For He Who Grants Me Life
Uzumaki Naruto is notorious for his obsession with acknowledgement.
When he was young, it drove his pranks to higher and higher levels of visibility, outrageousness, and controversy. And when he learned about the title Hokage, he snatched up and possessed the idea with his hungry, greedy hands. To protect the village? Nothing so noble.
'My dream is to surpass all the Hokage, and then everyone in the village will have to acknowledge me.'
Kakashi remembers that first day well and makes it a point to take the boy down few notches so he could build him back up a little straighter. One by one, Naruto's peers grant his wish in bite-sized bits. And slowly, the motivation for his lofty dream transforms into that which is noble. Slowly. Kakashi teaches him the scope and limitation of his influence. To survive, look directly ahead. And directly ahead, Naruto found, was Sasuke's back.
The thing he wants most now, Kakashi notes, is Sasuke's acknowledgement.
After he brought Naruto back from the Valley of the End, Kakashi found himself at the memorial stone for a long time. He spent a good part of his life there (not enough, he thinks), regretting that he never acknowledged Obito until the end.
It was not without disappointment that his students were taken from him, and when Naruto returned Kakashi was genuinely happy. He was to work with Naruto again and he took the opportunity without hesitation. This time, it won't end in regret. He would help Naruto get the acknowledgement he sought. To atone, even a little, for his own sin.
Kakashi had told Jiraiya that the relationship between Sasuke and Naruto was like the one between Orochimaru and Jiraiya himself. Hatake brat. Jirayai saw himself in Naruto long before. Jiraiya knew firsthand of one-sided friendships, of desperately seeking acknowledgement from someone who would never oblige. He knew the helplessness and the pain of betrayal in watching a comrade desert you and everything you hold dear to walk a path of darkness. As a mentor, he told Naruto to forget Sasuke (I don't want you to walk the same path as me), but as a sentimentalist himself, he was glad Naruto would rather be a fool than give up. He would help Naruto succeed where his younger self had failed. He'd help this kid get what they've both always wanted. This time, Jiraiya thought, foolishly optimistic, it just might turn out alright.
For all their wisdom, Naruto's sensei were wrong, their own pasts tainting their understanding. Because Naruto had already been acknowledge. It was not the pursuit of obtaining acknowledgement that drives the passionate blond, but the pursuit of protecting and preserving it.
If one were to ask Sasuke now if it was true, he'd dismiss the question, or give a vague, non-committal answer, indifferent and detached. But perhaps if pressed, he might admit that he acknowledged the blond once; that he recognized both their strengths because of their respective pain. That time when he last wore his Konoha hitai-ate.
But for all his sharpness, Sasuke would be off too. Naruto didn't value his bond with Sasuke because he acknowledged his strength. Sasuke, whether he knew it or not, accepted Naruto in a much more important way; for something that everyone takes for granted unless it was denied. Gaara, for one, understood perfectly.
'He's the person that, more than anyone else, accepted me and my existence.'
Naruto had responded thusly when Sai questioned why the blond would go so far to bring Sasuke home. Sakura had been somewhat mystified by the statement. She was there, on the hospital roof when Sasuke flat-out refused to wear his hitai-ate to acknowledge Naruto. As far as she could tell, Sasuke never accepted him. She wrote off the declaration as Naruto getting caught up in the moment, as is his wont. She was more concerned that her latest teammate had turned on them anyhow.
But Sai, who had been systematically desensitized from acknowledging his own existence, somehow felt his own loss more poignantly than he had in a long while.
Naruto doesn't expect anyone to understand what it means for him to be given acknowledgement. To be as if he had been starving and freezing for twelve years (had it only been twelve?) and was finally given a steaming bowl of ramen. It spread like liquid gold heat and filled his cold, hollow shell of a body. He had never felt more whole. And as much as Sasuke wanted and tried, he couldn't take it back. Because, as the adage goes, words can't be taken back. And action speaks louder than words.
Before angry words, before betrayal, Sasuke's body had moved on its own. Under the fire of needles, Sasuke died. And Naruto knew it was because he was there.
He was worth dying for.
And this precious, unintended acknowledgement was strengthened again when Sasuke, with the cursed seal snaking painfully across his body, told Naruto to take Sakura and run.
'I don't ever want to watch the people dear to me die before my eyes again.'
No, Naruto didn't expect anyone to understand his motives. But out of all of them, perhaps Sai knew best. Ironic maybe, since Sai also knew Naruto least. But the headstrong blond unintentionally sparked a dying memory in the Roots shinobi and Sai suddenly found himself more real and alive than he had been in years (he smiled because he couldn't help it). And because of it, it was ultimately Sai who went against everything he knew to protect Naruto's bond with Sasuke. Sai understood.
He too wanted to protect the one who granted him life.
Author's Note: Thanks for reading! In the manga, Naruto said 'He's the person that, more than anyone else, accepted me and my existence,' and it confused me. Thus, this one-shot. Writing this also helped me reconcile how quickly Sai turned. Hope it was okay.
Your comments are appreciated.