So we finally come to it. The last chapter. I think besides suffering a small bout of writer's apathy halfway through and being relatively busy, I was reluctant to see this story actually end. If you look at the story stats, it's just shy of two months of being a year in the making. Sadness! But as they say, all good things must come to an end. Hopefully you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it. Because it was a blast! Big thanks to all my faithful readers who stayed with me from the very beginning. You guys are the ones that really made this worth writing.
Chapter Fifteen: Healing Smiles
Consciousness returned slowly to Naruto. At first there was nothing but a sea of endless darkness. He felt weightless, as if he were drifting on a current of black nothingness. For an immeasurable length of time he just let himself float in this state of disconnected half-awareness. He felt peaceful here, at ease. There was no pain, no sorrow, no fear. Just peace.
But as he drifted, letting this void of velvety darkness surround and cosset him, the comforting nothingness began to dissolve and fade into a faint haze of light. He suddenly felt as if he were rising, like a diver resurfacing from a long submersion.
Naruto at first resisted, not wanting to leave the darkness just yet. He felt safe here, protected. Whatever lay beyond the darkness was frightening and unknown. He didn't want to leave. All he wanted to do was stay here and rest.
But as the light continued to grow brighter and consume him in its all-encompassing embrace, the almost foreign sensation of physical awareness returned to him. He was suddenly aware of the heaviness of his own body. He lay on something soft and supportive, while a thin weight lay on top him, swaddling him in warmth.
The first thing to truly register in Naruto's mind, however, as the last vestiges of unconsciousness left him was the all-consuming sense of tiredness that seemed to press down on him like a physical weight. A dull ache radiated through his entire body like the residual memory of some horrible torture. All his muscles felt like overcooked ramen noodles.
Groaning at the unwelcome rush of sensations, Naruto groggily rolled his head to the side and struggled to lift his eyelids. They felt impossibly heavy, as if they each weighed a hundred pounds.
Slowly, painfully, he managed to peel his eyelids up enough to look around and take in his surroundings. At first all he could see were the dim outlines of objects washed in brilliant white light. But then, images and shapes slowly began to separate themselves from the overpowering flood of light, and Naruto found himself staring at the white-washed ceiling of an unfamiliar room.
He suddenly realized the softness at his back was a bed, and the fluffy warmth around him several layers of blankets. The rhythmic beeping of machines filled the air, creating an annoying cacophony of noise. Late morning sunlight streamed into the room through a large window off to Naruto's right.
Sleepily blinking his eyes against the flood of light, Naruto struggled to understand where he was. His brain felt like it was in a foggy haze. The last thing he remembered was charging Kisame with a full-powered Rasengan in a moonlight clearing, then feeling as though he was slowly being drained of life as he felt his chakra coils sputter and die inside him.
And that was why he couldn't understand why he was here. Because the weariness and ache in his body told him he was alive. But deep down he knew that was not suppose to be the case; because right before he'd felt his chakra coils fail and the darkness rise up to swallow him, he'd known with irrevocable certainty that he was going to die…
So then how was he here now? Wherever here was, that is…
"Ah, I see you're finally awake," a voice suddenly said, startling Naruto out of his thoughts.
Naruto's head snapped towards the voice, his body tensing with an instinctive surge of adrenaline. He hadn't even been aware there was anyone else there with him. But as he took in the sight of the one sitting there beside him, any thoughts of fear immediately drained from him to be replaced with surprise.
"Kakashi-sensei?" he rasped. Naruto winced at the harshness of his own voice. His throat was scratchy and dry from disuse and thirst. Just how long had he been out?
The older ninja was lounging in a wheelchair close beside Naruto's bed, his one elbow casually resting on the edge of the mattress. Despite wearing a light blue set of hospital scrubs, the man still wore his trademark mask and slouched headband. (Naruto wasn't about to say anything, but the combination gave his teacher an even more oddball appearance than usual.) Naruto realized Kakashi must have been sitting there awhile, because a bright orange copy of Icha Icha Paradise was propped open in front of him.
"Hey there," Kakashi said, the corner of his eye crinkling with a smile as he closed his book with a snap and stowed it away on the other side of his seat. He carefully leaned forward and looked down at Naruto over the railing. "How are you feeling?" he asked.
"Fine," Naruto replied without much thought or truth. He slowly licked his parched lips and looked around the room again, taking in its plain, sterile white walls. "Where am I?" he rasped. "What happened?"
"Well, I thought your first question would be pretty obvious, but you're probably still groggy from all those chakra transfusions," Kakashi said in an amused tone. Chuckling under his breath, he elaborated, "You're in the hospital. You seem to like it so much, you just can't seem to stay away."
His one eye suddenly growing serious though, the copy-ninja leaned closer and said, "As to your second question, you're in the hospital because you came dangerously close to dying from extreme chakra exhaustion. We were only able to put together bits and pieces of what happened that night, but it looks like you and Sasuke had one hell of a fight with Kisame and Itachi."
"Yeah…" Naruto murmured, "I guess you could say that. Sasuke was trying to protect me when-" A sudden realization hit Naruto like a physical blow to the gut. Panic and fear wrapped around his heart like an iron fist, and his blood ran as cold as ice. "Sasuke! Where's Sasuke?" he cried. "Where is he?!" Frantically trying to untangle himself from his nest of blankets, Naruto stared at his teacher, his terrified blue eyes pleading for answers. "What happened to him?! Where is he? Is he okay? I didn't see what happened to him! Tell me if he's alright!"
"Naruto, calm down," Kakashi said, quickly pushing his frail student back down onto the bed. "You're in no condition to be getting up yet."
"I don't care!" Naruto screamed, ignoring his teacher's concerns. "Tell me where Sasuke is! What happened to him? He'd be here if he was alright. When I was in the hospital before he never once left me alone! He was always there when I woke up!" Naruto stared at Kakashi, his stomach twisting with a hundred horrifying thoughts. Did something happen to Sasuke? Was he hurt? He'd seen Kisame land a strike on him with Samehada, which had convinced him to enter the fight to draw the shark-man's attention away from Sasuke; but had something else happened to the boy after he'd passed out?
"Where is he?" Naruto begged, desperately trying to rise. Tears began to sting his eyes. He had to find Sasuke. He knew something had happened. Ever since being rescued from Akatsuki, Sasuke had never left him alone, even for a moment. He'd always been there, right by his side. Whether it was to reassure him he was safe when he woke up from the depths of a horrible nightmare, or to help him escape from attacking Akatsuki ninja, he'd always been there. And for him to wake up now, without his friend's reassuring presence beside him, Naruto knew something terrible had to have happened. "Please, just tell me where he is," he begged.
"Calm down, Naruto," Kakashi said, still holding him down with a firm but gentle hand in the middle of his chest. Naruto was dismayed to note how easily the other ninja was able to subdue his pathetically weak struggles. "It's alright. Sasuke's right here."
Naruto froze and stared at the silver-haired man, taken aback. "Huh?" He once again looked around to see if he'd somehow overlooked his friend standing near the window or hiding in the corner. But no matter where he looked, he still saw no sign of the illusive Uchiha heir. "Kakashi-sensei, what are you talking about?" he demanded, a hint of confused fear worming its way into his voice. "Where is he?"
Sighing heavily, Kakashi removed his hand from Naruto chest, and reached down on either side of him to wheel himself backwards several feet out of Naruto's line of sight, giving the boy a clear view of the other side of the room where another hospital bed stood near the door.
Weakly pushing himself up enough to sit and look over the railing, Naruto looked towards the other bed - and gasped at the sight he beheld.
There, laying unconscious with tubes and wire trailing off his motionless form, and his chest and shoulder swaddled in sterile white bandages, was none other than his missing friend Sasuke Uchiha. For a moment Naruto had trouble convincing himself the boy before him was really his former rival. But the longer he stared in numbed horror, the harder it was for him to deny the identity of the one he beheld.
The other boy lay disturbingly still, the gentle rise and fall of his chest the only thing to betray the fact he was, in fact, still alive. Although he had never had a dark complexion, Sasuke was unnaturally pale, as if every last drop of blood had been drained from his body. His eyelids were tightly shuttered, his unconscious features drawn and etched with pain even in his sleep. Half a dozen machines ringed his bed and added to the beeps and hums of those surrounding Naruto's own.
"W-what happened to him?" Naruto stammered, unable to comprehend the sight of his friend laying there so still and lifeless. It just didn't seem right or make any sense. Sasuke had always seemed so strong and invincible, like nothing in the world could ever bring him down. That was why Naruto had always secretly admired the boy; he was the epitome of what a ninja should be. And to see him now - unconscious, injured, battered, weak, and clinging to life with the help of half a dozen machines - turned Naruto's entire reality upside down.
"After you finished Kisame off and passed out, Itachi was going to kill you," Kakashi explained, following Naruto's gaze and staring at his other student. "Sasuke jumped in between you and him to protect you. He managed to deal Itachi a fatal blow, but also took Itachi's sword to the shoulder when he did. He was badly injured but still managed to transfer enough chakra to you to keep your chakra coils from failing until rescue teams could arrive. It was an extremely close call. Sakura told me if they'd found you even a few minutes later than what they did, both you and Sasuke could have very well died…" Kakashi continued to quietly contemplate his dark-haired student, as if reevaluating some old opinion of the boy. "I must admit," he softly added with the twinkle of a smirk in his eye, "I never thought Sasuke capable of being so noble. You must have rubbed off on him more than I thought."
"Will he be alright?" Naruto weakly asked, his eyes locked on the unconscious boy.
"He should be," Kakashi nodded. "Tsunade says he's probably going to need physical therapy to rehabilitate his shoulder once it heals, but she's giving him a pretty optimistic prognosis. He already woke up a few days ago. He was in a lot of pain and still pretty weak from blood loss, but it doesn't look like it'll be too long before he's up and gracing everyone with his charming personality again," Kakashi said with a chuckle.
Naruto glanced at him, confused. "A few days ago? How long have I been asleep?"
"Almost four days. Chakra exhaustion is a dangerous thing, Naruto, especially considering how weak you were before you tried breaking past my Five Point Seal and using Rasengan. I'm actually surprised you're awake at all already. Tsunade and Sakura were both planning on you to sleep for at least another two days."
"But…" Naruto looked back at Sasuke. "But if Sasuke already woke up a few days ago, then why's he still asleep? Why isn't he awake now?"
Kakashi gave another chuckle, a mischievous glint entering his eye. "Sasuke's been fading in and out of it ever since you two were brought in. Everyone thinks it's because of his injuries that he's been sleeping so much, but just between you and me, Tsunade's been giving him higher doses of pain meds than he probably needs to keep him… ah, let's just say, more cooperative... She doesn't trust him not to try and get up out of bed. Every time he wakes up, he tries to see if you're awake. Just yesterday she caught him trying to undo his IV line and get up. That's also why I'm here. Sakura, Jiraiya, Iruka, a couple of your other friends and I have been switching on and off sitting in here to keep an eye on you two. At the risk of sounding like Shikamaru, for being as injured as you are, you two are more troublesome now than you ever were as rookies."
Naruto, however, was only half listening to Kakashi. All he could do was stare at his friend's bandaged, barely recognizable form. This was all his fault… It was his fault Sasuke was hurt. It was his fault his friend was laying here in the same hospital room as him, drugged unconscious because even though injured and half dead he was still only worried about him. It wasn't right. If it hadn't been for him, Sasuke never would have followed him into the woods and been attacked by Itachi and Kisame. If Sasuke hadn't been trying to protect him, the other boy would have never been hurt or come so close to dying…
"This is all my fault…" he moaned, more to himself than the other ninja beside him. A wave of unbidden tears stung the back of Naruto's eyes as the implications of everything that happened crashed down on him. Guilt so intense it felt like he was about to be sick twisted his stomach. "If I hadn't tried to run away Sasuke never would have gotten hurt. This is all my fault…"
"Naruto, listen to me," Kakashi said, quickly leaning forward and gripping Naruto's hand in his own as he speared him with an intense, unwavering look. "You can't blame yourself for what happened. This wasn't your fault. None of this was. You've been nothing but an innocent victim in all this. It wasn't your fault Akatsuki kidnapped you or weakened your curse seal enough for Kyuubi to break past. You were worried about your friends and village's safety; that's why you tried to run away. We understand that. No one blames you for being frightened and wanting to protect those around you - even if you thought you had to protect them from yourself. What happened to Sasuke was nothing but the result of a series of unfortunate events. You and him were both caught in a situation neither one of you could have controlled. Whether you had run away or not, I have no doubt Akatsuki would have tried coming after you at least one more time; and what happened the other night would have only happened later at a different time and in a different setting. Nothing that happened was your fault."
But Naruto was too distraught to listen to the other man. "But what about you?" he demanded. "Or Gai-sensei? I almost killed you when Kyuubi took over of my body. I actually killed those Akatsuki ninja! What if that happens again? He already broke through my curse seal once. What if Kyuubi tries to possess me again? I don't want to hurt any more people."
"You're not going to hurt anyone, Naruto. Tsunade and Jiraiya have already begun working to strengthen the Fourth's seal," Kakashi said. "While you were unconscious they started supplementing their own chakra into the seal to keep Kyuubi contained while you recover. Once you're strong enough and able to maintain your own chakra levels again, they'll finish strengthening it. You don't have to worry about Kyuubi getting out again. You just have to get strong enough to take over maintaining the seal by yourself again. And what happened to Gai and me wasn't your fault either. Being a ninja is a dangerous job, and sometimes being a ninja means putting yourself in danger for another person which is what Gai and I did. Nothing Kyuubi did was your fault."
"Maybe… But it's still my fault Sasuke got hurt," Naruto murmured, unable to meet his teacher's gaze. "I should have never gotten him involved in this. I knew Akatsuki would come after me when you rescued me and brought me back to the village. I knew Kyuubi was close to breaking past the curse seal. And I knew anyone that tried to protect me was going to be in danger." He sharply looked up and met Kakashi's eye. "See?" he demanded, his voice taking on a frantic, unsteady quality as if his sanity was slowly crumbling around the edges. His vision swam with barely contained tears of guilt. "It's my fault Sasuke got hurt! If I'd just told him from the beginning to stay away from me and not worry, he wouldn't have ever been in danger! He would have been safe and never gotten hurt trying to protect me! It's my fault he followed me out of the village! It's my fault he had to jump in between Itachi and me! And it's my fault he almost died!"
"Naruto, you know that's not true," Kakashi calmly said. "You know Sasuke never would have stayed away, even if you had told him to. You don't know how badly he took it when we all thought you'd been killed. He mourned your death all the way up until the very day we found you. I think in some part of his mind he blamed himself for your 'death.'"
"What? Why would he do that?" Naruto stammered, momentarily shocked out of his guilt.
"I don't know, but I think that's why he was so determined to protect you from Akatsuki. All he cared about - and still cares about - is your safety."
"But…" Naruto stammered, looking between Kakashi and the sleeping boy on the other side of the room. Confusion and just a twinge of embarrassment warred with each other for dominance as he struggled to put his jumbled thoughts in order. "But… why?"
Kakashi's eye softened, and Naruto saw the sparkle of a smile once again light the visible portion of his teacher's face. "Well," he smirked, "let me ask you something. When Akatsuki invaded Sasuke's home and Itachi was choking him; and when Kisame was about to kill him - yes, we know about that; Sasuke told us - why did you jump into the fight? Why did you put yourself in danger even when you knew you weren't strong enough to actually defeat them?"
"Because Sasuke was in trouble!" Naruto exclaimed, staring at Kakashi as if he were insane. "They were going to kill him! He's my friend! I couldn't let them hurt him!"
"Exactly," Kakashi nodded. "That's the same reason why Sasuke never would have left you to fight Akatsuki alone. That's why he put himself in danger so many times to protect you. You're probably the only person in this entire village he actually considers a friend. You two are exactly the same: you'd risk your lives for each other without a second thought. Not many people can claim to have someone willing to do that for them. That's why you have to start to heal, Naruto. You have people that care about you and want to see you get better. You have to get back your will to live. We know what you were planning to do when you ran away - how you were going to kill yourself. You can't keep hurting yourself because you're afraid of Kyuubi somehow getting out again. Killing yourself isn't going to solve anything. I know for a fact Sasuke would never get over it if you gave up now. He risked his life to protect yours. You don't have anything to be afraid of now. Akatsuki can't come after you again. With Itachi and Kisame dead, almost all their inner members are gone. It's going to take Akatsuki a long time to recover, if they ever do. Their organization is all but destroyed. They're no longer a threat to you. You're finally safe, and this time I can truly say that without a shadow of a doubt. There's no longer any reason for you to think you're a danger to anyone else. We're all here for you and don't want to see you hurt yourself anymore. We want you to get better. But before that can happen you have to decide you're ready to heal. No one else can do that but yourself. You're not alone. You never were. It's time for you to take control of your life again and come back to the light. It's time for you to start living again…"
Naruto sat there for a long moment of silence, digesting Kakashi's words. It seemed so surreal to hear his teacher talk like that as if he actually had a future to look forward to now. For so long he'd lived in the shadow of the belief that the only way he was ever going to escape Akatsuki's grasp was by his own death. He'd given up hope so long ago it didn't seem possible for all of this to be real. Akatsuki was gone, Kyuubi was once again safely sealed, and he (unbelievably) was finally free…
It just didn't seem real. It felt like he should wake up any moment back in some dark and dingy cell - chained to the floor and waiting for one of Akatsuki's inner members to come drag him back into that giant cavern to do their ceremony - with nothing but the memory of this wild, fanciful dream to help stave off insanity and his ever growing desire for death. He was almost afraid to believe that truly wasn't that case, and that he wouldn't yet wake up back in that hellish nightmare.
Dazed by Kakashi's revelations and promises of safety and hope, Naruto glanced across the room back towards his sleeping friend. Despite whatever comfort Kakashi's speech might have given him, a small niggling of guilt still gnawed at the back of Naruto's mind. No matter what Kakashi said, he still felt responsible for Sasuke's injuries. It didn't seem right that his friend had been hurt because of him. He knew Kakashi was right when he said they'd both give their lives for one another - he'd seen Sasuke ready to do it countless times over the last few days, and he had been ready to sacrifice his life to save Sasuke several times himself. It was just that deep down Naruto wished that really wasn't the case. It made him uneasy to know how willing Sasuke was to give his own life to protect him. It just didn't feel right. What if Sasuke had really died that night fighting off Akatsuki? What if he'd woken up today to find Sasuke dead - and because of him? He didn't want to live with that kind of guilt. As long as he'd known his friend would be safe, he could have cared less if he'd died that night in the clearing trying to protect his friend. If he knew it could stop someone else from hurting Sasuke, he would have walked into the very pit of Hell for him without a second thought. But to know Sasuke was willing to do the same for him made Naruto hesitate. That was not something Naruto wanted to live the rest of his life with the knowledge of. Because in some small way, that made him responsible for the other boy's life. And he didn't like it.
It almost made him wish there was some kind of double standard for his and Sasuke's odd friendship. One where he never had to worry about Sasuke sacrificing his own life for him again, or know that his desire to do anything to protect his friend was equaled only by Sasuke's own.
As Naruto sat there, staring at Sasuke's unmoving form, he was suddenly struck by the weight of the decision he knew he now had to make. Like Kakashi said, he now had a choice: to either continue down the path of self-destruction he'd started to protect all those he cared about from Kyuubi's wrath, or to turn back and return to the life he'd once known.
A part of Naruto was still unsure if it was safe to believe Kyuubi was no longer a threat or if Akatsuki wouldn't ever come after him again. But as Naruto continued to quietly contemplate his options and future, he suddenly realized he didn't want to let that crime organization or fox-demon dictate his life anymore. He'd already lost the better portion of a year to Kyuubi and Akatsuki's unrelenting desire to possess it. But now it was his turn to say what he was going to do. It was his turn to retake control of his life and live it the way he wanted. The nightmare was finally over…
Turning back to Kakashi, Naruto smiled softly - the first true smile to light his face since being captured by Akatsuki all those months ago - and said, "Alright."
Kakashi cocked an eyebrow at him, as if asking him to explain.
Naruto smiled a little wider, and went on, "You're right. It's time for me to start over. It's my responsibility to make sure Kyuubi can't break out again. That means I have to get stronger. I don't want Sasuke or anyone else to have to worry about me anymore. If I get stronger then no one else will have to put themselves in danger for me again. Sasuke almost died protecting me. That's why I have to get better. I owe him. I wouldn't be a good friend if I forgot about everything he did for me and threw it all away now."
The corner of Kakashi's eye crinkled with a smile. "I'm glad to hear that," he said. "I know Sasuke will be very happy to know."
"Know what?" a groggy voice suddenly said from the other side of the room.
Kakashi and Naruto's heads both snapped towards it.
"Sasuke!" Naruto exclaimed and scrambled to the edge of his bed to lean over the railing and better see the other boy.
Sasuke still lay exactly how he did when Naruto first saw him - flat on his back, swaddled in layers of bandages and blankets, and tragically frail and weak looking. The only difference now was that his eyelids were partially open and his head lulled in Naruto's direction. His eyes were dull and glazed with pain, drugs and something else Naruto couldn't exactly name but felt the inner core of his being ache at the sight of. It was a crime to see someone as strong and resilient as the last remaining Uchiha reduced to such a state. It went against everything Naruto took to be natural and right in the world…
"Naruto?" Sasuke slurred. His voice was raspy and weak - barely even audible. But the underlying note of cautious hope in it was unmistakable. Blinking his cloudy eyes as if unsure whether to believe what he saw was really real, Sasuke weakly shifted in his cocoon of blankets, straining to lift his head up off the pillow. Naruto didn't fail to miss the boy's tiny gasp of pain as he moved too quickly and pulled the stitches of his wounded shoulder.
"Sasuke, don't move so much," he said, anxiously leaning over the railing. If he wasn't sure he'd collapse the moment he tried to stand, he would have already rushed to his wounded friend's side. "Kakashi-sensei told me your shoulder's hurt. You have to be careful or you're going to hurt it more."
Sasuke hardly seemed to hear him though. His attention was wholly focused on the other shinobi. "Naruto, you're awake," he rasped, his voice cracking with relief. "Finally… I didn't know if you were ever going to wake up…"
"I'm fine," Naruto said, still slightly unnerved by Sasuke's fragile state. It killed him to see his friend laying there so weak and helpless. "I'm going to be alright," he went on, suddenly desperate to reassure his friend he didn't have to put himself in danger anymore for him. The ugly, multi-headed beast of guilt once again began to rear its head deep inside his heart. "I talked to Kakashi-sensei. Akatsuki's gone and my curse seal's strong enough that I can't hear Kyuubi anymore. I'm going to get better. I'm not going to keep hurting myself. I want to get stronger so I can protect myself again. You don't have to worry about me anymore. You'll see."
A shaky smile tugged at the corner of Sasuke's lips, and a bone-rattling sigh of relief shook his frame. It wasn't difficult to see Sasuke was still fighting off the lingering aftereffects of Tsunade's sedatives. His eyelids seemed too heavy for him to fully open; and Naruto's reassurance that he no longer had to worry about him fading away seemed to zap the Uchiha of all his remaining strength. Naruto never knew the sudden release of so much pent-up worry could have such a weakening effect on a person - especially one as closed off and aloof as Sasuke.
Yet despite all this, the relieved smile that spread across Sasuke's face made Naruto wonder if maybe, just in this case, such weakness really wasn't weakness at all; but rather evidence of a bond so strong it could either break a person or make a person the strongest he's ever been.
"Thank gods…" Sasuke breathed, still groggily blinking heavy eyelids. "I didn't know if you were going to make it. I was so afraid I didn't do enough to protect you…"
"You did more than you ever should have," Naruto protested, guilty looking away from Sasuke towards the floor. "It's my fault you got hurt. I shouldn't have run away like that and made you have to come after me. I just didn't want to put anymore people in danger, but that's exactly what I ended up doing. I'm so sorry, Sasuke. I shouldn't have-"
"Naruto," Sasuke sharply cut him off. "Don't."
Naruto instantly fell silence and stared at the other boy.
Holding Naruto's gaze with his own, Sasuke took a deep breath and said in a quiet voice, "Just don't, Naruto. Stop blaming yourself for what happened. I don't want to hear it. I know how you are. You want everyone to be happy and safe, and when they're not you want to find any reason you can to blame yourself for it. It's not your fault."
"Why does everybody keep saying that?" Naruto demanded, his voice cracking with emotion. "Why won't anyone just admit how much trouble I caused?"
"Because it wasn't your fault," Sasuke said. "If it was anyone's fault, it was Akatsuki's."
"You're just saying that. You out of everyone else got hurt the most because of me."
"Probably. But that doesn't mean I blame you or hold anything against you. I'd do it all again if I had to."
"Don't say that!" Naruto exclaimed, angry tears of guilt stinging the corners of his eyes. "I don't want anyone to get hurt because of me - especially you! I already owe you too much for you to say you'd let yourself get hurt again."
Sasuke heaved a frustrated sigh, his patience clearly beginning to wan. "You're not going to let this go until you've done something to clear your conscience, are you?"
Too upset to actually answer, Naruto just nodded his head.
Sasuke gave another sigh. "Fine. If you really want to ease this idiotic guilt-complex of yours, there is one thing you can do for me."
Naruto leaned closer, eager to hear what he could do to repay his friend's sacrifice.
Sasuke held his gaze with unreadable dark eyes, almost as if he were trying to look into his very soul.
"Just be happy."
The blond shinobi stared at Sasuke, not quite sure he heard correctly.
As if reading the confusion in Naruto's eyes, Sasuke went on, "If you really want to repay me, Naruto, just be happy again. That's all I want. You're the only person I know who can make everyone around him smile just by being yourself. When you were gone, it was like something was missing. Nothing was right. No one was happy. I miss the way things used to be before you went away to train with Jiraiya. I don't want to see you live the rest of your life haunted by what Akatsuki did to you. It's not right. Everything I did was because I want to see you happy again. I'm tired of seeing you so afraid and sick that you'd rather die than try to get better. I want the clumsy, orange-wearing idiot I used to know back. I miss that person, Naruto. I miss my friend…"
Naruto sat there for a long moment of silence, stunned. That was it? That was all Sasuke wanted from him? It seemed too simple a request. Too easy. Too little a thing to do in return for what Sasuke had been so ready to give away in exchange for his own safety.
But seeing the shine of unspoken pleading in Sasuke's eyes - the desperate need to hear him agree - Naruto was suddenly reminded once again why he had to get better. There were people who cared about him, people he wanted to see happy. And if getting better meant that Sasuke would be happy, then who was he to question his friend's request?
"I think I can do that," Naruto said, a toothy smile slowly spreading across his face. "If you're sure that's all you really want."
"Yes," Sasuke nodded. "I'm sure…"
A comfortable silence descended on the room. And as the two friend stared at each other in quiet contemplation - basking in the warmth of friendship and renewed hope - Naruto suddenly realized with unquestioned certainty that the horrors of the past few months were finally over, and that everything now was going to be alright…
Six Months Later
Autumn had once again returned to the hidden village of Konoha. The late October air was brisk with the promise of Winter's approaching cold, but invigorating to the senses after Summer's oppressive heat. A clear blue sky stretched overhead like an endless sapphire sea, the sun a brilliant gold ball of warmth. Around the perimeter of the village's fortified walls, the forest was a colorful display of golds, reds and yellows, making anyone who looked upon the oak trees' crimson leaves wonder if they weren't really the reason for the Fire country's name.
Inside the village, sounds of daily life rang with excited vigor. Just after midday, the marketplace was a crowded, bustling cacophony of noise and movement. Women moved around bartering with vendors for that evening's meal while small children bounced and whined at their sides and were told to behave. Men stood in small groups here and there along the street exchanging recent news and talking politics. Amongst Konoha's civilian population also mingled a number of its ninja residents enjoying a hard-earned day off or hurrying to wherever it was they had to go.
And for two young ninja sitting beside each other at the counter of one of Konoha's better known ramen stands, it just so happened to be the former reason that had brought them there together that day.
"Oi, old man!" one of the two - a spikey-haired blond teenager - yelled, his high-pitched voice ringing through the tiny shop and halfway down the street. "Another bowl of miso ramen please!"
The quiet, dark-haired boy beside him visibly winced at the rasping effect the frequency of his sixteen-year old companion's voice had on his ears, and snapped, "Do you have to be so loud, loser? It's not like the owner's deaf."
The blond, however, ignored him and broke into an ear-splitting grin as another steaming bowl of noodles was placed in front of him by a slightly annoyed Ichiraku. Brandishing his chopsticks, Naruto dug into his food with a zeal unseen in any of the shop's other customers.
Watching his friend hurriedly slurp noodles into his mouth without hardly taking any time in between bites to actually chew, Sasuke shot Naruto a disgusted look and sniffed, "I hope you're not expecting me to pay for all this. That's your eighth bowl of ramen already."
"Aw, come on, Sasuke!" Naruto whined, finally swallowing the half-masticated chunk of noodles in his mouth and turning towards his friend. "You said you'd take me to lunch. That means you pay! I can't help it if I'm still hungry."
Heaving a disgruntled sigh, Sasuke just shook his head in defeat and waved Naruto back towards his ramen. With a toothy grin, the blond obliged and happily tucked back into his meal.
As Naruto continued to loudly slurp his ramen like a man dying of hunger, Sasuke pushed the remnants of his own half-eaten lunch aside and sipped at a glass of water, all the while surreptitiously studying the boy beside him out of the corner of his eye. Despite his protests he really didn't mind buying lunch. He only complained to save face. Deep down he was glad to see the blond inhaling ramen again like it was air. If buying Naruto lunch meant he never had to see his friend so emaciated and starved like he'd been before again, Sasuke would have willingly bought him a life time supply of ramen in a heartbeat. Just anything to never have to see him like that again… Even now, six months after Akatsuki's defeat, Sasuke would still find himself at times stealing glances at Naruto's plate to reassure himself his friend had actually eaten…
Since surviving their last encounter with Itachi and Kisame and Kyuubi's curse seal being successfully strengthened by Konoha's resident Sannin, Naruto had made an astounding recovery. No longer a walking skeleton, he'd regained almost all the weight he'd lost within several months of Akatsuki's defeat and was once again a wild, bouncing whirlwind of excitement. There was light again in Naruto's eyes and a goofy grin almost always on his face. Energetic, boisterous and as annoying as ever, it was almost possible to believe nothing had ever happened to the blond at all.
But for those who knew Naruto best and knew how to look past his sunny façade, to believe he'd survived everything he had with no repercussions or lasting effects would have been a blatant act of self-illusion and denial.
And no one was more aware of the subtle changes in Naruto's demeanor than Sasuke himself. Although he knew Naruto tried to hide the effects his time with Akatsuki had had on him, every so often he'd see the light in Naruto's eyes dim and a sudden hush fall over the rambunctious whirlwind as if he'd suddenly been reminded of some dark and unspoken memory that would have been better off left forgotten.
It usually didn't take much for Sasuke to break Naruto out of his funks. Usually a snide comment or two that got the blond riled up and demanding a fight, or an offer to take him out to Ichiraku's worked well enough. Whatever the case, Sasuke tried to make sure he was always nearby to distract Naruto from his thoughts should any unwanted memories resurface to haunt the boy. He didn't trust anyone else to know what to do to bring Naruto back if he suddenly became quiet and distant like that. After everything they'd been through, only he knew how to reach his friend. And it was because of this and the unbreakable bond the two of them now shared, they'd become near inseparable. Over the last few months, Sasuke had overheard more than a few ninja and gossipy housewife comment on how one of them was rarely seen without the other, and doubted very much that was about to change anytime soon…
Beside him, Naruto had already polished off his latest bowl of noodles and called out to the owner for yet another. Rolling his eyes, Sasuke strayed his hand to the money pouch on his hip to check its contents. He was pretty sure he'd brought enough money to cover at least twenty bowls for the Bottomless Pit, otherwise known as Naruto Uzumaki. If not, he was sure the owner would just let him add today's lunch to his and Naruto's running tab. They were, after all, his undisputed best customers…
It was funny sometimes how normal this scene had become over the last few months, them sitting here eating lunch like this, like nothing had ever happened. After so much horror and hardship, it was strange to lead a somewhat normal life again.
Forgiven by the Hokage for his past crime of attempted desertion, he was now allowed to leave the village without any kind of restrictions or jounin escort, and had even seemed to regain some of the trust and respect of their fellow ex-Rookies. Sasuke was pretty sure all of that stemmed from him protecting Naruto the way he had when Akatsuki was still after the teenage demon-vessel, but in the end didn't really care about his regained place in Konoha society. Everything he'd done for Naruto had been because of his friendship with the blond. Not because he wanted to somehow curry favor with the Fifth Hokage or any of their old acquaintances.
Sasuke still at times wondered if he wasn't going to suddenly wake up and find all of this a dream with Naruto still dead and Akatsuki still threatening to destroy the village with Itachi at the lead. It was still hard at times for him to believe his brother was really gone and no longer there to haunt him. For so long Itachi had been the single focal point of his life. To now be free of that overhanging burden of hatred and revenge left Sasuke a little unsure at times of what he was suppose to do next. It was frightening feeling so lost like that, so deprived of purpose and direction. But whenever he was around Naruto, those thoughts almost instantly disappeared. Whenever he was around the blond whirlwind all thoughts of Itachi vanished and he was once again reminded of why he'd been so ready to throw everything away and jump in between Naruto and his brother's sword. It was only around Naruto that Sasuke remembered he no longer had to live in the past and now had his entire future to look forward to without anyone else dictating its path. He was finally free of Itachi's influence. And it was because of that he knew if he ever had to again, he'd give his life in a heartbeat to protect his teammate in return for the priceless gift he'd received and for the strength his and Naruto's friendship had given him to finally defeat his older brother once and for all.
Just then, as Ichiraku placed Naruto's ninth or tenth bowl of ramen in front of him (Sasuke was starting to lose count), two figures suddenly pushed aside the shop's door hangings and ducked through inside. Naruto actually paused in his feeding frenzy to look up and grin at the new arrivals.
"Kakashi-sensei! Sakura-chan!" he shouted with an ear-splitting smile.
"Yo," Kakashi greeted with a lazy wave and sat down beside Naruto at the counter. "I see you two managed to beat us here."
"That's not hard to do when you're always late," Sasuke took the opportunity to point out. The famed copy-ninja, however, didn't rise to the bait and just gave Sasuke an amicable masked grin.
As Sasuke turned back to his glass of water, he felt a familiar presence slide up behind him.
"Hi, Sasuke," Sakura said in an overly sugared, coyly shy voice as she took the stool on the other side of him. "How are you today?"
Without even glancing in her direction, Sasuke could feel Sakura batting her eyelashes at him. He stifled a groan. Ever since protecting Naruto from Itachi, Sakura's old crush on him seemed to have come roaring back to life. Although it wasn't nearly as bad as it had been before he'd tried deserting Konoha, Sakura's open display of affection and clinginess still managed to unnerve the stoic Uchiha.
"Fine," he grunted in response and pointedly went back to sipping water so he wouldn't have to talk to her. He might have gained more respect for the pink-haired medic over the last few years and didn't find her presence quite so annoying as he used to, but that didn't mean he wanted to regain her as one of his unwanted fan girls.
"So are you two ready for tomorrow?" Kakashi asked.
In a single motion that defied at least several laws of physics, Naruto finished sucking up an impossibly large mouthful of ramen, swallowed it in a single gulp and whipped around on his stool towards Kakashi with the same excitement of a five year old who'd just been promised to be taken out for ice cream.
"You bet!" he exclaimed, almost bouncing up and down on his stool. "Sasuke and I have been training for weeks to get back into shape. I hope the old hag gives us something really good!"
Kakashi's one eye turned up in a grin. "I happen to know for a fact Tsunade has a mission she set aside specifically for us. It's an escort mission for the leader of a small village on the border of Water country."
"Escort mission?!" Naruto squawked. "But that's barely even a C-rank mission! I thought she'd give us something a little better! We deserve at least a B-rank mission!"
"An escort mission is a perfect starter mission for you and Sasuke after being gone for so long," Kakashi said. "The two of you were only healed enough to start retraining a couple months ago. You can't expect to be assigned an A-rank mission the first thing back after such a long recovery."
"But that's not fair!" Naruto whined. Spinning around on his stool, he speared Sasuke with a disgruntled look. "Come on, Sasuke. Tell him we can handle something better. Maybe something cool like recovering some super secret scroll that was stolen by enemy ninja! Or maybe a rescue mission to save some kidnapped princess! Or maybe even-!"
"Naruto," Sasuke sharply cut him off before the hyperactive teen could go any farther. "Calm down. Kakashi's right. An escort mission will be fine for us to start back with. We'll get a B-rank mission next time."
Pouting like a child that'd just been denied dessert, Naruto turned back around to sullenly stare into the dregs of his bowl. "Fine…" he murmured, and dejectedly stirred the tips of his chopsticks in the remaining broth so that the miso that'd settled there at the bottom billowed up in a milky cloud. The air of unrestrained energy and excitement that'd been there barely moments before was now nowhere to be seen on the boy's whiskered face.
Shooting his friend a softened look out of the corner of his eye, Sasuke quickly added in a feigned tone of boredom, "Although, if this escort mission turns out anything like our first one to Wave country, I wouldn't be surprised if several teams of enemy-nin try to attack us on the way there. By the way trouble follows you around, I'd be surprised if our simple C-class mission doesn't somehow turn into a B or A-rank one…"
Just as expected, Naruto's face lit up at the prospect of danger and adventure, and broke into a toothy grin. "Yeah, ya think?" he excitedly said. "I forgot about that old bridge builder! Yeah, yeah! Maybe we'll have another mission like that! Wouldn't that be cool if we did?"
Sasuke just gave a noncommittal grunt and took another sip of water. He highly doubted anything so exciting was going to happen again. What happened with Tazuna, Haku, and Zabuza had been a total fluke. But if believing they possibly faced another mission like that made Naruto so happy, he wasn't about to destroy the other boy's childish fantasy.
From further down the counter on Naruto's other side, Kakashi leaned forward into Sasuke's line of view. "Are you sure you're up to fighting any life-or-death battles like that just yet, Sasuke?" he called. There was laughter in the copy-ninja's voice. "After all, I'd hate to see you hurt your shoulder again so soon after Tsunade finally announced it healed. You haven't tested it out in real battle yet, and I don't want it to go out on you in the middle of a fight."
"It'll be fine," Sasuke said, and reached up to grip the hollow of his left shoulder where Itachi had almost cleaved his arm from the rest of his body barely half a year ago. "Naruto and I have been doing a lot of sparring the last few weeks, and the loser does a fairly good job of giving me a halfway decent fight." Sasuke saw Naruto shoot him a dirty look out of the corner of his eye, and smirked at how easy it was to still get a rise out of the other boy. "I know it won't be an issue."
Kakashi nodded his approval.
Rolling his shoulder first forward, then backwards, Sasuke felt it smoothly respond to his muscles commands just like it was suppose to without any twinge of tightness or pain. It had been frightening how close he'd almost come to never being a ninja again. For several months after his and Naruto's last encounter with Itachi and Kisame, Tsunade hadn't been sure if his shoulder would ever fully heal. It was only after three months with his arm in a sling that she'd finally declared the muscles and nerves in his shoulder healed enough to begin rehabilitation exercises. Physical therapy had been a long and painful process Sasuke hoped he never had to go through again. Stiff, tender and partially atrophied from months of disuse, training his arm back into working condition had been virtual torture at times. It had only been through hard work, determination and Naruto's continued encouragement that he'd managed to regain full use of his arm and return to training several months after that. All that remained now to remind him of Itachi's near-fatal blow was an ugly knot of pink scar tissue that ran from the dip of his shoulder to the lower edge of his collarbone, and several inches down his back on the other side. All things considering, he was lucky to have survived such an injury with nothing to show for it but a nasty scar…
Feeling the weight of eyes on him, Sasuke glanced to his left and found Naruto still glaring at him through narrowed eyes and a stormy expression. "What's the matter, dead-last?" he calmly asked.
"What do you mean 'halfway decent fight?!'" Naruto exploded without any more prompting. "I kicked your ass all over the training field yesterday and you know it! You even said I won!"
Sasuke inwardly smirked. So Naruto was still fuming about his earlier jab. It never failed to amuse him how little restraint the other boy had over his emotions even when he should have learned by now that all his comments were nothing more than his own twisted way of showing affection.
"I don't know what you're talking about, loser," he coolly sniffed. "I don't know why you think I'd ever say something like that when we both know you could never possibly beat me in a fight…"
If it was possible, Naruto's already anger-flushed face turned even redder. "You jerk! That's it! We're settling this right now! Training field four is open. I'm going to pound your face into the ground!"
"Let's see you try," Sasuke smirked.
Getting up, Sasuke quickly tabulated the number of empty ramen bowls stacked in front of Naruto's seat and threw several currency bills down onto the counter. Then turning towards the fuming demon-vessel, Sasuke nodded for him to lead the way. Naruto readily complied, and together the two began to move towards the door.
"Just don't kill each other," Kakashi playfully called after them. "We have a mission first thing tomorrow and I don't want to have to be the one to tell Tsunade her best two patients are back in the hospital. Again…"
"Don't worry," Sasuke called back over his shoulder. "This isn't going to take long."
"Bastard!" Naruto growled.
But even as the two ducked under Ichiraku's door hangings and out into the bright October sunlight -still bickering and exchanging barbed insults - an almost palpable air of camaraderie surrounded them, binding them together. And as Sasuke headed towards the training grounds with his hyperactive friend close beside, he suddenly realized for the first time in as long as he could remember that he was truly happy, and that everything now was finally going to be alright…
So after all the emotional turmoil, gloominess and otherwise all-around angst of this story, how was it in the end? Good? Bad? Somewhere in between?
I know it might seem that Naruto made too fast of a turnaround back to his sunny personality when compared to his disposition in previous chapters, but I believe he hides a lot of his residual hurt and fear inside even if he did for the most part make a full recovery. Sasuke, too, although at the end seems outwardly the same snaky bastard he was before the whole Akatsuki incident, is inwardly left changed by the ordeal just like Naruto was, which is why, deep down, they both share such a strong bond with one another.
Even if you've never reviewed before, please leave your poor, starving author some love in the form of feedback. Your thoughts and opinions are what make writing so worthwhile to me after all.
So until we meet in another story,