Disclaimer: Naruto and its characters created by Masashi Kishimoto
A/N: After Sound. After Itachi. Yes, it's been done before. Everything has, hasn't it?
Pairings: None


The heart monitor beeps throughout the room, like a clock morbidly ticking off the hours.

Five days. Five days I've stayed by his side, five days and he hasn't moved. Five days of an interminable, suffering impatience.

Five days of eating, drinking, sleeping, breathing nothing but the now stale air of this room. Five days of nothing but him.

The measured beeping echoes off the empty walls.

Sometimes, I crawl up beside him, when no one is looking, when there are no nurses to tell me no, and cradle him gently in my arms. Sometimes, I sit in that hard uncomfortable chair and just watch him, looking for any signs of life or coherency. Just the faintest flicker of eyelid, the smallest twitch of lips, the slightest movement of any kind that will tell me he is still alive. Sometimes, I hold his hand, rubbing the palm absently; talking incessantly of nonsense happenings around town that no one could possibly care about. A monotonous drone, quieter than normal, just to block out the perpetual beep of unwanted machinery.

And sometimes I stand, hands clasped behind my back as I stare out the big picture window and into the heart of the city, watching the tiny people walk by.

Because there are times too that I don't want to watch, can't bear to see him.

Not like this.

Not half-dead and lost to some nightmare that seems to be slowly stealing him away.

Not when he lays motionless on the starched white hospital bed, his complexion gray and sickly, his eyes sunken into their sockets and the green and purple of veins standing out starkly against the papery thinness of his skin. His hair splayed out around him, longer than it should be, dull and messy, the locks like a knotted, tangled web. He looks dead, worse than dead, just gone and empty and yet still breathing. A shell with no owner. Looking at him, lying there like that, hearing the continuous beep-beep-beep of the monitor, I think that maybe it's just like being with Orochimaru.

Occasionally, people came by to reassure themselves everything will go back to normal. I'm not stupid; I can see the truth behind their eyes. There's no way to know and just like before, promises cannot always be kept.

I run a hand through my hair, clearing it from my eyes, not knowing what to do. Because it is up to him now, to fight, to live, to not leave us. Tsunade has said as much the many times I've asked her about it.

Now it's his decision to make, whether he stays like this or wakes up. Or leaves us altogether. It's all a matter of willpower.

But I have faith, because it is him and he was never one to give up. He'd practically died not giving up.

This won't beat him either. I'm sure of it.

And so I wait, trapped in that unending silence, punctuated by the monotonous beeping of the monitor. I've never once left his side, even though I should have, even though in actuality it is unconventional for me to stay here. The only reason it's allowed is simply because I'd put up too much of a fuss when they told me I couldn't stay and tried to stop me. I'd screamed and yelled and swore and railed and broke a few pieces of furniture in the process (which apparently I'll be paying for with the payments from missions-once I'm finally working again), until everyone became fed up and decided it would be easier to just let me have my way. That should teach them. No one gets in my way. Not when it comes to him.

Besides, as Tsunade herself has admitted, if anyone can wake him up, it will be me, sitting beside him now.

All the same, I feel lost and helpless. There's nothing I can do but wait. This is out of my realm of expertise. I hate this feeling, more than anything else.

I don't like being helpless.

The past few days have passed in quiet consternation, sometimes painfully slow, sometimes frighteningly fast, but each day much like the other, a waiting game to see just how much strength he really has. And how much he really wants to return after everything that's happened.

Waiting to see if there is anything he even wants to return to.

It is by no means a secret that many of the villagers dislike him, fear him, and look down on him. That many on the council of elders will never trust him now. But if he thinks and remembers, he'll pull himself out from this whatever it is, and see that there are those that will care for him no matter what, that will always stay by his side.

Because despite everything, he hasn't failed. Neither himself nor his friends.

And certainly not me.

No, it's exactly the opposite. To me, he's proven himself despite everything.

I'm now sitting next to him, as he lies unconscious in the bed. I feel the need to assure myself he's there, so I reach out and take a thin, skeletal hand between my own two stronger ones and hold it like a prayer, resting my chin upon the linked fingers, rocking gently back and forth. It all feels so strange to me, to act this way, particularly toward him. But even so, I offer up a silent plea to whoever will listen to give him back. After all this time, all the mistakes, the missteps, the wrong turns, he has to come back. Life would be too cruel otherwise.

And though I already know how cruel life can be, I've been on the wrong side too often not to; I can't believe that it would be that wrong.

There is too much left unsaid and too much left to make up for.

Precious few have come to visit and most, in their awkwardness, weren't sure how to react since they only really came for the sake of one of us and not the other. After a while, they stopped coming by and that's all right by me. I'm the only one he needs anyway.

There are but a few notable exceptions. Sakura, of course, is one of them as it's clear even to me that she cares for both of us equally. There's no lie in her words or actions or eyes and she's entitled at the very least. She's worked too. She has suffered too.

And in the end, she is his friend too.

So, sometimes, she comes by and sits beside me and just hopes and waits and prays like I do, that the missing member of our team will return to us. And at the same time, she comforts me.

It's a strangeness that is not entirely unwanted.

Iruka is allowed as well. And though he's always held more affection for one over the other, there's no doubt in my mind that he is a good, true and kind man who cares for all his students, the two of us included.

He comes to visit the both of us, offering what little support he can.

And even if it feels a little odd, the way he looks at me sometimes, it is still welcome.

Because I don't know what to do and at times, I feel like I'll simply fall. But with him here beside me, I know I won't fall far.

So yes, Iruka has come by everyday since we came back, broken and dirty and worn, as I dragged my best friend home like so much excess baggage. Iruka's been watching over us in his own way, just standing behind me, his eyes intent. Sometimes, I even invite my old teacher to have a seat with me, if for no other reason than I'm sick of being watched without being watched.

And he always tries to be jovial, to cheer me up, encouraging and comforting.

But for some things there is no comfort.

"He'll be fine," Iruka always says. "The only person more stubborn than him is you. We just need to have faith in him. I'm sure he'll pull through, whether you stay constantly by his side or not." And then he gives me that worried, knowing look and adds, "You'll be no good to anyone if you just wither away."

But I don't listen to his well-intentioned but unsolicited advice. I don't believe it. I'm fine as I am. Because my friend needs me, as much as I need him. It's the one thing I'm sure of. And I don't want to not be here when he finally wakes up. Because he will wake up, because he refuses to lose.

"And what will he think," Iruka continues all the same. "When his greatest rival can't even stand, let alone give him a good fight? Do you think he'll be happy? Do you think he'll thank you? Think of whom we're talking about here for a second. If he wakes up to find you sleeping beside him looking like a skeleton, he's not going to be happy."

Despite his plea, I won't turn his way. I don't have to. I can already see the look; hear the disapproval in his voice.

I give the same answer I have every time, but I don't think I've ever uttered a truer statement.

"He's never been truly happy."

I know I should feel bad for shutting Iruka out, since that is in fact what I'm doing. And I know that he's only trying to help. But today I really don't feel bad at all I just want to be left alone, alone with my closest friend.

And then I hear a sigh behind me, partly sad, partly disgusted, but in all ways final and there's a gentle click of the door as the room is once more emptied of unnecessary occupants.

It is again just the two of us, brothers, friends and rivals, he constantly asleep, me forever awake, and yet we look somehow the same, like cadavers on leave from the morgue.

And that's just fine, anything that makes us closer to one another, that's just fine. And I can feel the tiredness wash over me, the days of unending wakefulness taking their toll and I decide that just a short time, just a short while, a little rest might be alright.

Five days is a long time without sleep perhaps, but it is not so long that I'm worried.

I'm no longer a first year genin fresh from the academy and thinking myself more than I am.

Five days is really not so long.

I just want him awake and that's all. But I can be patient too.

Five days without him is nothing. I've gone longer. Three years is longer, everyday a cold void, regardless of which of us was to blame. It was three years, but I will wait three more if that's what he asks of me. I'm worried, but I'm not.

Because he will always come back for me.

But right now I'm tired. Much more so than I realized.

So I edge myself onto the bed, careful to not jostle its occupant, and curl up beside him, nuzzling my head under an ashen chin, as if I am the one that really needs protection. I don't think about how it will look to anyone else, I can't bring myself to care about such trivial matters.

Because when I'm this close, I'm more sure. I can feel the slow rise and fall of his chest, hear the slightly irregular beat of his heart and smell that individual scent that is his and his alone. And it makes me feel better, that he still has the same smell. Like if he were really and truly beyond reclamation, his scent wouldn't be the same.

It doesn't make sense, but still, I find it oddly soothing.

There is the barest whisper of my breath in his hair, ruffling it just slightly as I wrap my arms around him as he sleeps, sharing my warmth and drinking in his scent. His name escapes my lips quietly just as I'm drifting off.

I don't bother to think about why.

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

On the sixth day, I am awakened rudely by an unwelcome tug on my shoulder. I mumble incoherently and nuzzle down farther, sighing as I feel the familiar body beside my own. I'm too tired and far too comfortable to be bothered to wake up to a world I don't much like. I was having a nice dream, where it was just him and me, fighting like always, but laughing too. Well, happy at any rate and that is more than enough. It was a dream of happier times I'm not quite sure are memories or premonitions or just wishes unfulfilled. But I don't much care. I'm enjoying them whatever way and I want to keep them and hold them for as long as I can.

There's another shake on my shoulder and I want to just lash out and choke this person and tell them to stop interrupting and go straight to hell. Then it occurs to me rather suddenly that it might be him, trying to wake me up.

And so I open his eyes, in anticipation of familiar eyes staring back at me with the voice I know so well asking in irritation, "Just what do you think you're doing!"

But reality is often different from what one would like and when I do look up, I'm not met with any of these things, only the same pallid face, hardly recognizable and the annoying beeping of the monitor bouncing off the walls to taunt me. I feel tears come to my eyes; I'm not exactly sure why. I wipe the damn annoying things away quickly with the back of my hand and gently inch myself upward until my head is level with his and my breath is now tickling his wayward hair. I watch the lifeless strands wave, transfixed by their strange dance and dare a small hug as I drape an arm over his thin chest.

Someone is calling me. Some irritating unwanted someone, breaking into my perfect little dream in my perfect little place. I don't think I've hated anyone as much as I hate that someone right now.

So I try to ignore it and let myself become hypnotized by the gentle play of hair and breath. My heartbeat is desperately trying to match the abnormal one beneath me.

But I hear my name again.

Fine then! If they won't leave me alone, then I'll make them. Angrily, I sit up a little more swiftly than I'd intended, making the bed rock slightly under the movement. In a panic I check him, taking a relieved breath when I see that the he is still apparently comfortable and infuriatingly unconscious. He didn't seem to be bothered by the sudden movement at all. A frown covers my face in frustration. Shouldn't he have noticed, done something, made some sort of indication that he'd felt the sudden movement? Stupid, stubborn idiot! I suddenly want to hit him, and make him wake up already!

I'm sick of this sick, twisted game he's playing.

Yet another call to me.

Again, the voice! And more insistent this time, too. Well, it seems I have no choice. Take care of the voice, and then it's this jerk's turn.

Making a fist, I swing my arm around wildly, aiming to cause damage when I stop just short, my eyes wide in horror and embarrassment. I blink a bit stupidly, my fist still held in mid-air. "Kakashi."

My former teacher gives me that aggravating little smile, perhaps not realizing just how close to the edge I've been hovering since I came back. A fact I don't much like to admit myself. But what did he expect, sneaking up on sleeping people like that?

"Good morning. Nice to see you in good spirits. But would you mind putting your hand down?"

Looking over to see that, yes, my arm is still up, I abruptly drop it, embarrassed at being caught and desperate to not turn a glorious shade of tomato red. I offer up a half-hearted, mumbled apology. "Sorry about that." I don't really mean it. I think he knows.

"It's OK," Kakashi replies unconvincingly. Then he takes that hard, uncomfortable chair and drops himself down into it. His face screws up with disappointment and concern, hidden well behind his smiling mask as his eyes survey me, making me want to turn away. Fighting off the urge, I shift uneasily under his heavy gaze, covering up my awkwardness with a scowl and really wishing everyone would stop giving me that look. I hate that look. I'm fine, already! I wish they'd get it. Besides, it's not me that needs the help. Why aren't they more worried about him? You know, the one currently unconscious in this hospital bed! Now I do want to hit Kakashi, no regrets involved.

But then my thoughts, as often do these days, return to thoughts of him, my friend.

I turn back around and look at him, the husk that should be my best friend. With a gentle smile, I reach over and tuck a strand of hair behind the boy's ear, letting my hand rest there, cradling his head. I rub my thumb on the rim of his ear affectionately and for an instant, looking down at him, all I want is to lay back down and just hold him again, just the two of us, just as it should be. Forgetting for the moment that we're no longer alone.

I lower my head, coming dangerously near to his, our faces mere inches apart. I lean my forehead against his and I don't know why; when that voice breaks in again.

Annoyingly, more insistent, and I stop, still staring at the wan, deathlike face and new sorrow springs to my chest. I'm sick of it. This close up, the hollows of his cheeks, the pits of his eyes are more pronounced, little purple veins decorating his face like spider webs. And though I can't remember putting it there, I can feel labored, harsh breathing through the palm of my hand which rests over his heart.

And I know. He is worse than he was yesterday.

Without thinking about it, I smooth my arm over the bony rattling chest and to his side, and begin to lie back down, wanting nothing more than to go to sleep holding the other boy in my arms. I want to crawl inside him and pull his consciousness back out, back to me. I want something more than a corpse for a best friend.

A shout breaks through my thoughts, sharp as a shuriken.

Once more, I stall, barely above the mattress and slowly turn my head around, trying to hide the worry from my eyes. Kakashi stares at me somewhat incredulously, as if he'd only just figured something out and the revelation has struck him mute. I watch his throat bob as the man swallows a bit nervously. And again with the oddly strained smile. I have to confess, I find his uneasiness a little amusing considering how many times he teased us, back in the early days when we all fresh from the academy.

A caring hand ventures to my arm followed by an even gentler tug.

I shouldn't, I know, but I wish he'd just get out.

"You haven't eaten in days." Kakashi smiles more brightly, almost with relief, both masks now firmly in place. "I don't care how strong you say you are; everyone needs to eat. C'mon." He gestures with his head. "I'll treat you to dinner."

I stare at him, my teacher and supposedly my friend, but then look back over to see the sickly face of my closest friend. He seems so small, lying there like that. I just can't bring myself to leave his side. I shake my head and settle back down. "No, I . . . "

"Yes!" The force of the word makes me jerk harshly, which only serves to aggravate me more. Why can't he just leave me alone! My fingers grip the cloth of a hospital gown, trying to keep my friend safe, feeling guilty that I may have caused him pain. But still there's nothing, no response in that thin, gray face. I hold on tighter.

The hand on my arm is more demanding now, pulling me sharply away and to my feet, forcing me to let go or else drag the unconscious form along with me, and cause it to tumble to the floor. The release of my hold on the cloth leaves me with a sudden painful, inexplicable emptiness. Without some sense of the other boy in my hands, there is something missing from me, a hole that can only be filled with one thing. It is sharp and hard and cold like ice, expanding against my ribcage, so tight I feel like the bones might break and burst.

"You're coming with me. Now." Kakashi's voice is harsh and wholly unwelcome to my ears. There is another voice I want to hear. One that fights with me and fights for me, calling me idiot or jerk or some other such insult. Some condescending, insulting, stupid, pointless challenge that would be like music to my ears right now.

The hold on me is stronger as I'm spun around, a tense grip on each of my arms. I direct my attention that way and blink the weariness from my eyes, looking straight into the face of my old teacher. It's as if I'm only just seeing him now, the man with the masked face and hidden eye. What in the world had I been thinking? Had I been thinking at all? I don't think so. Kakashi looks so worried and it just looks so out of place on him. I don't like that look there, especially directed at me. It unnerves me and oddly makes me feel guilty. This is one of the few people to really care about me, one of the few that has ever even looked out for me and here I am standing, ungrateful and selfish and I'm a horrible person.

And I already knew that.

I give Kakashi a frighteningly odd blank look but I can't seem to change it. Still, I am sorry for the way I've been acting and nod. "OK." I try to force the reluctance clear from my voice.

The expression on my old teacher's face shows he doesn't entirely believe this sudden change in attitude, but is relieved nonetheless. With a friendly smile hidden beneath his mask, he ambles up beside me as we head out.

Even at the prospect of a free meal and a little rest and the anticipatory growl of my stomach, I take a last glance back, reassuring myself that he will indeed still be there when I return.

I don't like leaving him and do so against my better judgment.

I join in the small talk as we walk, occasionally losing the thread of conversation, shaking my head and making up some ridiculous excuse that was clearly not bought by Kakashi at all. I can't help it. I know I'm seriously distracted, and it seems nothing the older ninja tries will alleviate this. I turn my eyes up to him and see the curious look there, but choose to ignore it and turn with feigned interest to some nonsense happenings across the street instead.

I don't like the way he's fussing over me like a mother hen. I've only agreed to come out so people will stop pestering me and let me do what I want.

Though he did maybe make me feel the tiniest bit guilty.

It doesn't take long for us to reach our destination. I sit down and request my dinner with lying ease. I've had lots of practice; I don't even have to try anymore. It's not that I'm not hungry; it's not that I don't like what I've ordered. And it's not that I want to begrudge Kakashi my time and attention.

It's just not where I want to be right now.

And even though the food is good, same as I remember, I still have to force the meal down. That's also not to say that I don't eat a lot. After all, I had gone five days without a decent meal and I am certainly hungry after all is said and done.

It just doesn't taste quite as good as I think it should have. Doesn't fill me so much as settle like some heavy stone weight in my gut.

I must have stopped eating, there must have been some look accidentally exposed on my normally well-masked face, because the next thing I know, I feel a consoling arm wrap around my shoulder in what I deem to be a very un-Kakashi-like move.

"Kakashi-sensei?" Old habits die hard.

"You know, even the bravest ninjas can't be brave all the time." The man's voice is low and soothing. "You don't always have to put on this tough act. I know what you've been through and I know how much you care about him."

My eyes half-shut themselves of their own accord, big stupid fat droplets threatening to spill from my eyes. I lift up my arms and dig them into Kakashi's shirt, taking what comfort I can, what comfort I'd long since needed but didn't know how to take.

I hate feeling this weak. I hate not knowing what to do.

I hate knowing that there's nothing I can do.

Feeling stupid and blushing in shame, I hide my face from the jounin as he continues.

"You just have to believe in him. He's strong; he always has been, even as a little kid. You have to believe he'll be alright. But it's still OK to worry. It's only natural when someone you care for is in pain. Stop locking it all away. It's not healthy, putting on that brave face all the time" He sighs and rubs my back in what I assume to be sympathy.

I sniffle into Kakashi's shoulder and squeeze his eyes shut, tightening my hold. I don't want to cry. But I can't help it. My emotions are a mix of everything: surety that he will wake up, but fear that he won't and that I'm wrong. I've been wrong too many times before and I can't help it, though I'm trying. "What if he doesn't wake up?" Those damn tears start falling anyway. "What if he doesn't wake up and just leaves me alone? Then what am I supposed to do? He can't just leave me. He can't just leave me alone, not after everything that's happened. That stupid, stubborn jerk. He can't . . . "

Then two strong arms wind around me in an awkward embrace, neither of us knowing quite what to do. He's probably shocked by all the words that tumbled from my mouth. And perhaps it is all this unexpected comfort or perhaps it is just my nerves worn raw, but I begin to cry, very quietly, very subtly, into Kakashi's shoulder. The very thought of losing my best friend twists me up inside. Squeezing out all that's left of me until it's empty, but somehow heavy, this strange sort of weighty nothingness. And the nothingness pulls and stretches and winds around my heart like a rope. I haven't allowed myself to even think it. Haven't for a moment allowed myself to really believe it's possible. Not after all this. Not after all this time and struggle and mistakes. It would be the epitome of unfair.

But still, somewhere in the back of my mind, the seed of doubt is planted and grows and grows until it nearly chokes me off.

Life has too often been unfair.

I whisper almost silently, more to myself, a confession I don't want to make. I can't even recognize the sound of my own voice. "I'm afraid."

Kakashi just holds me and lets me water his shoulder, dinner and the rest of the world long forgotten. People are probably watching; those damn people I wish would just leave me the hell alone.

I feel like a child, tired and weary from lack of food and water and proper sleep, and unknowingly fall uncharacteristically and suddenly into sleep after only a few vital moments of emotional release.

I don't remember going to Kakashi's, don't remember falling into bed and wrapping the blankets around myself like a fluffy shield. I don't remember anything, my mind for once a blissful blank. That is, until I'm overcome with a terrible sick feeling, a nightmare taking hold without name or image and I simply know something is wrong. There is a near frantic shaking on my shoulder, an urgent whisper in my ear and like a bolt I sit up straight out of sleep, causing a little dizzy spell. I turn my eyes, far too clear for having just woken and look into a masked face.

I watch the mouth move under the fabric, speaking words I don't want to hear, yet still echo in the blank shock of my mind.

The next thing I know, I'm leaning over the toilet, emptying my stomach of the last remnants of food it still held and then only air and bile, the force so hard it makes my eyes water. This can't be happening. Not now, not like this.

I hate myself.

Paying no attention to the protests of my teacher, I only push by him and catapult out the window, not bothering to even put on shoes. I speed through the trees with strength and stamina even I know I shouldn't have, considering how I haven't been taking care of myself lately.

I tear through town and burst into the hospital, kicking and screaming like a wild animal when guards try to stop me, gripping my arms and holding me back. Caught somewhere between anger and despair, I fight back with all my strength, which having been spent mostly just to get me here, quickly dies out, making me collapse into a crumpled puddle on the floor.

Why does everyone have to get in my way!

I should never have left. I knew I shouldn't have, and yet let myself get talked into it so easily. Damn it!

And I can't take it anymore, letting myself scream, pounding my fists against the floor and mustering what energy I can to make another vain attempt. They won't keep me away from him. Just see them try.

Swallowing my useless tears, I haul myself to my feet and drag my exhausted body over, the determination showing clear in my eyes through the fog of a defeat even I know I must accept.

They don't bother to stop me now, only back off and let me stumble my way wearily through the front doors. I wonder why the change? Maybe they remember the last time. Or maybe my little fit has thrown them off. I don't know. I don't care.

I hate myself.

I really should have been here, not worrying about my own needs and my own paltry hunger. Not that I could have done anything if I were here, but my rational mind can't seem to comprehend this. My conscience is screaming at me that all of it is my fault.

It is.

I flop to the ground just outside the waiting room door and do just that: wait. I stare blankly at it as if with need alone I will be able to see through it, be able to have some effect on what is going on where I can't go.

It's all I can do now.

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

In the night between the sixth and seventh day at 1:32 am, a young male shinobi, known throughout all of Konoha, and only just recently returned from a long and weary mission, crashed.

His heart had stopped beating. No sudden spike in rhythm, no arrest, no fanfare of any kind. It had simply stopped as if it were tired of fighting and just didn't care anymore. The heart monitor had let out a long, high-pitched whine and the room that had been so still and empty but for him and me, became a sudden flurry of activity. He was rushed into the operating room and Tsunade had fled to his side, perhaps faster than she'd ever moved before, knowing perhaps that, in a way, his life was not the only one on the line.

If they lost him, I'm not sure I'd have the strength to go on.

I hate to admit it, hate even more that others have probably realized it too. I don't know when I started becoming so weak, when it began to be so clear.

After much work and struggle, they finally got his heart going again. But it was, if anything, even worse than before. It was beating irregularly and faint, a meager blip on the screen; it was truly up to him and his will, or his desire, to live.

And now that's it's finally over, Tsunade falls unceremoniously into a chair that sits outside the operating room. I think all the work and stress and worry almost made her miss me as I stand there, hands pressed against the glass of the window to that room. I'm not sure quite when it was that I made my way here, but it was after he had gone. All I found was a pane of glass and an empty room behind. But now, in the reflection, I see Tsunade push the sweat-slicked hair from her face and, even with her jutsu, her weariness and some of her age begins to show. She scrunches up her face, looking at me, and it makes me feel very small and insignificant.

Not in stature, necessarily, or in spirit, but just a smallness that all people have when compared with the world as a whole. And I do feel helpless, lost, like any other person who's lost their best friend. Only I haven't lost him, not yet. And I refuse to let it happen.

She watches me carefully, and I'm sure she can see the way my shoulders slump and my hands tremble, despite my best efforts. My hair is a tangled mess and my clothes are rumpled. I didn't have time to waste with stupid things like that on my way here. Her eyes venture downward until I'm sure she notices that my feet are bare, yet another thing I didn't have the time for. A small tear appears in her eye and I want to punch her.

I don't need her fucking sympathy.

She shakes her head and puts a hand to her mouth. I think she's the one that looks weak.

"Will he be alright?" My abnormally quiet voice cracks out. It's the only thing I really care about. She can choke on her sympathy.

The woman clears her throat, considering what to say. She's probably not used to seeing me like this; I'm not used to it either. "I honestly don't know" is all she says.

My fingers grip the glass tightly. That is not an answer. "What do you mean, you don't know? How can you not know?"

She winces at the sharp, harshness of my voice. I can be intimidating too. "We've done everything we can. It's up to him now."

"That's what you said before!" I whip around and glare at her, too tired or angry to even cry. "And then this happened!" I wipe nonexistent tears from my eyes. No one will tell me the truth, afraid that I'm made of glass and will shatter. And maybe I will, but I'm sick of this. "And now you've 'fixed' him again. Obviously you can do something! There has to be something . . ."

She sighs. I'm desperate and I'm sure she knows it. But there has to be something. She's just lying to me again, like everyone does, I just know it. "We did what we had to when his heart stopped. But you have to understand. He's the one that let it stop. He's the one that gave up. There's no way we could have prevented that."

I'm sniffling again and I hate it. I clench my fists at my sides, denying the desire to spring out and strike her. Because right now, Hokage or not, she deserves it. How dare she say he gave up! My best friend never gave up. He'd never just let go . . .

"I want to see him."

"But now . . ." she says, standing up from her seat and walking slowly towards me.

"No!" I shout, backing away. She's trying to "calm me down" and I don't need "calming down", goddamn it! I need to see him. "You won't keep us apart. Orochimaru couldn't. Itachi couldn't. Why the hell do you think you can!"

Her eyes narrow at me.

"Be careful what you say . . ." I can hear the tight, dangerous edge to her voice. I guess there's only so much she's willing to forgive, even when my best friend is dying right in front of me. No, not dying. He's just injured, recuperating. And I don't care if she's trying to warn me. I don't care what simple words she has to say.

"Don't you take that attitude with me." Tsunade grinds out. "Haven't I let you stay with him, even when you shouldn't have? I'm not trying to keep you two apart. But right now what he needs is rest and a little time to recover." She pauses, watching me. I deliberately let a little tension ease from my frame. Whatever I have to do so I can be back at his side. She goes on.

"And you as well. You clearly haven't been taking care of yourself."

"I'm fine." I say determinedly. I don't much care about myself right now anyway.

"You're not fine." Tsunade's attempting to prove she can be just as stubborn as I am. She's got quite a battle in front of her, I promise that. Even if I know it's just because she doesn't like to see any of her men injured.

But I'm not one to give in, not on this.

"No. You're right. I'm not fine." I look up at her, letting some emotion seep into my face. Maybe that will work. Whatever it takes "But I will be. If you let me stay with him."

Tsunade lets out a frustrated breath. "Why? Why now, after all this time? I understand how close you are, you always have been. But this insistence of yours is almost sudden. So tell me, what's changed now?" She seems genuinely interested in my answer.

I soften my expression almost imperceptibly as I look at her with something akin to pity. It's nothing more than I had expected. She doesn't understand. She doesn't understand me; she doesn't understand him. And she certainly doesn't understand our bond and its strange power. No one does. They only think they do. "It's not about that. About some supposed 'sudden change'. Nothing's ever really changed between us. It's just about him and me. About what I want and what he really needs." I lift my chin slightly. "Besides, I'm just returning the favor."

She looks at me strangely. I guess these are not the words she had expected to hear from me. "What exactly do you mean by that?"

Again, I gave her that look. It's a bit condescending, I know, but I find it all a bit sad. How little has anyone ever understood, how little has anyone ever known. "After Orochimaru was killed and we were separated from the rest of the group, he took care of me. I was injured so badly at the time I could barely move, and the Sound was still out there looking for us." I lower my gaze and smile to myself, not letting her see. "And all that time, he watched over me."

I turn back to the glass window that faces nowhere, my hands more gentle on it as I remember. "Now it's my turn."

Two eyes bore into my back, somewhat confused, somewhat suspicious, but overall in surprise. I can feel it in the air. It's the reaction, in all honesty, that I had expected. I would have shrugged, did I care enough. But I don't because I'm not surprised. All these people think they know, about me, about him, about the two of us.

They know nothing.

There's a heavy sigh behind me, I can almost feel the force of it against my back. The woman has moved closer, nearly touching me and when I raise my head, I see her reflection hovering over my shoulder in the glass. Our eyes meet.

I can see the searching look she has, her inner struggle trying to discover if what I've said is the truth. All I do is stare. I have nothing more to say. And if she can't see the way things have to be, then I'd fight her, whether I have a chance or not, whether it would cause me to be jailed or not. She won't be stopping me this time. No one will.

In the reflection, I watch her close her eyes and slowly turn away, her arms crossed importantly over her chest.

"Very well. If you're going to be so difficult, I'll let you stay in his room again. But only because I don't have any more time to waste on this. But if I change my mind, you have to listen. Do you understand me? I don't want to hear about it again. I don't want any complaints from you." Her back stays rigid, as if strengthening herself. "Or from him, if he wakes up."

Feeling proudly triumphant, as well I should, a tiny smile graces my lips, but even were she facing me, I bet Tsunade would be hard-pressed to confirm its existence.

"When." I assert quietly.

"What?" The woman faces me tilting her head to one side, completely missing the softer expression that I've now hidden.

"Not 'if' he wakes up. ' When'."

I feel my old fire return from just that word, the determined look in my eyes that promises a beating to anyone who would dare contradict me.

She smiles at me, maybe for the first time she truly understands just a little bit, about me and about him, sleeping only a few doors away.

"Yes," she agrees with a small nod of her head. "When."

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

The seventh day passes much the way many have passed before it.

Dull, boring, and blissfully uneventful.

The hard, uncomfortable chair is back and I sit in it as I often do, clutching my friend's hand, feeling the meager blood pulsing through his bony wrist. We're in a different wing now, but I think maybe they think that I like that chair, because it seems to have moved. Or more than likely, all their chairs are the same, a fact I find deplorable when this is a hospital where people wish to visit their loved ones. But it makes no real difference, I guess.

There seems to be more machines here, and nurses peek in every now and then. It's because he's in more critical condition I know, but I try to ignore it. I haven't moved in forever, but it feels so short and if I were asked, I wouldn't be able to give an educated guess at the duration.

But all those who have visited could.

Iruka, of course, was one of the first. Because he is a man who puts others before himself, and makes himself aware of the lives of his former students. Especially us, or so it seems to me. Maybe it's because even back then he saw something unique in us. I don't know. I can't really think about it, sometimes it makes me feel like I'm swimming in some hidden, dark water. The change between then and now is too great. He'd offered what he could, gave my shoulders a gentle squeeze and a pat on the head to my friend as he slept, stopping a moment for a small prayer. Or that is how it appeared. But though I can tell he wanted to stay, he has other duties and classes to teach and politely excused himself, saying as much. With one last forlorn look to us, which I noticed only marginally and basically ignored, he shut the door and headed towards the academy.

Kakashi stopped by as well. I think he was feeling a little guilt over yesterday. The guilt that it seemed even he could not avoid or hide as it showed in his one visible eye. I looked up at him, blank and forgiving, but not forgiving. I know it's not his fault that I wasn't here when it happened, not really, but that didn't stop the itch of annoyance and blame that tickled the back of my mind. If only Kakashi had left me alone, if only I'd been allowed to stay, then perhaps this wouldn't have happened.

A completely illogical conclusion I realize, but there nonetheless. And in as many words, I told him that while I don't blame him, I don't want to be near him now, either.

With a puff of smoke, the jounin had disappeared, giving up no protest, the look I saw in his eye seeming to say that he understood.

Then there was the parade.

After the near tragedy of the night before, there was a sudden renewed interest in the condition of the two "now famous boys of Konoha". At least, that's how I've heard the nurses refer to us in hushed whispers when they think I can't hear. It's an odd title, I think, since in a way, we were both fairly "famous" even before any of this happened.

I think perhaps now it is for different reasons.

All the random people came by, the rookie nine and Gai and his team. They every one stood beside us for a few awkward moments, making it clear that while they cared and worried for one of us, they did not so much for the other. The visits were tense and uncomfortable for all parties involved, but even so, I didn't say anything. Let them do what they want. I wasn't always happy with them there, but for some reason they wanted to be, and truth be told, I had long since given up the energy to fight it.

I don't care anymore what they do, just as long as I can stay here.

And so they came, each one uneasier than the last until I wanted to pull out my hair and tell them to just get the hell out. The two of us only really need each other anyway. Naruto and Sasuke, Sasuke and Naruto. How long has it been that way I wonder?

And even if someone else were there, I would simply ignore this fact and pretend they weren't. By the time the last of them arrived, it was easy and I didn't even notice the aching tension in my shoulders.

Sakura is another matter altogether. She is always welcome, since she is truly concerned for us both. And even more welcome when she took it upon herself to kick the multitude of random visitors out. She's out in the hall now and I can hear her, yelling like a mother scolding her children.

"If you're going to come to visit, then you're coming for both of them! If you can't accept that they come as a pair, then frankly, you're unwanted here!" Her voice echoes strangely in the halls, both for the fact she'd so blatantly lost her temper in the face of so many as well as for what she's said.

It's funny to me, thinking of how she treated us in the beginning, so different from each other, that now I can see she's perhaps the one who cares and understands us best of all.

Then again, maybe that makes perfect sense.

I don't feel like thinking about it.

I detect some smaller mumblings from her, followed by half-hearted protests from the parade, and more mumblings.

At last followed by the finality of a door closing and the pall of welcome silence.

I haven't moved my eyes from the boy on the bed, sitting there beside him, holding his hand as I often do; my other sitting uselessly on my thigh. A small, fiery presence walks up behind me, standing still for a moment, boring holes in the back of my head.

"Thank you." So quiet, I'm not exactly sure why I say it or if she's heard. But there's a sudden, short start in her posture, visible even as I don't see her, before she relaxes once more.

The scraping of metal on the floor and a chair is pulled up next to me, just as uncomfortable as my own. The room seems to be filled with a soft glow of chakra showing only concern. I can feel eyes on me again. Not questioning, confused, unwelcome ones, but simply the eyes of a friend, a teammate, a person who knows, on at least some level, the depth and nature of our relationship.

She continues to stare and I let her, it's not judgmental or overbearing, though I can sense the underlying curiosity.

A soft voice speaks up. "You could have done that yourself. Kicked them out if they were really bothering you."

"Not really."

I feel the sharp jerk her body makes at the words. I could make a guess why, but I'm not sure I care. It makes no difference. We sit like this for a while; lost in that confused though not uncomfortable silence when I feel a hand, soft and gentle, rest upon mine. I look down at it, smaller than my own, smoother, and yet still showing the deformities and swelling all shinobi have. And I can't seem to bring myself to be upset over the intrusion. It isn't asking for anything, isn't making any demands, it is simply there so that I know it is there.

I raise my head and stare straight into those bright green eyes and almost smile. But I'm too preoccupied, too worried to give her anything more than a hint. Even so, her eyes widen for a second and she smiles back, still only halfway, a sort of sadness there as well.

We lock glances for a moment and then I turn away, focusing once more on my unconscious friend, squeezing both hands I'm now holding in some kind of reassurance.

Nothing more is said.

The two of us sit there for a time, sharing our warmth and concern and strength to silently bolster the other, and I find her presence welcome in my heretofore emptiness. She's taking up a little space I didn't realize was there.

But after a bit, I forget she's beside me. I'm too trained by the boy in front of me, trying somehow to silently force him awake.

And then it comes time for Sakura to leave and it's the first moment of real awkwardness we've been met with. She stands up, making her excuses, and I reluctantly stand up with her, letting go both hands I held, and feeling a strange loss because of it.

She lowers her gaze, staring at where he and I had been so recently joined, a strange sort of realization flickering across her face. I don't know what this means, but when she looks back up at me, it is gone, making me wonder if it had ever been there in the first place. Perhaps my eyes and mind are playing tricks on me. That wouldn't surprise me. She reaches out a hand and then pulls back slightly, hesitating, thinking. Then I guess she comes to a decision because she wraps that hand carefully around my shoulders, quickly pulling me in for a small hug, Without thinking, I raise my own arms and wind them around her, letting them rest there for the barest of moments. It feels strange, but not completely so. I don't deepen the hold, don't prolong it; just return it as simply and quickly as I can. The tension seems to pour out of her and she pushes away from me, smiling more truly and honestly.

"I'll come back tomorrow, OK?"

Even though she was a member of the same messed-up team and I think it's been fairly well proved that she's welcome, it appears she still feels the need to ask. Or maybe she's warning me. That's what it feels more like, though I don't know why.

I only nod. Having not spoken much in all this time, it's if my voice has completely left me and the thought of even opening my mouth to speak frankly sort of turns me off.

I have no real desire to use my own voice, or to hear it.

The girl smiles again and rubs her hand up and down my bicep briefly before taking one final glance at the boy sleeping in the bed and heads out the door.

I watch her go for a second, smiling slightly to myself and then return almost instantly to him. It's not that I'm not thankful for Sakura and her concern or her looking out for me. It's just that . . .

It's just that the only person I really want to see is the boy who continues to sleep that exasperatingly constant sleep.

The only things I want to see are familiar eyes opening up to me, a familiar voice speaking my name.

With this thought in mind, I'm once more drawn to the unconscious figure lying still and silent in the bed.

The interminable beep of the monitor sounds more loudly and adamantly now that I am alone again.

I really want to hit him. I really want to beat some sense into that thick skull of his and make him wake up. Make me stop worrying so much. He's beginning to get on my nerves with his stubborn resistance.

But then I look at him again and my heart does a mix of melting and twisting in on itself.

I forgo the chair, instead carefully easing my knee to the edge of the bed and laying myself down beside him. I envelop him protectively, my arm around his waist and inch myself closer until we touch from torso to toe, the nearness of him somehow putting me a little more at ease.

The labored, low rise and fall of his chest acts like a metronome, hypnotizing me and lulling me off to sleep.

The last thing I see before closing my eyes is a familiar face cast over with long hair, reflected softly in the moonlight.

And without meaning to, I think a small smile graces my lips as weariness finally takes me.

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

I wake up bleary eyed and tired late into the afternoon on the eighth day. I blink myself awake, a wave of nausea rolling over me, the room spinning like a tornado. I have to close my eyes again and take a deep breath, trying to calm my stomach and ease up from sleep a little more carefully.

This time when I open my eyes, I'm met with the orange and red of the setting sun bouncing warmly off the hospital-white ceiling. My eyes pop open and I sit up suddenly, causing another bout of dizziness and I put a hand to my head to steady myself.

Just how long have I been asleep?

I've rarely slept these past few days but whenever I woke up, no matter when I'd gone to bed, I'd see the rising sun, not the setting one. Lifting my other hand up to wipe the sleep from my eyes, I realize for the first time that I'm tied down. In a manner of speaking. There's an uncomfortable tug on my arm when I raise it and looking over, I spot an IV sticking out of it and a clear bag hung up on a metal rack. I'm confused. Still staring, I'm trying to remember when exactly that had happened. I can't. Come to think of it, I can't remember anything from yesterday, not after lying down beside my best friend and falling asleep.

I look to the other side of the room, only vaguely registering that I'm alone in a bed when I shouldn't be, when I am met with nothing.

There is nothing else in the room.

No other bed, no other curtain or table. Nothing.

And most importantly, no other patient.

Panic seizes me more severely than I would have expected. My chest tightens painfully as my pulse begins to race. Where the hell am I! Where the hell is he, my best friend! Why am I here alone?

He couldn't have gotten up and moved. Neither of us could have. And the idea of leaving his side would never have crossed my mind anyway.

And that doesn't explain the IV. And where the hell is he! I shouldn't be here by myself. Unless . . .

My heart thumps wildly in my chest and it's like I can't breathe anymore, the air in my lungs trying to suffocate me.

That stupid jerk couldn't possibly have . . .

No, not after all this. He's a fighter. He wouldn't just lose.

But I have to know.

Anxiously, I throw back the sheets that cover me and swing my legs over the edge of the bed, setting them on the cold floor. But when I try to set my weight down on my feet, I instantly fall over, my knees buckling in protest.

When did I get so weak I can no longer even stand?

I don't have time for this!

I have to see him; I have to know!

But all I feel is anger and frustration when I land on the floor, my head making a horrible cracking noise as it hits the metal table on the way down. I don't even feel the pain; just see a splash of red as blood starts to pour from my head.

And then all there is is blackness.

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

The ninth day I am met with annoyance and worry in the form of a pink-haired girl who looms over me menacingly when I wearily open my eyes. It's morning this time, a fact I barely note, not when there is too much distraction from the tremendous pounding in my brain. I put a hand to my head, this time feeling the gauzy cotton of a bandage, and the tender spot that lay beneath.

That's right. Last night.

I don't remember getting the dressing, but I can pinpoint precisely why I'd need it. I really must have hit my head hard. Well, I knew that, but still. Back in the far reaches of my mind, I wonder why it hasn't healed yet. Even with my chakra reserves down, as I know they are, I'm in Konoha now. And with Tsunade and Shizune and Sakura and who knows who else, it seems someone should have healed me by now.

But I don't have much time to put into this train of thought as I'm suddenly assaulted by the girl glaring in front of me.

"IDIOT!"

Still only partially awake, I vaguely see the hand fly toward me and prepare for the slap as best I can. In my weakened, somewhat out-of-it, state, the best I manage is a wince as I try to brace myself for the attack. But it never comes. Instead of a hard slap, there's a rush of air and then a warm, gentle hand on my cheek, which feels to me more comforting than angry.

I warily open my eyes.

Tears drip from her large green ones and it seems any rage she had directed at me has already dissipated, replaced instead by relief.

"Idiot." She utters, much more quietly.

The soft pads of her fingers caress my cheek; oddly soothing in some way I can't explain. Even the insult doesn't really bother me, though I think that it should. But then again, to be honest, I'm still not entirely awake. I feel groggy and disoriented, entertaining for a moment that there might be some sort of mind-numbing agent flowing into my veins through the IV tube.

I think too much over-thinking has made me stupid.

I allow my eyes to slowly focus and then take another look around the room, remembering with a rush of terror just what had brought me to this state to begin with.

Wide-eyed and anxious, I strike my hands out suddenly and grab hold of the arms of the girl in front of me.

"Where is he?" My voice is dry and raspy, grating like a saw. It's a sound that shouldn't issue from my throat.

But I really need to know.

Sakura starts at the quick, vicious contact, but then her expression softens, looking at me as if she understands. It reeks of pity and I hate it.

"We had to move you," she says very quietly as she disengages herself from my grip. Her face is lowered, deliberately not looking at mine as she turns away and heads toward the door.

I stare at her back, hunched over and weary, and a part of me feels bad. It's fairly obvious she's been up all night, watching over me, and I can only hope over him as well. Unless . . .

"He's OK." My voice cracks, much to my irritation. "Isn't he?"

I watch her shoulders rise and fall with the expelling of a heavy sigh. My hands itch to reach out to her, too far away. My legs want to walk over to her and shake the answers out, but I can't move, from weariness or fear, I hate to admit I don't know. But the effect is little different. Both are weaknesses.

"His condition hasn't changed."

I finally let myself breathe.

She spins around then, the water brimming in her eyes. "It's you we're worried about more right now."

I scowl at her, wondering just what that's supposed to mean. Unbidden, my gaze wanders over to the clear tube sticking out of my arm, providing sustenance without my effort. It's as if my eyes are trying to tell me something.

"What?" I ask dazedly.

"You!" Her voice is a high-pitched wail. "Do you know how bad you were? When was the last time you ate? I don't mean whatever it was you had with Kakashi and then threw up. I mean really ate? I can tell that's it's a whole lot longer than just since you returned, so don't lie to me."

Her voice is threateningly low, somehow more commanding and scarier than if she'd shouted.

I shrug noncommittally. "I don't know. I can't remember."

"You do know!" Her voice grates on my nerves.

But I can't look at her; I don't want to see that anger, the worry, and what is surely disappointment in her eyes. I didn't mean to upset her, not really. "I don't," I answer in hardly a whisper.

Because I really don't remember.

Too much time has been spent lately solely on him, my best friend. On helping him, on saving him, on dragging his stupid, sorry ass back to Konoha. On simply keeping him alive. Because for a while now, he is the only thing that's mattered. Time had long since grown irrelevant, along with eating and sleeping. I don't care about such little things anymore.

"Idiot. You really are. Probably the most stupid person I know." Sakura wipes a stray tear from her cheek. "You almost died, you know. If I hadn't have wandered by and found you when I did. If I hadn't known some medicine and what to do . . . I don't know what would have happened." She sniffles loudly and angrily swipes the back of her hand over her face, immediately turning it up to glare at me. "You. could. have. died."

She punctuates each word like a kunai stab to my chest. I wince with each one, still refusing, in my obstinacy, to look at her with anything but the corner of my eye. She's trying to hurt me and she's succeeding.

"And then, and then . . ." She hiccups through the first few words, but then her anger returns in full force. "And then you do something even more impossibly stupid and try to walk? Thankfully, this time you were hooked up to the monitors so the nurses knew immediately when you did it. I don't care how strong you think you are. You're not. Not after everything you've been needlessly putting yourself through. You're so bad they're afraid to infuse you with too much chakra because your body can no longer handle it. And now you've got a concussion besides."

I swallow hard. I honestly didn't realize it was that bad. I mean I knew I wasn't in top shape, but I hadn't really felt all that bad. I hadn't felt anything but worry over him for such a long time; I guess I couldn't hear what my own body was telling me. But at least the mystery of why I am still injured has been explained.

"You have to take better care of yourself, do you hear me?"

I still don't look at her. I've heard this same thing enough times in recent days to be sick of it. Yes, yes, I get it; take better care of myself. And now, I guess you could say I "get it".

Meanwhile, there are more important things to worry about. Like, where the hell am I? And why the hell aren't I with him?

"Listen . . . " Sakura starts. I cut her off.

"I want to see him." I need to see him.

I hear her take a deep breath. "No."

This time I do look at her, sending a withering glare and receive a more timid one in return. I do realize that she's probably just looking out for my "best interests", acting on Tsunade's orders, but when exactly are they finally going to get it? I need to see him. Being with him right now is my "best interest". I owe him for taking care of me, for proving that we really are the best of friends, regardless of everything that tried to come between us. But it's more than that. A fact I don't like to admit, even to myself. I just want to be near him. He's the most important person in my life. He is now and has been for a long time.

"I need to see him."

"No."

"Sakura . . ." I put a dangerous edge to it. I'm fucking sick of everyone trying to deny me everything!

"No!" She's clenching her fists at her sides, tears of anger spilling over her cheeks. "I won't let you! When you're better, and I know for sure that you're taking care of yourself, then you can see him."

We stare at each other and after a moment, I let my anger slide. Now there is only pain, a rare show of my deeper feelings, free of my well-trained mask. I just don't have the energy for it anymore.

"What if it's too late by then?"

A breath above a whisper, barely heard, yet somehow ringing off the blank hospital walls.

"Please . . . " I hate having to beg so openly, but I have to see him. I have to. And they'll just have to accept that. I can feel my voice growing hoarse and I clear my throat, determined not to cry like some pathetic little kid. "Please Sakura."

Her hands unclench and she looks at me, a strange, indefinable expression washing over her face. Her mouth hangs open stupidly in what appears to be shock. She had likely expected me to give in when faced with her refusal, when it's obvious I need help simply to stand. Now, she seems unsure, her determination wavering. It's a point in my favor.

"No." She says, but with less resolution this time.

"Please," I say it again, hating myself, but knowing I'm winning.

She looks straight into my eyes, another tear falls and with a slight gasp, she spins around, facing the closed door. Gingerly, I ease my feet to the floor, and taking a critical hold on my IV stand, test my balance. It's not good, but may be good enough. I shift awkwardly, using the metal stand like a crutch, slowly inching my way towards the back-turned girl. But the truth is I really am far too weak. The metal clatters loudly as I slip, swearing, and am caught immediately in a pair of arms.

I hate this, but I swallow my reservations.

She's shaking, I can feel it through the hold she has on me. And so am I, I also realize, but for completely different reasons. I raise a hand and take fierce hold of her arm, trying to steady myself, keeping my head lowered. She has to do this for me, as much as I hate having to rely on someone else, she has to.

I can't look her in the face and a single tear finds its way free from my eye, falling down and staining the fabric of her leg with a tiny dark spot. I hold back the rest through sheer force of will. I refuse to let her see me cry.

"Please." I sound pathetic, I know. My voice is growing ragged.

My hold on her is sharp and desperate, and I can feel her shaking still. Tentatively, her arms wind around me, and pulling me closer, she cradles me like a child, my head tucked neatly under hers. Her hand rubs soothingly up and down my back, and I'm too weak and tired to protest, and simply listen to the wild thumping of her heart.

"OK."

The one word that makes all the difference.

The one word that very well may save his life and mine.

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

Sakura is an able, if overly nervous escort as she breaks all laws of hospital and health for me. I grunt in discomfort as she slings one of my arms over her shoulder and drags me step by tedious step through the halls and down stairs to reunite with our friend.

I do appreciate it, I do, but I'm also impatient.

Just how the hell far away did they move me anyway!

They were really doing their best to keep us apart.

Damn, intrusive bastards.

I sense the heat of my anger rise, which is immediately answered with a gentle but insistent elbow to the ribs, courtesy of a certain pink-haired shinobi.

"Sh! Quiet!" She says for what had to be the thousandth time in fifteen minutes. I would yell at her, but I know I'd only really be hurting myself, so I don't.

We stop suddenly, and the action jars me a little and makes my head spin. Using my free hand, I try to stabilize the whirling room while at the same time prevent any of my stomach contents from escaping onto the floor. What tiny bit there is anyway. I think I'm going to need it.

Sakura is craning her neck around the corner, staring intently, apparently waiting for something.

I wish we'd get moving! I just want to be there already.

With a short nod to me, Sakura readjusts my weight on her side and hurries into the now abandoned hallway. Very quickly she races to a door and opens it as I try to keep up, despising that I have to "try". The darkness from inside the room seems to flood out, filling my fading vision.

She hurriedly pulls us both inside and shuts the door before anyone can notice, heaving what turns out to be a premature sigh of relief.

"Exactly what do you think you're doing here?"

Sakura's back shoots up straight at the sound that anyone in Konoha would recognize in an instant, her most of all. "Tsunade-shishou!"

It all seems to be happening somewhere far from me. My world has grown muted and hazy. I feel like I'm underwater and drowning, fighting for air.

I look around the room, spotting the Hokage and more importantly, the boy still passed out on the bed. I push myself away from Sakura and ignore any protest or scolding either female now decides to level at me. Instead, I work my way toward the bed and with a great feeling of relief, collapse onto it, disturbing the occupant only slightly, and unfortunately not enough to wake him.

He looks very much the same, though I'd like to believe there is a touch of color back in his face. It's hard to tell in all this darkness.

Speaking of, why is it so damn dark in here?

I take another look around and spy the culprit: a set of curtains closed over the window. My brow creases in irritation. There should be light in here. Sunlight and fresh air. Are these people stupid?

With a massive effort, I push myself from the bed and approach the offending fabric, nearly ripping it in my attempt to move it out of the way. Light instantly fills the room and despite the angry protests of the women, I crack the window open as well. I look to the bed and almost smile.

In the warmth of the light, the barest of breeze, he looks much better.

He looks at peace.

I go back and resume my place at his side. Not paying a bit of attention to the other two in the room and their mumbled arguing, I place my hand on the shallowly breathing chest. Then I lean forward until our foreheads touch, staring at him and silently asking him to wake up.

Even as much as I'm trying to ignore it, the tension in the room suddenly spikes. I assume this is in response to me, though I'm not sure why. I oddly feel the awkward glare directed at me switch to go from teacher to student.

"What did you think you were doing, bringing him here? He's not well yet. Look at him, he can barely stand!"

I hear soft shuffling as Sakura fidgets under Tsunade's stare.

"You weren't there." Sakura stutters out pathetically.

"No, of course not. But I entrusted him to you." There's a slam on the table that would've made me jump, were I in any way involved in what's going on. But I'm not. I'm too involved with him.

"And the main thing of that was to keep him away from this room." Tsunade scolds.

There's a dull bang as Sakura boldly stamps her foot. "You weren't there!"

I'm glad for her newfound strength. And apparent audacity.

"Sakura . . ." The Hokage's voice becomes dangerously low, like a growl. "You don't seem to understand . . ."

"No, you don't understand!" A catch in her voice shows she's crying and scared yet frustrated. Or so I assume. "This is what he wants. What he needs. Probably what they both need. And there's no point in trying to stop him because he'll just kill himself trying to get here. I think that's pretty obvious by now. And that won't help anyone. Is that what you want? Both of them dead?"

I smile slightly to myself, thankful for her support and at least partial understanding. She really has grown-up. And no one is going to keep my friend and me apart now. That's a fact. At least one person seems to accept it. I'm glad, in an odd way, that of all people, it would be her.

Another heavy sigh and the scraping of metal as I hear the slap of Tsunade dropping herself into a chair. "You kids are going to be the death of me."

Though still not looking, I know the old lady's gaze has turned to me.

A tense few minutes pass by.

There is an exasperated expelling of breath.

"Bring another bed in here and make sure someone watches him." It's a hushed order to Sakura, who bolts noisily from the room.

Silence reigns now in this sunny brightness, an odd sort of disparity. But it's fine. In fact, I prefer it. I can still feel those eyes staring intently at me, but I close my own and just listen to the soft breaths that rhythmically tickle my face.

It's not unpleasant.

Sakura returns shortly, quietly entering and reporting to Tsunade that a bed will soon be brought in and that Rumiko, one of the nurses, has assured her she'll keep careful watch over the two of us, getting her friend to do the same when she takes over the night shift. The Hokage whispers her approval.

"Why?" I open my eyes, knowing somehow that the question is directed at me. "Why do you have to be so damn adamant about this now, after . . .? I still don't buy your tidy little explanation." A small pause and softer now. "He could still die, you know."

My lip curls derisively for a moment, the voice is far too harsh and analytical to my ears as if the woman is detaching herself. I don't like it. But then I feel the familiar rise and fall of chest and smile just slightly. Small, but a little sad, though more for Tsunade than what she has said. He's not going to die. He wouldn't dare. Survival has now become like a challenge. And if there's one thing he doesn't do, it is to back off from a challenge.

"Even if he does, I'll be here for him." I sigh, my nerves evening out. "If he dies, then I'll still be here for him. So he's not alone. If he dies, I'll be the last one he feels." I raise my head to face the two women, one sitting, and the other standing uncomfortably by her side. I still have that almost smile on my lips, but I'm feeling nothing but a deep-seeded confidence. I push any fear away; it serves no purpose. "But he won't die. If you even think that for a second, you don't know him as well as I do." Tsunade raises her eyebrows curiously at that and Sakura lets out a tiny gasp. I scoff. Every time and every time the same. No matter how much they get it, they still don't. "And when he wakes up, I'll be here. I'll be the first thing he sees. So he knows he's not alone."

I lower my eyes to the floor, thinking to myself. Then, without another word, I return to my previous position, forehead to forehead, leaning over my friend. The warmth I feel coming from him makes me feel better, calming my mind.

The two women stay there a few moments more, I can see them hovering in the corner of my eye. I'm positive they don't know what to make of this. Then, with a huff, Tsunade stands, saying nothing and not looking back, she simply leaves, shaking her head.

I can still see Sakura slinking on the edge of my vision. Her mind seems to be working something over and a strange look comes to her face. Wringing her hands, with a small sadness in her eyes, she heads for the door.

I can make a pretty accurate guess as to what she's thinking. Just like everyone else, she really doesn't get it, not exactly. No one ever will quite understand the depth and nature of our friendship. I close my eyes and concentrate solely on my most precious person.

But I know Sakura understands enough. And that is enough.

As to the rest, they can think what they like.

I don't care.

There's a soft padding of feet as she heads to the door.

I move my hand to his arm, gently rubbing over the skin with my thumb. "I'll be here when you wake up." I whisper to him.

I'm not sure if Sakura heard or not, but I think I perceive a small catch in her breath before the small clicking of the doorknob.

It doesn't matter what exactly she thinks.

And it's just the two of us again, like before, and I can watch over him, just like I promised.

I smile to myself and lean down farther, resting myself alongside him and look up into his sleeping face.

"Don't worry. I'm not going to leave you here alone."

I keep my eyes on him and don't remember falling asleep.

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

And on the tenth day, in the warm glow of morning sunshine I lie in his bed, even though there is now another one, and hold him.

On the tenth day, as I stare up into his face, still waiting and trying to be patient, Naruto finally opens his eyes.