Disclaimer: I don't own these characters, but I did write this story. Please try not to plagiarize. Usually not attempting prevents it from ever happening.

Version: Manga

Bringing Back Sasuke
(The ordeal of a life-time)

Blue Jeans

Sakura once met a black cat with white spotted paws, grooming itself on the fire-escape by her window. She had stared at it with wide-eyes and then had dragged Naruto to see it from his place on her couch. "It's so cute, let's buy it some milk," she suggested excitedly when the cat bravely looked back at her in a rather imperious manner and didn't leave its perch.

"It might not be here when we get back," Naruto pointed out simply, not sure what was so "cute" about a pompous cat. He quickly agreed to go though, when Sakura looked a little crestfallen at his words.

"Maybe we should call him Sasuke-kun?" Sai suggested as he followed Naruto into Sakura's bedroom to see what all the fuss was about.

The medic-nin had chucked a well aimed medical scroll at her uninvited guest but Sai dodged it skillfully. Despite Sakura yelling at him to get out, it was Naruto who eventually dragged the dark-haired young man away, not wanting to accidentally end up in the middle of a scuffle. It never ended well for the blond when those two got started and grocery shopping was 100 percent safer than coming back to Sakura and Sai tending to themselves.

Sakura left milk for a week on the fire-escape. The cat didn't come back for a month. "He is kind of like Sasuke-kun, after all," Sakura muttered darkly as she glared at the same cat a month later, grooming itself again by her window. It always did come back on its own afterwards, even if it was never when she expected it to.

Ino was visiting that day when the cat was there. Her friend was painting her nails in Sakura's bedroom when she looked up and frowned to see what Sakura was talking about. "Isn't that TenTen's cat?" the blonde shinobi asked before blowing on her fingers, raising a brow with humor dancing in her eyes as she met Sakura's quizzical gaze. "I think it's a girl," Ino declared with relish at Sakura's mistake.

When Naruto heard of this, he wouldn't stop laughing, to Sakura's great annoyance. He was so amused that she was able to hit him with every medical scroll she had chucked at his head while commending him to stop. It was a story that they would never tell Sasuke about, though Naruto does, once in awhile, snicker uncontrollably whenever he sees Sasuke and white-spotted black cats on the same day...

Uchiha Sasuke started the proceedings over tea.

The bitterness seeped onto his tongue from beneath the fragrant aroma and he liked the strength of it despite his surprise the first time Sakura served it to him without asking him his preference. The room had been overly bright that day, but the window was facing west and the hour was just right for the hot sun to beam onto the furnitures, the floor and the guest sitting in the small, unventilated room. It was to be expected - the heat, tension, and oppression. The cup in his hand was not fragile, but his hands were larger now and Sakura had observed this earlier that it seemed surprisingly frail in his hands. She had looked a little wide-eyed as she watched him hold that cup before her expression became a little sad, it was brief for she was hiding it before it could settle.

He hated that look of discontent on her face, lingering inside her while she allowed him only glimpses when she was unwilling to share and had control of her faculties - which was not often when it involved him but was becoming more frequent with this new familiarity. It unsettled him and he was not accustomed to being unsettled. After all this time he had thought that this vague childhood attachment would have evaporated into the grandness of other things. It had been so small and nascent that he did not believe it could have survived the test of time... But it had survived. Tattered as it was now, it still managed to make him uncomfortable.

He had felt, or at least believed he had felt, nothing when Naruto had looked up at him from that crater in the ground, years ago. He had not felt moved to question his course, even when her green eyes reminded him of childhood and Team 7. Was it memories that drove Naruto to chase him so? Was it infatuation? He could not comprehend the emotion that drove them in their innocent, untouched hearts, emotions that made them believe so much while vengeance had shaped him and blackened his blood, making him incomprehensible to the thing that called them after him.

She had said she loved him, long ago. As if words could change his mind and rewrite history. But she had no such powers then or now. She was also not the one who was waiting for an answer now.

Strange, how time changed all things.

She was so different now from the girl he left behind. Different from the frivolous child who laughed and cried without restraint and made him envy her innocence. Different from the helpless young woman who saw in him more than he had ever seen in himself. Different from the shinobi who had clutched at his back and trembled with fear at the fury she had witnessed burning and spreading, physically reflected at last in a curse, a disease, that spread across his skin to echo the one reawakening in his heart.

Slowly, a frozen type of surprise crept into her eyes as comprehension came upon her at his careful proposal. The thing that she had asked of him those years ago, beneath dark night skies and with longing words, he was returning them back to her. The long awaited reply, he had decided to name it in the privacy of his own thoughts. The thing he had refused her then but offered her now was finally within her grasps, and her hesitation puzzled him.

"Take me with you," she had implored him years ago. The light in her eyes every time they met, again and again on the battlefield, and much later, in this apartment, had not diminished with time. They told him that she still wanted him and welcomed him. After all this time, she still wanted to stand next to him, despite all that had happened and all that he had done.

And he was glad he had said no then, seeing those lights in her eyes. She didn't understand what she had asked of him then, nor of herself those years ago. But now she understands what he was asking her in return, and everything was different. "Come with me," he repeated himself when she failed to respond in time.

Sakura closed her slightly opened mouth at his voice, as if coming out of a trance. She parted her lips, but once again words failed to come out. Then she blinked her eyes and her pale, long lashes fluttered as she slipped from the grasps of his gaze.

"Candy?" she asked abruptly in the growing, awkward silence. There was a note of desperation in her voice as her stare landed on the small jar of sweets she kept on the low table between them.

He raised a silent brow that she did not see. She rose, agitated now and he had the uncomfortable feeling that she was going to refuse him. This was unthinkable, of course, so he kept quiet and waited for her ascent.

"No, of course not," she said instead, almost muttering to herself with a shake of her head as she took an uncertain step towards the left of her before changing her mind and turning the other way. "You don't like the flavor of sweet beans..." she trailed off and put a trembling hand to her lips, her eyes suddenly flickering as if something came to mind and she stifled a fleeting, nervous smile that she didn't entirely hide from him. "Well, that surprised me, Sasuke-kun," she admitted at last with a bit of a stumble in her motion as she sat down clumsily again. She didn't even seem to know what to do with herself in front of him and her eyes focused on him again, her mind returning from elsewhere. "You surprised me quite a bit already," she added without reservation, a frown now marring her brows and she was troubled again without care if he knew.

Her face, it had always been transparent when they were children and had not changed after all this time. Every feeling she had was written there for him to see. She was like Naruto in this way, though perhaps more so than Naruto in some ways, since that idiot sometimes smiled to hide his own unease. Vulnerable, with everything she felt, she often left Sasuke feeling unsure of how he should respond. He wondered, many times already since he had set foot into her apartment, how she had ever earned her Jounin vest with that face but was not surprised that she was not ANBU because of it.

ANBU wore masks, but even with it off, Kakashi had shown them long ago that there were masks beneath masks for those who were ANBU. And ANBU once was ANBU always. Sakura was no such woman, and her callous hands could not fool any trained ninja into thinking she owned a callous heart.

"I should punch you," she suddenly declared, straightening in her chair. He gave her a weary glance as she clenched her fists and her gaze landed on him, this time not quite as welcomed as the last. "I should punch you," she repeated, almost entirely to herself. She was serious, he was sure of it as she stood again and this time with a lot more purpose than the last time. He straightened himself in response, preparing for the blow as it would be a bit undignified to be running away from a pink-haired woman who was barely half his weight in her own apartment - even if it was prudent. But then, as suddenly as she approached him with the grace she lacked earlier and the speed he had not expected, her lips turned down as she stood beside his sitting, rim-rod straight, form. Her bottom lip began to tremble and her eyes filled up with tears, but as she hugged her arms closed to her own body, she did not cross that final distance between them.

Sasuke looked up at her as she looked away. Strange, but he found that it was him who was suddenly feeling vulnerable, more vulnerable than she ever made herself in front of him, time and time again, with those tears and those eyes. This time, when she had looked away from him as if ashamed for the first time of shedding tears before him, made him ache. This silence that never answered his simple request to her, when he had been certain of the answer she would have given while preparing to ask it... He was suddenly afraid, and as he sat there, unable to ask her a third time because he no longer knew what she would say. Instead, he could only wordlessly watch her as she kept her profile to him and silently shook with tears falling from her eyes, never once meeting his gaze.

And that was how Naruto found them.

"Hey Sakura-chan," the blond man called out unnecessarily. He breezed in without a knock on her door and paused at in the living room when he saw them both. Naruto's hands were casually placed in his pockets but it was the calm on he exuded that gave him away. Sakura had been trying to stop the tears from falling before the other could see, but she failed miserably at hiding the evidence that was written on her face. So it was up to Sasuke to meet the blond man's steady gaze without flinching while they assessed each other tensely. "You okay?" Naruto finally asked, his eyes on Sasuke but his question was obviously directed at Sakura.

This was not to say that Naruto did not care for Sasuke.

One destroyed village and millions of refusals later, Naruto never gave up on him. "I'll drag you back, again and again, if I have to!" the blond had promised him, arms crossed while grinning at him menacingly. That grin had always irritated him, growing more menacing and more annoying with time. But, one thing had been clear since he came back: Naruto had no qualms about beating him up if he made Sakura cry.

It was not the first time this had happened and it would certainly not be the last.

Naruto had, after all, succeeded in bringing him back for this situation to occur in the first place. The blond hadn't just succeeded once, not even twice, but a third and then a fourth and then a fifth time. Sasuke had been dragged back beaten and raging, and most of the times, quite unconscious for the majority of the trip. The fifth time was especially hellish. They nearly killed each other... again.

"You can't keep doing this," Sasuke remembered saying as he winced through broken ribs and the blood flowing into his mouth.

"Can and will," Naruto had retorted back stubbornly. "Until you stay." And Sasuke had almost believed Naruto. He had almost believed it was just because of him that the other tried so hard and cared so much. He almost believed this until that evening, when Naruto confessed by the fire pit, knowing Sasuke was awake of one of those unsaid things between them. The other had been keeping watch to make sure Sasuke didn't try anything funny again - like running away. In fact, Naruto insured this wouldn't happen without warning by breaking Sasuke's leg to ensure he wouldn't get very far even if he tried. Well, in some ways at least it was better than the last time he was dragged back, and Naruto was getting good at this as it was also not the first or the second time that he was incapacitated in this manner.

The worst time for Sasuke was when he had been nice enough to show his appreciation for Naruto's annoying resilience with a kunai to the blond's back. Naruto, to repay him for not hitting anything too vital, had succeeded in having both of his limbs, the ones he needed for walking, broken. Naruto always claimed it was to prove a very specific point though they had both been pretty pissed off by that point. That time had truly sucked, more for Sasuke than Naruto though. "I'll keep bringing you back, Sasuke. You're still too thick skulled to come back on your own, after all." Naruto had vowed once more under the stars. Naruto has said this while crouching by the flames that made his face gold and red, using Sasuke's name, not for the first time but in a rare event of civility when they weren't fighting each other. "I'll keep taking you back to Konoha. Until you get it. Until she stops crying when you leave and you realize that we're your family now."

Whatever Naruto's intentions had been in saying this, pissing Sasuke off or unsettling him by mentioning Sakura, had probably not been the goal.

But that was the effect of it. Why did he feel betrayed about Naruto's intentions? Even Sasuke had no answer for this. Yet, the thought had festered until suddenly convincing Sakura to go away with him solved all of his problems. She was strong enough to follow him now. A medic-nin of the highest caliber, she'd even be an asset if she tagged along. He didn't like to see her cry, and when she smiled it was truly... beautiful. This plain girl-child who had loved him once and grew to be a mildly pretty woman still managed to make him feel things he did not want to feel. When she looked at him like he mattered, sometimes it made him even wonder about things he could not put into words. Those thoughts were always unwelcome, as where the feelings she inspired, but better she was Naruto's weakness more than his own. When he took her away, then Naruto would have no more reasons to take him back to this village that made his hand itch to destroy and made his heart clench with something he did not wish to name. He could finally be free of Konoha then, free of the boy from the past and the man before him now, who wanted to make him a brother. Sasuke was sick of brothers, of family that claimed loyalty but was too mortal and fragile to keep from becoming anything more than the seeds for pain and rage. And this small weakness that had always been Sakura would change that annoying grin into something more suitable. It would make Naruto feel a bit of that something that Sasuke had felt that evening when this constant profession of brotherhood was turned into the same farce his brother's crimes were made into - a woman's approval.

That evening, he had hated Naruto a bit more than usual.

When Sakura smiled weakly but warmly at Naruto when her eyes fell on the blond, Sasuke wanted to hurt both of them with something harsh and violent and honest, because that was their favorite weapons against him.

"I'm alright, Naruto," she reassured the blond as she moved a step away from Sasuke and took a step closer to his eternal rival.

Sasuke frowned at this, at the softening of her face and the retreating shadows from Sakura's eyes. "I was asking if Sakura was willing to leave with me," Sasuke interrupted Sakura's instinctive move toward Naruto with the only weapon he had. Naruto's hands came out of his pockets then, weaponless but tense. They were fisted, and the blond man's face was tense, which confirmed for Sasuke something he had suspected since that night by the camp fire. This was the worth of their so-called brotherhood, Sasuke thought more bitterly than he would ever acknowledge. This was the limits of Naruto's loyalty. And yet the proof of it brought Sasuke no satisfaction, grim or otherwise, despite his best efforts.

"Is this true, Sakura-chan?" Naruto asked in a low, dangerous voice that Sasuke had never before heard. It was a tone that Sasuke did not even know Naruto possessed. He knew Naruto had overheard at least some of their conversation, so why did the other want confirmation from Sakura? Why was he not driven by the anger that was so obvious it was palpable?

Sakura looked hesitant as her eyes swept over Naruto's face, but she nodded in the end before her voice confirmed it when Naruto's eyes did not stray from Sasuke's. "Yes," Sakura answered softly, but there was none of the hesitation in her voice as there was in her worried gaze. "He did," she confirmed. Her voice didn't waver, and Sasuke, who had seen Sakura cower in the face of their combined rage when they were children was reminded again of how much she had changed. She did not waver now, when the anger that Naruto expressed now had surprised even Sasuke and taken him aback.

"And your answer?" Naruto asked, so quietly as to almost make his audience lean in to hear. Sasuke was almost surprised that the other was not riled enough to miss that all together. When it came to Sakura, Naruto was easier to rattle than anyone else. He had noted that long ago, but only when he was older did he understand more of what that had meant, and even then, only when he could ignore it no longer.

All this time... she was the price of their brotherhood.

"I haven't given it to him yet," Sakura replied calmly, unruffled. Even Sasuke felt his eyes swing to her only to see her straighten her spine all the more beneath his scrutiny. Her eyes did not shift to him though, not in uncertainty or a plea of silent aid. Instead, her gaze locked onto Naruto's, a direct and unfaltering stare when he had finally looked at her that she could not give to Sasuke earlier, and something, though he was not sure what, passed between them.

The silence stretched for a heartbeat longer.

"Oh," Naruto finally said, blinking as if coming back into himself. The blond's shoulders fell and relaxed, the serious expression from earlier that promised bloodshed and violence was nowhere evident on his suddenly familiar, grinning face. "Well, I was thinking of ramen when I came through. You can think about what you want to tell the bastard while we visit Ichiruka's!"

Even Sakura stared a bit incredulously at Naruto before she made a disgusted face at him, which was what really broke the serious atmosphere. "You and ramen," she said with a weary sigh and a roll of her eyes. "You sure know how to tip the scale not in your favor," Sakura added with a pointed look at the blond as he twirled before them in an impatient circle.

Naruto, instead of being threatened by her reply, actually pouted. "Aw, come on, Sakura-chan! I know you like their specials..." he trailed off as her pointed look remained on his face and her lips thinned. "Okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration," he admitted reluctantly. "But you don't hate it!"

Sasuke sighed before he could stifle the reaction. "I'll come back later then," he cut in. He wasn't going to wade through this all night. He wasn't going to sit by Naruto's forced enthusiasms and unforced hand on his shoulder, because it always lands there eventually. He wasn't going to subjugate himself to an evening of Sakura stirring her soup until the noodles got too soggy as she sometimes stole glances at him, but was always too afraid to touch him. He wasn't going to sit there and feel the silence itch across his skin with their expectations, always unspoken but always there. But Sakura's hand stopped him, as it had many times in his life, even if she could not keep him from truly leaving her or Naruto or this village. Yet, despite her powerlessness, she had always had the power to make him pause. Sometimes, he hated her for even this small bit of power she had over him, as much as he hated Naruto's ability to make him wish for impossible things - things that would never be.

She didn't touch him exactly, she had always been so careful since he had been brought back to never touch him outside of their healing sessions. Instead, she had simple reached out and grasped just the edge of his sleeve as her other hand clutched awkwardly onto her outstretched arm. "Come with us, Sasuke," she said simply, this time deliberately leaving off the '-kun'. She was in control of herself again, but at the same time, she was also opened. She was, in some ways, always opened to his rejections and the barbs in his words. Yet, each time, she had accepted the harshness of his silent rage that never quite left him alone. Even after Itachi's death and the wondering lost years, when the anger did not die and only grew, when days and months flowed unnamed and life only seemed to matter when there was another mission to accomplish, another assignment to assassinate - but never the one that could satisfy even an iota of the blackness that grew within him. In those years his odium had no direction or a true target that he could fixate on the same way he had fixated on his brother. It would never be the same as when the other had been alive and he had been ignorant of everything. Even when he condemned Konoha, even when he hated the world that created the abyss inside of him and the culture that had sprung from the shadows of the ninja world's creation, it was always with a knowledge that it would not be enough.

It would never be enough.

It was not like when he went after Itachi and his words of understanding vengeance fell from his lips like a prayer that could be answered. There was no answer for his hatred this time. There was only more hatred and black nothingness waiting to engulf him in madness. If he stopped or paused or hesitated too long, it would catch up to him and swallow him whole. There was the vague sense of needing to continue, of dissatisfaction, of a hunger without name and a desire without relief that drove him onwards. Yet, still, Naruto and Sakura pursued him as if he could be brought back... as if he wanted to be brought back.

They did not listen to him then, not to the cold words from his lips and not to the actions he employed when they met and fought while their eyes leaked tears for him still. Year after nameless year, confrontation after countless confrontations, they came after him the way he went after the cure for the black feeling that dogged him forward. "We need you back," Naruto yelled out from behind him as the blond limped after his retreating back. His scattered ex-teammates followed him, Sakura, for once, always the more silent and determined than pleading one. They were always ravaged by the same fight that would injure him in some way, some times fatally, but nothing short of death or unconsciousness would have prevented them from following him and nothing short of those things would have allowed him to wait for them to catch up.

No amount of denial from him was going to change their minds though. Even he eventually learned this. Even he was eventually exhausted by the single-mindedness that drove the team he had abandoned long ago. So, where ANBU and elite ninja from other great villages failed, he guessed his old teammates succeeded. Statistically, Sakura had explained to him with a wide, satisfied grin as he laid on her couch that first time while she dressed Naruto's wounds, ignoring the blond's protests, Sasuke was bound to keel over from a concussion from one of them one day.

While her explanation for Sasuke's concussion did not make him happy, Naruto and Sakura's success in bringing him back, however, never lasted long enough to make him stay.

The first time he was brought back, the Elders wanted him dead. Period. It was Sakura who had led him out to the edge of the village with more stealth than he had thought her capable. "Don't go too far," she told him with a frown on her lips. "We'll get you back when this settles," she promised. Sakura says all this while looking if not a bit peeved at a situation. This was a bit rich, Sasuke thought, as she and Naruto had brought this onto themselves.

He didn't even stay for a goodbye. As soon as she had deactivated the chakra seal on his temples, he was gone. Well, he put her in a trance for good measure but he had always been cautious. There was no need for her to have to ask him for an alibi when she clearly needed one.

The second time, there was an assassination attempt while he was in custody. He didn't particularly mean to save one or two of the Elders' lives on his way out, but he wasn't about to let someone implicate him for a crime he only thought about committing (often, at one point in time). After Danzou's death, he had lost a good amount of interest in the deed altogether and he would rather give credit where it was due. Needless to say, the Elders were suddenly more willing to be lenient after that complicated and rather public case. They weren't grateful enough, though, and he wasn't going to stick around long enough to have his eyes gouged out as a precaution.

It was Naruto who escorted him to the gates this time. "Don't go too far," the blond warned him with a threatening grin, still a little breathless from their escape. The words though were starting to sound a bit too familiar. "If you make Sakura-chan cry again, I'll have to blind you myself."

He had snorted then. "I'd like to see you try," he almost said but thought the look he gave Naruto to be challenging enough without them. Naruto only grinned wider and waved him off, though he was gone before the guards were anywhere close. This time he didn't bother to provide Naruto with an excuse for his absence.

The third time, no one saw him go. But he paid for that with two broken legs on his way back in the fourth time around. Sakura had raised a brow at Naruto's sheepish grin as Sasuke hung off of the blond with a very unhappy look on his face that could have been menacing if he hadn't been in so much pain. "What?" Naruto asked when Sakura began to tap her foot impatiently as her arms crossed over her chest and her glare turned fierce. "He stabbed me in the back, what did he expect?" Naruto asked pointedly, ignoring the exasperated glare Sakura shot at him. "And he made you cry," Naruto added that last part rather gruffly before dropping Sasuke in all the wrong angles over her sofa. Sasuke did not appreciate this, hating Naruto more when he could not help but groan loudly in pain. It got Naruto swatted at, but Sasuke missed the whole thing as he tried to grasp onto consciousness and not have to live through what Naruto would surely use later as ammunition against his manhood.

"Not everyone has super healing skills like you," Sakura had retorted rather aggressively, shaking an accusing finger at Naruto after shoving the bigger man aside. It was the only thing that Sasuke was able to decipher over the sound of his own blood pumping in his ears.

"He stabbed me in the back," Naruto had said in retort with great emphasis as he rubbed his shoulder, far from where Sasuke had actually stabbed him, and then pouted at Sakura. After all, Naruto ended up having to get a clone to pull that one out, and Sasuke, to this day, was proud of that particular memory. "That was low and he needed to be taught a lesson about that," Naruto had continued grumpily. "Anyway, he doesn't need super healing skills when he has you."

Sasuke tried to glare hazily through the pain at Naruto, but even he was surprised at the blush that came over Sakura's cheeks. That moment ended quickly when she then proceeded to flick Naruto across the room with her index finger. "Idiot," she had muttered as she dusted her hands, apparently not worried about the horror and apprehension she'd be inspiring in her soon-to-be (not to mention, very reluctant) patient when doing such violent things so casually. Her cheeks though, remained warm and flushed for a while longer, even as she turned formadible eyes onto the now daunted Sasuke. He wisely kept his mouth shut as she then proceeded to set his bones back in order, and she did it in what was quite possibly the most painful way she knew how.

He had stabbed Naruto in the back, after all.

"Ow," Naruto groaned from across the room, barely registered to anyone but himself due to more involuntary grunting from Sasuke, who was still trying to fight off truly vocalizing the discomforts Sakura was deliberately putting him through. Sasuke grounded his teeth together more harshly and tried very, very hard to neither pass out nor cry out anymore in pain, but he shared the blond's sentiments exactly. He'd never admit to it, of course, but while he hazily remembered Sakura beaming angelically at him when she was done with his legs, her eyes, and the procedure she used, held all the silent warnings he needed to remind him that she was definitely more dangerous than she looked.

Everyone had their own ways of getting revenge, and Sakura apparently could hold a grudge.

If it had just been Naruto's confession, maybe Sasuke would not have been as put off for as long as it had lasted. He could have lived with that. He could have lived with Naruto's unanswered affections for their teammate. He could have handled the initial surge of resentment at the other's admission and the unfamiliar fear of losing something, someone, though he wasn't sure who that feeling was directed to.

Yet, waking from another grueling healing session from a smiling Sakura, he remembered hearing them talking in her kitchen. It was Naruto's unconcealed rustling of movements around in that small cramped space that he recognized, though the blond never asked for directions or where anything was. The familiarity had never surprised him or made him suspicious, it wasn't like he had not been back here before or never witnessed the activities that occurred between Naruto and Sakura. Yet, suddenly all those nuanced, unnoticed things from before meant something that he had so easily and so studiously denied thinking about in the past.

They weren't talking about him either, not since they had first gotten him back.

They were discussing things that were completely mundane: Village gossip. The talk skipped from subjects as diverse as how profitable the Yamanaka Flower Shop was to Rock Lee and Hyuga Neji's latest bout of challenges and the bets TenTen was taking for it. Sakura mentioned to Naruto about Nara Shikamaru's latest game of Go and how the lazy bum tried to seem terribly uninterested in whether or not Sakura would like to take on the challenge of playing him again. Naruto then proceeded to tell Sakura about Kiba's latest girlfriend of the month and a disgusted but amused Sakura moved the matter deftly to Shizune's latest research topic instead. It was so mundane that Sasuke felt like grinding his teeth against the ceaseless information that was absolutely nothing of importance, though he was never sure what agitated him so much whenever he caught the two of them conversing so casually like this.

"Eat your vegetables, Naruto," Sakura suddenly said sharply, as one could while keeping one's voice low. "Don't even think about it!" she threatened. Sasuke found himself digging his head back against the cushion in reaction to her warning, having just gone through the pain her voice promised, despite not being on the receiving end of that particular tone this time.

"You know I hate salads, Sakura-chan!" Naruto whined.

"You want me to add hot sauce to it like I did your noodles last time?" Sakura challenged Naruto. This really irritated Sasuke because he wasn't sure what she had meant by that at all, having never been told about this particular episode.

"No!" Naruto suddenly protested loudly enough for Sakura to shush the blond. "You nearly killed me last time," he heard the other hiss at Sakura in a much lower tone.

"Can't help it if you can't handle the spice," Sakura answered evenly.

"I can handle the spice," Naruto replied indigently, voice rising again only to be shushed by Sakura with a look this time. "But you just don't dump half a bottle of that stuff into a man's miso ramen and expect any other reaction except pain, Sakura-chan! Where did you even get that stuff anyway? You don't even like spicy food!" Naruto half-whispered, half-hissed the last of his complaints. Sasuke didn't hear Sakura's answer, but he suspected from the noise from Naruto in response to whatever she was doing that it must not have been a gesture of concession from their pink-haired teammate. Yet, having his ignorance explained without prompting irked him even more, instead of appeasing him of his curiosity as he would have expected.

"Naruto, let me look at you," Sakura said finally, her tone was suddenly gentle. "I know you and Sasuke never play nice," she continued pointedly, to which Sasuke felt an unexpected swell of pride. In the silence that fell over the room, one that was interrupted only by the slow, solemn munching of crisp veggies, her change of subject matter and the voice she employed had been distinctive enough that Sasuke blinked as the feeling of pride left him and was replaced with unease. It was unexpected enough to leave him unsure as to whether or not he had fallen asleep and was waking to a different situation altogether.

"I'm alright," was the jumbled reply she was given, though it must have looked far worse than it sounded. Naruto and table manners didn't usually go hand-in-hand, even after all these years, as Sasuke had come to witness. But Sakura didn't reprimand Naruto this time about manners as he had anticipated and Sasuke silently rose stiffly from where he was laid earlier to look to find out why. He peered over the back of the couch cautiously and, instead of seeing his two teammates casually conversing, he caught sight of Sakura holding Naruto's hand beneath the warm yellow glow of the kitchen light.

It wasn't the casual hand hold that a medic-nin might give to a patient whose hand, or arm, she wished to examine either. It was one where fingers were laced, intimate and familiar, while Naruto's thumb absently caressed her skin. She wasn't even looking at Naruto's appendages or blushing at an unfamiliar caress. Instead, she was smiling at the other as she rested her chin in her free hand and studied the blond as Naruto masticated his way through the greens with a bit more enthusiasm than one would have expected from someone who detested the stuff so much. Every once in awhile, Naruto's gaze would meet Sakura's and those familiar blue eyes would crinkle. If his mouth was lucky enough not to be full, Naruto would smile a smile that Sasuke had never seen his old teammate direct at anyone before.

It was all very comfortable and familiar, and absolutely alien to Sasuke.

That was the moment, Sasuke would think back with realization and mark it for what it was. That was the moment he had felt the nagging, uncomfortable dislike for Naruto start to set its permanent roots in his heart. Some might have called it jealousy, others might have named it longing, but Sasuke only knew that he needed to go before he did something that would make him regret what he wanted to do at that very moment. If he stayed, it would end his chances of obtaining a goal that he had never considered until that night on Sakura's couch, at least, not specifically.

In the end, it was not just Naruto's smile that made him catch his breath, but the one Sakura answered back with in the silence of her small kitchen, a smile that made his heart shudder awake.

This time, the last time, Sasuke came back on his own.

Sakura had returned home to find him lounging oh-so-casually on her couch and her initial reaction was a raised eye brow. He had looked healthy and uninjured, which was a surprise in and of itself. She must have sensed his presence in the hallway, but disbelief still colored her eyes as she set down her bag that jangled with the sound of glass vials. Her lab coat covered her usual outfit, and she was not wearing her Jounin vest. Once, she had told him that it was too cumbersome in the hospital and that she only wore it for missions.

"It's easily accessible," she said with a shrug and he was reminded of the girl he once knew who cared about looks more than practicality. He continued to think this until he realized she wore a thinner vest with metal plates lining the inner sections of her black outfit. It was purely an accidental discovery, something that happened when he had unwillingly fell on her while trying to walk out on Naruto and herself the day after she healed his legs the fourth time he was brought back. "Well, I didn't completely heal you," she admitted later with an innocent look on her face while she watched him wince beneath her hands because he broke bones too new to withstand his full weight. She had shot him a rather dead-pan expression after the amused one left her face, but it just reminded him of the look she had when she healed him the first time. "We didn't want to help you run away when no one's gunning to kill you around here, yet," she had said this rather pointedly, if not with a bit of ironic humor.

Her voice pulled him back into the present.

"You came back, Sasuke-kun?" Sakura finally stated, and though there was still a bit of surprise in her voice, her expression smoothed and became composed. She had already seen that he was healthy and he didn't look the way he looked whenever Naruto brought him back, being able to stand on his own was a big give-away. She calmly walked into her living room and her eyes never left his. "This is an improvement," she added matter-of-factly and the smile she gave him was the same smile that had often caught him off guard with its genuineness.

He didn't bother to answer and steepled his fingers as he watched her approach, hidding his unexpected reaction by watching her from behind his hands. She finally walked passed him to the kitchen behind him. "Tea? Fish onigiri?" she suggested as her stomach growled. Sakura was already heading for the fridge so Sasuke wasn't sure if she was blushing or not, the way she used to when she addressed him or tried to please him. She was no longer sycophantic, but he thought that sometimes she watched him as if he would disappear when she least expected.

"No thanks," he answered as he rose and watched her bustle through the kitchen. She ignored him and led him back to the living room when she was finished prepping her tray. He watched her eat a pre-made onigiri and drink her tea. He barely touched the delicious tea that she liked so much to share with him, as if she knew he liked it even though he had never hinted either way.

"It's strange," she finally said when she was finished, a sigh of satisfaction on her lips. "I'm not used to seeing you uninjured on my couch," she observed with a bit of wicked humor on the corners of her mouth. Was she always like this, teasing him so easily? Maybe she had taken on some of Naruto's playful mannerisms, though it could just be that when they were younger she had liked him too much to show him this aspect of herself. He didn't immediately reply, just watched her until she tilted her head at him questioningly instead of looking away with a blush the way she would in her girlhood. "Is something wrong, Sasuke?"

He didn't answer at first and her gaze traveled to his hands, watching his long, tapered fingers clutch harshly around her cup. Her expression was of surprise as if she was struck by a thought she had not considered until then before it became serious. Despite what others may think, Sakura knew him better than perhaps people gave her credit for. She had chased after him, yes, but she had also been his teammate and a tentative friend. In this, even if he would never admit it, Sasuke also knew Sakura better than perhaps anyone would have suspected. "Your hands have grown," she observed a little sadly. She never mentions it, but it saddened her that she didn't grow up with him or Naruto.

He was surprised by her words and unsettled by the look she refused to direct at him. The sunlight was hot on his face while he watched it turn her hair orange and gold and red. "I'm leaving for Rain country tonight," Sasuke said at last, wanting to break the uncomfortable silence. "Come with me." He wasn't sure what prompted him to slide his eyes from her shocked face but he did, telling himself that the setting sun was too bright as it came through the window behind her. He preoccupied himself with carefully drinking from the still full cup in his hands to avoid looking back at her.

In the silence, he waited to hear her answer.

Here they were again.

The water fell between them as he stood on one side and Naruto the other. ANBU had long stopped following them, in part because Naruto was ANBU and had proven to be reliable enough to not need backup. In part because of the debt the Elders held to Uchiha Sasuke's name, a debt that could not be hidden away and made into nothing not only because of how public it had been, but also because of Naruto's big mouth and the other gossipy people Sakura pointed Naruto towards. It was also because Naruto was not just ANBU but a ninja who held favor with most of the people he met and the blond had also saved many lives as well. Things were different now, and in Konoha, Naruto was a hero.

Yet, here they were again, as if nothing had really changed except the bodies they now resided in.

"If you hurt her, I'll kill you," Sasuke told Naruto, meaning every word. His hand casually rested on his sword and his back was presented as if it were a weakness.

"No, Sasuke," Sakura had answered him earlier with a shake of her head. "Thank you, but no. Here is your home, but out there is not my home."

Silence and then a barking laugh broke through that dejected memory. The blond's response grated on his nerves, though he didn't show it. "You've already tried that before," Naruto challenged Sasuke's back. Sasuke did not see the other look down, eyes following the flow of the water between them. "And it's you," Naruto added. "You're the one who makes her cry more than anyone."

Sasuke frowned at those words, though Naruto would never see the troubled expression on his face this moment. Why was it that he felt this similar ache when he had seen Sakura smiling back at Naruto so? It had been a private smile that he had caught couples share when he observed them for missions. He had never understood or been bothered by it until he saw Naruto and Sakura doing the same thing to each other.

"You don't have a promise to keep to her anymore," Sasuke said softly. "So why are you still chasing after me?"

Naruto continued to grin at Sasuke's back but it gentled a bit at the question, though his hands stayed on his hips. "Because I consider you my brother. I made a promise to Sakura-chan, but it wasn't the only reason I wanted you back. You were the first person who acknowledged me. You considered me a rival and treated me like a teammate, a friend. Even though we rarely agreed on anything, you became important to me." Naruto was always so honest, Sasuke couldn't fathom how anyone could reveal their feelings so blatantly and not be afraid.

"I am not your brother," Sasuke finally said. "I don't want you to keep chasing after me."

"Sasuke," Naruto's voice was suddenly serious. "You are Sakura's and my own precious teammate. We would chase after you to the ends of the Earth. And you do need us," Naruto declared the last part more cheerily than the tone he used for earlier. "Maybe, even now, you aren't ready to admit it, but one day you'll see. And we'll be waiting for you then too, so take all the time you need." Sasuke looked to the blond over his shoulder to see the other smiling at him still, arms crossed over his chest now. "Don't go too far though," Naruto repeated those soon becoming hateful words. "If you stay away too long," Naruto warned while wagging a finger at the irked expression that could not be hidden on Sasuke's face, "I will have to break your legs again and drag you back. This time, maybe the arms too. Sakura-chan would just love that."

Sasuke was smart enough not to shudder at the thought of Sakura healing him through the described ordeal. So he just stared at Naruto with all the rage and hatred of his years, pouring it out of his blackened gaze in defiance. "Huh," he sneered, though what he really wanted to say was "You wouldn't dare!" But he didn't want to encourage the blond.

Naruto just kept on grinning, and this time, he watched the Uchiha walk away, back disappearing into the forest beyond. Here they had been before, but some things were different now and even though it was not perfect, it didn't need to be. Overhead the sunlight flooded the sky, and this time Naruto was not so broken that he could not appreciate the view.

The stairway was narrow and he raised his head on the last flight to meet her tired gaze. Sakura's eyes scanned his face and his body, looking for injuries and finding none. He saw her visibly relax. "Hey," she said. The light from the window in the stairwell sharpened the angles of her face and she looked beautiful to him. She had always looked beautiful to him.

"Hey," he answered back.

Naruto took the last few steps and met Sakura on her landing, walking into her arms while bending and curving his body around her smaller one. She had seemed placated as her fingers fisted into the fabric of his jacket and she pulled him to her in those last few moments they were apart. When Sasuke was around, they tended to minimize the physical contact they shared, but it was not always easy to support each other from afar. "He left again?" she asked, her voice small and a little sad but not as sad as it used to be when this type of thing happened.

"Next time, I think, he'll come back again on his own," Naruto told her, his chest rumbling against her with the vibration of those words as he closed his eyes to savor the feel of her. Sakura sighed but the remaining tenseness gave way to contentment. She rested her forehead against his shoulder, warmed by his arms and the words he always knew to say to appease her of her worries. The blanket she had wrapped around herself slipped from one shoulder and she burrowed into him more, trying to soak up what she had been missing every time Sasuke came back, wounded and sad and always so prickly, their constantly uncertain and lost childhood friend.

"Welcome back, Naruto," she greeted him instead, pulling back a bit as she freed one hand and rested it against his warm cheek. Her thumb caressed the lines of his whiskered face and the gold stubble growing from his travels. After all, chasing after Sasuke had always been an ordeal in itself. She studied him with a contented smile on her lips, gladly receiving him back from missions and Sasuke. "Welcome back," she whispered again, relieved, happy tears seeping into her voice and not her eyes as his own eyes grew all the warmer as he watched her. He wasn't hurt this time and Sasuke had come back all on his own without threats or violence. Things were getting better, like Naruto promised and like she had believed. She watched him a moment longer before tilting her chin and kissing his eager, smiling mouth.

"Yeah," he murmured back against her lips, glad of this kiss. Time and experience had only added to the warmth and the sweetness of her kisses. Their dark silhouette were lined by the morning sun as he leaned in even closer, ever content to be exactly where he was that he still wondered at times if he were dreaming her and this village that he loved (all that now loved him back). He knew now that she would never leave him - a fear that he had never had the courage to tell her himself. He knew now though, at least for a little while, that it would not happen - not for Sasuke who did not know where he belonged and not for the asinine things that sometimes came out of his mouth at the worst of times. She had always been strong enough to handle his and Sasuke's foolishness, even when she didn't know it herself. "It's good to be home again," he answered with another easy grin against her smiling lips, lips that he had missed since his idiot teammate came back without prompting this time. She only pulled back to laugh at him when he picked her up and carried her back into her apartment, though he wouldn't let her stay unkissed for long. Her green eyes sparkled with more mischief than she'd ever dared to show anyone else but him as he kicked shut her apartment door, cutting off whatever else might be coming out of her mouth.

There was not a trace of sadness or longing in her eyes. She had long ago made peace with herself and untangled the feelings that Naruto still struggled with when it came to Sasuke and his relationship with them. She also trusted Naruto's words, believed in him and herself. More importantly, she believed in Sasuke, that he was not completely lost to them and that he would come back, one day, and stay.

Because this was his home, and out there was not.

It was not their perfect ending yet, but they still had time to make it so, Naruto made her believe this and taught her the ways to make it so. Someday, Sasuke would understand. When that time came, the three of them could go to the Shuumatsu no Tani and drink themselves stupid, remembering that waterfall the way it should be remembered (with skinny dips and pranks and laughter). When that time came, their trips to Ichiruka's with Kakashi-sensei would no longer just be memories or just be them trying to capture the past that was never coming back anyway. In fact, when that time came they would make new memories that were not so filled with sadness or yearning or loss. And like Sakura's kisses, they would only turn sweeter with time.

Sasuke was still not ready, they both knew that when he made his offer to Sakura and turned his back on Naruto. But they believed that one day, someday, he would find his way back to them on his own. No matter how long it took or how many times they had to drag him back, beaten and bloody, reluctant and angry, they would show him the way he had lost and forgotten, again and again until he relearned and remembered. They were strong enough, Naruto promised Sakura. They were strong enough now, finally and at last, to prove just how different they were from the roles that people expected them to play. Like the changing seasons, Naruto believed that someday they would be able to reunite...

And unlike their teachers before them, their story would not be a tragedy.


Because NaruSaku is freaking HOT, and Sasuke, unfortunately, is not someone you just ditch on the side of NaruSaku Love. He's integral. Give the stubborn pretty-boy some love... well, okay, maybe not love... but Naruto and Sakura knows how to punish him...