura was sad because she still loved Sasuke, at least he’d brought Sasuke home and given them all a chance.

At least they had that chance, no matter what they did with it.

***
After a week of sitting around in the hospital, Naruto was dragged out by a very insistent Rock Lee, who had been the only one of their group willing to visit Naruto and Sakura while Sasuke was around. Naruto knew Sakura had used her girl-wiles on the green-clad ninja to get him to drag Naruto outside, but he didn’t mind because he knew she was only doing it because she cared. But that didn’t mean he wanted to leave.

He put up a fight, but let Lee win because, if nothing else, he could do with a bit of fresh air and maybe a sparring match or two. And with Lee’s stamina, Naruto had no doubt that they would be good matches. However, his mind was too scattered and he didn’t pose nearly as much of a challenge as he should have. Lee didn’t seem to mind; in fact, he seemed to understand that Naruto, as much as he needed the physical exertion, needed to be at Sasuke’s side more.

“He will still be there, Naruto-kun!” Lee offered with all the exuberance of Youth. It was comforting to know that no matter how bad things seemed Lee was still Lee.

“Of course he will be! I kicked his ass into the ground, Fuzzy Brows. He’s not moving any time soon.” But even as he said it, he felt the butterflies in his stomach. What if Sasuke had only been pretending? He could certainly take out all the ANBU guards stationed around his room without a problem, and then he’d be gone, and this time, there was no power on earth that could give him another chance. Tsunade had done all she could to convince the other villages to let them deal with Sasuke, but it was a one time deal. Sasuke couldn’t abandon his village again without facing death.

So, Naruto’s excursion with Lee was short lived. Sakura gave him a stern look when he got back, but otherwise ignored him. Sasuke just glared at him, in much the same position he’d been in when Naruto had left two hours previous. “Ne, Sakura-chan,” Naruto whispered, because his curiosity could no longer wait for answers, “how long will Sasuke be like this?”

Sakura glanced back at the Uchiha, who was doing his best to glare the window into submission. “I don’t know, Naruto. That fight… he’s lucky to be alive. You both are. But I don’t even know if he wants to get better. He’s so angry.”

”That bastard. I’ll make him get better, you just watch.”

“Naruto,” Sakura said, an edge of worry to her voice. “Please, don’t. You’ve done enough.”

“He’s my best friend, Sakura-chan. I’ll do whatever it takes.”

“I know, you will.” Sakura turned away from him, her words soft. “That’s what worries me.”

Naruto watched her hurry from the room, biting her lip and, if he wasn’t mistaken, tears in her eyes. He sighed, falling into a chair between Sasuke’s bed and the window he was so intent on shattering with his gaze. “I think you’ve scared the window plenty, Sasuke.”

“Hmph.”

Naruto grinned. It was the first sound Sasuke had made since Naruto had beaten him nearly to death and dragged him home. It was definitely a good sign. “Hey, Sasuke, when you get better, do you think we can spar?”

Sasuke glared.

Naruto grinned.

They kept that up for a few hours. Naruto would ask a silly question, Sasuke would glare in response, and Naruto would grin right back. But eventually, he fell into one of his thoughtful moods, where he couldn’t pretend that once Sasuke was better everything would be okay. Kakashi didn’t say anything to pull him from his thoughts, and Naruto was rather grateful because he needed those moments to figure out how best to handle whatever was going to happen. He didn’t want to live in a world without Sasuke, he already knew that, but he also didn’t want to live in a world where Sasuke was only angry and miserable.

Kakashi rose from his chair as Naruto looked up, intent on asking the Uchiha a question that he would rather not ask with someone else present. “I’ll be outside,” the white haired man said, pointing to the door.

Naruto nodded, watching him leave. Sasuke had been feigning sleep for the last twenty minutes, waiting on Naruto to come out of his mood, but he opened his eyes as their team leader left the room. “Hmph.”

Naruto snickered, then fell silent and serious. Sasuke glared at him, but it was less intense than before. “Sasuke, what do you think will happen when you’re better?”

Sasuke was silent. Naruto had been prepared for that because so far, he’d only managed two syllables, and both had been his usual noncommittal sound. He’d also expected a glare, and when that didn’t come, Naruto leaned forward, curious by the thoughtful expression on Sasuke’s face. It smoothed out the lines around his eyes and made him look so much nicer. He was still the usual bastard, but it was like the old Sasuke, the one who had struggled with Naruto to walk up a tree and rushed in front of Naruto to save his life. It wasn’t the angry young man dead set on destroying everything in his path.

“I don’t know,” Sasuke croaked, and then glared.

Naruto sat back, surprised that Sasuke had spoken at all. He wanted to ask another question, but he thought the answer would be the same.

“What?” Sasuke snapped when Naruto’s serious gaze didn’t leave his person.

“What about you? What do you want do to?” Sasuke’s life had been driven by one thing before now, and that had been revenge. He’d had to rework his revenge plans, but essentially, it had always been revenge for Sasuke, and Naruto wondered what he would do now that he no longer had to be an avenger.

Sasuke glared. “I don’t know.”

Naruto nodded. “I didn’t think you did.”

“Then why’d you ask?” Sasuke snapped.

Naruto shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“Hmph.”

“It’s not going to be the same.”

“Then why do you keep pretending it will be?”

“Because I don’t know what will happen,” Naruto admitted. “I’m just glad you’re back.”

Sasuke’s nostrils flared. “It’s nice one of us is.”

Naruto’s smile faltered. “I’m sorry.”

“If you’re so damn sorry then why don’t you let me go?”

Naruto stood up abruptly, glaring down at Sasuke, his hands balled into white-knuckled fists. “You’re my best friend! What was I supposed to do? Let you die? Let you destroy everything about who you used to be? Let you ruin Konoha and kill your friends?”

“You should have let me be,” the dark haired teen said, his voice harsh yet resigned. “It would have been better.”

“You would have died.”

“At least I’d have accomplished what I set out to do!”

“What about me? What about Sakura-chan? Or Kakashi-sensei?”

“What about you?”

Naruto felt as though he’d just been slapped in the face. “Don’t you care about us?”

Sasuke was silent, staring down at his body as though it held all the answers to life’s mysteries. “I couldn’t...”

“What?”

“Why did you have to be a part of my life?” Sasuke groaned, closing his eyes and letting his head fall back. “Just… go. Get out of my life. I’m back, I can’t go anywhere, you got what you wanted.”

Naruto stared at Sasuke, the hurt and confusion rooting him to the spot. “This isn’t what I want.”

“Then why did you bring me back!?!”

“Because I wanted you home! But you’re not home! You’re just—you’re just here! Just lying there like this is the worst punishment in the world! Like you don’t care about any of us! I want Sasuke back!”

“I am Sasuke.”

“No. You’re nothing.” Naruto had never been so hurt. In all the years of searching for Sasuke, all the fights and failed attempts at bringing him home, nothing hurt quite like having Sasuke there, but not having him there. Naruto’s eyes burned, and he wiped at them furiously. When his vision had cleared, Sasuke was looking at him with empty, black eyes, and Naruto just couldn’t take it. He swung wildly, because that was easier than words. Somehow, it wasn’t the strong, manly punch to the face he’d intended. The sound resonated in the room, and Sasuke’s eyes were wide, his cheek red where Naruto’s palm had connected with his face. The blond stared for a moment, then bolted from the room.

“Naruto,” Kakashi said as the blond rushed past him. Naruto didn’t turn around. He just kept running until he was too tired to go on, and his chest ached and his face was wet. He fell to the ground, staring up at the sky more confused than when Sasuke had left, and passed out.

***
A week after Naruto’s outburst, he returned to the hospital to find Sasuke’s room empty. The panic that gripped his heart nearly made him pass out, but he managed to keep a level head long enough to realise that if Sasuke had run away again, Tsunade would have told him. On top of that, there were no unconscious bodies around to indicate that there had been a struggle. If Sasuke had tried to escape, he would have had to fight to do so.

Naruto wandered the hospital in the hopes that he would find someone who could help him. Sakura would be there, as well as Kakashi, but if they were anywhere, they would be with Sasuke. He passed a medic-nin on his hunt for Sasuke, and stopped to ask her if she knew anything, but she just shook her head. Sasuke was technically a high level prisoner, and most of the staff weren’t allowed to tend to him because of the danger he posed. Naruto snorted, scratching the back of his neck.

“Sakura-chaaaan,” Naruto whined, in the hopes that saying her name would make her materialize.

“What, Naruto?”

Naruto grinned, spinning around. “Sakura-chan! There you are! I’ve been looking all over—where’s Sasuke? I went to his room—”

“We moved him to a different room. He started physical therapy yesterday, and it’s easier to keep an eye on him if he’s close to the facility where he’s training.”

“Great! Where is that?”

Sakura paused. “Naruto… I’m sorry, but you can’t see him.”

“What? But—why? I’m his best friend!”

“He doesn’t want to see you.”

“That—but that’s just Sasuke. He’s just saying that!”

Sakura shook her head. “I’m sorry, Naruto, but he specifically said he didn’t want to see you. He spoke with Tsunade-sama yesterday before he started physical therapy. He promised that he wouldn’t cause any more problems for our village, that he would do whatever was asked, accept his punishment, everything on one condition.”

Naruto didn’t want to hear this. He hadn’t worked this hard and long to be the only one not allowed to see Sasuke; he hadn’t nearly died bringing the bastard back just to be shut out of his life. “No, Sakura-chan, you’re wrong.”

“I wish I were, Naruto. But Tsunade-sama agreed to the terms. You’re not allowed to see him, Naruto.”

“No! That’s—that’s not right! It can’t be!” His chest was suddenly tight and his head was spinning. How could this be happening? This had to be a dream! Sasuke wouldn’t do this—he wouldn’t! “I’m his b-best friend, Sakura-chan. He can’t—”

“Naruto,” Sakura said, her voice suddenly far away. “Naruto! Breathe, please, just calm down. It’s okay.” He felt her hand on his back, warm and comforting, but not enough. He needed to see Sasuke, he needed to see that bastard and beat him senseless again, because obviously the last time hadn’t been enough. “Naruto! Wait!”

He ran blindly forward, stumbling as did. He had no idea where he was going, just that Sakura had come from this direction, so maybe Sasuke was this way too. Maybe if he asked someone where the physical therapy room was he would find his best friend. He didn’t stop to ask anyone though, he just ran, looking for Sasuke. He thought he heard people behind him, calling his name, but he ignored them. He wouldn’t let the bastard shut him out of his life like this, he wouldn’t let Sasuke sulk around Konoha feeling sorry for himself and angry at Naruto, he wouldn’t just abandon him.

“Naruto-kun!” Lee was suddenly next to Naruto, running through the hospital, easily able to keep up with the blond shinobi. “Please calm down, you are causing a scene!”

Naruto ignored him and continued running. He passed a door, Lee still right next to him, and saw a familiar head of black hair. “Sasuke, you bastard,” he choked, turning sharply and running through the open door.

“Teme!”

Sasuke’s reflexes were slower than usual, his head turning slowly around, his eyes narrowing as he spotted Naruto. The blond came to a sudden halt, the footsteps following him stumbling to a stop as well. “You bastard! Why—?”

“I thought I specifically requested that you be banned from visiting me,” Sasuke muttered, turning his back on Naruto. He was standing, although he looked shaky on his feet, and was using crutches for support. Kakashi was sitting a few feet away while Shizune watched on warily, her eyes flickering from the two.

“How could you do this?” Naruto asked. He’d meant to shout, but it came out a pathetic whisper.

Sasuke huffed. “You’re ruining my concentration.”

“I don’t care!”

“Naruto-kun,” Lee tried.

“No! I want answers!”

“Go away.”

“Sasuke-kun, you knew this would happen,” Kakashi offered unhelpfully, still looking at his book, though his eye didn’t move.

“Hmph.” Sasuke didn’t seem to care. He tried to take a step forward, but his muscles seemed strained and weak. “Fuck. Go away, Naruto.”

“Why are you doing this?”

Sasuke didn’t reply. A strong hand on Naruto’s shoulder made him jump. “Naruto-kun, let us go.”

Naruto shrugged Lee’s hand away, backing away from the green-glad youth. “Do you hate me that much?”

“Yes.”

“Oh,” was all he could say. He turned and bolted from the hospital, jumping onto rooftops to avoid the pedestrians in his way, to avoid being bombarded by the admiring public, to avoid the world at large. How was he supposed to exist in this world without Sasuke?

***
It took a month for Sasuke to heal enough to be let out of hospital, and even then he wasn’t at his best. He still stumbled around and needed an aid to help him, and he couldn’t walk long distances yet. It didn’t matter that much. As part of his punishment, he was not allowed to leave Konoha, and was under constant watch by ANBU. His life as a shinobi was essentially over. Tsunade had done her best for Naruto to ensure Sasuke’s well-being, but even she couldn’t do more than that. Once Sasuke was fully healed, he would be forced into making amends through manual labor, and he would still be confined to the village. If anything, he would receive the lowest level missions a genin possibly could, such as chasing after lost cats.

Naruto watched from his apartment window as Sakura helped Sasuke carry groceries to his new place which was as far from Naruto’s as it could be while still being within the village limits. Sakura had tried to visit Naruto, as had Kakashi, but he had refused to let anyone in. He’d also refused missions, and Tsunade was fast becoming annoyed with him. She’d even paid him a visit, shouting at him from the other side of the door about responsibility. None of that mattered though. Naruto was sick of it. He’d spent so much time on Sasuke, his entire existence had become about Sasuke, and now that he was forced to exist without the Uchiha, he felt lost. He couldn’t stay holed up in his apartment forever, but he could certainly try. Eventually, he’d have to leave, but he wasn’t ready for that yet.

There was a knock on his door, but Naruto ignored it. “Naruto-kun!”

Naruto snorted. Lee had also taken to coming around, and Naruto was wondering when Lee would just break down his door and drag him outside. He never bothered answering, not that that deterred anyone, least of all Lee, but he felt vindicated whenever he didn’t respond. He went to his bedroom and collapsed on his bed, rolling over to look at the picture still on his bedside table of Team Seven.

He reached out, picking it up. There were fingerprints all over the glass from the countless times Naruto had touched it, asking silent questions to the Sasuke from before.

“Sasuke…”

“Naruto-kun!” There was one more loud knock and then the door to his apartment crashed open. “Oops. Gomenasai. Naruto-kun!”

Naruto sighed. “Time’s up.”

Lee made his way to Naruto’s room through the mess that Naruto hadn’t bothered cleaning up. He stood in the doorway, looking down at the blond. Naruto stared blankly back up at Lee. The look on Lee’s face made Naruto cringe; he knew he looked awful. He’d seen his reflection in his mirror a few times, so he knew the toll all this self-pity and wallowing had taken on him. “Naruto-kun, you look awful.”

Naruto shrugged and rolled over. “Go ‘way,” he croaked.

“No.” Lee practically vibrated with righteous indignation. Naruto had known he wouldn’t just leave, not when one of his friends was causing himself such anguish. “You need to get out of this house! Did you know there is milk out? It smells awful! You are going to make yourself sick.”

“I don’t care.”

“Naruto-kun, let us go for ramen!”

“No.”

Lee huffed. Naruto heard him shuffle away, and sat up, too surprised that Lee had given up to realise he was letting his guard down. He heard the shower running a minute later and groaned, flopping back on his bed, the picture clutched against his chest. Lee returned a minute later, looking serious and determined. “If you will not get out of bed yourself, I will do it for you!”

“I’ll fight you!”

“You have spent a month in here, Naruto-kun. I trust you are a strong and capable shinobi, but you have not exercised in sometime. I will not lose to you today.”

Naruto glared. He knew Lee was right. He could feel how weak his muscles were, how hungry he was, how tired. But it all seemed so pointless. “I don’t care. I won’t let you win.”

Lee dove for Naruto over the pile of clothes and things that littered his bedroom floor, surprising Naruto as he dragged him out of bed and threw him over his shoulder. “OI! Fuzzy-Brows! PUT ME DOWN!”

“No!” Lee shouted over Naruto, heading to the bathroom. The tub was half full, soap suds filling it up the remainder of the way, and Naruto cringed as he was thrown into it. Water sloshed over the brim, splashing Lee and flooding his floor slightly. “I am sorry to make such a mess, Naruto-kun. I promise to clean it up, but you need to take better care of yourself. Sakura-san has been very worried about you.”

Naruto crossed his arms and refused to say anything.

“Please excuse me for being so forceful,” Lee said with a deep bow, then proceeded to assault Naruto with a bar of soap and a loofah. Naruto tried to pull away, but Lee was incredibly strong and determined. The blond cursed himself for being so lazy this past month, and despite his lackluster strength, still put up a brilliant fight that ended in a very wet Lee, and a red-faced and very clean Naruto.

Once Naruto was dressed in freshly laundered and very dry clothes, Lee dragged him with all the strength he could muster to Ichiraku. Naruto wanted to refuse to eat, but it had been several days since the last time he’d had anything more substantial than a bowl of cereal and the smell of ramen made his stomach growl. Of course, he could only eat one bowl compared with his usual ten, his stomach cramping after he’d wolfed it down. The owner was so pleased to see Naruto again that he promised when Naruto was feeling better he would give him one bowl of ramen on the house. The rest of the village seemed just as pleased to see him out and about again, but Naruto’s mood took a downward spiral when he saw Sakura returning from running errands for Sasuke.

“Naruto,” she said, the wariness with which she approached him making him want to scream. “I’m glad to see you out again.”

Naruto nodded.

“Naruto-kun and I just ate ramen,” Lee offered. “We are going to go train right now.”

“That’s great. Tsunade-sama will be relieved to see you acting like your usual self.”

“Whatever,” Naruto muttered, brushing past Sakura and making his way towards the training grounds, leaving Lee to apologize profusely to Sakura.

“Narutok-kun!” he said once he’d caught up. “That was not very nice. Sakura-san has been very worried—”

“I don’t care.” Naruto shook his head. “I don’t care.”

Lee gave Naruto a searching look, but didn’t press the matter.

Their training session didn’t last very long, Naruto’s stamina having taken a severe dive thanks to his long hiatus from training. Lee, with all his usual exuberance, declared that from now on he would train with Naruto for five hours a day until his strength returned. Naruto didn’t doubt that Lee would keep his promise, and groaned.

“Can I go home now?”

“Naruto-kun, after a long bout of training it is important to replenish your energy! We have to eat again!”

“I’m not hungry,” he whined, crossing his arms over his chest as his stomach growled. He glared at nothing in particular.

“I promise, after we eat, I will let you return to your residence.”

“Fine,” he groused, “but if you don’t I’m not training with you tomorrow.”

Lee pumped his fist in the air before striking the Nice Guy Pose. “I will honor my promise, Naruto-kun! Let us go!”

Lee was, as usual, true to his word, and Naruto was able to collapse on his bed back at home. Unfortunately, Lee stuck around to clean up the mess he’d made earlier in the bathroom and pushed Naruto into tidying up the rest of the house before he left Naruto to his own devices which included moping, feeling sorry for himself, and being a general lump. The next morning, his muscles ached and his stomach was practically crawling out of his throat to get more food. Lee arrived on schedule to drag Naruto out for what became a daily routine.

It was the only thing that kept Naruto going for the next two weeks.

***
The thing that finally broke Naruto was seeing Sasuke again, up close and personal.

Naruto had been out with Lee, as usual, when he ran into Sasuke, limping around with a bag of groceries and Sakura right behind him. It took a moment for the reality of the situation to catch up with Naruto, and it felt as though his entire world had crumbled around him in that moment.

Sasuke watched him carefully, his eyes slightly narrowed. Sakura glanced nervously between the two, moving forward to grab Sasuke’s arm. He shook her off, but didn’t take his eyes off of Naruto.

“Sasuke-kun, let’s hurry and get this back to your place,” she tried.

“Hmph.”

“Sa-Sasuke,” Naruto finally managed to choke out.

“Etto, Naruto-kun, maybe we should go. We do not want the training grounds to be full of other shinobi before we get there!”

“Sa-Sasuke…” Naruto took a step forward, and the dark haired youth took a step back. It made Naruto flinch back. “I—”

“Let’s go, Sakura.”

Sakura practically stumbled over herself to help Sasuke move quickly away from Naruto. She threw an anxious look back at Naruto, but he was too lost in himself to notice the worry in her eyes. He hadn’t been his usual happy self lately, but he’d been doing better, and he had been so sure that the next time he saw Sasuke, everything would be fine. Sasuke’s ego had just been injured, and once Sasuke had healed he was sure to forgive Naruto, and then they could be friends again. But that hadn’t happened. Sasuke had barely acknowledged him, hadn’t even spoken to him. He’d just stared with blank eyes, trying his hardest not to glare at Naruto because glaring would acknowledge that Naruto meant something to him.

His throat was tight, and Lee was trying to drag him to the training grounds, but Naruto’s strength had returned, and he dug his feet into the ground. Lee was still one of the strongest ninjas in the village, but he knew that now was not the time to challenge Naruto. Lee was a very naïve person sometimes, but he was a very good friend, and he knew when his friends needed to be left alone. “Naruto-kun…”

“I n-need to go.”

“Do you want company?”

“N-no, I just—I need to be alone.”

Lee watched as Naruto took off, his large eyes sad and worried. There was nothing anyone could do for Naruto, no matter how hard they tried. The only person who could heal this hurt was unwilling because of his own ego. Lee’s fists clenched as Naruto disappeared around the corner.

Naruto took to the rooftops and made it back to his apartment quickly. His door had been fixed, thankfully, but it still hung awkwardly on its hinges, and he had to use extra force to get it open or closed now. When he barreled into, forgetting to bother with his key, he took it clean off its hinges again, before he thought twice about it. His house had remained surprisingly clean thanks to Lee’s constant visits, but now that he was home, Naruto felt a well of anger build up inside of himself. Everything in here was so ordered, so nice and neat, but that wasn’t his life. Everything was such a mess, everything was so wrong. He punched a hole through one of the walls before he kicked down his bedroom door, and proceeded to wreak havoc on it.

He fell to his knees, choking back sobs, staring at the shattered picture of Team Seven in his hands. “Why do you hate me so much, Sasuke?”

“Naruto?” Sakura called. She sounded worried and a little bit confused. “Naruto, your door is—Naruto! Oh my god, what happened?”

“Sa-Sakura-chan,” he whispered, falling into her arms. “W-why can’t I see him? Why doesn’t he want me in his life?”

Sakura sighed heavily, patting his head. “Oh, Naruto, I’m so sorry.” She rocked him back and forth, trying to sooth the ache in his heart. She had been afraid of this, but she hadn’t said anything to Naruto because he’d been so happy when they’d brought Sasuke home. She hadn’t wanted to ruin Sasuke’s homecoming for Naruto.

“Shh, Naruto, it’ll be all right.”

Naruto shook his head. “How can it be? I—I can’t—Sakura-chan, you can talk to him, right? Can’t you convince him?”

Sakura shook his head. “Sasuke-kun only puts up with me,” she said sadly. “He promised not to be a problem, and that’s what he’s doing. But I can tell he’d rather no one were around. It’s been so hard, Naruto, and I wish I could make him see you, but I can’t.”

Naruto sniffed. “Why is he doing this to me?”

Sakura sighed. “Because it’s you.”

“W-what?”

“Naruto, Sasuke means so much to you. He left because he wanted to be stronger, and you tried so hard to bring him home, but you failed so many times. None of us ever thought you’d do it. I had hope at first because if anyone could do it, it was you. But he was so strong, and so angry. And you were the only person strong enough to bring him back. But Naruto, you’re so weak when it comes to Sasuke. He’s manipulating you because you’re the only tie he has left in this village. I love Sasuke-kun, but… but not even I would have done what you did to bring him home, Naruto. You’re the only person he can see in this village and feel something towards. And he knows that you’re stronger than him now, in almost every way.

“But Naruto, when it comes to him, you’re weak. You’re letting him do this to you. He’s trying to push you away so that he can leave again, so that you won’t chase him.”

“I’ll never abandon him!”

“I know that. And I think Sasuke-kun does too. But Naruto, it’s hurting you. He’s hurting you. Can’t you see? You love him too much.”

Naruto sucked in a breath. “He’s my best friend, he’s like a brother—”

“Oh, Naruto. No one feels the way you feel about Sasuke for a brother.”

“What?”

Sakura hesitated. “Naruto, when you think about Sasuke, how do you feel?”

“It hurts, Sakura-chan.”

Sakura nodded. “I know, Naruto. What else?”

Naruto frowned, rubbing his eyes. “I… I want to be with him. I want to be his best friend, and see him happy, and...” He trailed off, trying to wrap his head around how he was feeling. It was just too much. Everything that had happened over the years, in the past two months. He didn’t know where to begin, he just knew it was too much.

“When you brought him home, how did you feel?”

“I wanted to cry,” he whispered. “I was so happy, I thought I would explode.”

“I remember looking at you when you brought him home, when you told me that you’d done it, that Sasuke-kun wasn’t ever going to leave again.” She sighed. “I’ve never seen you so happy, Naruto. I remember thinking, ‘He really loves him.’ I was so worried for you, Naruto. I knew the moment Sasuke-kun woke up, when I saw how angry he was, I knew he would hurt you, and you were so happy, you didn’t even notice. You couldn’t see what the rest of us saw. I spoke with Kakashi-sensei about it, but he just told me that there wasn’t anything we could do. He said that the way you felt about Sasuke-kun was special and that Sasuke-kun was just upset, but eventually everything would be okay. I believed him, but I didn’t understand how to deal with you. I knew that the way you felt about Sasuke-kun was different than the way you feel about the rest of your friends, I knew it was different, but Kakashi-sensei explained it to me.

“Naruto, you’re in love with him, you understand that, right?”

Naruto hiccupped, his sobs silenced by the shock that hit him at her words. He shook his head, trying to laugh it off. “Sa-Sakura-chan, that’s ridiculous! Sasuke’s a guy! I’m a guy! I can’t be in love with him.”

Sakura shook her head. “Naruto, you can. You are. I said the same thing to Kakashi-sensei when he told me that. But… Naruto, if Sasuke-kun were a girl, or if you were a girl, I wouldn’t hesitate to think that you were in love with him. And you would be the only person in the whole village I thought Sasuke could love back.”

Naruto shook his head. “No, Sakura-chan, I don’t—what? Sasuke doesn’t care about me. He hates me, he said so.”

“He’s angry, Naruto. He’s pushing you away because of how much he cares about you. You’re the only person who’s ever gotten through to him. You’re special, Naruto. He knows that, and he’s scared and angry. You beat him up and brought him home, and then you sit there, ready to forgive every single thing he did wrong, ready to act like nothing bad ever happened, and he isn’t stupid. He’s not as blind to the way you feel as you are.”

“B-but, Sakura-chan, that doesn’t make sense!”

“Why not? Why does his being a guy change the way you feel? Think about how you feel about me, Naruto. Think about it. If I’d left, if I’d done what Sasuke-kun did, would you have gone after me—”

“Of course I would have!”

“No, Naruto, listen. If I had done that, would you have gone after me, spent years training and chasing after me, and never given up? Would you have given up your dream to be Hokage? Would you have been willing to die with me just to be with me? Would you? Really?”

Naruto thought long and hard. Sakura was his friend, he cared about her, he always had, but his feelings for her had never come close to his feelings for Sasuke. He would have followed Sakura anywhere, but he couldn’t say that he would have tried as hard to bring her home. If he were being honest with himself, no one but Sasuke could make him do something as reckless as what he’d done. He choked back the sob bubbling up, looking up at Sakura, who was watching him sadly. “Sakura-chan,” he whispered, “I can’t be… please, make it stop.”

Sakura pulled him back to her, hugging him close. “Naruto, I’m sorry. I wish I could have been your special person. I wish that we didn’t love him so much; I wish that I could make the pain go away, but unless you make it stop, it won’t stop. Sasuke-kun is too upset to do that for you.”

Naruto sniffed. “Sakura-chan, I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry. I understand, Naruto.”

“But, I wouldn’t go after you.”

Sakura nodded. “I know. And I’m glad. Sasuke-kun has hurt you more than anyone else, Naruto. I don’t ever want to be able to cause you that kind of pain.”

“But you love him too.”

“Yes.” She fell silent, dropping her gaze to the floor. “Naruto, you love him more. You may not have realised it because you’re both men, but you do. And you’re the only person Sasuke-kun could love back.”

“How do you know?”

“Because I’ve watched you two from afar all this time.” She smiled softly. “He won’t admit it, Naruto, but he misses you. He’s being selfish, he’s trying to hurt you, but I think things will eventually be okay.”

“Arigatou, Sakura-chan.”

“Iie,” she whispered, kissing his cheek. “Please feel better, Naruto.”

Naruto nodded. “Sakura-chan, I love you.”

“I love you, too.” Sakura rose to her feet, patting Naruto’s head. “If you need to talk about this, I’ll listen. But I think the best person to talk about this to is Kakashi-sensei. He can explain things to you about this better than I can.”

Naruto frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Kakashi-sensei knows about this kind of thing. I don’t.” She shrugged. “It might help you to understand things better.”

Naruto nodded. “Okay.”

Sakura gave him one last sad smile and left.

***
It took Naruto two days of thinking before he could bring himself to face Kakashi about this newfound discovery. He was more than a little embarrassed by the fact that he was not only in love with his best friend, who was a guy, but also by the fact that he hadn’t even noticed. He couldn’t even begin to imagine the endless teasing that would come from his friends about this, but if he thought about that too much would he lose his nerve to approach Kakashi, so he forced himself to stop thinking about what everyone else would say, and think about what he wanted to ask Kakashi.

As it turned out, Kakashi had been expecting Naruto to come to him looking for answers, and was waiting for him outside of his apartment two days after his revelation.

“Yo,” Kakashi offered.

“Ka-Kakashi-sensei!” Naruto stumbled backwards, pointing dramatically at the white-haired ninja. “What are you doing here?”

Kakashi sighed, closing his book. “I spoke with Sakura the other day, I thought you might like to go to lunch.”

Naruto felt his face warm, but did his best not let his resolve waver. “Etto, yeah. Okay.”

They walked to Ichiraku in silence, Kakashi with his nose in his book to keep up some kind of normalcy, even though Naruto could feel his eye on him the entire walk there, and Naruto shuffling his feet, looking decidedly dejected. Ichiraku’s was unusually empty when they arrived, as though the entire village had known to keep well away from the place that day. Naruto was grateful, of course, but every time he thought about what he was going to talk about with Kakashi, his face warmed.

“After lunch,” Kakashi said when Naruto went to open his mouth to start asking questions as they waited for their ramen.

Naruto nodded, glancing at the owner who was watching Naruto, concern in his eyes. The blond shoveled down five bowls before his impatience and anxiety got the better of him. His stomach cramped, and he slumped forward.

“Another bowl?”

Naruto shook his head. “No, thank you.”

The owner practically fell over in shock. “Are you feeling all right?”

“Ee? Oh, yeah, yeah. I’ve just got something on my mind.”

The owner nodded, sharing a look with his daughter. “Well, I hope you feel better soon.”

“Thanks,” he mumbled as Kakashi paid for their meals. They headed in the direction of the training grounds, Naruto glancing nervously from Kakashi to the ground every few seconds. Kakashi chuckled after five minutes of this. “Relax, Naruto.”

Kakashi’s obvious relaxation did nothing to improve Naruto’s mood. However, he did his best to stop staring nervously at the Jounin until they had arrived at their destination. Naruto could hardly stand still as Kakashi walked towards a tree to lean against it under its shade.

“Naruto,” he said, causing the younger ninja to jump.

“Y-yeah?”

Kakashi chuckled again. “Relax. You wanted to talk, didn’t you?”

Naruto nodded. “Yeah, but…”

“But you’re embarrassed?”

Again, he nodded.

Kakashi sighed. “It’s nothing to be embarrassed about.”

“But we’re both guys.”

“Yes, you are. I’m glad that all this moping around hasn’t lessened your observation skills.”

Naruto glared. “Hey!”

“Maa, maa,” he said, waving his hand in the air. “Naruto, what is it you wanted to ask me?”

“Well,” Naruto began, scuffing his shoe against the ground. “I—I don’t understand it. Sasuke and I are both guys. How can I be—etto, how can I feel that way about him?”

“If Sasuke were a girl, would you wonder why?”

Naruto shook his head. “No. That makes sense. Guys like girls.”

Kakashi laughed. “Yes, and sometimes guys like guys, and sometimes girls like other girls.”

“But I thought that was just pervy stuff.”

Kakashi shook his head. “No, it’s not. It’s something that is very real. It’s called being gay.”

“Gay? But—but that means you’re weak! I’m not weak!”

Kakashi’s eye, which had been crinkled before in a smile softened into a somber expression. “Naruto, being gay does not mean you are weak. It just means you prefer people of the same sex.”

“But at the academy—”

“Students used ‘gay’ negatively. I know. It’s sad, but it happens. Many people aren’t very open-minded about such things. There are a lot of people who will think it’s wrong or abnormal.” He gave Naruto a searching look. “Do you think the way you feel about Sasuke is wrong?”

Naruto frowned. “I—I don’t know. I—no. But—but he’s a guy and I’m a guy, so it doesn’t make sense.”

“That’s okay. It doesn’t have to. You care about him, and that’s really all that matters, right?”

“I guess.”

“Then you have nothing to worry about.”

“But you said there are people who will think it’s bad.”

“Yes. That’s true. That’s why most people who are gay hide it. There may be a few exceptions to the rule, but not all of us feel it’s okay to parade those feelings around. Maybe someday that will change, but right now, for most of us, it’s best to keep them a secret.”

Naruto’s eyes were bright and round as he stared at Kakashi. “A-are you g-gay?” he whispered.

Kakashi’s eye crinkled. “I’m bisexual.”

“Huh?”

“I like both men and women.”

“You can like both?!?!”

“Of course, Naruto. Don’t you think women are attractive?”

“Yeah, but if I love Sasuke—” He shut his mouth with an audible click, his face flushing. He hadn’t said it quite so bluntly outside of his apartment yet, and the idea that someone would overhear, that Sasuke might overhear, sent his heart thudding wildly in his chest, and he looked around anxiously.

“Don’t worry, Naruto. No one’s here.” Kakashi pushed off the tree, looking up into the sunshine. “Naruto, you’re allowed to be attracted to both sexes. It’s just a matter of who your heart belongs to that will tell you who you will be with.”

Naruto nodded. “Okay.” He thought for a moment, deep in thought. “Hey, Kakashi-sensei, how did you know you liked guys, too?”

“I was about your age when I realised it. A bit younger, actually. When I was younger, I was never focused on girls, I just wanted to be a ninja. But then as I got older, I noticed girls. And then I started to notice other boys. It took me by surprise as well, but I had a very good sensei to talk to about these things.”

“My dad.”

Kakashi nodded. “Yes. And shortly after I’d made jounin I met another man, and that was it.”

“Huh?”

“I met someone, who I am still with today.”

“Eee??? But you read those pervy books!”

“So?”

“But—but if you’re with someone—”

“Does that mean I’m not allowed to read them?”

“Etto, I guess not. Hey, hey, who is it?”

Kakashi chuckled. “That, Naruto, is none of your business.”

“What? But—you know who I like!”

Kakashi raised his eyebrow. “Naruto, everyone knows who you like.”

Naruto flushed. “They do…?”

“I’m pretty sure you were the last to know. Except perhaps some of your male friends who would rather pretend that your feelings are something else than be forced to face the truth.”

“Oh.” He pouted a bit and muttered, “It’s still not fair that you know who I like and I don’t know who you like.”

Kakashi laughed again, long and hard. “Naruto, I don’t usually mix business with my personal life. He’s a shinobi, like myself, and we feel it’s best if we keep it secret. He probably wouldn’t want you to know. He’d be very embarrassed.”

“Well, I guess. But I would keep it a secret, you know?”

“I know, Naruto. But out of respect for him, I can’t tell you.”

“Maybe I’ll figure it out on my own then!”

“If you do, I just ask that you not tell anyone.”

Naruto nodded solemnly. “Okay, but you can’t tell anyone about my feelings for Sasuke.”

“I don’t have to.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m an open book.” He rolled his eyes. “Does Sakura-chan know? That you like guys, too, I mean.”

Kakashi shook his head. “I didn’t tell her as much, but she might have realised it.”

“She’s smart,” Naruto said, beaming. “I bet she could figure out who you like.”

“I’m sure she could. But I’m smart too, I might trick you.”

Naruto laughed. “Thanks, Kakashi-sensei.”

“You’re welcome.”

“Oh, wait! But…” Naruto flushed redder than before. “Etto, how do two guys… you know?”

Kakashi raised an eyebrow. “How do they what, Naruto?”

Naruto glowered. Kakashi knew exactly what he was talking about, the jerk. “You know!”

“I don’t know. You haven’t told me.”

Naruto huffed. “How do two guys,” he paused, lowering his voice and leaning forward. “How do two guys have sex?”

Kakashi chuckled again, ruffling Naruto’s hair. “That is something I think you should wait to learn about.”

“What? But—won’t I need to know?!?!”

“Not right now. You still haven’t told Sasuke how you feel, and you’re both still young.”

“Yeah, but—”

“Wait a bit, Naruto. I’ll tell you in a year or two.”

“Fine,” Naruto said pouting, before an idea came to him. “I’ll just go buy a book in the book store!”

“Aa, Naruto, you know you’re not old enough to do that. And besides, they don’t sell books like that in normal bookstores.”

“Where do they sell them?”

“The Red Light District.”

“Eee! I can’t go there! That’s for perverts!”

Kakashi’s eye crinkled. “Is it?”

“Yes, everyone knows that! I can’t go there!”

“Precisely. Well, Naruto, if you’re satisfied…?”

“Wait, I-I didn’t know, until Sakura-chan told me, so I—well, she said that Sasuke might feel the same. But I wouldn’t have noticed something like that. And I don’t want him to hate me more than he does, or think—think the way some people do about guys who like other guys.”

“Don’t worry, Naruto. Sasuke doesn’t hate you, and he won’t hate you for this. I think, that if it’s going to be anyone, it’ll be you, Naruto. But I can’t be sure. Sasuke can be very difficult to read, sometimes.”

“You’re telling me. But how do I tell him? Will he understand? What if he doesn’t like me back? Do I just kiss him or do I have to bring flowers—but he’s a guy so he probably wouldn’t like flowers—”

“Maa, maa, Naruto. Calm down. It’ll be okay. But Sasuke is still very upset with you.”

“Oh. Right.”

“Give him time. He needs to figure out who he is without revenge before he can give you any part of his heart, Naruto. And you also need to figure out who you are.”

“But I already know who I am.”

“Do you? What will happen if Sasuke never speaks to you again? Will you still try to become Hokage? What will you do if you don’t have to bring Sasuke home? Will you still train as hard, try to always be stronger than you were? You both need to redefine your lives right now, and I think some time apart might be good for you.”

“But what if he meets someone before he’s ready to be friends again?”

“I don’t think that will happen, Naruto. Sasuke has always been your focus, and some part of him has always focused on you. But you can’t live only for Sasuke, just like he can’t live only for you. If you spend all your time around him, you’ll become all he exists for.”

“I wouldn’t mind.”

“But what happens if you die? Sasuke won’t have anything else to live for. And the same goes for you. If something happens to Sasuke, you need to live for something after he’s gone.”

Naruto stared aghast at Kakashi. “That’s—”

“It’s harsh, Naruto. But it’s the life of a shinobi. You have to accept that, and understand it. If you can’t, then you shouldn’t tell Sasuke how you feel at all.”

Naruto swallowed the lump in his throat, and did his best to breathe evenly. He nodded slowly. “Okay.”

“Good. Now, is that all?”

“Yeah. Thanks.”

Kakashi nodded and jutsued away, apparently aware that Naruto needed to process the information he’d just received. Naruto sat down beneath the tree, staring up through the canopy, thinking about what he should do now.

***
It came to him in a dream, the answer he was looking for. It was a dream about his time with Jiraiya, traveling and training all to become strong enough to bring Sasuke home. He kept looking back at Konoha as he left, only to see Sasuke standing there watching him, waiting for him. He didn’t understand it at first, and then he ran back to Konoha and rushed to Sasuke’s side.

“I told you to get out of my life,” Sasuke mumbled.

“I did.”

“Why did you listen?”

Naruto had frowned at Sasuke, the dream so vivid and real it was hard to tell that it was a dream at all. “Sasuke…”

“Come home soon.”

“But I have to be strong enough to bring you home.”

Sasuke shook his head. “Be strong for yourself, so I can be strong for myself.”

“That doesn’t make sense.”

“Idiot.”

“Hey! You bastard, you’re the one who told me to go!”

“I didn’t mean literally.”

Naruto blinked. “That’s it though.”

“It is.”

“Sasuke, you left me.”

Sasuke just stared at Naruto, waiting.

“I love you.”

“I know you do.”

“Do you really hate me?”

“No.”

Naruto grinned. “Kakashi-sensei was right though.”

“Of course I was,” Kakashi said from above them. He was hovering in midair tangled in a cloud of smoke with a faceless man, and he had bright orange wings in the shape of one of his books. “I’m always right.” He winked, and then kissed the faceless man and Naruto blushed.

“Take care of Sakura-chan for me, okay?”

“She’s annoying.”

“Sasuke-kun,” a younger version of Sakura whined. The older version stood a few feet away, watching with wary eyes.

“She’s not that Sakura-chan anymore, Sasuke.”

“I’ve been gone a long time.”

“Yeah. We’ve missed you.”

Sasuke nodded. “I noticed.”

“Bastard,” Naruto snorted.

“Hurry up, Naruto, before you change your mind. If you change your mind, there’s nothing that will save us.”

Naruto frowned. “I haven’t even figured out what I’m deciding to do yet.”

“Yes, you have.”

“I have not! If I say I haven’t then I have—”

Sasuke cut him off with a kiss, and Naruto flushed.

“I told you he didn’t have a penis.”

Naruto tore himself away from Sasuke to scream at Sai, but they were alone on top of Hokage Mountain. “What the—”

“I’ll be here when you get back.”

“You promise?”

“Yes.”

“Okay. I’ll go then.”

Sasuke nodded and then vanished, and with him the dream began to fade. When Naruto woke up, he didn’t remember much more than Sai’s taunt and Sasuke’s mouth and the feeling that had come from the dream.

***
“Oi! I want to speak to Granny, is she here?”

Naruto stared at Shizune, who glared back at him. “She’s busy.”

“I bet she’s just drinking,” he countered, leaning over her desk. “I’m going up there.”

“I told you she’s busy!”

Naruto ignored her, heading up the stairs and towards the double doors that led to the Hokage’s office. He swung the doors open, grinning madly. “Granny! You busy?”

“Ugh, Naruto,” the Hokage groaned. “What is it? I see your back to your usual self.”

Naruto grinned more broadly, noting the sake bottle on top of the pile of papers and the obvious drunken state the woman was in. “I want to train.”

“Then go train. Why are you telling me this?”

“No, I mean, I want to travel again, and go train in other places.”

“What?”

“I’ve been thinking, Sasuke is being a bastard and I can’t keep waiting around for him to talk to me, and I need to figure some stuff out, so I thought, if I went traveling again then maybe it’ll help me. And then I won’t risk pissing Sasuke off by running into him.”

Tsunade stared at him, her mouth slightly open, then she groaned. “It’s too early for this.”

Naruto snickered. He heard Shizune’s footsteps stomping in behind him, and grinned wickedly. “Naruto, I told you—Tsunade-sama! You’re supposed to be doing your work!”

Tsunade waved a hand, ignoring the woman. “What brought this on?”

“I told you, I need some time to think about things.”

“I need you here. You’re one of my best ninja.”

“I know. And I’ll be even better when I get back.”

“The people will be upset if you leave. And if Sasuke decides to run while you’re gone—”

“He won’t.”

“How can you be sure?”

“I just know. He won’t run away again.”

“I don’t know about this, Naruto. Last time you were with someone. It’ll be dangerous for you as a host. We still haven’t dealt with Uchiha Madara, and now that he’s teamed up with Kobuto…”

Naruto shook his head. “I’ll be fine. If I think I’m in danger, I’ll just go visit the toads or something. I promise I’ll be fine.”

“I don’t like it.”

“Come on, Granny. I won’t be around to bother you for at least six months, maybe even a year!”

“That does sound appealing.”

“Yeah, and when I get back I can finally take your place as Hokage!”

Tsunade glared. “What makes you think you can handle being Hokage by then?”

Naruto shrugged. “It’s complicated.”

Tsunade raised an eyebrow. “And you understand it?”

“Damn right!”

She shook her head, and with a heavy sigh, nodded. “Fine. But I want regular reports from you. And at the very least, spend as much time in allied countries.”

“Oh, I will! I’ll probably visit Gaara in Suna! And maybe go visit some of the places I went to with the pervy sage.”

“All right, all right.” Tsunade waved a hand in the air. “I’ve got work to do. Go ahead and go. I’ll take you off the list of ninja available for missions. Of course, you know that means you’ll miss the Chuunin exams again.”

Naruto shrugged. “I’ll be the first person to reach Hokage level as a genin!”

Tsunade snorted. “Get out of here.”

“Ja!”

***
Naruto waited until the following day to leave. He told Sakura and Kakashi what he was planning to do, and made Sakura promise not to tell Sasuke until after he’d left. Sai had been present when he’d told them about his decision to leave, and he’d offered his usual insult to Naruto’s manhood, but otherwise was supportive of the decision. Sakura cried, mostly because Naruto had left once before, and Sasuke had abandoned them before that, and she didn’t want to see them apart anymore. Kakashi just leaned against a wall, reading his book.

Naruto grinned at the three after he’d told them, then went to pack before lunch.

He’d had to get rid of the picture frame that had held the picture of Team Seven, but he hadn’t had the opportunity to replace it, and now he didn’t mind. He put the picture in his pocket, making sure not to bend it, and grinned. When he came home, Sasuke would have to listen to him, would have to deal with all the things he was trying to avoid. Naruto thought he could wait if, in the end, everything was going to be all right.

Ichiraku’s wasn’t entirely empty when he went to go eat one last bowl of his favourite ramen. Iruka was there, sitting at the counter looking impatient.

“Iruka-sensei! What are you doing here?”

Iruka smiled at Naruto. “Waiting, apparently. I should be used to this though. He’s never on time, is he?”

Naruto’s eyes widened. “Are you waiting for Kakashi-sensei?!?!”

Iruka furrowed his brow. “Well, yes, why?”

Naruto spluttered, his face warming, and sat down at the counter a little too heavily, causing his stool to tip backwards. “Naruto-kun, are you all right!?!”

“Y-yeah, sure.” Naruto climbed back onto his stool, doing his best to avoid looking at his old academy teacher. It couldn’t be that Iruka and Kakashi were—were lovers! It just couldn’t! This was Iruka, his sensei, his friend! He didn’t date someone like Kakashi!

“Yo.”

Naruto stiffened, turning slowly around to stare in horror at Kakashi, whose eye was crinkled in a grin. “Ka-Ka-Kakashi-sensei.”

“Oh, Naruto. Hello.”

Naruto wanted to rip his hair out of his head, watching as Kakashi slid onto the stool next to Iruka, his innocent, kind Iruka! This was not happening. He spluttered like a fish as the two older men ordered their ramen, ignoring the concerned look the owner kept shooting him.

“Naruto, what’s wrong?” Kakashi asked, carefree and cool.

“Y-you—and—I—I have to go!”

“But your ramen,” Iruka began.

“It’s fine! I’ll come back later!”

Naruto could hear Kakashi chuckling as he bolted from the stand, and Iruka’s concerned questions, but he didn’t care. He could not handle the thought that Iruka was dating Kakashi. It was just too unthinkable.

Later that day, after he’d gone back to Ichiraku’s when the coast was clear of any teachers on dates, Naruto went to the training grounds to meet with Lee, who had promised to spar with him once more before he left on his journey. Naruto was early, oddly enough, and so he set to work doing some warm-ups while he waited for Lee to arrive.

“Aa, Naruto,” Kakashi’s voice drifted to him from far off. Naruto turned around, ready to bolt just in case Kakashi was with Iruka. He relaxed for a second when he saw Gai, standing behind Kakashi. Then he blinked and fell over. The jounin was shirtless and sweaty and grinning like a loon behind Kakashi, who looked as he always did.

“Ka-Kakashi-sensei, what are you—what about Iruka-sensei!?!?”

Kakashi tilted his head. “Iruka-sensei?”

“You—I—what!?! I can’t take this! Tell Fuzzy-Brows that I’ll meet him at the bridge!”

“Hai, hai.”

Naruto bolted, wishing that he’d decided to spend his last day in Konoha indoors and safe. All this running into Kakashi was going to give him a heart attack. Thankfully, Lee was able to meet him at the bridge and they walked to a much safer location for sparring from there. It was a relief for Naruto to actually get some practice in, and it was useful because it got his mind off of the awful image of a sweaty Gai standing behind Kakashi. He shuddered, and so caught up in his thoughts, missed the kick that Lee had aimed at his head. He went flying into a tree, which creaked under the force of impact.

“Oh, Naruto-kun! I am so sorry! I thought you would block that!”

“It’s okay, I wasn’t paying attention.”

“Are you sad to be leaving?”

“Etto, well, I guess. But that wasn’t what I was thinking about.”

“Was it Sasuke-kun?”

Naruto shook his head. “No, it was something I never want to see ever again.”

Lee nodded wisely. “I see.”

Naruto grinned at Lee, glad that the other had no idea where his thoughts had been. “Man, that was a good kick, though.” He rubbed the side of his head where Lee’s kick had landed. “I’m surprised you didn’t crack my skull.”

Lee’s eyes widened, and he stumbled forward. “Oh, goodness! I should have been more careful! I really thought you would block it!”

“It’s fine, Fuzzy-Brows. It’s my fault. Besides, I’m okay. Just a little dizzy.”

“Maybe you should go visit Sakura-san. She could make sure you are all right!”

“Nah, she’s busy running errands for Sasuke. I don’t want to run into him right now.”

“Does he know you are leaving?”

Naruto shook his head. “Nope. And I’m not telling him. He wanted me out of his life, so I’m out. Sakura-chan said she’ll tell him after I’ve left, but I don’t want him to know before, and I definitely don’t want to tell him.”

Lee nodded again, his bowl-cut bobbing with him. “Your feelings are very complicated when it comes to Sasuke-kun. I admire the courage and strength you have showed during this trying time!” He struck the Nice Guy Pose for a second, before letting it drop, looking strangely somber. “I could not imagine the person I care about most telling me they do not want to see me ever again.”

Naruto flushed, laughing nervously. “Ee, what are you talking about, Fuzzy Brows? Sasuke’s a bastard, I don’t care that much about him.”

Lee frowned. “But Naruto-kun, is he not your most important person?”

Naruto’s eyes widened. “H-how did you—”

“I thought it was obvious.”

“But—but—you—”

“Me?”

“I just… I didn’t even know! How did you know?”

Lee shrugged. “You were always so determined to bring Sasuke-kun home. I thought, if you care about him that much, care so much that you are willing to put yourself through all of that, then you must love him more than anyone else.”

“And you’re okay with that?”

“Of course! I myself have experienced the beautiful Flowering of Love for another man!” Lee gave Naruto another thumbs up. “But Sakura-san does not know that, and I really do like her, and I do not know what she would think about that—”

“I don’t think she’d mind that you like guys, Fuzzy Brows. She’s the one who pointed out that I like Sasuke.”

“Oh. Well, I have only ever liked the one, and it was a misplaced crush.” He waved his hand in the air as though to bat away the subject. “My heart belongs to Sakura-san!”

“But she loves someone else.”

“I know. But I will prove myself worthy, and someday, maybe she will love me too! If I work hard and never give up, Sakura-san is sure to see that I am worthy of her affection!”

Naruto laughed. “Good luck with that.”

“Arigatou, Naruto-kun!”

“Wow. I had no idea that you liked guys too.”

“Love is blind, Naruto-kun. Your heart will choose the right person for you, regardless of sex! It is a beautiful thing, and you must let love flower all on its own! You cannot control it through hard-work or determination! Love is love, and that is the Ultimate Spring Time of Youth!”

Naruto laughed. “Thanks, Fuzzy Brows. I never really thought of it that way.”

“It is all right. I was very concerned when I had a crush on a fellow man, but Gai-sensei explained that it was natural! He said it was a Beautiful Expression of Manly Love and Friendship, and that there was nothing to be ashamed of.”

Naruto coughed, dropping his gaze. “Etto, is Gai-sensei, you know, does he like guys too?”

“Gai-sensei?” Lee asked, puzzled. He frowned for a moment, his thick eyebrows drawing together. He grinned. “I do not know!”

Naruto flopped over onto his side, groaning. “Great.”

“Did you want to speak with him about your Manly Love for Sasuke-kun?”

Naruto shook his head emphatically. “No, no. I definitely don’t. I already talked with Kakashi-sensei about it.”

“Oh! Of course. That would make sense. He is your sensei after all.”

“Yeah.”

“Well, then, as long as you are okay with your feelings and do not have questions—”

“Hey, Fuzzy Brows, do you know about sex?”

Lee fell to the floor in a dramatic green heap. He stared wide-eyed at Naruto, his face as red as a tomato. “Na-Naruto-kun! That is—that is very personal and—and I cannot speak of such intimate matters!”

“But don’t you know how to do it?”

Lee shook his head. “No! I do not know and I shall not dirty my mind with such—such—such vulgar thoughts! Love is Pure and Beautiful! Sex is—is—well, it is sex!”

“Yeah, but you’ve got to do it eventually, right?”

“Yes, with your most important person! And that is called Love Making, and it is Beautiful and Intimate and Pure!”

“I don’t get it. What’s the difference between sex and ‘Love Making’?”

Lee paused, thinking. “Love Making is Pure and Beautiful and—”

“And ‘Intimate’?” Naruto offered. “Okay. I get it.” He shook his head, getting to his feet. “Okay, Fuzzy Brows. I better go. I need something to eat, and then I need to finish packing.

“Okay! I wish you the best of luck on your journey, Naruto-kun!”

“Thanks. Ja!”

Naruto dashed off, snickering to himself over Lee’s antics. He was really going to miss Lee’s ridiculous speeches and bright smile. As he made his way, once more, to Ichiraku’s he thought about who Lee had had a crush on, and wondered if it had been as scary for Lee to realise his feelings as it had been for Naruto. He couldn’t imagine Lee liking anyone other than Sakura, but it was reassuring to know he wasn’t the only one in his age group who had gone through this. He came to a stop outside the ramen stand, still deep in thought and pushed the flap out of his way. He stopped dead at the sigh of Kakashi sitting eating a bowl of ramen next to Captain Yamato.

“Oh no,” he groaned, as the two men turned around to look at him. Kakashi’s eye crinkled in a grin, and Yamato slurped up the noodles he had on his chopsticks.

“Naruto—” Kakashi began, but Naruto had already dashed off again, kicking up a cloud of dust in his wake. He made his way by rooftop back to his apartment, jumping onto the landing with ease and pushing open his door which creaked and slid roughly against the floor. He needed to get a new door, but he didn’t see the point when he was leaving the next day. No one would be coming in here for quite some time.

He sighed, going to his kitchen to make sure he hadn’t left anything in the fridge that would go bad. There was a carton of expired milk, which he tossed down the sink and an apple which he decided to eat. He fished around in his cupboards until he found a cup of instant ramen, which he figured would do for now. It was obviously too risky for him to go out to eat.

After dinner, he went to finish his packing, touching his pocket where the picture still rested, safe and sound. He grinned, looking around. It felt almost like the last time, except there was something about leaving this time that was definitely different. Perhaps it was the idea that when he came home, he’d be coming home to Sasuke, instead of just a picture, but whatever it was, he couldn’t keep from smiling as he set to work finishing up packing before he went to bed early, too excited about the journey before him to wait any longer.

***
Four and a half months of travel found Naruto in Suna, visiting the Kazekage.

He wasn’t quite ready to go back to Konoha, but he liked the idea of being a bit closer, and even though Suna was still a ways away, it was definitely the closest he’d been to home in quite sometime. The Kazekage was waiting for him at the gates when Naruto arrived, looking as he always did, his eyes heavily bruised from lack of sleep, his face blank except for the slightest of curves to his mouth that showed he was happy to see Naruto. It was strange to be back in Suna after all this time. The last time he’d visited had been the time Gaara had been kidnapped and killed, and Naruto didn’t like to think about that.

Gaara was older now, though you could hardly tell looking at his face, his clothes different, but similar to the last time Naruto had seen him, and his gourd was, as usual, on his back. The Kazekage nodded as Naruto drew closer, the heat of the desert barely touching the village’s leader beneath the cool Sand Armor. Naruto grinned, waving at the Kazekage from several feet away as he signed in with one of the guards.

“Gaara!” he called, one of the only people in the village, and probably the world who would actually shout at the Kazekage like that.

“Naruto,” Gaara offered in return. He turned around and started walking forward, expecting Naruto to follow him.

“So, how’s it going?”

“Well.” Gaara had obviously not changed that much since Naruto had last seen him, but he was glad for that. It felt like years since the last time Naruto had actually seen Gaara. He could remember the Kazekage’s parting words about friendship as clearly as though he’d said them yesterday. Naruto was doing his best to remember the meaning of those words, to remember that he had forced Sasuke into coming home, and that Sasuke hadn’t wanted to. The ninja villages were still upset at the leniency with which Konoha had dealt with Sasuke, but Gaara was the least concerned of all. He had said Naruto was his friend, and he had proven that time and again. Naruto was forever thankful that Gaara had stood up for him when the Kage were deciding Sasuke’s fate while the Uchiha was still unconscious in a hospital room. Naruto had fought the darkness in his heart and learned to control the Kyuubi, but he didn’t think he could have fought the darkness again if the Kage had decided to kill his best friend and, now that he had realised it, the man he loved.

“Man, it’s hot. How do you take this heat?” Naruto complained as Gaara led him towards the shinobi housing compound.

“I’m used to it. And the Sand offers a sufficient amount of protection from the heat.”

Naruto snickered. “Yeah, sure. So, what do you do for fun around here?”

“Fun?”

“Yeah, you know, hanging out with friends and stuff.”

“I do not have many friends here. I am the Kazekage, there is very little time for fun.” Gaara paused, frowning a moment in thought, before pushing the door of the building Naruto would be staying at open. “However, Lee is here. On a mission with two others. I forget their names.”

“Fuzzy Brows is here? That’s great! He and I can spar.”

“That would be good. He’s worn out his comrades and frightens my men. He’s been here two days and no one can keep up with him. He even asked me to spar.”

Naruto laughed. “Oh, man that’s funny! Did you?”

“Why would I spar with him? I almost killed once before.”

“Well it’s just sparring, Gaara. It’s not a death match.”

“I don’t understand why he’d want to spar with me.”

“It’s because he thinks you’re a good shinobi and a friend.”

“A friend?”

“Yeah, Gaara. You’re his friend.”

“I almost killed him.”

“But didn’t you also save his life that one time?”

“In a manner of speaking, yes.”

“In what manner of speaking? Are we speaking in two different languages now? I’m pretty sure what you did saved his life. Lee thinks so at least. Man, he raved about that for a month. He couldn’t believe how much you’d changed since he last saw you.”

“I see.”

“It’s funny. You say that, but I don’t believe it.”

Gaara frowned. “It doesn’t make sense.”

“It’s Fuzzy Brows. Does it have to make sense?”

“Naruto-kun?”

“Oi! Fuzzy Brows, I was just talking about you!”

“Naruto-kun!” Lee practically bowled Naruto over as he rushed forward to give him a hug. Gaara’s sand rattled slightly in its gourd, but otherwise didn’t react. Naruto was impressed, both by Lee’s nerve and by Gaara’s control. “It is good to see you again!”

“It’s good to see you too! I hear you’re on a mission. Who else is here?”

“Neji and Kiba-kun. Tenten received an injury on one of our outings before this mission, and Kiba-kun had nothing else to do, so he offered to come along.”

“Is Akamaru here too?”

“Yes, but he is not doing very well because of the heat.”

“Yeah, I bet. It’s too damn hot.”

“This is a desert,” Gaara added, attracting Lee’s attention for the first time. He blinked in surprise and then blushed and bowed deeply.

“Aa, Kazekage-sama! I did not see you there!”

Gaara frowned. “You are very strange.”

Naruto laughed, as Lee blushed and scratched the back of his neck. “Aa, etto, I am sorry?”

“You know, I kind of have to agree with him, Fuzzy Brows. How can you be wearing legwarmers in this heat?”

Lee looked down at his beloved legwarmers frowning. “But these were a gift from Gai-sensei! And I must keep my leg weights hidden from my enemies to keep them from knowing my most powerful techniques!”

“You know, I don’t think you have to worry about people seeing you leg weights. They’ll still underestimate you.”

“I cannot rely on a powerful opponent to underestimate me, though!”

“You are powerful as well,” Gaara intoned.

Lee blushed. “Aa, I am not, really. I just work hard and get lucky!”

Naruto snickered. “Oh, really? Who’ve you gotten lucky with lately? You haven’t finally won over Sakura-chan have you?”

Lee’s eyes widened. “I-I did not mean that! I was referring to in battle!”

“I know, calm down.” Naruto chuckled, punching Lee companionably on the shoulder. “But have you? Won Sakura-chan over?”

Lee’s exuberant energy seemed to take a dive at that moment, and he sighed heavily. “Actually, Sakura-san and I spoke about that in great depth, and she requested that I move on to someone else. She said I do not deserve to wait around for her to be ready, and that it is unlikely that she ever will be.”

“Oh, man, that sucks. I’m sorry.”

“It is all right!” Lee said, loudly, as though the volume would somehow add to the truth of this statement. “I have bounced back from the rejection and learned to see Sakura-san as a friend!” He struck the Nice Guy Pose, something Naruto had missed seeing, and his smile was back, brilliant and somehow far too big.

“Yeah, well, maybe you’ll find someone here,” Naruto said, shrugging. Lee seemed to choke on his own tongue, turning beat red. “Oh, man, you do like someone here! Who is it? Is she hot? Or maybe it’s—” Lee covered Naruto’s mouth quickly with his hand, the force sending Naruto roughly into the wall. “Omph. Oi! Le’go!”

“Gomenasai!” Lee rushed to apologize, still so red Naruto would have mistaken it for a really bad sunburn had he not known any better. “I am very sorry, Naruto-kun. Are you all right?”

“Yeah, yeah. I’m fine. I forgot how strong you are.”

“I am so sorry, Naruto-kun! I really did not mean to—”

“It’s fine,” Naruto said, waving him off. He leaned forward to whisper to Lee. “I just wasn’t thinking. I know I shouldn’t go shouting about things like that in public. Especially in a foreign village.”

Lee nodded, dropping his gaze to the floor. “Yes, I would not want to create problems here.”

Naruto nodded sagely. “Yeah, but we should definitely spar while you’re here!” He glanced at Gaara who was watching them, his mouth turned down in confusion, arms crossed. “Maybe we can even get Gaara to join us!”

“I already asked the Kazekage,” Lee muttered. “It would be an inconvenience for him, I am sure. He has many important duties to attend to.”

Naruto shook his head. “Gaara needs to have a little fun.”

“I do not wish to spar with either of you,” Gaara said, softly. “That is very dangerous.”

“Yeah, sure, Gaara. I’m dragging your ass down to the training grounds and we’re gonna have a match, you just watch!”

“I will watch, if that is your wish, but I will not join you.”

“Naruto-kun, it is really all right. We can spar, but I am sure the Kazekage is very busy.”

Naruto waved away Lee’s comment, grinning as he threw an arm around Lee. “Come on, Fuzzy Brows, don’t you wanna spar with Gaara again? I bet you’ve got lots of new moves you could show him!”

Gaara gave Naruto a harsh look, but didn’t say anything, walking on ahead. “Hurry up, I have things to do.”

“You have upset him,” Lee whispered. “I really do not want to pester him, Naruto-kun.”

“But it’s so fun!”

“It is only fun to you. I do not want to cause any problems for the Kazekage.”

“Oi! Gaara, is Fuzzy Brows causing you problems?”

Lee’s eyes widened comically, his arms flailing around and his face once again red, but Naruto covered his mouth quickly to stop all protests from the green-clad ninja. “Mmph!

Gaara gave the two a long, calculating look before turning his back on them and walking forward. “He is not an inconvenience.”

“See, Fuzzy Brows, Gaara likes you!” Gaara stopped walking, cocking his head back to glance at Naruto, and Lee’s face reached a new level of red. “Say Gaara, aren’t you Fuzzy Brows friend?”

Lee closed his eyes, looking pained and just about ready to pass out from sheer embarrassment.

“Yes, we are friends.”

Lee’s eyes snapped open, and Naruto grinned. “See, Fuzzy Brows, nothing to worry about. You’re not causing problems for Gaara, and he won’t get mad at you if you pester him. Well, not too mad.”

Lee nodded, tugging on Naruto’s arm. “O-okay.”

“Your room is this way, Naruto. I have things to do. Hurry up.”

“Oh, right. Sorry. Hey, Fuzzy Brows, you want to spar after I get settled?”

“I would like to, Naruto-kun, but we will have to wait.”

“Oh, come on! Aren’t you just ready to kick some ass? I heard you’ve tired everyone out!”

“Yes, but it is just that—”

“Come on, Fuzzy Brows. I wanna spar! It’s been ages!”

“Naruto,” Gaara said, an edge of impatience in his voice. “You cannot spar. It is too early for that.”

“Huh?”

“The sun is at its highest point. Even Suna shinobi don’t train outside at this hour. It would be even stupider for a foreign ninja to do so. You would get heat stroke.”

“Oh. Okay. Well, that makes sense, I guess. But when can we spar?”

“Early in the morning or in the evening.”

“Man. I have bad timing. I should have gotten here later. Well, I guess you could show me around the village, right, Fuzzy Brows?”

“Aa, I do not really know the village all that well, Naruto-kun. I am sure you know it better than I do.”

Naruto shook his head. “We can hang out then. What about Neji and Kiba?”

“They do not want to leave their rooms. They said it is too hot.”

“Really? Well, I guess that makes sense. Kiba’s always got on that coat.”

“He also wants to take care of Akamaru.”

“All right, then it’ll be you and me! Unless the Kazekage can find time in his busy schedule to join us.”

Gaara seemed to think it over for a moment, stopping in front of a door. “Perhaps. I will let you know. This is your room.”

“Oh, you are right next to me,” Lee said, grinning.

“Great, we can have a sleep over,” Naruto teased, nudging Lee. “Hey, Gaara, you wanna join us for a sleep over?”

Gaara frowned. “I do not sleep that much, Naruto.”

“What? Really? But you’re not the host for Shukaku anymore, right?”

“It’s an old habit. And I have bad dreams. I do not sleep much, and I don’t need to.”

“Right, well, then we don’t have to sleep,” Naruto said cheekily, wiggling his eyebrows.

Lee choked, and whispered urgently in Naruto’s ear, “Naruto-kun, that is inappropriate!”

Naruto chuckled, and Gaara gave Lee a confused look. “How is not sleeping inappropriate.”

“Etto,” Lee mumbled, blushing. “I—uh, well, it us just that—”

“Fuzzy Brows, you are obviously thinking dirty thoughts that I want no part of.” Naruto grinned broadly. “Honestly, I didn’t even mean it like that,” he said with a wink.

Lee shook his head. “I have to go!” And he nearly knocked Naruto over with the force of his exit, he ran so fast.

“Man, he’s still the fastest guy around, isn’t he?”

Gaara watched Lee go, a confused look on his face. “I don’t understand. What was inappropriate about your comment?”

Naruto shook his head. He hadn’t thought he’d get stuck explaining it to the Kazekage. “Well, Lee thought I was making a dirty joke.”

“A joke about dirt. I don’t see how that comment relates to dirt.”

“Gaara,” Naruto said, shaking his head. “Not about dirt. About sex.”

“Sex,” Gaara repeated tonelessly.

“Yeah. Sex. You know, when two people, you know, have sex.”

“I know what sex is, Naruto.”

“Oh, okay. Well, I’m glad I don’t have to explain that at least!”

“I still don’t see how that comment relates to sex.”

Naruto shook his head and patted Gaara’s shoulder. “You are very naïve, you know that?”

Gaara shook his head. “I know what sex is.”

“Yeah, but you don’t get the joke, Gaara. In fact, I bet you don’t get a lot of sex jokes.”

“I don’t see why that’s relevant.”

Naruto stared at Gaara dumbfounded. “Why it’s—Gaara, come on, you’re a guy. Sex is important to guys. We want to have sex. It’s like, one of our goals in life! Dirty jokes are expected of us. Well, maybe not Fuzzy Brows. He’s all about ‘Love’ and ‘The Spring Time of Youth!’ I don’t think he makes a lot of dirty jokes. But most guys joke about sex.”

“Is sex funny?”

Naruto groaned. “You know what, I’m gonna go inside and cool off. Go ask your brother. I give up.” Gaara stared at Naruto as he threw his hands in the air, opened the door to his room and tossed his stuff inside. “I’ll see you later, maybe when Fuzzy Brows isn’t so embarrassed we can all go get something to eat?”

Gaara nodded. “I’ll see if I have time.”

“Great! Later, Gaara.”

Gaara nodded and turned, heading down the hall and out the door. Naruto watched, shaking his head. It was beyond him how Gaara could be so naïve after all the killing he’d done. Some things never ceased to confuse him.

***
Lee knocked on Naruto’s door an hour later, looking much more calm and a whole lot less red, although Naruto noticed that there was a faint pink streak from a sunburn across Lee’s nose, which he’d missed with all of Lee’s blushing. They headed out to grab a bite to eat, the sun still too high for them to bother with training yet. Naruto insisted on dragging Lee to Gaara’s office to see if he wanted to join them, but Gaara was busy with paperwork and waved them away, promising to join them for dinner or breakfast if he could find the time.

“Man, he works too much,” Naruto complained, sitting on a rooftop high above the village. “Why can’t he be like Granny Tsunade?”

“I doubt it would be a good idea for the Kazekage to drink, Naruto-kun.”

“Yeah, well, he doesn’t have to drink. He could get high on life, or something stupid like that. I mean, you know, he could put off the work for a bit and hang out. It’s not like we see him that much.”

Lee nodded. “Yes, but the Kazekage has to take care of his village. He cannot just ignore important paperwork.”

“Granny Tsunade does all the time.”

“Yes, well, the Kazekage is a very different person.”

“Ano sa, why don’t you call him by his name?”

“Because that would be disrespectful!”

“But you’re friends.”

“We—well, I just figured, I mean I do not want to be rude.”

“I don’t think Gaara’s really big on etiquette, Fuzzy Brows.”

Lee nodded. “I-I guess. But I still feel it would be rude to call him by his name. If he asked me to, that would be different, but I would still only refer to him as ‘Gaara-sama’ out of respect for his position in this village, as well as respect for his skills as a shinobi.”

Naruto rolled his eyes. “So, when I’m Hokage are you gonna start calling me ‘Hokage-sama’ and ‘Naruto-sama’?” he asked with a snicker.

Lee grinned. “It is good to hear you talk about becoming Hokage again, Naruto-kun. And yes, I would refer to you with the respect your position deserves.”

“You’re ridiculous. We’re friends! It would be weird if you did that.”

“But—”

“No,” Naruto said, cutting him off and frowning. “As Hokage I will make it a rule that none of my friends will refer to me as anything but my name. Or ‘The Great Uzumaki Naruto.’”

Lee laughed. “Well, if it is a rule, then I guess I will have to follow it.”

“Damn right. So, when do you guys leave?”

“Oh, not for another two weeks. I cannot tell you what we are here for though.”

“Nah, of course not. That’s a long time though. Must be some mission.”

Lee nodded. “Yes, it is a very high-security A-rank mission.”

Naruto whistled. “Wow.”

“Do you miss taking missions?”

Naruto shrugged. “Kind of. I miss a lot of things. But it’s been nice. I feel different. You know? Like I’m not training for someone else, I’m just training for me now, and all the things I’ve seen and done, it’s all for me. It’s special. I’m not ready to go back yet. Gaara said I could stay here as long as I wanted to, so I was thinking I might take him up on that and kick back for a month before heading off again.”

“Where will you go after this?”

Naruto shrugged. “Haven’t decided yet. Someplace I haven’t been yet. I’ve visited a bunch of old friends, this was the last place I wanted to see before I hit uncharted territory. So, who knows? I’ll go where the wind takes me.”

“We miss you back home.”

“Yeah, I’ll bet. Who wouldn’t miss me?” He scratched the back of his neck, suddenly serious. “How’s—how’s Sasuke doing?”

Lee was silent for a moment, his own gaze serious and intent, his expression thoughtful. “I have not spoken with Sasuke-kun much. He was—When I left, he seemed to be doing all right. But it has been very difficult for everyone having him back. He is not the same person he was when he first left Konoha when we were young, but he is not quite the same person he was when you were chasing him either. He seemed kind of lost. When he found out you had left the village—” Lee broke off, shaking his head. “He nearly went after you.”

“What?!?!”

“He was furious, Naruto-kun. I had to go on a mission the day you left and it took me a week to get back, but when I returned his chakra had been sealed and he was in the hospital again. He had injured himself trying to leave. Sakura-san said he had wanted to kill you. She said that he kept shouting about how he was going to kill you for bringing him back and then leaving him.”

“But—but he wanted me out of his life!”

“Sometimes people say things to hurt others, things they do not mean. Sasuke-kun was trying to hurt you, Naruto-kun, the way he thought you would hurt him.”

“That bastard. Did he hurt anyone?”

Lee shook his head. “No. He did not. He just wanted to leave. Kakashi-sensei fought him, and Sakura-san tried to help, but it did not take much to take him down from what I understand. He had been doing better after your fight, but he was not fully healed. Whatever it was you had done to him was very damaging, so when he tried to leave, all that healing had to be done over after that.”

“Shit. Why did he do that? Stupid bastard.”

“He misses you.”

Naruto was silent, staring down at the village. “I miss him, too. Sometimes I dream about him, and when I wake up, I just want to go back, but then I remind myself why I’m out here, why I’m traveling and I stop myself. In the first month, I was passing through this village not too far from Konoha and I could have sworn I’d seen Sasuke. I ran after this person, thinking, ‘What the hell is that bastard doing here?’ You know? I was so angry. But when I caught up to them, it wasn’t him.” Naruto snorted. “It was just some girl doing her shopping. She thought I was gonna steal from her at first because I just came charging up to her. She even hit me, but I explained to her that I’d thought she was someone who wasn’t supposed to be outside of our village and she calmed down a bit. But after that I made sure to leave that place quick. I didn’t want any trouble.

“But I was so sure it was him, you know. It’s funny, because it was just some girl. Sasuke would kill me if he found out I’d mistaken a girl for him, but I just miss him so much. Sometimes I just want to see him so badly that I see him everywhere. Or I hear his voice when someone else is talking. And I know it’s not him, like I can think, ‘that’s definitely not the bastard,’ but my stomach still gets all funny and I just want to rush up to whoever I think is him.” He shook his head. “It’s really kind of pathetic.”

“No, it is not. You love him, Naruto-kun. It makes sense that you would feel that way. And I am sure Sasuke-kun has been having just as much trouble. None of us were sure when you would decide to come back, so Sasuke-kun spent a lot of time looking for you. I mean, it was not obvious. He would not want us to know he was doing it, but sometimes he would come out to eat with us, and we would all be sitting and laughing, except Sasuke-kun. He would be staring ahead at something so seriously, and when we would look at what it was, there would not be anything that stood out, but then we would see blond hair, and it made sense.”

Naruto smile softly. “Thanks, Fuzzy Brows.”

“Do you think you will come home soon?”

“I don’t know. I told Granny I’d be gone at least six months, so I can’t come back before then. And I might decide to stay out here longer. I might need to be take another six months. I’ve been doing some really great things, training and figuring things out, but I still can’t figure out how to exist without Sasuke.”

Lee frowned. “But if he is your most important person, why would you try to exist without him?”

Naruto felt as though a bucket of ice water had just been dumped on his head. He turned to face Lee, his mouth open, but he didn’t know what he wanted to say. Lee had a point. But wasn’t that why he’d left? Kakashi had been right that he needed to learn to exist for something other than Sasuke, so who was right?

“Naruto-kun?”

He shook his head. “It’s just Kakashi-sensei and I talked about it, you know? About my feelings for Sasuke, and he said that I needed to find myself. That Sasuke and I both had to figure out who we were. I’d spent so much time chasing Sasuke, I’d been willing to die with him and give up my dream to become Hokage, and with Sasuke back, I had to figure out who I was again. Because even with him back, I couldn’t go back to just wanting to be Hokage. I had to be with him. Everything was still about him. And Sasuke…” He trailed off, thinking about all the darkness that had been in Sasuke’s heart before Naruto had brought him back, all the darkness that was probably still there. “Kakashi-sensei said that Sasuke needed to figure out who he was without revenge. That’s why I left. Sasuke and I needed to be away from each other. My life had revolved around him completely, and his life had been about revenge, and I’d been apart of that revenge. First, it was running from me, and then it was wanting to kill me.

“I guess in a way my life still revolves around him. I left Konoha because of him, didn’t I?” He laughed without humor. “Maybe I’ve failed at figuring out who I am without him.”

Lee shook his head. “I do not think so. You are very different from when you were chasing him, and from when you were forced to not see him once he had returned. You talk about being Hokage the way you did before your life became about bringing Sasuke-kun home. And you smile like you used to. Naruto-kun, I think you have done a good job. And maybe you have to take a bit more time, but do not think that what you have done already has not been enough. Because you have changed. Also, remember that, despite needing to be your own person, Sasuke-kun is still your most important person, so it is okay to think about him a lot and want to do things for him or because of him. It is okay to miss him, and it is okay to feel that you are not whole without him.”

Naruto stared at Lee for a long moment, taking in the earnest expression on the other man’s face and processing his words. “I never thought about it that way.”

Lee smiled. “You just have to learn to balance it, Naruto-kun. Your love for Sasuke-kun and who you are. Because who you are is why you love Sasuke-kun, but it is not all that you are.”

“You’re a lot smarter than you look,” Naruto said with a grin.

“Thank y—hey!”

Naruto laughed as Lee made to punch his arm. They scuffled for a bit before it became too hot, and then fell back on the rock, staring up at the clear desert sky. “It’s too hot here.”

“Yes, I do not know how the residents of Suna do it.”

“Well, I’m sure they do it just like the residents of Konoha, Fuzzy Brows. Naked, hot and sweaty, and probably indoors.”

Lee spluttered his indignation. “Naruto-kun!”

“What? I’m just saying! Although, if the residents are half as naïve about sex as Gaara is—”

“Naruto-kun! You should not talk about the Kazekage that way.”

“What? I’m just kidding. He knows we’re friends, and besides, it’s true. Someone needs to educate him in the ways of sex. I don’t know how a guy our age can be that ignorant about such things without being you.”

“I am not ignorant, Naruto-kun. I just do not joke around about it the way you and the others do.”

“You’re such a girl.”

“I assure you I am not.”

“Ew, gross. I don’t need to hear that!”

“You are the one who brought it up.”

Naruto laughed. “I didn’t know you had it in you, Fuzzy Brows. Looks like there’s hope for you yet.”

Lee frowned. “I do not know. I have not been very lucky in love. Most people think I am very strange.”

“That’s because you are, but that’s also why we all like you so much. It’s, etto, what’s that word? It means, oh shit. I don’t remember. But whatever it is, that’s what you are. And we love ya for it.”

Lee stared at Naruto, his eyes wet with unshed, manly tears, his smile bright. “Arigatou, Naruto-kun!”

Naruto shook his head. “Come on, let’s go inside. I’m sick of this heat.”

“It is very hot. The Kazekage looked like he wanted to kill me when he saw me training at this time of the day yesterday. I was so restless though! I had not meant to upset him.”

“I’m sure he wasn’t that upset. It’s just Gaara. He’s all intense and shit.”

Lee shook his head. “He was very upset! He told me that it was very foolish to train in this heat, especially because I am not used to it, and I was not even wearing the proper gear, and he would write to Hokage-sama if I did it again!”

“He threatened to write to Granny?”

Lee nodded. “Yes! And he escorted me back to my room! The Kazekage! I was so embarrassed, Naruto-kun. And when we got to my door, Neji and Kiba-kun were standing in the hall, and then the Kazekage told me that I was to stay put, and—oh, god, it was so embarrassing. He was so blunt and they kept laughing, Naruto-kun! I have not been able to face them properly since!”

“What else did he say?”

“Please do not make me say it,” Lee begged.

“Oh, come on! Now you have to tell me.”

“Naruto-kun,” Lee whined. “Please.”

“I’ll go ask Gaara then. He won’t have a problem with telling me!”

Lee grabbed Naruto, dragging him to the ground. “No! Please do not! I will tell you! He said—he said that,” Lee buried his face in his hands, mumbling something that Naruto missed, but that he was sure would be the funniest thing he’d ever heard.

“What was that?”

“’Your wardrobe is inappropriate for Suna. It’s too form fitting and it doesn’t breathe. You will change out of these before you train again. If you don’t have the proper Suna gear, I will bring you something suitable to wear.’”

“That can’t be it, Fuzzy Brows. Come on. You’re holding back.”

Lee bit his lip, glancing around to make sure no one was listening. “He—he told me that if I didn’t change the next time I trained I would get a rash from all the sweat and chaffing in a very… personal place.”

Naruto fell over laughing. “Oh, man! He didn’t! Oh, and I bet he even said the word ‘penis’!”

“Naruto-kun!” Lee said, aghast. “It is not funny! I was very embarrassed!”

“Oh, come on, Lee. Think about it, the Kazekage, Gaara of the Desert warned you to change out of that because if you didn’t you’d get a rash on your privates! That’s hilarious!”

“It was the most embarrassing experience of my life!” Lee whined. “Worse than Sakura-san rejecting me!”

“Oh, I bet. With everyone watching, and Gaara probably had no idea how awful that must have been for you,” he snickered. “Trust Gaara to pull something like that. He really has no social skills.”

Lee nodded, his brow furrowed in distress. “I hid in my room for hours. Kiba-kun kept laughing at me, and I could not imagine facing my Eternal Rival after that! The Kazekage—oh, god, I will never live it down!”

“It’s okay. I’d say you could try and embarrass Gaara right back, but that wouldn’t work. He’s probably immune to embarrassment.”

“And he is the Kazekage. That would be inappropriate!”

Naruto rolled his eyes. “Oh, right. I forgot I was talking to you for a second.” He stood up and stretched his arms high over his head, still grinning. “Come on, maybe Gaara will be free and I can make jokes about rashes in front of him without him even blinking.”

Lee groaned. “Naruto-kun, please do not do that.”

“Does it really matter to you that much?”

“Yes,” Lee said, hopeful and sincere.

Naruto’s grin turned wicked and he bolted before Lee could blink, not that it mattered. Lee was faster than Naruto, even with his leg weights on, and Naruto barely got twenty feet away before Lee was on him, begging him not to go to the Kazekage and further embarrass him.

***
It turned out Gaara really had no patience for Naruto and Lee rolling around the Suna streets during the hottest part of the day, causing a ruckus. He glared at the two of them as he sat down behind his desk, waiting for them to take a seat. Naruto felt worse for Lee because it hadn’t been his fault, and Lee was all about propriety and respect. He hadn’t meant to cause any problems for the Kazekage. But, of course, Naruto had gone and caused them, so really, he should be the one taking the brunt of the Kazekage’s anger. He glanced at Lee, who had never looked so dejected and humiliated in all his life, then to Gaara, and then back to the green-clad ninja. Lee had a cut lip and his green suit was covered in dirt, but he was otherwise unharmed. Naruto was in much the same way, with a few scrapes here and there on his hands and dirt in his hair and on his clothes.

Gaara continued to stare at them from behind his desk, his inability to comprehend normal human emotions leaving no room for Naruto to plead to Gaara’s sense of compassion and understanding. If he could have done that, at the least he could have spared Lee from having to deal with this.

“Ne, Gaara, you know we were just fooling around,” he tried. Gaara’s glare just became more severe. Lee swallowed audibly, dropping his gaze to the floor. “Come on, Gaara, we weren’t trying to cause problems.”

“But you did.”

“Yeah, and we’re sorry. Besides, it’s more my fault than his.”

Gaara’s eyes narrowed. “He tackled you.”

“Because I was taunting him.”

“Taunting him?”

“Yeah. I was teasing him about something, and he didn’t want me to—” Lee made an odd choking sound cutting off whatever Naruto was gonna say. The blond sighed. “Look, we were just messing around. I promise it won’t happen again.”

“Yes, Kazekage-sama, we are very sorry and we promise to be on our best behavior!” Lee added with all the sincerity and humility expected of him. “Please, accept our apology.”

Gaara gave Lee an odd look before returning his gaze to Naruto. “Don’t tease him.”

Naruto stared in rapt confusion at the Kazekage, his mouth falling open. “Ee?”

“Don’t tease him.”

Lee gave Naruto a perplexed look, before turning to the Kazekage. “Sumimasen, but are you telling Naruto-kun to—”

“Yes. He is not permitted to tease you if this is what happens.”

The smile that had started to spread across Lee’s face faltered and disappeared, his shoulders slumping again as realisation dawned. “Oh, right. Of course.”

Gaara frowned, but didn’t comment on Lee’s odd behavior. “Naruto.”

“Yeah?”

“You will not tease him.”

“Yeah, I heard you already. Can we go? I’m hungry.”

“I thought you two already went out to eat.”

Naruto shrugged. “We didn’t know where to go. And everyone kept giving Fuzzy Brows weird looks. So we just decided to wait until later.”

“I see.” Gaara stood up, and nodded at the two, picking up his gourd and slinging it over his back. “Come with me.”

“Where are we going?”

“To get food.”

Naruto rolled his eyes. “Oh. That was helpful.”

“You won’t receive strange looks if I’m there.”

“Oh, but Kazekage-sama, we do not want to inconvenience you! You have done so much, and we have caused so much trouble—”

“It’s fine.”

“But—”

“I will go with you.”

The three walked out of the Kazekage’s office and out onto the streets of Suna once more. The villagers skittered around them, glancing warily from Lee to Naruto as though expecting them to do something insane and not at all proper for this kind of heat, and then they would glance nervously at their Kage. Lee received more stares than any of them, but whenever a pair of eyes met the Kazekage’s gaze, they always looked away instantly. Lee seemed grateful, and shifted to walk behind Gaara as opposed to next to him, as though that would shield him from the gawking citizens. Naruto thought Lee’s embarrassment came from their earlier scuffle and not from the fact that the villagers obviously found his dress and looks odd.

They reached their destination, a small restaurant hidden behind a fruit stand. When the Kazekage entered everyone, save for one drunken man at the bar, fell silent and all eyes watched as he made his way to a table in a corner, followed by the two foreigners.

“Ka-Kazekage-sama,” a young woman, obviously one of the servers, said as she approached their table. She glanced quickly from each man in turn, her eyes widening a bit as she took Lee in. “C-can I get you anything to drink?”

“Can I get water?” Naruto whined. “It’s too damn hot.”

“Cactus juice,” Gaara intoned. “For all of us.”

“But I want water.”

“That’s a waste of water, Naruto. And cactus juice is very hydrating.”

“What?”

“Naruto-kun, this is the desert. You have to conserve water here.”

“What? Really? Man, that sucks. Does that mean I can’t take long showers?”

“It means you can only take five minute showers once every other day.”

“What? But I’ll get all gross and sweaty!”

“That’s why there’s a wash basin in your room.”

“A wash—oh, man, but that’s not gonna get me clean! Fine, fine. But don’t come whining to me when your villagers start complaining about the smell.”

“Naruto-kun,” Lee groaned. “You should not speak to the Kazekage like that.”

Naruto snorted. “He doesn’t mind, do you, Gaara?”

“I don’t see a problem with it.”

“See, Fuzzy Brows. You’re just being uptight. Isn’t he?”

Gaara was silent, and Lee looked away, his face flushed. “I am not uptight. I just think you should treat the Kazekage more respectfully.”

“But Gaara’s our friend. He doesn’t care if we respect him!”

Lee rolled his eyes. “I am sure that is not true.”

“You are rather formal,” Gaara finally said, his usual monotone laced with an edge of confusion. “You consider me a friend, but you refuse to call me by my name.”

“B-but that is because you are the Kazekage! It would be rude to call you by your name without asking.”

Gaara’s eyes narrowed. “Then ask.”

“W-what?”

Naruto laughed, shaking his head. “Oh, man, Fuzzy Brows. I told you!”

“B-but—”

”Seriously, just call him by his name. It’s not gonna kill you and it’s not gonna start a war or something.”

“A-are you sure that is all right?”

“Yes,” Gaara replied, annoyance slipping out in his answer.

Lee flushed, but nodded, dropping his gaze. “Ha-hai, Kaze—etto, Gaara-sama.”

“See, but you’re still being too formal! Drop the honorifics, Fuzzy Brows.”

“But—!”

“Come on, Gaara doesn’t care. Right, Gaara?”

Gaara inclined his head a fraction. “Naruto is right. I do not care.”

Lee swallowed. “All right, Ga-Gaara-kun?” He flushed overdramatically and hid behind his hands, as Naruto slid to the floor laughing. Gaara’s mouth twitched, whether in annoyance or amusement was unclear. “On second thought, I’ll just stick with ‘Gaara’.”

“That would be appreciated.”

At that moment the young woman returned with their drinks, her hands shaking slightly as she set them on the table. “D-do you know what you’d like to eat yet?”

Naruto and Lee shook their heads. “Gomen, we have not had a chance to look at the menus yet.”

“O-okay. Just call me when you need me.” She quickly scampered back to the counter, watching and waiting for them to signal her again. Most of the other patrons still hadn’t returned to their meals and conversations quite yet, but Gaara was apparently very good at ignoring the stares of his villagers.

“The food here is good,” he offered. “My assistant sometimes brings me food from here when I’m working late.”

Lee nodded, apparently hanging on Gaara’s every word, and Naruto couldn’t help but frown. “You know, I never really thought you ate food.”

“Why would I not eat food?”

“Well, you don’t sleep. And you don’t really smile, or do anything else normal people do. I kind of just thought you didn’t eat either.”

“Naruto-kun!” Lee cried, clearly aghast.

Gaara’s mouth twitched. “I eat very often. More than usual. It helps keep my energy levels up.”

“Really?”

“Yes. I eat more as a substitute for not sleeping enough.”

“Oh, that makes sense!” Lee said with a grin. “I could give you recipes for some of Gai-sensei’s power foods! They give you lots of energy!”

“Ugh, but they taste terrible.”

“Taste is irrelevant. Give me the recipes.”

“Jeeze, Gaara, you could at least say ‘please,’” Naruto joked.

“He does not have to—”

“Please.”

“Ha-hai, Kaze—Gaara-sama. I mean, Gaara.”

They fell silent as Lee and Naruto began scanning the menus. The waitress returned not long after, and they placed their orders. Between the three of them, they’d practically ordered the entire kitchen, and the young woman boggled at them as she quickly went to put the order in. Naruto thought he heard pans dropping in back after a moment, but figured that no one would actually tell the Kazekage off for ordering too much food with his friends.

“Oi, little missy, I want more sake!” the man at the bar shouted.

Lee shook his head, but didn’t comment, while Naruto snickered. “Man, that guy is wasted.”

“He really should not be drinking so much so early in the day,” Lee said in a reproving tone. “That is a very unhealthy habit.”

“Hey, Gaara, have you ever had alcohol?”

“No.”

“Aw, you’re no fun.”

“I do like not being in control of myself. And I see no point in drinking alcohol if it makes you act like that.”

Naruto snorted. “I think the point is it’s fun. Oh, hey, Gaara, after we eat can you show us around? I’m so bored.”

Gaara rolled his eyes. “If it will keep you out of trouble for the day, then yes.”

“Ha!” Naruto pumped his fist in the air, nearly knocking over the first tray of food as the young woman returned. “Oh, shit. Sorry!” he said, grabbing it before it could fall over. “I didn’t see you there.”

“I-it’s fine,” she mumbled, setting the food out for them. “The rest is still being made. Do you want me to bring that out right when it’s done? Or should I wait for you to finish this?”

“We’ll finish this first.”

“Ha-hai, Kazekage-sama!”

Naruto chuckled behind his hand as the waitress rushed back to the counter. “Man, I bet you don’t get any action, Gaara. All the ladies are scared of you!”

“Action? I see plenty of action—” Lee spat out the food he’d just shoved in his mouth, choking and flushing deeply red. “Being Kazekage is not all paper work. I take on missions and fight, and protect my village from more than just rouge ninja.”

“Oh, man, Gaara. That went right over your head,” Naruto said, a bit breathless. He’d actually thought for a moment that the Kazekage was about to relay his sexual escapades, and was incredibly relieved to find that that wasn’t the case. Lee seemed to be feeling the same. “I meant sex.”

“Why would I have sex?”

“You’re worse than Fuzzy Brows. Sex is supposed to be fun.”

“Like drinking alcohol?”

“Etto, no. Not like drinking alcohol. That’s different. Come on, Fuzzy Brows, help me out.”

“This is not appropriate conversation for lunch with the Kazekage!” Lee squeaked. Naruto thought he could have cooked an egg on the other’s face, it was so red.

“You know, Fuzzy Brows, if you don’t stop blushing like that, you’re gonna be permanently red.”

“I-I am just embarrassed by this topic of conversation, Naruto-kun! It is not appropriate—”

“Oh, come on. We’re friends. Chill out. Besides, don’t you think Gaara needs to understand how that kind of thing works? If he doesn’t, he can never experience the Spring Time of Youth,” Naruto teased.

Lee gasped in all his usual overdramatic fashion. “But—but that is not possible! He is in the Spring Time of Youth right now!”

“But he doesn’t know about girls, Fuzzy Brows. And sex—” Lee spluttered indignantly. “Love, I mean. He doesn’t know about all the beautiful flowering of love and youth and stuff.”

“What are you talking about, Naruto?”

Naruto shook his head, giving Gaara a pointed look that the Kage completely misinterpreted. “Come on, Fuzzy Brows. You don’t want Gaara to miss out on something like the Ultimate Spring Time of Youth, do you?”

“Etto…” Lee scratched the back of his neck, glancing at a very confused Gaara before looking to Naruto again. “That is really not appropriate for us to discuss with the Kazekage, though.”

“He doesn’t mind! Besides, we’re friends! And as friends we have to help him out. Hell, you could use some help too.”

“I do not want help, Naruto-kun.”

“Oh, come on, Fuzzy Brows. This is the most fun I’ve had in a month! I haven’t seen either of you in ages. Humor me.”

“But—”

“Please,” Naruto said, making his eyes big and bright. Lee’s resolve seemed to waver. “Besides, isn’t there someone here you’ve got your eye on?”

Lee shook his head emphatically. “N-no!!! I-I do not want to partake in whatever you have planned! It is bound to be inappropriate and-and—vulgar and I want no part in it!”

Naruto shook his head, slumping back in his chair. “You sure know how to take all the fun out of life, Fuzzy Brows.”

“I am not—I did not mean—I just do not think that is appropriate!”

“Why is it not appropriate to talk about sex?” Gaara asked.

Lee squeaked. “Ga-Gaara, it is just… sex is very private. And it is not something that you just—just talk about like that!”

“I thought people our aged talked about it a lot.”

“Well, yes. I guess, that is true. But it is inappropriate, and the way most people talk about it—I mean, it is really—Naruto-kun!”

“What Lee is trying to say is that sex embarrasses him.”

“That is not it!”

“See, Lee’s all about Love Making. He wants to meet some beautiful lady or sexy man—”

“Naruto-kun!”

“Oh, oops. Sorry.”

“’A sexy man,’” Gaara repeated, tonelessly.

Lee’s head fell forward on the table with a loud thunk!

“I’m sorry, Fuzzy Brows. I didn’t mean to—”

“Silence! I need to die in peace! I cannot believe you said—actually, I can! But why did you have to say that in front of the Kazekage—”

“Is that also inappropriate?”

“Gaara, can you give me a minute, please?”

“I want to curl up in a ball and die. This is so humiliating. Of all the people to out me in front of!”

“I’m sorry, Fuzzy Brows. I bet Gaara doesn’t even care! He probably doesn’t even understand what I meant!”

“You said that he wanted to meet another man for sex.”

“Oh god! No!” Lee half-sobbed into the table.

“Fuzzy Brows! Snap out of it! It’s not that bad!”

“There is a brothel in the Red Light District that caters to men who want to have sex with other men,” Gaara intoned. He sounded oddly curious, Naruto noticed.

Lee stuffed his fingers in his ears, shaking his head. “This is not happening, this is not happening.”

Naruto tugged at Lee’s arms, but they didn’t budge. “Damn. Me and my big mouth.” He flopped back into his chair as Lee’s endless muttering of “Not happening,” repeated over and over again.

“Explain, Naruto.”

“Uh, well. Fuzzy Brows is—it’s called, uh,” he screwed his face up in concentration, trying to remember the term Kakashi had told him. “Bisexual! That’s it.” Lee groaned and hit his head against the table again, apparently determined to knock himself out. “It means he likes men and women.”

Gaara stared impassively at Naruto, making the blond fidget. “Damn, where’s Kakashi-sensei when you need him,” he mumbled. “See, it’s like, sometimes a guy is attracted to another guy, and that means he’s gay—unless he also finds girls attractive, then he’s bi. And sometimes women like other women, that means they’re lesbian! It’s not just for perverts! Girls actually do that stuff with each other sometimes!”

The Kazekage blinked, the table shaking as Lee continued to attempt to bash his brains against it without actually toppling it over. “I understand that. I meant, explain about Lee.”

“Yeah, but most people are heterosexual,” he went, completely ignoring the Kazekage’s request. “That’s when you’re only attracted to people of the opposite sex. So, like how you’d be attracted to women—”

“I am not attracted to women.”

The table immediately stopped shaking and Lee’s mutterings died. Naruto tilted his head. “Oh. Wait. Are you gay?”

“I’m not attracted to men, either.”

Naruto nodded slowly, his brows furrowing.

“You are asexual,” Lee said, his voice soft and embarrassed.

“Oh. That’s weird,” Naruto offered. “I don’t see how you can not want to have sex with someone.”

“I’ve never seen the appeal of sex.”

“Yeah, like I said, that’s weird.”

“Naruto-kun, do not be rude.”

“I’m not! I’m just saying it’s weird. I mean, how can you not look at a cute girl and find that appealing? Or a cute guy!”

“Are you gay?”

“Nah. I’m equal opportunities.”

“But he is in love with Sasuke-kun.”

“Fuzzy Brows!”

“Uchiha Sasuke,” Gaara said softly. “I see.”

“Etto, yeah. Well, he’s a bastard, but I guess it doesn’t matter.”

“Does he return your feelings?”

“Well, I don’t know—”

“I am almost positive that he does,” Lee interrupted. “But Sasuke-kun is very hard to read sometimes, and he is still very closed off. However, if he loves anyone, I believe it is Naruto-kun.”

Gaara blinked, then nodded. “I see.”

“Yeah, yeah. Can we stop talking about my love life?”

“Why? You were all for talking about ours!” Lee said, pointing a dramatic finger at Naruto.

“That’s because you don’t have love lives.”

“Well, neither do you. You still have not told Sasuke-kun, and he has not accepted or rejected your feelings.”

“Yeah, but I at least have someone I love. You just got rejected, and you are a strange deprived man who needs to discover the wonders of sex—or at least dating!”

“I do not want to date.”

Naruto shook his head. “That’s because you haven’t met the right person.”

“It seems inconvenient.”

“It’s a bond, Gaara. It’s like being friends with someone, but more.”

“More?” The Kazekage fell silent, staring at the opposite wall. Naruto shared a look with Lee, and was on the verge of opening his mouth when Gaara spoke. “I have watched the people of my village for a long time. The ones who share this bond—this love—they are different. They get married and have children. They are intimate. They share their lives together. Is that what this type of bond is?”

“Just about.”

“But two men cannot procreate.”

“Yeah, well, to be honest, I don’t think you should procreate. No offense.”

“I have no desire to have children.”

“Good. I think you’d scare them. But even without kids, you can still share all of that with someone. You can kiss and talk and hold hands and have sex and stuff.”

“How do you know when you’ve found it?”

Naruto frowned. “I don’t know. I mean, I thought I liked Sakura-chan, but I didn’t really. And I didn’t figure out how I felt about Sasuke until Sakura-chan told me. Ne, Fuzzy Brows, what about you? How did you know that you liked Sakura-chan? Or that one guy you liked?”

Lee blushed. “Etto, well, when I first saw Sakura-san I thought she was very beautiful. I thought I could see her heart. And when we became friends, I grew to really care for her and respect her. But I do not know exactly how I knew. And then w-with that guy, etto, well I just—I was—I was very enamored of him, but it was a misplaced crush, I know.”

Naruto rolled his eyes. “I don’t think that really helps.”

“Your answer was not any clearer,” Lee pouted, crossing his arms over his chest.

“Do either of you know how to tell when you have found that bond?”

Naruto shrugged. “I guess it just depends on you and who it is. Sometimes, I think it’s just there. Like you just know it, deep down, but other times, you cover it up with other feelings and thoughts. I didn’t know how I felt about Sasuke because he’s a guy. I didn’t know you could feel that way about other guys.”

“It was much the same way for me when I liked another man.”

“I remember though, when I brought Sasuke home, I was so happy. Everything was warm.”

“Warm?”

“Yeah. It was warm.” Naruto shrugged. “I guess that sounds kind of cheesy.”

“That is a beautiful expression of your love, Naruto-kun!”

“Says Captain Cheesy himself.”

Lee apparently didn’t hear him. “When I liked this one person, it was like that too. It was safe and warm. When I thought of him, that is how I felt.”

“Like home, or something,” Naruto said thoughtfully, staring into his glass. “Damn, now I miss Sasuke.”

“Maybe you should return to Konoha.”

Naruto shook his head. “No. I can’t. I have to finish my journey. At the least I can spend another three months figuring things out before I go back.”

“Perhaps you would feel better if you wrote to him,” Lee offered.

“I guess. You don’t think he’d just tear up one of my letters?”

Lee shook his head. “I think he would cherish it, Naruto-kun. Even if he would not admit to it.”

Naruto bit his lip. “Maybe I will. But I don’t know. It feels like that defeats the purpose of my leaving.”

“You are very strong, Naruto-kun, but it is okay to show a little weakness. Sasuke is your number one, most important person after all.”

“Yeah.” Naruto shrugged. “Hey, Gaara, is there a Red Light District here? I think we should buy you porn or something.”

Lee fell out of his chair, accidentally tipping the table and the remains of their first course with it. Gaara cocked his head to one side and blinked. “What’s porn?”

***
Lee had absolutely refused to allow Naruto to drag the Kazekage of Suna to the more seedy part of town to buy him porn, so they’d ended up walking around Suna with Gaara showing them everything they’d need to know for the coming weeks. Eventually, it was cool enough that Naruto and Lee were permitted to spar, and Gaara watched on from the sides. His intense staring ended up making Lee nervous, and the Konoha shinobi ended up losing the first match to Naruto, who parade around the training grounds crowing and taunting Lee.

The second match went to Lee, and they continued for five more matches. Naruto would have won the last won, but Lee, determined to win, took off his leg weights and ran circles around Naruto, so fast the blond haired shinobi fell down too dizzy to keep going. Gaara ordered them to take a break after that, because even though it was much cooler, it was still warm enough out that he was concerned for their well-being.

Naruto insisted they go out for dinner together later that night, and he also promised Gaara in secret to buy him porn so that he would finally understand the joys of being a real teenage boy. Gaara had only blinked at him, but Naruto had taken that for a “Thank you, oh Great Uzumaki-sama.”

“I have work to do,” Gaara said as they made their way back to the shinobi housing compound. “I should get it done if I’m to join you for dinner.”

“All right. I guess Fuzzy Brows and I could do with a shower.”

“Five minutes.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Naruto said with a roll of his eyes. “I know. You people and your water. We’ll see you tonight, Gaara!”

“Goodbye, Ka—Gaara! It was nice spending the day with you!” Lee bowed deeply, his back completely straight, the arms from his suit dangling around his waist. He and Naruto had both had to take off their shirts during their match, and both of them were drenched in sweat.

“I will see you later.”

The Kazekage disappeared in a cloud of sand, leaving Naruto and Lee to return to their rooms. “You’re still too formal with him, you know?”

“I cannot help it. He is the Kazekage. What am I supposed to do? Pretend he is not?”

“Maybe. I mean, if he weren’t the Kazekage, if he were still just Gaara, would you bow like that and forget to call him by his name all the time?”

“I suppose not.”

“Then pretend he’s not the Kazekage!”

Lee frowned. “I do not know if that is a good idea, though. I do not want to disrespect—”

“Fuzzy Brows, did you learn nothing from hanging out with Gaara today?”

“What do you mean?”

“He doesn’t care. He doesn’t care if you call him Gaara, or “hey you!” He doesn’t care if you bow to him or clap him on the back—well, maybe he wouldn’t like being clapped on the back, but you get my point, right?”

“Yes, I do. I just feel weird about it.”

“That’s because you’re ridiculous. Come on, let’s hit the showers. I want to relax for a while before we get dinner.”

“And before you corrupt the Kazekage by buying him porn?”

“Yeah—hey! How did you know?”

“You are very bad at whispering, Naruto-kun.”

“Damn. Oh, well. I’m still gonna do it! And you can’t stop me!”

“Is that a challenge?”

“Fuzzy Brows, Fuzzy Brows. You’re only here two weeks. I, on the other hand, am here a month. You do the math.”

Lee huffed and stomped on ahead, apparently frustrated by his inability to do anything to keep Gaara’s innocent, sex-free mind from being filled with such dirty things. Naruto laughed, following behind to enjoy the shortest and most amazing shower of his life, while he teased Lee endlessly.

***
Two weeks in Suna had given Naruto quite the tan, and taught him how to handle the hot weather. Neji and Kiba had finally decided to join the real world the day after Naruto’s arrival, and so Naruto ended up spending most of his time with them and Lee, and Gaara kept to his work, which seemed to ease Akamaru. The large dog still became uneasy whenever the Kazekage was around, and Kiba had done his best to keep his dog and the Kage from crossing paths during their two weeks there.

Naruto had enjoyed attempting to slip porn into Gaara’s piles of work whenever he and Lee would drop by for a visit. His attempts, though valiant, were always thwarted by an indignant Lee, who would then lecture Naruto about respect and proper etiquette. Gaara seemed to find it amusing, if Naruto was reading the slight upward curve of the Sand ninja’s lips correctly. Neji and Kiba mostly thought Naruto was asking to be killed. Neither of them seemed to get along with Gaara the way Naruto and Lee did, but the Kazekage didn’t seem to want the extra company. On one occasion, Naruto had slipped a gay porn magazine into a pile of mission reports Gaara was going over, and Lee had attempted to remove it without notice when Temari walked in. Naruto had had a good laugh at Lee as he coward behind the Kazekage’s chair, trying to apologize and explain that it hadn’t been him, he was trying to protect Gaara’s innocence.

Naruto would have gotten away with it if Gaara hadn’t told Temari, in his usual monotone, that it had been Naruto who slipped the copy of Sexy Shinobi into his pile of work. Naruto had a bruise for two days after that, and had almost been convinced to give up on his attempts to pollute the Kazekage’s mind with lust. Kankuro seemed to find it amusing in a very distant and slightly disturbing way, but he never joined Naruto, and when Gaara tried to ask him questions about sex, the ninja turned red beneath his paint and excused himself quickly.

All in all, it had been the best two weeks of Naruto’s journey.

“Ah, man,” the blond said, stretching his arms over his head. “Why can’t you guys stay longer?”

Lee seemed to agree, his eyes larger than usual and wet with unshed, manly tears. “I will miss you, Naruto-kun! I hope you return to Konoha soon!”

Naruto grinned. “Don’t worry, I will. But I’ve still got a couple months ahead of me at least.”

“I wish I could stay here with you in Suna!”

“Yeah, who’s gonna protect Gaara from the evil porn magazines?”

Lee spluttered, glancing at Gaara who was standing with his arms crossed and a slight upward curl to his lips. “Gaara, please do not open any untoward-looking documents! Those misrepresent the Ultimate Spring Time of Youth and what that bond truly is!”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” the Kazekage intoned.

“Really?”

Gaara nodded, and Lee pumped a fist in the air. “See, Naruto-kun, even without me here, Gaara will still be careful of your pornographic magazines!”

“He didn’t say he wouldn’t look at them,” Naruto pointed out with a grin.

Lee’s arm drooped. “Ga-Gaara?”

“I’m curious.” Neji and Kiba coughed behind Lee, but didn’t comment. Lee looked hurt and betrayed. “But I will keep in mind what you said about the Ultimate Spring Time of Youth.”

Naruto could no longer take the hilarity of the situation and fell over laughing. Kiba followed suit shortly after, and Neji’s mouth twitched slightly. Lee, on the other hand, looked deeply touched. It seemed that nothing could have made up for Gaara being curious about porn quite like the Kazekage using one of Lee’s trademark phrases.

“Well, we should be off!” Lee exclaimed, after a moment of fighting not to tackle Gaara in a manly hug and gush about the Spring Time of Youth. “We have a three day journey ahead of us, but I am hoping we can make it back to Konoha in half that time!”

Kiba groaned. “Lee, you idiot, not all of us can move that fast.”

“You just need to challenge yourselves!”

Akamaru whined, and the other two gave Lee cool looks as he struck the Nice Guy pose.

“Let us go! Bye, Naruto-kun! Goodbye, Gaara!”

“Bye, Fuzzy Brows!” Naruto called, waving as Lee bolted. Neji, Kiba, and Akamaru all following at a much more sedate pace. “Man, it was good seeing them.”

Gaara didn’t say anything as he watched the others go, but Naruto thought he agreed.

“What are you doing today, Gaara?”

“I have a mission to prepare for. I’m leaving next week. I need to finish all of my paper work before then.”

“Aw, man. So you’re leaving me here all by myself?”

“Kankuro will be here.”

“But he’s no fun. He actually gets it when I make dirty jokes!”

Gaara rolled his eyes. “I have started to pick up on the subtleties of when you are being lewd, Naruto.”

“No, you were just checking to see if Fuzzy Brows reacted badly or not.”

“Lee was very helpful in that respect.”

“Yeah, it won’t be the same making dirty jokes without him.”

“Hn.”

“So how long are you gonna be gone for?”

“A week.”

“Damn. I guess I won’t get to see you before I leave then, huh?”

“That is very likely.”

“I guess I’ll just have to visit again soon! And maybe I can drag Fuzzy Brows with me!”

“That would be acceptable.”

Naruto snorted. “Acceptable? Glad to know you want us around so much. Well, I guess I better go find something to do. I’m sure you’re busy with being the Kazekage and all, so…”

Gaara rolled his eyes again. “I am busy. And I still do not wish to spar with you.”

“You know, one of these days either me or Lee is gonna get you to, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.”

“I doubt that.”

“No, seriously, Gaara. If it’s not me, it’ll definitely be Lee. He’s very persistent. Especially if I challenge him to see which one of us can get you to spar first.”

“I still refuse to spar with you.”

“You say that now,” Naruto said with a grin. “All right, this is my stop! See you later.”

Gaara nodded his goodbye and Naruto disappeared inside the housing development.

***
The gates to Konoha were closed when he arrived, but that didn’t matter. He knew Sasuke would be waiting for him on the other side. He smiled as they opened, revealing the familiar streets of his beloved home, but his smile faltered when Sasuke wasn’t there waiting for him. He’d gotten his hopes up for nothing. Maybe the bastard was still mad at Naruto for leaving the village and leaving him.

When he opened the door to his apartment, the door scratched against the floor, kicking up a cloud of dust that made him cough. He threw his bags in his room, and decided that a shower could wait. He needed to find Sasuke. He didn’t know where exactly his best friend lived, just that it wasn’t anywhere near his own place, and that Sakura went there a lot. He would just have to ask Sakura.

The streets of Konoha seemed oddly empty when Naruto went to look for her, but he didn’t question it. He was sure it would just make it easier to find the pink-haired kunoichi.

It didn’t.

She wasn’t anywhere to be found, and neither was Kakashi or Iruka or Lee. No one, not even Sai was left in the village.

“What’s going on?” Naruto cried, feeling panic rise in his chest. He passed another empty stand, missing the blood smeared against the door frame in his haste. “Where is everyone?”

“I killed them,” Sasuke whispered in his ear, and Naruto woke up screaming.

***
The nightmares persisted all through his stay in Suna. He had taken to staying up late and pestering Gaara at night, while trying to slip him porn. Eventually, Gaara had relented to Naruto’s determination and glanced at the magazine, which he had blinked at several times, made a thoughtful sound, and then disregarded. Naruto decided then and there that Gaara was not human because anyone who could disregard porn clearly had to be something else.

Gaara did not seem to mind Naruto pestering him at night since most nights he was awake, working on paper work or patrolling the village, and the Kazekage was grateful for the company even if he never said anything about it. It worked out well for both of them: Naruto was able to distract himself from his worsening nightmares and Gaara was able to question Naruto about the bond people in a romantic relationship shared. Gaara’s curiosity garnered much teasing from Naruto, who also informed Kankuro and Temari of their brother’s newfound curiosity, and Naruto began poking fun at the Kazekage whenever he would talk to a shinobi their age, asking if Gaara had a crush on anyone yet, and though Gaara always answered in the negative, Naruto still got a kick out of it, and it helped ease him after one of his nightmares on more than one occasion.

Finally, after a particularly bad nightmare, while in the company of Gaara, Naruto came to a decision. “I think I’ll leave when you do,” he said while they walked around the village after midnight.

“Will you head back to Konoha?”

Naruto sighed. “Yeah, I think so. I didn’t want to, but I’ll only be a month early, and I think I’ll go crazy if I don’t head back. These nightmares are killing me.”

“Hn,” Gaara said, his eyes on the desert floor beyond the south side of Suna’s wall.

“’Oh, I hope you are doing all right, Naruto-sama. Those nightmares must be awful! Is there anything I can do for you? Anything at all?’” Naruto piped, raising his voice in an octave higher than usual. “Couldn’t you at least act like you care a bit?” he whined, slouching over the edge of the battlement.

Gaara glanced at him. “I was unaware I was supposed to say something like that.”

Naruto snickered. “At least you’re good for a laugh.” He stood up, stretching. “Don’t worry about it, my socially inept friend. I just needed someone to whine at, and you fit the bill. Nice and quiet, and you don’t interrupt me.”

“If you want someone who can give you advice, my sister would be more ideal for that.”

“Did I say I wanted advice? No. Because I don’t. I’m going home. It’s just that these nightmares are a pain in the ass. I don’t know how you do it, man.”

“I’m used to it.”

“Yeah, I’ll bet. Well, maybe you’ll sleep easier when you find your special someone,” Naruto teased.

“I do not expect to ever find someone like that.”

Naruto frowned. “Aw, man, don’t be like that. I’m sure there’s a guy or girl out there for you.”

“It does not bother me.”

“See, there you go again, being weird. How could that not bother you?”

“It is a bond that is not necessary to my existence. It sounds nice, but it also sounds like it could prove troublesome. I have enough to deal with as the Kazekage.”

“But don’t you think it might make you happy? To have that special person who loves you completely?”

Gaara was silent. “You came here because your special person rejected you—”

“No, that’s not—” Naruto cut in, but Gaara continued.

“Uchiha Sasuke refused your friendship, and that is why you left Konoha. He caused you to hurt here,” Gaara said, raising his hand to his heart. “I do not want to feel that kind of pain ever again. If your most important person can cause that kind of hurt, then I think I am better off without that.”

Naruto watched Gaara carefully. “But not everyone’s like Sasuke. He’s a bastard. Some people are too nice to do those things to someone, let alone the person they love.”

“What does being nice have to do with it?”

“Well, take Fuzzy Brows for example. He’d never do anything to hurt any of his friends. When he finds his most important person, he will do everything he can to make sure that person is happy and safe, even if they refuse to love him back. I know he seemed all right when he was here, but I know that he’s probably still upset about Sakura-chan rejecting him. He doesn’t like to give up.”

“I remember.”

“So, when he finds his new most important person, he’ll probably hold on to that person—and you know as well as I that he’s strong—and I don’t think anything could make him let go. He wouldn’t do something like what Sasuke did to me. He would never want to hurt someone he cares for like that. Hell, he wouldn’t even want to hurt someone he hates like that. He’s nice.”

Gaara nodded. “Then why don’t you like him?”

Naruto’s eyes widened. “What? Me and Fuzzy Brows? Ugh.” He shuddered dramatically, pulling a face. “I love the guy, don’t get me wrong, but he looks so weird, and besides, he just… he’s not Sasuke. You can’t control who you love, Gaara.”

“If you could, would you still love who you do?”

Naruto laughed. “Nah, I’d love Sakura-chan.” Naruto looked down. “Except that’s a lie. I’d still love him. I don’t think I could love someone else, not the way I love him. It wouldn’t be the same.”

“Can you only love one person your whole life that way?”

Naruto shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess so. I mean, I’m sure that if something happened and you met someone new, you could love them, but I don’t think it would be the same.”

“What if Sasuke does not return your feelings?”

“I don’t know.” He frowned, looking out over the desert. “I guess I’ll just do what I can as his friend. It’ll hurt, but if he’s there, if I can at least be at his side, I think I’ll be okay.” Naruto smiled sadly, thinking over the last few years, over his struggle to bring Sasuke home, and how it had felt to finally reach his goal. He hadn’t failed to bring Sasuke home, but that didn’t mean he could stop trying to make Konoha feel like home for Sasuke. “And that’s why I had to leave. I had to figure it out, you know? Fuzzy Brows is smarter than me when it comes to this kind of thing, I think. It took talking with him to realize that, even if I’m not with Sasuke in person, I’m still with him because he’s important to me. And even though he can’t be my entire world, it’s okay if he’s a huge part of it because he is my most important person.

“I think I can finally exist for me again, and not for Sasuke.”

“It’s important to exist for others,” Gaara intoned.

“Yeah. But we can’t lose sight of ourselves, either.” He gave Gaara a serious look. “I hope you do find someone, you know? I know it sounds like it’s hard and painful—and don’t get me wrong, it is—but it’s worth it. No matter what the outcome is, just knowing that you had that makes it worth all the heartbreak and pain in the world.”

“I still do not see how that’s possible. But perhaps, if I find that person, then I will understand.”

Naruto nodded. “I think I’m gonna head back. I’m pretty exhausted. Try to get some rest tonight, Gaara. You look like you need it.”

Gaara gave Naruto an annoyed look. “Good night, Naruto.”

***
Two days later, Naruto said his good-byes to Suna, leaving with Gaara and his ANBU guard.

“So, is your mission a long one?” Naruto asked the Kazekage as they raced across the desert. They would only be traveling together for a few hours, and Naruto was too anxious about his return to Konoha to stay quiet.

“It is long enough,” Gaara said.

Naruto rolled his eyes. “It must be important if you’ve got to take it on.”

Gaara just nodded.

“Is this gonna be a one way conversation? Because I seriously do not think I can handle that right now,” he grumbled.

“What would you like me to say?”

Naruto huffed. “I don’t know. I know you can’t talk about your mission, but you could make idle chit-chat! What about that girl I saw you speaking with this morning?”

“What about her?”

“Do you think she’s cute?”

Gaara’s eyes narrowed in confusion. “Cute?”

“Attractive?”

“I am not attracted to her, Naruto.”

“No kidding. She sure was blushing a lot, though. I swear, she was redder than Fuzzy Brows when I out-ed him to you.”

“I believe Lee was much redder.”

“No shit,” Naruto said. “I wasn’t serious. It was just a comparison.”

“It wasn’t a very good one.”

“The point,” Naruto bit off, “is that she was blushing because of you.”

“I do not see how this is important.”

“Can you just humor me?”

“I suppose.”

“Good. Anyway, she totally digs you! Don’t you think she’s even a little appealing?”

“She is a weak shinobi. I have no interest in weak shinobi.”

“That’s a bit harsh.”

Gaara glanced at Naruto. “She is not capable enough,” he amended. “I see no reason in creating a bond with someone who cannot stand up to me.”

“Oh, I get it,” Naruto said. “You like it rough.”

Gaara frowned. “Like what?”

Naruto just laughed. “Nothing, nothing. Ask Fuzzy Brows next time you see him. Oh, the expression on his face—”

“It is something dirty, isn’t it? Lee would not like it.”

“Exactly.”

“He wouldn’t give me a straight answer, either”

“That’s not the point of asking him.”

“I see.”

Naruto shook his head, sighing and falling into silence. Talking with Gaara had got him through most nights after the nightmares started, but now that he was heading back to his village, he couldn’t force conversation. It would be a few hours before they parted, but he did not think he could summon up any more jokes or idle banter. Especially when Gaara tended to be on the quiet side. If only Lee were there, or Sakura-chan. Someone he could rely on to keep up the conversation and distract him from his thoughts.

“Naruto,” Gaara intoned.

“Yeah?”

Gaara frowned. “Something is bothering you?”

“I’m amazed you could tell.” Naruto shrugged. “I’m just anxious.”

“About seeing Uchiha Sasuke.”

“Yeah,” he croaked. “It’s been a while. And he didn’t want to see me before. What if he doesn’t want to now? What if he rejects me? There are a lot of what-ifs going through my head right now.”

“Lee said that he believes Sasuke returns your feelings.”

“Yeah, and Lee also believes that green spandex is the best thing in the world.”

Gaara’s mouth twitched. “I see.”

“It doesn’t matter. In three days, I’ll know for sure. Sure wish I didn’t have to wait that long though.”

***
Three days of traveling took longer than Naruto would have liked. While it definitely wasn’t more than three days, they were the slowest three days of Naruto’s life. His nights had been restless, he’d barely eaten, and then he pushed himself to the limit each day, trying to get to Konoha as fast as possible. There was nothing in the world that could stop Naruto, but time seemed against him. He wished he had Lee’s speed, so he could be back home in no time at all, but even with his large amount of chakra, Naruto hadn’t trained for running the way Lee had.

So, it took him three days. He had parted with Gaara several hours after leaving Suna, and then he’d been alone, with no one for company. He’d been forced to sleep one night in the desert before making it to the forests of Fire Country, and he’d almost been caught in a small sandstorm, but he’d managed to find shelter.

Still, Naruto was bone tired by the time he made it to the gates of his village.
As he walked through the streets, dirt and grime on his face, his body heavy with exhaustion, anxiety began to make his chest tight. He felt as though he were suffocating, and the thought of seeing Sasuke only made it worse. But eventually, Sasuke would here that he’d come back, and then he’d probably go looking for Naruto to kick his ass. But before he could see Sasuke, he thought a shower and a nap were in order. He had to be at his best if he were going to face his most important person, and he couldn’t do that after the stress of a three-day long journey.

He didn’t have the chance to get in the shower once he was home, though. He had barely turned on the hot water when he heard a knock at the door to his apartment.

“Yeah?”

“Naruto,” Kakashi’s voice drifted through the door. “I heard you were back.”

Naruto opened the door, letting in his teacher. “Yeah, I just got in. I was gonna take a shower—”

“No time for that,” Kakashi said, looking around the dusty apartment. “Sasuke-kun has already heard.”

“Damn. I guess he’s pretty pissed.”

“Putting it mildly.”

Naruto groaned. “He’s gonna kick my ass.”

“He’ll try. ANBU will react before that happens though.”

“Huh?”

“Sasuke-kun is still in trouble, Naruto. The Hokage can’t just let him go around the village as he pleases, and if he starts trouble ANBU has permission to seal his chakra. They already did it once.”

“Yeah, I heard.”

Kakashi raised an eyebrow. “Oh—” He broke off, looking towards the door. “That’s my cue to leave. Good luck.”

Naruto groaned as Kakashi jutsued away in a puff of smoke. Moments later, his door was being kicked down by an angry Sasuke intent on doing as much damage to Naruto as he could before he was stopped.

“Hey, Sasuke, long time no—” He was cut off by a strong punch to the jaw. He laughed nervously. “Good to see you too.”

Sasuke was standing in front of Naruto, his chest rising and falling rapidly, and his eyes wide and wild. He looked fit to kill, his chakra leaking in angry bursts, and Naruto knew that he wouldn’t have long before the ANBU arrived. Sasuke aimed another punch, but Naruto blocked it, catching Sasuke’s wrist in a firm grip.

“You bastard,” Sasuke hissed, wrenching his arm away.

“I don’t owe you an apology,” Naruto said, softly. “You did it first, remember. And at least I came back.”

“Fuck you,” Sasuke spat back. “This has nothing to do—”

“It has everything to do with it!” Naruto burst out. “You left us—left me—and I spent so much time trying to bring you home! Everything was about you leaving, even this! I left because you left!”

“I was here! You left me here!”

“Just like you left me!” Silence followed Naruto’s words for a few moments, and then he laughed. “I left, because you left me first, Sasuke. And… and I had to figure out who I was without you.”

Sasuke’s eyes narrowed. “Dobe,” he snapped, and Naruto reveled in the familiar insult.

“Sasuke, I—I didn’t leave you. I came back, didn’t I?”

“I don’t care,” he snapped. “You should have stayed gone. Then maybe everyone would forget to pay so much attention to me, and I could go.”

Naruto shook his head. “You’re not going to leave, again.”

“What the fuck do you know?”

Naruto smiled, sadly. “I missed you.”

Sasuke snorted. “You’re pathetic.”

“Maybe a little,” Naruto said with a shrug. “But you’re my most important person. It was kind of a given that I’d miss you.”

Sasuke’s eyes widened, and he took a few steps away from Naruto, his mouth slightly open. “What did you say?”

“You heard me,” Naruto said, carefully. “I—You’re my most important person, Sasuke. I-I love—”

Sasuke’s fist connected with Naruto’s jaw before he could finish, and then the Uchiha was out the door, leaving Naruto lying on the floor, cradling his jaw and trying hard not to cry.

***
The next day, after a nice, long shower and plenty of rest, Naruto went searching for Sasuke. As far as he was concerned, Sasuke hadn’t actually rejected him. Rejection involved saying the words, “I don’t love you,” or something to that effect, and Sasuke hadn’t done that. And Naruto could tell that Sasuke had punched him, not because he was rejecting Naruto, but because he was scared of what Naruto was offering.

Sasuke was, of course, determined not to be found.

Naruto spent most of the afternoon searching for Sasuke, but had no luck finding his old teammate. He was almost tempted to rope Sakura into helping him, before he thought better of it. When he found Sasuke, he intended to make the bastard pay close attention to what he had to say, and if they ended up fighting, then so be it. But more than anything, Naruto hoped they ended up kissing. He’d found a book on his travels on gay relationships, and it had been very generous with the details on sex. Naruto would never forget the dreams that followed after finding that book.

He grinned to himself as he walked down the street, heading for a part of town he hadn’t yet covered, when Sakura’s voice reached his ears.

“NARUTO!”

He furrowed his brows, turning around. He could see the pink hair of his friend far off down the street, her hands waving in the air. She seemed oddly distressed. He wondered if Sasuke had maybe taken out his anger on her after Naruto’s half confession the night before, but as she neared him, he realized that was definitely not it.

“Sakura-chan, what’s wrong?”

“Oh, thank goodness. I’ve been—looking—all—over for you!” she hugged. “Sasuke-kun tried to runaway again last night—”

“What?!?!”

“ANBU caught him just outside of the village this morning. Apparently they were looking for him all night. I didn’t even know until this morning when they brought him back to the village. Tsunade-sama called me to her office. I don’t know why he did it or what he said, but he mentioned you, and I was told to come find you.”

“That bastard!” Narto growled. “How could he do this?”

“Hurry,” she said, grabbing his hand and rushing forward through the crowded streets, heading towards Hokage Tower.

By the time they arrived, Sasuke had already been taken to the hospital to recover from the injuries he’d sustained while trying to fight off ANBU after his chakra had been sealed. Tsunade glared over her sake cup at Naruto, one hand rubbing her temple.

“Why didn’t you tell me your were back, brat?”

Naruto laughed nervously, scratching the back of his head. “Etto, I kind of forgot. I was so tired, you know? I just went right home to take a shower and nap, but then Sasuke showed up and I just…” he trailed off, shrugging.

“Well, thanks to you forgetting, now we have to deal with Sasuke’s bad temper. What happened last night?”

Naruto flushed. “Uh, well, he uh… came over and we just talked, but he was upset. And I might have said something that made him more upset.”

Tsunade growled. “I am sick of this. I am sick of his bad temper, and I am sick of you leaving the village because of him.”

Naruto’s heart dropped. “Oh, come on, Granny, you don’t mean that. I know Sasuke’s a bastard, but can’t we just forget about—”

“No, Naruto. I am fed up. The two of you need to resolve your issues. You will take no further missions until Sasuke has stopped acting like the spoilt brat he is, and Sasuke’s chakra will remain sealed for just as long. I ought to just lock the two of you in a room so you can either kick the crap out of each other, or make up.”

Naruto beamed. “That’s the best idea, ever!”

Tsunade just gave him a confused look, but Naruto was already barreling out the door, heading for the hospital.

***
The hospital attendant in charge of Sasuke, as well as the ANBU guards watching him, were anything but pleased when Naruto came barreling through the corridors shouting that he had to see Sasuke. He heard the groan on the other side as he pulled the door open, but ignored it in favour of slamming it shut and sealing it with a timed jutsu. Oh, he was good. He grinned, feeling cocky and triumphant, before he realized that he hadn’t thought to bring food. And, of course, Sasuke was in a room without any windows.

Well, that was smart.

“What the fuck are you doing?” Sasuke growled.

“Locking us in a room so we can work this out.”

“There is nothing to work out. Get out.”

“Can’t. And I wouldn’t even if I could.”

Sasuke’s eyes narrowed. “What the hell did you do?”

“Locked us in,” Naruto said very slowly. “Weren’t you listening?”

“I didn’t think you actually meant that!”

“Well, I did. And now that we are locked in here with no food or water for a few hours, we have to deal with our ‘issues,’ as Granny called them.” He grinned, taking a seat in the chair next to Sasuke’s bed. He noticed that there was an orange book on the bedside table. “Is that Kakashi-sensei’s?”

“He was here,” Sasuke ground out.

Naruto whistled. “Bet he’ll be banging down that door in no time. Where’d he go?”

“To get food.”

“You don’t have to be so mean about it. I was just asking a question.”

Sasuke grit his teeth, clenching his fists, and glaring harshly at Naruto. “I am locked in a room. With you. Why would I be nice about this?”

Naruto shook his head. “You’re a dick, you know that? And for some reason that I can’t explain, I still like you. Love you.” He flushed, looking down. “I left because of that. Because of you. And how I feel about you.”

“Why did you come back?”

“I wasn’t going to be gone forever,” Naruto said, as though that were obvious. “How can I be Hokage if I’m not here? I only left to figure stuff out.”

“Good for you. I’m glad you figured stuff out. Was one of these things, by chance, the fact that I hate you?”

Naruto glared at Sasuke, his chest clenching. He would do his best not to rise to Sasuke’s hurtful comment. He could see fear in Sasuke’s eyes, in the way he avoided looking directly at Naruto, and it made him sad. Why couldn’t Sasuke just accept him? “Sasuke.”

“What?” he snapped.

“I love you. Not like a brother. And not like my best friend. Well, yes, like my best friend. But… it’s more. And I wanted you to know because I wanted to know how you felt.”

“I told you—”

“That’s bullshit.”

Sasuke glared. “I do not like you, Naruto. Not one, tiny, itty bit. You are annoying and stupid, and I swear, the moment my I can mold chakra again, I will kill you.”

“You know, it’s funny, the more times I hear that threat, the less I believe it.”

Sasuke snarled, reaching out to hit Naruto, but the blond caught his arm. It hurt, without a doubt, Sasuke’s words hurt, but Naruto was doing his best, his utmost best. He had to be strong, because if Sasuke saw that he was hurting Naruto, then everything would be ruined. He’d lose Sasuke for good. “You can’t make me leave, Sasuke.”

Sasuke tried to tear his hand away, but Naruto held firm, using chakra to strengthen his grip. “I’m not letting you go; I will never let you go.”

“Why do you care so much!?!?”

Naruto stood up, pulling Sasuke towards him. The black-haired teen stilled, staring with startled eyes up at Naruto, caught between the need to pull away and the need to lash out. Naruto smiled. “I care because you’re my friend,” he said, and then did the only thing he could do. He leaned forward and kissed Sasuke.

It had been years since he’d kissed Sasuke that first time back when they were still in the academy. He’d forgotten how it felt, and back then he’d hated Sasuke, and the whole thing had been cruel and ironic. Now it was just sweet. But Sasuke wasn’t kissing back. His body had gone rigid, his muscles poised to strike, and he refused to allow Naruto to deepen the kiss.

When Naruto pulled away, Sasuke’s face was red, but he looked more angry than embarrassed.

Defeat was not an easy pill to swallow. Naruto thought, as he let Sasuke’s arm fall to the bed, that he had failed, and there was no denying it. He wanted to cry, but that wouldn’t solve much of anything, and the door was still sealed---would be for several hours, if he’d timed the jutsu right. He rather wished he hadn’t.

Since he couldn’t leave, he put on a brave face, grinned at Sasuke, and sat back down to wait it out.

***
It was harder than he had thought it would be.

Then again, he hadn’t expected Sasuke to reject him, so perhaps he hadn’t given that enough thought. Sasuke was still being a jerk, so Tsunade refused to unseal his chakra, and Naruto was back on active duty, taking missions when he could, and spending time with his friends to keep himself distracted.

A month after they had kissed, and Sasuke was back in the real world, and back to ignoring Naruto fully. It stung, but he didn’t let it tear him down the way it had when Sasuke had first come back. Naruto had grown during his time outside of the village, and he knew that if Sasuke was going to be a stubborn ass, then he’d just have to be more stubborn. He had given up, in his own right. He’d given up on things ever being the same, on Sasuke ever willingly accepting him, but he hadn’t given up on their friendship, and he would die before he ever let go of that.

No one really question Naruto about his insistence that Sasuke would have to be his friend again. Lee was the most supportive of everyone, and Naruto was thankful for that. But sometimes, even he didn’t believe Sasuke would change his mind.

And then he saw Sasuke, training without the use of chakra, and he couldn’t take it.

“I want to fight you,” he said to Sasuke’s back.

Sasuke stiffened, but continued to attack the log he was using as a target.

“Don’t ignore me, you bastard. I want to fight you. Without chakra. Just us. Or are you scared?”

“I’m not scared of you,” Sasuke huffed.

“You’re such a liar. I know you are. You can’t accept any of this because you’re so afraid—”

Sasuke whirled around, glaring at Naruto. “Shut up! I am not scared!”

“Then prove it!’

“Fine!”

Naruto grinned. “Good. Let’s fight.”

He took his jacket off, tying it around his waist, and stretching for a few minutes while Sasuke watched on. He would show Sasuke that he couldn’t hide from this forever, and then they’d be friends again. At least Naruto could have that.

Sasuke glared at him when he was ready, and Naruto grinned back. “I’m gonna kick your ass.”

“Shut up.”

And then they were trading blows. It was reckless and completely blind. They were fueled by things other than nindo, and Naruto was distracted by trying not to use chakra. Sasuke was furious. He fought like mad, trying to stave off attacks and deliver them all at once, but even he was struggling against the unnamable bond that he shared with the blond.

Naruto aimed a punch at Sasuke’s face, but Sasuke caught, tripping Naruto and causing the both of them to fall in a heap on the ground, dust flying up around them. They both coughed through the dust, Naruto squirming beneath Sasuke, who was doing his best to dig his knee into Naruto’s chest. It hurt, it hurt almost as much as the rejection had, and Naruto stared up into Sasuke’s face, still fighting to break free, and saw that same flicker of fear in Sasuke’s eyes.

Sasuke wasn’t looking at him directly. He was staring down at the ground next to Naruto’s face. And because of this, he missed it when Naruto moved, and the blond was able to switch their positions, bearing down on Sasuke, his face closer to the Uchiha’s to force him to look at Naruto. Sasuke glared harshly, struggling against the hold Naruto had on him. He tried to knee Naruto in the stomach, but the blond moved to lie down completely flat on top of Sasuke, forcing them to stay like that. Sasuke pushed at Naruto, trying to roll them over, but Naruto cheated: he used chakra and stuck them to the ground.

“Naruto, let me go.”

“Never,” Naruto whispered, fervently. “I told you, Sasuke, I won’t let you go.”

“You idiot! I already told you I don’t feel the same! Get off of me!”

“This isn’t about that. This is about our friendship.”

“God, I hate you. I hate you so much,” Sasuke said, sounding pained.

“No, you don’t. And that’s what you’re scared of.”

“Ah!” Sasuke yelled, trying to pull his arm free to hit Naruto. “I hate you! I hate you! I hate you! Don’t you get!?!? I hate you! I don’t like you! I don’t love you! I hate you!”

Naruto’s eyes burned, but it wasn’t enough to make him let up. He heard the words, and as much as they hurt, he didn’t think they hurt nearly as much as they should have; not nearly as much as they would if Sasuke meant them. He smiled sadly down at Sasuke, who was still struggling against him, and he kissed him again, because he just had to in that moment, it had felt like the right thing to do.

“I ha—” Sasuke’s most recent tired against Naruto was cut off as Naruto pressed their lips together. Sasuke’s mouth had been open, and Naruto used this to his advantage, deepening the kiss and trying to convey as much feeling into it as possible. Sasuke was just as tense as he had been in the hospital, but Naruto felt the other’s heart beating wildly against his chest, felt the unsteady rising of Sasuke’s chest, and felt, very clearly, the evidence of Sasuke’s arousal against his thigh. So he didn’t let up.

And then, after long minutes, Sasuke kissed him back.

It was certainly a far cry from the sweet, romantic kiss Naruto had hoped for. It was desperate and a bit violent, but it was passionate, and it was Sasuke. Every last bit of it was Sasuke. Naruto released his chakra and Sasuke wound a hand into his hair, rolling them over until he was above Naruto. But then Naruto rolled them back over. And Sasuke rolled them over again.

Naruto broke the kiss, panting for breath, and laughing.

“Naruto,” Sasuke growled in his ear. “Why are you laughing?”

“Because I’m happy,” he said, and kissed Sasuke’s nose. Sasuke’s nose twitched, rather like a rabbit’s, his eyes crossing, and he scowled down at Naruto. “And because you are kidding yourself if you think you’re on top.”

“I am not seriously having this discussion with you, Naruto.”

Naruto laughed, pulling Sasuke down for another kiss. “Yeah, I can think of better things to do.”

Sasuke just rolled his eyes, but he was willing to take part in said better things, and the two kissed until it was dark, forgetting their fight, and forgetting to be afraid or hurt or angry. They fell into place, into each other, and into the way they were meant to be, and when they returned to the village, Naruto was smiling and Sasuke was smirking as though he’d never left to seek revenge and was still the same person he was all those years ago.

[The end]

Please leave a comment here at LiveJournal