Series: Naruto (written June 2006). Part two of the Destinations Series.
Summary: [How many miles to Babylon?] Of destinations, blind fish, and converging vectors.
Disclaimer: Naruto characters and the universe they live in belong to Kishimoto Masashi.
"Your sorry eyes: they cut through bones
They make it hard to leave you alone
Leave you here wearing your wounds
Waving your guns at somebody new."
Beck, "Lost Cause"
Uchiha Sasuke, twenty-one-year-old elite ANBU captain and only heir of the once-illustrious Uchiha Clan of Konohagakure, was not having a particularly good day.
Twenty-five mission reports and not one of them properly filled out, he thought disgustedly while making his way back to his ancestral home, which for the past three years he had shared with his wife and former teammate Haruno Sakura. I should have every single one of those new recruits demoted and relegated to secretarial duties.
Abuse of the weak and stupid was the line of thoughts that tended to lighten his mood, so he concentrated on keeping it at the forefront of his mind as the gaunt outline of his house loomed before him in the wavering dusk. It worked out well. Sasuke was good at concentration.
So good, in fact, that he was still busily contemplating the imminent demise of his incompetent subordinates (death by evisceration seemed more charming the more he dwelled upon it) when he pushed open his front door and found his other former comrade Uzumaki Naruto—otherwise known as the proverbial wrench in Sasuke's already screwed-up life plans—glaring at him from his position, sitting against the shoe rack.
Sasuke blinked. And scowled. Simultaneously.
"Whoa, Sasuke-bastard," Naruto quipped dryly, jumping to his feet. "Was that a muscle-spasm I saw just now?"
"What the hell are you doing here?" Sasuke demanded, gritting his teeth. "Or do you just happen to be in the habit of breaking into other people's houses?"
"I think the relevant question here," Naruto returned, "is where the hell have you been all day? I've been sitting here like an idiot since before noon!"
"Headquarters," he snapped impatiently, brushing past Naruto to enter the front parlor. "In case you haven't noticed, idiot, some people actually have to work on a daily basis."
Naruto appeared flabbergasted for a moment. Unfortunately, he recovered fairly quickly, and then actually had the audacity to grab Sasuke's arm and jerk him around to face him. Sasuke chivalrously reined in the completely natural instinct to remove the offending limb with his katana.
"Sasuke," Naruto said slowly. "Your wife left you yesterday."
Sasuke scowled at him, mentally counted to ten, and then scowled some more. "I know that."
If it were at all possible, Naruto's bottom jaw fell a little lower. It gave him a cross-eyed appearance. "You know—oh fuck, of course you know! I meant, hell, you asshole, isn't there something else you're supposed to be doing instead of going to your goddamn headquarters?"
"Like—I don't know—crying, or getting drunk? Or, better yet, admitting that you were wrong and begging her to come back on your hands and knees?"
For some absurd reason, Sasuke found that he couldn't meet Naruto's eyes. Instead, he forced a derisive snort and, gaze carefully averted, said, "My marriage is none of your concern and that includes what I should or should not be doing with my time."
"In any case," he continued breezily, "it's unreasonable to expect me to spontaneously put my work on hold merely for the sake of sorting out domestic issues. If Sakura had announced her intention to depart a few days ahead, then I might have been able to make some accommodations."
"Sasuke," Naruto said evenly. "I'm going to punch you now."
He did. And then Sasuke hit back twice as hard, and they ended up rolling around on the marble floor of his tastefully-decorated living room, knocking over chairs and delicate lamps as they went at each other fists, knees, and elbows, shouting heated insults back and forth and acting for all the world as though they had forgotten every bit of ninja training they had. Over the years, they had both grown bigger and stronger, but everything under the surface apparently remained unchanged—even if neither would ever own up to it.
In the aftermath of their scuffle, Naruto sat panting with his back to the coffee table, one hand wiping furiously at a cut on his forehead that was bleeding rather profusely. Sasuke, who was almost fairly positive that he had come out on top, winced as pain shot sharply up his ribs when he tried to get to his feet. Naruto smirked at him through puffy lips.
"Alright," said Naruto. "I think this calls for some liquor."
Sasuke, having finally managed to pull his battered body onto the sofa, sagged heavily against a cushion and said, "If you buy it, you're drinking it alone. I have a mission tomorrow."
Naruto stuck his tongue out at him before pushing himself up gingerly and limping away, slamming the door on his way out. He came back after a remarkably short interval with the fruits of his labor—six bottles of sake and a bag of tantalizing smoked squid—which he spread out rather messily across the polished glass surface of Sasuke's art deco coffee table.
Sasuke wasn't sure what happened next. He wasn't sure of a lot, really, only that he woke up the next day with a screaming hangover, having slept through his mission entirely. His model home was now a trussed-up, fish-rank mess, and he vaguely harbored the terrible fear that some crying on his part had actually taken place the previous night.
But all that probably wasn't worth fretting over. After all, his wife had left him, and it wasn't as if the unconscious Naruto snoring out in the hallway would remember any of it later.
After that, things did not change for the better or worse for the most part, and Sasuke convinced himself that he was much too busy to be concerned with the fact that news of his and Sakura's separation was spreading through the village like wildfire in the dry season.
He had met with Sakura face to face only once since the night she'd left, and that had been a tense and mostly painful affair where ominous papers had been signed and they'd both had to try hard not to meet each other's eyes. Sakura's parents had also been present, her mother sobbing quietly in the background while her father had paced the room, eyes dark and somber, wrinkles making a mess of his worry-lined face. He'd looked as if he'd been torn between concern and the urge to tear Sasuke from limb to limb, and Sasuke couldn't really find it in himself to blame him; in his place, he would want that too.
His wife, in contrast, had looked pale but calm, and these days when they passed each other in the street, she could almost muster a polite smile. Sasuke simply lowered his head and quickly walked past her in silence, irked by his own cowardice but knowing too well there was just no help for it. The wounds were still too raw.
Sakura had gone back to her old job working at the hospital, and had also moved in with Ino, combining their homemaking skills to make a comfortable living. The rumor that went around was that they were "very happy together", however one might choose to interpret that, and Sasuke privately hoped it was true. Sakura deserved that much. The villagers were, regrettably, not quite so lenient, and even he felt lashed by the heat of their scorn (or mirth, depending on the individual) from time to time. Laughing stock wasn't quite the term he'd heard, but it was close.
It wasn't his problem. He buried himself in his work, and ignored them all.
It was a little harder to ignore Hyuuga Neji when he came up to Sasuke after a meeting one day and solemnly handed him a scented wedding invitation. It took, in fact, a tremendous amount of his thinning self-control to resist the impulse to physically wipe the smugly arrogant (or so Sasuke decided) expression off the Hyuuga's face. A blond head lightly covered with soap bubbles floated momentarily through his mind.
He felt much better when, two days later, Neji discovered that his team had been assigned to a Rain Country mission that would promptly begin the very night of his wedding. He could get out of it, for sure, but not before a spot of groveling had been emplaced, and for a week, the tension in the ANBU headquarters could be cut with a blunt kunai.
Missions kept piling up around him, falling silently and steadily into place like blocks of stones on a cairn, and he mechanically dispatched them along with the paperwork they entailed—which was really the aggravating part—and knew that he was fine. He was fine even when the shinobi on his own squad started walking on eggshells and acting more skittish around him (than usual), and he was fine when the Hokage snidely asked him for his dieting strategy when he came in to hand her a report one afternoon.
He was convinced he'd never been more fine the day he cracked his eyes open to find that he had once again fallen asleep sprawling awkwardly across the living room sofa, too exhausted to bother making the trek up the stairs to his now too-large, too-empty bed. And that Naruto was sitting cross-legged on one of those spindly, impractical chairs that had come with the derivative coffee table as a package deal. As Sasuke pulled himself onto his elbows with a groan, rubbing at his face to brush away the crust of sleep-bitterness, Naruto's gaze shifted onto him, and in the dripping half-light of the fading sun, his blue eyes momentarily flashed quicksilver.
"Here," he said quietly, hand outstretched to offer Sasuke something. It took a dazed moment for him to realize that it was a tall glass of water, and when he did, he suddenly became painfully aware of his parched throat and the literal desert in his mouth, and took the cool glass gratefully.
The minutes went by slowly, the old clock in the parlor taking its time, the hands moving lazily from a tick to a tock. Naruto continued to watch him, and after a moment, Sasuke's eyebrows were finally awake enough for him to attempt a questioning frown.
"So, you know what the deal is?" Naruto asked.
"The Ninja Academy," Naruto went on conversationally, "is letting out a fresh batch of Genin this June. And, get this: Tsunade—the old hag—she wants me to be one of the Jounin instructors when they start training in cells in September."
"Yes, the idea of you in a position of responsibility is indeed problematic," Sasuke said wryly, massaging his thrumming temples. "But what does that have anything to do with me?"
Naruto either didn't hear or pretended not to have heard him. Probably the latter. "So you know what we are going to do?"
"We, Sasuke, are going to take a road-trip. Get away from this village for a few months, if you catch my drift. It's my last chance at freedom before the Hokage saddles me with a bunch of whiny brats."
"And again, I have to ask," Sasuke said waspishly, "what does this have anything to do with me?"
"Everything," Naruto replied, mysteriously pithy. Quirking a pale brow in challenge, he asked, "Are you saying no?"
Sasuke opened his mouth to do just that, and closed it suddenly when he realized that he didn't particularly want to. Just the other day, the Hokage had practically promised him a full-paid leave just to get him out of the office. He cracked his neck, hearing the tendons scream like the springs on an old screen door. When he looked up, Naruto was still watching him with those familiar, slightly intoxicating eyes.
"Are we doing this or not?"
So they were.
June came, sparkling and bright, and the sky above Konoha grew blue and tall with sheerness. Trilling cicadas crooned from the cool shadows of tree roots; above ground the early summer heat swept across bared skin like a dry, hot whisper, and Sasuke knew it was time to leave.
Naruto appeared at his doorstep on an otherwise unremarkable day, traveling duffel bag slung over one shoulder, and when Sasuke saw him standing in the doorway like that, framed by the dazzling morning light (though not as bright as his smile), the silhouette of his messy hair bleeding soft gold at the edges, he thought for a moment that he was seeing something like the perfect summer image.
Later, when they sat opposite each other in a stuffy train compartment watching scenes of pastoral beauty calmly drifting past the meshed window, Naruto turned to him suddenly and raised his voice over the noisy roar of the engine to ask, "Is it true what Kiba told me—that you put Neji on a mission on his wedding night?"
Sasuke, whose first instinct was to blurt out, "I didn't do it for you!" defensively, quietly took a sip of coffee from his thermos—it was too strong, bitter and scalding, and he nearly burned his tongue—before replying with a noncommittal, "I have no idea what you're talking about."
Naruto rolled his eyes, then proceeded to grab the thermos from him and drank, wincing when the hot liquid touched his lips. "You know, I've never really understood why you always used to hate him."
"Used to?" Sasuke echoed, raising an eyebrow.
"It doesn't make any sense," Naruto muttered. "You two have so much in common: being geniuses, treating other people like shit--"
"I never treated you like shit," Sasuke said, and, seeing Naruto make to raise his eyebrow, added testily, "At least, not intentionally. Not after--"
Naruto shrugged. "Yeah, yeah, I know. Not intentionally." Then, softly, "That's what makes all the difference, you know."
Sasuke thought Naruto should know perfectly well that wasn't what they had been talking about at all. There was, however, absolutely no trace of sarcasm in his words, and that put Sasuke a little on edge.
A feeling, so insistent it might as well be a certainty, told him that this trip they were taking might not have anything to do with Naruto's wanderlust or Sasuke's marital woes after all. Rather, it was all about the two of them, and he wasn't sure he was quite ready to cross that particular bridge. All the answers had stopped coming to him the day he'd left Konoha all those years ago.
They rock-climbed in Hidden Stone, went boating in Hidden Grass, got drunk on lonely, starless nights, and once, on a particularly lazy Sunday afternoon, Sasuke did something he had never done in his life and squandered away the long sunlight hours dozing on a riverbank, waking at periodic intervals to watch Naruto skip flat stones on the iridescent water. Conversations were short and inconsequential—he was a man of few words and Naruto seldom found the right ones—and Sasuke decided that this suited him just fine.
The entire month of July was spent in Waterfall Country, where they trained for all thirty one sunburnt days among the cool green forests, drinking in the sense of vertigo as their bodies fell from dizzying heights, bathed in the white foam-spray of the majestic cascades. On the twenty-second morning, realization finally hit Sasuke with the force of a metaphorical two-by-four. The reason the both of them were so keen on sparring in this land of jutting rocks and falling water was that neither of them were prepared to return, to remember another place with similar jutting rocks and falling water. It was a place they could never go back to, for as long as they both should live.
But the days went by steadily in a series of twinkling periwinkle skies, and they moved on too. The Earth was spinning with the two of them perched on top, hurtling through space with the wind whooshing past, and though Sasuke wasn't quite sure where they were going, he could feel his wounds healing all the same, one by one, day by day.
Years from now, all his memories of that distant summer could be boiled down to this single moment:
A tea plantation, 10:38 a.m., August 17th. Two hours from the Village of Hidden Rain.
They'd emerged on top of a tall hill after hours of fighting their way through overgrown dirt tracks half-buried in dense vegetation ("I know this great shortcut," indeed; well, he should have known). Irritation was running high, the kind that came with grit between your fingers and hot salty sweat beading its way down your skin, tearing through the light film of red road-dust.
A gust of cool breeze wafted past, dragging its soothing fingers across Sasuke's perspiring forehead, carrying with it the faint bittersweet scent of young tea leaves. Sasuke thought then that there might be some truth in that saying about the therapeutic power of tea leaves in ridding the body of poison after all, because at that moment, he felt completely, inexplicably at peace, his troubles tossed to the open sky like a flock of birds. This, he decided, must be how the devout Buddhist felt when kneeling at the temple of the Lord of Creation.
"Sasuke, look!" he heard Naruto say excitedly, and raised his eyes to follow his friend's pointing finger. As his gaze traced a broad panorama across the valley below (where the country appeared as empty ground) and up the slope of the hill on the far side, a patch of cloud, blown by the rising wind, moved swiftly over the sun. The hill seemed transformed, its color bleeding slowly from tea-green to a deep purple as the cloud-shadow drifted across the land. Sasuke felt his breath catch inside his ribcage, as though he and Naruto were standing on the threshold of something powerful and inexorable that would soon take them into its grip.
He turned the feeling over in his head, trying to put a name to it, but the idea kept slipping away like a pack of cards thrown into the air. His mind held nothing but the windblown image of that sweeping vista: intricate sky, even rows of aromatic leaves dancing in the sun, and splashes of clouds rolling up from the distant horizon, filamented edges like platinum silk. And Naruto: eyes shining, wild hair a-tangling in the untamed wind.
All good things had to come to an end. They reached the last week of August and understood that soon, it would be time to begin their journey back to Konoha. But even though neither would admit it out loud, both knew they were loath to put an end to their freedom (and that was what came of months spent in the company of a single person: eventually, everything ceased to be exclusive and gained 'their' as the universal prefix).
They lingered excessively in a post town on the edge of Rain Country, trying their best to stretch out those last few days as much as possible. As the date printed on his return ticket loomed ever closer, Sasuke began to perceive a strange whirring in his stomach, as though he had inadvertently swallowed a storm. But before he could place his finger on it, the night before they were due to board their train had arrived, and Naruto had dragged him to a small, smoky pub in the local entertainment district, claiming the need to end their trip with a bang.
Famous last words.
Offers of company from several of the town's questionable characters were steadfastly declined. Instead, empty sake bottles steadily lined the bar counter before them as the night sky filled with sleepy ice-chip stars. Sasuke, in his strange mood, let Naruto do the talking for the both of them, which he was only too eager to comply. The result was that Sasuke, who usually had better tolerance for alcohol, ended up drinking twice as much as he should, and by the time the pub had emptied, they were both mightily, gloriously sloshed. It was nothing short of a miracle that they managed to stagger back to their hotel—Naruto's drunken form draped heavily half-across Sasuke's shoulders, which were none too steady themselves.
It happened by accident, if only because by accident was the only way it could happen at all.
Sasuke wasn't certain which of them had initiated it, whose drunken lips had crashed into whose with a painful clash of teeth, but that didn't really matter. The important thing was that of it had most certainly happened, and that it was most certainly all Naruto's fault. How else would he explain the way his brain just fizzled and gave up when a sly hand casually reached up, curved around his neck and, using his collar for leverage, pulled his head down to deepen the kiss right there in the hotel corridor. The sensation was jolting but not unpleasant, a shock like diving into a lake on a hot summer day, a cold sunlight.
Then, as suddenly as it had begun, the kiss ended. Naruto let go of his shirt and calmly pushed him away. As he took a small step backward, reality crashed into Sasuke's head like a vicious tidal wave. He wanted to ask, "Is this right?" and "What are you thinking?" and "What do you want from me?" but all the questions died on his lips when he saw Naruto's lean back against the wall loosely.
His inebriated eyes closed a little, their stormy depths sending Sasuke a little out of focus, off-balance.
And while a small part of him stood aside and wondered just how much sake he had had that evening, most of him just shoved Naruto up against the door of their hotel room and kissed him again. He was amazed by the simplicity of it all, the cool wetness of this mouth under his, this tongue against his teeth when he eased Naruto's lips open like a red coral—really, had it ever been complicated at all? Certainly not the way Naruto moaned interestingly before rubbing up against him, hands suddenly tangling into his hair. They were pressed up against each other, matching inch for inch, and every movement became strangely highlighted, the sharp knock against collarbone, the smooth slide of chest along chest, and that was Naruto's knee between his legs--
He fumbled clumsily with the key, then the doorknob—all the while with Naruto's liquor-hot mouth buried in his neck and cool searching hands pushing up his shirt—and finally managed to edge open the door. Immediately, they tumbled into the dark room, limbs and mouths tangling messily, until the back of Sasuke's knees collided painfully against the side of a bed and they fell onto it in a heap.
A shower of popped buttons clattered onto the linoleum floor, and half a second later, their shirts followed. Sasuke had never been submissive at anything in his life and he wasn't about to start, so it was Naruto's nails that dug into his naked shoulders as his mouth and fingers went to work with a crawling desperation that eclipsed his inexperience. His hands were struggling with stubborn zippers against Naruto's bucking hips when, all of a sudden, his body froze entirely and reeled away hastily as if he had been electrocuted.
For a moment, he balanced precariously on the edge of the bed, his feet growing numb from the awkward position and the weight of his body. His awareness was melting as the howling in his chest got louder, and he thought to himself, "Where are we going?" and "What am I doing here?"
The whirring in his mind was jarred by a hissing sound, soft like a sigh. He felt Naruto shift under him as he pushed himself up slowly, tucking his elbows beneath his body. The room was too dark for Sasuke to make out his face clearly, but he imagined anyway the flushed cheeks, the now-familiar mouth, the glittering eyes full of shards bright and hard as diamonds.
"Are we doing this or not?" Naruto asked, sounding astoundingly young as he echoed a self of merely months ago.
And just like the last time, Sasuke had only one answer to give.
When he opened his eyes, he was lost in the terra incognita of sheets, a veritable snowscape of linen. Except that didn't make sense—these hotel beds were never large enough to get lost in—and in a moment, it became clear to Sasuke that he was nursing an atrocious hangover.
He felt something warm and heavy move against his chest, and looked down as slowly as his aching head would allow to see an arm. An arm that was muscled and tanned and very much attached to a sleeping—correction: formerly sleeping Naruto, who looked a debauched, absolutely ravishable mess.
But even before Naruto could finish cracking open his sleepy good-morning smile, Sasuke had realized with a detached, blinding horror that words of the most damning sort were tumbling out of his mouth: "My clan—I have to remarry—have children—revive my clan--"
For about five minutes, everything floated, suspended in mid-air as the meaning of this declaration soaked in. Naruto's mouth hung half-open, his eyes wide and disbelieving. Then he closed them with an angry snap, and Sasuke could swear he heard something fall and break noisily, a discordant shattering in the background, a heart or a castle in the sky. In the next moment, Naruto had snatched a blanket around his waist and leapt from the bed. Sasuke heard the bathroom door slam with a deafening crash, and then silence.
Some parts of him truly wanted to chase after Naruto, to break down the door and take it all back and make things right again, but he didn't know what was right, and anyway, the damage was done. So he did what he was best at—the only thing left to do—and buried his face in his hands.
Not a word was exchanged for the entirety of the train ride back to Konoha.
What Sasuke remembered most vividly, through years of blood and tears, between realized vengeance, reclaimed friends, and estranged spouses, holding on stubbornly with a desperate, unspoken longing, was a memory of him and Naruto when they had both been sixteen and lost, stuck on the intractable barrier of 'was' and 'could have been'.
In his mind, they were always lying side by side in the dust, the edges of broken pebbles cutting sharply into their skin and clothes, the red of their blood staining the fine white sand. There'd been fighting, he remembered, but that had ended too.
Instead, there had only been the harsh, barking sound of liquid-filled breaths as they'd raced each other to see who'd draw in the next painful gulp of air (because everything between them was a competition, and dying was no exception). And Naruto, who had had the blade of Sasuke's Kusanagi sticking out of his upper back, a third of the sword's length buried in his unyielding flesh at that intricate little spot just above the heart (Sasuke had wondered then how many times he would miss, and how many more he would be able to blame on just a whim), had turned his head a quarter of an inch towards Sasuke and pulled his cracked lips back from sharp, sharp teeth in a victorious grin.
Said, "I'm taking you back to Konoha if it kills me."
And Sasuke, who hadn't known whether to love him or hate him then, had settled for a little of both. Or a lot. And that'd felt right, so very right somehow, like the way looking at Naruto had caused the lights behind his eyelids to spark crimson and made him miss the sun.
Sasuke had decided then and there, spinning head be damned, that should he ever meet a girl who could make him feel like that, he was going to marry her.
But by and by, such a girl had never come along. Kingdoms had been lost, dragons slain, princesses rescued from crumbling towers, and for awhile they had been teetering on the edge of a fairytale, all the sweetmeat spreading itself thinner and thinner until the coffers were all empty. In the end, there was nothing left but Naruto, who had fallen out of reach, and Sasuke, who was once again lost in darkness.
"I'm tired of fighting...
I'm tired of fighting...
Fighting for a lost cause."
Days turned to weeks, weeks to months, and before long, dark winter clouds began to roll over the mournful sky, which had emptied of colors. By late November, the inhabitants of Konoha were regularly finding their hair and jackets decorated with icy droplets of rain.
On one of the first rare nippy, dry days of winter, Sasuke received a visitor. It was Sakura, looking distinctly self-conscious as she greeted him and tentatively stepped over the threshold of the entrance, her hands clutching protectively at the lapels of her coat.
They had run into each other and had the first tension-free conversation—albeit a short one—in the vegetable section of the supermarket just three days before, but nevertheless, Sasuke was surprised to see her. Then he vaguely recalled that when they had spoken, Sakura might have mentioned the possibility of a visit one of these days, to which he might have agreed, thinking that she would never actually act on it. So much for that.
He politely invited her into the living room, and when he returned with the tea things, Sakura had made herself comfortable on the sofa and removed her wool muffler, revealing cheeks slightly rosy from the brisk, blustery wind. Her light eyes darted nervously from corner to corner, silently taking stock of her surrounding as though she couldn't bring herself to believe that she was now a guest in a house which not so long ago had been home to her, whose every article of furniture still bore signs of her quiet, elegant taste.
"I know this is rather sudden, but I just thought I'd drop by today to see how you're doing," Sakura explained hastily, warming her chilled fingers by pressing them against the steaming tea cup. "I'm sorry if I came at an inconvenient time; we had a small emergency at the clinic today that dragged on longer than expected."
"It's no problem," Sasuke responded in a controlled voice. "And as you can see, I'm doing quite well." As he spoke, he ran his eyes over Sakura, observing her appearance. She seemed to him a different woman in every sense: new clothes, freshly-permed hair, and a cheerful lilt in her voice that he knew for a fact had never been there when they had been married. When she leaned towards him across the table, Sasuke could discern a faintly sweet scent, like plum blossoms water—her favorite perfume as a young girl.
Bitterly, he compared his ex-wife's vivacious appearance to the image of himself that he saw every morning in the bathroom mirror: that of a man not so much aging as caving in upon himself. They were both twenty-two, and old for their age, but faced with the changes in Sakura, Sasuke felt like he was a hundred years old.
Then he remembered Sakura's red and defeated face on that first pale, awful morning in the maternity ward, how she had been devastated, exhausted and miserable and completely washed-out, and suddenly felt very small.
He became aware of the awkward silence that had fallen between them, and fished around lamely for something with which to fill the gap. "How are things at the hospital?"
"Hectic, as usual," Sakura sighed. "I keep telling Tsunade-sama that we're terribly understaffed. There are more patients being checked in every day than our medics can handle."
"Naruto's students, for example," she continued, noticeably casual, "make an appearance every other day. Those kids are worse than you and him at that age, always picking up scrapes and bruises from who-knows-where."
It had to come up at some point, he supposed. "And how is Naruto?" he asked, secretly congratulating himself for pulling off such beguiling nonchalance.
Something flickered through Sakura's eyes, dark like an afterthought, and it made him slightly uneasy. It shifted away immediately, however, settling aside with the firm setting of her lips as the calm resolve of her stillness swam back into focus.
"Oh, don't even ask me about him. He's the worst of the lot," Sakura said heatedly. "But he makes an excellent teacher, strangely enough. I'd never have thought it, knowing him, but he's actually really good with the kids--"
"Good for him then," Sasuke deadpanned, willing her to drop the subject with his apparent disinterest. He knew what she wanted to say next—never mind how she had found out: this was Sakura and she had a way of knowing these things—but that didn't mean that he had to indulge her.
Sakura gazed at him earnestly for a moment, then sighed a little and looked away. Sasuke tried to do something with his hands that didn't involve them gripping the tea cup to the point of fracturing it. It didn't work.
"This may sound a bit odd," Sakura began, and something had changed somewhere in her tone because now there was a note of subdued wistfulness carefully laced into the words. Sasuke noticed that she still wasn't looking at him; her eyes had once more taken to wandering around the room in that oddly nostalgic fashion. "But even when we—even when I was still living in this house, I never really felt comfortable about it. I tried so hard to make myself at home but it just seemed like the house wouldn't have any of it. I don't think it ever accepted me."
Sasuke stared at her, at a loss for words. Sakura smiled wanly and continued, "I think when you hear this you'll laugh, but I used to dream about being your wife, about all the things I would get to do. I told myself that when you and I were married, I'd come here and live and turn this gloomy old house into something happy and beautiful, that I'd fix it up nicely just like I'd fix you. Don't you think that was very silly of me?"
He shook his head. Sakura's lips quivered a little before breaking into a true, peaceful smile that turned her face radiant, and even as he was pinned to the spot by it, she reached across the table for his hand, taking it into both of hers.
"Well, maybe not. But I've learned my lessons either way. I guess life really doesn't always go the fairytale way, and all that."
Sasuke suddenly became very aware of her hands still grasping his—how soft and warm they were. He didn't wrench away. Sakura smiled again, and squeezed his fingers briefly before letting go.
"Shizune told me something very interesting the other day," she went on conversationally. "Do you want to hear it?"
He didn't answer, choosing instead to sip wearily at his lukewarm tea, and Sakura took this silence as cue to continue.
"She went on a mission last month where she had to travel through all these underground caverns. Inside the caves, she said that there were a lot of running streams, and she saw fish living in them. And all of these fish, they were born blind!"
"Yes! Apparently, fish that live in darkness all their lives don't have functional eyes at all. They don't think they need sight, so they never develop the ability!"
Privately, Sasuke thought that Sakura sounded rather too exultant for someone talking about, of all things, blind fish. His expression must have shown this, because she colored brilliantly and argued, "Well, it's an intriguing medical fact—but that's not the point! What I'm trying to say is that, sometimes, people can be a little like these blind fish."
Sasuke was holding his breath. He did it unconsciously.
"They don't know that they need something, so they never even try for it."
Sakura's eyes were suddenly wide and terrifyingly bright, almost blinding, and Sasuke found he couldn't look at them. He dipped his head again and stared intently at his folded hands.
"I learned a lot about you, Sasuke, during the three years we lived together," Sakura said quietly. "And if there's one thing I know, it's that you're sad. Your sadness is always there, just hovering under the surface, it never leaves you. I loved you, so I tried to make it go away, but that didn't work."
"But I think that you're finally ready to be happy. You just don't know it yet, because you've never had it."
The handsome grandfather clock chimed loudly, seven long strikes to announce the hour, and Sakura startled and jumped to her feet, snatching her coat and scarf from the armrest.
"I didn't realize it was so late," she groaned. "I'd better be getting back. Ino really hates it when I'm late for dinner."
She said this like it was the best thing in the world, and Sasuke suddenly remembered all those dinners that had gone cold in their kitchen night after night because he hadn't been there. In their household of two, he had clearly not been the only one to live with sadness.
As they reached the door, Sakura turned to him one last time, and said, "Just think about the things I said. Sometimes life doesn't go the fairytale way, you have to work for it. You don't have time to wait around, so you have to know when to, you know. Seize the fish."
Then she patted his arm softly, and walked out into the windswept night. If she had turned around, she would have seen that, for a long time after, Sasuke simply stood rooted to the spot at the open doorway, watching her retreating figure until it disappeared completely among the darkened streets.
When he lay tossing and turning later that night, Sasuke had a minor epiphany. It occurred to him that his earlier observation had been completely off, because Sakura hadn't really changed at all. Rather, he had never really understood her. Here was a woman whom he had known most of his life, had married and made love to and slept beside and shared his life with for three turbulent years: he knew every curve and line of her body, but never once had he fathomed the weather of her heart.
He was lost in darkness. But that was alright, because burned into the fleshy linings of his heart was map whose roads were etched into the arteries and muscles, shining brightly and cutting a clear path through the thick, carnivorous shadows of his mind; its name was Naruto.
How many miles to Babylon? Threescore miles and ten.
Silently but determinedly, he climbed out of bed, lit a candle, and wandered out into the hallway as though in a trance. He descended the stairs step by step, following the flickering light, and came to stand before a pair of wooden doors that hadn't been opened for months, if the film of dust on their surfaces were any indication. His heart was beating very fast, thump-thump-thumping away against his ribcage as he reached for the doors and pushed them open with a rusty moan of iron bolts.
At 3:24 am, the night of November 29th, Uchiha Sasuke, elite ANBU captain newly turned twenty-two and only heir of the once-illustrious Uchiha Clan of Konohagakure, came to kneel before his dead parents' altar.
He picked up a cluster of incense, the painted sticks red and glaring against his palm in the candlelight, plunging like a sword into the flesh of the aromatic heads. Slowly, he removed the charred stumps of older sticks still sitting in the bowl and lit five new ones, closing his eyes as the bluish smoke began to curl about and fill the room with the scent of remembrance.
He bent his back and bowed low, forehead meeting the tatami mat softly.
"I have done everything in my powers to exact your vengeance," he said, facing the altar. "And that task has been accomplished. As to the matter of restoring the glories of the Uchiha Clan…"
He stopped, swallowed hard, and forced himself to continue, "…as to the matter of restoring the glories of the Uchiha Clan, I must beg of you forgiveness, for it is a task beyond my capability. All these years, I've been walking in darkness, using the burden you've placed upon my shoulders as a guiding beacon."
"But now, I've found a different beacon, and it is leading me down a path of my own, away from that which I have been stumbling along for years. I'm finally ready to allow myself to be happy. So, with your permission, I beg to be allowed to remove my burden and pursue my own wishes."
Upon finishing his speech, Sasuke took another deep bow. When he looked up, his five incense sticks were burning in a blazing circle, wisps of fragrant smoke dancing with the shadows cast upon the walls. Sasuke tried once more to listen for the secret voice that had guided his heart for the past decade, but all he could hear was the distant scratching of the wind on the roof. So perhaps it had been silenced at long last.
Seizing the fish turned out to be much more complicated than Sasuke had anticipated. The very day after making his decision, he lost no time in calling on Naruto at his apartment, only to learn that he and his Genin team were on a long-term mission in a neighboring county and not due to return for another week.
Years later, Sasuke would think back upon his actions and still be utterly baffled by the sheer absurdity of it all. He had waited years without making a move, without even realizing, in fact, what exactly it was he had been waiting for. Yet, somehow, the thought of getting through those seven days seemed indescribably frustrating. His mood worsened with each passing day, and he had unconsciously fallen back into his old routine of using work as an ineffective medium to avoid his problems, dividing his time squarely between long bouts of obsessive-compulsive mission-taking and oppressing the shinobi under his command in a very mean way. The sight of perfectly tough and deadly ANBU mooning about with nervous and watery-eyed expressions had become a constant fixture in the office by the third day in 'the week of waiting', or so the other ninja had dubbed it (without Sasuke's knowledge, of course).
Fortunately, before Sasuke could have a nervous breakdown and blow up in some horrific way, his workaholism decided to pay off. If he hadn't insisted on staying the night at headquarters on the sixth day to complete a sheaf of files that, in all honesty, could have waited another week or ten, he wouldn't have been around when the incredibly flukey radio signal came through from the shinobi standing guard at the gate. The message was meant for the hospital, but the wind had interfered with transmission. Thus, Sasuke woke from a filing-induced stupor to the sound of his communicator informing him that the Genin team under the Jounin Uzumaki Naruto's charge had just returned from their mission, and that the aforementioned instructor required immediate medical attention. The situation was deemed critical, added the helpful voice.
There was a black ice storm raging outside, and over three miles of slippery frozen rooftops separated the ANBU headquarters from Konoha's main hospital. But less than fifteen minutes had passed since the guard had sent the message when the hospital's night receptionist found herself fielding a horde of machinegun questions from an infused and out of breath ANBU captain with ice-crusted hair.
"I'm very sorry, sir," said the flustered receptionist, whose name-card read Matsuda Tomoko. "But the hospital's policies forbid me to disclose patients' information to non-family-members in these special cases until at least twelve hours have passed. I'm afraid you'll have to come back tomorrow morning."
Sasuke watched her mouth move about paperwork and liability in silent fury—and what the hell did she mean by 'special cases'?—and was just about to do something uncharacteristically rash when someone's shoulder nudged his, pushing him aside firmly.
"Let him in," Sakura's cool voice rose above the confused din of the ER, "I'm the head-surgeon supervising this shift and I'll take all the responsibility."
Slipping her arm under his, she quickly guided him down the hall, away from Tomoko's bewildered face. Once they had walked a reasonable distance, Sakura turned to him and said quietly, "Don't you go and have a panic attack. He just entered surgery about ten minutes ago, but it doesn't look too serious. They'll have his condition stabilized in about half an hour." She waited for him to regain composure before asking, "How did you find out anyway?"
"Got a message on my radio," Sasuke mumbled, running one hand through his thawing hair. "When can I see him?"
"As soon as they bring him out of surgery, which--" Sakura replied, pausing as a nurse came up and whispered something in her ear, "--should be any minute now. The doctors didn't need to perform an operation on the injury after all. Naruto the Healing Wonder came through once again." To the nurse: "Which ward did you say they were moving him to? B-35? Thanks a lot."
Sasuke suddenly felt his legs turning to a swimmy horror beneath him, their anxious energy from a minute ago disappearing back into that dark place inside his body he hadn't known existed. His courage was draining faster than he could bolster it, and a million evil thoughts were coursing through his mind. He had waited too long. There was no second chance.
Sakura's soothing hand on his shoulder cut off the wild current of his fears. "Sasuke," she said with a small smile. "It's winter. All the streams are frozen, and the fish isn't going anywhere."
For a moment, he looked down at her face in silence. Then, nodding gratefully, he turned away and began making his way down the corridor to Ward B-35 alone.
After the ordeal with Matsuda Tomoko, Sasuke hadn't expected to be met with further resistance, and was understandably confused when he arrived at the double-door of Ward B-35 to find his path blocked by a veritable brigade. A brigade made up of three busybody twelve-year-olds.
Naruto and his students, he decided, truly deserved one another.
"You can't come inside," announced the bossy girl whose facial paint and snarling mutt under one arm identified her as one of Inuzuka Kiba's younger cousins. "Our sensei's resting, and the doctor said family only!"
"Yeah!" a runty boy with mousy brown hair piped up loudly. "And we know sensei's got no living relatives, so who the hell are you? You don't even look like him!"
Sasuke resisted the compelling urge to maim something, and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "I'm his… former teammate. Just ask him if he's awake, I'm sure he'll know—my name's Uchiha Sasuke."
"Uchiha Sasuke?" echoed the brown-haired boy in an awestruck voice, eyes growing fat as saucers. "You're the one Naruto-sensei's always talking about. The one he calls--"
The Inuzuka girl hastily clamped a hand over her teammate's mouth and said in a warning tone, "Why don't you listen to Uchiha-san's suggestion, Nobuharu, and go check on Naruto-sensei? I'm sure he'll want to know what all this ruckus is about, don't you think?"
For a second, Nobuharu looked as if he wanted to argue, then seemed to think better of it when his teammate brought down her heel squarely onto his left foot. Still grimacing in pain, the boy quickly disappeared behind the double-door, leaving Sasuke to the company of the other two Genin. How interesting.
The last member of the three-man cell—a tall boy with a long shock of dark hair pulled back into a high ponytail—now straightened up from his former position leaning against the far wall and regarded Sasuke calculatingly with a pair of milky, pupil-less eyes. A Hyuuga. Even more interesting. Sasuke wondered if the kid acted anything like Neji, and if so, how Naruto could stand to teach him.
"How did your sensei get injured?" he asked the boy.
"We were ambushed by Missing Nin on our way back to Konoha," the Hyuuga answered tersely. "It was dark and the weather was bad. My guess is that they mistook us for another group."
"Anyway," he continued, his voice acquiring a slightly accusatory tone, "Naruto-sensei wouldn't have gotten hurt had Sato here known to get out of the way when I told her to."
"That's not true, and you know it, Hyuuga Danjiro!" protested Inuzuka Sato. "You were caught by surprise nearly as much as I was! It's not like all of us tote around 360 degree vision, you know. And anyways, if it hadn't been for me and Saburo--" her puppy yelped loudly "--organizing the coup, we'd never have gotten out of there and brought Naruto-sensei back in time."
Danjiro snorted dismissively, but Sasuke could see a faint glimmer of acknowledgement in his blank eyes. Perhaps Sakura had been correct: Naruto seemed to be on the right track with his students. These kids had their (enormous) differences, but they appeared to have reached a balance and knew how to function as a team.
"As long as you're here, Uchiha-san," Sato said as she turned from her teammate to Sasuke, "could I maybe just ask you a few things? I mean, Naruto-sensei has really told us so much about you and your team, and I just wanted to know—is it true you guys had your first A Class mission…"
She was interrupted by Nobuharu, who poked his head out of the inner room with a sheepish expression on his face. "Uh, Uchiha-san? Naruto-sensei said you could come in. Well, what he actually said was 'Damn bastard's come to gloat again? Well send him in and I'll give the asshole something to really brag about!' but you know…"
Sato buried her face in one hand and moaned quietly, while Danjiro looked away and feigned non-association.
"Thank you, Nobuharu," Sasuke muttered darkly. "And I'll answer your questions at another time, Sato-kun."
He strolled past the three Genin (Nobuharu flinched as if expecting to be attacked) and closed the door softly behind him. And was immediately greeted with:
"What the fuck are you doing here?"
Sasuke had seen Naruto through some fairly difficult times in his life, and this was only counting the emotional hardships, but the man who glared at him from across the hospital room now still looked distinctly worse for wear. His naked torso was swathed in heavy layers of white bandages, a strip of which also wrapped around his head, covering what appeared to be a pretty serious head wound. But the moment Sasuke had stepped into the room, he had sprung to a sitting position, his eyes blazing a dark flame against the pallor of his bloodless complexion.
"Well, quit stalling and spit it out already! I'm supposed to be resting, you know, not receiving guests, if you can even call yourself that--"
Sasuke felt like saying something caustic and lashing—it'd ease the thudding thing in his throat—but the words that tumbled out before he could stop himself were: "I'm sorry."
"Oh," Naruto said, and was silent. For a moment, anyway. "Good."
His face didn't change an iota as he said it—that calm, cold expression—as if all the broken things were in places where Sasuke couldn't do anything about them. The part of Sasuke that didn't flinch bit his lips and tried to look away. All his reasoning, all the well-rehearsed words he had been preparing for the last six days seemed to collapse in on themselves, so that he only managed a mumbled "I--" before choking up and wishing he had a moment to commit seppuku right then and there.
The sound of a deep sigh made him look up sharply, and all of sudden, Naruto's face had softened, uncurling from the angles and edges with apparent discomfort, and he could breathe again.
"Well, I suppose you can't be blamed," Naruto said, and Sasuke felt his traitorous heart skip a beat. "I suppose it's not your fault you're prettier than you're smart. It's obviously genetics."
Sasuke's mouth fell open ungraciously. "If you think--" he began angrily, but a look from Naruto effectively killed the half-formed retort.
"Look," Naruto said, eyes averted. "What I'm trying to say is, I'm giving you another chance. So what are you going to do with it?"
It took a few minutes to process this, and realization made Sasuke feel a little bit off-guard, a little out of his mind. Resolutely, he eased the reckless feeling down into his heart and briskly closed the distance to Naruto's cot (threescore miles and ten). Naruto watched him silently, his eyes wide and impossibly blue, and when Sasuke reached out to cradle his face—slowly and carefully, with a tenderness almost unfamiliar to his body—his hands were shaking.
Then he was closing his mouth over Naruto's, and it was a kiss—with nothing of the drunkenness or frenetic desperation of the last time—something that was peaceful and soothing as the lapping waves at the end of a day. He wanted Naruto to feel as he had felt without even realizing it for the longest time, for maybe as long as they'd known each other.
His tongue slid along Naruto's lower lip and pressed down, making Naruto moan into the motion, and in that little sound Sasuke could hear all the confirmation he needed. It was then that he understood that he and his friends had lived their lives as geometric vectors, from a root to an end, heading for a predetermined destination. Some ran parallel, others crossed once and never met again, content to go their own ways as he and Sakura had with their brief but companionable embrace. But he and Naruto, they were two converging vectors, drawn towards one another by an inexorable force greater than themselves. Eventually, they would have to find each other.
With a gasp, Naruto pulled away, separating them for oxygen, and rested his forehead gently against Sasuke's. "Well, that… that would about do it."
Before Sasuke could say anything in reply, he heard the sound of smothered giggles from behind his back, and turned around just in time to see Nobuharu and Sato squeaking guiltily and ducking back behind the door. Danjiro—well, Danjiro didn't need an open door to spy, did he?
"Oh God," Naruto groaned, slapping his forehead. "They'll never let me live this down. I'm never gonna be able to get them to do anything from now on."
For some reason, Sasuke found this immensely funny, and gave in to the urge to laugh. And laugh he did, the long, deep timbre of his laughter vibrating in his chest, and it was surprisingly easy, strange and exhilarating, as if for the first time in his life everything made sense and he couldn't believe he hadn't figured it out for so long.
When he regained control of himself, Naruto was staring at him as though he were torn between confusion and the need to slap Sasuke senseless. And Sasuke, smiling as he had never in his life, reached out again and kissed him, taking Naruto's hand into his and leading them both to that secret place he'd spent all this time searching for, showing him the strange path it had taken to find his heart.
"There's a place where you are going
You ain't never been before
There's no one laughing at your back now
No one standing at your door
Is that what you thought love was for?"