DISCLAIMER: Like I could ever own Naruto. Pfft. I can't even draw.
Moe: stick figures!!! It's still counted as drawing... I guess.
Author's Notes: And Part Two is completed. I really wasn't sure I was going to continue this; I had half a mind not to, since the first part didn't end in a cliffhanger and because I just totally ruined chibi Sasuke. I had the unfortunate luck to start this just right before Sasuke's past was revealed, and when I finally saw the real chibi Sasuke, I just lost all inspiration for continuing this story. However, readers' comments trickled in and I decided to give it another go, despite the characterisation differences for Sasuke. Part Three will be done, but I'm not sure when. Time is a commodity I won't have much of, I'm afraid, so it'll be a challenge.
A big thank you to everyone who commented on this fic and on all of my SasuNaru fics. I don't want to take over the fic with replies to all those comments, but I will try to reply as much as possible below.
Another big thank you goes to Moe for beta-ing this extra long chapter and getting rid of those darn mistakes of mine. The ending chunks are sappy and mushy, I know, but I was following the manga closely, so I can't help it. Hope you weren't sapped out and mushed out too much. -grins-
It helped to think of this as an AU with a different background as I wrote, so hopefully that can work for those who are reading as well.
Now, onto the fic.
The Nine-Tailed Demon Fox
Sasuke wasn't allowed out of the hospital for nearly two weeks, and even then, he had to get checked out by a doctor just in case. Naruto knew this because he had been there every single day as soon as class finished. He was even there sometimes in the morning -- even though he'd much rather sleep under comfy warm blankets instead of waking up for a chilly stroll to the hospital. He didn't mind that actually. He didn't mind any of it except for the fact that he spent less time with Sasuke than before, but even that was insignificant. Everything beyond Sasuke's recovery was insignificant.
Naruto remembered that first, nervous visit. He remembered being disappointed that Sasuke hadn't liked any of his get well gifts, especially the flowers, but then Sasuke had hugged him so tight, he had nearly knocked all the air out of Naruto's lungs, and suddenly, Naruto felt like all was right his world. Everything was perfect, save for the hot tears trickling down his neck, and after that, all Naruto wanted to do was soothe and comfort. Sasuke crying wasn't something he wanted to ever see again. Mainly because Sasuke was his friend (best and only friend, in Naruto's mind; the only one he needed) and he wanted to protect him, but mostly because when Sasuke was like that, Naruto knew something bad and unimaginable had happened. Sasuke didn't cry for just anything or anyone. When Sasuke cried, Naruto knew the world had ended.
For a while, they had settled there against each other, arms tight and faces pressed into each other's necks. Naruto had even cried himself; he wasn't sure when that had happened or how, but he remembered being sad for Sasuke and just wanting to make it all better -- except he couldn't really, and that was just too much. Naruto couldn't give Sasuke back his family, he would have if it was even possible, no matter the effort or sacrifice, but Naruto could make sure Sasuke wouldn't lose anything else. He'd protect Sasuke. He would.
Then, the nurse had come in, and Naruto had to go. He went, but not before he had said that he was coming back tomorrow and the next day and the next -- until Sasuke wasn't there anymore. He'd told Sasuke he was swearing it on the previous Hokages' graves, and for a second there, he thought he saw something other than a glimmer of hastily scrubbed tears in Sasuke's dark eyes. It was more than enough for one day's work, and he felt like he was the only one in Sasuke's dark world. Yeah, it was more than enough.
The next day, right after class, Naruto went to visit Sasuke again and found his flowers bundled in a vase beside Sasuke's bed, next to an empty container. Nothing could have stopped the slow spread of a smile from blooming on his face. Sasuke said nothing of course when he approached his bedside, but he was sitting up, and he looked less dead-white than before. The heavy shadows under his eyes had cleared somewhat, and when Naruto sat on the edge of Sasuke's bed, Sasuke actually looked at him like he was there; like he noticed. Like he wanted Naruto to be there.
Naruto didn't think it was his optimistic nature blinding reality. Sasuke was getting better. Real better, better. As if he was going to come out of bed snorting arrogantly and leading away to class like he always had, before It happened. Naruto now classified his memories as Before It and After It; there were just too many differences otherwise for him to keep count. For instance, Naruto knew that no matter what he did or what was going to happen, Sasuke would never be that Sasuke who offered the kid everybody hated a handkerchief simply because nobody else wanted to. He knew Sasuke would never tolerate anybody else in his presence ever again, simply because he would rather not feel than be hurt -- except Naruto was still there, somewhere under Sasuke's skin. He knew because Sasuke ignored all the get well gifts sent to him daily by the girls in their class. He knew because he ignored every single visitor other than Naruto. He knew because even though Sasuke never spoke, he listened to Naruto's inane chatter and sometimes would have an odd expression on his face.
He wondered about this during his fifth visit, when Sasuke was all but well again save for the fact that his body still used up too much of his energy at too short a period of time; the doctors said it was burn-out and only time could make it better. It was too bad one of the very few things Sasuke was bad at was being patient. It would have saved the doctors a lot of trouble otherwise, Naruto thought during his seventh visit when Sasuke dragged him away silently. Naruto had been prepared to protest, to yell "Stupid asshole!" at him for even moving out of the bed, but Sasuke had given him this look and didn't even say anything. Naruto only followed him wordlessly after that because Sasuke had never allowed his insults to remain unanswered. That was -- just -- so unSasuke-like that Naruto could only gape and follow like Sasuke's trailing shadow.
"Sasuke," he called out hesitatingly, looking at the dark, foreboding mansion with a shiver. This was where Sasuke had lived. This was where Itachi had -- he felt a chill down his spine.
When the figure in front of him didn't respond, Naruto gave a small shrug and shook off his fear, trusting that Sasuke actually knew what he was doing. He gave a thankful nod to the people who took care of mansion; there weren't any blood stains or corpses, which were all kinds of good in Naruto's mind. He still wasn't sure about Sasuke though.
"Sasuke," he called out again, biting his lower lip, but no answer came. Sasuke just gripped Naruto's hand tighter and pulled him along for several more strides, silent and grave, but showing no signs of stopping.
He only let go when they arrived in some small study that was cold and dank, in Naruto's opinion, and had no furniture whatsoever. It was empty except for the candles sitting quietly on a ledged shelf; sparse and simple, with age-old scrolls neatly lying side-by-side in the centre. Naruto stared at them uncertainly for a moment and thought, a bit dumbfounded -- no dust. He watched Sasuke slowly pick one up and open it, hands trembling. Naruto wanted to call his name again, but the way Sasuke was looking at the scroll gave him second thoughts. Sasuke looked so serious, so unfathomable, and so alien, that he wasn't sure this was Sasuke anymore. He wrapped his arms around himself and tried to stop that pounding inside his chest. Surely, Sasuke knew what he was doing. He had to, right?
His lip tasted of blood. He felt the pain a little later, mixing the coppery tang and the sharp needle-like sensation, but he didn't pay it any attention. He was too caught up with Sasuke, who was reading the scroll intently, and whose lips were twisted into a dark, angry smile.
"Sasuke," he called out softly, wanting to move forward and comfort his best friend even though something was telling him not to. It was an irrational fear; completely out of reason, because this was Sasuke. Sasuke. Naruto shook it off and walked to Sasuke, lightly touching his arm.
For a second, Sasuke didn't respond. Then, Naruto watched as Sasuke, ever so carefully, lifted his head up. Dark eyes that had appeared serious and calm before flickered with a strange fire, a dull, hapless rage. Naruto shivered; this time he didn't try to control it. He wasn't sure what to do. Sasuke was looking at him now, not fully seeing him -- something which he'd always hated -- but this time it was different. He knew it was different because Sasuke was not seeing him -- but, at the same time, did see him; he just wasn't seeing him as Naruto.
"Sasuke," he said again. It was awkward and frustrating, and Naruto knew he was just missing some big turning point here because that was what he always did. Something big was happening, and he didn't know how to stop it. He didn't know if he could, even if he did.
When Sasuke said nothing again, Naruto hesitatingly moved his arm away. He knew how Sasuke was always so moody about people touching him, and he didn't want to make him angry right now. Before his hand even moved an inch though, Sasuke clamped onto his wrist lightning fast. He tried to pull away, but Sasuke just held on tighter.
Naruto suddenly got really annoyed. This wasn't what best friends did.
"You know, just because I'm shorter than you doesn't mean you can boss me around." He tugged his hand again and scowled. "Now stop being such a jerk. It's cold here."
And then, for a moment, something dark and bitter flickered across Sasuke's face, before it softened.
"Naruto," he said, struggling. His hand loosened its hold on Naruto's wrist, but didn't let go. "Don't…leave, okay?"
Naruto blinked. "Huh. Where am I going?"
Sasuke smiled, the shadows gone from his eyes. Naruto blinked again and thought he wanted to make Sasuke smile like that always.
"Just…don't leave." His gripped tightened around Naruto's wrist, and Naruto said, "Okay. I won't leave." He added, "Promise."
Sasuke searched his face, probably trying to see if he was lying, Naruto thought, but didn't say anything. He just tugged again, this time from worry. "Can we go now? You're not supposed to be walking around so much."
"Yeah," Sasuke agreed softly. He didn't let go though, and Naruto didn't care, so they walked out of the Uchiha mansion huddled close, hands tangled together.
Sasuke was going home, Naruto had been pleased to know. The doctors said that Sasuke was going to be all right physically; his injuries were healed and he had regained his depleted chakra. What they didn't say, and what Naruto overhead was that emotionally, Sasuke was a mess. It wasn't Naruto's fault that he had happened to be there when they were conversing together in a group, not even bothering to whisper as they each took a turn to diagnose Sasuke's psyche. And really, it wasn't as if Naruto actually remembered half the things they had said anyway. They'd been using very long words that Naruto hadn't known, and half the time, he'd thought he was going to fall into a deep sleep because of the endless droning. He'd perked up though, whenever one of them said something more basic -- like, damaged, psychologically unstable, denial or suppression. Well, maybe not suppression, since he still didn't quite grasp that word even now, but the idea was there. He didn't like the thought of Sasuke like that. It couldn't be true, right?
Well, Naruto haven't cared if it was right or not. It was Sasuke, and he just had to do something to help him; from what the doctors said, they were still uncertain about letting Sasuke leave, though by all rights they couldn't hold him in since he was already fully healed. So Naruto's pleasure had been short lived, and now he was trying to think of a way for Sasuke to be looked after away from the hospital. If Sasuke had someone to look after him, like a relative or someone who could take care of him and make him eat, then it would be all right. But Sasuke didn't have anyone -- not since Itachi anyway -- and Naruto had vowed to take care of him.
He supposed he could live with Sasuke, if Sasuke was willing, and really, he shouldn't be so happy at the thought. This wasn't for himself! This was for Sasuke, whom he couldn't quite let go of at the moment. For the first time since Sasuke was found, Sasuke was going back to his home (excluding that other time when they sneaked off because Naruto didn't want to ever remember that again), a place that was devoid of everything he once had. The remainders were bad enough, but to be alone too? It just didn't sound right. Naruto moving in and taking care of Sasuke sounded better; it sounded like a good plan, and he didn't think Sasuke would mind, so why not just go ahead with it? Yeah, why not?
Humming slightly, he took quick steps back into the room where Sasuke was still packing up his things. It wasn't that he had a lot of things to pack; it was just that he did it so methodically, it took forever and a half to get it done. Naruto wanted to tease him about it, but he didn't want to start off things like that, so he held his tongue and waited impatiently for Sasuke to finish bundling his stuff.
"Come on," he finally whined when he couldn't curb the urge. "Are you done yet? It's taking forever."
Sasuke just gave him a look, and if possible, worked even slower at tying the knot to his bundle.
Naruto pouted. "You're doing that on purpose!"
"Whatever," Sasuke just muttered. He gave the knot a firm tug and pulled it over his shoulder. "There. I'm done. Happy?"
Naruto just grinned at his grumbling and nodded. Sasuke was still grouchy, but he never really meant it. At first, Naruto had wondered why Sasuke was so moody and grumpy; now he just didn't question it. It was just Sasuke. It was enough.
"So, uh, Sasuke," Naruto said casually as they walked to the Uchiha mansion, Sasuke's empty home. "Well, you see, my place is really, really small, and I don't have enough room to put all my stuff there and everything, and well, I live there alone anyway, so I was thinking that Icouldjustmoveinwithyou." He took in a deep breath.
"Say that again?" Sasuke blinked and turned to look at him, squinting slightly as if Naruto had suddenly turned into a potato or something.
"I said, uh, maybe I could just move in with you." Naruto turned away, trying to avoid staring straight at Sasuke.
"Sure," Sasuke mumbled, eyeing the ground intensely.
Naruto stopped walking, head jutting up quickly. "Did you say what I heard you said?"
"I'm not saying it again."
"You said yes, right? Right?" he nearly shouted.
"Yes, yes. Now shut up and start walking," Sasuke snapped and continued walking.
Naruto stood staring at Sasuke's fading back before he grinned and raced ahead, inwardly patting his back for a job well done. Not only had he convinced Sasuke to let him move in, but he actually got Sasuke to talk in more than monosyllables. Yep, good job, Uzumaki. You deserve five bowls of ramen for this.
"What is this?" Sasuke looked like he'd just eaten a bug. An awful tasting one, which Naruto could emphasise with. He'd forgotten how old he'd been, but once when he was too young to tell the difference between good food and bad food, he'd try tasting everything and anything he could manage to find. That included paper (which he'd thought wasn't all that bad), leaves, and finally, a bug that happened to be crawling on one of those leaves. After putting it in his mouth, he remembered how hard he'd cried, sniffling away as the adults around him kept telling him to be quiet. Only the Hokage had asked him what was wrong.
Sasuke looked just like that except he wasn't sniffling or crying. He was staring at Naruto's boxes with this horrified expression on his face, and Naruto could only grin sheepishly.
"I told you I was running out of room."
"Yeah, you did. You didn't tell me you didn't have any room left to sleep in with all this junk." Sasuke glared at his hastily wrapped boxes and lumpy bags balefully. "What do you have here anyway?"
"Things," Naruto said sheepishly. "Things from ages ago. I don't like throwing away stuff." He shrugged.
"I can see that." Sasuke gave one last glare before he crossed his arms. "Well, why don't you get your stuff in. I'll show you your room."
"Sure." Naruto perked up. "Can we eat first? I brought my ramen stash."
He could see the subtle way Sasuke clenched his jaw and gritted out, "Yes," but honestly, he just wanted his ramen. It had been hard packing up all his stuff, even though he found some cool stuff he'd thought he'd lost.
"Ah…sweet, sweet ramen," Naruto sighed dreamily as he finished off his bowl. Sasuke just grunted.
"We're not having ramen every single time," he warned Naruto, putting his chopsticks neatly on top of his own bowl.
"But Sasuke, I have heaps! More than enough for everyday food." He pouted.
"It's not healthy that's why."
"But -- but -- it tastes so good. And it's so nice, and yum…"
"Shut up," Sasuke growled, interrupting his day dream. "You still have to unpack. I'll do the dishes, and then I'll cook tonight."
"Really? Ramen?" Naruto's eyes widened in happy glee.
"No. Not ramen."
"No?" He drooped, looking up at Sasuke with sad, sad blue eyes.
"No," Sasuke said forcefully, and then more quietly, "Maybe tomorrow."
Naruto grinned, and even though Sasuke was fighting it, he could see a small upward quirk of his mouth. He hastily pushed his chair back and gave Sasuke his bowl.
"I'll unpack now," he announced, making his way to the room that had been pointed as his, right next to Sasuke's. They even had a connecting door, though Sasuke hadn't bothered to point it out. Naruto had discovered it when he'd walked around the empty room, trying to figure where he would put all his things. The one thing he noticed though on his first glance was that it probably didn't matter what he did with his stuff; the room was just that big. Heck, it was bigger than his little bit of an apartment, and while he surely wasn't going to insult the place he spent most of his life at, he certainly wasn't regretting his decision to move in. And plus, moving here had the added bonus of being around Sasuke all the time instead of just some of the time. Even though he knew Sasuke would be bad company when he got moody, it was still better than no Sasuke at all.
He unpacked, ripping open round-ish boxes and lump bags, and put aside the items he wasn't sure he knew where to put. The room Sasuke had given him had been equipped with shelves and closet space to put his clothing and his nit-nacs. He used the space accordingly and to the point where he actually wondered how he'd managed to pick so many things up over the seven-and-a-half-but-nearly-eight years of his life. There were his first drawings of the Hokage and Sasuke, faces with pointed chins and even pointier hair. There were the chopsticks and bowls a kind matronly lady had given him when she first realised he was living by himself; she stopped visiting though -- probably when she found out who he really was -- but it didn't matter. Naruto would always remember her for being kind when she didn't need to. And then, there was a stuffed, white fox. He'd almost forgotten about that; he stroked the soft fur gently. The fox had seen better days. Its fluffy white fur had turned grey with time and there was a rip on one of its ears. It was tattered, yes, but it looked good for its age, Naruto supposed. With some mending and washing, Naruto was sure he could fix it so it would look just like the first time he'd seen it. Except, he didn't remember when he'd first gotten the stuffed toy. He could remember playing 'foxies' with it when he was younger, cuddling and wrapping it so it wouldn't get cold, but he couldn't remember when he'd first gotten it or who had given it to him. He stroked the rip gently and lightly poked its nose. Well, it didn't matter. He was going to take better care of it this time around.
They had gone to their beds silently.
Naruto wasn't sure what people did when they went to bed, so he didn't say anything. He just stuffed his needle and thread back onto his desk and climbed onto his bed, fox curled against his chest. He still hadn't washed it yet, but he did fix the ear with large and awkward stitches; he made a mental note to wash it tomorrow. After all, the fox did look distinguished with its grey fur, and he really didn't mind it being that way for a little while. He pulled up the sheets, making sure the fox was covered up too and closed his eyes, letting his body relax and the smile that had been tugging at him since he had first arrived. During his first attempt at sewing (he nearly pricked his finger, and did do it on the second stitch), he kept wondering at how fast he came to think of Sasuke's home as his home. He shrugged it off on his third stitch though because it had been too complex and confusing to think about, and he had to keep his attention on not nicking another finger so he let the subject drop. But now, the thoughts were coming back, and to his surprise, they were good, happy thoughts that allowed him to drift off in better dreams where he and Sasuke lived together and went on missions together forever. He dreamt he was Hokage and Sasuke was Anbu, and after Itachi was found, Sasuke would smile more and they would eat ramen together everyday. It was a good dream.
On the second night, he was woken up by cries from the next room. He stilled, body tensing in preparation for some outward threat, but nothing happened. The cries kept on going though so he waited until he couldn't bear it anymore. Treading lightly, he reached the door connecting to Sasuke's room and gripped the knob hesitatingly. The cries stopped, and he nearly fell in surprise. He tried to regain his balance again, hoping he did so silently enough that Sasuke wouldn't have noticed his presence. It must have worked because the cries didn't come again even though he had waited close to the door for several more minutes. He yawned and went to bed, but not before he took one last look at the door, and fell asleep uneasily.
On the third night, Naruto made sure he stayed awake. Even among the heavy yawning and the blurry eyes, he made sure he wouldn't fall asleep by chance it happened again. Hadn't taking care of Sasuke been the whole point of moving in? Naruto was going to ensure he stayed awake even if he ended up pinching himself every five minutes; that was the extent of his determination.
He didn't have to wait long though. Just as his eyelids were feeling their weight, just as his body began to feel light and much too comfortable, he heard a pained cry -- no, more like a pained sob, and Naruto was instantly wake. He crept towards the door, feet treading in small, silent steps as he reached it. His hand gently turned the knob, wincing as the sharp crank sounded, and pushed the door open, a moving shadow in the stillness of Sasuke's room. Naruto looked around, trying to adjust his eyes so that his sight would be even more accurate in the dark. He'd always had good eyes; he just needed better ones that won't make him trip in Sasuke's unfamiliar room.
When he finally blinked away enough of the blurry shapes, he walked slowly and falteringly towards Sasuke.
"Sasuke," he called, one hand reaching out. He touched the shaking lump on the bed, hesitating when he received no response.
"Sasuke," he called again. This time, the lump moved quicker than anything he'd ever seen, and he found himself on Sasuke's bed, staring into dark, scared eyes. He said his name again, softly and gently, trying to sooth now, and Sasuke settled into a calmer state every second or so. His breathing eased from hard pants to steadier gulps and dark eyes widened in recognition.
"Naruto?" Sasuke asked unsteadily.
"Yeah." He blinked, wondering what he should do next.
"I -- " Sasuke stopped himself, looking around uncertainly. "I -- what are you doing here?"
"Well, uh, you see, I, uh, thought I heard you and wanted to see if you were in trouble." Naruto scratched his head. "You didn't sound too good."
"No," Sasuke took a deep breath, sighing, "No, I wasn't. I have…nightmares." He turned away, staring at the bed sheets determinedly.
"Oh," Naruto said thoughtfully. "You want me to stay?"
Sasuke hesitated. "No," he finally said, maybe a tad ruefully.
Naruto shrugged under Sasuke. "Okay. I'll stay anyway." He wiggled. "Hey, let me have some room here. You're not a bed hog, right?"
"No, no I'm not," Sasuke responded shakily, hands letting go of their tight grip, and Naruto moved to the left.
"Hey, can you wait a minute?"
"Sure," he said, confused as Naruto suddenly rushed out of the bed and back in less than two minutes.
"What is that?" he asked later, when Naruto was back with something white in his hands.
"This is my fox." Naruto held up the white-turned-grey fox proudly. "I just found him in my old things. You can borrow him if you want." He looked at Sasuke eagerly. "He's good for keeping away nightmares."
Sasuke just stared doubtfully at the dusty fox. "No thanks."
"Oh, okay." Naruto shrugged and quickly pulled the blankets up around them, including the fox.
"Goodnight, Sasuke," he murmured, already yawning. For a second, Sasuke did nothing. He looked so surprised and baffled that Naruto almost giggled, but held it in time; he was glad too, since after a short while Sasuke went to his side of the bed and settled in.
Just when Naruto was drifting off, he heard a whispered, "Goodnight, Naruto."
He smiled and snuggled in with his fox, Sasuke's presence on the other side.
Iruka-sensei was at the front of the classroom, talking emphatically, and with the wise, all-knowing words of one who had seen it, done it, and heard it all. Naruto knew it was true though, so it was hard not to give Iruka-sensei his due -- it was hard to pay attention, Naruto admitted with a sheepish grin, but Sasuke, as usual, was listening intently, obviously mentally memorizing every scrap, no matter how inconsequential at the time, of what knowledge he could glean from their Chuunin instructor. His sober expression and direct dark eyes were all that was apparent from his pale face, and all Naruto wanted to do was make him smile; it had been getting harder and harder to do that as years went by, and Sasuke was still so frustrated and unsatisfied with his progress. Humour and whatever childhood idiosyncrasies remaining had been left behind in his goal, his eternal goal to avenge his clan, to kill the enemy; to kill that man. Naruto had every confidence in Sasuke. But right now, he just wanted to see a small smile on that pale face. He gave a moment's thought on Iruka-sensei's anger and felt a smidgeon of guilt though it probably wasn't enough to stop him from one of his pranks. After all, Iruka-sensei did supply him with a generous amount of free ramen daily.
"So, does anyone have any questions?" Iruka asked pleasantly. "No? Then we shall proceed with the demonstrations."
As per usual, Sasuke seemed to flow gracefully through the Jutsus. Naruto didn't think he looked like he needed to put in any effort at all, and yet, he still seemed to be the best out of everyone. He felt a tiny twinge of jealousy and envy -- he was far from the best himself, and this reminder hurt him sometimes -- but was soon overwhelmed by the large amount of admiration and pride. Naruto wasn't sure why, and he probably didn't care except Sasuke wanted to be the best, and so Naruto wanted that for him too. Naruto had his own dreams to chase; that didn't mean he couldn't help with Sasuke's though and combine theirs together into one whole gigantic dream that was never too far to reach. Not when both of them put their minds to it together; it wasn't as if Naruto didn't have the determination and stubbornness of a mule and Sasuke didn't have the obsessed focus of an enraged panther.
When Naruto's turn came, Naruto couldn't help it. He just couldn't, and even though he felt a little guilty for calling Iruka-sensei a nose bleeder (which was true; Iruka-sensei bled heaps), he didn't think he'd not do it either if he went back in time. It was just so much fun showing Iruka-sensei the Sexy no Jutsu because of Iruka-sensei's reddening face and because Naruto couldn't help showing off, but in the corner of his eye, he had spied the teeniest quirk of lips from an otherwise bland-faced Sasuke, and this made everything so much better. And, whenever he did one of his pranks, he always garnered the attention of everyone. He absolutely craved that attention to be honest, even though it was negative and after he would be scolded and punished.
He grinned unrepentantly -- at least until the whole demonstration was over and Iruka-sensei had finished yelling and forgiving Naruto with an offer of more ramen (yay!) -- and then rushed towards Sasuke who was always waiting outside the Academy when class finished. Naruto never asked him why, and Sasuke never explained; it just was, and both were happy with the routine. Of course, Naruto had wondered and questioned their friendship in moments of spastic insecurity, but usually it ended when he walked and found Sasuke inconspicuously waiting for him in some way or another. It made him grin and it made him feel as though Sasuke's attention was all he had ever wanted. In his more sentimental moments, it usually was.
They walked to the Uchiha mansion that was left to Sasuke after his family was killed, and Itachi became the enemy.
"Idiot," Sasuke suddenly broke the silence and chided Naruto. "I thought I taught you that Jutsu the last time. What the hell were you doing?"
"Oh, come on, Sasuke. I was just having a little fun," Naruto said, rolling his blue eyes, and waving a hand dismissively. "Just 'cause I know how to do it doesn't mean I have to!"
Sasuke sighed at Naruto's cheerfulness. "You idiot. With your messing around, you'll fail." He glared for emphasis. "Do you want to fail?"
"I was just having some fun!" Naruto protested, slightly hurt. "I just -- "
He closed his mouth and looked down at the ground. It didn't matter what he said; he knew Sasuke was just going to be stubborn whether he liked it or not and for this instance, he couldn't really blame him. Sasuke was just being Sasuke. When he wasn't being cold and perfect, he was worrying about the little, uncomplicated things that had nothing to do with himself and everything to do with Naruto. It wasn't as if Naruto couldn't take care of himself -- he could. And it wasn't as if he was helpless and stupid either. But Sasuke just had to make a big deal out of everything; which was totally unfair. He kicked a tiny stone that was blocking his path.
It wasn't fair.
"Look, Naruto. I don't want you to fail, okay." Sasuke kept his head straight forward, barely, and most likely not looking at Naruto. "Not when you're not supposed to." Then more softly, "Not when I know you can do better."
Glancing at Sasuke (how could he not when Sasuke, for once, called him something other than idiot or moron?), Naruto took note of the thinned lips and the way Sasuke pointedly faced straight ahead, not looking at Naruto.. Sasuke was always serious, but this was different somehow; Naruto just didn't know what, which made him wonder about his own questionable intelligence.
"I'm not gonna fail," Naruto said determinedly. "Because I'm going to be Hokage!"
He saw the barest quirk of lips and grinned, walking steadily along the path. He took his eyes off the ground and turned them towards his surroundings, an urge to whistle suddenly overtaking him.
"Why are you so happy, idiot?"
Naruto rolled his eyes and said automatically, "Don't call me an idiot, jerk," but his heart wasn't really in it and he was just glad Sasuke was back to being his jerk-like, arrogant self.
So he half-expected to pass and receive his Leaf head protector just like all the others -- just like Sasuke; he shouldn't have been as disappointed and as surprised as he was that he didn't get one. It wasn't like he got the other two previous either, and therefore, this third time should make no difference. Except it did in all the ways that counted, and Sasuke hadn't looked at him since he received his, but Naruto could feel the silent I told you from his direction and he could feel Sasuke closing himself off. Life wasn't fair, and Naruto was going to be left behind, left way, way behind, and Sasuke was going to find someone else to hang around with, to be friends with now that Naruto was still stuck here trying to make it to the next level up while Sasuke went off with his team (a team, Naruto thought glumly, that didn't have anything to do with him).
Not that Naruto expected them to continue to be a presence in each other's lives, though, that was in fact what he had expected. He had thought that if Sasuke was the first in his class and if he was last (as he always was) then they would end up in the same team like all previous teams due to the balancing act of their instructors. He never made much of an effort to improve and this was one of many reasons, but he'd never thought that he wouldn't pass. And because of that, he basically wrecked all his plans for the future, which had consisted of them being around each other forever even when he became Hokage and Sasuke became some high-ranking shinobi (he decided to leave the details for Sasuke to figure out while he had the general outline in mind) and they all lived happily ever after.
Bitterness was very unpleasant, Naruto thought. Even more unpleasant than the one time he had experimentally tasted expired milk (after he'd finished howling like mad, he'd vowed to never, ever drink, eat, or even smell expired dairy products ever again). He made a face and sighed, deciding that brooding and being morose wasn't at all bad; no wonder Sasuke liked doing it so much. He was usually the very opposite of it, being bratty and blonde and loud, but this was a good moment as any to be depressed and dark and quiet. Too bad Sasuke wasn't here to see it -- he would have enjoyed the silence and calm he'd often mentioned pointedly at Naruto. Yeah, too bad Sasuke wasn't here. Naruto would have liked some company at the very least and maybe some comforting hugs at the most (Sasuke was not a touchy-feely person so usually it was Naruto doing the hugging and the curling and the wrapping around Sasuke like he was his toy fox thing), but he didn't blame him for not being here. He knew Sasuke was probably practicing or getting ready for his very first mission or something, and it wasn't as if Naruto would die not seeing him --
Naruto slumped down even further under the old oak tree where he first met Sasuke. He was a bratty, blonde loudmouth. Of course he wouldn't physically die without seeing Sasuke, but he would feel like he was dying. Heck, he felt all weird when he and Sasuke was apart, doing something else that didn't require Naruto's presence; there was no doubt that the weirdness would turn into something like dying if Sasuke wasn't around -- or maybe he was just being melodramatic. Sasuke always said he was, along with being a loudmouth and a moron and an idiot and -- man, Sasuke had a lot of insults. That jerk. If he didn't like Sasuke as much as he did, he would have tied him up and pushed him over a cliff years ago.
"Naruto?" someone called his name. He turned and blinked at Mizuki-sensei, who had never singled Naruto out before now.
"Mizuki-sensei?" he asked dumbly. Of course it was Mizuki-sensei, dimwit, but Mizuki-sensei just smiled kindly.
Naruto felt his flush leave as he wondered why Mizuki-sensei was bothering with him now; as kind as Mizuki-sensei was, Naruto knew all the senseis hated him, Iruka-sensei too, even though there had been trips to the ramen shop. Sooner or later people just ended up hating him. He didn't blame Iruka-sensei.
"Iruka-sensei didn't let me graduate." He didn't even know he was going to say it until he did.
"Iruka-sensei's very serious. His parents were killed when he was young, and he's had to do everything himself." Mizuki-sensei paused to take a sidelong glance at Naruto. "He probably sees himself in you. He's probably thinking he wants you to become strong in the real way."
Naruto finally looked up at this. Mizuk-sensei continued, "Try to understand Iruka's feelings, Naruto."
He looked down again, thinking he understood, but not enough, and said wistfully, "But I wish I had graduated."
"Well then." Mizuki-sensei grabbed his arm, almost pulling him to his feet, a strange look in his dark eyes. "I'll tell you a special secret."
"Huh?" He blinked as he stood up docilely, scratching his head. "What secret?"
"A secret that will help you graduate. You do want to graduate, right?"
"Yeah!" Naruto said excitedly, bouncing on the heel of his feet. "You'd help me, Mizuki-sensei?"
"Yes," Mizuki-sensei said, smiling. "Of course I will. Now, do you want to know this secret?"
Naruto nodded hard.
He wasn't nervous. Not really. Not at all. Well, maybe just a little. He thought it was definitely all right to be nervous if it was only a little, but not a lot. It was really asking too much if all shinobi couldn't be nervous. Just a little. And he was really going to do it. Really. He was going to break into the Hokage's house. He was going to borrow the scroll and practice until he got it right. Then, he was going to show it to Iruka-sensei and he was going to definitely pass this time!
He wouldn't be left behind.
Squirming, he wondered if he should have told Sasuke about it; he felt bad for sneaking off out of bed this late without telling him, but Mizuki-sensei said he had to. He couldn't do this with anyone else and no matter how much Naruto had argued that Sasuke wasn't just anyone else, Mizuki-sensei still said no. And then Naruto had felt bad for being so ungrateful to Mizuki-sensei, who was just only trying to help him, so he decided that once he practiced enough, he was going to teach it to Sasuke (for once, instead of the other way around), and then they could go be genin together. It sounded really good at the time, so Naruto couldn't blame himself for failing to see that it was much more difficult sneaking off. For one thing, Sasuke was a very light sleeper -- Naruto made sure to make no noise whatsoever when he left the bed with a softly snuffling Sasuke on the other side -- for another, it was much, much more difficult than it appeared to walk out of the Uchiha mansion silently all the while wondering if he was going to spring old Uchiha traps that were just everywhere. He'd remember Sasuke showing them to him once, but like usual, he'd forgotten where most of them were. Not for the first time, he wished he didn't have such a lousy memory.
Luckily, he'd managed to avoid any (except for maybe that creak that frightened Naruto half to death before he remembered the wooden floor he was standing on needed fixing), and so made his way here. Stuck on the side of the Hokage's house, trying to figure out a way to get in blunder-free. Planning wasn't his forte, action was, so he decided to just get on with it and go in.
Slowly, silently, quietly, and yeah. He was doing it. He was as silent as a mouse! As an ant! As a bird!
"What are you doing in my house at this hour?"
As an elephant. Damn. What to do? What to do? He panicked, not turning to look at Hokage, stalling for time. There had to be something, he thought desperately. Just because the Hokage was old didn't mean he was weak, and Naruto was an idiot but even he knew when he was up against someone stronger.
What to do? What to do? What to do?
Goddamn it. If it had been Iruka-sensei's house he was breaking into, he wouldn't have had this problem. Iruka-sensei was very, very strong but he was still a nose-bleeder and --
Naruto grinned and turned around.
"Sexy no jutsu!"
He gave a victory salute at the prone, nose-bleeding body of the fallen once great Hokage. Success!
Now, back to the mission. The scroll. It didn't take him long to find the whereabouts of all the scrolls the Hokage kept. Mizuki-sensei had been really great with his instructions, even going as far as drawing a little map just on his left palm. The hard part had been trying to hide it from Sasuke and getting a bath without washing out the ink. He might not have been as successful with the latter though, since the ink had smudged a bit, but it was still workable. Very workable, since found the scroll within minutes of searching.
Yes! After he showed to Iruka-sensei, he was definitely going to pass, and then it was going to the happily-ever-after.
He crept out of the house and headed towards the woods -- the perfect place to practice undisturbed. He and Sasuke had spent a lot of time there too, and if Sasuke disturbed him, well, he didn't really mind. It was Sasuke.
Sitting down with a hard thump, he promptly opened the scroll, eager and excited to get started.
"Let's see… The first skill is Kage Bunshin? What the hell? Why does it start with the one I'm bad at?" he muttered, annoyed.
He sighed. He better get started, because as he well knew, he was going to need as much time as he could get.
"Why the heck does it have to be Kage Bunshin?" he grumbled for one last time before he got up, determined to master the skill and graduate. He was going to graduate. And that was that.
He did it.
He had mastered the Kage Bunshin.
The thought was too much, just too much, but he did it. By himself. The shock would have killed him if he hadn't been already been gleeful, but really: he did it. It was cause of celebration. Lots of it.
Before he could decide what to celebrate with, a loud, familiar voice shouted, "Found you!" and he looked up to see Iruka-sensei.
"Ha! I found the nose-bleeder!" Naruto shouted back involuntarily. He could never keep his mouth shut, and he always wanted the last word in.
"Idiot! You didn't find me! I found you!" Iruka-sensei shouted again, and Naruto grinned sheepishly.
"Oh, right. I mean, never mind that. I've got a new skill to show you! And if I do…you'll let me graduate, right? Right."
He lifted his hands together, fingers in the proper formation, and tried to concentrate.
"Huh?" He blinked, concentration scattering, and wondered why Iruka-sensei wasn't watching.
"Where did you get the scroll on your back?"
"Oh, Mizuki-sensei told me about it. And about this place too. He said that if I showed you this skill, I'd definitely graduate!" Naruto grinned happily and took up the stance again. Iruka-sensei was going to be so impressed.
Before he could do anything more than concentrate, there was a blur of movement and then he was knocked down, and Sasuke was there, holding his arm.
"Sasuke?" he asked uncertainly and turned to look at Iruka-sensei. Both of them were too busy staring at Mizuki-sensei, who was standing on top of the branches to pay attention to Naruto. He shook his head and wondered what the heck was going on; before he could open his mouth to ask, he saw the numerous kunais embedded into the spot where they had been standing. Naruto started.
"What?" He tried to ask, but Sasuke just gripped his arm tightly and moved ahead, pushing Naruto back so that he was in front of him, like a shield. Iruka-sensei was moving closer too, to Naruto's other side.
"Nice job in finding him," Mizuki-sensei said, smirking.
"So that's what's going on," Iruka-sensei said tightly, fist clenching. "Sasuke, take Naruto away from here now. Naruto, don't give him the scroll even if you die," he ordered briskly, not taking his eyes off Mizuki-sensei.
Naruto wanted to protest, but Sasuke tugged his arm in warning and nodded to Iruka-sensei. He was prepared to drag Naruto away kicking and screaming, and Naruto knew it.
"Leaving so soon, Naruto? Don't you find it odd that everyone hates you so much?"
Sasuke tightened his hold and pulled him slightly away. "Let's go."
"But…" he said, looking at Mizuki-sensei with confusion.
"Mizuki! Stop it!" Iruka-sensei shouted, preparing into a familiar stance.
"Why should I? I've already broken the rules, I might as well break one more," he snorted. "He should know why he'll never be one of us -- I'm surprised you've taken such a liking to him at all -- after all, he is the demon fox who killed your parents and destroyed the village. Just take a look at your stomach, Naruto. Ever wonder why there's a seal there? Or did you think that was your birth mark," Mizuki-sensei laughed with malicious mirth. "Or maybe you did; it wouldn't surprise me at all, though, you should be careful. That seal there is the only thing stopping the demon fox from taking over."
He couldn't breathe. His stomach felt queasy, as if he'd eaten something bad, and his chest hurt like he had been sucker-punched. His surroundings made no difference, Sasuke and Iruka-sensei made no difference, and all he could think was demon fox, demon fox, demon fox. He was the demon fox that had destroyed the village so long ago, he was the one whom everybody had a right to hate, he was a monster.
"Stop it!" Iruka-sensei shouted again and in one moment, appeared next to Mizuki-sensei with his kunai in hand. Mizuki-sensei ducked to the left and grabbed Iruka-sensei's wrist, pushing it forward so that it was near Iruka-sensei's neck.
"It's too late for that," Mizuki-sensei laughed and looked at Naruto again.
"They all lied to you, Naruto. The Hokage made a rule to keep this little piece of information from your ears, Naruto, but even though they've kept it faithfully, they haven't forgotten. You are the nine-tailed demon fox. It will never be forgotten. They will never accept you." His eyes turned to Sasuke. "Isn't that right, Sasuke? Doesn't it disgust you?"
Sasuke didn't answer, but his grip loosened, and Naruto knew that was answer enough. Enough. God, he wanted to cry so bad. He was a monster that nobody wanted, that everybody hated, including the one person who he loved more than anybody else and the teacher who had been almost always kind to him. It just wasn't fair, dammit! He didn't deserve this, to be hated. He didn't deserve to be a monster. He was just…Naruto.
Naruto bowed down his head as Sasuke withdrew his hand.
"No," Sasuke said, and there was a cut-off grunt of pain.
Naruto looked up sharply to see Mizuki-sensei holding his left arm, the kunai back in Iruka-sensei's hands, and before Naruto could turn questioningly to Sasuke, Iruka-sensei had kicked Mizuki-sensei off the branch. Mizuki-sensei tucked his body in and half-turned, landing on his feet.
"Naruto, I don't hate you," Iruka-sensei said softly, "I was like you too after my parents died. I just wanted attention whether it was good or bad, but at the end of it, there was just pain. I never blamed you. I saw you and I saw myself, and all I wanted was to take that pain away just for a little while. I'm sorry for not doing a better job of it. I'm sorry that Mizuki made you feel this way. I'm sorry, for many things, but especially for the hate you don't deserve. I've never hated you. Not even when you were being a brat, causing trouble left and right; not even when you created your useless jutsus," he gave a small smile, and then took a deep breath, expressing turning serious. "Sasuke, take Naruto with you and go. I'll handle Mizuki."
A touch of skin and hand, and Naruto turned his teary blue eyes away from Iruka-sensei to Sasuke, who was looking at him like he always had. He felt Sasuke curling his hand around Naruto's, and then he saw the upwards tug on the corners of Sasuke's mouth.
"Come on, idiot," he said, squeezing Naruto's hand. "You're usually not this slow."
Naruto stared in surprise, but then he smiled shyly, then smiled widely, and squeezed Sasuke's hand in response. Sasuke pulled them away into the shadows, running as fast as they could.
"Naruto wouldn't do that," Iruka grunted, ducking a fist and sweeping Mizuki's legs under him. "Naruto's different. He's not the demon fox anymore."
Naruto shook his head again, turning his gaze back to the two fighting figures just beyond the large trunk they were hiding behind. He didn't want to go when Iruka-sensei might need his help -- not after those words that Naruto would never forget. Iruka-sense cared. He hadn't hated Naruto, even when knowing about the demon fox inside him. He had tried to help him the best way he knew how, and Naruto remembered yelling, but he also remembered softer words and a trip to the ramen stall all on Iruka-sensei, and Iruka-sensei was smiling so very different from when he was in class.
"He might not be the hardest worker, he might be clumsy, but he already knows how it feels to have pain in his heart and that," Iruka broke free of Mizuki's hold, "makes him a member of this village and one of my best students."
Iruka-sensei wasn't smiling now though. He was panting, out of breath, and body taut with unseen wounds. Mizuki-sensei had been good, but Iruka-sensei had fended off every punch, every kick, and every feint with double the force of his opponent. It would have been great if he could have kept up, but Naruto knew he couldn't. Not with Mizuki-sensei slowly weakening his strength bit by bit as he hid in the bushes and threw kunais in Iruka-sensei's direction. Iruka-sensei had been quick -- had ducked and spun and rolled away from each sharp-edged blade -- but he was slowing down. He was breathing heavily now, body still in a defensive stance even though he looked like he needed a rest. Naruto couldn't leave him, didn't want to, and didn't give a damn that Iruka-sensei had ordered them to go.
"I thought I would take care of you later, Iruka, but unfortunately, plans change." Mizuki smiled. "No offense, dear friend."
Iruka said nothing, his mouth tightly pressed together. He had nothing left to say, and even if he did, he wasn't going to; not after succumbing to one of Mizuki's hidden kunai. He felt a brief flare of anger, anger at himself for not noticing in time, anger at Mizuki for being so weak as to betray their village, anger at his wound, a dark red gash right across his stomach.
He had nothing to say.
He could see Sasuke's frustration and conflict; he could see that Sasuke wanted to help as much as he could, but they had been ordered to go, to leave. Neither wanted to, except Sasuke respected Iruka-sensei a whole lot and Naruto wasn't as stubborn as he should be when faced with dark, helpless eyes.
"Well, Iruka. I think I'll begin." Mizuki spun his blades and ran.
Sasuke gripped Naruto's hand tighter and then released it along with a long sigh.
Iruka stared straight ahead, a hidden kunai clasped within his hands. It was one of Mizuki's.
Naruto smiled and squeezed in response.
So this was it, Iruka thought. Even if he was going to die right now, he wasn't going alone. He clenched his hand and the kunai dug at his palm.
Naruto moved, quicker than he had previously thought possible, and Mizuki-sensei was prone on the ground, blood staining his mouth.
"You shouldn't have done that," he breathed and stood up, deadly and menacing.
Naruto held his ground and said, "Don't touch Iruka-sensei."
"Why did you come out? I told you to run," Iruka-sensei gritted out, dark eyes flashing at Sasuke.
Sasuke just shook his head. "He couldn't leave you."
"And you just let him come here?"
Sasuke opened his mouth, but Mizuki-sensei interrupted. "Shut up. I think I'll kill all of you now." He laughed. "It'll be fun. Three of you in one shot."
"Try it," Naruto said quietly. He prepared his stance and focused his chakra.
"Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!"
And he was everywhere, everything. He smiled Mizuki-sensei. "I'll start things off."
"Naruto, come over here. I have something for you."
"Sensei," Naruto whispered touching his forehead reverently.
"Congratulations on graduating." Iruka-sensei glanced at him sidewards and then at Sasuke. "Let's celebrate. I'll buy both of you a bowl of ramen."
He looked up at the full moon, so bright, so light, and didn't want to go to sleep. He couldn't. Not when the rush of happy adrenaline ran through his veins and the warm glow of Iruka-sensei's words fluttered through his mind. He had never been so accepted in his life -- well, perhaps except for that one time when a young Sasuke had decided to be nice to him. That had been one of the most memorable times of his life.
"Sasuke?" he couldn't help but ask. He heard a sigh from somewhere on the bed.
"What?" It came out muffled.
"I -- You really don't care about the demon fox?" Naruto scratched his stomach uncomfortably, tugging his one-size-too-small t-shirt down.
Sasuke shifted slightly on the bed. Then, he said, "What demon fox?"
Naruto grinned and looked at the moon. Bright and light, and he wasn't so wired now. He moved away from the windowsill and silently crept towards the bed, towards Sasuke. He wondered if Sasuke was going to have his nightmares tonight, and then thought that it wouldn't matter a bit because Naruto was going to be there all through the night and through all of his nights.
He whispered, "'Night, Sasuke," and drifted off into warm dreams of the future.
Asty: Thank you so much for you feedback -- your words were a great encouragement to me for this, and while I like writing angst and drama for SasuNaru, I feel a bit proud for writing something where they end up happily together. One of the great things about the SasuNaru pairing is that it has great potential for tragedy, and I'm a sucker for tragedy (even though in my heart I want them to be happy together). I'm glad you enjoyed this fic, and I hope you'll find this part to your liking. Take care.
moonruins: lol. I won't kill you for not being fond of SasuNaru. -grins- It's a personal preference after all, but I'm very glad I'm rekindling your SasuNaru fondness. It makes me feel as if I'm spreading the SasuNaru love. -laughs- Anyway, hope this update doesn't disappoint you or your best friend.
JannZ and Sierra-Falls: I plan on finishing this, I do. -grins- It'll just take a little while as I regroup.
Phsycobratt: I think you're the only one who has told me to take my time with writing the next part. Thank you for that. I agree with Sasuke's personality -- before I had read about Sasuke's past, I had this image of a proud Uchiha family grooming their children into the future shinobi they would become. So Sasuke became as he was. I hope this doesn't derail from the story; the only way around it I could see was to turn this whole fic into an AU, with possibly a different young Sasuke.
Engel du Mal: Thank you for taking the time to comment. I do have a beta, who does a great job on keeping those typos and weird dialogue away, but when the inspiration's not there, it's not there. I'll try to write as much as possible, but it all depends. Anyway, I hope you enjoy this part. It's extra long, so that should make up for the several months of no updating, ne? -grins-
And I really need to sleep right now, so I'm going to go.
Thank you to everybody who reviewed!