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, language 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: 7/10

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: Wow, chapter seven… can't believe we're at this point already. Sorry the update took a bit longer than usual, this chapter was very difficult to write because everything in the fic leads up to this. Especially the Sasuke/Neji scene. If you ever thought Sasuke was a prick before he was a boy scout compared to how he behaves in that scene. There's a lot going on under the surface so before you get your cross out to crucify the Uchiha give him the benefit of the doubt, though I admit he doesn't deserve it all the time.

I'm not sure if this is my favorite chapter… I still love five and three, but I will say I really like the way things come together in this chapter. Thanks as always for reading, and I hope you enjoy.

One little note, "ten" in Japanese can mean "heaven" or "sky". And although Tenten's name doesn't have any particular meaning I capitalized on that fact in this chapter.

Chapter 7: A Question of Control

"Naruto had a visitor. He asked me to let you know he'd be back as soon as he finished seeing him."

"Him?" Sasuke met pretty green eyes.

"It was most likely Kakashi-san," Sakura answered simply. "I saw Kakashi this morning before I came in for the day. He came in to visit you earlier, didn't he?" Sasuke didn't bother to answer her. "Kakashi isn't what I'd call the "talkative" type so I'm sure Naruto will return soon."

Sasuke glanced out the window. If he didn't have much time left it seemed rather senseless for this conversation to continue in this stupid way. "Sakura." Sasuke could see Sakura's eyebrows lift up out of the far corner of his eye. He had her attention. "What was it that finally made you give up on me?"


"Was it that you realized you couldn't understand me, or was it something else I did? I've always been cold to you, haven't I?"

"Where is all of this coming from, Sasuke? I don't…"

Sasuke shot her a hard glare. "At least Kakashi and Naruto don't tiptoe around the issue, Sakura. I'm dying and you say the same things you've always said to me. It's annoying. I don't need your patronization."

"What would you have me say instead, Sasuke? Don't die?" Sakura was looking everywhere else but at him. "You've had those avenger eyes for weeks, since the first jounin briefing about Uchiha Itachi being spotted alone in Fire Country. I wasn't able to stop you before; I could only hope Naruto would be able to stop you this time around." Sakura let out a shallow breath.

"I should have guessed you'd say something like that, Sakura." Sakura still didn't look at him and let her eyes drift over to the window.

"It's not that I don't understand you, Sasuke. It's that I understand and still can't do anything to get through to you. Not like Naruto can. A part of me, maybe that young, foolish part, thinks maybe I did get to you a little back then. I always wondered why after I pleaded with you to stay you said "thank you" the way you did. Maybe I should be a better friend and not rely on Naruto all the time when it comes to you. And now that it's come to this I probably shouldn't keep pretending everything has always been perfect between us. But we're not kids anymore and I don't know any other way."

"If that's how it is then…" Sasuke looked back at the clear sky. The calm before the storm. He could feel it in the ache in his bones it was going to rain tonight. "I'll pay you the same courtesy I paid Kakashi. Get out of my room."

Sakura let a bitter, tight smile trim her mouth as she looked back at him. "I suppose this is what I get for finally saying it after all this time." She gave him a calculated look, but there wasn't the hurt behind it Naruto had let shine through every time Sasuke lashed out over the last few days. "If you want me to go I will. Though I never did give your question an answer, Sasuke."

"I didn't ask it expecting one."

"What's the point of asking a question if you don't want it to be answered?" Sasuke felt his heart flicker just a bit. Did Naruto tell her about the question I… "A true friend doesn't give up, Sasuke. But she also understands the importance of stepping aside and not looking to someone else to be strong on her behalf. And besides, no one can care for you the way he could anyway. If I ever doubted that for a minute he proved that a hundred times over these last few days." She smiled. "But he made a believer out of me, Sasuke. A long time ago."

Sasuke let his gaze fall back onto the window and the nearly cloudless sky. "That time…I didn't know what else to say to you, Sakura. There didn't seem to be any words left after you spoke. All I could say was "thank you"."

The brunet didn't look to see Sakura's reaction but the softer tone of voice gave him some indication. "Rest until Naruto comes in, Sasuke."

She left the room without another word.

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A Year Ago

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Naruto's grip around his teacup tightened slightly. "That's…"

"I can say no more without potentially threatening the integrity of the mission." The blond jounin met pale, expressionless eyes. "I should be going then. Naruto."

"Neji…I…" He couldn't help himself, even though he knew well it was a bad habit, Naruto couldn't help himself. He bit roughly into his lip.

"You shouldn't do that, Naruto." Neji caught the tip of a tanned chin with four delicate fingers. "I don't wish to see you hurt yourself. But if you continue to do such a thing it is certain you'll draw blood."

Naruto released his teeth from his lip and gave the teen sitting across from him a hard look. Neji released his hold. Naruto swallowed…how had they ended up here…how had it come to this? And what made it worse was the enormity of it all; Neji's words and the impending journey to a foreign country that waited for him in a few brief hours. From the limited information the other jounin could tell him it sounded like it was quite possible that ninja from their village who Naruto worked alongside would never be returning home.

Maybe even Neji himself.

"I can only trust in the fates now, Naruto." He gave the blond a pointed look. "Though I suppose you would probably tell me that I should make my own fate."

Naruto shook his head, frantic, the conversation going on without him. "You…you're just going to go then…you're not going to…"

"I'll be gone for a few months, if not longer. And there is the chance I might not return to this place at all. I do not fear the path; I walk it with a clear resolve. We live a dangerous kind of existence and death can be an ally just as easily as it can be an enemy. I just wished to see you before my departure. Naruto." Neji stood. "I appreciate your time."

Naruto frowned. "Neji…I.." the long haired brunet wasn't looking at him. "Isn't there…isn't there a reason you wished to meet me here at the teahouse? What you were about to say before…you cut yourself off…you…"

"I do not wish to speak such dangerous words." Neji's back was completely to him now. "Words that are more dangerous than the mission I am about to lead."

"Dangerous." Naruto got up. "Sometimes… sometimes I just don't…I don't understand you, Neji." Naruto looked down at his feet. This was a moment he had imagined in the darkest part of himself, a moment he feared and anticipated with a heavy heart. For a moment there Naruto was sure Neji would say it…that the pink elephant in the room would finally be spoken about…that there wouldn't be this tension between them filled of things left unsaid.

"Take care of yourself for me, Naruto. Konoha's peace is ever fleeting, and no one knows what threats lie beyond tomorrow's horizon."

Naruto swallowed harshly. "You told me a long time ago that a shinobi's life is brief and that the worst thing you could do is never say how you truly feel. Was that a lie? What if you never come back…what if…"

"I also said your happiness was my top priority. Naruto." Naruto glanced up. "This is the way it is. There isn't a need to make it more difficult."

"I…" Damn it… what am I…why do I feel this…why do I feel so…so guilty…

"It's enough, Naruto." Neji glanced over his shoulder. "Your friendship is enough. Don't regret loving him for my sake." He smirked sadly. "I am not one who accepts pity of any kind."

"Loving him…" I…it was there…that feeling… that feeling for Sasuke but…. I never once used that word. Naruto met the taller jounin's eyes.

"There is no need to wear such a serious face, Naruto. It doesn't suit you. Besides, the fates have given me another chance at heaven." Heaven…does he mean…Tenten? "Now I must go. There are still things I need to do before I leave tonight."

Neji…I…The longhaired teenager started walking out of the half empty teahouse. I…if I'm going to do it I can't hesitate. "Just a second, Neji." Neji stopped, his hand on the door. Naruto took the chance to get in front of him.

With a mind clouded in uncertainty Naruto leaned over and gave the other jounin a small kiss on the cheek. He pulled away as quickly as he had moved in and then met pupil-less eyes. "You come home safe, Hyuuga Neji. You come home safe because I swear on my dream to be hokage I don't want to see any of my important people die."

Neji inclined his head, and kept his eyes lowered. "Then for the sake of your dream, Naruto. I will."

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It wasn't that he was keeping track of the time…

Time stood still while he wasted away lying in this hospital room. It was just…the only thing that kept time moving forward, that broke up the monotony of it all was Naruto. Talking to the plants and telling them to grow, arguing with him, holding his hand and squeezing when the pain got bad. Even when they lapsed into long silences, both just looking at the unfaltering sky through the window, there was an odd sort of soothing something about it all, which was just ridiculous because Naruto was too obnoxious and idiotic to be soothing.

So no, it wasn't that he was keeping track of time. He just wondered why Naruto had yet to return. A visit from Kakashi didn't take a long time. Naruto's father-type had always been Iruka anyway so Sasuke was fairly certain the older jounin's lectures would be far briefer. Besides, Iruka playing a fatherly role to Naruto made more sense…he had lost his parents at an early age and fucked up in school looking for attention. And the added bonus was he was a teacher, and for whatever reason he actually really cared about the blond. Sasuke was sure Iruka would take care of Naruto after he was gone…he…

Naruto should be back by now. What is Kakashi doing with him? Or saying to him…that damned Kakashi…fuck him…fuck him and his mind games.

None of this was Kakashi's business in the first place. What right did he have interfering this way? This was Sasuke's choice. Naruto didn't even get a say.

Then why did you ask him to give you a reason…

But how could Naruto? Who could? There wasn't a reason. This would all be finished soon. A few more hours. And then a few more days after that. Sasuke could stop going over this again. He had made the right choice; there wasn't a need to second-guess it now. Hesitation was a sign of weakness and he had done everything in his power to kill that weakness inside of him a long time ago.

Of course Naruto was the "bad rash" of weaknesses… creeping up…latching on…sinking his mouth onto him…it hardly seemed fair. After everything he had gone through why should he want Naruto with him now? Another question he would probably never find an answer to.

Sasuke glanced out the window. "Did you get lost again, Dobe-kun?" The knock on the door was quick, the door handle turned just as the sound died. It took Kakashi long enough to finish with you, didn't it. Naruto.


Even in this state…even with how weak his body was the ninja blood that flowed through his veins had all his senses on full alert. Sasuke sat up straight in the hospital bed and his dark eyes crawled over every inch of the older jounin who stood in the doorway. It took a moment to stop himself from yanking the IV out (something he had done on numerous other occasions in this hospital) and getting up with a fractured leg, a sprained wrist, and broken arm to cause severe injury to the man standing before him.

After all, every good shinobi knew a ninja near death was twice as dangerous as one in good health. It was the body's last bit of fight coupled with the fact that there was nothing left to lose, which made a volatile mix. And even though Sasuke had used that to kill Itachi he didn't doubt for one moment that if he truly wanted to he could do Hyuuga Neji real damage right this very instant.

It seemed Neji didn't doubt that either, or at the very least let the idea cross his mind as he closed the door and stayed close to it. For several long moments both men remained motionless, waiting for the other to do something until Sasuke finally pressed his back firmly against his pillows and willed himself not to continue to act like a caged, wild beast. He doubted Neji would act so unrefined, and further more if he stayed riled up this much it would make it impossible to plan his moves effectively.

"Where is Naruto?" The teen's words were clipped and cold but he didn't allow any further anger to slip into his voice. If Neji was here that meant he had seen Naruto already; he wouldn't be stupid enough to come looking for him in this room.

"Resting. He clearly hasn't been sleeping for several nights and I thought a forced nap would do him some good." A forced nap…so he was behind Naruto not coming back.

"I don't recall ever giving you permission to presume anything about Naruto, Hyuuga. You don't see me telling your fuck toy how to fix the buns on top of her head."

Violet-tinted eyes became slender and fatal. "I won't dignify that with a comment. But know this. If I wasn't concerned about Naruto we would have settled this between us years ago."

"Don't take my mercy for weakness. Things weren't settled before because the death of the supposed genius Hyuuga branch family member would have soiled my hands."

"Your ego would have suffered the only death, Uchiha." Neji took a step closer. "I didn't come in here to listen to the ranting of a half-dead traitor. Arguing over what might have been if we ever squared off is a waste of what little time I plan on spending in your presence."

Sasuke smirked enigmatically. "You say all that, Hyuuga…but when the chips are all down and the smoke's cleared he still won't fuck you." Neji's implacable glare would have stopped a lesser man right there, but Sasuke had never settled for the lion's tail when he could get the head. "You hate me because no matter what you do…what you say…I'm still the one Naruto decided on. You despise that he'd forgive me anything, that he'd stay with me when you're obviously the better choice."

"It was never my place to question his judgment."

"Why the hell not? Anyone could see I'm wrong for him. And here he is, clinging to me pathetically."

"There's nothing pathetic about him and his loyalty to you, Uchiha."

"Sure there is." Sasuke chuckled mockingly. "Why the hell do you think I kept him around this long? If he wasn't such a good lay I would have cut him off years ago."

"Your words fall on deaf ears."

"I doubt that very much. We both know what you're doing here. But even with me saying that deep down you know this attempt at scoring brownie points with him won't work. I can't really say I blame you though, you've tried everything else; it was only a matter of time before you reached this level of desperation."

"You might have managed to hurt Naruto but I quite assure you there isn't anything you could say to hurt me, Uchiha. If you're ready to grow up we can conduct the rest of this discussion as two adults."

"There isn't any more discussion to conduct. I'll be dead by the end of next week and the world will collapse in on itself before he'll ever want you."

"I already told you it was never my place to question his…"

"Bullshit. You think about him when you're fucking her, don't you?" Sasuke smirked again. "You imagine how hot and tight he is…how slick and wet it'd be…and you know something, Hyuuga, it's better than you could ever imagine."

"Stop revealing more of your thoughtlessness just to get a rise out of me, I'm not going to…"

"He's dumb as shit too; he'd do anything I wanted him to without thinking about it…the other day when I made that crack about his mother I thought for sure he was going to start crying…but he came bouncing right back with that big stupid grin on his face."

"I won't tell you again to stop it, Uchiha."

"A person would probably do damned near anything for a decent fuck, don't you think? Especially with someone who doesn't ask questions." Sasuke met hard eyes. "Do you know what that's like having someone that foolish around all the time? What's her name an idiot too? Does she know you wish she were someone else? Or did you tell her you wanted to stick your cock up Naruto's…"

"I said STOP IT." Sasuke started chuckling again, ignoring the pain in his ribs as he did so. Neji approached the bed with calculated steps. "I assure you I'm not nearly as forgiving as Naruto is, Uchiha Sasuke. I would advise against saying anything else."

"You're almost as pathetic as he is, Hyuuga. You really care for him, don't you?" Neji stopped walking. "That's it exactly, isn't it? You're in love with him. How pitiable."

"Are you in love with him?" Neji's eyes were narrowed once again. "I'd give my life for him gladly, any day, Uchiha. But this isn't about me. This is about you. How you feel about Naruto and how Naruto feels about you. That's what this is about, not a procedure, not life or death. You and Naruto. And if you stopped letting your trepidation rule you for once you'd see that." Neji took another step closer. "I don't need these eyes to see your fear, Uchiha. You're reeking in it."

"The only fear in this room is that you'll bleed to death before anyone finds your lifeless body."

"Fear is the easiest emotion to interpret. The more you try to bury it the simpler it is to read on you. The lone avenger of the Uchiha clan, never letting anyone or anything stand in the way of the fate you've written for yourself. And yet you run from this. Naruto is a better man than either of us will ever be, and do you know why? Because he took the hate and mistreatment he received in his childhood and transformed it into something beautiful. He uses it as a catalyst to change the fates of anyone he touches. His capacity to love and forgive and understand those that would oppose him or find themselves lost in darkness is something to be emulated and you have any audacity to call him pathetic?"

Neji turned away. "I'd do nearly anything to have what you have, Uchiha Sasuke. Despite our differences I always thought you were smarter than most, but you treat the greatest gift anyone could ever give you with practically no regard. There isn't a question of who is the pathetic one in your relationship, Uchiha. Why don't you think about that the next time you deliberately hurt Naruto and he finds it in himself to forgive you again."

"Such a touching speech, Hyuuga." Sasuke's eyes were at the window. "You've truly moved me."

"Naruto even managed to find the good in you, Uchiha. A side of you most people in this world would probably say doesn't exist in the first place." Neji gave him a glance that Sasuke caught out of the edge of his eye. "Naruto has a lot more to lose in all this than you do, but perhaps I was wrong about you. Perhaps your fear will continue to run your life. Or what's left of it."

Neji left.

Naruto burst through the hospital room door, not caring to knock. After helping Sasuke go to the bathroom he was sure there was nothing else between them that needed to be resolved. And besides, he didn't have any more time to waste so if there was another issue he'd just meet it head on.

He could only hope Neji hadn't…

Sasuke is always telling me about this… being too trusting…letting my guard drop around people I feel safe with…it's a damned bad habit…and look where it got me… how could Neji do this…I thought he was my friend. I won't ever forgive Neji if he came in here and got Sasuke upset…what if Sasuke hates me for…

"You're fired up. Your visit with Kakashi inspire you? Naruto?" The blond made a face. Sasuke was staring up at the ceiling, propped against his pillows. "You're not usually this excited. But the same thing happened yesterday when you came back from seeing Kakashi."

What the… what makes him think I went to see Kakashi? I've been gone for over two hours…I don't understand. "Sasuke…what are you…"

"Sakura told me he came to visit you. Didn't you ask her to tell me you'd be back when you were finished?"

That's right I told Sakura to tell Sasuke I was…but that was hours ago… Kakashi doesn't talk that much… at all. And didn't Neji come in here? I must have missed something. "I didn't think I was going to take so long, Sasuke…I got sidetracked a bit…you're not mad at me are you?"

The Uchiha heir's dark eyes were staring at the cloud-covered view outside. "Did you eat?"

"Well, Sakura-chan brought me something; she went on a long lunch, I guess after she came to see you. She left take-out in my room for me." While I was sleeping. She probably left Sasuke's room and went straight to lunch. And I guess she didn't see Neji because he had already left. Neji must have not come in here…Sasuke would have said something by now if…

"Distracted much? Dobe-kun?" Naruto focused on Sasuke at the sound of that teasing nickname.

"No, I just had a lot on my mind. That's all. I am sorry I didn't get back sooner, Sasuke. I said I wouldn't leave your side and I was gone for a long time." Naruto hopped over to his chair and slid into it, leaning the crutches on their familiar spot against the wall. "You can be angry at me if you want, Sasuke. I don't mind."

Sasuke moved his gaze from the window to Naruto with a slight movement of his eyes. "Seems pretty pointless to be upset at something so trivial after everything that's happened. Don't you think?"

Naruto nodded solemnly. "Yeah, I guess we spent enough moments making each other mad to last a lifetime." Naruto frowned to himself. "Bad word choice. Sorry."

"Why do you apologize all the time?" Sasuke was looking back up at the ceiling, a blank, absent kind of look lining his pale features. "Just because the words aren't said doesn't mean the thought isn't there behind it. You sound desperate apologizing so much. Besides, being gone longer than you anticipated isn't going to sway me one way or another about the procedure, Naruto."

Naruto shrugged without thinking about the movement. "It's not about campaigning, Sasuke. I'm just tired of the back-and-fourth between us. Anything to avoid another altercation I guess. And it can't be good for you to get upset given the way things are now. I'd like to avoid that if at all possible."

Sasuke rolled over, away from him, his back to the blond ninja. "It's not your fault you know. I bet you wouldn't be apologizing so much if you realized that."

"Realized what? What nonsense are you talking about now, Sasuke?"

"If I die. It's not your fault. It's not your fault it took you however long to regain consciousness. It's not your fault you didn't convince me about the procedure. None of it was ever your fault. It was never about you, Naruto." Sasuke let out a slow, jagged breath, his back moving with the motion. "You won't be failing me."

The younger teen passed calloused fingers through blond hair. "I'd be failing me, Sasuke." Naruto's voice took on a bitter edge. "And in a lot of ways that's a lot worse than failing you could ever be. But thanks for the vote of confidence." Sasuke glanced over his shoulder, meeting a sheepish grin. "You said "if" you die," Naruto clarified. "I must be getting through to you somewhat." Sasuke moved his head so he wasn't looking at him anymore. "I won't lose to you, Sasuke."

"We agreed this morning we wouldn't talk about it anymore because it's just something to fight about."

"I know. I didn't forget your question to me either. I still have some time left. And it's never over until it's over."

"It's over now, Naruto." The blond's eyebrows furrowed as he bit into his lip. "I'm taking a nap. One of the nurses came in just before and gave me another dose of medication. It's starting to kick in. I'll be asleep in a minute or two."

Naruto eased off his lip. "That's fine, Sasuke. You need your rest anyway."

"So do you."

"Not as much as…" Sasuke rolled onto his back again. It seemed he was most comfortable sleeping that way. Not just due to the cracked ribs and his broken arm, the blond reasoned. For the last three years Naruto lay on top of Sasuke while the brunet slept on his back so the blond just as well assumed the older jounin had grown accustomed to it after all this time.

"You look like dead-man walking over there, Naruto. When's the last time you got some sleep?"

The younger jounin blushed. Maybe I should just tell him the truth. About Neji coming by…I feel bad…it's almost like I'm lying to him. I don't want to fight but… "Sasuke…" The blond took a harsh swallow.

"This isn't the final exam to graduate from the academy, Naruto. You don't need to think so hard about it." Sasuke rolled his eyes to the left, so he could look at the other teen more directly. "You're the kind of guy that needs mothering all the time. Dobe-kun."

"Oi, shut the hell up, Sasuke. I do not. No one told you to remind me to eat or to sleep or anything else. You have a lot of nerve thinking I need help when you're worse off than I am."

"I should be worse off than you. I don't have the kyuubi inside of me. Though I guess it's not all it's cracked up to be if you still have your foot wrapped up in that cast."

"At least it's just my foot. A broken arm and a fractured leg: you're a complete wreck, Jackass."

"These are battle scars. That foot of yours is a product of clumsiness. What kind of halfwit ninja falls out of a tree? You didn't even stay conscious long enough to fight and you still managed to get all banged up. You're such a little idiot."

"I told you to shut up, Sasuke. I won't…" Naruto stopped. The brunet was smirking at him. Sasuke. Naruto grinned slightly and took the other teen's hand. "Just go to sleep. I'll finish yelling at you later."

"She gave me a pretty heavy dose. I'll be out for a while." Sasuke's eyes slid closed. He squeezed Naruto's hand a bit. The blond squeezed back. If Sasuke was in pain it was better the nurse gave him a heavier dose. Even if that meant Sasuke would be sleeping for a longer period of time while his body adjusted to the drug. Sasuke squeezed harder, but he kept any signs of discomfort off his face.

"Sasuke," Naruto reassured softly, rubbing his thumb in a small circle against the backside of the older teen's hand. It took a few moments before Sasuke eased up on the constant pressure. Naruto moved his free hand against Sasuke's temple, pushing back soft bangs as he worked his fingers into the scalp.

"The way my body feels…" Naruto was startled by Sasuke's words, but didn't still his rubbing motion, "…I'll probably be asleep the rest of the afternoon."

"You say that like I have anywhere else to be right now. We said before I was gonna worry about you either anyway. So stop acting surprised about it all the time, Sasuke."

Sasuke gave Naruto a quick squeeze. "It only figures you'd say something dumb like that."

"Shut up." But Naruto was still grinning even as the words left his mouth.

Just sleep, Sasuke. I'll figure out how to answer your question no matter what. Yesterday afternoon we had a real breakthrough. I know tonight I'll convince you. I can't afford not to.

Naruto let out a soundless sigh.

Damn Sasuke. I swear I'll kill him myself once this is all over for driving me nuts.

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Two Years And Ten Months Ago

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Sasuke knew Naruto could tell he was still pissed off that they couldn't train longer today without having to say it outright. Over the last six weeks Naruto had almost completely mastered interpreting the older teen's moods without needing things spelled out for him. Even saying that, Naruto still insisted they get home so they could shower and get ready for dinner with Kiba and Hinata.

Ever since Sasuke had run into the nin-dog owner in the market he had questioned why he would ever agree to eat with his girlfriend and him. Even though he didn't have any issues with Kiba now it didn't change the fact that going was a waste of time. He found himself preoccupied enough by Naruto anyway… why should he add to that by going to some dinner at the Hyuuga main house.

All the blond could talk about was what a good cook Hinata was and how rich and flavorful the wine and other assorted alcoholic products at Hinata's place were. That wasn't surprising considering who her family was in this town, but that didn't have anything to do with Naruto and the brunet. And Sasuke didn't know what Naruto was so damn excited about when they weren't old enough to drink, even if they did have the weekend off.

Apparently, Kiba and Naruto had gotten drunk together before, asking Kiba's sister to "hook them up" on previous occasions. That was well and good too, but it still didn't explain why Sasuke had to be dragged to a dinner party he didn't want to go to. Not only did he find Hinata and Kiba's company beneath him, agreeing to go meant he was allowing them to think there was more going on with Naruto and him than there really was.

They were just fooling around.

Yes, it had been quite an entertaining six weeks. But this wasn't a relationship by any means. Despite the cold reality that Naruto had given Sasuke the note Neji had written him Sasuke hadn't said anything in response to either acknowledge the blond's feelings or to return them. And so far Naruto didn't seem to care either way; he acted just as foolish as he always did so it didn't matter. So that meant they shouldn't go to dinner and let Naruto's friends think this was some double date or whatever.

"Why are you so grumpy, you're the one who told me we got invited, Sasuke. Why didn't you just keep your mouth shut if you didn't want to go?" Naruto was looking at him in the mirror with big blue eyes, standing in just a towel while Sasuke watched him, fully dressed.

"It just would have gotten back to you eventually. Kiba or Hinata would have asked you about it and it would have landed back on me. And just because I passed along a dinner invite doesn't mean I want to go. I don't. I didn't agree so it could interfere with our training."

"We can train tomorrow, Sasuke."

"Not if you're sloshed."

"Then get sloshed with me." Naruto winked at him. Sasuke narrowed his eyes. "You should see me when I'm drunk, Sasuke, I'll say just about anything that comes to mind. One time I told Shikamaru I thought he looked sexier without his flak jacket on because all the fishnet made him look hot." Naruto rubbed the back of his head awkwardly. "I was so embarrassed when he told me what I said later. That's not the kind of thing you should say to one of your straight friends out loud. Even if it's true."

"You've thought about it have you?" Sasuke asked, knowing he didn't like the idea of Naruto telling anyone else how to look hot or sexy. Drunk or not. "Maybe I shouldn't let you go if you're going to hit on Kiba too. You'll come up with some stupidly clichéd line about boners. You look like the sort of guy who can't hold his liquor anyway."

"You're really an asshole, Sasuke. I don't want you to go if you're going to act like this all night. Do you want me to call Hinata and tell her you're not feeling well? Knowing her she'll pack me up a doggy-bag to bring home for you."

"Good, it's settled then."

Naruto turned around to look at him face-to-face. "You wish, Jackass. You're going or else."

"Or else what?" Sasuke crossed his arms over his chest. This was yet another reason why Naruto and him would never be in a real relationship, the dumbass didn't even know how to threaten him properly. "Well? Don't tell me you won't screw me the second you get home if I don't go with you."

"Withhold sex?" Naruto asked, eyebrows lifting. "Are you kidding? What the hell do I look like, a girl?"

"You can't make me go."

"You don't have to go, Sasuke. But I can't be held responsible if I tell Kiba and Hinata embarrassing stories about you to make conversation." Sasuke made a face. "I'll do it too."

"You're the embarrassment. It's bad enough being seen in public with you, Dobe-kun."

"I told you to stop saying that! Don't call me that crap again, Sasuke!"

"Dobe-kun, Dobe-kun…Dobe-kun."

Naruto moved to hit him and Sasuke deflected effortlessly.

With one hand.

Which of course got the blond even more fired up. "Damn it, Asshole! You make me crazy, you jerk." Naruto gave up hitting him since nothing was landing but gave the brunet a push that Sasuke absorbed unperturbed.

"Done now?"

Naruto turned away, opening his bottle of aftershave, his eyes not looking in the mirror. "You said you would go, Sasuke. I was really looking forward to tonight. But you're right; I can't make you. If you really rather stay home I'll just come up with some excuse."

Sasuke watched as the blue-eyed shinobi slapped a bit of the liquid onto his upper neck. "I don't see what the big deal is. I'm not stopping you from going, Naruto."

"It's not the same without you, Sasuke. That's all. I don't care as long as I have you around, it's just…" The blond had his lip between his teeth.

"Don't do that." Sasuke looked away, annoyed. "Fine, I'll go. Stop acting stupid about it."

Like I ever really had a choice in the first place. He gets that dopey sad look on his face and before I know what's happening I'm agreeing with him. Which is why we have a four-month supply of ramen. What the hell is wrong with me?

"You'll go?" Naruto turned around again and his hands were on the brunet's shoulders. "I knew you'd say yes. Not even Sakura-chan can resist me when I get that depressed look on my face. That look of mine has claimed yet another victim, Sas…OOOW!" Naruto growled as he rubbed the back of his head with one hand and started swinging punches with the other.

"You're an annoyance. Shut your mouth and finish getting dressed already so we can get this over with, Naruto."

"Teme." Naruto made a face but it melted just as suddenly. Surprised, Sasuke lifted one of his own eyebrows only to be startled further when the blond pressed his lips against him. The brunet relaxed into the brief kiss and gave the blond a questioning look when he pulled away. "Thanks for going, Sasuke." Then he added in the most obnoxious voice possible, "I'll be sure you'll be coming when we get home." Naruto's eyebrows wiggled as he grinned in a leering, dirty-old-man kind of way.

"Just do me a favor and keep your mouth closed, Naruto," Sasuke insisted, shaking his head at the sheer stupidity pressed up against him.

"But if my mouth is closed I won't be able to try that thing we did last night again…you know when you got up on your knees and I.."

"Get dressed and be quiet." Sasuke gave him a bit of a nudge, which of course only caused Naruto to nudge him in return before he lowered his mouth down onto Sasuke's neck.

Somewhere in Sasuke's mind it occurred to him that letting Naruto leave fresh hickeys on him in this way would really give Hinata and Kiba the wrong idea about them if they weren't covered up properly. Other important facts came to mind as well, like that Naruto hadn't even bothered trying to convince him to go. Or bothered threatening him in any sort of effective way. Almost as if the idiot knew that Sasuke would do whatever he wanted him to without much protest.

Sasuke shut his eyes as Naruto's tongue found a nipple. Well, it wasn't like this sort of thing would happen all the time. And besides, Naruto wasn't smart enough to realize just what kind of power he held over the brunet so the chances of this really getting out of hand were quite slim.


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


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

The blond jounin hadn't realized he'd fallen asleep until the nurse with the aquamarine hair woke him. Sasuke was still asleep and Naruto was surprised when he glanced at the wall clock. Almost eight-thirty. Sasuke had to have fallen asleep about three. I guess we were both exhausted. Naruto cleared his throat as he glanced at the woman standing beside him. "Is there something wrong?"

"No, Naruto-kun. Iruka-sensei is here to see you. He brought you something to eat for dinner as well."

"Oh, alright." Of course Sasuke's hand was resting in his. And he didn't want Sasuke to wake up alone. Given the luck he had been having the last few days he was quite sure even if he left for only five minutes, shoveling his food like a starved animal, that would be the five-minute window Sasuke would decide to wake…

"You should eat. Naruto." Naruto watched lidded eyes move to study him. "It's not like I'm going anywhere. Besides, I'm sure she didn't just come in here to say that. I probably need my blood pressure checked. And whatever else."

Naruto looked back at the young woman, who nodded, confirming. It was only then Naruto noticed she had wheeled in a cart with equipment on it. "How long is everything you have to do going to take?" The blond wondered, still a bit reluctant to release the brunet's hand.

"About twenty minutes. Shouldn't be any longer than that."

"Okay then. I won't be too long, Sasuke. I really promise this time."

"Don't hold your breath." Sasuke took his hand back. "When Iruka sees you looking like that he'll be all over you. You'll be back when he's done yelling at you for not taking proper care of yourself."

He's right…Iruka's not going to be pleased. "Well, I'll be back after that, Sasuke." Naruto waited for the brunet to give him some kind of response. He knew the nurse was standing there but that didn't mean…

"I know, Naruto." Sasuke's eyes were open completely. He sat up in the bed and gave him another glance. "Go already."

"Okay." Naruto inclined his head, but resisted the urge to give Sasuke a kiss on the cheek. He knew how Sasuke was about public displays of affection. There were none. Under any circumstances. So he gave Sasuke's hand a little nothing of a squeeze and grabbed the crutches sitting against the wall.

I'm glad Iruka-sensei is here…I didn't realize I was getting a little hungry. And besides, if anyone can put me in a good mood it's him.

"Naruto." Iruka gave him a smile. "How are you feeling?"

"Okay. I hardly even notice my foot, but Sakura-chan'd kill me if I walk on it." The jounin sat down on the couch out in the lounge where he met the brunet academy sensei. "You must be busy. You didn't have to come with dinner again."

"Sakura mentioned you weren't eating very much, Naruto. And since you've been through so much this week I thought you deserved some ramen." Naruto grinned as Iruka handed him chopsticks and his favorite meal. "It'd be a sad day if I can't buy you ramen anymore, Naruto."

"You'll still buy it for me even when I became hokage. Won't you?"

"Of course."

Just having Iruka here makes me feel better. But I don't want to burden him with my problems concerning Sasuke. It's been a rough few days, that's for certain, but that doesn't mean I should trouble him and…

"Oi, Naruto…you aren't done yet. Usually you're halfway through a second helping by now. You must be more upset than I realized." Naruto glanced down at the noodles then back up at Iruka.

"Did Kaka-sensei tell you?"

Iruka shook his head. "He didn't have to." Naruto met deep eyes. "It was clear on Monday morning you were troubled."

I didn't want to bother you about it… and it's not like you could give me the answer.

"Sasuke and I aren't fighting anymore. So that's something good, at least. We were even teasing each other before we both fell asleep. It felt like it always does. Us at home. Everything fine." Naruto frowned. "I can't lose that, Iruka-sensei. I don't know what I would do if I lost that." Naruto slurped up the rest of his noodles. Even though there were more goodies in the bag Iruka had brought with him he didn't feel like eating anything else.

"I want to show you something, Naruto. It's on the second floor; almost right below where we're sitting now. It won't take longer than a few minutes."

Iruka handed the blond his crutches back. Despite being preoccupied as he ate Naruto still had a good ten minutes to kill while the nurse finished up with Sasuke anyway. Hopefully she wouldn't give him any more medication so they could talk when he got back.

"Where are we going, Iruka-sensei?" Naruto wondered, as he followed the chuunin into the elevator.

"A place I like to visit sometimes when someone I care about is in the hospital." Iruka pushed the "2" button. "Even with a strong heart a person needs time alone sometimes. That doesn't mean you're not concerned about your important person or persons, as the case dictates. However, I find that I can only stand so much waiting and worrying, and coming down here gives me a little solace."

"I see."

Naruto stepped out of the elevator as Iruka held the door open for him. "It's to the right, Naruto. Where those two men are standing all the way at the end of the hall." Iruka kept an even pace so he could walk alongside the blond. "I would have brought you down here before but I didn't want to cause too much strain for your foot. But since it doesn't feel bad I thought I should let you in on the secret."

Where exactly are we going anyway? And I'm surprised someone like Iruka needs to escape from this kind of stress. He seems so good at staying calm and not letting his emotions get to him when someone's hurt. The last time Kakashi got banged up Iruka was probably more in control than anyone else was. Poor Gai-sensei looked like he was going to have kittens he was so wound up.

I remember when Sakura, Sasuke and I first got to the hospital we didn't know where Iruka was. I thought he was just trying to get away from Gai for a while. But maybe he came down here for another reason all together.

"We lucked out tonight. It seems there are plenty of good spots left."

Naruto turned to his right, eyebrows lifting. "This is…" Blue eyes scanned across the sight before him. "The hospital nursery?" Naruto glanced over at the older ninja. "You come down here, Iruka-sensei?"

"Yes. I do."

"Daddy…which one is our baby?" Naruto turned. A little boy with a shock of purple hair was sitting on an older man's shoulders. He was pointing with a miniature finger. "I forget 'cuz they all look almost the same."

"Right there, at the end, see." Blue eyes followed the man's fingers so Naruto could see which baby he was referring to.

"He's not doing nothing, Daddy." The kid crossed his arms over his chest, albeit a bit awkwardly since his father's head was in the way. "How's he supposed to be a ninja if he's just lying there doing nothing?" Naruto smirked a bit at the boy's question. He knew eavesdropping was wrong but the conversation was too interesting to ignore now that he'd been drawn in.

"Babies need a lot of sleep," the father answered, knowingly. As if he expected his son to have a lot of questions. "And even though he's a member of our clan he won't be able to do anything for himself for a few years. It's up to all of us to take care of him."

"All of us?"

"Your mom, and I… and yes you too. You're his big brother. It's your job to protect him."

"Like a mission?"

"Protecting important people is one of the most important missions any ninja has."

"Yeah. Mommy said that too." The man smiled and reached his hand up, shaking one of the child's legs.

"I assume you don't want to stay down here too long, Naruto?" Naruto relaxed as Iruka pressed his hand onto his shoulder. "I'm sure you want to get back to Sasuke before long."

"I don't…well I don't until I can answer his question." Naruto looked at him. "He said he wanted me to give him a reason to have the procedure…and I did…at least I thought I did…I thought I gave him lots of reasons. Living being the main one…but he didn't want to listen to that."

"If you're holding out for an answer, Naruto, I'm afraid you'll be down here a very long time."


"What do you mean…I know if I give him a reason he'll…"

"It's not up to you to give him a reason, Naruto."

"But Sasuke said…"

"Sasuke needs his own reason."

Naruto frowned. "That's the whole point. He doesn't have one."

"Doesn't have one?" Iruka lifted his eyebrows. "If that's how it is why are you trying to save him then?" Naruto's heart sank. "There is no point to life if there isn't a reason to live, Naruto. Living isn't just physical. An emotional shutdown can be just as damaging, and lead to death just as surely as any injury the body withstands can."

"Sasuke's lived all this time because he had to kill his brother…that was everything to him."

"Was that the only thing? Uchiha Itachi is dead now…does that mean there is nothing left for Sasuke?"

"Of course not. It's Sasuke that's being stupid about all of this. I don't even know why he asked me for a reason, Iruka-sensei. I've said everything…what else could I possibly…"

"I'm going to do my best, Daddy!" Naruto glanced over to where the man and his son were. The boy was now off his father's shoulders and holding his father's hand. "I'm going to protect him just like you protect mom and me," the boy insisted.

"He's so lucky to have such a good big brother." The boy grinned proudly. "Let's go to the gift shop and see if we can find mom and the baby a present, okay?"

"Yeah." The boy nodded in agreement. "Let's get a teddy bear."

Naruto made a face. I'm just as bad as that kid sometimes…I get all excited about something…I put everything into it…I promised myself I would convince him to have the procedure…If Sasuke dies I won't even know who I am anymore. How can I ever think I'd become hokage and protect this village if I can't save one of the most important people in my whole life from himself?

"Naruto?" The blue-eyed shinobi glanced back at his former academy teacher. "I'm sure you could name a thousand reasons why you want Sasuke to have the procedure. If avenging the destruction of his clan isn't the only reason he's pushed on all this time you should remind him of that."

Sasuke… Naruto watched as the child and his father boarded the elevator. I understand now. The jounin glanced back at the newborns. I don't know why the hell it had to come to this…but I understand now.

"I need to talk to Sasuke, Iruka-sensei. Let's go back upstairs."

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

Two Years and Three Months Ago

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Sasuke put his left leg back instinctively so he wouldn't fly completely off balance into a tree. Damn it, he managed to get through my guard.

"I suppose that's enough for today, Sasuke. I have to take two of the nin dogs to the vet." Kakashi rolled his eye up to look at the early afternoon sky. "Actually, my appointment was two hours ago."

"It's just like you to leave right when I was about to make a comeback." Sasuke stood up straight and wiped the blood from his cheek.

"Oh?" Kakashi lowered his forehead protector back over his left eye. "You know, Sasuke, someone with a pretty face like yours really ought to guard it better." With a quick movement the silver-haired jounin tossed Sasuke a small container of salve. "And before you make excuses, a real enemy is going to target any opening you give them."

"Whatever, I don't need your foolish attempts at a pep talk, Kakashi." Sasuke turned away from him but unfastened the top to the ointment anyway. Vanity had nothing to do with it; he just wanted to apply the cream to take the sting out of his injuries.

Like the one on the back portion of his shoulder that was sure to turn into a brilliant bruise.

"You're going to keep getting banged up if you don't stop letting yourself become so distracted. I would just as well assume sleeping with Naruto would have done you good. Make you less uptight. I didn't realize the Uchiha clan was so easily diverted by desire."

Sasuke snapped his head back around.

What the… what the hell did he just say…how the hell does he know about Naruto and me…we didn't tell anyone… anyone. And more importantly we make sure to act the same way we've always acted in public. And we certainly didn't do anything on our last two missions with Kakashi to tip him off…

"Hit a nerve, did I, Sasuke-kun?"

"You leave Naruto out of this. I was unfocused because your moves are so predictable. I waited for you to do the same thing you always do every time we come out here."

"Is that so, Sauske? If they're that predictable how come you haven't beaten me yet?" Sasuke narrowed his dark eyes. Damn you, Kakashi. "I don't care if you screw Naruto or not. You've been in lust with him since you were kids, it would have happened sooner or later. I'm a little surprised you waited so long after you got back. You were the one to initiate sex first, weren't you?"

"It's none of your damn business, Kakashi. And I'm not having this conversation with you. What's next, you're going to give me a safe-sex talk too?"

"Well, we wouldn't want any unplanned pregnancies, especially not before you get married. Certainly wouldn't look good for an ANBU candidate to have illegitimate fox babies running around the village."

"Shut up, Kakashi." Sasuke made a face at the mental image that caused, then he shivered a little inwardly. He tossed the salve back at the jounin.

"More importantly, come here and I'll get that spot on your shoulder." No matter how I try to hide whatever part is most sore after we spar he always knows. Sasuke glanced at Kakashi for a moment. "I'm already late for my appointment; a few more minutes won't hurt anything. Besides, knowing Pakkun he probably took the other dogs to the vet himself."

"Of course, he's more responsible than you are, Kakashi." Sasuke lifted his shirt up over his head and turned so that his back was to the older man. "Just make it quick, I have laps to run around the village."

The teen listened as the silver-haired jounin undid the lid to the salve container behind him. A second later he felt the cool gelled-paste on his aching shoulder where Kakashi had landed an impressive kick.

"Your skin's already so pale, Sasuke," Kakashi began in a lower voice. "If you don't want the rumor mill to get wind of this any sooner than necessary tell Naruto not to suck so hard in the future." Sasuke pressed his palm over the spot on his neck Naruto always targeted whenever they messed around.

If Sasuke were a blusher he probably would have turned a lovely shade of magenta, but even so he could feel a bit of warmth on his cheeks. The fact that he allowed Naruto to mark him. Repeatedly. He didn't know why he never thought to object to the blond leaving evidence behind. Could it be he liked it? For some unknown, ridiculous reason?

But how could that be… being marked by Naruto seemed to imply a level of commitment Sasuke didn't recall agreeing to. There was no courtship period, no going on "dates". Sasuke read Neji's note to Naruto, slipped on Naruto's under things and provoked him into their first sexual encounter. They woke up the next morning in a tangle of limbs and dried moisture residue and scrambled to leave for their mission.

Upon their return Naruto sat on Sasuke's bed and asked "do you wanna" and within three days they were up to full intercourse. Nothing else had changed in their relationship dynamic. They were friends that just so happened to sleep together. Plenty of ninja had beneficial friends, after all. No real strings attached, no expectations of anything. Naruto never complained when Sasuke's mouth was in a welcome place. It was perfect, really. They still sparred, they still argued. Naruto was the same idiot he'd always been, just now they had sex.

A lot of sex.

Actually, when they weren't training, eating, or sleeping…Sasuke frowned. Of course he was distracted, no matter what else he had gone through, how strong he'd become, what milestones he accomplished, how mature he was he was still a slave to his basic animal instincts. He was a male teenager who had a sex partner living under the same roof, who was now sharing his bed, and was willing and eager to try just about anything once. It was as if Naruto had unlocked the raging sex drive Sasuke wasn't completely aware he had. But now that he did the teen couldn't find the off button.

He was stronger than this, of course, and once Sasuke got a hold of himself he'd beat this and put it behind him. Not that he planned to stop having sex with Naruto, he just planned to stop thinking with the wrong head so damned much. He was beginning to see what Kakashi had meant so long ago about a man's only real weakness:

There isn't enough blood to power both the brain and the penis at the same time.

And with Kakashi knowing… Sasuke had bigger issues to worry about…Kakashi could easily be one of many who did. He didn't particularly care what anyone else thought but that didn't mean he wanted to be the hot topic of discussion either. When people saw he and Naruto out and about did anyone suspect…had they figured it out? Were they like Kakashi, expecting it to happen eventually. How many people had been on that rooftop, at that party, and watched Sasuke do the transport technique and then witness Naruto chase after him…

Sasuke's gripped the love marking on his neck tightly.

"Who else knows about it?" Since Kakashi knew it was important for Sasuke to find out how far this went. Kakashi was probably too lazy to gossip about two of his former students but Sasuke was half-convinced Kakashi had told the schoolteacher he was shacked up with. He probably mentioned it casually over dinner one night that former defector Uchiha Sasuke was playing bed sheet bingo with his precious Naruto. "Does Iruka know?"

"I don't think so. Not yet. For your credit you've both done a fair job at being discreet. I suspect he won't figure it out until Naruto and Iruka talk."

"If that's how it is then what tipped you off?" Sasuke waited for Kakashi to press a bandage over the ointment-covered skin so it wouldn't rub off when he put his shirt back on. As for his question, he wanted to know how Kakashi found out Fso he could be sure to be more careful going forward.

Kakashi moved his hand and slid the bandage roll into his utility pouch as Sasuke tugged his shirt back on. "This is the second time in three weeks you got distracted while we were training, Sasuke-kun." Kakashi's eye had curved into a grin.

"Two times in almost a month doesn't seem like enough to go on."

"Ah, but it is when you look underneath…"

"…the underneath," Sasuke finished, making another face. "Spare me."

"You're driven to be an avenger, Sasuke. To kill your brother. That anything could distract you. Twice. Well, that is something to go on."

I have been thinking about Naruto. A lot… a whole lot…I thought it was just because we're together so much…it didn't occur to me he's become a real interruption. Damn it. How did I let this happen?

"Of course, Sasuke, the more you try to not think about him or to limit your contact the worse it'll be." He's right… so then what the hell am I supposed… "There's nothing to worry about though. This is just what they call the "honeymoon period". In a couple of weeks, if not sooner, the novelty of being with Naruto will wear off. And if one of the two of you doesn't kill the other first things will work themselves out. That's the way it is with relationships."

"Icha Icha must have had a profound impact on you, Kakashi," Sasuke snipped, shifting his eyes away from the other man. "And all this time I was sure it was just a porn series."

"I don't read it for the porn; I read it for the rich, lifelike characters and intricate plotlines."

"And Tsunade can fit into an A cup." Sasuke gave Kakashi a look. "Go take care of your dogs already."

"And miss out on the warm, loving feeling I get after a conversation with you, Sasuke-kun?" Sasuke narrowed his eyes again. "I'll be going then. Don't push yourself too hard either. You have a bad habit when it comes to that."

"Hard work never hurt anybody."

"No, but forcing yourself does. Don't think because I was an hour late this morning you have to make up for it by going an hour longer today. Training doesn't work like that."

"You're not exactly my teacher anymore, Kakashi. I know how much my body can take. I don't need the lecture."

Kakashi met his eyes. "Stop being a stubborn brat all the time and my words won't be necessary. Sasuke." Sasuke gave Kakashi a challenging look. "The "honeymoon period" doesn't last forever, you know. Go home and enjoy your time with Naruto while you can. Once the reality sets in that the two of you are together it'll only get harder and more complicated."

Sasuke made an annoyed little "tch" sound. "Offering advice when I didn't ask first: another one of your annoying habits, Kakashi."

Kakashi's eye focused in on the brunet. "No matter the goals or the destination the road a ninja walks is dyed in blood. Few shinobi are ever fortunate enough to have someone to walk that road with; to have someone to absolve them of their sins, Sasuke. Remember that well, it's a lesson too many learn the hard way."

"Kakashi…" Sasuke's eyes thinned into dark slits. What the hell… he has some nerve saying shit like that out of nowhere when…The silver-haired jounin did the transport jutsu and disappeared before Sasuke could say anything else.

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


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

"You have a look on your face, Naruto, like you just found out the Earth isn't flat." Naruto shrugged.

"Yeah, maybe it is something like that."

He closed the hospital room door behind him and walked to the right side of Sasuke's bed. If Sasuke was surprised by the action he didn't show it. Up until now Naruto had always walked around the bed to the left side and sat in the chair that waited for him. He wasn't going to do that now.

I've been so stupid about this whole thing…right from the beginning.

"I take it seeing Iruka put you in a mood, huh? Next you'll tell me we should talk about the procedure."

Naruto let out a breath. "It's not as if I have an answer to your question, Sasuke. If that's what you're getting at." Naruto placed the crutches behind him on the wall. "I don't have an answer because it's really a trick question." Naruto crossed his arms over his chest. "Despite that I'm going to say what I have to say and you're going to shut up and listen. And if you don't like it you can push the call button for a nurse, but I'm sure by the time one gets here I'll be through."

Sasuke lifted a dark eyebrow before he sat up. "You really are in a mood, Naruto." The brunet gave him the once-over. "It's rather amusing, actually. For one thing you're the one who said earlier you didn't want to fight anymore or get me upset because of my condition. All that's going to happen is we're going to fight. And if the other fights are any indication you'll probably storm out of this room again."

"Which is exactly what you want me to do, Sasuke." Naruto's eyes narrowed. "It occurred to me downstairs that there was something wrong with this whole thing, Sasuke. Really wrong. We start talking about the procedure, you say something nasty to get me upset, it works, and I leave,…"

"I don't need an oral history…I was sitting right here when it happened."

"That's my point exactly. You were sitting right here. Even without your chakra circulatory system damage you have a fractured leg. You don't have a choice…you're stuck in bed. Yet here I go…. hopping in and out of this room for the last three or so days whenever you wanted me to."

Sasuke made a face. "You left when you wanted to. Even when I told you to get out you came back anyway."

"But you were counting on that. You wouldn't have made me miserable this whole time if you didn't know that I'd come back in here and forgive you over and over again."

Sasuke inclined his head. "Well, if that's true than that just makes you even more pathetic, Naruto. What else can I say?"

"You can say what you haven't said since this all started, Sasuke. That you want the procedure. That's what you can say." Naruto knew he had already reached the breaking point days ago, so he wouldn't be able to control himself any longer. "You played on my biggest weakness…seeing you hurt like this so you could control the situation right from the beginning. We should have had this talk days ago. And just when it finally looks like we're making progress you throw something else out at me. You ask me to give you a reason why." Naruto shook his head. "Enough is fucking enough, Sasuke. I'm not playing your damn games."

"The fact that you can't answer my question just proves my point, Naruto. Don't come barging in here like your shit doesn't stink." Sasuke's gaze turned hard. "It takes two people to have an argument…no one told you to come back in here…or to stay in the hospital in the first place."

"More crap again, Sasuke. Sing a different song because I've heard this one before." Naruto moved closer. "I'm finished with it…I'm finished with stepping around all our damn problems…I'm finished with grinning in your fucking face all day long so you won't get angry. Get angry…yell…scream…do whatever you have to. Because it's over, Sasuke. I'm not letting you take out your issues with your brother on me anymore."

The older teen's eyes turned deadly cold unexpectedly. "He has nothing to do with this. You knew a long time ago everything I did was to see him dead, Naruto."

"And that's why he has everything to do with this. I'm done with being patient…I'm done waiting…Itachi's dead and it's over. It's finished…so get over it."

"You knew the score long before anything ever happened between us…you knew Itachi would come first…"

"I never agreed to him having a hold on you after he died, Sasuke!" Naruto made a tight fist. "No child in this world should have had to suffer the burden you suffered when your parents died. No child's dreams should be to kill his brother and avenge his clan. But you made it through… you got stronger… you hated him… you did all of that. And he's dead now, Sasuke… you can let go…even if you lose all your abilities as a ninja you're still more of a man than he ever was."

"Go to FUCKING hell, Naruto!" Naruto resisted the urge to flinch. "Don't sit here preaching to me. I didn't make you be with me…if you were so damned concerned you should have left a long time ago. I told you this isn't about you.."

"It damn well should be! I'll tell you what this isn't about, Sasuke. This isn't about a fucking procedure. Or even life and death… it's about control… it's about you wanting control over your life again… every breath you took since you were seven years old has been for Itachi, Sasuke." Naruto gripped his hair with his other hand to keep himself in a reasonable state before he truly blew up. "Itachi made you consider killing me, Itachi made you seek power in Sound, Itachi plunged your whole being into darkness. And now, even in death, he's still controlling you."

"What the hell do you know about anything!" Sasuke's fingers were turning bone-white as he wrung the bed sheets in pale fingers. "No one has ever controlled me… No one!"

"Isn't that it? If you can't be a ninja anymore he's won right? You killed him but if you can't be a ninja that means he's still stronger than you…"

"You fucking orphan, Demon Vessel…. Don't ever…ever tell me anything… EVER… do you hear me…EVER." Sasuke was pointing at him. "I make my own choices… everything I've ever done was because I wanted it that way… Don't sit here and tell me what I'm feeling or what I'm thinking… I'm nothing like him. I would have gotten the Mangekyou Sharingan years ago if I did what he wanted me to. The fact that you're standing there in your complete ignorance is testament to that."

"It's also testament that you decided you would find your own path… Sasuke. And now it's time to do it again…I don't know who I've been talking to for the last four days, but it hasn't been the Uchiha Sasuke I know. The person lying here in front of me is a miserable, sorry excuse for a human being that continues to be manipulated by his psychotic older brother from beyond the grave. What the hell is wrong with you?"

"YOU are what's wrong with me. You've always been. I've wasted the last three years fucking around with you, Naruto. I don't need you. You or your bullshit. I could have gotten stronger faster; I could have trained harder without your damn distractions and nonsense. I could have gone after him and avenged my clan years ago."

"And you could also be dead, Sasuke. So what the hell's your point? You could have killed me too, and have gotten the Mangekyou Sharingan that way right? Should we add that too? Is there anything else you want to add? Do you want to mention again how I have no parents… do you want to reiterate that I'm pathetic for caring about you? Why don't you throw in that you have no feelings for me too, Sasuke… put it all out there so we can move the fuck on. I told you already, and if I have to say it ten more times so you get it I will." Naruto's voice got deep and harsh. "It's over."

"You're right… it is over…we're finished… get the fuck out of here…"

"I'm not going to play second to Itachi anymore…" Naruto's voice dropped, before he fell down to his knees beside Sasuke's bed, close to his limit before he shut down all together. "I'm not going to sit around watching him fuck with you again." The blond's words were slow, deliberate. Controlled. He didn't trust himself if he yelled again. "Let it go, Sasuke. For shit's sake… let it go."


"He can't hurt you anymore… Sasuke…" Naruto met those beautifully dejected dark eyes that flickered twice as they locked onto his own.

"Shut up… stop saying that stupid shit… Naruto…. Shut up…"

Sasuke's own voice had dropped; Naruto wasn't sure why…if maybe the words had finally been absorbed… or if Sasuke had gotten to the same point he was at…drained…every little bit of hurt and pain and rawness that had built up and bubbled over and tainted the atmosphere around them… all drawing them here…to this rough…unstable place.

"I promise on my life, Sasuke…" Naruto's words were even lower now…above a whisper…but too low for anyone to hear who didn't want to listen. "I promise on everything I am… on being hokage… on protecting you… I swear to god… I won't ever let him hurt you again. Sasuke… "

"What do you know…" Blue-black bangs obscured a sickly-pale face as the brunet's voice hit a raw point. "How could you know…."

"You said it before right… the loneliness… that dark loneliness where you wonder if pushing on and hoping for something better is worth it… or if you should just give up… it's worse than death… it's worse than any pain in this whole world…but it's over now… there isn't anymore of that…"

"He said… he never thought I'd kill him. He said I wasn't worthy enough to kill then… he said I wasn't worthy enough to kill even after…" Sasuke's words hung stale in the air now…words that Naruto wasn't sure had anything to do with the conversation. Words that had probably never been spoken out loud, which explained the ragged sort of way they came out. "He was surprised… I've never seen him surprised…"

"You did good, Sasuke…you protected your dream… you protected me…" Naruto pressed his palms against the mattress, hesitantly inching his fingers closer without touching his lover and startling him. Sasuke… please…The look on Sasuke's face as the bangs continued blocking part of his expression said things no words ever could. It was really hitting Sasuke now… once he stopped lashing out…stopped sitting in denial waiting for death. This was the moment… this was when everything mattered.

Naruto knew that as well as he knew anything.

"He said before I had the potential to verify his container…like he used my parents to measure…he…" Sasuke's fingers were gripping the sheets again, roughly, twisting them out of shape. "He never thought I'd be strong enough…not even strong enough to kill…that's why…I had to watch….he made me watch…them die…my mother…she…"

"Your mother used to bake cakes…didn't she…" Sasuke was getting closer to a dangerous place. The blond took the chance and pressed his palm over Sasuke's own hand, hoping to keep him from reaching the breakdown his mind was flirting with. "You never said it… directly, about your mother making cakes. I just sort of guessed…she was always finding a way to take care of you… wasn't she…she was so much to you…" Sasuke…please….you have to get over this…for both of us… you have to.

"She looked surprised too…but more sad then anything else…when I found her dead."

"You loved her so much…you never appreciated her until she wasn't there anymore…"

"He made me watch… he made me watch them die…he reminded me how weak I was…how I had been powerless to stop him… he said I was pathetic…" He's not even trying to make complete sentences anymore. His thoughts are jumping back and fourth… and his eyes… I can see them flickering almost violently now.

"Itachi also said he didn't expect you to kill him, right? So what does he know?" Naruto squeezed Sasuke's hand, willing him to stop wearing a hole in the sheets. Look at me, Sasuke… look at me… please, Sas… The older jounin turned his head, his eyes weren't flickering but that cold, broken look was in them.

Before he even realized it Naruto could feel a shaky wet line fall out of his eye. Sasuke…that pain…you could have… you should have told me about it…you didn't have to carry it alone…you don't have to die just so Itachi won't win anymore…you proved you were stronger than him already…you proved it twelve years ago when you forced yourself to survive all alone, Sasuke…Naruto wiped a few more stubborn tears from his whiskered-cheeks.

"Naruto…" his voice was getting even lower now…shaky…uncertain.

"Sasuke, I want you to tell me about your mother more often…I've never had anyone in my life to fill that role…I always liked when you mentioned things she did…the way she threw shuriken… or how she bandaged up a cut…how she sang silly songs, Sasuke…"

"I…" Sasuke's whisper was brutally anguished. "I don't know the words anymore….Naruto…"

Naruto blinked twin tears. "Just because…" Naruto smoothed his free palm up onto Sasuke's cheek, pushing away the bangs in the process. "Just because you don't know any of the words doesn't mean you can't hear what's being said…It's not all unknown, Sasuke…the pain isn't the only thing in the unknown…me…I'll be there…let me be your reason…Sasuke. Let go of Itachi.…give me a chance to make you happy…."


"You still want a reason why….Sasuke?" Naruto let his voice reach its normal volume. "What have you been telling me over and over… what do you say all the time…what do you think all the time? Why, Sasuke? Why? Because I'm no good without you. That's why."

Sasuke's let out a sudden breath. Sasuke? He took Naruto's hand away from his face but didn't drop it, holding the wrist, and studying it, turning it over in his hand like he had never seen one before.

He didn't look up at Naruto as he spoke in a steady voice. "You're really a stupid idiot. Dobe-kun."

Naruto made a face. "A stupid idiot? Dobe-kun? That's pretty damned redundant, Sasuke."

"You're still a stupid little idiot."

"Yeah, well, it takes one to love you."

Sasuke made a sound in the back of his throat as he lifted his gaze and met blue eyes. Yeah, I'll buy that." He inclined his head, slightly. "Naruto."

A smile… it was faint… barely there…if Naruto didn't know every line and curve and edge on Sasuke's face he might not have known it for what it was…but it was there… that enigmatic smile…

Sasuke…Sasuke…thank…oh god… Sasuke…

Naruto was up high enough on his knees that he could pull Sasuke into him…in the back of his mind he remembered they were in a hospital… Sasuke did have cracked ribs and a broken arm. He couldn't care. He pulled Sasuke against him as closely as he could and let a few more stray tears soak into the other teen's neck.

Moments passed and Naruto tried getting himself back under control. He didn't really understand it. Even though he had doubts, he always believed that he'd convince Sasuke in the end… so why was he falling apart and…

"You're the type of guy who gets mushy all the time. Naruto."

"Shut up." Naruto pulled away. He started rubbing at the tears that gave him away with the back of his hand. So what if he got mushy sometimes… he had a right to, damn it.

Sasuke? Naruto stilled his hands as Sasuke used the bed sheets he had wrung out to finish cleaning the tears away. "I thought you said you wouldn't lose to me, Naruto. Hardly seems like that now."

"I'll never lose to you, Sasuke. As soon as you're back on your feet again we're gonna settle it once and for all."

"That's…" Sasuke looked at him firmly.

"You've always been a scaredy-cat, Sasuke." Naruto shrugged. "I'm not going to hold back on you either. Like I always do."

"Don't steal my lines and try passing them off as your own." Sasuke gave him a playful sort of push. "That's why you're no good without me. Can't even talk without saying something I've already said. And making it sound dumber."

"Shut up." Naruto pushed his lover back. Not hard, of course. Then he wrapped his arms around him again. Gently. He lowered his mouth onto that spot on Sasuke's neck and sucked. Sasuke…

"Stay. Naruto." Sasuke watched the look on his lovers face. He nodded and squeezed his hand.

Naruto was back in the chair, still touching him. Not that Sasuke cared. Naruto had probably woken half the hospital when he ran out of the room to tell anyone who would listen that Sasuke had agreed to the procedure. That had been several hours ago. It was now the very early part of Friday morning. And the brunet knew that now that he had agreed it was only going to be an uphill climb to reach the top again.

"I should tell you how I feel when you can't move again." He was calm now. And looked exhausted. "You can't run away like you did the first time." The blond was leaning over and spoke his words against Sasuke's neck.

"If you're talking about the night I came back from Rock, that wasn't the first time you said it."

"Huh?" I knew you'd be surprised… Naruto.

"It wasn't the first time you said it to me." I never thought I'd tell you. "That night we had dinner with Kiba and Hinata. You got so drunk I had to carry you home. I was trying to strip you out of your clothes and toss you into a cold shower and you begged me to shower with you. We got into a fight and you said it then. You said you didn't want to take a shower without me because you loved me."

Naruto pulled back so he could look at Sasuke's face. Sasuke had a blank expression. "What…that was… that was almost three years ago…back when this all started between us… why the hell didn't you tell me what I said?"

Sasuke lifted an eyebrow. "Why should I have?"

"Why? What do you mean why?"

"There wasn't any point in telling you. I knew that if you really meant it you'd say it sober. And seven months ago you did."

"Sasuke." Naruto took a sharp intake of air. It's not such a big deal. "I don't know what to say."

"Then don't say anything. Words aren't necessary all the time, Naruto."

Sasuke shut his eyes. I won't lose to you, Naruto. I won't lose to you or anyone.

Endnotes: Well, I hope it was worth the wait. And did you notice this is the only chapter that alternated each scene between Sasuke and Naruto's POV…which wasn't all together intentional until I got down to writing this…then it sort of ended up that way.

Now to the specifics….I did say I'd sort of "explain" myself with a few of the flashbacks.

As for chapter six the flashback with Naruto and Sasuke making homemade cake was just pure fluff (well as close to fluff as I get in this fic) though there is the underlining issue of how Sasuke and Naruto have dealt with the subject of Sasuke's parents in the past. They didn't. Something that plays out a lot during Kakashi's "lectures" and Sasuke's conflicted thoughts about them. The Kiba/Sasuke scene in the market of course ties in with the end of chapter seven and the accompanying flashback, and because I'm such a stickler for details in my stories I thought it was important to at least give the tension between the two some kind of resolution. And of course it shows that even early on Naruto had a hold over Sasuke the brunet couldn't deny or break away from.

How Sakura found out about Naruto and Sasuke was sort of an anticlimactic moment…and was intended as such. Sakura hasn't played a big part in this fic and I think a big reason for that is because the way I've written her here she's at a new place in her life and though she'll always care deeply for Naruto and Sasuke I think she's stepped aside and let them work things out for themselves. Plus, I think Sakura wouldn't want to give Naruto the added pressure of saddling him on with her concerns. And I think it sets things up for the first scene in chapter seven rather nicely. Neither Sasuke or Sakura know what to make of each other a lot of time without Naruto. Something that was true even before Sasuke defected. But in the end I think they have a silent sort of understanding that works for their friendship.

Besides the fact that I just think Chouji and Ino are cute and we could all use a little comic relief, the specific reason is simple. It's all about foreshadowing. Sasuke tells Naruto he's naively optimistic because he believes things will work out in the end just because he "wills" them to. And when Naruto puts the moves on him and asks Sasuke if he's being "naively optimistic" Sasuke replies by asking Naruto, "who am I to stand in the way of a happy ending." Of course, not to rain on the parade but we still have three more chapters to go, however now that Sasuke's going through with the procedure it certainly puts them in good contention for a "happy ending"…or as close as you can get given the circumstances.

With the exception of the flashback concerning Naruto and Sasuke getting ready to meet Hinata and Kiba, which I already explained above, I would say the remaining little vignettes sort of speak for themselves; otherwise I probably didn't do a good job in writing them. Anyway…a lot of the last three chapters have been written because I didn't write this fic "in order" as it were. So chapter eight should be out soon enough. And there's even a surprise cameo in it. Thanks for reading and for all the feedback.