Title: No Bed of Roses
Disclaimer: Naruto is the property of Kishimoto Masashi.
Summary: Together they will wait out their happy ending Naruto picks up the pieces.
No Bed of Roses
The worst thing about tragedy is that, afterward, you just have to live with it.
And Naruto does. Not perfectly—some mornings he wakes up and shadow of his sheets is a spidery tomb and the murk brown of his coffee is the residue of rotted flesh, like blood gone awry–but he tries hard and gets by. These days, that's all that seems to matter anymore.
The symphony of his life has been disrupted, and he has never reclaimed the rhythm. So now he just drifts about, and everything is a cacophony of bad food, bad weather, useless missions, and faceless people he can't quite place. Sometimes he gives them all another name, and that makes it easier. Uchiha Neji. Inuzuka Sasuke. The village is a concrete forest of broody avengers, and the rain that blurs the pavement makes them all someone else.
Sakura tells him he needs to move on, forget the past, or else he just might never make it through, knock on wood, and that she worries he doesn't eat enough. She is doing a lot better, he sees, engaged to loyal, steady Lee (Uchiha Rock. Lee Sasuke.) who would never break her heart. He's glad for her, but he knows better than to call her out on the bluff.
After all, better is good, but perfect is best.
Sai comes over in the evening, stepping out of the grey drizzle like a ghost, and brushes the pearly beads of water off his clothing while Naruto is still struggling to remove the crusty sleep-bitterness from his eyes. He doesn't speak, doesn't do a goddamn thing really, so Naruto always has to do all the work. He's fine with that, and they make do.
He thinks that this routine between them, this habitual agreement–not a relationship, by any reasonable means–has come about because he is weak. He can't help it, the need to reach out and touch another human being, to wrap himself in the false comfort of skin contact. Sai is a poor option; Naruto doesn't even know if he's entirely human. Something about his air carries the irrevocable detachment of inanimate objects, all sad and aloof. An empty cup left on the kitchen counter. A discarded cloak draped across the threshold after a door is slammed. Empty park benches on a wind-blown street.
Sai is always cold, and kissing him is a lesson in frustration, like making out with a marble statuette or your own reflection in the mirror. Sex is even worse, full of awkwardly tangled limbs and mismatched movements: two people fighting for a dominance that simply isn't there. Naruto often wonders why he even bothers, and then he looks at Sai, really looks at him–he thought it was strange he never felt the need to give Sai a pseudonym—and remembers.
"You loved him like a brother," Sai whispers in the moment before sleep, his face (cold, cold) nestled on the warm toasty skin of Naruto's navel. "Is that why you feel this way now?"
Naruto doesn't know what to say in reply, and eventually the darkness swallows the question. Brothers, enemies, he thinks, what's the difference? Sasuke certainly didn't seem to think there was.
In the morning, the muted ticking of the clock gives him a splitting headache, and the smell of brewing coffee makes him nauseous. He can't bring himself to look at Sai, and the desire to be anywhere else but here devours him. Everything feels a little broken, slightly wrong.
He thinks maybe he should buy one of those self-help books, the Five Step Program or something like that. He picked up a pamphlet once and leafed through it quickly, loitering in the bread section of the local super market, surrounded by the sweet smell of fresh-baked pastries and delicate confections. The five stages to grieving, he read, were denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, but in his rush, he forgot the pamphlet in his shopping cart, and never got to the part where they told you how to deal with grief.
It's useless anyway. The stages of grief are far too many to count, and each one is different in flavor and texture, but all of them hurt like shards of broken glass. Sometimes, everything is rolled up and confused, just one massive endless sinkhole, and then he has to be careful in his tread for fear of falling into the emptiness and never finding his way out.
Sai finishes fussing with the clasp of his cloak, and turns to leave. At the door, he looks over his shoulder, gives Naruto a smile. It's not a nice smile, and the shadow hides most of his mouth. Naruto shivers.
"I'm leaving," Sai says. The door closes softly on his heels, a creaking whispered secret. It doesn't matter. Naruto knows he will come back when dusk falls.
He wouldn't go so far as to say that Sai is a splash of color in the humdrum spectrum of his days, but he's still something different. In fact, if Naruto's life were one long stretch of monochrome, then Sai is a skid mark, a blot of black ink like the one he uses to paint on rice paper, a shade darker than the rest. Something different. Still not perfect, but maybe, just maybe, it'll be enough.
"You're not happy," Sai tells him one day over the brim of his cup. The coffee is particularly revolting this morning; privately, Naruto thinks it's like drinking bacon grease.
"I was this way when you met me." It's not exactly a lie. He doesn't remember the last time he was truly, entirely happy, and anyway, happiness is highly overrated.
Sai stares off into space for a second, then continues, "You're not happy, and I don't know what I should do about it."
"Emotions must still be terribly difficult for you," Naruto clips impatiently, kicking back his chair to add the stained cup to the tower of unwashed dishes vegetating in his sink. Still, he can't help but think that, whether Sai is aware of it or not, he is already changing things, changing Naruto. Sai is becoming a constant fixture in Naruto's life, and if Naruto had never met him, then maybe he would have to make him up somehow, will him into being through the sheer force of his want. He is that necessary.
The streets of Konoha blur away behind a curtain of water; the gutters are flooded with trash and muddy outrun. In the rain, everyone is a Sasuke, and Sasuke is everyone else.
Naruto remembers fighting, and fighting was insane. The smell of blood and the smoke from exploding tags clouded his mind, made him choke on his own breaths. His feet slipped on wet gravels, and the silent screams of dead shinobi vibrated in his ears. Kill or be killed. Everything made simple, deconstructed, stripped down to the basest of human instincts.
And still he remembers the boy—correction: the dead body in his arms. Just one ending out of a million possibilities, but it had to be that one.
Uchiha Shikamaru. Hatake Sasuke. SasukeSasukeSasuke...
"I'm not dead," he yells at the weeping November sky. "I'm not dead, and you can't pull me down with you!"
The taste of grief lingers on his tongue, or maybe just the memory of it, a strange mixture of oily salt and saccharine sweet. It's artificial, and he knows it's time to let go. He clings to it a moment longer anyway, savoring the cold, jagged edges, but the pale rain washes it away.
When he staggers out of bed the next morning, still clad in the mud-caked clothes from the day before and reeling from the devastating onset of a cold, Sai is sitting at his kitchen table, a steaming mug of something warm and liquidy clasped in his hands.
"I made tea," he says. "I didn't know if you drank any, so I just bought green tea. I hope you don't mind."
Tea. Not murky, but clear and transparent. Not bitter: a variety of flavoring. Naruto inhales deeply and takes in the soothing fragrance.
"Tea is fine." His voice is still scratchy and guttural from waking, so he steps up to the sink, turns the tap to 'cold', and washes his tired face under the running water, kneading out the sleep-wrinkles.
"I'm thinking about moving in," Sai muses aloud, his tone careful and masked. Naruto jerks around to face him, his hair still dripping with tap water. He studies Sai's face, and all of a sudden, he realizes that it's not the same face at all. His lips are fuller, his eyes slightly droopy, the angles of his cheekbones not so sharp and cruel. Naruto can't think why he ever thought the faces were similar. This face, here in his kitchen on a dreary Sunday morning, this is something different.
His mind turns abruptly to the quaint comfort of domesticity, of sharing a toothbrush and hogging the blanket and getting up on the same side of the bed every day. It's a rhythm, skirting the edge of emptiness with lively, feet-tapping beats that, if not happy, are at least acceptable. Acceptance is the final stage of grief, said the pamphlet.
"I think I'd like that," he croaks, eyes fixed on the bottom of the sink, where the drain is clogged up with hair and apple peelings. His hands grip the porcelain edge so tightly the white tiles cut into his palms.
Presently, he hears a scraping of chair on the floor, and before long two arms are snaking around his waist from behind, tentative at first, then firm and determined.
"I'm still new at this," Sai confesses as he presses his cheek against Naruto's, the tenderness of the gesture highlighted by the plaintive quiescence in his voice. "I'm trying to learn the words, remember the things I have to do. It'll take some time before I get it all right."
"I've waited long enough. A bit more won't kill me." Slowly, he reaches down to cover Sai's hands with his own, and perhaps it's his imagination, but Sai's skin doesn't seem as cold as before. Outside the fogged-up window, the rain is letting up and a shy honey-colored beam of sunshine is peeking out of the mournful clouds.
Not perfect. Not yet. But for now, this is enough. Together, they will wait out their happy ending.