He hugged his friend tighter: "You have taught me how to fear, and for that I am both thankful and sad. I will never leave you again, so please don't ever leave me."
"Meet us back here at seven a.m. tomorrow morning, okay?" Jun reminded him.
"Yeah," Sasuke nodded.
"Are you sure you're alright, Sasuke-san?" Naori cast a worried glance his way as they descended the staircase in twos, she and he in front, and Jun and Haiyu behind.
"I'm fine," he assured her.
"He's gearing up for the big day," the other man quipped teasingly from behind them. "It's on the last day of December, you know."
"I hope you remembered to put us on the guest list," Jun followed his in suit, poking Sasuke in the side as they reached to bottom floor.
"You're all invited," he assured.
"Are you sure you're okay?" Naori asked again.
"I'm fine," he repeated. "But I'm going to be late if I don't hurry."
"Get out of here, kid," Haiyu waved him away as they exited the main building of the assignment headquarters. "Don't stay out too late."
"You should listen to your own advice," Jun made a face at him. Sasuke left them on the street, making the left instead of the right. He felt Naori's concerned gaze on him for a few steps before she followed her two friends home. He took to the alleyways, cutting some time off his trip; he was indeed running late. She'd be mad at him if he wasn't on time again. His cloak fit itself around him, covering the white vest and black uniform combination, his new mask—a raven's stylized face—tied securely at his hip. The short katana was tied to the other side and barely visible as he strode quickly through the slowly-growing crowd. It was getting dark, and people were starting to go home. The streets would be unmanageable soon. He walked faster.
"You're going to be late, Sasuke," Rock Lee fell into step seamlessly beside him. He'd sensed the other man's approach and was therefore not surprised at his voice. He merely shrugged and kept walking, slipping nimbly through the thickening throngs of people.
"My meeting ran long," he offered as an explanation. "What's your excuse?"
"Training," the green-clad man chuckled. "Although she won't accept that at all."
"Then we'd better run, don't you think?" he stated more than asked and that was all it took. They were off in two separate flashes of color.
He struggled with the lock, cursing at his stubborn key. Finally, it swung open and let him tumble into his dark apartment with a weary sigh. Tsunande had been entirely too hard on him this afternoon—his whole body was one big ache. She said she was "loosening him up" for when he left on the training mission to Gaara's country, but severing all chakra connections within his body for a full hour and a half, and then switching all his nervous system signal carriers so that he was moving his arms instead of his legs was just plain wrong. And to top it all off, next week she was going to do some mental exercises. He could hardly wait…
"WAGH!" Naruto fell over.
"N-Naruto-kun!" Hinata wailed.
"Dork," Kiba muttered from beside her.
"Erm…surprise?" Sakura laughed nervously.
The blond looked up at all his friends crowded tightly into his tiny apartment. "What…are you all doing here?" he asked them, getting to his feet.
"We all decided we should throw you a surprise party before you left," Chouji grinned at him from behind the taller Shikamaru, who looked like he wanted to rate this event as "troublesome" but didn't have the heart (that, or he was scared of Sakura).
Instead, he said: "The ramen's getting cold."
"You bought ramen?" the blond clutched his chest and mock-swooned.
"I bet you Chouji will eat it before you even get the chance, Naruto," Ino teased.
"Waaaaaaah!" the blond ran for the kitchen. The others swarmed after him, chattering excitedly. Only Sasuke and Hinata stayed behind. She was watching after the group with her unreadable white eyes. He was standing by the door, looking as if he wished he were anywhere else but here. Slowly, her gaze slid to his as her cheeks flushed. He stiffened. They stared at each other from across the dim living room.
"S-Sasuke-kun…" she whispered.
He nodded to her. "Hinata."
Her face reddened even more, and she hurried into the kitchen after the others. Sasuke slipped his hands into his pockets and stayed back in the empty room, listening to Naruto and the others chattering over the food everyone had brought to the blonde's surprise party.
"So, when are you finally leaving?" Konohamaru took another sip of his coke.
"Well, I haven't really figured that out," Naruto chuckled to himself, "but I do know it'll definitely be within the next two weeks."
"And how long were you planning on staying in Gaara's country?" Shino asked him.
"Ah, about a year or so," the blond shrugged. "As long as they'll have me in their country, really. But I'm aiming for a year."
"That's a long time," Sakura made a face. "Will you write to us?"
"Of course I will!" he assured quickly. "And besides, it's not like I'm hundreds of miles away or anything! I can visit everytime the Kazekage passes through Konoha." He grinned at them all. "So don't worry, guys, I'll definitely keep in touch."
Sasuke watched the scene quietly from the doorway, saying not a word. The only one paying attention to him was Kiba, who just kept scowling at him. The only other one was Hinata, and she couldn't keep her eyes on him for more than a second before she broke out into a fresh, hard blush. Chouji ate obliviously while Shikamaru was the only one who truly noticed it all, and watched in bored silence. The chatter continued. Sasuke kept his eyes on Naruto, a frown marring his brow ever-so slightly.
He saw Sakura out; the last guest. It was two a.m.. "Thanks, Sakura," he told her. "I know you're the one who coordinated all this."
"I wanted to, so don't thank me," she stuck her tongue out at him playfully.
Naruto smiled briefly, then sighed and leaned against the doorframe. "Sasuke didn't stay."
She lost her smile too. "I know he showed up, but I don't know when he left."
"I told him, you know."
"I know," she said softly.
"Did you figure it out too?" he grinned helplessly.
"It took me a while after the whole disappearing incident, but, yeah," she smiled sadly.
"I guess I can't make fun of you anymore, huh?" he smiled back, just as sorrowfully.
"The only thing I can tell you is not to dwell on him like I did," she looked away. "It hurt too much for too long. I'm finally starting to get over him…"
"While I'm only just beginning," Naruto grinned at the irony. "We can really pick 'em, huh Sakura?"
"I just finally realized that I'm not Sasuke's number one person," she shrugged. "I don't know if that's the same case for you, but—"
He shook his head. "I'm not. He doesn't have a number one person. He told me… He told me he can live without love, and I guess he really can, if he can go through with this marriage all composed like this."
"Maybe he hasn't found his number one person yet…?"
"That didn't make me feel any better, Sakura."
"Sorry," she turned away. "I'll see you tomorrow, Naruto."
"See you," he waved and watched her go. When she disappeared into the inner stairwell, he stepped back inside his apartment and closed the door. She had stayed to help him clean up, so it wasn't all that bad. He just wanted to go to sleep, and forget the conversation that just happened. He wished he could forget, anyway.
"Oi," the other man spoke from the darkness behind him and Naruto squealed and whirled around to face the darkness. Sasuke stepped into his line of sight.
"You bastard!" he clutched at his heart. "Do you want me to die before I'm twenty five?"
"When are you really leaving?" the black-haired man backed Naruto up against the door so the blond couldn't escape his questions. Still, though, the blue eyes avoided his own.
"I was thinking…January first."
"Why so late?"
"I promised you," the eyes briefly met his own and slipped away again.
"What did you promise me, Naruto?"
"I promised…to be the best man at your wedding."
Sasuke's eyes shot open wide. "Even after everything, you—"
"I never go back on my words," Naruto frowned to his feet. "And I never break a promise to someone I cherish." Those piercing eyes rose slowly, defiantly, to meet the dark amber glare. "I promised you I'd be your best man at your wedding, and that's what I'm going to do. The mission starts after my last day of training with baa-chan, so it's my call when I finally leave. So…"
He didn't realize he had reached out, he didn't know what drove him to do so, but his arms reached around the shorter man and pulled him close, holding him tight. The blond stiffened within the circle of his embrace. The moment ended as soon as it began, and also spanned an eternity for each of them. Naruto's heart stopped and Sasuke's raced. Naruto's breaths were harsh and ragged gasps, while Sasuke didn't breathe at all.
"Thank you," he choked. "Thank you for putting up with someone like me."
Naruto slowly grinned, his arms coming around Sasuke's waist and touching him hesitantly, hugging him gently. "If I don't do it," he chuckled, his throat suddenly fighting with sobs, "who's going to?"
"Dobe…" he held him tighter, squeezing his eyes shut. "Usuratonkachi."
"Yeah," Naruto tucked his head into the curve of Sasuke's neck and slowly breathed him in. "I know."
Notes: And it's over! Waaaaaah! Different Seasons has finally come to an end, and let me express, it's not at ALL what I originally intended. XD I guess forty chapters isn't enough to cover the range of emotions for these guys, so, I've decided to write a part two! That's right! Look for a new story, coming soon, entitled: A Change of Seasons Thanks for reading! Ja! Kitty