A note to anyone who's got this story on their alerts and happened to meander by: I'm no longer making this a collection. It seems I'm more likely to simply publish new stories on their own, instead of adding them here.
"Ne! Ne, Sasuke! Wanna come eat ramen with me?"
Sasuke turns his head away in rejection. Kakashi-sensei and Sakura have already left for home after the mission.
"Ne?" Naruto's cheerful attitude falters, but he doesn't stop. "I'll treat 'ttebayo. Come on!"
"I don't like ramen, usuratonkachi."
"Whaaaaat!" He can't believe it. "Who doesn't like ramen?"
"Me, idiot. Stop pestering me. I'm going home."
Naruto wrinkles his nose at Sasuke's retreating back. Sasuke fights the urge to turn around and punch that pouty face. Maybe because he's annoyed. Maybe because he'd rather see Naruto beaten up than Naruto pouting.
The sky is starry by the time Naruto cheerfully walks out of Ichiraku's. He steps into the warm night and looks up at the blackness. The stars calm him. They never turn from him.
"Hey, don't stand in the middle of the road, dummy!"
Naruto staggers as a small boy shoves past him roughly. His friends laugh. Naruto watches them walk away. One turns around to stick out his tongue. Naruto winces as though cut by a blade. Happiness gone, he turns and heads for home.
But the road is dark and lonely, the crickets' drone the only requiem to the joy he'd felt so recently. Street lights illuminate patches of the path in a warm orange glow. One flickers off just as he passes under it. Startled, Naruto stops, then peers into the darkness. No one peers back.
There is no one at home for him. Home is an empty room, a ghost town. It is not a home.
Naruto likes to be outside, so he retraces his steps and detours to the edge of the forest, in a spot where Team Seven likes to train. He comes here often. He can concentrate here; he can forget his problems and lose himself in a hard workout, in sweat and adrenaline and the ache of his muscles.
He doesn't notice the dark figure sitting at the base of a tree until he gets close. A passing firefly illuminates pale skin.
"Sasuke? What are you doing here?"
His teammate looks up at the sound of his voice, but doesn't deign to reply.
"You said you were going home. You haven't gone home yet, have you?" Naruto can see the dirt on Sasuke's clothes still.
"Hn" is all Sasuke says.
Naruto smiles at a thought. "Are you getting away from it all here? That's what I do. Home's lonely, so I feel better here." He looks up at the trees, feeling peaceful.
Sasuke mutters something Naruto doesn't catch.
"Did you say something, Sasuke?"
"Dobe." Sasuke heaves a quiet sigh and stands up. He stuffs his hands in his pockets, leans against the tree, and observes Naruto through stoic eyes.
Naruto just smiles. "Don't be shy, Sasuke."
Naruto nods. "It is. I have no one to go home to. You know, I always wanted to say 'tadaima' to someone when I got home."
Tadaima. Sasuke thinks of his mother.
"There's no one at home."
"Yeah, that's what I said." Naruto can't see why Sasuke would suddenly be so interested in his situation.
"No, I mean…" Sasuke shakes his head, partly to himself. How is it that the optimistic idiot is able to make him like this?
Whether he notices it or whether it's subconscious, Naruto can hear the ache Sasuke feels when he speaks. "Ah… You… Are you also alone?"
Sasuke looks away. "Hn."
"Oh." Naruto stares at the dark fabric of Sasuke's shirt. He can't see the boundaries between the shirt and the darkness around him. Sasuke is fading into the silence. "You're like me."
Sasuke closes his eyes in disinterest. "I'm nothing like you, dead-last." Of course we're different, Sasuke thinks. You have Iruka. And you never lost anyone. Not that you can remember.
"You're like me."
Sasuke opens his eyes. Naruto is standing closer now, closer than arm's length. Before he knows it, Naruto raises a hand and puts it on Sasuke's chest, over his heart.
"Here. You can feel it." Naruto looks resolutely into Sasuke's eyes. Sasuke recognizes that look. It's the feeling in his heart. "It's here, where it hurts."
Sasuke can't stand the ache in those eyes. He lowers his head, gritting his teeth as his heart pangs. He winces, trying to shut it out. He is not weak. He cannot show weakness in front of Naruto. Maybe because he is stronger than his rival. Maybe because he cannot let his friend know he falters.
"Sasuke. Look at me."
Brow still furrowed in discomfort, he squints into those eyes. The loneliness is gone. Naruto's soul is at peace. He allows a small smile.
"When I'm with Sasuke," he says, "I talk a lot. I annoy you, and I complain. We fight. But I'm never lonely."
The ache dissipates like snow in the wind.
"I'll fight with you always, because nothing hurts like being alone. Hurt my body, Sasuke, hurt my feelings if you want. But don't leave me."
Sasuke can't get enough of that smile. He raises a hand to Naruto's chest too, and covers his heart.
"Don't be lonely," Naruto whispers.
It's Sasuke, so Naruto can never be sure, but he does half-anticipate Sasuke suddenly grabbing his shoulders and clutching him against his body. Sasuke can feel Naruto's heartbeat against his chest.
This warmth, this life. This body. This boy.
Naruto heaves a box through the front door. He sets it down, then shuts the door behind him.
"Tadaima," he calls. He can't help grinning.
Footsteps come down the hall and Sasuke appears, smiling amicably. "Okaeri, dobe."
"I've brought what I need for now. Ne, you'll help me move the rest of my stuff later, right? I would hate to do it alone, dattebayo."
"Yeah. We'll do it together."
This is home.
I felt like writing in third person present tense for this story. I wanted to have a different feel, a less narrative and more introspective tone. Maybe changing the tense was just to fool myself into making it different. Either way, I like how it came out.
As a writer I sometimes struggle to keep things short and simple. I see my stories in comic or film format; that is, I imagine stories very visually. When you present a story visually it's much easier to time it than in words. My cinematic writing style makes it hard for me to pass over things I want to elaborate on. Even re-reading this story, I want to add more description, but I know that it's better off as it is.