A/N: This is the last chapter, folks. See you at the end!
Until Tomorrow Then
It was dark.
Sasuke blinked. Once…twice…Were his eyes even open? He couldn't be sure and his blindness was unsettling in the stillness. It smelled of wood and earth, and his flesh, swallowed invisible by tar-thick black, felt cool and clammy. He couldn't move.
Suddenly, he found it very hard to breathe.
Sasuke's eyes shot open to a painful burst of light as he woke with a start, his back cold and damp. His heart pounded violently in his chest. Where am I? he thought,on the verge of panic. Presently his surroundings came into focus and he realized he had fallen asleep in the clearing the night before. Blood rushed under his skin. This is something that idiot would do! he thought, suddenly annoyed.
With a grunt, Sasuke swung himself into a sitting position and shook away the disquieting feeling from experiencing sleep paralysis out of his head. A glint in the dewy grass caught his attention and his eyes focused on his hitai-ate, which had somehow fallen off in his sleep. His numb mind regarded the band like some queer animal, strangely foreign when seen out of its usual place. Gingerly, he picked it up and brushed his thumb along the metal plate, feeling the little nicks and scratches and the rough, etched Leaf insignia.
The symbol of Konoha.
It never meant much to Sasuke, not in the way the symbol on his back had branded him and set his path. Not in the way Naruto prized it beyond comprehension. Loyalty, Camaraderie, the Will of Fire: Iruka had taught them that these were the virtues embodied in the Leaf. To Sasuke these concepts were nothing but sugar-infused words devoid of substance (and Sasuke will not give them meaning) that left a nasty taste in his mouth.
That symbol had come dangerously close to being slashed through…
Perhaps it was because the cloth was soaked in morning dew, but the headband felt oddly heavy in his hands. He tightened his grip around it and he ran.
…Change of clothes. Bandages. Standard weapons set. Green tea. Compress. Emergency rations…
Neji paused from his inventory and held still. Yes, that was his cousin's presence lingering just outside his open doorway.
"To what do I owe this honor?"
Hinata made a startled little noise at being discovered and flushed, stammering for words while Neji stood unhelpfully silent. Finally in a fit of embarrassment, Hinata thrust out a jar of healing balm with outstretched arms and bowed low to avoid seeing her cousin's reaction. She squeezed her eyes shut for good measure.
For Hinata, the dreaded silence after felt insurmountably long and voices of her insecurities lurked impatiently at the edge of her consciousness when she finally felt the weight lifted from her fingers. She blinked, and straightened up in time to catch the remnant of Neji's quizzical expression morph into a formal one.
"Thank you, Hinata-sama."
She pulled her arms back close to her body.
"Umm," she started, feeling braver, "You…you and Naruto going to be away long?" Her cheeks blossomed sakura-pink.
"It's hard to say." Neji tucked the balm snugly in his pack.
Pigeon-toed, she swayed a little in place, tapping her index fingers together. Neji watched her characteristically cast down her eyes and, his expression warming almost imperceptibly, allowed the formality to relax.
"You should go say goodbye."
Hinata looked his way, gave him shy smile and a small nod before she turned to leave. Her light steps turned into a trot, then into a run. No, she thought as she hurried down the hall, I'll wish him good fortune.
Naruto muscles strained against a losing battle with gravity as he desperately tugged at the weight on his shoulders.
His jaws were sore from grinding ivory against ivory.
"Waaah!" he cried, startled, and face-planted into the dirt.
Naruto popped up almost immediately, shaking his fist.
"Sakura-chan, what the hell was that for?"
"I should ask you the same thing," she huffed as she approached him on the street, "What in the world is in that bag?"
Naruto turned to look at his discarded orange backpack and rubbed the back of his head. Funny, he didn't think he packed enough to fill a bag bigger than himself…
Suddenly he realized he was talking to Sakura.
"Ah, nothing! It's nothing!" he said too loudly, waving his hands nervously as sweat started to bead around his temples. "I'm just, er, taking out the … laundry. Yeah that's it! Dirty clothes were just piiiling up and I figured it's time to get them washed. Hahahaha!" He forced a laugh and didn't realize he had closed his eyes until he opened them and found Sakura gone.
Naruto swung around and found Sakura pulling out fistfuls of weapons and scrolls out of his bag and dumping them behind her.
"Aagh! What are you doing? I mean, did I say laundry? I meant, I was going out to the woods to train." Dummy, that would have been more believable if you said that first! he thought, mentally slapping his forehead.
"I know you're going away."
Sakura's serious voice, more so than her declaration, caught him off-guard. She roughly pulled out a quilt and half his supply of cup ramen.
"O-oh?" Naruto stammered, a bit defeated. Not bothering to drudge up more energy to fuss over his ramen, he shifted his gaze away and braced himself, half-expecting a tirade about how terrible he was at lying, or how dumb he must be if he thought he could sneak out and avoid confronting her about leaving…
"I'm sorry. I didn't know."
Naruto looked up perplexed and slightly fearful. Her voice was gentle, as were her eyes, as she crouched motionlessly beside his bag.
"About what?" he asked, knowing the answer. His voice nearly cracked.
"That you're not feeling well."
Naruto slapped on a grin.
"Heh. What're you—?"
"It's okay," she interrupted, shaking her head, "Kakashi-sensei told us you were a little under the weather and needed to go get better." Naruto was speechless. Unless Sakura was being extremely considerate of his feelings, Kakashi must have glossed over any details of his situation. "Kakashi-sensei…" he voiced more to himself than his teammate. He kept his promise he realized and his chest tightened slightly. I owe him one.
Sakura turned to look at him. "Yeah, he finally told us after Sasuke-kun badgered him about why you were leaving," she added with a slight grin.
Naruto was mortified to find himself blushing, but recovered and turned his head away with a scowl. "Sasuke? Right, sure he did."
"No, he did," Sakura responded, a little surprised. "He's concerned. We both are."
"Yeah?" Naruto turned to face Sakura and stuffed his hands aggressively in his pockets. "You know that bastard doesn't care about anyone but himself."
"Naruto," Sakura chided, then decided there was no convincing the stubborn boy and pushed the bag against his chest instead. Naruto let out an 'oomph' as air rushed out of his lungs with and caught the bag before it fell to the ground.
"Isn't that better?" Sakura asked smugly, admiring her handy work. "Just the essentials. I'm sure Jiraiya-san will take care of you, and the rest you can improvise."
"Uh, thanks, Sakura-chan," he stammered and shouldered the bag.
They stood there awkwardly for a moment.
"Well, I better get going," Naruto finally said, and made to leave…
Naruto turned and Sakura held up her pinky.
"We'll both be stronger when you get back."
Naruto's breathe caught in his chest seeing the fire in her eyes and was suddenly reminded of why he liked her so much.
He hooked his pinky around hers, his own blue eyes reflecting that determined flame.
Ten minutes and running several mental circles later, Naruto found himself in front of Sasuke's door. With a breath, he reached out:
Then he waits, his body jittering unconsciously with nervous energy.
Knock. Knock Knock.
And he waits.
Damn it, get the door! Naruto kicked at the door in frustration. He had no idea what he was doing there or what he wanted to say, but after meeting Sakura, he wanted to see that dummy before he left anyway.
Of course he wasn't there.
It was the second time in so many weeks that Tsunade found an Uchiha in a tangle with her chuunin guards.
Sasuke jerked out of the chuunin's hold. "Tsu—" He caught himself and bowed. "Permission to join Jiraiya-san and Naruto's mission, Hokage-sama."
The request stunned Tsunade, but she quickly recovered and pulled together her serious face, fighting the upward curl of her lip.
"Per stipulations of the council," she interrupted loudly, "you are not permitted to travel outside Konoha's borders except on approved missions under proper supervision. Or have you forgotten, shinobi?" Her hard eyes bore into his defiant ones. "This is not one of those missions."
Trapped, the boy stood silently, his jaw was tight and his dark eyes flitting as if following some intense internal debate. Tsunade watched not without some amusement as Sasuke struggled. Finally…
"It's my fault, isn't it?"
He didn't look her in the eyes and she didn't answer, letting him fill in the silence himself.
"It's my fault that dumbass is sick, so…" Sasuke's voice quavered, but it seemed that pride forbade him to give voice to any self-atonement, "…isn't it expected of me to help fix things?" he hedged. His voice was steadily becoming more confident. "Besides," he added, "Jiraiya-san is my sensei. I won't have my training interrupted."
Arrogant brat, Tsunade thought despite seeing underneath the underneath. "Hatake Kakashi is your assigned jounin sensei, Sasuke-kun," she corrected. "And your mission is to concentrate on your training with him, and to turn yourself into at least a half-decent representative of the Leaf. Am I understood?"
The boy's lips tightened as if to hold back a retort and Tsunade suspected that Sasuke understood the importance of his tutelage under the copy-nin. "Yes," he finally responded in a self-restrained voice.
There were dark circles under his eyes, Tsunade noticed, and she found her thoughts drifting to Naruto. Her papers were a mess, she decided, and deliberately busied herself straightening up her desk.
"If you leave now, you'll still catch them at the gate," she commented off-handedly and felt, more than saw, Sasuke nod tentatively before taking off. There might have even been a hint of a bow.
Alone in her office, Tsunade finally allowed herself to smile.
Not too long prior, Neji had stepped out uneventfully from the Hyuuga compound.
He hadn't bothered to say goodbye or announce to anyone there of his leaving. Those who needed to know were informed of his upcoming departure days ago and he felt no urge to suffer needlessly through forced courtesies. Somehow though, he found himself detouring to the usual place out on the field. Loathe as he was to admit it, there was some family who deserved his time.
"Do not worry Neji-kun! I have absolute faith that you will return Triumphant from your Super-Secret-Hokage-Commissioned Mission with the full Virility of your Youthful Power!" Lee announced exuberantly with exaggerated gestures to match. Neji resisted rubbing the tick above his brow and took comfort in knowing that he didn't have to deal with these theatrics with Jiraiya.
He caught Tenten's eyes and she gave him a sheepish shrug.
"That's right!" Gai-sensei bellowed and redirected a shoulder-slap meant for Neji over to Lee. "But it's a shame that you'll probably miss the Chuunin Exams. You'll have to work extra hard to catch to your teammates."
Neji was about to reply in the affirmative, but was distracted by the dumbstruck expression that appeared on Lee's face. Dumber than usual. His equally puzzled teammates all turned and waited for an explanation.
"I…" Lee was gaping like a fish.
"I…I will become a chuunin…"
"I will become chuunin and before Neji!"
"This is my chance! Hard Work will surpass Genius. That is a Promise!"
Gai's lips quivered and snot jiggled under his nose. "Oh, my precious student! What a Youthful attitude you have!"
While the two beasts embraced and cried, Tenten rose calmly from her spot on the log. "And we just got back together as a team too" she commented somewhat wistfully. She glanced at the crazy duo still shouting capitalized words and gesturing wildly. "It'll be…tough, without you."
"I'm sure sensei can arrange for another genin to be the third team member," Neji answered diplomatically.
The konoichi was about to respond when Lee, who could miraculously eavesdrop over his own din, piped up.
"Oh! Let us recruit Sakura-chan! She would be a wonderful addition to our team!"
Tenten put her hands on her hips. "Get serious," she chided, "You'll just get distracted."
"No I will not. I will be ten, no, a hundred times more focused and dedicated!"
"Give it up," Neji scoffed, a conditioned cold smirk turning up his lip. "For you, a higher level of dedication doesn't exist."
There was a beat of silence and Lee's impossibly wide eyes blinked at him, but Neji didn't realize he had delivered a backhanded compliment until they started to glitter wetly. And he was definitely not prepared when the boy tackled him. Neji could just make out his sensei's energetic baritone and Tenten's futile calls for order over Lee's tearful affirmations of Brotherhood.
Now his head ached along with his eyes. They still stung from abuse and his stomach churned whenever he seriously thought about his mission. But (he thought, tangled up in limbs and chaos) if it meant a respite from his team, he'll gladly take on the Nine Tails.
Still, they'd be here to welcome him back, and that was a comforting thought too.
Sasuke broke into a run as soon as he left Tsunade's office, trying to convince himself that he was just heated because Jiraiya was abandoning him. After all, wasn't training with the sannin the reason he had agreed to come back? He still wasn't ready, not nearly. He needed more training, more power. More hate.
But surprisingly, thoughts of his life's ambition found no anchor at the moment. All he knew was an urgency tugging at his chest and spurring his feet. There was something he couldn't walk away from at the Valley of the End and the moment he hesitated he claimed it. He claimed it and broke it in one fell swoop and he hadn't a clue what it was or how to fix it. He didn't really want to think about it. But it had something to do with Naruto and he knew he would have no peace the way things are.
The ground disappeared beneath his feet as he took to the rooftops.
The sun hung cheerily in the blue late-morning sky as if mocking Naruto's troubled mind as he scraped his sandals slowly along the dirt road. Once past the wall, there was no coming back until they've met their objective. Until they find a cure. Until I'm stronger. He looked up from his feet and found the sannin and Neji already waiting by the gate. Noticing the boy, Jiraiya pushed himself upright from wall and waved him over.
Naruto hesitate, looking once more behind him, foolishly hoping...
The street was empty.
He cast his eyes down, disappointed…
Naruto swung around and found Sasuke a mere arm's length away. There he was, his hands in his pockets, as causal as ever, as self-assured as ever…
Heat flared up in Naruto's coils and to his surprise, Naruto felt himself grow hostile.
"What?" he spat.
Naruto grew impatient as Sasuke stood mute and was oblivious to the concentrated, controlled rise and fall of his teammate's chest and the slight tremble of his over-exerted legs.
What indeed? Thanks for bringing me back? Thanks for caring? The internal monologue became increasingly resentful in Naruto's mind. I'm sorry I tried to kill you. Oh, and I didn't really mean to use the Sharingan on you. Sorry for literally stealing your SOUL. A scowl grew visible on Naruto's face. As if those words were capable of coming out of Sasuke's mouth.
If Naruto was a little more adept at reading underneath the underneath and noticed the flicker behind Sasuke's dark eyes, he might have been disappointed in his accuracy. But already, as it was, he couldn't expect any of it from Sasuke.
"Don't get yourself killed."
The fire died and time stopped. Naruto stood dumbfounded.
That was enough.
"Y...yeah. You too."
They stood there, breathing together, comfortable together for the first time in months. At long last, Sasuke extended a fist towards Naruto.
Naruto reached out and tapped his own against it.
'Did you know, Naruto…that you can read inside each other's minds when your fists meet. There is no need for words.'
And something passed between them, not quite a promise, but not at all a lie, and really, for now, it was enough. As long as they were both alive, there could be a future.
Jiraiya smiled. "Oi, Naruto! Let's get going."
"Okay!" Naruto called to the sannin. He locked eyes with Sasuke once more and with a small nod trotted off to catch up to his departing group.
The sun was warm and the path was clear enough to put one foot forward at a time. Naruto didn't need to look back anymore, but if he did, he'd have seen Sasuke lingering, watching them disappear into the unknown horizon.
- END -
09.01.10 If you're taking the time to favorite/alert, please leave a note too. Thanks!
Author's Note: Whew, that's it! It has been a great experience writing this. Your comments and enthusiasm for the piece has been a source of motivation and joy and it's been fun hearing everyone's theories as the story unfolded. Everyone, thank you so much for reading and sticking with me until the end.
And yes, this is the end as I had planned since the idea first came to me nearly three years ago. I had always meant for it to be a transition piece between two arcs (think Itachi's Return to Konoha, or Naruto Looks for Replacement Teammates) and have it feel like a piece of a larger world. The glimpses into the next Chunnin Exam, for example, was completely intentional because, well, life goes on. If this were the manga, would the next arc follow Naruto? Would it shift focus to the Chuunin Exams? Would Orochimaru or the Akatsuki complicate everything? I don't know, but I always thought it would be fun to see what this community would come up with.
Thanks again for your support and I look forward to your thoughts and feedback.