This actually isn't a particularly new piece. I wrote it a while back and it's been up all this time on LJ. I've only just now had the time to look at my FFN pages again, so here you go. For the first time in a long time, a Naruto fic. Enjoy the melodrama. (I was on angst, what can I say.)

~ cord of life ~

01. In the setting of the sun

It is, perhaps, the desperate fire in her eyes that set him on edge. He doesn't know for sure—but he readies a kunai.

"I thought it would be Naruto here to greet me," he says this with a dead smile. She doesn't reciprocate.

"Naruto is done with you, Sasuke-kun," her voice doesn't tremble, but her fingers do shake. "He won't be chasing after you any longer. I think it's about time he stop. He's already given so much, and you've already shown how much you aren't worth it."

He has to remind himself that there is no need to kill her, that she has done no offence to warrant murder. But he had always found her annoying, and even today, she doesn't fail to make him grind his teeth in anger.

"You've killed the Konoha elders, Sasuke-kun," and she lets go of a shaky laugh, her smile despairing and repulsed. "Killed isn't even the word for it. You tore apart Danzou-sama, the Hokage, with your bare hands. What kind of monster does that to another person?" She obviously doesn't know what she's talking about, Sasuke thinks. She continues, though: "Certainly a monster not worth an iota of effort on any of our part. You didn't even have a reason for killing him! Naruto is done with you, Sasuke-kun; he won't go after you again."

He doesn't believe her.

"And if you think there's still a home for you in Konoha after what you've done, you're sorely mistaken."

He doesn't believe her on that, either.

But her words do wrench a knife of doubt into his gut, because this is Sakura, and Sakura would never speak such words if they weren't true. Especially not about Naruto.

So he goes to see for himself.

"If you've come to ask for forgiveness, I won't take it."

Naruto looks worse for the wear, awfully drawn, exhausted by the battle. Physically fine, of course, but the body hardly matters when the mind is torn. Sasuke knows this well. He observes Naruto's form across the glade, and in the moonlit darkness, the jinchuuriki's blue eyes gleam as frost on a blade. The set of the shoulders, the steady of the feet, the pose of the arms, they all speak of hostility, confusion, and a muddled condemnation.

"Who says I want forgiveness?" he doesn't, because he doesn't regret a single second of what he's done.

No; he's come because he's curious, desperately so. He wants to know if Naruto truly has given up, because he doesn't believe Naruto can ever give up. Oh, he isn't stupid; he understands that any sane person would have stopped believing in and chasing after a non-existent goal after so many failed attempts. But he has never considered Naruto fully sane, fully normal—and he has proof of that, tattooed upon Naruto's belly. Naruto doesn't break; Naruto cannot break.

"Then leave. Leave before Sai gets here, because even if I can't, he will kill you."

Sasuke narrows his eyes. "I would've thought you would've jumped at the chance to tie me down and drag me back to Konoha, dobe."

"Well, you thought wrong," and now Sasuke has to raise his eyebrows. He ignores the slow, gradually rising unease as the churning of his gut intensifies. He doesn't understand.

"Are you that afraid to lose to me?" provocation is the only thing he knows, and on Naruto, it always works.

He grunts as his back hits a tree. Naruto is breathing up his neck, at his ear, erratic and uncontrollable as ever—but whatever warmth the closeness gives is robbed away by the jinchuuriki's words: "The world doesn't revolve around you, you fucking bastard. You and your fucking team demolished nearly a third of Konoha. You and your fucking team killed dozens of Konoha ninja! You killed Iruka!"

"He stood in my way," a simple explanation; Naruto isn't satisfied.

"Fuck you," the snarl echoes in the night as Naruto lets go and storms away, disappearing in a whirl of leaves. He supposes he should take comfort in the fact that Naruto still cannot kill him after what he's done, but the last of Naruto's stiff back remains burned in his retinas, along with the unforgiving anger in those blue eyes.

He doesn't understand the hurt. He shouldn't be hurt.

He shouldn't.

02. The indigo of regret

When Sasuke finally offers to return to Konoha, Naruto turns him away. Perhaps it hadn't been the best of phrasing, but the offer had been there, stood there, and Naruto had seen it.

And yet he's turned away.

He doesn't even know when he began longing for Konoha, or why. Konoha is the root of all his demons, the very bane of his existence; he should be glad.

But he isn't. He isn't anything.

Awash with victory, he had risen from Danzou's corpse, hands bloodied and sword shorn in two. But he had been victorious, and at that moment, there he felt calmness akin to peace. He wants that again.

So he repeats the scene within his mind, sitting in placid meditation as he relishes the waves of vindictive pleasure in Danzou's screams. Occasionally there would slip in an image of Itachi's last smile, Itachi's grave and aged eyes. A frisson of regret, of anger, of pain would wash over him, but he suffocates it dead with the sated calmness that comes whenever he sees Danzou's dead body. Except the pleasure never lasts for more than a few minutes; it never lasts for long.

He wants for something more, something permanent. Something that would free him from the drone of an empty life.

Emptiness, Kakashi had said, is the only thing you'll gain after you finish your revenge, Sasuke.

He bows his head.

Still, he doesn't understand why Konoha would be a solution to this. He doesn't understand why Naruto giving up on him bothers him more than he cares to admit. He doesn't understand why whenever he thinks of Naruto, he feels a punch of something in his chest, something heavy settling there and refusing to leave.

All he knows is that he still wants for something, and it has something to do with Naruto.

He follows after Naruto into Sunagakure, slipping easily into practiced disguise, observing from afar. The blond doesn't linger too much, heading straight for the Kazekage's chambers, perhaps to follow up with a request for help with Konoha's rebuilding. His siege, after all, had come only two weeks after the Akatsuki.

Absently, he wonders if Naruto is now the Hokage. Or perhaps Kakashi; someone would have replaced Danzou already. It has been a few months since his and the Akatsuki's siege, a few months of silence and solitude, of no one at his heels insisting he return to his birthplace, his home.

Naruto doesn't come out from the Kazekage's chambers for the longest time. Sasuke waits, patiently, patiently, until he's patient no more—then he makes to peek into the chambers, and so he finds his answer.

On a bed, tangled in sheets, Naruto and Gaara, the young Kazekage, asleep. Guards do not even notice him when he slips into the room, but Naruto stirs, faintly, before settling down again. Perhaps the fox senses him. Sasuke doesn't know. And at this moment, Sasuke doesn't really want to know.

He's far too preoccupied with the realization that what he wants is Naruto.

Naruto's friendship. Companionship. Brotherhood, rivalry, competition, conversation, warmth—

What he wants, what he wants, is something he had already held, but threw away. His fingers curl around a blade and his breath bundles in his throat as the burning ball of anger and—and jealousy?—pushes at his limbs. He itches to sink this kunai into Gaara's flesh, into Gaara's exposed neck, but—


One look at Naruto's peaceful face, and he withdraws, shooting out of the window faster than a comet.

On that night, deep into the desert, he cries for the first time since Itachi. He cries to let go of the churn of emotions, to the ugly torrent of anger and hatehatehate he is so tired of this in his chest—there is nothing else, nothing else he can do about it, nothing else he knows to do about it.

The brunt of the frustration is the worst of it, because only at that painful, constricting moment that it hits him does the reality fully sink into his consciousness: what he wants he can never again have.

03. Wandering in a labyrinth

Or perhaps love is too much of a term for what he wants. All he really longs for is the peace, the ceasing of the turmoil, the quiet he has been denied all his life. For some reason, his subconscious thinks Naruto is able to give him that. And maybe his subconscious is right; he doesn't know. All he knows for certain is that the happiest days in his memoryare of the long-ago days of Team Seven, when they were but inexperienced children, barely ninja.

Aimless, he wanders the countryside, and for the winter settles somewhere livable, perhaps an old house in the forest somewhere. He spends his days in and days out dreaming of Naruto, though obsessing would be a far better term. He likes to think that this is simply a form of withdrawal now that Naruto has left from his life; after all, through the years, Naruto is one of the two permanent fixtures in his life—and incidentally, Naruto's the only one left alive. The other one had already died by his own hands.

He's mourning a newly-severed link he never thought he'd lose; it will pass, he tells himself. It will pass.

Except it doesn't.

Soon he begins to see Naruto, and hear Naruto, talking to him, sitting beside him. What truly scares him is when he begins to talk back.

He's always been aware that he's rather insane; it's not the insanity that startles him, but the desperation that must have led to this insanity. It's a quiet, creeping desperation, settling into his veins like iron, very, very slowly, until it's entrenched itself and will forever refuse to get out.

Stubbornly he tries to clamp it down, to fight it like a man, keeping to himself and meditating day to day. But when he nearly flattens a village of civilians in a sudden fit of blind rage and frustration, he quickly realizes that this is impossible. Just as he had never been able to erase or even just water down his thirst for revenge, he knows he will never be able to suffocate this—whatever this is—either.

When he can't come up with a solution, he heads for Konoha.

He doesn't approach anyone. He just watches from the fringes. He watches as Sakura treats and cures one patient after the next; he watches as Kakashi walks out of the newly rebuilt bookstore with another porn book in hand. But most eagerly of all, he watches Naruto from afar, while Naruto sits rather fidgety in the Hokage tower, behind a mountain of paperwork. Naruto wears a Jounin vest, but over it the white and red coat of the Hokage. Sasuke has to smile—or at least he hopes it's a smile—Naruto has achieved his dream.

The dead-last becoming the Hokage: truly, the world can change. And Sasuke thinks it's highly ironic that he, the top achiever of their class, is now in the ditch he's in: jobless, homeless, without status, and without recognition. The respect the village held for him is now held for Naruto—which he doesn't particularly grudge, except he can't help but want to be there too, doing something.

If he had remained in Konoha, he would have achieved just as high a status as Naruto. He could have been ANBU captain—he's certainly fully qualified for it. He has no doubt in his abilities whatsoever. If he had remained in Konoha, he would have been there on Naruto's inauguration, and he would be there now, with Naruto, protecting Naruto, instead of watching haplessly from afar.

Night falls and he retreats beyond the village walls, where he hides in one of the underground Uchiha lairs. In his mind, all night, he fancies the idea of being a captain, standing aside Naruto, and falls asleep with the barest shadow of a wistful smile.

He knows it's impossible now.

Or maybe not.

He wakes to a commotion at the faintest edges of his senses. Carefully, he rises from the makeshift cot on the floor, reaching beyond the chakra wards shielding others from knowing his presence. He feels for any nearby disturbance. A fight has broken near Konoha's North gate.


Safe, in the Hokage tower, sleeping, from the rhythmic calm of the chakra—Sasuke releases an unexpected breath of relief. But there, right there—Sasuke feels a dark aura shooting towards the tower, away from the rabble by the North gate, with intent to kill.


Quick as lightning, he takes a mask, dons a cloak, and hides his hair under the hood. The night is cold as it slaps against his face. His feet, obviously speedier, race after the dark aura—he catches the intruder before they reach and breach the walls.

Mercilessly he drives a knife into the assassin's neck, bringing them both down to the ground, where he drives the cut deep, until he's sure the fucking rat is dead. He retrieves his kunai and leaves nothing on the scene, taking pains to erase his chakra signature as he returns the way he came from the Uchiha underground. His shirt's splattered with blood; he needs a new one. No; he needs a new outfit. The white is too telling. The next time he does this, it needs to be smoother, cleaner, a whole of a lot more clandestine.

He doesn't know when exactly he decided he would protect Naruto, but he realizes now that he can do it, even from afar, even only a little. Perhaps he would never have the title of ANBU captain ever, but at the very least, he can boast (if only to himself and his very dead opponents) that he has done a better job than the current ANBU captain in service.

That gives him a satisfaction so unexpected it blooms wide and spreading within his lungs. It's a far cry from what he could have had, but it's the closest to Naruto he can get.

Quickly he loses count of how many assassins he's wiped out. During the day, when he isn't busy guarding a slumbering idiot, he plants tapping devices and microphones all over the Hokage's chambers and offices. The Uchiha underground has impressive stock on weapons, wardrobe, utilities, and technology (in perfect working order, if a little outdated). There's even an immaculately organized library, missing only a few scrolls. Occasionally he finds evidence of tampering inside the lair; he wonders if Itachi ever went here.

For food and provision he hunts. Whatever he can't hunt, he buys in Konoha, while in disguise. He uses the money he found in the Uchiha vault four levels underground; there's enough in there to last him three lifetimes of luxury. He never knew of this before.

He's close enough to be within range, but far enough to be overlooked. He finds it amazing how inept and irresponsible patrol teams can be. If he could only make a note to Naruto without blowing his cover—but no. No. Contact would be disastrous; he had to keep himself quiet, and simply take care of whatever threats the patrol teams miss.

And so he does, living everyday in vigilance, waiting for something to come up, and when it does, he jumps to remedy it, before it even sets foot within Konoha. The very village he conspired to destroy, he now protects, all for one person.

He thinks himself a desperate, hopeless moron.

The constant crackle of voices over the radio is his only companion, the variety in his monotony. He enjoys hearing Naruto talk, for some absolutely inane reason; he finds it incredibly amusing how Naruto's verbal mannerisms haven't changed ever since they were twelve. He listens for anything from the beginning of the day to the end of the evening, and all the secrets he learn, he keeps locked tight in the deepest corners of his mind.

The only time he ever turns the radios off is when Gaara visits, once every three weeks.

04. One more red nightmare

Once in a while, over the weeks and months, he would hear his name in idle conversations. Nobody ever mentions his existence to Naruto, except the bolder ones, such as the Nara strategist and Hyuuga Neji. If Naruto ever talks about him to anyone, he doesn't know for sure; all he knows is that all members of the former Team Seven take pains to never talk about their one missing comrade.

The only time they ever talk of him at length is when they are assessing imminent threats to Konoha, a full briefing with the Hokage's most trusted personnel every month. But they only talk of him in the first few months. His lack of visible activity slowly convinces them that he's no longer a threat, or at the very least not an immediate one. Kakashi is rightfully suspicious of his sudden and mysterious disappearance; it's as if Uchiha Sasuke never even existed, as Rock Lee once lets slip. That encourages a stretch of silence so pregnant with discomfort that even Sasuke, several miles away underground, fidgets in his hideout.

Weeks turn into months, and months turn into years; before long, Sasuke notes that he has been living this lifestyle for no less than four years. He'd long lost count of how many assassins he'd dispatched, but he's quite sure he's doing an exemplary job of cleaning up after himself. None of the patrols even notice anything amiss. He lets slip the occasional robber or spy, because he's certain Kakashi will start asking questions when the number of malicious intruders drop below zero. But he keeps tabs on those he lets slip, and whenever they step out of line, he dispatches of them as well.

Konoha prospers ever-strong and sturdy under Naruto's guidance as the Hokage, and under Sasuke's protection as a stand-in guardian demon. (He doesn't particularly like calling himself an angel; what he does is hardly anywhere near angelic or holy.) He surprises himself constantly when at dawn he goes back to bed after a hard night's work and manages to fall asleep, sound as he had never been since he was six and with a family. This job, to the extent that one may call it a job, satisfies him, gives him something as close as he can get to calmness, and because of that, he keeps it.

He never once approaches Naruto; he just watches from faraway.

On the one night that he chooses to roam around the East gates nearest to the Hokage tower, he comes across a figure he'd fervently hoped he would never encounter again. Uchiha Madara stands observing the warm summer night of the peaceful village, as if waiting for someone.

Sasuke readies his sword, but he's a little bit too late.

The world washes into black and red, and underneath him the very ground collapses. He finds himself falling into a gaping mouth of darkness, and the teeth dig deep into his flesh as the mouth closes in around him. Torso ripping apart, he opens his mouth to scream, but blood bubbles up his throat and down into his lungs, drowning him in the most painful away. His eyes remain wide open, burning. The Sharingan spins wildly out of control.

A contorted voice booms into his ear: "I expected better of you, Sasuke-kun." He struggles against the hold of the illusion. The voice continues: "You disappear on me before you could hold up your end of the bargain. You didn't capture the Eight Tails or the Nine Tails as I have ordered you to—in fact, you take every effort to protect the Nine Tails. Why is this?"

Sasuke feels the unbidden tendrils of Madara's mind creeping into his, and quick as lightning he locks up mental shields he'd perfected in anticipation for Itachi's eyes. Madara's eyes are good, but not as good as Itachi's; Itachi was a genius where Madara was simply talented.

But his reaction is still a bit too slow. The pain in his slowly drowning lungs is a white-hot knife slicing into the butter of his consciousness; he can't keep control.

"You love him. Oh, you silly child." His chakra sputters as it tries to push against the restraints of Madara's illusion. At the moment, Madara is stronger than he is. But Kyuubi had said, hadn't he, that his eyes are far stronger than Madara's? Had the Kyuubi lied?

"As much as I would like to grant you your happiness, Sasuke-kun, you can see that it's rather impossible. The beast will swallow Uzumaki Naruto alive the moment I release it."

You won't, Sasuke snarls with his mind.

"Yes, I will. Very soon. And you will excuse me now as I ensure that you will not be standing in my way." Under the dark red he feels his illusionary ribs and illusionary legs fracture and crack. The pain scorches up his pine and he collapses helplessly into the clutches of the illusion.

When he wakes up, he's in the Uchiha underground, Uchiha Madara is nowhere to be found, and Konoha is burning.

05. In the name of

Burning with the flaming red demon chakra of the Nine-Tailed Beast. Naruto was in the middle of it all, so Sasuke races towards the village, slips easily past ninjas, doesn't bother to hide his presence. Half of them are severely injured, single-handedly incapacitated by Madara. Sasuke wagers Madara has been waiting all this time for Konoha to lull into a false sense of security and peace. It's always easiest to decimate an enemy that way.

He draws his sword as he nears the epicenter of the storm of red chakra, Naruto with seven tails, growing an eight. Sasuke finds he's still half a foot mired into Madara's illusion, but he's desperate, and it shows as he steps up against a whiplash of burning energy.

Nearby, Kakashi shields a cowering Sakura as they hide behind a tree stump. The moment she sees him, she surges to her feet and screams at him to step away, to disappear, to die, but Sasuke only spares her a momentary glance. She still doesn't know what she's talking about. Kakashi, though—Kakashi looks at Sasuke with something like pleading in his eyes. Sasuke only squares his jaw in resolution and faces Naruto. The Sharingan—the strongest of all of them—spins viciously in his iris.

When he slams into Naruto's subconscious, he finds himself in an intoxicating whirl of power, of pure bleeding red raw chakra oozing beyond the Kyuubi's cage. In the center stands a dazed Naruto, and before Naruto, Madara. Madara is saying something to Naruto, narrating some sort of story, but Sasuke can't hear; he can only stagger underneath the weight of the demon's presence.

It takes him a while to acclimatize, but he pushes. Every minute he wastes is another minute Naruto loses.

The pulsing red makes his eyes ache, but he chances a glance at Naruto in the midst of the whirlwind. The young Hokage's face is white; Naruto's in shock. Cursing, Sasuke takes a step forward—he feels the skin of his leg peel away under the corrosive power. He takes another step; finally, he hears Madara's voice. Madara doesn't see him though; this isn't Madara's mindscape, after all.

"…you never knew, what kind of a friend are you, hmm?" Madara's saying; Sasuke listens as he takes one more step. "Sasuke's been protecting you since four years ago. Living just outside the village walls, but you never notice him, because you were so weak that you just had to listen to your little friends and tried your best to forget about him. Didn't it ever cross your mind that he could have been counting on you to not give up, ever? Sasuke really isn't very strong at all; he's a very fragile child. The only way he could have gathered enough courage to leave Konoha was if he knew that somebody would still be there to welcome him home after he was done."

Bullshit, Naruto, bullshit, don't listen to that. Sasuke knows he left for his own purposes; Sasuke knows he left without expecting to ever come back alive. It had been pure fate that he had escaped death in Orochimaru's lair long enough to kill the snake and finally chase after Itachi. It had been Itachi's doing that he had survived their encounter; if Itachi had fought him at full strength, he has no doubt he would have lost.

A sliver of determination shines behind Naruto's wide blue eyes. Sasuke finds himself heartened when Naruto's voice snarls quietly from all around them: "It doesn't matter; I can make amends with him. If Sasuke's held on all these years, as long as I kill you here, I can get him back. I can pay him back. He's still—we're still—he's still my friend."

Madara laughs to stab doubt into Naruto. "Stupid boy. Sasuke is dead. I killed him. How else did you think I managed to get within Konoha's walls? Haven't you been listening? He's been guarding these walls; he would have never let me past, except he died in the process of preventing me. In the process of protecting you."

Sasuke watches as Naruto's lips turn white with trepidation. Tears are welling at the very corners of Naruto's eyes, whipped away by another lash of demonic chakra. Sasuke knows he is short on time.

Raising his arm and screaming as the skin peels away against the heat, Sasuke drives the blade straight up into Madara. The image disperses in a burst of black smoke. Pulling on the very last of his reserves, Sasuke turns his eyes on the demon behind Naruto. He reaches out with a molten hand and with all the strength he can muster, pushes the demon back into its cage—the bars snap tight to lock it in.

Sasuke staggers out of Naruto's mind.

He swims against the pulling darkness, towards the light, and when he pushes himself off the ground, he sees a cluster of people around Naruto, no one around him. Sakura frantically runs hands all over her Hokage's body, as if checking for injuries, but as usual, nothing. Naruto is perfectly fine, if a little in shock.

Sasuke can feel an approaching swarm of ANBU, Hyuuga Neji's signature among them, but they're too slow, and Madara's too fast. Exerting a dizzying amount of willpower, Sasuke shoots to his feet and plants himself between Madara's blade and its target. Behind him, Naruto yells his name.

"Noble," Madara spits into Sasuke's face, "too noble for an Uchiha."

The blade in his gut twists under Madara's hand and Sasuke's vision sways into white-red—but he grabs Madara's shoulder before the bastard can retreat. Two fingers—two fingers are all it takes. In a smooth motion Sasuke reaches forward and plucks Madara's eyes out of their sockets. The screams of agony slip past his ears. He sways on his feet—but he doesn't stop.

He draws the kunai out of his gut and stumbles forward at Madara, lodging the knife into his ancestor's throat, straight up at the brain, and out the other side. They collapse and tumble together just as the ANBU swarms in; in the back of his mind he can hear Naruto screaming his name…

He pulls the knife out of Madara's brain and stabs it again, viciously, into the heart, with the very last of his strength. Hyuuga Neji is right beside him, barking orders to the other ANBU. Sasuke grabs Neji's leg and tugs, too weak to do anything else but to say: "Cut off the bastard's head."

So Neji does, and Sasuke watches as the first of the Uchiha falls prey to death. Soon he will too, as the last of his clan, and finally the cursed eyes will disappear from this earth. As sure as the blood seeping out of him he can feel the last of his life draining away. His vision is tinged with red—blood, he realizes, his eyes are bleeding from the continued strain. Just as well.

Colors and sounds melt into an unintelligible mix. He feels warmth on his chest, like fluid. Healing chakra. But it's too late. He feels hands on his face, cradling his head. He sees blue, clear sky blue, and a bright splash of yellow, like the sun.

When he was little, he had loved lying on the grass in the afternoons, in his house's backyard, watching the yellow light slowly descend and the bright blue skies turn into dark. When he was little, he had loved the sun.

The figure above him—Naruto, so far away, always so far away—mouths words but he can't hear them. Tears come to Sasuke's eyes; he wants to hear Naruto's voice, talking to him, only to him, for the last time. When was it that he had last talked to Naruto, one on one? He hears Naruto's voice everyday, but never only for him. It's unfair.

With the last of his energy he forces into his throat and mouth, he finally says what he had wanted to say for the last four lonely years of his miserable life:

"I'm sorry. Thank you."

He sinks.

06. A living sun

Konohagakure prospers as the mightiest of all the villages for the next hundred years under the leadership of their longest-living and most celebrated leader, Uzumaki Naruto. The village has long wanted and waited and insisted for the progeny of the Hokage, but they soon saw how it was unnecessary, when their Nanadaime failed to age at the same pace as everybody else. Their Hokage similarly refuses to marry or procreate.

Ninjas from all over the world celebrate the wisdom and strength always ever-present behind those clear blue eyes; few had lasted so long so well within the ninja world. The formula behind the great leader's resilience is a well-kept secret—as such, every Konoha ninja knows it by heart.

Every spring, as new trainees entered the Academy and new graduates left, the Hokage would gather these children and bring them to the top of the Hokage Mountain to tell them a story. It is the story that serves as the very foundation of Konoha's success, the inspiration of the Nanadaime's emphasis on teamwork and most importantly, friendship.

It is the story of two boys, a genius and a dead-last, and their bond.

We cross our bridges when we come to them behind us, with nothing to show for our progress, except a memory of the smell of smoke, and a presumption that once, our eyes watered.

( Tom Stoppard )