Naruto walked quickly down the street and away from the pair of black eyes he could feel boring into the back of his head. It was with relief that he turned the corner onto another street and, not slackening his pace even a little, marched down it as well.
He was already beginning to regret what he'd said to Sasuke, but at the same time he was certain it had to be said. There was only so much coddling a person could stand and Naruto had reached his limit. Actually, he had reached his limit within the first week they had been travelling in the caves but he hadn't wanted to say anything in front of Sakura because…. Naruto shook his head and stopped walking. He hadn't particularly handled the caves well, he had to admit. While it was Sasuke he'd wanted to talk to, and occasionally yell at, it had been Sakura who had worn the brunt of his bad moods. He'd tried to stop, kept telling himself she hadn't done anything wrong at all, had done nothing to deserve his ire, but just one look at her simpering at Sasuke and he forgot he was trying to keep his temper in check and then they were arguing again.
So maybe he did need Sasuke looking out for him; maybe he needed someone with a clear head to keep him in check. What had happened to him back in the Forest of Death, and what he'd been told afterwards by Tsunade, he hadn't been handling it very well. He knew he should be focusing more on the Chuunin exam but while he knew it, it didn't stop him from zoning out on everything around him every time….
He picked a new direction and began resolutely walking in it. He shouldn't think about it; thinking about it just seemed to make it worse. Thinking about it was what was causing most of his problems.
Except that he had to think about it; he wished he could talk about it…but who could he tell? Nobody…. He wanted to tell Sasuke. No…he really wanted to tell Sasuke. But he couldn't tell him. He'd tried to a couple of times…but each time he'd stopped before the first word even passed his lips. In that frozen moment every possible reaction Sasuke could have would pass rapidly through his mind and no matter how he tried to reassure himself, every single one of those imagined reactions were bad ones. The best reaction he'd predicted was that Sasuke would simply stop talking to him and that everything between them would become painfully awkward. The worst was that…. Well, the worst was that Sasuke would leave, taking their rocky friendship with him.
But what would happen when Sasuke did find out? And he would, there was no doubt about that. As time went by the changes in Naruto would become painfully obvious, and, in fact, had already started to become noticeable, and then Sasuke would be doubly mad at him. Mad that Naruto hadn't told him what was going on, and mad over what was happening in the first place. Mad at Naruto, and mad at the world...just like Naruto was.
Of course there was a solution. Tsunade had told him that she could easily seal everything away again; that everything that was happening to him didn't have to happen... But did he want that? What was happening to him was teaching him things, giving him insights into fighting and life that he would never have had before; it made things so much easier, even though it made things harder as well.
Naruto stopped walking again and slowly sunk down onto the ground, resting his hands limply in his lap and staring at them without seeing. It was so hard to make the decision; so hard to think about it when so much rode on what he decided. What he wanted, wanted more than anything, was to talk about it with someone he trusted. Someone who knew, but wouldn't advise him based on their past experiences with the Kyubi.
But that only left…
The stench of blood.
"Summoning no jutsu!"
Hot breath. Fangs.
The Kyubi growled and snapped at the puff of smoke that appeared before it but was repelled with a sharp slice across its nose, drawing blood.
"What? What is this?!" a deep voice boomed out as the smoke cleared revealing the Father of all Toad summons, Gama Bunta. "Eeh?! This is a tough battle you've pulled me into this time!"
The Kyubi snarled and launched itself at the creature that had actually managed to draw its blood.
Gama Bunta leaped out of the way quickly, soaring over the enraged beast only to be smashed flying when he impacted with one of its nine tails.
There was a deafening crash as part of the forest was destroyed and a dust cloud flew up obscuring the view.
Training was harder on his own.
Naruto flew to a stop barely a foot away from a solid stone wall and collapsed against it, breathing hard. He had been training like this for nearly a week and he felt like he was getting absolutely nowhere. He knew, intellectually, that his fighting style had settled down a little as he readjusted to the new things his body wanted to do, but the feeling that he was just messing around instead of really training wouldn't leave him alone and that, if nothing else, had him trying to convince himself nearly a hundred times a day to just go apologise to Sasuke for yelling at him and get his training partner back.
There were other reasons of course. Naruto missed him, horribly.
Sasuke hadn't spoken a word to him since that day, and any time Naruto would enter a room Sasuke would leave it. The only time he wouldn't leave the room was at night in the room they shared, and Sasuke always made a point of letting Naruto know he was going to sleep now and talking was not an option, please and thank you.
Naruto hadn't felt this lonely for years.
Naruto moved so his back was against the wall and slid down it into a sitting position, resting his elbows on his knees and looking off to the other side of the cavern. Sasuke was over there, somewhere…training with Sakura. He couldn't help the bitter feeling the rose inside him at that thought. The girl's temper had improved considerably since Naruto and Sasuke had had their falling out, and she was now spending every waking moment in the black-haired boys company.
It made Naruto want to deck her.
And then it made him feel guilty for wanting to deck her.
And then it made him mad. Why should he feel guilty that he wanted to do something about her stealing his Sasuke? She was just an interloper, after all; and all she was doing was taking advantage of the situation.
But Sakura was his friend, his team-mate…and she had been diligently attempting to get Sasuke's attention since they were children; now that she was finally getting her wish who was Naruto to get in the way like some kind of jealous rage monster?
And that was what was stopping him from simply going to Sasuke and mumbling an apology. He was jealous, and angry, and he didn't know what to do with that. Sasuke's friendship meant everything to him, he knew that, but when had it gotten to the point where he couldn't imagine not having the black-haired boy by his side? When had it gotten to the point where Sakura, of all people, had become a rival in Naruto's mind?
He ran a hand through his hair, stopping mid-way through the motion, and gripped the blond strands firmly in his fist. Somewhere his feelings must have gotten way out of control. What had happened? When had it been that his joy at having Sasuke as a real friend had turned into something that crossed the line? He gripped his hair a little tighter. And Sasuke…. Sasuke didn't make the situation any easier with all his protectiveness and coddling, and constantly checking that Naruto was alright.
And it wasn't fair on Sasuke, the other boy had had a rough childhood; far worse than what Naruto could boast, if you asked him. Everything that had happened to Sasuke and his family, and everything that had occurred with Itachi; it was small wonder that Sasuke would latch onto Naruto so tightly. Sasuke needed someone with him, some kind of constant connection to help keep him balanced. Sasuke needed someone stable, not a mess like Naruto.
And Naruto really was a mess right now, no matter how much he tried to pretend he wasn't. He was sad, and angry, and jealous, and anxious, and worst of all, he wasn't even sure he knew who he was any more.
Gama Bunta leaped out of the way quickly, soaring over the enraged beast only to be smashed flying when he impacted with one of its nine tails.
There was a deafening crash as part of the forest was destroyed and a dust cloud flew up obscuring the view.
The Nine-tails didn't wait to see if the giant toad was going to get up from the blow it had landed, it leapt straight after him, claws bared and jaws snapping open so it could get a good killing grip on it's prey.
Gama Bunta avoided the deadly situation by inches, earning a long scrape along his left side that began to ooze sticky warm blood instantly.
"…Naruto!" Naruto felt himself shaken hard. "Hey! Wake up!"
"Huh?" he blurrily opened his eyes and tried to focus on the dark shape hovering over him.
"Naruto! Are you awake?"
"You were having a bad dream, or something," Sasuke replied and sat back on the edge of the bed.
"A bad…oh. It's nothing, Sasuke. Go back to sleep," Naruto said and settled back against his pillows.
"Are you su-…"
"Yes. Go back to sleep, Sasuke!" Naruto snapped.
Sasuke remained still for a moment and then stood silently and went back to the other side of the room.
Naruto lay for a moment staring up into the darkness. The first time Sasuke had so much as squeaked in his direction in over a week…and Naruto had driven him off. He was an idiot.
Pulling his blankets up around his chin, Naruto rolled over and firmly closed his eyes.
"How are you feeling?" Tsunade asked the question as soon as Naruto had taken a seat across from her.
"Exhausted," Naruto replied honestly and met her eyes, cutting to the chase. "What's happening to me?"
Tsunade looked away for a moment, then looked back. "Back when you were in your coma you lost a lot of chakra," she began slowly and Naruto nodded in irritation, waiting for her to continue. "When you lost so much chakra the Seal…"
"…you will no longer do fighting as a group so if any of you feel the need to drop out of this Chuunin exam you may do so without jeopardising the chances of the rest of your team. There is no shame in living to fight another day; if you doubt your skill you may drop out now so that you can train to participate in the next Chuunin exam. If you wish to leave, please raise your hand."
Naruto looked around absently and counted nearly ten people who, with slightly shamed looks, lifted their hands. Naruto nodded slightly to himself as he noticed the looks of some of them, it was their own strength to realise they didn't stand a chance against most of the people that had been left at the end of the first part of Hidden Dark's Chuunin exam.
The ten who had given up left the large cavern quickly and Naruto counted the people remaining; only sixteen. There would still have to be preliminary fights to eliminate half of them for the final fights to decide who would gain the rank of Chuunin.
"Is that all?" the speaker, the same man who had addressed them before the first task, asked. "Very well. There will now be a series of elimination matches to cut your numbers down again by half, only the best will be able to proceed passed this point. You will fight each other one at a time, when your names are called please come into the arena."
Naruto followed Sasuke and Sakura as they moved to the edges of the large circle-shaped fighting area that was set into the floor of the cavern. He only watched the fighting that was going on with half an eye, and even less attention, he wasn't really interested and the fighting didn't look to be in all that advanced a state anyway. There was no doubt he could pass the exam if this was the level of fighting in it and he had much more important things to think about.
Like Sasuke, and if the boy would ever forgive Naruto. He'd done it already, not once, but twice, when Naruto had interfered with Sasuke's revenge against Itachi, and when he'd revealed about the Kyubi; but how much was to much? How many things could Naruto do, how many things could he mess up, before Sasuke reached his limit? Because Sasuke was going to find out about Naruto's new secret. It wasn't an 'if', it was a 'when' and Naruto didn't know what he was supposed to do about it. Should he tell him now? If he told him now Sasuke would be angry, but not as angry as he would be if Naruto didn't tell him and he found out another way. But then Naruto would have to face the black-haired boys rejection and, he had realised over the days not talking to Sasuke, that the idea of Sasuke rejecting him was unbearable.
But if he didn't tell him? If he pushed Sasuke away and created as much distance between them as he could? He'd still loose Sasuke, but there wouldn't be any rejection; not to his face, anyway. Sasuke would find out, would be angry, and hurt, but the damage would have already been done. Naruto would have already pushed him away; the wounds might not be as deep.
But was that fair to Sasuke? Sasuke, who had stayed Naruto's friend even though he was an idiot. Sasuke, who cared enough about Naruto's welfare to be worried about him when he was acting strangely. Sasuke, whom had lost everyone he cared about already and probably couldn't stand to lose anybody else?
Sasuke, whom Naruto was so scared to lose.
It was circular, of course. This argument would go on forever if Naruto let it. He just couldn't decide; what was best for Sasuke? What should he chose? What should he do?
He didn't know. He just didn't.
Naruto was prodded out of his musings by a gentle poke in his side and Sasuke's quiet voice.
"Sakura's up," Sasuke elaborated, once he realised he had Naruto's attention.
Naruto jerked his head around to see the centre of the room where Sakura had already taken up a defensive stance. He hadn't even noticed...he was a terrible friend.
"We meet again, little girl," the man facing off against the girl said stretching out his arms as he smirked at her.
Sakura met the man's look coolly, "looks that way."
"Try not to run away this time, girl-y. I'm looking forward to a good fight."
Sakura lifted her hands higher in front of her, ready to fight, "since you asked so nicely."
Naruto lifted his eyebrow slightly and then had to suppress a pang in his chest as he unconsciously moved slightly closer to Sasuke to ask if the boy knew what that could have been about. He forced himself to stay still and refocused on the fight.
Sakura, much to her opponents surprise, won easily; breaking his arm on the first flurry of hand-to-hand, knocking his feet out from under him as he reeled back out of shock, and putting a kunai to his throat in seconds. He gave up immediately, his face a mask of terror.
Sakura rejoined them a moment later and answered both Naruto and Sasuke's curious looks with a simple, "I had to repay him for sending the two of you over the cliff."
Naruto's lips twitched up into a smile.
Sasuke's fight was next and was over in the same time, if not faster, than Sakura's. The man Sasuke had been up against had looked tough and so Sasuke adjusted accordingly, hitting hard with the first blow. With a look of disgust Sasuke had waited for the judge to declare him the win and walked away from the unconscious man without bothering to look back.
By the time it was Naruto's turn everyone in the room had moved away from team seven and their Sensei, who hadn't even looked up from his smut book as the fights had progressed.
Naruto walked slowly out into the arena with his hands in his pockets and looked disinterestedly at his opponent; he recognised him as the large, over-muscled man that had attempted to beat him up in front of the ramen stand over two-weeks beforehand. Naruto felt his eyes narrow as he looked at him; this man had led to Naruto's estrangement from Sasuke. This man would pay for that.
"I feel I have to give you a warning," Naruto said, standing side on to the man and looking at him out of the corners of his eyes, "I have a grudge against you; it'd be better for you if you gave up now."
The man laughed. "Give up to a sneaky little poisoner like you? Just because the little girl in your team can outclass a pip-squeak and the tall kid can pack a punch, don't assume you can even touch me."
Naruto paused and then turned his head fully to look at the man. The man stepped back slightly in shock as Naruto's red eyes met his.
"Oh? Are you tough, then? I could use a challenge right about now," Naruto said.
"I-ah..." The man looked less sure, but seemed to rally himself.
"Are you both ready?" the judge asked and Naruto nodded once. "Then begin."
Naruto remained in the same position, his body side-on to the man, his hands in his pockets, and waited.
"Mocking little brat!" Naruto's opponent exclaimed angrily and came at him.
Naruto lifted an eyebrow at the power behind the punch and admitted that, if it connected, it would certainly hurt. A good thing it wouldn't hit him, then. He dodged out of the way at the last second and finally pulled his hands out of his pockets and punched the man in the gut. The man doubled over immediately but was stopped by Naruto's finger landing in the centre of his forehead and keeping him upright for just a second.
"This is a trick I learnt from the fifth Hokage," Naruto said humourlessly, "two times over."
And then Naruto flicked him right between the eyes.
Instantly his opponent flew backwards through the air, missing the judge by barely an inch as he flew passed, and slammed into the wall and then to the floor in a tumble of rock chips and dust.
Naruto stood up straight and put his hands back in his pockets and waited for the Judge's confirmation that he had won.
Naruto ignored the further fights for the rest of the day.
Gama Bunta avoided the deadly situation by inches, earning a long scrape along his left side that began to ooze sticky warm blood instantly.
"I hope you have a plan!" he demanded of the human crouching on his head.
"We have to wear it down; sap some of its energy," came the prompt reply.
"Fine, fine. But if whatever you're trying doesn't work I'll never reply to your Summon again," the giant toad warned.
"That probably won't be a problem. Careful, it's coming!"
They had only a week to prepare themselves for the final Chuunin fights. The short time limit didn't bother Naruto at all; he had other things to worry about.
Like the fact that Sasuke and Sakura had just left to go on an idle walk together. She had asked him and Sasuke had actually agreed. Maybe it was because he had sensed Naruto in the doorway and had wanted an excuse to leave the room, but...
It was a good ten minutes after the two had left that Naruto realised he was still hovering in the doorway, his mind lost in a constantly spinning circle.
"Are you going to stay there all day, or actually come into the room?" a bored voice said, and Naruto realised that Kakashi had probably been watching him stand around dumbly for the last ten minutes, at least. Brilliant.
Peeling his hand away from where it was tightly wrapped around the door frame, Naruto walked into the room and threw himself down into one of the chairs at the utilitarian table.
"And how are we today?" Kakashi inquired, his eyes still trained on his book.
Naruto knew better than to think the man wasn't paying attention, Kakashi had always had a thing for irritating people and he had figured out young that appearing to be absorbed in a frivolous book was one of the best ways to get under someone's skin. Naruto rubbed his forehead slightly, as if pained.
"Put the book down when you're talking to someone, baka. There's nothing worse than a rude ninja."
The book snapped shut and Naruto suddenly felt Kakashi's attention on him intensely, "is that any way to talk to your Sensei, Naruto?"
"That never stopped you," Naruto paused in the act of rubbing his forehead, his eyes widening. "I…err…mean… I bet that never stopped you," Naruto launched himself to his feet and headed for the door. "I'm going to train."
"That probably won't be a problem. Careful, it's coming!"
Gama Bunta put his expert reflexes to work again and dived to the left, narrowly avoiding a new set of claw scars along his face and destroying hundreds of trees as he landed.
"Reforestation will be hard after this," he noted absently.
The human on his head laughed, "don't worry, the Hokage will see everything is restored."
"The Hokage…?" Gama Bunta dodged again, this time slicing his knife out as he went and giving the Kyubi a new cut along it's flank. "So, that's the kind of plan you have then."
"You could say that…. Crouch!" he suddenly commanded and a wall of water instantly appeared in front of the giant toad, effectively blocking an enraged attack from the Kyubi.
"All I'm doing is exhausting myself, here," Gama Bunta warned in his thunderous voice.
"I understand. I'll begin the second half of the plan now. Keep me covered, I won't be able to respond to anything for a while."
"Consider it done."
There were three days until the final exam.
Three more days of training on his own.
Three more days of pretending he didn't care that he was alone.
Three more days till he could get this Chuunin exam over and done with and go home, back to Konoha.
Three more days till he could see Tsunade, the only one who fully understood what was going on with him.
Three more days till he had to make his decision.
Naruto tapped his fingers on the table and looked across it to where Sasuke and Sakura sat discussing fighting styles. Sasuke had tried to leave earlier, but Sakura had managed to convince him to stay so Naruto, perverse being that he was, had sat down directly across the table from them and had pretended not to be paying any attention what-so-ever.
But he was paying attention, listening intently to every murmured word and seething silently. He had no right to interfere, he had no right to be so angry, but he couldn't seem to help himself.
"I'm going to bed," he stated suddenly, making the two on the other side of the table start slightly in surprise.
Sasuke watched him silently as he pushed his chair back, stood up, and headed for the bedroom. Sakura waved and wished him goodnight and Naruto forced himself to wave back at her before slipping into the safety of the bedroom and shutting the door behind him.
Three more days, he reassured himself as he began to change into his pyjamas. He just had to wait, then the decision had to made, he wouldn't be able to get around it. Sasuke would find out and Naruto would know what to do one way, or the other.
Or he could just tell the other boy now. Naruto could sit him down, explain everything, and let Sasuke decide for himself. If Sasuke rejected him then...then Naruto's decision would be made. He would know what to do because if Sasuke wasn't willing to forgive him for being such a jerk lately, if he wasn't willing to still be his friend, then there really wasn't a choice.
Naruto looked up suddenly as the door opened and Sasuke stepped in, shutting the door behind him. The black-haired boy froze in the doorway, looking over at Naruto as if he hadn't expected the other boy to be there, and then turned away and stepped over to his own bed.
Naruto bit his lip and quickly climbed into his bed. It was all well and good to make the decisions on his own, but the reality of Sasuke, right in front of Naruto and probably more than ready to hear what he had to say, changed everything.
Naruto watched silently as Sasuke changed into his sleeping clothes and then flicked out the light, then he settled for listening to the other boy get into bed and get comfortable.
"I understand. I'll begin the second half of the plan now. Keep me covered, I won't be able to respond to anything for a while."
"Consider it done."
The next ten minutes were filled with the sounds of chanting and destruction as Gama Bunta, hurting from a dozen sluggishly bleeding injuries, struggled to keep the man who had summoned him away from the enraged nine-tails.
By the time the chanting stopped, the giant toad and fox had paused their furious movement and were sizing each other up, trying to gauge which one of them had the most chakra left.
"Where are we? How far are we from where we started?" the voice sounded strained.
Gama Bunta changed his stance slightly, checking the area, "not far, we've doubled back. We'll land on the village soon, if we keep this up."
"Good," a few deep breaths, "where is the Hokage?"
Gama Bunta concentrated for a moment, "not far behind us, approaching rapidly."
"Perfect. Bunta…. Thank you for helping me this far; hopefully this plan will work, I'll need your help for it to succeed."
The giant toad adjusted its stance again as the nine-tails began to move, circling to the left, "anything you need, just say it."
"When the Hokage arrives, get him as close to me as you can."
One giant eye turned upwards, attempting to see the man on his head, "and where will you be?"
"On the Kyubi," the man replied simply and began to run, using his chakra to push himself as far up into the air as he could and guiding himself so that he came down perfectly on the startled Kyubi's head.
Quickly he attached himself with chakra and thrust his hands out, finally activating the jutsu he had been chanting for the last ten minutes. "This is on behalf of all those killed and everything you destroyed. Eight Divination Sealing Style: Four Image Seal!"
For the man focusing every inch of his chakra on the Kyubi, everything seemed to slow down till moving through time was almost physically painful. The Kyubi thrashed around attempting to dislodge him but couldn't get him to break his iron grip and something…something cold, something evil reached through him, using him as its rapport with the real world as it reached out and wrapped a firm hand around the Kyubi's soul and pulled.
The man gasped at the cold pulling sensation, even as the Kyubi began to shudder, resisting the pull with everything it had. The man held on grimly and focused the last of his chakra. The cold arm pulled again and there came a sound that was more felt than heard, like something had suddenly been torn free. There was a rushing sensation in the man's chest and then suddenly there was a yell behind him, a familiar sound. The Hokage.
"Kinjutsu! Magaru no seishun!"
The man felt hands push down on his shoulder blades as the words were yelled and he knew, knew with relief, hope and pride, that the plan had worked. It had worked.
The world seemed to freeze for a moment as all the conflicting jutsu battled it out with each other and then, slowly, soft light began to swirl around the man who had successfully begun the Sealing of the Nine-tails fox demon within himself. And then they were falling.
As they fell the clothing around the man fell away as his body began to shrink and by the time they reached the ground, Sarutobi, the Third Hokage of the village of Konoha, held in his arms a seemingly newborn baby with a shock of bright blond hair and the swirling marks of the Four Image Seal around his belly button.
Sarutobi looked down at the knowing eyes of the child affectionately and then put a hand on his forehead releasing a second jutsu he had prepared as they fell.
"We will miss your guiding hand," he said simply. "Your sacrifice will be remembered, even if only by those who will become Hokage after me. Grow well, your place will be ready for you when you are ready to reclaim it."
Naruto sat bolt upright, knocking back the shadow that was hovering over him, and sending them both crashing off the bed and onto the floor in a tangle of limbs and blankets.
"Narut-, Naruto! Stop struggling so I can untangle the blankets!"
Naruto went still at Sasuke's command and concentrated on breathing. A few moments later the blanket he was tangled in was hauled off of him and then a hand wrapped itself around his arm and pulled him upright.
"Are you all right?"
Naruto focused his gaze and activated the Kyubi's chakra so he could see Sasuke's anxious face hovering near his.
"Y-yeah. I'm fine."
Sasuke frowned, staring at Naruto intently. "No, you're not," he said eventually and pulled Naruto to his feet and dumped him on the bed. "You haven't been 'fine' since what happened in the Forest of Death."
"Sasuke…" Naruto said warningly but was ignored.
Sasuke dropped himself down onto the bed beside Naruto. "Tell me what's going on," he commanded.
"I said, tell me what's going on. I'm sick of this, Naruto."
"Don't even think about saying that!" Sasuke snapped over top of him and grabbed his arm, tightly. "We both know it's not true so lets just skip that entire argument and get on to the bit where you explain!"
Naruto's eyes narrowed and he wrenched his arm out of Sasuke's grip, "what's it to you? I don't have to tell you anything!"
Sasuke met his gaze firmly and they stayed that way for a few moments before Sasuke finally sighed a very tired sigh and closed his eyes, "just tell me, Naruto. We can fight about it all you like later."
"Why…why are you asking now?" Naruto asked and pulled his legs up to his chest, wrapping his arms around them.
"Why…? Because if I don't, you won't tell me," Sasuke replied. "I've been waiting for nearly a month for you to come to terms with whatever your problem is and tell me…. I'm sick of waiting."
"Waiting…." Naruto turned an accusatory glare on Sasuke, "if you were waiting for me to explain then why have you been avoiding me?"
Sasuke's tone turned annoyed, "because you told me to leave you alone."
"Sasuke. It's one thing to leave someone alone, it's entirely another to completely desert them."
"Desert? I didn't…" Sasuke turned a surprised look on Naruto and then puffed out a breath and put an arm around the blond's shoulders, pulling him closer. "Baka! I wouldn't desert you."
"Oh, really? You left every room I came in to, and even started hanging around with Sakura!" Naruto accused.
"Naruto, you have no idea how uncomfortable it is to have someone staring a hole in your head constantly for hours on end, do you?"
"What does that…?"
"You did that to me. I figured that meant you wanted me to leave."
"Oh…," Naruto sucked his lower lip into his mouth for a minute. "Sorry, but that doesn't explain Sakura."
"She asked me for help training," Sasuke replied. "She really needs to pass this exam. She wanted to ask you too, but…."
"Are you saying this is all my fault?!" Naruto demanded.
"Yes," Sasuke stated and then glared at Naruto. "Now stop changing the subject. This isn't why you've been acting so strangely lately."
Naruto went silent.
"Fine! Fine…." he could do this! He could tell Sasuke and everything would be... Well, everything might be fine. He was worrying for nothing. He took a breath, "you know I have the Kyubi sealed within me."
"Yes," Sasuke agreed guardedly.
"I found out after what happened at the Forest of Death that things went a little further than that…."
Naruto hesitated. Sasuke had just said he would never desert him, did he mean it? Naruto closed his eyes and focused on the feeling of Sasuke's arm over his shoulders.
"Originally, I was told that the Fourth Hokage sacrificed his life to seal the Kyubi into an orphaned child. That story wasn't precisely correct," he took a breath. Breathing was important. "The Fourth did sacrifice his life, and the Kyubi was sealed inside an orphaned child; however, what I wasn't told was that the Fourth was the orphaned child."
Then, "…Naruto, the Fourth was an adult."
"I know. There's a jutsu, a Forbidden jutsu that can change a full grown adult back to what they were on the day of their birth. It has…a lot of complicated requirements to work correctly. We managed to fill them all, though it took a lot of hard work, and it was torture having to wait the extra few days after we were already ready so that it was the day of my original birth, but we waited. I…he…I used the Eight divination sealing style to seal the Kyubi within myself; it was complicated getting the timing right. If the Third had have been just a second to late then I would have died in sacrifice to the Death the jutsu is preformed for…" Naruto paused, still concentrating on the arm lying across his shoulders. "The Third used the youth jutsu to interrupt the Sealing, regressing me back to the form of a baby, and effectively sealing the Kyubi within myself instead of it passing straight through."
"If that's how it happened, then why didn't you know until now?" Sasuke asked slowly.
Naruto turned his head slightly to stare at his best friend, "Tsunade-san explained that to me after what happened in the Forest of Death. The Kyubi couldn't be sealed within someone who could be easily influenced by its power, or its evil, the only choice was to seal it in an innocent, a baby. Because I chose myself to be the 'sacrifice' my memories had to be sealed, completely. The Third did it."
"When I was in that coma…," the arm Sasuke had around Naruto's shoulders tensed slightly, "I was draining a lot of chakra. The old-hag-Hokage said that the form of sealing the Third used worked by constantly feeding on my chakra to stay powerful enough that no memories would accidentally leak through. When I was draining so much chakra, though, it caused damage to the memory seal that it couldn't repair and so bits and pieces began to filter through. I was having funny dreams and things for months. When we were in the Forest of Death…well, I'd used up a lot of chakra again and the seal was already weak, then when I thought you were going to die I just sort of…searched my memory for the most powerful fire technique I knew and ended up with what you saw; a forbidden jutsu that I learnt from the Forbidden Scrolls when I became the Fourth Hokage."
After a while, Naruto began to fidget. What was Sasuke thinking? He hadn't moved his arm, but was that just because he was so stunned by the information that he couldn't move?
Not really thinking about it, acting out of fear and desperation, Naruto spun in Sasuke's grip and wrapped his arms around the black-haired boy's chest, knocking him flat onto the bed.
Sasuke blinked and then frowned awkwardly at the mop of blond hair that was tickling his chin, "I wasn't planning on going anywhere, baka."
Naruto's grip tightened slightly and he moved so he could look up at Sasuke's face, "really?"
"Yes," Sasuke said testily, "now would you stop crushing me?"
Naruto blushed, "s-sorry." He unwound his arms from around Sasuke and began to push himself back into a sitting position.
"You don't have to get up," Sasuke said lowly.
Naruto paused, searching Sasuke's expression.
"I told you to stop crushing me, that doesn't mean you have to get off me," Sasuke said and held out his hand.
Naruto stared at it for a moment and then back at Sasuke's face, "I...I didn't mean..."
Sasuke lifted an eyebrow, "I know."
"You don't," Naruto paused. This conversation wasn't going anywhere near the way he had imagined, "you don't know what you're saying. I'm trying to tell you who I really am, I'm telling you I'm more than just an idiot, or a demon. I'm…."
Sasuke lowered his arm and sat up slightly, leaning on it. "I get it, Naruto. I understand what you're saying, but we've had this conversation. If I didn't care that you had the Kyubi inside you, why would you think I'd care about this? It doesn't change things. You're still Naruto. I know what I'm saying."
"No, you don't! This is...this is more than just... It's more than the Kyubi. There's another person inside of me, another 'me', and we're not the same. He's...different."
Sasuke sighed and sat up properly, "so, what are you doing about it? What did the Hokage say? Does Kakashi know?"
"The old hag said that she can seal the memories if I want her to...and no, Kakashi-Sensei doesn't know," Naruto said, crossing his arms over his chest and glaring towards the covered window.
"So what's the problem?" Sasuke said. "Get her to seal the memories when we get home."
Naruto instantly deflated, "I-I…. But they're my…. I remember so many things…. If I seal them again…."
The room fell silent and Naruto occupied himself by watching Sasuke out of the corner of his eye. How could he explain? There was so much more to what was happening to him than just memories. There were thoughts, and feelings. Ingrained habits, knowledge he didn't even know where it came from. It was like a whole other person was awakening inside him. The other him, the past him, his memories were all so good, so happy, and he'd been so strong. He knew things about Kakashi, about Tusnade, about Jiraiya; they were family. Family in a way he'd never really understood before.
"You'll just have to decide what is more important to you," Sasuke said at length and stood up. "Make your decision after the chuunin exam."
"That's just what that Tsunade-san said," Naruto said with annoyance.
"The Hokage knows what she's talking about. It's late and we'll have training tomorrow, we should sleep."
"Yeah…I guess." Naruto agreed then looked up shyly, "you don't think you could…. I mean, could you stay on this side of the room tonight? I just... I mean..." he didn't even know what he meant, but he was still scared. Scared Sasuke would leave, would hate him, maybe. Scared of being alone.
Sasuke paused, then nodded slightly and stepped back over to Naruto's bed and sat down.
Naruto made room for Sasuke to get into the bed next to him and then, after much shuffling around, they settled down with Naruto half laying on Sasuke's shoulder and Sasuke's arm back around his shoulders.
"Thank you," Naruto half-whispered the words against Sasuke's shoulder and the boy snorted lightly.
"I guess you really are different," he said, amused.
Relaxing, finally, Naruto was asleep within seconds.
"Are you two planning on getting up any time soon?" the voice of Kakashi was followed closely by the door flying open with a bang.
Naruto sat bolt upright and, not realising how close he was to the edge of the bed, fell out.
There was a moment of silence and then Sasuke sat up and, peering briefly over the edge of the bed to make sure Naruto was alright, looked over at Kakashi who was still standing, a little warily, in the doorway.
"What time is it?" he asked.
Kakashi scratched his jaw slowly, appearing to think it over, "somewhere around mid-morning, I would imagine."
"We'll be up soon," Sasuke said flatly and looked pointedly at the door.
"Right-o!" Kakashi said brightly and went to shut the door. "Oh, and Sakura already left to train," he added as an afterthought and then shut the door.
Sasuke pushed the blankets back and got out of bed, stepping over Naruto who was still sitting, slightly shell-shocked, on the floor.
"Hurry up and get dressed, dobe. We only have three more days to train in."
Naruto moved his gaze from the now closed door to Sasuke. "How can you be so calm?" he demanded.
Sasuke paused in the process of pulling on his shirt and looked over his shoulder at Naruto with a frown, "what?"
Naruto stared at him incredulously, "Kakashi just walked in of us sleeping together."
"And?" Sasuke asked irritably, pulling his shirt the rest of the way on.
"And? How can you say 'and'? What's he going to think?"
"Whatever he wants," Sasuke shrugged and began pulling on his pants.
"W-whatever he wants…," Naruto repeated disbelievingly. "Doesn't it bother you at all?"
Sasuke finally turned his full attention on Naruto, resting a hand on his hip as he turned to look at him intensely.
"Why is it bothering you so much?"
"W-why? Because…what will he think? Kakashi-Sensei is a pervert, he's bound to come up with all sorts of ideas, and who knows what he'll say to Sakura! Do you really want Sakura to know you spent the night in my bed?"
Sasuke kept his intense look on Naruto for a long moment and then turned back to his task of getting dressed.
"I couldn't care less if Sakura finds out, and Kakashi can think, and say, anything he likes."
"Stop worrying about it, Naruto, and get up."
Naruto turned his gaze to the floor and then slowly pulled himself to his feet. "You're being overly calm about this, Sasuke," Naruto said once he was standing, his voice slightly calmer than before. "Later on, when Kakashi is ribbing you every three seconds about it and Sakura is avoiding you because she thinks you…you slept with me," he warned, "you're really going to regret it."
Sasuke finished fastening on his weapons and turned to look at Naruto.
"I don't think so," he said finally.
"That's because you're not thinking about it," Naruto said firmly.
"I assure you, Naruto, I've thought about it a lot," Sasuke walked towards the door. "Now get dressed, so we can go."
Naruto's expression grew annoyed, "you're not listening to me, Sasuke! You can't just shrug and assume everything will turn out alright!"
Sasuke stopped walking, pausing with his hand on the door handle, and turned his head to look at Naruto over his shoulder, "I know. If anybody has taught me that, it's you."
Naruto breathed in sharply.
"We need to talk, Naruto, but not now," Sasuke continued, seriously. "We have to train and get through this exam before anything else, and we can't afford to be distracted."
"I'd say that this is pretty distracting, on top of everything else."
Sasuke's lips twitched, slowly forming his customary smirk, "good. That means it's important. Now, hurry up so we can go. I won't wait if you're late."
Sakura was not impressed that Naruto and Sasuke were training together again. For the last week or so she had, for once in her life, had Sasuke's attention firmly on her and nothing but her. But now, apparently out of the blue, Sasuke had dropped her like a hot rock and gone back to Naruto.
It wasn't fair, Sakura decided as she watched Sasuke and Naruto resume their training; training, she could tell at a glance, that she had no hope of ever catching up with. What was it about Naruto that managed to grab Sasuke's attention every time he so much as twitched? Even Sasuke would be the first to state that Naruto was an idiot, he was also dense, naïve, not to mention annoying.
Sakura chewed on her bottom lip as she watched the two and barely took any notice as Kakashi moved to lean against the wall beside her. The man remained silent for a few moments, giving the impression to anyone who didn't know him well that he was completely enthralled with his book.
"You do understand, right?" Kakashi said finally, not even lifting his gaze.
Sakura looked at him sharply and then firmly moved her gaze back to Sasuke and Naruto, "no! I don't. Not at all."
Kakashi sighed and finally moved his eyes from the pages of his book to his student, "don't you? Even after all this time?"
"What am I supposed to understand?" Sakura snapped and turned her glare on him, meeting his eyes. "Those two…they're…they're boys. And it's Naruto! Sasuke has to rebuild his clan, he can't do that with Naruto. And Naruto wants to be Hokage one day, how's he going to manage that with a male lover? What will people think of him?"
Kakashi lifted an eyebrow, "I don't think Naruto really cares at this point what people think about him, and Sasuke…." Kakashi let his gaze move to said-mentioned boy who was currently attempting to dodge a flame jutsu Naruto had reflected back at him. "I don't think he ever really expected to live long enough to restore his clan in the first place," Kakashi said quietly, "killing the man who killed his family was always his first priority, everything else came second."
"But now there's Naruto," Sakura said, almost a challenge.
Kakashi moved his eyes back to Sakura, his expression serious. "Would you have preferred he lived out his life devoted completely to revenge? Somewhere along the lines Naruto became Sasuke's first priority, try to be happy for them, Sakura. This is better than what could have happened."
Sakura bit the inside of her cheek and glared at the stone floor of the cavern, "I know, but…" she stopped suddenly as Kakashi let out a delighted chuckle and turned to glare at him. The man had his book drawn up close to his face and was reading avidly. "Argh!" Sakura stomped her foot hard against the ground, "Listen to people when they're talking to you seriously!" she yelled.
"Oh, were we still talking?" Kakashi asked, sparing her half a glance before going back to his reading.
Sakura stared at the man incredulously for a moment and then spun on her heel and stomped away, muttering under her breath as she went.
Sakura glared at Naruto, who glared at Sasuke, who ignored them both to concentrate on finishing his dinner, seemingly completely oblivious to the tension that surrounded him at the dinner table.
In the corner of the room, his feet up on a chair before him and his nose apparently buried in his book, Kakashi suppressed a sigh and let his uncovered eye move over each of his students in turn.
The situation his students were in, he decided, was completely backwards. Not so much the subject matter as the way the kids where going about it. Somehow, contrary to anything he would have expected, Sasuke had opened up, Naruto had closed up like a clam and Sakura had failed to be the understanding girl she always projected herself to be.
Still…. Kakashi was sure that the girl would come around. She had spent years pining over Sasuke and blinding herself to what was slowly happening between he and Naruto; what she really needed was time to adjust her way of thinking and to come to terms with it. Essentially, she'd be fine.
No… It was definitely Naruto that Kakashi found himself watching with a sharp eye, unsure if he should leave things be for the boy to work out himself, or if he should take him aside and have as much of a fatherly chat with him as could manage to scrounge up.
He would have voted for the fatherly chat option, despite how horrifying he found the idea, except that the boy seemed to have more on his mind than simply coming to terms with his feelings for Sasuke. And there had been times…times when it almost seemed….
Kakashi lifted a hand and idly scratched at his cheek before closing his book and slipping it into his weapons pouch as he rose to his feet.
"All right, kiddies," he said into the tense silence. "Time for bed," he stated and then eyed Sasuke and Naruto for a moment before walking passed them to his own room. "And make sure it's your own beds tonight, boys. You'll need all the rest you can get for your training tomorrow."
"I can't believe he did that," Naruto was sitting on the edge of his bed, his gaze fixed sightlessly on the floor. "Do you know, he was an okay kid when he was little. I can't believe he did that."
"You know what Kakashi's like, you can't say you weren't expecting it," Sasuke stated from where he was calmly stripping down to sleep.
"But he…but he…." Naruto shook his head and looked up at Sasuke, wide-eyed. "Did you see Sakura's face? Did you?!"
Sasuke sighed, "Naruto…" he began but the boy had already launched straight back into the shell-shocked state he'd been in when Sasuke had pulled him into the bedroom a few minutes before hand.
"…she looked like she was going to murder me! Or you! This is all your fault!" Naruto pointed at Sasuke for emphasis. "You're being to calm. And Kakashi-sensei… Argh! This is just some sort of sick twisted game to him. Sakura's probably having kittens right now…."
"Is that so important to you," Sasuke asked suddenly, interrupting Naruto's rant.
Sasuke's expression became irritated and he suddenly turned away, focusing on pulling the blankets of his bed down, "is it so important to you, what Sakura thinks of you? What she might think is going on between us?"
"Of course it-!" Naruto began and then suddenly snapped his mouth shut. Slowly he put his hand to his forehead and rubbed it, closing his eyes as if pained. "This," he declared finally, "is difficult. Let's just…let's just sleep for now and we'll talk about it later."
"Fine," Sasuke agreed, not looking at him and climbing into bed.
Naruto stared at him helplessly for a moment and then walked over to the door and flicked the light switch that was beside it, turning off the lights.
Sasuke was frustrated. The final fights for the Chuunin exam were tomorrow and, while Sasuke would have preferred to be training, Kakashi had declared the day before the fights to be a day of relaxation.
Sasuke hardly felt relaxed.
He knew he should be taking Kakashi's advice; the best thing for him to do right now was to put everything out of his head, to focus himself, and get into the right mindset to fight in the exam. It wasn't just about winning, the exam was about showcasing what you were capable of; of not just being strong, but also being smart. You had to show you could handle any situation thrown at you.
But it was hard to concentrate on the exam with Sakura glaring at him from one direction, and Naruto glaring at her from the other.
Sakura was angry at Sasuke, which wasn't particularly surprising given the circumstances. She'd had her heart set on somehow winning Sasuke over one day, and no amount of hints to the contrary had ever made her give up; to find out now, at this late stage, that she'd really never stood a chance had to be hard on her, and Sasuke wasn't inclined to blame her for being disappointed. They were friends, and Sasuke believed that, once she got used to the idea, she'd forgive both he and Naruto for not being what she wanted them to be.
The bigger issue, for Sasuke, was Naruto. The blond wavered between glaring at Sakura angrily, as if the shear force of his anger would make her leave Sasuke alone, and staring at her guiltily, as if he'd done something awful and had no idea how to make it up to her. It pissed Sasuke off.
The degenerating memory seal was to blame, at least partially, for Naruto's wild mood swings and, while Sasuke didn't fully understand it, he was willing to give the other boy some leeway with it in mind. But, Naruto's yes/no attitude where Sasuke was concerned couldn't just be blamed on that. Sasuke could tell that Naruto wanted to be with Sasuke and that he cared, probably just as much as Sasuke himself did, but just when Sasuke thought they were getting to a point where they could discuss it properly, Naruto would pull back and start acting like it was the end of the world.
Sasuke really didn't get that. In his mind things were black or white; either Naruto wanted it or he didn't. Sasuke could handle Naruto asking to stay friends, he would never have given up on their friendship anyway, but Naruto hadn't asked for that. More than that, Naruto had seemed just as attached to Sasuke as Sasuke was to him, so why the drama? Sakura? Surely Naruto already knew that Sasuke had no intention of romancing the girl? But perhaps it was Sakura for another reason? Naruto had always had a crush on the girl, had practically thrown himself at her at every opportunity. Maybe he was waiting to see if, now Sakura seemed to be getting over her own crush, she would notice Naruto?
No, Sasuke was sure that wasn't it. There was an understanding between he and Naruto, a bond that no one else could hope to comprehend, and he felt he would have known if Naruto didn't echo his feelings.
So, it wasn't Sakura. At least, not really; she was an excuse. And excuse for what, though, Sasuke wasn't exactly sure. Something was going on in Naruto's head beyond just this second personality he'd told Sasuke about, something that made him search for reasons to hold back.
Maybe it was Sasuke.
Sasuke was the first to admit he wasn't the easiest person to get along with; he internalized a lot of what he felt, and often tried his best to hide the things he thought from others. And his desire to revenge himself against his families murderer didn't help matters; he was an Avenger, and even he couldn't control the rage that bubbled up inside him when the subject of his brother was brought up. But he'd been trying. Trying for Naruto, and for a future he had never thought he would have. He'd realised, somewhere along the way, that he had never expected to live passed killing Itachi. He had always said one of his goals was to resurrect his clan, but deep down he had known that his priority had been killing that man. It hadn't occurred to him that there could be anything else.
Naruto had changed everything. Where once all Sasuke had seen was a future of revenge and death, Naruto had inserted the idea of making things better than they were. He had looked at the world and decided it could be better, that he could make it better, and that Sasuke would be there with him while he did it. And Sasuke had realised he'd wanted that; he wanted to be at Naruto's side while the blond wrangled hundreds of years of blood-soaked tradition into line and remade the world into the brighter place it could be.
But did Naruto know that? Sasuke had tried, he thought, to let Naruto know that that was what he wanted, but maybe he hadn't done it right? Maybe Naruto had no idea and was afraid that the sullen broken boy, with the overwhelming need to kill his own brother, would hold him back. Maybe he worried that Sasuke would get in the way of his future?
But this wasn't getting him anywhere. He and Naruto would talk after the Chuunin exam and, hopefully, things would sort themselves out from there. There was no doubt in Sasuke's mind that Naruto would choose to lock away the old memories, and once he did things would go back to normal. Or as normal as things ever were, with Naruto involved.
They just had to get passed the Chuunin exam.
"Naruto, stand still."
Today was the day of the Chuunin exam, and team seven had found themselves standing off to the side of a massive underground arena, with seating carved into the rock walls themselves. Naruto was excited and couldn't stop himself from fidgeting, moving from foot-to-foot as he stared up at the crowds of people around them.
"The old-hag Hokage is here!" Naruto chirped enthusiastically, barely casting Sasuke a glance. "How long do you think these fights will last?"
Sasuke's expression turned speculative and he looked up into the crowd. "Did you make your decision then?" he asked, apparently offhandedly.
Naruto faltered, "well…. No, not really. I just…. I want to talk to her."
Sasuke turned back to Naruto, his eyes searching the other boy's face for a moment before he looked away again, "hn."
The wait for everyone to settle down was excruciating for Naruto and he was sure he'd burst from impatience before the fights even started; he wanted them over with.
"I'm going to sit over there!" Naruto suddenly declared, pointing to an area almost directly below where the Kage were sitting. The walk helped settle his impatience slightly, and by the time he got to where he was going the announcer had declared the fights begun and called the names of the first two fighters; Naruto zoned out as soon as he heard that it wasn't him, or any of his team, and dropped into his own thoughts.
He'd spent most of the day before sitting in the most open area of Hidden Dark village that he could find, thinking. Thinking about everything that was happening to him, and around him; and everything that had been caused because of him. He wanted, but he didn't want. He didn't want, but he wanted. Everything for him was normally so clear-cut, but now he felt like he'd turned into nothing but a giant, walking conflict with himself.
Most of his memories of being the Fourth were happy ones. The Fourth had grown up with friends and family; never hated, always loved. He was the pride of Konoha. But what was he now? As Naruto he was hated, despised. Parents herded their children away when they saw him coming, and no matter how much he tried to prove he was worthy, it always fell flat, somehow. So, how was he supposed to give up these new memories? They were his and they were memories he'd always dearly wished he could have.
But it was making things so difficult. Sasuke…
What was he supposed to do about him? His old self, the him that he had been, shied away from the notion of letting the other boy get any closer. Sasuke was his best friend, his rival…and he was so young. The him that he was, though… Sasuke had always been there. Through everything, no matter how horrible, messed up, or deadly. Naruto always wanted him to be there. A life without Sasuke was unthinkable.
And then there was Sakura.
A statement of fact that made Naruto screw up his forehead in frustration. Hadn't it been Sakura he'd had the crush on all these years? He'd diligently kept trying with her, over and over, even though he knew she'd reject him; he'd never given up.
But how much of that was because he knew that she would reject him, and how much because he'd really been trying? He could gloss over it like he always did. Say that he'd had a crush on Sakura for years and that his feelings had never changed…but they had. Somewhere along the lines they had and…and now Sasuke was…. He was….
It had crept up on him. He hadn't even realised the feelings were there, sitting and waiting to one day be noticed. It was wrong. He shouldn't feel like he did. He was supposed to be interested in Sakura, not Sasuke.
Sasuke wanted him, too. His newly found powers of observation pointed that out at almost every opportunity, but then it wasn't like Sasuke was trying to hide it.
Sasuke wasn't thinking. He didn't get it. He was confused, he couldn't possibly know what it was that he was getting himself in to. He was still a kid; still just a child. But that was the old him thinking. The much older him that looked out of Naruto's eyes and couldn't remember ever having been so young. It was screwing up everything.
"Naruto, pay attention!"
Naruto blinked and jerked his head up, staring wide-eyed at a furious looking Sakura.
"You missed Sasuke's fight!" she accused, her glare becoming all the more fierce.
"What?" he hadn't been thinking that long…had he?
Sakura began to tap her foot, and closed her eyes as if she were trying to block him out of her sight. "You weren't listening at all, were you!" she declared. "The first fight was a double knockout," she opened her eyes again, "Sasuke fought next. He won, of course!" she added.
"Oh," Naruto said.
Sakura's eyes narrowed. "Is that all you can say?!" she demanded. "Sasuke won, he's going on to the next round; he fought really well and you weren't even watching!"
"You're just inconsiderate!" Sakura continued, right over top of him, "you always were. You think only about yourself and of beating Sasuke. Why he even…."
"Sakura!" Naruto was on his feet, not quite sure how he had gotten there, "you know that's not true. Stop trying to…."
"You're just…!" Sakura began to talk over Naruto again but they were both abruptly cut off.
"…Uzumaki Naruto, and Haruno Sakura!"
Naruto stared at the man standing in the centre of the fighting arena. He can't have heard that right.
"If you'd both be so kind as to come down here," the man said, his voice laced with irritation.
Sakura was the one to recover from their shock first and to walk calmly into the arena. His mind slightly blank, Naruto followed.
Somehow it had never occurred to him that he might have to fight Sakura. He'd expected that he'd probably have to fight Sasuke, but the possibility of fighting Sakura hadn't even entered his mind.
"If you're both ready?"
Naruto glared at the man as if he was personally responsible for every bad thing that had ever happened to him.
"Yes," Sakura said firmly.
"Then begin," the man backed away quickly and, as Naruto watched him move, Sakura's fist collided with the side of his face, and sent him staggering backwards.
"Damn it!" Naruto pulled himself together in time to block the next three punches Sakura threw at him and on the last he saw an opening. It was instinct that made him go for it, but it was in innate 'Naruto-ness' that made him suddenly stop in mid punch, allowing Sakura to land a kick that sent him tumbling backwards. He couldn't hit Sakura. "Damn it," he muttered the words again as he dodged out of the way of another of Sakura's attacks, thinking hard. He couldn't hit her; there was probably nothing on hell, heaven, or earth that would force him to hurt her.
Naruto hesitated, and Sakura saw it.
"What are you doing, idiot!" the girl snapped from where she was standing, ready, a few feet away.
"This is a fight, Naruto. You can't just dodge, so stand up and fight!" Sakura's was on him again in a second and Naruto dodged, realising, a moment to late, that the attack had been launched by a bunshin and barely managed to slide out of the way of Sakura's real attack, earning himself a graze across his cheek and the feeling of blood trickling from the small wound.
"What are you waiting for?" Sakura demanded.
He couldn't hurt her, "I-I can't…."
Sakura scowled, "can't what? Can't hit me? Can't hurt me?"
Naruto nodded weakly.
"It's a bit late for that, don't you think," she said scathingly. "Perhaps it's just because you don't think I'm a strong enough of an opponent for you. I'm not as strong as Sasuke, I'm not as good at strategy as Shikamaru, and I don't even have any specialized jutsu like Ino. Am I to weak for you to fight, Naruto?"
"N-no. Of course not, Sakura!" Naruto stared at the girl, wide-eyed. He'd never seen her so intense; her gaze pinned him in place and he couldn't have moved if he'd wanted to.
"Then what are you doing, Naruto?" she said. "If I'm not to weak, then why won't you fight? You can't say you don't want to hurt me."
"But I don't…."
"Stop it! How can you say that when you…with Sasuke…. How can you say that?"
Sakura was crying; angry, fierce tears that Naruto knew were entirely his fault.
Naruto hated it when Sakura cried.
"Sakura, I…," this is what he was doing to his friends, all because he wanted to be with Sasuke. He'd been jealous of her. Jealous that she'd been spending time with Sasuke when he hadn't been…. Now he suddenly realised how Sakura must have felt. All the time that was how she'd felt. "I…."
"And you won't even admit it!" Sakura was ignoring the tears making their way down her cheeks and was glaring at Naruto furiously, her hands balled up at her sides. "You know how Sasuke feels about you; but you're pretending that you don't! Do you know…yesterday, when you disappeared, he spent all day thinking about you. He wouldn't eat, he barely spoke and I asked him why he didn't just go after you if he was that worried. He said he had to give you time." Sakura was suddenly very close to Naruto, grabbing the front of his shirt and shaking him slightly. "Give you time, Naruto! He has absolute faith in you and he keeps just giving you time. But you…what are you doing? Do you even care what he's going through over you?!"
"N-no…. Yes, I…. Sakura…."
Sakura punched him. Hard.
Naruto reeled backwards out of her grip, landing with a thump on the ground and sliding backwards a few feet across the dirt floor.
"What are you thinking, Naruto."
Naruto looked up at Sakura. Her voice had been small, no longer the furious hiss she had been using.
"What are you thinking? I don't understand. Sasuke deserves to be happy, I think he does. I wanted-. But he doesn't want me; he wants you."
"I-I can't…" the words stuck in his throat, almost refusing to come out.
"Sasuke is…." …my best friend. "He's just so…." …young. "I don't want…." …to lose him.
"He loves you, Naruto," the words were like a slap in the face and had about the same effect on Naruto as dumping a bucket of ice water over his head, "do you love him?"
Naruto opened his mouth, but no sound came out.
"Do you!?" she demanded.
"I-I think. I…."
Sakura suddenly sunk into a crouching position, wrapping her arms around her knees. "I can't be with him, Naruto," she said slowly, staring at the dirt under her feet. "So you have to. If you love him then you have to; we can't let him be alone."
Sakura was supposed to hate him; he supposed she did, but she was looking passed that, Naruto realised. Her vision, her view of the future, was so much clearer than his was. No matter how hard he had tried all he'd been able to see for months now was backwards. Back at who he had been, at what he'd had; he hadn't, even once, looked forward.
How could he have forgotten? All his life he had looked forward; both lives, old and new alike. The past wasn't somewhere you could live, and hope to live happily; the past was just that. Past.
He had to talk to Sasuke.
Taking a breath, Naruto slowly pulled himself to his feet and dusted himself off as much as he could.
"You're right," he said at length, finally looking up at the pink-haired girl, "about all of it. Thank you, Sakura-chan!"
Sakura rose back to her feet, "don't thank me! Just do the right thing!"
"I will," Naruto grinned, "but, right now I should fight you seriously."
Sakura's eyes went wide and then she glanced around at the crowed as if she had only just realised where they were. In an instant her eyes were back on Naruto, and then her hand shot up into the air and her voice rang out over the arena, "I give up!"
"I'm not stupid, Naruto, I'm not going to fight you for real!"
"You're an idiot!" Sakura declared and, with that, turned on her heel and marched out of the arena.
"And the winner of the third round is Uzumaki Naruto!" Naruto transferred his gaze from Sakura's retreating back to the announcer who was now standing next to him and looking annoyed, "now get out of the arena."
"Hey, dobe," Sasuke studied Naruto closely as he approached and wasn't surprised when his call got no response. Naruto was standing with his back against the wall of the arena, staring at the ground with a frown on his face, his mind a million miles away. Sasuke tried again.
This time the blond blinked and looked up, finally focusing on Sasuke as the black-haired boy came to a halt in front of him, "Sasuke? Is it my turn again?"
Sasuke snorted, "no. There's a hold-up, the Kage's left."
Naruto's eyebrows rushed together, "is everything alright? Should we-?"
"Everything is fine; Kakashi said they were arguing about something and decided to take it where they weren't going to be overheard."
"In the middle of the fights?" Naruto twisted away from the wall and tried to stare up into the stands above him, trying to see where the two Kage had gone off to.
"We're the only ones left, you know," Sasuke said and settled himself against the wall beside where Naruto had been leaning.
Naruto glanced back at him, "what happened to the others? Didn't you have another one first?"
Sasuke crossed his arms over his chest and schooled his expression into one of disinterest, "apparently, he didn't want to fight me."
"Then, shouldn't I have had another one?"
"He didn't want to fight you, either," Sasuke shot the other boy a sidelong look, his lips twitching up in amusement.
"But Sakura bet the crap out of me during my fight!" Naruto exclaimed and resettled himself against the wall, beside Sasuke.
"Yeah, but they saw the eliminations, and I heard that they thought you were going easy on Sakura cause she's your team-mate, and you wanted her to pass the exam."
"That's stupid," Naruto grouched. "I was going to fight her seriously, but she gave up."
Sasuke felt a smile well up from somewhere deep in his chest, a place it seemed that only Naruto could touch. The blond sounded almost like normal.
But that didn't. It was that hesitant voice again; the one Sasuke was beginning to hate hearing because it wasn't anything like the other boy's normal brash, unthinking, bravado.
Sasuke steeled himself and turned his head slightly in Naruto's direction, watching him from the corner of his eyes.
"I've been screwing up a lot lately," Naruto said in a rush, "and I've had a lot on my mind, but that's not really a good excuse for how I've been acting. I... The memories I've been having, I thought they were important. I thought that if I could keep them, then I could have some of the things I never had in my life, like family, and...," he huffed impatiently, "Sakura yelled at me a lot during our fight. She said some things that made me realise that having memories isn't what's important and that I have to stop thinking about what I didn't have this time around, and focus on what I do have."
"And what do you have?" Sasuke couldn't help but ask the question.
"I have friends," Naruto replied promptly. "I have people that are precious to me. People that may not be my family by blood, but are definitely my family by love. I have Kakashi, and Iruka, and Sakura, even if she is mad at me. And I have you."
Sasuke took a deep breath as Naruto said it. He hadn't realised just how badly he'd needed to hear that. To hear that he really was a part of Naruto's life. He, Sasuke, was one of the few, precious people that Naruto considered important.
"If you're not to angry at me, that is," Naruto amended. "I keep doing stupid things, and cutting you out of what's happening. I keep... I keep thinking that you're going to get mad, and leave, and I don't want you to. That you might scares me."
"How many times do I have to tell you I'm not going anywhere?" the words didn't come out nearly as irritated as Sasuke had intended them to be.
"I don't know, a million? I'm a bit stupid, you know."
Sasuke took a deep breath and then turned to face Naruto, grabbing the blond's chin so he could look him in the eye, "I'm not going anywhere."
Naruto's eyes had gone wide and, slowly, a patch of pink was beginning to spread across his cheeks. Sasuke had put everything he could into those words, and he focused on putting just as much into the stare the two of them were sharing. This was important, more than anything else; he had to make sure Naruto understood that he meant this. He meant it more than anything.
Both Sasuke and Naruto jerked at the sound and jumped away from each other guiltily, Sasuke spinning on his heel as he moved to face the Hokage as she leered at them knowingly.
"As sweet as you two are, I'm here to give you both some news."
"N-news?" Naruto seemed to be trying to get a grip on himself, but the faint pink blush was turning steadily redder.
"Great news!" Tsunade threw her hands out wide and grinned at them, "you both win! The Yamikage and I had a long discussion and agreed that the caverns should remain caverns instead of becoming craters. Congratulations!"
"We win?" Sasuke frowned, "what about the exam? We're supposed to..."
"Look, kid." Tsunade leaned in closer to Sasuke, "don't question such good fortune. You both won, we all thought it was very impressive, and everyone agrees you should both pass the exam. Are you going to argue with me?!"
Sasuke opened his mouth, glanced at Naruto, and then shut it again, uncertainly.
"Good choice!" Tsunade put her hands on her hips and turned to Naruto, "and it looks like we've got business to attend to. No time for fighting, anyway."
Naruto glanced at Sasuke, and then nodded firmly.
"Yeah, it's about time it got dealt with."
"Alright, then! Move it!"
Naruto's scream of frustration bounced around the tight-nit trees and echoed off into the distance. Sasuke sighed.
"Baka, you're going to give away our position if you keep yelling like that."
"And I'd like to do this mission without pulling every nin in the area down on our heads," Sakura backed Sasuke up quickly, glaring up at Naruto.
"But," Naruto swung himself down out of the tree he had been standing in, and landed next to Sasuke with a light thud.
"No 'buts'," Sasuke interrupted, already checking Naruto over silently for injuries, "the mission just got complicated, but we can deal with it."
Naruto crossed his arms over his chest and glared at the ground, "but, I wanted to be done today. I wanted to get home!"
Sasuke shot Naruto a startled glance. Behind him Sakura giggled.
"Oh, that's right," she said, still laughing, "it's date night."
"Shut up!" Naruto blushed brightly and glared at Sakura. "It's ramen night, I want ramen! Ramen!"
"Sasuke's home-made ramen," Sakura corrected.
Sasuke tilted his head slightly as he noticed several sets of chakra appearing in the trees nearby, and then focused back on his teammates. From the looks on their faces, both had already noticed that they had company and Sasuke tensed in preparation for more fighting. He had rather been hoping they would make it back to the village that night as well, but it was pretty much a given these days that their missions were never going to be simple.
"I see them," Sasuke responded, and then grabbed Naruto by the shirt front and pulled him in for a swift, but fierce, kiss. "Date night tomorrow night," he promised, and then he was gone, darting out into the trees to flank their poorly hidden enemies.
Behind him he could hear Naruto's flustered yelling and Sakura's amused laughter. He would pay for that move later, but he wouldn't have had it any other way.