Disclaimer: Naruto and its characters belong to Masashi Kishimoto.

This is an edit and re-organization. NO NEW CHAPTERS.

Title: Gray-colored Happiness
Chapter: 1 of 42

1 – First person narrative. Since this is told in Sasuke's perspective, any conjecture he has on other people's actions or motivations needs to be taken with a grain of salt. They are his conjectures, not fact.
2 – This was written and conceived shortly after Sasuke's first appearance in Shippuden, so the timeline is different. Some parts are very similar, others very different. Some things were worked in later – namely Kabuto – but for the most part the story completely diverges from canon after that point.
3 – A lot of flashbacks and some dream sequences. They're there for a reason, but if you do not care for such things, it's probably best to back out now.

Pairings: NaruSasu main, various others, some in the past

Thank you.

o.o.o - break
/the voice in Sasuke's head/
'speech in someone's head'
::-:: flash back within flashback

Chapter 1

Sunlight streams brightly through the open window, bouncing off the whitewashed walls and casting an unearthly glow over the room that is still and quiet and achingly serene.

I wish it weren't.

I blearily open my eyes, responding to a slight movement that I don't think was part of a dream. It's been so long since he did anything but lie there, it's hard to know for sure. Craning my neck, I look to the blond head resting on the pillow beside me.

There's another small movement.

Then his face contorts into a grimace of pain that makes a shock shoot through my body, mostly surprise, but partly anxious too.

My chest clenches as I watch the slight opening of eyes that reveal a startling blue that mirrors in some way the rising of the sun outside. Subconsciously, I tighten my hold on his thin, frail body. My pulse thrums in my ears and I desperately try to calm myself down.

I'm not successful.

I shouldn't be so anxious. But something changed and I don't know what it is.

Naruto lets out a soft little moan and I watch the pained expression filter over his face.

Everything must hurt from the top of his head to the tip of his toes. Considering everything that's happened over these past few months, it's only reasonable.

In his face is also a barely hidden fear that concerns me more than it probably should.

But he's not freaking out and running away like he did the last time. I won't let him.

I won't.

I didn't compromise everything just to be abandoned.

Still, I'm glad to be here, alone with Naruto in the quiet of morning long before visitors are allowed. It's probably the last time we'll be given this.

I don't know why I should care.

But my fingers clutch the gentle folds of his shirt, digging slightly into the lean flesh beneath.

He's not going to run away. We all have our demons to face.

Slowly, he tries to fight from his half-sleep; the kind just before waking that doesn't want to let go. I watch him carefully, hearing the rhythmic beeping of the monitor, monotonous so long in its constancy. It speeds up slightly as he begins to rouse. He inhales deeply and breathes in the clean, crisp, sterile air with a confused look on his face all wrinkled forehead and pursed lips.

I suppose he would be confused.

The last he likely remembers, we were in the woods with the scent of dirt and trees, and the sourness of decaying leaves. He would expect the feel of outside, of fresh air, with earth and rock beneath him and the sound of birds above.

This hospital room is anything but that. The mattress is soft and stinks of antiseptic and linen, an overly clean smell. He squirms a little and his pout grows deeper.

Or it could be he's surprised just to be alive.

Naruto's mouth suddenly pops open as if breaking the surface of water and takes in a large gulp of air. He seems to have some difficulty breathing so I ease his posture a little, curving his back, and wonder if I should move away. For some reason, I can't move.

Everything is different somehow.

The passage of time betrays me.

Ten days. Two hundred forty hours. Fourteen thousand four hundred minutes give or take.

Not that I'm counting.

With what seems to be a great effort he peels his eyes open, blinking to make them work, a thing he can't seem to manage properly. That's to be expected; it's been so long since he opened them.

It's been so damn long . . .

His lungs are working a little better now; I can feel the gentle regular swell beneath my fingers. His skin begins to gradually warm to my touch.

He squints his eyes shut again.

With a groan, he raises his hand wearily and rubs his eyes, looking very much like a child waking from an afternoon nap. Blinking a few more times, I think he finally adjusts to the oppressive stark and plain whiteness of the room. He looks shocked and confused but then he snickers very strangely, a trifle disconcerting, a laugh that turns into a cough in a throat that echoes with phlegm.

I move with him again, my arm squeezing protectively over his chest so that he doesn't fall right off the bed. His coughing fit eventually subsides and he settles back into the mattress with a sigh. He looks just as tired as if he's been suffering from insomnia these past ten days rather than sleeping soundly. There are dark circles under his eyes and hollows to his cheeks, but for all that, he looks better.

He's awake.

I feel the whole of my insides twist into terrible, permanent knots. I don't want to speak, since there's nothing much for me to say. I don't know how he'll react to Konoha or to me or to my being here or to anything at all.

Too many things have changed.

Too many haven't changed at all.

He shifts a little bit, trying to get more comfortable and I shift right along with him. His half-lidded gaze wanders around the room until it finally turns in my direction and stops short, his big blue eyes bugging out comically.

He's definitely awake now.

Part of me expected this reaction, but part of me still can't help being annoyed. It shouldn't be such a shock that I'm here. Not after everything we've been through together. We are friends after all.

Aren't we?

No, I guess we're not. Not anymore.

He's still looking at me in that same way and I feel this frustrating ache I shouldn't, this thing I don't understand and so I push it away.

For a long moment he stares blankly; I can almost see the smoke rise from his head as his brain slowly goes into action. Then he scans me up and down curiously, making me feel self-conscious and very much like a bug under a microscope. He gets to the top of my head and stops, an amused look creeping into his face.

Then Naruto, that annoyingly loud-mouthed, troublesome ninja, has the audacity to try to laugh. But it quickly turns into hacking convulsions instead.

It serves him right, so I smirk even as I steady him. Amidst his coughing, he shoots me a sidelong glance with a mix of suspicion and outright wonder.

Once again getting his fit under control, he lays back to the bed in a tired, boneless heap. And I lay back down right along with him. He looks down at me as I stare at him. I scowl a little, waiting for him to do something, say something so that I know that this is real and that he's the same old Naruto I used to know.

But that's impossible; he'll never be the same again.

Nor will I. Nor will any of us.

But I still want some indication that he's himself, and not Kyuubi or a messed-up conglomerate of the two like he was. I stare keenly, my hand still gripping tightly, cutting into the tender surface of his skin.

The situation is growing uncomfortable.

Maybe this was a mistake.

I hate my new uncertainty.

Everything has been turned over into an alternate reality we neither of us understands.

Then I notice his expression soften and instantly I feel more at ease, both knowing why and not knowing at all.

But I let it pass as I lay my head down on the edge of the fluffy white pillow, about even with Naruto's shoulder. I haven't taken my eyes off him for a second. He's the only thing I have left and I don't want to lose him.

Naruto stares back just as intently, the blue of his eyes making me a little dizzy. I swallow hard, my heartbeat quickening, beating in time with the beep-beep-beep of the monitor, the only sound in the room besides our quiet breathing. As we lay there side by side, I notice the warmness of Naruto as my hand rests over him in an oddly possessive manner. Heat seeps through the cotton of his shirt and into each of my fingers. My temperature seems to rise in response, giving me a somewhat uncomfortable, somewhat pleasantly flushed feeling.

I start to feel a little sleepy

Then I stop dead, shock and what I can only call mortification, teeming through my veins.

In horror, I realize that my thumb has been tracing little ovals over Naruto's skin, a petting sort of motion, sweet and way the hell too affectionate.

What is the matter with me!

Naruto's eyes widen, never straying from my face, reacting no doubt to the same thing I have. He raises his hand to cover mine so that now both of them are lying over the place where his heart should be.

I can feel the accelerated beating through my palm. Naruto pauses, his eyes searching mine, and then he clutches his fingers around my hand almost painfully.

I don't really mind. It tells me that he is real and that he is here and that he is alive.

Then he speaks.

"Sasuke?" Well, it's more like a squeak with a gravel chaser. His voice is coarse and weak from having not been used and comes out only as a pathetic imitation of itself.

But even so, it is Naruto's voice, his manner, and there's no helping the lightness I feel, the little jolt that races through my nerves and makes my hands tremble.

Naruto, the Naruto, the Naruto I've been waiting for, is awake.

After ten grueling days, he's awake.

The edges of my lips curl up ever so slightly and hardly noticeable and yet Naruto, I think, has seen it. He gapes like an idiot, his mouth parted stupidly and his big blue eyes blinking. It would be funny, that look on his face, except it's at my expense so it's not.

I can't remember the last time I even tried to smile.

The beeping of the monitor spikes suddenly, sounding fiercely in the room as Naruto's heartbeat speeds up from nervousness or fear. Possibly both.

I wonder what's going on in his head.

I can't ask.

I can't breathe, can't move, can't even think.

Our eyes lock and I can see in his so many things: shock, fear, relief, sadness. I wonder if he's forgotten what's happened and if he no longer recognizes me.

Carefully, Naruto lifts his hand, apparently much more difficult than it sounds, and puts it to his cheek. There's a gentle pinch and a little muffled, surprised "ouch".

My eyebrows lift curiously.

He thinks he's dreaming.

I guess I can understand that.

He opens and closes his mouth repeatedly like a landed fish gasping for the last dregs of air.

I finally move. With aching, reluctant slowness I sit up, my hand dragging lazily over Naruto's chest, tickling sensitive skin and I hear a small, surprised hitch in his voice.

We're about to go back to what we were. Just a traitor and a demon, both orphans and both runaways, yet so different and separated by a canyon so vast that we can never reach across it. Deep down, in the parts of myself I wanted to eradicate, I think I always hated that.

And now I don't want to go back to being an object of curiosity, never seen for myself but for what I represent. I don't want to lose this little space where we are just Sasuke and Naruto, where we are alone and together, needing nothing more. It's a little space that once lost can never be regained.

Reality is a far different entity.

I tuck my hand neatly into the sheets between Naruto's hip and mine and I can still feel the inviting heat of his skin on mine.

Soft morning light fills the room, the sun glinting off his hair and making it shine like gold like a halo. The brightness burns my eyes.

It hurts.

I look down and see the shadowy outline of my bones through the thin white shirt I'm wearing. I guess I've lost weight too.

I straighten my shoulders and raise my head to face the sun. Naruto is watching me. I won't appear weak. I am Uchiha Sasuke, proud and strong and confident and I will look the part. It is who I am. The worthless shadow of a boy I've shown the last few days is a useless memory that needs to be locked away.
I have no use for the child I once was.

Naruto has apparently been rendered into an unheard of state of speechlessness. He tries clearing his throat again but produces only a wet, phlegm-filled noise. The bed shifts under his weight as he pushes himself back towards the headboard. Sitting up, he stares at me curiously and for a moment I wonder if what he and I feel is actually the same thing.

After a brief moment, he reaches towards me; I can see the faint reflection in the glass of the window.

His fingers are shaking.

He looks both scared and confused, but the fear is stronger, that is clear enough.

Everything about him says he's conflicted and I can't deal with that right now.

So I stand suddenly, a breath before he touches me, avoiding what I'm not yet ready to face. Some irrational part of my brain tells me not to let him; that if he does, my precious little space will disappear.

I don't want that.

And I'm not yet ready to face that either.

But I stand up too fast. Lightheaded, I totter on my feet with one slipping forward, awkward and embarrassing, and I have to dart out my hand to grasp the windowsill for balance.

I'm still too weak.

Goddamn it, I hate this!

I grind my teeth in irritation. I hate being seen as weak. Everyone can think whatever else they want, just not that. And Naruto . . .

There's a disappointed little grunt behind me followed by a gentle bang as the back of his head hits the headboard.

The light in the window sears my skin, a ruthless burn as I gaze outside.

My nerves tense.

It was a mistake opening the curtains yesterday. Through the glass I can clearly see the sad remnants of the burnt and battered section of the village; the broken and splintered wood, the charred and melted aftermath of a destructive blaze. But it's too late to do anything, pulling the curtains now would be too obvious. I grip my hands hard, letting the nails cut into the sill, and hope he doesn't see.

"Sasuke . . ." Naruto starts, but his voice catches in his throat.

There is something strange and when I turn my head, I see him fisting the white sheets in his hands and sucking his lower lip between his teeth.

There's nothing to say to the childishly sad and confused expression he wears.

He still looks like the little twelve-year-old kid I remember . . .

And nothing like him at all.

At any rate, I need to draw his attention away from the window.

I stumble to the other bed, clean and crisp and unused, and sit down. I lean over to pull on my shoes because I need to do something with those traitorous hands. Those hands that tried to kill him, that fought to protect him, that held him as he slept. The ones that now tremble annoyingly in front of me. He's still staring.

He keeps giving me that look. The one that says he doesn't know what to make of me and what I was doing.

It's annoying.

Naruto coughs, but I don't look his way. "So . . . " he says, finding a sad mock version of his voice. "How have you been?"

There's a clatter as the shoe slips from my hands and falls to the floor. "Idiot," I whisper to myself. Leave it to him to ask such a stupid question. But it's a relief that he seems so much the same, even if he is twisting the sheets nervously in his hands.

Silence resounds between each pregnant pause of the beeping monitor.

"You dropped your shoe," Naruto states needlessly.

Neither of us says anything more.

It's a strange, strained moment as we sit there on either side of the room staring at the sandal, a sharp point of black in all this whiteness. Naruto raises his eyes to look at me and I move only just enough to reach over, pick up the shoe, and put it on.

That's all there is to say.

Naruto stares with those wide blue eyes and blinks, a scowl coming over his still boyish face. "Wait . ." he stammers and tries to get out of bed. But instead of actually accomplishing this, he falls backward clumsily, catching his arm in the wires and tubes, accidentally pulling them free.

A horrible heart-wrenching screech rings through the room accompanied by a colorful string of curses.

It's familiar and new and oddly scary and I just feel . . .

My fingers latch onto the dull metal frame of the bed.

My hands are shaking.

Naruto continues his swearing as he struggles with the wires and tubes.

He's angry. He's confused. He's nervous.

Which only makes me feel the same.

Which is supremely annoying.

The sun, bright and round and clear, hits the blue of the sky and a warm golden red light reflects off the horrid white of the room.

Naruto's movement finally stops with a gentle clatter, making the whine of the monitor sound that much louder.

"It's a nice morning." He speaks unexpectedly, his voice cracking quiet.

I take a deep breath and shake my head. Idiot indeed. "Hn."

Outside the room comes the pounding of feet, much like the pounding of my heart, and the sense of chakra coming closer in panic. The door flies open, banging angrily on the other side of the wall. Tsunade, disheveled and panting and a little worse for wear, bursts into the room. She looks directly at me.

"Is he . . ?" She starts, unable to finish, apparently too flustered to sense the answer for herself.

I smirk and reply flatly, using a vague gesture indicating my roommate. "The idiot's awake."

The Hokage lets out the breath she'd been holding, her hand to her ample chest and her eyes closed in relief.

"Hey!" A certain annoying ninja yells into the siren-filled room. I turn to him, sneer still in place, and am greeted with a pleasantly familiar sight: a deep drawn pout and arms crossed over his chest in a huff. That's right. Loud-mouthed, surprising, childish, strong, loyal, never-give-up Naruto is back.

My Naruto.

No, not mine.

In a short moment pulled straight from our past, amidst the old jibes and the familiar roles we both forget we are not alone.

I hold my irritated smirk, but I'm not angry.

I'm not angry at all.

We're reminded quite suddenly of the other person in the room when said person, in the form of the current Hokage, storms up and smacks Naruto smartly on the back of the head.

"You stupid brat!" She shouts, quickly turning off the machine and plunging us into a deep silence. "Don't you ever do something so idiotic again!" It's unclear whether she's referring to the incident with the heart monitor or to something else entirely. But one thing is obvious. She's vastly relieved.

"OW!" Naruto yells, putting a hand to his head. The flicker of fear that passed over his face is quickly covered with a carefully placed pout.

I knew it.

I knew this would happen.

"That hurt, you old hag!"

The next thing any of us knows, Naruto is being suffocated by the chest of Tsunade, a thing that is a force to be reckoned with.

There's a smattering of muffled protests as Naruto flails in Tsunade's tremendous hug. I pity him, just a little bit, as I watch from the sidelines. But there are other feelings there too: amusement, vindication, and a little stab that feels like jealousy.

I don't get the chance to consider this, not that I want to, because Naruto is finally free and gasping for some much needed air. And using the precious commodity to curse under his breath.

"Well," the Hokage says rather matter-of-factly, ignoring him. "I think it's time you were properly examined."

That's when she turns to me, an unspoken and undeniable "get out" written all over her face. I glare back defiantly. I'm not very good at following orders.

We're staring at each other, neither of us backing down and neither winning, when Naruto interrupts our voiceless battle.

"Sasuke . . ."

It's a soft half-whining, half-wistful plea.

I look right into his eyes and something twists and flips and breaks inside me.

He wants me to stay.

But I won't be here much longer. Perhaps it's best he learn that now.

So I deepen my sneer and tease him instead. "What, do you need me to hold your hand?"

For an instant his eyes, so big, so blue, widen in surprise and in something else I can't quite place. But then he's back to himself, scowling testily and trying to act tough. "Of course not! Who'd ever want to hold your hand, teme?"

He narrows his eyes at me and I glare back as Tsunade ignores us both, settling herself beside her patient and figuratively "rolling up her sleeves".

"Don't go too far, Sasuke," Tsunade warns, not bothering to look at me. "You're next."

Great. I'm so looking forward it.

I leave them alone; it's better that they don't see I care.

I don't know any other way to be.

And so I turn to go, pausing only briefly with my hand on the door frame to look back at Naruto as he sits angrily on the bed, that signature pout still on his face.

But beneath the hastily plastered frown, I can see him smiling.

And I wonder: can he see the carefully hidden smile under mine?


I stand against the bare wall as Tsunade checks that Naruto is in proper working order. There are a million questions rolling in my head and it's better I just stay where I am.

Two nurses crest the hall corner and speed towards me, alerted no doubt by the ear-splitting siren that the idiot set off when he tripped. Of course it's been turned off now and replaced by a deafening quiet. They're a little late.

I hate how he can scare me.

I grip my fists at my sides, itching to break the door down and pummel him for making me go through this, for making me look so damned pitiful. I don't care if it seems unfair, because it really is his fault.

The nurses, I notice a bit belatedly, have stopped running and simply walk briskly. Their eyes are trained on me as I stand outside the door. They both glance in my direction, one curling her lip in disdain, the other trying to give me a smile that looks more sick than friendly. A smile that is stopped abruptly by way of an elbow to the ribs by her fellow nurse. They reach me and the "nicer" one gives me a slight nod before opening the door so the two of them may enter. They are in no hurry now, not since they saw me waiting impatiently against the wall. I don't know whether to take this as insult or compliment that they're able to deduce the degree of Naruto's condition simply by assessing my demeanor. But I guess they've learned by now that if he were in any real trouble, nothing could have dragged me away.


I think the insanity of the past week and a half has set everyone on edge. No one is used to me, much less my appearance. In me they now see him, ashen and serpentine, and there's no way to erase the visible connection from their minds.

But that's fine. Intimidation is good. I'd rather be feared than pitied. But that one nurse has that annoyingly sympathetic look in her eye, that "poor boy" gaze and so I glare at her, finding that I actually like the one who outright hates me better.

Hate is familiar, easier to take.

I wonder what they think of Naruto.

As they go inside, I sneak a peek and see him sitting on the bed, a boyish pout in place, arms petulantly crossed over his chest, and arguing as always with Tsunade. He likes to give everyone a hard time, I guess. Perhaps I'm not so special.

The woman reaches over to pry his hands away from his chest, an angry glower on her face, and the silliest, pointless, most idiotic thing happens. They have a slapping match like a pair of unruly children fighting over ownership of the same useless toy. Naruto begins snapping off some long string of incoherent nonsense while Tsunade shoots back with typical motherly things such as: "You need to get checked out" and "Don't give me a hard time, brat". Then, with one final stupid slap, Naruto pushes her away, slams his hands to the mattress and shouts for all the hospital to hear, "I'M FINE!"

He says this while covered in bandages and bruises, with dark circles under his eyes and an all-over gray complexion.

Fine, indeed.

Tsunade puts her hands to her temple in what I assume is an attempt to massage away a Naruto-induced headache. I'm quite familiar with those myself.

Somehow Naruto catches sight of me through the tiny crack of the open door. Our gazes lock. He still has that conflict, that confusion. All the things I didn't want to see couldn't be clearer. They burn in my retinas.

After a short moment, he screws his face into this perturbed little scowl and narrows his eyes as if analyzing me. Then he leans into Tsunade and pretends to whisper, "He looks like shit."

The nerves rise up on the back of my neck. How dare he, the stupid jerk! He's one to talk! Apparently he hasn't looked in a mirror yet. I really want to punch him, kick him, and break his jaw. He's got a lot of nerve, he does . . .

"I know." Tsunade answers and I've decided I've had enough. I could just move my foot and let the door shut of its own accord. But I'm seriously pissed off so I grab it with my hand and yank it violently closed, making the slam reverberate throughout the hallway. Several people stop to stare, but I shoot them a withering glare and they quickly go back to what they were doing.

I should just leave for that, I don't have to stand here and be talked about behind my back in front of my face. Naruto's got a hell of a lot of nerve bringing up my condition when he's been in a coma the last ten days. He's the one who almost died.

The one who almost left me.

My stomach drops below my feet, making me dizzy and there's a pinching pain behind my eyes.

He's just lucky that I . . .

So I can't leave. I tell my feet to move, but they refuse to listen.

He still needs me.

That's what I tell myself.

I blink my eyes a few times and make them see clearly again. Then, crossing my arms, I lean back against the wall conspicuous and stupid, but I don't much care.

I'll just wait here for them to finish, even if it takes forever.

Unfortunately, while I'm doing this, that well-known plague of unwanted ninja come traipsing by. News travels fast in Konoha, especially when it concerns Naruto. Some run, some walk, some come alone, some in groups and soon it's everyone, the rookie nine and Gai's team. All except for one exception, that is.

So he does need me.

He has to. Otherwise, what am I doing here?

The atmosphere is heavy and exceptionally awkward, as the needless shinobi are fidgety and nervous and out-of sorts like a pack of bloodhounds that have lost the scent. I just stare with my blank expression at the group of extras hoping against hope that they'll just give up and go home. Or just disappear into smoke. That would work too. Or be captured by ANBU and be "accidentally" throw into jail. That would be even better. It's what they want to do with me.

But of course, to my immense chagrin, this doesn't happen.

Most of them are glaring back, though some don't even bother. Shikamaru is pointedly looking in the other direction, as is Lee. The only difference is that Shikamaru looks bored and annoyed while Lee seems more uncomfortable than anything else. Well, that's fine. It's not as if I care what they think.

I want to go back inside, but I won't. I have to begrudgingly admit that I trust Tsunade, with Naruto anyway. So I'll wait, ignore the barrage of stares and sneers and unflattering thoughts. It's not all that hard. I don't care about them.

It's only for Naruto's sake that I tolerate them to begin with.

Then again, now that he's awake things will start to change quickly.

I turn back to the group to discover Neji glaring at me, trying to stare me down, which is really just sad. Even with hunger and fatigue I won't lose to him, not even in something as pointless as this. I also notice Kiba as he hides in a corner, nearly foaming at the mouth like a rabid dog with his little beady eyes glaring from the shadows. He's not worth my time so I dismiss him. I don't notice anyone else.

Well, that's not quite true.

There is something very strange.

Hinata, that shy, quiet, inscrutable girl, is cowering behind Neji, her hands holding tightly to his arm. It's an interesting turn of events based on what last I knew. But I don't really care. No, what peaks my interest is that she is the only one staring straight at me with anything other than naked hatred. She doesn't even have that exasperating pity I keep being subjected to. She just stares intently, curious more than anything but not unkind, and I feel like she's using the Byakuugan on me, only I know that she's not. She blushes a little bit as she always does, ducks behind her cousin and smiles shyly.

That's bizarre. What the hell was that about?

I blink in confusion.

Neji curls his lip.

Kiba snorts.

Hinata hides completely behind her cousin.

Tsunade opens the door.

Any thought I might have spared to this ragtag group in front of me vanishes, replaced by the more important task at hand. I turn to Tsunade and open my mouth.

"How is he?" Kiba blurts out.

I spin my head to glare at him. He did that on purpose just to irritate me. I make a mental note to beat the shit out of that dog-faced, drooling, flea-ridden interloper later. He flashes his canines at me in mocking fashion.

I narrow my eyes and deepen my scowl.

Kiba sticks out his tongue.

Very mature.

"He's doing well. All his vital signs are strong," Tsunade says, breaking through the childishness. She heaves a sigh. I finally turn my attention back to her only to realize that though she's been answering Kiba's question, she's looking straight at me. I smirk. That's right. I'm the important one here.

Naruto and I, well, we're different.

It's not the same for them.

I stare right into Tsunade's eyes, betraying nothing and wait for her to continue. "But he's still been through a lot. And he's weak. It will take some time before he's at one hundred percent again. But it's promising. With some time and care he'll be back to his old trouble-making, loud-mouthed self."

It's a relief.

But it's also not.

Things can no longer remain in stasis.

Tension eases out of the air and the hallway doesn't seem quite as small as it did a moment ago. Although, because I'm here, there's still a thrum of anxiety in the air.

"Can we see him?" Neji this time, very formal. Everyone's ears seem to perk up, interested in the answer.

I don't like it. They just get in the way. I look over and see that for some weird reason, Neji is looking at me. Then I see they're all looking at me as if I'm some ticking time bomb ready to explode at any second. I glare right back.

/Kill them/, a little voice in my head says. /Kill them all./

No, I don't think so.

Not that I'd exactly be sorry for hurting them. But a killing spree might cause a problem.

Still, holding back is difficult.

They are in the way.

"Yes, but only briefly. He's still recuperating and I don't want to put any more stress on him than necessary." Tsunade is acting very "professional" about the whole thing.

Then, as if a silent consensus has been made, Neji opens the door and the whole troupe brushes by me, heading like a mass infection into the room. I simply stand and wait for it to be over. For now, I'll allow it. I'm not in a position to stop it yet. But if I were better, I'd kick them all out with enough force to make things clear.

Unnecessary little bugs.

Some of them barely even know Naruto and now they go waltzing in as if they're old buddies. I hate them.

I don't want them here.

I don't want them here.

I know I won't like what I'm about to see.

There's a laugh that emanates from the room, loud and clear and very recognizable, which should make me happy but instead pierces my heart with the force of a hurled kunai. The world in front of me has gone blurry and what's that supposed to mean?

I wipe a hand over my eyes, and they become clear again.

When I look up, I see Tsunade still standing there and staring at me with that same pitying, confused look. I hate being stared at it. I 'm so sick of these looks, of everyone watching me, be it with pity or awe or hate, it doesn't matter. I just want it to stop.

Tsunade releases a disgusted huff is released and then turns and walks away. Her steps echo off the walls and they get both quieter and duller as she makes her way down the hall.

Instead I look into the overly crowded room where they've all crammed themselves in; a mass of bodies filling the formally empty space. Kiba is sitting in an extra chair at Naruto's bedside, by rights my place, and talking animatedly about some inanity that earns him a cuff on the back of the head by some undistinguished assailant. The other chair, the old uncomfortable familiar chair, my chair, has been left blatantly vacant. They're avoiding it as if I have some communicable disease they'll acquire were they to share some common space with me.

I hate them.

Naruto laughs. My stomach twists into knots and I feel like I may need to throw up, although I doubt there's anything left to empty.

He looks so happy surrounded by his friends, by all the people he cares about.

But there's nervousness to his eyes too. Part of him is still afraid. I wonder if they even see it.

To me his anxiety is pervasive, overshadowing everything else.

His eyes dart around a little excitedly and his hands shake just slightly though they are mostly hidden by the bed sheets. No one seems to notice and proceed to prattle on. Then Naruto looks to the doorway and I catch his eye with a piercing intensity that cuts straight through me. I feel as though my emotions are tied to his, my bad mood being spurred on by his apprehension.

But then his hands stop trembling, his eyes grow calm and a soft smile slowly spreads across his face.

The sunlight that frames him, the white of the sheets that cover him, the gold of his hair and that look on his face; it all makes him look so very innocent.

Nothing like a demon at all.

How perfectly inane.

His eyes stay on me as he picks up the one-sided conversation Kiba was apparently having. After a moment, he turns back to the dog-faced boy and smiles wider, the whiteness of his teeth standing out in stark relief. Their chatter continues on, but I'm not part of it. I'm on the outside like always. And Naruto looks perfectly content and at peace when he's with them while I stand in the doorway.

/He doesn't need you./

He seems to have forgotten I'm even here.

Maybe I'm the one who's unnecessary.

But it should be fine that way, shouldn't it.

I shouldn't need him; I shouldn't need anyone.

Why do I need him so damned much?

It doesn't hurt.

I'm absolutely fine.

I feel a soft warmness on my arm and I look over to see that Sakura has joined me. She gazes up with concern brimming in her green eyes. It's irritating, but I don't have time to think about it. Not when I hear the question I've been dreading.

Naruto's soft, cracked voice cuts through my thoughts. "Where's Ino?"

There is an awkward moment of silence.

I grit my teeth until my jaw hurts.

Stupid idiot, why did you ask? That's your problem, always worrying, always shouldering guilt that isn't even yours to bear.

There's some general mumbling and then Shikamaru's lazy voice distinguishes itself from the rest. "She couldn't come. There's a lot she's got to do now." His normally bored voice sounds a little strained. "She wanted to be here . . . " he trails off with a noncommittal grunt. He's lying; it couldn't be any more obvious. He should have just kept his damn mouth shut, changed the subject. Hell, anything would have better than such a pathetic, blatant lie.

"Oh." It's all Naruto says.

I open my mouth, but nothing comes out. I don't know how to make myself feel better, much less someone else. There hasn't been a "someone else" to consider, not since Itachi. My brain, my voice, my everything has deserted me, leaving behind nothing but an empty husk which only takes up space. There's a burning behind my eyes, an oppressive heaviness in my lungs.

There's another pause, then someone clears his throat.

"So, so, hey Naruto. Did you hear what Konohamaru did they other day on one of his missions? The D-ranked kind, you remember those? Well, anyway. . . " Kiba goes on to relate some stupid story and for once I'm glad for his ability to prattle on for hours on end without reason.

Naruto looks happier.

He looks happy with all these people, these . . . friends.

And he's not looking at me.

My presence makes no difference one way or the other.

He looks so happy.

That can't be right.

/He doesn't need you./

My chest feels tight and painful, like someone has thrust their hand inside and squeezed my heart, spurting the blood into my lungs so I can't breathe.

The air here is too heavy. I need new air.

I turn around and leave. Sakura's eyes are on me, confused and anxious and angry, and I even hear the soft, uncertain sound of her voice as she chokes on my name. But that is all. No one else is looking; no one else cares.

Naruto doesn't seem to notice.

I have to get out of here.