PLEASE READ!!!: A/N: If you haven't read "I Think I" by TooDarnLazy, then this probably will make no sense to you. This one-shot was inspired by that fanfic. It's a "What if -" scene that my brain conjured up about something that could happen in the future of ITI, anytime after the 19th Chapter. Please keep in mind that THIS IS NOT A CONTINUATION OF THE FANFIC NOR A SIDE-BRANCH - just a scenario that I imagined and wanted to share with you all. And please don't flame me accusing me of plagiarism; I'm posting this with the permission of TooDarnLazy.
DISCLAIMER: All canon characters and the Naruto-verse belongs to Kishimoto. The OCs (Tanake Eriko and mentions of Tanake Teruo and the Hyuuga twins, Ichiro and Nichiro) and everything else from ITI belongs to TooDarnLazy. Anything that looks unfamiliar ::coughunlikelycough:: is mine.
SUMMARY: What if Naruto had put her wedding ring back on after her dinner at the Tanake's? What if someone were to see it? ... Sometimes, the easiest cure for your heart is to unload the burdens you've been carrying ... and if a certain raven-haired someone were to overhear it, that could open up a whole new future ...
WARNINGS: Bit of bad language, female Naruto, SasuNaru and NaruSasu, bit of fluff at the end, OOCness (duh! This is fanfiction!) and, most importantly, this is LONG! I'm so sorry, I really did try to hold back, but ... ::sigh::
DEDICATION: This one is for TooDarnLazy. Thank you so much for ITI, TDL; it's a truly beautiful and enjoyable read, and I loved every moment of it. :D
SPECIAL THANKS: My crazy cuz, Euko-chan, who incessantly chewed my brain until I practically chained myself to the keyboard, and proof-read this after I finished. Thanks, Euko, I appreciate your nonstop bothering; it ensured that I actually completed this thing. :P
Anyways, on with the story! I hope you enjoy it.
RECOLLECTIONS AND REVELATIONS
The night was calm and cool, the darkness dispelled by the silvery light from the full moon that hung high in the firmament. Naruto gazed down at the distant lights of the village of Konohagakure from where she was perched on the Yondaime's head on the Hokage Mountain; it was still early enough that most of the villagers were still awake and moving about. She tore her eyes away from the sight and gazed up at the moon, enjoying the gentle caress of the wind that blew her hair away from her face. She remained that way for several minutes, savouring the silence and the solitude, glad that for once, her mind was relaxed and empty of sombre thoughts; especially the thoughts that involved a certain raven-haired, onyx-eyed someone ...
No, shit! The thoughts were back again.
Groaning, she drew her knees to her body and wrapped her arms around her legs before resting her head on them. Why was it that Sasuke always managed to invade her mind? Why could she not stop thinking about him no matter how hard she tried? And, more frustratingly, why were his remembrances always accompanied by a sudden, rapid change of her heartbeat? Must her heart pound so damn hard that it must surely cause fatal injury to her ribcage? Sasuke – that arrogant yarou! – was most certainly not deserving of such an intense reaction.
But there it was, and there was absolutely nothing she could do to change it. Sighing, Naruto buried her head deeper into her arms. Deep down, she suspected that she knew why she could not bring herself to be indifferent towards her so-called husband, why his thoughts and his mere presence elicited such feelings within her; but those were thoughts she did not want to dwell on. To even consider them would bring the delusions she had created for herself crumbling down, leaving nothing behind but unwanted heartache and tears. Sasuke had already broken her heart once by betraying the village and leaving them – her – behind; by callously breaking off his friendship with her, a friendship that had taken so much in its making, as if it had meant absolutely nothing to him. She did not want to give him another chance to break her heart again by so much as pondering the teeny tiny possibility that she might have accidentally fallen in –
No! She refused to think it.
Naruto sighed again, repressing the tempting urge to just go berserk and rip her hair out. These brooding sessions were really not good at all for her mental health. She really needed to stop, but ... stupid Sasuke! He just bloody would not leave her alone! If he was not there right in front her, then thoughts of him would be there raging in her mind! He was becoming an obsession, and Naruto did not need a genius to know that that probably was not a very good thing.
Stupid teme and these stupid feelings and –
As she continued to atypically rant her frustration in her mind, the tiny portion of her brain that was not currently cursing Uchiha (Uchiha-Uzumaki, an annoying little voice in her head hissed) Sasuke seven ways to Hell, pointed out to her that her hands, which were still encased in her gloves, were feeling a little bit hot now and that it might be a good idea to expose them to the cool atmosphere for a little while. So, not missing a beat of the cursing she was doing mentally, Naruto gently peeled her gloves off and flexed her fingers, enjoying the feel of the cool air against the hot skin of her hands. Ah, that felt good!
'Sensei?' a high voice said uncertainly.
Startled, Naruto whirled around, all the while berating herself for letting her guard down so that she had not sensed the approach of another. Had she been in enemy territory, she knew that such carelessness could have cost her her life. Another thing to blame on the teme (unfair, yes, since the bastard probably did not even realise how much he was messing with her brain; but, as far as she was concerned, it was still his fault) – he was ruining her concentration now!
'What are you doing way up here, sensei?' the person behind her asked and Naruto relaxed when she saw who it was that had joined her on top of the Yondaime's head.
'Eriko,' she greeted with her usual infectious grin. 'I might ask you the same thing,' she added good-humouredly, discreetly sidestepping her student's question.
The genin smiled cheerfully at her as she approached her teacher, swinging a grocery bag in her hand. She flopped down close beside Naruto before answering cheerily, 'Well, Kaachan was about to make dinner when she realised that she had run out of some ingredients so she sent me out shopping; I was down there at the marketplace when I looked up and thought I saw an object on the mountain so ...' she shrugged, 'I was curious.'
Naruto chuckled. 'Ever heard the phrase "curiosity killed the cat"?' She winked.
Eriko grinned back at her. 'Yeah, but still, I say better to take the risk anyway and go for it; else the cat would question it and wonder about what might have been for the rest of its life; and that would be so totally annoying! Besides, aren't taking risks, like, a part of a shinobi's life? It'd be a horrible cross to bear if we didn't take that risk and the consequences turn out to be, like, totally terrible. Better to chance it and face it head on than run away and suffer afterwards. Right, Naruto-sensei?'
The jounin instructor had to smile at that, though inside, she was flummoxed by her student's unexpected words. 'Right,' she murmured. 'You've grown wise,' she added bluntly, smiling appraisingly at the kunoichi beside her.
Eriko giggled before giving her two thumbs up. 'All thanks to my awesome-beyond-awesome sensei!'
Naruto laughed and rubbed the back of her head sheepishly, both amused and embarrassed. 'Aw, jeez ... arigato, Eriko ...'
The two of them fell into a compatible silence. Naruto leaned back on her hands, stretching one leg out in front of her. Eriko mimicked her though she stretched both her legs as she made herself comfortable. Neither of them talked for several minutes as they sat side by side, watching the moon rise higher and the stars as they struggled to outshine the silver sphere. Another light wind blew and Naruto closed her eyes. They snapped open again when Eriko chose that moment to break the silence:
'Why were you really up here, Naruto-sensei?'
The older girl turned her head to face her student. Eriko looked back at her, innocently curious and expectant. Naruto sighed softly before turning her eyes back to the moon. 'No reason, really ... I just wanted to relax a bit; watch the sky, count the stars ... think about some stuff and ... get my head back together again ...' Her voice trailed off.
'What were you thinking about?'
She bit her lip, hesitant; that was a topic she really did not want to discuss with anyone.
Eriko seemed to realise this, too. 'Gomen nasai,' she apologised hurriedly, sounding a little nervous, 'I didn't mean to pry –'
'No, no, it's OK,' said Naruto hastily. 'You don't have to apologise.' She raised her left hand and rubbed her temple wearily. Seriously, if anybody wanted to give her a good headache, they need not go so far as to whack her round the skull with a sledgehammer; just drag Sasuke into the picture and poof! Instant migraine. Grimacing, Naruto moved her hand over her forehead in a soothing manner. The moonlight glinted off of something gold and metallic on her exposed finger; something that caught the eyes of young Eriko immediately.
At first, she just glanced at the "something" disinterestedly; but then she did a double take and gaped at the object, her jaw hanging loose and eyes widening until they resembled a pair of saucers – not exactly a very flattering look for a vain preteen, but at that point, the honey-haired kunoichi could have cared less.
'Se – sensei!' she gasped, pointing a shaking finger at Naruto's hand. 'Is that – is that – what is that?'
Mildly alarmed, Naruto lowered her hand and glanced down at it, frowning slightly. 'What are you –?' She stopped dead when her eyes landed on what had turned her usually cheerful student into a wide-eyed, stuttering maniac. Kuso! She should have known that taking off those gloves was a bad idea!
Desperately trying to figure a way out of this new mess that she had landed her trouble-attracting butt in, Naruto sputtered, 'Oh, that – it's nothing, Eriko. Old family heirloom-thingy ...' trying to hide her hand at the same time, but it was too late. The young kunoichi shot out an arm and gripped Naruto's wrist with enough strength that would have impressed even Ichiro and Nichiro. She wrenched the hand up to her eyes, almost throwing her sensei off balance in the process, and stared disbelievingly at the simple wedding band that rested on the ring finger.
'Eriko, I ...' Naruto began helplessly, with absolutely no idea what to say, but before her dazed brain could even begin to formulate what would have been a ridiculously pathetic lie, the girl dropped her hand and screeched in an ear deafening voice:
'KAMI-SAMA, NARUTO-SENSEI, YOU'RE FREAKING MARRIED?!'
Sasuke was obstinately trying to convince himself that he was not worried at all about the usuratonkachi and her questionably long absence from their apartment. Sure, sometimes she came home a little late courtesy of missions and the hard training sessions she organised for her genin team; but – though he did not want to admit that he unconsciously paid attention to the little things she did – he had noticed that she did take care to come home early when it was her turn to cook dinner.
Well, it was her turn now and she had yet to make an appearance and Sasuke was hungry, damn it! Kakashi had actually arrived early today for his training session; early in the sense that he had been only two hours late instead of the usual four or five. Also, Sasuke had managed to squeeze out a few more minutes of sparring by cutting their lunch break short, thus resulting in an extended and exhausting training session. He had hoped to come home to a refreshing shower and a hot meal to revive him; well, he certainly got the shower, but as for the looked-forward-to meal ... well, his "wife" had not even come home yet and Sasuke was growing a little ... curious as to why she was so late.
He was not worried about the dobe, thank you very much!
Frowning slightly, Sasuke leaned back against the kitchen counter where he had been hanging around for the past thirty or so minutes, waiting for the blue-eyed blonde he had ended up with. He thought back to today's training with Kakashi, which had, as per usual, taken place in Team Seven's training grounds. Halfway through, he had overheard the dobe telling her team that she had managed to snag only two measly D-ranked missions today – much to their disappointment – before dragging them away to accomplish said missions. Two D-ranked missions ... Sasuke scowled slightly to mask the concern that threatened to show on his face. D-ranked missions only took place within the village limits and, though they were tiresome, they did not take very long. By all means, she should have finished those missions by now and come home. Why the hell was she still missing?
Sighing, Sasuke pulled away from the counter and walked wearily out of the kitchen and into the sitting room. He looked round the place with dull eyes. It all seemed so dark and gloomy. Maybe that had something to do with the fact that he had not bothered to turn on the lights after coming home, but he knew that if she were here, the place would instantly seem a lot brighter. The dobe had that effect, even on him; her presence could take away the loneliness somehow, even if neither of them were saying a word to the other. He could not deny it anymore; he rather liked having her sunshine personality around in their apartment.
Almost as much as I like having her in my bed, Inner Sasuke mused thoughtfully and instantly got trashed into a bloody heap for his troubles.
Trying to ignore the heated flush in his cheeks and the rapid increase of his heartbeat ("trying" being the keyword), Sasuke leaned against the doorframe and glanced at the wall-clock. It was almost forty minutes since the time she normally would have come home and counting. Damn, where is she? He wondered.
Even when it was his turn to cook, the dobe had never been this late. She would usually hang around and lend him a hand, cooking the rice and whatnot, or she would be constantly peering over his shoulder and learning to make the new dishes he was nonverbally teaching her. It sort of perturbed him that he really did not mind how physically close to him she would stand when she was doing this; close enough that he could literally feel the heat of her body. It also irked him how ridiculously pleased he felt – though he tried not to show it – when she seemed to fall in love with each and every single one of the dishes he made. Her enthusiastic compliments boosted his ego a lot more than they should considering that he was not supposed to care about what the dobe thought of him.
But we're getting off topic here. Back to the dobe's absence.
Sasuke fidgeted slightly and his eyes went back to the clock. Forty-five minutes. Where was she? Why was she not home yet? Had something happened to her? Was she injured? The increasingly alarming questions rang through his mind until he could not hold himself back anymore. Gritting his teeth, he stomped towards the door and, donning his zori, he yanked it open and left the apartment.
He would seek out the baka and drag her ass back home so that he could finally have some dinner in peace. I'm just feeling a little ... curious ... and damn hungry, he told himself as he slammed the door shut and locked it.
He was not worried!
Wincing, Naruto watched as Eriko paced back and forth on the Yondaime's head, still screeching something that went along the lines of you're-married-I-can't-believe-you're-married-how-could-you-be-married-why-did-you-never-tell-us-you're-frickin'-married and on and on. She longed to cover her ears against the abuse hurled at them (Eriko's voice was really loud) but she refrained from doing so because it would only serve to a) possibly hurt her student's feelings, or b) make Eriko scream even louder at her.
Ugh, why had she taken off those gloves? No, forget that, why had she worn that stupid wedding ring? Naruto suppressed a groan. She could have left it under her pillow where she had stashed it the night she went for dinner at the Tanake's. But no, her conscious would not leave her alone until she had dumped the thing back on her finger, which itself was inexplicable considering that Sasuke certainly never bothered with the thing, so why should she? But the thought had constantly gnawed at her mind until she finally gave in. To this day, she still did not know why wearing the thing seemed so important. Naruto sighed. Stupid conscience with its stupid logic and...
After a seemingly never-ending tirade, Eriko finally had to pause to catch her breath and she calmed down fractionally. Naruto watched her warily; she still had no clue as to how she could get out of this situation and she also had a feeling that there was no point in trying to do so either. Things had gone on just a little too far that there was no chance of backtracking.
Eriko tilted her head back and breathed in deeply, calming down even more. After a pregnant pause, she finally turned her head and met Naruto's eyes with an unreadable expression on her face. The jounin watched her silently, not knowing what to say; she decided to allow the genin to speak first. The younger girl glanced at the ring on Naruto's finger again – as if to make sure that it really was there and had not been a hallucination her brain had shown her because of Kami-sama knows why – before asking hoarsely, 'Are you really married, Naruto-sensei?'
The blonde bit her lip, not wanting to answer, but she knew that denying the fact would not help her anymore. Eriko had already seen her ring which was unmistakeably a wedding band. Lying would not help her in this situation. Exhaling slowly through her mouth, Naruto nodded silently.
This nonverbal confirmation sent Eriko on another one of her tirades of 'HOW CAN YOU BE MARRIED?!' This time, Naruto could not help but feel a tad amused. Though inexplicable, Eriko's disbelief and reaction to the news were a little funny; it was just her bad luck that she was receiving the brunt of it.
'And why is my being married such a bad thing?' Naruto raised her eyebrows at the girl, attempting a dry smile.
Eriko frowned slightly before looking down, a little ashamed. 'I – I didn't say it was a bad thing!' she stammered. 'I just ... I just can't believe it. I mean,' she looked pointedly at the older girl, 'you're, like, so young! You can't be that much older than me or the rest of our team! Seriously, sensei, how old are you? You can't be more than twenty at the most.'
Naruto blushed slightly. 'I'm eighteen,' she mumbled.
Eriko's eyes bulged. 'Nani?! You got married at eighteen?!'
'Hai; the day after my birthday.'
The girl just stared at Naruto disbelievingly for a long moment before she asked very softly, 'But why didn't you tell us? Even after all this time ...'
'Well ...' Naruto paused, wondering how to answer the question without giving too much away; after all, it was pretty much need-to-know information; and Eriko did not need to know. 'Well, actually, not many are supposed to know of my marriage. I mean, most of Konoha does know that I am married to – er, him; it's sort of like the village secret,' she smiled wryly, 'but apart from a handful of people, none of them knows why we married or the details and stuff; it's sort of like a contract. There wasn't much of a choice, really ...'
Well, there was a choice, she corrected herself, but there was no way she would have chosen to abandon Sasuke; unlike that bastard, who could not even appreciate her self-sacrifice for his sake, she still put her friends and precious people before her and her own happiness.
'You mean,' Eriko murmured, looking a little shocked, 'it wasn't a – a ...' she flailed her arms slightly as she searched her mind for the right words, 'a love marriage? It was – I don't know ... arranged?'
'That's one way of putting it, I guess.'
'Who are the jerks that would actually arrange someone's marriage?? That is, like, so cruel!'
'Those jerks would be the Council members,' Naruto smirked wryly.
'But why? Why would they do that?'
'Unfortunately for you, that is need-to-know information,' Naruto chuckled quietly.
Eriko pouted before another thought struck her and she perked up slightly. 'Naruto-sensei,' she began breathlessly, coming to sit beside her teacher again; and the look in her eyes immediately told her sensei that she would not like the question her student would ask next: 'Who exactly is your husband?'
Colour flooded Naruto's cheeks. She had really been hoping that Eriko would forget about that little detail. The identity of her "husband" was the last thing she wanted the girl to know; not after the genin had witnessed the less-than-romantic way the two of them interacted on a daily basis. Their relationship was not what people would normally call a marital one.
Seeing the fierce blush on her sensei's face even in the moonlight, Eriko gave a feral grin before she nudged Naruto none too gently with her elbow. 'C'mon, sensei, spill!' She wiggled her eyebrows suggestively. 'If most of the village knows, then your husband's identity can't be need-to-know information, ne? So, who's the lucky guy?'
The jinchuuriki reddened even more. Lucky? Somehow, she doubted that that was the word Sasuke would choose to describe himself and his current marital situation in life.
The honey-haired girl was positively leering now. 'Aw, c'mon, sensei, tell me! It must be some really hot and drool-worthy shinobi, huh, to make you blush like that?' She shot Naruto a smile that was too perverted to belong on the face of a twelve-year old.
It would have suited Jiraiya's face, though.
'Wha … Eriko!' spluttered Naruto; however, a voice inside her head pointed out to her that "hot" and "drool-worthy" were certainly choice words to describe her gorgeous husband. Hell, they were not even enough to fully justify Sasuke's physical beauty.
'Ano, Eriko … listen, that – that information's, er, not really important –'
'Then it must be OK to tell me.'
'But, ah …'
'Yes, sensei?' Eriko purred. She was certainly enjoying Naruto's state of incoherency a little too much.
The blonde turned her face away and wrapped her arms around herself. She really, really wished that Eriko would just drop it, but her student was just flat out refusing to take the hint. It was also obvious that her unwillingness to reveal that particular bit of information was only serving to egg on the enthusiastic genin. Naruto sighed, but it was not a sign of resignation; just one of exhaustion. She would not willingly disclose to Eriko or to any of her other teammates that Sasuke was not her "relative", but her husband. If Eriko was so determined to find out who the "lucky guy" was, then she would just have to find out herself, Naruto decided as she unconsciously played with the sleeves of her orange shirt. There was no way that she would be the one to willingly step into that pit of humiliation.
When Naruto showed no signs of answering her question, Eriko leaned away from the jounin with a look of deep disappointment on her face. She had no idea why her teacher was being so reluctant to tell her; it did not occur to the girl that there might be deep emotional reasons behind Naruto's discomfort; she only thought that embarrassment was the only thing that was hindering Naruto from answering. Why is she being so shy about it? Eriko wondered; she silently watched as Naruto, still firmly averting her eyes, continued to play absentmindedly with her sleeves.
That was when it caught her eye: the little white uchiwa fan with the red spiral in the middle that was on Naruto-sensei's shirt sleeve; the little symbol that was sewn onto all the clothes of Naruto-sensei … and Sasuke-san …
The Uchiha-Uzumaki clan symbol.
She worried her bottom lip with her teeth, thinking carefully. A memory rose in her mind of that pink-haired woman – what had Naruto-sensei called her? Sakura-chan? – who had been so rude to her, yet so sweet to Sasuke-san; she had addressed Naruto-sensei as "Uzumaki", not Uchiha-Uzumaki …
And Naruto-sensei, when Eriko had first asked her if she and the raven-haired shinobi wore the same symbol because they were related, had said yes; but she had said it indirectly, hesitantly – as if she had been unsure whether "relative" was the correct term for Sasuke-san …
Realisation struck Eriko as suddenly as a bolt of lightening. She was not a genius, but despite her mild lack of motivation in the kunoichi department and tendency to be a bit of a girly girl, Eriko was by no means an idiot. She knew how to put two and two together when enough clues were shoved in her face; and she could certainly put two and two together in this situation now.
Sasuke-san was not Naruto-sensei's relative as in a blood relative such as a brother or a cousin (though sometimes he certainly acted overprotective enough to be one); he was a "relative" as in he was her "family"; he was her ...
'I can't believe it,' murmured Eriko in an uncharacteristically hushed voice.
Naruto looked up, puzzled at the change in Eriko's tone and at the sudden change in conversation. 'Can't believe what?'
'You're ... you're married ... to Sasuke-san?'
Hn, that dobe.
Sasuke was positively grinding his teeth now; his face was indifferent as he stormed (quite gracefully) along the well-lit streets of Konoha, yet his brows were ever-so-slightly furrowed – out of exasperation, mind you; not heart wrenching worry. He had looked everywhere for his baka of a wife, from Team Seven's very much empty training grounds to Ichiraku Ramen where old man Teuchi had assured him that Naruto had not stopped by since lunch. Though he was somewhat irritated – disappointed and absolutely worried, Inner Sasuke translated and immediately got temporarily dismembered – at still not having located the dumb blonde, he also felt somewhat glad to hear that Naruto had not gone to the ramen stand, meaning that she had not ditched him for dinner. Sasuke felt some mild self-disgust for so wanting to eat at home with the usuratonkachi every night, but there it was; he was beginning to loathe the idea of her having dinner elsewhere, unless it was with him.
I'm getting soft, he thought with a scowl as his eyes roved over the street still struggling in vain to get a glimpse of blonde or orange. It was a wonder that he had not been able to find her yet. Even at night, her hair was equivalent to the sun and her bizarre choice of colour for her garments was something that not even a half-blinded man could miss. Yet, there was no sign of her anywhere. He had even considered asking the two ANBU that were tailing him if they had seen any sign of the dobe, but his pride would not allow him because, for one thing, it would be humiliating if they accomplished what he could not, and for another, he did not want anyone to think that he was actually concerned about the dobe's welfare. After all, he was only hunting for her all over Konoha because he was hungry, right? Hn, there was no way that he was going to cook just because the baka had chosen to slack off her chores. It was not because he particularly cared what happened to her.
At least, that was what he kept telling himself ... it was not doing a lot of good however, though he refused to admit it.
His steps halted as he finally arrived at the end of the street, directly below the Hokage Mountain; he looked around again though without much hope. His eyes landed on a group of giggling young women who were hanging around the corner of the street; Sasuke looked away immediately because he instinctively knew that Naruto would not associate herself with a bunch of squealing, girlish females; not to mention that the majority of them were simpering and making the goo-goo eyes at him much to his chagrin (Was it really so hard to understand the universal fact that married men were "off the market"?).
Besides, he was not at all interested in them. There was only one woman that he wanted.
Sasuke almost groaned out loud. His own mind, which was basically his trusted sanctuary, was betraying him now. When had that happened? And why was he finding it so hard to pass off that stray thought as a Freudian slip?
With a sigh, he tipped his head back and allowed his eyes to roam the sky, forcefully pushing away the mildly inappropriate thoughts his mind was cooking up about the dobe. (Che, she's my wife! I'm more than allowed to entertain such thoughts about her, Inner Sasuke scoffed; needless to say, he suffered a lot of "physical" damage within the confinement of Sasuke's mind.) Once more fighting the blush that suffused his cheeks, he forced his mind to concentrate on the beautiful full moon overhead and the halo it cast around it. Sasuke frowned slightly, momentarily distracted. If he remembered correctly from his earlier lessons at the Academy, such halos forewarned the approach of a rainstorm. This, by extension, meant that he had better find Naruto soon and head home before the onslaught of merciless rain.
Sasuke allowed himself to stay where he was for a few more minutes, eyes on the moon. What with the clear sky and the mild coolness of the night, it was hard to believe that it would rain tonight, but Sasuke knew better than to allow such things to deceive him; clear skies had fooled many a person before. His mind raced as he tried to think of any other places that Naruto might be at; he had already checked all the likely places. Where else could he look?
The proverbial light bulb clicked in his mind as his eyes focused on the mountain that loomed over him. The Hokage Mountain ... he could vaguely remember that the place used to be a favourite haunt of Naruto's back when they had been genin. Was she up there now? Sasuke studied the place carefully, taking in how the moonlight threw the carved faces into sharp relief. His eyes locked on a strange shape that seemed to be perched on top of one of the Hokage heads; the Yondaime's, he realised. Longer observation showed him that it was not one shape, but two. Was one of them the dobe? It was possible though he could not, for the life of him, guess what she could be doing up there. And what – or who – else was up there with her – if it indeed was her? (No, he was not jealous!) With renewed determination, Sasuke stalked forwards; the mountain was practically the only place he had not searched, and if it was not her up there ... well, he did not know what he would do. Maybe go to Tsunade if he felt desperate enough.
Which is as likely as my wanting to make Sharingan babies with Sakura or Ino, he thought with a scoff.
He ignored the (much larger and annoying-as-hell) part of his brain that was telling him otherwise.
Naruto said not a word as she stared at the kunoichi beside her with wide eyes and a jaw that hung loose. Eriko, for her part, looked back at her with equally wide eyes, but they were not filled with surprise as were Naruto's, but with realisation and thoughtful contemplation. As the seconds dragged on, her eyes lost focus and Naruto could not help but think that she was remembering all their interactions with Sasuke, searching for clues that Eriko had overlooked before; clues to their marriage.
Which lead to the question: how did she figure it out? Naruto still did not understand why Eriko had declared Sasuke as her husband so out of the blue. What had put that in her head? As far as she knew, none of their actions had so much as suggested that they were anything more than Eternal Rivals for Life who had not a drop of affection for the other. Or at least, she was sure Sasuke was like that when her team was present. She might have unwittingly showed a tiny bit of affection; after all, she was fond of him, no doubts about that. But then again, she was damn sure that none of her actions could have even come close to imply that she was actually married to the man.
So how the hell did Eriko know that??
Finally, Eriko came back to the present and regarded her sensei with eyes that clearly revealed that she was seeing Naruto in a whole new light. 'I'm right, aren't I, Naruto-sensei?' she pressed. 'Sasuke-san is your husband, isn't he?'
Naruto forced away the goldfish expression from her face and answered without hesitation this time, 'Yes.' There was no point in lying or avoiding the subject anymore, she reasoned. Eriko had already found out about her oh-so-secret marriage. She might as well tell her who the "lucky guy" was. What with Eriko already having figured out all these things on her own, trying to throw her off track was not a tactic that would work now. Naruto knew full well that she was about the most terrible liar in all of Konoha, and answering Eriko's questions with silence would speak volumes. It would be easier to be straightforward about the whole thing.
Eriko looked ... well, Naruto could not find a word in her vocabulary for the expression on her student's face. She supposed that it was a mixture of amazement, disbelief and just general "wow-ness". Sure enough ...
'Wow,' she breathed, shaking her head slightly. 'That's just ... wow ... you and Sasuke-san ... wow ...'
'Yeah,' Naruto chuckled slightly, once again finding Eriko's reactions a little funny despite the seriousness of the situation, 'I think I know what you mean. Who would've thought ...?' She shook her head. No one, not even herself, would have ever thought that she, the hated bakemono, and Uchiha Sasuke, pride and prodigy of Konoha (no one bothered to remember the "traitor" part), would ever end up married. And yet, look where life had led them both now...
'Er, sensei ...'
Naruto turned back to her student when she started to speak.
Eriko was looking apologetically at her instructor, 'I'm sorry for saying so, but you and Sasuke-san ... well, you two ... um ...'
Naruto smiled wryly, knowing exactly what her student was referring to. It was the same question her brother Teruo had raised after discovering her marital status. 'It's a contract marriage, Eriko, remember? Neither of us wanted to, but our choices were ... limited, so as to speak.'
'So, you're basically married to a man you hate?' Eriko sounded both sympathetic and mildly outraged.
'Er, no – no, I don't really hate him, Eriko, I ...' Naruto trailed off, hard pressed to explain her feelings which she herself could not figure out for the most part. 'I ... like him, I guess, but –'
'Really? You like him?' Eriko interrupted, raising her eyebrows sceptically. 'But you sure fooled us, sensei; the way you two insult and curse at each other! Well ... he insults; you're the one who does all the cursing,' she added fairly, unable to fight a mischievous smile off her face.
The blonde could not help but laugh at that. 'Uh huh, yeah, I know. It's sort of the way we communicate; not even marriage was able to change that. Sasuke and I, we've always been like that ever since we met.' A soft smile spread across her face as cherished memories of what it used to be like with the raven-haired shinobi rose to the front of her mind.
'You mean ... you didn't just meet him right before your marriage or anything? You've known him longer than that?'
'Longer?' Naruto chuckled quietly. 'Eriko, I've known him since we were both your age. Our rivalry hit off from the moment we laid eyes on each other. We hated each other from the first second and we were always trying to beat the other at one thing or another. Heh, it really got on my nerves that he always seemed to best me at everything.
'But, it wasn't always like that; it was different for a good while because, as unbelievable as it was, he soon became my ...' the smile on her face faded away and was replaced by a look of such wistful longing that it was almost painful to look at, '... Sasuke, he ... he was my best friend,' she finished in a whisper, her eyes and thoughts a million miles away.
'Best friend?' Eriko repeated, looking both surprised and a little incredulous.
'Hai. He told me himself, that I was the only one he ...' Naruto could not finish, but even a retard could figure what she was trying to say. She breathed rather shakily as old memories flooded her mind. 'I can't tell you how happy I was, Eriko, when I heard him say that. I always thought he hated me more than anything ... but Sasuke called me his best friend and he meant it ...'
There was silence for a few seconds as Naruto ruminated about the past and Eriko watched her sensei, very interested in the past (and current) relationship between her teacher and Sasuke-san. However, she did have enough sense not to press her sensei further for she could finally see that whatever it was that was going on between Naruto-sensei and her husband, it was both deeply emotional and meant a lot more than mere words could justify to the young, blonde woman. Also, she could sense that there was a lot more to their past than had been revealed to her. "He was my best friend"; past tense. What happened between them? She wondered thoughtfully.
'Would you like to know, Eriko, about Sasuke and me?'
The young girl was startled at first, convinced for a moment that her instructor could read her mind. Then she saw Naruto's eyes, glazed, out of focus and melancholic as she stared into space; her legs were pulled close to her body and her arms were wrapped loosely around them. For the first time, Eriko found herself thinking that, despite her toughness, her sensei looked so very vulnerable and fragile. Not physically, of course; Naruto could break a man in half if she wanted to, that Eriko knew. But she could see that her teacher, who had always looked to be the definition of happiness on the outside, was a very different person inside. She carried a lot of emotions that she masked, many burdens that she did not share, and a lot of weaknesses that she was trying to overcome. Despite her being an excellent ninja, the only living legacy of the great Yondaime, Uchiha-Uzumaki Keimei Naruto was as human as the rest of them.
And just like all humans, she finally wanted to release the burdens she had carried by herself for too long before she reached her breaking point. After all these years, she just wanted a willing ear to listen to her and a comforting shoulder to cry on; and young Eriko, watching the sadness on her sensei's face, slowly realised all these things.
'Sure, sensei,' she finally answered, her voice just above a whisper, 'if you want to tell me.'
So, Naruto did. She started from the very beginning, back when she had been all alone in the world, enduring the cold shoulders from all the villagers without ever knowing why, and how she had wanted to be acknowledged, accepted. Then she told about discovering that she was the jinchuuriki of the Kyuubi no Kitsune; Iruka-sensei's acceptance of her; the Academy; the formation of Team Seven; her initial relationships with Kakashi-sensei, Sakura-chan and Sasuke; their missions and the travel to Wave Country; the Chuunin Exams and on and on. She never went in depth into any of the topics as she summarized her life to her student who listened, entranced; however, her monologue began to concentrate more and more on Sasuke and the tenuous relationship that existed between him and herself. Naruto was not aware of this fact herself as she described how their connection had slowly evolved from outright loathing and rivalry to grudging respect for each other and then mutual acceptance before Sasuke finally became what she had almost never dared to dream that she could ever have.
'Of course, we never stopped being rivals,' she murmured softly, the small smile that Eriko had so gotten used to this night coming back onto her face, 'but he was my very best friend and I loved him like a brother; my first friend.'
She paused, her eyes filled with a conflicting melancholic happiness and that small bittersweet smile widened. Eriko said nothing but kept silent, digesting everything that her sensei had told her and waiting, because she knew that Naruto was not finished yet.
'You know,' Naruto mused thoughtfully, 'somehow, Sasuke always became my "first". He was my first rival, the first person that I truly hated with all my heart, the first person my age that truly acknowledged and accepted me for who I am, my first true best friend, my ...' she blushed slightly and swallowed before she ploughed on though her voice dropped to an embarrassed whisper, 'my first kiss ...'
Eriko almost fell over backwards. 'Your what?!' she crowed gleefully, leering at Naruto as she straightened up. 'No, seriously, you actually kissed Sasuke-san?' There were little stars in her eyes by then as her hormonal twelve-year old mind visualised her cute sensei in a heated lip-lock with the very handsome Sasuke-san. 'Dang, sensei, you are one lucky kunoichi!'
Naruto went red in the face. 'Oi, Eriko, it wasn't like that!' she exclaimed, fighting her embarrassment. 'It wasn't romantic or anything! It was a complete accident, so actually it doesn't even count.'
'No?' Eriko smirked, raising her eyebrows. 'Then how come you call it your first kiss?'
'Well, because, even though it was unintended and doesn't count, our ...' Naruto coloured again, 'our lips were pretty much pressed tight together so ... well, what else can you call it but a kiss?' She snapped a little defensively.
Eriko giggled uncontrollably. 'Damn straight. So, how'd it happen?'
With as much dignity as she could gather, Naruto briefly recounted how her little kiss with Sasuke had occurred and the humiliating beating she had received as a reward from Sakura-chan and the rest of Sasuke's jealous fan club. 'And on top of all that,' she added with a shudder when she had finished, 'it was disgusting 'cause I hated him and all, and we were both guys so it was weird as hell!'
He tasted good, though, the little voice in the back of her mind mused thoughtfully and Naruto went even redder – if that was possible. She was glad when Eriko distracted her again.
'You were both guys? But I thought you were a girl all along, Naruto-sensei?'
'Well, yeah ... but I didn't know that back then, did I?'
'Oh, right ... um, sensei?'
'Was it an open-mouth kiss with tongue?'
Eriko burst into a raucous peal of giggles while Naruto gaped, scandalised, at her.
'I was just kidding, sensei; chill!' Eriko gasped when she had finally gotten her breath back. Naruto turned away again with a hot flush still on her cheeks, and Eriko smirked slightly as she eyed her sensei's embarrassment. She knew better than to say it aloud, but the jounin's reaction deeply hinted that the kiss had been a bit more than just a chaste touch, accidental as it was. She smirked again; now, that was hot!
Silence reigned over them again for several seconds, until Eriko, whose mind had eventually turned away from the perverted direction it had been wandering in, decided to put forth the question that had occurred to her even before Naruto's narration: 'So what happened then, sensei, after you became friends and all?'
Naruto bit her lip. This was a painful part for her, but she wanted to continue anyway since she had already begun revealing her life and the part Sasuke played in it to Eriko. She did not know why she was doing it, telling so much to her genin student, but she wanted to. Maybe it was because Eriko was someone who knew nothing about it at all and would see her side of the story without personal opinions clouding it. Perhaps it was because of that famous saying; that telling your burdens to someone you did not know well could ease your mind (as ridiculous as that sounded). Or maybe it was simply because she was so tired of keeping all this locked in her heart; she had never talked about Sasuke like this with anyone, not even Sakura-chan or Iruka-tousan or Tsunade-obaachan or Kakashi-sensei, mostly because she did not think they would completely understand her or that they would make assumptions about her and her relationship with the teme. But she wanted to tell Eriko who was willing to listen; she just wanted to get this huge load off her chest once and for all even if it was hard for her to keep going.
Eriko grew a little nervous at Naruto-sensei's silence. 'Look, sensei, I understand if you don't wanna tell me –'
'Remember that day when you said that Sasuke was being so cold to everyone and then I told you that that was because he'd been through a lot of shit?'
'Er, yes?' Eriko answered, a little surprised at Naruto's abrupt interruption.
'That's what happened afterwards, Eriko; all that shit finally caught up with him.'
The honey-haired girl stared blankly at the blonde jounin. Naruto sighed deeply.
'Sasuke has ... a past, Eriko. I won't tell you about that 'cause it ain't my place to tell, but let's just say that he suffered a lot of trauma when he was just a little kid; something that no child should ever have to endure. He lost everything.' Naruto's face reflected the sadness and sorrow in her voice. 'I don't know what he was like before that ... incident, but I know that he became such an ice block because of it. Even when we first met, he was so ... distant. Cold, aloof, brooding ... he never opened up for anyone; he was always alone, with a lot of anger and hatred within him and thoughts of revenge.
'Sasuke sort of thawed out when we were a team, after he accepted Sakura-chan and I; after he told me that I was an important friend for him. But then ...' Naruto paused, wondering how to bring Itachi into the picture without giving anything away, '... something ... from his past came back, and Sasuke completely lost himself.' She shook her head sadly, tilting her head back and allowing the moonlight to wash over her face. 'He became obsessed; consumed with hatred and lust for revenge; and everything else lost meaning for him; the village, serving his duty as a shinobi, his team, me ... our friendship that he named himself ... Sasuke threw it all away and he left Konoha ...' Naruto had to stop then because she could feel the tears of mixed anger and hurt welling up within her; but she would not allow herself to cry. Why should she cry over Sasuke when he did not give a damn about her?
Eriko was completely silent now. The air around her seemed saturated with the emotions her sensei was exuding and she could almost taste them on her tongue; they overwhelmed her senses and she felt her eyes prickle as she found herself sharing Naruto's feelings and her burden.
'Do you remember what I told you that night when I came over for dinner at your house?' Naruto asked very quietly. 'About how I finally found out that I am female?'
'Hai; you said that the henge cast on you was dispelled after you got into a huge fight.'
'Yes,' Naruto whispered. 'One of the biggest and deadliest one-on-one fights I've ever gotten into; and it was a battle that I never ever wanted to have because,' she swallowed thickly; 'it was Sasuke I was fighting against.'
'What?' breathed Eriko, eyes widening for the umpteenth time tonight.
'Yes. I fought against Sasuke. It was at the Valley of the End. I was trying to stop him from leaving the village. He refused to listen to any of us, and so we fought. It was one of my hardest battles ever because for one thing, even back then, Sasuke was a lethal opponent, and for another,' Naruto's voice cracked when she spoke the next few words, 'I was fighting my best friend who was actually trying to kill me ...'
Eriko gaped at Naruto, not knowing what to say.
'It was my biggest failure. I couldn't stop him leaving, and on top of that, I was almost dead when he was finally through with me.' Naruto smiled bleakly. 'Sasuke almost died in Wave Country when he saved my life by protecting me with his own body; but then, just like that, he turns around and almost kills me with his own hands ... and after calling me his best friend, too. Talk about bipolar bastards.' She snorted and Eriko tried to crack a smile and failed.
'So,' Eriko ventured cautiously, 'he left for ... revenge? I'm just guessing 'cause you mentioned stuff about revenge a lot.'
'Yes, you could say that. Except for the few of us who knew the truth, the rest of the village thinks that he left to train, but that's just a lie. I won't tell you the real reason because, like I said before, it's not my secret to tell, but yeah; revenge is the main reason why Sasuke chose to leave ...'
Naruto sighed sadly. 'I made a promise to Sakura-chan and to myself that I'd bring Sasuke back to Konoha no matter what. I spent three years training with Ero-Sannin –'
'Jiraiya. A self-proclaimed Super Pervert who, surprisingly, is a hermit, a Toad Sage and author of the infamous Icha Icha books. So I call him Ero-Sannin,' Naruto cracked and Eriko giggled softly. 'Anyway, I trained three years with him to grow stronger so that I can protect my precious people and drag Sasuke's ass back home. The last part wasn't so successful until a few months ago, actually. I can't tell you how many times I've tried to find and bring Sasuke back and failed at it. It was by a lucky chance that I was actually able to keep my promise to Sakura-chan and myself; I found him at the Konoha-Suna border; he was injured ... and there was so much blood ... for a moment, I was afraid that he had actually ...' Naruto had to stop again, to swallow the lump in her throat.
'Anyway,' she continued after clearing her throat matter-of-factly, 'I brought him back and now he's not allowed to leave. You can guess that he's not very happy with me about that since ... well, never mind. Anyway, due to circumstances and need-to-know information and blah blah blah, the Council members laid out some ground rules and got us to marry each other; actually, you could say we were sort of blackmailed into it,' she added with a light, humourless chuckle, 'and well, here we are now,' she finished grandly, spreading her arms out.
Eriko silently pondered on everything Naruto-sensei had told her before muttering, 'I see. And now, things between you and Sasuke-san are...?
The smile on Naruto's face faded. 'Awkward? Weird? Like hell? Yeah, you could say that.'
Both of them fell silent once more, losing themselves in thought. Naruto's eyes searched for the moon again which was almost directly overhead. She laid back on the hard surface of the Yondaime's head and watched the sky, eyes roving over the glowing moon and the twinkling stars but her thoughts remained on the conversation she had just had with her student. It was a conversation she had never expected to have with anyone, but she was glad that it had taken place. Her heart felt lighter now that she was no longer holding it all back in. However, she was still not content; there were more thoughts, more reflections that she wanted to talk about. What she had told Eriko was just a history lesson. What she honestly wanted to reveal were the feelings and emotions that were plaguing her now, those were the important things she really and truly wanted to get off her chest; but she did not know how to start...
'Sensei, are you OK? You look a little ... well ...'
Naruto glanced at Eriko who was looking down at her, uncertainty, concern and a touch of nervousness reflected in her eyes. Naruto smiled at her. 'Just thinking about stuff,' she said in a mocking, sarcastic tone and Eriko smiled back at her.
'Er, you know, sensei, I'm always willing to listen if ...' she trailed off, looking at Naruto expectantly.
Naruto smiled again. Thanks, Eriko, she thought, for giving me the opening I was looking for. She really did want to talk; it was hard to stop when started.
'I was thinking about what my relationship with Sasuke is like now,' she began quietly. 'In a way, it's worse than it used to be – before we became friends ...'
Her student waited patiently for her to continue while Naruto gathered her thoughts.
'It was never easy with Sasuke, because he always kept to himself. Things were always complicated. Not necessarily unpleasant, it was just hard ... but the good things were always worth it in the end,' a fond smile crossed her face, 'like finally winning his friendship. I still don't know why that made me so happy. At first, I never cared about his opinion – or, at least, I thought I didn't. All I wanted was for the villagers to acknowledge my existence with respect, for people to accept me as a human being and not as a demon, to be noticed. And it did happen, slowly and gradually. It is still happening. But none of it made me as happy as when Sasuke noticed me; when he acknowledged me even if we were only sparring; and nothing was as satisfying as when he accepted me as his best friend and trusted me. I still don't know why it made me feel that way, but it did and I wanted to make him as happy as he had made me.
'So, yes, the rivalry continued, but he was my closest friend and things were easier between us. And I also noticed that I enjoyed his company more than fighting with him. It wasn't that we talked a lot or anything, but,' Naruto frowned, trying to find words to explain, 'there was this ... connection between us that I never felt with anyone else, not even Iruka-sensei who's like my father. I can't explain it. Maybe I felt that connection because, a lot of the times, I felt that Sasuke opened up to me where he never opened up for anyone else; don't ask me to explain how I figure that because I can't; it wasn't like Sasuke and I had endless heart-to-heart conversations, after all. But he didn't feel so cold when he hung around with me, and when we did talk, he was ... warmer ... friendlier ... and the insults became teasing instead of cruel. Also, he ... he paid more attention to me than anyone else ever had, even if I were the one doing all the talking; sometimes, I even thought that he paid me more attention than he did to other people...
'In any case, I really liked hanging around Sasuke even if we had nothing to say; and the silences weren't uncomfortable or anything. It was like ...' she smiled softly, 'we didn't really need words – though I did talk a lot and he would truly listen to me, even if I were talking nonsense. In a way, he let me in behind the walls he created around himself and I was flattered and happy that he trusted me enough to do that. No one else had ever trusted me like that. That was the Sasuke who was my greatest friend in the world; my teammate that I thought of as a brother; and the person I had hoped to bring back...
'But the Sasuke I brought back in the end wasn't him, Eriko; it wasn't him, at all ...' her voice broke and Eriko stared in shock at the sudden change in her sensei. Gone were the small, happy smile and tone, replaced by an agonised expression and a shaking voice filled with pain and hurt.
'Sensei ...' she whispered.
Naruto choked back a dry sob. 'I knew that Sasuke had changed. So many things had happened that I knew he could not be the same. But I'd hoped that it'd be possible to change things back. To make him the person he used to be, but I doubt that's possible now. He's just ... he's just not Sasuke anymore ... he's an ice block; he doesn't care, he doesn't feel ... nothing matters to him anymore except getting what he wants. He doesn't give a damn about – about the village or his friends ... not even me or the friendship we had. I'm just a tool to him and our friendship was just a weakness – a useless bond he severed without a second thought and he doesn't even care ...'
She blinked away the tears. 'I try even now to make him see reason but he won't listen; after all, I'm nothing to him anymore. Forget that I still care about him, that I still want to be his friend, that I want to help him with his hardships; his opinion of me is lower than the dirt on his zori; he'll throw me away again without sparing a thought to my feelings ... He's not Sasuke anymore, just a stranger with the face of a person I knew once upon a time.'
She took a shaky breath before continuing, 'Sometimes, when I look at him now, because of some small thing he does or says, I think that I can see a sign of the old Sasuke in him somewhere. But then it goes away again and I wonder if I had just imagined it. I ... I want to believe – no, I know that the Sasuke I knew is buried somewhere deep down in his heart; and I'd like to think that it's possible to get that old Sasuke back again, but ...' she shook her head helplessly and the tears threatened to spill over, 'I've tried to so hard but it's not working and I ... I don't want to get my hopes up only to have them dashed again. I've gone through enough heartache for Sasuke and I don't want to keep doing this anymore ... but the thing is, I can't stop – because I really do care for him, more than I should ...
'You have no idea, Eriko,' Naruto whispered to her student who was watching her quietly with dull, saddened eyes that were as tear-filled as her sensei's, 'how much I miss him. And it's even worse now because I know that when I go home, he'll be right there in front of me, but I still miss Sasuke like hell because I know that the man I'm looking at is just a shell of the person he used to be; that he's not the Sasuke I want to be here with me ...' She met Eriko's eyes and this time, a single tear slid down her tanned, whiskered cheek. 'I'd give anything, Eriko, absolutely anything that's in my power to give, just to have my best friend back ...'
There was absolutely nothing that Eriko could think of to say as she watched Naruto wipe the back of her hand across her eyes, breathing in deeply and trying to calm down. She dully remembered thinking that the drama she often saw unfolding between Naruto-sensei, her brother, Sasuke-san and, occasionally, the other dark-haired man – Sai, was it? – was very entertaining. Now she felt terrible about it, because she knew now that the biggest drama that involved her sensei was the one that was causing her the most pain.
Yet ... the manner in which Naruto-sensei spoke of Sasuke-san and their past friendship! Eriko had never heard anyone talk about something so simple with such emotion and feeling. Happiness, melancholy, longing, hurt, anger, warmth – so many things that conflicted, yet complemented each other, had been reflected in her voice and eyes when she had recounted what her life used to be like with Sasuke ... and slowly, Eriko understood the truth...
'You really love him, don't you, Naruto-sensei?'
'Eh?? What – what're you –?!'
'The way you talk about him, sensei,' Eriko interrupted, her voice a soft murmur now. 'Can't you hear yourself? I've never heard anyone talk about anyone else like that before; not even back in the Academy when I used to gossip with my girlfriends about our crushes and stuff ... I've never ...' She trailed off, gazing thoughtfully up at the sky for a few moments while Naruto stared at her, her thoughts in a jumble. Finally Eriko looked down at her again. 'Be honest, Naruto-sensei, don't you love him?'
'I – I don't ...' Naruto did not know what to say. Eriko's question was threatening to pull down the delusions that Naruto had put up to keep the inevitable heartaches and tears at bay. She wanted to deny it, say no, say it again and again until she could convince her own mind of it; but she could not. The words would not come forth, perhaps because, inside, she knew that they were lies. Or, at least, not wholly the truth – because she had noticed how her feelings had changed around Sasuke; how her fondness for him no longer ran along the same tangent as brotherly love; how spending the nights with him, whether she was merely comforting him after a nightmare or just lying next to him in bed, felt so good, so right; how, despite the sadness of knowing that he was no longer the old Sasuke, she still felt happy to see him; how her entire body reacted to him, from her heart to other ... more private regions.
Did all that mean her feelings were strong enough to be ... love?
She could feel her walls beginning to crumble; but she did not want to face what lay on the other side, be it reality or just another delusion. She was not ready.
'I don't know, Eriko,' she finally answered, sitting up again and resting her chin on her knees, 'I just don't know what to think anymore.'
'You should talk about all this with Sasuke-san, Naruto-sensei,' Eriko stated bluntly after a moment's hesitation.
'What?' Naruto exclaimed. 'No! Nuh uh, no way! He won't even listen to me about rethinking his priorities and the whole revenge thing. Somehow I don't think he'd want to talk about stuff like this!'
'Maybe if you tried –'
Naruto snorted derisively. 'No, it won't work. Besides,' she added, her voice dropping, 'I don't think I want to.'
Eriko's voice was kind as she softly asked, 'Are you scared?'
Naruto gave no answer, and Eriko understood.
'I still think you should, though,' the young girl said quietly but firmly. 'Remember what I said earlier tonight, sensei? About curiosity killing the cat?'
The blonde looked quizzically at her and nodded slowly. 'Yeah, you said that it was better for the cat to take the risk anyway.'
She nodded. 'Right; because the consequences of not taking the risk and not knowing what might have been could be so much worse. What if the same thing happens to you, sensei? What if you didn't talk things over with Sasuke-san and it makes things worse? What if the right thing is to talk about it with him? What if both of you suffer later on because you didn't take that risk?'
Naruto considered her words mutely, a part of her mind marvelling at Eriko's hidden intelligence. She truly had grown wise; she was more perceptive and sharper than she let on. And her words did make sense, more sense than Naruto wanted them to.
'I'll ... I guess I'll think about it,' she finally answered.
'It'll be fine, sensei,' Eriko said sincerely, 'really.'
'... I hope so ... Anyway, Eriko? Thank you ... for listening ... I really needed that.'
'No problem,' Eriko whispered with a small smile.
'Oh, and by the way, I can trust you not to spread around what I've told you just now, right?'
'Of course not! Your secrets are safe with me!'
'Thanks. I know they are ...'
'What?' Naruto looked round anxiously at the sudden change in the tone of her student who was staring up at the moon which had definitely covered a lot more sky than either of them had registered.
'Oh Kami-sama, it's so late!' Eriko shrieked, jumping up. 'Kaachan's gonna bury me alive! I was supposed to come home ages ago with the groceries and –!'
But Naruto was not listening anymore. Her own shock and guilt was rising as she finally remembered –
'Hell, it's my turn to cook tonight!' And she was scrambling to her feet, too. 'Sasuke must have reached home hours ago and I was supposed to – oh, God, I'm so dead –'
Naruto and Eriko both froze as the familiar, deep voice reached their ears. They turned around slowly and stared dumbly at Sasuke who was standing a few feet behind them. Naruto was more than a little shocked. Not only was he the last person she had expected to encounter up here, but she had not sensed his approach either. But then, another more frightening thought occurred to her: How long has he been here? Did he ... hear...?
His face was as expressionless and apathetic as ever and gave no indication that he might have heard anything, er, out of the ordinary, but she was not sure of it as she could not clearly see his eyes which were shadowed due to the moon's present angle in the sky. However, she could sort of make them out as they flashed at like a pair of onyxes through the darkness, but Naruto could not see any particular emotion in them.
Sasuke stood tall and silent, watching stonily, not saying a word; finally she understood that he was waiting for her to speak.
Or, rather, begin making her excuses.
Slowly getting over the shock of Sasuke's unexpected appearance, Naruto located her vocal cords at last. 'Sa – Sasuke! What're you ...?'
Sasuke merely raised a thin, elegant eyebrow at her and Naruto looked down guiltily.
'I'm so sorry, Sasuke; I know it's my week to cook dinner and I totally spaced and got distracted by some stuff and...' she trailed off and looked hopefully at the raven-haired shinobi, hoping she would be let off.
Sasuke still said nothing, but merely regarded her coolly.
'Well, say something, bastard,' Naruto snapped, abruptly switching to her usual method of communicating with the man as annoyance took hold of her. 'If you're so mad at me, then why'd you come here? You could have just made some dinner yourself! What did you come here for if you're just gonna stand there and not say a word and give me the evil-eye –'
'I came looking for you.'
Naruto stopped, surprised. 'What?'
Sasuke was silent again, and just looked pointedly at her. She stared at him, knowing that he was not the sort of person to repeat his words, but did he just say that he came looking for her? Why would he come looking for her? Had he been ... concerned about her...?
OK, so that might just be wishful thinking, but she could not help but feel a little touched at the thought.
'Right ...' she mumbled.
Sasuke turned his back on her and began to walk away; he glanced over his shoulder once to see that she was still rooted to the spot. 'Well, are you coming home or not, usuratonkachi? I'm hungry.' His voice, however, sounded different than his usual tone. It was still stony, but not biting or cruel. There was almost a hint of warmth in it, too, something that sent a pleasant shiver down Naruto's spine. And his words ... are you coming home ... She could not explain what it was about such simple words, but coming from Sasuke of all people – her heart seemed to expand in her chest and warmth filled her from head to toe.
'Yes,' she whispered and followed him.
Eriko watched the two young shinobi in front of her thoughtfully as she trailed behind Naruto-sensei and Sasuke-san as they made their way towards Ichiraku Ramen (it had been her sensei's idea since it was too late to cook – or so she claimed – and Sasuke-san had not protested as Naruto had promised him that it would be her treat; and Eriko was only following because it was part of the route she took to get home). A portion of her brain was marvelling at how easily Naruto-sensei had slid back into her old personality again, all smiles and happiness, even as she cheerfully apologised a couple hundred times more to Sasuke-san for having forgotten about dinner much to his growing annoyance (Eriko thought it was kind of sweet that they had both divided household chores such as cooking between them); and the other part of her brain was still locked on everything she had learnt tonight.
Naruto-sensei was actually married! To Sasuke-san, no less! And with such a past behind them...
She eyed them carefully, noting how different they were, both physically and personality-wise. Naruto-sensei with her blonde hair and blue eyes and sunshine-charisma; and Sasuke-san with his black hair and eyes and brooding character; and yet, they complemented each other. They were opposites in every aspect of the word, but they fit together, like yin and yang. She, the sun; and he, the moon. Also, Eriko thought as she suppressed a sudden giggle, they were sort of kawaii together.
'Ah, ramen; the love of my life,' Naruto-sensei cried dramatically, throwing her arms over her head as the scent of the delicious noodles wafted over to them from the ramen stand, which soon came into view. Eriko giggled at her sensei's enthusiasm. Sasuke just snorted, but to Eriko, it sounded like he, too, was sort of amused at his wife's dramatics.
Sadly, Naruto did not seem to realise that.
'Oi,' she pointed a threatening finger at him, 'don't you diss my ramen, teme! There's nothing to equal it in the world!'
'Hn, then maybe you should get out some more.'
'Oh, yeah? So says the bastard who's head over heels in love with raw tomatoes! What sort of crazy person can actually like eating raw tomatoes?!'
'So says the dead last that eats instant ramen for breakfast everyday.'
'Hey! Who're you calling dead last, teme?!'
Eriko giggled again as she watched the two of them insult and curse each other back and forth. It was a moment before it really struck her that it was playful banter. Blinking, she stared after the two of them as they continued towards Ichiraku, still bickering. Naruto-sensei had said that Sasuke-san had changed into a cold, heartless man who did not care about her. That he did not give a damn about her. That their relationship now was nothing like what they had before ... and yet...
Here they were, teasing each other like how they apparently used to when they had been young. She could see that all the insults were more teasing than actually cruel; but neither Naruto-sensei nor Sasuke-san seemed to have realised this little detail. Hmm ... perhaps, Eriko smiled, the situation was not quite as bad as her sensei seemed to think it was...
'Oi, old man,' Naruto called happily to Teuchi as they finally reached the stand. 'One bowl of miso – oomph!' she grunted as her legs caught on one of the stools in her enthusiasm to sit down; her momentum sent her hurtling headlong into the counter, only she never did bang her head against it; Sasuke appeared at her side in a moment and, wrapping a strong arm around her waist just before she crashed into the counter, pulled her back against him.
'Are you alright, Naruto-kun?' Teuchi called anxiously.
'Ha – hai,' said Naruto shakily. Eriko swallowed a smile when she saw how her sensei had frozen up as soon as her back made contact with Sasuke's chest. She stood still, unmoving, tense and rigid. The raven-haired shinobi had still not let go of her.
Finally gathering her senses, Naruto pulled away and sat down on a stool, throwing a stammered 'thank you' over her shoulder at her husband. 'Moron,' he replied tonelessly as he sat down beside her, 'and you call yourself a jounin?'
Well, that certainly broke the ice.
'Hey! We're all allowed to have little accidents.'
'Yes, I'm sure that every trained ninja in Konoha must trip over their own feet everyday.'
'I tripped over a stool, yarou, and it was only today and it was an accident!'
'A jounin and you can't even avoid inanimate objects while walking.'
'Bye, Naruto-sensei, Sasuke-san,' Eriko interrupted loudly, unable to keep the grin off her face.
Naruto forgot about her little quarrel with Sasuke at once and turned to her student with a bright grin. 'Oyasumi, Eriko! See you tomorrow!'
Sasuke merely glanced at her.
Still grinning, Eriko turned and began to make her way home quickly. Her mother would not be happy with her tardiness, but she could not care about that. Her mind was occupied with other more interesting thoughts. Her grin grew bigger when she recalled all the little things she had noticed back at the ramen stand, like how protectively Sasuke-san had pulled Naruto-sensei to him when she had tripped; how he had left his arm around her longer than strictly necessary; how stiffly he had held that arm when Naruto-sensei had pulled away, as if ready to grab her again should she fall once more; how he had sat down closer to her than he used to when Team Seven and Sasuke-san and Kakashi-sensei used to go for lunch together; how their elbows had been brushing together as they quarrelled but neither of them had pulled away or seemed to mind ... so many little details and they all hinted at the same thing.
Eriko chuckled. Maybe Naruto-sensei was right about Sasuke-san being a changed man. However, she did not think that he was as heartless as Naruto-sensei had said. Maybe he did not want to show it; maybe Naruto-sensei could not see it, but Eriko certainly had; she had seen that, despite the coldness, Sasuke-san did care for his wife more than either of them seemed to realise. Everything hinted at it, from their actions tonight to the little things Eriko had overlooked in the past. Such as how overprotective Sasuke-san became when there was even the slightest hint of danger to Naruto-sensei, like that time when that weird guy, Sai, had pretended to attack her.
Also, he always seemed to pay a lot of attention to her; Eriko had noticed that, despite his silence, he never took his eyes off his wife when she would rage at him and Kakashi-sensei for invading their training grounds. And when they sparred, he took care to leave her unharmed even when he won; had not Naruto-sensei once complained about Sasuke-san holding back and not going out full against her?
And tonight, he had actually come "looking for her". That alone hinted at something much more than mere indifference to Naruto-sensei on Sasuke-san's part.
A huge smile unfolded on Eriko's face as she continued walking along the village streets. She was sure of it, now. Sasuke-san did care. Maybe not a whole lot, but he was not so callous. There was more hope for Naruto-sensei and her relationship with her best-friend-turned-ice-cube-husband than she realised. And Tanake Eriko, a firm believer of happy endings, was sure that everything would eventually turn out alright.
So, content and warm for the moment, Eriko happily made her way home. She was almost there when a random thought struck her and she burst out laughing, startling a few passers-by and a couple of stray cats.
Poor Nichiro; forget tough competition, he doesn't even stand a chance!
Another flash of lightening lit up the room again as the predicted rain fell down in torrents, pelting the glass windows of Sasuke's room. He lay silently on the bed, his head turned so that he could study the features of the blonde woman who was sleeping next to him, oblivious to the storm that raged outside. Beside her, on the bedside table, the little alarm clock read 1.27 a.m.; probably everyone in Konoha was asleep by now with the exception of Uchiha-Uzumaki Sasuke – and this time, it was not the nightmares about the clan Massacre or the absence of a certain dobe or the loud rainstorm that was keeping him up, but the memories of a conversation that he had never thought he would ever hear; and try as he might, he could not push the cause of his insomnia out of his mind.
Sasuke turned on his side so that he was facing Naruto and, stretching his arm out on the bed, propped the side of his head in his palm. He watched the dobe as she slept, arms wrapped around herself against the chill of the storm. His mind was a total blank; he did not know what to think, what he should think. He had been feeling like this for the past few hours. It had taken every bit of training he had received, every last drop of resolve in him to act like he usually did tonight so that Naruto would not notice anything off about him.
What did she mean by all that? He wondered, brows furrowing.
When he had scaled the Hokage Mountain, he had only been hoping to find Naruto up there; what he had not anticipated was to find her and one of her genin students having a tête-à-tête about him and events that had taken place six years ago. Now, Sasuke was not an eavesdropper – in fact, his disgust for such little peeps was great. But, hearing Naruto talking about him of all things with that little kunoichi – naturally, he had been a little curious as to what she had to say. So, knowing that she was far too distracted to have noticed him yet (the dobe), he had repressed his chakra signal and hidden himself in a crevice in the mountainside, close enough so that he could hear what was being said.
And what a mindboggling earful he had received!
Did she mean everything she said? About our friendship and how she feels about it all? Does she really care for me that much?
It was not like he had not known that Naruto had cared about him before. The dobe had never given up on him all these years and she had tried to bring him back nonstop even when he had made it clear to her that he never wanted to see her again. Her persistence was proof enough that she did care; but till now, he had never appreciated the extent to which her fondness for him ran. It had always been a nuisance to him, having her pleading in his ear to return to Konoha when all he ever wanted was for her to leave him the hell alone so that he could hunt Itachi in peace.
But the way she had talked about their former friendship up on the mountain...! Sasuke had never thought of it like that. Back then, before he had become convinced that friendships and attachments were weakness that held him back, he had known that Naruto was special; and by extent, that their relationship was special. And he had honestly liked the dobe back then, annoyingly loud and tiresome as she had been. But he had never thought so deeply of it, as deeply as Naruto had obviously thought of it. Her words made it clear that she had cherished what they had shared between them more than anything else.
Do I and our friendship really mean so much to her?
Sasuke studied the sleeping blonde beside him. The narration she had given of their pasts was making him look back on all that with new eyes; he was seeing their friendship in a whole new light. It had been special; because it had been different. He did not think that many others had ever shared a friendship like they had; a connection mixed with affection, rivalry, hardships, differences, understanding … so many things that he could not name them all. It really had been something sublime and it had meant something to him …
But I threw it all away, didn't I? I severed those bonds. Because they were holding me back – they were weaknesses…
He closed his eyes, struggling to find an answer that would not come. She really does care … do I care? No, he was not supposed to care; not supposed to depend on others. If he ever wanted to be strong enough to finally cleave Itachi's head off his shoulders, he had to put all those feelings behind; all the weakness, all the loopholes. He had to be able to stand alone and win. Only …
Damn the dobe! He should never have listened to her little stories tonight! He should have just announced his presence the moment he had reached the Yondaime's head and dragged her home. Why did he listen? If he had not, then maybe his mind (which had already become conflicted enough ever since he had been brought back to Konoha, he might add) would not be entertaining thoughts of their past friendship – which was just that, the past! No present, with no future – and daring to think that maybe, just maybe, he ought to show more kindness to the dobe, too; that he should be more caring …
And what else had that little girl said? That the dobe was in love – with him? Hn, as if! He scoffed. But then again, he reasoned, she had not denied it. She had not said yes, but she had not fought off the idea, either; like she had not been sure of her feelings. Was it possible that she loved him then? Did he love her …?
Ugh! Damn! Damn it all to hell!
A soft shudder reached his ears and Sasuke opened his eyes. Naruto was shivering; she wrapped her arms tighter around herself as she slept. In her sleep, she had rolled over towards him so he could clearly see her countenance, especially when the occasional flashes of lightening lit the room. There was a small frown on her face and she mumbled something that sounded like, 'I'm cold.'
Sasuke hesitated for a few moments. It really was chilly tonight. On top of the sudden rainstorm, the end of the year was almost upon them and nights were freezing around this time of year. Sasuke had had enough sense, even with his dazed mind, to put on a thick shirt to bed tonight along with his usual sweatpants. Naruto, however, was only wearing her customary pair of boxes and a thin, loose top – not good insulation at all.
He managed to reign himself in for a few more moments, but then Naruto shuddered again and, with a low groan, Sasuke gave himself over to his instincts – protective instincts he had not known that he possessed now. He scooted closer to her and paused for a second, watching the uncomfortable expression on her face, before hesitantly reaching up to cup her cold face. Her reaction was almost instantaneous; she leaned into his hand automatically and a soft sigh of comfort escaped her lips.
Sasuke stared, almost mesmerised, at her response to his simple touch. There was something almost intimate and sensual about her reaction. Without thinking, he caressed her cheek, letting the back of his fingers trace the three parallel scars on her face. She shivered slightly, but did not pull away.
He pushed himself even closer to her unconsciously so that her shivering body was almost touching his own. His hand moved, almost of its own volition, to her shoulder and slowly down her bare, chilled arms. Sasuke could feel goosebumps rise under his palm as her body reacted to the difference in temperature. Another sigh escaped her lips and his eyes focussed on her mouth, studying the curve of her lips that he could make out in the dim light inside the room, noting how they parted as she continued to sleep. A slow, burning desire rose inside him; a wistful need that had been building up inside him as of late; the longing to take her in his arms and taste those teasing, inviting lips …
He was suddenly shaken from his self-inflicted trance. The sleeping Naruto, subconsciously sensing the warmth that was radiating from him, reacted instinctively and closed the distance between their bodies. Sasuke stared down in shock as she wrapped her arm, the one that was not pinned to the mattress by her body, around him and burrowed her face into his chest, her frozen form craving his warmth. He lay still, tense, as she snuggled against him, not leaving a hair's breath between their fused figures. Her feet brushed against his and he almost started when he felt how icy they were; in fact, he would not be surprised if she had frost-bite. But then his thoughts went haywire again as she slowly began rubbing her feet against his, warming them. Her arm tightened around him and she moved her face away from his chest, but, next moment, she pressed it against his throat and slowly inhaled his scent. Sasuke could have sworn he heard her murmur, '… smells … so good …' against his skin.
But then again, his brain was suffering from a temporary short circuit, so he might have been mistaken.
Slowly, her shivers subsided as she grew warmer, but she still did not pull away. If anything, she only pressed herself tighter against him. Sasuke relaxed slowly, letting his tense muscles loosen. He looked down at the woman resting against him, wondering why he did not feel repulsed at the proximity; they had never been this close before – unless you counted how Naruto had literally held him in her arms that night when she was bringing him out of his nightmare … and just like that night, he felt no urge to push her away; the contrary, in fact.
He tentatively put his free arm around her, holding her lightly against him and ran his hand gently up and down her back, rubbing more warmth into her. A jolt of pleasure ran through him when Naruto made a noise of comfort at his touch. He let his hand rise up her spine, higher and higher until he could curl his fingers in her hair; despite its spikiness, it was wonderfully soft; not particularly glossy or silky, but it felt pleasant against his skin. She sighed again and her breath washed over his throat.
Sasuke sighed softly before burying his nose in her hair. The scent of her shampoo tickled his senses and he inhaled again. He could feel the familiar aura of comfort and safety envelope him, that feeling that Naruto and her mere presence could evoke in him, the mental lullaby that lulled him to sleep. There were still a lot of questions in his mind, many doubts that he wanted to clear, so many conflicts that he did not know how to make head or tail of them. But he did not want to deal with them – not now, at least. Tonight, he just wanted to push back everything he had overheard to the back of his mind and sleep in the comfort of her arms. He did not know what would happen when they woke up; whether they would still be intertwined around each other in the morning (and most likely give Naruto a heart attack from their intimacy). He did not know if he would ever be able to sleep like this again, either.
But he did know that he wanted this; for tonight, at least. Without any doubts and fears and thoughts clouding his mind, he wanted to sleep with his arms around her and hers around him, in this small personal bubble where only she and he belonged without the intrusion of anything or anyone else.
And so he did.
JAPANESE VOCAB (If I've gotten anything wrong, please let me know and I'll change it)
Arigato: thank you
Baka: stupid; idiot
Dobe: dead last; idiot
Ero-Sannin: perverted hermit
Gomen nasai: I'm sorry
Genin: low-level ninja
Jinchuuriki: demon vessel; person within whom a demon is sealed
Jounin: elite ninja
Kunoichi: female ninja
Kuso: damn; shit
Kyuubi no Kitsune: Nine-Tailed Demon Fox
Obaachan: old lady; old hag
Oyasumi: good night; good bye
Teme: means 'You' in a very rude and offensive manner
Uchiwa fan: little Japanese fan that cannot be folded
Usuratonkachi: moron; idiot
Yondaime: Fourth (Hokage)
Zori: sandals that ninja wear
A/N: Aw, geez, I still can't believe that I actually finished this monster! I intended it to be a 4000-5000 word one-shot, but it ended up being almost 15,000 words! It took me almost a week to type the thing and I'm pretty sure I must have broken a couple of fingers. lol
Anyway, I'm pretty pleased with it, considering that it's the first thing I've ever posted though it certainly ain't the first fanfic I've written. This fic turned out how I wanted it for the most part. I don't know how I feel about the ending; I wanted an open ending so I guess it fits. As for what the morning brings, well, I'll let your imaginations run free on that one. lol. Also, I have no plans for continuing this so it'll probably remain a one-shot.
Again, please remember that though this is based on "I Think I", it's not an official part of that story; just a little scene that came to me.
So, please let me know what you thought of it, yeah? I'd really love to have some reviews and constructive criticism. But pointless flames will be a) ignored, b) hysterically laughed at, or c) chucked down to hell where they belong; it depends on my mood/craziness level.
I hope you all enjoyed it. Ja!