Avenger's Choice

Pairing: SasuNaruSasu with other side pairings mostly implied.

Genre: Drama and angst with romance all mixed into a big pot.

Rating: Hard R/ NC-17 depending on your take.

Warnings and Spoilers: Mild violence and graphic sexual situations. But no spoilers if you're at least past Sasuke's defection, however there are obscure references to events past that, but nothing concrete.

Status: 1/10

Disclaimer: Naruto isn't mine… I just play with the boys because it's fun.

Summary: Vengeance was always a deep part of Sasuke, something Naruto had to accept when they became lovers. But now that Uchiha Itachi is dead, the blond shinobi discovers that the real battle to become the most important part of Sasuke's life has just begun.

Author's Notes: Sasuke and Naruto are 19 in this story, though the flashbacks present them at younger ages from time to time. The biggest challenge with this fic was working the events of the past into the present storyline. I knew how the present part of the story was going to go from beginning to end, but at least half of the story is told through flashbacks; to understand how we've gotten where we are now it's important to see where it's all come from. In any case this was the result. Hope you enjoy it.

Oh… my high school yearbook for my junior year is where I got the chapter title.

Chapter 1: The End is the Beginning of...

He wasn't able to brace himself as he flew back-first into the unyielding tree trunk with enough force to leave an indent in the bark. Seconds later he fell into a bloodied and broken heap on the forest floor. He was lucky to be conscious; there certainly wasn't anyway he would have been able to prevent any further damage now. More did hurt than didn't, and every time his body took new abuse the pain formed another layer of agony that kept his temples throbbing. At least here, on the ground, he could let his aching muscles ease for a fleeting moment.

He had tried to be smug about it in the beginning; when he hadn't been able to dodge a kick to his jaw and felt a tooth roll around in his mouth he had spit it out and defiantly announced he had 31 more where that came from, a line he had stolen from Naruto some time ago, he didn't really remember exactly when. He couldn't be so cocky now though. He wasn't a masochist. Now he was being toyed with, a rodent being kept alive simply for the predator's enjoyment.

He had put up a decent fight, he tried to tell himself, even though he had never been satisfied with anything short of victory. The fact that this ordeal had lasted over two and a half hours and he was still breathing, albeit raggedly, was testament to how much he had grown as a ninja, but failure here had dire consequences so he wouldn't allow his tattered body to stop until his opponent was dead.

I can't fail here…I've worked too hard for this moment…I won't falter. I can't.

"I'm modestly disappointed with you…Little Brother."

At those words Sasuke forced himself up onto his knees, despite the shooting pain running up his arm from putting pressure on his sprained wrist. "Your arrogance knows no bounds, Itachi." Sasuke's chest heaved and he coughed violently, more of his blood painting the ground before him. "I don't have much time left, but I'll be damned if I leave this world without taking you with me."

"Perhaps that blow to the head made you forget your place, Sasuke. But if you ask nicely I can break your other arm to remind you."

"I'll see you dead first."

"That's my line. Besides, I don't want your boyfriend to be late for his big debut." Sasuke's eyes instantly moved a short distance away, to where Naruto lay unconscious on the ground. It had happened too fast, he knew he was being tailed, but he wasn't sure by whom, and before he even realized it was Naruto who had followed him out of the village Itachi had found him, used the Mangekyou Sharingan and rendered Naruto in the state he was in now.

Of course luring Sasuke out here had been a trap to catch Naruto from the beginning. Itachi's appearance, and the way in which he taunted Konoha village intelligence for months had all fed into his plot. He relied on the fact that Sasuke would understand his movements the way no one else would. He guessed what action his younger brother would take, setting up this ruse knowing Sasuke would see it for what it was and come anyway.

It had never been Sasuke's intention to put Naruto in any danger. That was why he had done what was necessary to keep Naruto from coming with him. But he had underestimated Naruto's sheer stupidity. And the only reason Naruto wasn't in Akatsuki hands right now was because Itachi's plan's success relied on him coming to Fire Country alone, knowing Sasuke would seek him out and Naruto would probably go chasing after him. For his part, Itachi's plan had worked perfectly and both pawns had played their parts well. And obviously Itachi didn't anticipate Sasuke to put up a real fight before he kidnapped a helpless Naruto and took him to places unknown.

Every time Sasuke's head felt heavy and his concussion threatened to claim him he glanced at Naruto and found a little more chakra, a bit more strength. But if this didn't end soon he'd be dead and no one in Konoha would ever see Naruto alive again. Notwithstanding, this was obviously his last chance to avenge the death of his clan. He'd be dead within the hour, the way things were going, and he hadn't lived surrounded by darkness, gone through everything that conflicted his whole being only to fail here. All his sacrifices were not going to be in vain. He wouldn't allow it… He couldn't.

"It's a pity though," Itachi continued, he almost sounded wistful, even as he spoke in his regular deadpan tone. "If taking the others was as easy as bringing back the Kyuubi we would have captured them all by now."

"They're gonna find two dead bodies here, Itachi, I don't know what makes you think you're getting out of Fire Country alive."

I'm at my limit. I was at my limit an hour ago. I wanted to save some chakra to put up some sort of genjutsu to keep Naruto concealed until someone found him out here. Now it's going to take everything I have to stay alive long enough to kill Itachi. Damn it…I can form seals with a sprained wrist, if I can mange to find enough chakra to power a jutsu. I don't know how much longer I can keep the Sharingan powered either….my eyes hurt from using it this long without a break…and I can feel there's something wrong with it.

"I suppose the least I could do is be honest with you, Little Brother." Itachi's voice had gotten closer; he had taken a step towards him. Sasuke was afraid to stand, he was dizzy from blood loss and if he fell down again he wouldn't be getting back up. "I told you all those years ago I kept you alive because you had the potential to verify my container. But there's something you don't quite get."

"I don't want to hear anymore nonsense from you. I don't want to listen to your patronizing bullshit big brother speeches. You stopped being my brother the day you killed everyone."

"I never believed you'd defeat me, Sasuke. Keeping you alive all those years ago wasn't because I expected you to avenge anyone." Sasuke bristled and looked squarely at the man his bloodlust cried out for all these years. "You hated me, you let that hate control your pathetic existence. Your hate for me became infused into everything you did, even getting tangled up with your feelings for the Kyuubi vessel over there. And despite all of that you'll never be able to kill me. You weren't worthy enough to kill then, Sasuke. You're not now, but it's about time I put you out of your misery."

"Fuck you! I'm not going to be another measuring stick!"

Sasuke felt his body trembling as he tried desperately to get up on his feet. He attempted to look, to see where Itachi was but whatever was wrong with the Sharingan was getting worse. He knew if he deactivated it it wouldn't start again, so he shut his eyes, squeezing the lids tight, trying to give them a little rest. He could feel Itachi closing in on him, even with his eyes closed. His brother was advancing slowly, taking each step with calculated ease, fucking with him, the way he always did.

Get up… damn it all… get up. It hurts… it hurts… it all hurts too much. Naruto… damn it…Dobe-kun. Open you're fucking eyes…and get up.

"I'll grant you a quick death, Sasuke." Sasuke opened his eyes abruptly, Itachi was a lot closer than he had been a moment ago, and he had to see just how close he was for himself. "There's no need to draw this out any longer. I want to get back to River Country with the Kyuubi by tonight."

"Naruto," Sasuke forced out, wiping blood from his mouth. He managed to get up on a set of shaky legs.

Itachi paused in mid-step. "Hn?"

"His name is "Naruto"." Sasuke braced his hand against the tree to keep himself steady. "He's Uzumaki Naruto. He's not your precious kyuubi, and he's not going anywhere with you."

Itachi narrowed his eyes slightly. "You've already failed him, Sasuke."

"I'll never let you take him. You took everything from me once, I won't let you do it again." Sasuke blinked a few times, and suddenly Itachi was coming into very sharp focus, clearer than he had been in quite some time. I understand now.

"My patience has worn thin, Sasuke, you…" Itachi stopped speaking and his eyes narrowed even further. "You…your Sharingan it…impossible…"

Sasuke let go of the tree and took a step forward. He wasn't completely balanced but he wanted to look Itachi directly in his eyes before he killed him, and he had to get closer to him to do so. "It's over, Itachi."

- - - - - - - - - - - - -

Three Weeks Ago

- - - - - - - - - - - - -

"The ANBU squad wasn't able to positively identify him, but if they're right Uchiha Itachi was spotted about three hours from the village." Tsunade allowed the jounin sitting in the meeting to absorb this information, talking amongst themselves in obvious shock. Sasuke didn't move. He wasn't sitting next to Naruto, the only jounin in the room he expected to say anything to him so he sat straight ahead, his eyes meeting the Fifth Hokage's.

She cleared her throat, wanting order again.

"Was he alone?" Asuma asked when it got quiet enough.

"Yes, alone. Just like he was apparently alone the last time he was allegedly seen in the country." Tsunade paused for a moment and took a deep breath. "A ninja fitting his description was spotted in a town about two hours from the border. The ANBU officers tried to pursue him but they lost him."

"What about the hunter-nin that were sent last month?" That question came from Raido.

"There are no signs of them. Even if they turned up nothing they should have reported back by now, intelligence sources believe all five of them are dead." There was more talk but Tsunade got everyone settled quickly. "There isn't anyone in this room that isn't aware that Uchiha Itachi is an S-class criminal who's been wanted for several years. This is obviously the fourth report in three months that Konoha ninja have seen Itachi roaming around Fire Country without any other member of the criminal organization Akatsuki." Tsunade stood up then. "Ibiki, if you would."

The special jounin pulled a map down from the ceiling in the front of the room. "These X's show where Uchiha Itachi was reportedly spotted." Ibiki pointed to each X in turn. Next to the X's were dates of when Itachi had been spotted. "There isn't any indication that he's heading towards the village, but his aim is obviously unknown, so at the moment why he was seen in these various locations is a mystery."

"The latest place, isn't that a resort town?" Gai asked. He stood up and checked to see if he was right by getting close to the map. "I've taken many of my students there; bathing in the hot springs with companions and rivals is definitely a fun and stylish activity one should partake in during the Springtime of Youth."

"I somehow doubt Uchiha Itachi went there for the bathhouses, Gai-sensei," Shzune decided shaking her head. TonTon nodded in agreement in her arms.

But at least Gai had managed to lighten the mood a bit, though Sasuke was sure it hadn't been intentional. The last thing he needed was for the other jounin of Konoha to spend too much time thinking about this. It would make it more difficult to handle this alone when the time was right.

As it was with the report that the hunter-nin Tsunade dispatched were feared dead it made it less likely that she would be sending any other teams to apprehend him, not until Itachi's motives were more clear, or at the very least he tried something stupid. So far he hadn't attacked anyone from Konoha, with the exception of the hunter-nin team, and Sasuke was confident that would remain the case.

"Gai does bring up a good point, even if he did so in a roundabout fashion," Kurenai decided. "Why would Itachi be in a resort town, it doesn't make much sense, there would hardly be anything there that would interest Akatsuki."

"How do we know he wasn't exiled from Akatsuki?" Ebisu asked, raising his hand.

"We have to assume that his presence in this country and the fact that he continues to allow himself to be seen is all part of some kind of master plan," Kakashi pointed out. "It's doubtful he would enter this village alone, but there's no telling if this is a distraction to mask other members of the organization's whereabouts and movements."

"Which means Naruto could be in danger." Sasuke narrowed his eyes as he glanced over at Hyuuga Neji. It didn't surprise him that he would be the one to bring up Naruto's safety.

"I'm not scared of Itachi or anyone else," Naruto insisted standing up.

"Sit down, Naruto," Tsunade demanded in a no nonsense voice, and if Sasuke wasn't mistaken her eyebrow was twitching ever so slightly.

"I know what you're going to say, that I shouldn't go on any missions until we know what's going on but I'm not about to sit around this village like a scared little kid or something. If it's a fight they want I'll give it to them."

"That's enough, Naruto. I didn't say anything about not letting you go on any missions. But if you continue to interrupt this meeting we're going to have a repeat of last Tuesday." Tsunade narrowed her eyes and Naruto sat down, arms across his chest, pouting. He looked all of twelve like that.

Sasuke tuned out the rest of the briefing, activating the Sharingan and taking a mental picture of the map Ibiki and the Hokage were standing next to. The Sharingan's copy abilities were seemingly endless, and Sasuke could use it to power a photographic memory. As for the four X's in front of him even though Itachi wasn't getting any closer to the village it did look like he was circling it, or wanting to appear like he was circling it. In any case, the reports of Itachi floating around Fire Country would continue until he got what he wanted, and what he obviously wanted was Naruto.

What Sasuke wanted was Itachi. And once he figured out Itachi's movements he was leaving the village and exterminating him.


"Sasuke, hey, I was talking to you." Sasuke turned. The briefing was over and Naruto was next to him, arms still crossed. What do you want, Dobe-kun? "Tsunade-baba wants to see me in her office, I guess I'm going to get yelled at." The blond shivered. "I just hope she doesn't do what she did last Tuesday when I taught some academy students sexy no jutsu." Why does he ramble like this, he knows I hate it. "Are you gonna cook something, or should I bring home take-out for dinner?"

"Do whatever you want, I'm going for a walk." The dark-haired jounin turned and started leaving the room but he was stopped by a hand on his shoulder. "What?"


He turned back and looked at his blue-eyed companion. "Take-out's fine, you can go to Ichiraku's if you want."

"Really? You don't mind, even though we had ramen two nights ago?"

"It's fine."

Naruto was grinning but then his eyebrows furrowed just as suddenly. No matter how old Naruto got, how his features sharpened and matured, his expressions remained the same. "Oi, Sasuke, I saw the way you glared at Neji before, I thought we were past all that with him."

"Does he know that?" Sasuke replied, eyes fixed on the larger teen.

"He's just a friend, Teme."


"Sasuke, there…" Naruto paused as one of their comrades said a goodbye to them. Most of the jounin simply transported out of the room whenever these meetings were over but some preferred to walk to wherever they decided to go afterwards. Naruto waited until the number of people in the briefing room had dwindled some more before he continued in a lower voice. "Sasuke, about this Itachi thing…ano…"

"You should go find Tsunade before she does do what she did on Tuesday. I'm not going to bandage you up this time."

"Sasuke, don't change the subject…you've been acting funny since all this Itachi business started…I'm…I'm worried about you, Teme…I…"

"Just what are you so worried about?" Sasuke interrupted sharply. He knew Naruto would never admit what he was thinking, he was afraid of Sasuke's response. Sasuke had never lied to Naruto, if Naruto asked him something he gave it to him straight, and blunt. So it was better for both of them if Naruto didn't ask the tough questions. And he didn't. Hadn't.

Sasuke had been distant, as much as he could be living under the same roof as the loudmouth allowed him too. They had both been in and out of their apartment on missions so that cut down on the actual time that was left to spend in each other's presence. And Naruto, with Jiriya's bad influence, was something of a horny little bastard where Sasuke was concerned, and when you added up sexual contact, training, sleeping, and eating the actual time that was left to tackle the real issues surrounding their involvement with each other was actually minimal.

But it was better that way. If they really had to deal with all the problems they had Sasuke saw himself moving out and things ending. They were shinobi, they were used to deception and manipulation, and false security, and certainly Naruto knew the score long before things got intimate and intense between them. But that was just his lover's personality, Naruto accepted it, he dealt with it, and for all his effort he was closer to Sasuke than anyone had ever been, or would ever be again. Naruto knew the answer to his silent questions without needing to ask them. And this was why they were where they were now.

"I guess I should get going to Tsunade's office." Sasuke didn't respond. "When will you be home?"

"An hour or so." Naruto nodded, then looked at his toes. Damn, blond idiot. It's impossible to really push him away. I try, but I fail every time, I still don't understand this hold he has over me after three years of this. It's better if I don't push him away, really. If I alienate him he'll do something stupid. "Dobe-kun." The blond met his eyes.

It was rare for Sasuke to call him that in public, but they were the only two left in the room so he did it. He admitted to himself that "Dobe-kun" was something like a pet name, or as close to a pet name as he'd ever use on Naruto. But Naruto being the idiot he usually was always responded positively to the nickname, and Sasuke also conceded that at the very least there was a hint of affection in the inflection he used when he called him that.


"Here." Sasuke pulled out enough money to cover both of their meals. "There should be enough left over to get some dessert too."

"I'm touched, Teme," Naruto decided, a bit of playful sarcasm in his tone. "I won't even do you the disservice of counting it."

"Shut up." Naruto grinned cheekily.

"Don't expect any change either, Sasuke." Sasuke moved to swat him in the back of the head but the blond ninja thwarted the attack. "Just go on your walk already. I'll see you when you get home."

"Yeah." Sasuke offered Naruto a rare smile, the kind of smile he only ever gave to Naruto, even if it wasn't all that often. Naruto grinned back, that playful childlike grin that took up his whole face. Only Naruto could manage to smile with his whole body like that.

"Oi, Sasuke, don't think because you're buying you're being seme tonight either," Naruto decided as an after thought. Sasuke smirked. "I mean it."

"You say that every time, and then you go begging for it."

"Shut up, Teme! I do not!" Sasuke's smirk broadened as Naruto blushed. They both knew it was true, and teasing Naruto about it had become one of Sasuke's favorite hobbies over the past three years. They did take turns, he doubted Naruto would ever really give in and be uke permanently. However everything with Naruto was always over the top and hyperactive and their sex life was no exception.

Sasuke gave Naruto a little push. "Go already."

"Don't tell me what to do."

Naruto looked at Sasuke for a moment longer, and even though he was trying to look angry and firm he was still blushing a little and smiling in spite of himself. Sasuke never allowed any public displays of affection between them, and actually Naruto was affectionate enough for the both of them, always initiating any petting, or snuggling or any other unnecessary thing Sasuke had to put up with. But when they were alone in a public place like this and Sasuke was in a decent mood, like he was now, despite all that Itachi stuff, grinning and teasing Naruto like this was close enough to being a normal couple.

Naruto left, doing the transport jutsu without bothering to cover the movement, a lazy move that both Kakashi and Sasuke often scolded him about. With the blond gone Sasuke headed out of the room the traditional way, through the door. He had always enjoyed taking walks, one of the only things he liked doing that didn't involve actively trying to get stronger or faster.

This walk he knew would be focused on Itachi entirely and where he was likely to end up next. Once he figured that part out he'd have to devise a plan that would guarantee Naruto wouldn't be able to follow him. Naruto would try to help, Sasuke knew, but Itachi's fight was with him, and him alone. Plus there was the added inherent risk of Naruto falling into enemy hands. There was also always the possibility that Sasuke wouldn't be returning from this self-selected mission and it didn't serve his purposes to see anyone else end up a fatality for their trouble. Besides, Sasuke wouldn't hesitate the way Naruto would to leave the village without permission.

Sasuke had played the part of renegade before, and he'd gladly do it again to see Uchiha Itachi dead.

- - - - - - - - - - -


- - - - - - - - - - -

Naruto was slowly regretting suppressing the kyuubi's chakra. As his mind was coming back to clarity he could see the orange aura that meant once again the demon within him had acted on its own accord. Instinctively the blond jounin began containing the chakra the moment he was coherent enough to realize it was active, but of course the sting from his injuries quickly intensified from a dull ache to real pain as he did so.

His right foot was winning at the moment; he could feel the steady throb and knew it had to be pretty bad if even the kyuubi hadn't been able to do much yet. He idly wondered if he had broken it, which would explain the kyuubi's lack of action, after all healing cuts and fading bruises was nothing compared to mending broken bones. He still had to have them set like everyone else so it could heal properly, though of course he didn't need to stay in a cast or a sling for anywhere near the same time as other people did.

Foot aside, a quick check of injuries didn't turn up anything serious. The cut over his eyebrow had finally closed. He did hate how that area of the body bled so much. He didn't feel any lasting dizziness either, and it seemed any other side effects of suffering the infamous Mangekyou Sharingan had worn off, even if it did leave the acrid taste of bile in his mouth from when he had thrown up.

He was quite upset he had been overtaken by Itachi that easily. He'd been following Sasuke, but he didn't notice Itachi had found him first until it was too late to do anything about it. He had been privy to a genjutsu image of Sasuke being tortured, and by the time he figured out what was really going on he was already on day two of the mind fucking. He had tried to reach the Kyuubi, tried to pull himself out of it. He wasn't sure what happened next, if Sasuke had gotten to Itachi or if the Kyuubi had begun breaking him out of the mental torture.

Maybe it had been a combination of both.

He had vomited violently, but by then his mind was in no state to fight. He fell from the branches and landed several meters to the ground, presumably how he broke his foot. He remembered he could hear clashing above him and was thankful he was losing consciousness. He could feel the kyuubi being forced back as well, he wasn't sure if it was his doing (training from Jiraiya to keep the demon contained) or if it simply couldn't handle what had just happened.

Still, the kyuubi was quite remarkable if it had allowed him to regain consciousness on his own. He recalled vividly that no one in Konoha had been able to wake Kakashi or Sasuke from their coma-like states until Jiraiya and him had returned to the village with Tsunade, the intended Fifth Hokage. From his own internal clock he couldn't imagine he had been out cold for more than a few hours at most. From the way the shadows were falling between the trees it had to be late afternoon by now, and he knew he was still pursuing Sasuke some time after one.

Naruto sat up then. It was much too quiet, and he knew that something had to have happened if he was lying here alone like this. He closed his eyes and tried to sense any surrounding chakra. But there was none. That could mean one of two things. Either there wasn't anyone out here at the moment or anyone who was out here wasn't admitting any chakra signals; which could mean that person wasn't a ninja or if it was a ninja the shinobi was probably in a pretty bad state.

Or dead.

All right, don't start that now. You heard fighting. It had to be Sasuke and Itachi. You just have to figure out what happened. Itachi wouldn't have left without bringing me along. Unless he was badly injured. I don't see Sasuke leaving me out here either. We're too far from the village to go for help and come back. It could be Sasuke went after Itachi and left me here. But would he have done that?

Naruto didn't want an answer to that question. He had tried to pretend he didn't know what was going on. But from the first report that Itachi had been spotted in Fire Country Naruto knew Sasuke planned on tracking him down. Didn't Sasuke's actions from last night prove just how much killing Itachi really meant to him?

But he did that because he didn't want Akatsuki to get to me. Naruto frowned. But if that was the case why leave me here unconscious just to chase after Itachi? Sasuke was close to falling into darkness again. Naruto had seen those avenger eyes a few days ago. The same eyes he sported before their battle in the Valley of the End. Did Sasuke's vengeance really go that far that he would leave him here?

No. He wouldn't. Not willingly. Now get up. I have to find him. If Itachi…if he…

Naruto shook his head. He wouldn't go there. He stood carefully, reminding himself not to put any pressure on his right foot, then he started looking around a little. The shadows concealed a lot, but he could see battle damage on surrounding trees. Itachi was a close range fighter, so it figured most of the battle would take place down here. It seemed easier than trying to get close to someone who was jumping around in tree branches.

It only took a few minutes before he found Itachi. Or what was left of him. Naruto forced himself to approach slowly, in case this was a genjutsu trap. He did a quick "dispel" but nothing changed so he edged closer. The jounin couldn't help it though, he had to put his arm over his mouth to stop any more bile from leaving as he took in the sight before him.

Sasuke's chidori had done a number on the older Uchiha brother, cutting a hole through his shoulder, and leaving other severe lacerations. The unnatural angle at which his head was positioned in contrast with his body made it clear the ninja was dead. Naruto hardly thought he could get any closer. He had thoughts of being an ANBU someday, a necessary step in fulfilling his dream to be Hokage. He had killed before, he knew that he would need to get comfortable with killing if he ever wanted to get stronger. But it still didn't make this any easier.

He rolled his shoulder's back and knelt down, and felt the body hesitantly. It was still warm so he hadn't died all that long ago. Which meant wherever Sasuke was, he couldn't have gotten far. It also meant that most likely Sasuke, wherever he was, was alone. He hadn't been found by Akatsuki, Naruto reasoned, because certainly if any other members of the organization had arrived they would have found him too.

The same went for any other shinobi from Konoha who might have been sent after them. By now Sasuke and his disappearance would have been discovered, and Naruto was sure Tsunade would have sent out some kind of search for them. It could be a while before any rescue team did reach here though. It had taken several hours for Sasuke and him to find Itachi, despite Sasuke seeming confident he knew where Itachi would turn up next.

I need to find Sasuke…I still don't sense his chakra…that can't be good.

He decided using clones wasn't the best way to look. He didn't know what dangers lay between here and the village and he couldn't afford to use any chakra he didn't need to. As it was, he wasn't even sure he knew how to get back to the village because he didn't know where he had been going in the first place. Tailing someone was a lot different than going to a set destination, and Naruto had never been too good at finding his way around anyway.

Sasuke's not by Itachi. If Sasuke managed to kill him and had lost consciousness or died instantly his body would be right near his. And it's not. There's a lot of blood, an awful lot of it. If Sasuke was still able to move where would he have gone? Unless it was Itachi that moved away from him. In which case…no… it wouldn't matter who moved from who…if I follow the blood I should find where Sasuke ended up…be okay Sasuke…damn it.

Naruto couldn't move very fast. He knew he could channel the kyuubi's chakra to his foot to dull the pain, but he decided he'd save that for when he had to start running. There was also the fact that he was afraid to move much faster…afraid of what he was going to find if he did.

The trail continued…he was backtracking. He was heading back to where he had been lying unconscious. Could that mean… Sasuke was trying to get back to me… back to where I was. Naruto forgot all about his foot and broke out in a desperate sprint. I can feel it…it's faint…but it's chakra…it has to be Sasuke. Itachi didn't have any because he was already dead…does that mean Sasuke's…


Naruto dropped to his knees at his lover's lifeless, pale body. "Sasuke, can you hear me… Sasuke!" There wasn't any response. The dark-haired teen was on his stomach, his head down in the ground. He must have fallen like this, ran out of strength.

But how could he have gotten this far with that leg the way it was? Had…had Sasuke crawled towards him? "Sasuke." Naruto's fragile whisper got lost among the trees.

The blond didn't like the swelling on Sasuke's left wrist. And though the right wrist looked all right his arm and shoulder certainly didn't. He didn't want to move Sasuke, potentially making any damage worse. But he had to check for a pulse so he carefully turned Sasuke's head enough that he could check his neck's pulse point.

Shit…I'm no good at finding a pulse on the neck… SHIT….where is it… Naruto moved his two fingers everywhere, frantic. He has to have a pulse… i just can't find it. He's not dead… he's not. Damn it he's not…

Naruto grabbed his hair forcefully and yanked it to calm himself. When he got too emotional the kyuubi was more likely to take over. The first time that had happened he had also thought Sasuke had been killed.

He's not dead!

Naruto ran a trembling hand out of his hair and past his forehead protector then paused. That's it…that trick Neji showed me… he carefully untied the fabric and lifted up his shirt. He wiped the metal plate free of debris with the underside of his shirt. It was still fairly clean in comparison to his jacket. Satisfied it was the best he was going to get under the circumstances he positioned the metal piece in front of Sasuke's nose and mouth and held his breath.

A heartbeat later he watched as part of the metal fogged over with Sasuke's breath.

He's alive. Naruto swallowed at the unexpected tightness in his chest. He won't be alive much longer if you don't take care of him right now.

Carefully Naruto settled himself. He thanked fate that the current Hokage was medically trained. Tsunade had been adamant about jounin level shinobi in Konoha all learning basic medic justsu. It was impossible to send a medic-trained nin on every high ranking mission but her plan had cut down on the fatality rate over the last several years because jounin were better equipped to treat injured comrades.

Sakura and Shizune had spearheaded the teaching and it had taken Naruto a whole month before he learned the bare basics but he had. And even after all that he was no where near the level a real medic-nin was, but he was grateful he knew enough to get Sasuke in some kind of order before they got going.

In reality Naruto didn't have much choice. As much as he hated moving Sasuke in this state he knew their only chance was to get moving. He needed to figure out where they were, something he assumed he could do once he got back up into the tree trunks and watched where the sun was setting. From there at least he'd know which direction to be heading in, and could only hope once he got far enough he'd start recognizing something. Towns, or scenery. Something.

Once it got dark the game changed, so he'd have to move as quick as possible, and hope he ran into someone from Konoha who was searching for the two of them. This seemed like the best option because he didn't know if anyone from Akatsuki was in the area; who was to say that Itachi wasn't supposed to meet someone at some rendezvous point. If Naruto called the Frog Boss to take Sasuke and him back it would be giving away their location, and Naruto knew that performing these medic jutsu on Sasuke was going to drain a lot of his chakra and he wouldn't be in any state to fight. Even now he wasn't sure of the lasting effects of the Mangekyou Sharingan and he didn't want to take the chance.

Naruto concentrated, and tried to keep from trembling. This was the first time he had to perform any sort of medical jutsu in a real situation. He couldn't do anything like Sakura and the other medic-nin were capable of, and conversely he knew he wasted a lot of chakra because he didn't perform the techniques as effectively as the pros did. But he had to apply that strange green chakra to large wounds that needed to be close.

Naruto couldn't see himself leaving Sasuke's side, not even for a moment, so he used Kage Bunshin and sent one clone to retrieve his backpack and the other to deal with Itachi while he performed the jutsu the best he could. Even so, the wound on Sasuke's leg didn't close as much as Naruto would have liked so he ended up creating a makeshift tourniquet to be on the safe side.

As for the clone he sent back to Itachi, Naruto knew that as a Konoha ninja he was obligated to bring back Itachi's head. He could only imagine what would happen if the body fell into the wrong hands, especially since Itachi held the secret to Sharingan. He made a mental note that he never, ever wanted to be a hunter-nin, when his clone asked him how he was supposed to remove the head. Rasengan seemed like the best idea, Naruto only hoped the clone didn't get carried away.

The other clone returned quickly enough with the bag and Naruto pulled out the medicine kit Sakura had given him a while ago. The clone found one of the water containers and together they cleaned Sasuke's wounds and stitched up and bandaged anything that didn't stop bleeding with pressure. He sent the clone up in the treetops to see which way the sun was going to set once that was taken care of and Naruto was left to deal with the more serious injuries down below.

From what the blond could see, Sasuke had a few cracked ribs, nothing that Naruto would be able to do anything about. And of course they concerned him because he wondered if Sasuke could have punctured his lung crawling the way he had. The blond jounin wrapped the swollen wrist and put some salve on it, but it would need medical attention he didn't know how to provide. Sasuke's leg felt like there might have been a fracture, or some sort of breakage, on top of the large gash, which would fit with the theory that Sasuke had been crawling towards him.

He managed with a little force to pop Sasuke's right shoulder back in place but his right arm was obviously not in good shape so Naruto settled on securing the arm to Sasuke's upper body with bandages and strips of clothing to keep it immobile while they were dashing through the trees. He couldn't think of any way to keep Sasuke from jostling that was practical, but he finally settled on having the clones attach Sasuke to his back using the back pack straps so his movement would be minimal.

He decided at the last minute to keep the clones, to serve as his lookouts and go ahead of Sasuke and him. One clone held Itachi's head, wrapped up in Itachi's cape, which Naruto was thankful he didn't have to see or touch. The other clone held what was left of the backpack, without the straps. There wasn't much in it; Naruto hadn't really gotten time to prepare when he discovered Sasuke was planning to leave. In truth, he wouldn't have been able to trail Sasuke at all if not for his carefully hidden clone waking him after Sasuke knocked him unconscious.

But that was another story.

Naruto got moving. He knew he was a couple of hours from the village, and that was underestimating. And even though Sasuke wouldn't bleed to death on the way back Naruto could only imagine what internal injuries Saskue was suffering from.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Two Weeks Ago

- - - - - - - - - - - - - -

"You wanted to see me, Kaka-sensei?" Naruto knew that he didn't have to call Hatake Kakashi "Kaka-sensei" anymore, but old habits really did die hard, and besides, as far as the blond was concerned, Kakashi would always be his sensei. "Sasuke's gonna get mad at me if I don't get to the training grounds in ten minutes."

"This is about Sasuke, Naruto." The silver-haired jounin had a pretty serious face on, which was a rarity because Kakashi didn't get all that serious often. It usually took a lot. What could he possibly want to talk to me about concerning Sasuke?

"What about Sasuke?"

"Is Sasuke planning on hunting down Itachi?" Damn it, I should have guessed that it would be about this.

Naruto put on his biggest and brightest grin. "What are you talking about Kaka-sensei?" He rubbed the back of his head, really getting into the "dumb" act. "Tsunade-baba isn't going to send anyone else out to look for Itachi after what happened with those hunter…"

"Naruto." Kakashi's one visible eye narrowed in on him in a very unpleasant manner. He's not going to buy the bullshitting is he… damn, Kaka-sensei.

"Sasuke hasn't said anything about Itachi. He sits in those briefings and afterwards he goes back to whatever he was doing before. He didn't tell me he planned on going after him."

"Would he tell you, Naruto?" Naruto nearly flinched. He supposed this was why people said the man was a genius. "I only ask out of concern."

Naruto nodded, then grinned again. "I know, Kaka-sensei. But don't worry. Everything's gonna be just fine."

"Well, alright then. Just making sure." Kakashi's eye glinted then it curved into his grin. Just great, he's really worried now. If he goes to Sasuke about this it's going to be a lot of drama…I just hope he doesn't plan on saying something to Tsuande… then me and Sasuke are gonna end up in hock. Kakashi turned and started walking back towards the memorial. "Oh, Naruto, one other thing."


Kakashi didn't bother to turn back to look at him, his attention already on the names of his friends engraved in the cenotaph. "Don't go chasing after Sasuke this time. Iruka would never forgive me if anything happened to you, Naruto."

This time Naruto did flinch.

I'm sorry, Kaka-sensei…I don't want Iruka to be upset with you over this, I know how much you mean to one another…but I can't let Sasuke go alone…I won't. I know you and Iruka would do the same thing for each other…I just hope Sasuke understands.

- - - - - - - - - - - -


- - - - - - - - - - - - -

"HEY…HEY… OVER HERE!" Naruto stopped on the tree branch, careful to spread his legs wide enough to compensate for Sasuke's weight on his back. The clone holding the backpack was screaming at someone and Naruto could hear dogs barking in the close distance.

Kaka-sensei…it's you isn't it…somehow I knew you'd come…

And not a moment too soon either. He had been traveling east for a good hour now, and the weight of Sasuke coupled with the broken foot had made the journey almost unbearable. But every time he thought to stop and rest or give the responsibility of carrying his lover to one of the clones he glanced at Sasuke out of the corner of his eye and grit his teeth and put up with it. He didn't want one of the clones to hold Sasuke, what happened if they popped, sending Sasuke plummeting to Earth. And he didn't have time to rest; he'd rest when he knew Sasuke was all right and not a moment before.

He was just lucky that he remembered Iruka's geography lessons and had figured out which way to go. River Country, which was where the headquarters for Akatsuki was, bordered Fire Country on the west. It had been unfortunate he had to move away from the fading sun, but it made sense to him that Sasuke had thought to track Itachi on the western side of the country, because it was clear that Itachi's motivation was to kill Sasuke and take the blond with him.

"Naruto!" That was Neji's voice. He was going to be okay, thank goodness. Though it was probably a good thing Sasuke was unconscious right now. If he was awake to see Neji coming to find them all Hell would have broken lose.

"Over here." The clones were leading the group towards him. Medic-nin, which Naruto was never happier to see, Kakashi, Shizune and Neji. Not a large group, but certainly a talented one.

"Where's Sasuke?" Kakashi asked as he advanced. Naruto turned enough so Kakashi could see the dark-haired jounin strapped on his back. If I didn't know Kakashi any better I'd say he just made a face like he was relieved. "Pakkun, you two go track down the other team, we'll meet you back in the village."

"Alright," the brown-furred dog answered, nodding. "It's a good thing you're both okay, Naruto. Iruka would have killed Kakashi if you weren't. Then Kakashi would have taken it out on me."

"I'll bet." Naruto grinned.

"Alright, come on, let's get going." Pakkun was looking at the other dog and the two of them took off.

Neji was the first one to land on the branch with Naruto. "Are you okay?" His face was gravely serious and he had a strange look in his eyes.

"Yeah, I'm fine. But Sasuke's not. Shizune and the others should probably take a look at him. I didn't really know what I was doing." Neji continued looking at him with that odd intensity only he was capable of. "Help me, would you, I can't really get him down by myself."

"Of course." Naruto turned carefully on the narrow branch, wincing at the pressure he had to put on his right foot. But it was either that or fall.

"Where did Pakkun and that other mutt go off to, you were saying something about another team?" Naruto was looking back at Kakashi, who had landed on a branch close by. He didn't really want to ask Neji anything because it always bothered him a bit when Neji got this intense with him. And Shizune was busy pulling out some medic equipment and was conversing with the four medic-nin.

"Tsunade sent two teams. I took two dogs and the other team took the reminder. She sent Sakura, Shikamaru and Genma with the dogs tracking Sasuke's scent and we were tracking yours. It didn't make much sense not to look for you separately because there was no telling if you were together or not," Kakashi explained.

"That's pretty smart. Though I'm surprised the other team didn't find us first. I would think the scent of Sasuke's blood should have been easier to track."

"The other team didn't leave as soon as we did," Neji responded. He had Sasuke in his arms and was carefully holding him. "Tsunade originally wanted to send hunter-nin to look for Sasuke."

"Hunter-nin." Naruto frowned, and turned around, stepping with his right foot and hissing as he remembered it was broken. "Why the hell would she send those guys?"

Neji handed Sasuke up to Shizune and one of the medic-nin who were on a higher branch in an adjacent tree. They had set up a stretcher and carefully placed Sasuke on it.

"Sasuke isn't exactly a stranger to defecting from Konoha, Naruto," Neji answered.

"He wasn't defecting!" Naruto's eyes narrowed immediately. "He just did what no one else in the village had the balls to!" At his words the clone holding Itachi's head tossed the bundle at Neji. He caught it instantly.

Neji was a bit startled as he handled the object. "This isn't…"

"It's Itachi. Sasuke did it. He killed him."

"He also put you in danger, Naruto," Neji pointed out.

"I decided to go, against Sasuke's wishes. And he protected me. Even after he killed Itachi he tried to protect me. He started to crawl with that broken foot and that dislocated shoulder back to where I was lying unconscious." Naruto stepped towards Neji but made sure not to put pressure on his foot. "If Tsunade-baba had sent hunter-nin to find Sasuke I'd never forgive her."

"I suppose it's a good thing Kakashi-san talked her out of it then," Neji replied simply.

Naruto turned back to look at his former teacher. "You did?"

"I simply pointed out that Sasuke could really be anywhere and if she really wanted to find him using some of my tracking dogs would be the best bet. Unfortunately they don't like hunter-nin all that much." Naruto smiled. Kaka-sensei… "Sakura volunteered to go, she decided that at least one person on the second team would need to be medically trained just in case. So Tsunade told her to find Shikamaru and Genma and take them with her."

"I'm sure Sakura-chan would have gone even if she didn't have permission," Naruto decided, smiling.

"Probably. I suppose it's my fault that the former members of Team Seven have always had problems following the rules." Kakashi lowered his eye. "More importantly, Naruto. What's wrong with your foot?"

At that Neji also looked down. "I can heal it if it's…"

"Don't bother Neji, it's broken. And I'm pretty sure I fucked it up worse jumping on branches for the last hour."

"I guess I'll be carrying you back then," Kakashi stated simply. "Neji, you hold this too." Kakashi tossed the backpack at him. The clone had already vanished and handed the pack to Kakashi.

"I'm fine, Kaka-sensei. I don't need you to carry me back."

"I don't need Iruka and Sakura yelling at me about letting you jump on a busted foot either, Naruto." Kakashi waved a water container at him. "Here, you must be pretty thirsty, the clone told me you guys didn't stop moving."

Naruto lifted his hands and caught it. "Yeah, I am thirsty." He took a long swig. Then wiped his mouth with his sleeve. "And no, we didn't stop."

"You must be exhausted then, Naruto," Neji put in, concern on his features.

"Nah, I'm fine. Besides, I can't think about resting until I know Sasuke's gonna be okay." I know Neji just worries about me… but I guess sometimes I can't blame Sasuke for getting annoyed…especially after everything that's happened…

"We need to get going quickly," Shizune announced standing back up. "We did all we could for him here, but he needs to get into surgery as soon as possible."

"But he'll be okay though, right?" Naruto couldn't help the desperation in his voice. "I are we still that far from the village?"

Shizune turned back as they all watched the four medic-nin stand up with the stretcher. "Tsunade-sama will be proud of the job you did on him, Naruto. You cauterized his wounds and kept his right arm from moving, and this stitching job is pretty good for a rookie."

"Shizune-neechan?" Why won't she answer me… Sasuke is gonna be okay? Isn't he?

"There's a lot of internal damage, Naruto…to be honest I'm really surprised he's still alive."

If Neji hadn't been there Naruto was sure he would have forgotten the basics in channeling his chakra and fallen right out of the tree. He squeezed Neji's shoulder tightly and bit his lip as hard as he could to keep from saying or doing something he'd regret.

"He's a fighter, Naruto. He's always been. Let's get back to the village so Shizune and Tsunade can do what they do best, ne?" Naruto looked at Kakashi. Yes…that's right…if anyone can save him it's them. Besides, if Sasuke were moments from death she'd tell me…she wouldn't want us to rush back to the village if she thought he'd die on the way.

Kakashi and Neji switched spots and Kakashi slipped Naruto up on his back. A few moments later they started moving again. Neji took the lead, with the four-medic nin and Shizune in the middle, Shizune trying to make sure they didn't jostle the stretcher too much as they jumped through the branches. Kakashi, carrying Naruto on his back took up the rear.

"You can sleep if you want, Naruto." Kakashi's voice was low and soothing. Comforting in a way only he could be. "It'll be at least forty-five minutes until we're at the hospital."

"No. Besides I'm not…" Naruto yawned. What the hell… I wasn't tired before… I still shouldn't be tired. I know I didn't get much sleep last night…and it took all morning for Sasuke and I to find Itachi. But I've been through worse…how could I be tired when Sasuke's lying in the stretcher in front of me fighting for his life right now? If anything the adrenaline should be keeping me going…

"That water I gave you was drugged, Naruto," Kakashi explained.


"I knew you wouldn't rest, and be up until you knew Sasuke was going to be alright, so knocking you unconscious with a mild sedative seemed like a good idea to me."

"Kaka-sensei. . ."

"If I don't take care of you from time to time Iruka will get angry, and you wouldn't like Iruka very much when he's angry."

"Yeah, I know… I was his worst student…remember?" Naruto yawned again, bigger this time. "This is sort of like déjà vu

, huh, Kaka-sensei."

Kakashi moved his head a bit. "I guess it is, Naruto." But Sasuke's with us this time…thank goodness. "Hasn't that drug kicked in yet, Naruto?"

"Almost now." Naruto yawned a third time to prove his point. "You say that like you don't want to talk to me." Kakashi made a little noise in the back of his throat. "Kaka-sensei."

"I didn't say anything."

"Hn." Naruto shut his eyes and rested his head more comfortably on Kakashi's back. You say you do it for Iruka…but I wonder if you're just saying that…Kaka-sensei.

- - - - - - - - - - - - -

Naruto woke up to the sound of Sakura's scolding. "Don't shift like that, Naruto, I didn't put the brace on your foot, I don't want you doing anything else to it." Naruto stilled instantly. "The brace is here, and I expect you to wear it when you start walking around. There's a set of crutches over there too." She pointed across the hospital room. Then his friend shook her head solemnly. "You're just lucky you still have a foot, Naruto. You do something like that again and it'll fall off."

"It will?" Naruto frowned. Sakura rolled her eyes. That's not nice Sakura-chan. Besides I really did fuck it up today, I wouldn't be surprised if the thing didn't just up and fall off.

"Don't be so gullible all the time, Naruto. We're jounin now. It's embarrassing."

Naruto made a face. "Sasuke… where's Sasuke… how is he...is he okay…"

"He got out of surgery about an hour ago. I came in here when he did to make sure Kaka-sensei didn't over do it with the drugs. Though the nurses did want to thank him that you were out of it when they had to do something about your foot. Which, I might add is gonna need surgery. Were you really jumping through the branches with Sasuke on your back with your foot in that shape, Naruto?"

"Forget about the damn foot… Sasuke. How is he?" Sakura met his eyes and her mood changed. She wasn't in that teasing-reprimanding mood she usually was in with him now. She was obviously upset. "Whatever it is… tell me."

"He's not doing too good, Naruto. Tsunade-sama doesn't think getting to him any sooner would have made much of a difference because Itachi didn't hold back on him, at all."

"But he's alive, and he'll get better, right?"

"Tsunade-sama and Shizune are in one of the meeting rooms looking at some medical books and x-rays right now. The surgery was just to take care of the immediate damage, Naruto. But it's not like all the other times Sasuke's been in this hospital."


Sakura offered a small smile. "This is Sasuke we're talking about, Naruto. He's stubborn. I know Tsunade-sama and Shizune will come up with something. Remember with Lee. The medic-nin said he wouldn't be able to live as a ninja again, and look at him now. Tsunade-sama is really a genius, Naruto. She'll come up with something."

"Yeah." Naruto nodded. Then he looked at Sakura sternly. "You guys didn't amputate anything did you? He's not blind right?"

"No, Naruto." Sakura shook her head. "But how are you, are you okay? There are some pain meds for your foot, and if you're hungry we could go down to the cafeteria. You probably haven't eaten anything all day."

"No… I didn't." Naruto glanced at the clock on the wall. It was already after nine. And he couldn't deny he was really starving at this point. But in his defense he had been unconscious for large periods during this near twenty hours or and it wasn't like food was something he was really thinking about. "I want to see Sasuke though. First."

I have to see him… see how he's doing before I even think of eating anything.

"No one's allowed to visit him right now, but I told the nurses that they'd have to make an exception with you." Sakura stood up and went to grab his crutches. "Put the brace on and I'll take you to his room. I can't guarantee he'll be awake right now. Tsunade-sama was able to get him to regain consciousness, but there's no telling if the drugs have put him back to sleep or not."

"Alright." Naruto fumbled with the brace a little until Sakura helped him and then he carefully eased himself up with the crutches. He just hoped the kyuubi would do something so he wouldn't really need surgery on his foot. It took a few minutes for Naruto to get coordinated but once he did he followed behind Sakura as they headed towards Sasuke's room.

"They knew you'd want to see him, so we ended up putting you in one of the empty rooms in the same wing Sasuke's in."

"Good call." They rounded a corner and Naruto spotted ANBU officers in front of one of the doors. "What the hell is this? Is Sasuke under fucking arrest…doesn't anyone care that he killed one of the most wanted criminals in the country? Fuck in the world…"

"Calm down, Naruto. Tsunade-sama was under a lot of pressure to have them here, there aren't too many people who weren't thinking this was a repeat of seven years ago when you guys ended up missing this morning. The ANBU officers are just going to ask Sasuke a few questions once he's coherent enough to talk and file a report. The Hokage isn't going to bring anyone up on any charges."

"What about the hunter-nin then?" Sakura turned back to look at him. "Neji told me. She still doesn't trust him, not completely. No one does."

"That's not true, Naruto. She was just acting the way a Hokage is supposed to. You want to have her job someday, Naruto. Sometimes you have to make tough calls. She cares about Sasuke. If she didn't she wouldn't be trying so hard to save his life. And if she didn't understand why Sasuke went to Orochimaru she would have sent hunter-nin seven years ago and not Shikamaru and a genin team. But even so, the safety of the village comes first. And let's face it, I'm sure she wondered if Sasuke was still alive going after Itachi like that. That's why she wanted to send hunter-nin. I didn't think Sasuke was ready to face him yet either."

Naruto looked at Sakura for a long moment. He supposed what she said was right. After all, he didn't go chasing after Sasuke in the middle of the night for kicks. He didn't think Sasuke would be all right going after Itachi alone. And obviously Sasuke was clinging to life right now, even though Itachi had been killed.

"I'll give you a few minutes with him, Naruto. Then we're getting you something to eat. And you should really get some rest."

"I'll eat a little something. But I've been out of it enough. I'll be fine."

"Naruto." Naruto grinned at her. "Don't think that face is going to work on me, Uzumaki Naruto." He broadened the grin. "You're impossible."

"That's why you love me, Sakura-chan."

"Only sometimes." She opened the door for him. Naruto hobbled in past her.

Sasuke was hooked up to a few IVs, which Naruto had been expecting. But at least he was breathing on his own, and he looked like he was only sleeping, and not completely unconscious like he had back in the forest. Naruto moved a little closer and rested one of the crutches on the wall, then used his free hand to drag a chair over.

"Oi, Sasuke…you're really heavy." Naruto sat down. "You know that, Teme? You gave me a real workout. I might need surgery on my foot thanks to you."

"Don't blame your clumsiness on me…Dobe-kun."

Naruto's blue eyes widened instantly. Sasuke blinked at him, bleary dark eyes not really focusing on him. He was lying on his back, and he hadn't moved his head, but he shifted nearly imperceptibly. His voice had been weak, and shaky, but if he had enough strength to insult the blond that had to be a good sign.

"You're awake, Sakura-chan said you might be sleeping or something."

"I'm pretty medicated right now…I'm not really awake." Sasuke shifted his eyes again and he was looking back up at the ceiling. "I heard you took Itachi's head."

"I don't know what happened to it. I guess ANBU or some hunter-nin have it. Some squad with masks."

"Didn't want Tsunade to put me in jail again, huh? Were you afraid no one would believe I killed him…Dobe-kun?"

Naruto made a face. "You never miss an opportunity to be an asshole, Sasuke."

"If I couldn't tease you, I'd have to find a new hobby." Sasuke shifted his eyes again, and this time he moved his head a little to the left. "That'd be unfortunate."

"Shut up." But Naruto was grinning even as the words left his mouth. The corners of Sasuke's lips slowly started to curl upward into one of those smiles, those smiles Naruto cherished so much because they didn't happen nearly enough.

Sasuke started coughing, it was subtle…but then it was hard… hard enough to jerk his body and startle the grin off Naruto's face. Then there was red, Naruto didn't realize it was blood until Sakura came rushing back in with a few nurses behind her. And then Naruto was told to leave the room before he could ask what was going on… what was wrong…



An empty stomach won out over his concern for Sasuke coughing up blood. Naruto hadn't been all that surprised that Kakashi and Iruka were in the wing's waiting area when he was ushered out of the hospital room. Sasuke and him didn't have any blood relatives but Kakashi and Iruka were the closest thing to father figures they both had and he was instantly thankful they were here.

Iruka had fussed over his foot, even when Kakashi had tried to explain that he'd be okay. And when Naruto's stomach growled in hungry protest the academy teacher had sent Kakashi to go get Naruto something to eat. Kakashi made a lame joke about the vending machines probably not having any ramen before he left and Iruka rubbed Naruto's shoulders and then hugged him, telling him over and over that he was so glad he was okay.

Naruto felt guilty for worrying Iruka, and he supposed he had worried a lot of other people too. Akatsuki really could have gotten to him first, and Naruto knew well what would have happened if they had. So he let Iruka scold him and worry over him until he wore himself out and Naruto finally settled next to him and waited to eat something, his mind wandering to how awful Sasuke had looked before.

He ate greedily. And he was astonished he didn't collapse at some point earlier with his stomach being empty. He was also annoyed that he had been forcefully knocked out no less than three times by Sasuke, Itachi and Kakashi in the last twenty-four hours, that he was starting to think he really was going to need surgery for the foot, and that no one would tell him anything about Sasuke.

Naruto didn't get to go see Sasuke for a horribly long two hours. He had paced back in forth, as best he could on crutches, in the waiting area until Kakashi told him they'd go see how Sasuke was doing together.

The ANBU officers nodded at the silver-haired jounin when they approached the door, and Naruto idly wondered if any of them had known Kakashi back when he had been part of the assassination unit. Naruto opened the door, deciding he didn't much care of he was allowed to see Sasuke or not. After that last episode there was no way he could not see him.

Sakura was doing something with one of the IVs but when the door opened she turned. Sasuke's was in a more upright position than he had been in before and his eyes bored into Naruto the instant he stepped into the room. She looked back at Sasuke and then at Naruto. Then twice more before she stopped what she was doing.

"I just gave Sasuke something to help him sleep, but you can stay in here as long as you'd like, Naruto." She moved the chair back to where Naruto had had it. Naruto didn't look at her and headed over to the chair, putting the crutches back against the wall and sitting down carefully.

He didn't realize Kakashi and Sakura were both gone until the door closed.

Sasuke turned his head and looked at him, those eyes flickering with something unsettling. Naruto cleared his throat. "You're looking better, less pale."

"Being pale is relative. And looking better doesn't count for much if you're dead." Naruto bristled. Then he frowned.

"Oi, Sasuke, you don't have to be so dramatic all the time."

"Drama has little to do with it." Sasuke turned his head, staring off into the white space of the hospital room. "The prognosis is still the same."

Naruto's frown deepened, and he furrowed his eyebrows. "What are you talking about?"

"Did you eat, Naruto?"

"Yeah, I ate. But we weren't talking about me. We were talking about you."

"I suppose so." What the hell… Why does Sasuke always do this shit…why now at a time like this… I'm trying to be serious and he's fucking with me. "I guess since you came all the way down the hall on that foot the least I could do is tell it to you straight, right?"


"I'm dying. Naruto."

His heart sank…he could feel all the blood in his face draining…the chills running down his back so fast he could almost taste them in his suddenly dry mouth…he's not…he can't be… it's not…he's…

He frowned, and made a face. "I'm sure it's not as serious as all that, Sasuke. Tsunade…"

"Tsuande is the one who told me." NO….NOOOO…No… Was it possible… could his whole body just go numb…

"She told you that… she said you were dying…and she couldn't do anything…I don't believe that, Sasuke… I won't… "

Sasuke shot him a cold look. Then he turned his head. "You really never quit do you? Being an idiot is a fulltime fucking job for you huh?"

"Sasuke…" Sasuke never cursed at him… and he certainly never gave him that kind of look…he couldn't ever remember a time he had looked at him quite like that before.

"The sprained wrist, the fractured leg, the broken arm… the dislocated shoulder…cracked ribs…and that's all stuff you already know about. It's saying nothing about the internal bleeding and practically destroying my chakra channels from forcing the chidori to form."

"I…I know it's bad…Sasuke…but…Tsunade is the best…I…" Naruto couldn't even choke out words. He just kept remembering Hinata and Neji's fight during the chuunin exam, how she had coughed up blood… how she was still collapsing, at the stadium even after a month. If Sasuke's chakra channels were messed up… "There isn't anything she…"

"There's some procedure…experimental." Sasuke had found some distant spot to stare at and wasn't looking at him. "She's never tried it…but it has something to do with hado, spiritual vibrations, taping into the hado for the chakra channels and rebuilding the damaged sections. It's pretty theoretical, and there's no guarantee it would work, or that I wouldn't die on the operating table if she didn't know what she was doing."

"Well what happens if she doesn't try it?"

Sasuke looked him squarely in the eye. "You'll be visiting me at the memorial, Dobe-kun."

Naruto narrowed his eyes. "Well if that's the way it is, we have no choice."

"We?" Sasuke's voice grew exceptionally cold then. "This has nothing to do with we."

"Whatever, Sasuke… When does she plan on performing the procedure?"

"She isn't performing the procedure," Sasuke informed him curtly. Bitterly.

"What are you…"

"It's elective, Naruto. It's experimental, and since there's a good chance it won't work, that I'll die from it, or that it might only prolong my life a few more weeks the procedure is optional."

Naruto stood up, instinctively keeping pressure off his right foot. "You mean to tell me she has a way to save you and she refuses to…"

"I refuse to." Sasuke blinked then looked away. "I'm not having the procedure done because I don't want it done."

"You just…you just said if you don't have it… you'll you'll definitely…"

"I'm not afraid of death. I never was. I just wanted to live long enough to see Itachi dead. And I got my wish."

"Goddamn it, Sasuke!" Ssauke looked back at him as Naruto slammed his fist into the wall next to him. "This is no time for your fucking posturing. Why the hell are you…"

"WHAT THE HELL DOES IT MATTER TO YOU!" Naruto froze then… and met those avenger eyes… those eyes that haunted him… had haunted him for all the years he knew Sasuke. Sasuke never rose his voice… Sasuke never spoke to him like this… never…ever…Sasuke…


"Not being what I was….not having the same strength I once did…never being able to be ANBU… or…anything…that's worse than death, Naruto…if you were told you could never be Hokage… you wouldn't be anywhere near the strength and the power you are now…" Sasuke's voice had trailed off.

"Sasuke…we're…we're talking about life and death here…weren't not still rivals trying to climb trees in the woods…you can't…you're not thinking straight…"

"My thinking is just fine, Naruto."


"My choice is made. My choice. I did what I needed to do. My parents can rest in peace. He won't hurt anyone again. I can die honorably."

"You…you're…STOP SAYING THAT CRAP!" Naruto wanted to reach out and grab the teen in front of him… shake the life out of him.

"I can feel the medication kicking in. I'm going to sleep."

"What…we're still talking about this… we're…"

"Get out of my room, Naruto… or I'll have the ANBU officers do it for you."


"I said…." Sasuke shot him one last miserable look, the coldness was gone, the anger and the hatred and bitterness were all gone… and all that was left was pained despair. "Leave."


To Be Continued