It's a long chapter so I have something quick to say before you read. One of my reviewers mentioned a long time ago that they felt Naruto had gotten too weak, and I had been feeling the same sentiments long before they brought up their points. So as a result, things have been sped up a little more and… well… things happen that weren't supposed to happen for another few chapters.

Go read now.

Chapter Title: 64. The Difference Between You and Me

With the sunlight streaming through the open window, Naruto could almost have been made to believe that life was perfect. Although he was lying in a slightly uncomfortable position on the floor, he was surrounded by warmth and even the weather outside made him feel safe. Outside his window, the sounds of chirping birds on the branches of the tree had startled him from his quiet slumber, but the warmth made him want to stay in that place between reality and dreams, and he was content to just pretend he was still asleep. He didn't want to face things just yet, though he could tell from the breathing underneath him that Sasuke was also awake, and probably had been for some time.

"I like waking up beside you," Sasuke mumbled when he figured they'd had enough time faking sleep. "If only the circumstances had been different." Naruto could feel Sasuke's gaze on his lax form move to the painted walls and he could feel his fingers start to tense up at the reminder. "Why do things have to be this way? Why does there have to be wars that leave behind such awful scars?" Naruto was silent, afraid of the answers that would come from exploring those questions. "I just want to grow old with someone I love, not worrying if they're going to be there in the morning when I wake up. Wouldn't you like that?" Naruto clenched his fist against Sasuke's stomach, staring at the painful scars that wouldn't go away this time. He had been wondering if there would come a time when the wounds did not heal. One wrist had finished healing, but was still an angry irritated red beneath the dried blood stains, while the other one was still bleeding. All the minor cuts had healed without error, but these two well worn paths had become too used to ever heal properly. He sighed and unclenched his fists, letting his fingers slowly glide along the dark blue vest his rival wore. He was almost sorry to see the blood from his second wrist begin to leave a stain on the once-clean shirt.

"Impossible dreams," Naruto whispered softly, though he knew Sasuke heard him.

"Not impossible, just improbable." The older man smiled sadly. His eyes took in the names written on the wall and he had to physically fight off the need to flinch. There were so many names he knew, so many people he had known. He looked down at the messy blonde hair lying in his lap and sighed. "Let's get you cleaned up and ready for the day." He sat up slowly, taking note of the unhealed wounds.

"I don't need you talking to me like I'm a child," Naruto snapped, pushing himself away from his best friend and standing up slowly. He braced a hand on the once white wall while he caught his bearings. Sasuke stood up as well, walking slowly to the door, trying to keep his eyes from the bloody walls as much as possible. He hesitated when he didn't hear Naruto following.

The blond was still for a few moments, before he realised that his hand braced against the wall was covering up half of the characters that made up Umino Iruka's name, he could still feel the drying blood beneath his fingertips. He gasped and ripped his hand from the wall as though it had been burned, but his legs weren't strong enough to support him and he was sent crashing to the floor again, cursing colourfully.

"Are you okay?" Sasuke asked quickly, dropping to his friend's side. The sudden worry earned him a glare, which he was quick to ignore. "You lost a lot of blood last night. I'm not surprised you're a little weak this morning."

"I'M NOT WEAK!" Naruto screamed, throwing a punch at the arm that was attempting to help him back to his feet. "I was just a bit dizzy, I don't need help." He pulled himself back to his feet and, though he was still a little shaky he didn't fall down a second time. He could tell that Sasuke wanted to say something to him, but he pushed past the young man and headed to the bathroom in silence.

Pulling a package of bandages and a bit of gauze out of the cabinet under the sink, Naruto began trying to clean up his wounds.

"Let me," Sasuke said, taking the package from his friend's hands. "You're just getting blood all over the place, dobe," he explained himself forcefully, but the nickname was whispered under his breath. Naruto glared at him for his intrusion, but the look faltered when he caught the name. He turned his head to the side and held out his injured arm, his bottom lip stuck out in a pout. They sat on the bathroom floor in an awkward silence for a few moments until the wound had been properly sterilized and wrapped.

"I don't suppose there's much I could do to make sure you never did that to yourself again. You scared me last night." Sasuke looked up at Naruto when the silence became too much for him. "Is there anything I can do or say that would make this stop?"

"No." Naruto's tone was firm, trying to leave no room for negotiations.

"I would offer free ramen for the rest of your life, or your choice in any girl you want, or anything you asked for, but it isn't enough, is it? It's all just superficial meaningless stuff." He sighed and stood from his crouch on the floor. "I wonder if there ever could be a price high enough to convince you to stop hurting yourself. I know those names represent the dead, but there are other ways to remember, other ways to punish yourself, even though none of it is your fault."

"It is!" Naruto exclaimed, standing as well. He shoved Sasuke into the bathroom wall, out of his way and stalked out of the small room. He paused when he passed the room they'd slept in the previous night and slammed the door closed and sealing it tightly. No one else would ever see beyond that door. "That blood is so insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but I have nothing else to give." He turned around to find that Sasuke was nowhere to be seen. From a distance, he heard his friend shouting to him from his bedroom.

"Can I borrow a shirt and some shorts?"

"Whatever," Naruto muttered, walking slowly into his own room to find that Sasuke had already pulled on a clean white shirt with a small red spiral on the front, not bothering to wait for an answer. He jumped slightly at Naruto's entrance, but after a little staring, he continued looking for bottoms as though he wasn't aware he was only in his boxers. Naruto stared at the shirt for a moment before recognising the garment from his childhood and was surprised to see it fit his rival without a problem and even looked a little loose on him. "Please don't make me do anything I don't want to do." He whispered softly as Sasuke pulled up a pair of navy shorts he found. Randomly, he hoped it was clean, but knew that Sasuke had a knack for telling the difference between Naruto's clean clothing and his dirty stuff. Sasuke gave him a pitiful look.

"It's sad that you seem to want to mutilate yourself," he replied, walking past the blond and out of the bedroom.

"You don't understand!" Naruto exclaimed, grabbing a hold of the other man's arm as he passed. Sasuke seemed to have expected the move and spun right around from the force, claiming Naruto's lips in an explosive and aggressive kiss. When they parted, he looked furious.

"No, it's you who doesn't understand," he spat at his friend. "I would do anything for you. I'd give you anything. Tell me what you want!"

"I want… you're my best friend…" Sasuke smiled softly, almost cryptically, and nodded. "You do things to me." If it weren't for the severity of the situation, he might have poked fun at the words coming from Naruto's mouth. As it was, he'd found a bargaining chip in his friend's need for a companion. He didn't say a word, only walked away from the blonde. He didn't stop till he had walked into the kitchen and, sure that Naruto had followed him, pulled a sharp knife from the rack, dragging the blade across his wrist. He was faintly aware of Naruto's startled scream through the haze of pain the action caused as well as the searing pain that shot across his back as the curse seal reacted to the knife wound.

"You're my best friend, too," he replied, watching the deep red liquid fall to the floor like teardrops. He looked up to see that his rival had frozen in his spot and smiled weakly. "I can't stop you from doing it again, but if I ever find out you cut yourself again, I'll do the same."

"No," Naruto whimpered and stumbled backwards until his back hit the nearest wall and, his eyes still trapped by the sight of flowing blood, he slid down to the floor. "Please, no."

"Don't do it again," Sasuke demanded, grabbing a towel to wrap around his wound till he could pull out the spare bandages he'd shoved in his pocket. "I should go; I have to do a little bit of patrolling this morning."

"Don't go," Naruto whispered. "I need…"

"But you don't need me," Sasuke interrupted. "You know this, don't you? You need to suffer through this thing on your own. That's it, isn't it? You need to prove that you CAN do this on your own. That's why we stopped…" He trailed off, knowing he didn't have to say the whole sentence. Naruto was staring at him in a stunned silence until Sasuke's words set in.

He paused at the door to the blonde's apartment and raised a finger to the clean, white door frame. Running his finger down the clean, bloodless strip of white, he closed his eyes and walked out.


Taking a deep breath, Sasuke continued walking until Naruto's building was completely out of sight. He turned back and sighed when the building was finally far enough away. For a while now Sasuke knew he would have to take a backseat to Naruto's problems, though the idea was still hard to stomach, even after he'd accepted it. He was confused himself, and knew that his uncertainty would just serve to hinder his friend's self discovery and healing.

He growled under his breath, not noticing the people who were starting to stare at him, and shook the thoughts from his mind. Thinking about something he couldn't do anything about was going to get him nowhere. He thought about the curse seal and the close call he'd nearly had in Naruto's bedroom. He hadn't heard the blonde walk in on him while he was changing and had worried for a moment that his rival had seen the overly large bandage that was covering the seal, but he took a second to analyse the young man's face, noticing that there was no change in the features. He'd seen nothing.

Sasuke carefully touched the spot on his neck where he knew the origins of the curse seal resided and winced as though there were real pain. It felt no different from any other part of his body except for the constant warm throbbing, almost as though his pulse was much too close to the surface. The bandage itself was merely there as a means to cover the disgusting marks on his neck, and the doctor had encouraged him to remove the cloth, but both him and Kakashi believed it would be best for everyone involved that he kept the shock of the curse as hidden as possible, and so far no one had asked any questions.

Sasuke was terrified of the subject being brought up in his conversations with Naruto. Until he had all the answers, he didn't want to explain what was going on, even though he knew he was being slightly hypocritical with his friend. Things were just different for him. Not that he could tell Naruto that. What would he say?

'Hi, I'm being eaten by a dead man's curse!' He shook his head at the different reactions he could see Naruto going through. Not only was the possible attention unwanted, the curse seal also posed a danger to those he was close to if he ever lost control of it. He didn't understand why the mark was starting to act up, but until he knew for sure, he wasn't going to take any chances. Who knew what would trigger his next attack?

He was quickly reminded of Kakashi's earlier words about finding someone with connections to Orochimaru, but the snake had been dead for years and anyone who had been formerly affiliated with him was either long gone, or dead.

"Who else would know?" he muttered to himself, but his musings were thrown from his mind when he realised he was in the heart of the little village, where all the festival stands and lanterns were being taken down. Some were being thrown out while other decorations were placed carefully into boxes and put into storage for later use. He nodded politely to one man who was in the process of taking down a large sale banner from the front of his shop. Sasuke quickly offered his services by holding steady the rickety ladder.

"Thanks, boy." Though Sasuke was no longer a boy, he nodded at the gratitude and opted to not correct the man. "Last night was amazing, wasn't it?" The man began a conversation with the ninja. Sasuke looked up and thought for a moment.

"I wouldn't call it amazing." The villager laughed at his stern response and muttered "shinobi" under his breath, shaking his head and chuckling to himself.

"Well I thought it was a wise move on Godaime's part," he continued. "It brought up everyone's spirits. It allowed people to just be themselves." Sasuke frowned at the last part and thought back to how Naruto had acted last night. He hoped that wasn't Naruto's true self. "It helped the villagers forget the wars for a moment in time and live in peace. Even if it's for a moment, something like that can do wonders for everyone's morals."

"I don't know that it helped," Sasuke replied.

"No, you probably wouldn't see it from our perspective." The man chuckled again, taking no offence to Sasuke's rough attitude. "You were probably uncomfortable at last night's festivities. I don't blame you. You live the life of a shinobi, but I do wish you had been allowed to grow up."

"What do you mean?" Sasuke looked up at the man again, noticing that the banner was now folded neatly in his hands.

"You were trained to kill at such a young age," he explained. "You never had a chance to cut school to hang out with your buddies. You never had the time to take in a movie with your second girlfriend that week. And I'll bet you've never snuck away from the whole world to make love under the moonlight." Sasuke blushed at the words, but the man was caught up in his memories. "Everyone knows the shinobi clans marry for lineage. No one has time to court anyone. You poor young children have no time to fall in love. It's a wonder you've survived this long." He offered Sasuke an apologetic smile and climbed back down the ladder, thanking Sasuke for his help.

"I don't think you know as much as you think about us shinobi," Sasuke exclaimed just as he'd finished putting away the ladder. He'd given the man's words a lot of thought as they tidied up. The old man paused in his inventory list and looked up to the young man in his doorway.


"We have friends we hang out with," Sasuke continued. "We may not play in the park every day like the other children, but we experience the things just as wonderful, and just as painful. You say no shinobi marry for love, but I know a great ninja who drank himself almost to death when he lost his wife, because he loved her so much."

"Do you mean Nara Shikato?" the villager asked. He'd obviously seen Shikamaru's father around in the bars. Sasuke neither confirmed nor denied the name, just continued.

"And while I've never made love under the moonlight, I do know the ecstasy of making love with someone you would give up everything to. I know what it's like to sit with that person under a starry sky and count the tiny pinpricks of light until we've counted the same star a thousand times. I know what it's like to hold that person in my arms when their pain becomes unbearable and never want to let them go." He turned to the door, about to leave when he hesitated, looking over his shoulder one last time. "If that's not what it's like to be in love, then I guess you were right about at least one thing," he exclaimed to the man in words he would deny to himself later and walked out of the shop, heading to another festival stall in the process of being taken down. He offered the family some more help.

For a while, Sasuke worked undisturbed, but he paused in wrapping up a light cable when he heard his name called. He was about to continue his work when he heard it again, closer. He turned around and found Ino rushing up to him, her face pinched tight from lack of sleep or worry, or both. He waited patiently, continuing to roll the cable around his arm, for her to catch her breath and explain why she'd called out to him.

"It's Sakura," she exclaimed after a moment. He raised an eyebrow, but said nothing. "She refuses to leave her room."

"And? What do you expect me to be able to do about this?" Sasuke asked, politely. Ino frowned, but didn't give up trying.

"She's still trying to cope with the loss of her family," she explained, desperation evident in her pleading voice. "You're her team mate, her friend. You and Naruto. You can both talk to her. Help her through this."

"What kind of difference can we do for her if her own best friend can't get through to her?"

"You and Naruto understand her pain," Ino replied, though it was obvious the Uchiha massacre wasn't something she wanted to elaborate on. "You know what it's like to be an orphan, to be without the people you love. Please, just come and offer a little support. We're the last people she has left to hold onto."

"I'll come, but just for a few moments," Sasuke finally agreed after thinking it over in his head. He wasn't sure if he could convince Naruto to come with him, he wasn't even sure they should be in the same room while Naruto was sensitive about people who'd died in the war, but he would at least talk to the man.

"Thank you, Sasuke-kun." Ino hugged him, wiping tears from her eyes. Sasuke's body went tense at the touch but the blonde girl ignored the feeling of rejection.

"I'm not making any promises about Naruto though," He added. She nodded and smiled, taking a step back. "He's not doing so well either through this war."

"I heard about Iruka-sensei." She lowered her head in respect of the dead man who used to be their teacher. Sasuke wanted to correct her and explain that Iruka was only a tiny part of it, but didn't have it in him to explain the inner workings of his best friend's mind to someone who was an outsider. Ino had nothing to do with it.

"I'll be at her house in half an hour, with or without Naruto," he said and headed back to the apartment from which he'd started his day.


Naruto sat in his apartment staring at his closed front door for a few minutes before common sense kicked in and told him Sasuke wasn't going to come back. He should have been happy. It was what he wanted; to do things on his own, but for some reason the only thing he wanted at the moment was to have Sasuke walk back into his life. Shaking his head, Naruto cursed himself.

"You're dumber than Sasuke thinks you are, idiot," he muttered to himself, going into the kitchen and pulling out a bowl and a pair of wooden chopsticks. He shoved them hastily onto the table and poured himself a glass of milk. It wasn't until he was putting the carton back in the fridge that he realised how little clothing he had been wearing.


He looked down at his bare chest and found it littered with dried patches of blood. He must have been quite a mess for Sasuke to find. That thought sobered Naruto and soured his mood a little bit more. The last thing he wanted to do was become a burden on yet another person's life, but this time he hadn't imposed on anyone. This time he'd done it without even leaving the comfort of his own home.

"Asshole," Naruto muttered, shoving the glass of milk out of his way for the moment. He was trying to keep as much milk for as long as possible to cut down on his trips to the market. He would leave the glass till he'd made his ramen breakfast and he would leave that until he'd finished getting dressed.

He headed to his bedroom for some clothes, his stride only hesitating for a moment as he passed the locked white door, but he didn't turn to look at it. It was bad enough that his mind wouldn't let go of the events of that night; he didn't need visual reminders as well. All he could think about since Sasuke left was the feeling of his arms wrapped around him as the older man made promises they both knew he couldn't keep. He just couldn't allow himself to be weak anymore. What kind of future would he have if he depended on everyone else? The Hokage didn't do it, so neither would he.

He pulled a washcloth from the linen closet and held it under the cold water for a moment. He knew warm water got rid of the blood faster, but he needed the kick of the ice water to wake him up a little bit more. When his torso was relatively clean, he quickly ducked under the showerhead to rinse off the parts of his body he might have missed, holding his bandaged arm in the air above the hot mist. He didn't want to have wasted Sasuke's work.

When he stepped out of the shower, he stared at the white fabric covering his wrist and was surprised at the obvious care Sasuke had taken to making sure it was secure and tight and allowed him to heal in the fastest way possible. He shook all thoughts from his head, towel-drying his hair and heading to his bedroom quickly to find a relatively clean pair of shorts and a shirt.

It took him a full ten minutes to finally realize that Sasuke had taken his last clean shirt and shorts. Everything else was either too dirty, or too sliced up to wear in public. He swore under his breath and punched the wall in frustration. This was obviously not a good start to a day. He looked down at his wrists, but shook his head; he'd made a promise to himself.

Pulling on the cleanest shorts he had, Naruto went back down the hall to see if anything had been left at his door. Every so often the lady down the hall would leave him her newspaper. He appreciated the gesture, and looked forward to the small act of kindness every week. He pulled back the door, only to be assaulted by said paper being flung in his face by an angry neighbour. It wasn't the nice lady, but the man who lived next to him.

"What was that for?" Naruto asked quietly, his voice rumbling deep within his chest. He'd caught the paper before it fell, but it was flung quite hard at him and his face now stung.

"I can't believe you would even show your face around the village after the things you've done to us, demon," the man snarled. Naruto's grip tightened and his sharp nails dug into the paper, shredding it slightly, but he said nothing. "I saw Uchiha-san leaving here this morning. You should stop corrupting the best people of this village if you know what's best for you." He sneered when he noticed the nearly destroyed paper in the blonde man's hands. "If you don't keep that demon under control, the village might be forced to do something about it."

"I don't need your warnings."

"I think you do," the man replied, not at all afraid of the warning he heard in the younger man's voice. "Could you imagine what would happen to Sasuke if you were to get angry with him? Your sharp claws would pierce his flesh like that paper. Do you think we're going to just sit back while you corrupt and endanger his life?"

"Sasuke can think and act for himself," Naruto shot back, squeezing one hand into a fist at his side to keep from taking his anger out on the man in front of him. "You and the rest of the village need to stop coddling him. He's not a child anymore. He can protect himself from the demon." He turned around and slammed the door in his neighbour's face, throwing the paper at the nearest object, a lamp, which proceeded to shatter from the force. He cursed colourfully under his breath, but ignored the broken glass.

Stepping into the kitchen, he began pulling out the pot and water needed for his ramen breakfast, however, when he began looking for a package of the stuff all he was met with was empty cupboards. His searching became frantic when even his secret stash was missing. He'd used up the last of it two nights earlier and hadn't found the time nor will to want to leave his apartment to go shopping. Things weren't going his way, but at least he wasn't left with nothing for his grumbling tummy.

Slamming the last cupboard door closed, he reached for his lonely glass of milk, but paused when a familiar scent wafted up into his nostrils. His face became scrunched up and he tossed the rotten milk into the sink, satisfied at the tinkling of the shattered glass.

"AHHHHH!" he yelled, slamming his fist into the counter top. No clothing, no ramen, bad milk, the horrible run in with his neighbour. They were all signs he was not supposed to live through the night. He looked down at his wrist again, remembering how Sasuke bandaged him up. He had still been bleeding. He reached for a knife, intending to take his anger out on his arm, but his fingers faltered and the blade clattered to the counter top at the sound of someone clearing their throat behind him. Without turning around, Naruto knew that it's Sasuke. "What are you doing here?" he asked softly, unsure if any sound made it past the thundering of his heartbeat in his ears. He whirled around to see his rival and was stunned by what he saw.

"What did you think you were going to do with that knife?" Sasuke retorted, keeping his own kunai pressed against a bandaged wrist. "Don't make me follow you down that path." He whispered, the hand holding the kunai shaking slightly. Naruto took a step backwards, his hand fumbling for the knife while he kept his gaze locked on the tall form in front of him. When he felt his fingers close around the handle, he let out an outraged cry and hurled the object at his friend. The knife embedded itself in the wall, inches from Sasuke's head, but neither boy flinched at the impact.

"I shouldn't have lived," Naruto exclaimed, his knees wobbling until he couldn't stand any longer. He slid down the cabinet to sit on the floor, his head in his hands. "I don't know what to do to make things like they used to be." He heard Sasuke drop the kunai to the floor and walk slowly towards the blonde.

"What do you want?" Sasuke asked. Naruto looked up into his best friend's eyes. It was an ordinary question, but one he didn't know how to answer. He remained silent, avoiding and then forgetting the question. Sasuke sat down beside him.

"How long were you standing behind me?"

"Long enough."

"That's no answer." But Naruto knew the truth. He hadn't locked his front door after the confrontation with his neighbour.

"He shouldn't have said those things to you."

"Was he right?"

"About what?" Sasuke turned to look at the blonde. He'd heard everything the man had said to Naruto.

"About me corrupting you." Sasuke laughed at the question, ignoring the seriousness of the whole thing. The last thing Naruto needed was a serious talk.

"Oh, you've corrupted me alright." He smirked and jostled the blonde's shoulder with his own playfully. Naruto looked up and saw the humour in his friend's eyes, though none of it was reflected in his own. His anger and frustration began to slowly dissipate. "But I'm far too gone to care right now."

"You don't care that I could kill you with my bare hands?" Sasuke snorted at the question.

"You couldn't even if you tried." He laid his head on Naruto's shoulder. "You were more right than him, though. I'm my own person. I can't have people I don't even know trying to protect me from something I don't want to be protected from."

"But I–"

"No," Sasuke interrupted. "If I didn't want to be with you, I would have left the village years ago. Or did you forget it was you who brought me back? And as much as you may not want to believe it, only you're keeping me here." He sighed. "I'm not leaving you."

"Thank you," Naruto whispered back, letting his cheek rest on the soft ebony hair. He was content to stay on the floor with Sasuke until he was reminded that Sasuke had to have come back for a reason. He asked.

"Sakura's having problems dealing with…" Sasuke trailed off, both of them understanding what he wasn't saying. "Ino says no one is getting through to her to help her get over her grief. She wants us to try."

"You can't force someone to stop grieving."

"I know, but she seems to think we can help her with her grief, lend our support."

"I don't know how much help I could be." Sasuke sat up for a moment, turning to his friend as their conversation took a different turn.

"No one but us understands what she's going through. We're the only friends she has who understand what it's like to lose everything you hold precious in a moment." Naruto frowned at Sasuke pointedly and shifted uncomfortably on the cold tiled floor.

"You lost your entire clan. She lost her parents. It's understandable for you two to be together right now, but I've lost nothing. I never had parents or a family." Sasuke glared, gritting his teeth from saying anything that couldn't be taken back.

"So the was Iruka nothing but a teacher to you?" he hissed between his teeth. "Am I nothing but a team mate? Sakura? Or did you lie to me when you said he was like a big brother to you?" Naruto flinched at Iruka's name, and tried to explain, but nothing sounded right to his ears. "Now that her parents are gone, we're all she has left."

"You won't take no for an answer, will you?" Naruto smiled sadly and stood up from the floor. Sasuke followed suit and looked around the destroyed apartment.

"How about I make you a deal?" Sasuke exclaimed, watching Naruto rush to his room to find a shirt that wasn't wrinkled or damaged too much.


"I'll take you out for breakfast and then we can quickly stop by my house to get you some clean clothing." He smiled to himself when he heard cheering coming from the room and a ball of black rushed at him and into his arms.

"You're the best!" Naruto laughed, enveloping his friend in a tight hug and showering him with sloppy kisses.

"But you and I are cleaning this place up when we're finished with Sakura. Shopping and a load of laundry."

"Yes, mother."


Sasuke knocked twice on the wooden door. They had quickly gotten a bowl each of ramen and Naruto pulled on the first things Sasuke tossed at him. It was killing Sasuke not to slam his fist over the blonde man's head at the moment, though. The entire way over, Naruto had been fidgeting in his clothing, pulling the hem of the shirt down and trying to straighten out the shorts.

"Will you stop?" he finally ground out, grabbing one of the offending hands. "You are being a nuisance and you're going to stretch it." Naruto shot him a glare.

"It's not my fault," he muttered. "How can you wear clothes like this? I feel like I'm wearing a smaller person's skin."

"And you're blaming your weight problem on me and my clothing?" The younger man shot him a withering stare and stuck his tongue out, holding the small strip of skin that showed beneath the black tank top. He was self conscious about the little amount of fat he had that covered his abs. It was nothing outrageous, but he hated it none the less.

"I am not fat," he hissed in return. "You're just petite." Sasuke allowed the comment to slide for more pressing matters. He could hear Ino calling from upstairs that she would be at the door in a second, giving them very little time to keep talking. Sasuke turned with his back to the door and gave his rival a pointed stare.

"You can do this, you know," he exclaimed, nodding his head to the door behind him, knowing that Naruto was still fighting with himself in his head.

"I'm scared." Sasuke smiled and nodded, taking the man's face in his hands and kissed him soundly. It was meant to be something of support, but it turned out to mean much more to both men. It might have become something more heated if the lock to the door hadn't clicked open. The door opened, revealing Ino's head, looking extremely relieved to see them and completely oblivious to what had happened on the front step.

"Come in." She ushered them inside and shut the door, leading the way back upstairs to where Sakura was currently locked inside her room. Sasuke leaned closer to his best friend as they made their way up the stairs and gave the blonde's hand a quick reassuring squeeze. Naruto gave him a quick smile.

"I'll be your walking stick," Sasuke whispered so only Naruto could hear, but they had reached their team mate's door before he could properly ask the meaning behind the words. He shot his rival a questioning glance, and turned his attention on the scene before them.

It shouldn't have startled them, but they were both surprised to find so many people hanging around outside Sakura's bedroom door, trying to convince her to come out and talk to them. Lee was in the middle of pounding furiously on the door, shouting at her to let him in and help her restore the flower of her youth.

"You'll wilt away to nothing if you don't let us help you," he exclaimed. "We're your friends; we'll support you no matter what blows our way." Ino sighed and sat down beside Shikamaru on the floor. Beside those three, Hinata and her cousin were also standing outside the pink-haired girl's room.

"She won't let anyone inside." Ino spoke quietly to the two newcomers.

"Is the door locked?" Sasuke asked, but Ino shook her head.

"No one wants to go inside anymore because they're afraid of her," she answered. "She's been attacking anyone who sets foot in her room, but she won't say anything except yelling at us to get out and leave her alone." She looked desperate. "I'm running out of ideas."

"Please, Sakura-chan, we only want to help you," Hinata called to the girl, but there was no response. "Please don't shut us out."

"It's not working," Sasuke remarked dryly. Naruto dug his elbow into the man's side and stepped forward.

"Sakura-chan, it's Naruto," he called softly. All that greeted his words were the soft sounds of sobbing. He turned to the rest of the group. "I don't think you're helping anything by waiting outside her room like vultures. You're scaring her off. I'm going to take my chances and go inside. There's only so much comfort you can offer through the wood of a door. Maybe you should go home and rest a little bit. Who knows when the war may start up again?" Sasuke followed behind him, not saying a word, but obviously not planning on leaving. They would go inside together.

"Go home," Sasuke said pointedly as they entered the darkened room. He made sure they had gone down the stairs before shutting the door behind him and turning to take in the disaster that used to be Sakura's room.

The girl herself was sitting huddled on her bed, knees to her chest. Her lithe frame was shaking from repressed sobs and she was slowly rocking back and forth.

"Go home," she whispered, barely audible to the men. "You're not going to get any farther than they did, and I don't want to hurt you." She didn't even spare them a glance. Naruto frowned at the dismissal, but didn't back down. He took a step closer and tried to explain himself.

"Sakura, we're here to-" But he was interrupted by a punch to the gut. Sakura had lunged forward throwing power punches and the like at her closest target, Naruto. Sasuke was about to rush forward to help his friend, but a look from the blonde told him not to come any closer. It took no more than a minute for the punching, kicking and scratching to subside into hugging and tears. Sakura clung limply to Naruto's solid frame, her grip on his neck so tight he feared she might snap it. He felt something wet and warm seep through the fabric of Sasuke's shirt at his neck and knew at once the girl was crying.

"Shh…" he whispered, bringing a hand up to stroke her hair and pat her back. "It's okay, to cry, we're here for you." They slowly moved her back to the bed to sit down and talk. Sasuke followed, but stayed away from the bed, preferring to stand against the wall.

"They don't understand," she said into Naruto's shirt. "I just want to disappear to a place the pain can't follow." The blonde gave her a pained look and nodded, allowing her to slowly leave his comforting embrace. "Everything I see here reminds me of them, and I just want to let go."

"It's hard dealing with the home they raised you in, isn't it?" Sasuke spoke softly. Sakura looked up at him and nodded slowly, wiping away some of the tears from her cheeks. "To have to live in a place where you expect to see them around every corner."

"I keep hearing their voices," she agreed with him. "I don't know how to make the delusions stop." She looked pleadingly at Sasuke for advice and suddenly Naruto was the one feeling inadequate. He didn't really know what it was like to feel that way. He lost Iruka in a war, and though they were close, Iruka wasn't someone Naruto saw every single day and where Sasuke had felt uncomfortable trying to comfort Sakura when he had already escaped that pain, Naruto had never felt it to begin with.

"I would offer one of the Uchiha residences to you, but you would only be running from your pain. You need to stop yourself and confront your grief. Stop trying to forget about everything you shared with your parents, because it's not going to work and it's not going to help either. Do you think they would want you to forget them?" Sakura shook her head. "In order to get past the pain you feel, you need to accept what has happened and allow it to change you for the better. They're still watching over you."

"I don't know how," she whispered, staring at her feet.

"Lean on us," Naruto piped up, still feeling left out, but not letting that get in the way of comforting his friend. "We're still alive." He could feel the sharp look Sasuke had shot him, but he knew there was something that needed to be out in the open.

"But we're soldiers for the village, any day we could be killed and if I start relying on you, I'll just get hurt again." Inwardly, Naruto was proud of that confession, knowing it needed to be confronted. She was afraid for the wrong reasons.

"But that's the difference, we are soldiers," Naruto explained. "We can fight and protect ourselves. We can protect our families. You're our family." He gestured to himself and Sasuke. "There's Ino and Hinata, Kiba, Neji, and Lee. They all want to help you and protect you. Just think of them as extended family. You don't need to be connected by blood to be family."

"But they're suffering through so much as well." He knew she was thinking about Hinata and Neji.

"Which means you can cope with these tragedies together." She looked from Naruto to Sasuke and smiled at their expressions.

"I guess you guys are too stubborn to let me try and run away."

"We just know the results of running away," Sasuke explained and moved closer to the pink-haired girl. "It's not a road you should be forced upon."

"What happened to make you run, anyways?" Naruto asked, giving her a curious look. She looked between them before sighing. Eventually they would figure it out or learn what happened from someone else.

"I was at a booth and out of nowhere I was drowning in memories of when my parents used to take me to those booths as a little girl. I just wanted to break down right in the middle of the street, but everyone was supposed to be having fun. I couldn't deal with it all." They both nodded in understanding and suddenly Sasuke stepped forward and wrapped his arms around the girl, who promptly began sobbing again on his shoulder, tears soaking into the borrowed shirt. "When does the hurting stop?" she whispered the question into Sasuke's neck.

"Never," he replied strongly, staring straight at Naruto, still sitting on their friend's bed. "But we'll always be there for you. Naruto and I. If you come to us, I promise you you'll never have to put up your defences when you're with us. Cry, laugh, break things; we'll never judge you or hold it against you, only be there to support you. The one place you don't need to be strong." The entire time Sasuke was talking to Sakura, his eyes were locked with the blonde's, the meaning not lost on his rival. 'Stop hiding from me.' He mouthed, giving the man a pleading look.

"Y-you have no idea how worried Ino was about you," Naruto exclaimed, stumbling on his words, a blush shooting across his cheeks. "You heard Lee pounding on your door, didn't you? We're just all worried for you."

"Thank you for being there for me," she exclaimed, stepping back from the embrace, though everyone saw how reluctant she was to drop her arms from Sasuke's shoulders.

"Thank Ino," Sasuke said. "She's the one who told us what was happening."

"You're not going to hole yourself up in this room if you get scared again?" She chuckled lightly and wiped her face, shaking her head.


"Then let's go downstairs, I can guarantee Ino and Lee didn't leave, no matter what Sasuke told them."


"Why didn't you tell me about it?"

"It wasn't important at the time, you were comforting Sakura."

"You were bleeding!"

"So?" Naruto asked, clutching the now bloody bandage to his chest protectively, giving his friend a wounded look. "It's a flesh wound, it'll heal eventually."

"It needs to be bandaged again!"

"It's fine!" Naruto yelled, jumping back when Sasuke tried to reach for it again.

"Why are you being so stubborn about it?"

"Because you freaked out and lunged at me when you noticed it, making it hurt more than it already did."

"It's hurting you!"

"You make such a big deal out of everything, stop acting like a mother. I never grew up with one, so I don't think I need one."

"You're being a stupid asshole." Sasuke frowned, eyeing the appendage in frustration. "Come with me, now," he ground out through his teeth, grabbing hold of the unwounded arm and began dragging the blonde in the direction of his house to get fixed up again.

"You're a sadist," Naruto muttered under his breath. "You just want to see me writhing in pain from that stupid ointment you use."

"It works."

"It hurts." They marched on in silence for a moment before something dawned on Naruto. "I'm not going to die from this, you know." Almost at once, Sasuke stopped walking and whirled around, slamming his fist into Naruto's jaw. It was then that he saw the look of pain dancing beneath the red eyes.

"I don't care," came the frustrated reply. "I'm not letting go of you ever. Whether it's a paper cut or you have your leg chopped off, I'm going to whatever it takes to heal you. I want you to be sane and whole when we finally come out of this war."

"What we want and what we get are completely different things, bastard."

"Stop making things harder than they have to be." Sasuke continued walking; they were nearly at the Uchiha houses. It wasn't until they were standing in front of the large painted door waiting for Sasuke to finish unlocking the door that Naruto began to struggle against his rival's hold on his wrist again.

"Let me go before I break your fingers," he hissed angrily.

"No," Sasuke stated simply, choosing to ignore the warning in his friend's voice. He pulled the blonde into the house and towards the main floor bathroom. He'd kept the majority of his bandages there so he could get at them fast when he first came into the house, unless he'd forgotten his keys. Then he would have had to break into the upstairs bedroom. Sasuke dumped Naruto on the toilet seat and started pulling out the gauze and cotton balls.

Keeping his work quick and efficient, the older of the two began to bandage his friend. The uncomfortable silence was ended when he attached the end of the tensor bandage to itself with the clip. He looked up into Naruto's eyes and saw the accusation in the blue eyes. Standing up, he pulled his rival from the seat and left the small room.

"Stop thinking this is all about you, selfish dobe."

"I'm not your project," Naruto spat out in response. "You can't fix me. You can't save me just because you choose to."

He ducked quickly, anticipating the fist this time, but choked on his breath when the fist was planted in his gut instead of his face. Naruto was about to return the hit when Sasuke suddenly collapsed to the ground in obvious pain, clutching his neck and gasping for breath.

"Sasuke?" he cried, flying to his friend's side. "What's wrong?"

"It's… nothing," Sasuke huffed out, struggling to get into a sitting position on the floor with one hand. He refused to let his hand move an inch from the edge of the bandage that covered his own skin. Even his hands weren't enough to cover the whole thing, but the parts his fingers didn't touch were more than hidden from view, giving the impression of an iceberg. That which was hidden beneath his fingers was obviously much larger than the "tiny" designs that peaked through.

"Don't lie, asshole," Naruto dropped to his knees and raised his hands to try and pry his rival's grip away the wound, but was thrown back.

"It's nothing to you. I'm handling it."

"Tell me the truth, or I swear I'll beat the shit out of you."

"You can't know," Sasuke pushed himself up from the floor, his determination enough to convince the throbbing to lessen enough to clear his head and get to his feet. "It's too dangerous."

The blonde glared at him. How dare he? Gritting his teeth, Naruto wound up and kicked his feet out, catching Sasuke's shaky ones and bringing the man back down to the floor, where he jumped forward, sitting on him to keep him on the floor. He grabbed one hand and pinned it to the floor, using his animalistic strength to peel the other one from its death grip on the bandage on his neck and force it to join its brother in his tan grip.

Naruto ripped back the neckline of his childhood shirt to see just how much of the bandage wasn't shown. It was taped in patches to the pale skin, going halfway down his back and covering most of his shoulder blade. The front part just stopped at Sasuke's armpit, though he could see a trace of whatever was underneath beginning to peak out.

"What is it?" he asked softly. Sasuke glared at him, but kept his mouth shut. "You want me to rip that off too?" But Sasuke had no intention of making things easy for his rival. He fought against the tanned hand that was clutching both of his above his head, but they were stretched too far from his body for him to use his strength as leverage. Naruto ignored the protesting movements and pulled the white cloth from Sasuke's neck, swearing colourfully when he saw the truth. His hands loosened their grip and in an instant he was on his back, looking up at the curse seal and dangling bandage.

"Fuck," the blonde whispered. He looked straight into Sasuke's eyes, his blue eyes hard and demanding the truth. "How much?"

Sasuke glared, his lips straightening to a grim line as he ripped off the rest of the bandage to reveal just how much the curse had spread across his chest and back.

"Oh fuck," he repeated, his fingers ghosting along the surface of the intricate pattern that was tattooed across the pale skin. A shiver rippled across the pale skin at his touch. "Why?" Naruto looked up from the inflamed seal to search beneath the red depths that threatened to hide everything from him.

"I don't know."

"Orochimaru is dead."

"It never went away."

"It's eating away at you," Naruto whispered, clutching Sasuke's shoulder, just beyond the curse's reach. "Why did you never tell me?"

"When? When did I ever have the chance? If this takes over my body again like it used to, you'd die."

"Is it an after effect of his death?"

"If it was then why did it wait until now to start spreading?" Naruto shrugged, looking back at the design. "I don't know anything about it, and I never had the chance to. He's dead, and no one else is alive that might know about it. I'm scared." The blonde beneath him was thoughtfully silent for a moment before he shook his head.

"Doesn't Anko-san have the same thing?" he asked. "I'm sure she'd know something about it. Maybe the same thing is happening to her too."

"But what if nothing's happening to her?" Sasuke yelled, trying to cover the fact that he'd forgotten about her. That must have been who Kakashi was talking about.

"So you're just going to deal with this on your own until it completely takes over?" Just the thought of that both infuriated and scared the blonde. Naruto threw a punch to his rival's jaw. "You're a stupid hypocrite."

"My curse is entirely different from your cutting."


"You're doing this to yourself!" Anticipating another attack, Sasuke grabbed Naruto's hands before he could punch him again. "You're killing yourself."

"How are you so sure that's not your own fault as well?" the blonde retorted, only struggling slightly beneath Sasuke's weight.

"You don't know anything!" Sasuke yelled, but his anger was cut short at the look of fear that had taken over the face beneath him.

"It's growing," Naruto whispered, staring at the flames as they licked ever closer to his best friend's heart. "You're making it grow." Fighting anew, Naruto pushed the dark-haired man off of him and took off running for the door.

"Naruto, wait!" Naruto stopped at the door and turned back, his expression unreadable.

"No, I'm not coming back until I can expect you to heal yourself."

"What does that mean?"

"I need to save myself before I can try and save you. You, too."

"Don't go."

"What's the difference between us, Sasuke?" Naruto asked softly.

"There is no difference between you and me." The blonde smiled sadly as the words slowly sunk in for Sasuke.

"Goodbye, Sasuke," he whispered and walked out the door.


Anko stood in the doorway of her house, staring at the young man standing expectantly on her doorstep. She narrowed her eyes, but let out a bark of laughter.

"I heard you were looking for some help," she exclaimed and stepped aside, rolling her eyes at him. "You were waiting for an invitation or something, kid?"

(End of Chapter)

I was keeping track all throughout the writing of this chapter and this is the longest chapter by around 3000 words… ha ha… go me.

As for an explanation for my absence? I stopped liking Naruto… and the story no longer held the allure it did when I first started writing it nearly two and a half years ago (my how time flies). But I found myself and I found a time when I could bring myself back into the story (by losing my notes and being forced to rewrite the whole chapter for a deadline which I missed by a week and a half).

Of course I was also encouraged by all the people who kept reviewing (guilty conscience) and I knew that this was one thing I couldn't leave unfinished. I swore I would finish it and I'm going to keep that promise I made to myself. Too many other things I've done have ended with no ending. Trust me, this one has an ending…

To my reviewers:

To Kamikakushi: Thank you for the praise… I was kind of bitter for a while after losing the NFAs but I've had three months to get over it. I'm very proud of my accomplishment. It was actually my goal to get one thousand reviews… I never even dreamed it was an achievable goal though.

To Lisen: I've been to Elfwood, but my name is Nazo, not Nazu, and I don't recall being there in the last few years.

To j: I'm sorry that you feel I've not portrayed Naruto in the proper light, but I'm only getting started, and I needed him to break in order for him to be stronger when he's patched up. I just hadn't gotten to fixing him until now. As well, I'm not sure how you took it, but Gaara wasn't really hitting on Sasuke. Not seriously anyways, but his explanations will come with time.

To MK: I missed you entirely. Ah well…(I ended up in my Bleach costume the whole weekend) Shinigami pants are the most comfortable clothing I own now. I love cosplaying.

To Basser: I know I'm insane. When I first told my friends I was doing it they laughed at me… seriously… they thought I was insane…Hell, even I didn't think I was going to get to the twentieth chapter. As for all the pairings I have in this story, well, some of them don't actually exist and are only there for my own sick humour and because I know that Kishimoto-sempai works in the same way with his characters. You can feel some kind of bond there and most people assume it's because they're so obviously shagging each other behind the academy. As for long reviews, I can't tell people enough how much I love them. You may think you're writing is pointless and wastes space, but I've found that even the long reviews ALWAYS say something… even if it's just about the reviewer. I like reading the long ones.

To Orenji Yoh-chan: Thank you for the praise, but the only reason I'm so committed to this story is cause I know what it's like to want a long story with a good plot… and I want to have something that is lasting, not just another one-shot.

To Gravity's Addicted: about the Naruto turning into a girl arc, I wanted to do that for one reason only; I wanted to see if it were possible to write about "Naruko" without falling into the obvious clichés used by all the less experienced authors. I'd read enough to know they were all the same. I wanted one where you didn't know how it was going to end.

Last notes: I'm in need of a couple of betas (Kyuubi-kun is getting annoyed with me), so I need someone who is fast and efficient and intelligent, not just someone looking to get the chapters before everyone else.

The other is that I'm going to be away from the computer until mid-August, but I'm going to be working out the details of the next chapter and have everything fine-tuned for when I get typing and that way I can have the next part posted as soon as possible. I'm not going to make false promises anymore.

To those who go straight to the review button: BETAS NEEDED!