A/N: This story serves as a prelude to three longer stories I have outlined as the next part in this series. It establishes the changes made to 698/699 before the plot diverges completely. Two chapters will focus on Naruto and Sasuke, two on Hinata, and two on Sakura and Kakashi, as that's how the main stories will be divided. I'm working off of the manga canon, though I've pulled a few bits and pieces from the anime, as well. I've been dying to write a bit of a self-indulgent take on what could have happened post-series for years, now, and I've finally got the time to do the idea some justice! I literally never would've managed to get half as far without the help of the lovely Cherry, who has sincerely spent about as much time beta-reading this as I have writing it and deserves an insane amount of credit for how much she worked to improve it πŸ’«

BLANKET WARNING: I won't be using specific warnings throughout this series as I don't want to spoil the contents for readers. Generally speaking, if you were able to read/watch everything that happened in canon, you should be fine with this story. However, if there are particular triggers or squicks you're avoiding, please assume you'll run into them and make the decision on whether or not to read accordingly πŸ’œ


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N

The collision is blinding. One moment of pure, electrifying force. The shock of it rolls through his bones and out across his skin like something molten. His anger, every pent-up frustration forced into the blast gives way to exhilaration. For a moment, he loses sight of himself and Sasuke both and finds himself unwilling to care, too caught up in the way their energy, thrown together and scattered, crushes and pricks at his skin, stealing the air from his lungs. It satisfies something in him, makes him want to scream, though he thinks he already is. It's impossible to hear past the rushing in his ears.

Naruto could stay in this moment forever, would gladly allow it to burn through him until he turned to ash. He wishes it could last, but knows it won't. Wonders if he'll wake to see the light fall and give way to whatever mess they've made of themselves, or if this is it.

Then, there's nothing.

S

He can't be sure what it is that wakes him. His bones ache, feeling as though they're made of lead, his lungs burn with every breath, and his head pounds with enough force that it's a wonder he's woken up at all, in a way. It's a surprise if anything, he'd expected death. It had felt as though nothing else could possibly follow. In his mind, his own death has always been a foregone conclusion. Perhaps not here, not now, but when he's tried to look past his goals, it's been the only certainty. Naruto'sβ€”he'd thought it would be the same way with him. He's promised it to both Naruto and himself enough times but faced with the reality of it, he finds himself afraid. Afraid to open his eyes, to see if Naruto is still breathing, still next to him. Something inside of him feels sunken and sick where'd he'd expected untethered relief.

When Naruto speaks, the relief of it makes him feel raw, vulnerable. The words scrape against his throat, rough enough that Sasuke can almost feel it in his own chest, but he's alive. He sounds as tired and wrought out as Sasuke feels, but he's breathing. Talking. Would be yelling, if he could manage it. The relief is so strong that it takes a moment for his words to register past the ringing in his ears. When they do, Sasuke wonders why? Why me? Why still?

N

Is this enough? The question has haunted him for years. Every move he makes, it waits for him, ready to fall into step as soon as he allows himself to slow down. He already knows the answer but still feels compelled to ask. Is this enough? Am I enough? Haven't we done enough? Even now, lying next to each other, dying together, souls bound by fate, and still, it feels as though there's something left to need. Something grasping and deprived, demanding in its longing for more. The crushing desire to be taken and torn to shreds, gently stitched back together and smothered under the same careful hands.

Friend.

When Sasuke repeats it back to him it feels bitter, as though it sours in his mouth as he says it, and the inadequacies of the word reverberate through Naruto's chest.

S

Each time Naruto speaks of friendship between them, it feels more absurd. If he troubles himself with the strain of tilting his head, he sees shattered bone and scorched skin littered across the place where their blood mingles in the dirt. Where their hands might be touching, branded by the cosmic joke that drove them to this. It feels unreal, and when he looks away he feels the phantom touch of Naruto's skin under his own. Laughter bubbles up in his chest, but his ribs ache too much to give it space. He looks up at the sky, allows his eyes to wander the vast crater they've made of the valley, and wonders if Naruto feels strange, at all. If he's even capable of it.

Tobirama's words chase every thought he has as Naruto tries to find an explanation that feels like enough. It settles somewhere reserved for only the most honest of wounds, and Sasuke can't parse whether it's a blessing or a curse, to have found the one person in this world who can match what he feels and the strength with which he feels it. You're the reason, he thinks. The reason there's some part of me left to salvage. The reason I've failed.

It's possible, he thinks, that he's been wrong this whole time. It's Naruto, he's told himself, who hasn't been honest, who hasn't recognized their bond for what it is. But now, he listens, and he wonders.

It's Naruto who has understood this, understood them, better than he ever has. Naruto has loved so boldly and openly, even without the words for it, where Sasuke has done everything in his power to outrun it. Sasuke, who has let it scare him. Naruto, who let their bond make him strong. Sasuke has only gotten weaker; he's allowed his fear to make sure of it.

He's tired. It frays at the edges of his mind and makes him feel as though he's unravelling. Tired in a way he can't shake, of love and loss and the cycle of hurt he's played into enough times that he's not sure he remembers how to do anything else. It's something to think about, though. Something he hasn't allowed himself to linger on for years. The possibility of another way, a brighter path.

He hasn't had a choice in so much of what's happened, but in this, he thinks, perhaps it's time he allows himself one.


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N

The morning sky greets them when they open their eyes, and Naruto understands that this is when the hard part truly begins. A smile spreads across his face at the thought. As content as he had been to die with Sasuke, so long as they met their end together, he'd rather they have this life and the next, instead.

S

Admitting that he's lost feels like a relief, and it feels like something to grieve. He can feel himself fading, and wonders if that's the reason the smile feels so foreign on his lips, or if he's just lost the muscle memory after too many years of disuse. It can all end here. The Uchiha, the curse of hatred, the cycle of destiny. If he lets go, he knows Naruto will keep his promises. Sasuke can give enough of himself to ease the way.

"You can undo the Infinite Tsukuyomi after I'm dead." His throat is raw, the words burn on their way out. "If you take my eyes, with your chakra, it'll be easy. I'll put an end to myself, I trust you to use them." Let him die here, and carry forward the last piece of the Uchiha to create something good. Something honourable. It's a worthy ending, he thinks, and he wouldn't trust anyone else with it. He would raze the village to the ground before he left the final legacy of his clan to someone who wouldn't do them justice, but he believes in Naruto, despite himself.

"You must be even stupider than I thought if you really think I'm going to just let you cop-out, like that!" Of course, he's thought so much about how he feels that he's forgotten who he's speaking to. The suggestion is received about as well as he should have expected. If his ribs ached less, he'd laugh at himself for thinking it might go any other way. "The only way you get to die is if I die with you, and I'm not ready yet, so you're just going to have to suck it up."

Besides, Naruto insists, Sasuke will need his eyes to see the changes for himself.

N

Naruto won't die and leave their legacies in the hands of anyone else, where he knows he'll be praised, mourned, and Sasuke will be forgotten. He doesn't want to save Sasuke and lose him in the same breath. He wants to bring him home. Wants to understand what home means to Sasuke and bring it into being.

"You know, even if I come back, Konoha isn't home to me." Naruto wishes he had his strength. He wants to grab Sasuke by the shoulders and make him understand. It doesn't matter if Konoha is his home, right now. He'll fix it, he'll give them both somewhere to belong. "I would only be coming back for you, Naruto," Each breath he takes rattles in his chest, and he can't tell whether it's just the same blood that stains his tongue, or Sasuke's words, reaching in to pull him apart. "To hold you to your promise. Nothing else matters to me."

No one else matters to me, is the echo Naruto can't help but hear, and he resents the immediate staggering urge to hear it aloud. Still, warmth blossoms in his chest at his meaning. They both know he'll keep his promise. It's as good an acquiescence as Sasuke is capable of giving, he suspects.

"You'll see," he swears, "Things will be different. What happened to your family, to your brother, I won't let it happen again. I'll make Konoha into a place you're proud to call home." Sasuke scoffs. Naruto wants to hit him. He can't stop himself from smiling. "That's my new promise of a lifetime."

Every passing second makes his skin itch. He feels so close to something, he doesn't have the words for it, but they're almost there. They're so close, he needs Sasuke to speak. To tell him he understands. He believes him.

"And what about you?" The tone of the question is too measured, too careful.

"What are you talking about?"

"There's a reason I wanted a revolution. Think about how the village treated you, Naruto. Not just Hiruzen, not just Danzo, everyone. What can you do about that? You really think you can fix it?"

"Of course I can!"

"How?"

"I don't know, yet!" He's tired of having this argument. Every time he gains an inch, Sasuke pushes him back. "But I'll figure it out. You know I will. You think I'm stupid enough to believe you'd've tried to give me your eyes otherwise?" Sasuke looks at him, and Naruto sees the wind leave his sails. Watches the way the corner of his mouth tilts.

"Wellβ€”"

"Shut up!"

The moment passes. Naruto listens to the sounds of their breathing. Hears his own heart rushing in his ears and wonders if Sasuke's does the same.

"It's true, I believe in you," Sasuke sighs, and Naruto's own lungs feel tight. "I'll admit that much."

"Like I didn't already know that. Asshole." Sasuke has the nerve to laugh at him.

"I won't hesitate to stand against you if you're all talk, you know."

"Better stick around and keep an eye on me, then." Sasuke's eyes slip closed. There's a smile resting across his lips when he tilts his face toward the sun.

"I guess I have no choice."

S

Sakura and Kakashi are getting nearer. He knows if he can feel them coming, Naruto must as well. They'll reach them soon.

"Hey, Naruto."

"Yeah?" He lets his head fall to the side and trusts Naruto to understand him in the way only he ever does.

"I'm glad I met you." He wishes he still had the energy to use his sharingan. He wants this moment burned into his memory. Sakura and Kakashi arrive too soon for Naruto to manage anything in response, as he'd predicted, and he wonders whether it's their presence or a lack of words which quiets Naruto.

Kakashi doesn't speak, Naruto tries to make light of things, and when Sakura hushes them, it's easy to hear the heartbreak in her voice.

"I'm sorry, Sakura." The words are sandpaper across his throat. He's not sure whether it's because he's exhausted, or because they take such unfamiliar shape. It's not something he understands, why she's followed him this far, but regardless, he knows enough to see the hurt he's heaped on her.

She looks at him, shakes her head and opens her mouth as if to speak, but all that comes out is a shuddering breath. He understands.

Let go of me, he thinks. Let go of him.

N

When the soft pressure of Sakura's chakra recedes, he and Sasuke manage to push themselves to sit. He still feels strange, like everything inside of him has turned to jello, but he's not quite so cold as he was before, and for that, he's grateful.

Before he's had much of a chance to catch his breath, Sakura pulls him into a hug. Her touch is more delicate than it's ever been, and guilt blooms in his chest. He is blindingly happy. It feels as though it's radiating so bright from his chest that everyone must see the way it blisters at his skin, but the knowledge of how much he's made them worry is enough to subdue him, just a little.

"It's all gonna be alright now, Sakura," It stings his swollen eye to smile, but he can't help it. "We're all here, right? How bad could it be, as long as that's true?"

When she pulls back, still holding his shoulders, tears fill her eyes and trail down her cheeks. The look on her face makes the ache in his chest worse, though he doesn't quite know why. Still, he manages to draw a broken laugh from her when he reaches up to rub the tears from his own eyes and flinches back, having pushed straight into his bruised skin. "Ouch."

"Oh, Naruto."

Sakura hauls him onto her back, and Sasuke allows Kakashi to do the same. The journey back to Konoha Hospital is a short one, but he can't quite manage to stay awake long enough for them to arrive. When he wakes, he's on a gurney, being led down a long hall by Sakura who gently informs him that they're being sedated so their bodies can put all of their energy into recovery while their wounds are still fresh. She promises to be there when he wakes up. He doesn't have time to tell her that's okay, there are other people to help. He'll be okay.

She's there, anyway. She looks like she's had a chance to clean herself up, dressed in a white coat, her face no longer streaked with dirt. He wants to talk to her. Has questions, plenty of them, but he can't seem to get a grip on any of them. Everything in his mind feels thick and sweet, it's too easy to let things slip away.

"Sasuke?" is all he manages, his throat dry. She rolls her eyes, but there's something else there. He's too tired to hold onto the thought enough to wonder what it might be.

"Right over there," She nods. Naruto's eyes follow, and he sees Sasuke in the bed a few feet over. "He's sleeping, like you should be."

"Mmm." Sleep does sound good, now that she says it. "Goodnight, Sakura."

"Goodnight, Naruto." The last thing he's aware of before falling back into his dreams is Sakura's hand combing through his hair. He thinks he catches a whisper of something else she's said, but the words slip from his mind as the world falls away.


A/N: Hopefully, some of you are enjoying this at least half as much as I'm enjoying writing it. Feel free to stop by and say hello in the comments or over on tumblr at BitchBot3000 πŸ’« This fic is already written (as in this, the prelude, not the entire series), so I'll be updating every Sunday πŸ’œ